Alchemy of Souls: Episodes 15-16
It’s tough being an assassin accused of the one murder you didn’t commit. Our heroine sets out to prove her own innocence, whilst dodging those who know a little too much about her past. Meanwhile, Songrim’s paying a visit to the palace, and their intentions are anything but polite — soul-shifters beware!
EPISODES 15-16 WEECAP
This week’s flashback teaches a valuable lesson: if, after achieving Hwansu, you opt to flex your spiritual muscles by ejecting your soul from your body, you should probably inform your apprentice. Master Lee learned this the hard way when Yeom, after discovering him seemingly dead mid-meditation, had him cremated. Luckily, his free-floating soul found its way into the body of a dead child. He returned home in miniature form, unimpressed — and thus began a long career for Yeom of being bopped on the head by a man seemingly decades his junior.
In the present, So-yi and Mu’s lackey-of-all-trades, YEOM SOO (Cha Yong-hak), embark on small killing spree. With So-yi’s debut as Bu-yeon drawing close, they’ve been tasked with dispatching anyone who recognizes her. It’s like a buddy comedy, except they hate each other, and instead of wacky hijinks, there’s a growing trail of corpses. So-yi regrets the death of Mu-deok’s ex-handler — she hadn’t intended to hurt anyone from Sari Village — but she’s neither noble nor stupid enough to intervene.
Last episode, Mu-deok discovered the body. Prior to this, she met someone else at the inn: a shamefaced Cho-yeon, buying tickets from a scalper for her date with Dang-gu. Mortified at being caught at such a lowbrow venue, she begs Mu-deok to keep it under wraps. She learns never to kid a kidder: Mu-deok insists that she’s nowhere near as good a liar as Cho-yeon herself.
Mu-deok heads upstairs — where, yes, she is caught in a compromisingly corpse-adjacent position by Jin. At first, it’s nothing a bit of smooth talking won’t fix; after all, the murderer was a skilled swordsman, and Mu-deok is, of course, a hapless maid who has never killed anyone in her life, ever. However, Jin’s suspicions are rekindled when he discovers a second body: someone he learns picked a fight with a con artist from Sari Village. When he turns to demand an explanation, Mu-deok’s already fled the scene. She knows better than to expect justice from Songrim.
Remembering that a woman called So-yi was searching for her at Chwiseonru, Mu-deok pays Ju-wol a visit. She learns that two guards witnessed the woman in question — neither of whom showed up for work today.
Sure enough, Mu’s murderous duo have cornered the witnesses. As they pause to snarl at one another, it’s clear that So-yi is looking forward to flaunting her swanky new social status as the Jin heir. Still, she’s not just here to posture: while Soo’s distracted, she learns from one guard that Mu-deok works for the Jang household. Not that the information wins the guy any mercy; despite his pleas, So-yi turns her back, while Soo advances, sword raised. Mu-deok and Ju-wol arrive in time to see the carnage — but not the culprits.
In the wake of the bombshell he dropped at the palace, Master Lee gives a brief 101 on how to spot soul-shifters. What gives them away is fear of discovery. On that note, he has a gift for the king, in the form of a very familiar dog… Gwigu. But it’s Wook who’s instructed to play fetch: Master Lee promises a reward if he can bring the gift safely back.
As Wook departs, Master Lee explains Gwigu’s ability to sense soul-shifters, causing “Queen” Ha-sun to level him a look of such blazing disgust it’s a wonder he doesn’t disintegrate on the spot. Songrim is usurping Cheonbugwan! she protests. It’s a plot to humiliate the monarchy! You have to hand it to her; there aren’t many excuses at the bottom of this particular barrel, but she scrapes it with avidity.
As news travels, Cheonbugwan’s entire soul-shifter contingent comes alive with consternation. Wook is ambushed by their reinforcements. It’s one against ten, with a dog in the way, but his sink-or-swim training has paid off: he can hack and slash with the best of them.
Mu enters the throne room, angrily decrying Songrim. In a power move so fierce one can only marvel, Master Lee sends spikes of ice spearing towards his throat, all without looking his way.
