Those past few days had been strange, confusing, quiet. They felt like the unreal quiet after a sudden storm, when you’re left standing soaked to the bone, hardly believing how a few minutes of rain and wind can leave so much damage in their path.
Still, life in the palace feels the same, with eunuchs and court ladies taking care of their duties, with officers and clerks busying themselves with their jobs, in and out of the buildings of the palace.
But there’re rumors, whispers spreading fast and wild since that banquet.
Words that speak of changes, of righting the wrongs of twenty years before, of an abdication, of a prince who refused the throne, words shaming the ones that once stood so powerful to seem untouchable, words who reach even her, the Crown Princess whose existence even servants sometimes forget.
U-hui always felt like a rock tossed in a river by an uncaring hand: everything moves around her, everyone lives around her, and she’s just there (not even by choice) for someone else to step on. Unable to leave, unable to do anything, only able to wait for the stream to drag her away or to slowly consume her.
Yet, for once, she feels a forbidden pleasure hearing those reports, hearing how her father is succumbing in the same way he destroyed so many people before (not last, her dear sister-in-law). For once, her room doesn’t feel like a cage with paper windows. There’ll be a time to be ashamed of her unfilial thoughts. But not now, not when everything is coming to an end.
It’s both scaring and delirious how everything, from the vase to the brown and honey wooden cabinets, from the lanterns to the lacquered boxes, already feels so foreigner.
“Your Highness,” her court lady’s voice is an unexpected but nice distraction from her thoughts, “the Crown Prince is here to see you.”
U-hui is somewhat intrigued by that. Once upon a time, she would’ve felt a rush of hopefulness and anticipation tingling her heart, she might have thought maybe today things would change. That time is long gone, crushed to dust by the weight of the years. Now she’s just surprised that he found the time to see her, with everything that’s going on in those few days.
He never found the time before.
“Tell him to enter.”
U-hui raises from her cushion, straightens her gown and stands aside, back straight and folded hands hidden. Father, are you proud of your perfect little Crown Princess? Was it worth it?
She bows when he steps inside her room. She can’t remember the last time he did that, not counting that night he came to tell her once again that he was sorry.
“Your Royal Highness, what brings you in my chamber?”
He stops before her, but she keeps staring at his feet. She breaths in and out, one, two, three times in the silence of her chamber. Then, he sighs and moves on.
Her gown folds around her legs when she settles down in front of him, seated on the same spot she vacated just a few moments before.
It’s like that day, all other again.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come before.”
U-hui struggles to stifle a scream. She’s so fed up with those words. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, half the times he spoke to her in those fifteen years is just those two words. She’s so tired to hear them: they never changed anything.
She always wondered how a man with such a kind voice could be so merciless.
“I wasn’t even expecting you to come, Your Royal Highness,” she can’t stop herself from remarking bitterly. “I just supposed that I would’ve seen you on the day you ordered me to leave.”
He flinches. And she feels stupid and petty. She hates how the palace made her callous.
“Forgive me, that was uncalled for.”
“No,” he lowers his gaze to her spotless and empty desk, “you’ve all the right to resent me. In all these years, I neglected you, I”, he sighs again, “I wasn’t a good husband.”
For all the hostility she felt just a moment before, she now feels nothing. Maybe, that was the problem they never managed to fix, that indifference from which they never tried to rescue their battered relationship from.
U-hui looks at the paper windows of her rooms and smiles sadly.
“My congratulations. I heard that you’ll inherit the throne.”
“Did you?” He sounds tired.
She looks towards him again. It’s unsettling to see the cracks in his Crown Prince’s mask. Can he see hers too?
“You shouldn’t be surprised. Such news travels fast among the servants, even among the ignored ones.”
She almost fears he’ll offer her another apology, but he’s mercifully silent.
“What you came to tell me?”
Her husband seems relieved that she changed the argument. “Tomorrow they’ll start the official investigation on your father. I thought it’s was right that you knew it from me.”
She feels a surge of contrasting emotions at that, fear (not for her father), delight (so unfilial), acceptance. But not surprise.
“I’m grateful for your consideration.”
In absence of a reply, U-hui looks around. She wonders if she’ll miss this place, its familiar shadows during the night, its stifling and soothing stillness, how she can walk around it even with closed eyes, the stain they never managed to get rid from the wall, now hidden behind one of the cabinets. She had been furious and distraught when his father had let her know (with a brief impersonal message she burned) that her sister-in-law was dead and already buried.
