Orabeoni and Mother disappear in broad daylight, like whispers in the night.
And then there is the after; the dust piled in the corners of the old surgery, the strings of dried medicinal herbs hanging from the rafters, going unused for days that turn into a week and then another. The doors are always open, the creaky wooden gate spread in welcome like rickety arms asking for an embrace. But the people of the Capital are healthy. Enough that the grief hanging over the thatched roofs keeps them away.
Mourning reeks of the sour fermented brew in tempered clay pots, purchased for pouches full of silver. When the last of the money disappears into the alcohol merchant’s round belly, Father presses his thumb in vermillion powdered ink and stamps the pad of his finger on an IOU. He stumbles home, arms laden with the pots, cutting a swathe through the crowds. The citizens who had once pandered to him, to the might of his family, avert their eyes. Willful ignorance, Ah Ro thinks. Orabeoni would’ve pressed his hands over her eyes, too.
“Don’t stare, little sister,” she hears him so clearly, he must be there, shortening his steps to match hers as they walk.
Ah Ro turns around, searching the crowds for the familiar dark of his eyes, the bony cut of his limbs. But there’s no one. Just—Father, and little else for her to do but follow in his wake. The people milling about the marketplace, indulging in pretty trinkets, don’t see her. Her stomach growls, churning acid in the absence of proper meals.
They don’t hear that, either.
When the dust settles, Ah Ro faces the bolted gates of the mansion she’d called home. Her stick-thin arms aching under the burden of the bundle of clothes shoved into her chest by the woman she’d once called Aunt.
“Nothing for us to do,” Aunt says, her eyes refusing to look down at Ah Ro, even when she tugs on the panel of her brocade-decorated emerald jeogori. “It is the girl’s fate for being born a half-breed. And Orabeoni’s for opposing the will of the Dowager Queen.”
“If the girl is lucky, she’ll be as pretty as an adolescent as she is a child,” adds Uncle’s wife, “Enough that one of the young lords might take her as a concubine.”
They’re generous with what they give her, stacking silks so high, she can barely see over the top of her bundle. Father sighs, then his feet shuffle down the road, the wooden soles of his shoes crushing gravel into the dirt roads. Ah Ro walks blind, seeing only lilac silk held to the tall, always-stately line of his back. In the absence of sight, she follows the sound of his footsteps instead.
She’s good at that.
Home becomes the crumbling old surgery tucked fifty paces off the wide road bisecting the Capital. Her only guardian becomes Father, who boils medicinal roots in cauldrons of water and calls it soup. The bitter liquid burns her throat, even when she chases it with long chugs from the water skin. But it’s warm, and when Father stands over the stove, he leaves the pots of rice wine, if only for a moment. Ah Ro calls it a blessing and drinks it all.
In the day, when Father is in that place between awareness and alcohol-induced hallucination, she finds the well-trod paths back to her old life, to the school for young ladies, where they’d learned to paint words on paper. Where the monks had praised the elegant strokes of her brush, where the other children had offered her pretty pins for her hair in exchange for extra lessons. Floral hair-combs a small price to pay to avoid smacks across the hand as punishment for substandard homework.
“Half-breeds with criminal mothers aren’t allowed here,” says Hye Ok, crossing her arms over her chest, “Go play with your own kind, peasant.”
Slurs don’t cut deep enough to lash her pride. Ah Ro has no illusions about what she is; the labels had been stamped into her skin from the moment she’d fallen, screaming into this world. But her mother—a commoner, yes. Not a criminal. Never a criminal.
“Take it back,” she says, through gritted teeth, her nails digging into her palms, “You’re no one to talk about my mother.”
Hye Ok presses her hands into the knobs of her shoulders and shoves Ah Ro back. Her feet stumble, she reaches out to regain her balance, but all her fingers find is the mint fabric of Hye Ok’s skirts. “Get your hands off me, you half-breed, criminal’s spawn!”
