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Loose Leaf

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Hyejong Reign- 943

It was one of those days. She kept on remembering the life of Go Ha Jin. That pitiful, pitiful woman betrayed by her own partner. She forced her eyes shut and the final scene of her previous life played back vividly in her mind.

She was standing, hands firm on her gun, trying to comprehend the situation in front of her. The Senior Superintendent General is sprawled dead on the floor, blood flowing and slowly fanning all around him, creating a strange ripple, trying its best to give the now empty vessel the last honor of being on the red carpet. Her heart beat so loud she could feel it thudding against her vest. Slowly she moved her gaze from the wound, looking up straight at the shooter.

“Jin Hyuk? What are you doing? WHAT. HAVE. YOU. DONE?!”

“Doesn’t matter what I have done. The most important thing is the version the public will know. Go Ha Jin caught that corrupted senior embezzling fund. Go Ha Jin reported it, acted on it. Go Ha Jin was seen storming out of court, seething for the undeserving light sentence given. Go Ha Jin tried to bring her own brand of justice. I, Jin Hyuk, tried my best to stop her, but to no avail…”

“Why?”

“I’m sick and tired of being shadowed by your achievement. We are supposed to be a team, aren’t we? But why you get to take all the credits?”

“I never –“

Bam. One shot. Straight to her chest. She was sent straight to the wall, wheezing from the impact. It hurt, but she had to work past that or she would lose her life to this maniac cackling while aiming for another shot. With her gun nowhere to be seen, she sprung herself forward, pulling the knife from its sheath she attached inside her boot. Bodies collided, her right hand expertly lunged the knife to his thigh. Once, twice. She attacked to disarm, not to kill for this was still the man she loved and cherished. She felt the butt of his gun against her head and she pulled the knife out, moving out from the way but not before she felt a strong slap on her cheek.

There is something about a slap. It hurts not from the impact but because it is degrading, and humiliating. The stung reverberated to her core. How could he do that to her?
She ran, trying to lure him outside. He caught her, one hand fixed on her neck, pushing her down to the ground, releasing another shot this time close to her ear. She managed to grab his arm, the one holding the gun, twisted it while clawing her knife on his arm. Once, twice, thrice, pulling him who is now on his back-yelling profanities- dog, bitch, wolf-dog, towards the end of the bridge. She did not see it. How he moved his right leg with purpose aiming her head, giving her a hard blow that caused her to let go of her hold on him.

She was down, trying to clear her head from the force yet her sight was compromised. It was blurry. She felt another kick to the side of her face. She tried, tried really hard to stand up, to fight for her life when she felt his hands pulling her by the vest. Blurry vision did not stop her from seeing spits flying from his mouth. She was on her knees, looking up to this one man and wondering what exactly went wrong when she felt a stab to her shoulder. She screamed like she never screams before she felt him twisted the knife, pulling it out, gashing her right cheek before forcing it to enter through her side. Again and again, until she could scream no more.

Blood pouring, heart breaking, she was lifted into the air before she was flung towards the water. Just like a rag.

She was jolted back to the present when she heard a soft voice calling her.

“Soo”

She caught herself smiling when that voice called that name. The name bestowed by a glitch of fate, a crinkle in time. She wondered how it would feel should that voice call her by her real name. She looked up to see him looming over her, eyes narrowed trying to decipher her scattered thoughts.

“You look pale. Are you sick?”

“No, just distracted.”

“By what?”

“Memories. Distant memory”

He noticed her short-clipped answer. The way she forced her concentration to prepare the items needed to cover his scar. How her shoulder was too rigid as if she was carrying with her a secret too big a burden to carry alone. He was curious but decided to give her time and to wait until the secret would unravel itself. He had a suspicion, sure, yet he could not come to an acceptable explanation by clues she unintentionally left trailing behind her. She began their morning routine attentively, covering his scar layer by layer.

“Soo, this scar…it is enough to scare the whole nation, to scare a mother, yet not enough to scare you away? Why is that?”

Her eyes moved from his scar to his eyes, piercing him with its gaze. She continued working, taking a deep breath, casually moving his hair, tucking it behind his ear to buy herself sometime before she answers. He loved the small touches, how freely she gifted them to him.

“Your Highness, from where I come from- no, let me start again, “she corrected herself for she was reminded how in her time, people are scrambling over trying to cover each imperfection. “For me, personally, a scar is just a physical reminder of our journey. Scar is a reminder of many things. It reminds us to be careful. It reminds a mother, of the beauty of pregnancy, the sacrifices one makes to carry a being to this world. It reminds a person, that he survives.” Her delicate fingers tracing his scar before fleetingly caressing his cheek.

“I survive this”- pointing to the scar that she gave herself- “and many, too many more. By right, I should have one on my face, just like yours but on the other side.” At which he raised his eyebrows. He looked hard on her face, now facing the other way and decided to prod further.

“How many scars do you have?”

“Countless.”

“Where?”

“All over my body.”

“What do they remind you of?”

“A broken heart, a broken trust. What a sad journey…” She chuckled.

“From where I come from…. that place, sounds too far. Isn’t it Soo?”

“A thousand years too far.”

“Do you wish to go back?”

“Do you wish for me to go back?” It was her turn to raise her eyebrows. Daring him to ask further. She knew she said too much. But she was beyond caring at this point. She needed to spill it out to him, to someone who was more than willing to lend his ears. She could no longer carry this burden alone. It consumed her, killing her from the inside. If he wanted to know, she would gladly answer.

“No.”

He looked at her. Really looked at her. He noticed how her cheeks flushed from frustration or was it anticipation perhaps? Shoulders hanging low as if the weight of her secret had finally crushed her. Her labored breaths, and her quivering mouth…as if the secret was already hanging by her lips waiting for the right time to experience free fall. Her eyes were glistening, blinking back tears to which he responded by cupping her small dainty hands and offered her the very thing she needed.

“Tell me.”

And she did. Everything laid bare to him. For him to judge and choose to believe or not.

Chapter Text

Wang So was sitting at Ji Mong’s desk, his back leaning against his chair, looking up to the flying contraption attached to the ceiling. He was mulling over the things Hae Soo- no, Ha Jin told him before, remembering how appalled he was on learning her final moment in her time. How betrayed she felt, how alone it was to carry it with her all these times while having no opportunity to make sense of her own situation before being plunged into another hell’s pit- the palace itself. He remembered shaking with anger to the man who has not yet exist but responsible in inflicting wretched pain on his person. His person.

Closing his eyes, he could recall watching her looking at her hands lamenting how different this body was as compared to hers. How fragile it was- not sturdy enough to carry her own pain let alone combined with Ha Jin’s pain. She felt trapped and helpless. She used to know her limitations and what her body could do. How far it could run and handled a beating. How her body remembered ways to defend herself yet this body, Hae Soo’s body was so soft and breakable. How her innocence and naivety permeated all Ha Jin’s decision making processes. How she still lingered around when Ha Jin was the one commanding the body. All of that, including how she was feeling so lost and guilty of causing so much pain to a body she merely borrowed. It was too much, even for him to listen let alone watched her carried it all…alone.

“Do you know?”. Wang So left his question hanging in the air the moment he sensed Ji Mong standing behind him.

“About what Your Highness?” Ji Mong replied, head spinning with possibilities and delivered to the front of his head a picture of one particular court lady currently residing in Damiwon.

“Hae Soo.”

What about her Your Highness?

“How she is foreign to us. I look at your face and I know you know more. Enlighten me. Do you know how much she went through before she gets here? It was heart-breaking. It shouldn’t happen to anyone.” His eyes darken, staring at him, demanding an explanation.

“She was a fighter. She fought brilliantly.” Ji Mong turned his gaze away, facing the open window and looked at the vast overlay of the darkening blue sky tinged with red and orange signaling the end of the day.

“You know…?”

“I was there. I saw her losing her life with my own eyes. She put up a good fight. Clean, sharp movements. You would have been proud. She almost looked like you at one point,” a small, solemn grin appeared on his face just for a second. “How she fought hard to stay alive before thrown into the water and sent to our time. Heaven has its own way of dealing with the creations.” He moved around while answering, pausing when needed while his hands busy lighting the candles illuminating the room with its dull flickers.

Wang So was standing, hands shaking with anger, eyes following Ji Mong’s movements carefully before asking him his final question, “Why?”

“Who knows? I am merely a humble observer. Maybe the heaven took pity on her that night and granted her a second chance to live. For what purpose? Only time will tell.” He looked at the fourth prince, his own eyes clouded with worries of things too delicate, too complicated to be understood by both.

Chapter Text

She was forcing herself to read when a heavy tide of boredom swept over her. She let out a small sigh, leaf through few more pages before closing the book. “Tomorrow,” she lied to herself. “Tomorrow I promise I will finish you.” She mumbled as she placed the book back to where it belongs. “The night was still young though,” she mused to herself. She opened her drawer, took out a stack of papers and decided to indulge in something she used to be very good in- origami.

Humming a song too foreign for this land, she carefully folded the paper, each line with a purpose, working from her memories. She used to love this as a child. The room filled with jars upon jars brimming with different paper beings: crane, elephant, rabbit and so much more. It was as close as she could get to having her own miniature zoo. But as she entered adulthood, she got caught up in life, this very precious skill stored neatly, gathering dust at the back of her mind. Being flung back to the past had its own merits. With time painfully stretching at a snail’s pace, she had more than enough time to recall the different, intricate steps involved in this art.

Tonight, she attempted to fold a wolf. A pile of discarded papers of failed attempts started to gain height by her side yet she continued religiously. Eyebrows creased so close together it resembled the crumpled papers on her desk. Finally, by the twelfth attempts, she succeeded. She pushed the rejected ones to the floor, stacked enough books to create a platform, sliding it close to the light and placed her wolf on the books. She marveled at how majestic it looked, illuminated by the small sun on the desk. She placed her arms on her table, one upon the other, while resting her face on top of them, smiling at her wolf.

Lost in her thoughts, she was awakened by the sound of a wolf howling in the distant. She peered at the paper wolf intently before she dismissed the incredulous thought. She listened again before a smile crept up to her lips.

“Wang So.” She thought to herself. She breathed out a small chuckle at what she was about to do and howled back at him. The howling immediately stopped, followed by a pregnant pause before it began again. And again she howled back, each time louder and longer as she had her cheek pressed to the wall, shoulders trembling with suppressed laughter. She heard footsteps getting closer to the wall before she heard So hissing in annoyance.

“Soo, stop it. Come out now.” His voice deep yet speckled with joy from her antics.

She laughed, loud enough for him to hear before she stood up, ready to leave the room. When she reached the door, she looked back to her wolf, picked it up and carefully slide it in her roomy sleeve.

“Was it you, howling just now Your Highness?” she asked, plastering a mischievous smile on her face.

“Yes. It was so good a small wolf somewhere in the palace howled back.” His eyes narrowing, waiting for her response.

“Pffft, it was not that good. Don’t flatter yourself.”

“Who cares? You are out here aren’t you? Come now. I’ll show you something nice for your birthday.” His hand reaching out, small smile embroidered on his face, waiting for her to take it.

She placed her hand on his, warmth immediately flooding her inside. She knew she knew she liked this man too much.

It was a pleasant night. Filled with failed attempts of kisses from him, a story of Cassiopeia, and his half-hearted warnings on how she should not make him fall for her if she was unsure of her own feelings. At this point, she smiled, facing away, hiding her own face for she knew all of her was screaming to let him know how much she adored him, how much she liked him, how much she wished for him.

As he laid down next to her, eyes closed, looking very at ease, she inched herself closer to him, slowly and carefully, each movement synchronized with her breath until her skirt and his trousers were the only thing separating them. Even if he was aware of these minute movements, his expression gave away nothing. From her position, she looked down at him, memorizing his face. Smiling, drinking in the sight of him greedily. Can a person get drunk from just watching someone she’s fond of? She could feel her face flushed, blood rushing to her heart as if the feelings she bore for him was expanding, demanding for more room inside her small, tiny build. Heartbeats getting frantic, she calmed herself down and counted to hundred.

“Later, I will figure all these messes later.” She thought to herself, one hand on her chest, steadying her own betraying heart.

Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw him stirred and wondered how he could sleep so openly. She decided she needed to go before her lips spilled out something she was not ready to admit. She fished her paper wolf out from her sleeve and placed it gently on the fourth prince’s chest.

“Stay on your guard and protect my wolf alright?” she whispered as low as she could while quietly rose to her feet, bowing slightly to the figure lying on the ground and left. Not for a second realizing how his eyes opened ever slowly, head turned following her silhouette as she disappeared into the night.

He sat up, hands holding the paper wolf to his eye level, admiring the intricate fold while muttering “My wolf”, over and over, savoring the most beautiful combination of words he had ever heard in his lifetime.

Chapter Text

“This was not how the day played out in my mind. It was supposed to be a warm night, obviously with no rain. We’ll drink a bit, have some snacks I spent hours making. It was supposed to be special. Arghhh!” She cursed under her breath, one hand grabbing So’s hand, urging him to run with her while trying to escape the heavy downpour.

“I really don’t mind though,” he squeezed her hand slightly, trying to calm her, who was now lost in her rants. “Soo, we should stop running. It is not good for your legs.” His voice was laced heavily with concern at which Soo snapped back, “I really, really think a little bit of running won’t kill me, Your Highness.” Despite that, she still slowed down her pace as she pulled him closer to the huge oak tree by the lake.

“I guess we are stuck here then”. She gulped in a big breath, chest still tight from running, sliding slowly to the ground. Her hair was a mess, her once neat bun was nowhere to be seen as part of it had unraveled while running. She ran her fingers through her hair, pulling her long locks to one side trying to loosen up the knots made worse by the rain. She had not realized how So was admiring the scene unfolding before him. How beautiful she looked to him at this very moment. Granted, she was already beautiful in his mind but seeing her with her hair down, wet and pulled to the side…it was breath-taking. His heart skipped a beat, eyes transfixed on his goddess sitting in front him, wishing for once he had an ounce of Baek Ah painting skill, so he could immortalize this moment forever. He kept his mouth shut, not wanting to ruin the moment.

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing, - a blush threatened to creep on his cheek before he regained his composure. He cleared his throat before he continued, “Why are you so dead set on making tonight special?”

“It’s your birthday Your Highness. Have you forgotten? I realized how everyone keeps skipping over your birthday…” she peered at him, frowning just a tad.

“Ahhhh…,” he nodded his head, acknowledging the fact that it was indeed his birthday. No one ever made a fuss over it and after a while, he grew up getting used to just let the day go by silently.

“I wanted to make it special for you, but the rain ruins it,”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you want to make it special?”

“Because you are” – special. The last part remained stuck in her throat. So she blurted out “Because it is your birthday…?”

Wang So let out a chuckle. He moved himself to sit facing Hae Soo, one hand absentmindedly plucking the grass, his eyes glued to the ground, heart content just by spending few stolen hours with her.

“You are here with me, what more can I ask for?”

It was quiet as they both listened to the rain, both lost in thoughts. It was cold, but they could only feel warmth sitting near one another, basking in each other’s presence when suddenly her voice broke the silence.

“You weren’t there when I sang for the tenth prince, were you?”

“Urm…No?” A small lie in response.

“Do you mind if I sing you a song for your birthday?”

“Only if your voice is pleasant enough.”

She scoffed before she rolled her eyes. “Since it is your birthday, I am extending my graciousness to let that comment slide. My voice is decent enough, just to be clear.”

She fidgeted for a minute trying to adjust her seating before she scooted close enough to the tree, her back leaning against it, legs pulled up close to her chest all while deciding which song would best show how special he was to her. She settled on one song- her favorite song of all time. It was only fitting to gift him something that was dear to her. She cleared her throat before she caught him staring at her, waiting, face full of anticipation.

“Can you sit next to me instead? I can’t sing if you stare at me like that.” He shook his head, smiling while complying with her request.

She closed her eyes, took a breath and sing wholeheartedly for this one man who deserved all the love in the world.

Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you

Why do stars fall down from the sky
Every time you walk by?
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you

On the day that you were born the angels got together
And decided to create a dream come true
So they sprinkled moon dust in your hair
and put a starlight in your eyes they bloom

That is why all the girls in town
Follow you all around
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you

He was mesmerized. How many times can a person fall in love with the same person in one lifetime? She sang, eyes closed, beautiful lyrics coming out from her mouth in rhythm so soft it soothed him to the core. Her voice was different this time around. It was breathy, huskier even, an invitation to come closer, to lose all his cares for the world and letting only her voice anchoring him to reality. She made him believed that he was everything in that song. She made him feel wanted, appreciated, loved. As the song came to an end, the last note hung in the air, her eyelids fluttered slightly, stealing a glance to him.

He was staring at her, lips slightly ajar - the moment too intimate and magical for him to comprehend that it had ended too soon. She closed her eyes and leaned in just a bit – honestly, she would not mind a kiss to seal the moment but instead, she found herself being wrapped by his arms, pressed to his chest.

“Thank you, Soo.” He whispered so low, so close to her she could feel her warm breath on her neck.

She shivered, and it was definitely not from the cold.

Chapter Text

Jeonjong’s Reign

She was up early. She took pride in being the first to feel the warmth of the sun’s unspoiled rays as she inspected Damiwon on her own without the company of others. The silence appeased her as she checked upon every little thing needed to make sure the place ran smoothly. The tasks distracted her from the looming, unbearable pain of missing him. She regretted not trusting him sooner. That cost her the deaths of Eun and Seon Duk. She regretted trusting those visions. That cost her her own sanity, as she lost him, slipped between her fingers never to return. Seasons changed, and she lost count on the days he left. She understood him leaving her. She brought this on her own. So she waited. For him to come back. For a chance to right the wrong. For the ultimate second chance that everyone kept on saying should be given to those we loved.

As usual, after she was satisfied with the first inspection, she would take a breather outside Damiwon. Looking at the flowers, just to be reminded of him lying there. Looking at the water, just to be reminded how he sought her after the supposed death of the now king. Looking everywhere, just to be reminded of their moments together and how her own doubts ended their relationship. A blessing and a blasphemy wrapped tightly – soothing and hurting simultaneously.

She heard footsteps behind her. Chae Ryung. She was a delight to have in this place. She stayed faithfully by her side. One of the few people left she trusted at this time. A true friend. She dutifully reminded Hae Soo of her birthday each year without fail. And today she brought with her a news she had patiently waited all this while. That person was finally here.

She ran and ran just to be let down. It was not him. It was the fourteenth prince.

She smiled and nodded along. Laughing with his suggestion to explore the world together. Honestly, it did not sound so bad. She would remember that promise. As the prince in his armor took his leave, she kept her gaze on his back, her mind painting a scene where she was free to roam the world outside on her own. But what would the world mean without him by her side? As she came to such conclusion her mind brought forward a dimmed memory, of a verse she was not sure where it originated from. 

Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!

I cannot live without you So.

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The King called for her to serve tea. She nodded to the messenger as she prepared all the things needed. She made a point to take care of every request from the king on her own due to two reasons. First, to avoid any attempts of poisoning of the king through her. She learned her lesson through the death of Court Lady Oh and through the demise of the previous king. She must do everything on her own. Trust should not be given freely in this place. At first, she did hold some suspicion on Chae Ryung since she was the only one allowed by her to attend to the late king’s needs but after mulling over it for quite some time, she dismissed such thought. Chae Ryung could not have done that. What motivation does she have to do so? The second reason was, the current king had a temper. Ugly, harsh, brute temper often manifested itself in the form of physical abuse. She could tolerate it, and the same could not be said for other court ladies of Damiwon.

As she made her way to the throne room, she found herself facing the eighth prince and the fourteenth prince. Bowing down slightly, she felt nothing towards the eighth prince. He was a stranger to her now. Those early days were now a memory long forgotten and buried. Something in her past that she would not allow to haunt her future.

She entered the room, lifted her head only to be shaken by the presence of him. Her heart fluttered seeing him alive and well and when she walked past him she marveled at the small distance between them. He is here. Nothing else matters now.

As she poured the tea, she stole few glances at him to make sure he was not just an image her mind had conjured in attempt to curb her loneliness.

All the exchanges between the princes and the king were lost to her. Her mind was filled just by him, soaking his presence, her whole being was lulled by his voice. She had been pining for this day – the day she could see him standing in front of her. Her heart was blooming, and finally, finally, she could draw in a long satisfying breath that fed her soul with estranged serenity. She dared herself to move her body slightly to face him instead of the king. Should this be her only chance to see him after so long, she would not waste it.

The king sudden movement paired with booming voice startled her, slamming her back to the reality. He threw his cup to the fourth prince before grabbing her hand and crushing it with his grip, slamming her hand on the table to emphasize each word he was saying. This was a routine too familiar to her. She drew in another long breath, composed herself, showing no sign of weakness and stared ahead. She knew she was asking for more by acting in full defiance, but she would not give the king the satisfaction of breaking her.

So, on the other hand, was livid. Hands balling in fist wishing for the king’s head. The king realized this, and a smirk formed on his face. He was dangling her in front of him, luring So to take the bait. So was so close to losing his control when Wook’s voice broke the tension- suggesting the king to dismiss the court ladies to discuss things in private.

The king finally released her hand, but not before he gave a harsh slap to her cheek, sending her to the floor. This was not the first slap from the king, yet he still managed to catch her off guard with each precise aim. She pulled herself together and stood up, ready to leave the room. Her expression remained the same. It broke him.

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Damiwon palace was a busy place, constantly buzzing with activities. Amidst the constant flurry of movements, a court lady made her way to a group of her gossiping colleagues. “Do any of you know where Court Lady Soo is? I need to report to her on the requests made by the Queen Mother.”

“Do you really need to ask? She had just served the king. She came back with her face bruised. We are lucky she never ordered us to serve the king. I think she is resting in the garden. Let her be. What are the requests made by the Queen Mother this time?” the voices move to the kitchen, not realizing the presence of the fourth prince, lurking close enough to eavesdrop.

He walked to the garden, careful not to make his presence known. He needed to see her. He wanted to see her the moment he set foot in Songak but he knew it was a risky, unnecessary move. He had cut any ties he had to her to save her from being used for being close to him. What use would it do now, to see her and deny her of the protection the separation offered her? He bit his lips hard and ignored the rational side of his mind. I need to see her.

She was lying down underneath the tree, nestled against the hollow of its trunk. Her feet tucked in, one hand served as a pillow while the other splayed across her mouth as if she was stopping herself from screaming. She looked so small in that position, so vulnerable. He sat down behind a bush and stared from afar, wishing of a hundred different scenarios where they all involved him being closer to her and chasing her bad memories away.

She was not sleeping but memorizing. How he looked with his black robe, his hair pulled back in a high ponytail, scar-covered – he remembered how to do that still. That was good enough for her. The sight of him brought forward a different memory. Eyes closed, she let the memory unfold, losing herself in the remnants of scattered echoes. 

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Hyejong Reign – Last Day

It was chaos. The king was dead. His body was floating in the pool. Soo found herself trapped with glistening swords drawn around her. She fell to the ground while trying to make sense of the event that had just transpired. The third prince was standing in front her. How is it possible? Isn’t he dead already?

She heard a loud noise and she raised her head, seeking the source of the sound. It was the fourth prince, clearing his way to reach the now deceased king. She felt a sense of relief before it was quickly replaced by fears. Her eyes shadowed him closely, willing for every swing of swords to miss him, for every hit to slip unnoticed. He made her way to face the third prince unscathed, fury clearly etched to his face. She released her breath and noticed the way So looked at the rightful king, dead and humiliated in the pool, his failure to protect him clearly was eating him from the inside. She knew too well by now. Of the oath made between the fourth prince and late King Taejo for him to stay in Songak – to protect and serve Moo dutifully even when it costs him his life. She felt compelled to do something, anything to stop this madness. But what could she do?

She listened as the third prince laid out the false accusation blaming her on the king’s death. She watched as Wang Won drew his sword, throwing its sheath to the ground, placing the sword so close to her neck she could feel the coldness emanating from the blade against her skin. She stood up as the ninth prince grabbed her by the neck asking her to admit something she had never even considered before she was pushed back to the floor.

“You can show your loyalty to our dead brother and die with the girl or you can accept me and save the girl.” spat Wang Yo.

That was the moment she closed her eyes and accept her fate as she knew that her choice was made for her. Wang So is loyal and his loyalty lies with the dead king. And I will help him. She summoned her strength and prayed it would be enough. She pushed the ninth prince with all her might, and quickly grabbed the sheath lying on the floor. She only had seconds, and none would be wasted. She stood up, one hand wielding the sheath, she kicked Wang Yo's knee joint as hard as she could. As he fell forward, kneeling from the force, with both hands holding the sheath, she pulled him close to her, the sheath placed tightly against his neck.

“Kill him!Now!” she yelled to So. She could feel movement behind her, knowing only moments separate her from death. So was taken aback by the choice she was forcing her to make, yet he always knew what was worth fighting for. Sure, he had sworn loyalty to Moo, but the king had gone too far entering a realm where his loyalty meant nothing. As he saw the swords getting closer to her, he threw his sword toward those wielding them, petrifying them mid act thus stopping them from hurting Soo. Soo was stunned. How could he let this opportunity slide? Her hold was getting weaker against Yo’s struggle as she witnessed So looking at Yo directly in the eye while kneeling on the ground.

“Greetings to the new king, Your Majesty.”

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As soon as the new king left Damiwon, So took her hand and pulled her away, heading to the garden. She struggled to keep up with his pace, her own body pulsing with adrenaline. She was so ready to die and yet did not and now was being dragged by an angry So. Once outside, he stood in front of her, chest heaving with anger or shock? She was not sure herself. He released her hand, his own hands moved to her shoulder as he looked at her with a stare intense enough to pierce through her soul.

“You thought I would let you die.” He stated it plainly.

“I did.”

“Why?” his voice was so low she struggled to hear it. He spoke through gritted teeth as if he was holding his own anger from exploding. She was wary of this reaction. I thought I was doing him a favour? She matched the intensity of his gaze before she barked out her answer.

“Because it is the right thing to do. Because you have sworn to protect him. Because Goryeo do not need a tyrant as king. Why does it matter if I die when in return you are saving the people from his madness?! It is a small price to pay for greater good.” Her own voice getting higher and higher with each sentence. She herself was angry over the missed opportunity. He could have finished Yo for good this time. If only he chose differently, Goryeo would have had a different fate. She steeled herself, blinking away her tears and stared back at him.

“Small price to pay…? Have you lost your mind?!” it was his turn to shout. His hands were shaking in anger as he paced in front of her. He brought his hand to his temple and rub it in circular motion. He sighed deeply, looked up to the sky wishing to be blessed with the strength to remain calm before he looked at her. This time his eyes were filled with concern and worries, and honestly, it baffled her. In her previous life, responsibilities always, always trumped over feelings. Is it not the same here? She wondered for a moment.

“You are the one person that matters in my life. Do you really think I will let you die? Do you really have so little faith in me you don’t think I would try my damnedest to save you? The fact that that kind of thought occurs inside your mind is an insult to me. Soo, I love you. Are you even aware of that?” he was speaking slowly, each word spoken clearly. His voice was so low, towards the end it was barely a whisper. His eyebrows scrunched together, worries deeply weaved between the creases. She tried to contain her tears, yet it spilled graciously. Why am I bawling like this?

“I am.” She managed to squeak between her sobs.

“So tell me why, why do you think I would let you die?” he shook her shoulder gently.

“Because it is the right thing to do.” She looked just like a petulant child now as she offered him that answer. She maintained her belief as she wiped her tears with the back of her hands. Watching her crying, So let out another sigh before he pulled her closer to him. They had experience enough emotional turmoil today. No need to add lover’s spat on top of it.

“Soo, my precious Soo...I don’t know much about love that much I can admit. But when I say ‘I love you’ it means I will do whatever needed to protect you. When I say ‘I love you’ it means I will keep you alive with every breath I take. Remember that please, I beg you please remember that.” A kiss on her forehead to seal his promises. Soo hugged him tighter before she breathed out her respond to his promise.

“I will.”

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

As she opened her eyes, the midday sun blinded her with its penetrating rays. Her one hand moved to her chest to stop the sudden sharp pain shooting from her heart as she whispered something to the air.

“I still do.”

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Chapter Text

She smiled wanly as she wrote down the final quatrain of this one poem making a comeback in her mind. Interesting how her attempts to read the classic poetry of this era, in return, allowed her to remember so much more poetry of her own time. It was like learning new language-suddenly your brains could not help itself but refreshed every single language you have ever learned thus forcing you to find the equivalent of each expression in each language. A tedious yet very rewarding process.

She held the piece of paper closer to the light, checking if she had missed any parts of the poem. She wracked her brains wondering if the poem does only consist of five tercets and one quatrain at the end but of course there was no sure way of finding the answer now when the poet is not even born yet. She looked at the now complete poetry, scanning the written words before she read the poem to the only available audience, herself.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

 

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

 

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

 

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

 

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

 

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

 

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 

Some things are meant to be lost at times forever, or sometimes just for few lingering moments, enough to remind us of its importance. Losing keys, losing purse, losing phone – something that belongs to us. But as we grow older, fate decides to up its ante and let us lose something bigger. Our memories, our hope, our time – something that belongs to not only us, a shared element.

She traced the first sentence of the last quatrain with her fingers ‘Even losing you…’. If indeed losing is an art she, Ha Jin is the real master. She lost her life before she was hurled back here, a thousand years earlier, just to continue losing everything dear to her. I lost things, persons that do not even belong to me in the first place. I am the one true master. This body’s noble status, gone. Myung Hee, gone. Freedom? Absolutely long gone she forgot how it felt. Friendship with Eun, partially lost at her failure to reciprocate his feelings. Lover?

She pondered on the possibility of losing him forever. I thought I lost him but when he saved me from the arrow, am I deluding myself into thinking that he still harbored feelings for me? She pondered with this thought as she continued to read the last part of the poem, before she realized that, if I were to lose him, it is indeed a disaster. The poet might think not or maybe she does think so but dismissed it quickly to cover her true feelings? She cleared her head and concluded – no one could offer her answers but him, so to him she would go. If he had indeed dismissed me from his life, I would rather confirm it for the second time instead of wondering about it.

She asked Baek Ah if it was possible to see him. Baek Ah promised he could arrange it. She was relieved to hear that, yet a sudden hesitation engulfed her. What if he really had no need for her anymore? Could she bear living with that fact? Baek Ah noticed this subtle change and he quietly said,

“Just ask him. Find the courage to just ask. Ok?”

“Ok.”

And ask she will.

____________________

She peered through the small opening of the door to see him lying on his stomach, face facing the other side. She entered the room carefully, refusing to make any sound that could wake him up from his deep slumber. She closed the wooden door behind her ever slowly for truly, she was afraid of the outcome of this sudden visit. This visit could make or break her. She was not sure, and she could not predict his reaction. Would he push her away like he did before? Possible. But there was also a possibility of being welcome in his embrace no matter how slim that chance is.

She placed her small parcel by the door and walked closer to him, taking her place by his side and observed his current condition. His back was rising too quickly from his breath and his body was glistening with sweats. Fever. She inspected his wound, the most recent one, a gift from a lunatic king. It was a flesh wound. Easily treated but must be done quickly to avoid infection. She released a small breath of relief before her eyes caught signs of old wounds scattered all over his back. She traced the scars using her fingers and her heart just break for this one man she loved dearly. How much have you gone through alone? If you allow me, I will love you, and each scar you have will serve as the witness of this vow.

She worked quietly, attending to the wound using herbs she had brought with her. When she was done dressing the wound neatly, she stopped for a moment and looked at his face, now no longer showing any sign of pain. But his temperature was still rising – she needed to stop that. She opened all the windows of the small room, allowing fresh air and the cool breeze of the approaching night to seep through. It was still not enough. She hesitated by his side for a moment before she barrelled through with her plan. What’s the worst that could happen anyway? She placed her hand underneath his chest as her other hand slowly pulled him by his shoulder to his back, moving closer to her body. He moved, sure, and now her other hand was stuck between his back and the mattress. Bravo Ha Jin. She cursed herself slightly.

She pulled her hand slowly all while praying he would stay asleep until she was done attending to him. Her desperate prayer was answered. She continued to wet some cloth and wet his body with it to help lower down his spiking temperature. She caught him moaning slightly and she took it as a sign that he was feeling much comfortable now. She searched for his inner robe and again prayed he would not be woken up by these movements administered by her. She pulled him up, put on that piece of clothes on his body gently before she let him down to continue resting. He was breathing at a pace much slower compared to before, but she decided he could do with a freshly prepared tonic to help his body regain its strength.

She moved non-stop for three hours by the time she had fed a few spoonsful of the drink to him, she was dog-tired. She wiped the sweats off her forehead and pulled the blanket to cover him. Sleep well, my love. She smiled looking at him, lighted a candle next to So and sat down against the wall close to his feet. She was exhausted. As her eyelids threaten to close for good, her own body moved closer to the floor and she shivered when the cold wind grazed her body through the open window. She moved closer to So’s mattress, relieved to share the heat before she covered her whole body with the same blanket and sailed to oblivion.

____________________

He woke up from the cold breeze lapping on his face. He opened his eyes and looked at the open window and the pitch-black room. Slowly, he rose from the mattress, flung the blanket covering him to one side and stood up to close the window. He felt much better now, and he realized that he was wearing his clothes, yet he could not remember putting it on. He checked his wound only to find that it was neatly dressed. Someone was here.

Standing next to the window his guard was up as he scanned the room, searching for signs of other person but he could see nothing in the dark room. He moved to light a candle, stepping on the pile of blanket he tossed aside previously before he heard a shrill scream piercing the silent night.

“Ouch, my foot! You step on my foot!” Soo emerged from the blanket, scooting to the wall, one hand rubbing her aching foot.

Shocked was not enough a word to describe So’s feelings upon seeing her in his room. He quickly lighted the candle and stood dumbfounded as he realized the pile of blanket he stepped on had Soo covered beneath it.

“Soo?”

“Yes.”

“Is that you? Soo?”

“Yes, yes. Why did you step on me?” She looked at him, eyes begging for a decent explanation while one hand still rubbing her mistreated foot vigorously.

“I thought I step on the blanket…wait, why are you here in the first place?” he stammered with a ridiculous expression pasted on his face.

Soo looked at his face, then at the pile of the blanket, and she looked back at So and she marveled at the absurd situation they caught themselves in, a completely different scenario than one she imagined all along and somehow, a laughter erupted from her. Slow at first but building steadily and before she realized it she was laughing her heart out, her whole body trembling as she laughed.

Laughter is indeed contagious as he watched her body shaking to contain the mirth, he laughed along. When was the last time they get to laugh like this? He could not remember. She looked happy, and that made him happy.

As the laughter subsided, they stared at one another for a long time, savoring the moment. They both knew they needed to have a serious discussion, yet no one dared to stain the jovial mood. Finally, Soo broke the silence.

“You still love me.”

So closed his eyes before he opened them and nodded to her. “I never stop.”

Soo had cautiously planned her words to ask what needed to be asked, to coax him, to plead, anything to get them back together yet nothing came out from her mouth as she listened to his sincere answer. She opened her arms, and called out to him,

“Come here.”

He needed not to be asked twice. That night they kissed a thousand times to make up for the months they spent alone, whispering sweet nothings to one another as two became one, a reunion much needed for the two lovers.

And all seemed well.

For now.

Chapter Text

Gwangjong Reign

The transition of the highest position in the nation was not without hushed suspicions. Questions were raised, yet not loud enough to ripple changes. Not loud enough to warn Hae Soo of her own impending doom. She was content and naïve to think that the position of king comes with absolute, unquestionable power. The first few weeks were admittedly heavenly, they were finally together with no one coming in between. Smiles and laughter filled their numbered days before the heaven itself send in crosswind in Soo and So’s path to happiness.

It first came with the rise of clans, openly challenging the king’s inheritance to the throne. The movement was initiated by Yu’s clan by daring to ask for full autonomy of their land. Hearing that the king’s own clan was freeing themselves from the king’s still feeble grip on power, other clans follow pursuit by refusing to attend the court. So observed the sudden shift of loyalty in disdain. Is it shifting or does it even exist in the first place? How he finally understood that the throne made no such promise of power. It is an empty seat that is coveted by many who simply does not understand how unworthy the seat actually is. With General Park retiring, refusing to stay by his side for he was haunted by his daughter’s death, Wang So was left with very few trusted people. He spent his night in the throne room, thinking and devising strategies to face this new challenge. He was not new to politics, yet now he finally experienced the heat as the main player of the daunting game, a greatly different position as compared to being an observer. He had to admit, he was outnumbered. He heard someone shuffling closer and he felt a moment of relief when he saw Soo, the only constant element in his life.

“General Park left me. He said he couldn’t stand the palace anymore." He sighed with worries too potent to be swallowed.

Soo took his hand and grip it firmly, “I am right here. I will not leave you. We will get through this together.”

Her words acted as balm to his aching heart and they propelled him to move forward, gave him strength to face each challenge.

____________________

Wang Wook finally made an appearance in the palace, gracing the empty throne room with his presence. Smirking at the lack of people in the room, he boastfully announced how he was acting as representative of all the clans, blatantly asking for power to control the army and the amount of gold to be sent to the royal coffers. So was seething at the requests yet Wook was not done.

“The Hwangbo clan of Hwangju proposes a marriage to the king.”

That took the king by surprise.

____________________

Soo was also fighting her own battle. She was graced with the presence of Wook’s sister. Yeon Hwa sure had a way in speaking, Soo realized after a while. She managed to condescend every being in a single breath. She walked as if she owned Hae Soo’s room, judging everything contained in it.

“You did a good job decorating the room.” It sounded so insincere. Hae Soo merely nodded in response.

“I don’t realize we have anything more to give and take from one another. To what do I owe this pleasure of meeting you?” Soo spoke without looking at Yeon Hwa.

Yeon Hwa smiled evilly before she answered. “I came to propose a solution regarding our positions. You can stay as the king’s mistress. He would not take you as wife, even as concubine. Stay in that position, as you see me rise as the king’s queen, as the king’s wife.”

Soo’s eyes widen at her audacity. Me? A Mistress? Before she got the chance to respond, Yeon Hwa continued. “For you, this small room, in which you can wait for him is enough. However, if a woman who is satisfied with a mere room becomes the queen, this nation will be in trouble.” She looked at Soo’s with gaze as sharp as daggers, piercing Soo’s dream of being So’s other half. Soo had never really considered herself to be a queen. She just wanted to be So’s wife and if that required her to be a queen, she would follow through. But she was indeed aware of how unfitting she was to be in such position. No one needed to remind her of the importance of title, positions, background and status. She had been observing, and she learnt a little too much regarding such matter.

“And you? You have the power to protect him?” Soo continued asking that question even though she already knew the answer.

“I am Hwangbo of Hwangju. I am the daughter of the late King Taejo. If I cannot do it, who else can?”

Soo was left alone, Yeon Hwa’s last sentence lingered behind. It was painful to admit, that despite loving his wolf with all her heart, it was not enough to protect her king.

_____________________

Ji Mong came to her too. To persuade her to let go of this idea of marrying the king. Soo’s head was pounding. Her heart faltered at the very mentioned of marriage. Is it so hard for people to understand that she is not marrying the king, she is marrying the person she loves? She started to cave in at the pressure. She understood. Understood it too well but refused to let go because she had promised to stay. She had promised to not let go first. She was screaming within yet the only respond she could offer Ji Mong came out calm. Too calm. If only anyone decided to listen carefully, they would notice how her voice break while uttering those words.

“If the king is going to remain steadfast, why would I do that?”

____________________

She sat by herself on the stairs in Damiwon. Three times. Three times he proposed to her and each time she had said no. She regretted not saying yes the first time he proposed. Maybe things would turn out different. But that is the thing about maybe. I’ll never know.

“You are my only queen.” Hae Soo breathed that string of words over and over. I want to be bounded to you in every way possible, yet fate is against it. I truly, desperately want to be your wife. She put her hands on her face, stopping herself from screaming. She had to accept this –starting tomorrow, she would always be seen as the other woman.

“Soo.” Wang So sat himself a few flights of stairs beneath her position and looked up to her.

Hae Soo gave him a pained smile before she squeaked out a small yes.

“I could not stop wishing that you had said yes the first time I asked you to marry me.” He stared at her wistfully. “Maybe, if we were married back then, things could be different. We could be away, raising our family somewhere away from this place.” His eyes were filled with pain.

“Are you blaming me for this situation we are thrown in?” She questioned him. She felt anger slowly coursing throughout her body.

“You never said yes Soo. Every time I asked, you answered too quick with a plain no. You did not hesitate even for a second. No, no, no.” he dared her rectify him. Their voices getting louder with each answer they barked to one another.

Soo stood up. It was as if all the frustration, anger, sadness contained carefully before, had now threaten to rear their ugly heads and snapped at anyone, anyone available that dared to stand the heat. This was new, even to her. She could not control it and she unleashed them all to the one person that do not deserve it.

“Marriage? What is so good about it? Being thrown here, if there is one thing I learn is that marriage is not sacred. It is a mean to get something done, to elevate your position, never about love. Even you yourself use the excuse of marriage to bring me out of this wretched place!” Soo’ chest was heaving with every word she lashed out. So on the other hand was taken aback with her misdirected anger and it caused him to lash out too.

“I offered you the only way possible. You are mad at me? How about you explain why you refused me each time? You said you don’t care for my scar. Is that all talk? Could it be that deep down you are disgusted with me?!” he spat out his own insecurities, both standing, facing each other.

“That is not fair…” She moved to climb the stairs, but she turned back to him and continue venting her feelings. Too much has been kept alone, might as well let it all out now.

“My feelings for you is sincere. I do mean it when I say I love you. Don’t you dare question it again. But in this land, in this time, one only worth as much as what one can offer to the other party in marriage. Money, power, stability.” She stopped because she realized she was shaking. “I do not have that leverage your majesty. Not family, not a strong background, nothing. Never have, never will. I could not offer you anything more other than comfort. I love you. I love you with every single breath I have. I only have love and turns out, love alone is not enough.” Her voice broke, making way for her tears. “Do you know how painful it is to admit to myself that my love is not enough?”

“Soo…” He was speechless. The anger, the frustration had finally dissipated to the air leaving behind the good things – love and acceptance.

“I was selfish. Forgive me.” He sat next to her, pulling her closer to him.

“No, you are not selfish.” She said as she wiped her tears. “You being selfish would be you pushing through your plan to marry me, the nation be damned.” She chuckled before she continued. “We have never fought like this, have we?”

“There is first time to everything.” So rubbed circles on her shoulder. She stood up suddenly, leaving him behind.

“Why?”

“I’m parched after all these yelling. Do you care for some tea?”

“Sure.” He smiled at her and followed her to the kitchen. She prepared his favourite tea as he sat nearby, his hands touching herbs that were placed on the counter. He looked so out of place. His majestic attire set a contrast to the plain kitchen. As she fanned the pot she realized that the tea smelled off. That’s odd. She moved to prepare a fresh pot before So stopped her. “What’s wrong with the first one?”

“It smells wrong to me.” She answered quietly as he poured himself a cup and tasted it.

“It tastes fine to me. Is there anything you are not telling me? Are you not feeling well?” he voiced out his concern. Soo on the other hand was reminded of her friend, who was repulsed by her own perfume, only to find out that she was carrying a child. Could it be?

“Oh nothing. Nothing.” She brushed it off. It could not be. Too soon.

“You should sleep early tonight. Tomorrow is your wedding.” Soo announced quietly. Her eyes staring intently at her cup. So reached out across the table, seeking assurance from her delicate fingers.

“I want to stay with you.”

“I want you to stay with me too.” Forever, if it is possible.

____________________

Chapter Text

By the time the nation had crowned their new queen, Hae Soo realized one thing – the odds would always be stacked against them. She was the one thing that did not make sense in the equation. Everyone had a role to play, a position to go by and she had none of those. None. And yet despite having nothing to offer, she was taking so much from the king. A king in his early reign should be focusing on gaining trust and solidifying his power yet her king had spent too much time and effort in fighting to make her stay and recognized. She was pulling back the king. She could only observe from afar, listened to the whispered news from the court ladies’ lips. But that was enough to know. That she was indeed a burden to the king. She felt trapped and she wondered how long she could stand this before she lost her mind or worse, before she lost herself. At times, she caught herself wishing for the unbearable, that maybe it would be better for the king if he had just let her go.

____________________

“As long as she’s here in the palace I will never be a true queen! Help me, brother, help me, please. She is but a promised downfall to the king. She will be the death of me. Do you wish to see me as the dead queen?” Yeon Hwa begged Wook to aid her in erasing Hae Soo forever.

“You are a queen now sister. Act like one.” Wook remained in his seat, leafing through the reports he received from the leaders of clans. “We have dismissed her from being queen. She is not a threat to us. She never is. What more do you wish for?” he raised one eyebrow while looking at his sister.

“Brother. It’s either you dismissed her from the palace, or I will dismiss her forever. Your choice.”

That did it. Wook finally gave her his undivided attention. “How dare…”

Yeon Hwa sneered at her brother before she cut him off mid-sentence. “You know me. I will do anything to get what I want. I know you have what needed to push the king to a corner, and I know Jung has a way out. Put two and two together and she can make it out alive. Make it work and I promise I’ll vouch for you. You will have a queen’s support. You can have power. Refuse to do so and we will see how long you can last in this place.”

She threw him a steely gaze, reminding him that she meant every word before she abruptly left the room.

“You are greedy Yeon Hwa, and that will be your downfall.” Wook put aside the reports and took out a royal decree of the late king from a drawer.

____________________

“Your Majesty, the eight prince requests an audience with you.” Ji Mong relayed the message to the king.

“What more does he wish now?” Since he was crowned the king, Wook’s presence only coax wrath within him. He had first made him choose Hae Soo or the throne, blatantly asking him directly without any effort to tone down his defiance to his power. Wook had spoken with full authority, undermining So’s position as king, as he had all the clans wrapped around his little finger. So had been observing closely of the ways things were handled. I am a quick learner. I will throw them off in their own game.

“Let him in, I am curious.”

The door opened to reveal Wook, clad in deep blue robe, carrying with him a scroll. He stood in front of the king, his face wearing an unobtrusive expression. Greeting the king with a bare minimum level of respect.

“I carry with me, a royal decree of the late king. Please act upon them before I reveal the content to the court for them to judge.” He extended the scroll to Ji Mong. Ji Mong took it, he himself feeling unease with the possible content of the decree. Late King’s decrees are expected to be honoured no matter what it consists of. It is a subtle way for the current king to rely a message to his people that his own decrees should be honoured in the same way – swiftly and without question. Wang So unrolled the parchment, his eyes never leaving Wook’s face. His eyes moved to read its content.

“I, King Jeonjong hereby sentenced Court Lady Hae Soo to be put to death on two treasonous offences.

First, as the perpetrator that contributes to the death of Late King Hyejong through poisoning using mercury.

Second, for her unconcealed attempt to kill the successor of Late King Hyejong as witnessed by Wang So, Wang Won and Choi Ji Mong.

Her crimes are hideous and unforgivable therefore she should be executed publicly before she could strike down another king thus further harming the future of our nation.”

Three lines marked his forehead as he tried to understand the ramification of such decree. Yo had caused them so much pain and yet he still managed to reach out from the land of the dead to serve them with another blow. I should have killed him properly.

His hands were shaking as he tightened his grips on the parchment before he threw it back to Wook. “You do not want her to be queen. Now you want her dead.” The king enunciated his words slowly and clearly through his gritted teeth. His minds were in chaos trying to find a loophole of this iron-clad decree.

“She has to pay for her sins. And this is the late king’s decree. I don’t have any involvement in it. I am but a humble messenger, holding on to the decree to be executed by the wise king.” His voice was malicious and full of contempt, mocking the king helplessness in defending the one thing that matters.

“I recalled you correcting me when I claim Soo as my person. You said, Hae Soo is your people. If she is indeed your people, do you prefer the decree to be executed?” So wondered why the sudden shift of the wind. Wook, based from his experience had try to protect Soo in few occasions, as a sign of respect to his late wife. Yet now he wanted her to die.

“She had made a different choice back then. Now it is time for her to reap what she had sow.” He gulped in his emotion, refusing to allow guilt to sway him from his decision. After all, this would not be the first death of loved ones in his hands. He had way too much blood on his hands he had not bothered to wash his conscience anymore.

So’s body went rigid with this news. Sentencing death to Soo? His hands were clenched tight, leaving bites of crescents on his palms.

“You and I know she is innocent. Only you have the patience to orchestrate such incident. You did a thorough job, I have to admit.”

Wook smiled, knowing the fact that he had everything that could trace his wrongdoings back to him erased. “You have no proof to as much as implicate me on it. But I am indeed a thorough person. Respecting the last wish of my late wife, I would offer a way out for Hae Soo.” One way or another, the king’s source of strength must be shattered, he had to give her up.

“And that would be…? I am intrigued to know this detailed plan of yours.” So straightened his back, welcoming any minute possibility of hope to save Soo.

“I am afraid I can only point you to the right direction. Wang Jung has the answer. If you are willing to beg, it is possible he might grant it to you.” He sneered at the king. “But I would love to remind you that your time is limited. Act swiftly or I will have the entire court against you once they as much as sniff the existence of this decree.” He excused himself, leaving the king with another dilemma.

So was fuming. I will break you Wang Wook. Wait for that day.

____________________

As Wook left the room feeling awfully accomplished of brandishing yet another arrow maimed straight to his majesty’s heart, he came face to face with Hae Soo. He was startled. He had never allowed her to witness this side of him. He pondered whether Soo had been listening to his conversation with the king and if she was indeed listening, how much of it had she heard?

“Come with me.” She had heard everything. Wook simply nodded and left the throne room with her. She signalled her court ladies to give her some space to talk in private. The small garden was a bit hidden from view, acting as a small sanctuary to this very sensitive topic they were about to discuss. Soo took a quick sweeping look around the garden to make sure they were far from prying eyes and ears.

She tried to conceal her shocked of finding out about a decree specially written for her – a parting gift by the late King Jeonjong, his final slap to her face. She was worried, not for her safety but how this news would affect So. She dragged in a long breath, before she uttered her carefully constructed sentence that she hoped would resulted in a fruitful discussion.

“Wook means the rising sun, you told me that once upon a time.” Her hands were touching the flowers, blooming in season bringing colours to this bleak life of hers.

“I did. And you remember.” He felt a twinge of hope blooming within him before it was cast aside by what she said next.

“Could it be, that the same sun we worship as strength is actually so feeble and pathetic?” Her disgust was masked by her polite intonation and calm voice.

“What do you mean by that?” Wook was taken aback by Soo’s jab.

“Could it be that the only way that the sun can rise is through the fall of others?” She faced him to make sure he had not misheard her.

“I don’t understand.”

“Are you behind the death of late King Hyejong?” she inquired, her own curiosity burning brightly.

He gave her an empty gaze.

“Are you behind Seon Duk and Eun’s death?” she continued to press him more and he continued to hide behind that same empty expression. “I did nothing wrong.”

“Could it be that your definition of what’s wrong has changed over the years?”

“Do you want to know why I did what I did?” Wook was starting to lose his calm demeanour. “For you.” He confirmed it, his eyes blazing with supressed vengeance.

“For me? Please Your Highness, do not drag me into this filthy politic of yours. You left me when I needed you the most and now you are saying all those bloods were spilled for me? You are deluding yourself.” If she was being honest to herself, she wanted to erase every memory, every feeling she used to have for him. To gather all of them in a small box and burned them to ashes. Even to readdress them like this was making her skin crawled in disgust.

“I am deluding myself? What about you? You made me choose between love and power. You were disgusted by my decision to be a king. You were repulsed by the mere mention of throne and yet now, look at you. You are the king’s woman. I could have been the king, and you could have been my woman. In the very same position” his voice was heavy with scorn, his lines delivered in such a patronizing manner.

Soo felt compelled to correct him. 

“I am first, the fourth prince’s woman before I am the king’s woman. You speak as if you still love me, yet you have just sentenced me to death. What a peculiar way to showcase love. What are you going to do after I die? Place me next to Myung Hee? Here lie the women that I only realized I love after I lost them? I want you to stop this madness. Stop pushing the king like this.” Soo warned him. 

“But I just did. Why don’t we just wait on how things will unfold itself? Let us see how he will save you this time.” He threw her the filthiest smirk she had ever witness and walked away. She stared at his back in disbelief, what had caused him to be the devil himself?

Her heart started to submit under the sharp pain constantly visiting her nowadays. She turned around just in time to see the swish of the king’s robe leaving.

____________________

So wasted no time in finding Wook’s weaknesses. His ultimate focus was to save Soo from imminent death but in his keenness to save her, he had not realized that she was fading away from him. She had, without realizing it herself, distance herself from the king. The guilt of burdening her king had eaten her from the inside, gnawing at her constantly. Add that with the increasing numbers of days and nights spent away from one another, she had no way to push her restlessness away. She started to succumb to her loneliness and to make matters more complicated she had now suspected that she was indeed carrying a child within her. She looked around as she took a walk on her own, wondering if their child could survive being born in this battlefield cleverly disguised as palace?

____________________

He first started his moves by cornering Wook’s accomplice – the ninth prince Wang Won. By granting him the pardon of his other offenses, So had gained a precious chest piece that could alter the whole game. He had tossed aside his first intention of proving Wook’s involvement in poisoning late King Hyejong with mercury. If Wook wanted to play dirty, so could I. While planning for Wook’s downfall, So learned of Chae Ryung’s involvement in framing Soo. He acted swiftly. He meant well. Those who carried the potential of harming his love would meet their end. He sentenced Chae Ryung to be publicly executed, as a warning to other court ladies, maids as to never ever hurt Hae Soo in any form. But this resulted in Soo pushing him away.

“How could you do that to her? You treated her as if she’s worse than an animal!” her voice rang in his ears, even hours after he left her to rest. He tried to reason with her, explaining Chae Ryung’s misconducts yet it was futile. Soo treasured her friendship with Chae Ryung too much to rationally accept the truth. As their relationship became strained, So’s desire to crush Wook grew at an alarming rate.

Soo, on the other hand, sought after freedom. She could not bear the possibility to see her child being framed, being used as a puppet by others. And so, the hairpin of lotus, and butterfly and scattered peonies buds made its way to Jung.

I really, really want it.

____________________

So’s meticulous plan was carried out accordingly. Wook entered the throne room, presenting a gift of hunting hawk for the king. As the court gasped at the sight of a dead hawk, few whispering ‘This is an attempt to curse the king!’, So smiled slyly.

“Is this treason?”

He basked in the glory of Wook’s downfall in his hands. But not for long. Soo begged on his behalf reminding him of his promise to break the vicious cycle of brothers killing one another. He contemplated this and before he changed Wook’s punishment, he asked Hae Soo,

“Is there anything you are not telling me?”

Soo in her confusion blurted out no.

____________________

Jung barrelled in the next day, throwing another decree by the late king to his face. So, this was the answer to save Soo. Marriage to Jung. So thought he could ignore it, after all, Wook had been sentenced to house arrest, the key player himself had been sent back to his hometown to rot. But So were a few moves behind as the other decree had found its way to Jung’s hands. Jung gave him an ultimatum too, knowing full well that in worst case scenario, the king would choose the lesser evil.

“She wants this.” He told the king.

“I’ll ask her myself.”

____________________

She told him she wanted it. She told him to choose – to let her live or to watch her die. When she put it that way, the choice was obvious. Of course, he wanted her to live, but not away, not without him.

“You told me you won’t let go first…” Disbelief clouded his vision. I thought I was winning.

“I was naïve. I know too much now. I realize that staying by your side requires me to sacrifice so much. It is exhausting.” Her expression vacant from emotions. I would rather leave now, than sacrificing our child.

“No, I won’t allow it.”

“Your Majesty, I beseeched you, please, let me go!” Let me go before I lost this courage...

____________________

Wook managed to crawl his way back to the throne room. His confession tore the new king’s heart to pieces.

“The two of us had promised to marry one another.” Yet she refused me thrice.

“She was my person.” No, she’s mine.

Wook left the room, leaving behind a deafening silence.

_____________________

“I found out why you worried so much about Wook. Why you get on your knees to save him. I know now. The bracelet you wore for a long time, the secret meeting at Damiwon, the secret meeting in the garden. Is it all true? Were you really planning on marrying Wook?” his cracked voice at the end pained her. Not like this. We can’t part like this.

“Yes.”

“The person you told me you loved. Wook?”

She stole few seconds before she answered his question. She had suspicions that not all her feelings were hers to begin with. She suspected she had inherited this love from Hae Soo herself. But what’s the point of explaining that now. She wanted a way out didn’t she?

“Yes.” A clean break. The least she could do is to offer him a clean break.

“Just lie to me instead. Then we can go back to before…. don’t hurt me like this Soo. I can’t… I can’t stand it.” He pleaded to her, tears accompanying his words.

“But we promised not to lie to each other.” She bit the inside of her cheeks to stop her from taking it all back. This is for our child’s future. You did the same before when you left me during Jeonjong’s reign. I can do that too for our child.

“How could you hurt me like this…You always have Wook in your heart.” His voice saturated with agony.

Upon hearing this, she moved to grab his hand tightly. She could stop herself from speaking the truth but her own body was retaliating. She took a firm hold of his hand with both of her hands.

“Do you despise me?” She dared herself to ask, her voice trembling.

“…with the same intensity of which I love you.” His eyes shining with tears, yet it was tinged with repulsion.

“A lot?” She whispered.

“A lot.” He wrenched his hands away from her grasp.

“Starting today I will not see you again.” And he left.

____________________

Should you request upon me of diamonds and pearls it will remain unfulfilled,

Yet for you, I will gladly move the sky and covet the stars,

Should you wish for the world I will exchange it with my soul,

For I can only be yours truly when I can make you feel at ease.

 

My heart is yours never mine to begin with,

For you, I will wait right here even for a thousand years,

My love, I beseeched you, question not my heart,

For my love for you is engraved upon the stars.

Our stars. 

 

She took one last look at the palace, part of her wishing hard for the presence of him. She placed her hands on her subtle bump, signaling the growth of their child within her. Come, my child, I will protect you with my life.

And she left him behind.

Chapter Text

My heart sinks
as I watch the sun
slip into the sea.
Another day
lost in the waves
without my love
here to stay. 

(Christy Ann Martine)

____________________

The nights were long and terrifying for she was completely helpless in the realm of haunted memories. Her body went rigid, paralyzed with fear and yet she could not scream for help. At times she managed to return to her mother’s plea – a song repeated over and over it pulled her slowly back to reality but most times she would be left with no choice but to ride the intense wave of pain until she woke up on her own, tears flowing, chest so tight, crushing her heart. Loved ones left behind folded neatly in history, surely that would take tolls to anyone, wouldn’t it?

She had done everything to survive the experience. She chopped her hair short, dyed it auburn so she would not be reminded by Hae Soo every time she saw her reflection. Yet her new scar on her cheek-a souvenir from Jin Hyuk served as a constant reminder of him and she caught herself absentmindedly caressing it countless times wishing that she was instead caressing the scar’s twin. Her sweet, sweet mother tried to cover it once and she finally uttered her first word after she returned. No. A resounding no with an empty gaze was enough to stop her mother from trying again.

