The Forgotten

They ache across the great expanse/ And here I lie, sing Arirang/ ...My cold and distant beach - BONAVENTURE SAPTEL (TEMPORARY COVER**)

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1. PROLOGUE: part 1

Though the sword glinted tauntingly at him, the Prince showed no signs of rage, or even sadness. He simply knelt there, in the gathering dust, and let the guard hit him once more upside the head with the splintering wooden block. A few other guards stepped forward to inflict a beating as well and each time the Prince acted like a limp doll, flopping lifelessly to and fro. There was scarlet blood oozing down the weeping gash upon his forehead by then and blackened patches marred his trembling hands. Despite the frigid cold enveloping each frozen nerve in his body, his hair hung in matted; sweat coursing throughout the midnight channels which framed his paled face. He slowly raised his head at the looming men surrounding him.

There was a burning hate swimming in the depths of their eyes; a hate which he had never seen before. It pierced their shadowed faces and made their leering smiles shine with this overwhelming sense of pure animosity like the Prince was simply a bug beneath their boot clad feet.

Common people from the village were jeering now. They were throwing insults and slurs at the prisoner with the ferocity that only a malicious rumour could stir. Small, yet jagged stones thundered down upon his exposed back; crimson mingling pitifully with the tattered fabric being shredded to pieces. And as a particularly brutal throw managed to pin the Prince’s cut upon his neck, he let out a cry at the overwhelming pain.

One of guards grabbed the Prince’s head by a tuft of hair and forced eye contact. Through the face mapped with weary perspiration and slipping scarlet, the guard leaned forward and sneered at the escaping tear.  

“Pathetic,” the guard hissed.

Then the Prince cried. He clung to the unrelentingly hand clutching his hair as his body shook violently from the outpouring of emotion.

In the distance of the crowd, a few people were weeping as well. Mainly women; people he knew. Yet no one was willing to stop the sword from coming down into the deathly silence and slicing the air. No one made a sound as the Prince fell forward;

as he crumpled.

 

---

 

The dusty smell of ink mingled with the steam rising from the tea.

Prince CheongKu leant backwards and poked his head out the window. Fall had come early that year. The air was cooler with a tincture of earthiness and the autumnal notes which danced across the trees and rooftops of the palace, provided relief from the stuffy bedroom. Beside the Prince lay his brush and what seemed to be various attempts at calligraphy upon discarded paper. Across his small desk, sprawled rolls of parchment and splotchy stains from the dripping ink well, but nothing looked particularly out of place for the Prince didn’t look any more presentable than the furniture in front of him. With his messy hair and ruddy complexion many could have mistaken him as a common boy. Of course he’d been careful not to dirty the ends of his silk sleeves; however some of the ink was now floating lazily in his tea cup so he sighed, stood up, stretched, and casually tossed the spoiled tea out the window. Hopefully, no one was below…That is…it was merely the Friday past, that his bowl of soup had unfortunately landed upon the distinguished head of the visiting Imperial Official.

CheongKu nestled his head on the window sill, surveying his room for what felt like the umpteenth time that day. Apart from the gifted painting from his kind Uncle hanging on the wall, nothing had changed since he’d been bedridden with a fever the previous winter; with the minor exceptions of the Maids who came in every day to make his bed and bring him food. However anyone who entered the Jeon avoided conversation with him, though he tried to strike up a nice chat every other day. He really only received relief from his Eunuch, who came by just after breakfast every day, and the rare visits from family members. According to the daily reports, a lot had been happening outside the Jeon, but that didn’t really offer much use since he only ever got to see outside on special occasions. And even lately, those special occasions had become less frequent.

