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Against The Grain

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Princess Joohyun had been taught since a young age that she must look graceful and elegant at all times, and that she must carry herself with dignity as a member of the royal family.

However, this brittle image was thrown out the window when Joohyun was trying to run as fast as she possibly could. She did not care how she looked — the only thing on her mind was that she needed to go to her elder sister’s rescue right away.

“Your Highness! Your Highness!” The Princess’ handmaiden shouted desperately, struggling to simultaneously breathe and run after the royal she was supposed to attend. “You mustn't go to Princess Jooyeon’s residence! It will just bring trouble to you!”

“She’s my sister no matter what,” Joohyun insisted, albeit panting. “I won’t be dissuaded, so don’t try.”

She barely managed to finish her sentence when she tripped on her skirt and fell to the ground. It hurt and she let out a yelp; her knee was throbbing and she grimaced, but it did nothing to weaken her resolve. Gritting her teeth, she got back up on her feet as quickly as possible. There would be bruises and her skirt was dirtied but none of that mattered to her at the moment. She got up and kept going, ignoring her handmaiden’s pleas. The poor handmaiden had no choice but to keep running and chasing after the princess, and when she finally caught up, the scene that was unfolding before her eyes was exactly as she expected.

Joohyun stopped at the gates of her elder sister’s residence, feeling as if she was about to pass out. It was noon after all and the sun was shining mercilessly upon everyone in the palace. While there was the concern that she might faint from dehydration, she had more pressing matters to resolve.

“Let me in,” she said to the guards at the gates. “I demand to see my sister.”

Once she had caught her breath, her tone had become much more commanding and authoritative as was befitting of a royal. But she was not the highest-ranking royal there — her father was the sovereign whose supreme authority meant that his orders would always override anyone else’s.

“I apologize, Your Highness,” said one of the guards, gravely. “The King’s edict is clear — no visitors are allowed. It has been decreed that Princess Jooyeon is to remain in her quarters to reflect upon her mistakes. This will be the case until further notice. Pardon us for not being able to satisfy your command.”

Joohyun had seen this coming. She knew what the King’s orders entailed. But she could not bring herself to abandon her sister at such a critical moment. She wondered what strategy she should try next, if she ought to repeat herself with more sternness, even though she felt helpless and hopeless knowing her authority was inferior to the sovereign’s. Yet just as she was about to open her mouth and speak, her handmaiden was the one who piped up.

“You would dare disobey Her Highness’ orders?” The handmaiden’s tone was so sharp and resolute that Joohyun and the guards were surprised that a palace servant could be capable of this. “Are you not aware that, in the circumstance that any misfortune should befall Princess Jooyeon, it is Princess Joohyun who is going to be the heiress to the throne? Would you wish to offend or disrespect not just a Princess but also the prospective future Queen?”

Although her words seemed to intimidate the guards and work in Joohyun’s favor, inwardly Joohyun’s heart sank because of the implications in her handmaiden’s words: that her sister, the Crown Princess, was most likely going to be deposed and disowned. Only then would it be legally permissible for Joohyun to be next in line to the throne.

Joohyun understood the gravity of the situation. Her sister had made a huge mistake which dragged her on a path of no return. There was nothing that could be done that could possibly fix or undo this mess. Joohyun just wanted to be by her sister’s side, for emotional support if nothing else.

The handmaiden’s outburst seemed to take some desired effect on the guards who exchanged worried glances. Grimly, they relented and made way for Princess Joohyun to enter the residence. She instructed her handmaiden to wait right outside as she bolted to her sister’s side.

“Joohyun?” Jooyeon croaked weakly, slowly getting up from the fetal position she was curled up in. “How did you manage to get in here? What were you thinking?” She asked, even though her voice carried no energy. “You know our father forbade it. You shouldn’t have broken the rules to come visit me. I broke the rules and look at what’s happening to me now.”

Joohyun went up to her sister and they hugged. Jooyeon had already been crying nonstop and crying even harder now that she was in her sister’s embrace. Joohyun was not a crier, but that did not mean her heart was not equally hurting. It hurt even more to see that Jooyeon was still in her nightgown and barefaced, looking paler than a ghost.

