(Chapter Nine of the Reign on Me series.)
Chapter Nine: Creeping Darkness
"You're quiet this morning," Taeyeon said quietly as she walked down the hall on Sungmin's arm.
She was dressed once again in her royal blue jungchimak and white paji. Her hair was flowing free, but she planned to tie her hair later once she was training. She had opened her bedroom door to the knocking of the mage. She had taken one look at his withdrawn expression and remained silent as she left with him.
They began to descend the staircase, the Dark Mage waiting at the bottom. Finally, Sungmin spoke,
"I'll tell you later," he replied,
She glanced at him and nodded.
When they reached the Dark Mage, the older man's face held a schooled expression. It seemed, to Sungmin, that he was the only one affected by the previous evening's unexpected run-in. He resisted the urge to react, to turn and head back up the stairs. Indeed, he struggled to attack the other mage. He knew, however, that his quarrel was not with the Dark Mage; it was with the second prince.
"Since Sungmin is still working to ignite fire while his hands have water on them, I'll be working with the prin.... With Taeyeon mostly," Kangin informed, "However, because of the nature of your magic, Taeyeon, I want to train with you in isolation. That means, Sungmin, that you'll have to train on your own this morning."
"I'm not leaving Taeyeon alone," Sungmin replied almost immediately, taking a step towards the Dark Mage.
"The only way to help her control her magic is to allow it loose. I don't want to have to worry about someone else while training with her," Kangin explained, crossing his arms over his chest, the muscles in his arms evident beneath the black silk of his robes.
"I can protect myself from her magic!" Sungmin insisted, eyes narrowed angrily, disregarding the way Taeyeon clutched his arm in an attempt to restrain him,
"No, you cannot," Kangin said evenly, his silver eyes flashing a silent warning; "I wasn't exaggerating when I said her magic is strong. The magic I sense in her is at an amount and potency I have never encountered before aside from my own. Because her magic will be unleashed completely, I warrant I will need all my concentration in protecting herself and I."
"Min," Taeyeon spoke up then, her other hand coming up and clutching his arm so both of her hands gripped his arm, demanding his attention.
He turned to look at her, his steel-blue eyes staring at her intensely.
"Go practice alone," Taeyeon insisted, "If what Kangin says is true about my magic, then I don't want you there."
"Taeyeon..." He grounded out,
"I need to learn how to control my magic, Sungmin," Taeyeon stated, dropping her hands from his arm and stepping towards the Dark Mage, "This is just another way for me to grow and become a stronger person."
Sungmin’s eyes bored into her, reading the determination in her amber gaze. Eventually he sighed, “Fine. I’ll be on the back terrace once you’re done.”
She beamed at him before she turned and began following the Dark Mage away.
“Is Prince Kyuhyun training on his own as well today?” Taeyeon inquired as she recognized the direction as ending at the ballroom once again.
“No, he isn’t even awake yet,” Kangin replied.
Before Taeyeon could even contemplate how the mage knew such information, Kangin completely changed the topic, “I’ve decided to train you in the ballroom. It gives us quite a bit of room, especially if your magic is unrestrained. Also, I decided that it’s safer to unleash your magic in the ballroom rather than outdoors where there is grass and trees and woodland creatures who might not appreciate being burned today.”
Taeyeon laughed lightly, “I’m sure the woodland creatures appreciate your consideration.” Then, she added, “Although, I have a feeling the garden maze is the main reason we’re to be in the ballroom today.”
Kangin glanced at her from the corner of his eye before nodding, “Yes. Prince Siwon used quite a lot of magic, sacrificed quite a lot to erect those gardens after the war. It would be disrespectful to allow any harm to it.”
“It’s clear he used an amazing amount of magic to create the gardens, but his eyes are still so very dark,” Taeyeon commented, “Shouldn’t they be silver like yours?”
“He used a great amount of magic in a short amount of time. The changing of the irises is a process of time, of using magic constantly over and over, but at a level more than just watering plants,” Kangin explained, “Had he continued to use magic afterwards at a high enough level, his eyes would have changed. However, since after then all he does is watering plants, his eyes don’t change. The affect on his soul, however… that’s almost instantaneous considering all the magic he used. The Dark or Light can take over one’s self easily, it’s the physical part that takes time.”
“When did he decide to create the gardens? Immediately after the war ended?” Taeyeon inquired,
Kangin hesitated for a moment before answering, “Not immediately, but I believe it happened after he saw the damage to the back fields after fire got within the castle walls. The ground had been ravaged by the fire and not a single blade of grass was left after then, the ground blackened completely.”
Taeyeon absorbed the information as they continued on towards the ballroom. They reached the doors when she asked quietly, “It must have been a horrible reminder of the death of his mother.”
Kangin paused, his hands on the door handles. He glanced down at the princess, much shorter than himself; “He told you about that?”
Taeyeon nodded, “How Prince Kyuhyun had tried to save her first and then he came along. How they stopped the fire but couldn’t control the water magic.”
“The princes both hold some guilt from that night because they were unable to save their mother or the mage,” Kangin said as he pushed open the doors and allowed the princess to precede him into the ballroom.
“And you?” Taeyeon asked tentatively as they walked towards the centre of the ballroom,
“I was on my way to the castle. At first, I blamed the mages here for not safeguarding the castle, but I learned afterwards that they had all been killed the day before the fire,” Kangin explained, “I do not hold guilt simply because I no longer have that emotion. Had I the ability to feel emotions, I do not know if I would feel guilt. I could not predict what would occur while I was gone. Indeed, during the war, when I was away from the castle, I was under the impression that the other mages – those who were full mages – were more than adequate protect the castle.”
“Did they send you to the front lines of the war because you were younger and, thus, stronger than them?” Taeyeon inquired as the mage gestured for her to sit down.
“I wasn’t on the front lines,” Kangin replied as he sat before her, a foot separating their crossed legs, “The days prior to the fire, I was in your castle.”
Taeyeon’s eyes widened, “What!?”
“Shall we begin training?” Kangin prompted, effectively changing the subject,
Taeyeon sighed, knowing she wouldn’t get anything out of the mage should he choose to remain close-lipped about the subject. She nodded as she began pulling her hair back into a loose bun, securing it high on her head.
