My Country Fanfiction
You Are My Dream Till My Last Breath
Decided to write this because I thought Hwi and Hee Jae deserved a deeper exploration of their thoughts and feelings for each other. They didn’t have many scenes together but their actions spoke louder than words. I took the liberty to add and substract stuff since this is purely my HwiHee heart at work. Plus, I would like to imagine what a happy ending for HwiHee could have been like.
Han Hee Jae ignored the leering men – all high-ranking court officials – as she strolled past the main hall of Ihwaru, the biggest and most popular giaseng house in Gaegyeong. Hee Jae may have been born and bred in Ihwaru all her life but she was not a gisaeng; she would never be one even if her late mother had been one. Hee Jae never knew who her father was and predictably, her mother confessed she did not know either. She heard whispered rumours that her father could have been a nobleman or a travelling merchant. Hee Jae did not care nor was she interested. She would never attract a decent marriage with her background even if she was not a gisaeng. She could be at most a woeful concubine of a nobleman and if she had any offspring, they would be labelled as slaves or bastards, and scorned by society. Thus, Hee Jae had no interest in men or romance. Her only interest was surviving and finding a way out of Ihwaru. She would lead her own life one day.
Seo Hwi and Nam Seon Ho stared at the sketched portrait of a young man plastered on the wall in the main marketplace, wanted for putting up posters criticising the current king. “That looks like half the young boys wandering the street, “Hwi snorted in amusement. Seon Ho was too busy looking at the notice beside the portrait, “You’ll apply for the state examination, won’t you?” Hwi shrugged, “Winner gets 10 sacks of rice. That would feed me and Yeon for almost a year if we are frugal. I’ll do my best. What about you?” “Nothing but coming in first would satisfy my father,” Seon Ho answered dryly.
“Hmph. Such trivial reasons. This is why our country is in turmoil.” Hwi and Seon Ho spun around at the caustic remark. A scrawny young boy was eyeing them derisively. Hwi looked over his shoulder at the portrait on the wall, “Now he does look a little like this fellow…” Before Seon Ho could reply, the boy suddenly dove in between them and flung his arms around them, “Well, trivial reasons are still reasons and I – ”
“You! In the blue bandana!” someone shouted behind them. Hwi and Seon Ho glanced at each other in bewilderment as a group of capital guards ran towards them. Before the guards could reach them, the boy threw Hwi and Seon Ho aside and yelled genially, “I’ll meet you guys there later!” He took off like a shot. The guards pointed at the two men, “They are with him! Get them!” Flustered, Hwi and Seon Ho broke into a run as the guards chased them. Hwi spied the boy in front of him and doubled his pace. That sly thing was the person in the portrait. He was going to teach him a lesson for dragging him and Seon Ho into this mess.
Hee Jae panted as she dashed down a row of shops. Darn. She could not get caught. If she was thrown into jail, Seo Seol, the mistress of Ihwaru, would skin her alive for involving the establishment in her personal anti-court campaign. She could hear the guards shouting and their pounding footfalls as they followed her. Hee Jae swore at her bad fortune. She needed a place to hide. She reached a barn and was going to squeeze behind a haystack when someone shoved her into a tiny storeroom and stumbled in after her. She whipped around with her fist raised, only to have it snagged in mid-air and held fast above her head against the wooden wall of the storeroom. She jerked her head up. It was of the young men in the marketplace. The tall one with the wild hair and worn clothes. The pretty boy in the peacock blue silk robe was nowhere to be seen. That one was obviously an aristocrat – why were they hanging out together? It was unheard of for noblemen to mingle below their own kind.
“You!” the wild one hissed, glaring down at her. Hee Jae used her free hand to slap his chest, “Get away from me!” However, they both froze when they heard the sound of guards bearing down the barn. The man pulled her tighter towards him and ducked his head closer to her in an attempt to prevent himself from seen. Hee Jae’s breath caught in her throat as she stared right into his eyes. They were dark brown and sparkled with intelligence. Hee Jae realised he smelled… nice and clean despite his shabby attire. His fingers around her wrist and on her shoulder was strong and callused. A few strands of his hair tickled her nose and she fidgeted. “Shhhh.” He warned in a hushed undertone and pushed her face into his shoulder. His shoulder felt… nice, too. Firm, muscled and warm. So warm. What was wrong with her? Why was she noticing such things of a stranger? Of a man? She had never been interested in men; growing up in a gisaeng house meant she encountered men every day of her life from birth.
As the soldiers continued to the other side of the barn, he muttered, “The posters are of no use because no one can read. Your complaints against the king fighting a losing war, are valid though.” Hee Jae blinked at him in astonishment. He could read. As she carefully perused him from head to toe, she discovered the only things uncouth about him were his clothes and shoes. He was no destitute, uneducated peasant. There was an inscrutable dignity to his bearing, his speech was gentle and articulate despite his annoying habit of speaking to her informally even though they did not know each other. Granted, she groused, she had spoken to him and the pretty one informally first.
He peered at her face curiously, “You are worth quite a bit of money. If I turn you in, I’ll get 100 pieces of silver.” He was so close that she could see the faint stubble on his chin, the light sheen of sweat that dotted his tanned skin. Again, he could not be some aristocrat with his sun-bronzed complexion and rough hands. He obviously had experience with hard labour… yet he spoke like a well-mannered gentleman. Hee Jae was intrigued. As he held her gaze unflinchingly, his her heart skipped a beat and her hands grew clammy. This was ridiculous. She had to get away from this man. Figuring the guards had given up on them, she wriggled away from him and snapped waspishly, “I hope we’ll never cross paths again!” She leapt out of the storeroom, furious at him and herself.
“Stop!” he yelled but she ignored him. Suddenly, a spear cut through one of the colourful blankets hanging in the yard, missing her nose by mere inches. The next second, an arrow whizzed past her ear and her companion growled angrily, “Get away if you don’t want me to shoot through you!” Hee Jae immediately scurried to the side as he shot arrow after arrow at the few guards who had returned to the barn. She noted that his arrowheads were blunted with cloth-covered stones and would not kill. However, getting hit at vital points at such close range produced enough force and pain to temporarily knock one out. He started to fight with the guards, using his fists and kicks, all the while ensuring Hee Jae was behind him. Hee Jae stared at his broad back in confusion. Why did he bother protecting a stranger? Someone he met just minutes ago?
She was startled out of her thoughts when he grabbed her arm. She realised all the guards except one lay motionless on the ground. The one who had managed to get away was blowing his horn frantically, signalling for reinforcement. “Let’s go our separate ways from here,” he barked as he gathered his arrows from the ground. Hee Jae was about to agree when she saw the long slash on his arm, blood seeping through his sleeve. She quickly undid her bandana and tied it around his wound, “Follow me if you want to live.” He chortled, “I thought you said you didn’t want to see me again.” “That was before you saved my life. Why didn’t you turn me in? You need the money, don’t you?” she retorted. He eyed her for a long pause before he replied evenly, “You shouldn’t be arrested and tortured for just putting up posters.” This wild one was silly… yet compassionate. Brash… yet honourable. Hee Jae had never come across such a confounding man like him in her whole nineteen years. “Let’s go,” she uttered irritably. They both knew the guards would soon catch up with them.
Hwi gaped at the sign hanging on the entrance, “Ihwaru?” The arrogant boy beside him rolled his eyes, “Is this your first time at a gisaeng house?” At Hwi’s nod, the boy sighed loudly, “Welcome then. We better hurry.” Hwi followed the boy through a maze of pavilions before coming to a large room, decked out in fresh flowers, expensive porcelain and silk embroidery. Hwi had visited the royal palace a few times as a child and this gisaeng room was as grandly decorated as those he had seen there. “Dress him!” the boy ordered and to Hwi’s surprise, the gisaengs in the room scrambled to obey him. Who was he? Was he some son of a nobleman who sponsored the gisaeng house? Before Hwi could mull further, three gisaengs started pulling off his grimy outer clothes, giggling all the way. The boy swaggered over to the other side of the room, going behind a translucent curtain, where another group of gisaengs waited. They started undressing him, too.
Hwi fought the urge to pull away as the gisaengs threw on a beige silk outer robe over his inner clothes and pulled his hair into a top knot. He twisted his head towards the corner of the room, wondering about the strange boy. He choked when he saw a gisaeng remove the boy’s outer robe to reveal a silk undershirt that only women wore. “He” was not a boy but a woman. A flesh-and-blood woman. Her hair was loosened from the top knot and long, silky waves tumbled down. The gisaeng expertly swept the sides of the woman’s hair up and slid in a flower pin. The woman finally turned and snagged his astounded gaze with a proud tilt of her head, her eyes sparked with challenge. Hwi swallowed as he took in her delicate features, wide, soft mouth and glittering eyes. Her lustrous mane glided sensually over her shoulders and back. She was beautiful and not a gisaeng. Hwi had not encountered many gisaengs but at that moment, he knew the strong-willed, poised woman in front of him was not one. He had no idea how he had mistaken her for a boy earlier.
She dared him to think of her a gisaeng. Hee Jae kept her posture ramrod straight as she met his eyes across the room. It irked her that she was bothered about his opinion of her. Hee Jae admitted to herself that she wanted him to be able to tell that she was not a gisaeng though she obviously lived in a gisaeng house. She eyed him warily as he kept staring at her. He was too far away for her to detect his expression.
He cleaned up well. Very well, in fact. With his hair pulled into a top knot and his face scrubbed from dust, she could see him facial features clearly. He definitely was not a peasant… and was handsome. Extremely so. She approached him haughtily, though her heart was racing nervously. Did he think her pretty? Did he think she was a gisaeng? Could he tell she was not one? When she finally stood before him, he regarded her solemnly from head to toe. Hee Jae could not endure his silence any longer, “What?” His eyes held hers and he issued quietly, “I’m sorry.” Hee Jae was dumbfounded. There was no censure or rebuke or disgust in those deep, probing eyes. All she saw was kindness, curiosity and traces of warmth. He was truly an oddball.
“I should not have treated you how I did at the storeroom. If I had known…” he continued in an apologetic tone. “You didn’t,” Hee Jae rapped out shortly, unsettled by his reaction. She had not expected him to apologise for treating her non-so-gently in the storeroom. It was not his fault since he thought her a boy then. When he did not reply, she reluctantly raised her eyes. Her breath quickened when she noticed his undisguised interest and genuine admiration as his gaze roved slowly over her face – he thought her attractive. Hee Jae was absurdly happy – a first for her when it came to attention from the opposite sex. Blushing, she gestured abruptly to the set table, “Sit down and pretend you are having a wild night out. The guards will soon be here.” He obediently took his place at the spot she pointed while Hee Jae positioned herself the head of the table.
The guards did find them eventually but the pretty boy turned up in the nick of time and used his noble superiority to send them packing. The trio were out of the woods – for now. Hee Jae discovered the pretty boy was Nam Seon Ho, the only son of a court official, Nam Jeon, who was known to be close to Yi Seong Gye, the most powerful general in the nation. The wild one simply introduced himself as Seo Hwi. Hee Jae offered to host them for the night since they had saved her life. Seon Ho eagerly accepted her invitation while Hwi grudgingly agreed after some nagging from his friend. As they drank, feasted and danced, Hee Jae covertly observed Hwi. He seemed carefree and easygoing yet there was a heavy sense of weariness and responsibility behind that bright, boyish smile.
Hee Jae could feel Seon Ho’s eyes on her throughout the night – she knew he desired her and purposely kept her distance. Hwi was another matter altogether. Hee Jae was unexplainably drawn to him. She wanted to find out how he ended up in poverty when he was obviously educated. She wanted to know why he was best buddies with a son of a high-ranking court official. She wanted to know why he was so bloody obsessed with taking the state examination just because of that 10 sacks of rice. Her growing interest in Hwi did not bode well since she had promised herself she would never get involved in a man until the day she left Ihwaru.
“Snap out of it, Han Hee Jae.” She muttered to herself. Gathering her wits, she stood up and declared loftily, “Think I’ve paid my dues adequately. Let’s call it a night.” Seon Ho rolled to his feet and drawled, “Let’s do this again soon. It will be my treat next time.” Hwi flicked them a bemused grin, “I can’t afford all this. Count me out of the next round, you two.” Hee Jae was miffed at the casual way he dismissed a future meeting between them and bit out, “There will be no next time.” Seon Ho looked disappointed while Hwi regarded her thoughtfully. Hee Jae stomped out of the room without a backward glance.
Hwi watched as Hee Jae marched out of the room, her silk skirts swirling around her. She was angry with him, he instinctively surmised, though he had no idea why. They barely knew each other yet he had managed to stir her discontent many times throughout the night. “You think she’s a gisaeng? I was trying to figure that out the whole evening,” Seon Ho remarked as he straightened his robe. Hwi recalled the pride and vulnerability that had flashed in her eyes when he first found out that she was a woman while they had been changing clothes earlier. “No. She isn’t. She isn’t a gisaeng,” he stated succinctly with conviction. “There will be no next time.” Her last words echoed around his mind. Hwi felt oddly bereft but figured she was right. There was no reason for them to meet again.
“No. She isn’t. She isn’t a gisaeng.” Hee Jae had heard Seon Ho’s question and wanted to hear Hwi’s response. Immeasurable relief flooded her instantly. Hwi didn’t think her a gisaeng. He knew she was not one. He had sounded so sure when he answered Seon Ho. Hee Jae hesitated, fighting the urge to run back to the room. She had meant it when she said she did not want to meet the two men again. Seon Ho had no official rank in court while Hwi was a commoner without connections. Hee Jae earned her keep by diligently collecting and selling intel of aristocrats and royal courtiers. She was saving for the day she could leave Ihwaru for good. The two men were of no use to her.
Hee Jae girded herself mentally and continued on her way. She had no business getting entangled with the two men. An image of Hwi’s playful smile danced at the edge of her mind. She definitely had no business thinking of Hwi.
Hee Jae shuffled through a sheaf of papers, trying to locate her latest information on one of the ministers who allegedly was plotting against the king. Fading sunlight streamed through the window of her bedroom. She should visit the town pharmacy before it got dark. The pharmacy was one of the best places to obtain information because the royal physicians regularly purchased some medicine there, though the bulk store of the royal pharmacy was filled with exotic, foreign concoctions.
Extracting her coin purse from a drawer, she paused when she saw the long, tattered piece of cloth draped atop her wooden chest. It was Hwi’s belt. He had left it in Ihwaru that night. The housekeeper had found it the next day and asked Hee Jae if it should be thrown away. Hee Jae had instructed the housekeeper to wash it instead in the event its owner came for it. However, two weeks had passed and he had not come. Hee Jae fingered the belt, her thoughts wandering to Hwi for the hundredth time since they had parted at Ihwaru. His warm, expressive eyes, his boyish smile. Hwi.
Hwi stared at the basket in despair – only one sachet of Yeon’s medicine remained and it would only last another week. His younger sister had suffered from epilepsy for the past ten years – she had her first attack the day they watched their father being publicly executed. He quickly hid the basket behind him when Yeon shuffled inside the kitchen, looking pallid despite the cheery grin pasted on her cherubic face. “Didn’t you say you were going out to buy something?” she chirped as she poured herself a cup of water. Hwi ruffled her hair affectionately, “Yes, I am. I’ll be back by dinner.”
