The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part III
The Girl From the Bamboo Forest
It was a warm night when Ahn Yeobin served Hyun Joon’s tea at the pavilion. A half-moon shined in the rippling waters of the pond nearby. Cicadas sang incessantly while dragon flies darted amongst the reeds. When a frog leapt into the water, there was a splash and a string of bubbles popping around the water lilies. The wind blew in from the east, bringing with it the smell of sea salt.
Joon enjoyed the sweetened tea like a bird enjoys a flower’s nectar. “Ah, this is good,” he said.
“I am glad Your Highness likes it,” Yeo-bin said.
“Now, tell me. What fault do you find with the royal infirmary?”
“It is not that I find fault with them, Your Highness. I just happen to know that Your Highness’s physician will recommend use of a eucalyptus ointment to treat your aches, but that is not enough.”
Prince Joon thought about it for a moment. “Tell me more.”
“Being at your service allows me a proximity to you that not many others have. So I have a chance to observe things.”
“And what have you observed?”
“I know, for instance, that the pain in your back is caused by straining during your archery practice. The bow you use is too big and requires you to pull too far back to achieve the desired tension. Your Highness could benefit from a smaller bow.”
“A smaller bow?” Joon choked on his tea, incredulous.
“I mean…what I mean to say is…” Yeo-bin stammered, searching her mind frantically for the right words to placate the Prince. She had anticipated that his pride might be hurt. Men are often quick to feel slighted over such minutiae. After his declaration earlier about not being full of himself, she had thought that he might be different from other royals. Clearly she had overestimated him.
“Your Highness, your aim is always precise, of course. All I am saying is that with a smaller bow, you will be able to achieve it without compromising the integrity of your back.”
Joon continued to cough and clear his throat of some tea that had gone down his windpipe.
“So what I’m hearing you say is that my bow is too big,” he said at last, getting his breathing under control.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Yeo-bin said, then thinking she would not have another chance to say so added, “I have also observed the stiffness –”
“Stiffness?” The Prince began another round of coughing and sputtering after choking on his tea a second time. He thrust his fingers down the collar of his royal robes, trying to loosen it. The veins on his neck popped as a redness crept up the side of his face. This prompted Ahn Yeo-bin to get up from her place three meters away and fan his face.
“Your Highness, are you okay?”
“Yes, yes,” he said, regaining his composure. “It’s no fault of yours. I – Don’t mind me.”
“Did I say something wrong? I know I am sometimes lacking in the way of words but –”
“Not at all, no. Please continue.”
Yeo-bin returned the fan, noticing that it looked oddly like the one she had attempted to make for him. It had the same silk cloth and bamboo sticks, but it could not be the same one since hers had completely fallen apart. She started to return to her place when the Crown Prince caught her by the sleeve of her jeogori.
“Don’t go. I mean… Bring your pang-sok and soban here. Closer.”
Yeo-bin forgot herself and looked directly at Joon’s face, panic written all over her eyes. This time though, his manservant wasn’t present to admonish her and remind her of her place. Hyun Joon didn’t avert his eyes either. He seemed to read what she was thinking and said, “Yes, you may look at me as well. I will allow it.”
“I cannot –”
“Not even if I command it?”
“If it is a command, then I must do as Your Highness wishes.”
Joon sighed. Things were not going as he wanted. “It is not a command. You may do as you wish,” he said.
He wanted to tell her how sick he was of the pleasantries and formalities he endured every day. Everyone, from the palace staff to the noblemen agreed with everything he said, laughing and offering empty praise in the hope of carrying favor. Never once did he have someone to have a real conversation with.
When he learned the poetry and folk tales from the monks, they opened up new worlds of thought for him. He wished he had someone to share these thoughts with, and for a while he even thought that person might be Lim Hye-jin. However, seeing her reaction to his dismissal earlier, he realized that Ahn Yeo-bin wasn’t as dull and clumsy as she presented herself.
Her inability to hide her feelings was a disadvantage in her line of work. It could easily be misconstrued for impertinence, but that also made her perfect for Joon. People thought of him as ill-tempered because he was not one to suffer fools gladly. In a way, she was just like him. He could rely on her to be steadfastly honest. He found her so refreshing.
“I know people think I am ill-tempered. You would be too if you had to talk to people’s bobbing foreheads all day everyday. Yours is my only reprieve. You have a lovely forehead Lady Yeo-bin. I suspect your face is even lovelier. It is an injustice to keep it downturned all the time. I feel personally aggrieved.”
“Your Highness!” She said, appalled. Even though Yeo-bin had no experience in the outside world, she knew flirtation when she heard it. “The real injustice here is you teasing me!”
She let the words tumble out of her mouth without the proper honorifics, but Hyun Joon didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to be provoking her on purpose.
“There you are!” He laughed. “Ahn Yeo-bin, the fiery one whose feelings burn on the surface of her skin.”
“Apologies, Your Highness.”
“There you go, making everything stuffy again. The night is too beautiful to be concerned with such formalities. Why don’t you just sit next to me and enjoy your tea?”
