“This is Hyorin of KNS News with a special report. The Commons have spoken. Following their wishes, Queen Yundaebi has named Jaewon a Prince! He joins the Queen's son, Hyeonbin, CEO of Royal Energy, Songwoo, CEO of Kim Enterprises, and Minjoon, CEO of Yi Family, as princes vying for the title of Crown Prince. Jaewon is the son of—“
Junseh rolled over and screamed into her pillow. For the past two weeks the media buzzed with the potential inclusion of a prince to the royal court, and now that the votes were confirmed every moment belonged to the new prince. Watching the country come to a standstill in dedication to their precious demigods invoked infuriating madness. Even the world media joined the spectacle.
Somehow those Royals managed to stay in existence well into the twenty-first century. Sure, their political power was stripped to the point of only cultural figureheads long ago, but the iron clad idea of tradition failed to rust. Thus, the caste system of tiers remained under the guise of family lineage and living history.
She scoffed in disgust. “If I were queen, I'd abolish the tier system once and for all.”
Sueji kicked open the door and placed a basket of dried clothes on her bed. “Finally taking a break?”
“Yeah. I finished my project ahead of time and Jang Hyun ordered me to take a day off so I’m free until my shift at the restaurant.”
“Why don’t you go out and do something?” Sueji asked, giving her playful nudge. “It's not healthy for a girl to be cooped up all day.”
Junseh rolled her eyes. “To do things, you need money. And I’m not wasting my money on frivolous nonsense.”
“Frivolous nonsense?” Sueji questioned with a raised eyebrow. “Ah, I don’t know what I did to have a daughter like you.” She grabbed a pillow off her bed and threw it at her while giggling.
“Mom!” Junseh passed it back with ease. Sueji caught it and swung it at her midsection. She rolled out of the way and grabbed a pillow. They stared at each other with a pillow drawn.
“You should know by now you’ll never beat me.”
Junseh scoffed. “That’s what you think.”
Sueji smiled. “First strike takes victory.”
They circled each other like lionesses eying their prey. Maybe if I try to fake her out this time I’ll win. She half swung it at her head then tried to hit Sueji’s abdomen with a full swing. Sueji easily jumped out of the way. Crap! Before Junseh could block she got a face-full of pillow. She fell back onto her bed and laughed. “I almost had you that time.”
Sueji laughed. “In any case, it’s almost time for me to get to work. I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a good day at the restaurant.” She left, leaving Junseh with the ceiling as company, yet again.
In this small town there were a total of two things to do – fooling around and getting drunk. There weren’t any museums, amusement parks, shopping malls, movie theaters, parks, or anything else considered normal in this day and age. There was the store, a mish-mash of groceries and outdated electronics, the restaurant, or rather, a bar masquerading as a restaurant, the medical clinic, and the fields. Most of the families in town were farmers, but Junseh belonged to the small circle of those who were not.
After graduation, most of her classmates settled down with their high school sweetheart and helped with the farm work while starting a new family. Some left for the city, but most of the tiers in this town weren’t high enough to get a decent job and aside from farming, the only other option available was another manual labor job, like construction or factory work.
As for her, with her graduation present money she had just enough to buy a computer for online courses. Getting into university required a few white lies, the biggest of which was the tier number. A number like hers wouldn’t be accepted into anywhere. Sure, some school listed her tier within their accepting range, but she knew enough that if she put her real number on there she would go straight to the reject pile. In the end, if the truth came out, it shouldn’t matter. She passed the entrance exam with ease and maintained high marks in her business courses.
School and internet were paid by working two jobs during the day. Cashiering at the store during the daylight hours and waitressing at the restaurant during the evening hours. She did her schoolwork either at night or days off. The tight schedule left her exhausted most of the time, but the drive to prove a tier number didn’t dictate her worth spurred her on.
On the rare off day she caught up with the news. Knowing the current news may be helpful in her future career. But most of the time the articles were about the royal families, or Royals, as they were named, and she could barely stomach reading about them for long.
“Curse the tiers,” she muttered. Under the system, families were organized according to their wealth and social status. The king and queen held the highest position, and his immediate family made up the first five tiers. After that, it disintegrated into a confusing multi number mass Junseh gave up on understanding a long time ago. Only two numbers mattered. First, tier 673A, when her father lived with them. Second, tier 976A, after her father abandoned them.
In that drop, Sueji lost her job. No one would hire a woman nearly a thousand tiers down. They lost their home and moved from the outskirts of the city to a small countryside village in the middle of nowhere. Even in the middle of nowhere no one wanted a single mother a thousand tiers removed.
