Hanyang, a year before Lee Yeong’s coronation.
The babies proved to be a problem.
“They’re children,” Lee Yeong said. Everyone in Teacher Da San’s little front room knew him well enough to hear the unspoken qualifier, the thing that stemmed from his abundant tenderness for the small, the fragile, for those who needed him: my children. “They’ve done nothing to merit exile from their birthplace.”
“The Department of Justice is unbending on the subject,” Teacher Da San said. “It’s taken a lot for them to heed your Highness's advice to show clemency to Kim Yoon-seong, and to the Kim household’s staff. The recommendation is quite plain. No one from the family is to be accommodated within the bounds of Hanyang for ten years.”
Yeong snorted. “They showed Yoon-seong clemency because he’s too dangerous to be let out of sight,” he said, then frowned. “It’s probably for the best.”
“A talented young man,” Teacher Da San agreed. He turned to Byeong-yeon. “Has he said anything to you about his future plans?”
“The court ordered him to the family estate in Incheon,” Byeong-yeon spoke up. He’d been at the infirmary every day since Yoon-seong’s last, lethal fight. “He’s walking unaided now, and plans to move once he’s settled all his grandfather’s household staff.” He cleared his throat before speaking again. “He’s taking his nephew with him –– the baby boy.” The prince that wasn’t.
“There’s no reason for that child to leave the palace!” Yeong protested.
“It’s Master Yoon-seong or the temple orphanage,” Teacher Da San said in his mild, implacable way. “The investigation into his paternity strongly suggests he is Kim Geun-gyo’s child.” A scowl crossed Yeong’s face. Evidence of the former Minister of Justice’s misdeeds continued to mount well after his execution. For a senior official to importune a palace attendant, upon whom only the king might show favour, was one of the pettiest abuses of power: pettiest, and most disgusting.
“What a stroke of luck for that little baby,” Sam-nom said, softly. She’d been quiet ever since she received her freedom, like some hurt, hidden creature facing its first ray of sunlight. “He had no one in the world, not even when the que––when Lady Kim was pretending he was hers. Now he and Master Kim will have each other.”
Even in his temper, Yeong stalked back to the empty spot next to her and sat down to take her hand. He almost smiled, helpless before her; then he shook his head and scowled again. “Well, he certainly can’t take the little girl. She’s my father’s blood.”
“He left her with her mother’s mother, at a gibang. Perhaps he will do so again.”
Yeong shook his head. “I won’t have her brought up by strangers.”
“His Majesty’s will opposes yours,” Teacher Da San repeated. The king, still recovering from the shock of the queen’s betrayal and the upheavals of Yeong’s actions, had spared no effort in prosecuting the case against the Kims. There was a streak of cruelty in the Lee kings, though Yeong’s usually surfaced in reaction to some unbearable force, and King Sunjo’s, unfortunately, only in its absence. In the face of the criminal revelations about his prime minister, his high council and his wife, he could not find mercy in his heart for the tiny daughter he had only learned of recently; her very existence was a reminder of the great deception that kept him fettered so long.
“I’ll think of something,” Yeong said.
“You’re thinking of something,” Madame Jiang-ti said, pushing herself up and off him, her glorious face sheened over with sweat. Her hair, unbound, swept over their bodies like a cooling shadow.
Unlike Yoon-seong, who only visited courtesans to make their portraits, Byeong-yeon had no scruples against having sex for the fun of it. It was the only good secret he’d been able to keep in his double life. Jiang-ti was a powerful, experienced professional; her senior position in the gisaeng district had made her a valuable source of intelligence for the Baekwoon rebels, and the grace and discretion of her manners had provided her perfect cover. He’d been awed to be noticed by her, and quite gratefully fallen into bed with her, happy to be her occasional favourite when she crooked a finger at him.
There’d been no effusive welcome when he turned up today, for the first time after his long convalescence. But she’d cancelled her appointments for the day, and put him in a bath clouded with something soothing and scented. Then she'd towelled him off and sucked his cock for an incredible welcome-back present. That was before he went down on her until her thighs buckled around him and she came, whimpering. She’d climbed on him afterwards and they’d fucked for what felt like hours, in a lazy roll of hips and drifting kisses; he’d licked and kissed her beautiful breasts until he was breathless. Shivering, he let her bear down on him as some nameless tension unfurled and imploded at his core. Hot, wet, she clenched and fluttered around him; she moaned in his ear, and he laughed in delight, coming hard, emptied out and flooded with nerve-sparking pleasure.
“Sorry,” he answered her now, still feeling dazed and vulnerable, as he raised a hand to trace a damp curl clinging to her forehead. “‘m thinking about children.”
It wasn’t until she raised an immaculately sketched brow that he realised how it sounded to say that to a woman inside whom he’d just finished, while tenderly caressing her hair. “No, not like that.”
“I should think not,” she said, and rose and proceeded to her washstand, where she crouched and performed certain ablutions that Byeong-yeon guessed helped put off the likelihood of the outcome. “My dear, this isn’t going to be very amusing if you want to play house.”
“I daren’t aspire to it,” he said, and he really didn’t; he was all too conscious of the honour of her regard.
She looked over her shoulder at him, wry. “It’s hardly your style.”
He stretched out on her silk mattress and watched as she put on her under-robe, and gathered her hair into a low knot. “There was an infant, a girl, who was sent over to one of these houses a few months ago,” he said, the cloud still clearing from his mind.
“Right,” she said, “Madame Il-hwa's granddaughter,” and laughed at his surprise. “We keep our patrons' secrets, not each others'. I knew Kim He-on's daughter when she was a spotty little snob from the next lane over.”
“You didn't tell me that,” he frowned.
“You didn’t ask,” she said. “Anyway, passing around women's secrets isn't your style either.”
“What would happen to her if she came back to her grandmother's house?” he asked her. “The little girl.”
“What happens to most little girls who come to these parts, probably,” she said. “Are you feeling sentimental about it?”
“I guess she might grow up to be like you,” he said, sitting up, and realised instantly that it was the wrong thing to say, but finished his thought anyway: “––accomplished, and independent, and admired.”
Jiang-ti sat down at her desk.
“I was a child when a man first had me,” she said, and she was so serene, so in command of her circumstances, that it took him a minute to feel the cold dread of her words touch him. “I have no respect for private life. I would rather die than be pillaged in marriage of the services I now choose to transact. But I might have been spared that, had my mother been able to keep me a while longer.
“Or not,” she said, looking at his face, which he tried to wipe of any emotion that might seem degrading to her. “Cheer up, I'm sure she'll be well looked after. Madame Il-hwa's smart with money, though I don't think much of her taste in patrons.”
“What if she came to your house? The baby,” he asked, but he could see she was losing her patience with him. “Your confidence is touching,” she said, “but when I want a long-term investment, I buy land; and I make sure it isn’t in the shadow of Sunjo’s palace.” She turned away and pulled a brush and paper towards her; it was as good as a dismissal. He got up, his body still humming from their encounter, and pulled his clothes on.
“That new scar on your torso is very dashing,” she said, when he bowed farewell. “But do try and refrain from acquiring another one too soon.”
He understood it was meant in apology for her brusqueness, and it made him like her more. “I’ll try,” he said, and kissed her.
But of course, that was when he went back to see Yeong, and found himself in the middle of another firefight.
“Help! Hel––Officer Kim, intruders, in the attendants’ halls!” Eunuch Park rounded the corner, yelling.
For a beat, Byeong-yeon was distracted. He was on his way out of the palace grounds after seeing his Highness off in the direction of the East Palace. The evening had been one in a lengthening stretch of meetings with Yeong filled with a new awkwardness, and a new intensity. He had shown his whole self to Yeong on the night he’d fallen in the courtyard, and Yeong to him.
-I’ll lose you if you lower your sword.
-I apologise, Highness.
-Don’t do it!
-You trusted me. Thank you.
Neither of them, it seemed, quite knew how to proceed from there, or what to say about it.
Force of habit took over when he heard Eunuch Park. It was the easiest thing to slip back into the old form: send for back-up, clear the area, confront the problem. The attackers had not come near the residences or offices. In the attendants’ halls, nearly everyone who wasn’t on shift was fast asleep, including the tired young nurse who’d been tasked with looking after the two infants. It was only Eunuchs Do and Park, returning later than usual from an evening off, who had spotted the masked intruders climbing the walls.
There were six men. It wasn’t much work to relieve one of his sword and swarm up the staircase up which two others had climbed, on their way to the nursery. They were unconscious when he kicked them down a stairwell; a fourth, dispatched through the window, got hefted up by the first guards on the scene. The fifth, at the door of the nursery, turned and tried to twist out of his grasp, before dropping his weapons with a shout.
“Death to the Kims,” he said, viciously, when Byeong-yeon unmasked him, and spat at him. “And death to the ruler who lets injustice flourish!” It felt good to clock him unconscious, but retaliation came, after a fashion: Byeong-yeon saw the chain around the militant's neck, with a pendant embossed with the familiar sign of the crescent moon and cloud: the Baekwoon, his own people. His heart plummeted, and the world was wiped of sound for a moment.
Then: “Help!” he heard again; “Help us!” and he saw the little nurse through the doorway, screaming along with the two babies, now wide awake in their cribs. The room was blazing alive with light and smoke; the sixth intruder, escaping, had flung a firebrand through the paper windows.
“Take the woman,” Byeong-yeon said, as footsteps thundered behind him; he saw Lieutenant Seong, his old apprentice, at the periphery of his vision. Across the threshold, the world had narrowed to a single point of purpose. He knew this fierce, singular feeling of calm and clarity better than anything else in his life. The heat and exhaust of the horse-oil, burning the air out of the room, did not matter. He was stamping out the flames as he raced across to the cribs, where he hefted both children into his arms and turned back. His eyes were stinging.
He blinked away the tears, but he could not see very well. He paused, for a moment, to try and figure out a path through the flames without stumbling. That would harm the babies. He cuddled them closer to hide their faces from the frightening sight of the fire.
There was a familiar voice––whose was it?––calling his name, urgently.
Someone took one of the children from his arms, then held his hand and led him out of the room, down the narrow, smoky staircase, and into the clean night air.
When he gasped, clearing his sight and lungs, he was sitting on the steps of the pavilion by the attendants’ hall. The eunuchs had run up with fire-tending powder and oilcloth to starve out the blaze, which looked small and manageable from the outside. Across the lawn, the nurse was hiccuping, trying to stop crying, Lieutenant Seong’s cloak around her. And his hand was still in Yeong’s––Yeong’s, who was looking at him, worried, with a dash of soot on his chin.
“Did you run into a burning room?” Byeong-yeon asked him in wonder. “Is his Highness out of his mind?”
“I came after you, you ass!” Yeong shouted; the baby he was holding wailed at the sound. “I'm going to kill you myself one of these days,” he added, in a furious whisper.
Byeong-yeon looked down at the baby in his arms. She was blinking up at the night sky, too stunned to cry. Clumsily, he took his hand from where it was still in Yeong's, and loosened the tight swaddle of her blankets. Her breath was coming in little heaves, quick but mercifully clear. Her heart fluttered, strong, under his touch. She was looking up at his face. He looked back at her and felt the wonder overcome him again, like seeing through smoke and fumes, and finding that brilliant, cool clarity.
“Are you even listening to me?” Yeong asked him, at some point in his angry tirade, but Byeong-yeon wasn't, not really. He was gazing at the baby, light as a flower on his palm; at her waving fist, batting at his chest, and at her big, fearless eyes. He kept on not listening until Eunuch Jang, bowing low to clean the soot off Yeong's face, said, in a quiet voice, “I'll arrange for Master Kim to take them tomorrow, Highness.”
“How can they be safer with him than with me, here?” Yeong exclaimed, but it was a dispirited riposte. To get into this part of the palace meant their enemies had help from within, and these were not Yeong's enemies, or his father's: perhaps they were the opposite. “And not both, Yoon-seong can't take both.”
“I beg you to consider the circumstances,” Eunuch Jang said, remorsefully.
“I'll keep her safe for you,” Byeong-yeon said, still unable to take his eyes off her. “Yeong: I want her,” and he looked up to see anger turn to surprise, to the beginnings of a soft, heart-broken understanding on Yeong's face.
“Cho-hui,” Sam-nom repeated. “Kim Cho-hui.”
“I know it's old-fashioned,” he said, defensively. When he realised that no one had bothered to name her on top of everything else, he immediately gave her the best name he could think of: Cho-hui, the given name of his favourite poet, Heo Nanseolheon. There was no alternative, of course, to Kim. She was a Kim, of the same branch of the clan, at that; Byeong-yeon’s grandfather and Yoon-seong's had been second cousins.
“It's a lovely name,” Sam-nom said, loyally. “Is it really not safe to stay here with her?”
“It’s not,” he said, regretting the truth of it. “I thought of taking her to her grandmother’s, but we’d have to put the whole house under lock and key, even apart from his Highness’s objections.” I’m not going to send my sister to a gibang.
He’d come to Teacher Da San's hospital two days earlier. Mistress Rim, Sam-nom's mother, had taken one look at the bundle in his arms, and put them both to bed in her rooms at the staff quarters. Since then, Cho-hui had slept a great deal, and Byeong-yeon not at all. With disbelieving pity, Mistress Rim and some of the lady physicians had brought him things with which to feed, bathe and change her. Their brisk supervision anchored him as he struggled to do any of it: it was the hardest task he had ever been set. He'd learned to tolerate cold, hunger, thirst and pain; to leap off roofs and fight off a dozen men at a time; but the thought of hurting Cho-hui as he held her delicate neck up to pour water over her head was worse than any punishment he'd faced from Master Jang, his mentor in the Baekwoon society.
“My mother adores her already,” Sam-nom said.
“Literally any of the women here would bring her up better than me,” he said, feeling the wrongness of it like a physical pain even as he did. Cho-hui was dozing in the room behind the verandah where they were sitting. He could still feel the warmth of her tiny body in his rough, oversized hands as he'd rocked her to sleep.
“I think they think so too,” Sam-nom said, surprising him. “But I don't agree.”
“I don't know anything,” he said. “I don't have anything. I don't know what I was thinking.”
“You were thinking of a child who doesn't have a home or parents,” Sam-nom said. “You were thinking of someone who needed you to keep her safe.”
He didn't have an answer to make. Since he'd woken from his injuries, he’d found himself grappling with the change in Sam-nom: that quietness, that sense of retreating from hurt. She was trying, he knew, to deal with her own, invisible burden of accumulated grief and shock. There were days when it felt like his quicksilver, happy-go-lucky friend was playing a role. But she was still the kindest person he knew, and she still saw him better than most people did.
"His Highness was drawing up a plan when I saw him last evening,” she said. “Money for her upbringing. A house with a garden, on the edge of the city.”
“A wife,” he joked. “Servants.” She smiled, sadly.
“I think he realises you're not going to take any of it, somewhere deep down,” she said.
“I don't need to,” he said. “I can make a life for her. He doesn’t have to hide her away, like some secret,” before it struck him. “That is, not that…”
Her smile widened a little, and grew in desolation. “You haven't heard yet, I suppose,” she said. “The Crown Princess is leaving the palace. She went to his Majesty yesterday and pleaded to withdraw from her marriage to his Highness. It appears the king has granted her wish.”
He stared at her, open-mouthed. His heart had ached for Sam-nom’s sorrow, but he'd secretly liked Cho Ha-yeon, whom he thought uncommonly brave in her forthrightness and loyalty to Yeong; and wildly beautiful, to boot.
“So he’s free,” Sam-nom said, with something like a sob. “We're free. Everything's changed, Kim-hyung, even the people we are.”
“That's nothing to cry about,” he said, uncomfortably; but something in him was changing, too. He put his hand on her back and drew her to him as her tears overflowed, soothing her the way he'd soothed his sleepy baby.
“If you need me to stay,” he began, because he had held himself responsible for Sam-nom's life since the day he'd found out her true name, and the conviction hadn't dissipated even now that the world had turned upside-down. She shook her head, wiping her eyes.
“I need you to give that baby all the love in the world, and let her love you back,” she sniffed. “Because I won't be there to look after you both.”
“Sam-nom,” he said, “you can’t boil water properly. I had to do it for you at Jahyeondang.”
“Be smug, like that,” she said, but at least the grief retreated from her face. Behind them, Cho-hui stirred, making that inquiring little chirrup he already knew by heart. When they bent over her, calling her name, she screwed her eyes up adorably before fluttering them open.
“Hello there, Miss Cho-hui,” Sam-nom said, in that melting voice other people got around the very young. “Kim-hyung, she’s perfect. You’re perfect, aren’t you, my baby?”
“Say hello to Sam––that is, to Miss Ra-on,” Byeong-yeon told Cho-hui, awkwardly. He couldn’t talk to her except as an adult: he didn’t know any other way. He caught one of her fists, waving above her head, and trapped it lightly in his hand, feeling it uncurl as she scrabbled her minuscule palm against his.
Cho-hui looked from Byeong-yeon to Sam-nom, and looked back at him. It was that look of hers, the big, fearless one. With unblinking eyes she regarded the two of them for a moment. Then she lifted her chin and smiled.
“I’ll get out of your hair,” Sam-nom said, when he finally found that he could tear his eyes away from the baby, and attend to what Sam-nom had been saying. But she was smiling too, her proper, radiant smile at last.
Seo Hong-shim set out with him to the village in the north-east where he’d decided to go. A middle-aged widow recommended by Mistress Rim, she was strong and taciturn, which suited him, and could get Cho-hui to feed quickly and relatively quietly on boiled apple mash and cow’s milk mixed with water, which suited Cho-hui. They hired a cart driver to take them out of the city, then hitched wagon rides until they got to Paju county, where Nurse Seo’s daughters lived within a day’s walk of each other, and half a day from the village to which Byeong-yeon was headed, to see––
“You abducted the king’s daughter,” Hong Gyeong-rae said, dubiously.
“He doesn't want her,” Byeong-yeon said, and quickly told the outlines of the story; the criminal judgments, Yeong’s dilemma, the little boy who’d gone with Yoon-seong. Master Hong’s face grew grave upon hearing of the intruder wearing the Baekwoon insignia: the Office of Investigations, with their usual ham-handedness, had failed to do more than butcher the suspects.
“There have been impostors, before,” Byeong-yeon said, but something about it didn’t fill him with conviction. He knew what a false flag operation looked like, what it felt like.
“May the king’s justice be able to tell right from wrong,” Master Hong said. “I’ll inquire about this. But I wonder, Master Kim: was there no option for this child other than to be fostered by a nineteen-year-old of no fixed address?”
“I turn twenty next week,” Byeong-yeon said. “And I’ll make an address for her. Isn’t that what we’re doing, here?”
“Bringing up a child is a full day of work, and more,” Master Hong said. As if in agreement with the sound of his voice, Cho-hui purred, and said something that sounded like “Neh!” Master Hong’s face softened a fraction.
“I’ve worked two jobs before,” Byeong-yeon said.
“Don’t mind Master Hong,” he said to Cho-hui, later, when he was walking her around a serene, mossy pond. She seemed to enjoy the soft twilit colours around them, and when she nestled her head into the curve of his shoulder it was almost like she was sounding his words out, even if she couldn’t understand them. “He’s been living in danger for a long time, and it’s made him anxious for our safety. It can be difficult to believe that peace is coming to our lands. But I’m good at keeping people safe. And so’s Yeong, alright? He’s watching over us both.”
“You must miss her mother very much,” one of the flock of village ladies who’d taken to fussing over Cho-hui told him, soon after they’d arrived. He looked up; he hadn’t had an answer when Master Hong had asked what Byeong-yeon was going to tell everyone about who he was to Cho-hui. If someone had asked him in the early days, it might have occurred to him that orabeoni, elder brother, was the form closest to appropriate: it was how the royal daughters addressed Yeong. But doing that would pass along the grief of his own, lost family to Cho-hui, and he couldn’t bear the idea enough even to contemplate it.
Soon enough, the others started calling him Cho-hui’s abeoji, and that seemed easier. The lady who asked him about Cho-hui’s mother took one look at his face, and then word went around that Master Hong’s new right-hand man was too broken-hearted to talk about his past. So that ended up being easy, too.
The bean-growing villages of Paju founded a model of community education and medical care that came to be adopted around Joseon over the coming years. Their revival occurred during a period of tax amnesty over three harvests, aided by a score of volunteers from the Baekwoon society, who set about rebuilding homes and fields that had been destroyed in state-enabled rioting during Kim He-on’s time.
Byeong-yeon himself could never remember much about what he did there in its earliest days. He was too busy. He did remember the first time Cho-hui rolled over; the first time she pursed her mouth and cooed back when he sang her a song; the time her wet nurse came scurrying over to the school building site, and took him back to the shaded part of the riverbank, where Nurse Seo had started a crèche to watch small children while their parents were working. He remembered seeing Cho-hui standing on her chubby feet for the first time, trying to keep from wobbling with a look of intense concentration on her face.
“Sorry I interrupted your work, Master Kim,” the wet nurse said, smiling, “but you feel bad about missing these things when they’ve grown up.”
He remembered missing Cho-hui terribly on construction days, when he went to work on building the village’s new school, a clinic, and a gathering hall for wedding breakfasts and political meetings. He remembered strapping her on his back as he bent over a desk in the village square, writing out endless petitions and legal notices. People had been hunted by the state here, and it seemed important to restore their faith that someone would now listen when they wrote for clemency for their falsely imprisoned sons, or requested rebates for a new business, or protested police corruption before the provincial administration.
There was no question of being paid for any of it. It was enough that other people fed and housed him, and amused the baby on evenings when he was too tired to do more than stagger back to his room and fling himself on the mat for a few hours of sleep. He remembered getting used to waking up before sunrise, to a tiny body wriggling its way out of the blankets and sitting on his chest, demanding he wake up and play. He remembered opening his eyes when Cho-hui tugged on his hair and said “Baba!” for the first time.
“Post.” A few days past Cho-hui’s second birthday, Master Hong came by the Baekwoon office––really just a lean-to, where they warehoused supplies and kept their registers––and dropped a bundle of letters on Byeong-yeon’s desk.
“Thank you, sir,” Byeong-yeon said, his mind still on the legal documents he was studying, as Cho-hui squealed and put her arms out for Master Hong to pick her up.
“Kim Cho-hui! Did you miss Grandpa while he was away?” Master Hong, who was in actual fact an utter pushover for small girls, asked, and caught her up to smack a kiss on her cheek.
There were the usual missives that came in Byeong-yeon’s packet whenever Master Hong went to Hanyang to visit his wife: accounts from the palace pension offices, annotated by Eunuch Jang––now Chief Eunuch Jang; a long, chatty letter from Sam-nom; more restrained ones with news of government and security matters from some of his former military school cohort. Once he even got a delightfully perfumed love letter from Jiang-ti, with enough coded information to help them get an iniquitous district magistrate dismissed.
“Quietly, please,” he said, as Cho-hui started to tell Master Hong a story about her rag doll at the top of her voice, but she seemed not to hear him. He had to clear his throat a couple of times. He was looking at a thin envelope of expensive, silken paper, with an unmarked seal on the flap.
I asked Ra-on to marry me, he read, and folded the letter shut.
“You must thank harabeoji for that,” he said, in the voice Cho-hui knew not to ignore, as she was about to make off with the sweetmeat Master Hong had produced from one of his pockets. To her credit, she obeyed immediately, before toddling out to where Nurse Seo was waiting for her.
“You’re strict with her,” Master Hong said.
“I don’t know any other way to be,” he said. His heart was beating hard, but the sound did not seem to reach his senses. His own voice seemed to be issuing from somewhere other than his chest.
Master Hong leaned against his desk. “Your friend asked me to give you that letter.”
“Yes,” Byeong-yeon said.
“He came to my wife’s house to meet me.” Master Hong paused. “He asked for Ra-on’s hand in marriage.”