“How are you holding up?” Joohyun asked. “Have you not eaten anything? Please don’t starve isn’t good for your health,” she added, and then gulped. “Nor is it good for the baby.”

Jooyeon smiled wryly, then looked down at her tummy even though there was no bump showing just yet. “The baby, you say? Perhaps if I starve the baby to death then it would get rid of all my problems. What do you reckon, Joohyun? Do you think it’s gonna work? If I starve myself? I could try it. Maybe I shouldn’t drink any water either. That’ll speed it up—”

“Stop,” Joohyun pleaded in anguish. “I came here even though I knew the risks; I came here because I don’t want to see you suffer. So please.”

Jooyeon shook her head and sat down on the nearest chair, shoulders slumped as she looked into the distance and stared blankly at nothing in particular. “Nothing will ever be the same again.”

“While that may be true, I still want to do whatever I can to ensure you can still live a relatively comfortable life,” Joohyun replied solemnly. “Even though your titles will most likely be taken away.”

“That seems to be the least of my worries right now. I’m an immoral woman for having a baby out of wedlock. With one of my guards, of all people. Someone they deem so lowly and unworthy. I suppose I ought to be thankful they don’t take my life away.”

Joohyun sighed. “He was just a guard, a servant at the end of the day; of course they’d have his head. But you’re the King’s daughter. No one can touch a hair on your body unless our father personally and officially commands it.”

“What did you just say?” Jooyeon gasped, clutching her sister’s hands and grasping them as tightly as she could. It made Joohyun wince, but she knew her pain was nothing compared to her sister’s. Jooyeon’s jaw dropped and her eyes went wide even though her stare was still lifeless and hollow. “They...they had him executed?”

Joohyun felt chills run down her spine. “You didn’t know,” she concluded after a chilling moment. “They didn’t tell you.”

Jooyeon let go of Joohyun and instead placed her hand on her chest right away as if searching for her heartbeat, as if attempting, needing to make sure that she was still alive, still breathing, still existing.

“They killed him,” Jooyeon whispered. “They killed the father of my child…”

“I’m so sorry,” said Joohyun sorrowfully. “There was no way they would’ve let him live. They charged him with rape and treason—”

“He didn’t rape me!” Jooyeon howled, the sudden spike in her volume causing her sister to flinch.

“I know…I just…”

“If they want to execute anyone, they should execute that traitor! That handmaiden that ratted me out!” She broke into sobs again, her chest heaving up and down. The more she tried to breathe, the more she felt as if she was going to throw up. It was only after a few minutes when she seemed to have calmed down that she was able to carry on talking. “I don’t know what gave me the impression that he and I were being careful, that we could manage to hide our affair. And now he’s dead, and soon I shall follow.”

“No, please don’t say that,” Joohyun begged. “We’ll find a way to resolve this.”

“You can’t bring back the dead,” Jooyeon spat.

“I can’t, but I can do my best to protect the living. You and the baby still have hope. You still stand a chance and I don’t want you to lose—”

All of a sudden, the doors were kicked open violently. The two princesses expected the guards to come barging in, but the intruder was no guard. They had no trouble recognizing that familiar face — the personal attendant of their mother, the Queen. The senior attendant, a woman in her late forties, looked so formidable that even as a servant, she managed to strike some fear in the two young royals. Behind her was half a dozen lower-ranking maids, and while none of them were armed, their mere presence was enough to make the two sisters feel intimidated.

“Your Highnesses,” said the attendant, uttering polite words but it was evident that there was no respect in her tone and attitude. On second thought, it was not just a lack of respect but in fact sentiments as strong as disgust and contempt, especially toward Jooyeon, the Crown Princess who had fallen from grace. She felt no need to switch to a more deferential attitude as she knew that she only needed to answer to the Queen, so if the two princesses had a problem with her then they could take it to their mother the Queen whose authority trumped theirs anyway.

“What are you doing here?” Joohyun asked sharply.

“I am here on behalf of the Queen,” she explained wickedly. “Her Majesty is aware that the Crown Princess must be feeling uncomfortable under confinement. To alleviate this discomfort, I have been ordered to deliver this bowl of papaya soup to you.”

