Chapter 9: Reminiscing Memories Between Two Old Friends
Lotus walked out of the tent later that night. The two Mongol soldiers at the entrance didn’t stop her, merely followed closely behind her. A crescent-shaped portion of the red-orange tinted sun hung in the corner of the sky as it set. A sky full of red-orange clouds bordered lake waters which were rapidly changing colors, appearing both real and illusory. Waterfowl skimmed over the lake’s surface, occasionally causing some ripples. Cows mooed in the distance as they returned home. “The cows and sheep return home as the sun sets.” The view was like a painting, and Lotus had become lost in thought as she stared out at it.
The sound of water splashing rippled through the air as a fishing line suddenly breached the water’s surface. A fat fish was flung onto the shore. Lotus looked over—it was that thin, tall man. She hesitated before walking over.
The thin, tall man was holding a fishing rod in his right hand, and had taken off the fish with his left, throwing it haphazardly into the wooden bucket at his side, before sitting back down and continuing to fish. Lotus walked closer in order to take a peek, and saw that there were many fish within the bucket already, jostling around each other in their panic, and occasionally causing a ripple. Lotus creased her brow and looked at the tall, thin man. She then looked back towards the bucket. The fish seemed to know that someone was looking at them, and proceeded to crowd each other in an even greater panic as they looked back at Lotus with pleading eyes.
Lotus hesitated before walking next to the tall, thin man. She stooped down and opened her mouth, not knowing how to start. The tall, thin man remained unmoving like a sculpture.
She bit her bottom lip and said softly, “Can I ask you to em, give me those fish?” The man tilted his head and looked at Lotus, a hint of… sorrow? streaking through his long, thin eyes. Lotus didn’t understand, but saw the man put down the rod in his hand, walk towards the bucket, and pick it up with one hand. He walked back to the edge of the lake and upended it with both hands, flinging his arms forward, sending the fish both forward and in a high arc through the air, landing them in the water as they happily swam away with twists of their bodies.
Lotus stood up and stared dumbly at the man. He didn’t say a word as he picked up his rod and turned to leave. Lotus looked at his back and called out softly, “Jongseong?” She spoke in Korean.
The man froze. Lotus continued on softly, “Jongseong, it really is you. You’re here! You’re still alive!” Her voice had become choked up.
The last king of the Goryeo Dynasty, King Gongyang1, was enthroned during the 22nd year of Hongwu’s rule, and had originally been a puppet, but received the wholehearted support of civil minister Jeong Mongju2, was later revered by subsequent generations for being the father of Korean scholarism. In order to overthrow the Goryeo Dynasty, King Taejo sent men to assassinate Jeong Mongju on the Sonjukkyo Bridge within Gaeseong city. His entire family was killed, and his three sons Jeong Jongseong, Jeong Jongbon, and Jeong Jong, as well as their families, had truly ghastly downfalls. The Li family, Cao family, and Jeong family had all been government officials, thus their children had grown up playing together. Lotus was good friends with the three Jeong sons, and had guessed from various signs over the past couple of days that her kidnapping had been committed by an old acquaintance, so she immediately recognized Jeong Jongseong’s figure.
Jeong Jongseong turned and slowly took the mask off of his face, revealing a dark and weathered face. His facial features were worn, and wrinkles had carved deep fissures in his face. The hair on the sides of his face was already spotted with white hairs. “That’s right, it’s me. Jeong Jongseong is still alive.”
Lotus leapt up happily. “That’s wonderful! You’re still alive!” However, when she saw his haggard and worn face, the words “How have you been?” died in her throat. She opened her mouth, but didn’t know what to say. Jeong Jongseong understood her intentions, and the two fell silent in that moment.
After a while, Jeong Jongseong said softly, “The Crown Prince is also here.”
“He’s also…?” Lotus asked.
The Crown Prince whom Jeong Jongseong had spoken of was the Crown Prince of King Gongyang. King Taejo had ordered his execution in the 27th year of Hongwu’s rule. Who would’ve thought that he’d still be alive?
“That’s right, he’s alive. We’ve been hiding for the past five years, and arrived in Soren Timur’s camp two years ago.” Jeong Jongseong gazed up at the sky and said faintly, “The Crown Prince is now surnamed Kim.”
In order to evade King Taejo’s pursuit, the Goryo royal family had changed their surnames to ones such as Jeon, Kim, and Sin. Even now, Wang was a rare family name in Korea.
Lotus was silent.
“The Crown Prince’s intentions to capture you this time, and he’s already sent men to negotiate with that Lee thief.”
“What are his terms?”
“It’ll be an exorbitant price at first—he’ll ask for that Li thief to trade himself for you.”
Lotus was inwardly startled. This was a ruthless play alright. Her identity right now was that of the lady of the East Palace, the royal daughter-in-law of the current Emperor, and future royal concubine. Although she’d been captured in Chinese territory, the Emperor’s wrath was uncertain, and he might fault Korea for not adequately protecting her. The former Crown Prince had specifically kidnapped her in Tieling. This was a place that the Ming Dynasty had just pacified, and one that both Korea and China had fought over before. The Chinese imperial court had always been particularly sensitive towards this region, and if King Taejo knew that she was here, but didn’t save her, he’d easily be labelled as someone disloyal to the Chinese court. The relationship that had finally warmed between the two countries would likely be destroyed. How would King Taejo handle this?
