When Ha Hyo-eun catches the instructor’s attention, it’s already been decided that she will be sent to a gisaeng house to serve as an attendant. She's being accompanied to a fitting room when the older woman approaches them. After heads are inclined in deference, Hyo-eun looks up to see the teacher eyeing her.
Hyo-eun picks at her skirts nervously. Of course she doesn’t want to be an attendant, but she’d rather a life as an attendant than being doomed to sew or embroider badly for the rest of her days.
“Bring her to me tomorrow,” the teacher tells the woman beside Hyo-eun. They barely manage to bow before she sweeps past them.
“What could she want?” Hyo-eun says, once they resume their walk.
“Instructor Ma will make her intentions known at her discretion,” the woman replies irritably. She hasn’t appreciated Hyo-eun’s constant stream of questions, nor the girl’s inflection and its tendency to ascend to a high-pitched whine. Hyo-eun knows this because her companion hasn’t exactly been silent in her criticisms.
She’s escorted to Instructor Ma’s quarters the next morning. The interior is stark, all white walls with delicate green frames, the decorative screen behind the instructor depicting only a single, pale flower. The table is set to serve tea, but the woman practically pounces at her before Hyo-eun can move to bow and then drink.
“You were a noblewoman, yes?”
“I was, teacher,” Hyo-eun says, knowing it’s pointless to feel resentful, and proceeding to feel so anyway.
“Ha Hyo-eun, teacher.”
“Have you any talents? Skills?” Instructor Ma inspects her, eyes critical as she closely examines Hyo-eun’s face.
Hyo-eun barely keeps herself from shrinking away, unnerved by the teacher’s proximity. She doesn’t know what talents an attendant could possibly need, but answers quickly nonetheless.
“I write well,” she says. She does not mention that her previous writing consisted of unfinished romances and failed love notes.
“Yes, teacher,” she says, which seems vague enough. She hasn’t written poems, but she has read several, which surely counts for something.
Instructor Ma turns and steps away, and Hyo-eun is about to let out a sigh, both of relief and at the prospect of tea, before the woman whips around after only a few paces to face the girl again. Hyo-eun starts.
“Your face is pretty enough,” the teacher remarks. “The lips and eyes are the most important features, and yours are undeniably appealing.”
Hyo-eun would blush prettily at these compliments were she not so disconcerted by the way the woman is eyeing her.
“Turn about,” the teacher orders, gesturing absently.
Hyo-eun stares, just long enough to apparently try Instructor Ma’s patience. “Turn, girl!”
“Yes! Yes, teacher,” Hyo-eun says, stepping on her own foot in her attempt to quickly attend to the task. She’s only known Instructor Ma for a few brief minutes, but she already finds the woman as intimidating as Minister Lee.
“With the lines proper dress grant you, your figure will be altogether pleasing, I think.”
Hyo-eun doesn’t know how to respond to this, but the silence feels awkward. “Yes, teacher.”
“I believe you will do, Ha Hyo-eun.” Instructor Ma smiles in a way that has Hyo-eun nervous about whatever test she has just passed.
She’s given the name Myeonghwa, but she still can only think of herself as Ha Hyo-eun.
When the gisaeng training begins, the others are stiff, unnerved around the only former noblewoman present. Hyo-eun attempts to exude a certain air of tough, careless confidence so as to keep any bullying at bay. Her strategy works too well; three days pass and no one is willing to speak with her.
She tries to focus on her studies instead (appalling, that she would need to resort to studying for respite). The instrument strings cut into her fingers. She trips over own her feet when attempting to dance. Her instructors appreciate the content of her poems, less so her blotted attempts at calligraphy. Instructor Ma is everywhere, always, observing every gaffe Hyo-eun makes.
It's only after Hyo-eun spills ink over another student’s work that she manages to befriend anyone. Hongdo had been cold to her (but Hongdo was cold to everybody, even friends, and Hyo-eun appreciated the equal treatment), and when Hyo-eun's elbow manages to flip the inkstone over, she feels her heart in her throat. They both watch the ink bleed through painstakingly written characters. They watch it soak the rice paper.
Hyo-eun offers to help her rewrite the poem.
“Why?” Hongdo asks. It's a simple question, but her intonation is richly layered with contempt, curiosity, and irritation.
“I did ruin it,” Hyo-eun says, in what she hopes are tones of remorse rather than terror.
“You did,” Hongdo agrees.
“I can help you write it,” Hyo-eun says.
“I have seen your calligraphy. I thank you, but no.”
“No, not write it out. I am,”—Hyo-eun pauses—“I have not achieved the level of finesse I hope for in that area, as of yet. But I can help you with the poem itself.”
The girl seems to engage in a thoughtful, internal debate.
“You may,” she says at last.
After that, it takes Hyo-eun less than two weeks to ingratiate herself into their ranks.
Gradually, her dances smooth out. She trips less. Her fingertips become calloused, and her calligraphy is as beautiful as her poetry. She trains herself to be comfortable when seated cross-legged.
And Instructor Ma stops glaring at her.