She just wants to leave it all behind her. After all, that is the only thing they’ll allow her to do.
“When I’ll have to leave?”
Her calm resignation is met with awkward silence.
“Your Royal Highness, I’m not so naïve. I’m perfectly aware of what awaits me as my father’s daughter.”
And that was the other problem which crushed and choked their relationship, wasn’t it? Her father’s overbearing shadow. Once he married her, he was never able to see her as anything else. He never gave her the chance to be anything else.
He doesn’t acknowledge her claim, and she presses her lips together. Why he can’t just confirm it? Which feelings does he think he’s sparing her?
“Or are you here to tell me that you’ll keep me by your side?” She doesn’t even know who she’s mocking with that possibility. It’s him? It’s her? It’s the fleeting foolishness of her younger self? “That you and the Queen Dowager would endorse my position even with scholars and ministers clamouring for my removal?”
The look in his eyes is the only answer she needs.
She looks away curling her lips. “I thought so.”
“I’m sorry.” His voice is sad and soft in the silent room. It feels like a goodbye. “You may not believe me, and you’d have all the reason not to, but I never hated you in these fifteen years. It’s just that,” he sighs, “your father would’ve exploited and marred everything. I couldn’t let him have that power in my private life too. And now…”
They never tried hard enough, that was the truth. It was just less painful to let themselves be caught in their roles, to let whatever they had to wither out.
“Now it’s too late,” she surmises half-smiling, turning towards him again.
It’s too late to piece together their relationship, with those fifteen years of silence, of estrangement, of misunderstanding, with her father’s execution for treason looming ahead of them. It would have been an uphill battle, even if they had loved each other, and their old tentative friendship isn’t enough.
Not after everything.
“I’m sorry, princess.”
In a sense, she’s sorry too.
The thing that hurts her most is seeing the sincerity in her husband’s eyes. For the first time in her life, she’s seeing it strikingly clear. There’s nothing in his eyes like the shrouded gaze of her father, always plotting something, always searching for a way to use people’s weakness. A pang of regret, for what their relationship isn’t, for what it wasn’t, for what it’ll never be, fills her heart. How foolish, pitiful, it is to mourn something that never existed in the first place, if not as the pale memory of the innocent and playful affection of a child for his best friend’s sister?
It would have been easier hating him, if he was as cold, as cruel and as manipulative as her father is.
A father who might bring down with him, in the last moment of his life, the only person she can still hold dear.
So, U-hui swallows back her pride (or whatever still exists of it) and holds back the tears prickling at her eyelids. And she takes her chance.
“Can you grant me just one last thing, as my husband?”
She doesn’t even try to hide how vulnerable she feels in that moment, how important his answer would be for her. And he just nods gently, eyes honest and sad. She almost laughs from how freeing it is to not be afraid that her emotions would be used against her.
“I would be ready to give away my position as leverage, but we’re both perfectly aware that is not something for me to freely give or keep.”
She holds her head high.
“Please, Your Royal Highness, spare my brother. Once my father is convicted of treason, his sentence would be my brother’s one. He would be exiled or executed, and he would accept it without protest.”
U-hui blinks, tears blurring her vision. “But I can’t bear to lose him too.”
Just thinking about it, it’s agonizing. What else, who else she has outside of that palace if not her brother? She clenches her fingers in the fabric of her gown, but she doesn’t lower her gaze, even when tears wet her cheeks.
“So, I plead you, as your wife, as your best friend’s sister, as your once childhood friend, Your Royal Highness, save my brother.”
Her voice breaks on the last words. Her father would scoff at her emotions, he would see them as a weakness. He would refuse her plea just to teach her a lesson. A part of her still fears that her husband would see her as pathetic too.
But no one else can help her. Nor the King nor the Queen would soon have power, and the Queen Mother won’t really care about the son of a traitor, the son of her most hated enemy (even if her brother is an historian, even if he knelt for the truth too). He’ll just be an unfortunate collateral victim.
She has only her husband to trust. Trusting that he’ll care enough to fight for her brother’s life, even use her title as a bargaining chip to change his sentence (she won’t be the Crown Princess either way, let her removal at least mean something). That he’ll care enough to make sacrifices: the Queen Mother surely won’t bend the rules for anything in return.
