Chapter 23: The stillness of the night

The stillness of the late night after a tremendously emotional evening makes everything feel so surreal.

Soyong is surrounded by people the whole day, the conversations a never-ending stream of words until suddenly there are none.

No words.

No people.

Just Soyong and Wonbeom are left alone in the silent room.

Soyong spends hours upon hours battling with Wonbeom’s fever, making cold compresses and brushing off the sweat from his forehead and temples. Every time he lets out a weak whimper Soyong’s heart shrinks painfully, knowing she can’t do anything but soothe him with words. It helps for a while, at least until the next time he shudders from pain in his sleep.

It feels as though eternity has passed before she finally feels the fever going down under her palm on his cheek. Soyong lets out a relieved sigh, grateful that Wonbeom has won another day of battle against his injuries and ailments.

“You are doing great, Your Majesty,” she encourages him, lowering herself closer to him. His hand is in both of hers, resting against her heart. She lifts his hand briefly to brush her lips upon his knuckles and then presses it against her cheek.

Soyong continues her watch through the night, sitting so still on her cushion that she could be mistaken for a statue, not a living person. When her legs start hurting Soyong shifts a little in her seat, but it doesn’t become less uncomfortable. Stubbornly, she refuses to even get up and have a little walk through the chamber for her own sake. She’s afraid if her eyes leave Wonbeom even for a brief moment she might miss something important.

Soyong moves only for one purpose, to dampen the piece of cloth she used to moisten his dried lips. Once she’s done, she goes back to her original position, closely watching how he sleeps.

Only once she notices the water in the bowl has almost completely depleted does Soyong look around the room in search of a jug of water. She finds it on the tray prepared by Head Eunuch. He even brought some snacks for her, but she doesn’t have any appetite and has only drunk the medicine for her throat.

“Your Majesty, forgive me. I have to leave you for a moment,” she whispers to him, kissing the back of his hand before gently lowering it onto the blanket. He whimpers in response, immediately making Soyong regret her decision, but she still needs to find water for him.

She rises onto her feet abruptly, wanting to be back as quickly as possible, but her legs have grown numb after sitting in one position for so long that she almost falls back onto her cushion. Her head spins a bit and she has to hit her thighs with her fists just to feel something. Slowly, she goes to the tray to fill more water into the bowl.

When she’s pouring water from the jug, Soyong notices that Wonbeom’s usually neat table is a mess. The King probably left the palace in such a hurry that he didn’t have time to clean up his table. Perhaps the servants didn’t dare to touch his personal belongings and left everything as it is. Soyong shakes her head, feeling the instant urge to bring order everywhere she goes.

Soyong moves closer and sees various outlines of braces with the different designs Wonbeom must have taken into consideration before choosing the one he eventually gifted her. Without thinking, Soyong’s hand slides to her other wrist where one of the bracers previously was. Earlier, the Head Eunuch had taken all her belongings and promised to clean the leather bracers before bringing them back to her as fresh as new.

Soyong sighs and gathers all of the paintings to neatly put them together on top of the stack of books by the side of the table. Her hands reach for the next items previously hidden under the paintings and when she sees what it is, Soyong freezes halfway.

It’s Bong Hwan’s portrait and the Queen’s Dictionary. The unrolled portrait looks back at her with the cocky smirk Soyong had requested. This is how she remembers her ghost friend from the lake when they shared one mind. Back then it felt like part of his flirtatious methods, but now she thinks he’s mocking her for being so stupid.

Soyong shakes her head, brushing off the unwelcome thoughts. There’s no time for it right now. She rolls the portrait closed and places it aside by the same stack of books.