She wept for her long dead by now lover and her darling daughter who did not survive. She held a private ceremony to remember the daughter she did not get to know, a lover she herself had chosen to leave behind in futile attempt to secure a future for their child, all while wishing that she was dead too. Her mother, her confused mother sat by her side, witnessing a show of grief she could only partially understand. I come back, didn’t I? My own daughter is lost forever.

She was released from duty. Her mind was so clouded back then when an explanation was offered she could not remember the reason behind the decision. Something about Jin Hyuk missing? Lack of evidence? Lack of witness? The one person that sent her to the hospital was nowhere to be found. She did not care. Her mother took her back to the home she grew up in, filled with jars of the miniature animals she used to love so much. The night she returned home, she stayed up all night making rows upon rows of tiny paper wolves. The tips of her fingers raw from folding. The next morning, her mother brought in another glass jar, carefully placing all her wolves in it before she placed the jar on her nightstand- to chase her bad dreams away perhaps? She held that jar gingerly using her two hands. Eyes locked on that one small crack that was always there on the wall. She could have a million jars filled with wolves, but it would never be the same because she needed just one and that one is long gone by now. She lifted the jars and hurled it against the wall before she quickly dived into her bed, covering herself with the blanket. Her mother stood by the door, watching for a quite extended period before she quietly closed the door again.

Once she regained the use of her muscles after three months of daily therapy, she filled her days with a painful training of martial arts to gain back the lithe movements she had survived without back then. The training offered her some minute control over her life. Each session ended with her clothes drenched in sweats were welcomed. Each session ended with new cuts or bruises offered her some unexplainable satisfactions. Surely if she could stand those bruises, those cuts, she could survive the wounds in her heart? But the main reason she trained and trained, breaking her body in the process was to make sure that when she arrived home, her body already battered, maybe just plain maybe, her mind would show some mercy and stop replaying those memories, those times that had slipped through her fingers never to return. Her mother watched her trained, lips pursed, eyebrows creased from constant worrying, yet she never stopped her. Instead, she called for different instructors to train her.

Night came without failure for no one had the power to bend the way Heaven works and with each presence, she prayed from the bottom of her aching, longing heart for her wolf.

Chapter Text

 

I feel so much

that it is hard

for me at times

to feel anything

 at all.

 

(Mary Kate Teske)

____________________

It had been a year since the day she returned to her body. Her hair had been left to grow with each day passing. She made peace with the length for it reminded her of him. She pulled it to a simple ponytail by the nape of her neck, just like he used to, her bangs swept to the side partially covering her scar. She kept it auburn for the distinct colour allowed others’ sight to linger on it a second longer before noticing her scar. She was not ashamed of it, for it provided her with a link to a lost decade but she would rather keep that to herself than trying to explain why she was not covering it.

Her mother had an ear cuff specially made for her untold memories – of lotus, and butterfly, few peonies buds scattered, hanging daintily by the chains. An image she had drawn repeatedly to the walls that her mother brought to life in a physical form as an ode to her secret pain her mother wished she was willing to share. She was wearing a simple white button-down shirt, half tucked into her black pants, paired with her favourite boots. She still slipped in her dagger in her right boot, a habit she could not shake off.

She went to the city today. A routine she paid respect to every three full moons. Just to assure her mother that she would be fine on her own, cementing the lie she told herself every day – I am fine.

____________________

During her first visit to the city, she walked, not bothering to stop and appreciate the weather, not even stopping to really see where she was going. She counted her steps the moment she hopped off the bus and it was exactly 10,000 steps before she stopped and looked around, to see what fate would have set on her path. A tattoo parlour. Interesting, she mused to herself. She entered the premise, part of her was quite surprised when its scent hit her. It smelled like a hospital - of bleach. She was greeted by a friendly tattoo artist. She mumbled a small hello with her broken smile. She browsed through the selections while drowning the artist alarmingly cheerful chatter. She decided to go with something minimalist, asking respectfully so that her request was followed to the dot. This was special to her, as if the scar was not a loud reminder of her memories.The artist followed through, sketching few options for her. She made her choice and proceed to get it inked on her tiny wrist. Maybe she was numb to pain by now, her face remained hollow from emotions until the process was done. She thanked the artist, paid for the tattoo and quickly left.

She continued counting her steps this time walking straight back to the bus station. She arrived home to see her mother preparing dinner. She took a bath, careful with her bandaged wrist. When she was decently dressed, she joined her mother at the table. It took her mother exactly three seconds before she asked about her wrist.

“Are you hurt?”

But she heard 'Did you hurt yourself?' instead.

She shook her head no and left the table, heading to her room. She came back to her perplexed mother after 10 minutes. She stood next to her, extended her wrist, showing it off to her mother proudly, like a child beaming with pride of a piece of paper documenting her flying colours result. Her mother laughed, apologized for not trusting her and they ate their dinner together. She left her mother after, but not before she placed a kiss on her cheek and retreat to her small sanctuary.

As she laid on her bed, she raised her wrist to be bathe by the lights, appreciating this permanent art etched on her wrist. She traced the heartbeat line that went around her wrist, full of ups and downs. Placed neatly above the line were three wolves, one of them still a cub, running together in circles.

____________________

That was six months ago. This visit, on this particular date was special - to celebrate a dearest person’s birthday. Her phone vibrated, and she reached into her bag. A notification popped out from the BabyCentre app she installed.

“Congratulations! Your daughter is turning 1 today! Celebrate her birthday with loved ones and remember to take as many pictures as you can to track her growth!

Our Seol is 1 year old today. She slid her phone into her pocket. As she walked along the sidewalk of the busy street, she caught her reflection walking along her side. She stopped and stared. She does look like him nowadays. She held out her fingertips close enough to touch the reflection and continued walking, smiling as if she was taking a stroll with him. Her other hand was extended to her imaginary daughter, a small family of three. Her own family. ‘They’ entered the famous dessert place. She wanted to buy a cake, for her daughter who just turned one in her mind.

1 year. 12 months. 365 days. And she still remembered everything as if it happened yesterday.

How she opened her eyes, panic set in as she slowly took in her surroundings. How she tried as hard as she could to lift her hands on her flat tummy-no bump or anything to prove she had indeed carry a life for seven months inside her. After the panic subsided, coupled with screams that were hoarse at first, getting clearer as the clock ticked and returned hoarse after certain hours, a certain numbness engulfed her. Her mind cocooned her remaining sanity with detachment to save what was left of her from breaking to smithereens.

Enough.

She was on her way home now, back to her quiet hometown, spending just enough hours away to convince her mother that she was indeed coping. It was a good trip, filled with chocolate cake and balloons and blowing bubbles in the park. She looked forward to spending the next day with her mother. They both love combing the mountains close to their house for herbs and after, she enjoyed just observing her mother worked her magic with the herbs, occasionally offering some tips she learnt from the past just to see the bewildered, amused emotions etched on her mother’s face. She was puzzled with this new side of her, yet she respected her child’s secret enough not to probe further.

She arrived home, feeling a bit unsettled as she realized how dark the house was. She reached the slightly opened door and entered slowly, not bothering to take her boots off. She walked from room to room, careful not to make any noise. Something is off. She could sense it.

Her mother was the one reason she refused to cave into the ever-persistent call of death.

Tonight, she found her bathed by the lights of the full moon, hanging from the fan, swinging gently.

The rational side of her quickly scanned the lifeless body. She walked around the body, quietly observing what was laid out for her. Battered body, hair messy, clothes torn showing signs of struggles and failed attempts to fight the perpetrator. She felt a strange relief. It was not suicide. She would not leave me alone by choice. She loves me.

A gash on her forehead with blood dripping to the front of her dress. Probably from a knife? She extended her right hand, grasped her mother's leg to stop it from swinging. Somehow, deep down, she knew who did this.

“It has been quite some time since I saw you last Ha Jin. Admiring my work, aren’t you?” Jin Hyuk’s voice was dripping in malice. He switched the lights on, stood by the door, leaning to it, clearly enjoying the moment.

“She is my mother.” Her strong steely voice surprised him, shown by a flash of doubt on his face.

“I know, that is why I did what I did. You like it?” he grinned, flashing his yellow teeth. He had lost a lot of weight, cheeks sunken making his eyes appeared bigger. His hair was unkept, clothes dirty and worn out - a total mess, probably from living on the run. She sought for any sign of hidden weapon and saw nothing. Her gaze caught the sight of four angry trails of her mother’s fingers marking his cheek. Her mother went down fighting. Good for her.

She stared at him hard. The months had taken toll on him. He looked weak and wild. She took calculated steps toward him, her mind offering her a thousand ways to make him bleed. He took a step back, body was ready to fight yet he held himself down, trying to gauge a reaction out of her. Surely, she cannot be this composed after I killed her mother?

He did not realize when she reached for the vase before he felt it smashed to his face. He stumbled back, losing his footing before falling, hand frantically wiping the blood away before it clouded his vision. In his hesitation, Ha Jin refused to give him any opening. With the remaining shard in her hand, she managed to slash his face, clawing his one eye in one determined move. He sprung forward, anger clearly etched on his face, one hand wound tightly around her waist, lifting her up and smashing her against the glass cabinet, sweeping the displays to the floor with her body while the other throwing punches to her side. She heard her shirt tearing, felt her back sleek with the warmth of her own blood soaking the remaining material of her shirt. With his eyesight compromised, his movements were wild, frantic and unplanned– a stark contrast to her precise moves planned solely to inflict the most pain as possible.

She lifted her arm and jabbed his back using her elbow repeatedly to make him lose his grip on her, yet he gripped her body tighter. She wound her legs around him, offering her a much stable, higher leverage before she laced her fingers through his hair and pulled hard. His head jerked back, and she quickly threw in punches to his face resulting in a broken nose. He released her from his grip and bend down, hands covering his face, trying to stop the blood but to no avail. She took her chance, hastily standing up, grabbed him by his shoulder, striking him hard on his chest repetitively using her knee before throwing him to the wall. Heart pounding in her ears, she took a step back, filled her lungs with one long glorious breath. She saw him pulling out a black butterfly knife, twisting it between his fingers in a swift movement to reveal its blade. Oh no you don’t.

She pulled her leg back to generate enough force and kick him hard against his skull. He fell on his side, eyes closed, one hand still holding the knife. She stomped hard on his hand, forcing him to release his weapon before she wrenched it away from him. His breaths were laboured by now, weak body further weakened from the pains and wounds, and she kicked him hard on his chest, stealing his breath away. He now laid on his back, one eye already damaged, forehead bearing a large gash, nose broken, body bruised, and he gathered his remaining strength to stare at Ha Jin. Ha Jin, the good cop whose first move was always to protect and second to attack. Ha Jin that obeyed her oath dutifully. One eyebrow arched upward, lips smirking, daring her to finish him.

“You are pathetic. You didn’t do it then. You won’t do it now!” he spat in her direction, banging his head repeatedly on the floor – a mirth of erratic laughter erupted from him.

“Really?” she cooed softly just as she stabbed him directly where his heart should be. She took her time in forcing the blade to enter deeper, twisting it while staring at his contorting face. His body moved too much, struggling to stop her. With her hands on the blade, she moved herself to sit on his body, to stop him from wriggling too much. His eyes filled with disbelief as she continued to twist his knife, on his chest.

Blood was gushing out wildly from the wound, covering both bodies yet she continued. The knife was not a good weapon to quickly finish him off, yet she continued using it, wondering if he felt betrayed by his own weapon. Once she realized the blade was not going any deeper, she took out her own dagger and pierced his chest with all her might. Never once she lost her stare from him. She wanted to be the one person that witness the lights went out from his eyes. And she did. She tugged her dagger out, leaving his knife to remain with its owner. Blood continued to spurt out from his chest. She wiped the blood off the dagger she was holding on his stained shirt before she tucked it back in its sheath.

The fight was intense but did not last as long as she expected. Maybe she was stronger, maybe she was better now than before or maybe he was just weak. It just did not matter now.

She moved slowly back to her mother’s room, her mother’s body was looming over her. She stared, kissing her feet, shaking like a leaf. It was too much for her to process. As she slowly moved the noose out of her mother’s neck, she heard something broke deep within her.

She placed her mother’s cold body gently on the bed. Kissing her forehead twice, pushing her hair out from her face and tucking it behind her ears. She stood up, walked to the bathroom, wet a piece of cloth and cleaned her mother’s face gently, before covering her with a blanket. Had she not felt this broken before at the death of Court Lady Oh? Yet this time around it felt surreal. This was her mother. Hers. She had lost enough by now.

She moved in a trance, leaving her house, bracing the chilly night, walking and walking just letting her feet took charge instead. Her heart heavy, yet she kept going…somewhere. Anywhere but here.

She found herself standing on a cliff looking down at the shimmering water. The water was calling for her, beckoning her with empty promises, assuring her to just fall and let it envelop her away from her own sufferings. She gave a wary glance to her surroundings before she realized how bright the moon was on this particular night. Take me, anywhere but here. And she let herself fall.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Chapter Text

Gwangjong’s Reign – 953

It was a quiet night. In the throne room, the king was weighed down with a mountain of scrolls demanding to be read and acted upon. He was too invested in reading the current report regarding slaves within the nation. He had tried to tackle it before but that resulted in the death of Woo Hee and him losing his one trusted brother. He let the issue quiet down for a while, but every move made afterward to address it would be challenged by the powerful families. He was hard-pressed to hold himself down from unleashing his wrath upon the ungrateful clans, thinking of delicate approaches to wisely change the current ways of how matters were handled.

He needed to reduce the power of clans for him to rule as he saw fit. He had provided them with an heir, shutting down the pressure disguised as concerns over protecting the throne, yet the clans stumped every move he had to change the nation for the better. As he mulled over this, eyes boring a hole on the report, he was made aware by the door opening and a figure letting himself in.

“Your Majesty, the Queen has given birth to your second child, a healthy baby girl,” informed Ji Mong while trying to gauge the king’s reaction.

The king exhaled at the declaration of the baby’s gender for he was reminded of his firstborn, his love child that died so soon. Beautiful gift, so precious and so rare he was only blessed with her presence for mere moments before his child and his love brutally taken away from him. He would have done anything to bring his one true queen to life, he would have handled things differently should he be given a second chance. The unnecessary words, pointless distance, futile heartbreaks that wrought pain for both of them what more for her, alone and away carrying their child trying to save her from the cruel palace’s grip at the cost of her own life. His eyes glazed over, flooded by the last memory he had of her. He remembered how he had been receiving reports on how well she got along with the fourteenth prince. He could not believe it. He had dismissed such reports, denying it internally. Is it possible to throw away our love that quick? He remembered the intense betrayal he felt, getting stronger and stronger with each passing day. He suppressed his emotions, keeping it to himself, burying it down with efforts to stabilize the nation left shaky by previous king. That was when letters upon letters found their way to his table. He pushed them aside, heart bloomed with resentment once he recognized the handwriting as his brother’s.

____________________

He went to her that day. Something tugged hard on his feelings, implored him to abandon the palace and the games people played to stay within its grip. The palace was constricting, and he wanted to breathe freely, and he could only do that with her. His heart heavy with longing just to catch a glimpse of his one true companion. He rode his horse not bothering to stop and rest. He left his horse at the end of the road leading to Jung’s residence and walked, wondering if she still loved him after all that had happened, and luck be upon him that day, she was outside, hands busy doing something he did not care to look at carefully.

His eyes were all over her. He noticed how the dark circles underneath her eyes highlighted how pale she was. She looked thin, fragile. His heart broke for her. He moved closer, at the same time she looked up directly to him. He paused when he saw a smile broke on her face. She still loves me. She stood up, slowly revealing her protruding belly and that made him took a step back. A child? With Jung?

He turned on his back quickly leaving her behind. He heard her chasing after him, calling, pleading for him but he made no effort to slow down his pace. She left me. She has truly left me. He rode his horse, intending to leave everything, every single memory of her behind. He took one last look at her, running towards him and he remembered yelling at her to stop because of her injured knees when suddenly she stumbled forward to the ground. Everything stood still for a second. She was on all fours, grimacing in pain. He leapt from his horse, running to her, carrying her back to the house and it was all blur afterward. He recalled people bustling all over the place, few busy shouting for the midwife, Jung looking at him, eyes filled with hatred yelling “It’s your child she’s carrying you bastard!”

Jung’s words kept droning in his mind, dipped in frustration, covering him with regret so potent he felt disgusted yet with it came an understanding- a crystal clear reasoning that explained everything that went wrong with their relationship. She wanted a way out, to save their child. He sat with her throughout the unthinkable pain of birth, his worry and guilt intensified with each wave of contraction. He held Soo’s hand tightly. The labour was long, but he was told it was normal for first time mothers.

He wiped her sweat gently, whispering to her how he would make things right, how he would never let her, and their child go again. Hours went by and with a loud cry from Soo, finally a small baby girl made her entrance in this world. So was elated, his smile reaching his ears, but the mood was sombre.

It was too quiet.

“A girl your majesty, but…” the midwife’s sentence left hanging in the air.

“Something is wrong…” Hae Soo moaned in pain. “She’s not crying…she’s not breathing, isn’t she? My child…give her to me…” she spoke in rush, pain be damned as she was trying to lift herself up before So helped her sit with his support. The still child was passed to Soo while the midwife tried to stop the bleeding.

Broken was too inadequate a word to describe what So and Soo were feeling. A perfect child, a sweet, sweet child leaving behind her parents too soon. The child was still pink, with round cheeks and plump small lips. Tiny fingers, tinier toes. She was perfect. Hae Soo marvelled over this small being. She did not have much hair, just small tufts of them as black as coal scattered all over her head. She looked like an old man losing his hair. Soo chuckled. Looking at their child, eyes closed, she looked as if she was just taking a short nap instead of forever. She placed her hand on her child’s chest. Stillness. The realization that her child was indeed gone hit her hard. Soo was crying her eyes out. She left the palace to give their child a chance to live. To live.

So caressed his child’s cheek, staring in awe of the magnificent gift taken too soon in front him. He had never come across a soul so young and so endearing. Mine. “Wake up little one. Please….” So begged in between his sobs, gripping Soo’s shoulder a bit tighter, his chin placed on her shoulder, both wrecked in sobs, grieving for the angel they had lost.

“Your majesty, my lady, the bleeding won’t stop…” stammered the midwife, hands bloodied, forehead already on the floor fearing for her life.

So’s back stiffened by the news, emotions meld together producing the worst of all-rage. Am I losing both today? But before he managed to speak, Soo put her hand on his, looking at him directly before she addressed the midwife frozen from fear.

“Leave us be and fear not for your life. Let the fourteenth prince know that I am thankful. Leave us.” Soo spoke slowly in a strained manner, the physical pain finally weaving its way to match the emotional wreck inside her.

“So…”

She only called him that in their intimate moments together. She treasured the name so much she refused to address him so freely with it despite being reprimanded by him countless time over it. He responded by slowly pulling her closer to him, rearranging their position and placing her cautiously on his lap. Her hands were clutching their dead child, her body was turning cold with time and So enveloped his little family in his arms.

“Please don’t go…please stay Soo…don't leave me” his voice broke as he pleaded her. He rested his forehead against hers, tears mingle together while gently rocking her body.

“I don’t want to go…” She cried earnestly, voice laden with grief interlaced with sobs that shook her body. “Forgive me Soo. I failed to protect you. I have failed to protect our child.”

His apology brought up a distant memory of them at which she pulled his face to see him, wiped his tears and with a soft smile she said, “What should we named her? I like to name her Seol”

“As pure as snow. Wang Seol. A beautiful name Soo. I love it” He held their daughter’s hand. So tiny. “I know. It just came up in my mind.” She stifled her sobs. “Forgive me. Forgive me for leaving you behind. I thought this was the best course for our child, but I see it brought us so much pain being far from one another. You are losing weight…are you not eating well?” with her life coming to an end, still, she worried for him.She brought his hand to her lips, kissing it softly. Her breath was laboured by now, far in between yet her heart pounded harder, frantic at the thought of having to stop beating.

“Please Soo…. stay, and I’ll be just fine. I need you. Don’t you dare leave me again...” His thumb stroked her cheek as he stared into her eyes, silently begging the deity to give them a second chance together. She swallowed hard, knowing that her time was almost up. She looked at him, their hands clasped together, and she whispered,

“I love you with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life, and if God chooses, I shall but love you better after death.”

With one last reassuring smile, she left him. Her hand lost its grip, yet he held on tightly. His cries pierced the night and that night, Wang So died too.

____________________

 

Gwangjong shook his head, clearing his mind from the sharp pain the memory brought. “I’m retiring for the night.” He stood up and realized how stifled he felt donning the heavy robe. Ji Mong realized the king’s discomfort and quickly came up with a suggestion.

“Perhaps it would not be so bad an idea to stop by Damiwon and take a refreshing bath before you retire for the night Your Majesty? The heat is indeed suffocating tonight.” There was an edge to his voice, as if he was concealing something.

“Perhaps.” The king sighed, his fingers massaging his throbbing temple.

“I will go ahead and let them prepare. Would you prefer to be left alone afterward Your Majesty?”

“Sure.”

Ji Mong walked briskly heading to the door before he stopped short and turned to the king.

“What is it Ji Mong? What now?” The king’s voiced out his irritation.

“Be gentle with her.” The astronomer pleaded to the king.

“I am not going to the Queen or her child,” Gwangjong spoke through his teeth. He had never shown any signs of love or respect to the woman. It was a known fact to the palace. A hushed secret that everyone shared. They were just playing their parts as a king and a queen to protect what needed to be protected- for him, the country, for her, her position.

“I know Your Majesty.” He spoke too quickly, all while giving him a knowing look before he left abruptly, not giving the king a chance to ask more.

____________________

The water was calling for him. He felt calm surrounded by the night, with only moon illuminating the pool. He shook off his robe, leaving it pooling on the floor. He untied his inner clothes, feeling the cold wind lapping on his bare chest. He left his hair up, secured by the golden rising phoenix hair pin. He took a step, entering the water, watching the water hugging him as he moved deeper to the centre of the pool.

He cupped a handful of water and washed his face, now naked, his scar no longer concealed. He revelled in the stillness of the night, before a silhouette emerged so sudden in front of him, forcing him to take a step back. Assassin?

Not wasting a moment, he leapt forward, one hand already grasping the silhouette’s neck, pulling the body forward. “Who sent you?” he gritted his teeth while tightening his hold. As he moved closer, diminishing any distance between him and the assassin, he looked at his attacker closely, a flash of recognition appeared on his face. He recognized that face. Even in his sleep he recognized those eyes, that nose, those lips. He loosened his deadly grip, both hands moved down to the figure’s swaying shoulder. Doubt flooding him as he breath out a name, “Soo…?”

He lifted his hand, fingers shaking from the realization. Is this truly happening? He needed to confirm this. He pushed back her hair that had been covering the right side of her face. A scar mirroring his.

By right, I should have one on my face, just like yours but on the other side.

That sentence echoed loudly in his mind. He gave out a nervous smile, not believing yet welcoming what fate had blessed him with. He cupped her precious face gently. “No.” he corrected himself. “Ha Jin.”

He pulled her to his chest, his hands around her before he realized that her back was bare. Blood? At the sight of this his eyes travelled all over her. Her clothes clung to her skin, revealing a black sash on her chest. He had thought she was wearing a red piece of clothing but upon closer inspection he realized it was the colour of blood. Is this all hers? What kind of hell she had to go through this time to be sent back here?

A new wave of concern and worry overcame him. As he realized that she was shaking, he looked back at her face. She was trying to say something, but it was lodged at the back of her throat.

“Tell me.” He said as he picked her up.

“My mother…he killed her…”

She lost her consciousness.

Chapter Text

There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between.

― Albert Camus

____________________

Ha Jin was struggling. She kept coughing out water that was trapped in her lungs, she felt them burning inside her. She felt the cold wind stinging her bareback. Am I still alive? She stifled back a laugh. Even death does not come easily for her. Not much could be registered before she felt pulled forward – one hand choking the already limited breath out of her. Her hands flew to protect herself, one hand trying to lose the hold while the other tried to choke the one who was slowly denying her the chance to gulp in a breath. She locked her gaze to that person and she was floored. So. Her hands immediately slumped to her side, shoulder swaying and her knees started to buckle. Is this some sort of cruel joke? Too much was going on inside her mind before the recent memory of her mother’s death came back to her. She was sliding down, losing her balance as the grief consumed her. She felt his hands holding her still, his eyes looking at her intently. As his one hand pushed her hair back, his gaze latched on her scar and he called her by her real name- Ha Jin. Yes, I am.

She was pulled to his chest, his hands wrapped around her so tight as if he was trying to put back together with her broken heart. She was conflicted. Is this the best her mind could offer to curb her desperation? To help her cope with losing a mother? Instead of death, she was given a moment with him? She felt his eyes searching for answers too. She whispered the answer to him, and lost her self in the sea of chaos, of undulated grief. She was exhausted beyond reason.

He carried her out of the pool, covering her with his own robe. He was desperately trying to come out with a plan, on how best to manage this situation. Where could he take her without people witnessing it and see her as a threat to be removed, as a pawn to be manipulated? He vowed to fiercely protect her this time, and by protection, she had to remain his secret. At least for now. He hugged her, constantly touching her out of his own inability to process what was happening, out of his own needs to believe that she was real, she was here with him. He heard footsteps and he moved to carry her away before a familiar face appeared.

“Ji Mong.”

Ji Mong, despite knowing beforehand of her arrival, nothing had prepared him to see how broken she was. Poor child, he thought to himself. “I’ve prepared everything needed in the small residence by Lake Dong Ji. Quickly Your Majesty.”

So carried her at his back, tying the sleeves of his own robe around him to secure her. They moved as quickly as possible, dodging any guards that were loyal to their task at hand.

They arrived safely, and Ji Mong opened the door, letting the king and Ha Jin inside. “This is the most I can do for you both tonight. Help her Your Majesty. I will deviate others from looking for you.”

“Thank you, Ji Mong.”

"Second chance is rare Your Majesty. Seize it and never let go.”

____________________

So carried Ha Jin inside, slowly transferring her to the mattress. She was shivering from the cold. He had to change her soaking wet clothes to avoid her from falling sick. He hesitated, but her pressing needs to be attended quickly, for her injuries to be treated soon won over his hesitation. He struggled with her shirt’s button and as he moved it over her right shoulder, that was when he noticed her scar as wide as his three fingers. His eyes widened at this discovery and he knew he was about to discover more.

He peeled off her clothes that was soaked with water and blood and toss it aside. He struggled to remove the black piece of clothing over her chest and tried to look away, but his eyes caught another sight of scars. He counted them, four on one side, and three at the other side. His own scars were nothing compared to hers. How much must you go through each time in order to find me?

He slowly lifted her up and put her face down on the mattress to treat her wounds at her back. Few gashes, nothing too deep. He applied the readily prepared concoction on her back before he dressed her wounds with bandages. There were bruises all over her body and he could not help himself from feeling worthless at his inability to stop her from being hurt physically. What happened to you this time my love? Who would have the audacity to hurt you this way?

Ji Mong had brought So’s own clothes to be worn by her. Carefully, he changed her into his clothes. As he put her right hand into the sleeve, he realized that what used to be a scar on her wrist had been replaced with a delicate painting – of lines that moved up and down similar to mountains, and above it, a small family of wolves. Chasing one another. At this sight, he could no longer contain his tears. The years spent missing her, the regrets he bore over the stretching years that he kept to himself finally weighed down on him, choking him. He traced the beautiful, simplistic yet heart-wrenching painting and placed a kiss on her wrist before he put it down.

He finished changing her clothes and he pursed his lips at the discovery of a dagger stained with blood. He cleaned it before he placed it in a drawer. He knew he had loved the same woman. Nothing had changed, not him, not her. Yet the dagger gave him a glimpse to a life without him and to be honest, he was curious. She was a fighter, that much he knew. But to imagine her small physique actively involved in a physical combat was unimaginable.

He turned back to her, now watching her face lost in slumber before he moved to dry her hair. Her hair was different from his memories of her. It was not as long as he remembered, and it had different color too back then, as compared to now -reddish brown, a color he had never seen anyone possess. As he pulled her hair to one side, gently drying it using a fresh piece of cloth, he found yet another token of their time together, hanging by her ear - of lotus, and butterfly and scattered peonies buds. He touched the piece carefully, observing this token she had tried to replicate even in her own reality. It must have been so hard for you. I should know, it is hard for me too.

Once he was done, he took all her pieces of clothing outside and set them on fire. He was reminded of how her written words using foreign characters to this era was used against her. He would not allow that to happen again.

____________________

He sat down, his own body weary from a long day. He found comfort in watching the steady rise and fall of her breath. The last time he saw her, she had died in his own arms. It was a relief, even more than that – a blessing, to be able to see her breathing again. To be able to see her again. He laid himself down next to her, leaving a respectable gap between their bodies – a no man’s land, his eyes never leaving her face.

She was sleeping but he could sense nightmares on the horizon from the way her body stirred. He understood because he had them too every night he dared to close his eyes. The memories would haunt him too. But he welcomed them no matter how bitter it left him feeling as dawn approached. It was a reminder of their time together, that it was real and not a figment of his imagination.

He closed his eyes as he started to replay the words he had heard from her. My mother…he killed her. He wondered who was he that she was referring to, his best guess would be the same man whose violent acts send her to his time in the first place. He heard her muttering unintelligibly in her sleep. His hand sought after hers, clasping it, fingers interlaced, sending her a message that she was not alone this time. I am here.

____________________

The sound of a whimpering man woke her up from her sleep. She sat up, groggy from her sleep and looked around the dark room. She tried to recall what had happened but drew a blank. Nothing, yet she felt a hole gnawing within her, the same feeling she had when she realized her lover and her child were gone. She looked to her side and saw him. Her So. That really snapped her to full consciousness. Her brows furrowed as she wondered if she had unlocked a new level of interactive nightmares. He looks so real.

She crawled closer, her own heart was swelling with too many feelings one can deal at a time. It was really him. His scrunched-up eyebrows whenever he had a nightmare, it was the same. She recognized that. His scar was the same as she extended her fingers to gently trace it. How many times had she envision it inside her own minds? This was too much and yet not enough. She smiled despite of her tears as she threw her cautions to the wind and decided that she did not mind this kind of nightmare at all. I take whatever I can get away with.

She watched him struggled in his sleep and she remembered how he used to have nightmares even way before their relationship ended. She knew from her own experience nothing well would come from waking up a person who was having a bad dream. The confusion would turn sour and spoil the whole day. The best thing to do was to coax them, slowly, as if one is entering the dream together, to let the person know that he is not alone. She lied down next to him, pull him closer to her chest and sing a lullaby-like her mother always do whenever she had nightmares.

Lavender's green, dilly dilly,
Lavender's blue
If you love me, dilly dilly,
I will love you

He stirred in his sleep as if he was startled by her voice, yet his eyes remain closed. She rubbed his shoulder gently, shushing him back to sleep before she continued. 

Let the birds sing, dilly dilly,
Let the lambs play,
We shall be safe, dilly dilly,
Out of harm's way.

His face relaxed as he snuggled closer to her chest. She smiled and spoke to his sleeping form, “This is by far the best dream I have ever had so far.”

She kissed his forehead and closed her eyes too.

____________________

The court was filled with exclamations, of congratulations to the king on the additional member of royal family. The king faked a laugh, a respond he thought fitting as he took his seat. He locked his gaze with Ji Mong and nodded curtly, signalling that he wanted this meeting to be brief. As he listened absent-mindedly to the commotions, he heard one voice, drowning the others. It was Wang Gyu, one of the most powerful influence in the royal court.

“It was indeed a wonderful addition, but another son would have created a stronger foundation for our nation. Look at our late King Taejo, blessed by the heavens with 20 sons! May we too be blessed with another addition in near future.” His smile was nonchalant as he addressed the king.

The King had learnt many things over the years. Different ways to handle the constant jabs by the court officials and most importantly, how delicate the games of politic were. Politics were everything- but never clean. It was filthy. He too had honed his skills in repaying offensive dialogues. He returned the smile of the offender before he offered a reply.

“How are the cattle’s this time around Lord Wang Gyu? Profiting?” the King gestured for him to move forward.

“It is a blessing Your Majesty. The heavens have indeed smile upon us all.” He laughed, clearly not seeing where this simple question was heading.

“I am intrigued. Tell me and all of us who are not familiar with cattle’s breeding. When a good quality bull can no longer produced healthy calves, what should one do with it?” The king sneered, setting his trap carefully.

“In our farm, we simply slaughter it Your Majesty. It has no more use, therefore there is no need for it be kept around.” Lord Wang Gyu waived his hand dismissively, clinching the trap.

“Do you take me as one of your bulls Lord Wang Gyu?” A smile plastered on his face, the king looked directly at his prey.

“Pardon me Your Majesty?” He stammered, trying to backtrack and examining his own reply a tad too late.

The King was more than happy to repeat himself. Louder and clearer. “I said, do you take me as one of your bulls Lord Wang Gyu? The moment when I am no longer able to produce an heir and countless spares, I too, should be slaughtered?”

At this the lord had realized he had trapped himself by speaking carelessly. He quickly knelt in front of the king exclaiming, “Forgive me Your Majesty! I did not intend such meaning with my inconsiderate thought. Forgive me Your Majesty!”

The King continued to speak as he rose to his feet and addressed everyone in the room. He kept his smile on his face throughout. That, he learned, could instilled much deeper-rooted fear as opposed to yelling. “Should I, the King of this nation provide enough puppets? One for each clan perhaps?” He stared at each face in front of him, putting emphasize in each word. “So that each clan would have its own hostage? Isn’t that what all of you wish for?”

Every single noble man of the court fell to the ground. They now realized all of them shared the same fate, of having to tip toe around the king. One falsely delivered sentence could sentence all of them to death.

“Forgive us all Your Majesty!”

“Careful with your words when you are here. Words are sharper than sword’s blade. Sharp enough to cost you your heads.”

____________________

The second time she was awake, it was from being dragged out by two strangers before she was pushed unceremoniously to the ground. Her eyes squinted by the sudden glare of the sun and as she managed to adjust herself to the brightness, she first caught the sight of the feet of someone’s chima, the exquisite colour of purple. Her gaze roam upward as she finally saw the face of Yeon Hwa, glaring at her.

Ha Jin’s first reaction was to scoff and rolled her eyes as dramatic as possible. I knew yesterday’s dream was too good to be true. Now my own mind is trying to even out the joy from last night by spitting out a nightmare in the form of someone I loathe. She decided to play along with her imagination. Honestly, how many times exactly she had imagined an encounter with Yeon Hwa and promising herself that she will not hold herself back? Numerous scenes she had directed in her own mind where Yeon Hwa was involved – the things that she was too powerless to say back then she would spit it out this time. In this land of my imagination, I will win – no question asked.

“How dare you wear the king’s clothes? You insolent wench!” The queen was shaking in anger as she took in Ha Jin’s overall appearance.

“This?” She looked down for the first time, taking a good look at her own body. That’s odd. Was I not wearing a white button down and pants? Ahhh, Ha Jin, this is a nightmare remember? She pulled the loose piece of clothing suggestively to cover her bare shoulder. She took her time in pretending to attempt to cover the mess of her hair as she smiled slyly to the queen.

“A wench? Yes, I am the king’s wench and who are you again?”

The queen nodded to her servants and a senior court lady emerged and slapped Ha Jin on the queen’s behalf. Ha Jin took a moment too long to register the pain coming from the slap. The pain brought to her an awareness that this, whatever this is, it was not a dream. It is real but how? She pushed that thought away because that conclusion was near impossible. She looked straight at the senior court lady and informed her as calmly as she could as her own mind was busy trying to make sense of this discovery. I am in Goryeo? Again? “

With all due respect court lady, touch me one more time and I will break your hand.” She then turned her attention to the queen herself, stood up and bowed down just enough.

“Your majesty, next time, have the courage to administer the punishment yourself. You used to at least have some dignity when you whipped me before in the eight’s prince residence. Or had the palace life soften you that much? And for me having the audacity of wearing the king’s clothes, she moved closer to the queen as she whispered to her ears. “Have we not agreed to this arrangement before? Of me taking care of the king’s needs while you sit prettily playing your part as queen? Have you forgotten that day you came into my room and announce to me, how you are Hwangbo of Hwangju, the daughter of the late king Taejo himself? How you have the power to protect the king while I could only offer comfort?”

At this, the Queen took a step back, her face was plastered with disbelief as she took a good look at this woman in front of her. She looked the same, yet there was fire in her actions, in the way she stood, in the way she delivered her words. She looked… lethal.

“Hae Soo?” she stammered. “No, it can’t be. You are dead. It has been 5 years!” her mouth gaped in horror as she spoke the words too quickly

Ha Jin decided she had said enough for now. She remained to stand, staring at the queen, neither denying or offering other explanation. The queen turned paler by the second and she turned around, leaving the ghost of Hae Soo behind.

Ha JIn followed the small procession moving further away, crossing the bridge that connected the small residence to the main path by the lake. As soon as they disappear she crouched down, closed her eyes and counted to hundred.

“98, 99 100…” She took a deep breath, fists clenched tightly as she forced herself to open her eyes. She looked around and she confirmed to herself, “I am not dreaming. This is really, really happening.” She claimed loudly to herself.

Her mind was spinning with myriad of explanations before she lost it. She was pacing in the yard, trying to make sense of everything. She entered the house, eyes searching for something, anything that could explained this bizarre change. She rummaged through the drawers. The first drawer offered her own dagger. She took it out. “This is mine, it does not belong in this era. So I must have brought this here. Somehow. But what happened this time?”

Second drawer presented her with envelopes upon envelopes of familiar handwriting. It was hers. Every letter she had sent for the king, stored neatly. She drew in a long breath at this discovery. She opened another drawer and found a paper wolf lying in a box. Old and worn out, looking very fragile due to its age. Has it really been 5 years? The queen said I have been dead for 5 years.

She opened another drawer and found her hairpin. She was shaking by now, as she forced the drawer closed with unnecessary force, a green jade urn almost toppled over her before she managed to steady it with her hands. At the sight of it, she stopped moving. She braved herself to hold the beautiful urn and lifted the lid. She gasped. The fact that this urn was kept together, in the same place she found her belongings could only mean one thing. This was her own remains. She was holding herself.

She banged her head softly against the drawers, willing her mind to fill in the gaps. I want to remember. I need to remember. This part of her life, the life in Goryeo, she remembered it all. But she drew a blank as to what exactly had happened directly before she came here. She recalled waking up from the coma yet there was a lost gap in her memories. Her frustration grew with each failed attempt to connect the dots.

While she was begging for her mind to allow her access to all her memories, she did not realize how the door opened behind her, So letting himself in before he carefully closed the door. He himself was stalling. He practically ran to her yet when he saw her, just mere feet from him he was rendered clueless. He was elated, sure, but to see someone rising from the dead, to have this kind of second chance was unthinkable therefore he was not sure how to address it.

He sat down, not too close to her before he called her name softly.

“Ha Jin.”

At the sound of his voice, she stopped and straighten her back, hands putting the urn back to where it belonged. If this is not a dream, he must be real too, isn’t it? She felt her palms turned clammy, her own heart lodged in her throat, and she dared herself to turn to this voice she had yearned relentlessly.

“So?”

He smiled. The purest smile she had ever seen on him. So pure he glowed from it. She cracked a small smile tainted with disbelief as she whispered his name again.

“So.”

They reached out for each other, just enough to hold hands, close enough to look at each other clearly. For her to realize the years forming visible lines on his face. For him to trace her scar mirroring his. They marvelled in each other’s presence, the wandering pieces had finally come home to let them be whole again.

“It is really you…” she laughed in between her sobs. “I’m not dreaming, am I? Tell me I am not dreaming.”

“I’ll show you. May I?” he stared at her earnestly, eyes filled with longing.

She gave a curt nod as she wiped her tears when suddenly he pulled her closer, his eyes locked on hers as his lips descended to hers. It was slow, yet it burned with such intensity it rivalled the sun itself. His lips parted, begging her to let him taste her. She moaned as she moved closer to him – they had been parted too far, for too long. The kiss was necessary, to weld the two lost souls together, binding them forever.

 

Chapter Text

I love you in the morning.

And in the afternoon.

 I love you in the evening.

And underneath the moon.

 -  A mother’s lullaby to her daughter

____________________

 

The kiss lasted long enough to assure them both that they were really, truly together in flesh. She pulled back, and a certain shyness crept in. She hid her blush, hands busy rearranging her messy hair. He faked a cough, his eyes fixated on the floor. She could see that he was feeling the same thing. They were both shy and nervous about this reunion.

She was about to say something, the same moment he opened his mouth. Realizing that the other was about to speak, they both kept quiet and motioned for one another to go first.

Silence.

“How long has it been for you?” at the end, she decided to go with the simplest question. No declaration of love or longing, a simple question of - how many years you have endured without me?

“5 years. How long has it been for you?” he returned the question to her.

“Just one. The longest one year of my existence.”

“Is it painful? Still...?” He was stating the obvious because he too had gone through that.

“Not anymore when you are here.” She breathed in a sense of relief into herself.

“What happened Ha Jin?”

Upon hearing that question she was reminded of her struggle to have a firm hold of her memories. “That’s the problem. I could not remember.” She stood up, motioning for So to follow her outside. So took her hand in his, holding it tightly, “Is this too much for now? I’m afraid I’m being selfish, but I need this.” he said as he brought her hand to his lips.

“I need it too.” She admitted this to him.

They sat next to one another, embracing the breezy day, looking out to the sparkling lake. It was a beautiful day indeed. Fitting for a reunion. Ha Jin was smiling, clearly at loss of her own mother’s death. So taken in her calm state, feeling guilty of even thinking to break the news to her.

He was arguing with himself. On one hand, he did not wish to take advantage of her memory loss. It would be immoral for him, an insult to their relationship should he choose to cover the secret she had told him before she lost her consciousness. Haven’t they once promised not to lie to one another? But this would not be lying, just not telling. On the other hand, is it really the best thing for her to be reminded of yet another fatal loss? Ha Jin never said a thing about her mother before, but at nights, when her body was lulled by sleep, her lips betrayed her countless time, calling for her mother repeatedly. He knew she missed her then. That much he was sure of. The argument was halted as Ha Jin cleared her throat.

“I remember waking up, after – “at this, she paused herself and took a quick glance at him before he continued, “after I took my last breath.” She felt his grasp tighten and she softly caressed his hand. “I can recall what happened after that, yet the event that leads up to me being here with you is lost. Something must have happened, wouldn’t it? The same way I was almost killed before? Do you think something worst had happened?” She turned to look at him clearly, her eyes laden with worry.  

Oh, my poor love… He decided that she deserved to know. This was not his secret to be kept hidden in the first place. Surely the best way is not to throw it in her face, is it? So, he decided to guide her slowly in uncovering the loss, by asking the right question to steer her closer to the painful yet necessary truth.

 “Start small Ha Jin. Trace your day back.”

“Do you know in my time, our daughter turned one yesterday?” a melancholic smile formed albeit just for a tiny moment. “I went to the city to celebrate it. With you and our Seoul. We ate cake, we had balloons and we played in the park.”

“We…?”

“I, erm... I imagined both of you, in my mind, spending her special day together.” Tried as hard as she might to hide her pain, to waive it away as if it was nothing yet he saw right through her act.

“Ha Jin…” he called her gently as he rubbed circles on her shoulder.

“What happened next?”

Ha Jin stepped down, pacing back and forth barefoot, really trying to reel in new clues.

“I remembered heading back to my home, and the house was dark, and I entered anyway…” She ran her fingers through her hair in frustration.

So was alarmed with the sight in front of him. He stood up, walked closer to her. “And…?” he urged her, cautiously, preparing himself for whatever the outcomes might be.

She sighed loud enough, breathing out her frustration. She looked up to the sky before her focus fell to the branches of the biggest tree shadowing the house itself. Such a magnificent being on its own, living long enough to witness the changes in the palace yet remain rooted as the only constant in life within this compound. It moved together with the wind, leaves rustling, as if it was dancing – the symphony of nature’s put together. The sturdy branches were swaying…the movement beckoned her to come closer, her heart beating faster, her mind bringing forward the image of a body, swaying, a noose around her neck.

“No…no…no…” she whimpered, repeating the same denial over and over again. Everything came in a rush, flooding her with details. Her mother’s beaten body, the gash on her head, of Jin Hyuk and his disgusting laughter, of Jin Hyuk and his leaking chest - her first kill, of the cliff and the leap that sent her back. Wave upon wave of pain rolled into one strong enough to punch the air out of her and once again she felt as if she was drowning. The pain pounded repeatedly demanding access to the deepest part of herself.

 She remembered everything, nothing amiss and the pain became too much to bear, she hugged herself tight to keep the broken pieces together as she crumpled to the ground. Her forehead found the ground and she screamed. She screamed for her mother, for another loss, yet again, too far, out of her reach.

So thought he was prepared but when he saw her, being cornered by the cruelty of fate, he faltered. Of the same fate that dictated - to gain something, you must offer something in return. To come here, she had to lose her mother, and maybe, this time around, herself. He had never seen her so broken. She that he knew was always a woman of her own agency. Her tears he had witnessed many times, yet she never bowed down to grief even in her last breath. But seeing her like this, made him feel so hopeless. So knelt next to her, tried to pull her up but to no avail.

“Ha Jin, I’m here for you. Come here…” he urged her to lift her head up, coaxing her with kind words. He himself was at a loss because it was always her that comforted him, when he killed Yo, when the court pushed him to marry someone with power- she had always managed to offer him an understanding that put him at ease. Now, when the table finally turned around it caught him off guard.

“Tell me what I should do Ha Jin.” He pleaded. She was still firm, fixed in such position, her voice calling out for her mother. He wanted to lift her up and bring her inside, to do something, anything at this point. As he put his arms around her, she stood up so sudden, distancing herself from him, hands balling tightly by her side, not looking at him. The expression that she wore on her face frightened him. It was vacant.

“No. Give me three days. Come back at the fourth. I need to mourn her alone.” Her guard was up. A wall forming with him on the other side.

____________________

He left her, after hours waiting outside the door, pleading for her to let him in. She stayed silent throughout. He mulled over it on his way back to Changdeokjun. Ha Jin being here stirred up the part of him he thought had been dead for 5 years. He is Wang So once again. He basked in this realization and in the same time he was worried still about her. When she left him previously, at least he had the responsibilities as a king to steer him away from the thoughts of following her.

She had chosen to wallow in her grief on her own. But he had to have faith in her, in their relationship – that no one would leave to hurt. He left her at one point, to save her from Yo’s grip. She left him later, to save their child. If keeping distance holds the ability to save one another, even when the chances were slim, he would take it. He had experienced life without her and it was bleak. He could give her three days. That much he could.

____________________

Day 1

Was spent replaying each scene in clarity. Eyes closed, blinding herself from the world and dived straight into a repertoire of memories of her mother from the very beginning to the end. Filled with the sorrow of beautiful memories, of the pretty smiles mother used to wear on her face, how her face lighted up whenever she saw her child as if her child was an angel when she was far from it. Laughter they shared together, pillow talks they used to have with one another. Her mother only had her, and she only had her mother. When she saw how beautiful her mother was in her mind, very much alive, it was easier to deny her loss.

Day 2

Was filled with torment and madness fury because it had finally sunk in – her mother was never here in this world with her, and her mother had also left the very one alternate reality she knew. The second day was filled with the realization that she had truly left her, and she was mad at her, mad at him, mad at her lover, mad at everyone. It was filled with ifs and only and despite knowing that two combinations were filled with spites and regrets she welcomed them, sinking herself deeper into firm grip of fiery wrath. The rage-fuelled her, and she picked up stones and threw it across the lake, fingers bleeding from clawing the rough rocks. Blood, a dark offering for her mother. The only thing truly hers at this time. And tears by the end of the day. With water pooling around her knees, she finally shed tears for her mother. The same undulating grief she was so familiar with. 

Day 3

Was the day spent building prayer tower for her mother. Built one and tore it down again. Built another, knowing the fact that this was her way to honor her and demolished it - refusing to have a reminder of how alone she truly felt. Again, and again, her fingers bleeding raw from stacking and restacking. With each stone stacked, she felt an agonizing pain in her chest, but she kept on stacking, sending her mother prayers. Finally, she had one, worthy enough to be visited by wandering souls.  She dusted herself before she put her two hands together and bowed down. Forgive me mother, for the unnecessary pain I inflicted on you. Forgive me mother for jumping off the cliff, eager was I to join you in the afterlife. Forgive this foolish daughter of yours who had refused to share her pain with you.

I truly love you.

I am missing you.

When can I see you again?

 

 

The sharp pain had turned dull, throbbing incessantly yet bearable. Ha Jin cleaned herself up, taking a much-needed bath before finally putting on a fresh pair of clothes. She considered putting on So’s clothes that she found after she rummaged through the cupboards instead of the ones he sent for her but due to her small physique the clothes looked ridiculous on her. She sighed and peeled off the light layers before she returned to the daunting layers upon layers of women clothing in this era. After she was done tying her hair, she picked up the table laden with food, sent for her on daily basis but never once was touched by her, and brought it in front of her mother’s prayer tower. She sat down and finished her dinner. If she wanted to really honor her mother, it would be best if she took a good care of herself.

She wanted to take a walk, but she was also waiting for him. She weighed her options before she left. A walk around the lake might help to clear her minds, fully adjusting herself before meeting him.

Ha Jin took her time, strolling through the forgotten compound, never once she thought she would walk on the same path again. At the sight of guards, she quickly hid, blending herself with the darkness. She was content now. She had grieved and welcomed the pain as part of her. Her eyes heavy, begging for some decent rest. Without realizing it, she had circled back to her starting point. She looked around, wondering if she was lucky enough to be graced with his presence tonight.

She was lucky indeed. He was standing there, waiting for her. His eyes drank in the sight of her, in her soft blue attire, her hair blazing with the color of fire and for a moment, it looked as if she was wearing the wedding attire of a queen – of blue and red. How fitting.  

She smiled as she walked closer to him. Without missing a beat, she weaved her arms around his neck and he returned the embrace with equal fervor, his hands around her small waist, lifting her up.

 “Thank you. For giving me space and time to be alone.” She rested her forehead against his and exhaled her weariness slowly.

He was relieved to see that smile once again. He put her down, holding her hand and gestured towards a box filled with candles. “I thought we could light up candles by your new prayer tower. A candle for each year she had lived.”

Ha Jin was touched. She told him that this was her own pain to grieve, she pushed him away, yet he still wanted to share her pain. How I wished I had told my mother about you.

They lighted 45 candles for her. She shared her fondest memories of her with him. He looked at her and he smiled as he listened to what a loving mother is capable of – a stark contrast to his own. He did not envy her. If there was anyone here deserved to be loved that much, it was his Ha Jin. His selfless lover, that sacrificed so much for others.

“You are loved by your mother Ha Jin.” He touched her earpiece, her mother’s last gift that fate allowed her to keep with her; his touch was so soft it felt as light as butterfly’s wings. She looked at him thoughtfully before she sought another candle, placed it towering among others and took his hands to light it up together with her. She put her palm together, closed her eyes as she said her prayer, loud enough for him to hear.

“I wish with all I have to offer, that upon my lover’s reincarnation, may he be blessed with a loving mother. One who will spend her days reminding him of her love and may he feel loved, the same way my mother made me feel loved.”

He was touched by her sincere wish it rendered him speechless. She opened her eyes, and took his hands yet again, pulling him to the house, their home now.

“Will you stay with me tonight?”

She needed not to ask him twice.

 ____________________

As the night went on, hushed questions were exchanged between them filling them in with knowledge about one another as they coped with their losses. It was tinged with hesitation from her part at first – she doubted she was coping well but she answered nevertheless. He too offered her answers. A truth that she preferred to hear from him, of the children the queen bore for him. Her stomach knotted at the revelation of this, her heart filled with envy, she gritted her teeth and swallowed the pain whole. Her hands fluttered over her own belly, wondering. He noticed this and hugged her tighter. But she waived it off – what’s done is done, and children are holy gifts, even when they are part of someone vile.

She asked him if he has any other question he wished to ask. She had shared everything, even the part when she found her mother’s body.

“Did he kill you too?

“No.”

“But your wounds and your bruises?”

“I jumped off a cliff…” She admitted, not looking at his face. She knew him. She remembered how he had reacted before when she slit her wrist but back then with no intention to die - the jump aimed for just that. She lifted herself up and blew the lonely candle that had tried its best to illuminate the room.

Darkness engulfed them, and she whispered.

“…after I killed him.”

The confession unveiled another side of Ha Jin he had never thought she was capable of. He remembered Ji Mong describing her as a good fighter. He did not doubt it; he did remember few unfiltered moments where he could see fire within her – her fight with Eun, her attempt to save Jung, her choice in staying true even under torture, her last-minute effort to aid him in killing Yo. But to actually kill someone is not an easy feat and the dead will find its way to stay with you.  Could it be that the remorse she was feeling compelled her to be alone to bear the weight of her action?

He understood pain because he was forged from it. Pain forces one to do so much, and when it overwhelms you, it hums the tune of death constantly at the back of your mind. Death, be it yours or others. On that fateful night, she chose both. He lighted the candle despite her protests. He extended his hand, reaching out for her.

She was waiting with baited breath, whether this revelation would alter his feelings for her, dooming their relationship. He sensed her uneasiness and pulled her closer.

“Are you feeling remorseful? Is this what keeps you up at night?” He traced the darkness beneath her eyes. She leaned closer to his touch.

“I actually don’t. He deserved it.”

“You avenged your mother’s death. That is an honorable thing to do. I may not possess an eloquence when it comes to words, but I learned the truth of life the hard way. One thing I am very sure of is, you and I and all creatures that roam this reality, we are all children of circumstances. The decision we made when cornered to a dead end is never wrong, it is what necessary, it is the best we can do when presented with such situation. We do what we have, to survive.”

She released the breath she had not realized she had taken hostage. She did avenge her mother’s death. She was completely free now. Nothing held her back to her own reality. Not her mother, not her murderer. That chapter of her life had truly come to an end. She only had memories of her beloved mother with her. She now had to choose yet again – and she chose to live, once more. This time, with him.

____________________

 

 

 

Chapter Text

I'm not scared, to tell the truth

I've been to hell and back, and I went with you

Remind me what we were before

When we said you are mine and I am yours

 She was singing again. Softly, not a performance for him but he enjoyed it anyway. It was soothing, listening to her singing to herself, her hands' busy folding papers. Not a care in the world. He was busy reading reports, she was busy with her papers, sitting across each other like this was a scenario that they never get to experience before. It was calming, to both as they basked in each other’s presence.

 I don't know much, but I know myself

And I don't want to love anybody else

So let's break the spell and lift the curse

Remember when we fell for each other head first

 Her songs that she carried with her from the future had some charms that hooked him completely. Could it be because the words are so straightforward it makes the song sounds so sincere and pure? Or maybe because it was her? Because it was sung by her? She stole a glance at him every now and then, touching his hand gently, daring him to disappear. It had been a month now yet there were moments where he caught her doubting her own eyesight.

 Look at this heart-shaped wreckage

What have we done?

We've got scars from battles nobody won

We can start over, better

Both of us know if we just let the broken pieces

Let the broken pieces go

 What was I trying to do before she sang? Ahhhh, I was trying to finish this report. He chuckled slightly, gaining her attention. She straightened her back and hold out her enclosed palms toward him. “For you.” He smiled and put his hands underneath hers. “A gift? For me?” She nodded and let it fell onto his waiting hands.

 “A wolf.” She announced. “I see that you still keep the one I gave you years before. This one is for him. He looks lonely.” She returned to her papers, folding another as she asked him a question. “What have you been reading? You took so long to finish it.”

 He placed the wolf on his report and answered her curiosity. “Report on clans who are against my wish to emancipate slaves.”

 “Ohhh…you are the king, should it not be easy?” her eyes set on the task at hands.

 “It is not that easy Ha Jin.” He said slowly, as he moved to another report.

 “Well, it will be hard if you want to execute it in one decree. Break it down to several decrees and it will set the motion for you. Maybe first, impose a tax on the nobles after a certain number of slaves. Give it time, nobles will feel the heat and emancipate their slaves. Second, impose a law that states slaves should receive some amount of payment by their owners to allow them to buy their freedom. With the payments and the tax, most noble would opt to emancipate their slaves since that will release them from the needs to pay tax. When the number of slaves left are small, maybe you can offer to buy them their freedom. Tadaaa, here’s your boat. What happens to the actual boat? Do you row it still?” She finally lifted her head up and picked up the wolf and put it in the paper boat before she smiled proudly.

 Wang So was stunned. He never pegged Ha Jin as someone who showed even a remote interest in how politics work. Yet here she was, discussing it as if she was merely breathing. He was staring in awe at her wondering why he had never seen this part of her before. Ha Jin caught him staring and she shifted in her seat.

 “What? Why?”

 He decided to ignore her question and asked her another. “In your opinion, what would a good king do for his people?”

 She was deep in her thought when presented with such question. What would a good government do for the people? “A good king should offer his people a steady supply of hope and chance.”

 “Hope and chance?”

 “Yes. Hope that people can keep with them to push themselves forward. Hope, knowing that if they work this much, they can get this much in return.” She motioned with her hands. “Chance, that people, regardless of their background can chase after, not just given to the fortunate ones - those who are born in good families. People in general, they don’t care about wars, about expanding powers and what not. If they have a roof over their head, food for every mealtime and medicine when they are sick, they are happy.”

 He was nodding to her words. She is good and wise. A true queen. Even when she couldn’t see it herself. He realized all the time they had spent together were stolen moments, not long enough to get to know each other. They had both at one point left one another, just to let the other survive. He marveled over her, getting to know her was another journey he was more than willing to go through.

 “Ha Jin, what is a king?”

 She pursed her lips as she thought of an answer. She looked at him and wondered what with the questions today? Did I step over a boundary? “Did I offend you somehow? Why so serious?” She allowed herself a nervous laugh since she did realize she had not once referred to him with his title since her second arrival to this place. That, plus the fact she had just offered unsought advice on how he should pursue his interest in governing…would that count as an offense in his book?

 He looked at her fidgeting and offered a comforting smile. “Nothing to be offended off. I love to know your thoughts, it is refreshing. As if I see a glance of the world where you came from.”

 “I assure you it is not all pretty and comforting.” She felt relieved hearing his response. She mulled over her answer thoroughly before she spoke it out loud. “A king is a tree; his people are the roots that hold him steady. So, you must choose, what kind of tree you want to be, one with strong sturdy roots or one with weak fibrous, scheming roots.”

“And how can a king gain sturdy roots?”

“Through the right kind of loyalty. A loyalty that is nurtured through the faith of people to their king, knowing the king cares for them and willing to protect and provide for them. Of course, loyalty can also come from fear, but one cannot go far with such loyalty. It is poisonous, feeble, and easily swayed to a different owner.”

He smiled proudly. “I never see this side of you before. Where did you hide it all this while?” He stood up, walked closer to her before he took his rightful place next to her and pulled her closer.

