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    “What does that suddenly mean?”

    Not only the ministers but even Sejong couldn’t immediately understand Hyang’s abrupt words and asked back.

    In response to Sejong’s counter-question, Hyang continued.

    “There is a saying among the common folk, ‘A sparrow, trying to keep up with a stork, tears its crotch.’ Has Father also heard of it?”

    “I’ve heard it. Isn’t it a saying that means ‘Know your place and don’t act beyond your means’?”

    At Sejong’s answer, the ministers also nodded. Seeing their reaction, Hyang asked again.

    “But if you must catch up no matter what, what should you do?”

    “Put in several times the effort…”

    Sejong, who was unconsciously answering, continued with a slight smile.

    “My son, I understand what you’re trying to say. However, it doesn’t fit the situation our Joseon is currently in.”

    “Pardon?”

    “To implement the plan you have in mind for the situation you described, external assistance is necessary. In the current situation, is there a reliable ally?”

    At Sejong’s words, Hyang, who was pondering his own words, immediately bowed his head.

    “I apologize. I, with my shallow learning, have been acting pretentiously.”

    “Be careful in the future. So, what plan do you have in mind?”

    “Yes. It’s…”

    Just as Hyang was about to explain, Maeng Sa-seong interjected.

    “I’m afraid to speak, Your Majesty. We, your humble subjects, are not bright enough to understand the conversation between you two.”

    At Maeng Sa-seong’s words, not only the ministers but even the royal scribes nodded in agreement.

    ‘Stop having those cryptic conversations that only you two understand!’

    ‘How can a person with a poor brain live feeling sad?’

    ‘Should I take an intelligence-boosting tonic instead of a health tonic?’

    As if sensing the ministers’ sentiment, Sejong spoke.

    “Left State Councilor, if you were a sparrow and a stork was following behind, eyeing the prey caught by the sparrow. What should you do to avoid being caught by this stork?”

    “Ah…”

    At Sejong’s question, Maeng Sa-seong finally understood the cryptic conversation between the father and son.

    Hyang had compared Joseon to a sparrow and Ming to a stork. The problem was that according to the common saying, it would become a situation where Joseon was chasing after Ming. Sejong had pointed out to Hyang that the analogy was flawed.

    “I, Maeng Sa-seong, now understand.”

    ‘Ugh! This damned cryptic conversation!’

    “Yes. What would the Left State Councilor do?”

    “Shouldn’t you run with all your might?”

    “But in the end, wouldn’t you still be caught?”

    “That’s…”

    “What do the other ministers think should be done?”

    At Sejong’s question, the ministers became lost in thought. Amid the continuing silence, Kim Jeom answered.

    “Since the difference in power between our Joseon and Ming is clear, there is a limit to the orthodox approach. I believe that now, rather than the orthodox approach, an unorthodox strategy is needed.”

    At Kim Jeom’s words, Jo Gye-saeng, the newly appointed Minister of Education, immediately objected.

    “No matter how urgent the current situation is, an unorthodox strategy is not acceptable! An unorthodox strategy cannot overcome the orthodox approach! We must keep in mind why the ancient sages valued the orthodox approach!”

    At Jo Gye-saeng’s words, Jo Mal-saeng, the Minister of National Defense, immediately refuted.

    “Who here doesn’t know the importance of the orthodox approach? But consider the gravity of the current matter. As Minister Kim said, the difference in power between Joseon and Ming is as clear as day, so is this a situation to discuss the orthodox approach?”

    “All the more reason to value the importance of the orthodox approach!”

    Jo Gye-saeng and Jo Mal-saeng engaged in a heated debate, their voices raising. Seeing that sight, Sejong, Hyang, and the ministers all had the same thought.

    ‘The brothers are really good at fighting.’

    ***

    The flames of the debate that continued in this manner spread even to Sejong.

    “Your Majesty! When it comes to employing an unorthodox strategy, one must ponder a hundred times and hesitate a thousand times, and even that is not enough! An unorthodox strategy may provide temporary sweetness, but it cannot provide lasting benefits!”

    As soon as Jo Gye-saeng’s words ended, Jo Mal-saeng immediately refuted.

    “Your Majesty! Among the ministers gathered here, no one is unaware of the importance of the orthodox approach! However, the situation demands an unorthodox strategy! Although an unorthodox strategy is a gamble, it must be used when necessary!”

