A/N : Alright so, it's been a long while since I wanted to write a historical fic. But one of the main reasons why I couldn't write it sooner was because I was afraid of using history in fiction. Especially as a Korean I think it was harder for me since I wanted to not cause any prejudice or misunderstandings about this country's history. But yeah, I managed to write one after researching while writing at the same time and I quite enjoyed reading about the lives of gisaengs.
I know it can be a rather distant or difficult topic for some people but still, I hope you enjoy reading :).
This story is based on the history of the crown prince Sado.
+) I highly recommend you to listen to a playlist of historical drama bgms like this or listen to the song based on this story Thank you!
Chapter 1 : 일장춘몽 (Life is but an empty dream)
“Let go of the desire to be a man's wife.
If we can only close our eyes to the cumbersome feeling of high and low, there is nothing in a woman's life like that of our gisaengs.
A high-class woman can only be called a gisaeng with a knowledge that cannot be missed even with academics, so the depth of her life is very deep.
Also, only few people are as free as a gisaeng in pursuit of beauty.
Like the ladies of the family, there is nothing to be weighed against, and in terms of its splendor, would you be envious of the princesses of Goojung?
Above all, our courtesans have what the princesses did not have : talent and accomplishments.
A life that serves as a craftsmanship, from the delicate melody carefully selected with all the heart, the refreshing sound of flowing water as if embracing a stream into a dance. That life is always fun in the wind.
As long as you practice your skills and become the best, even if you are born out of nature, living in the world as you want, that is the life of a gisaeng.”
Every start of a new day, those words echoed across the whole kibang(the dwelling of courtesans) by the teacher. And it took Joohyun four years to let them sink in.
Some would presume it’s because of her family. A daughter that was born between a nobleman and a blind gisaeng. Even when her father’s blood ran through her veins, and saw his features every time she looked at the mirror, she was still the lowest of the lowest ― one who was destined to follow her mother’s footsteps.
Not once did she blame her mother. Not when she didn’t want such a fate just as much.
Holding the first daughter’s hand and wrapping her arm around the newly borned second, she climbed up the mountain in the dead of winter.
Though having no idea her mother was trying to protect her, let her choose her destiny, she was the one who often tried to run down to see the world.
If it weren't for a friend she’d made on that lonely and vast mountain, she would have probably been caught.
Alas, her mother’s endeavors and her newly made friendship had all gone in vain when her mother came limping back.
Even though she was only 8 years old at that time, she knew their simple pleasant life was near its end.
That all became clear when her friend’s mother had been found dead, and her friend gone without a trace.
She refused to recall how she’d gone through it after that. All she could say was that she didn’t have the strength to cut off the affection. She had no strength to subdue herself. She felt every anger, every sadness, every unfairness as she struggled to remember every word, every gaze, and every gesture they’d shared. And she’d slowly realized that all that wasn’t a simple pent-up anger. It was her endeavor to not fall apart.
She also realized now her friend was just a dream. Then she would wander around the mountain, scattering her tears on the grass, unable to find her way for a long time.
When it occurred to her that life is a growing number of irreversible things and places she cannot go back to, her childhood was long gone.
Her friend became a hope she had to let go, an empty dream she had to strive to forget for the sake of her family who needed her more than anything else.
The day when her mother hadn’t come back till sunset, she had hurried down and swore she’d never spoken to this many people while trying to find out where the kibang is.
Her mind wasn’t herself. All she could think about was that she’d lost enough. That was the mere shred of courage she had to fling open the kibang door, just when her mother was about to be beaten with a cudgel.
Leaving her blind mother behind, beggingly asking her not to, Joohyun took her teacher’s hand
She never regretted her choice. As long as she had her mother beside her, as long as her younger sister was safe to make her own choices according to the bargain.
Time flew by since then. To become an official gisaeng, she polished her every word, every gesture, every gaze.