“My congratulations,” Byeong-yeon said, politely.
“Wholly,” he said, which was true. “They love each other very deeply.”
“They’ll be married in the spring, with enough time for the palace to conduct all its unnecessary ceremonies. I’ve no wish to participate. Jeong Yak-yong has said he’ll stand by Ra-on.”
“I see,” Byeong-yeon said. “And Ra-on’s mother?”
“Ra-on says she wants another ceremony in Nan-hui’s house; for us, and the king’s sisters, and some dowager––Park, I think the name was. She says you’re to be of her party there; she’ll permit you to stand with the king at the court wedding.”
Byeong-yeon said nothing.
“Sir,” he said, eyes still on the letter––on both letters, he realised, because he knew what Sam-nom’s would contain.
“I gave it some thought before I gave the marriage my consent,” said Hong Gyeong-rae. “I confess, because of you.”
This made Byeong-yeon look up.
“Do you love my daughter?” Hong Gyeong-rae asked, in ferocious simplicity.
“She’s very dear to me,” Byeong-yeon said, when he felt able to answer, and that was true, too.
“I wondered,” Master Hong said. “You see, I thought of asking her to marry you, with whom she would not need to have two wedding ceremonies, at only one of which her mother will be made welcome.”
“Yeong would never––”
“And yet, when I tried to see your future, all I could see was Nan-hui and myself,” Master Hong went on, ruthlessly. “She with her life; you, with your service.” He got up. “It’s better this way.”
“His Majesty is as steadfast in love as he is in duty,” Byeong-yeon said, for not even in this moment of transmutation could he pass up a chance to defend Yeong. “You will have a better son than any other.”
“Perhaps,” said Master Hong. “Did I tell you? Baekwoon volunteers have successfully petitioned the governor of Pyeong’an to build schools for the fishermen’s coves in Cheolsan. They begin in the spring.”
To Master Kim Byeong-yeon, the letter ran:
I’ve been holding out for your letters to arrive, but they seem to be mislaid season upon season. I imagine them to be variations on a theme. You are healthy, and busy, and have no time to return in between all your good works. You are consumed by the care of a young lady who, as of this writing, has just had a birthday. I imagine she will be tall for her age, just like Yeong-eun, and that she has Myeong-eun’s soft heart.
I can’t see her face, though. Try as I might, all I see is yours. I forget how you looked when we were children, but I remember your smile, because you smiled often as a child. You weren’t just tolerating Yoon-seong and I, were you? You liked playing with us, and getting into trouble over our pranks, and wouldn’t much rather have been reading? I wonder if you have books where you are, and the time to read, and rest, and write, even if it isn’t a letter.
There is some news. I asked Ra-on to marry me. She has agreed, after a certain amount of hesitation. Her bookstore is flourishing, and she is working on two new books, or perhaps three or four. I dislike being the cause of an interruption in her work, but I dislike our separation more. So lonely, and daunting, is my own task proving to be.
The situation demands it, so let me promise you, whom she considers her dearest friend, that I will love and cherish her, and place her happiness above all else. I’d be grateful if you could obtain similar reassurances from her, in your capacity as my friend, who was dear to me first.
We finish our preparations this winter, and the rites are to be held in the spring.
Wedding invitations are for guests, so don’t consider this any kind of formal request for the honour of your gracious presence, etc. Jang Hoon-nam has put aside a silk from Ilbon in a very handsome dove grey for your hanbok. Whenever you can, come.
With all my love for you and our little girl, Y.
They did eat at Yeong’s wedding feast, or an approximation of it. The bowing, scraping bureaucrats in Pyeong’an, who’d escaped prosecution by the skin of their teeth during the Kim indictments, hadn’t yet figured out that the new king was suspicious of all flattery; they’d spent a great deal of money laying on celebratory meals throughout the province to commemorate the wedding. The food stuck in his craw. Pyeong’an had been one of the worst affected provinces in the famine three years ago. He missed Paju and their friends almost as terribly as Cho-hui, who’d cried all along their journey up north.
But “Baba sad?” Cho-hui asked him, when she noticed.
“No,” he said, enveloping her in a hug. “Don’t you worry about me.”
It didn’t fool her. “No being sad, baba,” she said, eyes filling with tears again.
It was an inauspicious beginning, and the state of the fishing villages when he got there was a shock even to him. Byeong-yeon and a few other Baekwoon volunteers had come up here to work amidst a small and self-contained community of fisherfolk. Few among these people had boats, or even fishing-nets; they lived from day to day working with their hands, collecting shells, and catching fish that swept up when the tide fell.
The similarity to the Jesuit missions that defied border controls to live and preach among poor folks along Joseon’s borders wasn’t entirely coincidental. Master Hong disagreed on almost everything with the neo-Confucian orthodoxy, but he was as staunchly against religious conversions as Yeong’s most right-wing ministers. In consequence, the Baekwoon society was adapting itself to the same missions of service and care adopted––in falsehood, Master Hong was sure––by the French missionaries.
But when Michel Bonnot of the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris was captured and brought to the cove, Byeong-yeon understood there was no correct decision to be made. The law forbade foreigners on Joseon’s soil, but he was also able to guess at the international implications of retaliation. He could still hear Yoon-seong clearly in his mind. “The Europeans,” he’d told Yeong during one of their frosty, painful official meetings, “care about their clerics, but not so deeply that they won’t sacrifice them; the better to have an excuse to force new concessions, and rattle their spears ever louder.”
“So we won’t kill him,” Na Jeong-suk, a boy from Jeolla who’d trekked across the country to help build the new Cheolsan Bay Fishermen’s Hospital, protested. “Let justice be done by judges. We’ll truss him up and send him to the city.”
“That compounds the crime of his presence, and delays his sentencing,” Byeong-yeon answered. He turned to the white man, who was struggling to stay upright, though he’d been pushed to his knees by the fishermen who’d hauled him in, bloodied and bruised. “Thou’st committed a grave fault,” he said, in the classical Chinese he had learned from the royal tutors.
The foreigner was in early middle age, and had the most roguish smile Byeong-yeon had ever seen. “Forgive me,” he said, in the speech of Joseon, and a truly atrocious accent. “I seek no concession from you but refuge. My endeavour is only to wipe the tears of the sorrowing.”
“Well, you can’t do it here,” Byeong-yeon said, feeling unhinged: talking to a spirit tablet by the highway felt less strange. At least one had more idea of how a bodhisattva was supposed to behave than this white man.
He hadn’t realised then how good Michel was at figuring people out, and that he had Byeong-yeon all figured out. He looked Byeong-yeon straight in the eye and said, “All I ask is the chance to serve, as the least of your brothers.”
“How could you,” Na Jeong-suk remonstrated furiously with Byeong-yeon when he said to let the white man stand, and to undo his ropes. “You were an officer of the king,” he whispered. “You’re Master Hong’s favoured disciple!”
“How could I be an officer of the king and Master Hong’s disciple?” Byeong-yeon repeated. “By all means, Master Na, let us keep him from leaving the cove, and restrict him from preaching.”
“We can’t keep him alive,” Jeong-suk pleaded.
“You just said we can’t kill him,” Byeong-yeon said, and it turned out he could figure people out, too, after a fashion, because Père Michel Bonnot didn’t just come to tell the hard-bitten shell-fishers of Pyeong’an that a dead man on a crucifix would save them. He was a doctor who rolled up his sleeves and got into the business of keeping them safe himself.
“You studied midwifery?” Byeong-yeon asked him, the day the fisherfolk stopped looking at Master Bonnot as a sea-demon who deserved their sufferance, and started seeing him as a useful human being. He’d spent a whole day with a young woman in labour and pulled off a miracle in getting mother and newborn twins through the ordeal, alive.
“Among other things,” Master Bonnot said, gratefully accepting the wine Byeong-yeon and Na Jeong-suk had brought him, tipping the skin back to pour down his throat. His Joseon speech was improving by leaps and bounds. “We don’t give enough attention to women who need medicine. It seems a shame to me: the world owes its whole life to the sacrifice of the mother.”
“No preaching,” Byeong-yeon warned. He’d heard that Catholics told stories about the mother of their saviour, a goddess in human form. Master Bonnot laughed.
“No preaching,” he agreed. “Only living. Thank you, Master Baekwoon,” and then, twinkling, “and little Master Baekwoon,” to Na Jeong-suk, who scowled.
Whatever else might be said about his habits, his looks and his manners, Master Bonnot won Byeong-yeon over by his capacity for hard work. The man was bookish, too, and under the hawk eye of the Baekwoon had taken to teaching the Roman alphabet to two or three people, who picked up a rudimentary French vocabulary from him: good morning, thank you, I belong to Joseon. Byeong-yeon did not have the time to attend these classes, but he found himself walking alongside Master Bonnot more often than not on the evenings he took Cho-hui out to the rocky beach. Master Bonnot knew how to hold his peace as Cho-hui babbled herself out of questions and fancies, and then as Byeong-yeon rocked her to sleep.
The acquaintance helped when Cho-hui came down with a fever after playing in the sea with some older children. Byeong-yeon looked at her, red and shivering, wrapped up in their blanket, then caught her up and raced to the hut Master Bonnot shared with the volunteer physicians who’d come to aid the new Baekwoon hospital.
“My daughter,” he said, weak with terror. She’d had colic and colds and tummy ailments before, but never had she been so still in his arms. “Doctor––”
“You’re about to fall over,” Master Bonnot said, firmly. He took Cho-hui from him, and peered at her watery eyes, put a hollow reed over her chest and listened to her breathing.
“She’ll be miserable for a few days,” he told Byeong-yeon. “Then, fine. Don’t worry, Master Baekwoon, you have a strong daughter.”
Master Bonnot was to make the same assurances many times over up and down the stretch of the northern coast that winter, many of them to parents whose children did not have Cho-hui’s constitution. As ice and snow kept people indoors and huddled together, a contagion swept through the shacks and cave dwellings of the north-eastern coast of Joseon. Had Michel Bonnot lived a hundred years later, he would have sent his patients home with prescriptions for rest and fluids. But in that year, he had very few tools at his disposal, and the flu wreaked havoc on the malnourished seaside, hunting down the weak, the hungry, the old and the very young.
It came for one last prey towards the spring: the overworked. Cho-hui’s cold-water fever had passed as quickly as Master Bonnot predicted, and she had already forgotten it. Far worse for her was waking up one morning, fidgeting and tetchy, to find that her father’s face was so hot it was unpleasant to touch, and that he wouldn’t wake no matter how hard she shook him.
“No!” she screamed, when Na Jeong-suk and his wife tried to pull her away from Byeong-yeon, who’d gone from having an irritating chill to full-blown fever overnight. “Cho-hui stays with abeoji!”
“Michel stays with abeoji,” the stranger with the cat’s eyes told her, firmly but kindly, in his funny voice. For four days he tended to Byeong-yeon, forcing gruel and water down his burning throat twice a day; keeping him warm and clean; and studying the local physician’s herbal remedies and supplementing them, where he could, with his own.
Byeong-yeon retained little memory of the illness after the worst was over. He was appalled to return to consciousness and find himself confined to bed on strict medical orders; it was too much like that other, painful convalescence. He agreed not to see Cho-hui, less in concern for himself and more to keep her away from seeing him useless and exhausted.
“Master Baekwoon!” Michel said sternly one evening, raising his head from the only book in his possession, which he read every day. “Kindly be still. The world turns without needing you to spin it on its axis.”
“I’m bored,” Byeong-yeon rattled.
“That is not a fatal condition, sadly for those nursing ungrateful patients.”
Byeong-yeon glared at him as best as he could. “What are you reading?”
“You know what it is,” Master Bonnot said, quietly. “You have forbidden me from reading it aloud.”
“Well, it seems you’ve forbidden the whole turning world from coming within earshot of this room,” Byeong-yeon said. “You may read to me.” And so Master Bonnot read him the words of Isaiah, not in the speech of Joseon but in the literary Chinese they both knew: Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgement / And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place; as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.
“I’ve heard of Jerusalem,” Byeong-yeon said, when Master Bonnot fell quiet. “Are these other places real––Nineveh, and Chaldea, and Armenia?”
“I have not seen them,” said Master Bonnot. “Perhaps one day I shall.”
“Fairy stories,” Byeong-yeon snorted, but they smiled at each other.
By the time he regained his strength, spring had blossomed along the coast, and Cho-hui was going to the small new village school, the youngest in her cohort. The other students enjoyed her company, and were amused to have her among them. Sitting straight-backed and quiet as the teacher read the lesson for the day, she looked indomitable; just like her father, everyone said.
“I never thanked you,” Byeong-yeon told Master Bonnot, when he encountered him on a beach ramble: school mornings were affording him the previously unthinkable pleasure of an hour’s walk to himself. “I’ve been told before that I’m a terrible patient.”
“He who gets well is a good patient,” Master Bonnot said simply, and closed the book he was reading. “I am happy for your recovery. May I join you?”
It was another consequence of his changed circumstances that it did not occur to Byeong-yeon that he was going to say yes before he had done so, nor that he would mean it. Oh, he thought, looking at Master Bonnot framed in the early morning sunlight. He drank in the sight of his greying temples, and of the dimple in his chin. There was that curve of his throat, and fucking hell, Kim Byeong-yeon, he’d been looking at it since the day he’d first seen the man tip his head back to swallow a mouthful of wine. There was a line of dirt at the back of his neck. The thin stem, exposed by the man’s short hair, looked shockingly vulnerable. You’ve become slow.
He opened his mouth to say something. He’d never beaten around the bush on this account, except with––
“I thought you were alone in this world but for Kim Cho-hui,” Master Bonnot said.
“Pardon?” Byeong-yeon said, thrown off-track.
“You called for someone, once or twice, when you were sick,” he said, “It sounded like you had met the living in your fever dream, and not the dead.”
“I’m not alone in the world,” Byeong-yeon said, after a moment. He wasn’t, of course. There was more of him, almost all of him, left behind in someone else’s keeping.
“I thought it might be better to keep your friends out of your sickroom,” Master Bonnot said, boldly. “It did not sound to me like a woman’s name.”
He turned towards Master Bonnot, who had him figured out; who had figured him out all long. They were in a shaded, lonely part of the cove. Out on the falling tide, the boats were still too far from land for anyone to see.
“Come here,” Byeong-yeon said, and let himself be kissed and clung to, which Master Bonnot did with a desperation that seemed charming at first. But when they disengaged, breathless, Byeong-yeon was surprised to see tears track down the thin white face in his hands.
“This is what you get for trying to outrun yourself, to the end of the world,” Master Bonnot said, bitterly. “Your fear, that has outwaited you, and the most beautiful man the Lord made.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Byeong-yeon said, tilting his chin and kissing him softly. Master Bonnot’s mouth twisted unhappily.
“I am under vows of chastity,” he said. “Have you ever broken a promise in your life, Master Baekwoon? It’s a stain on the soul.” And Byeong-yeon, who really hadn’t ever broken a promise, understood the dishonour, and regretted the choice Master Bonnot had to make.
“Alright,” he said, and stepped away. The sound of the rushing waves behind him found an echo in some small, hollow place within him. “I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Master Bonnot said. “I've been trying to tempt you since the day I met you. I believed that you, like an oak tree, would never bend; I’ve been going mad with hope that you would. Forgive me. Pity me, if you can.”
There was nothing to forgive, and Byeong-yeon wasn’t the sort to turn away from his friends in their troubles. That was perhaps the thing that lasted, long after the feeling of that first kiss had faded; the knowledge that even here, far away from all the things and people that had made him and Cho-hui who they were, they had friends. They could make a difference in the lives of others, and be liked, and perhaps loved.
“The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom like the rose,” he said aloud one morning, out walking with Michel. “What?” he said, when he looked up into Michel’s surprised face. “Your Isaiah knew how to write poetry.”
The pirates attacked in the summer before Cho-hui’s fifth birthday.
The first outsiders to turn up, though, came on horseback, not by boat: couriers from the Navy of Joseon. “Oh no, it’s unlikely fighting will actually extend this far up north,” the dispatch officer who asked to meet them said. “We’re scoping out safe harbour for supply and medical stations. Never saw much hope for it on this part of the coast, but the reports over the last few seasons have been glowing, thanks to you rebels. Former rebels! No offence.”
“None taken,” Master Na said, graciously, but before Byeong-yeon could turn away, the young sailor said, “And I have a message for Officer Kim, unless I am mistaken in your august colleague?” and Master Na beamed and said, “Of course, may I present our leader, Kim Byeong-yeon,” and the captain bowed low and said, “Vice-admiral’s on his way to see you, sir.”
“Your great-grandfather studied with Damheon,” Vice-admiral Cha said. He was a quiet man, with something of the remoteness of the seas on which he’d spent most of his life about him. “He would have been proud that a grandson of his followed the sage’s teachings: to work with one’s hands, and to remove poverty and ignorance.”
“Thank you,” Byeong-yeon said, moved in spite of himself. In trying not to think about his life before, it had been even easier to push back his faded memories of the other life he’d been meant to live; the one he was born into and educated for, before before. But the admiral was Byeong-yeon’s mother’s first cousin, and something about the family resemblance––perhaps it was the way he stood, or his deep, deliberate voice––was unnerving.
“I’m glad to see you, nephew,” Admiral Cha said. “I have no excuses to make for our neglect of you. But you were in our thoughts, and your aunt prayed for you. What you did for his Majesty, in the palace––” It was easy to see that he was a sincere man, and sincerely sorry.
“I would be ashamed to cause you a moment’s regret,” Byeong-yeon said, trying to end the awkwardness. “And I would have been more ashamed still to have you risk your life, and your family’s, to protect me when I was nothing more than a criminal’s grandson.”
“Yet you yourself are far from home,” Admiral Cha said, with a faint smile, “bringing up someone else’s daughter. No, I don’t wish to gain your secrets. Only, I knew my sister, and I know her boy would scorn to hide any child of his from the world.”
He watched Byeong-yeon’s face for a while, as one or other lie tried to make its way out, and died on Byeong-yeon’s lips.
“I don’t have a home,” Byeong-yeon said, finally.
“I thought you might say that,” Admiral Cha replied. “I wished to tell you, on behalf of the clan, that we would like––that we would be grateful to have the chance to correct the wrongs of the past. Byeong-yeon, come back. Come to my house. Take a rest from your labours, and think about your future.”
“My future,” Byeong-yeon said, blankly.
“You are young. The civils are still open to you. The king would restore your military career, should you ask for it back. And if you wish to do neither, and continue this work of yours, there’s plenty to do in our villages. We would welcome the child, and give her a household.”
“Cho-hui,” Byeong-yeon said. “Her name is Cho-hui.”
“Think about it,” Admiral Cha said. “I didn’t mean to ambush you,” though of course, he was a warrior, and had come to do exactly that.
“I left for a reason,” Byeong-yeon parried. “I’m sorry. You will think me ungrateful.”
“Reason changes with time,” the admiral said.
“It may,” Byeong-yeon said, and stood. “Won’t you take a meal with us? The school kitchen makes a good abalone soup. My little miss will like to meet you, though I should warn you: she thinks all grandparents exist to make a big fuss over her, and spoil her.” But Admiral Cha looked uncomfortable; “What?” Byeong-yeon said, his senses turning on alert.
“About the village,” Admiral Cha said. “I’ve been tasked with making certain inquiries.”
“Yes?” He thought back rapidly, to the market records, and the account books for the new buildings, and––oh.
“Have you really been hiding a Jesuit here, Byeong-yeon?” Admiral Cha said.
“We didn’t have anywhere to send him,” Byeong-yeon said, his heart beating fast. “The Qing––”
“I trust you did the best you could under the circumstances,” Admiral Cha said. “The district magistrate even said he felt compelled not to interfere, since he's been so popular at this new hospital of yours. But now they wonder if he preaches his book to the dying––”
“It’s the Baekwoon’s hospital,” Byeong-yeon said. He hadn't felt real anger in a long time; he had to remember how he used to conceal it. “And he is a qualified physician, valued by his colleagues. Didn’t the sage Damheon also wish us to learn from others?”
“I am not authorised to be in philosophical argument with you,” Admiral Cha said, frowning. “But surely we do not find ourselves at odds on the matter of obeying the law.”
Byeong-yeon bit back his answer. It was one thing to place justice above the law when tyranny ruled the land; but Admiral Cha was right.
“I am causing you trouble,” Michel said, regretfully, when he went to find him late that night. They'd sent him to hide away: Admiral Cha had stayed until sunset, eaten and drunk with the villagers, and allayed their fears about pirates and the Joseon Navy alike. He'd even given Cho-hui a little bead ring and told her to “Come stay with harabeonim and halmeonim soon.”
“You’ve caused me trouble since the day I met you,” Byeong-yeon said, sitting down next to him on the beach. “I don’t want you to feel trapped.”
“It’s a trap I made for myself, the day I left France,” Michel said. “No, the day I joined the Church. Shall I turn myself in to the district magistrate? Nurse Pyo says he is an honest man.”
“And then?” Byeong-yeon said. “They’re not going to––what’s your word?––‘martyr’ you. Will you accept a prison cell for the rest of your days, with Nurse Pyo in the next cell, perhaps, and all the others at the hospital who’ve adopted you, and hidden you, and sat in your classes?”
“To hell with martyrdom,” Michel said, feelingly. “Look, I’m not going to recant. It would be a betrayal of my ancestors.”
“Yes,” he said. “And your angels and saints.”
“My fairy stories, you mean?” Michel asked, with a small smile.
“They’re your stories,” Byeong-yeon said. “That’s what matters.”
“You’re right about that,” Michel said, slowly. “The more I dwell on their importance, the more I am certain of a change in my life's purpose."
“What does that mean?”
“I am going to leave the clergy,” Michel said. “In my heart, I already had, but now my mind accepts it too. If the kingdom of Joseon has no objection to my staying here and continuing my medical work, I’ll do so. Otherwise here, or in the Qing, or back home: it doesn’t matter. You––all of you––have taught me what it means to do the work of God.”
“You’ll accept our ways, and live like us?” Byeong-yeon said. Michel only looked him up and down, and then cast an eye on himself. They were dressed identically, in the homespun working clothes that every man on this coast wore. Michel even wore a gat on his head.
“Right,” Byeong-yeon said, and laughed. “Listen, I have a plan. Admiral Cha is in these parts for another––”
“I am sorry to interrupt you, Byeong-yeon; I do so with the utmost trepidation, but may I kiss you again?” Michel asked, in a rush.
“––Oh,” Byeong-yeon said. He’d put it out of his mind after their last, melancholy embrace; he’d valued the comradeship that sprang up in place of the dalliance too much. Now he thought of how his name sounded in Michel’s mouth; of how, in fact, he’d just said it, soft and rounded, the nasal consonants elided. He leaned forward and slid his fingers over the nape of Michel’s neck, tangling in the low knot of hair he’d grown in the year since their previous kiss.
“Are your vows forfeit?” he asked, touching his lips to Michel’s. They were chapped, like his own. His breath was coming quick, and hot.
“Yes,” Michel breathed, “I will account for everything before my god. And he will forgive me everything.”
It was a kiss as desperate as before, but the eagerness was not only on Michel’s part this time. They went clumsily at first, bumping knees and elbows, sleeves snagging, the gat knocked off Michel’s head. “You have to be quiet,” Byeong-yeon warned Michel, before kissing a trail down his stomach, and opening his pants. Michel gasped when Byeong-yeon took his jutting cock in his hand, but covered his mouth and muffled his cries. Byeong-yeon gave him a light, easy stroke, and suckled the tip, then slid his mouth over it and took him in deep. Desire broke in a wave; he hadn’t had sex in so long, hadn’t sucked a cock in so long. Memories returned, of doing this in truculent silence in the dark corners of the military academy, of the buzz of finding a man with whom to enjoy it in the alleyways behind the gibangs.