The Eunuch had told CheongKu that his father had dealt with various groups of thieves and bandits attacking villages. Also, the visiting Official, Governor Nianzu, had come from the Imperial Kingdom a part of the annual inspection; CheongKu’s sister, Princess CheongJi, had perfectly memorised another book and had shared this knowledge with the entire palace via recitals every five minutes. CheongKu wasn’t surprised to know about this since the relationship between the two siblings had never been all that positive. His mother had grown distant as well…

However, CheongKu had almost grown used to the tedious days confined to his room; ever since he could remember, diseases had been plaguing him left and right and he’d heard his doctor blame it on a weak heart. At first, he hadn’t really contemplated the consequences of this…but, as a young adult he now knew that all the other boys in the Palace talked about him behind his back and the staff treated him as if he were to break apart at any given moment. Being trapped in his room meant that he didn’t have to confront those pitiful gazes every time he wandered by. Being trapped in his room meant that he could be free of the responsibility of pretending to be strong. Being trapped in his room meant that he didn’t have to deal with his family.

Yet, that still didn’t solve the problem of boredom…

CheongKu picked up the book he had been reading before starting the letter, which was now illegible from the massive ink puddles running across the writing. The last time his father had managed to visit him within his hectic schedule, the King had given him a booked entitle: The Complete History of the Peninsula; and since then the Prince had been pouring over it like an excited child. As soon as the doctor permitted his leave, the Prince was going to pay a visit to his betrothed and show off his new found knowledge so that she didn’t assume he was a complete dunce like half the Court. She was one of the only reasons he dared disobey orders and leave his room…CheongKu found himself blushing horribly and decidedly buried his head into the book once more.

He’d just started reading about the Guardians. According to the historian, there were four mythical beings who stood guard by the gates leading into the Peninsula. Only in times of incredible distress did the Guardians awake from their slumber and therefore the Terrible Gulf War was one of the only recorded occurrences of any divine intervention.

“In the year XXX3,” CheongKu said, enthralled. “The Great King KwangSooJa led the offence against the rebels atop Peninsula Gulf. The build-up of tension over the stormy years leading up to the war created a bloody graveyard of heaving corpses and men holding onto life with their last shred of skin. Official records from the medics stationed in the surrounding villages seemingly lost most of their reports in the chaos; most of the houses and shops were to be razed to the ground by the beginning of battle…”

He skipped down to the bottom of the page and continued: “The North Gate was first to awaken and join battle. Swiftly followed by the South, East and West, they entered battle upon the backs of creatures of lore. Accounts vary, depending on the province; however it is generally recognised that the North rode atop a tortoise whose shell sucked light from the far corners of the battle field, the South swooped in with the mournful screeches of a phoenix, the East set fire to the enemies’ seemingly impenetrable territory with the mighty flame of his dragon and the West slashed many a soldier done with his fearsome tiger…”

There was something about the fantastical atmosphere which the story exuded that brought CheongKu near the brink of boyish excitement. As an only child at the time, his mother often doted on him and read many stories from the Palace Library every day; those stories had always sparked his interest.

CheongKu gently set the book down as he heard a potential visitor heading towards his room. He scrambled to his feet and rushed over to the sliding doors, pressing his face against the cool screen and surveying the two servants standing rigidly outside, bowing just as rigidly to anyone that wandered past. This had become a past time of his; occupying the sluggish hours with the childish pleasure of eavesdropping.

“Afternoon DaBin,” a weary voice muttered.

An elderly man had approached with his hand thoughtfully stroking his bristling beard. The brim of his hat obscured his face but CheongKu knew who it was. For more than half of his life, he’d been subjected to horribly boring lessons with this elderly man. He wondered why his teacher, Kang SeokJu, had bothered to come by the Jeon when his office was on the other side of the palace. He strained his ears to hear the conversation.

“S-sir,” the servant squeaked. “Is… there anything I can do for you? I don’t suppose you came here for…”

There was a pregnant pause. “Yes…yes…do you know where his Royal Highness might be? I do believe he may have forgotten our appointment.”

“His Majesty?”

There was another pause; much longer than the first, however, a shuffling of feet meant that the servant had withdrawn SeokJu away from any prying eyes.

CheongKu relieved more of his weight onto the door in the hopes of hearing anything. He frowned slightly at the tug of his robe as it caught the bottom of his shoe. If he wasn’t careful he’d come crashing into the hallway a terrible and thoroughly embarrassed mess.

“The Prince is still housebound I presume?” SeokJu murmured. He tipped his hat lower over his already shadowed face.

