She is rusty—the practice of setting a perfect table to entertain a gentleman caller, which had once been second nature to her, is now an awkward and hesitant affair.
Should the bottle of champagne sit on the left or the right? The wine glasses by each place setting or arranged artfully against the dishes of food?
Nearly thirty minutes into the endeavor, Song Joo laughs softly to herself. It has been too long since she has had the chance to worry about such petty things.
She looks up as the door to the room opens quietly and her husband steps through the door.
He gives her a tired smile and sets his hat down on the entryway table. “Where were you able to get champagne from?”
Song Joo arches one perfectly shaped brow. “Six years of marriage and you still doubt my skills of persuasion?”
Soo Hyeon walks over to the table and picks up the bottle to check the year, then easily pops the cork, smiling again as the golden bubbly spills out the top onto the floor. Pouring healthy amounts into each glass, he holds one out to her.
“To victory, to freedom, to love.” Song Joo says, clinking her glass lightly against Soo Hyeon’s as her slender fingers gently caress the creases that line her husband’s brow.
“To victory, to freedom, to love.” He whispers back to her as he leans into her touch in a rare show of emotion.
He straightens and looks down at her with solemn dark eyes. “There’s still so much to do, and I wonder if we are trading one devil for another with the Russians.”
Song Joo knows all this. She has heard the concerned and anxious voices around town, the rumors that the Americans will not give Koreans the independence that they have fought so hard for, that instead they will be handed as some sort of consolation prize to the Russians.
But for this night—this single perfect night, she does not want to think of the Americans or the Russians. For this one night, all she wants to do is be thankful that the Japanese have surrendered and that both she and Soo Hyeon are still alive.
And so she lays one finger tenderly across her husband’s lips. “Shh…” She shushes him. Setting her wine glass back down on the table, she walks over to the record player and places the needle to the disc. As the hazy sound of music fills the room, she cuddles into Soo Hyeon’s arms and begins to sway to the song. “Let’s pretend.” She murmurs. “Just for tonight, let’s pretend that everything is going to be all right.”
As Yeo Kyeong continues to twist and turn on her mat in the darkness, Song Joo sighs.
“Would you like to speak of what is concerning you?” She asks, as she lies perfectly still on her own hard mat.
“No.” A small voice peeps out from beneath the blanket. “I apologize for keeping you awake.”
Song Joo smiles and decides to change her approach. “So your mother’s feelings were not hurt that you requested to spend your last night as a single woman under my roof instead of hers?”
Yeo Kyeong’s head sneaks out from beneath the blankets and turns towards the sound of Song Joo’s voice. “No. Not at all.” Yeo Kyeong answers with some bewilderment. “In fact, I would say she was almost relieved.”
At Yeo Kyeong’s words, Song Joo uses all the training she has had over the years to hold back the laugh that rises to her lips.
“Are you happy about becoming Wan’s wife?” Song Joo inquires gently. “Do you feel he pressured you to accept his proposal? Would you like me to tell him that you have had a change of heart?”
Yeo Kyeong shakes her head vehemently in denial. “Of course not. I mean, Wan did pressure me to marry him, because he’s Wan and he can be spoiled and stubborn and absolutely used to getting his own way, but I want to marry him. I just—“ She pauses to take a deep breath before, “I just—I just… the blankets, I’m worried about what happens with the blankets.”
Song Joo cannot resist teasing even as she knows that she really should not. “The blankets?” She asks, her voice confused. “Are you concerned that you will not have nice blankets as a newlywed?”
Yeo Kyeong moans, utterly mortified, then finally whispers, “I’m worried about what happens, you know, under the blankets.”
“Ahh…” Song Joo murmurs, “Under the blankets…”
“I’m scared that it will go very badly. Unfortunately, I am not very experienced whereas Wan was once very… experienced.” Yeo Kyeong admits.
Song Joo turns to face Yeo Kyeong. “It will hurt the first time… under the blankets.” She tells Yeo Kyeong honestly. “But Wan loves you and will try very hard to make sure that it does not go badly for you.”
“But what if it goes badly for Wan?” Yeo Kyeong asks innocently.
Song Joo laughs with the knowledge of experience. “As you will soon realize, Yeo Kyeong. It never goes badly for men.”
Soo Hyeon had been correct in his fear that they had traded one foreign demon for another. With the Russian occupation and the division of the North from the South, the years since Japanese liberation had been nothing but a tug of war between Russian and American control. Families had been torn apart by differing loyalties, friend betraying friend, brother betraying brother—all in the name of Freedom.
“Come with us.” Wan and Yeo Kyeong plead again. “You can still help with the resistance even if you are not physically here.”
But Soo Hyeon only smiles wearily and shakes his head because all four of them know that this is a lie. If Song Joo and Soo Hyeon do not stay behind to lead, the group of resistance fighters will fall apart.
“Then we will stay here and fight beside you.” Yeo Kyeong pipes up with a look of determination in her eyes.
Wan visibly tenses at her words. While silent, his expression clearly conveys that if he must, he will carry Yeo Kyeong kicking and screaming onto the boat that will smuggle them out of Korea to America.
