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    Chapter 283: An Ordinary Day in Hanseong. (1)

    A few days after the decision to build the ‘Third Ironworks,’ the ministers of each department, including Lee Jik and Maeng Sa-seong, gathered at a gisaeng house.

    “It’s been a long time since we left work on time…”

    “Indeed, it is.”

    “At least these days, the lower-ranking officials are handling the workload well, so we can catch a breath.”

    “Thanks to that, we can leave work on time like this. Hohoho!”

    “That’s right. Hahaha!”

    The ministers laughed cheerfully and exchanged their cups.

    As the gisaengs entered the room and livened up the atmosphere with singing and dancing, one cup turned into two, one bottle turned into two, and the ministers’ faces gradually became flushed with intoxication.

    Observing this, Maeng Sa-seong spoke to Lee Jik.

    “Minister, how about we wrap things up soon?”

    However, the tipsy Lee Jik waved his hand at Maeng Sa-seong’s suggestion.

    “Ay! We’re just getting started, and you’re already thinking of ending it? Who knows when we’ll be able to leave work on time again? Let’s drink properly for once! Don’t you agree, ministers?”

    In response to Lee Jik’s words, the ministers replied loudly.

    “Aye! That’s right! Indeed!”

    “Minister Maeng, are you showing weakness already?”

    Seeing the ministers’ reactions, Maeng Sa-seong quietly stepped outside and discreetly called for the head gisaeng.

    “Did you call for me?”

    “After half a shichen (about 1 hour), dismiss all the gisaengs. And the rooms to the left and right of this room are all empty, right?”

    “Yes.”

    “Then, until this gathering ends, don’t accept any guests in those rooms. And leave all the doors open. Except for the doors facing outside.”

    “Pardon? For what reason are you requesting this?”

    “There shouldn’t be any ears listening.”

    There was not a hint of intoxication in Maeng Sa-seong’s eyes as he answered. At Maeng Sa-seong’s sharp command, the head gisaeng immediately bowed her head and replied.

    “Yes, Minister. I will do as you say right away.”

    “And bring in about three jars of the strongest soju. We need to get them dead drunk and send them off before any trouble occurs.”

    “Yes, Minister.”

    Maeng Sa-seong’s orders were swiftly carried out. As the doors of the rooms adjacent to the room where the ministers were gathered were all opened, the ministers clapped their knees in delight.

    “Haha! It feels so refreshing and spacious!”

    “Indeed! The breeze is truly refreshing!”

    “Haha! With my chest feeling so open, it seems the alcohol is going down well! I’m not even getting drunk despite drinking?”

    “Isn’t that thanks to the tonic you took, Minister?”

    As soon as one of the intoxicated ministers mentioned the word ‘tonic,’ the atmosphere instantly froze.

    At that moment, when the atmosphere had turned icy, Lee Jik filled his cup with soju, rinsed his mouth, and spat the alcohol into an empty bowl.

    Seeing Lee Jik’s action, the ministers also rinsed their mouths with alcohol and spat it out, glaring at the one who made the problematic remark.

    “There are things you shouldn’t say, even if you’re drunk…”

    “I, I’m sorry!”

    “Anyway, let’s drink again!”

    “Yes!”

    And so, the ministers continued their drinking. As half a shichen passed, the gisaengs left one by one as per Maeng Sa-seong’s order, but none of the ministers paid attention to it.

    Because they had reached the stage where the alcohol was consuming them.

    And as they reached that stage, arguments began to break out here and there.

    The incident started with Kim Jeom and Lee Maeng-gyun.

    “Minister! Isn’t this too much?”

    “What are you talking about? If you suddenly say that, how am I supposed to know?”

    As Kim Jeom questioned back, Lee Maeng-gyun raised his voice even more.

    “The reciprocal gifts we’ll receive from Ming this time! Five times the cost of manufacturing a hundred guns! Is that even possible?”

    “Well, it’s not that much. Why are you making such a fuss?”

    “Not that much? Why don’t you go and receive them yourself, Minister? You have no idea how stingy the Ming officials are!”

    “Even if they’re stingy, if the Emperor allows it, they have no choice but to hand it over, don’t they? If it’s the Emperor we know, it should be easy, right?”

    As Kim Jeom asked back with an expression of incomprehension, Lee Maeng-gyun beat his chest and vented his frustration.

    “That was before we crushed Yi Manchu and Mentemu!”

    “So, what do you want me to do about it?”

    “Don’t put unnecessary pressure on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I’m telling you!”

