When I come across you, there are forsythia blossoms scattered unnoticed in your hair, as though the shrub leaning above you wooed you in such secret that you remained unaware. You’re unmindful too of how a daughter of a bloodline such as yours shouldn’t be lying on the dirt on your stomach, staring at a spiderweb. It’s so unthinkable that it has taken me a full hour to discover where you are; enough time for shadows to shift direction, or an assassin’s blade to find you. Besides that, it’s still early spring, and it is chilly outside. I chide you for being so careless, and you say indignantly, “But I was careful! I even drew the strokes in order—” and you show me your name as you have recently learned to write it, the characters spelled out perfectly within strands of spider-silk. Trembling along the last line, still spinning thread, is a spider.
I have guarded you ever since your hundredth day, when you were dressed in colorful formal robes that you would never wear again because children grow so fast at that age. String and silver and calligraphy brush arrangedbefore you, to see what sort of life might lie ahead: longevity or wealth or wisdom. No one knows which you might have picked, for a messenger rushed into the room to tell your mother of her mother’s death. Those were his last words; he slumped across the table with a knife in his back, and you reached out and touched your fingers to his life-blood. An ill omen, especially for a girl who had just become the heir to the kingdom.
Because I have guarded you since you were a hundred days old, the spiderweb doesn’t surprise me. But it will not do to be so obvious with your gift. I coax you into releasing the spider. The great art of the court is subtlety, I tell you as I pick the flowers from your hair. Do nobles not hire assassins rather than killing each other themselves? Don’t turn a creature so blatantly against its nature.
You look at me and ask, “But then how else will I know that it’s doing what I bound it to do?”
They say even children can speak with wisdom. Instead of answering, I brush away the web and tell you not to do this where others can see.
When your mother scolds you over the dirt on your skirts and asks what you were doing, you say only that you like flowers. She reminds you that you are a royal princess, not a gardener, and forbids you to ever lose your guards again.
You don’t listen, of course, although the next time I know where to find you. This time you bind a long-whiskered fish in the garden pond. It has always evaded your clumsy splashes before, but after you tell it not to be afraid, it bides quietly under the touch of your fingers and eats the shred of persimmon in your palm.
When you finally release it, it swims to the bottom of the pool and hides among the rocks there.
Then there’s the sparrow you set to chirping an alert whenever someone approaches your suite from the palace courtyard. After several days, it falls to the ground and is no doubt claimed by some hungry scavenger. It had too diminutive a mind to realize it could serve you longer by taking time to eat and sleep.
With each binding you discover your limits: you can only bind one creature at a time. You can only give it a single command. And that command will last, even should you forget, until you lift it or the creature dies. But if you lift it the creature will remember, and sometimes that effect is just as useful as the binding.
As you learn, so do I. You do not mean to be cruel to all the animals you practice upon, but you are.
There are a dozen clans who plot against your mother’s rule. They think her power is waning. But the assassins they send against her are all caught and executed. They finally turn their attention to you, and there are nights you wake to a stranger’s scream then my quiet, “Go back to sleep, Your Royal Highness,” as I drag out the body.
One of the assassins is in the service of none other than your aunt. She is older than your mother and should have taken rule, but while she was heir, she publicly declared herself willing to step aside. She lives away from the palace now, but has come to visit you in your suite, treating you as a royal in your own right and not just a child. You’re excited. I’m warier, and I intercept the mug of exotic tea your aunt’s maidservant prepares.
“Guardswoman,” you hiss, humiliated.
I sip the tea and recognize the bitter aftertaste. I shake my head. “This is not appropriate for the royal princess’s delicate tastes. We have pure mountain spring water to offer instead, gathered from the melted snows of Sorak Peak.”
Your aunt’s lips tighten only a little before she nods graciously.
I am sick later, but I have carefully built up my resistance to all manner of poisons, and this one will not kill me as it would have you. You watch me sweat and retch, and you understand.
When you next see your mother, you tell her, “My honored aunt tried to poison me.”
Your mother looks sharply at me, and I nod. She sighs. “Clumsy of her. My elder sister is a bitter woman who craves the throne.”
“But she gave way for you willingly,” you protest.
“She gave way because she knew I would be a stronger queen. She must not think the same of you.”
“You have time to learn, my daughter. As long as you trust your guard and don’t take foolish risks.”
Where I hear concern, you hear criticism. You have no siblings, and your mother is perhaps harder on you than she should be. In return you flout propriety at every opportunity, knowing how much it means to her. I spend as much time teaching you the traditional ways as I do guarding you.
To my surprise, sometimes you listen to me.
There is one time when you save me. I’m riding alongside your palanquin on the way to a local temple when my horse suddenly spooks. You slide aside the window to see what is happening, and I shout for you to stay inside as I fall to the ground.
“Be still,” you cry out, and when I disregard you to roll away from the lash of hooves, I find myself right in front of a snake, coiled to strike. I recognize the pattern of color along its scales. Its venom could be diluted and used to paralyze a dozen people, their breath frozen in their lungs.
It’s a vicious breed, but it doesn’t strike. Then I notice that the forked tongue is still extended in the air instead of flickering back into its mouth. You’ve bound it not to move.
I kill it quickly. The other guards never notice anything strange, as they’re distracted when you jump out of your palanquin and rush to me. “Are you hurt?” you ask.
I’m embarrassed by the fuss. “Please return to your palanquin, Your Royal Highness. I’m fine.” Because of you. I don’t know what to make of this reversal of our roles.
You’re still thinking about the incident that night. “I nearly bound your horse instead,” you fret. “I almost didn’t see the snake. But then I realized something must have startled the horse in the first place.”
