A/N : Thank you everyone who commented/upvoted :) I didn't plan on posting it this early because my uni starts soon but yeah I managed to finish it! Hope you enjoy reading :)
Chapter 2 : 무근이고
: Even with no roots it is firm and solid. It means ‘acknowledgement and love’ that has different roots but is tied to each other so that it cannot come loose.
Fortunately or unfortunately, all of Seul-i’s efforts hadn’t gone in vain as their head teacher announced that for the first time, two courtesans will be going with her to the king’s palace as soon as the next sun rises.
Joohyun glanced at Yerim sitting next to her, her face close enough for Joohyun to see those eyes full of curiosity in her mirror.
“How do you feel about being chosen as one of the two best courtesans in town?”
“Great if you hadn’t added the ‘two best courtesans’ part.”
Yerim raised an eyebrow. “Well you seem less bitter about it for some reason.”
“I just don’t care anymore.” Joohyun replied while trying to focus on putting as much powder possible on her cheeks, reminding the words of the teacher that courtesans always need to resemble the cheerful spring.
“Really.” Yerim said, obviously not convinced. “You suddenly just ‘don’t care’?”
Joohyun scowled in answer though it seemed to be no use since she looked like she was smiling after drawing her eyebrows thick and slightly downwards.
“What do you want me to say? And why do you keep bringing her up?”
Yerim lightly shrugged. “I’m just curious about what made you change your mind about her.”
“Nothing.” Joohyun replied plainly. “And I didn’t care about her from the start.”
Knowing how stubborn Joohyun could be once she’d set her mind to it, Yerim held up her hands in defeat.
“Fine, fine. You didn’t care about her at all. From the start. Always.”
“Yes. Now can you please help me with my hair? I don’t want a single stray hair in sight.”
As Yerim sat behind her to comb her hair, Joohyun thoughtfully looked down at her finger fiddling with the hem of her skirt.
“So was it worth it? Learning how to walk on a tightrope?”
She’d asked Seul-i on their way back. And she was taken by surprise when the girl shook her head.
“You’re telling me you’ve risked all that for nothing?”
“Not exactly nothing.” Seul-i had said with a grunt. “But rather.. I learned something else.”
“You’re not going to tell me what it is, aren’t you?”
“I might as well, judging from how you’re almost dragging me back.”
“...So then what is it?”
“I realized what it would be like to become a performer. Like when I desperately tried not to fall on that tightrope, moving forward without a single tension left behind, I realized that is the path of the performer.”
Her answer made Joohyun doubt their teacher’s decision. Would she have ever done the same? Would she ever risk everything for something or would she be too afraid to because she was too overwhelmed by the thought of losing something?
Was it wrong to persist in keeping what she cherished safe in her arms?
She couldn’t help but wonder if Seul-i had something she could never risk. Or maybe even someone.
After Yerim was done fussing with her hair, Joohyun hastily walked down the terrace stones of the kibang.
She bowed to their head teacher and saw Seul-i standing next to her already.
Joohyun quietly scoffed to herself when she saw that Seul-i’s makeup was thicker than usual. She was certainly a living irony of luxury.
Ever since she left the mountain, she had never gone this far from the kibang. She found herself feeling giddy already as one of the guides helped her get on the horse.
(And she could tell Seul-i was just as nervous.)
It was a long and somewhat exhausting trip, but when they finally saw the grand sight of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, she felt jittery all over again.
There was an awe-inspiring atmosphere when they reached the front gate filled with the palace soldiers. The civil servants hastily passed by them and Seul-i seemed so agitated that Joohyun almost held her hand for comfort.
“This is where the King of all peoples of this country resides.” Their teacher said, looking up at the huge gate. “That threshold is very high. So those with low status dare not even dream of crossing it.”
She then turned to face her two students.
“However, there is one exception. Do you know who they are?”
“They are the high-skilled courtesans in charge of the choreography of the royal court banquets.” Joohyun answered and their teacher nodded.
“You both have extraordinary passions in performances. So don’t be content in just crossing that threshold. Become the best. The best who catch everything from the grand masterpiece to the king’s heart. Then you shall have even the country under the width of your skirt, and the person with the most power will be you.”
The teacher looked at Seul-i who no longer seemed nervous. There was an aspiration in her eyes that once ignited, could never be extinguished.
“Will you be able to do that?”
