Continuing with the last part of volume 2 from Eunkyeong Ryu’s series Queen Seondeok (류은경의 “선덕여왕”), I’m going to skip chapter 6, “A Blossoming Flower on the Battlefield,” since it mostly has to do with Deokman and Kim Yusin’s Hwarang unit fighting against the Baekje. There are other storylines that interest me more than that one, and we pick up those juicy subplots in the last two chapters of the novel.
In chapter 7, “Tangled Relations,” the chapter opens with a very poetic description of time passing. Around five years have passed, and Yeoraesa Temple is again the scene of something terrible. It has largely been abandoned since the massacre and is now full of cobwebs and weeds. The altar is empty with no Buddha or furnishings, and dung is all over the floor.
An old man arrives here with Bidam. It’s Munno, sickly and fragile, now with white hair and wrinkled like a chicken. Munno wonders what happened at the temple. Bidam says he will investigate while Munno rests after their journey. Bidam goes into the temple and enters the monks’ quarters, noticing what appear to be bloodstains from five years before. Bidam thinks about Deokman, who makes his heart flutter, but Munno calls out for him, and Bidam leaves the hall to return to him. They continue their journey.
The next scene starts with a description of Wolseong Palace before turning to Prince Yongchun who is drinking with Kim Seohyeon. The men discuss Kim Seohyeon’s family status being restored to a higher class and his change of residence resulting from Princess Cheonmyeong’s attention and concern for his son Yusin. The long segment segues into Yusin and his squad of Hwarang, a storyline I’m not highlighting in this post, so I’m skipping over the rest.
The story then continues with a meeting between Princes Cheonmyeong and Deokman. Some time has passed from the last scene, and Deokman is laying spread-eagle in a small pavilion in the palace garden. She is tired from drinking and dancing with Yusin, and Cheonmyeong is sitting next to her, yawning. They talk together. I don’t think Yusin is there though he is the subject of their conversation. When they start talking about Deokman’s feelings for Yusin, Cheonmyeong gets her flustered since she doesn’t seem to realize Deokman is a woman, which is a secret Deokman still wants to conceal though she struggles with her urge to show herself truly as a woman and be with Yusin. Apparently, Deokman even kissed Yusin at one point, and it comes up often in her thoughts in this section. She also thinks Cheonmyeong loves Yusin, too, which complicates things.
In the next scene, an unspecified amount of time has passed, but it’s now August at dusk. Light is coming from the window of Munno’s guest room at an inn, but Munno is sitting out by the gate talking with Bidam. Bidam has been out carousing with a character named Deokchung, and he’s only obedient to Munno because Munno is ill, but Bidam eventually starts to resist him. However, he has studied martial arts regularly under Munno’s direction.
Their discussion turns to Princess Cheonmyeong, who was nearly killed at Yeoraesa Temple. One of them mentions there was a witness to the massacre at Yeoraesa Temple who was warned to stay silent about the situation but who confessed the whole incident to someone at Poseoksa Temple. The speaker speculates that Mishil led the massacre at Yeoraesa or at least covered it up due to her power and that Ilwolseongdo Hwarang group was clearly involved. None of the dialogue is tagged, so I’m not sure who is speaking, but I’m assuming this conversation is still between Munno and Bidam.
The person the first speaker is talking to notes that his guess is correct and that the Ilwolseongdo Hwarang group is led by Bojong, Mishil’s son. Then the conversation turns to Deokman being one of the Yonghwahyangdo Hwarang. Bidam eventually asks why Munno thinks he should be named to be an envoy to Deokman, a woman. Munno responds it’s because she’s a princess of Silla, surprising Bidam. Bidam demands to know why a princess would be living in the desert posing as a man instead of living in the palace as a woman.
The text here goes into Bidam’s demeanor, his family history and his name with Munno concluding that Bidam is now grown up and can help his mother work out her karma. Munno begins to explain Deokman’s story. Bidam asks why Munno would suggest Bidam become Deokman’s envoy knowing Bidam is Mishil’s son. He also asks if that was why Munno raised him, then declares he wants to go to Mishil’s palace to meet his mother. Munno tells him no, he should not go to her.