He noticed the tiny stitches at the shoulder of her blouse and realised that he had not bought her new clothes in the past year. The image of Hee Jae dressed in her expensive, silk clothes suddenly popped up in his mind. Hee Jae. What a strange woman. He recalled her chiding him that night at Ihwaru when he had mentioned that men and women were not allowed in the same room. She had snapped his head off then. He wondered why she resided at Ihwaru when she was neither a gisaeng nor a servant. Seon Ho had been pestering Hwi to accompany him to visit her but Hwi had repeatedly declined. He saw no point in meeting her again.
“Are you implying that the Duke’s wife is pregnant… but he has been posted out of Gaekyeong for the last eight months…” Hee Jae queried mischievously as she followed the pharmacist around in his storeroom. “I’m not implying anything so stop asking me so many questions!” the pharmacist wailed as he sorted out the herbs. Hee Jae picked up another prescription lying on the table, “This medicine is for dementia and it is for the Minister of…”
“Just take what I’ve given you and stop sniffing around!” the pharmacist waved her away rudely. Hee Jae snorted, “What you give me doesn’t cover half of what I pay you. I don’t want information about third-grade aristocrats. I want information about the ministers and generals.” Before the pharmacist could reply, someone called from the front of the store, “Is there anyone there?”
“It’s that pest of a boy again! He is always coming around without money. Just my luck to have two of you at my shop today!” the man dashed out of the storeroom in a huff. Hee Jae fished out a roll of prescriptions from a box and grinned when she spotted the royal seal on it. She was on a roll today. “I promise I’ll pay you next month.” Hee Jae stiffened. She recognised that voice.
“I’m going to take part in the military state examination and once done, I’ll get ten sacks of rice. You can have three sacks for the medicine and -” Hwi beseeched the pharmacist, but the latter scoffed, “You? First place at the military state examination? I’ll be a royal physician if that happens!” “What is going on?” a female voice interrupted the conversation casually.
Hwi was startled to see Hee Jae stroll out from the back of the store, “Why are you here?” She shrugged, “The situation is begging for my intervention.” Turning to the pharmacist, she suggested, “When he gets the 10 sacks of rice, he’ll give you five and you’ll give me one for commission. How’s that?” The pharmacist quibbled, “What about collateral?” Hee Jae pointed to herself, “I’ll be collateral.” Hwi hissed, “Are you crazy?” She ignored him and smiled jauntily at the pharmacist, “Do we have a deal?”
Hwi cradled the sachets of medicine in his hands. Hee Jae walked beside him, seemingly comfortable with the silence that ensued since they left the pharmacy. Hwi snagged her wrist urgently, “Let’s return the medicine.” Hee Jae arched one eyebrow, “Why? We made a deal with the pharmacist. Anyway, it seems the medicine is for someone who is very sick.” Hwi sighed, “I lied. I don’t intend to take the military state examination. I was really desperate earlier… but I can’t let you be… collateral.”
Hee Jae’s eyes softened, touched by his needless concern. She quipped playfully, “I never believed for a second you were going to pass the examination even if you do take it in the end. Just looking at you, I don’t think you are destined for greatness. I’m going to pester you till you return my money so brace yourself.” “How are you going to pester me? You don’t know where I live, where I work. You only know my name,” he rebutted.
Flustered, she stammered, “Well, you, I…” “I live at the base of the mountain in the south and I work at the blacksmith. I’ll definitely pay you back,” he interjected, flashing her a wide, warm smile, his first genuine one towards her since the day they met. Hee Jae’s heart raced. Idiot, she chastised herself. “I’ll definitely pay you back.” She had uttered the same words some ten years ago. With a sense of bittersweet nostalgia, she returned his smile, “You do that, with heaps of interest.” He smiled again, “Thank you.” She cleared her throat, embarrassed, “It’s late. We should go.” He nodded and spun on his heel, whistling softly as he sauntered away. Hee Jae stared at his departing figure, feeling more confused than ever.
Hwi counted to ten before peeking over his shoulder. Hee Jae was heading in the opposite direction, her pale blue silk blouse and skirt glistened in the moonlight against her silky hair. He was stunned but grateful that she was willing to lend so much money to someone she had only met twice. She had been furious with him when parted at Ihwaru but that anger seemed to have dissipated. In fact, she had seemed almost glad to see him at the pharmacy earlier.
He admitted that he was happy to see her, too. He would like to attribute it wholly to her luminous beauty, but in truth, it was the lack of pity and judgement in her eyes that made him more comfortable around her. Most people scorned him and Yeon on sight, even more so when they discovered they were poor orphans whose father was sentenced to death for treason. He was banned from registering for the military state examination for that very reason. Would he see Hee Jae again? Hwi figured he would since he was indebted to her.
“Hee Jae, is that you?” Hee Jae twirled around and saw Nam Seon Ho standing behind her, a big smile on his face. Ah. She had forgotten that Nam Jeon was his father. She had been instructed by Seo Seol to pass a message to his sire. “Hello,” she greeted politely. “Why are you here?” he quizzed with a frown. “The mistress of Ihwaru asked me to pass some documents to your father,” she divulged as they walked across the expansive courtyard. Seon paused, “You should stay away from my father.” “Why?” Hee Jae countered quizzically. “You should if you want to stay alive,” he answered cryptically. Before Hee Jae could question him further, he grabbed her wrist with a devlish grin, “Let’s go. I want to show you something exciting.”
Hwi traced the broken red arrowhead in his hand. This would get him a place in the military state examination instantly. Yi Seong Gye had given him it to him after Hwi had impressed the general with his archery skills at a recent hunt. Seon Ho had persuaded him to be one of the prey “chasers” and while Hwi had been reluctant, he could not resist the payment offered for the service. For one, Hwi actively detested Nam Jeon. He had claimed to be a friend of his departed father but did nothing when the latter had been accused of treason.
He had also dismissed a young Hwi’s plea to give his father a proper burial. In the end, Hwi had to drag his father’s corpse from the town square to a remote field to be buried with his own hands. Seon Ho had materialised sometime later with burial clothes for his friend’s father and helped dig the grave in the pouring rain. For that, Hwi was eternally grateful to his friend. He would forgive him of anything and everything if he had to.
“Where are we going?” Hee Jae grumbled impatiently as Seon Ho dragged her to town. “There is going to be chaos,” Seon Ho murmured and he did not stop until they were in front of the military institute. It suddenly struck Hee Jae, “Hwi?” “He called his father a dog, that lowly official. Not even the king would dare to do that.” Seon Ho muttered in disgust. “If you know he is going to cause trouble, why don’t you stop him?” Hee Jae exclaimed.
Seon Ho nodded to the right and Hee Jae spied a tall figure striding rapidly in their direction. It was Hwi, his unkempt hair whipping wildly in the wind. “I can’t stop him. No one can. He is the son of the greatest swordsman in Goryeo.” Hee Jae’s blood roared in her ears and her voice trembled as she repeated, “The greatest swordsman in Goryeo…”
“Seo Geom.” Seon Ho and Hee Jae proclaimed at the same time in twin tones of respect and wonder. Everyone in Goryeo and many armies beyond knew Seo Geom. Hee Jae not only knew of the famed general and warrior; she had met him in person. In a daze, she watched as Seon Ho rushed to join Hwi, the two men crashing through the entrance of the military institute. They fought as one as soldiers tried to stop them but Hee Jae’s mind wandered to the life-changing incident ten years earlier…
– Ten years earlier –
Hee Jae sobbed silently as the tall, burly man buried her mother in the forest under the moonlight. Her mother had been killed by assassins while trying to deliver a message for Seo Seol. Hee Jae had insisted on tagging along even though it was dark. Hee Jae would have lost her life too if not for the man beside her. Seo Geom, the greatest swordsman in Goryeo. She had heard him introduce himself as such earlier to the assassins before cutting them down.
“Your mother’s grave will never be destroyed. I’ve built many similar graves for my fallen comrades over the years in the battlefield.” The man called Seo Geom reassured her as he stood up, “Come, I’ll take you home.” Hee Jae looked up at the swordsman and said, “I’ll definitely repay my debt to you.” With a kind smile, Seo Geom answered, “You do that with heaps of interest.”
It could not be. Hee Jae dashed to the town square. She had heard the gisaengs gossiping that Seo Geom, the nation’s most revered warrior was going to be executed on this day for treason. As young as Hee Jae was, she knew it was not true. She had to go see him and pay her last respects. She got to the town square just in time to see Seo Geom pierce a dagger through his middle, his eyes red with sorrow and regret as he breathed his last. “Father!!!!” Hee Jae swung her head around and saw a boy about her age screaming in grief, clawing the ground in rage. Tears rolled down Hee Jae’s cheeks at the boy’s devastation. She knew how he felt losing a parent in such a tragic manner.
– Present –
“Aren’t you coming?” Hee Jae snapped out of her reverie. Hwi stood beside her, a small smile playing on his lips. He had the same kind eyes and noble air of authority as his father, Hee Jae noticed. Now that she knew who he was, she understood his dire circumstances. She was actually surprised he had survived all these years branded as a child of a traitor. Hee Jae followed them mutely as they weaved through the shops on the main street.
“You’re happy that I can join the examination, aren’t you? I’ll get the ten sacks of rice and pay you back for the medicine,” Hwi teased, a cheerful grin lighting up his face. His smile was like sunshine. Hee Jae observed him as he continued chatting away. Everything about him was like sunshine to her. His presence alone made her feel warm, happy and safe. Since she was born, Hee Jae had always been wary, distrustful and calculative of everyone. She had never felt like this before, even when her mother, who had been extremely loving, was alive.
“Guards!” Seon Ho suddenly hissed. Hwi yanked Hee Jae towards him and swiftly faced the closest street stall. Seon Ho came up close on her other side and the trio held their breath as the capitol guards walked past them. “Young sirs and young lady, kites for you?” the stall vendor cackled in enthusiasm. “Let’s fly kites tomorrow at the lake. Bring Yeon,” Seon Ho suggested. “Don’t want to. I have to entertain her if I do,” Hwi rolled his eyes. “Stop acting tough. I know you adore her. Bring her along and I’ll look after her,” Seon Ho offered as he riffled through the kites on display. Hee Jae’s mood soured. Yeon? Someone that Hwi adored? Who was she? “Join us tomorrow. This is for you,” Seon Ho extended a kite to her.
Hee Jae took the kite from him and mumbled, “Since I received a gift from you, I’ll have to return the favour.” She plucked a kite painted with peach blossoms and handed it to Seon Ho. Her hand strayed over a kite featuring a soaring eagle. This was perfect for Hwi. Who was this Yeon whom Hwi adored? Peeved, Hee Jae picked up another with a cartoonish eel drawn on it. “This is for you,” she shoved the kite unceremoniously into Hwi’s face. He sputtered, “Hey! Why do I get such an ugly one? You were going to choose the one with the eagle!” Hee Jae ignored him and spun away from the stall, “See you guys tomorrow at noon.”
“Who’s this new friend of yours that we are going to meet?” Yeon inquired as they waited under the shade of a tree at the lake the next day. Seon Ho winked, “Your future sister-in-law.” Hwi cuffed his friend’s ear, “Stop it. Don’t give Yeon ideas.” “There she is,” Seon Ho announced, admiration creeping into his tone. Hwi followed his line of sight and understood Seon Ho’s reaction. Hee Jae looked resplendent in a bright pink top with a deep purple skirt that set off her slim figure and honeyed skin tone to perfection. As usual, her clothes were made of the finest quality.
In contrast, Hwi glanced down at his coarse clothes with the crude stitching, all faded and worn. He could not remember the last time he bought a new set of clothes. If he had spare money, he would usually spend it on Yeon. However, at this moment, he wished he had something decent to wear. He looked over at Seon Ho, who was dressed in a luxurious satin robe, his long ruler-straight hair immaculate. Hwi did not miss the way his best friend was staring at Hee Jae with unconcealed desire. Seon Ho wanted her even if he had joked about Hee Jae and Hwi earlier.
Hee Jae sashayed towards them gracefully, her gaze resting curiously on Yeon. “And this is…” she prompted politely. Hwi patted Yeon’s head, “My sister, Yeon.” Yeon was his sister; she was not some childhood sweetheart. Hee Jae’s heart felt lighter immediately. Silly her. Seon Ho gestured towards a bridge ahead where some people already stood, “Let’s fly our kites there.”
Hee Jae smiled as Yeon giggled incessantly at another of Hwi’s jokes. He was absolutely devoted to his younger sister. They had been flying kites for hours and Hee Jae was enjoying herself. Hwi and Seon Ho were the first acquaintances she had made outside Ihwaru. Hee Jae did everything alone in Ihwaru, save for spending her free time with Hwa Wol, the young gisaeng who was her best friend. As ordered by Seo Seol, Hee Jae had learnt how to read, dance, write, paint and play musical instruments, separately from the gisaengs. Seo Seol had ensured Hee Jae was taught by the best tutors in town. Hee Jae was as educated, if not more educated, than most princes and princesses in the palace.
“My kite!” Yeon yelped as the string to her kite broke. Hwi tracked the flight of the kite across the sky. “Don’t worry. I’ll get it back for you.” Hwi promised. He left Yeon with Seon Ho and Hee Jae and started after the kite. He found it on the side of a steep hill a few minutes later. He hesitated. He could reach it if he stretched himself to the maximum… “Don’t bother. You’ll fall right over.” Twisting his head around, he spotted Hee Jae standing behind him.
“Yeon is sick, isn’t she? Her hands are cold and clammy, and her lips are pale.” Hee Jae noted solemnly. At Hwi’s nod, she resumed gently, “Superstition won’t help her get better. A broken kite string isn’t always a bad sign.” Hwi sighed, “She has epilepsy and her condition is getting worse. I know I’m being silly but I don’t want to risk it.” Hee Jae pursed her lips and suddenly rolled up the sleeves of her top. “Let me try then.”
Before Hwi could stop her, Hee Jae cautiously slid down the hill and extended one hand towards the kite which was caught on a broken branch. Hwi grabbed her free arm as she skidded downwards, “Are you crazy! You just told me superstition didn’t matter!” “I was trying to make you feel better,” Hee Jae bit out through gritted teeth as her fingers inched towards the kite. “I doubt your death will make Yeon miraculously well either!” Hwi growled in exasperation as he hung on to Hee Jae for dear life. This woman was either recklessly brave or a lunatic. Probably both.
“Got it!” Hee Jae shouted and Hwi yanked her up the hill with all his strength. His momentum caused her to land on top of him in a careless heap. They were plastered chest to chest, their faces just inches apart, his arms around her. Hwi froze under her as he swallowed hard. He dare not breathe though it was tempting to inhale her sweet scent surrounding him. He should look away but he did not. His eyes clung to hers.
There were shadows amid the sunshine. As Hee Jae stared into Hwi’s eyes up-close, she saw for the first time the despair, helplessness and desperation lurking in them. He had to support and raise Yeon all these years by himself. Children of traitors were spit upon and ignored; they were treated like ghosts by society. Her heart lurched painfully as her fingers dug into the dirt on either side of his head. A fierce sense of protectiveness washed over her and Hee Jae realised she wanted to chase away all unhappy, hurtful things away from him. Hee Jae did not understand why she was developing such strong feelings towards Hwi – maybe it was fate that entwined them from that night his father stepped in to save her life.
