(Chapter 14 of the Reign on Me series)
Chapter 14: Dark Days
"You're going to have to teach yourself to remain calm."
"I am calm," Kyuhyun muttered,
He sat in the middle of the ballroom, legs crossed, his arms folded about his torso, back straight and eyes closed. After dinner, Kangin had led him to the ballroom, stating they had to keep training. The entire walk from the dining hall had been filled with Kyuhyun's constant complaints. They had been training all day, only taking breaks to eat their meals. Fortunately, his brother was missing from all the meals, so, Kyuhyun didn't have to explain his grumpy mood. According to a butler, Siwon had been taking all of his meals in his study for the past few days. Kyuhyun had a guess as to why, but he was a little preoccupied with his damned training.
"I know you are," Kangin said as he slowly walked circles around the prince, "Because you don't have darkness seeping from you like a snake shedding skin."
"Lovely imagery," Kyuhyun muttered,
"All day, you've learned to keep your magic in check despite your emotions. You've learned how to keep calm despite what I did," Kangin recalled, "Now, you need to keep your emotions in check because, as we both know, once night falls, your emotions are more powerful than your magic. You need to remain calm because your magic is stronger now."
"Yes, yes, I know all of that," Kyuhyun replied,
"Just thought I'd remind you, especially since you complained like a petulant child the entire time we walked here," Kangin said off-handedly,
Kyuhyun breathed slowly, "I know what you're trying to do. You won't get me annoyed."
"You're already annoyed," Kangin commented,
"What's annoying me is the way you keep circling me," Kyuhyun snapped,
"Ah, but you see? Progress. Not a hint of darkness," Kangin praised lightly as he continued walking in slow circles. If, anything, he made his footsteps heavier.
"That's because annoyance is easy. Frustration is easy. They're not the strongest of emotions," Kyuhyun replied.
"We'll start with the warmer emotions, then," Kangin said, "Usually they are the strongest, however, with your soul being of the Dark, it is the colder emotions which are more powerful, particularly at night. So, we'll start with happiness and make our way down."
"So, you're going to make me feel happiness? At night?" Kyuhyun scoffed, "That's very unlikely to happen, as you should know, Kangin. I haven't been able to feel happiness at night for over eight years."
Kangin paused in his walking. He had stopped in front of Kyuhyun and regarded the younger man. Finally, he said softly, “Sungmin.”
Whatever the Dark Mage had expected, Kyuhyun felt something in him respond just to hearing the lesser mage’s name. He felt a warmth blossom in the vicinity of his heart and it spread throughout his body, like a wave of heat that blanketed and comforted. After night had settled in, he had already begun to feel the effects of falling deeper and deeper into the abyss of his darker emotions. Now, however, he felt uplifted, as if he were moving through the fog back towards the surface with nothing but Sungmin’s name protecting his fragile soul.
Despite training relentlessly with the Dark Mage all day, Kyuhyun could not stop thinking about Sungmin. He could not stop missing him. It always startled him how fast the lesser mage had come to mean to him, but he couldn’t deny the feelings that had risen within him like an army battling back his darker emotions.
Kangin watched the emotions clearly displayed on the younger man’s face. The moment he had said the lesser mage’s name, the prince’s expression had softened considerably and he looked so much younger than his 22 years. In that moment, Kangin was acutely reminded of the prince before the death of his mother and his friend. In that moment, Kangin cursed Sungmin for not returning immediately so as to keep the prince in such a content state. He pushed those thoughts away, however, knowing that Sungmin stayed in the Light Kingdom for good cause and, he truly believed that Kyuhyun needed to learn on his own two feet first.
Suddenly, Kangin watched as Kyuhyun’s expression seemed to subtly change, something about the lines about his brow. As if to support this, wisps of dark shadow began to creep around Kyuhyun, being borne from thin air. It surrounded his crossed legs, slowly circling upwards in an attempt to wrap him completely like vines creeping up the strong foundations of a fort.
“Kyuhyun,” Kangin said, “How is Sungmin’s name eliciting your darker emotions?”
Kyuhyun sighed heavily as he consciously began pushing back the poignancy that had begun to pierce his heart; “I don’t know,” he muttered,
“This is not the time to start acting aloof,” Kangin stated evenly, “Especially if I’m to help you control your emotions at night.”
“Well, I don’t even know why I have to learn that kind of control!” Kyuhyun exclaimed, his eyes opening as he glared at Kangin.
The Dark Mage stared back, the silver more evident in the younger man’s dark eyes. The shadows were getting more prominent, so opaque that they seemed palpable as they curled up the prince’s torso. It was obvious that the prince was succumbing to the Dark, allowing his emotions to ride on the tide that had had him in dark raptures.
“I don’t know why you and Sungmin continue to presume what is best for me! I know what’s best for me!” Kyuhyun insisted, his voice getting a panicked edge, as he got to his feet, his hands falling to his sides and fisting; “I don’t even know why I agreed to all of this when Sungmin stays away and you’re planning on leaving me! If you’re both dead set on abandoning me, then leave me to my own devices! Just let me go to hell, already!”
Rain began to beat heavily against the windows.
“Kyuhyun –” Kangin took a step towards the second prince, wary of the way the rain seemed to come down even harder.
“I’m already half insane as it is!” Kyuhyun argued, his words echoing in the large ballroom; “I can’t even be trust to be awake once the sun goes down, so, why even fight the inevitable!?”
