165 Fade with Time Pt.1

    An explosion of colours. That was what greeted the esteemed guests of the emperor as they waited for the ceremony to commence. Like his coronation earlier that year, the palace was embellished with fineries of green and gold. Everywhere one turned, the insignia of the Jade Lotus was paraded. It was a spectacle to behold; like grass beating in the wind, a buzz of anticipation swept over the crowd as they witnessed the arrival of a royal palanquin. Keen to catch a glimpse, many were on their tiptoes as much as dignity allowed.

    The palanquin proceeded down the carpeted aisle followed by an entourage. Servants with feathered fans and foreign banners marched behind, indicating the exotic heritage of the future empress. Waiting at the end of the long march was the emperor. He stood at the foot of the stairs leading to the ceremonial hall, his expression unreadable. Despite it being a day of celebration, he could not bring himself to smile. With each step, the Huaxian princess drew closer to becoming his empress, his lifelong companion and most importantly, his wife.

    It took all he had to keep his resolve from crumbling.

    But while the emperor concealed his sorrow and the crowd revelled in the grandeur, there, hidden behind ranks of respected clansmen, was one lost in his own world.

    Taehyung stared blankly ahead.

    Having attended many banquets in the past, the glamour of a royal wedding no longer fazed him. Taehyung peered at Jongin. Like everyone else, his eyes were glued to the palanquin as if hoping to spot the foreign princess through the beaded curtain. Had Taehyung shared Jongin's enthusiasm, he would have been doing the same. After all, it was a special occasion. However, Taehyung cared little about the procession or the foreign princess. For while he was physically present, his mind was elsewhere.

    As the empress-to-be finally climbed out of the palanquin, a collective sharp intake of breath was heard. Radiating with elegance, the princess of Huaxia emerged like a butterfly from its chrysalis. From afar one could tell that she was of slight build with skin like porcelain. Donned in scarlet and gold, the princess was a harmonious contrast to the emperor's silver and azure. She accepted the emperor's hand and the crowd witnessed their kingdom's rulers side by side for the first time. It was an auspicious sight. But in Taehyung's eyes, something else was unfolding. Instead of the emperor, he saw a vision of himself and beside him, in the princess' wedding dress, was no other than Gyuri.

    Taehyung's lips tugged into a shy smile.

    He knew it was a delusion, but he couldn't help indulging in it all the same. Recalling their promise from long ago, his heart thumped.

    Would Gyuri want a grand wedding like this?

    Deep in his fantasy, he contemplated what the future would be like. He looked forward to when he could proudly confess his feelings; to stand before her not as her sworn brother but as a man. It was as if the royal wedding ignited a flame within. Despite already applying himself in both his physical training and studies, he knew he needed to do more to be worthy of Gyuri's hand. After all, she deserves someone who could take care of her. Someone intelligent and strong; someone who would protect her from harm and be with her both in sickness and in health. Gyuri deserves someone like Cousin Namjoon.

    Startled, Taehyung hurriedly dismissed the thought.

    An uneasy feeling settled in his chest as the worry he had been trying to ignore resurfaced. It is only natural for Gyuri to be close to Cousin, Taehyung tried to console himself. They work together at the sanatorium. It is nothing more than a simple working relationship.

    But in his heart, Taehyung was unsure.

    In recent weeks, he had noticed a change in Namjoon. He was happier, smiled often and it was mostly when he was around Gyuri. Taehyung was quick to perceive the shift because Namjoon's behaviour was a mirror to his own. And while his cousin seemed unaware of it, Taehyung's doubt grew.

    What if Cousin Namjoon realises his feelings and acts upon them?

    Taehyung was conflicted. He adored Namjoon and hoped for the elder to find happiness again, but not at the expense of his own.

    Troubled by his ruminations, Taehyung failed to notice day fade into night. The wedding formalities had concluded, and the celebrations had finally commenced. As the guests made their way to the banquet, Taehyung meandered until he had ended up somewhere unfamiliar. It was only when someone bumped into him that he snapped out of his trance.

    "Me... excuse."

    Taehyung was surprised to find a young girl appear around the corner. She inclined her head in apology and Taehyung noticed she was dressed head to foot in an elaborate floral garment. Her short black hair was pinned back by a matching flower ornament with tassels that swayed as she moved. From her unusual attire, Taehyung guessed she was one of the foreign guests.