And so she took on the only job she could, becoming a red district girl. At nightfall she left, returning sometime the next morning after Junseh left for work. Occasionally the news channels streamed documentaries on the industry. Even if they focused on the worst of the worst, it still bothered her Sueji was forced into it by a number neither had any control over.
She never talked about her work, and Junseh never asked about it. The matter was left unsaid. She treated Sueji like she would a normal parent, wishing her luck at her job, waving goodbye, not acknowledging that work meant surrendering her body to the highest bidder.
Junseh’s stomach growled and she rubbed her belly. “I guess I can eat now.” It was early afternoon, but she could always go to bed early. Since money was scarce, and all extra money went to schooling, she tried to limit herself to one meal a day at home or none if she could secure leftovers at work.
She made a small bowl of steamed egg and kimchi with rice and ate in silence.
Junseh tied her hair in a ponytail and tied a handkerchief over her head. The restaurant was more like a bar than a restaurant. More drank than ate, and the most popular dishes were all the drinking foods. She busied herself cleaning tables for the evening rush when the door dinged. Great, they’re going to start early today. She turned around with a broad smile. “Welcome! Sit where you like and I’ll be with you in a second.”
She dropped the rag. A tourist? Here? He wore a sharp black suit. No one in this town wore suits, ever. His face seemed familiar, but she couldn’t place it exactly. He sat at a small table in the corner and tapped the table with an impatient scowl.
She flipped through the menus for the nicest one they had and quickly wiped her rag over it to dust it off. Everyone knew the menu by heart there anyway, so they were rarely used. Putting on a vibrant smile, she walked over to him and set it down. “Hello, my name is Junseh and I’ll be serving you. What can I get you to drink?”
He said nothing and stared at her.
Her stomach churned. Maybe he’s not Korean? Should I try English? She cleared her throat and repeated the introduction in English.
His eyebrows arched. “Your accent is a little strong, but your grammar is perfect. Not what I expected to hear from this place. Don’t worry. I am Korean.”
She used her smile to hide her frustration. “What can I get you to drink?”
He reached into his wallet and pulled out a photograph. Her heart stopped. Mom. It was an old photograph, probably from her teenage years, but she had no doubt it was her. They shared a dimple in their right cheek when they smiled. Her eyes held the same cheerful warmth she always associated with her.
“I’m looking for this woman. Do you know her?”
“I’m afraid not.”
He sighed and pulled out several bills from his wallet. “Are you sure you don’t remember anything?”
Sueji never talked about her past. She always said, It’s in the past, it’s said and done, nothing else to say. Though a part of her felt curious, the other felt an overwhelming sense of dread. “I’m afraid I don’t know her.”
He said nothing in reply and stared. Heat spread through her body. He placed the bills back in the wallet and picked up the menu. “I’ll start off with some baekseju.”
“Umm, I don’t think we actually have that in stock.”
He put down the menu. “Then what do you have?”
“Well, soju. And more soju. And even more soju. This is a small town in the middle of nowhere. Do you really think we’ll have an upper class alcohol like baekseju here?”
He held a poker face for a long moment before laughing. “I can’t remember the last time someone talked to me like that. Takes me back.” He half sighed with a smile. “I suppose I’ll settle for soju. Go ahead and get me the most popular side dishes here, as well.”
“Can do!” She ran to the back. Soohyun sliced vegetables for the upcoming service. “Hey, Soohyun! We have a rich tourist up front. Make all the most expensive stuff for him, will ya?”
Soohyun stopped mid-slice and gawked at her. “Did you say tourist?”
“You should see him. He’s probably at least in the top hundred tiers.”
“Junseh, I don’t have time for your pranks.”
She grabbed a bottle of soju and clanked a knife against the glass. “Wake up, Soohyun! Quick, take a peek when I bring him the soju.”
She let the door fly open behind her. The man tapped the screen of his tablet with a frown on his face. She set the bottle down along with a small shot glass. On the screen of his tablet was the face of the newly christened prince along with some sort of article. She couldn’t hide her disgust. Even the rich are obsessed with their royal demi-gods. Unbelievable. “Here you go.”
He nodded a response and continued reading. She went back to the kitchen. “Did you see him?”
“Yeah,” he said as he chopped vegetables at an inhuman speed. “He looks familiar. I think I’ve seen him somewhere before. On TV.”
Junseh laughed. “Yeah, right. You see a man in a fancy suit and automatically assume they’re famous.”
“You see a man in a suit and assume he’s a high tier,” he retorted.
