In the middle of the night, Lady Noh shook her awake and helped her dress into the ceremonial robes, stiff and heavy with embroidery. "These are a little too large for you, my lady, but we have no time."
Yi-nok sat obediently still as one of the ladies-in-waiting combed and pinned up her hair. "But I thought the coronation was taking place during the day, so that all the people could come and watch."
"The situation has changed," Lady Noh said without her usual poise. "I must explain something to you along the way."
As the attendants rushed them along the hallways to the throne room, Yi-nok tried to make sense of what Lady Noh was telling her. False swords, the late Queen Mother, court factions, and bids for power--it was enough to make her head whirl.
"I don't really understand. Does this mean the young lord--I mean, His Highness--isn't supposed to be king?"
"Yes, my lady. It is of utmost importance that His Highness maintains the support of the yangban. Otherwise he loses all legitimacy to the throne."
"But still the king chosen by the people."
"I wish it were that simple, my lady."
"Am I--am I going to be married now?"
"Yes, my lady. We will hold the marriage and your own coronation as Queen Consort after His Highness receives the royal seal."
Yi-nok stumbled through the ceremonies with the help of whispered instructions from her attendants. As she made her third and final bow, the new king rose and crowned her with the Queen Consort's headdress. She lifted her head too quickly and cringed as the dangling beads clacked loudly against each other. The attendants helped her to her feet silently and guided her up the stairs to the throne, where she took her seat by the king's side.
"All hail the King! May he reign for ten thousand years!"
"Apparently, they held the ceremony yesterday, in the middle of the night."
"Does that mean Yi-nok is married now?" Gom asked.
"Shh. Not in front of Gil-dong," Su-geun whispered loudly.
"I can hear all of you," Gil-dong retorted and turned over on his side. "Keep it down, I'm trying to nap."
"I thought they were going to let all people come and watch and throw a feast to celebrate. We were all looking forward to it."
"The yangban officials probably pressured him into it."
Gil-dong started snoring loudly. After a while, they took the hint and left the room.
When he was finally alone, he sat up, elbows on knees, and scowled. "It's for the best," he said out loud. He tried not to imagine Yi-nok, wrapped up in fancy silk and hidden away in the inner cloisters of the palace, never to wander about freely in the streets of the capital again.
How would she spend her days now? The idiot had no head for politics, no skill for embroidery or calligraphy--she could barely read hanja--and no talent for anything other than selling medicine, fighting and running. And eating. At least Yi-nok would eat her fill at every meal in the palace.
Did the palace kitchens ever serve steamed buns?
He shook his head. Yi-nok was strong, the strongest person he knew. She could survive anything.
"Worry about yourself, Hong Gil-dong." He took out the pouch she made for him and ran his fingers over the irregular stitches. Surreptitiously, he pressed his lips to the stained cloth.
Chang-hwi rubbed his eyes as he paced back and forth before his throne. What to do about the problem of Hong Gil-dong? The man never stopped being a double-edged sword.
"Her Majesty asks permission to enter," announced the attendant outside his room.
"Permission is granted."
The doors drew open, and Yi-nok--his wife, he thought, still unable to completely believe it--walked towards him quietly. Her expression was solemn, as it usually was when she was thinking very carefully about something important. He smiled at the sight, feeling as if a weight was taken off his shoulders.
"My lord--I mean, Your Majesty--"
"You don't have to correct yourself. Call me whatever comes naturally to you."
"Well, my lord, I wanted to ask you something. If I may." At his nod, she continued, hesitantly, "I heard from Lady Noh that you appointed Gil-dong as the Minister of War."
"And as usual, he's been wreaking havoc and giving me a headache." He laughed ruefully. "I don't disagree with his ideas, but his methods are too radical. Sometimes one has to make compromises as a government official."
"But how do you know when you're supposed to compromise?" she asked.
"Well, it's a little like not picking fights that you can't win. You wouldn't challenge a much stronger opponent if you knew you would only end up beaten and injured, would you?"
She frowned, puzzling over the question for a long moment. "Maybe," she said eventually. "But sometimes there are fights that you can't run away from. Like when you're protecting someone else. And sometimes the enemy will fight you anyway, and you have no choice but to fight back."
He sighed. "I suppose that's what Hong Gil-dong would say too."
"Believe in Gil-dong, my lord. He always figures out a way to win in the end. He's smart, and he also has a lot of luck on his side. If you keep believing in him, he won't let you down." Her face was earnest and hopeful. Outside the palace, there would be thousands of other faces with the same expression turned towards Gil-dong. Chang-hwi wondered, a little bitterly, if any of them looked at him with the same trust and optimism in their eyes or if they only saw him as the Hwalbindang's choice for king. Was he doomed to always remain a pawn in someone else's game?