“Yes…The doctor says that he’s quite unstable from the fever. Moreover, people rarely come visit this part of the Jeon…”

“Going to plan then?”

Another shuffle of feet; perhaps from sheepishness or excitement; CheongKu couldn’t decide which. “More or less. Either way, it should…er…be completed by this evening.”

SeokJu laughed heartily. “Good. Good. Why, if anyone to hear us now they’d assume we were planning treason.”

A shaky laugh followed suit. “Can’t imagine the consequences, sir…d-death I assume…”

“Quite right. Death is the ultimate punishment for treason. Nothing good comes from being bad. Now, listen here DaBin, I really ought to make this quick. We mustn’t make ourselves more suspicious than we already are.” SeokJu lowered his voice, “you do realise that he may be listening…”

No answer.

Then the shadows shifted closer to the door and CheongKu took a hesitant step backward. “Well I must be off!” SeokJu announced rather loudly. “I do hope to see you at the banquet tonight, Prince CheongKu!”

CheongKu almost tripped as he bounded over to his desk just before the door slowly opened and a kindly old man popped his head in. His eyes had changed since they’d last met, in a way that could only be described as an unfathomable weariness which a young Prince couldn’t bear contemplate over. CheongKu shifted uncomfortably and shook his head. “I-I don’t think I’ll be going, teacher. The doctor came to see me the other day and said-“

“Such a pity,” SeokJu interjected. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I was hoping for your company since I’ve recently been acquainted with a text that I dearly wish to share it with you. I shall have to come visit then won’t I?” Then he turned and shuffled out, bowing so deeply that his beard gently brushed the floor.

CheongKu sighed heavily as the door slid shut and slid onto his bed. His heart was pounding rapidly against his frail chest but it wasn’t from fear; it was exhilaration. Whatever his teacher and the servant had been whispering about sounded awfully intriguing.

He couldn’t possibly imagine his dear Teacher committing any crime, moreover an act of treason. Perhaps what he’d just witnessed was merely a show to entertain him!

One summer he’d suffered a particularly ruthless attack of heat-stroke and had to stay in bed for a good few weeks. The doctor had just left following a daily check-up and then the door had suddenly popped open, letting a musky afternoon breeze wake the Prince from his afternoon nap. SeokJu had scuttled in with a puppet and a story book under his arm and together they had busied themselves till dinner with a very entertaining rendition of Heungboo and Nolbu. The queen had entered her son’s bedroom to find him jumping about onto the old man’s back, pretending to be a bloodcurdling demon; complete with the bloodcurdling screeching.

CheongKu tucked his arm under the small pillow beneath his head.

Yes…

That was the most likely answer…

 

A resounding bang on the door woke him up in such a hurry that there was another resounding bang as he hit the floor. Groggily, he rubbed his eyes and massaged the lump forming on his head. A few hours had passed since he’d unknowingly fallen asleep and the air was clipping with its icy fangs against his bare face. Though the candles hadn’t been blown out, a dense darkness lay over the room like a morning mist.

CheongKu lurched over to the door with his hands outstretched. He fumbled around in the gloom for the handle and gently slid the door open. He straightened and tried to hide the fact that he hadn’t brushed his hair in four days. “Yes!” He snapped, also trying to sound as dignified as possible.

Outside the room was eerily silent with only the small patter of footsteps scurrying past to indicate anyone actually lived in the Jeon. The eunuch clinging fervently to the doorframe was little more than boy; his face so ghostly pale that it glowed ominously in the despair etching his teary eyes. He heaved in a rattling breath while clutching at his quaking chest. “Y-your highness,” he gasped, “Y-you must escape. Now! You must go now!” The eunuch grabbed the Prince’s hand and tugged.

But CheongKu dug his heels into the wooden floor; confused. Whatever had spooked this poor boy surely wasn’t that bad. If it were truly dangerous then the palace guards should’ve come to escort him. “What’s happened?” he asked calmly.

Startled, the eunuch turned to the Prince and flailed frantically. “Rebels!” he squeaked, “Rebels attacked the palace! Governor Nianzu…he….he was shot! Hit by an arrow! Everyone has gone to escape and we must join them; I have a spare uniform to disguise you. But you mustn’t ask any more questions your Highness.”  

