Jung sits in the emptiness, feeling hollowed out. He has nothing left to feel. He let out all his rage when So dared to burst into his home, dared to take Soo, his wife, back to the palace she so desperately wanted to leave, dared to say she was his person until the end. He let out all of his tears as Baek Ah embraced him, pitying him for falling in love with Soo when she never loved anyone but So. Jung has nothing left.
He turns over Soo’s hairpin in his hand. He could turn its sharp point on himself and put himself out of this formless misery. Or he could go to the palace. He could go on boldy defying his exile, as So once called it, with his sword and he could run the palace red.
He could go right to the throne room and kill So, stain his golden seat with blood.
Jung squeezes his eyes shut. It’s as though Soo is still there, holding his wrist in her small hands, telling him to throw away his anger, like she did after Eun and Soon Deok were killed. Jung had thrown down his sword then, and he drops Soo’s hairpin onto the table. He made a promise to Soo to care for her daughter. Their daughter. Seol isn’t his child by blood - he isn’t stupid, he knows who Seol’s father is - but it doesn’t matter. Jung has always thought of Seol as his own, and she is the last tangible part of Soo that he has.
Jung sucks in a fortifying breath. So has taken so much from him. He killed Eun, he kept him from their mother’s deathbed, deprived him of being there for her last moments, he killed Yo - So even killed their blood brother twice, pushing him off the cliff after the failed coup, and again on the day Yo died without a final decree - and he took Soo from him, when Soo had died in Jung’s arms, believing in her heart that So hated her. But Jung still has Seol, and no one else knows that Seol even exists. Seol is Soo’s child, Jung’s child.
It’s then that Jung decides that So will never take something that is his ever again.
At first, it’s easy enough to conceal Seol’s existence behind the walls of Jung’s manor. She has nursemaids who take care of her most of the time, while Jung is away at his primary residence, and they are loyal and tight lipped.
It becomes harder to hide Seol when Baek Ah visits without any warning.
“Has the king sent you to check on me?” Jung doesn’t bother to keep the bitterness out of his voice when he meets Baek Ah at the door of the manor.
Baek Ah sighs. “No, I came on my own because I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Jung snaps. “You’re the king’s man, so worry about yourself.”
Baek Ah frowns. “You’re my brother. I just wanted to make sure you’re doing well.”
Jung sighs heavily. “I’m fine. Please don’t worry about me and don’t drop in uninvited.”
“Don’t push me away,” Baek Ah pleads.
Jung frowns. He isn’t pushing Baek Ah away because he is angry. He has to push Baek Ah away to keep Seol safe. Baek Ah is loyal. Even though So has endangered Baek Ah, and that former gisaeng killed herself because of So’s empty promises to her people, Baek Ah still hasn’t turned his back. If Baek Ah were to find out about Seol, Jung is certain it will just be a repeat of Soo’s jade urn. Jung can’t have that.
“Just send a messenger ahead of you if you come,” Jung says gruffly. “So the servants can prepare a meal. And don’t come here. Come to my main residence.”
Baek Ah cracks a small smile that Jung does not return.
Seol is a very easy baby. She doesn’t fuss or cry very much and is a sweet, docile child. Jung wonders where all this calm comes from considering her parentage. She grows up well, and begins to toddle around the manor on her own, and begins to speak in a cute wobbly voice. Jung is absolutely smitten with his daughter.
It’s around the same time that his family arranges a marriage for him, and the king consents much to Jung’s surprise. It’s a political marriage, it’s not a very strong one which is perhaps why the king consented, and though Jung really has no desire to remarry, he’s doing his duty to his family. His exile badly weakened the standing of the Chungju Yoos and so it is part of his responsibility to help rebuild their family’s reputation.
His second wife is pretty enough, and nice enough. She is fully aware that their marriage is for the benefit of their families and seems to hold no resentment towards him. Jung is grateful. He is also grateful that she only raises her eyebrows in an unsaid question when she sees Seol for the first time.
Jung dips his head. “Please forgive me,” he says. “She is the child of my first wife. She is very precious to me, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from her.”
If his second wife has any strong feelings - if she doesn’t like it, or if she worries any of her future children will be overshadowed - she doesn’t show them and instead nods once in an understanding way. After all, she might know that the exiled fourteenth prince married one of the current king’s women and might be pitying him now. Jung decides that he doesn’t really care as long as Seol remains safely in his manor.
Seol gets a little older and suddenly all of Soo’s headstrong qualities explode out of her daughter. She doesn’t exactly throw temper tantrums, but she certainly makes it seem like her docile babyhood was simply the calm before the storm. Jung’s slightly at a loss of what to do, even if the nursemaids reassure him this is fairly normal behavior.
Seol glares up at Jung with a defiant little pout and Jung tries to control his face to keep from grinning. She looks a lot like her mother this way. He crouches so they’re closer to eye level and Seol continues glowering.
“Seol,” Jung says, still trying to keep himself from smiling. “Why are you giving everyone so much trouble?”
She pouts harder. “I want to play outside.”