    "Me... excuse," she said again in broken Saimese.

    "It is fine," Taehyung replied. The girl met his gaze and Taehyung noticed her eyes were as dark as midnight. She tentatively straightened herself and Taehyung saw that she had a birthmark the shape of an arrowhead above her right brow. He surveyed his surroundings and found they were alone.

    What is she doing here by herself?

    When Taehyung voiced out this question, the girl stared at him intensely as if reading his lips. Taehyung continued, "Are you lost?"

    The girl opened her mouth, but no words left her lips.

    Taehyung watched as the young girl attempted to articulate something through a series of hand gestures with the occasional foreign word. He realised she was speaking in Nihonese. "Lost?" Taehyung asked in her native tongue.

    The girl's eyes widened before shaking her head vigorously. A string of Nihonese left her lips in glee.

    "I only speak little," Taehyung stiltedly spoke while gesturing for her to slow down. "Only few words."

    The girl tried to hide her disappointment behind a small smile. "Me too," she replied carefully in Saimese. "This way?" She pointed to the way she came.

    "No, we go back is this way." Taehyung frowned as he struggled to translate but thankfully, the young girl understood. She followed him eagerly, her wooden sandals clopping against the ground.

    Taehyung and the girl ambled in silence. The palace grounds were vast, and it surprised him that he had managed to wander so far away from the main courtyard. He listened to the faint murmur coming from the festivities. They were still quite a distance, but he could hear spirited singing accompanied by the energetic strumming of the guzheng. Taehyung recognised the tune. He imagined entertainers dancing along to the music while wearing decorative masks and was glad he was missing it. There was no doubt it was another performance of The Dragon and Phoenix- the same folktale performed during his older brother's wedding.

    Taehyung stared at the road ahead. Like fireflies in the night, the glow from the paper lanterns illuminated their path in orbs of green and gold. From its light, Taehyung saw a stream, a wooden bridge, and a silhouette of a stone pagoda. Taehyung was about to suggest they cross the bridge when he noticed the clopping of the girl's sandals had ceased. He turned around. A few paces behind, he saw the girl leaning against the wall while examining her foot. Hearing Taehyung's approach, she smiled meekly to disguise her dismay.

    "Are you all right?" he asked, and then realised his mistake. He translated, "Pain? Hurt?"

    The girl shook her head and motioned downwards. The strap on her sandal had snapped. "Bad," she helpfully added.

    "Oh." Taehyung crouched down, giving a questioning gesture in its direction. "May I?"

    Reluctantly, the girl allowed Taehyung to inspect it. "We need something to replace this part," he said more to himself than her. He searched their surroundings and having spotted something of use, reached for the sash that kept his robes together. The girl's eyes widened as Taehyung tugged it off without hesitation, leaving him looking underdressed. With his tongue peeking through the corner of his mouth, Taehyung fashioned a makeshift strap. He grinned at his handiwork.

    "Thank you," the girl said as Taehyung helped her put her sandal back on. She gestured at his appearance; her face scrunched in worry.

    "No need to fret," he said, straightening his robes. "Hardly anyone will notice."

    The girl was not fooled. Taehyung motioned for them to continue; his expression carefree. It puzzled her how he could care so little about presentation. Did it not matter to the Saimese how others viewed them? She stole a glance at Taehyung. It was her first time meeting a boy her age, let alone someone from another kingdom. Having had a sheltered upbringing, the girl found their unexpected encounter a novel experience. It struck her as odd that this Saimese boy was different from how her governess had explained all boys to be. And as they drew closer to the festivities, she began to wonder more about him. Would it be considered impertinent if she asked for his name first?

    "Your garments are beautiful."

    The girl jumped. Startled by her skittish behaviour, Taehyung jumped too. She didn't expect Taehyung to strike a conversation. Fumbling to compose herself, the girl peered down at her kimono. "Peach blossoms," she said, pointing to the floral pattern. She thought for a moment and then pointed to herself. "I am Momoka."

    "Momoka?" Taehyung echoed. The girl nodded. She stared at him expectantly as if urging him to reveal his.

    "Now that I think about it, I do not think I have introduced myself." Taehyung's lips stretched into a box-like smile, causing the girl's heart to skip a beat. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Momoka. I am Kim Taehyung."
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