“Oww…” Changmin moaned and rubbed his head as he stepped into the room.
“What happened, Changmin? Got kicked by a horse?” Yoochun laughed.
“Something worse than that…” Changmin complained as he pushed Yoochun off the chair and promptly sank gratefully into it.
“I never knew that women could be such smart creatures; I literally had to clean ALL the horses.”
“Hahaha! Do my ears deceive me? Has Changmin, the Know-it-all finally met his match?” Junsu laughed and whacked Changmin on the back.
“OW!!!!WATCH IT!” Changmin yelled.
“Tofu man…” I laughed and aimed a punch at Changmin’s back, dodging his flapping arms.
“YAA!!”Changmin shouted and tackled me by the legs, catching me off guard. I stumbled and fell, dragging him along with me.
“ATTACK!” Junsu screamed as he took a step back and made a flying leap towards us.
“INCOMING!” Yoochun shouted almost immediately after Junsu and sprinted towards us with a big grin on his face. I stuck out my leg just before he reached Changmin and watched with glee as he tripped and landed on top of Junsu.
“YAHHH!!” Changmin and Junsu cried out at the same time as Junsu collapsed under Yoochun’s weight and landed smack-dab on top of Changmin.
Laughing, I wriggled away from Changmin who was now crushed under Junsu, with Yoochun sitting on him.
“Hyung!… Help!” Changmin, the human cushion called out, his voice muffled under Junsu.
“Gravity is increasing on me!…” Junsu cried out dramatically and stretched himself out comfortably on top of Changmin.
“You guys are KILLING ME!” Changmin yelled and struggled to push both Yoochun and Junsu off him.
Crouching in front of Changmin, I pinched his cheeks gently but firmly.
“This is what you get when you mess with your Hyung,”
“Get real, Hyung! I was aiming for you!” Junsu laughed and pounced on me.
“YAA! JUNSU!” I roared as both of us crashed onto the floor.
“Um… Your Highnesses?”
“Get off me, Junsu!” I yelled as he happily took his time bouncing on me.
“Hyung! You’ve been eating too much, you’re so soft!” Junsu exclaimed.
“Stop laughing, guys! It’s comfort food, ok? I’ve been having a bit of a blue period these few days.” I grunted and pushed myself from the floor, dumping Junsu unceremoniously off my back. I raised my head and stared straight into the two figures in the doorway.
Ker and Eris had their hands pressed to their lips, trying to muffle their giggles, but were failing miserably.
BAD image, Yunho; I cringed within.
I stood up quickly, coughed then brushed the invisible dust off my arms.
“So…” I said seriously.
The maids burst into a loud fit of laughter while Yoochun slapped the back of my head playfully.
“SO…” Changmin choked back a laugh and stared solemnly at me.
Flicking a stray strand of hair away from my eyes, I nodded towards the maids and sat down in the nearest chair I could find.
“Is anything the matter?” I asked.
“Your Highness,” Ker bowed and continued, “Crown Prince Jaejoong would like to inform Your Highnesses that the King has woken up from his sleep.”
“WHAT?!” Changmin and I cried out at the same time and jumped up from our seats.
“Father never wakes up during the day,” Junsu said worriedly.
“Let’s go and find out what happened” I said in a troubled voice and ushered everyone out.
“You must bring her back, Jaejoong. She is the daughter of a great friend of Father’s and we had made a pact before you were even born… You must… bring her back…” Father mumbled as he struggled to keep his eyes open.
“Rest, Father. I will take care of it,” Jaejoong said quietly as he patted Father reassuringly on the shoulder.
Father gave a feeble nod and closed his eyes peacefully.
What was that about? Junsu and Changmin mouthed at me across Father’s bed.
I shrugged back at him and tucked Father’s blanket under his chin.
“What did Father say?”
“Who’s the she?”
“What pact was Father talking about?”
“Why was Father so worried?”
“Anyone seen my socks?”
All four of us – Jaejoong, Junsu, Changmin and I turned and bored our eyes towards Yunho as he glanced up from his closet.
“What?” Yunho shrugged, “I was only trying to help Hyung; as amazing as he is, even he can’t answer a tidal wave of questions at once.”
“Apparently, King Towashima from the Kingdom in the South was great friends with Father,” Jaejoong said, nodding gratefully at Yunho.
“REALLY?” Junsu asked in disbelief.
He was not alone in his amazement. King Towashima’s kingdom was located at the extreme south of the land. Unlike the central location of our kingdom, the South was dry, cold and comparatively harsh and unforgiving. King Towashima had never once set foot in the central plains nor had he associated himself much with our Kingdom at all. In fact, if Jaejoong hadn’t informed us, I wouldn’t even have known that Father and King Towashima were acquainted, much less, good friends.
