Something is very wrong. Taeyeon looks to Dayu in her moment of anxiety and he looks just as worried as she is. The front doors are ajar and shouts can be heard from the road outside—not exactly what she had been expecting when she arrived at the arranged time to continue the painting. The shouts are harsh and intimidating, even from this distance. What is happening in there?
“Wait.” Dayu stops her from entering. “It’s not safe for you.”
“Take the horse and carriage. Get any help you can. Fast.”
Taeyeon nods, knowing there’s little time to lose. “Stay safe, Dayu.”
He nods and she’s off, going in the direction of the next household.
This is the end. Surely, this is the end. Miyoung huddles in a corner, shaking in fear. These men are not strangers to her. They have been here before. But each time they come, they only turn scarier and scarier. More and more violent. They had taken furniture away the last time they came. And some paintings too. But this time, they don’t seem interested in taking anymore of the Fan’s valuables.
“You had two weeks to pay us back. Seems to me you did not take me seriously.” The man bends over her husband who is sprawled on the floor, shivering as though he had been doused with ice cold water. “What do you have left to offer me?” Turning shrewd eyes to Miyoung, he flashes a smile that is more likely to induce nightmares than happy thoughts. Miyoung turns away quickly, shuddering inside, but that doesn’t stop the other two bulky men from grabbing her arms.
“Please,” she begs, “please let me go.”
“Not her,” says Master Fan. “Take anything but her.”
“You can’t stop me from taking your wife. She’s the only thing of value in this God forsaken place right now.”
“Jewellery. I have jewellery.”
“You held back from me the last time,” the man growls, shrewd eyes hardening into the beady eyes of a snake. “Show me the jewellery.”
Miyoung does not dare to move a muscle as Master Fan struggles to stand. The man strides towards her and squats to meet her at face level, increasing her anxiety level two-fold.
“I haven’t introduced myself. I am Shao Linsi, the fourth out of eight brothers in my family. As you know, I am a loan shark,” he says, smiling like a hungry shark, “and I always get more than my money back.”
Miyoung is trembling so much that her teeth are beginning to chatter but she is spared from talking by the return of her husband with a handful of jewellery. Pearly necklaces, golden hairpins. She had no idea her husband had stashed these away somewhere. But one of the designs catches her eye and she screams, “No! That’s your mother’s! That’s your heirloom!”
“Shut up and mind your own business!” Master Fan yells but he is silenced by a cold glare from the loan shark.
Linsi picks out the pearl necklace. “This?”
Miyoung shakes her head. “The golden hairpin.”
He picks out a golden hairpin with numerous precious stones set into its frame. “This?”
“Y-Yes.” Was it a mistake to mention the heirloom?
“Heirlooms are precious, aren’t they?” Linsi paces the floor between them, holding the hairpin in one hand. “So what will you be willing to do to keep it?”
Miyoung realizes then that she should not have spoken. But the deed has been done and time cannot be reversed. “Please give us one more chance. You can take it if we can’t pay up the next time.”
“Next time, next time, next time. It’s always next time. Do you know how many times I hear the phrase ‘next time’? Do you know that it never happens? No. I want a substitute.” Linsi grabs her chin and runs the tip of the hairpin down her cheek. “You are worth something. I can take you and leave the hairpin here.”
“No! You cannot take her! She’s my wife!”
“She’s a beautiful woman who would look much better if she followed the right man.” Linsi takes three quick strides and shoves Master Fan back onto the floor with his foot. “As you can see, I will be able to make her happier than you can.”
“No, please. Take the heirloom.”
“I’m surprised. You seem to treasure your wife a lot but why does she look so terrible? You’re weak. You can’t take good care of her.”
Miyoung screams when the two men hoist her up by her arms and march her across the room to Linsi. He takes her face in his palms and leans close, lips almost touching. “Don’t worry, beautiful. I know how to make a woman happy. You’ll be very happy tonight.” His crooked smile sends even more panic into her mind and she struggles against the hands holding her to little effect. “Don’t be scared. I’m very gentle at night,” he says and launches into an unbridled guffaw.
A body hurtles at Linsi, knocking him over. Miyoung gasps in shock when she realizes it’s her husband. Linsi is back up on his feet in a second and he roars with rage. “You worthless git!”
“Leave her alone!”
Miyoung winces when Linsi foot meets her husband’s stomach. With her arms held back by Linsi’s henchmen, she is unable to help her husband as he stumbles back and falls flat.
“Nobody! Nobody has been stupid enough to resist!” yells Linsi in between kicks. “I will take what I want! I always get back more than I loan out, you piece of trash!”
Tears are streaming down Miyoung’s face but she barely notices it as the sight of blood flowing out of her husband’s mouth and nose shocks her into even more tears.
“Stop!” a new voice hollers.
Dayu! Miyoung stares. Is it really him? She is half relieved to see him but fear for his safety overshadows the better feelings. “Go! Run!” she screams.
“Who are you to tell me what to do?” Linsi stops kicking Master Fan and turns to face Dayu. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“I’m here to make you an offer.”
Linsi checks Dayu out from head to toe. “You’re rich.”
“I have some money, but I’m not rich.”
“I don’t care about that. What’s the offer?”
“I’ll pay, whatever it is he owes you.”
“Are you sure you can afford to?” Linsi sneers.
“State the amount owed and I’ll find a way.”