“You were taught how to safeguard yourself against being burned by your own fire magic,” Kangin said, “However, what they taught you is probably only the first level of protection. They probably believed that the only protection you would need would be against small bursts of fire when your emotions ran high. However, as I said before, to control your magic, we must unleash it completely and I don’t think you’ve ever had to protect yourself against such an intensity of magic.”
Taeyeon shook her head, “I haven’t and I don’t particularly wish to be burned again. That was… unpleasant, to say the least.”
“Indeed, and, if I’m to fulfill my promise to protect you, I need to ensure you don’t get hurt during training,” Kangin stated, “So, we’re going to first build your protection. I am going to completely unleash your magic so we don’t have to worry about getting you emotionally worked-up. You need to concentrate on protecting yourself and I’ll concentrate on controlling your magic.”
Taeyeon nodded, “Okay, I’m ready.”
Kangin held out his hand, “Give me your hands.”
Taeyeon held them out to him. He took her hands and supinated both of them so her palms faced upwards. With his forefinger, he drew invisible lines on her palms. Taeyeon assumed he was drawing runes since every so often, a symbol would glow with black light on her palm before disappearing and he would continue to trace more lines.
“Begin protecting now,” Kangin stated as he switched to her other hand and drew more invisible runes.
Taeyeon closed her eyes, completely relaxed her body and concentrated on the protection technique that had become second nature to her. She concentrated on supporting the protection, on making it stronger by sheer will. She felt the mage’s finger fall away from her palms and a heat grow on both hands. She furrowed her brow as she kept her eyes closed, a sign of concentration. The heat disappeared but she didn’t allow her concentration to falter.
Kangin sat before her, his silver eyes watching her as his hands moved in the air, drawing out patterns and runes to control her magic as the runes he had drawn on her palms completely unleashed them. He was startled by the true magnitude and potency of her magic; it was at least four times stronger than he previously predicted.
He had been there when she had to leave the dining room because her magic was getting the best of her. Before her magic was cooled down from the rain that day, he had sensed the level it was reaching. He pushed her magic to that level now, controlling it so it wouldn’t push too high and incinerate the princess.
He was walking on shaky ground, he knew. He wanted to teach the princess control so she didn’t have to fear living her life. However, he also knew that the worries of the first prince were not unfounded. He knew the risk to her soul and he would rather die than taint even the smallest fraction of her pure soul. He needed to teach her the way of the mage. He needed to teach her a fact that all mages first learn but not all practice.
“Keep concentrating as I talk,” Kangin said quietly so as not to startle her. When he was sure she was doing as he told, he continued, his voice low; “There is a way to protect your soul during magic use. Don’t react!” He said suddenly, sensing her concentration falter slightly, “Don’t react, don’t talk. Just concentrate on what you’re doing and listen to what I’m saying.”
Taeyeon ground her teeth together so hard that her jaw began to hurt. She had so much to say, so many questions to ask, but she knew how important it was she continued concentrating. She had almost lost her concentration. She had felt heat suddenly wrap around her hands before he had yelled at her, snapping her focus back in place. She calmed again and the mage spoke.
“In order to protect your soul, you need an anchor,” Kangin explained, “You need something that will keep your soul free from the pulls and binds of magic. You need something that is important to you – so important, that it will effectively safeguard your soul from being tainted by magic.”
Taeyeon, sure that she could protect herself while talking, hesitantly asked, “An object or a person?”
Kangin, startled to find she was able to keep her focus while speaking, answered while slowly lowering his control on her magic just enough to push her to the next level; “It can be either. All that matters is that it holds a great enough significance.”
Taeyeon felt intense heat wrap around her hands again. Her face scrunched further in concentration, her teeth clenched tightly as she pushed her protection further, forced back the heat and the magic assailing her hands. She wasn’t sure how much time passed by but, eventually, she slowly relaxed herself again, the heat not returning.
She turned her mind, then, to what could be her anchor. What could be so important to her that it would protect her soul from magic? She could feel the weight of her ring on its chain, the smooth metal settled between her breasts. It signified a legacy passed down by her parents. It signified not just her kingdom, but her family as well. Would her brother be enough? Could Eeteuk be her anchor?
She thought about what she was doing now, about training. She thought about Sungmin, then. He was her only friend, a great friend. He was her confidante, the one she told everything. He had made her laugh for the first time after the war ended. He had listened to her problems and protected her from suitors. Would her friend be enough? Could Sungmin be her anchor?
Finally, her mind came to where she was, whose home she was in. She thought about Siwon. She had known him barely a week. Already, he understood her mind better than anyone else. He was constantly testing, enticing and teaching both her mind and her heart. He was willing to risk all to protect her, willing to let her into his mind, his deepest thoughts. Would the prince be enough? Could Siwon be her anchor?
Kangin was startled by the sudden rush of magic. It burst forward, pushing at his control, cracking it. Slowly, he released his control, creating a spell that placed a guard around them. He created an invisible dome around them, the diameter was two metres. It encased the flames that suddenly surrounded them both. Intense, wild flames filled the dome to the point where Kangin could no longer see the princess despite the small distance between them. He concentrated on keeping air in his lungs and, when he went to do the same for the princess, he sensed her even breathing, completely unaffected.
Her magic had been able to break free of his control. It was at its fullest potency and she was perfectly fine, not even a hair singed by the flames. Indeed, it took all of his own concentration to protect himself and keep up the barriers that would protect the ballroom. He reached out through the flames, trying to find her hands. Once he found one, he quickly began to trace runes that would end his previous spell that had unleashed her magic. In under a minute, the fire had extinguished completely and Kangin had let down the barrier. Still, Taeyeon sat there, totally unruffled.
“I think that’s enough for now, don’t you think?” Kangin asked quietly.
Slowly, Taeyeon opened her eyes to find the mage watching he peculiarly, “We’re done already?”
“Already?” Kangin blinked, “We’ve been training for almost three hours. Lunch is in a half hour.” Kangin stood and pulled Taeyeon to her feet,
“It… It felt like half an hour at the most,” Taeyeon stated, surprised at the revelation, “What will we work on next time then? Completely consuming me in flames?”
Kangin blinked again, “What are you talking about?”
“Are we going to expand the fire beyond my hands?” Taeyeon asked, “I knew my protection needed to be stronger because I’d feel the heat creeping on my hands.”