However, she dawdles over the dictionary, flipping through the pages with a light smile. The memories of the ridiculous times when she used some of the new words flood her mind. Surprisingly, her erratic behavior helped to strengthen her friendship with Hong Yeon and Court Lady Choi, making her feel less lonely in the big and dangerous palace. In the palace she tried hard to fit in, as was expected from an ideal Queen-elect, and her sometimes silly and stubborn personality was hidden under layers of proper etiquette and traditions. But Soyong found new and exciting depth in her own heart. It felt like a breath of fresh air, to finally express herself without holding back and be even bolder than she already was. And as an extra reward, she discovered new faces of her serious King, whose dumbfounded and confused expression looks so cute.

Lacking the everyday usage of some words, they faded from her memory, but thanks to the King’s dedication to knowing her, she remembers them now.

Soyong can’t help but laugh at Wonbeom’s most ludicrous attempts to explain the words’ meanings by decomposing them by syllables. The “T” really left him clueless, but he still tried to understand the words containing that letter.

Soyong’s smile fades a bit when she sees an empty space for ramyeon. She traces the empty part of the page with her fingers. Wonbeom didn’t have a chance to add the second meaning of the dish because he discovered it only today.

Just this morning she woke up in his embrace and his serene sleeping face was the first thing she saw once she opened her eyes. Soyong had laid on her side admiring him for some time, and even dared to almost wake him up by touching his nose, but he only mumbled something incoherent, wiggled his nose, and continued his sleep. She had to trick him into hugging the pillow instead of her when she had suddenly decided to bring noodles for him.

Once again she chides herself for being so stubborn for so long and robbing them both of more happy mornings like that. So many months were wasted because of her pride and insecurity about their love.

Soyong closes the dictionary to put it away but sees something sticking out between the pages. She tugs out the item to discover that it’s a pretty envelope, sealed and unnamed. Soyong turns to look at Wonbeom’s sleeping form then back to the dictionary and the envelope in her hands.

Considering it is tucked away with the dictionary and the portrait, she assumes it must be a message to Jang Bong Hwan.

Soyong feels bitterness that isn’t from the medicine she took earlier. She knows they never had any closure, her King and her spirit. She can’t deny how close they were. She felt it. She saw it with her own eyes.

What is it, Your Majesty? Soyong thinks to herself, pondering what Wonbeom poured into his letter this time. Is it goodbye or is it regret in the form of a beautiful poem?

Deep in her worried thoughts, Soyong misses the noise from the corridor and Head Eunuch has to call for her a few times before she comes to her senses with a shiver. Quickly, she hides the envelope between the dictionary’s pages and puts it on top of the other books. She hopes the eunuch doesn’t notice tears in her eyes. When she faces him, the tears are already wiped away and her face shows no emotion.

“Your Highness, it is time to change His Majesty’s bandage and administer his medicine,” Head Eunuch announces with a tray in his hands.

“Is it already time?” Soyong blinks; she did change his bandages once during the night under the royal physician’s supervision. After that, the old man refused to leave until she drank all her medicine, voicing concerns that she might forget about her own well-being.

According to the physician, she must clean the wound, apply fresh ointment, and bandage it tightly. The first time, there was so much blood that she felt nausea, but she held her breath and continued until everything was covered again.

Now it’s time to repeat everything on her own.

Carefully, so she doesn’t disturb Wonbeom’s sleep, Soyong unties his shirt and exposes his torso. She notices with satisfaction that this time the bandage isn’t soaked in blood like the previous one: it must be a good sign for the King’s speedy recovery.

Delicately, she unties the bandage and tosses it away. The wound is swollen but still fully stitched. She notes it as another good omen. It’s colored in a weird mix of redness and green herbal ointment.

Soyong gently and methodically cleans his skin, soothing him with words of comfort when he lets out a painful whimper in his sleep. Then she applies the thick ointment and carefully bandages everything with a clean swathe.

Once she is finished with the wound, the time for his medicine comes, and with the help of the Head Eunuch, they lift Wonbeom into a half-sitting position. Soyong embraces him from behind, letting his head rest on her shoulder while she feeds him the medicine, spoonful after spoonful. He frowns, apparently not very happy with the bitter taste, but Soyong manages to soothe him with her words again, asking him to cooperate and he gives in.

