"Waekugin" Namjoon repeated. "They are the foreign merchants from the New World, who arrived in search of trading opportunities."
Gyuri nodded attentively.
"Before Saim was unified, the prevailing warlord had a made a deal with the Waekugin. He would trade Saimese goods in exchange for gold, making his territory richer." Namjoon wrote down the character for 'gold' next to the symbol for 'warlord'. "The problem is, the warlord exchanged goods that did not belong to his territory—whatever demands the Waekugin had, he would fulfil them by invading other territories that had it."
"So, you mean he invaded other territories solely for trade purposes?"
Namjoon's mood was sombre. "Yes, that is correct."
It's not that unusual for warlords to invade others in this era, Gyuri pondered. In History, most countries invade others for all sorts of reasons.
"Many people perished under his regime" Namjoon continued bitterly. "And all for what? In exchange for gold, countless communities were destroyed, forcing to extinction a heritage we should have protected." He shook his head. "While his clan prospered under this regime of pillaging, thousands of lives suffered. He was truly a ruthless ruler and the Waekugin, a formidable enemy."
"And then, what happened?" Gyuri asked curiously. "What did the Jade Lotus do to change things?"
"The Great Emperor, Park Yueran was the one who oversaw the unification" Namjoon explained. "Before he became emperor, he formed a pact with the Kims and the Lees and they combined forces to unify the nation. Eventually, they ousted most of the Waekugin from Saim."
"Yes," Namjoon affirmed. "Most."
"So, you mean some of the Waekugin are still here?" Gyuri asked, confused. "Why?"
"Expelling the Waekugin is not easy" Namjoon began. "Some of them have been living in Saim since the warring era before Saim was unified. This was about a century ago. When the Waekugin first came, they brought with them their families and some even took in Saimese wives."
"I see" Gyuri murmured.
"They are not to be trusted," Namjoon said in a low voice. Gyuri glanced up at his direction and saw the sudden coldness in his eyes. "I have heard of many atrocities committed by their kind... it is a shame that we could not, even as the strongest clan, purge them out of our kingdom completely."
Gyuri watched the flame in Namjoon's eyes spark with a muted rage that she found uncharacteristic of him: she had never seen him direct such strong hatred towards anyone before.
"Why do you detest them?" she ventured to pry. "I mean, surely not all the Waekugin are bad—?"
"They tried to enslave us" Namjoon abruptly interrupted. "How can I not despise them?"
Gyuri was taken aback.
"The Waekugin are savages" he uttered vehemently, his eyes an icy inferno. "They are arrogant savages that feel like that they are entitled to everything. Gyuri, if Great Emperor Yueran had not ousted most of the Waekugin, our kingdom would have crumbled under their influence. We would have become a vassal state—a pawn in their empire." He gazed down at the piece of paper intently as he contemplated the prospect. "Our nation would have been flooded by rivers of blood had they been successful in their plan."
Not wanting to antagonise Namjoon, Gyuri silently nodded. From the way he spoke, Gyuri could sense that he was very passionate about the subject.
"But you mustn't base your opinion on someone just because of their past" she eventually mentioned.
Namjoon looked up, baffled. "What do you mean?"
"The Waekugin" she responded, "you said some of them took in wives and brought their families."
"Yes... but what has that got to do with anything?"
"Well, don't you feel sorry for the children who had no part to play in this?"
Namjoon grew quiet. He had never thought about the Waekugin mongrels. Frankly, he couldn't care less about them. "I do," he eventually answered but Gyuri wasn't convinced. "I pity those half-caste children, born of two worlds yet never completely belonging to either one."
"They are not accepted in Saim because they carry the blood of the enemy" Gyuri murmured. "But they don't belong in their home country either because of their Saimese heritage." With empathy, she asked, "How would you feel if you were in their shoes?"
Namjoon searched Gyuri's face which showed compassion for the Waekugin. He couldn't comprehend why Gyuri was taking everything to heart. "Why do you care about them?"
"Because being stuck in the middle is difficult" she spoke softly. "And it doesn't help when everyone around you assumes your personality before getting to know you."
Namjoon saw her pained expression and voiced his observation. "You speak as if you have experienced such prejudice."
"What?" Gyuri fidgeted nervously. She averted her gaze as she replied, "No, that's not- that's not true."
But inside, she couldn't help but be reminded of her own experience. Even though she was Asian, Subin had lived in the UK all her life. As a child, she didn't mind being unique—she embraced it. But being different from everyone else had constantly reminded her that she didn't fully belong. Even amongst her dad and brother, she was the odd one out: she couldn't speak Korean. And amongst her peers, she was the only Korean around. It was like playing 'piggy-in-the-middle'. But Subin was always in the middle: she could never be fully Korean, nor can she ever be fully British. And if that was the case, will she ever belong anywhere at all?
"It is fine if you do not want to tell me" Namjoon replied. "But anyway," he said, changing the subject, the Waekugin are just half of the problem. What threatens our people now is famine."
Namjoon gave a wry nod. "Rain has not fallen in Saim for a long time. Because of the drought, we have been unable to grow enough crops to feed the whole nation." Namjoon wrote the symbol for 'food' on the paper as he sighed. "And because of that, there have been so many cases of malnourishment back at the sanatorium..."
Namjoon furrowed his brow in worry, ruining his princely features. While he busied himself with pondering over the problems in the sanatorium, Gyuri distracted herself by organising the documents she had been studying earlier. She squinted her eyes as she tried her best to read what was written.
I wish I knew how to read this so that I can help more...
But just as she was searching through the stack of papers, she suddenly came across a black, leather-bound book that was buried deep underneath his other belongings. Curiously, she lifted the book up and inspected it.
Gyuri opened the book to the first page and her eyes rounded. Inside, was a detailed close-up painting of a flower, its petals painted in the delicate hues of pink while its branches, the contrasting colour of black. With her finger, she traced the corner of the page, her eyes lingering on the life-like image. As she turned the page, her eyes were greeted with even more watercolour paintings of nature that it made Gyuri question how it was possible that such images could be produced by the strokes of a brush.
Gyuri continued to ogle at the contents of the book, her admiration for the art growing by the minute. It was only when she came across a painting of a woman did she hesitate to turn the page.
Hearing her gasp, Namjoon turned his attention to her. "Gyuri? What is it?"
Gyuri continued to gape at the portrait of the woman. With gentle splashes of black, her long, black hair was captured in a still image. The details of her garments, so delicately painted, exuded an aura of elegance. Something about her, even if it was a painting, was enchanting.
"Who is she?" Gyuri questioned when she noticed Namjoon by her side.
But Namjoon didn't respond.
Curious, Gyuri looked up and discovered Namjoon's mouth slightly agape. A mellow expression graced his face as he continued to gaze at the painting. "She is—"
But before he could complete his utterance, a sudden knock on the door diverted his attention.
Gyuri and Namjoon turned to the doorway where Mayu was waiting.
"Lord Hyesung is asking for you."
The mellowness in Namjoon's eyes hardened as he composed himself. "Tell Uncle I will be with him shortly" he replied.
Mayu glanced at Gyuri before curtsying and scurrying off to pass the message.
With one last glance, Namjoon abruptly shut the sketchbook. He met eyes with Gyuri and smiled awkwardly. "I will return shortly," he told her, but Gyuri couldn't help noticing how his voice sounded pained.
"Very well, Master Namjoon."
Once he was gone, Gyuri looked down at the sketchbook again and wondered why Namjoon had looked so melancholy. "Who could that painting of the woman be?" she pondered aloud.
But inside, Gyuri was most curious to know if Namjoon was the one who painted her.
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