"I am greatly pleased to see you today before I head out to the palace, Your Highness," Yoo Young Geun, the kingdom's Right Minister and the father of her husband, greeted Kang Mo Yeon as they met face to face that morning. Just when he was leaving for Gyeongbokgung early, Mo Yeon showed up at the vast mansion's courtyard just at the same time, "You become more beautiful each day," It had become her habit to get up early, partly because of her discomforts in her pregnancy, at the same time Yoo Si Jin's own discomforts which entailed her assistance.
Her head tilted shyly towards the floor. "Abeonim, there is no need to bow before me," She made an attempt to stop him from genuflecting but she was seconds too late. Yoo-uichangseong was old, but he still was as strong-willed as he was many years back, serving the government wholeheartedly and upholding his duties without equivocation; he still had his values intact, even paying utmost respect to royalty regardless whether royalty had already came in the form of his daughter-in-law. He was firm that she still deserved the honor that was befitting for a princess, and besides it was the man's way of atoning his sins for treating her harshly before he even realized she was the missing Princess Jeonghyeon.
"Are you feeling well? You are with child, yet you still walk around in this kind of cold," The old man showed his concern, but Mo Yeon deliberately shook her head, assuring him that she was perfectly fine.
"I am still well in the winter, but I thank you for showing your care,"
"Geundae, how is my son? I have not seen him these past few days,"
"He is inside," She toned down her voice a little while pointing towards the closed room, so as to not disturb him inside. "Yoo Si Jin is finding it too tedious to get up in the cold,"
"I see. I hope he is well. Other than that, be safe. Both of you have become even more delicate as the time passes," Young Geun told her, "I need to go now, I'll send your best regards to your father,"
"Thank you, Abeonim,"
She slowly moseyed towards the edge of the house's balcony and watched the Right Minister go and leave along with the other soldiers before going back to her room. While she watched him walk slowly climb up the saddle and have his horse trot along the road with the other men in horseback, it gave her a few moments to spare just to remember how things have changed for her and Yoo Young Geun. She saw how greatly her once-rocky relationship with Yoo Si Jin's father had transformed into a beautiful, father-daughter one. Oftentimes, she would think she herself was a miracle brought into this broken home, finding it safe to conclude that because of her presence, both the father and the son reconciled. It was one of the few things she was quietly proud of. She also did not want to brag it on Yoo Si Jin.
She stood just beside the edge of the balcony post, waiting until the sound of the horses' galloping faded away. Later on, she slowly walked back to the closed room—hers and Si Jin's quarters—and gently pushed its door open, careful not to disrupt his rest. She took careful steps further in, her foot landing soft on her heel and then on her toes, and she kept walking this way even beyond the partition wall and checked on him, who still remain sprawled in bed.
He was awake already for a few several minutes but had already voiced earlier he wanted to remain in bed and just take some time reclined before he would get up. Mo Yeon quietly got down comfortably on her knees beside him and checked on the pulse on his wrist.
"How are you feeling?" She asked in a gentle tone.
Yoo Si Jin remained in bed while his sleepy eyes moved languidly, trying to get a perfect aim of looking at her. The pillows had been rearranged by his wife for him earlier that morning to make it possible for him to breathe easily; two of them elevated his torso while another two supported his arms. He was swelling, both his arms and legs.
"I am well," He still managed to reply with a whisper, eyes half-open, "You?"
Liar. "Good too," Mo Yeon checked on his wrist's pulse. It was there. It was weak, but was still there. She wanted Yoo Si Jin to quit pretending everything was fine, but also feared that if he starts being too honest and frank, the truth will drag her down too. Perhaps he already had foresight on such things. Words were the only thing he had left to encourage her to keep on moving, and that she would break down if he quit his positivity.
She observed how weak he was this morning, just as how he was the same a few mornings ago. Maybe it's because he's cold, Mo Yeon thought about it while she held another wrist. After a few more minutes of observing, she decided that it was necessary to do the whole acupuncture-pinning process once more. Doing it was painful not only for him, but also for her. She choked in pain whenever she saw his brows furrow whenever a needle penetrated his skin.
He noticed she had the small wooden box in her grasp. "Are you going to prick me again?"
Although she knew Yoo Si Jin was already sick and tired of getting his body pinned on and pulled at by these needles, she still had to do it. "I'm sorry. I love you, that's why I have to do all of these," Mo Yeon replied to him while she was busy pulling the thick blankets away from his body. He did not complain after that.