However, before all hell can properly break loose, King Soon demands that everyone stand down — Cheonbugwan and Songrim both. As a parting blow, Master Lee warns that the ice stone is back in play. Not to fear, though: an individual, born under the King’s Star, will soon be coming into their immense power — power sufficient to settle the chaos.
Nevertheless, it is an embittered would-be savior who greets him as they exit the throne room. Wook bled his own blood for nothing, and now Master Lee’s crooning over the dog! Reward, shmeward!
Still, they got what they came for: Ha-sun’s fear confirms her soul-shifter status. Pressing further could trigger a war. But, not all the royals are as spineless as the king. Won, who throughout the previous encounter had the look of a man questioning his every allegiance, is determined to speak with them — about Naksu.
This proves contentious. When Won mocks the common people’s adoption of “Naksu in Blue” as a symbol of protection, Wook is scathing. Tempers flare, and only Yun-ok’s arrival prevents an all-out brawl over whether the monarchy is failing Daeho’s populace. As Yun-ok tends — all too tenderly — to Wook’s wounds, Master Lee ushers Won into a private tête-à-tête. He requests Naksu’s sword.
The assassin in question is still deeply indignant at being accused of someone else’s murder. Sneaking into the Jang household, she corners Do-joo.
It’s a fraught discussion: although Do-joo believes her innocent, she senses Mu-deok has a secret that could prove catastrophic for Wook. Nonetheless, despite Jin’s warnings, she’s willing to be gently bullied into helping Mu-deok access Jinyowon.
Upon leaving, Mu-deok stumbles into a seemingly blind woman — So-yi. The two face each other in the rain, with nary a hint of recognition on Mu-deok’s part. So-yi leaves, puzzled, but satisfied that murder is unnecessary in this instance.
At Jinyowon, Mu-deok tries to wheedle a fidgety Cho-yeon into being her alibi. It’s the same old conundrum: yes, Cho-yeon would like to save Mu-deok’s life, but has Mu-deok considered that her mother might be annoyed if she does? Before this debate can play out, Ho-gyeong returns unexpectedly, and Cho-yeon shoves Mu-deok into Bu-yeon’s room. Here, Mu-deok becomes overwhelmingly dizzy…
… and wakes to find she has wrapped Bu-yeon’s blindfold around her eyes. Livid with grief, Ho-gyeong slaps her.
Elsewhere, we finally get an answer to last week’s most disturbing mystery: what exactly was Woo-tak doing when he extracted a weird red worm from Cho-yeon’s neck? Well, it’s appropriately horrifying. So-yi needs Jin blood to open the family vault. Absorbing the worm is agonizing, and potentially fatal to boot — if Mu doesn’t continually suppress it with his sorcery, it’ll devour her alive.
Dang-gu softly encourages Cho-yeon to face the music and testify for Mu-deok. Jin does what he does best: dutifully hears her out, and then goes and does exactly what he wants — which, in this case, is to enact his very own Prisoner’s Dilemma on the sly.
Wook and Mu-deok are held in separate cells. Both of them are ordered to tell him what they’ve been hiding. If their statements don’t match, Mu-deok will die.
It’s a neat plan. However, it fails to account for our heroes’ messy, overwhelming, downright mortifying devotion to one another — plus, their talent for talking their way out of a bind. Both show Jin their jade charms. For the first time aloud, without obfuscation, they both admit their feelings. Wook likes Mu-deok. And Mu-deok likes Wook. If you discount all the soul-shifting, the murder and the perilous promise of destiny, it really is as simple as that.
Afterwards, the same delightful couple’s telepathy that helped them survive leads them to reunite at their favorite bridge. Of course, the downside to being alive and well in these particular circumstances is that there’s no escape from facing their feelings. But, hey, as Mu-deok puts it — and then immediately regrets doing so — Songrim wouldn’t punish a maid for loving her master to death.
Wook smirks. His confession wasn’t nearly so passionate. Clearly he should up his game. Mu-deok bristles and, as per her usual defense mechanism, gets morbid about it. If given a choice between love and his own life, she commands Wook to choose the latter. But, the sincerity of Wook’s reply floors her. If he doesn’t mind dying, may he continue loving her?
