If all fashionable parties are anything like this one, Na Yeo Kyeung thought furiously, for the fifth time in as many minutes, then I will be glad to never have to attend another one for as long as I live.
At least she had been able to stay seated for most of the evening, and not have to worry about keeping her hair in order or being careful of her dress or walking in the terrible shoes that went with it. And for that matter, most of the people who had stared at her when she entered the coffeehouse's VIP room had long since stopped looking at her, and had returned to their drinks or conversations or whatever they had been doing when she arrived. But she couldn't shake the feeling that countless pairs of eyes were still looking at her -- especially not when a towel from the public bathhouse would be more modest attire than the bright green dress that Cha Song Joo had insisted that she wear.
The men will look at you, of course, Cha Song Joo had warned her. You may not like what you see in their eyes. But if they are looking at your body, they will not be thinking about your brain. Use that awareness to your advantage.
There will be friendly eyes on you as well, Choo Geun Deuk had added. Even if there is danger, you will not be abandoned. Everything is in place for tonight, and you must keep your mind on your orders.
In the car, she had turned their words over and over in her mind, until she had nearly talked herself into the right amount of confidence to think that everything would go according to plan. But that boorish Seon Woo Wan had nearly spoiled everything, right from the moment she came down the stairs. To think that he would have the unmitigated gall to come right up to her and criticise her for showing herself off! A man who couldn't go from one week to the next without his name ending up in some scurrilous gossip paper -- who frittered away his time and money without the slightest consideration for anyone but himself -- who wouldn't know responsibility if it walked up to him and slapped him in the face!
Of all the eyes that might be staring at her now, she could feel his eyes on her most of all. Every time she had glanced over at the bar, however discreetly, he had been looking at anything or anyone else in the room but her, and yet she knew that the second she looked away he would go right back to staring at her. It would be just like him to distract her from her mission. Perhaps he would tire of the party soon and go off with some other girl, or make his way back to the courtesan house --
When the clock is about to strike ten, you simply have to ask that person what time it is.
No, there was no chance that he would leave before ten. From everything she had heard about him, he was usually among the last to leave any party -- especially one where he wasn't paying for any of the drinks or food. Which meant that he would be there when...when everything happened, and there was nothing she could say to him to persuade him to leave sooner. She had warned him to stay away from her, but even though he was on the other side of the room it felt as if he were standing right next to her, almost close enough to touch.
Leave that place as soon as possible. You must hide at all costs.
Beneath the tablecloth, her gloved hands balled into fists in her lap. Why should she be so worried about Seon Woo Wan, of all people? He was a grown man, not a child like Kang In Ho who needed to be protected from the wrath of the police. He could be brave when he wanted to be -- a cheap, showy sort of bravery, certainly, but brave enough to take care of himself. And even if the police did show up to arrest everyone at the party, he had enough money and a powerful enough family to ensure that he would spend little to no time in a jail cell. There was no need for him to hide.
So why did she want to run up to him and grab him by the arms, maybe even shake him a little ensure that he would listen to her, and tell him to go now, don't wait, leave this party before the clock strikes ten?
She didn't want him to be watching her. She didn't want anyone to be watching her. She had to play her part and then vanish into the night, just as she had been told to do. If only she didn't have to wear such ridiculous shoes with her dress! She couldn't run in them, but she couldn't leave them behind, either; she would have to carry them with her when she ran, or she would surely fall right out of them. Just like Kong-ji after the festival --
A nervous laugh bubbled up from the pit of her stomach, and she had to bite down hard on her lip to keep it from slipping out. Of all times to be thinking about that foolish fairy tale...but then, it was all Cha Song Joo's fault....
'There.' Cha Song Joo stepped back, and her lips curved into a small but definitely pleased smile as she looked Na Yeo Kyeung up and down. 'You look a perfect darling. A princess fair enough to win any man's heart.'
Na Yeo Kyeung's shoulders hunched even more at the compliment, and she bit down on her lower lip almost hard enough to break the skin. One hand was fisted in the hem of the satiny green dress, trying to tug it down to something approaching a more respectable length, while her other arm was bent awkwardly across her upper body in a vain attempt to cover up as much of her chest as possible. It was difficult to tell whether her knees were trembling more from pure embarrassment or from her efforts to keep her balance in her new pair of high heels.
'Do I have to -- ' she began plaintively, only to check herself when Cha Song Joo's eyes started to narrow. 'Can't I...couldn't I maybe wear a shawl with this?' Her face lit up with desperate hope at the idea. 'You said that this party might last well into the evening, after all. It might grow cold tonight.'
'Shawls are out of fashion this season.' Cha Song Joo's voice was light and her tone was airy, but beneath her smile the set of her mouth was implacable. 'And I wouldn't let you out of here wearing anything that might be the least bit unfashionable. I have a reputation to maintain, you understand.' She folded her arms across her chest. 'Now, put those hands down and let me see how you move.'
Na Yeo Kyeung swallowed, and eased her death grip on the hem of the dress. Gradually, she lowered her other arm until she could clasp both hands in front of her stomach, fingers laced tightly together. She drew a deep breath, lifted her right foot -- and managed all of three steps before her ankles started to buckle, so that Cha Song Joo had to dart forward and catch her before she could tumble to the floor.
'I can't walk in these shoes!' she exclaimed as Cha Song Joo set her back on her feet.
'That's because you're trying to take your usual mannish strides,' Cha Song Joo replied. She smiled at Na Yeo Kyeung's indignant huff, and tapped her beneath her chin to force her to lift her head. 'Keep your shoulders back and your head up, and take slow, even steps, like a respectable lady.'