“You don’t have to ask.” He declares barely a moment after she spoke. He’s firm and unwavering as the day of the banquet. “I can’t promise you anything, but I swear I’ll do everything in my power to spare both of you from your father’s punishment.”
She bows her head, hope and relief warming her inside.
“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I won’t ask anything else.”
His voice lowers again, somber and subdued. “I’m sorry, princess. You deserved better.”
U-hui laughs, a soft mirthless laugh, salty as her tears. “Maybe in another life.”
That morning her father has been convicted of treason.
In just a few days, he’ll be executed by poison.
U-hui, for all her trying, can’t really bring herself to care. Maybe she should be ashamed of her unfilial reaction (she had many unfilial thoughts in those weeks). But, after all, she already mourned him in those fifteen years and she barely remembers the man that, according to her brother, their father was. And she knew from that banquet what his fate would be. Now, her mourning would only be a formality.
“Your Royal Highness.”
U-hui meets her court lady’s eyes, sorrowful and watery. And she realizes the moment has come.
“Let him in.”
The court lady bows and goes to the door. U-hui closes her eyes and breathes slowly. It’s ironic how fearful she is of something she pried for in her darkest nights. Of something that was ineluctable as the rising of the sun.
Be free of her shackles, of that golden cage. But what is waiting for her after the leap?
U-hui opens her eyes, stands up and waits.
Her court lady opens the door, and her husband comes in, followed only by his Head Eunuch, by the newly promoted Chancellor Jo with a scroll held on a tray and by one of the female historians. Apprentice Goo, if she recalls correctly what her brother told about her. The day of the banquet, she envied her courage and resolve. She understood why he was proud of her.
Her hands tremble when she bows. “Your Majesty.”
Her court lady, in a corner, muffles a sniff. U-hui stands straight, chin raised. In his eyes there’s sadness, sympathy and the flicker of the friendship and affection that, once upon a time, he had for the little sister of his best friend. Not enough to let her stay. Not enough for her to want to stay. She mourned the relationship that never was in those weeks too.
“I persuaded them to do it privately. It was the least I could do.”
“I’m grateful, Your Majesty.”
And it’s so fitting: the quiet exit of the forgotten Crown Princess.
Apprentice Goo opens her sachaek, ready to write. There’s kindness in her eyes too.
Chancellor Jo bows towards her husband and takes a step. He bows to her and unrolls the scroll.
“Your Royal Highness, if you please, kneels to receive the royal orders.”
U-hui goes down on her knees, a little half-smile on her lips. The soft sound of Apprentice Goo’s brushstrokes is almost soothing. She feels like a leaf floating in the wind.
“Today, Crown Princess Min shall hereby be demoted, and her crown and title taken from her. She is ordered to leave the Palace immediately and shall hereby obey.”
Just a few words and nothing is, nothing will be, the same again. Her court lady brings out her seal and the scroll of her instalment and hands the tray to the Head Eunuch.
Apprentice Goo keeps recording.
There’s something like regret in her husband eyes while her court lady, barely holding backs her tears and tearfully whispering forgive me, Your Royal Highness, removes her hairpins, her cheopji and her binyeo. U-hui, instead, can’t bring herself to cry not even when her braid is draped on her shoulders.
She hasn’t felt so light in years.
When she exits her room, donning a simple and pale jeogori chima and an unadorned silver binyeo, leaving behind the tearful goodbye of a handful of court ladies and maids, His Majesty is waiting for her. This time, his Head Eunuch is a few steps away. Her court lady, who has decided to leave the palace with her, bows and steps back.
U-hui approaches him and bows. “Your Majesty.”
He nods in acknowledgement. “There’s a palanquin waiting for you. They’ll escort you to your brother.”
After their talk, she had waited and lived in fear because, for all his trying, it might not have been enough. And with each passing day, their father’s treason weighted more and more on their future.
Yet, one evening, he had come again to talk to her, solemn, and tired. But he had smiled triumphantly the moment they were both seated.
Min U-won would be spread from their father’s fate. He wouldn’t be killed or exiled. He’ll just have to live, as customs dictate, quietly and isolated for the three-year mourning period (even if his future in the Office of Royal Decrees was still uncertain, he had added apologetically).
