What was I thinking? Taenggu leans against the door, eyes closed, chest heaving from the hurried steps she took all the way from the garden. I’m losing it. I’m losing my mind. I’m going to give myself away and Heechul is going to say ‘I told you so’. Then I’m going to end up in jail for fraud. I have to stop this. Stop it right now. Finish the painting and get out of here. This is a big mistake.
Taenggu goes to the bed and lies on it. If she was not pretending to be male, she would not have to live life like this. But if they had not made the decision to do this, they would probably be beggars on the street by now. Or bullied and beaten up. Left to die on the roadside. If they had not done this, they could never have afforded to buy warm clothing, let alone rent for a warm room during the cold winter months. Not to mention what would have happened to her, a female without the protection of a family or home. Lucky would be finding a husband who will demand children and daily chores from her. Unlucky would be . . . Taenggu shudders at the thought of being taken by a self-entitled man, stripped of her worth, and thrown back out onto the streets.
No, there are no regrets. Choosing this path was the best thing they could do to survive. Choosing this path was the only choice. Besides, she had always envied the freedom that men are endowed with. Pretending to be male is definitely not the worst. But getting caught will definitely be hell on Earth
The change is obvious. Taenggu’s answers are short, curt and while none of it can be considered rude, it is difficult to carry a conversation with him. This cold reality is a far cry from Miyoung’s eager expectations. After last night’s emotional exchange, she had thought he would be more open to her. Maybe it is the effect of daytime. Everything is bright. Everything is visible. So dark emotions run away and hide. But she doubts she will find him below the same tree ever again so how is she going to get him to talk?
“Thank you for your hard work today, Taenggu.”
“It is what I am paid to do, Miss Hwang.”
Miyoung bites her lip. Frustration with his standoffish attitude gives rise to the swell of tears in her eyes but she does not want him to see her cry over nothing. Somehow, her pride will not allow it. Keeping her head low, she does not meet his eyes when she replies, “I appreciate it, regardless.” She does not loiter after that.
“Little sis, where are you going in such a hurry?”
“I’m going back to my room.”
“Did it go well today? The painting?”
“I will have lunch with Taenggu at Jade Dragon today. Would you like to join us?”
Tempting. But probably not a good idea. “I wish to rest. I’ll have lunch at home.”
Miyoung returns to her room and sits at her dressing table. She stares into her mirror, fixes her hair and changes a pin. Then, she signs. What is wrong with her? Why is the artist affecting her mood like this? When did she begin to care for their conversations and when did she begin to care for him? Her eyes widen in the mirror. Care? Does she care for him? Is this why she is bothered when he is not talking to her like before? But she can’t care for him. Not more than a friend. Not when he will leave for another town soon. Not when her father has all the say in affairs of marriage. Her father has given her a wide enough berth as it is, considering how she even gets a choice in the man she is to marry.
She knows she is lucky to be the youngest daughter. She is lucky her older sister had already married the eldest son of the wealthiest family in the next town. The act alone had boosted both families’ businesses to entirely new heights as they combined two sectors of the jewellery business—production and retail—and streamlined the processes, increasing profit twofold. With this boost, her father is happy and comfortable and the necessity for her marriage to be of use to the family is lowered considerably. Of course, the men who are interested cannot fall below her father’s expectations and one of the requirements would be a wealthy family. Or wealth earned independently. Wealth, in general, any sort of wealth, is required.
Wealth. How wealthy is Taenggu? Would he qualify in her father’s eyes? And is she seriously considering this? Is she seriously thinking about marriage to Taenggu? How is it possible to even be thinking about marriage with a man she has known for all of six days? Where are all these feelings coming from?
She picks up her comb and runs it through her hair. Young Master Fan, Young Master He, Young Master Han, Young Master Lin. None of them tickle her fancy. None of them have Taenggu’s crystal clear eyes that seem to be able to see past her eyes. None of them have Taenggu’s look of concentration while painting. None of them are as talented as Taenggu. But all of them are richer than him. All of them come from stable families, large and fairly powerful. How does he compare against them? Who would she pick out of the five? The answer seems to be clear. Yet the answer does not seem to be ideal, nor is it practical. Does Taenggu even like her? Does he even want her? Would he be content to marry her and settle down in this town or the next? These are useless fantasies, she knows very well.
“Young Mistress Miyoung, your lunch is ready.”
Reality descends upon her like a splash of cold water and she puts her comb down. The thoughts of a bored young lady are so pathetic and embarrassing. Fortunately, her maid cannot read her thoughts.
“The painting is completed.”
“What?” Miyoung is not ready for Taenggu to leave. “It’s completed already?”
“I promised to complete the portrait within six days. Today is the fifth day.”
