New Day

She held his hand firmly. Surprisingly, it wasn’t soft and smooth like she’d expected. A little calloused, rough like the table he studied at in the dark of the night, just like her hands which were seemingly long and slender, but in fact it was filled with grazes, from the strings she’d strung of the bow. This was the hand she was going to hold for her whole life. As time passed, would his hand fade in warmth? Would he let go of her hand sooner than her? Or could he grasp it forever?
She squeezed his hand, hoping and praying for the miracle to happen. She couldn’t lose him when she haven’t ever had him before. But she wondered if she would cry though. Perhaps, from the pang she felt in her heart that she thought had never existed. Why? She wondered exactly when she started falling for him. Could it be the sorrow in his eyes, masked by the facade of nonchalance. Or the way he truly smiled, so gently and warm. Or could it be the way he held himself of highest regard, showing no vulnerability at all times. He didn’t make connections, couldn’t. Bonds were meant to be broken, and he was afraid of hurting. He was escaping pain, so fragile and breakable.
She placed her hand on his cheek, caressing it gently. His skin was smooth. His lips were parched. He had a frown on his face, as if something bad was happening. She smoothened it out. It did not fit his flawless face. Or seemingly flawless, since it was coming from her. Suddenly, the tears threatened to spill. Her bottom lip trembled, in fear and regret. The layers of silk cloths surrounding her were supposed to keep her warm, but she felt cold. Perhaps it was from the absence of her long hair that was cut recently, to fit in into this place. This strange place.
A tear slide down her cheek. Her apologies, she usually wasn’t so emotional. Grabbing his hands with two hands, she prayed with her heart that he would pull through. The beads of sweat on his forehead and the cries of pain cut through her. It made her want to seem vulnerable even more.
.
“Why don’t daughter-in-law try it out too?” her father-in-law asked. In a seating where he’d gathered all of his close aides, the minister of war was asking a mere woman to try the bow? And what were his aides doing? Just blindly nodding their head according to their master. It was well known to her that the minister of war was unsatisfied with her becoming the bride of his only son, In Suk. He wanted a capable woman who could reign the household matters and at the same time be a daughter of another minister to bridge in on the power gaps. But he couldn’t quite reject her, since she had come all the way from the city of Beijing on horse, and her dowry was quite an impressive one as well. Her father was a well respected trader who had close ties with him. To stamp their good ties out in black and white, her father had given her to them. “I was told that the women of your place have good hunting skills. Do live up to my expectations.” he passed the bow to her, smiling but not actually smiling. There was an awkward silence all around. Women do not hold weapons in this area, just like how it was in the palace. The aides couldn’t bring themselves to remind the war minister that she was just a woman. What could be expected of her?
She turned her head and looked at In Suk. He had that poker face again and he stared back at her. He wasn’t about to give any help to her. With mild interest, he wondered how she would react to this.
What was his motive? To shame her? Did he think that she was that weak she couldn’t even string the bow? She got up elegantly and strode purposefully towards the platform. Thoughts were spinning through her mind. Was it to measure her skills then? But why would he do that? When had she ever looked like a threat to him? She frowned just so slightly. What should she do? Had he known of her skills already? How well should she aim? She looked around warily. Again, her yet to be husband was looking at her with vested interest.
She would decide to be the weak one then. He couldn’t have found out yet, she was sure. She had never strung a bow ever since stepping into this household, never even rode the horse, never even ran. With a trembling hand, she grabbed the arrow and strung it. Feigning it was too hard to pull the string, her hand was shaking so much she was afraid he’d seen through her act. How could he have not? With much effort, she pulled the string back. Should it be a perfect 10, or what other number could it be? 7, it would look like a lucky shot, not too good, not too bad either. Thwack. 7. A few appraises from the aide. She looked up into his eyes, head cowering. She saw a sense of satisfaction and she let out her bated breath. He had been testing her. It was just a lucky shot, in his eyes.
She looked at In Suk. That spark of interest was gone, back to his dull mundane darkness.
.
She was quiet and so very tired.
.
She remembered herself taking a stroll in a beautiful road somewhere outside the palace. Even when she was small, she liked being alone with nature. The transcendence and peacefulness assured her that there was certainly a bright future ahead. She stroked the bark of the huge tree. It was rough and brittle, unnatural to her touch. Then, she saw someone. A boy dressed in golden robes with motifs of the great water dragon. Even then, he sparkled among the trees, fitting in exactly into the sunlight pouring through. He was the crown prince, not that she knew then. Their eyes met and they saw the loneliness in each other immediately. He was the one who smiled first, then she felt her heart fluttering and she nodded awkwardly. In her world then, she knew not of someone of higher power than her father, the most respected person in her eyes. It didn’t occur to her that the small boy in front of her could be the heavenly child. Never occurred. Soon, they became friends. She sought solace from him. He pampered her, gave her love and warmth that her father never did. Like two broken souls, they fed each other’s wounds and healed them. The boy always greeted her with a smile, no matter in what state she was. He said that was the only thing he could do. It wasn’t that he couldn’t feel, but he couldn’t show it. She didn’t inquire.
.
Was this her punishment? She stood in front of the target smiling. It was hilarious how she, the hunter became the hunted this time. The apple balanced itself on her head and she stood steadfast. She wasn’t going to run from her ‘mistakes’. Her head slightly bowed as she waited for the arrow to come flying. She remembered this was the second time she had to suffer such humiliation. Again, it was by someone she’d loved- the crown prince. She didn’t know what had come over him that day to try to do that, perhaps he was trying to test her trust. Of course, she had stupidly stood there waiting for the arrow to come thinking that she could trust him well enough to hit the target. She knew his archery skills won’t that good, but she thought that he would know better than to release it. But then, it turned out that the crown prince wasn’t that trustable. She could still remember how the arrow felt when it struck her right shoulder blade. A scream tore through the silent woods and the crown prince came rushing to her, apologizing. With all the hate she could muster, she spat at him for endangering her life and breaking her trust. From then on, she didn’t go to that forest anymore. She couldn’t bear to see him for he had broken her heart. She was sure he didn’t know how much that shot meant to her. If he loved her as much as she loved him, he wouldn’t have bear to place her in such a difficult position. It broke her heart to know that she was just a friend to him, just a friend. She stared up into In Suk’s eyes. They were cold and lifeless. His lips were shaped into a smirk. She wondered what she had done wrong. Her eyes flittered across the other students carelessly. Why was he endangering her life just to prove how good his archery skills were? Was it his pride? Or rather, was it to impress someone. Then she saw her, the gisaeng dresses in robes of red and black, an air of austerity just like what she herself has. She caught sight of the little glance In Suk gave to that woman and a pang of jealousy in her heart. Ah, she thought, he also had someone he could not get. The arrow came like a blade to her soul. She knew that it would hit the apple and she thought of moving slightly to the left, to embarrass him. But she thought against it. At least this time, she knew she could trust him. Loud cheers erupted and a smirk he had once more. Suddenly angry at how he had used her so easily, she strode towards him and wordlessly took the bow from him. Grabbing a handful of the arrows and throwing them on the ground, she closed her eyes and pictured the board. Then, the flurry of attacks began. Rhythmically, she strung the arrows and each of them hit bullseye. Gasp from around her. When the arrows were all shot, she opened her eyes and glared at In Suk. They were emotionless yet again. Throwing the bow on the ground, she walked away quietly, smothering in anger.

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