Kangin took a step forward, stating calmly, “Because it’s not inevitable. Because we can still pull you back from this supposed brink of insanity.”
“It’s not supposed, damn you!” Kyuhyun yelled, the shadow wrapping around him like a second skin,
“Kyuhyun! Calm down!” Kangin ordered,
“Don’t tell me what to do!” Kyuhyun roared as the ballroom shook around him.
Kangin had to adjust his balance every fraction of a second as the violence of the quake caused fissures to appear in the floor all around him. The Dark Mage lunged towards the prince, toppling them both to the ground. His hands were like vices on the younger man’s shoulders, effectively pinning him on the ground.
“Let me go!” Kyuhyun thrashed beneath him, trying to break free of the mage’s iron grip,
Kangin almost did. He was startled to see the sheen of tears veiling the prince’s eyes which flashed silver at him. Kyuhyun was fast spiraling into desperation and, not long after that, into despair. He had to stop him soon, had to bring him back from the dark world he was allowing himself to be enveloped.
"Calm down!" Kangin commanded, "You said yourself that I was right in wanting to help you with this!"
"I've changed my mind!" Kyuhyun exclaimed, thrashing even more violently than before.
“Kyuhyun! Your falling in with your magic!” Kangin yelled, trying to get through.
After what seemed like endless moments, the ground stopped shaking. Kyuhyun lay beneath Kangin, uncaring that he was crying. The Dark Mage shifted so he lay beside the prince rather than atop him. Kyuhyun flung an arm over his eyes as he tried to force himself to stop crying. However, the tears refused to stop and his body shook with every effort to hold in his sobs.
Kangin said nothing as he silently watched the younger man. He truly believed it best that Kyuhyun learn to face the night on his own. However, for his own selfish reasons, he had forced it upon the young prince faster than he could cope. While constantly he had reminded himself that Kyuhyun had not faced the night alone for over eight years, he had forgotten the crux of the matter: that Kyuhyun had not had to control his emotions at night for over eight years.
The emotions, Kangin now realized, were too intense for Kyuhyun. During the day, at best, his emotions were milder and his magic easier to control. At night, however, Kyuhyun’s demons played on his memory and fed off his continuing guilt and despair over the remembrance of his mother’s and his friend’s deaths. After eight years of not having to confront these feelings, of not having to deal with them, they would easily encompass and consume the young prince. And, for that, Kangin felt remorse.
After eight years of trying to make the young prince stronger, Kangin had done the one thing he never meant to happen and that was crippling the prince’s own ability to self-sustain.
Kangin silently swore at himself for trying to reverse the effects of eight years in that period of a few days. There was no way he’d be able to return to the Light Kingdom by the end of the week. He drew the young prince against his body and held him as he struggled to stop crying.
Outside, the rain poured harder.
Five days had already passed since the Dark Mage returned. Kyuhyun struggled with his training. He had mastered magic control during the day long ago. Even his emotions were never a big problem during the day. His training progressed to the point where he was sleeping mostly during the day and was up almost most of the night. The only time he was awake during the day was to spend time with his father. Such a time occured on the sixth day that Kangin was back in the kingdom.
"Kyuhyun, if you are tired, you should sleep," his father said after Kyuhyun had yawned for what seemed the thirteeth time.
"Ah, but then I would miss visiting with my favourite father," Kyuhyun grinned from his chair beside the bed,
"I'm your only father," the king practically growled,
"Which means you're my favourite!" Kyuhyun stated matter-of-factly,
His father chuckled softly, holding a handkerchief to his mouth as he began to cough. Once settled down, he said, "Kyuhyun, tell me when this rain will end."
Kyuhyun glanced to the chair beside him where his brother sat, silent as a statue. Kyuhyun propped an elbow on the armrest, his chin in his hand, "I wish I could answer that, Father."
The king blinked, turning his attention to his eldest son, "Siwon? Still? I had perhaps it was now your brother since he’s awake."
"It's just some rain, Father. The gardens will benefit from rain," Siwon shrugged, arms crosed over his chest and one knee crossed over the other.
"Too much of anything will be bad," his father stated, "There are farms in this district of the kingdom, are their crops not in danger from too much rain?"
"If there is damage, I will compensate them," Siwon insisted, "Indeed, I plan to visit some of the estates personally to see what can be done to help them."
"An admiral effort, to be sure, but you need not do something that a steward can take car of," the king stated,
"I think it will benefit to learn how the kingdom is run," Siwon replied,
"And I think it will benefit to have this rain end soon," the king said. It was clear to both sons that their father had issued a command rather than a request.
"Of course, Father," Siwon said, bowing his head slightly, "Whatever you wish."
"What I'd like to know, Siwon, is why it's raining in the first place," his father said as he beckoned Kyuhyun to his side, "I want to drink some tea."
Kyuhyun moved from his chair to his father's side, bringing a cup of tea that had been on the bedside table to his father. He helped the king sit up straighter as he held the cup to his father's lips. After the king moved his lips away, Kyuhyun replaced the cup on the bedside table. After helping his father settle back against the pillows again, Kyuhyun remained sitting on the edge of the mattress, almost shoulder-to-shoulder with his father.
“He liked the Princess of Light,” Kyuhyun revealed, throwing a grin as his brother shot him a dark glare,
“Even I knew that,” the king scoffed, “Although, it is pathetic that I learned that from the servants rather than my own children.”
