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Sweet Poison of Love by Alex Cha

Sweet Poison of Love

1

Moonlit Mischief

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In the heart of Ganghwa, a quaint coastal town nestled by the serene waters of the Yellow Sea, the day dawned with the gentle murmur of waves and the bustling of early morning vendors.


Ganghwa was a place where the old world met the new; traditional hanok houses lined the streets alongside modern cafés, and markets overflowed with both ancient relics and the latest gadgets.


The town's main square, known as the Moonlight Market, was alive with activity.


As the sun began to rise, merchants and townsfolk filled the cobblestone pathways.


Amidst the usual hustle, a particular spectacle drew a crowd.


Under the large gingko tree, a man with a weathered face and a voice rough from years of shouting stood. His name was Han Minho, a performer who had journeyed from Seoul.


Dressed in a faded hanbok, he held a curious-looking monkey in one hand and a well-worn leather whip in the other.


Minho's voice echoed as he directed the small primate through a series of tricks.


The monkey, dressed in a tiny vest and trousers, moved nimbly. With every crack of the whip, the monkey performed another trick – leaping through hoops, balancing on a single paw, and even mimicking Minho's exaggerated expressions. The crowd’s delight swelled with each performance.


Among the onlookers was a young boy his eyes wide with wonder. He clutched a battered tin cup, hoping for a few coins to be tossed his way.


At the edge of the square, Han Seonhwa, a woman in her late thirties, watched the scene unfold. Her house, an old hanok with intricately carved eaves, stood proudly near the town center.


Though her home was modest, it was one of the few remaining traditional structures in Ganghwa. Seonhwa had a regal air about her. She was a widow, raising two children on her own: the nine-year-old Seojun and five-year-old Sora.


Seonhwa's life had been a series of sacrifices since her husband, Jiho, passed away two years ago. The family struggled, relying on her small business selling handcrafted pottery to get by.


Despite the hardships, her children were her pride and joy, their smiles and laughter her daily solace.


On this particular morning, Seojun was engrossed in a spirited game of yutnori with his friends near the market stalls, while Sora clung to her mother’s hanbok, her big brown eyes following the monkey's every move.


She tugged at Seonhwa's sleeve, pleading with a silent, wide-eyed intensity that only a child could muster. Seonhwa, unable to resist, nodded and took her daughter's hand, guiding her closer to the crowd.

As they neared the performance, Minho's voice grew louder.


"Step right up! Witness the wonders of the Moonlit Monkey, the smartest creature in all of Korea!"


Sora’s eyes sparkled with delight.


As the performance reached its crescendo, Minho directed the monkey to a small barrel. With a dramatic flourish, he removed his hat and extended it towards the crowd.


"Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve enjoyed the show, please show your appreciation. Every bit helps keep the magic alive!"


Coins clinked into the hat. Seonhwa reached into her purse, pulling out a few coins to drop into Minho's hat.


“Can we see more, Eomma?” Sora asked


“Yes, my dear.”


Just as the crowd began to disperse, a sudden shout rang out from the edge of the square.


"Thief! Stop that boy!" The mood shifted abruptly as the townspeople turned to see a young figure darting through the market, clutching a small pouch tightly against his chest.


Minho's monkey screeched, jumping onto his shoulder in fright.


Seonhwa’s heart raced. She instinctively pulled Sora closer as the boy sped past.


Seonhwa tightened her grip on Sora's hand as the town's peaceful buzz transformed into a murmur of tension. The boy, still clutching the stolen pouch, weaved through the market stalls with the agility of a seasoned pickpocket.

His path was erratic, darting between clusters of onlookers, creating a ripple of confusion in his wake.


Amid the chaos, Seonhwa felt a tug on her sleeve. "Eomma, what's happening?"


Sora's innocent eyes were wide with concern.


"It's alright, darling,"


Seonhwa scanned the crowd for any sign of immediate danger. The boy's flight had stirred something in her—an old instinct from a time when she and Jiho would navigate the city's shadows, always alert for trouble.


Nearby, Han Minho watched the scene unfold, his monkey clinging tightly to his shoulder. He raised an eyebrow, his interest piqued not just by the disturbance, but by the boy's audacity.


Minho had been around long enough to recognize desperation when he saw it, and this boy wore it like a second skin.


Sora's curiosity got the better of her.


She pulled free from Seonhwa's grasp and wove her way towards the front, eager to see what had caused such a stir. Seonhwa followed, her eyes never leaving her daughter.


In the heart of the commotion, the young thief stumbled and fell, his small frame collapsing in a heap. The pouch spilled open, revealing a handful of shiny trinkets and a few crumpled banknotes.


Gasps rippled through the crowd, and a stern-looking merchant stepped forward.


"You there! You think you can steal from me and get away with it?"


