How To Kill A King:
The city smelled of gas lamps and petrichor. A rainstorm had come down hard and fast and now Min-jun walked through the streets with soaked shoes, the umbrella doing little to keep him dry. Most others had hidden beneath the safety of the rooftops, but he had no time to waste on such trivialities.
There, crammed in between two larger buildings, was a small hanok. Amidst the grander buildings of the city, it appeared small, insignificant, the home of the penniless. To him, it was the home of Su-jin, and the only place he could fathom calling his home.
He knocked on the wooden door twice, waiting for someone to answer. He needed to speak with her, with Su-jin, and he didn't come all the way from Wolgwang city to be turned away at the door.
"Min-jun." Su-jin's caretaker, Lady Ryung, had opened the door, surprised to see him so far from Wolgwang, and even more surprised to see him back here of all places, close to the brothel he'd sworn never to return to.
"I've come to see her."
"Of course," she said, gesturing inside. "Please, come in. Dry yourself. I have some of your old clothes in the closet in your bedroom." Looking at the state of his clothes and shoes, she bit her lip. "Really, Min-jun. It's been raining for days. Couldn't you have waited for the storm to clear?"
"I had to come ... thank you for watching over her in my absence." He took off his shoes, now covered in mud, and neatly placed them near the entrance.
"You say that every time," Lady Ryung said. "And I tell you, every time, that it's my pleasure. You'll do well to stop treating that girl like a burden to everyone but you. Now, go change out of those wet clothes. I'll bring tea to Miss Su-jin's room."
His bedroom was the same it was three years ago when he'd left it, feeling relieved and agonized all at once. Su-jin was forced to stay behind so Mother could keep an eye on her. In the years they'd been under her care, it had become increasingly obvious that Mother had taken his best friend hostage. What could he do, though? Watch her waste away?
He dressed in a blue and gold hanbok, one of his favorite old ensembles, because he had bought it himself. The fabric fell soft around him, the ramie cloth so intricately woven that it was seamless. Just a little dusty.
Su-jin's room was right across from his, and when he pushed the door aside, he needed no introduction.
"You didn't have to come all the way here in the rain, Min-jun," Su-jin said, from her place on the mattress, a needle in her hands. A table had been placed beside her, and on top of it sat a kettle of tea and two teacups. Min-jun went to her bedside, taking her hand. It was cold. As usual. "I'm alright."
"That's exactly what I told him," Lady Ryung said, dropping a towel on his head. "You'll catch your death out here, going halfway across the country without a care."
"I brought an umbrella," he managed, picking up the teacup in front of him. The scent of jasmine tea wafted up in little curls of steam, a fragrant, floral mist.
The caretaker picked up a basket full of laundry to take to the wash. "Well, I have work to do. You two get to talking. Min-jun, you're staying the night whether you like it or not."
"Yes, Lady Ryung."
He heard the door shut behind him. Su-jin squeezed his hand, putting her needlework aside. "I'm glad you're here. It's been a while since your last letter."
"I'm sorry. I've had a lot on my mind recently. How have you been?"
"I haven't passed out all week, so I suppose that's an improvement," she said, chipper as usual. She released his hand and focused back on her embroidery, as she pulled the needle through the cloth. Tiny cuts healed on her fingers from pricking herself, but he knew there was no point in suggesting she stop engaging in her hobbies. They were all she had left confined in this room.
"Has the doctor said anything?"
"He said I was stable, and that I should keep taking my medicine as I have been." Stable, but not improving. He wondered if her condition would ever improve. He'd do anything to get her out of Mother's reach.
"I see. That's good," he said.
Her head turned to face the window, watching rain droplets drip down from the roof. "I'm glad it's been raining."
"Everyone stays inside. It's less lonely." She looked at him with a sheepish smile. "Is that selfish?"
He smiled, watching Su-jin carefully create a whole world from string. "I think we can all afford to be a little selfish sometimes." Especially when it's you.
The sun had come out now, streaming in through the windows like ribbons. It reminded him that he had to leave soon, in spite of what Lady Ryung had asked of him. He wasn't supposed to be here in the first place, not with the Consort's exam steadily approaching. Mother would be furious to catch him taking a week-long journey to visit his best friend at such a crucial point in their plans. He should speed things along then.
"My application to take the exam has been approved," he told her, keeping his eyes on the green hue of the jasmine tea. "It'll be held in two weeks. I don't know if I'll be able to see or write to you after that."
"I see. So you're actually doing it," she said, her voice quiet with disbelief. "Do you think the King is a cruel man?"
"Undoubtedly. I can handle him though." Mother taught him how to. The brothel taught him how to. "Question is can he handle me?" He'd meant it as a joke but it didn't have the desired effect, as Su-jin's lower lip trembled.
"You shouldn't have to do it," she said, a bit too loudly, dropping her embroidery hoop. "Why can't she find someone else to do it? You're not a murderer."
"I want to do it. For my parents."
"It's not fair."
He took her hand again. "I have to set things right, Su-jin. You know this."
Her fingers fiddled with the needle. "Did you really mean what you said earlier? About being selfish?" Su-jin asked, cautious now. He nodded. "Then." She stood, stumbling a bit, and then crossing the room to a little drawer. After a bit of rummaging around, she pulled out a piece of circular cloth. "Here."
