Sit tight. Because what you’re about to read is a tale so fantastical it’ll leave you alternately reeling and hooting. If owls (and diaper-clad chickens) are your thing, and if you enjoy intrigue and romance (and also a spot of comedy, intentioned or not), you’ve come to the right place.
But first, a disclaimer. Any resemblance in this story to old or current TV fare is purely coincidental and should not be misconstrued as mischief (punishable by hard labor on a treeless and TV-less island). If there’s any mischief at all, you’ll find it in this extremely tall tale, all eighty-two episodes of it. And now we begin with Episode 1.
In an army camp far from Seoul, a platoon of soldiers has just finished another grueling day of training. As the exhausted men stagger out onto the snow-covered ground, one of them is especially vocal. “I’m a king!” he yells to his officers. “That germ warfare stunt you pulled could have killed me!”
As our king is led away, possibly to spare him from embarrassing himself further, his platoon mates watch expressionless. “There goes King Jae-ha,” says one man. “Trust him to make the most noise again.”
“Keep your voice down, Kang Young-chul,” says a second man. “Just one more month before we’re discharged. Don’t do or say anything now to get us into trouble.”
The men need not have worried. He may be of kingly descent, but Lee Jae-ha isn’t the sort to bear petty grudges. Sure, he may pull away your chair just before you’re about to sit on it, causing you to fall on your bum, but that’s just him being playful. As the royal attendants can attest, the guy is an overgrown kid. Doted upon from birth, he just needs to flash his signature grin to get his way.
On the day of his discharge, a blissful Jae-ha rides home in the royal car, his eyes closed as he contemplates his newfound freedom.
First, he’ll see his brother the king. (Wait, there are two kings? Apparently so. It helps to ease protocol so that staff need not alternate between “Your Majesty” and “Your Highness” when addressing the royal brothers; it’s like killing two birds with one stone, or, in this case, with one title.) Then he’ll zip over to the other side of town to meet his girl.
He tries to imagine her reaction. Would she faint from shock or would she hop up and down, her shrieks of joy deafening him? Better yet, would she cover him with kisses? Ah, life does not get better than this.
Unaware that Jae-ha is about to drop in on her unannounced, Yeo-chi is sitting in a café sipping tea most delicately. So refined are her mannerisms, and so luminous her complexion (not to mention so expensive-looking her clothes), you would at once conclude that she’s of privileged upbringing. And of course you are right, because Ms. Baek is heiress-designate of her grandfather’s millions (though thankfully not of his precious Gold Jade).
Across the cobbled lane, out of her sight and out of his earshot, a man gazes at Yeo-chi with growing fascination. Her every delicate movement elicits a sigh of pleasure; soon he’s cupping his face and positively salivating. To chance upon such a vision of loveliness on today of all days, what a good omen, Oh Yoo-bang!
What Yoo-bang does not know is that said vision of loveliness has the entire café mortified because of the steady stream of expletives exiting her lovely mouth. Neither is he aware that she is his king’s object of desire, and that said king was just sharing his nephew Young-chul’s bunker a month ago. Ah, ‘tis a small world, isn’t it?
As Yoo-bang continues to enjoy Yeo-chi viscerally, a man in a suit suddenly approaches him. After a short exchange, the man gives Yoo-bang a document to sign. Across the lane, an incensed Yeo-chi has risen to her feet and is singlehandedly wrecking the café. Some miles away, in front of his bemused older brother, Jae-ha is throwing a Jae-ha hissy fit.
“I just got out of the army and you want me to go back in? No way! I’ve paid my dues to the country; it’s time I lived my life the way I want to!”
“Look, Jae-ha,” says the king gently, “you know how much I want the two Koreas to become one. This international military competition is a godsend. Imagine North and South Korea participating as one united team. I never thought I would see that in my lifetime. Do it, Jae-ha. Do it for me and for our beloved nation.”
“Yeo-chi is waiting for me, Hyung!”
Hmm, actually Yeo-chi isn’t waiting. Yeo-chi does not wait for anyone or anything. Yeo-chi is waited upon, thank you very much.
