Eun Ha couldn’t sleep at all. Each time she closed her eyes, the words of the book shop owner replayed in her head. Whenever she opened her eyes, all she could see was her beautiful sister’s face.
Her swollen red eyes were a testament to how much she had cried during the day. Most courtesans had humble origins, often coming from families of low social standing. Even if they dressed in clothes normally reserved for the ladies of wealthy families and received much adoration, they were still treated as someone of low class.
Despite their treatment, her sister was famously known as ‘Hibiscus’, a blossom that everyone went crazy for because they couldn’t cut and obtain the flower. The more she thought about her sister, the worse she felt.
‘Why would someone from a high social standing hire someone like me to read them stories?’
‘That’s because he can’t see.’
‘Eh? Is he blind?’
‘Yes. That’s why it made sense to me that he was looking for someone who could read for him. But, if you’re not interested, I’m going to ask someone else.’
‘No! I never said that I wouldn’t do it. It’s just that I was curious about him. After all, I need to know more about a person before deciding to work for them.’
The book shop owner decided to give Eun Ha some time to think about it. He also told her that it would probably be an easy job to do. For Eun Ha, there really wasn’t any reason to refuse the job offer. However, this individual seemed to be from a very high social class.
But why is it that she couldn’t immediately say yes?
Eun Ha, who had been staring a pile of books that were stacked in the corner of her room, put on her outerwear, and went outside. She sat down on the wooden porch and looked at the bright sky while peeling the dead skin from her chapped lips.
The truth was that she knew why she was hesitating. And why she didn’t want to earn money reading despite her love of books.
‘I’m innocent! Me having an affair with madam? Your excellency, I really am innocent! It’s just my job to read books for others! I swear by my children, all I did was reading books to madam!’
It was a cold day when her father was accused of having an affair with the wife of a high-ranking public official. He was taken to the government office, and once there, they beat him with a wooden cudgel. They couldn’t do anything. Eun Ha and her sister cried and begged for their father’s life. But all they received were kicks and insults.
That day, their father died before their eyes. Back then, they didn’t know the identity of the important individual their dad had supposedly slept with. They also had no idea what an affair was and why it was considered a crime.
Some years later, she recalled that the servants had addressed her as ‘Princess.’ At that moment, the shame she felt couldn’t be expressed with words. That’s the reason why she suddenly stopped pouring alcohol on her father’s grave.
Eun Ha rested her forehead on her knees and wiggled her frozen toes. She sniffled while trying to hold down the tears. If her dad hadn’t made such a mistake, her sister wouldn’t have needed to become a courtesan. Also, she wouldn’t be full of doubts about what she should do next.
“Eun Ha, it’s cold outside. What are you doing?”
Eun Ha turned towards Young, who had just opened the door. She stared blankly at Eun Ha for a while, sighed, and then embraced her sister’s cold body. She patted her head gently while telling her it was all just a nightmare.
As the sun chased the dusk away, and the frozen lands began to melt.
* * * * * * *
“I’m not feeling well, Chun He. It seems like I’ve caught a mild flu.”
Chun He gazed at Lee Young with pity before leaving the room to fetch some hot tea.
After hearing her sister cough, Eun Ha dressed up as a man so she could fetch a doctor. She wanted to have Young examined as soon as possible.
But Young tried to stop Eun Ha with a pale expression.
“Don’t worry about me, I’m going to take this opportunity and rest for a bit. If you want, go buy me some medicine instead.”
“What are you talking about? You have a very high fever! Let’s get you examined by a doctor…please?”
“I only get to rest at times like these. Honestly, I hope it lasts longer.”
“Please don’t say that! How can you say something like that?!”
Angered by her words, Eun Ha forced Young to lay down, before covering her with a blanket and placing a wet towel on her forehead.
Young seized Eun Ha’s hand and placed a couple of coins in her palm.
“Today is market day, right? Go out and buy some sweets, rent a book, and if you see a cute ribbon, buy it. I’m going to tie your hair with it.”
“I don’t need your money.”
“It’s the tip for the errand. Buy me some medicine on your way back.”
Lee Young smiled beautifully even while enduring the continuous painful coughs.
Eun Ha didn’t know what to do and left only after Chun He returned with Balloon Flower tea. As she walked away, Eun Ha constantly looked back at the house with a worried expression.
Although Chun He was Sim Deok’s servant and they had first met each other in the courtesan house, Eun Ha believed that Chun He would take good care of her sister.
Eun Ha walked quickly towards her destination. If she accepted the bookshop owner’s request, there was a chance she’d be able to meet the person who wanted to hire her immediately. The fact she was dressed up as a boy bothered her only slightly, but from what she had heard, he was blind, and probably wouldn’t mind her attire. After all, her job was to read.