"I know that," He assured her, ogling at her with a eyes weary and half-asleep, "I know you love me,"
"I do. Hold on just a bit," Mo Yeon replied while she carefully folded up his sleeves and revealed the ugly aftermath of his treatments. There were blotches and bruises all over him; discolored patches of multiple punctures scathed his once-fair skin. It was a pitiful sight to look at each day.
Her eyes glanced towards Si Jin's direction and found him staring upward, as if he was just waiting for the sting of the small needles to inflict him once again. I'm sorry, she sadly whispered in her thoughts.
In just their little season crossover, a lot of things had changed. She once saw Yoo Si Jin at his prime, bargaining political matters with ministers, working at the office, and even riding his horse in the sunset, but now he was a pale canvas covered in grey—probably even paler more than he was back then. He had given up going out of the house too much, which made his father the liberty to use his horse when he wanted to. Si Jin did not object to it either; horses loved to run with their riders, and so it was better if his father used his.
Friends, soldiers, and even key officials who needed his advice and consultation came to visit him instead of him going through all the effort of traveling. He did not want to use the carriage either; riding it, as how Mo Yeon thought, badly hurt his ego. Tasks were meager for him too. He usually lounged either in his office, reading and writing on paper, or in the bed room where he would sleep. The activities he did had been made limited in just a short span of time.
Mo Yeon, on the other hand, was facing her own endeavors as well. She was at her sixth month currently. During her second trimester, since Si Jin had been made aware of her pregnancy, Kang Mo Yeon was very grateful of him as he was always around to be her source of strength. However, now it seemed like he had done his part well and through in being her refuge. She now needed to switch roles with him.
"Mo Yeon..." He croaked her name all of a sudden once he noticed how lost she was staring in blank space, "I'm just light-headed in the morning, that is all,"
She nodded, smiling at him. Her hands trailed his cheek, "I know you're light-headed in the morning,"
"Don't worry too much,"
"Okay. I won't." But she was already worrying too much. He declined over the months, and he was declining even more today. Nonetheless, she could see that he still wanted to show her that he could go far, "You actually try hard too much,"
He chuckled, folding his other sleeve for her, "When do I never?"
Things had been pretty much like this everyday for the both of them. In the morning, they ask each other how they were feeling currently, and then one gets to be administered medicine, while the other gets a full meal thereafter. Both Si Jin and Mo Yeon were there to look after each other, making sure that they were both doing fine in the trying times.
Of course, the servants were also aware that their masters were both in a severe and delicate condition, and so they were always quick to respond whenever a need came up. They were very attentive and keen to whatever lacked, and quickly filled it in.
Because of her pregnancy, and at the same time her husband's need for her presence, Kang Mo Yeon was relieved of her services at the local infirmary, in which Myung Joo agreed to take management for the meantime. Lady Yoon also had her own efforts to share; she was likewise busy trying to search for medicinal advances to keep Si Jin's health going.
Despite their thread becoming thinner and thinner, everyone never lost hope.
After minutes of having the needles buried under his skin, Mo Yeon took them out one by one. The patches have increased in number. "How are you feeling?" She checked on Yoo Si Jin again, who seemed to be looking quite jovial this time.
"Thank goodness," She sighed, holding his hand, "I am relieved,"
Yoo Si Jin just smiled while he tightened his grip on her hand.
With one hand free, she continued to take the needles out one by one in a careful manner. He can't afford to get wounded with his weak heart. Si Jin watched and observed her from where he lay, and watched her smile at him with so much delight and positive declaration in her face, that simply lying down felt as if it would bring about massive change in the cruel world.
"Seo Dae Young-ssi will be visiting you later," Mo Yeon talked him through his schedule as soon as she finished placing all needles in the box, "I think it was about an internal reshuffling of warriors based on boundary priority,"
"A reshuffling. I'm impressed. You know a lot about my work,"
"I've been reading a lot of literature at your library,"
"What were you reading?"
"Oh, just the copies of the Annals of the different war ministers. Including yours," She said proudly. Even Yoo Si Jin was surprised by this. "Did I make a great job at impressing you, my husband?"
He gently pulled her hand closely to him and graced it with a tender kiss.
"You never fail," He smiled thereafter.
Mo Yeon was always beside him when they walked. He did not want to pace around the house, and neither did she. She loved being at par with Si Jin, even if it meant her to be the one adjusting. They practically walked together, ate together, read books together. She would not mind doing the same thing each day as long as she knew he was there, by her side.