“Yes.” Seul-i answered immediately.
“I’ve depended my whole life on that.”
They got to the Jangagwon(the organization of managing court music in Joseon period) just in time. And the two girls stood next to each other with their teacher sitting in front with all the other teachers from each town gathered on the long table.
The man flipped the list as he called out the courtesans’ names one by one.
“Hyang-lin from Pyongyang.”
The man nodded. “Shim-jin from Uiju.”
When the man turned the page, he tilted his head with a frown and looked at their teacher.
“Head teacher Im.” He said. “Why didn’t you write down your student’s name?”
His eyes traced up to the two girls standing wordlessly.
“And why did you bring two gisaengs? The official asked for one in each town.”
The other teachers looked at their teacher in awe while a tumultuous atmosphere started to form as the girls whispered at each other.
“The truth is, my lord.” Their head teacher spoke, silencing the confusion. “I thought it was unfair to pick talented children of the local government to become part of the royal court.”
“Unfair?” The man asked and their head teacher smiled, never losing her grace.
“That is right, my lord.”
“What on earth do you mean by that? It’s a long tradition of female musicians to choose talented children to become high-skilled courtesans of the royal court. I hope you haven’t forgotten that.”
“It’s closer to an out-of-date custom rather than a tradition.”
One of the teacher’s eyes widened. “How dare you!”
“My lord,” their teacher said with her voice still as calm as ever. “Although I do agree the royal banquet is important. I believe it isn’t right to say that the local banquet is not as important. If so, we should be able to leave the talented children in the local government offices as well. Three or four times a year, the ambassadors from the Ming dynasty or home country come and go. And there are only three or four gyobangs on their way.”
“That is none of our business.” The other teacher argued but the man shook his head.
“Her words are valid. I was also aware of such problems.”
“My lord, I have a plan for the skills of both the city’s royal court musicians and the provincial kyobangs to grow.”
“A plan, you say?” The man asked, his eyes showing interest.
“Why don’t you let the courtesans of the eight cities’ kyobang compete through a contest? And the one recognized for their best skills through the competition will be the one in charge of the royal court.”
“A contest.” The man slowly repeated.
“Moderate competition is the best teacher when it comes to developing talent, my lord. I’m sure not only the great commander, but also the attendants gathered here would agree.”
Joohyun saw that most of the courtesans in this room were nodding or murmuring in agreement while Seul-i was one of the few who didn’t seem reluctant at the suggestion. And she couldn’t help but wonder why.
Since their head teacher had a banquet to attend, the two of them had to go back with each servant pulling the reins of the horses below.
After the change of customs, Joohyun couldn’t help but think maybe this was a sign that they needed to reconcile.
However, the other girl seemed to be thinking the opposite as she strided on, not bothering to match her pace.
“It’s a long way back.” Joohyun spoke up. “Are you planning on giving me the cold shoulder despite that?”
“This isn’t about you.” Seul-i replied bluntly and Joohyun sighed.
“Can’t we at least try to get along? We both have the same obstacles now so we might as well try.”
Seul-i snatched away the horse’s rein from the man’s grasp and pulled it hard, stopping on her tracks which made Joohyun’s horse and her servant take a step back in surprise.
“Funny you say that, the one who’s especially judgemental about me.”
Joohyun frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I saw you give me that look this morning, Joohyun. You’re very bad at hiding your emotions which is something a high-skilled courtesan should never be bad at.”
Seul-i turned the horse around and the poor man fell over sideways with a yelp.
“And I also know that boy kept sending love letters to you through his servant. You should try to focus on the contest now that we have to be the best among those seven kyobangs. Or just take a step back because your love life will only be a disturbance to others.”
“He’s not sending me love letters.” Joohyun objected. “We just exchange poems every once in a while. Nothing more.”
The other girl scoffed. “And has it never occurred to you that he wrote those lovesick poems just for you?”
“He just said he needed my opinion if it was decent.”
It occurred to her how stupid it sounded saying that out loud.
“What kind of nobleman asks a lowly courtesan for her opinion?” Seul-i clicked her tongue.
“Well, maybe he’s different from you, seeing how he didn’t hesitate to give me one of his possessions.”
The girl’s expression crumpled as if she was stabbed. Although Joohyun should have felt good about that, she couldn’t when her heart seemed to throb at her own words.
“Then I guess he’s perfect for you.”
