The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part VI
A Queen Without a Kingdom
When the young king had calmed himself, Ahn Yeo-bin drew him a hot bath and brought him honeyed chamomile tea. It was long past his bath time, and Im Ha-na was already serving his dinner in the resting chamber. He did not have the chance to finish his tea before his manservant darted in with news. The Queen Dowager’s carriage was being readied, and she was waiting for her son to see her off. Joon dressed hurriedly and left for his mother’s palace.
Ahn Yeo-bin drained the bath, scrubbed it clean and began drying the floors. She was bending over a pail squeezing water out of rags when Joon returned and pulled her aside. Drying her hands on her skirts, she bowed.
“I have arranged for you to ride with the Queen Dowager and my grandmother to Suncho Pier. The escorts are loading their luggage into carriages at the palace gates. Take what you can and go with them.”
“Go…Go where?” Yeo-bin stammered, her mind struggling to keep up with what he was saying.
“I have bought passage to Yamato. There is a boat waiting to take you at Suncho Pier. You will be safe there.”
“Your Majesty, I — I do not wish for this,” Yeo-bin said, steadying her shaky voice. It was the first time she dared to contradict the King.
“Do you understand the situation here?” Joon said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Lim Min-su may betray us, but even if his love for his daughter dissuades him from it, we do not know whether talks with the Southerners will succeed. For all I know, my men may already be face-down on the dirt, with a southern army riding to strike us at dawn. Whatever the case, we must prepare for an invasion. By tomorrow evening, this palace may be a war front.”
“If we are all being sent away, Your Majesty, I humbly ask that you release me into my father’s custody.”
“I am not sending you away. No one is being sent away. I am trying to save your life.”
Yeo-bin thought of her friends, all the girls she served with. Girls she had known since she joined court at eight years old. They had grown up together, like sisters under Lady Myeong’s wing. News of King Joon smuggling the Queen Matriarchs out of the palace had everyone on edge. If nothing else, it was a stark admission that there was something to fear. Though no one dared say it, they were uneasy with the lone command of the little cub.
“How can I …What will happen to everyone else?”
“Leave that with me. There’s no time for all this now. Hurry and pack your belongings!” Joon whispered harshly.
The thought of packing her belongings in the maid’s chamber while her sisters watched her with anxious and betrayed faces made Yeo-bin queasy. What would she tell them? How would she explain it? “I am a Court Lady of the Crown Prince’s palace. With your ascension to the throne, I am now a Court Lady of the King’s palace. I am sworn in duty to you, and only you.”
“Then I release you from that duty!”
“Your Majesty, you don’t understand. Neither the Queen Dowager nor the Queen Grandmother will have me in their carriages! They’ll have the guards put me to death for treason before they admit me to their carriages. My fate is hitched to yours. Only your death can release me from that duty.”
The King’s manservant who had been lurking outside the doorway popped his head in and cleared his throat.
“What is it?” Joon demanded.
“The carriages are ready, Your Majesty.”
“I’ll be there in a moment.”
The manservant turned away, but not before he noted that Ahn Yeo-bin had been talking to Joon whilst neither bowing nor averting her eyes. He shot her a dirty look behind Joon’s back.
“Shall I arrange a carriage only for you?” Joon asked, taking her cold hands in his. He squeezed them and unconsciously tried to work the wrinkles out of her fingers; she’d had them in the water too long.
“And what of the boat? What happens in Yamato? My King, I fear that you’re not thinking this all the way through.”
“I must keep you safe.”
“You need not trouble yourself over me. I will be safe with the other ladies of the court.” It was Yeo-bin who squeezed his hands reassuringly that time.
“This does not suit me, Ahn Yeo-bin,” he said, suddenly tired. “You aren’t just a lady of the court to me. I regret that it has taken me this long to make my intentions clear.”
The manservant darkened the doorway again. Since the king was speaking to a mere court lady, he mistook the conversation to be unimportant and became careless. “Your Majesty, if there is a problem in your palace perhaps Lady Myeong or I could look into it at a more suitable time.” His tone made it sound as though the king was a boy in need of chiding.
“I asked not to be disturbed!” Joon barked.
The manservant jumped but pressed on. “Yes, Your Majesty. Only, we received word from the boatmaster that the weather is on the cusp of turning, and the seas may soon be too rough to sail.”
“Tell them to wait.”
“Your Majesty,” he began to protest, but Joon did not let him finish.
“Do you forget yourself, manservant?” He turned to face him and squared himself. The manservant fell to his knees and bowed low.
“Apologies, Your Majesty!”
“They will wait as long as I command them to and I will hear no more of it. Now get out!”