Both Soyong and Head Eunuch smirk at his reaction. Sometimes Wonbeom is like a baby, just like Hyun-ki, and becomes obedient once she asks him to. If only it was so easy to convince him of anything when he is awake.

Soyong puts the spoon away and whispers to Head Eunuch that he may go for now. But once he leaves and she returns her attention to the King, she notices his eyelids flutter, and after slowly blinking, Wonbeom opens his eyes. His hazy gaze slowly focuses on her face until his eyes are wide open.

“You’re awake!” Soyong happily exclaims, smiling widely at him. “How are you feeling? Are you still in pain?”

His lips move without making a sound and Soyong has to bend closer to hear him once he clears his throat to speak.

“What is the Destined Highness doing here?” Wonbeom’s voice is hoarse and weak, but his words are clear for Soyong.

She moves away to look at him with disbelief in her eyes. He looks genuinely curious and somehow sad, his gaze still clouded. Soyong guesses that the strong sedative has made him confused about the present and the past. But that knowledge doesn’t make his simple question any less painful.

“Where else would I be when Your Majesty is injured?” Soyong answers, swallowing her bitterness to play along without correcting him.

He covers her hand on his shoulder and brings it to his face.

“So soft…” he whispers, closing his eyes and caressing his face against her palm. “So warm…” he continues and she smiles. His skin feels cold and she hopes her warmth will be enough for them both.

“I must hate you…” As it did in her days as the Destined Highness, his simple words stab her more painfully than any dagger ever could.

He never openly said those words before, but his attitude showed it all – his coldness, his mockery, his despisement. All of it slowly shattered her dreams of a happy and respectful marriage. She discovered that even with proper etiquette and words people can leave deep wounds on the heart.

“Is it truly necessary, Your Majesty?” Soyong whispers, holding back the tears gathering in her eyes again.

Even in the past, she didn’t understand why he had to be so cruel to her. She could accept unrequited love over time, but he could have been nicer to her. Why did he make everything so hard for them?

Wonbeom sighs morosely, letting go of her hand but snuggling his face into her embrace:

“If I don’t hate you, I will fall for you,” he mumbles. “If I fall for you, I lose…”

Soyong wants to argue with him or maybe pinch his arm so he will wake up from his dream. Thanks to her and Bong Hwan he won!

She closes her eyes, taming her temper: after all, they have moved past those days. As painful as they were, she doesn’t want to waste her time being angry at him over his past mistakes. Heaven knows he will give her many new reasons for that once he comes to his senses.

“I can’t believe you will be my wife,” he softly adds, nestling further into her embrace and making her forget her vengeful thoughts.

Gently, Soyong lowers him back onto the bedding, resting his head on the soft pillow. Wonbeom lazily blinks a few times with a foolish smile on his face and falls into another dream.

Soyong moves onto the bedding, wishing to rest after such an exhausting day. But her King has another thought apparently: his surprisingly strong arm wraps her around the waist and tugs her to lie on top of him. She unceremoniously crashes onto his chest with a surprised cry and finds her face in the crook of his neck.

“You are doing this again! Your Majesty, it’s so uncomfortable!” Soyong whines, trying in vain to free herself, her feet sliding on the blankets with zero impact. Wonbeom only locks his hands around her, hugging her tighter.

“Just for a moment, Destined Highness,” he pleads with a weak whimper. “Just for a moment…”

She freezes in his arms. Despite sniffing and pouting irritatedly at first, she eventually sighs and accepts her fate.

“Only because you are in a condition like this,” Soyong grumbles, wiggling herself into a slightly better position if it’s even possible.

As uncomfortable as it is, Soyong finds a positive aspect to her present state. She feels his steady heartbeat and hears his even breathing. Still, she tries to lift her weight a bit, so she doesn’t make it harder for him to breathe. Wonbeom, meanwhile, seemingly doesn’t mind anything while she’s so close to him.

