In the days pursuant to the archery contest that disappointed a lot of men but pleased Joohyun and Seulgi greatly, Joohyun carried on with minding her own business, happily staying single. On the other hand, Jooyoung continued to spend time with Nongyu, and she continued to be under the impression that he was Jongin.
“My lord, if you don’t mind me asking,” Nongyu began, so soft and demure that it made Jooyoung want to shelter her from everything bad in this world. “Has Prince Jooyoung been asking about me? I haven’t had the chance to see him since...um...since we informally met in secret, prior to the ceremony.”
“Yes! Yes of course he has. He talks about you all the time. In fact he wouldn’t shut up about you.”
“But...he’s too busy for me, right?” She asked, somewhat sadly, and it drove Jooyoung insane.
“Well! He’s a very busy man, but he...I promise he will find time to come and see you! Just that he...well, you know he’s supposed to become the Crown Prince. So he has a lot of duties, and definitely a lot to learn from the Queen,” he explained apologetically, scratching the nape of his neck as he told one lie after another. Perhaps not exactly a lie per se, but he had had to lie to her from the start thanks to the lie that Jongin told in the first place.
She merely nodded. “I get it. He’s not just my future husband. He’s also going to be the future King of this country. Of course he must commit his time and efforts to preparing and equipping himself to become a competent leader.”
“Ah, I’m sure His Highness will be very pleased to hear that you are so understanding and patient,” he replied, breathing out in relief.
“Well, Your Lordship has also been very patient with me...answering all my questions about the Prince and letting me know about what he likes and what he doesn’t like...of course I don’t mean to impose on your time. I just want to be able to make His Highness happy in everything that I do. I hope he will understand my heart.”
“He will! He does!” He blurted, worried that he might upset her even the tiniest bit if he were not quick enough to offer the reassurance she sought. Luckily for him, she began to smile a little.
“If you’re sure of it, then I will not worry about it. After all, you are very close with His Highness and you know him very well,” she said. “Anyway,” she added, glancing up at the sky that was turning grey. “It looks as if it’s going to rain soon, so let’s go back inside. We can meet again on a finer day. I’m already looking forward to it.”
He nodded in agreement, even though he wished he did not have to part with her. He knew that at the end of the day it was him that she was going to marry, not Jongin or anyone else, but he was so captivated by her that no amount of time he could spend with her would ever be enough.
As Prince Jooyoung made his way back to his residence, he found that Lord Jongin was already there, walking around as if he owned the place. Jooyoung scowled as Jongin carried on playing with marbles and pebbles, surrounded by a few servants.
“Ya.” Jooyoung raised his voice at his cousin. “When I become King I will seriously think about how to penalize you for getting me into trouble.”
“Why, since when did you need my help with getting into trouble?” Jongin laughed loudly, clearly carefree as ever.
“Do you know how frustrated I’ve been these days?! I don’t know how to tell Princess Nongyu the truth about our swapped identities.”
“Eh, I don’t care. It isn’t my problem,” Jongin drawled.
“Isn’t your problem?! Of course it is your problem! In fact, you’re the one who caused it!” Jooyoung grumbled, stomping his feet. “Not to mention our wedding date is drawing near!”
“Don’t overthink it,” said Jongin absentmindedly. “You worry too much at times.”
“How can I not be worried?!”
“Oops, looks like it’s going to rain for real!” Jongin changed the topic suddenly as it began to drizzle. “I should go! See you later!”
As he scuttled out of his cousin’s residence, the Prince cursed under his breath and returned to his chamber, still troubled by all the lies he had told and the repercussions they would bring.
While it rained, Nongyu remained indoors, having lunch on her own as she chewed over her interactions with whom she presumed to be Lord Jongin but actually Prince Jooyoung in disguise.
Once she finished her meal, her guard Yixing entered the room and bowed.
“I see Your Highness has had a lovely morning,” he began.
“Yes, indeed, I have,” she replied, but somehow there was a rueful look upon her face.