    “Unnecessary?”

    At Lee Maeng-gyun’s words, Kim Jeom’s expression turned fierce.

    “If you’re that unconfident, submit your resignation to His Majesty! Don’t whine about this trivial matter!”

    “Trivial matter? This guy, seriously!”

    “If you’re going to whine about such a trivial matter, then why do you keep asking for so much budget? Do you think the government’s budget is abundant? Should I make you start peddling goods like in the old days to cover your travel expenses for this upcoming envoy mission, huh?”

    “Why, you little…!”

    “Whoa! Ministers! Please calm down!”

    As the atmosphere between the two men intensified, Maeng Sa-seong intervened to try and defuse the overheated situation.

    “Now, now. How can we help it if the country’s situation is not good and work is difficult? The hardship is the same for everyone, so let’s forget about it with a drink. Come on! Have a cup each.”

    Stepping in between them, Maeng Sa-seong repeatedly offered drinks to the two men. Finding it difficult to refuse the drinks offered by Maeng Sa-seong, the two men continued drinking until they became heavily intoxicated, and before they knew it, they had reconciled.

    “All of this is because there’s so much work to do. There’s a lot of work, but we still lack people!”

    “You’re right! Our kids are already traveling around the provinces! They need to check the crop yield in advance to know how much tax revenue we’ll have this year! Already!”

    “Being an official is not a job for humans!”

    “That’s right! Come on, let’s have a drink to that!”

    “Let’s drink, Minister!”

    “Phew~.”

    As the atmosphere between the two men improved, Maeng Sa-seong let out a long sigh of relief.

    “Now I can relax a bit…”

    They say words become seeds, don’t they? Before Maeng Sa-seong’s muttering could even finish, shouts erupted from another side.

    “Minister! Why are you doing this?”

    “I did what I was supposed to do!”

    Seeing where the shouting came from, Maeng Sa-seong hung his head. There, Jo Mal-saeng and Jeong Inji, the new head of the Censorate, were engaged in a verbal dispute.

    ***

    The reason for the heated debate between Jeong Inji and Jo Mal-saeng was because of Lee Soon-mong.

    When his ‘false sick leave due to an affair’ was exposed,Lee Soon-mong had to be confined in the Office of Records along with the perpetrator, Hwang Sang, receiving the punishment of ‘document organizing.’

    However, as the military reform progressed, Lee Soon-mong and Hwang Sang were released from the Office of Records and began commanding the military in Pyeongan Province and Mureung Province.

    Not long after Lee Soon-mong took command of the Joseon army in the Pyeongan Province region, Yi Manchu and Mentemu caused trouble.

    In the process of suppressing Yi Manchu and Mentemu, Lee Soon-mong achieved decent results, and Jo Mal-saeng naturally recommended to King Sejong the rewards to be given to Lee Soon-mong.

    However, Jeong Inji objected to this.

    “While it cannot be said that Lee Soon-mong’s contributions in suppressing this rebellion were small, they are not significant enough to warrant praise. Above all, his sins are too grave.”

    “His sins are too grave?”

    In response to King Sejong’s question, Jeong Inji immediately answered.

    “The one who holds the critical responsibility of protecting Your Majesty from danger while being by Your Majesty’s side not only engaged in an affair, causing a disturbance, but also falsely took sick leave and abandoned his post! This is an unforgivable great sin that cannot be washed away by anything! Promotion and rank advancement are absolutely unacceptable!”

    As many ministers agreed with Jeong Inji’s protest,Lee Soon-mong only received a medal through the newly established system of ‘awarding meritorious service’ based on the grade of meritorious deeds.

    ***

    Jo Mal-saeng objected to this very point.

    “Considering the meritorious deeds he achieved in the process of suppressing this rebellion, his past sins can be overlooked!”

    “They cannot be overlooked! He neglected his duty of protecting Your Majesty’s well-being while being by Your Majesty’s side!”

    “But nothing happened, did it?”

    “Nothing happened? Have you already forgotten about that incident, Minister? The palace intrusion in the Gyeyu year!”

    “That was afterLee Soon-mong was punished! Don’t force the connection!”

    “Don’t force the connection? Such incidents can happen at any time! Yet, the one who should always be vigilant in his position forgot his duty! I don’t think what I did was wrong!”

    “This guy…!”

    “Whoa! Ministers, why are you doing this in a good place? Please calm down!”

    As the atmosphere on this side also became overheated, Maeng Sa-seong hurriedly intervened to try and extinguish the flames.

