The above picture is the cover for the novelization of the drama Empress Ki which was published by MBC as written by the screenwriting tandem behind the drama. The novel was released in two volumes and is currently only available in Korean. Unlike dramas adapted from existing novels, this was not a standalone novel written about the life of Empress Ki that was then selected to be adapted into a drama. It actually reads like a rough draft or template of what is happening onscreen in the drama so far up to episode 8. MBC released a synopsis of the novel that I translated prior to the airing, but readers who have read the actual novel have now posted spoilers online. I’ve translated it below and can safely say the drama is deviating from the novel in certain places (which are rather crucial) while keeping other elements the same. That’s why I say the novel feels like a rough draft whereas the acting shooting script is the final draft where the screenwriters have tweaked some elements, added more action that works better onscreen but may not in novel context, and changed events perhaps with a different outcome in mind. For starters, Seung Nyang meets Ta Hwan first in the novel, and her romance with Wang Yoo doesn’t start until they are headed to the Yuan dynasty and before that they have only a few scenes together. Seung Nyang also is not an orphan looking for her dad, in the novel she grew up with her dad though she is still dressed like a boy to avoid the fate of being sent as an offering woman to the Yuan dynasty. With that said, you can read the spoilers from the novel merely as a comparison point and I suggest not taking it as gospel as how the drama will develop. I think even the screenwriters want the freedom to change the story as they see fit. It can change many ways, even possibly changing the OTP to Seung Nyang and Ta Hwan. I honestly don’t know and that’s half the fun. I do think Seung Nyang and Wang Yoo’s relationship was fleshed out a lot more in the drama and I enjoy it more than how they fell for each other in the novel.
Spoiler summary from volume 1 the novel:
In the novel, Seung Nyang meets Ta Hwan first, before she meets Wang Yoo. In the novel, Wang Yoo is written as even more proud of being the future King of Goryeo, and when Ta Hwan says to make Goryeo officially part of the Yuan dynasty, Wang Yoo actually backhands him across the face and refuses to let Goryeo be thus insulted. In the novel, there is this line “Wang Yoo’s unsurpassed strength and aura even overwhelms the power wielded by the next Yuan Emperor, akin to the head of a serpent biting the tail of a dragon.” Ta Hwan is sent to exile on the island and Seung Nyang is sent to watch over him, this part is aligned with the drama. She also teaches Ta Hwan how to use weapons. The Yuan army comes to kill Ta Hwan and Seung Nyang helps him escape. One critical difference is that in the novel, Seung Nyang always lived with her father. She did dress as a boy not to be taken to the Yuan dynasty, but she was not an orphan but always had her dad. Which is why her dad’s death is even more devastating than in the drama. After Ta Hwan safely gets back, he does finger the Goryeo gang as the culprits like he does in the drama and Seung Nyang’s dad dies.
Wang Woo is stripped of being King and he gets his dad to come back to be King so the evil Wang Go is pissed to be thwarted and blames Seung Nyang so sends her to Yuan to become a eunuch thinking she’s a boy. Ta Hwan saves his own hide by calling Yeon Chul father-in-law so he gives daughter Tanasiri to him thinking he has a puppet Emperor to control. Before Ta Hwan goes back to the Yuan capital, he goes to see Seung Nyang but she chews him out for the death of her dad and being a betrayer, saying he is a selfish coward that does not deserve to rule a nation and have his people obey him. Ta Hwan is hurt he can’t do anything for Seung Nyang and promises that he won’t forget her and she needs to survive so they can meet again one day. Wang Yoo gets Seung Nyang and Park Bool Hwa out of prison so they don’t need to go to the Yuan dynasty. Seung Nyang returns to being a girl so she can escape detection, but Wang Go hates her and manages to capture her again. He sees that she is a woman and decides to send her to the Yuan as a female offering instead of a eunuch. Park Bool Hwa escapes but finds his wife has been captured to be sent to the Yuan. He follows to try and save her and is captured by Wang Go’s enemy. He pleads for his wife’s freedom and instead gets castrated on the spot. Ouch. His wife is freed but he’s on the brink of death. She goes to beg for medicine to save him, and traitor Yeom Byung Soo says he has medicine and will give it to her if she sleeps with him. She sleeps with him, gets the medicine and goes back to save her husband, and then hangs herself in shame.
