The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part I
The Kingdom of Samgaju
In the 6th Century AD, during the period of the three Kingdoms, there was a Kingdom by the shores of the East Sea on the lands of the modern day Republic of Korea. Although it was small, the Kingdom of Samgaju flourished under its young and vibrant ruler, King Hyun Jae-sung. It drew its wealth from fishing activities in the sea, farming rice, millet and soybeans on the fertile delta and mining amethyst and other precious stones in its deposit-rich hills. These it traded with the islanders off the East Coast and the inland peoples to the north and south.
King Jae-sung took to the throne at the age of seventeen. He was not yet a man but not quite a boy either. His father and predecessor, King Jeong-ho had experienced difficulty securing an heir with his first wife, Queen Hae-won. When she was betrothed to him, her father made it known to him that she was sickly. However, the queen came from a city state in the north that had many strong soldiers including three of her own brothers, and King Jeong-ho needed their partnership to strengthen his own army. He accepted the marriage, knowing that a strategic military alliance was more valuable than a satisfying union.
King Jeong-ho, a man of good moral standing, refused to take concubines during his reign and instead married a second wife after the illness took his queen. The union was blessed with an heir, but the grief of losing Queen Hae-won as well as repeated incursions from the southern kingdoms wore him down. At only half a century and seven years young, King Jeong-ho passed on, leaving his only heir, seventeen-year-old Jae-sung to take the throne.
This was a period of great instability for the Kingdom of Samgaju. The Southern Kingdoms had long been pushing for unification of the kingdoms, a notion that King Jae-sung resisted fiercely. The ideology of the South clearly stated that only those of sacred lineage could rule or attain government positions in the new kingdom. Only those with the noble surnames Kim, Park or Lee would rise to the royal and aristocratic classes. His own surname Hyun, had been held by the royals of Samgaju for four generations. He was not prepared to let his kingdom fall.
Because of this, worries of an heir and the continuity of the kingdom were ever-present in the populace’s psyche. This necessitated the young King to make haste in finding a queen. He did not have to search far as there was already a girl who had been raised to be his queen. With the Queen’s father by his side as a trusted advisor, King Jae-sung vanquished his enemies and those he could not, he brought under his umbrella.
The Fire Moth King
Samgaju expanded under King Jae-sung’s leadership. Many of the independent clans sought to be joined with his Kingdom when they heard or witnessed his violent conquests. With time, he came to be known as the ‘Fire Moth King’ for his adept and sophisticated use of fire weaponry in battle.
Unlike his father, King Jae-sung rewarded himself with a concubine after every victory in battle. He would take a concubine from the conquered lands, a strategic decision to unify the clans. But he was also a young King with a ferocious appetite, so this tradition of his was equally self-serving. At only forty five-years-old, his eldest son and heir, the Crown Prince Hyun Joon was already twenty-seven-years old. He was a man old enough to ride into battle with his father and command a brigade of archers.
After the last battle, however, King Jae-sung did not take a concubine from the conquered lands. Instead, he chose a young woman of twenty two who was the daughter of a commander in his army. The girl, Lim Hye-jin, would have been married off as soon as she came of age. But rumor had it that her parents had been waiting four years for the palace to issue a royal edict on the Crown Prince’s marriage. It was widely expected, before the Fire Moth King claimed her for himself, that she would marry the Crown Prince and become the next queen.
In fact, in the inner chambers of the royal palace, the Queen Dowager and Queen Da-som had been privately lobbying King Jae-sung to approve his son’s marriage. However, having taken the throne at such a young age, the king had a strong conviction that the Crown Prince should enjoy his youth free of the Crown’s responsibilities for as long as he wanted.
“Let him go hunting or study in the mountaintop monasteries as a young man with no concerns,” he would say. “My youth and strong body allow me to grant him the freedom and luxury I never had. Now stop nagging and let the boy be.”
Since he was already past the common age of marriage, many of the Crown Prince’s peers took wives before he did. Soldiers who worked under his command in the Archer’s brigade and friends who worked in his father’s government married before he did. Since improper conduct was strictly forbidden for a royal like him, it was no secret that the Crown Prince had never known the warmth of a woman.
This was what earned him the title ‘little cub’. The soldiers often derided him behind his back saying, “We’re riding with the little cub today.” Even court ladies groused about being assigned to his service saying, “The little cub is more moody than usual today.”
The Crown Prince was well aware of this and had been quietly resentful of his father for several years. However, his father’s latest move to claim Lim Hye-jin for himself incensed him. Lim Hye-jin, the daughter of the Swordsmen Commander Lim Min-su was promised to him. She was a beauty any man would’ve bled to have at his side. He had known her as a child, and their grandmothers had arranged for them to have tea at the pavilion several times over the years. Anyone could see that they were a good match. Lim Hye-jin, being the daughter of an army commander, had learned how to walk with her back straightened. She was never one to bow – a cursory nod was the most she would offer.
