The bed has plenty of room for Taenggu to roll around on, something that she likes to do before falling asleep. It is a bed that allows her to enjoy her sleep, but for some reason, she does not feel truly rested when she wakes up the next morning. In fact, the urge to yawn is the first thing that greets her upon opening her eyes.
“Rise and shine, sleepy head.”
Feeling rebellious, Taenggu closes her eyes instead. “It’s not even midday yet.”
“Have you forgotten about the interview? You have to get dressed. And fast.”
The artist rolls over with a groan. Then yelps as a rod-like thing lands on her bum.
“Get up. I am your older brother after all. Or have you forgotten all about it?”
“I’m up. Getting right up,” Taenggu grumbles while rubbing her bum. “Which brother would bully his sister like this.”
“If you want a taste of what real bullying is like, I’m more than happy to demonstrate.”
“It’s alright. You don’t have to.” Taenggu shuffles to the luggage and sighs at the pathetic choices. “I’m going to change. Right now.”
“Good. I’ll see you downstairs.”
Looking at the dark blue set, Taenggu knows that it is the best choice for today. A quick check with the people in the inn the night before revealed that the Hwangs, while they aren’t the richest in the area, are among the ten richest families. Taenggu knows they will be able to command a higher price if they don’t look like they care for it. A handsome dark blue outfit will aid them in projecting that illusion.
Then begins the laborious process of ensuring that nobody finds out about her ‘assets’. Once upon a time, she had thought that her assets were a bit on the small side, but in her current situation, smaller is better. The cloth that wraps around the chest constricts but does not suffocate and is not unbearable discomfort, however the same cannot be said should her assets have been bigger. Through this, Taenggu learns that anything and everything can be a double-edged sword. Whether something turns out to be a blessing or a curse, really depends on the timing. And the perspective associated with a moment in time.
But try as she may, it is hard for her to agree that pretending to be a man in order to earn a living through her gift in painting is a blessing that has come out of the situation. It is a consequence that she wishes she could undo. That she would give anything to be able to undo. But there is no way to stop life. Life continues. And so must she.
“You are really good at taking your own sweet time,” Heechul grumbles when Taenggu finally makes it to the table downstairs. “Eat.” He pushes a bun and a cup of tea to her. “Drink.”
Taenggu does so obediently. It will not do to draw unnecessary attention to themselves by fooling around with Heechul. Lim Dayu arrives just as Taenggu swallows the last of the tea and bun. Sweeping in like the wind, his full set of pure white makes for quite a dashing appearance.
“Good afternoon, young Sirs. Are you ready to leave? The horse and carriage are at the entrance.”
Heechul picks up the painting tools and supplies. “We are ready.”
Taenggu is helped onto the carriage by Heechul as usual. And as she settles on the seat, she can’t help but praise herself for thinking of such a suitable role for her brother. Certainly, by making him the agent, no one would question why he is carrying all the painting materials. Neither do people question why he is helping her with this and that.
Lim Dayu enters the carriage after Heechul and sits opposite Taenggu. Their shoes touch and Taenggu pulls her foot in, away from his.
“Oh, my apologies.” Lim Dayu shifts a little to the side.
“Don’t mind him. He tends to be more sensitive when his mind is on painting,” Heechul says, by way of explanation.
“Ah, I see.” Lim Dayu smiles. “That is understandable, of course. Such talent is rare. Our young mistress is extremely delighted to have the chance to be interviewed. It seems the excitement got to her and she did not get any sleep last night for she looked very tired this morning.”
Taenggu cannot help but heave a heavy sigh in her heart at that. Yet another lady with her head in the clouds who needs to be entertained and complimented. It is all part of the package, Taenggu knows and understands, but after months and months of pulling off the same charming act on these young women, she is quite ready to retire from it all. In fact, if it weren’t for her love of painting, she might have lost it completely by now.
Or not. With the way things are, she would have to disguise herself as a man anyway, or her brother would have a hard time protecting her from ill intentions. And how would they earn a living if not by painting? Her brother is not cut out for manual labour. And while he has been taught how to run a shop, there were no bosses willing to pay him well enough. Not in their town. And not in the next town.