Jung falters. He understands hating the feeling of being confined. Didn’t he sneak outside the palace walls throughout his youth so he could breathe fresh air and stretch his legs? But he needs to keep his daughter safe. He doesn’t know if So is still watching the house.
He’s about to try explaining why Seol can’t - after all, if not for Jung’s exile, Seol would be a princess and be even more confined inside the palace - but then he thinks of Soo and her dreams of going to faraway places. It feels like eternities ago that she told him she was saving her earnings to take a long trip to ride camels across the desert and to see the ocean. It gives him pause about confining Seol to the manor and so he changes his mind.
“You can play outside,” he says and Seol’s face immediately lights up. “But! You need to be nicer to your nursemaids first.”
“I promise,” Seol says happily as she jumps up to hug Jung, wrapping her arms around his neck. Jung scoops her up and holds her tightly to him. “Thank you, Father,” Seol giggles as Jung kisses her on the top of her head.
On Seol’s birthday she asks Jung a question about her mother.
“What was she like?” she asks, her little face looking very serious. She bears such a strong resemblance to Soo that it hurts Jung’s heart.
What was Soo like? How does Jung begin to answer that question?
“She was loving,” Jung begins unsteadily. “She loved you a lot. You were always on her mind.”
“But what was she like?” Seol presses.
Jung thinks. How does he sum up all of Hae Soo in a few words for their daughter? Seol’s lower lip is jutting out as she waits for her answer. Jung smiles at her softly.
“She was beautiful,” he begins, because it’s true. Anyone could see that Soo was beautiful. “She was beautiful and she was kind hearted. But she was also strong and she did what she thought was right. She wanted to protect the people she loved.” Jung kisses his daughter’s cheek. “And she loved you so much.”
This answer is much more satisfactory because Seol nods and kisses Jung on the side of his face. “Thank you, Father,” she says, now smiling.
Jung ruffles her hair contentedly.
Jung is away at his main residence, taking care of minor family matters and meeting with his second wife. Jung is lucky that neither or their families are very powerful at the moment so the need for an heir is very low. She and Jung consummated their marriage, but since they both know that their marriage is political, neither of them seek each other’s company too much. Jung is also grateful to her for that.
Jung returns to the manor to find Seol’s nursemaids clustered together and sounding frightened.
“What’s wrong?” Jung is alarmed.
“For two days she cried inconsolably and now she’s locked herself in her room and is refusing meals.”
Jung can hardly imagine a child so young acting like this so he knocks on his daughter’s door and asks if he can come in. The door creaks open an inch and Jung enters. Seol is sitting on her bed stoically. Jung kneels at her bedside, remembering when he sat at Soo’s bedside whenever she was unwell.
“Daughter,” Jung says softly. Seol is still staring forward stoically. “Your nursemaids tell me that you’ve been very upset that past few days and now you won’t eat. What has been causing you to feel so sad?”
Seol doesn’t say anything at first, though her lower lip begins to tremble slightly. Jung waits patiently. Seol’s eyes are shiny with tears by the time she finally whispers.
“I miss her.”
Jung is startled.
“I miss Mother.” Tears are starting to drip down Seol’s face. Jung carefully wipes them away.
“I miss her too,” Jung says softly, surprised at his own shaking voice. “I miss her too.”
Seol starts crying in earnest so Jung scoops her into his arms and cradles her close to his chest, letting his own tears fall.
“I want to see her,” Seol says after they’ve both stopped crying. “Where is she?”
Jung’s heart aches thinking of Soo’s jade urn somewhere in the palace. “She’s at the palace,” he says, stroking his daughter’s hair. “Your father isn’t allowed to go there.”
“But why is she there?” Seol demands.
“Because she was a court lady,” Jung says in lieu of an explanation. “She was a high ranking and well-respected court lady.”
This is not an acceptable answer to Seol. “But you aren’t allowed to go there, so why did she go there alone?”
Jung sighs heavily. He can’t exactly explain to his child the long and confusing history of Soo and his brothers, much less explain that while Seol was safely at his main residence, the king had come to this house and taken her mother away.
“I wish she were here too, so we could visit every day.” Jung says. He thinks about Soo’s rock towers and how he had seen the nursemaids continuing to build them in her stead behind the manor. “I can show you something she wanted to build for you.” Seol’s sullen expression lights up. “But! You have to eat something. Your nursemaids are very worried.”
Seol agrees and Jung leads her out of the room and leaves her to eat her meal. Jung goes to retrieve a small chest of Soo’s belongings, of all the things Jung couldn’t bear to add to her funeral pyre. He runs his fingers over her hairpins, a few standing out - the smooth mother of pearl shell that Soo held to her throat preventing So and his soldiers from entering her room and finding Jung hiding there, the white flowered one with red berries that she sent as a message for Jung to take her out of the palace, the one she wore for their informal and technically forbidden wedding - the poem she wrote over and over in So’s handwriting, the yellow silk pad with red ribbons for her knee her handmaiden made for her, the rocks she painted with the faces of him and his brothers. Jung flips over So’s painted rock to hide his hateful face, but takes out the rest and lays everything out on a table.
