144 An Ill-fitting Piece Pt.1


    Gyuri tore her eyes away from the clay pot and turned to Pho, who was on the other side of the storage house.

    "Those are for the vagabonds, remember?" She quirked her brow as she gestured at the wooden spoon in Gyuri's hand.

    "I know..." Gyuri took a guilty step back as she attempted to conspicuously wipe the saliva that started leaking from the corners of her mouth. "But I'm just so... hungry." She peeked into the pot and swallowed. "Can't I just have a quick bowl before anyone arrives?"

    "You can have some if there are leftovers," Pho said with a slight smile. "And anyway, it's your fault for sleeping in."

    Gyuri huffed.

    Two weeks had passed since they had last ventured to the storage house together and with the sudden passing of the late lord, Gyuri, and the rest of the maids, had been overwhelmed. After all, who wouldn't be after being ordered to clean the whole household from top to bottom?

    Gyuri knew the eldest Kim was a tidy man, having once glimpsed into his private chambers, but she couldn't fathom why the maids had to clean to the point of exhaustion. Day by day, the maids rose at the break of dawn to begin their tedious routine. With the amount of cleaning they did, one would think that the household had fallen to disrepair. It was only when Gyuri had mistakenly complained out loud and Madam Zhou had overheard, did she uncover the reason.

    "This is how Lord Minseok grieves," Madam Zhou had divulged after scolding her for being loose-lipped. "By focusing on improving the household, he is distracting himself from the pain of losing his father."

    Gyuri didn't whine any more after that.

    Despite the stinging rawness of her hands and the unbearable ache in her lower back, nothing could compare to the pain the Kims were going through.

    Gyuri cast her memory back to the events of last week.

    She remembered how Namjoon had thrown himself back to his work in the sanatorium; how Jongin's grief was reflected by the poignant melody his guzheng sang and how Junmyeon seemed more agitated than before. There was no doubt that the Kim household was in silent turmoil- although its walls withstood time's unforgiving course, its occupants did not.

    Gone was the source that united the brothers, be it through filial piety, fear, or a combination of both. Like a bridge without its cornerstone, the Kims were vulnerable.

    They were lost without Hyesung.

    With Minseok as the new lord, things were different. He was kinder, more egalitarian, but it was clear that he didn't possess the tenaciousness that his father had. While Hyseung instilled fear, Minseok did not. There was a quietness to him that cast a shadow of doubt in everyone's mind. Like an ill-fitting piece in a puzzle, Minseok was an adequate substitute, but he lacked confidence. He had yet to prove himself as a leader. And while the rest of the Kims mourned their loss, the unspoken question lingered closely at the back of their minds: could Minseok fill the void Hyesung left behind?

    It was only subtle but Gyuri sensed tension amongst the Kims that wasn't apparent before.

    "He is my true brother, but it seems our bond is only limited to the blood we share."

    Gyuri sighed as her thoughts finally drifted to Taehyung.

    It had been a week since she had last spoken properly with him and she feared that he had taken Seokjin's brusque behaviour to heart.

    Lately, Taehyung had been uncharacteristically quiet. He had kept to himself even when he knew Gyuri was free from her duties. He no longer met her by the river while she was doing laundry; no longer kept her company while she was sweeping the courtyard, nor pestered her about going to the village. Gyuri had seen so little of Taehyung that she had come to realise how much effort he put in to meet her. Without his persistence, their bewildering friendship may not have existed at all. And as much as she hated to admit it, she was starting to miss him.

    I wonder how he's doing, Gyuri thought as she stole a sip of stew while Pho wasn't looking. Her stomach gurgled at the sudden taste of food, a cacophony of flavours inciting a riot amongst her taste buds. Allured by the taste, she stole another. That troublesome kid, why does he make me worry about him all the time?

    "What do you think of Master Seokjin?"

    Gyuri quickly hid the spoon behind her back as Pho turned to her. "M-master Seokjin?"

    Pho nodded.


    "I look nothing like my father."

    Gyuri shuddered as she recalled the contempt in his voice. Out of all the brothers, she was keen to avoid Seokjin the most. "He's..." Gyuri curled her lip as she tried to think of the perfect word. "He's different."

    "He's not like the other Kims at all, is he?"

    "Definitely." Gyuri walked over to help Pho while at the same time discarding her spoon. "He's a brute. He's a lot worse than the scary brother- and that's saying something!"

    Pho blinked in confusion. "Master Seokjin isn't a brute."

    "You don't think he is?"

    "No," Pho replied while shaking her head, "I think he's actually quite friendly."

    Gyuri was taken aback.

