Chapter 1: Prologue
Unlike his hyung, the little boy found it impossible to sit still.
His father tried everything: extra lessons, extended naps, even punishments; but the boy was a quick study and made short work of his lessons, he refused to sleep when he wasn't tired, and his notoriously softhearted mother put a quick end to the punishments. It wasn't that the boy was bad, she rightly pointed out. He was just active and curious about everything, as many children were wont to be.
That day, he sped through his arithmetic lessons as he usually did (getting everything right, of course—a good head for numbers ran in the family), drove his tutor to distraction by asking one impossible question after another, and ran away to hide once his studies were over for the day. His lessons were normally followed by nap time, and he knew that the servants couldn't force him to take a nap if they couldn't find him.
He took refuge in one of the seldom-used rooms in the house, but that quickly lost its appeal when he found that there was nothing to do in there. Besides, he reasoned as he stole out of his hiding place, they wouldn't be able to catch him if he kept moving.
Eventually, the boy found his way to a room near the servants' quarters. It was usually empty, but someone was in there that day. He listened for a moment to the humming and, not recognizing the voice as belonging to any of the maids, cautiously peeked inside.
An old woman sat beside the window, rummaging through a jumble of brightly colored threads in the basket next to her. From where he knelt by the door, he could see that instead of doing boring old sewing, she was making a picture of what looked like a flower on the cloth on her lap.
He watched the old woman cut a length of orange thread and, eyes narrowed in concentration, attempt to thread her needle. After a few moments, he could tell that she was having trouble accomplishing the task.
"I can do that, Halmeonim," he blurted out.
For a while, he feared that she would shoo him away like the kitchen ahjummas did whenever they found him underfoot, but the old woman looked up and smiled. "Oh, could you? That would be a very big help." She held out the needle and thread towards him. "I'm afraid these old eyes aren't what they used to be."
The boy scrambled inside. He took the needle carefully and had it threaded in moments. "Thank you, young master," the old woman said when he returned the prepared needle to her.
"Maybe I should stay here for now," he suggested. "You might need to thread more needles." Besides, he really wanted to see that she was doing.
She laughed when she saw that he was already making himself comfortable beside her. "If you like."
"Oh, I do like!" he answered, favoring her with a brilliant smile (a weapon that he already knew how to use with devastating effect, even at his tender age) now that he got what he wanted. They couldn't make him take a nap now. She said he could stay, and she was old and probably needed a lot of help.
The old woman's heart was light on her journey home that evening. She had accomplished a lot, even with the little boy watching over her shoulder practically the whole time—he was indeed helpful in threading the needles, and provided amusement with all his questions. Besides that, the lady of the house paid well, which was important now that she and her husband had two more mouths to feed.
Her smile faded slightly. Of course, there had been no question about taking their daughter, Seol-hee, and Seol-hee's infant daughter in to live with them, but she couldn't help wishing that Seol-hee had returned under happier circumstances.
The old woman and her husband had had serious misgivings when their only child announced that she wanted to be married. Though well-to-do, her intended was much older than she and had been married twice before. The girl had been adamant, however, fancying herself in love; and now she was back, sent away in disgrace after her last futile attempt to give her husband another son.
Seol-hee's daughter, barely two years old, had paid the price, too. Her father already had a number of grown children, all but one of them daughters, from his other wives; what use did he have for another girl?
The old woman set her jaw at the thought. She and her husband had vowed to do right by their daughter and granddaughter from the moment when mother and child turned up at their door. Someone had to do it; and with Seol-hee eating little and spending her days sitting by the door as if waiting for her husband to come and fetch her home, it was clear that she was unable to contribute.
Fortunately, there was still a lot that the old woman and her husband could do. It had been easy enough for them to add the baby to the family registry; and not only were they still strong enough to make a living, but their work allowed them to help look after the child. They were getting on in years and definitely not as wealthy than the baby's father, but others had gotten by with less.
They would manage, the old woman told herself as she trudged the rest of the way home.
One way or another.
Chapter 2: Chapter One
Disclaimer: The name "Gu Jun-pyo" belongs to the writers of Boys Over Flowers (I couldn't resist using it :-p).
It was shaping up to be a typical day at Gu Yong-ha's shop. Such a day might have been considered extraordinary by the average person, but then the most popular merchant of luxury fabrics and clothing in all of Joseon was hardly average.
He began by turning away a prospective client. The woman was a young gisaeng seeking to transform herself into the new Cho-sun; unfortunately, a few moments' perusal of her charms was enough to tell Yong-ha that not only was she too traditional-looking to do his creations justice, but also that her chances of eclipsing the greatest gisaeng in a generation were slim at best.
After that, he took a leisurely mid-morning break and, his belly pleasantly full of tea and honey-sesame cakes, accepted an order for a dozen new hanboks from a long-standing yangban customer. The lady was a favorite because she completely trusted him completely in his choice of colors and fabrics, recommended him highly to all of her fashion-forward friends, and had all the latest, juiciest gossip about Joseon's upper crust.
He was preparing to close up his shop for another short break when an old woman appeared at the door. "Excuse me," she inquired, "but is this the shop of Gu Yong-ha?"
Something about her low, quelruous voice was familiar, and after peering at her for a brief moment, Yong-ha broke into a broad grin. "Halmeonim!" he greeted her warmly. "Please, do come in!"
The new arrival was Park Kyung-cha, who used to sew and do embroidery for his mother. In his opinion, Madam Park was an unknown legend; although her husband, the embroidery artist Kim Ok-boon, was talented in his own right, she had been responsible for some of the pieces sold under his name. Yong-ha believed that she could have made a name for herself, too, if she hadn't gone blind not long after Master Kim's death.
He took Madam Park's arm and led her carefully into his shop. There was a look of wonder on her face as she stepped inside. "It feels very spacious in here," she observed. "You must be doing well for yourself."
"I get by," Yong-ha replied modestly.
"Come here and let me have a look at you." The old woman reached up and he leaned over obligingly to allow her to skim her fingers gently over his face. "My, what a handsome man you've become!"
Ordinarily, he would have responded to such by saying something like When have I not been handsome? but he knew that the praise was genuine and thus merited a proper answer. "Thank you, Halmeonim," he said sincerely. "And it's wonderful to see you, too. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"
"Oh, yes!" The question seemed to remind her of something, and she looked unseeingly over her shoulder in the direction of the door, beside which stood a young woman and a burly, middle-aged man. "Iseul, could you come here, please?"
"Yes, Halmeonim," the woman replied, coming forward obediently.
She touched Madam Park's arm as she approached, and the old woman laid a hand over hers. "Do you remember my granddaughter, Kim Iseul?" Madam Park asked Yong-ha.
"Ah, yes!" His gaze flickered briefly over her as they exchanged bows of greeting. He vaguely remembered a quiet, colorless little girl tagging along with her grandmother during her later visits to Gu residence; it seemed that things had changed little in the intervening years. "How are you, Miss Kim? It's nice to see you again.”
“It's Teacher Kim now,” her grandmother said with obvious pride. “Iseul teaches painting to a number of children from good families.”
“Is that right?” He smiled sociably when Iseul gave an awkward bob of her head, which he interpreted as a nod. “Well, congratulations, Teacher Kim. How nice for you.”
“Thank you,” she replied in a quiet voice.
Yong-ha waited for a moment, in case she wanted to say more, and took over again when he realized that that was all they were going to get out of her. “Why don't we all sit down?” he suggested briskly. “I'll send for some tea and snacks, and we can have a nice chat."
Yong-ha's staff, accustomed to helping entertain clients at the shop, quickly brought refreshments. With the help of Madam Park's male companion, who appeared to be a servant judging from his clothing, they set up the low tea table and dispensed food and drink. The manservant nodded in acknowledgment of Yong-ha's thanks, then settled himself in one corner as the ladies conversed with their host.
"Now," Yong-ha said, arranging the folds of his saffron-colored overcoat to display its embroidery to the best effect, "to what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
"We are here on Iseul's account, actually," Madam Park began, reaching out to touch her granddaughter's hand again as if to reassure herself that she was still there. "She has just come into an inheritance from her late father's family. It's not a large amount, but now that she has a dowry, she has a better chance of attracting a husband."
A second glance at the woman only served to reinforce his conclusion that there was nothing distinctive about Kim Iseul. She was neither petite and doll-like, nor tall and striking; she had nondescript black hair scraped back into a braid, and a rather prim little mouth; and, worst of all, she seemed to have a terrible habit of stealing her grandmother's clothes, for she was plainly dressed in dark blue and gray. (Also, were those—horror of horrors—dog hairs on her skirt?!) He was willing to admit that the woman did have one beauty in her clear, pale complexion—it was just as good as his own, which was saying a lot—but he doubted whether that would be enough to help her catch a man.
“I see,” he said noncommittally.
"I thought that it would be wise to invest in some fine new clothes," the old woman continued. "To catch the young men's eyes, you understand. I heard that you make the best clothing in Joseon, so here we are! Of course," she added diffidently, "I'm sure you have many other clients, so we'll understand if you're too busy to take us on; won't we, Iseul?"
Iseul nodded, but Yong-ha would hear none of it. "Perish the thought, Halmeonim! It would be a privilege to have Teacher Kim as a client. You're one of the people who inspired me to get into this business, you know, and it would be poor thanks to turn you away." Especially, he couldn't help thinking, when the woman needs my services so badly.
Both women bowed their heads gratefully. "Thank you, Yong-ha," Madam Park said as her granddaughter murmured her own thanks. An impish smile broke over her lined face. "I must admit that it's nice to know that answering a young boy's thousands of questions paid off in the end."
He chuckled. "You were always very patient with me."
"Now, I know that we should give you a deposit to seal our agreement, but Iseul won't start to actually receive her inheritance until—did they say later this week, my dear?" she asked her granddaughter.
"Until later this week," Madam Park repeated to Yong-ha. She pulled out her purse, which was old and tellingly thin, and absently ran her fingers over the peony design embroidered upon it. "We can give you a small payment if you require it, but I hope you won't mind that it won't be much."
"There's no need for that, Halmeonim," Yong-ha assured her. "We can wait until the funds arrive." He paused delicately. "But, ah... do we know how much we have to spend on our new wardrobe?"
Surprisingly, this time, it was Iseul who spoke. "We're still thinking about it," she said. Her voice remained quiet, but her tone was certain rather than evasive. “It would be pleasant to spend all of my inheritance on new clothes, but I would like to save some of the money.”
"I understand. That is very practical of you, Teacher, Kim," he commended her with an approving nod. "Well, we can talk about the budget when you have decided.
"Perhaps we can discuss colors and fabrics then, too?" he suggested. "I'm afraid I have another business appointment elsewhere shortly, and we'll cover more ground when we have a better idea of the budget, anyway."
"Yes, of course," Madam Park readily agreed. "We wouldn't want to keep you from your appointments. We will send word to you through Chin-hae here—Chin-hae, where are you?"
"Right here, madam," the manservant rumbled from his corner.
"Chin-hae will bring you a message when Iseul has decided on a budget," the old woman told Yong-ha. "We will agree then on when our next meeting will be."
After bidding the ladies farewell, Yong-ha closed up his shop for the day to go to his "business appointment." Occasionally, that meant a visit to the finest gisaeng house in town, but that day he did have some actual business to conduct—he was going to Master Hwang's bookshop to pick up his latest acquisition, and he was very excited about it.
On his way to Hwang's, he made a point of walking past his competitors' establishments, exchanging pleasantries with some of the older merchants and greeting the more disagreeable ones with smug little smiles. The better merchants sold wares of the same quality as his, but they lacked his flair for design and way with customers. Yong-ha didn't try to tell them what they should buy, but rather guided them in every step of the way towards finding the perfect outfit; furthermore, he always took the time to gossip, flatter them outrageously, or listen sympathetically to their troubles. A visit to Gu Yong-ha's shop wasn't just a business transaction, his most loyal clients declared; it was an experience.
Master Hwang was standing by the door of his shop when Yong-ha arrived. "Ah, Master Gu!" he greeted the younger man. "I've been expecting you! Come in, come in!"
Yong-ha smiled stiffly at the effusive greeting. "Good day, Master Hwang," he replied, his tone much more subdued. "I'm already here; there's no need to shout. In fact, it might be better if you didn't."
The bookseller caught himself. "Oh, that's right," he said, lowering his voice as well and closing one eye in an exagerrated wink. "I forgot. I'm sorry. Come in, it's in the back."
Even though Hwang's looks, reputation, and establishment were all a little seedy, Yong-ha couldn't help admiring the other merchant's strong entrepreneurial bent. Master Hwang sold practically every book known in Joseon (even when he wasn't supposed to, as in the case of the naughty books that Yong-ha still bought from him); continued to do a brisk business providing the names, genealogies and room assignments of eligible Sungkyunkwan University scholars to smitten young people during Open House days; and even hosted special events inside his shop to entice potential customers inside.
All of that probably already earned him a pretty penny, but recently, the bookseller had also branched out into art brokerage, which made it possible for Yong-ha to acquire his latest treasure—a painting by one of his favorite artists, who went by the name of "Hwa-jae." Yong-ha had first noticed Hwa-jae's work in an erotic novel and was struck by the artist's use of sinuous lines, especially in his renderings of the female form, and attention to detail. He had a standing order at Hwang's for any books featuring Hwa-jae's illustrations, and jumped at the chance when he found out that the artist had begun accepting commissions.
"It's right here, sir," Master Hwang told him, proffering a bamboo tube, one long and wide enough to comfortably hold a good-sized, rolled-up piece of paper.
Yong-ha pulled off the top of the tube and gently drew out the paper inside. He unfurled it reverently and was admiring the vivid coloring when he became aware of heavy, not-quite fragrant breath wafting over the back of his neck. He turned to the other merchant with a frown, rubbing fastidiously at the back of his collar.
"So sorry," the bookseller said, stepping away hastily. "I was... curious."
Yong-ha was sure that Hwang had already stolen a look at the painting the moment it arrived, but decided not to pursue the matter. "Well, everything seems to be in order," he said instead as he rolled up the painting and replaced it in the tube.
"You are pleased with it, then?" the other merchant asked him.
"Of course. It's beautiful, and it's a Hwa-jae original." He wished that he could look at the painting some more, but he could hardly enjoy doing so in a place like this. It was best to get out of here quickly.
From his sleeve, Yong-ha withdrew a purse that was plainer, but also much fatter and heavier than Madam Park's had been."Seventy-five yang, wasn't it?"
He handed a string of coins to Master Hwang, and tossed another one after them. "For your trouble."
The bookseller's face lit up as he caught the coin. "Thank you, sir," he said with a humble bow. He already stood to receive a commission for the sale, but any additional income from the transaction was a welcome surprise. "And would you be interested in placing another order?"
There was no doubt about that, but Yong-ha knew better than to show right away that he was interested and risk raising the price. "I might," he replied coolly. "I'll let you know."
After making his purchase, Yong-ha took it straight home and had just managed to smuggle it into his room when a maid informed him that it was time for dinner. He groaned inwardly, wanting nothing more than to enjoy his new treasure in private, but replied that he would join the rest of the family shortly. If he asked to eat in his room, his mother would no doubt descend upon him, demanding to know if he was sick.
The rest of the family was already there when he entered the dining room. Seated at the head of the table was his father, Gu Jun-pyo, who surveyed his domain in the manner befitting one of the richest men in Joseon. On his left sat Yong-ha's mother, Hong Jin-ae; on the right were Yong-ha's much older brother, An-jeong, and An-jeong's mousy little wife, whose name Yong-ha could never seem to remember.
Master Gu spotted his younger son and gave him a frown. "So good of you to join us," he remarked dryly. He and the rest of the family were already eating—"time is money," one of their ancestors was said to be fond of saying. One did not become wealthy by just sitting around and waiting for everything to come to him.
"I had business in town, Abeonim," he replied, taking his customary seat beside Madam Hong, who gave him a fond smile before returning to her conversation about housework with An-jeong's wife.
"What sort of business would that be? I passed by your shop this early afternoon and it was closed."
Yong-ha was spared from having to scramble for a story when his brother unwittingly threw him a lifeline. "It might have something to do with that Chamber of Commerce that the merchants and guilds are planning to form," An-jeong volunteered.
"Ah, yes!" Yong-ha confirmed, nodding. "Exactly!"
His father looked skeptical, as he always did when the topic of the Joseon Chamber of Commerce was brought up. "I still can't understand why you're spending so much time on that thing."
"I think it's going to become very important, Abeonim," An-jeong said. "Everyone in the marketplace is very excited about the idea, and it's a good thing that Yong-ha can be involved on behalf of our family."
Yong-ha gave his hyung a grateful look. "Working on this together will help everyone learn to trust each other," he explained to their father, "and that should be better for doing business, won't it? Besides, if the businessmen and workers are all united, it just might give us a greater voice with the new king." King Sun-jo had recently succeeded his father, Jeong-jo, as ruler of Joseon, and all recognized that this was a prime opportunity to help shape the future of the kingdom.
Master Gu didn't look convinced, but he growled, "As long as your business doesn't suffer, and you don't do anything stupid to shame the family, I suppose it will be all right."
Resisting the temptation to bolt down his dinner and risk inviting more observations (and questions) about his behavior, Yong-ha forced himself to eat apace with the rest. He even let his father finish ahead of him, and once Master Gu was done, Yong-ha excused himself and hastened back to his bedroom, where he lost no time in locking the door and producing the painting from its hiding place.
If he was riveted by the illustrations in his books, which were pale reproductions of Hwa-jae's work, then the genuine article fairly took his breath away. Yong-ha had ordered a painting of a female nude, and the clarity of the lines defining her form and the richness of the colors in her skin made him almost sure that he could see her breathing. In addition, Hwa-jae had chosen to paint the woman sleeping, apparently after a most satisfying romp with a lover—an intimate pose that spoke to a viewer on an emotional level in the same way that his artistry appealed to the intellect, and took the piece from plain pornography to a work of erotic art.
A smile touched Yong-ha's lips as he drank in the sight of the Hwa-jae original for a second time. "And best of all," he murmured, lightly brushing his thumb over the tiny stylized flame painted discreetly into the corner, "it's one of a kind, and it's all mine."
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
While Yong-ha made his way to the bookseller's, Iseul, her grandmother, and their servant were walking towards their home in the artisans' section of the city. Their neighborhood was not rich, but it was respectable, quiet, and safe. The residents were generally too devoted to their work to meddle in each others' business, and had few valuables other than the tools of their respective trades, which were of little interest to thieves and other criminal elements.
Madam Park smiled as she walked down the street on her granddaughter's arm, confident that even though she couldn't see where she was going, Iseul wouldn't let her fall. "It smells like autumn is coming," she remarked, taking a deep breath. The usual miasma of city living didn't hang as heavily in the air these days; the winter winds sweeping down from the north were beginning to fight back.
"It is getting colder," Iseul confirmed, and chuckled. "Perhaps you should become a perfumer instead, Halmeonim. Even though you can't see, your sense of smell is remarkable."
Her grandmother laughed. "I'll think about that if I ever have to start working again," she replied, "but fortunately, it doesn't look like I do, thanks to your father's change of heart.
"I actually wrote to him when I started going blind," she confided. "I asked him to provide even just a small amount for you, reminding him that you were his daughter and he was responsible for you. When he died without saying or doing anything, I thought he had forgotten, but now I see he heeded my request after all. I'm so glad." Madam Park smiled and patted Iseul's hand. "Soon, you'll be able to stop working, and marry and have a family of your own."
Iseul gave the aged hand a gentle squeeze. "Yes, Halmeonim," she agreed, even as she exchanged glances with Chin-hae, who was walking behind them.
Only they knew that Iseul's father, Ma Hong-do, had replied to the request with a strongly worded denial, and had agreed to let Madam Park go on thinking that he had simply neglected to answer the letter. At the time, she was still reeling from the loss of Iseul's grandfather, and they feared that another upset would kill her.
The truth, therefore, was that Iseul did not have an inheritance. She had simply just figured out a way to earn some more money.
After leaving Madam Park at home and in the care of Chin-hae's wife, who was also the Kims' cook-housekeeper, and Kyeo-ul, the family dog, Iseul and Chin-hae then set off for the Bang residence. The Bangs, a chungin family of modest wealth and importance, lived in a slightly more affluent part of town. The daughter of the house was one of Iseul's students.
Chin-hae waited with Iseul at the gate until a maid came to accompany her inside. The manservant bowed as he took his leave. "Have a good lesson, agasshi."
"Thank you, Chin-hae," she replied. "Please come back for me in two hours, after you have finished your errands."
After pausing to make sure her clothes were free of dog hair, Iseul stepped through the gate and followed the maid—a different one from last time, but they were all young and silent—into the house. The Bangs' home wasn't particularly opulent and she was generally treated with stiff formality even by the servants, but Iseul loved coming there to give painting lessons.
The first reason was because her student, Bang Jung-hwa, was a sweet young girl, and one of the few in residence who treated Iseul like a friend. "Seonsaengnim!" she chirped happily when Iseul was escorted to the room where their lessons were conducted. Instead of paper, brushes and paints, a dish of sliced pears sat on the low table in front of her. "Come, let's eat!"
"You go ahead," she demurred, glancing sideways at the maid still hovering in the doorway. "I'll get our things ready while you have your snack."
"But, seonsaengnim," her student replied with a little pout, "I can't eat all of this by myself. You must help me or else it will go to waste."
Iseul smiled self-consciously. "Well, if you insist." Even though she could now accept the offer without losing face, she still felt uneasy accepting the treats that Jung-hwa pressed on her, especially in front of the servants. She couldn't afford to have the people in this house, of all places, thinking that she was shirking her duties, and frittering away the Bangs' time and money.
The girl dismissed the maid with an order to bring them drinks, and the painting lesson started off the way it always did, with a snack and Jung-hwa chattering about her day. As with the refreshments, the conversation made Iseul uncomfortable, but she nevertheless let the girl talk all she wanted because she had an ulterior motive for doing so—she was hoping to catch tidbits of gossip about the rest of the family, and one family member in particular.
The object of her ulterior motive (and the other main reason why she enjoyed coming to the Bang residence) made his appearance as teacher and student worked their way through their tea and fruit. Just as she had earlier, Jung-hwa beamed at the sight of the new arrival. "Orabeoni! I thought you were supposed to come back tomorrow!"
Bang Jung-soo, a good-looking, affable young man about Iseul's age, smiled at his sister. "My business trip ended early," he replied. "There was no reason to stay, and every reason to come back." He bowed politely to his sister's teacher. "Hello, Teacher Kim."
She returned the courtesy, hoping that she didn't look as flustered as she felt. "Hello, Master Bang." At least her voice didn't sound shaky or breathless.
"Have you eaten?" Jung-hwa asked him. "You must join us and have some fruit and tea."
Her brother answered that he would he happy to, and sat down between them at the table. "How are my sister's lessons coming along?" he asked Iseul in a conversational tone.
"Very well, sir," she answered diplomatically. To be honest, it always took a certain degree of effort to get Jung-hwa to concentrate on her lessons, but the girl was also good-hearted and eager to make friends that it was difficult to say anything bad about her. "The young lady is a most enthusiastic student."
Jung-hwa ducked her head modestly. "My paintings still aren't very good," she confessed.
"They will improve," Iseul assured her. "You must work hard at your craft, that's all."
"Listen to your teacher, Jung-hwa," Jung-soo advised. "She knows what she is talking about."
As he spoke, he glanced at Iseul and gave her a comradely smile. She smiled back, feeling her cheeks grow warm but willing herself to remain calm and poised. It appeared that after weeks of trying to subtly place herself in Bang Jung-soo's sights, she had finally made an impression on him, and a favorable one at that. She wasn't going to destroy that by acting like a giddy young miss; especially not now, when she had the wherewithal to go forward in her plan to win his heart.
Master Hwang had just closed up for the day when he heard a rapping noise near the back of the shop. “Right on time, as always,” he murmured. It was a shame that Hwa-jae was so prompt when collecting payments. Holding a money bag heavy with coins was a simple joy that the bookseller did not experience often enough.
The money always changed hands at the bookshop's rear door, which faced a deserted building that had once been a basket weaver's shop. Even though it was very dim in the narrow alley between the two structures, the people who took turns coming for the payments—sometimes it was a large man, other times a young woman or an ahjumma—always took care to keep their faces in shadow. Hwang thought this entire business of concealing identities was a little overwrought, but supposed artists were allowed their little eccentricities.
Hwang found the man standing at the door. (Once, the bookseller had made the mistake of trying to sneak a peek at his face, and got his ears boxed for his troubles. Hwang's head still rang whenever he thought about it.)
“Good evening, sir,” he greeted the new arrival. “I have your payment right here.”
He held out the money bag to his visitor, who took it with a grunt of thanks. All of Hwa-jae's agents tended to say very little, speaking only when it was important.
“All three paintings were picked up today,” Hwang went on over the quiet clink of coins being counted. “The buyers were well pleased and indicated they might order more.”
“Indicated,” the other man repeated.
“Yes. I shall let you know when they actually place their orders.”
He grunted again, then put the money away with a curt nod of satisfaction.
It was a sign that the man was preparing to take his leave. “It was a pleasure, as always, to do business with you,” Master Hwang said by way of farewell.
The other man nodded again. “Good night.”
The bookseller watched his mysterious visitor vanish into the growing darkness. The women he disregarded, but he used to wonder whether the man who came to collect the payments was Hwa-jae himself. After the time he got his ears boxed, Hwang concluded that the man was too ham-handed to be responsible for such delicate works of art.
"Did you have a good lesson, agasshi?"
Iseul smiled at Chin-hae as she approached the gate to the Bang estate, where he waited in order to escort her home. "Yes, thank you," she replied. "It went very well."
She bade farewell to the servant who had accompanied her from the house and waited until she and Chin-hae had proceeded some distance before speaking again. "Did you get my 'inheritance' from Master Hwang?" she asked him, her voice low so that it wouldn't carry in the still night air.
They had been doing business with the bookseller for years now, ever since Iseul had hit on the idea of drawing illustrations for erotic texts, but Chin-hae was still uneasy about discussing their dealings with him. The servant cleared his throat before mumbling, "Yes, agasshi. Two hundred and ten yang for three paintings, just as you agreed. I counted it to make sure."
Iseul couldn't hold back the small noise of satisfaction as he dropped the purse into her hands. She hadn't been sure if anyone would be interested in commissioning artwork, but Chin-hae told her that many people loved Hwa-jae's illustrations, so she had gone ahead and indicated (through the reluctant manservant, of course) to a few booksellers that original artwork could be available for a price. It was flattering to know that her work, no matter how distasteful it may be to some, was held in such high esteem by others that they were willing to pay dearly for it.
"Master Hwang says that the buyer might want to order more," he went on.
"Oh," she answered, "I hope so."
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
EDIT 02-07-2016: This chapter has been revised slightly for consistency with Ch. 10 of "Taming the Crazy Horse," where Cho-sun has a given name separate from her gisaeng name. This time around, she has her husband's last name, presumably because she wasn't entitled to one previously and In-soo added her to the family registry when they were married.
"Oi, Gu Yong-ha! Wait for us!"
Yong-ha looked up at the sound of someone calling his name and, seeing his closest friends riding towards him, commanded his own horse (an exceptionally fine mount, with a coal-black coat to highlight any colors that its rider might choose to wear) to stop and let the others catch up with him.
"Geol-oh!" he hailed one of the riders. "I'm on my way to your house. Don't you remember that I was coming to visit today?"
"Of course I remember," replied Moon Jae-shin, known to their Sungkyunkwan University classmates as "Geol-oh," the crazy horse, as Lee Sun-joon rode up and greeted Yong-ha with a quiet nod. "But the boys were getting a little restless," Jae-shin added, "so I took them out to play."
A little face popped out from behind him. "Hello, Uncle Yong-ha!" called Moon Jin-young, the eldest of Jae-shin's children.
It was then that Yong-ha noticed that his friends were sharing their saddles with their sons, and that the entire group looked as though they had been rolling around in goodness knew what. Even Sun-joon's white scholar's garments were liberally smeared with dirt and grass stains.
"We were on our way back," Sun-joon explained. His own son, Hyun-seok, rode behind him. "Come, let's head over there together."
"And since you're coming with us," Jae-shin added, "you can share the burden." Urging his mount closer, he transferred his younger son, four-year-old Hak-young, from his lap to Yong-ha's.
Yong-ha and his new passenger looked at each other. The child was dirty and smelled of sweat and sunshine, but even the hardest of hearts couldn't resist the smile on his round, dimpled face. "I'd be delighted to," Yong-ha said, with just the slightest hint of hesitation in his voice.
The other man grinned, always glad to take down his fastidious friend a peg or two. "Good. Let's go."
Fortunately, they weren't far from the Moon residence, so it wasn't long before Yong-ha was able to put a little distance between himself and his odoriferous companions. They left their horses in the care of the grooms and made their way to the garden, where Jae-shin and Sun-joon's wives and daughters awaited them.
"Pretty uncle!" one-year-old Moon Chae-young crowed at the sight of Yong-ha, her little arms held out in welcome.
"Hello, my darling plum blossom!" he answered, scooping up the baby and bussing her noisily on the cheek. Unlike her brothers, she was fresh from her bath and thus much more pleasant to hold.
"Me!" demanded Lee Hyun-jung, tugging on "pretty uncle"'s mauve overcoat with impatient (but clean) fingers.
"And, of course, hello to you, too, my sweet little wren," Yong-ha said, sitting on the porch and gathering her into his arms to give her a kiss as well.
"Trust Yeo-rim sa-hyung to attract all the unmarried females the moment he steps into a room," Sun-joon teased.
Jae-shin shot his friend a scowl that would have been terrifying if Yong-ha didn't know that he was only joking. "I'll have to draw the line here, Yong-ha," he declared. "If you're in search of a wife, you had better go after someone closer to your age."
"Like one of these lovely ladies, perhaps?" Yong-ha suggested, holding out a hand towards the woman closest to him, who happened to be Jae-shin's wife, Cha Ka-hai.
"Someone closer to your age and not already married," Jae-shin amended, stalking over and taking her hand possessively. Sun-joon quickly hustled his own wife, Kim Yoon-hee, out of flirting range.
Ka-hai laughed up at her husband. "And what makes my lord think that I would ever think of trading him in for another husband? Especially," she added, with a teasing glance at Yong-ha, "one that looks like he might blow over in a strong wind?"
"You wound me, my lady," Yong-ha protested, placing his hand over his broken heart, a dramatic gesture spoiled by the two baby girls in his lap, engrossed in the string of beads hanging from his hat. "I'm just wiry, that's all."
She hummed skeptically and turned her attention to her sons, who flanked their father like miniature bodyguards. "Why don't you boys go and wash up?" she asked, her tone making it more a command than a suggestion. "And by 'boys,' I mean both the little and big ones."
"I'll need help washing up," Jae-shin said, waggling his eyebrows suggestively and tugging on his wife's hand, which he was still holding.
"Of course you will," Ka-hai agreed readily. "Boys, you heard your father. Help him wash up, and make sure he doesn't forget to wash behind his ears."
Yong-ha smiled as he watched Jae-shin send her a look that promised future retribution as their sons chortled about his dirty ears. Once upon a time, back when he thought that all girls were strange, silly creatures to be avoided at all cost, Yong-ha had harbored some special feelings for his brusque friend. He never confessed them, though, sensing that Jae-shin saw him as nothing more than an annoying boyhood companion, and took cold comfort in disguising his overtures as his own special kind of teasing. As the years passed, most of those feelings had gone away, but they remained fond memories and Yong-ha still couldn't help being extra concerned for his friend's welfare.
These days, however, he no longer had to keep as close an eye on Jae-shin. Although his friend had encountered some difficulties with his strong-willed wife in the beginning, he now seemed happy in his marriage. At least, Yong-ha thought as he watched the former object of his affections herd his sons into the house, Jae-shin seemed happy enough to try fathering enough children for his own jangchigi team.
After cleaning up, the men and boys rejoined everyone else, and the children spent some time playing with the grown-ups before it was time for them to eat and rest under the watchful eyes of their nursemaids. Although they were having a fine time showing off for their elders, they went willingly, probably in order to cause mischief a safe distance away from their parents.
"Next time," Yoon-hee teased her husband when the young ones were gone, "I shall ask Nurse Kang to bring extra clothes for you, too."
Sun-joon plucked self-consciously at his borrowed overcoat. Jae-shin had lent him one so that he wouldn't have to sit around in dirty clothing all night, and it was a bit too wide at the shoulders. "I didn't plan this. It just... happened."
"That's exactly what Hyun-seok said that time we found him and Jin-young all covered in mud," Ka-hai reminded Yoon-hee.
"Obviously, little boys don't change—they just grow older," the other woman chuckled. "We must tell Lady Cho-sun that. She should be warned now that she has a son."
"Thank you very much," their husbands said dryly.
"If the stains won't come out, just send it to the shop," Yong-ha said to Yoon-hee. "My laundress will take care of it. Why don't you tell us about the news at Sungkyunkwan? Has Professor Jung been confirmed as the new headmaster?"
Sun-joon nodded, grateful for the change in subject. "Yes, he has. Headmaster Choi finally got a position with the new Ministry of Culture—just as he's about to retire," he snickered, a rare impish smile crossing his face.
The men and Yoon-hee laughed. Headmaster Choi had been in charge of Sungkyunkwan back when they had attended the university together. He was not an evil man, but it had to be admitted that he set a poor example for students who were preparing for careers as civil servants. His replacement, Professor Jung Yak-yong, was infinitely more qualified.
"We're very glad to have Professor—I mean, Headmaster Jung in charge, of course," Sun-joon went on, "but it's also a pity that he's not directly involved in King Sun-jo's government. I'm sure Jeonha would benefit greatly from his guidance."
"Oh, he'll still get the opportunity to guide the king," Jae-shin said. "The Ministry won't stop consulting with him now that he's headmaster, especially not with a new king on the throne."
By "Ministry," Jae-shin did not mean the Ministry of War, where he had begun his civil career; rather, he referred to the Ministry of Justice, where he had transferred shortly after Hak-young's birth. The move made his father, Minister of Justice Moon Geun-soo, immensely proud, but father and son of course agreed that Jae-shin would start at an appropriate level and work his way up the ranks.
"Soon, you'll have to consult with the merchants and the laborers, too," Yong-ha boasted.
"Is the Joseon Chamber of Commerce coming together, then?" Yoon-hee asked, her eyes sparkling. "Oh, how exciting! You will lead it, won't you?"
"That's not for me to say," he said modestly. "We will choose our leaders as a group, and there will be more than one. I do hope to be one of them, though," he admitted.
"Who else is in the running?" Jae-shin asked.
"Some of the older merchants, of course," Yong-ha said, "but no one particularly important among them. I think my biggest competition would be Ma Ki-hoon, the wine merchant. A rather large group is backing him."
"Really?" Ka-hai grimaced. "I wonder how they can stand him when he's so disagreeable."
That grabbed her husband's attention. "Has he been rude to you?" Jae-shin demanded.
"No, not really," she assured him. "He just doesn't seem to be very nice to his customers, that's all; especially if they're only servants. If we could buy wine somewhere else that's closer to the house, I would do it in a heartbeat. I hope that you beat him, Yong-ha."
"Of course he will!" Yoon-hee declared. "Yeo-rim sa-hyung is an important merchant and a Sungkyunkwan scholar. There's no one better suited to lead the Chamber of Commerce than him."
Yong-ha favored the women with a brilliant smile. "Ah, my dear ladies, where would I be without your faith in me? Why didn't you marry me instead?"
Predictably, his remark was met with unfriendly looks from their husbands, but surprisingly, it was Sun-joon who spoke. "They were doing you a favor, sa-hyung," he said. "It was to keep Geol-oh sa-hyung here from killing you."
The wine merchant, Ma Ki-hoon, was a skinny, middle-aged man with a face as sour as his disposition. The expression on his face was decidedly disagreeable when Iseul entered the Ma residence. “Oh, you're here,” he said, with the enthusiasm of one discovering that he had stepped in something unpleasant.
Although she wasn't any more glad to see him, Iseul managed to maintain a more polite facade. “Good morning, Orabeonim,” she greeted him with a bow. “Is Harabeonim in his study?”
“Where else would he be?” her older half-brother retorted. He jerked his head impatiently at the man by his side. “Take her to him, Master Jo. Get this over with.”
“I'll see you later, Orabeonim!” Iseul said, bowing again at his retreating back.
He did not bother to reply, but the man in whose care she had been left had a much more pleasant personality. Master Jo was her grandfather's right hand, entrusted to assist him with business matters as well as manage the running of the household.
He greeted her with a bow of his balding head. “Welcome, agasshi. How was your journey here?”
“The same as always,” Iseul replied. That meant she spent the entire time thinking about the kind of welcome she would receive, and resisting the temptation to just turn back and never darken the Mas' door again.