“I told you I am talented, and you doubted me.” She chided him, referring to the day she watered him instead of the plants. She laughed before she continued. “I live in a world created by the previous rulers’ mistakes and victories. Patterns can be observed if you are aware. I used to be one of those who is in charge to honor the law. I must understand politics, the motivation behind each law. Come to think of it, maybe not all put second thoughts in exercising their power, but I make it my priority to know more.”

She took his hands in hers, comparing the difference in size and said, “We never had the chance before. It was no one’s fault. Now, I want to believe that we have forever.”

“Believe it, we do have forever.”

____________________

“Stop her crying now!” the queen yelled to the court lady that was holding her princess. She scurried closer to the door, the young prince by his sister’s side, wondering what had happened to their mother that causes her to be erratic like this. He was young, about to turn 5 yet he had understood loneliness. He had been deprived of affection from both of his parents and by the looks of it, his sister would eventually learn to keep quiet, just like he did. His father was always away, never visiting him and he was never called to greet his own father, the king. The one time he saw his father was when he kicked his ball and it rolled onto his father’s path and the court ladies quickly pulled him down to bow to his majesty. He did not, and he managed to have a good look at his own father for once.

His expression was too complex for a young child to understand but he too had heard enough from the court ladies to deduce that his father did not approve of him, his mother, and now his sister. His mother, on the other hand, was confusing, to say the least. She used to parade him to others, he heard her boasting about his position but as years went by she grew silent and distant. By then he knew to listen carefully to the hushed exchanges by the court ladies and he heard that the queen was chasing after something that wasn’t hers. It puzzled him, his mother is the queen, shouldn’t everything in the palace belongs to her already? They left the Queen’s quarter, leaving the seething woman entrapped in her own polluted mind.

True, the king kept his promise of making her son his heir, but she could not shake the needs to be someone worthy of his love. She craved it. She was desirable, her beauty could not be contested especially when adorned with finest silk and jewels, how can a man resist from stealing a look? But one man did – her own husband. The husband she gained through manipulative ways, hidden underneath the pretense to have a firm hold of the throne. She was tipped with joy when it was him that she had to marry to be a queen.  She had adored him since they were young. She had sheltered him in ways she was capable off, tending his wounds, offering him food when denied by his own mother. I love him! I protect him!

Over the years she thought she could win his heart, especially after her death but he chose not to let her go. The harder she tried to pull him closer, the stronger he clung to her ashes. She resorted to trickery to win his favors, resulting in the birth of her second child. She thought this could be it, I bore him two healthy children, strengthening his claim to the throne, he will love me! This time he will!

But he did not, and he would not.

The Queen had not been calmed the moment she learned the King spent the same night she was fighting to give birth to another woman. Not just another woman, but a woman she was convinced to be his long-dead lover. The palace had been turned upside down with her trying to find the truth about the other woman. The King’s Wench, she called her. No one knew how she turned up suddenly in the palace, where she was all these while because every single living being in the palace knew of the king’s mourning that leads everyone to believe that she was no longer here with the living. Every maid knew the story of the green jade urn they saw the king carried around when he took a walk around the lake. They all assume the same thing: the king’s lover was dead, and the king was devastated.

But now, she was here again. Few maids had seen a glimpse of her. They all came back shaking, reporting her scar, reporting the hair color and how combined, they gave the witnesses a frightening being staring at them with the intention to kill. The queen spat out another name for her, The Red Wolf. So the name traveled, from lips to lips through harsh whispers, each time traveling with new lies folded around it, frightening not only those inside the palace but outside the gate too.

Beware of The Red Wolf,

Prowling the night,

Run oh run,

Stay out of her sight,

Hide oh hide,

Or be torn out of spite.

 ____________________

There were nights, very far in between, where So would be away with discreet meetings with those he trusted. There were also nights where he would sail to oblivion with no regards to his surroundings, after a long, demanding day. Those were the nights Ha Jin would be away from the lake. She learned to be very discreet when it came to wandering around the palace ground. She put on a man’s clothes, light, as it eases her movements and disguised her. She roamed the ground, thankful for the lack of witnesses and enjoyed the small form of freedom she could get away with.

Tonight, she took the same turn, to a place she had never been before when she was a court lady. It was the nursery for the king’s children. When she was here as court lady herself, this part of the palace was vacant – now it was occupied by two young souls it seemed. She did not understand why she felt the need to torture herself with this visit. But she returned night after night, not knowing what she expected yet compelled to make her way here. Young souls are precious, aren’t they? Even when they are not yours…

 She felt her chest stuffed with familiar longing, so she turned around, but her decision was stalled as she heard a cry coming from the residence. She stood there for quite some time, transfixed by the sound of a child crying because even though she gave birth to one, she was denied the chance to console hers. The child had been crying for quite sometimes it seemed, her voice cracked and becoming hoarse with time. She moved closer, curious to see So’s children, but also worrying about the little one who could not stop crying.

She bumped into a maid, and as the maid lifted her head, her eyes wide with terror. Ha Jin quickly covered her mouth before the shaken maid had the chance to scream, and placed a finger on her own lips, signaling the maid to keep quiet. “Ari?” She nodded fervently. As she took in Ha Jin’s face, a flash of recognition appeared on the maid’s face.

“Court Lady Hae? You are her, aren’t you?” disbelief heavily saturating her words.

Oh, she recognizes me? Ha Jin did not deny nor confirm it. She quickly asked the question she had been wanting to ask, “Why is the child crying?”

There was an unspoken code between court ladies. Everybody pegged their loyalty to someone with power. Few are loyal to the king, most sworn their fealty to others for various reasons: family’s safety, family’s debt, the chance to climb higher in social status. But there also exist, one type of loyalty, to those who saved your neck, and Ha Jin saved countless while serving the late king, the king who abused everyone within his reach by making sure she was the only serving the deceased king. Court ladies never forgot their debt, this very one included so when Ha Jin asked questions, she was quickly supplied with an answer.

“The princess has been crying non-stop every night. Everyone is at loss of what to do. We tried everything, yet she cries until she turns blue.”

Ha Jin knew she was crazy to even think about it but she craved the warmth of a living child and if she could help, it would be rather selfish for her to stay away from isn’t it? “Can I see her? Maybe I could help?”

“I…I am not sure if I can do that…”

“You are at loss anyway, might as well let me try something. Ask everyone to bow down, it will be easier for them to lie if they don’t see anything and stay outside the room while I’m inside.”

So the maid went in, asking others to just trust her blindly if they want the princess to stop crying. While waiting, Ha Jin was pacing, half of her wanted to hold the child, her other half chastised her decision that would complicate her own life. She was lost in her thoughts she did not realize the figure walking closer to her. She turned around and bumped her head into his chest before she jumped back, her body ready to defend herself.

“Easy Ha Jin, it’s me.” His hands were in front of his body, palms opened facing her, pacifying her needs to fight. He was shocked too at her readiness to fight before he reminded herself that his lover was in her own body, a body familiar to her and easily submit to her will as compared to before. Didn’t she try to strangle him in the pool too despite her wounded body?

Ha Jin lowered down her guard and let out a shaky laugh. “I thought you were sleeping so I go out for a walk.”

“I couldn't sleep without you. I notice you have frequented this residence Ha Jin. Are you angry at me? For having children with her?”

If she was being honest with herself, there was a part of her, no matter how hard she tried to stomp on it to nothingness, it was there. A twinge of jealousy. But it was bearable. She reasoned with herself, what a waste of securing the throne if he were not going to claim it thoroughly?  She was just here to catch a glimpse of his children. She saw Wang Ju the other night and upon seeing his sad face she was overwhelmed with the needs to hug him, but she stopped herself from acting recklessly.

“I am not angry at you. I understand your reasoning.” She took a long breath to compose herself. She put her hands behind her, one foot raking the ground like a child being caught red-handed doing something wrong. Finally, she looked up to his face, looking at her forlornly as if he had committed grave sin for daring to have children. She sighed and continued, “I just wondered, how your children would look like. To see what little Wang So might look like. I am curious. That’s all.”

“You miss our Seoul.” He stated clearly.

“I do.” She gave a small response. Her eyes turned misty and she turned around, hiding her sadness by looking up to the sky, searching for the moon.

“But those two will never substitute her Ha Jin. You must know that.” He took her hand with the small reminder of three wolves and caressed it gently. She stifled her sobs that were fully intended to make an appearance.

“I do. I am very clear on that So. Do tell, have you ever been a father to yours?” she shifted the focus to him.

“I…I…never. I feel guilty, to you, to our child. When I look at him, I remember his mother and I hate him for that.” He stammered as he looked down, clearly embarrassed with his confession. She tutted disapprovingly before she touched his chin and lifted his face paralleled to hers.

“Never punish children for the sins committed by their parents. You should know better. It hurts isn’t it when your mother turns away from you?” He nodded curtly and swallowed his answer as Ari came closer. Ari was surprised to see the king being so close to another. She curtsied before she relayed the agreement by other court ladies. They doubted her but as the crying got louder they reluctantly agreed, clearly exasperated by continuous wailing.

“Your majesty, shall we?” Ha Jin used the proper title in Ari’s presence and pulled her hands away from him. He understood this shift in attitude, but they had gone through these charades before and it hurt them both. Why bother going the same route? He took her hand and pulled her closer in front of Ari. Ha Jin blushed at his boldness but said nothing. It felt nice, not to be shunned for the sake of palace’s etiquette.

Upon entering, everyone bowed down yet they noticed two persons wearing black trousers walking in. Two men? 

So entered the room with Ha Jin following closely behind. Ari closed the door behind them. She walked ever slowly to the source of the cries, lying in the middle of the mattress, squirming on her own. So watched her like a hawk, not sure what to expect when she finally saw his daughter. She sat down next to the child and her heart was swollen with maternal instinct. “Oh So…come here, she is so precious.” He obliged and took a seat next to her, his eyes keened on reading her facial expression which was full of reverence before he turned his attention to his daughter. Immediately he felt a tug within his chest. Beautiful.

She picked her up gently, cooing the beautiful, sniffling baby. She tried to recall everything she had ever read on babies, every tip that popped up every now and then from the countless baby apps she installed on her phone before.

She wiped the child’s tears and laid her down gently, checking her napkin, nothing, putting her finger close to her mouth – if a child is hungry it is said she will try to suckle the tip, nothing. She put her hands on the child’s tummy, wondering if she was gassy. She bent the child’s leg gently, closer to her chest, one after another before she bent both at the same time. A huge fart immediately followed, and the child immediately looked relief. So was clearly shocked and Ha Jin laughed along as the child ripped another huge fart now with something filling her napkin. “You don’t really expect her to hold it in as a becoming lady is expected, aren’t you? She’s a child So!” She smacked him lightly before she cleaned the baby and changed her napkin. She pushed the soiled napkin to So and So wrinkled his nose. “Amazing isn’t it? It smells bad and she’s only drinking milk. Can you imagine how it is if she likes meat like her father too?”

Clearly, she was enjoying this. The smiles constantly latched on her lips, the crinkle at the corner of her eyes. So felt her sincerity in taking care of his daughter. She knew this child was never hers, yet she loved her freely. Witnessing these, he could not help but wonder how wonderful it would be to have another with her.  She washed her hands before she picked up the baby. As she placed the baby close to her chest, the child’s head turned, clearly searching for something to suckle. “Awww sweetheart, now you are hungry, isn’t it? You are hungry after you poop. Your little tummy is empty now isn’t it?” She lifted her head up and asked him, “Do you want to hold her?” He agreed and held out his hands. She placed her gently, closed to his chest as she guided his hand to cradle her. He would be lying if he denies the love stirring within him. Precious child and his too. What was I thinking to push you and your brother away like that? I could learn to love you both. With her guiding me, I could be more than just a king.

The child kept trying to latch even on his father. This induced laughter from both of them. Meanwhile, the maids outside were filled with wonder – who are these people that had easily calmed the princess? They heard a soft voice mumbling unintelligibly towards the child, moving closer to the door.

“Ari? Can you please come in?”

“Yes, Court Lady Ha-,” she stopped, berating herself. This is supposed to be a secret! She entered the room, clearly in awe at the sight of a calm baby.

“She was just gassy. I mean, she was slightly uncomfortable. I cleaned her up and now she’s hungry. I think she will sleep after she is full.” Ha Jin passed the child to Ari’s waiting hands.

“I take my leave now. Good night little one. Thank you, Ari.”

“No, thank you, Court Lady Hae.”

They both smiled at each other, a new sense of camaraderie was forming between those two and those outside the doors. Those who did not see her called the unknown as The Royal Whisperer and starting that night, Ari would always seek her whenever the baby was fussy. The child, after a while, craved for Ha Jin’s touch more and more than she craved her own mother’s embrace, not that it came often anyway.

And thus, Ha Jin found another soul to care and shower with love in this time, filling her nights with a warmth she was once denied. So came with her too, trying hard to make up for lost time. It was not long before the visits included his son too, baffled but clearly welcoming this side shown by his father. He was a warm boy, easily accepting Ha Jin’s presence during the nightly visits. How bad could she be if she dotted on my little sister and me? How bad could she be if her presence makes his father shower him and his sister with love and attention?

____________________

Chapter Text

At times, Ha Jin would be hampered with loneliness when So was away with his responsibilities as king. She did not mind it. For her, it was a small price to pay to be with him again. She remained in the residence most of the time, spending her days with the same routine. They would wake up together and help each other get ready, had breakfast together before she bid him goodbye as he made his way to the throne room. Most of the time, she would spend her morning sharpening her self-defense skills. Today was no different. She waved goodbye to her beloved and entered the house to change into a more comfortable clothing. She wound a long piece of cloth over her chest tightly and put on a loose pant. The outfit was scandalous, to say the least, but she hated the way fabric clung to her skin when she sweated during practices. It is not like I’m taking a stroll around the palace with these, I am alone here.

She missed using a gun. She was the best shooter in her batch but after the incident, she was released from duty and her gun and badge were taken away. Maybe I should try using bow and arrow? It requires same precision as a gun isn’t it? She played with the idea inside her mind while stretching herself to prep for the practice. Practicing alone is no fun, might as well focus on gymnastic movements, bending my body to move with more agility.

She put her dagger away and stood in the middle of the compound. She started with a simple backbend, feeling her tout muscle stretched as she arched her back, her hands placed directly on her feet. From there, she pulled her legs one by one to a standing position. She started slowly before she picked up her pace. Front handspring, back handspring followed with the Arabian flip over and over, perfecting each move. Her hair was unbound with the fast movement, but she remained focus and tucked it away behind her ears. She could feel her muscles coordinating fluently from one movement to another as she took a few steps back and run forward to do a front tuck somersault.  She took a break, steadying her heart rate before she gulped down some water. When done, she picked up the only weapon available to her and continued the routine as she combined the movements with her dagger.

__________

He stood silently, hiding at the corner, watching her lithe movements. He had seen Seon Duk practiced before, after all, they grew up together under the intense training of her father. But Seon Duk’s movements were similar to men – there was no softness in it, rough, bulky movements aim to kill. Ha Jin, on the other hand, looked as if she was dancing. She was moving with a rhythm he was not familiar with and at first, he wondered if those were enough to kill. It was only when she combined the movements with her dagger he realized how lethal she could be. Her movements were small, yet calculative and meant to injure the enemy swiftly. That was good because she had to have the upper hand quickly in a fight due to her small build, one blow from the enemy might end it all for her.

As he observed her, he could not stop himself from staring at her choice of outfit. It barely covered anything, and it accentuated her well-defined body. And her pants! It was going lower and lower with each jump. He watched her hair getting unbound and how it swept across her face and he could not stop this need stirring inside him. They kissed and touched each other, they slept together night after night, yet she had been showing no signs to go beyond. He did not push it. He might not understand the why, but he would not force it. But with the scene unfolding in front of him at the moment, it sure was hard to honor the promise he made to himself. He looked away to distract himself from his wild imagination before a dagger flew right in front of him. He managed to dodge it by stepping back just in time.

“Who’s there?!” Ha Jin shouted as she walked closer to the corner.

“It’s me Ha Jin.” So announced quietly as he showed his face to Ha Jin. He pulled out the dagger that was stuck to the nearest tree and handed it over to her. He gazed longingly at her face, glistening with sweat, her few stray hairs stuck to her face, her messy hair and her heaving chest. His heart picked up its pace and he closed his eyes to control himself.

“Good movements, better choice of clothing.” So gave her a playful grin.

She looked down and yelped as she realized it. She ran inside and took her jeogori, put it on before she went outside again.

“What are you doing here? You never come back so early after breakfast!” She tried to lower down her voice but the sheer embarrassment of getting caught with such outfit colored her words with an accusatory tone.

“I thought you will be happy to see me.”

“Of course, I am. But it is just…embarrassing to have you see me like that. How long have you been peeping?”

He scoffed loudly. “Me? Peeping? I do not peep. A king does no such thing as peeping. I was just observing.”

“So you thought that is a better choice of word? Same thing So.” It was her turn to scoff as she sat down next to him. She gathered her hair and pulled it up, forming a messy knot. So was watching like a hawk, noticing her slender neck and how beautiful it was being exposed like that. Hurm, she is definitely not helping me in this situation. He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently. She turned her face to him and winked cheekily. Is she doing this on purpose? Torturing me to what end exactly?

“You are exquisite.” His hand rubbed her back gently, his eyes staring deep into hers trying to convey more.

“What?” she pretended not to hear since she was distracted with his hand moving lower down, making circles closer to her waist now.

“You heard me.” He pulled her closer to him, her shoulder bumped into his chest. Fine, two can play this game. She moved her body slightly and pressed her chest to his. She looked up and fluttered her eyelashes before she spoke.

“Maybe I just want you to repeat it.” Her fingers touched his lips lightly, a smirk forming on her lips. She realized how his breath hitched and suppressed her own chuckle. 

“What will happen should I refuse?” he wound his hand around her waist and pulled her closer leaving no room in between.

“Maybe I’ll punish you for peeping on me.” She tugged his ear to emphasize her word.

“Maybe I want to be punished. Have you considered that?” he raised his eyebrows, daring her to make true to her words.

Ha Jin bit her lower lip as she tried to dissect his intention through his words. He wants more, isn’t it? Well, I myself want more if I stop lying to myself and admit the truth. Her heart started to beat faster as if telling her that yes, you do want this. I want it, but this is new for me, I mean we never, in this body. No.

So realized her inner struggle and pulled away. Ha Jin did not realize this as she was still busy arguing back and forth in her mind. Only when she saw him taking off his robe from the corner of her eyes finally she snapped out from her inner monologue.

“What are you doing?”

“Well, I recalled you beat Eun for peeping. I figure it will be against your belief, should you let me go freely without teaching me a lesson. Come on, show me what you have.” He gave her a playful smile that reached his eyes as he took his position, readying himself.

He doesn’t want to push it. He respects my decision. She felt glad about this side of him, putting her first before his own needs. She appreciated it. She leaped from her seat and circled him.

“I accept your challenge. How do we settle this then? To what end?”

“How about the first to take off the opponent’s clothes wins?

“That doesn’t sound fair” That required a lot of touching and close contact. And she wondered if he meant all or just the outer layer?

“It’s a win-win for me.” He lifted his hands up nonchalantly.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk, so arrogant.” So opportunistic. She stood a few steps in front of him and bowed down for the smallest fraction of a second before she dashed forward, one hand aiming to punch his face while the other sought for the string that tied his jeogori together. He smirked as he saw through her plan and dodged both hands. He captured her hands and turned her around, her back against his chest as he pulled the string that bound her hair together. He pushed her away, his hand dangling the freed string in front of her as he muttered “One.”

Ha Jin was perplexed with his fast movement. I cannot win this fight fairly. A mischievous plan formed in her head as So leaped toward her, his hand not hiding its intention, clearly aiming for the cloth on her body. She caught his extended hand, pulling him closer as she stepped on his leg as leverage to position herself at his back. She wound her legs around his waist, her hand on the string binding his shirt together. She felt his hand grabbing her wrist and she surprised him with a kiss right on his lips. He was clearly shocked by her attack, he paused and Ha Jin freed the knot quickly before she jumped away from his body.

“Two.” Ha Jin raised her two fingers in front of him.

“Is that how you want to play this?” He touched his lips slightly before he licked his lips. 

“Play what exactly Your Majesty? I wouldn’t dare to offend you.” She answered cheekily, feigning innocence before pulling her hair to one side.

His next movement surprised her. He ran toward her before he bent down suddenly, one leg aiming to sweep her down to the ground. She managed to deflect that by leaping backward, her hands pushing hard against the ground to buy some distance between herself and So. She stood up and realized her shirt was hanging open at one side now. She did not realize when he managed to achieve that. He smirked and shouted three at her. She was annoyed by his achievement by now.

They circled one another and Ha Jin attacked relentlessly, aiming for the second string inside the shirt. Once it was freed only then she could pull off the whole thing and win this challenge. So managed to deflect each attack before he stretched his long hand inside her shirt, brushing against her breasts, his hand grabbing the piece of cloth covering her chest. Ha Jin immediately turned closer to him to stop him from pulling the whole thing off. Her hand scrambled to untie the second knot inside his shirt, so she could win this quickly before he managed to undress her. He smiled, clearly enjoying her hand moving frantically against his body. He grabbed the cloth tighter as he whispered in her ear, “I think I am about to win.” He gave her a quick peck on her cheek before he pushed her shoulder away from him, yet his other hand pulled the cloth toward him making her spin in the opposite direction. He was beaming with pride as he held out the piece of cloth to her while Ha Jin tried her best to cover her exposed body.

“You didn’t win! That’s not fair!” she put her hands on her hip, trying so hard to show how annoyed she was with his winning move.

“I didn’t specify which piece of clothing Ha Jin. I win this fairly.” He teased her while offering a consolation hug. Ha Jin rolled her eyes as she slapped his hands away yet still walking closer, hooking her arms around his neck.

“You are one sly wolf; do you know that?” their noses brushed against one another. He rested his hands on her waist as she tiptoed and offered him a light kiss on his lips. He pressed his forehead against her, one hand caressing her cheek.

“Hmmmmm, I love you so much do you know that?”

“I do, my love. I do.”

----------

They sat down, watching the shimmering lake. The sun was higher in the sky now as they both enjoyed the short sparring before. So did not even bother covering himself, he let his shirt opened, blown by the wind, displaying his toned muscles. Ha Jin was irritated with this. She wanted to take a good look, yet she could not do that without being obvious.

So, on the hand was distracted by the fact that the only thing covering her body now was that thin almost see-through shirt. He thought she would excuse herself to wear something else but no, she just hopped next to him enjoying the breeze which at times seemed to aid him by blowing hard, rippling the shirt, threatening to expose the wearer.

They glanced warily at one another, offering a not so sincere smile when caught gawking at each other’s body. He let out a loud sigh before she followed with another loud sigh.

“What are we doing Ha Jin?”

“What?” She raised her voice defensively.

He chuckled before he faced her, crossing his legs and took her hands. She mirrored his position and looked at him, her cheeks blushed with the display in front of her. So noticed how her shirt opened rather generously, giving him a glimpse of what he had been staring hard to see before. He gulped down his frustration before he closed the opening for her, fixing the knot so it would not be moved by the sheer breeze. He smoothed the neckline and he could feel her heart beating fast against her chest. Averting her eyes, he continued.

“Forgive me for speaking bluntly but clearly we want more from one another. I did not pursue before because I thought you are not ready. But now, correct me if I’m wrong, but we do want the same thing, aren’t we?” finally he raised his eyes to watch her reaction.

She pulled one hand away as she rubbed her lips absentmindedly with it. “I do…but…”

“But?” he put his hands on her knees, rubbing it gently, assuring her that he was indeed being opened and accepting.

“It is stupid especially after I told you how each scar is a journey bla bla.” She bit her lips and looked at him shyly.

“Scars?” He wondered if she was ashamed with her scars. She made it clear that his scars did not stop her from loving him and yet her perception flipped when it came to her own scars?

“Yes. We made love before, and that previous body was perfect. Porcelain skin, young, no blemishes at all, trust me I myself checked it thoroughly the first time I woke up in it.” She widened her eyes at him, trying to shove her point across. “This one, mine, is marred with scars and….it is not as pretty as what you are familiar with. Before.”

“That is indeed a foolish excuse.” He spoke slowly, questioning her skewed reason.  

“I know, I told you it is stupid.” She waved her hands in front of her, dismissing her own shallow excuse.

He stared at her, remembering the times when he too doubted her acceptance and decided to offer her the same thing she offered years ago. “It is not the face that makes me fall in love with you. It’s the expression on it, the kindness radiating from it that hook me. It is not the body, but the things you do with it that make me fall harder for you. How quick you are to protect others and love them unconditionally. You even pick up a stray wolf and show him kindness. You remember, don’t you?”

“I didn’t pick up that wolf. That wolf threw me from his horse.” She teased him.

“Stupid wolf.” He played along, nodding vehemently.

“Yes, so stupid.”

“Are you convinced now? With the fact that I simply don’t care about the scars. I saw them before. I was the one who changed your clothes when you were unconscious. They do not bother me in the slightest.” He squeezed her knees gently.

“I suspected that. And since we are being blunt, I actually…I never…I am still...you know...don’t make me say it out loud…” she stammered, not sure whether this was something he should know beforehand or something he should discover on his own.

He hid his surprise at the revelation and asked her a question.

“How old are you Ha Jin?”

“27”

“And you never…?” he raised his eyebrows suggestively. Twenty-seven in his time usually suggested a family with three children at least. The future is definitely a strange place with different customs.

“Well, I lived with my mother for quite some time, before I moved in with my friends and I never get to that point of relationship you know…”

“I promise I will be gentle.” He assured her.

“You better.” As she stood up and pulled him toward the house.

“Now?” it was his turn to be surprised.

“Yes, now. You and your stupid-not-covering-anything shirt. It is driving me crazy.”

He laughed exuberantly and stopped her right on her track. She turned around, puzzled by the sudden halt. She looked at him, her face filled with questions. He smiled widely before he lifted her up with his arms and carried her inside.

Once inside, he let her down gently and turned to close the door. Ha Jin snaked her arms around him, pulling his shirt off. He turned facing her as she pushed him against the door. He smiled as he ran his hand through her hair tugging it gently. “Have I told you how beautiful you look? I love this fiery color on you. Simply breath-taking.” His hands fall to her side, untying her shirt but letting it stay on her body. His hands moved lower as he hooked his thumbs to the inside of her pants’ waistband, loosening it before he pulled her closer to him, splayed against his body.

“You are beautiful too…” and they kissed passionately, finally having the courage to dance the ancient love ritual with one another – of giving and offering so much more for the other, desperately trying to experience all at once.

__________

And after, she placed her cheek against his chest, memorizing his steady heartbeat, while he held her hand and kissing it softly, both glowing with the aftermath of lovemaking. With his eyes closed, he whispered,

“You are exquisite.”

“Huh! That took you long enough.” She smiled as she traced his cheek lazily with her fingers.

Chapter Text

So left early today after breakfast, kissing her who was still lying on the mattress before he reminded her to finish her breakfast. She nodded lazily, her eyes peeking underneath the blanket, one hand waving him goodbye. He snickered at her childish way and promised her that he would come home early, and he would teach her how to ride a horse. He was surprised when she told him she wanted to learn- he assumed she was already good in it the same way she was good in fighting. He teased her about it and she responded with “I ride steel horses So, that is harder to tame.” Hiding the fact, that the only steel horse she knew how to ride was a bicycle. He doesn’t need to know that. She grinned into the empty room.

The light fought to shine upon her through the opened window, forcing her to recall a long-forgotten poem she had once received at this time. Her eyes stubbornly blinked against the rays, trying to win a doomed fight, to begin with.

Green, O green is the willow, placid, peaceful the flow;

Hark and I hear on the river, songs from my love, my beau.

To the east, the sun is up, to the west, drizzles persist;

Though they say the sun is naught, to me, the sun is aglow.

 

Well, the sun was aglow before it decided to succumb to darkness. Ha Jin muttered under her breath. Being alone filled her with burning curiosity. How is everyone actually? Where is Baek Ah? What happened to the eighth prince? Is Ji mong still here? She did ask So, but she wanted to see them with her own eyes. Yet if she risked being seen publicly, that would act as an invitation for others to pry her away from the king, so she remained by the lake. She enjoyed having So to herself too much to give others opening to use her against him like what happened before. I learned my lesson, better stay hidden if possible.

Announcing the arrival of the Queen!

A booming voice announced the unexpected visitor. I wondered about others and here we have one. She stood up, straightening her clothes as she opened the door. She did not have the time to address the Queen as she barrelled in, pushing her to the side. The Queen took in her appearance, the state of the room and put two and two together. She sat down behind the table, the same spot So sat while reading his reports. Ha Jin looked at her with disdain, protesting silently.

 “Did you serve the king well last night?” she said slowly, each word dripped with a condescending tone.

“I did. Repeatedly. Gloriously.” Ha Jin smiled in return.

Yeon Hwa smacked the table. “What a rude whore!”

“Have we not established that in our previous encounter?” Ha Jin reminded her, showing that she could not care less about her opinion or any undignified name she chose to address her.

Yeon Hwa was taken aback by her bluntness. How she seemed unperturbed by any harsh words she flung at her. Her hands balled into a tight fist beneath the table, her body shaking with her failure to control her rage. I am the rightful queen, she is beneath me. I would, I could stomp on her repeatedly. She stared at her offender and gestured her to take a seat in front of her.  Ha Jin obliged and took her seat.

“Yes, we did. I forgot how low life like you quickly offer whatever possible to win the king’s favor. No matter how disgusting you look I guess a king is a simple man after all.” She sneered at her, intent to break that bubble she was so comfortable in. “Do tell, does it feel glorious when the king tosses you aside after he is done?”

She pretended to reflect deeply, one hand scratching her head before she returned the Queen’s murderous glare. “I could not recall being toss aside at any part of the night. He was very gentle, very passionate…very thorough if I might add.” Ha Jin almost winked at the Queen but she stopped herself. I wouldn’t want her to die from a heart attack in my home with So. Can you imagine having her ghost as a witness to the nights we are going to spend together? I know I am being petty, in their relationship, at this point I am the other woman…but So is mine first and never hers. Why should I stop fighting for him? I stopped once, I must be dense to let that happen again.

The Queen bulged her eyes at her honest confession. How could he…? How dare he treated me differently?! She always thought So was incapable of being tender. She had fallen for what others had been whispering – how he is an animal, a wolf through and through not just with her but everyone. So she made peace with how she was treated. The idea then took a stronger root as So had never taken another woman to his chamber. She was the only one.  

But this new information shook her to the core. The realization that all these while she was treated as mere means to have children, never more than that. He needed not a woman, but a healthy, functioning womb, strong enough to bear him heirs. It could easily be others. That hurt her even more. To realize she could have been easily substituted by others. Her only saving grace was what she could offer to his heirs, a strong political footing with her background.  She, who held the highest position in the nation, the supposed jewel of the palace, could have been replaced by any woman, and now, by the looks of it, had been replaced by her? A woman marred with scar with no background, nothing. She was dead, why must she come back?! Damn you So. Damn you, and your son, and your daughter. I curse you all to your graves.

“What do you want exactly Hae Soo?” she hissed at her.

“I want the king.” She offered a firm answer quickly.

“So you want to be queen.”

“Surprisingly not. Especially not after you occupied that position. You can keep it.”

“I am the Queen of Goryeo. You must address me accordingly!” Yeon Hwa’s cheeks redden with anger at Ha Jin’s failure to acknowledge her title.

“Yes, as you wish Your Majesty.” It was not spoken with sincerity thus further enraged the already deranged Queen.

“Hae Soo, you wench. I should have disposed of you properly back then. I shouldn’t have let my brother offered the king a way out, for you to marry Jung. I should have let you hang in public, paying for the sins you have committed.”

“First, I am not Hae Soo. I am Go Ha Jin. Second, while we are at it, let me clear the air for you, she is innocent and does not deserve such sentence. You had your chance to dispose of her. You didn’t. Your loss. Third, you can never prove me as her. She is dead. She has been dead for 5 years. Jung was there, Baek Ah was there when the fire consumed her. Her ashes right behind you. Who in their right mind would believe that someone can come back from the dead? Who, do tell, will believe you?” 

Ha Jin threw her the sharpest glare she could muster, reminding her how absurd her claim would sound to others. All the pain she had buried before throbbed again within her. The humiliation, the pain of watching her taking a place rightfully hers, to be his wife. Not a queen, just a wife to So. She could hear her warnings ringing in her ears once again, how she sneered at her inability to provide more than comfort. How she insulted the very love she bears for So saying it is simply not enough for him. It was as if she was reliving all the snarky remarks, condescending comments Yeon Hwa had ever slipped in her presence. She was still seething when she remembered it was Yeon Hwa who arranged her marriage to the late King Taejo, resulting in her slicing her wrist opened, which later became one of the many reasons the court listed out as to why she could never be his wife. It pained her to this very moment.

Yeon Hwa was almost standing and Ha Jin rose to her level too, challenging her to get physical. I dare you Yeon Hwa. Touch me and I’ll show you who Ha Jin really is. 

“Guards!” Yeon Hwa’s voice broke the tension between them. Two guards rushed in, grabbing Ha Jin’s arms, forcing her to kneel. She attempted to stand, fighting the force but the two bulky guards pushed her down, stepping on her calves to stop her from moving. They quickly tied her hands together at her back, making it harder for her to fight. She could not move no matter how hard she tried to wriggle free. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Yeon Hwa smiling gleefully, clearly enjoying her inability to free herself from the firm grips. Her calves hurt from the weight of the guards, but she would not give Yeon Hwa the satisfaction. She settled with a calm façade, signaling Yeon Hwa this was not enough to break her.

“Well, well, well. So much pride for a loose whore. What did you say just now? You are not Hae Soo? I don’t believe that. But sure, keep telling the same lies.”  She turned around and picked up the green jade urn, admiring it in her hands, holding it recklessly, her eyes never leaving Ha Jin’s face. “Do you know how close he guards this urn? This very residence is a shrine for you. No one is allowed near. He clings to this as if this is the only thing keeping his heart beating. Do you know how it feels? To be bested by ashes?” The Queen was frustrated and bewildered at the thought of him choosing the ashes over her.

“If you weren’t her, then this urn contains nothing, but dirt isn’t it? Obviously, it wouldn’t be a big issue should I accidentally….oops” She took off the lid of the urn and threw it across the room. Ha Jin’s eyes grew wide with terror as she witnessed what she did next. Yeon Hwa stood close to her, grinning with malice as she tipped the urn upside down, raining ashes over Ha Jin.

--------------------

“So, that urn kept the remaining of me, before. Isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Urmm, shouldn’t there be another urn for our daughter?”

“I couldn’t bear separating both of you. She is part of you. I placed her in your embrace. Together till the end.”

She held the urn close to her beating heart, the remaining of her own miracle.

--------------------

“No!” Ha Jin was crushed to see her daughter mistreated by the evil hands. She struggled to free herself. She wanted to hurt her. To hurt her so badly she would beg her to stop. She could feel her blood boil within as she struggled harder despite the pain. The harder she moved, the harder the guards step on her already sore calves. Yeon Hwa was thrilled to see she had finally managed to strike a chord. “Hold her neck!” She crouched down, taking a handful of ash and mockingly blew it to her face. Ha Jin closed her eyes which were now watering out of frustration. My daughter…

“What is it Hae Soo? You are alive, isn’t it? Why should you care for this dirt?” She stomped on it before she once more gathered a fistful of it, shoving it into Ha Jin’s face. Ha Jin spluttered as some gained entrance to her mouth. She gasped, trying to clear her airway as Yeon Hwa shove another handful into her open mouth. Yeon Hwa was cackling madly, overjoyed to see So’s beloved kneeling in front of her, at her mercy despite her unyielding stance earlier. She grabbed Ha Jin’s chin, forcing her to look in her direction. “Ha Jin or Hae Soo it does not matter. You are a mere bug that I can crush. You see Hae Soo. I am the Queen. I always, always win.” She shoved Ha Jin to the floor. As she left the room, laughing hysterically, she picked up a piece of Ha Jin’s clothing together with some of the scattered ashes. I have a different plan for these later. This is fun, but not enough. And she left. Leaving Ha Jin covered with ashes of the dead.

--------------------

My baby…my child…

Forgive me…

I couldn’t protect you then…

I still couldn’t protect you now…

Don't leave me, please...

 

Ha Jin let her tears flow freely. Her heart sliced open, witnessing her daughter’s ashes blown by the wind. She did manage to bring her tied hands in front of her, yet she could not break free. She tried to gnaw the rope using her teeth but to no avail. With her shaking hands tied together, she tried to gather the remaining ashes on the floor, scooping it back inside the urn. But it was everywhere, freed by the breeze. She could taste it in her mouth and she wept as another wave of hopelessness crushed her. I couldn’t have you, couldn’t even keep the remaining of you. Why? Why? Why?! She scooped what was left and poured it where it belonged, her hands trembling, gripping the urn, her forehead against it as she wailed her frustration to the air. Seol…. Seol…My Seol…

 ----------

Chapter Text

Throne Room

Gwangjong was pushing the first decree – imposing a tax on those who own slaves depending on the number of slaves they owned. The hall was buzzing with indirect refusal, hiding behind the usual excuses of how such move would upset the honorable clans that had come together to build this nation together with his late father. Same excuse, repeated over and over. Gwangjong had had enough. For the past 5 years, the ruling had been manageable ever since he demonstrated how willingly he threw Wook and Jung away, his own brothers - reminding those in courts to be cautious. But it seemed after 5 years, the previous warning had faded away in everyone’s memories, leaving them with the freedom and foolish bravery to go against the king’s wish.

“It seemed impossible to have everyone agrees with me when it comes to this issue. I appreciate the attempts to reason but clearly, it is one-sided and does not help those this very court deemed lesser than human.” Gwangjong tried to be as civilized as possible. It did not do well to lose his composure each time the court went against him because that occurred almost on every discussion.

“Your Majesty, imposing tax would only burden the nobles and swayed their loyalty to you.” Quipped one of the ministers.

That again. What do these people take me for? A puppet that bows down to their heart’s desire? Gwangjong realized years ago, to have them all submit to him, yet not focus to topple him, he had to create a constant uneasiness in the palace. One day he might favor these few ministers, the next day his attention would be diverted to different clans. This created a control in a sense that nobody knew which side he was with. The tension was palpable almost at every meeting because they simply did not know the King well to gauge his reactions. The uneasiness made them wary and almost every time they would end up upholding the decree. For Gwangjong all these dialogues were his charade to manipulate them.

He cleared his throat before he continued, “Even as King I have servants. They all served me in return for fair wages. If the nobles dare to have slaves when I do not, what does that says about them? Are they in a higher position than the king? If they dare to have slaves of ridiculous amounts, they should, without question pay the imposed tax or should I see that as small ripple leading to treason? I don’t need such fragile loyalty. I thought their ancestors all pledged their lives in building a stronger Goryeo. Honor the pledge.”

“Your Majesty, please reconsider!” Few ministers still held on tight to their stance.

Gwangjong smiled dryly before he replied. “I will assume owning slaves give you power and unquestionable authority. It seals your place of higher position in social hierarchy. With that logic, I understand your refusal to comply. But using the same thinking, aren’t you all my slaves? After all, the one sitting on the throne is me. You should do as I say without question. Or does anyone with so much to say against would like to share the seat with me? After all, it seems I am already sharing this coveted seat with all the noble clans.”

He could see some men twitching while mumbling in unison. “We would not dare Your Majesty.”

“I assume we have come to an agreeable consensus. The decree will be announced to public tomorrow. You may all leave the court.”

____________________

The room was vacant after a long, heated debate. Astronomer Choi finally turned facing the king. Gwangjong realized this and shifted his focus to his trusted friend.

“Your Majesty, wasn’t that a bit too harsh? Not the decree, but the argument.” Ji Mong voiced his concerns. Gwangjong political games were dangerous as he sought not to appease any clans. Even when it came to marriage, he had put a stop for any clans to usurp the power within palace by marrying his own sister and taking no concubines by making sure the Queen rose to her responsibilities to bear heirs for him. This thus gave no openings for others to offer their own daughters to marry the king. Hae Soo’s death had spurted his determination to gain absolute power. He had made sure she did not die in vain by wallowing in sadness. And with each step, he had succeeded to free himself from the nobles’ grip. But this new decree could be the first of many that would be seen as an open attempt to deteriorate clans’ powers and JI Mong had his own doubt. Despite his ability to see a glimpse of future, he worried still on how this King would fair.

“I know. My father was a good king and I understand why he reasoned a lot when it comes to dealing with the nobles. They did sacrifice so much in building the nation. I am aware of such. But we are in a different phase now and my father had already paid the debt by marrying into all the clans. It should stop now. The debt had been repaid. Enough is enough. I could not be expected to pacify their every needs and whim. What we have now is mere greed for them to have more. I could not allow that. For our nation to grow stronger, to go forward, changes are inevitable. The focus should not only be on stabilizing courts but also well-executed laws that will be enforced throughout the nation with no one spared and allowed to go above them. I am responsible for many more, not just a handful.” He concluded with confidence, knowing that he had explained himself to this one man he saw as close confidant.

Ji Mong was listening to the King quietly, part of him proud of his answer. He was no longer the king that struggled to make others listened. He had risen and stood now in his own glory, wielding his sword to lead a better Goryeo. “You are right Your Majesty. Forgive me for questioning. And might I add, you look radiant today. Face full of smiles, the lines on your forehead are disappearing. Did something good happen last night?” he interjected with a smile. Ever since Ha Jin made an appearance he could observe how happy she made the King. The weight of pining for his beloved had been thrown off his shoulder and now, he looked happy. He deserved to be happy.

Gwangjong covered his smile with his fist, feigning a cough as he scrambled to change the subject. “Ji Mong, don’t you wish to see her?”

“See who Your Majesty?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know. I feel better if you go and visit her. Just talk.  I am afraid she is lonely with only me to talk to. She doesn’t complain, but it must be suffocating to just stay in one place with no friends.” So was concerned with Ha Jin being alone. But he did not have the choice to announce her to the palace, he wanted to keep her just for himself, just for a while. If he was being honest with himself, he was afraid that others would yank her away from him again once they sniffed her existence. But few, trusted friends could do wonders and filled her days with so much more.

“And here I am thinking I should not intrude upon the happy couple. Baek Ah did mention that he would be visiting soon. Should we reintroduce them? They were good friends before. Ha Jin, I assume would be thrilled to have her friend back.” He suggested lightly.

“Baek Ah deserves to have his friend back. It will be tricky to explain it though. She’s the same person, yet different. I wonder what’s the best way to do that.” Gwangjong was lost for a moment before he realized something odd. “Wait for a second, I never told you her real name.”

“Reading the heavens is my specialty, Your Majesty. I know things, even things I shouldn’t know, even things I do not want to know.” His expression was changing rapidly, at one point he looked proud and came the next second, he looked disturbed, weighed down by things he could not share. Gwangjong dismissed that, he knew there was no point in asking. He would never be offered a direct answer.

“With all the things you know, you will definitely never run out of things to discuss with her. Come now, since we are done here, join me for lunch with Ha Jin. I don’t think she will mind the extra company.”

-------------------

Gwangjong and Ji Mong made their way toward Dong Ji residence, filling the air with easy banters and conversations. Ji Mong steered the conversation to a different topic. In a story, some deemed as empty promises, lulled to the dreamers, who wanted so badly to believe true love exists.

“Your Majesty, have you ever heard a myth about The Red Thread of Fate”?

“I have never come across such myth. Do tell, I’m intrigued.”

“According to this myth, everyone has a chance to meet their soulmate in their lifetime. Soulmates are destined lovers, promised to each other by the Heaven itself. The bond is so strong it defies circumstances, place and time.

“Soulmates…I like that. How two souls bound to one another. It offers a deeper connection when compared to the word lovers. Defying time and place you said? Sounds oddly familiar.” as he recounted to himself how mystical, how impossible his own love story with Ha Jin. 

“Your love story is wildly beyond imagination. A relationship forged and observed closely by the God himself." he laughed along before he continued. "These soulmates are said to be connected by a single red thread at their little fingers to one another. It will never break. It may stretch or tangled or get caught up in knots but never, ever break.” he emphasized the last part.

“As long as mine is connected to her finger, I am content.” He raised up his hands, observing his little fingers against the sun, somewhat hoping he could see it glimmers, proving its existence.

“Your Majesty, yours is connected to hers in every lifetime.” Ji Mong assured him.

He stopped in his track as he grabbed Ji Mong’s arm, stopping him from taking another step. “Really? Is that the truth?” He was smiling, ecstatic for this tiny information that opened a small window to his own future with Ha Jin.

“Why would I lie?”

“Ahh, death finally loses its morbidity knowing the fact I’ll see her again when I am done here.”

“You are still young Your Majesty. Why are you talking about death already?”

Despite the mention of death, the atmosphere was light and joyful – the mood was highly infectious. Even the entourage trailing behind the two was caught smiling, basking in the rare happiness radiating from the king. From the distance, the king could see court ladies making their way toward the same destination, carrying trays with them – must be the food he had sent for to be prepared over there. He slowed down his pace, allowing them to prepare everything for his arrival and for Ha Jin to have time to prepare herself for lunch too.

They were crossing the bridge now when a loud sound broke the tranquillity surrounding the lake, followed by screams. Such occurrence took a halt to the small procession before the king took off, sprinting toward the house.

“What happened? Tell me, now!” The king asked the cowering court ladies who were huddling outside the house.

“Your Majesty…” the maid pointed towards the house looking at a loss on how to deliver the news without incurring the king’s wrath to herself.

So dashed inside, his eyes scanning the messy room before his gaze fell upon her, lying face down, unconscious on the floor. He strode closer, closing the distance and knelt next to her, pulling her to his chest. His eyes roamed all over her, seeking any possible wounds while trying to understand the incident that had befallen upon his beloved. He noticed how her hands were tied, her hair and face covered with ashes and streaks of dry tears imprinted on her face. Ashes? He took in his surroundings and realized the almost empty urn. No one else dares to do this to her. Only one person would do this. He whisked her up into his arms, laying her down neatly on the mattress. While adjusting her clothes, he realized the red, angry marks on her calves and how bruises started to form, blooming in contrast to her pale skin. He was seething.

“Ji Mong,” he called him through his gritted teeth.

“Yes, Your Majesty." He allowed himself in, standing near the door. The anger radiating from the king was worrying.

"Tell the Queen to prepare herself. Tomorrow, I’ll spend the night with her.”

Ji Mong was clearly puzzled by his instruction. Yet he knew not to question it. He excused himself and made his way to announce the news to the Queen. He shook his head as he muttered to himself.

“Ha Jin, Hae Soo, child, what a life, to be hurt and love by the same person. What a messy red thread.”

--------------------

Ha Jin woke up grudgingly, her temple throbbed, and she could feel her eyes had turned puffy. She was lying on her stomach which was not the usual way she fell asleep. She raised her hand and immediately caught sight of livid red marks around her wrist. She checked her other hand and saw the same marks. She remembered what had happened and she quickly searched for the urn. She swept a quick glance towards the room and realized everything had been placed back to where it belonged. She felt a gentle warm nudge on her calves and looked toward them, seeing So holding a wrapped cloth and pressing it gently against her bruised calves. She smiled at this small act of love.

“Hey..” her voice still hoarse from sleep.

“Ha Jin you are up. How are you feeling?’ So put away the cloth and scooted closer to her, helping her to sit up.

“I want to take a bath.”

He nodded as he offered his hands to help her stand up. He moved to lift her up in his arms, but she stopped him. “I can walk So, no worries. My calves are just sore.”

“You don’t have to act so tough Ha Jin. I know you are strong, but everyone needs help every now and then.“ But still, he respected her wish. He moved his hand to her waist, placing her arm around his shoulder and helped her walk to a small bathing area at the other side of the house.  He had just prepared the bath in a small tub for her, so she could soak. So hugged her from behind, “Permission to take care of you?”

Ha Jin offered a small smile as she whispered, “Granted.”

As So rinsed her hair and body clean from the ashes, Ha Jin stared at the swirl of water, carrying her child with its fluid movement. She did not tell So yet, but she had planned to scatter the ashes at the mountain, freeing her daughter’s and Hae Soo’s remaining in the forest. And now that plan had been proven to be obsolete. When she had no more ashes clung to herself, So lifted her up and put her down gently in the tub. He focused on the task at hands, rubbing her body gently with as much care he could muster. He gently lathered soap all over her body and she felt calm and safe in his hands. Once cleaned, he covered her body with a robe and carried her inside the house. Quietly she put on a simple clothing as she realized it was dark outside. So combed her hair slowly, untangling the knots and gathered it all in his hands before he pulled it to one side. She was glad and comforted by his attentiveness. 

“I think it is time to let them go,” she whispered. 

“I’ll get them.”

Ha Jin stood at the edge of the lake, her bare feet cold from the water, waiting for So to come. She heard him walking closer to her and turned to face him in response. So held out the urn to her and she took it from him. She had folded a small paper boat, placed on the rock behind her. She tipped the remaining content of the urn inside the small boat. Once done, she held it gingerly in her small hands as she urged So to hold it together with her. He put his hands on hers as they bent down closer to the surface of the water and release the boat together, pushing it gently, creating a ripple that brought the boat away from them. It sailed for a bit more before the water unraveled the creases and the lake swallowed the whole thing. Everything dissolved, meld with the element, not a trace left to linger among the living. Ha Jin wanted to say few words – goodbyes for her love child but the words would not make it past her constricted throat. So took notice of this, and grabbed her hand tighter and spoke to the night.

“Thank you, my dearest daughter Wang Seol, for being a part of us even for the briefest amount of time. We love you, we adore you, and we hope one day, we will meet each other again.”

Ha Jin nodded as she squeezed his hand tight, silently reminding him to not forget the other lost soul.

“Thank you Hae Soo, for allowing my Ha Jin to reside in your body, allowing us to find one another. Have a safe journey and may the next life treat you kinder.”

They stood there for quite some time, both lost in their own thoughts, together.

--------------------

The Queen was elated when Ji Mong relayed the King’s message. She spent the next day fussing over the clothes she would wear, what kind of hairpins she should use to best matched her attire. She was deliriously happy at the prospect of being visited by the King, she forgot what she had done that warrant such visit in the first place. She fidgeted nonstop, fixing her clothes, tucking in any stray hairs as she waited for the King, for her husband, who in her mind, had finally seen that other woman as someone beneath him, making his way back to the one woman that was his one true equal companion.

She was staring at her reflection before she heard a commotion outside. Quickly, she exited her room to see to it. The King is coming for his one true queen, what with this noise?! As she stood by the entrance, she saw everyone kneeling before she realized the King’s presence.

The King was standing before her two guards, even without seeing his face she could imagine his stoic expression. She heard the King spoke, addressing them.

“Were you with the Queen yesterday when she attacked Lady Dong Ji?” Gwangjong was livid but he kept his anger simmering. I’ll teach everyone here a lesson or two.

“Yes, we did Your Majesty. We were following the Queen’s order when we restrained Lady Dong Ji.”

“You admit you had hurt her?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, please punish us as we have offended you.”

“I am waiting for that exact response.” Gwangjong’s eyes light up with malice and satisfaction over receiving the exact answer he was hoping for. “Rise up.” As they both rose, Gwangjong grabbed one of the guard’s sword and ran the blade swiftly across their necks, beheading both in one stealth movement. Heads rolled to the ground, before their bodies collide with one another, sliding to the ground, blood squirting, tainting the Queen’s compound.

The Queen turned pale at such sight. Gwangjong finally turned as he realized that the Queen had been watching his little display of power. “Ahh, my celebrated Queen. Coming out to usher me inside? How thoughtful of you.” He chortled before he picked up both heads, one hand still holding the bleeding sword, carrying them tentatively with him as he made his way to her sleeping chambers. The Queen followed silently behind him. Her eyes fixated on the heads: their eyes widened in horror they failed to anticipate, veins still pulsing, releasing every single drop that has one been contained in a living body, their mouths agape probably still trying to fathom the immeasurable pain they had experienced. As she stared and stared, suddenly those eyes blinked at her, silently asking her to explain what had just happened. She screamed and screamed, taking few steps back to quickly distanced herself from those supposed dead eyes. Gwangjong took notice of this and motioned for her to follow him. “Come now my Queen. It has been awhile since the last time we see one another.”

He entered the room, with the frightened Queen trailing behind her. He placed the sword on the table and flung the heads on the Queen’s bed. The Queen took her seat in front of him. Clearly, the King did not come here to be with her but instead to send a warning. He wiped his hands clean with the tablecloth, his eyes boring into hers. The Queen stared back, her breaths tethered as she realized one thing.

Gwangjong, through these past years, had never treated her this harsh. He was quiet, reserved and distant from her but never would threaten her like this. This, this man sitting in front of her was no longer Gwangjong her husband, but Wang So. The wolf, people had whispered on and on about how he never hesitated to swing his sword. The same wolf that beheaded his horse the moment he set foot in the palace from Shinju all those years behind. The same wolf that loved Hae Soo. It seemed that Soo’s presence had awakened this part of him she thought had died with her long ago. But if this was Wang So, this was also the same man she had once cleaned his wounds with patience and care, the same man she had been pining when she was a foolish young girl. And with such realization, she wondered if she could have the chance to salvage their relationship. Her thinking was interrupted as the King placed a scroll in front of her, urging her to pick it up and read it.

“I, Gwangjong, hereby seek to put an end to my marriage to Yeon Hwa, Hwang Bo of Hwang Ju. The reasons for divorce are as listed below:

.......................................................................................................................

“What is this?” Yeon Hwa took a second glance to the decree. The reasons were left blank, yet it was already stamped with the royal seal. Her hands shook at the sight of it. “What is this?! You can’t do this to me. I am your lawfully wedded wife. I am your Queen. I am the one who helps you grip that seat of yours! If it is not because of me, you wouldn’t be here, you couldn’t last on that throne!”

“And you have provided me with heirs and everything. Yes, yes. That’s what you are going to say, isn’t it? How I owe it all to you?” Gwangjong stared at her, who was clearly flustered with the scroll she was gripping tightly. “Listen to me Queen and listen well. Your days as Queen are numbered as it is but I am a firm believer in perfect timing. I left the reason blank because yes, now, I don’t have one solid reason yet to cast you away. But seeing how reckless you are behaving, I am sure that you will provide one reason, just one that I need, to push you down from that high place you seem so attached to. A strong enough reason, even a child who doesn’t dwell in politics would not question my decision to end us. I will wait for that day. I will celebrate that day. Enjoy your numbered days and behave. Do not touch her, do not even dare to breathe the same air as her, control yourselves and enjoy the perks of being Queen before you lose them all.”

“You wait until I inform my clan on this! It’s preposterous, they will definitely talk you about it.” She slammed the offensive scroll on the table before she yanked it and threw it to him, hitting him squarely on his chest.

He brushed it off as if he was merely brushing off the dust from his black robe. He picked it up and placed it back on the table, displaying the content once again to the already agitated Queen. He jeered at her as he spoke confidently.

“What clan Yeon Hwa? What family? What support do you have now? Don’t you remember how you throw it all to put your son on the throne? Would they vouch for you after what you had done to Wook? The last time I checked even your mother has decided to sever any ties she has with you. You are, truly, completely, alone Yeon Hwa.”  he grinned spitefully knowing that she could not do anything with the small, feeble power he has made sure she was left with.

“Don’t bother waiting for me. I would never set my foot in this place ever again.” He set out to leave the room forever before he heard her stood up abruptly, her chair toppled to the floor. He turned around to see Yeon Hwa wielding the sword, its blade against her own pulsing neck.

“Leave and I’ll end it all here. Do you know how scandalous it would be if a queen commits suicide in front of her king?” she taunted him. The last thing he needed now was a perished Queen in such ill manner.

“Do it.” Gwangjong dared her.

She was stunned at this open challenge and with a quivering voice she spoke louder. “I swear I do it.”

“Do it now. It makes things easier for me. I can replace you with her by next morning.” He put his hands behind him, completely at ease as if he was watching a play instead of his Queen attempting suicide.

She tried to reason with him. “She told me she doesn’t want to be a queen. She does not want it. She does not want it because I have occupied this seat first. Why bother giving it to her?” She pleaded.

“Simple. I don’t want you. I want her. Pull that blade across your neck. Come on, one swift movement. You’ve seen how I did it outside just now. Do it.” He egged her to continue, his hands moving, acting as a visual aid to his clear instructions.

She bulged at this. Yeon Hwa dropped the sword to the ground. It clattered close to her before she pushed it away with her foot.

“You don’t have it in you. The courage to do what’s right. That, set you and her a world apart. Kill yourself? Hah! You couldn’t even live with a scar what more to end it all for good. Stay alive for now, I need you to continue this charade, so the clans won’t breathe down my neck, drowning me with marriage proposals like they used to do with our late father. Play your part well Queen. You are not entirely useless for the time being. I will tell you when you can die.”

With a swish of his robe, he left her alone. Disheveled and distraught knowing that all these while, she was a mere pawn in the palace, with specific roles to benefit the king. She had no choice but to continue playing her part as Queen because the alternate option to hurt him was to die early and see him scrambled against the wedding proposals and pressure by the clans. Yet she was a coward, she could not go down that path of self-destruction. What option was left for her? Play her part well, then wait for the inevitable to come, to be cast aside like old clothes, like rags. 

She was content all this while. There was no other position higher than hers in the palace.

Yeon Hwa contemplated what had gone wrong in her life.

What went wrong?

Hae Soo.

Hae Soo.

--------------------

Chapter Text

“…and the Dark Lord casts upon the Boy Who Lived the ultimate unforgivable curse. Avada Kedavra.” Ha Jin continued after a long pause since she was also busy feeding the princess. “Aji, say ahh. Open your mouth.” The chubby little princess opened her mouth wide, showcasing two little pearly whites before she devoured the food. “Good girl.” She pushed the princess’s hair out from her face and wiped her mouth clean. “Wang Ju! Do you want to taste what Mummy Jin is feeding Aji with? It’s good!”

“No, Mummy Jin! You tricked me once before. I am a clever boy, I won’t fall for it again!” He stuck his tongue out in her direction, before he ran off to Ari, playing catch.

Baek Ah smiled at the cheerful atmosphere. Who would have thought he could have his good friend back? Now she was happier as compared to the last time he saw her. He knew how she had lost her baby. He was shocked himself when he attended her funeral, to see a small bundle laid down with her on the funeral pyre. But to see this? How openly she loved So’s children with Yeon Hwa? He realized how generous his friend was when it came to loving and accepting others. He was proud to have her friendship. He was listening to her story and allowed her to pause every now and then, but the story had come to its crucial part and he could not contain his curiosity anymore.

“Come on Ha Jin. I’m dying from suspense over here. Don’t tell me the boy dies just like that. What kind of story is this? I want happy ending Ha Jin! I did not come here for the past few weeks to have it end like that. Come on.”

Ha Jin chuckled at his impatience. It reminded her of Eun and his childish antics. “I am not done yet. Patience Your Highness.”

He felt an instant relief knowing that the story had yet to come to its end. “Oh, okay. Continue please.”