“Siwon fancies himself heartbroken over her departure even though half the blame can be laid at his feet,” Kyuhyun explained, ignoring the way his brother’s stare seemed to darken to a dangerous degree,
“Is it because he appears to be unfeeling?” Their father inquired as his gaze swept to his eldest son and settling there, “Because that’s just his exterior. Even despite his belief that his soul is beyond redemption, I know his emotions still run deep.”
“No, unfortunately, Father, it’s because your heir apparent is an idiot,” Kyuhyun said lightly, “You should probably switch your will so that I inherit instead.”
“My soul is beyond saving, I am not an idiot and do stop talking as if I am not here,” Siwon more or less growled out the words, despite one of the listeners being his own father and king.
“What did he do?” Their father asked, effectively ignoring his eldest son,
“I don’t know the details, but I have an inkling to the situation,” Kyuhyun said,
“You don’t know a damn thing of what happened!” Siwon erupted suddenly, jumping from his chair and glaring at his brother with undisguised rage,
Kyuhyun turned his attention to his brother, his expression sober and serious. Slowly, ever so slowly, he raised a single brow, “Don’t I?”
“No, you don’t,” Siwon stated firmly, his hands fisting at his sides,
“If you’re self-righteous enough to be angry at her, I suppose you believe yourself in love with her,” Kyuhyun said calmly, “However, you cannot truly be in love with her if you’re angry at her for the reasons I’m assuming you’re angry at her for. If you truly loved her, you would know she’s incapable of being purposefully mean or spiteful. Even I know that and you spent far more time in her company.”
Siwon stiffly bowed towards his father, turned and left without a single word or backwards glance. The room seemed to slightly shake from the force of the door slamming after the first prince.
“Was it truly necessary to goad your brother in front of me?” The king inquired as he settled deeper into his mattress, more or less lying down as his son sat beside him. “That was your intention, was it not, by saying all of that in front of me?”
“If I confronted him without you around he would’ve left far long ago,” Kyuhyun admitted, “However, now that I’ve done this, he’ll seek me out for a confrontation. Unfortunately for him, I will not be here for him to argue with.”
His father raised a bushy brow, “And where, pray tell, will you be, son of mine?”
“Kangin leaves tonight for the Light Kingdom again. He has been helping me control my emotions better, but five days is hardly enough time to learn the discipline needed to reign in my emotions,” Kyuhyun explained, “It’s why I’ve been so tired when I visit with you, I’ve been sleeping in the day and staying up during the night. Suffice to say, I believe it beneficial if I remain with Kangin until I am able to moderate my emotions once night falls.”
“So, you, Kyuhyun, Second Dark Prince, the light of my life, are going to the Light Kingdom despite the ever-present tension between the kingdoms?” His father inquired,
“Yes,” Kyuhyun replied, “Will you survive without my presence bringing sunshine to your days, Father?” He grinned,
His father rolled his eyes, “I suppose I could royal command your brother into smiling more.” He sighed heavily, “Tell me, Kyuhyun, is it true that there’s just a misunderstanding between the princess and your brother?”
“Indeed,” Kyuhyun replied,
“And the princess, I have not seen her since she was little more than a moppet,” the king admitted, “Is she a good person? Could she perhaps make your brother smile more?”
“She is and already has,” Kyuhyun revealed, “I have never seen Siwon act as he had the week she was here. She is a very good person, Father. She has an indestructible sense of duty and a courageous heart. Indeed, had I been inclined, I would have promptly fell in love with her and never allowed her to leave the kingdom. In all honesty, had I not believed Siwon had truly hurt her, I would’ve insisted she remain her regardless of the advisors’ … well… advice.”
“I wish she had stayed, or at least, that I had been informed and would have been able to meet her before she left,” his father said wistfully.
Kyuhyun knew that when his father closed his eyes, that the king was going to be asleep in minutes.
“I charge you to ensure she returns. If she and your brother do not reconcile, I will gladly change the crown’s succession,” his father chuckled softly, sleepily,
“I will hold you to that,” Kyuhyun said, amusement evident in his tone,
“Kyuhyun, you will be safe, won’t you?” His father asked, his voice slumberous, “I really don’t know what I’d do if I were to lose you… you’re truly the light in my life.”
“Then you must get better, Father,” Kyuhyun replied, “Because I do not know what I would do if I were to lose another parent; if I were unable to save another one.”
“Your mother’s death wasn’t your fault…” His father murmured, his head beginning to loll, “It was mine for letting her get away… Stop you... guilty...”
Kyuhyun was silent as he watched his father’s breathing become shallow and then even out. He slowly slipped from the bed, turned towards his father and leaned down, bussing his cheek, startled to see a drop of water splash on his father’s serene face. As he straightened, Kyuhyun saw his vision blur with tears. He wiped them away with the back of his hand,
“Thank you for saying that,” Kyuhyun said quietly, his voice hoarse with emotion.
He turned and left, throwing one last affectionate gaze for his father before leaving the room.
He hoped when he retuned to the kingdom, his father would still be there to welcome him home.
"How can you aspire to be a great king if you refuse to listen to anyone else?"
Siwon didn't even deign the question with a response, simply continued to tend to the flowers in his night garden at the heart of his maze. He waved his hands over the delicate blooms whos greenery had begun to shrivel and die beneath the constant deluge for the past week. He murmured quietly the protection spell he had learned from Kangin earlier in the evening when he sought a way to protect his most precious of blooms.
