This weekend, I just randomly decided to pick up from where I last left off earlier this year in the drama The Moon That Embraces the Sun. Before I knew it, I finished watching the series. Indeed, I had a very productive weekend.
As soon as Hwon saw Yeom the next day, he asked, “So what did she say?” Hwon became frustrated at clueless Yeom who did not understand what Hwon was referring to.
“The black yeot (taffy candy) from yesterday. Did you enjoy it?”
“Ah! Yes, it was very delicious.”
Hwon waited for Yeom to continue, but he merely opened his book. Hwon was confused as to whether Yeom meant he enjoyed it, or whether he meant Yeonwoo liked it too.
“Yeon… I mean, did your sister enjoy it too?”
“Yes. She liked it very much.”
Hwon was happy to learn that Yeonwoo liked the yeot, but he was not satisfied. What Hwon really wanted to know was not that Yeonwoo enjoyed the yeot, but her impression of him from having received the gift. He was dying to know what Yeom told Yeonwoo about him, and what she thought of him. And he started to regret his behavior in front of Yeom at their first meeting.
“Ahem! You didn’t speak ill of me now, did you?
“Your Highness, what do you mean…?”
“I mean, you didn’t say much about me to Miss Yeonwoo?”
“No, Your Highness. I did not say a single word about Your Highness to her, so you need not worry.”
At Hwon’s anger, Yeom looked up confused. Hwon quickly calmed his voice and spoke as politely as possible.
“Ahem! What I mean is… who did you say the yeot was from?”
“I just told her I brought it from the palace. Did I do something wrong?”
Although what Yeom said was not wrong, Hwon felt disappointed to learn that his gift became meaningless. Hwon sat with a frown for a while, and then finally spoke up. “It’s okay to say this much. It’s okay to tell her that it was I who sent the yeot.”
Yeom, who did not understand Hwon’s feelings, started the class right away. Hwon refused to back down. As soon as the class ended, Hwon had the eunuch bring another container- this time of sweet rice puffs made from peas and walnuts. (Although commonly served to a crown prince, walnuts were considered a delicacy.)
“Ahem! It’s not much. And… You can tell her that it’s from me. If possible, it will be good to say only good things about Crown Prince. It will reassure the people of this country. And… The reason why I was rude to you at first was not because I lacked good character, but because I wanted to test your qualification as a teacher.”
Yeom smiled without a word.
Hwon suddenly remembered. “Oh yes! And let’s make one thing clear. Although I’m learning the Thousand Character Classic from you right now, this is not because I don’t know how to read but because you have a peculiar teaching style. I’ve already mastered the Thousand Character Classic when I was a child! We should make this clear.”
“Yes, Your Highness. I know.”
Hwon felt reassured by Yeom’s smile, but it still didn’t feel enough. And so he continued: “I’m presently learning Extended Meaning of the Great Learning from my other teacher. Don’t forget to convey this.”
“Your Highness, what do you mean?”
Hwon felt frustrated by Yeom, and yet he could not say with his own mouth that he wished Yeom to tell this to Yeonwoo.
“I’m just saying. And I am a crown prince who enjoys learning. Moreover, I possess the six skills (manners, music, archery, horseback riding, calligraphy, and arithmetics) a scholar should have. During my archery practice today, I hit six… no, seven bull’s eyes out of 10.”
Yeom did not understand why Hwon was telling him these things. He suspected something was strange, but he did not know what. And so, he just smiled. Hwon felt embarrassed to continue to praise himself, and so he shot a look at his attending eunuch.
The eunuch understood and helped out Hwon. “Indeed, it was truly impressive and would rival that of King Sejong the Great.”
It was recorded that King Sejong the Great was a great archer. Hwon felt proud to be compared to him.
“Well, I’m not at that level yet. Haha. Ah! I’m enjoying poetry these days. Would you like to hear it?”
Hwon recites a poem and then asks, “Do you know this poem?”
“Yes, Your Highness. Isn’t it ‘Writing of Spring on Crown Prince’s Quarter’ by Kim Bu-shik?”
