Chapter One- A Prince and a guard
150 years later…
The Nobleman, Sang Yoo Jin, Prime Minister of Eondeog Mun, looked out of the palanquin window at the blackened hill before him. He wasn’t sure if it was the right one, because his findings- at least his servants’ findings- revealed there were four such “black hills” in Eondoeg Mun. This particular one was the closest to the Capital, but he could not make any sense of it. ‘What did it all mean?’ He asked himself. Why was he having nightmares about a curse, a dead king and a white hill turning black? He was a simple man. He merely sought to seize power from the current King, and he was not the first, nor would he be the last to try. So why were things so difficult?
He looked up the hill, which loomed darkly over its surroundings. Nothing seemed to live on it, the trees seemed black to their very roots, and he could not see any sign of life, present or past. Then again, he considered, he was seeing just a small location. The hill was very big, looming over the surrounding hills. For some reason, he did not dare approach the hill and preferred to view it from a close, but respectable distance. In his dreams, he had watched this hill- or one of the others- or all of them! He simply did not know. He had watched it change from a snowy white hill to the haunting blackness that it was now. It made no sense to him, but he intended to dig deeper and uncover the secret behind the four black hills. He would have to bribe the Palace Head Librarian……
“Daegam”. His thoughts were interrupted by his chief aide, Joo Chung Jae. He looked at the young man as he bowed. His hair was pulled together at the nape of his neck, where it fell down his back. He had a handsome face, marred slightly by furrowed eyebrows that spoke of maturing too soon. He wore a black and red yungbok and on his forehead was a matching headband bearing the Prime Minister’s crest.
The Prime Minister often envied Chung Jae his youth, since he wasn’t exactly young anymore. “What is it?” He demanded a little coldly. Chung Jae, unfazed by what he considered normal behaviour, bowed, handing him a sealed scroll.
“We have received word from Lord Cha Byeong Su. His servant just handed this to me.” Sang Yoo Jin accepted the scroll, broke the seal and read it. He smiled widely. It was time to put aside nightmares and curses and black hills. The scroll contained what he wanted to hear. He gestured to Chung Jae.
“Let’s go back to the Capital at once.” He ordered, and soon they were well on their way. Inside the closed palanquin, he smiled to himself again. It was time to kill the Queen and the young Crown Prince.
Eleven years later…
Choi Eun Chae sat before the Grand Prince of Eondeog Mun. He was an extremely handsome man, with an enviable height and physique, long dark hair and an annoying smirk, which seemed to make him more attractive. Adding to that, he was well dressed in a quality hanbok of deep blue, lined in red with white flower patterns. A golden sash- which bore the Royal family emblem- was around his waist. She had just handed him a wedding proposal.
Jang Tae Jun opened the flowery scroll, read it dismissively and set it aside, looking down on the open book before him to continue reading. He knew Eun Chae was probably nervous, and he also knew she did not want this marriage. He, however, was not going to make it easier for her.
Eun Chae twiddled her thumbs nervously, then proceeded to clench and un-clench her fists, subconsciously wrinkling a part of her beautiful robes in the process (somethings never change, the prince noted silently). She had known this would not be easy; he was probably still angry at her from all those years ago. She studied him again, wondering if she should take this seriously and try to marry him and become the Bubuin (Princess Consort). But she shook herself. Her heart was firmly with another man, and she had been forced to come here. She remembered her mother’s shrill voice all too clearly….
“You mean to marry a lowly blacksmith?!” She had paused for an indignant breath. “You are the daughter of a noble man, and I will not see such a match happen in my own family!”
Not to mention her father’s cold, calm, commanding voice.
“Forget him! Take this proposal to the Grand Prince. He may be exiled from the Palace, but he still outranks me.” This time, it was a warning pause, daring her to protest. She knew better and kept quiet, defeated. He had continued.
“You are being such a good girl because we captured the young man right? We’ll kill him if you don’t do as we have asked, and you know we’ll get away with it, seeing as he was found with your possessions, even if they were for you to elope.” He shook his head. “My own daughter eloping with a blacksmith. Do as we say or I’ll send you away and kill him as a thief.”
