Eun-Soo didn't expect the nervousness she felt in the pit of her stomach when she saw the Palace for the first time since her abrupt departure. For her it had only been one year, for the King and Queen of Goryeo it had been four years. In four years many things could happen. Loyalties could shift, friendships spoiled, a love abandoned.
No, she thought, sliding Choi Young a side long glance as he rode by her side. Love was not abandoned, love was nurtured, taken care of and kept safe and she had thanked the Heavens and all deities she could think of for that. For sending her a man with a steadfast heart, who had simply believed she would find a way back to him.
Choi Young looked over to her, found her staring at him with those huge beautiful eyes, and for a moment he could not believe his luck. She was back, she was safe, and she loved him still. Reigning in his horse, he brought it closer along side her own and reached out his hand to touch her cheek. Like a kitten seeking a human's touch, she rubbed her face against his calloused hand and made him smile.
"We will be in the palace soon," he said and Eun-Soo nodded. She could already see the huge doors of the Palace entrance in front of her, their horses only a few more paces away from it. With a surprised gasp, she felt herself being hauled over to Choi Young's side, felt him shift in his saddle as she was nestled in front of him, kept safe from falling off when a strong arm clamped around her middle to keep her close to his chest and he placed a sound kiss on her lips.
"Choi-ssi," she whispered, shocked that he would show his affection to her so openly for not only the Woodalchi but the soldiers and peasants around them to see. He grinned down at her as he urged his horse forward.
"I cannot give you a palanquin or a sedan to ride in as you enter the palace, so let me do the honour of bringing my wife back to where she belongs," He said, his mouth close to her ear as he pulled her flush against his chest and rested his chin on her shoulder. She relaxed against him, her hands resting on his arm that held her close and safe.
"I do not need any of these trappings, Young-ah," she said, shifting slightly, so she could peer into his face. "For all I care, I have been your pledged wife for over four years now."
That made him smile and with a quick kiss on the corner of her mouth, he urged the horse on as they crossed the threshold of the main gate.
"Cho-na, Woodalchi General Choi Young has arrived back at the palace and requests to see you," Do Chi announced and bowed.
"So early? He has been away only for a few days," King Gongmin replied and looked up from the parchment scroll where he was sketching the beginnings of a landscape.
"Apparently he has returned with his wife," Do Chi informed and Gongmin jumped to his feet, his chair falling over with a loud crash behind him.
"The High Doctor? She is back?" the King asked and abandoned the brush he had held in his hands and it fell forgotten onto the table. "Inform the queen immediately!"
With his Courtly robes rustling, Gongmin rushed forward and into the audience hall, several eunuchs and Woodalchi soldiers movng forward to keep up with their king.
When the king arrived, the hall was empty, so he straightened his robes and heard the arrival of the Queen behind him. His wife stepped forward, worry and joy both warring on her face, as she touched his arm inquiringly.
"Is it true? Choi Young-ssi brought back High Doctor?"
"It seems so. He indeed returned with a woman, but I cannot confirm if it is High Doctor yet," Gongmin replied and smiled at his wife. Nogook returned it warmly and seeking his hand through the folds of her long sleeves, she nodded confidently.
"I cannot believe otherwise, Cho-na," she said, returning the quick squeeze of her hand. "The Woodalchi Daejang would not return without her in so short a time."
The arrival of the Woodalchi general was announced and King and Queen, hand in hand, faced the double doors, waiting. They both started when Choi Young and Eun-Soo appeared in the door way, walking up to the throne trestle side by side, their heads reverently bowed.
"I see you brought High Doctor back, Daejang," Gongmin said as a greeting and his General shot him a quick look.
"Cho-na, indeed," he replied, his hand finding Eun-Soo's much smaller one by his side and holding on to it.
"I'm glad that you have returned, High Doctor," Gongmin addressed Eun-Soo and smiled when the woman with her fiery hair smiled openly at him.
"Cho-na, Wangbi-Mama," she said, bowing her head. She heard the rustle of silk clothes and was surprised when she was enfolded in a hug by the queen.
"It has been a long wait, Eun-Soo-ssi," the Queen said and smiled at the woman before her. "We would have given up hope if not for the steadfast belief of the General that you would return."
Choi Young shifted uncomfortably beside the two women when Eun-Soo shot him a look.
"I did promise him to return to his side, Mama," Eun-Soo replied, her hand brushing against Choi-Young's hand.
"And indeed you have, High Doctor," Gongmin said and came down the steps. When he reached his general and Eun-Soo he laid his hand briefly on the general's shoulder.
"We will hold a feast in your honour, to welcome you back to the palace, High Doctor," he said turning towards Eun-Soo.