As her mother’s daughter, Joohyun wanted to convince herself that she would eventually become capable. But there were so many things she couldn’t understand by heart. Why did gisaengs have to practice pouring wine into one’s glass with a rock on their wrist? Why did she have to practice holding her breath underwater even during the winter?
On the brink of regret, she learned to dance.
Even her teacher was surprised to see the girl who couldn’t balance a bowl on top of her head dance as a river current.
Nobody knew how. And Joohyun closed her eyes whenever she felt her mother’s wistful gaze watching her as she danced.
All that was left for her now was to be chosen as the most talented gisaeng in this country and become part of the royal court. Then finally, she would be able to free both her mother and herself, and the three of them could live together in peace just as before. And maybe, just maybe, she could get back what she’d cherished so much before. No matter how faded it was now.
Such a wish seemed closer in her grasp until an intruder came.
She seemed to be at her age judging from the way she let her hair down and the familiar spark in her eyes which Joohyun assumed as similar ambition.
The girl’s name was Seul-i. She was previously a well-known courtesan in Hamheung but chose to come back to her hometown in Songdo.
“Kind of sounds like her name was cut in half if you ask me.” Yerim, who had been her friend ever since Joohyun entered the kibang, chatted with her arm linked around hers.
“I heard that the main reason she’s well-known is because of her talent, not her beauty. So I wouldn’t worry. It’ll be only a matter of time before she wounds one of the lords’ pride.”
Joohyun could only give a hum as an absent-minded reply, too distracted trying to get a glimpse of the newcomer.
As Yerim said, her features were far from conspicuous. Yet the reason Joohyun still couldn’t look away was also because of it. They reminded her of a small plum that hogs the beautiful scenery of the hillock.
From that moment on, Seul-i was a mere amusement for her. Something refreshing to look at during her mundane life as a courtesan.
Even during their break time to look around the market street for some ornaments, the girl’s flower satgat(a traditional hat made of bamboo) stood out in her eyes because it seemed light as a feather from the way Seul-i walked.
What’s even more amusing was that Seul-i didn’t seem to be interested in the gleaming ornaments placed in front of her, contrasting with all others who were chattering endlessly while touching or trying on a jade ring or a norigae.
“Do you need help finding one to your liking?” Joohyun blurted out and Seul-i seemed just as startled, but quickly regained composure.
“That’s the kindest offer anyone has given me.” She replied with a small tight smile. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid I must decline since I have no interest in such luxuries.”
Joohyun could hear Yerim snorting softly at the answer and she found herself agreeing with a frown.
“You have no interest in such luxuries, and yet you chose to become someone who has the freedom to pursue them?”
“I guess I don’t feel the need to pursue it just because it’s given.”
For a moment, Joohyun had forgotten about how some courtesans are better when admired afar. Unlike their attractive features, people never know if they’re to attract their loved one or their prey.
With arrogance smeared on her tone, Joohyun was certain Seul-i was the latter.
The tense silence between them melted into thin air when Yerim nudged her by the elbow.
When Joohyun turned around, Yerim tilted the mirror to show her the reflection of young gentlemen hiding among the crowd. As soon as Joohyun turned, the boys quickly turned around with their hands folded behind their back. Yerim giggled in amusement and Joohyun found herself smiling along. Even though she could still feel Seul-i’s gaze staring down at her.
The boys seemed to be in a serious discussion before one stepped in. He cleared his throat a few times and opened his fan which should have looked impressive until the fan fell lifelessly on his grasp. Joohyun shushed Yerim who was too busy snickering as he hastily picked the fan up.
Their teacher smiled leisurely in answer. “Yes?”
“Because my mind and body are onerous from learning,” he slapped the fan on his lap, this time with no mistakes, and pointed the folded fan directly at Joohyun.
“Me and my companions would like to go out with them to a nice creek and maybe enjoy dipping our feet in the valley water.”
Even Geumhwa seemed appalled by their boldness, but at the same time, quite amused.
“Did you celebrate your coming of age, my lords? Judging from the entrance, it seems that there is still a long way to go.”
