(Chapter Eleven of the Reign on Me series.)
Chapter Eleven: End of the Light
Lunch was underway with only Kyuhyun, Sungmin and Taeyeon in attendance, when a butler approached Prince Kyuhyun in the dining room. Kyuhyun, who had been awoken just prior to lunch, still had a slight sleepiness about his demeanour. He glanced with hooded eyes at the butler who bent to his ear and whispered,
“The royal advisors are here to see your brother,” The butler informed,
Immediately, Kyuhyun seemed to become alert. He sat a little straighter in his chair and his eyes widened, “They are? Wait, why are you telling me?”
The butler blinked at him before asking tentatively, “If I may be so bold, Your Highness?” Kyuhyun nodded, “I don’t trust the advisors. They seem dead-set on something and ever since your father’s fallen ill, they’ve been trying to pressure your brother on certain decisions. Fortunately, your brother has always consulted your father prior to deciding anything.”
“They’ve always been manipulative where my brother or I are concerned,” Kyuhyun conceded,
“They wanted their presence here to be an absolute secret. They stated, specifically, in regards to certain guests in the castle,” The butler explained,
Kyuhyun’s eyes lit up in realization, “They know about the guests… Could any of the staff have told anyone?”
“No, Your Highness, they are all completely loyal to you and your family. Indeed, they’re all a little afraid of the… erm… guests,” the butler answered,
Kyuhyun sighed heavily, “You’re right not to trust them, especially this time. I will inform my brother of their arrival. We’ll send word afterwards whether or not to admit them to the study, understood?”
“Very well, Your Highness,” the butler bowed before retreating from the dining room.
“Is something amiss, Prince Kyuhyun?” Taeyeon eyed him with sympathy only another royal could display,
“Apparently, the royal advisors have decided to grace the palace,” Kyuhyun sighed heavily as he stood from his chair,
“From your tone, they sound just as friendly as… other advisors I know of,” Taeyeon replied, offering a small smile,
“Do you think it’s a part of the job description?” Kyuhyun prompted, “That they must be insufferable?”
“I am quite sure that the subheading to their title reads ‘pest’,” Taeyeon added,
Kyuhyun chuckled softly, “Indeed, Taeyeon. Well, please, continue your meals… I have a feeling I will not be able to return shortly.”
With a glance towards Sungmin who watched him with slight concern, he left the dining room. He glanced towards the front foyer and saw a nod from one of the footmen standing outside a door, signaling him that the advisors were shown to a front parlour for the time being. He replied with his own curt nod before heading deeper into the castle towards the study.
As per usual, he burst into the study without even thought to knock. Kyuhyun’s eyes immediately rested on his brother who, already used to his younger brother’s antics, didn’t even look up from the papers before him.
“You skipped lunch to read?” Kyuhyun asked with mock-incredulousness,
“There are some problems with crops in the outlying lands,” Siwon explained as his eyes swept over the page he was currently reading, “They ask for assistance and advice. I will visit them to see the problems myself.”
“You? A prince of the kingdom?” Kyuhyun asked, this time his incredulousness completely serious,
“If it’s crops, I could perhaps help with a bit of magic,” Siwon shrugged his broad shoulders,
“I understand the sentiment, but if you decide to help every other family with a bit of magic, eventually that will add up to a lot of magic and –”
“It is my decision, Kyuhyun,” Siwon interrupted, his voice calm yet unmoving.
Kyuhyun thought on his curtness for a bit. His brother would ascertain his superiority every once in awhile, but never so rudely. He swallowed his pride, knowing that his brother had been unsteady as of late.
“Fine, that’s not why I’m here,” Kyuhyun explained, “The royal advisors are here and they know that we have particular guests here.”
Siwon looked up then, his thick brows raised in surprise, “Really? I wonder… Ah, of course.”
“Of course?” Kyuhyun repeated,
“The consorts,” Siwon said, “And not all of them, one in particular would feel… spiteful… towards our guests.”
“Taeyeon in particular, I’m guessing,” Kyuhyun stated,
Siwon said nothing, merely tapped his fingers on the desktop. Eventually, he stated, “I will see the advisors. They won’t calm down simply because we allow them to stew for a bit.”
“I’ll inform a footman,” Kyuhyun nodded as he walked back towards the door, calling a footman to send his message.
Walking back towards his brother, he settled in a spot against the wall behind and to the side of Siwon’s chair. He lounged casually, arms folded about his torso, giving the appearance of complete idleness. The advisors would be fools if they believed he was anything less than wholly alert of their presence. Unfortunately for them, they always believed the façade he presented.
A footman presented the royal advisors into the room. Seven old gentlemen appeared. They were all dressed in formal attire, from cravats tied at their thick necks or below their double-chins, down to gloved hands and freshly polished shoes. They arranged themselves in a semi-circle before the desk and Siwon couldn’t help but think how amusing the scene looked with them looking so posh and the prince dressed in simple black slacks and a black button-up.
“Gentlemen, I believe the next council meeting is not for another week or so,” Siwon said as he sat back in his chair. He propped one elbow on his armrest and leaned his chin in that hand. His other hand tapped irritably on the other armrest.