Well, that had been that. She had dressed in her finest hanbok and here she was, with the Grand Prince, knowing he would reject her proposal, but hoping he would not accept it out of spite. Finally, he looked up at her.
“Do you really want to marry me?” He asked simply. His hand still rested on his open book as if he might get bored at any time.
“Well, Daegun, my family will make a suitable match for….”
“Perhaps it is deliberate, but I asked about you, not your family.” He looked back at his book, awaiting her reply.” She had the sudden, unladylike urge to stone him. He suppressed a grin; she was still too easy to read.
“Daegun, it will be an immense honour to marry you.” She said, bowing politely. He scoffed.
“Really?” He looked up at her still bowed head. “Raise your head Eun Chae-ah, and stop calling me ‘Daegun’, I find it irritating. She looked at him, surprised he had used her first name, addressing her informally. Also, after what had happened in their childhood, was he still permitting her to call him by his name?
It had been taboo to address members of the Royal family with their names, but as children, he had always insisted that she did so.
“Then, Tae Jun…..” She allowed the name hang in mid air, and he laughed at her obvious uncertainty. She glared at him.
“Well, that’s a start.” He closed the book, marking the page. “I have a habit of knowing everything, remember? I know your parents forced you to leave eleven years ago, so stop looking so guilty.”
“Tae Jun-ah!” In spite of herself, her heart went out to him, and she wondered how he had been all these years, practically alone. He had been a close friend for a few years, but when they were eleven, her parents had dragged her away, because he had been exiled from the Palace. They had gone as far as taking her away from the Capital, Gwang Guk. She noted the irony that the same parents had sent her with a marriage proposal. His voice snapped her out of her thoughts.
“I also know you’re here because your parents supposedly have a young man called ‘Oh In Jeong’ in their custody.”
Shock. Then.. “How…?”
“Although, since I and a few shady men took the liberty of rescuing him yesterday, that is no longer a problem.”
More Shock. “But, how…?”
“He also holds, two, fastly-expiring tickets for a ship out of Eondeog Mun, in fact, by tomorrow evening, they’ll be useless.”
Eun Chae could only stare at him in surprise. “Tae Jun. How…?”
“Did I know? I somehow always know.” He stood up. “Truthfully, I heard you were back in the Capital and went over to see things for myself. I overheard a few conversations, and I’ll like to tell you more, but there is an eager, thankful young man waiting for you at the docks of Shin Sok. You should go now before you miss the time. You can send a letter to ask questions after you both have settled.” He paused. “But I have to ask. Are you certain of your choice? You will be leaving behind everything you have ever known.”
Eun Chae felt like she had just jumped off a very fast horse. But then again, as she remembered, it had always been that way with the Prince. She answered easily. “I’m very certain, more certain than I have ever been.” She jumped to her feet and went to give him an ungraceful hug. “Kamsahabnida.” She said, releasing him and bowing.
“Ani. Kamsahabnida.” He replied. “Of all our friends back then, you were the only one who never really wanted to leave.” He looked solemn for a brief moment, but she thought she had imagined it, when his smirk returned. “Don’t you have somewhere to go? Someone to see? A foreign language to learn…” Eun Chae laughed openly, hugged him again and ran out without looking back.
She jumped on her horse in an unladylike manner, thanking the heavens that she had learned how to ride when they were younger, and that her escorts did not have horses. She looked back once, wishing the Grand Prince all the happiness he could ever want, then she took off at full gallop, racing to where her heart already was.
Back in the house, Tae Jun shook his head. He could not understand just what it was about love that made people do foolish things. He was happy he had played a part in her apparent happiness though, and wished her well. He put the concept of love from his mind- It was an unsafe entity- and continued to read his book.
Nam Guk, Southern Province….
Kim Do Young was quite a cutting figure. Perhaps not too tall, and he was very slight for a man, but his face made up for all these shortcomings. Young ladies tried to speak to him, or get him alone at any given opportunity. There was also an active, but secret competition in Nam Guk, for his hand in marriage.
There was only one problem with this bit of small town lively competition…
Kim Do Young was in fact a girl. A girl called Kim Da Yeong.
