“Is she my baby sister?” someone said. He continued, “She’s so beautiful when she smiles.” None of the boys so far had spoken this warmly of me. Hwanseok and Hwanseong were mere toddlers at 4 and 5. This one smelled a bit more manly. Hey, I’m no perv. Just a cute little baby, not yet one.
This brother appeared to be in middle school. Like my father, this boy was handsome. All three of my brothers were good-looking, having inherited their good looks from my dashing father.
This brother was the first son of the first-ranked queen, and his name was Hyeongseok. I thought I just might drown in his gaze. Please just gaze at me with those beautiful eyes…
“She’s so cute.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” my mother, Seoyeong replied. With her hand on her heart, she bowed. She was the third-ranked queen. She stepped outside, and I was left alone with this handsome fellow, my brother. At my age, I was too young to feel any carnal desires. If you feel any alarm, there’s no reason to notify the police. But my heart was set aflutter in the arms of this handsome boy. I would have felt like this even in my twenty-six-year-old body. Oh, were you starting to get worried? Fooled you, didn’t I?
Cradling me in his arms, he said wistfully, “How much better it would have been if you had been born a boy.” He spoke on, his guard down because he suspected nothing of a harmless infant. “This world is brutal to girls. My heart aches when I think of the life that awaits you.”
He seemed much wiser than a thirteen year old. Still cradling me, he sat down on the bed. I reached my hand toward him and giggled. He stroked my head affectionately.
He spoke again, “Girls have no rights in this world. But I think it would be good if you did.”
I gurgled again, thinking, You’re dreamy!
“Though I am a male on the outside, we are really in the same tragic situation.”
Overhearing, Hwanseok’s lament, Seoyeong entered, “Your Majesty, it is unbecoming of the first-born prince to speak that way.”
“I was born without even a smidge of magical power. If I weren’t a prince, I would have been killed or abandoned at birth.”
“Don’t speak like that,” she replied. “Be strong! It doesn’t matter what others say. Your Majesty is the first-born! Your Majesty has my loyalty, no matter what.”
I was learning more about this strange world. Magical ability was highly valuable in this world. At first mention, I emitted a strange chortle and tilted my head. It sounded strange to me, but to others, it was an infant’s charming babbling.
He said again, “I won’t be able to see you for a long while, Mother. Just this fact fills me with sadness and longing.”
Seoyeong seemed greatly affected by his words, and tears welled up in her eyes. I guess women are treated so terribly that even such small gestures of kindness touched her heart. My handsome brother departed, and she wiped her eyes. Cradling me, she started talking to herself.
“The first-born prince will become a hostage for the empire again.”
My brother had no magical ability, even though he was the first-born prince. This made him an easy hostage for the empire. He was said to be treated decently at the empire, but it must certainly be difficult to be separated from your family to live the life of a hostage at such a tender age. The image of my brother, so wise and suffering, was enchanting.
More time elapsed. I still found my other two brothers annoying. Even so, the younger of the two was obviously taking a liking to me. Not that this changed my initial opinion of him of course.
Hwanseong ordered, “Fetch!” I crawled over obediently on all fours, laughing. I could toddle now, but crawling was still faster and easier. Still smiling, I picked up the ragdoll Hwanseong had thrown and brought it to him.
Hwanseong smiled in approval, “Well done. Good dog.”
Hwanseok glanced at us and corrected him, “She isn’t even worth as much as a dog.”
Hwanseong considered this for a moment and said, “Then should I call her Mutt?”
The outrage! Can’t you see that I’m plotting revenge against you? This is all just an act! Well, of course he was oblivious as he tried out this new insult.
I cursed him inwardly, but the happy smile remained glued to my face, for it was the ticket to my survival. My powerlessness filled me with dejection, but I was working toward my goal. I would win these little boys over and then my father whom I had dubbed King Scumbag. If I were to fail, how can I change this world?
Hwanseong ordered, “Now bark like a dog!”
Little brat! I thought while I obeyed. My wounded pride!
My mother, Seoyeong Kang, liked to read, and I whined for her to hold me on her lap whenever she was reading. I was dying to see what was in the books. This room was all I knew of this world and wanted to learn a bit more about the world out there. In case you were wondering if I could read, the answer was yes, of course.
An opportunity arrived, when I happened upon a pen and paper. I was seized with a longing to see Jinsu again. My memory was terrible, perhaps because I was in an undeveloped infant’s body.
