The chill threatens to cut through her skin but Miyoung is not deterred. She pulls the furry part of her robe and tucks her chin into the warmth as she scurries along the corridor. All is quiet, as is expected at this time of the night. But one cannot be too cautious so she keeps close to the walls and glides among the shadows. She is panting slightly when she reaches the door of Taenggu’s room. All she will do is peep. That’s all. She just wants to know that he is alright. A peep and she will go. A peep. Just a quick p—
What was that sound? Miyoung freezes and holds her breath to listen. A moan. It’s a moan. Miyoung is sure. Taenggu is in pain. All sense of propriety abandons her right then and she pushes the door open just enough to slip in. Another quick check assures her that no one saw her entering and she moves quickly to Taenggu’s bed.
He is lying in an awkward way. One arm over his head, the other splayed wide open, falling behind his back. His body is on its side and his knees are pulled up. The covers are kicked to a corner and he looks cold.
“How can you even sleep like that?” she asks the sleeping man, shaking her head at him even though it changes nothing. She begins to tug the covers over his body but on second thought, decides that she should move him onto his back. Hand on his shoulder. Hand on his back. Tug and hold. Taenggu settles onto his back, shifts his legs and turns his cheek onto the pillow.
As Miyoung’s eyes grow accustomed to the dark room, she realizes that Taenggu is still wearing his dinner outfit. How odd. Why didn’t Heechul and Dayu change his clothes for him? Taenggu moans again, an uncanny comedic timing that makes her giggle. Until she realizes that his clothes are coming loose. Her cheeks heat up. And her breathing deepens. Taenggu’s features are so fine, even under the pale moonlight. And so fair. Taenggu is so fair. And his skin, so soft . . .
Miyoung snatches her hand back in shock. She touched him. Alone in the room. In the dark. Her young teenage heart thumps in her chest and she flushes. His cheek is smooth like a baby’s. His jaw . . . is smooth too? Miyoung frowns. She has touched her brother’s chin before. It doesn’t feel like that. Strange. Come to think of it, he has slender hands for a man too. The talented fingers that wield the paintbrush are slim. And his palm . . . she has been staring at his hands all this time without realizing how small they are. These things don’t add up somehow.
The lump she felt when they hugged comes to mind now. He had said it was his bandage. But even a bandage wouldn’t be that thick, would it? Things have already gotten to this stage . . . she might as well check on it. Miyoung tugs his clothes open so that his bandage is exposed. She bends low and takes a closer look. It is not really a bandage? She runs her hand over the lump. Taenggu moans again. Snatching her hand back at the sound, she freezes, praying hard that he does not come to. He does not. So she touches the lump again. It is either he has some kind of weird growth on his chest or . . .
No. Don’t tell me . . . is it possible that Taenggu is . . .
Miyoung gasps. Taenggu has two lumps on his chest, smooth skin that is fairer than a maiden’s and fingers slender like a lady. The word is lady. Miyoung had heard many stories of girls disguising themselves as boys before. They do it for various reasons. To sneak out of the house and explore the world outside. To find jobs. To avoid the unwanted attentions of males. To replace their old ailing fathers in the military even. In short, to free themselves from the limitations of being the fairer sex. The question is: Is Taenggu one of them?
There is one way to be sure. She can’t remove the bandage since it will be too hard to replace it without Taenggu waking up. But she can check between Taenggu’s legs. If Taenggu is a girl, she would not have . . . a lump . . . there. All she has to do is pull down the covers . . .
A sudden gust of wind rattles the windows and door, unsettling her nerves. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she hovers her hand right between Taenggu’s legs. Is this right? Should she be touching Taenggu like this? When Taenggu is unable to fend for himself—or herself? Of course not! But she has to be sure, doesn’t she? Just a quick touch. A very quick—oh heavens. No lump. A second check. Just in case. No lump. Miyoung stumbles backwards, hand on her mouth in a silent gasp. Oh heavens.
Taenggu is a girl.
She reels from the indisputable truth as at once, all the pieces of the puzzle snap into place.
“Given her youthful innocence and charm, it would be hard to remain unmoved in her presence. But it is not to be, so both he and she should be content to keep the good memories and be happy with what they have.”
“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—”
“Taenggu is unable to take wine well. Let me drink it on his behalf.”
Heechul. Taenggu has been travelling with Heechul. Miyoung’s blood runs cold. Are they actually husband and wife? The cold departs as quickly as it arrived. No, it can’t be. If they were husband and wife, Taenggu wouldn’t have confessed to having feelings for—Miyoung shakes her head. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would Taenggu have feelings for her when they are both girls? Yet, Taenggu had made it clear when Heechul expressed the same doubts she is now carrying. If that’s the case, what is Taenggu’s relationship with Heechul? And what about her own feelings for Taenggu? She had been so sure that Taenggu was the man for her even though she knew that it was unlikely to be the case in reality. Are all those feelings misplaced then?
This won’t do. She can’t think properly in this state. She needs to sit down and think.
What in the epic depths of hell is this pain? Taenggu groans and opens her eyes only to shut them right away. Too bright, too bright! My head hurts. My brain throbs. Help. It is a while before Taenggu finds the strength to sit up in bed. She clutches her head with both hands, trying to will the throbbing away but it doesn’t make her feel any better. The room tilts a little as she swings her legs off the bed and attempts to stand. Closing her eyes helps but her lips are parched and she needs water. She can’t sit here on the bed forever. A knock on the door sets off another round of throbs.
“Come in,” she says, her voice lacking its usual clarity and strength.
The door opens. It is Heechul. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“Can’t you tell? I’ve never felt better.”