“Princess, from the moment I released your magic, up until just now when I bound it again, you were engulfed in fire – from head to toe,” Kangin answered, “You only ever felt the heat on your hands?”
Kangin considered her a moment before heading towards the ballroom doors, “Next time, we’ll work on you controlling your magic.”
“Already? But don’t I have to protect myself first? Against all my magic?” Taeyeon piped,
“You have already. For a good half hour your magic was completely unleashed and you were perfectly fine,” Kangin explained. When she remained silent, he added, “I am also surprised at how fast you were able to learn how to protect yourself.” He glanced at her, “How are you – Taeyeon!”
Kangin caught Taeyeon just as she crumbled towards the floor. He lifted her in his arms and stared down at her, “Are you okay?” He asked,
“Just… don’t move for a bit,” Taeyeon murmured as she brought up a hand to her face and pressed the heel of her palm against her closed eyes. After almost five minutes, she said, “Okay, you can move.”
“I’ll bring you to your room,” Kangin said, “Using your magic at its highest level has exhausted you.”
“No, no, just take me to the study,” Taeyeon commanded, “I can rest in there for a bit before lunch. There’s a settee in there which I can sit on by a window. The sun will strengthen me in no time.”
Kangin hesitated, but did as she bade. He headed over to the study, the princess in his arms and knocked on the door. He heard a call for entry and he entered the study. Giving a slight bow of his head towards the prince sitting at his desk, Kangin strode over to where a settee still sat by a window. Gently, he placed the princess in it, her back against a high armrest and her legs stretched out before her, along the length of the settee.
“You sure you’ll be okay?” Kangin asked as he squatted beside her,
Taeyeon, her head against the armrest, opened her eyes and smiled at him, “Yes. I’m just a little tired.”
Kangin nodded as he slowly rose to his full height, “Tomorrow morning, then?”
She nodded, “Yes, and thank you for doing this… Kangin.”
He gazed at her for what seemed like a full minute before he bowed formally towards her and walked away.
Siwon, who had stood from his desk after Kangin had brought Taeyeon to the settee, now walked over to Kangin, intercepting his path to the door.
“She’s fine, just needs rest,” Kangin said before the prince could say anything,
"Her magic?" Siwon inquired,
"Astounding in its capacity... beautifully dangerous in its power," Kangin answered quietly, glancing over his shoulder at the settee doused in sunlight. "Had she become a mage instead of having been born a princess... well, I should be grateful that we are not in a war and that I don't have to fight against her."
Siwon's thick brows rose in surprise, "That strong?"
"It is amazing how fast she has learned this morning," Kangin murmured, more to himself than to the prince, "Her quick mind and natural skill... I've seen it once before."
Siwon watched as Kangin's face remained emotionless while his silver eyes flashed with what the prince could only describe as trace emotion. He cleared his throat to draw the mage out of his apparent reverie; "And her soul?"
"Still intact, I assure you," Kangin gave a slight bow to the prince, "If you have consorts visiting today, I suggest you insist the princess have lunch in her room. She may be too weak for cutting repartee."
Siwon headed over to the settee as Kangin strode out the door.
"Shall I leave the room so you may rest in privacy?" Siwon asked as he stood behind the settee, a hand on the edge of the back,
Taeyeon opened her eyes and smiled up at the prince, "Whyever would I come to the study for privacy? Pull up a chair so you're not towering over me with that serious and intimidating way you have about you."
Taeyeon closed her eyes as she heard the prince walk away. She heard his steps returning and the soft thud as he placed some piece of furniture near the settee. When she opened her eyes, he had placed a cushioned armchair in front of her, near the middle of the settee and turned towards her.
"Ah, much better," she laughed lightly, almost sleepily,
He took her left hand that was fortunately the one on the outside. With his other hand, he took out a small bottle of liquid and poured a few drops on her hand. Replacing the bottle in his pocket, he began to massage her hand slowly as he had done the night before.
"This lavender will make me fall asleep," Taeyeon said as she tilted her head back again and closed her eyes.
"I'll have a different oil made up then," Siwon offered, his fingers firm but soothing; "How was your training?"
"Like a piece of freedom," Taeyeon murmured, the hint of a smile on her lips, "It was hard work, difficult at times, but exhilarating, freeing..."
"It sounds like after I finished the gardens," Siwon confessed, his dark eyes glued to the princess' serene expression; "It is a gratifying feeling, isn't it?"
"Yes," Taeyeon gripped his hand and she used his strength to sit up. The movement brought their torsos’ closer, their faces a foot apart; "But you do not think the trade is equal, do you?"
"My trade, I believe, to have been fair. But for you, never," Siwon answered, "To think, to know that even the smallest piece of you was at risk... I cannot... I cannot even begin to explain how much it worries me... pains me..."
With his free hand, he raised it and cupped the side of her face as she often did to him. He rubbed the apple of her cheek with his thumb, his strokes soft.
"My soul is not at risk," Taeyeon insisted quietly. She turned her head and pressed a kiss to his palm before turning back to look at him, his dark eyes filled with quiet intensity that made her heart flutter; "So long as I have you in my life."
"And what happens when I am no longer there?" Siwon asked, his face slowly, slowly leaning in,
"Then I will not need my soul," Taeyeon whispered when the prince's lips were a breath away from her own, "Siwon..."
Siwon tilted his head and kissed her forehead. His hand dropped away from her face as he stood up, pulling her to her feet, "I will escort you back to your room so you may rest."
"Nonsense," Taeyeon said as she slipped her hand from his and headed to the door, "It's time for lunch."
"There are consorts coming today," Siwon said as he hurried after her; not a difficult task as his strides were longer than hers,
Taeyeon looked up at the prince and grinned, "Even better."
“You’re not going to change or anything?” Siwon inquired as he escorted the princess towards the dining room for lunch.
“I think if I have to face those consorts of yours, it’s best I do so in my mage robes,” She replied,
“They’re not my consorts,” Siwon drawled as they neared the doors, “But what about your eyes?”
“Even better. They’ll think I’ll attack them at any moment,” She laughed melodically,
“Whatever did they do to get on your bad side?” The prince wondered even as amusement seemed to light his dark eyes,
Taeyeon shot him a look, “Do you not remember anything they said to me during the first time I met some of them? I paid them no heed, but they were very rude.”
“I know they said rude things, but they were forgettable to me,” Siwon replied, “I was too busy looking at you.”