Being the daughter of the retired Head of Military, Kim Dae Hyeon, Da Yeong had spent all her life trying to be strong like her father. Her father, who still trained guards for the King’s Palace, had been indulgent with her so far, even allowing her, from an early age, to join the training as a boy, and even to go on missions like the other men…. as long as she was with Lee Ju Won, her adopted older brother.
Her father had his own reasons for allowing her such freedom, but he had never let on, and she had never asked.
There was one area, however, where she and her father remained at odds. Marriage.
Every now and then, her father, who was every bit as stubborn as her, would bring a young man from a respectable family home for a marriage meeting. She had found a way around this, however, and actively discussed combat skills and techniques with them; something that was unforgivable for ladies in social circles.
As predicted, the men left, feeling threatened by a lady who could best them with a sword. As an acceptable excuse for leaving though, they spread rumours of her being ugly, even though they had never seen her full face. She did not mind this at all, and was perfectly content to live as Kim Do Young, one of her father’s trusted aides.
The current situation was, however, not pleasant. She and her brother, Lee Ju Won, had been summoned four days ago by her father, and they had found him in the company of a young man, obviously from a noble family, given his appearance.
The two had been discussing, tea and snacks before them. Da Yeong could not help but notice her father was slightly annoyed. He was hiding it very well. This meant that the man was a persistent customer, demanding her father’s best guards.
“Ah! You have come. This is Choi Chun Hwa, the son of the Information Minister.” He gestured to the young man. The young man studied them with interest as they politely bowed to him. Her father continued. “These are my trusted aides, Kim Do Young and Lee Ju Won. They are the strongest of my men.”
“These young men?” He studied both of them skeptically. “I seem to be older than both of them.” He said, still sizing them up. The younger one briefly held his interest for some reason, but he pushed the thought away.
Da Yeong recognized him. He had been awarded Best Scholar, four years ago, when she and Ju Won had accompanied her father to the Capital. Her father replied him.
“You may be older than them, but power does not come with age.” He sipped his tea. “Ju Won has practically mastered the sword since he could hold one, and Do Young has been right behind him. They have defeated men a lot older than them.” He gently set his cup back on the table.
“I have honoured your request to meet my strongest guards, but as I said earlier, they cannot escort you. Even the King does not choose the guards I send to him.” He gestured at both of them, while Choi Chun Hwa drank from his tea and helped himself to a small cake. “You two may leave.” Da Yeong and Ju Won had left, but as was the usual case, they snuck back and listened at the door.
Her father, Kim Dae Hyeon, had been friends with the King for a long time, so he had the King’s trust. The King allowed him the choice of which guards to send to the Palace, even though he was aware that there were five strong men Kim Dae Hyeon never gave out.
Da Yeong thought her father must feel insulted that someone so far below the King had dared request for his strongest men. After all, that must be why he had introduced only the two of them, when they were the weakest of the five.
However, they were surprised, when they peeped through the door and Kim Dae Hyeon seemed impressed at the daring young man. Regardless of Kim Dae Hyeon’s refusal, he kept insisting, saying he was transporting something very important for the Grand Prince.
Her father seemed to consider the man’s words, and as they listened, Da Yeong got angrier and angrier as her father made a deal with the young man. He had agreed to loan them out for a trip to the Capital, Gwang Guk, and the trip back, and whatever trip he needed in the future.
In return, the young man was to give his word and sign that he would marry his daughter. The deal was struck, Choi Chun Hwa had left happily, and despite several long and insistent protests from Da Yeong, her father had refused to back down.
Now, four days later, they had reached Gwang Guk, the Capital. In the last three days, they had fought off four four attacks. All that opportunity to let him die, and her honour had not allowed her. She had just gone right on protecting him…
Her brother, Ju Won, who she addressed as ‘Hyeong-nim’, only laughed at her. He wasn’t too worried…. She always found her way out of these things.
Ju Won dismounted and walked over to the overtly gilded palanquin (No wonder they had been a target for thieves). He rapped on the window of the palanquin.
“Choi Doryeonnim, we have arrived at the Grand Prince’s residence.” He gave a signal to the six palanquin bearers and they set it down gently, falling back to join the other customary guards, their heads bowed respectfully.