Taenggu smiles for the first time in the past two days. “Don’t you want to see it?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.” Miyoung stands with blood racing in her veins and forgets about Taenggu’s impending departure from her family’s estate. She hurries to his side and is immediately stunned into silence by the incredible depiction of her. Where is she to begin looking? Every bit of the portrait screams for her attention. Her eyes. Are her eyes really as mesmerizing as they look in the portrait? And her blissful expression. She has no words to express how beautifully she has been painted. Every strand of hair. Every bit of skin. Every crease in her clothes. The amount of detail is astounding. The accuracy is just—
“What do you think?”
Miyoung lifts her eyes to Taenggu’s in disbelief. “You painted this?”
His lips curl as his eyes sparkle with laughter. “Yes. I have been painting in front of you for five days. You are my witness.”
“Taenggu!” Wave after wave of emotion surge in Miyoung’s young heart and she throws her arms around him, hugging him with all her heart. But she jumping back in the next moment, casting a furtive glance behind her. Fortunately, her maid’s attention is taken by the stitching she is doing. “I have never seen a painting like yours. It’s like looking in the mirror but even more moving.”
Taenggu stands stiffly before her, looking as though he has seen a ghost. “Miss Hwang, I do not deserve this much praise from you. Much less the hug.”
“I’m sorry. I was overcome with emotion when I looked at it. You have exceeded my wildest imagination with this portrait. I believe both my brother and father will feel the same.”
Taenggu coughs out awkward chuckles. “You exaggerate.”
“I am not exaggerating.” Miyoung frowns. “Why can’t you accept my compliments? Your talent is unbelievable. Your style of painting is in a class of its own. You should be known throughout the land, like the great painters of the times before us.”
“If you say so.”
“Yes, I am saying so. And I will say so to anyone who asks. I will tell them even if they do not ask.”
“Er, you really don’t have to.”
“I don’t have to. But I want to. And I will do whatever I please.”
Taenggu bows. “Of course. Do as you please.”
Miyoung turns back to the portrait. “I can’t wait for Father to come home to see this. He’ll get a shock.”
“So I’m likely to get the rest of my pay.”
“Of course you will. My father does not go back on his word.”
“I’m not saying he would.”
Miyoung presses her lips into a thin line. Suddenly, Taenggu is the most irritating man in the world and she would love to stamp on his foot and wipe that detached expression from his face. Any expression would be better than the one he is wearing right now. But she reels in her feelings and puts on a smile. She has manners, after all.
“Young man, you are massively talented.”
Taenggu steels herself from flinching when Master Hwang pats his back. “Thank you, Master Hwang.”
“To be honest, I was sceptical about all the hype surrounding your painting skills but now I feel sorry for doubting you.”
“Oh no, you don’t have to feel sorry at all, sir.”
“With your talent, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Emperor caught wind of it and send for you to enter the palace.”
Taenggu pales at the thought of that possibility. “Surely not . . .”
“I have seen many works of art and I dare say, many of them cannot compare to yours. You certainly deserve the price you quoted for the job. In fact, I would say you undercharged for it.” Master Hwang reaches into his pocket and draws out a piece of paper. “Five taels as promised.”
Taenggu takes it with both hands and bows respectfully before keeping the bank note carefully. “Thank you, Master Hwang.”
“Be extremely careful with the painting. I want it hung up in the main hall. Make sure it is prominent.”
“Now, Taenggu. Since you have one more day to spare, I want you to join us for dinner tomorrow. You have not seen much of our estate and I’m afraid I have not been the best host to you.” Master Hwang turns to his daughter. “Miyoung.”
“Bring Taenggu around our estate tomorrow. Show him the library. And our art collection.”
“I will, Father.”
It is all Taenggu can do to stop herself from squirming. “Master Hwang, there’s no need for such generosity.” She tosses a look at Heechul who has stayed out of the limelight all this time. Save me! Much to her dismay, he simply shrugs. Stupid useless brother!
“What are you talking about. Of course, it is necessary. You cannot leave this estate without the pleasure of being treated like a treasured guest. Dinner tomorrow will be a grand affair, held in your honour. You must attend.”
Seeing no way out of this without incurring the displeasure of Master Hwang, Taenggu can only force a smile. “In that case, I will thank you in advance for the honour.”
“Not at all, Taenggu,” says Master Hwang with a jovial laugh. “Not at all.”
“Why didn’t you help me just now,” Taenggu rants once they get to their rooms.
“Couldn’t you tell how set he was in inviting you to stay?”
“Yes, that’s why I needed your help. You’re my agent. You’re the one who can say I have some kind of appointment tomorrow.”
“And why would you have any appointments when your official tenure here lasts till tomorrow? What sort of agent would I look like if I had planned an appointment knowing that you wouldn’t be able to make it?”