Moments shared were lengthy, and enjoying each other's company in the silence was what kept them busy at home. Si Jin needed that, and so did she, but between the two of them, Mo Yeon was the one who had closed hands on accepting the worst possibilities, of what could happen if their presence and the silence would eventually become just silence brought about by one's absence.
There was only one way out for her and for everybody else: one straw that had to prevail, and it is that Yoo Si Jin will get better—well enough to at least see years more, especially now that they were all expecting the firstborn of another generation in the family. She clung onto the hopes that Myung Joo and everybody else were doing their best to find him a cure before time comes and bars them along the way, and so was he. However, even if Yoo Si Jin thinks it's better if she took into consideration even the worst circumstances that could happen, he had to let her loose on how she wanted to perceive their situation. It only came to a point wherein he ceased arguing with her pertaining to how she desired to perceive whatever life brought into them, may they be matters that brings forth joy, or those that would bring about the hardest of hardships. Letting her be would be fine, but still, being the ever-thoughtful and cautious man he had always been, he wanted to talk her through it. He wanted to prepare her heart.
That morning, after breakfast, Yoo Si Jin got up from his usual seat and took a few steps to the door before he paused and turned to look at his wife. She was absentmindedly staring at the open, where the trees' branches exposed themselves. Beneath them were the shrubs of hawthorn, remaining lush and green in the chill of the atmosphere.
Si Jin looked out at the same window to fill his eyes with the same view that filled his wife's hazel-brown eyes. He looked, and stared.
And then, a tiny speck of white.
It was a minuscule fragment that could have been disregarded if only it did not contrast the dark wooden walls of the stables behind. He watched it, both eyes following the tiny flake until it disappeared on the ground's rocky surface.
"Winter," He said lowly as he remained where he stood, free from any movement. Mo Yeon's eyes gazed at him from where she was settled. She found him like a beautiful painting in his blue clothes. The profound beauty and sadness in his eyes was perfectly caught in the moment.
"Do you still have no love for winter?" Mo Yeon asked softly, closing the void in between them.
"I do not love it, despite how beautiful it may appear," He replied smoothly, like an answer ready to be given to that certain question, "And you?"
"I do not love it either,"
"You still don't," He exhaled, "Is it the same reason back then when you said the exact thing a year ago?"
She was taken aback at what he told her; after recounting their first winter together, it only meant she already had been with Yoo Si Jin for more than a year. With the wars that took him mostly away from her, and with the huge gap in her memory that kept her distance from him, a year merely felt like a month. It was too short.
"The reason changed," Mo Yeon replied, "It changed because of you,"
She knew how Yoo Si Jin loved being praised and be put to a state of being sprinkled with flattery; he was walking towards her this time, with sparks of interest gleaming in his weary eyes.
"Tell me about it,"
Mo Yeon stood and ambled at a relaxed pace towards him, her arms instantly knowing they were to chain themselves onto his waist. Yoo Si Jin closed his eyes as slowly as her arms tightened around him, feeling her warmth wrapping around and her stomach softly pushing in between. He returned by reaching his hands behind her.
"I do not love the winter, now because I know it hurts the man that I love," Mo Yeon's voice was clear, like the words were crystal and refined to his ear; she made sure he was hearing her, "You don't like the cold mornings: it makes you weak to the bone. You would prefer sleeping on our bed, wrapped in the thick, warm blankets we have in our room. You would rather sleep when the air chills the entire place, because you would rather sleep through the pain than to be awake experiencing it,"
"You love it when the flowers are in full bloom, that way you could wish under the moon while you are surrounded by it. You love it when it is the time of festivals, where you see people enjoying each other's company, not worrying about wars or sieges. You love it when it's warm, when the sun is so bright that it embraces you. And so I hate the winter, because the winter hurts you. And when it hurts you, well... It afflicts pain in me too,"
His swollen hands moved to the back of her head, and brought her closer to him as he did that. He loved her so badly, feeling every word she said dig deep in his heart, he wanted to stay in this moment, having her in his arms, being entangled in her embrace forever.
"The sun is bright and warm indeed," He whispered, the soft smoke made by his breath gushed out between his lips, "I have it enclosing the space around me,"
Later that day, Seo Dae Young indeed showed up at their house in a full-armor that of a minister. Mo Yeon saw him walk inside their house by the window of her room, and noticed how he had worn the same clothes that Yoo Si Jin did during the night of her rescue. Like Si Jin, Dae Young had his own sword tightly secured behind him with its scabbard. He wore a dark, thick beaded hat with the heraldic emblem of Joseon on top of it. It distinguished him as the defense minister.
