The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part IV
The Stag That Killed The King
It was late summer when news arrived that the King had been fatally wounded. He had been impaled, ironically, not by the enemy’s sword but by a frightened stag that crashed into his tent while running away from a forest fire. The rider arrived in the night, bearing his ashes in a clay jar that was wrapped in his royal robe. Both he and his horse were dusty with soot, having ridden through parts of the forest that the fire had ravaged.
He presented the King’s ring pommel sword, which was still in its oak scabbard, to the Queen and the Crown Prince. Also among the King’s belongings was the royal seal, which was forged from bronze in the shape of a fire moth. There was no room for doubt. He was gone, and there was more.
The rider brought a message that the Southerners had employed a pincer strategy in the last battle. In a pincer strategy, an army would draw its enemy out with a false retreat, while slowly increasing its flank until they had them encircled. In this case, the southerners used a forest fire to pin down Samgaju’s army. It was exactly the kind of thing King Jae-sung would have done. A fire was effective in that it spared men. It was his use of exactly such tactics that had earned him the name ‘the fire moth king’. Soldiers easily rallied behind a king who did not let them die needlessly in battle.
Had he not been killed, he might’ve known how to counter or wriggle out of the pincer. But as it was, a hasty retreat was the only option. The army would likely trek down the Maeng river with the cover of the mangrove forest up to the delta area. They would have to circle the area destroyed by the fire through the beach and around the cliff mounts. From there they would find the mouth of Nang river and trek upstream, a route that would deposit them just outside the city walls.
This was a two-journey with a small group of healthy men. With a relatively large army of injured and demoralized men, it would take closer to four days. The alternative route, through the valleys where the amethyst mines were, would take only a day and a half. Regrettably, that was the route that the southerners would be using. Which meant that an attack on the city which held the palace court was imminent.
The news unsettled everyone. There was a kind of bitter irony to it — a giant felled by his own strategy turned against him. The manner of King Jae-sung’s death felt like a foreboding. If the summer showers had come as they usually did, the forest fire would not have grown. It would have petered out at the first patch of wet leaves and damp earth. It took the absence of water, a spark of fire, wind and dry earth to drive a stag into his side. Everyone said that the elements were against him, that they were against Samgaju’s resistance to the unification effort.
The Southern Nobleman
The clanging of gongs that announced the King’s death turned into the clangs warning of the war to come. There was no time to mourn. The city had to be fortified. Strategies had to be drawn. Crown Prince Joon rose to kingship without ceremony, and on the night when he had tea with Ahn Yeo-bin, he did not return to his palace.
Ahn Yeo-bin thought that he would be sleeping in the King’s palace from then on, tended by the former King’s court maids. But that morning she learned that he had not slept at all. He returned to his palace almost at noon, but did not take his regular bath. Instead he cleaned himself in a washbasin and donned his beige mourning linens. This was customary throughout the palace. Yeo-bin too, wore the beige court lady’s uniform she had never worn before.
By late afternoon, the frenzy in the palace had simmered down. Yeo-bin had a chance to visit Cha Yeong-ja in the kitchen. Her friend would tell her if she’d heard any news from the court ladies who served in the other palaces.
“Well, you didn’t hear this from me but we’ve been asked to prepare food baskets for a weeklong journey.” Cha Yeong-ja whispered. “There were specific instructions not to put peaches, apricots or plums in one of the baskets.”
Yeo-bin stared at her, perplexed. Cha Yeong-ja sighed.
“Do you know nothing? There is only one person in the palace who has an apricot allergy!”
“Oh! And that is…?”
“The Queen Dowager, of course!”
“That can’t be true. I am sure I have seen the Crown Prince sharing peaches with his grandmother at the pavilion more than once,” Yeo-bin said.
Cha Yeong-ja rolled her eyes. “Hey, Ahn Yeo-bin, if you don’t keep up you will make a mistake that will cost you. The Crown Prince is the King now. That means the former Queen Da-som is now the Queen Dowager!”
“Oh! Right…right. Of course. But then, does that mean —”
“Yes! They’re preparing a carriage to sneak the Royal women out of the palace!”
“But where would they go?” Yeo-bin muttered to herself. “Maybe further east, by sea?”
“All that matters is that they are fleeing. They are leaving us here and saving their own skin. There really must be no hope for the war. And if so, then they should just give in —”
Yeo-bin hushed her. “Have you lost your mind! What if someone hears you?”
“It’s not like I’m the first one to think of it. The King must be thinking it too, since a negotiating party is being dispatched this afternoon.”
“What negotiation party?”
Yeo-bin bristled at Cha Yeong-ja for feeding her with food basket irrelevancies when she should have begun by telling her about the negotiation party. Apparently, there were other independent tribes joining together to form a confederation. If the terms were favorable, Samgaju would join with them and retain some autonomy even though it would cease to be a kingdom.
Among the palace officials leading the party would be Lim Min-su, the Commander of the King’s Army of Swordsmen. Despite his high rank, he had not fought alongside the late King in the last battle. Instead the late King Jae-sung had assigned him to oversee the training of new soldiers. Of course, this was unusual for an army commander who until then had been one of the late King’s right hand men. But it came on the heels of Lim Hye-jin’s entry into court as the King’s consort, so no one batted an eye.
Ahn Yeo-bin knew better though. It was pure serendipity how she’d come by that knowledge. A week after her coming-of-age ceremony, she met with her father outside the palace. She thought that he had come to congratulate her on her passage; many other court ladies’ families did the same. They came from all over the kingdom; the sea-side fishing villages, the mining towns and the hamlets in the hills where her own family was from. She had not known then that he’d had other business in the palace. That Crown Prince Joon had sent for him with regard to the silk fan, and that he would later have an audience with the late King Jae-sung on another matter.
Before her father left that evening, he told her that turmoil would soon reach the palace.
“If you were anywhere else, I’d tell you to come home when things get too hard. But that would only put you in more danger. ” Her father said. Court ladies dedicated their whole lives to the palace and gave up having families of their own.
“Instead I want to arm you with a piece of information,” he continued. “Use it only if you must. If you do, one of two things will happen. One, either you will become a threat and someone will take you off the board. Or two, you will become an ally and gain some measure of favor. So when you decide to tell someone, make sure it is someone who has the power and inclination to protect you. Do you understand?”
Yeo-bin nodded. Her father had experience working in the palace, before his career went up in flames. She trusted his knowledge on how to navigate such situations even though she could not be sure of her own ability to do it.
During his journey down the hill toward the city, he’d come by a stalled carriage on the bamboo forest road. He guessed from their accents that its occupants were southerners, and from their silk clothes that they were wealthy, if not noble. The carriage itself was made of carved wood and bronze wheels, which was something you didn’t see a lot. But what gave them away were the tassels attached to the handles of the carriage and the hilts of their swords. Their necks were dragon-shaped in a style unique to the southern dynasty — a sigil of the ruling house of Silla.
The carriage’s wooden axle had broken, presumably after it hit a bump in the road. Ahn Yeo-sang offered to help them fix it; he was familiar with bamboo wood afterall. But the rude nobleman took him for a village bumpkin and shooed him away. It didn’t take much to find out where the nobleman and his party had been. He left the stench of his rudeness everywhere he went.
One local had seen him leaving Lim Min-su’s house, the Commander of the King’s Army of Swordsmen. The same one who was now being sent as an envoy to the South! Yeo-bin knew that this did not bode well for Hyun Joon. If ever there was a time to use the information, it was then!
The Crown Prince’s Bath Part V will continue next Thursday…