Governor Nianzu being murdered while under protection of the Imperial Kingdom…this was bad. CheongKu took the eunuch’s uniform being offered to him and quickly tugged the faded green coat over his royal robes. Then he nodded and silently followed the boy out into the open. He shivered. It was frosty outside; the trees topped with fine sheets of crystal film that twinkled against the mellow glow from the torches lining building walls. The pavement had been enveloped by evening rime so it made anything but slipping and sliding extremely difficult. If it hadn’t been for the frantic pulling from the eunuch, CheongKu would’ve liked to have revelled in the wonderland for a bit longer. He took a mental picture of the beautiful scene and let himself be dragged behind one of the many twisting walls. A hand clasped over his mouth.

The eunuch held a finger to his lips.

CheongKu stiffened. When he strained his ears, he could make out screams in the far corners of the palace. What worried him, was the grunting and scraping of metal growing ever nearer to them. He pressed his body against the mud brick, holding his breath in anticipation.

The eunuch’s fingers tightened around his wrist and he could tell that the boy was frightened. 

There was a thundering roar as two bulky men, clad in black robes, came barging into the courtyard. They were brandishing crude swords and covered in so much blood that, when they turned to face CheongKu and the eunuch, nothing but their piercing glare could be distinguished from under their scraggily hair. At an alarming speed they lumbered forward and struck at the Prince’s head.

CheongKu ducked and rolled out onto the rising dust. However, the edge of the blade tore the bottom of his coat. He jerked his jacket off and scrambled to his feet, only to be knocked down by the handle of the sword coming into contact with his temple. Black spots were dancing across his blurring vision and a drowning sensation was making everything spin out of focus.

The rebels were shouting a few choice curse words at him. The eunuch was splayed across the ground with an oozing gash between his shoulder blades. CheongKu stumbled over to the lifeless boy, but was kicked forward; all air escaping his lungs. He wretched a few times; his body was riddled with sharp bursts of pain and CheongKu wondered whether he would hold up with any more blows.

The foot of one of the rebels struck CheongKu just below his ribcage and he was flung backward. He let himself fall to the dirt from the agony of his lungs burning like an inferno, slowly crushing his slowing heart. Yet with strangled breaths he heaved himself onto one arm.

“Look a’ ‘im,” one of the rebels jeered, “wonder what filth like ‘im was in the royal chambers for?” He planted his foot over CheongKu’s quivering heart and dug the heel into the skin.

CheongKu grimaced but didn’t say anything.

“Probably na’one would miss this sod,” the other rebel continued, “now be a good lad and tell us where the Prince is ‘idin’.” He yanked CheongKu to his feet by the collar of his robes and let him dangle a few feet above the ground.

CheongKu scrabbled at the roughed hands and shook his head. His breaths were becoming increasingly empty and deeper and everything had gone a murky haze of dried blood and foul breath. He shook his head again and again and again till he grew dizzy.

“Listen kid. It’s not a diff’cult choice. You’re gonna die either way, now tell us: WHERE IS THE PRINCE?” The rebel holding CheongKu, punched him so hard that more blood spurted out of his broken nose.

By then the pain was like a knife being twisted into CheongKu’s spine. It shot up fast, erasing every thought from his head and paralysing his body; restricting his attempt to escape. And deep down, he knew he was going to die that day. Deep down, he knew that if he stopped struggling then the pain would cease and death would swiftly take him.

However, CheongKu managed to kick the rebel’s hand away from his face by swinging his right leg into the rebel’s chin. The rebel swore.

CheongKu darted past the rebel who was now blindly fumbling for his weapon and stopped just infront of his accomplice. The gate was only a few feet away. If he could just manoeuvre his way around this two oafs then he might have a chance of escape. He dived for the small gap between the two rebels with his eyes squeezed tightly shut and breath baited.

Only when he opened his eyes did he realise that the rebels had moved out of the way.

He tensed.

He was on the ground again.

A hand was resting on his back;

And a sword pressed against his neck. 

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