When the Byeongjo saw her eyes peering at the window, he bowed in an instant.
"Pleasant day to you, gongju-mama,"
Enough with the honorifics, "Is there a war?" Mo Yeon asked him.
"There is none, and you need not worry,"
"But why the clothes?" She eyed him from head to foot.
"An armor is what we put on when we go out to the front, regardless if there is a war or not. Yoo-byeongjo did the same before,"
"Ah. Well," She crossed her arms. The way he said how her husband did the same thing before gave her the feeling of pride and nostalgia, "I would have scolded you if there was such war, who are you to leave the wife you love in just a month after you had been finally wedded to her?"
"I'm sorry, Your Highness," He bowed again, and looked to the ground while he pondered on, "Geundae..."
"I think that as a warrior, going away, for war or just a plain visit at the boundary barracks, would give me an even greater obligation to come back. Knowing that I have someone waiting for me with all heart, someone I can come home to, there is no reason for me to go astray,"
"I know with confidence, that I will come back," He answered, sending her completely silent without even intending, "Yoo Si Jin attempted to disappear before, like a simple moment passing by, but he decided to come home to you. Because he knew there was someone waiting,"
"Seo-byeongjo..." She whispered, in awe at what the man had just told her. Dae Young in turn replied with a bow.
"Pardon me, princess. I shall visit him at his office,"
"Ah. Yes. Go on. He's inside," Mo Yeon blinked her eyes multiple times for her to get rid of herself being trapped in her musings, and likewise to dry the cold mist that were forming at the corners of her eyes.
"Yoo Si Jin tried to disappear before, but he decided to come home to you. Because there was someone waiting,"
When all else fails... She gazed at his office, where Dae Young opened the doors and entered in.
...will you still come back to me?
"You seem excited, using that bulk weighing you down all over your body," Yoo Si Jin had to make a comment when he saw the incumbent defense minister before him—all guarded and geared up with his armor. He studied the minister with his hands clasped together and his elbows atop the edge of his table as Dae Young sat before him, quite perplexed with how his predecessor ogled at his armor. He had been eyeing him from head to foot ever since he arrived to see him, the way the princess did before entering the office.
"It is my first time to don such heavy clothing. When I had everything in place, I wondered how you wore all of these bulk back when you were the defense minister,"
"I got used to it, after years of being in position. You will too. In about four or five uses, it will seem to be wearing a feather,"
"A heavy one,"
The two men laughed, while the table in between them had set a boundary.
When the amusement died down, Dae Young turned to the side to see his shelves all clean and neat. It never appeared to have the stockpile of scrolls, books, and papers both with writing and crumpled. The only mess it had, if it were to be counted as mess, were his journals. Some of them had the evidence of constant folding, opening and writing within their creases and edges, while others were still tightly packed, like it had not been dropped or scathed one blot of ink.
"Have you been writing?"
Si Jin looked towards the side and nodded, "There's not too much to do, and so I write,"
"Why do you write?"
Si Jin breathed while he kept staring at his collection of handwritten notes stacked on one side.
"Sick people write a lot, my friend. They write a whole bunch of letters, keeping it elsewhere like a huge treasure-hunting game. My mother taught me, in hopes that the words she might not say, she could, through writing. It's to write to those she might not personally talk to. To write to those she was ashamed of telling some things to. To write about the days that gave her joy. To write about the nights that brought about sorrow. To write...until there was no longer anything to scribble. Until there was no thought left of her. Until there was no breath to be breathed. She wrote until she could not write," Si Jin cleared his throat, "That's what I want to do,"
Dae Young felt being enclosed in this room was stirring and sad, even if it meant pleasure and gratifying for people like him. He didn't know what other proper way to respond to that but a nod.
"How long will you be gone?" Si Jin asked while his fingers flipped on the pages of a book he was reading.
"For the entire winter,"
"So you will be visiting every boundary post, one by one?"
He nodded, "Just as Jeonha had instructed of me to do,"
"Aish. Tough job. Good luck on that," Si Jin quipped as he slammed the book shut and placed his hand before him on top of the table. It made it possible for Dae Young to see how his health took a toll on him just by staring at his withered fingers. There were patches and blotches that looked like prick-marks. Pale, discolored, swollen fingertips.