Michel came, filling his mouth with salt, the taste of a lush heat. He coughed and spat into the sand, and sat up, wiping his mouth. Michel’s smile was euphoric; the sight of it made him smile too, and feel a rush of affection for this lonely and defiant rogue, so different from anyone he’d known.
“I want to do that to you, please,” Michel said, when Byeong-yeon hauled himself up and pressed his body over Michel’s. He drew down to kiss him lightly, to calm him down, to pass the taste of the pleasure back to him.
“You may,” Byeong-yeon said, “but I want your kisses now,” and Michel tilted his head just so, and moaned as Byeong-yeon licked into his mouth. Kiss melted into kiss, and tempered some of the intensity of the suckjob. It was easier to rub his own hard-on against the crease of Michael's thigh; to set a pace that didn't drive him mad, and just enjoy the feeling of being in someone's arms, of the sweetness of being wanted.
"Give me your hand," he whispered after a while, and Michel appeared to know this part well, at least. He teased and fondled and rubbed Byeong-yeon, and made him lose a little of his mind again.
"That's it," Michel said, against the shell of Byeong-yeon's ear, and nibbled at its sensitive curve. "Finish on me, make me dirty, make me wet," and Byeong-yeon's breath hitched, and he spilled, as Michel asked, over his cock and belly.
They stayed out until the tide started to turn, then cleaned themselves up in the icy sea-water and returned, stamping the cold out of their feet, to the village. Cho-hui was sleeping at Master Na's house. "Come to the office,” Byeong-yeon said, and led him to the clerks' room at the hospital. He lit a lamp, sat at the long table where they came to do budgeting and lawyering, and pulled out a sheet of paper.
He did not have to think about what he was going to say, he found; he already knew. When he took the inkbrush in his hand he also knew what language he would say it in. In the childish code they'd created as bored schoolboys one day, he wrote:
Had I but one person in the world to trust, it would be you.
When the ink dried, he folded it flat, and put it in a rough envelope, which he stamped with his own, rarely used personal seal. He addressed it in both Han characters and hanggul.
“Admiral Cha owes me a favour,” he told Michel. “Should you agree, I will ask him to take you into custody, and return with you to the capital, and to the court of the king. There will be some hardship: they cannot be seen to favour you on my account, and your offence is non-bailable. But unless you mislay this letter, you will get fair treatment, and a fair hearing.”
Michel looked at the title on the envelope, and sat down.
“We used to make up stories, when we were small, about the European who met the Wanli emperor,” Byeong-yeon said. “He’ll enjoy meeting you. Tell him about your King Cyrus.”
Michel’s blue eyes were fathomless in the candlelight. “What shall I tell him about you?” he asked.
“Nothing. Don't burden him,” Byeong-yeon said. “Try to understand, if you can.”
“I will,” Michel said. “I will try. Will I see you again––my lord?”
“I would prefer to remain Byeong-yeon,” he said, and blew out the candles, and kissed Michel one last time in the starlit dark.
“But why?” Cho-hui demanded, at their first rest on the north bank of the Amrok river.
“Eat your soup, we have to sleep quickly. We don’t belong to the shore people, baby owl. We were guests there for a while, and it’s time for us to move on.”
“It means to owe yourself to a place, or a people.”
“That sounds bad,” Cho-hui reflected. Byeong-yeon took the spoon and scooped out some rice to feed her. He didn’t like to hurry her at her meals, or baby her now that she was perfectly capable of eating on her own. But crossing out of Joseon, something he’d never expected to be able to do in this lifetime, had been exhausting. Even though his child and their packs weighed next to nothing, he felt the burden as though he were carrying the moon itself on his back. “Why couldn’t we take everyone else with us, then?”
“It’s good to belong to a place, if you’re born there,” Byeong-yeon said, “or if you make a promise that binds you.”
“Why didn’t we belong where we were born?”
“We––” He’d thought about this a lot, but it was typical: called on to answer, he had to invent the whole reason again. “It’s good to go away, too.”
“But school,” she said again. “And Mi-ja and Weol and Rim and––”
“Do you know you’re one of the first people––the first little girl––to leave Joseon in a very long time?” Byeong-yeon said. “Our country has just opened up trade on the rivers we crossed today. People couldn’t take those boats before, unless they were very old and powerful. That’s good, isn’t it? You have to see everything and meet everyone and remember it all, so you can tell your friends about it.”
She was fretting, he could see, but she knew better than to fly into a tantrum. “Last bite,” he said, firmly. She opened her mouth for the food, chewed and swallowed.
“Are we in France now?” she asked him, and then: “Why are you laughing?”
He’d had no clear intention of leaving before Admiral Cha visited; quite the opposite. It was even a relief, in some large and hurtful and indescribable way, to let himself be seen by Yeong again, to write him a letter, to send him a messenger in the person of Michel. It was out of the question for his Majesty to travel so far from the palace, he surmised; but there might be a letter of answer. There might even be, eventually, a correspondence. Byeong-yeon found, now that he had written the first line, that he wanted to write to Yeong very badly indeed; that he had been wanting to write to him since that unbearably loving letter that had come to Paju, long ago. Whenever you can, come.
But then realisation came, and with it, the end of complacency. “To Incheon?” he’d said, when he discovered one of the young lieutenants currently scrambling over their formerly quiet cove was a native of the Gyeonggi coast, and hastening thence on furlough. “I wonder if I can trouble you to take a letter of mine to a friend who lives there. His name is Kim Yoon-seong.”
“I’ll gladly carry your letters,” the lieutenant had said, frowning, “but if you mean the artist Kim Yoon-seong, he doesn’t live there anymore. He packed up his studio and left, the winter before last. My father said something about a robbery, or an attempted robbery, or maybe a fire: no, no one hurt, so far as I know. It’s a shame. A couple of my friends who paint said he was an excellent teacher. A child? A nephew, wasn’t it? Went with him, as far as I know.”
Someone tried to hurt you when you were very small, Cho-hui ya, was the explanation he’d practiced, for when she got old enough to ask him about where she came from. So abeoji took you away to where they wouldn’t find you, while our friends back home tried to find the bad people, and explain that what they did was wrong, and should make them sorry. But even this was too much. She was too young and too joyful to be told that she had an enemy, much less who the enemies were. Hong Gyeong-rae’s early search for the arsonists in the palace had proved fruitless, the more so since he could not very well bring up talk of the false queen’s daughter without giving rise to speculation about where that daughter might be.
It would be alright, he thought. They had made a good life among strangers. They had done it far from home. They could do so farther still.
Cho-hui had a decisive way about her that, unreasonably and out of all keeping with reality, reminded him of his own mother. In the morning, readying themselves for the cart ride to Shenyang, she told him, “I won’t be able to tell Mi-ja everything unless you write it down.”
“You remember well enough when it suits you,” he said, and stifled the impulse to smother her in a hug. She was so good. “What do you want me to write?”
“Everything we see and do and eat, and all the people,” she advised him.
“And what will you do, Madam Professor?” he asked.
“What’s a professor?” she said.
“Someone who creates and analyses knowledge for the public,” he said, and then amended the explanation: “Someone who reads and writes a lot.” Her face brightened. “I’m going to teach you to do both, so you can keep your own diary.”
“Yay! What’s a diary?” she said, and didn’t stop talking, or asking questions, except to eat, or sleep, or when another adult came to speak to them.
It was a long time before they ran out of paper or ink. Cho-hui was dumb-founded at the size of Shenyang, the great city of the north-eastern Qing. There was more to see and do than she had ever imagined there could be in a single place in her life. Byeong-yeon had to fight for his own equanimity: fucking hell, Kim Byeong-yeon. And this was only the old Manchu capital, nothing more than a regional headquarters for centuries now.
“What must Peking be like?” he wondered; “And Benares, and the Jerusalem of Michel’s book?”
“Are they more bigger?” Cho-hui asked him.
“Just ‘bigger,’” he said. “And yes, they’re capitals of the world, as old or older than Joseon itself.”
“Will there be more money for candy there?” she asked, too-innocent.
“There won’t be any more teeth in your head,” he said, sternly, to avoid laughing; she had a gap where her front teeth used to be now.
Schooling for Cho-hui was hard. He had to write primers in the Joseon alphabet and Han script himself, since there were none to be had. He found work with his compatriots, but the Joseon traders and agents in Shenyang worked day and night, and consequently he had to be on call as a man-of-all-work, working alongside them as a scribe one day, a foreman the next, a guard the third; and nothing on days he couldn’t find a way to keep Cho-hui safe and supervised.
“So I’ll pay you to hire a nurse for her,” a Joseon businessman said, impatiently. “Just put her in a classroom with the porters’ children, if they want to come learn. I’m surprised, Master Kim, that you don’t think it’s your duty to remarry, and spare us all this trouble.”
It was easier than he expected to hire two smart young women who taught letters and numbers, and who kept an eye out for the small girls who were allowed to come to the little primary school he set up in their bustling, run-down neighbourhood. He took classes himself, whenever he could, for students ranging from five to fifty: a couple of old labourers came in asking if it was too late for them to learn, and he hadn’t the heart to say no.
Cho-hui herself took to life in the Qing like a duck to water, her Han speech improving over Byeong-yeon’s in leaps and bounds. But her little heart had acquired its first scars; and though Mi-ja and Rim and her other friends from their shore life were slowly forgotten, she did not readily give her love to new friends again.
Nor did her classmates quite know what to make of the foreign girl, and her high-handed ways. So that autumn, when he asked her, “Shall we take Uncle Mo and Uncle Kwak’s caravan to Suzhou? It’ll take us many days, and we’ll have to take a boat, on the sea,” she said, only: “Will we see a junk from India?” and accompanied him serenely into the shark-infested waters of the transforming global economy.
The Joseon merchants could not hope to compete with others on matters of scale and efficiency, and instead took to offering luxury commodities, whose first buyers were too-rich Chinese cosmopolitans. This was not a matter of great stress for Byeong-yeon. He’d held a person's life in his hands, often all by himself, since before he’d become an adult. The terrain was unfamiliar, and the risks all too apparent, but it was hard to feel anxiety over ensuring the safety of silks and calligraphy and precious stones.
But there was, even here, the satisfaction of a job well done. His compatriots took comfort in the unflappable manner of Master ‘Kim Rip,’ as they nicknamed him because of his sloped hat. His manners and palace accent ensured that they paid him what he was worth. And more precious than the savings in his purse was the sight of Cho-hui running ahead of him and kicking up the leaves fallen from the old wutong trees that grew along Suzhou’s main street, P––– Road.
“It’s a palace! With books!” she said, her eyes huge as she stopped in front of the doorway of one of the grand bookstores lining the gracious old canal. “It’s not real, abeoji? We’re in fairyland?”
“I don’t know,” he said, in all honesty, and laughed. That morning, business had taken him to the house of a senior bureaucrat on N–– Street, where the sight of the Garden Rebuilt had taken his breath away. As boys in the palace library, they’d burned the midnight oil reading Choe Bu’s diary of being shipwrecked in Suzhou, written hundreds of years earlier. He’d never thought he’d get to see the beauty he’d only imagined for himself in this grand city of the waters.
“It’s better than fairyland,” he said, heart aching.
“There’s another one up ahead, with more books,” Cho-hui said, running back to him and jumping up and down with his hand in hers. “Let’s just see, just one little peek.”
He told her she could choose one book with pictures, and then guiltily spent more money than he’d intended by buying a book for himself, too. They ate bread and tea on the bank of a canal, then rested against a vast tree and looked at their books, and the clouds, and the boats passing them by, where the boatmen waved at Cho-hui as she ran up and down saying “Hello! Hie! Travel well!” in Hànyǔ and Manchu and Joseon-mal. As night fell, they wandered into a teahouse to eat dumplings, and saw a flyer for a concert being held in one of the big inns nearby. The girl manning the entry smiled when she saw Cho-hui, and gave her a little sugared wonton with her ticket.
The music was enchanting. Tired as she was, Cho-hui clung to his knees and watched, fascinated, as dancers in orange and purple and blazing green silks glided across the stage, in accompaniment. “I want to write it all, I want to remember it all,” she piped, bubbling over with excitement as he carried her back to their rooming-house. “Abeoji, I am going to remember everything about this perfect day, it was perfect, don’t you think it was perfect?”
“I liked spending it with you,” he said, tapping her nose. “You can stay up for one more gak, and tell me all the things you want to remember. I’ll write it down for you quickly, and you can add to it tomorrow when you wake up.”
They wrote down: the bells at the doorway of the boarding-house, the yellow silk jacket that Cho-hui got to wear because it was cold, the crackle of the fallen leaves of the parasol trees, all the bookstore keepers who told them stories from their books, the evening lights on the canal, the opera.
He stayed awake after Cho-hui had curled herself up into a ball under her blanket, doodling before he wrote: A stranger gave Cho-hui a sweet, to be kind.
Suddenly he could not stop writing. He wanted to write it all, to remember it all, just as Cho-hui said. He wanted to carry the gardens and waters, the shops and music, back to Joseon, cupped in the palms of his hands.
He wrote through the tiger hours, and when the rooster in their courtyard crowed, added a small poem in the margin of his prose.
My daughter, he wrote before he closed the book, is getting too big for me to carry.
Then he blew out the lamp, down to the stub of its wick, and put his hand over Cho-hui’s outflung palm. He slept dreamlessly until the sun rose high in the sky.
His early lessons in pride and protocol did not stand him in good stead here. He cringed each time he found himself on the wrong foot in this foreign country, and then felt ashamed of his cringing. He was hardly alone in his puzzlement: Suzhou was one of the world’s great cities, and awed every outsider who set foot therein.
It was only months later that Jindan told him that his manner helped her make up her mind about the Joseon deal.
“It was embarrassment,” he replied. “I was too shy to talk to you.”
“Well, it came across as dignity,” she said; “or at least, some value uncompromised.”
The first time he met her, she was still Bibi Jind Kaur, a woman more alien than any he had ever known. He was in the labour markets on the eastern side of the city to hire a boat team for the merchants, who were going up-canal to Peking. Here were the dregs of the sparkling waters of the aristocratic western part of Suzhou, the cacophony and unhygienic bustle in total contrast with the elegance of the wealthy quarters. Yet there was something about it that felt more honestly appealing. It was a place of unpleasant and necessary tasks, and Byeong-yeon knew how to face those down.
They were concluding their business when a sudden commotion a little way up the embankment caught their attention: an altercation, in which a crew of boatmen seemed to have clashed with a squad of goons, and, unable to match their strength, slunk off. “Take your money back,” Byeong-yeon heard one of the boat people say to an elderly man with ink-stained hands, as he got closer. “You’ll have to find someone else.”
“That’s the third crew you’ve robbed us of!” they heard the old man complain. “Don’t think we won’t fight you with everything we’ve got!”
“You’ve nothing, Zhou Tianyu,” the roughneck looming over the embankment said. “Get you gone, and don’t come back here again with this runaway slu––”
“Uncle Zhou, let it be,” the woman said in a low voice, coming forward. Byeong-yeon stared for a moment before he remembered his manners. She was tall and brown-skinned, with the features of a westerner, from Afghan country, or the Punjab. Her face was uncovered, and clearly showed the signs of exhaustion. Her garments were foreign, but they all recognised their colour for what it was: widow’s white, only the hems discoloured by mud and water.
“We’ve cargo for Guangzhou, and then to Calcutta,” Uncle Zhou complained, when Byeong-yeon’s companion, Master Cho Man-hyeok, inquired about the problem. “Damn these goons, and their pox-stricken masters!”
“Where’s her family?” Master Cho asked.
Uncle Zhou’s face fell. “Her man’s dead barely six months, poor soul. She’s moving the trade back to India, but the business partner won’t have it: he wants to buy her out at a pittance. That’s her only family,” he said, and they looked over to see a slumbering baby in the arms of a maidservant, crouched under an awning.
Master Cho turned back to Uncle Zhou. “Did you say Calcutta?”
Cho Man-hyeok, young, good-looking and well-born, was making a fair bid to be the leader of the Joseon consortium. He had been in the Qing for years already, not being especially fond of his yangban family back in Hanyang, though Byeong-yeon secretly thought he was exactly like them in every respect other than his unusual flair for business.
“Where do you think all the silver from the Qing is going?” he argued to the other Joseon men, when they met at a teahouse to puzzle over the woman at the embankment. “It’s pouring into India.”
“Yes, from the same spigot which pours out India’s opium when it's turned the other way,” said Master Kwak, his business partner from Shenyang. “Indians don’t buy others’ wares, they make them: or did, until the English came. No, Man-hyeok, I don’t care how sad this foreigner’s story is. Joseon didn’t give us permission to roam beyond the Qing.”
“Even in Joseon they now know that there is no centre of the world,” Master Cho pointed out.
“It’s too big a risk."
“It would be, were we a grand firm seeking to outwit the East India Company, or his Imperial Majesty,” Master Cho said. “As independent small traders from Joseon, looking for knowledge of the world, we excite no one’s envy, and provoke no illicit suspicion. A person, trapped in tragic circumstances, requires assistance her gender makes it difficult for her to otherwise obtain. She possesses her late husband’s licence to leave this country by sea, in addition to a small and robust cargo of silk. We merely seek to enlarge it with our own wares. In Calcutta, we are awaited by the world’s newest and most unpredictable market of wealthy people, looking to spend money on things of which they know little.”
“I’m not in favour,” Master Kwak said, but the others were falling under Master Cho’s spell. Everyone had read Journey to the West, and even besides the literary consideration there was the arithmetic one. Not even the Qing compared to Indostan as a market for fine goods.
“You can do it for profit, or because you want to help someone in need,” Byeong-yeon said, speaking up at last. “Conflating our motives reduces any chance of success at either.”
“So I’ll do it for profit,” Master Cho said, coolly. “You do it to help her.”
“What? No. It’s not my business,” Byeong-yeon said.
“It will be when you look at your purse,” Master Cho said. “Come on, let’s go eat something delicious and talk it over. Has Miss Cho-hui tasted Cangshu mutton yet?”
It was clear that he was being lobbied. But neither royal tutoring, nor the Baekwoon, had taught Byeong-yeon how to resist a force of nature; and Master Cho, who would one day control over a third of all exports out of Joseon to the world, was already a formidable colleague. It was with a sense of resignation that Byeong-yeon found himself sitting next to Master Cho later that night, in a guest room in an inn, in front of the Indian woman.
“I am not so desperate that I would choose to lose my trade to an unknown person over a known one,” Jind Kaur said. “You have been polite, master from Joseon, and I thank you for the courtesy. But I have very few people to trust in this world.”
“Your known person is your enemy,” Master Cho, looking boldly into Jind Kaur’s uncovered face, said. “I am not asking you to trust a stranger, madam; just his money. Half up front, half through my banker in Guangzhou, once we are safely in Bengal.”
Jind Kaur shook her leonine head. “I cannot hope to safeguard my daughter’s inheritance if it begins, at the outset, with subterfuge.”
“Nor am I asking you to commit a crime,” Master Cho said, which seemed impressive to Byeong-yeon. He would have found it impossible to argue so aggressively with a lady, much less make it seem like he was simply making a calm assertion of the forms. “Merely to consider the disadvantages to which you are put by regulations––not laws, but guidelines––which are made to exclude persons such as yourself from the markets of the world.”
She smiled, faintly, for the first time since they had seen her. “I am familiar with the politics of the free market.”
“Then I urge you to consider the solidarity of others who are deterred, as you are, for reasons out of their control,” Master Cho said. “You will have my aid. My colleague, Master Kim, is a military officer of great renown in our nation. He will be more than a match for the petty criminals who seek to deter you, and will safeguard your interests exactly as he does ours.”
He had judged the moment well. Doubt flickered on the face of Jind Kaur.
Then it was all transformed by an impressively loud wail: not the mewl of a newborn still reconciling with the world of light and air, but an infant impatient for its will to be done.
“Forgive me,” Jind Kaur said, distressed, after the cries had continued for some time. “Chi Mei, please bring her here.”
A door opened and her maid came in with the baby. Jind Kaur took it into her arms and laid her cheek on its bumpy head, as much to be soothed as to soothe. Byeong-yeon felt a small shock go through him with the sense memory of having held Cho-hui exactly like this, time and time over, on that first journey––gods, what had he been thinking?––out of Hanyang.
“Allow us to wait outside,” Master Cho said, politely, and backed out towards the screen door. There, he was nearly tripped over by Cho-hui, who’d been waiting impatiently for them.
“I heard a baby,” she said to Byeong-yeon, in what she imagined was a whisper. “Can we play with it?”
“Who’s there?” Jind Kaur asked, alert to the sound of a new language: Master Cho and she had so far conversed wholly in Han speech. Cho-hui peeked out from behind Byeong-yeon’s legs. Her eyes went wide as she beheld the infant and the beautiful woman, both classes of people to whom she was extremely susceptible.
“Who is this?” Jind Kaur asked, kindly.
“I am Cho-hui, Master Kim is my father,” she said, promptly, and bowed.
Jind Kaur smiled. Byeong-yeon turned to glare at Master Cho, who stood with his back to the whole scene, hands serenely clasped behind himself.
The Pema, a nimble little merchant junk, set sail from Suzhou harbour in two weeks’ time, to light rains and a benevolent easterly wind. At Guangzhou, called Canton by the British, Uncle Zhou and Bibi Jind Kaur, aided by the intrepid Armenian banker who was betting on Master Cho to strike it big in the trade, the Pema transferred her crew and cargo to the Nurgess, a ship six times larger than herself. On board, for the first time in living memory, was a small crew of sailors from Joseon. The party comprised Master Cho Man-hyeok, with his accountant, his valet, his cook and, in the person of Kim Byeong-yeon, his second-in-command. Kim Cho-hui, aged seven, was the youngest person on board but for little Pema Gulab Kaur.
“My husband wanted a daughter,” Jind Kaur told Byeong-yeon. “He gave the ship her name even though we bought it a year before she was born.”
“I’m sorry,” Byeong-yeon said. “It seems unfair that she won’t get to see him.”
“It is,” Jind Kaur said. “But I’ll be both father and mother to her, as you are to yours.”
Oh ship, Cho-hui found herself a school with more teachers than classmates. She, together with the first mate’s little boy, sat for lessons in writing and reckoning with Byeong-yeon. The first mate was from Guangzhou and had evidently been told that Joseon philosophers were vastly superior to those in the Qing; he was delighted for his boy to learn the Four Books and Five Classics from a neo-Confucian in the flesh.
By the time they crossed Malaya, the children could recite a few important texts, solve basic equations, and write simple sentences. They could also sing a number of hymns in Shenyang-inflected Punjabi, since Jind Kaur woke every morning and read from the book of her faith. Byeong-yeon felt a pang at the thought of what his strictly atheist grandfather might say, but could not find it in himself to object. Not a thing about the Sikh moral code seemed dishonourable to him, and he was secretly as fascinated as Cho-hui to learn the stories behind Jind Kaur’s bracelet of iron, the wooden comb in the coils of her hair, and the dagger slung at her waist.
It was Master Cho who proved an unexpected boon to the children. Bored of life on the water and relieved for others to have the run of the ship, he took up the role of schoolmaster. Cho-hui and Ah Leung, the first mate’s boy, soon discovered that there was no question about history, geography or mathematics that he couldn’t answer for them. From him, Cho-hui learned her first lessons about the ancient kingdoms of Goryeo and Silla; of the founding of her homeland by the great half-Chinese soldier Taejo, and of the wise king Sejong.
Jind Kaur, who was listening along with the children, clapped as he finished telling the story of how Sejong fashioned the modern Joseon alphabet, having made it sound like a magnificent battle between good and evil. “So he was a true father to his people,” she said. “Does Joseon still have kings?”
“Yes!” Cho-hui said. Jind Kaur ruffled her hair.
“Tell me what he’s like, then, your ruler.”