“Is anyone here?”
When Eun Ha arrived at the bookshop and knocked on the door. Perhaps due to it being early morning, the owner appeared behind her with a large bag in hand.
“You’re early today!”
The moment she caught sight of the new Xiyu books in his hands, Eun Ha’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Why do you have so many expensive books?”
“This is the order for the person that was here the other day. To fetch these, I had to get up early in the morning and walk a long distance.”
“Next time, please take me too. I’m very interested.”
“Okay, let’s do it. But what are you doing here so early in the morning? Perhaps… You’re here to accept the job offer I told you about the other day?”
Eun Ha smiled and nodded.
“After thinking it over, I began to understand how frustrating blindness could be. That and the high pay made me interested in this job.”
“Well then, should we go?”
“Right now?” Eun Ha exclaimed, her eyes widening in surprise.
After seeing her reaction, he motioned towards the bag that he was carrying.
“I was just about to go and deliver the books he had asked for. Wouldn’t it be better to accompany me? That way, you’ll be able to meet him directly.”
“Okay, but I don’t have much time. I still need to buy some medicine for my sister.”
“Why? Did she catch the flu?”
“Yes, and a very strong one.”
The bookshop owner clicked his tongue in response before leading the way.
As Eun Ha followed the bookshop owner, she glanced around as the market started to open. There was a child accompanied by his mother selling dried herbs. Then there was a merchant who was displaying different kinds of ribbons. On the other side of the street, an artist was drawing a couple. Further down, she could also see a taffy seller, then bit later, she walked past a shop selling silk.
While it was the middle of the winter, she could see people everywhere. She didn’t understand why but the sight gave her strength.
* * * * * * * *
Neither the shop owner nor Eun Ha could believe their eyes.
“I… I didn’t know there was such a big house in town.”
“Me neither. Does he really live here? It looks like a palace.”
“What are you saying? A palace is much bigger than this. Please be careful, it appears that he isn’t an ordinary person.”
Eun Ha gulped as she stood next to the shop owner.
“Is there anyone here?” The owner shouted.
Someone who appeared to be a guard opened the door and looked at them with suspicion.
“Who are you?”
“Good morning. We’re from the bookshop. The owner of this house has asked us to deliver some books, and I also brought along someone who can read to him.”
“Oh… Is this the reader?”
The guard regarded Eun Ha and her boyish attire with suspicion. The shop owner laughed and patted Eun Ha on the back.
“Although she’s dressed like a boy, she’s actually a girl. But she prefers to dress this way, so please, try to be understanding. Is he awake or did we arrive too early in the morning?”
Eun Ha was surprised at how the shop owner was talking. It was her first time seeing him act this way. She gazed up at the large house with an astonished expression.
“I’ve just heated some water. It will probably be enough to wash your hands. Come in and wait inside.”
As they entered the house that looked like a palace, Eun Ha tried her best not to overreact. The interior of the house was even bigger than it seemed from the outside.
There was a staircase made of rocks, pine trees everywhere, and she could see more than ten guards.
It was at least twice the size of an average courtesan house. She began to wonder about what kind of person lived in a place like this. Even the house where Young Master Yoon lived wasn’t as grand as this one.
They were standing in the middle of the yard when an armed guard approached them. The shop owner seemed to know that person since he greeted him immediately.
“It’s me, the bookshop owner Song Ga. I’ve prepared the books you’ve asked for and the reader you asked me to introduce.”
After hearing the shop owner’s words, the guard glanced at Eun Ha, and she felt intimidated by the look in his eyes.
“Good job. My lord has only granted the reader permission to enter. Therefore, you can wait at the servant’s house.”
“Oh… Yes, yes.”
Two servants came out of nowhere and took the books from the shop owner. As Eun Ha followed the armed man, she noticed that the shop owner also seemed confused.
She took off her shoes that were frozen and walked inside the house. There was a large corridor that was filled with darkness due to the lack of natural light. Eun Ha felt nervous and was breathing heavily.
The sword of the man walking before her wasn’t a normal blade. She was staring at the sheath, which was engraved with the figure of a tiger, that she didn’t notice the armed man had stopped walking, and almost bumped into him. He seemed annoyed by her presence. Before opening the door, he warned Eun Ha.
“Don’t ask him anything. Don’t try to chit-chat. Don’t stand up before he has given you permission. Understand?”
 Cudgel: a short, thick stick or staff that is used as a weapon.
 a popular South Korean tea made from the flower root.
Thank you for reading!