Finishing up volume 3 of the first book of Eunkyeong Ryu’s Queen Seondeok (류은경의 “선덕여왕”), we pick up with chapter 5 “Deokman, Child of the Desert.” The scene is set in the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin out in Xinjiang. That desert has an evil reputation, and the chapter begins with a description of the sun and sandy soil. Fifteen years have passed. A traveler stops to survey the landscape under the silvery moonlight. Chilsuk, an emissary of Mishil’s, is talking with a woman named Deokman near the city of Dunhuang.
It’s a beautiful desert night. Chilsuk takes off his bamboo hat and sits across from the young woman who is darkly tanned and was raised by a woman named Sohua. He tells her he has been looking for a woman for 15 years, which is rather startling since the reader is aware that she’s the person he’s looking for. He doesn’t seem to be aware of it, though.
As the story progresses in the desert sequence, they keep using an alternative name for Silla, Kyerim, to refer to that kingdom in ancient Korea, and that is pervasive throughout this volume and important to know. There are also mentions of religious workers in the area and the road leading to Rome. The next section gets even deeper into the Silk Road trade and the commandery at Dunhuang, which was also known as a major Buddhist hub with a large temple complex. It explains Silk Road geography and the contrast between the severe cold and intense heat of the desert. Deokman talks with Katan, a Roman merchant with an aquiline nose who wears a tunic and paenula. Merchants from every country are in the settlement, but there has been a prohibition on importing tea into the area, even with the possibility of merchants being beheaded for violating it.
In section 3, the story turns back to Mishil in the Silla palace. She talks about the twins and the fact that 15 years that have passed since the second child disappeared. Her faction is concerned about the prophecy of the 7th star becoming 8 stars in the Big Dipper constellation. Mishil’s ally Chilsuk disappeared 15 years earlier looking for one of the twins.
Then the story shifts to Prince Yongsu and Princess Cheonmyeong. They are husband and wife now, and Yongsu gets out of bed after a heavy sleep. Did he have a nightmare? One of them is crying. Mishil’s faction dethroned Yongsu’s father King Jinji and confined him for three years in the palace jail, where he died a miserable and lonely death. Yongsu complains to the king, who in response marries him off to his daughter Cheonmyeong.
The chapter wraps up with the last two sections focusing again on the desert, far away in a steep, snowy mountain pass where the characters arrive at an oasis. Sohua loads up goods on a camel while Deokman walks around. Katan is with them. The first scene describes the process of making tea and focuses on tea bricks. Centurions are around the area and bust someone over the tea, but Sohua causes a disruption when she turns pale and starts convulsing. Deokman apologizes to her over and over again, Katan sends someone to fetch some water, and Chilsuk draws his sword.
The next scene continues the previous scene. Sohua is having serious trouble breathing, and the group ends up in jail. At one point, soldiers open the prison door and people pull out bound by a rope as criminals are escorted to an execution ground. Sohua calls her daughter’s name, feeling choked up remembering how Munno named Deokman 15 years earlier. Sohua confesses her deep maternal affection for Deokman, and Deokman cries, wiping away her tears. The night sky is mentioned a lot. Chilsuk believes he has finally found the missing princess and thinks of his ally Mishil back in Silla.
Chapter 6, “Fate, A Cruel Bridle,” starts off with Misaeng, Mishil’s brother, and Sejong discussing King Jinpyeong’s plan make former King Jinji’s son Yongsu Crown Prince. Some time is spent considering bone rank, but Mishil and Sejong’s close associates were involved in deposing King Jinji, so Sejong was furious over this selection since conferring Yongsu with the Crown Prince title means he would later become king. Misaeng and Hajong also weigh in on the topic.