    "Master Seokjin is eccentric, that I admit, but he's also humble. Why I saw him helping the kitchen staff the other day by chopping wood! He jokes around with them and he exchanges cooking tips as well. In fact, the stew we have today was made by Master Seokjin."

    Gyuri's eyes widened. She glanced back at the clay pot in shock. He can cook?!

    "Unlike the other Kims, Master Seokjin really doesn't feel like a Kim at all," Pho continued. "Did you know that he insists on being called Jin rather than Master Seokjin? He doesn't dress in luxurious garments either." Pho giggled. "The new servant boy mistook him as one of Master Namjoon's men."

    Gyuri listened as Pho continued to speak fondly of the elusive brother. It baffled her to hear Pho talk about him as if he was a saint: a complete contrast to the Seokjin she knew. At some point, Gyuri began to wonder whether she and Pho were even talking about the same person. How could a man who held a sword against her throat be the same man who cracks jokes with servants?

    "Are you sure you're not describing Master Namjoon?" Gyuri asked dubiously. "The Master Seokjin I know isn't the angel you make him out to be."

    "Of course, I'm sure. Why would I lie?" Pho put her hands to her hips. "He's a really nice person, Gyuri. Don't let his appearance deceive you." She turned back to unpacking the bowls. "I have to admit that I didn't expect Master Seokjin to be like this either. His reputation precedes him. Before he arrived, I have heard of only bad rumours about his character."

    Gyuri stopped what she was doing. "What kind of rumours?"

    Pho glanced around the storage house as if to check if they were alone. "You know," she gesticulated with her hands, "reasons why he was exiled." Pho leaned in as she whispered, "No one knows if the rumours are true, but I heard that it had something to do with a death in the family."

    "...A death in the family?"

    Pho nodded solemnly.

    "What did Master Seokjin do? Did he...?"

    "No one knows," Pho said with a shrug. "It was just something I overheard when I first arrived at the household."

    Gyuri chewed her lip.

    Every fibre of her being still shuddered at the thought of being in close parameters with Seokjin. There was something about him that kept her on edge. Despite her bravado, Gyuri was intimidated by his unpredictability. Just when she thought Seokjin was an arsehole he surprises her by acting like a saint. Could Gyuri have judged him too quickly? If not, then was he kind to everyone but her?

    Kim Seokjin was the epitome of bian lian: he had many masks, but which one was the real him?

    "But do you think he could... you know?"

    Pho shrugged again. "Surely Lord Minseok wouldn't welcome him in the household if he was dangerous, right?"

    Gyuri was unsure.

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    "Well, either way, there's no use worrying over it," Pho said as she got back to work. "All that matters now is that Master Seokjin is a reasonable master. It's quite refreshing having him around the household-"

    "But is he really as nice as you say?"

    Pho gaped at Gyuri from over her shoulder. "What do you mean?"

    "It's just that I find it hard to believe he's nicer than Master Namjoon," Gyuri replied. "Whenever I cross paths with him, Master Seokjin always treats me coldly."

    "Well, did you do something for him to treat you that way?"

    Gyuri frowned as she recalled how they first met. "No... I don't think so."

    Pho was quick to notice her hesitance. "You're hiding something." She watched as Gyuri nervously tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Something happened between you two, didn't it?"

    "No! Of course, not-"

    "Gyuri." Pho had her brow arched. "What did you do?"

    Gyuri swallowed as she tried to avoid meeting Pho's eye.

    After her recent runaway attempt, Gyuri had finally confided in Pho. It was a tremendous weight off her shoulders. Even though she couldn't reveal most of what was troubling her, it was still liberating to talk to someone. It reminded her that she wasn't alone. Pho may not know everything, but she knew something.

    "I didn't do anything wrong," Gyuri replied defiantly. "It was his fault for not looking at where he was going, and it was self-defence- that's why I did it!"

    "What did you do exactly?"

    Gyuri shuffled on her feet. "I may or may not have been the reason why he hurt his leg." Her voice was small. "And I hit him too- that I admit."

    "You did what?!"

    "In my defence, he had a sword pinned against my neck-"

    "That's beside the point. He's one of the Kims!"

    Gyuri winced at Pho's high-pitch screech. "It's not like I hit him that hard..."

    "And what about his ankle?" Pho folded her arms across her chest. "You were the reason why he sprained it?"

    "It was just a sprain?" Gyuri raised her brows. She scoffed before muttering under her breath, "What a wuss..."

    "He couldn't walk for days," Pho added sternly. "I'm surprised he hadn't disciplined you. If I had done that to Master Junmyeon, I would've been flogged!"

    Gyuri's eyes widened with horror.

    "But I don't think Master Seokjin's like him," Pho quickly reassured her. "Master Junmyeon is stricter on me because I'm his personal maid."

    "Has he ever...?"