Although she was speaking to Jooyeon directly, the princess did not dare look the attendant in the eye. She did not say anything in reply, and in fact displayed no response at all, as if she did not hear a single word the attendant spoke. As such. Joohyun had to take matters into her own hands.

“Then put it on the table and leave,” Joohyun commanded. “The Crown Princess and I do not wish to be disturbed, so get out.”

“We will gladly obey your commands, Princess Joohyun,” she sneered. “But not right now. Please understand that we must carry out the Queen’s orders first. And that includes seeing to it that Princess Jooyeon drinks the whole bowl of soup.”

“I don’t want it,” Jooyeon stated timidly.

“If Your Highness is feeling weak, the Queen has instructed me, as well as these maids,” the attendant added menacingly, gesturing at the maids standing behind her, “to feed it to you.”

“No.” Jooyeon shifted in her seat, turning away from the maids. “Go away. Leave us.”

It was clear that these maids no longer saw her as a powerful figure ever since her indiscretions and scandal had brought so much shame and dishonor to her family and her country. Swiftly, they approached her, cornering her, and the maids easily outnumbered the royals.

Joohyun could not stand it anymore. Slamming her palm onto the table, she glowered at the senior attendant fiercely. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“Just doing my job as an obedient servant to the Queen,” the attendant answered nonchalantly. Rolling up her sleeves, she reached for the bowl of soup. She ignored Jooyeon’s screams and pleas while her subordinates did the same, holding the disgraced princess down by her wrists and ankles.

“Stop this! Immediately!” Joohyun bellowed. As if she were not feeling powerless enough already, the remaining maids grabbed her as well and had her subdued in a similar fashion. She could only look on helplessly as the senior attendant force-fed Jooyeon, making a mess as the pregnant princess’ continued attempts at resisting had caused the soup to spill everywhere. Her clothes were stained and so was the tiled floor. As a result of trying to scream yet also having to swallow at the same time, she kept choking and it was so painful. Above that she felt an even stronger urge to vomit, but her mother’s attendant placed a palm over her mouth and prevented her from retching. She was determined to complete her mission at all costs and only let go when it looked as if Jooyeon could no longer do anything to get the soup out of her system.

Princesses were supposed to look graceful and elegant at all times. Jooyeon, however, was the opposite as she coughed and hiccuped while quivering in pain.

“Let me go!” Joohyun continued to exclaim furiously and hysterically. “I said let me go! I’ll have you all beaten to death for this!”

“Your Highness, a lady should never raise her voice,” said the attendant mockingly. “Now that I have done as I was told, I will see myself out of the Crown Princess’ residence right away. The Queen has also ordered me to deliver a message to you, Princess Joohyun. I was going to pay a visit to your residence as well but since we are all here already, I shall convey the Queen’s message to you now: Her Majesty commands you to remain in your residence for the rest of today. You are expected to meet with your new household staff since new arrangements have taken effect.”

Joohyun huffed as her handmaidens helped her put on a more formal outfit. She was still seething from what her mother’s attendant and the other maids had done to Jooyeon, and now she was deported back to her own residence while Jooyeon continued to suffer alone.

Joohyun shivered again as the traumatic images of the struggle just now kept replaying in her head. She was just trying to keep her sister and the baby safe, but of all people it was their mother who made sure that the baby was aborted. Why? Just why? How could any mother in the world inflict this horror upon her own daughter? It was so cruel, so inhumane, so disturbing that Joohyun lost her temper and snapped at one of her handmaidens.

“Are you quite done with the ribbons yet?!”

The handmaiden was terrified, quickly apologizing. On the outside it might seem as if Joohyun was impatient to be introduced to and greeted by her new batch of servants. But deep down, she really did not care about the new arrangements at her household and had no interest in meeting the new staff. They were servants all the same, so why should she be concerned? As a royal, her maids and servants would get dismissed at irregular intervals and new ones would come along. It was irritating at times, but she was used to it by now. This policy was enforced for good reason: many palace servants and maids were spies and agents. Should they remain in the princess’ household for too lengthy a period, they would be able to continuously supply critical information about Her Highness to whoever they secretly worked for. This would put her in danger, and so countermeasures must be implemented for the sake of her safety. As such, if she had to be introduced to the newcomers every single time, she would certainly be very busy. And yet this was the Queen’s order and as the Princess, Joohyun was in no position to defy the command of someone whose power was second only to the King’s.