Seol joins him after she finishes eating and peers at everything curiously.
“These were your mother’s,” Jung smiles.
Seol examines everything carefully before stopping at the rocks. “Who is this?” she asks, pointing.
Jung looks. “This is your thirteenth uncle, Baek Ah.” Jung pushes the rocks closer to Seol. “This one is your eighth uncle, Wook. Your mother was the cousin of Wook’s first wife.” Jung pauses, suddenly choked up. “And this is your tenth uncle, Eun. He died a few years ago.”
Seol nods. She pulls the last rock closer to her. “Who is this?”
Jung snorts. “You can’t tell?” He picks it up and holds it beside his face and smiles expectantly. Seol just blinks at him. “Ahh, how can you not recognize your own father?” Jung sighs.
“It doesn’t look like you,” Seol says matter of factly and Jung laughs.
Jung is sitting at his desk, sifting through paperwork about his estate and family business, while Seol trots around his main residence, taking everything in with her wide eyes. Jung dips his brush into the ink and quickly writes his response to some petty family disagreement and folds up his message. Seol climbs onto his lap.
“Enjoying yourself?” Jung asks as he strokes her hair. One of Soo’s hairpins sits at the top of Seol’s elaborate braid crown.
“What did Mother do?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
Seol snuggles into Jung’s arm. “You said she was a court lady. What did she do?”
Jung leans back in his chair. “Well, she served the palace. She was very gifted with medicinal herbs and plants, so she made remedies for people’s illnesses. She made soaps and knew a lot about cosmetics. Her tea was always delicious. She painted. And sang.”
Seol shifting her weight makes Jung snap out of his haze. He’s gotten carried away thinking of Soo. Jung smiles at his daughter. “She did many things,” he summarizes.
Seol looks like she’s thinking deeply, as though she’s cataloguing each of her mother’s activities for later use. Jung rises from his chair, carefully still cradling Seol in his arms. “Come on,” he says. “I’m starving. Come eat with me.”
After a week of questions - “what was Mother’s favorite food?” “what was her favorite color?” “favorite flower?” - next come the demands.
Seol tugs at Jung’s sleeve impatiently. “Teach me about painting.”
Jung snorts a small laugh and places his daughter’s hand on his rough calloused palm that’s only accustomed to holding a sword. “Do you think your father knows how to paint?”
Seol is unperturbed. “Please find someone to teach me to paint,” she rephrases.
Jung smiles and promises to do so, though he almost is immediately puzzled about how to go about that. His first instinct is of course Baek Ah, but that’s not an option. Baek Ah doesn’t know about Seol, Jung wants to keep it that way, but he could ask Baek Ah for advice.
Baek Ah visits him, and sends a messenger ahead as he promised, and Jung sits with him for a meal. Baek Ah makes some small talk about what’s going on at the palace even though Jung isn’t terribly interested.
“Our ninth brother’s family is causing some disturbances,” Baek Ah says heavily. “I fear what will happen soon.”
“Won hyungnim has always caused disturbances in the palace and in our family,” Jung says bitterly, thinking of Soo, bloodied and pale after being tortured after Won’s accusation, and of Moo, floating facedown in his bath poisoned with the mercury Won had ordered to make mirrors.
Baek Ah sighs. “Yes, that’s true.”
“Ah,” Jung says. “I had a question. If I wanted to buy pigments and brushes for painting, what would you recommend?”
“Painting?” Baek Ah raises his eyebrows. “Are you pursuing the arts now?”
“It’s not for me,” Jung foolishly denies it and then mentally kicks himself. “It’s for my wife,” he adds.
“I thought your second marriage was also a formality,” Baek Ah comments. Jung scowls at him and his brother sighs. “Ah, don’t make that face at me. I’ll buy some painting supplies and bring them to my sister-in-law as a gift.”
Jung dips his head. “Thank you.”
Jung visits his second wife and she makes him tea. He knows better than to compare but he unconsciously thinks of Soo’s tea while he drinks.
“This is unexpected,” she says. “What do I owe the honor?”
Jung sets down his teacup. “My thirteenth brother is going to bring you some tools for painting as a present.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Painting?”
“My daughter was curious about learning to paint, and my thirteenth brother has always been very artistic, so I asked him. He questioned me, so I said I was inquiring on your behalf.” Jung bows his head. “I apologize for inconveniencing you this way.”
She shakes her head. “It’s not inconvenient. Maybe I’ll be able to spend time with your daughter.”
Jung smiles. “That would be nice. She has her nursemaids, but sometimes I worry about her since she lost her mother so young.”
“May I ask something?” His second wife looks at him. “Your first wife’s daughter is a secret. I didn’t even know you had a child before our marriage. I have always wondered why you shelter her.”
Jung’s mouth feels dry. “You may know my first wife was highly favored by the king.” That’s an understatement, of course, but Jung doesn’t want to admit that his first marriage was just a way for Soo to escape the palace. “It was my wife’s dying wish Seol never go to live in the palace. My daughter resembles her mother strongly. Without my titles, I would be powerless to stop the king if he decided he wanted Seol to be there with him. So I hide her to protect her.”