"Just stop the rain," Kangin had told him earlier, but Siwon had been stubborn and demanded a spell instead.
The plants, he saw, began to slowly bloom despite the heavy rain. The petals opened, their ivory colour like soft beacons in the night. When he couldn't sleep, when he couldn't remain still in the evenings, he escaped to his night garden and found peace. He had realized that he couldn't find the same solace as with the other gardens within the maze, even the red rose garden was too stimulating for the solace he sought at night.
Recently, however, even his night garden held little power to calm him once night fell. The peace he looked for reached him whenever he smelled lavender with the slightest waft of vanilla, whenever he was in the garden of blues and pale purples; the garden when he first encountered the princess wandering in his maze. After the night when he realized the meaning of that particular garden, he refused to even go near there, stubbornly returning to the heart of his maze, his night garden, and trying to force the peace which once came naturally.
"If you really love her, then prove it," Kyuhyun continued as he took shelter beneath the gazebo's roof, the constant pitter-patter of the rain like an orchestra the first prince's magic conducted, "Part of loving someone is trusting them. You cannot have love without trust, Siwon... so... just trust her."
"And what do you know of trust? Of love?" Siwon demanded, suddenly looking up at him through the rain, standing outside of the gazebo and meeting his brother's eyes through the torrents; "I don't see your mage here. I don't see your mage leaving the princess. In fact, I don't even see you in any rush to go to the Light Kingdom in an attempt to get him back." Siwon turned towards his flowers, paused and then turned back to his brother, "Oh, wait," he added, his words cloaked in sarcasm, "Let me guess, you've let him go because you love him, right? That's bull shit and you know it, Kyuhyun. If you knew anything of love, you'd still be reacting, you'd still be showing emotions."
"And how would you know if you apparently have no emotions left?" Kyuhyun asked, leaning a shoulder against a post, folding his arms over his chest,
"You're right, I don't have emotions left, but I'm still reacting because I still love the chit!" Siwon exclaimed angrily, thick brows narrowed; "So, if you know anything of love, you'd sure as hell be showing emotiong - more so than me!"
"Am I jealous? Of course," Kyuhyun replied simply. He shrugged, "But I trust Sungmin more than any petty emotions I may have. I'm not reacting because I actually love him and that is what it means to trust, to love."
"You're spouting a lot of nonsense, Kyuhyun. You never were good at being poetic," Siwon turned his back on his brother, caring for another bed of night flowers. "If you truly loved the mage you would still be emotional."
"I do love him, but I trust him. You really don't listen, do you?" Kyuhyun sighed heavily as he stepped out from the gazebo. He paused and looked up at the inky sky, blinking as the rain assaulted his eyes; "At least you're right about some things... I'm not being emotional right now. Nice night we're having, isn't it?" Kyuhyun shoved his fists into his pockets, "I'll see you... well, when I see you."
Siwon looked up then, watching his brother disappear to the front of the maze as his words sunk in, took root and sprouted meaning. Slowly, he stepped backwards until his feet caught the bottom of the steps that led into the gazebo. He allowed himself to sink down, his long legs bringing his backside to sit on the gazebo's floor. Propping his elbows on his knees, he bowed his head, his fingers lacing at the base of his skull.
"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."
When he had heard these words he had hated and respected the lesser mage all at once. He hated that it had been the mage to be there for the princess, to protect her. He had respected that the mage had stepped up, had stood by her side, had protected her at all costs. He had heard her words, and, yet, had he truly been listening to her? He wondered, now, what she was trying to tell him when she said those words. He had heard her words as an excuse but, perhaps they had been, instead, an explanation?
What had the others said?
"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."
He had been angry at Kangin. He had heard the words and gone on the defensive. He thought the Dark Mage was merely protecting the princess. Thought the mage would say anything just to defend her. He never thought that perhaps the mage was trying to tell him something, trying to hint at some divine secret that he didn't know. He wondered if he could get angry once more at Kangin and, realized he could not. If Kangin had withheld telling him
something it was because it was not his to tell and the Dark Mage's loyalty was second to none.
"However, you cannot truly be in love with her if you’re angry at her for the reasons I’m assuming you’re angry at her for. If you truly loved her, you would know she’s incapable of being purposefully mean or spiteful."
His brother had not known what he and Taeyeon had fought over and, yet, he spoke as if he knew. Indeed, spoke as if he understood the situation far better.
"If you really love her, then prove it. Part of loving someone is trusting them. You cannot have love without trust, Siwon... so... just trust her."
His brother spoke of knowing true love, of knowing true trust. His brother's optimism made him wonder. Why did he still love the Lesser Mage of Light? Why did he defend the princess when he was going against his own older brother? He had felt betrayed, had resented that everyone was taking the princess' side. He had never stopped to wonder, to see their words and arguments from a different perspective. He had never stopped to truly listen to them. He had been too angry, too jealous to see past the growing darkness in his heart to see her for her.
"Then, you don't deserve her."
He had thought she had been undeserving. He had thought she the unfaithful, the untrustworthy, and he had been the victim. He had lashed out, his words revealing the insecurities he held close to his heart, borne from the same organ. He had been cruel, hateful, spiteful, all because he wanted to inflict the same pain she caused in 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! He doesn’t love just one part of me… he loves all of me.”