She never admitted that to anyone, of course, but Master Jo's smile suggested that he understood. “Come,” he said. “I shall take you to the master.”
Ma Byung-chul, the grandfather Iseul shared with her half-siblings, oversaw his business empire from one of the largest rooms near the front of the house. Unlike the other rooms, whose furniture could be folded up, moved aside or otherwise stowed away so that the rooms could be used for different purposes, this one was never disturbed except by Master Jo, who knew just how to clean it while still keeping his master's papers and writing implements arranged just so.
“Miss Kim Iseul to see you, master,” Master Jo announced as he escorted Iseul into the study.
Master Ma, enthroned behind his desk, balefully eyed her from beneath shaggy gray eyebrows. “So, you've come back.”
“Yes, Harabeonim.” She sank to the floor on her hands and knees in a deep bow. “I come to visit you every month, remember?”
“Of course I remember,” he snapped. “I'm not senile.” There was a loud rustle as he thrust a sheaf of documents at Master Jo.
“I'm glad you continue to enjoy good health, Harabeonim,” Iseul said, and held out the parcel she had brought with her. “I brought you some yakgwa. Halmeonim and I made them.”
Master Ma grunted and motioned for Master Jo to take the biscuits as well. He shuffled some more papers as the servant took the package and withdrew respectfully. “Are you still teaching?” he barked after a pause that was probably meant to make her uncomfortable.
“Yes, Harabeonim.” She mustered what she hoped was a cheerful smile. “It's going well, if I may say so myself.”
“Bah!” he harrumphed. “A woman working—that's not respectable. You should be at home, taking care of a husband and children.”
Iseul froze her smile in place and bit back a retort that she would be doing just that if the Mas had done their duty by her and found her a husband when she came of age. “There's still a chance that I might marry someday, Harabeonim,” she told him sweetly, “but in the meantime, I already have a family to care for, and my work as a teacher is a very important part of that.”
Visits to her father's family always left Iseul drained, and it was no different that afternoon, when she went to Gu Yong-ha's shop for their second meeting. Besides her grandmother, Iseul was accompanied that day by Han Chae-mi, her neighbor and good friend, but the other young woman's presence did little to lift her spirits.
“You could show a little more enthusiasm, you know,” Chae-mi muttered to her as they escorted Madam Park down the street. “Gu Yong-ha doesn't take just anyone as a client, and I'll bet we're the first from our neighborhood to even set foot in his shop!”
“I know,” Iseul replied in an equally low voice, glancing at her grandmother to check if the old woman had heard. (Fortunately, she was busy discussing the day's errands with Chin-hae, who was walking just behind them.) “I'm just tired.”
The merchant welcomed them, even Chae-mi, with effusive greetings. “A good friend's opinion is always welcome in matters such as this,” he said when Madam Park made the necessary introductions. “In fact, in the absence of a professional's opinion, it is useful to simply ask yourself, 'Will my friends laugh at me if I wear this?'”
Chae-mi beamed. “I'm sure your clothes will be beautiful,” she said, “but I promise I'll tell Iseul honestly if she ever looks ridiculous.”
Iseul began the meeting with a visit to the back room, where a female employee took her measurements. Then, Gu Yong-ha himself sat down with them to discuss styles and colors over tea and snacks. "Please don't be shocked, Halmeonim," he said, "but the most fashionable jeogoris end just below the armpit. They've been getting shorter and shorter for quite a while now."
"Oh, yes," Madam Park agreed mildly. "I noticed that myself before I lost my eyesight." She stopped short. "Women still wear bodices underneath, don't they?"
He chuckled. "Yes, they do," he replied. "Speaking of which, Teacher Kim, I think that we should make some bodices in colors other than white. White matches everything, but this is also an excellent opportunity to add something extra to your outfit."
Chae-mi nodded eagerly, hanging as she did on to the merchant's every word. “Doesn't that sound nice, Iseul?” she asked.
She nodded. "I think that it's a fine idea."
Yong-ha eyed his client uncertainly. Though he was pleased to hear her agree, because his more conservative clients wouldn't hear of calling attention to an undergarment that way, something had been off about her manner ever since she showed up that day. "Ah... and the skirts," he continued, "as you ladies may probably already know, are very full around the hips. They may be a bit wider than you remember them, Halmeonim, but I think that they give the wearer a graceful shape, like a bell."
"The bell shape is nice," Iseul said.
To be fair, she was clearly trying her best to take an interest in the discussion, but her clear lack of enthusiasm was nevertheless grating. "Is anything wrong, Teacher Kim?" Yong-ha finally asked, compelled to call her out on her odd behavior.
Her cheeks turned pink. "What? O-of course not," she answered with a brittle smile. "Nothing's wrong, sir. Please, do go on."
He didn't believe her for one minute, and it turned out, neither did her grandmother. "He did something, didn't he?" Madam Park asked Iseul, with a penetrating look in the younger woman's general direction.
Chae-mi gasped in shock. “No wonder you're acting so strangely!” she blurted out. Iseul, her face pink with mortification, tried in vain to discreetly shush her friend.
Yong-ha frowned. "Who did something?" The awkward turn in the conversation clearly had his client at a loss, and ordinarily he would have tried to smooth things over as quickly as possible, but this sounded serious.
"I know that you went to see him today," Madam Park went on. “And I heard you and Chae-mi whispering on our way here.”
"What did he do to you?" Chae-mi demanded, looking outraged.
"Nothing!" Iseul insisted. "He just... acted a little unpleasant, that's all. Can we forget about this, please?"
"That's not nothing," Yong-ha pointed out.
That earned him a faint scowl. "It's next to nothing, then," she said. "I'm sorry you had to hear about this, Master Gu, but really, it's nothing that anyone need worry about."
"On the contrary," he replied. "This sort of thing is a very serious concern. I did not know that something had happened to you on your way here, but I could tell that it had affected you in some way; and if a little unpleasantness was enough to change your behavior enough for a stranger to notice, what do you suppose would happen if someone did something more to you?
"I can create masterpieces for you to wear," Yong-ha lectured, "but they must be complemented with the proper bearing and demeanor. You will be doing my creations, and yourself, a grave injustice if you go around without an attitude to match." As if to demonstrate, he got to his feet and shuffled around the workroom, shoulders hunched and with a hangdog expression on his face.
Chae-mi laughed, but Iseul willed herself not to follow suit. He looked very funny, but she was also still annoyed at his prying. "I do not go around looking like that."
"Perhaps not," the merchant acknowledged, taking a seat once again, "but if I may be so bold, Teacher Kim, I can tell that you need to build your confidence." He leaned a sky-blue elbow on the low table, deftly avoiding a dish of candied plums. "Why don't I give you flirting lessons, along with your new clothes?"
"What?" She blinked and, realizing that he wasn't joking, laughed nervously. "Uh... I know that you are my grandmother's friend, but I don't know if that's proper—"
"Think of it as part of the service."
“That's a marvelous idea!” Chae-mi breathed.
Iseul turned to her grandmother. "Halmeonim—"
However, instead of being scandalized, the old woman actually nodded. "I think you should take Yong-ha up on his offer. You've been far too sheltered, child. Now that you're going to become a woman of some property, you should learn how to act around men for when the suitors come calling."
"There, you see?" Madam Park's partner in crime said triumphantly.
"But we don't even know if that's going to happen!" Iseul sputtered, her face on fire.
"Nevertheless, I think flirting is something that everyone should know how to do," Yong-ha told her, "and knowing that you can hold your own in mixed company should give you the confidence with which to show off my designs to their best advantage." He had the audacity to give her a little wink. "Trust me."
If anyone in Joseon was qualified to give lessons in flirting, it was Yong-ha; but a wise man knew that he did not know everything, and so he visited Ha Il-hwa, known in her gisaeng days as Cho-sun and one of his old friends, to seek her advice and, at the same time, congratulate her on the recent birth of her son.
Even at the height of her career (and that was very high indeed), Cho-sun had never been too busy to entertain Yong-ha. They were never intimate in the way gisaengs and their clients sometimes are, but they built a close and lasting friendship because he had been quick to recognize her intelligence, and she knew that men who saw her as more than just a pretty face were few and far between.
His hostess received him in a salon in the house she shared with her husband, Ha In-soo, and their two children. In-soo was at work, but the children came out to greet the visitor and receive the presents he had brought for them. For the baby boy, there was a fine new blanket—Yong-ha's now-standard gift for new babies, because there suddenly seemed to be so many that needed presents these days—and for his older sister, some brightly painted wooden animals.
"It was nice of you to bring Mi-sook something as well," Cho-sun said after the niceties had been observed, and she and her guest settled down to talk. The boy had been taken back to his room for his afternoon nap, but the girl was allowed to stay behind and play quietly with her new toys.
"It was my pleasure," Yong-ha replied as they watched the toddler arrange the animals into a line.
She smiled, straightened the ribbon in her daughter's hair, and turned back to him. "Now, you said that you had something else that you wished to discuss with me?"
"Ah, yes." He paused, chuckling self-consciously. "Do you promise not to laugh?"
Cho-sun inclined her head, the gesture slow and stately as though she still wore a gisaeng's heavy gache instead of the simple chignon of a respectable woman. "Of course."
"I... I need some advice on how to flirt," he admitted, looking abashed. "I promised my new client that I would teach her."
True to her word, she did not laugh; but she did permit herself a smile. "Why do you need to ask me about this? Wouldn't you know best about what you want to see and hear from a woman?"
"I do, but I'm not teaching her to flirt with me!"
She arched an elegant eyebrow. "You're not?"
"No!" Yong-ha scoffed. "The woman is kin to a good friend of mine, a senior in the industry if you will, and I must give her the knowledge that will help her hold her own with any man who might cross her path. Her grandmother says she's come into an inheritance, and hopes to find a husband soon. If she is unprepared, she might end up making a poor choice. I can't have that on my conscience."
"Of course not," Cho-sun said, grave now instead of amused. She, of all people, knew how important it was for a woman to know how to take care of herself. "How can I help?"
"I'd like to know a little more about the other side of all of this. What do you, as a woman, think that other women should know when they set out to flirt with a man?"
She glanced at her daughter again. "I'll think about it," she said, "and I will let you know."
Iseul smiled in satisfaction as she blended red and orange together to add dimension to a flower petal. Painting always calmed her, and she needed it badly after the rigors of the day; and besides, it was nice to get a chance to paint what and how she wanted for a change. A nature vignette was hardly unconventional, but she did like to paint pretty things, and favored a palette more vivid than the muted browns, greens and grays used by the scholars and court painters. (That style looked clean and elegant, as well as conserved one's paint, but it hardly did justice to the richness of the subject.) There was something to be said about painting for the common people—at least the Hwa-jae commissions, and the orders she received from her students' parents for the lucky paintings called minhwa, gave her an opportunity to develop and showcase her personal style.
She dipped her thinnest brush into some black ink and started filling in the details of a butterfly's wing, wondering as she did so why her grandmother had agreed to Gu Yong-ha's suggestion of flirting lessons. Iseul could understand why Chae-mi would be so enthusiastic, but the idea of taking lessons from someone who was most likely to be a master at flirting, without knowing exactly what they would do....
“Surely he won't make you do anything improper!” Chae-mi had said when they discussed the matter after returning from the merchant's shop. “And Halmeonim or one of your servants will be there to keep watch. This is very important for both of us, Iseul—I need to learn how to catch a man, too!”
“But the whole thing makes me feel so uncomfortable,” Iseul replied. “And how would I do well if I flirt with a man I don't care about in the first place?”
“If it's that important to you, then maybe you could pretend you're flirting with that Master Bang you've been mooning over....”
Iseul paused to dip her brush into the ink again, wiping the excess against the edge of the well in her inkstone. Yes, that was how she should approach these lessons. Besides their relative wealth, it seemed that Gu Yong-ha and Bang Jung-soo had very little else in common, but surely she would be able to learn something that would be useful in her plan to capture the true object of her affections.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
Disclaimer: I must admit I named Yong-ha's sister-in-law after the new President of the Republic of Korea :)
Technical Notes: Haeju is a city in present-day North Korea, further up the coast from Seoul (but not as far north as Pyongyang). My understanding is that the place already had that name in the Joseon era. Also, a norigae is an ornament fastened to a woman's hanbok, either on the jacket or skirt.
Author's Notes: At long last (after a bit of a struggle to finish writing the last few scenes), here's the latest chapter of this fic. Hopefully the rest will be easier to write!
Thank you very much to Skylilies for the review, and also to Hequet and everyone who left kudos to this fic. I hope you're all having a happy weekend!
The consultation with Cho-sun promised to yield a fairly unique lesson plan, but to avoid shocking his neophyte pupil, Yong-ha decided to start with the basics. "We begin with the art of conversation," he announced at Iseul's next appointment, which also signalled the start of the flirting lessons. "There is no better way to engage a man's attention than with a scintillating exchange of ideas."
Her eyebrows rose at the word "scintillating." "Conversation about what?"
"Oh, about practically anything," he replied, shrugging. "But usually something that interests the man."
Madam Park, overseeing the lesson from a comfortable seat in one corner of the workroom, tutted disapprovingly at her granddaughter's dry remark. "Now, Iseul, you must address your teacher with the proper respect."
"Thank you, Halmeonim," Yong-ha said with great dignity.
The old woman gave him a cheeky smile. "After all,” she added, “if all the gossip I've been hearing is correct, he is an expert in his field."
Jung-soo. This is for Bang Jung-soo. Iseul took a deep breath and pasted a pleasant expression on her face. "And what sort of subjects are interesting to men, seonsaengnim?"
"Well, we like to talk about horses and sport, to begin with," the merchant told her. "Of course, once you become better acquainted with someone, it becomes easier to find more specific topics of conversation. For instance...." His eye fell on the portfolio in her lap. "I, personally, am interested in the visual arts. If you were flirting with me, then you might try to start a conversation about the sketches that you said you brought for me to look at. May I see them?"
Iseul blushed self-consciously. Unlike the pieces she painted to order, the ones she had with her were more private works, her very own ideas executed in her personal style. "You might think they're silly," she demurred.
"A true gentleman would never think such a thing," the young man assured her. "Please, may I?"
Slowly, she handed over the paperboard folder, opening it so that he could take out the drawings inside. "I-I came up with a few ideas for my clothes after our last meeting," she explained as he leafed through them. "I thought about some things that might look good together, but I don't know how much it would cost, but...." She gestured ineffectually. "For whatever it's worth, there they are."
"These are excellent, Teacher Kim," Yong-ha praised her. The heads and hands of the figures were mere suggestions, but the clothing, complete with prints and embroidery designs, was meticulously rendered. "You have a very good eye for line and color. May I keep these?”
She looked pleased by the compliments, but the request brought her up short. “What are you going to do with them?”
“We will use them as a guide for your new clothes, of course,” he explained with a patient smile. “We might not be able to copy everything exactly, but we will do what we can to match your drawings. The jewel tones you used here will complement your coloring very nicely."
"You really think they're good?"
“Yes,” he assured her, “I think they are very good. I should have known that you had inherited some of your grandparents' talent."
"Oh." She laughed, and the expression quite transformed her whole face. "I don't really know about that. My grandparents were artists. I'm just a painting teacher."
"Iseul." Madam Park spoke up again from her corner. "When someone pays you a compliment, just say 'thank you.' It is one thing to be modest, but it is another to appear as though you have a poor opinion of yourself."
"Yes, Halmeonim." The young woman inclined her head, still smiling. "Thank you, sir."
"You are very welcome," Yong-ha replied, smiling back. "And may I suggest that you get used to receiving compliments—once I'm through with you, you won't be able to take five steps without someone telling you how good you look."
Despite the compliments on her work, the piecemeal first "lesson" left Iseul unsure whether she had learned anything, but whether she liked it or not, she got the opportunity to put whatever she might have learned into practice that very evening, during Jung-hwa's next painting lesson.
Whether it was because Iseul was being too transparent in her regard for Jung-soo, or because Jung-hwa decided on her own that it would be a good idea to try and pair her brother with her painting teacher, Iseul didn't know; but that night, her student was plainly bent on throwing the two together.
For one thing, she insisted that her brother attend her painting lesson with her. "You're going away again soon, Orabeoni," she explained. "You have to spend as much time as possible with me so I won't miss you so much while you're gone."
"Maybe I want you to miss me," Jung-soo teased her. "At least someone will."
"Of course I'll miss you, but do you also want me to be very sad even before you've gone away?" She pouted prettily. It occurred to Iseul that Jung-hwa was probably giving her an excellent flirting demonstration, but she wanted Jung-soo to see her as a woman, not a younger sister.
Jung-hwa's approach seemed effective, however, because it didn't take him long to agree to stay. "As long as I don't have to do any painting," he said as he sat down opposite from Iseul.
His sister looked horrified. "Oh, but if you don't, you'll feel left out and we don't want that!" She pushed a blank sheet of paper towards him, and that took care of that protest.
After making sure that her brother was going to be occupied for a while, Jung-hwa announced that she had forgotten to do something important for their mother and left the room. Iseul stifled the impulse to beg the girl to stay and stole a sidelong glance at the other person left sitting at the table. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw that Jung-soo was looking at her, too. "I hope you're not going to rate my efforts as well, Teacher Kim," he said with a teasing lift of his eyebrows.
"That's not what I'm being paid to do here," she blurted out and, fearing that she may have sounded waspish, scrambled to smooth things over. "So... don't worry."
Jung-soo gave a polite chuckle, but otherwise did not answer. Iseul cringed inwardly and tried again. “The-the agasshi said you were going away. Where will you be going?”
To her delight (and immense relief), the question earned her an easy smile. “Just to Haeju” was the reply. “I am going on a buying trip for my father.”
“Master Bang is fortunate to have a son like you helping him,” she ventured, hoping she didn't sound ridiculous.
“I do my best,” he said, ducking his head modestly.
After another awkward, seemingly endless pause, she remembered to ask about the family business, and the conversation sputtered on in fits and starts until Jung-hwa made her return. “I'm back!” the girl chirped. “Did I miss anything important?”
“Of course not,” her brother replied. “Teacher Kim and I were just waiting for you.”
Iseul mustered a smile as he quickly (far too quickly, it seemed) turned his attention from her to his sister. Gu Yong-ha had made conversing seem so easy, but it was painfully clear, from the fact that her own feeble attempts had failed to capture Jung-soo's interest, that she still had much to learn.
The Joseon Chamber of Commerce held its first meeting one evening in Master Hwang's bookshop. Yong-ha was hard-pressed to hide his eager smile when he arrived to find the sizable front room practically full. Those present ran the gamut of the business sector: there were richly dressed merchants, laborers in unbleached cotton, ahjumma shopkeepers still wearing their aprons, and many others in between. He was not a dedicated scholar like Sun-joon or a civil servant like Jae-shin, but Yong-ha had spent enough time at Sungkyunkwan to appreciate the sight of many tradespeople showing interest in making Joseon a better place.
He was bowing politely to an acquaintance when he noticed Kim Iseul entering the bookshop. “Teacher Kim!” he greeted her. “Hello!”
She paused at the sound of her name, and smiled politely when she saw him. “Hello, Master Gu.”
“Are you here for the meeting?”
To his surprise, she said that she was. “I thought it might be useful to listen to the discussion, since I am somewhat in trade,” she explained. “After all, I do business with the parents of the children I teach, do I not?”
Yong-ha pondered this briefly. “I hadn't thought of it that way,” he admitted, “but you're right. Your position as a teacher is unique, but you earn money for the work that you do.”
His agreement was rewarded with a rare smile—and a priceless invitation. “My neighbors have invited me to sit with them,” she volunteered then, and gestured to a group that had staked out a spot near the front of the room. “Would you like to join us?”
By now, the crowd had spilled out to the street outside. It would be foolish to refuse when he needed to be as close as possible to the action. “I believe I would, Teacher Kim. Thank you.”
Iseul led him to a group of artisans of varying ages, all of whom greeted her warmly. “I hope it's all right if I invited Master Gu Yong-ha to sit with us,” she told them diffidently. “It's crowded, and he didn't seem to have anyone to sit with.”
“Of course he's welcome,” said a wiry, gray-haired weaver. “Though I find it hard to believe that a social butterfly like him would not have anyone to sit with,” he added with a teasing grin that revealed some of his missing teeth.
Yong-ha laughed. “Well, I am grateful to all of you for your hospitality,” he responded easily as he sat down among them. “How are you, Master Shim?”
“Still recovering from the last time you bought silk from me, but I'll live.” Chuckling, the old man took over the task of introducing him to the others. Yong-ha already knew some of them, while the others were easy enough to win over with his charm and witty banter.
“This is very exciting, is it not?” a shoemaker remarked, looking around eagerly.
“It is indeed, madam,” Yong-ha agreed. “This is Joseon history in the making. I don't think we, the people, have ever done this sort of thing before.”
“Oh, is that so?”
He nodded, spotting an opportunity to highlight his qualifications as a potential leader of the chamber of commerce. “The tradespeople have always had guilds,” he explained, “but this type of arrangement is unprecedented. The Chamber of Commerce means that everyone, from the lowliest of laborers to the richest of merchants—and women as well as men—will have a say; and united, we will speak in a louder voice to the king.”
“Master Gu was once a Sungkyunkwan scholar,” Master Shim told the others, unwittingly helping Yong-ha's cause.
“I once entertained this notion of becoming a civil servant someday,” the younger man confided, affecting a modest air, “but what could I do? Trade is in my blood. Still, the time I spent at Sungkyunkwan wasn't a complete loss. I learned about the law, and about how the government works—useful things for those of us who do business.”
And that is why you must all vote for me to lead this organization, he added silently just as Master Hwang, acting in his capacity as host, began to call the meeting to order.
“How did it go this afternoon?”
“I think things are off to a good start,” Yong-ha replied as he picked up the bottle of dongjeongchun to pour his hyung a drink. They were sitting in An-jeong's rooms, sharing the day's news after the evening meal. “There seems to be a lot of interest in the Chamber of Commerce; Hwang's bookshop was packed.”
“That's good.” An-jeong nodded in thanks to his wife (whose name, Yong-ha learned for the thousandth time, was Geun-hye), who had just placed a few dishes of anju on the table, and took the liquor bottle to return the favor to his brother. “What did you talk about?”
“Not very much,” he admitted. “It took a while for everyone to settle down, and the first thing on the agenda was to start choosing leaders.”
“And everyone wants to be a leader,” the older man concluded dryly.
“Well, a lot of people certainly had their own thoughts on who should lead the organization. After all, how many of them have ever had a chance to be heard?”
An-jeong shrugged, conceding the point, and helped himself to a dried anchovy. “So, whom have you chosen?”
“No one yet. They've only just put forth names for the members to consider.” Yong-ha looked down at his cup and coughed delicately. “Mine... ah... mine was one of them.”
“Really? That's wonderful.” His brother grinned. “You didn't put your own name forward, did you?”
“Hyung!” He shot a self-conscious glance at Geun-hye, who was sitting in the corner, but she didn't look up from her sewing. “Of course I didn't. One of the other merchants nominated me.” To be honest, he had almost done so, but was fortunately spared that task.
“Who else was nominated?”
“A few other merchants. I'm not worried about most of them. The real challenge, I think, will come from Ma Ki-hoon.”
An-jeong nodded thoughtfully. “The Ma family is almost as important as ours; I can see how he could get a lot of votes. You'll need a sound plan if you want to beat him.”
As the brothers began to discuss possible strategies to do just that, Yong-ha thought about his chief rival's conduct at the meeting. Ma Ki-hoon had sat and conversed almost exclusively with the wealthier merchants, and seemed ill at ease with the Chamber of Commerce members who were not of his own kind. Yong-ha made a note to try and capitalize on that.
Strangely, the wine merchant had also spent a lot of time looking disapprovingly in Yong-ha's direction. At first, Yong-ha believed this to be a sign that the other man felt threatened by him (and rightly so), but then he recalled Ki-hoon glaring at Iseul, too, on one or two occasions.
He sat bolt upright as a disconcerting thought occurred to him. Could it be that Ma Ki-hoon was jealous?
An-jeong stopped in mid-sentence. “Is anything wrong?” he asked. Even Geun-hye was looking at them inquiringly from her corner.
“N-no,” Yong-ha answered, settling back down. “I just... remembered something that I had to do tomorrow, that's all.”
The first thing that Iseul noticed when she visited the shop for her next “flirting lesson” was that her teacher seemed very distracted by something. She found it disgraceful from a professional standpoint, because it was the teacher's levels of preparation and engagement that set the tone for the lesson; but worse than that, his behavior was making her uncomfortable, for she had the nagging feeling that his distraction had to do with her.
“Do you need to review our lesson on conversation?” Yong-ha asked her. He was looking in her direction, but his eyes were fixed on a point somewhere to her right. It reminded Iseul of the way her grandmother looked at people, except that this man could probably spot a missing bead from a norigae a hundred paces away (and was, therefore, not at all blind).
“No, seonsaengnim,” she answered. “I think I understand the principles of the lesson.” She glanced away, cringing inwardly as she remembered the debacle with Bang Jung-soo. “I probably just need to practice.”
By now, Iseul had spent enough time in Yong-ha's company to know that he was never at a loss for words, so she expected him to pontificate at length over the importance of practice and how she should do so. However, all he answered was, “Mmm.”
She shot him an inquiring look, managing to catch him looking at her and sending his own gaze skittering away. Now his behavior reminded her of some of her previous male students, but they had been mere boys who were only just beginning to discover the opposite sex. Why would a grown man, especially one with Yong-ha's reputation as a smooth talker and popular with the ladies, be acting the same way?
“Is anything wrong, Master Gu?” Iseul finally asked.
“Of course not, Teacher Kim.” The merchant checked the contents of his teacup with a disinterested air. “What could possibly be wrong?”
“I am sure that saying this isn't at all proper,” she told him bluntly, “but you've been behaving strangely since we got here.”
“Strangely?” demanded Madam Park, who was again present as chaperon. “How strangely? What are you doing with my granddaughter, Gu Yong-ha?”
“Nothing at all, Halmeonim,” he assured her. “I've just had some weighty things on my mind. I didn't mean to offend.”
At that, the old woman relaxed somewhat, but her expression remained faintly suspicious. “If you say so....”
Having averted that possible disaster, the merchant turned back to his student with a smile that seemed a little too bright. “Shall we move on to the next lesson, then?” he suggested briskly. “Did you bring a fan, as I asked?”
“Yes, I did,” Iseul replied, producing one from the bundle at her side. “Though I don't understand why I would need one in this weather.” As if on cue, a slight breeze blew, sending cold autumn air into the shop.
“Fans are for more than just keeping oneself cool,” he told her as he withdrew his own fan from his russet-red sleeve. “You can also use them to let a person know that you're interested in him or her, even if you're standing clear across the room from each other.”
“Really?” Iseul's grandmother asked.
“Oh, yes, Halmeonim,” Yong-ha told her. “In the olden days, our ancestors used fans to send signals to each other on the battlefield, and now I hear that ladies in the West do the same to send, ah, not-so-secret messages to their suitors. I don't know what their signals are, exactly, but there's no reason why the women of Joseon can't have their own.”
Iseul thought the idea was intriguing, but couldn't help remaining a skeptical. “Would a man really notice this sort of thing?”
“If he's the right man, he will. Now, shall we try some of them?” he asked and, when she assented, proceeded with his demonstration. The code used by Western women sounded far more advanced than the signals he had developed, he explained; but at the very least, a fan could be used to draw attention to one's eyes, face, or hands (making it imperative to take care of one's complexion, but that was for another lesson) or indicate whether they were disinterested or wanted to be kissed.
“It is rather distracting,” she remarked, partway through the lesson. Her face grew warm as she realized she had been staring.
She turned away abruptly, alerting Yong-ha to the fact that he had been tapping the folded fan against his lips—the signal for a kiss—for a little longer than he had intended. He promptly dropped the fan, clearing his throat and wondering what to say to salvage the situation.
Suddenly, there was a soft snore. The sound came from Madam Park, who had fallen asleep in her corner. Impulsively, he glanced at the woman's granddaughter, who looked amused at the sight. Their eyes met and they shared a quiet chuckle, both relieved that the tension was broken without any effort on either of their parts.
Yong-ha then decided to seize the opportunity and lay to rest what had been bothering him ever since the Chamber of Commerce meeting. “Teacher Kim,” he began, “may I ask you a personal question?”
“I suppose that would depend on the question,” she answered warily.
That did not sound like a guarantee that he would get an answer, but he forged on anyway. “I was just wondering... are you, by any chance, in some sort of relationship with Ma Ki-hoon, the wine merchant? I noticed him looking at us rather oddly yesterday, at the meeting,” he explained quickly. “So I couldn't help but become a little curious.
“Please don't make that face,” he advised when she shot him a revolted look. “At least, if you must, please do not so so in public. It's highly unattractive.”
With some effort, Iseul did as he asked. “I do have a relationship with that man, but not the kind you're probably thinking,” she told him. “Ma Ki-hoon is my half-brother, from my father's first wife.”
“Oh.” Yong-ha blinked. He had been rather fixated on the disturbing possibility that there was some kind of romance between her and the wine merchant, so this was unexpected. “I'm sorry.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You're sorry that I have a brother like him?”
“I meant that I'm sorry I misunderstood,” he replied, and chuckled. “But you have my sympathies on that, if you want them.”
Iseul tried (and failed) to suppress a snicker. “Thank you, but that won't be necessary. I have little to do with my father's family, but I don't regret it much.” She glanced at her grandmother, who was still napping in her corner. “I'm more than happy with the family that I do have.”
“Of course you are. The Kims might not be as wealthy as the Mas, but your grandparents are good people. Even I would be proud to be part of their family.”
She smiled, pleased at the compliment to her grandparents. They might not have borne her, but they were the only parents she had ever known. “Thank you, seonsaengnim.”
Yong-ha smiled back. “You're welcome,” he said. “Now, shall we continue with our lesson?”
Chapter 6: Chapter Five
Disclaimer: Yong-ha's suggestion on where to wear perfume is a quote attributed to Coco Chanel.
Technical Notes: Most of the information on cosmetics in this chapter is based on my research on materials and methods used during the Joseon period. Further, Korean cosmetic culture reportedly includes the use of ornaments (binyeo and norigae) and not just makeup, so they are featured here as well.
Author's Notes: Thank you to Hequet and Skylilies for the comments, and to all those who read and left kudos. I hope you enjoy the latest chapter!
Iseul ducked her head, her cheeks aflame. She really had no idea how staring at Jung-soo was supposed to help, especially since Joseon garb left everything to the imagination, but she still couldn't help doing so. He was back from his business trip to Haeju and his sister had again sweet-talked him into sitting in during her painting lesson, and Iseul had to grab every chance she could in case she saw something important. She fervently hoped he hadn't noticed her ogling him.
Of course, as luck would have it, the very next thing the young merchant did was to ask, “Are you all right, Teacher Kim?”
Jung-hwa's head shot up from the work that had, for once, been taking up all of her attention. “Something's wrong with seonsaengnim?” she demanded.
“No, no!” Iseul chirped with false cheer. “Nothing's wrong. I just have quite a few things on my mind, that's all.”
“Well, it might help if you discussed your problems with someone,” Jung-soo said with a friendly smile that seemed to indicate that he was willing to lend an ear.
Even a novice flirt would recognize that this was a prime opportunity to converse with him (perhaps even in private!), and she might have seized upon it under different circumstances. Unfortunately, in this case Iseul had no choice but to keep her troubles behind her teeth: Hwa-jae had just received an order with a special request that the painting feature an unclothed male. Given her limited knowledge of the subject, she was puzzling over how she might do some “research” to help her fill the order.
“It's nothing that won't take care of itself, Master Bang,” she said. “Please, no one need worry about me.”
“We can't help it, seonsaengnim,” Jung-hwa told her matter-of-factly. “You're the best painting teacher that I've ever had. If you have problems and won't be able to teach me anymore, I'll be completely hopeless.” She put down her paintbrush with a pout, the very picture of despair.
“I promise it won't come to that, agasshi,” Iseul assured her.
“Nonetheless, Teacher Kim,” Jung-soo said, “please know that you can always come to me if you ever need help. It's the least I can do after all you've done for my sister.” The aforementioned sister nodded earnestly.
Iseul wondered how they would react if she asked him right then and there if he could take off all his clothes so that she could have a look at him, but quickly quelled the temptation to do so. Instead, she gave him a noncommittal smile and said, “Thank you, Master Bang. I'll keep that in mind.”
“How about this one, Abeonim? It's pretty, right?”
“Yes, but it's not quite what I'm looking for.”
“Well, what are you looking for? We must have looked at ten thousand different things already!”
“Can we have snacks at your shop, Uncle Yong-ha? We promise we won't make a mess like last time!”
Remembering the disaster that “last time” had been, Jae-shin shot his friend an embarrassed look. “We'll get something to eat on the way home, Jin-young.”
“What are you talking about, Geol-oh?” Yong-ha said. “I ordered snacks for all of us as soon as Ga-rang told me about this visit.” And put the most expensive merchandise as far out of reach of children as I could get them, he added silently. “Of course you'll eat at my shop before you go home.
“Besides,” he went on in a low voice, “at the rate our friend is going, he'll probably need to buy something from me just to get things over with. He's worse than the most indecisive ahjumma.”
“I heard that, sa-hyung,” Sun-joon said as he and his son inspected a set of ceramic cosmetic cases for sale at a nearby stall.
Just then, they heard a voice drawl, “Well, well... who do we have here?” The men turned to find Ha In-soo sauntering over to them. The plume on his hat fluttered gently in the breeze. “What a charming sight.”
“Naturally,” Yong-ha responded, preening as though he was the only source of charm in the immediate vicinity. “Good day, Officer Ha. Nice weather we're having, isn't it?”
“Boys, make your greetings to your Uncle In-soo,” Jae-shin ordered. The smirk he then gave his former partner contrasted nicely with his sons' polite bows. “Have you been demoted to patrolman?”
“If you must know,” In-soo replied as he patted Hak-young on the head, “we're short-handed today and I volunteered to fill in.” He arched an eyebrow at the little group. “Is it your turn to mind the children today, gentlemen?”
“If you must know," Yong-ha told him, mimicking the other man's lofty tone, "we're shopping.”
“I'm not sure if that's any better than minding children.”
“I wanted to buy a present for my wife,” Sun-joon explained, “and I asked my seniors to come and help me choose something.”
“And we're going to ask all the merchants to choose Uncle Yong-ha as their leader!” Hyun-seok piped up.
“Oh, that's right,” In-soo said to Yong-ha, “you're in that chamber of commerce that the tradespeople have set up. When is the election?”
“In a few weeks,” he answered.
The other man nodded. “Good luck.”
In-soo stayed to chat a while, after which he took his leave to resume his duties. Miraculously—or perhaps because of Yong-ha's earlier comment about his indecisiveness—Sun-joon purchased a set of jeweled hairpins at the very next stall. Not to be outdone, Jae-shin impulsively selected for his own wife a silver hand mirror with a mountain scene etched into its back.
“Useful as well as pretty,” Yong-ha observed with an approving nod. “Well done, Geol-oh. Apparently you have better luck choosing presents when you don't think too hard about them.”
“Thank you,” his friend replied dryly.
“Ahjusshi,” Hyun-seok said to the man wrapping up the purchases, “will you vote for Uncle Yong-ha at your election?”
“Hyun-seok!” chorused Yong-ha and Sun-joon.
Fortunately, the shopkeeper only chuckled at the boy's forward behavior. “Don't worry, son,” he replied. “Your uncle has my vote. He's the only one out of all of them who talks any sense.”
“You're too kind, Master Ahn,” Yong-ha said modestly. However, he couldn't help adding, “But, er, you wouldn't mind saying the same thing to anyone else who asks, would you?”
Master Ahn winked, being no stranger to the power of word-of-mouth marketing. “Consider it done.”
Male voices and the laughter of children echoed down the normally quiet street as Iseul walked to Yong-ha's shop. Chin-hae, who was accompanying her, looked around in puzzlement. “Madam Ok's food stand must be doing very well,” he remarked.
Moments later, they were surprised to discover that the noise was coming from within Yong-ha's shop. Masculine shadows were silhouetted against the rice paper walls and Iseul could hear feet pounding on the wooden floor.
The footsteps grew louder as a decidedly short shadow drew near. The door opened and a plump little boy peered outside, looking surprised when he saw her. “Uncle Yong-ha, there's a lady here!”
“Is there?” The child opened the door wider and Yong-ha's face popped into view. “So it is! Hello there, Teacher Kim!”
“Hello, Master Gu,” she replied, and blushed when she saw the little group sitting around his low tea table, apparently in the middle of a gathering. “We, er, have an appointment...?”