“So what’s the catch?” Yunho asked as he came over holding a pair of black fluffy socks.
“King Towashima was found dead two days ago. Father received the news of his suicide last night and somehow it triggered his reaction today.” Jaejoong said.
Yunho’s mouth dropped open in a big O as he stood beside me.
“S-suicide? What happened?” I asked shakily.
“My condolences to him and his family,” Junsu said solemnly and closed his eyes.
“I’m not sure about the exact details, but Father wants us to bring his daughter back,” Jaejoong continued.
“He has a DAUGHTER?” Yunho questioned.
“Yeah and a son too, don’t you pay attention to state matters at all, Hyung?” Changmin asked in exasperation.
“Just testing you all,” Yunho grinned and slapped Changmin on the back.
“So if Father and King Towashima were good friends, why is it that he’s never mentioned this to us before? We’ve never associated ourselves much with King Towashima’s Kingdom; why the sudden need to bring the daughter of the recently deceased King to our kingdom?” I asked.
“That I am not too sure, Father fell asleep before he could tell me. Whatever the reason, one or two of us have to prepare for the journey to King Towashima’s Kingdom tonight, Father specified that,” Jaejoong answered.
“Junsu and I could go,” I offered immediately.
“No…” Jaejoong replied hesitantly.
“I’ll go, it might be dangerous for you two since none of us are familiar with the Southern Territory but at least I have some experience in the wild and I can put my training to good use,” Yunho smiled and patted my shoulder.
“That would be a better idea,” Jaejoong nodded.
“You’ll need to keep as low a profile as possible; Father does not wish for the Queen of the Kingdom in the South to know.”
“What?! But we’re taking the princess?! Isn’t that like kidnapping?” I said, taken aback by his words.
“Hyung, we need to know the truth. What is it that you are hiding from us?” Changmin asked.
“Your Highness!Your Highness!”
“What is it?” I asked without looking up from mounds of state documents that were piled up on my table.
“His Majesty is awake!” A breathless maid cried out as she skidded to a stop before my table.
“What?” I asked, looking up and giving her my full attention.
Lyssa was breathing heavily as she pointed towards the door.
“I was dusting His Majesty’s room when I heard a cough and saw him lying awake on the bed. He called for you so I came immediately.”
“Inform my brothers,” I said as I stood up and hurriedly left the room.
Father never wakes up at this hour, could it be because of the letter he received last night? I thought worriedly.
“Father…” I called out as I entered his room and sat beside him, reaching for his outstretched hands. A letter was gripped tightly in his right fist and he shook it towards me, indicating that I should read it. Pulling the letter gently from his fingers, I unfolded it.
My Dear Hyung,
How have you been? It’s been 20 long years since we last saw each other and never a day have I not thought of our friendship and brotherhood. I beg of you to forgive me for the many years of silent treatment that I subjected you to. When we were younger, you kindly brushed it off as youthfulness, “brattiness” I called it. Sadly, I do not seem to have outgrown it even though we are both old men now. Whenever it comes to you, I always seem to turn back into that ignorant little boy. I believe that by the time you read this letter, I will be reunited with my beloved in the heavens. Life has lost it’s purpose and meaning since her death and it was only for the sake of Misaki that I have persisted in dealing with the Kingdom and the Queen. Misaki is twenty this year, the age of marriage. Remember the pact that we made twenty two years ago? If our children were both males, they would be brothers; if one of us had a son and the other a daughter, the two of them would be husband and wife. I hear that you have five sons. It is a little late but I extend my warmest congratulations to you on your good fortune. Having you for a father and role model, they must be very fine young men. I can only ask for you to indulge your dongsaeng one last time, fulfil a dying man’s last wish and do me the honour of marrying my daughter to one of your sons. My Queen is a ruthless person, filled with hatred and bitterness. I believe that if Misaki were to be left with the Queen, she will suffer. You are the only person I can turn to, the only person I can trust Misaki with. Only when she is part of your family, will I rest in peace. My dear brother, forgive me and goodbye.
My hands trembled as I folded the letter and slipped it back into Father’s hand.
A pre-arranged marriage? Why had Father never mentioned this before? Would that mean that one of our destinies were already set?
“Jaejoong… you must bring her back…” Father said as fumbled with his neck. He withdrew a chain with a jade pendent on it and pressed it into my hand. On close inspection, I realized that it was only half of a pendent with the Chinese characters ‘手足’ engraved on it.
“Take this and find the other half; ask one of your brothers to set off tonight and bring a few highly skilled guards. You must ensure that this is kept a secret, do not let Towashima’s Queen find out. Once Princess Misaki is in our Kingdom, she will be safe.”
I nodded and slid the pendant in my pocket.
