“Miyoung, there you are. Come quick, join us.”
The approaching young woman flashes the friendly smile she is well known for and takes her seat at the round table. “My apologies for being late. My father had something to tell me just as I was about to leave.” All eyes are on her. She keeps up her smile knowing very well the object monopolizing their attention hangs from her ear lobes. “My brother just got home yesterday and gave them to me. He got them from a land far south.”
“How exquisite. Are they made of seashells?” asks her friend from across the table.
Miyoung turns her head so that Sooyoung gets a clearer view of her earrings. “Yes, they are. Tropical, very far south.” She extends her smile to the younger woman, one year her junior. Among the ten ladies seated at the table (including herself), Sooyoung is one of the kindest, in her opinion. She hails from a wealthy family but does not carry airs and is warm to people around her. She also involves herself in non-profit groups that help those in need, an act few women of similar stature would be caught doing. Miyoung admires Sooyoung for her pluck and wishes her father would allow her to take such liberties as well.
“I heard that they are much poorer in the south and resort to making jewellery out of scraps they pick up from the ground.”
The other eight ladies look between Miyoung and the lady two seats from her. Miyoung looks as well, taking in the vision of luxury. Covered from head to toe in expensive silk and accessorized by precious stones, Hyexi is one such woman. Eager to find a suitable husband to marry, she would not associate herself with people of a class she deems to be lower than respectable. Precisely the kind of company that Miyoung prefers not to keep too close.
“All raw materials come from the ground or that which grows on it. Diamonds, emeralds, jade. The rice we eat is harvested from the ground as well. It is the workmanship that makes it truly incredible, taking a piece of nature and beautifying it so,” states yet another young woman seated at the round table.
Seohyun. The youngest among the ten, but also the brightest in the academic sense. Her parents encourage and support her acquirement of various talents like singing and playing of music instruments, in addition to providing her with home education in various subjects. Miyoung smiles. It would be just like Seohyun to provide a purely neutral rebuttal to what is otherwise a spiteful comment borne of jealousy. If there is anything that Seohyun needs to learn, it would be the impurities that reside in many men and women.
“Anyway, it’s pretty and that’s all that matters,” says Hyoyeon with an air of casualness that only she can project with such ease. The other ladies murmur their agreement to that statement and the tension ebbs as the subject changes.
“Have any of you heard about the new artist in town?” asks Yuri.
Miyoung looks at her with interest. An artist? “Where did you hear the news from?”
“Some people at the market. I was running around yesterd—”
An unladylike snort cuts her short. “Your father won’t be pleased to know that you’re running around again. As it is, your skin is tanned enough to send your mother scurrying around to find ways to make you fairer.”
A curl of Miyoung’s lips come unbidden. Soonkyu and Yuri. Forever the squabbling pair. Also forever together. Soonkyu is more likely to defend Yuri’s running around than to criticise it in front of people in the outer circle but here in the inner circle of friends, Soonkyu enjoys ribbing Yuri, knowing that her friend will not get into any trouble for it.
Yuri rolls her eyes—yet another act that her parents would frown upon—and says, “You’re only saying this because you’re jealous I heard of it before you did.”
Soonkyu giggles, a pretty, tinkering sound that is known to be enamouring in the ears of men. “Not only have I heard of the artist, I even know where the artist is residing at the moment.”
Fabrics rustle as the ladies lean forward in curiosity, Yuri included. Soonkyu wears her lips in a smug slant for a moment, basking in their unrivalled attention.
“Where is the artist staying?” asks Minji, leaning into Yuri to be closer to Soonkyu, the source of the coveted information.
Still wearing the same smug smile, Soonkyu points up.
The collective gasp that follows would have attracted a few stares from other tables had they been seated in the common area. Fortunately, the status and wealth of the ladies afford them the luxury of a private room, hidden from the eyes of the common public.
“How did you find out?” asks Yuri, eyes wide in wonder.
The tinkering giggle makes a comeback. “There are finer ways to gather information than running around in the marketplace, Kwon Yuri.”
