The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part V
The Court Lady Superior
Ahn Yeo-bin gathered her skirts and made haste toward the central court. She knew that His Majesty would be there, but she did not have a plan for how to gain an audience with him. Even as a crown prince, a court lady could not simply approach him. She had to go through the senior lady, who in turn passed the message to his manservant, who then decided whether it was worth disturbing his master over it. Now he was the King. The protocols were longer and more complicated.
She did not get to central court, however. Senior Lady Myeong spotted her leaving the kitchen and called to her frantically. As Yeo-bin made her way around the courtyard that separated the kitchen from the stores, she spotted Court Lady Superior barreling towards them. Senior Lady Myeong lowered her head in dismay. Of course, this was a reaction that Court Lady Superior often elicited in people, being the court ladies’ disciplinarian and all. She was a master of the cane and a sadist. Everyone agreed that it was never the caning that hurt so much as how she enjoyed it. There was an obscene quality to it.
Senior Lady Myeong did not get to Yeo-bin in time. Instead, she shook her head apologetically and bowed to the superior.
“Court Lady Ahn Yeo-bin!” the superior announced as if to a gallery. “Come with me immediately. You are to receive fifteen lashes for the carelessness and negligence you have displayed in your duties.”
Tautology was a favorite tool of the superior. She often used different words to make one offense sound like multiple offenses. That way, she could pass harsher punishments. Going by how Senior Lady Myeong’s mouth fell open, Yeo-bin inferred that this was one such time.
“What carelessness? What did I do to deserve fifteen lashes?”
“It’ll be twenty lashes if I have to remind you what you did,” the superior said and swept her skirts around. “Quickly now girl, I don’t have all evening.”
Yeo-bin turned to her senior for help but all Lady Myeong said was to be quiet and bear through it. She started to follow reluctantly, her heart pounding in her chest. She ran through everything she might’ve done wrong in the chaos of the past two days. Some protocol she missed or something. She could not recall her offense even as they entered the superior’s quarters.
Court Lady Superior’s punishments were as much psychological events as they were physical ones. She took her time examining her collection of canes and whips and watching for the one that made Yeo-bin flinch. She observed which one made her tremble and which one she dared not look at, then she chose the latter. It was a young bamboo shoot that was pliable but sturdy enough to leave a welt.
Her instrument of choice determined where she would be using it on the body. A thick whip made of braided, spruce tree bark was used on the soles of the feet, whereas a thin whip made of bullhide was used on the bottom. The bullhide was especially favored for its ability to curve and leave a burning streak in its wake. To this end, it had multiple cords, so that one blow felt like three. However, the bamboo shoot, which was used on the back of the calves, could be just as effective.
Yeo-bin hiked up her skirts and prepared to receive the blows. The first three came hard and fast.
“Do you know why I am punishing you?” Lady Superior asked.
“Because I have done wrong,” Yeo-bin answered.
“True,” Lady Superior said. “But that is not why.”
Another three strikes. Blood rushed to Yeo-bin’s calves but she set her jaw in defiance. She would not allow the superior to draw any enjoyment from it.
“You took something from the Crown,” Lady Superior continued, “And a price must be paid.”
Three more strikes and the pain came in earnest. “Yeo-bin bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling. Already, she could feel tears beginning to sting in her eyes but she told herself that they were more than halfway through. She just had to hang in there for a few minutes.
“Now do you know why?” Lady Superior asked. The memory of a cup slipping out of her hands as she rushed to save the Crown Prince from drowning flashed in her mind. She gasped.
“Because I broke a cup from the royal tea set?” She said with more incredulity than she intended to reveal. That’s what this was about! I saved the Crown Prince’s life and what I get in thanks is a beating? The outrage made her momentarily forget that she had been stilling herself against the blows, and that’s when the Lady Superior struck again.
“True. But once again, you are wrong!” she said. “The only reason I am punishing you, the only reason I ever punish anyone, is because they deserve it. Don’t you agree?”