“Your Highnesses,” the advisor standing in the middle addressed both brothers, “We have been informed that Mages of Light are here at the castle. Indeed, have been here for a few days.”
“A week, I believe,” Siwon commented lightly,
“Indeed, Prince Siwon, such a thing is inconceivable!” The advisor exclaimed, “They are from the Light Kingdom.”
“Yes, one would assume that considering they are Mages of Light,” Siwon drawled, “Now, pray tell, why is having them here inconceivable?”
“Prince Siwon, they are from the enemy kingdom!” The advisor persisted,
One of the prince’s thick eyebrows rose ever so slightly above the other, “Enemy? Has it escaped my attention that after eight years we are at war once again with the Light Kingdom?”
“Er… no, Your Highness,” the advisor stammered,
“Then, why would you refer to them as such when we are at a truce? When, indeed, it was my own father – your king – who installed such a truce between our kingdoms?” Siwon questioned, his tone calm and even, but his eyes told the advisors that his question was really a demand.
“Your Highness! If they were to learn of your father’s current health, they could return to the Light Kingdom and inform their king!” The advisor pleaded, his face reddening with effort, “They could declare war on us while your father is in a fragile condition!”
“You would have me throw out the Mages of Light? You would have me do something that disgraces the truce my father established?” Siwon asked as he slowly raised his chin from his hand, straightening in his seat, “I will have you know, gentlemen, that my father knows of their presence in this castle – his castle – and has not once shown concern over them.”
“But, Prince Siwon, surely you must know that your father –“
Siwon silenced the advisor by slamming his palms on the desk and rising to his full height. His dark gaze slashed over all of them, some of them shifting in their spots, “Proceed carefully, gentlemen. I am assuming that one speaks for the whole and, as thus, you are all in danger of treason.”
“Your Highness, please! You cannot truly trust these mages!” The advisor exclaimed.
The ground rumbled, softly at first before it increased in volume and violence. Some advisors fell onto their bottoms on the floor; others grasped the chairs before the desk for balance and stability.
“Kyuhyun,” Siwon said simply, not even turning his gaze away from the advisors; only he and his brother had retained their composure and stances during the tremor.
Slowly, slowly, the shaking stopped. Kyuhyun hadn’t even moved an inch, his posture still lazy, his expression unconcerned. The door burst open as several footmen stood in the hall,
“Your Highnesses, are you both okay?” The foremost footman questioned, not even pretending concern over the royal advisors who were straightening and composing themselves,
“I am fine. Kyuhyun?” Siwon prompted, his face remaining forward,
“Never better,” Kyuhyun replied flippantly, shrugging as he did so,
“However, you may escort the royal advisors out of the castle,” Siwon commanded. When it looked as if a few of the advisors would protest, Siwon silenced them with a dangerous glare, “Regardless of my father’s health, you’ll do well to remember that he is still your king. Should any of you speak of him as otherwise, indeed, even presume to speak to myself or my brother as thus, you will find yourselves immediately in the need of new jobs. Am I understood, gentlemen?”
They all murmured their affirmatives, bowing to the princes before they retreated, the footmen practically herding them out of the study. Once the door closed after them, Siwon returned to his papers,
“Was that necessary?” Siwon asked simply,
“Yes,” Kyuhyun replied without a need for thought. He stepped forward into his brother’s peripheries, “You’re not actually considering asking the princess and the mage to leave, are you?”
“Regardless of their idiocy, the advisors make a good point. Despite the truce amongst our kingdoms, there’s still unrest in the hearts of the people,” Siwon answered as he flipped a page, “If I ask our guests to leave, it would be due to the concern of the people, not because of the advisors’ beliefs.”
“Siwon, you know they’re not a risk to either of us! So many times either Taeyeon or Sungmin had opportunities to kill us!” Kyuhyun stated, slamming his palms on the desk, leaning forward to force his brother to look towards him,
“I can hardly explain that to the people, nor how either of our guests came to the castle,” Siwon sighed heavily as he stood from his chair and walked towards the glass doors which led to the terrace.
“Since when did the princess stop being ‘Taeyeon’ and started being ‘guest’ to you?” Kyuhyun questioned as he turned to watch his brother walk away,
Siwon said nothing as he stared out at the dark skies, surprised to find it was no longer raining. “Did Kangin stop the rain?” He asked, bluntly changing the topic,
“No,” Kyuhyun snapped as he turned and strode to the door.
The study door slammed after the second prince before Siwon realized what Kyuhyun’s answer meant. If Kangin hadn’t stopped the rain, then only one other person would be capable of controlling his Dark Magic and that meant he could've pushed his brother's soul closer to the grasps of darkness, if not completely. He sighed heavily as he pushed open the doors and escaped outside.
Kyuhyun strode away from the study, his expression like a storm cloud. As he approached the bottom of the main stairs, he heard familiar voices. As he rounded the banister, he found the princess and lesser mage just a few steps above him.
Hearing the footsteps, Taeyeon looked over her shoulder. Seeing who it was, she turned completely to face him, “Prince Kyuhyun… is anything the matter?”
“Those royal advisors need to be fired,” Kyuhyun huffed as he continued up the stairs on the other side of the princess,
“Is that what the tremor was about?” Taeyeon inquired, “I wondered if it had been an aftershock or purposeful.”