“Ah, yes, of course!” the merchant said, seemingly unruffled despite the awkwardness of the situation. “You must forgive me, I spent the day with my friends and completely lost track of the time. May I introduce you to my guests? These are two of my dearest friends in the world, Lord Moon Jae-shin and Lord Lee Sun-joon, and their sons. Gentlemen, this is Kim Iseul, one of the finest painting teachers in Joseon.”
One of the older children smiled at her, revealing a missing front tooth. “You're pretty.”
“And you're too forward,” one of the men chided the boy. It was plain, from the marked resemblance in their features, that they were father and son.
“He's just making up for his father's lack of charm,” Yong-ha laughed.
“His mother thinks I'm charming enough.”
The other guest, a bearded man in scholar's garb, quickly suppressed a smile. “I, ah, suppose we should start for home,” he suggested. “If Yong-ha sa-hyung has an important appointment, then we must not keep him from it. Come, Hyun-seok.”
Despite Iseul's offers to come back at another time, the guests corralled their sons and took their leave. “Think nothing of it!” Yong-ha assured her after they had gone and his servants, with Chin-hae's help, set about clearing the used dishes. “It was past time my friends went home anyway. Had they stayed any longer, their wives would have been too sleepy to be appropriately grateful for their presents.
“Besides, they can come and visit me again anytime,” he added when she continued to hang back, and gestured towards the table, now set with fresh food and drink. “Please, sit and eat something while I prepare for our lesson.”
Iseul obligingly picked up a rice cake filled with sweet bean paste. The morsel was delicious, and somehow helped her feel less terrible about intruding. As she ate, she watched the merchant bring out a parcel that made a most curious clinking sound. It wasn't until he removed its magenta silk wrapping to reveal a lacquered box with a mirror in its lid that she realized that the day's lesson would be about cosmetics.
“Confucius teaches us that rightness of character will manifest itself in a person's physical being,” Yong-ha began as he unpacked an assortment of small porcelain containers from the box. “However, I don't see anything wrong with making oneself beautiful on the outside as well as on and the inside. Your physical appearance is what first catches the interest of a potential mate, while it is your character that will determine if you can hold his interest.”
“You have a point, but....” She eyed the containers uncertainly. She kept herself clean and neat, and made sure to protect her skin from harsh wind and sun, but had never really tried to do more with her appearance. “You're not going to teach me how to make myself look like a gisaeng, are you?”
“Not at all!” he assured her. “Regular women paint their faces, too, but of course to a lesser degree. I will teach you to use these things to highlight your features while still retaining a natural appearance. As with all things related to beauty and good taste, balance is the key.”
They began with the face powder. Unlike a gisaeng's all-white powder, this was applied only lightly and had ground clay mixed into it to allow the wearer's face to retain some color. Yong-ha said that he had had to guess at how much clay was needed to match Iseul's naturally pale skin, and was delighted when that the result suited her complexion perfectly. “You don't look sunburned, and you also don't look like a piece of ddeok,” he said with satisfaction. “I guess I have an eye for these things.”
Next, there was a small pot of fine soot. Mixed with oil from a small bottle, it was applied with a fine brush to emphasize and shape the eyebrows. Another pot contained powdered red safflower for rouging the cheeks. This was also mixed with oil to color the lips. It took Iseul a few tries to master the mixture and application of the cosmetics, but once she did, her own artistic skills enabled her to put them on with a subtle but effective hand.
“I can shade my face to make it look thinner,” she laughed as she dabbed on a little more rouge just under her cheekbones. “It is literally painting!”
The merchant chuckled indulgently. “You can, but you must learn not to do it too much. Then you'll really look like a gisaeng.”
After wiping away the excess rouge with a handkerchief, Iseul discovered that there was more. Another, larger bottle of oil was for keeping the hair sleek and shiny, and there was a pot of scented balm for moisturizing the face and hands. There were even a few hairpins and norigaes. Finally, there was a bottle of perfume.
“The selection of a perfume could be an entire lesson in itself,” Yong-ha told her, “but learning how to wear it is easy enough. You must not, of course, douse yourself in it—a hint of scent is infinitely more tantalizing. And you must not put it on your clothes, because it might stain them beyond repair. Perfume is best worn on the skin.”
She eased out the stopper and sniffed tentatively. The perfume smelled most strongly of flowers, but a hint of spice kept it from being cloying. “Where on the skin should I wear it?” she asked.
He pondered this for a moment, then grinned. “Wherever you might want to be kissed.”
Iseul blinked, taken aback at the answer. “Wouldn't that taste bad?” she blurted out.
“I'm not saying you should put it on your lips!” he laughed. “There are other places a person can be kissed. You just have to use your imagination.”
“Iseul? Iseul!” Chae-mi's voice broke into her thoughts. “Ya! Are you listening to me?”
“Of course I am,” she replied, even though that wasn't entirely true. “You were talking about how your father's apprentice has teeth like a horse.”
“He does!” The other girl pouted and popped a blackberry into her mouth. A relative had sent them from the countryside, so Chae-mi brought some next door to share along with the earth-shaking news involving her father's apprentice. “And he smells like wet clay all the time. Worst of all, I don't think he even knows how to talk. I can't believe my father is thinking of marrying me off to a creature like that!”
“He's only thinking about it,” Iseul pointed out. She tossed a berry into the air. Kyeo-ul, sitting at their feet, leapt up to catch it. “It's not a done deal yet.”
“It's as good as done!”
Then at least you won't need flirting lessons, Iseul wanted to say, then blushed as the memories of yesterday's lesson entered her mind for what must have been the thousandth time that day.
There really was nothing to be so upset about, she reminded herself. Gu Yong-ha was always saying outrageous things. She ought to be used to that by now, enough to not get affected—and especially not in that way.
She had read and illustrated enough erotic texts to know the meaning behind that little tug and tingle she had felt deep inside when he told her where a woman should wear perfume. That was disturbing enough; what made things worse was that she continued to have that reaction whenever she thought about it. She had even done so during Bang Jung-hwa's painting lesson that afternoon. The girl's brother had put in another appearance, but rather than focus on winning Jung-soo's attentions, Iseul had wasted the opportunity and struggled not to think about Yong-ha instead.
“Get a hold of yourself!”
Chae-mi broke off in mid-sentence and even Kyeo-ul raised his head from her knee. Iseul realized that she had spoken aloud. “I'm sorry,” she stammered, groping for words to explain without admitting that she had barely been listening. “That wasn't—I didn't mean—“
Fortunately, the other girl didn't seem angry. “No, you're right,” Chae-mi said with a sigh. “You know my father—the more I fight this, the more Abeonim will insist on throwing us together. I should try to look at the good in all of this. Maybe this can be practice for when I meet someone I truly like! Like you and your flirting lessons!”
As her friend tried to paint her situation in the best possible light, Iseul did her best to take her own advice and calm down. Her reaction was perfectly normal, she told herself. After all, no one had ever said such things to her before.
Besides, she was also very caught up in thinking of ideas for Hwa-jae's latest order. It was making her very conscious of all the men around her, and therefore quite jumpy.
Yes, that's it. And now I must stop thinking about that and start worrying about what's really important.
There was absolutely nothing for it.
Iseul didn't know anyone who might be able to answer some questions about the male form, let alone actually model for her. (For all his outrageousness, Gu Yong-ha was not an option at all.) She also could not ask Chin-hae to buy a book that she could use as a reference—the manservant was at enough risk, doing the work that he did on Hwa-jae's behalf, and it would embarrass both him and his wife if he were found out.
However, a book was her best hope, and so one morning she stole out of the house in her oldest hanbok, with a drab blue cloak concealing her face, and made her way to Master Hwang's bookshop.
It was easy enough to walk in and browse through the tamer selections along with the rest of the patrons. Perhaps she might even be able to move unobstrusively towards the back room, where books such as the ones Hwa-jae illustrated were sold. The real challenge lay in being lucky enough to procure the kind of book she needed without incident.
There were many books with illustrations of the female form. After all, most of the readers of erotic texts were men and that was what they wanted. Iseul had heard that there were some with illustrations of men, too, but because Hwa-jae had never received any orders for them, she didn't know of any titles or authors of such works.
She shook her head in annoyance. The next time this happened, she decided, she would turn down the order. Even though it meant doing without the commission, it could also help Hwa-jae develop a reputation for being exclusive and discriminating, and she might be able to raise her prices.
Suddenly, someone grabbed her arm. Iseul looked up, her cloak falling away, and her heart stopped when she saw that it was Yong-ha who had accosted her.
“Teacher Kim!” he hissed. “I am shocked!”
Chapter 7: Chapter Six
Author's Notes: At loooooong last, this story has a new chapter! Apologies for the delay, but I had a lot going on IRL that demanded most of my attention. There's still a lot on my plate, but please be assured that I'm still plugging away at this fic despite all of that, so please continue to watch out for updates!
Thank you to Skylilies, winegums, Ara, and Hequet for the comments, and to all who left kudos :) Happy weekend!
“Wh-why are you shocked?” Iseul asked stupidly. Her cloak dropped from her nerveless fingers.
“Why wouldn't I be shocked when you are running around town dressed like this?” Yong-ha looked pointedly at the sleeve he held, then dropped it as though the worn and faded fabric had burned him.
“Oh. I-I... ah....” she stammered, groping for an excuse. Why would she be running around town dressed in old clothes? “I-I was helping with the house cleaning when I suddenly had to go out and run some errands!”
“Here in the bookshop?”
She nodded. “I've run out of interesting books to read,” she told him, her belief that the excuse was partly true adding conviction to her words.
He inspected the nearest shelf. “I didn't know that you were interested in animal husbandry,” he remarked, arching an elegant eyebrow.
“I, ah, didn't find anything I liked over there, near the front of the shop,” she improvised, “so I thought I would look at the other sections.” (Again, that was partly true!)
Suddenly, a middle-aged man in plain merchant's garb appeared in their aisle. He stopped short when he saw the pair standing there. Averting his gaze, the man peered at the books nearest him and, exclaiming in surprise over being in the wrong section, made a hasty exit.
Iseul seized the opportunity to look away from Yong-ha and busied herself with retrieving her cloak. “How did you know it was me?” she asked as she dusted it off.
“I didn't at first,” he told her. “I just happened to notice what you were wearing, then saw to my horror that it was you.”
She flushed guiltily. “I'm sorry. I didn't think I would run into anyone I knew.”
The merchant sighed, but instead of launching into a lecture on the horrors of being seen in public wearing old, ragged clothes, he said, “This is partly my fault. If I had just worked on your order faster, then you could have been wearing some of your new clothes by now.”
“Please don't think that! We agreed that you could take your time with my order, remember? I take full responsibility for this. I could have worn something else, but I was, ah, very distracted with cleaning.”
“Fortunately, the seamstresses are almost done with your test garments,” Yong-ha said, sounding relieved at the thought. “You will have your fitting soon.”
Iseul mumbled that she would be looking forward to it, apologized again, and quickly took her leave. She threw her cloak over her head to hide her face, still red from mortification. Clearly, the disguise was overdone, and she had had the ill luck to be seen in such a state by Gu Yong-ha, of all people!
Sighing, she consoled herself with the knowledge that he, at least, hadn't caused a scene. More importantly, he had caught her before she could reach the bookshop's restricted section. That would have been truly humiliating. He could have also told her grandmother, which would have made things even worse.
There was only one real drawback to the way the situation had turned out, but it was the most costly one of all: she was no nearer to getting the information she needed for Hwa-jae's latest commission.
The encounter left Yong-ha feeling similarly perturbed, although for vastly different reasons. He was still preoccupied with it the next day, when Cho-sun visited his shop to order some winter clothes.
Didn't the look of those old, worn clothes offend Iseul's artistic sensibilities? he wondered as he watched his old friend select trims for a winter cap. Couldn't the woman have stopped to change before going out?
“What do you think of this?” Cho-sun asked, laying a carved amber pendant and crimson tassel over the black brocade she had selected for her cap. “It looks just like a sunset, don't you think?”
“It's lovely,” he agreed. He spoke without really looking, although it was a safe enough thing to say. Cho-sun's own taste in dress was exquisite.
“Although I like the sky blue tassel with the amber as well. Hmm....” She picked up the other tassel and laid it alongside the red one to compare the effect and Yong-ha went back to thinking about the incident in the bookshop.
Besides the horror of seeing his “student” dressed so poorly, he was also dealing with a healthy dose of guilt over his reaction to the sight. Although it was disappointing that she did not seem to be learning anything from their lessons, that was no reason to chastise her the way he had. Wearing old clothes wasn't a crime (even though he privately believed that it should be).
Just then, Cho-sun glanced up from her tassels and gave him an inquiring look. “Pardon my saying so, but you seem a little distracted,” she observed gently. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes! Yes, everything's fine,” he assured her with false cheer. “I was just thinking about all the things I need to attend to.”
Then, with uncharacteristically poor timing, she asked, “How are your flirting lessons going?”
That promptly took the wind out of his sails. “All right, I guess. We've covered quite a bit of ground, but....” He shrugged morosely. “To be honest, I don't know if any of it is working. She's talking more, I think, but that seems to be the full extent of what she has learned.”
“Well, that's a start, isn't it?” the former gisaeng pointed out. “Your student probably just needs more time to put everything into practice. Even though the late King Jeong-jo decreed that we now live in a new Joseon, it's still very difficult for a woman to act more confidently without being thought of as too forward.
“Or perhaps,” she added pensively, “she isn't making as much progress because we haven't taught her things that she would actually find useful.”
“But we were so careful to think of lessons that would be relevant in any situation,” Yong-ha protested. “Conversation, personal grooming... how are these not useful?”
“Perhaps a, shall we say, more targeted approach is in order? Your student might need lessons on how to attract a particular kind of man. What kind of man does she like?”
He frowned, thinking hard. “I honestly don't know,” he admitted finally. “I haven't heard anything from her or her grandmother, not about her liking anyone or any man paying court to her.”
“Then perhaps you should ask her,” she concluded, removing the blue tassel and nodding approvingly at her amber-and-red combination. “The beauty of these lessons is that, unlike those that you might study at Sungkyunkwan, they can be tailored to her needs, the way clothes can be tailored to a person.”
“Yes, maybe I should,” Yong-ha agreed, even though thinking more and more about the idea made him like it less and less.
As Cho-sun set about selecting trims for her daughter's cap, he thought uncharitably that he would not be surprised if Iseul's theoretical suitor turned out to be a dreadful bore. He would have to be, to fall for an impression such as the one Iseul had presented when she and Yong-ha first met, and might not fully appreciate the spirit that she now occasionally allowed to show. If that man, whoever he was, would not allow her to be truly herself, then the flirting lessons—and all of Yong-ha's hard work—would be wasted.
He sighed. Given his luck, before teaching her anything more about flirting, he would have to teach Iseul how to choose a man first.
As if his day weren't bad enough, Yong-ha arrived at home that evening to be informed that his father wanted to see him.
Ordinarily, he received such summons whenever he had done something stupid or, worse, costly. As he made his way to the study where Master Gu spent most of his time at home, he tried to recall whether he had done anything of the sort recently. To the best of his knowledge, he had not.
He rapped on the study door to announce his presence before entering. “I'm home, Abeonim,” he greeted the older man, who was seated as usual behind a desk piled with papers. Yong-ha's hyung, seated in his own customary place at their father's right hand, gave him a smile of greeting.
Master Gu grunted and motioned for his younger son to sit down. Yong-ha did so, feeling very much like a criminal being brought to trial before the magistrate. An-jeong's smile had yielded no clues as to why they were having this meeting. “You, er, wanted to see me?” he began.
“I wouldn't have told the servants to tell you to come here if I didn't,” his father pointed out, taking one last look at the document he had been reading and setting it aside. “Do you have any appointments tomorrow afternoon?”
He thought for a moment. “No, Abeonim. A client was supposed to come to the shop, but she canceled. Why do you ask?”
“I'm meeting with some of your uncles tomorrow afternoon. I suppose you would want to speak with them about this chamber of commerce business.”
“I would very much like to.” He bowed low to hide his excitement. Thus far, he had been campaigning mostly among his fellow merchants, the artisans, and the laborers they employed. He hadn't had much of a chance to plead his case with men of his father's level. “Thank you, Abeonim.”
“Your brother suggested that it would be best for you to actually talk to them,” Master Gu went on gruffly. “We've tried to explain why they should vote for you, but they're asking some rather difficult questions.” He broke off and scowled at his younger son. “Close your mouth. You look like a fish.”
Yong-ha blinked and struggled to regain his composure. “I-I was just surprised that you've been campaigning for me,” he admitted, and bowed again. “Thank you both very much.”
“We heard that Ma Ki-hoon was doing his best to win over the richest chungin,” An-jeong told him with a grin. “Of course, we weren't going to take that lying down.”
“I figured it would help to have a contact in that chamber of commerce thing, if it turns out to be useful,” their father said, turning back to his documents. “You're not going to embarrass me in front of my friends, are you?”
“I won't, Abeonim, I promise,” Yong-ha assured him. “I have very clear ideas of what I would like the chamber of commerce to do and how it can benefit everyone engaged in trade. I've discussed these plans many times, with many people in town. I think I'm quite prepared to face my uncles.”
His father grunted and raised a skeptical eyebrow at that, but An-jeong was quick to smooth over the situation. “I don't think we have any cause to worry, Abeonim,” he said, and chuckled. “You know what my brother is like when he wants something.”
At their next meeting, Iseul was pleased to see Yong-ha in a much better mood. She had feared that the prospect of a fitting would remind him of what she had worn the last time they saw each other and make him angry all over again; instead, the merchant was his usual cheerful self, joking and paying outrageous compliments to her grandmother and Chae-mi, who was accompanying them that day.
“This is when the real fun begins,” he announced when the niceties had been observed. “Although the test garments are not as finished as proper ones might be, they will give us an idea of what the finished product will look like on the body. We'll check the fit and make any adjustments, if necessary, to ensure that the finished product will be comfortable as well as flattering.”
Once again, Iseul was taken to the back room, where a female servant helped her change into the “test” garments. The skirt and jeogori were made of unbleached cotton and lacked any sort of ornamentation, but their plainness only served to highlight their elegant cut, a testament to Yong-ha's masterful eye and the skill of his seamstresses.
As the daughter of a potter, Chae-mi could appreciate this as well. “Feel this, Halmeonim!” she said, guiding Madam Park's hand along the underside of one sleeve. “Isn't that a beautiful curve?”
“Very nice,” the old woman agreed as her fingers traced the bold arch. “But how does it look, Iseul?”
“I think it looks just right, Halmeonim,” her granddaughter assured her. The curve of the sleeve was more pronounced than what she was accustomed to wearing, but the proportions of the garment remained in balance. “Here, you can still feel my arm, can't you? The sleeve isn't too big. And the skirt is the same way. It flares very nicely—do you feel that?—but the shape still looks very natural.”
Madam Park patted Iseul's hips. “Yes, it's not too wide,” she said, nodding approvingly. “Now, what about the length of your jeogori? Is it not too short? Yong-ha said something about the new styles being very short.”
She stiffened when her grandmother reached up to make sure that her bosom wasn't exposed. “No, Halmeonim. I'm still very properly covered.”
Fitting the garments with a man in the room was highly embarrassing, but Yong-ha was apparently accustomed to observing—and participating in—such proceedings. Without showing the least bit of self-consciousness, he explained his design decisions to Iseul and her grandmother, and checked the fit with a critical eye. Fortunately, he didn't need to look at her too closely and the only adjustment required was a minor one to the shoulders of the jeogori. Nevertheless, Iseul was relieved to be back in her old clothes and the women could then turn their attention to the more interesting business of choosing fabrics for the actual hanbok.
“We've set aside some possibilities based on Teacher Kim's drawings,” Yong-ha told them as his staff brought out bolts of cloth in all sorts of intriguing colors, “but of course the final choice will be hers.”
The younger women's eyes widened at the array. “They're all so beautiful,” Chae-mi breathed.
“What colors are they?” Madam Park asked.
Iseul found her voice. “Red, Halmeonim...and orange and amber...and everything in between. The colors of fire.”
He noted the faintest twitch in his client's fingers and smiled. “Please feel free to touch,” he told her. “You will need to choose your fabrics for weight and texture, as well as color.”
The ladies did not need to be told twice. After considerately making sure their hands were clean, they proceeded to test the fabrics to their hearts' content, oohing and aahing over the richness of the brocades, exclaiming over the delicacy of some of the silks, and presenting their favorites for Madam Park's consideration.
“Are there any that you particularly like?” Yong-ha asked after they had gone through most of the possibilities.
“This crimson silk with the pale bronze looks interesting,” Iseul said, laying the bolts of fabric side by side before him. “What do you think?”
“Very distinctive,” he said, nodding approvingly. “Anything else?”
She hesitated. “Well... I think one fancy hanbok in silk will do for now. However, I want to order a few things made of sturdier material, especially now that the weather has turned. Could I wear some of these for every day?”
“Every day?” Yong-ha repeated, his heart sinking at the thought of his creations being worn to scrub floors and clean house. He still had nightmares about her dressed as she had been at Hwang's, but this was taking things a bit too far in the other direction!
Fortunately, Madam Park was quick to clarify matters. “'Every day' means when she gives her painting lessons,” the old woman explained. “Iseul needs to look her best when she goes to the chungins' homes to teach. Her good clothes see quite a bit of use.”
“Ah, of course!” he said, brightening again. “Well, for colder weather, you will naturally need heavier material, such as brocade or satin, for your clothes. And, if I may suggest, perhaps some darker—but still rich—colors?”
That led to even more bolts of cloth being brought out for consideration. Although she remained drawn to warm reds and oranges for some very personal reasons, Iseul couldn't help but delight in the jewel tones of blue, green, and purple. After much deliberation, she chose two brocades (plum and deep jade) for skirts, and a heavy silk (deep blue) for a jeogori.
“They're not too dark, are they?” Madam Park asked. “I wouldn't want Iseul to wear very dark colors. She is still quite young.”
“They're not too dark, Halmeonim,” Chae-mi told her. “They're beautiful! And what's even better is that they also go well with the silks that she ordered earlier.”
“Yes, please don't worry, Halmeonim,” Yong-ha added. “The colors are a little muted, which is appropriate for the attire of a teacher, but still very fashionable.”
Iseul left them to reassure her grandmother and gazed out the nearest window, which had been left open to let in fresh air. She had enjoyed the fitting and fabric selection very much, but now the distraction was gone and she was back to worrying about her continued lack of inspiration for Hwa-jae's latest commission.
She was highly tempted to turn down the order, even at this late date. It would be a blow to her pride as well as to her purse, but she also hated the idea of producing a low-quality (and possibly also completely inaccurate) painting just for the money. Hwa-jae's reputation would be ruined.
Suddenly, there was a loud commotion outside. A crowd of people was moving slowly down the street, egging on a pair of laborers who towed a heavily laden cart in the place of oxen. There was a shout as a wheel got stuck in a rut, forcing one man to push the cart from behind while his partner continued to pull.
Through a gap in the throng, Iseul glimpsed the man working on the front of the cart. He wasn't tall, handsome, or particularly clean, but it was clear that he was very strong. The ropes of muscle in his arms, bare despite the cold, stood out in stark relief as he strained to pull the cart free.
She studied the lines of the laborer's arm, thinking that it would be something interesting to sketch later, when the limb in her imagination wrapped itself around something—something softer and more rounded, for contrast....
Her breath caught as she realized that Hwa-jae could fill that problematic order with a painting of a lovers' embrace. It would be a clever way of hiding the male figure; in fact, wouldn't it be interesting if the female figure were more prominently positioned?
It took a while for the voices to filter into her thoughts. “Teacher Kim?” “Ya, Iseul-ah!” “What's going on?”
She blinked and realized that the others in the room were looking at her quizzically. “Is everything all right, dear?” her grandmother asked, brow furrowed with concern as she gazed in her general direction.
“Oh, yes, Halmeonim!” she replied, feeling her face grow warm. “I was just, ah, lost in thought for a while.”
“You were so lost that we weren't sure if we would ever find you again!” her friend teased.
Yong-ha watched Iseul drop her gaze with an embarrassed little laugh, but said nothing. The unfocused look in her eyes, delicate blush, and softness around her mouth... he had seen that expression before, but never on a woman who lived a chaste existence with her blind grandmother and needed lessons to even look a man in the eye.
He glanced at her one last time before turning to a waiting servant with a request to clear away the fabrics excluded from Iseul's order. If he didn't know her better, he would think that she had been lost in some very naughty thoughts.
Chapter 8: Chapter Seven
Author's Notes: Yes, I know, it's been ages since my last update. During the time that I was away, I was very busy with preparations for and the actual taking of a major vacation :) I'm happy to say I had a great time, and came back re-energized and excited to write some more. Thank you to Skylilies and Ara for the comments (and fun conversations!), and to everyone who left kudos. Hope you enjoy this update and please look forward to more!
“Agasshi, do you have a moment? The young master would like a word with you.”
“He does?” Iseul looked at the maid in disbelief. Usually, her half-brother Ki-hoon stayed as far away from her as he could during her duty visits to their grandfather.
“I-I mean, yes,” she said when she remembered that the servant probably wanted an answer. “I have an appointment later, but I have a little time to spare.”
“Then, if you would please follow me.”
Iseul followed the maid to a part of the house that she had never visited before. She supposed that it was the wing occupied by Ki-hoon's branch of the family, as it featured a room that seemed to be a lesser version of their grandfather's study.
Her half-brother was looking over some ledgers, and he looked up with a stiff smile when her arrival was announced. “Ah, Iseul-ah, you're here,” he said. “Please have a seat.”
The knowledge that he wanted to see her was enough of a surprise, so she was not stunned further by the informal address. “Orabeoni,” she murmured, giving him a brief bow of greeting before sinking down on the cushion he indicated. “You wanted to see me?”
He nodded, but instead of giving her a reason gestured to the maid. “You must stay and have some tea,” he said as the servant busied herself with the teapot already warming on a nearby brazier. “My father-in-law sent some very good red ginseng.”
Iseul accepted a cup of the piping-hot brew, more out of a desire to be polite than any actual thirst. “Thank you.”
“Please try it,” Ki-hoon entreated when she made no move to drink. He made a show of drinking from his own cup, as if to show that he didn't intend to poison her. “It'll warm you up nicely. It feels like we will be in for another harsh winter, doesn't it?”
That led to a stilted conversation about the weather. Then, he asked after her grandmother and her painting lessons. They were pleasant enough topics, but did little to dispel the tension she felt over this uncharacteristically cordial treatment.
Then, he said, “I suppose that your work as a teacher is why you are so interested in the Chamber of Commerce.”
She nodded even as the nonchalance in his voice set off warning bells in her head. “At first, I was just curious because all my neighbors were so excited about it,” she replied cautiously, “but teaching involves commerce as well. I decided I need to know more about matters that may affect my livelihood and, perhaps, try to make things better for people like myself.”
“Of course, of course. Then... I suppose you are going to vote in the upcoming elections?”
The warning bells rang louder. “It's not every day that an ordinary person, especially a woman, can help make such an important choice. I shouldn't waste this opportunity.”
“That is a very important choice to make,” her half-brother agreed earnestly. “You need to choose a leader who can fight for your interests.”
He then launched into a speech about the perfect leader's other sterling qualities, and Iseul remembered that Ki-hoon was also looking to lead the Chamber of Commerce. The point of this entire exchange, therefore, was to try and convince her to support his leadership bid.
“So,” he concluded in the friendliest tone she had ever heard from him, “can I count on you to vote for me at the election?”
“Ah... I'm still deciding on whom to vote for,” she told him. “But I'll certainly think about it, Orabeoni. As you said, it's a very important choice to make.”
Iseul framed her answer as diplomatically as she could, but her half-brother instantly abandoned his pleasant demeanor. “If not me, then who?” he demanded. “Do you mean to tell me that you are going to vote for Gu Yong-ha?”
“I already told you that I'm still thinking—“
“He's the only other logical choice! I saw him sitting with you at the meeting! You're going to vote for that flighty young puppy, aren't you?”
“Gu Yong-ha is not flighty,” she retorted hotly. “He may seem that way at first, but you'll think otherwise once you've heard him talk about the Chamber of Commerce. He has a very clear vision of what he wants the organization to be, and how it can benefit all of its members.”
“Still!” Ki-hoon sputtered. “You would choose him over your own flesh and blood?”
“Yes, I would!” she declared. “I might have considered voting for you if I had any idea of what good it would do to have the same flesh and blood as you, but it's far too late for that now!”
He glared at her after her outburst. “You'll regret this,” he said. “I'll make you pay.”
Her half-brother had never said anything like that to her before, but Iseul refused to back down. “Fine, just send me a bill,” she replied recklessly. “And do allow me to pay in installments—some of us need to actually work for our money.”
With that, she set down her teacup and got to her feet. “Now, if we are done here, Orabeoni,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster, “I must get going. I must give a lesson this afternoon.” She gave him a frosty little bow. “Goodbye, and good luck with the election.”
Iseul tried her best to calm down after leaving the Mas. She believed that she had done quite a good job of hiding her upset at Bang Jung-hwa's painting lesson, but should have remembered that very little escaped her student's notice. The girl spent most of the lesson trying to confirm that something was wrong, and suggesting all manner of solutions even though she had no idea whether there was even a problem in the first place.
“Teacher Kim, do you have a moment?” a voice interrupted as Iseul packed away her paints and brushes after the lesson. “I was wondering if I could have a word with you.”
She looked up and groaned inwardly at the sight of Jung-soo standing in the doorway. One of Jung-hwa's suggestions was to have her brother fix the problem. Whatever it was, the girl declared confidently, her orabeoni could make it all better.
“Of course, Master Bang,” she replied politely. “What do you wish to discuss?”
“Perhaps you should tell me,” the young man said. “My sister said that something is still troubling you. She is very worried. Is this the same thing from last time?”
The memory of her struggle with the male nude painting—and Jung-soo's potential involvement in it—made Iseul laugh, which she hoped would make him think that she had no troubles whatsoever. “There's nothing troubling me, sir. I've just been very busy today and feeling a little tired, that's all. I'm truly sorry that I seem to keep worrying you, especially the agasshi.”
“Jung-hwa has a kind heart,” he agreed. “Well, if you're sure that nothing is bothering you....”
“Everything's fine, Master Bang,” she told him. As much as she wished she could confide in Jung-soo, and perhaps leave it to him to make everything better, it felt wrong to burden him with such a private family matter when—it had to be admitted—they barely knew each other. (Also, Iseul couldn't help but think that there was someone else she could tell if she needed to, someone who knew the whole story and would understand.) “I thank you and your sister for your concern.”
“I just wanted to assure you again that you can come to us for help, if you ever need it.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He gave her a smile, then cleared his throat to break the awkward silence that followed. “Then... I suppose you are off to give another lesson?”
“Ah, no,” she replied as she finished putting away her things. “I'm heading home from here.”
“Do you perhaps need an escort?”
She shook her head vehemently, blushing. “No, no, not at all! I wouldn't want to trouble you.”
“Oh, it wouldn't be any trouble. I was going to see if any of the servants was free.”
Iseul managed a smile even as something inside her deflated. What, did you think he would personally accompany you? “Well, that won't be necessary. I know the way very well, and the roads are well-lighted.”
“If you're sure....” Jung-soo said.
“Quite sure, Master Bang,” she confirmed briskly. “But thank you for the offer.” She got to her feet and straightened her skirts. “Please tell the agasshi that I will see her as usual next week.”
“This next lesson,” Yong-ha began, “is a very important one.”
The two ladies seated before him reacted very differently to this announcement. One leaned forward, eager to catch whatever pearls of wisdom that might come her way. The other blinked and asked, “But aren't they all important, seonsaengnim?” in an innocent tone that he nevertheless knew was threaded with sarcasm.
What a pity that his real student was the sarcastic one.
“That is true,” he replied calmly, “but this one is especially important, one that women are seldom taught.”
“What is it?” asked Chae-mi, who was accompanying her friend that day.
“Today, I will teach you about identifying and dealing with men whose intentions are, shall we say, somewhat less than pure. I thought you should have some idea of how to do this, Teacher Kim, especially now that you've come into some money.”
“What money?” Iseul asked blankly.
“Don't you have an inheritance coming?”
“Oh, right,” she said, abashed. “Well, I don't expect it to be much, not enough to attract men like that, anyway.”
“You would be surprised at the lengths that desperate people would go for even just a small amount,” Yong-ha lectured. “And more often than not, the victims are women who don't know enough about the world to realize that they're in danger until it is too late, and then do not know how to protect themselves.
“The first thing to remember,” he began, “is that if a man—or any person, for that matter—seems too good to be true, then that is probably the case. If a man loves the exact same things that you love, or hates everything that you hate, nothing more and nothing less, then you must be on your guard instantly!”
“But why?” Chae-mi asked. “Doesn't it just mean that you're perfect for each other?”
“I'm sorry to disappoint you, agasshi,” he told her gently, “but more often than not, it means he is playing on your interests to get something from you, something you might not otherwise give up... or, even worse, he simply does not have a mind of his own. Would you want a man like that?”
“Of course not,” Iseul said.
Yong-ha gave her an approving nod. “I'm glad you think so, Teacher Kim,” he commended her. “But please don't frown so; you'll get wrinkles.”
He proceeded to enumerate the things they must be careful not to say or do when a suspicious person tried to strike up a conversation or otherwise get close to them. These were things that Iseul already knew, since she had quite a few secrets of her own that needed guarding, but it was nice to know that she was doing something right, so she listened attentively.
“Now,” he continued, “I know that after this lesson, you will both be very careful, but it is still possible for you to may make a mistake. Or, these people might know more tricks to escape suspicion than we have discussed here, and you won't realize it until after you have fallen into their trap. What do you do then?” He rose to his feet. “Teacher Kim, please get up. I need you to help me give a little demonstration.”
“A-all right.” Trading puzzled looks with Chae-mi, she got up. “What should I—”
Both women squealed in surprise when Yong-ha suddenly stepped very close to her. “Wh-what do you think you're doing?” Iseul managed to ask.
“If you are not careful,” he told her, “you can find yourself completely at the mercy of someone who wants to hurt you, rob you blind... or worse. What would you do then?”
As he spoke, he backed her slowly against the wall, eyes riveted on her face in a disturbingly intent fashion. She took a shuddering breath, only to draw in a clean, masculine scent that could only be coming from him. Her heart began to race.
“What do you do then, Teacher Kim?” he repeated tersely.
“G-grab, twist, and pull!” Iseul blurted out.
That brought him up short. “What?”
“Grab, twist, and pull. That's what Chin-hae ajusshi taught me,” she explained. “He said it would work on any part of the body.”
Yong-ha paused, pondering this. It did seem that it would work on any appendage: the hair, nose, ears, limbs, and even.... He swallowed. “Yes, I believe that the ajusshi is right.”
“I, ah, didn't think it would be polite to actually do so, though,” she added. “Since this is just a demonstration.”
“Th-that's right, it wouldn't have been polite,” he managed to say as a highly disturbing image of her grabbing, twisting, and pulling flashed unbidden in his mind. With great effort, he willed himself to focus on the lesson at hand. “Thank you for being so considerate.”
“Then... is the demonstration over? May I sit back down now?”
It was only then that he realized that he still had her crowded against the wall. He took a giant step away, clearing his throat loudly. “Yes, of course you may. Very good, Teacher Kim.”
“That was quite a lesson!” Chae-mi exclaimed as she and Iseul walked home together that evening. “I didn't think Master Gu would ever teach us that!”
The other young woman hid a smile. As far as she knew, Gu Yong-ha had only one student, but she was not about to destroy her friend's fantasy. “I'm glad that he did,” she said. “If these flirting lessons are going to work, then we should also be prepared to deal with anything that follows.”
“What's even better is that we'll be able to handle any man who gets too fresh, not just the ones we will flirt with. Choi Man-shik had better remember his place!”
“Who's Choi Man-shik?”
Chae-mi sniffed irritably. “Abeonim's apprentice, who else?”
Iseul's cloak slipped off her head as she rounded on the other young woman with a horrified gasp. “Is he doing anything improper with you?” she demanded. If so, then Yong-ha gave this particular lesson just in time!
“Of course he isn't; if he did, I would tell my father right away and Abeonim would kill him.” Their skirts brushed as she neatly sidestepped a garbage heap. “I'm just saying that I'd be able to take care of myself if he ever tries to do that!”
“You sound as though you're expecting him to try doing something improper with you,” Iseul teased. Her friend did seem to mention the apprentice with increasing frequency during their conversations, even if it was only to complain about him.
“I am not!” Chae-mi denied hotly, then shot her a narrow-eyed glance. “But what about you?”
She rolled her eyes. “I'm sorry to disappoint you, but there's little to no chance that I'll ever need to use today's lesson on Bang Jung-soo.”
“I wasn't thinking about Bang Jung-soo. On the other hand, you and Master Gu....”
