WHEN LOVE TAKES YOU IN . . .
Sungkyunkwan Scandal, what are you doing to me?
First, you slayed me with the sweet and stirring, then you nearly drowned me with the happy. Now you’re making me all teary with the loving? My heart’s so full watching this episode, I want to run down the street and hug every living thing in sight, including that pot-bellied guy who snarls at my dogs. I want to sing JYJ’s Found You at the top of my lungs, off-key and all, and yell, “I’ve found you, drama, you are mine!”
Now, will you stop making me cry?
A tangram. Kim Seung-hun’s wooden tangram. Kept for years by His Majesty. Now in my hands.
And thus I learn, for the first time, that my father was a professor. That he not only taught at Sungkyunkwan, he was the king’s friend for many years. You have his eyes and mouth, Kim Yoon-shik, says the king, and at his words my eyes fill with tears.
This father whose face I can barely remember… Do I really resemble him? My hands grip the tangram. I had been told all along that my father was a scholar who loved reading, but I did not know he enjoyed dissection puzzles as well. Why did Mother not tell me more? Why did she say he was killed by bandits?
My father’s passing. My mother’s pain. The memories come rushing back now. Standing in this place that I never imagined I would one day enter, holding in my hands a gift precious beyond measure, I look at this man who once shared an abiding friendship with my father. This man with the warm eyes and gentle smile. I mustn’t cry in front of His Majesty. I mustn’t cry in front of my Joseon F4 members, too.
When the four of us left Sungkyunkwan earlier in the day, could we have foreseen that the king would touch, no, would overwhelm us with his thoughtfulness? That he would give us each a gift that would speak to our hearts in a special way, reminding us of who we are and what we can be? Our heritage and our legacy. Our past and our future.
After we return to Sungkyunkwan, I slip away by myself to the memorial hall. The days that I’ve spent outside this hall, going to classes and back to my quarters. Places that I’ve grown attached to, and which I seek for quietude. To think that my father walked to these same places and sat under the same trees. And now his memory lingers, in this place that his family has no access to… until now.
I touch his memorial tablet. I speak to him who can no longer hear me: “I’m curious, Father. What kind of world was this world for which you risked your life? What kind of world lets a daughter find out the truth about her father only now?
Like my father, I will one day leave Sungkyunkwan. The day is far off, but I, who feigned illness to avoid coming here, know my departure is inevitable. The thought of it fills me with sadness, because I will be leaving the one who has been by my side, ever since the day we entered Sungkyunkwan. I will remember everything that we’ve shared and done together, but will he remember? Will he know how very proud I am of him? Even though I sometimes grumble that he’s too principled, it’s precisely because of his principles that I trust him more than I trust myself. And… because he matters more to me than he will ever realize. So I tell him, without giving too much of my feelings away, “You did great, Lee Sun-joon.”
His smile is so bright, it’s as if no one has ever praised him before. Should I tell him how his smile makes my heart skip a beat? No, his face is red enough as it is.
You may think me placid and reconciliatory, but I am still the ruler of this kingdom. How dare a mere student president tell me what to do!
Did you see the insolent way he stared at me? Insinuating that I wasn’t exercising my authority as a Joseon king should, and demanding that I punish Lee Sun-joon and Kim Yoon-shik for failing to nab the Sungkyunkwan thief.
Even after the thief turned himself in, the student president continued to direct his piercing gaze at me, as though he and I were equals. The audacity! All the more urgently I must find the Geum Deung Ji Sa, so that I can show the Noron once and for all that I owe them no favors and that my word is law. To this Noron offspring who dares question my ability to rule, a tongue-lashing is overdue.
“Ha In-soo and everyone else who believed in Kim Yoon-shik’s guilt without bothering to ascertain if he could be innocent, you get a fail grade for the examination. I do not need people like you, who do not cherish and protect my people. This, Student President, is the authority that I seek to establish as your king.”
Let him complain to his father, the war minister. Let him fume and rage, and threaten his underlings with bodily harm. If he is small-minded enough, he may even remove the monetary support that he has been doling out to his butt-kissers, never mind if the withdrawal of such support will cause immense hardship.
