The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part II
Every morning, Ahn Yeo-bin rose at an ungodly hour to start the fire for Prince Joon’s bathwater. She would visit the royal gardens, where her friend Kang Bo-ra worked, and catch a quick chat as they picked dewy flowers before dawn. By then, she had learned that His Highness liked peony petals sprinkled on his bathwater, but in their absence, he did not mind roses or cherry blossoms. At the laundry department, she collected fresh towels and robes, and laid them out in the dressing room. Each time, Choi Min-ji (whom Joon had dismissed from the palace for her rank hair), hounded her for gossip from the palace. This made the laundry department Ahn Yeo-bin’s least favorite stop.
Back at the bathing chambers she would light the lanterns and fill the bath. Then she would stir the essential oils in to release the fragrance and light the candles before the prince woke up. It was also her job to lay out hair and body oils in his dressing room. This she prepared herself, by grinding seeds and crushing petals until her wrists hurt.
At any moment the Crown Prince could request a steam bath, so she had to prepare the hot stones and an infusion of herbs just in case. She also got to visit Cha Yeong-ja in the kitchen when she went to collect Joon’s tea, something he liked to enjoy while he soaked.
Ahn Yeo-bin was allowed to go in and out of the chambers in the course of her duties, but she was strictly forbidden from being alone with Joon. Only the old maids were allowed in the bath chambers with him while he was in it. These were the women who had been washing him since he was a baby. It was their job and theirs only, to scrub his feet and dress him in his royal robes. While they did this, Yeo-bin readied pails of both cold and hot water in case the bath water was too hot or had grown too cold. After they dressed him, she drained the bath, cleaned it and delivered the used towels to the laundry maids.
While this often went smoothly, it didn’t start out that way. In the first week of her duties, Yeo-bin failed to bring the Crown Prince’s bath pillow to the bath chambers. This was not an oversight on her part but on Senior Lady Myeong’s, who had failed to mention that such an item belonged in the bath chambers. When the Crown Prince asked for it, Yeo-bin rather foolishly answered, “Bath pillow? What would one need a pillow in the bath for?”
Senior Lady Myeong, who was waiting outside the doors of the bath chambers exclaimed, “You little fool! What else do you expect him to rest his head on when he slides down in the bath? Do you want the Crown Prince to blister his neck or worse still, drown?”
Yeo-bin did not understand how the lack of a bath pillow, an item she had heard about for the first time only moments ago, could lead someone to drown. However, there was no time to get into it. She was already on thin ice with the folding fan fiasco and could not afford to draw the Crown Prince’s attention in a negative light again. As fast as she could, she retrieved the bath pillow and delivered it to the bath chambers, but it was too late. Prince Joon was already on the warring path.
“Court Lady Yeo-bin! Are you not taking your duties seriously because you are in my palace and not the King or Queen’s palace?”
“No, Your Highness.”
“Are you looking down on me?”
“I would never, Your Highness!”
“Or is it because you’ve heard that the little cub only growls but does not bite?”
Yeo-bin was too stunned to say anything. She had not known that Prince Joon knew his nickname and that people whispered such things of him in the internal court.
“Answer me!” he growled.
Yeo-bin flinched. For the first time, she felt truly afraid that the Crown Prince would not overlook her mistake. Luckily, Senior Lady Myeong stepped in and took responsibility. The Crown Prince tempered himself and waved them away. From that day on, Ahn Yeo-bin performed her duties in the bath chambers as if her life depended on it – and it did.
The Unification Campaign
A few weeks into the Crown Prince’s confinement, King Jae-sung left for the Southern border. He took a regiment of swordsmen and spearmen with him, along with a company of archers led by Prince Joon’s second man. The Southern Kingdom of Silla had intensified its campaign of unification and it was a bloody one.
Every few days, reports of the casualties reached the palace. Everyone was on edge. Due to the rising death tolls, families of the soldiers began to lament the king’s resistance to unification. There were clans among the noblemen and peasant class that held the surnames Kim, Park and Lee that felt that they would fare well in the unified kingdom. The view that the King was putting up a fight only to protect the Hyun lineage and not for the good of the entire kingdom began to spread outside the city walls.
This brewed hostility for the royals and caused division in the populace. Of course, this was only one of many tactics the southern kingdom used to rattle the Kingdom of Samgaju. It was the southerners they seeded in the market places, mines and village watering holes that began to spread such ideas in the first place.
While the king was away, Prince Joon no longer confined himself to his quarters. He spent his mornings in the army office dispatching supplies to the warfront and receiving replenishments from the villages. In the afternoon, he visited the armory and the training fields for the new soldiers to inspect their progress. At sundown, he practiced his swordsmanship with Master Han.
Of course, being Commander of the Archer’s Battalion, he was already a master archer. But there had been rumors that the northern kingdom’s border had partially fallen to Silla. Soon, the Kingdom of Silla would be attacking them from the north, and they would have to fight on two frontlines. Prince Joon anticipated that he would have to ride north and hold the border there, while his father held the southern border. That being the case, he would come into close combat sooner or later and had to prepare accordingly.