“Oh, it was most definitely purposeful,” Kyuhyun stated darkly. They were silent as they moved from the second floor towards the third, the stairs moving like tiers to each floor. Eventually, he admitted, “They learned of both of your presence in the castle. They wanted both of you removed, stating you were threats to our kingdom.”
Taeyeon whirled to face him on the second floor, stopping the prince with a hand on his arm, “Prince Kyuhyun, surely you know that we’re not!”
Kyuhyun offered her a brilliant smile, “You have no need to inform me of that, Taeyeon.”
She breathed easier, “I just… wanted to assure you, especially how Sungmin’s first impression was.”
“I had my reasons,” Sungmin muttered, rolling his eyes to the ceiling, “I needed the job done fast.”
“You don’t go threatening people without a moment’s thought,” Taeyeon snapped, glaring over her shoulder at the mage, “Especially in another kingdom. At least back home we can excuse your behaviour as eccentricity. Here, they’ll take your actions seriously.”
“Yes, yes, I know the consequences of my actions,” Sungmin insisted, “You forget that I’m still a prisoner here.”
Kyuhyun scoffed, “You haven’t been a prisoner since you gave that damn letter to Kangin,” he continued to the next set of stairs; “But, rest assured, neither of you will be sent from the kingdom. You’re both guests here.”
Once they reached the third floor, Taeyeon turned once again to face the second prince, “In truth, Prince Kyuhyun, I had been planning to leave this evening. In fact, this is just confirmation that my leaving will help keep the peace between our kingdoms.”
“If it was a true peace, you shouldn’t have to leave,” Kyuhyun stated firmly.
She offered him a small smile as she reached up and patted the young prince’s cheek, “I know, but until then, I should do all I can. As a representative of my kingdom and my family, I can do no less.”
As she was lowering her hand, Kyuhyun clasped it, catching her attention again, “Princess,” he said quietly, “I have felt the intensity of my brother’s magic. Am I wrong to assume he is at fault for whatever has come between you two?”
Taeyeon blinked, startled to have the prince ask her directly. She swallowed hard, fighting the onset of tears. Her amber gaze dropped and she shook her head, “Your brother and I… we are both to blame.” She raised her eyes to his, the honey-coloured orbs free of tears, but suspiciously bright; “It is best that he and I part ways, but I thank you for your concern.” She nodded to both and then left the men behind, heading towards her room.
Kyuhyun shot Sungmin a glance and turned and headed to the fourth floor and opposite wing. Sungmin followed silently behind. Should any servant think anything odd of such a scene, no one commented, nor did they even bat an eyelash. Indeed, the second prince was known for his flippant and often unpredictable behaviour.
Upon entering the room, Sungmin found himself pressed up against the door, sandwiched by the young prince’s body. Considering their ages and his own nature, he briefly contemplated why he was the one who was constantly being pounced upon. Those thoughts quickly fled as the prince’s lips fell upon his own and soon their mouths and tongues were engaged in a duel to see who could make who gasp for air first.
Sungmin could only take so much before he managed to flip their positions, his hands on either side of the prince’s torso. As he pressed his body flush against the younger man, hip to chest, he slid his hands up the carved wood of the door. As Sungmin’s arms rose beneath the prince’s, Kyuhyun was forced to wrap his arms around the mage’s neck, pulling him closer.
“Sungmin,” Kyuhyun gasped as he broke the kiss. He struggled to catch his breath as he looked at the mage with hooded eyes, “I know you’re leaving, too.”
Sungmin blinked at him as he straightened, pulling away enough to bring an inch or so of space between their bodies, “What?”
“You’ve been delaying telling me that you’re leaving,” Kyuhyun repeated,
Sungmin shook his head, “I have no intention of leaving.”
“But… But Princess Taeyeon,” Kyuhyun stammered, evidently confused,
“Indeed, and she returns to the Light Kingdom without me,” Sungmin answered quietly, “She wouldn’t allow me to go with her and, even so, I do not want to leave you.”
Kyuhyun sighed heavily as he lowered his forehead to the mage’s chest, “I appreciate the sentiment, Sungmin, but you and I both know it’s more important you journey back with the princess to ensure she remains safe.”
When Sungmin said nothing, he added quietly, “And, if it wasn’t for my own weaknesses and instability, you would go with her without a second thought.”
Sungmin forced the prince to look at him, tipping his chin with his fore- and middle-fingers, “That’s not true. Regardless of your supposed weaknesses and instability, I was hesitant to suggest I leave with her. She is both my princess and my friend, but that doesn’t mean she outranks you in my life… in my heart.”
Kyuhyun swallowed hard, a lump quickly forming in his throat. He turned his gaze away, should he sink even further and end up crying – again – in front of the lesser mage. He sighed heavily, “You should still go.”
“She has Kangin escorting her,” Sungmin revealed,
“Even so, you should report to your king,” Kyuhyun immediately pressed his fingers to the other’s lips, silencing a protest, “Directly. The king must always outrank all others in our lives.”
Sungmin sighed heavily, knowing he couldn’t argue with him. Finally, he stated firmly, “I will go and report to my king, but I will return immediately after.”
