Chapter 2: Sagely Resolving the Nine Layers of Anxiety
A morass of balefully sorrowful clouds hovered over the Sajeongjeon Hall in the Gyeongbok Palace. The King and Royal Consort were silent and didn’t speak. The eunuchs and sanggung held their breaths, and stood respectfully in solemn formation. The hall was so silent that a pin drop could be heard.
A maid handed over a silk handkerchief. Lotus raised her hand to discover that her face had become covered with tears at some unknown time. Madame Cao had slowly woken up by then, and the two didn’t speak as they looked at the king.
King Taejo knew what they wished to ask and said softly, “We have ordered Minister Yoon to negotiate and ransom the three bodies from the Japanese Pirates. They will be returned in a few days, and I will request Master Zichao to personally expiate the sins of the dead.”
Zichao was the eminent monk of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism1, and had traveled to the Chinese imperial court when he was young to study and obtain Buddhist scriptures. When he returned to the Korean imperial court, he was honored by the king for his knowledge of Zen, and titled as the royal monk. Lotus had been converted to Buddhism when she was small, and had studied Buddhism and Zen theory under Zichao’s guidance. The old and young pair interacted most harmoniously.
Madame Cao nodded and bowed with Lotus, “Many thanks to Your Majesty.”
King Taejo waved his hands, “No need to be overly ceremonious,” and then sighed. “The Japanese pirates were overpowering this time, and our army was unable to blunt the edge of their advance. I have already ordered General Wu to avoid their advancement, and to retreat to defend the northern Cholla province. This will make life difficult for the general population.” His brow became tightly knit as he said this, and he sighed again.
Lotus raised her head to ask, “What provisions has Your Majesty made for the Japanese Pirates?
King Taejo was a bit surprised and looked at Lotus. He cleared his throat to say, “General Wu is adept at defense, and the walls of the northern city in Cholla are tall and durable. It will be impossible for the Japanese Pirates to continue pressing forward. The weather will be so cold that the ground will be frozen, and it will be difficult to scrounge for rations. They are sure to retreat to their islands as time passes on. However, they are sure to return next year. The Japanese Pirates are wily and stubborn. Even if our armies are able to triumph, and beat them back for a moment, they need only to escape to the seas, and then make landfall again and invade when our armies have retreated. Not to mention that there are seemingly endless reinforcements for the Japanese pirates – it is difficult indeed to end them.”
Lotus asked again, “Then does the imperial court neither bother to ask questions nor listen to what’s said?”
King Taejo sighed and responded, “I have often petitioned the imperial court and hoped that they would send a great land and naval army to attack them on both sides. However, the Emperor has only responded, ‘Korea is separated by mountains and surrounded by the seas – it is a region to the east created by the heavens, and is not under the jurisdiction of China’ and has refused to send troops. Messenger Zhao Pang carrying confidential documents and Zheng Tao, in favor of this matter, has travelled to the capital twice but only made it so far as to the Minister of Rites. They didn’t even see the Emperor. I’ve heard that the girls sent as tribute have only been assigned errands within the palace.”
Lotus lowered her head in deep thought without saying a word after listening. The great hall was devoid of sound.
King Taejo lifted his head slightly, indicating the two could leave. The royal consort had half risen and looked at Lotus.
Lotus had stood up and walked over to prostrate herself on the floor in front of the king.
King Taejo waved his hand, saying gently. “Niece, no need for extraneous courtesies. Feel free to speak frankly of any matters.”
Lotus stayed on the floor and spoke slowly, “Lotus is so bold as to beg Your Majesty to offer Lotus as tribute to the imperial court.”
King Taejo shook and didn’t have a chance to respond before Madame Cao stood up. “Lotus, you…!” Her voice trembled.
Lotus looked at Madame Cao sideways with a resolute gaze. “This child’s heart is set. Mother, please forgive this child’s unfilial ways.”
Madame Cao fell to a sitting position and spoke slowly after a moment. “Good! You are the daughter of my Cao family alright. As your mother, I support you.” Zheng sanggung lightly propped up Madame Cao on the side as all the assembled looked at the king.
