Prologue (From Teacher to General)
“In a time when kings and emperors ruled over lands scorched by wars, the fleeting times of peace made people enjoy life twice as much.”
The capital city of Seorabeol, of the great Silla kingdom, in Old Korea, was bathed in the lazy autumn sun. The houses sat in orderly rows that made up the streets of the city and surrounded the king’s palace. Their roofs had wide eaves, shielding the walls below from the fiercest storms, keeping them dry and safe from degradation. Closer to the palace, the sun’s rays beamed off the glazed ceramic tiles of the rooftops. The colourful tiles and their ornate ends were a clear declaration of the family status and rank, and could not be acquired by a different caste. This was a rule set in stone and kept regardless of the financial power of the potential buyer.
The city was prosperous as a port and a major centre of maritime trade. The homes and shops were well maintained, with greenery here and there, from the gardens the bigger houses kept. The biggest garden, however, was the palace exterior park that was often opened to the public on days of celebration. Close to this area, as an appendage of the palace, laid the houses of the high dignitaries. In the garden, at the imposing residence of a well-respected family, the voice of tutor Min-Jun resonated loud and clear:
“Young master, do not slouch over your words! A crooked stance leads to a wandering mind - I see no way anything I am teaching you will go inside your head - straighten your back and recite what I just told you to write down.” Master Min-Jun put his hand over the boy’s shoulder blades and motioned for him to straighten his back. The boy complied, receiving a gentle pat on his head.
The young master was well aware seonsaengnim’s bark did not bite. Still, he wanted to do all that he could not to upset him. “Please don’t be mad at me, seonsaengnim! I promise I am paying attention.”
“Mad at you? Since when are we having our lesson together, my boy?”
The boy started to count on his fingers. “Mmmm, since I was six?”
His tutor nodded his head, before asking, “And in the past seven years have you ever seen me mad at you?”
“You’ve never been mad at me, seonsaengnim? Not when I make mistakes with my abacus? Or when I mix up the teachings of Confucious? Not even when I drop my sword in our fighting lessons and forget about the strategies?”
There were many lessons Min-Jun wanted to teach the boy, and not all of them were related to the educational curriculum. “Young master, always consider what being mad would get you, before becoming mad. What would a teacher get from being mad at his pupil, hmm? Tell me.”
The boy pursed his lips. “Scare him to do better?”
“And who do you think does a better job at removing the clothes off your back? The furious gush of wind? Or the warm rays of the sun?”
At first, puzzled by the comparison, the boy’s eyes glinted when he understood the meaning. “Seonsaengnim,you are so wise. Did you always wanted to be a teacher?”
Master Min-Jun smiled softly at the boy. He had one thing he would have done wholeheartedly: teaching. The bone-rank system used at this point in history implied his path was already set since before he was born. He was supposed to be a military career man, as it was a custom for his family for generations. His father nor society would have had it any other way.
“I have wanted to be a tutor since I was a young lad. Younger than you are now. I used to run away from the training ground and hide up in the trees so I could read, write, and think about philosophy in peace. I always preferred dipping my writing brush in ink than unsheathing my sword.”
“But you are so good with a sword, and with martial arts.”
“Well, my father would always find me and drag me back to my fighting instructor. And I have been a general for many, many years. Do you see how many grey hairs I have? I am older than your father even.”
“You are old as you are wise. Everyone admires you for your knowledge and smartness.”
“My knowledge and wit? My peers say they admire me for my combat and strategy prowess.”
“Oh, I wish I would become as wise as you. How long have you been teaching, seonsaengnim?”
Min-Jun tried to remember. He started mentoring the children of his close friends as a pleasant way to pass the time. His talent with tutoring became renowned, and he ended up being solicited and barely making time for it, with all his garrison duties. With no other responsibilities in his life, apart from his military troops, teaching was now all he ever lived for, and he felt as if he was finally able to follow his dream.
It was time for the tutor to do some counting. He realised it would take him too long to count all the years of experience he had, so he sighed. “I think I’ve been teaching pupils and marshalling my troops for a very long time. Maybe I should retire,” he added as a joke.
“No, seonsaengnim! Please don’t!” The boy jumped quickly, hoping it was a prank. “I don’t want to be tutored by anyone else, but you.”
Min-Jun escaped a laugh. A strong relationship started to form between the boy and his tutor. Though this young master was not the first, nor did he knew he would be the last student he would teach, he sensed they would remain friends, long after their student-teacher relationship would end.
In the mild afternoon autumn air, the sounds from the streets made their way to the inner garden of the residence, and with them a distinct murmur that grew louder and louder:
“...ar....ar...War...We are at war...”