“You don’t have to,” Kyuhyun said quietly, “We shouldn’t have expected this to –”
Sungmin silenced him with a brief kiss. He pulled back enough to stare directly at the prince, “Yes, I do have to. I want to... need to come back to you, Kyuhyun.”
Kyuhyun sighed with relief as he hugged Sungmin flush against him, "Thank you."
Sungmin pressed a kiss to his temple as he embraced the prince back, "Don't thank me for wanting to come back to you."
Kyuhyun sighed heavily, "None of this makes sense, Sungmin. How, in such a short amount of time, did I come to rely on you so much?"
"I don't know, Kyuhyun," Sungmin replied quietly, "How, in that same amount of time, did I come to care for you so much?"
Kyuhyun raised his head, eyes wide, "You care about me?"
Sungmin chuckled quietly as he smiled softly at the younger man, "As insane as it sounds, yes, I care about you, Kyuhyun."
Kyuhyun raised his hands to Sungmin's face, framing it affectionately. He pressed kisses to his lips and along his jaw. He kissed one more time just below Sungmin's ear before closing his eyes and burying his face against the side of the mage's neck. He hugged him tightly as Sungmin embraced him back.
"I care about you, too, Sungmin."
He raised his head from the older man's neck. He slipped out from between Sungmin and the door, took his hand and led him to his bed.
"You know, if you're going to have me summoned to the castle, the least you can do is be somewhere where I can find you," Kangin stated as he approached the circular court in the heart of the maze.
"The gazebo was the last thing to mend after the storm from a few days ago," Siwon explained, "Besides, I knew you'd find me."
"Ah, your vast belief in me. I'm humbled," Kangin drawled as he leaned against a post of the gazebo, crossing his arms over his chest. "So, why did you summon me? Really, I'm beginning to think I shouldn't leave the castle at all with the regularity at which I'm being called back after leaving."
"You moved to the outskirts of the lands all on your own," Siwon replied. His hands moved over the surfaces of the gazebo, repairing the wood, fixing the intricate carvings. "The royal advisors came today and brought something to my attention. They're aware of the guests in the castle and if the people start to learn of it, they might start being concerned. They wanted me to have the... guests... leave."
"Oh, the royal advisors... how I often question any and all the advice they give," Kangin said, "Granted, they're not always full of fault. They're just set in their ways."
"I know and, usually I just take their words as cautionary. Indeed, most of the time my father goes against what they suggest but, this time... I think they have a point," Siwon confessed as he moved from a railing to a post.
Kangin raised a brow even though the prince had his back to him. "Are we speaking as prince and subject or Siwon and Kangin?"
"As friends," Siwon confirmed, as fixed more of the carvings in the wood,
"Are you taking the royal advisors' suggestion because you honestly believe it's right or because you got into a fight with the princess?" Kangin asked simply,
"What do you know about anything between me and her?" Siwon questioned, whirling around to face him, thick brows furrowed,
"Perhaps more than you'd like me to know," Kangin shrugged,
"Of course she talked to you. Every male she meets she just throws herself at," Siwon hissed, turning his back on the mage, his fingers digging into the wood of the railing. "She makes you feel important, special, as if you're the only one when, in reality, she has every damn man wrapped around her little finger. She probably would've snagged Kyuhyun, too, had he not been my brother."
"You know, there are times when I wish I had my emotions and, yet, I witness you acting like a jerk just because you're jealous," Kangin stated dryly,
"Watch it, Kangin," Siwon retorted,
"No, I won't," Kangin replied, "Because if I don't say something, you'll let one of the best damn things that's ever walked into your life to walk right out of it!"
"Don't you dare talk to me as if you know my life better!" Siwon exclaimed, turning back to look at the mage, "Don't you dare presume to know what I need or want in my life!"
Kangin raised a brow at the prince. Slowly, he straightened away from the post, arms still crossed; "Even if those royal advisors didn't come and talk to you, even if you decided not to do as they said, Princess Taeyeon had already decided to go home. I've already agreed to escort her home."
Siwon said nothing, his glare thunderous as the Dark Mage simply stared back at him. Slowly, Siwon pushed back the boiling, roiling emotions that rose within him like a tidal wave. He didn't want his magic to lose control again. He didn't want his brother to have to reign in his storms again.
"Are you going to talk to the princess before we leave tonight?" Kangin questioned,
"Tonight?" Siwon repeated, his eyes widening fractionally,
"Yes, tonight. As soon as the sun sets so we can travel under cover of night," Kangin explained,
"Well, then... I wish you safety on your journey with her and back," Siwon said quietly,
"You have a chance at happiness and you throw it away," Kangin shook his head, turning away from the prince,
"I had no such chance! She's engaged to someone else. This entire time she's been engaged to someone else!" Siwon exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air in exasperation; "Why the hell would I want anything to do with someone who can do that to their fiancé!?"
Kangin looked over his shoulder at the prince, pinning the younger man with his silver eyes, "You truly believe that, don't you? Do you know even a fraction of who Taeyeon is? But, no, you don't because, if you did, you wouldn't think such things of her. I don't even think you truly care about her because, if you did, you wouldn't - couldn't - say such things about her." He shook his head as he turned his gaze away, "Even now you can't even say her name."
