In the ancient Korean city of Hanyang, a gisaeng slave girl hides a fugitive in her bed, unexpectedly saving the life of a young man who is not all he seems. When she is forced to turn spy for a shadowy organisation with dangerous intentions, Seorin only wants one thing in return. Yet it is not her freedom she so desperately desires, it is something far more precious … and Seorin will face anything, even death, to gain it.
A dark and romantic tale of old Korea.
PROMISE SEASON by Lee Evie
Two Chapter Preview:
Chapter 1: The Pavilion
The other girls press around me. Skirts rustle as they ready themselves for the long night ahead, pushing along a new girl who moves too slow. Laughter erupts as they touch and poke, working together to pull her inside a gauzy dress. This new girl, Wol-hyeong, was sold here only recently, kicking and screaming as she came.
Tonight will be her first night and my heart bleeds for her.
I try to be kind, to say gentle words as I help her into the dress we have prepared, but Wol-hyeong is blind to all around and I soon give up.
Another gisaeng whispers in my ear that the girl has been drinking, told the hazy effects of alcohol would make her night easier to bear. Now Wol-hyeong is unsteady on her feet, eyes glazed and unresponsive. She is drunk.
I sigh. Perhaps it is for the best.
It is late evening at the Pavilion and the summer heat is oppressive, air thick and humid in the way it always is before a storm. Cicadas hum in the lush gardens outside and dark clouds gather already beyond the windows. Before the new girl leaves I lean close to whisper against her ear.
“It will soon be over, Wol-hyeong. Just close your eyes and bear it and it will all be over.”
She looks at me with unfocused eyes, her speech slurred and strange. “No. It won’t. This is only the first night, Unni. I cannot bear to stay here for the rest of my life.”
The name she uses for me means older sister, the first time she has referred to me so. I pretend it makes no difference.
“Yet that is just the way things are, Wol-hyeong,” I say. “You have nowhere else to go, just like the rest of us. You must learn to accept your fate. It is not so bad, living here.” I smile to offer encouragement as two of the other girls help Wol-hyeong to her feet and lead her away down the halls.
I watch them as long as I can, until the Pavilion swallows them up.
With Wol-hyeong gone I walk slowly toward the banquet hall. My head aches from the tautness of my hair, slicked back from my face and wound in high thick braids across my head. Entwined hair pieces are adorned with an elaborate jade pin. The pin moves back and forth as I walk, digging in beside my ear. By now I should be used to how heavy it is, after wearing my hair this same way for three long years. Yet I am not.
The headmistress barks my name from where she waits beside the banquet hall doors, flanked by her bodyguard. She gestures impatiently toward the other girls already within the hall and I pick up my pace to join them, bowing low as I pass her by.
Inside it is crowded, colourful gisaeng mingle with noblemen of the high yangban class. Men lounge on cushions in front of tables spread thick with white dishes of bamboo shoots, ginseng and quince, grape preserves, and strong soju. Fine desserts and alcohol for fine rich men.
Most of the party are young today, resplendent in their finery and black gat headwear, presided over by only a few older nobles. All of them are dressed in the silk hanbok that signifies high status, shining robes awash in bright blues, greens, and red. It is clear they have been here a long time, eyes glazed and cheeks flushed red.
“It is a celebration to honour one of the young men,” Jan-sil appears at my side dressed as I am, in whispering skirts and painted face. “He has passed the civil servant examination.”
I nod as my friend hands me my gayageum. The instrument is heavy in my hands, yet a comfortable weight beneath my calloused fingertips. I have spent many hours working to master it, the single joy I discovered upon my arrival at the Pavilion. I run my hands across the gayageum’s paulownia wood body, hollowed out and strung tight with twelve long strings, every nook familiar and loved. My mastery of it is my only pride and vanity, a skill which affords me opportunities the other gisaeng cannot have; a chance to step away from entertaining to perform or practise.
“Gisaeng, play for us.”
An older lord sits at the top of the hall, his voice booming above the room’s chatter, arms spread wide as he addresses me. Heads turn and silence falls.