Her manner of speaking was brief and authoritative. It gave her the air of being unyielding, a quality that struck everyone she met with nervousness and an inclination to agree with her if not comply. She would’ve made a fine general had she been born a boy, but as was, she would make a fine queen. Watching the King then relegate her to the position of a concubine was like watching a persimmon tree felled just before its first bloom. It was painful.
He could no longer keep his mouth shut. He approached his mother, Queen Da-som, and complained bitterly about his father’s actions.
“I command father’s brigade of archers yet those men do not respect me because father refuses to allow me to cross this milestone!” he griped. “Father’s past engagements have always had a reason behind them. What could justify this? If he was worried about the unity of the kingdom, would Lim Hye-jin’s marriage to the future King not have secured it? What he has done is indefensible! Surely you must agree.”
He tried to appeal to his mother’s sense of grievance but Queen Da-som, in her quiet but firm manner, put her son in line. “First of all, do not forget yourself, Crown Prince. Your father isn’t just your father. He is first and foremost your king. You will address him as such at all times.”
The Crown Prince reluctantly lowered his head in contrition.
“Secondly, the King will not be denied. He has taken a concubine, as is his right. Such realities are the burdens of royals to bear. It is neither your place, nor mine to question his decisions. Though there are skirmishes on the outskirts, the larger kingdom has known peace during your father’s reign. There is enough food for everyone, and news of our little kingdom has reached the western shores. Do you know what they call us there? The Fire Heart of the Fire Moth King. Our Kingdom has prospered because of your father’s decisions in governance, battle, and even who he decides to bed. Are we now to question those same decisions?”
“But Mother! Do you know what my own servants call me? I cannot even repeat it to you because it makes my chest burn!” The Crown Prince raised his voice in exasperation. “Is it father’s intention that I lose the respect of the men I command? Is it his intention to humiliate me in full view of my future subjects?”
“Lower your voice, or you really will lose the respect of those who serve you! You complain about being treated like a child yet here you are speaking like one!” The Queen admonished him. She took a moment to calm herself then continued. “Joon-ah, be wise at this time my son. You have proven yourself in battle alongside your father. You have demonstrated your skills as an archer, and a leader of your brigade. Now you are facing the greatest test of character you have ever come across. The highest officials and the lowest court ladies are all asking the same question. How does the future king react to losing something he desires? Does he act out like a spoilt, petulant child? Is that enough to make him lose his composure? Is it?”
“From Mother to Son, this is my advice. Everyone will judge you if they see this wrathful countenance on you. They will say the King has lost his son’s loyalty and that will in turn displease the king. Lim Hye-jin is just a girl – this kingdom is filled with them. Many more will come along. Do not lose the King’s favor over something like this. If you do, there are many chomping at the chance to use this for their gain. Do you understand how dangerous your words could be?”
“Don’t take the King’s favor for granted. His love, though imperfect and perhaps even ill-advised, is still that of a father,” the Queen said. “Now go, and do not leave your palace until you have tempered yourself. The Queen Dowager and I will speak on your behalf once more. You will wait, won’t you?”
“Yes, your Majesty!”
“Forgive me Mother! I mean yes, your Majesty.”
The Little Cub’s Palace
While Crown Prince Joon was confined to his quarters, a class of young maids passed their coming of age ceremony, and a new set was dispatched to his palace. Having spent much of his time learning from his Buddhist teachers and practicing his swordsmanship, Joon was suffocating in boredom. The prospect of looking at pretty, young faces had potential for excitement, so he asked to inspect his new staff ahead of a ceremony to formally greet him.
A newly minted court lady, Ahn Yeo-bin was among those assigned to the Crown Prince’s palace. She had heard grumbles about the Crown Prince’s service. Mainly that it was the worst assignment. The little cub was mercurial and overly particular about trivial things. She, among other court ladies, planned to intentionally be dismissed from his service during the parade.
They preferred assignments in the kitchen or the royal gardens, where there was easier access to snacks and no overbearing royals sucking up all the air. To this end they each presented themselves with something slightly off-putting – enough to get them reassigned, but not so bad that they were sent away from the palace.
In the end, three girls were dismissed at the parade. Kang Bo-ra, who had stuck her hands in the flower beds to get dirt under her nails, was sent to the royal gardens. Cha Yeong-ja, who had dripped rice porridge on her skirts, was reassigned to the kitchen. And Choi Min-ji, who had actually wanted to stay in but whose mistake was both unplanned and unforgivable, was sent to the laundry department. She had washed her hair in daisy water in an effort to make it look healthy and shiny, but instead it gave off a rank smell that made the Crown Prince’s eyes water.