She doesn’t think. She has no need to. Her fist flies at Hye Ok’s face—
And meets the air. Ah Ro stumbles forward, the tread-less soles of her slippers scrambling to find some hold, failing and then she’s lurching into Hye Ok, her face shoved into the beadwork decorating her sash, the glass bits pressing into her skin. She’s pulled away by three sets of hands, tugging roughly at her clothes, snarling at her to get off.
They leave her in the dust, with bruises on her legs, cheeks smarting where the back of Hye Ok’s hand had struck her. The doors to the school looming menacingly before her, taller than they’d ever been in all the years she’d spent there. The dust soils her skirt, Ah Ro sneezes when it crawls up her nose, pressing the backs of her stinging hands to her face. Blood dots her skin where stray rocks have scraped her hands, the skin white and ashy around the lines of red. She presses at the wounds gingerly, wincing at the sharp ache of them.
Her wounds are superficial—but her limbs weigh a hundred stones. Rising from her place in the dust of the school’s steps is impossible. Where else might she go?
“You’re Ah Ro, right?” she hears a voice behind her, and when she turns it’s—the infamous Soo Ho’s wisp of a younger sister. In pastel pink and floral jewelry, sporting rosy cheeks; the kind of doll her Aunts had loved to dress her as. Before.
“Yeah,” she says, her voice a whisper, “Why?”
“Here,” Soo Yeon offers her a floppy piece of white rice cake, “Do you want this?”
Ah Ro waits for it. For the outstretched hand to disappear to a wicked grin. The Japchan’s daughter would have no reason to play nice with a half-breed. Not when the likes of Hye Ok and her friends would—
“You don’t want it?” Soo Yeon’s eyes flit to the ground, “It’s good, though…”
“Why would you give it to me?”
Soo Yeon shrugs, kicking at a stray pebble. “It’s yummy. Rice cake always makes me feel better.”
It’s the flimsy kind, soft and sweet when dipped in sugar syrup. Even better with honey, the sticky nectar dripping down her fingers. Ah Ro’s stomach reaches for it, growling when her hands refuse to. It’s been—so long since she’d gotten to have a treat. But—there’s no reason for her to. Not from Soo Yeon, who had rarely spoken to her before. Soo Yeon, who had always sat quietly in the back of the class, never asking for Ah Ro’s help, even when her hands turned red from the welts striping them.
“I have more,” Soo Yeon says, holding it out to her once more, “I couldn’t possibly eat it all. I have honey too, if you want.”
Ah Ro’s ears burn. Soo Yeon had heard the rumblings of her stomach; she had to have. Dusting off her hands, Ah Ro stands up, squaring her shoulders. It doesn’t matter. She hadn’t accepted anything, not pity, not a bribe. And stomachs have a mind of their own. They growl as they wish, their rumbling protests have no true bearing on her hunger.
But then—she sees the flush in Soo Yeon’s cheeks. The way she studiously stares at the ground. The nervous tremble of her hand. She remembers Soo Yeon sitting alone, isolated and then teased, picked on by the girls every time Soo Ho hadn’t paid them the attention they’d wished for. And she wonders; perhaps it’s not pity that has her extending a hand.
“Yeah,” Ah Ro says softly, “I want. Thanks.”
Father forgets to make soup that night. The old pots of alcohol are empty, new ones decorate the doorway to his bedchamber. Ah Ro remembers the sticky honey coating her fingers as she and Soo Yeon had polished off the last of the jar, scooping the thick sweetness into their mouths with their fingers.
And she’s not hungry at all.
Hye Ok’s bitter words sit heavily in her stomach. Ah Ro avoids the school for a week after, spending her days climbing the trees by the surgery, squinting at the sun, trying to find her school. She swears she catches a glimpse of Soo Yeon, eating rice cake alone in the shade. But the sun burns spots into her eyes. Father calls her to eat.
She climbs down.
Father’s grief doesn’t leave him, it just—he wakes up one morning, and the wine goes untouched. His eyes remain sunken and empty. But he gathers vegetables, cooks a fresh pot of rice. The bottom burns, but that’s the most delicious part, making the rice a crispy, smoky compliment to the greens.
