At dawn, King Hyun Joon was pried from his warm bed and the arms of his new bride far too early in the morning. The new maid in his bath chambers let the water run cold. To be fair, it was only lukewarm, but since he preferred his bathwater to be nearly scalding hot, it might as well have been cold. Instead of the sweet tea Ahn Yeo-bin usually brought him, she brought a portion of bitter herbs that his father used to take before battle. He could not stand to smell it, let alone down it. But while he was usually easily displeased and quick to anger, he neither shouted nor sent the girl away with a reproach. He felt oddly calm. Content. Exuberant, even.
Instead of his royal robes, he asked his chambermaids to dress him in his warfare garb. While the women oiled and combed his hair, he recalled an old song about two birds journeying together over the sea in search of a place to nest and began humming it to himself. The chambermaids exchanged knowing looks but knew better than to become familiar with him.
Meanwhile in the Queen’s chambers, Ahn Yeo-bin was being poked and prodded every which way. The sewing department hadn’t had enough time to prepare any fitting garments and were sewing her into what they had hastily put together as she stood. Another lady-in-waiting was pulling her hair back in a bun so tight that her eyes were tearing up. Even worse, there was another squeezing a jade hairpin into the bun, causing Ahn Yeo-bin to feel like her scalp was being ripped from her head. There was yet another one holding necklaces up one by one and waiting for her to choose. She tried to take a closer look, but the movement pulled the needle from the seamstress’s fingers and poked her. She suppressed a yelp.
The seamstress apologised profusely but firmly warned her to keep still. Suddenly, she understood why Hyun Joon and the other royals always seemed to be in such a foul mood. She had always thought it a luxury to have so many people waiting on them hand and foot but now she felt that there were too many hands on her. It took enormous restraint to keep from yelling at everyone to get out and leave her alone.
She could not, of course, send everyone away for fear that she would be accused of having become proud and insufferable since her rise to royalty. Only days before, she had been scrubbing floors in the Crown Prince’s palace. Already, a rumour had swelled that she had thrown herself at the Crown Prince and he, in his grief and naivety, had married her to save her from dishonour. She’d heard her chambermaids whispering not-so-quietly on the other side of the folding screen while she undressed for her bath. All court ladies were smart enough to know that a folding screen was not a wall, so Yeo-bin was convinced that they intended their voices to carry. They wanted her to hear their disdain for her.
Yeo-bin wished she was still surrounded by her friends as before. Lady Myeong had offered to assign Kang Bo-ra and Cha Yeong-ja to her palace, but she thought it would be cruel to obligate them tend to her. She had no choice but to suffer in silence though in her mind, she vowed that the next morning would be different. She would hand-pick an all-new staff come hell or high water.
The Little Cub Roars
The convoy of emissaries was ushered into the outdoor courts where King Hyun Joon, Queen Ahn Yeo-bin, the Royal Council and other noblemen were waiting. In the convoy were a man and woman who were each carried in their own palanquin. The first was made of black wood intricately carved in the shape of various dragons, a symbol of southern royalty. Whereas the second was brown and wooden, lined with pink silk on the inside and curved in the shape of orioles taking flight.
The woman looked to be as old as Senior Lady Myeong, Yeo-bin thought, while the man was about as young as her. They brought their guards with them, as well as an official, riding on a horse. With them was the Commander of the Swordsmen, Lim Min-su, his daughter Lim Hye-jin and other officials of King Hyun Joon’s royal office.
Lim Min-su stepped forward first and paid his respects to the King. He noticed Ahn Yeo-bin in the queen’s place and bowed hesitantly. Joon registered his uncertainty, noting that he had offered him no congratulations. He held off on the introduction – it was not yet time. Instead, he studied Lim Min-su for signs of what he might’ve known beforehand.
He appeared confused and somewhat thrown off. News of Hyun Joon’s late night wedding had not left the palace, or at least, had not reached Lim Min-su in time. In part, Hyun Joon had invoked a wartime wedding to see if anyone on the Royal Council was disloyal and to draw them out. If anyone was in league with Lim Min-su, they had been smart enough not to give themselves away. All the same, Hyun Joon felt confident to proceed with his plan.
Lim Min-su introduced the southern official, a haughty man with a booming voice, who took himself too seriously. He in turn introduced the man from the palanquin as the southern prince, Kyong. He could not have been the Crown Heir. Not even the Kingdom of Silla was bold enough to place their Crown Prince in such danger, but he was second in line to the throne.
