Miyoung wonders if she is losing her mind so much that her ability to process words has been affected as well.
“What did you just say?”
Lim Dayu shifts his hands and Miyoung spots uncertainty flashing in his countenance as he repeats the confession. Another hundred questions zip through her mind then but she picks just one to ask.
“Just to be clear, are you referring Taenggu as a man or . . .?”
Lim Dayu nods and takes quick look over his shoulder. “Young Mistress Hwang, please trust me. I’m on your side.”
“It must be hard for you. To discover Taenggu’s true identity.”
Lim Dayu shakes his head. “My love can only be a little more than admiration. I was never in the running for it. My gender is the biggest hindrance, obviously. On top of that, the way you defend her is so touching that I forget my own feelings so you don’t have to worry about me.”
“Dayu . . . is this why . . .”
“Since long ago, I had already resigned myself to a lonesome life. But I am thankful to have this family that accepts me and treats me well. I like being your protector. I am happy here.”
A swell catches in Miyoung’s throat as her heart goes out to the man she had practically grown up with. Even as children, he had always taken care of her and yet she had not known about the cause for his singlehood until now.
“Don’t be sad, Young Mistress Hwang. I am alright, really. I am still the same man you have always known. The same boy your father rescued from the street. And I will never forget your father’s kindness in giving my mother a proper burial.”
“I wish I had known. How many times I must have said things that upset you without knowing that you would be hurt.”
“You are very kind. Just like your father.”
Miyoung frowns. “My father is not kind.”
“If he were kind, he wouldn’t lock Taenggu up and refuse to let her go.”
“Your father is very angry because your virtue has been sullied. If you had not been found in Taenggu’s room, I doubt your father would mind her gender deceit as much.”
Miyoung hangs her head. “So it is my fault that Taenggu is in trouble now.” The sound of doors closing raises her head and she sees Lim Dayu striding back to her with determination written all over his face. He squats beside her and looks intently into her eyes. “What is it?”
Still holding her gaze, Lim Dayu says, “I can rescue her if you wish.”
“Really?” Miyoung can’t breathe. “How?”
“I will think of a way.”
“But I don’t want you to get into trouble either.”
Lim Dayu smiles. “Your father may not say it, but to him, I am part of the household, his estate and I would even go as far as to say he regards me as part of the family, in his own way. If I were to be caught, I would be subjected to punishment but he will not destroy me.”
“But I don’t want you to be punished.”
Lim Dayu shakes his head. “You must have a little more faith in me. Stop assuming I will get caught. Starting believing that I can rescue Taenggu and set her free.”
“Is it really possible?” Miyoung hopes against hope that there is hope yet.
“Trust in me. Believe in me. If rescuing Taenggu is your greatest wish, I will fulfil it for you.”
Miyoung nods without hesitation. “Saving Taenggu from going to court is my greatest wish.”
“Even if you might never see her again?”
Lim Dayu’s question tears a chunk of her heart right out of her chest and for a moment, she finds it hard to breathe. But circumstances do not allow her the luxury of heartache or self-pity. The situation leaves her with no choice. She is the reason for Taenggu’s troubles so it is her responsibility to get Taenggu out of it. Even if . . .
“Save her.” Her eyes close and Taenggu’s face appears, vivid as her self-portrait hanging in the great hall. She would never get to see Taenggu as Taeyeon now. Taenggu was right. They were never meant to be from the start. “Save Taeyeon.”
“Yes, Young Mistress Hwang.”
Acting upon Lim Dayu’s advice, Miyoung lays low for the rest of the day. She eats the meals that are delivered to her room, as bland as they taste, and she even attempts to read a book. It is impossible, however, for her to focus on the words and her eyes always find their way to the window, no matter how hard she tries not to.
Shichen after shichen crawl by and by the time the sun sets, Miyoung can barely wait for night to drape darkness over everything so that she may cry. Shortly after dinner (which she forces herself to eat without a fuss), heavy footsteps approach her room. She knows it is her father, so she scurries to her table and sits with a book.
The doors open and he steps in. She rises from her chair with the grace she had been taught to display. “Father.”
“You have calmed down.”
Miyoung nods but says nothing more.
“Good. You are still reasonable at least.”
“I still hope you will let Taenggu go.”
“That is not possible.”
“I don’t understand why you are so determined to send her to jail. She is just a girl. A few months older than me. She could have been your daughter.”
“My daughter will never disguise herself as a man and go around lying to people.”
“Why can’t you see beyond her one lie? Why can’t you sympathize with the girl who lost her home and was forced to find a way to survive? Why can’t you empathize with her situation?”
“She is a fraud who tricked you into her dirty world.”
Miyoung closes her eyes and takes a deep breath to stop her anger from erupting. “You’ve always been a kind man. Why can’t you show her a bit of mercy? I have not come out of this any worse off.”
“If it weren’t for the fact that you have suffered no net loss, the fraud will not even be alive right now. What I am doing is already a great discount to her.” Her father breathes heavily and frowns. “You are still under her spell. But I am sure Young Master Fan will be able to fix that. I have accepted his bid for your hand in marriage. You will be his wife by the next month and you will learn the proper way to lead your life.”
Tears are leaking from Miyoung’s eyes even though she wills them not to. Faced with her father’s stubborn doors that refuse to open, she clings on to the hope that Lim Dayu gave her when he promised to save Taenggu from her father. Taenggu’s freedom and safety is all that she can hope for.
That very night, Miyoung sits by her window and looks at the stars in the sky. She longs to go back to her spot under the tree where Taenggu painted her. But she is still not allowed to leave her room and incurring her father’s wrath is not a good idea if she wants to protect Taenggu.
“Taeyeon,” Miyoung tests the name on her tongue. There is a nice ring to the name. And an even nicer face attached to the name. “Taeyeon.”
A gentle knock on the door startles Miyoung. But she hurries to it, knowing that Lim Dayu is the only one who would come at this time of the night.
“I’ve brought the oil that you need to sleep,” he announces for the benefit of the maids in the next room and nods towards the table in her room. He closes the doors before joining her and her anxiety is overflowing as he sits.
“Are you going to help her to escape tonight?”
Lim Dayu nods. “Master Hwang plans to send her to court first thing in the morning. It has to be tonight.”
Miyoung swallows the lump in her throat and tries to breathe normally. This is much sooner than she is ready for but she reminds herself that this is not about her. “Okay.”
“Do you have anything for Taenggu?”
Lim Dayu has avoided using any of the words related to their impending separation but Miyoung knows that this is her last chance to tell Taenggu about her feelings. “I will write a letter. Please give me a moment.” Miyoung rises and retrieves some papers and her writing tools from the drawer chest. Dipping her brush into the ink, she takes a moment to decide how she can begin the letter. There are a million things to say but only a fraction of a shichen to write them. Lim Dayu remains quiet giving her the space and time but she knows how important each passing moment is so she puts the brush to paper and writes as quickly as she can. She fills the paper with the worst calligraphy she has ever written, folds it and slips it into an envelope. Then, she goes to her box of jewellery and takes out the pair of exotic seashell earrings. They go into the envelope as well and she seals it with a kiss.
“Please be careful, Dayu. And thank you. I owe you everything for this.”
Lim Dayu pats her hand. “Consider this my way of repaying you for your kindness to me, all these years. You have never made me feel entirely like a servant and for that, I am always grateful.”
“Dayu . . .” Miyoung’s eyes fill with tears yet again.
Miyoung blinks, shocked to hearing her name falling from his lips but before she can utter another word, he has risen and left her room. It is only when she goes to close the door that she realizes she has absolutely no idea how Lim Dayu intends to help Taenggu escape.