Taeyeon blinked and then laughed as her cheeks pinked, “Now you’re just trying to get me in a good mood so I don’t roast any of the consorts.”
“Would you? Please?”
Taeyeon yelped as she jumped against Siwon, startled at the sudden voice in her ear. She turned narrowed eyes at the second prince who had crept up to her shoulder without her realizing it.
“I’d rather roast you at the moment,” Taeyeon hissed, her heart calming down after being surprised,
Kyuhyun chuckled, “I’m hurt you’d even think such a thing.” Taeyeon scowled at him as she continued to the dining room doors, “Where is your fiancé? I can only assume you two dueled and you won since you are here and he is not.”
Taeyeon paused for a split second at within the doors, “He’s right here.”
Sungmin already at the dining table, holding a conversation with four beautifully dressed consorts. Sitting in his usual seat, one consort sat to his left, two across from him. The fourth consort sat on his right where Taeyeon had once sat between him and the first prince. He paused in whatever he was saying when he saw them enter, standing up immediately. The consorts gracefully rose to their full heights as well.
Taeyeon’s amber eyes quickly swept over the consorts, taking in every aspect of their clothing. They were all at the height of fashion and clearly dressed to impress. All the consorts were different from those who had dined there before except for the consort who sat on Sungmin’s right. She was the same woman whom Siwon had singularly invited to lunch just two days ago.
Siwon led Taeyeon around his own seat and stopped beside the consort who sat in the seat adjacent to his left.
“It seems a footman was negligent in informing you that this seat is reserved,” Siwon said in a flat, almost careless tone as if he didn’t have the time of day to be wasting it saying that single sentence.
The consort’s eyes widened, “But… Your Highness… Two days ago…” She stammered,
“Are you arguing with me?” Siwon questioned, raising a single, thick brow at her; every tall inch of him cloaked with hauteur.
“Of course, not, Your Highness!” She bowed her head as she slipped from between the chair and the table.
As the consort shifted down the table to the other side of another consort who sat at Sungmin’s left, Kyuhyun smiled at the other ladies, welcoming them to the castle. He tried to catch the lesser mage’s eye, but Sungmin avoided him effectively, his smiles and words for the consorts. He stared hard at the mage as they all sat down to their seats. He gripped his knife tightly when he saw the mage turn to the princess and lean in close to whisper to her.
Once they were all seated, Sungmin turned towards Taeyeon and leaned closer to her so he could whisper, “Are you alright? You didn’t come to the terrace,”
Taeyeon turned her head slightly towards his so she could get some eye contact with the mage, “I know, I was really tired afterwards, so I was resting in the study.”
Sungmin raised a brow, threw a glance towards the prince before looking back at the princess, “I should have known.”
Taeyeon could feel her cheeks heat as she heard the clink of china while servants brought out plates of food for them, “I’m sorry, but I really did want to sleep in one of the study’s chairs.”
“Hmm… I suppose I can forgive you,” Sungmin murmured as he began straightening in his seat.
Before he could turn his attention away, Taeyeon placed a hand on his arm, drawing his eyes back to her, “We’ll talk after lunch, okay? I need to know you’re okay.”
Sungmin’s expression shuttered and Taeyeon knew immediately when the shift happened. His steel-blue eyes seemed cold then; “I am hale and whole.”
Taeyeon’s brow furrowed with concern, “You know what I mean, Min.”
Sungmin moved his arm so he could take her hand in his. He raised her hand to his lips, brushing a kiss to her knuckles, “After lunch, then.”
Satisfied with the agreement, Taeyeon turned her attention towards Siwon’s only to find his dark eyes reflecting thunderclouds. She blinked, at first confused as to why his demeanour had suddenly changed. She realized, then, what the byplay between her and Sungmin must have looked like to the others. Her heart felt heavy as she considered what Siwon must be thinking after how she was with him in the library and, now, how she appeared to be with Sungmin. She repressed a sigh as she silently began to eat.
Sungmin’s eyes briefly swept over Kyuhyun as he resumed talking to the consorts, even drawing in the fourth, dejected one who had had to change seats. He knew there were other ways to speak privately with Taeyeon. He knew that if he had talked casually to her amidst the conversations around the table, none would pay attention to what they said. However, he wanted their attention. He wanted them to watch and ponder, wanted them to guess at what they whispered to one another. It was a bonus that Taeyeon had blushed. He had had an ulterior motive when he kissed her hand.
All for the second prince who had been trying so hard to catch his attention since entering the dining room.
Kyuhyun couldn’t help but glare. He didn’t even pay any heed for the consort closest to him. He just sat there and glared. He was distantly aware of himself eating even though he tasted nothing. Sungmin was ignoring him. Something had happened to turn the mage sour against him. He glanced ever so briefly at the princess. At some point after the mage had stopped talking to her, she had seemed to withdraw into herself, unconscious about the conversations about the table. He couldn’t put any blame at her feet, she and Sungmin were only friends. Kyuhyun knew the little display that had just occurred had been for his benefit. Gripping the glass he had absent-mindedly picked up, he stopped himself from breaking it, his grip tightening with frustration. What the hell had happened since the last time he saw the mage yesterday morning?
Siwon found he had no appetite after he watched the mage and princess whispering to one another. He didn’t even going through the motions of the meal. He simply sat back in his chair, holding the wine balloon in a hand and gently, gently, swirling the liquid within. As conversations began between the consorts at the beginning of the meal, his attention had been solely and completely on the mage and princess. He had stiffened when the mage glanced at him during their conversation, had felt his eyes narrow when he saw pink kiss the princess’ cheeks. He nearly crushed his glass in his hand when he watched the mage kiss her hand.
She had said she didn’t love the mage. Rather, she had confessed to love him and, yet, Siwon couldn’t help but feel that she was still hiding something from him. He had known almost from the second day that he was falling in love with her and, as each day passed, regardless if they quarreled or not, he continued to fall further and further in love with the princess.
When she had confessed to him in the garden, he had very nearly reciprocated the words and was just barely able to stop himself. He knew the moment he said the words, he would be irrevocably, completely left open and raw for her to do whatever with. He knew the moment he said the words, she would be able to reign over him heart and soul; not that she did not already unconsciously do so.