“What? Me and—it was just a demonstration, Chae-mi! Didn't he say that it was exactly that?”
“Some demonstration! With the way you were looking at each other, maybe you should have 'grabbed, twisted, and pulled' for real.”
Iseul busied herself with rearranging her cloak; at least the garment would hide her flushed face from view. “You're seeing things,” she told her friend, even as she wondered just how had Yong-ha been looking at her. She had been too preoccupied with her own reactions to notice.
“I don't know, there seemed to be a lot of tension in that room earlier.”
“Well, that's because we're both really tense! You know what my brother said to me; who wouldn't be tense about that? A-and Master Gu is going against him at the Chamber of Commerce elections!” she added in a burst of inspiration. “Surely he's been very busy with that, on top of running his shop.”
Fortunately, Chae-mi took the bait. “He has,” she confirmed. “Abeonim says Master Gu has made the rounds among the artisans. I'm sure he's spoken with everyone he could think of. He spoke with you, too, right?”
“Yes. He was one of the few who thought to discuss the matter with me. I guess the others thought I wasn't significant enough.”
“And are you going to vote for him?”
Iseul nodded. “He was also the only one who said anything about what he could do for the Chamber of Commerce, and what the organization should do for Joseon.”
It turned out that there was a grain of truth in her lie, for even though Yong-ha had been thinking about other things during their lesson, he was indeed also preoccupied with the coming Chamber of Commerce elections. Despite any and all efforts to to build up his confidence, distract him, or otherwise calm him down, the tension reached a fever pitch on the day of the vote.
Gu Yong-ha, however, would rather die than betray his nervousness in front of everyone, and sauntered into Hwang's bookshop that afternoon with a pleasant smile on his face. Although the voting had been going on since morning, the place was still packed with tradespeople of all sorts casting their ballots. No one had closed shop that day, which meant that many people needed to carve out the time to visit Hwang's and vote.
He fell in line, cast his own vote (in his own favor, of course), and joined a group of his supporters to await the counting and results of the election. “Nice coat,” commented one of them, a trader who also just happened to be a distant relative.
“You think so?” Yong-ha replied modestly. “It's not too much?” He had initially thought to wear something brighter, but decided that cobalt blue would be flamboyant enough for his personal tastes, but also sober enough for a leader of the Chamber of Commerce.
“Everyone knows you have more taste in your little finger than most of us put together,” the other man chuckled.
Just then, Master Hwang announced that the counting of the ballots would begin in an hour. The lines of people still waiting to cast their votes moved a little faster. A voter moved forward, allowing Yong-ha to catch a glimpse of Ma Ki-hoon. The wine merchant was sitting across the room, surrounded by his own cronies. Was it just him, Yong-ha wondered, or was his rival's group larger?
A flash of green caught his eye then and Iseul, wearing one of her new skirts, came into view. She caught sight of him and gave him and encouraging nod, as did the man ahead of her in line (who also happened to be Yong-ha's hatmaker of choice).
Yong-ha smiled gratefully back at them, took a deep breath, and willed himself to relax. He had done all that he could to convince people of his qualifications as a leader, and he liked to think that he had managed to reach out to more people than his fellow candidates. Now, it was up to the people to decide. It was all out of his hands.
Iseul wriggled discreetly to relieve the growing numbness in her bottom and stole another glance at the door to Master Hwang's back room. It had been ages since the representatives from the Ministry of Commerce went inside to count the ballots.
“Haven't they finished counting yet?”wondered Master Han, Chae-mi's father and the Kims' nearest neighbor. They were sitting with a small group of their other neighbors from the artisans' quarter, part of the crowd that packed the bookshop, awaiting the results of the election.
“I hope they finish soon,” said another neighbor, a shoemaker. “I barely did any work today, but I'm worn out from nerves. I can't wait for them to announce who won, so that we can all go home.”
Many others in the room were showing similar signs of restlessness, but Iseul's half-brother wasn't one of them. Judging from the easy manner in which he chatted with the merchants seated around him, Ki-hoon seemed fairly confident that he would win. Fighting hard to keep from showing her distaste, she turned away from the sight of his smug expression just in time to see Yong-ha coming towards her.
“Good evening, Teacher Kim,” he greeted her. He spoke in his usual jaunty tone, but it was belied by the tension around his eyes. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“No, not at all,” she replied, moving to make some space for him (and easing more of the pressure on her rear end in the process).
He sank down beside her and exchanged greetings with her neighbors. “Have you all eaten?” he asked them.
“Yes, we all went to get something to eat earlier,” the shoemaker answered. Iseul had gone with them; despite not having much of an appetite, she had forced herself to down a green onion pancake just to make sure that there was something in her stomach. “How about you?”
“Not yet,” he replied with a tight little smile, and waved away the subsequent offers to get him a bite and exhortations that he not neglect his health. “Please don't worry about me. I'll eat later, after the results have been announced.”
Suddenly, the door to Hwang's back room swung open. All conversation in the bookshop ceased as the Ministry representatives emerged. Yong-ha, abandoning all pretense of calm, grabbed Iseul's arm for support and she unthinkingly grabbed right back.
One of the Ministry men—presumably the highest-ranking one of the group—addressed the crowd. “Thank you all for waiting,” he began. “The canvassing went a little slowly because there was a large number of ballots to count, and we wanted to ensure that our tally was correct.”
He unfolded the sheet of paper that he carried and cleared his throat. “We have finished counting the votes, and the duly elected head of the Joseon Chamber of Commerce is—“ he paused for effect “—Gu Yong-ha.”
A cheer went up and the man sitting beside Iseul was promptly besieged with congratulations, but he was too shocked to notice. “Did I hear correctly?” he asked her. “Did he really say my name?”
She nodded and squeezed his arm happily. “Congratulations!”
A beaming Master Hwang came forward to shake Yong-ha's hand. “Congratulations, Master Gu!” he shrilled. “Perhaps our new leader may wish to say a few words?”
“Speech!” said someone sitting nearby, a cry that was quickly taken up by the most of the assembly. “Speech! Speech!”
“A speech?” Yong-ha repeated, even as he finally released his hold on Iseul and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. “Yes, I suppose I should say something—“
However, an angry shout cut him off before he could begin. “This will never do!” Ma Ki-hoon blustered, scrambling to stand as well. “I will not have it!
“Is this truly the sort of man you want to lead our Chamber of Commerce?” he went on, pointing an accusing finger at Yong-ha and ignoring all attempts to calm him down. “A boy, barely out of the schoolroom... who runs a women's clothing shop, of all things, and looks as though he dresses in his own wares... and associates with the most unsavory characters in our society!”
Iseul's heart stopped when her half-brother then pointed at her. “That woman,” he ranted, flecks of spittle starting to form at the corners of his mouth, “is baseborn, hardly better than a slave—“
“Ma Ki-hoon, you go too far!” Master Han thundered. The rest of the artisans' group also rushed to her defense, but their protests failed to stem the flow of Ki-hoon's venom. Iseul sat rooted to the floor, simmering with both shame and rage but at a loss on how she might make him shut up.
“That is enough.”
Yong-ha did not try to shout, but his declaration cut through the chaos like a knife, and once again the room fell silent. He stalked towards his defeated adversary with his fists clenched. The other man stiffened, clearly expecting to get hit, but Yong-ha only continued to address him in the same low, controlled voice.
“I can accept your casting doubt on my age,” he said, “and endure your criticisms of the manner in which I dress—however misguided they may be—but I cannot allow you to insult the woman who is to become my wife.”
Chapter 9: Chapter Eight
Author's Notes: Happy holidays! As promised, here's the latest chapter before the end of the year :) It took a while because the last scene proved rather tricky to write. Please let me know what you think about it; I may rewrite it depending on the feedback.
Thank you to Skylilies, Hequet, Ara, Rahel, Miri, and Cass for the comments, and to all who left kudos! Hope you enjoy this latest chapter!
Edited 12-30-2013: Added a bit more about Iseul's mindset in the final scene - it seemed to have been lacking in the previous version of this chapter. Also, thank you to Skylilies for the comment about breaking betrothals in Joseon-era Korea. I've added a bit about that, too!
Predictably, word of the confrontation at the Chamber of Commerce elections spread like wildfire. By the next morning, the marketplace was buzzing with the news of Gu Yong-ha's surprise betrothal; matchmakers and marriageable females everywhere were bemoaning the loss of one of Joseon's most eligible bachelors; and Ka-hai and Yoon-hee had descended upon the incipient bridegroom in his shop, demanding every detail.
“Jae-shin says a woman turned up here on the day that he visited with the boys,” Ka-hai said. “Was that her?”
“What is she like?” Yoon-hee wanted to know.
“And if you were courting her already, why haven't you introduced us?”
Yong-ha sighed. He was sorely tempted to tell his friends the whole story, but did not know whether this was the right time to confide in them. His first attempt at telling the truth had not gone over too well.
“The words just came out of my mouth, Abeonim,” he said as they conferred in Master Gu's study. Yong-ha had proceeded directly there after the meeting, and the rest of the family was quickly summoned once the urgency of the matter became apparent. “Ma Ki-hoon was saying the ugliest things about Teacher Kim. I had to make him stop.”
Master Gu rubbed his forehead wearily, the way he often did whenever his younger son did something foolish. “While I must commend you for wanting to help, you did not have to interfere in a matter that did not concern you.” From his place at their father's right side, An-jeong shot his brother a sympathetic look.
“But it did concern me,” Yong-ha argued. The wine merchant's strained relationship with Iseul had nothing to do with the results of the election. “Master Ma was angry with me first. He should not have vented his frustrations on an innocent bystander.”
“Who is this girl?” asked Madam Hong, who was sitting at her husband's left. An-jeong's wife tried to give her a cup of tea, but she refused it with an agitated wave of her hand. “Did she make you say that the two of you were betrothed?”
“No, Omonim,” he replied. “Teacher Kim would never ask such a thing of me. Neither of us knew what I was going to say until, well, I said it.”
He spoke as reassuringly as he could, but it did little to calm either of his parents. Fortunately, An-jeong jumped in before the elders could say more. “Have you thought about how you're going to fix this?”
That brought Yong-ha up short. “Ah... not yet,” he admitted. Iseul had fled during the uproar, so he had not had the opportunity to even broach the subject with her; and during the trip home, he had been too busy trying to think of how he would explain things to his family.
His hyung frowned. “You'll have to think of something, Yong-ha, and soon. You've put both yourself and this Teacher Kim in a very delicate position.”
“And whatever happens, it will likely be more difficult for her,” said an unfamiliar voice. It took everyone a while to realize that it was Geun-hye who had spoken. An-jeong shot his wife an approving look.
Master Gu snorted impatiently. “You will think of a way to get himself out of this mess,” he ordered Yong-ha, and skewered him with a look. “And you will do it without destroying the girl's or, more importantly, this family's reputation.”
He swallowed, but nodded bravely. “Yes, Abeonim.”
With the matter settled for now, the family meeting soon adjourned. Yong-ha slunk out of the room, wondering just how he would be able to resolve the situation to his father's specifications. He also knew that he had to act soon; Iseul's future, as well as his own, hung in the balance.
An-jeong gave him a reassuring smile as they walked to their respective rooms. “I'm sure everything will be fine,” he said. “But you know I'll do my best to help you, if you need it.”
He managed to smile back. “Thanks, hyung.” Although he doubted whether his brother had any idea how to fix things, it was still nice to know that there was someone on his side.
“Oh, and I almost forgot—congratulations.”
“On my victory,” Yong-ha asked dryly, “or my betrothal?”
“I promise I'll introduce Iseul to you,” Yong-ha said to the women looking at him expectantly, “when the time is right.”
Ka-hai narrowed her eyes at him. “That wouldn't be after your baby is born, is it?”
He turned bright red and shook his head. “Absolutely not. We've never—we don't have that sort of relationship.” At least, he thought, that was the truth.
“I was just making sure.” Mercifully, she dropped that subject—only to return to another, more pressing matter. “Well, if there's nothing of that sort to hide, then why do you still need to wait before introducing her to us?”
“We should meet her right away so we know what she's like,” Yoon-hee added. “There's bound to be all kinds of gossip about why you're getting married. We'll have to know how to defend her.”
Yong-ha blinked, both surprised and touched by the idea. “You would do that?”
The ladies traded looks of disbelief that he would even ask such a thing. “Of course we would,” Ka-hai told him readily. “You're our friend, aren't you? And you must have good reasons for choosing this woman over all the others sighing and swooning at your feet.”
He had to laugh at that. “She wasn't one of those women,” he told her; one more thing that was true.
“And the great Yeo-rim noticed her anyway?” Yoon-hee giggled. “I'm impressed with the both of you. Now I really want to meet her.”
“Soon,” he promised.
Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, in Iseul's case—the women missed meeting each other that very day. Iseul turned up at the shop not long before closing time, dressed for battle in an utterly nondescript gray skirt and dark blue jeogori (at least, Yong-ha believed that she had purposely donned those things to annoy him), and with every line of her body fairly humming with tension.
Yong-ha pasted a smile on his face and sought to diffuse the situation with a joke. “Hello, darling. I was wondering when you would come by to see me.”
She blushed despite herself at the endearment, but held on to her anger by reminding herself that the pet name was a lie, just like the announcement at the Chamber of Commerce meeting. “Actually, I was wondering the same thing,” she replied as she closed the door behind her, shutting out the street outside. “Especially since it is you who should explain to me about that insanity you hatched last night.”
He frowned, much to her annoyance. “May I remind you that Ma Ki-hoon was saying terrible things about you, and I was able to make him shut up and look foolish at the same time?”
“He was doing a fine job looking foolish by himself, and he would have stopped on his own once he realized that.”
“What if he didn't?”
“Then I would have thrown something at him, or hit him, or something! And I don't care if it would have been unbecoming,” Iseul added when he shot her a disapproving look. “The point is that I could have handled the situation on my own, but then you had to step in and now look where we are. Do you have any idea how big a mess you've created?”
Iseul was feeling the beginnings of a headache when she arrived at her home that night. The Kims' nearest neighbors, Master Han the potter and Madam Lee the shoemaker, had hustled her out of the bookshop in the confusion following Yong-ha's announcement; and all throughout their walk home, they had spoken of nothing but her betrothal. She tried her best to find an opportunity to tell the truth in the course of the conversation, but their surprise at the unexpected news, and genuine happiness over her good fortune tumbled over each other like rocks in a landslide, trapping her in the lie.
To make things worse, they wasted no time in congratulating Madam Park when they stopped by to greet her, robbing Iseul of the chance to explain things properly to her grandmother.
Naturally, all of this was a surprise to the old woman as well. “Oh, how wonderful!” Madam Park exclaimed. The look of joy that crossed her lined face made Iseul's heart twist. “I had no idea you had fallen in love!”
“It's so romantic,” Madam Lee agreed, then caught herself and frowned. “Wait... do you mean he hasn't formally asked for Iseul's hand yet?”
Iseul turned pink under her neighbors' scrutiny. “We're not really engaged—“
“And yet he has already announced to all of Joseon that you are going to be married?” Master Han concluded with a disapproving frown.
The shoemaker shook her head, no longer as pleased as she was a moment ago. “This is not at all proper.”
“I must have a talk with that boy.”
“That won't be necessary,” Madam Park soothed. “I'm sure Yong-ha will come to see me in due time. And when he does,” she added firmly, “I will tell him that I fully support the marriage.”
“Still, now that the news is out, he had better do it soon,” Madam Lee said. “People might talk if it becomes known that the betrothal is not yet official.”
Master Han shot Iseul the sort of penetrating look that she had seen him use on his daughter Chae-mi. “You will tell me if he drags his feet on this,” he ordered, his tone of voice promising dire consequences for Yong-ha if the young man refused to take responsibility for her.
Iseul bowed her head, too exhausted from the events of the evening to try and argue further. “Yes, sir.”
“Isn't it nice to have good neighbors who look out for us, Iseul?” her grandmother asked cheerfully.
“I think I can imagine,” Yong-ha said with a weary sigh. “I told my family the whole story last night. They aren't too pleased with me at the moment.”
“At least that your family knows the truth,” Iseul told him pointedly. “Master Han told my grandmother before I could explain in private, and she is just thrilled that we are going to be married.”
He cringed. “I'm very sorry.” Knowing that his parents were disappointed in him was bad enough; he felt worse knowing that he was also deceiving Madam Park. The truth would hurt the old woman terribly—or perhaps even kill her (after which her granddaughter would probably kill him). “Believe me, I've wished ten thousand times today that I could fix everything.”
Fortunately, she seemed to accept his guilt as genuine and did not scold him further. “I suppose telling her the truth is something that can be done later,” she said grudgingly, “but what are we going to do about everyone else? Do we just wait and hope that it blows over? I doubt that people will simply forget... not when such announcements are usually followed by weddings.”
Yong-ha nodded in agreement. “But we also cannot just tell everyone the truth—we'll both lose face, and so will our families.”
“Then what do we do?”
He paused, choosing his words carefully. Last night, he had arrived at a solution that seemed feasible, but he still needed to present it as nicely as he could. “My proposal,” he began, “is that we pretend to be betrothed for a while.
“We won't have to do anything special,” he added quickly, before she could protest. “We'll just have to be seen in each other's company on occasion, in order to keep up appearances; but that should be easy enough to do, since you will be coming here from time to time for fittings and flirting lessons. Then, after a certain period, we can announce that we have decided not to marry after all!” he concluded brightly, hoping that it would capture her enthusiasm as well. “What do you think?”
His heart sank when she scowled. “You know, don't you, that breaking off a betrothal isn't as simple as you're making it sound? Doing that may solve the problem we have now, but then people will still talk—especially about whose fault it is.”
“We will have an amicable parting,” he promised. “What can anyone do if we discover later that we're just not compatible as husband and wife, and agree that we would be better off as friends? Everyone should accept that explanation and let us go on with our lives. What do you think?” he asked again, throwing in a charmingly expectant smile this time.
Iseul had to admit—very grudgingly—that it was good of Yong-ha to try and think of a way to actually address the situation. His suggestion, half-baked as it was, sounded reasonable enough, but she had spent the previous night thinking of ways to make him pay for getting her into this mess, and was not about to let him off so easily. “It could work....” she began, “but what's in it for me?”
He blinked. “What do you mean?”
“What's in it for me?” she repeated. “I suppose your idea will get people to leave us alone, at least for a while, but I never asked to be put in such a position in the first place. I think I'm entitled to something in return for that, don't you?”
His jaw dropped. “Are you trying to blackmail me?”
“Certainly not,” she replied with an affronted glare. “Blackmail would be you paying me to keep quiet, but you don't have to do that as it is also in my best interests to hide the truth. I am talking about compensation for the trouble that your actions have caused me. No matter how 'amicable' our parting will be, I am sure there will still be whispers that I am bad luck, too poor, or otherwise an unsuitable bride.
“Isn't there also a danger that people might say things like that about me, too?” he sputtered.
“Ah, but you see, Master Gu,” Iseul told him pointedly, “you are a man, and you have your wealthy family to back you when all of this is over. I seriously doubt that there will be anything said about you. I, on the other hand, am a working woman with no one in the world but a blind grandmother. Thanks to you, I can't—I was going to—“
She broke off abruptly, her heart sinking with the death of her prospects with Bang Jung-soo. In the mad scramble to keep her grandmother and their neighbors from getting too excited, she had forgotten all about him. The news would probably reach the young merchant by the time his sister's next painting lesson rolled around, which meant that he was now quite firmly out of Iseul's reach.
“You were going to what? You were going to marry someone else?” He frowned. “How did you manage to catch a man so soon?”
She ignored the tinge of disbelief in his voice. “This is going to make it very difficult for me to marry anyone for real in the future,” she told him, doggedly pursuing the matter at hand. “You've put me at tremendous risk, Gu Yong-ha, and you had better make it worth my while.”
Yong-ha sighed. As much as he wanted for them to strike a bargain and have done with it, he had to admit that she was right about being thrust into the more difficult position. His sister-in-law, of all people, had pointed out the same thing to him last night. “Well, then, what is it that you want?”
To his surprise, rather than simply naming an amount, she told him, “I want a job.”
“A paying one, of course,” Iseul said, as if that needed to be specified. “I can't sew or embroider as well as my grandparents did, but I can draw and paint for you.”
“I suppose we could start a new fashion for painted clothes instead of embroidered ones,” he acknowledged, stroking his chin thoughtfully. (While doing so, he discovered that, in his agitation, he had missed a spot shaving that morning; hopefully, no one had noticed.) “But I don't know how steady that kind of work would be.”
“I was thinking more of doing sketches of clothes, like the ones that I showed you before. If you told me what you wanted, I could do more. You can use them to show your clients what you have in mind instead of trying to describe them all the time.”
“That would be helpful,” Yong-ha admitted, beginning to warm to the idea. “You can do them in black and white, though I will probably require some colored sketches from time to time.” Although his clients were generally delightful, it had to be admitted that some ladies had no eye whatsoever and perpetually needed to be steered clear of sartorial disaster.
“And,” Iseul added, “you might want to mention my name from time to time when you show your clients my sketches. Someone might want a portrait painted.”
He had to laugh at that. “I'll do my best to work your name into the conversation without making things too awkward,” he promised.
“Fair enough.” She nodded briskly. “So, shall we say eight nyang for each pen and ink drawing?”
Yong-ha's face grew solemn at the mention of money. Everything had been settled but the price. Now, the real negotiations began, and it was no laughing matter. “I was thinking more of two nyang apiece,” he replied.
Iseul frowned. “A letter written in the marketplace costs that much,” she pointed out. “A proper drawing requires more skill than simply writing legibly, I would think. How about six nyang apiece?”
“Five,” she countered, and had the audacity to remind him, “This is my and my grandmother's future we are talking about, Gu Yong-ha.”
“Fine, five,” he grumbled, even though he had pegged the price at around that much. “Never let it be said that I would take food out of a helpless old woman's mouth.”
“And seven nyang apiece for each colored drawing.”
He shot her an incredulous look. “Ya, Kim Iseul...!” How could he ever thought this woman was as dull as dishwater? Beneath her horrible clothes beat a larcenous heart. He would admire her duplicity if he wasn't on the receiving end of things.
“A colored drawing will require more work,” she pointed out reasonably, “and paints, especially the best kind, do cost money.”
“Why don't I just give you a discount on the clothes that you've ordered from me?”
“I'd rather have the money, if it's all the same to you.”
Yong-ha sighed. He would, too, if he were in her position.
“Then...do we have a bargain?” Iseul ventured, fearing that she had annoyed him enough to completely break down their negotiations.
“Fine,” he said, much to her relief, and recited the terms of their agreement. “I agree to compensate you for any risks to your marital future by paying you to do artwork for me at five nyang for every pen and ink drawing, and seven nyang for every colored drawing.”
“And the cost of painting on clothes can be negotiated as the need arises,” she told him magnanimously.
He ignored that. “In return,” he continued, “you agree to go along with my plan to pretend that we are betrothed until the scandal dies down. In the meantime, we will think of an excuse that will allow us to part on good terms.”
She nodded. “I can't have my new employer losing face now, can I?”
“And,” he added, narrowing his eyes at her, “you will order more clothes from me so that you can stop wearing those abysmal rags in public.”
Iseul laughed, willing to let him add that provision and have the last word in the process. That was easy enough to do; she had been planning to place a new order anyway. “As my future husband commands,” she replied sweetly.
Chapter 10: Chapter Nine
Technical Notes: As described in this chapter, garakji is the term for a pair of special rings worn by married women to symbolize the harmony between husband and wife. A gift of garakji from a man to a single woman signifies his intent to marry her. (He could also give her binyeo, as Jae-shin did to Ka-hai in Taming the Crazy Horse.)
Author's Notes: Woohoo, no delays this month :D Thank you to Skylilies and Ara for the comments, and to everyone who left kudos or is simply following this story! I hope you all enjoy the new chapter!
Iseul—and the Bangs' maid who had accompanied her into the house—started at the anguished wail and rushed over to Jung-hwa, who sat slumped behind the low table upon which they conducted her lessons. “What is it, agasshi?!” Iseul asked urgently. “What's wrong?!”
“You're going to marry Master Gu Yong-ha!” the girl accused, the very picture of despair.
She sighed, partly from relief that Jung-hwa was unhurt and also from exasperation that they would now have to talk about that. “Ah... yes,” she replied, not knowing what else to say.
“Why didn't you tell me he was courting you?”
“It, ah, was a secret.” She busied herself with setting out her paints as an excuse to avoid her student's eyes. “We didn't know whether our families would approve.”
“So they've agreed to the match?” Jung-hwa asked, forgetting her distress and leaning forward eagerly. “And Master Gu asked you to marry him right away? How did he ask you? Was it so very, very romantic?”
“I suppose it was,” she said evasively, throwing in a small smile to try and make it convincing.
“So what did he do exactly?” pressed the Bangs' maid, who apparently hadn't left the room. Both teacher and student looked at her with some surprise, but the servant stayed put, waiting for an answer.
Iseul laughed self-consciously. “What did he do?” she repeated, stalling for time as she wracked her brain for a suitable story. “Well... I visited his shop at closing time one day, and he invited me to go for a stroll before going home. Then, while we were walking, he proposed.”
Jung-hwa wrinkled her nose. “That was it? You went for a walk and he asked you? He didn't even write you a poem, or sing you a song, or do anything like that?”
“No. I don't think he had even planned to ask at that particular moment.” She chuckled, pretending to be amused by the memory. “But I thought his proposal was perfect.”
“Was it a nice walk, at least?”
“I thought it was lovely.” Slowly, the scene took shape in her imagination. “Dusk had just fallen. We walked on a quiet street, so we were the only people there, and even though the weather has turned cold these days, I barely felt it.”
“Did he kiss you? Did he tell you that he loves you?”
Iseul blushed as the innocent questions sent off her little flight of fancy in a new, not-so-innocent direction. “I can't tell; that's too private.”
“He did!” the Bangs' maid declared. She and her mistress squealed with delight.
With an inward sigh, Iseul decided to leave them to their conclusions and tried to put an end to the discussion. “But he could have asked me at high noon in the middle of the busiest street in town and I still would have accepted,” she continued briskly. “When the right man asks you to marry him, the details don't really matter.” Ah, that was good, Kim Iseul, she congratulated herself when her audience sighed wistfully. You'll have to remember that one in case anyone else asks about the proposal.
“Master Gu is awfully handsome,” Jung-hwa admitted.
“And charming,” her servant chimed in dreamily.
This time, her young mistress sent her an impatient look. “Could you get our snacks, please, Dal-ja?”
Finally remembering her place, Dal-ja flushed and rose to her feet. “Yes, agasshi.”
Jung-hwa sidled closer to Iseul when the servant had quit the room. “But, seonsaengnim, I'm still really disappointed,” she confided. “I was hoping that you and my orabeoni would fall in love and get married. We could have been sisters.”
Iseul resisted the temptation to say that she, too, was disappointed, and for the very same reasons. The girl would have made a valuable ally in winning over Bang Jung-soo, but it was too late to continue pursuing him. Instead, she said with false brightness, “Well, even if we won't become sisters, we can still be friends, can't we?”
Not only did Iseul have to console Jung-hwa throughout their lesson, she also had to field Jung-soo's good-natured congratulations when the young man dropped by afterwards. (Mercifully, his sister did not say anything about pairing them together during the conversation.) Worst of all, she had to look appropriately thrilled when Dal-ja turned up to announce that Yong-ha had come to fetch her.
While Chin-hae, being a servant, always waited for her by the gate, Iseul's “betrothed” was ensconced in the Bangs' finest front room. “Surprise, darling!” he caroled, rising to his feet when she arrived with her student, her student's older brother, and their maid all in tow. His brilliant smile, along with his persimmon-colored overcoat, was a stark contrast to the somber décor that the Bang family favored.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted out stupidly.
“Why, I've come to take you home, of course! I've discussed it with your servant and we agree that I should take over this particular duty, at least as often as my schedule will allow.”
Fortunately, Jung-soo stepped in at this point, sparing her from having to think of a reply. “Hello, Master Gu,” he greeted the new arrival. “Welcome to our home.”
“Hello, Master Bang!” he replied cheerfully. “I didn't know you were taking painting lessons from my lovely fiancée.”
The other man chuckled. “Oh, I'm not, though I know that she is a most excellent teacher. My younger sister, Jung-hwa, is the one taking lessons.”
Seizing the opportunity to present herself, the girl bowed prettily. “Hello, Master Gu. I'm Bang Jung-hwa. It's a pleasure to meet you.”
Naturally, Yong-ha was prepared with a charming smile and a smooth reply. “I assure you, agasshi, the pleasure is all mine.”
“We've just heard that you and Teacher Kim are betrothed,” Jung-soo continued as his sister beamed at the acknowledgement. “Please accept our congratulations.”
“Thank you, Master Bang.” He sauntered over to Iseul's side and took her hand. “I hope you'll convey my apologies to all the young men of Joseon for snapping her up before anyone else had the chance to get a good look at her. I had to take my chance when I saw it; otherwise, I would have had to drive you all off with a stick.”
“I'm sure that wouldn't have been necessary,” his “betrothed” demurred.
Jung-soo seemed to think so, too, for he laughed uproariously at the request. Iseul wasn't sure whether or not to be insulted by that. “I'll be sure to do that,” he answered, but he was still chuckling as he spoke.
“And Master Gu,” Jung-hwa broke in, sounding far more earnest than her brother, “I hope you'll take care of seonsaengnim. She's very dear to me.”
“She's even more precious to me, agasshi,” Yong-ha told her gravely. “So, I assure you, I'll take very good care of her.
“Now, my dear,” he continued, addressing Iseul this time, “we should be on our way. I promised your grandmother that I would bring you home before dark. Any later than that, and I might just be tempted to carry you off.”
“Did you have to be so... excessive?”
“Excessive?” Yong-ha repeated, glancing over his shoulder at his “betrothed,” who was riding pillion behind him.
“Yes.” She frowned. “You know, calling me all those pet names, talking about driving people away with sticks and carrying me off. Things like that. It was so embarrassing.
“And this,” she continued, trying to edge as far away from him as she could without sliding off the horse's rump. “We're making a spectacle of ourselves.”
He rolled his eyes as he turned back to face the road. For an artist, Kim Iseul didn't seem to have a romantic bone in her body. “The point of all of this,” he told her, speaking in a low voice that only she could hear, “is to convince everyone that we are truly a couple. We agreed to that, remember?” He reached behind him to put her arms around his waist. “Now, come closer and hold on to me before you fall off.”
Iseul allowed him to pull her closer, but she held herself stiffly, hands locked together at a level with his chest. “Is this how you ride a horse with another person?” Yong-ha asked her, trying to push them down so that he could breathe.
She released him abruptly. “I was trying to remain respectful and not get too familiar.”
“I appreciate the thought, but around the waist is still proper and would be more comfortable for us both.” He arranged her arms around him to illustrate. “I'll let you go lower than that only when I'm sure that I can trust you with my virtue.”
She let out a little chuh of disbelief. “You're joking, right?”
“On the contrary, I am completely serious. This is your lesson for the day.”
“What? We're going to continue those flirting lessons?”
“Of course!” Yong-ha declared, sounding aghast that she would even think of asking such a thing. “I should do everything in my power to improve your future chances of getting married for real, shouldn't I?”
He grinned when Iseul grumbled something unintelligible. Needling her was hardly the best way to deal with this pretend betrothal, but he supposed that he might as well get as much fun as he could out of the situation.
Yong-ha was still amused the next day, during the Jalgeum Quartet's semi-regular gathering at the Sungkyunkwan University archery range. He had come no closer to actually firing off an arrow over the years, but continued to turn up in order to get out of the shop and spend time with his friends.
“What's so funny?” Jae-shin asked, glancing at his oldest friend as he lined up a shot. “And don't tell me that it's my outfit. That joke was old ten years ago.”
Sun-joon chuckled. “When a betrothed man is smiling secretively like that, he could only be thinking about his bride-to-be,” he concluded.
“I didn't smile like that when I was betrothed.”
“No, but you more than made up for it after you got married,” Yong-ha told Jae-shin just as he let fly.
The jibe disrupted the other man's shot, and the arrow hit the outermost ring of the target with a small thunk. He couldn't help but take a small step back when Jae-shin glared at the errant arrow, and then at him.
Yoon-hee intervened by steering the conversation back to slightly less dangerous waters. “Have you set a date for the wedding yet, sa-hyung?” she asked Yong-ha, her eyes bright with anticipation.
“No, not yet,” he replied evasively. “We haven't even visited each other's families yet. But we will soon,” he added, to keep his friend from worrying and asking more questions.
As he spoke, he thought about the things that he and Iseul needed to do before paying the required visits. Although her first order from Yong-ha's shop had long been completed, he intended to put his seamstresses to work preparing a hanbok that she could wear to meet his family. (Naturally, the rush order would include appropriate cold-weather clothing; the coat she had worn yesterday was a disgrace.) They also needed to purchase garakji—rings to symbolize the harmony between husband and wife, and one of the gifts that a man could give the woman he wished to marry—and schedule a sketching session for Yong-ha's upcoming appointment with an important client.
Why do I get the feeling, he thought, that she would be most excited about that last one?
Suddenly, Jae-shin prodded his shoulder. “Ouch!” Yong-ha exclaimed, rubbing the injured body part. “What was that for?”
“You were smiling like a betrothed man again,” the other man pointed out. “Also, Yoon-hee just invited us all to dinner.”
Yoon-hee nodded. “I just remembered that we haven't properly celebrated your election as head of the Chamber of Commerce, sa-hyung,” she told him with a suspicious flutter of her eyelashes.
“And since you and our Horangi will be present, I might as well bring my fiancée to meet you all, is that it?” Yong-ha concluded, arching an eyebrow.
She grinned, unrepentant at being caught. “Exactly.”
“You know the ladies won't leave you alone until they meet her, sa-hyung,” Sun-joon pointed out sensibly. “So why not just get it over with?”
Faced with such logic, Yong-ha had no choice but to admit defeat. “Fine,” he sighed. “I'll ask her if she's free and let you know, all right?”
“I don't know if introducing me to your friends is a good idea,” Iseul demurred, speaking in a voice so low that Yong-ha had to lean in close to hear.
“It makes me nervous, too,” he murmured back, “but they might think something's wrong if I keep them from meeting you. Perhaps they'll be satisfied if you show up just this once.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “And if they ask to meet me again, I can always tell them that I'm too busy working.”
“They won't be able to argue with that.”
He smiled at her then and her heart gave a funny little skip, but Chae-mi's arrival gave her little time to dwell on that. “What are you two whispering about?” her friend wanted to know as she approached from the other side of the shop.
Iseul and Yong-ha sprang apart at the question. “Nothing,” they chorused.
“Yes, it sure looked like nothing,” Chae-mi said with a sly look.
“Leave them be, Han Chae-mi.” Master Geum, the jeweler, emerged from the back of his shop with a stack of notebooks. “Both Master Gu and Teacher Kim are very busy people, so we should allow them their little private moments.
“Now,” he continued, addressing the “couple” this time, “since you don't yet have a design in mind, I brought out sketches of the garakji that I've done.”
“Wonderful,” Yong-ha said. “Thank you, Master Geum. They should help inspire us. Shall we look at them, darling?”
Iseul let out a tiny squeak when he began to steer her towards the counter where the notebooks lay. She shot him a repressive look, warning him not to get too familiar, but he promptly countered with one of his own, a silent reminder that they needed to convince everyone that they were truly in love.
“Have a care, if you please,” the jeweler chuckled. “Any more smoldering looks between the two of you and my shop might just go up in flames.”
“Forgive me, sir,” Yong-ha said as a shocked giggle burst out of Chae-mi. “I forget myself sometimes.”
“You forget yourself a little more often than that,” Iseul reminded him.
“Can you blame me, my love?” he replied with a grin.
She narrowed her eyes at him, and then turned away and back to Master Geum. “Shall we begin?”
“Certainly, Teacher Kim.” He gave her a diffident look and opened the first notebook. “I hope you'll excuse my poor drawing technique.”
She laughed politely. “Oh, I'm sure your drawing is much better than you are making it sound, sir.”
The drawings did turn out to be well-rendered, and everyone was full of genuine praise for them. “This one is gorgeous!” Chae-mi exclaimed, pointing to a pomegranate design. “You should get this for your rings. The pomegranates have lots of seeds, so you'll have many sons!”
Iseul blushed at the implication, but tried to keep the discussion light. “You sound like you're choosing the design for your rings,” she teased.
“Pooh! I know they're not, but I knew from the very start that you and Master Gu had fallen in love, so I have a vested interest in making sure every detail of this betrothal is perfect.” Chae-mi grabbed her arm and gave it a little shake of excitement. “I can't believe I'm helping you choose your garakji! This makes your betrothal feel so real!