Her name is different of course (Myeonghwa, she tells them, quick and breathless), as is her manner of dress. Her smiles are too bright, betraying her nervousness, but her eyes hold a certain glint of steel. She’s changed, a little, but Choseon still knows her face.
The others are excited to welcome a new sister into their fold, after the departure of Gwibi to school new students. Seolmae chatters to Myeongwha about money and ornaments and beautiful clothes; Wolhyang advises her on how best to manipulate besotted officials.
For her part, Choseon avoids her.
At the first party after her arrival, Myeonghwa is called on to perform. Choseon, seated at the foot of the table, carefully tracks her face, the beads of sweat forming at her temple, and the way her trembling fingers make the music shiver with tension.
The girls congratulate her afterwards, embracing and giggling. Choseon does not join in, remaining silent and apart.
Before long they all scatter, off to privacy or previously made engagements. Myeonghwa catches Choseon’s eye as she walks past, and but she quickly averts her gaze and hurries away.
“Sister,” Wolhyang calls as Choseon leaves to seek respite in her quarters. “As the oldest, we should set the example. Perhaps you should take interest in our little ones more.”
Choseon turns, inclines her head politely, and resumes her walk.
She can’t bring herself to converse with anyone bearing the name of Ha, even if they’ve shed it years ago.
Choseon enjoys the night air far more now that she isn’t acting on orders. Free to do what she likes, she foils robberies and halts any would-be assaults.
Most of the time, she just likes to run.
Sometimes, an officer attempts to chase her. Not to catch her, really. It seems he simply likes to run as well.
Late in the summer on a day when the sun shines bright and clear, warming the stone benches in the garden, Choseon finds Myeonghwa seated and squinting up at the sky.
“That will hurt your eyes,” Choseon says, shading hers.
Myeonghwa springs up at the sound of her voice. Choseon watches as she visibly pushes down her nerves, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. After this small ritual, she still doesn't lift her gaze to Choseon’s face, keeping it fixed on what seems to be her right shoulder.
“Sister,” Myeonghwa murmurs.
“Myeonghwa,” Choseon says, “am I really so frightening?”
“No,” she hastens to say. “Or, only a little.”
“What do you find frightening about me?” Choseon says, managing an approximation of amusement in her voice.
“You say very little.”
“Yes.” Choseon inclines her head in agreement.
“I never know what you’re thinking, really,” Myeonghwa says. Her words always bleed together, mouth running to keep up with her nerves, her excitement, or her fear.
“Nor do I,” Choseon says.
Myeonghwa looks perplexed at that, but Choseon goes on before she can question it. “Then what is your final assessment of me?”
“You are mysterious,” Myeonghwa says slowly, looking away in thought now, rather than meekness, “and yes, you are frightening, but you seem a good person to know.”
“What makes you call me a good person?”
“I—” she closes her mouth, and Choseon realizes that she has recognized her too, that she’s known her face this entire time.
“—the others told me how kind you are to them,” Myeonghwa finishes quickly.
“How did you come to enter our profession so late in life,” Choseon says, a brittle order to recite his wrongdoings cloaked in false gentleness.
Myeonghwa swallows. “I—I was a noblewoman,” she says.
“Certainly you did not disgrace yourself,” Choseon says. “Who did bring this upon you then? Some dissolute member of your family?”
“Yes.” The word is said miserably, but Choseon cannot stop.
“What kind of man was he?”
“Though kind to me, he was—he was not a very good person,” Myeonghwa says.
“How so?” Choseon knows her voice is too loud, and she cannot help herself. She hopes his daughter knows every sorry deed he has ever done.
“I don't like to speak of it,” Myeonghwa says, turning away. “He hurt many people. Some that I cared for.”
“And his crimes have led me here.” She looks up then, alarmed. “Not that there’s anything wrong here, my sisters are all very kind, and it’s beautiful—”
“I know what you mean,” Choseon says, softly.
Myeonghwa is quiet for a moment. “I suppose I had a fair hand in how I came here, myself.”
“You didn't assist him in his crimes,” Choseon says, words of protest tumbling out before she thinks about them.
“I told others of his plans,” Myeonghwa breathes the words out in a gusty sigh.
“My one, true act of good," she says, preening at this valiant self-portrait. "Before that, I did nothing but fill my head with romantic fantasies.”
“Novels, the like.” Myeonghwa gesticulates in a way that Choseon supposes is meant to evoke novels.
“Are you that fond of them, then?”
“So long as they have a happy ending.”
“Some of the other girls collect them,” Choseon suggests lightly. “Or you could purchase some.”
“No,” Myeonghwa says. “They’ll only make me sad, I think. And at the moment, I'm trying to be happy.”
“Are you succeeding?”
Myeonghwa sighs. “It is a work yet unfinished.”
The winter is especially cold this year, keeping the lords from visiting every day. Wolhyang, sensitive to temperatures both too high and too low, retreats to her room with piles of blankets. Seolmae finds the weather romantic, especially the snowfalls. Choseon practices with her gayageum, warming her hands by rapidly plucking the strings.
