1. “When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.”
― Michael Ende
Her touch, once so sure, suddenly so tentative. Her hand, brushing through her hair to find any loose strands, to slick back any part of her that was out of place, wrong, ugly.
A command and yet advice like that given when they were younger. Run faster. Catch me! Climb a little higher. Swim, swim, you idiot. Swim, or you’ll die.
That crashing sound, like waves ripping open as her lungs almost burst, came rushing over her head at the words. A question formed on her lips, one she knew the answer to. She had known since she was a child. She had seen it with her own eyes, felt it on her own skin one too many times. To disobey, to displease was to be worthless and replaceable. And yet she asked, anyway, her lips stable, no waver in her voice, no trembling in her limbs.
“And if I don’t?”
The subtlest disrespect, the most she could muster and get away with. The teasing she had coated the same question in so many times before being stripped away now. Nothing but seriousness, but the deep eyes staring back at hers she had looked into so many times before, had fallen asleep across from night after night. She knew the truth because she expected the truth. Had only ever had the truth staring back at her every time she looked into those eyes. Still, the answer was soft, almost reprimanding, because she knew better.
“He could kill you. He could kill me. All of us, if he wanted to. So. Please him.”
The rest, unsaid. Already spoken. Known for years ever since she pulled her out of the river.
She will. She will do anything. She will do anything to protect her.
His eyes, once so piercing, not even looking at her as she bowed to the room one last time. His eyes, so stoic and unwavering that would overflow later. Later, in a dark corner of the stable or in his room, away from prying eyes and nosy ears. But for now, he stood as he was told to, not even watching her leave.
She couldn’t look at how he refused to meet her eyes, the distance already ripping her apart when her foot wasn’t even out of the door yet. The years no longer leaking but pouring out, slipping away from her as she turned to go.
The smile in front of her opening the carriage door. The frowns behind her closing her off forever.
No one’s fault, that she would leave so suddenly. A matter of survival for all even as her mother lay dying and their clothes still mourned her father.
To be expected, really. To be surprised was to be blind. They should have known she could not say no.
She was not surprised he said nothing at all, nothing when she said she would go.
He hadn’t spoken for years, so he let his eyes talk for him, the waves of emotion never ceasing to stream out of them whenever he needed them to.
But they said nothing as she left, not even goodbye.
His stance, once so confident, shaking as another fist flew at him, his foot slipping through the dirt as he tried to keep his balance all the while dodging the rain of blows trying to descend upon his head.
“It’d be bad to be bruised on your wedding day! Faster! Step, step, hands up!”
A taunt concealing an encouragement, an admonishment that would end with anyone else receiving blows himself, but his cousin could say what he wanted to. Always did.
Another near miss, another misstep, another missed opportunity, and he moved away to catch his breath.
His brothers, once so close, leaned comfortably against the fence, still in their dusty riding clothes, one mocking him to make his blood boil so he would fight stronger, the other critiquing his stance so he would fight smarter.
Everyone had arrived sooner than he expected. Everything was happening faster than he had expected. Come tomorrow, he would no longer be merely the youngest son with nothing but leftovers to his name—leftover land and leftover titles, leftover goods and leftover women—but a husband, a man of his own.
The ball of energy in front of him smiled widely, cracking his knuckles and his neck to right himself before hopping back and forth on his toes.
“Come on, my lord, if I don’t rough you up a little, you’ll be prettier than your bride.”
“Stop torturing the poor boy,” someone laughed, his voice light from where he brushed a horse’s mane so carefully, the man only forgiven for his lack of honorifics and due respect because of his place in everyone’s heart, not because of his position in their home.
His opponent looked at the boy to throw him a wink, and that was when Jung-Kook threw his punch.
From the ground, the man cackled up at him, his lip split and bleeding, the dirt in his hair.
At least someone was having fun.
At least someone was happy.
To see each other before the ceremony would be bad luck, but she could at least ask and find out what she could about her husband-to-be.
But his servant didn’t sit with her in the carriage, riding instead with the driver up front, so she was left alone for the long journey finding no point in thinking about her decision. Nothing in the past mattered now, only future choices, only the road in front of her.