Yes, I have eyes and ears everywhere, even in Sungkyunkwan which the student president treats as his little kingdom. How else would I know, even though my confidant declines to tell me at first, that Ha In-soo framed Kim Yoon-shik? How else would I know the best gifts to present to the Joseon F4? And speaking of the F4, how very unwise of the student president to knock Lee Sun-joon’s head in the library. The wrath of 800,001 incensed fans is now upon him and there’s nothing I can do. A self-imposed exile to the farthest hills might be a very good idea.
Ah, this foursome. Thanks to them, and in particular to Lee Sun-joon’s courage, my long-cherished wish to overturn the Geum Nam Jeon Kwon is now within reach. In fact, I will revoke this oppressive law right away so that everyone will henceforth be able to trade freely in the mercantile district.
But how surprising that the left state councilor is not throwing a hissy fit like the rest of the courtiers. Then again, it may not be so surprising after all, if his acquiescence is merely a guise to throw me off my guard. I must hurry and entrust the finding of the Geum Deung Ji Sa to the F4. Even though my closest confidant objects, citing Kim Seung-hun and Moon Young-shin’s deaths as his reason for wanting to protect his students, I am determined to find my grandfather’s testament. Otherwise, how much longer must I watch my people suffer the nobility’s relentless exploitation and lawlessness? How much longer must I wait to gain control over the Noron and establish a new Joseon?
I arrive just as the king is about to pronounce Kim Yoon-shik’s guilt. Before the astonished assembly, I own up to the deed. I was the one who stole the things from Sungkyunkwan.
Why am I confessing my crime and risking the king’s wrath and punishment? Because the Joseon F4 treated me like a human and not like the half-person that I am, one from the lowliest caste. Because of them, I have a new goal now: to live decently for the little boy who follows me, watching my every step.
Stealing from the kingdom’s highest institution of learning. Reselling medicine paid for by the people’s toil. For such a crime I expect to be whipped or thrown into jail and left to rot. But the king asks Kim Yoon-shik how I should be punished.
Make him a Sungkyunkwan guard, Your Majesty, says this man who looks even prettier than me. Make him work here so that he can watch out for thieves.
But the king thinks my punishment is too light and decides to increase my responsibilities. Be my eyes, he says. Watch these lads and ensure they continue to live an upright life.
I start my duties right away, of course. Everything concealed must be uncovered. So I tell three of the F4, after the king has left, that it was Jae-shin who begged me to come and confess. He denies it vehemently and even jabs Yong-ha in the ribs. The latter then tells the ribs-jabber that he loves him.
Your Majesty, I see I am going to have my hands full being your eyes.
Seriously, what’s with all the teasing lately?
First, when Noron appeared with the accounting book and declared to the king that the real thieves were inside. What did that Yeorim do? Turned to me and said, “Lee Sun-joon is an idiot, just like you!”
Then that Bok-su boy announced to Yeorim and Yoon-shik that I was the one who begged him to come. Hello! Since when did people stop keeping secrets?
And this Yeorim, this lascivious Yong-ha. When is he going to quit pawing at me every opportunity he gets? Even when I’m sitting with Noron and Yoon-shik under the tree, all of us just minding our own business, Touchy-feely must come along and play peek-a-boo with me. When I shoo him away, what does he do? Why, grab the other two and squash them together. And here I am, trying my darnedest to prevent my two roommates from having any kind of physical contact!
Because you wouldn’t believe what Noron said the other night. “I need to know why you keep switching our sleeping places. It’s unfair and unreasonable. If you like this side of the wall, then I’m going over to sleep next to Yoon-shik.”
Over my dead body! And unfair and unreasonable? Don’t make my toes guffaw. What’s with your place and my place? Wherever I decide to sleep, that’s my place! Also, Yoon-shik’s a girl, not that I’m ever divulging that secret, and there’s no way in hell I’m letting you sleep next to her. And you, Dae Mul. Stop touching your lips. You’re making me hiccup.
My two roommates duly separated, one on each side of the room, I lie awake and ponder where I’ve just come from.
No guards after me this time. So my trusty arrows were able to send my missives everywhere, including Cho-sun’s gibang where the left state councilor and the war minister were huddled. Everyone is now scrutinizing my message, trying to guess my identity. I would much rather they not pay attention to my handwriting and simply focus on the enormity of my words.