I smile and bow low, affecting a docile expression in my manner and speech. Letting it settle across my skin.
“Nauri,” I address him in the respectful way. “You honour me.”
I am more than perfect at masking my face and voice for them. No one in this room will ever know what lies beneath.
Perhaps even I no longer know.
Arranging myself carefully on the far side of the hall, I settle on the thin cushion Jan-sil has placed there for me, voluminous skirts spreading up to my elbows. I begin to play, practised fingers dancing across the strings of my gayageum as the room remains in rapt silence. Dark eyes drink me in.
It does not last.
Soon the laughter and slurred conversation rings out once more, a cacophony of men’s deep voices and the higher chatter of attentive gisaeng. The women pour clear liquor from ceramic bottles each time a drinking bowl runs dry. These girls are everything they should be: shy and bashful, educated, intelligent, seductive, even silent. Always beautiful.
We are what we’re wished to be.
I watch quietly from my cushion seat, for I do not mind being ignored. My music echoes through the hall as the crowd drowns itself in rice wine and liquor. The sky breaks and rain begins to fall. It hammers hard against the roof in a deafening thunder, heavier and heavier until my music is no longer discernible from the sounds of play within the hall. I continue regardless, head bowed now and eyes locked on the gayageum’s strings, the long instrument heavy across my legs.
With the rain comes servants. Women dressed in coarsely spun uniforms scurry inside to pull the shutters closed, picking their way through drunk patrons as they light candles and lanterns. Light spills red and gold across the floor, a soft warm glow to keep the gloom of night at bay. None of the men notice the presence of the servants. After fastening the latches against the howling wind, the women leave as silently as they arrived. Ghosts in the night.
Outside, the rain hammers on and on.
Much later the temperature snaps to cool, humidity gone just as the lightning begins; great flashes flare across the wooden shutters as the storm rages on. My fingers grow stiff as they dance over the gayageum, until mid-song a string stretches and breaks, cutting flesh as it snaps. Blood stains my skin and I bite my lip at the sharp pain, glancing at the banquet patrons.
No one sees, the abrupt loss of music unnoticed.
After a few moments waiting to be sure, I finally stand and slip from the room, keeping one eye on the patrons as I haul my heavy instrument with me. I pad silently through the maze of halls toward our quarters at the back of the Pavilion. I am pleased to be away, even if only to retrieve a new string. My lips curl into a secret smile until a yawn breaks through. I will take my time re-stringing it, linger as long as I can.
Darkness swells inside the small storage room, shadows spilling from the corners across the cold floor. My lantern remains unlit and discarded beside the wall.
Still sucking my cut finger, I pause before the outer sliding doors, which are open to the night. The frame vibrates in time with the howling wind, gaping open onto the Pavilion’s vast courtyards and wild wet gardens. The terrace beyond the small storage room is dark, water pooling into mud along pathways that wind through shadowed trees. The air tastes of rain.
The sliding doors are wide open.
Yet I am certain I shut them.
Carefully setting down my precious gayageum where it will remain safe and dry, I struggle with the doors, battling against the heavy rain. Water pools beneath my feet, soaking my indoor stockings. Cold against skin.
With the windows finally secured I think longingly of my bedroll as I drop to dry the floor. The room is dark and heavy, and I imagine forgoing the rest of the night’s celebrations to sink into the soft depths of my blanket. Yet it is only a fleeting dream … for I am a gisaeng and a gisaeng’s life is not her own.
Rainwater spreads far across the floor and, yawning, I follow it with my rag, drying impatiently. Water has spilled beneath the table, mixing with the long deep shadows and the darkness curling from the corners of the room.
Abruptly I stand still, listening.
I hear it again. Heavy laboured breathing, sharp and fast.
A man. Coiled like a spring in the darkness and hidden in the black.
Staggering backwards a scream erupts from my throat yet he is so quick, a hand hard across my face, fingers grasping my mouth to suppress yells before they have begun. I buck and kick, railing against him as his grip tightens. Warm breath against my cheek.
“I won’t harm you,” he hisses.
There is urgency in his voice. Desperation.
I do not believe him.