“I don’t know,” Cho-hui said. “I bet he’s very tall and fat, and has lots of horses.” They were on the blue waters of the Andaman Sea, and it was a hot day. Byeong-yeon turned to lean on the railing, to catch the coolness of the sea breeze on his face.
“He is tall,” Master Cho said.
“You know him?” Jind Kaur asked. “Are you in favour of him?”
“He is my sovereign. My favour counts for nothing before him,” Master Cho said. “I suppose I am interested in learning what Joseon will do, now that it is ruled by a man who is led neither by avarice nor zealotry.”
“A rare lack in a prince,” Jind Kaur said. “Perhaps he will be like Sejong.”
“Perhaps,” said Master Cho. “But my lady, now if you would please to tell us a story about one of your kings––or queens? Only the entertaining ones." It turned out that Kashmir, Jind Kaur's birthplace, had many, and their feats of honour and glory proved perfectly delightful for rascals across age groups.
I’m not meant for seafaring, Byeong-yeon wrote, in his journal.
The ocean is neither flat nor featureless. Its colours change with the passing hour; its vastness is ungraspable. Still, I would like you to see the white sands of Siam one day.
The diary he’d begun with Cho-hui had become a series of bound pages, filled with her stories, and interspersed with his commentary. He had started keeping a journal of his own, a sort of letter with no addressee: an account of his work and travel. After the first poem he had written in Suzhou, more came to mind. Some, like the silly rhyming riddles he and Cho-hui made up when she was bored, went into her journal; the more private work, into his. He wrote about the seas and skies, about crowds and solitude; he wrote about Shenyang and Suzhou, Guangzhou and Singapore; about minor annoyances and casual, everyday joys. He wrote about his daughter, and his friends, and even the sailors who cheated him at cards every evening.
”Khamsahamnida,” Jind Kaur said, on the evening they left the deep salt waters of the Bay of Bengal, and sailed up the Hooghly. “I have learned a little of your language too, from Cho-hui.”
The children and Uncle Zhou were at the other end of the deck, getting an impromptu lesson in astronomy from Master Cho. “I thank you, too,” Byeong-yeon said, and bowed. “You took a chance on an unknown people. I hope we can learn from you, and teach others.”
“Truth be told, Master Cho spoke a little too well to convince me,” Jind Kaur said, and laughed. “But there you were, standing by him like a rock. I know that man, I thought. There are men like him everywhere in the world; not many, but of the sort that make others think, I should aspire to be like him.”
“There, you are mistaken.” It was Byeong-yeon's turn to laugh.
“Between the two of you, you made me say to myself: who are you, Jindan? What have you done with the girl who said yes when Tsering Namgyal asked you to marry him, and persuaded our parents to let us be together? Where is the woman who followed that man far from home, and fought side by side with him to make her way in the world?”
“Your husband was of a different nation?”
She nodded. “A Buddha-follower, born in Ladakh, though our fathers are old friends. Love is a nation too, you know.”
“I’ve seen it,” he said.
“Come see Kashmir one day,” she said. “No one speaks Hànyǔ there, but you can walk in the foothills of Ximalaya-shan, and see all the way to Tibet on a clear day.”
His heart turned over in homesickness as she said it. He could not tell if it was for a place he had left behind, or one he had never seen. “Perhaps we will be able to welcome you in Joseon one day, too,” he said.
As they set foot on Indian soil for the first time, it felt to Byeong-yeon that all the colours and sounds he had forgotten on the water came rushing back into the world. He looked around at his crew, smiling and hugging each other. Suddenly it was a pleasure to look back on those early doubts, the foolish certainties, with which they had embarked on this journey. Best of all was to see two tall elderly gentlemen step through the crowd, and reach out to Jind Kaur: her father and father-in-law, who had come to Calcutta to await her.
“You did a good thing,” Byeong-yeon said in a low voice to Master Cho, who was watching the reunion with an unusually tolerant smile on his delicate face.
“Sentimental, Master Kim,” Cho Man-hyeok said. “We’ve had good fortune, that’s all.”
Like the winds and weather that had accompanied them over from the Qing, their good fortune appeared to hold. Master Cho’s banker was widely respected among his counterparts in Calcutta, and the two gentlemen of Kashmir, who were not without influence in this city, were glad to assist their daughter’s new friends in their endeavours.
“And Jindan is staying on in Calcutta, and will launch the Indian arm of the business,” Master Cho said, jubilantly, as he and Byeong-yeon entered the offices of his agents. “I’ll stay until the end of summer. Look, Master Kim, I’ve shortlisted a number of Cantonese managers: I want your opinion on them.” He bowed as he picked up a bunch of letters, then frowned.
“Hold these a minute,” he said, thrusting the envelopes at Byeong-yeon and opening a large envelope of rough leather. Abruptly, he whirled around and marched up to the great agent’s desk, where the man himself was seated.
“Muratkhan Bey,” Master Cho said. “What’s this news about Egypt invading Turkey?”
“It’s true,” the Armenian agent said, in his elegantly accented Hànyǔ. “Ibrahim Pasha has been landing troops in Anatolia, and is likely to have come within striking distance of Stamboul. The outlook is not good. You look alarmed, Master Cho. Ali! Bring our guests some water––my good sir,” he exclaimed, for, most uncharacteristically, Master Cho had let go of decorum and sworn fervently.
“You have business there?” Byeong-yeon asked, as Master Cho turned frantically towards him.
“You could say that,” Master Cho said, and then made an effort to control himself. Then, in their mother tongue, he said, “My sister is in Constantinople.”
“Excuse me?” Byeong-yeon said.
So that was how, eight years later, he met Cho Ha-yeon again.
“Honestly, what a fuss,” the devil herself said, when he tracked her down, five months later. “The battle was at Konya, months ago, and was over in a day. I notice Master Cho is not so beset with worry that he gave up his plots for market domination and came looking for me himself.” She looked up into his face and frowned. “Wait, have we met before?”
“Master Cho has appointed me with every possible means to ensure your safe return,” Byeong-yeon said, patiently. “He is receiving news of you as efficiently as is humanly possible, through his agents, who will secure us passage home.” It helped to imagine that he was reasoning with Cho-hui, though he had to make an effort: Cho Ha-yeon, in a dainty headscarf and brocaded tunic that fell from her collar to her ankles, was even more outrageously pretty than he remembered. “We have never been introduced.”
“You may walk me to the doctors’ station. Do you know these stone walls are just a decade old? The janissaries burned down the wooden originals when they rebelled against the sultan thirty years ago.”
“I was told by your agent that you had undertaken social service here,” Byeong-yeon said, thankful for the premonition that had led him to take five sound hours of sleep and a good breakfast before coming to wait for Cho Ha-yeon at the Selimiye Barracks in Üsküdar. For a one-day battle, the Ottomans had suffered severely for the Egyptians’ military adventure; they were hoping to divert public criticism with this splendid new medical facility.
“Some of the gentlemen from the Qing embassy got involved in setting up the hospital here, so I looked in, too,” Lady Cho explained. “No, not as a nurse, I’ve no talent for looking after people. I’ve been helping to raise funds and keep records. Where is home?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You said his agents would send us home. Where is my brother now? Calcutta? Suzhou? Peking?” She turned and smiled at a young doctor, whose eyes practically filled with stars. He smiled back, and in a daze, crashed into the low-hanging branch of a Judas tree.
“He was in India when I left him,” Byeong-yeon said, feeling resigned to having sprung some sort of conversational trap.
“So you said. Setting up an international silk business with some ravishing young widow.”
“I said nothing about her––that is––”
“I know Master Cho Man-hyeok,” Lady Cho retorted, and then murmured, “He’s just like me.”
Byeong-yeon took a deep breath.
“He is, as you say, your kin,” he said. “He has promises to fulfil to the merchant guild with whom he has taken the risk to cross into India. It is a risk which allowed him to hear news of you much earlier than otherwise. And he sent me in his stead because he is not a trained soldier, whose job it is to keep you safe at all costs.”
She cocked her head and considered him.
“A rifle on your back, a sword at your side,” she said. “An uncovered head, and a Persian tunic and trousers––from Aden, I suppose.”
He looked down at himself. “I deboarded at Kadıköy yesterday. Forgive me: there was no time to find new clothes.”
“Yet your accent is of a place I know very well, and your name is known to me,” she said. “Just who are you, Master Kim?”
Twelve hours later, he escorted her home, safe by some miracle of good fortune. She was wholly inebriated, and he was very nearly so.
“I am not dying, Auntie Geum,” Cho Ha-yeon said, in the cut-glass tones of one utterly deranged by alcohol. “I only look like I am. Hello, Uncle Hwang,” she said, as the two senior servants of the Cho household who had followed her around the world from Hanyang came running up to the gate of the quiet wooden mansion in which they lived. “Do you know who this is, it’s Kim Byeong-yeon, he’s my ex-husband’s best friend in the world.”
“I was his Majesty’s guard,” Byeong-yeon said, but was too desperate to say more, having spotted a gutter into which he could neatly and safely throw up.
“Raki is a great deceiver,” Cho Ha-yeon croaked when he stumbled into the living room of her beautiful house the next morning. She was lying on a day-bed with a strip of strong-smelling cologne water on her head, and did not bother to get up. “I should have been more responsible at the meyhane, but it was such a shock, regaining all those memories. Do breakfasts cure your hangover? Please,” she waved at the low table, on which cheeses, fruit, honey eggs, bread and fried dumplings were laid out.
“I guess they do cure your hangover,” Cho Ha-yeon said, after a period of silence, during which he’d eaten enough to put a dent even in the vast spread before him.
“Fatherhood has extinguished my tolerance for alcohol,” he said, and took another piece of flatbread, and dug into a yoghurt sauce garnished with olives.
“Oh, whom did you marry?” She raised her eyebrows at his silence. “Whom did you not marry?”
“Cho-hui was born in wedlock,” he said, at last. “I am her adoptive father.”
“Cho-hui,” she repeated. “Like Heo Nanseolheon.” She smiled at the look on his face. “You must not have thought me bookish.”
“It’s not that,” he said. “Hearing Nanseolhon’s name made me think of how many months and years I’ve been away from home.”
“Where is your daughter now?”
“In Master Cho’s charge, with a Bengali nurse who speaks Cantonese.” Auntie Geum appeared, trailed by two young maids, who laid down a long tablecloth on which they put out a bubbling pot of soup, as well as tea, and bowls of fragrant, long-grained rice. It was surreal to be so far from home, and find foreign habits you knew by heart as your own. The Lady Cho elevated herself with a groan, and took a deep sniff of the soup, before accepting a bowlful and slurping it like a very ladylike horse at a trough.
“Your daughter is in good hands, naeuri,” Auntie Geum said: it was even more surreal to be addressed as Excellency, something he had last been called as a ten-year-old. “Master Man-hyeok was always a careful, responsible child.”
“Unlike myself, Auntie Geum means,” Lady Cho said. “Auntie helped bring up Magistrate Cho, and Professor Cho, and Master Cho. It was a spotless record, until I became Divorcée Cho.”
Auntie Geum set the tea tray down, and said, in Turkish, “Girls.” The younger servants bowed and left the room. Lady Cho looked amused.
“The lady Cho was not, and never has been, married,” Auntie Geum said. “She chose to end a purely formal interest in order to pursue a life of learning and accomplishment. Having spent many years abroad, her humour will no doubt be unfamiliar to her compatriots. She will marry if and when it suits her.”
“Thank you, auntie,” Lady Cho said. “Master Kim, we’ve been practicing that speech ever since we crossed out of Joseon.”
“Very good,” he said, and applied himself to his tea.
“Uncle Hwang tends to become flowery, and adds things such as––‘Married! To a man she had a little crush on! Why, every man between Peking and Stamboul who looked on our Miss Ha-yeon would be unavailable, then!’ But Auntie brings discipline and poise to our dissembling.”
“Dissemble?” Auntie Geum said. “To His Majesty’s best friend?”
“Mistress, I––” Byeong-yeon began.
“Come on,” Cho Ha-yeon said. “Do you think I entered the palace without discovering everything I could about Lee Yeong? Kim Byeong-yeon, you were in practically every story. The prince’s shadow, his boon companion, his sparring partner, the only man who dared give him advice. I wanted to speak to you so many times. But I only ever saw you from afar, stalking through the palace in your black armour, with your wild hair. I was scared of you.”
“The feeling was wholly mutual,” Byeong-yeon said. “My fear has come rushing back after last night. May I ask where my lady learned to drink like that?”
“From Magistrate Cho, of course,” she said, “And Professor Cho, and Master Cho. And all the European diplomats here. Don’t make too many Ukrainian friends if you want to keep your head about you, and definitely don’t let them take you drinking.”
“I hope not to be here long enough to do so,” he said. “I cannot coerce you, but please don’t think that I am above using my separation from my daughter to manipulate you emotionally.”
“Ha! Well-chosen; I am as soft-hearted as I am fearsome,” she said, and wiggled her small bare feet into her silk slippers, and stood. “I did want to cross over, and see the pyramids and the Nile,” she mused, “but Ibrahim Pasha has made it difficult. Could one still make––but no.”
Byeong-yeon sneaked a look at Auntie Geum, whose expression of cheerful calm did not change, but for the tick of a muscle in her jaw.
“I dislike being ordered around by Master Cho,” Cho Ha-yeon said. “I dislike it exceedingly. But I shall not be disobedient. Let us go back to the east, Master Kim.”
Byeong-yeon was not to forget that month for the rest of his life. The Ottomans were no longer the force that had fuelled the envy of Renaissance Europe, but their capital was still the metropole of a grand empire that lay across three continents. Diplomats, scholars and travellers flocked here from around the world; merchants from Persia to Abyssinia and Italy to Russia thronged its bazaars to meet each other.
Among all these people, Byeong-yeon realised, Cho Ha-yeon was known, and liked, and admitted into conference. She woke before dawn prayers and spent hours at her desk, writing letters and organising her notes. During the day, she travelled widely through the city, conversing in Turkish, supplemented by her Uyghur maid Nura; and in French, which she spoke with what sounded like a masterful fluency to his ears.
At the bazaars, she functioned as Master Cho’s agent, making purchases in fabrics, antiques and jewels. She continued to visit the Selimiye hospital, where she interviewed doctors and hurried along her commissions of Chinese translations of new medical literature. Byeong-yeon quickly realised it was also a good place to meet military officials and soldiers, addressing their intelligence on the subject of arms and artillery.
She was even admitted to the imperial harem, a place about which a Russian shipmate had conveyed to him the most lurid impressions, but: “Think of the Inner Court, only if it employed women of every nation in Asia, who could be trained and given in marriage to courtiers,” Cho Ha-yeon said, and he got it. These were the back-channels of political influence: a place where the brilliant sultan Mahmud came not merely to take his ease, but to talk and listen to his female relatives and employees.
Cho Ha-yeon, he realised quickly, was not only a vivacious dilettante, but a politician. Everyone knew it, from the harem ladies to the traders, and the European officers who waited on her at the coffeehouses, sent her powdered and scented notes, and vied with each other to make her laugh when they met in her garden for afternoon kahveh. These congregations were as out of place in Istanbul as they would have been in Hanyang; any unmarried gentlewoman would ordinarily be risking her reputation with them. Yet, just as in Hanyang, the social hypocrisies tended to evaporate when the lady Cho confronted them, disarming and direct.
“Wouldn’t you like to live here?” he asked her one evening, as they strolled the waterside, watching the sun pour itself in red and golden streams over the canals of the Bosphorus.
“Because it’s beautiful, and sophisticated, and free?” she asked, archly. He concealed a smile.
“You’re at home in the world,” he said. “Your presence here has been of material benefit to Master Cho. You have so many intellectual interests; social, too. You could marry––” but she laughed.
“Master Cho does let me out of my cage now and again, even in the Qing,” she said. “It’s true the Europeans in our part of the world are brutes, but I won’t die for lack of conversation. No, I’m content to return home, as long as I have work to do, and gardens to walk in, and books to read. Do you know, I might even go back to Hanyang. I’m so tired of eating Giza rice.”
He sneaked her out one last time on the evening before they set out, and let her tease him for eating an enormous quantity of dolme and kebabs––he would miss this food, he thought, plaintively––before they went to the meyhane for a last hurrah. The proprietress kissed Ha-yeon effusively on both cheeks, and ushered them into the backyard. Surrounded by blooming summer roses and hanging lamps chipped with coloured glass, Cho Ha-yeon looked every inch a queen.
They got smashingly drunk again.
“Fostering a child is very noble,” she said, waving her cup at him. “A man like you might have gone anywhere in the world, or done anything, Master Kim.”
“Without her I might never have set foot out of Hanyang,” he said, honestly.
“But now you can’t go back again,” she said, and wrinkled her nose when he looked up, sharply. “Thanks for confirming my guess. You’re just the type to have some sort of self-sacrificing mission. Me: I’m your mission now, am I not?”
“Looking after people is what I know,” he said. “It’s what I did for most of my life.”
“With his Majesty,” she said, to fill in when he paused. “That enormous pig.”
“Oh, I'm over him,” she said, wearily. “Only occasionally do I drown in horror at the prospect that I might have gotten over him while we were still married. I never thought I would, back then. And for that––” she shuddered. “They locked me up, and took away my books and clothes. Just while you’re in training, bin-gung, they said. What was that training, anyway?”
“What was it?” he asked, browbeaten.
“Not to lead,” she said. “Not to run things. They taught me to sit, and stand, and walk, and talk. They tried to teach me to cook. Me!”
“You made a very good pilaf the other day.”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” she said, in gathering, retrospective outrage. “They inspected every inch of me. They taught me to dress, and to undress, and how and when and in what way to please him in bed.”
“Ouch,” he said, and filled her glass again. “My poor Sam-nom.”
“And all so he could treat me with less consideration than a piece of dirt stuck to his shoe.” She downed her drink, and held it out for another. “Your Sam-nom? Was that person a friend of yours?”
“Sure,” he said. “We bunked together when she was working at the palace. She’s not especially fond of airs and graces. Your princess lessons will have been hard on her.”
“Go to hell,” Cho Ha-yeon said, and laughed. “My mother stopped me from fighting and climbing trees with my brothers’ friends after I turned ten years old, because it would be unladylike. And Little Miss Eunuch sailed through to the throne after cohabiting with an avatar of Pan An? That is rich.”
“We never,” Byeong-yeon said, and she waved: obviously. “Right,” he said. “The principle of the thing.”
“The worst of it,” Cho Ha-yeon said, “is that I think well of them, when I think of them at all. Pathetic. Milquetoast! I should be plotting some kind of smouldering eternal revenge.”
“I think you are gaining revenge every day,” he said, and covered her jewelled hand on the table with his, and patted it gently.
They took their farewell walk along the glittering waters arm in arm, and hired a boat to take them to the other side, to the Lady Cho’s home. There was a hint of sparkle in the air, confected by the moonlight and the suggestion of autumn, and the lights of Europe, beckoning.
“This is so nice,” Cho Ha-yeon murmured, her shoulder warm against his.
“Thank you,” he said, sincere, and sincerely drunk, rested his head against hers. “Thanks for showing me th’world, Cho Ha-yeon.”
She tipped her face towards his, smiling, and their lips almost touched. He held his breath. He could––he would––he was going to––
“You should know,” she said. “I don’t kiss marriageable men as a rule.”
He checked himself at once, though she made no move to pull away. “I’m the least marriageable man you’ll ever meet,” he said, though it was almost physically hurtful to turn aside from the moment, and choose laughter instead.
“Don’t be silly,” she groaned, and removed herself at arm’s length. “My father’s very susceptible to the austere military type, and Mother likes good-looking men almost as much as I do. They won’t care that you’re a penniless single father if word gets out we’re having an affair. Miss Cho-hui will have a wicked stepmother sooner than you can say ‘Istanbul.’”
“The least marriageable,” he repeated. “Wholly and entirely the least suitable.”
She hummed. “And, I suspect, unavailable: though I couldn't say why, to be sure.” The stupor began to clear as the scent of her perfume receded. “I deeply regret that we’re not making this mistake, but I expect you’re going to be a very good friend of mine,” she smiled. “And I’ll be a good one in return. Better than your pig of a best friend.”
“He’s terrible,” Byeong-yeon laughed. “I don’t know why you chose him in the first place. I’m the nicer one. I was always the nicest one of us all.”
“‘All’?” Cho Ha-yeon asked.
Their little party travelled in sunny elegance from Aden to Bombay, on the western coast of India. There, they received instructions to proceed to Peking, where Master Cho had removed to await them. Byeong-yeon felt like a veteran as they entered the grey-blue waters of the Malacca straits, and sentimentally bought a painting of a harbour scene from their port stop to add to his modest pile of presents for Cho-hui. By the turn of the year, they were journeying up to the Grand Canal. Passing under the bare branches of trees of Suzhou, his heart began to beat faster: it was impossible not to conjure up visions of a girl in a yellow jacket, running along the embankment: Hello! Hie! Travel well!.
It had all passed quickly until the last few weeks, which seemed not to pass at all, except in a fever of waiting. He was calmed only by Cho Ha-yeon’s company, or by filling his journals, and re-reading a certain letter, accompanied with a familiar little notebook, that had fallen almost to pieces in the months since he’d picked it up in Bombay.
To Master Kim Byeong-yeon, my abeoji, babà, abba-jaan, the letter began. She had written each word in its own script, and helpfully transliterated in hanggul letters underneath.
Uncle Muratkhan Bey is delivering this to you through his friend, Master Hayakian Bey in Bombay on the other side of India. Do you know that I am hale and hearty, though I have lost three more teeth since you last saw me. I have read all your letters that you gave to Uncle Man-hyeok to give me one every month, and last month he let me have two because it was my birthday! I have also read the third primer you wrote and Uncle Man-hyeok is writing the fourth and fifth.
Abeoji we are going to Peking because it is the greatest city in the Qing, and we have done all the
wurk work we can here. Jindan-buaji will visit us in the new year, after the business has been sold. She will take Gulabo to see her grandmothers in Kashmir and they will take camels and come down through Ladakh and Xinjiang. We did not take the overland root when we arrived though I would simply love to see it one day. Can you please return safe and sound so we can go to Tashqorgan and Kashgar? They sound wonderful.
I have thought of you everyday, especially by the Golden Horn. Muratkhan Bey says it is the loveliest sight in the world. I should think it would be lovelier still with you there. I am sorry we are not in India to receive you, so I am sending you my diary, since it contains a lot of important things that will take a long time to discuss when we meet. Please keep it safe, for it contains all the thoughts of,
your very own daughter,
As their boat neared the pier at Peking, both Byeong-yeon and Cho Ha-yeon abandoned all equanimity and paced the deck impatiently. “There, Master Kim!” Cho Ha-yeon said, clutching his sleeve excitedly as they docked. It really was them, waving and smiling: Master Cho in spotless hanbok and gat, and a tall girl, standing on her toes and craning her neck ever so often, as if suppressing her desire to jump up and down.
“Oh,” Cho Ha-yeon said, her voice suddenly shaky. “I see.”
“Yes?” Byeong-yeon said, waving at his daughter.
“She,” and her voice was so unsteady that Byeong-yeon turned to her in surprise, “she looks very like him.”
“It’s not what you assume,” he said, but by this time they were coming down the gangplank, and try as he might, he could not erase the gulf created by separation. Cho-hui had gone from being his baby, adding a little height and weight at a time, to a person whose growing-up he had missed for nearly a year. He walked towards her, heart hammering. Ha-yeon’s words had pulled the veil all the way back from his eyes. He saw now the nose, the jaw, the fierce dark brow. He was looking at the face he loved above every other in the world.
His daughter let go of Master Cho’s hand and flung herself at him, squealing. “Abeoji, abeoji, abeoji, you’re here!”
Distantly, Byeong-yeon heard Ha-yeon say “Third Brother,” and sink into an elaborate bow in the middle of the bustling pier. “Fourth Brother,” he heard Master Cho reply, laughing.