“And you're going to pay your visits soon!” she rambled on. “But should you really visit Master Gu's family first? Maybe you should visit Halmeonim first. After all, she is older, and I think it would be much easier since she already knows Master Gu. Are you nervous?”
“There's no need for my fiancée to be nervous,” Iseul's “betrothed” broke in before she could reply. “I am sure that my family will love her just as much as I do.”
“In that case, they'll adore me,” she managed to banter back.
“You'll have them worshipping at your feet,” Yong-ha agreed with an approving smile that had her feeling flustered all over again.
Fortunately, she could always pretend to be more interested in Master Geum's designs. “This one's quite nice,” Iseul said, pointing at one.
“I suppose, but....” Chae-mi looked dubiously at the sketch of a plain band etched with a pair of fish. “Isn't it a bit too simple?”
“It would probably cost less.”
“That's true,” Yong-ha told her, “but may I remind you, my thrifty beloved, that you're not betrothed to just anybody? Gu Yong-ha can certainly afford something better.”
“You might even say that Master Gu is obliged to buy only the best for his wife,” Master Geum chimed in. “Anything less would be an insult to his family.”
“And an insult to Master Geum's skills,” the younger man added. The jeweler was clearly steering them towards choosing a more elaborate and perhaps more profitable design, but Yong-ha also believed that Iseul did not need to be so frugal. “Come now, darling, what is the point of ordering our garakji from the best jeweler in Joseon if they don't look special?”
Even Chae-mi entered the fray. “Besides, Iseul-ah, you're an artist and Master Gu is well-known for his excellent taste,” she pointed out. “Shouldn't your garakji be beautiful?”
Yong-ha could tell that his “betrothed' was itching to protest some more, but she couldn't very well announce exactly why they didn't need to buy fancy rings. “I knew you would see reason!” he said triumphantly when Iseul was forced to admit defeat. “Now, what do you think of this one? Our rings should definitely have a fertility symbol or two, don't you agree?”
In the end, they did not choose any of Master Geum's designs, but devised one of their own that featured a stylized grapevine, for a long and fruitful marriage. The design would be worked on two bands of amber, a material that the affianced couple agreed would be beautiful and unique. Garakji were made for a wife to wear, one on each hand, but Yong-ha declared that prior to the wedding, he would wear one ring while Iseul wore the other. She would wear them both after they were married.
The idea sent Chae-mi into raptures. “You might have just started a new fashion,” Iseul murmured to him as she raved about the beauty of the gesture to the jeweler, who was only half-listening as he wrote down the details of their order.
“It's what I do, darling,” he told her with a superior air.
“I'm still worried about the cost, though,” she said, frowning. “What will we do with them after... you know?”
He sighed. The garakji were not going to be cheap, but he also did not see the need to lose sleep over them. “We'll worry about that when the time comes, all right?”
Just then, Yong-ha spotted Iseul's friend silently poring over the notebooks, an odd look on her face. “Is anything wrong, Miss Han?” he asked her.
Chae-mi looked up, her cheeks turning pink. “No, nothing's wrong,” she answered with a wistful smile. “I was just daydreaming about my turn to buy garakji, that's all.”
Chapter 11: Chapter Ten
Disclaimer: Besides the general disclaimer about who owns SKKS, I give credit (and much gratitude) to Skylilies for Master Gu's big idea. Thank you very much!
Author's Notes: At long last, here's the latest chapter! It was a busy and tough couple of months, what with a lot of work IRL and a bout with writer's block, among other things. I'm not sure if it will get any easier now with the way the story is going, but I hope you'll hang in there with me. Thanks (also) to Miri, Hequet, Ara, Rahel, Cass, CJ, Cassie, winegums, and Anonymous for the comments, and to everyone who left kudos and continues to follow this story. Hope you're all having a happy weekend!
Despite Chae-mi's misgivings, visiting Yong-ha's family first made perfect sense since they were the only ones, apart from the betrothed “couple,” who were privy to the truth. The customary formal introduction gave the conspirators the perfect pretense to gather and assess the situation in greater detail.
Nevertheless, Iseul couldn't help but feel nervous as she and Chin-hae arrived at the Gu family estate. Her stomach roiled unpleasantly, and all of her grandmother's well-meaning instructions for making a proper first impression tangled together like a mess of noodles in her head.
“Are you sure you will be all right here, agasshi?” the Kims' manservant asked her. He needed to run some household errands in the marketplace, but had offered to stay and offer moral support if needed.
“I'll be fine,” she assured him with a confidence that she didn't really feel. “Please don't worry about me.”
He nodded. “Well, then, I hope your visit goes well. And remember, agasshi,” he added as he handed over the bundles he had carried for her, “that even though our family might not be as wealthy as Master Gu's, your grandparents raised you to be a lady.”
Iseul smiled despite herself. “Yes, they did. Thank you, ajusshi.”
“I'll come back for you in two hours.”
He's right, of course, she told herself as Chin-hae took his leave of her and she removed her shoes by the front step. Just mind your manners, and everything will be fine. Besides, you're notreally visiting your in-laws.
A maid escorted her to a front room, where Yong-ha was waiting. He looked Iseul over appraisingly as she entered, but instead of bestowing a florid compliment (or insult) as she thought he would, all he did was nod and say, “The rush job turned out quite well.”
“I think it turned out beautifully,” she agreed. “Please thank your seamstresses for me.”
“I will. They'll be happy to know that you like their work. Now, let's take a closer look at you.” He stepped closer and, ignoring the maid's scandalized giggle, tipped up Iseul's chin towards the light. “Are you wearing powder?”
“Just a little,” she replied, glancing away as he tilted her face this way and that. “And some rouge. Does it look natural? I tried not to put on too much.”
“It looks fine.” Yong-ha released her and shook out a tiny wrinkle in her skirt.
As he did so, Iseul couldn't help but notice that the bright mulberry shade of the garment was an exact match for the embroidered vest that covered his shoulders—shoulders that were, at present, visibly stiff with tension. “Are you all right?”
“I'm fine.” He took a deep breath. “Just a little nervous, that's all.”
“Why would you be nervous? Your parents know... about us, don't they?” she asked, remembering at the very last minute that they weren't alone.
“Yes, but they're still my parents.”
Iseul offered him a sympathetic smile. “Well, you're not the only one who's nervous,” she confided. “I feel as though I'm about to ride into battle.”
She was glad when he laughed. “It does feel somewhat like that, doesn't it?” he agreed.
“When you think about it, there are quite a few similarities. For instance, I have the armor.” She indicated her fine new hanbok, which had been delivered from his shop just the other day. “I have the weapons,” she added, holding up her bundles, which contained gifts for her “in-laws.” “I even have a battle plan of sorts, if I can just manage to make sense of everything my grandmother said about what to do at meetings like this.”
He grinned. “I might prefer to actually ride into battle than take you to meet my parents.”
“Unfortunately for us, they won't be pleased to find out that we've suddenly run away to join the army.”
“Even now, they're probably already wondering what's happened to us,” he agreed with a sigh. “Come, let's get this over with.”
They had barely started towards the door when Yong-ha suddenly stopped short. “I almost forgot,” he said, turning back to her and removing a ring from one hand. “Your ring. Master Geum brought them yesterday evening, but there wasn't time to send yours over.”
“Oh. Of course.” Iseul allowed her “betrothed” to slide the ring onto the second finger of her left hand. The thick amber band, its grapevine design accented by chips of colored jade, felt heavy and unfamiliar.
He held her hand for a moment, contemplating the ring, before releasing it and nodding towards the door. “I suppose we're as ready as we'll ever be. Let's go.”
Yong-ha's family received his “betrothed” in the grandest room in the house. His parents, brother, and sister-in-law were ranged against one wall like richly dressed dolls on display. Off to one side, low tables holding snacks and tea makings stood by a brazier for heating water.
Yong-ha could feel their eyes, his mother's especially, boring into the woman whom he led before them. “Abeonim... Omonim... Hyungnim... Hyungsoonim,” he said, addressing each one in turn, “this is Teacher Kim Iseul.”
Setting her bundles aside, Iseul sank to the floor in a graceful bow. “It's a pleasure to meet you.”
Master Gu acknowledged the greeting with a gruff nod. “Both of you may sit. And you may go,” he added to the maid who had followed them there. “We will serve ourselves.”
Instinctively, Yong-ha moved to sit with his family, but a warning look from his hyung sent him back to Iseul's side. Fortunately, her attention was still fully on his father and she didn't notice the almost-desertion. “I brought you some presents,” she was saying as she laid a box and a scroll before Yong-ha's parents. “They aren't much, but the dried plums are from our tree at home, and I painted the minhwa with sincerest good wishes.”
“You did not need to bring anything,” Madam Hong demurred.
“Oh, but....” Iseul glanced around cautiously to make sure that the maid was truly gone. “People would have noticed if I had come here empty-handed,” she continued, “and I wanted to thank you for your support in the midst of all this, ah, difficulty.”
The older woman's expression clouded at the reference to the Chamber of Commerce incident, causing Yong-ha to scramble for a diversion. “Abeonim, Omonim, remember how I told you that Teacher Kim gives painting lessons? Why don't we look at the minhwa she painted? I'm certain that it's very good.”
“Yes, let's see it,” his brother urged over Iseul's self-conscious murmurings that she did her best but the artwork might not be to their taste. “I'm quite curious myself.”
Fortunately, the painting proved to be a good distraction; Master Gu seemed pleased enough to pass it around. “Lovely,” his wife said, sounding truly impressed as she took a look. “The colors are wonderful.”
“They are, aren't they?” Yong-ha agreed proudly. “Teacher Kim's colors seem to leap right off the page.”
Iseul managed a shy smile at the praise. For a moment, he feared that she would blurt out some horribly gauche reply, but to his relief, she simply said, “Thank you. I'm very glad you like it.”
As his family continued to admire the minhwa, Yong-ha found himself thinking that there was something familiar about it, but he couldn't quite pinpoint what it was. It was not the fact that the minhwa featured a tiger, magpie, and pine tree, which were all very popular symbols of good fortune. It was also not because the painting was like anything he had seen before, for Iseul's interpretation was fresh and vibrant.
He would have to reflect on it later, he thought as his father broached the topic that had brought them all together that day. “How goes this pretend betrothal of yours?” Master Gu asked bluntly.
“Quite well, I think,” Yong-ha replied, glancing at his “betrothed.” “We seem to have managed to convince everyone that we truly are going to be wed.”
“I would say so,” his mother sniffed. “Stories about the two of you have spread all over town.”
He could feel her eyes on the garakji and casually covered his ring with his unadorned hand. “We had to lay some groundwork, Omonim. People might not have believed us if we simply insisted that we were really going to be married. They expect some outward signs when it comes to these things.”
“But we've been careful to say that the wedding won't be anytime soon,” Iseul added quickly. “So that they won't expect too much.”
That earned them a curt nod of approval from Master Gu. “And to give you more time to think of a way to get out of this, hmm?”
“Well, I might have an idea in that regard.”
“You do?” she asked (a little too eagerly, in Yong-ha's opinion). “What is it?”
“My son says you're planning to end this 'betrothal' by mutual agreement,” the older man began. “People may find that hard to swallow after your, er, public displays of affection.”
She nodded, hanging onto every word, while Yong-ha pretended not to notice the pointed looks that his parents shot his way.
“Perhaps it would be more convincing if we told people that your proposed marriage was found to be inauspicious,” Master Gu continued. “Instead of simply announcing that the wedding is off and not giving any real reason.”
Yong-ha frowned. “Won't we need to bribe a fortune teller for that, Abeonim?”
“I think we can get away with saying that we had consulted someone,” his father replied, “but if it is truly necessary, then I am sure we can find one who can say what needs to be said—with the proper incentives. What do you think, Teacher Kim?”
Iseul pondered the suggestion for a few moments. “I could agree to that....” she began slowly. “But if I may be so bold, sir, I hope that we can tell people that we are calling things off because our birth signs were found to be incompatible, and not because one of us is unlucky.” She paused, as though searching for the words with which to voice her thoughts. “I, ah, believe it is important to do as little damage as possible to our families' reputations.”
“Because you will have a difficult enough time marrying for real after this, I suppose,” Master Gu concluded. Without waiting for a response, he grunted and said, “Fair enough. We shall make sure to point that out.”
She relaxed visibly and smiled despite the self-conscious blush that still colored her cheeks. “Thank you.”
“Then that's settled,” Madam Hong said with a satisfied nod. “When will you make the announcement?”
“We can't decide on that right now, Omonim,” Yong-ha pointed out. “We've only just heard Abeonim's suggestion, after all. It will probably take some time to find a fortune teller like the one Abeonim described.” He looked to his brother for support, but An-jeong only smiled, clearly enjoying the proceedings.
Their mother shrugged. “Well, now you've heard what your father has to say, and Teacher Kim has agreed to it. You should be able to start planning.”
“I wouldn't wait too long, if I were you,” her husband added ominously. “The longer you wait, the harder it will be to wriggle out of this situation.”
“I think that went rather well,” Iseul said cheerfully after the meeting was over and it was time for her to go home. “Don't you?”
She spoke quietly despite the fact that they were walking through a lesser-used part of the house and there was no one else around; a maid was supposed to accompany the “couple” to the Gus' front gate, but Yong-ha had dismissed her, saying that they wished to be alone. It was the truth, but probably not for the reasons that the giggling maid imagined.
Yong-ha made a small noise of assent as they walked down a quiet corridor. The meeting with his parents had not been as terrible as he had feared. Although they were still displeased with the situation he had created, they knew well enough to be civil to his “betrothed.” They had even been pleasant to her at times. However, he had come away from the meeting feeling oddly deflated, as though he had lost control of things at some point during the discussion.
“Wasn't it nice of your father to help us?” she chattered on. “I don't think we could have come up with that idea about the fortune teller on our own.” They reached the post where she had left her shoes, and she paused to breath deeply of the cold autumn air. “I am so relieved that we know what to do next.”
“I suppose so.”
There must have been something off in his tone of voice, because Iseul peered at him closely and asked, “Is there anything wrong, Yong-ha?”
“No,” he assured her. “Not really. I'm just....” He knew that he couldn't possibly complain about how everyone, including her, seemed to be in a rush to end their “engagement.” His father had a point about letting things go on for too long. “I'm just thinking about all that I need to do for the Chamber of Commerce. With everything that we've had to do for... you know... I've fallen a bit behind on my plans for the organization.”
“I can help you,” she offered, then stopped short. “I mean,” she amended, busying herself with putting on her shoes, “if you want. I can... I don't know... deliver messages or help you with your meetings, things like that.”
“I would like that very much.” Yong-ha smiled as they started across the yard. “Thank you.”
Iseul smiled back, but there was more than a hint of mischief in her expression. “I must tell you that getting involved is to my benefit as much as it is to yours,” she pointed out honestly.
“Well, I trust you not to abuse your privileges,” he bantered back, “and I really do appreciate your offer to help.” They reached the Gus' front gate, where Chin-hae greeted them with a polite bow. “I still need to list down everything that needs to be done,” Yong-ha told Iseul as he delivered her into the manservant's keeping, “but once I do, I will let you know.”
With the business at the Gus' concluded, Iseul turned her attentions to preparing for Yong-ha's visit to her home. She knew that she could not afford to set a lavish spread for her “betrothed,” especially not with the winter-slim pickings at the market (and the exorbitant prices that accompanied them), but she and Eui-jung, Chin-hae's wife and the Kims' cook-housekeeper, were determined not to put the family to shame.
“Since we will make all the snacks ourselves,” Eui-jung said as she and her young mistress browsed the marketplace one afternoon, “we can be sure that they will be good and wholesome.
“It will be a good test of your young man's character, too, agasshi,” she added. “If he's going to turn up his nose at our food, just because it's not as fancy as he's used to, then you had better get rid of him fast!”
“He would never do that,” Iseul replied, inspecting a pile of dried persimmons for sale. “Gu Yong-ha may come from a wealthy family, but he's not a snob.”
“If you say so.”
The older woman still sounded skeptical, but Iseul knew that she was only being protective and thus did not push the issue. Chin-hae and Eui-jung were childless and, alongside her grandparents, cared for her as if she were their own. Naturally, they would be very concerned about the kind of man she was marrying.
If they only knew that they had absolutely nothing to worry about....
Suddenly, Iseul became aware that she was being watched. A pair of young ladies over at the very next stall were stealing glances at her and whispering. At first, she thought that they were talking about her clothes, but then she heard one of them mention Yong-ha's name and realized that they were more likely discussing her betrothal. Judging from the look on the taller girl's face, they apparently could not believe that one of Joseon's most eligible bachelors had fallen for a woman like her; and judging from the mean way that they laughed, they seemed to think that she had somehow trapped him into it.
The gossips wisely subsided when they noticed her looking back at them, but Iseul could not resist pinning them with one last scornful glare—while meaningfully twisting the single garakji she wore, for good measure—before turning her attention back to the things that she and Eui-jung needed to buy. It wasn't the most dignified response, and probably not appropriate for someone who was supposed to be marrying into the Gu family, but she had to put them in their place somehow.
“Please pick only the best ones, Master Nam!” Eui-jung cajoled the vendor, who was measuring out some walnuts for her. “Our agasshi's future depends on it. If they're not good, Master Gu might call off the wedding!”
“You know I only sell the best,” the elderly man bantered back with a good-natured laugh. “Besides, I doubt if there's any chance of that happening—it's plain to see that Master Gu is head over heels in love with Teacher Kim.”
Iseul smiled self-consciously even as she hoped the girls at the next stall had heard.
“Maybe you will decide that you don't want to marry him after all, eh?” he joked as he wrapped up the walnuts.
“O-of course not!” she managed to reply, realizing that she was now firmly on the spot. “There's no chance of that happening, either, Master Nam.” She racked her brain for something more to say. Yong-ha made this play-acting look so easy! “I-I love him, too! I mean,” she added in a voice subdued by mortification, “I wouldn't have accepted his proposal if I-I didn't return his affections.”
He nodded approvingly. “I'm very glad to hear that. It's a sad reality that love and marriage do not always come together, so you are very lucky to be entering marriage with a man who loves you as much as you love him.” He gathered up their purchases and presented them to her with a smile. “Here you are—with my wishes that you and Master Gu will enjoy a long and sweet life together.”
Blushing to the roots of her hair, Iseul stammered her thanks and quickly finished their transaction. It was very hard to pretend to be in love all by herself, she reflected as she and Eui-jung left the shop. She hoped that Yong-ha's father would find a suitable fortune teller soon (or decide that they didn't need one), and she wouldn't have to keep up the charade for much longer.
They had just started for home when a familiar figure approached. “Ah, agasshi, I'm so glad I found you.”
Iseul stopped short at the sight of him. “Master Jo!”
Her grandfather's servant bowed politely to her and to Eui-jung. “I went to your house, but Master Kim told me that you were here. Might I have a word?”
As Iseul had done, Yong-ha presented himself to his “betrothed”'s family in the best room at the Kims' house. However, Iseul was very much aware that the Kim's best chamber was far less grand than the one at the Gus'. Further, while the Gu family had turned out in full and intimidating force, only her grandmother and Kyo-eul, the Kims' dog who was Madam Park's constant companion, were there to receive him, and both did so with unbridled enthusiasm.
“Oh, there's no need to be so formal!” Madam Park exclaimed as Yong-ha laid her hand on his head and bowed deeply before her. “I've known you since you were a child, and soon we will be family! Please sit comfortably and let us have a nice chat.”
“Thank you, Halmeonim.” He sat back on his heels as he was bidden, only to have Kyo-eul trot right over. The dog sniffed Yong-ha and, finding him acceptable, tried to lick his face.
“Kyo-eul! Down!” Iseul admonished. Although the sight was highly amusing and she knew that Kyo-eul was an indoor pet and thus relatively clean, she was also sure that Yong-ha would prefer not to decorate his rich blue overcoat with stray animal hairs.
To his credit, her “betrothed” waved off her attempts to remove the dog even as he continued to resist Kyo-eul's advances. “It's all right,” Yong-ha assured her, managing a smile. “I know he's just being friendly.”
“It sounds as though Kyo-eul likes you, Yong-ha,” Madam Park observed. “That's good. Kyo-eul is an excellent judge of character.”
Eventually, the dog recovered from his excitement over having a new friend, and was convinced to lie on the floor beside Yong-ha (instead of on his lap) while the humans had their “nice chat.”
“How was the visit with your family?” Iseul's grandmother asked. “Iseul says it went well, but won't give me any details.”
“That's because I could hardly remember anything, Halmeonim,” she said with a small laugh that she hoped did not sound forced. “I was too busy trying to make a good impression.”
“Our Iseul made an excellent impression, Halmeonim,” Yong-ha told the old woman. “My family loved her.”
“Really?” Madam Park asked, sounding delighted.
“Oh, yes! She got along famously with my brother and sister-in-law, and my mother still goes on about how pretty her manners were.” He wisely tempered his story after a warning look from Iseul. “And they loved the minhwa she brought. My father put it in his study for good luck.”
“That's wonderful! I am so glad. I have to admit I was worried about whether your family would accept Iseul.”
“They were very nice to me, Halmeonim,” Iseul said. “I also thought they might not be, especially since this betrothal must have come as a surprise to them, but it wasn't like that at all.”
Yong-ha gave her a small smile, acknowledging her gesture of support, but as her luck would have it, he had to go one step further. “Of course they would love you, my darling! All they needed to know was that I couldn't live without you.”
Fortunately, she was reasonably prepared for that eventuality. “They also made me promise to take care of you,” she replied sweetly. She wished she had a pet name for him, too; something embarrassing would be ideal. What sort of names did her married friends call their husbands?
Madam Park beamed at the exchange. “It sounds as though we should get you two married right away,” she teased. “Now that you have discussed it properly with your families, we can start preparing for the wedding!”
Iseul had expected her grandmother to push for the wedding to take place at once, and was prepared for that, too. “Actually, Halmeonim, we're not quite done yet,” she began.
“What are you talking about? Yong-ha's parents have agreed to the match, and so have I. What else is there to do?”
“Well, there are lots of other things we have to do before we can go ahead. For one thing, my grandfather Ma wants a visit, too,” she went on before her grandmother could ask what those things were. “I met Master Jo in the marketplace and he told me. Do you think we should go and see him?”
The old woman frowned as she pondered the matter. “I suppose you should,” she concluded. “He is still the head of your father's family, after all; and you owe them that much for reinstating your inheritance.”
“All right.” Her grandmother did not look too pleased at the prospect, so she didn't bother trying to feign enthusiasm, either. Kyo-eul whined sympathetically, but cheered up right away when Yong-ha patted him on the head.
Just then, Madam Park remembered the young man's presence and stiffened. “Wait, does Yong-ha know...?” she began, gesturing in his general direction.
“Yes, Halmeonim,” Iseul's “betrothed” confirmed. “Iseul has told me all about her relationship with the Mas, and I promise you that my family and I will make sure that they treat her properly from now on.”
There was a quiet conviction in his voice, which one would never have expected from the flirtatious swain of a few moments ago. Iseul was strongly tempted to believe him.
Her grandmother certainly did. Relaxing visibly, the old woman reached out a hand towards him and Yong-ha took it in both of his. “Do you know, dear boy, that I have always prayed for my Iseul to marry a good man with a family that would treat her well? Who knew that all we had to do for my prayers to be answered was to have some clothes made?”
“At least that's over with,” Yong-ha remarked as Iseul escorted him from the house after the visit. They were alone, save for Kyo-eul trotting at their heels. The dog had not left him alone from the moment he arrived. “It went well, don't you think?”
“Yes, it went quite well,” she agreed happily.
“You did a good job pretending that we're... you know... in front of your grandmother.” He bent down to scratch the dog behind his ears. “Even though Kyo-eul could teach you a thing or two about giving me adoring looks.”
He expected his “betrothed” to take exception to that, but instead she laughed. “I doubt if Halmeonim would have noticed. Anyway, I did my best and, even though my performance was lacking in some respects, she seemed to believe us.”
The thought of Madam Park put a damper on Iseul's contented mood. Even though she was truly pleased with herself for managing to put on a convincing show, she was also worried about how the old woman would react when the betrothal was called off.
However, before she could raise the matter, they arrived at the small shed where Chin-hae was waiting with Yong-ha's horse. She would have to mention it to Yong-ha sometime in the future, she decided. Hopefully, between the two of them, they could think of a way to lessen the blow.
The Kim manservant looked up from cinching one last strap on the saddle. “Your horse is ready, Master Gu,” he said, bowing as they approached.
“Thank you, ajusshi,” the younger man replied, holding out a coin. “I see you took very good care of him.”
The manservant accepted the gratuity with a nod of thanks. “Did you have a nice visit?”
“It was a very nice visit. Please thank your wife again for the delicious food. I ate so much that I'm afraid my horse won't be able to carry me!”
Yong-ha was only joking, of course, and mounted up without incident. “Can you come to the shop next week?” he asked Iseul as he leaned down to give Kyo-eul a farewell pat. “I'd like you to draw something for me.”
She nodded readily. “Let me know when I should come, so I can make sure I don't set a lesson at the same time.
“We'll also need to discuss when we will visit my grandfather,” she added. “Master Jo couldn't say for certain, but there is a chance that the rest of my Ma relatives might be present.”
“All right, we'll discuss that, too.”
Like the Kim ladies, Yong-ha was not looking forward to the obligation, but understood that it needed to be fulfilled. Besides, something good might come of it: perhaps if they convinced her grandfather Ma that they were truly in love, then Ma Ki-hoon would have no choice but to shut up, once and for all.
“Did you mean it?” Iseul asked suddenly, just as he was about to urge his horse forward. “What you promised Halmeonim earlier, about making sure that the Mas would treat me properly from now on?”
“Of course I did. At least, I'll certainly try,” he amended, realizing that his promise might have been a bit too rash. Trying was more realistic and, if he was lucky, just might work. “It's the least I could do for you.”
“Thank you, Yong-ha.” She smiled. Yong-ha thought that it did more to brighten her face more than the late-autumn moonlight.
It took a bark from Kyo-eul for him to realize that he had been staring, and that he and Iseul were not alone. “I should go,” he said, nudging his horse to start walking, “and you should go back inside. It's very cold.”
Chapter 12: Chapter Eleven
Technical Notes: A man addresses his wife's brother/s and sister/s as cheonam and cheoje, respectively.
Author's Notes: At long, long, long last, here's the latest chapter! Many apologies for the delay, but I had a lot going on IRL over the past few months that affected not only my writing time, but Internet access as well! (Our home Internet actually returned just today!) Many thanks to Skylilies, Hequet, Miri, and Dana for the comments, and to all who left kudos for the previous chapter. I hope this chapter makes up for the long wait!
“Hello, Teacher Kim! How are you today?”
“Hello, Madam Sung,” Iseul said, smiling politely at the ajumma with whom she had, until that very moment, only the merest nodding acquaintance. “I'm well, thank you.”
“I hear you and Master Gu have formally introduced each other to your families.” Madam Sung's gaze flickered over Iseul's belly. “Then it shouldn't be long before you set a wedding date, eh?”
“Oh, we're not in a hurry,” Iseul told her. If rumors spread that she was pregnant, Yong-ha's mother would kill her. “There's absolutely no reason to rush.”
The older woman looked somewhat disappointed at that, but recovered quickly. “Of course there is! It's well past time you got married, and if you dilly-dally any longer, another girl might come and steal away your intended! Gu Yong-ha is quite a catch, you know.”
“Yes, Madam Sung, I know.” How could she not, when every other person she came across these days could talk about nothing other than how lucky she was to land such a rich, handsome husband-to-be? “But we're both very busy. Speaking of which, if you'll excuse me, I need to go. I'm meeting Master Gu this afternoon.”
“That's right, you should try to keep him interested.” Madam Sung nodded, approving for once, then fixed her with a penetrating look. “But you shouldn't try too hard, if you know what I mean.”
“We're just meeting for tea at his shop,” Iseul explained hastily, her cheeks turning pink. “There will be many people around, and our family servant will come to fetch me home.”
“Good. Just because you're betrothed doesn't mean that you can do everything that married people do!”
“You're absolutely right, Madam Sung,” Iseul agreed emphatically, hoping that would be enough to prevent any fresh gossip from starting. “Now, if you don't mind...?”
It took some effort, but she did a fair job of keeping her expression pleasant on the rest of the way to Yong-ha's shop—pleasant enough, at least, for a few more people to greet her in passing without giving her strange looks. However, her “betrothed” saw through her right away.
“Darling! You're here!” Yong-ha greeted her when she turned up at his door. “Come in, come in! I thought you would never arrive!”
He spoke effusively for the benefit of any passersby who might be watching, but changed his tone the moment they were inside and in private. “All right, what's the matter?”
“Nothing,” she replied, making straight for what was now her customary corner. A low table had been set aside for her use, and tea and snacks awaited nearby. “Why would you think something was wrong?”
“Because I can see that little wrinkle between your eyebrows again.” He peered at her as he sat near her worktable—yes, there it was. “What do I keep telling you? That's—“
“—going to become permanent if I don't learn to control that habit,” Iseul finished for him. She sighed heavily and rubbed at the offending spot. “I'm sorry. This has just been a difficult day. Everyone I've come across today wants to know when we're holding the wedding.”
“Ah, yes.” He nodded sympathetically. “I've been hearing that sort of thing quite often myself.” (The questions almost always came with a ribald joke about the perils of waiting too long, but she probably didn't need to hear about that.)
“Then there's that visit with my father's family,” she added as she measured tea leaves into the pot. “And dinner with your friends.”
“You know we had no choice but to finally accept that invitation. If we made any more excuses, they could have become suspicious.” Chances were that Yoon-hee and Ka-hai already suspected that something strange was going on; fortunately, their husbands had taken it upon themselves to keep them off Yong-ha's back.
“I know. I'm not saying that we shouldn't go. It just feels as though this is never going to end.”
“It will, eventually,” he reminded her in as cheerful a tone as he could manage. He didn't quite like the disconsolate tone in her voice or the implication that pretending to be engaged to him was a chore, but knew that he could not dismiss Iseul's worries. “You yourself said that today is just a difficult day, didn't you? I'm sure that tomorrow will be better, and the meetings with your grandfather and my friends will be easier than we thought.”
“I hope so,” she said, but her shoulders began to straighten.
“Then,” he couldn't help adding, “I'm also sure that you'll actually be sad once we finally end this 'betrothal,' if only because I'll no longer require your services.”
Iseul harrumphed at that, but he could see a smile playing around the corners of her mouth. “We'll see about that, Gu Yong-ha,” she said as she poured two cups of tea and served him one. “Perhaps you'll find that you can't live without the work that I do for you, and decide to hire me permanently.”
He grinned, knowing that the storm had passed. His “betrothed” was not one to wallow in self-pity for long. “All right, we'll see,” he agreed. “In the meantime, shall we have some tea?”
“I told you this was going to be easier than we thought,” Yong-ha murmured to Iseul as they followed Master Jo through the Ma residence a few days later.
She nodded, feeling quite optimistic herself. The obligatory visit was to be held in Master Ma's study, which meant that the old man would likely be alone because he did not like having many people underfoot and possibly disturbing the order of his books and papers. Although he was no less unpleasant than her other Ma relatives, at least she and Yong-ha did not have to face all of them at once.
“Miss Kim Iseul and her betrothed have arrived, master,” Master Jo announced when they arrived.
“I know,” his employer replied. “I'm not blind. You may go.” He dismissed the servant with a jerk of his grizzled head, then glared at the couple. “Well?”
At least we don't have to deal with the others, Iseul reminded herself as she bowed deeply to her grandfather. “Good afternoon, Harabeonim. My betrothed and I have come to visit. May I introduce Master Gu Yong-ha?”
At the sound of his name, Yong-ha bowed as well. “How do you do, sir?”
“I know who he is,” Master Ma grunted. “I heard more than enough about him and that election from my grandson.”
“Ah, yes. Well... it was a pity that there could only be one winner.”
“Ki-hoon would have just messed things up anyway,” Master Ma sniffed. (Was Yong-ha hearing things, or did Iseul choke back a giggle at that?) “So, you're going to be married, are you?”
“Yes, sir, and we couldn't be happier. Isn't that right, my dear?”
“We're ecstatic,” Iseul confirmed, blushing when her “betrothed” rewarded her with a smile. The words sounded pathetic the moment they left her mouth, but she felt as though she had to say something.
“And when is the wedding?”
“We haven't set a date yet, Harabeonim.” She was getting used to answering that question.
“Haven't set a date yet!” The old man harrumphed. “Well, at least this means you haven't done something stupid like get yourself pregnant.”
“We haven't set a date yet because there are still many preparations to make, sir,” Yong-ha explained.
Master Ma's shaggy white brows drew together in a scowl. “You aren't stalling because she doesn't have much of a dowry, are you?” he demanded.
Whose fault is that? Iseul wanted to ask her grandfather, but stayed silent. This was not the time to dwell on old hurts. As far as her Ma relatives was concerned, she was there to show off the highly advantageous match she had managed to make without any support from them whatsoever.
Yong-ha, however, did not take the jibe sitting down. “That is not the case at all, Master Ma,” he replied in the clipped tones of the grievously insulted. “On the contrary, my family is more than happy to take Iseul just as she is. What do we need with more property or prestige, when we already have more than enough of both?”
“So the pair of you will live on love alone, then?” the old man asked skeptically.
“We will live on the fruits of our hard work, Harabeonim,” Iseul told him, now feeling compelled to speak. “You know I am no stranger to it, and neither is my betrothed.” She mustered a pleasant smile. “So please, don't worry about us.”
“All right,” Yong-ha amended a seeming eternity later, after Master Ma had declared the interview at an end, “maybe that wasn't so easy, but at least it's over now.”
“It wasn't easy, but I think we did quite well,” Iseul replied as they made their way out of the house. “And, ultimately, this was all just a formality. Harabeonim couldn't have objected to the match, no matter how badly things went.”
He stiffened at that. “Did he look like he wanted to?” Surely the Mas, for all their snobbish ways, weren't looking down on him!
“No, I don't think so,” she replied with a dismissive gesture. “I don't think he cares that much.”
“He might, if he insisted that we visit him—ya!” Yong-ha stopped dead in his tracks, his annoyance over the perceived slight replaced by fresh indignation over something else entirely. “Where is your ring?!”
Iseul blinked, startled. “What?”
“Your ring!” he repeated, grabbing her bare hand and holding it up to show her. “The one I put right here!”
“Oh, that ring. Well, I don't really like wearing rings because they get in the way when I work, so—“
He scowled. “So you don't wear it?”
“Not on my hand,” she said, using her free hand to pull at a cord peeking out from under her collar. Her ring hung from it like a pendant. “See?”
The sight of it mollified Yong-ha somewhat, but still he grumbled, “Well, don't hide it like that. Everyone knows what we've done with our garakji, so they'll be expecting to see you wearing yours.”
Iseul was about to explain that she didn't want to wear the obviously expensive trinket in plain sight, in case a thief might take interest in it, but an oily drawl interrupted her before she could speak.
The pair turned to see Ki-hoon coming towards them with Ma Ki-sook, his unmarried sister, at his side. Neither looked pleased to see Iseul or her “betrothed,” but Yong-ha greeted them with an impish smile. “Hello, Master Ma, Miss Ma!” he caroled as they approached. “Or shall I go right ahead and call you cheonam and cheoje?”
Ki-sook's nostrils flared at the cheeky question, but she did not dignify it with a response. Instead, she peered at Iseul's hand, still clasped in Yong-ha's.
Iseul snatched her hand free and smiled at her half-siblings as though nothing was out of the ordinary. (It was not as though they had been caught in a seriously compromising position, she told herself.) “Hello, Orabeonim. Hello, Eonni.”
Not surprisingly, the only response her greeting elicited was a couple of frosty nods. “I suppose you're here to visit my grandfather,” Ki-hoon remarked.
The barb was not lost on Iseul, but she responded in as pleasant a tone as she could muster. “Yes, we've just finished visiting Harabeonim.”
“Actually, he said we had to visit,” Yong-ha added. “Said he wouldn't allow us to marry if we didn't fulfill our filial obligations.”
The older man sniffed skeptically. “I'm sure he did.”
Ki-sook looked over her younger half-sister appraisingly. “Nice outfit.”
Iseul was certain that the compliment was only half-meant at best, but that day she wore her special “meeting the parents” hanbok (and Yong-ha was naturally dressed to match), so she also knew that the older woman was not being condescending. “Thank you, Eonni.”
Sure enough, a smirk appeared on Ki-sook's face. “It must be nice to be assured of a lifetime supply of fine clothing... but is it worth the price you're paying, I wonder?”
There was no mistaking the ugly insinuation in her tone—something that Iseul had heard from the insincere congratulations and backhanded compliments that had begun to emerge now that the shock of her “betrothal” had worn off. “Actually, I think I got the best of this bargain,” she replied, sending Yong-ha what she hoped looked like an adoring smile.