Si Jin noticed it that he quickly pulled his sleeve and hid his hands down beneath the wooden table.
Dae Young tilted his head downward in shame. "What is happening to you lately? You don't seem well,"
"Don't shed tears over me while I am living, Seo Dae Young," Si Jin warned in a way one could say was playful despite it sounding serious, "I'll strangle you here and now if I have to,"
"You can't strangle me," The minister shrugged, but Si Jin heard a sniffle, "Oh, the gods are damned. You better be here when I come back. There is still a lot to talk about,"
Without the man noticing, Yoo Si Jin quietly laughed at Dae Young—a man who always kept his strict disposition in full show whenever he went out, and now he cries, even in a certain way that fitted him.
"While you do your work in the new positioning of warriors, also give every post you visit my well greetings in the winter. It's been a while since I've travelled to their place. And don't worry. I'll wait for your return, but till you arrive," Si Jin raised his trusty writing brush, its bristles clean from the black pigment he used, "Till then, I'll be here writing,"
Dae Young chuckled. He never fails to make something fun out of the puddle.
When he made one more bow before he got up and left the room, he felt every step away getting heavier and harder. Whether he chose to put the blame on the huge bulk his armor made, or the sad way Si Jin bid him farewell for his first mission to the boundaries as the defense minister, it was crazily heavy. He did not want to leave town. If he had the choice, he wouldn't.
Dae Young deliberately turned around to his direction, "Ya,"
Dae Young had no clue on what to say, or what to do. He just looked straight in Yoo Si Jin's confused and anticipating eyes before he turned his back and left without a word.
The minister walked to the gates without checking on Mo Yeon by the windows of the room she occupied. When he exited briskly, with the sound of loose rocks crumbling beneath his boots, the other soldiers who accompanied him in the mission quickly mounted themselves on their horses. Among them were Si Jin's usuals: the warriors who also were there to help him rescue Kang Mo Yeon.
Choi-gunkwan was the first to notice his arrival, "You met him?"
Dae Young nodded.
"How was he?" Ahn-gunkwan, the former spy, maneuvered his horse forward to better speak with him. When Dae Young finally sat on his saddle, he entertained their questions.
"He wished everyone well, it's been a long time since he set foot outside his house. The weather prohibits him from staying outdoors, but he hopes that the travel is safe and that no blizzard may come in our way," The minister told them sternly as he dusted the snow off his horse's mane, "We have to travel before sundown on the nearest post. Let's go,"
The soldiers quickly lined up and travelled going further away from the house they visited. From inside the office, Yoo Si Jin could hear the strong galloping switch to faint, slow ones until there was none from outside to hear other than the faint chirping of the birds.
"Till then," He murmured with an exasperated sigh as he took his current journal from his stack, "I'll be writing,"
I had an encounter with one of my dearest friends.
I've seen how the tables have turned for him and was truly glad to know his accomplishments have bear fruit, and his pains now turning to pleasures. Seo Dae Young can reach anything he would want to reach, if he pleases.
Now he's off doing the tasks I had once done, and perhaps do more than I. All the predecessors could do is to put their faith in the current leaders of the kingdom, and believe they will uphold, preserve, and do better than I did. He will be a greater minister than I. I look forward to hearing his stories during his journey.
Si Jin dipped his ink again on the fresh pigment liquid.
I really do hope 'what' would not be the last words he hears from me, just as much as I would hate it if the last word I heard from him was...'ya'.
That would simply be the dumbest way to say goodbye.
A day passed.
A week passed.
A month passed.
Journals and papers were stacked haphazardly just beside his work table inside his office. The house quickly transformed from brown to white, with its roofing and scaffolds accumulating snow all the more as days went by. It was nighttime, and the entire household was grateful the white rain of snow ceased for the time being, for it had been unbearably cold during the past month.
It was also that time of the month when both Si Jin and Mo Yeon were expecting Yoon Myung Joo at their home after weeks of being away. The Yoo family simply wanted to give the newlyweds a dinner at their home, but since Dae Young had a set of fieldwork to be done, they encouraged Yoon Myung Joo and her father, the Chief State Councilor Yoon Gil Joon, to go instead.
Moreso, the Yoon visit was not particularly for merrymaking purposes. They were there because the family also wanted to seek medical advices, with Mo Yeon nearing her due and Si Jin's increasing frailty. That evening, while the house servants were busy preparing the mess