Hwi gingerly removed his arms from Hee Jae and she quickly sat up, flustered and blushing. Hwi pushed himself off the ground and cleared his throat, “Thanks for getting the kite.” She brushed off his gratitude with a small shrug. A warm breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and fluttered lightly across their heated skin. “Lanterns,” Hee Jae pointed out, pointing to the orange glow slowly spreading across the darkening purple sky. She shuffled closer to Hwi and together they admired the view in companionable silence. Hwi turned to smile at her halfway and she smiled back.
Hee Jae never wanted Hwi’s sweet, bright smile to fade into darkness. Not ever.
It was the day of the military state examination. Hee Jae carefully slid her favourite pin into her hair and smiled at her reflection in the mirror. The doors of the military institute would be left open for public viewing and she intended to watch the whole process, even if it ended past dusk. As much as she teased Hwi that he was not destined for greatness, she knew he would do well enough to get into the final round. The blood of the nation’s greatest warrior flowed in his veins. They had not met since the day at the pharmacy almost two weeks earlier and she was eager to see him again. She wanted to be the first person to congratulate Hwi if he succeeded.
Hwi raised his sword, panting lightly. He was drenched in sweat and was exhausted. He had make it to final round and the only opponent left in the field was Seon Ho. The two men had agreed earlier they would fight fairly till the last second. Hwi was winning and he knew it. Seon Ho was as pale as a sheet with exertion, his hand shaking as he aimed his sword at Hwi. Hwi’s eyes narrowed in determination and lunged towards his friend.
Hwi had won. Hee Jae sighed in relief as she watched Hwi struggle to stay upright after delivering the decisive blow to Seon Ho’s side. Hwi was bruised and a little bloodied but looked all right. Seon Ho lay on the ground, his body twitching. She saw the examiner nod imperceptibly, signalling the end of the match. Hee Jae ran forward, anxious to check the extent of Hwi’s injuries. However, in the next second, Seon Ho clawed his way back to his feet and rammed his sword down on Hwi’s head.
Hwi collapsed on the ground instantly, blood oozing down his forehead. He was conscious, but barely. The examiner did not hesitate raising his flag, proclaiming Seon Ho the final victor. Hee Jae heard Hwi roar with rage and agony as the doors started to swing close. “Wait! Let me enter!” Hee Jae grabbed one of the soldiers but he rudely shoved her away and the doors banged shut. Hee Jae was furious at Seon Ho’s betrayal but at the moment, she was more worried about Hwi.
Hwi stumbled through the doors of the military institute onto the streets, his head throbbing, every muscle screaming in protest. Seon Ho. How could he do such a thing? He probably did it because of his father… but his best friend knew how much the prize meant to Hwi and Yeon. It was their lifeline. Hwi continued walking, not caring where he went. He could not bear to go home to see Yeon’s disappointed face when she realised all her hopes were crushed. Right now, he wanted to go anywhere but home. Blood dripped from his wound and hot tears pooled in his eyes, blurring his vision. He was tired, so tired. He had no one to turn to. He took another step forward and tumbled into darkness.
“Hwi!” Hee Jae gasped as he collapsed onto the ground. She had been trailing him since he left the military institute, wandering aimlessly around town, bloody streaks all over his face, arms and clothes. She dashed towards him and hauled him to a sitting position with all the strength she had. His head flopped against her shoulder weakly. She shook him, “Hwi, wake up!” His eyes flickered open, his gaze unfocused. “Hee Jae…” he choked. Hee Jae gripped his arm, her eyes filling with tears, “I got you. We need to treat your wounds.” With a groan, his eyes closed again.
“Oh no…” Hwa Wol uttered under her breath as she spotted Hee Jae dragging a semi-conscious Hwi across the yard of Ihwaru. The gisaengs were in the middle of dance practice. She sneaked a peek at Seo Seol, who was glaring at Hee Jae. The mistress of Ihwaru had warned Hee Jae to stay away from Hwi and Seon Ho. Deciding her friend needed help, Hwa Wol slipped away from the other gisaengs. Ignoring Seo Seol’s disapproving frown, she headed to Hee Jae. Hee Jae tossed her a grateful smile and the two women took Hwi to Hee Jae’s room. Once they settled Hwi comfortably on a mattress, Hwa Wol offered, “I’ll get water, bandages and medicine. You should check his wounds. He may need a physician.” Hee Jae nodded and started to run over hands over Hwi gingerly.
Hwi felt something damp and cold press against his forehead, as something warm traced his cheekbone. He opened his eyes slowly, wincing in pain. He felt as him he had been trampled by a horse a few times over. A familiar sweet scent wafted over him. Hee Jae. She was hovering over him. She held a wet cloth to his forehead with one hand, the other was rested on his cheek. It was her fingers he had felt on his skin. When she realised he was awake, she snatched back her hand quickly and asked anxiously, “Are you all right?” He flashed a grin, wanting to ease her worry, “What do you think?” She smiled in relief, “I guess you aren’t injured that badly.” Hwi slowly sat up, grimacing. He was sore all over.
“Seon Ho?” he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. Hee Jae’s expression darkened, “He was appointed the winner.” Hwi changed the subject, not wishing to speak of his friend further, “You should have given me the eagle kite. I would have stood a better chance if I had that as a lucky charm.” There was a pause before Hee Jae replied softly in a firm tone, “I promise I’ll give that to you next time.” Hwi felt a load lift off his shoulders. Hee Jae had a way of making him feel better. Strange.
Hee Jae rummaged through a drawer behind her and drew out a crimson hairband, “We should cover your wound or Yeon will get a fright when she sees you.” “Seo Hwi. His father was put to death for treason. He has a sister with epilepsy. Even worse, he is a penniless fool who just failed the military state examination, “Hee Jae articulated mildly as she carefully fixed her hairband around his forehead. “Sounds terrible,” Hwi snorted cynically.
Hee Jae clipped fiercely, “So what? What’s so terrible about that?” Hwi gaped at her, taken back by the brimming sincerity in her eyes. She meant it. She did not give a damn what he was. She accepted and liked him anyway. Her feelings were written all over her lovely face. Suddenly, Hwi did not feel as helpless and hopeless anymore. He had Hee Jae. He felt alone sometimes even with Yeon and Seon Ho. But Hee Jae filled up a gap in his heart that he did not existed until today. He did not know why she chose him but she did.
Hwi inched his face closer to hers, his eyes questioning. He was asking for her permission. Hee Jae’s gaze drifted to his lips and back to his eyes. He had beautiful eyes, expressive and melting with warmth. She could look into them all day, every day, her whole life. She was shocked but not afraid of her admission. She was committed to this man, come what may. When she made no move to back away, Hwi crossed the distance between them and pressed his lips to hers cautiously. Hee Jae stilled, enjoying his touch.
He raised his head after a few seconds and stared hardly at her, giving her yet another chance to change her mind. She returned his stare boldly. Hwi’s jaw clenched reflexively and he swooped in for a deeper, longer, more passionate kiss. He slipped one arm around her waist and cupped her jaw tenderly with his other hand, drawing her right into him. Hee Jae’s hands slid up to clutch his shirt. She never wanted something so badly in her life. At that moment, she wanted all of Hwi.
The kiss went on until they were both breathless and had to break apart for air. Hwi continued to gaze at her intently and Hee Jae felt a bout of shyness hit her. She hastily pulled her hands away from his shirt and mumbled, “It’s late. You better go home. Yeon is waiting for you.” He cleared his throat, “Guess I better leave.” Hee Jae stood up, “Your clothes are all bloody. I’ve prepared a fresh set for you. You should change into them before you go.”
Hee Jae looked up as Hwi stepped out of her room, dressed in clean clothes. She passed him sachets of medicine, “Take this. It will help to heal your wounds faster.” “Why do you have such medicine in a gisaeng house?” he wondered out loud as he slipped on his shoes, which were nearly apart at its seams. Hee Jae made up her mind to buy new clothes and shoes for him. He may not accept her gifts but it did not hurt to try. “Outside of battlefields, more blood is shed at gisaeng houses than anywhere else,” Hee Jae informed in a matter-of-fact tone. Hwi bobbed his head in agreement, “It does makes sense.” As they walked towards the exit, Hee Jae queried, “Why haven’t you asked me?” Hwi knew instinctively she was referring to whether he thought her a gisaeng. “There’s nothing to ask. I know you’re not one of them, “he responded lightly.
Before they could say anything else, Hwi halted abruptly in front of the main hall. Hee Jae stiffened when she saw Nam Jeon laughing and drinking with the head examiner of the military examination. It was proof enough that the whole process was rigged and Seon Ho would have emerged the winner despite the performances of other participants. Hwi’s fists were clenched so Hee Jae reached out to hold his hand, “Hwi…” He gently shook off her touch and marched out of Ihwaru without another word. Hee Jae wanted to follow him but decided against it. He probably wanted to be alone. She would check in on him in a few days.
– A few days later –
Hee Jae tore through the rain. No. Not Hwi. He was being drafted into the army headed for Liaodong. Seo Seol had found out it was all Nam Jeon’s doing to get rid of his son’s best friend, fearing that Hwi would outshine Seon Ho if they both pursued careers in the military. Hwi would fight at the frontlines and there was no knowing when he would be back – if he survived. How could this happen? They were just getting to know each other a few days earlier in her room. She had not given the shoes and clothes she had bought for him. The boat carrying him to Liaodong was leaving in a few minutes. Hee Jae picked up her pace. Hwi.
Hwi sat lifelessly aboard the boat that would take him to hell. Yeon. Where was she? She had been bleeding and unconscious the last time he saw her. He had been dragged away by soldiers in the middle of the night and thrown into prison. When he had begged them to summon Seon Ho, they had scoffed that it was Seon Ho and his father who were responsible for his situation. If Hwi had not seen Nam Jeon at Ihwaru that night, he would not have believed the soldiers’ words.
Ihwaru. Hee Jae. Their brief, blissful time together in her room. He pressed his hand over the left side of this chest where her hairband was tucked under his shirt. Will he ever see her again? “Hwi!” he suddenly heard her voice calling him frantically. He looked up and saw her racing down the dock, soaked to the bone, tears streaming down her face. It was too late. His boat had already set sail.
He gazed at her through the thick, foggy downpour, silently memorising every single inch of her face. She had been the precious, bright spark in his miserable life for those few days they had known each other. He would never forget her; but he hoped that she would forget him. There was absolutely nothing he could offer of himself that would be of worth to her. “Hwi!” she sobbed, waving at him desperately. Hwi turned his head away and closed his eyes. She was better off forgetting he ever existed in her world.
– Four years later –
“Kites for sale!” Hee Jae paused at the same stall that she, Seon Ho and Hwi had bought kites four years ago. “I’ll have one of that,” Hee Jae requested politely and the kite seller smiled happily, “Miss, you’re back again to buy yet another eagle kite.” Hee Jae just nodded and took the kite from him. Dusk was approaching as Hee Jae made her way up to the hill where she had rescued Yeon’s kite for Hwi on that sunny, unforgettable day.
Hwi. A lot had happened since she last saw him at the dock, sailing away to Liaodong. Hee Jae had left Ihwaru and was now serving the Queen. It was the Queen who had informed her that Hwi’s name was on the list of soldiers who had died in battle. That was two years ago. Hee Jae had been devastated but she had refused to cry. The image of Hwi’s broken, beaten face on the boat was etched in her memory. She had not been able to help him then because she had been powerless. Hee Jae flung the kite into the sky and let the string unravel from her fingers. Four years had passed but she did not miss Hwi any less. In fact, she missed him more than ever. I don’t believe you are dead, she whispered angrily to the wind.
Hwi watched as Hee Jae flew the eagle kite listlessly, her face drawn and blank. He had been following her since she left her house. Foolish girl. She was now favoured by the Queen and respected by courtiers for her intelligence and wisdom. Why was she still grieving over someone like him? Hwi had returned to Gaegyeong one year ago after three hellish years in Liaodong. He had done unspeakable things there to survive and return alive.
In a twist of fate, he had saved Seon Ho’s life in Liaodong. In a more cruel twist of fate, Nam Jeon had disclosed he had been housing Yeon all these years after Seon Ho bought her home that night Hwi had been dragged away. Nam Jeon was holding Yeon hostage and would not harm her as long Hwi carried out his instructions, mainly to plot the murder of Yi Bang Won, the powerful fifth son of the King. Hwi had no choice but to obey.
But Hee Jae… worried him. He heard that she had searched for Yeon all these years as well and had been sending people to find out his whereabouts. And she was still doing so. Seon Ho had said, “She doesn’t believe you are dead.” At Hwi’s request, Seon Ho had not told Hee Jae that Hwi was alive. Seon Ho rarely talked about Hee Jae though the two of them regularly crossed paths in the palace. Hwi did not feel inclined to ask his former best friend about her – their friendship had been destroyed. They were just mercenary partners now.
Hwi remembered the first time he saw Hee Jae a few months after he had returned to Gaekyeong. She had ridden into town with the Queen and Yi Bang Won. He had wanted to run up to her and hug her tight. He had missed her terribly. Memories of her smile and their happy moments together had kept him alive in his darkest days. But he now had a different path in life, one that was dangerous and involved bloodshed. In fact, he was heading to Ihwaru the following night to assassinate one of Yi Bang Won’s closest advisers.
He glanced at the darkening sky, “Go home, Hee Jae. You shouldn’t be by yourself in such a deserted place at such a late hour.” He knew she could not hear him but he said it anyway. Talking to her like that from a distance helped maintained his sanity. Unfortunately, she did not heed his secret plea and sat down on the ground instead, flying the darned eagle kite. Hwi continued to keep watch over her from his spot behind a huge tree.
– The following night –
Hee Jae jumped when screams rang out throughout Ihwaru. She had visited Seo Seol earlier and was in Hwa Wol’s room chatting with her friend. A gisaeng crashed into the room, “Assassins!!! They are attempting to kill General Jung!” Without another thought, Hee Jae ran out to the courtyard. General Jung was an important man. If news got around that he was killed at Ihwaru, everyone at the establishment would be interrogated.
Hee Jae headed for the main pavilion, aware that the general would be there. She reached there just in time to see him getting slayed by an assassin. The general gurgled his last breath and grasped the bandanna covering the assassin’s face. He yanked it down just before slumping down to the ground. Shocked and horrified, Hee Jae took in the assassin’s profile and her heart stopped. It could not be. Her wildest dream had just come true in the most macabre manner. Unable to stop herself, she croaked, “Hwi.”
The assassin whipped around and Hee Jae’s knees nearly gave way at the sight of him. It was him. He was darker, leaner, with scars under his eye and at his temple… but it was him. Hwi was alive. His eyes were devoid of his usual warmth and playfulness; they were wounded and wild. When he realised it was her, he leapt out of the pavilion and ran in the opposite direction.
Hee Jae. Why was she at Ihwaru of all nights? She had witnessed him murdering someone in cold blood. He had to get away from her. He could not face her in his state. His hands, face and clothes were splattered with blood. He felt someone grab his wrist and knew it was her. He tried to yank his wrist away but she stubbornly held on and refused to let go. Leaving him with no choice, he angled around to face her reluctantly.