“Your Majesty is never going to lose while I am on your side,” Soyong whispers, on the edge of dozing off herself. “I won’t let it happen…”

Her body feels heavy and tired when she finally gives into sleep. But her anxious dream is filled with red…

Red roses in her room.

Red clothes that she wears.

Red drink with poisonous ice in it.

The huge steak on her plate looks like it has come from another world – Bong Hwan’s world. Soyong cuts it in half, knowing very well what she will see: blood. Isn’t it called rare? Outside it looks like cooked meat, but inside it’s raw.

She cuts a small piece and lifts it to eye level, the blood running down her fork. Soyong’s red lips spread into a devious smile. She opens her mouth to take a bite…

Soyong’s whole body shudders from her nightmare and she opens her eyes before her dream-self could taste that bloody piece of meat. She breathes rapidly, still under the effect of her dream, until she sees Wonbeom by her side and immediately calms down.

Her head appears to be resting on his shoulder and his arm is wrapped around her waist. His other hand holds one of hers on his chest, closer to his heart. It must be a very uncomfortable position for him and his arm must feel numb after she slept on it for hours. However, when she tries to shift a bit away from him, he doesn’t let her, and she decides to stay where she is, adoring his peaceful features in the morning lighting of the room.

While Wonbeom is by her side her nightmares are pushed back. Soyong knows she can conquer all her demons the way he battled and eventually won over his own.

“You are saving me the way I saved you,” she whispers, examining his serene face with a fond smile on her face.

As carefully as she can, Soyong stretches her free hand to touch his cheek. To her relief, she doesn’t feel any fever and his skin isn’t cold and clammy as it was when they fell asleep. Soyong silently feels gratitude to her King for being so strong.

The only thing that continues bothering Soyong is how pale his skin still is. She has noticed some improvement in his condition, like his even breathing and no signs of severe pain. However, she can’t stop worrying for him, wondering how long it will take for a complete recovery. Soyong hopes their family will be fully reunited soon and be crisis-free because she’s tired of fighting for their lives over and over again. Once Wonbeom wakes up and Hyun-ki returns to the palace, Soyong could finally feel at peace.

Her thoughts about the future of their family get interrupted by voices in the hallway. And of course, Wonbeom isn’t happy with Soyong being away. Without waking up he still shows his protest and she had to use her usual trick replacing herself with a pillow. Soyong immediately feels cold, missing his warm embrace, and even considers for a moment if it will be appropriate to greet visitors from the bed.

Soyong quickly gets up and snatches Wonbeom’s white and gold robe to cover her unusual nightwear. The visitors’ voices get louder as they approach the chambers and soon Soyong hears Head Eunuch making an announcement. Their guests are none other than Court Lady Choi and Hong Yeon with the little prince in her arms.

“Hyun-ki-ah,” Soyong softly calls out, swooping him from Yeon’s arms. “I was so worried!” she wails, kissing his cheeks over and over again. The prince smiles widely at her, reaching out his hands to her face.

“And we were worried about Your Highness and His Majesty’s well-being.” Court Lady Choi’s warm voice and soft smile calm Soyong, making her feel secure and loved. As if her home wasn’t full until her friends came back.

Sharing a worried look, they all turn around to lay their eyes on the King’s sleeping form. He looks ridiculous while hugging the pillow in his sleep but he is too visibly sick for anyone to joke about it.

“His Majesty is strong,” Soyong confidently says, remembering how much worse his health was just hours ago while he battled with a fever. “He will recover soon and be back to all of us.”

“Of course he will,” Hong Yeon cheerfully supports Soyong. “With Your Highness by his side…” She playfully pushes Soyong’s side, making the latter blush.

“We are just glad to see Your Highness and His Majesty together again,” Court Lady Choi adds with a coy smile.

“What about you, Hyun-ki-ah?” Soyong looks at her son. “Are you ready to spend more time with omma1Omma – informal for mother aka mommy. and appa2Appa – informal for father aka daddy. instead of your grandfather?”

