Title: Twentieth Century Blues
Fandom: Gyeongseong Scandal | Capital Scandal
Rating: 12/PG
Originally posted: 12 November 2011 (also available at AO3)
Summary: On nights like these, Cha Song Joo thinks of Russia.
Disclaimer: All original works are copyright of their respective owners; I lay claim only to this particular story.
Notes: Written for [personal profile] skygiants for the [community profile] dark_agenda 2011 Kaleidoscope fanworks challenge. This story takes place shortly before the start of the series; full notes are at the end.


Twentieth Century Blues

The evening's foul weather has kept most of the house's casual clients at home, rather than trust their expensive cars to the slippery mess of the capital's streets. Only one or two of the more determined types have braved the downpour, and they are already tucked up in the most brightly lit entertainment rooms, being plied with hot drinks and delicacies to ward off the chill outdoors. She will have to pay a visit to them later on, once they are well in their cups and starting to tire of the chatter of Young Ran and the other girls. But for now, she has a few moments to herself, to listen to the rain on the roof tiles and be alone with her thoughts.

On nights like these, Cha Song Joo thinks of Russia.

Her instructors taught her many things. How to drown someone and make it look like an accident. How to poison someone and make it look like a suicide. How the strong muscles of the neck and shoulders could thwart an attempted strangulation, and how one should push the head forward when slitting a throat to ensure that the blade will cut through to spill the bright red blood hidden below the broader veins. On nights like these, though, when the damp air sticks to the back of her throat and makes even the finest silk hanbok feel like a sodden rag against her skin, her fingers always ache with the memory of hours spent fumbling with numb, greasy hands, assembling and disassembling the weapons placed in front of her.

If she closes her eyes, the ache becomes stronger and the memory becomes clearer. The acrid, cloying scent of rifle oil and rotting fish and black-market petrol lingers just at the edge of her senses. Even though her fingernails are newly manicured and polished, she can feel the grit under the tips, powder residue and dirt and dried blood and heaven knows what else. And if she flexes her fingers just so, she will feel the weight of the half-assembled pistol settle into her palm, and --

A burst of raucous male laughter, only slightly muffled by distance and the paper screens of the house's sliding doors, echoes across the courtyard.

Her eyes snap open, narrowing in irritation. The noise of guests should not annoy her so, but really, can she not have even a moment's peace on a night like this?

Moments later, when another braying laugh cuts through the sound of the rain, she gets to her feet with an unladylike huff and crosses the room to open the gramophone.

Most of her records are gifts, given by young men eager to show their knowledge of the most recent hits and the occasional older man desperate enough to cling to delusions of maintaining a youthful image. She listens to each record once, for politeness' sake, and if it is not to her taste then she will let one of the other girls 'borrow' it and conveniently forget to ask for it back. (Target practice takes care of the more ear-splitting numbers that she would never dream of inflicting on another person.) Of the lucky few recordings that have won a more permanent spot in her personal collection, it hardly surprises her that nearly all of them were brought by Woo Wan.

(I hope that I do not offend your refined sensibilities with this most recent example of the decadent filth that the younger generation finds so seductive, read the cheeky note attached to the last selection of albums he'd left for her. But my soul is corrupted beyond saving, and I fear you are to blame.)

She takes the top record from the pile of Woo Wan's most recent leavings, not bothering to look at the title. It's only background noise, after all -- something to half-listen to while she tidies her hair and freshens her lipstick. She drops the needle on the outermost edge, then sits down to collect her brushes and mirror and cosmetics. With how wet it is outside, a simple updo would be best, with the beaded hairsticks, and perhaps that new plum lipstick to brighten her eyes --

'Why is it that civilized humanity
Can make the world so wrong?
In this hurly-burly of insanity
Our dreams cannot last long.'


She pauses, listening, her hairbrush arrested in mid-stroke. The singer's voice has a jaunty lilt, skipping over the notes with a delicate touch. He doesn't seem to sing the words as much as speak them, almost as if he were chatting with the audience over a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

'We've reached a deadline,
A press headline,
Every sorrow.
Blues value
Is news value
Tomorrow....'