He smiled back. “On the contrary, my darling, I think we both win.
“I'm flattered that you think so highly of my creations, Cheoje,” he went on, addressing Ki-sook with deliberate emphasis on the formal address. “But if a woman doesn't carry them well, then the finest of clothes would be no better than rags. And a woman's bearing stems from her character. It's my privilege to clothe my betrothed, because everything I will make for her will be beautiful.”
Yong-ha nodded curtly to Iseul's half-siblings, signaling that the conversation was at an end. “Come, my dear,” he said to Iseul, starting towards the door even though Ki-sook was still sputtering and trying to frame a suitable reply. “Let me see you home.”
The crowning touch to Iseul's harrowing week came courtesy of Bang Jung-soo, who cheerfully introduced her to a female visitor towards the end of his sister's painting lesson. “This is Kang Myeong-hee,” he announced. “Her family just moved here from Gongju and they're visiting us today. Miss Kang, please meet Teacher Kim Iseul, the finest painting teacher in Joseon.”
The visitor smiled, displaying a charming pair of dimples, and bowed prettily. “Hello. I'm pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Iseul replied, mustering a smile of her own. A family new in town—especially one with a daughter as young and pretty as Miss Kang—was no doubt looking to make an alliance, most likely through marriage.
“And you remember my sister, Jung-hwa,” Jung-soo continued, his attention fully on Miss Kang again. “She will join us once her lesson is over.”
“Hello,” the girl said curtly.
Neither her brother nor Miss Kang seemed to have noticed her rudeness, but Iseul still felt compelled to try and cover it up. “We, ah, we've just finished for the day,” she babbled, gesturing blindly at the worktable. “I'll clean up and—“
“I'll help you, seonsaengnim,” Jung-hwa announced in a tone that brooked no opposition.
“Yes, you do that,” her brother agreed with an approving nod. “Then come and visit with Miss Kang and her parents, all right?”
Miss Kang favored them with one last smile. “It was nice to meet you,” she said again, bowing to Iseul as Jung-soo escorted her from the room.
Iseul fought to regain her composure, reminding herself that even though she had foolishly harbored hopes to the contrary, Bang Jung-soo had been well out of her reach long before this. Woodenly, she began to clear the table.
Jung-hwa followed suit. “Her father just bought the Hongs' makgeolli brewery,” she confided as they cleaned their paintbrushes. “I think I heard Abeonim say that she's their only daughter.”
“She seems nice” was all Iseul could trust herself to say.
Her student sniffed. “She's a dead bore.”
“Bang Jung-hwa!” she chided. Even though couldn't help but revel in the girl's unfavorable opinion, she was still a teacher and honor-bound to set a good example. “Haven't I always told you to try and find the good in everyone and everything?”
“She is,” Jung-hwa insisted, pouting. “She does nothing but act nice and sweet all the time.”
“Would you rather she be mean to you?”
“No, but I wish she were more interesting. Like you! Oh, seonsaengnim, I really wanted you and Orabeoni to get married!”
Iseul smiled sadly and patted the girl's arm. “Things will turn out just fine, even though they might not be the way we hope,” she said, wishing she could believe it herself. “Now, you should go and freshen up. Your guests are expecting you.”
Yong-ha knew that something was amiss from the moment he fetched his “betrothed” from the Bang residence. Oh, Iseul responded as she was supposed to, speaking when spoken to and even looked happy when he announced that they were going on a surprise picnic, but it was clear to him that she was only going through the motions.
“Difficult day at work, dear?” he asked her mildly when they had settled down to eat in a wooded area on the outskirts of town.
“You could say that,” she replied with a wry little smile.
“Then I suppose this is a bad time to talk to you about the Chamber of Commerce?”
“Oh, no! Please do tell me what's going on. I'm... a little tired, but I'd love to hear all about it.”
Iseul tried to concentrate on Yong-ha's plans for the Chamber of Commerce, she really did; but despite her best efforts, her thoughts kept straying back to Jung-soo, Miss Kang, and Iseul's absolute lack of marriage prospects.
The worst had come to pass, she thought morosely. Everyone believed her to be off-limits because she was “betrothed,” making it impossible for her to look for potential husbands; and besides, no man was going to want her after she and Yong-ha broke it off. She would never be courted or married. Her grandmother's care would remain solely on her shoulders. She would never have children. She would never even be kissed.
“Gu Yong-ha, would you kiss me?”
He stopped short and looked at her blankly. “I beg your pardon?”
She busied herself with brushing crumbs from her hands. “I said, would you kiss me?”
“N-no reason,” she replied with what she hoped passed for a nonchalant shrug. “I'm just curious.”
That was, of course, not enough of an explanation for Yong-ha. “This is quite unlike you, Kim Iseul,” he said, puzzled by her odd behavior. “What brought this on?
“This doesn't have anything to do with Bang Jung-soo, does it?” he went on when she said nothing. A disturbing idea took root in his mind, and his imagination was nothing if not fertile. “Did something happen with him?”
“No. Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
Her voice was suspiciously flat and she refused to look him in the eye, sure signs that “something” had indeed happened. “What did he do to you?!”Yong-ha demanded with rising alarm. He had heard stories about young masters of wealthy households taking shameful advantage of women they perceived as lower-class. Who knew that the bland Master Bang was capable of such things? He wondered if he could convince Jae-shin to revive the Red Messenger one more time, just to hurt the bastard a little. (Or a lot. Yong-ha rather liked the idea of “a lot.”)
“Nothing!” she burst out, glaring at him. “He didn't do anything!”
“Then don't tell me he broke your heart!” She fell silent at that, and he frowned. “He did, didn't he?”
“Not on purpose,” Iseul mumbled, mortified that he had managed to guess her secret. (Had Jung-soo also guessed that she liked him? Did that even matter anymore?) She shook her head and moved to clear away the remains of their picnic. “I'm sorry, I've made things awkward. Let's just leave.”
“Wait.” He laid a hand on her arm when she tried to reach for his empty cup. “I didn't say I wouldn't kiss you.”
She froze. “Then you'll do it?” she squeaked. Their roundabout conversation had led her to think that he would refuse, and helped her recover somewhat from her upset over Jung-soo. Now, she felt restless all over again.
Her breath caught when he drew closer to her and said, “Yes, I suppose I will.
“Although,” Yong-ha couldn't help adding, “asking someone to kiss you when you're heartbroken over another is not the best way to deal with the problem.”
“I know this won't mean anything. It would be just another flirting lesson.”
“Good.” He nodded approvingly. “Let's think of it that way. Now, close your eyes.”
He watched her eyelids flutter closed and, after a moment's pause, leaned over and fitted his lips to hers.
It was a pleasant surprise to find Iseul's mouth soft and pliant beneath his, instead of stiff and puckered like an old maid's. At first, she let him do all the work, but soon she was mimicking his movements—rather awkwardly, but it was a start—and parted her lips at his urging.
Suddenly, he pulled away. “Did you just put your tongue in my mouth?”
Iseul blinked, bemused, then color flooded her cheeks when she came crashing back to reality. “Was that wrong?”
“N-no.” He cleared his throat and looked away from her. “It's just... not something novices are expected to know.”
Yong-ha snatched up his cup, poured himself a healthy slug of barley tea, and downed it in one shot. “We should get going,” he declared, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, “before you decide you want lessons even more advanced than that one.”
The woman was at her bath. Such a time was supposed to be a private one, but judging from her sly expression, she knew that she was bathing for an audience.
Iseul smiled as she painted the woman's skin a rosy cream. This piece would be part of a set of illustrations for a new book, and the commission promised to be Hwa-jae's most profitable yet.
Thinking about the money helped to ease the lingering pangs she felt over Bang Jung-soo. Her heart wasn't wholly broken, she decided. Although the young man was handsome and well-mannered, she realized now that he had been nothing but a romantic fantasy.
After all, she reasoned to herself, he knew next to nothing about her. They might not have the same interests. He probably wouldn't have taken to the idea of marrying into a family such as hers. He definitely would have disapproved if he knew about Hwa-jae.
It was also possible that Jung-soo was terrible at kissing.
Iseul's smile grew as knowing as her painting's. Although she was not at all qualified to judge, Yong-ha's kiss was quite nice. She hadn't experienced the “transcendent whirlwind of passion” that all the erotic novels talked about, but the books had given her an idea of what to do and expect.
Perhaps things would be better next time, she thought as she defined the graceful arch of the woman's foot. If there will be a “next time.”
Stop thinking about it.
Yong-ha knew that it was ridiculous, the way he could not stop dwelling on that nothing kiss from a few days ago, but then Iseul hadn't been bad for a novice. If he had known that beforehand, then he would have been less concerned about scaring her. He would have kissed her more deeply, perhaps used his teeth or—
He shook his head to clear it. The reason for his fixation had to be the fact that he hadn't indulged in any physical intimacy in a long time—since before meeting Iseul, in fact. The Chamber of Commerce campaign and, later, his sham betrothal had kept him too busy to notice. He would remedy that the next chance he got, and then everything would be all right again.
Fortunately, Yong-ha's “betrothed” was not home when he arrived at the Kim residence. Although he was still expected to visit with her upon her return, he would at least have some time to compose himself before coming face to face with her again.
“You're delivering more clothes?” Madam Park fretted after she and Kyo-eul received him and he announced why he was there. “Why, Iseul has barely worn the last ones she ordered from you. Isn't she spending too much!”
“These are presents, Halmeonim,” Yong-ha assured her cheerfully. The bundles he carried rustled as he bent to pet the dog, who wagged his tail with delight. “A surprise. I wanted my betrothed to have some new warm things for winter. There's a coat for you as well.”
“Gu Yong-ha, you shouldn't have! I should probably scold you about spending too much!”
“Just knowing that you will be warm this winter is worth the expense.”
“Oh, you!” The old woman giggled girlishly. “Well, I suppose the least I can do is to offer you something while you wait for Iseul. Won't you sit down?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Yong-ha set down his bundles and walked over to a set of paintings on the wall. They had caught his eye on his first visit. “These paintings of the flowers....” he said as Kyo-eul trotted after him, “they are our Iseul's work?”
“Yes.” Madam Park turned in his general direction and smiled proudly. “She's talented, isn't she? I'm so glad I saw some of her paintings before losing my eyesight.
“Now,” she went on, “let me see to some tea and snacks for you.”
Iseul hummed to herself as she and Chin-hae arrived at the house. The trip to the market had gone extremely well: the household accounts were all settled, she bought some of her grandmother's favorite foods, she bumped into Chae-mi and agreed to meet for tea the next day, and Hwa-jae had some new orders. They would have to wait until after the latest set of illustrations were done, but the prospect of more work was always welcome.
“Please take the shopping to the kitchen,” she instructed the manservant. “We will have the fish for dinner tonight. Halmeonim will like that.”
“Yes, agasshi,” Chin-hae replied, bowing and leaving her at the Kims' front door.
Kyo-eul came running to greet her as she removed her shoes. She could tell from the spring in his step and the way he barked that he was excited about something. “What is it, boy?” she asked.
The dog, of course, could only bark in reply. He trotted towards the door and looked back at her expectantly, a sure sign that he wanted her to follow him.
He led her to the Kims' “best” room, where Iseul found Yong-ha waiting for her. Kyo-eul gamboled happily at his feet, clearly pleased with himself for remembering that his new friend belonged to his young mistress.
She smiled at the dog's antics, then at Yong-ha. However, her words of welcome died away at the stony look on his face. “Yong-ha, is anything wrong?” she asked, confused.
He continued to regard her coldly. “How was your shopping... Hwa-jae?”
Chapter 13: Chapter Twelve
Author's Notes: Yes, I am still alive and plugging away at this story despite writer's block and a ton of RL stuff that needed doing. Thank you to Dana and Hequet for the comments, and to everyone who left kudos or are still following this fic! It's tough going, but I really appreciate the support!
Panic gripped Iseul. Backing away from him, she almost gave in to the mad impulse to run when she remembered that Madam Park was still in the house. She looked around frantically. Where was her grandmother? How much did she know? Sensing her distress, Kyo-eul rushed to her side, every muscle on the alert.
“Don't worry,” Yong-ha told her flatly. “Halmeonim is asleep. She said she felt a little tired and excused herself to take a nap before dinner. I am to stay and eat with you, of course.”
“Did you say anything to her?” she asked, fighting to keep her voice low and even.
“Nothing about this.”
Well, that was a small relief. She forced herself to take a few calming breaths. “How did you know?”
“I recognized your mark.” He gestured curtly at a painting hanging on the wall. Hwa-jae's flame burned in one corner.
“Ah,” Iseul said, wincing. She had signed the minhwa that way in error and, rather than risk a clumsy cover-up, decided to keep the piece and just paint a new one for her client. She did not know then that she would pay dearly for the mistake.
“Is this why you knew to put your tongue in my mouth?”
She felt her face grow warm and covered up her discomfiture with a scowl. “Why are you bringing that up again?”
Yong-ha flushed as well, but ignored the question. If she thought she could divert the discussion away from herself, she was sadly mistaken. “Just how much have you lied to your grandmother?” he demanded. “She goes on and on about what a good girl you are. Are you truly as innocent as you seem?”
Iseul gasped in outrage and raised a hand to slap him. She would have struck him, too, if Kyo-eul hadn't lunged towards Yong-ha, forcing her to divert her efforts towards restraining the dog. “I am a painter, not a prostitute,” she bit out as she pulled on Kyo-eul's collar. The dog subsided with a low growl. “And if you ever insinuate anything like that about me again, I'll kill you.”
“All right, all right,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender and feeling oddly relieved by her extreme reaction. Surely the death threat meant that she was telling the truth. “I'm sorry.”
“And what about you?” she accused, feeling too wronged to dignify the apology with a response. “If you know who Hwa-jae is, then you must be familiar with my work. Obviously, you're not as innocent as you seem, either.”
“Well, I'm a man.”
“And my grandmother and I need to survive. If I must know a little more than might be proper about certain things so that we can have a roof over our heads and food on our table, then so be it.”
“But don't you have—“ Another realization dawned on Yong-ha. “The money you're earning as Hwa-jae is your 'inheritance,' isn't it?” After witnessing how the Mas treated her, it was clear to him that they would never settle anything on her out of the goodness of their hearts.
Iseul nodded briefly. “It pays for a lot of things—including the clothes I order from you.”
He sighed. He'd had a feeling she would say that. “Well... I hope you're being discreet, at least?”
“Of course. Only the servants know, and they would never tell anyone.” She hesitated, realizing that she now needed to ask him a favor. “You—you'll have to keep this a secret, too.”
“I don't have much of a choice, do I? I can't have it become known that I'm betrothed to a woman who paints naughty pictures for a living.”
“Then let's stop,” she blurted out. She wished she hadn't said the words from the moment they came out of her mouth, but there was no taking them back. “We can call it off right now. It was never real to begin with, anyway.”
Yong-ha frowned. “We can't do that right now—Halmeonim thinks I'm here to visit you. And you still haven't met my friends.”
“Then we should probably start thinking about when we should end this, since my little sideline bothers you so much.”
“It doesn't—“ Breaking off abruptly, he winced and pinched the bridge of his nose. His head was beginning to hurt. “I don't suppose you've ever considered ending your 'little sideline,' have you?”
Iseul had had a feeling he would say that. Unfortunately, it was out of the question. “Of course,” she told him. “And I decided that I would stop when I'm certain that my grandmother is set for life.”
That proved to be the last word in the discussion, for Kyo-eul suddenly barked and and started towards the door. They then heard female voices drifting through the still night air, growing louder as the women came closer.
“The agasshi is back, Halmeonim,” the Kims' housekeeper informed Madam Park as she escorted the old woman, fresh from her nap, into the room.
“Hello, Halmeonim,” Iseul greeted her, forcing some cheer in her voice. “Yong-ha said you were feeling tired and had to lie down.”
“I feel better now that I've had some rest,” her grandmother assured her, and chuckled. “I was sure that you and Yong-ha wouldn't have any trouble entertaining yourselves.”
She blushed. “We were just talking. Weren't we?” she asked Yong-ha, turning away from the newcomers to shoot him a warning glance.
He arched an eyebrow in reply. “You were talking,” he corrected her. “I was wondering if I could steal a kiss before dinner.”
The older women giggled at the audacious remark and Iseul's cheeks flamed hotter. “I suppose you'll have to try again another time,” she told her “betrothed” with false sweetness. “Now, you were just about to tell me—to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
Although they managed to maintain a good front for Madam Park's benefit, the visit was nevertheless thick with tension for the “couple.” Iseul did not begin to calm down until much later that night, well after Yong-ha's departure.
The gifts he had brought did little to help. Even though she could appreciate the sumptuousness of her new winter jeogori and its matching cap, she also could not forget the infuriatingly insulting things he had said when he confronted her with her secret.
Her reasons for becoming Hwa-jae were perfectly valid, she told herself. Her earnings from teaching and painting the occasional minhwa were simply not enough to support the household, so she found a way to augment her income. Surely, an astute businessman would come to understand that.
Besides, it was not as though she was doing anything, well, terribly immoral. Knowing more than the average unmarried woman usually does about the act of love was not the same as actually putting this knowledge into practice.
She took some more deep, calming breaths. There was no point in getting angry all over again. Iseul had already done all the explaining she cared to do; and even though Yong-ha apparently disapproved and could have denounced her to her grandmother at any time during his visit, he had said nothing.
Hwa-jae was safe... for now.
Yong-ha, too, did not begin to recover from the shock of his discovery until after he had arrived home and retired to his room. “What a night,” he muttered, sinking to the floor.
Playing at being in love with Iseul was easy enough by now, but that night, it had been difficult to carry on as usual. He might have been able to forget, even just for a little while, about their debacle of a kiss; but trying to forget her secret identity was another thing altogether.
He shook his head, still not quite able to believe it. Anyone who looked at his “betrothed”—especially before she had seen the light and come to him for some much-needed fashion advice—would never imagine that the frugal, hardworking young woman was also one of Joseon's most celebrated erotic artists. It had certainly never occurred to him, even though he knew how enterprising Iseul was. Decent women didn't do such things.
Most decent women, anyway, Yong-ha amended, frowning even as he felt relieved all over again. Although she was not selling her body along with her paintings, Iseul had made it clear that she would rather end their “betrothal” rather than stop painting as Hwa-jae.
Somehow that was a little hard to swallow.
After a seemingly endless wait, the day on which Yong-ha would present his “betrothed” to the rest of the Jalgeum Quartet had finally arrived. As hostess of this momentous occasion, Yoon-hee and her household servants were in a flurry of activity, cleaning the house, preparing that evening's feast, and ensuring that the children were presentable.
“I hope she's nice,” Yoon-hee said to her husband as they dressed for the party.
“Why wouldn't she be nice?” he asked, donning his second-best overcoat.
“I don't know... I suppose I find it a bit strange that Yeo-rim sa-hyung waited so long to introduce us to her.”
“Well, we're all busy,” Sun-joon pointed out. “He's still working to get the Chamber of Commerce established, isn't he? And he said that his betrothed gives painting lessons. I imagine that doesn't leave her a lot of free time, either.”
“He also refuses to tell us anything about her personality,” she added, “so I don't know what to expect.” She inspected her reflection and made a face, although she did not do so in reaction to her appearance. “What if she's horrible?”
“He wouldn't ask her to marry him if she was horrible.”
“You'll never know,” she insisted. “People can do crazy things when they're in love.”
Sun-joon couldn't help but smile at that. They both knew quite a bit about doing strange things in the name of love. Nevertheless, he felt obligated to temper his wife's expectations. “Well, if he is in love with this woman, then she must have some redeeming qualities. It is our duty as Yeo-rim sa-hyung's friends to find them.”
Yoon-hee sighed. He had a valid point, but she could not help but have some misgivings especially after having to wait so long to be introduced. “Do you have to be this reasonable all the time?” she complained, pouting.
He grinned and bent down to kiss his wife's forehead. “Someone has to keep you out of trouble.”
As Yoon-hee made sure one last time that everything was ready for the night's festivities, the guests of honor were suffering through a tense ride towards the Lee home.
Yong-ha tried to take a deep breath, regretting that he hadn't thought to borrow his mother's palanquin for Iseul to use. If he had done so, then she wouldn't need to ride pillion behind him. She wouldn't be so close. “Please lower your arms,” he said. “Waist level is still appropriate, remember?”
“Sorry,” she replied, carefully lowering her arms until her thumb brushed the knot in his belt.
“And could you please not hold on so tightly? I can't breathe.”
“Sorry,” she said again.
“I didn't mean you should let go! It's dark here. What if something happens to the horse and you fall off?
“Ouch!” Yong-ha yelped suddenly, just managing to keep from startling his horse and making his worst-case scenario a reality. “What did you do that for?” he complained, rubbing the spot in his side where she had prodded him and glaring at her over his shoulder.
Iseul glared back. “I know you're angry with me, Gu Yong-ha, but if you're going to argue with me over every little thing tonight, you won't have to worry about me falling off—I'm going to get off, on my own, and walk back home.”
Yong-ha opened his mouth to retort, then closed it. “Sorry,” he said finally. “I'm not angry with you. I'm just nervous about tonight, that's all. Now, could you please hold on to me before you fall off?”
“Are you sure you're not angry with me?” Iseul's arms went around him again; hopefully it meant that she wasn't going to make good on her threat to leave. “Not even about... that thing you found out recently?”
He cleared his throat and turned his eyes back to the road. “Let's not talk about that right now. I'm still trying to get over the shock. Why don't we just concentrate on getting through this evening?”
“I don't see why you're so worried about this evening. They're your friends, aren't they?”
“Yes, but still. This is the first time I'm introducing them to a woman.”
“Our betrothal isn't real,” she reminded him.
“Even so,” he insisted, “I want things to go well.”
“I'm sure everything will be fine,” Iseul said, wishing she felt as confident as she sounded. She wasn't going to admit it, but she wanted things to go well, too. After all, who wanted to waste an entire evening feeling disliked? “We've had lots of practice pretending in front of Halmeonim. How hard could this be?”
To Sun-joon's satisfaction and Iseul's relief, no one at the gathering that night turned out to be horrible. There was some initial awkwardness as everyone became acquainted, but soon the women were were chatting, laughing, and teasing the men with the easy familiarity of old friends.
Iseul was glad that the wives were friendly—Yong-ha said that they had been especially keen to meet her—and that their husbands followed their lead. Even their host's children, who had joined them briefly before the meal was served, seemed to like her well enough. Hopefully, the cordial treatment meant that they deemed her worthy. At the very least, she did not have to endure their obvious dislike on top of the tension that had arisen between her and her “betrothed” due to certain recent events.
“How interesting that the two of you met when you went to the shop to order clothes!” said Lady Cha, who was married to Yong-ha's closest friend. “Who could have imagined that you would go on a simple errand like that and end up falling in love?”
“Is that so big a surprise?” Yong-ha preened, buffing his nails on his bright purple overcoat. “Clearly, my beloved has impeccable taste, both in clothes and in men. Work with me here, Geol-oh,” he added when Lady Cha's husband snorted.
“I suppose I shouldn't try to scare her off until it's too late,” the other man said with a crooked grin.
Lord Lee, their host for the evening, shook his head indulgently at his friends' antics and sought to keep the conversation going. “Our senior says you are a painting teacher,” he said to Iseul.
“She's the best in Joseon,” her “betrothed” interjected. “You won't believe how talented she is.”
“I'm afraid he exaggerates, my lord,” Iseul said with a self-conscious chuckle. He sounded sincere, but she couldn't help but wonder if there was a barb hidden in the compliment. “I just do my best, that's all.”
“How do you like teaching?” asked their hostess, Lady Kim (who was apparently a very distant relative). Yong-ha had mentioned that she and her husband were professors at Sungkyunkwan University.
“I think it's very fascinating,” Iseul replied. “All of my students learn the same basics—philosophy, technique, that sort of thing—and yet no two of their paintings have ever come out alike. The way a person sees things plays a very big role in the end result.”
“Oh, I know just what you mean! I've always wondered at how differently each student can interpret the exact same lecture. No two of their essays ever turn out the same.” The other woman laughed. “Well, they do sometimes, but only because they copy answers from each other.”
She laughed, too. “A teacher's life is never boring. That's probably why I've kept at it for the past several years, and I don't think I'll ever stop.”
“Not even after you and Yong-ha are married?” Lady Cha asked curiously.
That brought Iseul up short. “I, ah.... we actually haven't discussed it yet,” she improvised, “but I always thought I would keep on working even after our wedding.” She glanced at her “betrothed.” “That—that's all right, isn't it?”
Put on the spot, Yong-ha managed to stammer, “Y-y-yes! Of course it is! I mean,” he added, “my income will be more than enough to support us, but it's not a bad idea for you to have some money of your own.”
“Your mother won't mind?”
“She probably will,” he admitted, then smiled. “But my father won't.”
He was quite sure his father really wouldn't mind having a working woman for a daughter-in-law, Yong-ha thought as Yoon-hee started talking about how good it was for a woman to have interests outside of the home. Master Gu might not be as approving if he ever found out about Hwa-jae, but Yong-ha had a feeling that Iseul could somehow sway him. They seemed to have gotten along well at their one meeting, with his father asking about her teaching and even praising her on supporting a household on her own. Although he might not like her secret sideline, perhaps Master Gu would eventually accept it.
Yong-ha realized then that he himself seemed to be coming around. At least, he was slowly growing accustomed to the idea of Iseul drawing erotic illustrations to augment her income as a teacher. It was still disturbing to think that beneath her plain (well, maybe not so plain anymore, since she now wore his creations), virginal exterior lurked a woman of the world.
Maybe I shouldn't be thinking of things that lie beneath....
His heart gave a funny little lurch when Iseul's eyes met his. For a moment, he feared that she had read his mind, but then some of the others chuckled. “Did I miss anything?” he asked.
“I think the question should be what didn't you miss, sa-hyung,” Yoon-hee teased. “If you were a student in my class, then this would earn you an automatic fail.”
“I seem to recall him actually having a lot of those back when he was a student,” Jae-shin snickered.
“That was all in your dreams, Geol-oh,” Yong-ha managed to retort. “Because I seem to recall you sleeping through most of our classes.”
“I hope this doesn't make you look less favorably on our senior, Teacher Kim,” Sun-joon said to Iseul. “As you might have observed over the course of this evening, we tease each other a lot.”
“It's all right,” she replied, laughing. “I'm enjoying listening to all of you.”
“It's more fun when you join in,” Ka-hai told her.
“Maybe next time,” Iseul demurred.
Yong-ha shot her a playful scowl. “You aren't threatening me, are you, my darling?”
“You can make of it what you will, sir,” she answered with a smile.
He had seen his “betrothed” smile often enough in the past. There was nothing out of the ordinary in this particular smile—not in the curve of her lips, nor the dimple that appeared in one cheek, nor the hint of deviltry that flickered across her face whenever she smiled.
Nevertheless, he hiccuped.
“I like her,” Ka-hai announced that night, after she and her husband had returned home, stopped by Minister Moon's study to bid him good night, checked on their children (all of whom were sleeping soundly), and finally retired to their bedchamber.
“Who?” asked Jae-shin, who was already abed and reading a book. “Yong-ha's betrothed?”
“Yes.” She disappeared behind the screen that hid their washstand. “I think Iseul is just the kind of woman he needs.”
“How do you know that?”
There was a pause characterized by much splashing of water, and then Ka-hai emerged again, wiping her face with a cloth. “Well, she's a bit more serious and down-to-earth than I imagined she would be,” she said as she sat down before her cosmetic case. “I thought Yong-ha would choose to marry someone, well, more like him.”
“He can be serious and down-to-earth,” Jae-shin declared loyally. “At least, when it's absolutely necessary.”
“Oh, I know that, but we must admit that he can also be rather flighty at times. Iseul's personality complements his nicely.” She opened a small jar and began to pat its contents onto her cheeks. “It's a bit like breeding horses, you know? Sometimes you choose a sire and a dam to reinforce certain traits, other times you do so to balance them out.”
He chuckled as he turned a page. As far as his wife was concerned, everything came back to horses.
“And most important of all,” Ka-hai added after she had finished her nightly ablutions, “Yong-ha seems to like Iseul, too. He could barely take his eyes off her all night!”
She got into bed. Jae-shin put away his book and blew out the lamp. “Maybe she had dirt on her face. You know how he tends to fixate on things like that.”
“I do, but there was nothing wrong with her face and he didn't look at her in that way. He seemed more... confused, I suppose.”
“That's not very romantic.”
“I think it's a good sign. Iseul's going to keep Yong-ha on his toes for sure.”
He laughed and gathered his wife into his arms. Whatever she had put on her face smelled nice. “It's about time someone did.”
Chapter 14: Chapter Thirteen
Technical Notes: Sun-joon's "perfect virtue" quote comes, not surprisingly, from Confucius (via Google).
Author's Notes: Wow, that was a long dry spell. I think I've slowed down ever since Yong-ha found out Iseul's secret. Still, I intend to finish this fic eventually, and hope the new installments will continue to be worth the wait. Thank you as always to Hequet for commenting, and for everyone who left kudos and is still following this fic!
“Are there any other matters that we need to discuss?” Yong-ha asked. He paused for what he deemed a decent interval, but the others present—all of them representing the key groups that made up the Joseon Chamber of Commerce—just looked at each other and shook their heads no. “If there are none,” he concluded, “then we can adjourn this meeting. Thank you, everyone, for your hard work today.”
There was a disjointed chorus of thank you's in reply, and the room filled with chatter as everyone prepared to leave.
Yong-ha listened to the hum of conversation with a great deal of satisfaction. From the sound of things, the meeting had gone well. At least, people seemed content with the decisions made that day, which was no mean feat considering the wide range of opinions and interests that the Chamber of Commerce needed to consider.
“How is your grandmother, Teacher Kim?” an elderly merchant asked Iseul, who sat at her “betrothed”'s right hand. “I heard that Madam Park is feeling poorly these days.”
“She's getting better, Master Kang,” she replied with a reassuring smile. “We are doing our best to make sure that makes a full recovery.”
“I'm sure you are taking very good care of her. Still, I would like to send her some chicken soup. My wife makes it very well, and it should be good for cold weather.”
“Oh, I wouldn't want you to go to any trouble,” Iseul demurred.
“Wait—Halmeonim is ill?!” Yong-ha exclaimed, interrupting the back-and-forth about the soup.
“Master Kang just said so, didn't he?” Ma Ki-hoon's oily voice spoke up from one corner of the room. “I'm surprised that Master Gu, of all people, didn't know about it.”
“W-well, she was fine when I saw her a couple of days ago!” the younger man improvised, conscious of all the curious gazes trained upon him. “She was coughing a little then, but otherwise she was the same as she usually is.”
“Be that as it may....” The wine merchant put on an innocently confused expression, although Yong-ha could swear he could see the glitter of pure malice in his eyes. “I still can't help but wonder why your, ah, betrothed didn't tell you when her grandmother started feeling worse.”
“Because, Master Ma, I didn't want to trouble him with something that is only a small concern,” Iseul interjected. “The cold weather disagrees with my grandmother, so she always feels poorly when the weather changes, but it passes once she gets used to it.
“I'm sorry,” she continued, addressing Yong-ha this time. “I did not know that this would matter so much.”
“Of course Teacher Kim wouldn't know about this sort of thing,” a matronly shopkeeper chided Ki-hoon. “She's never been betrothed before and is only just learning how to share her life with a man.”
Grateful for the woman's support, Iseul managed a small smile.
“Think nothing of it, my dear,” Yong-ha assured her magnanimously. “If you say that it is not something to worry about, then I trust your judgment. However, I hope you'll learn to confide in me sooner rather than later.” He gave her a cheeky wink that elicited laughter from their rapt audience. “After all, you'll have to share everything with me very soon.”
“I can't believe you didn't tell me that Halmeonim is sick,” Yong-ha complained after the meeting, when they were back in his shop and in private.
“I didn't think it was something you should worry about,” his “betrothed” replied as she gathered the materials she would need for the sketching that she was to do for him that afternoon.
“Of course I should worry!” he protested. “Betrothed or not, I care about Halmeonim, too! Besides, everyone obviously expected me to know. Luckily for us, I managed to cover up quickly.”
“Everyone should just mind their own business.”
Unable to argue with that, he silently watched her sort her charcoal sticks for a few moments before asking, “Will she really be all right?”
There was a telling pause, and he could swear he could hear little wheels turning in Iseul's head as she wondered just how much to say to him. Finally, she nodded. “This happens every year. It is just a matter of time before she recovers.”
She sounded confident, and Yong-ha hoped for everyone's sake that what she said was true. Even if these sick spells happened every year, they were probably still very worrisome for the household. “Well, can I send Halmeonim anything? A present of some sort to cheer her up? Any special food that she wants to eat?”
“She... doesn't have much of an appetite these days,” she admitted, dropping her gaze.
“Maybe later, then,” he said with as much cheer as he could muster. “When she starts feeling better. But you'll let me know if she wants anything, won't you? Or needs anything—you can count on me to help if it's important.”
“If you wish.”
“Yes, I definitely wish,” Yong-ha told her firmly.
“All right, then.” Iseul picked up a charcoal stick and shot him a sideways glance. “Now, could we please drop the subject and get to work? I have to give a lesson in about two hours.”
It was with mingled trepidation and relief that Iseul arrived home that night to find that although her grandmother remained very weak, she was still lucid and doing her best to fight her illness.
“Halmeonim took all her medicine today,” Eui-jung reported to Iseul when she came to sit with her grandmother for a while. She gave the younger woman an encouraging smile, although there was no hiding the worry in her eyes.
“Well done, Halmeonim!” Iseul praised with false brightness, kneeling by the sickbed and giving Kyo-eul a scratch behind the ears. The dog had barely left Madam Park's side ever since she fell ill. “If you keep it up, you'll be fully recovered in no time. Are you feeling better?”
“Much better,” the old woman replied. Although her voice was thin and hoarse from coughing, she managed a smile.
“That's good. Everyone at the Chamber of Commerce meeting today asked about you, and the apothecary sent you a little ginseng.” She laid the parcel at her grandmother's side. “She said it's some of her best, so it should help you recover quickly.
“And Chae-mi is coming to visit you tomorrow, so you don't have to spend your days with only me and Eui-jung for company.”
She smiled as at the housekeeper as she spoke, to show that she was only jesting. It was a great help to know that she could go to work each day knowing that someone trustworthy was caring for her grandmother.
“Chae-mi will probably want to complain about whatever is going on between her and her father's apprentice,” Iseul chattered on after Eui-jung had excused herself to prepare the evening meal, “so you had best be prepared for that.”
Her grandmother chuckled, but it turned into a brief coughing fit. “What is going on with her and her father's apprentice these days?” Madam Park wheezed when it was over.
“The last I heard, he now eats with the family after the day's work is done. I think Master Han is really bent on getting him as a son-in-law. Chae-mi keeps saying that she hates it, but she doesn't sound as angry about it as she used to be.”
“It sounds as though you two girls are going to get married one after the other,” the old woman remarked. That seemed to remind her of something, because she then asked, “Isn't Yong-ha coming to visit?”
“Ah—yes!” Iseul replied. She had not planned to let her “betrothed” come and visit, but also did not want to refuse her grandmother outright. “O-of course he is! But Halmeonim,” she added in a burst of inspiration, “he promised to visit only when you are better. If you want to see him again, you must do your best to regain your strength.”
She sat with her grandmother until the old woman had drifted off to sleep, then went into the next room to eat her dinner.
Eui-jung had, of course, set out enough food for only one person instead of the usual two. Even though Iseul dined alone on occasion, usually when she was trying to complete a project on time or during Madam Park's other sick spells, grandmother and granddaughter almost always ate at least one meal together every day. Dinner for one seemed pitifully small, and strangely quiet.
She was glad when the door slid open to admit the housekeeper. Even though no one in the Kim household was very cheerful these days, Iseul was grateful for whatever conversation she could get. “Is Halmeonim sleeping well?” she asked.
“Yes, agasshi,” Eui-jung replied. “Her breathing sounds good. I left Kyo-eul in her room. He will let us know if she needs anything.” Her hands twisted in her apron. “But, ah, agasshi....”
The hesitation in her voice caused Iseul to stiffen. “What is it?”
“Halmeonim seems to need more of her medicine this year. Today, I had to send my husband to buy more using some of the money you gave us for this month's marketing. I think can stretch some of our supplies, but we'll still need extra money if we are to last the month. I'm sorry.”
“No, no, please don't apologize,” Iseul assured her. The housekeeper's news was not good, but it also was not as dire as she had imagined. “You did the right thing. We should do whatever it takes to help Halmeonim recover.
“I have a little extra money set aside, so we can use that to tide us over until the next time I get paid. And if it turns out that it's not enough,” she finished, “then I'll just have to earn some more, won't I?”