He had refused to truly listen to her - to anyone else. He had refused to talk when she asked to before she had left. He had refused any allowance, any trust or second chances. He had been unforgiving, unrelenting. He had been hurt because he had seen her with the mage, had allowed that one scene to affect the other parts of her that he had known, had begun to understand. He had allowed one part of her to blind him to the rest. He could no longer see everything, so focused on one aspect and, now, he wondered if that one part of her was all he thought it to be.
He began to wonder if what everyone else said was true: did he love her?
"If you really love her, then prove it,"
Did he? Love her, that is. More, importantly, if he did, then what then? What was he to do? Would he go to the Light Kingdom and try to win her heart? Was he right and there was something he didn't know about her and Sungmin? Or was he right before and all he was was a toy? Were they all toys, play things, nothing more than mere distractions to a bored princess?
He slowly raised his head, his hands rubbing over his face as the rain poured down, slanting into the gazebo and he realized, then, that he was soaked through and through. He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes to counter the burning sting of tears. He thought back, then. He thought back to before his jealousy raged, before his anger burned. He thought back to when he believed he knew the princess, to when she captured his soul and when he called her 'Taeyeon'.
"Because it’s you I love."
He had though she had failed his expectations, his hopes... him.
"I love you, Siwon."
All this time, had he been the one to fail her?
"I will have to first fall out of love with you."
A week had passed since the Dark Mage had left the kingdom. Since then, Eeteuk had already dealt with the advisors almost every day. Each time they complained about rumours that a full mage had remained overnight at the castle. Eeteuk had confirmed the rumours, finding no reason to deny the truth. However, before the advisors could probe more, Eeteuk had merely stared at them, silently challenging them to continue asking their questions.
Another meeting had occurred and Eeteuk had simply warned them that if they returned again without a new argument, he would bar the doors from them. It effectively silenced their outraged voices and had them leave just as quietly. He was sitting at his desk in the study, elbows propped on the table and his head in his hands when a knock came at the door.
Eeteuk sighed heavily. He had had a headache ever since it was announced that the royal advisors were there – again – to see him. Considering they had left only half an hour prior, he felt some relief in knowing that it was not them who would be disturbing him. Straightening in his chair, he bade entrance to the knocker.
A butler appeared, approaching the desk and bowing before him, “Your Majesty, there are guests here wishing an audience.”
“Guests? Have they been here before?” Eeteuk inquired,
“The one is the full mage who was here last week. He escorted the princess and the lesser mage before,” the butler explained,
“You may show them here, then,” Eeteuk instructed.
The butler bowed again before promptly leaving. Eeteuk thought quickly, trying to guess who would be coming with Kangin. It was a few minutes before the butler led the guests into the study. After a nod from Eeteuk, the butler left, closing the door securely behind him.
Eeteuk’s gaze had locked on Kangin the moment he had appeared in the doorway. However, it didn’t take long before he turned his attention to the second man who had entered. Eeteuk stood as they approached, his pale brown eyes wide as he took in the youngest man’s appearance.
“Prince Kyuhyun?” Eeteuk guessed,
Kyuhyun blinked, startled at having the king know him on sight. Kangin, on the other hand, considered the king with curiosity.
“King Eeteuk,” Kyuhyun bowed towards the king, not having to bow as deeply as others since he held a royal title himself. When he straightened, his confusion was evident, “You… know me?”
“It was a guess, but there are features that are familiar,” Eeteuk explained as he sat and gestured for the others to do so in the chairs before his desk, “You take after your mother.”
Kyuhyun was startled some more, “You’ve seen my mother?”
“Oh, of course,” Kangin quietly gasped, revelation sparking his silver eyes,
“There is no ‘of course’, you knew this?” Kyuhyun glared at the mage,
“I had forgotten,” Kangin shrugged his broad shoulders, “but before the war, the monarchs of both kingdoms would visit the other monarchs. You were too young to remember, but the last time the King and Queen of Light came to the Dark Castle was…” He swiftly drew back into the past before continuing, “You would have been four-years-old.”
Kyuhyun gaped, “And you remember this?”
Kangin nodded, “I was seven, but that’s when I was presented to the King and Queen of Light by the Dark Mages. Within a year of that presentation, I was brought to the Light Kingdom to train with the Mages of Light.”
“Your parents, Prince Kyuhyun, came here over seventeen years ago,” Eeteuk revealed, “It was your family who brought Kangin here for the first time to train. That is when I met you.”
“I don’t remember any of this,” Kyuhyun admitted,
“I wouldn’t expect you to. You would have been five at the time while Kangin and myself were eight and ten respectively. Your brother had not accompanied your family due to illness,” Eeteuk replied simply, “The last time they visited was just over fifteen years ago.”
“But… that’s when the war started,” Kyuhyun said,
Eeteuk nodded, “A month before my parents were murdered, to be exact.” His gaze unwavering, he added quietly, “It was that visit that sparked some of the stories behind the assassination.”
“My parents –”
“Are not at fault,” Eeteuk interjected when the younger man raised his voice, “I know. Things have been settled between our two kingdoms and it is my wish to see your father again. As it stands, it has been fifteen years since I last saw him. Even during the truce negotiations all was done at a distance.”
“Well… just as long as you’re aware,” Kyuhyun muttered, settling in his chair and crossing his arms defiantly before the king.
Kangin rolled his eyes before catching the king’s attention and seeing amusement in those warm, brown eyes.