This is really the best plan they could think of. And this is the only plan they have right now.
It is a little chilly and Taenggu is glad for the overcoat that men wear when they are out of the house. Lim Dayu and Heechul are having a conversation that she has no interest in joining in. instead, she turns and looks out the window of the carriage. Buildings hobble past accompanied by the sound of hooves on the ground. The smile on a vegetable seller’s face. The green of the leaves. The faded sign of a medicinal shop. She picks out details and stores them as they pass by, a habit that has followed her since childhood. A habit that serves her well when she paints.
The estate is located half a shichen away from the inn and Taenggu gradually falls asleep only to be shaken up by Heechul.
“Wake up. We’re at the estate.” Heechul clucks in disgust. “And wipe the drool from your mouth.”
Sitting up and blinking, Taenggu recalls what they are here for. Yes, the interview. The Hwangs. The daughter. Got it. She extracts a handkerchief and dabs her mouth and chin. How embarrassing.
“Please follow me.” Lim Dayu leads the way and they follow.
The waiting room is an ostentatious display of the Hwang’s wealth. The colours. The gold. The drapes. The calligraphy. Taenggu looks at everything and is unimpressed. Not because it isn’t rich enough. But rather, having been to as many waiting rooms as they have, there is nothing new about this anymore.
Tea is brought out by servants. Snacks on little plates, expensive no doubt. But are they delicious? Taenggu puts one sugary little cube in her mouth to find out. Mmm, chewy. And sweet. Melts in your mouth. Very nice. Taenggu pops another into her mouth and chews happily. She manages to empty her little plate and sneak one of Heechul’s before Lim Dayu reappears.
“Our young mistress is waiting in the garden. This way please.”
The colours in the structure extend along the path to the garden. Wealth that can afford this is definitely no mean feat. A commoner’s home would be a plain wooden brown structure. Colour is a luxury that only the elite few can splurge on.
Colour is a luxury. But in certain cases, luxury pales in comparison to nature. And the perfect epitome of that is the young woman who is rising from her seat to welcome the artist. Like a flower opening up to the sun for the first time, Taenggu is stunned by the sheer warmth that emanates from this beautiful vision standing before her. Stepping forward, she hopes her surprise isn’t too apparent and stiffens her back to pull in her full height. The daughter of the Hwangs holds out the long skirt of light pink silk and curtsies.
“Thank you so much for coming, Artist Kim” the young mistress says to Heechul.
Not again. Taenggu suppresses the urge to roll her eyes. She takes another step forward so that she stands in front of Heechul and says, “Artist Kim.” She returns the greeting with a bow and her eyes fly right back to the young mistress’ face on her way back up. “Artist Kim Taenggu.”
Confusion sets in the mistress’ eyes as she looks from Taenggu to Heechul and back. Fortunately for her, Lim Dayu is there to save the day.
“I made the same mistake too,” he says with a polite chuckle. “But this young lad is the artist, Kim Taenggu. And his companion is his agent, Heechul.”
Taenggu barely smiles as she turns to the young mistress and says, “I am very pleased to meet you.”
The young mistress looks at Taenggu for a moment, then turns to Lim Dayu and smiles. “Please, would you help me to show Artist Kim’s agent around while we talk?”
Lim Dayu bows and says, “Of course. As you say, Mistress.”
Heechul is a little less subservient than Lim Dayu and Taenggu has to frown at him, wordlessly demanding him to obey. Her reason for doing so isn’t known to her. But at this very moment, the presence of the two men is highly superfluous anyway. And with the men gone, she is free to have an open conversation with the young mistress.
“Don’t hang around me like a fly. Go on, follow Dayu and enjoy the beauty of this garden.”
For a moment, Heechul looks as if he is about to find a reason to stay. But he doesn’t, and walks to Dayu’s side instead. “We won’t be too long.”
Only then does Taenggu smile. “Take your time.”
“Please, have a seat, Artist Kim.”