Hyo-eun takes the time to write poetry. The air vibrates with the sound of Choseon’s practice, and Hyo-eun’s brush begins to paint words of music almost of their own design.
They’re tuning their gayageums together and Hyo-eun's eyes are flickering rapidly back and forth between the instrument and Choseon, attempting to gauge when she can suggest a break for tea, when she first notices. At second glance, it registers, and she whips around for a direct view. A reddish stain has worked its way down to the elbow of Choseon’s sleeve.
“What is that?” she cries. “Is that blood? Are you wounded?”
Choseon instinctively claps a hand over the arm. “Blood?” she says, then looks and appears to recognize that the stain is too large to cover.
“Perhaps,” she finally says, evasive.
Hesitant, Hyo-eun reaches for Choseon’s arm, and pokes at it delicately.
“What are you attempting to do?”
“I am finding the wound,” Hyo-eun says. “The stain is quite large, you know.”
“You could ask me where I am wounded," Choseon suggests, and the corners of her mouth curve up ever so slightly.
Hyo-eun glares at her, airs abandoned.
“Where is it, then,” she says sullenly.
“My upper arm,” Choseon replies, Hyo-eun leans over for inspection. The stain rusts the grey silk of her sleeve. If Choseon had worn one of her usual ensembles of red or black, Hyo-eun never would have known about the blood.
Choseon begins to withdraw, and Hyo-eun grabs at her. “No!” she exclaims. “I will nurse you back to health.”
“In my old novels,” Hyo-eun says, “maidens were always nursing heroes back to health. I always dreamed of the chance to do it.”
“I don’t know,” Hyo-eun says, and frowns at her. “It seemed romantic.”
Choseon proffers her arm once more, and Hyo-eun gently takes it in her hands and holds it. And holds it.
“What is it that I’m meant to do at this point,” Hyo-eun says.
“What do you mean?”
“My novels never detailed what exactly the nursing back to health entailed. They summarized and moved on to the more exciting bits.”
“What’s more exciting than wounds and the threat of death?”
“The kissing parts, obviously.”
“Hmm,” Choseon says.
“What will you do when we are retired from the house?” Choseon asks, brushing red onto Hyo-eun’s lips.
She doesn’t answer for a moment, so as not to get paint on her teeth. “Medicine, I hope,” she says.
“Medicine,” Choseon repeats, as she covers the pot of color and places it back on the dressing table. “You told me you’re a terrible hand at embroidery, though.”
“I am,” Hyo-eun agrees, checking her face in the mirror.
“Don't you worry about your future patients and the wounds you will be unable to suture?”
“It will be different. I will hardly need to embroider their gashes back together.”
“I thought you disliked the sight of blood.”
“I just need to become accustomed,” Hyo-eun says, nettled.
“And your memorization skills leave something to be desired,” Choseon goes on.
“Just because I forgot to tune my instrument the other day before the performance—”
Choseon interrupts, obviously choosing to spare herself the argument. “What brings this decision on?”
“People may need to be nursed back to health," Hyo-eun says innocently. "One never knows.”
“I still can’t feel it,” Hyo-eun whines, fingers resting on Choseon’s inner elbow practically.
The other girls had found the inflection obnoxious back at the gisaeng house, but Choseon is oddly fond of it.
She misses the girls, though not the house.
“Nearer the wrist,” she says.
“I’ve already felt around there,” Hyo-eun mutters, sliding back down Choseon’s bare forearm nevertheless.
“The pulse beats on the same side as the thumb,” Choseon remarks when she sees Hyo-eun’s hand drifting.
“Do you know which finger the thumb is?”
“Be quiet,” Hyo-eun says, fingers ghosting over Choseon’s wrist.
The other students of medicine have left the premises, and the setting sun cloaks the room in deep yellows with the barest tinge of orange. The two women sit across from each other at a low table, Choseon’s right arm held out while Hyo-eun fumbles for a pulse. She leans forward, as if to try and hear it.
“There’s nothing here,” Hyo-eun says. “Are you sure this lesson isn't a poor excuse for a joke?”
“I am not joking,” Choseon says. “You need to pass tomorrow’s test in order to move up with me. Though if you think the pulse is found at the elbow, for the wellbeing of your future patients, perhaps you shouldn’t advance to the next level.”
“I was eliminating all possibilities,” Hyo-eun says with a sniff.
“You’re moving too fast.”
“Your hand is moving too fast to find anything,” Choseon says, propping her chin up with her other hand, elbow on the table.
“Oh,” Hyo-eun says, and her fingers comes to a halt. Her face falls. “But there’s still nothing!”
Choseon’s wrist is squeezed painfully. “Less pressure,” she says.
“You are the worst teacher I have ever encountered.”
“Worse than Instructor Ma?”
“Second worst,” Hyo-eun amends, and then beams. “Oh! I found it!”
“You found it with a great deal of guidance.”
“Here is a worthwhile reward for you, though,” Hyo-eun says, flipping Choseon’s hand over and gently brushing it with her lips.
“There is indeed,” Choseon says with a smile, leans forward to kiss her.