"I believe in Hong Gil-dong. Or at least giving him a chance to reform this kingdom. I wish though that he would believe in me as well."
"But he does. We all do. We believe that you will change the world."
He closed his eyes. "The world will change. But it will take time--and compromise."
"Very well. You are dismissed," said the king. "In both senses of the word."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Gil-dong did not bother to bow and turned his back as he left.
As he strode across the courtyard, he noticed a procession of ladies-in-waiting approaching from the Queen Consort's wing and hurriedly changed direction. But it was already too late.
"Gil-dong!" exclaimed Yi-nok, breaking the orderly queue and rushing out to him. Her attendants followed after her, milling around in confusion.
"Your Majesty." He bowed deeply.
"Were you here to speak with the young lord? I mean, His Majesty?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"I heard you are an official now."
"Was. His Majesty has seen fit to release me from his service."
"There's no need to speak so formally with me." She glanced self-consciously at her ladies-in-waiting. "Lady Shin, I would like some privacy, please."
The attendants drew back a few steps at her command. Gil-dong allowed himself to study her for a moment. Her eyes were still as clear and guileless as he remembered them. But otherwise, palace life had transformed her: her braided hair, richly ornamented with jeweled pins, framed her face, and there was rouge on her lips and cheeks.
"Couldn't you have stayed?" she asked.
"I'm returning to where I belong. I'm too much of a loose cannon to stay here. Besides, there are others to support the king. My job isn't to help him but to make him listen to the people."
"I see." She looked crestfallen.
"You're doing well."
She shook her head. "I make hundreds of mistakes everyday. Lady Noh is always scolding me for not speaking properly." Rather desperately, she added, "I don't belong here either. Someone like me shouldn't be Queen."
"Who better to be Queen for the new era than someone like you? Kindhearted and beautiful. At least," he added hurriedly, "that's what Mal-nyeo says."
She blushed. "I'm not so kind. I keep wanting to run away, even though I know it's selfish. Gil-dong, I--"
"Idiot," he said softly. Her eyes were full of tears. On impulse, he took her hand--palace life had not yet softened the calluses there--and pressed it. "You are a strong person, Yi-nok. Your presence by the king's side will remind him of what's important. I trust you to help him rule as a good king."
She nodded reluctantly. "I suppose we won't be meeting again anytime soon."
"Give my love to everybody when you get back."
"I will." He released her hand and stepped back. He bowed again, more deeply than before. "Your Majesty. Please know that I will always respect you."
He watched her leave, guided by her attendants. She walked more gracefully now, taking smaller steps to accommodate the full skirts. From a distance, she looked, indeed, like a queen.
"Please, let me go."
"I don't belong here. But I do belong there, with them."
Chang-hwi clenched his fists. "Don't you understand? You are the Queen. Believe me, if I had a choice in the matter, I would smuggle you from the palace myself. I know your heart is with him. But I cannot let the Queen of this kingdom be taken by rebels."
"You would end up a hostage."
"Gil-dong would never--"
He slammed his fist on the table. "I know! But I have no choice."
Her eyes brimmed with tears. "Why are you fighting? I thought you were on the same side."
"Gil-dong wants to destroy the very foundations of this kingdom in order to make his new world. A world without kings. Or queens."
She drew a sharp breath but said nothing.
He looked away. "You agree with him, don't you?"
"There's nothing to forgive. I know where your heart truly lies." Not with him. Never with him.
"Enough. Tomorrow, we attack the Hwalbindang's hideout, and I cannot allow you to give them warning."
He was not surprised the next day to find her gone. Frantic with worry and fear but not surprised. She had left all her robes and jewelry, taking nothing but the clothes she had brought with her to the palace. He ordered Chil-su to take his most trusted men to search for her. He also sent a letter to be delivered to Hong Gil-dong, as discreetly as possible.
Yi-nok came back, carrying the reply. The paper was blank.
"He sent you back," Chang-hwi told her quietly, showing her the letter.
"No. No, I must go."
"If you go, you will die!"
"Better die than let him die alone!"
"Guards, please escort Her Majesty back to the palace."
"No. No! My lord! Your Majesty! Please, let me go back."
He turned away so he could no longer see her face. "I'm sorry, Yi-nok."
As the flaming arrows flew towards them, Gil-dong took out the pouch and held it against his heart. "I love you...I love you."