Hwi. He was alive. She was right. He had not died in Liaodong. However, her heart ached when she finally got a good look at him. His eyes were swirling with hurt and disillusion. He looked as if he just stepped out of a nightmare. Besides the scars on his face, he had others on his arms and chest. His physique had lost its boyish lankiness, his shoulders broader and muscles more sinewy. His jaw and cheekbones were more defined. His hair, though pulled into a ponytail, was as wild as ever. Hee Jae took comfort in that frivolous fact – at least there was something of him that had not changed. When she glanced down at his hand carrying the sword, he tucked it behind him defensively.
Hwi eyed Hee Jae guardedly, searching her features for signs of disgust and horror but there were none. Her eye glistened with bittersweet joy, yearning and regret. She clung to his bloody hand in a death grip, “You’re alive. Why didn’t you come find me?” Hwi snapped lowly, “Whatever for?” Hurt flitted across her face but she managed a tiny smile, “I‘m glad you are alive. Your name was on the death list but I didn’t believe you were dead.” He retracted his hand from hers, “I might as well be. Go inside. You shouldn’t be seen with a murderer.”
She stepped closer to him and her familiar fragrance tickled his senses. “I don’t care. I have been dreaming about meeting you again since the day you left for Liaodong.” He reared back and issued warningly, “Don’t. I never dreamt about you – not even once, not even in a nightmare. I’ve erased you from my mind completely.” Hee Jae cocked her head, tears spilling down her cheeks, “Liar.”
To Hwi’s relief, however, she took a step back, “I’ll let you go tonight.” He did not reply as he swivelled away from her. “Thank you for being alive,” she relayed gently to his departing back and left. Hwi’s heart seized and tears welled in his eyes. Hee Jae. She always got him with her way with words, her way with him. For the past four years, memories of their happy moments tormented yet sustained him. What was he going to do now that she knew he was alive?
Hee Jae returned to Hwa Wol’s room and was grateful that her friend was not there. She needed a good cry. Hwi. He looked as if he had been to hell and back, his physical and emotional scars screaming at her in tortured pain. “I should have never let you be taken away…” Hee Jae uttered as tears spilled uncontrollably down her cheeks. Hwi was alive but he was no longer the man she knew.
Gone was the bright smile, the sweet tenderness. Cold darkness and steely hardness enveloped him instead. She stared at her hand which had touched him. It was stained with blood. An unnerving calm fell over Hee Jae as she methodically scrubbed the blood away in a basin of water. Her commitment to Hwi had never wavered since those stolen minutes in her room those years ago. She was going to protect him at all cost from now on. Hee Jae’s eyes drifted close and for the first time in four years, she fell into a peaceful slumber.
When Hee Jae’s palanquin reached the palace gate, she stepped out and found Seon Ho waiting for her. He greeted her with a friendly smile, “You’re early today.” She eyed him coldly in return, “Hwi is alive. I met him. You knew.” It was not a question but a statement. Seon Ho stared at the woman he had been not-so-secretly in love with for the past four years. He had known from the start that she had fallen for Hwi on sight; but little did he expect her to stubbornly sustain her steadfast love and devotion to his former best friend even after hearing news of his “death”. “It was his decision,” he supplied shortly as he led her into the palace. Hee Jae halted abruptly and whipped around, her eyes glinting with anger and disgust, “Was it his decision to be sent to Liaodong? Was it his decision to be betrayed by his only friend?” Seon Ho could not answer so he did not. Hee Jae marched ahead of him, her pale yellow silk skirt billowing in the light morning breeze. Nothing had changed in the last four years – not one single bit. Hee Jae was always walking away from him without a backward glance.
Hwi raised his bow and let loose another stinging shot. His arrow landed dead centre on the target. Sweat poured down his brow and his clothes were soaked with perspiration. He had been practising in the scorching sun for the past three hours. He would take a short break and continue practising for another three. Hee Jae. The look of immense relief and joy in her eyes when they met at Ihwaru two nights before. The soft yet firm grip of her hand on his. Her familiar fragrance. His hand shook and his bow quivered, causing the worn crimson hair ribbon tied on it to flutter. His only keepsake from the dreamy memory four years ago in Hee Jae’s room. His only keepsake of his old self before he was hauled to Liaodong. She was now the right-hand woman to the queen; while he was a man dead to the world. She lived a lavish life in grandeur and brightness; he dwelled in the shadows filled with desolation and darkness. They simply were not meant to be, and could not be. Yet his traitorous mind kept replaying the moment Hee Jae saw him in Ihwaru. “Hwi…” her tinkling, crystalline voice cutting through the mayhem, chipping the layer of ice that blanketed his heart.
“Wait here,” Hee Jae gently ordered the hulking bodyguard at her side. Gyeol frowned, “But Miss, the path ahead is dark.” “I’ll be fine. Just wait for me here. I’ll be back soon, “Hee Jae assured as she held out her lantern in front of her. The deserted path by the lake led to a small hut at the edge of the forest. So this was where Hwi had been hiding all this while. Now that she knew he was alive, it had been easier to gather information about him. He had been fastidiously careful about his movement and identify over the years, and the assassination of General Jung at Ihwaru had not been his first assignment. Hee Jae did not care if Hwi had killed hundreds of men like General Jung; she knew he would never murder a good, upright man. All she cared now was that he lived and she could see and touch him in person.
“How is Yeon?” Hwi asked as Seon Ho entered the dim hut. “Well. She enjoys painting and embroidery, “Seon Ho replied tersely as he tossed Hwi a bag of coins. Hwi caught the bag in mid-air and tossed it on the table. “The king is relieved that General Jung is dead. Bang Won now has one less supporter to help carry out his grand plan,” Seon Ho resumed, propping himself at the edge of the table. Hwi snorted, “I don’t think Bang Won cares. One dead general isn’t going to stop him,” “Isn’t time for you then to make your move?” Seon Ho countered. Hwi eyed him with deadly calm, “I will make my move when I’m ready.”
Seon Ho decided not to press further. He remarked cautiously, “Hee Jae said she met you at Ihwaru.” Hwi shot his former best friend a sidelong glance, “Did you plan that? To let her see me murder a human in cold blood?” Seon Ho let out a humorless laugh, “No one can coerce Hee Jae to do anything against her will. Even the queen can’t – let alone, I.” “I’m surprised you haven’t married her, “Hwi said, twirling his dagger with one hand. Seon Ho bristled defensively, “What do you mean?” Hwi cocked his head knowingly, “You wanted her four years ago. You want her now. She may not be an aristocrat but she’s favoured by the queen. Knowing your father, I don’t think he would mind having Hee Jae as a daughter-in-law.”
“And if I had married her? What would you have done when you found out?” Seon Ho could not help asking. There was a silence before Hwi replied quietly without rancour, “I would have wished both of you happiness. Despite what happened, I know you would have treated Hee Jae well and give her a comfortable life.” Seon Ho knew Hwi was being sincere and hated the overwhelming guilt that swamped him. Before they could continue their conversation, a branch cracked loudly outside. Hwi immediately grabbed his bow and hissed, “Get out of here. We’ll both be in trouble if we get caught together.” With that, he soundlessly left the hut.
Hwi aimed his bow towards the path and frowned when he caught the gleam of a lantern. This was no dangerous intruder if he did not mind risking being seen. Who was it then? A passerby? Hardly anyone ventured to this remote area, which was why Hwi had chosen this place as his hideout and rendezvous point. Still, this could be a decoy so he pulled the string of his bow and waited. Moonlight suddenly broke through the trees and to his astonishment, it was Hee Jae. How had she found him? What was she doing here? Swinging his bow over his shoulder, he ran to her, snatched her wrist and started pulling her away from the hut towards the lake.
“Why are you here?” Hwi growled as soon they were in a spot that was bright enough for them to see each other. When he saw her staring at his hand on her wrist, he quickly dropped her hand. Hee Jae gazed at him unflinchingly, “You should be asking me how I found this place. If I can find it, anyone can. Especially someone like Bang Won.” Hwi glared at her, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” “I don’t know what you are planning but it is dangerous. Bang Won is dangerous. You should stop right now, “Hee Jae beseeched. “Just leave and don’t come back ever again, “Hwi answered tiredly. Refusing to give up, Hee Jae took a step towards him. Hwi raised his bow threateningly, “Don’t come closer.” Something dangling from this bow caught her attention. It was her crimson hairband. It was faded, it was charred, but he had kept it with him all these years.
“You said you had forgotten me, forgotten everything,” she whispered. Hwi spun around and started to walk away from her. I’ll never let him go again, Hee Jae thought desperately. Running after him, she flung her arms his waist and held him fast against her. He stilled, his whole body thrumming with tension. Hee Jae pressed her cheek against his back. It was warm, comforting and strong, just like she remembered. “I’ll protect you from now on. I won’t lose you ever again,” she vowed.
Hwi clenched his fists at his side, fighting the primal urge to embrace Hee Jae back. The sensation of her snuggled up against him felt like heaven… and home. He finally felt he had come home. Hee Jae was his home. However, now Hee Jae’s own home was almost as grand as that of an aristocrat. “I would have to die to step into your world,” he uttered resignedly. Her arms griped him tighter, almost squeezing his breath out of him, “I’ll go to your world, to you.” Her words brought him joy and fear at the same time. He knew Hee Jae meant what she said or she would have given up searching for him and Yeon years ago. He was humbled and touched that she had remained loyal to him all these years though he had promised her absolutely nothing in return. However, he was terrified that that he would lose her if she was determined to stick to him through thick and thin.
As if she could her thoughts, she retracted her arms and moved away from him. “Don’t worry. In front of everyone else, we’ll act like strangers, especially Bang Won. I can take care of myself. I’ll be going now then. Thanks for seeing me off.” With that, he heard her retreat down the path. He finally allowed himself to turn around, his gaze lingering wistfully on her back. He spied her bodyguard, Gyeol, waiting at the other end of the path. He knew Gyeol shadowed Hee Jae most of the time. Hwi confessed he was initially petty and had been jealous of the other man at first; but after thinking things through, he was immensely grateful that Hee Jae was well protected because she was ruffling some feathers in court with her radical opinions on state and society issues.
Hwi planted his feet firmly on the ground, willing himself not to collapse. His plan to get close to Bang Won had been successful, thanks to his Liaodong family. Though he had mentally prepared himself to beaten up by Bang Won’s men in the process, the pain was still excruciating. His ribs were bruised, there were multiple cuts on his arms, chest and face, his knees were scrapped raw. He thought of Yeon and gritted his teeth. If he failed in his mission, Nam Jeon would kill his sister.
What Hwi had not anticipated was Bang Won dragging him to Ihwaru to continue his interrogation. All those rumours of Bang Won being on good terms with the Seo Seol must be true; she allowed him to conduct his secret, bloody matters on the grounds of the gisaeng establishment in exchange for information and his patronage. However, it is was also openly known that Seo Seol entertained business from Bang Won’s enemies so in truth, she was shrewdly playing multiple sides. She was as daring as she was intelligent, and even the most powerful in society knew she could take them down if she wished to do with all the dirty, gritty details of all of them she had religiously consolidated over decades.
Wiping the blood from his mouth, Hwi sneered at Bang Won, who remained cool and inscrutable behind his men who surrounded Hwi. A flash of gold darted across Hwi’s peripheral vision and his throat seized when he saw it was Hee Jae, with Hwa Wol by her side. He had not seen her since the night at the hut a few days ago. He saw her blanch at his sorry state but her steps did not falter, continuing in his direction. She stopped directly in front of Bang Won, who acknowledged her with a curt nod. They had met four years ago when Hee Jae decided to serve the queen. Bang Won had been ordered by his father to escort the latter’s beloved second wife to safety as the general overthrew the king then.
“We can’t afford to clean up another of your bloody messes, Your Highness,” Hee Jae remarked nonchalantly. Bang Won marvelled at the young woman’s boldness. If she had not been the queen’s closest aide, the prince would have considered taking her as his second wife. The daughter of a gisaeng was a fascinating combination of brains and beauty. He was intrigued that she had not yet married or at least taken a nobleman as a sponsor. He was aware that there were plenty of rich merchants and aristocrats vying for her hand – including Nam Jeon’s son.
Bang Won did not really think her a threat to his grand plan but he asked his men to check her activities regularly, to ensure she was not plotting something in secret with the queen. Surprisingly, she was not. She advised the queen on many matters but did not seem interested at all in the older woman’s political ambitions. In fact, Hee Jae seemed almost ambivalent as to who would inherit the throne after his father – her intention was to amass information and knowledge, and eventually, power, to fulfil her own ambitions. Bang Won often wondered what drove Hee Jae and after four years, he still could not fully figure her out.
“I don’t intend to kill him, don’t worry,” Bang Won drawled and his men immediately stepped away from Hwi. The young thug in front of him fascinated him, too. In fact, Bang Won had never seen someone shoot an arrow with such impressive skill since his former teacher, the great Seo Geom. A naturally gifted archer and fighter, the man who called himself Hwi should be serving in the royal army instead of hustling the streets and working as a hunter. As much as he presented himself as a mercenary, his speech gave him away. He was obviously educated though he tried to hide it. Bang Won had only known the man for a few hours since they “bumped” into each other at the morning hunt, but he knew that he had great potential and spirit. He possessed a sharp, quick mind, and was brave and confident. He was also loyal, as seen by how he had defended his three friends. Bang Won changed his mind. Hwi was better serving him than the royal army. “Come to my residence in three days,” he told Hwi. He nodded again at Hee Jae and swivelled around to leave. Hwi dropped like a sack to the ground.
Hee Jae waited until Bang Won was near the exit of Ihwaru before rushing towards Hwi. His friends were already surrounding him, with the burliest one heaving him off the ground. “Follow me,” Hee Jae issued urgently. The three men looked at her with a mix of bewilderment and suspicion. “I know Hwi. Quick!” Hee Jae hastened, pointing in the direction of her old room. The most serious one of the trio studied her intensely and his eyes widened fractionally in recognition. Hee Jae found him familiar as well but she could not place him at the moment. “Hwi knows this lady. Let’s follow her,” he rapped out shortly. Relieved, Hee Jae guided them to her room.
Bang Won paused at the exit of Ihwaru. Twisting around, he saw Hee Jae running beside Hwi’s friends, gesturing towards the back of Ihwaru. As he suspected, Hee Jae knew Hwi. In all the times he had run into Hee Jae at Ihwaru, she had largely ignored him and minded her own business. But she had not this time. Interesting. “Find out about Hwi. Dig into everything about him,” he murmured to this right-hand man.
Hee Jae stripped off Hwi’s shirt and gently cleaned and bandaged his wounds, noting all the scars there had not been on him four years ago. How he must had suffered. They were again back in her room and she was tending to his injuries again. She squeezed his hand, interweaving her fingers through his. Is this how we would always be, she mused a little sadly.
Hwi cracked his eyes open. He was not in his hut. His last memory was Bang Won striding away from him, his fan shrouding part of his face. Ihwaru. He was in Ihwaru. He heard a soft sigh and angled his head to the side. Hee Jae was sleeping soundly beside him, her hand clasped in his. They were again in her room. She had again tended to his wounds. How many times would she have to do this if she stayed with him, he pondered jadedly. He tried to untangle himself without waking her.