"Kangin!" Siwon called as the mage stepped down from the gazebo and headed towards the entrance to a path.
Kangin stopped, keeping his back to the prince, "Talk to her."
"No," Siwon replied stubbornly,
"Then, you don't deserve her," Kangin said easily. He continued on his way, disappearing into the maze.
He lay in the spacious, four-poster bed, his arm a pillow for the younger man. The warm, solid body was flush against his side, one arm thrown over his waist. He stared up at the canopy as his hand idly played with the other's hair.
"This was nice," He said quietly to the younger man, "Lying here together..."
"Thank you for... for letting me stop things," Kyuhyun replied softly,
"Of course," Sungmin said as he turned so he laid on his side, facing the prince, "Kyuhyun, I hope you will always tell me what you're thinking. If you're not ready, then you're not. When you are, well, we'll cross that bridge when we reach it."
"I like that I can talk to you like this," Kyuhyun admitted, tightening his arm around the other's waist,
"I like that I have someone to talk to like this," Sungmin replied,
"What are you talking about? You have Taeyeon," Kyuhyun stated,
Sungmin laughed lightly, "Despite whatever crazy ideas are going on in that head of yours, Taeyeon and I really are just friends. And, no we do not spend a lot of time in a bed together, regardless of what you walked into that one morning."
"Well, had I not known you weren't just friends then, things would've gone a bit differently," Kyuhyun said, "I would've gotten jealous."
"You were jealous," Sungmin accused.
"So, whose turn was it?" Kyuhyun asked, obviously changing the topic,
"It was your turn," Sungmin said, amusement in his tone,
"Okay... when you were a kid, what did you want to be?" Kyuhyun inquired,
"Honestly?" Sungmin asked. Kyuhyun nodded; "A mage." He laughed at the younger man's snort of disbelief; "It's true. For as long as I can remember, I knew about my magic. This was years before the war and, even though mages were still feared somewhat, they were respected. I really looked up to them and I wanted to be just like them."
"Really? All those years ago?" Kyuhyun prompted,
"Yeah. One time, I even cut my hair all on my own," Sungmin chuckled, "I couldn't see what I couldn't cut it even with the scissors, so I had patches of long and short hair. My mom almost fainted when she saw me." He sobered immediately, "I was nine when the war started. After it was heard what had happened to the monarchs, my parents desperately wanted to hide my magic ability, didn't want our neighbours to know, didn't want me to accidentally display it before the town where we lived.
"During the war, I rarely left the house and, if I did, at least one of my parents had to be with me to ensure I didn't actually... oh, I don't know, cause a fire or something," Sungmin confessed, "Our town was affected by war. It was then that I saw that the war wasn't one sided. It wasn't just those of the Dark who did damage, those of the Light were to blame also for the chaos of war.
"There was a fire and several of the houses caught fire. It got to our house and my parents told me to run. They told me to run, probably scared that I'd cause even more fire. They were right behind me. They were running right behind me," Sungmin recalled, his voice hollow, "And the moment I ran out of the house it... it caved in behind me."
Sungmin closed his eyes as he relived that moment. He was fourteen, pale from hardly leaving the house and lanky without a pound of muscle on him. He had been in the basement with his parents, running down there when armies entered the town without warning. It wasn't until smoke began to snake down the stairs that they had to suspect anything.
His father had gone ahead to check, had called down that there was a fire. His mother had grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the stairs in an attempt to escape the house. He had cried over and over that it hadn't been him, he hadn't caused the fire. All his parents said was to run - fast and hard, until he couldn't feel the heat of fire anymore at his back. He had done just that and, when the sun shone on his face, the house crashed down behind him.
A tentative touch brought him back to the present.
Sungmin opened his eyes to find Kyuhyun's fingertips brushing across his cheeks, watching him with concerned eyes that were more black than silver. Kyuhyun lay on his side, wiping away the tears that had begun to unconsciously slip down the mage's face.
"I hope you realized that the fire wasn't your fault," Kyuhyun stated,
"I did. No, I don't feel any guilt towards their deaths," Sungmin said as he grasped Kyuhyun's hand as it pulled away from his face. He kissed each fingertip, "If anything, I feel guilt because of what I've become."
"What? Why - oh..." Kyuhyun murmured, "Because you're a mage."
Sungmin nodded as he released his hand, "They didn't want me to be a mage, spent years suppressing my magic... denying what I was... am. Some of my neighbours had to pull me away, to stop me from running into the fire. I stayed in the town hall which was being used as a shelter. When the armies moved on, I finally went back to my house or... what was left of it. I buried my parents and for the last two years of the war, worked small jobs to save up enough money."
"Enough money for what?" Kyuhyun asked,
"To live on my own... to travel to the royal city and the Castle of Light," Sungmin answered,
"So when the war ended, that's when you petitioned to be a mage?" Kyuhyun inquired,
"Not quite. I reached the royal city within a month after the war ended," Sungmin said, "But it took me around a year to finally go to the castle. I kept thinking to myself 'am I dishonouring my parents?' or 'are they rolling in their graves?' and, after a year, I went to see the king."