Who says Joseon is poor? The only poor ones are the powerless citizenry. All of you, did you fill your tummies with food tossed by the corrupt police bureau guards who allow the merchants’ corruption to thrive? The Geum Nam Jeon Kwon policy is causing the poor to starve while the rich continue to gorge themselves. You Noron, your dirty deeds will soon be exposed by the Geum Deung Ji Sa. Why don’t you serve the real owners of Joseon – its people?
But my roommates do not know I’m the Red Messenger, because I douse myself with alcohol before stepping into the room. That will make them think I was away at some tavern, drinking myself silly. Still, Dae Mul startles me a few days later, after we’ve returned from the palace, when she asks if I’m the mysterious masked messenger that everyone is talking about.
As I’m desperately thinking of a smart retort, and not the lame “What!” that automatically escapes my lips, Dae Mul bursts into laughter. See, I made your hiccups stop!
Look, that embarrassing hiccupping is all her fault. After I’ve tied her shoelaces (and don’t ask why I’m so gentle with her, how would I know!), she proceeds to make me blush with her words. “Do you know that the Crazy Horse nickname doesn’t suit you? You are someone that I’ve always been grateful for, since the beginning. Thank you, Senior.”
Ah, gratitude. Powerful stuff. See what the king’s gratitude led him to do.
To thank the four of us for giving him the strength to revoke the Geum Nam Jeon Kwon, the king invited us to the palace. He then gave each of us a gift. Mine was my brother’s first-place poem at the national examination. His Majesty explained: “I kept this all along because it was a fine piece of writing by the Sungkyunkwan student president, Moon Young-shin. But now the poem has found its rightful owner.”
Must I admit it? Fine, I will. The king’s gesture touched me to the depths of my being. I don’t think any of us will forget that day for a very long time.
But now I have a more immediate concern. What is Dae Mul doing with a mirror, if not to check her appearance? And where is she going, in such a hurry?
He swept me off my feet and then dropped me with a thud, crushing my hopes.
But this is Joseon, where the final word belongs to the lord of the house, not to the young master. But alas, this is Joseon, where a smitten girl must rely on the musty offerings of a bookstore to teach her how to make her Mr. Perfect fall hopelessly in love with her. This is Joseon, where a lowly maidservant knows better than her young lady how to grab a man and force him onto the ground, in a chokehold that will ensure the man stays henpecked the rest of his life.
Just as I’m contemplating if a certain Hwang Jini and her lovers might be a more appropriate instruction manual for me, rather than my Beo-dul and the bookstore keeper, someone snatches the book from my hands.
Who knew this day would turn out to be so scintillating? Seeing my maidservant violate a man. Stealing my very first glance at an X-rated book, replete with raunchy illustrations. Learning that the best way to snare Lee Sun-joon is to lure him to an unfamiliar place where he will be inebriated by the heat of the moment and forget all his defenses.
“Create a heady tension which your guy will assume is love.”
Who is this man acting all familiar with me, whispering into my ears, touching my face? And how dare he offer me a plan and then package it with the Killjoy Statement of the Month? Lee Sun-joon will never in his right mind go off to some island with me alone?
I haven’t felt so jolly in a long while. Any headier than this and I will soon find a line outside my door, everyone asking for a copy of The Yeorim Guide to an Amusing Life.
First, success! Our foursome passes the king’s examination, to Ha In-soo’s dismay. Even I, the most jaded and worldly-wise in that roomful of students, am floored when Bok-su shows up at the last minute and admits to the thefts. Was he won over by my affection for his kid brother?
Second, an invitation to the palace for a private audience with the king. I’m secretly excited, of course, but drat, no getting away from donning an official uniform this time. No escaping the other F4 members’ ribbing, all of them with their elephantine memory, either. “I thought someone said the uniform stifles creativity and individualism?”
Think Gu Yong-ha will allow a stuffy uniform to tarnish his reputation? Think again! There’s no rule that says I must wear official underclothes, is there? So I flash the three the tangerine organza I’m wearing beneath the uniform. Lesson of the Day: Any rebel worth his salt never truly conforms.
In all the commotion surrounding the accounting book, I had momentarily forgotten my lost Forbidden City replica. Imagine my surprise when I open the silk pouch from the king and find my toy inside. Wow, Your Majesty, how did you know?