“If I come any closer, people will talk.”
“Look around you. There’s no one here. My guards are excellent archers. If anyone tries to approach, he’ll have an arrow through his heart from fifty yards away.”
“In all directions. So stop your protests now and come closer.”
Yeo-bin acquiesced and brought her pang-sok (sitting cushion) and soban (floor table) to Joon’s side.
“Now, where were we,” Joon said, pouring Yeo-bin a fresh cup of tea from his own kettle. Yeo-bin looked around anxiously, sure that Senior Lady Myeong or the manservant would appear any moment and tell her she had failed some kind of test. “Ah yes, you noticed a stiffness.”
“In your neck, Your Highness. Just now you held the kettle with your left arm. It’s still sore, isn’t it? The sword you use is too light. I have watched you practice with Master Han. You always feel the need to swing hard in order to strike the blow you’re aiming for. That is why the crick in your neck is always worse after practice days.”
Joon sat quietly in thought for a while, but his silence unsettled Yeobin. She began to speak again, if only to fill the silence.
“Uhm… Since your shoulders are broad and you have strong arms, I think Your Highness can wield a heavier sword.”
His expression remained unchanged. She faltered.
“Your Highness, I fear that in my enthusiasm I have offended you with my unworthy –”
“Stop. I find it maddening when you do that.”
She looked up at him, her eyes fraught with confusion and a hint of annoyance. She found him maddening as well but she dared not say so.
“So, you’ve been watching me,” he said at last, meeting her eyes. “You think my shoulders are broad and my arms are strong.”
He seemed so pleased with himself that there was no room for doubt in Yeo-bin’s mind that he was flirting again. She blushed.
“In that case, I will have the armory make me new weapons. Let’s see how that works out.”
“I’m confident that it will.”
“Did you learn about this from your father?”
“No, Your High –”
“Ah ah. Not Your Highness. As we are now speaking freely, you may call me by my name. Joon. Hyun Joon. It has always been a desire of mine to be known by my name, but since I was born, not even my mother has ever called me that. I have always been addressed using my title and if it wasn’t that, they called me the little cub.”
Despite his best efforts, he found himself spilling his innermost desires to her. He was surprised at himself and wondered what it was about Ahn Yeo-bin that disarmed him in that way.
“Who are you, Ahn Yeo-bin?” he asked.
“Me? I’m just a girl from a bamboo forest. A fan-maker’s daughter who does not know how to make fans.”
“A fan-maker’s daughter? But not Ahn Yeo-sang’s daughter?”
“Eer…How do you know my father?”
“Well, it’s a funny story, actually. A court lady gave me this fan as a gift for her coming of age ceremony,” he lifted the fan from the floor table. “But when I unfolded it,” he spread the fan dramatically, “the cloth came off and the bamboo sticks flew across the room!”
He looked at Yeo-bin over the fan, holding in his laughter and she looked at him disbelieving, fists clenched on her lap. Had he been anyone else she would’ve chased him halfway around the pavilion by now, but instead she had to meet his teasing with no response.
“So I had the palace fan-maker brought in from the city,” he continued, “but he only knew how to make paper fans, not silk fans. I asked around for a fan-maker who knew how to make silk fans and they brought me Ahn Yeo-sang.”
“You met my father?”
“Yes. I wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t ruin my special gift but it turned out that I had nothing to worry about. His skills are impressive. I’m surprised he isn’t the palace’s fan-maker.”
Yeo-bin’s father had in fact been the palace fan-maker as a young man. When Yeo-bin was six years old, men came to their home and razed down her father’s workroom. Everything he had – tools, silk cloths, and fans he had been hired to make — was lost in the fire. He lost favor in the palace and a new fanmaker was hired to replace him. That man was none other than the current palace fanmaker – an overly ambitious charlatan who possessed neither the talent nor skill to make silk fans. He was also the one who set fire to her father’s work room all those years ago.
Yeo-bin’s father tried hard to replace the items he had lost but they were too valuable. After two years, when he failed to repay his debt, he had no choice but to send Yeo-bin to court. It was she who would pay the family’s debt with the allowance she got from the palace. Her father was wracked with shame over that outcome and constantly apologized to her. It burdened her in ways she hadn’t spoken of in a long time.
If Yeo-bin thought of this, she did not mention it. Instead she said, “I’m glad you think so, Your Highness.”
Joon noted that she had reverted back to formality with dismay. He kicked himself for bringing up her father, no doubt reminding her that they occupied vastly different stations in life.
“As long as we’re speaking freely,” Yeo-bin started to change the subject, “There is something else that I have to tell you. A piece of information you don’t seem to be privy to.”
“What is it?” Joon asked, but was interrupted by his manservant calling out for him.
“Your Highness!” he said, panting, out of breath. “Forgive me. I come bearing bad news.”
Just then, the palace gongs began ringing. Sounds of wailing reached them before lights started coming on in the distance. Here, there, all over the palace.
It could only mean one thing.
The King was dead.