“One thousand taels.”
Miyoung can’t help noticing the wince on Dayu’s face. It is too much for him, she knows. One thousand taels is way too much for Dayu to handle, even if he is better off than before.
“How did it amount to one thousand taels?” Dayu asks, turning an expression of disgust to the man cowering on the floor.
“First he borrowed one hundred. Then he borrowed another two hundred. Another hundred after that. And you know, we businessmen depend on the cash flow. I have to charge him interest for holding on to my money for so long.”
“A thousand is a little steep.” Dayu nods at the jewellery. “That should pay for some of it.”
Linsi doesn’t look impressed by the pearl necklaces. “That might be worth a hundred taels but it won’t pay the loan.”
“Those pearls are bigger than average. And look at the colour. These pearls are in the premium range. You can mark up the price when you sell them.”
“Hmm, and how would I know you’re not lying just to help them?”
“I am not their friend—”
Linsi snorts. “Why would you be here if you’re not their friend? Do you think I’m naïve enough to believe you?”
“I am not their friend. I am only here to help my wife to paint Madam Fan.”
“Paint?” Linsi laughs hard. “These two here are in so much debt but they can afford to pay for an artist to paint her?”
“My wife is painting Madam Fan in exchange for their family recipe. You see, my wife is fond of the dessert Madam Fan makes.”
“Ah, that dessert . . .” Linsi nods. “It is nice. But where is your wife? Isn’t she supposed to be here to paint?”
“I’m here.” Taeyeon steps out from behind a wall and Miyoung almost shrieks from the tension that is coiling up and released at the same time. Their eyes barely meet before Taeyeon turns to the loan shark. “I’m the artist who is painting Madam Fan, Kim Taeyeon.”
Linsi’s eyes widen at once. “P-Painter T-Tae—”
“Yes, I am the artist, Painter Taeyeon.”
“Oh my heavens, my mother loves your paintings!”
Linsi nods and frowns. “She’s been bugging us, saying we’re useless because we can’t get her a renowned artist to paint her like our neighbour.”
“That’s not a problem. I can paint your mother.”
“Y-You can? You can paint my mother? Right now? Today?”
Taeyeon looks at Dayu. “Are we available today?”
Dayu shakes his head. “You’re supposed to paint Madam Fan today. By the time you’re done, daylight would no longer be sufficient for another painting.”
Miyoung speaks up right then. “I will give up the painting session for Master Shao Linsi’s mother.”
“Oh my heavens.” Linsi raises his fists in the air. “Mother will love me the most if I can bring Painter Taeyeon to her. “I will take the jewellery as partial payment of the loan.” He turns to Master Fan and growls at him. “You’re lucky today. I’ll let you off for now. But you will have just one week. Listen. One week. I’ll be back.”
“Now, hold on,” says Dayu. “What about Painter Taeyeon’s fee?”
Linsi waves his hand dismissively. “Price is no object to us. Anything to make our mother happy.”
“In that case, let’s make a deal.”
Dayu smiles. “Painter Taeyeon’s paintings normally cost anything between fifty to three hundred taels, depending on the size of the painting. If your mother wants a life-sized painting, it will cost her a hundred taels for a Zen-style painting. If she prefers elaborate paintings with minute details, it will take two to three extra days and it will cost two hundred taels.”
Dayu pauses and turns to smile at Taeyeon. “Hence, I propose that the fee be used as payment for the loan. Including the jewellery, I believe the repayment amount today is at least four hundred taels. On top of that, we will put in another four hundred taels. This means you’re getting back double of what you loaned out, not including all the valuables you took from them before. It should be enough to cancel the debt entirely.”
“You are a smart man, but you are forgetting one thing.” Linsi grins, looking more menacing than friendly. “I can beat you up into a pulp and your precious artist will still have to paint my mother.”
Dayu shakes his head. “I don’t think your mother will appreciate any mistreatment of her favourite artist, however. And if you harm us, you won’t be able to get your mother a painting from Painter Taeyeon.”
Linsi’s grimace is long and exaggerated as he weights the options Dayu had laid out in front of him. “Fair enough, I’ll accept the terms. I get the jewellery and four hundred taels more. And my mother gets her painting. We start today.”
Miyoung remains where she is, held by the henchmen as Taeyeon walks to her. Tears are close to raining down like the thunderstorm and a myriad of twisted emotions besiege her from the inside.
“My apologies, Madam Fan. I have to take my leave now.”
There are a thousand and one meanings in Taeyeon’s eyes but Miyoung doesn’t want to acknowledge them. It is best if she doesn’t cause Dayu and Taeyeon anymore trouble. Just the thought of their six-hundred-tael sacrifice is enough to keep her undeserving head hanging low.
“Madam Fan? Are you alright?”
“Yes, I am fine. Please, go ahead.” Miyoung bites her lip to stem her sob. “I apologize for all the trouble, on behalf of the Fans. And my family.”
“Long ago, when I was poor and in trouble, a wealthy young mistress gave me the most precious experience of my life and helped me to see hope in the future. So trust me when I say I understand what it is like to be in need of help. I can empathize completely. So let me help you as well.”
Miyoung cannot bring herself to meet Taeyeon’s beautiful eyes. She doesn’t deserve to have such kind eyes watching over her. She doesn’t.
“Thank you,” is all she can say.