He couldn’t tell her, however. Not yet, at least. Not until he knew what she was hiding from him. As he sat in his seat, an observer to the meal, he stared at the princess from beneath half-lidded eyes. She kept her gaze averted, presumably consumed with her meal, but he knew better. She had looked at him and her eyes had widened with confusion and perhaps even a little hurt. He had watched as her beautiful, honeyed eyes lit then with realization, as if she read his conflicting, raging thoughts. She hadn’t looked up from her plate since.
When she averted her eyes, he had felt a tugging at both his conscience and his heart. He had ignored the feeling before it continued and he found he couldn’t ignore it any longer. Beneath the table, he inched his left foot towards the princess until he felt something small and solid bump against his shoe. He gently nudged what he hoped was her foot. When she stopped eating and looked hesitantly at him, he glanced to his side. She blinked again, confusedly she glanced to where his eyes had darted to and saw his fingers peeking out from the corner of the table linen. She looked up at him in silent askance but he merely stared back at her, his dark gaze unreadable.
Subtly, she dropped her right hand to her lap and then carefully, slowly, reached towards his hand as she turned her head away so as not to draw attention. She felt his fingers close firmly, warmly about hers as their hands met beneath the table, hidden behind the pristine linens. She shifted ever so subtly closer to him when she realized he would not let go of her hand. In compliance, Siwon shifted further to the edge of his seat to accommodate her shorter arm, disguising his movement as an intention to eat.
Taeyeon felt warmed by his gesture. She knew he was trying to comfort her, reassure her. She felt a pang in her heart, reminding herself once again that she didn’t deserve the prince’s attention, let alone his affection. As if reading her thoughts, he squeezed her hand comfortingly and she found it instinctive to throw him a small, tentative smile.
The meal carried on with the consorts chirping like birds (most of them, anyway) and Sungmin using the skills he learned during the years he spent as the princess' escort. When the meal was done, the princes stood to signal they were allowed to leave. Taeyeon, out of habit, had almost sat up before Sungmin placed a restricting hand on her arm. She threw him a thankful look as they stood up afterwards. They brought up the rear as the consorts crowded around the princes.
Once out of the dining room, Kyuhyun left without even a considerate word for the consorts. He merely went up the main stairs two at a time. Siwon excused himself for a moment from the consorts as he approached the affianced couple just as they turned to walk away from the group.
"Taeyeon," Siwon called out softly,
Taeyeon glanced meaningfully at Sungmin as she stepped away from him and walked over to Siwon, "Yes?"
"I wanted you to know that I don't want to spend all this time with them," Siwon said as his hands clenched at his sides, barely resisting the urge to grab her hand or pull her in his arms.
Taeyeon tilted her head ever so slightly as she offered him a smile, "I know but thank you for telling me."
"After they leave will you come to my study?" Siwon asked, his voice a drawl as always, but his eyes stared with intensity,
"I... I promised Sungmin I'd spend time with him," Taeyeon replied tentatively and added rapidly, "To talk... He's my best friend, Siwon, and we talk about everything."
Siwon raised a thick brow, "Everything?"
"Almost," she muttered as her cheeks pinked, "If I can't meet you, I can come read in the study after dinner?"
Siwon nodded, "Until then, Princess," he whispered as he returned to the consorts, leading them out the back and to the terrace.
Taeyeon watched them a moment before turning back to Sungmin who watched with a bemused, knowing grin. She shot him a warning look before putting her hand on his arm and following him to one of the castle's parlours.
"Okay, tell all," Taeyeon said as he closed the door behind them.
"The prince and I are done," Sungmin stated simply as he walked over to a large bay window and sat on the seat, his back against the side.
Taeyeon sat with her back against the other side, her legs stretched out alongside Sungmin's as she turned her gaze to the view outside of the window. The parlor was at the side and gave a view to the side fields. In the distance and at a particular angle, Taeyeon could spot the side of the maze. She had thought Sungmin would continue. When he didn't, she looked back at him,
"Oh, you weren't just being melodramatic?" She teased lightly,
He scowled at her as he adjusted their legs so his were on the outside edge of the seat, so as to ensure she wouldn't accidentally slip off; "It's not like we were ever something to begin with. What can be done when it hasn't been started?"
"You're beating around the bush, Sungmin," she said seriously, "What happened? I've never seen you so talkative in a social setting - especially not without my prompting. Really, if you wanted to make him jealous, you could've been more subtle."
Sungmin sighed as he tilted his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, arms folded about his torso, "I honestly thought he and I were progressing towards... well... you know, the natural progression."
"Then?" She prompted,
"After I left your room last night, I didn't go back to my own... at least, not right away," Sungmin admitted,
Taeyeon's eyes widened even though his eyes were closed, "But... you're not even married," she muttered.
She knew people were together prior to being married, but she was always taught to wait until she was married, that it would be that more special, that more important - the ultimate symbol of commitment and love. Waiting had never been a problem for her until she met the prince. When he kissed her - truly and deeply, so - she had wanted him to keep going, his kisses like a promise, a temptation of more, of... something. Every time they were together, she wanted to know what that something was and with Siwon, specifically.
She swallowed hard as she felt a lump forming in her throat and her eyes stung with threatening tears. Unfortunately, she wasn't married to Siwon and, she had a sickening, lowering feeling that she never would be. She breathed slowly, steadily to calm her pained heart - this talk was for Sungmin's sake, not her own.
"You're right," Sungmin conceded, "However, you forget that it would not be wholly acceptable if I and he married. For all the magic in the world, society is quick to judge and exclude. You know my attraction to the prince is seen as unnatural to most others."
"But if you love each other," Taeyeon argued,
Sungmin chuckled softly, "Oh, Taeyeon... the world isn't as accepting as you are. Besides, I'm not even close to loving the prince and, I suspect, even if I was, he sure isn't even close to loving me."
"What happened?" She prompted softly, "You never said. All you did say was that you were done with him."
"I was about to say," Sungmin replied; "Anyway, after I left your room, I decided to go see the prince. You had decided to take chances, to try and, establish well... something with Prince Siwon. I realized that for everything I was preaching to you, I was far from following my own advice. So, I went to his room."
He opened his eyes then, but only to turn his head towards the windows beside them, his gaze unfocused on the beautiful flowers and trees that grew on that side of the castle; "When I got there... he had been with someone else already... He... He's been playing me for a fool, Taeyeon. He's been playing with me while he's been also playing with someone else." He laughed bitterly; "For all I know, he could have been with that other person this entire time and I... I was just something new to pass the time with."