King Taejo tilted his head to look at the kneeling Lotus and opened his mouth to say slowly, “Our niece’s conduct and appearance has always been outstanding in our country. You would have been the most ideal choice in such a decision, but do you know the arduous difficulties of this trip?”
Lotus hung her head and didn’t move. “Lotus understands”.
The difference between Seoul and the imperial capital was more than 500 km, littered with multiple obstacles and hazards along the way. Even if she made it into the imperial capital safely, how easy would it be for her to gain an audience with the Emperor, and convince the Emperor and the imperial court to send troops?
King Taejo looked at Lotus, the movement and swinging of his heart making it difficult to come to a decision. Cao Mengyi had always had a good relationship with him, and been loyal and devoted to him after the founding of Korea. Now that the three males of the Cao family had all perished and even though Lotus was a girl, how could he bear to sacrifice the last bit of this bloodline? One had to know that the Emperor of the imperial court was 70 years old! And the harem of the imperial court was said to be complex, dangerous, and ominous. How could she, a girl from a foreign land, find her footing in such circumstances? She might even lose her life out there, not to mention sending reinforcements to her mother country. But, if she succeeded…
Lotus lifted her head and looked upon the king with a resolute gaze. “Lotus only hates that she is a weak girl, and cannot follow her father and brothers onto the battlefield. My trip to the imperial capital this time will be sure to result in mediating with the imperial court, and saving our citizens from the fire and deepwater they’re in, relieving Your Majesty of his worries.” Lotus paused and continued, “Also, for the justice of my father and brothers.”
King Taejo looked at Lotus, their eyes meeting and finally saying after a while. “Alright! I will accede to your wishes. I adopt you as my foster daughter, and bestow upon you the name of Yi Ning. From this day forth, you are my daughter Lee Lotus, and Princess Yi Ning of Korea!”
Lotus was stunned and then understood when she focused her attention. This was to increase the level of the girl offered as tribute, and compel the imperial court to attach importance to her. Lotus prostrated herself again, “Royal father, royal mother!”
King Taejo and his royal consort both helped Yi Ning to her feet. King Taejo issued orders to his side, “Send for the princes and the Crown Prince.”
King Taejo had five sons, and the eldest son, Lee Fangshuo, had been made Crown Prince. The rest, in order of age, were respectively Lee Fangguo, Lee Fangyi, Lee Fanggan, and Lee Fangyuan. The Lee and Cao families were great friends, and the children of the two families had started playing together when they were young. Lee Fangyuan was the youngest, and a childhood playmates with Lotus. Their relationship was even more different from the rest.
(Author note: In order to add to the story, Lee Fangyuan’s age had to be treated with vagueness and lessened. Dear readers, please avoid reading this as official history.)
After a short while, Crown Prince Lee Fangshuo hurried into the hall with his four brothers. The five princes were all tall and fit, handsome, and held an uncommon air. After greeting the king and the royal consort, their sights turned to Madame Cao and Lotus. They all had vague hints of what had happened upon seeing them, and Lee Fangyuan looked at Lotus with a gaze full of sympathy. Lotus lowered her head and avoided Lee Fangyuan’s gaze.
King Taejo waited until his five sons had seated themselves before saying slowly, “I have already recognized Lotus as my foster daughter, and have titled her Princess Yi Ning. I will be mentioning her to the imperial court and offering Princess Yi Ning as tribute to the imperial capital. I have specially summoned you to greet your royal sister.”
The five princes were greatly shocked as they stared speechlessly at each other. Lee Fangyuan surged to his feet and clenched both hands into fists, “Royal father, you can’t!” He’d already raced to to the front of the king as he was speaking and threw himself down into a kneeling position, saying loudly, “Your child asks to be made a general and to be sent to the Cholla province to kill the Japanese Pirates!”
“Your child is willing to go!”
“Your child is willing to go!”
“Your child is willing to go!”
“Your child is willing to go!”
Lee Fangshuo, Lee Fangguo, Lee Fangyi and Lee Fanggan all prostrated themselves and proclaimed loudly their desire to battle.