His second wife nods slowly. “It’s admirable of you,” she says.
“I met my first wife when I was very young and I promised to treat her life as my own. Since she died first, she asked me to extend that promise to our daughter.”
“Very admirable,” his second wife repeats.
“I’m finding out about painting for you,” Jung tells his daughter. Seol smiles brightly. “But first I want to teach you something else that your mother taught me.”
Seol blinks at him very attentively. Jung holds out his hand and moves it slowly. “Cham cham cham…”
Seol’s head follows his hand. “Like this,” he says. “You need to turn your head the opposite of my hand. If you lose, I get to tap you on the head.”
She nods very stoically and Jung smiles at her focus. “Cham cham cham…” Seol’s head still follows his hand and she pouts when Jung gently taps the side of her head.
Seol seems to make it her mission to master the game, stopping Jung whenever he comes to see her and trying to best him. Jung still wins and Seol pouts heartily and keeps trying. When she eventually bests him, her face lights up and Jung laughs.
“Well done, my daughter.” He leans down so Seol can finally tap his head. “Go on. As hard as you want.”
What Jung doesn’t expect is for Seol to wallop him on the side of the head with all of her strength and Jung blinks at her in shock, Seol staring back at him with wide eyes, looking slightly frightened. Jung bursts out laughing.
“You’re strong! Forget about art, you should be a soldier!”
Seol smiles at him sunnily.
Jung kneels in front of one of Soo’s rock towers, carefully balancing new flat rocks on top of it. He feels bad for neglecting them and for forgetting to pray for their daughter’s wellbeing. The towers are taller than when Soo died, indicating the nursemaids had still been adding rocks, and now Jung was adding rocks for time missed.
“What are you praying so hard for?”
Jung jumps. Baek Ah smiles at him.
“What are you doing here?” Jung asks, standing up.
Baek Ah holds out a box with painting supplies. “I told you I would buy a gift for your wife.”
“And I told you to send a messenger if you were coming,” Jung grouches.
Baek Ah smiles. “Oh, relax, I’m not reporting on you to the king. I just wanted to see my brother and my sister-in-law.”
Jung decides to let it go because Seol is at his main residence and not at this manor. They walk together to his second wife’s residence and she greets them at the door.
“Hello, Your Highness,” she greets Baek Ah. “How lovely to see you.”
“You as well, Sister-in-law,” Baek Ah presents his gift box. “My brother tells me you’ve taken an interest in art so I took the liberty of seeking out the best supplies for you.”
“You are very generous, Your Highness,” she bows deeply.
Baek Ah smiles. “It’s nothing, really. I’m relieved that my brother treats you well.”
His second wife smiles indulgently and they sit down for tea. The atmosphere is comfortable and his second wife is good at speaking so it’s easy for Jung to sit back while Baek Ah directs most of the conversation. When Baek Ah leaves, his second wife smiles softly.
“Your brother is very nice.”
“Yes,” Jung says. “He is.”
“He doesn’t visit much though.”
“He’s extremely loyal to the king,” Jung says dismissively. “Therefore, it’s hard for me to trust him. We have always been close, but he is the king’s man first.”
His wife nods as she begins to appraise the painting tools. “He didn’t spare any expense with these. Your daughter will be pleased.”
“I do hope you’ll spend time with her,” Jung says. “It would be good if you could bond.”
His wife smiles. “Of course. She’s a very sweet child.”
Jung does sword drills outside, breathing in the fresh air and taking in the strong sunlight. On the terrace of his main residence are his second wife and daughter, painting. Jung smiles as he climbs the steps and joins them.
“This is a sight for sore eyes: my wife and my daughter painting on the terrace.” Jung says, putting his sword down and sitting beside Seol. “Have you taken a liking to painting?”
Seol nods happily. “Look,” she shows him the rock she had been painting. There’s the beginnings of a face outlined in black pigment and what looks like hair.
“Oh, you’re very talented already.” Jung praises her.
“Lady Munhye is painting a landscape, but I wanted to draw you,” Seol explains, setting down her paintbrush.
“Is this going to be me?” Jung asks, picking up the rock. “Strange. I think I have eyes and a nose and a mouth…”
Seol giggles. “It’s not finished!” She takes the rock and sets it back down, kisses her father on the side of his face, and goes inside the manor.
“Thank you,” Jung says to his second wife, “for spending the time with her.”
“It’s no trouble.” His second wife says. “We have no children of our own and she’s a sweet girl.” Jung looks away and she smiles faintly. “It isn’t a criticism. Our families have not been putting any pressure on us for an heir, so naturally, it’s not a topic of discussion.”
“I don’t mean to neglect you,” Jung says, feeling suddenly guilty.
“I understand that you must be consumed with raising your daughter away from the eyes of the outside world. And I know you are still devoted to your late wife.”
Jung can’t meet her eyes.
“It’s not an accusation. I’m not dissatisfied,” she says gently.