She sets her hairbrush down. The recording is scratchy, and her English is not quite good enough to comprehend all the words on this first listening, but the singer's tone is what speaks to her more. For as light as it is, there is bitterness woven into his voice, a sort of weariness that feels like a hand on her shoulder -- a weight, not a comfort.

'Blues,
Twentieth century blues
Are getting me down.
Blues,
Escape those weary
Twentieth century blues.'


'Why,
If there's a God in the sky,
Why shouldn't He grin
High
Above this dreary
Twentieth century din?'


Perhaps she is tired from being out so late at mahjong the other night. Perhaps it is the prospect of another interminable evening of smiling, and serving drinks, and soft-spoken flattery, and letting nothing show behind her eyes. Perhaps it is the rain, and Russia, and the thought of a carefully planned excursion that cannot be allowed to fail. But whatever it is, this song has slipped through her defences, and now it prickles beneath her breastbone.

She doesn't like it.

'In this strange illusion,
Chaos and confusion,
People seem to lose their way.
What is there to strive for,
Love or keep alive for?
Say, "Hey, hey! Call it a day?"'


It had been so simple in Russia. Most of the exiles who had taught her looked upon their flight as more honour than disgrace, and they trained for the day when they would return to their homes as a free people once more. Even a worthless young girl sold to a courtesan house could be taught to shoot and stab and sabotage, so that in the world to come she would be beholden to no-one and nothing.

No one had taught her what to do when the world to come seemed farther away than ever. Or how to prevent a silly, sentimental Western song from making her feel every p'un of that distance.

'Blues,
Nothing to win or to lose,
It's getting me down.
Blues,
Escape those weary
Twentieth century blues.'


The recording ends, and the needle skips into silence.

'...Cha Song Joo-eunni'?

Cha Song Joo blinks, and looks up. Young Ran is peering around the edge of the door (how had she not heard her slide it open?) and watching her with an uncertain expression.

'Our guests were asking after you.' Young Ran's face is flushed and her hair is damp, as if she had been running through the rain. 'The Deputy Minister particularly expressed his hopes that you would join them tonight. I said that you would be along shortly, but -- '

Cha Song Joo smiles, perfect and polite. 'Thank you for coming to get me. As you see, I was listening to music and lost track of time.' She holds up her hairbrush, a silent alibi. 'Please beg our guests to forgive my tardiness, and tell them that I will be delighted to join them once I complete my toilette.'

Once Young Ran has bowed herself out, Cha Song Joo quickly twists her hair into an upknot and slips the chosen hairsticks into place. A dash of powder and a flash of plum lipstick, and a moment to brush off her hanbok, and she has donned her armour for the evening. But one last touch is required, specifically for tonight.

The flask of perfume is mostly full, and the light golden liquid within sloshes gently against the glass sides as she picks it up. She has to draw a breath and hold it before she removes the stopper; even now, she loathes the smell of almonds in perfume. The bitterness beneath its sweet scent also reminds her of Russia, for it never fails to bring to mind the choked-off gurgle of a life snuffed out by potassium cyanide. But when that deputy minister (up to his receding hairline in gambling debts, including the money she won off him later that evening) brought her a flask of Guerlain's Après L'Ondée specially imported from Paris, she accepted it with a gracious smile, and playfully dabbed a touch of it behind his ears when he leaned in to embrace her.

If she had to smell of death, all the better that he should smell of it, too.

If she had her way about it, they all would, in the end.



Notes

- 'Twentieth Century Blues' is a song by by English playwright and composer Noël Coward (1889-1973). Coward originally wrote the song as incidental music for his play Cavalcade (1931), which was later made into a film in 1933. Cavalcade focuses on the lives of a wealthy English family and their servants in the first three decades of the 20th century, and 'Twentieth Century Blues' is sung near the end of the play, as the surviving main characters reflect on their joys and sorrows as 1929 comes to an end. The best recording (in this author's opinion) is the one sung by Coward himself, though Ursula Jeans' performance in the 1933 film is equally touching.

- A p'un (푼) is an old Korean standard unit of distance measurement, about 3 millimetres or one-tenth of an inch.

- Après L'Ondée is a scent made by the French perfume house Guerlain. It is a floral perfume with bitter almond undertones.


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