“You can't have fought with her already!” Jae-shin exclaimed.
Yong-ha scowled and kicked a pebble off the platform upon which he was supposedly practicing archery with his friends. “For us to have a disagreement, there must be a conversation in which we disagree. We have not had such a conversation, because she won't tell me anything.”
Sun-joon shook his head as he notched a new arrow. “When a woman stops talking, sa-hyung, you're in serious trouble. You need to reflect carefully on what you did wrong if you don't want that hanging over your head for the rest of your life.”
“But you, of all people, should know that,” Jae-shin said, loosing his own arrow. The missile landed with a satisfying thunk in the exact center of his target. “After all, aren't you Gu Yong-ha, Joseon's foremost authority on women?”
“I haven't done anything, either,” Yong-ha told them. “And that's the whole problem as far as I'm concerned. Iseul's grandmother is very ill and I've offered many times to help, but Iseul won't accept it.”
His most recent offer had been made just the day before, after Iseul met with his mother about painting a screen for the Gu home. Rather than accept his help, she assured him that Madam Park was on the mend. If that was true, then why was Iseul taking on more and more work? The only reason he could think of was that the old woman continued to need special care, and her granddaughter was scrambling to cover the additional costs.
“If Iseul keeps this up,” he fretted, “she'll fall ill herself, or maybe even worse.”
“We can't have that.” Jae-shin set aside his bow and leaned against the railing. “You know what I think? I think you should just go ahead and help. A person's entitled to her pride, but this could become a matter of life and death for the grandmother if you don't lend a hand.”
“That's exactly what I was thinking! This is Halmeonim's health at stake! What does it matter who pays for her medicine? The important thing is that she gets well.”
“And if you're lucky, your betrothed will end up being more grateful than angry, and reward you accordingly.”
Yong-ha flushed and glanced away as a few possible rewards came to mind. “Perhaps, but I'm not doing it for any reward. Halmeonim was always very kind to me. I just want to do something good for her.”
Sun-joon nodded approvingly. “To practice five things under all circumstances constitutes perfect virtue,” he quoted. “These five are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.”
“I don't know if I'm at all capable of perfect virtue, Ga-rang,” Yong-ha told him, “but I'm fairly sure I can practice some of those things.”
The very next day, Iseul arrived home to find a strange cart in the front yard and, moments later, Kyo-eul waiting outside Madam Park's room. The dog greeted her happily, his tail wagging. “What's going on?” she asked as she scratched his ears. Was she hearing voices inside her grandmother's room? “Why are you outside?”
Just then, a male voice called, “Darling! It's about time you got home!”
Iseul looked up and saw Yong-ha walking towards her, Chin-hae at his side. “Gu Yong-ha? What are you doing here?”
“The young master brought some things for Halmeonim, agasshi,” Chin-hae replied on his behalf. The manservant appeared more relaxed than he had over the past few weeks. “Food, medicines, and some extra blankets. He also brought a uinyeo—she's examining Halmeonim right now.”
“Surprise!” Yong-ha added with a brilliant smile.
She supposed the smile was meant to placate her, but instead it stoked a flame of anger inside her that was lit by Chin-hae's announcement. “Oh, yes, I am indeed surprised,” she managed to say.
They heard Madam Park's door slide open. Eui-jung, followed by a woman whom Iseul supposed was the doctor, emerged from the room. “Welcome home, agasshi,” the housekeeper greeted Iseul, moving aside to let Kyo-eul enter and then shutting the door to keep out the cold. “This is Doctor Jang.”
“Yes, I had just heard that she was here,” Iseul said, exchanging bows with the doctor. “Thank you for coming, seonsaengnim. How is my grandmother faring?”
“Her condition is stable, agasshi,” she replied. “You've been taking good care of her.”
“And Halmeonim should recover faster,” Eui-jung added cheerfully, “now that the young master has come to help. Isn't it wonderful of him, agasshi? And with you not even married yet!”
“Yes, it is indeed wonderful,” Iseul agreed, mustering a brief smile.
“It's nothing, my darling,” Yong-ha told her. “Didn't you hear the doctor? You're taking very good care of Halmeonim. I just brought over a few things that she might enjoy.”
She supposed this was her cue to thank him, but she could not force out the words. Instead, she squeezed out an awkward laugh and continued to address Eui-jung. “Ahjumoni, would you please make some tea for our guests? It's the least we can do after they've taken so much trouble to come.”
She was every bit the gracious hostess over tea, but Yong-ha could sense that Iseul was seething beneath the surface. He was tempted to go straight home after escorting Doctor Jang back into town, but ended up returning to the Kims—ostensibly to check on Madam Park one last time that day and enjoy some private time with his “betrothed,” but in truth to face his fate.
The confrontation took place in the room farthest away from Madam Park's (so that, he supposed, the old woman wouldn't overhear). Iseul sat at a low table, working on some sketches. Yong-ha hoped that the work had helped calm her; she sounded perfectly civil while welcoming him back and thanking the Kims' housekeeper for accompanying him, but one could never tell with women, especially this particular one.
“I know I overstepped my boundaries,” he began as soon as the housekeeper had left them alone, “but I was worried about Halmeonim.” It seemed rude not to allow Iseul to speak first, but the best defense was a good offense—at least, that was what he remembered hearing during sporting events at Sungkyunkwan (not that he was paying close attention).
“I assured you whenever you asked that there was nothing to worry about,” she replied, abandoning her work and getting to her feet. “You didn't believe me?”
“I just wanted to see for myself, and I thought bringing the doctor would be a good way to reassure us all about Halmeonim's condition. Besides, I'm supposed to be helping you with this,” Yong-ha added. “As your betrothed, everyone expects it of me.”
“We're not really betrothed, remember?”
“So? Halmeonim still needs to recover.”
“So,” she retorted, a tinge of tartness creeping into her tone, “I cannot possibly repay you for all the help you've lent today—at least, not right away—“
“I'm not 'lending' you anything, Kim Iseul; it's a gift. I meant it when I said I care about Halmeonim, too! You do not have to care for her alone.” He paused to take a deep breath and quell the disturbing urge to shake her silly—or kiss her. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have taken that tone with you. I'm just... well, to be perfectly honest, I'm tired of having this conversation whenever I want to help you with something.”
“I just don't feel that it's appropriate to accept help from you,” Iseul mumbled. Up until this point, she felt that their arrangement was a fair one. (All right, perhaps the terms were a little biased in her favor, but that only made up for the fact that their sham betrothal was his fault in the first place.) What Yong-ha did today had destroyed that balance. It was bad enough to feel beholden to him; not having any idea how she might repay him was even worse.
“Well, I think that it is. Halmeonim's health is the only thing we should be thinking of right now. And if I know you,” he added, arching an eyebrow, “you would do anything for her.”
“Except beg for charity,” she retorted rashly.
“Aren't you fortunate, then, that I spared you from having to even think about doing that?”
Chapter 15: Chapter Fourteen
Author's Notes: At last, another chapter! Thank you very much to Poisonous_Lullaby for the comment and kudos, and to everyone else who left kudos this time around. I really appreciate your patience and continued interest!
“Why do you have that look on your face?”
Iseul started at her grandfather's sharp tone. “I-I'm sorry, Harabeonim. I was just thinking about my grandmother at home.” She swallowed hard and choked down her worries. “She's not doing very well.
“A-and I just realized....” she added as a new worry occurred to her, “Halmeonim's illness isn't catching, but perhaps I should have waited until she was well before coming to see you.” I should not have come to visit, she thought miserably. Am I seeing things, or does Harabeonim look a little pale?
Master Ma harrumphed. “If she isn't contagious, then you might as well come and get this visit over with.” He opened a ledger and flipped through its pages. “Where is that young man of yours?”
“Ah... Yong-ha is busy. He sends his regrets.”
Besides Madam Park's illness, said “young man” was another one of those things causing Iseul great dissatisfaction these days. Despite his insistence that she owed him nothing in exchange for all of his help to her grandmother, having him step in when she fell short was still a large and bitter pill to swallow. Her chest still ached whenever she thought about it.
“Humph!” Her grandfather tapped his ledger with an impatient finger. “We're all busy!”
“There are many last-minute orders for warm clothing coming in.” At least she knew this to be true from the work she had done for Yong-ha recently. “I'm not really surprised. This winter may well be so much colder than last year's, don't you agree?”
“That shouldn't have anything to do with why he's not here. He doesn't do the sewing himself, does he?”
“Well, no... but he needs to make sure it's all up to his standards. After all, his shop makes the finest clothes in Joseon.”
He snorted. “He has you believing that now, eh?”
“It's true, Harabeonim! The clothes from Yong-ha's shop look so much better than what the others sell. A-and I've done some sketching for him, so....” she faltered as she realized how defensive she sounded. “So I know just how much care he and his workers put into making them.”
“Be that as it may,” Master Ma said, turning his attention back to his ledger, “it's not right that he left you to come here alone. You should tell him to do his duty and accompany you next time.”
Actually, while Iseul was visiting her grandfather, Yong-ha was at her house to see Madam Park. However, the visit was not going well; the cold winter weather had caused the old woman to weaken and develop a fever.
“Halmeonim sleeps most of the time,” the housekeeper reported as she sponged the slumbering Madam Park's brow with some cool water. “Hopefully, it's a healing sleep.” Beside her, the faithful Kyo-eul whined.
Yong-ha gave the dog a pat to keep it quiet. “Does she eat anything?”
“A little porridge or tea when she wakes. And we move her, just as the uinyeo said, to prevent bedsores and stiffness in her muscles.”
He nodded, not at all surprised that the household was doing its best to take care of Madam Park. “Next time, I'll bring some cream for the skin,” he promised. “Please put some on Halmeonim's hands every day, and use some, too, if you'd like. It's only a small thing, just to keep the skin soft in winter, but I hope it will help lift Halmeonim's spirits.” He was, of course, well aware that Iseul would not like it; but he reasoned that he was already in trouble with her anyway, so another small present would not make any difference.
“You are too kind, Master Gu!”
Just then, Madam Park's eyes fluttered open. “Yong-ha...is that you?” she asked in a thready voice.
“Y-yes, Halmeonim!” he replied cheerfully, hiding his dismay over the fact that she appeared weaker when awake than she had while she slept. “It has been so long since my last visit that I decided that I had to come and see you today.”
A ghost of a smile flickered across her lined face. “Such a nice boy,” she whispered. “Our Iseul must have done... great things in a past life....”
“She does many good things in this life, Halmeonim,” he replied sincerely. Despite their disagreement, he could not deny that his “betrothed” worked hard and kept her family's well-being at heart. “And she deserves to have only good things happen to her.”
“Soon, Master Gu will be able to make sure that happens,” the housekeeper chimed in. “I mean after you and the agasshi are married!” she explained when Yong-ha gave her a blank look.
He quickly covered up his confusion and mustered a laugh. “Yes, yes, of course! After we are married, Iseul will have me to take care of her—whether she likes it or not.”
“You should... marry her soon,” Madam Park said. Her hand scrabbled over the covers to find his and squeeze it faintly. “When I am better... we will have the wedding.”
Both Yong-ha and Kyo-eul blinked. “Pardon?”
Although he and Iseul spent the better part of their time these days steering clear of each other, Yong-ha proceeded straight home after his visit to Madam Park. He had known that his “betrothed” would be there at that time, hence the timing of his own visit to the Kim household.
He found her with his mother, perusing sketches for the screen that Madam Hong had ordered. “I'm home, Omonim,” he announced to get the women's attention.
Looking up, his mother bestowed him with a bright smile. “Hello, my son. The cook found some nice oysters in the market today, so we're having oyster rice for dinner. You like that, don't you?”
“Yes, Omonim, I do,” Yong-ha replied, smiling back. The smile faded slightly as he caught Iseul's eye, but they exchanged polite nods. “Teacher Kim, may I have a word? In private?” he added when she raised her eyebrows inquiringly but made no move to get up.
“Omo.” His mother looked suspiciously at him and then at the young woman seated beside her. “One would think that this was a real betrothal, since you can't seem to wait to get Teacher Kim alone.”
“I assure you that's hardly the case, madam,” Iseul told her, glancing down at her papers and blushing.
“I apologize for interrupting, Omonim,” Yong-ha said to the older woman. “If you and Teacher Kim have finished, could I please speak with her? There is something important that we need to discuss.” Madam Hong still looked skeptical, but allowed them to take their leave.
As he hustled Iseul to the quieter end of the house, where they would not be overheard, she could not help but think that it felt like old times, when they were still on speaking terms and every little thing required a private conversation. However, that notion died a quick death when he turned to her with the same distant expression that he wore around her these days.
Telling herself that she wasn't at all disappointed, she pasted a politely interested expression on her own face. “May I ask what this is about?”
“I went to visit Halmeonim today, while you were out,” Yong-ha informed her. “I thought you might like to know that she wishes us to start planning the wedding once she gets better.”
She stiffened at that, but covered it up by straightening the shawl around her shoulders. The nights had turned cold, and the furnace for this part of the house had not been lit. “What did you tell her?”
“I told her I would talk to you about it but couldn't make any promises. Fortunately, Halmeonim didn't press the issue.” He paused. “She might mention it to you, though. I thought I should warn you.”
“Ah. Well... thank you.”
That wasn't so hard to say, was it? Yong-ha was tempted to ask, but thought the better of it. Instead, he said, “And... what are you going to say if Halmeonim starts talking about a wedding?”
“I suppose I'll tell her that we're both very busy. It's the truth, anyway.”
He made a face. She had a point, and he knew very well the importance of keeping things simple when telling lies, but such reasoning still sounded too bland for his taste. “Yes, you could say that, but you won't be able to use that excuse forever. Halmeonim will still expect you to marry me eventually.”
“Well, it will have to do, unless you wish to begin planting the seeds in her mind that we aren't going to marry after all.”
Yong-ha's expression of distaste turned into a scowl. “That would kill her.”
Iseul sighed wearily. It had been a long day, and despite all of her worries at home, she was quite looking forward to putting the day's work behind her. “Yes, this probably isn't the right time,” she agreed. “Nevertheless, we need to begin working on that after she gets better. The longer we remain 'betrothed,' the more complicated things will get when we do call things off.”
Yong-ha did not offer to escort her home that evening. It made perfect sense, Iseul told herself. He was already at his home, after all, and she had already arranged to meet Chae-mi on her way back from town so that they could go home together. However, it still felt odd not to have him around.
This evening, it was Choi Man-shik, Chae-mi's father's apprentice, who saw them home. “Abeonim made him come with me,” Chae-mi explained as Iseul settled in the cart next to her, “so I decided that he should make himself useful.”
“Oh, is that so?” Iseul addressed the stocky young man driving the cart. “Thank you for driving us home, Master Choi.”
“It's no trouble, agasshi,” he replied, slapping the reins. The cart lurched forward. “I need to bring the cart back to Master Han, anyway. Hold on tightly, please.”
“Whatever for?” Chae-mi scoffed. “It's not as though the ride will be dangerous. You're driving the slowest ox we have.”
“I promised your father that I would bring you home safely, agasshi,” Man-shik told her. “Now, hold on tightly, please.”
Although it was convenient to have the apprentice drive them home, his presence also made it difficult for the young women to have a proper chat. It was only after he had delivered them and the cart to the Hans' that the young women could converse in private.
Naturally, the first thing Chae-mi wanted to discuss was the quarrel with Yong-ha. “How was it at Master Gu's today?” she demanded when Man-shik had taken his leave. “Have you and Master Gu made up yet?”
“Not completely....” Iseul answered. “I spent most of my time there with his mother. We, ah, did not get much of a chance to talk.” Seeing her friend's worried expression, she hastened to add, “It's fine, really. Please don't worry about us.”
“What did you disagree about, anyway?” Chae-mi asked petulantly.
It was the hundredth time Chae-mi had asked, and the hundredth time Iseul had answered her thus. The disturbing thing was that the more Iseul said it, the more she was coming to realize, much to her shame, that the answer carried a fair bit of truth.
“We're still speaking, still working together,” she went on with false cheer. “We just need some time to cool our tempers, that's all.”
“Small disagreements can turn into big ones if you don't resolve them as soon as you can,” her friend advised, sounding as though she were Joseon's foremost authority on marriage. “Omonim always says that I should never to let the sun set on my anger.”
Too late for me, Iseul thought, then resolutely pushed such morose notions aside. “At any rate, Halmeonim is my most important priority right now,” she declared. “Yong-ha and I will talk things over after she recovers.”
“We'll talk things over once her grandmother recovers.”
Jae-shin shot Yong-ha a perplexed look and reached over a stack of ledgers to feel his friend's forehead. “Who are you and what have you done with Gu Yong-ha?”
Yong-ha waved off the gesture the way he would have a bothersome fly. “I'm fine, Geol-oh.”
“You don't sound fine. Why haven't you made peace with your beloved yet?”
That caused him to look up. “I seem to remember us having this sort of conversation before... except I was the one always asking you.”
“Turnabout is fair play,” Jae-shin said with a wry little smile. “Now, what's holding things up?”
“I told you, Iseul's grandmother is still sick. We're both very worried.”
And Yong-ha knew that if he was worried, then Iseul was even more so—after all, Madam Park was the only family she had that mattered. He remembered the way the lamplight had flickered over Iseul's face as she sketched for his mother, casting unflattering shadows; how she now tended to close her eyes for a moment whenever she thought he wasn't looking, when she had never done that before; the weariness that laced her voice, no matter how briefly they spoke.
“Halmeonim's recovery is the most important thing for us both right now. Whatever else is going on will keep.” He and his “betrothed” knew how things were going to end between them, anyway.
“I suppose it's a good sign if you can set it aside for a while,” Jae-shin averred, “but you shouldn't let it lie too long. You'll never know what sort of damage it's causing beneath the surface. Like a wound, you know? You think it's only a scratch, but if you let it fester, your leg has to come off.”
Yong-ha chuckled reminiscently. “Fortunately, none of the Red Messenger's scratches ever came to that.”
“Fortunately, the Red Messenger had friends to make sure that never happened,” the other man agreed. “And speaking of friends...” he continued, sounding more sober now, “is there anything I can do to help?”
“With your betrothed,” Jae-shin explained. “I thought that, if it would help, I might try to talk to her for you... or perhaps we could ask my wife to do it.”
“Ah.” Yong-ha smiled. “Well, as confident as I am about your wife's powers of persuasion, I think Iseul and I can work this out on our own. I appreciate the thought, though.
He gestured to the account book in his hand. “Now, if you don't mind, I really need to finish looking over these figures.”
The old woman moaned noiselessly and tried to stir, but was unable to move. All the strength seemed to have left her body, leaving her trapped beneath the leaden slabs of her blankets. She could not even cough despite the incessant prickling in her chest.
Why was this happening to her? Hadn't she been getting better?
So hot... and so tired. She tried to make noise again, this time managing a dusty wheeze.
“Halmeonim?” Almost immediately, someone sponged her face with water, and lifted her gently to place a cup at her lips. “Halmeonim, please drink some of this tea. You need your strength.”
She sipped at the brew. It was tepid and had a bitter aftertaste, but at least it was wet. “I-Iseul?” she managed to make out.
“The agasshi is at work.” The old woman recognized her housekeeper's voice. “But Master Gu is here!”
“Yong-ha,” she murmured happily.
“Hello, Halmeonim,” she heard him say. Someone—was it he?—blotted at her forehead again. “How are you feeling today? Would you like more tea?”
She smiled faintly at the sound of his voice, but could do little else. It hurt to talk... hurt to even think. Drinking some more tea didn't help. Her brow furrowed as she felt herself being lowered back into bed.
“It's all right, Halmeonim,” Yong-ha reassured her, patting her hand. “We can talk when you're better. I just want to sit here with you for a while.”
The old woman continued to frown. “W-work,” she said. Her thoughts seemed to be eluding her more and more these days, but something in one of the deepest recesses of her mind told her that he should not stay, even though that was exactly what she wanted.
“Work can wait. You are more important.”
She had to laugh at that, even though the laugh was little more than a tiny, soundless puff of air. “Such... good boy....”
“Your presence is doing Halmeonim a lot of good, Master Gu,” the housekeeper said, a smile in her voice.
The old woman heard him murmur a reply, then felt him cover her hand with his once more. “Please just rest, Halmeonim,” he said. “Rest and heal.”
Clinging to his hand like a child, she dropped off into a restless doze. Her fever raged on.
“Hello, Teacher Kim! How are you today?”
“I'm well, thank you, Master Bang,” Iseul replied with a polite smile to hide her puzzlement.
Ever since the lovely Miss Kang had come on the scene, Iseul tried her best to steer clear of Bang Jung-soo. Although she wasn't besotted with him any longer, it felt right to keep away from him; she could not afford any misunderstanding if she was to continue teaching his sister. It worked quite well, too, especially since the young man did not actively seek her company, either.
Until now, for some reason.
“It has been a while since we've spoken, hasn't it?” he asked, smiling in his usual friendly way. “However did that happen?”
“I suppose we've both been very busy.”
As she spoke, she could not help but think that, once upon a time, she would have been thrilled by a moment like this. Today, however, it seemed to have as much significance to her as an exchange of pleasantries with a casual acquaintance.
“How are my sister's lessons coming along?”
Jung-hwa, who had been working at Iseul's side, looked up with a quizzical expression on her face. “Orabeoni, I see you practically every day. Why not just ask me?”
“Well, Teacher Kim is the professional,” he explained. “I must ask her if I am to get an objective opinion.”
Just then, they heard the babble of voices outside. “Where is she?” one of them demanded. “In here?”
Iseul frowned. The speaker sounded familiar. She was about to remark on it when the door to the study room slid open to reveal— “Gu Yong-ha?”
He breathed a gusty sigh of relief when he saw that she was within. “Iseul. Thank goodness. Come, I've got to take you home.”
“Teacher Kim hasn't quite finished here yet, Master Gu,” Jung-soo protested.
“Yes, she has,” Yong-ha replied with uncharacteristic brusqueness, striding into the room. His overcoat, today a bright violet brocade, swished impatiently around him. “This is a family emergency.”
Iseul leapt to her feet. “Emergency?” she repeated. “Has something happened to my grandmother?”
“Sorry, maybe that wasn't the best word to use.” Her “betrothed” broke into a grin. “Halmeonim's fever has broken. She's asking for you.”
“It has?” She choked out a laugh and pressed a hand to her chest to try and calm her now-racing heart.
“Would I joke about something like that?” He walked over to her and took her firmly by the arm. “Come on!”
Iseul allowed herself to be towed towards the door, but managed to remember where she was and stopped short before they could cross the threshold. “But....” she stammered, glancing quickly at the girl still working on her painting, “Jung-hwa's lesson....”
“Go home, seonsaengnim,” Jung-hwa told her. “You should not keep your grandmother waiting. Do not worry about me. I will finish my painting, and you can look it over next time.” She slid her brother an arch glance. “Orabeoni can watch and see for himself whether I have improved.”
Yong-ha, apparently now restored to his usual charming self, favored her with a brilliant smile. “Thank you, agasshi.”
“A-and my things!” Iseul blurted out, looking with dismay at the brushes and paints spread out over the worktable.
“We'll send for them later,” he told her, tugging on her arm again. “Now, do you want to see your grandmother or not? Let's go!”
“I see that you and Master Bang are still on speaking terms.”
“Hmm?” Iseul asked. “Oh. Well, of course we are. I could not just cut all ties after, ah, you know... I needed to keep working there, after all. That was the first time he's spoken to me at length since then, though.”
Yong-ha grunted, keeping his eyes resolutely on the road. “You should be on guard when a man seeks you out all of a sudden. You'll never know what he might ultimately want from you.
“That doesn't apply to me, of course,” he added quickly, before she could turn his well-meaning lecture against him. “I came looking for you on Halmeonim's behalf.”
She made a noise that sounded gratifyingly like a laugh. “I know. And I understand. I don't think Bang Jung-soo had any bad intentions, especially with his sister in the room; but having him approach me after so long felt odd, so I was careful.”
Iseul adjusted her hold around Yong-ha's waist. She had shared a horse with him many times before, but tonight he felt especially, disconcertingly solid. It was because he was blocking out most of the winter cold, she told herself. “Gu Yong-ha?”
She felt her face grow warm and was glad that he couldn't see. “I just... thank you.” She took a deep breath. “A-and I'm sorry.”
There was a pregnant pause, then she felt him nod. “You're welcome,” he said, “and apology accepted. I hope we'll have an easier time of it the next time I try to help—and I will, if I believe that you or Halmeonim need it. I see you and Halmeonim as my friends, after all, and my other friends will tell you that I will do anything to help them, whether or not they want it.
“Now, let's not speak of this anymore,” Yong-ha concluded. “I think we've reflected on the situation long enough.”
Iseul did as she was bidden and stayed silent, but her clasped hands dipped slightly. He thought nothing of it, thinking the horse's movements might have had something to do with it, until they slipped further down to below his belt.
He cleared his throat. “Ah... Iseul?” he ventured, glancing furtively around them. The street was dim and deserted, but decent women did not touch men thus in public. “Doing a little research for, ah, you-know-who?”
His voice cracked on the last syllable as her hands slid even lower, dangerously close to his crotch. Resolutely, he caught her hands in his and planted them at a decorous level above his waist. True friends did not let their friends behave inappropriately in public. (They also did not imagine their friends doing such things, he reminded himself.)
The motion tugged Iseul closer and she sagged against his back. Over his shoulder, Yong-ha could hear the slow, even breathing of a person deep in slumber.
He chuckled even as his heart continued to race. Given his luck, she had probably fallen asleep during his little speech about their being friends.
No matter, he thought as his horse plodded on down the silent, shadowy street. Now that they had made amends, there would be plenty of chances to tell her everything all over again.
Chapter 16: Chapter Fifteen
Technical Notes: The ship jangsaeng are also known as the Ten Symbols of Longevity, which are popular motifs in Korean traditional paintings.
Author's Notes: I'm back, after an epic struggle to finish this chapter (I'm still not 100% satisfied with it) and numerous distractions both writing-wise and IRL. Hopefully the rest of the fic will be faster to write - though I think I've said that before. Thanks to Poisonous_Lullaby for the review, and to everyone who left kudos and is otherwise still following this fic!
It was fortunate that Yong-ha and Iseul reached an accord when they did, because after that Iseul needed to spend a lot more time at the Gu home. Yong-ha's mother decided that the screen that Iseul was painting would look “just wonderful” if the family were depicted in it, which then required everyone to pose for sketches.
Master Gu was looking decidedly disgruntled when Yong-ha arrived home that afternoon. “Is there a problem, Abeonim?” he asked.
Madam Hong, who was walking behind her husband, waved him off. “Everything's fine. Your father just had to sit for Teacher Kim today.”
“A waste of time,” the older man growled.
“Oh, stop,” his wife chided. “We were seated comfortably, and she let us move around every so often to keep from getting stiff.”
Yong-ha chuckled as his parents procceded down the corridor, still bickering. Things would be easier—although far less entertaining—if his father just admitted that he was indulging his wife's caprices.
“Is there a problem?”
He turned back and grinned at Iseul, who was peeking out of the room that had been set aside for her to work. “Everything's fine,” he reassured her. “My father is just making a big show out of having to indulge my mother, that's all.
“How did the sketching go?” he asked then, entering the workroom and walking towards the low table littered with paper and charcoal sticks. “May I see?”
“They're just rough drawings,” she warned him. “I have some idea of how it will look, but nothing is final yet.”
Yong-ha nodded as she looked over her sketches. “Nevertheless, these are very good. That is exactly the way my father sits—I should know, he lectures me from that position often enough.”
She chuckled softly. “Thank you.”
He studied her profile for a moment, realized he was doing so, and then cleared his throat. “Hwa-jae seems to be lying low at the moment,” he remarked in a low voice.
Iseul's eyes flew to his, and then around the room to check if anyone else could have overheard. “Ye-es,” she said when she had assured herself that they were alone. “I, ah, think I overextended myself while Halmeonim was ill, so now that she is out of danger I have decided to limit myself to teaching my regular students and painting this screen—at least for the time being.”
Yong-ha wanted to ask if the household could get by if she did that, but wisely held his tongue. He had already gotten in trouble once with that sort of talk, and was certain that Iseul had carefully considered all the financial implications of her decision. Instead, he said, “We can't have you getting sick yourself.”
“Besides,” she added with an impish smile, “I cannot have Hwa-jae be too available. It will bring my prices down.”
He had to chuckle at that. “That's wise. Are you finished working for the day?”
Iseul surveyed the mess of drawing materials on the worktable, then sighed and sat down to begin packing them away. “I suppose I should stop for now, otherwise I will start trying out different poses and completely lose track of time.”
“Do you have a lesson?” he asked, kneeling down to help her. “I could take you to wherever you need to go.”
“That won't be necessary.” She glanced at the weak winter daylight filtering in through the rice paper windowpanes. “It's still bright outside. Besides, you're already at home. It wouldn't make sense to go out again.”
Yong-ha waved away her protests. “It will get dark soon. You should not go home alone, and it would be cruel to send for your servant to come and fetch you in this cold.
“Besides,” he added with a mischievous smile of his own, “I want to visit Halmeonim, but cannot turn up empty-handed. What better present can I give her than her precious granddaughter, home safe and sound?”
“It's not too cold, is it, Halmeonim?”
A laugh issued from the bundle of blankets huddled between Yong-ha and Iseul. “How could I possibly be cold when you've wrapped me in every blanket in the house?”
“We don't want you catching a chill again,” Yong-ha told her. Beside him, Kyo-eul whined and thumped his tail worshipfully, which earned him a fond pat on the head. “Your illness had us very worried.”
“I did sense that.” Madam Park sighed. “But now you're relaxed around each other again. I'm glad, and sorry to have worried you so.”
Blushing, Iseul exchanged rueful glances with Yong-ha. Apparently, they had not hidden their quarrel as well as they had thought. “Think nothing of it, Halmeonim,” she mumbled. “Everything turned out for the best.”
The blankets shifted as her grandmother nodded. “Yes, it did; and now that I am better, you can begin planning the wedding!”
She froze at that. “Ah... but....”
“We must consult an astrologer soon,” Madam Park continued enthusiastically. “Madam Im, the dyer, was recommending one before I got sick. Let me get the name from her again and we'll—“
“Oh, dear,” Yong-ha said suddenly. “I'm afraid this isn't a good time for me. I need to start thinking about the styles that my shop will offer in the spring.”
“Spring?!” the old woman repeated in disbelief. “But we're barely into winter!”
“I know, but I must think of these things a season in advance. It's how I stay ahead of my competition.”
This latest excuse to stall the wedding preparations helped Iseul regain her powers of speech. “Y-you said yourself, Halmeonim, that Yong-ha's shop is the best,” she pointed out. “Of course, he has to work very hard if his shop is to remain so.”
“Of course,” Madam Park agreed, sounding so disappointed that her granddaughter couldn't help feeling a little bit guilty.
“I wish we could proceed with planning the wedding and not need to worry about anything else, Halmeonim,” Yong-ha said gently to the old woman, “but I must make a living, especially now that I'll soon have a wife to support. We can see the astrologer when I'm no longer so busy.”
“I guess that's what we will have to do. I'll get the name from Madam Im, at least—that way, we'll be ready to make an appointment the next time you are free. You'll let me know, won't you?”
“Of course I will.”
Iseul's eyes met Yong-ha's over her grandmother's head and she shot him a grateful look. He smiled and gave her a little wink. It wasn't the first time he had winked at her, but for some reason, this time caused a her heart to flutter strangely.
She covered up her discomfiture by trying to distract her grandmother further. “You can probably ask Madam Im about it when she comes to visit, Halmeonim,” she suggested.
If they were lucky, it would be a long time before the dyer visited again and Madam Park would have forgotten all about the astrologer by then. If not, then Yong-ha would have to stay very busy for the foreseeable future.
“That was a close escape,” Yong-ha said a few days later. “Has Halmeonim said anything more about planning the wedding?”
“No.” Iseul glanced up, peered at him closely, then cast her eyes down again. “She's preoccupied with getting stronger; fortunately for us, she's fixated on that at the moment.”
“Yes, that is fortunate,” he agreed. “May I move now?”
He pouted. “But my arms hurt.”
“I wish you wouldn't make that face, Yong-ha,” Madam Hong complained from where she sat beside Iseul. “It's not at all attractive.”
Iseul looked up from the sketch before her and studied him for a long moment. “It's all right, madam,” she assured the older woman. “He makes that face whenever he wants something.
“Clearly,” she added with a sweet smile in Yong-ha's direction, “he wishes me to paint him looking that way.”
“That is not it at all,” he complained, but assumed a more pleasant expression nonetheless.
The smile grew into a full-fledged grin. “Well, it wasn't my idea for you to be standing in your portrait,” Iseul pointed out, chuckling. “In fact, I suggested that you be seated, like the rest of your family.” Both Yong-ha's father and brother had opted to pose seated at their worktables, with their wives at their sides.
“I wanted to be different. I just had no idea of the price I would need to pay.”
She sketched in silence for a few moments before laying down her charcoal stick with a sigh. “All right, all right, you can rest for a while. I think I've got the pose mostly done, anyway.
“Of course,” she couldn't help but add, “if you don't like it, then you can pose all over again.”
“I'm sure it's perfect.”
“You're standing clear across the room,” his mother pointed out.
“I'm more than familiar with Teacher Kim's work by now, Omonim,” Yong-ha said, “so I am absolutely certain that the drawing is perfect.” He made his way over to them and gave the sketch a cursory look. “See, what did I tell you? Perfect.”
“You just don't want to pose anymore,” Madam Hong accused, but a smile played around her lips.
“What's going on here?” Master Gu stuck his head through the doorway and frowned at his wife and son. “Are you bothering Teacher Kim?”
“I'm posing, Abeonim,” Yong-ha told him quickly. “I mean, I was posing. I'm taking a break right now.” He grimaced and rotated his shoulders. “My arms were getting stiff.”
“And I'm supervising,” his mother added. “After all, I ordered the screen. I think I'm entitled to have some control over how it will look.”
Despite these explanations, Yong-ha's father still looked skeptical, so Iseul hastened to smooth things over. “It's all right, Master Gu; they weren't bothering me at all. As a teacher, I'm quite accustomed to having people watch me work.”
The older man harrumphed. “If you say so,” he said, and wandered over to have a look at the sketch. “Looks good. Are you going with that pose?”
“It's what your son wants,” Madam Hong sighed. “It also means his panel will have to go in the middle. It would look terribly awkward if everyone were seated except for Yong-ha, standing by himself at the end.”
“That's exactly what I was hoping you would say, Omonim,” Yong-ha said with a brilliant smile.
“You always have to be the center of attention,” Master Gu remarked, arching an eyebrow at his son, then turned back to Iseul. “Are you nearly done making drawings of us, then? Will you be able to start working on the actual screen?”
“Soon, sir,” she assured him. She had not missed his discreet glance at one corner of the room, which held a stack of silk panels. The fabric had already been treated and stretched over wooden frames, and was ready to be painted. “Yong-ha is the last one to pose for me, and I have discussed with the madam on how she would like the ship jangsaeng to be featured. I've been working on a possible design and, once the madam approves, I will begin painting the panels.”
Her progress report was met with an approving nod. “Excellent,” said Master Gu. “I look forward to seeing it take shape.”
Iseul's sketch must have been good, or else Madam Hong had also picked up on her husband's impatience for work on the screen to proceed, for the proposed design was accepted with minimal quibbling.
Yong-ha watched, barely breathing, as Iseul painted the outline of a stand of pine trees onto the first panel. For a moment, he felt like a little boy again, spellbound by the wonders taking shape beneath Madam Park's needle; but that feeling passed quickly, for the man was eventually distracted by the graceful lines of Iseul's arm as it held the paintbrush, the glint of the amber garakji that still dangled around her neck, and the scent of the perfume he had chosen for her.
(He had done well in selecting that particular fragrance, he thought. Perhaps too well....)
He started, nearly dropping the ledger he was supposed to be studying, when someone tapped his shoulder, and again when he turned to discover his father at his side. “Still posing, are you?” Master Gu asked, speaking in a low voice to avoid disrupting Iseul's work.
“Quality control,” he whispered back.
The older man quirked a quizzical eyebrow, but Iseul interrupted before he could reply. “Good afternoon, Master Gu,” she greeted him, straightening and carefully setting aside her brush. “How are you today?”
Yong-ha hid a smile as his father assumed a more polite expression to address her. “Very well, thank you, Teacher Kim. I just came in to make sure that this rascal wasn't disturbing you.”
“I'm working, too, Abeonim,” he said, holding up his ledger with a wounded air. Several others, some of which were actually open, were on the worktable in front of him along with writing materials and an abacus for making calculations.
His father harrumphed. “Still, I don't understand why you need to hang about here, of all places.”