Leaving the café in a huff (and no one knows why Ms. Baek is so crotchety today), our heiress heads for her favorite Apgujeong store. Yes, that haute couture store owned by Madam Jo, a very close friend of her grandfather.
So close is Madam Jo to the old man, his most prized possession is a gift of poultry (not poetry) that she bestowed on him for his 70th birthday. Named Gold Jade (not Golden Jade or Jaded Gold, please), the hen sits on Chairman Jin Si-hwang’s desk and clucks approvingly every time the company’s stock price rises. If the reverse happens (the stock value, not the chairman sitting on the hen’s desk, please), Gold Jade will signal her displeasure with a timely deposit, usually wet, into her diaper.
Never ever work the fowl into a foul mood, people.
Yeo-chi arrives at Madam Jo’s store only to find it shuttered. Apparently a small fire had broken out in one of the fitting rooms last night. “Damn,” says Yeo-chi without caring a damn. “Secretary Park, take me to the department store instead.” And so the car pulls away, its driver and passenger unaware that the fire had done more than just ruin a few racks of clothes.
At the swanky department store, Yeo-chi gets into another fight. (Yes, Houston, we have a pattern, so?) With one of her grandfather’s female employees this time, a certain Secretary Mo. Who happens to be a very important Secretary Mo answerable to no one but the chairman himself. Of course that fazes Yeo-chi not one bit. She basically tells the older woman to go chew some maggots or something.
Back at the royal residence (or maybe not, since that office does look decidedly ordinary and unroyal, no?), Jae-ha continues to beseech his brother the king.
“Please, Hyung, send someone else, please. You can’t do this to your only brother, you know. What would Dad say if he were alive? His little boy comes out of the army not even an hour and you send him right back in?”
“You’re almost thirty years old and you’re not going back to the same army camp, so stop being dramatic. And if you refuse, then this thing about studying fashion design is a no-go.”
Inside the sprawling Dongdaemun Market, Young-chul is on the phone with Yong Tae-yong. A week has passed since the two were discharged from the army. Friends for a long time (as college roommates and later platoon mates) despite their socially disparate backgrounds, they share secrets like schoolgirls and trade barbs like ajummas.
“The same dream three nights in a row? Man, Tae-yong, you’d better see a psychiatrist. Not post-army blues, you think?”
For three nights now Tae-yong has had a dream that’s so bizarre it defies explanation. Not that he hasn’t had strange dreams before, he has. In fact, ever since that day in the marketplace when he got hit between the eyes by Young-chul’s flying apple, his head hasn’t been quite itself. He sometimes forgets what he’s about to do; sometimes his thoughts stray and go places he doesn’t intend. Of course Young-chul didn’t mean to hit him; he was only trying to help a girl who was being accosted by some thugs. Still, it’s got to be that apple, right?
Because how else would he end up dreaming that he’s become a Joseon prince?!
“Your crown princess got murdered? Holy shit!” Young-chul’s outburst startles the girl waiting by the side for him to end his phone call. She’s been standing there for a few minutes now.
“You know the weird thing? I was screaming and weeping and then my courtiers and guards were explaining what they found and all this time we left the princess’s body floating face-down in the lake. Just left it there.”
“Good grief, no one jumped in at once to pull Her Highness out? Well, that’s Joseon propriety for you. Listen, Tae-yong, I need to scram. My un…”
“Wait. I haven’t told you something that’s even weirder. The crown princess has a sister. She’s always veiled, but I don’t know the reason. The thing is… this veiled sister keeps appearing in my dreams. More frequently than the princess who’s my wife. Huh, what? Of course the crown princess and I have had sex! We’re married, duh. Anyway, what’s with the sister appearing all the time? Is it some hidden message?”
“Look, it’s getting juicy but I really need to go. I’ll call you tonight.” Young-chul turns to look at the girl standing in front of him. She answered his job ad? She knows how to sew? Fine, he’ll give her a job. “Go ask that ajumma over there and she’ll tell you what to do. Go.”
A week now of wandering the streets, but at last she’s found work. And a place to sleep.