Yuri sticks her tongue out at Soonkyu who promptly returns the favour and the rest of the girls can only shake their heads at their childish antics.
“What’s the big deal with the artist anyway.” Hyexi again, with the negativity. Sometimes, Miyoung wonders how Hyexi made it into this circle of friends. She is nothing like the other nine of them. Oh yes, she is Hongsu’s cousin. That’s how. And there’s little they can do about it now.
“This artist is famed for his moving pictures of nature. They have a calming effect on your soul and word has it that wealth does not guarantee the commission of a painting from him. Not only that, this artist is also capable of producing portraits of uncanny resemblance to the model. Down to your finest hair.” Again, it is Soonkyu with the answers. Seohyun may have all the answers from books, but Soonkyu’s extensive answers from the streets are just as important and useful, if not even more so.
“All that is simply hearsay. Has anyone seen the artist produce a painting yet?” Hyexi continues to rain on the parade.
“Hearsay from a family friend from a town two days west of us. Their family is one of the fortunate ones who managed to commission him to paint their daughter. Her parents described the painting as a mirror image of their daughter. A more beautiful version at that.”
“How can a mirror image be more beautiful?” questions Seohyun, ever the sharp analytical mind.
“Ah, it has to do with angles, doesn’t it? Don’t you look into the mirror and observe how you look the prettiest? Every tilt of your head would change the perspective, wouldn’t it?” Soonkyu answers with ease. Woe to anyone who tries to pull a scam on her. They would probably end up counter-scammed and be taught a thorough lesson by the time she’s done with them.
“I see your point. So what you are really saying is, not only is this artist able to paint with unbelievable accuracy but also bring out the best in the subject?”
“Well put, Seohyun.”
“Well,” says Hyoyeon, “if this artist is as good as you say he is, I’d better get home and ask my father for a portrait from him. What is his name?”
“Kim Taenggu,” says Yuri, happy to be able to contribute her little nugget of information.
“What an interesting name,” Sooyoung comments. “My interest is piqued as well.”
“How much does he charge for a portrait?” Seohyun asks, ever the prudent mind.
“According to my family friend, his price varies. It is decided upon after having an interview with the subject,” says Soonkyu. “And there is no guarantee that a high price will secure a painting from him.”
“What? He gets to name his price after an interview? And he gets to reject whoever he wishes?” Hongsu is astounded.
“That’s so snobbish of him,” says Hyexi. “Overrated, I’m sure. These gimmicks will not work on me.”
“Hmm, the interview and varying prices do sound rather like a gimmick,” says Minji.
“Seek him out if you wish. Seek him not if you don’t,” says Soonkyu. “But I will certainly try for it. Gimmick or not, my curiosity is piqued, just like Sooyoung’s. I would like to have a lasting piece of my youth immortalized in a beautiful painting.”
The other ladies around the table begin to nod in agreement. It will be pleasant to have a memory of their youth captured on paper. Especially when it is as exclusive as it sounds.
Barely able to stifle a yawn, the artist asks, “What time is it?”
“The sun has risen way above your sleepy head, you lazy bum.”
“It’s noon already?” the artist sits up in shock, ruffling the hair that is falling about everywhere.
“Yes, and I’ve had breakfast and gossiped and bought the brushes you asked for before coming back here to find you fast asleep.”
The artist’s eyes smile at the man across the room, five years senior, standing tall and relaxed. “Thank you.”
“You are incorrigible.”
The young artist flashes two rows of neat teeth. “It comes with the incredible gift of painting.”
“Your ego is twice the size of your head.”
The man pulls up his sleeves and folds his arms. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Heechul, I need to change,” the artist says simply, tone even and the man stiffens at once, running his fingers through his hair.
“I’ll see you downstairs. Be fast.”
The artist steps out of bed and looks into the luggage they are living out of. What shall be the colour of the day? Blue. Grey. Grassy green. Brown. Such a wide variety of colours. It is times like these when the artist really misses the old days. Misses the limitless choice of colours and dozens and dozens of varying styles and designs. Ever since the artist made the decision months and months ago, choice has been widdled down to this pathetic range. Well, at least there are shades of blue to choose from. Light blue and dark blue. The luxury of choice! Light blue it is. A little less solemn. Heaven knows, the artist needs a bit of uplifting today.