“But there still seems to be something troubling you,” he pointed out. “It’s because of Lord Jongin, isn’t it?”
She cleared her throat. “He’s been nothing but kind to me and patient with me. I appreciate it so much. It’s hard for me to not be at least a little bit charmed by him. But I know what you’re here to say, so you don’t have to say it. I already know.”
He nodded. “I just hope that you still keep in mind what we came here to do, Princess.”
She smiled, still somewhat ruefully. “That’s not contradictory to my encounters with Lord Jongin.”
“No, but why shouldn’t we use that to our advantage?” He smirked. “You’ve mentioned that His Lordship seems quite...smitten with you.”
“And what do you propose I do about his...feelings?”
“I will not beat around the bush with you, Princess. What I mean to say is that if you can make His Lordship fall for you, then you can use him as a shield or weapon should you ever need it,” he stated.
“Why would I?” She asked gently. “I have you to protect me.”
“Of course I would do anything to protect Your Highness,” he replied, but then sighed. “Just that it wouldn’t hurt to have an additional chess piece in this game. And we both know it’s a very dangerous game to play.”
“I understand.” She took a sip from her cup before continuing, “any news from home?”
“All is as it should be,” he answered, appearing to be cryptic but it was enough for her to get what he was implying.
“I just hope my brother stays safe,” she said. “You used to be in his service — until he sent you here to be my guard, to keep me safe. But what can I do, to protect him?”
“Once you accomplish what you’ve come here to do, you will have all sorts of resources and means to offer protection to His Highness. So it would be best to just stay focused on that,” he suggested. “I’m sure His Highness would not want you to overworry.”
“I’m afraid it’s impossible for me to not worry. What he and Mother have been plotting…” she sighed. “Either way, it’s too late for me to change their minds. So now,” she added solemnly. “I must do what’s best for them.”
While everybody fled from the rain, Joohyun decided to go outside. She did not allow any of her handmaidens to accompany her. Just having Captain Kang nearby would suffice.
Rather than standing directly under the pouring rain, she simply outstretched her arm so that raindrops would fall on her open palm. She looked on sorrowfully as a puddle eventually formed on her palm and then it slipped away gradually. The more she tried to grasp at it and keep it within touch, the more it hastened its downfall. It made its escape between her fingers to meet its inevitable fate, falling to the ground to be joined with all the other raindrops that fell from the sky and hit hard. As if the raindrops that touched her hand never did at all. As if they never lived and died as part of her life.
Joohyun’s tears formed and fell the same way. Her grief was so contagious it was as if the skies saw her crying and also cried with her. The utter sadness in her eyes was heartbreaking to watch, especially to Seulgi who was the only one standing a few steps away. Seulgi was surprised by the sheer amount and intensity of raw emotions on the Queen’s face once the façade of indifference was washed away. Seulgi once again felt that Joohyun was just so, so, so misunderstood. Who she really was inside was much more mesmerizing than the image of her that everyone blindly subscribed to or assumed. After all, it was all that they could access. There was some sort of poignant intimacy in the way Seulgi was the only one who got to witness the Queen in this state. More accurately, everyone saw her as the Queen but Seulgi saw her as Joohyun and that was what made all the difference.
Fascinated, Seulgi approached the Queen subtly. “Your Majesty seems captivated by the rain.”
“Just having a moment of nostalgia,” Joohyun replied softly. “Do you like rain, Captain?”
“No,” Seulgi answered, shaking her head. A bittersweet expression spread across her face even though Joohyun was still too absorbed by the pouring rain to look at Seulgi properly. “I hate it.”
“Because of the memories it brings?”
“Partly,” she said. “But on top of that, rain just gets in the way so much. Makes everything messy. And it’s very easy to catch a cold so I humbly suggest heading back inside,” she added, sounding firmer than before as if she was insistent on giving this advice not just to Joohyun but also to her younger self who had suffered a lot as well.