    “Your Majesty! The conduct of the ministers sets an example for the people! If the people emulate the preference for unorthodox strategies over the orthodox approach, what do you think will happen? If results alone justify everything, will morality remain among the people of Joseon?”

    “That’s an exaggeration, isn’t it?”

    At Sejong’s remark that Jo Gye-saeng’s words were excessive, Jo Gye-saeng firmly denied it.

    “It’s not excessive at all! If you think lightly of it and neglect it, at some point, you will find yourself in an unfathomable quagmire!”

    At Jo Gye-saeng’s words, Jo Mal-saeng raised his voice again.

    “Then! Minister of Education, answer this! Ming, which is several times larger than our Joseon and has a stronger national power, is closely following us! In this situation, what is the orthodox approach?”

    “Develop technologies superior to Ming, trade with more countries to make the nation prosperous, and ensure the comfort of the people!”

    “That’s not the answer to Ming’s current demand for what we have! It may be the orthodox approach, but it’s the wrong answer!”

    “How can you be certain that the purpose of the envoy coming from Ming is the long gun? Do you have proof?”

    “Huh?”

    For a moment, the inside of Geunjeongjeon froze. Jo Gye-saeng had just made a dangerous remark.

    Jo Gye-saeng bowed his head to Sejong again and remonstrated.

    “Your Majesty! All we know right now is that ‘An envoy is coming from Ming.’ That’s it! We know nothing! Yet, to presume ‘It will be like this’ and discuss an unorthodox strategy as a countermeasure is something that must be strictly prohibited!”

    At Jo Gye-saeng’s words, Jo Mal-saeng interjected again.

    “If not that, then what else could it be?”

    “Isn’t that what we should discuss from now on? What is the reason for the ministers to gather in this hall?”

    “Enough.”

    As the debate was about to intensify again, Sejong stopped the conversation.

    When the Jo brothers fell silent and stepped back, Sejong continued.

    “There is no flaw in the Minister of Education’s words. However, Minister of Education, in the current situation, what the Crown Prince mentioned is the most likely scenario, so I was trying to hear a countermeasure for it. Even the Minister of Education doesn’t know whether the Crown Prince’s proposed countermeasure will be an unorthodox strategy or the orthodox approach, right?”

    At Sejong’s point, Jo Gye-saeng, who was pondering his own words for a moment, bowed his head.

    “Please forgive my wrongdoing.”

    “I will overlook it, considering your heart for the country.”

    “Your benevolence is immeasurable!”

    “It seems the atmosphere has become too heated, so let’s take a moment to cool our heads. We will reconvene in half a shichen (approx. 1 hour).”

    “We shall obey your command.”

    As Sejong declared a recess, the ministers rose from their seats and left Geunjeongjeon.

    “Crown Prince, shall we have a cup of tea together?”

    Hyang, who was about to follow the ministers outside, turned around at Sejong’s words.

    ***

    Meanwhile, outside Geunjeongjeon, a second round of confrontation was about to unfold between the brothers.

    “Ah! Brother! Do you have any sense at all?”

    “About what?”

    At Jo Gye-saeng’s nonchalant answer, a vein popped on Jo Mal-saeng’s forehead.

    “In this situation, what else could be the reason for Ming sending an envoy? Isn’t it because of our Joseon’s weapons?”

    “How can you be so certain about that? A person who is supposed to be a minister can’t think seriously!”

    “It’s because what the Crown Prince said is correct!”

    “Even if what the Crown Prince said is correct, it is our duty as ministers to think it over again and report it to His Majesty! If you only see what’s in front of your eyes like that, you’ll end up like this!”

    At Jo Gye-saeng’s scolding, Jo Mal-saeng’s voice grew even louder.

    “What’s wrong with me?”

    “Because you only saw what was in front of you and acted rashly, you ended up becoming a spectator in Geunjeongjeon! What’s so great about you?”

    “Brother!”

    “Oh? You want to hit me if you’re good enough? Go ahead and hit me! Hit me!”

    “Aaaargh!”

    As Jo Mal-saeng, unable to contain his anger, charged at Jo Gye-saeng, the ministers nearby stepped in to stop them.

    “Hey! Calm down! Calm down!”

    After a commotion, the ministers had to leave Geunjeongjeon while keeping the Jo brothers apart.