The manservant scrambled to his feet and left with his head bowed low. When he was outside, the King’s Guard swung the door closed. Joon waited for it to click shut before he turned back to her.
“For the last two generations, all we have done is fight. My father never would have negotiated with the Southerners and risk being known as the king who lost the kingdom. He could not bear that legacy. It is true that the Hyun name may decline. That it may have no place of note in the new Kingdom. But I have been captive to this crown for too long. I do not wish to live with this yoke any longer.”
“You are giving up the kingdom?” Yeo-bin gasped.
“Until four hundred years ago, the Hyun name was neither royal nor noteworthy. The first King, Hyun Jae-in, rose to rule through bloodshed, alliances and industry. My father fought to keep what his father passed down to him. And I will fight to keep what he has passed down to me — only it is not a kingdom and it does not require more bloodshed. Yeo-bin, I come from a lineage that forges its place in the world. I intend to do just that, and I would like you by my side while I do it.”
“I am your loyal servant —”
“As my consort, Ahn Yeo-bin.”
Yeo-bin’s head swam. “What? Your Majesty… This …This has not been done before.”
“So it hasn’t.”
“How will you announce to the court that you have taken a maid for your Queen? They will laugh you out of the room. You will be ridiculed!”
“I have been ridiculed all my life. My father, though he meant well, made sure of that. The only person with the power to stop me is the Queen Dowager, and she is leaving. We do not know what tomorrow holds, but I intend to do this if it’s the last thing I do as King.”
“I will be a queen without a kingdom,” Yeo-bin mused. “Somehow, that is fitting.”
“Your kingdom is here,” Joon took her hand and placed it on the left side of his chest. “It is endless, and you will reign without a rival for as long as I live. Say yes.”
Yeo-bin tried to think of something fitting to say, but yes was all there was time for, and it was enough.
“Well then, since I have failed to persuade you to leave, I must go now. There is much I have to do.”
Yeo-bin was reluctant to let his warm hands go. She watched his back as he walked away with a purpose and marveled at how regal he looked.
When he had seen his mother and grandmother off, Joon sent for Senior Lady Myeong and the Lady Superior.
“Starting tonight, I will occupy the King’s palace. Lady Superior, see to it that my rooms are prepared.”
The Lady Superior pursed her lips, failing to hide her displeasure at being assigned a task as menial as room preparations. This, of course, fell under the purview of Senior Lady Myeong, who was the head of Joon’s palace staff.
“Your Majesty, if I may —” she began, intending to correct him in that patronizing way she had.
“You may not. And it’ll serve you well to learn to hold your tongue until I have finished speaking,” Joon shot back. The Lady Superior lowered her head to appear contrite, but offered no apology.
“Senior Lady Myeong,” he cleared his throat. “I fear the time has come for me to raid your brood for a consort. I trust that you know who I speak of.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said, and then under her breath muttered, “That girl will be the death of me!”
“Do not fear, nothing indecent has happened under your watch.”
Lady Myeong wringed the trembling out of her hands.
Joon continued. “As we speak, the Royal Council is gathering in the war chamber. I intend to issue an edict to wed her before midnight. Therefore, Lady Superior,” he paused to look at her pointedly, “Prepare my chambers with your new Queen in mind.”
Lady Myeong forgot herself and looked up at the King. She clutched her chest as if her heart would jump out at any moment, but it was the Lady Superior’s look that he reveled in. Disdain, incredulity and indignation all flashed across her face, but not a hint of humility. Not even the pretense of remorse.
“Can I trust you with this task, or do you find it beneath you?” Joon asked, with acid on his tongue.
“Not at all, Your Majesty,” the Lady Superior said with a stiff bow.
“That will be all.” He waved her off, knowing that she would bristle at being dismissed before Senior Lady Myeong. He waited until they were alone, and a good measure after that, before he spoke again. It was favourable if the Lady Superior felt that he was keeping her out of something. She was a proud, old crow but by the elements, Joon would find a way to bend that back.
“Prepare Ahn Yeo-bin for the wedding rites. Go now,” Joon said, giving Lady Myeong no opportunity to contradict him.
He did not want to give anyone the idea that he would be the kind of king who justified his decisions to everyone. Furthermore, he knew that the real battle lay with convincing the Royal Council. Some of the men had served the Crown since his grandfather’s reign, and were loyal to the Queen Grandmother. Others had served under his mother and would be hard pressed to support his nuptials without her approval. It would also be difficult to convince them to make time for a wedding in the midst of war preparations. But in truth, he only needed to table it to the council in order to confirm a formal betrothal.
The rest he could do with or without them. He was a king, after all.
The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part VII will continue next Thursday…