Ahn Yeo-bin creatively left a lock of hair loose, and tied the goreum (ribbon) on her jeogori (hanbok top) askew to give off the appearance of untidiness. This would not elude Joon’s keen eyes. She was certain that he would not tolerate such inattention to detail. To her dismay, he refused to reassign her. Of course, Joon noticed her mistakes. But instead of yelling and scolding, he smoothed the errant lock of hair over her head and set the goreum straight.
Senior Lady Myeong, who was in charge of the young maids, was scandalized by the Crown Prince’s move to touch a court lady intimately. She disapproved and chewed Ahn Yeo-bin out later, but that would only be the first of many times. With that one act of fleeting affection, Joon damned Yeo-bin to constant envy and hostility from her fellow colleagues.
The Crown Prince’s palace comprised his bed chambers, a private bath, an office and a sun room. There were other auxiliary rooms for various uses, but those were the ones he primarily occupied. Inside the sun room, where the formal greetings were to take place, the Crown Prince’s manservant stood beside him. His guards stood outside the doors discreetly teasing the court ladies at the risk of caning, since royal soldiers were not allowed to fraternize with palace women.
Senior Lady Myeong escorted the court ladies in and stood to the side while they made their presentations. Each lady was expected to present her master with the gift of her talent. This could be a hand-made item or a performance. Some recited poetry, sang a ballad or played an instrument.
Im Ha-na, who had a magic palm in the kitchen, brought rice cakes and sweet treats. Han Bin-na, who came from a small mining village in the hills, gave the prince a tassel made of silk and amethyst beads to decorate the hilt of his sword. Jung Ji-soo brought a set of candle stands curved from the fallen branch of a sacred ginkgo tree that was thought to be thousands of years old. Whereas Yang Na-rae, who had flawless grace, performed a dance for His Highness. Everyone agreed that he was most pleased with her.
Ahn Yeobin, who had not picked up any skills that would make her charming or exemplary, struggled to put something together. She presented a folding fan made of silk and bamboo wood. Joon carefully unfolded it and tried to fan himself, but the wood, which had not adhered to the silk, came apart. The silk drooped in his hands. The room collectively held its breath. The manservant, unable to bear the tension, averted his eyes from the painful sight. Senior Lady Myeong went so pale she looked like she would collapse and die at any moment. Indeed, she would later accuse Ahn Yeo-bin of trying to drive her to an early grave.
Yeobin, on her part, wished that the ground would open up and swallow her. Although, it was more fitting and preferable to her that the ground open up and swallow the Crown Prince instead. Without him, such frivolous and vexing ceremonies would not have been necessary in the first place. If it was her coming-of-age party, why was he the one being greeted and presented with gifts? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
She knew, of course, that harboring such sentiments in the palace could get her quickly relieved of her head, so she prostrated herself anticipating that she would have to grovel. Instead, Prince Joon seemed to find the mishap amusing. His laughter broke the silence and the room collectively exhaled.
“Lady Yeobin, come here,” he summoned her. “What is this?”
“It was supposed to be a folding fan, Your Highness.”
“I can see that,” he said, holding back a smile. Yeobin didn’t know whether to be relieved or offended. “What duties have you been assigned?”
“I am to attend to your bath chambers, Your Highness.”
He thought for a moment. “Good, I’m glad. I would have been terrified if they’d assigned you to the sewing department.”
Yeobin felt the other court ladies’ smirks burning through her skull. What is this? Is he laughing at me?
“Come closer,” he ordered.
She inched closer.
“Closer than that,” he said with a hint of impatience.
Yeobin forgot herself and raised her head in surprise, aiming to read Joon’s face, but the manservant was on hand to admonish her.
“How dare you!”
She lowered her head immediately. Court ladies were not allowed to look at the Crown Prince’s face, let alone search his eyes. She inched so close to Joon that she could feel his breath on her forehead. She could tell that his hair had been combed in camellia oil and his robes perfumed with incense. After a long moment of watching her in amusement, he folded the fan and tapped her forehead lightly.
“Thank you for your sincere effort,” he said.
“I’ll give it another try,” she reached for the fan humbly, stretching out both of her arms.
“Your sincerity is enough for me,” he said, holding the fan away from her. “Besides, I want to remember this amusing gift.”
“It was not meant to be amusing, your highness,” she blurted, unable to contain her annoyance.
“That’s what makes it even more so,” he said chuckling.
Senior Lady Myeong cleared her throat, a signal for her to bow in respect and leave. That was how Ahn Yeo-bin began her service in the little cub’s palace.
*The Crown Prince’s Bath PART II will continue next Thursday.