“Yet I still feel apologetic towards you,” Jung says.
His wife smiles at him as she rises from her seat. “You’re very admirable. That is why I am satisfied being your wife.”
When she heads back inside, Jung looks at the rock she was painting. It isn’t really quite a landscape, but it does seem to be a field full of flowers. Peonies. Jung’s heart hurts.
Jung sits outside of the manor, in front of the rock towers. He adds a rock to Seol’s tower and prays for her to continue growing up well and then begins building up rocks for a tower for his second wife. He prays that she continues to be satisfied with their marriage while Jung sorts out his feelings.
If Jung weren’t exiled, he might already have multiple wives. Many of his older brothers had many wives, as did their father, and those marriages were all based on politics and the need to protect their interests. Jung’s second marriage was that way as well, and he was fortunate that at least his second wife appeared to tolerate him not acting much like a husband.
Jung knows it’s uncommon to marry for love, nearly unheard of among the nobility, but his marriage to Soo was for love. He loved her even if she didn’t love him back. He knew it was her only means to escape the palace that was killing her. He knew that there wasn’t room for him in Soo’s heart, that So, despite any of his flaws, was the only one. He knew it was unchanged as she handed him silk envelope after silk envelope with letters to the king. He loved her, so he sent them and sent messengers and reassured her that he would send more even though the king kept sending them away without a word. He loved her so his heart broke when she finally admitted So would never come. At the time he didn’t know why So hadn’t come. Perhaps he hoped that if Soo regained her health she could open her heart to him knowing that So had thrown her away. He loved her, so he restrained himself and never forced his affections on her. He promised to treat her as a friend and he kept his promises. So even on nights where her knee pained her, even when her pregnancy made her frail body frailer, he didn’t cross any physical boundaries, though his heart ached and he longed to hold her in his arms. If it were possible to trade his life for hers, he would do it without a second thought.
Jung looks up. Baek Ah is standing behind him. His face is drawn and tired. “Sorry. I didn’t send a messenger.”
Jung rises and leads Baek Ah inside. He calls for wine and sits with his brother.
“Our ninth brother was executed,” Baek Ah says after the wine is poured and he drinks a cup. “Treason.”
Jung nods with a resigned sigh. His heart pangs a bit remembering the days of their youth when Won would tease him and Eun. It seemed like centuries ago that Won recited the lines Jung could not remember, and Jung had felt grateful but embarrassed. Even though at that moment Won had been scheming with Yo and their mother to assassinate Moo, Jung hadn’t known then and still felt affectionate towards him.
“Our ninth brother has always flirted too openly with treason,” Jung says a bit unfeelingly. “He outlasted them all. It was about time his actions caught up to him. He had a long life line.”
Baek Ah flinches openly. Jung regrets his words.
“I delivered Chae Ryung’s letter to him like Soo asked,” Baek Ah continues. “That completes the contents of her will.”
“Thank you,” Jung says softly. “She always found you dependable.”
Baek Ah’s lips quirk up weakly. “I went to visit Wook. He’s also been exiled to his hometown. He is sick. I hadn’t realized, but it’s gotten worse. He looks frail.”
Jung nods, not trusting himself to refrain from making another derisive comment.
“In my heart there has always been a spot of resentment towards him because he married the woman I loved,” Baek Ah says. “But seeing him beginning to waste away is softening my heart.”
“It’s understandable.” Jung says as he pours more wine for his brother. “You begin to feel more generous towards the end of someone’s life.”
Baek Ah nods. He looks so tired.
“Don’t you tire of it?” Jung asks. “Isn’t it hard for you?”
“Won hyungnim asked if the king had sent me to ensure he died. The king has deposed of two of his nephews. Sometimes I fear him, and I feel tired. I understand Soo the most in those moments. When you married her, I didn’t like it, but now I feel grateful. I don’t think she would have been able to watch the king kill his family like that.”
“I did what I did to protect her.”
“I know. I am thankful.” Baek Ah looks at him with watery eyes. “Thank you for taking her out of that place.”
The next time Baek Ah comes, he sends a messenger and brings his lute. He is markedly more cheerful and congratulates Jung and his second wife when she announces that she is with child. Jung tries to not be afraid. His second wife is not sick as Soo was. His second wife does not have chronic illnesses. She is healthy. Yet Jung remembers Soo’s shrinking frame and growing belly, her bloodless lips and glassy eyes, her sallow sweaty skin, and is fearful.
He builds another rock tower for his unborn child and prays for the child to be born healthy. Seol joins him often, adding rocks and sitting beside her father.
The anniversary of Soo’s death is coming up and Jung finds himself missing her more. Their daughter so strongly resembles her mother now that Jung’s heart can’t help but twinge painfully when he looks at her.
“When will Lady Munhye have her baby?” Seol asks him.
“It will still be many months,” Jung answers. “You were born early, you took me and your mother by surprise.”
Seol’s eyes sparkle with curiosity. “Was I born very early?”
“Yes, but you were very healthy.” Jung smiles and strokes her hair. “Your mother was sure to take good care of you, so you were very blessed.”