There was nothing to be done about the feelings of being overwhelmed. She had visited the capitol only once as a girl. Everything had been larger then, but she had been smaller. Her position had not mattered so much then, but much had changed in the past fifteen years.
Everything seemed smaller now, but, then again, she was much larger.
For the family to rise to such significance stature in society in such a short amount of time to the point where she, once a lowly farmer’s daughter, could marry the mannyor’s son was unprecedented. While she didn’t know, she had been all anyone had talked about for a month.
They spoke of her in the streets as her carriage went by, her face peeking out of the window to get a view of the city that was too much to take in so quickly all at once.
They spoke of her in the house as she drifted behind the smiling servant, their faces peering around corners trying to get a view of the woman soon to be their master’s wife.
And they spoke of her back home, their faces peeking nowhere as they cast their eyes down and gloomily ate their meals, wondering how she would fare.
She had nothing to say of herself though, until she was asked, but she longed to know of her fiancé.
“Will he be good to me?” she had asked her mother and asked her servants and even asked Yoon-Gi, whose eyes had looked away, refusing to give an answer.
“Will he be good to me?” she longed to ask the servant who seemed so cheerful she wanted to shake her own cloud of doubt away.
“Will he be good to me?” she wanted to know, but it isn’t what she asked.
His servant was flitting around her room, anyway, making too much noise for her to get in a word. He mumbled under his breath and hummed to himself and laughed at nothing and seemed to just make noise even as he stood still, something radiating out of him and off of him that she could only blink at.
“Please get what you need from your trunk, my lady, and then I will have someone move the rest to my master’s room. I’ll send in some ladies to help with your bath and clothes. Would you like a nap before dinner?”
“No.” The small room had no mat, and she didn’t want to be a bother. Besides, her body would not be able to relax enough to rest for many days. Perhaps years.
“Well, then, I must get back to it, then. Unless there is anything else you need. I do apologize for you being stuck in here all day, but you’ll dine with my lord and lady and my master’s brothers tonight.”
The luck, the luck that was so important, so vital to keep everything from falling apart.
It wasn’t luck at all, she thought, but she still nodded.
“Thank you, Ho-Seok. If I may trouble you with another question?” He seemed startled by the use of his name, but she remembered it from hours early, when he bowed in front of her and told her he was her fiancé’s servant come to take her home. Away from home. His face was more memorable with its wide smile and clear eyes, but she had not forgotten his name.
“Yes, my lady?”
“Your master, my fiancé, is he—” Is he good? Would he be a good husband? The question was useless, as she was uncertain about what a good husband would even mean. What good would look like or sound like or feel like. For all her training, she was lost regarding knowing how a husband should act. She had concentrated on how she as a wife should behave, after all.
“Does he treat you well?” she decided on instead, watching as confusion filled the man’s face before he smiled again.
“Of course, my lady! Why would you ask?”
“Something someone told me once,” she mused. “‘To know a man, watch how he treats his animals. If better than his servants, watch how he treats his servants. If worse than his friend, then watch how he treats his friend, for he is a friend to no man.’”
“Very wise, my lady.” Another beam, a light revealing as he smiled. “I can assure you my master treats his animals well, and his servants better. Though I do say he loves Yaho more than he loves much else.” Clarifying, the man smiled again. “His horse.”
“I see. And you are happy in the house?”
“Of course, my lady! Jun—my master is very kind. Quiet and soft spoken, but very loved. His family adores him. As do the—well, my lady, he is lucky to have found such a beautiful bride. Is there any message you would like me to carry to him for you?”
“Oh, just that I am eager to meet him tomorrow. May he sleep well.”
“Of course, my lady. Please let me know if there is anything else you need. Perhaps, after the ceremony in a day or two, I can oversee finding you a laiden?”
“Thank you, Ho-Seok, that will be fine. And apart from drawing a bath, I do not need any help. I am sure everyone is busy elsewhere preparing for tomorrow.”
“But, my lady, we are here to serve you.”
“Has your master or his father commanded it? Or may I be left alone until I am called for? I am capable of undressing myself.”
Lip, her father once said. Not one desirable upon a lady. Something to be corrected.
“Forgive me, I am weary, but I should have spoken kindly. Please, send who you will.”