“Don’t disappear on me ever again,” she muttered. Hwi blinked and saw Hee Jae staring at him sleepily. She did not appear completely awake. When he did not answer, she resumed despondently, “There are so many things I want to do with you. I want to see the flowers blooming in spring with you, stroll in fall with the leaves crackling under our feet, playing with snow together in winter. Maybe it is because we met and parted in summer. I want so badly to do things with you in the other seasons. I don’t think I’m being greedy. We should create memories to remember all the times we spent together…” Her eyelids fluttered close and she fell asleep again, her lovely face marred with a frown.
Hwi felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. Such simple wishes yet he could not fulfil any of them for her. He inched closer to her, keeping their hands intertwined. “I remember everything. The colours when we first met, the warm breeze on that day we flew kites, the rain on the day I left. No matter how I tried, I could not forget you. I missed you like crazy,” he admitted achingly, tears seeping from his eyes. He leaned over and pressed a tender kiss on her forehead, one teardrop falling on her cheek. Stirring, she reached up to dash the wetness away from her skin before burying herself into his chest instinctively, mumbling, “Don’t go. Don’t leave me again.”
Hwi gathered her in his arms, tucking her head under his chin. He could do this for her. At least for this one night.
Hwi carefully untangled himself from the sleeping Hee Jae, threw on his clothes, and gathered his weapons. It was a couple of hours to daybreak. Ihwaru would start readying for the day soon and it was best he left before anyone else spotted him. He covered Hee Jae with the blanket and whispered, “Thank you.” Stepping out of her room, he nearly tripped over Hwa Wol, who was sprawled outside the door. “You’re leaving?” she asked groggily, standing up. “Yes. Please look after Hee Jae,” Hwi answered. “Your… friends are waiting for you near the main pavilion. And take this,” she shoved a big bundle into Hwi’s hands. “What is it?” Hwi asked curiously. “Clothes Hee Jae bought you four years ago. You were drafted to Liaodong before she could give them to you.” Hwi nodded politely and headed towards the main pavilion.
His path was intercepted by Seo Sol. “Things are going according to plan, I heard,” she commented calmly, scrutinising the warrior in front of her from head to toe. He reminded her so much of his father, despite his weary, dreary appearance. Seo Seol had seen Seo Geom a few times at Ihwaru, accompanying the king, princes and dukes. He had brought Hee Jae home the night her mother had been murdered and Seo Seol was indebted to him for saving the little girl’s life. He had always been kind and respectful towards her and she had truly mourned his death all those years ago. Which was why she had agreed to help Hwi gather information about Nam Jeon and his cronies, and Bang Won. “So far, yes. I wouldn’t be able to do so without your help. Thank you, “Hwi answered, bowing cordially.
“Since I can’t stop Hee Jae from wanting to be you, promise me you’ll protect her at all costs, “Seo Sol issued deliberately, her gaze cold and calculating. There was a pause before Hwi sighed heavily, “Is there no way you can convince her that following me will only lead to doom and bloodshed?” Seo Sol’s gaze softened – Hwi genuinely appeared desperate and troubled over Hee Jae. She admitted she had been surprised he had kept to his promise to keep away from Hee Jae when he returned to Gaekyeong. The boy did love Hee Jae deeply but knew his path was a dangerous path which would only lead to pain and heartbreak.
“She has made her choice so she has to accept the consequences, whatever they may be. She chose to leave Ihwaru and serve the Queen. She chose to stay by your side, no matter what happens. When Hee Jae makes her mind, it is almost impossible to dissuade her,” Seo Sol clipped, her voice tinged with a mixture of pride and frustration. “I’m the biggest mistake in her life,” Hwi uttered somberly. With that parting statement, he bowed again and left.
“You knew Hwi was alive all along, didn’t you?” Hee Jae accused Seo Seol, her tone hurt and betrayed. She had called on the older woman right after she woke up and discovered Hwi was no longer in her room. “Yes,” Seo Seol admitted unrepentantly, her gaze never leaving the documents in front of her. She always started her day by reviewing information she had received the day before. No one, not even Hee Jae, knew how many spies Seo Seol deployed across Joseon and beyond. “You told him not to seek me out…” Hee Jae went on, staring the woman who was akin to a mother to her in disappointment.
Seo Seol raised her eyes jadedly, “We both thought it would best if you thought him dead. Hwi’s plans… are dangerous. If you really care for him, let him be. He’ll be more worried if you get involved.” Hee Jae shook her head stubbornly, “I can’t stand by and do nothing. He needs all the support he can get if he want to fight Bang Won. I won’t let him disappear from my life ever again…” “Your mother’s letter. I gave it to him. Because of it, Hwi found out who betrayed his father all those years ago,” Seo Seol cut in abruptly. Hee Jae was startled. She had always wanted to know the contents of that damning letter. It suddenly dawned on her, “The people who betrayed Seo Geom. Is Nam Jeon one of them?”
Seo Seol arched one brow bemusedly, “Did the queen tell you that?” Hee Jae snorted, “The queen would not tell me anything unless she wants me to use the information for her good.” Seo Seol cracked a small, statisfied smile at that. She was glad Hee Jae was smart to figure that out at least. Seo Seol had taught her well. “I heard from the eunuchs that Nam Jeon and Seo Geom were once good friends. But knowing Nam Jeon, he would never consider anyone a friend, especially someone who was more respected than him and favoured by the king, like Seo Geom. He would be jealous and would have schemed to take him down. I’m not surprised if he was the mastermind behind the framing of Seo Geom,” Hee Jae concluded resignedly.
Seo Seol tapped her fingers on the table, “How far would you go to protect Hwi?” Hee Jae’s gaze narrowed, “what do you mean?” “Bang Won wants you. I can tell. And I’m sure you can as well. I’m also sure he already is aware that you know Hwi,” Seo Seol uttered in a matter-of-fact tone. Hee Jae was about to dispute Seo Seol’s last statement when she remembered the previous night – she had not waited for Bang Won to depart from Ihwaru before guiding Hwi and his friends to her room. She had been careless in her worry and haste to treat Hwi’s injuries. Hee Jae swore audibly, which caused Seo Seol to cluck her tongue in amusement, “I see you’ve picked up some colourful language over the years.” Hee Jae lifted her chin proudly, “I would do anything to protect Hwi, except give myself to another. Bang Won is a strategist and negotiator – he wouldn’t care for bedside companionship if I can offer him something that can advance his grand ambitions.”
“If you work for him, you’ll be going against Hwi,” Seo Seol remarked. “You taught me years ago that Ihwaru neither works for anyone nor takes political sides. Ihwaru exists to profit and benefit from information and knowledge…to amass power so that even the powerful would think twice of crossing us. We negotiate, we cut deals. We do not work or support anyone, even the king himself,” Hee Jae responded resolutely. Seo Seol nodded in approval, “You are right. Do what you wish but be careful. Bang Won has eyes and ears everywhere.”
“You look better. The wonders of spending the night with a beautiful woman, “Moon Bok cackled. He, Chi Do, Jeong Beom and Hwi were gathered in another of their hideouts, in a more remote area than the hut that Hwi used as a rendezvous point with Seon Ho. Hwi ignored Moon Bok’s comment, wincing as he tried to stretch his bruised, sore back. He and Hee Jae should not have met again. Now that they had, things would get more complicated and dangerous for both of them. Yet… “Don’t ever disappear on me ever again.” Hwi fought the conflicting feelings warring inside him. He did not want to hurt Hee Jae again but he realised he would be hurting her either way. She would be wounded if he left her again; she would probably be killed by Nam Jeon or Bang Won if she persisted in getting involving in his affairs. He was caught between a rock and a hard place.
“The young lady… looks smart, tough and determined. She can look after herself. She survived four years beside a scheming queen. Don’t push her away if she comes to you. It is always comforting to have someone to hold on to you… especially in times when you feel all hope is gone,” Chi Do said stoically. “Seon Ho wants her. Bang Won wants her,” Hwi issued flatly. He had seen the mix of desire and fascination in Bang Won’s eyes that night when Hee Jae had spoken to him at Ihwaru. The prince had obviously taken a liking to Hee Jae, which probably endangered rather than protected her. Hwi was at his wits’ end. He had to protect Yeon. He had to protect Hee Jae.
A crunch on dead leaves sounded outside the hideout and distracted him from his woes. “It’s them.” Jeong Beom warned. Hwi grabbed his bow and dashed out. It was the thug that hired him to kill General Jung. Hwi heard that he knew something about the framing of his father all those years ago. Hwi had lured him to the hideout on the pretext of a potentially lucrative assassination of a corrupted court official. Hwi was going to make him talk at all cost.
“Why does he have so many hideouts?” Gyeol muttered under his breath as he walked alongside Hee Jae. Hee Jae smiled slightly at his annoyed tone but did not reply. Thanks to her informants, she discovered that Hwi had yet another hideout near the base of the mountain and that he had been staying there for the past couple of days. It pained her that Hwi had to hide from the world in such an undignified manner. He was the son of the nation’s most respected general and warrior – he should not be skulking in the shadows like a degenerate criminal. Hee Jae wanted to convince Hwi to let her in on his plans so that she could support him as best as she could.
She and Gyeol finally broke through the dense trees leading to the hideout. To her surprise, Hwi was out in the clearing surrounding the hideout with his three faithful friends, engaged in a skirmish with what looked like a gang of thugs. Gyeol drew his sword and positioned himself in front of Hee Jae as they continued forward cautiously. As if sensing their presence, Hwi’s head swung in their direction sharply. His eyes narrowed – he was obviously not happy to see her.
Hee Jae was deciding whether to instruct Gyeol to join the fight when Hwi sent one of the thugs flying towards her. He landed near her feet and Hee Jae glanced down in curiosity… and froze. Gyeol left her side to fend off another thug heading their way but Hee Jae did not care. All she could see was the man in front of her… the man who had killed her mother. A jagged scar ran from his ear down this jaw – it was definitely him. Her fury mounting with every breath, Hee Jae stumbled towards him. She was going to kill him with her own bare hands. She would finally be able to avenge her mother.
What was Hee Jae doing? Hwi frowned as she saw her stagger towards the thug on the ground, her eyes wild and unfocused. He could see her whole body trembling even from a distance. What was wrong with her? Her bodyguard was distracted, fighting with two other thugs. The thug started to get up but Hee Jae did not seem to notice. “Hee Jae!” Hwi roared urgently but he was one second too late as the thug grabbed Hee Jae and stuck a knife to her throat. Hwi’s gut twisted in icy fear as even as he aimed an arrow at the thug. “Shoot!” Hee Jae screamed. Her eyes were simmering with agony and anger.
Hwi hesitated. Then he glimpsed a flash of silver and realised Hee Jae held a small dagger in her hand. When she drove the dagger into the thug’s thigh, he released his bow. His arrow embedded into the thug’s torso. It was not a kill shot but it was going to hurt badly. The latter screeched in pain before collapsing on the ground. Immediately, Hee Jae picked up a sword from the ground with two hands and raised it above her head. “He killed my mother. He killed my mother!” she blurted out, tears running down her face. Hwi was startled. He knew her mother had passed away when she was young but he never found out how and why. Seo Seol refused to tell him either, saying it was something that only Hee Jae could share with him.
His first instinct was to run over and snatch the sword away from her but he did not. He knew how she felt. He would love to do the exact thing to the people who had betrayed his father. It was her decision to make, not his. But Hwi did inch closer to her in the event the thug suddenly attacked her from below. Hee Jae hefted the sword higher and Hwi saw her gnaw her lip in indecision. “Hee Jae ah…” he called quietly. She snapped her head around to look at him, fresh tears welling in her eyes. Hwi’s compassionate, steady gaze sent her tumbling back to that fateful night. His father had regarded her in exactly the same way.
Fourteen years earlier
“It is your decision to make. But if you kill him now, you’ll never know who wanted to kill your mother,” Seo Geom advised calmly. Hee Jae gripped the knife, her whole body shaking with grief and rage. After a few seconds, she tossed the knife away and flopped down on a rock, sobbing heavily. The general crouched in front of the crying girl and patted her arm comfortingly, “You made the right decision. You’re a smart child.” Hee Jae choked back her tears and looked at the man in front of her. He smiled, his eyes full of kindness and empathy, “You did the right thing.”
Hee Jae lowered the sword menacingly. “I recognise you! You were the little girl with your mother in the woods that time! Nam Jeon ordered me to kill the messenger of the letter at all cost!” the thug squeaked in cowardice. Hee Jae slammed the sword into the ground beside his head. Nam Jeon. He was the one who was behind her mother’s death. She started choking on her tears, her body jerking violently. She felt warmth envelop her hands that were still gripping the sword. Hwi. He prided her fingers away and held her hands firmly in one of his. With his free hand, he dabbed at the wetness at her cheek, “Let’s go.”
Hee Jae and Hwi stood silently by the moonlit lake. They had not spoken since Hwi led her away from the hideout. “Every time I missed you, I would go to the hill where we rescued Yeon’s kite,” Hee Jae related sombrely. Hwi sighed deeply, “I know. You’ll fly an eagle kite each time, “ Hee Jae blinked, “You were following me all this while?” Hwi did not answer. He just tilted his head to look at the star-less sky.
“Let’s be together. Let’s do this together. We are both after Nam Jeon. He killed our parents,” Hee Jae coaxed. Hwi shook his head,” No. Leave Nam Jeon to me. I will – “ Hee Jae stepped closer, “Let’s do this together. You must have been lonely all these years. You need someone with you.” “Hee Jae ah…” Hwi groaned in frustration. Hee Jae slid her arms around his shoulders and held him fiercely, “Don’t push me away. I can’t bear to lose you again. Please. Let’s be together.” Hwi’s resistance crumbled and he hugged her back, tears seeping from his eyes. Hee Jae. With her, he felt complete.
Two months later.
Hee Jae grinned happily at the scene in front of her. To be exact, she grinned happily at the happy man in front of her. Hwi was finally reunited with Yeon. Hee Jae had been shocked and disgusted when she had run into Yeon at Seon Ho’s residence a month ago. She could not believe Seon Ho had allowed his father to hold his best friend’s beloved sister hostage. Seon Ho was truly beyond salvation. Fortunately, Yeon had regained her memory and had tried to find her way back to her brother.
Bang Won revealed to Hwi that he was aware that the latter was a double agent for him and for Nam Jeon. The prince was shrewd enough to guess that Hwi had his reasons and Hwi had confessed the truth that Nam Jeon was holding his sister hostage in exchange for Hwi spying on Bang Won. The prince offered to help rescue Yeon in exchange for Hwi’s loyalty. Hwi had agreed and Bang Won did as promised. Nam Jeon was incensed but had not dared to confront the crafty royal.
Hwi decided that he would settle down with Yeon and his three friends in another town, and start life afresh. He swore to Bang Won he would return to serve in two years – after he married off his sister to a good, dependable man. Bang Won had agreed to his terms readily.
Hwi, Yeon and the trio were leaving the next day so Hee Jae and Hwa Wol had gathered with them at the hideout at the base of the mountain. The town that Hwi was moving to was a two-day ride away from Gae Kyung – it was not difficult for Hee Jae to visit him if she wanted to. She was relieved that Hwi and Yeon had another shot to live a normal life.