Even so, the memory of Jinsu’s face was indelibly imprinted in my mind. My hand started moving as though it had a mind of its own.
My hand, on its own, wrote: “I miss you.” My scrawling was barely decipherable. I was trying to write in Korean, but an alphabet I didn’t know came out. My mother was stricken dumb with surprise.
“Surely that’s not…” she trailed off. A stuffed rabbit in her hand, which might have been for me, fell to the floor. She said, “Did you really write this?”
I gurgled in reply, holding up the paper. I scrawled: “I Love You, Mommy.”
Her mouth fell open, in disbelief that an infant who could barely walk was writing. I reconsidered whether it was a good idea to reveal the extent of my genius, so I deliberately misspelled the next words. I wrote: “Soo Mooch.”
There. With this much, I had shown that I was no ordinary child. What I did know was that men were supreme in this society, and magic was the highest currency. To my knowledge, I did not possess the power of magic. I had to find some other way to survive. I wasn’t actually any sort of genius, but I might be treated like one if I revealed the skills I had acquired in my previous life.
Then I heard a familiar voice saying, “What’s this?” It was Scumbag—the lowest of the low!
Scumbag, as you might recall, was my father, the king. It was then he spotted what I had written. Go ahead, behold my prodigious talent!
He asked, “Did the little wench write this?”
Seoyeong replied, “…yes.”
He then said, “It’s completely illegible.”
I fumed. Isn’t it remarkable that a one-year-old could create something with any resemblance to writing? That’s all you can say? Were you a prodigy?
I didn’t know it then, but he really had been a prodigy and had started writing at age one, like me. This world was different. I had to forget everything I thought I knew to understand it. You vile thing, I cursed him silently. Still, I clung to his leg. I opened my arms and giggled as sweetly as possible. Surely, it was a charming picture.
But Scumbag swung his leg to shake me off, saying, “What a nuisance.” I fell flat on my bottom. But I was not deterred. If I fell seven times, I would get up eight times. If only I could win him over… Just you wait. I’ll get you.
I smiled and crawled to him again, gurgling in my baby voice.
He said, “She doesn’t cry. I thought that being a girl, she would throw tantrums.”
My mother said, “She is smart because she takes after you.”
“She’s still a worthless girl,” he declared.
Just you wait. Wait till I take my revenge on you.
Now, Reader, accompany me as we advance three years into the future. I am now four.
My third-oldest brother, Hwanseong, now seven, came into my room.
My mother addressed him, “Your Majesty…maybe you shouldn’t…”
He retorted, “It is none of your business.”
You talk like that to an adult? How did you turn out like this? So different from the oldest brother.
Seoyeong fell silent, but I spoke up: “I won’t.”
At least for the time being, I could stand my ground. I had the power, at least for a brief moment, because he had something he wanted.
He wheedled me, “Please!”
“His Majesty the King said no. I’ll get in trouble, and I don’t want to get in trouble.”
This was my ironclad excuse. The king had forbidden it. No further explanations necessary. He was misogynistic and disagreeable, but I was thankful that I had that fallback.
“Do you really mean that?”
“I can’t disobey His Majesty the King!”
“Just this once!”
“Your Majesty said the same thing last time.”
“But that was a long time ago!” he insisted. I remembered how much older I really was than he. I offered him a compromise.
“Then do this,” I suggested.
“What?” he asked, seriously. He said then, “I won’t give you a chocolate bar.”
I’ve no interest in chocolate bars, I wanted to say. Now, bear in mind that even princes weren’t able to eat chocolate whenever they wanted. Our father was very strict, so you could only have one chocolate bar a day.
Hwanseong stood firm and said, “Never ever.”
I’m just trying to get something in return for doing his written assignment. Hwanseong was in peak physical shape, but he was quite a dunce when it came to his school work. I’d heard he was a whiz in sword-fighting, but he certainly wasn’t book-smart.
“Just sign here.”
“Here? But it’s like”
“Your Majesty doesn’t have to do it if it doesn’t please him to.”
I now had the tools for forgery. I also had the blank document. But I did not, at that point, have any grand plans for his signature, and I was satisfied just to have a copy of a prince’s signature. Seoyeong was looking at me worriedly, but I would just make sure to butter her up later.
A day later, something so incredible happened that I thought I was hallucinating. I saw Jinsu again.