Ahn Yeo-bin dutifully prepared his baths. She added infusions of lavender and basil to soothe his aches and served him teas of mint or chamomile to calm his nerves. She began to place a bowl of sesame oil in the room in case he ever asked to have his muscles kneaded, but it went untouched each time. Prince Joon would not allow the old maids to fuss over him. Instead, he worried at his right shoulder like a pup with a bone.
His mother, Queen Da-som, ran the court in the King’s absence. Whenever Joon’s manservant brought news of the court’s proceedings, it involved some conceited government official from a noble family undermining the Queen’s decisions. Of the things Joon detested most about court life, and there were many, court politics was at the top. He had no patience for it. Inevitably, he became increasingly ill-tempered and snappy with the court ladies. Everyone held their breath when they crossed paths with him. The court ladies even started to trade blame.
“It’s Yeo-bin’s fault for not serving him sweets with his tea. All those bitter herbs are making him disagreeable,” Im Ha-na said.
“That’s not true. I put honey in his tea!” Yeo-bin shot back.
“If it weren’t for you serving him millet with every meal he wouldn’t need the tea!” Han Bin-na said.
“Hey! Are you trying to say that my meals are constipating him?”
“That’s not it,” Jung Ji-soo said. “The Crown Prince is just worrying about the King. News of the war must be so distressing.”
“Pfft!” Yang Narae scoffed. “None of you know anything! The Crown Prince is a man. A frustrated man. He needs a release.”
“What do you know about it?” Ahn Yeo-bin asked but then realized that she had sounded more defensive than she intended. She attempted to walk it back. “I mean, none of us know anything about intimacy.”
They all looked at Yang Na-rae but all she gave was a sly smile for an answer.
Prince Joon grew sullen. More and more, he asked the maids to leave him alone in the bath. The old maids were glad for the reprieve, but poor Yeo-bin now had to tend to him without a buffer. If she made a mistake, there would be no one to protect her.
On one such evening, while Yeo-bin was laying out his tea, Joon had a spasm in his back that rendered him frozen in pain. He tried to sit up in the tub but it was slippery. He slid down until his head was under water but he could do little else besides thrash his legs. It was a few moments before the noise captured Yeo-bin’s curiosity and she dared to look his way.
Panicked, she called out for help but there was no one near. The Crown Prince had dismissed all the court maids early except for her and Im Ha-na. While she was tending to the prince’s bath, Im Ha-na was in the kitchen preparing his dinner. No one could hear. Yeo-bin dropped the tea cup and sprang into the bath. She pulled Hyun Joon out of the water by his arms. He came up sputtering and gasping for air, but the sudden movement worsened the spasm. He cried out in pain. Yeo-bin entered the tub and got on her knees. She cradled Joon’s head in her bosom, taking care to support his back while keeping his head above the water.
“Shall I go and get help?” she asked, unsure of what to do.
“No! Don’t move,” he said. “Stay right there. It’s just a spasm. It’ll pass in a few moments.”
He was still panting and blinking the droplets away from his eyes, so she let him catch his breath.
“Your Highness, you should’ve used the sesame oil I left out for you. You should’ve let Lady Sook tend to your back.”
“There was no need for that.”
“You almost drowned just now, Your Highness.”
“I don’t like the court ladies mothering me. I am too old for that. It crosses a line. Someone from the infirmary will have what I need.”
“That won’t help. The infirmary will prepare a eucalyptus ointment to soothe your back but that will only give you temporary relief.”
He chuckled. “If I start taking healing advice from my bath attendant, they’ll stop calling me the little cub and start calling me the mad cub. I think I’ll take my chances with the infirmary.”
His words cut her like a carver’s knife. The pain caught her off guard. It jarred her into remembering that he thought so little of her.
“It seems you are well enough to sit up by yourself now, Your Highness,” she barely managed to keep the hurt from her voice.
He sprang up. “Oh. Yes, you are right.”
He had forgotten himself. Then he saw her downcast face. “What’s this?” He did not intend it but his voice broke. “Have I offended you?”
“That is not possible, Your Highness.”
“That’s not what your face tells me,” he pressed.
“Apologies, Your Highness,” she bowed, less out of courtesy and more out of wanting to hide how hurt she was.
He reached out and raised her face by the chin. “Look at me,” he said. “Just this once, I will allow it.”
She refused to meet his eyes.
“I was careless with my words just then,” he said, sounding disappointed in himself.
“No. It was my fault for overstepping. Apologies your –”
“Stop that. Don’t subordinate yourself with insincere formalities. I am not so full of myself that I do not know when I have erred.”
Ahn Yeo-bin wrung her fingers on her lap. Joon’s unexpected sincerity made her uneasy. She felt humiliated when he put her down but equally uncomfortable when he elevated her. It struck her then that they should not be sitting in his bath, talking like that. If anyone were to walk in on them, they would deem it improper. Senior Lady Myeong would send her to the disciplinarian for caning. She might even send her away from the palace.