King Taejo gazed down on the five sons in front of him, tears springing involuntarily to his eyes as emotions surged within his heart. He spoke after a moment. “Rise, all of you. The Japanese Pirates are sure to return next spring, and there will be plenty of chances for you to fight then.” The princes all rose with the exception of Lee Fangyuan; he remained kneeling there stiffly, without moving a single muscle.
King Taejo was well aware of his son’s feelings and sighed, “Yuan’er, you have fought the Japanese Pirates before, and you should know that the Japanese pirates are cruel, and yearn for blood like the evil Asura god. Korea boasts few soldiers, and is even more destitute in generals, particularly in the realm of our naval army. If we wish to exterminate the Japanese pirates, we must seek the aid of the imperial court.”
Lee Fangyuan didn’t move and knelt as stiffly and upright as a flag pole. An awful killing intent had formed behind his cold expression, as his frosty aura spread out threateningly.
King Taejo and the royal consort exchanged glances. The royal consort rose to come to Lee Fangyuan’s side, soothing him in a gentle tone. Lee Fangyuan still refused to move.
Lotus stood up slowly and walked next to Lee Fangyuan, also kneeling on the floor. She said softly, “Royal brother, this is Lotus’ own idea. Lotus’s heart is resolute, and hopes that royal brother will give her your blessings.”
Lee Fangyuan clenched his hands in tight fists and he stared intently at Lotus. His face was ashen. “How could you not know that with this departure, you will never return to Korea in this life, and will never be seen again? I, I…” He couldn’t continue after this point and his eyes seemed as if they were about to spit fire.
Lotus hung her head and didn’t say anything, murmuring lowly after a while, “Lotus understands all of this….”
Lee Fangyuan stared intently at her from afar, a thousand changes flashing through his eyes. Was it indignation? Sadness? Fury? Pity? Or resignation?
Lotus lifted her head, her two eyes full of tears, both, like the sparkling ripples of water from a fountain of Lethe, and like the surging waves of a vast ocean.
Lee Fangyuan abruptly stood up and rushed out of the hall.
The next day, the king drafted his petition. “Here are the frank words from your subject in the country of of Korea: We are honored with the personal, divine and benevolent, bestowment of a name on this small country. The rains have been gentle and steady, the country is prosperous, and the people are at peace. Your subject’s daughter Yi Ning is of two eight years, modest and demure, of good virtue and self effacing. She has looked up to the lands and waters of the imperial court, and yearned for the impressive dignity of the son of heaven. Your subject has nothing to offer in return for the divine favor of the superior nation, and is willing to offer your subject’s daughter to await upon the Emperor with cloth and brush, the duties of a wife, in order to express the ten thousandth bit of gratitude and indebtedness from your subject and the country’s citizens. We hope that the Emperor will judge the sincerity of the people with the clarity of the sun and the moon, making the imperial judgment to fulfill the people’s hopes. Your subject is overwhelmed with gratitude, and wishes that there was a place to genuflect.” He still sent messenger Zhao Pang to travel to the capital with this message.
The son of the royal consort, Lee Fangyuan threw a temper tantrum in the Gyotaejeon Hall, and pleaded for the king and royal consort to withdraw his order. The royal consort took pity on her young son, and helped him persuade the king. The king was not moved in the slightest, and harshly lectured Lee Fangyuan, including even the royal consort in the lecture. Lee Fangyuan pleaded again and again, angering the king. He happened to touch a brazier and threw it at his son. Lee Fangyuan didn’t dodge in time, and his back was injured.
Who knew if the rumors of the palace were true or not.
Messenger Zhao Pang travelled on a fast horse, and made directly for the imperial capital.
The bodies of the three Cao family generals were transported back to the city, and the whole country mourned. The king lead a hundred officials, and personally oversaw the funeral and memorial rites. They were posthumously granted the titles of Duke of Loyalty, Count of Bravery, and Baron of Tranquility. Master Zichao led all the high monks of the Anguk temple, and personally oversaw the rites, expiating the sins of the dead for a full 49 days.
This year’s new year came to pass in the midst of such sadness.