“After you, Miss Hwang.”
They end up taking their seats at the same time. Taenggu can’t help smiling when the young mistress smiles at her. If Miss Hwang’s smile were a virus, the entire world would be infected within days.
“Now that the coast is clear, ask me what you wish to find out.”
Why is your smile so beautiful? “Who decided to have your portrait commissioned?”
“That would be me.”
“Please tell me the reason.”
“I would like to preserve this part of myself. My youth. So that I won’t forget.”
“What do you want to remember?”
“The way I am now. What I am. The things I want to do. My dreams for the future.”
“What are your dreams?”
The young mistress pauses, her eyelashes fluttering as she blushes slightly. “I do not wish to say what they are.”
“That’s alright. But if I am to paint your portrait, you will have to be able to feel free in my presence. Should there be any reserve, or awkwardness, my painting will reflect it and you will not enjoy looking at it.”
“What you say makes sense, but for me to feel free in your presence, I must know you better too.”
Taenggu did not see this coming. Not one of her commissioners has ever requested to know more about her. What is she to say now? Heechul is nowhere near enough to save her from this. “Is it really necessary?”
“Of course it is. There are many things I would like to know about you.”
Taenggu shifts uncomfortably. “Such as?”
“Who taught you to paint?”
“I picked up my father’s calligraphy brush when I was a young child and painted the walls with drawings. My parents told me those drawings were surprisingly mature.” Taenggu smiles. “That did not stop them from scolding me for it though. Later on, they bought me papers to paint on.”
“Why didn’t they send you to learn the art of it?”
Because I am not their son. “It’s a mystery to me.”
Gentle eyebrows dip into a frown. “How odd. Are you the eldest son?”
“The only son?”
Taenggu nods again.
“Stranger and stranger.” Then the frowns eases into a smile. “Perhaps they saw that you do not require a teacher and preferred to let you explore on your own.”
“That is plausible.” Taenggu’s level of discomfort is rising. She does not wish to lie any more than she needs to. “What about you?” she asks, shifting the focus back onto Miss Hwang. “Do your parents require you to procure some skills?”
“Oh, the usual. A bit of this and that. Song, instrument, needle and thread, some literature . . .”
“Which is your favourite?”
“I enjoy reading. And song.”
“What is your favourite story?”
“The Yang’s Heroine.”
Taenggu raises a brow. “The female warrior?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
I do understand. It’s just surprising, coming from a girl like you. “Help me to understand. Tell me why.”
“She doesn’t sit around and wait for things to happen. She isn’t a flower waiting to wilt. I admire her guts to take action, to stand up for her country, her family, to protect the things she care for. I admire her strength.”
Taenggu smiles. “Are you strong too? Are you brave too?”
Resignation resides in those beautiful eyes. “Circumstances . . .”
Taenggu can definitely relate to that. She sighs along with the young mistress. “Circumstances indeed.”
“You sound sad.”
Big round concerned eyes meet hers when Taenggu looks up. Realizing Miss Hwang has successfully made her forget who she is supposed to be, she questions the wisdom in agreeing to accept this commission. But there are times when the urge to live life on the edge revs up and refuses to back down. So despite knowing that she is courting trouble and a great big risk of exposing her true identity, Taenggu nods and plasters on a smile. “I will accept your commission. Would you like it to be life-sized?”
There is a sparkle in Miss Hwang’s eyes. “Yes, please. I would love it to be the exact size.”
Taenggu nods. “It is time for Heechul to come back.”
At those words, the young mistress signals for the nearest maid and instructs her to fetch Lim Dayu and Heechul. Coincidentally, the men are strolling back as the maid walks out and Taenggu puts her palm out for Heechul’s little black book. She scribbles on an empty page and tears it out, ignoring Heechul’s questioning eyes the entire time.
“This is my price for the painting. If you and your family are agreeable to it, send Lim Dayu to fetch us tomorrow at the same time.”
The young mistress takes the paper from Taenggu and nods. Without looking at the contents of the paper, she smiles and says, “See you soon, Artist Kim.”