“What are you doing here alone?” Hee Jae looked over her shoulder at Hwi’s voice. “Nothing. I’m just thinking,” she replied melancholically. He stood next to her, both of them facing the lake. “My hair ribbon. You should have left it to burn. It’s just a hair ribbon,” Hee Jae mumbled. She had been horrified at lunch earlier when she had found out Hwi had actually put his hand into fire to rescue her hair ribbon. “It wasn’t just a hair ribbon. It was your hair ribbon. It was all I had to remember of you, “ Hwi corrected with a warm smile as he reached for Hee Jae’s hand.
Hee Jae sighed, “I truly hope you and Yeon can be happy now on.” Hwi squeezed her hand, “We will. Don’t worry about us. We’ll lead a peaceful, simple life. Yeon will meet a good man and will start her own family.” When Hee Jae remained silent, he resumed, “I’ll come back. I won’t take long. Once Yeon is all settled, I’ll return. I promise.” “I’ll wait for you,” Hee Jae responded, her eyes locked lovingly on his.
Hwi traced her jaw and drew her into him. He loved her. He was sure he would not love another woman for the rest of his life. He lowered his head and kissed her lips sweetly. Hee Jae’s arms circled his waist and tugged him to her, going on tiptoe to deepen the kiss. Hwi. He was everything to her. No matter what happened in the future, she would stand by him.
It was not supposed to be this way. Hee Jae sat at the edge of the makeshift bed in the darkened hut, tears rolling endlessly down her cheeks. She could not comprehend how the situation could have altered so tragically in a mere couple of days. Yeon was dead, killed by Nam Jeon’s men the day before a few hours after setting off for the new town. Hwi, injured by a poisoned arrow, had arrived too late. Seon Ho, too, had dashed to the scene when he had discovered his father’s malicious plan to get rid of Hwi, Yeon and their friends. He lost the chance to bid his final farewell to Yeon. Hwi had gone berserk after Yeon had drew her last breath. He had rode back into Gaekyeong and confronted Nam Jeon. He would have died too if Bang Won had not turned up at the critical moment.
Now Hwi was back at the mountain hut, barely conscious and breathing. Moon Bok had managed to stop the spread of the poison but Hwi would never recover fully. Physical injury aside, he was irrevocably shattered by this loss of his only sibling, his only family. Hee Jae had been keeping vigil over him through the night. He was burning hot with fever one second, icy and shivering the next. Hee Jae was at a loss at how to manage him when he woke up – Yeon, his only reason for survival so far – was gone. When Hwi growled in pain, Hee Jae picked up his hand and held it against her cheek. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, “ she apologised brokenly, her other hand brushing his sweat-matted hair off his forehead. She had no idea what she was apologising for but she was devastated that she could not prevent the pain he had suffered, and the pain he was going to endure for the rest of his life.
“Orabeoni!” Hwi woke up with start at the sound of Yeon’s desperate cry. Crippling pain ripped through his entire body as he tried to sit up. Yeon. Nam Jeon’s man had stabbed through her delicate, frail body. He had not protected his younger sister. She had died because of him. Intense agony and grief washed over him and he bellowed in helpless rage. “Hwi!” Hwi barely noticed Hee Jae worriedly calling him as she tried to prevent him from standing up. He waved her away roughly and gritting his teeth, he managed to get to his feet. He wildly reached for the sword leaning against the wall but realised with horror he could not grip it at all. His hands were numb and he could not feel his fingers. He let out an animalistic howl of pain and crumpled on the floor in tears. Hee Jae knelt quietly beside him and laid her hand on his arm, “Hwi.” Her gentle, calm voice cut through momentarily through his ravaged haze. He stilled, gasping for breath. Hee Jae cupped his tear-streaked cheek and whispered, “Let’s send Yeon off properly.”
“Where is Hwi?” Hee Jae asked when she came out of the small shed next to the hut which held Yeon’s body. She had helped Moon Bok wash, clean and dress Yeon. Hwa Wol had returned to Ihwaru to convey the news to Seo Seol. Chi Do gestured frustratedly towards the hut, “Inside. He is just sitting there. He has been sitting there for the past hour. ” Hee Jae flashed a wan smile at Chi Do, “I’ll handle him.” Jung Beom sputtered, “But he’s… not wearing anything!” Hee Jae shrugged carelessly, “I grew up in a gisaeng house. Nothing much can shock me anymore.”
Padding silently into the hut, Hee Jae spotted Hwi sitting in a wooden barrel, staring listlessly at the wall in front of him. He was too weak to walk to the river to bathe and had refused to let his friends carry him. Thus, Jung Beom had come up with the idea to use a large wooden barrel which usually stored weapons as a tub. The men had boiled water and added medicinal herbs that Moon Bok had picked to treat Hwi’s wound. There was another pot of water over the fire so Hee Jae scooped some with a big bowl and headed towards Hwi. Without a word, she poured the hot water into the tub. She made a few more trips with the bowl; Hwi did not react or speak to her throughout. When Hee Jae was satisfied the water was hot enough, she plucked a clean cloth from a rack and lowered herself next to the tub. She dipped the cloth into the water and started washing his shoulders, torso, neck and arms. Hwi did not stop her. He just sat mutely in the water, his eyes blank. “Lean forward. We need to wash your hair,” she instructed evenly though her heart ached at his pale, expressionless face. He did not respond so she nudged his head downward and scrubbed his tousled mane as clean as she could. When she was done, she snatched his fresh set of mourning clothes from the bench and held it up above the tub. “Hwi, please.” she urged, reaching down to squeeze his shoulder. When he did not move after a few seconds, Hee Jae thought she had failed.
Just when she thought of enlisting Chi Do’s help, Hwi stood up slowly, wincing in pain. Hee Jae quickly threw the robe around him and he stepped out of the tub. Keeping her eyes steadily on his, she carefully slid his
arms into the sleeves and knotted the belt at his waist. His hair was in a mess so she combed through the tangles with her fingers. Hwi stood in front of her quiescently, his eyes closed. He was utterly defeated. His wound was visible through the open vee of his collar. Hee Jae covered it gently with her palm, “You still have me.” Hwi did not reply. For the first time since he had known Hee Jae, her words failed to soothe him.
Hee Jae held back her tears as she stood beside Hwi, helping him spread Yeon’s ashes into the river. She did not know what to do with Hwi next. She was certain once he was done mourning, he would go after Nam Jeon. After Yeon’s sending-off ceremony, Hwi retreated into the hut and banned anyone else from entering. Hee Jae figured she could make a quick trip back to Ihwaru since she was certain Hwi’s friends would keep a close watch on him. “Hee Jae!!!” It was Hwa Wol, running towards the hut frantically. One look at her best friend’s distraught face and Hee Jae knew immediately what was wrong. Grabbing her travel pack, she hesitated, wondering whether to leave a note for Hwi. In his present predicament, Hee Jae figured he would not care and she did not want to add on to his burden. Thus, she turned on her heel and left the hut.
Hwi staggered into the freezing river with his clothes on. Yeon. Yeon was all alone in the nether world. Hwi halted and let out a bitter laugh. He was the one alone. Yeon was with their father in a world without worry
and pain. He was the one left behind in this wrenched hell on earth. He wanted to join them – but not before he killed Nam Jeon, which would probably take him years. Still, he trudged deeper into the river, which was now shoulder-deep.
It was tempting… so tempting… “You still have me.” Hwi clenched his fists under the water. Hee Jae. Hee Jae who had waited patiently and determinedly for him for four years, willing him to be alive. When he woke up from his stupor earlier and found her gone from his side, he had felt strangely empty. Despite the overwhelming grief that shrouded his soul and though he had pushed her away, he still missed Hee Jae.Chi Do had informed Hee Jae had to rush back to Ihwaru but was not aware of the reason. If he died now, he would make her cry again and he hated that thought. He sighed heavily and looked up at the clear sky, “Yeon. Just wait a little longer. Just a little longer…” Hwi twisted his head back to look at the shore resignedly. He could not take on Nam Jeon by his own means. He needed resources and power and there was only one person in Goryeo who could provide what he need.
When Hee Jae arrived at Bang Won’s palatial residence, she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. Seo Seol was gone; Hee Jae was now the head of Ihwaru. When she had returned to the hut and found Hwi gone, Hee Jae felt like she was spiralling into an abyss of despair. First, Yeon. Then, Seo Seol. And potentially, Hwi. His friends were frantic as he had taken off without informing them, leaving his cherished bow behind. His sword was missing though. Hee Jae knew there was only person Hwi could turn to achieve his goal of revenge – which was why she was calling on Bang Won in the middle of the night. Mung Bok had related that Hwi required a concoction of rare herbs to treat his wound and keep him alive. It could not
be found in Goryeo, however, and without it, Hwi would not be able to live another week with the deadly poison festering inside him. Again, only Bang Won would be able to secure the needed medicine, similar to how he had been supplying Seo Seol medicine for her chronic lung ailment for the past decade.
“Your Highness, Miss Hee Jae is here to see you, “ Bang Won looked up with mild surprise from the military book he was reading. The new mistress of Ihwaru was calling. If she had not visited him, he would have done so in the next couple of days. Bang Won genuinely grieved for Seo Seol, who he had known for almost half his life. He admired her integrity, dignity, intelligence, courage and analytical mind. For decades she had held both royalty and aristocracy in the palm of her hand; on a bad day, they were ruthlessly under her thumb. Now, all that power and information rested with Hee Jae, her successor. Bang Won knew Hee Jae was not paying him a courtesy call – she was here to negotiate both for Ihwaru and the man the best
royal physician was trying to save in the next room.
Hwi’s groans of pain echoed around the room as the physician treated his wound with a mixture of traditional and unconventional methods. Hee Jae dug her fingers into her palms painfully as she stood outside the room; Hwi was going to die if Bang Won did not help him. “I’m surprised he made it to my residence without dying during the journey,” Bang Won drawled from behind her. Hee Jae deliberately unclenched her fists and turned around in a measure manner. She dipped her
head respectfully, “Your Highness.” He returned her greeting with a nod, taking in the woman in front of him. She wore a pale grey blouse and silvery skirt made of the finest silk, her hair neatly pulled back from her lovely face. He wanted her. Period. But
Bang Won knew Hee Jae would never give in or give herself to him, even if Hwi died that very night. If he lived, her loyalty would always be sworn to him. But Bang Won was never one into bedroom games; his entire life was geared towards sitting on the throne, and running the nation. Because of that, it was wiser of him to negotiate with Hee Jae on the same terms as he did with Seo Seol. But Bang Won had a bigger bargaining chip this time round – Hwi’s life.
“I’ll make sure he lives. What can you give me in return, “Bang Won uttered brusquely. Hee Jae smiled beatifically, “Weekly reports of all court officials holding the top three ranks – finance, land, treasure, wives,
mistresses, children, bastards, friends, foes… every second of their lives. For one year without payment. We’ll re-negotiate again after the year is up.” It was an irresistible bargain. Bang Won whistled in reluctant appreciation, “I said I’ll make sure he lives. I didn’t say I’ll promise he will live for the next 20 years, marry you and have babies.” There was a long pause before Hee Jae answered tonelessly, “I don’t need 20 years, marriage or babies. I just need him to be alive the next sunrise, the next sunset,
and the next… and the next…”
Bang Won glanced through the half-opened doors of the room where an unconscious Hwi lay. The boy was special, Bang Won admitted. He had courage, spirit, skill and incredible will. A perfect warrior in the making. There was something familiar about the way he fought and his mannerisms. Bang Won just could not put a finger on it. Even if Hee Jae had not offered the deal, he would have done all he could to save Hwi. “I want the first batch of reports in a fortnight,” Bang Won rapped out gruffly. “Yes, Your Highness,” Hee Jae responded coolly even as immense relief washed over her. Hwi was going to live.
“Orabeoni!” Hwi roused with a start, sweating. Yeon. Will his nightmares of Yeon ever go away, he wondered dully. He blinked and peered around the dimly-lit room he was in. He was at Bang Won’s residence. The last thing Hwi recalled was falling clumsily into Bang Won, who had oddly held him with sympathy rather than toss him aside in disgust. The prince was an enigma. “You are finally awake!” Mung Bok screeched, snatching up Hwi’s hand and pumping it up and down excitedly. Jung Beom and Chi Do, who were sleeping, woke up instantly and joined Mung Bok by Hwi’s bedside. Hwi asked, “How long have I’ve been asleep?” “Three days, “ Jung Beom informed as he checked Hwi’s wound. It looked ghastly since it was still blackened by poison but at the least the poison had stopped spreading… for now. Hwi glanced down at his torso and arms, perplexed. He was sweaty but he did not feel dirty or grimy. Someone had obviously washed him while he was unconscious. “Miss Hee Jae has been cleaning you every two hours for the past three days, “Chi Do said, pointing to a small room that was connected to his room. Hwi could see Hee Jae fast asleep on the floor, covered by a thin quilt.
“She shouldn’t be here, “Hwi rasped curtly. She was not safe around him – or Bang Won. “You’re right. She should be at Ihwaru mourning but she was too worried to leave you alone, “ Chi Do retorted. Hwi drew his breath sharply at Chi Do’s words. Seo Seol. Hee Jae had mentioned that Seo Seol had been suffering from ill health for the past few weeks – the formidable head of Ihwaru had finally passed on. Hee Jae loved the woman dearly. She must be devastated yet here she was, fretting over him. Swinging his feet to the side, Hwi stood up unsteadily and headed for the small room. His friends filed out the room without another word.
Hee Jae’s eyes fluttered open sleepily and found herself snuggled against something wonderfully warm and comforting. Jerking her up head in confusion, she found herself staring into Hwi’s turbulent eyes as he lay next to her, propped up sideways on his shoulder. He was awake and he had come to her. The quilt was drawn around them and the sliding door leading to the bigger room was closed. She extended her hand to trail her fingers down his jaw to his chin, and whispered reverently “You’re awake – and alive.” Hwi captured her hand gently tangled his fingers with hers, “I’m sorry about Seo Seol. I know you loved her like your own mother.” Hee Jae simply nodded, accepting his condolences.
Hwi slipped his arm around Hee Jae and hauled both of them upright into a sitting position, and facing each other. He gripped her arms firmly, “Hee Jae… I won’t rest until I kill Nam Jeon and whoever else involved in my father’s and Yeon’s deaths. It will take me years. I won’t be around often and I would never lead a normal, peaceful life till I draw my last breath. I’ll be killing people and people would be trying to kill me. I’ll have to commit unspeakable acts at times.
Your life will be ruined if you continue to be with me.” Hwi paused for a second before adding in a pained tone, “Please. Let’s just stop here. Stay away from me. Stay away from Bang Won. Please.”