Of course, Joohyun did wonder why her mother the Queen specifically required her to be present for the introduction of the new staff this time in particular. Perhaps there was something special about these newcomers, or maybe it was just because of what happened to her sister. It was indeed one of Jooyeon’s maids who discovered her affair with her guard and then exposed it, so it was possible that existing protective measures were not enough. Either way, Joohyun tried to contain all her anger and frustrations for now, urging herself to look stoic and neutral. But even her expressionless face made her seem cold and frightening — she was not called the ‘ice princess’ for no reason.

As soon as she stepped outside, she was formally greeted by dozens of servants, lining up in a very organized configuration and bowing at her deferentially. They were all clad in uniform that matched their ranks, which was not surprising. But what made Joohyun stare for an extra moment was that all of these servants were female. Not just the maids but even the guards. Her heart sank, knowing that this arrangement must have been made in light of her sister’s big mistake of sleeping with her guard and getting pregnant as a result. No doubt her mother wanted to prevent her from following in her sister’s footsteps. Being surrounded by female guards would supposedly eliminate the possibility of a forbidden affair and pregnancy.

Joohyun acknowledged their salutations and allowed them to stand upright. She took steps down the stairs, her curiosity pulling her toward the female guards like a magnet. She was not even aware that the palace allowed women to join and train to be guards. But she had no complaints about that.

The commander of the royal guards in the palace was Master Kang, a middle-aged man who was still very fit and spirited. It was his job to train and coach all the guards here, no matter their gender.

“Your Highness,” said Master Kang who stepped forward once he noticed just how fascinated the princess looked. It was simply intriguing to see women taking up posts that had for the longest time been held by men. “Shall I make introductions?”

Joohyun nodded, and Master Kang began. “I have assigned my daughter, Seulgi, to be Your Highness’ personal guard. This means she will also be in charge of the staffing and deployment of all the guards in Your Highness’ household, to accompany and protect Your Highness by whatever means necessary. This applies to special occasions including but not limited to excursions outside the palace as well.”

On cue, Seulgi stepped forward too and bowed her head. Joohyun took a moment to eye Seulgi from head to toe, staring at the guard for an extended moment. It was not just because it was so refreshing to see a woman in this post, but also because Joohyun genuinely enjoyed looking at such a comely face. Her monolids, her cheeks, the shape of her lips, and the way her hair shone under the blazing sun.

Finally turning her gaze away from the unexpectedly attractive guard, Joohyun faced Master Kang once again, keeping her facial expressions unreadable.

“Are you sure you’re not appointing her as my personal guard out of nepotism?” She asked.

“Your Highness, please be assured that all these guards here have undergone rounds and rounds of intensive training under my supervision. Seulgi is indeed the one who has consistently ranked the highest across each round of evaluation. The details of the assessments and each guard’s scores have been overseen, monitored, and recorded not just by myself but also by two other military generals. There was no room for favoritism. I can promise you that she most definitely earned this place by her own effort and competence,” Master Kang explained patiently.

“I see,” Joohyun replied. “But your daughter is so pretty,” she added as if Seulgi was not standing right there. “Why would you want to send her here to be a guard when she could easily charm any wealthy nobleman and live a luxurious life among aristocrats?”

Awkward glances were exchanged between father and daughter. Seulgi blushed, while her father sought to find the right words to provide the princess with a satisfactory explanation.

“Or perhaps you can speak for yourself,” Joohyun went on, turning back to face Seulgi without waiting for Master Kang’s response. “Why would you want to be my guard?”

Seulgi cleared her throat and answered, “it is the best way I can serve the country, given my abilities.”

Joohyun smiled. Not a wide grin, but a smile nonetheless. And she did not expect that she would find herself smiling, at least not today, definitely not today since so much shit had happened already. But here she was, smiling at her new guard’s answer.

“Very well,” Joohyun replied. “I hope all of you here will be just as willing to serve.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” they chorused.

Sadly, any mirth that Joohyun had experienced from her brief encounter with Seulgi had subsided rather quickly. She spent the rest of the day in worry and anguish, desperately trying to come up with a way to rescue her sister and yet nothing would come to mind. Every time she thought she had devised a feasible plan, there would always be loopholes or dire consequences.

