This is the story of a king who puts his nation above his love, and a court maid who wants to live the life of her choice. This is also the love story of them and their choices.
There was a king who used to be the King’s grandson, the Crown Prince’s son, and the nation’s Grand Heir. Yi San (Lee Junho). He was born into the royal family, a fate he would never be able to escape from. The future Crown Prince, and the future King; the future was already set in stone from the day of his birth, provided that there would not be any other variable to change the course of his life. An ordinary Grand Heir would live as the second in line to the throne after his father the Crown Prince, then becoming the Crown Prince once his father ascended to the throne after his grandfather, the King’s death. Such is the path of life for someone like Yi San, the future king with the fate of the nation hanging on him.
But then, his existence itself turned out to be a variable – a dangerous one to his father and a promising one to his grandfather – in their family. An alternative, a possibility, a…choice. With his father, Crown Prince Sado, became ridden with an illness of the mind, the nation, and the royal family, through the King, Yeongjo (Lee Deok-hwa), had to make a choice himself. In between protecting the present, saving his ill son who had committed crimes that could not be hidden anymore, and looking at the future, ensuring that such a thing would never happen again, Yeongjo made the difficult choice, putting his role as the King first before his status as a father. It was a cruel decision, but only those people involved could fathom why they had to take such extreme measures.
Thus, San’s life changed; from the son of the Crown Prince, he assumed the role of the Crown Prince himself. With everything he had witnessed since he was young, he groomed himself to be someone who would be deserving of his future duty as a king; the future ruler of Joseon, and the successor to the throne after his grandfather Yeongjo.
There was a child whose household was destroyed as a result of the choice made by the King; yet, she ended up entering the palace to serve the royal family, including the King. Seong Deok-im (Lee Se-young) started out as a trainee court maid as she made her first choice: making use of her talent of storytelling to save money for her brother. Yet, freedom was something that was difficult to afford for someone who had vowed to submit herself for life to the service of the royal family. Her options were limited, yet Deok-im made her choice of protecting her master in her own humble way, taking pride in her role as someone who belonged to the Crown Prince.
Despite never meeting her master herself before (or so that she thought), Deok-im’s first encounter with San did not end well. Misunderstandings and hidden identity actually made them grow closer to each other, before the reality of San’s situation hit; his position had never been more perilous than this, as enemies kept attacking him from all sides. He did not have any other choice but to grit his teeth and trust the judgment of his grandfather, the one who had been protecting him all this while. But then, when his own protector was losing the ability to provide a clear judgment, how would San survive the ordeal?
There was also a childhood friend of San; his study buddy and later his closest aide, Hong Deok-ro (Kang Hoon). His decision to serve San was entirely his, despite the trust he earned being laced with deceit and his loyalty lied not only in San, but also towards his own goals. He was so similar to, yet so different from Deok-im: both of them wanted to be of help to San in whatever way they could, but their methods were polar opposites; Deok-im with her small help due to her limited ability, and Deok-ro with his huge help yet with more extreme measures and repercussions. With San’s declining trust in Deok-ro, Deok-im’s small contributions and gestures began to stir something in the heart of the man who was known to be cold towards everyone below him.
As Deok-im saw more of San’s warm side, she could not help but be aware of her own growing feelings. Maybe it was sympathy, maybe it was loyalty, or maybe it was something else entirely. Even people around San had taken notice of the change in atmosphere around the two of them, yet Deok-im remained steadfast with regard to her decision to live a long, simple life. Unlike what other people believed in, her own belief was still there, even if it was shaken so many times in front of so many trials. She only wanted to be of help to her master in whatever way she could, in order for San to reach the position he was destined for, the one he had worked tirelessly for from the very beginning. San himself had realized that his feelings towards Deok-im were more than mere affection towards his subject, but he did not have the luxury of pursuing his own choice at that moment.
Their dynamics changed when San finally became the sky himself; he was no longer the powerless heir who could do nothing, yet the position of a king did not entitle him to absolute power and authority. Even if he was free to make his move, each and every step he took had to be calculated, for there were just too many things at risk should he choose a wrong turn in his direction. On the other hand, Deok-im found herself at a fork in her path when she was forced to make a stand: would she rather trust someone else or would she rather believe in San, the king with so many things to consider before he could give his decision? She made her choice, but not without the consequence that was losing her status as a court maid.
Deok-im thought that she could finally live her life according to her own choices, no matter how insignificant the choices were. What she was not aware of was San being the person who opened that path to her. Of course, Deok-im felt ashamed of herself, for thinking that it was something she earned on her own accord. Thus, when the chance presented itself, she grabbed it, probably with the intention of living again with the life of her choice in the beginning as a court maid. However, no matter how she wanted to believe that nothing had changed, almost everything had changed, including herself; the one she wanted to avoid losing was ironically disappearing bit by bit. Unlike the person she was in the beginning, Deok-im was no longer someone who had nothing to lose; in fact, she had gained so many things she was afraid to lose, not only herself.
Thus, she took a step forward, a step closer towards San. Closer towards the person who had been waiting for her patiently, despite having all the means to make her his by force. Was it a submission? No, I don’t think so. Deok-im allowed herself to make the decision to walk down the path she had chosen. Sure, like all the countless choices we made in this life, there were bound to be moments when Deok-im would rethink the choices; the things she gained and lost among everything else. Alas, she did lose a part of herself – her youth and freedom – yet another part of herself that yearned for San was still there. The dream of being equal with her partner would never come true, but Deok-im had come into term with herself and braced herself to face the consequences of her choice.
San was a king before he was her partner in life, and he was someone else’s husband instead of hers. She was only a companion of him in the realm of the royal family, subjected to duties before emotions. Deok-im chose to keep her real feelings to herself instead of expressing them through words, because that was the only luxury she had. She only had her thoughts which belonged to herself in entirety; her body, her words, her actions, her status, her children, and even her partner all belonged to something else, namely the royal family. Keeping a small piece of her thought to herself was the only thing she could do and the only thing she could choose to do. Was it necessary for her to translate her feelings into words, since San had always asked her about it? Maybe, but to me, she had already done enough by showing it through her actions and choices, like what she had been doing from the very beginning.
Life is full of choices, yet there are moments when life does not allow you the freedom to make a choice. San himself was not allowed the luxury of choices all the time, yet for the only moment he was allowed to, he chose Deok-im: the first and last of his own choice forever. In the end, their choices led them to each other, and that itself is probably enough proof for their true feelings.
“The king loved the court maid; but did the court maid love the king?”옷소매 붉은 끝동 THE RED SLEEVE (MBC, 2021)
..So the moment became forever.SEONG DEOK-IM