Chapter 22: As the world caves in

Soyong felt death’s cold presence ever since she was young.

She was born in exchange for her mother’s life and the guilt over that never left her. Every single birthday she was reminded about her family’s loss.

Instead of celebrating growing older, she had memorial day rituals and her usually cheerful dad wishing her a happy birthday in a sorrowful tone. On those days she always felt miserable and thought about death more than a young lady should.

The emptiness in her heart and constant desire to prove her worth to the family and her father led Soyong to her breaking point. She wanted to meet her mother so desperately, and when she was the most vulnerable, Soyong heard the solution: death could reunite her with her late mother.

Reading the book her mother once owned wasn’t enough for Soyong anymore and she decided to take that radical piece of advice.

She chose the old empty well for her doom. Soyong previously wanted to try to hide there in another hide-and-seek game because her orabeoni1Orabeoni – how sister refers to her brother in the family. found her so easily those days and hiding in the well only raised the stakes of the game higher. Ambitiously, she always wanted to be the best, even in silly games like that, a result of her constant need to demonstrate her worth.

Instead of playing a game, she went to the well to die. And she didn’t meet her mother, but she met a boy.

Instead of death, she found the will to live…

The moment the faithful meeting with Wonbeom occurred at the bottom of the dusty well, their lives were tangled together forever.

However, death couldn’t just retreat so easily. It gave her new ways to feel its cold presence. She might have given up the idea of losing her life willingly, but Soyong experienced the fear of death in other ways: through the execution of the innocent.

It happened twice. The circumstances were different, as well as her reaction, but the way her troubled heart pounded and ached felt the same.

First she cried her eyes out when her clan decided to punish the boy and lock him in the well. She could only imagine how scared the boy was, left all alone in the world, grieving the loss of his whole family and tortured by cruel strangers. He so boldly declared to her that he was not afraid to die but cried all the same when they failed to act on it together. How could her family be so vicious to someone in the most vulnerable time of their life?

She didn’t cry the second time, but the pain in her heart increased as her feelings grew stronger. It was the same boy, all grown up, tangled in a confusing marriage with her, a member of the family that tortured him as a boy. When Soyong saw his body fly over and heavily fall onto the square she forgot how to breathe. Her body acted of its own accord, without any second thought. She had just wanted to be near him, to be sure he was alright.

Not a single tear fell from her eyes that time, but her heart-rending screams rang through the square. She had desperately tried to free herself out of the grasp of the arms holding her back, all so she could be with him. That action held all her true feelings before Soyong could even form her love confession into words.

Soyong had once chosen death for herself, but she could not stand to see the man she loves in danger of losing his life. No matter how often she tried to escape him or attempted to move on, Soyong simply couldn’t stop thinking of never seeing him again. That thought probably always stopped her from entirely cutting ties with him.

The bond they formed as children only grew stronger over time. It led Wonbeom to regret his past mistakes and make him terrified by her suicide attempts, as if they hurt him physically.

Similarly, every single time Soyong sees his misery, mental or physical, she feels it as her own. His nightmares are hers. His pain is hers. His bleeding, heavy body is hers as well to care for.

Once again death reminds Soyong that it didn’t give up its hunt for her and her loved ones. Its cold, grabby hands run up her spine, to her shoulders, until the cold fingers round her neck. Through the pain, losses, and tears, both Soyong and Wonbeom have found their way out of death’s reach, over and over again. They didn’t give up when anyone in their positions would have.

And they won’t give up now.

“You won’t leave me like this,” Soyong stubbornly whispers, shrugging off the invisible hands of her old foe.

Wonbeom’s head rests in her embrace while his hoarse breathing cuts her like a dagger. She takes a deep breath and tries to calm her pounding heart, assuring herself that even breathing like this is a good sign considering she had almost been choked to death moments earlier.

She must think quickly and save him. First, she must take Wonbeom out of the estate. Second, she must shout out for help and get him to the physician. And then Soyong will make sure all the pain and tears in their lives that lead them to their one day of pure happiness will be worth it. They would have more days like the one they spent together in his hanok at the villa.

Determined with her plan, she ties the wound even tighter, earning another weak moan from Wonbeom.