“Well, first of all, it's quiet here,” Yong-ha explained. “Most suitable for concentrating on my accounts. Second, it's convenient when I need to consult Iseul about Chamber of Commerce matters—during her breaks, of course,” he hastened to clarify. “And finally, it would be a waste to work elsewhere and have another furnace lit, wouldn't it?”
Iseul chuckled softly at the glare that Master Gu sent his son. “It really is all right, Master Gu,” she said as she stretched out her arm, which felt a bit stiff from holding the brush for such a long time. “Yong-ha was so quiet that I barely knew he was there.
“He used to watch my grandmother work, back when she used to do embroidery for the madam,” she added. “I suppose you could say that my Halmeonim trained him well.”
Master Gu harrumphed at that, but allowed his attention to shift towards the work in progress before her. “That's very nice. But you are not doing the portraits first?”
Iseul smiled. Had he hoped to see what his would look like? “I am afraid not, sir. There is a lot of pressure in doing portraits, so I need to work my way up to that.”
“Ah, is that so? Well, no need to push yourself if it will affect your results. Have you had anything to eat? Yong-ha, have the servants bring this poor girl some food and something warm to drink!”
The younger man grinned and got to his feet. “Right away, Abeonim. I'll tell them to bring a lot—there is a Chamber meeting coming up, so there is much that Iseul and I need to discuss.”
“In that case, have them bring some for me as well.” Master Gu settled himself more comfortably next to Yong-ha's worktable. “If this is about business, then I should hear about it.”
Yong-ha was so quiet that I barely knew he was there.
That was not entirely true, Iseul thought to herself as she crossed the marketplace a few days after that conversation with Master Gu. Yong-ha indeed tried to stay as unobtrusive as possible, but she always seemed to sense when he was watching her. However, that wasn't something she could say to his father.
“Vegetable seller's closed,” rumbled Chin-hae, walking behind her with that day's shopping.
“I suppose Master Choo doesn't have much to sell these days,” she replied.
Although people still traded in the wintertime, the buzz of activity seemed greatly subdued. Vendors of fresh produce closed for the season, or sold limited stocks of grain or root crops. Other shops selling non-perishable items remained open, but storekeepers kept their doors and windows shut against the cold. Only a few people were out and about these days, preferring to do their errands quickly so that they could return home where it was warm.
A stiff breeze blew, ruffling Iseul's skirts and sending fingers of cold air around her ankles. “Omo! Teacher Kim!” a woman called. “What are you doing out in this weather?”
She managed to suppress a cringe before turning to greet the speaker with a cordial smile. “Hello, Madam Sung.”
The ahjumma bustled out of her shop, wrapping her fur-lined winter vest more securely around herself. “Are you still working these days?”
“Yes, madam. Most of my students are carrying on with their lessons, and Madam Hong has commissioned me to do some work for her.”
“Madam Hong? Gu Yong-ha's mother?” Madam Sung eyed her speculatively. “That means you'll be spending a lot of time at your betrothed's house. Is that at all proper?”
“Well, if we are to be married anyway, I might as well get accustomed to being in his house, should I not?”
Iseul tried her best to keep her tone light—even mustered a polite little laugh—but must have not done a good job in hiding her annoyance, for Madam Sung laid a hand on her arm in a placating gesture. “Oh, Teacher Kim,” the older woman said, “I hope you understand that I speak out of concern for your well-being. It's in your best interests to still observe the proprieties while you and Master Gu are not yet wed.”
“Please be assured, madam, that nothing improper is going on. I have my grandmother and my family's reputation to think of, after all.” She glanced over her shoulder at Chin-hae, still standing behind her with the shopping basket. “Speaking of which, we must be on our way. Our housekeeper is waiting for the things that we bought.”
“Please wait a moment!” Madam Sung rushed into her shop and came out again with a small parcel, which she pressed upon Iseul. “Please take this for your grandmother, a small gift from me. I'm so glad she's doing better.”
Iseul noted the desperation in the older woman's eyes, supposed that Madam Sung was afraid of burning bridges with the future daughter-in-law of one of Joseon's wealthiest families, and promptly softened her expression. Oh, if she only knew.... “Thank you, Madam Sung,” she said with a genuine smile. “I'm sure Halmeonim will enjoy this, and I will definitely remember you to her. Now, please excuse us, we must be on our way.” She bowed politely. “Good day.”
Yong-ha yawned and pushed away his abacus. “Ya, how are you coming along over there?” he called across the room. “Are you still alive?”
“Ye-e-es....” Iseul replied faintly, not bothering to look up from her work. Three of the four panels that would not contain depictions of the family were already covered with delicate tracings of black. Once all the figures on the panels had been outlined, she said, she would finally add color to highlight and add dimension.
“You've been working practically nonstop since this morning, and it's full dark now. Should you not call it a day already?”
As the work on his mother's screen began in earnest, he discovered that she tended to become quite obsessive when painting; prior to this, he had only ever seen her do quick sketches in charcoal or small embellishments on the garments he sold—nothing that demanded this level of commitment.
“Halmeonim might be wondering where you are,” Yong-ha remembered to add.
He had not thought to mention Madam Park when he first had to pry Iseul away from her work at the end of the day, so initially it was difficult to convince her to go home and rest. Fortunately, he had learned quickly, telling himself that a little emotional blackmail was acceptable if it was for Iseul's own good.
“You're right,” she sighed. “Let me just finish this fish and I will stop for the day.”
“Good girl.” He had her word, but just for good measure, he watched her draw the outline of the fish and set aside her paintbrush as promised when it was finished. “Are you all right?” he asked as she bent and extended her arm and fingers, wincing as she did so.
“I'm fine.” Iseul gave him a pained smile. “Just the usual stiffness from painting all day.”
Yong-ha tsked and rose to cross to her side of the room. “You really should rest your hand more often,” he chided. “And keep it warm whenever you can, especially now that it's winter. You might do lasting damage to your hand if you keep up this pace. How will you work if you do not take care of yourself?”
“I know,” she said. “But you cannot imagine how it feels when you are doing well on project. It feels—“ She stopped short when she realized that he had been massaging her hand with both of his for the past several moments. “It feels... as though you have to keep going.”
Their eyes met, Yong-ha looking as though he had also just realized what he was doing, and the thumb rubbing the back of her hand dragged to a stop. Iseul thought he would release her, but instead he leaned over and covered her lips with his own.
She had thought herself quite worldly after the first kiss she had requested from him, but that one was a pale imitation of what she was experiencing now. That first one, though pleasant, had been tentative, even clinical. In comparison, this kiss was from a man who knew what he was about—a man who knew just how to angle his head, how hard to nibble on her lower lip, how to tease her lips apart so that he could explore.
So that's how it's done.
Iseul's eyes flew open when he pulled away and jumped to his feet. It took her a moment to register that someone was calling their names, and she quickly turned away to hide her face. “O-omo, my brushes,” she said in a voice that she barely recognized as her own. “I should clean them or the ink might freeze.”
Yong-ha cleared this throat. “There—there might still be some water on the brazier.” He stood like a lump for an awkward moment or two before spinning on his heel and starting for the door, mumbling something about going to the kitchen for more.
He bumped into his brother just outside the door. “Ah, hyung!” he greeted him with as casual a tone as he could muster. “Were you looking for me?”
An-jeong nodded. “Abeonim asked me to check if Teacher Kim is still here.”
“Yes! Yes, she is.” He gestured towards the door to the workroom. “She's inside, packing up her things.”
“That's good. She has been here the whole day and must be tired. Does she need a servant to see her home?”
Briefly, Yong-ha thought that it might be a good idea to have someone else escort his “betrothed” this time, but decided against it. “I will take care of that,” he said. Perhaps he could take it as an opportunity to explain his actions... once he came up with such an explanation.
He then realized that An-jeong was looking at him oddly. “What?” he asked. “What's wrong?”
“Just that your clothes are a little rumpled.” The other man reached out to straighten the front of Yong-ha's overcoat, which no longer lay flat under his belt. “I can't believe you, of all people, are letting yourself walk around like that.”
“Ah.” He reddened, trying not to think about how that might have happened. “Well, thanks.”
An-jeong waited for his brother to leave, and listened briefly at the workroom door to make sure that Iseul was all right, before finally allowing himself to grin. Anyone could tell from the poleaxed look on Yong-ha's face—and his failure to notice that his clothes were in disarray—that something had happened in that room just moments ago.
The pair had been playing at being betrothed for quite a while now, and did not seem to be in any hurry to end things. As time passed, An-jeong grew increasingly worried about how the situation might be resolved with minimal damage to all involved. It had not occurred to him until now that an honest-to-goodness wedding was an option.
He was still grinning when he returned to the room he shared with his wife. Hearing the door open, Geun-hye looked up from her sewing and gave him a slightly puzzled look. “What is so amusing?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing much.” An-jeong sat down beside her and smiled at the tiny garments she was making. They were a present for his parents, to convey the happy news that Geun-hye had finally conceived. “It's just funny how things work out, that's all.”
Given recent events, it was no surprise that the ride to Iseul's home was steeped in stilted silence. Yong-ha had hoped they use the time to could talk things over and move past the incident, but he had no idea what to say.
At first, he thought that the kiss had simply been a mad impulse; then he supposed that it could have been the result of spending weeks in such close quarters. Or perhaps he had been drunk—could one get drunk from the smell of ink and too much bookkeeping? (This would have been much easier if alcohol had been involved!) And what were they to do now? It was a good thing that no one had seen them, or else they would be in an even bigger bind.
Yong-ha tried his best to sift through his jumbled thoughts, but all he could think about was how right it had felt to kiss Kim Iseul.
For her part, Iseul spent most of the trip home willing herself to calm down. It was just a kiss—a very nice one, but just a kiss nevertheless. People kissed all the time, even though the elders (like Madam Sung, she supposed) still believed that it was appropriate only for married couples.
That still left the question of why Yong-ha had kissed her this time; she supposed she would deal with the explanation when he actually offered one. In the meantime, the best way forward was to act as though nothing extraordinary had taken place, but she was at a loss as to how to make that happen.
Iseul broke the silence when they stopped in the Kims' front yard. “Thank you,” she murmured as he helped her dismount.
With a bow, she made to leave, but Yong-ha took her arm before she could go. “Iseul, wait.”
She chanced a look at his face, but her eyes quickly skittered away again at the intent look she saw there. “What—what is it?”
“She's here,” Chin-hae's voice rumbled before Yong-ha could say anything more, and Iseul turned to see the burly manservant emerge from the house with another person in tow.
Recognizing the second person, she exclaimed, “Master Jo! What brings you here?”
The Ma servant's face was ashen and grave in the winter moonlight. “Agasshi, I am sorry to be the bringer of bad news, but your grandfather has died.”
Chapter 17: Chapter Sixteen
Technical Notes: The josang (funeral) here is based on a number of sources on Korean funeral customs and etiquette. Some gave information that the others did not, so I combined what I could find as best as I could. (However, there was nothing in my sources about professional mourners. I added them here because I figured that the Ma family can afford to have other people do the keening and crying for them.)
Also, Sungnyemun is the traditional name for Namdaemun ("Great South Gate") in Seoul. The market next to it dates back to the 1400s, so it would likely be around during the period in which the SKKS-verse is set.
Author's Notes: Two months between chapters - not bad, given how slowly I write and how busy I've been IRL these days. Hopefully the rest of this fic will be as easy to write - I think I've only got a few chapters to go! Thanks to everyone who is still hanging in there and waiting patiently for me to update!
Yong-ha hated funerals.
They were very important events, of course, but they were also so depressing. Since the entire point of the occasion was the fact that someone had died, a pall of sadness hung over the gathering. Conversations were hushed and centered around innocuous, or not at all cheerful, subjects. They skirted around the topic of death, but it was on everyone's minds nonetheless; if they were not thinking of the departed, then they might be reflecting on their own mortality.
Besides that, there were the mourning clothes. People naturally dressed to fit the somber mood, so there were none of the vivid colors or dashing styles that Yong-ha so loved. Wouldn't it be better, he thought, to throw a party, dress in your finest, and remember the deceased in a happy way?
However, he did understand that not everyone shared his views, and that observing proper etiquette showed respect to the grieving family. That was the only reason why he was allowing himself to be seen in public that evening in his plainest (yet still impeccably tailored) black overcoat and no ornamentation whatsoever.
“We're almost there, Halmeonim,” he said to Madam Park, who walked between him and Iseul. Snow crunched beneath their feet.
“Yes, I can hear the people talking,” she replied. Although this was her first outing since recovering from her illness, she did not seem to be in any discomfort. “I am not walking too slowly for you, am I?”
“No, no, of course not!”
Yong-ha waited for Iseul to chime in with her own assurances, but his “betrothed” said nothing and kept walking, a silent and forlorn figure in her drab mourning clothes. They were definitely not from his shop, but were in decent enough condition. The absolute worst thing about her appearance, in his opinion, was the haunted look that had not left her eyes since learning that her grandfather had died.
The trio stopped at the front gate of the Ma residence. Awnings had been set up in the front yard to protect the tables and fire pots beneath from any falling snow; and as Madam Park had sensed, there was a number of people seated at the tables despite the cold weather, evidence of the late Ma Byung-chul's standing in the community. They could hear loud wails coming from within the house.
“We do not have to go inside, Iseul,” she heard Yong-ha tell her. “We can turn back if you wish.”
The idea was tempting, but Iseul shook her head after only the briefest of hesitations. “I should go. He... he was my grandfather, after all.” Her grandmother patted her arm and she laid her hand over the old woman's, seeking strength from the contact.
Yong-ha inclined his head. “All right, then. Let's go.”
They attracted little attention on their way inside the house, but encountered her half-siblings in the front room. Ki-hoon, naturally fulfilling the duties of the sangju in his capacity as the oldest son of the family, sat on a rough mat beside the ancestral shrine, upon which their grandfather's memorial tablet was prominently displayed. On the other side of the shrine sat a trio of professional mourners, weeping and wailing loudly. Iseul's half-siblings all wore traditional mourning clothes made of hemp.
She tried to ignore their gazes and concentrated instead on guiding her grandmother to stand before the shrine. Together with Yong-ha, they knelt and performed the customary bows. They then bowed to Ki-hoon. “Our condolences on your loss,” Madam Park said to him.
“Thank you,” Ki-hoon replied, returning the bow politely.
Since her grandmother was present and the sangju was discouraged from speaking too much, Iseul thought that the conversation would be brief and somehow civil for once, but sadly her half-sisters were not subject to such restrictions and had more than enough poison to make up for Ki-hoon's silence.
“I suppose it's a good thing you and Master Gu haven't set a date for your wedding yet,” Ki-sook said with false sweetness. “Otherwise, you would not have been able to come tonight.”
“Yes, it's funny how things turn out, is it not?” Iseul agreed mildly.
“Wild horses could not keep us from coming to pay our respects,” Yong-ha chimed in. He took her hand and gave her an audacious wink. “If it had been necessary, we could have broken our betrothal and called off the wedding, then betrothed ourselves again after the burial.”
Madam Park squawked at the outrageous suggestion, but seemed to understand that he was joking. For her part, Iseul tried to look like an incipient bride. (The warm flush that spread over her cheeks at that wink helped.)
“Master Gu, I don't see your family here with you,” remarked Ki-ja, the younger of Iseul's half-sisters. Unlike her brother and sister, who were on the thin side, Ki-ja was short and plump. However, all three shared the sour expression that seemed to run in the Ma family (and from which Iseul had been fortunately spared). “What a shame that they couldn't accompany their, ah, soon-to-be daughter-in-law to a family function.”
Though innocuous at the surface, but the implications of the sisters' words were clear: that the Gu family did not believe Iseul to be a worthy bride for Yong-ha. Thus, they were dragging their heels on setting a date for the wedding, and keeping an obvious distance from her.
The barbs were not lost on Madam Park, who finally frowned at Ki-ja's words. “Yong-ha, did you not mention on our way here that your parents could not come tonight because your father has another appointment?”
“Yes, Halmeonim,” Yong-ha confirmed with a smile as he intertwined his fingers with Iseul's in a seemingly idle gesture. Her fingers wriggled briefly in his hold, but she made no attempt to free herself. “My father has an important meeting that he could not put off. Naturally, he and my mother were very disappointed that they could not come with us.”
“Ah.” The old woman nodded. “Then surely the Mas, being another family of businessmen, would understand why Master Gu is not here.”
“I am sure they do, Halmeonim.” He fixed Iseul's half-siblings with a penetrating look. “My father asked me to convey his regrets for tonight,” he told them pleasantly, “and promises that they will visit another time.
“In the meantime, please do accept this funeral money from me and my betrothed.” Tucking Iseul's hand in the crook of his arm, Yong-ha proffered a pouch heavy with coins. “And do take some time to admire the embroidery on that pouch,” he could not resist adding. “It was one of Halmeonim's last pieces before she lost her eyesight. It's priceless.”
He was sure that Ki-hoon would like nothing better than to throw the money back in their faces, but the other man knew better than to make such a scene. “It's beautiful,” he said grudgingly.
“Thank you,” Madam Park replied with a gracious smile. Then, all of a sudden, she stumbled slightly.
Both Yong-ha and Iseul rounded on her in an instant. “Halmeonim, are you all right?” Iseul demanded.
“Yes, I'm fine,” her grandmother assured her, and inclined her head towards Ki-hoon and his sisters. “Omo, please excuse me. Could I possibly sit down? This is the longest I have been from home since my illness, and I am still feeling a bit weak.”
“Y-yes, of course,” Ki-sook said, eyeing the old woman warily, as though she was going to expire in front of them at any moment. “Please make yourself comfortable, and have some food and drink.” She waved to a nearby servant. “Master Jo will show you to a table.”
“In case we are unable to speak again before you leave,” Ki-ja chimed in, “thank you for coming.”
Iseul squarely met her half-sister's eyes as their grandfather's right-hand man appeared. “It was only right that we pay our respects,” she said, and took her leave with the sketchiest of bows.
“Is this spot warm enough, madam?” Master Jo asked Iseul's grandmother solicitously as he settled them at a free table not far from a fire pot.
“Yes, this is fine, thank you,” Madam Park assured him. She smiled as she spoke, and did not sound at all uncomfortable, but Iseul nevertheless adjusted the cloak around the old woman's shoulders and Yong-ha checked for drafts.
The manservant hastened to serve them makgeolli and piping-hot bowls of spicy beef soup. “Please accept my condolences, agasshi,” he said to Iseul after adding rice and side dishes to the spread. “He was your grandfather, too.”
Iseul nodded. “Thank you,” she replied around the sudden lump in her throat. She did not have any burning desire to mourn openly alongside her half-siblings, but Master Jo was one of the very few people outside the Kim household to offer their sympathies.
“Did Master Ma pass peacefully?” Yong-ha asked Master Jo in a low voice.
The manservant nodded. “He died in his sleep,” he said. “I think some had been expecting it, as my master's health had been poor for some time, but it was still a shock.”
“As I imagine any death would be. How long is the josang?”
“Seven days. Some of my master's business partners are still on their way from Jeonju.” Just then, someone called Master Jo's name. “Excuse me,” he said. “I must get back to my duties.”
“Of course,” Yong-ha answered. “Thank you very much for seeing to us.”
Master Jo bowed and motioned to the table. “Please eat. And call for me if you need anything else.”
They stayed just long enough to eat some of the food, then discreetly took their leave. Besides needing to consider Madam Park's health, Yong-ha thought it best to avoid any more awkward encounters.
Upon arriving at the Kim residence, Iseul excused herself to go to her room, leaving her grandmother and Kyo-eul to entertain Yong-ha while he took some tea. “It sounded as though there were a lot of people at the Mas' house tonight,” Madam Park remarked, reaching for her cup.
He stopped scratching Kyo-eul's ears to nudge the vessel closer to her hand. “Yes, Halmeonim, there was quite a crowd.”
She placed her fingers carefully around the cup and smiled her thanks. “I suppose there will be even more visitors later, when the people from out of town arrive. Will you visit them again?”
“I suppose so, if my parents ask me to accompany them, or if Iseul wants to return.”
The old woman sighed at the mention of her granddaughter's name. “She's upset by her grandfather's death, isn't she? She has said very little about it since hearing the news and I cannot see her face, but I can tell.”
“I think you're right, Halmeonim,” he agreed, taking a thoughtful sip of his tea. “She seems a little... lost. Do you remember her being like this when your husband passed away?”
As he spoke, Kyo-eul lifted his head from where it lay on Yong-ha's lap, as if wondering why no one was scratching his ears. He lay back down—among a fair number of loose dog hairs, Yong-ha noticed—when the young man resumed his ministrations.
Madam Park nodded slowly. “Both of us felt cast adrift when Ok-boon died. He was the pillar of our family, after all. Despite his treatment of her, Ma Byung-chul seems to have had a similar presence in Iseul's life.”
She sipped her tea. “You're probably tired and have work to do tomorrow, but... do you suppose you could stay a little longer and see to Iseul?” she asked him. “Make sure she is all right?”
“Ah....” Yong-ha stammered, momentarily discombobulated by the request (and the thousand possible ways of consoling Iseul that sprang to mind). She is not asking you to do anything improper, he reminded himself. That's just your imagination running away with you.
“Yes, o-of course, Halmeonim,” he said finally. “I cannot go home without making sure that our Iseul is at least settled for the night.”
“The agasshi's room is right there, young master, the one with the light burning inside.”
Yong-ha nodded as he and Chin-hae crossed the inner courtyard, towards the small building on the left. “Thank you.”
The manservant paused at the steps. “I will be nearby in case I am needed.”
“I understand,” the younger man replied, hiding a smile.
Under Chin-hae's watchful eye, Yong-ha removed his shoes, walked up to Iseul's door, and knocked. “It's me,” he said. “Are you decent?”
He listened for a moment. Iseul—assuming she was within—gave no answer, but he didn't hear the rustle of clothes, either. Surely she had finished changing while he had been chatting with her grandmother.
“You have ten seconds, and then I'm going in.”
After counting loudly to no reaction from inside, Yong-ha opened the door.
Iseul's room had the slightly cluttered look of an active workspace. Various boxes, some sporting random dabs of paint, were stacked haphazardly around the room along with rolls of paper and containers of brushes and charcoal sticks. Paintings, likely Iseul's own work, splashed color on the walls. The requisite wardrobe for clothes and bedding was crammed in one corner, almost like an afterthought, next to a low table that held what looked like the lacquered cosmetic box he had given to her during their “flirting lessons.”
Iseul herself, now changed out of her funeral clothes and wearing an old hanbok, sat at another low table, on which lay a charcoal stick and a blank sheet of paper. She got to her feet when she realized that she was no longer alone in her room. “Oh, you're here.”
Yong-ha nodded. “I'll be off in a while, but wanted to see you first.”
He thought he heard her mutter something that sounded like This isn't necessary, but chose to ignore it in favor of the artwork on display. Quite a few were completed paintings, but there were also partial studies that were finished enough to convey the spirit of their subjects.
“I like this one of the onggi,” he said, walking over to inspect the piece. Though rendered in shades of brown, there was enough contrast and detail to showcase the different sizes and shapes of the large clay fermentation jars that were a staple in every household. “It takes a special eye to see the beauty in something as ordinary as this.”
Yong-ha arched a quizzical eyebrow when Iseul failed to respond to his compliment, not even with the briefest thank-you as he had taught her long ago. He was hoping they could talk a while and he could reassure himself that she was all right, but her silence told him nothing.
He tried a different tack. “You owe me a share of the money I gave your brother tonight.”
“Since I'm in a charitable mood, you can pay me less than half. Shall we say thirty-five percent?”
Still no answer.
“I'll take that as a yes. Do you want to repay me directly, or take it out of your payment for the screen?”
Just then, he heard a sharp gasp, quickly muffled. Yong-ha turned to see Iseul standing by the opposite wall, her back to him. Her body shook in a manner that could only mean one thing.
Another man would have hightailed it out of the room in an instant. However, he knew he could not leave her in such a state, especially after promising Madam Park that he would make sure Iseul was all right.
“What? What is it?” He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Are you upset about your grandfather?”
She spun around at the gentle touch and barreled into him. Right before she buried her face in his chest, he could see that her cheeks were wet with tears. “He looked t-terrible the last time I saw him,” she sobbed. “Why didn't I tell him to see a doctor? Why didn't I m-mention it to anyone?”
“Master Jo said your grandfather had been poorly for some time,” Yong-ha reminded her. “People in that household knew. I'm sure someone sent for a doctor at some point.”
“Maybe I noticed it ear-earlier,” Iseul insisted. “Maybe a doctor could have saved him then.”
He sighed and patted her back, realizing just then that his arms had somehow found their way around her. “Don't think like that. Master Ma's dying was not anyone's fault; it just happened.”
She sniffled. “I w-wish it didn't have to. He wasn't as good to me as my Grandfather Kim, but I cared about him all the same.”
“Of course you did.”
Iseul's body shook again on a wave of fresh tears. Yong-ha patted her back again and made comforting noises as best he could. Apart from that, there was nothing he could think of to do other than let her cry. At least, he consoled himself, she wasn't crying all over his good clothes.
The crying jag helped, but Iseul still found herself feeling delicate the next day, when Chae-mi came to visit. “You look terrible,” the potter's daughter greeted her the moment she bustled into Iseul's room.
“It's lovely to see you, too,” Iseul replied dryly, even though she couldn't help but smile at her friend's frankness.
Chae-mi removed her quilted cap and settled herself comfortably on the heated floor. “I brought you some roasted chestnuts,” she said, offering a steaming basket of the wintertime treat. “Have some while they're still hot.”
“Thank you. Here, let's eat them together.”
The other girl helped herself to a chestnut without having to be told twice. “I suppose I should have brought you something to help with puffy eyes instead,” she said, “but I didn't think you would cry over your grandfather. He was never exactly nice to you.”
“I know.” Iseul took a chestnut, too, and busied herself with peeling it. “I can't completely understand it myself. I think... it has to do with him always being there. Even though he was... what he was, he was always there. A-and now he's not.”
Blinking away the sting of tears, she took a deep breath to regain her composure. “I'm all right,” she declared. “I'm coping. Harabeonim's death was a huge shock, and I know it will take time to get over it.”
Chae-mi nodded feelingly, clearly relieved that the other girl wasn't going to cry. “At least you're not going through this alone. You have Halmeonim to look out for you... and me... and, of course, Master Gu! I'm sure he's a great comfort to you these days.”
Iseul felt her cheeks grow warm as she remembered just how Yong-ha had held her the night before. “You could say that—but not in the way you're thinking,” she hastened to add when her friend shot her a speculative look. “This is hardly the appropriate time for... that.”
“Why not? I would think there's no better way to get over a death than to—“ Mercifully, she cut herself off. “All right, all right, forget I said anything.”
“It's been really nice having Yong-ha around, though,” Iseul admitted reluctantly. Not for the first time, especially these days, she thought about how solid his presence felt in contrast to the flighty image he tended to show the world. “I know that Halmeonim will support me until the ends of the earth, but this... it's different somehow, you know?”
“Yes, I know.” Chae-mi chewed pensively for a moment, then gave a loud sigh. “Well, I'm glad one of us has a man like that in her life. All I have is... well, you know what I have.”
Iseul hid a smile. It had been a while since the potter's daughter had complained about his apprentice, and it wasn't much of a complaint at that.
“Oh, and guess what else?” she said, by way of changing the subject. “Before we left last night, Master Jo told me that there is going to be a family meeting after the burial.”
Her friend's eyes widened. “And you're expected to be there? Do you think your grandfather left you something?”
Iseul shrugged. “It's possible, but I don't want to get my hopes up.”
“But why else would they ask you to come?”
Her mouth twisted wryly. “Knowing my half-brother and -sisters, it might be to tell me to my face that I have no inheritance at all.”
It came as no surprise to anyone that Yong-ha insisted on accompanying Iseul to the meeting.
“People will be expecting me to be there,” he explained as he helped her dismount in the Mas' front yard, which was now clean of the detritus from the funeral. “Besides, if you did inherit something, won't my business knowledge be useful to you?”
“I know a thing or two about business, too,” she reminded him.
“Yes, well, two heads are always better than one in these instances. Now, let's have a look at you.” He looked her over critically, nodded with curt approval, then took her hand to peer at it. “Are you wearing your garakji? Good. Let's go in, then.”
Iseul rolled her eyes, but allowed herself to be towed towards the house.
A waiting servant led them to what had once been her grandfather's study. The desk that used to dominate the room was still there, although currently pushed against one wall to make space for the meeting. Iseul also noted that the other furnishings were different. Ki-hoon, as new head of the family, must have already taken over the space.
Her half-siblings, joined by Ki-ja's husband, were arrayed side by side, facing the door. A much older man whom Iseul did not recognize sat at Ki-hoon's right. “Ah, you're here,” her half-brother said, sounding uncharacteristically civil, as soon as he caught sight of her. “Come in and sit down.
“Deputy Minister Choi, may I present Miss Kim Iseul and her betrothed, Master Gu Yong-ha,” he continued. “This is Deputy Minister Choi Seok-jin of the Ministry of Justice, a close friend of my grandfather's.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Yong-ha bowed to the deputy minister, who returned the gesture. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his “betrothed” do the same. She did not seem to be affected by Ki-hoon's failure to introduce her as his sister.
They bowed to Iseul's half-siblings and finally sat down. Master Jo appeared then, directing the maids who served them food and drink. He gave Iseul a small smile of encouragement before taking his place in one corner of the room in case he would be needed.
“I have called this meeting today to honor my grandfather's last wishes,” Ki-hoon announced. “Some months before he died, he wrote a letter to be read to his family after his passing. He left it with Deputy Minister Choi, who is here to read the letter to us. Deputy Minister, if you please?”
“Yes, of course.” The older man produced a flat silken parcel from his sleeve and hold it up so that everyone in the room could see. “This is the letter that Master Ma Byung-chul left in my keeping,” he said. “I personally witnessed him secure the cord with wax, and stamp the wax with his own personal seal. As you can see, the wax is intact.”
Yong-ha watched him break open the seal and take out a letter covered in spidery handwriting. So far there was nothing suspicious about the man, and he even seemed to accept Iseul's presence with ease, but appearances could be deceiving. Yong-ha wondered whether he could send Jae-shin's father, who headed the Ministry of Justice, after his deputy minister if he turned out to be biased against Iseul.
Presently, Deputy Minister Choi cleared his throat and began to read.
“To my family—If you are reading this, then I have already died....”
Iseul stifled a smile as she listened to her late grandfather's parting words. True to Master Ma's character, there were no tender farewells. After a brief introduction in which he stated that he was of sound mind and writing the letter of his own free will, the letter launched straight into the instructions.
The letter confirmed that the family businesses and the bulk of the properties were to go to his only grandson, Ma Ki-hoon. Ki-hoon was directed to use a judicious amount of the proceeds to support his family, and share the rest with “his sisters,” whom Iseul supposed meant only Ki-sook and Ki-ja. Ki-sook and Ki-ja were also to share between themselves the jewelry and furnishings that had once been the personal property of their late grandmother.
There were gifts, mostly in kind, to relatives, friends, and close business associates; and even a sum to Master Jo. This time, Iseul allowed herself to smile at a look of surprise that spread over the manservant's face. In her opinion, it was the least he deserved after his decades of loyal service.
“And finally,” Deputy Minister Choi read as he neared the end of the letter, “to my youngest granddaughter, Kim Iseul, I bequeath the land located near Sungnyemun.”
Gasps of surprise erupted around the room. Iseul traded stunned looks with Yong-ha, but there was no time to process the shock as there was more of the letter to be heard.
“The papers enclosed with this letter will serve as proof of her ownership. She has lived supporting herself and never taken a nyang from the family, but I will not let her go empty-handed to her marriage. Signed, Ma Byung-chul.”
The deputy minister held out the end of the missive, where everyone could see Iseul's grandfather's name and seal. “That concludes Master Ma's letter,” he announced. Murmurs erupted from Ki-hoon's side of the room as the siblings conferred among themselves.
He quickly reviewed the papers accompanying the letter before handing them to Iseul with a kindly smile. “Here you are, Miss Kim. Congratulations; you are now a woman of property.”
From the looks on their faces as they whispered with each other, Yong-ha knew that Ki-hoon and his sisters would not stand for Iseul receiving something from their grandfather, however small. Indeed, they approached her right after Deputy Minister Choi had gone... but her inheritance turned out to be not so “small” after all.
“Harabeonim gave you the piece of land that Orabeonim's shop stands on,” Ki-sook said to Iseul.
“He did?” she replied.
Yong-ha bowed his head to hide a smile. Iseul looked surprised, but her tone plainly said that she was well aware of the fact. He watched her leaf through the papers she had been given until she found the map showing her new property's location. “Ah, so he did,” she said. “How interesting.”
Her half-sister paused, groping for another opening in the conversation. “What are you going to do with it?” she asked finally.
To Yong-ha's delight, Iseul readily replied, “Why, keep it, of course.”
That compelled Ki-hoon to speak for himself. “W-wouldn't you consider selling it back to us?”
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “No, Orabeonim, I think not. The rent would provide very nicely for me and my grandmother, and as Harabeonim's letter said, at least I would have a dowry for when I marry.”
Ki-hoon's eyes flared in alarm at the mention of rent. “B-but,” he sputtered, “as a businessman, I could manage the property well, perhaps better than you could.”
“I might not be a businessman, but that does not mean I would have to go at it alone,” Iseul pointed out reasonably. “I am sure that if I had any questions or difficulties, Master Gu would help me.” She turned to her “betrothed” with a brilliant smile. “Wouldn't you, darling?”
Yong-ha grinned back. “Absolutely, my love,” he replied, meaning it.
Her eyes seemed to linger on his face for longer than they should, and her half-brother hastened to bring her attention back to the matter at hand. “We could give you a regular share of the profits in exchange for the property,” Ki-hoon offered. “Just like Harabeonim told me to give to our sisters.”
“That's very kind of you, but I would prefer to receive my share of the costs rather than wait for whatever is left.”
Just then, Master Jo appeared at her elbow, holding a stack of ledgers. “Here are the records you requested, agasshi,” he said, sounding as though he was quite enjoying the situation. One of the first things Iseul had done after overcoming her shock at the inheritance was to ask for any and all records of transactions relating to the property.
“Thank you, Master Jo.” She took the ledgers, then turned to Ki-hoon with a sweet smile. “Please do not worry, Orabeonim; I am not out to bankrupt your shop. I will consider past payments and present market values in coming up with a fair rental rate.”
“How very astute of you, my dear,” Yong-ha could not resist saying.
“Why, thank you, sir,” Iseul answered, then rose to her feet. “I wish I could stay and chat, but I have some reading to do.” She tapped the ledgers meaningfully. “I will be in touch, Orabeonim. We will meet before the New Year begins to discuss terms.”
“That was the most glorious moment of my life!”
Laughing, Yong-ha raised his cup of makgeolli in another toast to Iseul. “I'd say it was richly deserved, after the way Ma Ki-hoon and his sisters treated you.”
“But I wasn't unreasonable, either, was I?” she asked. “All I want is the rent from the land that Harabeonim left me, and at a fair price. And I am willing to discuss terms with my tenant.” There was relish in her voice as she spoke the word.
“You were the very voice of reason,” he assured her.
“I could have evicted Orabeonim on the spot,” she went on, “but I did not.”
He picked up the kettle to top up her cup with more liquor. “Ma Ki-hoon should count himself lucky that you took the high road.”
“Of course, if he wants to leave of his own accord, he is free to do that. Given the property's location, I don't think I'll have trouble finding someone else to rent it.” Clinking her cup against his, she took a dainty sip and sighed. “I really should retire for the night, but I don't want this day to end.”
Yong-ha chuckled. Although Madam Park had said essentially the same thing while celebrating with them earlier, she ended up giving in and going to bed. “Think of it this way—the best things about today will still be around tomorrow.”
“That's true.” Iseul paused and gave him a hesitant smile. “Thank you, by the way.”
“Everything,” she said. Her cheeks were pink, although he could not tell whether it was from drink or embarrassment. “Giving me work when I asked. Coming with me to the meeting today. Staying by my and Halmeonim's side through all the difficult times.”
“Oh.” He smiled. “It was my pleasure. And things haven't been all difficult, have they? Sometimes they've even been... fun.”
As he spoke, Yong-ha marveled at how he and Iseul had indeed gone through quite a lot together—perhaps not as much as he had with the Jalgeum Quartet, but close—in the short time that they had known each other. He also thought that they seemed to be talking as though those times were all past, with no more to come, and the idea was unsettling.
Have I had too much to drink?
“Yes, there have been some fun times,” Iseul agreed with a little laugh. “And soon, there will be nothing but good times. All right, perhaps they won't all be good,” she amended, “but at least they'll be free of worry. With my inheritance—a real one this time—I will have enough money for me and Halmeonim to live well.
“And we won't need to pretend that we're betrothed anymore.”