"You saw them together?" Taeyeon asked,
"Well, then -"
"He was coming out of the prince's room," Sungmin interjected, swinging his gaze to hers, "Out of... Kyuhyun's room."
"It could be something else," Taeyeon offered,
"Do you not recall how late I left your room last night? What else could it be?" Sungmin questioned,
Taeyeon sighed, "I don't know... I... I don't know a lot about that stuff."
"And he said that the prince was sleeping when he left the room... I just... I can't think of any reason he would be with the prince at such a late hour," Sungmin shook his head, "What am I supposed to think? That he tucks the prince in every night? Reads him a bedtime story?" He sighed heavily, "There's no other explanation."
"What do we get ourselves into, Min?" Taeyeon sighed as she bent over, grabbed his hand and tugged him closer.
Sungmin moved closer to her so his back was against the window, shifting her legs so they draped over his lap. He held her hand loosely in his and he raised it to his face again, but this time, he sniffed, "I thought I smelled something earlier. What's this scent? I don't know flower names."
"Lavender," she replied, "Siwon had it made for my hand for when he - I... for when I massage my hand."
He brushed a kiss to her injured hand before holding it limply atop their thighs. He looked at her ruefully, "I don't suppose our agreement to marry when we return to our kingdom is still in play?"
"Of course it is," Taeyeon stated almost immediately,
Sungmin stared at her, "Taeyeon..."
"Well, what do you expect me to say?" Taeyeon replied, "Regardless of what's developed between the prince and I... He's a prince of the Dark Kingdom and I am a princess of the Light Kingdom. If the people of either kingdom found out there'd be rioting and chaos. There's just too much distrust amongst the people." She tilted her head to gaze beside Sungmin at the window; "Besides, just because I've opened myself to love... indeed, allowed myself to love... it doesn't mean the same could be said for the prince. Just because he cares for me, it doesn't mean he would marry me."
She turned sad, misty eyes towards the mage and gave him a small smile, "So, I suppose it means you're stuck with me, Sungmin. You shouldn't have reminded me about our agreement to marry."
"You know full well why we can't really get married," Sungmin said quietly as he let go of her hand to reach over and brush away her tears. After, he just cupped the side of her face, his thumb stroking her cheek as a sign of affection and comfort; "Regardless of how much we love each other, it just... not in the way people should love each other when they marry. At some point, we could end up hating each other."
"You don't know that," Taeyeon insisted quietly, "Political marriages last forever all the time... at least we'd have our friendship."
"You keep saying that and yet, you sound sadder each time," Sungmin said as he brushed a stray tear away; "It's because you know more now... you know what you could have. The thought of settling for less is... well, marrying your best friend just isn't enough anymore."
"I'm sorry for being like this, Sungmin, really," She said, "When did life get so..." She sighed, "Just so... everything?"
Sungmin gazed into her eyes as he brushed another stray tear away. His hand slipped from the side of her face to the back of her neck, exposed as her hair was still tied in a loose bun. Slowly, he pulled her closer as he leaned into her. Their lips met in another close-mouthed kiss. Her lips were soft and warm, temptingly against his, her clean smell and the lavender from her hand wafting about them in an intoxicating mix. However, her lips weren’t tempting to him and her scent wasn’t intoxicating to him. He drew back enough so he could stare directly, clearly into her eyes.
“It’s a shame that there’s nothing there,” Sungmin mused as he dropped his hand from her neck and he settled back against the window pane.
Taeyeon leaned back against the side of the window seat and just watched him. He was a handsome man. He was loyal and reliable. He was strong both physically and mentally and she often found comfort in his strength when she had so little. He was everything she could ever want in a suitor, in a partner, in a husband… But he was right, there was nothing between them that sparked attraction or desire.
She quirked him a smile, “We kiss a lot considering we’re just friends.”
“A lot? We’ve kissed twice and both very short and very chaste,” Sungmin replied, “Considering you were talking about dueling Kyuhyun, I’m assuming you’ve done more with Prince Siwon.”
She shook her head even as her cheeks blossomed with pink, “No, just kisses.”
“I have to admit, for my sanity, I’m glad that’s all,” Sungmin smiled.
They sat in a comfortable silence for a few minutes before Sungmin broke it.
“How was training?” He inquired,
“Interesting,” Taeyeon said after a moment of thinking, “I concentrated so hard I thought my head would explode,” she laughed lightly before her expression sobered, “It was strange, but… different. Kangin released my magic slowly and I adjusted to the levels, protecting myself from getting burned. Kangin said I had been completely consumed in flames but I only ever felt heat on my hands. Then he said I protected myself against all my magic for about half an hour. He says we can start working on my control.”
Sungmin’s eyes widened, “Already? But you were only training for a few hours!”
Taeyeon blinked, “That’s… fast?”
Sungmin barked a laugh, “Minx, it takes days, sometimes weeks for mages to learn to fully protect themselves against the backlash of their own magic.”
“Really? How long did it take you?” She questioned,
Sungmin stared, “I think for my ego’s sake I shouldn’t tell you.”
“I didn’t… Kangin said he was surprised how fast I learned, but I thought he meant considering I wasn’t a mage,” Taeyeon muttered,
“No, no… you learned in a short amount of time – almost ridiculously so,” Sungmin confirmed. Then he grinned, “I’m proud of you, Minx.”
She blinked, her expression turning from the shock of realizing she learned so fast to a warm, bright smile, “Thank you, Min.”
They fell into another comfortable silence, Taeyeon absent-mindedly massaging her left hand. Sungmin had brought back to her the memory of her training. It had seemed to have gone by in less than an hour but, indeed, three had passed instead. She had believed only to have been protecting her hands when, in truth, she was completely consumed by fire. She had thought she was learning slowly, but apparently she was learning faster than normal, and against her magic at its highest potency.
It was an overwhelming thought and she couldn’t help but wonder what Eeteuk would think if he knew. Slowly, her left hand rose and took the necklace and ring from within her robes, her stiff fingers running over the smooth metal of the ring, tracing the engraving of the family seal. His remarks about magic and the soul echoed in her mind and, suddenly, she stiffened completely. She had learned otherwise this morning, hadn’t she? Kangin had told her the key to protecting her soul.