Third, I may have found myself a new object of desire.
Her eyes so huge you can see a whole room in them, and her innocence so beguiling I may never make a beeline to the gibang again, I can’t help staring at Ha In-soo’s sister in wonder. Did the Ha production line screw up? How else to explain two siblings so dissimilar?
Well, if something’s meant to be, it’ll eventually happen. I may be Yeorim Gu Yong-ha, with a reputation that precedes me, but even I know that you do not snitch your fellow F4 member’s wife-to-be, his reluctance in said coupling altogether secondary for now. I will engineer a group date to the island. I will park myself inside Lee Sun-joon’s room until he agrees to the date.
Wait. Forget Plan A. How about just a date for two? Because there’s something kindling my curiosity so much I can’t rest until my suspicions are confirmed. Sorry, Hyo-eun. And sorry, Crazy Horse. Don’t beat me up when you find out what I’ve done.
I thought surely my father would be angry with me, for handing over to the king the accounting book. After all, if Ha In-soo is right, that book would implicate the left state councilor and expose me for being a heartless son who stabs his father in the back.
But no, my father is his usual self with me. When I thank him for supporting the new market reforms, I can see that my words touch a chord in him. He is pleased that I continue to look up to him, because that’s how a father-son relationship ought to be. “When people’s lives improve, we as the nobility should rejoice. That’s merely what your father did.” He adds: “It’s time we hurry with your wedding preparations. No, don’t say you are not ready. A woman who will not hinder your path in life. That’s all you need for a wife.”
My father doesn’t know it, but I can’t be thinking of marriage now, least of all to someone I have no feelings for. The only person who fills my thoughts is Kim Yoon-shik, and I’m about to go crazy wrestling with my desire for him. In fact, I may already be mad. Did you see what he did to me in the library? After making me so happy with his “I’m proud of you, Lee Sun-joon, you did great today,” he then proceeded to hurt me with his words about leaving Sungkyunkwan in the distant future and the two of us going our separate ways.
Not seeing Kim Yoon-shik ever again after we are done with our studies? The mere thought of it is unbearable. So I tell him:
I don’t want us to part. Whatever the future brings, stay by my side like you are now. Watch me with your eyes and see if I’m walking the right path to the end. That way, I’ll be able to remember today while looking at you. Remain always by my side.
If those aren’t the words of a lunatic, I don’t know what is. For the love of everything upright in this world, Kim Yoon-shik is your roommate, Lee Sun-joon! Your male roommate!
Oh, but I wasn’t done blabbering that day. I even said to him, “Don’t ever wear female clothing again. I can stand everything else except you doing that.”
Why did I shoot my mouth off that way? Only because it’s gotten to the point I can’t even look at his lips without my loins rebelling. And now the latest is that I’m hallucinating. Seeing Kim Yoon-shik in the room even when he’s not there! Getting all moody whenever I see him and Crazy Horse clowning around, their giggles darkening my countenance even further.
I must guard myself before I descend deeper into the pits. Isn’t that the reason why the king gave me the compass, so that I would always guard my moral center, even if it meant being wary of my father’s motives and my own as well?
That’s why I agree to go to the island with Yoon-shik and the rest. That will show the pesky Gu Yong-ha that I’m not a man who disdains women and prefers men. I ask Yoon-shik if he’s free and he nods, his expression surprisingly eager. We agree to meet at the new time that Yong-ha gave me; supposedly the others will make their own way there.
Unlike the dark clouds overhead, Yoon-shik’s face is as bright as a child watching a puppet show in the marketplace. My first boat ride, he says, beaming. I, on the other hand, am failing rather miserably at appearing collected and nonchalant. My heart is pounding and my throat suddenly feels dry.
We land on the island and find a tent a short walk away. Food has been laid out and signs duly displayed: This food is for my betrothed, Lee Sun-joon. Any animal caught pilfering the spoils will be instantly executed.
“Is something wrong, Kim Yoon-shik? Why are you angry that we are going to meet some women here? I thought you would like it since… you’re a man.”
In response he runs off, after the departing boat. I grab him, but he pushes me away. And now I’m in the water. Someone help me, I can’t swim!