“Ah, you already knew…”
Hwon felt deflated to have failed in impressing Yeom. But it was not like Hwon to so give up easily.
“Isn’t it beautiful how the crown prince featured in this poem goes to greet the king the first thing in the morning as soon as dawn breaks? Kim Bu-shik of the past must have imagined me of the present.”
“You’re truly admirable. It’s not an easy thing to do every day.”
“Well, it’s not every day… Father is so busy with government affairs, so I can’t do it often. But starting now, I will go greet him every morning. Isn’t that what filial piety is about?”
The attending eunuch tried to hold in his laughter. He found it cute how Hwon was trying to impress Yeom, and found it entertaining to see Yeom listen to him so earnestly. Hwon wanted to hear more about Yeonwoo and asked Yeom, “If you know this poem, does it mean your sister know it as well? Since you read together…”
“Yes, Your Highness. That child enjoys reading poetry. And so she knows more poems than I do. When she read that poem earlier, she wondered if all crown princes were like that.”
Hwon’s eyes twinkled and he leaned towards Yeom. “So… what did you say?”
“That was before I passed the civil service exam and met Your Highness. And so I told her that I did not know.”
Hwon felt disappointed and upset that the Heo siblings read the poem so soon. He started to get deflated again, but spoke up once again.
“So… what poem does she like?”
“She seems to like all poems… But not too long ago, I gave her a book of poetry and I found her crying while reading it.”
“Which poem was it that moved her thus?”
“The light of dawn shows the makeup removed from my lover’s face,
But the thought of bringing up farewell is too gut-wrenching.
Unable to speak, I exit through the door to the yard where the moonlight shines down upon,
And only the shadows of the sparse apricot flowers fully cover my garment.”
Hwon has never heard the poem before. But hearing that Yeonwoo was saddened by it, he too felt he should be saddened by it as well. And just the thought of a girl crying after reading a poem seemed so beautiful that his heart felt overwhelmed, not by the poem but by her image.
“It’s sad. Tell Miss Yeonwoo that I too was saddened by the poem. You must tell her.”
“Yes? Ah, yes, Your Highness.”
Yeom did not understand why Hwon wanted him to tell this to his sister. Although Yeom was well-read, he was a young lad who did not know much about love, and so he did not make much out of Hwon’s sudden interest towards Yeonwoo.
“But whose poem is it?”
“It’s a poem written by Jung Po of the Goryeo Dynasty.”
“Ah, yes! You must also tell her that I am a crown prince who loves poetry.”
After Yeom left for the night, Hwon immediately ordered the librarian to bring him all the poetry books he could find. And thereafter, he diligently started to read these books of poetry.
The next morning, Hwon had his varlet wake him up at the break of dawn. He dozed off as the eunuch brushed his teeth for him, but when the attending eunuch asked Hwon whether he wished to go back to bed, he insisted on visiting His Majesty to say his morning greeting. Still half asleep, Hwon walked to his father’s quarter.
The king was already awake and was reading a book. He happily welcomed Hwon.
“What brings you here so early?”
“To do my filial duty. My heart felt heavy that I failed to greet you every morning. I will do my best to do so from hereon.”
The king smiled, pleased. “Seeing how commendable the Crown Prince is, I should boast about it to all the government officials.”
Hwon felt proud. Moreover, this meant that the news of his filial piety will travel not only to Yeom, but to Yeom and Yeonwoo’s father as well. It was a great opportunity for Hwon to be seen in a positive light by Yeonwoo.
Excited, Hwon asked the king whether he had his early morning snack yet.
“No, not yet. Do you plan to tend to my early morning snack [Note: Morning snack before the official breakfast] as well?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. For tending your meals is also my filial duty.”
The king closely studied Hwon’s cheerful face, and then ordered his attending eunuch to bring him early morning snack for two.
Turning to Hwon, the king asked, “How are your studies going these days? Are you happy with your new teacher? If you wish, I can switch to a new teacher.”
“No, Your Majesty! Definitely not. I’m learning so much from him. He is truly a remarkable person. You need not worry, Your Majesty.”