Seul-i turned her horse back around and the poor servant scurried to match her pace, while Joohyun could only watch as the girl’s faintly cracked voice sank in her mind that left a heavy thud of heartbeat.
A week later, there was only a day left before they became official courtesans. And only one step was left : receiving their hwacho wig from one of the noblemen.
When she first came here, she couldn’t understand why they needed a hwacho wig to become official courtesans. A few years later, one of the teachers told her that receiving a hwacho wig was like getting married. Still, it didn’t make sense to her.
Now she knew what it was. She still didn’t understand why it was necessary, but the head teacher emphasized multiple times that knowing a man is the process of becoming an adult.
She couldn’t sleep a wink the day before. And of course, that concerned her mother and Yerim that they did their best to comfort her and be as helpful as they could.
While her mother held her by the hand and told her the process as delicately as possible, Yerim roamed around town to find out everything she could. And there seemed to be only a single necessary information.
“Whatever happens,” Yerim had warned her. “Do not ever get chosen by lord Yoo.”
Along with six other courtesans including Seul-i, she was summoned to an inn.
Before they went in, their head teacher stood in front of them with a solemn look.
“Don’t forget. We must cherish the men appointed by the officials. There are some hard and awkward corners, but try to hide your heart as much as possible and act like a royal court gisaeng. If they ask you to become a mother, become a mother. If they ask you to become a daughter, become a daughter. If they ask you to become a cow or a horse, become a cow or a horse. If they ask you to become a wine glass, become a wine glass.”
She slowly looked each of the girls one by one in the eye.
“Forget what your name is, and who your relatives are.”
As soon as the front door was opened, the delicious smell of fish welcomed them. She saw a yellow corbina and dried octopus, clams and oysters spread out on both sides of the table. She even saw pickled bamboo shoots and pyogo mushrooms that could only be found in Jeju island.
The noblemen who were drunk in wine and the sound of gayageum instantly focused their gaze toward them. And they all just nodded and cleared their throats as their head teacher introduced them one by one.
Her eyes quickly scanned the men sitting in front of them, trying to figure out who the infamous lord Yoo was and she noticed the other girls were doing the same. While Seul-i’s eyes were bored on the floor as if she was either deep in thought or in slumber.
The man who stood awkwardly in front of her looked like he was in his forties. His gray beard came down to his chest and Joohyun felt his hand placed on her head.
The other men followed his lead, also putting their hands on the heads of their favorite courtesans and earning the right for their first night.
Originally, they were taught that if they liked the nobleman who put his hand on your head, they could loosen the daenggi ribbon and put it in his sleeve. And if they didn’t, they could quietly take a step back.
However, as things in the world seldom go the way they were taught, not a single person dared to step back.
Joohyun pursed her lips to suppress the urge to ask what the lord’s name was. Judging from his previous actions, maybe there was a high chance he wasn’t the infamous lord Yoo.
But when she happened to raise her gaze ever so slightly, it felt like all the blood running through her veins sank underground, leaving her body dead cold.
The man was smiling. But his smile was far from kind. It reminded her of a boy who used to catch rabbits or rats, and he would smile down at the prey that was always left as horribly damaged corpses the next day.
There was no doubt that this was lord Yoo. But there was nothing she could do about it.
Joohyun felt her body shivering in fear. She swore she could hear her teeth chattering as tears started to well up in her eyes so she had no choice but to stare down at the floor though even his shoes looked frightening to her right now.
But then, something happened.
A danggi ribbon slowly fell down on top of his right shoe. And when Joohyun turned her gaze, Seul-i was kneeling down to pick it up.
“I’m sorry, my lord.” She politely apologized. “I was told that the customs were that we’re supposed to give out our ribbons. So I loosely tied my hair which is apparently a mistake.”
Lord Yoo eyed Seul-i with a look of clear interest.
“I used to have such gaucheness of youth before. And I lost it in a blink of an eye. So there’s no need to apologize.”
At that, Seul-i gathered her hands and bowed down.
“Thank you for your generosity, my lord.”
Joohyun almost flinched when the lord suddenly grabbed Seul-i’s hand and pulled it closer, squinting his eyes for inspection.
“What is that?” He asked, his gaze focused on the cherry red nails.
“It’s balsam dye, my lord.” Seul-i replied and the man’s eyes glinted.
“It’s what young girls like to do when spring comes. Is it your first time seeing it?”