“That’s a tailored suit with platinum cufflinks and new shoes. He’s loaded, trust me. Normal businessmen don’t even wear cufflinks.”
“How do you even know what cufflinks are?” he questioned with a scoff.
“Don’t you know by now I’m the queen of random trivia?” she teased with a wink.
He half laughed and rolled his eyes. “Are you going to talk to me all night or earn your keep?” he asked as he handed her an empty plate. “Set up some side dishes.”
“Yes, sir!” She mocked salute and started arranging pickled vegetables on the plate. With the distraction gone, the image of Sueji’s smiling face floated in the back of her mind. How does a man like that know Mom? Whatever happened in her past she kept a secret. But he had to suspect something. They were practically twins.
“Here, send this out to him first.”
The juices glistened on the chunks of meat. The vegetables were crisp and vibrant. Despite being the only cook in town, Soohyun knew how to make a delicious plate. She picked up the plate and set it on her tray. “Hey, why don’t you ever make pork belly for me?”
“You’re not paying for pork belly.”
She laughed. “Hey, I’m gonna take half. He’s used to going to those fancy restaurants with only a few bites on the plate, anyway.”
“Junseh!” He tossed the extra end of a squash at her.
She batted it away with her hand. “It’s a joke, it’s a joke!”
“Not a single bite!”
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied as she turned her back and took a piece of meat off the plate and put it in her mouth. “It's so tasty!” The man was still reading on his tablet when she set the food beside him. He barely acknowledged her presences, sliding his finger up and intensely reading some sort of article. She put a hand on her hip. “You should eat it while it’s hot. It’s wrong to waste good pork belly.”
He glanced up at her then tapped his screen. “Before you go, tell me what you think of this man.”
Talking about the Royals always managed to get her into trouble. She put on a smile and played dumb. “Umm, who is that?”
His eyebrows arched. “You don’t know? Do you not have televisions here?”
“Hey,” she snapped. “Maybe we have more important things to worry about. Did you ever think of that?”
“I see.” He tapped the screen and pulled up the article’s headline. “Read.”
All Access Interview with Jaewon Kim, new Prince candidate. When confronted with more Royal nonsense, she scoffed by reflex.
“Recognize him now?”
“Yeah. Immature playboy brat. Not that he’s any better than the other Royals. I hate them all.”
He placed the tablet down and gestured to the chair. “Tell me more.” She glanced at the chair and back at him. “You’re a smart girl. Sit down.”
She hesitantly pulled the chair out and sat. “Can I have some of this pork belly?”
“Go ahead, then.”
She grinned and took a pair of chopsticks from her apron and grabbed a big chunk of meat. “So what do you want to talk about?”
“Why do you hate the Royals?”
“Where should I begin? They insist on upholding the tier system. The tiers should be used for genealogical purposes only, not to keep some caste system alive. It’s ridiculous. We have companies like Polaritech changing the world. We’re the ones dictating the future of technology, and yet socially we’re stuck in the dark ages. And it’s thanks to those Royals. Half of the daily news is dedicated to whatever stupid promo piece they tried to push. Do you honestly expect me to believe that Daesung did anything more than pose for a picture at that Homes For All event? I don’t think so. Lastly, even though they’re all richer than any of us can ever dream, they still get grants from the government for their cultural influence. What cultural influence? They already have money, why are we giving them more?” She slammed her fists on the table. “It’s frustrating!”
He nodded and asked with a small smile, “What do you think of the new prince candidate?”
“He’s popular for his looks. I can’t think of a positive thing to say about him. In fact, he’s the worst one of them all. At least the other prince candidates have some sort of mission they pledge, despite only doing the occasional photo ops for said mission. I guess I could appreciate his honesty toward his lifestyle, but it still looks bad.”
“You’re around his age, aren’t you?”
“I don’t really care about him enough to know random trivia. Do I look like a fangirl to you?”
He laughed. “I suppose not. Did you come up with this on your own, or is that what Sueji tells you?”
Lightening shot down her back. “I-I don’t know who you’re talking about. These are my own opinions. A person’s tier number shouldn’t be indicative of the person they are. And the Royals shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal because they were born into it. In the perfect world, the tier system would be abolished completely.”
He poured a shot and took it, then ran his hand through his dark hair. “You look a lot like a woman I used to know. Right down to her smile. It took me years, but I managed to track her down here. Are you sure you’ve never seen her?”
The sorrow in his voice had years of pain behind it. Her heart bled with sympathy. But Mom kept her past a secret for a reason, and she refused to betray that. She shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is.”