As she thought about this, Lotus’ expression became worried.
“It’s best if that Li thief values his life. The Crown Prince can then publicize this matter to a great extent, and send forth a petition to the Chinese court. It’s possible that the Emperor will dispatch troops in response.” Jeong Jongseong grew a bit excited when he spoke of this, as he finally saw a bit of hope for his long-crafted plan to obtain revenge for his fallen dynasty. “We’ll be able to leverage Sorin Timur then, and slaughter that Li thief, reviving my Goryeo Dynasty!”
Lotus was silent for a while, before she said softly, “Jongseong, my daddy, Ah Min, and Ah Xiu, are all dead.”
“So I’ve heard.” Jeong Jongseong’s face became sorrowful.
“They were killed by Japanese pirates.”
Jeong Jongseong remained silent.
“The pirates’ sphere of influence has now extended to encompass the entirety of the Northern Cholla Province.” Lotus cast her gaze towards the sun that was slowly setting beneath the horizon. “I’m making this trip to the imperial court in order to beseech them to send the navy.” She looked solemnly at Jeong Jongseong at this moment and spoke slowly, “Jeongsong, if the imperial court decides to send troops to attack Korea, and the Japanese pirates attack from the south in a pincer movement, those who die in Korea will not be limited to the Li clan, but will encompass the entire Korean population.”
Jeong Jongseong stood there dumbly, his wan features twisting. His thin, long eyes widened, and he suddenly yelled, “I don’t care! My father died such a ghastly death… He didn’t even have a full corpse! And Jongbon and his family! What wrong did they do? That Li thief, Li thief! I want to drink your blood, and feast on your flesh!” Tears streamed down his dark face as he finally wrenched his body around and fled into the night.
Lotus felt a mix of emotions as she stared at his fading back. The sliver of sun in the distance had already disappeared, leaving behind a haze of orange and red that curtained the sky. Will the people of my Korea really not survive this disaster?
That night, Soren Timur, citizen of the old Yuan Dynasty, sent out an extensive spread to “welcome” the Korean Princess Yi Ning. The entire camp was lit up with both laughter and chatter as he ordered people to light a blazing bonfire next to the lake, and set up three large tables between the bonfire and lake. A variety of dishes, seasonal fruits, and fine wines were set up upon them, with several whole lambs roasting on racks, their fat dripping into the fire.
The new moon hung in the air at this point, and its light spilled onto the surface of the lake. Slight waves traversed the surface as silvery ripples jumped, danced, and hid. Fish would sometimes leap out of the waters and give rise to a few splashes. The drooping willows near the sides of the lake swayed, and their branches whispered. Their jade green leaves appeared even more mesmerizing beneath the silvery light of the moon.
The Crown Prince was apparently away on a trip, and had yet to return. Jeong Jongseong accompanied Lotus on a slow walk, before they both took their seats at a table to the left. The two looked at the seemingly familiar scene of the lake, and suddenly looked at each other, simultaneously recalling the events of their childhood.
Lotus smiled, “This looks so like Imjin Lake in Kaesong city.” She regretted her words almost as soon as she’d voiced them. The bunch of them had often played by the Imjin lake when they were young, and wouldn’t want to return home even when it had become night. When the moon rose, the scene that they saw was precisely the one that was in front of their eyes right now, but the bridge that Jeong Mongju had been killed upon had also been over the lake.
Jeong Jongseong murmured to himself, “That’s right, the lake.” His eyes became empty, and he seemed to have sunk into old memories. Lotus was a bit worried, and hastened to change the topic. “Jongseong, who’s that?” She covertly pointed towards a Mongol official who was standing next to Soren Timur, who was currently sitting in the place of honor. Jeong Jongseong recollected himself, and slightly dipped his head to speak to Lotus, “That’s the assistant to the Privy Council, Bei Erzhi. He arrived just yesterday.”
Lotus was startled to hear his words, and looked carefully at the two. Soren Timur and Bei Erzhi were conversing in low voices, and she was sadly too far away to make out anything.
According to the organization of the Yuan Dynasty, the Privy Council held control over all covert military affairs. All campaigns, army deployments, missions, and budgeting were within its grasp. Thus, an assistant to such a council meant that he was a vital member who was below only one person. He was joining their banquet today? Had he come for himself? All sorts of speculations ran rampant in Lotus’ heart.
When Soren Timur saw that everyone had been seated, that the tables were full, and with the scent of meat wafting in from the fires, he paused his conversation with Bei Erzhi to survey those seated. He cleared his throat, and raised the cup of wine in front of him, announcing loudly, “Come, drink up! We welcome Princess Yi Ning!” Everyone raised their cups and agreed, throwing back their wine. Even Jeong Jongseong drained his cup.
