They say that spring is the season of new beginnings.
Jinyoung wasn’t much for the romantics but he reckoned whoever ‘they’ were, knew a new thing or two about the mysteries of the world. His new beginning began on a rainy May morning two days after his 19th birthday. It began with the falling rain – the sound of the Japanese soldiers marching outside on the streets with their guns and bayonets rivaling the violent beat. It was always raining in May. He both loved and hated it. Loved it for the way it drowned his thoughts so he would not have to dwell in the pits of his own misery. Hated it for the way it left a damped and musky smell on his clothes for which it will haunt him for days until he had the luxury to bathe himself.
Today, the rain was his friend.
He found it easier to focus on the sound of their pitter patter as they hit the ground, the sound resembling tiny hammers. It took his mind off the imminent danger for which he will be subjected to in the next few months. Minhyun stood in front of him, a baby in his arm. He was stoic, his eyebrows straight and his cheeks relaxed. It was a face Jinyoung had mastered himself. But it was also a mask and Jinyoung, if anything, was a master of deciphering emotions. It was a necessary skill he had been taught from his childhood. If he wanted to survive in the slums of Joseon, he had to be two steps ahead of everyone.
Next to Minhyun was Daehwi whose face was as red as the cheeks of the child on his back. Jinyoung wiped the tears away from his face. And it served the opposite of his intentions for Daehwi only cried louder. He turned to Guanlin.
“Will you take care of everyone while I’m gone?”
“Of course, Hyung. And you’ll come back safe and sound, won’t you?”
Despite the confidence on his face, there was fear in his voice. When Jinyoung replied with a quiet ‘of course,’ he did not allow his doubt to show.
Minhyun nudged the tiny suitcase into his hand.
“You’ll be late.”
He kissed each baby once on their forehead and with a heavy heart and an even heavier mind, walked into the rain, his luggage in one hand, an umbrella in the other and the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Count Akira Watanabe lived on the outskirts of Joseon.
His grand estate lay in the middle of a forest and it was often that sunlight would get lost on their way down. The townspeople called it the end of the world because there was no way anything can grow or prosper in such a secluded area.
To get to the Watanabe mansion, one would need to travel through a field of lavenders, a mountain of rocks, and a series of winding twisted paths that cut the sea in half. It took Jinyoung almost six hours to reach the imposing doors, half of which he spent gazing out at the blue of the sky as it transformed from orange to pink to purple to black. The other half, he slept. When he came to, it was almost already midnight.
The lady that greeted him at the door was an old hag who looked to be as ancient as the ornamental vase Minhyun kept by the entrance of his room. She wore a deep blue kimono that blended in with the night, and her hair was wrapped in a tight neat bun of grey where not a strand fell out of place and she wore a no-nonsense face and in that moment, Jinyoung almost regretted taking up Kang Daniel’s offer.
Behind, the car drove away with the sound of the fading engine. The old hag turned and began to walk and Jinyoung left with no choice, followed.
“I am Chiyo, the housekeeper of this estate. Your name is Jinyoung, yes?”
“Then the Japanese should be Hide. You will be addressed as such.”
They continued to walk down the long hallway, their shadows illuminated by the lamp in Chiyo’s hand, dancing on the shoji doors.
“The estate is divided into three buildings. The main building is of Japanese aesthetics but the other half is designed by a very well-known western architect. The middle is the annex for which Master Watanabe has made into the library. You are forbidden from the library unless it is to accompany the Young Master. Last, is the servant’s quarter but as you are the Young Master’s personal valet, you will not be sleeping there.”
The hallway ended near the edge of a koi pond where there were no koi to be seen. Chiyo slid the paper door open and instead of the tatami mats and low tables Jinyoung had been expecting, he was instead greeted with a long western staircase, its railing a rich brown, curving like ocean waves. The carpet underneath his feet was soft and smooth and he was sure it had been handstitched and imported from England. Crystal lights hung on the wall and their shadows continued to tango – a party where his curiosity and excitement and fear were the only guests. In such a grand home, Jinyoung stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Young Master’s schedule is simple. Taking walks in the garden or reading for Master. Among the wealthiest men of Joseon, Master is the greatest book lover. And among all the book lovers, he is the wealthiest.”
