Chapter 1: Shocking News of Three Deaths
At that time, the modern-day Korea was already there.
Taejo of Joseun1 founded Korea on the 25th year of the Ming Dynasty Emperor Hongwu’s2 reign, in 1392. He requested a name from the great Ming country, and Emperor Hongwu issued the imperial decree: “For the name of the country in the east, only Korea is the most beautiful and has an illustrious history. This can be the name of the country now, and of the ancestors in the past.” From henceworth, Korea became the name of the country, and was used all the way to present day. Of course, the Korea peninsula was completely unified at that time, and did not rattle their sabers at each other like North and South Korea do now.
Our story begins with this new dynasty.
On a winter day of the 29th year of Emperor Hongwu’s reign, thick clouds hovered low in the sky, and the frigid wind was piercingly cold. It was the coldest season of the year. Layers of ice and snow had accumulated in the capital, Seoul, and the streets were barren of people. Birds and beasts were scarcely found in the outskirts, and no other color met the eye as one gazed around. It was as if it was a pure, snow white world, completely made up of glass.
Located in the northern part of Seoul, the Gyeongbok Palace3 was wrapped in swirls of gleamingly white snow constantly being kicked up by the wind. The white snow covered the originally red and green palace roof, with only the scarlet red door standing out particularly conspicuously. The Gwanghwamun, the main door in the southern part of the palace, was shut tightly, with only Heungnyemun, the second inner door, open. Four guards stood at the door, and they were so cold that they’d shrunk their necks in and arched their waists. They continuously rubbed their hands and huffed over them in the cold wind. An elderly guard looked up at the hovering sky, “Looks like it’ll snow again…”
At this moment, a palace carriage came slowly driving by with the coachman leading four horses behind it, stopping finally at the Heungnyemun. A group of imperial maids dashed out from the palace shortly thereafter. The elderly guard recognized that the sanggung4 (imperial head maid managing the palace) in charge, Zheng Tidao, was the one with the most power. He hastened to greet them and bowed with a face full of smiles. “Where are you going Tidao? It’s quite cold today.” Sanggung Zheng looked at him but didn’t respond, and hurried into the palace carriage with two maids. The four eunuchs also leapt up onto the horses and called out to the coach, “To the manor of the Commander of the Left Army of the Capital, hurry!” The carriage and four horses hurtled out of the Heungnyemun and made straight for the manor of the Commander of the Left Army of the Capital.
The manor of The Commander of the Left Army of the Capital, Cao Mengyi, was located in the northeast corner, not far from Gyeongbok Palace. It’s size wasn’t particularly big. As the Cao family had just moved in not long ago, many flowers, shrubs, and trees that were yet to be planted, littered the yard. Although most had been covered by the snow, it was still a bit disorganized.
There was a small family hall for worshipping Buddha off on the side of the main hall. Mistress Cao was a pious believer in the Caoxi school of the Zen sect, which was a branch of the Central Plains sect. Mistress Cao had brought her daughter Lotus into the family hall early that morning. After burning incense, praying to Buddha, and reciting the “Diamond Sutra”, “The Sutra”, and the “Vimalakirti Sutra”, the two of them had sat down in meditation. All the servants had left with only the maid Shan Xi in attendance. The hall was devoid of sound, with only the window shutters often sounding against the frigid wind.
In the silence, Mistress Cao suddenly called out, “Lotus!”
Lotus opened her eyes and saw Mistress Cao gazing upon her with an uneasy face. She hastily got up and walked over to ask, “Are you alright mother? Are you feeling unwell?”
Mistress Cao raised her head to look at Lotus, opening her mouth but said nothing. She raised her left hand, turning the prayer beads, and sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong, or what’s happening today – I’m palpitating a bit with anxiety and fear.”
Lotus sat down next to her mother and lightly rubbed Mistress Cao’s shoulders. “Don’t worry too much mother, meditation can’t be rushed, just go at it slowly.”
Mistress Cao squeezed Lotus’ hand in return and sighed again. “Why on earth would I be worried about meditation. I’m worried about the house’s master, and your two brothers.”
How could Lotus not understand why her mother sighed so. She too was worried about her father and brothers. She always prayed for them to be safe and sound when they worshipped Buddha everyday. She knew that it was at odds with meditation, but she was unable to lay down her worries. She comforted softly, “Don’t worry mother, father is well seasoned on the battlefield, and has fought many large and small battles. It’s merely Japanese Pirates this time, they will surely be fine.”
In the latter half of the Koryo dynasty5, the scourge of Japanese Pirates had become increasingly worse. This band of unscrupulous bandits would rob, kill, burn, and raid without abandon whenever they made it to shore. The general population on the shore suffered greatly, and experienced unspeakable horrors. King Taejo had sent soldiers several times, and had suffered both wins and losses. This, in turn, spurred the Japanese Pirates to become increasingly rampant. This continued until ten or so years ago, when the king, still a vice envoy then, led the army to a resounding defeat of the Japanese Pirates at the Cholla province – where they burned five hundred ships to the ground and killed their leader, Azhi Batu. This was when the Japanese pirates finally left the Korean peninsula and committed no more large scale invasions. The general population lived at peace for many years.
But, during the autumn of this year, a band of Japanese Pirates who crewed more than one hundred ships, estimated at five thousand strong, had once again landed at the Cholla province. Their leader, Azhi Taibiao, called himself Azhi Batu’s son, and proclaimed his desire for vengeance. Not only did he raid, burn, and slaughter the local officials and citizens, his actions were incredibly cruel and bloodthirsty. The Korean court was incensed, and the entire gathering of civil and military officers competed to be granted battle assignments.