The artist dresses and steps before the mirror in the room to check for slip ups. Everything has to be in order. There is no room for error. The artist smiles at the reflection in the mirror. A handsome lad smiles back. Yes. Handsome. With thickened eyebrows, clear eyes, a shapely nose, soft lips, long hair held neatly high up on the head, covered by a wide-brimmed hat, and a lean physique, ‘handsome’ is definitely a reasonable descriptor.
Yet, once upon a time, handsome was not the artist. Months and months ago, before the decision was made, the artist’s reflection in the mirror was beautiful. Yes. Beautiful.
“What took you so long,” Heechul grumbles.
The artist takes a seat at the table. “Oh, you know. The monthly.”
Heechul’s eyes widen for a second. “Oh, I see. Are you feeling alright then?”
A twinge of guilt hits the artist but it passes quickly. “I’m fine,” the artist lies. There is no ‘monthly’ today. But it will earn some space from Heechul today and the next few days. Space that is desperately needed for some inexplicable reason. Regret maybe. But the decision had been made and so far, the plan has been working. It is just tiring. Yes. Tired. That’s why.
“The news of your arrival has spread like wild fire. I expect offers to pour in soon.”
The artist stifles another yawn before reaching for a bun. Biting into it, the steaming hot meat inside almost burns. Tossing it about inside the mouth for a while helps and it is eventually chewed and swallowed. Mmm, the bun tastes pretty good actually. The artist goes for another bite and is still chewing when a man dressed in fine silk approaches their table.
“Are you the artist, Kim Taenggu?” he asks, eyes on Heechul.
With an air of arrogance, Heechul flips his hair and grins. “I am Kim Taenggu’s agent, Kim Heechul. This,” he gestures at Taenggu who is trying to swallow the meat, “is the person you are looking for.”
The man blinks and is quiet for a moment. “Pardon my manners, I did not expect the artist to be such a young lad.”
Heechul widens his smile. “Gift is bestowed at birth. Kim Taenggu has been making people cry with his paintings ever since he was a baby.”
Taenggu kicks Heechul under the table and frowns at him. Stop it.
“Yes, you are right of course.” The man clears his throat. “I am Lim Dayu, from the Estate of Hwang. The master of the estate would like to commission you to paint his daughter, if you will.”
“What is the daughter’s name?” asks Heechul, all business-like. “We will schedule an interview at a location of your master’s choice.”
“The daughter’s name is Hwang Miyoung. The interview can be held in the gardens of the Hwang estate. Will you be available tomorrow?”
Heechul makes a show of flipping through a little black book. “Yes. Tomorrow, after the 7th shichen.”
“Wonderful. Thank you. I will relay the news to the Master Hwang.”
Taenggu stuffs the rest of the bun into her mouth after Lim Dayu leaves as Heechul smacks his little black book on the table in delight. “What did I tell you? The offers will be pouring in.”
Thanks to the bun in her mouth, Taenggu doesn’t have to reply with fake enthusiasm. Heechul will be able to tell in a heartbeat and she will have to convince him that this entire situation is not his fault. Because it isn’t. It isn’t his fault that his little sister has to turn herself into a ‘handsome lad’. It isn’t his fault that they have to travel constantly from town to town to prevent anyone from suspecting her. Neither is it his fault that she is the one born with the gift of painting.
Because it would be so much easier for Heecul to be the gifted painter in a world where only male painters are treated seriously and with respect. It would be so much easier if the world they live in would treat female painters the same and pay them the same price or offer them the same level of reverence for their gift. But reality is what it is and circumstances are what they are, so Kim Taeyeon, the beautiful girl, is now Kim Taenggu, the handsome lad. And Kim Heechul, her brother, is now her agent. And she will be interviewing the daughter of the Hwang estate tomorrow.
a/n: shichen* refers to a measurement of time, 2 hours, so the 7th shichen is about 2pm