“Now that we have that explained, my next question is why, Prince Kyuhyun, you are here?” Eeteuk asked, “While I extend my hospitality to you and yours, your… impromptu visit does raise a million questions in my head. One of those questions being am I to guard your identity from all others?”
“I have been training with Prince Kyuhyun over the past eight years to help him with his magic,” Kangin explained, his tone serious, “He has requested I continue training him and, to accommodate me, he has accompanied me here.”
Eeteuk raised a single brow, “Indeed?”
“Yes,” Kangin said evenly, knowing how the king felt about magic use.
Eeteuk thought over things seriously. He knew what the risks would be. He knew what trouble could arise if two souls of the Dark were consumed in his own kingdom, in his own castle. He knew what Kangin was asking of him. His gaze, locked with the Dark Mage's, knew that if he agreed, if he consented to what the two younger man were proposing to do while staying at the castle, that he was agreeing to something else with Kangin. Below the surface, Kangin was asking for trust and Eeteuk would be giving it.
"I understand if you don't want a Dark user in your castle. Indeed, my own brother feels the same," Kyuhyun said, "And, if you're worried I'll be underfoot, I won't be. You won't even realize I'm here. I don't even have to eat in the dining room if you don't wish it. If you -"
Eeteuk raised a hand, "Prince Kyuhyun, you had my hospitality the moment you stepped into my kingdom."
Eeteuk shook his head, lowering his hand, "How shall we refer to you, Prince Kyuhyun? If we are to protect your identity, we should do one better and call you something other than your real name. Someone could recognize your name and match it to one of the Dark Princes."
Kyuhyun turned his head to look at the Dark Mage, "Why didn't we think of that? We're lucky that no one realized Taeyeon's the Princess of Light."
Kangin chuckled softly, "Think of a name, then, shall I call a butler to help the prince settle in, Sire?"
Eeteuk nodded as Kangin stood and headed for the bell pull. A few minutes later, a butler came in. Eeteuk gave him instructions and Kyuhyun stood, bowing to the king and throwing a grateful glance at the Dark Mage before following the butler to a guest room. Once the door closed after the butler and prince, Kangin walked back to his chair and sat down.
"Well, Eeteuk," Kangin said simply, a half smile tugging at his lips.
"Well, indeed," Eeteuk replied, smiling in return.
"... And with that, we hope to, once again, unite our kingdom."
The princess looked out amongst the cheering crowed gathered in the town square as she stood on a raised platform and addressed them. Sungmin stood to the side of the platform, arms crossed over his chest as he watched the princess with ill-disguised admiration and pride.
She looked beautiful in her emerald, short-sleeved jungchimak and ivory paji. Her ebony hair fell in waves down her back, half of it pulled back and held with a jewelled clip of the same shade of green. She was every bit a princess as she spoke regally, stood ramrod straight and wore her mother’s ring on her left ring finger.
She answered questions calmly, confidently, her conviction evident in her tone and the way her amber eyes lit up. She drew attention, not just because of her attitude and status, but also because of what she wore. It was obvious she was wearing mage robes and the people had begun to conclude correctly that she wore the robes to dignify not only that she was a magic user, but that she took magic use seriously and that she was more than just a pampered princess. Her speech, as with all the past speeches she had given, had drawn in the crowd and allowed her to introduce herself formally as an ambassador for the people and kingdom, and, more importantly, as an equal to her brother despite being his vassal.
When it was clear that there were no more questions – a good forty-five minutes after the conclusion of her speech – the princess gave a single, brief nod and the crowd bowed and curtsied to her. She turned and walked off the platform to a burst of cheering from the people. She accepted Sungmin’s hand as he helped her down the steps to the ground.
“I think that went well, don’t you?” She said brightly as he led her towards the carriage which would convey them back to the estate mansion before moving on to the next estate.
“Indeed, as all the other presentations have been,” Sungmin agreed,
“Well, it’s best not to be overconfident with – oh!” Taeyeon was stopped when a small girl ran into her and hugged her legs firmly.
A harried mother ran up, prying her daughter from the princess. “My apologies, Princess, I lost sight of her for just a moment and –”
“It’s of no consequence,” Taeyeon insisted as she sunk down low so she was almost eye-level with the little girl, “Thank you for the hug, did you know you hug very tightly?”
The little girl stared at her with wide eyes, a small fist slowly rising to pop a thumb in her mouth. Slowly, she nodded.
Taeyeon smiled at her, “Well, you have to hug your mother even tighter okay?”
The little girl nodded her head violently. Taeyeon reached out and patted her head before straightening again. She turned her attention to the mother, “She’s a beautiful girl. She’s very sweet to have hugged me.”
“T-Thank you, Your Highness,” the woman began to curtsy, but Taeyeon stopped her, putting a tentative hand on the woman’s arm,
Taeyeon offered her a small smile, “No, thank you for allowing your daughter to hug me. I hope when I have a daughter, she’s just as precious.” Taeyeon gave a nod of goodbye and allowed Sungmin to lead her away.
“That was very kind of you,” Sungmin said as a footman opened the door to the carriage and he helped her in,
“Kind? I was being honest,” Taeyeon said as Sungmin settled in the seat across from hers,
“I know, but the citizens would never have believed royalty would deign to be so… well… normal, with them,” Sungmin explained, “I’m sure that woman will be the toast of the town for months to come as being the one able to speak one-on-one with the Princess of Light.”
Taeyeon laughed lightly as she leaned back against the carriage squabs, tilting her head against it and closing her eyes. She heard movement before she felt Sungmin sit beside her.