Although Cao Mengyi was elderly, he never refused to shoulder his responsibilities as the first general. He also had great experience fighting against the Japanese Pirates, and was immediately entrusted with the mission of leading the army out to Cholla province. Cao Mengyi’s two sons, Cao Min and Cao Xiu, followed their father into battle. Cao Min was the eldest son of the Cao family, and had accompanied his father into battle, achieving meritorious accomplishments since he was young. He was appointed as a lieutenant this time. Cao Xiu was the youngest son and, at fourteen years old, was two years younger than Lotus. It hadn’t been in the plan for him to go this time, but he had thrown a tantrum when he heard that they were going to fight the Japanese Pirates. The Cao family were generations of military generals, so Cao Mengyi thought it was a good thing to toughen him up, and had brought him along as well. Madame Cao had cried until her eyes were red, but still hadn’t been able to keep Cao Xiu behind.
“Lotus, I know it’s the Japanese Pirates, but they’ve been gone for four months already. It’s almost New Year’s… I wonder if they’ll be back in time to celebrate the New Year together?” Madame Cao got up and walked to the front of the Buddha status as she talked, reverently and respectfully burning another three sticks of incense. She piously kneeled down and chanted softly. “Merciful Buddha, please forgive your disciple’s ignorance. I pray for the early success of my husband and sons in quelling the Japanese Pirates, and pray for the well being of Korea’s citizens.”
Lotus knelt down behind her mother and prayed silently. Strands of incense smoke circled the hall as unlimited compassion emitted from Buddha’s downward looking eyes.
At this moment, a commotion of chaotic footsteps sounded from outside, and a family member ran to the door. “Madame! Zheng sanggung is here from the palace.” Madame Cao and Lotus hastily got up and patted down their clothes, combining three strides into two to walk as quickly as possible towards the main hall. Zheng sanggung was waiting with guards and imperial maids. When she saw Madame Cao’s greetings, she proclaimed respectfully, “His Majesty summons the madame and young miss to immediately appear for an audience!”
Madame Cao and Lotus had no time to change before they were rushed up the carriage behind Zheng sanggung, and arrived at the Gyeongbok Palace. Although it was not yet past noon, the sky was a bit overcast. Snowflakes had finally started flurrying in the frigid wind, and they danced like cotton fibers – as if they were being twisted and pulled every which way.
Zheng sanggung brought Madame Cao and Lotus into the Sajeongjeon Hall. The king could be glimpsed from far away, along with the Principal Royal Consort6 Kang sitting at an angle on his side. King Taejo was the founding monarch of the Joseon dynasty. He was originally Yi Seong-gye from the city of Jeonju, and had been born in what was now known as Hamhung, North Korea. His courtesy name was Junggyeol, later revised to Songheon. When he took the throne he revised his name to Yi Dan, and was posthumously named Taejo. The Ming Dynasty bestowed the title Kangheon on him, and he was referred to as “Taejo of Joseon” or “Great King Kangheon” after his death.
King Taejo was now sixty two years old, but his hair was more black than white. His features were lean and thin, his gestures controlled and at ease with quite the composure of a king.
Madame Cao and Lotus moved forward to genuflect, but King Taejo hastily commanded, “Don’t”, and the royal consort herself even stretched out a hand for them to lean on.
Lotus groaned inwardly and didn’t wait to sit down before forgetting proper manners and stared fixedly at the king. King Taejo looked to the skies, caught in deep thought and didn’t say anything for quite some time. The royal consort also lowered her head and didn’t say anything. Lotus knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t dare rush anyone. Time appeared to pass even more slowly in silence.
King Taejo didn’t seem to collect himself until about five minutes had passed. He looked at Madame Cao and Lotus, speaking slowly. “Your Cao family has been the pillar of the country for generations. The great General Cao has fought side-by-side with me for many years. His achievements are awe inspiring. Although he and I are of subject and king, we are more akin to brothers.” He stopped here and hesitated, without saying a word.
Lotus’ heart was about to leap out of her chest as the clearly delineated black and whites of her big eyes looked unblinkingly at King Taejo.
King Taejo sighed, avoiding Lotus’ eyes and said softly, “A report has come from the province of Cholla, saying that the great general was brave and had evicted the Japanese pirates from the Cholla province. However, the pirates were stubborn and devious, and faked a surrender in order to lay an ambush. The great general was merciful and lost his defenses, and fell in the ambush. Lieutenant Cao and Cao Xiu,” The King paused and continued, “also fell in service to their country.”
Madame Cao hadn’t finished listening before she’d fainted. Zheng sanggung hurriedly ran over and propped her up, pinching her philtrum. Several imperial maids clustered close by on the side, and the scene was chaotic.
Lotus felt that that heavens and earth were turning, and she was lost in a haze of bewilderment. Ambushed? Martyred? All dead? Her majestic looking and benevolent father, her valiant and heroic brother with radiant smiles, the little brother who horse played around with her?
Lotus remembered the day before the great army had set off. She had sent her family off with her mother, sending them to the door of the manor. Her father had pat her on her head, and had seemed to want to say something, but instead said nothing. Her elder brother had held her tightly and reminded her lightly, “Take good care of mother!” Her Little brother had pulled her hands and shook them back and forth, his smile as radiant as the sun, and in such high spirits. “Sister, wait for me to come back!”
That farewell had turned into an eternal parting.