It’s testament to how well he knows her that he doesn’t push — just scolds her for glaring. Shouldn’t someone in love smile sweetly? The sneer he receives suggests that Mu-deok has never felt an emotion she didn’t immediately need to sulk about, so… perhaps not. Still, she has her own insecurities. How is she meant to continue loving Wook if Do-joo keeps trying to marry him off?
Then, proving that she abides by the ancient assassin code of “I licked it, therefore it’s mine,” she — well — licks her finger and dabs him on the chin. Now, it’s Wook’s turn to bluster. Premarital licking is, after all, a step up from passionate hugs. Why rush into commitment? Strong words, coming from the man who nearly dies for her once a week — but, then, there’s no hiding the fact that they’re both already committed.
Speaking of love, things are about to get hairy for Daeho’s cutest couple. It starts, as with many of their problems, with a conflict between Songrim and Jinyowon — this time, over custody of Gwigu. Negotiations deteriorate as Gwigu spots Cho-yeon… and, sensing sorcery, leaps for her. Ho-gyeong sends out a burst of magic, killing the poor critter in a single blow. Alas, poor dog!
It’s an awkward moment for Woo-tak, who fears the after-effects of his blood worm have been detected. Lucky for him, Cho-yeon is frightened enough to confess that she did use sorcery: a charm intended to attract her true love. Ho-gyeong, in a fit of rage, goes in for a second slap in as many episodes — only for Dang-gu to reel Cho-yeon into a protective hug.
There’s no hiding their connection now. Unfortunately, between Jin, who has had it up to here with young love, and Ho-gyeong, who harbors hopes for Cho-yeon to marry Won, there’s no chance of an alliance. The unhappy pair are ordered to separate. But to no one’s surprise more than their own, they cannot bring themselves to obey. Hand in defiant hand, the two huddle close as their guardians tell them not to bother coming back home.
Of course, sticking together in a moment of impulse is one thing, but finding shelter genteel enough for Cho-yeon’s finicky tastes is quite another. Help comes in the form of a long-suffering Do-joo, who finds herself at the mercy of two very needy children in love.
Wook, meanwhile, receives a double-edged gift from Master Lee: Naksu’s sword. It comes with a message. If anyone tries to use it, he must kill them. Otherwise, he will also die. The implication is clear — Master Lee always knew about Mu-deok’s identity, and there’ll be consequences should Naksu reappear.
Naturally, Wook hands the sword to Mu-deok without hesitation. Their own vow supersedes all. She takes the opportunity to remind him of the wording: when she returns to full strength, they’ll no longer be master and pupil. He’ll no longer have reason to protect her. She’ll no longer have reason to go easy on him.
Wook, ever skeptical of this particular contract, proposes an additional clause. When she regains her energy, she must draw her sword on him. If she kills him, so be it. But, if she withdraws — well, then, he’ll make her that promise she was asking for. Commitment or death! It’s so hopelessly, flawlessly them.
Elsewhere, Do-joo questions Jin’s vehemence in opposing the wayward couple she’s inadvertently adopted. All credit to Jin; he doesn’t immediately bring up Wook’s undesirable love connection. Still, he does poke the issue, asking whether she’d be so tolerant in his situation. Do-joo’s response is one she’ll most likely regret with time: Wook can love whomever he likes! Who cares if they aren’t beautiful, or if there’s an age gap? Jin, stricken, pictures Master Lee — which is a bit rich, because, let’s be real, that guy’s a catch. Do-joo, misunderstanding, thinks Jin’s being shy about their own two-year difference. Maybe this’ll all be resolved by the time they’re a hundred and fifty.
Wook, as Dang-gu’s friend, has been sucked into the vortex of disaster that is his love life. Cho-yeon, whose friends are elsewhere, instead has… Mu-deok. Both lovers confide that they regret abandoning their cushy homes. Most people in this situation would eat their feelings; Cho-yeon takes solace in critiquing every dish that passes her lips. Mu-deok grits her teeth and fakes a smile: it’s a hard life when you can’t just kill people on a whim. Nonetheless, she gains some info on the Jins — their priestesses specialize in the divine, and can even trap people’s souls.