When Wang Yoo is stripped of being King and he is part of the convoy being taken to the Yuan dynasty, that is when he and Seung Nyang start to get close. During the journey, under Yuan dictates the female offering women can be raped by the Yuan soldiers along the journey other than any woman earmarked for the Emperor. On this trip, Wang Go goes as well and decides that he will partake of the practice (in Medieval Western times it was called Droit du Signeur) and picks Seung Nyang. Wang Yoo hears and goes to demand Wang Go end this practice but Wang Go mocks him as being a toothless deposed King. As Wang Go tries to rape Seung Nyang, Wang Yoo storms into the tent with a sword pointed at his neck. Wang Go tries to call soldiers in but Wang Yoo loudly proclaims that he will return to Goryeo one day as the King so the soldiers hesitate. Wang Go says the Yuan will be incensed their practice has been interrupted, so Wang Yoo says that he will perform the deed. Wang Go has no legitimate excuse to object so he leaves. Wang Go leaves and Wang Yoo finally sees that Seung Nyang is all battered and bruised. He puts medicine on her and apologizes for what she has endured that he couldn’t prevent or stop. It’s Seung Nyang who asks Wang Yoo to take her virginity, because once she gets to the Yuan dynasty she’s going to be passed around. Wang Yoo tenderly looks at her and then embraces her only, holding her tight in his arms and comforting her. They do not sleep together. That night, Wang Yoo doesn’t sleep and holds Seung Nyang in his arms as she sleeps soundly for the first time since they left Goryeo. Seeing her as a woman and knowing she is enduring the suffering of his Goryeo people, Wang Yoo cries silent tears.
Ta Hwan returns to the Yuan capital and becomes Emperor Huizhong and takes as his Empress Tanasiri. Their relationship is terrible because she tries to gain his affection but he withholds it because she is the daughter of Yeon Chul. She’s spoiled and sees herself as the greatest beauty and power in the Yuan Palace so is even more upset her husband is cold to her. She becomes even more difficult and constantly picks fights with him and challenges him in court. As the Goryeo convoy gets closer to the Yuan capital, Wang Yoo gets even more anxious to find a way to let Seung Nyang escape. She comes to him one night and asks to drink with him. Turns out she just save Park Bool Hwa who tried to commit suicide and go with his dead wife. Wang Yoo promises to find a way to save him and Seung Nyang thanks him. They drink to the deep love between that married couple. But Wang Yoo keeps drinking as he laments how powerless he is to save his people and Seung Nyang tries to stop him from drinking himself into oblivion. She holds him tightly in her arms and it’s like they are the only two people in the universe. The light dims and their figures sink into the bed. Outside the tent, Bang Shin Woo sighs and laments the cruel fate that this Seung Nyang cannot remain by his liege’s side for much longer.
As the convoy is about to enter the capital, Wang Yoo caresses Seung Nyang’s hair and whispers a promise to her that on the day he returns to Goryeo, she will return with him. She smiles back and says she will hold him to the promise. Seung Nyang gives Wang Yoo a promise token of a hair stick left to her by her mother. She wants him to hold it until they return to Goryeo. In her heart, her love for Wang Yoo is the first and last love of her life. This hair stick represents that love, that she will believe in him and wait for him. Wang Yoo takes the hair stick and gently tucks it away, vowing to always keep Seung Nyang in his heart and bring her back to his side. Ta Hwan has been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the convoy because he knows Seung Nyang (still thinks she’s a man) is in that convoy. When Wang Yoo enters the court, Ta Hwan scans around looking for Seung Nyang. But he can’t find her because he’s searching amongst the men and not the offering women. The story continues with Seung Nyang becoming the servant girl to Consort Park and her hatred of Ta Hwan is so strong that she is willing to try and assassinate him even knowing she’ll be killed after, thereby not keeping her promise to Wang Yoo to stay alive. She misses her chance because of Consort Park’s accidental arrival, but then Seung Nyang falls ill and its Consort Park who brings a physician who discovers that Seung Nyang is pregnant! Someone that child due to circumstances and mistake becomes the Crown Prince of Yuan at some point. In the end, Seung Nyang loves only Wang Yoo but she spends her life married to Ta Hwa as his Empress. When he dies, he asks again if she ever loved him, even once, even for a moment. She smiles and says she was his woman but never tells him she loves him. He dies before her. What Wang Yoo has from Seung Nyang is her love, what Ta Hwan has from Seung Nyang is most of her time spent with him.