The next scene describes a big farewell party in the desert. Camels loaded with silk, pottery, gold and musical instruments are ready for traveling back to the merchants’ homelands along the Silk Road. There is abundant food and an open bonfire at the party, and they have a farewell drink together. Then they listen to an Indian bagheshiri raga, and this passage has a detailed description of the beat and music. Chiksuk visits Sohua’s room. This continues into the next segment with Chilsuk guessing Sohua’s name and explaining he has been looking for the girl for the past 15 years to bring back to Kyerim. This part ends with Deokman screaming, “mama, run!”
The scene shifts briefly back to Mishil and her brother Misaeng talking about some scheme they are setting up against Prince Yongsu, who is personally going to lead an army when troops are sent out to war.
Then the story goes back to the desert with more drama from Deokman. She guesses Munno is her father, but Sohua says he isn’t and insists that Deokman’s father didn’t abandon them. She begs Deokman to believe her, but Deokman declares she wants details and doesn’t need an irresponsible father. Sohua apologizes to Deokman and starts crying, knowing King Jinpyeong’s concern about the girl and her need to keep his secret.
In chapter 7, things start to really heat up. The first scene shows Maya and Cheonmyeong talking about Mishil and Yongsu. King Jinpyeong joins them, and they worry about competing with Mishil in a power struggle for the kingdom. They relate to Cheonmyeong the story of Mishil trying to assassinate Maya when she was pregnant with the princess and how Munno rescued her. Cheonmyeong questions them about Munno since she hasn’t heard this story and Munno disappeared 15 years ago. They also talk about the star prophecy of one star in the constellation splitting from seven to eight stars.
After a brief scene of Deokman, we return to a more picturesque scene of Mishil meeting a soldier in a dark forest under the crescent moon. It goes into detail about the setting and the types of trees here, even noting they are zelkova, ash and bush clover trees. They are plotting to stop the plan to make Yongsu Crown Prince. A break in this section shows Yongsu leaving Cheonmyeong for the front lines with the Silla army the next morning. It’s starting to rain.
Sohua dies in the next section, and Deokman tells Katan she wants to go to Kyerim and find Munno, the only person she knows there. She doesn’t know her father’s name, but she thinks Munno does, so she wants to find him.
Two months later, Princess Cheonmyeong dreams that her husband Prince Yongsu is shot in the heart by an enemy Baekje arrow. The dream seems so real, leaving Cheonmyeong with an ominous premonition. Disturbed, she later talks to her mother Maya about it.
Spring and summer pass, and Cheonmyeong holds a baby whose face resembles his father. Her brother in law Prince Yongchun follows the directive left behind by the late Prince Yongsu before he went to war and helps Cheonmyeong select the name for her young son, Chunchu.
Mishil, Seolwon and Sejong discuss Munno in the next section. Seolwon thinks Munno is on the border of Baekje and Koguryo, and they talk about how Prince Yongchun has gone out looking for Munno. They speculate further about Munno’s whereabouts, but Mishil is still unhappy because the position of Crown Prince is empty in spite of being given a special new royal title herself.
In chapter 8, “Meeting,” Princess Cheonmyeong meets Deokman, though she has no idea who the girl is. The description of Deokman here is rather remarkable again, as it was at her birth. She is described as a young foreigner with a bright countenance and a sweet voice. I’m going to skip most of the middle sections of the chapter, but by the end of it, Deokman and Cheonmyeong talk about Deokman’s experience in the desert and Deokman’s plan to find Munno.
Chapter 9 shifts to describe the hardships of the nearby kingdom of Kaya in the beginning before returning back to the twin princesses who have just found each other without realizing it. Deokman talks a lot about Sohua’s dagger, and Cheonmyeong seems to think Deokman is a boy rather than a girl.
In chapter 10, the final chapter in this volume, the twins go looking for Munno and manage to find him as well as the other secretly hidden child, Bidam, whom Munno raised as his own son. Bidam is now 17. More to come on this situation in volume 2 when we cycle back around next time.
Part three of a three part series.
Next time: We return to China to finish up the final volume of the Three Bodies series!