That day, Hwon kept repeatedly reminding his attending eunuch to tell Yeom everything that Hwon did that day. And during his breaks from the morning and afternoon lessons, he read books of poetry and anxiously anticipated for his evening lesson with Yeom.
When it was time for his evening lesson, Yeom visited as usual. Hwon poked at his eunuch, and at signal, the eunuch smiled as he spoke: “So deep and immense is His Highness’s filial piety that His Majesty adores him so very much. At the break of dawn, His Highness went to greet His Majesty, and even attended to his breakfast.”
“His Highness is an exemplary son, to whom everyone should emulate.”
At Yeom’s sincere praise, Hwon was resolved to greet his parents every morning, no matter how tired he felt. And curious of how his gift to Yeonwoo was received from yesterday, Hwon asked, “How did you enjoy the sweet rice puffs?”
Yeom answered hesitantly, “I have not eaten them yet. They’re still in my room.”
“Why? Is something wrong?”
“That is… My father has caned my sister once again yesterday. And so I didn’t have a chance to give her the sweet rice puffs.”
“Perchance is Miss Yeonwoo a troublemaker?”
“No, it’s not that, Your Highness. For reading too many books though a girl, our father has forbidden her from any more reading. But she disobeys his order and secretly reads in the library. She gets caned every day, but the very next day, she once again sneaks into the library to read. And so not a day goes by when my sister does not have bruises on her legs.”
Hwon’s heart started to ache at the thought of the caning marks on Yeonwoo’s legs. And it felt like it was his own legs that ached as well. He started to resent Yeonwoo’s father.
“Isn’t Chief Scholar of the Office of Special Advisors (Hongmunkwan) known as a man of erudition? But how can he treat his own daughter thus? He doesn’t cane you for your scholarly pursuits. Did she get a lot of caning?”
“Yes, he was particularly harsh on her yesterday, so I’m worried. But she is probably back to reading a book again even at this moment. Even as we applied ointment on her legs yesterday, she asked me questions about a book she wished to read.”
“So she got a lot of caning. On those delicate legs… She even had to have ointment applied on her.”
Upset, Hwon continued to mutter to himself. But nothing appeased his anger. And then he suddenly had an idea.
“Aha! What book did she want to read?”
“Shiji by Sima Qian. Since she got the book confiscated in the middle of her reading, she is very curious to find out the ending.”
Hwon’s face brightened. “I like that book as well. I can’t believe Miss Yeonwoo likes that book too…”
As soon as his lesson ended, Hwon asked Yeom to wait and then ran to his library. He grabbed several volumes of Shiji and carried the books to Yeom himself, even refusing the help of his varlets who offered to carry them for him.
Hwon spoke with a triumphant air. “Take these books to Miss Yeonwoo. And I will lend the remaining volumes later as well, but just take these with you for today.
Yeom was extremely flustered. It was not an easy thing to accept books from Crown Prince’s own library collection. And knowing that his act of kindness was not to him, but to his sister, Yeom did not know how to react. And yet, it was such sweet temptation. Because Yeonwoo kept reading books in secret, the first thing their father did when he returned home was to inspect the books in their household. And yesterday, she was even more harshly caned because she broke the lock to get to the books. If Yeom takes these books with him, Yeonwoo will be able to read without arousing the suspicion of their father and her legs will actually get a chance to heal. For the sake of Yeonwoo’s legs, Yeom had no choice but to accept these books.
But starting from that day when Yeom started to borrow books from Crown Prince, Hwon’s feelings for Yeonwoo grew deeper. Though it was Yeom who was borrowing the books, it was Yeonwoo who read them. Knowing this, Hwon too read the books before lending them to her, and when they were returned, he reread them once again. At times, Yeom borrowed some books that Hwon did not read himself. And at those times, Hwon made sure to read them later. And like that, Hwon pursued Yeonwoo with the books she read.
Hwon imagined how Yeonwoo would look like, and that soon turned into longing for her. And soon, Yeom started to share with Hwon about the things that Yeonwoo said about Crown Prince.