As the murmur became more clear, the hyped voice of the villa’s doorkeeper could be overheard by the teacher and pupil:
“Old master! Old master! The war has started! The war has started!!” the gatekeeper ran past them, slamming his shoes on the wooden deck floor while looking for the master of the house.
“War,seonsaengnim? Does that mean you will have to leave again? And father?” said the young boy with sadness seeping into his eyes. After thinking for a second, an idea turned into a glimmer of hope and he spoke again, “This time I am older, and I am already advanced with my fighting lessons. I cannot wait to join you and father on the battlefield.”
“War is not something worth being eager for, young master, remember this!” replied Min-Jun as he looked at the auburn leaves falling, knowing this moment was coming from all the reports he read before.
With a heavy heart, he whispered to himself, “Today they call me seonsaengnim Min-Jun. I guess they will call me General Min-Jun, tomorrow.”
The season changed since the war started.
The march in the scorching heat or the pouring rain, the clamour of the men, of his men, following him without reproach. The responsibility for his men who were following him without question, whether he was telling them to set up camp or to charge the enemy. And death, so much death, and blood, and mud.
The tales of bravery and valour, the patriotism they should feel in their hearts, the shine of their weapons and armour in the sun, were fantasies and lies. Lies meant to lure young men into the army.
All those lies would scatter with the first blow of the enemy’s sword, and with the first comrade they saw dying, and that was only if they were lucky to survive their first battle. After their first experience in combat, the general wondered what made his men follow him again and again, and what made him move forward.
All those thoughts laid heavily on General Min-Jun’s mind. He felt too old. He had seen too much. After all those years fighting wars maybe he was a great general because he despised the war. Despising the war made him always think of strategies that will lower the casualties, shorten the fight, and defeat the enemy.
The enemy or his men were not the only casualties of war. Sometimes the casualties were the innocents who had the misfortune to find themselves between the clashing of their swords and arrows. Like this village, they were getting ready to leave behind. Houses burned down and the bodies of the people who did not flee would lay on the ground.
There was no more screaming, no more cries, only the fire creaking at the old wood of the houses. But the people’s cry, the babies’ cry, did not seem to fade away from the general’s memory, because when he closed his eyes, he could still hear them; a distant cry that haunted his sleep.
" My General, we saw a baby in a house, over there. I checked the noise with my companions. What should we do about him?”
The general opened his eyes and turned his head to face three of his soldiers, finding it hard to believe that what he was hearing was real and not just the remnants of his memories. They would normally not care for the injured who were not a part of his army, and they would leave them behind, but those soldiers who gave him this news, were recruits, and they did not know the procedure.
So why was he following them now? It was as if he hoped that if he did see a baby crying, he would be pulled from his reverie into reality and he could move forward with his men once again.
Indeed, there was a baby in the hut, still lying in his dead mother’s embrace, screaming his lungs out. It was a miracle how the sword latched at the woman’s back did not scathe the infant. That would have sent the child on a never-ending journey, alongside his mother. Her fingers clasped tight at his delicate frame, either hoping she would keep him safe with her own body or as the last goodbye she could offer. Perhaps it was both.
" We can do nothing to help him, and in the future remember we leave any injured or orphans behind. It would be better to put this baby out of his misery since we cannot take him with us. Next time you remember it is better to not pay attention to this type of situation.” The general continued with a sigh, “I will make sure to inform all your other comrades in the new company of how we do things in the army.”
“My General, leaving him behind? Killing him? This is too cruel,” replied the youngest of the men.
“This is what we call mercy! ” - concluded the general in a cold tone, to hide what he really thought about it. This left his three recruits baffled.
He bowed his head to decide whether to smother the infant or leave him behind, however, something made him take another look at the crying man-cub, who did not appear to be older than five or six months.
The baby’s wailing reminded him of a not-so-distant past, where he would hold his daughter in his arms trying to calm her down. His daughter who he lost so very early on, could have been right here in this baby’s place. This baby was crying and staring at him, with his daughter’s face. The similarity was uncanny, and the general could not believe his eyes.
He moved closer, thinking that as impossible as it may sound, it might be his child. The general started to shake his head amused at his own reactions. There was no way this baby could have been his daughter, as he had no way to tell if he was looking at a boy or a girl. But the baby stared back at him with bright blue eyes, like a crystal-clear mountain lake, and a name spurred in the general’s mind: Soo-Ah, meaning beautiful water.
Such eyes were not common for this area, but also not unseen. They showed up here and there with immigrants arriving from the central continent, coming down the mountains, fleeing other wars. As if it was possible to flee war, war can spur anywhere. Taking a better look at the child’s mother she did not appear to be Silla, but the child did look like his kinsmen, except for those eyes.
"Soo-Ah is a girl’s name. What if this baby is not a girl?" - thought the old general.