When Soren Timur saw that Lotus hadn’t made a move to drink, he asked, “Why does the princess not drink? Are you looking down on our wine, thinking it less than the dew of Korea?”
Lotus smiled faintly, “Lotus converted to Buddhism when she was young, and upholds the five precepts.”
(The five precepts are the Buddhism principles of not killing, stealing, lying, philandering, and drinking alcohol.)
Soren Timur laughed heartily, “Then it was my oversight. Please don’t take any offense, princess.”
Lotus smiled without responding.
“Which school did the princess convert to?”
“The Cao Xi school of Korea, founded by the five disciples of the Sixth Patriarch of Buddhism, Huineng3. Lotus has learned from Master Zichao since young.”
“Impressive! No wonder the princess boasts an uncommon and ethereal air! My Yuan Dynasty views Buddhism as the state religion, and ever since Phagpa4 became the Imperial Preceptor, he’s spread the worship of Buddhism wide and far. The current emperor was also converted to Buddhism through him before he took his throne.”
Lotus put her hands together and bowed, “Good indeed. Buddha is benevolent. May Buddha bless the great Yuan to flourish for ten thousand years.”
Soren Timur then posed many incredibly detailed questions having to do with the Korean people and culture. Lotus answered them all, but was privately on guard the entire time. Bei Erzhi also spoke up at this time, “I once went to Korea decades ago, and saw that it was both a beautiful and rich land. It’s quite different from the yellow sands of the deserts of my great Yuan.”
Lotus responded carefully, “Different people take root in different lands. The people of my Korea have grown used to the many rivers and rich dirt, throwing themselves into a life of tilling and farming the land. Great Yuan boasts of high skies and vast plains, eminently suitable for great Yuan’s great hawks to soar, and for fine horses to run free.”
Soren Timur and Bei Erzhi looked at each other, with Soren Timur’s tone growing cold, “Korea was one of my great Yuan’s vassal states, but now Li Chenggui has rejected my great Yuan’s good intentions, and has turned his heart to only the Ming court. Where does he place my great Yuan?”
Lotus could only play dumb. “This little girl knows nothing of such great country affairs. Lotus will be sure to convey this noble sir’s thoughts to my royal father.”
“Huh!” Soren Timur’s tone grew even frostier. “Although my great Yuan has temporarily retreated to the Gobi desert, we still have countless brave soldiers, and a million battle-steeds. We’ll fight in the central plains again. The Han people are weak, so it’s yet to be determined who will fall to the other. The princess shouldn’t think that she can lie to my great Yuan!” He clapped his hands as the area behind him suddenly grew bright, revealing rows upon rows of archers on horseback, having been arrayed there at some time. They raised torches in their hands, as their clothing and armor stood out brightly beneath the flare of the light, brimming with killing intent.
Lotus was startled, and didn’t conceal the expression on her face as she said with disdain, “Have you ever thought about why the great Yuan retreated to the Gobi desert?”
Soren Timur blanked.
“You know how to oppress others with might, but did you know that he who is benevolent will receive the world? Although the people will bow their knees in the face of tyranny for the time being, they will still rise up and fight. Fierce soldiers and battle-steeds will only win the day for the time being, but how will they triumph for hundreds of years? Since the great Yuan holds Buddhism as its state religion, you should know that Buddha’s heart is kind, and that he treats all people as his own.”
Soren Timur’s face darkened as he spat out his words viciously, “How dare you!” He raised his hand high, and was about to erupt, when Bei Erzhi stretched out a hand to hold him back, saying coldly to Lotus, “The princess possesses a witty tongue, I won’t argue with you here. If Li Chenggui continues on his path of heresy, the princess should know that Crown Prince Wang of Goryeo is with me, and that the citizens of Goryeo still yearn for his return. My great Yuan will assist him in taking back his throne, fulfill the people’s yearning, and revitalize my great Yuan as well.”
Anger surged within Lotus, “Korea has formed a deep friendship with great Ming, and the emperor has allowed Duck Green River to be both our boundary, and a line which neither would trespass over. Korea has only just started to rest and heal from her wounds. The people live well and prosper.” Lotus’ had raised her voice a bit, but she paused here and looked sideways at Jeong Jongseong, “Your honored father Jeong Mongju made four trips to the great Ming court, and overcame countless hardships to finally gain an audience with the emperor. This agreement came from that visit. The people of Korea still remember your honored father with gratitude.”
Jeong Jongseong’s face was blank with no expression.
Lotus turned her head back towards Soren Timur and Bei Erzhi, “Weapons are instruments of murder, the holy shouldn’t use them. Lotus respectfully requests the two noble sirs to think of the citizens of great Yuan, and to continue the practice of shepherding and raising horses. Please trade with the neighboring countries on your three sides, and develop peacefully, with no thoughts of raising arms and causing disaster again. Otherwise, if the Chinese court pursues you again, you’ll be hard pressed to avoid the fate of complete annihilation, which will affect the Mongol citizens.”
Soren Timur was incensed beyond belief, and finally slammed his hand down, breaking the table in half, and sending the food tumbling to the ground. “Come! Take her away!”