“The boy does not die. But a small essential part of someone else did. Can you guess? It has something to do with the Dark Lord’s Horcrux.” Ha Jin face was full of anticipation. Can he guess it? This part is the second biggest plot twist after McGonagall offered Harry biscuits in her office.

“Wait. Wait let me think this through. The boy doesn’t die, but a small part of someone else did? And it has something to do with the Horcrux? Is it..? Could it be...? Could it be that the curse kills a fragment of the Dark Lord’s soul? But how?”

“Yes. You have been paying attention. Turns out the night his parents died, when the Dark Lord cast the curse onto him, it rebounded and hit the caster instead. His soul split and attached itself to the boy. That is the part that died, not the boy.”

“Wow, Ha Jin. Wow. I did not see that coming. Ahhh, happy ending. I like stories with happy ending.”

“Happy ending is not for everyone though. And the story is far from wrapping itself. Do you not want to visit again to know the rest?”

“There’s more to it? Fine, I’ll swing by tomorrow. Yah, you must be so lonely if you don’t mind seeing me on weekly basis.” Ha Jin laughed. She did not feel that lonely anymore. The King had been very open nowadays, especially after the ash incident. He did not ask her much about it. She did not ask him much after it. But she could feel the shift in the air. The Queen no longer visited her. So would bring the kids to her during the day instead of the usually stolen night visits. But sure, having friend was nice. A familiar face she did not have to be wary about.

Baek Ah was not done. “If I want a long sob story with death at the end, I just need to close my eyes and think about my life. When I read stories, when I listen to stories, I want an escape from the pain, not add more to it.” He gazed to the sky before his eyes fall to the happy, gurgling princess now having fun blowing bubbles, the front of her clothes getting wetter with each blow.

“You still miss her.” Ha Jin stated the obvious. The look of longing when he looked at the princess was familiar to her. She understood that.

He sighed. “Everyday. But nowadays I can’t even conjure her face in my mind.” He closed his eyes, trying.

“Maybe it is time to let go.” Ha Jin nudged his arm.

“Not yet.” He took another long breath, filling himself with the assurance that he was in fact doing the right thing, to not let her go, even when he doubted it at times. He turned to Ha Jin and asked this one question that had been bothering him since the first time he saw her back.

“Tell me how you get this scar, and the colour of your hair? I never see it before.” Ha Jin pulled few strands of her hair, wondering to herself why the colour had not yet fade. It had been closed to what, seven, eight months now? Is it a reminder that I don’t belong?

“Draw me in exchange of the story. Make me pretty okay?” she cleaned the princess before she tried to pass her to Ari. The princess struggled, her palms opening and closing intermittently as she cried.”Mijin, mijin!”

“Aww, is that your first word? Ju, look at your sister, she called me Mijin!” Ha Jin was ecstatic. Wang Ju ran towards her, his hands on his waist, annoyed at his little sister. “Aji, it’s Mummy Jin. Not Mijin. Try again.”

“Mi…Jin!” Everyone laughed. How precious! I wish So could hear that too! He must be annoyed to have her calling me first. She turned to Baek Ah and said, “Make me pretty ok? It’s for the children.”

“You are one vain woman.” Baek Ah laughed as he shook his head. He took out his equipment’s, his brushes and sketching book.

Ha Jin laughed brightly. “Ah come on, I never have my portrait drawn!”

“I got it. I’ll draw it as similar as possible.”

“Not pretty you mean?” she teased.

“Are you being self-conscious? You are…okay, I guess.” Baek Ah rolled his eyes at her.

As his hands got busy and his concentration was thick in the air, Ha Jin expressed a silent gratitude over this gift of friendship. To have it back was something she had not count on but once gained, she would treasure for life. As she stilled herself, so Baek Ah could draw her with as much details he could include, her mind travelled to the first time he saw her again and how the simple word of future she had thought him once turned out to be a key to his acceptance.

-------------------

Ha Jin was learning to embroider again that particular day.  She missed Myung Hee, who had patiently nudged her to learn this skill. She was halfway done, embroidering small flowers or more like attempts to embroider flowers that looked so much more like clouds now as distracted as she was. She stretched herself and threw her gaze towards the bridge. She halted when she recognized that silhouette, making his way closer and closer. Baek Ah!

She gathered her patchwork and dumped them all in the box before flinging it inside the house. She was freaking out because part of her wanted to say hello to her friend yet another part of her asked herself, how are you going to explain yourself? Hello Baek Ah, I come back from death. Nice weather isn’t it?

As she was lost in her own frantic mind, she did not realize Baek Ah had been staring at her. “Hae Soo?”

“Eh, no, no. Ha Jin.” She extended her right hand to him – to shake hands. He looked at her hand, then looked at her, his face puzzled. Oh! She realized her mistake. She quickly bowed and greet him properly. “Greetings Your Highness. How may I help you today?” She smiled while praying with all faith she could muster for him to not ask her difficult question because she was at lost at how to answer any.

He pierced her with the most intense stare before he continued. “I, I want to leave a drawing for the king, of his family as a gift. What are you doing here? Wouldn’t the king be mad? He guards this place from strangers.” He took in her appearance, so different yet so familiar.

“Your Highness, I live here.” She answered carefully. Should I or should I not say that? Ha Jin was sweating bullets from this mere encounter.

Baek Ah hid his shock at this revelation. So was protective of this place. There could only be one explanation as to why he allowed this particular lady to reside here. She must be her. “You live here? Oh, if that’s the case, I will leave the drawing with you. Make sure he receives it. It is a picture of his only family that he had lost.” He half wished this Ha Jin would immediately look at the drawing to confirm his suspicions.

“I will make sure of that Your Highness” she promised as the drawing changed hands. She was itching to peek but contained herself.

“I should take my leave then.” He took a few steps back. She’s dead yet she’s here? He pinched his arms hard. Ouch.

“Take care Your Highness.” She bowed down respectfully, thankful at this shortened meeting.

“Make sure he got the drawing.” He reminded her. If she’s truly her, she should recognize me. I’m her friend.

“Yes, Your Highness.” She repeated her answer.

“Be careful and don’t smudge it.” Now how do I get her to reveal that she’s her?

“Yes, Your Highness.” Why is he not leaving?

"Don't forget to inform the king that the painting is a gift from me." he tried to stall his own leaving.

"Yes, Your Highness." How many times should I repeat this? 

“I am counting on you, okay?” he laid out his trap, hoping she would walk right through it. If she’s her, she will know that word.

She could feel her back stiff from bowing. Her nervousness had been replaced by annoyance to be hampered with the same thing over and over. She sighed as she responded too quick without thinking. “Okay, okay Your Highness. No worries.” She made the sign to accompany the word and waived it to the prince.

He froze and so did she as she realized what she had given away. “Hae Soo?”

“No, Ha Jin. I am never Hae Soo.”

“Ha Jin then, I got it, you don’t want people to come after you after the late king’s decree isn’t it. Where have you been all these times? I swear I saw you burn.”

With just that, he was now back into her life. Her good friend, so accepting he was, that he did not question the way she arrived in this world for the second time.

--------------------

“Wah, Uncle Baek Ah is that Mummy Jin? She’s so pretty when she laughs like that.” Wang Ju stood behind his uncle, peering at the almost finished painting.

Baek Ah cleared the smudge on the painting and looked at it once more, looking at what could be done to call it a finished product. “Do you think she’s pretty? Even with her scar?” He teased. Baek Ah knew for a fact that Ha Jin never covered her scar. It is part of me. She had once answered. He was just asking the children to gauge their reaction. It would be nice to know if others could be as easily accepting as her.

Wang Ju put his small hand underneath his chin. His go-to pose whenever he wanted to show others that he was indeed thinking. “She’s pretty. She always smiles when she sees me and Aji. I like her scar, when I sleep with her and it’s dark and I can’t see, I’ll just touch her face and I will know she’s here with me. Father thought me not to judge others’ appearance. It’s what inside that counts. Although I don’t know how to see the inside.” He pondered over this for a second. “Is that me and Aji?” He pointed to the small children in the painting. “Aji looks so fat.”

Baek Ah laughed and so did Ha Jin. She came closer to see the painting for herself. It was a painting of her and her children playing together. Ju was on her back, climbing her body while she laughed, one hand holding Aji, one more hand trying to stop Ju from falling. And yes, Aji was so chubby and so, so cute with her red cheeks.

“She’s not fat Wang Ju. She’s growing up.” She looked again at the painting, now close to her picture and was stunned. She did not recognize that woman. With her red hair pulled back in a simple ponytail, her scar faintly visible, her head was thrown back, her smile so wide.  She looked so happy, so content, so…. beautiful. Is that me? When is the last time I look that happy?

“You look so mesmerizing Ha Jin.” So’s voice brought her back to reality. When did he arrive? He sat down next to Baek Ah, picking up Aji and pulling Ju closer to him. He took off Wang Ju’s hat and wiped dry his sweat that was matting his hair to his forehead.  “My son, do you have fun playing with Mummy Jin?” Ju nodded, his hands busy stuffing himself with cakes. So saw this and hold his one hand still, “Pace yourself, you’ll get stomach-ache if you eat too fast.”

Ha Jin warmed up at the sight in front of her. Whoever doubted So’s ability to love were all fools and too quick to judge him. Look at him. Giving me reason after reason to love him more daily. Ha Jin beamed as So smiled in her direction.

“I asked Baek Ah to draw me prettily for the children. That is his doing. I don’t think I look like that.”

Baek Ah gathered his supplies as he scoffed listening to Ha Jin accusation. One minute she asked me to make her pretty, another minute she could not believe her eyes. “Hey, I only draw what I see.”

Ju, listening to this, could not help but offering his own opinion. “But Mommy Jin does look like that. She’s pretty and I love her.”

“You love, -” she had not the chance to finish her sentence as Aji gave out the loudest fart accompanied with the foulest smell.

So laughed out loud, followed by Baek Ah, and everyone including Aji herself.

“I think Aji thinks you are pretty too.” So kissed his daughter.

Ha Jin looked at everyone and laughed along. My own family. My own beloved family.

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The Queen stopped in her track as she heard laughter coming from the house. She had planned to visit her children only to be told that they were already brought to Lady Dong Ji, that woman’s new name bestowed by the king. But the king knew too well not to appoint Hae Soo with any formal title because he knew that would put her directly underneath the Queen’s claws.  She was so angry. She had suffered sleepless nights and nightmares when sleep finally descended, a parting gift by the king, courtesy of the severed heads on her bed. She had lay low for months now, stopping herself from gaining unwanted, dangerous attention from the king in fear of being cast away. But hearing those laughter when she was suffering was too much. She turned around, heading to her own palace.

“Go to Wang Won’s residence. Tell him the Queen requests his presence tomorrow.”

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Chapter Text

When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.

-Socrates

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There were new lies of severe magnitude on how Lady Dong Ji was the reincarnation of his dead lover, rising to seek vengeance, her final wish to have the king’s head for throwing her out of the palace. There were also the old whispers, resurfacing, addressing her as an animal, ‘The Red Wolf’ they called her, an ill-omened to those who came close to her. If that was not enough, some referred to her as ‘The King’s Wench’. News travelled, with time, it reached the King’s ears as well.

The king tried to put an end to it for fear it would hurt her. He was thinking about it when she asked what was on his mind. He let her know. She would learn of them sooner or later. But upon hearing those names herself, she gave him a wry smile.

They were far from the palace. At night, they would leave the palace in secret under the pretence of him teaching her how to ride a horse but for her it was more like a secret rendezvous – of Romeo and Juliet. She loved every moment of it. She considered the names given to her and she laughed to herself. If only So knew the things she had said to the Queen and how well she handled the insults he wouldn’t have any reason to worry. But her unfiltered answers ended up with her having ashes shoved to her mouth, so it was fair to see it as moot point – a valid reason for the uneasiness simmering in his mind.

“How fragile do you think I am So?” She pulled the reign of her horse, slowly stopping them both on the track. She was getting better each day, thanks to So’s patience in teaching her. She continued as silence answered her question. “Let them be. The names, no matter how insulting they are, they don’t make me less of a person. I know my value, you know the real me, who cares what others think? I don’t.” and she jerked the reign of her horse, leaving him behind.

She really is a free soul. Being in her own body allowed him to see this side of hers. Wise beyond her age, stronger than any woman he knew with an air of confidence yet humility surrounding her. If only people would see her beyond her appearance, they would fall to her feet, the same way I already did.

“Are you coming or are you going to let me win this race yet again?!” she yelled from afar, clearly giddy with the thought of winning.

“I let you win last time because I am a gentleman!” He urged his horse to keep up with her. Their nights were spent either alone with one another, or with the children or riding horses, away from the confining palace. Ha Jin loved to be outside the palace. “A nice change of surrounding. The air outside the palace carries freedom with it. I miss it.” she confessed after their first outing.

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As they watched the sun rising together, out of nowhere, he blurted out, “Why Wook?” He knew it was childish, it was in the past, they had gone through so much that matter seemed very pale in comparison, yet he could not stop himself from asking.

Ha Jin tried. Tried her best to stop her body from shaking with laughter. Apparently, the resentment was still there after all these years? So gave her a side eyed, clearly bothered by her reaction. She clamped her mouth shut yet a snickering smile was still visible to him. She took a long breath and wound her arms around his broad shoulder and gave him a small peck on his cheek. “You really want to know?”

“I do.”

“Hmmph…Wook is an idea. An idea of how a prince should be. Some fantasy little girls cling to when they picture a prince sweeping them of the ground with his charms. When I first know him, he was good looking, kind and clever.  He was polite and treat everyone with respect. With all of that, it was easy to fall for him. He was the opposite of you.” She picked up a twig and draw a circle on the ground mindlessly, buying time to let the answer delivered a just explanation to the one asking.

“If he’s the sun, you are the moon. What I had with him made me feel as if I was rushed to the sky, flying freely. What I have with you made me feel grounded to the core of this very land. Firm and unyielding. Like mountain that could not be moved. Once it takes its place it can’t be reasoned with anymore. Like you, stubborn.” She pinched his cheek playfully. He pulled her hand in his and kissed her palm. She felt right to finally confess something she kept all these whiles.

 “There is something I kept from you, all this time. I think, what I had for Wook was not entirely mine. I think I inherited some from the owner of the body, Hae Soo herself. The moment he left me in the rain, I gave up on him already but over the years, there were still some part of her that clung to him. I acknowledge it, but I did not act upon it.” She convinced him earnestly.

“Forgive me for asking in the first place. I do trust you.” He was pleased to hear her explanation, especially the part where she compared her feelings to him and Wook. Ha Jin did have a way with words. Very straightforward yet soothing. But he was far from done. Ha Jin mentioned once how she did love Jin Hyuk, the man who sent her here in the first place, the same person who drove enough madness within her, to push her to commit suicide after her mother’s death in his hands, sending her here yet again. She mentioned how she loved him enough not to kill him during their first fight.

“How about Jin Hyuk? You told me once how you did have feelings for him. You don’t have to answer if it’s too much…”

Her expression turned wistful at his question. She did not expect that from him. But she had reminded herself repeatedly, promising this second chance they were bequeathed with honesty and openness, so they would not repeat their mistakes before.

“You know, since you asked, I suddenly remembered how he too had a penchant for fresh leaf tea.” She was quite taken aback herself at this memory. It had been so long since she thought of him. Her mother’s murderer. Killing me, I could forgive, but killing her?

“With him, yes, I did have some feelings for him. How can I not? We were assigned partners in the police force. We worked together and at one point I did believe, foolish me, I did believe that we could be together. But in the end, he betrayed me. Jealousy, over something we had achieved together yet for him it felt as if I had robbed him from his glory.” She could feel old wounds festering at this reawakening of old memories. She patted So’s leg gently. “Enough now. I don’t want to ruin the mood.”

“I’m sorry.” He used the same phrase he had heard from her. He kneaded her hands gently, guilty at the questions he had asked yet relieved to know that she experienced enough love to differentiate between love that was worth fighting for, and love that should be left behind. She smiled, noticing the familiar phrase that only came from knowing her.

“It’s okay.” She told him, signalling that she did not take it to her heart. It is normal to be curious of our lover’s past. As long as we don’t punish each other for past mistakes what’s so wrong in confiding in one another?

“You know, that is rich coming from someone who married twice, both times not to me.” She said it playfully, teasing him.

A cloud of pain covered him as he heard those words from her. She said it lightly, but it must have been hurting her all these whiles.

His head hung low, guilty at his inability to keep her by his side. “I hurt you a lot…why do you love me still? What do you see in me?”

“When I truly look at you I realized, we are the same. We were both trying to fit in and I can’t help myself from helping because I was struggling myself too. You were full of anger and lashed out to everyone, I understand that. I feel you because for a short while, I was angry too when I was first sent here. We are in the same boat after all. And at one point we were literally in your boat.” She tried to make him laughed, to turn this rendezvous to something that will end with smiles.

He turned his body to face her, his eyes laden with guilt then turned to strong resolve to make it up for her. “I will make you my Queen Ha Jin. I promise you, this time, nothing will stop me.”

She returned his gaze and placed one hand covering his cheek, the other holding his hand. “So, my love. You listen to me now and understand one thing; I do not want to be a queen. I am content, just to be here with you. I do not envy the Queen for her title, but I do envy her giving not one, but two children for you.” So tried to speak but Ha Jin shushed him.

She took a long breath to steady herself. Children were definitely a sensitive topic for her because she understood the currency of her fate. To attain one, she must let go something in return. To have this chance to be with him, she had to pay it with the death of her cherished mother. She doubted fate would be kind to her and allowed her to soak so much happiness with no price to pay. What more to have a child, despite how much she yearned for it. To experience pregnancy in her own body, feeling the kicks and gentle hiccups that shook a mother’s body. She closed her eyes as she trembled at her own bravery to dream of something impossible.

“We lost ours to fate and honestly, I doubt we will get another. I am not meant to be here with you in the first place, I am a mistake and nothing from me will survive this world. With that being said, I only have you, I only want you and let me love you with ways I am capable of, free from the chains of title and anything that will get in between us. Will you let me do just that? Please?” she pleaded gravely to him, her eyes shining with tears, brimming and waiting to fall.

That was a loaded confession coming from Ha Jin. So could never guess that all these times Ha Jin felt that she was a mistake. “No, Ha Jin, you are never a mistake. How can someone so pure, so full of love be a mistake?” He wiped her tears away. It must have been hard for her. This life of theirs have been so bizarre it was hard to wrap one’s mind around it. “Fate can be harsh, to you, and to me too, but look at what it gives us – each other. We found each other, and love one another so much, that fate sent you back, giving us a second chance.” He pulled her on his laps, her back against his chest as he placed his hands on her belly. “I think it wouldn’t hurt, to hope that the same fate will give us a chance to have our own child.” He tried his best to convince Ha Jin that there would be more than enough happiness set for them in their future.

“Do you-“her lips quivered as she voiced out her fear. “Do you really believe that I could get pregnant again? Do you really believe that fate won’t take our child away again?” She feared so much that fate would snatch her child away yet again because she really believed it to her core that should that happened, that would be it. That would break her indefinitely.

“I do. And this time, I would get the privilege to take care of you. To see our child, grow within you. I would hunt for the freshest meat for you, so you could gain enough weight to rival even Aji’s chubby cheeks.” She laughed at this. Me? As chubby as Aji? How ridiculous!

“I would get to see you glowing with pregnancy. I would get to feel each kick with you. I would be with you, each moment of the day…” Ha Jin felt her back wet with his tears and she realized, she was not the only one pained by the loss of Seol. So suffered too. So did not even know that she was pregnant until it was too late. He had missed everything.

She pulled his arms around her, hugging her tightly, enveloping her small frame with his warmth. Maybe it wouldn’t kill to just hope. Maybe, just maybe, this time around fate will be kind and allow them that much.

“I want that. I want to experience that with you. I love you. So, so much.” She whispered to him.

He burrowed his face against the crook of her neck as he whispered a small thank you.

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Chapter Text

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

-Confucius

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“Wang Won, how do you fare under Gwangjong’s ruling?” Yeon Hwa dismissed her maid as she poured him a cup of tea herself. This was a discreet matter to discuss with, the lesser witnesses involved, the better.

“Surviving. Still alive, free – a better fate compared to what had befallen upon the eighth prince.” Won picked up his cup, appreciating the scent of the tea prepared in the palace. He missed it. There was no way to replicate the taste of fine things inside the palace, and he for one, really did enjoy finer things in life.

Yeon Hwa smiled at his answer. At the end of the day, they were both similar to one another. Wang Won and Yeon Hwa were snakes that were quick to change their loyalty, their plan, throwing away any allies as long as they get what they wished for, as long as they got to come out alive.

Yeon Hwa took a sip of her own cup. “It has been a long time since I saw you last in the palace. You never visit anymore.”

To which Won reply with a dry smile. “The king…is not that fond of me. What more with what I have done with the late kings, under the careful instructions from your brother.”

She picked up these carefully laced accusations. As if he was forced to do Wook’s bidding. She reminded him of that while answering. “You did what you did in return for them turning their eyes blind over how you gather your wealth. How is it now? Getting wealthier or have the king’s latest decrees robbed you a significant amount?” She returned his jab delicately.

“A significant amount, yes. But I could not do much about it now could I? All our brothers are either dead or banish from the palace. Allies are nowhere to be seen. The best course of action is to just follow through with the King’s wishes. People are afraid of the King Your Majesty. And based on the last rumor I heard, so do you.” He smiled cunningly. He was far from the palace, yes, but he made sure to keep himself in the loop over anything that happened in it. The beheaded guards were one of many stories that amused him to no end.

Yeon Hwa gritted her teeth. “You have been following the changes happening inside the palace I assumed.” She was mortified to know that the incident that took place months ago was still being talked about around the palace even now reaching out to even Won who lived far despite her warnings to the witnesses. She calmed herself down at what she took as an insult. She needed allies. She had thrown her family connection purely for the King, now she was scrambling to build her own web of power. She had to be patient and let such jabs passed. “Are you interested in being part of the change? The hands that control the strings inside the palace?”

Won stopped from taking a sip of the delicious fine tea. He placed it gently on the table as he looked directly at the Queen. “Are you planning something against our current King, Your Majesty? Forgive me if I heard wrong.” His smile was casual yet his eyes glinted with anticipation.

“Not yet,” the Queen assured him. “but it would definitely speed up the process should you care to be part of it. I recall you are very talented in executing something discreetly.”

“One of my many talents. Lots of people think I am all about wealth but no, there’s more to me than meets the eye. I love to be included in things, in general. The current atmosphere is, dare I say, a bit suffocating for people like me.” With the second wave of the decree regarding slaves, on which owners must now provide fair wages while paying the taxes was a low blow for him and many others. He could sense how people loathed it but kept quiet and follow through since the King had scattered all potential allies and made everyone cower under his thumb.

“Good.” The Queen bought some time before she continued with the main agenda of the meeting. “Now, I know for a fact you are well informed in almost everything.”

Won barked a laugh. “Now, now Your Majesty. I hate to boast but there is some truth in that. I take pride in knowing things. Every single piece of information is vital. Everyone is worth knowing. Sooner or later, each will show its uses. Anything that exists in this world is laid out, waiting to be manipulated by those who are well versed in it.”

The Queen was pleased to hear his answer. “Wang Won, you are such a valuable ally to keep close. My wish is fairly simple, nothing extravagant for now. Would you please send me the best shaman in our land?” She had plans. To hurt the other woman that took away her own children from their rightful mother.

“Tsk tsk tsk, Your Majesty.” Won pretended to chastise her gently. “Participating in dark magic? Someone of your status? Isn’t that beneath you?”

“It’s meant for someone beneath me. You don’t have to get thoroughly involved in this fight.” She warned him.

“Is it meant for a certain Lady Dong Ji?” He pushed his luck. He heard about it. It took the King years, but he finally moved on from that mistress. Upon hearing such news, Won remembered laughing to himself. So much for true love, a man with power could never resist the company of women especially a man holding the highest position in the nation.

“You heard of her?” She feigned her surprised, wondering how much he knew exactly.

“I heard rumors. Rumors that I don’t buy.” 

“Then leave it there. No need to put too much attention on a pest.” the Queen warned her. This fight is personal. 

“Very well. I’ll send her tonight. I do feel obligated to advise that these kinds of magic require a price too steep, explaining why most choose not to dwell on it.” He knew how these things work. He had seen it before and he believed, with all that he had that one should never underestimate the power of spirits especially when it involved those who kept some evil close to them to do their bidding.

“I would not be inquiring if I could not afford the price.” The Queen sent him a glare.

He dipped his head just a tad lower. “Of course, Your Majesty. Silly of me to doubt a Queen. I will take my leave then. Whatever it is, I wish you all the best.”

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The night was cold with a twinge of malice surrounding it. The moon had refused to make an appearance, choosing to hide behind the clouds instead of witnessing evil. It was awfully quiet, with not a single sound could be heard filling the air. It was one of those nights one should be cautious, for the darkness hidden before had decided to come out and play, tainting everything blocking their path.

Sun Ja, the shaman from the mountain made her way to the palace through the hidden path. Her eyes glinted with a calculating look that pierced anyone who dared to stare. It was as if she could see through you - your past and future and the things she saw were not something you wanted to know. Her steps were followed by silence, as if the earth itself tried to cover her existence, saving others from following her tracks – the path that would doom you to hell. She was clad in a simple robe, of black and white, threading the path alone with no one guiding her except the devil himself. The Queen had summoned her, and here she came, playing her part in this crude game called fate.

“Greetings Your Majesty. Sun Ja from the mountain pays her respect to you.” She bowed down to the ground, following the custom of the commoner when there was blessed enough to be summoned by the Queen of the nation herself. Yeon Hwa took in her appearance. It sent her an unexplainable shiver down her spine especially when she realized that no one had been sent to help her find her way inside the palace. She started to have second thoughts, but she threw her caution to the wind as the vengeance she bore within her bubbled up close to the surface.

“Rise Sun Ja. I have been told that you are the best shaman of our land. It is an honor to meet you.” The Queen offered her compliment to appease the shaman, making it easier for her to achieve what she set out to gain from this meeting. 

“Your Majesty, Sun Ja is far from the best. I just read fate better, see the future clearer compared to others,” she spoke calmly, not letting mere praise to bend her to anyone's feet.

“Enough with the pleasantries. I need something to be done, something that is untraceable, hence why you are here.” Yeon Hwa cut the conversation down. She wanted to be done quickly to stop suspicions arising from others within the palace. 

“I understand Your Majesty. People always come to me to keep their hands untainted, to keep their conscience clean by letting spirits that dwell in darkness do their bidding. Who has dared to offend our Queen? May I know?”

“Someone from the past. Someone everyone thought was dead but come back and threatening me,” she spoke through her gritted teeth, her hands balled up into fists. 

“Do you happen to have anything of hers with you?” 

“As a matter of fact, I do.” She passed her a small box, parts of Hae Soo she had managed to gather from their last encounter.

Sun Ja took the box and peered inside. Ashes and a piece of clothing. Interesting. She took out a worn, chipped bowl from her own bundle and placed it in front of her. She lighted it up, closed her eyes and muttered incantations, making the light go brighter and blinding. A strong wind suddenly burst through the room, snuffing other sources of light out. The bowl act as a medium for her to see, the relic that connected this world to other realms. She threw the fistful of ashes inside the bowl; a hiss could be heard by those inside the room. The Queen was astounded as she watched the smoke swirled like waves, moving and bending at one place, not quickly dispersed as what normal smokes would do.

Sun Ja lost herself to the spirits, begging them to show her what others would not dare to see. She saw snippets of Hae Soo’s life, a simple woman, never hurting others, making her wondered what this innocent child could have done to threaten the Queen. As she looked harder, she saw something that piqued her interest. Every person soul was visible to those who were chosen by the heavens to be able to see. A soul looked similar to a shiny pearl residing within a person’s heart, it colors to match the spiritual aura of the said person. But this girl, Hae Soo, had different colored pearl, signaling that there was a lost soul residing within her as her own soul diminished. How peculiar, I never encountered such thing before in my whole life. What an honor to witness such occurrence.

She opened her eyes as she picked up the piece of clothing from the small box and threw it to the fire, engulfed by the heat. The fire turned emerald green and Sun Ja had managed to barely cover her own surprise in time to this strange reaction. Again, she closed her eyes, willing herself to see. This time around, she saw snippets of life of a different soul named Ha Jin. She saw her killing a man and she was surprised to see the connection between their little fingers. She saw her jumped off the cliff, as she made her way back to the past. My my, what do we have over here. A direct intervention by the heavens itself?

“The name of the woman who torments you is known as Hae Soo before and now she goes by with the name Ha Jin isn’t it, Your Majesty? Correct me if I am wrong.”

“Yes, yes. Exactly. Is there a way to hurt her?” 

“There are countless ways to hurt anyone. But if I may Your Majesty, do you really think it is wise to hurt someone who cheated death twice by now?” Sun Ja warned her indirectly.

“What are you saying? What death? She is alive, breathing, spending night after night with the King while everyone in the palace laughs at me! I want her to burn, I want her to beg me for mercy and every minute of her sufferings I would witness it from my seat as the Queen.”

“Very well. I am a humble servant that would obey her master without question. What do you want to do with her?”

Yeon Hwa mulled over this. Initially, she wanted her to perish as quickly as she came but for all the things, the humiliation she had gone through, she wanted Hae Soo to pay for it two times fold. She wanted her to bleed, to suffer slowly in agonizing pain. She said she did not want to be a Queen? I don’t believe it. However, she could quickly rise to be one, should she manage to provide the king with heirs. And Yeon Hwa swore to never let that happen. I would be the only one who provides the King with heirs. The King can never throw me away then.

“I want her barren, deny from even a strand of hope of offering a child to the king.”

The shaman raised her eyebrows at this request. A woman, wishing such calamity to befallen other women? Pure cruelty. “That is impossible Your Majesty.”

“Impossible? Impossible?” The Queen half shrieking at this answer. “I was told you are the best! I’m not asking you to kill her, I just want her to be barren. Simple!”

Sun Ja shook her head and decided to play along. “And what do you have to offer in exchange for such wish? The price to hurt others is steep Your Majesty. What do you plan to give? Something pure, something precious of yours that worthy enough for the spirit to do your bidding. Your life? Your crown? Your children perhaps?”

Yeon Hwa was shocked to hear the options available to her. It could not be my life, I want to see her suffer and I could not do that if I die. It could not be my crown, I work very hard, sacrificed so much to earn it in the first place. My children…? Children are expendable, wouldn’t it? Once the king realizes Hae Soo was barren, he would come back to me. I could give him more. 

“My children then.”

Sun Ja’s lips formed a straight line at this answer. Such a selfish being. But she was not here to judge, simply to play her part as a mandate by the deities. She offered the Queen a piece of paper. “Now Your Majesty, you have to write your children’s name on this piece of paper using your own blood. If I may?”

Sun Ja hold her hand out to the Queen. Her gaze made even the Queen doubted her decision, yet the Queen obliged, and she grasped the Queen’s hands tighter. The shaman took this chance to know more. She was exceptionally good at reading others. When her skin came in contact with others, she could see which part of life the other was living. Every living being in the world was given four chances to lead four lives; one that sows, one that waters, one that reaps and one that consumes. And this particular Queen was watering her life with deceits and vengeance. She would reap it well in her next life. She chuckled to herself. She took the Queen’s hand to the bowl and scrapped one of her delicate fingers against the jagged rim. The Queen winced audibly as she watched few of her blood trickled into the bowl. She pulled her hand swiftly and wrote down the name of her own children, used as currency by their evil mother.

Sun Ja picked up the paper once the Queen was done, folding it before she fed it to the fire. She rose her hands up in the air, summoning the otherworldly to come and do the Queen’s bidding.

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Ha Jin was sleeping when she felt the pain stabbing her lower abdomen. She thought it was the usual cramps, that came together with her monthly menstruation. She slowly lifted the blanket, not wanting to wake So up. She left the room to take a breather in the cold air outside. She clutched her clothes tightly as the pain became more acute. It felt as if someone was twisting her inside and not letting go. She tried to draw in long breaths, but the pain was adamant to stay, blinding her with it. She moved further from the house. She could feel scream tethering at the edge of her lips as the pain grew intense with every passing seconds. She stumbled towards her mother’s praying tower. “Mother, help me. It hurts so much.” She begged as she sat herself close to the tower, feeling the coldness of the stone against her skin.

The pain subsided for a while before it was replaced with fire. Hot, scorching fire, raging within her. She did not understand this pain. The fire was everywhere as it burned her inside to the ashes. She clawed her clothes to pieces, trying to see for herself where the fire originated. Her tears flowed freely by now, an attempt made by her body to put out the fire. She bit her lips hard as she was bent into a foetal position on the ground. She could taste her blood. What is happening here?!

And the fire subsided too after a while, leaving her sprawled against the ground. She thought that was it, that was the end before she felt her womb lavished by a sudden coldness. She shivered from the cold. Icy cold grip, threatening to shatter her bones. It was too much, too much she told herself as she lost herself to the pain.

She woke up not long after that. The sky was still dark. She was baffled as to why she was outside, lying on the ground. It did not help when she looked down and realized her clothes were torn and by the looks of it, it looked as if she herself has torn it to tethers. She stood up and dusted herself. As she entered the house she saw him still sleeping. She cleaned herself, changed her clothes and lied down next to So, hugging him as she asked herself, what happened?

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The shaman left after she was done fulfilling the Queen’s wish. She mulled over it again and again wondering if she had done the right thing. People see her kind as those who have powers to change fate. But she was merely a means for it to happen, offering a nudge every now and then. She could not move Heavens. She could not kill and hurt someone just as easy. What she could do was offering a trade. A life for a life, a birth of a child at the sake of the death of a different child.  She turned herself facing the palace when she had gathered enough distance between herself and the king’s dwelling.

“We will meet each other Ha Jin. I owe you an explanation.” She sent her message to the wind, hoping by chance she could hear it.

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Chapter Text

There is a purpose in your season of waiting.

-Megan Smalley-

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When Ha Jin was a small girl, she dreamt of having a beautiful dollhouse as owned by her friends at school. She was never invited to play with them – she came from a family made up from just her and her mother, back then money was always tight and spent on food rather than luxurious toys. Most of the time she made up her own, with boxes and papers and that was the same reason why she was exceptionally good in handcrafts, in folding papers, in making small trinkets because papers, strings and beads were at least something they could afford of. That was why she treasured small handmade things, because to her it was the time spent on it that was truly the gift. It made her glad too as she realized So shared the same sentiment to all the things she had made for him; the paper wolf, her letters, her stories, all that she had to offer he had kept with him throughout the years. Since she had the children with her, she always had that thought to give one to them; a small wooden house, complete with tiny furniture. Only after she discovered that Ari was very handy with wood and carving that she dared to put her hands on in making one, having Ari to guide her.

There have been quietly working on it for a month now, the children were napping inside the house, allowing some peace and quiet for them to put the finishing touches on the doll house. The first time she showed Ari the frame of the house, Ari was puzzled. Ha Jin had built a doll house she remembered from her time, the simplest one being a two-tiered house of four rooms, with a triangle, standard roof. Ari had asked her, “Why is the room stacked together like that my Lady? I have never seen such peculiar house.”

Ha Jin scratched her head trying to offer a justifiable answer before she settled with a made-up explanation. “Well, it will be easier for the children to play if we combine Damiwon, Dong Ji residence, the throne room and their own residence under one roof wouldn’t it?”

Ari eyed the house for quite sometime before she exclaimed, “How nice! Maybe we could make our own tiles from clay and stacked it nicely on the roof? I could carve out some furniture to decorate each room if you allow it my Lady.” From then on, they worked together whenever they found free time, today was no different. Ari was busying herself with the task of putting each furniture on its place while Ha Jin was creating the family that would live in the house using papers. Papers she had painstakingly coloured with different shades of paint she obtained from Baek Ah, cut accordingly before she glued every piece together. She tried to paint intricate details of fabrics on the papers and she ended up seeking Baek Ah steady hands for it. She planned to glue the finished dolls onto a small block of wood to make it sturdier and lasted for quite some time. She had made dolls for everyone she called her family, of hers and So, Ju and Aji, Baek Ah and Ji Mong and Ari. Ari upon noticing this was closed to tears when she realized she was regarded as family by Ha Jin. Ha Jin patted her on her shoulder before she hugged her tight, “How can I not when you were the first to trust me with the children?”

Ari dried her tears as she mumbled, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the king made you his queen…” Ha Jin caught that and asked her back, “Why would you think I could be a queen?” This caught the maid off-guard but since her tone was filled with curiosity instead of trickery, Ari spoke out of the incident that made her pegged her loyalty to this lady once known as Court Lady Hae. “My Lady, don’t you remember saving me before? When you were -” she looked around, suddenly suspicious of her surrounding before she whispered, “when you were Court Lady Hae?”

 Ha Jin closed her eyes, trying to remember her life as Hae Soo. That life seemed so far away it blurred in her memories, drowned by the loss she carried to the future. She shook her head. “Tell me, I could not remember much of what had happened when I was a court lady.” And so, Ari told her of that time when she was still new to the palace, of how she was lost, alone finding her ways back to the kitchen when she came across the late king’s path. How the king had leered and forced himself onto her, how she had screamed for help yet everyone else turned their eyes away, pretending to be blind, pretending to be deaf. How Ha Jin had appeared out of nowhere, her eyes met Ari’s, pleading for an intervention and she offered just that with no second thoughts. Ha Jin pushed the king away, quickly helped Ari to stand up before telling her to run without looking back. But she did look back, just to see her saviour being held against the wall, the late king’s hand gripping her slender neck tight, threatening to snap it. “Do you wish to die?! I will kill you!” the king roared. Ari had thought that was the most frightening thing she had ever came to witness yet what she saw next was something she would remember for the rest of her life. Ha Jin had looked at Jeonjong with her own fierce eyes before she spoke “Do it and I will be free yet that is not something you would be kind enough to offer isn’t it?” Jeonjong was shocked and he flung her to the ground, leaving behind the one person he wanted so much to break yet he had failed each time.

“Don’t you remember my Lady? Your neck bruised for quite some time. It reminded me what a great service you had done for me that day. How you had saved me, when everyone chose to look away. And you were a court lady then and you still stand up to injustice, can you imagine the things you could do if you are a queen?” Ari tried to convince Ha Jin.

While the two were lost in their recollection of the past, both had failed to realize the presence of the king, listening quietly from a safe distance. He was rattled when he heard about how Yo had lain his hands on his person but was it really a shocking news? He himself had seen how Yo had physically abused her in his own presence. He was lost in his own thoughts before she heard Ha Jin’s voice being carried by the wind.

“I don’t know much about being a queen. I don’t have that much to offer to be a queen. But-,” she exhaled, a small smile appearing on her lips, ready to spill out her greatest desire, to her one friend, a woman that would most likely understand. “But, I would love to be his wife…and have his children, more siblings for Ju and Aji. But I’m afraid I wasted my chances back then.” She admired the doll house they had worked together, wishing that So would ask her one more time, and this time she swore she would say yes. 

“I always wonder why the King has not ask you yet my Lady. You two love each other so much. Maybe you should ask him instead. I doubt he will say no. His majesty loves you too much.” Ari smiled at her own daring suggestion. Ha Jin laughed at this but her mind was already considering the idea greatly. He did ask me few times before. Maybe it is my turn to propose?

Meanwhile, at the mention of the word wife, the king’s hearing immediately perked, and he listened more attentively than ever before. Just as Ha Jin finished her sentence, he turned around, leaving his person behind. I need to see Ji Mong. This time, I will have it plan meticulously.

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As So climbed the stairs of the astronomy tower, numerous questions plundered his mind. Ha Jin had chastised his way of asking her hands in marriage before, how he had just blurted it out without preparing something special. He doubted that was the main reason he was turned down repeatedly but if he searched within himself, he had no idea what Ha Jin expected when he asked her that question. What kind of preparations should he have done in the first place? Maybe the customs in her time are different. Ji Mong should know. After reaching the top of the stairs he called out for him.

“Ji Mong! Where are you?  I need your help.” His eyes searching for that man he had known since he was a child, since before he was sent away.

Ji Mong had just placed his head on his pillow, wanting to take a cat nap. As he heard his name being called insistently, he grumbled as he answered the king’s calling. He stood up, looked at his bed longingly before he showed himself to the king.

“Yes, Your Majesty. Can’t get enough of me isn’t it?” he teased bleakly, trying to hide his yawn. The king at the sight of his friend dazzled him with a blinding smile that made Ji Mong opened his eyes a tad bigger as he wondered what the reason behind that expression would be.

So pushed aside any small talks. “Ji Mong, how does people in her time ask for a person’s hands in marriage?” he was eager to know, eager to do it right this time around. And in order to do that, he needed help, from someone who knew the future well.

Ji Mong was baffled at first. “Proposal? As in wedding proposal?” he inquired confirmation yet again from the king, wondering if he heard him right the first time.

“Yes! She mentioned that before, but I do not understand. How does one do this marriage proposal properly?” So’s eyebrows scrunched up together, curious at the notion.

Ji Mong barked out a laugh. “Hmmm, a king in love is sure a nice sight to behold. Have you ever asked her before?” he was just plain curious and a bit nosey at it.

The king confessed. There was no point in hiding it. “I did. On three different occasions.”

The astronomer balked at this revelation. “Three? Explain.” He could no longer hid his curiosity at this slice of gossip.

So rolled his eyes at Ji Mong. It was embarrassing but he had to know what he had done wrong to rectify his mistakes. “The first time was as a means to offer her freedom from being a water maid. I did plan to ask her during Moo’s reign, but I end up marrying Moo’s daughter. Remember how I used to dodge any attempts when Moo tried arranging marriages for me? The second time was when I was already a king.  The third time was during the exorcism rite night, before she left the palace.”

Ji Mong remembered clearly how So evaded the questions of marriages before he was a king. He gave in at the end, at the sight of a child being used as an offering, just the way he was used before to appease the concubine of the Kang’s clan at her son’s death. He had never thought that So put so much thought in marriage, especially after he witnessed his father’s marriages. He was also surprised to know he proposed Ha Jin solely to help her get out from the palace. “And she said no to all?”

“She did.”

“Did you plan something elaborate when you asked? Or did you simply ask?” that was the difference between his era and her era. Marriage is always a cause for celebration, but the future generations sure put so much thoughts in the process of celebrating it, sometimes too much, they forgot to prepare for what is coming after the wedding.

“I simply asked. As expected of a gentleman.” He tried to defend himself. A half-hearted attempt at it.

“With all due respect Your Majesty, no wonder she said no.”

“You and I both know that was not the only reason.” So gave him a knowing look albeit this time with a smile – the ghost of the past could never overshadowed his happiness nowadays.

“I know, I know.” Ji Mong raised both of his hands before he continued. “Wedding proposal is a big thing in both man and woman’s lives. You have to know how to do it right, because they expect us men to do it right. Her answer may hinge at the way you propose but of course if both of you are heads over heels in love it should not matter that much but still, it is a very nice gesture, beautiful memory to look back in the future and demonstrates how much thoughts and effort you put into it, how serious you are in convincing her to take the leap of faith.” He reminded the king of the burden named a wedding proposal for a man.

So listened carefully. “But knowing her, I doubt she want to have something so grand.”

“It doesn’t have to be at such a huge scale. It just needs to be special. No worries, you have sought the right man to help.” Ji Mong patted his chest, already puffing with pride.

And so they both fell deeper into the conversation with Ji Mong asking the right questions and So supplying answers. Ji Mong gave So a piece of paper, asking him to list down Ha Jin’s favourite things. So took it, never before he understood the gravity of the process of asking his beloved to join him in a bond named marriage. 

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Ha Jin was wondering why So did not come for lunch together with her and the children. She had fed both Ju and Aji, cleared out the table and attempted to teach the children simple boat origami. Ju managed to follow the instruction well while Aji was extremely, without a doubt, very good in crumpling papers. They took the boats, placed them on table and competed in who could blow their boat to the end of the table faster. It was fun. Obviously, she let Ju won partly because she could not contain her laughter as she saw Aji blowing furiously at nothing, mimicking her brother as she sprayed the table with her spits. “Ju, it seems we are indeed rowing our boats in storm today!” Ju laughed as she pointed to what Aji was doing. They played that game for quite some time before the children started to rub their eyes sleepily. Full tummy, heavy eyelids. 

She carried them both and placed them on the mattress before she started to tell stories of stars that their father loved so much. After a while, she could hear soft snores and she smiled before she left the two children sailing to the dreamland in peace.

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She took out a basket filled to the brim with ropes, leathers, yarns, cloths, beads and different coloured thread. She looked at each, fiddling with the materials, wondering what she could do with them, what she could come up from the contents of the basket that would carry the same meaning as a ring would? She had decided that she would take Ari’s suggestion seriously. This time around I will propose to him. It is definitely outrageous if I still expect him to come up with it since I had turned him down each time.

“What is it that he, a king, does not have still?” she sighed out loud. She pondered on this for a while. She thought to herself about how convenient it would be if she could just go to town and buy wedding bands for them. Do they have that here? She wondered. Another part of her reminded her back. He had rings already so scratched that. Clothes? Ahaha can you even sew decently Ha Jin?

She took out all the available strands from the basket and rearranged it, displayed clearly in front of her. She took out a ball of yarn before she pulled out one strand and without thinking putting it around her wrist. A handcuff. How convenient, catching him and keeping him with me for the rest of my life.  That managed to pull her out from her mulling as she focused her mind on her wrist tattoo. Suddenly her eyes lighted up. A bracelet. A bracelet!

An idea formed inside her mind. Now, I must pick the right material. She wanted something sturdy and manly, so the yarns, cloths and beads were out of question. She leaned on using the rope, but it was too rough as it rubbed against the skin wrongly. She picked up the soft supple leather, readily cut into small straps. This would be it.  

She cut the leather to a suitable length of two different strands before she started forming loops and knots with it. It took her a few tries to adjust it just right, but she managed to pull it off. She held it in her palm, rubbing it with her thumbs, satisfied with what she managed to conjure from the limited materials she had. A simple wristband, a simple bracelet with infinity knot in the middle. Marry me So, and we will stay together for eternity.

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Chapter Text

Ha Jin had lost count on how many times the question had been teetering at the edge of her lips, hands ready with the gift yet something always managed to happen. Ji Mong came and took So away, sometimes the children themselves blessed them, but still, they woke up with such an impeccable timing just to snatch her rented bravery. Kids, come on work with me! Mama Jin is trying to be romantic here! But in all honesty, she too had been stalling. She had been waiting for the right time, paired with enough courage to ask the question. But she had to admit it was harder than she thought. What if he says no just to let me know how it feels? Why is proposal so damn hard anyway? Blame the standard set by other people. At this rate I either must find a way to have the proposal illuminated by grandiose fireworks show or I could just simply tackle him, snap the band on his wrist and recited to him his Miranda’s rights. Honestly, the latter is much doable. Pffft! Props to men for having the courage and sanity to barrel through. So was busier than ever these days. Sometimes it felt as if he was purposely avoiding her. I wonder why though? Things are more than fine comes the night.

 It was a funny sight for someone who knows what to observe to see two people trying to propose to one another without the other manage to take a sniff of their plans. They were practically lost in their own thoughts, together. She was waiting for the right time, he was hoping his plan would come through while keeping it a secret from her. It took a week of failed attempts from her and enough planning by So for the proposal to finally come through.

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It was twilight. He closed the distance between himself and her as he wrapped his strong hands around her. She smelled wonderful, of flowers and a tinge sweetness of honey. He kissed her neck, her shoulder vibrating from her giggles. I am ready. So took a long breath, absorbing the calmness offered by his surroundings, hoping that it would be enough to calm his nerves and asked her, “Do you miss the boat?”

 “As a matter of fact, I do.” She turned around. She noticed how peaceful he looked tonight. Too peaceful, as if it was forced upon him. His hair pulled up tight, secured with a simple, golden hairpin, and he almost always donned a black robe. She wondered why.  She pushed that thought away as she realized that could be the golden opportunity she was waiting for. A couple on a boat? A very romantic time to propose – just the two of them. “Wait for a moment here while I get ready.” And she dashed inside the house.

 “Wait for a moment here while I get ready…? Did she know of my plans already?” He spoke to no one. If the plan is known already I blame Baek Ah and his blabbering mouth. I told him to keep it quiet! So mumbled to himself as he paced back and forth on the lawn, his mind busy as he went through the preparations he had done prior.

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 Ha Jin, on the other hand, took her own sweet time in calming herself as she combed her hair. She pulled one part to the side, twisting it along her hairline to her eye level before she secured it. She continued twisting it to the base of her neck before she gathered all her hair and pulled it to the side and braided it. She pulled a few strand out loosening the tight braid for the messy effect, inspecting the finished hairdo, wondering if So would love it because it was different as compared to her usual buns or the tight ponytail. She fished out the bracelet she had held onto from the depth of the pillowcase, her secret hiding place. She closed her eyes, gathered her hands together and prayed “Please, please help me do this right. I want to make him happy so bad.”

 She came out from the house looking radiant, with her pink hanbok and her hair pulled to one side – in the type of hairdo he was unfamiliar with. She looked like she belonged here and at the same time she did not, a living contradiction that completed his life. So felt as if she had just descended from heaven, tugging at his heart demanding entrance in which she had already held the key. Who cares if she knows it already. As long as she loves me I will be the happiest man alive. So extended his hand to her, smiling. “Come, I’ll show you something nice today.” She returned his smile at this familiar string of words he had once uttered during her birthday. They walked together towards the boat, not speaking, just enjoying each other’s company.

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“What have you prepared for tonight exactly?” as she pointed to the big something on the boat that was covered by a big blanket. Lanterns were hanging at each end, illuminating the surrounding with just enough light. She loved the way he looked in such ambiance. His sharp jawline, paired with that narrow eyes that pierced your soul if you dared to return his stares. He looked ethereal. The kind of man you dreamed of, but you know do not exist yet here he was, hers. He responded to her question with a grin matching a boy caught red-handed doing something wrong as he lifted her up and put her carefully on the boat.

 He rowed the boat to the middle of the lake, slowly, clearly at ease. Ha Jin enjoyed it too. This suited them, this tranquillity of the surrounding, the soft breeze and she hoped it would last forever. He stopped rowing and pulled the oars inside the boat. He took out a small basket and placed it between them “Today, we will dine beneath the moon itself.” Ha Jin laughed at this. She remembered the one time she had to send food for the scary fourth prince, in the almost identical basket. He sure put so much thought into making her smile. They dined, feeding each other most of the time as they watched the fireflies coming out from their hiding. They flickered as they came closer creating a magical atmosphere as they surrounded the boat with their lights. “You know, when I was small, I used to catch them and put them inside jars. I will beg my mother to allow me to sleep in the tent that night and placed those jars inside the tent while I slept. It was special, and such a fairy-tale experience.” She stared at the night wistfully.

 “We can do that too.” So promised, his hands busy as he cleared the plates and put everything back in the basket. He pulled the big blanket and spread it between them, covering the rough surface of the boat. At the sight of this, Ha Jin froze. “So, do you want us to do it here?” she whispered. Such request seemed to come out of nowhere, isn’t it? Is this his plan all along? To spice things up?

 “Do what here?” as he looked at her, drawing blanks, clueless at what had he done to make her flustered that way. Ha Jin pointed to the blanket, to him and then to herself before his brains whirred slowly, connecting the clues she had pointed out that had just now made so much sense in his mind. “No!” he waved his hands quickly denying it before another possibility crept up on him. Is she suggesting it? “I mean, do you want to?” he cocked his head to one side, eyeing her naughtily.

 Ha Jin could feel the warmth spreading on her cheeks as she shouted, “No! The boat will tip over!” Pointing the flaw of such plan, looking away, anywhere but his face.

So laughed raucously and slapped his knee. “Oh, the boat will tip over! But you don’t mind doing it outdoor then?” he continued to tease her, aware that she was embarrassed by the idea.

“Stop twisting my words!” she reached out, slapping his arm playfully, while her words were stern, begging him to stop embarrassing her with her own wrong assumptions, now taking a root in So’s mind.

So picked up the offensive blanket and folded it neatly, revealing a small heap of sky lanterns of different sizes behind him. “I love it when you blush like that.” He stowed the blanket away before he continued to reassure Ha Jin. Yet he could not stop himself from teasing her with such idea. How bold coming from her!  “No Ha Jin, that thought never cross my mind before but now since you suggested it, I have to be honest, I find it very alluring.” He winked at her. Ha JIn rolled her eyes, berating herself for her own careless hypothesis that led to this misunderstanding. He decided to drop the subject and turned her attention to his initial plan of the night. So pointed to the lanterns behind him. “I have sky lanterns with me. Do you want to light them up and make wishes?”

“Wishes?” she was intrigued. So held out one lantern for her, and took his place in front of her. “Light it up and make your wish.”

She lighted the lantern and made her wish before she released the lantern to the sky, “I wish, days like this would be a constant guest in our life.” She grinned to So and gestured him to do the same.

“I wish that the days we have to spend away from each other are all behind us.” Before he gently pushed the lantern up, chasing after hers.

They went back and forth in the same manners, the lake was bright with lanterns floating above them, creating a reflection of the night at the surface of the water. Ha Jin was thrilled at the sight. It reminded her of the lantern scene in a Disney movie she had once watched. So pretty.  Ha Jin was smiling, one hand touching the surface of the water, creating ripples. So took this sight in, and gathered his courage. He took a lantern, clearing his throat as he lighted it up. He was nervous, as he whispered, “I wish, the next time I propose to my beloved, she would say yes.” His eyes never leaving hers.

The night was so still that even a whisper was magnified on the lake. She heard his wish, straightened her back as she finally understood. He wants to propose to me tonight. Finally, everything made sense, the elaborate setup, the nervous look on his face. She could feel the bracelet pressing against her waist. He wants to do this, don’t ruin this for him.

Ha Jin gestured for So to pass her another lantern. As she offered it freedom, she spoke to the night. “I wish, he would ask me the question tonight.”

His heart stopped at her wish. Is she saying yes now? No So, you need to ask first. So reached inside his clothes, pulling out a small box. Oh, he got a ring? Ha Jin could not stop her heart from crushing her ribs loudly, she could hear the rush of her own blood with her own ears.

“My dearest Ha Jin, will you accept me as your other half?” A simple, direct question. Same as the love he offered her, full of certainty. His eyes were shining as he gazed to the deepest part of her through her eyes. Her breaths hitched. One of his hand was holding hers as he offered her a beautiful jade ring of light green hues, a small pearl attached, framed by a circle of gold at its base, glinting at her.

She could not stop her tears as she nodded, “Yes. A thousand times yes.”

For him, it felt as if she took forever to answer. The night seemed to get colder with each passing second as if every single being around them were also waiting for her reply. As he heard her reply as clear as the sky tonight, So let out the breath he had held onto gingerly. A breath of relief. His lips split into the widest grin he could muster as he glided the ring through her ring finger before pulling her in for a fierce embrace. He kissed her as if there was no tomorrow and she kissed him back as if her life depended on it. He pulled away as he placed his forehead against hers, “Finally, finally she said yes…”

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They walked together heading to their home, deliriously happy with the new development of their relationship. Fingers entwined, they threaded the familiar path together. Ha Jin could not stop from admiring her ring, waving her hand at So while repeatedly saying, “Look at my finger So! I’m engaged! I am engaged!”

So shook his head at her adorable reaction, one hand on her shoulder, pulling her closer before he planted a kiss on her forehead. “You are that happy to be engaged with me?”

She looked at him, her smile mischievous as she pulled away and ran in front of him yelling “I am engaged to my dearest So! I am so so so happy!” and she twirled with her hands up in the air. Her happiness was contagious and So ran towards her, lifted her up and spun her around. Their laughter filled the air, nature be the witness of two people too drunk in their happiness. They both fell to the ground, dizzy from spinning yet still laughing at each other’s ridiculous antics. He was no king, she was no time traveler, just two lovers, truly, madly, deeply in love with one another.

“If you are this happy being engaged how happy would you be during our wedding?” he asked her, his curiosity at its peak.

Without losing her breath she answered, “I think I will be so happy, I will faint.”

He smiled at her answer, thoroughly enjoying her reactions to his successful proposal. “Don’t faint just yet. Come, the night is still young.” As he pulled her up, urging her to climb his back as he held her securely and jogged towards their home.

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Chapter Text

 

“You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, and the most beautiful person I have ever known—and even that is an understatement.”

 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald-

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They were getting closer to the bridge as she realized something different. Lanterns were hung along the length of the bridge and peonies, peonies were everywhere producing a sweet fragrance in the air. “You are not done, are you?” she poked him. So turned his head just slightly, kissing Ha Jin’s waiting cheek as he said, “No, I am not done with you.” They walked along the bridge, So still carrying her, as she realized something. “Wait, are we getting married now? Put me down.” He gently let her down, Ha Jin’s eyes wide, begging for confirmation. He shrugged, “How long have I been waiting for you…Do you know how painful it is to live without you?” His eyes clouded at the memories. He pulled her into a tight embrace before he pulled her hands to his chest, right above his beating heart. “I love you with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life, and if God chooses, I shall but love you better after death.” He repeated Ha Jin’s last promise before she died. “Your last words haunted me. I remember it clearly because I clung to it, a promise that you will come back even when I know it is impossible. And you came back. You stay true to your words. You fought death itself to come back to me. Tell me, will I ever find someone that will love me that much?” Her lips quivered as she listened to his words. She gave him a half-hearted grin before she answered him. “No, no you won’t.” He could not help but smile at her quip. “Yes, that is true.” He stole a kiss from her before he continued. “I love you with every breath I have. Marry me tonight, will you? I want to be your husband. I want you to be my wife.”

She was afraid she would cry again so she simply nodded at him. “I wish not to spoil the surprises, so can you please close your eyes?” She followed his request without question. He held her hands and slowly guided her to the house before he helped her getting inside. Once inside, soft, smaller hands took hers. She opened her eyes, adjusting the brightness and realized that a screen had been put up inside the house, dividing it into two separate chambers. She looked around before her eyes settled on an exquisite hanbok, nothing like she had ever seen before. It was made of the softest, and lightest material she had ever worn it would lend the wearer a floating effect as light as air. And the colors! It was of different shades of blue. The collar was white before it turned to periwinkle blue. And as it went further down, the color changed from the palest shades of baby blue turned azure before it went darker, ending with the sincerest shades of midnight blue. “So gorgeous,” she whispered to herself.

“Do you like it?” So asked from the other side of the partition. “Do I like it? I absolutely adore it.” She replied, her intonation full of wonders and amazement at the beautiful hanbok. With the help of Ari, she eased into it and it fit her just like gloves. Ari motioned to her hair, silently asking her how she should proceed. She freed her hair from the braid, wondering the same thing before So asked her to come to the end of the partition because he wanted to give her something.

She knelt down, and she could feel him mirroring her movements. From behind the screen, he pushed a small box towards her, only his hands visible. “I fashioned this earpiece based from your own ear cuff that your mother gave to you. I hope that you could consider, wearing it during our wedding.”

