“Where have you been!?” Grandma’s anxious voice greeted me as soon as I had stepped through our small wooden door, the smoke from the hearth filling my nostrils.
“Sorry I’m late, Grandma,” I apologized as I walked into the kitchen to where she stood, “But you will never guess what happened to me today!”
Grandma heaved a long sigh. “What happened this time, child?” She asked.
Dropping, my weapon, I told her of how I ran into a courtier, someone from the palace.
“My,” She exclaimed when I’d finished, “That must have been exciting!”
“I was terrified at first,” I confessed, “I thought I was about to have my head chopped off for bumping into royalty. Who do you think it could’ve been?”
Grandma’s brow furrowed in thought.
“Gold means a member of the royal family,” She muttered, “But I always get mixed up between Yosae’s royal family with Baesinja’s.”
Just then a floorboard creaked. Grandma and I both turned suddenly. There was just Grandpa, smoking his pipe, and grinning widely at us.
“Look at you two,” He said, his old, weathered voice crackling with a chuckle, “Gaggling like a bunch of old crows. What has your feathers so ruffled? The newest gossip in the Capitol?”
“Who are you calling old!” Grandma cried, thwacking Grandpa with a towel as he tried to dodge her fury, taking the pipe out of his mouth as he skipped over the floorboards and out of her reach.
“Grandpa, how many members are in the royal family of Yosae?” I asked.
“Yosae?” Grandpa replied with a cheeky grin at Grandma, “Well, I believe that there are only two members. Prince Iyagi and his younger brother ...” He paused and lifted his head with surprise. “I’ve quite forgotten his name … Heaven’s child!” Grandpa cried as I collapsed to the floor. He put the pipe back in his mouth and reached down, pulling me up. Giving my shoulders a quick brush, he asked, “Might you explain why you fall to the ground like a rag doll?”
“I think I bumped into a Prince today,” I whispered breathlessly.
Grandpa felt my forehead. “She doesn’t have a fever,” He whispered over my head to Grandma, who only shook her and turned back to her stew. “Have you been practicing your drills too long in the sun?” He asked me, looking me hard in the eye, “You know what I said after the last episode. How many times do I have to tell … ”
“No, no – she’s quite alright,” Grandma said, turning away from her stew. With a huff, she explained to Grandpa what I had told her.
“My granddaughter – meeting royalty.” Grandpa clasped my head to his chest. “You should have swept him off his feet and carried him home with you, my dear,” He said, pulling away with a wink, making me giggle. Then His face dropped it’s smile and he gave my shoulders a hard shake. “My own granddaughter doesn’t remember who the leaders of our country are!” He sighed and rubbed his face. “And me a retired Imperial guard,” He groaned.
“I remember Grandpa,” I protested.
Grandpa crossed his arms. “Really? Then what’s our Country and it’s states?”
“The Empire of Geodaehan with kingdoms, Yosae and Baesinja, dwelling within,” I replied quickly.
“The Emperor Taeyong rules all of Geodaehan,” I answered, “The territory of Yosae is governed by the Prince Iyagi and the territory of Baesinja by King Gumeong.” I paused. “Grandpa?”
“Why does the Emperor allow others to rule under him?” I asked, “Can’t he rule the entire Empire by himself?”
“Yes, he could,” Grandpa agreed, “But years ago, when His Majesty was a young man, he agreed to let the leaders of those territories he’d conquered to keep their kingdoms – provided that they swore undying fealty and loyalty.”
“Seems fair,” I nodded, “And the Emperor is a just, kind ruler and all the kingdoms have prospered mightily since. Who wouldn’t want to pledge undying loyalty to someone like that?”
“Well, whoever doesn’t have better watch out for the Emperor’s stoutest defender,” Grandpa chuckled merrily, with a tug of my braid before muttering, “Speaking of which.” He eyed Grandma, making sure that she was occupied before motioning me to join him outside. Following him, we stepped out onto our makeshift porch and sat down, our feet dangling off the edge.
“Any escapades today?” Grandpa asked with a raised brow.
I looked around cautiously. “Only a thief.” I said in a low tone before going on to describe all about today’s events.
I watched Grandpa swallow it all up as if it was his life’s bread. In a way it had been. When I was a child, every evening he would tell me stories of when he was a younger man – an Imperial guard. With me at his feet, I would watch his face light up as he relived the memories of his glory days. And with a child’s imagination, I watched the smoke puff out of his pipe, weaving into bloody battle scenes and armored men, swords clashing as each side fought desperately till one finally attained victory. Those stories, filled with adventure and excitement, fed my soul.
However, Grandma did not approve. But she humored us to please Grandpa, even though she believed ardently that such tales were not right for a young girl to hear. So, she was terribly shocked, when at the age of ten, I firmly declared that one day, I too, would become an Imperial Guard.
At first Grandma laughed it off, believing it to be childish fancy. But she worried when I begged and begged Grandpa to teach me everything he knew. Weakening under my persistence, he gave in.
The first week he came down on me hard to test my perseverance. But I proved sincere and did everything he ordered me to do, from fighting fruitlessly with a tree, to remaining in a stance for an entire afternoon. But he was a fantastic teacher. Though, because of his old limbs, we couldn’t spar very often, he taught me the techniques and forms, which I would practice for hours, till I was soaked in sweat. And Grandpa would watch with a proud smile.
We couldn’t afford a sword, not even a wooden one. Instead I used a long staff made from a branch I’d carved myself. Grandpa made sure that it was the right length and weight of a real sword. It served its purpose. But I would always end up with blisters and splinters after every session, even after my hands had grown as calloused and hard as those of a real soldier. Grandpa joked that I had the toughest hands of any woman he’d ever known.
When I was twelve, Grandma took action. She was an herbalist and wished to train me as her assistant. At first, I murmured and complained. But then Grandpa took me aside and gave me an important lesson.
“Harmonizing with Nature is a gift – not to be taken lightly,” he said, “The greatest warriors knew how to make use of her benefits in times of peace, and her monstrosities in time of war.” Raising my chin, Grandpa whispered, “Make your Grandmother proud.”
After that, I stopped sulking and worked hard. Surprisingly, I grew fond of it and learned quickly. I found that I enjoyed the feel of crushing herbs in a bowl as their sweet, musty scent would waft up my nose, tickling it till I sneezed. And as I watched Grandma, I realized that she carried a heavy responsibility.
Though she wielded the power to heal even the deadliest of diseases, her battles were not always won. Every time a patient was lost, I would watch Grandma bend under a burden of grief. A longing grew in my heart to aid her in carrying that weight and remind her that she was not alone. So, I dedicated myself even harder to learning anything I could to ease Grandma’s load of work. After a few months, I knew enough to be sent to the woods and gather herbs by myself. It saved Grandma extra time and was an adventure for me.
So, under the guidance of both grandparents, my hands learned to serve two purposes. To inflict injury. And to heal.