“Father,” Seol looks pensive. “Can we see Mother?”
“I am not allowed to go to the palace,” Jung says heavily. “But perhaps we will go to a place where I saw her often.”
“Really?” Seol’s face lights up.
“Yes,” Jung says. “Your father will do his best to do that.”
Seol is dressed in colors that always favored Soo and her complexion. Jung carefully places one of Soo’s hairpins into Seol’s hair, the one that she sent when she wanted to leave the palace. Jung wonders if he’s behaving recklessly. That road where Soo built her rock towers and prayed is a part of the palace. If So is killing off male family members, Jung should stay away. But he promised Seol they would go, and he will keep his promises.
Seol begins to run ahead of him and Jung picks up his pace. “You’re going to get hurt!” he calls after her, and of course then sees her walk straight into someone on the road. Jung sees who she’s bumped into and his blood turns icy as he runs towards them.
It’s So, kneeling to get on eye level with Seol and reaching out to stroke her face. Seol must hear his footfalls because she turns as he catches up to her and runs to his side. “Father!”
Jung was once a grand general. When he led soldiers into battle he had to master his fear and not expose any of his weaknesses. He keeps his hand on his daughter’s shoulder and holds her close to him. “Greetings, Your Majesty,” he says as he bows.
So’s eyes keep flickering down to Seol. “You were told to stay in Chungju, yet you come to the palace.”
“It’s the anniversary of Soo’s death.” Jung pushes Seol slightly behind him, trying to hide her with his sleeve. “Forgive me. It won’t happen again.” Jung thinks he’s truly foolish. So must think he is always boldly defying his exile, defying him.
Jung tries to turn away but So is still studying his daughter. “Is this your child?”
Jung’s stomach turns. “Yes.”
“Your child seems quite grown. How old is she?”
“You must be busy running the nation,” Jung can see Seol trying to peek at So from behind his sleeve. “Why bother with my child?” He stoops to pick her up, preparing himself to run all the way back to Chungju with her in his arms.
Jung freezes when he catches So’s gaze and sees what he’s looking at. The hairpin. Jung curses himself as the realization dawns on So’s face.
“Leave the child.”
When Jung and Soon Deok were beneath the Damiwon, heaving rocks away from the caved in pathway trying to reopen an escape route for her and Eun, Soon Deok asked what kind of girl Jung had fallen in love with. Jung answered her then that he fell in love with the girl who protected him with her whole body. Jung doesn’t think he’ll ever forget Soo running into that clearing with nothing but that wooden stick to save him from dismemberment. It was that day he swore to save her. It’s now that he needs to protect Soo’s child with his whole body, his life.
Jung sets her down and kneels before the king. “I cannot do so unless you kill me.”
So looks like he’s considering it. This is the man who cut down Eun, who just put Won to death and removed his nephews to protect his throne. He has probably been waiting all his life to kill Jung, the hateful younger brother who first hogged all their mother’s love, turned their maternal family against him and led them in refusing to acknowledge his rightful inheritance of the throne, and then stole the woman he loved and had a child with her.
“She never wanted this child to live in the palace.” Much like when Jung presented Yo’s decree consenting to the marriage of Jung and Soo, it will take invoking Soo’s wishes to ward off So’s wrath. “It is all Hae Soo thought about until the moment she died.”
Jung does not look at his daughter. If he does, his resolve will crumble; he will grab her and run. So knows where his estate is and if he wanted to he could raze it to the ground like Yo did with Eun’s household for paper thin allegations of treason. Jung will not endanger his second wife. He will end this here.
So does not speak for what feels like years, his eyes trained on Seol. When he speaks, he says something that Jung does not expect. He releases Jung from his exile and when Jung looks up at him, shocked, So adds that it would be nice if Jung visit the palace sometimes and then continues walking down the path. Jung quickly grabs Seol and hugs her to his chest, her arms immediately looping around his neck. He wonders if she can feel the thundering of his heart.
Jung wakes from a terrible nightmare, drenched in sweat and panting desperately for air. In his nightmare, So was carrying Seol away as Seol screamed out for him, “Father! Father!” and Jung had been unable to reach her, unable to save her.
Jung takes his sword and does his drills in the yard, slicing the air as his mind races. Visit the palace, So said. Visit the palace and do what? It’s a ploy, surely. So just wants Jung to bring Seol with him so he can steal her away. So has taken too much from Jung already. He will not take Jung’s daughter. He swore to Soo that he would protect her.
“What are you doing at this hour?”
Jung whirls around to see his second wife. She has a robe tightly wrapped around her shoulders.
“It’s late,” she says. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
“I woke up,” Jung says vaguely, sheathing his sword.
“Since you returned earlier you’ve been odd. It must be difficult to visit the grave of a loved one, but I think something else happened too.”
Jung stares at the ground. “We ran into the king.”
His second wife raises her eyebrows. “You’re lucky to be alive then.”
“He wanted to take Seol.” Jung’s voice is strained. “I refused to let him unless he killed me. Then he lifted my exile and told me to visit the palace.”