“Of course, my lady,” Ho-Seok said with a bow before leaving.
Her hands shook as she peeled off her outer robe, but she continued until only one layer remained, the dirt collecting at her feet, dotting the floor like splattered ink. A collection, hidden in between the threads being forced to show itself as she undressed.
Her hands shook as they poured the water, so she looked away, holding the robe close and avoiding their eyes.
Their eyes were talking. They were speaking of her, but not to her.
Their eyes were like Yoon-Gi’s, except she couldn’t hear them at all.
Her hands shook as she lowered herself into the bath once she had excused all the servants.
She hoped she wouldn’t shake when his hands were on her, but the question swirled around in the steam and flowed all around her.
“Will he be good to me?”
Practice. Count the steps from the table to each person. Count the number of people in the room. Count the breaths you need to take.
Practice. Pace the steps back and forth until you can move with your eyes closed. Pace with grace so that no drop is lost. Pace to your place with proper posture intact.
Practice. Speak with humility and yet assertion. Speak with respect to your new mother and father. Speak with no fear or visible hesitation.
Practice. Bow your head as you enter a room to keep your eyes on the ground. Bow your torso as you present each glass. Bow your body as you wait for their reply.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
No amount of practice could prepare her for the main event, the reality of all the eyes upon her, the strange and judging eyes. Not like Yoon-Gi’s, whose gaze was intense and sharp but never cruel. She never worried about him never looking at her again. Perhaps she should have.
The tradition was old, ancient, known. Performed only once in a lifetime unless all goes wrong, she had seen one when she was younger, though not one as grand. Her own would be magnificent, complicated, large.
First, to present to the mother, whose eyes looked kind and smile looked soft. Her nose like a button, round and small for her face. A friendly face whose eyes she met for long enough to know she was free to look away.
The father, next, and she tried not to tremble. Here was a man who could send her away. Not just back home, but to her grave if he wanted. A man who had known and eaten and spoken with her father, had discussed her perhaps years long ago. Who looked even after she looked away, who watched the top of her bowed head, who frowned and thought and considered for too long, who made her question and shiver inside before he put his cup down.
The brothers, as well, whose wives sat beside them. She longed to look in their faces, as they had been here before. She wanted to see who had been accepted and know why they had been. If it was something they had done or simply how they looked. Perhaps their name had been enough, or their father’s hard work like her own.
The eldest, who smiled easily and drank greedily with a contented sigh, the one who would inherit his father’s position. The second, who bowed his head in return so humbly she almost fumbled and opened her mouth to refuse him, but the smile on his wife’s lips was enough to keep her own shut.
Herself, as she waited with her face to the floor, her knees bent under her supporting her weight as she waited. The position was familiar and known to her, but the waiting was new. She had waited before, but for nothing so important, nothing so life-changing, nothing so dire. The wait, patiently posturing herself before them, was almost unbearable. Waiting to hear her name had never made her so nervous, not even when her father had caught her one time in the barn. Nothing was as terrifying as she squinted her eyes shut and waited to hear it.
Her name meant a beautiful scenery, because her father had deemed the room as such when she was born.
She was sure it was not. She was sure there was blood and screaming and pain.
But she had come out, and she heard she was beautiful. The scene before her, the world in front of her, her life to come, though, was too unknown.
Je Kyung-Soo, her mother’s favorite, her father’s disappointment, her family’s salvation. Best friend to her servant, in love with another, engaged to Kim Jungkook.
“Je Kyung-Soo, the tea was delicious. We accept your proposal and welcome you to our family. Please, rise.”
To blink and to appear frightened when it was really just the light blinding her eyes or to open them wide and seem afraid and surprised; neither seemed right so she alternated in between, her eyes fixed on the father in front of her.
A handsome man, though menacing. His eldest the handsomest in the room with but an air of his father’s intimidating presence, the other clearly gentler and more like his mother. She wondered if her husband would be more like one or the other or a mixture of all them put together or like none of them at all.
“I thank you, Kim Nam-Yeong, for welcoming me to your family. I am here to serve.”