“I told you. I’ll never lose you again,” Hee Jae reiterated, tilting her chin stubbornly. Hwi shook her lightly, “I’m already losing myself. There is going to be nothing left of the old Hwi in time and you’ll regret it
then. You will be wasting your life on a cold-blooded killer who has nothing to offer you except pain and broken promises. I’m going to break your heart over and over again. ” To Hwi’s frustration, Hee Jae smiled, her eyes filled with bittersweet affection,
“I’ll hold on to you, even if you lose yourself. You’ll always be the same boy who kissed me in my room four years ago – a loyal friend, a loving brother, a brave warrior. None of that is going to change. I’ll continue to live my life as mistress of Ihwaru
– don’t worry about me and do what you need to do. I’ll do my best to lessen your pain and I’ll be the one to keep the promises. Just do what you have to do, what you want to do. I’ll look after my own heart.” She was truly crazy. Hwi concluded even as her words shook him to the core. Tears fell unchecked from his eyes as he gazed at her wordlessly, shattered by her conditional love and loyalty. Hee Jae leaned forward to hug him, “There is only one thing I want from you. Promise me you’ll always come back to me, no matter how far you go, how matter long you take.” Hwi locked his arms around her, “I promise.”
Six years later.
Hee Jae waited anxiously at the marketplace in town, with Gyeol by her side. Hwi was back. She had not seen him in almost four months. According to her sources, he arrived in Hanyang at dawn. When the capital was moved from Gaekyeong to Hanyang, Hee Jae decided to move relocate Ihwaru to the latter as well. The gisaeng establishment was bigger, grander and richer than ever before. Hwi was supposedly making a stop at the blacksmith so Hee Jae waited down the street. Finally,
a tall, lean figure dressed in expensive maroon silk stepped out of the tiny, hidden blacksmith shop. It was deceptively decrepit on the outside; the team of blacksmiths working inside were the best in Joseon and made weapons exclusively for Bang Won. The only other person they were allowed to make weapons for was Hwi.
Hwi started back up the street and spotted Hee Jae immediately with her ever-faithful bodyguard shadowing her. She drank in his physical presence as he slowly headed towards her. A new scar ran down his neck and his knuckles were bruised. His tan had gotten darker and he looked as if he had not slept for days. When he drew abreast, he paused mid-stride and angled his head towards her. His eyes were devoid of emotion and light – dark, ruthless and detached. He had been right six
years ago – he was self-destructing his old self away with every new step towards destroying Nam Jeon. Hee Jae returned his cold, assessing stare with a tiny smile of muted j
No matter what he did and where he went, even disappearing for months, Hwi had kept that one promise over the last six years – he always came back to Hee Jae after. Be it angry and bloody or broken and lost, he never once broke his vow to return to her. And Hee Jae kept her side of the bargain – she never asked him anything, never judged his actions and decisions. She held on to him, his anchor as he navigated his stormy, dangerous quest for revenge. As he walked away from her, she eyed the sun setting in the distance. She then closed her eyes and thanked the heavens she had him for yet another day.
Hwi paused at the entrance of Ihwaru. His mind wandered to earlier in the morning where he had seen Hee Jae in the marketplace. She looked tired and had obviously lost weight; but she still smiled at him as always. That little half-smile that comprised joy, sadness, relief and yearning. The last time they had seen each other was four months ago – he had spent the night in her quarters at Ihwaru and left at dawn without waking her. It was the same routine for the past six years.
Hwi never failed to spend his last night with Hee Jae before leaving town for a trip or mission. He was meeting Bang Won, which meant he was going to see Hee Jae again. Bang Won rarely presided over important meetings without Hee Jae by his side. While Hwi was extremely uncomfortable and wary about their arrangement, he was resigned to the fact that Bang Won needed Hee Jae in his own way as well. Also, Hwi and Hee Jae were keenly aware that Bang Won treated them as convenient hostages should either one – or two – of them turned against him.
Bang Won was discussing with Hee Jae and his loyal circle of followers his latest plan when the guard at the entrance of the room announced Hwi’s arrival. Bang Won observed how Hee Jae and Hwi remain composed at the sight of each other. Bang Won had to confess he envied the couple – they somehow managed to keep their relationship going and stay committed through the years though they spent more time apart than together, and categorically refused to get married. Bang Won was well aware they were lovers; the two were discreet but did not deliberately hide the fact either.
They probably figured anyone putting a tail on them would find out eventually. To their credit, their relationship did not affect their individual work. Hwi was probably Joseon’s most highly skilled warrior – and most deadly assassin, if need be – at present; Hee Jae had amassed so much power and critical information in the past six years that even Bang Won would think twice of crossing her, let alone anyone else. “Your Highness,” Hwi bowed formally when he was standing in front of Bang Won. The prince flashed a rare, genuine smile, “You’re finally back.” Hwi nodded respectfully and began updating about his latest trip.
It was close to midnight when Hwi was finally done for the day. After the meeting, he and Bang Won had caught up over drinks. As he exited the lavish pavilion where he had been with Bang Won, he hesitated on where he should head next. He had a decent residence in Hanyang, which he shared with Chi Do, Mun Bok and Jung Beom. Or he could spend the night at Ihwaru… with Hee Jae. Recalling her fatigued expression in the morning and during the meeting, he decided he would head home.
As he made his way slowly to the entrance, a fiery, stabbing pain suddenly speared his heart, causing him to double over. Gritting his teeth in sheer agony, Hwi clutched his chest and grabbed blindly at the pillar in front of him for support. His darned poisoned wound just would not heal despite all the medication he had been taking for the past six years. He felt a warm wetness spread under his palm and looked down. His wound was bleeding again. It usually happened when it over-exerted himself or was extremely angry and upset. He had not slept in almost two days. The pain ebbed away after a few minutes, leaving Hwi drenched in cold sweat. He straightened wearily and spotted Hee Jae standing a few metres away from him, looking worried. She had stayed up to wait for him. When he did not move, she came towards him. She took his hand, the one which was smeared with his blood, and whispered, “Let’s go.”
Hwi sat on the heated floor in Hee Jae’s room, grateful for its toasty warmth. They were in the early days of a long, bleak winter. He watched as Hee Jae busied herself gathering items to treat his wound. She had become an expert at treating his injuries through the years, and kept a steady supply of ointments, herbs and medicine in her room. He could barely keep his eyes open as he was exhausted. He caught a whiff of Hee Jae’s perfume as she settled down in front of him, placing a basin of water next to them. She stripped off his shirt with familiarity, and cleaned and disinfected the wound. After sprinkling herbs on it, she went around to sit behind him.
Hee Jae wrapped the bandage carefully around Hwi’s torso. He had not spoken at all since they met outside the pavilion. Hee Jae gazed at his back, which was marred with multiple scars. It was the same with his front. She lightly traced the scars at the back and rested her hand on one of his shoulders. His hand slowly covered hers and trapped it gently and securely against him. Hee Jae felt tears prick her eyelids at his tender gesture. The last six years had been tumultuous and it was heart-breaking to see Hwi morph into what he was at present – a hardened, lethal warrior who cut down anyone who attempted to stop him from advancing his revenge on Nam Jeon. Hee Jae had long accepted the changed Hwi but these rare moments of tenderness never failed to get to her. Sighing softly, she rested her cheek against his back, “I can’t ask you to stop or keep going. I know it is something you have to do so I just hope you wouldn’t get hurt further.”
There was long silence before Hwi issued huskily, “Let me stay with you tonight.” Hee Jae smiled slightly at that. He always asked whether he could stay the night with her each time he did, which she thought was oddly touching. Though she was aware that he was conveying to her that he did not take her for granted and expected her to accommodate him all the time; she never once turned him down. She needed him as much he needed her. There were there for each other when needed. That was all that mattered to Hee Jae. She kissed the scar on his nape in reply. He twisted around and pulled her into his lap with one swift move. Cradling her in his arms, he kissed her forehead, eyelids, nose before drifting to her lips, “Hee Jae ah…”
A couple of hours later, Hwi lay sprawled on the padded floor bedding, with Hee Jae curled at his side, sleeping soundly. He tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her ear and tugged the blanket over her bare shoulder. She looked so beautiful, even tired and in slumber. Her hair was undone and spread across his chest. Hwi kissed her cheek and drew her closer to him. Hee Jae, his faithful lover, partner and friend for the past ten years. She had wasted her precious youth – the best years of her life – on him and Hwi did not know if he could ever forgive himself for that. She should be married and a mother by now. But here she was, patching him up for the hundredth time and supporting his mission of revenge. As his finger strayed over her lips, he recalled their very first night as lovers…
Six years ago
Hwi staggered through the tiny courtyard of his house, which he grew up in. He had not been back since Yeon’s death – he could not bear to step foot into it, knowing that his father and Yeon were no longer around to live there with him. He was weary to the bone. His whole body ached, and there were blisters, cuts and bruises all over. It had been about five months since Hwi had gotten poisoned and he had spent all his waking hours training. His injury had incapacitated him for a few weeks, his arms and legs numb, his wound excruciatingly painful. Once he regained feeling in his limbs and movement, he picked up his bow and sword again.
He trained at Bang Won’s army grounds, he trained in the mountains, he trained in the forest, he swum in the rivers, etc. He did anything that could improve his strength, skill and stamina. His friends accompanied him on some days but largely let him be, sensing that he needed time alone to grieve privately and organise his thoughts. He knew Bang Won was keeping a watchful eye on him, even when Hwi was not at the prince’s training grounds.
As for Hee Jae, he had not seen her much since that night they spent together in that small room at Bang Won’s residence. She had returned to Ihwaru a couple of days later and had been extremely busy running the establishment since. She had big shoes to fill and she did not want to take any chances or be seen weaker than her predecessor. Hwi knew Hee Jae and Bang Won had cut a deal, continuing the connection the royal had with the gisaeng house.
Hwi did not like their constant engagement but he was acutely understood that Hee Jae would not hesitate to do what she needed for her and Ihwaru to survive. It was this very tenacity and independence that Hwi loved and respected her for; yet at the same time caused him to be terrified as he knew she would inevitably make numerous enemies along the way. Hwi swivelled his head around to take a better look at the courtyard. Someone had cleaned it up. There were no overgrown weeds or dried leaves in sight. As he approached his house, he saw it was spick and span, with no dust, cobwebs, mold, and uninvited insects and wild animals. He shook off his shoes and entered the house. The floor was warm – someone had stopped by earlier and heated the place. He peeked into his tiny bedroom and saw fresh blankets and pillows on the floor.
Just then, he heard rustling outside the house and his hand automatically when to his dagger strapped on his waist. “Hello?” someone called out. It was Hee Jae. She glided into the house, carrying a huge basket. Her hair was swept into a simple bun with an elaborate hair pin, indicating she had just finished a day of “official business” at Ihwaru. When she saw Hwi, a smile lit up her face, “Mun Bok came to Ihwaru to see Hwa Wol this morning and he told me you were returning to your old house after training. I had people clean up the place. Are you hungry? I brought food.” Hwi frowned, “It’s really late. Did you come here by yourself?” Hee Jae shook her head, “Gyeol is with me. He’s waiting outside.” Hwi took the basket from her, “He can leave. I’ll take you home later.”
Hee Jae nodded and went out to talk to Gyeol. Hwi started unpacking the food from the basket, noting that every dish was his favourite. And evidently not cooked by Hee Jae, Hwi thought to himself in amusement. The food looked edible and was neatly presented. Hee Jae was the most capable woman he knew and could do anything she put her mind to… except cooking. She was just hopeless in the kitchen. When Hee Jae rejoined him, Hwi had assembled everything on the low table in the living area. Handing her a bowl and a pair of chopsticks, they started digging in easy, companionable silence.
They washed the dishes together after they were done and Hwi headed to the courtyard to wash up. When he returned to the house, Hee Jae was waiting with bandages, salve and a nasty-looking concoction in a bowl. He figured it was some kind of exotic medicine she had managed to smuggle from outside Joseon again. They both knew the poison he had in his body had no antidote – any medication would only work to dilute its intensity temporarily and strengthen his internal energy in a bid to fend off its toxic effects.
Hee Jae motioned for him to sit in front of her and he dutifully obeyed. She tugged his shirt down without fuss and gently dabbed the wound dry with a clean cloth. The wound still looked horrific in Hee Jae’s eyes – there was no known antidote, no cure for this wicked poison. Bang Won too had been actively searching for something, anything to counter it but had not been successful as yet. They were trying to prolong Hwi’s life by delaying the spread of poison to the rest of his body. Once that could not be done, Hwi would die. Hee Jae blinked back tears as she applied salve to the wound. Silly her. She should not be crying like some helpless child.
Keeping her face downcast to hide her face from Hwi, she thrust the bowl of medicine in his direction and muttered in muffled voice, “Drink this while it’s hot.”
He took the bowl from her silently and gulped down its contents while she busied herself wrapping the bandage around his torso. There were new cuts and bruises everywhere, his knuckles and palms all scrapped and callused. Why did he have to suffer so? Hee Jae wondered despairingly. Why could he not live a normal, peaceful life? Everything, everyone he loved had been cruelly taken away from him, his best friend had betrayed him… only revenge kept him alive. Hee Jae always believed life was unfair but it was disproportionately unfair to Hwi. She inhaled shakily, struggling to keep her emotions in check.
“Hee Jae?” Hwi uttered softly above her. She nodded briefly but did not answer him, pretending to concentrate on fixing his bandage. He tipped her chin up firmly and sighed when he saw her eyes glazed with a moist sheen, “I’m always making you worry or cry. You really shouldn’t – “ Hee Jae shook her head, “Don’t. This is my choice, my life. Just… don’t die.” Hwi drew her to him and Hee Jae pressed her cheek on his bare chest. So warm. As long he was warm, he was alive. Hwi stroked her hair, his voice heavy with regret, “I’m sorry. I really am.” Hee Jae tilted her head up to look at him and whispered, “I’m not. I’ll never be sorry that you came into my life. You’re the best thing that happened to me.”
Hwi swooped down to kiss her hard on her lips, his arms snaking around her and clasping her to him. A new, raw possessiveness washed over him as he kissed her deeper. His. Hee Jae belonged to him. He heard Hee Jae gasp but she did not pull away. Instead, she clung to him and ran her hands up and down his back, her gentle touch spiking his blood with heady passion. His head and heart were pounding, but his hands were steady as his untied her blouse and tugged the hairpin out of her hair simultaneously. Hee Jae shoved his shirt from his shoulders and threaded her fingers through his unruly hair.
Hwi lifted his mouth from hers, his eyes blazing, “Are you sure?” Hee Jae simply wound her arms around his neck and kissed him again. Hwi groaned, lowering her on the blankets on the floor, fighting to reign in his escalating desire. It was their first time together and he was determined to make it special and memorable. He had to make it good for Hee Jae. She deserved nothing less for loving him the way she did.
Hee Jae stirred in Hwi’s arms and he dropped a kiss on her forehead. She murmured, snuggling closer to him for warmth, “Why are you awake? You should get some sleep.” Hwi mused, “I was just thinking about our first night together.” Hee Jae’s eyes flickered open and she teased, “Was it better then?” Hwi’s heart squeezed at her playful demeanour but he did not reply. Unfazed, Hee Jae just chuckled drowsily, “I’m hope that isn’t the case.” And she promptly went back to sleep.
Hwi gazed at her tenderly, his insides clenching painfully. Every time he spent a night with Hee Jae, he was tempted to ask her to marry him the next morning. But he could not. No one really thought it strange that the mistress of the biggest gisaeng establishment was the lover of Bang Won’s mysterious right-hand man. Most thought it was a power-driven, mutually beneficial contract relationship. Being known as his wife was a lot more dangerous than being known as his lover. They both knew that and had mutually agreed from the day they became lovers that they would never get married. No marriage, no children.