As she lies on the bed that night, Lee Ga-young is visited again by nightmares of the fire. The flames licking the walls of the room. The eerie sound of thousands of sequins and beads popping on the expensive one-off clothes. Then the greatest shock of all: being accused by Madam Jo of deliberately setting the fire.
Madam Jo. The woman who found and raised her. The woman who taught her to sketch and sew. After all these years, how could she have the heart to toss her out on the streets? How could she not believe her pleas of innocence?
Awake now, the comforter still covering her face, Ga-young remembers another day from long ago. She had shouted so loudly as the truck pulled away with her inside, but still her sister stood there unmoving. And then she turned and walked away—this sister who was supposed to love and protect her.
“It was deliberate, wasn’t it? Unni, you deliberately abandoned me.”
A noise. Something falls on top of her. Ga-young screams and sits up. It’s her newly minted boss, topless and smelling of alcohol. He looks just as startled to see her, like she’s a complete stranger. His face is flushed and his lips are red, redder than her own. The guy uses lipstick?
“What are you doing on my bed?”
“You said I could sleep here.”
“I said you could sleep on my bed?”
“Okay, fine. Sleep.”
The phone rings and it’s Tae-yong. Turns out he went to the marketplace this afternoon and saw a girl there that looks like his sister-in-law, the one from Joseon.
“How do you know? You said her face’s always veiled?”
“Something about her eyes that are so familiar. She’s got an old-world air about her, too. And she’s selling apples. It’s a sign, I tell you.”
“Look, Tae-yong. I think you really need to go check out a psy…”
“I sat there for about an hour just watching her. I even drew her, want to see?”
“Another day. Something major’s cropped up. My uncle’s gone missing.”
“Your mom’s brother? The one who looks like you?”
For a week now Yoo-bang has not been contactable. No one knows where he has disappeared to.
Wait. Two people know. The first is the man who approached him at the restaurant with papers to sign. The second is… We’ll keep it a secret for now.
Unknown to his family, Yoo-bang is participating in a hush-hush clinical trial. So secretive is this research the participants are bused blindfolded to the lab. Their cell phones are confiscated and all their belongings searched.
Among the participants is a young and rather dashing man in whom Yoo-bang takes an interest. Not that sort of interest, you of perverted mind! Rather, the young man behaves in a queer fashion and Yoo-bang being Yoo-bang (sweet and seemingly slow-witted), he naturally finds the man an object of curiosity.
For example, the man wears glasses which Yoo-bang can spot a mile away as being a total knock-off of an expensive brand.
The man, henceforth called No. 22, also talks to his fake glasses, imagine that! No one warned Yoo-bang the clinical trial was open to lunatics! If he knew, perchance he would have thought twice and thrice before signing up. But if he had opted out, his bank account would be the measly little it always was rather than the sizable sum it is now.
Well, lunatics or not, he’s in the trial and he must complete it. So every morning like clockwork, Yoo-bang lines up dutifully with the other participants and drinks a vial of white liquid. Everyone’s vital signs are monitored and recorded meticulously; surveillance cameras track all movements…
…except what goes on in the toilets, ha!
One day, Yoo-bang is in the gym with No. 22 and the other participants. After exercising, as Yoo-bang is putting back a small dumbbell, it slips and drops on his toe. Everyone freezes in anticipation, waiting for the bloodcurdling scream that will surely reverberate around the whole building and bring the laboratory staff and guards running.
To their great surprise, Yoo-bang breaks into laughter that does not stop. He laughs till his sides ache and still he laughs. Some side effect, this. What kind of drug is the company testing anyway?
The sight is so hysterical, so wondrous, so utterly endearing and unforgettable, it might rank for some people as one of the top ten scenes ever in a story or drama. Try watching it and keeping a straight face.
No. 22 watches Yoo-bang and then, when no one is looking, speaks to his fake glasses some more. Ah, so No. 22 is a spy from a rival pharmaceutical company. Of course we knew that all along.
We know, too, that Jae-ha the junior king has a vulnerable spot that his brother will exploit if necessary.
“Agree to join the war games and I promise you can go to New York with Yeo-chi to study fashion design.”