All things considered, no one could do the superior’s job better than her. She knew just which buttons to press to put a court lady in her place. In this case, the lesson was clear to Ahn Yeo-bin. Her life belonged to the Crown. Therefore, the Crown did not owe her anything. She was not to derive any sense of undue heroism on her part just because she had been present at the Crown Prince’s time of need. It would’ve been worse if she hadn’t been there. She had simply done her duty.
Yeo-bin nodded reluctantly.
“Say it,” Court Lady Superior said. “Say you deserve to be punished.”
“I – I deserve —”
Thwack! “Louder!” the superior growled.
“I deserve to be punished.” Yeo-bin said.
Thwack! “Mean it!” The superior’s eyes flashed and danced with heat and enjoyment.
Yeo-bin broke. Hot, fat tears ran down her cheeks. “I deserve to be punished!”
The superior nodded with satisfaction and put the switch away. Senior Lady Myeong, who until then had been standing by the doorway with her head bowed, rushed to help Yeo-bin up.
“It’s almost time for His Majesty’s bath,” she said when they were outside. “Hurry and get the fire going. There’ll be time for crying later.”
A King Mourns
It grated on an Ahn Yeo-bin that following such humiliation, she was still expected to tend to the King. A king who would likely breeze past her and the chambers anyway, oblivious of all the work that had gone into preparing his bath. The protocols dictated that a ruling King would no longer reside in the old Prince’s quarters, but far be it for King Hyun Joon to make things easy for anyone. Since there had been no coronation ceremony, confusion reigned. Similar preparations were being made in the King’s chambers by another set of maids who did not know whether he would show up there.
These were the kinds of vexing thoughts that Ahn Yeo-bin was having as she prepared the King’s bath. She poured cold water into the tub and began making trips to the boiler. There she poured hot water into two wooden pails and headed for the bath chambers. Not wanting to put the pails down, she heaved the door open with her shoulder and dropped the pails on the floor. She massaged her fingers where the pail handles had dug into them and muttered curses under her breath. Then she started to pour the hot water into the tub. She didn’t notice Hyun Joon standing at the far end of the room watching her.
“You’re late,” he said, startling her. “And my bath water is cold.”
Yeo-bin staggered back in a fright, tripping over one of the pails and falling flat on her bottom.
“Oh! I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said repentantly, dashing to her side. Then he noticed her swollen eyes and haggard look.
“What’s this? Have you been crying?” He moved to take a closer look at her face but Yeo-bin flinched away. “Has Senior Lady Myeong been overworking you?”
“No, Your High — I mean Your Majesty.” Reflexively, she smoothed her skirts over her calves to hide the evidence of her unpleasant afternoon. Unfortunately, her welts still hurt and her skirts caught on some broken skin. A yelp escaped her mouth.
“Nothing worthy of your notice, Your Majesty.”
“You know it infuriates me when you talk to me like that.”
Yeo-bin opened her mouth to apologize but she caught herself in time.
“I got lashes for breaking a cup,” she admitted, and watched as Joon’s expression changed from concerned to livid. He demanded to see the damage.
“It’s really okay,” Yeo-bin protested, in part mortified at the prospect of having to expose the backs of her legs and thighs to him.
“I’ll decide if it’s really okay,” he dug in.
“I can barely feel it now,” Yeo-bin lied. It was blazing hotter than red coal.
“You cried out in pain just now. Show me.”
Yeo-bin sighed, her shoulders sagging with exhaustion. All the excitement and anxiety of the past two days came crashing in on her. She felt unable to rouse any more protest and reluctantly hiked her skirts up inch by inch until Joon could see the angry bruises on her skin. When he saw that the Court Lady Superior had broken skin, that there was dried blood dotting her inner skirts, he went mad.
“I will have her hanged!”
“No, you can’t.”
“Then I will do it myself! I will strangle her with my bare hands!” He cursed. “Or would you prefer a beheading? Disembowelment?”
“You’re right. That’s too inelegant. It needs to be more…refined. Something befitting of a queen.”
“Really, Your Majesty —”
“Joon,” he corrected.
