His kid sister is crying again. And this time, she has decided that she won’t be the only wailing toddler in the house and so she pulls hard on Beo-deul’s braid, making the young servant’s eyes well up with tears as she plays chorus girl to her mistress’s high-pitched crescendo.
In-soo watches on with some interest; he finds it fascinating that his sister can be such an ill-behaved brat. He knows that his father’s to blame; his father’s iron hand softens to goo when it comes to Hyo-eun, and he lets her get away with her every whim. Of course, sometimes In-soo, too, feels like yanking the braid of his servant, but he learned early on that his father has little patience for him. Besides, his crafty mind already knows that trouble is only worth it if one doesn’t get caught.
Beo-deul’s mother has somehow managed to separate the two girls, and she’s busily cooing at Hyo-eun, trying to sweet-talk the girl by calling her cute and pretty. Objectively speaking, Hyo-eun is a very pretty girl with quite an adorable smile. But that petulant, red-faced thing stopped being cute to In-soo a long time ago; a day after she was born, to be precise, when she woke him in the middle of the night with her shrill screams. He’d never cared much for girls, and she just added to the other reasons why: girls are weak, stupid and useless.
There’s also exhibit B, his mother. She never raises her voice above a whisper, so scared is she of expressing herself. Even on the hottest days, she trembles like a leaf struggling to cling to a tree branch stripped by autumn. And her eyes, they never settle anywhere; they’re always searching back and forth in quick movements like she sees imaginary flies flitting in no set course. It’s no wonder that she lets his father get away with all his sexual exploits.
In-soo scrunches his nose in disgust, his mind no longer on Hyo-eun and her silly antics. He remembers how just the previous night, he ran into his father while on a bathroom run in the middle of the night. The clearly drunk man was propped up on either side by servants, and he was being led to the master bedroom. In-soo had stood quietly to the side as his father passed, and even now, hours later, he can smell that sickeningly sweet perfume of the gisaengs.
It still makes him want to puke.
He hears someone speaking in loud, harsh tones, and he realizes that his father is finally up. In-soo quickly slips on his shoes, eager to be far, far away when his father throws open the doors and displaces the discomfort of his hangover on some poor, unsuspecting soul that happens to be in the vicinity. But what’s this – he hears something that makes him pause in step.
He won… what in a bet?
Someone is knocking on the gates, and for a moment In-soo is disoriented, torn between wanting to hear more of his father’s words yet the visitor just won’t stop banging. Then his father says, “That must be her,” and In-soo’s eyes swing around to focus on the gate being opened.
A flash of dark blue comes hurtling into the yard, and comes to a stop in the middle of the yard. This girl, scrawny and winded, frail and delicate, looks barely older than ten; she can’t possibly be the girl that his father won. He knew his father was lecherous, but…
“You’re not the girl,” his father’s gruff voice drifts over his head. “Who are you?”
The little thing, hardly older than Hyo-eun, lifts her chin and her eyes flash defiantly. Her name is Cho-sun, and she’s here instead of her older sister.
His father flickers his fingers and dismisses her. Too young this one, he mutters, no fun at all. What he won fair and square from Lord Park was a fourteen-year-old virgin, not a child. He orders a manservant to hurry to Lord Park’s and bring the right girl.
“But my sister -!” the girl’s musical voice has a ring of desperation to it, but she doesn’t finish her sentence. As the last echoes of her voice disappear from the air, her face smoothes over into a mask of confidence. “But sir, I am much better than my sister, in every way.”
But you’re just a child, In-soo thinks, and his father speaks his thoughts aloud.
“And soon I will become a woman.”
A sly smile crosses his father’s face and he laughs at this girl’s bold declaration. She has fire, he comments, most uncommon in girls, and that could possibly come into use at some undefined moment in the future. He orders her to stay if she so dearly wishes, and until he decides what to do with her, she’s to help the servants in the kitchen. Oh, and since she’s pint-sized and not worth half his original prize, she can’t replace her sister entirely; there’s still a debt to be repaid, which he’ll claim if she even steps a toe out of line.
“Keep in mind, your father still owes me.”
Silence settles heavily on the yard, the thickest of fogs that is the realization that she hasn’t completely freed her sister from the fate of being this ghastly man’s plaything. She has surrendered her life for a triumph that is only half won. Her fists clench and she bites her bottom lip to keep the trembles from starting at her lips and spreading throughout her fragile body.
The next time In-soo sees her, gone is the water-blue dress; she’s changed into something more befitting her new place among the servants, something coarse and brown. But her eyes still hold their defiance, and one cannot deny, no matter who her mother is, the noble lines of her facial features.
She’s been given the duty of drawing water from the well, and she digs her heels in to keep from hurtling down the yawning black hole. Sweat beads line her forehead, but her expression betrays no emotions.
In-soo isn’t sure how he ends up near the well, but he’s standing there, close enough so that he could touch her sleeve in a few steps. He feels he should do something, but he’s at a loss; he’s never actually wanted to talk to a servant before. Then again, no servant has ever resembled a rose in his eyes before.
Why are you here?
Why did you give up your life for your sister’s?
Why don’t you acknowledge me?
She pours a bucketful of water into the jar and picks it up by the handles. Careful not to spill a single drop, she begins to inch her way across the yard toward the kitchen. He watches her go, silently and in frustration.
With an angry scowl, he turns his back on her.
He was right after all. Girls truly are foolish, foolish creatures.