“There’s work to be done,” he tells her. He sweeps the floors with the straw broom, while Ah Ro gathers a bucket of water and cleans the dust out of the corners.
A servant boy is brought to the clinic later that day, his arm bent into a painfully unnatural position. There’s a moment; the boy is older than Orabeoni, but Ah Ro sees it. Father taking his measure, thinking of Sun Woo, Sun Woo, Sun Woo, howled into the night, his voice raw. And then he’s Doctor Lord Ahn Ji, tying his apron, fixing his sleeves.
She dabs at the boy’s forehead with a cool cloth, wincing at his screams when Father pulls out his arm, then snaps it back into place. She feels the relief before she hears it, in the slow easing of the movement of his chest, the veins in his forehead relaxing once more.
Father refuses the silver pieces when the boy’s father reaches into his money pouch. “Keep him safe,” he brushes his fingers through the boy’s hair, “That’s payment enough for me.”
Ah Ro is but a child. She doesn’t quite understand the intricacies of give-and-take, of the value of Father’s medical expertise. But she remembers the IOU he had stamped. There’s money owed the alcohol vendor. She doesn’t know how many silver pieces, but pots litter the kitchen. Father’s nailbeds are stained red.
“Perhaps, Father…” her voice dies in her throat.
He walks past her, eyes searching for a child that isn’t there. As if she doesn’t exist. In the before part of her life, he would’ve at least patted her on the head. Now he just—disappears into the room that would’ve been Orabeoni’s.
Sun Woo, he cries. Sun Woo.
Some mornings, she wanders away from the place that’s called home and doesn’t return until the evening. Father doesn’t notice. It’s no longer the alcohol that blinds him; he spends his days boiling tinctures and stitching up cuts for the Capital’s sickly. (Sometimes, she wonders if the alcohol hadn’t been better. At least then—there’d been an explanation.)
Ah Ro watches him work, sometimes. When she wishes for his attention, she plucks the medicines he might need and grinds them into a paste with the stone mortar and pestle. He nods his head in approval every time she gets it right, sighs heavily when she doesn’t. And it’s not much but; it’s what she has of her father, and every stray nod fills her with a gentle warmth.
He approves of her. (He disapproves too, but it’s better than—it should’ve been you.)
“A clinic must be kept pristine and sterile. Your mother—” his voice cracks, he clears his throat, “She’d helped me clean this place every day. Help me in her stead, Daughter. I cannot do this alone.”
“Of course, Father,” she nods vigorously, her hands clenched into determined fists at her side, “I’ll take care of it.”
It’s the first request he’s made of her. And it feels like an honour. Daughter, he’d called her.
The scrubbing, the laundry, the sorting of the medicinal herbs is work that makes her arms ache. Until her back is strong enough, until it has endured enough that it doesn’t anymore. She’s exhausted, nine nights out of ten. But exhaustion lets sleep come easier; she closes her eyes, her body boneless, too worn out to worry about the ghosts lurking in the corners.
But there are days she’s alone; days when Father refuses to look at her. Days he disappears before day breaks, and Ah Ro plays with the leftovers from the previous night’s meal. She leaves him bowls of rice and cold soup for when he comes home, covering them with a sheet of mesh to keep away the flies. And she finds her way back to her life of old. The walk into the heart of the marketplace is long and winding. By the time she arrives, her stomach clamours for food that she has no money for.
The sweet, nutty flavour of walnut pastries wafts out the open doors and windows to the tea house. Ah Ro can’t help herself; her feet stumble in their direction, her stomach growling when the aroma grows so strong, she can taste the sweet layers of puffed pastry dough.
“You’re Lord Ahn Ji’s child, aren’t you?” a hand lands on her shoulder. When she looks up, the sun glinting off Pi Joo Ki’s bare head burns dots into her vision.
“Yes,” she blinks once, then twice more. “My name is Ah Ro.”
“Would you like a pastry?”
Would she ever. But there is nothing of value on her person, nothing she might trade for a piece. And merchants do not give something for nothing. This much she knows; Orabeoni had covered her eyes when they’d stumbled upon an angry fruit vendor beating a cheonin boy for reaching for an apple. But her ears had memorized every cry of pain. You filthy thief, you think this is free?