Before anyone could react, Seonhwa found herself stepping into the fray.


"Wait. This child... he looks hungry and scared. Maybe we should find out why he's taken these things before we punish him."


The merchant hesitated, taken aback by her intervention. The boy looked up, his eyes wide and pleading.


He couldn't have been more than ten years old, his face dirt-streaked and his clothes threadbare. He clutched the trinkets to his chest as if they were the most precious things in the world.


Minho, sensing an opportunity to diffuse the tension and perhaps gain favor with the crowd, stepped forward.

"Everyone, please. Let’s not jump to conclusions. It’s just a boy. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding here."


The merchant's scowl deepened.


"Fine. But he's not getting away without explaining himself."

Minho knelt beside the boy. "What’s your name?"


The boy hesitated, glancing nervously between Seonhwa and the merchant.


"Jisoo," he whispered.


"Jisoo, Why did you take these things?"


"I... I needed money. My sister... she's sick. We have no food... no money for medicine."


A murmur of sympathy rippled through the crowd.

Seonhwa felt a pang of empathy—she knew too well the lengths one would go to for family. She turned to the merchant. "Perhaps we can help him. He's just trying to take care of his sister."


The merchant sighed heavily. His anger slowly giving way to reluctant understanding.


"Alright, but someone needs to teach him that stealing isn't the way."


Minho stepped forward.


"Maybe I can help with that. I could use an extra pair of hands for my show. Jisoo, would you like to work with me? You can earn some money, and I can keep an eye on you."


Jisoo looked up. "Really? You'd let me help?"


Minho nodded; "Yes, really. But no more stealing, okay?"


The boy nodded eagerly, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "I promise. No more stealing."


Seonhwa smiled, relief washing over her. "Thank you," she said to Minho, her voice filled with gratitude.


Minho shrugged modestly. "It's nothing. Just doing what I can."


....


The sun had climbed higher in the sky, casting a warm glow over Ganghwa's bustling streets. Seonhwa, Sora, and the newly found Jisoo made their way through the thinning crowd.


They reached a small teahouse tucked away in a quieter part of town, where Minho's offer to take in Jisoo had provided a temporary sense of relief.


Seonhwa guided Sora and Jisoo to a cozy corner table. She watched as Sora, ever the inquisitive child, peppered Jisoo with questions about his life and the adventures that had brought him to Ganghwa.


Jisoo, for his part, seemed both shy and grateful for the unexpected kindness.


"Do you like the monkey?" Sora asked.


Jisoo nodded. "He's funny. I've never seen a monkey do tricks before."


Seonhwa listened to their conversation. Jisoo’s story of desperation and love for his sister struck a chord with her.


Just as their tea was served, a shadow fell across their table. Seonhwa looked up to see a tall man with a smug expression and an air of arrogance. He was dressed in fine clothes, far too opulent for a simple market day. His presence instantly changed the atmosphere, and Seonhwa felt a chill despite the warm tea in her hands.


"Well, well, what do we have here? A little thief enjoying a break from his mischief, I see."


Jisoo shrank back, his small frame trembling under the man's scrutinizing stare. Seonhwa's protective instincts flared, and she stood up, placing herself between Jisoo and the intruder.


"And who might you be?" Seonhwa asked


The man’s smirk widened. "Name’s Lee Jongho. I manage things around here for Mr. Nam, the town's esteemed merchant. Seems this boy here has caused quite a stir. Mr. Nam doesn’t take kindly to those who disrupt the peace."


Seonhwa's eyes narrowed. "Jisoo isn't a thief. He's a child in need. If Mr. Nam has an issue, he can come speak to me directly."


Jongho laughed. "You're brave, I'll give you that. But Mr. Nam doesn't concern himself with such... small matters. He has people like me to handle them." He leaned closer, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "Now, how about we settle this quietly? You give me the boy, and we'll forget this ever happened."


Before Seonhwa could respond, the teahouse door swung open with a creak, and Minho entered, his monkey perched contentedly on his shoulder. He spotted the confrontation and quickly approached.


"What's going on here? Jongho, isn't it? Seems you're making quite the scene."


Jongho straightened "Just handling some business, Minho. This boy here owes Mr. Nam a debt, and I'm here to collect."


Minho glanced at Jisoo, who was clutching the edge of the table, his eyes wide with fear. Then he turned back to Jongho. "Well, it just so happens that this boy is now under my protection. If Mr. Nam has an issue, he can take it up with me."


Jongho's eyes flicked between Minho and Seonhwa

"You think you can just take him in and everything will be fine? Mr. Nam won't be happy about this."


"That's between you and Mr. Nam. But let me give you some advice, Jongho. Picking on children isn't a good look for you."


There was a tense silence as Jongho weighed his options. Finally, with a scowl, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the teahouse, muttering under his breath.

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