Drabble during the reign of the Great Queen Seon Deok
*hanbok – traditional Korean dress
*ajeossi – uncle/middle-aged man
*nangdo – cadets
*Tong-saan - China during the Tang dynasty
If Deokman could help it, she wouldn't celebrate her birthday at all. But she wasn't just any Chung-Ae, Myung-Hee, or Sook-Joo… she was the queen! Palace traditions dictate that Silla must observe the special days of the royal family. She remembered trying to cancel the lavish celebration months ago to allocate more budget for the war-stricken farmers near the country's borders. To her dismay, her plan was met with outrage for her "heedlessness" of centuries-old customs by the opposing political faction and, surprisingly, her own.
The sovereign knew prolonging this issue would benefit nobody. Perhaps Bidam's circle might. His people constantly searched for ways dethrone her and she wanted to give them little chances to do so. However, she was adamant in giving farming land and supplies to her people. There was no way she would back out without a fight.
Alas! Here she was on her way back to her private chambers… after her party…
No, she didn't lose. In fact, she won over her ministers by assenting to the bash if, and only if, they approved of her plan. The final agreement was that the queen would still hold a party, albeit a simple one, while the rest of the money would be spent on farming utilities. Since they had already labeled themselves as "keepers of traditions" during the meandering argument, they had no choice but to stand up to their claim and comply with their highness' demands.
A sigh escaped her lips. This "simple" event was still too extravagant for her taste. There were fifteen performers that evening. She noted at least ten dishes per course. Plus, course set wasn't just seven! The organizers even prepared fireworks from Tong-saan later that night. This might have been the simplest party throughout Silla's history, but, for her, it was miles beyond modest.
"What's the matter your majesty?" the minister walking beside her asked.
Deokman jumped at the question. She almost forgot about her companion and the long line of palace girls and royal guards behind them.
"I am fine, Bidam," she answered.
Bidam was a well-built and good-looking man. Yet, he had a piercing look that intimidated a lot of people in and out the palace. It was very helpful in his work as the head of the country's espionage network but not much in social situations.
"Hmm… that gaze was never directed at me though," Deokman reflected as her eyes seemingly inspected his.
"Forgive me for my rudeness, but I haven't even seen you smile throughout the banquet, your majesty," he whispered soft enough so only Deokman could hear. "It is your birthday, your highness. Shouldn't your majesty be a bit happier?"
Her usually stoic face softened and her eyes lit up at his honest and thoughtful remark. This time, she genuinely smiled at him.
"You, on the other hand, seemed to be having fun. I have never seen you enjoy social functions like these. You even wore a colorful hanbok unlike the usual black ones."
He smiled back at her teasing, "I admit as much. But this is no ordinary event to me… for today is my majesty's birthday," then his brow furrowed with concern as he asked "So why doesn't your majesty –"
"I stopped thinking of it years ago," she cut in before he finished his question. "This is another political affair to me now, Bidam."
"The birthdays I remember were the times I spent with my mom. She used to cook my favorite dishes. Roast pork, curry, soups, or sweets… anything I requested! Cartan-ajeossi also gave me books from his homeland. I read and read until my candle burned out."
"When I was a nangdo, our platoon stole some bottles of wine and loaves of bread. Just 10 minutes after we began, Lord Yushin caught us! He didn't stop our little celebration… but we were punished with 200 laps in the morning for smuggling wine."
She let out a soft giggle. Her escort stiffened at the mention of the name 'Yushin' though he remained silent.
The monarch turned her head and made a quick glance at a small cart being carried a few feet behind them.
"I never received anything fancy back then. No jewelry-crusted boxes. No golden ornaments. No rare commodities from abroad…"
Bidam followed her gaze and back to the road ahead of them. They were almost at their destination.
"But I was happier. At present… I don't know, Bidam… listening to ministers here and there… reading reports… birthdays felt like regular days. I was 'your majesty'. I wasn't Deokman."
For a second, her eyes grew wide. Then, she cast her head, ashamed of what she had confessed. She was a ruler who had pledged her life to Silla. Her people's happiness was all that matters. How could she be so selfish and even think of her own?
Deokman sighed inwardly for the nth time that night. She berated herself twice for speaking too much. To her political rival nonetheless! Maybe because she couldn't converse with everyone else like that anymore? Was she in desperate need for company? Of all people, why him?
"Oh, well…," she told herself.
The queen squinted to her left. At least, the man beside her didn't say anything. She had completely embarrassed herself and wished to hear no more of what had been said.
They continued walking beneath the starless sky without another word to each other. The only sounds that can be heard were the footsteps of at least twenty people and the clanking of golden wares inside the cart.
Finally! Doekman could see it. The doors of her quarters were just a few feet away. Just beyond the wide marble stairway in front of them…
"We're here your majesty," Bidam said as if reading her thoughts. "I am afraid I have to take my leave."
She nodded, still not meeting his eye. "Thank you, Bidam."
"What's so funny?" For a moment she had forgotten her embarrassment and looked vis-a-vis at her companion.
"Forgive me for my imprudence. However, I think your majesty was thinking a little too deep about today's event."
"It's true. Your majesty can never go back to old times... You are the queen now so… no more simple dinners or sneaking food inside the barracks… and getting caught by Lord Yushin."
"I know that, Bidam. You don't have to –" Her cheeks started to redden with fury: to herself for saying it and to Bidam for rubbing it in.
"However, your highness is only human. There's no shame in wanting to be happy… especially today."
The words doused her anger almost instantly.
"And you're right. Half of the guests… No, perhaps more… might saw the celebration as anything but personal. However to me, your majesty," he leaned closer to her to make sure that the entourage behind them couldn't hear.
"At least to me, I am celebrating Deokman's birthday."
He moved away from her and bowed for one last time before heading back.
"Is he stupid or what?," she thought. "Why did he say that? Right in front of the royal guards! What if he was heard? Is he even aware of the lethal consequences of uttering my name?... No, he is Bidam. BIDAM! I'm quite certain he knew… but how could he grin like a child right after saying something so…treacherous?"
Despite her protestations, her heart swelled at his words. Little by little, she felt a familiar fluttering in her stomach while blood crept to her cheeks.
Now that she think about it, the day wasn't so bad after all.
For the third time that day, she smiled.