Tuesday breakfast with Ryu Ha-sun and Lee Sang-hyun at the Zeus Hotel restaurant was a polite, straightforward affair. Pyo Sook-ja wasn’t well enough to attend, but Ha-sun easily stepped in to represent their combined interests. Young-do wondered if she would be doing more of that in the future. Sook-ja had iron-willed herself to more than one recovery, and he didn’t doubt she would be extremely reluctant to allow Ha-sun to take her place in any official, significant capacity.
He would have to wait until the next board meeting to see if she would attend in person, attend remotely, or appoint Ha-sun as her surrogate.
Once they finished their meal, the three of them headed to a conference room on a lower floor, where their lawyers, Vice President Kwon, and his mother had been busy reviewing contracts. Kyung-ran didn’t have the law experience necessary to do much of the negotiating, but he had wanted her there as the only one he could trust to prioritize his interests.
(Young-do still hadn’t decided on how to approach Sang-joong. The man hadn’t behaved any differently toward him prior to the breakfast, nor had he brought up his ambush of Eun-sang first. Young-do wasn’t sure what to make of it. Did Sang-joong think that Eun-sang had been bluffing? Did he think it would be better to wait? What had he wanted from her?)
His mother smiled when he stepped into the room, and that eased a little of the worry in his chest. He gave her a faint smile back, but he smoothed away the expression when he turned his attention to his vice president and lawyers. “Well?”
They offered him, Ha-sun, and Sang-hyun the contracts in black leather folders. Young-do sat down next to his mother and began reading. The contract was only twenty pages long, and he went through it carefully. On the other side of the table, Sang-hyun held a hushed conversation with his lawyer as the lawyer pointed out relevant items. Ha-sun occasionally pulled out her cell phone to take and send pictures of the contract, followed by rapid texting. Young-do wasn’t sure who she was sending them to—shouldn’t she and Sook-ja have already set their own quiet limits on what they were willing to pay for the project?—but that was none of his business.
(Her meeting with Eun-sang tonight was also none of his business, no matter his curiosity. He had told Eun-sang he trusted her to turn down Ha-sun’s offer if it wasn’t any good. He trusted her with that.)
The contract was one of the simplest he had read in a while. Twenty percent in an unfinished resort, a penthouse suite, and, unofficially, Sang-hyun’s votes. A better chance at ousting his father permanently. That’s what he was buying this morning.
Young-do glanced up when he finished reading the contract and caught Kyung-ran watching him. “Do you think this is worth it?” he asked her.
The room went silent. Kyung-ran ignored the sudden attention from everyone else in the room and took the contract from him. She flipped to the back page, where the lines for signatures and seals were blank and waiting and then handed it back to him.
“You’ve already stepped onto this path,” she said. “This will help you, and it is a fair deal.”
“I don’t want you to win, Young-do. I want you to be happy.”
He would be happy once he had taken care of his father—once he and his mother could feel safe again.
Young-do nodded. His lawyer handed him a pen, and Kyung-ran retrieved his personal seal from her bag, where she had put it for him for safekeeping. He signed and stamped the contract, and with it, bought himself another ally.
Eun-sang was grateful to escape from work. The Ministry of Justice hadn’t returned, but the Shark had still been in a vicious mood, and Eun-sang wasn’t the only one she had snapped at. Despite the loss of an entire work day, they were still mostly on schedule for their next broadcasts. Eun-sang had been assigned back to their story on immigrants within the legal system and their treatment versus native Koreans, with strict instructions to tie it in to the Hongs’ scandal as frequently as possible. She had spent the day trying to track down people involved in high-profile cases over the last few years, reaching out to them on their SNS accounts or trying to get in touch with the public defenders that had been assigned to the cases in question. Most of the time she came up dry, but she had a few leads to follow up on tomorrow.
Ryu Ha-sun—or perhaps her assistant, Song Se-young—had been thoughtful and scheduled their meeting at an affordable Italian restaurant within walking distance of the YBS building. Eun-sang shoved her hands into her pockets to keep them warm and spent the walk silently rehearsing ways to turn Ha-sun down in case she didn’t like the proposals or felt there were too many strings attached to them.
It didn’t take long for her to get to the restaurant. Unlike with the lunch she had with Young-do, no men in suits lurked outside the restaurant doors. Eun-sang opened the doors, stepped inside, and was relieved to hear the buzz of other patrons. Ha-sun hadn’t rented out the entire place to give them privacy.
A woman around her age stood near the hostess and bowed slightly when she spotted Eun-sang. She wore a black pencil skirt, a pale green blouse, and a modest pair of heels. Her hair was pulled back into a simple bun at the nape of her neck, and the only jewelry she had was a pair of pearl earrings. “If you’d follow me?”
Eun-sang recognized the woman’s voice from the phone call a few days ago—this was Song Se-young. Now that they were face-to-face, Eun-sang had a vague twinge of familiarity. Had she seen this woman somewhere before?