"How did you decide? You said you felt guilt about what you've become," Kyuhyun recounted,
"I decided to become a mage and, somehow, make it alright... make something of myself so that they could be proud of me," Sungmin explained, "So, that's what I'm working towards right now." He offered a smile, "And, there you have your answer. I bet you regret asking it after hearing such a long-winded speech."
"Not at all," Kyuhyun insisted, "If anything, I'm even more glad that I asked."
"Well, now it's my turn," Sungmin said. He reached over and brushed the prince's hair back from his forehead, "Why me?"
Kyuhyun blinked, "Why you?"
"Yes... Why me?" Sungmin repeated, "Why, out of all the beautiful ladies who grace your court, who have your father's blessing to be consorts... why, when you have any number of ladies at your disposal, for your pick... why me?"
"You attracted me from the first, you know that," Kyuhyun said, "And honestly, even then, I have no idea why. I don't know why, after spending so much time meeting these consorts, you were the first to actually attract me. There was something about you, something that drew me to you, made me want you against all thought and reason. I didn't care that you were a mage, or that you were from the Light Kingdom. I didn't care that you were male or what the rest of the world would think if they ever found out.
"All I wanted was your body. I wanted a physical relationship, but then... but then my wants changed," Kyuhyun went on as he slowly propped himself on an elbow, his torso rising above Sungmin's; "When I wanted comforting, I wanted your shoulder to cry on. When I wanted to be held, I wanted your arms."
"And, out of jealousy, I hurt you by thinking the worst," Sungmin interjected, his steel-blue eyes regretful,
"We all have our faults. I got jealous of the princess even after you had explained your relationship," Kyuhyun said as he gazed down into the mage's eyes, "And that doesn't matter because I was able to tell you what I never told anyone. I was able to open up to you as I never did with anyone. And, once again, you held me."
Kyuhyun leaned down and brushed his lips against Sungmin's before rising above him again.
"So, you ask me why and I cannot tell you the answer because even I don't know it. I saw you that first evening and I just knew. It sounds odd and improbable, but that's how it happened," Kyuhyun said with a slight shrug of his shoulders, "And, ever since that first moment, I've been going with what I feel."
A knock at the door interrupted their time together.
"Yes?" Kyuhyun called out, exasperatedly,
"It's me," Kangin's voice replied through the door.
Kyuhyun sighed before he leaned down, kissed Sungmin once more before sitting up and sliding off the bed. Sungmin rolled off, grabbing his jungchimak from the back of a chair where he had hung it before they had lain together in the bed and began talking, getting to know one another. Kyuhyun opened the door for the Dark Mage who rose a brow at the lesser mage who was doing up the fastenings of his jungchimak.
"I haven't told you yet, but I'm going to escort Princess Taeyeon home," Kangin explained,
"I know, Sungmin told me," Kyuhyun said,
"Will you be okay?" Kangin inquired,
Kyuhyun glanced at Sungmin as he ran a hand through his thick locks, "Well, Sungmin's going with you also. He needs to report to the King of Light and then he'll return." He looked back at the Dark Mage, "I need you to put me to sleep, Kangin, until you get back."
Kangin's eyes widened ever so slightly, "It will take at least half a day to get to the Light Kingdom, and another half day to return. That's an entire day with you sleeping."
"I'll be fine," Kyuhyun insisted.
Kangin nodded, "Okay, then, ready?"
Kyuhyun glanced at Sungmin. He offered one last, brilliant smile, before turning back to Kangin and nodding his silent affirmative. Kangin walked up to him. Wrapping an arm around his shoulders, he rose his other hand to Kyuhyun's forehead. He murmured a spell and Kyuhyun immediately slumped in Kangin's arms. Kangin hefted the second prince in his arms and carried him over to the bed. Kangin stood by the bed as Sungmin walked over and pulled the blankets over the younger man. Kangin picked up Kyuhyun's hand and murmured another spell. He turned and headed for the door, Sungmin behind him.
"Protection spell?" Sungmin asked quietly as Kangin closed the door behind them.
Kangin nodded, "I won't take any risks. We better get going. The sun's already set."
"So, this is your night garden."
Siwon didn't move an inch. If anything, he froze, becoming perfectly still. He stood within the fixed gazebo, beds of flowers circulating the court at the centre of the maze.
Taeyeon stood a foot away from the gazebo. She slowly spun around, gazing at the flower beds within the maze's centre court. Leaves shone like cut emeralds, lit up by the soft glow of pristine, snow-coloured petals that reflected the silvery moonlight. The tall, hedges of the maze enclosed the area creating a private, intimate space; the night flowers surrounded the court like lanterns; and the stars above sparkled like diamonds amidst an indigo, velvety blanket. The centre court was beautiful in the moonlight, but it was the gazebo that was breath-taking.
Taeyeon's eyes strained in the darkness, but she caught the detailed woodwork of the gazebo. Vines were carved up the posts and along the banisters as if they were carefully grown and nurtured as thus. Leaves straddled the vines, scattered along their lengths as they appeared in nature, rather than in perfect, measured intervals. The princess caught the sight of flowers, their petals silver-lined by the moonlight. She reached out to one of the flowers, her fingertips running along their edges, recognizing them as roses; they even had little, tiny thorns.
