Chapter 5

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After this everything but perfect first meeting with Sun-Woo's little sister, Jia wasn't exactly keen on spending time with her or her father. Even though he seemed to be friendly and had agreed to let her stay, it was only a matter of time before one of them would ask a question she couldn't find an answer to. Like who the "family" she was visiting was or why she used to live in a little village outside the capital. Important questions she hadn't yet made up an excuse for. She was entangling herself in a net of lies and excuses and the longer she stayed here, the more likely it was that someone would uncover her secrets. And she still hadn't found a proper explanation for why that guard at the gate had permitted her to enter the capital, a question Sun-Woo would probably ask her the next time they had time to talk.

To forestall this, she left the house right after breakfast and set off to the Sutabaksu to pay Pi Joo-Ki a visit. Yesterday she had just walked past the building but now it seemed like a good place to avoid Sun-Woo and his 'sister' and maybe get a decent cup of tea after this morning's one had been spilled on the floor.

The Sutabaksu was a simple and elegant two-floor building with walls made of dark wood alternating with framed rice paper. A chain of light green lanterns hung over the entrance and the name of the house was painted on the wall in gracefully curved white letters. A place like this must have been a very popular place among young men and women of the capital so she was even more surprised to find the tea house entirely empty. Was it closed today?

"Ah, welcome! I didn't expect there to be customers," she was greeted by a middle-aged man in a lilac gown made of flamboyant patterned fabric. Pi Joo-Ki had grown visibly older since the last time she saw him. His hair thinning hair was held in place by a mauve headband as if that would distract from the lack of hair on his head. A merchant's smile spread across his face, friendly but without much sincerity and she instantly got the feeling he would do everything to sell her more than she intended on buying. In that way, he hadn't changed at all.

Jia couldn't help but smile lightly as she sat down at one of the many free tables. It was good to see that he was still the same.

"What may I bring you, young Lady?"

"Whatever is the most popular these days," she answered, confusing the shop owner who apparently wasn't used to vague orders. He nodded slowly and was quick to pick his smile back up.

"As you wish." And he disappeared in the back.

The inside of the tea house was welcoming. The dark walnut wood of the walls was complemented by pink azaleas and eucalyptus plants beside every table. And even though the rice paper walls let in plenty of natural light the candles flickering inside the green paper lanterns gave this place a slightly mysterious yet classy atmosphere. She could almost see the young ladies chattering about these days' gossip over a cup of tea and young masters meeting around the table next to her's. Maybe she would be visiting this place regularly under different circumstances.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Pi Joo-Ki who came back with a cup of light rosé tea and placed it in front of her. The scent rising from the steaming drink reminded her of a mellow spring day. Peach entangled with cherry blossom, almost thick in its sweetness but at the same time fresh and soothing. Curious she took a sip but she still couldn't quite place it. Even though it was too sweet for her preferences she was fascinated by the way this savory taste could bewitch her senses and hold onto her attention. Maybe this was the reason it was so popular?

"If you don't mind me asking, is this place always so...empty?"

"Oh no, this is the most popular place in the whole city despite the Okta! We even serve tea to the advisors of the queen! There's no place in Silla you can find such exquisite tea and-" He paused for a moment, trying to remember what he wanted to say before the defense of this place had turned into a love letter to his own tea house. "But today everyone is at the parade."

The young woman took another sip of the sweet rosé colored liquid in her cup. "Parade? What's the occasion?"

"Haven't you heard of it? It's a parade for the king's birthday! Everyone wonders whether he might show up this year. After all, this is the year he comes of age so..."

Pi Joo-Ki kept blabbing on but Jia's thoughts went off track. She had completely forgotten about her brother's birthday. They hadn't seen each other since their father's assassination. As the eldest two of the royal children, they were sent off in different directions to ensure their safety, growing up away from the dangers inside the capital. Could he really show up this year? She could actually see him again after all those years! But that would also mean that Sun-Woo could be right about what he saw the night Mak-Moon died. The bracelet with the insignia of the royal family.

She leaped on her feet, almost knocking over her cup and interrupting Pi Joo-Ki's monologue about the Faceless King. "I need to go. Thank you for...your hospitality. And the tea." Hastily, she rummaged in her pockets and dropped a few silver coins on the table, definitely way too much for a cup of tea but she didn't want to waste any time. She left the tea house in a hurry, confusing the owner she left behind and scurried in the direction she suspected the city center to be.

Luckily, she didn't need to search for long. After just a few steps her way was blocked by a crowd standing at the side of the road. It looked like everyone in the capital was here. Commoners and True Bones, merchants, and high-ranking officials stood side by side forming a patchwork of colorful silk and plain linen. They stood close together, everyone eager to get a look at the royal family but her slim statue made it possible for her to squeeze through the mass. Some people complained or tried to hinder her from pushing herself through the crowd but she managed to get to the front row.

The parade was lead by flags with the royal insignia and a line of soldiers forming the vanguard for the two palanquins behind them. Jia tried to get a glimpse of the people on the inside. Was it really true that the king came? The first one of them had a canopy of red silk protecting the queen sitting on it from sunlight, and partially the looks of commoners. The second, golden, was right behind it. Everyone leaned forward or craned their necks to get a glimpse of what they hoped to see: the king. But it was empty. Her hopes evaporated, turned to dust. It had been a foolish anticipation, thinking he might return to the capital at the same time. But still, she had been unable to keep herself from holding on to it. But maybe it was for the better. Even if her brother was back, she wouldn't be able to actually go to him. And now she could focus on her real mission: protecting Sun-woo on his mission to avenge Mak-Moon's death.

Everyone bowed their heads as a sign of respect as the queen approached. Jia followed their example even though it was more to avoid her gaze, avoid being recognized than out of tribute. Hiding once again.

Then, suddenly, hell broke loose.


Owwww it's getting started! Random thing I realized while writing this: Sutabaksu is a romanization of the word 스타박스...which is the Korean way of writing Starbucks! They didn't have coffee back then and a tea house must have been their equivalent of a coffee shop. Funny little Easter egg 😂
Tune in again next week for more random fun facts or at least another chapter lol

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