    Seeing the Jo brothers heading to their respective offices, the ministers had to let out a long sigh.

    “Whew~. How can brothers be so different?”

    “I know, right?”

    ***

    The brothers of the Yangju Jo family were all from a family of government officials. All five brothers held high-ranking positions, but the eldest, Jo Gye-saeng, and the fourth, Jo Mal-saeng, were receiving polar opposite evaluations.

    In the case of Jo Gye-saeng, he was known for his solemn demeanor, integrity, and being a scholar who never put down a book. Thanks to that, he was appointed as the minister of the newly established Ministry of Education through the military reforms. It was an appointment that received the highest praise from not only Sejong but also all the ministers.

    As for his younger brother, Jo Mal-saeng, he had outstanding abilities but was frivolous and fond of bribes. As a result, he was caught in a bribery case in the past and was stuck in the Office of Records before being transferred to the Ministry of Military Affairs.

    ***

    Meanwhile, Sejong was sharing tea and snacks with Hyang.

    “The scribes should leave for a moment.”

    At Sejong’s command, the scribes and secretaries quickly rose from their seats and went outside.

    Having removed the listening ears, Sejong and Hyang conversed while drinking tea prepared by the eunuch.

    “There is a saying among the common folk, ‘Old ginger is spicier,’ right?”

    “Yes.”

    “It’s not a wrong saying, is it?”

    At Sejong’s question, Hyang immediately grasped the meaning.

    ‘He’s talking about that person.’

    “Indeed.”

    At Hyang’s answer, Sejong continued while sipping his tea.

    “That is where the value of the ministers’ existence lies. Pointing out what I have overlooked or failed to consider. The Crown Prince must also keep this in mind. When you ascend to the throne, the ministers who will deal with you will be the ones they have raised.”

    “I will keep that in mind.”

    “However, there is a proper way. If they try to overstep royal authority, you must decisively purge them. Don’t forget that.”

    “I will engrave it in my bones.”

    Bowing his head at Sejong’s warning, Hyang muttered inwardly.

    ‘Minister Ryu Jeong-hyeon left a big scar on everyone.’

    ‘The purge of Ryu Jeong-hyeon and the elder ministers’ was an undeniable big scar left on both Sejong and the ministers.

    ***

    Half a shichen later, Sejong, Hyang, and the ministers gathered in Geunjeongjeon again.

    “Crown Prince, explain your thoughts concisely and clearly.”

    “Yes, Father.”

    At Sejong’s warning, ‘Don’t beat around the bush unnecessarily,’ Hyang inwardly licked his lips and rose from his seat.

    In front of the ministers, Hyang began his explanation.

    “First of all, this countermeasure is based on the assumption that the envoy coming from Ming will demand our Joseon’s guns.”

    Slightly avoiding the issue pointed out by Jo Gye-saeng from the start, Hyang continued.

    “It is undeniably true that our Joseon lags behind Ming in most areas when compared. However, there are a few areas where we are significantly ahead of Ming, and one of them is firearms.”

    At Hyang’s words, the ministers nodded.

    “But we can’t just hand over this firearms technology if Ming demands it. As we can see from the example of the horn bow, Ming didn’t budge on this matter either, right?”

    “That’s right.”

    “If Ming demands long guns from our Joseon, our basic plan is to hand over long guns with reduced performance.”

    At Hyang’s words, Maeng Sa-seong immediately questioned.

    “What if they demand craftsmen instead of long guns?”

    “Do you think Ming would believe that the craftsmen we send will do their best?”

    “Ah…”

    At Hyang’s point, the ministers nodded. Even though they had declared their vassalage, when it came to national defense, Ming had many things to hide from Joseon and constantly monitored Joseon.

    “If we reduce the performance, won’t Ming notice it right away? They have already seen it in Liaodong.”

    As Maeng Sa-seong pointed out again, Hyang nodded and answered.

    “That’s right. So, we have made the performance of the long guns to be handed over to Ming mediocre. It will be definitely superior to the guns currently possessed by Ming, but its performance will be inferior to the long guns we have. And it will make Ming go down the wrong path.”

    “The wrong path, you say?”

    “Yes, there are two ways for a sparrow to stay ahead of a stork that is following behind. One is to tie the stork’s feet, and the other is to make the stork go down the wrong path.”

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