It was better that everyone, including enemies, assumed they were just long-time lovers, with no emotional strings attached. While he knew Hee Jae was perfectly fine with their arrangement, Hwi hated himself for not being able to make her his lawful wife. Hee Jae was just as committed, if not more committed, than a legally wedded spouse. He had once told her he did not want to make her a young widow either, which was a reasonable consideration in view of his current situation. Each time he wanted to give up revenge, the images of his father’s and sister’s deaths flashed across his mind. He just could not, and would not let the people responsible get away scot-free.
The next morning, Hee Jae woke up when sunbeams streamed through the windows and bathed the room in bright light. She cracked one eye open and realised she had overslept. She could hear the bustling of activities outside and calculated it was almost noon. She sat up with a start when the door slid open and Hwi entered carrying a tray of food. She was surprised since he rarely slept in or lingered the morning after. He usually left at dawn before she woke up. “You’re finally awake. Hwa Wol was wondering whether you had a hangover,” Hwi relayed as he knelt on the floor, setting the tray in front of her. Hee Jae snorted, “She knows I’ll never get drunk, no matter who I’m drinking with,” Amusement flitted briefly across his features as he poured her a steaming cup of tea. Hee Jae could drink most gisaengs and men under the table.
“You are going on some dangerous mission, aren’t you,” Hee Jae stated calmly, taking a sip of tea. When Hwi did not answer, she resumed dryly, “The king is not in the capital and Bang Won’s men have been patrolling the streets and palace day and night. Nam Jeon has upped protection around his residence. You have secured rights to the marketplace outside the South Gate. Plus, you stayed the whole morning. All these add up to something big, I presume.” Hwi fixed her with a level stare, “Don’t go out or visit the palace unnecessarily and keep Gyeol by your side at all times.”
“I can look after myself, “Hee Jae refuted gently, reaching out to cover the tightly clenched fist resting on his thigh with her hand. Hwi stood up abruptly, signalling the end of their conversation. They rarely argued but her safety was a regular point of contention between them. “I’ll be busy for the next couple of weeks,” he informed curtly as he gathered his weapons which were placed right by the bedding where they had slept. Hwi slept with a dagger strapped to his ankle and another under his pillow.
“I guess I won’t be seeing you for a while then,” Hee Jae returned lightly, knowing that he was not in a mood to argue or be pacified. He walked away from her but hesitated when he reached the door. Without turning around, he whispered huskily, “It gets better every time.” “Hmmm?” Hee Jae responded, not quite sure what he was referring to. “Your question last night.” Hee Jae blinked. Her question the previous night… “Was it better then?” “Ah…” Hee Jae mumbled, feeling a little mortified, wanting to kick herself for making asking such an inane question.
Hwi wheeled around slowly to face her, his expression solemn. His eyes darkening with emotion, he confessed roughly, “The nights we spend together… Just when I think I’m drifting away and going to lose myself… you reel me back in and anchor me to you. Each time. Every time.” Not wanting to ruin the moment, and because she was melting inside, she replied simply, “Come back safe.” He nodded and disappeared from her sight.
The stable boy brought Hwi’s horse around the front of Ihwaru. Hwi swung himself onto the beast and was about to leave when he spotted Gyeol returning from an errand. He was likely sent by Hee Jae to deliver and retrieve some top-secret missives. “Don’t let her out of your sight for the next two weeks. Stick close to her. If anything happens, escort her to the mountain hut immediately,” Hwi instructed the bodyguard when the latter halted by the horse to greet him. Gyeol raised an eyebrow, “If anything happens, Miss Hee Jae would never leave Master Hwi behind.” With that, he bowed low and headed inside Ihwaru. Hwi kneed his horse’ side and it broke into a gallop. He was going to meet Bang Won. They had an almost insurmountable task ahead.
“Come back safe.” Hwi was going to do all he can to make sure he could.
It was a sweltering, muggy night. Hwi ignored the rivulets of sweat running down the sides of his face as he stared unflinchingly at the South Gate of the palace. It had to open this night or the next. If it did not, the painstaking plan that Bang Won and Hwi had come up with would go up in flames. Bang Won had given Hwi some of his best soldiers to support him in their upcoming mission. They could not afford to fail. The king was out of the capital on a temple visit and would return in two days. Bang Won and Hwi needed to make their move before the king could call for reinforcements.
“Are you sure the gate will open? We have been waiting for a few days but nothing was happened so far,” Moon Bok grumbled as he fanned himself with his hat. “It will open. It has to open,” Hwi stated determinedly as he observed their surroundings. The marketplace, which Hwi had secure the rights to, was eerily quiet with the exception of a few shabby eateries that operated through the night. “I should be at Ihwaru drinking wine and enjoying good food with my Hwa Wol…” Moon Bok whined.
“Your Hwa Wol? Whoever said I belonged to you?” Hwi and his friends whipped around and found Hwa Wol, Gyeol and Hee Jae walking towards them. Hwi’s eyes darted around, checking to see if there was anyone suspicious observing them from afar. The coast looked clear but it was still dangerous for Hee Jae to be seen with Hwi and Bang Won’s army. It would be assumed that she was openly siding the infamous grand prince, which was as good as opposing the current king. While Moon Bok and Hwa Wol bickered noisily, Hwi tugged Hee Jae’s hand urgently, “We need to talk.”
The couple headed to a hidden spot nearby. Hee Jae extended a folded document to Hwi, “The king is on his way back to the capital. He decided to leave the temple early. I had men trailing him from the second he left the palace. Whatever you wish to do with Bang Won, you should do it tonight. If you don’t, you’ll lose your opportunity.”
Hwi could barely focus on her words though he understood the information she was conveying to him. At the moment, he was more concerned about her safety above everything else. “You shouldn’t be here. A battle could break out at any moment. You could be caught in the crossfire, “he rapped out sharply. When she simply stared at him calmly at him in response, he continued, “Get Gyeol to pass these kind of messages. It’s too dangerous for you.” Hee Jae admitted, “I wanted to see you. What you and Bang Won are planning to do… there is no turning back. I just wanted to see you one more time. Now that I have, I’ll leave.” She flashed him a sweet smile before turning away from him.
Hwi instinctively reached out to grip her hand strongly with his, “I’ll come back soon.” Hee Jae’s gaze travelled to their joined hands. She wished she never had to let him go. Deep inside, she was terrified of losing him and she knew there was a chance that she could in this upcoming confrontation with the king. His hand tightened on hers and he repeated firmly, “I’ll come back soon.” Hee Jae raised her eyes to meet his determined gaze. She squashed her fear and replied assuredly, “I’ll wait for you.” At that, Hwi nodded, released her reluctantly and walked away.
Hee Jae read the missive and tore it up immediately. The king was going to reach the capital within two hours. She knew Bang Won and Hwi needed more time. She glanced at Gyeol and instructed softly, “Gather a few men. We have to go somewhere now.” Gyeol frowned, knowing what his mistress intended to do, “Miss Hee Jae… this is the king we are talking about –“ “Now, Gyeol,” Hee Jae issued firmly. He nodded and dashed off to round up his men.
Hwi stared listlessly at the sea in front of him. It was over. Nam Jeon was dead, Seon Ho had disappeared, Bang Won had killed the Crown Prince. The latter was scheming what to do next but Hwi wanted nothing of it. He had his avenged the deaths of his father and sister. “What are you thinking about?” Hwi turned around at the sound of Hee Jae’s voice. He knew she had helped delayed the king’s return to the capital by setting a fire to deliberately block his route. It was an incredibly brave act and only one she could execute so coolly without fear. Hwi knew the king would not let this issue pass without punishment. It had caused him his Crown Prince and elevated Bang Won to more power. They all had to lie low and leave Hanyang for good soon.
He sighed lightly as she settled next to him, “Nothing much. I can finally spend more time helping the boys with the tavern.” She laughed, “You would be spending more time breaking up their arguments.” Hwi took her hand and squeezed it tightly, “Thank you.” She covered his hand with hers and eyed him thoughtfully. After a few seconds of silence, she admitted, “I knew your father. He saved my life when I was young.” Hwi cocked his head in surprise, “Why didn’t you say so earlier?” “I didn’t want you to think I was helping you out of gratitude. My heart… it wholly belongs to you,” Hee Jae confessed, holding his gaze. Hwi swallowed painfully as he pulled her into a tender hug. “Let’s live the rest of our lives peacefully together. You and I,” she whispered. Hwi nodded and hugged her tighter.
Hee Jae exited the modest residence that Hwi was temporarily staying with his friends. It was located in the outskirts of the capital, near the sea. She halted when she saw Bang Won standing outside, below a huge tree. He turned when he heard her footsteps, “My father will get his revenge. On me, on you, on Hwi… all of us.” Hee Jae ignored his statement and clipped, “Let Hwi go.” Bang Won stiffened, “Did he say he wanted to leave?” “Stop using him to achieve your grand ambition. The man who caused the death of his family is dead. He has gotten his revenge. Let him go.” Bang Won observed her shrewdly and murmured, “Why don’t we let him make that decision?” With that, the prince snapped his fan shut and entered the residence.
“Hwi!!!” Hwi raised his head. It was Hwa Wol. She stood breathless in front of him, her eyes wide with fright. Hwi froze. There was only one reason why she would seek him out at the tavern in bright daylight when they all were supposed to be on their guard. Hee Jae was in danger. He demanded, “What’s wrong? Where’s Hee Jae?” “Ihwaru… Ihwaru is being attacked!” He heard shouts and whipped his head around. The tavern was suddenly surrounded by men in black clothes with their faces covered, their swords drawn. Hwi took one look at the swords and knew who the men were; the king’s personal royal guards. Their swords were custom-made with a distinct emblem carved on the hilt. Bang Won was right. The king had found out who had supported Bang Won and was going after all of them. “We’ll handle things here! Go to Ihwaru now!” Jeong Beom roared as he smashed a bowl on one of the men’s heads. Hwi sped off immediately.
Hee Jae ran in the direction of Ihwaru’s main pavilion, shouting for her workers and the gisaengs to follow her. The main pavilion had a secret underground room with a tunnel that led to the forest at the edge of Hanyang. If they could get into the room, they would be safe. Gyeol was behind her, fighting off the assailants. There was screaming and blood everywhere. Hee Jae knew the men had been sent by the king. He knew that Hee Jae was the one who had blocked his path. She heard a grunt of pain and looked over shoulder – Gyeol lay on the ground, with slashes on his arms and across his torso. “Run, Miss Hee Jae!” he choked out, his fingers straining to reach his sword that lay at his feet.
An assailant pounced towards him with his sword raised. Without thinking, Hee Jae dashed in between the assailant and Gyeol, and tried to lift Gyeol up. She felt a burning streak of pain across her back. Her vision blurred as white-hot pain engulfed her whole body. She tried to stand but could not. Her head spun. She could feel herself rapidly sliding into darkness. “Hee Jae!!!!!” Hwi. With superhuman effort, Hee Jae forced herself to look up. Hwi. He was a few feet in front of her, cutting down the men. She caught his gaze and smiled through her agony. At least she got to see Hwi before she died…
Hwi’s blood ran cold when he saw Hee Jae slump motionlessly to the ground. No. Not Hee Jae. With rage pulsing through his veins, Hwi sliced and slashed through his way until he reached Hee Jae. Gathering her into his arms, he yelled frantically, “Han Hee Jae! Wake up!” She did not reply, her head flopped against his arm lifelessly. “Hwi! We have to leave now!” It was Chi Do. He had followed Hwi to Ihwaru. Hwi hoisted Hee Jae in his arms and raced out of the establishment.
Hwi gingerly laid Hee Jae on the cave floor. He had split ways with Chi Do, who was going to distract the king’s soldiers. He checked Hee Jae’s wound – it was long but it did not look deep. She was still bleeding but not as much before. Hwi tore a strip of cloth from Hee Jae’s skirt and bound the wound tightly. She needed a physician soon to prevent the wound from being infected. Chi Do had promised to meet him at the cave after he had lost the soldiers. He gently wiped the sweat from her brow. He had nearly lost her earlier. The absolute agony that overwhelmed him when he saw her being cut down in front of him… he would never forget the feeling for the rest of his life.
Hwi wanted to kick himself for not being more careful with her. She was always so sharp, composed, and fearless that he never once thought something like today would happen. He had taken her safety for granted. It vowed he would never do so again. A soft moan disrupted his thoughts and he looked down. Hee Jae had regained consciousness. “Are you okay?” he asked, brushing a stray lock of hair off her cheek. She whispered, “Ihwaru… I have to go back. I must go back. My people…” Hwi hugged her, “You can’t go back now. You’ll die if you do.” Hee Jae struggled weakly but Hwi held her fast until she quietened, her body trembling with sobs. Hwi prayed for Chi Do to join them soon.
“She’ll be fine. She lost quite a bit of blood but she’ll recover after a few weeks of bed rest,” the physician assured Hwi. They were in Bang Won’s residence. To Hwi’s surprise, Bang Won had come to their rescue. The latter had heard that the king had attacked the tavern and Ihwaru, and had sent his own men to help. Hwi knew he was being naïve when the thought he could lead a simple life after avenging his family’s death. As long as the king was alive, he would make every effort to kill those who had supported Bang Won’s uprising.
Hwi gazed at the sleeping Hee Jae and sighed. She had been awake while the physician had treated her and kept asking about Ihwaru. When Hwi informed her that many of her people had died, she had gotten so agitated that the physician had to give her a sedative. Hwi decided they would take one step at a time. The first step was to ensure Hee Jae recovered from her ordeal.
Hee Jae prided her eyes open with great effort. Her lids felt heavy and her head was swimming. Taking a deep breath, she slowly sat up. The door to the room slid open then and Hwi stepped in, carrying a tray with a bowl of medicine and a jug of water. “You’re awake. Are you hungry? I can ask the kitchen…” “I’m not hungry. I’ll just drink some water and take the medicine,” she replied tiredly. Hwi sat beside her, and poured her a cup of water as she drank the bowl of medicine in one gulp. “You’ll never escape from Bang Won’s clutches this way. He’ll continue to use you until he becomes king. If you go against him then, he’ll kill you,” Hee Jae stated succinctly.
There was a long silence before Hwi answered resignedly, “Better him than the king. This is just my fate.” Hee Jae suggested, “We can run away,” Hwi levelled her with a hard stare, “No, we can’t. The only person who can protect you and Ihwaru until the king dies is Bang Won.” Hee Jae bit her lip and looked away. He was right. Hwi picked some bandages from a basket, “We need to change your bandage,”
He adjusted his position to sit behind her. Hee Jae did not object or move when he stripped her blouse down to her waist and swept her hair to her front. He carefully changed the bandage and when he was done, he husked, “Now I know how you feel each time you patch me up.” He slipped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her bare shoulder, “I’m sorry for putting you through hell all these years.” Hee Jae covered his hands with hers, “Hell is living in a world where you don’t exist. We’ll get over this together. I’ll rebuild Ihwaru… you do what you need to do with Bang Won. Just remember you can never trust him fully.” “I know. Don’t worry.” Hee Jae snuggled closer to him. They had each other. That was all that mattered.