“Sungmin, is it true there’s a way to protect your soul while you use magic?” Taeyeon asked tentatively,
The way Sungmin’s body seemed to lock was answer enough. However, she waited, wanting and needing him to say it himself; to confirm it.
He stared back at her steadily, “Yes.”
“Then, why don’t all the mages use it? Why doesn’t Kangin? Why don’t you?” Taeyeon questioned, remembering all the times Sungmin said his future was destined for loneliness. She didn’t want to lose her best friend in any way.
“The first thing mages learn, as you did this morning I’m guessing, is that we need an anchor for our souls – something so important that it can fight against the negative effects of magic,” Sungmin explained, “However, in the past, it hasn’t worked for mages. Eventually, they all succumb to the magic and either become manic or suicidal… It’s the first thing we all learn, but it’s become more of habit than lesson.”
“Is that why you don’t use it?” Taeyeon asked tentatively,
Sungmin blinked, “Who says I don’t?”
“What is your anchor?” Taeyeon inquired,
Sungmin smiled, “You.”
It was the princess’ turn to blink, “What do you mean? I’m your anchor?”
“Taeyeon, we’ve known each other for seven years, ever since I came to the castle to be a mage during the first year following the end of the war,” Sungmin reminded, “In the beginning, I had sought out one of the only mages left in our kingdom and all he said was find an anchor. He died a month later, leaving behind notes on training which he specifically left to me.
“You were my only friend and… and you befriended me with no questions asked, just simply… accepted me,” Sungmin continued, “Indeed, you were the only thing in my life that seemed like an anchor. We grew closer and, unconsciously, you remained my anchor.”
“I… I had no idea,” Taeyeon said, her hand moving from her ring to grab hold of his hand,
He smiled softly at his dear friend, “You never questioned why my eyes have only begun to silver this past year? Or why I am not as somber and stoic as the old mages used to be, indeed, even how Kangin is?” He squeezed her hand as he realized, “Of course, not… I’m all you’ve known as a mage.”
“So, it does work then?” Taeyeon stated,
“Yes… but it’s only been seven years,” Sungmin said, then quickly added, “Not that you’ll stop being important to me, I just mean… it’s not proven how long an anchor will prove effective.” He held her hand firmly, “But, yes, Taeyeon, you are the anchor for my soul.”
Taeyeon squeezed his hand back as tightly as she could with her left hand, “You were mine this morning, too.”
Sungmin’s eyes widened, “I was?”
She smiled back at him, “Of course. You’re the only one who’s ever supported my magic. You’re the only one who’s ever unconditionally supported me in everything I’ve ever done or wanted to do. I love Eeteuk and I appreciate everything he’s ever done for me, but in regards to magic… I felt you’d prove to be a better anchor than him.”
Sungmin brought Taeyeon’s injured hand to his lips, pressing a kiss against her stiff joints, “You honour me, Princess.”
During dinner, Taeyeon was surprised to find that Siwon had not joined them. The consorts had left earlier that afternoon, so all that were dining only included the princess, the second prince and the lesser mage. Taeyeon took it upon herself to be the hostess she was raised to be. She engaged Kyuhyun in conversation as Sungmin remained a silent presence beside her. Kyuhyun spoke with her with a little less flair and exuberance that he usually expressed, but she was sure the smile on his lips were genuine at times.
After dinner, Taeyeon told Sungmin her desire to read in the study instead of going to her room immediately. He glanced at her too knowingly and left, heading up the main stairs. She hoped that he and Kyuhyun could get past this some how. With a sigh, she headed towards the study.
She knocked at the door before opening it and entered, “Siwon?”
The prince stood by the glass doors in the study which led to the terrace. His hands were clasped behind him and he was far enough from the fireplace to be wrapped in shadows, the lights turned off in the study. He stood imposingly by the doors, his back to her.
“Get out,” he said simply, his tone even,
Taeyeon froze in her movements, turning away from the door she had just closed firmly behind her, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I said: get out,” he repeated, his voice elevating slightly in volume,
“But, I thought… we agreed to meet here after dinner,” Taeyeon stammered, confused,
“That was before I saw you and that mage all cozy together and kissing,” Siwon replied, his voice hardening with a bitter edge,
“Siwon,” Taeyeon took a few steps closer to the prince,
“You say you don’t love him and, yet, you kiss him. You say you love me and, yet, you’re with him so intimately,” Siwon stated,
“Siwon, it was just one kiss,” Taeyeon insisted, his tone snapping at her as she grew panicked, wanting to explain everything to the man, “We were just talking about –”
“It wasn’t just one kiss!” Siwon exclaimed, whirling around to face her then, “I saw you two in the garden a few days ago! You kissed then, too!”
“Two kisses, Siwon! It’s just two kisses!” Taeyeon defended,
“You can’t say it was just anything! You were on his lap then and then today, you were practically draped all over him!” Siwon accused,
Taeyeon’s eyes narrowed. She knew he had some right to be angry, but she had done nothing wrong and if he wasn’t so quick to jump to conclusions, she could explain it all. “He was comforting me in the garden after you said all those things about me!” She defended,
“And today? What was he comforting you about then?” He demanded,
“I was not draped all over him today –”
“And that kiss! How can you explain that, hmm? How can you go from kissing me and telling me you love me and then go to that mage and kiss him, too!?” Siwon demanded, closing the distance between them, staring down at her angrily,
“You have no claim to me!” Taeyeon argued, “Regardless of what has passed between us, you have no right to demand or expect anything of me! There is no commitment between us – there’s not even a relationship!”
“You said you love me!” Siwon growled as he took a step closer, his hand reaching out and curling firmly about the base of her skull, holding her imprisoned,
“Indeed,” she replied, her voice soft, her amber eyes flashing with barely suppressed anger, “But, since it wasn’t reciprocated, then I am not bound by any ties.”
“Is this what it’s all about? You want me to tell you I love you?” Siwon demanded, “You want me to tell you that since the day I met you I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you? How you haunt my dreams at night and my thoughts in the day when you’re not around? How I find you beautiful both inside and out? How my heart races just at the sight of you or how I anticipate for when you speak just to hear your voice or, perhaps, even a chance laugh? Or how about how I’ve gone without most emotions for so long and you are the only one to make me feel them again?”