“I remember the last time someone said that to me,” Joohyun began. Seulgi’s heart sank when she saw that Joohyun did not seem to have any intention of leaving this spot. But since Joohyun seemed willing to open up, Seulgi was happy to listen attentively. “It was so long ago. At least a decade ago. It was when my sister and I frolicked together in the rain.”
Seulgi understood that Joohyun was still suffering, still mourning the loss of a sibling. It must have been so tough. “Your Majesty must’ve been so close with the late Crown Princess.”
“Oh, we were inseparable. We played together all the time. And when we did that in the rain, we ended up catching a cold together. So all the servants that attended us while we played received a harsh beating, as penalty issued by our mother, the Queen. According to her, it was their indiscretion, not ours, for letting us get soaked and eventually fall ill,” she explained. “But now, I am the monarch, and no one can lay a hand on my attendants. Even if I were to step outside and stand in the pouring rain for hours upon hours, no one can stop me.”
She looked as if she was really about to go all out and get soaked, which prompted Seulgi to hastily say, “I would beseech you not to.”
Joohyun eventually held back and stayed sheltered, but she could not hold back her tears. They continued to fall from her eyes the way raindrops fell from the sky.
“Your Majesty…” Seulgi mumbled hesitantly. “Are you alright?”
“No,” Joohyun answered flatly. “And I don’t think I ever will be.”
“I miss her,” she stated. “But I can’t bring her back, not even with the power I now hold as a sovereign,” she added sharply. “Power is an illusion. I still feel so helpless and there are still so many things I can’t do. I may have authority because I’m the one who wears the crown, but I can see that the nobles don’t have much respect for me. Especially the most powerful ones.”
“Like Lord Seo, you mean?” Seulgi asked.
“Him, and someone else. His nemesis, actually. These two in particular wield far too much influence — the rest of my advisors and ministers would rather fold to their wishes than to obey mine. And I won’t tolerate that,” she declared. “I’ve got to do something about it.”
“Who is it, Majesty?”
“My uncle, Lord Kwon Donggeun. He was married to my late aunt — the younger sister of my late father. During my father’s reign, Lord Kwon had a lot of say in the policymaking process. He may be a competent politician — I’ll give him that — but a lot of the power and influence he has right now is because of his marriage to a princess. He’s made a lot of allies over the years, and he did not seem to lose prominence even after my aunt passed away.”
“But no doubt he has a lot of enemies as well,” replied Seulgi.
“Naturally.” Joohyun nodded. “The thing about him is that if I can control him, then it would probably mean I can control half the officials in the government. But he is also seeking to control me, or whoever is on the throne. Well, I will not be his puppet. Of course he claims that everything he does is for the nation’s sake, and that he’s on my side always. But the truth? He’s not on anybody’s side but his own. So if he will not be my loyal subject, then he must perish. He’s too big a threat to the crown, and it’s been this way even back then during my father’s reign.”
“Then Your Majesty must do whatever it takes,” Seulgi stated, beginning to sound just as determined. “If your mind’s made up, then so is mine. Even if no one else supports you, I will. I’m on your side.”
The rain had stopped and Joohyun was no longer crying. She finally turned to look Seulgi in the eye.
“I was right,” said Joohyun. “When I said that you’re special. But once again, you don’t realize it yourself.”
“Majesty, I’m just a servant…”
“You are not ‘just a servant’ to me,” she insisted. “You’ve never been.”
“I beg Your Majesty’s pardon. What do you mean?”
“You’re a constant. Certainty. And that means a lot to me,” she explained, even though it only seemed to make Seulgi more perplexed.
How can I be associated with ‘certainty’, thought Seulgi to herself, when that’s what I’ve had to live without for the most part of my life?
All she could say in reply was, “I’m afraid I’m not intelligent enough to understand Your Majesty’s feelings on this matter…”
“You don’t have to,” replied Joohyun. “At least not right now. Right now, all you need to know is that I will not disappoint you. I will remove those who are bold enough to get in my way.”
Seulgi nodded. At least that much she understood.