“You did well,” I say.
Your eyes, brimming with tears, are bright in the moonlight that slants through the bamboo shades. “I could have lost you!”
I hesitate, then gather you into my arms and shush you. You cling to me as I whisper that I will always protect you.
By your sixteenth birthday you are old enough to marry the young man who was engaged to you at birth on the strength of his bloodlines and birth sign. You rail against your mother, but she sits stone-faced and tells you that this arrangement is what’s best for you, your clan, the kingdom. You must bear a child, an heir. Her expression softens as she looks at you and says that some duties bear gifts, but you don’t notice.
It’s not the kingdom you’re worried about. You ask me about the wedding night. What I tell you does not reassure you. You’re pale against the resplendence of your robes, and I don’t like the look of your new husband’s face as he looks upon you at the joining ceremony.
I’ve never spent a night away from you since you were first given into my care, but this night I am sent away. Sleepless, I prowl the garden.
The next morning I’m standing in the courtyard outside your suite. When you slide open the door, you look tired but happy.
“Jinho-ya,” I say, forgetting myself and using your name instead of your title.
You gesture for me to lean close. Into my ear you say, “It works on men.”
I am too relieved for your sake to ask questions. Afterward, your husband always looks at you with trepidation, and you never do catch a child.
You attend when your mother holds court, and thus so do I. We’re not allowed to speak, of course. Afterward, you talk to me about her decisions, struggling to understand the intricate dance of court politics, where no one says what they mean.
The clans are growing more restless. They send representatives to court, and your mother turns away their elegantly worded demands with even more elaborate refusals.
They heed her at first but soon grow bolder. There are more assassins than usual, but your mother only chooses the best guards. Soon it won’t matter: open rebellion is only a matter of time.
“A civil war will destroy the kingdom,” you say. “Why won’t she negotiate?”
“A queen does not negotiate,” I say. “She rules.”
“I could make the clan leaders obey, you know that. If only I could talk to them...”
But you’ll never get the chance. In court you wear plain white robes to symbolize your status as a non-participant in the proceedings.
You seek out your mother in private for the first time in a long while. You suggest that she send you as her representative to the clans, but she rejects the idea as too dangerous.
“I’ll take my guard. I’ll be safe.”
She sighs. “I don’t have time for this. My spies tell me that the clans are already mustering their armies.”
“You can’t let this go to war!”
Your mother asks, “Are you telling me what I can do?”
Even you recognize such perilous ground. You murmur a formal leave-taking.
When we return to your suite, you begin to pace restlessly and say, “I tried to bind my mother.”
I don’t know why this surprises me. You should have first tried long ago.
“As you saw, it didn’t work. She must have some sort of protection. She’s always so careful about protecting herself. But what of the kingdom? There’ll be only pieces left for me to inherit if she’s so set on this war.”
“It would be a difficult time for any queen,” I say.
“But not me. Not with my gift.”
“You’re not queen yet.”
“Then she must die,” you say.
My mouth goes dry. “You mustn’t kill her.”
You whirl on me. “You always cared more for what my mother wanted than what I did!”
My knees fold and I make obeisance before you, forehead pressed to the backs of my hands. “My foremost thought is your safety, Your Royal Highness.”
“I wasn’t going to kill her myself. I’d send an assassin, of course.”
“But you have none in your service.”
“I have silver.”
I breathe carefully, evenly. “An assassin’s loyalty must be cultivated like an orchid. Mere money will never assure you that you will not be betrayed.”
“If you bind an assassin, you must hold them forever, or risk their turning upon you once you release them.”
You turn thoughtful. “You could kill her for me. She’d never suspect you, always so loyal.”
Your head jerks at my flat tone, and our gazes lock.
“You must not kill your own mother,” I say, desperate.
You kneel across from me. “I know it’s horrible even to consider. But she never really cared for me. In my heart, you are my mother.”
I close my eyes. “She wants the best for you. I beg of you, do not send an assassin against her.”
You purse your lips but let it drop, or so I think.
You kill your mother yourself. Under different circumstances, I would be proud of how untroubled your expression is as you approach her, of the way you conceal the knife in your robes. A royal princess of the court bloodying her own hands is inconceivable, and her guards are unprepared. By the time they react, you have become queen. Your mother’s body slumps to the floor, her elaborate braids still perfect.
I react swiftly. “Your Royal Majesty,” I say clearly, making obeisance, and others in the court follow, once their shock begins to wear away.
You’re still trembling with the knife slack in your hands, crimson splatters ruining your silks.
“Here,” I say gently, and I take the knife away from you. “You must bathe and put on new robes. Royal ones.”
“Yes,” you murmur, and you let me guide you to the doors and help you slip on your shoes. We could go straight to your suite, but a path through the garden would be more peaceful, and you’re still so shaken. A brief respite is all I can give you, here among the secluded trees and flowers where once I worried that an assassin would find you.
Jinho-ya, do you know, do you know that your mother has only ever spoken to me once? I was the finest of assassins who, having breached one queen’s defenses and almost another’s, was marked for execution. My body was bloody and broken by the guards who captured me, but my mind, my spirit, were strong and unbowed. Until your mother put you in my arms and said, “Protect her.”
She loved you above all things.
With your mother’s death, her last and longest binding is broken.
I know the power you wield. It is the gift of your bloodline, and nothing that I would see live on in this world.
I have your knife. You never suspect me, always so loyal.
Spring is early this year. The forsythia shrubs are already rife with yellow blossoms. I leave your body underneath them, where the fallen flowers might blanket you and keep you from the chill. This time, I will not brush the flowers from your hair.