"How did you find this place?" Siwon asked quietly as he slowly turned to face her, his entire being shrouded in shadows,
Taeyeon gestured behind her, "Kangin said this was where he last saw you."
Siwon glanced towards one of path entrances and saw a moving, bulky shadow. For once moment, he saw the Dark Mage highlighted by the moon before he moved again and was swallowed by darkness. He turned his attention back to the princess who stood at the bottom of one of the steps that led to the gazebo's platform. Her attention was absorbed with the closest post, her hand running over the carvings in awe, in reverence.
"This is your work," Taeyeon said - a statement instead of a question.
"How?" Siwon asked, his voice barely above a whisper,
"The dark mahogany is like that of your desk and chair. This is outside the castle, so, should it have been another carpenter who had made this, they may have used a different wood. For you, however, mahogany is what you're used to seeing every day. Unconsciously, you used it out here as well," Taeyeon answered,
"And this attention to detail, the intricacies to each vine, to each leaf which even has veins carved into their surfaces... It screams of your work," Taeyeon continued, "Even though the vines, leaves and flowers are placed seemingly sporadically, I know there are some perfect measurements in the design. The vines, for example, are probably all perfect equal in width at every point except, that is, where they taper off at the ends. Each post, each banister, each floorboard is exactly like its pair, down to the last millimetre. And, knowing how you work, you did it all by hand."
Siwon felt his heart speed up with every word she said, indeed, with every second longer he spent in her presence. As always, she said the words that tore open his heart, that described his soul as if he were an open book for her to read. As she explained her reasoning, perfectly understanding his carvings, he felt as if she were speaking directly to his soul, drawing it back together, unwrapping the darkness from around it.
Her head turned from the gazebo, to look at him, and Siwon could envision her amber eyes lit up by the moonlight. He felt his breath catch in his throat at the sight of her, partially blanketed by darkness, but shone upon by silvery light. Dressed in her mage robes which were not fit for a princess, on her, they were right. In the moonlight, in the heart of his gardens, with him, it was all perfect. He struggled, almost painfully, to resist walking over to her and pulling her into his arms. He forced his rising emotions to still, to stop, at the thought that she had a fiancé.
"Once one knows you, well, you become predictable, Prince Siwon," Taeyeon said lightly, "This design of creeping vines is used in your study as well, on the fireplace mantle. Considering it's made out of stone, I'd assume you used earth magic to design it."
"You're wrong. The designs may be similar, but I did not do the mantle piece," Siwon replied, leaning against a post to stop himself from crumbling at her feet; "My mother was the one to create the mantle. My design is simply a copy of her original work."
"A copy though it may be but you put your own touches to it," Taeyeon said, "These roses are so realistically carved, that it's as if they had truly grown right out of the wood. They even have thorns. Some artists are remiss when designing roses, forgetting that they also have thorns."
"I will never forget that all things beautiful can still hurt you," Siwon stated, angered by how easily she could read him, understand him. Angered how her words could still affect him, lay him out bare, vulnerable and susceptible.
Taeyeon's hand dropped from the gazebo, knowing his words for the attack it was meant to be. She turned and leaned back against the gazebo's post. Siwon had to stop from gasping. She now stood sideways to him, her silhouette black against the light, her profile awash in moonlight. His heart ached painfully for her, for how ethereal she looked. He firmly reminded himself of the words he had just said. He thought her beautiful the first time the Dark Mage had carried her into the study. She was a diamond of the first water, a rose among weeds; she had always made him want to wax poetic. He had his confirmation of what he always knew, however, that beauty wasn't everything. She had played him a fool and he had let her.
"Prince Kyuhyun told me what the royal advisors had said to you," Taeyeon admitted, folding her arms about her torso; "Indeed, regardless of not being a threat at all, I understand their concerns. I'm sure had the situation been reversed and it was you who had stumbled into our kingdom, well... our advisors would also worry. Then again, our advisors are stuffy old men who keep trying to control Eeteuk."
Siwon recalled how she had said that the advisors had wanted to use her for her magic and it was only her brother who stopped them from doing so. He wondered if what she said had been true. She had seemed honest enough, sincere enough. However, he thought her feelings had been true, he thought she truly did care for him and, perhaps on some level she did, but not enough and that didn't discount her fiancé. He sighed heavily, what could he believe of the princess?
"My brother once told me that I was the only one he could trust. That I was the only one he told everything to," Taeyeon confessed as she tipped her head back against the post, looking up at the star-studded sky above, "Honestly, I don't know why he keeps the advisors he has right now. Some are the same ones that advised our parents and they're the ones who were hesitant to accept the truce your father offered. There are some newer advisors, but they're still afraid of my brother, so they hardly talk." She laughed softly, "Now I'm just rambling..."
She sighed heavily, "I suppose, what I'm trying to get at, is that I'm leaving for home. This time, it really is goodbye."
Siwon said nothing. He remembered the last time she had said those words. He had stopped her, had practically begged her to stay with him. He had held her in his arms, he had kissed her - truly kissed her. He had been falling in love with her more and more, regardless of not repeating the sentiments when she had said them. He stiffened against the post. It was for the best, however, especially considering how things turned out. He was glad he had never told her the words that were in his heart.