The lord ignored her question, his thumb grazing the girl’s fingers and Joohyun shuddered as she watched.
“Something they do when spring comes..” He muttered to himself. Then he turned to the head teacher.
“Is it alright if I change my choice?” He asked, his hand still gripping Seul-i’s. “It seems like spring finally came to me too.”
“Of course, my lord.” The head teacher answered and Joohyun couldn’t take her eyes off at the girl standing next to her ever so calmly as the two noblemen switched their places.
Joohyun opened to protest, but no words came out.
She knew this was wrong. She didn’t understand why Seul-i purposely did this but there was no way the girl sincerely wanted him to choose her. It was impossible to ignore the numerous horrible rumors about the courtesans who spent the night with lord Yoo. No matter how much of a lone wolf she was, there was no way Seul-i didn’t know about him. So then why?
And yet before she could do anything about it, though it may sound like an excuse, they were made to sit next to the noblemen and to be added to the amusement. She even sang a song she couldn’t recall the title of. She hoped this would be a chance for her to play the geomungo but after receiving a few more drinks the tips of her fingers went numb.
Very anxiously, she’d glanced at Seul-i from time to time. But whenever she’d attempted to talk to her, she would ask for another drink or offer her lord some. It was as if she was purposely ignoring her.
Just when Joohyun finally grabbed her by the wrist, they were ordered to move to the Sucheong-room for privacy.
It was bad enough that Seul-i was taken to the far end of the room while she went to the other. The best she could hope now was to get this over with as soon as possible.
She had to prepare a new table of drinks and snacks. And the lord had to drink till he almost lost his mind to grab her wrist and pull her toward him.
He didn’t ask for her name or her age. Of course the least of his interest was to ask her who taught her to sing or dance.
Her teacher had often emphasized that she should never speak first until she was given a question. So Joohyun had to wordlessly stay still as the man’s hand carelessly touched her then pushed her down.
A long hazy moments later, the lord fell asleep, his snoring proving deep slumber and still dazed, Joohyun stared at the small glass glinting mockingly by the candlelight.
She ended up knocking off the porcelain glass as light as a feather.
When she left the room as quickly as her sore and drunk body could carry her, all the lights from each room were gone.
She almost tripped over the terance stone right in front of the room Seul-i went in. Holding her breath, she brought her ear closer to the door made of rice paper. It was dead silent.
She was tempted to penetrate a small hole using her finger but she knew she shouldn’t risk it.
Though even herself knew it was selfish, there was more to lose than to earn in this case.
Besides, surely Seul-i wouldn’t do this only for her, would she?
Seul-i didn’t attend the training the next day. And then the next.
When Joohyun requested to see her, the head teacher refused.
“Your words will only muddle the other girls’ minds. Our priority is to prepare for the banquet, not your companion who was only absent for two days.”
While she did agree with her teacher’s words, Joohyun couldn’t take her mind off of the other girl’s well-being just like that. Especially when it could have been her absent like this.
So with the little help from Yerim distracting their teachers, Joohyun was able to sneak toward the room where Seul-i was resting.
Using the tip of her index finger, she carefully penetrated the rice paper of the door then put her face as close as she could to get a glimpse of the inside.
All she could see from that small hole was Seul-i seemingly from the waist up since she could see the bandages wrapped around her back.
She had hoped she would be able to see the girl’s face to see if she was in pain or was just resting. But after seeing the bandage wrapped around, it didn’t seem to matter.
Joohyun let out a sigh as she slid down against the door.
“You okay?” Yerim quietly asked, mimicking her posture of wrapping her arms around her knees.
“It doesn’t make sense.” Joohyun said in distress. “Why on earth would she do something like that? And what exactly did he do to her?”
“..All I heard is that he has this sick habit of marking a scar on all the girls he spent the night with.” Yerim said, nipping her bottom lip. “I didn’t think it could be worse than what I’d heard.”
“Maybe we can take care of her for the night.” Joohyun suggested as she got up. “Surely the head teacher won’t say no if we ask to take care of her and not say a word the day after.”
“Joohyun!” Yerim hissed. “She needs a professional, not an ignorant pair of girls who she doesn’t even like.”
“Oh yeah? Then why would she sacrifice herself for me?”
“Sacrifice is a strong word.”
“Whatever. I’m going to find out why myself anyway.”
And Joohyun did. Only beca