Song Joo gestures at the small bump that is still evident beneath Yeo Kyeong’s many layers of clothing. “I apologize, but you will not be of much aid to our effort. Soon you will be too large to sneak around like you used to.” She teases gently.
“It won’t be for long.” Soo Hyeon attempts at optimism. “We will let you know as soon as it is safe for you to come back.”
Wan glances down at his watch. The time of separation is approaching quickly. “Come with us.” He urges one last time. “My father made sure that the boat will have space for the four of us in case you changed your minds.”
Song Joo grabs Yeo Kyeong and embraces her tightly before quickly releasing her. “Stay safe. Both of you.” She orders, her voice catching, before she quickly clears her throat and she is in firm control once again. “Do not become too enchanted with this country—America. Korea is your home.”
“We will come back as soon as we can.” Wan swears to them.
Soo Hyeon takes Wan’s hand in a strong grasp. “It is only a brief separation. We will all be reunited again when there is truly peace in our land.”
Yeo Kyeong embraces Song Joo one last time before allowing Wan to draw her into his arms. “Stay safe—Please.”
“It’s only a brief separation.” Song Joo echoes Soo Hyeon’s words. “We will all be reunited soon enough.”
“I have a very serious problem.” Wan states worriedly as he walks right into her drawing room.
Song Joo calmly closes the cover of her ledger and places the abacus to the side. “And how can I be of help today? And please, come right in. There is no need to knock.”
Wan shoots Song Joo a rueful grin but his smile quickly fades away and he falls heavily down onto the seat across from her. “It’s Pyoung-Hwa. For a girl who was named for peace, she brings me nothing but chaos.”
Leaning over to pour some tea into a tiny delicate teacup, Song Joo pushes it towards Wan and then pours herself some. “I find that very difficult to believe. Pyoung-Hwa has been nothing but the epitome of a perfect daughter since the day she was born. She is a virtual copy of Yeo Kyoung.”
“That’s exactly it! She resembles her mother too greatly, the school boys will not leave her alone!” Wan slaps his hand soundly on the table.
Song Joo smiles into her teacup as she takes a sip then sets it down. “Have you warned her that school boys have nothing but nefarious intents in mind?”
“Ofcourse I have!” Wan exclaims. “But Pyoung-Hwa has inherited her mother’s logic instead of my charm and somehow makes my concerns sound ridiculous!”
“And your concerns are in no way ridiculous.” Song Joo nods sagely.
“Ofcourse not! As you well know, I was one of those schoolboys back then. I know what kind of thoughts run through their minds!”
“Mmhmm.” She smiles. “I’m sure you do.”
“So what should I do?” Wan asks.
“It’s simple really.” Song Joo answers.
“Of course. Since you will never be smart enough to convince Pyoung-Hwa of the boys malicious intent, you will just have to convince the school boys to stay away from Pyoung-Hwa with the skill you use best.”
“Yes, your charm. And if your charms don’t work, then your fists should do the trick.”
“I can’t do it.” Song Joo grits through her teeth. “I can’t do it.”
She tosses the parts of the revolver onto the table in disgust. Her fingers are dirty and calloused, and aching. She has been at this for hours. She is hungry and tired and in pain from all the training she has had to endure since she was brought to this God forsaken land.
“I can’t do it.” She shouts.
“You have to do it.” Her teacher informs her coolly from his seat in the corner of the room. “You need to assemble the gun quickly otherwise you will be killed.”
He stands up and walks over to the table where she has scattered the pieces of the gun, and his scarred hands rapidly and easily clicks and locks everything into place. Within a blink of an eye, he has the trigger pulled back and the gun aimed at her.
“If you are lucky, you will be killed immediately. More than likely, you will be tortured and questioned until the resistance is compromised—then you will be killed.” He states without inflection.
“Kill or be killed.” Song Joo sneers bitterly. In the seven months that she has been in Russia, this motto has been relentlessly drilled into her.
“You were given a choice Cha Song Joo. You were not forced onto the boat that brought you to this land.” Her teacher reminds her sternly.
Disassembling the revolver as quickly as he has put it together, he looks at her for the first time since she has arrived with something other than frustration but Song Joo does not like this look any better— disappointment.
“I thought you were a survivor.” He tells her roughly. “I thought that you would prove to be an asset to us because you will not let anyone defeat you, that you may lose some battles but would ultimately win the war because you would not surrender. I see now that I was wrong.”
Song Joo’s eyes burn with anger at his words. “I am a survivor.” She says through clenched teeth, her fingers grabbing at the parts of the gun, clumsily fitting one piece to another. “I will be the last one standing no matter what I have to do.”
She slams the constructed gun down on the table and looks up to find her teacher glancing at his watch.
“Fifty-five seconds.” He notes. “Still far off from my average time of forty seconds, but five seconds better than before.”
“I’m going to do it under thirty-five seconds.” Song Joo vows.
Her teacher lets out a short bark of laughter. “I would like to see you try.”