He poured another shot. “Thank you.” Junseh rose and went back to the kitchen.
“You were out there a long time,” Soohyun commented.
“Yeah, he asked me a bunch of questions about the Royals.”
“You didn’t tell him anything, did you?”
He glared and punctuated the air with his knife. “You know what.”
Junseh shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I didn’t make him mad.” She cracked open the door. “You should see him. He’s doing shot after shot right now.” She glanced back at him and shrugged. Soohyun’s brows furrowed. When he did that, he looked like a pug. She pursed her lips to keep from laughing. “If he wants to drink, I should oblige him, right?” She grabbed another bottle of soju.
When she went back to his table he stared into space with a pensive look to his face. She placed the bottle on the table. “Want another?”
He stared at her without responding. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. He knows I’m Sueji’s daughter. She grabbed the open bottle and poured a shot. “Here ya go, Mister. Have another.”
“You, how old are you?”
Her face flushed. “Look, I don’t know what you think this is, but I’m not one of those girls and this isn’t that kind of an establishment.”
“You look around the age of my son,” he clarified. “Never mind.” He took the shot. She poured another. He leaned back and took the shot, then grabbed the bottle from her hand and took a long swig.
Her eyes widened. “Whoa, Mister, slow down. You don’t want to ruin your fancy suit, do you?” She took the bottle from him and set it down.
Though his face had the flush of alcohol, his eyes still held a sharpness to them. “I think it’ll work. What’s your name again, Junseh?”
She took a step backward. “Yes…”
She held up her hands. “Now, Mister, I think you’ve had too much to drink.”
“What tier are you?”
She took another step back. “What does that have to do with anything?”
He stood and grabbed her hand. “You, Junseh, take me to your parents.”
She yanked her hand away. “What in the hell?”
“You’re a perfect match for my son. Take me to your parents so I can propose marriage.”
Before the voice in head could convince her how bad of an idea it was, she slapped him with all the strength she possessed. He stumbled backwards and started laughing. She inched backwards. “Soohyun!”
Soohyun threw open the door. “What’s going on?”
Junseh ran behind him and pointed. “He’s had too much to drink.”
Soohyun waved his cleaver in the air. “Hey, Mister! Pay up and get out!”
He threw several bills on the table, then pulled out a sheet of paper. “Chef, tell me where this address is.”
Soohyun snatched the sheet from his hands. “Is this where you’re staying? We don’t have cabs here, Mister.”
“Just give me directions and I’ll find my way.”
Soohyun held the paper up. “Hey, Junseh.” He held the paper in front of her face. “Isn’t that your—“
Junseh shoved Soohyun down to the floor.
“Hey!” he cried. “What’re you doing?”
“Oh my God! I’m so sorry, Soohyun. What was I thinking? I’m such a klutz!”
“Junseh!” He jumped up and waved the cleaver in front of her face. “What the hell is up with you?”
The man shoved Soohyun aside. “Don’t touch her!”
Both Junseh and Soohyun stopped and stared at the man, then back at each other. Soohyun shook with rage. “Get out, both of you!”
Junseh grabbed the plate. “I’m taking this home, Soohyun. I’ll bring the plate back tomorrow. Thanks for dinner, Mister.”
“No you don’t!” Soohyun yanked the collar of her shirt as she tried to weasel past.
The plate flew backwards and the food hit her face and covered her chest. She glanced down at her cleavage and picked up a piece of meat. “I guess it’s still good.” She put it back on the plate and began brushing what little stuck to her body onto the plate. She stared at the majority of food on the floor. “That was perfectly good food you wasted.” She knelt down and made a division along the plate and put the rest on the other half. “It still looks okay, I think I’ll try it anyway.”
“You’re not going to eat that, are you?” the man gasped.
She stood up and shrugged. “Why not? I cleaned the floors today and you’re our first customer. It’ll be fine. I’ll nuke it in the microwave and let the heat kill the bacteria.”
“Stop!” The vegetables crunched under his foot. “Come with me and I’ll make sure you eat pork belly every night should you desire, that didn’t come from the floor.” He put his arm around her shoulder. The alcohol on his breath nearly made her gag.
“I told you this wasn’t that kind of place, you perv!” She punched his abdomen and ran out of the restaurant and back home. By time she reached the front door her lungs and legs were on fire. She fell to the floor as soon as the door shut and struggled to catch her breath.
No wonder Mom kept her past a secret. What a freak! She closed her eyes. “At least I got a couple bites of pork belly.” After her breathing returned to normal, she went to take a bath and wash off the food and sweat.