He sank to his knees and put his arms around his daughter. “Baby owl,” he said, and squeezed Cho-hui tight. “I am so very glad to see you again.”
“I missed you,” she whispered, and then, into his ear: “I don’t know why he came with us, he’s so mean, abeoji, but I’m not scared of him.”
He started to his feet. “Cho Man-hyeok––” he said, but Cho-hui didn’t mean him. It was clear as day she didn’t mean him, as a small, slim man appeared out of the crowds behind her. He had a face like a pearl, and no readable expression upon it.
All? Cho Ha-yeon had asked, and she had known the name when he told her. His mind went blank for a moment, and then thought, wildly, that recollection must have conjured him out of thin air. Byeong-yeon, mouth fallen open, let go of his twenty-eight years, and said, like he had as a boy, “Hello, hyung.”
“Kim Byeong-yeon,” said Kim Yoon-seong.
“All those years ago, I got a message from the palace about an attack on my niece and nephew,” Yoon-seong said. “Someone came to me with one child. He said that Lee Yeong was sending the other away with you.”
Byeong-yeon said nothing. They were in a tall, dark Peking house, in the same discreetly wealthy neighbourhood of expatriates and merchants where Master Cho had an establishment. Cho-hui and Byeong-yeon had meekly followed Yoon-seong here from the docks. There had been an awkward interlude over tea and sweets, before a maid had come to lead Cho-hui into the garden at the back.
“I felt relief at the time, if you can believe it. Better Byeong-yeon than I as a protector, I thought. There was news of you, from time to time. You took her to some heaven-forsaken village in the middle of nowhere. Then you went to some disease-ridden hamlet in the cold. I actually felt glad for it. She’s with a good man, I thought. She’ll learn to like simple things, and live a small life. Imagine my surprise, then, when Cho Man-hyeok moves in next door.”
He turned from the window which looked out on the peony garden, and said, in the flattest voice anyone had ever used on Byeong-yeon: “Not for a moment did I consider that you would neglect her.”
The rational mind struggled to break through a rising tide of guilt at Yoon-seong’s words. He hadn’t neglected Cho-hui. Istanbul had been a job. Master Cho had said, precisely, “Do not consider it a favour, Master Kim. My sister is as precious to me as your daughter is to you. I promise you Cho-hui will never want for a thing in her life, if you can only help me ensure Lady Cho’s safety.”
“I went for her sake,” he said, but Yoon-seong knew how to attack him; the excuse sounded feeble even in his own ears.
“You left her with strangers, in a strange country, and went to a purported battlefield on the other side of the world,” Yoon-seong said. “For her sake?”
He was in his cold temper, which Byeong-yeon had detested more than most things in life even when they were boys. The retort went sour on his tongue, because after all, it hadn’t been entirely for Cho-hui’s sake, the impulse to help a woman in danger; the impulse to trust Master Cho and Jindan to look after Cho-hui, not only as a transaction, but because he considered them his friends.
“Don’t,” he said, and this was why he hated Yoon-seong’s cold rages: they seeped through the old, high walls he had built around his own anger. “You have no––”
Yoon-seong’s jaw was clenched. “Don’t you dare tell me I don’t have the right.”
“You do have right,” he said. There was no room left in his chest for his heart; it had become lead itself, and stilled, like a pendulum in water. “I was going to say that you have no idea of the life she’s lived.”
“She was born to a king,” Yoon-seong said, in what would have been a shout in the words of any other person. “You have brought her up in the muck of the streets and the heat of the sun. She has no roof over her head, or inheritance to call her own––except, I imagine, what Cho Man-hyeok will toss your way for being a faithful servant. She says she can read and write, but what schools has she known, other than the converted granaries and fish shacks where people like you go to prate and moralise?”
Byeong-yeon noticed Yoon-seong’s right hand, clutching the window-sill, the one they had to stitch back at the shoulder after the fight at the palace. It was trembling.
“She’ll live here, in a house she can call her own,” Yoon-seong said. He went to the door and issued a brief instruction to the page waiting outside, then turned back. “You may bring her things from the Cho house. And you can go where the hell you like if you don’t want to stay with us.”
The page returned with Cho-hui, who strode along with barely concealed impatience, holding the hand of a fragile-looking boy. “Abeoji, this is Yoon-hwan!” she called. “Can we go make a jianzi, he doesn’t know how to pl––” she stopped short when she saw Yoon-seong.
“Say hello to your uncle Byeong-yeon, Yoon-hwan,” Yoon-seong said. The boy raised his eyes, then courteously looked down, and bowed low.
Some uncontainable emotion squeezed its way out of Byeong-yeon’s still heart.
“Yoon-hwan,” Byeong-yeon repeated, and left the window to go to him. His eyes stung, as they had done on an evening eight years ago when he’d lifted both these children out of their cradles in the palace, and left with Cho-hui curled up on his shoulder, and the baby boy––Yoon-hwan, fucking hell, Kim Byeong-yeon––on Yeong’s.
He knelt and held his hand out. “I haven’t met you in a very long time,” he said. Yoon-hwan flashed him a look, then shyly put his hand out and into Byeong-yeon’s.
“Were you really in Stamboul?” he asked, in the quietest voice Byeong-yeon had ever heard from a small boy. Byeong-yeon nodded.
“I have lots of stories,” he said, and made up his mind at that moment. “I want to tell you all of them––yes, Cho-hui, you too.” He stood. “Listen, owlet, this is Yoon-seong. I've known him my whole life, so you don’t get to call him mean, alright?”
“Abeoji!” Cho-hui hissed, and flashed a guilty look at Yoon-seong.
“He may have behaved like a stranger when he first saw you,” Byeong-yeon said, “but he’s one of my oldest friends. My cousin brother. That means he’s your khun-samchon, not ‘sir,’ alright?” He turned to Yoon-hwan. “Cho-hui and I aren’t very well-mannered, but I hope you won’t mind us sharing your house.”
Yoon-hwan turned wide eyes on him and shook his head.
“You’re such a mug,” Byeong-yeon said to Yoon-seong in a low voice, as they watched the children prepare a jianzi with a coin and feathers in the inner courtyard, Cho-hui’s voice carrying high and clear around the house. “You don’t need to threaten me to get us to stay. She’s your family.”
“I had to speak in a language your fat head understands,” Yoon-seong said, coolly. The fine tremor had disappeared from his hand. “Don’t think I’m not angry with you.”
“You’ll enjoy getting to know her.”
“So will all of Joseon. The Cho family, contrary to all reason, are loyalists, and numerous as weeds, besides. You don’t think they’ve been sending news of her to the palace, and all of Joseon? Now Yoon-hwan, too, I suppose.”
“You brought up a child,” Byeong-yeon said. “He is safe and sound. Don’t you want someone to know?”
“Someone,” Yoon-seong repeated. “Do I want the men who took everything from me to know that I have something left to give to another human being?”
“I can’t say I particularly care,” Yoon-seong said, but he didn’t resist when Byeong-yeon put an arm around his shoulders. Another of his gifts from Cho-hui: he understood how simple physical affection could be, now, and how powerful.
“How’ve you been, hyung?” Byeong-yeon asked.
“Alone,” Yoon-seong said. But he did not shake off the embrace.
It was immediately obvious why Kim Yoon-hwan was such a quiet child. “No running inside the house, please,” Yoon-seong said, poking his head out of his studio as Cho-hui frolicked through a corridor, Yoon-hwan in tow, on tiptoe. “Sorry, Uncle Yoon-seong!” she said, but the rules came as a cascade. “No talking loudly, please,” at lunch was followed by “No reading anything from that bookshelf, please” and “No pulling faces at passers-by,” and ”Absolutely no talking to tradesmen at the kitchen door, Kim Cho-hui.”
Yoon-seong had done well for himself, after a fashion. His old links in the Qing had ensured him a certain position and status in Peking, and his talent as an artist who refused to sell his work and exhibit it only to a few had afforded more yet. Not even the Joseon court's indictments had proved capable of beggaring the Kims, and Yoon-hwan did not want for anything. But Yoon-seong now lived like a monk, and his staff had modified their own behaviour to suit. In the evenings, as the rest of the neighbourhood dazzled with guests and entertainers, drinking games and parties, the Kim homestead’s lights burned steadily, but only for reading and writing. Its kitchens were well-stocked, but only for light meals and bedtime snacks consumed in healthy moderation. (“No complaints about what you’re served, please.”)
Byeong-yeon couldn’t bring himself to call it tyranny: sparseness and solitude suited and nourished him. But it wasn’t the same for children. He had done his poor best to make up for the fact that he was hiding a princess among fishwives and shopkeepers, and brought Cho-hui up strictly: sometimes too strictly, he thought, on the sleepless nights that followed after he’d scolded her for some small thing. But, he realised, there was a difference between holding a child to high standards, and treating one like an adult.
“He can’t help it, he was brought up like that,” Byeong-yeon said to her after she came to the library, chastened after having broken some other unwritten rule. But he went down to the studio that overlooked the east courtyard to have a chat with Yoon-seong, who snorted, “You were brought up like that, too,” and turned back to his drafting desk.
Byeong-yeon looked around the studio, and at Yoon-seong’s back. That had been tyranny, he realised. Both his loving grandfather and Yoon-seong’s scheming one had brought up their little grandsons as though they were adults.
“But there’s a difference,” he said out loud.
Yoon-seong looked over his shoulder.
It was in the art, Byeong-yeon thought. All the light and music and colour of the house had bent inwards, focusing on Yoon-seong’s studio, the living embodiment of his resurrection from that long-ago death. Watching Yoon-seong draw with his left hand––he had taught himself to change his dominant hand, Byeong-yeon realised, after the accident––he felt a twinge of sympathy for little Yoon-hwan. He was too young to understand an artist’s discipline, but he was lucky to have a parent who cared so deeply for beauty, and understood how to find it.
“I’m not his parent,” Yoon-seong said.
“Yoon-hwan knows his parents died soon after he was born,” Yoon-seong said. “He knows I’m his uncle, and strictly speaking his cousin. Are you going to keep letting Cho-hui call you ‘Father’?”
“I don’t know,” Byeong-yeon said, when he could bring himself to speak, although of course he did know he couldn’t. “She’s too little to understand.”
“I don’t mean to usurp the work your overtaxed conscience must already be doing for you,” Yoon-seong said. “But she’ll be nine next year. She deserves to know the truth. She will find out, in any case; you’re the worst liar I’ve ever met.”
There were other compensations, the biggest among them being Cho-hui’s schooling. Byeong-yeon hadn’t realised how hard it was to be a child’s sole guardian until he no longer had to be one. Yoon-hwan had tutors, who were amazed at how much Cho-hui knew about some things and how little about others. There was also a governess who supervised Yoon-hwan’s free time, though she left the job in a huff because she had “signed up to look after a well-mannered young gentleman, not a bull-headed hellion,” she complained.
“Good riddance,” Byeong-yeon said when Yoon-seong informed him: being curious and self-possessed was hardly bull-headed.
“An admirably impartial judgement,” Yoon-seong said, but he did not upbraid Cho-hui, after all. In light of their frequent exchanges on the subject of her carolling inside the house, a new teacher appeared instead: this one a young and good-natured music master. Yoon-hwan practiced his lessons diligently, and made rapid progress on the guqin; but it was Cho-hui, with her piercingly sweet voice and perfect pitch, who was the star pupil.
“We’ll write an opera!” Cho-hui informed Yoon-hwan, when she was sure Yoon-seong wasn’t listening. “Alright, Cho-hui,” Yoon-hwan said. Yoon-hwan said ‘alright, Cho-hui’ a lot. Byeong-yeon watched carefully for signs that his doughty and forthright girl might bully her sheltered cousin. But his new life seemed to suit Yoon-hwan well enough; after all, there were cooks who had never sneaked him a sweet until Cho-hui showed him how to wheedle them, and guards with whom he’d never played catch with a sheet of balled-up paper in the central courtyard until she made him.
“I recall saying something about not running in the house,” Yoon-seong called from the starcase, light and deceptively pleasant, and banished the children to the schoolroom to write out a punishment. Creeping in later, with a plate of sticky buns in hand to console them, Byeong-yeon thought of how fate worked. He’d come to the end of the longest journey he’d ever taken, in one of the world’s busiest cities, found his oldest friend waiting for him at the docks, and moved in to make a life with him. A year ago it would have been unimaginable. This year, it wasn’t even the biggest surprise in his life. The biggest surprise was that he, Byeong-yeon, had turned out to be the fun parent.
Into this household, cautiously raising its sails on uncharted waters, Cho Ha-yeon entered like a summer storm.
“Did you write this poem, Master Kim?” she asked Byeong-yeon.
In the coolness of the front room, she threw off an insuperable radiance in a gleaming outfit of purple velvet, leavened by pale ivory cuffs, and a wispy head-covering that, as Byeong-yeon was never to know, was antique Point de Venise lace. Behind her, the children hovered, struck dumb by this most splendid of beings, who did them the tremendous honour of knowing their names, and produced a bag of magnificently pink Turkish sweets for them to eat.
“Children, a word,” Yoon-seong said, passing by and spoiling their fun. He sketched their guest a bow. “Miss Cho, how kind of you to visit: and wearing the exchequer of some small but thriving market economy.”
“You are so gracious, Master Kim,” she said. “I didn’t realise you had the instincts of a clothier's clerk. We must talk business, after I’ve wrapped up a conversation with my friend here.”
Once they were alone, Byeong-yeon felt his cheeks heating up as he looked at the book they'd evidently forgotten to bring from Master Cho's house. It was one of Cho-hui’s little journals that he’d helped her write––the first one, he realised, that they had begun together in Suzhou.
Ha-yeon was looking at something of his own doodled on the endpapers.
“Cold plum flowering in the snow––a tipsy gisaeng,” Ha-yeon quoted.
“Cold plum flowering in the snow––a tipsy gisaeng;
Wind-dried willow––a monk reciting a sutra;
Falling chestnut flower––the stubby tail of a terrier;
New flower on the pomegranate––the pointy ear of a rat.”
He was conscious of wanting to hide his face.
“Master Kim,” Ha-yeon said. “This is brilliant. Is there more?”
“It’s a poem,” he agreed, trying to overcome his nervousness.
“It’s a poem like no other,” she said. “No one writes like this in Joseon.”
“That’s not true,” he protested, though he had a moment of treacherous agreement in his heart of hearts. Teacher Da San’s poetry was excellent. There were Shin Wi; Pak Hyo-gwan; men whose work he had admired in secret, though never enough to want to imitate ––
“I’m not a poet,” he said.
“Oh my goodness,” Ha-yeon said, looking at his face. “There is more.”
He’d been writing more frequently, even allowing himself to spend some time working on his drafts every day. But they were not meant for consumption; he hadn’t even shown Yoon-seong anything yet.
“I––” he started, biting down on the impulse to say it’s nothing. It was poetry, and he had made it. He could not waste it with a repudiation.
“They’re not for the public,” he said.
“They’re for the public,” Ha-yeon said, the night before The Life Of A Rainhat Poet went to press: her press, to be precise, a print shop ostensibly meant to translate and popularise the works of Joseon into Chinese languages, but also to publish and transport books to readers in Joseon.
Part of him still wanted to say that his work didn’t merit the fuss, but Cho Ha-yeon wasn’t wrong. The poems were moody and vulgar and sprawling: all things that poetry wasn’t supposed to be in Joseon. But he’d started by writing down the funny little rhymes he’d made up to amuse Cho-hui, and then to blow off steam about his own loneliness to –– to his first and only reader, the one to whom all his diaries and journals, all his notes and observations about the world and its people, were addressed. He had written this poetry for the most important people in his life, and that was why it was good.
He’d had help. Cho Ha-yeon was a martinet of an editor, with a fine ear for tone and rhythm. And Yoon-seong, from whom it wasn’t really possible to hide anything about himself, much less an undertaking as big as a volume of poetry, had read over his drafts, made notes and helped proof-read the whole thing. At the end, he made a woodcut –– a plum tree, bowed under the weight of snow on its branches –– that became the frontispiece of the book.
“Are you sure?” Ha-yeon asked him now, as they watched the printers lay the woodblocks on for inking. “About being anonymous.”
“Those who know, know.”
“Why couldn’t you keep the fame and eschew the money instead, Kim Byeong-yeon?” She made a face. “You might have made me rich.”
“You don’t need more money,” he said, looking at her. Her Western-style jacket fell to her waist today, and was made of shot-silk taffeta in subtle blue and purple. He had a vague idea of how much it cost, since he’d been with her when she’d bought the yardage in the Grand Bazaar, but he hadn’t quite been able to wrap his head around it.
“You won’t know what to do with it,” she retorted. “Unless you give it to that mean old husband of yours to manage.” Ha-yeon’s fire and Yoon-seong’s coolness caused smoke to rise whenever they met.
“I see you’re enjoying calling Yoon-seong ‘husband,’” he said, but she didn’t rise to the bait.
“I, unlike you, do not require to be looked after,” she said, patronisingly, and then glanced him up and down and huffed. “Do you even have another pair of clothes? Doesn’t he care about how you look?”
“No,” he said simply. “Yoon-seong and I care about different things. We always have. We get along because we accept that about each other.”
“Fine, fine,” she said. “Be as you like.” There was a grinding sound and a burst of noise; the presses started their thump-thump as the first pages came under the woodcuts.
“I didn’t know what it was before,” she shouted over the din. “But I think I know why you chose this life. What made you leave Joseon. Why you have one pair of clothes.”
“I have two,” he shouted back. “And a silk jeogori for festive days.”
“When I first met you I thought you were a vagrant.”
“A vagrant! Lost! Homeless!” she said. The din ceased all at once, and she lowered her voice. “But you’re like me, aren’t you? You’ve been caged, and now you can’t stand the thought of the cage any more.”
He wanted to answer, but he could only smile. She leaned over the railings to look at the printers below, making her enterprise take shape: the White Orchid press, putting its first book out into the world.
“I hate the cage,” he said. “But I’m also lost.”
She laughed, not unkindly. “I told you,” she said. “You need looking after.”
“Byeong-yeon,” Yoon-seong said, when the first copy of The Life Of A Rainhat Poet arrived and was laid out on his drafting table. “This is really good work. Congratulations.”
“Thanks to you,” Byeong-yeon said, honestly, because it was true. Cho-hui and he had made a home wherever they went. But Yoon-seong had given them a stronghold: a place of peace and purpose and togetherness. Yoon-seong grinned, and he couldn’t help but grin back. His friend’s irresistible crescent-moon smile had become rare; he was glad to provoke it whenever he could.
“You’re buying me drinks forever,” Yoon-seong said. “Starting now?”
“Just until someone persuades you to sell but one of your paintings,” Byeong-yeon said, but they did go out and get hilariously, rollickingly drunk. Byeong-yeon was grateful for the silence enforced in the house, after all; it wouldn’t have done his hangover a bit of good otherwise.
Life grew warm and stable: so stable that when Master Cho showed him a letter from Jind Kaur, saying she would be in Kashgar that summer, he accepted the task of travelling there to conduct business for Master Cho and escort her back to Peking. And he could see that Cho-hui and he had brought warmth into Yoon-seong’s life, too, enough that when Byeong-yeon brought up the offer, Yoon-seong cocked his head and said: “Shall we all go? The routes are quite safe these days, and I’ve always wanted to see Xinjiang.”
It was the best year of their lives. Yoon-hwan thrilled to the open roads, and the great landscapes of the north-western Qing. Cho-hui blossomed, apple-cheeked, and made friends with seemingly every person they met, and a goodly number of the beasts and birds. It was the first holiday of Yoon-seong’s life, and he passed it in some dream of his own, sketching and riding and swimming in the cold crystal pools they passed in the hills, blue with the colour of the sky and scattered with clouds. His customary discipline lapsed, and he spoilt the children with food and games. He even smirked, and minded his own business, when Byeong-yeon fell in with a couple who joined their caravan at Sichuan: two women who’d built their lives and trade together, and weren’t at all averse to blowing off some steam with a man.
Then they were at Kashgar, almost at the roof of the world, and it was grand and ancient and darkly opulent, with Jindan and little Pema waiting for them, and even Cho-hui’s shipboard friend Ah Leung, who it turned out had lost his father to an illness, but found a home with Jindan. Cho-hui pounced on the other children and smothered them in hugs and kisses, but Jindan only took his hands in hers and, smiling her very lovely smile, said, “You look well, my friend––my brother.”
The best year of their lives: they all learned a little, and worked and played hard, and discovered for themselves how unknowably grand the earth before them, how strange and friendly its people. The months flew past, and then it was the end of autumn, and they were in Peking, where Master Cho’s servants came forward to meet them at the way-station, looking somber.
“What?” Byeong-yeon asked, sliding off horseback, his instinct for danger sharpened by the journey. “What is it?”
The group parted to show a woman veiled in unrelenting white. It was Cho Ha-yeon, with an unmistakable sadness in her eyes.
“His Majesty,” she said. Behind him, Byeong-yeon sensed Yoon-seong coming up, just as all his senses constricted, leaving him only a pinhole for light and air.
“King Sunjo is dead,” she said.
It was deep winter when he stepped off the boat, and the days blinked out quickly into depthless night. Other travellers hurried past him on the road, eager to be out of the wind and snow. He knew there was an urgency that ought to be making itself felt, but it was dull and unnoticeable except when he thought about it directly. Every sense had slowed, every emotion suspended, other than the feeling that had overcome him when his feet had touched the hard ground of the south bank of the Amrok. He had a home; he was here; there was nowhere else to be.
He had sent a note ahead to the administrative office, addressed to Eunuch Jang, who would know what there was to be known. The bored post official had not looked twice at the seal on the cover. Neither threat nor welcome made itself known, so he let the road find its way, through the forbidding pines of the north.
“We’ll follow you,” Yoon-seong had said, in their last conversation in the Peking house, with an expression of abstraction on his face. “Slowly.”
“Her father is dead,” Byeong-yeon said. It seemed a very great disaster to him that a child, even a young girl, should not be initiated into the rites of mourning.
Yoon-seong’s face turned hard. “Her enemy is dead,” he said.
“As to that,” Byeong-yeon replied, “there were others who threatened them when they were small. Why take them back at all?”
“Because I’m not going to cower in fear,” Yoon-seong said, with a flash of viciousness. “The terms of my exile said I was to be ten years away from the palace. So I’ve been. Now, whether his Majesty wants to do justice by the children or not, I can, and I will.”
“Yoon-seong,” Byeong-yeon said quietly. “You know everything will change.”
Yoon-seong opened his mouth as if to object, but deflated all at once. “I do,” he said, heavily. “I hate it. But they deserve to know their nation and their heritage.”
“You gave them everything they deserve here,” Byeong-yeon said. “Me, too. If this causes you pain––”
But he was, after all, thinking of his own pain. The urge to let things be as they were was undeniable. Peking was vast, and there was a vaster world beyond it, and beyond the Qing. Yoon-seong had money. Byeong-yeon had a little himself, these days. They could travel for a long time. Cho-hui could study what she liked, marry whom she pleased when she came of age. She would have Yoon-seong and himself by her side as long as they lived, and Yoon-hwan for a brother.
“Life is pain,” Yoon-seong said, getting up. “I thought they taught you that in the military.” But he put his hand on Byeong-yeon’s shoulder as he passed by, and said, “They’re our children. We can’t let anything change that.”
“There’s someone I love very much, back in Joseon,” he told Cho-hui, who clung to him when she learned he was leaving before her. “Almost as much as you. And that person needs me right now.”
“Why can’t I go with you, and we can be with him together?”
He drew her in and kissed her forehead. “I have to go first and make sure––make sure we have somewhere to stay.” Her eyes widened. “Uncle Yoon-seong needs your help here, alright?”
