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Genre: Historical Fiction
Set at the turn of the 16th Century in the Chosun Dynasty of Korea.
Jang Nok Su, a slave, seduces the Cho-nah and goes on to become a feared royal concubine. But to keep her place as Cho-nah’s favorite, she must subtly eliminate her rivals in court using trickery and manipulation…before they eliminate her.
I sat bound in a wooden cage, carried on a sedan through the streets of Dosung. Guards kept the people at bay. Some came with stones in hand, others shouted their grievances, but all fell silent and still upon seeing me. Though my royal dangui had been exchanged for the white robe of a felon, I still had the smooth skin and shining black hair of a fifteen-year-old, less than half my real age. It was one thing to ridicule the Cho-nah’s concubine from the other side of a palace wall, but in person, they had to show respect.
Kim Hyo Son was already dead. I begged Buddha to spare my sister and her children. And if Sin Bi failed to reach the mountain temple, my ghost would never let her rest. In that mountain temple, when I was six, my story began…
* * *
Clouds blurred the moon. Mother led Ki Su and me up the trail, warning us of low hanging branches and extruded roots well before we met them. When the flickering braziers of the monastery came into view, I clutched my sister’s sleeve.
“It’s a Tokebi’s campfire,” whispered Ki Su, walking her fingers like a spider up my back. “It’s going to eat you.”
“Ki Su-yah,” said Mother, “stop scaring your little sister.”
Two smaller pagodas flanked the main temple. From one pagoda came a chorus of snoring monks. The temple itself was not large, perhaps the size of three common rooms put together, and the doors were painted blood red. Three clay statues stared at me through a netted window.
Mother knelt to our level. “You must never speak of what you see here.”
“Yes, Ohma-ni,” we said.
She removed the twin jade rings from her forefinger, hiding them in a pocket inside her sleeve. The doors creaked open. A man peered out at us. I had never seen a monk before, his shaved head and bland clothes were something to behold. “Ahjuma-ni, why do you come at night?”
“My oldest is here to receive Buddha’s blessing.”
“Ah yes, I remember Ki Su. The little one must be Nok Su.”
Ki Su and I bowed.
The monk led us inside to a life-sized statue of Buddha sitting in meditation. Mother knelt on a flattened pillow and kowtowed before Buddha, turning her hands upward, showing her empty palms. The monk held a necklace of prayer beads, pushing a bead through his fingers after each bow. I lost count after twenty or so, distracted by Ki Su who lost the color in her face. I wondered what occupied her thoughts, and suddenly feared that the statues in the room might come to life. Did she see one move? I held her hand, she tightly gripped mine. “Ohma-ni, I remember this place. The day Oppa-”
“If Buddha is to be moved,” said the monk, “your Ohma-ni must pray with sincerity.”
Oppa? I wondered what our older brother had to do with this.
* * *
Mother pursed her lips to keep from grunting. The monk instructed Ki Su and I to help her stand and kneel until she completed her one hundred and eighth kowtow. The monk counted the final bead. “Your devotion to your children and fervor of prayer is impressive. Now that your mind is cleansed, take to heart the most important lesson: we are all Buddha.” He bowed and left us.
“He’s wrong,” I said innocently. “I am Jang Nok Su.”
“Ohma-ni,” said Ki Su, deadpanned, “I remember the day Oppa left. We did this the night before, exactly the same.” Mother embraced her. Not wanting to feel left out, I joined them.
Sadness hid behind mother’s smile, an expression worn by people staying positive through trying times, an attempt to trick tears into retreat. “Ki Su-yah…you’ve been sold.”