To be sure, they were nothing special. Yeonwoo’s words about how generous Crown Prince was to so frequently lend them his books, and some other words of gratitude and appreciation. But these words felt special to Hwon.
Then once day, Hwon made up his mind that he will write a letter to Yeonwoo. But this was not an easy task. First, Yeom would never deliver such a letter to his sister. But Hwon was also worried about how Yeonwoo would receive such a letter. It could cause a big scandal for the unwed crown prince to send a love letter to a young lady. But none of these things could break Hwon’s resolve.
The problem was the content of the letter he would write. After worrying and worrying about it, Hwon remembered that Yeonwoo liked poetry. He searched through every poetry book he could find, and he finally selected the one poem that expressed his feelings for Yeonwoo. In his best penmanship, he wrote the poem on a piece of paper. Not satisfied with his handwriting, he wrote again and again. He finally picked the one with the best result and sealed the letter in an envelope.
Hwon’s letter to Yeonwoo contained a poem, and nothing more. If this letter caused any trouble, he could make up an excuse that he just merely sent a poem. And if Yeonwoo blamed Crown Prince’s impudent act, he could just say that he merely wanted to share a good poem.
But if Yeonwoo acknowledged his feelings, she may reply back with a poem of her own.
The bright moon rises above the sea,
And shines evenly throughout the sky.
Resenting this night, which keeps the lovers distant,
I cannot fall asleep as I long for my love.
After blowing out the candle
And cherishing the moonlight that fills the room,
I put on a robe and walk out to the garden
Where the dew moistens me.
As I cannot gather it and send it to you,
I shall return to bed
And dream a dream of meeting my love.
- “Longing for My Lover in a Moonlit Night” by Zhang Jiuling (a poet from the Tang Dyansty)
With fluttering heart, Hwon placed the sealed letter between the pages of a book. And as expected, Yeom refused to deliver the letter. But Hwon answered nonchalantly, “It’s nothing. I really liked a poem that I read last night. As your sister also enjoys poetry, I had merely jotted it down to share with her. If your sister is truly a poetry lover, I thought she would share her impression of the poem… That sealed letter is no different from the many books I’ve lent you in the past.”
“Then lend us that book of poetry, Your Highness. This is not proper.”
Hwon was taken aback by Yeom’s stubbornness. Hwon made up an excuse that it was only that one poem that was worthy of being shared from that book, and further, he couldn’t lend her the book because he had not yet finished reading the book himself.
“If you insist on sharing the poem, then lend her the book after you have finished the book, Your Highness. I can’t take this with me.”
Hwon raised his voice. “I am ordering you to take it! The person to open the letter is your sister, not you. This is not a matter for you to decide. After opening the letter and reading it, if your sister finds it is inappropriate, she can just merely send it back to me. If she wishes to share her impression of the poem, that too is for her to decide. This is a matter for your sister to decide.”
“My sister is a woman of virtue. She’s not a gisaeng woman!”
“How dare you think so lowly of me! Do you think that I’m a worthless fool who merely tries to seduce gisaengs? Because I think highly of your sister’s character just as I think highly of you, I just merely wished to share our thoughts on books with each other. Would I dare to treat a woman who reads my books as if she was a lowly gisaeng?”
Yeom held on to the envelope in his hands without a word. Hwon glared angrily at Yeom. The attending eunuch nervously looked at the two, and it looked to him that Yeom was unrelenting. The eunuch felt sorry for Hwon who had spent all day selecting a poem and practicing his handwriting. And so he carefully spoke in Hwon’s defense: “Scholar, I too have read that poem. It is a poem by a prominent minister of the Tang Dynasty, so do not be so alarmed. It is not harassment for scholars to share poems with each other, is it not? And I heard that noblewomen also shared their poems and writings with each other. Just think the same of this letter. As I see it, your sister is still young and must be lonely as she has no one to share her thoughts. I’m afraid that by overreacting about a letter that holds no special meaning, you’re just putting His Highness in an awkward position.”