She took the box and opened it carefully. There it was, a golden dragon with its length curved, fitting the earlobe, its wings spread wide. Two words best described it, beautiful and lethal. She stared at it for quite some time before she answered, “But the dragon is a symbol only for king So. For you. I can’t have this.” She tried to push the box to his side. He stopped it, his hands on hers. “But you are my only queen Ha Jin. Take it, wear it. I’ll be waiting outside.” And he left.

She held the dragon close to her heart before she proceeded to do her hair. She pulled her bangs to the right side of her face, combing it gently before she braided a portion along from the left side, pulling it to the right creating a messy side bun. She put on the new gift from So on her left ear before she put on a simple makeup, just to add a natural glow to it. She did consider covering her scar, but she wanted to marry So as herself, scars and all. She pinned the ear cuff her mother had given her on the incense pouch of her silver norigae before she hung it on her body. She slid the bracelet she planned to give So beneath the layers of her clothes where it was easy to fish out later. She told Ari to hurry along and tell the man officiating the ceremony that she would love to be given a chance to say her vow to So.

She took one last look in the mirror, recognizing the glowing woman staring at her back. A woman in love.

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The door opened and finally, she had the chance to take in the beautiful setup of her own wedding. A path laid out in front of the door leading up to her mother’s praying tower, lighted up by lanterns and rows of flowers. It smelled heavenly. The moon was shining brightly, and she saw Baek Ah, Ji Mong, Ju and Aji and Ari standing in their designated place all staring at her. She could feel a blush creeping up due to all the attention before she heard someone clearing his throat. So was holding out one hand to her, waiting, so they could both walked together as they entered this new beginning.

She took his hand, sure of her decision to finally take this man as her husband. He pulled her quickly to his side, before he whispered in her ear, “You look ravishing.” A carnal hunger laced heavily through his whisper. She moved a step back as she tried to process this. Usually, she was quick to offer witty answers but tonight, paired with his husky voice, it muddled her thoughts process. She simply blushed as she took in his appearance.

Tonight, he was Wang So, his scar not covered, his hair pulled up to a neat bun adorned with ribbon just the way he used to wear his hair when he had newly entered the palace. He was wearing hanbok of midnight blue with silver trimmings, matching hers. She sighed, before she breathed out, “You are utterly beautiful So.” He was stunned hearing such thing. Till this day she remained the only person who had ever used such word to describe him. He used to think she was lying, but the conviction behind her eyes, the sincerity in her words said the opposite. He learned to embrace such word, and he loved it, only when it came from her lips. He flashed her an appreciative smile as he grasped her hand tighter. He guided her to walk next to him as they walked closer to her mother’s praying tower. Their children trailing behind them. As they reached her mother’s praying tower, Baek Ah moved closer, smiling gladly for this shard of happiness for his ever-deserving friend, holding a wild goose to So as an offering to her mother, So’s mother in law, symbolizing the harmony and the depth of love between husband and wife. So placed the goose in front of the tower and they bowed down twice together.

The first bow, Ha Jin dedicated it to her mother. Mother, I found him. The one person in this world that could take care of me after you. Bless us with happiness, and please, don’t worry about me anymore. I am happy.

The second bow, she dedicated it to her daughter. Seol, my precious daughter Seol. Mummy is marrying Daddy today. We didn’t have the chance to do it before we have you. Mummy was just too unreasonable, too stubborn back then. I thought I was the only person who could make the right decisions. My beautiful baby, I wish, I wish, you could be with us today…

They stood up, stretching the moments just a while longer before Aji, who had just recently learned how to walk, waddled forward trying to chase the goose away. Laughter ensued before everyone panicked, chasing after Aji who was chasing the goose that was running towards the lake. Ari managed to catch Aji right before she reached the edge of the water. The princess was giggling, enjoying the panic caused by her impulsive decision. After everyone had settled down, Ha Jin whispered to So, “This is why, in future, people use wooden goose instead of living one.” So nodded, his eyes never leaving Aji as he whispered back, “Good thinking.”

Ji Mong motioned for Wang Ju to bring forward a small tray consisting two golden, simple wedding rings. At this sight, Ha Jin choked a bit, realizing how hard So tried to include customs she was familiar with. They put on the ring to each other, exchanging looks, promising that they would indeed treasure their life together. Ji Mong lifted up a long red ribbon and spoke clearly, “Marriage is a holy reunion. As sacred as the bond between a husband and a wife who are connected by the red thread of fate.” He tied the red ribbon to Ha Jin and So’s little fingers before he continued. “May the bond grows stronger with each trial and may both of you never forget to uphold the sanctity of this thread.”

Ha Jin cleared her throat loudly to remind Ji Mong that she too has something to say. “Before I pronounced this couple as husband and wife, the bride would love to say something to the groom.”

So was taken aback at this. He raised his eyebrows at her, wondering what she was planning to do. Using her free hand, she took out the bracelet meant for So. She steadied her shaky breaths, gathering every ounce of courage she possessed before she said her vow out loud.

“I want to offer you, my husband, a vow a younger me had found once. It appealed so much, it spoke to me even when I have yet to find you, even when I have yet to understand love. I wrote it down a thousand times, it is now part of me that I have kept for so long, waiting for the right time to share with that special someone.

 

You cannot possess me for I belong to myself

But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give

You cannon command me, for I am a free person

But I shall serve you in those ways you require

and the honeycomb will taste sweeter coming from my hand.”

 

She took his hand in hers and placed the bracelet on his wrist before she turned his hand over to tie it.

 

“I vow to share with you the first cut of my meat, the first sip of my wine,

from this day it shall be only your name I cry out in the night

and into your eyes that I smile each morning;

I shall be a shield for your back as you are for mine,

no shall a grievous word be spoken about us,

for our marriage is sacred between us and no stranger shall hear my grievance.

Above and beyond this, I will cherish and honor you through this life

and into the next.”

And she brought his hands to her lips and kissed them, sealing the promises she swore she would uphold. So was moved by her vow, his eyes blurry with tears threatening to spill and the only reaction he was capable of giving was a silent nod of thank you to her. They bowed down to one another as they both listened to Ji Mong’s booming voice, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Cheers erupted as Baek Ah and Ji Mong congratulated the newlywed couple.

“Finally, after all these years watching you two going back and forth now, you two are bound forever as husband and wife!”

“Congratulation Your Majesty! Congratulation Ha Jin, the journey sure seem worthy after all wasn’t it?”

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Everyone had left, leaving the two behind. They were so high in their own joy, part of them not believing that they were indeed husband and wife. She could not stop giggling – she knew she was behaving like a teenage girl, but she just could not help it. He was also grinning, unable to wipe that off, his dream finally came true.

“Wife.”

“Husband.”

And they laughed again at the unfamiliarity of such term yet enjoying each moment as the new status grew on them. They sat down next one another, enjoying the cold breeze. “You know, in my time, they seal the deal with a kiss.” She placed her hand on his thigh, her doe eyes shining at him. “Show me.” He asked her. Ha Jin gave him a quick peck on his lips. So opened his eyes, “Again. I think I miss it.” His eyes getting dark. In return, she offered a kiss that lasted few seconds. “One more time, I think I’m getting the hang of it.” His hands around her waist, trapping her. She smiled at him slyly, biting her lip at this game she was familiar with. She pounced on him, the force pushed him to the floor as Ha Jin sat on him, her bottom carefully positioned where it would drive him senseless. She kissed him hard and he reciprocated as they both lost themselves, tasting one another. Hands busy discovering one another as he pushed her skirt higher, her hands busy undoing his clothes. She pulled back, stealing few breaths, her chest heaving as she looked down at him. She caught his hands and pushed them against the floor.

“I love you, my husband.”

“I love you, my wife.”

Ha Jin eased her grip on his hands. She pulled one hand closer to her lips as she kissed each finger, slowly, drawing gasps from him. “You make me feel so much…”

“Where…?” his voice hoarse.

“Here..” she pulled his hand inside her clothes, close to her heart, flesh against flesh just for a few seconds before she pulled his hand further down. “…and here.”

So hissed as he touched the dampness. “Not here my love. Let me do this right.” He begged her. He gritted his teeth, trying to sit up. Ha Jin shushed him, pushing him back to the floor, she was too far gone already. “You can do it right a thousand times later…”

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The room was stuffy, it woke him up. He pushed away from the blanket as he put on his shirt and stood up, opening the window to allow the breeze to carry the heat away. He sat down next to his wife, gently pushing her hair from sticking to her face. The heat was suffocating yet the presence of cool breeze made it bearable. But it did not matter, she was too lost in her deep slumber. He pulled the blanket, covering her exposed shoulder as he recalled her attack earlier in the evening. My beautiful, bold wife from the future.

He picked up their clothes, scattered everywhere, gathering each as he folded them carefully. He chose blue because it was her favorite color. He chose blue because it was his favorite color on her. And he decided right. She looks so beautiful in her wedding dress. After he was done, he sat next to her, staring at his wife, the sight evoked the story she had once told him.

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At times, when he was not bound by his responsibilities as king, he would join Ha Jin, training together. Most of the time it had to take place at night. He preferred that the darkness concealed them from prying eyes. He was keen on teaching Ha Jin the ways to use a sword and Ha Jin was a quick learner, even when she protested a lot when he insisted she practiced with such weapon.

“Sword is a good weapon. It acts as an extension of your hand. You can reach further, once wield right it could be deadly.” He persuaded her, all while attacking her with his sword, trying to prove his point.

Ha Jin managed to stop every attack with her quick movement. “But you have to put into the account of my small built. Its weight, its length, it destabilizes me. And when I wield it like this,” she showed him a wide stroke, “It left too much of me exposed since I have short hands.”

“Hurm, I did not put that into account.” He stopped attacking her as he stowed his sword away. Thinking deeply, he asked her, “Do you think you can fight with just your dagger? You might want to consider using two at once. You have to practice using one with your non-dominant hand.”

Ha Jin contemplated on this for a while. Using two daggers in combat was an appealing idea since before this she would pair it with her gun which obviously out of the question in this era.

“I’ll have special ones made for you.” 

She smiled at this promise. “I would love that.”

They were resting from the intense session. She had closed her eyes, sighing contentedly when So asked her a question. “Ha Jin, I always wonder, since you are from the future, could it be that you know things that have yet to take place? “She turned to look at him, his hair unbounded, covering his shoulder. Her doing. She managed to flick her sword just right to slice the piece that bound his hair together.

This question was expected, but he never asked her about it. Not until now. She pulled herself up, sat behind him as she took his hair in her hands, running through it gently with her fingers, braiding it loosely behind his back. She had doubts whenever it came to questions about future. Her visions paired with her sporadic memories of histories she had read had been proven to be deadly. “Do you wish to know the history of our nation?”

“I just wish to know, if everything is worth it in the end. The blood that is spilled, the lives that are brutally taken away. Do we at least manage to leave a mark behind? Or are we forgotten, cease to exist even in memories?”

“The nation survived for a respectable amount of time. It is all worth it I assume if someone a thousand years from now could remember her history. That much I could tell you. I was an avid reader of our nation’s past but when I come here I realize I could not recall much. Maybe because I should not tamper with it, just here to observe.” She had never told him about her unreliable visions. It was a painful reminder of how fragile the trust she had once put on a man she claimed that she loved.

“I think you are sent here to save me.”

“You really think so?” she pressed her forehead against his back.

“You are here to show me, a cursed wolf, that I too am worthy to be loved and blessed with happiness.” His finger tracing her wrist with the wolves’ tattoo. He looked up at the solemn sky, covered with clouds, only a few stars managed to be seen. “I miss your stories about stars. Cassiopeia, Pegasus. Tell me more please?”

“I have run out of stories about stars long ago. How about a story of king and queen?”

She told him of a love story between Henry the Eighth and his Anne Boleyn, queen of the faraway land, painting him a different picture of a distant place, introducing him to people that had changed the course of their history.

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And that story stayed with him for days. Not on the queen per say, of Anne Boleyn, despite Ha Jin’s unparallel enthusiasm when discussing her. The queen was indeed an interesting, complex subject matter to be discussed based from Ha Jin’s arguments on how ‘she’s neither saint nor she’s a devil, she has flaws and that made her such a genuine character’. But what picked his interest most was how the king relentlessly sought ways to make this Anne his queen, resulting in him severing ties with the Pope of his religion and Roman Catholic Church. Such movement then propelled his nation to the start of a new reformation. So was deeply intrigued with this because wasn’t that his wish too? To make Ha Jin his rightful Queen?

She stirred in her sleep and his heart ached for her, for the pain she had gone through, yet she never asked anything in return. She settled to live quietly just with him, repeatedly admitting to him how it was more than what she had ever bargained for, reminding him constantly of how she had no desire to be queen. He detested that. How willingly she sacrificed her freedom for him. He wanted to do so much for her. His minds began churning ideas, on how he could do what Henry did for his Anne. Ha Jin did mention after the separation, the King declared himself as the Supreme Head of The Church of England, taking the highest position in the said religion’s hierarchy. An idea started to form inside his mind.

Gently, he took off the dragon earpiece he had gifted Ha Jin with, worried that she would get uncomfortable in her sleep. He stared at the dragon, a symbol of the ultimate ruler before he looked at his wife and vowed to himself, “If I could not make you my Queen, then so be it. I will make you my Empress.”

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Chapter Text

“Are you sure you can’t join us today? It is my first time going outside the palace. We could go out together, like a date.” She tried to persuade her husband. The outing was planned long ago, and she was looking forward to it. It had been close to a year that she had stayed in the palace. They did leave the palace from time to time for their riding practices, but this would be different. She put on her clothes she had picked especially for today’s purpose while he did the same, readying himself for the day.

“A date? What is a date?” He threw her a questioning look, as he tried to comb his hair into a neat do. She grasped his hand and took the comb from him, helping him with the task.

“Two people in love going out somewhere. You buy me food, and, just spend the day together.” She tried to picture So and her having a date in an amusement park. Trying to imagine So screaming on a roller coaster. She snickered at the picture, catching his attention. He is too cool to scream. Him saying "Is that it?" at the end of the ride is more likely.  

“That sounds nice. But I really can’t today. I am about to appoint a new general.” To make his conquest of making Ha Jin an empress true, his nation must be strong and unyielding first thus making it easier to have the neighboring country to conform to his power and recognized him as emperor. If such could be achieved, war could be avoided, by a simple display of power. To do such, he needed a general with reputation, and he knew just the man. A royal decree had been sent to Chungju few weeks prior, stating the release of the fourteenth prince from his exile and how the king requested his presence in the palace. He had replied immediately, relaying his gratitude and requesting for the meeting to be postponed for he was waiting for the birth of his first child. Today would be the day they finally meet one another. The last time he saw his younger brother he had been called a bastard. So was curious about the outcome of the meeting today. Does he still bear hatred to me after all these years?

Ha Jin was combing the few stubborn strays before she stopped short at the news. “Appointing new general? Are you planning on expansion? A war?” She looked at his reflection in the mirror, her face fuelled with interest.

So assured her. “Hopefully war is not necessary. Enough to just demonstrate what we are capable off as a nation.”

She eyed him carefully. “You better tell me more about it later tonight.” She stood up and tapped him on his shoulder, beckoning him to look at her. “How do I look? Do I look prettier than Baek Ah?” as she twirled in front of him.

“You are the prettiest for me, even when you are dressed like a man. Why are you dressed like a man in the first place?”

“Wouldn’t it be safer? To travel as a man?”

“Unfortunately, that’s true. Don’t you want to cover the scar? People would love to stare and whisper. It was not a pleasant thing to go through.” He pulled her down to sit in front of the mirror, hands already busy preparing the things needed. Funny to see the role reversed. Funny to see him so at ease with it.

“You want to do it for me?” She closed her eyes, pushing her hair out of the way.

“Sure.” So moved his brush with soft strokes, just the way she had thought him years ago. He remembered it, never he had allowed another woman touched his face the way she had.

Ha Jin opened her eyes, loving how close they were, noses only a breath apart from one another. “This is such a tempting position. I want to smother you in kisses.” She teased him.

So smiled knowingly, “Now you know how I felt back then.” He stole a kiss before he asked her to sit still. After he was done, he took a good look at her, judging his own work. He put the brush down before he reminded her of what had been weighing him with her decision to leave the palace for the day.

“Now, I know you are more than capable to take care of yourself, but remember, be careful. Don’t stray from Baek Ah. Keep your royal jade with you and run to the palace should anything happen yet keep it hidden as to not draw unwanted attention on you.”

She merely nodded as she listened to her husband. She pinched his cheeks playfully, “It is just a simple outing my husband. What’s the worst that could happen?

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“What do you want to do today?” Baek Ah asked her as they stepped out from the palace. Ha Jin was giddy with excitement. She looked down at the ground, thinking about the endless possibilities of the day.

“I want to go to the market and visit Myung Hee. Come to think of it, I never actually go far back then have I? Honestly, I have no idea where else we could go. I am hoping you would know.” Even as Hae Soo she was not as free as a bird. There were rules to conform too that limited her abilities to explore this archaic reality she had only seen depicted on television.

“You have picked the right person to accompany you. I know every nook and cranny of this nation. It is too early for the market, we should go visit Myung Hee first.”

Baek Ah and Ha Jin trod the path together. Not much had changed. The route seemed familiar, almost welcoming. The short hike was filled with recalling memories of the past. Sometimes Ha Jin wondered how her one friend could be so accepting. He did not ask anything of the lost 5 years. He assumed So had hidden her somewhere else, faking her death to absolve her from being sentenced to death. The only thing he inquired was about the child he saw in the fire. Ha Jin told him the truth. The child was theirs, confirming what he had already known from So. And he nodded along at her answer. “Must be painful to endure such loss. You could have included me in the secret, you don’t have to face it all alone. Am I not a good friend?”

“You are. Keep doing what you are doing, and you are on the right track to be my BFF.” She grinned at her best friend. With him it is easy to use the modern lingo, he just took them all in. No question asked other than inquiring its meaning.

“BFF?”

“Best Friend Forever.” She told him.

He scoffed at what he took as a childish term he had never heard anyone use before. He shook his head at her. “For someone who has a limited number of friends you certainly could not afford to be picky and yet here you are, a shining definition of picky.”

They reached Myung Hee grave and immediately clean it up. She wondered if anyone ever visits if Wook ever visited before she recalled his punishment, courtesy of her own begging. She bowed down, paying her respect to a sister fate had given her. To think that she had had feelings for her sister’s husband and her sister being aware of it still sent some tremor of disgust to herself. I am sorry I hurt you, sister. I am sorry it took me so long to visit. Life has sent me everywhere but here.

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The market was busy, full of life. A nice change after her quiet life in the palace. They made a stop every now and then, buying snacks to enjoy while strolling through the noisy exchanges around them. Baek Ah showed her his favorite spots to sit whenever he wished to sketch the busy market life, immortalizing them in his drawings. As they walked together, she realized that Baek Ah was practically showered with attention - the prince who was famous for his good looks. No one was staring long enough at her. The fleeting attention might be from the redness from her hair that still lingered somehow, determined to stay. So was right when he reminded her to cover her scar. She did not need another reason for people to gawk at her.

She was enjoying herself when she saw a child around Ju’s age running freely on the busy street. She smiled as she wondered if it was possible to bring the children out next time. Suddenly, the little girl tripped against something and fell. Ha Jin quickly ran after her after she realized nobody was helping the poor girl. She helped the little one stood up before she realized she had scraped her knees bad. Her knees were bleeding. “Oh sweetheart, come here, let us have your wounds cleaned.” The girl followed her blindly, clearly distraught at the sight of blood. When she poured water on her wounds to clean it, the girl winced audibly. “What is your name?” Ha Jin asked the girl in an attempt to distract her.

“Bok Soon.” She took a good look at the child, round face, cheeky smile with a hint of stubbornness detected. Her hanbok was of expensive, delicate material, not accessible to people without status. Her hairpins were also too beautiful and made of precious gems, showcasing her high status. Ha Jin dabbed the wound dry before she tore her handkerchief into two and covered the now clean wounds.  

“Are you alone?” Ha Jin asked as she pulled down her skirt. The wounds on her knees were cleaned as best as she could but the child would struggle to walk on her own. 

“No, I followed the maid outside.” Bok Soon admitted sheepishly.

“Do they know you are following them?” Ha Jin cocked her head to one side, trying to catch the little girl’s gaze.

“No…” She looked down at her feet, kicking the pebbles.

“It is dangerous to be out alone when you are so young. What would happen if you could not remember your way home?”

“But I do remember my way home.” Bok Soon answered with a hint of petulance.

Ha Jin almost rolled her eyes at her before she sighed to herself. Ah, kids. This one is almost at par with my own stubbornness. “Come, hop on my back. You can show me the way.”

Ha Jin left with Bok Soon on her back. She tried to search for Baek Ah beforehand, but he was nowhere to be seen. I’ll be quick then, dropping her at her house would not take so long I think.

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As Bok Soon gave her directions, Ha Jin started to realize that this path was way too familiar. She had walked this path numerous times before and the sudden realization that she could be carrying his child with her dampened her spirit a bit. She sought to clarify this. “Bok Soon, are you…is your father the eighth prince Wang Wook?”

“Yes. How do you know that?”

Oh, crap! She did not wish to see him after all these years. She had tried her best to live quietly in a small corner in the palace. But as they got closer and closer to the residence she began to accept the futility of running away from fate. Maybe I could just drop her off and sprint away? No, no, that is not proper. She was so lost in her inner turmoil she did not realize she was standing in front of the eighth prince’s residence.

“She is here!” a booming voice announced. Ha Jin who was distracted was quite surprised at this announcement. Can they tell I am a woman already? before she realized the voice was referring to Bok Soon. She drank in the familiar sight in front of her, now with the addition of two guards in the glory of their armor guarding the entrance. She tried to put Bok Soon down but she clung to her, clearly only now fearing the consequences of her decision to leave the residence without adult supervision. “Are you afraid?” she whispered to the child, hiding behind her. Bok Soon nodded against her back. “Fine, I’ll accompany you inside and try to reason with your parents.” Few maids appeared to usher them in before she saw him, accompanied with a woman she assumed was his wife. They were rushing to her side, concerned clearly etched on their faces. Ha Jin turned her face down, bowing respectfully to the eighth prince and his wife.

“Bok Soon, child, did you sneak out again? How many times should I tell you it is dangerous!” the mother nagged at the girl. This sight amused Ha Jin a bit. You sure miss a mother’s nagging especially after you lost yours. Slowly she pulled Bok Soon from her back before she passed the child to her. All while trying to avoid eye contact with Wook whose eyes suddenly went ablaze at the sight of her. She ignored it, trying to calm herself down as she addressed Bok Soon’s mother. “She fell down from running Your Highness. Her knees are still bleeding.” She diverted her attention to her child’s wound, half hoping that would be enough to appease her from nagging the child’s ears off.

“Pardon me, where is my manners? I am Bo Yeong, the eighth prince’s wife. This is my husband. Oh, Bok Soon see! I told you it is dangerous. Thank you kind sir for helping her get back home. Will you be staying for lunch? Please, it is the least we could do to repay your kindness.” She was full of warmth and Ha Jin could not help but smile at her.

During the interaction between Ha Jin and Bo Yeong, the eighth prince was eyeing her with scrutiny. Lines forming on his forehead as he took in her appearance. He’s a she. Hae Soo? Hae Soo. That smile, that face it must be the same person. I thought she died. Was that just a lie?

Ha Jin wanted to decline respectfully but before she managed to do so, Bok Soon’s mother had asked her husband to bring the guest, her, to his study room. She had no other choice but to follow him, trying to get this over as soon as possible.

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“Please, have a seat. Lunch will be served shortly.” His words were short and delivered in a very polite manner. She assumed that maybe her disguise was on point today. Maybe there was a slim chance she could keep her identity hidden somehow. She realized Wook was staring at her unabashedly, not bothering to disguise his blatant stare.

Ha Jin stole a good look at him. He looked worn out, thinner, older than his age. Being trapped in the residence despite the huge compound had taken a toll on him. He was different too. Not as vicious, manipulative looking as he was before, yet not the same eighth prince she had known when she first came here. As she stared at him, she realized she pitied him. The last time they had seen each other was during the time she confronted him after he presented the decree that called for her death. They left each other with looks that only consisted of disappointment and hatred. She did beg the king to save him, but that was done for So’s sake, for him to uphold his promise to stop the vicious cycle of brothers killing one another, never for the eighth prince’s sake. So had once mentioned how everyone was a child of circumstances and she could not help but sympathized at the circumstances that had birth this different man in front of her.

Three maids entered the room, bringing with them trays of delicious food of the promised lunch. Wook dismissed them as soon as they had prepared the table for them. He turned his attention to her. “Please, dig in.” He piled up her bowl with side dishes and she was quite perplexed with this attention because all the side dishes he chose to give her were the ones she was fond off when she was living here. “You haven’t shared your name. I will have difficulties in addressing you should you choose to keep that a secret.” His eyes bored through hers.

“Ha Jin. My name is Ha Jin Your Highness.” She answered back, wondering if she should have offered a different name. She began to eat quietly. Maybe he knows already. I should have let the scar uncovered. That would have leave him with a doubt.

“Are you, by any chance, related to a woman named Hae Soo? Pardon me for asking but the resemblance is uncanny.”

He knew. “No, Your Highness. I have no living relatives.” I must shake his suspicion before it takes roots in his head. She reached further to take one side dish, exposing her unmarred wrist in purpose. He took notice of this, his eyes following her movement, his gaze locked on her wrist. “Oh, I must have been mistaken then.” He replied slowly, looking a bit dejected as he realized that she had no scar on her right hand. She exhaled quietly, relieved at being able to erase any suspicion he had before Baek Ah burst through the door.

Baek Ah looked at her first, his eyes filled with worries before addressing his brother.  This did not go unnoticed by Wook. “It has been such a long time since I visit you my brother!” His smile a bit forced. Wook looked at Baek Ah and Ha Jin and she could actually feel an understanding descended onto him. even as Hae Soo she was closer to Baek Ah among other princes. Wook, the ultimate manipulator surely was aware of their friendship and to see both together, surely it would not be a coincidence. The small display of worries just now, only that, no matter how fleeting was more than enough to have Wook’s eyes shined back with confirmation. Ha Jin gripped her bowl tighter, clearly, she had underestimated Wook’s sharp observation.

“Do you two know each other?” Wook asked them both. Baek Ah cleared his throat, “He is my new friend. We knew each other from my time wandering and today he visits the capitol and I insist on showing him around.” Too much. His explanation was too much, too forced and unnecessary. Ha Jin took notice of this. Well, he never was a good liar.

The lunch went too smoothly afterwards. The two princes carried the conversation between just the two as Ha Jin ate her lunch quietly. Bok Soon and Bo Yeong joined them afterwards. After lunch, they said their goodbyes, thanking the host for their hospitality. “Do visit often Baek Ah, Hae Soo...my mistake, Ha Jin. We are more than happy to have your company.” Wook spoke, his eyes never leaving Ha Jin’s face.

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As they left the residence, Ha Jin answered Baek Ah concerned look. “He knew. He definitely knew.”

Chapter Text

They continued their day according to plan albeit the somber mood. Baek Ah repeatedly assured her that even if Wook knew, there was nothing he could do. The palace had cut any ties to him, he was locked in his own home, any letters from him would be disregard and nobody sought him after he had lost his reputation. The secret, his suspicion would die with him and Baek Ah reminded her that there would be no reason for her to ever set her foot there, eliminating any chance he had to do anything. At his lengthy explanation paired with assurance, Ha Jin felt a bit better. So what if he knew, no one would believe him. And it’s not like I plan to go there ever again.

She perked up as she cast aside her baseless worries. Baek Ah sensed her mood shifting and he felt instant relief. “Ok, since we are calmer now, do you remember the rose essence I bought for your birthday?”

“I do.”

“I am going to bring you to the place where I got it.”

“You want to bring me to Bulgaria?” she feigned a shocked expression, a good-natured tease to lift the mood.  

Baek Ah stopped at his track before he flung his hands to the sky, his expression rich in defeat. “The port Ha Jin. The port. Why is it so frustrating talking to you nowadays?”

Ha Jin laughed at him. She realized how she as a person had changed when she came here for the second time. After spending few weeks adjusting to suddenly having So back in her life after mourning for a year, she noticed the slight changes in herself. How easily she laughed nowadays, how she loved to tease people around her. She was basically as bright as she once was, this person she had long lost and she was glad about the change.

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The port is basically a massive market filled with much more dazzling trades that Ha Jin was not familiar with. Baek Ah was more than eager to show her around, stopping by at almost every display of things from different countries. Everything was intriguing but Ha Jin’s attention was drawn to a pair of curved daggers. Hey, I know this. Karambit. She had read about it, but she never had the opportunity to hold one. The size fit just right in her hands and she loved the weight it carried with it. It completed her somehow, and she wondered how it would feel to wield one in a fight. But before she had the chance to inquire more about it, Baek Ah had pulled her away. “Since when you are interested in weapons?” Ha Jin pulled her hands back, feeling disappointed at being steered away from something that had caught her eyes.

Baek Ah registered her changed expression and quickly apologized. “Forgive me Ha Jin. Watching you holding that dagger reminded me of something.” He fished a small bundle from his knapsack and put it in her hands. She gave him a questioning look before she untied the piece of cloth, revealing two curved daggers. She let out a small gasp.  

“Your husband wants to give that to you personally initially. But since he felt bad for not being able to come with you today, he asked me to give them to you. A peace offering, he said, something to make up for his absence.”

She remembered So had once promised that he would give her new daggers since she was quite reluctant in using swords. She admired her new weapons, two curved daggers, each hilt with finger ring, allowing firm grasp that would not be easily loosened by an opponent. The hilts were made from some type of animal horn and when she held one in her hand, it fit just right. She ran her thumb against the blade. Immediately beads of redness appeared. The blade it seemed was thirsty for a taste of blood, devouring such offering quickly even from its own new master. Sharp. The scabbards were made of the same type of horn she assumed, and they were carved with images of wolves and the moon. She could not help but smile at the thoughtful gift, eager to practice with them. Baek Ah was observing her, he himself was wondering why So would gift her daggers instead of pretty trinkets such as hairpins or accessories, bangle, rings for example. At the sight of blood, he cringed. Possibly this is one of the things I don’t need to know. He had a messenger relaying a message from the king before when Ha Jin somehow ended up in his eighth brother’s house. “He promised he would join us for dinner today. You can thank him personally later. Would it be fine if I left you on your own? I need to restock my supplies and my favorite place to buy the things I need is way over there on the other side of the port. Roam around, stay nearby and when you are done, head to that lodging over there.” He pointed to a well-established lodging stationed at the heart of the port. “I’ll meet you for dinner.”

Ha Jin nodded her head absentmindedly, her attention was still on the new gift from So. She lifted her head, trying to say something to Baek Ah before she saw his back, already running along against the busy crowd on the street. His supplies must be running so low. She tucked her one dagger in her left boot since she still carried her old one at the other side. The other curved dagger she slid close to her waist before she continued to enjoy the rest of the trip.

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Wang Jung entered the palace. He closed his eyes because he could see Eun still. He could feel the presence of his dead brothers, born to be pawns of the nation. The palace was a scary place. He understood why Hae Soo decided to leave. Even he himself despite the fact that he had just arrived, could already feel the sudden urge to turn around and leave.

But he could not do such thing today. The King has summoned him. His brother had called for him. Almost six years in exile allowed him to mull over numerous things. He collected facts and listened to stories, trying to trace what had happened to his second brother. What made him turn out that way? And the things he had learned gutted him as he scolded himself over his own foolishness of being too quick to put all the blame to So. Their mother was no saint, that much he knew now, even before he was exiled.  He could see the hint of maliciousness, seeping through her mother’s action but he was young – he brushed it off. A child’s dream, clinging to this idea that mother could do no wrong.

Hae Soo, when she was still alive, tried to reason with him. He refused to listen because he believed she was misled, blinded by love mistakenly given to someone he thought was undeserving at that time. But to this day he still remembered her last advice to him - at times, the most we could offer is an understanding, not forgiveness. That too is a gift on its own. He understood his brother’s pain now, and with each year passing he realized, he too was capable of forgiving.

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So was waiting for Jung in the throne room. As his arrival was announced, So looked at the door, waiting to see his blood brother. Jung entered, bowing down to the king as a sign of respect and to convey his gratitude for being released from exile.

“Rise, fourteenth prince. How have the years treated you? Well, I hope?” So motioned for his brother to come closer.

Jung came closer, his face gave out a hesitant smile before he answered, “I am still thriving Your Majesty. The years have been kind and my wife, and I are blessed with a healthy son recently.” Jung gave the king the sincerest smile he could muster.

“May your son be blessed with happiness throughout his life.” So was truly happy hearing the news. Ha Jin had made him realized how blessed he was to have beautiful children and she had thought him how to love them the right way.

This simple wish took Jung by surprise because they were never civil to one another especially during their last meeting. It was also something a king would never say for any male members of the royal family could be considered a threat to the throne yet here was the king, wishing his nephew happiness for life. Seeing how open and accepting So was, Jung replied with this one wish he had kept with him, a small gesture to mend the bond between them. “I have a request that I hope would not trouble you, Your Majesty.”

“Speak.”

Jung conveyed his wish. “I was hoping you could name my son Your Majesty.”

So was bewildered at this request. This for him symbolized so much more. This could be a new beginning for them. “It would be an honor.” So appeared lost in his thoughts, choosing the best name to be bestowed to his nephew. After a while he came up with one that he believed would suit the child best. “I, Gwangjong of Goryeo hereby, named your son, Wang Chi.”

“Thank you for your benevolence, Your Majesty.” Jung bowed low, his forehead against the floor, grateful for this warm exchange.

A new bond formed between the two brothers. The past had been left behind. The king had restored his position as general and he was grateful for that. He could sense changes in the near horizon after their fruitful discussion over their military ability. The King, even when he did not say it out loud, had this dream of expanding his power and he would do his best to aid the king in turning it into reality.

The discussion went for hours covering which nation was most likely to resist and what would be the best way to gain loyalty from other nations that included sparing as many lives as possible. Jung was surprised when the king took in all his suggestions and discussing each pro and cons. It felt good to feel appreciated and respected for Jung had spent too many years following king’s orders blindly without having a say in anything. The king put an end to the discussion abruptly, saying how he had a date.

“A date?” a puzzled look etched on Jung’s face.

“I have someone I have to meet.” The King smiled sheepishly. “Make yourself feel at home, this is still your home after all. I will see you tomorrow and we will continue this discussion.”

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Ha Jin had an unexplainable foreboding feeling of being followed. She turned her head, observing her surroundings. The crowd made it hard to identify any suspicious individual. She quickened her pace, her guards up, wary of her surroundings all while trying to appear as unaffected as possible. She turned to an alley, away from the crowd and realized someone was following her as she walked towards the end of the alley. She pressed her ankles against her boots, feeling the hard dagger against her skin, her hand touching the new dagger she had slid at her waist slightly. She was ready to pounce, just waiting for the right time. The second ticked by and she heard a voice belonged to a woman, “Ha Jin, so eager to commit your second kill already?”

Hearing this, Ha Jin’s fingers twitched around the hilt of her blade, ready to brandish it. “Who are you?” She asked. Her voice calm, even when her head was not. This person, whoever she was, was somehow aware of her name, of her past of killing one person, a secret she shared only with So. A figure appeared, the soft glow of late afternoon light spilled all over her as she edged closer. Ha Jin took in her appearance, hair pulled too tight in a bun, clad in black and white robe. A stranger. She was immediately drawn towards her intense eyes. Her presence was ominous and forced Ha Jin to take a step back. “I don’t know you, but you know me. Who are you?” Ha Jin repeated her question.

“I am Sun Ja. I have been waiting for a chance to meet you Ha Jin. It is not everyday people like me, come across people like you, leaping across time not once, but twice.” Her drawl was calculated, each word was chosen carefully to lure Ha Jin in and it worked. Ha Jin released her weapon, her curiosity won over the needs to protect herself. Sun Ja motioned for Ha Jin to follow her. Ha Jin took a glance towards her surrounding to see if there was someone else following her because she could not shake her feelings of being followed before she trailed after the shaman.

“Ask your question, any question you ever have when you set foot in this reality. I will answer them all.”

“How do you know me?”

“The Queen called for me once, to harm you. As part of the ritual, she offered me the ashes of your previous body and a piece of your clothing that you have worn in this body. What I saw was enough to convince me that I need to meet you, to see for myself, who is this person sent back in time again and again to fix her fate.” They were walking side by side at a slow pace. People would look at them, assuming they were having a pleasant conversation when in fact they were discussing unspeakable things.

Her response only rushed a thousand new questions in Ha Jin’s mind. Harm me? Ritual? Fixing fate?  Ha Jin calmed herself down and allowed her training as a police officer, to always gather information before taking any action to take reign of the chaos building inside her.

They continued walking along the road, Ha Jin collecting herself before she asked more question. “What are you?” Her voice low, deliberate, careful.

Sun Ja turned to see her face. “Every century, very few people like me are born to this world. With powers. Mine is the ability to see beyond, to read heavens’ will and tweak fate here and there. The other one I know of have more or less of the same abilities, but my powers are more…well developed you can say. But he, he can travel through time, witnessing so much more, something that I could not achieve for I am shackled to this time, living through it slowly, observing each passing second. That is why I am intrigued by your existence, I want to see you, to know you better.”

Ha Jin listened to this woman, explaining herself. The rational part of her, the part of her that took pride in facts, rational thinking, scientific discovery quickly dismissed what she had heard. But the other part of her, that had accepted the existence of unexplainable scenarios like what she had experienced not once but twice, believed what she had heard in a heartbeat. If there was a higher power that can drag her back in time, surely other things she considered pure myth before could exist too?

“What do you mean when you said the Queen called for you to harm me?” Ha Jin decided to go with her first question.

“Oh, she wanted your death at first, I could tell. But when I asked her what she desired, she wanted you to be barren, void of any chance to experience the beauty of pregnancy. A vile woman, isn’t she?” she smiled, showcasing her too perfect teeth while delivering a thunderous news in such a light manner as if they were discussing mundane topics.

Immediately Ha Jin remembered the night where she felt the intense pain, of fire and ice. She thought she was dreaming but she did experience that. And if she did go through that does that mean…

“Did you do it?” She was afraid to know the answer.

“I did.” Ha Jin closed her eyes for a moment, trying to digest this new piece of information. She felt her heart skipped a beat, her fingers cold. Am I barren now? I really am bereft of any possibilities of experiencing pregnancy again?

“But you said yourself that she is vile, why do you comply with her request?”

She exhaled slowly. “People like me, are loyal to the rulers of the land. Something must anchor us to our destiny or we will exist with no purpose. When they call for us, we have no chance but to oblige.”

“A blind loyalty? So did you do it?” Ha Jin found herself repeating her question because she could believe how her life already complicated life had somehow now involved black magic too.

“I told you I did. But womb is protected by old magic. In other culture, in other religion, the womb is named after the God himself. I am with power, but to permanently harmed a woman’s womb through dark magic is still impossible. I tried to reason with her, but she was adamant. When I asked for a payment, an exchange, a price for the magic to work do you know what she offered?” she raised her eyebrows at Ha Jin, daring her to guess. Before she had time to do as expected, Sun Ja answered her own question.

“Her own children.” Her face full of disgust as she recalled the experience. “I have witnessed many things Ha Jin, but never have I come across a mother who has no second thoughts in sacrificing her own children for her greed. I decided to put a twist on the curse. “Sun Ja put her hand in front of Ha Jin’s belly, hovering over it for few moments. “You can get pregnant, my magic does not stop you from such, but I peg the lives of your unborn babies to the Queen’s children.”

“What do you mean by that?” Ha Jin grabbed Sun Ja’s hand, stopping her from walking.

As their skin touched, Sun Ja’s eyes went dark before she saw Ha Jin’s lives displayed in front of her just for her own perusing. In her first life, she was Hae Soo, in her second life she was born Ha Jin but the two lives were intertwined to one another, resulting in her first life not being able to fulfill its destiny. Her other two lives were a blur which was bizarre even for Sun Ja that spent her life reading others. All these while she had learned fate was fixed, already written, waiting to come true. But hers, Ha Jin’s other two lives were depending heavily on how she lived her life now. She tried to see if there was anything that bound all of them together, the key that might offer some explanation. Sun Ja saw that Ha Jin fate was tied to the same man in each life, even the blurred two lives. And the thread was not like others she had seen. It was not even a thread per say, it resembled more of metal, twisting unnaturally with one another creating a bond too strong to be meddled by an outsider. Could it be the reason she was sent back was to save the thread that binds them together?  How could she when the same man that loved her as Wang So ended up scarring her as Jin Hyuk? The same man that wiped the tears she spilled for her mother was the same man that cause her to spill it in the first place? Is their love that powerful? Can it overcome such heart-breaking betrayal?

A strong tug pulled Sun Ja out from her trance. She was disturbed by the strange fate she had observed. Ha Jin saw her somewhat lost, making her repeat her question again.

Sun Ja took a long breath before she answered. “Simple. Your children will live, at the expense of the Queen’s children lives. I thought I could teach the Queen a lesson.”

Ha Jin was stunned at this revelation. “You did what? Those children are as good as mine. I love them!” No, no, no what have I done to my children? Why should she get them involve!

“You love the Queen’s children?” Sun Ja looked at her questioningly – as if it was unfathomable, an idea so outlandish for a woman to love children.

“I do. Do you realize what you have done? Why? Why?” Ha Jin’s voice dropped to a whisper, lamenting the complicated fate spread in front of her.

“You bore love, to the children of the woman whose greatest wish is to make you live an agonizing painful life?” The shaman repeated herself slowly, hoping for a clarification.

“I do. I do!” What is so hard to understand about that?

Sun Ja shook her head, a small ray of guilt made its way in her as she had realized she had doomed this young soul to another conflict she had to manage on her own. “I could not undo it. The price has been paid. Ask me your other question.”

Ha Jin’s face contorted with disbelief she could feel clawing at her like an angry animal. “What else I could ask you? After what I know now, what kind of question do you think I have still?” Ha Jin was devastated. This is even worse than being barren. Her knees unbuckled against the weight of this new burden. Sun Ja took notice and took her arm, pulling her to sit underneath a tree nearby.

Sun Ja shook Ha Jin hard. She must know her purpose. That much I could give her. “Search yourself. What is it that you wish to know but you could not ask anyone.” Ha Jin pulled herself together. She steeled herself, blinking away tears already forming. She could digest these all later. Now, she would gather all information she could get. Answers to everything she wanted to know.

“You mention about me, coming back to fix my fate. What do you mean by that? What is the reason I come here in the first place?”

“Love brought you back again and again.”

“Explain.”

“All of us have four cycles of lives. To sow, to water, to reap, to consume. You are living in the world of your first life. Hae Soo’s life. Do you know why you end up in her body? Because she was you. In your second life as Ha Jin, you love Jin Hyuk, didn’t you?”

“Why does that have to do with anything?”

“It has to do with everything. Jin Hyuk was living his second life, same as you. But he was suffering, paying for the pain he had caused during his first life. Both of you are meant for one another. He ended up trying to kill you, didn’t he? His past sins prevent him from being content and happy and loved. You are sent back here, to save him from his own misery. To save the beautiful future you both could have together.” Sun Ja hold Ha Jin’s hands together, willing her to just embrace her fate.

“Saving him? Saving my mother’s killer? What kind of utter nons….” Ha Jin stopped herself. Even in the stream of confusion, a small part of her tried its best to unlock the puzzle. Who was it that she had tried so hard to save in this life? So. And suddenly her mind gathered the memories she thought she had long forgotten, comparing the two. Comparing So and Jin Hyuk. And what she saw scared her. She could see the resemblance of the two, their fondness of the same tea, the similar wild expression they had when clouded with anger. The same crazy laughter both had barked – for So, it was when he killed Eun, for Jin Hyuk, it was when he challenged her to kill him. She was petrified. This could not be true. This is just my mind trying to find similarities, making it up to fill in the blanks.

“No…”

“You see it yourself, didn’t you?” She could see her shock as her mind offered her conviction, yet her eyes were fuelled with denial.

“No!”

“Save him, and you will fulfill your purpose. Save him, and you will have future together. Both of you are bound together by fate, by that red thread people of your time perceive as folklore. In each lifetime you will meet one another, that part is not to be bargained. But whether you both can be happy together that is entirely up to you. The rest of your fate is not set yet, you have time to change it, to save it. I could only offer you an explanation, the final piece of the puzzle. It is all up to you now.” Sun Ja rose. Looking down at Ha Jin who looked so lost. She bowed slightly before she turned on her heels and left Ha Jin behind. Oh, child, I hope I could see how things unfold.

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Ha Jin found herself numb, her back rubbing against the tree, feeling the rough bark through her layers of clothes. Each breath she took was excruciating. All the answers given by Sun Ja painted this complete picture, a puzzle with all pieces intact together that made no sense, yet it explained everything she had ever wondered. Of why she was sent here, why she felt the connection with So even when he was as what he was back then. Why without realizing it every step she took was all connected to him somehow. But how could she accept that he was Jin Hyuk when the bond they had now greatly contradict with what she had with Jin Hyuk. How is that even possible?

Ha Jin could feel her brain pulsing trying to put everything in order, to give each new information meaning and reasoning but this was beyond what a normal human could comprehend, could process at once. She could feel beads of perspiration appeared on her forehead as her brains struggled to keep up with her heart.

The curse explained the pain she had endured that night. The curse was something she had not expected from Yeon Hwa. A low blow. How could she do that when I never caused her any pain? I do not deserve this. She knew all this while that the possibility of her getting pregnant again was slim but So talked her out of it. He made her believe that it was possible. But now? What would happen now? Can she live knowing her desire to carry a child kill her other two children? Ha Jin hugged herself tightly until she could feel the veins pulsate against her skin. She needed to do so, to fastened herself to reality before her heart burst to smithereens, leaving no trace of her.

Her mind busy digesting the painful truth. She wished she could ignore all of it, but these were all answers. Everywhere she turned she was faced with the agonizing truth. So is Jin Hyuk? The man I love is the same man that has my mother’s blood in his hands? This was the most painful truth unveiled tonight and her heart shattered by it. Ha Jin almost choked as she tried to process that. Her chest tightened with the same familiar pain she had endured years before. Her breath was constricted by the grief lodging her airways. She pulled herself together, eyes toward the sky, searching for the moon, praying for mercy. She stood up, gathering the remnants of energy that must have been spent in swallowing the bitter truths.

She wanted to lie down so bad. Maybe I should sleep on it. Maybe I will wake up with a sane mind to process all of these. Maybe these are all just nightmare. She forced herself to put one foot in front of the other, searching for a lodging, a place to rest her throbbing head. She found one at the edge of the town, far from the busy port. She noticed how it was too quiet, and it screamed danger to anyone, but she was too exhausted to care. She entered the building, requesting a room for the night.

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Chapter Text

Go ahead…. underestimate me…

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She could close her eyes and replayed her very few and far in between moments with her children. How Ju would flinch at her touch and scoot a foot away. Ju, at the very least, tolerated her presence. Aji on the other hand outright refused her. Each effort to hold her daughter closer would result in bites and scratch and wail reserved just for her. My own daughter has turned savage, just like that woman. The Queen had tried to visit her children more, to salvage the bond she had with them, but she took notice of how distant her children had become after the night she put a curse on Hae Soo. It was as if she was a stranger.

She tried to visit them again today, but they had been brought away to that woman.  She decided to storm to that wretched woman’s place, to demand her rights as a mother to be able to see her children whenever she saw fit. She walked at a quick pace, anger fuelling her when she saw the king and that woman walking hand in hand. She stopped abruptly, daring herself to follow and witnessed for herself how different, how loving So was capable of.

She stood behind a tree big enough to offer her a shelter from being seen by the couple. They were on the boat, laughter carried to the edge of the lake, making her ears bled as she heard it. Even in the darkness, she could envision them smiling, looking at each other with what she assumed was love. How would she know? She had never had anyone looking at her in such manner.

She saw them lighting lanterns and she had to prop herself against the tree trunk as jealousy flowed within her in a steady stream, living behind a bitter taste. It was hurting her, but she kept on watching, as the rowed back to the edge, face flushed with uncontainable happiness. She followed them, careful with her distance. She saw So kissing her and she could feel her chest stuffed with jealousy so potent she could not breathe. She heard Hae Soo announcing their engagement as if she knew she was following them and she had to stop her foot from taking another step. Her eyes bulging in disbelief. Such betrayal, coming from her own husband.

As she watched him picking his woman up and spinning around giddily, she caught him in his most vulnerable moment, with his lips cracking the widest smile she ever saw on anyone – something she had always thought he was incapable of. That was the moment she swore on everything she had that she would rip that smile off his face.

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Ha Jin entered the room, her body sagging against the bed. She closed her eyes, her fingers busy kneading her throbbing temple. She was famished, she was angry, she was confused. She rubbed her face hard, feeling so lost. That was when she heard a knock at the door. She lifted her head, following the source of the sound the same way a person would when a beautiful laughter rung mysteriously in the air.

With a slow gait, she opened the door, just a bit, wondering who it would be on the other side before she was immediately pushed back to the floor. She stood up in the middle of the room, as she watched a total of seven men entering the room, circling her, eyes leering in a manner that terrified her as a woman. She noticed two men standing close to the door, guarding it. She was trapped, with no escape, outnumbered by men who were staring at her with impure thoughts she could read from their faces. The fact that she heard no commotion beforehand, she knew that this, whatever this was, it was planned. They came for her.

“Who sent you here?” Ha Jin returned their stare with a hardened look, showing them that she was not afraid.

They looked at one another, exchanging condescending looks at her in between as if she was mere meat splayed for a bunch of hyenas. One of them walked closer, his hands untying his clothes as he answered her. “The Queen sends us here.” He was circling her, each movement meant to taunt as he tried to touch her body inappropriately. She slapped his hands away, disgusted with these attempts. The other men laughed at her, saying how she was just acting when in fact she was enjoying the attention. “She wants us to teach you some lessons on how to pleasure men seeing how you admitted that you are the king’s wench. I want to see myself what kind of woman could shackle the king the way you did. It was a wedding present for you, from the Queen herself. You should be flattered.”

Yeon Hwa. First curse and now this? She could feel her rage simmering to the surface. “You said it yourself, I am the king’s woman. When the king finds out, heads will be rolling.” She weighed in every possible scenario, she noticed not all of them was armed and that gave her a sliver of hope. But seven men against one was never a great odd. Even to someone as skilled as her.  

“I doubt after we are done with you, you could even crawl to the king. When we are done soiling every part of your body, you will want to die.” He grabbed her hair, pulling it roughly as he pushed her to the floor. He crouched behind her, dangerously closed to her back she could feel his manhood pressed against her. Her skin crawled as she tried to free herself from the man’s grip, but he pulled her hair harder. His lips too close to her ears as he whispered. “But if you are without any respect to your own dignity, the Queen sends you an invitation to join her for tea afterward. But I doubt you could attend that, because I swear, it will be the longest night of your life.” His hand brushing her shoulder as he pulled the sleeve of her clothes, tearing it.

At that moment Ha Jin could feel the earth stop moving. The audacity of the Queen to assume she would kill herself, just because she sent few men to ruin her. The smugness of Yeon Hwa to think these men could harm her and did she assume I would just let them have their way with me? And how dare she invites me for tea assuming I would not show up? She was almost blinded by her rage at Yeon Hwa she could feel the adrenaline pumping her already. Her body had chosen to fight instead of fleeing. At that moment she knew of nothing but only one thing.

“Tell her I’ll fucking come for tea.” She pulled her dagger from her right boot and chop off her own hair, freeing herself from the grip. Still, on her knees, she turned as she rammed the dagger towards the man inner thigh, causing him to bend down as she tipped her dagger upward and stabbed his neck. Blood sputtering as he looked at her in disbelief. She wanted to spit at him out of pure rage, but she could feel another pair of hands trying to grab her shoulder. With speed she did not know she possessed, she pulled out her curved dagger tucked against her waist, slicing the wrist of the offender. That precise, deep cut caused him to bleed immediately as he stumbled against the wall. She wanted to stand up, but she almost lost her footing when she ducked as another man tried to kick her head. She knew one blow was more than enough to take her down. She plunged her dagger to his exposed calf, wedging her weapon deep inside before she pulled the man’s leg closer to her, just within range for her to hook her curved blade by his crotch before she sliced it upward in one strong tug. She heard him cussed at her, his hands trying to cover his wound before she pushed him aside. Three down, four to go.

The other four were ready for her – she had lost the element of surprise. They were ready, two of them had their swords drawn at her. She could choose to flee at this moment, but she realized, in a game of pursuit, she would definitely be captured before she had the chance to yell for help. She had no chance but to finish this fight, hoping that she could come out alive. She weighed in her weapons, the only choice she had was to make each stab counts. With the curved blade, to maximize her chances of winning she had to aim either wrist or neck, the short blade would not make a big impact by stabbing as compared to slicing. She stared at those men, caution visible on their faces as they looked at her and at the fallen. She was about to attack when two bulky men charged at her, throwing her off balance, straight to the floor. Each man held each of her hand, prying her weapons away. She held onto her weapons for her dear life, her chest heaving in distress, but one man managed to tear one of her daggers from her iron-clad grip. At this point, she feared not death but of being raped by these animals. As if they could read her mind, one man sat on top of her, slapping her face again and again. She could feel each slap ringing in her ears, reverberating to her core as this animal started to tear her clothes off her body. “After I am done with you, you will regret trying so hard to fight this off.” She screamed profanities at them, yelling for them to stop it but her screams seemed to egg them more. Fears started to poison her, as she began to cry, dreading her fate.

The tears she shed were badge of victory for them. Their laughter terrified her as they listed the things they would do to her body. She continued to squirm, to free herself as one man began to slash some cuts on her hands, marking her permanently. The pains from the cuts did not bother her. It was her almost exposed body that tormented her. She started to pray for someone to just appear and save her. But nothing happened. As she was on the verge of losing hope, witnessing the men started to strip himself of his own clothes, she heard a soft whisper within herself. Only you can save yourself.

The small hope inside her had started to flicker but the whisper acted as small hands, guarding the budding flame to continue burning. She steeled herself, trying to grasp any remaining strength to fight. She remembered something she had read once, she had seen once. At this point one precise move could tip the scale to favor her odds, so she did the one thing she believed could stop the rapist. She peed in her pants, anything to throw them off her. And it worked. They loosen their grips simultaneously, disgusted by her. That gave her the opening she was hoping for. She tightened her grip on her one dagger and in one stealth movement, she slashed the throat of the man sitting on top of her. She did not remain idle for long as she quickly grabbed the man’s sword that was lying on the floor before she lunged forward aiming for the man standing near the door trying to escape. Using her body as leverage, she ran the sword through him, making sure the hilt of the sword was touching the man’s body. She looked him in the eyes wondering why would he look that shock? Does he think a woman does not have the capacity to fight to the death when it comes to saving herself?

She knew it was only a matter of time before she would collapse, body drained from the fight. She felt a kick to her ribs, sending her flying against the wall. She gritted her teeth, just a bit more, she convinced herself of such fragile lie, again and again, repeating it as her mantra to propel her forward to finish this fight. To win.

She saw them both coming closer and she pushed herself to stand against the wall, trapped at the corner. She drew her last weapon, the twin of her karambit, holding both in front of her. “Are you going to run to the Queen, announcing my arrival or do I have to do that by myself?”

“You filth!” and he charged forward. Ha Jin pushed aside his hand, while her other hand armed with her dagger slashed his chest. She aimed her curved blade against his neck before she slit his throat. As she listened to his gargle, choking on his own blood, she turned her attention to the last assailant. He was second-guessing himself, not anticipating that she could last that long. He turned his back on her, to run but Ha Jin had sworn to herself not to let even one person to live, to breathe this humiliating story to any other being. She ran toward him, climbing his back as she threw her weapons away and gripped his head tightly, legs wound neatly on his waist before she snapped his neck. His body wavered under her weight before he fell to the floor with his mouth open.

She stepped on the bodies as she walked to the bed and slumped on it, pulling the blanket to cover her exposed body, watching bodies scattered in front of her, blood everywhere as the pain finally registered and she winced from it. Her mind wanted to explode from the gravity of the evening, but she forced herself to stay in one piece. Not yet…

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The night had arrived for quite some time and the moon could be seen taking its rightful place in the sky. So was waiting at the promised place to meet his wife and his brother. She had only been away for a day, but he missed her terribly, promising himself the next time she wanted to go out he would clear out his day to be spent with her. He peered through the crowd, hoping to see her face. Instead, he caught Baek Ah face, dipped in worry as he looked around as if searching for someone.

So waved at him, wondering where was Ha Jin. Baek Ah took notice of this and quickly ran towards him. “Is she with you?” Baek Ah panted, barely stopping before he asked So the question. So was surprised at this, “Ha Jin? No, I have just arrived. Why is she not with you?”, worry began to cloud his face.

“We split after I gave her your gift. I was searching for new paints I heard, and I asked her to wonder on her own because I was afraid I would take so long, and she would not get the chance to explore. I told her to wait at the lodging afterward. I told her you would come.” Baek Ah was rattled with his best friend disappearance. So listened intently, he was worried, but knowing no one knew her, the odds of someone aiming to hurt her was slim. “We will find her.” And they set to search for her, combing each nook and cranny of the port, oblivious to the ugly fate that had fallen to her.

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Ha Jin could feel shaken by the killings she had done in one night. But she did not regret it. It was either her or them. Knowing that the Queen had sent them for her spurred another wave of fury emboldening her to get back to the Queen. Her minds were teetering on the edge of insanity due to the chaotic evening she had experienced. As she observed her surroundings, she began to talk to no one in particular, “Now, now, I have a tea party to attend. I need a fitting gift for the Queen.” She looked around her and an idea appeared out of thin air. “A fitting gift for a Queen would be jewels, wouldn’t it? And I have seven family jewels here laid to waste. I could pluck them just for her. Yeah, let’s do that.” And she rose from the bed, picking up her weapons, preparing a special gift for the Queen.

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So and Baek Ah had looked everywhere, asking people if they had seen someone with dark red hair walking past them. No one saw her. People had started to disperse yet Ha Jin was nowhere to be seen. So and Baek Ah exchanged looks – concerned looks before they heard a commotion down the street. They walked towards the crowd, hoping Ha Jin was there too.

As they got closer, they saw a man sitting in the middle of the crowd, his face pale. So heard others whispering about a certain red wolf that sought to kill. The pale man nodded his head to the murmurs. “It is true. The story we heard before is true. I saw her. Her hair short and unkept and it was red, like fire. Her eyes wild and she was covered in blood. I saw a scar on her face. I want to turn around, but she grips the reign of my horse saying that she needs a horse.” He took a sip of his drink to calm himself.

“Did you give your horse to her?” someone from the crowd asked.

“Of course! I was afraid she would kill me, what with the deranged look on her face.” He mumbled, distraught by the experience.

Baek Ah pushed against the crowd, as he mentioned the scar, the red hair, he knew for certain that man was describing his friend. So stopped him, in a voice dripping with authority, he asked the man, silencing others. “Where is she?”