As the boat took him closer to home soil, it became clear that he was not doing the right thing so much as the only possible thing. A poem of Shin Hŏnjo’s sounded in his mind. Boy, don't drive the crows / from the forest. / The insignificant also repay their parents’ favour. / Orphaned / as I am, I envy them.
You are not her father, he told himself, over and over again, on the waters of the Amrok. But the duty he had towards her still remained.
He made landfall and rode for a long time, passing under the evergreen forests and by icy streams by which people had lived since before Joseon had been a kingdom, and China a nation. Red pines, white pines; I wind my way between the rocks. There was food to be found here and there; the hunters who crossed his path were kind. The rolling plains of Pyeong’an lay dreaming, quiet without the grasses of maize and buckwheat for the wind to whistle through. There were only a few trees to separate the glittering earth from the cold, sparkling sky above them.
Red pines, white pines; I wind my way between the rocks,
the world is full of the wonder of mountains and waters.
Days passed before the uplands gave way to warmer, valley weather. Presently there was a milestone announcing that he had passed out of the north-west, and was down in the province where he had been born. He was on a road that crossed a dark, quiet wood when he spotted it, announcing its name and distance from Hanyang. The feeling that crashed into him like a wave battering a ship on the sea was strange and misplaced. He exhaled, and got down on his knees. So this was why Turks bowed towards Makkah, he thought. His forehead met the loamy soil and the skeleton of a fallen leaf, and accepted the marks they laid upon him. Only the house of a god knew no homesickness.
The road met a highway, and with it, familiarity. This was the state coming into view, with its borders and boundaries, bridges and dykes. Appointed at these were its officials. At the final toll-booth before Gyeonggi, a very young-looking guard looked at his zhuan, his travel permit from the Qing, and said, “Oh, Master Kim Byeong-yeon? You’re expected at the engineers’ circuit house at Kaesong, sir, on official request. It’s from a Captain Seong of the palace guard. I’m required to ask if you need any assistance? No? All good. Safe travels, sir.”
The circuit house was as modest as it sounded, a small and old-fashioned rest stop in a quiet lane off the road. He walked his horse towards the wooden fence, and saw a light shining in the doorway. A light snow had started to fall, and a prickle of hunger and of cold made themselves known. He hoped there would be a meal waiting for him, and hot water. Lieutenant Seong had been his understudy, and might give him time to eat and wash before they went on.
He stopped at the fence, and looked at the shadow of the porch, where a man was waiting for him, dressed in ordinary travelling clothes. It was not Lieutenant Seong.
“Am I in the tale of the Sakkamuni returning home from his penance?” Yeong said, but he was smiling over the trace of a wavering in his voice. “You must be tired.”
“I must be,” Byeong-yeon said. There was something of a surprise when Yeong got up, and came towards the circle of light spilling around the lantern. He was sparer than before, and care, like frost, touched the corners of his eyes and mouth. You grew older, Byeong-yeon thought, and then, shocked, without me.
“Byeong-yeon,” the king said, and he was coming forward, towards him. “Your Majesty,” Byeong-yeon tried to say, but the words would not come, nor the obeisance. He was not tired; he was swimming to the surface of some deep sea, whose waters had sheltered him for a long time. Was it tiring to be reborn? He could not remember, from the last time he had awoken from a long sleep. It was his first sight of Yeong in ten years, and it had erased every kind of distance. He could not bow, or fall to his knees: he could only be met and embraced and understood. They were not brothers or comrades. They were meeting in love, as long-lost lovers who had never got to have their time, and their bodies, curling to protect, and to possess each other, understood.
All his preparation, all the gathering of his strength and the testing of his patience, tried to assert their lessons and failed. “I missed you,” Byeong-yeon said. “At every moment and every step, I missed you.”
“Thank you,” Yeong said, “for saying that,” and it was no longer possible to restrain himself. He leaned up, seeking Yeong’s mouth with his, and then he was kissing him, at last, at last, at last. There seemed to be no one else around, and they stood like that for a very long time, by the fence, in the snow, bound up in the kiss that followed their first kiss, and then another, and more. Are you well? Are you safe? Are you here with me, at last, at last, at last?
“You went so far away,” Yeong said, much later, in the manner of a man trying not to spook a nervous beast. The horse was stabled, and he and Yeong had separated, after a fashion, so that they could put away Byeong-yeon’s bags, and wash, and prepare the tea they had drunk by the light of the moon, sitting side-by-side on the porch.
“I thought you’d known––that you’d seen,” Yeong continued, his eyes downcast; “and then later I supposed that you hadn’t, after all.”
“I saw it,” Byeong-yeon said. “The fear in your eyes that night.”
“That wasn’t for myself.”
“No, it was for me,” he agreed. “That was you thinking, how am I going to get Byeong-yeon out of this?”
“It was always the other way around, before,” Yeong said.
“Can you imagine how it hurt?” he said. “To know that I was so loved that a man would let me hold my blade to his throat without a thought for himself? And then to know that that man was you.”
“Was this all I was born for?” he said. "That's what I remember thinking, in that moment." He had put it out of his mind for a long time. Perhaps that was why he could not stop himself from saying it, now. “There wasn't a night of my life since I became a man that I wasn't in pain, or afraid, or lonely. And there you were, at the end of it all, waiting. Why couldn't I have gone to you on those nights?”
“Byeong-yeon,” Yeong said again.
“I had to die to know that you loved me,” Byeong-yeon said. "No other secret seemed worth it, in that moment."
“I wish you hadn't had to,” Yeong said, and there were tears in his beautiful eyes. That was embittering. He did not want him to cry.
“It hurt so much,” he said again, and hid his face against Yeong’s collar.
“So give me the hurt,” Yeong said. “Be angry with me.”
“I would have done, if I had stayed,” he replied. ”That’s why I didn't. Do you understand?”
“No,” Yeong said.
“My dear,” he said. “All I wanted was to occupy your life without a commotion. I wanted you, when you noticed me, to think only of how gently we fit together. I had to find a life in which I could make that possible.”
“And did you?” Yeong asked, dubious.
“No,” he said. “But here I am, anyway.”
Yeong did not answer. His hand in Byeong-yeon’s hair moved slowly, calming.
“Should we live like this?” Byeong-yeon said. “My head on your shoulder, once in a while.”
“Maybe,” Yeong said, at last. “Will you come in, and rest with me a little?”
The bedroom had a low ceiling, a soft bedroll, a brazier that burned low and golden-red; nothing exceptional, other than that everything about it was like home, in sight and sound and feeling. Yeong latched the door behind them, then came up to him and caught him up in a deep, slow kiss. Then he turned away and disrobed, and folded his clothes to place them by his pillow. It was rare for his Majesty to undress without ritual, but it did not seem unnatural here, just unceremonious. Byeong-yeon took off his clothes, too, and put them next to Yeong's, before he extinguished the lamp, and lay down next to Yeong in the blue moonlight that filtered through the paper panes of the window.
Yeong kissed him once again, and took him into his arms.
"Yeong," he whispered.
“I want you,” Yeong whispered back. “You can't imagine how much.”
“So have me,” he said.
“I can wait.”
“You don't have to,” he said, granting permission with a kiss.
Yeong was running his fingertips, light, over the planes of his stomach, above his hips; the player, tuning the instrument. The touch made Byeong-yeon shiver.
“I won’t break,” he said. He reached up with his body, asking to be pushed, challenged. Yeong nuzzled his cheek, then granted him a kiss as Byeong-yeon turned his mouth towards him.
“Won’t you?” Yeong said.
And Byeong-yeon did shatter, little by little, as Yeong touched him like he touched the twisted silk strings of his ajaeng, skimming, persistent. He kissed Yeong in invitation, and nuzzled his jaw, licked and bit his earlobe, welcoming the hot, rising flame of Yeong's desire as it flared, then overtook them both. They kissed and tumbled over each other, again and once again, as the fever surged through their blood. When the room grew close, sweat breaking out over their bodies, they were rutting like wild creatures, mouths open on each other's, their cocks sliding together. It was slick and messy and alive.
“I love you,” Yeong said. The press of his brow against Byeong-yeon’s felt like the welcome of the soil and its elements: another homecoming. “Kim Byeong-yeon, I love you.”
His body expelled its breath, along with tears and pain and the hollowness of regret. He had to give up, and give himself wholly into Yeong’s keeping; he could not, after a while, mark the passing of time. Yeong was pressing against him, and his kisses gathering on Byeong-yeon's face. He struggled to say something as his nerves went taut, but he could not match Yeong’s care and sweetness, and so with a sigh, he yielded, and came, and knew nothing else for a while.
When he returned to a sense of himself, Yeong’s cheek was against his, and Yeong’s voice in his ear resounding through him. Love brimmed over, and he perceived that he was not in fragments, after all, but had become like glass, clear and perfected, and replenished.
“My dear,” he heard himself say, like a wreck.
“Dearest,” Yeong answered, with a smile.
“I’m yours,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”
“I’ve known it for a long time,” Yeong said, planting a small kiss on his cheek. “I didn’t know how to accept it. I didn’t know how to call it love. I didn’t have the words.”
“I still don’t,” Byeong-yeon said, and felt Yeong’s smile, curving against his temple.
“My poet,” he said, “bereft of language?”
“Why do you think people like me write?” Byeong-yeon said.
When his eyes closed, Yeong’s hands were still tracing patterns on his skin. The warmth sank into a long dream of the same room and the same bed, now suffused with pleasure. Time passed slowly in that dream-world, but his sleeping mind savoured it, lingering in its comfort. It was daylight when he woke, to a palm resting over his cheek; a musician’s, with string callouses, and a thumb tracing his brow. He did not feel the habitual start at the awareness of another’s body in the bed with him.
“Is this real?” Yeong asked, softly, when he turned to face him. “Is it really my Byeong-yeon?”
“If you say so,” Byeong-yeon said. He kissed the palm of his hand. “What am I, except yours?”
Yeong gathered him close; closer, and Byeong-yeon went. He found himself marvelling at things he had known before, but never quite so intimately: how soft a lover’s skin could be, how gentle their strength. He had forgotten how searching Yeong’s gaze was. It made him terribly shy, unmoored from himself as Yeong regarded his naked body.
“It’s too much,” he murmured. Yeong stilled at once, and loosened his embrace, though––dear man!––he could not bring himself to unlock it.
“What?” the king said. “Byeong-yeon?”
“Waking up with you,” Byeong-yeon said, and stirred. He thought of getting up, but turned his face instead, in to Yeong’s chest. “I didn’t know. Yeong, I never imagined it was like this.”
“Sleep with me whenever you like,” Yeong said, still in that quiet voice that recognised Byeong-yeon for the spooked animal that he was. “From now on, wake with me whenever you like.”
Byeong-yeon put his arms around him and hugged him. Touch became overwhelming. He could only stand it because it was Yeong.
“Please,” Byeong-yeon said, when he was sure his voice would rise out of his throat. “Please always forgive me.”
“What is my forgiveness, except yours?” Yeong said.
Once they got themselves out of bed, they washed and dressed briskly. “Ch––the young lady doesn’t know about her parents,” Byeong-yeon told Yeong. “I wasn’t sure what you wanted to tell her.”
“Everything, in time,” Yeong said, “Let’s tell her together.”
“She,” he hesitated, but the confession had to be made. “She calls me Father.” But Yeong only smiled, and said, “I know. Everyone who knows you knows. What does that make me, her mother?”
He laughed at that, along with Yeong, who said, once they had stopped, “There’s a person at the palace who’s been longing to see you.”
“And I her,” Byeong-yeon said. “Yeong, she knows, doesn’t she?” but Yeong rolled his eyes: what do you think?, and fair was fair. Sam-nom must have figured them out before they had ever tried to understand themselves, or each other.
“She was so unwell last year, after Jin was born,” Yeong said, softly. “I never wanted her to know hardship again. But her life hasn’t been easy.”
“Nor did she expect it to be,” Byeong-yeon said. He went to Yeong, and took his hand and kissed it, to comfort him. “She’s better now?”
Yeong nodded. “Eunuch Jang is probably exerting all his powers to prevent her from riding out to meet you at the city gates.”
“My Sam-nom, on a horse, by herself?” Byeong-yeon said. “It can’t be.”
“It’ll be hell looking after both of us,” Yeong said. “Why do you smile?”
“Because I’m happy,” Byeong-yeon said. He went to the door and unlatched it, and stepped out into the clear, dazzling winter day, where six guards of the king were waiting for them in plainclothes and perfect drill formation.
“You remember Captain Seong,” his Majesty said, and he did: his modest, barrel-chested junior looked more indomitable than ever.
“Majesty,” Seong Seo-kyu bowed, and then, diffident as ever, “Officer Kim,” and Byeong-yeon had to smile and wrap him up in a hug.
“Good to see you, seonbae-nim,” Seong Seo-kyu whispered, and hugged him back hard.
“We have a problem to confront, that some of you know about,” Yeong said. “There are two children, citizens of Joseon, who left the country because of a threat to their lives. Secrecy and incapacity prevented us from finding the culprits years ago. Now those children are returning shortly, and we must fail them no longer. That is my wish.”
“I will do my utmost to aid you all,” Byeong-yeon added, and rapidly sketched the story of what had happened before he had left the capital; the mysterious attack on Yoon-seong and Yoon-hwan’s house in Incheon, and what he knew of Hong Gyeong-rae’s fruitless efforts to find a possible culprit. The young soldiers attended seriously, and more than one, he could see, was already thinking ahead.
“I trust the men in this gathering to do their best. Captain Seong, if we might make our way back?”
The men scattered to up sticks and ready horses and packs. “Someone will bring your horse,” Yeong said to Byeong-yeon, when he went to get ready. “I didn’t finish telling you.”
Byeong-yeon looked at the hand clasping his wrist. “Yes?”
“You should know,” Yeong said. “Byeong-yeon: my love is not gentle.”
He turned. “Pardon?”
“It will not allow me to consider you once in a while and feel a mild satisfaction. If what you said last night is true; if it scares you that I will belong to you in life and death, tell me what to do to make you less wary. It will cause you suffering––”
“––but unless it’s unbearable, I cannot bring myself to leave you be and say, ‘Go, so that I don’t trouble you.’ I am trouble, for everyone around me. I always will be.”
“I know what you are,” Byeong-yeon said. “I know what your love is like.”
“I cannot occupy your life without a––what did you call it?––a commotion,” Yeong said. “Nor do I wish you to be a shadow in mine. I want your consent to make a life together: you, me, Ra-on, the children.”
“Yes,” Byeong-yeon said.
“I will give you some time to make a decision,” Yeong said.
“I’ve made it,” Byeong-yeon said. “But I need the time all the same.”
The others returned, and Seong Seo-kyu locked the gates of the little house and led their party out. As they turned the corner to the main road, Byeong-yeon stopped his horse and turned, for one more look at the place.
“What is it?” the king wondered, coming up beside him.
“Kunlun,” he answered.
“I thought you might have found it already,” Yeong said, amused. “Did you travel very far west? Was Cho-hui with you? Byeong-yeon, what is she like?”
“Like you,” he said.
By the time they gained the outskirts of Hanyang, two of the men who had ridden ahead to consult with the chief eunuch had doubled back and were waiting for them.
“The master is working on a plan for the security of the children in Hanyang,” one of them said. “We’ll work with the army to keep the route from the border clear for them. Oh, and orders for you, sir.” Byeong-yeon took the note that one of the men handed him and opened it; it was signed by Eunuch Jang, but gave an address he remembered well.
“You’re smiling again,” Yeong said in a low voice.
“Going to see a friend,” he said, and showed him the note.
“Oh, friend,” Yeong snorted. “Who are these friends of yours, and how come there are so many? I could cheerfully have strangled that Jesuit doctor of yours. Sauntering in here, with your letter. I thought you were in love with him.”
“I suspect,” Byeong-yeon said, “that it was the other way around. I must go see him, if he’s survived your jealousy.”
“Jin owes his life to him,” Yeong said. “So I suppose I have to be content with hating him in secret.” He eyed Byeong-yeon, looking like he wanted to kiss him, so much that Byeong-yeon had to turn his head away to avoid giving in to the impulse.
“I know I don’t have to tell you,” the king said, in parting. “But: be gentle with her.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Byeong-yeon replied.
The house, when he got there, was prosperous as ever; discreet and polished, its women the picture of serene, elegant accomplishment. There were no women like the women of Joseon, after all, he reflected, walking past the bustling courtyards and the glamorous rooms of the gibang’s favourites. She had moved, it appeared, to a quiet suite at the back of the great house.
“‘All day the clouds drift by, and still the wanderer cometh not,’” Jiang-ti quipped, leaning by her door jamb as he approached. “I feared you were no longer mortal.”
He bowed deeply before she invited him in: not to a professional’s quarters, he saw, but a woman’s home, breathtakingly spacious and simple. He looked over at Jiang-ti, who waved him inwards to the closed courtyard at the back of her house.
And there: there was Sam-nom; small, silvery Sam-nom, who sprang up from her seat under the camellias, and held her arms out, to be swept up and whirled around, before she burst into one of her fits of sudden tears.
“I thought I would die before I saw you again,” she choked, her arms tight around his neck. There was a paleness to her, he thought, as though the illness that had passed had left a kind of shadow behind.
“What would you do that for?” he murmured. “Hush, now, I’m here. I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner.” They sat down together, her head tucked under his chin. There was no silence to be filled here, no hurt to overcome. The evening flew by as they picked up a conversation that felt like it had never been left off. Time had erased their distances, too. They were eunuch and soldier, brother and sister, friend and confidante. And in the ten years she had gathered with Yeong, and he had spent without, they had also become something other than opposites.
“Kim Satgat,” she said, laughing, “You’ve become famous! And anonymously, which is the most Kim-hyung-like way of becoming famous I ever heard of.”
“No, no,” he laughed too. “Did you figure out it was me through the inscription?” He hadn’t told anyone who the book was for: The poet dedicates these lines to the Flower Scholar. Ha-yeon, when he handed her the epigraph, had only raised an eyebrow and muttered, “À l’unique acquéreur de ces sonnets,” which made no sense to him at all.
She shook her head. “I heard it in his Majesty’s voice. He used to read me a poem every day when I was laid up, and say, ‘Ra-on ah, if you’re better tomorrow I’ll read you one more.’ Tyrant. But I got better quickly.”
He raised his cheek from her hair and kissed her brow without really thinking about it, but she looked up at him, and blushed deeply.
“Kim-hyung, I must know,” she said, meeting his eyes. “You went away so quickly after adopting Cho-hui. It wasn’t entirely for her sake, was it?”
“Yes,” he said. “No.”
“It was for me,” she said, sadly. “So you wouldn’t come in between his Majesty and I.”
“It was mostly for myself,” he confessed. “I got scared. I’m still scared.”
“I’d never had a friend like you before,” she said. “No one like you had ever wanted me to be in their life. But you looked after me, and shared your house with me, even while you were suffering all the while.” She looked up. “I won’t let you suffer like that again.”
“Your husband has delivered me an ultimatum,” he said. “I have some time to think about our life together. Is that something you wish us to have?”
“Yes,” she said. “I have no ultimatums. I’ll wait for you forever, if I must. But you have always been so tolerant of me that I feel like being selfish, and pleading with you to stay. I’m sorry; I know you hate the palace.”
He shook his head, drinking in his fill of the sight of her, adorned now in silks and jewels, but still the girl––the woman––who’d made the end of his old, miserable life possible.
“But you remember what you told me?” she said. “Life is bearable when you find someone of your own there. I thought of that every day before I was married and entered the palace; and then again after my son was born.” She sighed. “I have a son now.” Then she frowned. “I have two.” He laughed, delighted. “I get to see the new one so rarely! I'm still getting used to him.”
"You are a baby yourself," he said.
"Look who's talking," she said. "This one became mother of the nation when you weren't looking."
“I’m sorry I wasn’t looking,” he said, brushing a curl of hair over the pink shell of her ear. “Was it very difficult?”
“No,” she said. “Just a bit difficult. But I’m not alone any more, you see?”
“Were you ever?” he said. “If someone trapped you in a cave for a month you’d come out best friends with the goblins.” She made a face, then hugged him again.
“You won’t be alone, either,” she said. “That’s what I want to tell you. We’ll be with you. You and Cho-hui.”
“And my Yoon-hwan,” he said, and watched her eyes fill up again as he told her about Yoon-seong and his nephew.
“Those poor children,” she said. “Paying for sins they never committed. And the two of you, out there in the world with them.”
“We’ve lived a good life,” he said. “I have to ensure that they continue to live well. Help us––help me to do so, your Majesty.”
She nodded, and then pinched his arm. “I’ll kill you if you call me that when we’re alone.”
“What should I call you, then?” he said. “When we’re alone?” And she blushed again, and let him hold her a little while longer.
“I detest playing go-between, darling,” Jiang-ti said, beckoning him in for a cup of tea after the queen had veiled herself and left. “She’s lucky I’ve always liked her.”
“Your good opinion is a gift,” he said. “But it’s not what you think, between her and I.”
“I don’t think she’s committing adultery,” Jiang-ti said, amused. “As for the rest, I will respect our past connection and refuse to speculate on what she, or you, or any of you, might be committing.”
Over a meal, she filled him in on the things he’d missed. She took only a minimal interest in the affairs of the gibang now, but the political and social intelligence that had crossed her threshold on a daily basis when she was a courtesan appeared not to have ceased.
“I didn’t know about this,” she said, when he described the long-ago attack on the children in the palace, but her expression turned thoughtful. “The new Baekwoon volunteers aren’t like Master Hong Gyeong-rae, or even like you. They’ll be defensive about the idea that one of their number could ever have attempted a crime like that. But didn’t you just meet your best bet at discovering the culprit?”
He nodded; it was one of the things Sam-nom and he had discussed. Sam-nom was Hong Gyeong-rae’s daughter, and a figurehead for the former rebels. She was also the master of the Inner Court, which saw and heard all that went on in the palace, and was the keeper of its private memory.
“And she’s a former eunuch,” Jiang-ti finished. “Ridiculous as it sounds, it has made her the most powerful queen that the palace has had in living memory.”
“Of course,” Byeong-yeon said. “She served with Eunuch Jang himself, and I imagine all her friends are seniors in the ranks now.”
“Her friends,” Jiang-ti said, absently. “Right. Because there was an exodus from the palace after––”
“Eunuch Han died,” Byeong-yeon said. “That’s why they had to have another intake of eunuchs so soon after the previous round.”
“Were many of Eunuch Han’s confidantes Baekwoon sympathisers, then?” she asked. “But I suppose there’s no way for you to know. Goodness, aren’t old men who take secrets to their graves despicable? Luckily for you, despicable old men form almost the entirety of my acquaintance. How do I send you a message?”
“I don’t know how I can thank you,” he said, when he was leaving. “For everything.”
“I have some money to put into a new business, so perhaps you can write me an introduction to the publisher of the White Orchid press,” she said, and smiled when Byeong-yeon’s mouth fell open. ”Cold plum flowering in the snow––a tipsy gisaeng. Did you think you were so unknown to your friends––and lovers?”
“Well,” he stammered. “Yes?” Her smile grew wider.
“You’re very young,” she said. “And your poetry is very unfairly good. And, Master Kim, I shall climb down and say that it makes me proud, as a patriot, that you decided to publish it in our alphabet.”
“This makes it all worth it,” he said. “I’d be honoured to make the introduction, terrified as I am at how well you’ll get along with my publisher.”
He paused at her door, before leaving, and looked back at the elegant, empty house. “Is it good?” he asked. “Living alone.”
“Incomparable,” she said. “Why, is someone offering you an alternative?”
“I think it would qualify as a metamorphosis,” he said.
“How frightening,” she said dryly. But her parting salute was friendly, and she murmured, “I’ll let you have my study if you need it. Once in a while,” against his cheek, before she sent him on his way, a little light-headed, as always, at her splendour.