Wook and Yul treat Dang-gu to a consolatory drink, whilst fondly reminiscing about being kicked out of the house. Wook’s an old hand at this. For Yul, it happened just once. Dang-gu, as a squishy-faced toddler, broke a gold inkstone. Yul, in all his tiny dignity, wanted to confess to the incident, but let the others twist his arm into lying. It offended his baby morals so deeply that he fell sick, unable to sleep or eat. Now, on the way back, Wook notices the dark shadows under Yul’s eyes. It hits him: Yul’s been feigning ignorance about Naksu.
The next day, Mu-deok and Wook agree to investigate Shaman Choi, whom Eunuch Kim name-dropped prior to petrification. Wook sets off for Gaema Village to meet a shaman contact of Ju-wol’s. It turns out he’s not the only one chasing leads: Won’s here to search for Kim in one of his regular haunts. He too suspects Ha-sun. Warily, they resolve to share information — even as you can almost hear both cursing the universe for causing their paths to align.
Meanwhile, Do-joo issues the lovers an ultimatum. Their families are willing to take them back — provided they sign a contract promising to never see one another again. For all that their fears, for all the immense wealth and privilege they’re jeopardizing, for all that Cho-yeon arguably has the emotional fortitude of string cheese… they can’t do it. Well, Dang-gu can’t. Cho-yeon’s — undecided. She grabs her contract from the trash, before hastily roping Mu-deok into a quick trip to Jinyowon to smuggle out some of her belongings.
Wook and Won’s amateur sleuthing strikes gold. Ju-wol’s contact describes how, two decades ago, Shaman Choi was notorious for her hexes. Cornered by Cheonbugwan’s authorities, she threw herself into a fire before she could be arrested for sorcery. Shaman Choi had a brother rumored to have married into one of Daeho’s noble houses; the show isn’t shy about immediately cutting to Woo-tak.
He stands at Jinyowon, before the woman who claims to be his daughter. Ho-gyeong surges forward, amazed to find the scar on “Bu-yeon’s” forearm and the birthmark on her neck. One test remains: the vault.
Mu-deok and Cho-yeon, back from their nighttime jaunt, catch sight of So-yi, hand poised before the door. As the Jin family waits on tenterhooks and Mu-deok feels the prickle of a headache, the vines begin to recede.
Wook senses he’s being followed. Splitting off from Won, he corners his pursuer, sword aloft.
Even as she embraces So-yi, Ho-gyeong glances over to meet the eyes of Mu-deok — who looks back, perplexed. And across the city, Wook stares into the hooded face of his father.
As we gear up for a short break, it’s the perfect double-whammy cliffhanger. Family, and the way it relates to identity, lurks behind every corner of Alchemy of Souls, but now — much like a fake long-lost daughter returned — it’s almost out in the open.
I love what they’ve done with Jang Gang up till now: he’s been so very present in his absence, a conspicuous lack. For Do-joo, he’s a healed wound that I daresay still aches a little. For Jin, he’s the friend he failed: the would-be savior who I suspect is destined to disappoint. And for Wook — well, we’ve hardly begun to peel back the lid on that. He’s done so well up till now at carving a space for himself that has nothing to do with his father — but he still carries his sword. Wook is still, to some extent, defining himself against the man who abandoned him.
Mu-deok, like Wook, associates family with loss. It’s clear from last week’s memorial that she hasn’t been able to properly mourn her father, even if her feelings on revenge are unclear — and her feelings about her past, even murkier. I can’t stop thinking about that short scene where she holds Naksu’s sword, remembering how she used to be terrifying. Wondering if she could stand to be the same again. It seems to me as if she’s caught between missing who she was, and mourning the person she could have become. At the end of it, Mu-deok doesn’t know who she’s meant to be now. How will she deal with a grieving mother who both is and isn’t hers? With someone else’s loss? We’ll find out soon — two weeks can’t go by quickly enough!