“You are very lucky to be alive.”
“I am afraid he will use any visits to the palace as a means to try to coax away my daughter.” Jung admits. “I am afraid to fail my first wife and lose our child.”
“The king did not specify you had to bring the child along when you visited,” his second wife says. Jung blinks at her, stupefied. “Leave Seol with me when you visit and I will keep an eye on her.”
“I do not wish to endanger you,” Jung says weakly.
“There is nothing wrong with going alone first. If the king insists you must bring Seol with you, don’t return if you don’t think it’s safe. If the king really plans to take her by any means necessary and you remain steadfast, there will be no way to keep me out of danger.” His second wife shivers.
“The cold will harm your baby,” Jung says anxiously. “Please return inside.”
“You as well,” she says. “Please get some sleep.”
Jung remains outside for a bit longer, meditating in front of the rock towers, carefully adding rocks to each one and wondering what to do.
Baek Ah appears at his doorstep the next day, his face betraying the full range of his emotions.
“I heard something strange from the king yesterday,” Baek Ah says. “He said our fourteenth brother has a daughter. I told him that wasn’t possible because it wasn’t too long ago that our sister-in-law announced she was with child. He said this child was very grown. At least five years old.”
“Where is she?”
Jung squares his shoulders and draws himself up to his full height. Baek Ah is taller, but Jung has always been stronger. “You are not going to take her to the palace. Like I told the king, you will have to kill me to do so.”
“Do you think that’s what I came here to do?”
“You haven’t said otherwise.”
Baek Ah deflates. “I want to see my niece. She… she’s Soo’s, isn’t she?”
Jung carefully lowers his guard. “Yes, she is Soo’s daughter.” He steps aside and beckons Baek Ah to follow. “Her name is Seol.”
“Seol,” Jung calls to his daughter. “There’s someone I want you to meet. This is your thirteenth uncle, Baek Ah.”
“I know you,” Seol says confidently as Baek Ah crouches to her level.
“Oh? How do you know me? We’ve never met.” Baek Ah smiles. “You’re very pretty.”
“My mother painted your face on a rock,” Seol answers. “You look like her painting.”
“Seol’s been painting too,” Jung says. “She and my second wife have been using the things you bought well.”
“Did you buy all those pigments and brushes?” Seol bows politely. “Thank you very much, Uncle.”
Baek Ah smiles at her as Seol goes back out to the terrace to sit with Jung’s wife. Baek Ah sighs softly.
“Are you wondering how I hid her for so long?” Jung asks.
“Not how, just why? Why did you hide her? What did you think was going to happen?” Baek Ah looks hurt.
“It was Soo’s dying wish that her daughter not live in the palace because it was scary and lonely. She asked me to protect her, so I am.” Jung sighs heavily. “After Soo died and you let So take her ashes, I didn’t think I could trust you if you knew about Seol. So wanted to take her yesterday. I thought if you had known, you would support him.”
Baek Ah is gazing at him, his face looks just as drawn and tired as it did the day he arrived with the news about Won. “Do you think so little of me?” he asks quietly.
“I’m sorry,” Jung says as they lapse into a heavy silence.
“She looks like Soo,” Baek Ah breaks the silence. “Just like her.”
“Doesn’t she,” Jung agrees.
Baek Ah is quiet for another moment. “Jung, tell me something.” Baek Ah glances at him. “Is Seol really your child?”
Jung knows what Baek Ah is really asking, but he just looks at him and firmly tells him, “Seol is my daughter.”
Baek Ah looks at him, expression more guarded, but Jung can see the disbelief in his eyes.
Jung’s royal robes look strange on him now. He last wore them when he walked into the throne room those years ago to ask for Soo’s hand in marriage, and then they were left to hang among his other clothes.
“Are you going to the palace?” Seol asks.
“Are you going to look for Mother there?”
“I need to speak with the king first, and then if he allows me to, I’ll go find her.” Jung smiles and picks up his daughter. For her sake, he hopes he can banish any questions about Seol’s parentage from So’s head to keep her safe. If So knew he was really her father, there would be no stopping him from taking her from Jung. “You be good and keep Lady Munhye company today.”
“Yes, Father,” Seol promises.
Jung sets her back down and heads to the palace. He is announced at the entrance of the throne room “the fourteenth prince, Wang Jung, is here to see you, Your Majesty,” and Jung walks into the throne room again. He greets the king and keeps his face neutral as So’s eyes dart around him, looking for Seol.
“You didn’t bring your daughter?” the king asks.
“No, Your Majesty.”
So looks a bit smug, like he’s about to ask a trick question - do you not trust the king, Jung? - but Jung remains passive. He knows he has to tread carefully.
“I was hoping you might,” So says. “Well, no matter.”
“Your Majesty,” Jung says tightly. “Forgive me for being so direct, but I wanted to ensure that you realize something. That child is my daughter. And I am sure her only interest in the palace is to visit her mother’s grave since she hasn’t been able to since her mother’s death.”
Jung meets So’s cold gaze.