Then he was out, all alone, in the cold, glittering capital of his heart. It was incalculably different from the place he had left as a young man; it was a world apart from all the cities and capitals he had seen. But in all its streets and walls and people, it was his. He walked for a long time through its streets, avoiding the curfew guards and pickpockets by long and unforgotten habit. He looked for a long time at the dark sloping roofs, whose ridges and hollows he could still feel under the soles of his feet, framed by the bare branches of trees that had sheltered him on his hard and lonely quests. He sat down at a canteen for a drink and a bowl of soup. Finally he sat down by the river and dropped his head in his hands, and allowed himself to feel overwhelmed.
At this time yesterday he had been sleeping in Yeong’s arms. Wake with me whenever you like, from now on, Yeong said. To do that, he would have to let go of the life he knew. There was Cho-hui to consider. His darling girl would never openly forsake him, but it would be up to him not to cause her pain once she knew her true family, and returned to her true home. There was Yoon-seong, with whom he had a family, and could once again build a household. But Yoon-seong had worked so hard at closing the wounds of his sundering from Yeong and Ra-on that he had iron-clad a part of his soul, and to hurt him again would be cruel.
And then there was this: aloneness and wandering. This, he liked and understood. He had done useful work before he left Joseon. He could do it again. Ha-yeon had given him the gift of a readership, but he could write with or without it. Perhaps his friends would not mind if he turned up on their doorstep, once in a while, just to see them, and talk to them. My head on your shoulder, once in a while.
He leaned against the back wall of an inn in an alleyway and dozed, exhausted, for a couple of hours. Then he got up and left town again.
“Byeong-yeon. Byeong-yeon? Master Baekwoon!”
He’d been drinking a long time; the hangovers were more or less rolling one into the other. The sunlight, when he opened his eyes, was a trifle more unbearable than the day before. He opened his eyes and saw Michel––older, greyer, with a rounder face than he remembered––and groaned.
“There is a basin to your left,” he heard Michel say, and he rolled over to perform the necessary expulsion. “I won’t ask,” Michel said, sitting next to him and handing him a cool washcloth for his face.
“Where am I?” he croaked.
“A friend’s house, outside the west gate,” Michel said, and Byeong-yeon got the fleeting impression of the friend as someone young and broad-shouldered, in the same physician's habit as Michel, glowering in the doorway before he disappeared from view. Michel's smile, when Byeong-yeon opened his eyes and looked at him properly, was genuine.
“A woman with the face of the Madonna has given me a letter for you,” Michel said. “And her Majesty has sent you some things to eat. I suppose I should not be surprised that the great ladies of Hanyang are devoted to your well-being.”
“Wait until you see the gentlemen,” Byeong-yeon said, sitting up with another groan. “You look well. Everyone I meet seems to have some sort of heroic story of being treated by the handsome French doctor. We could fill Hanyang twice over if you really did save the life of everyone who claims you cured them.”
“You saved my life,” Michel said, simply. “I have merely tried to preserve the gift. Take some medicine. There is water and soap for you to wash. I will shave you if your hand is unsteady.” And when he had eaten and drank tea, and felt less foul in his own skin, he sat down and took the letter from Michel’s hand.
I hear you are being wildly irresponsible, Jiang-ti had written. Keep it up. There is a network of former members who no longer identify with the Baekwoon society, but consider themselves its authentic progenitors. Among them are expelled troops of the palace guard, known to have worked directly with Chief Eunuch Han.
He had guessed as much. Years ago, in the bars, backrooms and jumble of small trading ventures that made up the unplanned peripheries of Hanyang, Byeong-yeon had founded and run the intelligence network that had helped keep his life as a double agent afloat. After a decade of good fortune and good economic governance, this undercity had swelled, and so had dissatisfaction among its people, who now had more examples of wealth all about them, and so had more to aspire to.
In this ring of the unrestricted town he had been working without pause for the last three weeks, sloughing off the Kim Byeong-yeon he had become as an adult, and regaining the appearance of sullen secrecy that he and so many others here wore like a cloak. He was recognised by very few, and it was not hard to become a familiar type, a disgraced former officer down on his luck. He might have ended up here anyway, without Cho-hui.
A certain Guard Jang, and a scholar seen often in his company named Park, disappeared but were never confirmed dead. See if your new friends can give you directions to these persons.
Above all, do not forget who you are. Your friend, Jiang-ti.
“How can I help you?” Michel asked, after he had coaxed Byeong-yeon into eating the basket of fresh food Sam-nom had sent him.
“Stitch me up if I come back hurt,” Byeong-yeon said. “Contrary to all appearances, I want to live.”
He had the opportunity to contemplate how hard and how boring intelligence work was for a few more days before he cracked the code. It took one drink too many and a hefty bribe, in marked coins that Sam-nom had concealed under his lunch, so that the guard could trace them later. But he finally had an address for the man Park, who had worked as an accountant in Eunuch Han’s office.
“Pointless to go at it alone, seonbae,” Captain Seong said, before he left the city. “Better let us follow it up. You get some rest.” He didn’t quite eye Byeong-yeon up and down, but the impulse to do so was clear.
“It has to be me, though,” Byeong-yeon said. “I’m the spoke in the wheel.”
“Equip him,” said the tall man in a hanbok of plain, rust-coloured silk, who drew aside the curtain at their safe-house and stepped within. “He’s not the type to listen to reason.” Captain Seong bowed and obediently went to retrieve the weapons concealed under a trapdoor.
Yeong came to Byeong-yeon and took his face in his hands. “You look like you’ve had no food or sleep,” he said. “Seo-kyu is right. There are police capable of seeing this case through.”
“The police aren’t traitors to the Baekwoon,” Byeong-yeon said, drawing his lips over the warm hollow of Yeong’s palm. “Stop touching me, I’m disgusting.”
“Traitor?” Yeong said, tipping Byeong-yeon’s face up towards his. “You spent years digging up bean fields, building schools, exposing the corrupt––”
“I upheld the order the Baekwoon society explicitly wished to overturn,” Byeong-yeon said. “Not all of them got the chance to argue with you in person, unlike Master Hong. Not everyone knows you as I do.” Yeong let his hands fall to his sides as Captain Seong came back with a small pile of weapons. “Eunuch Han wanted to see the royal family ousted from power. There was too much history to overcome, he thought.” Yeong nodded, looking unhappy. “There were others who went further, and thought the inheritance of leadership itself an abhorrence. Master Hong betrayed them by consenting to be your father-in-law.”
“It makes a kind of sense,” Yeong murmured. “But why target the children? Because they were both of the Kim clan and Lee?”
“Some people like to hurt the weak,” Byeong-yeon said, and shuffled over to look at the weapons. He raised an eyebrow. “This is a Belgian pepperbox,” he said, looking at the revolver lying on the table. “The imperial elite in the Cantons don't have these yet.”
“Why do you think I issue Cho Man-hyeok all those travel permits?” Yeong said, and then: “Seo-kyu, what did I say that was so funny?”
“I am,” Byeong-yeon said, hiccuping, “thinking of all the women I’ve chaperoned over land and sea in the last five years. Well done; oh, well done.”
“Pay your compliments to Teacher Da San,” Yeong said, looking confused. Then he turned to Captain Seong. “Give us a minute, would you?” he said. When they were alone, he came and put his arms around Byeong-yeon.
“It really doesn’t have to be you,” he said.
“It might be the last thing I do as her father,” Byeong-yeon said. “Let me.”
“I’m not going to steal her away from you,” Yeong replied, exasperated. “I loved his Majesty, but he committed a crime against her––a crime I couldn’t stop. I deserved to lose her.”
“She didn’t deserve to lose you,” Byeong-yeon said and then, “Forget it; I don’t know what I’m saying. I’ll decide what to tell her when I see her.”
“Together,” Yeong said. “Remember what I said.”
He leaned his forehead against Yeong’s. “I never forget anything you say.”
Yeong folded him into his embrace: a warm, secure one. “Yoon-seong’s boat arrived yesterday morning,” he said. “They’ll be here soon.”
Just a little while more, then, he thought. Fucking hell, Kim Byeong-yeon.
It was a night’s journey on foot to a village by the highway. He caught forty winks in the hollow of an old tree on the outskirts before dawn, then wended his way in as soon as the gates opened, and made for the little house of the address he had procured. Accountant Park was a small, hard-faced man: memory returned, dimly, of seeing him around the executive offices back when they both worked at the palace.
“I know who you are,” Accountant Park said, distaste writ large on his face. Well, he was in distasteful shape. “What can I do for you?”
“Nothing, probably,” Byeong-yeon said. “I’ve heard the Baekwoon has volunteers in almost every village in the province now. What do you do for them, Master Park?”
“I stay out of their way,” Master Park said. “We are no longer Hong Gyeong-rae’s friends in this household. Please leave.”
“The Baekwoon were suspected in a crime that occurred at the palace ten years ago,” Byeong-yeon asked. He did not want to coerce a suspect even of the kind of crime he was investigating. His hand, however, was itching for the pommel of his sword. “I wonder if you might help me uncover its truth?”
“The only crime committed at the palace then,” Master Park said, “was when Kim Byeong-yeon had the chance to kill the Lee despot, and didn’t take it. My master Han died for that. And the families responsible for his death continue to evade justice.”
It was treason, shocking to be spoken openly. Whatever trap they had laid for those who crossed their threshold, Byeong-yeon thought, must be very close to being sprung.
“I don’t want to fight,” he said, raising his voice to be heard by the ghosts surrounding this bitter, unassuming clerk. He very nearly failed to get a handle on his sword out in time. A blunt, slicing sound came through the air behind him, and a cudgel came flying down, narrowly missing his head. The new entrant, who leapt into the house and came at him swinging a broadsword, was powerfully built and well-trained. This must be the associate, the guard Jang.
“I don’t want to fight,” he said again, and parried the blows. The idea of using the gun tucked away in his belt was repulsive; justice was the king’s to mete out, not his. “His Majesty offered amnesty to our society years ago, and will listen to your grievances.”
Guard Jang snarled, and went on the attack again. “Have it your way,” Byeong-yeon said, and sent him sprawling with a block on the counter-attack. “Did you attempt arson on the attendants’ hall in the year of the Kim trials?” he asked, holding the fallen man at swordpoint. “Confess and submit to the king’s justice.”
“You’ll die by my hand,” Guard Jang spat, as Byeong-yeon squatted to tie his hands and legs together. “For what you did to my brother, you’ll die,” and Captain Seong had been right, after all; Byeong-yeon needed more rest than he’d had in the last few weeks. He glanced up, confused. He was not so dull that he did not perceive the mousy Master Park coming up behind him, but just enough that when he turned to block the blow of the cudgel, he reacted a second too slowly, and took the hit on his shoulder instead. It hurt, just enough that Guard Jang swiped the club from his accomplice’s hands and brought it down on him. This time, it did hit his head.
He was in hell when he woke, disoriented from the blow, his whole body aflame with pain. Someone had beaten him when he was unconscious, though not brutally enough to break his bones, he supposed. His senses were muffled, as though someone had put a thick and scratchy blanket over his head. But his eyes adjusted to the darkness after some time: he was in a large and ramshackle shed, closed off but for a large and high gap between wall and thatched roof, a window for the winter moonlight to pour in.
His breath felt shallow and disrupted in his own lungs.
“I wanted to wait until you were awake,” a soft, thoughtful voice said, and Byeong-yeon turned his head to the side, suddenly certain that he was going to throw up. He knew that voice. He had listened to that voice for a long, long time, and had obeyed it without fail every time: every time but the last. He turned his head and looked at the man holding the lamp up in the darkened room.
“Master Jang,” he said, looking on the face of his foster father for the first time since he had seen it, still and cold, on a bed of straw in the dungeons of the Investigative Office. It was grey now, haggard with the passing of the years, bitterness grooved into the lines around his mouth and eyes. Jang Ki-baek had been his minder, his teacher––no, his handler, the man who had trained him the way the military trained its dogs and horses. He had ordered Byeong-yeon to make a captive of Sam-nom; he had betrayed the Baekwoon to Prime Minister Kim; and he had died in custody of the palace guards, or so Byeong-yeon had thought. Jang Ki-baek was my comrade for years, and yet I ended his life.
“Eunuch Han,” Byeong-yeon said aloud. A phrase from Jiang-ti’s conversation floated through his mind, collapsing under this new attack. Despicable old man.
“I’m not the type to make speeches,” Jang Ki-baek said. “I will put your head on a pike for your king to find, because I hate him. But I’ll make it quick in honour of our old connection. It won’t hurt very much; it’ll be more mercy than you showed me.”
Byeong-yeon remembered the discovery of Master Jang’s betrayal, and the way he’d lost his temper, for perhaps the first and only time in his adult life. An echo of that rage made itself felt now, feebly. Strange and more sharp yet was the pang of shame that went through him.
“I want to know where this is from,” Jang Ki-baek said, and he drew out the pistol, the Liege revolver that Captain Seong had given Byeong-yeon. He looked up, incredulous, and then made an effort to put some distance between the pain in his body and his mind.
“Jang seonbae, this is embarrassing,” he said.
“Tell me,” Jang Ki-baek said, “and I’ll spare the lives of the children you seem so keen to defend. You perceive, we are not far from the highway. The caravan will be passing by soon.”
“You can’t hope to hurt them,” Byeong-yeon said. He had to cough to clear the air in his lungs, and gasp to seek more.
“Perhaps not,” Jang Ki-baek said. “But I have a firearm now. What a gift, from my foster son. Tell me where it’s from?”
Byeong-yeon didn’t, and got beaten more for it: Guard Jang, it turned out, did not share his older brother’s distaste for petty cruelty.
“Is this from Lee Yeong’s armoury?” Jang Ki-baek asked, leaning over him. “Are there more like it?”
“What profit does the information bring you?” Byeong-yeon asked. He was repelled to see Jang Ki-baek laugh.
“What do you think?” he said. “There are agents of the Qing who will pay very well for the tip. Did you imagine I was doing this in memory of the glorious rebellion?”
“Turns out you never did do much for the rebellion,” Byeong-yeon said.
“Neither did you,” Jang Ki-baek said. “What a reason to turn traitor: for that rogue little queen, who sits on the throne you were meant to crumble.”
A scuffle sounded on the gravel outside before Byeong-yeon could answer. Master Jang cocked his head, then aimed the pistol at Byeong-yeon’s heart, just before the door opened, and Yoon-seong kicked the man Park, knocked out cold, over the threshold.
“The company you keep,” Yoon-seong said to Byeong-yeon, with his hands raised: he was carrying a sword and a pistol.
It was a stand-off. “Do what you have to, hyung,” Byeong-yeon said, as he saw Yoon-seong’s expression freeze, at the sight of the gun in Jang Ki-baek’s hands.
“Let him go,” Yoon-seong said, in his low-voiced and icy rage.
“I believe the advantage is mine,” Jang Ki-baek said, and rested the mouth of the revolver on Byeong-yeon’s breastbone. Yoon-seong’s lip curled in a sneer: you had to know him very well to know that he was frightened. The pistol was in his right hand, Byeong-yeon thought, muddled: the one that trembled when he was distressed.
“Yoon-seong,” Byeong-yeon called out, “the children––”
A shot went off before he could finish. Instinct took over: he curled into a ball, cannoning his body into Jang Ki-baek and shoved an elbow deep into the older man’s ribs. Another shove with his head, and he’d split Jang Ki-baek’s head open. One more shot: Yoon-seong had put a bullet in Park’s knee.
Guard Jang, who had fallen to the floor, was bleeding and writhing. Yoon-seong frowned, then ducked out of the shed, pistol cocked.
“For goodness’ sake,” they heard a voice shriek at them from the heavens above, “were you just going to stand around and threaten each other?” Byeong-yeon staggered out into the moonlight, arms still bound, and found Yoon-seong staring up at the bare branches of an oak tree, where a woman was crouched with a rifle in her hands.
“Cho Ha-yeon,” he said, dazed, and lurched into Yoon-seong, who caught him before he fell and untied his wrists quickly.
“I left you with the children,” Yoon-seong said, evidently stupefied.
“You came back to Joseon?” Byeong-yeon said.
“Clearly I was needed,” Ha-yeon said. “Stop standing around and finish tying them up, I’m covering you. The king’s guards are at a hideout behind us, with the children and my staff.”
“Did you––did you shoot that rifle?” Yoon-seong asked, dumbfounded as he had never been in this life or, Byeong-yeon thought, any previous.
“I’m an arms trader!” Ha-yeon yelled. “I know how to shoot!”
“You’re a publisher,” Yoon-seong said, but it was soundless. Byeong-yeon shook his head to clear it, then realised that following orders from the women in his life was the only way he ever got anything done, and went back in to secure the unconscious bodies. It was Ha-yeon who had shot Guard Jang right through the meat of his shoulder, aiming from her post on the tree outside through the tight open space between the thatch and the wall. The honourable mother Cho had clearly not been able to break her daughter of the unladylike habits of fighting and tree-climbing.
Shouts and hooves came thundering up. “We’re here! Seonbae? It’s Seong Seo-kyu!” he heard. “In here,” he said, and though his voice did not rise very high, it did not matter: his men, the king’s men, were flooding into the shed. Strong hands raised him from where he was kneeling on the floor, and someone put his arm over their shoulder. He did not need the assistance, he thought, but his muscles felt wasted as soon as he took the first step, and he leaned into the other person, after all. Outside, Yoon-seong had put away his weapons, and was standing with a hand on the bark of the oak tree, another outstretched to help Ha-yeon down. She threw her rifle to a waiting guard, then skipped and half-slid down the trunk of the tree. Yoon-seong caught her.
“Thank you,” she said, and then flung her arms around his neck and burst into tears.
They stumbled a mile over to a hideout where Seong Seo-kyu assured Byeong-yeon the children were under careful guard. At least, Byeong-yeon stumbled, impatient to get there fast as his legs would take him. Several arms’ lengths behind him, Yoon-seong followed, still carrying Ha-yeon with the air of a man holding a dragon’s orb. Their heads were very close to each other, and the wind did not carry their murmurs over to the rest of the company.
“I’m fine!” he called out, drawing himself up to his full height as soon as they gained the bolthole in the forest, where the two children slipped through the cordon of the guard and came dashing out. “Uncle Yoon-seong and I are fine.”
Cho-hui came to a crashing halt just before she ran into him and looked him up and down. She looked over his shoulder at Yoon-seong, finally setting Ha-yeon on her feet, as if to reassure herself of their presence. Then she turned back and looked at him again, with those big, bold eyes of hers
“Who hurt you?” she asked. The bolt of sheer fury that crossed her face was so like Yeong’s that he lost his breath all over again. She turned to Seong Seo-kyu. “Who hurt my father?”
He was weary, but not so weary that he could not slide down to his knees and take her and Yoon-hwan in his arms. He carried them both like that to the wagon waiting to take them back to the palace, and let them crowd into his lap. He thought he passed out on the journey, but he was awake, and still holding on to the children, when they looked out into the deeps of the cold night and saw, once again, the great gates of Changdeok Palace.
Someone said something about the Department of Justice burning the midnight oil. They did not espy Yoon-seong or Captain Seong, who leapt off horseback to hurry away in the direction of the executive offices. Instead, their guard escorted them to the gates which led into the oldest and deepest parts of the palace, inwards from the shrines and courts and offices that ruled Joseon, and to where it became simply the sublimely austere dwellings of the royal family.
A pain rose in his chest, behind a scar he had put out of his mind for a long time. They crossed one gate, then another. “Master, let me take the children,” someone said, but he was not sure who, and tightened his grasp of their hands. One more gate. Then he saw her, standing at the entrance to the Inner Court.
“I’ve waited to meet you for so long, Miss Cho-hui; Master Yoon-hwan,” the queen of Joseon said, smiling, even though her eyes were shining in the light of the lamps. “What an eventful journey you’ve had. Will you let my sister make sure you haven’t taken any hurt before you eat something? We made a very delicious beef stew today.” A gorgeous young woman came forward, and he blinked and cleared his eyes before he realised who it was: the little lady Yeong-eun. No, her Highness Yeong-eun, no longer the mute child they used to dote on in secret but a sylph of a girl, with kind eyes and a deep, clear voice.
“M-my father needs a doctor, ma’am––lady––Highness,” Cho-hui said, overawed. The queen’s smile widened, though she came forward and put a hand on his arm, soothing.
“The two of you can call me 'auntie',” she said, in a confidential tone of voice. “This elder of yours, you see, is my Kim-hyung; he’s one of my best friends.” She drew him towards her. “Can I take him away to see what kind of help he needs? I promise he’ll be safe with me.”
It turned out he was the one doing the clinging. They went all the way to Jipbokheon, where the nurses were waiting outside Yeong-eun’s quarters, and Yoon-hwan had to tug at his sleeve and say, “We’ll be fine, Uncle Byeong-yeon. You should go now,” before he let go of them, and let Ra-on show him the way to the halls of the king.
He desperately wanted to be alone, and in this, the queen showed him mercy. She let him be, withdrawing after she checked him over for fractures and bruises. A tub steaming with green, medicinal scents awaited him, and he took off his clothes and submerged himself in there. The bath helped to calm him, and loosened up some of the screaming strain of the day. There was the filth of the weeks before, caked like mud at the back of his mind, and he plunged again, to try and shake them loose.
His arms rose indifferently to wet his hair, then stayed there as he sat in the cooling steam, with his elbows on his knees. It must have been some time: the next thing he knew was a pair of careful, familiar hands disengaging them, and tipping his head back against the lip of the bath. He could not object, so her Majesty wet his hair and washed it for him, combing out the tangles and working the tension out of his scalp, letting safety and warmth melt into his skin. When it was time to drain the bath, he found that he could stand by himself, and draw on a covering, and sit where she directed him, by the mirror, waiting as she lit a censer of pine incense and brought it to him, to waft under his hair and dry and scent it, the way her maids did for her.
“All done,” she said, when it lay shining and open on his shoulders. “You know what this reminds me of, Kim-hyung? All those nights at Jahyeondang, watching you take your hair down before you went to bed.”
He smiled back at her. There was joy to be suffused into the memory of those days, after all; there was joy in everything she said and did. She laid a cheek against his hair, then pressed a kiss to the crown of his head. He rested his weight on his wrists and watched her as she combed and anointed and soothed him, and lowered all his defenses. Finally, all the armour came off, taken apart and set aside. As he was falling asleep, she brought him the softest clothes he’d ever touched, and he allowed himself to lean on her as she wrapped them loosely around him, before leading him to the king's bed.
There, he opened his eyes and curled an arm around her waist, as she arranged his pillows. "I know what to call you," he murmured. “Ra-on.”
His hand came up to her face, and he traced its features, before he drew it down against his own, amazed at the love he felt for this old, firefly friend of his.
“My precious girl,” he said, and made her smile once again, before she found his mouth with hers.
The next thing he knew was starting awake to find himself in near-darkness, in a room he could not immediately recognise. He would have panicked, but for the weight of Ra-on’s head pillowed on his chest. That reassured him, and he fell back asleep.
He thought he might have woken once again, in broad afternoon light. Two small bodies had burrowed in on either side of him, and were making themselves comfortable in a way they clearly imagined was quiet. He knew this from stormy nights in Peking, when the thunder scared them; and mischief-making ones, when Cho-hui’s appetite for making up monster stories got the better of them both. It was cosy, and familiar, and he sank into the feeling gratefully.
There was no strength left to drive his mind and body forward without resources. He came to consciousness only to find that he wanted to sleep more. His surroundings lulled him into rest again and again. He did not know when the children left, or if they returned. Someone handled him carefully, pressing on his bruises and aches, leaving cooling comfort in the wake of pain. “Master Baekwoon,” he heard: but there was no way to answer. There was a flurry of whispers around him once, before someone hissed “Out!”. The sound of socked feet tapping over the floor came closer. He opened his eyes and saw a small, serious boy with a book open in his lap, sitting next to his bed. He thought he said “Hello, Yeong,” but could not be sure: it was all happening in dreamless night.