I throw my weight to unbalance him and kick again and again until we both tumble to the floor, a struggle of limbs and layered silk clouding around us. My heart beats jaggedly, blood roaring in my ears as I attempt to rip his hand from my mouth. Feet kicking hard at the low table, I twist and turn until the man exhales in a sharp gasp, my elbow finally connecting with flesh. Glimpses of a blood-streaked face emerge through the shadows, eyes wild and rolling as his body slumps, unfocused and dazed.
I rip myself away, staggering onto my feet to stumble for the door within seconds, holding my dishevelled hairpiece in place. He is almost unconscious, helpless and slumped on the floor, head pushed back and face angled to the ceiling, breath laboured. My chance to escape, to raise the alarm.
To be safe.
To fix my face and my hair and change my gayageum string. To return to the banquet hall where things remain unchanged. Stretching forward as far as I can see.
My feet do not carry me where I wish to go.
I remain locked in place staring down at the stranger. Blood soaks his chest, seeping between clutched fingers from some terrible wound on his stomach, hidden beneath ragged clothes. Half open eyes meet mine. Pleading.
Beneath the din of thundering rain, crunching footsteps splash along the gravel pathways beyond the sliding doors. I press shaking fingers against the doorframe, the thin structure all that obscures us from the lush wet gardens outside. Heavy footsteps draw closer. Men yell from the terrace, rough voices shouting back and forth through our complex. Searching for something … for someone.
I look down.
The man grasps the hem of my chima skirt, clutching at the folded silk, material held taught and tight with startling strength. He does not let go as footsteps approach along the terrace. Rattles and crashes erupt from within the room next door, as if it is being searched. The man stares at me, eyes wild.
Chapter 2: The Stranger in the Room
Terrace doors slide wide open and flickering flame-light fills every hidden corner of the room. Over my shoulder the silhouettes of two men rise against the dark rain, both dressed in the guard uniform of the police bureau, their bodies imposing. One holds a lantern, peering inside with a thin pointed face. Sharp like a fox.
He barks like a fox too, voice just as piercing as his features. “You! What are you doing?”
One boot already hovers across the doorway, a threat that turns my skin cold.
The injured man lies pinned to the floor beneath me, and I am filled with terror of what must surely come next. Interrogation and torture. Death. The stranger remains motionless, watching me with burning eyes.
“I am doing nothing,” I answer the guard finally.
The stranger releases a pent-up breath.
“I am only a lowly gisaeng, tell me why you have entered my private room at this late hour?” My voice is steady as I address the policeman over my shoulder, my body hiding the stranger’s face from view.
But it is not enough.
The man beneath me is clearly an outsider, soaked through from the rain, his clothes and shoes covered in mud from the garden and his hands streaked with blood. He is no normal Pavilion patron. All the guards must do is look. My layered skirts won’t hide his identity; our embarrassing position is not enough to distract these men, my idea will not work … it will not.
Or it will.
The guard with the fox face squints through the darkness. “Have you seen any strangers in the hallways tonight, gisaeng?”
I release my breath and slowly shake my head.
He is not suspicious.
He is foolish.
I almost smile except the fox guard steps suddenly inside the room. Light from his lantern swings directly onto the stranger’s face, illuminating sweat-covered skin and glittering eyes. I jerk to the side, using my body to block the light, plunging the stranger into shadow once more.
Too late, much too late and already I see my end coming straight at me, blood spilled across the road, screaming and tears. I already know what happens to traitors.
Except … glancing back at the guard, his attention is not on the stranger at all.
All focus rests on me.
He scans my body with a lingering gaze, lips curling into a slow fox smile. “You are certain you’ve not seen anyone suspicious, gisaeng?”
“I have not.” Anger clips my voice now, nerves strung much too tight. “How could I possibly have seen such a thing from here? Are you both fools?”
The fox guard’s skin flushes and I think I have gone too far, but already I am distracted. My hand still rests against the stranger’s chest, covered in blood now, wet seeping between my fingers.
This cannot last.