Taenggu sighs. “I don’t know.”
“What’s bothering you?”
“Is it that obvious?”
Heechul snorts. “I’m your b—” He casts a quick look around. “Come on, let’s go in and talk.” Taenggu enters her room with her brother and he closes the door after checking to see that the coast is clear. “There shouldn’t be anyone about at this time but it’s still better to be safe than sorry.” He sits at the round table and looks at her expectantly. “Now, tell me what’s wrong. Did something happen?”
“What do you mean?”
Taenggu buries her face in her hands. “I think the daughter likes me.”
“Hmm, why do you think so?”
Taenggu hesitates for the slightest of moments. “She hugged me this morning. After seeing the finished portrait.”
“Well, she isn’t the only client who has reacted explosively before. Your paintings are really quite spectacular, you have to understand that.”
“It’s not just the hug.”
“So there’s more? What else?”
Taenggu bites her lip. Does she want to tell Heechul about her encounter with Miyoung that night? Something held her back from telling him the next morning and something is holding her back from telling him now. It is a secret between her and Miyoung. A secret that she shares with Miyoung. It doesn’t feel right to share it with anybody else.
“What are you not telling me? What is it?”
“Well, she asks me many questions while I’m painting. And she talks to me a lot. But I can’t really explain it. It’s the way she looks at me.”
“Don’t worry. This isn’t the first client you’ve mesmerized with your charms. And you should know that little will come out of her infatuation with you. It’s not like her father is going to consider you as a husband for his daughter. Just decline her advances for one more day. Artfully. You’re good at that.”
Taenggu sighs. This is just wrong. This is all going wrong.
“Now what? It’s not really about her infatuation with you, is it?”
“What if—what if I have feelings for her too?”
“W-What do you mean?” Heechul’s eyes are wide open in shock.
“Every time I see her, she makes me happier and more troubled at the same time. It’s such an irony. I’m troubled because of how happy I am. But she has a magical quality about her. She makes me open up. She makes me want to tell her about everything. Everything about my life. I want to tell her about the darkest, scariest time of my life. But I also want to tell her about the best moments of my life. I want to share so many things with her, but I can’t.”
“Taenggu . . .” Heechul sighs, his eyes doleful. “It’s been hard on you. I know that. You are lonely and you need a friend. A friend you can share all sorts of things with. You’re at that age. And you would have had your friends if it weren’t for the bastards who destroyed our home. So don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s normal to wish for a friend to talk to.”
“I know. That’s what I’ve been telling myself for the past two days too. But I think it’s a little more than that.”
Heechul blinks. “What do you mean by a little more than that?”
Miyoung scolds herself all the way from her room to Taenggu’s room. But none of it works. Her feet continue taking steps forward and eventually, she finds herself standing outside his room. Just say your piece and go. You have nothing to be afraid of, Miyoung. With that thought in mind, she is about the knock on his door when a voice rises from the room.
“No! That’s just wrong!”
“Shh! Don’t yell!”
“You must be mistaken. You are too lonely. Too desperate for a friend. That’s why you think you have feelings for her.”
Miyoung freezes with her fist in the air. Feelings for her?
“I know what I’m feeling. It’s not a mistake. I’m not confused. And that’s why I’m troubled.”
“You can’t possibly have those kinds of feelings for her. How is it possible? Have you forgotten who you really are? You—her—you’re both—”
“I know. I see who I am every day. I know who I really am. But despite everything, seeing her still makes me very happy. It’s a kind of contentment. Like I’ve found my home.”
“How would you know what it feels like when you haven’t had any experience in this area?”
“There are things that I just know. Exactly like the way I know how to paint. It feels right. It feels exactly like this. And it’s about the same feeling I get when I paint. It’s indescribable.”
Miyoung pulls her fist back and steps away from the door. Her heart is thumping harder than it has ever thumped in her life. Did she hear it right? Or is she hallucinating? She flees the scene and scurries back into her room, closing the doors behind her. Oh, dear heavens. Does she dare to trust what she had just heard? Because if what she heard is true, it would mean Taenggu has feelings for her. More-than-friends kind of feelings. But Taenggu’s agent wasn’t making much sense. What was he so convinced that Taenggu is mistaken about his feelings? Why can’t Taenggu have feelings for her? And what was the bit about forgetting who he really is? Is that the secret that Taenggu is hiding? Is Taenggu hiding an identity? And if that is true, his true identity is likely to be an obstacle to his feelings.
Miyoung runs to her bed and squeals into her pillow. The uncertainties raised by the conversation are outweighed by the glaring admission of Taenggu’s feelings for her. Let her troubles fall by the wayside. For now, all she wants to do is sink into the bliss of knowing that Taenggu has feelings for her too.