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Before the Moon Wanes

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It is a cold night when Court Lady Hae Soo passes away. She had been discovered dead on the floor a few nights before her execution. It was said that the criminal who had been charged with the attempted poisoning of the Crown Prince had succumbed to poison herself. It was suspected that whoever had ordered the girl to poison the tea had wanted her to be permanently silenced as well.

But there is no proof. The guards drag her corpse from the jail.

The princes come, mourning the death of the girl. They are in a frenzy of rage and grief, and all of them must be held back to keep their royal bodies from touching the dead prisoner. Screaming, yelling. Disbelief. Horror. That night it seemed as if the Princes of Goryeo had lost their minds. All of them are animals.

The man that drives the cart from the palace to the graveyard is silent as the princes fight to reach that small, slim body. There is begging for a funeral. An angry demand for her body. A plea to bury her next to her cousin. Desperate denials. A mad howling. An insane combination of all these responses. But the guards are merciless in blocking the path and in loading the body. The guards send him on his way and tell him that he saw nothing.

The man silently drives his cart forward. But his fingers are tight around the string of coins that are hidden under his robe. He has another job to do before the night is finished. Deliver the girl’s body, and he will get another string of coin for his troubles.

 

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She slowly feels herself coming back into consciousness. Her mind is sluggish and slow, like it was wrapped in cotton. She could barely open her eyes. It is cold, and she is uncomfortable. Her tongue feels thick and the inside of her mouth is sour and bitter. She thinks that she is covered with a straw mat, but she is so tired she can’t be sure. Her entire body is being jostled. Above her the moon is shining. She can vaguely make out several figures, with no idea of who they are.

But they are mourning.

She feels herself slip away again. While she sleeps on, the cart that carries her body continues its journey outside the palace walls. 

 

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It is in the middle of the night. A beautiful woman walks through the prison. Finely dressed, with a dark veil hiding her features. She holds a wooden tray in her hands. On the tray is a small porcelain bowl. 

She stops in front of one of the cells. The prisoner inside stirs weakly- bloodied and bruised. It had been another long day of torture. The woman kneels down and holds out the bowl. The faint light catches it. Inside, the dark liquid gleams.

The prisoner reaches out, but her weak hands are trembling too much to hold anything. The woman reaches out and steadies her. Slowly, the bowl is raised towards the prisoner’s mouth. The bowl is tipped back.

"It's bitter." The prisoner whispers. Her voice is hoarse. Her lips are cracked and bleeding. 

"Just a little bit more left." The woman coaxes. "Keep drinking it. This medicine is good for you."

Sip after sip. The prisoner drinks.

"There you go." The bowl is empty. The woman is satisfied. "Go to sleep now. You need rest. I will see you again soon, I promise."

 

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When she came to again she found herself locked in what seemed to be a wooden shed, with no idea of how she had gotten there. With no idea of who she was, or what her name is. She huddles into a corner, curled up in herself. Trembling. Panicking.

It was cold. She was so cold. The walls were creeping towards to her, closing in on her. Trapping her. A prison. A coffin. A grave.

She wanted to get out. She needed to get out.

“The only person who can save me is myself.”

She curls her hands into fists. She feels her nails bite into her palms. Her limbs are raw and sore, roughly wrapped in bandages. Her clothes are caked with blood. Her heart is pounding loudly in her chest. I need to save myself.

 

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Court Lady Oh bows her head down. In front of her is the tea service used specially to serve the members of the royal family. To her side, sitting so far away from her, is his majesty. King Taejo.

She is ill, she softly explains to the king. The physicians have told her that she ought to leave the palace and go back to her old hometown. She does not have much more longer to live; the cancer in her stomach is too severe. Her body is weak and growing weaker.

"Please release me from your service.” She whispers to the floor, from where she is fully supplicating herself to the king. Knowing she must hurt him, trying to be gentle even so. “Please, grant me this final request. This humble servant will no longer ask for anything else. I do not wish to die in the palace.”

The king asks if she is casting him aside. Refusal is in his eyes.

She draws out her final weapon. The bloodstained clothes from her disastrous childbirth. And she begs that she may have peace for when she prays for her safe return to her child.

The king is helpless against this. He grants her request.

One small victory. But she still needs many more.

 

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Rapid footsteps outside the shed door. She tenses. The door rattles. Someone is outside. Someone is opening the door. It’s a woman. She’s beautiful, but exhaustion and fear show on her face. Behind her, she can see the stars. It is night-time.

“Who are you?” She asks the woman at the door.

The woman seems shocked, but quickly schools her face to look politely blank. “You… don’t know who I am?”

“No.” She hesitates. Warily sits up from the corner she was huddled in. “Answer me.”

The woman comes forward and kneels on the ground. Eye-level. “I am Oh Soo-Yeon. You are someone that I consider to be like a daughter to me. You…” Soo-Yeon’s voice catches. “You became very ill. You came very close to losing your life. When I first met you, you said that you had amnesia then as well. That… that might be why you are having some trouble remembering things.” She adds in a much quieter voice. “I was very afraid that you might not wake up again.”

She doesn’t let herself relax. “What kind of illness do I have, that my body is this severely beaten and bloody? It feels like I’ve been tortured. You are not telling the truth.”

Soo-Yeon regards her seriously. “Would knowing the truth do anything for you now? You were in grave danger before-- that much I will be honest about, because you are still in danger. If you no longer have any memories of your old life, you will be much safer. You are someone who was supposed to have died already. And you will only remain safe as long as the rest of the world believes you to be dead.”

She cannot believe it. “What could be so terrible that I have to fake my own death to escape it?”

Soo-Yeon looks at her, the blank façade giving way to sadness. “Love. You were trying to escape love.” She holds out a hand. Her face is pleading. “Before, I asked you to leave with me so that we could go back to my old home-town together. Back then you didn’t want to go. But now… do you think you could say yes?”

"I can no longer go back. And I can’t change the way things are now. Then… I want to live.”

She wants to live. Whatever she fears, whatever she finds suspicious doesn’t matter anymore-- her heart wants to trust this woman. She reaches out and grabs the outstretched hand.

I will not die.

 

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Court Lady Oh makes sure that her expression is serene as she slowly fans the flames under the small pot. The medicine must be slowly boiled until it turns dark and watery. If any of the ingredients had been prepared incorrectly… if any of the steps she had taken were wrong… the medicine would turn into the deadliest of poisons. The medicine must be brewed perfectly. It must cause a deep and death-like slumber... Not so strong that her child never wakes up again... but not so weak that her child ends up waking in the wrong moment.

It will be a long time until the medicine is ready. And there are still so many things left to do. She does not have much time. She cannot let her own emotions betray her actions to anyone else.

And if the guards are not fooled… if they do not discover her ‘death’ in time…if the man she had bribed proves to be untrustworthy… if the planned escape route is not secure… if her home-town is no longer safe… if at any point they get caught or arouse suspicion… or if any of the princes ever find out the truth...   

No. Her plan must work. Nothing can go wrong. This is all to save her child. They will both be safe together. What little time she has left to live, she will use to be with Soo. To protect her precious daughter.

‘I will not let you execute this girl for your false crimes, nor will I allow you to abandon this girl for your ambitions toward the throne. No longer will any of you endanger her with your very presence, or senselessly punish her with your attentions. This girl's mother will make sure of it. I will protect her from all of you.'