The boy awkwardly cleared his throat, hesitating.
“Besides, these kids haven’t even worn their hwacho wig so the price would be formidable. Since they are yet to be talented courtesans, you must be able to at least pay the price of a house.”
“Wha- what?” The boy spluttered. “A price of a house for dipping one’s feet? That is outrageous!”
“Ask the chief of Chunbu, my lord.” Their teacher said politely. “He would easily give some land documents to be the one who grants them their hwacho wigs.”
The boy opened his mouth but soon closed it in hopelessness.
“Now then, I’ll look forward to the day you visit the kyobang, my lords. Let’s leave now. Lead the way.”
Their teacher’s laugh full in bloom brushed past the grief-stricken faces. And each girl that passed them by either giggled or smiled teasingly. Yerim even stuck out her tongue.
Meanwhile, Joohyun felt pity. So she politely bowed to the boy for his boldness until he stopped her and handed his fan.
“I… I'll certainly visit someday. Please take this as a token for my promise.”
And before Joohyun could decline, he hurried off, his figure getting smaller in seconds among the mob of busy merchants.
“Are you going to keep it?”
Joohyun almost forgot that Seul-i was standing right behind her.
“I believe that is not your concern.”
“It does concern me. What if the teacher finds out?”
Joohyun looked straight into her eyes, then at the fan she opened with one graceful swing.
“Then maybe I’ll just say I enjoy such luxury from noblemen.”
And she had to admit, the look on Seul-i’s face was priceless.
After that day, Joohyun expected a change. Perhaps a banter or two.
But Seul-i stayed in place, not even bothering to initiate the smallest of conversations, isolating herself from the rest.
“Joohyun. Keep your eyes downcast.” Her teacher ordered, easily catching her distracted state during training.
“A courtesan must never show a white light under a black pupil.”
The teacher passed by the girls walking as gracefully as they could with a pillow each on their head.
“Walk lightly and gently.” The teacher continued. “Your steps should look like a butterfly, like a flower petal. The way you walk must ooze with a fragrant scent.”
The girls gently took one step at a time. Joohyun caught a glimpse of the beautiful foreign socks and she carefully lifted up her eyes to see Seul-i when the hem of their skirts brushed against each other.
That was the only moment they’d shared the whole afternoon.
Joohyun was aware by now that a snarky remark would only intensify her silence. So she tried to do the opposite. And she thought it was a chance when she noticed Seul-i smiling for the first time at a flower at the gibang yard.
“Would you like to take in the moonlight with me?”
Seul-i raised an eyebrow as she looked up, obviously puzzled by the somewhat absurd suggestion.
“Is there a reason?”
Joohyun smiled. “For what? Taking the moon or doing it together?”
Seul-i stood up slowly. “Both.”
“There’s a saying that you become more beautiful when you do it. And as for the latter, well, I’m the kind of person who believes two is better than one.”
“So what you’re saying is, judging from my appearance, I could use something that could make me more beautiful?”
Though Joohyun could clearly see the edge of Seul-i’s lips curling into a smile, she couldn’t help but feel disconcerted by the assumption.
“N- no! I didn’t mean that.”
The girl shrugged. “Well, I won’t disagree even if you meant that. Since I heard you’re the soon-to-be courtesan with the finest features. No wonder you find me, who refuses to pursue luxury, quite ridiculous.”
“Please don’t twist my words. I didn’t mean that at all.” Joohyun said firmly, feeling the tone of her voice rising. “I was innocently asking for company.”
“Then let me ask your friend to accompany you.” Seul-i replied. “Since I have no luxury to believe such superstitions.”
Joohyun frowned at the tinge of disappointment in her tone. Before she could ask, the girl had already vanished in the dark.
“I don’t understand, mother.”
“Like how I don’t understand why you chose to play the geomungo instead of the gayageum?”
“Mother,” Joohyun whined. “I’m being serious.”
“Serious as you were when you announced that gayageum makes t