Se-young led her toward the back area of the restaurant, toward a room with double doors. She opened them and motioned for Eun-sang to go on through.
The room was clearly set up to accommodate larger parties, with seating for about two dozen people spread across four tables. Ha-sun was sitting at the table farthest from the door, and she smiled when she spotted Eun-sang. “Thank you for coming. Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you for inviting me.” Eun-sang unbuttoned her coat and was a little surprised when Se-young suddenly whisked her coat and her purse out of the way and set menus down in front of her and Ha-sun. “I hope you weren’t waiting for long.”
“Not at all. I thought we could order before we began discussing business, if that’s all right with you. My assistant will be waiting on us this evening, so we don’t need to worry about eavesdroppers.”
As if to underscore the point, Se-young materialized with a pitcher of water and poured them both a glass of it. Eun-sang was a little surprised by it—waitressing wasn’t exactly a skill set she thought a personal assistant would have—but didn’t comment. She just picked up the menu and glanced through it quickly. It looked more or less identical to the one she had browsed through online, so it didn’t take long for her to verify the prices and give Se-young her order: manicotti and side salad.
Ha-sun gave her order as well—a seafood pasta dish that Eun-sang couldn’t pronounce, along with a salad. Eun-sang was a little surprised she hadn’t gone for one of the more expensive options on the menu or ordered something besides water to drink. It was one thing for her rich friends to match her budget, and another for a wealthy stranger to do the same. Se-young took the menus and slipped out of the room.
When the doors closed, Ha-sun smiled again. “Thank you for the bandaid suggestion. It saved me from blisters.”
“You’re welcome.” That wasn’t the way Eun-sang had expected this conversation to start, but she could handle some small talk for a while, if that’s what it took to get to the heart of the matter. “This seems like a nice restaurant. Have you been here before?”
“No, it was Se-young’s suggestion. She has good taste, so I trust her judgment.”
That was a good enough opening for her. “I feel like I’ve seen Se-young before.”
“She’s our sunbae. Se-young attended Jeguk as one of the scholarship students, just a year above us.” Ha-sun’s smile took on a wry note when she registered Eun-sang’s surprise. “The social welfare students at Jeguk weren’t chosen at random out of the goodness of the chairwoman’s heart. They either had financial backers who saw potential in them or they were some of the smartest of the lower classes.”
Eun-sang managed to keep her expression neutral at that description. Lower classes. She hadn’t had that directed her way in a while, though at least it wasn’t said with the malice or disdain she had been used to.
“We were meant to recruit them as future assets for our families and companies,” Ha-sun continued. “Unfortunately, Kim Tan and Choi Young-do wrecked that system in middle school by systematically bullying them, and as such, many of our peers are finding themselves shorthanded. Most of the male scholarship students near our age dropped out of the Jeguk system, and many of the female scholarship students kept to themselves and escaped to non-conglomerate companies.”
Eun-sang was silent for a moment as she considered Ha-sun’s words. Was that really what high school should have been like? Proving herself to her teachers—and her peers—in the hopes of snagging a well-paying job in a company because of her connections?
She could imagine Chan-young in that position. If he weren’t entirely in love with Bo-na, if Jeguk hadn’t been warped into a nightmare, she could picture some people reaching out to him, or at least keeping an eye on him for the future. Wasn’t that what he was doing now, anyway? Studying economics, planning to get a master’s in business, all so he could have the education to be useful to Mega Entertainment? He could easily follow in his father’s footsteps and be a chief secretary or someday a vice president of a subsidiary.
“I’m not looking to be recruited right now,” Eun-sang said. The little nod Ha-sun gave her in return made her relax slightly. Ha-sun had understood the message underneath her polite refusal: I don’t want to be your person.
Eun-sang had fought to become her own person again, and she wasn’t planning on giving that up any time soon.
“However, I am interested in the story suggestions you have for me. I can’t make any promises about acting on them—I’m the least senior member of my team—but if there is something good, I will pitch the ideas to my bosses.”
Ha-sun considered her for a moment, and then she took her napkin from the table and placed it in her lap. There was a small, black thumb drive, only a few centimeters long, on the table where the napkin had been. “I understand.”
She slid the thumb drive across the table. Eun-sang glanced at it briefly, but she didn’t pick it up.
“My information is on there. I won’t pressure you to any conclusion, nor will I influence your investigation,” Ha-sun said.
Eun-sang wondered if she could believe that, no matter that Young-do had vouched for Ha-sun’s straightforwardness.
“The only warning I have is that if I don’t see any movement on the information, I’ll pass it on to someone else. You’ll lose your exclusive then.”
“How long do I have?”
Ha-sun smiled at the question. “Does a month sound fair?”
A month to go through all of the information on the drive. A month to try to figure out what Ha-sun’s agenda was and whether or not it was something she was willing to be part of. Could she do that?
Eun-sang picked up the thumb drive and slid it into her pants pocket. “One month sounds perfect.”