His voice, his presence struck the crowd and the man simply pointed to the end of the road. “Far, over there. There was a small lodging.”

So left abruptly, leaving Baek Ah running behind him.

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Ha Jin climbed the wall of the palace closest to the Queen’s quarters. No one was seen guarding as she made her way to meet the Queen. As she arrived, she heard few gasps from the court ladies. She turned facing them, “Is the Queen inside?”. Few nodded. Ha Jin took few steps closer, slowly, trying not to scare the court ladies. “Now, announce it to the Queen that Ha Jin is here to have tea with her. And after that, retreat to your chambers for the night. Speak nothing of this. Understood?”

She tried to show them kindness, no matter how depleting such virtue was left within her. They squeaked a barely audible yes at her request. One of the senior court maids announced her arrival while the other two opened the door for her.

Ha Jin entered the chamber, taking in how Yeon Hwa was so at ease, lying down on her bed, readying herself to sleep while she had fought for her dear life, covered in new gashes, the blood of her own and others and her hair chopped off for the sake of saving herself. How she had fought not to be raped by those animals she sent. Yeon Hwa looked taken aback by Ha Jin’s appearance. A moment passed before she sneered at Ha Jin, enjoying the pain she had managed to inflict on her enemy.

“Your stench is revolting.” Yeon Hwa covered her nose, making a face as she threw Ha Jin the dirtiest look she could muster. Ha Jin, on the other hand, barked out a laughter, mocking Yeon Hwa. “Oh Yeon Hwa. You are one sheltered queen. Me? Revolting? Yes, yes, I am but it still does not rival the disgusting stench coming from your vile, rotten heart apparently.” Ha Jin pulled out a chair, sitting in front of Yeon Hwa. She pushed her hair back, using both hands as she sent Yeon Hwa a murderous glare.

“Where’s the tea, I’m parched. Don’t tell me you are not prepared? Do you assume I will not come? Do you think seven men are enough to stop me from getting my tea? I am Hae Soo too. I take my tea seriously. I spent years perfecting my skills in preparing them.” Ha Jin teased Yeon Hwa by admitting her past identity. She could tell Yeon Hwa was shocked hearing her proclaimed what she had been denying hard before. Ha Jin, Hae Soo they are both me, why bother denying my own identity?

“It bothers you, isn’t it? Despite everything you spat at me, I swallow it all and come back stronger. You fear me because I don’t care for customs, for whispered words – a script you concoct to tarnish my reputation. I kill them all Yeon Hwa. I did. Before they had the chance to touch me, I kill each one of them.”

“You animal. How could you...” Ha Jin simply nodded at her, smirking. Watching her face intently as the news descended upon her, of how wrong she was to think she could wipe Ha Jin out of the picture simply by sending men to do her biddings.

Yeon Hwa turned pale. A killer. I am sitting with a killer. How could she take them all on her own? “You think you can win against me. I planned, and I failed. I could always plan again. But you, you are not free yet. We’ll see how long the king will favor you with no guarantee of an heir.” She mustered a pitiful grin meant to shake Ha Jin’s resolve.

Ha Jin leaned closer to Yeon Hwa. “You think I don’t know what you did? The curse you throw at me?  You see, Yeon Hwa, that is what set us apart. This nation, our king…I don’t owe any of them anyone from my womb. That is your burden to carry, not mine. I simply exist, for him.” Despite the things she had learned before, she refused to deal with it just yet. At this moment, she only knew that she loved So and So loved her.

Yeon Hwa slapped the table hard. “You think love will be the answer for everything? Love is fickle, a child’s play. Love is fragile.”

Ha Jin leaned back against her chair. “Possibly, but to be cast aside by something so fickle and fragile is…hmmm, what’s the word for it?” she stared at the ceiling, acting as if she was searching for the right word when she already has it rolling in her mouth. “…humiliating.”

She sneered at Yeon Hwa before she stood up. “Here you go.” She flung the sack consisting the family jewels she had carefully harvested. “You would think I am one without manners, but I do know to bring something for the host, even when I don’t get the promised tea.” Ha Jin turned, ready to leave the room, to leave behind this woman who made it her purpose to hurt her. She was exhausted, and she had gone through so much in one day. Yeon Hwa, with a shaking hand, took the sack, curious of its content. At the sight of it, she screamed before she threw all of them to the floor.

“You foolish woman! You monster! You think I would stop just because you threaten me like this?! I will hurt you, I will hurt your loved ones! I will do everything to put you back where you belong. A gutter!” her face flushed with anger, but it did not rival the rage inside Ha Jin. She stopped as she listened to Yeon Hwa threatening her family. She turned around, her hands gripping the table between them before she hurled it across the room, clearing the path between her and Yeon Hwa.

“Don’t touch my children. Don’t touch my husband. The next time you want to kill me, use your own hands. Feel my heart beating in your palm and wrench it from my body. Till you have the guts to do that, just shut up.” Ha Jin’s finger shook as she enunciated each word, showing Yeon Hwa how serious she was when it came to protecting her family. She closed the distance between her and Yeon Hwa, whose hands were gripping her chair tightly, sat frozen by the show of violence. She grabbed her by the collar of her clothes and pushed Yeon Hwa back, trapped between the back of her chair and Ha Jin.

“I curse you to live beneath my shadow for the rest of your existence. To never live a day in your life without being haunted by the spiteful things you did to me or ever plan to do to me. You will live with nothing but regret and agony knowing every happiness you ever try to build is only biding its time to be shattered by me. I swear I will take everything from you and I swear my face will be the one thing you see before you die. Fuck you, crazy bitch.” Ha Jin sealed the vow with a slap across Yeon Hwa’s face. It was nothing compared to what she had endured. And she left, leaving Yeon Hwa strapped to her chair in fear.

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So arrived at the lodging, barrelling his way inside the vacant building. He checked each room and saw nothing. He opened the next door and the sight stunned him. Blood and dead bodies everywhere. He had tried to chase after her, but the dark night prevented him from doing such so he turned back, hoping for clues. He could feel Baek Ah stiffened behind him – he was never familiar with a grisly scene as one he was seeing now. “Ha Jin did this? So, Ha Jin did this?” Baek Ah whispered to So, astounded by this side of his friend he swore he had never seen before. “Good for her. I rather see them dead than her.” So was surprised too as he counted the men. Seven to one was something.

He kicked aside one body, moving from one to another, observing the bodies, examining their wounds. At the sight of one man without wound like the rest, he bent down, touching his limp neck, broken from her bare hands he assumed. As he looked down, he realized how Ha Jin had cut off their testicles and he believed this decision was made for her. These men must have been sent by someone to attack her or worst, robbed her of her own dignity. So gritted his teeth as his mind portrayed scenes of Ha Jin fighting them all on her own.

Baek Ah heard a voice grunting at the corner of the room. He alerted So of this and they walked closer to the voice. So put his hand against the man’s neck to check for a pulse. He was alive still, no matter how barely. Baek Ah noticed his wound on his wrist and he too realized how the man’s pants were drenched in blood. He gulped his suspicion as he saw So raised his hand and slapped that man. The man opened his eyes slightly and So choked him. “Where is she, who sent you?” He was gasping for air as So tightened his grip. “The Queen. She is meeting the Queen.” He squeaked.

So tossed him aside. Desperation and anger washed over him. “Bring him back to the palace. I am not done with him. make sure he is alive. Burn the rest.” So left Baek Ah with his guards as he returned to the palace as quickly as possible. Ha Jin, wait for me.

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Ha Jin left the palace quickly. She knew she could no recuperate in there while she was plagued with so many things she had to leaf through patiently, one by one, away from the children, away from him. She stopped walking as she vomited whatever left within her body. Her body finally succumbed to the pain and exhaustion. She continued to walk, to the only place So would never consider her to search refuge.

She limped slowly, hugging herself as she made her way towards his residence. The guards recognize her from earlier that day and ran inside to inform the owner of the house. She saw him and his wife and offered an apologetic smile as she addressed them. “Your Highnesses, I hope I did not impose upon your hospitality too soon after the offer.” She took in his shocked expression before everything went dark.

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Chapter Text

Yeon Hwa could not find the strength to stand up even long after Hae Soo left. Soo’s words scarred her. Her eyes were blazing with a conviction that threatened to burn the Queen and that was enough to penetrate deep enough within her, shaking her to the core. She threw a quick glance towards her surrounding and the gifts scattered on the floor. She cringed at this sight realizing she had doomed herself the moment she saw Soo as her rival. She was different then, not as threatening but now, it was as if she rose back from the death purely out of spite to torment her.

She stood up shakily, yelling for her court ladies to clean the room. But no one was there, ready to answer her beck and call. She screamed louder and finally, someone entered the room. She had her back facing the door as she pulled the blanket to make room for her to lie down. “Did you not hear me the first time?! Clean the mess and burn those disgusting things. No one can know she was here.”

“Where is she?” So’s voice cracked the silence of the night like a whip. Yeon Hwa turned quickly at his voice only now realizing that the fact that Soo had survived would warrant a tragedy to happen to her. It was always this way between her and Soo. Only one could taste victory while the other must bear the consequences of being the one who lost. She had thought she had won unchallenged when she was crowned as Queen. She thought she had won when Soo left him behind. But now? She was not sure if what she had tasted before could be considered a victory at all. She had failed to plan her enemy’s demise properly and now So came to finish her. She noticed how So’s eyes swept over the room before his sight fell to the dispersed body parts on the floor. His look confirmed that he knew Soo was in the room. Yeon Hwa grabbed the length of her skirt tighter. The last time he was here he gifted her with heads detached from their bodies. Could it be that tonight she will have her own head rolling on the floor?

“I don’t know Your Majesty. She left.” Her voice shaking, fearful of her fate that was balancing at the edge of a cliff, waiting to meet the far ground.

So looked at Yeon Hwa face, seeing smudges of blood and redness, possibly a farewell gift by Ha Jin. He could not help but snicker at this, visioning it in his mind. It is a shame I was not there to bear witness. A glorious slap it must have been.  “What happened to your face?” he walked closer, pretending to wipe the smudges of blood.

Yeon Hwa was surprised at this. She leaned in his hand, inhaling his scent. He was never this close to me. “She…she slapped me, Your Majesty. How dare she put her hand on me! You should punish her! She blinked her eyes now glistening with tears, hoping that the King would be swayed and sided with her just this once.

So closed the distance between them, his hands on her shoulder. “Does it hurt?”

“Yes, yes it does husband.” Yeon Hwa was swooned over by this rare attentiveness she was receiving. She put her hands on his chest, feeling his heart beating beneath his clothes. He held her hands in his before he looked at the despicable Queen straight in the eyes and crushed her hands in his as he spoke.

“Good. If it were me I would have clawed your eyes out with my bare hands.” He flashed her his psychotic smile - on its own a real threat to the one receiving it.  She pulled her hands out from his grasp before she fell back to her bed. Trapped between it and her husband who looked more than ready to kill her.

“Did you send those men? To kill her?” he knew the truth already, he just needed to see her squirming out of it.

Yeon Hwa realized her foolishness to keep on clinging to this relationship. She had learned that the King was not one to bargain with. She succeeded once and that was the end of it when she promised him a son to be placed on the throne. This realization stampeded all hope of love, of respect she thought her position would provide. She chuckled slowly before it erupted into a euphoric laughter. “Yes, I did Your Majesty. A wedding gift for a wench that dares to take what is rightfully mine. I sent those men to ruin her, hoping she would kill herself.”

So calmed himself down for he was overwhelmed with the sudden need to punch her senseless. “You underestimate her, didn’t you?”

Her eyes widen with no regret reflected in them. “I did. A mistake I would not repeat.”

“Still far from repenting, are we? Remember the last time I was here? I said I will wait for you to give me a reason to throw you. I have it now.”

She touched her swollen cheek, her mind whirring to cover the confession her mouth had unnecessarily spilled. She shook her head as she replied, “You have no proof. She is not here. The men I sent are dead. You have nothing against me.”

She spoke the truth, but So knew better than to wait for the truth. He sought to end this feud once and for all. He vowed to make sure the next time Ha Jin entered the palace, she would be his only wife. “Not yet. But I’ll find ways. I will make it happen. Mark my words, this is your downfall.”

So called for guards to the residence, giving them orders to not allow the Queen to leave the room under any circumstances, to not allow anyone to visit her until it was allowed by the King himself.

“You could not do this to me, your Majesty! I am the Queen!” Yeon Hwa sensed that she was in peril. So was not one that jest around, whatever he said, he would do his best to fulfill it. Not being able to reach out could be the end of her. She would not be able to anticipate So’s plan and come out with a counter attack.

Every second spent with Yeon Hwa was wasted time that could have been used to look for Ha Jin. So pursed his lips in desperation as he looked at the cause of Ha Jin’s pain. ’“That is why I don’t drag you to the prison, I bring the prison to you.”

Yeon Hwa tried to threaten So. Her last resort. After all, the argument was lost, but she still hinged her survival on the court. Surely So would not gamble away the court’s trust and support no matter how flimsy it is? “What you are doing is wrong and you will be judged by it.  The court will turn against you.  When that happens you will wish you have shown me kindness. You will regret this, Your Majesty!”

“Saving my wife from evil lunatic is wrong? Queen, you are sick, you are not well, and it is shown by your tampered judgment. I will make the court agree with me. I am quite adept at maneuvering their opinions nowadays, haven’t you heard?”

Such words struck a chord in her heart. He would find ways to end her, even resorting to something unthinkable, as long as he managed to get what he wanted. Could it be that I have pushed my luck too far?

So left her, his mind already on Ha Jin’s safety, heavy with worry on his wife whereabout. He took notice of blood on the floor of the Queen’s room and he suspected it must have been Ha Jin’s since the Queen bore no signs of injuries.

“Where are you?” he mumbled as he ran to their home, hoping that she was there, alive.

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Wook ran off directly after he was told the guest from earlier of the day was in dire need of help. His wife ran after him, baffled at the way her husband rushing to the guest’s aid. The years she had spent together with him taught her that Wook was a man of very few words. He played his part as a husband, as a father well but that was it. He was just, enough. There was certain coldness he carried with him and he was distant at times as if he was longing for something out of reach. His eyes often glazed, perusing nothingness during a conversation as if he was lost in the sea of regrets.

She had heard of his crime, how could she not when almost every noble family discussed it amongst them. And she was of the royal family at one point, before the late king, Taejo crushed Hubaekje and ousted them all. She was lucky enough, somehow managed to flee and adopted by a prominent clan in Goryeo. Her sister, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. She continued to live, her will to survive had grown just so that one day she could be reunited with her sister. No more thoughts in restoring her family’s glory – that was all pointless. She prayed that her sister would survive and turned out she did. She knew that after she received the news of her death, of suicide in exchange for a better future for their people. My sweet little sister, full of fire and determination to do what she believes is right.

She was the opposite of her sister. She was a modest woman, with a humble dream of just having a family without having to get involved in politics. That was the reason she agreed to the union in the first place. Her husband’s mother had requested the king to grant his son a marriage, and the king relayed the request to the court. Everyone shunned from it which was understandable considering who in their right mind would waste their daughter’s future? But the family she was adopted into saw it as a chance to redeem their glory and offered her as a pawn, she was not one of theirs in the first place, bound just enough to be disposed of appropriately. She agreed to it, seeing it as a way out from the family’s grip.

She did not seek for the conquest of true love. She had vowed to herself to love whomever she was bound to in marriage and raised their child the best she could. She was content with what she had, never pursuing something greater for she had seen how greed would eventually destroy all we have. She was content, grateful and accepting, but tonight she could not help but see a spark in her husband’s eyes and she was curious. No jealousy for the truth to be told, where he could go with his reputation now. She was just plain curious.

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When she saw the man who had helped her daughter earlier, she could not stop herself from gasping. His hair was chopped off bluntly, and blood was everywhere: his clothes, his own skin covered with what she hoped not his own blood but that would suggest a serious altercation that could involve someone else’s death. He spoke something, of intruding their hospitality too soon before he fell to the ground. Her husband leaped forward, stopping their guest’s head from hitting the ground. He then proceeded to lift him in his arms, carrying him too close to his chest before he sprinted forward, leaving her speechless.

She fired rapid instructions to their available maids, to prepare what needed to attend the guest’s wounds. She followed her husband closely, wondering why he chose to use that particular room, the one he had barred anyone from entering.

He put the man carefully on the bed, pushing his hair that was splattered over his face. His finger lingered on his scar. She was puzzled by her husband’s reaction, confused as she could not recall seeing the scar this morning. The maids entered the room, carrying with them medicine, cloths and warm water to clean the wounds. She moved to clean the man’s face as she wet the cloth she was holding. She saw her husband stood frozen, looking at the man’s exposed shoulder. She came closer and realized her husband was looking at an old scar, of an old wound that looked as if it was meshed together and stitched. She peered closer, she had never seen such wound, even during the days of the war that plagued her nation. As she lowered down her gaze, she realized that he was a she and she looked up to her husband. He returned her stare, his look suggested he was aware of this, devoid of any surprise.

“Leave. I will attend to her wounds.” Her tone brisk, stern. Her husband stepped back and left, closing the door behind him.

She continued with the task at hands, cleaning her from blood and applying salve over her small yet scattered cuts, mostly on her arms. She kept her head down, helping her guest diligently to a new set of fresh, clean clothes, all while wondering who are you to him and what happens to you? 

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Bo Yeong left the room, not quite surprised to see her husband waiting outside. “How is she?” he asked her, his face concentrated with worry. “She is doing fine I believe. She needs rest. We could only assume what happened to her and to know the truth we must allow her to recuperate in peace. He sighed in relief and threw a glance at the door, moving closer to it. Bo Yeong grabbed his hand firmly, “This is not proper Your Highness. Walk me back to our quarters, will you?” He could not ruin their guest’s reputation by being in the same room at night. She would not allow it. Wook looked down at their entwined hands, his shoulder slumped before he heeded his wife’s request.

As they walked together, she broke the silence between them. “Looking at her fresh wounds I would assume that she was involved in an intense fight. I found more than one dagger that she kept with her. Judging from that and her old wounds, similar to the one on her shoulder, I do believe she must have been a trained fighter. Do you know her?” she asked her husband.  From the very little past that she knew of her husband, she was aware that Wook was never the one on the frontline of the battlefield – that was the position of the fourteenth prince. Her husband was a politician, a strategist. She knew not to question her husband’s past. Everybody has stories from before, why she should question his when she had not shared all of hers?

“I know her. Or so I think. She was different back then.” He did not return his wife stare, eyes set on the ground wondering why Soo was so different than the one he knew. Surely the years had been hard for her he assumed. He did receive the news of her demise from Jung, but he refused to believe so. It could have been a trick to torment him more since he was unable to verify it on his own. He stopped and turned slightly, looking back at her room. It had always been her room, he kept it that way. Could it be that deep down he knows that she would come back to him?

Bo Yeong looked at her husband, obviously rattled by a presence of someone from his past. She whispered to him. “Is she the one you are pining for?”

“Yes.” He whispered back to her.

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So ran towards their home, hoping that he would see her, breathing. He barged into the house - the resident was too pristine with no signs of her. At this point So felt nothing but anger towards Yeon Hwa for putting Ha Jin in danger. He prioritized. He needed to do two things now, find Ha Jin and punish Yeon Hwa for her crime. He left the lake, barking orders to the guards guarding the resident. “Find me the thirteenth and fourteenth princes. Meet me in the throne room. Now.”

He wanted to search Ha Jin on his own, but he could not cast aside his responsibility as king and leave the court spouting speculations. They were whispering already but no one had dared to come forward and asked the status of Ha Jin. He would rather keep it that way because he knew, no matter how hard he wanted to elevate her position, he could not simply announce her to the court as his wife. He loved her too much to let her witness people questioning her status as his wife that should have been more than enough to warrant her a place by his side. Hadn’t she seen enough before? He now understood her pain, of having only love to offer and to know it was not enough it was simply devastating. He knew he needed to punish Yeon Hwa without dragging Ha Jin into the picture.

But first, he had to know her whereabouts. He needed to know she was as safe as she could be given the circumstances she was presented. To do such, he needed help from Baek Ah and his new ally, his own brother Jung, to find her. It would be a bit tricky with Jung, but he had done so much for Ha Jin before he deserved to know.

The moment he stepped into the throne room, Baek Ah and Jung was already waiting for him. Jung looked a bit confused, but he kept quiet while sending Baek Ah few glances, hoping that he would offer some context. So walked briskly between them, heading straight for the throne. He sat down, his distraught over the event that took place from a simple outing clearly shown on his demeanor.

“Baek Ah, tell me what happened the moment you two left the palace. Spare no details. I want to know everything.” His eyes focused on his brother. He needed to know everything, hoping for some clues.

“Yes Your Majesty. We went to visit Myung Hee first before we headed to the market. I lost her for a moment there too.” Baek Ah admitted the truth, embarrassed by his own failure to keep Ha Jin by his side.

“Two times in a day Baek Ah. What happened?”

“She found a girl and she helped sent the girl back home.”

“And where is that actually?”

“The girl is the eighth prince daughter. She went there.” A moment of silence filled the room as So made sense of the new piece of information.

“She went-“So covered his face with his hands rubbing it exasperatedly. “Baek Ah how could you allow that to happen?!”

Baek Ah knew too well it was indeed his fault. “We were separated, Your Majesty. I went there too afterward. We had lunch with Wook and we left soon after.”

So’s voice mirrored a growl by now. Mad with how the day had turned out. It was supposed to be a joyful day for her! “You had lunch. With Wook. Did he suspect anything?”

“He did but I can assure you his suspicion is baseless. Could it be - You don’t think she is there at this very moment?” Baek Ah voiced out So’s own suspicion.

“I believe so. It’s the only place she knows other than the palace.” So stood up abruptly, motioning for his two brothers to follow him.

Baek Ah and Jung trailed after the King. Jung pulled Baek Ah to match his pace, further back from the king hoping that Baek Ah would fill him in with more information. “Who are we talking about?”

Baek Ah answered curtly. “Ha Jin”

The name meant nothing to Jung. “Who?”

“So’s wife.” Baek Ah was hesitating. Should Jung be included in the secret or left in the dark?

Hearing this, Jung’s voice turned to a harsh whisper. “Other than the Queen? I thought he would be loyal to Soo. I thought he would cherish their memories and not insult it by allowing another woman to replace her.”

Baek Ah turned to Jung slightly. He took a deep breath and announced him the truth. “Ha Jin is Hae Soo.”

Jung stopped almost immediately after he heard Baek Ah. “We burned her together with her daughter. How can you speak carelessly, with such conviction?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it to you.”

“We should not tarnish the memories of the dead like this. Whatever madness it is you both are in, I wish not to partake.” They had both lost their minds. All three of them had loved Hae Soo but clinging to memories like this was beyond comprehension. If So alone acted like this, he would have understood but Baek Ah too?

So who had been listening turned around to Jung. “Should that be the case, Wang Jung, with all due respect you can leave the palace and start preparing for the things we have discussed in private before. Any new development of such plans would be relayed to you as soon as possible. Any further insight from you is appreciated in advance. Farewell and keep everything you have learned today a secret, will you?”

“I will Your Majesty.” He bowed as a sign of respect before adding, “May you find whoever this is you are searching for.”

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Chapter Text

I become insane, with long interval of horrible sanity.

-Edgar Allan Poe-

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“Your Majesty. To what do I owe this pleasure of being graced with your presence here in my humble abode?” Wook was sitting in his study, killing time by rereading the books that he had finished more times than he could afford to count. He had decided to be the first person Hae Soo saw directly after she regained her consciousness, so he waited. For her. He was surprised to be told that the king had set foot in his residence. As he saw the king, he was resentful. While he wasted his life and potential being confined within the walls, So had thrived gloriously. It was shown through his stance, oozing with confidence, a stark contrast to his.

“Stop with the pretentious act. You know why I am here. Where is she?” So spared him no formalities.

“You do know your presence here only confirmed my suspicion. Where have you kept her hidden all these whiles?” Wook could not wipe the smirk from his face, giddy now that he had another chance to undermine his enemy.

So could feel the veins in his head about to pop with each event taking place before he could finally see Ha Jin. First the sister, now the brother, dead set in stopping him and Ha Jin from being together.  He massaged his forehead, trying to tame the anxiety pulsing within before he looked at Wook straight is his eyes. “Are you still under the illusion that somehow you have a claim over her? Just because she seeks a shelter in your house? Have the years' spent coop in this place rot your mind somehow? She is never yours.”

“She could be. The fact that she comes to me has to mean something.” Once, he had accepted his defeat graciously. But with the presence of Soo, he felt compelled to fight again, to win something, anything.

“She is my wife.” So stated it clearly, enunciating each word.

“Is she now? I heard no announcement to the public. I doubt it means anything. The same way her marriage to Jung meant nothing.”

“You and your sister have caused enough pain to her. I should have chop your head off before when I have the chance. She was the only reason you still have your head attach to your body.” So moved alarmingly closer.

“All the more reason to believe that she still loves me.” Wook grinned.

So had had enough. He had not seen Ha JIn yet after all that had happened, and he needed to see her now.  Wook was deliberately standing in his way, playing games. The pure tension and anxiety running through his veins caused him to pull his shoulder far back before he punched Wook in his face. Wook staggered back against the wall, tasting his own blood and So grabbed him by the collar of his clothes and punched him again. Once, twice before he felt Baek Ah pulling him back.

Baek Ah put himself between his two brothers, trying to stop the fight from escalating. “Wook, enough! She loves only So, not you. And if I may advise you, don’t speak of your feelings in front of her. Based on what she is capable of as seen tonight, I fear she would skin you alive.”

“I doubt that she could do that.” Wook refused to believe that.

“Do not underestimate her. She could, and she would.” Baek Ah reassured his brother.

Bo Yeong had listened to the conversation, standing close but not enough to alert any of them of her presence. She winced at the sound of flesh hitting flesh, yet she kept quiet. She wanted to see how far her husband was willing to push the king for this woman. Realizing that there was silence at the other side of the door, she entered the room. She took a glance at her husband who was sitting on the floor. “Your Majesty please, follow me. I will show you where she is.”

So wasted no time and followed her. Finally, someone that understands the gravity of the situation.

“Please excuse my husband. Her presence stirs some memories from the past. Memories that I believe Your Majesty and Your Highness are more aware of as compared to me. I tended to her wounds, there are few bruises, the worst one is on the right side of her body and shallow cuts mostly on her arms but other than that she is, well, fine is not really appropriate a word but a better option than others I could come up with. She hasn’t regained her consciousness, but I believe it is better that way, for us to let her rest and let her mind copes with what she had experienced today.”

Baek Ah followed closely behind. This was his second time seeing Wook’s wife yet only now he realized the resemblance between this woman and his dead lover. It was not obvious, very subtle but the similarities were there – the shape of the face, the curve of the nose, the way she spoke. All small details put together created an undisputed similarity between the two. A sister? She never told me about her family. Well, she kept too much from me, and I never asked the right question.

She opened the door and let the King in, hesitating whether to let Baek Ah in the room too. “Just for a moment. I need to see that she is alive.” Bo Yeong stepped aside, allowing him to enter. Who is this woman that made the royal siblings love her unconditionally?

Baek Ah stood behind the unmoving So, taking the sight of his unconscious friend. She looks haggard but she’s alive. That is good enough. Forgive me, my friend, I shouldn’t have left you behind. He patted So on his shoulder and turned back, leaving the room.

“I will show you to your room, Your Highness.” Bo Yeong announced, walking few steps further than him. Baek Ah followed behind, all while wondering if she was truly related to Woo Hee or his mind was just playing tricks on him.

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It was few hours past midnight. Only a few more hours before the sun rose and So had to return to the palace. He had been sitting next to Ha Jin, drinking in the sight of her sleeping form. He was beyond relieved to see her, holding her hand and not letting go. She looked worn out. Who wouldn’t after the night she had gone through? Her hair was chopped bluntly, and her face was pale. He shuddered to see the rest of her body and decided to just let her rest for the time being.  Her temperature rose slightly and So had tried to tame it as best as he could with a wet cloth. Seeing her lying like this reminded him of her arrival to his world for the second time. He could not let this happened again. The Queen must meet her downfall. No matter what it takes.

He bent down and kissed her forehead, lingering just a few seconds longer, buying himself some comfort that at very least, she was alive, and she was still here with him. “Wait for me, I will get rid of the Queen first. Then, we will go home. Together.”

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So left Ha Jin before dawn approached, heading straight to Baek Ah’s room. He knocked on the door and was surprised to have it answered so quickly. His brother looked tired too, possibly waiting for any news regarding Ha Jin. So supplied the answer, reassuring him that she was somewhat as fine as one could be after the awful day she had gone through.

“What will happen now, brother? Did the Queen really send those men for her?” Baek Ah could not believe it. Yeon Hwa had everything. A title, children, power, wealth. The highest position a woman could wish for. How could she think of such depraved thing and have it executed?

“SHe did. I want you to stay here with Ha Jin. I wish we could bring her to your residence, but she needs to rest. She is right. This is the safest place for her for the time being. I will punish Yeon Hwa but I would not drag Ha Jin through it. She had suffered enough. Seven men at once...” So shook his head at this. “We should be grateful she managed to come out alive.”

“I was surprised that you gifted her daggers. Are you already aware that she could…” he wanted to say kill, “- fight? That she is a skilled fighter? What I mean is, I am definitely not aware of the extent of her injuries, but from what I saw last night, she survived that, barely scathed.” His eyes full of wonders and respect. “Honestly brother, if it were me I would have died.”

“She is amazing, isn’t she?” So could not help but beamed with pride. She is amazing, and she is my wife.

“Keep your eyes open for Wook. He might cause some disturbance while she is healing.” So reminded Baek Ah. This was the reason he needed his brother to stay. He doubted Wook could sway Ha Jin’s feelings for him. Her love for me is undisputed, unchallenged. That much he had to acknowledge – no one could love him the way Ha Jin did. He just despised the thought that Wook had the chance to be closed to Ha Jin while he had to return to the palace and sentenced Yeon Hwa to a fitting punishment.

So opened the door, only to see Wook standing outside with a shocked expression. He had been listening to their conversation and upon learning that it was his sister that caused this, he was shaken. It was always Yeon Hwa. The poison, the push for him to use the decree to send Soo away, and now seven men to kill her? Seven? He had listened to each word but still, he had to confirm.

“Is it true? Did my sister do this to her?” his voice shaking with anger. He had failed to save Soo too many times before and to know that his sister was still not done hurting Soo he was livid.

“You compared to others should know better what she is capable of.” So stated coldly.

Wook closed her eyes in defeat. “Make sure she pays a fair price for it.”

“I don’t need your permission to do so. But fret not, this will be the end of her time in the palace.”

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Chapter Text

All is fair in love and war.

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The day after. Palace.

So rode back to the palace while it was still dark, his mind whirring with countless ends that involved Yeon Hwa’s demise. But no, death was too easy for her. He wanted her to suffer. He wanted her to be stripped from all her glory, to hear her wailing, to see fear instilled in her eyes. That would teach her a valuable lesson, that would put her high head scrapped to the surface of the ground and taught her the ultimate lesson – to cower under his power.

He sped past his servants, ignoring their attempts to help him put on his robes. He was too used to assist only by his wife, it was now unbecoming for him to have others to help him. But his wife was away for her own sake for the moment, and he would rather have her away from the palace than to stay just for the sake of him. He could not afford to be that selfish anymore. They had paid a hefty price for that. When he left her, sacrificing their relationship to pursue his resolution in becoming king, hoping that Yo would not harm her, he was heavily mistaken. He was not aware of the degree of mind games and abuses Yo had inflicted upon her. Ari told him everything. She had been shadowing Ha Jin after her incident with Yo and Ari survived Gwangjong’s wrath when he had ordered everyone who knew about the transition of power to be slaughtered. It took Ji Mong a year to properly address him after that. He knew he had spilled too much blood in his hands. The problem now was not his deceased brother anymore but Yeon Hwa. She too had been playing the same games with Ha Jin and he had had enough of that. He knew that Ha Jin’s understanding of him killing others was not something he should abuse, it too came with a limit, but one more life, one last time.

I could easily behead that wench currently occupying the Queen position.

He took a seat on his bed as he mulled on options. Even if he brought Yeon Hwa to court specifically for sending men to ruin Ha Jin, the court would mostly have sided with Yeon Hwa for she was a queen. Tongues would spit out on how Ha Jin was just no one in the palace, with no official title. To bestow one to her now, was highly suspicious for people would see it as a mean to bring down the Queen – the king’s way to cast his queen aside. Should that happen, the queen will win allegiance and full support from other ministers, clans, people and he would be the wrong one, the evil one. He could not care less about such views but at least it had to have a good reason. He decided to not drag Ha Jin into this matter. As he was deep in thinking, he heard the announcement of the arrival of the palace’s astronomer.

Ji Mong entered the king’s chamber, his face grim and laden with unanswered questions. The King found this ironic coming from someone who knew more than others. He bowed to the King and informed him, “Your Majesty, I have preserved the…the body parts you have sent to me. They were currently kept in the tower, along with the man Baek Ah brought back to the palace.”

Gwangjong nodded his head as he listened to one of the few men he trusted in the palace. “He survives?”

Ji Mong offered a half-hearted shrug. “I did what I could but since the cut was crude I didn’t have any choice but to close the wound with boiling oil. He screamed and suffered yet he survived, per your instruction, Your Majesty.”

The King stood up and the astronomer cleared away from his path, his eyes following the King’s steps as he roamed around his room, thinking, searching for an answer that would serve his vendetta. “Ji Mong, have we ever had a case of a Queen committing adultery?”

The answer was simple. Never. In a nation still young, with only three kings, the palace had yet to see a lust so potent, strong enough to break the tedious customs respected by the women in palace especially the one who was under heavy scrutinize position as the Queen. “We have never had such case before Your Majesty.”

“Is it safe to assume that my decision will set precedent as to what should be done should we have one? How wonderful.” A smile slowly appeared on the King’s face, the lines of worry so prominent before had disappeared.

The astronomer felt a shift even earlier from this meeting but he was not sure of what it was about. He read Heavens, yes, but most of the times it felt as if he was offered just a glimpse of everyone’s fate, not enough for him to be very certain to draw any conclusions. His power was not as strong as hers. He had witnessed the blood on the late King Taejo’s hands, his friend Moo was too soft yet the nation did not strive while Yo was unforgiving. He learned that a King carried so heavy a burden that one could not expect him to play a clean game in building a nation. Blood will be spilled. The reasoning behind it that sets the difference. So he replied with a simple answer, “Yes Your Majesty.”

Gwangjong turned to face him. “Ji Mong, I assume you could guess everything by now. I want an audience with all servants of the Queen’s quarter in secret. Have it arranged, I want the hearing to be done by today so the punishment could be carried swiftly.”

It needed to be a surprise no one could ever anticipate.

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The Queen was unceremoniously dragged out from her room, not even given the chance to put on her most grandiose pair of robe in hope to sway the court’s opinion. Gwangjong had made sure of it. Cladded with only a plain white robe, she looked as similar as anyone without a social standing, like a slave. She tried to stand up, to carry herself with dignity but failed as her own legs buckled, allowing herself to be pulled by her arms. She chastised herself and stood her ground. I am THE Queen. What damage can he inflict upon me when he has no evidence? So sure she was upon the fact that she was indeed innocent.

She stood with borrowed confidence as she pushed aside the hands holding her. “Let go of me. I am the Queen still. Mishandle me and I will make sure your heads roll by the end of this day.” She bulged her eyes wide, convincing herself that she was in control of the situation and not the other way around, oblivious to the fact that she was fooling no one in actuality.

The guards took a step back as they motioned for her to follow them. She was lead to the courtyard, a setting laid out especially to discuss her fate. Every leader of the clan including those who were not granted position high enough to warrant their presence in governing were present. Shocked did not do justice in describing what she was feeling. Why does he feel this needs to humiliate me like this? A face stood out from the crowd. Her mother’s face, confusion and sadness filling her face, gripping in each wrinkle present. Her mother never visited her since she refused to vouch for her brother. She was devastated by her coldness. A wave of longing and regret washed over her, wishing, hoping that her mother was once more by her side. Lonely. That is it, what I feel now is sheer loneliness.

Her eyes turned misty but she blinked back the tears. She steadied herself as she took her place in the middle of the courtyard. Her eyes staring ahead as she followed her husband each movement as he sat down, facing her. His face surprisingly calm, but his eyes were staring daggers at her.

She was more than ready. She haughtily convinced herself that Gwangjong was dooming his own support by condemning her when there was no evidence readily available. Hae Soo had assured the death of each perpetrator, she thanked her for that. 

Someone, she was not sure who shushed the crowd directing everyone’s attention to the King. The King locked eyes with hers and spoke clearly, “Are you aware of the misconduct you have committed Queen?”

She stood, her hands folded neatly in front of her, her voice equally strong, “Unfortunately I am not. I have carried myself with dignity as Queen of the nation. The people in the palace could vouch for that.” She looked around as she heard a buzzing intensified, people murmuring while looking at each other. It was clear as day they were disagreeing, dirty looks sent to her by most. She clenched her teeth as she squared her shoulder and continued. “I was perplexed as to what had happened that warrant me a humiliation at this scale” gesturing to the crowd.

She was truly alone in this fight and it felt as if she had lost before the trial even began.

Gwangjong motioned for Ji Mong to come closer. Ji Mong held out his hands, receiving a scroll from the king, his face covering each trace of emotion. He unfolded it as everyone hushed, eager to know what the reasoning behind this rare display that was rattling the palace’s peace.

We are gathered here today to witness the execution of swift impartiality regardless of status or wealth to remind the people that Goryeo is a land built on meticulous jurisdiction that seeks to serve justice and only justice.

Queen Daemok of the Hwangju Hwangbo clan, daughter of the late King Taejo is hereby accused of committing adultery with seven different men after the birth of her second child.

Gasps echoed as the air was sucked simultaneously by each one present. Yeon Hwa was frozen on the spot as she listened to the accusation. Her mind was reeling. What just happen?

 “Adultery…? Adultery Your Majesty? This is preposterous! A slander to ruin my reputation.” Yeon Hwa stammered as she lost her balance, sending her sitting on the floor. She knelt in front of the audience, beads of perspiration appeared on her forehead. She clenched her palms, leaving crescents marks enclosed within.

She saw his eyes soaking in satisfaction seeing her in such condition. She could observe a malicious grin threatening to appear but he was quick enough to hide it. He played his part well. Like a wounded husband, a betrayed party in the marriage when she was the one who suffered. She continued,

“I am innocent Your Majesty! This is not what this trial is meant to discuss today!” being caught off guard with such accusation left her with no time to prepare a better answer.

The King’s eyes glint as he heard her pathetic attempt to diverge all the attention given to her. “Are you confessing to another crime Queen?”

Her hands quickly flew to cover her mouth. “No…No Your Majesty. I am innocent!”

“I have here with me written statements by the court ladies and eunuchs assigned to your residence. I would not bring them forward today as to not sway their answers the moment they see the Queen they have been serving. They are sworn to tell nothing but truth and their answers here all pointing out the fact that after the birth of the princess, you had indeed brought men inside your room more than one occasion. Confess now, Queen.”

Her mind was exploding with anger as she recalled she had indeed had men entered her chamber but that was to discuss the death of Ha Jin. But she could not confess to that because Ha Jin was nowhere to be found in the palace. He hid her! And orchestrates this whole thing!

“Not adultery Your Majesty! How could I dare smear your reputation?”

It was not a good day for Yeon Hwa. She stammered, she said the wrong things. Things that could easily be manipulated by his position as King. “It seemed to be that you did admit having men inside your sleeping chamber. Can anyone vouch nothing had happened?”

She fell deeper and deeper into his trap. How could anyone vouch for her innocence when she had specifically instructed all her court ladies to remain far from her chamber while the meeting took place as to cover her own track so that no one can breathe a word to another. She did not see then how her attempts on secrecy ended up testifying against her.

She struggled to reply. Gwangjong continued, a cold expression residing permanently on his face. He raised his hand to Ji Mong. The astronomer responded. “The court will now call upon the only surviving witness to testify.”

From her peripheral view, she noticed a man limping forward. She turned her head and she drew in a sharp breath. It was one of the men she had assigned with the task to ruin Hae Soo, still breathing, looking at her sideways.

“Min Seok…I thought everyone is dead…” Yeon Hwa whispered in disbelief.

She whispered words that had failed to go quietly with the wind. The King had been observing her every response, to use it against her. “It looks as if you know the man even before he is identified. Guards, do repeat what the Queen had just mentioned to the court.”

The guard who had been standing closest to the Queen nodded his head as he moved forward to fulfill the King’s order. “The Queen called out a name, Min Seok and made a comment on how she thought everyone is dead.”

The crowds went wild. “She knew him! It must be true then!” she heard a voice exclaimed. Then another saying, “Can you believe what we get to witness today? How could she allow another man to touch her when she is already a Queen! Shame on her!”

The King rose his hand to silence the crowd. “Come forward Min Seok and answer the question.”

“Have you met the Queen in private before?”

Min Seok gave a short answer. “I did.”

“What happened then?” The King inquired. The witnesses must know this to further nailed the accusation.

Min Seok cleared his throat before he answered. “The Queen wanted to be intimate and I complied because she is the Queen.” A loud gasp, with the word shame, repeated over and over by the crowd.

She had been listening, but as she heard the lie coming out from this man’s mouth she quickly yelled. “Lies! That was a grievous lie told blatantly to the King. How dare you, you low life being. I would have never stoop that low!” She sneered at the man.

The King watched as the Queen started to lose control. He turned his attention to the man claiming he had slept with the Queen. “Do you have any proof to show that you have indeed been intimate with the Queen?”

“I do. I am aware of a certain mole. Should I say it out loud or should I come closer to you Your Majesty?”

“Come closer to spare the Queen’s remaining dignity. Court Lady Kim, you were responsible for the inspection before the Queen is married to me wasn’t it? Come closer to assure the truth coming out from his mouth.”

Min Seok and Court Lady Kim came closer. Min Seok repeated the answer he was told by the King earlier that day. He had no choice but to comply, he was promised that he would be spared. Court Lady Kim hid her shocked expression well but the audience still managed to catch it even when it lasted only for seconds. “Yes Your Majesty. Without a doubt, he had come in close contact with the Queen to be able to know such.”

“Min Seok, why would you dare to come forward today?”

“The Queen had gathered the men she had called upon, the one she had asked for intimate favors in a building near the port to be killed so that her associations with us could be covered. The men she had sent to kill us all was tasked to prove our deaths by bringing our…our testicles to her. I was alive because the guard patrolling the port saw the fire and managed to save only me, while others perished. No evidence left behind.”

The crowd gasped and Min Seok moved his hands to cover the front of his pants, indirectly emphasizing what he had lost. His own head hung low, shamed by the words coming out from his mouth yet he would do anything as long as he would keep breathing.

Finally, the King addressed her directly. “Queen, would you like to defend yourself?”

She realized that nothing she said would ever change the outcome of this trial. “I did not send anyone to kill them!”

“So now you are saying there is indeed a ‘them’ involved in your affairs?” He put both of his hands on the table as he leaned forward, his intonation intimidated her.

“You are twisting my words. These are all talks!” her hands danced wildly in the air trying to stop this madness.

“Seven pairs of testicles were found in your bedchamber.” He flung a box in front of the Queen, revealing the contents to the audience, captivated by the biggest scandal they had ever had the chance to witness its trial first hand. Few could be seen counting the dispersed body parts, assuring the person next to them they were indeed seven of them.

“Someone did indeed report back to you but managed to escape the palace’s guards showing that he was used to sneaking into the palace, to your chamber to be precise. All evidence pointed out the fact that you are guilty. How do you respond to this?”

She had been cornered. He had planned this all along. Creating accusation, crafting lie after lie that cemented everything. She looked around and she now finally understood why people cower under her husband’s words. He invented this whole charade not just for her. He had ruined her for good by tarnishing her dignity in front of everyone and at the same time, he squashed any dreams each clan had of putting their daughters next to the king. This was a warning. If this could happen while she was a queen, who would dare to propose another marriage to the king? He was paving a way to make Hae Soo his one and only. She cackled a mirth of nervous laughter at this realization. He was true to his words. He loved her. Ahhh, the things a man would do for love!

She looked around, taking in the shock, disgusted expressions blatantly on display by everyone present. He managed to sway all of them. Even if a handful questioned the accusation, no one would ruin their future by siding with her. She was doomed. No longer served any purpose, why would anyone stand with her? She did the only thing left to do. She pleaded.

Shaken to the core, she forced herself to stand as she walked closer to the those who were present. “Everyone listens to me. Have I not been a good Queen all these years? I am innocent. This is a ploy to smear my reputation, to send me away! Someone please vouches for my innocence!” She searched her mother’s eyes. As their eyes locked in a stare she pushed aside the others as she ran to her mother. “Mother, please! I beg you! Save me, I will never stoop that low and jeopardize my own position as Queen!” Her mother shook her head, she too realized she had never truly known what her daughter was capable off and it frightened her.

The King booming voice stop her on her track. “Does anyone dare to come forward and defend the vile misconduct proven to be done by the Queen?”

Silence.

Gwangjong stood up and the whole court turned their attention to him. He announced with a clear voice, the fate of the fallen Queen.  

“Queen Daemok of Hwangju Hwangbo Clan, I, Gwangjong hereby found you guilty of committing adultery to seven men, an unbecoming act of a Queen, a mother of this nation. From this day forward, you are no longer my wife. Your title as Queen will be stripped from you and you are demoted to a commoner.

You are to have your head shaved today before paraded to the public as a reminder of how the justice system works in this nation before you are banished to a temple in Khitan. May this punishment birth a new you and may your sins be forgiven.”

He did not stay to see her tremble as everything dear to her were taken away. He left as she screamed profanities at him. He had truly disposed of her.

The world shrunk to consist only of despair and fear. Fear of her life without a position, without status, without wealth. She had always felt her position promised her the world yet now everything was forcefully snatched from her leaving a world too small for someone with ambition too grand. She could feel hands pulling her back to the center of the yard, forcing her to kneel as another pair of hands pulled her hairs and began to cut. She did not need to lift her head up to know everyone was still very much present to witness the fallen Queen. She saw her hair on the ground but she was numb from the shame. She could not fathom the quickness of her downfall.

Is this really happening?

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He had ordered maids and court ladies to clear out the room that used to belong to Yeon Hwa. Every piece of her must be burned in front of her, the residence must be cleared from any trace of the previous queen.

He basked in the glory of having dismissed the snake and cared not for the means he had used to make sure it happened. Ha Jin said once he would pay for his crimes, even when she understood the reasons one way or another he would pay for it. He did not mind that. He would burn the world for his beloved and took pride in being engulfed by the same raging inferno for her.

He watched the queen being dragged out from the palace and he continued to watch as people flung mud at her, enraged by the sins she had committed. He knew how that felt. To be jeered and mocked. To be thrown with mud and feces, covered with it. The pain was bearable but the shame was crippling. Enough to break her for good.

____________________

She moved with the motion, still too numb to process everything. She felt mud covering her and it hurt her everywhere. Every term she had used to describe Hae Soo was thrown back at her.

Loose whore!

Wench!

Disgusting woman how dare she called herself Queen!

What Queen she could not even be a decent wife what more a Queen!

Do you think I have a chance with her? She’s a nobody, now isn’t she? I too want to have a taste…

She closed her eyes as she was paraded through the crowd. A man actually came forward and the guards turned their heads as the man whispered the most disgusting thing compared to the rest.

“Come work at my brothel. I am sure you are still nice and tight despite the seven men you entertained! A noblewoman, a former Queen, I could gain a lot from you alone”

Spits from his mouth landed on her face as she trembled with disgust. She finally cried and the tears came fast and unstoppable. She was reminded of Hae Soo’s last warning.

You will never live a day in your life without being haunted by the spiteful things you did to me or ever plan to do to me.

“But I did not do this. I am no saint but this time, this once, I am truly innocent.” She told herself such as she was pulled forward, further and further from the place she once fought so hard to stay.

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It was dark and the forest was not a good place to be – lights too dimmed to promised safety. It was quiet yet from the distance howls of the wolves could be heard, calling one after the other. Another wolf was in pursuit of its prey. So ran after Min Seok after the guards had released him in the woods. He had been following silently but it took Min Seok just a second to realize he had been followed. He ran and ran before he tripped at the edge of the forest. At the sight of the man with the scar, his sword readily drawn by his side, he quickly pressed his forehead to the ground, begging.

“Please, please Your Majesty. I did exactly as what you have instructed! Don’t kill me, I am begging you to allow me to live Your Majesty. Help me.” Tears trickled for he had been sent close enough to the door of the dead to revisit so soon was something he did not yearn for.

The King walked closer. One step at a time, circling him as he dragged his sword around his prey. His prey lost another shade of color with every step he took. “You must have lost more than part of your manhood that night if you think I would let you live after you leered at my woman.”

Min Seok felt his words stuck within him but he forced them out. Anything to stall his death. “But I, no one managed to do anything that night Your Majesty! Spare me my life please!”

“No.” and he swung his sword.

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Chapter Text

The day after. The Eight’s Prince Residence.

She could feel the comforting heat of the morning caressing her, calling for her to push her blanket away. Her eyelids fluttered, resisting the bright light, signaling the start of a new day. She could feel her whole body ached but the unperturbed sleep she just had, had helped cleared her minds enough to tolerate the pain. She sat upright, searching for her daggers. She could feel panic rising as she realized they were not on her. She threw a glance sweeping the room before she saw them placed neatly on the table at the center of the room. She picked them all and kept one closed to her before she hid the other two. As she looked around, she realized she was in her old room, the room she had used when she was Hae Soo. “Wook definitely knows by now.” Whispered Ha Jin to the empty room. She sighed, and ran her fingers through her hair, realizing how uneven it was. She sat cross-legged in front of the full body length mirror at the corner of the room as she tried to salvage what was left. She gathered a handful and cut it shorter at the back, trying to even it out. Clumps of hair fell to the floor as she continued to cut. Her eyes boring to her own reflection, trying to barricade herself from entertaining other thoughts than the task at hand.

Once done, she placed her dagger next to her, combing her hair with her fingers as she turned her head sideways, making sure she had not missed any. It was a crude bob, chopped roughly since she used her dagger. Her long side-swept fringe cascaded slowly as she released them from the bound of her fingers. “New hair, a new beginning isn’t it?” She asked her own reflection. Her echo answered her. This is you. You that have lost him back then. Reminding Ha Jin how she too had cut her hair short when she woke up after her death in labor. It was a familiar feeling, isn’t it? As if you lost him again. She saw her lips quivered before she turned stern, staring at her reflection. “No, So loves me. He would never hurt me.” her eyes blazed with shallow conviction. She swore she saw her reflection smirked.

Funny you would seek love from the same man killing your mother. Have you no shame at all?

“That is not fair. You don’t know everything.” Ha Jin stared at her reflection. The same reflection that had once whispered evil in her ears during her weakest moments.

I know everything you know. I only repeat the things you have thought yourself. You are me, and I am you. Remember?

Ha Jin shut her eyes closed, her hands covering her ears. What else was left to be done when her old demon had decided to visit her yet again? She had gone through a dark time when she lost So and Seol. There was a short period of unrecorded moments between waking up and starting to find a reason to live again. A period of succumbing to madness and suicides attempts when she was left alone even for a briefest, fleeting moment. All those stopped when her mother pleaded her to not leave her alone. That soft, broken, brisk whisper reminded her of a certain promise she had broken before. A promise she had made to So, to always, always be by his side. That was the moment she shook herself empty from any thoughts of hurting herself. To honor the pledge she had made to So, by staying alive for her mother. But now, now she was blessed with second chance to keep true to her words to the very man she had promised such himself. Why would anything change that? “Screw the shaman, screw fate.” She locked her gaze to her old demon, her finger jabbing hard at the cold surface.

“Screw you.”

With that warning spoken, she saw the malicious demon behind her reflection’s eyes disappear. She prayed hard it was gone for good. But she knew better – it would reappear soon.

--------------------

 Few maids entered her room, with clothes for her laid down on her bed, with tray consisting her breakfast, placed gently on the table. She stood up, expressing her gratitude before she requested for a bath to scrub her body raw from the stench of blood and evil, ludicrous intents she could feel marking her body.

Once she was cleaned, she dismissed all the maids as she put on her clothes on her own. As she struggled from the stinging pain of cuts and bruises from the day before, a figure entered the room, closing behind the door just as swiftly.

Ha Jin bowed down at the sight of Wook’s wife, Bo Yeong. She returned her bow with a smile and proceeded to apply salve to her cuts and bruises. Ha Jin protested a little, embarrassed at the open display of her scars. Bo Yeong chided her protests. “Accepting help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign one is wise enough to know her limits.” She spoke in a low voice, her eyes focused on applying the salve gently. Ha Jin remained quiet, letting someone else took care of her because if she was being honest with herself, she was too numb to care about her wellbeing at the moment. Bo Yeong reminded her of Myung Hee, soft and gentle yet Bo Yeong had an aura of a strong persona not to be meddled with. Steely, as compared to her fragile sister Myung Hee. Ha Jin looked at her, taking in details of her face before she realized she reminded her so much of her old friend Woo Hee.

“Forgive me for staring Your Highness but you have a remarkable resemblance to my old friend.” She spoke deliberately, not sure herself if this was appropriate.

Bo Yeong paused for a second before she continued. It had been so long ago since she still clung to the slim hope of finding anyone that knew her sister before her untimely death. She was not sure what to do if she ever found one but to have a chance to know if her sister at least experienced a sliver of happiness before death came would be a nice closure for her. She turned to Ha Jin’s left arm as she spoke, “What is the name of your friend that I reminded you of so much?”

“Her name was Woo Hee.”

Wook’s wife froze. The same name but it could have been a different person. She had to confirm. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you lose your friend?”

“She…she committed suicide, in the palace, in exchange for the betterment of treatment of her people.” Ha Jin never knew that Woo Hee was a princess. She showed a remarkable knowledge of the customs in the palace but Ha Jin had never suspected that she was of such high position. Baek Ah confirmed it later. Much later - after her death.

Bo Yeong drew in a long breath. She made her way here to learn something else, to know the history behind this woman and her husband, to know what had sent her to her home in such condition yet she was given a chance to learn something of her own. Finally, she could know more of what had happened to her sister.  She pushed aside the needs to probe more about her guest. It is inappropriate of me to be prodding on something that would be so uncomfortable for her to discuss.

“You are a friend of my sister then.” Her tone full of wonders and a shred of disbelief.

Ha Jin was surprised. “She never told me she has a sister.”

The other woman gave a sad smile. “Our Woo Hee was always like that. Secretive, bold yet with no sense of self-preservation.”

No sense of self-preservation. Ha Jin repeated such words to herself. She could attest to that. How many times had Woo Hee put herself in danger for revenge? For her people? If only she could stand to be a little selfish, just a little, enough to warrant her a blissful marriage to Baek Ah, maybe now she could confide with her of what she was burdened with.

Bo Yeong tied Ha Jin’s jeogori and finally look at her shocked face at this revelation. It had been 6 years. Bo Yeong truly believed no one would care if they knew her origin and she doubted that this woman in front of her would go around telling the world the secret she had kept hidden. Learning that she was in the same room of her late sister’s friend made her heart ached with the needs to know her sister’s story that was kept from her. She bent low to match Ha Jin’s height as she was sitting on the bed. She watched her guest squirmed with the proximity. Bo Yeong simply couldn’t help it.  These are the eyes that have seen my sister when I couldn’t. A friend that comforted her when I wasn’t present. Looking at Ha Jin now made her feel a rush of protectiveness over her and she sensed she was not the only one feeling such. She gave Ha Jin one more smile before she tucked her hair behind her ear and took her hand in hers.

“Come now. You need to eat. I think I can hear your stomach growl from the other side of the room. We can talk more while you finish nourishing yourself.” Her voice serene, eyes misty yet her face was smiling, welcoming Ha Jin.

Ha Jin blushed for no reason. It was like having a big sister again when she bestowed her with such warmth. “Thank you for your hospitality, Your Highness.”

“No need to call me such. If you are a friend of Woo Hee, you are already a sister to me. Call me sister, please.”

Ha Jin felt a smile gracing her face too. A confidant. A friend. A sister. She welcomed that with no second thoughts.

--------------------

The meal went surprisingly comforting despite the things they were discussing. Woo Hee’s life and her death. The reason why they were separated. Ha Jin told Bo Yeong that to a certain degree that she was aware of, Woo Hee was happy. She told her about Woo Hee and Baek Ah and how they had promised themselves to one another. Bo Yeong was surprised. Woo Hee had always been uninterested in any mention of marriage. Bo Yeong shared stories of them growing up while adding more side dishes into Ha Jin’s bowl.

Ha Jin smiled at the gesture. It helped a lot when the focus was shifted to others, far from her own inner turmoil. Ha Jin managed to eat more when her mind was given a minute freedom from digesting the painful things she had learned before the bloody event. Not now. She warned herself whenever the truth came bubbling to the surface of her mind. She suppressed it down, push it hard so it was wedged far deep within herself before she covered it with other memories. Beautiful memories of hers and So, her husband. Her one true love.

She did not realize the silence stretching between them. She had again, lost focus. Bo Yeong cleared her throat before she began again. “I wish not to know the history between you and my husband but observing his reaction with your presence I would guess you were once someone who had played a big part in his life.”

Ha Jin started to protest but her new friend waived her off. “Do not worry. I assume it was one-sided since your husband did come by when you were unconscious.”

“He did...?”

“Yes. Seeing him with such devotion displayed openly, I would say only a fool would not return his feelings. You are not a fool, are you?”

“I am not.”

“Then I have no reason to worry. But I should warn you that my husband might not leave you in peace. He might try to reason with you. If he becomes unbearable, put a stop to it. If it must become physical so be it.  What he needs is closure, something that I believe only you can offer. He has been flailing all these whiles as if he is missing something, pining for someone that is never his. His eyes are heavy with regrets and may I be very bold to guess that it has something to do with you?”

“I wouldn’t know for sure.”

“If it is possible, let him down gently, and I thank you in advance for that.”

“Why are you not mad or jealous?”

“Why would I? I am his wife, yes, but he does have a life before me. I must respect that. And honestly, where could he go? He is practically bound to me forever.”

Ha Jin could not help herself but snort as she listened to Bo Yeong’s answer. Wook was lucky. To be blessed with marriages to two devoted women. Bo Yeong was a perfect match for him. Wook needed someone like her, strong enough to know her worth and to be in control of the relationship.

“You are so cool.”

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, you are an amazing woman.”

“I do aspire to be one.” She laughed at her own answer. With a smile still shadowing her eyes, she pretended to scold Ha Jin sternly. “Now finish your food and try to rest. Your body needs that.”

“Thank you, sister.”

“No, thank you.”

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I came to sit by the water. However, the clouds had come...

I came to sit by the water. However, the clouds had come…

I came to sit by the water. However, the clouds had come...