    It took nearly half a jar of alcohol to quell the heated debate between Jeong Inji and Jo Mal-saeng.

    It was thanks to Maeng Sa-seong’s efforts, a large amount of strong alcohol, and finally, using the ‘common enemy of heavy workload’ that he succeeded in extinguishing the flames.

    ***

    As the drinking continued, similar incidents kept occurring.

    The reason for these heated debates was that most of the policies implemented by the government were not the sole responsibility of a single department but required the collaboration of multiple departments.

    In the process of gathering and coordinating, the participating departments repeatedly clashed and cooperated according to their own interests, and as a result, resentment accumulated.

    Moreover, the ministers who took charge of the newly established departments were burning with the ambition to make their departments’ presence firm by successfully carrying out their assigned tasks.

    Naturally, competition intensified between departments.

    And whenever such competition intensified, there was a common phrase uttered by the heads of each department.

    “You think I don’t know about that?”

    Before the reform, the government was small in size. In order to operate state affairs with such a small size, officials of a certain rank not only held concurrent positions but also moved between central and local posts, experiencing various duties. As a result, by the time they reached the rank of Dangsangwan[1], they could quickly adapt to any department they were assigned to.

    Because the ministers had been trained through that process, they were also well-versed in the affairs of other departments. And they used that knowledge to gain an upper hand in the competition.

    ***

    The resentment that had sprouted amidst such competition was now erupting at this drinking party. As a result, heated debates broke out here and there, with voices being raised, and Maeng Sa-seong had to diligently move around to extinguish them.

    The method Maeng Sa-seong chose to extinguish the debates was alcohol, more alcohol, and a ‘common enemy.’

    He kept making them drink until they were heavily intoxicated and made the topic of ‘heavy workload’ the focus, directing the ministers’ anger towards their working conditions rather than their fellow ministers.

    Perhaps Maeng Sa-seong’s desperate efforts were successful, as the heated debates that had been rampant at the drinking party were replaced by songs sung in heavily slurred voices. In the midst of this, four more jars of soju were brought in, in addition to the initial three jars.

    Assessing the situation, Maeng Sa-seong sent word to the ministers’ residences through the head gisaeng. Before long, servants from the ministers’ residences came and carried the ministers away on their backs.

    “Phew~. This is why I don’t attend drinking parties these days…”

    Maeng Sa-seong sighed and grumbled.

    “Why don’t you wet your throat a bit?”

    “What is it?”

    “It’s cold water with honey.”

    “Thank you.”

    Receiving the bowl of water handed to him by the head gisaeng, Maeng Sa-seong gulped down the honeyed water. After returning the bowl, Maeng Sa-seong put on his shoes and turned to the head gisaeng.

    “How much is the bill?”

    “It has already been paid.”

    “Huh?”

    At the head gisaeng’s words, Maeng Sa-seong tried to recall.

    “No matter how much I try to remember, I don’t recall settling the bill. Which minister paid for it?”

    “It wasn’t paid by the ministers but by the person in the west annex.”

    When told that someone else had paid on their behalf, Maeng Sa-seong’s expression turned serious.

    “Take me there.”

    “Pardon?”

    “Despite my appearance, I am a person who serves the country. Even if it’s just the cost of drinks, I cannot carelessly accept it from someone I don’t know. Take me there.”

    At Maeng Sa-seong’s words, the head gisaeng’s expression became troubled. As the head gisaeng hesitated, Maeng Sa-seong urged her.

    “Hurry!”

    “Yes. Yes…”

    The head gisaeng led Maeng Sa-seong to the west annex. Although it was called an annex, it was not far away, just around the corner.

    Confirming the location of the annex, Maeng Sa-seong’s expression became slightly troubled.

    “They must have heard everything…”

    It was a matter that could potentially lead to a scandal if mishandled, so Maeng Sa-seong pondered to find a solution. Leaving the contemplating Maeng Sa-seong behind, the head gisaeng arrived at the annex and entered.

    “Please come in.”

    “Alright.”

    Entering the annex with a serious face, Maeng Sa-seong saw the person who had settled the bill and prostrated himself with a pale face.

    “Your, Your Majesty!”

    1. Dangsangwan refers to high-ranking government officials in the Joseon Dynasty who were allowed to sit in the upper hall (dangshang) during court meetings. These officials held positions such as ministers, vice-ministers, and other high-level posts. The term literally means “officials of the upper hall.[]

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