“Your bath is running cold, Your Highness. I have to tend to my duties.”
She rose out of the bath but then faced a new problem. Her skirts were drenched. They would track water all over and soak the wooden floor. Senior Lady Myeong would see the stained wood, assume she had made another mistake, and punish her. Even worse, there was the cup from the royal tea set that she had broken.
“Look at you,” the prince said, rising out of the bath behind her. His bath shorts clung to him like barnacles. Ahn Yeo-bin dared not look as he reached out for a towel. He stepped out of the bath and offered her his arm to steady herself as she got out. Water pooled around their feet.
“You’re all wet. You’ll need to get out of those drenched clothes,” he said. “Or else you’ll catch a cold.”
“I’ll be in my dressing room,” he said. “I won’t look. Leave your clothes here and wait for me behind the folding screen. I’ll get you a change of clothes.”
“No, Your Highness. I’ll get into trouble.”
“I will make sure that you don’t,” he said. “Now do it. You’re already shivering.”
“Your Highness, I must object –”
“Yes, yes. I have noted your objection. Now wait for me behind the folding screen. I’ll be right back.”
He grabbed some towels and dried himself in the dressing room. Then he slipped into slacks and a half robe that he didn’t bother to tie closed. He emerged still patting his hair dry. Yeo-bin’s clothes lay in a wet lump by the tub. The thought of her anxiously waiting for him behind the folding screen made him smile to himself.
He left the bath chambers in search of a dry, court lady’s uniform. He could not, of course, find one on his own – he wouldn’t know where to look. Instead he sent one of the guards at the door to get Senior Lady Myeong. She arrived panting and disheveled and he felt a little guilty for troubling her at her age.
“There is a closet here with court ladies’ uniforms, is there not?” He asked her.
“A maid’s uniform?” Lady Myeong, who was always quick to be scandalized, voiced her fears immediately. “Don’t tell me! Has Your Highness bedded one of my maids? Or are you planning to sneak someone into your bed chambers in a maid’s uniform? I must advise against it, Your Highness.”
“Court Lady Myeong!” Hyun Joon cursed under his breath. These meddling old maids never knew where the line was.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“One, you said ‘my maids’. That is incorrect. The court ladies are assigned to my service therefore they are my maids who are simply under your care. Understood?”
“Of course, Your Highness. Forgive my reckless tongue.”
“Two. Who I bed is not now nor ever will be your business. You are to tend to my palace needs and no more. Don’t cross the line.”
“Apologies, Your Highness. I deserve to be punished –”
“And you will be, if you don’t bring me what I asked for right this instant!”
Lady Myeong bowed and rushed to a closet down the hall to get the uniform. She explained that they kept spares on hand in case of any mishaps. “I am glad it has come in handy at Your Highness’s time of need,” she said, handing it to him with a troubled look.
He started to walk away but then decided that it was probably better to put the old lady’s mind at ease.
“Senior Lady Myeong, do not fear. I have not compromised anyone under your care.”
She sighed audibly. “That’s a relief, Your Highness.”
“I am a little cub after all,” he added cheekily, “not a little scoundrel.”
Lady Myeong tensed up again. So much for putting her mind at ease, he chuckled to himself.
Through a gap in the folding screen, Joon caught a glimpse of Yeobin that stopped him in his tracks. She had a towel wrapped around her chest, leaving her shoulders bare. She took a big clump of the towel in her palms and took in its smell. He watched as her braid danced between her shoulder blades and felt an urgent longing to put his fingers through it and undo it. He saw the stray locks of hair floating at the edge of her scalp and wondered what it would be like to touch the nape of her neck. Would that make her look up and see him as he wished her to see him?
He drew his eyes away.
While the Crown Prince was away, Ahn Yeobin stepped out of her wet clothes and wrapped herself in his towels. They smelled like incense. They smelled like him. She went to stand behind the folding screen and could hear him padding around the wooden floors. Through a gap in the folding screen, she peered out and saw him in that open half robe. His right shoulder still hurt, so he left his hair in a mess.
He had never looked more human than in that moment. It reminded her that he had once been a boy who hid behind his mother’s skirts. She had never seen him that way – he was already a teenager by the time she joined the court. Still, it was nice to be reminded of it.
Wrapped in his towels, she felt a closeness to him she had never felt before. She could not help but wonder. Is this what it feels like to be a woman? Her family had sent to the palace court so young that she had no way of knowing what she had given up. Wondering quickly turned into fantasizing when she thought of his disheveled wet hair and the sliver of firm muscle she had seen through his open half robe. A warm sensation shot down her stomach and she shook the image from her mind.
“I have your dry uniform,” Joon’s voice brought her back. He swung the clothes over the folding screen and she grudgingly stepped out of the towel and dressed up.
“I would like to have tea at the pavilion after my dinner tonight,” he said when she emerged.
“I will relay your request to Lady Ha-na,” she said.
“You serve the tea. Let’s talk then,” he said. “Oh, and Yeobin-ah, bring a cup for yourself.”
The Crown Prince’s Bath Part III will continue next Thursday…