Gyeongseong was not the smallest of cities, which made gossip difficult to keep track of, but Cha Song Ju was the proprietress of Myeong Bin Parlour, and Myeong Bin Parlour was not the smallest of gisaeng houses.
Of course, there was also the not-so-small matter of her growing spy network, which undoubtedly gave her an advantage when it came to the latest tidbits of news.
Ultimately, In Ho was the one who inadvertently led her to her newest scheme.
"My teacher is wonderful," In Ho gushed. "I can read hangeul now. Me, son of a farmer, who never had the chance to go to school!"
Song Ju smiled encouragingly as Geun Deok stood behind her, his lack of expression making her own charms ever more charming.
"She's been telling me about our history too, and oh, if only I could captain some turtle boats and kick the Japanese out myself like Admiral Lee Sun Shin!"
"Oh?" said Song Ju, arching an impeccably groomed eyebrow. Much hardier men than young In Ho had fallen in the attempt to satisfy that cool look of hers. She knew the intricacies of her own face as well as her trusty gun and sword and had spent hours practicing in front of mirrors and men; weapons, after all, must be regularly practiced with, else one lose one's proficiency.
In Ho proved no match. She could hear a brief throat clearing from behind; really, Geun Deok was much too impatient.
Na Yeo Kyeong lived with her mother, her father having died for the revolutionary cause. She ran a small bookstore by day and offered reading and writing lessons to various children at a night school; neither offered enough to earn a living, and even when she could, she frequently turned away payment in coin and sometimes even in rice if the child looked tired or hungry enough. Their main source of income came from her mother's skills with needle and cloth, and while they never starved, times were leaner than they had been, when her father had been alive.
Geun Deok reported that she had a bit of a reputation in Gyeongseong, her staid uniform of white jeogori and black chima a laughingstock amongst the popular set but a welcome sight in poorer quarters. But what he hadn't mentioned, what only Song Ju herself seemed to see, was how passionately Joseon's last woman loved what she did, how her stern face softened as she caressed book bindings and hangeul carved on buildings, how her breath quickened as she related the latest injustices of occupation to her mother.
The combination intrigued Song Ju, whose own passions were reserved for hate and revenge and the need to keep living, day after day, month after month, biding her time. Sometimes there was the spontaneous laughter that only ridiculous Wan could prompt, a welcome distraction from the boredom of daily life as a gisaeng and the currently stultifying inaction of Ae Mul Dan. She had no illusions about surviving for much longer—the Japanese Security Force and the Japanese army were all too eager to quash any hint of rebellion, and Ae Mul Dan wasn't planning on mere hints. But Na Yeo Kyeong provided new and interesting... options.
It was easy enough to lure Na Yeo Kyeong into revolutionary schemes with only a note slipped into one of the many books in her store, and thankfully the requested task was a fairly simple one with nothing riding on it. Song Ju had already surmised that Na Yeo Kyeong would not be a field operative, and one glance at the girl's shifting eyes and nervous shoulders was confirmation enough.
Yet, it wasn't the botched mission—amazing how Wan could insert himself into all her schemes even when he was supposed to be in Busan, but that was Wan for you—or even the fact that the girl had told her mother about her task that changed Cha Song Ju's mind about the new recruit. Given Na Yeo Kyeong's father, the family's overall political leanings were unsurprising, and Cha Song Ju was not so hardened that she would begrudge someone else's good relationship with their parents. She and Wan were only a few of the estranged or abandoned children in Gyeongseong; broken families were the new normal ushered in by war and colonization, and given the deaths and the poverty and the starvation, she knew enough to grasp at any pleasure and relief there was, knew to not deny others the same.
She had envisioned Na Yeo Kyeong as a long-term resistance member dedicated to the slower, less flashy war of attrition being waged on Joseon culture and Joseon minds, someone who would hopefully survive beyond the physical violence to wage peace, something Cha Song Ju would never have the patience for. She was to be Ae Mul Dan's scalpel to carve out Japanese occupiers, a bright, shining flash in the night, striking quickly and fading away even more so. And yet, one confrontation was all it took to dissuade her from recruiting Na Yeo Kyeong.
The girl stormed into the cafe, looking to berate her for both her decadent Western ways and her business as gisaeng, and Cha Song Ju could not refuse the bait. It was too easy to make her stammer and blush, unlike even the youngest of gisaeng who called her "eonni," and for a few moments, Cha Song Ju imagined that she had a sister again, that she never had to be sold to Myeong Bin Parlour so her family could eat, that arguments about the decline of society could be had in fun.
So no, she would deprive herself of this as well: let Na Yeo Kyeong continue as she was, idealistic and perhaps naive but whole in a way many others were not. The probability of the world tearing her down was great enough already without Song Ju to make it a certainty, and though she might long for a companion in politics in addition to her soulmate in temperament, denial of her own desires was no great hardship.
In the days to come, Song Ju would think on this and lose sleep as she had not since her first night at Myeong Bin Parlour. If only In Ho had been more cautious with the gun. If only the leader of Ae Mul Dan had not taken interest in Na Yeo Kyeong. If only Song Ju herself had let things be. But it was done, and she could only hope that the blood on Na Yeo Kyeong's hands would wash off, that the bruises from beatings would slowly fade, and that in the end, this sacrifice too would be worth it.