THE CAPITAL LAY deep in stillness.
By morning the dirt road usually clamored with life outside Changdeok Palace: women crowding fish stalls, farmers carrying produce, scholars garbed in silk robes, and monks with prayer beads strung around their necks. And there would always be a mob of children, faces burnt and glistening in the sticky heat, chasing one another down the street. But not today.
“Do you suppose the rumors are true, Officer Kyon?” Rain pitter-pattered against black tiled roofs as I lowered the satgat over my face, allowing the drops to dribble down from the pointed top and off the wide straw brim. “Whispers that the king was assassinated.”
Mud squelched under boots as police officers trudged ahead.
Officer Kyon, the last officer in line and youngest of all, sent me a fierce look over his shoulder. “Watch what you say. The capital is nothing like your countryside.”
He was referring to Inchon Prefecture. A few months had passed since I’d left home, brought to the capital to be trained as a police damo, an indentured servant-of-all-work.
“But, eh, I’ll tell you this much.” Officer Kyon eyed our gray surroundings as he adjusted the sash belt over his black robe. “When King Chongjo died, there came a terrible noise of weeping from Mount Samgak, and rays of sunlight collided, then burst into sparks.”
“An omen?” I whispered.
“A bad omen. The old order has passed and the new will come with a river of blood.”
The king was dead, and our lives were going to change. I had learned this while serving wine to police officers, eavesdropping into the accounts of politics and treachery that oftentimes left me overexcited. It was all I could think of, even as we were journeying to a crime scene, summoned there by the inspector.
“Let me tell you something about the capital, newcomer. The one thing everyone wants is power. To gain it or to stabilize it.” He clucked his tongue and waved me away. “What use has a damo to know such things? No woman should talk as much as you.”
Annoyance pinched at me as I followed in his shadow. He was right, of course—though I did not yet consider myself a woman. I was only sixteen. Still, I’d learned that among the seven sins a woman could commit, one was talking excessively. A man could even divorce his wife because of her chattiness.
I blamed Older Sister for my longing to know more. She was unusually learned for a servant, with vast knowledge of Buddhist and Confucian verses; she would always try to hide it from me and the villagers. I would tug at her long sleeve, asking her to tell me more, but she would pull away and say, “It is better for you not to know these things. Do not stand out, do not be so curious, then you will have a long life, Seol.” I had resented her for this, though now I understood her better. The longing for knowledge only got me into trouble these days.
I looked ahead. Inspector Han stood in the near distance, watching me from beneath the wide brim of his black police hat. The string of beads threaded on the chin strap trembled in the gusty rain. Behind him was his team of men, who must have arrived at the scene before us: two officers, a coroner’s assistant, a legal clerk, and a police artist. I hurried toward the inspector while the six officers who had traveled with me exchanged information among themselves, murmuring in my periphery:
“Found by a watchman.”
“He was patrolling the South Gate, and at the end of his watch, there she was.”
I gathered my hands before me and bowed to Inspector Han, deeper than was necessary. He was one of the few worthy enough to see the top of my head. He was to me the great spotted leopard from my village: the speedy and well-muscled hunter who excelled at climbing and jumping, and in slipping silently through the grass with scarcely a ripple.
“You called for me, Inspector,” I said.
“Have a look at her.”
He gestured at a lump a few paces away. I walked into the vast shadow of the wall that enclosed Hanyang, the capital of Joseon. Its height blocked out the sight of mountains, and it was so thick that an invader might take a thousand years to chip through the massive stones. Yet dangerous as the world outside the fortress was, clearly danger lurked within as well.
My stomach turned to water as I stood before a young woman. She lay sprawled, drenched in rain, her face turned to the ground. Her long dress and jacket of a silky ramie cloth, the hem and sleeves richly embroidered with floral patterns, marked her as a noble.
“Roll her over,” Inspector Han ordered. “We have yet to see her wound.”
I stepped over the corpse, crouched, and grabbed her shoulder. This was why the Capital Police Bureau kept female servants like me: I was an extension of the officers, my hands used by them to arrest female criminals and to examine female victims. An inconvenience for the police, and yet men were forbidden from touching women who were not directly related to them. It was the law, Confucius’s law.
As I flipped the corpse around, her voluminous skirt whispered and I almost jumped back when her long, soggy hair clung to my sleeve. Don’t yelp.
I closed my eyes, panic thrumming in my chest. Never had I touched a murdered corpse before, having worked at the police bureau for only a few months. I sucked in a deep breath and peeled the damp strands off me, then forced my gaze down again. Blood stained her white collar. A deep gash with puckered edges stretched across her pale throat. A cloudy film covered her eyes. And a bloody cavern was dug into her face, a staring hole like that of a skeleton where her nose once was.
“Stabbed in the neck,” Inspector Han said. He gestured to the tassel-like ornament tied to the victim’s skirt. “No one has stolen the norigae, and the jewel pin is still in her hair. This is no robbery. What is that under her left shoulder?”
I lifted the shoulder. A small, bloody knife with a silver handle …
I looked back at the norigae hanging from the victim. Upon closer examination, I noticed there was a silver paedo ornamentally knotted to the norigae, and it was missing a knife. My hands moved of their own accord, taking the murder weapon and slipping it into the turquoise stone-encrusted sheath.
“It belonged to her,” the inspector whispered, a frown in his voice. “Give that to the clerk.”
I did so, stunned that the victim’s own decorative knife had resulted in her death.
“Now, look for her identification tag.”
