The Crown Prince’s Bath: Part VII
A Wedding in Wartime
In the royal chambers, Hyun Joon sat at the head of the table while the Royal Council gave him their update. As the Crown Prince and the Commander of Archers, he had sat at the same table countless times. His father sat at the head, Lim Min-su sat to his right, while Hyun Joon sat to his left. The honour of sitting so close to the king came to him by default, being the heir to the throne. But there were men present who had been advisors to three kings. Men whose worthiness was mapped on their skins, and men who had earned their place at that table through every hurdle they triumphed over.
As he sat in his father’s place, and his grandfather’s before him, he was awakened to the fact that he did not merit that honour. The work of a king was to earn his throne with every decision he made, until he passed it on.
The city had been fortified, and the palace guards were keeping watch in shifts. Outside the city walls, the archers and swordsmen were poised for war. Sentries had been sent out to every village in the kingdom. Even the night seemed to be holding its breath awaiting what unknowns the dawn would bring with it.
“Your Majesty, a messenger arrived this evening with news from the emissaries,” the recordmaster said. “As we speak, they are returning with a party of Southern envoys, riding ahead of their army with the aim to present terms for a treaty.”
The message said that if an agreement was reached before the southern army arrived at the city gates, they would not storm the palace court. But if negotiations soured, the southern army not only outnumbered them, they also outflanked them. If they were to be believed, the troops that had fought alongside the king would never make it to the city gates. The South had rowed soldiers ahead on boats, and would be ready to ambush them as soon as they emerged from the mouth of the Maeng river.
“Gather all non-essential palace ladies and manservants of the court, and escort them to the fortified annex through the eastern gate,” Joon said. “And when the southern envoys arrive, let them in. I will hear their terms and make a decision.”
“I note that they did not ask to negotiate on neutral ground,” one of the king’s advisors said. “They must be confident, if they are bold enough to negotiate away from their turf.”
“Yes, perhaps even too confident,” Joon said. If Lim Min-su had betrayed them, it would explain the Southerners overconfidence, but Joon could not speak of what he knew. There must’ve been one or two men present that were loyal to Lim Min-su, and he could not risk word getting back to him in the night.
“We must entertain the possibility that they don’t intend to negotiate at all,” the advisor continued. “It may be a ruse. A trap. A way to buy time for their army to surround us.”
“It may very well be, Master Cho, but our men are ready. I only need to look the man in the eye to know whether it is a trap. Leave it with me,” Joon said. The men did not look satisfied with his answer but he could not earn their trust in one night. They would have to wait and see. “What else?”
The armourmaster spoke up.
“Your Majesty, I have crafted your new weapons as you instructed,” he said, laying out a bow and sword before the king. “If you look at the edges, you’ll see that I have shortened the limbs and adjusted the string. I kept the grip since this is what Your Majesty’s hand is used to. I anticipate that your aim will be impeccable. Your Majesty is a master archer, afterall —”
From the way he was going on, Joon could tell that the armourmaster was fluffing him up before he presented the unpleasant news.
“But?” he asked.
“But I must advise His Majesty that the bow has lost some range. This… happens with smaller bows, you see.”
“Range is no good to me if I can’t shoot the arrow,” Joon said. The armourmaster parted his lips, ready to reply but Joon couldn’t sit through more of his flattery and rambling. “I will take a good back over good range if that suits you, armourmaster.”
The man was chagrined but he pressed on. “Very well, Your Majesty. I’ve had a new blade fitted to the hilt of your sword as well. It is the same grip, but I think you’ll find that it strikes a heavier blow.”
He presented the King with the sword on a wooden mount. Hyun Joon pulled it out of its scabbard and weighed it in his hand. He left his seat and swung it in the air just like he did when he was practising with Master Han. It felt great!
“Well done armourmaster,” he said, sitting back down. “This will do. If there’s nothing else, I have a matter of my own to present to the Council.”
The men sat up, surprised by the sudden announcement.
“I am invoking the protocols of a royal wedding in wartime,” Joon clenched his jaw to steady himself against the barrage of opposition that was sure to follow. His stomach felt like jelly, but he pressed on. “I have chosen a consort, and it is my duty to inform the Council of this formal betrothal. Recordmaster, please issue the edict accordingly.”
The men sat in a stunned silence, each of them looking around the room, waiting for another to speak up.
“As we all here know, tomorrow is not assured. We do not know what the dawn brings, therefore I intend to marry her this very night,” Joon said, sounding unsure that time. He had anticipated resistance, outrage, and even condescension, but not silence. To that end, he prepared a speech full of arguments as to why he need not seek their approval even though, he realized, that that was exactly what he was doing. Without a dissenting voice, he wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Ahem,” one of the eldest advisors cleared his throat. “Most joyous news, Your Majesty.”
The room collectively exhaled. The other men nodded vigorously, grunting and humming their agreement. “Most joyous, yes. At long last.”
“You agree?” Joon asked, puzzled. He was certain that he was missing something. “You don’t need to look into the girl’s family or… or… anything?”
Again the men murmured no, but none of them would raise their voice above the other’s.
“We trust Your Majesty’s judgement,” one said.
“Far be it from us to stand in Your Majesty’s way,” another said.
Joon thought he detected a tongue-in-cheek manner in these responses but he wasn’t sure.
Huh. Perhaps matters concerning marriage rites had always been women’s work. If the Queen Matriarchs had been present, Joon was sure they would’ve opposed him until the very last moment.
“We ask only one thing,” the elderly advisor said rubbing his wispy white beard. “That Your Majesty postpone the consummation rites till after tomorrow. One needs his full strength for battle, you see.”
This time, the Council voiced their approval with a halo of amusement that Joon did not appreciate. But he had achieved what he set out to do and now, nothing stood in his way.
It was time.
That night, under a crescent moon, Hyun Joon and Ahn Yeo-bin wed. A monk performed the rites in the Royal Gardens under the soft glow of paper lanterns accompanied by the song of cicadas. Joon presented Yeo-bin with the Queen’s stamp, which she used to put her mark next to his on a piece of parchment wrapped in silk.
Normally, there was time to have a new stamp crafted for the Queen in the shape of her chosen totem. There were gifts exchanged and blessings offered by both sets of parents. Even as a king, Joon would have liked to be welcomed into his father-in-law’s house as was custom. But in wartime, concessions had to be made.