“Seriously, Hyung? Oh, I love you, Your Majesty! You know how I hated majoring in political science and public administration in college. It’s always, always been my dream to be a designer! There’s this chap in my platoon whose family owns a store in Dongdaemun Market selling knock-offs. I don’t know how he does it without getting caught, but he somehow snares front-row seats at fashion shows and blatantly copies the designs on the catwalk. And then there’s this other guy who’s quite the artist. You don’t know how I envied the two of them being able to do just what they like. Thank you, Hyung!”
The king smiles. His brother has no idea that on the North Korean team is a woman soldier with a frightening reputation. She kills men, literally.
That’s her. That’s Kim Hang-ah’s standard expression after finishing off yet another male human specimen. Just in case you need evidence or something.
But fear not, Jae-ha! You don’t know yet, but your future comrade comes to Seoul bearing wise counsel from her best friends.
“Hang-ah, you need to speak softly and demurely, like the Joseon maidens of yore. Give no inkling that your fists can maim; use them instead to gently brush the hair from your face. Show what good wifely material you are. Don’t let men crap their pants in fright when they see you.”
So, as Hang-ah practices how to be more womanly, Jae-ha on his part prepares to tell Yeo-chi the disappointing news. That she must continue to wait for him. That something of national importance has come up and he needs to extend his military service.
Patient, loving, mild-tempered Yeo-chi. Of course she’ll understand. She always has. He, Jae-ha, is a lucky man indeed.
“Uncle Yoo-bang, where are you? Mom and I have been looking for you for more than a week! Why are you only answering your phone now?”
“Don’t ask, Young-chul, don’t ask. The gum. The man who hired me told me there was supposed to be a piece of chewing gum on the underside of the toilet seat! But I couldn’t find it and I thought this woman was a fellow spy, so I grabbed her and pried her mouth open looking for the gum…”
“Huh? What do you mean, Uncle? What gum and what toilet seat and what spy? Have you been drinking? Are you hallucinating? That makes you and Tae-yong…”
“Young-chul, I need to go. Some crazy woman just fell into the fountain and is yelling at me.”
The next day, Young-chul and Tae-yong meet for drinks. The latter is eager to show his buddy the picture he’s drawn of the veiled sister-in-law, unveiled this time.
“She’s pretty,” says Young-chul. “But what’s that huge butterfly on Apple Girl’s shoulder? Flew there from Joseon?”
Tae-yong blushes, the way only Tae-yong can blush, his unusually long lashes failing to hide the color on his cheeks. It’s precisely the kind of expression to melt a girl’s heart were he an idol shyly accepting feverish declarations of love from 800,000 fans.
“I know it sounds unbelievable, Young-chul, but that butterfly indeed flew here from Joseon. I, I mean the princely me, saw it with my own eyes. It flew across time and space and landed on Apple Girl. I swear it’s true.”
Okay, this is getting ridiculous. Maybe the army traumatized his friend in a way he didn’t notice until now? It’s one thing to have airy-fairy dreams (why are his own always earthy?), but to actually think they are real? To go around drawing females who look like the ones in his dreams?
“Tae-yong, listen. You’ve got to snap out of it, man. This is unhealthy. This is worse than me sleeping around; it’s worse than the stuff of my wet dreams. Tomorrow we’re going to the hospital to…”
“To solve my wife’s murder, I, Crown Prince Lee Gak, recruited three men. One a scholar, one a warrior, one a gisaeng impersonator. Into the forest we rode one night, in pursuit of clues. We were ambushed, we tried to flee. An impossibly wide chasm awaited but we leaped across, on our horses. Like mythical creatures we flew, fearless and invincible.”
“That’s how a woman, who looked like my sister-in-law Bu Yong, found us, deep in meditation inside her rooftop house. A prince and his three followers on a heroic quest for the truth.”
Everyone in the bar turns and stares as Young-chul falls off his stool. He’s hooting, he’s howling. He’s laughing so hard tears pour down his face. He passes out.
On the other side of town, in a development less incredulous and gripping, Lee Jae-ha is also on the verge of passing out. Somehow he’s managed to get himself into Comrade Kim Hang-ah’s bad books. May God save the king. Soon.
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