Now Yeom had no choice but to take the letter with him. To continue to refuse without knowing the content of the letter would be an insult to the young Crown Prince. And after accepting the numerous books, it would have been hypocritical for Yeom to refuse to take one poem. Yeom realized that he should have never accepted the yeot (toffee) from the start, but he realized too late. Without any choice, Yeom took the book and the sealed letter.
That night felt very long to Hwon. He couldn’t wait for the next day to come. He tried to comfort himself that Yeom could come back empty-handed the next day. Or perhaps he would merely bring with him a short letter containing Yeonwoo’s impression of the poem and nothing more.
The next day, Hwon nervously watched as Yeom entered. But in his hands contained no letter, but a snack container. Yeom bowed three times to Hwon and then handed Hwon the container. And then he took out a white envelope from inside his robe.
Hwon’s heart started to race. He waited for this moment, but now that it was here, he couldn’t breathe.
Hwon accepted the envelope. The envelope smelled of the orchid that always came from Yeom. And so, he imagined it to be the scent of Yeonwoo as well. Preoccupied with the envelope, he did not take notice of the container until later, only to find that it wasn’t empty. The inside was filled with dirt.
“What is this?”
“It is a gift from my sister in appreciation of the books that you’ve lent her.”
Hwon’s eyes widened. Upon closer look, he realized that this container was no ordinary container, but was turned into a makeshift flowerpot.
“What is planted here?”
“I do not know myself. She said that if you water it every morning and evening, and patiently wait, you will find out.”
Hwon was excited. He could not calm. When Yeom started his class, Hwon hid the letter inside his robe. And afraid that the pot would get accidentally knocked down, he kept it carefully next to him.
Even after the class ended, Yeom seemed worried and hesitated to leave. But unlike him, Hwon hurried Yeom out. And then he told his attending eunuchs to stand far back. With no one by his side, Hwon took out the envelope from deep inside his robe.
Hwon held up the envelope to the light, and he found that there were indeed writings inside. Once again, he waved the eunuchs away and then finally opened the letter. Inside was one short handwritten poem.
“Our longing for one another,
we can meet only in our dreams.
I have left in search of my lover,
Has my lover also come in search of me?
I wish that in another day’s lengthy dream,
We shall meet on the road to our dream.”
- “A Dream of Longing for One Another” by Hwang Jin Yi (a Joseon era gisaeng poet)
It was a short poem. But Hwon read it over and over again. As the poem he sent yesterday was about desiring to meet even if just in a dream, Yeonwoo replied through this poem that the reason why they did not meet in their dreams was because they both left in search of each other and thus missed one other. With this poem, Hwon gained the assurance that just as Hwon longed for Yeonwoo, she too longed for him.
After reading the poem a dozen times, Hwon started to also take notice of Yeonwoo’s handwriting. So beautiful was her handwriting that he felt ashamed of his own that he sent her earlier. So perfectly aligned were the characters that it was hard to believe that the handwriting was the calligraphy skills of a 14 year old girl.
Hwon called his attending eunuch to come closer. And when he did, Hwon proudly showed off her writing. “Look! Who would believe that this was the handwriting of a 14 year old girl? Have you seen such skills before?”
The eunuch was surprised by the handwriting. The calligraphy displayed the aura of a noble scholar. And yet, it also carried an aura of a woman’s beauty.
“Is she truly 14 years old?”
“I was surprised too. It is surprising to find a woman who knows Hanja (Chinese characters), but it is even more surprising for that woman to have command of such beautiful handwriting. She is merely a year apart from Princess Minhwa, and yet, the two are as different as night and day.”
“Not only is Chief Scholar brilliant, but his children are brilliant too. I was in awe of Scholar Yeom, but this is…”
While Hwon was immersed with the thought of Yeonwoo, fine rain started to drizzle outside. Seeing the rain, Hwon grabbed the container (now flowerpot) and took it outside. On this sunny day, as the raindrops fell, they glistened gold. Hwon opened up his arms and tried to embrace the rain in his arms. The fine rain fell and drizzled down Hwon’s face, and soaked into his body.