"Can we at least talk about the fight?" Taeyeon asked, trying to force strength into her words.
Indeed, she was scared. She was risking a lot by bringing up the fight again, risking having her heart being broken again. She had wanted to sneak away without seeing the first prince again. When she decided to say goodbye, she had planned to avoid all mention of the last time they spoke. However, she knew that if she didn't say anything, if she didn't try to fix things, then she would return to the Light Kingdom with regrets.
So, here she was, taking a chance and refusing to run away as was her habit, her second nature. Here she was, steeling herself, preparing for whatever would happen next. She would live on, she knew. Whatever would be said or done that evening, she would still live, she would survive. Even if that meant her heart would never be whole again.
"Sungmin... to me... he was my first friend, the first to like me for me, the first to not care of the royal title that preceded my name. He called me 'Taeyeon' and was... is... my best friend," Taeyeon said, "We were engaged in an effort to protect me, to stop me from having to marry someone who only wanted my royal connection or only wanted my body. He wanted to protect me from those who couldn't see past the crown."
Siwon found that he couldn't begrudge the mage. The lesser mage had protected her, indeed, probably saved her from a marriage that would end in unhappiness for the princess. He couldn't resent the engagement, even if it meant that he could never be with her. Siwon sighed quietly. He hoped that the princess could learn to be loyal to her mage after all he had done to protect her. How many more would go to lengths to protect her? How many more would fall under her spell?
"Will you say nothing?" Taeyeon asked.
She pushed away from the post, "Well... Goodbye then."
"Taeyeon," Siwon called back. He had taken a step forward, his arm outstretched in the darkness of the gazebo. His body, his heart, had reacted before his mind could even think.
Taeyeon stopped in her tracks, whirled around to face him.
Siwon saw her face, completely doused in moonlight. He saw her amber gaze, wide with wonder and hope.
He knew what she wanted to hear, what she wanted him to say. But he couldn't. Not after all she had done to him, not after all she had done to the mage. He couldn't say the three words he had been fighting to say. He couldn't say the words to stop her from leaving.
"Fall in love with your mage," he said quietly, slowly lowering his arm to his side,
Taeyeon felt her throat constrict, her vision blurring immediately. She felt the pain in her chest and struggled to remain standing, to remain composed. "Then..." She inhaled slowly to steady herself, praying her voice wouldn't break, "I will have to first... fall out of love with you."
She turned her back then, not wanting the prince to see the tears slipping over her cheeks, or the way her lips trembled when she spoke. She tightened her arms around her torso to stop her body from shaking from silenced cries.
Somehow, she managed to whisper, "I will miss you... Siwon."
And, with that, she walked away.
Siwon fell to his knees, not caring that hot tears trickled down his cheeks, or that his heart seemed to stop beating, or that every nerve, every muscle, every single part of his body, mind and soul wanted to run after her, struggled to remain still.
He feared he wouldn't be able to fall out of love with the Princess of Light.
Kangin strode quietly beside the princess as he led the way out of the maze. Despite her silence, he knew she was crying by the slight shake of her shoulders, by her downcasted face. Without being asked, without saying anything, he took out a handkerchief from his jungchimak's pocket and held it out to her. She was surprised, he knew, as she halted for just a moment. She murmured her thanks, took the handkerchief and they continued on their way.
Once out of the maze, they strode across the terrace and through the castle to the front court. There, by the stables, Sungmin waited with three horses. He saw, immediately, the princess' demeanour and came forward. Taeyeon went into his arms immediately, hugging him tightly. She stayed no more than five heartbeats in his embrace before she straightened, wiped her face one last time with the handkerchief and offered both men a small, shaky smile.
"Where's Prince Kyuhyun?" She asked, glad that her voice held still,
"He's already gone to sleep," Sungmin answered as he led her to the smallest horse, "But we said goodbye earlier."
Placing his hands on her waist, Sungmin helped Taeyeon onto the horse. Once he was sure that she was seated and had a firm grip on the reins, he headed over to his own horse.
"That's your horse," Taeyeon commented,
"Of course, how do you think I got here?" Sungmin chuckled softly, "While I was sneaking onto the grounds, my dear horse was being captured on the other side of the grounds. He's a fine horse, so I knew he would end up in the royal stables once captured. It's how we would have escaped had I found you that first night."
Taeyeon sighed heavily as Kangin easily mounted his own horse, "It seems so long ago, and yet, no more than a week has passed."
"Well, it takes a single moment for something to change and many such moments can happen in a week," Sungmin stated, "So, even if it has just been a single week, that's plenty of time for things to happen."
"What kinds of things?" Taeyeon smiled at him,
Sungmin stared back, smiled softly and answered, "Life."
"Let's go," Kangin said, "We have a ways to go and it's best we get it done before the sun rises. Those of the Dark fear the night and those of the Light avoid life after sunset. Let's go."
He led the way out of the court.
As her horse followed, Taeyeon looked over her shoulder at the Dark Castle.
"Goodbye," she whispered.
Then, they were off.
They were returning to the Light Kingdom.
(Next, Chapter 12: King of Light)