She was writing methodically. Brush dipped slightly in the small inkwell before it danced languidly on the piece of paper. One piece after another. A soothing rhythmic movement on a repeat of the one poem So had gifted her with, kept safe amongst their countless memories together, immortalizing those words in neat handwriting over and over as if she was writing not on the papers but carving those words again within herself. With each stroke, the words were engraved deep in her mind, deeper in her heart. To remind herself how much So had loved her from the beginning. And nothing, nothing could challenge that. Her breathing matched her movements as if she was preparing herself to deal with something bigger. Part of her was withholding herself from reopening the closely wrapped truth she had learned. The other part of her was eager to unwrap it - like a giddy child on Christmas morning at the sight of presents underneath the Christmas tree. So oblivious to the pain masked as gift stored within.

Ha Jin was no stranger to pain. As much as she believed the best example of someone mold by pain would be So but when she reflected on what she had endured, she too was very familiar with it. The physical pains she had suffered almost paralleled with So’s. She remembered the one night they spent tracing each other’s scars and how she ran out of scars before he was done with hers. Add that with the newly learned truth – enough to say that she and pain were old pals.

She kept on writing because she was not sure herself what would be the best way to handle things now. She saw mere strokes on the papers, the characters appeared a blur, carrying with them meaning she could no longer understand. She too loved him with equal fervor yet now she was filled to the brim with this unnamed cocktail of feelings made up by uncertainty, disappointment, resentment and bitterness – a complete chaotic mixture. She was jittery, like a can of soda shaken thoroughly waiting to pop at the count of three.

She heard a gentle knock on the door. Before she got the chance to answer, the door opened and entered Wook. They locked gaze longer than needed before as if on cue, she stood up and bowed slightly, honouring the position he was born into. “It has been a long time Your Highness.” She noticed the bruises on his face. Fresh bruises. She wondered if her husband gave that to him.

“Hae Soo.” He breathed out her name in such a revering manner. It sounded so wrong to her hearing that name, in such tone, from him. He looked a little unsure himself as he took a seat on the table before he called her to sit down too. She obliged albeit slowly as she picked up the papers filled with her scribbles and put it aside. Wook picked up a piece from the thin stack and stared at the handwriting. His finger tracing the characters before he changed his attention to her face, taking in the familiar features yet accompanied with a stranger’s expression. His gaze fell to her scar, so similar it was to So’s. Looking at her now, reminded him so much of So and he hated how much of him had seeped into someone who he used to call his. He pulled out a small box containing special balm and pushed it across the table, closer to her.

“For your scars.”

She took it and fiddle with the latch. “You do have such an aversion to scars. Always so quick to cover them. Thank you for such thoughts but it is going to take so much more than this to fix me Your Highness.”

“You have morphed into him.” he stated it calmly but with a hint of loathing carefully folded amongst the string of words.

“I beg your pardon Your Highness? Is that supposed to be an insult because for me it sounds like a compliment.”

“The scar, your handwriting. The way you talk. You are turning into him. What happened to you? Where have you been for 6 years? What happened to you before you come here?”

“Amazing you should ask what happened to me 6 years ago. You left me with no choice but to leave the palace. And as of last night? Your sister. Your sister happened to me.”

“Tell me. What did she do this time?” He was curious. Yeon Hwa had the tendency to be violent, to even kill.

Ha Jin was taken aback. “What do you mean ‘this time’? Has she ever done something prior? Something I was not aware of?” her gaze pierced Wook as she saw him squirmed when she asked for details he was too reluctant to offer. “Doesn’t matter what she does. I have other much more pressing matters to think about.” She picked up a fresh piece of parchment and picked up her brush. She had the answer as to what she ought to do now. Between spending time with Wook and confronting her latest inner turmoil, she chose the latter. She chose to unwrap her carefully wrapped dilemma. She remembered something from the self-help books her mother had filled her room with. Something about stages in facing grief. She drew a triangle, before she divided it into five levels. She labelled each tier starting from the bottom – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Having a visual reference helped her to be aware of what she was currently feeling and that aid her to understand without being overwhelmed. To be in control. To digest all one by one by prioritizing each conflict – of him, of her mother’s death, of the guilt she bore with the blood she had spilled, of the children she had been denied, of the complexity of fate and how her life was so rich with mythical elements of shaman, premonition, time travel, legends and history. It was obvious she was in the first stage – denial. She could not yet fully comprehend the magnitude of what she had learned. Or maybe she had? That could be why she was denying all of them. That could explain the numbness. She was protecting herself.

So lost she was in her own thoughts she did not realize that Wook was still there. Waiting to be given a chance to speak what he had kept in his heart.

“What went wrong with us Hae Soo?” His voice low, almost pleading.

She had to deal with what seated in front of her before she could delve further into her own dilemmas. “You left. When I needed you the most. That day I learned the bitter truth, you are full of empty promises. He, delivers.”

Wook nodded his head grudgingly admitting that he too had pinpointed that exact moment when everything went downhill in his life. He had played Court Lady Oh last warning to him in his mind over and over again. Years later, he was still paying for his decision to leave her.

“I love you, I do. We could have been happy together. I could make you happy.” He tried to convince her but as she listened to it she wondered why the needs to do so? She was married, he was married. Nothing would change with his confession.

“But you didn’t. What we had was shallow, fleeting. Is it love? It could be. But is it strong enough to last forever? I doubt it.”

Wook stood up. “You doubt us. You choose him. Why?”

Funny how she was asked twice on why she chose the other. A rueful smile appeared on her lips. Too much distractions before she would be left alone to deal with what she had learned. Wook moved across the room and opened a drawer before he pulled out a small box. He slammed it on the table and unearthed their tokens of short lived love. Putting each on display in front of her. The small soap she gave him, the picture book of them walking on the snow she had left behind when she was thrown out from the palace. The bracelet she had worn religiously was smashed to two pieces. She looked up to watch his face and saw pain. She let out a long sigh as she closed her eyes. Pain. She understood that too well.

In her own modern times, she would have been inclined to offer a consolation hug, a firm grasp of his hands just to assure him that they were okay. She was not vengeful or resenting him. She had simply moved on. She had once denied the possibility of him hurting her, pushing aside Court Lady Oh’s suggestion to leave the palace and what happened then? She was hurt. She was angry and pushed everybody away feeling she was better off alone, wrapped tightly by loneliness and silence. She had once bargained that maybe, as long as he missed her, that would be enough. She was not asking much, just to be remembered by him. But after late King Taejo’s death, she realized that there was never us between Wook and her. It hurt her, to not be trusted. But she survived that heartbreak. Maybe she could survive this one too. 

The realization calmed a part of her and she offered Wook a small smile before she continued. Maybe a closure for him would heal me too.

“I need not justify why I choose him to you.” She picked up each token and placed it back inside the box where it belonged. “In your mind, you have created this version of me that loves you. And you are trying to fit me into such narrative. It will never work. We never had the chance to be who we truly are with each other. Maybe because we are never meant for each other.” Wook wanted to protest but she barrelled through.

“Sometimes we just have to learn to love what we have. It is still love. You are lucky to be blessed with marriages where you are loved and cherished. Can’t you see that? Who are we to determine which love is greater compared to the other? Love is love. Of varying motivations, of different degree of intensity. It is what it is. Love is the commitment to choose the same person over and over again despite the things fate flung at you. Don’t waste what you have now for someone that will never, ever be yours.” She put one hand on her chest trying to convey the fact that her heart was already given to someone else.

He sighed. He knew himself there was no point trying to contest So’s love to her when she reciprocated his feelings with the same intensity. Listening to her now, he realized that she was speaking the truth. And it helped that she delivered those words in such kind manners. Something he did not deserve from her after all he had put her through. How many times he had let love slip through his fingers only to regret it later? Myung Hee, Hae Soo. Am I going to let Bo Yeong go too?

“Does he…does he make you happy?”

Ha Jin felt a lump appearing in her throat. She pushed aside what she had learned yesterday and focused only on the good memories. Of his proposal, his gentle care, the way his body always curled against hers when he was asleep, the way he smiled whenever he saw her, as if he finally could breathe when she was in the same room as him.

“Very.”

He nodded his head in defeat and rose from his seat. “You are no longer my Soo.”

Ha Jin stood up too, her hands folded neatly in front of her and she bowed down. “I am never your Soo, to begin with.”

--------------------

“Forgive me.” Baek Ah said softly as they walked side by side, taking a breather away from the confine of the room.

“For what?” she replied lazily.

“For leaving you yesterday. For not stopping Wook from bothering you.” Baek Ah arrived just in time to see Wook leaving Ha Jin’s room. He quickly stepped inside to see Ha Jin holding a small book over a fire, watching the heat engulfed the papers and in exchanged offered her a pile of ashes.

“Things needed to happen that way yesterday. It was good you were not there with me. I worry something would happen to you. And for Wook? I think he is good now. I offered him closure and nagged him a bit about loving what he already has.” She left him as she fastened her pace, leaving him few steps behind. He closed the space between them, not allowing her to be lost in her thoughts.

“Are you sure you are fine? Seven men Ha Jin. I didn’t know you could do what you did back there.”

“Survival instinct kicked in I guess?” She offered him a dry laugh as she ran her fingers through her short hair.  She tried to play down the magnitude of her actions but she knew better that those would haunt her soon. She killed. Again. More like running amok if she was honest in describing it. She was not proud of it. No matter how necessary it was, it was still against her principles as a sworn protector that should obey the law. Baek Ah saw through her façade. She was distant, trying hard not to address the severity of the situation.

“You could count on me. You can tell me anything and I will believe you. I will listen to you. That much I can give you.” He tried to offer her comfort – the only thing he could do as he witnessed the agony behind his friend’s eyes.

“I can tell you a story instead. Of a girl who travels to the past to fix her future.” She sat down as they reached a pavilion far from the main house. “But I cannot promise a happy ending though.” She needed to share this burden with someone. Since So was a part of it, since she was such a coward she could not even imagined burdening So with this knowledge, she told everything to Baek Ah. All, including the truth she had just learned.

--------------------

 “What do you think? What should she do now?”

“I…I don’t know how she could carry on. On one hand she could just continue loving this man, but on the other hand, he did kill her mother. But is he the same person though? I mean, how can you punish someone who is him but also not him when he commits that murder? I don’t know Ha Jin. And if that is not hard enough, she must think of the curse. She has to live with the guilt that she has killed her soulmate. It’s too much for one person to carry alone.”

“If Woo Hee managed to kill your father back then, would you continue to love her?”

“I couldn’t even if I want to.”

“There we have it.”

There we have it.

She stared at the darkness emerging from the far end of the sky, swallowing the last rays marking the day. Baek Ah stared at the same direction, lost in the complexity of the story he had listened to. He wanted to believe it was just a story. But it was beyond what simple mind could grasp and made up and the way she told it - he felt that he had been listening to the real story she had concealed all these years. He pitied his friend, if this story was indeed hers, for going through so much, alone. So what if the story was too implausible, too ridiculous to be true. A friend is a friend, and he would not abandon her.

“I hope that story will end well.” He meant it. For the sake of her, for the sake of his brother. He hoped it would end with a happily ever after.

She did not reply. She was unsure of it. The silence was no longer comforting and she sang the first song that came up in her mind. 

Are you, are you, coming to the tree

Where they strung up a man, they say murdered three

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met at midnight

In the hanging tree

 

Are you, are you, coming to the tree

Where the dead man called out, for his love to flee

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met at midnight

In the hanging tree

 

She had her eyes closed when suddenly she heard the soft sound coming from a flute accompanying her singing. She looked at Baek Ah and saw him with his flute closed to his lips, playing a tune of the song foreign to his time. She wiped her tears away, touched by this gesture, his willingness to stay by her side even when he couldn’t comprehend all, as she continued singing, listening to the hum of the last note by the flute hung in the air momentarily before it was carried with the wind.

 

Are you, are you, coming to the tree

Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met at midnight

In the hanging tree

 

Are you, are you, coming to the tree

Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met at midnight

In the hanging tree

 --------------------

 

The tranquillity of the moment was disturbed with the commotion coming closer to where they were. She stood up, trying to decipher what was going on. She saw a group of maids, walking fast, away from the commotion and she stopped them. Baek Ah stood behind her, listening intently.

“What happened?” She inquired from the maids. When such commotion happened, based from her own experience of being whipped here, something big must have been going on.

They looked at one another before one of them immediately provided her with an answer. “The Queen, my lady. She was paraded in the public, being dragged by a horse. She was sent away from the palace.”

Baek Ah chipped in. “What for?” This could be it. The reason that was holding back his brother from being with Ha Jin today.

“A decree was announced to the public. And people everywhere are talking about it. But I am not sure if I should repeat it…” her head hung low.

 “Tell us. Now.” Her voice cold sending chills down the spine of the news’ bearer. Her mouth opened, ready to spill before the master of the house stormed in, his wife trailing behind him.

“Did you ask him to strip my sister from her dignity? Do you know about this?!”

“About what?!” she was indignant and her patience was running low. All had been used up to bottle up the mess within. Baek Ah walked closer to her, making sure that she would not do anything hasty.

Bo Yeong dismissed all the maids, leaving the four of them facing each other. She filled the gap of knowledge at Ha Jin and Baek Ah’s end, explaining that the King had divorced the Queen, stripped her from her any remaining title and now she was to be sent to a temple far in Khitan.

Ha Jin’s expression remained passive. It was not the first time she witnessed the downfall of someone being framed for something they did not commit. The same had happened to Wook. Hearing that the same happened to his sister might stir a deep-rooted anger within. Hearing such calamity befallen upon her, she could not deny feeling a twinge of satisfaction. If I must lose so much in one day, she too should at least experience as much.

“She was accused of adultery, to seven men. Seeing how swift the punishment took place I would say it was false accusation! What did she do to warrant her such treatment?”

“She deserves every bit of it.” Her voice so low as she stared at Wook directly when she said it. She turned around, heading back to her room to retire for the day. Wook was livid with her reaction. She was not shocked or anything and the Hae Soo he knew would never react in such heartless way. He weaved his way passed Bo Yeong and Baek Ah before he extended his hand and pulled Ha Jin by her shoulder.

The sudden grab, so soon it was from the rape attempt she had experienced shoot her straight to defence mode. She seized his hand before she swiftly turned and punched him hard. He staggered back but not before he watched in horror as Ha Jin pulled out her dagger and jumped on him, the tip of her blade pointing straight at his pulsing neck. Her eyes darken as her gaze roamed on his face. Baek Ah called her name repeatedly but she could no longer hear it. Her own blood rushing through her veins, the constant thuds deafening her, as she was trying to process whether Wook was a threat or not.

“You ask me what she did to warrant her such punishment? I’ll ask you what I did to have you and your sister trying to kill me at every turn. She sent those men to rape me Your Highness. Do you know how it feel to have men leered at you, stripping you from your dignity? Do you?! They were sent to do unspeakable things to me, to humiliate me. She deserves a taste of her own doing.” She pulled back the tip of the dagger and slowly stood up before she took a quick glance at the shocked Baek Ah and Bo Yeong. She left abruptly, not wanting anyone to see her tears when she finally broke down. Leaving behind speechless witnesses to make sense over what just happened. 

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Chapter Text

The scent of love will always be my weakness,

And you,

You wear it as if it was your natural fragrance.

-V.Victoria.

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Ha Jin darted back to her sanctuary, slamming the door shut before she stood aimlessly in the middle of the room. In the darkness she lighted up just one candle and placed it on the table, illuminating the whole room with its dim light, flickering with each deep breath she took. Her hands grasped the edge of the table hard, veins emerged beneath her skin. She wiped her tears with the back of her hands in a harsh manner. No, she did not want to cry. She might be broken but she would not shed a single tear over it.

She sat down, pressing the heels of her palms onto her eyes until she was seeing stars. She rocked her body back and forth trying to calm her frantic heartbeats. In the silence, she heard whispers of her names, calling for her ceaselessly.

Ha Jin…

Hae Soo…

Her body turned rigid and she swept the room once with her gaze. Being alone in the dark reminded her of those men and her breaths came short and her chest tightened. She sought for the source of the voice and she made her way to the mirror, staring at her demon.

Come on now, you know how you can end this. You could set yourself free. You jumped off the cliff once. You cut your wrist once. You are familiar with the drill. Free yourself from this burden.

“What…?”

Don’t play dumb Ha Jin. Come on, you don’t have to subject yourself to such pain over and over again. Join your mother. Don’t you miss her? You promise to never leave her alone remember? Honor the promise, will you?

“I do. I do miss her.” Her lips quivered as she swallowed her grief. She closed the distance between herself and the mirror, watching her reflection turned exhilarated at the prospect of having her surrender to her calling.

What are you waiting for then?

“I am waiting for So.”  

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She could not remember when she fell asleep but she was thankful that she was not deprived of the short escape despite everything that had happened. She was sleeping on the floor in front of the mirror. It was still too early. It was still dark outside. She cleaned up decently, put on a fresh pair of clothes she could find from the bottom of the drawer inside the room. Her old pair of hanbok. Of white jeogori with red blood chima. The one she had worn the first time she went to the palace with Myung Hee. She could not believe that it was kept in such a good condition. She put it on, combed her hair neatly before she pinned a small cherry blossom hairpin above her left ear. She folded a thin blanket to carry with her and as she was about to leave, she remembered to leave behind a note for her husband. She knew now what had kept him busy yesterday and she was sure today he would come for her.

She swung by to the place where liquor was kept and grab one bottle. She had not touch alcohol for a long time. Honestly, she was not sure as to why she grabbed one on her way out. Just a small sip, she told herself. Enough to lend her courage to tell all to So.

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So arrived at the same time the first ray of the sun fell to the ground. It was still quiet, with maids busy with their chores to start the day. He went straight to her room, expecting her to still be sleeping but only to be greeted with an empty bed. He looked around, wondering where she could be before his eyes caught the sight of a paper rustling from the wind entering through the door. He picked it up and opened it to see her words in his handwriting, staring back at him.

To that place I brought you lunch. Once. (^o^)

He could not help but smile at the short note. He was worried that she would distance herself somehow. It happened before when she had learned of the death of her mother. He was expecting her to ask him to leave her alone yet seeing the cheerful tone of the note, he felt relieved. At the very least, she was expecting him to come to her and that was a welcoming, soothing thought.

-------------------

He too made a detour, but instead of searching for alcohol, he stopped by at the kitchen, asking the cooks to prepare a basket filled with hearty breakfast for her. Once done, he picked up the basket laden with food, thanked the cooks and made his way to his beloved.

He saw her sitting right on the spot he had sat years before, staring at the palace. He noticed her short hairdo – she must have tried to fix it on her own yesterday. He stood there for quite some time, not willing to disturb her peaceful state as he watched her lifted her head up, eyes closed, soaking the warmth of the early morning sun before she opened her eyes and watched the serene azure sky above. She caught him staring and offered him a sweet smile – one that he realized did not reach her eyes.

He walked closer and placed the basket close to her. “Your meal has arrived.” He had hoped she would remember that that was the exact words she had said to him before. Her smile widened because she too remembered that memory. “Leave it there.” She repeated his answer before. He bit his lips as he sat down close to her and kissed her forehead, a lingering kiss that carried with it worries so potent even she could sense it.

“How are you feeling today?” His gentle voice swayed her.

“Good now that you are here.” She pressed her lips together before she placed her hand on his arm and squeezed it lightly. “I miss you.” It was the truth. They were so used to seeing each other on daily basis it was difficult to be deprived of each other. He pulled her into a tight hug, placing his lips on her neck and whispered the same to her. They hugged for quite a while before he pulled away, his hands cupping her small face and he placed a chaste kiss on her lips, not wanting to push her limit, especially after what had happened. But she wanted him to push his luck, wanted him to mark her as his so she kissed him hard, one hand placed on his beating heart while another pulling him closer and closer. He wasted no time in responding, tasting her, telling her how much he loved her through one simple act of kissing. He could taste the liquor she had been drinking and his heart ached – is she trying to drown her sorrow? It must have been hard for her. Oh my love, forgive me. And he pulled her on his lap, leaving no room between them. His kiss became rush with the urgency to replace all the bad memories she had. Harder and longer and she responded with equal intensity, trying to smother herself with his presence. Once out of breath, he pulled away, watching blood rushing to her cheeks, his thumb touching her swollen lips. Tears pooling in her eyes.

“I love you.” He wanted to say so much more but he was afraid she might not want to talk about it. So he told her the three words in such a manner that he hoped she would understand what he was trying to tell her. I am here for you. I will never leave you alone again. I will protect you at all cost.

“I know.” Her eyes telling him that she understood him well.

He busied himself with the dishes, making sure Ha Jin had a taste of everything. She humored him, eating everything he offered her. “Where were you last night?” she asked him between bites. They sat next to each other, fingers tangled up together like the messy red thread that connected them.

Without missing a heartbeat, he provided her the answer. “I went hunting. The whole day actually. Forgive me for not being there for you.”

“Did you manage to kill anything?”

“More or less. Although at one point it was leaning more to cleaning the palace from pest as compared to hunting.”

She wondered if the humane part of her had died the other night that she did not feel a thing when he indirectly confessed he had murdered someone. I guess it is just how things are done here in this era. I guess I am one of them now. She placed her head at the crook of his neck while he pulled her by the waist and lifted her up before he placed her in his lap, facing the palace. She sighed as she ran her fingers through her hair again and again. So noticed this few times already, a new habit of hers. He hesitated for a fraction of second before he raised his hand and replaced her fingers, running them through her hair gently, again and again. She let out a small moan and she burrowed herself deeper against him.

“When you are ready, you could tell me everything.” He whispered to her, careful not to appear forceful.

“Hmmm.” She did not know if she was ready to tell all to anyone. It was mortifying – what she had gone through, proven enough by the aghast expressions on Wook, Baek Ah, and Bo Yeong last night and she had a more pressing matter that she should be discussing with him.

“At times I wonder how life could have been if I had just accepted your first proposal. Will it be easier with just us two?”

“Well, you didn’t favor me that much back then, it would be a challenge to convince you that I am willing to do anything to make you happy.” She could feel his smile at the end of his sentence and she could not help but smile too.

“I recall you would even allow me to divorce you if I hate it so much. Truth to be told, I didn’t hate it that much. I just don’t want you to sacrifice your life in the palace for someone like me.”

“Life in the palace is not compelling without you. And if I recall correctly, I had drunk poison for you back then so it was a bit late for you to dictate what I could and couldn’t do for someone like you - someone that I love.”

“Will we be living far away?”

“By the seaside perhaps? You like it there didn’t you?”

“Watching the sun rise and set every day with you... I would love that.”

“I would love that too. How I wish I could give you that now. But I can’t my dearest wife. We don’t have that option anymore.”

“I know.”

She stood up and pulled his hands, walking closer to the shady tree. She sat down and patted her lap, guiding So to lie down and placed his head on it. So was puzzled. Here he was, trying to pamper her and make her feel protected and she went around and tried to take care of him instead. “Come on, you must be tired too from yesterday.”

He was. She knew him too well by now.  He too could not resist from giving anything she asked. Whatever it was that would make her happy, he would gladly give it to her. He lied down on her lap, pressing his nose against her clothing, enjoying the warmth radiating from her body. She pulled out a blanket out of nowhere and covered him with it.

“You do come prepared, aren’t you?” his voiced muffled against the fabric that clung to her skin.

She chuckled as she softly patted his forehead, just like a mother trying to put her baby to sleep. “Shhhhh, sleep now.” She started to hum the song she had sang for him for his birthday years ago. He noticed that today she reminisced so much of their past. The proposal, this hill, the song. He could not be certain but he had this nagging feeling that so much more had happened the other day. So much that she tried to bury whatever it was by remembering the times they had spent together. And the kiss. Fiery, with a tinge of forlorn, managed to slip in. It worried him. He would rather not entertain the possibility but it felt so similar to a parting kiss. He closed his eyes feigning sleep, wondering if she had really been drinking, maybe when her guard was down she would confide in him.

“Sometimes I wonder if I am the right one for you. We are too similar. Fire upon fire filled with rage and dark past. We yearn for each other, we burned to ashes together. Is there ever healing between us?”

Her voice low, a whisper to herself. Things that she could not find the courage to share with him even when she wanted too. She stared ahead, fingers tracing his hairline absentmindedly. He stared at her, looking so lost in her musing, completely oblivious that he heard everything. He felt that the only fitting response was to continue to listen quietly.

“In my time, opposites attract they say. Yin and Yang. The differences complement one another. But how is it that we are too similar, like a reflection of each other?” Her voice broke. Her small frame shook with waves of sorrow finally breaking her, demanding to be dealt with at the very moment. Having him so close to her reminded her how truly, madly, deeply in love she was with him. But the price to be with him was too much. Too much of herself that she had to sacrifice and even though she knew now how closely intertwined their fates were, she wondered how much more of herself she had to offer in exchange for their happiness together. Her tears broke him too and he whispered back to her.

“And is that supposed to be a bad thing? To mirror one another?” he looked up directly at her blotchy face. Eyebrows merged together, so worried about what he was witnessing.

“But people always say opposite attracts…”

He adjusted his position as he once again picked her up, letting her straddle him. There was no one here to see them in such compromising position. He needed to see her face as close as possible, to read her expressions when he knew she was holding back instead of sharing it all with him. “Maybe because they are just afraid to love themselves. Because of such fear or inability, they convince themselves and all around them that love works only in such manners. It doesn’t have to be that way for everyone.” She continued to cry as she listened to such beautiful answer coming from him. How poignant is that? That the only thing stopping you from loving someone is your inability to love yourself? Especially coming from him that detest himself so much. I wonder if I am the one responsible for this change. Have I love you enough that you can love yourself now? He brushed her tears aside, tucking her hair behind her ears.

“Is this what bothering you? Are you afraid that by killing those filthy animals you are becoming more and more like me? A beast?” She shook her head. That issue was only the tip of the iceberg. “You are no beast. Even if you are so certain of it you will always be my beloved beast.” She sighed. This conversation barely scratched the surface of the more demanding matters but it was still a positive development. Maybe it was just a matter of time, with the right questions, she would possibly pass some burden to him to carry it with her later.

“What if I tell you that I will kill you one day?” she had to force herself to look at him directly as she asked him the question. It was not a matter of when. The deed was done. She had killed him. Her first kill happened to be her own fated lover. She took a quick glance at his chest, remembering how she rammed her dagger into it and she shut her eyes quickly, the sight of his blood made her shudder.

He looked surprised with the question and puzzled when he saw her trembling. His worry was quickly replaced with a burning curiosity flaming brightly behind his eyes. He appeared to give a serious thought on it before he answered. His hands ever softly picking up her hands. That made her opened her eyes again and returned his gaze.

“You could not kill someone who is more than ready to die for you. Even if it must come to that, I believe I deserve it. I trust you, my wife. My life is yours. That’s how much I love you.”

His answer rendered her speechless she did not know what to say so she kissed him. His sincerity, his passion, his love. She could taste all of that. At that moment she vowed to herself –

I’ll save you.

I’ll save us.

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 The beach was pristine and freeing. Even the journey was something worth cherishing. Maybe in one of her remaining lives, she should learn how to ride a bike and have him pressed so close to her just like the time they were riding the horse together. He was the one who suggested the beach. A date, he told her. She knew they were spending a borrowed time, a brief period of freedom before they had to return to the palace before she had to face reality.

 She could feel the wind billowing against her, her hair a tangled mess as she ran and ran by the edge of the water, her hands stretched wide soaking the blissful moment. She could hear him laughing behind her, chasing after her slowing pace before he captured her in a firm hug, stopping her.

The day was spent with kisses and things she had always wanted to do with her lover by the beach. A sandcastle, that was apparently too close to the waves they had to bid it goodbye when the waves came and swallowed it all in its glory. She picked up a stick and wrote their names before she drew a big heart surrounding it. He humored her all day, fully invested in everything she wanted to do. They sat by the edge of the water at one point, toes squiggling, as they buried those in the wet sand before the wave came and pulled the sand away, short of saying tada, there’s your toes!

“How many children do you want to have with me?”

“Three.”

“Why three?”

He spread out his fingers in one hand and fold them one by one starting with his thumb. “Father, Mother, Seol, a son, and maybe another daughter.” They stared at his balled-up fist and Ha Jin placed her fist next to his before she spread her fingers like a blooming flower. “Oh look, here comes another 5!” He laughed as she teased him by waving all of her fingers, shouting “Oh, oh another twin? Another triplet?” Their laughter boomed along the deserted beach. When her laughter finally subsided, she realized he already stopped for quite some time. He was watching her, enjoying himself seeing her laughed. She could feel the blush creeping in and she snuggled closer to him, covering her face.

“I do love entertaining the idea of having children with you but I am always afraid of losing you in the process. You died giving birth to Seol. I thought long and hard about it. Yes, having children with you will complete us but if I have to lose you in exchange I would rather not have any.”

She threw her gaze away, focusing on the small crab she saw making it way somewhere she would never know of. What he said eased her feelings as she tried to wreck her brain on how to deflect the curse. He knew what to say even when he was not aware of everything. If that’s not a sign that he’s the one, I don’t know what is.

“There are already five of us in this small family. You, me, Seol, Ju, Aji.” She pressed her palm on his before she lifted her head and smiled at him.

He returned her smile, his gaze following her as she stood up and ran towards the water. At this sight he started panicking before he shouted at her, asking her to stop. The shout froze her in her track and she turned around to face him.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

He ran, closing the distance between them and grasped her hands firmly. “I don’t feel at ease seeing you too close to the sea. You came here through water each time. What if I lost you again?”

She was taken aback because she had never considered the sea or the lake to be a portal that connected the two timelines. To have him pointing it out to her, she realized he had been thinking a lot about the manners she traveled.

“If that is true, will you come with me? We can escape. We can be together just us two. Start over somewhere.” Her eyes brimming with possibilities and hope as she awaited his answer.

That’s it. As soon as the word escape spilled out from her lips he knew there was something bigger lurking within her. Something so sinister it rendered her to speak in riddles that he had to crack. She looked more than ready to go further and delved into the ocean. He wanted to convince her into telling him everything but he knew that was not the answer she was waiting for.

“I will.” And they sprint forward letting the water engulfed them.

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Chapter Text

There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.

- William S. Burroughs

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Ha Jin hugged Ju and Aji, their weight did not bother her in the slightest. She missed them so much. The children were ridiculously radiant at the sight of their mother, showering her with kisses and asking her questions. “Where have you been Mommy Jin?”, “What happened to your hair?” stopping between breaths just to smother her with more kisses. Ha Jin looked happy. But in So’s observation, it looked as if she was soaking this attention to preparing her for something. But she flashed him her brightest smile and he pushed that thought away.

No, why would she leave us behind…

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He thought that things would be better now that the snake had left the palace. He thought wrong. Ha Jin it seemed was fighting another battle on her own. She stayed silent about what had happened leaving him no room, no opportunity to ask what could be plaguing her. He knew there was more to it. He was itching to know, to help, to ease her pains because even from mere observing he knew it was eating her from the inside.

And the nightmares. He used to think he had it worst. No one could rival his nightmares when he lost her. He was wrong. Again. Ha Jin’s nightmare came in petulant, harsh waves that never ends. Once it visited, it was determined to stay. After nights of watching her drenched in her sweats, tears as she moaned in pain, her body turned rigid, he broke down too. He was completely helpless because he could not wake her up from it. His attempts only chased her further inside the void until one night he just lay down so close to her and sang. Of the song that sealed his feelings towards her. Her first song he had listened from afar. Calling her, begging her to come back.

As it blows past

But the one small ray of sun makes me smile

Everyone is so busy

They get on with their lives

But that one friend makes me smile

When I find a place where loneliness does not exist

Join me there my friend, come with me

 

Come with me, please…

He watched as she stopped moving, her breathing turned slower. It took time. He repeated the song over and over before he heard her sighed softly. He was feeling triumphant that night he discovered a means to coax her from her nightmare. At least he managed to ease her pain somehow, no matter how brief it was.

A week went by with him having the tool to push away her nightmares. One night he was jolted awake. So sudden as his body was too used to being awakened in the middle of sleep. But that night, nothing had happened. Not a nightmare as he watched Ha Jin sitting behind the table, busy, writing something onto a piece of paper. He managed to see a glimpse of what appear to be a letter before she became aware of his presence and covered the piece she was writing on with other sheets. “What are you writing?”

“Nothing. Just scribbling.” As she cleared away the desk and took his hands, steering him back to the mattress.

--------------------

The nightmare returned with vengeance the next night. He was by her side, waiting until she was fully asleep and calmed before he himself slept. That night he was awakened from the weight of her sitting on top of him, one hand brandishing a dagger, ready to kill. Shocked was an understatement as he saw her face, eyes opened yet her stare was vacant and void of emotions. He managed to stop the dagger, stopping the blade from entering his chest using his palms as she pushed harder. He had to wrestle her, tossing the dagger far before he clutched her arms, shaking her to wake up. She struggled as she mumbled under her breath, “You kill her. You kill her. My mother.” When she finally woke up, she failed to recall what she had done just a few moments beforehand. He, on the other hand, was puzzled with what he had heard. Why is this memory resurfacing now of all time? And why is the anger aimed at me? So was not a believer when it came to coincidences. There must be an explanation for her nightmares. He was desperate now more than ever, for answers that only she could provide.

That night forward, he watched as she tucked her daggers beneath her pillow. A new ritual of hers before sleeping. As if preparing herself to slay her demons. Or it could be the aftermath of what had happened to her. She kept her weapons closer, to protect herself. She called him, asking him to sleep with her. He offered a smile and told her to sleep first, saying that he needed to keep up with his reading. The moment she slept, he came closer, carefully lifting her head, just enough for him to move the daggers from her reach.

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One night, he was awakened to a sobbing Ha Jin. Sitting next to him, her hands shoving away the thin layer of clothing he had on him. Searching, searching for something he was not sure of. “Did I hurt you? I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Repeated over and over until he sat up and grasped her hands firm. “Tell me.” He urged her. Still, she refused.

Nothing.

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Dawn was approaching and he recognized her stirring right before she would wake up. He turned facing her, eyes still closed, trying to pull her in, missing her badly. His hand touched an empty space and that forced him to open his eyes. She was there, her small familiar frame at the edge of the mattress. He felt a small relief. But she sat there, unmoving, her hands clutching the blanket tightly.

“What is it Ha Jin?” he croaked out his question, voice still raw from sleeping.

“I peed.” Her voice so small and hushed with a hint of disbelief. He propped himself to sat closer. “What is it, my love? I didn’t hear that.”

She turned around, facing him, looking at him directly. She looked embarrassed as she repeated herself. “I soiled myself through the night. I am disgusting.”

Maybe it was the frustration of not knowing, building up over time. Maybe because never would he sat idly, listening silently to someone describing his person as disgusting. He was livid. “Why would you say that?” Anger seeping through his words. “Why?”

Ha Jin was surprised with his intonation. She tried to stand up, pulling the soiled blanket and mattress with her but she was not fast enough. He managed to take a hold of her hand and pulled him on his lap. “No, So! I’m dirty! I am bad for you!” She struggled to escape. She was self-conscious. She pushed him but he had wound his hands around her tightly.

“I don’t care!” So hissed back at her. “I love you no matter what. Whatever it is, I will always, always love you.”

She succumbed to his body as he rocked their body together. The early rays of light made its way into the room. They remained there, the silence between them.

“What happened to you? Tell me, please.”

With a shaky breath, she told him of the men leering at her. Touching her. How he sat on her while trying to do the unspeakable. How she had soiled herself back then purposely to throw them off her.

So listened quietly, fuming with what he heard. He wished he could kill them again. He wished he could inflict unimaginable pain on them. His arms wound tighter around her. She finished her story but still, he felt there was something amiss.

“Did something happen before that encounter? I have a feeling you are not telling me everything.” His words were chosen carefully, not to accuse her or anything when the fact that she was sharing this was a good enough development but there was a nagging feeling at the back of his head that he could not shake off. A voice telling him that there was more to it.

She quickly rose, moving away from him. “I need to wash this.”

And she left. Leaving him with worries that grew indefinitely with each step she took.

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He stared at the door, wondering why she was so adamant about keeping the pain to herself.  He was not sure why but he reached out to her pillow and put his hand inside, prying for something. He had known Ha Jin for quite some time and he knew she would hide things inside her pillow case. An endearing habit of hers he had noticed. He pulled out an envelope, a letter inside, his name on it. He unfolded it, curious with the content.

My dearest half,

Things are different now. Like plain paper smeared with ink, it could never return pristine. People keep on saying the truth will free you, but the truth that I have learned has tainted you, tainted me, tainted us. There is unspeakable discovery I was forced to swallow, things that I wish I could just erase but now I am left with no choice but to be bound to it for the rest of my existence.

I know it is in no way within your control. But the anger of learning the cruelty of it has seeped too far to my bones that even when I teach myself to accept it, to let it go, it recoils back to me, hurting me with vengeance. I am afraid one day, it will hurt you. I never want that to happen because, despite everything I have learned, I still remember one thing – I love you.

I take the only way out I know, I leave. But I too have learned from our past mistakes and I must be a fool to commit the same fault twice. I leave you with hope braided in a form of a promise. A promise that I will come back.

I now realize, accepting the truth is one thing, living with it is an entirely different thing. When the dust finally settled, when the truth has been compressed into something a mere human being like me could understand and make sense of it, I will return to you. And when that happens I hope beyond hope we can pick up where we left off.

How I wish I did not leave you that day.

How I wish I did not leave you back then.

How I wish I do not have to leave you now.

You pierce my soul. I am half hope, half agony.

 

Goodbye for now.

--------------------

He read the letter over and over. He could not believe it. First came the anger over her decision to simply take herself out from the picture. To run. Then came the horror, of the realization that something hideous must have happened, something that she had learned that forced her to want to leave him behind.

What could it be? That warrant such reaction from her? Of breaking the promise of never leaving each other again?

How depraved could it be? The news she kept from me?

-------------------

Chapter Text

SAC.RI.FICE

The act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.

--------------------

Knowledge is power – that much was ingrained deeply within her. She was poor and the only thing that would not cost as much as knowledge. She read obsessively, listened too attentively, dissecting each word she heard. It was proven a worthy skill, she shone during her academy years and managed to crack cases, the biggest one ultimately doomed her when her partner decided she was too much to bear. Her mother had spent years teaching her the arts of concocting the perfect cup of tea. She learned as best as she could despite doubting her own skills, believing that she possessed not the skills needed to master such art. But under the tutelage of Court Lady Oh, she shone brightly once again. It was so easy to see Lady Oh as her mother and loved her as one. She still thought of her at times and how the women she cherished had paid the price of loving her dearly.

She preferred spending her days making soaps ever since she learned how to make one in school. She made them, decorate them and sold them to earn extra money to help her mother. Who would have thought she would be transferred back to the past and having to rely on the two skills to survive? The foundation she made for So initially was made because she was angry and annoyed. She could not understand at first why would it bother him too much when back in her time it could simply be covered by makeup. But then she reminded herself that she was in an entirely different era that put extra emphasis on perfection for those of royal blood. She remembered seeing him covered with dirt that people flung at him and she remembered seething at such sight. That, added with the fact that So presented her with a question whether she knew her purpose of life. Ha Jin took pride in knowing clearly what she wanted out of her life. She would plan, vision it crystal clear in her mind and she would execute it. There was a time when she was confused, but not tonight.

The nightmares had haunted her. The only way she realized their presences were by her aching body the next day coupled with So’s concerned look etched deeply on his face. She worried about his health. She was the one chased by nightmares but it seemed to suck the life out of So too – his dark circles appeared too prominent nowadays. The nightmares were something out of her control. So she let it run its course. She had another more pressing matter needed to be attended. The damned curse.

Tonight she stood once again in Damiwon, executing her plan after scourging enough reasonings and courage.

  1. She was told the curse was irreversible.
  2. There was no reliable family planning method available at this time.
  3. She knew she could not allow herself to carry her own children in her womb when it demanded the deaths of her Ju and Aji.
  4. She herself had always feared her children’s future in this time when she knew that she was not supposed to be in this part of history.

All those facts cornered her to only one decision. She would have to sacrifice her own ability to carry children. And only she knew how to do that.

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Taejo Reign

After months of diligently learning how to read yet again, Hae Soo finally regained her ability to read. Her hard work paid off and she celebrated in reading almost everything she could get her hands on, thirsty for knowledge she had been denied previously by her inability to decipher the characters. She went inside Court Lady Oh office – this was where books were kept, of course, she would remember. This was the place she had to carry books on her head for hours as punishment! She scoured the room, searching for new books that she had not yet set her eyes upon.

She almost gave up as she was already on all fours, hoping to come across books on the lowest shelf of the table. She raised her head just a tad before she saw an old book strapped underneath Court Lady Oh’s chair. She stared at the worn book for a long time before she sat cross-legged beneath the table and pulled the book out from its confine.

She flipped over the book because it had no title written on the cover. She turned to the second page before she realized there was a scribble at the bottom of the page. The Unspeakable Tea. She was intrigued by it because it was written in Lady Oh’s handwriting and the name itself was ominous. She flipped to the next page and discovered a tea named as Children’s Tears. She put her fingers on the page, whispering the ingredients to herself as if unconsciously trying to commit it to her mind. The ingredients were something common in kitchen, especially in Damiwon and she wondered what was it for to be listed as unspeakable tea? At the end of the page, she found her answer –

  • to be used to induce miscarriages or to abort an unwanted pregnancy. A teapot consumed at once will cause infertility. Womb will shrivel and no longer able to carry a child.

Her eyes widen as she read those words. She stared at the ingredients yet again, noticing the readily available ingredients in a well-stocked pantry like Damiwon’s and as she read further the only tricky thing about the tea was the steps needed in preparing it. She wondered who had created this tea and have this tea ever been served here in Damiwon? While her mind was distracted by this discovery, she failed to notice Court Lady Oh, crouching down, looking at her. She grabbed Hae Soo’s hand roughly, pulling her from her hiding place.

“Why are you reading that book? It was hidden for a reason.” Her senior’s eyes were wide with anger. But Soo’s shock at learning the existence of such tea pressed down the fear of being caught red-handed.

“Why do you keep a list of these despicable teas?” She asked her back, her tone matching her senior’s anger.

Court Lady Oh was taken aback with her intonation – dripping with accusation. “It is none of your business.”

Soo was not satisfied at being shunned just like that. She wanted to know the reason. This book consisted of ways of hurting others. She could not allow that. “It is now! Have you ever served it to someone?”

 A slap. Court Lady Oh’s hand move faster than the time needed for her to answer rationally. “How dare you!” Her head turned to the side by the force of the slap, her hand quickly covered her reddening cheek. “Then tell me why. I know you would not hurt anyone. Why do you keep this list?” She was adamant to know and she could take a hundred slaps should that warrant her an answer.

Lady Oh put her hand above Soo’s hand. Her face trickled with regret. “I need to know what kind of tea I am ordered to serve. Thus the list. To save someone from dying or losing someone precious.”

“Have you ever lost someone precious?” Soo asked timidly, she too felt a pang of regret at accusing her mentor of deliberately hurting someone.

“I lost my child because of my lack of knowledge. I trust blindly and I paid for it dearly. That was what sparked the needs for me to know all kind of teas.”

Hae Soo turned to page she was reading and pointed at it while looking directly at her senior. “Have someone ever ordered you to serve this tea?”

Court Lady Oh’s gaze fell onto the page. Her face turned a shade paler. The older lady sat down on the chair, suddenly looking so exhausted from having this very conversation. “This tea is something ancient. Not many alive knows how to prepare it, what more what it is for. I memorize it still because its existence is repugnant yet a good weapon in the palace filled with jealous women fearing competition.” She pulled the book out of Hae Soo’s grip. Soo grudgingly let it go, deep inside she had no second thoughts - she wanted to burn the book.

“Now that you know the existence of this book, I want you to memorize it all. One day, you could be succeeding me.” Soo stepped back, mouth opened, ready to protest. Court Lady Oh quickly silenced her with a simple wave. “You are talented. I see it from the way you treat the Crown Prince. You could succeed me, I want you to succeed me. Memorize it so that no one can be harmed by the tea prepared in this place.”

She nodded. What else could she do?

--------------------

But she had failed once when the tea she served was polluted by poison. And to think that she was the one who served that to her own lover again and again until the teapot was emptied completely.  She was about to fail one more time, this time around she would poison herself.

She boiled a pot of water on the carefully controlled fire, one hand busy fanning the source of heat. She could feel her mother and Court Lady Oh standing behind her, breathing down her neck, watching her, wondering whether she still remembered how to make a perfect cup of tea. If she closed her eyes she could hear their voices, one after another, blending with her own questions she posed as a child and as a lowly court lady new to Damiwon, reminding her that the most important step in making a heavenly cup of tea was to make sure the water boiled perfectly.

“When the water starts to boil, it will look like shrimp eyeballs, very fine bubbles. Remember the shrimp we ate last month?  Then those will turn to crab eyes, fish eyes, bigger by seconds. Compare the sizes to the ones we see at the market. You do remember those isn’t it, my clever daughter? Watch it like a hawk! See? Small marbles floating up by now.”

“Is it done now?”

“No, now we wait. Listen very carefully how it pitter patters at first before it taps like a wheel turning. Now bring your ears closer. Can you hear the sound of the earth shaking? It will then turn to the sound of the horse trotting. You do remember that, didn’t you? I heard you left the palace with the fourth prince on the horse. I too know everything Hae Soo. After that, comes the soft, whispering sound of the wind and very soon, even the wind fades...”

“Well, it is silent now. Now?”

“Now!”

Ha Jin put in different herbs needed to seep gently in the concoction. Tansy, angelica, pennyroyal. All with the ability to harm the womb and the child residing within it. The ingredients were common but needed a precise amount of each to work. She did burn the book filled with instructions but not before she memorized it all. She tended the fire, making it smaller to allow the herbs soaking its potent impurities. It needed to be boiled down together for a period. After a slight flowery smell escaped the pot, she knew it was ready for the next step. She put in ginger root to congregate with the rest ingredients inside the pot.  And she waited. Heeding the instruction written so clearly, she could vision the elegant handwriting of her superior inside her mind. Wait until a spicy scent could be detected and that was when it was ready to work its purpose.

She poured the whole content of the pot into a teapot with slices of ginger she had placed earlier at the bottom of it. She watched as the slices swirled with the current of the steady stream of tea before they settled back at their initial resting place. She carried the teapot cautiously, putting it on a small tray paired with a small cup. Ready to be served. For herself.  

--------------------

Ha Jin poured herself a cup of tea, sentencing herself for something she convinced herself was the right thing to do. She had no other options. She had always thought that given the choice, she rather not has another child after Seol’s death. She thought that, should she be conceived, carried full term with the help of advanced medical attention, she would have survived. Here? Everything was a gamble. I did die giving birth, wouldn’t that alone be good enough a reason not to go through that again?

But So whispered beautiful things about pregnancy. And the things he promised were something that fanned the remaining embers of hope and desire within her – to try one more time, to experience it together with So.  How could I not fall for that?

She closed her eyes and she could imagine vividly how So would put his hands on her protruding belly, trying to feel the kicks. She could envision the swell of her own body, moving from one trimester to another. She even welcomed the unending morning sickness as long as So was with her. The restlessness of finding the best position to sleep, the backache, the constant peeing, the long, tedious, labor pain were all welcome if she could experience that one more time with So.

But Yeon Hwa took that away from her. She was denied the chance to have her skin stretched to accommodate the baby’s growth. Her own body wouldn’t be marked by pregnancy and it pained her. Now, when the stake was too high, when it involved not just her life as compared to before but Ju and Aji too, what was her other options?

She took a sip of the tea, surprised at the taste, so similar it was to the taste of plain ginger tea. How easy it was to lure a woman not aware of the vile intent of the tea to take a sip, destroying her own womb, killing the life within. Such a vicious weapon.

She finished one cup and poured herself another, surprisingly very calm while killing part of herself. One cup after the other, her own body warm from the hot beverage while her womb grew colder by the second.

She tilted the teapot, draining it to the last drop to her own cup. She picked up the cup bearing the poison she prepared herself, wondering if this was a parallel of So drinking poison for someone he loved. The image of So coughing blood haunted her mind and broke the carefully constructed gate that guarded her emotions. It flooded her each vein and suddenly the weight of her action dawned on her. Too late. It was irreversible by now. Somebody, anybody, stop me, please…as she took the last sip, the taste stained by her own tears.

--------------------

She walked through the night, truly alone, heading back to see her husband one last time. Tomorrow. I will leave tomorrow. One more night with him. She knew she was being a coward. She knew even when So will eventually reborn as Jin Hyuk, right now, he was still So. He was still hers. He was still her husband. But part of her was wretched, reminding her, again and again, the sins of Jin Hyuk, the ultimate betrayal of her, loving her own mother’s killer. And her hands trembled as it dawned on her, So might have threatened to kill her times after times but she was a ruthless murderer - cold-blooded. She killed him without warning. The poison, that daggers penetrating his chest…

She wiped her tears away, she had done enough crying to last her years by now but the tears would not stop flowing. She heard rustling from the bushes near her and she turned. With a loud sigh, she spoke to the night.

“Come out now Astronomer Choi. I know you have been following me.”

A shadow stumbled out from the thick bushes. Twigs clinging on him. The sight put a half-hearted smile on her face.  “Why didn’t you say anything?” Ji Mong picked out the leaves stuck in his clothes.

“What is there left to say?” replied her solemnly.

-------------------

 

Chapter Text

They walked together by the lake, a deafening silence between them. Ji Mong threw few hesitant glances at her.  He had been stargazing tonight, curious of the fate written for the people residing inside the palace. He saw So’s star with Ha Jin’s that had emerged back when So was summoned to the palace from Khitan, tailing after his star without a fail. It flickered when she went back to her own time but now it shone brighter than ever. Right after their marriage, he remembered observing the night again, only to see two new, young stars shining close to So’s and Ha Jin’s. He reminisced about feeling elated for the king. Two children from his beloved – How exciting! But today, today he saw those stars sputtered their last glimmer before they completely disappeared and it worried him. Has she been carrying without no one knowing? Is she suffering from a miscarriage?

Those thoughts were enough to send him searching for her. The king had been worried sick for her these past weeks. He told him of her nightmares and how it pained him to helplessly watch her going through such torture each night. Ji Mong offered advice, that these were expected after someone went through a traumatic event. His advice for him was to be there for her and gave her time to open herself to him. He wondered if he should have offered the king a different advice as he walked by her side yet silence filled the air with only the sounds of their footsteps echoing.

“Thank you.” Ha Jin spoke with a low register. Such words uttered out of nowhere confused Ji Mong. “For what my lady?”

“For saving me when I was tossed into the lake.” Ha Jin looked at him with a gaze filled with gratuity.

“How do you know it was me?” Ji Mong was surprised to see that she remembered. All those months being in the palace, not once she had said anything about that fleeting incident that connected them both.

“I remembered seeing a glimpse of your face. Have you been traveling much since then? How does it work actually?” Her voice was heavy with unbounded curiosity. Ji Mong unlike her seemed to be able to do so on whims – traveling as he pleased.

Ji Mong ran his fingers through his beard, giving a serious thought before he answered. “I couldn’t tell for sure. But it always happens for a reason. A purpose that triggers the process. It could be that I was meant to save you back then.”

“Like a guardian angel.” She quipped. Nothing was impossible by now – curse, time-travel, shaman, myth, they were all a part of her, mystical elements that defined her and her fate.

“It seems you are stuck with a lousy one. Always almost too late.” He grinned abashedly.

“Why did you follow me?”

He told her of the stars. She listened carefully, not a word said while he was explaining it. After he was done, she looked at to the sky, “Which one is So’s?”

Ji Mong pointed out So’s star, shining brightly dulling the rest. Hers was closed to his and Ji Mong pointed out where the young stars should have been.

“Two you said? How nice…” her gaze seemed stuck onto the sky, gazing to the non-existing stars. “I guess the potion worked then.” She whispered to herself.

“What potion?” Ji Mong’s head whipped toward her too quickly. He could guess what had happened but how would she know about such potion when the one person he had entrusted with such knowledge had perished a long time ago?

“Children’s Tears.” She told him without a second of hesitation. What is the point of trying to lie to a fellow time traveller?

“How do you know of that?” He stopped at his track, blocking her path as well.

His question baffled her. Too quick and laced with an understanding of the after effect the of consummation of such evil concoction. “How do you know what it does?” she asked him instead of answering.

“Do you know why I was wary with Court Lady Oh? She sought after the knowledge of brewing these,” he struggled to describe the tea, “…these vile brews. When I came to know what she had been searching, she did not even try to cover it. She admitted to it. I kept close eyes on her because I could not report it to the king since she was his beloved, but never once, her tea affected others, harming them or killing them. That until the case that involved you and the fourth prince. I simply conclude that she only gathered the knowledge to remain vigilant. I assumed the knowledge dies with her, didn’t expect she managed to pass it down to you.”

She listened, finally comprehending why Ji Mong behaved the way he was around Court Lady Oh. She was thankful that she passed down such knowledge to her. With voice detached from emotion, she spoke to the astronomer, “Turns out, the Queen managed to gift me a parting gift. She placed a curse on me. I am as good as barren since any life I conceived, the child’s life will be drawn from Ju’s and Aji’s. I have to do something don’t I? she gulped down her sorrow but seeing her horror reflected in Ji Mong’s eyes was too much. Her knees buckled as she bent down, gasping for air, her chest tightened.  

Between sobs and tears and wailing, she asked him to offer her some words to glue back her breaking heart. “What have I done Ji Mong…I know it is the right thing, the only choice. But why does it pain me this much?”

Ji Mong crouched down next to her, completely in awe at the length she would go to save children who were not even hers. How readily she would love the last thing people would consider. The king who was always a wolf to others, the children who were born from the very woman who cursed her. He wanted to say something comforting, but the only thing he managed to say was something that did not offer such.

“Love will be the end of you.” He whispered in disbelief.

“It is already my beginning.” She replied after she managed to reign in the tears.

Ji Mong sighed at her bold answer. He knew of how love was the reason she came back, how she was meant to be with So in every life time. He was surprised she would replied with such answer, wondering if somehow, she knew about that and quickly dismissing such assumption. What are the odds of her finding Sun Ja? Sun Ja had been away far too long by now, her anger towards me breaks our promise to one another.

He took one look at Ha Jin, before he put one hand on her shoulder, “I believe you are taking control of your fate. I always wonder if I had given you the right advice when I asked you to just observe. It is possible that to observe is my fate, yours is something else entirely. Stop surrendering to your fate, control it, do as you wish. Fight for what you think is right. Live.”

“Even when it hurts this much?”

“Especially when it hurts this much. What other options do you have than to move forward? Perhaps there could be no joy on this reality without an equal weight of pain to balance it out on some unknown scale.”

She wondered if she was meant for something greater. These much pain, surely, she deserved so much happiness in return once she managed to overcome it wouldn’t she?

“You are a woman with so much potential. Find it. Find the reasons and the ability to come back to this place and stay indefinitely without people questioning it. Earn it.” It was as if Ji Mong was giving her clues to decipher. But one thing was obvious – he knew of her decision to leave and he was not against it.

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Chapter Text

She loved me more than anyone else in the entire world and I destroyed her. 

Each lifetime. 

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The throne room was busy with ministers and leaders of clans bustling in and out with reports, agendas, and announcements the king had to deal directly with. The hectic routine helped ease the king’s mind as it was burdened with the secret she was not ready to share. His plan for expansion to neighboring countries was fruitful as two nations towards the south had agreed to submit to his power and paid tribute annually in exchange for military supports when needed. Terms and negotiations were already on its way as he made sure that the negotiations would benefit both sides to ensure the treaty would not be challenged for a long time. The king’s plan to snag submission from the north, however, was not as successful. The north apparently was not as easy to convince as the south which faced the threat of pirates that acted as the leverage on which they finally succumbed to his power and he wished that the situation he was currently facing with the north would not end with him waging war against them in order to fulfil his desire to be an Emperor.

As the numbers of visitors started to trickle, the king was surprised with the appearance of his one, true ally, his brother the fourteenth prince. Baek Ah made his way to greet the king formally as the king dismissed others from the room.

“Ah, finally. A face I wouldn’t mind engaging in a long discussion! How have you been brother?” The king rejoiced with his presence- the weight on his shoulder became lighter and a warm expression shone on his dulled, exhausted face. Baek Ah took notice of the dark circles beneath his brother’s eyes and decided not to stall the reason behind his arrival. The king held out one hand towards him, asking him to hold his tongue as the king requested his lunch to be served pronto so he could stretch the short time he could have in his brother’s company.

“I came today to give you the report on the task you had set me out to complete Your Majesty. Regarding the inner circle of the clans who have never brought any attention to themselves but hold the power that could tip this nation to their favors.”

“Proceed.”

“They refer to themselves as ‘Elders’ due to the fact that those clans were founded by the four generals that have placed their loyalty to our late father – Hong Yu, Bae Hyeongyeong, Shin Sung-gyeom, Bok Jigyeom. Those four were heavily involved in installing our late father as the king. They were promised a close connection to the palace after the success of the campaign yet they prefer to lose themselves amongst the commoners, supporting the king’s cause by keeping the public at ease through the usage of their own unbounded wealth and connections.  One clan almost have the total control of textile brought into the land, while other accrue their wealth through production of weaponry.”

“Are they a threat to the royal bloodline?” it was one of his main concern the moment he rose as a king – to not allow clans to have powers against the royal bloodline as per observed during the reigns of his predecessors.

“Astoundingly not, based from the reports I received and from my own observation Your Majesty. Their records are clean. They do not intimidate other clans into submitting to their powers. They did not misuse their powers to suppress others. They have proven themselves loyal to you by adhering to all decrees. But I too notice that, during Jeonjong and Hyejong’s reign, they seem to disappear completely. Could it be that the fact we manage to get a whiff of their existence suggests that they are offering their support to your reign perhaps?

“I do need loyal supporters now to ensure stability.” He mulled over the newly learned information. They continued to discuss on such matter. Gwangjong would rather have total power to rule lie within the royal blood-based from his experience observing how clans tried relentlessly to suppress his father’s power during his reign, but circumstances he was facing now dictated that he should not be hasty in taking back the power. He needed allies. Trustworthy ones that were capable to put aside their greed and focused all effort in building a thriving nation. They wrapped up the discussion with the arrival of food and they took their seats, hunger finally sets in after a hectic morning.

--------------------

“Brother, how could you not stop by and thanked the eight’s princess for her hospitality?” Baek Ah had mastered the art of addressing his king and his brother appropriately per instructed by his fourth brother himself. When the issues discussed were of formal matters that involved the nation, he would address Wang So as the king. When it came to a more casual setting, of things that involved other than decrees, he would revert to calling So, brother.  He was referring to the day Ha Jin left Wook’s residence without warning and sent everyone scrambling to find her before the cooks announced that the king had arrived himself and went after her. Baek Ah was irritated not to be informed of such directly by either of them but his tone was more of teasing rather than boldly flippant towards his brother.

“I was so keen to see her I forgot my manners. My apologies.”

“I thought you wouldn’t want to see Wook after you hurt him the night before.”

“That too. I was embarrassed with the way I acted in front of his wife.”

“Don’t be. Ha Jin managed to give him one wholesome punch too and his wife simply shrugged it off.”