Na Yeo Kyeung huffed again, but began to walk forward, doing her best to keep her balance.
Cha Song Joo nodded, watching the younger woman wobble precariously across the room. 'Step, step -- don't look at your feet, look up, straight ahead -- step, step -- watch your ankles -- step, step, and now stop -- '
Unfortunately, Na Yeo Kyeung was so eager to stop that she overbalanced, tipping forward. Her arms windmilled wildly for a heart-stopping moment before she grabbed hold of the nearest piece of furniture, which happened to be Cha Song Joo's dressing table. The perfume bottles on top chittered dangerously at the impact, and two lipsticks and a powder compact went clattering to the floor.
'Horrible Western fashions...' Na Yeo Kyeung mumbled, clinging to the dressing table as she turned herself around to face the room once more.
Cha Song Joo had to cover her mouth with her hand to stifle a laugh, for Na Yeo Kyeung looked as if she could not decide whether to cry from frustration or punch a hole through the nearest door screen. 'It's no worse than walking on tiptoe,' she said, once she had her own amusement under control. 'Just keep your steps small and careful. Unless you want to be like Kong-ji from the old story, and lose your slipper for the King to find it.' Her eyes grew bright with teasing mirth as Na Yeo Kyeung almost pouted at the comparison. 'Ah, but then he will have to travel all around the land, looking for the fair maiden who vanished so suddenly from the festival and stole his heart away.'
Na Yeo Kyeung ran her hands over the dress, making a half-hearted attempt to smooth out the creases in the silky material and at the same time conceal as much of her exposed skin as possible. 'I don't need to be thinking about fairy tales,' she said hotly.
'You haven't a speck of romance in you, do you?' Cha Song Joo sighed, shaking her head in dismay. 'Not even one daydream of a handsome prince among all those books of yours?'
'Until our land is -- ' Na Yeo Kyeung began, then quickly closed her mouth when she started to teeter again. It was obvious that she wanted to launch into her usual tirade about the plight of the Joseon people under Japanese oppression, but did not entirely trust her shoes to keep her upright during her impassioned speech.
It was enough to make Cha Song Joo take pity on her. 'Very well, I'll stop teasing. We have work to do tonight. You remember what you must do?'
Na Yeo Kyeung blinked, startled by the sudden change in the topic of conversation, but stood up a little straighter as she recited her mission orders. 'The man in the photograph, with the moustache and round glasses. He will be at the party. Just before ten, I will go up to him and ask him what time it is. And then I will leave as soon as possible, and hide.'
'Correct.' Cha Song Joo crossed over to the dressing table and opened one of her jewelry boxes. Picking over the jumble of pendants, bracelets, beads, and brooches, she selected a gold necklace and a pair of dangling earrings. 'Just a few more touches, and you will be ready for your assignment.' She gave Na Yeo Kyeung a knowing smile. 'Sometimes, to be inconspicuous, you must first be very conspicuous -- and I want everyone's eyes to be on you when you make your stunning entrance, because you will be making an especially discreet exit.'
Yes, that was what she was supposed to be doing.
(but it was ten o'clock, only ten o'clock, that was what the watch face said, and how could she leave now?)
They must have started to play music for dancing. Her head was full of a loud thump-thump-thump, just like the drums in that jazz music that was so popular these days, and it was so noisy that she couldn't hear anything else. Was this part of the mission, this dance music? Would she be expected to dance?
' -- Yeo Kyeung -- '
People would notice her if she danced. They weren't supposed to notice her. She couldn't ask that man for the time if she was dancing, could she? The party was so loud, so much noise in her head, and she couldn't even hear herself think over the thump-thump-thump. How stupid she would sound, having to shout her question right into his ear!
' -- Yeo Kyeung -- '
And now someone was touching her arms, trying to make her move. Pulling her to her feet. Trying to make her dance. Go away, she wanted to shout, I don't want to dance with anyone! How on earth could I dance in these shoes? I hate this kind of music anyway, all this thump-thump-thump makes my head hurt, and my feet hurt, and my arm --
' -- Yeo Kyeung, Na Yeo Kyeung!'
Nothing was going right tonight, nothing at all. Kong-ji had danced all night at the festival, until the very last moment, when she had to flee before her cruel stepmother and stepsister recognised her. But who was here to recognise her, Na Yeo Kyeung, at this festival? Only that Seon Woo Wan, and he...and he....
(Cool night air on her face. No more thump-thump-thump. She was leaving the festival, the palanquin was here to whisk her away -- but where were her shoes?)
Cha Song Joo dutifully climbed the stairs to the ground floor, allowing Lee Kang Goo and Detective Yamashita to escort her out into the street. She took care to avoid the smears of blood that had landed on ground outside the coffeehouse, but she did not fail to notice that they had come to a sudden stop right out front -- and yes, there was the faint stench of burnt rubber still in the air, a smell that could only have come from a car speeding away.
Geun Deuk was nowhere to be seen, though that was hardly surprising. They had their own arrangements, and she was sure that he would have retrieved the car from the hospital long before her own ordeal in the police station would be at an end for the evening. In the meantime, she had to act the part of the cool, disinterested observer of a truly unfortunate incident.
Yet before she let her mask settle into place, she allowed herself a small, thoughtful smile for Seon Woo Wan and Na Yeo Kyeung. True, they were like nothing out of a fairy tale...but perhaps they would find a happy ending for themselves sooner than they expected.
(If she had anything to say about it, it would be much sooner than they expected.)