She would be demoted and sent to spend the mourning with her brother. After that, she would be granted permission to live in their family house.
Relief had washed over her as rain after a drought. She cried tears of joy. But she didn’t ask him what he offered in return: it wasn’t her right anymore.
So, U-hui closes her eyes at that memory and bows again, even more deeply than before.
“I’ll be forever grateful, Your Majesty.”
It’s bittersweet, melancholy, yet liberating, how their story ends there. After all, she cannot dwell on what-ifs and she won’t ever regret leaving.
“Prin-” he falters and looks guilty.
She smiles softly. “It’s alright, Your Majesty.”
“I’m sorry. I hope you’ll find happiness.”
U-hui knows he means it.
Maybe, after the mourning, they would be able to revive their old friendship. She thinks she may like that, even if just through her brother. She has no illusions that they’ll ever let her come back to the palace, even for just a brief greeting.
“I wish you the best.” She means that too. “You’ll be a great King.”
They both offer each other a half-smile. A light breeze sweeps the courtyard and rustles her gown. It’s a bright day, with a clear sky and puffy clouds lazily crossing it. It’s the perfect day to finally cut loose her past.
“I should go.” U-hui slowly bows. “Farewell, Your Majesty.”
And she turns and walks away. Not once she looks back, not even when they cross the gate of the eastern palace. Not even when she lowers herself in the palanquin. There’s nothing for her in the palace to say goodbye to.
For all the journey, U-hui lets the rumors of Hanyang fill the dull emptiness she feels, now that everything is behind her. She finds herself wondering how the city may have changed since her childhood (in her few night outings, she didn’t have time to explore it). It’s a pity she would’ve to wait for three more years, but it’s a small price to pay for having her brother still at her side.
Bit by bit, the cries of vendors, scuffling of feet and chattering of people is replaced by the chirping of birds and rustling of leaves in the wind.
They leave her at the entrance of a small little house, surrounded by a low wall. The porters and officers nod towards her and leave.
The road is narrow and dirt, surrounded by tall grass and bushes. All around her, there’re wooded hills without a sign of other people leaving in their proximity. Green woods around her and a blue sky above her.
She laughs and doesn’t even know if it’s for the sheer isolation of that place (and there’s no one who’ll care for her improper behaviour) or the realization that she’s really outside the palace. Maybe she just forgot that all the trees and the smell of grass are the same as the ones of the royal garden.
And everything is so quiet.
Once she turns towards the house again, her brother is standing in the little courtyard. Her court lady bows to him and goes inside.
U-hui walks slowly through the entrance and bows. “Oraeboni.”
And her breath catches in her throat, a heavy empty burden constricting her heart.
Never in years, her brother has called her immediately that. It’s his voice, his soft melancholic smile that makes everything real.
Her brother is suddenly near her and his arms envelop her. Only then U-hui realizes she is crying, fat silent tears wetting her cheeks and her brother’s clothes. After that, she can’t stop them anymore. She clutches at him, muffling her sobs against his shoulder, gulping air like she forgot how to breathe.
Or maybe she just starting to breathe again after fifteen years.
She is not even sure of what she is feeling. Anger? To whom? Not His Majesty whom she truly doesn’t resent. Her father? But he’ll die in a few days. And it’s not like that would turn back the years.
Regret? But it’s not even that. She won’t miss her life in the palace, the whispers behind her back, the lonely nights and even lonelier days. She won’t miss the indifference and the solitude and the helplessness.
So why, why she’s feeling like that? Like everything is crashing around her and the ground is not stable under her feet anymore.
Where the happiness of a minute before vanished?
Is grief for the life she won’t ever have? For the family she won’t ever have?
Why her father had to condemn her to that?
“What was the point, oraeboni?” Her scream is muffled against his shoulder.
What was the point of her life? The little child who entered the palace was no more. And now, now she doesn’t know who she is anymore. She knew who Crown Princess Min was, no matter how sad and monotonous her life was. But who Min U-hui is?
“It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright,” her brother soothes her softly, like he often did when they were just children and she was afraid of thunders.
“Let’s go inside, U-hui.”
She nods tearfully, but glad to let him steer her. Like when they were children, nothing is so scaring anymore in her brother’s embrace.