“She did?” referring both to Bo Yeong’s reaction and what Ha Jin had done.

“She did. He was infuriated when he heard the news about Yeon Hwa and asked if Ha Jin was responsible for suggesting the punishment. That is ridiculous. You and I might have a different view of her after what she did but he should know that Ha Jin will never do that but she did say that Yeon Hwa deserved every bit of it before she left. He should have let her be but he made the mistake of pulling her to which she responded with a punch and she managed to pull out her dagger after she jumped on him. She looked disoriented for a brief second before she got a hold of herself and let him go.” He took a sip of his wine before he continued. “That being said, how is she now? I worry about her.”

So pursed his lips as he listened to his brother. He felt juvenile as he was joyous with the fact that Ha Jin, his Ha Jin managed to punch Wook but this bout of endless anger that lead to unexpected responses seemed to borderline suggesting she was simmering with such complex emotions making her lashed out at every miscalculated movement. “You and I both. She is very careful in filling me in on what had happened. As if she is covering something more…” He was at a loss to describe it because he simply did not know. “…sinister? Bigger? Worse? I am not sure myself. She was hurting, the nightmares are not helping yet she keeps quiet when I press on it.”

“She will tell you when she is ready.” Baek Ah tried to ease his brother’s feelings but he knew that waiting for someone to open to you kept you on the edge.

“I’m hoping soon. I can’t stand being kept in the dark. I think I need to know everything so that I could help her, relieve her from the weight of it.”

Baek Ah simply nodded. When it came to having a beloved opting not to share her pain, he understood that far too well. He continued to eat but not as eager as earlier. They busied themselves in finishing the meal, silence - filled with busy thoughts racing in each other’s minds over something hinging on her decision whether or not to let them be a part of it, stretching between them. Baek Ah was thinking of stopping by her residence by the lake, maybe distracted his friend into telling him another story. Story. Her story!

He placed his cutleries quietly on the table to process his thoughts. She had never made him promise not to breathe a word of the story she had shared with him. Even he himself had some serious doubt about the story as time went by. He wanted to believe it was just a made-up story by someone with powerful imagination with a knack in telling an engaging story but there was something raw and authentic to the story that he wanted to believe belong to her and her alone. It explained so much of the change in her attitude when she stayed close to Myung Hee. It explained her disappearance during those years too. He was unsure of so many things but suddenly he felt the urgent need to share the story with his brother.

He cleared his throat to gain his brother’s attention. It worked.

“I, hurm,” He was starting to have second thoughts. This story was not his to parade, yet he dug deep within himself to rationalize his decision to do so as he continued. “…back then when you went back to the palace to deal with Yeon Hwa, Ha Jin had shared with me a very intriguing story. I am not sure if she had told you this one story about a woman sent back to the past to fix her future?”

So’s eyes lit up as he heard his last sentence. He pushed his bowl far from him, readying himself to listen to this story about her that she had decided to share with Baek Ah. If he was lucky, he could be learning the real issue that haunted her at night.

“She told me countless stories but never that one. Not yet. Tell me.”

And Baek Ah reiterated the story she had told him. Of the woman betrayed by someone she loved. Of which So was familiar already. He nodded along as Baek Ah got to the part where she gave birth and died, only to wake up again in her world. He knew of this already, of her pain to wake up alone and forced to continue living when in all honesty death was the only thing she sought after. Baek Ah continued and somehow managed to describe the part where her past lover- he corrected himself at such thought. Ha Jin had feelings for him and he doubted the man reciprocated, not in the way he killed her mother and proceeded to try to end her. So winced at the thought of her watching her mother hung to the ceiling and instantly he was filled with the desires to be bestowed with a chance to hunt this man and slowly hurt him in ways that only he would be capable of executing. He was about to stop Baek Ah – he heard enough from the very source. He was not foreign to this story and he thought this was not helping him with the current situation when Baek Ah arrived at the part where Ha Jin met a shaman.

“She met whom?”

“A shaman.” As he listened to Baek Ah repeating the word again he felt his mouth went dry, beaded of sweats bloomed on his palms and neck as he gulped down the sudden urge to vomit all that he had consumed before. That very minute, he was transported back to the earlier days when he was sent to appease Concubine Kang’s grief over the death of her son. The story how she succumbed to grief over her loss was publicly known but the degree of such madness was well kept amongst the occupants of the residence, hidden very judiciously, failed to be sniff by those who were not within the close-knit circle. He as the receiving end of her rage knew all of it first-hand. And the word shaman triggered something within him that he thought he had buried in a profound depth in his mind, incapable of clawing its way out yet his heart beat faster as if trying to leap out from the confine of his ribs and he started to feel a sheen of cold sweat covering his forehead.

--------------------

“Please, I want to go home. I want my mother!” So cried. His small body was still bruised from beatings he had received the day before. He felt weak and cold as he trembled with the hunger for he was denied even a drop of water whenever the bereft mother realized that he was not hers. He was dragged by the maids, his weak knees making it easier for them to move him against his will. Nobody was kind to him here. Nobody.

They dragged him close to a well before they undressed him forcefully. He tried to stop them but, how could he? With what strength? They stripped him from his tattered clothes but to him, it was more than that -he felt as if they were stripping him of his dignity. They rubbed his body in harsh touch, cleaning him after they had dumped him in the den with the animals. Once cleaned, they put on a clean white robe over him and pulled him toward the concubine’s quarters.

He was forced to sit in a dimly lit room, his mouth clasped with a piece of cloth to stop him from screaming, his hands tied together. He did not understand what was happening, and he was prevented from being able to speak. He watched in horror as he was left alone in the room. He crawled on the floor, reaching for the exit when suddenly the door opened to reveal a large, burly man, casting a demeaning look that suggested his blatant want to devour him.

“Concubine Kang sent me here to help the spirit of his dead son to enter your body.” His eyes glint with malicious intent. So scurried back, setting a small distance between him and the predator. His eyes widen in horror to the things he had heard.

“But she doesn’t know that I don’t have the power to do so. Other shamans possibly, but not me. But the reward to just try was sinful for me to deny.” He closed the distance and hold So roughly by the neck as if he was a mere dog, pulling him to the center of the room.

“But we have to pretend at least we are doing something aren’t we?” He took off his clothes in front of the innocent child. So innocent he could not fathom what was happening throughout the night but he knew it was wrong.

---

That marked the beginning of So’s self-loathing towards himself. In his young mind he had deduced that his scars had condemned him to such life – if he did not have them, he could have stayed in the palace. If he did not have them, his mother would have loved him like she used to, not had him tied with fiery arrows aimed at him, testing his luck to see whether or not he should be allowed to live another day. If it wasn't for them…if it wasn’t for them, he could still be loved.

He despised his scars for they served as a reminder of him entering a different world where kindness and warmth simply did not exist, only pain and more pain that he simply could not push away, smothering him, taking all the good he had and replacing them with fears, hopelessness and the needs to retaliate. That was the night he started to see himself not as human anymore, but a mere puppet, vessel, animal. He saw himself less and less as a person and more of an animal with each night the shaman claimed to be doing what he was supposed to be doing.

By the third night, he had stopped feeling anything.

--------------------

So took a deep breath as he tried to snap out from his past. He closed his eyes, willing himself to get over it, to not crumble now when it had been so long since he was reminded by such humiliating period in his life. The anxiety attack was short-lived yet still painful to him. His throat was dry and coarse as if someone had shoved a mouthful of sand down it. He gulped his drink to chase that dryness but it did not originate in his throat but his mind. His mind had associated shaman with agony thus explained he follow up question to his brother that was halfway standing, trying to reach out to him over his violent reaction at the mere mentioned of the shaman. “Did the shaman hurt her?” his voice was tinged with nervousness as he waited for Baek Ah to respond.

“No.” he assured his brother. “Should I continue? You look disturbed by the story.”

“Please, I need to hear it.” His voice almost cracked but he managed to cover it well, feigning exhaustion after a tedious morning.

“The shaman offers an explanation as to why she is sent back. According to her, the true underlying purpose as to why the woman is sent to the past repeatedly is to save her relationship with her lover of each lifetime.”

Lover of each lifetime… So was reminded of the red thread myth Ji Mong had once shared with him and how his and hers were attached in each cycle. This could not be a coincidence, he told himself. A strange tingling sensation crept over him, starting from his feet as if being covered by insects all over the skin, not one inch spared from their prickling legs. He could not put much attention to it as most were used up, hanging to each word coming from his brother.

“They are bound together in every reincarnation but due to her lover’s past sins, it takes a toll on their relationship. They could not be happy together. As if he is punished but because their fates are intertwined together, he ends up hurting her. Badly. To a point, there is no forgiveness that could be offered.”

Hold on, So thought to himself. If I am the one bound to her in every reincarnation, as claimed by Ji Mong himself, and somehow my sins now damage our relationship in future, has she met me in her time? Have I hurt her due to my sins? Don’t tell me I am…him?

There was a prominent buzzing in his head as his mind busied itself in denying the potential truth he was unwrapping. Meanwhile, the strange tingling sensation crept up higher now, almost covering every spread of his skin, it was distracting especially now when he could feel it enveloping his beating heart, a sudden need to cut open his own chest to stop it, too prominent it was now to be simply waived away, demanding an action from him. But his mind was busy. That simply is impossible, isn’t it? He gritted his teeth, fearful of words spilling out from his brother’s lips. Willing him to stop but wanting to know everything, the contradicting wants fought for dominance in his mind.

“He tried killing her once, and when he failed, he kills her mother before he tries to kill her again. He fails, she kills him before killing herself and somehow sent back again to the past.”

“What…?” So’s voice broke. All of the sudden, he could feel as if thousands of the insects that had been crawling all over him, within him, opening their fangs and sunk them onto him all at the same time, a sharp, hot searing physical pain that he had to fight, all while facing another battle in his chaotic mind.

It simply shattered him.

--------------------

When the truth finally sunk in, his heart skipped two beats before it simply broke upon learning that he was the one that sent her back, each time. Upon learning that his hands were the ones bruising her, scarring her, marking her for life. Upon discovering that, his wanton needs to be endlessly saved by her in each lifetime had resulted in her not being able to live free from pains and miserable choices and to face the death of her mother simply because he needed saving. He felt weak. He felt ashamed. He felt pathetic, but most importantly he felt he was undeserving of her sacrifice.

He was shaking as he stared at his hands that were responsible for inflicting physical pains that later manifested into the very bitter ghost that haunted her mind relentlessly. I hurt her, again and again, and again. Why is she still with me?

Somehow at this point, Baek Ah was oblivious to the whirlwind of emotions his brother felt. He continued, “As if that is not harrowing enough, the woman her lover is married to has placed a curse upon her.”

There is more to this story? When will her suffering end?

“A curse?” So looked incredulously at his brother.

“Yes. Initially the wife wants her dead but in the end, settle with having her barren. The shaman disagrees silently because as payment the wife wagers the life of her two available children and tries to return the curse back to her. Simply put, the woman from future could get pregnant but the children of her lover with his wife will die.”

“What kind of story is this?” So barked his response in disbelief. So much pain harbored to the one person he loved, like an anchor with expanding weight dead set in pulling her to the ocean’s floor to stay there forever. All at the price of loving him, of having the fate linked to his. As if it was sinful to be closed to him.

“And the story ends there.” Baek Ah hurled a long breath. “When I press for the ending, she keeps on saying she doesn’t know, the story is still writing itself.”

A moment of silence between the brothers. Baek Ah told So how at first, he thought that the story was about Ha Jin but after few days thinking about it, he dismissed the idea.

“How can a person suffer so much, carrying such responsibility to salvage his and her happiness on her own? Fate couldn’t be that cruel can it brother?”

So was having a hard time trying to digest it all, glossing over the fact that she decided to tell all no matter how indirectly it was to Baek Ah and not him. He felt the build-up of anger and hurt of not chosen to be the one she confided with but as he himself learned the truth, he wanted to turn back time to the period where this story was still a mystery to him.

Somehow, she was punished because she loved him. Somehow, he managed to love and hurt her at the same time. So was no longer sure of anything, whether these details were the truth, whether he deserved her after all the pain he had inflicted upon her. And then came the understanding of the little clues she had been offering all these times. She was torn herself, between sharing the burden and hurting him in the process, she chose to carry it all on her own, trying to save him from this pain at such a grandiose scale, resulting in prolonging her sufferings – a drowning person, trying to save another drowning person at the price of her own life. 

Baek Ah question left an impression upon him even hours after his brother excused himself.

“Fate is more than capable to be that cruel brother.”

A small, frightened whisper to nothingness.

Chapter Text

The children were fast asleep inside while Ha Jin waited nervously for So to emerge from the dark. He had always returned earlier, way before the sunset because he knew too well she was still trying to cope. After her meeting last night with Ji Mong, she went back to see So sleeping soundly, oblivious to her trip to Damiwon. Poor husband, he must be exhausted being kept up night after night with my nightmares. She started to have second thoughts about leaving. It would be as if she was repeating her past mistake. But staying was not a comfortable option too. At least not now. She sighed as she rubbed her eyes. It was late and she paced nervously underneath the moonlight. What is keeping him in the throne room for hours?

She heard footsteps approaching but they were not familiar to her. It was not his and she straightened her back, wondering who had decided to visit.

“It is true then. The old mistress has come back from the dead to once again serves the king with her cunt.”

She turned to face the owner of the voice. A face she was blessed not to see for almost a year now stood before her, with the same condescending eyes. Wang Won.

“Oh, it’s you,” she replied curtly. All courtesy flew out from the window. She no longer cared. She did not have it in her to pretend she had even a drop of respect to those undeserving of such especially to this man that was involved in orchestrating the deaths of the late king she had served and her friend Chae Ryung.

Oh, it’s you?” he repeated her words, his eyes bulging over the deliberate disrespect from her ends. “How dare you, lowly whore.”

These people have got to learn new ways to insult, it's repetitive by now. She complained silently. “To what do I owe this displeasure of seeing your stupid face?” she dismissed his shock as she looked at him boringly.

She smirked at the sight of veins appearing on his forehead threatening to pop as he listened to the word she had used to describe him. “You must think so highly of yourself now the Queen has been thrown to the street. Do you actually see yourself replacing her? Do you feel safe?”

“Before you start with the speech where I have no support whatsoever, where I could not offer much to the king, fret not, your beloved Queen or should I say previous Queen had had it all covered. She told me that much and I am still here while she with all her support and glory has been cast away.”

Wang Won was surprised with this side of her. She was very different from what he was used to seeing before she married Jung. It tilted the conversation to her favor, to a point where he was left with no points to be used against her. She was quick in robbing him from responding in a manner that could hurt her and she appeared unperturbed to every attempt from his side to demean her.

“Amazing. The arrogance a woman could possess simply because she bedded the right man. You were cast away once too. Don’t think so highly of yourself.”

Ha JIn simply glared at him, not barking back any answer. He came closer, standing so close Ha Jin could feel his breath mingling with hers, yet she refused to take a step back.

“What is it about you that doomed us all? Moo, Wook, So, Jung, Baek Ah, Eun. Even Yo. Every single one of them keeps you close. So close they could not see straight. So close they could be standing at the very edge of the cliff, tethering with the summoning of the dead and still they would take another step just to see you.”

She fidgeted a little at the mention of Yo. Late king Hyejong kept her close because of her knowledge on his skin condition. So had always had a special place in her heart. Wook was a mere crush. The rest were friends that brightened her days, even the meekest one. But Yo? She had always thought that he kept her close to threaten So.

“Even Yo. Did you fail to see that didn’t you? He kept you close, even when I told him that So had severed any ties to you. Still, he kept you close. Do you want to know why? Because you are the one thing that dared to stare him in the eyes. I offered many ways to snuff the life out of you but he silenced me instead. You. What are you, woman? That burns them all to hell simply by existing.”

“I am purely a delight to have in life, people simply couldn’t resist me.” She offered him a mocking smile. She wanted this blasphemy of a meeting to end quickly. He made her skin crawled.

“This is the part where I am expected to ask what is it that you want. But because I wish not to see your disgusting face another second longer, I will say this – “with hatred so potent channeled through her very being, she looked at him straight in the eye and said,

“With all due respect, get lost, Your Highness.”

He returned her glare with equal intensity. “I wish I had the courage to kill you back then. You tipped the balance in the palace somehow and I will not allow it to happen anymore. I will celebrate the day I finally kill you. Just wait.”

-------------------

She made her way to the throne room after Won left. She pushed aside the conversation she had had with him. It was in the past and of all the brothers she worried less about Won. His threat did not mean anything to her. Just words meant to shake her. Nothing she was not used to receiving by now. She asked Ari to stay behind with the children as she walked the familiar path to meet So. It was very late, and he was still there as informed by the passing guards.

It was eerily silent the walk she just had to reach her destination. A strange feeling that made her extra cautious, readying herself for a fight with a threat she herself was not sure of. She was accompanied only by the swish of the fabric of her clothes, of pale purple with pink lace. Too dainty of colors on her especially when paired with the crude haircut that she covered with another layer of fabric.

She was surprised to see that there were no lights coming from the throne room. His eunuchs, servants were all standing outside, confirming that he was indeed inside, dwelling in the darkness.

She approached his most trusted eunuch and made a request of seeing the King, only to have her request shunned down. She was told the king wanted to be alone. She could feel her shoulder dropped, feeling dejected but she remained standing there transfixed, wanting to stay so he could see her first upon stepping out from the room.

The elder servant came closer and whispered, “He told us to leave him alone, not you. Go inside please my lady. It has been hours since his last meal. He wished to be left alone directly after a visit by the thirteenth prince.” He called forward a maid, carrying a tray filled with pastries and a pot of tea. He placed a small lantern on the tray and transferred it to Ha Jin extended hands. “I am very sure he would not mind a visit from his wife.” At the mention of the word wife, he gave Ha Jin a warm smile, looking very pleased as if he himself approved of her as the king’s wife. She was surprised to have him say that. She thought it was supposed to be a secret but then she remembered her early days in the palace where she too enjoyed rampant gossiping with others. Maids, servants in the palace are a force to be reckoned with. They are walking internet indeed. Plus it has been a while, surely they would know by now. She chuckled at her own musing as she returned his silent approval with a shy smile and entered the room, to meet her husband.

--------------------

He saw the door opened as lights from the outside spilled inside greedily before it was closed back. A small figure entered, her face beamed from the small glow of the lantern on the tray she had carried with her. Closer and closer until she stood directly next to him, setting the tray in front of him carefully, pouring the tea into two cups. She took his hand and placed a warm cup on his palm, sat so close to him, her warmth matched the warmth radiating from the tea before she took a sip of her tea. His eyes never left her, drinking in the sight of her, amazed at how at ease she acted around him even with what she had known all along.

She placed her cup back on the tray before she shifted slightly to face him. She was always gentle with him. Despite the nightmares at nights, she would return as radiant as the sunlight the next morning. Tonight was the same. The sun might have set hours ago but she, she was his sun during the day, his moon at night and she was the very air that he breathed in. She is my everything.

She placed her palm next to his face, her thumb caressing his cheek.

“Having a bad day, are we?” Her eyes carried with them such profound depth he wished he could swim in it, enveloped completely and he would bask in it, swallowed by it with no second thought. He was torn by his reaction as he closed his eyes and reveled in the simple act of touching. He was undeserving of her, yet he craved for her and if he was entertaining the selfish part of him, he would convince himself that she too love pampering him with attention and love. But after what he had learned earlier today, how could he let himself be loved in such ways when he had done things to her, incomprehensible things. It was chaotic, the feelings within him. He was drowning gladly in her love yet with the constant pull of gigantic waves of guilt slamming him breathless. Guilt, guilt, guilt…

She tried to pull him in for a hug, to chase away his bad day, the same way he always did when she had her fair share of nightmares but his body stiffen, shying away from her. She looked at him quizzically, one head cocked to the side.

“What’s wrong So? You know you could tell me everything.”

“Why didn’t you?” He croaked out a respond, returning her question to her. Why didn’t you tell me this soon? When I beg and beg to know and you shut me off? Am I so weak you think I could not handle the truth? Or do you love me so, so much you want to shield me from the fact that I would always be the one dooming this relationship?

His hoarse voice caught her by surprise yet the words spilled from his lips sounded as if he somehow knew about the things she had tried to hide – not hide, just delaying in sharing it with him. But the things she had hidden had been growing lately:  the things she learned from the shaman, her decision to leave, her drinking potion to barren herself to save what needed to be saved – him from guilt, herself from the pain of gaining one and losing two. So when he asked her that very question, she was unsure of which he was referring to – the danger of concealing things from her one true partner had now came full circle to trap her.

“What?” An uncertain answer from her.

He rose from his seat, shuffling to set distance between them. He was in a daze, entirely clueless of how he should be reacting to this whole…mess.

“So, where are you going?”

Her voice. Her voice when he called his name was something so precious to him. She had dismissed any usage of honorifics with her second arrival, addressing him in ways she saw him fit, not a prince, not a king, just her lover. Such an intimate gesture from her, extending the use of his name not just when their bodies collided with one another.

He could try to ignore what he had learned and continued to live. To pretend that he was oblivious to it. But he knew now, what had been hurting her and it was him all along. He pushed his foot one after another away from her – not giving in to his deepest desire to run to her arms.

“I need to go. I need to find answers.”

And he left. He moved at a brisk pace, heading straight to the astronomy tower. If there was one person capable of confirming anything, it would be him. it would be Ji Mong.

--------------------

Ji Mong was perusing a catalog of stars constellations he had drawn years ago, updating it recently, hoping that there would be someone who would be brave enough to trudge the daunting stairs and took a closer look of his library. Since the princes had all grown up, the tower was quieter, with no more laughter adorning its high ceiling, only the news of death every now and then echoing in exchange. He placed the catalog carefully back to where it belonged and poured himself a cup of tea before he placed the teapot on the table ever gently, walked to a cupboard and took out another cup for his guest who would arrive soon.

He took a sip of his tea as he listened to the steps taken by his visitor. He was amused at the person stopping and letting out a long sigh over the never-ending stairs – he was the one that designed the building, the height was meant for him to be closer to the stars and it worked as a reason that drove away unnecessary intrusions by the princes who were so young back then they did not actually care of the stairs. He waited for his visitor to arrive, someone he had not seen for so long, his efforts evaded, no matter how hard he had tried to reach for a reconciliation.

“It has been so long Sun Ja.” He welcomed her with an open arm, open heart for he had been plagued with guilt for always leaving her behind while he traveled to the future. They were lovers, their powers combined proven lethal. They would read the skies together, while he would peek into the future to see the outcomes, she would destroy whatever, whoever it was that was blocking the path to the vision they had shared in their minds. They were heavily involved in the rise of the late king Taejo’s reign, all while the king remained oblivious to Sun Ja’s existence. But as he traveled, she became resentful of him for she could do so much except following him and each time he returned he started to question the degree of their involvement in the nation’s fate.  In the end, he decided to put a stop in meddling and to just observe, asking her to follow the same practice but she took it as him trying to control her powers. She left him and concealed herself from being tracked by others unless she saw it fit.

She lifted her head as she heard his voice. She took her seat facing him, addressing this person whom at one point of her life she had sworn to die for.

“It has indeed been quite some time. I have made sure of that.” Her expression cold. She came not for him, but for someone else. Someone else that deserved to know the truth too. Someone else who was heavily involved in this game of fate. She sought to nudge the two lovers on the right path. She had witnessed their pains. Left alone they would be wasting each opportunity, running in a circle, lost with no direction. Repeating the same failure over and over again.

They sat in silence, emptying their cups. Ji Mong sensed that this meeting was not meant for them to reconcile, but to address something else. Immediately he was brought back to his meeting with Ha Jin, the night she drank that concoction and finally realized something – this is not Sun Ja’s first visit to the palace after all this time.

“Have you come to the palace recently?” he looked at her, directly in the eyes. He would know if she opts for a lie.

“Yes.” She answered without hesitation.

“Under the previous Queen’s order?”

“Yes.”

“Did you place a curse to a certain someone? Someone close to the king?”

She straightened her back. “You know how we are bound to the Royals. You do not expect me to say no, did you?”

Ji Mong started to think of possibilities on which he could plead her to undo the curse. But he was brought back to the memories on which they had shared together and he was reminded of the brutality of her gifts. “I doubt you can undo the curse. You are powerful but not powerful enough to undo the curses you have placed.”

“That much is true. Doesn’t matter now does it?” she picked up the small teacup and admire the dainty engraving around the rim.

“Doesn’t matter now. Not after what she had done to counter it.” Ha Jin sacrificed so much for nothing. He felt resentment towards Sun Ja, how she looked so cold and calculating, truly believing that she was in the right. “You haven’t changed.”

“Tsk, short moments with very few exchanges and you have sentenced me with a judgment. The same goes for you-you haven’t changed that much either.”

“Why are you here then?” It was always this way between them. Their own emotions colored the very intonation on which their discussion was carried. Few minutes with her and he already dropped his façade – no, she stripped him bare from the cheerful astronomer personality he had been putting on all these whiles. He was once again a seer that had seen too much, that had done too much under the pretense that he was acting according to Heaven’s wills.

“I saw things when I was carrying out the fallen Queen’s bidding. Interesting sights, a chance to have a glance over the victim’s fate and I am intrigued, therefore I sought her out, to learn more.”

“You sought her out? Are you saying that you had met her?” Ji Mong could not believe what he was listening to. He lost his control and slammed his hands hard on the hard surface of the table, the sound startled Sun Ja.

“You know we should not interfere! We have done enough to disrupt the balance. We could not, should not play God Sun Ja!”

She returned his stare with equal intensity and replied with fury dripping from her words.  “If God does not want us to interfere, He wouldn’t bestow upon us such powers. If God is merciful, he wouldn’t deal such fate upon a fragile being, to begin with. Traveling without knowing her true purpose? Wasting each chance again and again until when? I did her a favor, I set her path. I told her the reason she was sent back when you have seen enough to guess yet leave her blind in the darkness. And here you are thinking that I am always the evil one.”

“You know I could not see that much. Even if I could, I would not interfere.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. Look at what happened to Moo – a humiliating death just because you would not interfere.”

That struck a chord deep within him it forced him to stand up and walked away from her. “I did not say it is an easy task to do, to observe, but it is what necessary...”

“You and I have different views on what deemed as necessary.” Her voice low. They had always argued about this before she finally decided that they were too different, their opinions clashing upon one another and ruining whatever left between them.

“And placing her under such curse is necessary?” his eyes filled with disbelief.

“It could be if it helps her to focus on her purpose. I eliminated possible distractions.” She tried to convince him that it was the right thing to do.

“Distractions? Are children mere distractions? They could have been blessed with two and you eradicate them! So, soulless. What is it that you see, that allows your conscience to allow this to happen?”

“I see something. Something that I have never seen before. She deserves to know. That, and coupled with the fact that I am just fascinated, to see how she would go on, writing her own fate.”

“Tell me then.”

“I will if the king is brave enough to grace us with his presence and listen to what I have in store.”

A figure detached himself from the firm grasp of shadows. His face too pale- a stark contrast to his black as ink robe. His expression was pure distraught caused by what he had heard today. His gait slow as he came closer. He had been hiding. He had arrived not long after they started talking and he heard everything. Their children…. their dreams shattered by this woman in front of him that showed no remorse after conflicting such pains upon his wife. His right hand moved and grabbed the hilt of his sword, swinging it close enough to the woman’s pulsing neck.

“If you are truly a shaman, show me.” His voice flat, barren of any emotions. He bottled all of it, sealed it tightly, readied himself to flung it so far in the murky ocean of his own mind. He wanted to dismiss everything. He wanted her to fail. If he did not see it, it was easier to act as if he had been listening to a cruel story, the product of the wild unattended imagination of his brother. Seeing is believing, isn’t it? If I didn’t see it, surely it is just lies?

“As you wish Your Majesty.”

She bowed low before she turned around and stretched her hands. She waved them while muttering some incantations. The moment she stopped, a strong burst of wind circled the room, snuffing out all the candles. The smoke left trailing behind gathered in swirls surrounding them all before it thickened in the middle of the room, stretching itself thus creating a thin, opaque layer of screen, yet it moved like a veil moving gracefully. The sight captured the king’s and the astronomer’s attention, both enthralled and taken aback by the display of mystical powers of Sun Ja.

She produced a small flame on a thin paper of written inscriptions by snapping her fingers together and released the burning paper in the air. The moment every fiber of the paper turned to ashes, images appeared on the screen. Sun Ja turned to look at the young king, her face looking apologetic.

And she showed him everything.

Everything.

All that he had heard, everything he had only dared to imagine now displayed in front of him, crystal clear. Starting from her life before she met him, the life she had spent with his reincarnation, all the tears she had shed for him, her death, her waking up and trying to live, everything leading up to the moment even she, even Ha Jin had never witnessed, of him killing her mother. It suffocated him. Too much, that he had to tear his eyes away, only to see that Ha Jin had been standing behind him, her eyes bulging, transfixed onto the moving images, her hands covering the muffled scream from her mouth.

--------------------

Chapter Text

“Why do you stay in prison when the door is wide open?”

“Love led me all the way to you.”

“Go find yourself first so you can find me.”

“I am yours. Don’t give myself back to me.”

 

“I was so undeserving,

And yet, you were

so relentless,

                I pushed – you pulled.

                I wept – you embraced.

                I bled – you repaired.

                I faltered – you shushed.

                I stopped – you smiled.

I was a disaster –

The worst of its kind.

                And yet, you still

                Had the audacity to let me know

                                That I was beautiful.”

“if you are broken

and they have left you

do not question

whether you were

enough

the problem was

you were so enough

they were not able to carry it”

 

“Perhaps I don’t deserve nice things because I’m paying for sins I don’t remember”

 

“Enough with your doubts!

Enough with your sorrows!

Let them all go,

and I will show you the way.”

 

“Loving me will be the end of you. Let me go. Let us go. Leave. Let me be free of this guilt.”

 

“There is a particular kind of suffering to be

experienced when you love something greater

than yourself. A tender sacrifice.

Like the pained silence felt in the lost song of a

mermaid; or the bent and broken feet of a

dancing ballerina. It is in every considered step I am taking

in the opposite direction of you.”

----------

 

Rumi. Perry Poetry. Rumi. Rumi. unknown. Rupi Kaur. Rupi Kaur. Rumi. Wang So. Lang Leav.

Chapter Text

A forgotten moment…

It was too early; the world was still quiet and undiscovered. Two lovers were lost in slumber, limbs wrapped tightly around one another, quietly embracing the radiating warmth, paying homage to the stillness outside their small piece of heaven. His eyes finally opened slowly, casting his gaze upon her. Her eyes were already bright with life – clearly, she had been watching him stirring in his sleep.

“Morning my love.” Croaked him as he tried to make sense of the time of the day, confused he was to see why it was still dark outside.

She grinned before she burrowed herself deeper against him. “We still have time.”

“Have you been watching me sleeping?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I am fascinated. It is as if I am watching and touching a living, breathing, the physical embodiment of love. All mine.” One finger tracing his jawline before she flicked his nose.

He could not help but scoff at her answer but a certain blushed betrayed him, creeping indignantly on his cheeks. She giggled at the sight, pulling her other hand from beneath the blanket and pinched his reddening cheeks.

“You scoff, but you like it too much isn’t it?” she teased him continuously. She loved saying all those things branded as corny and too mushy by herself when she was younger but with him, the words just rolled off her tongue, as easy as breathing. In her mind, if there was one person deserving to hear all those sweetened words, it will be him.

“You and your heavily honeyed tongue. You are the only one who ever said those beautiful things to me.”

“One is enough, as long as that one is me,” she said as she attempted to warn him through her stern expression.

The laughter ebbed away, swallowed by the silence as their breathing regulated back to steady heartbeats, one after another.

“What is the most absurd concept of love you ever heard of in your time?” he broke the tranquillity of the room.

“I think love transcends time. What absurd in future I bet is still as absurd now.” She mimicked his laid-back position, one hand beneath her head as a pillow, eyes focused to the ceiling.

“You didn’t offer an answer.” He reminded her.

She leafed through all concepts or beliefs on love that she had ever come across and chose one that she had lived through. “There is this famous one. If you love someone, set him free. If he comes back he’s yours, if he didn’t he never was.”

To him, it sounded sincere, feasible even when put into practice when it was necessary. “And that is absurd because…?”

The fact that he sounded open and accepting propelled her to shift her position, sitting now while looking down at him. “Didn’t you see the flaw of such idea? Why would you let go of the same person you proclaimed your love in the first place?”

“I can think of many reasons.”

“Really? Name one.”

“For her safety. Shielding her from so much pain in future should we choose to continue. If that is the only way I could protect the one I love, what other choice do I have?”

“I see why it appeals to you. You left once, thinking it was the best for me.”

Hearing that, he too pushed himself to sit, facing her. He gently rubbed her knees, eyes fixated on the floor. Moments passed before he finally lifted his face to look at her.

“Forgive me.”

“Back then, I died every day waiting for you. And every fiber of my being believed that I deserved that after everything that had happened. You may call it saving, but it was torturous to me and I know you suffered too. You may call it the noblest form of sacrifice, but I deem it as unnecessary pain that we both have to live through. Never again.” Her voice was soothing, but it was a warning for him to never let go.

“Never again. I could not think of a reason worthy enough to go through that again.” But there was a small part of him that wanted to fight back. He knew there were times and circumstances where such decision no matter how despised was necessary, but he pushed it away, knowing that she was very against it. He respected her enough not to keep on arguing why he felt it was right, praying that such moment will cease to exist where he or she had to push one another for the sake of saving the other person.

“What is the most ridiculous one you ever heard?” She returned his question to him.

He had his answer ready. “Love heals everything.”

She was surprised. “Well doesn’t it?” She sat close enough to him. Skin against skin, her fingers searching for his, her lips kissing his bare shoulder.

“You just prove its absurdity. I left you years ago, and you still remember the pain. Our love no matter how deep it goes has yet to heal that.”

She did not know why but she chuckled in response, “Well, in my defense, a woman forgives but never forget.”

“And why is that?”

She cleared her throat, combing for an explanation rational enough to be offered to him so he would not think women just loved to bear vengeance. “Well based on a legitimate research, women tend to link each memory with emotions. That is why women can remember so much more and with such clarity as compared to men because emotion is a very powerful form of glue that binds each memory forever in her mind. Because we remember things, using our hearts.” She touched his exposed chest, where his heart should be, feeling it beat beneath her palm.

He was quiet, so she continued, “Maybe our interpretation of healing differs. Could it be by healing you want to be able to look back without feeling hurt any longer?”

He nodded his head hung in shame for reasons she did not understand yet. He pulled her palm toward his face, placing it on his cheek but not before he kissed its center. “I would love for you to be completely healed, to be able to forget the wrong things I have done, the hurtful things I have said to you.”

He looked so innocent and lovable she could feel tears blooming in her eyes. She wanted to offer him a balm in the form of words good enough to soothe him. She took her time, threading each word carefully in her mind before she whispered them. “Love does heal us. Just enough for us to forgive ourselves, to move on yet still remind us of the lingering pain for us not to be tempted to commit the same mistake again.”

“I love you.” he breathed those words out to her putting as much emotion as possible interlaced with each.

She breathed them all in. “I know. And I doubt there is strong enough a reason for us to leave one another yet again.”

Chapter Text

“When did she left? How is it possible that I am not informed of this?!” Baek Ah unintentionally raised his voice to Ari. He was shocked to learn of Ha Jin’s abrupt departure. He was away for a week, gathering information regarding the elder clans. He arrived at the palace, early in the morning and decided to swing by to the lake residence first for a chat and maybe a bite or two with his friend, only to see an empty house, vacant from the usual hustle and bustle and laughter of his nephew and niece with their mother.

He searched the house just to be sure and quickly left to find their whereabouts. It was unusual for Ha Jin not to there. She was always there. He left the house just in time to bump into Ari. He stopped her and upon seeing her fidgeting nervously, he knew something had gone very wrong. She told him how her lady had left just three days ago, hands shaking as she packed the bare minimum with her. Ari told him how her lady’s face was as pale as ghost, grabbing the maid’s hands so tight within her grasp pleading for her to take care of her sweet, sweet children.

“What did his Majesty say about this?” inquired Baek Ah. He was beyond curious as to why So did not raise the alarm on her sudden parting. He looked at Ari’s face, reading her expression carefully, fearing that she might conceal something from him.

“Your Highness, it is not my place to say things about the king.” She stuttered.

“I need to understand what is happening. Say it. Please, for the sake of your lady.” He lowered down his voice, only now realizing he had been speaking in a harsh tone.

“The King was aware of it Your Highness. He came to the house not long after she left. I tried to tell his Majesty that Lady Hae was gone but he simply waved me off, entered the house and lay down with the children. I did not understand what was happening, but it was not my place to ask for more, so I simply closed the door and waited outside.”

Baek Ah was absolutely aghast to learn that his brother was aware of his friend’s decision. Did they fight? How bad was it? Before he judged his brother too harsh, he prodded more to his one available witness.

“When he sent you away, how did he look? Did he look sad? Anything?”

Ari looked down at her fingers, trying to recall the memory with much more clarity. She remembered the king dragging his feet, shoulder slumped forward with a face as pale as her lady’s. She remembered hearing low guttural cries later that night, like a wounded animal begging to be killed than captured. Without thinking, she blurted,

“The King looked dead.” The moment the words escaped her lips she slapped her hands over her mouth and knelt on the ground, pressing her forehead on the path.

“Forgive me, Your Highness! I should not say that! Please spare my life!” She was afraid of what she had said. It was wrong and punishable. The prince quickly helped her to stand up. He could sense that something had shifted between the two, ending up with one leaving the other, or was it mutual? He was not sure. He needed to ask So himself.

--------------------

The prince left, hastened in his pace, eager to meet his brother. His arrival was announced and there he was, sitting in all his glory but with a definite coldness radiating from him. Baek Ah reigned in his wild thoughts bursting to demand an explanation. He calmly gave his report, everything he had gathered from his informers regarding the strength and position of the elders. He was in the midst of arranging a meeting between the king and the heads of the clans to know for sure to whom they gave their loyalty to. All while gauging the King’s face at times questioning himself why his brother bore the expression he had worn years ago, at the time when he had first arrived in Songak when they were still strangers to one another.

The King was unnervingly silent, nodding to himself as he listened to the report. Once done, Baek Ah waited if his brother would initiate any question regarding the authenticity of his report but most importantly, he was waiting if perhaps his brother would still see himself as a trusted confidant, enough to tell him what exactly had transpired between him and his friend. But nothing. The King thanked him for his service and left him to excuse himself out from the throne room.

The prince was perplexed but far from backing down. He took his stance firmly,

“If perhaps Your Majesty would be kind enough to explain the disappearance of Lady DongJi. I am astounded upon learning the news this morning.” He almost gritted his teeth menacingly. How could he just sit there as if nothing happened?

The King stopped writing, his brush hung mid-air before he answered curtly, “She left.” He continued writing as if he had just said something with not worthy for further discussion.

“I know that much brother. But why?” He prodded more. Surely, they had got to be a thorough explanation of such an abrupt decision. Something, someone must have pushed her to the brink.

“This nation needs someone to fill the vacancy of the position next to me. She refused to fill it in. She left.” The king pushed aside the parchment he was writing on, a look of disapproval masking his face.

“That’s not good enough. Something must have happened! You two just don’t do this to one another. At least not again!” Baek Ah was exasperated as he listened to that ridiculous answer coming from So.

“You dare question me? Your King?!” his voice booming. So loud even the ones standing outside quickly knelt as they could feel their king’s wrath to the bones.

Baek Ah could not accept it, would not accept the banality of his answer. “You are my king, yes, yet you are still my brother. And she, she is my good, good friend. You might feel as if you have a stronger claimed over her because she is your wife, but she has always been my friend. Someone I cherish and protect.  I know you love her, more than anything it beyond ludicrous for you to deny it and even to allow this to happen!”

“I love her, yes. But I have a duty for my nation. And if my love and my duty chose not to be aligned, one has to be sacrificed.”

“Her? Do you choose to sacrifice her? I don’t believe it.”

“How would you know that? You don’t know the burden of being shackled to a position, having to choose duty over love. You will never know that!” The king rose to his feet, matching Baek Ah sudden movement as he came closer to the throne.

The younger prince was taken aback. He stopped short and asked his king, “And I wonder whose fault was that?”

Baek Ah stared as his brother. Old pain resurfacing. It was distant, a minute strand of pain that he could live with by now. But when So brought it in the midst of heated exchanges he could not help but snap back. They never spoke about the loss of his love. For Baek Ah, it was too private, a mourning he would rather do alone. But now, of all time, it came up.

“You know too well I am not to be blamed for that. Even if I knew, I will choose you over her.” So tried to ease the tension. He would never purposely hurt his brother in such a manner.

“You have might as well push her down the wall on your own. Her blood is on your hands.” Baek Ah turned away, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose trying to reclaim his state of mind from the sudden flood of emotion from the past.

“That is behind us.” Baek Ah announced such more to himself than to the king. “I wouldn’t have come back if I still blame you. I come back because I realize that with her gone, I could be your ally with no string attached. Your enemy could not touch me, manipulate me again. So I came back, to you, for you. As a brother, as a friend, as a humble servant to his master.”

“Baek Ah please…you are never my serv…” So did not manage to finish his sentence before Baek Ah cut him off.

“If I am not then I think you owe me more than a lousy explanation. Whenever you are ready to your Majesty. Whenever you are sick to your core lying to yourself, tell me then.” Baek Ah left, shaking his head, disappointed at his brother’s stubbornness.

--------------------

It was twilight once again in the palace. The king felt trapped by the walls closing in with no escape available. He sought the only thing left that can ease such chaos within him. His boat. He was alone, rowing slowly with nothing clear on his mind. Memories upon memories heaped upon one another creating a stack so high it wobbled on its own weight before it came down crashing. A failed attempt at building a prayer tower of memories. The boat held too many reminiscences of them together, it poisoned him as he ached in his own loss.

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“Ha Jin, will you be my Queen?”

“I thought I am already your one and only Queen?”

“You know what I mean. I want you to sit next to me, together as the king and queen of this land.”

“How do you propose to do that? I am with not one but countless scars. I am nobody So. No clan to support me. I am in fact, technically dead to everyone. How can someone like me occupy that seat next to you? This is an ancient argument between us, why bother revisiting it again?”

“I can arrange for a strong clan to adopt you. The scars are nothing. We can cover it if we have to or we can skip the traditional practice that needs you to be observed thoroughly.”

“You hate to be tied down to clans. I know that now and even before I set my foot in this era. You are known for that in history So. And for me to be adopted by them would mean you are openly handing them leverage to be used upon you. I refused to be a pawn. Of course, we can skip all those traditions but to what end? What kind of Queen would I be in the eyes of others if I am always, consistently being an exception to the rules? What kind of example am I to others if I as Queen, could not adhere and respect customs? It would reflect bad on you. I did that enough before.”

“But I desperately want you to be my official Queen…”

“I was greedy. Back then I wanted to be a queen. I thought I deserved it because I had gone through so much I thought I earned that at the very least. But when we were separated by death, I told myself and any deity that chooses to listen that I would give up everything, everything that makes me up as a person I am, everything I have left, everything that defines me, just to be with you one more time. Just to be with you, no more than that. And somehow, fate granted me that wish. Can you see now why I am so afraid to take more than what I have badly wished for?”

“You are afraid you will lose it all.”

“Precisely. Now is good enough an arrangement for us. I am happy. You are happy. The children are more than happy. What more can we ask for?”

--------------------

"To still be together. That is what we could have asked for.” He spoke to nothingness, to a memory that had left them. He could feel the boat moving gently on the surface of the water. His favorite thing. This boat he had always cherished. His small sanctuary. He may be a king, but he did not have much to his true name. All that he had was a hand me down, something he merely watched for until his successor, the next owner was ready to claim it.

From the distance, he could hear his children crying for their mother, completely at loss and blatantly refusing any attempt to pacify their feelings. Mother, mother, mother. Always her, only her.

He stared at the flame of the torch, glowing brightly, its tip flickered with each blow of the wind. He saw fury and madness and desperate yearnings reflected in it, feelings that he harbored within him, manifesting royally as days went by.  He threw the torch to the floorboard of his boat, watching the fire engulfed the wooden board like a hungry carnivore. He remained seated, observing the wave of fire as it devoured everything in its path getting closer and closer to him with each passing second. He stood up as the fire tried to swallow him whole and dived into the cold water, leaving behind his once most prized possession.

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Chapter Text

Have you ever imagined the perfect version of you? Unscathed, with no scars?

I do. But then I remember, my imperfections lead you to me. Would I exchange that chance meeting for the world? I would not.

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Wang Ju and Wang Aji were sleeping soundly in the dimly lit room. Small, soft whimpers could be heard every now and then coming from the two young souls, pining for the warm embrace of their mother. So watched his daughter slept while suckling her thumb, so deep in her slumber, she did not even twitch when her father pushed her hair away from covering her cheek. He named her, after his family name, offering her protection, something he could not extend to his own wife.

He sighed as his mind wandered to that night all hell broke loose. Things he had said, were cruel. He could taste its bitterness still to this day. That night, Ha Jin told her that in future, there was no mention of her existence in history. He found this troubling. Possibilities were countless but the fact that she remained a secret to the world suggested morbidity. He feared that should he pursued with his intention, should anything happened to him first, Ha Jin would be left defenseless. Worst thought would be the remote possibility of her being overthrown and killed off thus explained why she was not mentioned in history as someone reigning next to him. Records were altered all the time. But to not be mentioned at all meant in the eyes of his people, she did not exist.

“Have I done the wrong thing? It is the only way but why it doesn’t feel right?” He turned to his children, moving to grant each of them a kiss to chase his own worries away. So realized her absence not only created a void in his life. It impacted others too. Baek Ah felt the loss too. How selfish he had been when he uttered the things that pushed her to the edge.

Why do you keep doing this to yourself?

I don’t know.

He told himself it was for her own good but why did those words feel like bile on his tongue? He convinced himself that he had loved her wrong. Years ago, he told her she could never leave him, could never die without his permission. How arrogant and suffocating he was and that lead them to more pain. He thought then maybe to really love was to let go. It sounded right in his mind. Like the truest thing to do. An epiphany, but then why he regretted it the moment she turned her back at him?

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“What do you mean by nothing?! It has been four months. Four months and still nothing?!” The King’s voice echoed throughout the hall. Deok Su swallowed his failure whole. He had tried relentlessly, gathering information on the king’s woman whereabouts but all his effort had been proven futile. When he had almost got her, she would move swiftly. Finding her was as if you were searching for your shadow, in the darkest night bereft of any light. Pointless. She was good in hiding, no trace at all, suggesting a very wide range of disguises had been used. If he was not being the one the king was channeling his anger toward to he would actually applaud this woman’s skill in disappearing herself. He had never failed in finding something, someone. But this one person proved herself to be worthy of his time – the ultimate challenger of his skill he had acquired over the years. By the end of the second months, he had to bring in his sister Gyuri to join the search, hoping that maybe, the king’s woman might reveal herself to her if not him.

“Forgive me Your Majesty but my sister and I have search far and wide. It feels as if she is very intent to not be discovered by anyone. She is very careful. Twice, we almost manage to come close but both times she managed to slip away. She knows she is being followed.” Deok Su had to assure the king that he had indeed managed to come close. It was not as if they had managed nothing. He felt indignant to acknowledge that. He suspected his sister had actually met her but she chose to not share such information with him. He was furious at her and the thought that his sister was outside listening to him being slammed by the king’s tirade was humiliating. He told her to wait outside. He was too used at being yelled at, but his sister might decide it was fitting to have a fight with the king.

“Keep on searching for her. Tell me that she is safe and well.” The king gripped his knees tighter. He remembered when he reminded her how impossible it is to hide from the king. She had proven him wrong. She could.

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Baek Ah had had enough of his brother being unbothered by Ha Jin’s departure. Tonight, he would make sure that he managed to get more answer. He would demand an answer from him. Literally slapped some sense into him if he had to resort to that. He had sent his own people searching for her based from sketches he had drawn and up to this moment no one had actually come close to seeing her anywhere. Baek Ah felt that he needed to go back to the beginning as to identifying the whys behind her decision or his decision and only then possibly the chances of finding her might grow no matter how minuscule.

He made his way to the throne room where his brother saw fitting to stay in his every free hour aside with spending time with his children. He had to at least give his brother some credit. He tried to be there for his children, playing with them, entertaining them but any time any of the children asked about their mother, he would shut himself down. The children knew better than to ask anymore but Baek Ah could see how it was eating them from the inside, unable to understand why their mother would suddenly up and leave them with no decent explanation. He wanted to understand but So would not let him.

Upon reaching the throne room, his advances were stopped by two of the palace guards. He felt irritated because he was so close he could see all the court ladies attending the king standing outside the door. He could even hear the king’s voice saturated with anger directed toward someone. His voice was muffled but he managed to catch a few words of, four months and nothing.

“Forgive me Your Highness but the King is not expecting your presence.” One of the guards addressed the prince.

“Of course, he is not expecting me. I am not here to see the king,” his eyes roamed towards the row of court ladies and eunuchs and he recognized an unfamiliar face. A woman, wearing the darkest shade of plain purple hanbok but her pearl norigae stood out, glinting at him. She looked out of place. A stranger, yet she did not look afraid of the palace - she glowed with confidence shining from her calm face. Her hair was free from heavy accessories, black kohl hair plunging to the back of her neck in a neat braid. Perhaps a friend of the person the king is currently seeing? A quick-thinking by the prince made him realize maybe it was not best to speak to the king in his current temper so he quickly announced to the guards, “I am here for her,” he pointed to Gyuri, Deok Su’s sister who was waiting patiently for her brother. The young woman was surprised as she raised her head to look at the one looking for her. The two guards hesitated. Baek Ah seized the moment, “Surely the king has not given any instruction that would require the both of you to stop me from meeting her?”

“No, Your Highness. Of course, as you pleased.” The guard motioned for the unsuspecting woman to follow the prince. Gyuri, unsure of what to do but suspecting that her brother would not be coming out from the room soon, made her way to follow the prince who had expected her to follow him outside the building. Based on the description she was given, that man could potentially be the thirteenth prince. If such was true – her fingers twitched as she remembered the letter, pressed against the waist of her skirt. A letter addressed to a friend, from a friend that she had sworn to pass secretly in order to win the mysterious lady’s trust.  

Once outside, Baek Ah turned to Gyuri. “Who are you, why are you here and who is meeting the king?” Gyuri could not help but stare at the prince standing in front of her. Ahh, so this is the most handsome prince this land has to offer. Not bad, not bad at all. She grew up in the capital but never once she managed to come across the famous prince’s path. She could not help feeling her cheeks burn at the sight of him. She bit the inside of her cheeks from smiling and sought to confirm the prince identity.

“Should I answer such questions I am afraid I am going against the king’s order Your Highness. I do not know if the king would allow me to divulge the reason behind this secret meeting with anyone, even you. Forgive me for having no other option but to refuse. But….” She saw the prince’s face fell at her refusal to simply answer. She continued quickly, “But if you can finish this song, I have something better to offer you.”

“What song?” Baek Ah was intrigued. His eyes were wide, wondering if this woman in front of him had met Ha Jin.

She licked her lips before she responded, “Are you are you, coming to the tree, Wear a….?” She stopped, hoping that she had sung it as close as the original tune she had listened to, sung by the lady she had been following after.

Baek Ah knew this song. The song Ha Jin had sung at Wook’s house. He wrecked his brains trying to recall the lyrics precisely. When he was sure of it, he sang it back to the news’ bearer. “Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me…You met her. Where is she? Is she fine? Healthy? Is the king searching for her too? He is, isn’t he? I knew it. I knew it.” A look of pure relief stretched upon his feature. He was elated to learn that So too was searching for Ha Jin.

The young lady smiled as he showered her with questions. He must have been a good friend of hers to be so happy at the mere thought of receiving any news about her. “Greetings Thirteenth Prince. My name is Gyuri and I have a letter for you from your friend.” She fished out the letter from where she kept it and proceeded to place it gingerly on the prince’s awaiting hands.

Baek Ah realized she had a dimple on her left cheek. He caught himself taking mental note of her appearance and he felt at loss as to why he did so. He turned his attention to what he was offered, quickly tore open the envelope, revealing a handwriting so similar to So that took him by surprise. He realized throughout the years he knew her, he only remembered her being illiterate therefore he had never thought to exchange letters or what not. He was astonished to see how far she had grown and how similar the two of them. It angered him more as he observed the handwriting that they both resorted to doing such foolish thing of being away from one another. He pressed that newly awakened anger and directed his attention to the piece of offering from Ha Jin.

---

My dearest friend,

Are you mad? Do you miss me? I am sorry for leaving so suddenly. Too much had happened and to rewrite it would mean relieving the pain, something I am not ready to do yet. Or maybe ever.

How are the children? I miss them so much, my friend. So so, much that words simply failed to do me justice as I try again and again to illustrate the longing I feel deep within me. I hope they still remember me. I hope they don’t resent me. But I understand should that happen. What rights do I have over them? I am simply a mother with too much love in her heart yet with no child to call her own.

I am myself unsure of what I am trying to achieve by sending you this letter. A sign that I am still breathing perhaps? I do not think I am welcomed in the palace anymore yet life, no matter how fascinating outside the palace offers no solace when one’s heart resides within the walls, its beating rhymes with those she could not call hers.

Stop sending people to search for me, will you? By all means, just stop. We will see each other when I am healed. Take care, my friend. Take care of those I left behind.

Yours truly,

Ha Jin

---

Baek Ah drew a long breath saturated with relief. Relieved that Ha Jin was alive still. Relieved that So, despite denying and acting as if he did not care actually cared too much. There was a lot he had gained from the letter, pieces of the bigger picture that if he managed to dissect properly could offer an explanation. But for now, he settled with the reassurance that she still considered him as a friend.

“Is she well? How do you get this letter from her?” Too many questions bubbled up to the surface.

Gyuri, who had been watching his expressions closely while he was reading the letter jumped a bit at his questions, but she was more than happy to provide answers. That lady had cornered her one day, under the pretense of helping her to find the one she was searching for. How foolish she felt when she could not recognize the person she was assigned to seek. In her defense, she looked so much different than the description and sketch she was provided with. “She is thriving. It is remarkable. All these times we, my brother and I think we are tracking her but turns out she is the one watching our movements.”

Baek Ah could not help but snickered as he listened to Gyuri. “That sounds like Ha Jin. She doesn’t want to be found. And yet she writes this letter for me. Has she been harmed?” He looked at Gyuri, noticing how she kept stealing glances at him before she looked behind her. He thought she must have been feeling worried disclosing this information to him and not the king. Or could it be that she is worried about her brother’s safety?  He placed his hands on her shoulder, squeezing it to prove his points. “Don’t be afraid. Tell me. I understand why she would want you to keep this a secret, you can trust me. I won’t breathe a word to the king.”

“You have to understand that in order for me to keep track of her, I have to gain her trust. I am not defying the king on purpose, but this is the only way for me to actually follow his order.”

“I understand.” Suddenly he felt overwhelmed by the letter as he realized it had been months he had last heard from her. Not knowing why he wrapped his arms around Gyuri, so thankful he was to have her bringing such great news to him.

“Thank you. Thank you so much. You do not have the slightest idea how you have put me at ease with this news you bring with you.”

Gyuri was frozen being wrapped around his arms. She could smell the soft scent of flowers from him. Roses? A peculiar choice of scent but oh so, very fitting. Awkwardly she patted his back. “You seem like a good friend of hers.”

“Did she tell you that?” Baek Ah smiled brightly and Gyuri could feel her heart skipping two beats.

“She doesn’t have to and to answer your question, I think she writes the letter because she misses her friend and family. You could see the hollow in her heart reflected in her eyes.”

He nodded at Gyuri’s answer. Of course. Of course, she would feel lonely. He held her hands, “Please, promise me that you will inform me of any news of hers.”

Gyuri still dazed from the closed embrace stared at her hands in his firm grips. “Of course, Your Highness. I think she would want that too, even when she denies it.”

She excused herself and Baek Ah sent her away, following her movements as she lost herself behind the many pillars.

His hands folding the letter, not realizing he was still smiling long after she was gone.

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Chapter Text

To those who listened carefully, to the subtle shift in the direction of which the wind blew, a persistent change was potent enough to mark its way amongst the lips of commoners. The once menacing red wolf had turned to a sign of good omen. If you come across her, fret not, you are saved. She became a symbol of protection. Amulets in the form of red wolf carving could be found in markets accompanied with the stories on how she stopped robbers, how a child came back to life after drowning with the touch of her magic hands, how she cured illnesses with her magical concoctions. She was revered by many.

Those who were lucky enough to meet her hushed her presence gladly in exchange for her help. She continued to live in her own absence, stories traveled far, from one traveler to another, passed around like torch in the dark night. A red wolf that turned into a human when someone was in danger. A simple story hyperbolized with elements of mystic included capturing listeners’ attention. But beneath all the layers laid a simple truth – she was already a part of the life she thought she merely borrowed, the life she thought she had no reason to interfere and she had found her calling once again in this timeline, a protector.

The lives she had touched along her journey solidify people’s faith on something – a deity exists, in a form of a scarred red wolf.

She wore a mask too, but unlike So’s her mask was invisible. A warm smile she forced herself to fake but good enough for those who saw to reciprocate. While his mask pushed others to cower in fear, hers drew people in. She covered her scar sometimes but there were days she bared it all for the world to see. On those days, during the earlier days of her travel where the myth still carried fear, she could understand why he was hurting. But as the number of days added up, people stopped pointing at her with disgust when she decided not to cover her face. She wondered why too. What has changed?

She continued her journey, mending her broken heart along the way, finding another purpose of her existence, completely oblivious on stories of her own doing, unaware of how she was making a name for herself in a story that would be passed down from one generation to another in the folds of ancient history.

The Red Wolf.

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“Have you ever wondered where she came from?” the little girl asked her sister about the new person following them as they traveled from market to market, selling their clay pots.

Her sister busied from the task of manning the fire lifted her head just a tad to look at the person her sister was referring. “I do. Should I ask?” before she dived in closer to the source of heat, blowing to keep the life of the fire.

The little girl slapped her sister’s hand hearing her suggestion to speak to the person directly. “Eh, no, don’t do that. Can she actually speak? I never heard her voice. Not once.” She squatted down next to her sister, close enough to share the heat, a welcoming change to the cold she felt after playing at the river.

“Why are you pestering me with these questions? Ask her!” The older sister chastised the young girl, clearly annoyed with her unending suspicions.

The little girl grabbed a twig and threw it straight to the source of heat. “I’m terrified of her. She saved us from being robbed, yes but still…She looks so sad. When she smiles, it doesn’t reach her eyes.”

Upon hearing that, the elder freed herself from the stiff position she was in and took a good look at the other person who was busy piling up the firewood. She studied her movement with somehow forced concentration, a façade to whatever she was trying to trick herself into forgetting. She caught a clear look at her pained expression and she recognized that. It was the same look mother had when father died. 

“I think she lost someone dear too.” She looked at her sister as she adjusted the little one’s cap to cover her ears, pink from the cold wind.