“I am finished with my tea,” they said one after the other, and just like that it was over. The rehearsed was easy, was scripted and known, but what came next left her quiet as she looked all around. The mother, her mother, had her sit beside her, and the second brother’s wife on her other side. Min-ji, her name was, and she made sure Kyung-Soo ate, rattling along about how she would be too nervous tomorrow to eat.
Kyung-Soo thought she wasn’t wrong, as her nerves had begun a month ago, but she tried to obey and ate what she could. Her mother smiled gently and made polite conversation, her new brothers, her only brothers discussing things the women could not understand.
She ate until she was full and then ate a little more, Min-Ji’s smile encouraging as well as her husband’s. His name was Nam-Joon, and he seemed like a scholar or healer, something wise and safe about his presence that relieved her immensely. Safe on that side, away from the other brother who eyed her often and whose wife was silent beside him, two pillars and stones too hard to be moved.
Unless it was all just a front. The face of the oldest, a politician even amongst his family. She had not met many men like him, hadn’t met many men at all, so she had no way of knowing.
“Will he be good to me?” she almost asked everyone at the table, but she avoided the topic and only spoke when spoken to. She did her job well and seemed accepted by all. The eldest brother, whose name was Seok-Jin, only spoke to her as their food was cleared away, his voice louder than anyone’s before.
“I met you once, last year, during the harvest. You were dressed so common, though, I fear I did not at first give you the respect you deserved.” She remembered his face, though she had tried to hide her own, too ashamed to be seen by such a respectable noble.
“Oh, no my lord, I took no offense. I often work the grounds among our servants. I am surprised you remember me at all.”
“You do look different,” the man said slowly, looking her over. “Cleaner and well dressed. Much better suited to your face. I understand things are different at Sabuk, but know that here, you will never have to work a day. To be caught dressed like a servant would be a disgrace.”
“Of course, my lord,” she said, dipping her head.
“Jung-Kook said you refused a laiden?” her new mother said, all eyes on her now.
“I mean no offense,” she tried to speak firmly with no disrespect. “I am used to doing most things on my own. If you feel that I must, I will happily comply.”
“No one will force you to have a laiden,” Nam-Joon said calmly. “But do not overwork yourself. There’s simply no need.”
“Of course, my lord. I will take great care.”
“That’s all that we ask. And for you to extend that care to Jungkook. He is very precious to us all.”
“Of course, my lord. I will be good to him.”
“Oh, I don’t know about all of that,” Seok-Jin said from the other side of the table, laughing so suddenly and loudly that she couldn’t stop her eyes from blinking and mouth from gaping just for a second before she caught herself. “He could stand a bit toughing up. Not muscle-wise, I swear he grows stronger than me daily which I must say is unacceptable. But he’s weak in his own ways, and a wife will do him good.”
“Seok-Jin,” his mother said spiritedly, clearly a woman whose sons admired and respected.
“You baby him, is all, mother.”
“We all do. We all have. But he’s ready to be a man now,” Nam-Joon said. “I have no doubt he and Kyung-Soo will do very well together.”
“She will,” their father said gravely, the fact, not question, solidified. No other option. No need to question the past. Tomorrow would come soon.
Tomorrow, she’d be married.
Jung-Kook would become a man, and Kyung-Soo would become a wife.
Her mattress was too soft, so she tossed and turned for hours, imaging where she would be in a mere twenty-four hours.
Perhaps she should have practiced.
But Yoon-Gi had said no, and there was only so much she could do otherwise.
How did one practice becoming a lady? Of becoming a wife? Of becoming one flesh with another?
There was no time to practice.
Though no one’s fault, Jung Ho-Seok easily and quickly became Kim Jung-Kook’s favorite person apart from his mother and two brothers within the first day of meeting him when he was twelve. His last bit of growth had yet to hit him, so Ho-Seok towered over him, lanky and limber and with a smile that made everything easier.
Easier, as his brothers grew busier and busier, Seok-Jin almost old enough to marry while Jung-Kook stumbled through his lessons, his words still tumbling out of his mouth, his feet and arms still fumbling through his exercises.
Ho-Seok had seemed to recognize before Jung-Kook did what the gleam in the young boy’s eyes was, the way he looked up at him when he should only be looking down.