The prince makes a cheerful laughing sound causing everyone’s loving smiles.

Soyong wants nothing more than to spend the whole morning together, waiting for Wonbeom to wake up. She wonders if by sensing Hyun-ki’s presence Wonbeom could come to his senses quicker. If she’s honest, deep down she’s still deeply worried, and having the prince while waiting makes her feel a bit better.

However, fate has other plans for them.

A noise is heard in the hallway again, as someone is rushing to the King’s bed chambers, ordering to open the doors from afar. Soyong protectively presses Hyun-ki closer to herself and her friends shield her from whoever is trying to burst into the room.

They all tense, waiting for the doors to open, and let out loud relieved sounds when they see it is Prince Yeongpyeong and Director Hong running in. The prince is breathing heavily, while Director Hong is out of breath with his cheeks red from the quick run.

“What happened?” Soyong worriedly asks, examining both men from head to toe. Surely they wouldn’t rush like this if it isn’t urgent.

Soyong notes how tired the King’s brother looks, and she wonders if he had any rest during the night or if chasing down the conspirators took all his time.

“It’s the Great Queen Dowager, Your Highness,” Hong bursts out before Yeongpyeong can open his mouth. “She’s here!” he exclaims, still breathing heavily.

Hong Yeon feels pity for her past object of affection and gives him her handkerchief so he can wipe away the sweat from his forehead and neck.

“How dare she leave the West Palace without His Majesty’s permission!” Soyong feels her blood starting to boil from outrage. Only because Hyun-ki starts to weep does she lower her voice: “What is she doing?”

“The Grand Queen Dowager ordered to start the royal conference in the absence of His Majesty the King.” Prince Yeongpyeong steps forward to Soyong, looking straight into her eyes. “She wants to take advantage of the King’s poor state of health for her own benefit.”

“But of course. She has been sending me her complaints ever since she was banished to the West Palace,” Soyong says bitingly, rolling her eyes. “She would use any opportunity to bring back the power she lost.”

“We cannot let it happen, Your Highness.” Yeongpyeong’s voice is strict, but his eyes are pleading.

“Of course. She must be thinking I am still sick and away,” Soyong says, smirking. “As the mother of the heir, I have more power now.” She straightens her back and proudly lifts her chin, with Hyun-ki still in her arms.

She is a mother and a wife: no one can stop her when her family’s fate is at stake. And she is the Queen, which Sunwon must be reminded about, apparently.

“Director Hong, could you please watch over Hyun-ki and His Majesty?” Soyong asks. She kisses Hyun-ki’s forehead before handing him to the very confused Director Hong. His question about why it has to be him lands on deaf ears.

“Prince Yeongpyeong, please delay the royal conference as long as possible,” she orders and he simply nods before running out of the chambers.

“I need to be prepared.” Soyong turns to her friends and both of them give her encouraging smiles.

Soyong gives Wonbeom one last sad look, feeling uneasy inside. Instead of waiting with Hyun-ki until Wonbeom wakes up, she has to go on another battle against her clan. She will be all alone at the conference full of arrogant men who probably at least partly feel the same way as the conspirators. Just because they weren’t caught doesn’t mean they don’t agree that the King’s politics were too radical for Joseon.

Soyong is inspired by Wonbeom’s passion for reforms, but she also knows it could make the old-fashioned ministers anxious. They simply don’t see the bigger picture and how everyone’s life will benefit in the long term. They have been too used to instant wealth at the cost of the commoners’ livelihoods.

But Soyong will protect the legacy of their reign.

Author’s notes:

PS remember when Phoebe got offended by Ross after he did something wrong in her dream? Lol Not the same situation but I suddenly remembered while writing WB being confused. In other words: once a fool, always a fool.

Also, awww, even in a confusing state like that, Cheoljong thinks about Soyong as his comfort.

  • 1
    Omma – informal for mother aka mommy.
  • 2
    Appa – informal for father aka daddy.

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