Was there really no way to save her sister? Joohyun sighed and massaged her temples. It was going to be midnight soon, and she was lying in bed already, but slumber was the last thing on her mind. How could she allow herself the luxury of sleeping when her sister was suffering all by herself?

Joohyun’s brain eventually gave in to the need for sleep, against her wishes. But she stayed in slumber for only an hour or so, before the commotion outside made her bolt upright and snap to attention.

“What’s going on?” She asked one of the handmaidens who rushed to her side to help her up. She pressed her fingers to her neck — her throat was so dry. Thankfully, another handmaiden passed a cup of warm water to her.

“It’s the Crown Princess,” the handmaiden answered reluctantly, on the verge of tears. “We caught word from some of the eunuchs outside.”

“What? What did they say?” Joohyun’s eyes widened in fright. “What happened to her? Is she alright?”

The handmaiden fell to her knees and shook her head apologetically. “We heard that Her Highness passed away.”

The cup that was in Joohyun’s hand fell to the floor, shattering into pieces just like her heart did. Her whole body froze, stiller than a corpse. She was speechless for a few moments, until all her thoughts and emotions assaulted her all at once.

“How is that possible?!” She demanded sharply. “No, that can’t be true. The eunuchs must have made it up. That can’t possibly be true, no, no…I must go to her. I must go see her now.”

By the time she got there, the guards merely bowed at her and no longer sought to block her way like they did previously. She barged right in, hoping against hope that she would see her sister alive and well. But that was not at all the case. The sight that struck her, and struck hard, was her sister’s dead body, in a pool of her own blood.

“Your Highness,” said the physician who got here not long before Joohyun did. “Please accept my deepest condolences.”

Joohyun’s lips were trembling, as was her voice, as she tried to speak, but even speaking had become an incredibly arduous task. “Why aren’t you doing anything?” She questioned, wanting to berate the physician but not quite able to garner enough strength to do that. “Shouldn’t you be saving her life? Isn’t that your job?”

“Forgive me, Your Highness. The Crown Princess had already stopped breathing by the time I was summoned here. There was nothing more I could have done for Her Highness,” the physician explained solemnly. “Perhaps if I was notified sooner…”

Joohyun took a few heavy breaths, her eyes darting everywhere. “Notified you sooner…” she said under her breath as she attempted to collect her thoughts. “Who notified you?”

“The guards,” the physician answered. “They reported hearing the Crown Princess’ screams. I believe they did not know at first that she was bleeding excessively, but what I was told was that her screams had been going on for so long that they could no longer stand it. By the time I got here…”

“And the baby?” Joohyun pressed on, chewing on her lips in a feeble attempt to seek solace.

“Her Highness must’ve accidentally ingested some foods that caused her to miscarry,” he replied. There was hesitation in his tone, not because he was unsure about the cause of her ‘miscarriage’ — it was obviously an abortion — but because he felt the need to be very careful with his choice of words. One slip and he could be accused of accusing the Queen of heinous crimes, and he might end up losing his head just like what happened to the father of Princess Jooyeon’s baby.

Joohyun almost fainted at that, and had to rely on her handmaidens to help her to a chair as her legs failed her. The more she chewed over the physician’s words, the angrier she became. If the forced abortion was what caused her sister to bleed and die, then her mother — and the attendant who executed it — would be to blame. It would not just be an accident, a misfortune, or a tragedy. It was murder. It was homicide. It was a death sentence. At that thought, Joohyun slammed her fist onto the table and rose to her feet abruptly. It was as if she could feel her blood boiling, every fiber in her body urging her to do something, anything, even though she had no idea what she could possibly do, or what was even in her power to do. Her hands were shaking, her arms and thighs too. It felt as if her body did not even belong to her, like everything was out of her control.

“Does my mother know?” She hissed bitterly. “Does she know that my sister is dead?”

“Messengers have been dispatched to notify the rest of the royal family, Your Highness,” the physician reported. “I wish I could have done more for the Crown Princess. Again, please accept my condolences.”