Taeyeon gazed up at him, his words sparking a fire within her so different from the anger that was already burning below the surface. She found herself unable to move despite his close proximity. She found herself unable to speak, his words effectively taking her breath away. She was both entranced and scared of the intensity that shone through his eyes, seemed to flow off him like heat from a flame.
“Is that what you want to hear?” He practically spat, his eyes narrowed dangerously at her. It took all of his strength to pull away from her, swing away and pace towards the fireplace, the flames larger and more vicious than before.
“Siwon –” She tried again, her voice a quiet plea, desperate to have him hear her explanations,
“But, in the end, I am just a toy to you, aren’t I? Just a pastime hobby while you wait out your days until you can leave,” Siwon said quietly, his voice hollow and so, so cold.
“No!” She insisted as she hurried to him, not caring her burning, blurred eyes, “Siwon, you must know that you mean so much to me! You know I love you!”
“Do you?” He questioned, suddenly swinging around to face her, his outline framed by the glow from the fireplace; “You don’t do this to someone you love. You don’t go and be with another man when you love someone else. This isn’t love, Princess, this is curiosity with something new and different.”
“It’s not –”
“Did you have your fun, Princess? Now that you know what it’s like to kiss a Dark Prince? Was it fun playing me for a fool? Leading me around like some lost puppy? Was it fun playing the victim when, in truth, I described you perfectly?” He questioned, his voice like cold steel, his words like direct stabs at her heart,
Taeyeon stared mutely at him, her words lodged firmly in her throat, his accusations so painful that she could think of nothing but at the way her heart was slashed and torn. Instinctively, she raised a hand to the seal ring, grasping it tightly as she simply stared at the prince.
“What is it that the mage has that I do not?” Siwon questioned, his voice low and dark,
Taeyeon blinked through her tears at him, “Do not bring Sungmin into this –”
“Just answer my question,” Siwon commanded,
“He has nothing to do with this!” Taeyeon defended,
“ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION!” Siwon yelled,
Taeyeon’s eyes narrowed through her tears, “He completely supports my magic training,” Taeyeon said, “You think it’s a waste of time, you push it away, ignore it as if didn’t happen this morning. He talks to me about it, asks me about it.”
Siwon began to scoff when Taeyeon interrupted him,
“He loves and supports me unconditionally! I can make mistakes and still he will be there for me! He doesn’t jump to conclusions or is quick to judge! He accepts me wholly – mistakes and imperfections!” Taeyeon exclaimed, the tears spilling down her cheeks now, her hands fisted at her sides, “He doesn’t love just one part of me… he loves all of me.”
“If he’s so great then why have you cheated on him with me?” Siwon questioned, sarcasm dripping from his words,
“Because he always told me that if I had a chance at love, I should take it!” She answered bitterly, her small frame shaking with anger, “And I was fool enough to fall in love with you!”
Siwon glared at her in silence as her words seeped in, settling deep within himself. “Get. Out,” He hissed through clenched teeth,
“Gladly!” She yelled as she twirled on her heel and stormed out of the study, the door slamming so hard after her that it swung back open again.
Siwon stomped over to the door and threw it against the frame, the sound of wood splintering cracking through the silent, dark study. He stared at the fire as the flames slowly shrunk to just a foot high, the source of its power suddenly gone.
Taeyeon ran up the main staircases, not caring what the servants saw or heard. She reached the third floor and crashed into a solid wall, only to find it was a person. She tried to pull away as hands like steel clapped over her shoulders, keeping her in place,
“Taeyeon, are you alright?” Kangin questioned,
“Leave me alone!” She exclaimed and immediately Kangin was pushed backwards from her,
“Wind magic,” he murmured as he approached her tentatively, “What’s that,” he turned his attention to the main stairs, startled to find little fires trailing up the staircase in an almost perfect straight line, footmen already running trying to get water.
He glanced at Taeyeon who had followed his gaze and now stood frozen in her spot. He traced a small pattern in the air and a small cloud appeared near the bottom of the stairs, slowly rising towards them, following the path of the fires and extinguishing them. When the last of the little fires were gone, he waved his hand and the cloud disappeared. The footmen slowly stopped trying to bring water from the kitchens.
Slowly, Kangin turned back to Taeyeon who was now hugging herself, her body shaking slightly as tears poured down the sides of her face. He tentatively reached out to her shoulder to draw her attention,
“Taeyeon…” Kangin said quietly,
Taeyeon’s eyes swung to his, wide and wild, almost fearful as they watched behind a veil of tears. She didn’t know what it was, but she found a kind of comfort in the Dark Mage. She felt as if she had met him before, but her memories were empty of him. She recalled he spent the war in her kingdom and she wondered if that was when she had seen him. Mysteriously, he also seemed to know her brother fairly well.
Just the thought of her brother brought upon her an overwhelming sense of sadness. It had been a week since she last saw her beloved brother, a week since she last heard his voice or even argued with him. The urge to be with her brother was great, then, needing to find comfort with someone who was away from that castle, away from the cursed situation she found herself in.
“Taeyeon,” Kangin repeated, worried that she hadn’t said anything and worried that her emotions would cause her magic to rise against the control he was secretly exerting on her magic.
Taeyeon suddenly launched herself at him, her arms wrapping around him and hugging him tightly, much as she would do had her brother been there. She buried her face against the silk of his jungchimak and she cried into his chest.
Hesitantly, Kangin hugged her back, holding her carefully but firmly, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I want to go home,” Taeyeon cried softly, her words muffled against his robes, “I want to go back to the Light Kingdom.”
“Okay,” Kangin replied quietly, turning them slightly so he blocked view of her from the lower levels; “I’ll bring you home.”
(Chapter 10 - The Origins of Darkness)
A/N: I just wanted to clarify something because I didn't state it clearly in the chapter. When Taeyeon is training and she is questioning who could be her anchor, she's just going through a list in her head "Eeteuk? Sungmin? Siwon? Hmm..." type of deal. When she was contemplating whether or not Siwon could be her anchor, her magic suddenly went into over-drive because, as stated in previous chapters, her magic is easily switched-on by her emotions. However, does she choose an anchor? Yes, it was Sungmin in the end for the reason she states. And, to further emphasize this point, she states the same reasons to Siwon in the fight scene.
Hope this clears everything up & I apologize for that ^__^;;