“You’re exhausted again,” Sungmin said simply as she felt his hand against her forehead and cheek, “At least you’re not getting sick.”
“My body’s just not used to so much activity. Indeed, after all this travelling I’ll never be able to return to my idle life. Or, worse, I’ll just sleep for a few years,” Taeyeon rolled her head against the seat so she faced him, opening her eyes and softly smiling at the mage,
“Well, you’d be more rested if you ate and slept more,” Sungmin stated seriously, his steel-blue eyes narrowing ever so slightly,
“At least I’m actually eating now,” she reminded gently. When he merely glared at her, she sighed, “I’m eating more and I’ll eat more, I promise. It was just the first few weeks when I couldn’t shake off my sadness. I’m feeling infinitely better now, though.”
“And your sleeping habits?” Sungmin inquired,
“Well, I can’t help it if I’m becoming an insomniac,” she defended without conviction, “I thought the days would be hard because of my magic, but it’s at night when I can’t fall asleep. My mind is too restless.”
“Hence, the flowers?” Sungmin asked lightly,
“The flowers are pretty,” she returned, “I suppose I got used to seeing beautiful flowers while we were in the other kingdom.”
“They’re all night flowers,” Sungmin countered,
“That doesn’t mean they’re not pretty,” she argued,
Sungmin sighed heavily as he turned so he faced forward and leaned back against the squabs, “Taeyeon, if we weren’t on the other side of the kingdom, I’d whisk you away to the Dark Kingdom just so you could talk to that damn prince if I thought it’d do you good.”
“Min…” she began in a warning tone,
“Don’t argue, I know you miss him,” Sungmin replied,
“I never said I didn’t… I just said your name,” she muttered, leaning her head against his shoulder, “I should have told him sooner.”
“You tried,” Sungmin reminded.
He had patiently waited and, during the first few days of their travels, Taeyeon had admitted what her argument with Siwon had been. She had prided herself in not crying during the retelling. However, when Sungmin had drawn her into an embrace, she couldn’t hold back the tears.
“I did, but I should have done more. I should have made him listen to me. I should have yelled it at him so he couldn’t ignore me. I should have done everything I could to tell him the truth,” Taeyeon said, “Even when I told him, he didn’t say anything. Instead… Instead he said goodbye.”
“And that you should fall in love with me,” Sungmin added quietly,
“If only that were so easy… I did try, Sungmin,” Taeyeon admitted, “When we first concocted this ruse, I would think to myself how fortunate it would be if I loved you in a romantic way. I realized soon enough that one cannot force love. Over the years, however, my heart will not recognize you as anything more than my dearest friend.”
“I tried, also,” Sungmin revealed as he took her right hand in his left and held it firmly, “I told myself that you deserved nothing less than love from your betrothed, but, as with you, I could never love you as more than a friend, despite how deep in my heart I keep you.” He squeezed her hand affectionately, “I believe, Taeyeon, that you and I are not destined to be together in a romantic way.”
“We know each other so well and connect on so many levels. I thought for sure that I would fall head over heels in love with you,” Taeyeon murmured, slowly falling asleep with the rocking of the carriage and the constant fatigue of body and mind. “But, maybe… we’re soul mates.”
“Soul mates?” He prompted gently, despite knowing she was close to sleeping,
“We are meant to be in each other’s lives… When all else abandon us… leave us… we remain a part of one another,” she explained sleepily, quietly, “Soul… mates.”
“Always?” Sungmin asked,
“For forever,” Taeyeon whispered.
Sungmin remained silent as he heard her breathing become shallow and even out, denoting she had fallen asleep. A few minutes had passed before the carriage suddenly stopped and Sungmin became alert, knowing they were still at least an hour away from the estate. The door opened and the driver appeared,
“Sir! The carriage wheels are on fire!” He held out his hands to take the princess to safety.
Sungmin, however, gently shifted Taeyeon so she leaned against the other side of the carriage wall and could easily extricate himself from her side. He calmly jumped out of the carriage and noted that the wheels were, in fact, engulfed in flames. He waved his hand in the air and the flames disappeared.
“Check to see the wheels. If they’re too deteriorated from the fire, we’ll have to wait here until another carriage or wheels can come,” Sungmin instructed, “Are you all okay?”
He addressed the footmen who rode before and behind the carriage. Once they nodded their affirmation, he turned his attention to the ten guards on horseback that were constantly on guard whenever they left one of the estates.
“The princess is in dire need of sleep, and I do not think allowing her to sleep in a carriage at the side of the road will help her regain her strength,” Sungmin stated, “I’m sure you’re all aware that the fire was caused by the princess. It’s best I bring her to the estate as soon as I can. I will borrow one of your horses and take seven of the guards with me. The other three will remain here to take care of the carriage.”
Sungmin stepped back into the carriage, whispering the sleeping spell before he lifted the princess into his arms. One of the guards who had dismounted hurried over to take the princess so Sungmin could leave the carriage and mount a horse. After Sungmin had settled into the saddle, the horse’s guard lifted the princess to him and Sungmin set Taeyeon before him, ensuring she was comfortable and that he had a firm hold on her.
“We’ll go ahead now,” Sungmin said to those who would be left behind, “Once you reach the estate, have word sent to me so I know you all arrived safely.”
Sungmin set off with the seven guards. He was acutely aware of the princess before him, leaning completely against him, his arms bracketing her and protecting her.