Heechul snickers. “Sounds like you’re totally fine this morning.”
Taenggu shots a poisonous glare at her brother. “Are you here to show care for your artist or to drive your artist up the wall?”
“I’m actually here to deliver a gift from the young mistress.”
Taenggu’s eyes widen. “Miyoung?”
Heechul eyes her in a way that Taenggu recognizes as the you-are-treading-on-thin-ice-here-sister look. “Here.” He sets a little bottle on the table. Taenggu picks it up and extracts the wad of red cloth from the bottle neck to peer inside.
“Whatever it is . . . it’s really small.” Taenggu tilts the bottle and a tiny brown ball rolls out onto her palm. “What is it?”
“The young mistress said it’s for hangovers. Recommended by the family physician.”
“Oh.” Taenggu looks at the ball, appreciating Miyoung’s concern for her.
“You don’t have to look so pleased with yourself you know.”
“You’re just jealous of my charms.”
“Yes, yes. Very jealous.”
Taenggu takes no heed of Heechul’s sarcasm and pours some water for herself. Then she pops the pill into her mouth, takes a sip of water and tosses everything back with a big gulp. Her head is still throbbing however, so she returns to the bed and sits down.
“Once you’re feeling better, pack up your things. It’s time to leave.”
“Right.” Taenggu can’t stop her heart from sinking a little. It’s time to leave. It really is time to leave now. I couldn’t wait to leave yesterday but now that I have to . . .
Both Taenggu and Heechul turn to the door and blink at the lovely vision standing at the door. “Good morning, Young Mistress Hwang.”
“I’d like to have a word with Artist Taenggu in private. May I?”
Heechul exchanges a quick glance at Taenggu before smiling and nodding. “Of course. I shall return to my room and pack up my belongings. See you later, Taenggu.”
Only when the doors close does it occur to Taenggu that she is still in her clothes from yesterday. Dear heavens, how embarrassing can she get?
“Are you feeling better, Taenggu?”
Taenggu is preoccupied with tugging her clothes to neaten them. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Did you take the pill I sent to you?” Miyoung takes a step forward. “Are you feeling better?”
“Ah, yes. Thank you for the pill. I just took it.”
“The physician told me it will clear the mind within one shichen. I asked if he had anything that would take effect sooner but that was the best he had.”
“I’m very thankful already. You didn’t have to take the trouble to do this.”
“It’s no trouble at all. The physician was here to see me so I asked him to help with you as well. Anyway, you’re lucky. He only had pills for males on him. If you were a female, you wouldn’t be able to take the pill.”
Taenggu’s eyes widen with worry. “Why not? I mean, why can’t females take the pill?”
Miyoung scrounges up her face. “It has something to do with the yin and the yang. The pill complements the yang and strengthens the constitution but it clashes with the yin so females can’t take it.”
“What do you mean by ‘clashes with the yin’? What kind of clash is it?”
Miyoung seems to be blushing. “Well, if you must know, it will bring great pain during the monthly menses. The physician called it severe dysmenorrhoea. Stomach cramps will be unbearable.”
Taenggu pales at the thought of having unbearable stomach cramps. “That sounds terrible. How long will the effect last?”
“It’s potent. The physician said it will last for six cycles of the menses. Ah, but you’re not a female so you have nothing to worry about.”
Six months of unbearable stomach cramps?! Oh no. Oh no . . .
“Are you sure you’re alright? You look quite sick . . .”
Taenggu shakes her head. “I-I’m fine. I just need some rest.”
“Lie down then. Rest.”
Miyoung’s hands are on her shoulders, nudging her down, before she can react. Then the covers are thrown over her body, up to her chin. With Miyoung glaring at her, Taenggu has little choice but to close her eyes and pretend to fall asleep.
“Artist Taenggu is quite sick. The two of you should stay one more night. You don’t have to be in a hurry to leave.”
“Oh no, we have to. Taenggu is scheduled to interview Young Mistress Lee today.”
“In the condition he is in? He looks like he can barely stand on his own.”
“Is it that bad?” Heechul sounds truly alarmed and Miyoung has to fight to school her expression into the zone of utmost worry.
“It is that bad. What kind of agent would allow his artist to work under such conditions? Not to mention the lack of care you have shown him.”
“W-What do you mean?” Heechul asks. Fluster laces his tone and Miyoung knows she has him where she wants him.
“You brought him back to his room after he fainted last night but left him in his dinner clothes. Surely you could have changed his clothes so that he can rest more comfortably?”
Heechul opens his mouth and is about to say something but seems to think the better of it. Looking contrite, he mumbles an apology instead.
“If you’re truly sorry for your actions, you will let him rest here today and leave tomorrow.”
“You don’t understand. Taenggu does not like to go back on his word. For him, work must go on.”
“Young Mistress Lee is my friend. I can send her here for the interview if Artist Taenggu insists on having it.”
Heechul scratches his head and frowns. “Alright, we will have to trouble you to send Young Mistress Lee then.”
“What time is the appointment?”
“Three shichen later.”
Miyoung nods. “Dayu will bring her here at the scheduled time.”
“Thank you very much, Young Mistress Hwang. And I sincerely apologize for Taenggu’s . . .”
“It is no trouble at all. I am very glad to help Artist Taenggu. Without him, I wouldn’t have such a beautiful portrait of myself.”
Heechul bows. “It is our honour.”
“It is my pleasure.” With that, Miyoung turns and walks down the corridor, away from Taenggu’s room. Only then does she let a smirk slip onto her face. She has Taenggu exactly where she wants her.