“Hyung?” Changmin inquired.
“What?” I asked as I shook off the memory.
“The truth. Why do we need to keep a low profile?” Changmin asked again.
I stared at Changmin and thought deeply; they need not know about the pre-arranged marriage yet, none of them are ready for it.
Looking at all of my brothers, I took a deep breath and told them the whole story except for the pact that Father and King Towashima had made.
“Whoo…” Yunho whistled as he played with the pendant.
“手足…” Changmin mumured as he peered at the pendent.
“What did you just say?” Yunho asked as Changmin reached over for the pendent.
“手足, Shou zhu,” Changmin pronounced slowly as he turned the pendant over in his hand.
“It is the first half of the phrase手足情谊, shou zhu qing yi,” Changmin said.
“I did not just hear you speak Chinese,” Yunho replied in shock.
With a smug look on his face, Changmin raised the pendent and dangled it in midair.
“In the Chinese Classical Literature, 手足情谊 literally translates to the hands and legs of the human body. It’s an analogy for a relationship so close, it is as inseparable as our limbs. So if I’m right, which I probably am, the other half of the pendent should be with King Towashima.”
“Excellent! So now I am supposed to find the girl with the other half of this pendent with the second half of the words ‘shuozuqiyi’ on it,” Yunho said incredulously.
“It’s手足情谊, and you know the name of the girl too, Misaki,” Changmin corrected.
“Great help, a name,” Yunho replied unenthusiastically.
“We’ll need someone who is familiar with the Southern Territory, though,” Junsu commented thoughtfully.
“Yes, I was thinking of that. We’ll call a meeting and ask if anyone in the castle is familiar with the South,” I said and got up from my seat.
“What about asking… what’s her name… ah… Gretal, she should be most familiar with everyone in the Castle,” Yunho suggested.
“Good idea,” I said. “I’ll call one of the maids to fetch her.”
“Greta!Greta!” Pansy’s excited voice drifted into my room.
“What is it?” I asked, irritated that I was interrupted in the middle of my painting.
“… They asked for you in private!” she said breathlessly and shuffled to a stop beside me.
“Oh! Are you painting?”
“Obviously!” I answered, annoyed at her lack of intelligence. Honestly, sometimes Pansy asks the dumbest questions, and to think that she is my right hand woman; I thought dryly.
“It’s… It’s a nice flower…” She continued with much effort.
“For GOODNESS SAKE!” I shouted and slammed my paintbrush on the table, taking care that it did not come within an inch of the painting.
“It’s Crown Prince Jaejoong! Can you not see his mesmerizing eyes …. and that perfect jawline with a hint of stubbornness in it? If you don’t understand what art is about, then don’t even bother mentioning it!” I shouted, breathing heavily.
“Errrr… errr…” Pansy stammered.
“So what was it that you were saying?” I asked and picked up my paintbrush again.
“Oh… Crown Prince Jaejoong asked you to see him in Prince Yunho’s room and he said something about its being of top secret…”
“WHAT?!” I jumped and shouted again, accidentally drawing a stroke right across my carefully painted portrait.
“Crown Prince Jaejoong? He wants to tell me something that is top secret?..Oh!Oh!… How do I look?” I asked Pansy as I patted my hair nervously.
“Like a star!” Pansy smiled widely.
“Stay here!” I ordered and rushed out of my room.
Crown Prince Jaejoong, I’m coming; I thought faintly and sped up the stairs towards Prince Yunho’s room.
“Cr…Crown Prince Jaejoong? You asked to see Gretal-I mean-Greta, I mean, me for something of top secrecy?” I stammered and bowed.
“Oh, you’re fast, Gretal. We were just wondering if you knew anyone who is familiar with the southern territory,” Prince Yunho said.
A flicker of annoyance flashed through me; Prince Yunho never does get my name right, does he? I thought. However the annoyance was instantly gone the moment I raised my head.
There staring straight at me was the angel of my dreams, the man that surpassed God and stole my heart the moment I laid eyes on him. The angel smiled, a breathtaking sight; teeth that gleamed as white as snow, eyes that melted my heart, body and mind.
Gravity seemed to pull me back onto earth as I made a huge effort to turn my head away from the archangel.
“Yes?” I asked weakly.
“Do you happen to know anyone who is familiar with the South?” Prince Yunho asked with a hint of annoyance in his voice.
My brain seemed fuzzy as I slowly digested his words. Someone who is familiar with the South…
Like plunging into the dark warm waters, I pushed slowly through my memories and finally rested on a particular one.
“Ker,” I said slowly. “Ker had been born in the South.”
Yay! I have readers:) I know I said I would repost my story on my Lj account, but I will still post on fanaholic:)
Comments would be loved! and enjoy the double chp post:)