“Neh.” I patted the corpse, buried my hand into her skirt, and discovered a yellow tag of poplar wood. By law, everyone in the Joseon kingdom had to carry one. There were characters engraved onto the wood, likely indicating the bearer’s name, place of birth, status, and residence—but I couldn’t say for sure, for to me words were brushstrokes with no meaning. It was likely Hanja, classical Chinese writing, the official script of our kingdom, for what else could it be? Our native script, Hangul, seemed to have more circles and straight lines.
Placing the tag in the inspector’s outstretched hand, I looked up, wanting to see his reaction to whatever name was written. But my gaze only managed to reach his chin, for I knew not to hold the stare of my superior. I still didn’t even know the color of Inspector Han’s eyes.
“Lady O, daughter of the Cabinet Minister O, and only nineteen years old.”
A murmur rose among the officers. “Pity, gone at such a young age,” someone said. “I’ll wager her father’s enemy killed her. Members of the Southerner faction like him have one too many rivals…”
As they shared their low-voiced speculations, I dragged the corpse toward Officers Kyon and Goh, who were holding a wooden stretcher, waiting for me. No one else but I, the damo girl, was permitted to move the female corpse.
I clenched my teeth against the ache in my chest. In the past few days, an unusually high number of corpses had been carted in, the bodies of servants and peasants. Officers had looked upon their deaths as casually as they would butchered meat. But it was different now. The blood of a noble shocked them.
Another tug, and the sickly-sweet odor of death drifted into my nostrils. A smell that shouldn’t have surprised me. I’d hunted rabbits and birds before with an arrow. I’d helped skin them too. But this, this odor seemed half mold, half animal. With one last heave, I pulled the woman onto the stretcher, and at once I shrank away from the horrible odor.
“Senior Officer Shim, take Kyon, question the watchmen.” Inspector Han’s voice resounded through the beating of rain. “The rest of you will go to all the inns, then all the houses. This cannot have been without witnesses…” He paused, and then called out, “You there.”
I got to my feet, knees mud-damp. “Me, sir?”
Inspector Han cast a glance my way as he mounted his horse. “Yes, you. Follow me.”
I hurried alongside, the horse’s powerful hooves striking the ground, splashing more dirt onto my skirt and sleeves. The peasants must have heard the tramping, for they dropped to the ground, bowing head-to-mud as was protocol. Inspector Han was not only an aristocrat, but he was a military official of the fifth rank—a rank very few noblemen achieved in their lifetime. No one would dare refuse to bow to a man such as he.
I was born a servant and thus belonged to the palchon, the “eight meanest groups of people.” Our lowborn class was crowded with monks, shamans, clowns, butchers, and the like. All of us, in one way or another, were considered polluted.
Still, I imagined they were bowing to me.
* * *
Older Sister always scolded me for having the airs of a Chinese empress. Growing up, I would always clamor after attention, convinced that I deserved much more—more love, more appreciation, more kindness. How could a servant have had such thoughts?
Life as a servant should have taught me that the world was cruel, and that I did not deserve anything better. Before I’d even learned to walk, I had learned of death. Father was said to have died from starvation, and while I could not remember this, from what I’d been told, I often dreamed that I was counting his ribs. Years later, Mother had tried to leap off a cliff into the sea, only to shatter upon the craggy shore. Then, at the age of seven, I had found Young Lady Euna of the Nam household, whom I had thought of as my playmate (though really, I was her family servant), cold and motionless under a silk blanket. But somehow my “Chinese empress” air had stuck to me like a spiky burr, until three months ago.
A patrolman had caught me trying to run away from the police bureau. Amid the chaotic shuffle of arms and feet and high-pitched screams, I’d tried to escape him as well. For on that day—the fourth day of my indenture—I had received news about Older Sister’s deteriorating health, and my need to fulfill a certain promise to her had sharpened. But how foolish l’d been to think I could get away, and the police had made sure to teach me a lesson. They had scarred me with a hot iron, a punishment from the ancient times, branding my left cheek with a Hanja character: bi. Female servant.
I touched my left cheek, the skin thick and rough where the wound had healed. The memory chafed at me as I followed Inspector Han, the memory of wanting to die, not knowing how to endure the humiliation. The intensity of my death wish had passed quickly, though. So long as I had a purpose—to fulfill Older Sister’s request—my life still had meaning.
Stay in Hanyang, she had begged. Find your brother Inho’s grave.
We were both convinced of his death, for he had sworn on Mother’s grave that he would write to me, no matter where I might end up in the kingdom. And I had believed him, for I knew him. My brother always kept his word. Yet twelve years had gone by without a letter from him. He had to be dead.
To help with my search for him, Older Sister had given me a sketch of our brother on the day of my departure to the capital. A sketch so faded and badly drawn that it had warped my own memory of him. Still, I had never left the bureau without it, making sure to keep it safely tucked inside my uniform. I had promised to find my older brother, and like him, I always kept my word.
Gradually the memory faded, my mind distracted by the labyrinth coiled at the center of the capital—of dirt paths and alleys, cluttered by huts made of cheap wood and thatch. Peasants crumpled in fear as we passed them by. The atmosphere changed when we ventured into the Northern District, the residential quarter of high-ranking officials, nestled between Changdeok Palace to the east and Gyeongbok Palace to the west. We were surrounded no longer by desperation but by the patterned stone walls and dark-tiled roofs of neighboring mansions. The rainfall had lightened, and in the clearing air, the eight peaks that surrounded Hanyang’s basin cut the sky like teeth.
“Stop here,” Inspector Han said as we arrived before the gate of a walled mansion. “What was your name again?”
Copyright © 2020 by June Hur