Slowly I force myself to exhale, summoning whatever courage I have left to flash fury at the two guards, voice whip-sharp like the headmistress’s, biting hard enough to draw blood. “Leave this room now! Or else I’ll call the headmistress and tell her you’ve been disturbing our guests! She is greatly favoured by powerful men. Do you truly wish them to hear you have obstructed her business?”
The fox faced one seems almost amused at my outburst, yet already the other guard is flushed with embarrassment. He is very young. Perhaps even young enough for this to be his first time inside an establishment like the Pavilion.
“Forgive us, we will leave,” he stammers, averting his gaze and attempting to draw back his partner. The fox man’s eyes still roam my body.
“Perhaps I will visit you later gisaeng.”
I do not bother answering the taunt; he could not afford the Pavilion anyway, yet I feel the stranger’s fingers tighten against my skirt. I push harder on his chest and he groans. Stay down.
The younger policeman bows in apology and this time manages to pull the other guard from the room, sliding the doors closed behind him to shut out the wet night and lush dripping gardens. My vision adjusts in the shadows, my heart slows and roaring blood grows still. The sounds of the search party fade into the rain until the storm is all that’s left.
In the sudden silence I am quick to climb off him. The stranger.
The man sits up slowly, his movements strained. He presses a hand against his stomach, blood gleaming in the dark across his fingers.
“Your body is hurt,” I say. Quietly climbing to my feet, I retrieve a layered skirt and offer it to hold against his stomach. “It will keep the blood at bay.”
He waves me away. “I do not need it.”
Grunting with effort he staggers to his feet, trying hard to hide his weakness. I imagine how easy it would be to press my hand against his chest and push; he would tip over like a sapling to the floor and I could scream for the guards, release myself from this hole I have dug. Leave that red road of traitor’s blood behind.
I do not move.
Sweat shines on his forehead and the stranger spreads his hand against the wall to steady himself. Glittering eyes meet mine in the darkness, assessing and calculating.
“I need something from you,” his voice is flat, without emotion. “Will you help me?”
I am taken aback. “I’ve already helped you.”
“You have,” he agrees. “You saved my life. And now you must face your choice and complete the task. Hide something here for me. Someone will return later to retrieve it.”
When I don’t reply he adds quietly, “It is important to many lives the guards who search do not find this thing. Please.”
“I can’t help you. I don’t even know what you’ve done. Why do they search for you?”
His eyes burn with fever. And determination. ”You can. You can help me.”
“Why are they chasing you?”
“You already have helped me.” He steps closer, ignoring my questions. “Hiding me is enough to implicate you already. If I’m found here now you’ll be marked as an accomplice, you’ll be arrested alongside me. Help me with this last thing so I can leave here sooner. If I am gone you will be safe.”
I wonder if he intends his words to sound as they do, so much like a threat. But already he is pulling a blood-stained silk pouch from underneath his clothes, reaching to wrap my fingers firmly around it as he pushes the bag into my hands.
“Keep this thing for me and I’ll send someone to retrieve it soon. And that will be the end of it. I promise you.”
Beneath the silk I feel parchment. I blink, heart racing as I close my fingers tighter and the paper crackles.
“This is so much more important than you can imagine.” The stranger’s grip closes over my wrist, painfully tight, willing me to believe in him. “Keep it safe.”
I falter, another mistake, for already he is moving toward the shutters, expression alert and ready.
“There are still guards outside,” I warn.
“I’ll make it.” He glances back over his shoulder. “Or I won’t. Yet I cannot be found in possession of that thing. You must keep it safe, and if no one comes for it … burn it.”
I peer at the silk pouch in my hands. “What is it? What’s inside?”
He smiles and it changes his face. “I am putting my faith in you, gisaeng. I am trusting you.” His hair hangs loose and wet across his brow and his jaw is unshaven. He’s dressed in the attire of a common man, coarse and homespun, yet beneath the dirt and sweat he is young and well made. A strong man.
He opens the shutters, hesitating. “Keep it safe. And whatever happens, do not look inside. The less you know the better.”
He smiles again and my chest twinges, blood singing through my body.
Then he disappears into the black storm.