“Even if we love other people,” Sungmin whispered, tilting his head slightly downwards so that his lips brushed her temple, “I hope you are right… I hope we are soul mates. Then, if my heart is ever broken, I’ll still have you.” He briefly closed his eyes as he kissed her temple, “Just as you will always have me.”
"I have heard that the Light Kingdom expects the princess to marry soon,"
Siwon sighed heavily as he lowered himself back down into his seat. He had been sure his father had fallen asleep and, thus, was already rising from his chair to leave the room. The words spoken in the gruff and sleepy voice he knew so well, were words he could not ignore. Indeed, he had a feeling his father had waited for just the right moment to say them.
"Father, are the servants filling your ears with gossip again?" Siwon drawled,
"They've never steered me wrong ever since I've been doomed to this room," his father murmured sleepily, his eyes still closed and expression relaxed as if he were to slip into slumber at any moment. "Have you heard these rumours?"
Siwon swallowed hard. He had heard whispers at first and, then, the advisors had told him during a meeting. They had briefly mentioned that the princess of the Light Kingdom was expected to marry soon. When he had inquired as to the expectations, he had tried to keep his voice even, his face expressionless. They had explained that the princess had been touring the royal estates with her fiance. Since such an event had never happened before, the people were sure it meant a wedding was just around the corner.
"Briefly, yes," Siwon answered, finally,
"And?" His father asked,
"And what?" Siwon replied, sitting straighter in his seat,
"And, what, pray tell, will you do, Son?" His father prompted, his eyes opening ever so slightly beneath his bushy brows,
"I will go on in life as I always have," Siwon replied, "I believe I betrayed the princess by beliving she had betrayed me. The mage, her fiance, has never done her wrong. She deserves that... she deserves the best and I believe... no, I know he's what's best for her."
"You know, it took me so long to convince your mother to give up her life as a mage and marry me," his father recalled sleepily, "If you want something bad enough... if you want someone bad enough... then you must fight for them. Indeed, the best things in life are worth fighting for."
"Father, aren't you listening to me? I'm not good for her! That mage is!" Siwon exclaimed,
"I don't know this mage, but I know you. Regardless having been bedridden for the past year, I still know you," His father said, suddenly seeming more awake than before; "I know you, Siwon and I know what I have in you. I know who've you been, who you are and what you are capable of becoming. If you want this princess, you fight for her and, then, you become a better person since you're so sure that you're not already great."
Siwon sighed heavily as he stood and moved to lean against a post at the foot of the bed. He crossed his arms loosely about his torso, "Your opinion of me is a bit biased, Father."
"My opinion about you is right," his father insisted, "You've had a low opinion about yourself ever since your mother died."
Siwon's eyes opened wide, his brows rising.
"You think I didn't notice? No... I know you and your brother far too well, Siwon," his father revealed, "You both felt guilt over the death of your mother and your brother's friend. It wounded you both deeply and differently."
"I should have woken up sooner," Siwon said quietly, straightening away from the bedpost, "If I hadn't taken so long to wake up once the back fields were on fire... I could have left the castle sooner... could have stopped mother..."
"No one could have stopped your mother," his father argued softly, "She had risen from bed the moment the lawns were engulfed with flames. We rushed from our rooms, pushing me towards yours and Kyuhyun's rooms. She said to save you both and she would try to save our home."
"I had forgotten... it was you who had dragged me from bed that night," Siwon recalled, his eyes widening,
"Once I was sure you were moving, I had two footmen ensure you left the grounds safely as I had done with Kyuhyun before waking you up. Then, I had run ahead to find your mother," his father explained, "I was in the front court, your brother nearby when I heard your mother was in the back fields. Kyuhyun had run towards them, then and, before I could follow, I heard a call of chaos from the front gates, of soldiers blocking our escape... I couldn't remain idle... I had to help fight through the blockade.
"When we gained the upper hand at the front gates, water pouring down from the skies," the king continued, "The rain had to be stopped before everyone was washed away. The ground shook and the soldiers from the other kingdom crumbled before our gates. Kangin appeared and we raced to the back fields... when the rain stopped and the water cleared away I saw only eyes for your mother."
His father sighed heavily as he closed his eyes again, once more regaining the appearance of complete relaxation. “So you see,” he murmured quietly, “You nor Kyuhyun are to blame.”
Siwon said nothing as he turned and headed for the door. His fingers curled around the doorknob as his father continued in a soft voice,
“You need to learn to start believing in yourself again, Siwon… You need to see yourself for what you’re truly worth,” his father stated, “The princess saw something in you before… mayhap, she still sees that of you now.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Siwon replied,
“You have nothing to lose if you try and fail,” his father reminded, “But, you have everything to gain.”
“And my pride? My dignity? I stand to lose those if I leave myself vulnerable to others,” Siwon argued,
“And if you don’t try? If you do not take risks? Do you have pride or dignity if you don’t do these things?” His father countered. When Siwon remained silent but his father did not hear him leave, the king added softly, “You do deserve happiness, Siwon.”
For a moment, Siwon said nothing, his heart beating madly in his chest from all his father said and what it could mean if he did take a chance, if he did risk everything on a gamble on the princess. He swallowed hard, a lump forming in his throat.
“I’ll visit again tomorrow morning,” Siwon said before slipping out of the room.
Even if his father championed him, he knew better. He didn’t deserve the princess. He would not stop her from marrying the mage.