When time regained its meaning at last, night really was crossing above their heads, and the bedchamber was dim with pre-dawn light. Ra-on was asleep on a mattress to his far side, with a baby whose face was identical to hers curled up beside her. Next to Byeong-yeon, Yeong lay dead to the world, his breaths deep and even, and his fingers clasped around Byeong-yeon’s.
The first person he ran into as he crept out of the bedchamber was Eunuch Jang, who peered at him over his eyeglasses, instantly making him blush. Ra-on had put him in something that belonged to Yeong, and the robe trailed over his ankles, and refused to close properly over his chest. “I shall provide you with something more appropriate,” Eunuch Jang said, sternly, but his eyes twinkled, and he broke protocol and gave Byeong-yeon a warm, welcoming hug.
“It’s good,” he whispered. “It’s good you came back, Guard Kim.”
Byeong-yeon repaid the gesture by obeying Eunuch Jang’s assistants as they directed him through the motions of another medical check-up, and then getting ready for the day. His head was unclouded now. The rest had done him good, and he felt more like himself.
He put on the clothes they gave him before he realised what they were: Jang Hoon-nam has put aside a silk from Ilbon in a handsome dove grey for your hanbok. Whenever you can, come. He walked slowly, in the dawn light, to where the children were sleeping, and sat at their doorstep, watching the sun rise.
“What, I can’t wake up early to see my baby owls?” he said, when the children raced out, exclaiming over him.
“You’re sick, and supposed to be in bed!” Cho-hui scolded him.
“He was always the most disobedient of us all,” Yeong said, popping his head over the shrubbery with an insufferable grin for Byeong-yeon’s benefit. “Children, her Majesty wants to collect us all for the morning meal. Yoon-hwan ah, Yoo––that is, your uncle is here: Eunuch Do will take you to see him.”
“I was the most obedient,” Byeong-yeon said to Cho-hui as they set off down the path to the royal residence again, but truth had no currency in the face of glamour: she only looked up at Yeong, to her other side, and snickered when he said, “I swear,” and wrinkled his nose at her. But the mood changed when Yeong touched his shoulder and led them away from the halls of residence, to his reading room. Cho-hui looked between them and sobered.
“What is it?” she said, and tugged on Byeong-yeon’s hand. “Abeoji, what is it?”
In the privacy of Yeong’s library, he got down on his knees before her, and so did Yeong. She copied them, frowning. Byeong-yeon looked at her trusting little face for a long minute, and then cast his eyes down, and opened his mouth to make a start on the words he had been preparing for ten years. Next to him, Yeong pressed a shoulder to his. Let me do it. But it was not a task he could shirk after having given much of his life, and all of Cho-hui's, in preparation.
“Someone tried to hurt you when you were very small, Cho-hui ya,” he began.
She listened quietly as he told her about the attack on the palace, the need to hide Yoon-hwan and her away, and the circumstances of their leaving Joseon. He had never felt more desolate than when she looked at him and said, “It can’t be,” when he told her that he wasn’t her actual father.
“This is where I come in,” Yeong said, steady and strong: a reminder that he wasn’t alone, that they weren’t alone. “You were born to my father and step-mother, Cho-hui, but they were both very unwell, and couldn’t look after you.”
“Your father was the old king,” Cho-hui said, shocked.
“We were not then the kind of court you see about you today,” Yeong said. “It took me a long time to make sure our enemies were gone, you see. Do you know how I could do it? I could devote my whole self to making Joseon and the palace safe, because I didn’t have to worry about you. You went away with a person I trust more than even myself, and he watched over you better than I ever could.”
His heart broke twice over: once at the thought of what it must be to learn what Cho-hui was learning today; and once again in a premonition of the future, when they would tell her––as they had to––of the tragic spite and cruelty that tore apart the families she and Yoon-hwan ought to have had, before they had ever been born. But his girl was made of steel, after all, and she gave them a long, considering look after they had finished telling her this much of the truth.
“Do I have to stop calling you ‘father’?” she said to Byeong-yeon. “Because that’s not possible.”
“He is your father in every way that matters, and you are his little girl,” Yeong said. “Only, Cho-hui, if it’s possible for you to think of me as someone who belongs in your life some day, I would very much like that. ”
“I’m his little girl,” Cho-hui repeated, and then her eyes widened. “I’m your little girl.” She turned to Byeong-yeon. “He wrote you the letter!”
“What?” Byeong-yeon said, blankly.
“He asked you to come back because he was getting married, but he missed you because you had gone away with me!” she said. “Oh! Will I really be tall like Yeong-eun eonni?”
“I,” Byeong-yeon said. “Don’t know.”
“Yoon-hwan and I tried so hard to think of who it was. We almost asked Uncle Yoon-seong, except we got scared of what he would say about reading other people’s letters. But obviously I read yours, abeoji.”
“Obviously,” Byeong-yeon said, disconcerted. He had saved that missive, hidden, somewhere in his papers, but hadn’t looked at it in a long time.
“So you really are friends,” Cho-hui said.
“We’re family,” Yeong said.
She was subdued when they left the library, and kept shooting the two of them thoughtful looks. But she did not seem to be distressed, and even smiled when she saw Yoon-hwan, hanging around two younger boys with the air of infinite patience he had developed after years of living with her.
“Where’s Uncle Yoon-seong?” she asked, and looked over to where he pointed: the walled garden beyond the east doors of the bedchamber, where Yoon-seong was sitting next to her Majesty, deep in conversation.
Jin, the baby, was ecstatic at the sight of a new playmate, and scrambled after her immediately. But it was the elder boy, Heonjong, who stole Byeong-yeon’s heart: a charming, self-possessed child who hid behind his book and studied the new people around him with a half-wary, half-wistful look.
“Thank you,” Byeong-yeon said, crouching by him. “You came to sit with me when I was recovering, didn’t you?”
“Father says you saved his life,” Jeong said.
“That was a long time ago,” Byeong-yeon said.
Breakfast, when it came, was the most informal meal Byeong-yeon could remember eating in the company of others. The children tripped in after the adults, diving for seats next to their parents but interested solely in chattering to each other. Cho-hui, clinging to Byeong-yeon’s hand tightly, sat next to him and affected to eat everything he put in his bowl.
Yeong settled in on his other side, and, stiffly, said, “Come here, Kim Yoon-seong.”
“Let’s not draw this out,” Yoon-seong said, under his breath, but even he could not contain his surprise when Yeong drew a piece of meat from a dish of boiled pork, and laid it over the rice in Yoon-seong’s bowl.
Ra-on, seated at one end of the gathering with her sons about her, smiled and laughed and kept a conversation going with all the children, leeching the tension out of the air, and filling it with love and good humour.
He was aware of a growing and deeply private gladness within him. It was surprising to feel relief after the conversation in the library, but it felt right to let go: yet another secret that he had kept for ten years, now discharged. He was happy at the sound of beloved voices in the air, and grateful to Cho-hui, who had looked at him and decided that he was, for now, still her abeoji. There was something else stirring, too, lazy and inexorable, at the feeling of Yeong’s body next to his. He looked over at Ra-on to see it mirrored on her face, as she smiled and laughed and watched him and Yeong from the corner of her eye.
When the dishes were cleared away, Yoon-seong said, “I’ll take your leave. Yoon-hwan?” They waved goodbye to uncle and nephew, and then Yeong-eun glided in, and asked if she could borrow the children for a kite-flying project, earning her both Jeong and Cho-hui’s whole attention.
“I’m not going far, abeoji,” Cho-hui whispered, when he bent to accept a hug goodbye from her. “I’m just going to fly a kite and think about things.”
“I’ll wait for you,” he promised, and let her go. Then Jin went to his nurses for a bath and a nap, waving and blowing them kisses as he went. And at last the attendants were gone, and the morning’s work was done, and they were all alone, in the middle of the day, in a blessedly quiet room.
He heard Ra-on latch the door behind him as he reached out for Yeong, and walked him backwards, until his back was flush with Byeong-yeon’s chest.
“I thought about your proposal,” Byeong-yeon said, into the hollow of Yeong’s neck, and felt the sigh that left Yeong’s throat at the touch. Before them, Ra-on, now openly giddy, sat down on the bed, and put her chin on her hands, eyes sparkling.
“It was an order,” Yeong said, and reached up to tangle his fingers in Byeong-yeon’s hair, and pulled him forward, lightly, to kiss his cheek.
“I thought about your fervent request,” Byeong-yeon said, and slid his arms around Yeong’s chest. He kissed him softly, ardently, to tell him what words would not suffice to say. When they parted, Yeong’s eyes were overcast, but he turned in Byeong-yeon’s arms, and locked him into an embrace of his own.
“And?” Yeong said. Byeong-yeon squeezed his eyes shut, then held Yeong tightly. Then he opened his eyes and looked over at Ra-on.
“And,” he said, “I don’t want to live without you.”
Yeong was looking at him with that piercing look again. He remembered it from daybreak in the circuit house; it provoked him to desperate shyness, and desperate yearning. They kissed and coiled closer to each other, until by degrees, the yearning overtook the shyness. He opened his eyes and saw them as Ra-on must see them: two bodies in love, and their nearness to each other, working its alchemy like a perfume. His breathing was altered, and the heat of Yeong’s look made him want to look back in the same way.
Yeong kissed him slowly this time, with a hand on his jaw, tongue swiping lightly over Byeong-yeon’s lower lip, making him groan.
"I have a lot to ask of you," Lee Yeong said, when he broke it off, and waited for Byeong-yeon to be able to speak.
“You always do," Byeong-yeon said, and slid his fingers into Yeong's hair, to unwind it of its pins and bands. “I always like it." He drew his head down, and kissed him again.
It was he who led Yeong to their bed, where Ra-on was sitting, dazzling in her beauty and her happiness. She enfolded them in her arms, sheltering them so that they could simply enjoy the beginnings of their closeness for a little while, saying hello and welcome, reassuring each other that there was calm here, and contentment, when they wanted it.
Then she tilted her mouth against Byeong-yeon’s, and kissed him deeply, raking her fingernails over his chest, and he gasped, and fell back on the blankets. “Go on,” she said, rolling off to the side and leaning on her elbow. “I want to see this.”
Suddenly, there was mischief in the air. Her low, husky laugh shot through him with a thrill as he and Yeong undressed in front of her, and kissed and teased and provoked each other until the heat in between them became molten. He took Yeong’s cock in hand, and rubbed it against his own, enjoying the sound of Yeong’s gasp at the feeling, and the shade of Yeong’s body covering his. He opened his legs, and let Yeong thrust against the groove in between them. They fucked, slicker and hotter and more ferocious, until they became wild for each other again, and drew closer, tighter, until they spilled over, shivering at the shock of mutual conquest, and mutual surrender.
All that day, no one came seeking them, and they rested, and made love, and rested again. Ra-on’s body against his was new, but not wholly unfamiliar in its closeness: they had lived together, and she had nursed him through his long convalescence at Teacher Da San's house, through that terrible autumn in which they had all left behind the vestiges of childhood. He had not thought to desire her then, but he was undone now by her kisses and caresses, humbled before her in body and soul.
They fused together, then broke apart, drifting in bliss. Ra-on and Yeong were evidently delighted to discover that they could get him to talk, when he lost himself to the sensation of touch; not loudly, but deliberately, until he was out of breath. It was Kim Satgat’s wayward mouth, he thought: it was filthy and wanton, and it knew how to be loving in a way that Kim Byeong-yeon had not known he could be. And there was more still. He and Ra-on, they found, could suspend even Lee Yeong’s frenetic internal clock, and together they took apart the incessant engine that drove the king to constant, relentless thought and decision. Ra-on’s courteous, considerate husband forgot himself wholly with his head in her lap, sucking lovebites into her breasts as Byeong-yeon gripped and sucked his cock, swallowing him down when he came.
Afterwards, Yeong drowsed, smiling, his eyes blinking open every now and then, as though he couldn’t help but remember that he had something important to look at, and make a study of. He was running his fingers over Byeong-yeon’s back again, light and musical, gently driving Byeong-yeon to distraction.
“I know that smile,” Ra-on said to Yeong. “It reminds me of the days you used to steal my kisses from behind your books.”
“I’m stealing you both from the world,” Yeong said, which made no sense except to the three of them in their infatuation.
"Are you happy, your Majesty?" she asked. Next to him, Byeong-yeon dropped a kiss on Yeong's shoulder, wanting to hear him say yes.
"What do you think?" Yeong said, teasing, and then growled as Byeong-yeon's hand skimmed down his body and danced, also teasing, over the sensitive skin of his hips.
"I think," she said, and she leaned up to brush Yeong’s lips with hers. Byeong-yeon intercepted her, seeking her mouth, and kissed her, firm and just this side of demanding.
"You were thinking...?" he said, when they paused for breath, and she hid her face in the crook of Yeong's arm and laughed at herself. "Sorry to have interrupted."
She looked up, cheeks warm, ready with a riposte. "I think,” she said, and reached out to caress his face with hers. “I love you,” she said. “For yourself, and as myself, and together with our beloved.”
So she got the last word, after all.
The sun was setting when they got out of bed. Ra-on lit the tapers as the men put on their robes, and then Yeong went to help her fasten her clothes, and braid her hair. Byeong-yeon’s collar did not quite cover a mark Yeong had given him, high on his throat, but it didn’t matter; he did not intend for anyone to see. They strolled out, when they could stand to release each other’s hands, and started down the path to Jahyeondang.
“It felt so lonely to go there,” Ra-on said. “Now I think it’ll just be quiet, Kim-hyung. It’s been waiting for you.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist and swung her off the steps and to the ground. “Let’s go, then,” he said.
Yeong stopped to pick up a flask the maids had left for them, and they set a wandering pace. Byeong-yeon walked ahead of the king and queen, listening to the mild wind singing through the bare trees, and the familiar rhythm of the conversation behind him. Occasionally he heard a laugh, or the upward inflection of Yeong’s sarcasm; once, he heard her call Yeong by his name, and he smiled.
“I practically broke your wrist the first time we met because you made to touch his Majesty,” he remembered.
“I was brushing a cobweb from his hair,” she protested, laughing.
“I owe you an apology, since here you are now, calling your husband by his name.”
“I like it,” Yeong said. “There’s almost no one left now to do it.”
He stopped in his tracks, and waited for them to come up to him, before he leaned over to kiss and comfort Yeong. They went hand in hand to close the last remaining distance between them and the old, familiar hall of their childhood. Jahyeondang, when it came into his sights, stood proud and remote as ever.
“Did time stand still here?” he murmured, standing under the spreading camphor tree by the deck where they used to gather to eat their late suppers.
“Come,” Ra-on beckoned him, and set out the cups to pour out a drink for each of them; the drink that was the last promise but one that Yeong had made to him. “Come and set it going again with us.”
EPILOGUE: EIGHT MONTHS LATER
“At the Cho house, being spoiled silly,” Byeong-yeon said. “They’ve both fallen headlong in love with Ha-yeon's mother. Why are our children so defenseless against well-dressed women?”
“Who isn’t?” Ra-on said. “How are the celebrations coming along?”
“Inordinately grand and very tiresome,” he said, sinking down to sit at the grass by her feet. “The Cho family were thrilled about getting to organise a party for their spinster daughter and her accomplished painter husband, who it turns out was the very boy they wanted her to marry when she was seventeen. Yoon-seong’s cousins went wild at being able to celebrate the clan’s return to high society. Everyone's tried to outdo each other with banquets and picnics and musical evenings. Yoon-seong was longing to be disinherited all over again.”
“I’m sure he didn't want much of a fuss,” Ra-on mused. “But Lady Cho is so popular, and sociable.”
“Ha-yeon didn’t want to get married at all,” Byeong-yeon said. “Said she no longer saw the point of falling in love only to be transferred from house to house like chattel. The groom had to bribe her into it.”
“With what?” Ra-on said, laughing.
“A trip through Mongolia,” he said. “I saw them off on the boat up north just now.”
“Kim-hyung,” Ra-on stared at him. “I thought the wedding was tomorrow.”
He shook his head, smiling. “They had it this morning. Third State Councillor Cho agreed to the change after they sat him down and argued it out. I think it was to ensure that they wouldn’t outright elope. And the astrologer found an auspicious time on the calendar today, thanks to a little wedding present Yoon-seong made to him.”
“So then they stole out of their homes at dawn, and met in her courtyard. It was just her parents and brothers on her side, and me and the children on his, in front of three town elders, and the registrar. They’ll host a big feast tomorrow evening for everyone else, without the bride and groom. ”
“That is the wildest and most romantic thing that’s happened in Joseon,” Ra-on said.
“Utterly irresponsible,” Yeong remarked acidly, coming through the vines that covered the entrance to the garden. “Little Yoon-hwan would probably act with more sense and maturity.”
“Yoon-seong will be back just in time for your next attempt to recruit him to the executive office,” Byeong-yeon said, innocently, but reached out to smooth down Yeong's collar when he sat down next to him, and leaned over for a kiss. “I missed you,” he murmured.
“What happens to the White Orchid press while Lady Cho’s away?”
“Goes from strength to strength, I think, thanks to her new business partner. I have a rewrite to work on.” He held up the cloth bundle he’d brought with him. “Ha-yeon edited the last few pages in the carriage on the way to the river.”
He couldn’t work on it, after all. Yeong gave in to temptation, for once, and suspended business for the evening so that the three of them could have a drink together, and then, light-headed, fall into bed and get their hands and mouths all over each other. Their first day together was a blazing and cherished memory: he knew, as they had all known, that they would not have many days like that in lives such as theirs.
Still, the heat it had kindled was now a fire banked with him, low and constant. He looked over at their naked, sleeping forms, and felt a sudden longing to kiss them awake. But today it simply would not do. He looked down at his manuscript, and then pinched the wick of his lamp, gathered the papers, and slipped out of the chambers, and the palace.
“Don’t you have a home or two to go to?” his publisher––co-publisher––said, when her handmaiden let him in.
“The house is empty,” he said. “I need the study, please.”
“Empty houses are good to write in,” Jiang-ti complained. “Especially at midnight, when occupied houses are full of people desiring sleep.” But she unlocked her writing room, the place in which he’d come to write draft after draft of his new poems, and ordered him to put his heart into the rewrite as she lit the candles. “The Lady Cho is very indulgent with you, but I assure you I will not be.”
He got a few hours of work in before he put his brush down and stretched out on a sleeping mat to catch some shut-eye. Jiang-ti had had breakfast set out for him when he woke, and he ate and thanked her servants before he set out to the Cho house.
“Oh, it’s been no trouble, Master Kim,” the senior Lady Cho, the combined power of whose looks and sense of style he could withstand only due to prolonged exposure to her daughter, said. “They’re lovely children. I confess I’m amazed that they were brought up by two young men.”
“We had help from the whole world,” Byeong-yeon said, which made her laugh. The children were disappointed to come away, though he noticed that they both tried to hide it from him. The return to Joseon hadn’t been easy on either of them: a new house, and new people thronging through it, to say nothing of their two guardians, suddenly caught up in mending the fabric of their own personal lives.
“I guess we’ll have to go live at the palace now,” Cho-hui said, as Yoon-hwan ran ahead, bouncing a straw ball off his knees. They were walking home over canals and fields, to the large, leafy house on the outskirts of town to which Yoon-seong and he had relocated the children.
“Say that again?” he said, puzzled.
She took a deep breath. “Deputy Governor Cho’s second daughter told Deputy Governor Cho’s first daughter that Auntie Ha-yeon and Uncle Yoon-seong were gone on a bridal tour and that when they came back they would probably want to live alone, not with his step-children.”
“You’re not his step-child,” Byeong-yeon said, feeling a lick of anger flare up. Sometimes, home was just a place where more people had the power to hurt you.
“I told Yoon-hwan that,” Cho-hui said. “But what if they do want to live alone, abeoji?”
“I distinctly heard Auntie Ha-yeon tell you to keep the house safe and well for her to come back and live in it with you.”
“Maybe we’ll just be in her way.”
“Everyone is in Cho Ha-yeon’s way,” Byeong-yeon said. Yoon-seong had had a heartfelt talk with the children before he told them of his wedding plans, and even asked them for their permission before he took his suit to Councillor Cho. They had chosen their house so that they would not be underfoot of each other. It had space for the children to grow and play, and to welcome others who might be born there. But he did not know how to communicate the hopes and plans of three thirty year-olds to an eleven-year old, much less to dispel the fanciful notions that she had absorbed from a silly sixteen-year old.
“Do you want to go live at the palace?” he asked Cho-hui now.
She said nothing. Adjusting to her family secret had been the hardest thing to happen to her since their return, and though she was too dignified to complain, it made her anxious to spend too long in the palace environs. Yeong-eun was the only sibling she had really taken to, and he was glad to see the love growing between the two of them. But Yeong, in spite of their initial camaraderie, had become someone to be wary of, not helped by the fact that he was the high and exalted monarch of the nation as much as he was a man. She was only slowly coming to see him as one of her people, and then more because of his place in Byeong-yeon’s life than in her own.
“We can just go away again,” she muttered, and then cheered up. “Master Michel told me all about the fishing village where we met him, when I was a child. He says the hospital there is even bigger than his hospital here. We can go see the hospital, don’t you think?” Michel and she had become fast friends, mostly on account of Michel’s heaven-sent patience with her questions about sicknesses and medical procedures, the gorier the better.
“We can go see it,” Byeong-yeon said, as Yoon-hwan gave up his ball game, and came back to both of them. “There’s a lot to see in Joseon. A lot to do.”
“So let’s go,” Yoon-hwan said. “Let’s travel all over Joseon. Let’s see all the mountains and all the rivers, and all the islands.”
They arrived at the threshold of the empty house, a sparse and sprawling thing. They were each populating it a little at a time with their belongings, both seen and unseen. In the orchard at the back, Yoon-seong had set up a studio, drenched in natural light and birdsong. Ha-yeon had been talking of founding a school for girls, and they thought they might give up the front of the house, or buy the land next door, to make one. “You’ll have to help me run it,” Ha-yeon had told him, and he’d said no, which was patently ridiculous and futile: he was the only one around here who knew anything about setting up and running schools.
It occurred to him that they might never do the things they meant to do. Perhaps Yoon-seong would want to live elsewhere. Perhaps Cho-hui might change her mind about her family, and want to live closer to Yeong-eun. His own anxious heart might find it easier to do as Yoon-hwan said, and live from one wandering to the next. I want to live with you, he had said to Yeong and Ra-on, but they were still finding their way towards each other, and there were days when he thought he might never be able to give more than the little he'd asked for on the night of his return: not always, but once in a while. My head on your shoulder.
The key turned in the lock. He had a mathematics lesson to teach the children, and then he would sit down and rewrite another poem before feeding them their evening meal. The cooks had put away the side dishes from the dinner party they’d had here three nights ago, but he knew where the jars were. He would soak the rice so it would be ready to cook. Perhaps he could have Yeong and Ra-on over for supper, one night, when they could get away, and they would see the room in which he lived when he was not with them.
He turned to where Cho-hui and Yoon-hwan were standing under a tree with leaves of deep green. Yoon-hwan was peering at the stone bowls he had filled with grain and water and left on one of the lower boughs. Cho-hui was craning her neck to look up at where a turtle-dove was putting the finishing touches on a neat and tightly-spun nest. He let them be for a few moments.
Then, “Come on in,” he said, and opened the doors.
All the world is our home.
All men our kin.
Good and evil
are not caused by others.
Nor are suffering and relief.
We do not exult
that life is sweet
Nor do we cry
That life is cruel.
We know from the vision of seers
that life takes its fated course
like a raft that floats
on a rapid river
roaring among the rocks
during the monsoon rains.
Therefore we neither marvel at the great
nor disdain the small.