    "Only once," Pho answered with a wry smile, "but it was when I was still learning the ropes. It hasn't happened since then."

    Gyuri eyed Pho worryingly. It hadn't occurred to her that the Kims punished the maids. Ever since Namjoon had saved her from being hit by Madam Zhou, she had forgotten that danger still lurked within the household walls. Gyuri reminded herself to stay vigilant. Despite being overworked, she was fortunate not to have been treated poorly. After all, good fortune was not something maids usually have. It was something women in Saim did not have at all.

    "Hey, Pho?"

    Pho glanced behind her as she finished setting the table. "Hm?"

    "If things were different and you can do whatever you want, what would you do?"

    Pho tossed her a questioning look.

    "Say, you were no longer a maid," Gyuri elaborated, "and you had all the riches in the world, what would you do?"

    "I'm not sure," Pho replied distractedly as she crossed the room to check on the stew. "I've never thought about it before."

    "There must be something you've always wanted to do." Gyuri trailed after her. "How about travelling?"

    "Well... I've always wanted to see the ocean," Pho mused. "I've lived in the capital all my life. It would be nice to see the sea or the mountains."

    "The ocean, huh? You could go fishing there. Maybe even swim."

    "Yeah, maybe." Pho played with her sleeve once she was done checking. "But it would be more sensible to save my earnings." She smiled as she bashfully declared, "In truth, I'd like to have my own tea house someday."

    Gyuri watched as Pho's face lit up at the thought of owning her own establishment. "A tea house?"

    Pho nodded excitedly. "Yes." She straightened herself as she waved an arch with her arms. "It would be a quaint place. We'd serve freshly brewed tea sourced from local tradesmen and all sorts of confectionery too. Everyone would be welcome- it wouldn't matter whether you're a peasant or a noble."

    Before Gyuri could respond, a familiar voice beat her to it, "That place sounds amazing..."

    Gyuri and Pho glanced over their shoulders in time to see two figures appear through the door.

    "...Would we be invited too?"

    "Zeren!" Gyuri rushed to greet the bronze-faced man, who she almost didn't recognise.

    "Hey, pretty lady," Zeren entered the storage room first and graced her with his signature flirtatious smile, "long time no see."

    "It's good to see you-" Gyuri began to answer, but while doing so, her eyes couldn't help but be drawn to the person behind him.

    Gyuri's breath hitched.

    With his dark hair pulled into a loose man bun, like Zeren, Jimin was almost unrecognisable. Dressed in tattered garments, Jimin exuded a different aura. There was a quality to his untidy air that made him appear more at home than he ever was in his usual attire. In his pristine imperial uniform, Jimin had appeared stiff, on guard and uneasy. Now, it was the exact opposite. Gyuri couldn't help but be drawn by his ethereal looks.

    Jimin's lips parted slightly as he met eyes with Gyuri. For a split second, his yearnful gaze drank in her presence, a mixture of desire and happiness seeping through the cracks of his self-restraint. He tore his gaze away before he could act on the urge to capture her in his embrace.

    Gyuri looked away too, suddenly embarrassed but she didn't know why.

    A sneaky grin played at Zeren's lips as he glanced from Jimin to Gyuri and back. "So, where is everybody?"

    Upon registering that she and Jimin were not alone, Gyuri surveyed the storage house and noticed that it was still empty.

    "That's odd..." Pho replied, voicing out Gyuri's thought. "They're normally here by now."

    "Maybe they think we're still closed," Gyuri murmured. "We haven't been going to the soup kitchen lately."

    Zeren limped over to the foggy window and peered through the glass. "Then, we'll have to let them know you're back in business." He turned to face everyone in the room, his eyes undeniably brimming with mischief. "Pho," he called with the straightest face he could manage.

    The doe-eyed lass automatically scowled.

    "Will you do me the honour of accompanying me?"

    "Zeren?" Jimin shot him a questioning look.

    The bronze-faced man just smiled. "Yes, Chim?"

    What are you doing? His eyes asked.

    Zeren's eyes twinkled in return. Creating an opportunity.

    The bronze-faced man swiftly returned his attention to Pho. "What do you say? Shall we round up some peasants together?"

    "Why should I go with you?" Pho rebuked. "If there are no peasants about, then Gyuri and I can- hey!"

    Without warning, Zeren took possession of ten porcelain bowls and started sprinting towards the door. Regardless of his injuries, he was still agile.

    "Put those back!" Pho shouted as she dashed after him. "Be careful with those! Those bowls belong to the Kim household!"

    "Catch me if you can~" Zeren sang as he swiftly limped. He shot Jimin a meaningful look as he passed by.

    Jimin needn't hear words to understand what that look meant.
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