"Cho-na, the reason …"
"State matters can wait, Daejang," Gongmin cut in quickly. "For today, let us celebrate and be happy."
"I will tell Lady Choi," The Queen said.
"Tell her to be present, she will celebrate with us, as well as the vice general," Gongmin elaborated and the queen acknowledged this with a nod of her head before she returned to her own quarters.
"We will discuss the matter at hand tomorrow, General. For today let us celebrate the return of High Doctor."
"You are too kind, Cho-na," Choi Young replied, inclining his head.
"Shall Do Chi inform Lady Choi of your return …" Gongmin started but Choi shook his head.
"I doubt, Cho-na, that anything happening in the palace escapes my aunt's attention," Choi replied and Eun-Soo chuckled at that. Shooting her a quick smile they both bowed in front of the king. "As by your permission, we will return to the Woodalchi barracks …"
"Yes, you have a lot to discuss I can imagine," Gongmin said with a smile. "Until tonight then …"
They took the long route back to the Woodalchi barracks through the Royal Gardens. Choi Young was certain that once they were back, his soldiers would not give them a moment's peace until Eun-Soo had told them about her travels. Reaching out with his left hand, he captured her hand and placed a kiss on her knuckles.
They had reached the pagoda that would remain his and Eun-Soo's pagoda for the rest of his life. He could not dismiss the fact that with reaching here, they had indeed come full circle.
"Does Imja remember?" he asked, pulling her into the pagoda behind him. Eun-Soo laughed and twirled a couple of times in front of him, taking in the painted beams, the gold-leaf decorations.
"I do," she replied, coming to a stop in front of him. "Our meeting place."
"Yeah," Choi Young smiled down at her. Grasping her hands in his own, he inspected her hands intently. "You taught me about being partners, remember?"
"Yes, what a dubious concept it must have been for you, Choi-nii," Eun-Soo replied.
"No, back then I would have agreed to anything to keep you at my side …" He laughed embarrassed. "If you had told me to become your enemy I would have done so, just to make you more comfortable staying here."
Eun-Soo reached up with her hand and cupped his cheek. This man. She was lucky that through all their trials and tribulations that they had not only fallen in love with each other, but that he would do anything, risk anything to be by her side. She tiptoed and placed a soft kiss on his lips. They both jerked forward, Choi Young grasping Eun-Soo in a protective hug, when he was shoved from behind.
"Punk!" Lady Choi exclaimed after she had given the General's backside a good shove. "I see you are still as moonstruck about the High Doctor as ever."
"Auntie," Choi Young exclaimed, embarrassed.
"Let me look at you," Lady Choi ordered and Eun-Soo stepped forward hesitatingly. Sometimes the old warhorse put a real scare in her.
With pursed lips, Lady Choi assessed Eun-Soo. She could see the tell-tale signs of a woman thoroughly happy and in love, indeed judging from her appearance, wearing one of Choi's tunics that covered her from head to ankles, she was the epitome of a woman well loved and cared for.
"What took you so long?"
"Lady Choi," Eun-Soo replied, uncertainty in her voice while Choi Young growled another warning "Auntie!"
"Ah, shut up, nephew," Lady Choi dismissed him with a wave of her hand. Then she surprised all of them, even herself, by pulling Eun-Soo into a hug, holding her fast.
"Thank the gods you are back, High Doctor," she whispered near Eun-Soo's ear. "Another year without your return, and Choi Young would have driven us all up the walls with his forlornness."
Eun-Soo smiled at that and hugged the woman back. "I will not leave his side, auntie," she replied and after another quick hug from the older woman she was released.
"See to it," she said sternly. Clearing her throat, she blinked several times. "Instead of making a public spectacle out of yourselves in the Royal Gardens you should go back to the Daejang's quarters. I believe you still have a lot to discuss," she turned as if to leave, but then looked back over her shoulder, watching the two lovers. "And make sure to set a date for the official wedding."
With that she left the two and quickly returned to the Queen's quarters.
"I guess a simple, welcome back was asking too much," Eun-Soo commented dryly which elicited a chuckle from Choi who had come up behind her, encircling his arms around her from behind. Eun-Soo leant back against his chest comfortably and rested her hands on his sword that held her like a barrier in front.
Slowly she turned around in the circle of his arms and watched him intently. She still couldn't believe that she was back, that the Heaven's Gate had brought her back to the right time at last.
The right time …
Yes, indeed. She was where she belonged, where her heart was. Her soul. Her life. Burrowing deeper into his chest, her arms resting comfortably around his waist, she hugged Choi to herself, sighing deeply. She belonged.