“I am sorry, Wonbeom-ah. Please, forgive me,” she whispers to him as she changes position to get behind him. Soyong hooks her arms under his underarms and uses all her strength to drag him. He is quite heavy and her feet slide on the ground in her attempts to move him, but she gathers herself and drags him a bit more.

“You gave birth to a baby and pulled a grown man out of a well on your own, Kim Soyong,” she encourages herself out loud between each tug on his body. “You can dothis…” she hisses, continuing to haul him out of the yard where the fight happened. She must hurry before anyone discovers them and take him to the back gates.

She hears noises from the battle closeby and then a joyful chorus as if someone declared victory. It could be Prince Yeongpyeong or it could be their enemies – Soyong is not sure, so she decides to continue with her plan and speed up before they can be detected.

But she’s too slow and she can hear steps coming towards them. When she sees the shadow of people approaching the yard, Soyong desperately falls on her knees and hovers over Wonbeom, wishing to protect him.

If we have to go, we will go together… as we tried before in the well. Soyong shuts her eyes and her thoughts wander to their son.

Their little boy must live.

Please, fortune or God, if it exists, let him live!

“Your Highness?” Soyong shudders, hearing a loud male voice, and she tenses, waiting for the inevitable attack. When nothing happens, it still takes her a few moments to realize she knows the owner of the voice.

Soyong lifts her head, ready for anything but sees only kneeled men before her. The only people standing are Prince Yeongpyeong and Jo Hwa Jin behind him. A relieved sigh escapes from Soyong and her body shudders, relaxing from extreme tension.

“Your Majesty!” The prince finally sees Wonbeom and runs towards them, falling on his knees in front of his brother. “Your Majesty, wake up!”

“Hurry, we need to take him to the physician,” Soyong commands, bringing the prince’s attention to herself. “He is bleeding a lot, so make sure the bandage is tight…”

“Your Highness…” the prince tries to say something, but Soyong’s ramblings can’t be stopped so easily.

“Send someone ahead, so the royal physician is ready to examine His Majesty…”

“Your Highness…”

“And the guards… We need more guards to protect His Majesty…” she babbles one thought after another, but the prince remains rooted in place, looking at her with sorrowful eyes. “Why are you waiting? Do something!”

“Your Highness must let go first…” The prince’s voice is surprisingly calm and kind. He lowers his gaze, and Soyong does the same. She swallows hard, now seeing the reason for the prince’s hesitation in full display: she is clutching the collar of Wonbeom’s cheolik2Cheolik – fighting garment. At the show, Cheoljong usually wore blue and gold one. so hard her knuckles have turned white

It pains Soyong’s heart to loosen her grip, but she slowly relaxes her fingers and hesitantly removes her hand completely, letting the prince take Wonbeom away. The men who previously kneeled before them are now lifting Wonbeom in their arms. Soyong finally recognizes the familiar faces, and to her relief she sees how gentle and caring they all are. Soyong gets up on her feet as well, ready to go after them, but Prince Yeongpyeong blocks her way:

“You must go back to the royal villa. I will find people to accompany Your Highness,” he says, almost begging, but there’s a sternness in his voice as if the final decision has already been made.

“No, I will follow His Majesty.” Soyong’s voice sounds weak due to the throbbing pain in her throat, but her look says it all: dare me.

“You must take care of the heir to the throne, Your Highness,” he calmly reminds her, seemingly attempting to appeal to her maternal feelings.

That annoys Soyong even more. They have never liked each other much, but things had gotten better between them in their recent meetings. Nevertheless, he still manages to irk her all the same.

“Is my son’s life in danger at the royal villa?” she asks and answers herself: “As news of my true state of health and disappearance never left the villa, that means the people in charge of the security are trustworthy. Can you say the same about the palace right now? With so many people involved in treason, can you be sure His Majesty is safe in the palace at the moment?”

The prince hesitates but still refuses to clear the path. They look into each other’s eyes, both sure they know what is best to do about the situation.

When they hear Hwa Jin’s voice neither of them break eye contact:

Yeobo3Yeobo – honey, darling.,” Hwa Jin calls for her husband in a calm and sweet voice. “I don’t think you can separate Her Highness from His Majesty in a situation like this. I will go to the royal villa to deliver the news. Everyone must feel anxious since Her Highness has not yet returned.”