Joohyun stood up again, fuming as she marched out of her sister’s residence. Her handmaidens trailed right behind her, all the way till they arrived at the King’s chambers. When she saw from afar that the rooms were lit, Joohyun was about to go in right away. But then the King’s attending eunuch stepped outside to receive her, and piped up before she could.

“Your Majesty!” The eunuch kowtowed before Joohyun so dramatically that it made her wonder if this was all part of an awful, painful nightmare.

“What did you just call me?!” Joohyun frowned. This was improper — surely this eunuch, having been the King’s closest attendant for so many years, would know better?

“Your Majesty,” the eunuch repeated himself. He sounded so serious that there was no way he could possibly be jesting. “The King collapsed just now once His Majesty heard the news of the Crown Princess’ passing. I summoned a physician of course, but His Majesty…” he paused and gulped hard. “His Majesty was pronounced dead.”

Joohyun shook her head frantically. “There’s no way this is really happening! This can’t be real! Tell me this isn’t real!” She exclaimed. Medically it all made sense; her father the King had been suffering from cardiovascular diseases for a number of years already due to an unhealthy lifestyle and diet. But emotionally, Joohyun was overloaded. Not to mention she was running on way too little sleep.

“By law, you are next in line to the throne as the sovereign’s eldest surviving child,” the eunuch explained. “This is real, Your Majesty. All of it is real. You are our sovereign now. Long live the Queen!”

Hearing the eunuch’s words sent shivers down Joohyun’s spine. How could she possibly become the ruler of a nation? Never in her life had she ever thought that she would get this close to the throne, let alone sit on it.

Everything that happened afterward was a blur to Joohyun. It felt so unreal because she did not want it to be real, and yet it was all too real and she could not bear it. How she wished this was just a bad dream. Losing not one but two family members within a matter of hours was not something she could ever be prepared for.

By the time she returned to her own residence, she was more disoriented than ever. Her facial expressions remained blank even as her guard, Seulgi, came up to her.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Your High— ahem, Your Majesty,” said Seulgi solemnly.

There was nothing Joohyun could say in response. No doubt these words would be repeated to her again and again in the days to come. She did not want to hear it.

Noting the awkward silence and just how done Joohyun looked, Seulgi cleared her throat. “Well, I’ll be here all night...I mean, pretty much all the time anyway. It’s my job. So, if Your Majesty needs me for anything...or I can just have one of your handmaidens attend you…”

“No, it’s fine,” said Joohyun without emotion. She never had the opportunity to find a confidante in any of her handmaidens since they would come and go so frequently yet so irregularly. It would be foolish to expect that she could rely on her maids to bring her any comfort. “I’ll be fine on my own. Like I’ve always been.”

“But you don't always have to be on your own,” Seulgi blurted, and then quickly realized she should not have done that. “I apologize, Your Majesty. I shouldn't have contradicted you; I just wanted to—”

“Don't worry about it,” Joohyun replied, even though she did wish someone could be saying those exact words to her. “I know you're just trying to make me feel better.”

She then went into her bedchamber alone, void of all energy and will to live. She felt so tired, so exhausted, and yet ironically sleep would not come to her. The thing her body needed the most refused to come to her. Instead, her body reacted much more intensely and vehemently — she broke into tears. It was not just one or two drops of tears but, rather, full-on sobbing and bawling.

Seulgi remained stationed right outside Joohyun’s bedchamber and could hear the Princess — ah, no, the new Queen’s sobs quite clearly. Joohyun cried through the night, mourning not one but two family member’s deaths. Seulgi felt for her, wanting to soothe her, but she was not in the position to do so, which made her feel helpless. But then again, who in the world would feel more helpless than Joohyun herself? The supreme ruler of a country, wielding unquestioned authority, yet feeling so broken and so weak...the irony was poignant and laughable.

Seulgi was aware, as was pretty much everybody in the palace, that for the longest time Joohyun had the reputation of being a princess who was made of ice. She hardly ever cried, hardly ever smiled, basically hardly ever showed any emotion. But as Seulgi listened to Joohyun’s series of sobs and cries that went on for hours and hours, she saw for herself that Joohyun was not like that. She was not made of ice, nor was her heart made of stone. She was human, too, and everybody had misunderstood her. In fact, Seulgi wondered if Joohyun actually had anyone who truly understood her?