“I’m your servant, remember, not your friend.” Their pact had been made, though, and while the lie was no longer a secret from most, their elaborate game began. Jung-Kook’s brothers had played as children and continued to as adults, toeing the line between acceptable and disgraceful relationships with their servants over the years. To be too friendly was considered wrong, a fact Jung-Kook had always struggled with understanding. But he saw as he grew older how servants, even if people, were to be treated differently. His greatest role never performed on stage therefore became treating Ho-Seok one way in public and another when they were alone or in trusted company.
They slipped a little over the years, a few mistakes almost ruining their fun and finally declaring a winner and a loser, but no one had been caught, not even Ho-Seok and his lovers.
A disgrace, his cousin Tae-Hyung, and yet Jung-Kook’s closest friend. Apart from Ho-Seok, but he was naught but his servant. The stable boy, Ji-Min, much more and yet much less than a servant.
And yet, Ho-Seok was Jung-Kook’s comrade, his companion, constantly by his side for the past seven years. Even more so than Nam-Joon, Ho-Seok answered Jung-Kook’s questions no matter how dumb, perhaps answered the foolish ones better than anyone could. While he knew his place, he never lied to Jung-Kook or played him for a fool. He would tease and be playful but knew when to be serious, and today was a day to be serious.
Today was a day to observe his master, his young lord, his friend.
Whose features were tight and shoulders were tense. Who didn’t respond to Ho-Seok’s questions or comments. Who was too afraid to ask what he wanted.
“Best to ask your brother. Nam-Joon would know better than I,” he kept telling the boy. He’d never been married and never would be, so for all his worldly advice, he had run out of answers eventually, leaving the boy with too many things unsaid. Perhaps he had found time to seek out his brother, the one a bit more understanding about how shy Jung-Kook could be, about how eager he was to do well and please their father and mother while stressed about being true to himself.
“She is very beautiful.” He tried to snap his master out of his thoughts, only hums being given in return. “And seems very kind. She remembered my name. Chan-Ri mentioned she thanked her repeatedly. Her servants back home seemed to love her. They were sad to see her leave. And you know, as they say when one is kind to their servants, you know they are kind to their husbands.”
“What?” his lord frowned as Ho-Seok wrapped him up tighter, the layers and layers of cloth excessive in his mind. “Who says?”
“Oh, you know. Wise dead men.”
“I think you’re misremembering. Surely that’s not a quote.”
“Everything is a quote once spoken, young master,” Ho-Seok said reverently, remembering the years of Jung-Kook’s tutors, their long gray beards and pointed black hats, the faces he would make as he sat behind them to keep Jung-Kook interested and focused but mostly alert as he teetered on the edge of getting in trouble.
“Now, is there anything you want to go over again before we leave?”
“My right hand,” Jung-Kook said as Ho-Seok stepped to his side, raising his left hand palm up.
“Right, and her left, like this. Then just does as the prilan says. Try to pay attention. Wrapping, bowing, kissing, and done.”
“Ho-Seok.” His name spoken softly, the sharp, authoritative, commanding tone gone even if it was rarely there in the first place. His master, but a boy, looking down at their hands. To his annoyance and chagrin, Ho-Seok had been Jung-Kook’s fake bride over the past month on many occasions, letting the boy grow familiar with the ceremonies and traditions and phrases he needed to learn how to do. Some acts they couldn’t practice, though, so he squeezed his lord’s hand before drawing away.
“Do you ever wish—” the boy tried to continue before he stopped himself, a sure sign his question could be for Ho-Seok and Ho-Seok’s ears only. But he was preparing to leave, ready to perform and keep his thoughts at bay. His question forgotten or pushed aside or answered simply by knowing his friend, Jung-Kook turned to finish getting ready.
Ho-Seok could see the way he was scared and unsure, but Ho-Seok saw most things his master did. He saw how he treated others and spoke kindly to all. Saw how he whispered softly to his horse and mumbled in his sleep. How he gazed admiringly at his brothers and loved his mother dearly. He had seen him fall and rise again, laugh and cry in pain, run in fear of his father and bow down out of respect for him as well. He had watched him grow from a boy to a man and had done his best to help him every step of the way.
But now, as his master opened the door, he turned to clean up the clothes strewn on the floor.
The next step Jung-Kook could only take alone.