“It’s okay,” she lies, “I’m not very hungry.”
Her stomach thunders at the obviousness of the falsehood. Pi Joo Ki chuckles. “It’s okay, young lady. You can have one.”
“No,” Ah Ro shakes her head, “I cannot accept this.”
“Well how about a trade, then? I’ve heard you’re quite the artist. Would you draw me a painting to hang in my office? The walls are quite bare.”
“You’re the most successful merchant in the Capital. Maybe all of Silla. You can afford to buy much nicer paintings than something a child like me would make for you.”
He’s silent for a beat, staring at her slack-jawed. And then his guffaws break the pause. “You truly are your mother’s daughter, aren’t you?”
He crouches before her, pressing a heavy hand to the top of her head. “Listen, my lady. There’re some things that money cannot buy. The painting you’d make for me would be a one of a kind item. Something no one else in this world owns. And who knows—if you become famous when you grow up, that same painting would be worth a fortune.”
Pi Joo Ki, Ah Ro thinks, might be the worst of them all. She looks into his kind eyes, the gentle smile on his face and she cannot tell if he’s pitying her or if he’s truly sincere. When her stomach growls once more, she decides she cannot afford to waste time on the distinction.
“Okay,” she nods, “It’s a deal.”
She leaves the tea house with dried black ink staining her fingers, the precious walnut pastry in its cloth wrapping cradled carefully to her chest. Hye Ok and her friends would have left the schoolyard by then. She could sit under the tree, watch the lessons from a distance. Pretend her life is as it had been. Before.
But the girls of her year sit together under that tree that’d been hers, where she’d held court, offering them encouragement. Her old friends string chrysanthemums together into crowns twined around their heads. Their laughter carries, light and carefree. Han Na’s eyes catch hers. But when Ah Ro takes a hopeful step forward, she looks away.
Ah Ro stops. It’s—she’s not a fool. (A half-breed has no place amongst the jingol ladies. She’d known this all along.)
And then there is Soo Yeon, sitting on her own, chewing on rice cake. Alone, tugging blades of grass out of the dirt. Eyes flitting to the group, then away again. Her hair falling out of the tiny braids piled atop her head. Ah Ro’s memories are snapshots of her days. She remembers Soo Yeon; her offered hand when she’d fallen. The rice cake.
Of course she does.
She’s Soo Ho’s sister, she’d always heard the girls say. The sister of the boy who’d broken their hearts could be no more than an enemy. But they’d known nothing . Soo Yeon had been—kind. Enough to share when she’d had no reason to.
“What’re you doing?” Ah Ro asks, sinking onto the grass opposite her.
She looks up, startled. “I was going to make bracelets from the grass.”
“That sounds fun! Can I do it too?”
Soo Yeon shrugs, forcing her eyes to the ground, gritting her teeth when they flit up to Ah Ro every other second. “If you want.”
“Those knots are nice,” Ah Ro picks up two blades of grass, “Will you show me?”
“Here,” Ah Ro says, dusting the dirt off of her hands, cracking the pastry in half and offering Soo Yeon a piece. “It tastes better if you share it.”
“From the tea house?” when Ah Ro nods, she picks the piece up with the tips of her fingers and nibbles at it. “My brother loves these. So he never shares.”
The sun beats down upon them. Ah Ro licks her sticky fingers and smiles.
They are the capital’s invisible girls. Hiding in plain sight, their silk skirts wearing at the knees in their daily sojourns to the marketplace, collecting dirt in the pleats, mud on the hems. Forgotten by their parents for brothers who are lost. Afterthoughts at the evening meal, an extra mouth to feed, an extra body to clothe.
Daughters aren’t made for keeping past their teen years. For daughters are mere pieces. To be married off per the purity of their blood. Subject to the whims of those who claim them. First fathers, then husbands. Giving themselves for nothing in return. As expected. They learn to make it okay; there's no choice, when they come labelled as the fabled, prickled cacti from the mid-world desert.
No maintenance required; will grow anyway.