The woman, who Queen Yeo-bin had been most curious about, was Princess Dae, the King’s sister. Her hair was loosely held atop her head with a jade hairpin, a style that Yeo-bin envied and wished she had known about that morning. And instead of a chima, the King’s sister wore a baji, like a woman going to ride a horse. It surprised no one to hear her introduced as an unmarried maiden. Everything about her screamed of being untamed.
The presence of his kin made it evident that the southern king was not a man to give anything away for free. If his siblings and progeny wanted domains in the new kingdom, they would have to work for it.
“Your Majesty,” the southern official began. “His Majesty, King Park Geon sends me, his trusted authority, with most generous terms.”
“I will hear them,” Hyun Joon said.
The southern official cleared his throat. “In his admirable wisdom and endless generosity, His Majesty the King offers you Princess Dae in marriage, and assurances of peace and favour provided that certain conditions are met.”
Hyun Joon felt members of his Royal Council fidgeting but did not blink.
“What are his terms?”
“That you join with the Kingdom of Silla in the northern campaign for unification.”
“That you pledge fealty to him and acknowledge his Kingship over the lands of Samgaju and beyond.”
“Is that all?”
“Yes. Very generous, as you see. His Majesty is a most reasonable man.”
The tension within the Royal council was palpable. By joining with the Kingdom of Silla, Hyun Joon would have to give up a portion of his army so significant that he could never rise up against the southern king, unless he raised a new army. And by pledging fealty, he would allow the southern King’s Guard to take over the collection of levies in Samgaju, so that he would never gather enough supplies to raise a new army.
“What of my palace?”
“His Majesty will respect his sister’s home, should you accept. It is only right.”
“What title does the King wish his sister to hold in Samgaju?”
“She is of royal bone, and a princess in her own right. Her proper title is and will remain Her Royal Highness.”
“And if I accept, what title shall I take?”
“According to southern custom, only those of royal bone may retain the title of royalty. It cannot be passed on through marriage alone.”
“So I would be addressed as…?”
“His Majesty will allow this?”
“Certainly –” the official said, but was interrupted by the southern Prince who sensed Joon’s trap. Besides clearing his throat and throwing the official a sharp look, he said no more. It was clear that he was not there to negotiate, yet he had ridden all the way. Hyun Joon guessed that he was the same one that Ahn Yeo-sang had seen leaving Lim Min-su’s house. It was also curious that Lim Min-su had brought his daughter to the negotiations, when she should’ve been in the fortress with his father’s other concubines and their children.
King Park Geon was not known for negotiating in good faith. He was a military man who preferred force and coercion over diplomacy. This business of marriage reeked of a strategic misdirection to keep them distracted while the southern army marched on the city. Lim Min-su may have betrayed them after all. The prince and Lim Hye-jin may have been the ones truly intended to take dominion of Samgaju.
On the other hand, if there was any substance to the offer of marriage to the older princess, it marked a sharp change in tact from the southern king. This could have been for any number of reasons, but Hyun Joon suspected that his army had been weakened. King Park Geon wanted a bloody conflict no more than he did.
“And if I refuse to marry?” Hyun Joon asked.
“It was my understanding that unlike your father, you see the value in a unified kingdom,” the official said, taking on a superior tone.
Joon noted how quickly he had dropped the honorifics and now spoke as though they were equals. As though he were the southern King himself. No wonder he had called himself the King’s trusted authority. He was a man after power and glory for himself.
“I speak with the King’s voice,” the official said with some irritation. “Therefore, it is to be understood that I mean the King’s understanding.”
Joon glanced furtively at the southern prince and princess. Their faces had hardened ever so slightly; he was pleased with himself.
“Your King’s understanding is correct. I wish for no more bloodshed, yet I would hate for this to be misconstrued as a kind of capitulation. In effect, your king wishes to make an alliance with Samgaju. I am prepared to support his unification effort, provided my terms are met.”
“I fear that you are in no position to ask for assurances. As I’m sure you know, our army is marching for the city as we speak. We know that your forces are divided, and that we will seize the palace before those marching from the sea reach the city.”
“I do not doubt your army’s capabilities. Even my father, the fire moth King himself, never dared to underestimate you. In comparison, I am only a young man of moderate accomplishments. Therefore, I want to comply. Will you not hear my terms?” At this last part, Hyun Joon turned his full attention to the prince and princess. He knew this official’s type – ambitious to the point of drunkenness. His clamour for glory would make him rash and sure to make a mistake.
“His Majesty is keen to seal this treaty with marriage,” the official blathered on, keen not to be upstaged in the negotiations. He wanted it to be he alone who secured the victory and in his rush confirmed what Hyun Joon had suspected. The southern army was weakened and they had more room to negotiate.