Soyong sees doubt appearing in the prince’s eyes. He surely melts a bit inside, being called so sweetly, as Soyong has noticed this name having an effect on him before. It must soften his heart a little.

“Thank you for siding with me, Jo Hwa Jin.” Soyong still looks straight into the prince’s eyes: she doesn’t want to make it easier for him. He must acknowledge her authority. “But I do not need anyone’s approval to do what I think is right. I am the Queen and His Majesty’s wife, and my husband needs my full support right now.”

The prince finally sighs in surrender and shakes his head slightly: “I will prepare the palanquin for Her Highness.”

Soyong would prefer to walk to the palace walls, breathing in the chilly night air, but the prince insists on secrecy:

“It’s dangerous to let everyone know you are both in the palace at the same time when we still don’t know who all the conspirators are and who they may have bribed. They might try to harm you both and place a puppet king on the throne as they planned.”

Deciding to let the prince win at least this argument, she agrees with his conclusion.

Even though Soyong has become accustomed to traveling in the palanquins, she finds it harder tonight. The wooden walls and closed windows make her feel trapped. She closes her eyes to keep calm and stops imagining the walls getting narrower than they already are. If only she didn’t see her wounded, bloodied King when she closes her eyes.

Panic arises in her as her quick shallow breath makes her feel like suffocating again – this time without anyone’s help.

She is saved only by the guards telling her they have arrived and she can finally be free from her wooden cage. Soyong would never in her life admit how clumsily she jumps out of the palanquin, as if she is being chased by demons.

“Are you alright?” The prince’s voice sounds almost caring. Soyong doesn’t bother to answer, just getting a hold of her most confident and royal posture and nods.

The palace’s inner yard looks too empty even for the night and soon she realizes she remembers this path. Prince Yeongpyeong, Cheoljong, and she used it when they snuck out of the palace to meet Director Hong, back in the days when they planned to train their own forces against her clan. This part of the palace has always been scantily guarded and it seems as if it has not changed to this day.

Yeongpyeong leads her through the secret pass to the King’s residence, making Soyong nearly run to keep up with his wide steps.

Soyong hears Wonbeom first, his pained cry echoing across the empty corridors of Huijeongjeon Hall4Huijeongjeon Hall – King’s residence.. It makes her stop in shock for a moment before she sprints to his main chambers so fast that it’s now the prince who falls behind. She ignores whatever he yells in her direction, trying to make her listen to him. He avoids using her title to not give away her identity to any possible prying ears.

The prince catches her at the doors, grabbing her arms before she could enter.

“Too many witnesses. You must wait elsewhere,” Yeongpyeong hisses to her, holding both her wrists in his tight grip. “Please, you must wait…”

“How outrageous, Prince Yeongpyeong. Know your place,” Soyong growls in a low hoarse voice. “I have had enough of your crap tonight. Let me go!”

Jesu5Jesu – younger brother’s wife aka sister-in-law. Or cheoje – younger sister-in-law. (source),” he pleads in a low whisper, calling her like that for the first time since they met. “Please…”

Hearing Yeongpyeong’s hurtful tone is sobering. Soyong finally sees and realizes it’s not another foe before her but a part of her family, the King’s brother who cared for him long before Soyong appeared in Wonbeom’s life again.

He is as hurt as she is.

His eyes glisten with unshed tears even in the dim light of the corridor and Soyong has been nothing but a pain in the ass (to put it lightly) for him.

“I understand what you feel, jesu, but we must stay reasonable. I am begging you to wait in the spare room.” His voice almost breaks in his plea and more tears gather up in his eyes, ready to run down his face.

Soyong bows her head in surrender, and moments later the prince lets go of her hands. She must let the royal physician and nurses tend Wonbeom. Her presence will only distract them and there’s nothing more important than the King’s health right now.

  • 1
    Orabeoni – how sister refers to her brother in the family.
  • 2
    Cheolik – fighting garment. At the show, Cheoljong usually wore blue and gold one.
  • 3
    Yeobo – honey, darling.
  • 4
    Huijeongjeon Hall – King’s residence.
  • 5
    Jesu – younger brother’s wife aka sister-in-law. Or cheoje – younger sister-in-law. (source)

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