“Joon,” Yeo-bin conceded. “I appreciate the gesture but I would prefer it if you don’t draw any more attention to me. I want to forget the whole thing.”
Yeo-bin had witnessed Joon’s temper flare up on occasion, sometimes even directed at her, but never in her defense. She neither knew what she had done to draw his attention, nor whether that would be a good thing for her.
“Well then, if you will not allow me to make her pay, I will be the one to atone for it. It was my fault after all. It was my life you saved.”
“I think you’ll have more than enough on your hands with the war coming,” Yeo-bin changed the subject.
“Not for long,” Hyun Joon said. “There is a way to get out of this without unnecessary bloodshed.”
“So I’ve heard. You’ve sent envoys to meet the Southerners.”
“There really are no secrets in the palace,” he remarked.
“I’m not sure that’s entirely true,” Yeo-bin said. “I tried to tell you sooner, but I couldn’t reach you in time.”
“Tell me what?”
“I’m not sure why the King opted to keep it from you, but I heard it from a reliable person whose identity I cannot reveal to you.”
“No one will get into trouble if I hear it from you. Tell me.”
“Two months ago, some men were seen entering Commander Lim Min-su’s house. They brought gifts and he entertained them for a long dinner.”
“A man is allowed to do that in his own home, is he not?” Joon tilted his head in thought.
“True, but the men in question were noblemen from the south. They came to propose a match between the commander’s daughter and the second born son of the ruling southern house.”
Joon perked up. “What?”
“Apparently, Lim Min-su did not report it to the King, and this is what caused concern.”
“Yes, of course. That would do it. Lim Min-su commands the entire army of swordsmen. If he forged an alliance with the South, our military would be split in two. Lim Min-su has always been an ambitious man but I could not have guessed he was a traitor.”
“If he had succeeded in marrying his daughter to you, he would’ve gained control of the Queen’s guard as well, wouldn’t he?”
“Yes. That would’ve compounded his power. It would’ve been enough to rival the king’s own. Is that perhaps why my father took Hye-jin as his concubine?”
Joon’s face lit up as he started piecing it all together. Lim Min-su must have been offered a lofty position in the unified kingdom if he married his daughter to a Southern prince. Samgaju was at risk of losing command of the heart of its army. Even if Lim Min-su had declined the offer, his not reporting it to the King complicated matters.
The King could not openly accuse him as nothing was as yet clear. Such an accusation would divide the army. Most soldiers were loyal to the crown but there was no doubt that a portion of them were loyal to their commander. He could not make it known that he did not trust even the most high ranking officials. No one could know that he had spies working for him, not even the queen and the crown prince.
Yet he could not fully pretend to be ignorant of Lim Min-su’s betrayal. If he allowed him to marry his daughter to Joon, he would have command of both the swordsmen and the Queen’s Guard. Then who knows what he would do. A queen has her Royal Guard and influence in palace affairs, but a concubine holds no sway in the kingdom unless she produces an heir. In this case the Queen had already produced a worthy heir, and the other concubines had young sons as well.
The only advantage she would gain was a royal title, but it would be a title from the lineage of the Hyuns. Whatever happened to the royalty of Samgaju, their fates were now tied. Lim Min-su could not hurt the kingdom without sacrificing his daughter. Whether he was willing to go that far was still an unanswered question, but the immediate threat of his overflowing ambition had been curtailed.
Joon sat on the floor and hung his head in shock.
“I’ve been so childish,” he said. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “I thought so poorly of him, after he took Lim Hye-jin for his concubine. I didn’t even see him off to battle. And now he’s just gone?”
For the first time since he’d heard the news, Hyun Joon allowed it to sink in. His father hadn’t been the proud and greedy man he thought he was. The Queen had been right. He screamed and howled but the sound wouldn’t leave his mouth so he tried to beat it out of his chest. He tore at his robes and pressed fists into his temples. Yeo-bin made no move to stop him, knowing that she could do nothing for him at that time. He had to let the grief wash over him, or else it would settle in his bones and trouble him for the rest of his life.
The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part VI will continue next Thursday…