The next scene switches to Mishil talking with Kim Seohyeon about Yusin. She asks if Yusin will pair up with Hajong’s daughter. She thinks it’s time for Yusin to think about marriage since his reputation has grown so much. I believe that the girl would be Mishil’s granddaughter since one of her sons is named Hajong. Kim Seohyeon just looks at her in confusion since Hajong’s daughter is only 7 years old, which is too young for marriage in the era even for girls. This story is set around the 8th c AD, which would put it a few centuries before Tale of Genji, and in that country at that time the age for marriage for girls was usually puberty through her early 20s, while it was 12 for boys. So suggesting a 7-year-old girl as a marriage partner was out of bounds even for these societies at this point history. However, Yusin is very close to Princess Cheonmyeong, and the division this has caused in the Hwarang is the reason Mishil came up with such a scheme. Remember that Mishil was at one time prominent in the Hwarang, and she’s losing some of her influence due to Cheonmyeong’s position.
The final scene in this chapter returns to Bidam and Munno. It’s just before sunrise, and Munno watches Bidam sleep in the low light, noting how delicate and anxious his face appears. Munno thinks about the secret Bidam forced him to reveal the night before. As daybreak approaches, the blue light of a naked blade appears near the sliding paper door, and Munno sees it’s Bidam, who is now overwhelmed by wrong appetites and a desire for revenge. Munno has a bad feeling that Bidam will betray everyone in the end and pulls out his sword.
Raising his arm, Munno slices Bidam in the neck, but Bidam seems to anticipate Munno’s actions and trembles as if dying. Munno sees a tear on Bidam’s cheek and sighs. He had raised Bidam as if he were his own, but he knew it was hard for Bidam growing up without a mother. It is understandable that Bidam wants to meet her now. Munno pulls back his sword, and Bidam opens the paper sliding screen and flees.
I’m going to just pick out a few scenes from the final chapter in this volume. Skipping the first scene, we see Bidam approaching the gates of Wolseong Palace and glaring at it angrily in the second scene. He already has injured some of the guards at the gates and is demanding to meet Lady Mishil. The difficulty of reaching her has made his anger flare even higher. He knows from her reputation that Lady Mishil is a swordswoman, but he wants to see her and understand why she abandoned him. He looks up at the sky filled with dark clouds which echo the evil in his own heart.
Yusin and Deokman are in a cave in the mountains, and they are practicing martial arts. There is some discomfort between them since they have to bathe apart due to Deokman’s secret. Deokman ponders whether she can break her oath yet and tell him her secret that she is really a woman and not a man.
Skipping past a few more military segments, we return to Deokman and Yusin, who are traveling together in the hot weather into the district of Dalgubeol. They hear crying and encounter a young woman, whom they question. Yusin asks the woman why she is crying. She replies that bandits attacked the village and kidnapped their children, so Deokman asks how they can help. The woman then complains that the government officials have turned a blind eye to the selling of children instead of coming up with a solution. She refers to Deokman and Yusin as aristocrats when she speaks to them. Yusin says they should then go to Hwangsanjin, a major trade waterway where many ships sail through, because they can find the children before they are sold at that location. They discuss whether it’s more likely that they can save the children if they report the situation to Princess Cheonmyeong.
When the storyline returns to them again, Deokman and Yusin are traveling along a mountain road and sit on a bench there, where they meet with Munno. Deokman hopes to discover the secret of her birth by meeting the man she thought at least for some time was her father. They talk about her search for her father and the possibility of meeting her real father. At the end, Munno tells her there isn’t much time left, calls her princess when he addresses her, then leaves the bench to head back to the temple.
Then in a later scene, the wind buffets the windows of a guest room at the temple, and the eaves shake ominously. Munno opens the door and goes out, calling for Bidam. Seeing the boy, he asks what he’s doing. When Bidam thanks him, Munno asks what he is talking about. Bidam draws his sword, and Munno yells for him to stop, but Bidam stabs him near the heart. As Munno is dying, Bidam rips the military manual that Munno has been carrying out of his hand. Remembering his humiliation at the gates of Wolseong Palace in passing, Bidam also retrieves a letter Munno has and examines it. Bidam tells Munno how betrayed he feels before saying goodbye and going in search of Princess Deokman.
I’m going to end the volume on that note. There still is one more book in the series that we’ll get to later.
Part three of a three part series
Next time: We turn to Hong Kong’s most illustrious wuxia writer, Jin Yong, and his classic Return of Condor Heroes!