“Bring her next time you come to the palace,” So says dismissively. Then he more softly adds, “I’ll make sure that she can see Soo.”
Jung’s second wife is beginning to show a fuller belly and the pregnancy seems to suit her. The doctor recommends gentle exercise, so she and Jung take walks together. Jung offers his arm to her and she holds onto him for support as they stroll.
“Have you decided the palace is safe for your daughter?”
“For now,” Jung frowns. “My fear is the more time she spends there, the more danger she will be in.”
“You are still her father,” his wife says. “You make the decisions in regards to her wellbeing. If you don’t think it’s safe, you don’t have to let her go.”
“You’re right, but Seol is very strong willed.”
“But when has she ever defied you?”
“You’re right. Sometimes I think Baek Ah was right about me and Khitan made me paranoid,” Jung sighs.
“Will you tell me about your first wife?”
“What do you want to know about her?”
“Anything, I suppose,” his second wife says. “You only talk about her when Seol asks.”
Jung remembers fumbling to start describing to Soo when Seol had asked the first time. He finds himself struggling again. “She was kind,” he starts. “Her heart was so full of love for people. She loved too much. She gave so much of herself away that there was nothing left, that’s what made her sick. But even if she was sick, she was so strong. She was strong and brave, and she was full of so much love.”
“How did you fall in love?”
“I didn’t know it but I loved her from the first time we met. She protected me and I swore to treat her life as my own. I knew for sure the first time I heard her sing.”
“When did she fall for you?”
Jung smiles sadly. He hopes his second wife understands. “I never asked her.”
She smiles at him in a knowing way. “I am sure she understood your heart. You’re very admirable. I am happy to have your child. I pray for the continued harmony in our family.”
“I do too,” Jung says. His second wife smiles at him as they reach the end of their stroll and she eases herself back into a seat and pats her growing stomach, looking contented.
Jung brings Seol with him to the palace the next time he goes and they bow before the king.
“Greetings, Your Majesty,” Seol says. “Thank you for inviting me to the palace.”
So smiles at her. “What an endearing child.”
Jung bristles, but hides his feelings of hostility towards his older brother. He is here so his daughter can see Soo, Jung reminds himself. So leads them to a room in the palace that Jung has not seen before, but there are many urns displayed along the walls. A familiar jade urn with gold writing faces them and So turns to Seol.
“Here is Hae Soo, your mother.”
Seol approaches slowly, before bringing her hands together in prayer and bowing deeply. Jung kneels beside her as Seol closes her eyes.
“Hello, Mother, it’s your daughter, Seol.” Jung’s eyes immediately begin to sting with tears. “I am doing well.”
Jung remembers meeting Soo at the rock towers she built on the side of the road and asked what she was praying so hard for, unable to hide how upset he was that she confirmed Yo decreed that So should be the next king. He remembers her sigh as she said she was praying for “the manly and kind fourteenth prince to be her friend again,” and how his heart had still been pulled towards her.
“Father and I miss you every day, but Father tells me stories about you. He’s the best father in the world. Lady Munhye is very kind to me too, so I’m never lonely.”
On the day of So and Yeon Hwa’s wedding, Jung found Soo there again. His heart longed for her more so he tried harder to be playful, to cheer her up because he knew how much it must have hurt her to see them wed, when Yeon Hwa had always been deprecating and cruel when Soo was related to the Hwangbos.
“Let’s fly away like birds, like the butterflies, let’s see everything.” He offered to take her away from the palace then, but she hadn’t wanted to go yet.
“Father told me you wanted to ride camels across the desert and sail across oceans, so I hope you’re having a good time riding camels and taking long trips in your afterlife.”
Jung smiles in spite of himself, in spite of the tears that are dripping down his face. Those savings went to Chae Ryung’s family after her death, Jung knows, because Soo told him once as she was laying in bed when her knee pained her. Jung brought her that silk cushion and turned away as she tied it around her knee and sadly mentioned it was the last tangible part of Chae Ryung she had since that bloodied piece of silk was too hard to look at.
“I don’t want you to worry about us even though we miss you,” Seol says. “We are doing well.”
Jung clasps his hands over Seol’s and Seol looks at him, and his tears, and smiles at him. He pulls her into an embrace, cradling his daughter to his chest. Jung wonders if So has turned away to hide his own emotions. Seol wraps her arms around Jung’s neck and Jung hugs her tighter.
Eventually, they separate and rise from the floor. Seol bows politely to So, whose face is hard to read. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she says and she takes Jung’s hand as they walk back. They pause on the path back, where Soo’s rock towers used to stand - Jung wonders what happened to them, if someone had knocked them over.
Father and daughter walk hand in hand back to Jung’s manor, where his second wife is sitting on the terrace, paintbrush in hand.
“Lady Munhye! We’ve returned,” Seol dashes ahead and joins her.
Jung pauses, watching them, seeing his second wife’s gentle, maternal smile as Seol sits next to her and rests her head on his wife’s growing stomach. Jung can’t help but smile.
Seol is right. They are doing well.