“I will give your king a third of my army and a third of my collections. I will retain my palace and dominion of Samgaju under the title of His Highness, and he shall have no opposition from me in the matter of unification. In exchange for my allegiance, the king will not impose a marriage on me, for I have already taken a wife. If she wishes, and if it pleases the King, the Royal Princess may join my court and have a place on my Council as the eyes of the king. But that is all I can offer.”
The Royal Council collectively exhaled, and Hyun thought he saw a smile on the edge of Princess Dae’s mouth. He hoped that he had driven enough of a wedge between her and the official.
It was clear that she did not want to marry, or else she would’ve done it before then. Hyun Joon surmised that she must also have had the king’s ear, since he had not married her off against her will. The arrangement to have an official position on a ruling council that was not subject to her marriage was sure to please her. Indeed no woman had ever held such a position besides a monarch or a regent. The question remained whether she could prevail over her nephew, but between the two of them, Hyun Joon would take his chances with her.
Upon hearing the terms, the southern official began railing. “Let me make it absolutely clear that I speak with the king’s voice when I say that we expect nothing but deference and subservience on this matter. You will do as you are told! The King has made it clear that in the absence of a male suitor for the princess, Prince Kyong will wed the Commander’s daughter and take your place in Samgaju.”
Ah. So Lim Min-su had betrayed them after all. “My father’s concubine?” Joon asked with performative incredulity. “His Majesty would have a prince marry another man’s concubine?”
“You will not slander my daughter!” Lim Min-su burst out.
At the same time, Prince Kyong declared, “Their union was never consummated! It was never valid!”
“And how are we to know?” A member of the Royal Council jumped in. “Are we to take her at her word?”
“The old King is dead and cannot challenge her if she lies,” another added.
“Are you calling my daughter a liar?” Lim Min-su stepped forward, shaking his fist. The King and Queen’s guard drew their swords, prompting the southern guards to draw their own in readiness for a brawl.
“It’s just a little convenient, is all I’m saying –”
“Quiet, everyone. Quiet!” The Princess raised her voice over the din. It was so startling coming from such a small body that the men all stopped in their tracks and looked at her.
“If I may offer another thought here,” the official pounced on the silence opportunistically. “Since a marriage is not considered valid until it has been consummated, one can argue that the King’s own is invalid. Conducted hastily in the middle of the night and to a courtier…a courtier!”
He’d finally done it. He’d said too much and given it all away. There had been a mole in the palace after all. Perhaps even on the Royal Council. The uproar resumed instantly. Members of the Council cried that they would not condone dishonour of the Queen. A sword fight ensued and Hyun Joon now knew what he had to do.
In the commotion, he picked up his bow and arrow and took aim at Lim Hye-jin. He had once thought that he loved her. That she would rule by his side. But he saw then that the elements placed her in opposition to him without fail. The arrow went right through her chest. She fell to her knees and slumped forward.
Lim Min-su saw his daughter’s body and fell to his knees.
“What have you done?” The Prince cried. A stunned silence took hold of the court. Hyun Joon was taken aback by the young prince’s earnest tears. Had he also loved Lim Hye-jin or was he merely upset at losing his chance to rule Samgaju? Regret washed over him like a wave of nausea and he had to steady himself on a chair.
“I have done what I must,” he roared through gritted teeth.
“Why are you just standing there?” Prince Kyong turned to his guards. “Seize him! Kill him!”
“You will do no such thing,” Princess Dae stopped them with a wave of her hand.
“Arrest the traitor,” Joon ordered. The King’s Guard seized Lim Min-su. Hyun Joon would’ve killed him on the spot, but he needed him to name the mole in the palace. He decided that he would question him later, not wanting the southerners to see his court in disarray and think him weak.
“Now, tell your king that I will forgive his treachery if he accepts my terms unconditionally,” Joon turned to the Princess. “Anything less will be met with the full force of my army.”
Princess Dae convinced the southern king to accept Hyun Joon’s terms. She became the first woman to sit on a ruling council and remained unmarried.
The Kingdom was unified under the nation of Goryeo. Hyun Joon ruled the domicile of Samgaju with Ahn Yeo-bin by his side.
Lim Min-su named the Court Lady Superior as the mole in the palace and his co-conspirator. They were charged with treason and were sentenced to death via beheading and dismemberment.
Ahn Yeo-sang was reinstated as the palace fanmaker and moved to the city with his wife to be closer to their daughter.
The Queen Matriarchs remained in Yamato, fearing that the peace treaty would be voided if they returned.
Yeo-bin’s friends chose to stay on as her court ladies. Lady Myeong left the palace and married a fisherman. She made a beautiful, blushing bride.