Chiyo drone in the background. Jinyoung found himself ignoring her words, his attention stolen by the oil paintings on the floral wallpapers. There were two – the first of a young boy with flushed cheeks. He donned an elaborate purple kimono and if it weren’t for the short hair and boyish stance, he could have very easily passed as a girl. Next to the child portrait was a young man who bore the same semblance to its neighbor painting. But compared to the latter, the male in the portrait was older and more masculine. He had lost the baby fat, jaw chiseling to that of an Adonis and it looked as if the frames could not contain his shoulders. Jinyoung could not shake off the child-like innocence retained in both paintings.
“You are to take what the Young Master allows you. Any thieving will be subjected to immediate expulsion, do you understand, Hide?”
The western style decors soon gave way to traditional Japanese ornament and furnishing. They stopped moments later in front of a small shoji door, the paper divided into several rectangular shapes by smaller wood that ran up and down its expanse. By then, Jinyoung had lost count of the number of turns they had done. He hoped he will be able to find his way around when night fell again the next day.
They entered a small section where two doors faced each other like parallel lines. Chiyo opened the one to the right.
“You will be sleeping here.”
Jinyoung peered in. A closet. That was the only way to describe it. They had placed a few sheets and blankets into a closet and called it a room. He suppressed the shimmering anger and instead thought of the rewards he would be awarded soon enough for his trouble. Chiyo motioned to the opposite door.
“The Young Master sleeps here. He wakes often in the middle of the night. You will assist him as needed. Sleep well. Your day starts early tomorrow.”
She blew the lamp off. Jinyoung continued to stand in front of the door even as her footsteps faded into the night. He pressed his ear against the paper door. For a while, he heard nothing but the cicadas in the garden. And then there was a thump.
Jinyoung scrambled into his tiny closet, stubbing his toe against the wood when he momentarily forgot how to use his feet.
And then he slept.
Jinyoung awoke to the sound of someone screaming bloody murder.
The sky was still dark. It looked to be the early hours of the mornings. He tumbled out of his closet, toe catching the same damn area he had bumped into not hours ago. He cursed under his breath and with one hand holding his bruised toe, he opened the shoji door with the other. The Young Master was still screaming.
He ran towards the thrashing figure on the bed. With his limbs flying this way and that and the white sheets waltzing and fluttering in the air like butterfly wings, he looked as if he was drowning.
“Waka-sama! Are you alright?” he shouted just as loud in Japanese.
“Kenta…is that you?”
“Kenta has been relieved of his duties. I am your new valet.”
The Young Master raised a shaking finger and pointed to the window. Jinyoung followed the line of his sight.
“Do you see that big cherry tree? My aunt went mad and hanged herself there.”
Jinyoung walked to the French windows. It was open just the slightest smidge and the curtains swayed with the summer air. Outside, a lone cherry tree stood in full bloom. He heard the raspy voice continue.
“Sometimes on moonless nights, my aunt’s ghost dangles from that branch.”
He watched the branches bounce in the wind.
The scream returned.
This time, Jinyoung bellowed just as loud.
“Here, Waka-sama. Drink it slowly.”
Jinyoung tilted the spoon until the clear liquid disappeared.
“When babies cry, my uncle feeds them a spoonful of sake,” he said and climbed into the soft sheets.
The Young Master faced away from him. Jinyoung’s eyes traced the long expanse of his back hidden away by silk sleeping robes. He brought a hand up to the shoulders. Up. Down. Up. Down. He did it gently as if he was caressing a flower. The Young Master was so small he didn’t dare use any more force than was necessary. He did it again, and again until he heard the wracked gasps slow down to soft breaths. He hummed a soft lullaby Minhyun had taught him to quiet the babies.
Jinyoung closed his eyes.
Something sweet filled his nose.
Outside, the wind continued to howl.
When the body next to him was as limped as a corpse, he returned to his tiny closet.
For the rest of the night, he counted sheep.