On a backdrop of a dark blue sky, a red-crowned crane had been frozen in mid-flight, its body made of thread. He took hold of it. "It's beautiful."
"I made it a few months ago," Su-jin took her spot on the mattress. She returned to her embroidery and continued to speak. "It's a gift. So now, whenever you look down at it, you should do something selfish. Really selfish. Something that makes you happy."
"Drinking makes me happy."
"You should be more creative, then." He loved it when she got snarky. It felt like all his hard work paid off. Her hands wrung around the cotton fabric of her blue skirt. "And say, if that selfish thing is not going through with this. Then . . . then, you must not go through with it." It was a promise, and no one ever broke a promise to Su-jin.
She brightened, a smile growing on her lips. "Alright."
. . .
Su-jin's hopes were quickly dashed, though she herself was unaware of their destruction. Mother stood outside their home, wearing her signature white and red, floral-patterned hanbok, her black hair tucked into an intricate bun.
"Beautiful day, isn't it?" she said, her eyes watching the clouds dissipate. "The storm has finally moved on."
"Why are you here?" he asked.
Mother laughed. "Is that how you treat your mother?"
You're not my mother. He held his tongue, forcing himself to look forward. There wasn't much to look at. A few liquor stores, a stall selling spiced foods, and a little bookstore, all crowded together.
"What a lovely token you have," she said, gently ceasing it from his hand. No more promise. He supposed he should be relieved. Nothing held him back once more. "Is it from Su-jin? She's becoming more talented by the day. As are her powers of persuasion. Strange thing. What did she ask of you?"
He would've smiled had he not been so tense, stretched thin, his jaw clenched. "She wanted me to be more selfish."
"Silly girl," she chided. "I would've thought her more grateful."
It was difficult to speak with Mother. It was even more difficult to talk back to her.
She leaned against the wall. "Don't be so stiff, dear. I'm only here to check up on you. You tend to be forgetful around her."
"I know." Still, he doubted he could ever forget that moment, even if he spent every day by Su-jin's side. Him, finally agreeing to take Mother's offered hand. Her, whisking him off to the capital city to settle his doubts on his parents' impending execution.
It was an egregiously beautiful day, vibrant and holiday-like as the sun offset the winter chill. Paper lanterns had been hung up in the square, leftover from the new year's festival earlier that week. He hugged his coat closer to him, his breath turning to mist in the cool, crisp air. Mother walked beside him, her long purple cloak floating like waves around her, the confidence of a leader in her every step.
They were in the center of the city, the palace looming above them, just meters away. A wooden platform had been placed in front of it. An armed guard stood, pacing between the people, solemnly. Seven people had been lined up on it, chained to the platform, and made to kneel. Two of them could be his parents.
He had to get closer.
The crowd wouldn't part for him, so he squeezed his way through instead. Oh please. Oh god, deity, whoever might be watching. Please, please, please.
He couldn't breathe. His lungs wouldn't function. Stars appeared before his eyes, little floating spots of light as he squeezed between arms and chests until he finally broke through to the front, sun hot on his face. His eyes found a sallow couple, their hands close together. They appeared malnourished, beaten down and bloody, and unkempt. Their clothes were ripped and dirty.
No. They don't look anything like them. His mother had been beautiful, just like him. It was like looking in the mirror. She was fierce and kind and she always won her battles. His father had been dignified, knowledgeable, every bit the scholar. They wouldn't hang their heads like that, especially not to some boy King, never mind his henchmen.
The woman raised her head. Her eyes widened. Warm, brown, expressive eyes, like his, like looking in a mirror. She mouthed his name. He could see her lips curl around it, though no sound came out. His father's gaze followed, even more concerned than his mother's. He had always been keen on worrying.
Who did this to you? It was a foolish question, one bred from the shock wracking his body. He knew who did this to them.
He did nothing while the metal glint of a sword passed through his mother, and then his father, and then five more strangers with families and friends he would never meet. Had death always been so chilling? Had it always forced its victims on their knees?
For a long while, he expected his parents to get up. To find that it was all some trick on their part, some scheme they'd concocted in their endless plots against the King. It didn't come. His mother continued to lay on her side, bleeding out into the wood. His father, beside her, had already turned deathly pale, the sword having cut deeper into his flesh than it had with his mother. He could only hope it had been enough to kill them both, that they wouldn't have to suffer this humiliation, this pain for any longer.
"Min-jun, no." The woman that had brought him there held him steady. Yes, back when she was just a woman, a friend of his parents before she took his mother's title.
He let her take him away from the crowd. "Their bodies."
"They are not yours. They belong to the palace now. To the Phoenix Throne. It's the way of things."
"I need to put them to rest," he whispered, looking back to the wooden platform, watching them drag his parents offstage like they were actors who had just given a poor performance.
The woman squeezed his arm. "You will. You have me, after all."
He threw up in the streets a little while after, his mind imprinted with the image of corpses too familiar to forget. His parents' ghosts never left him since. He had no desire to let them go, not until he put the King's head on a spike.
. End of Episode .