56 Just for Tonight Pt.1

    Adorned in her graceful ceremonial wedding garments and bedazzled with jewels of all sorts, Chayoung sat upright as she waited for her palanquin to enter the Kim household. For Chayoung, the journey to the Kims' residence was a novel one as she had never once left the palace since birth. And because it was her first time, she inevitably experienced a ripple of anxiety mixed with excitement. Even now as her palanquin entered through the large, carved gates, she couldn't quite believe that she was beyond the palace walls.

    "Your Highness" she heard her footman say as her palanquin came to a halt. "We have arrived."

    Taking that as her cue, Chayoung prepared to climb out of her carrier and set foot on mundane land- ground that her feet had never once touched since departing the palace. She inhaled deeply to steady her nerves.

    All her life she had been told that the royal family was unique. She had been drilled in lessons of etiquette and propriety while other girls her age were being taught how to cook, sew and clean. Chayoung had always been envious of peasant girls: they had skills which, in her eyes, made them so accomplished. While they toiled away in the fields or houses or markets, Chayoung sat and learned about decorum and how to be an obedient wife. For her, her existence as the princess had always seemed meaningless. As a young girl, she had been reminded every day that she will fulfil her duty by marrying into a powerful family. Nothing else was expected of her: no one cared about how intelligent she was or what she liked or disliked- that was the extent of her usefulness.

    Like a flower on a mountain, Chayoung was revered and segregated from the common person. She was neither human nor goddess: she was a decorative doll. And because of that, she was out of touch with reality.

    But that all changed when she met him.

    The doors swung open and Chayoung blinked away the sudden surge of light that glared down at her. It was already late in the evening but sunlight still shone from the sun since today was the summer solstice: the longest day of the year. Once her eyes had adjusted, she was greeted by the sight of the person she was destined to spend the rest of life with- her husband, Kim Minseok. Immediately, she felt reassured.

    Minseok smiled at her kindly, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he offered her a helping hand. Gladly, she took it and her palm was enveloped in his, wrapping her in a warmth that reached down to her chest. Even though she had been resentful of her position in life, she couldn't help but feel thankful that she was born a princess rather than a peasant. For despite living in a solitude but luxurious palace, she had found someone who understood her and gave her life a new purposeful meaning.

    Side by side, Minseok and Chayoung entered the courtyard, where they were greeted by excited guests. Like rain, petals fluttered down, gracing their path in a flower road as the newlywed couple joined in with the festivities that were fully underway. Wonder filled Chayoung's eyes as she searched the audience who beamed at her, an unfamiliar feeling of happiness filling her up. She had so long been eclipsed by the shadow of her brother that she couldn't remember the last time anyone celebrated anything related to her.

    "Are you nervous, my princess?"

    Chayoung turned to Minseok who was peering at her curiously. How her heart leapt when she heard those words! Shyly, she responded, "I am fine, my love." She couldn't help blushing every time Minseok spoke so endearingly. He reminded her that she wasn't just the princess of their kingdom anymore, she was also his princess now.

    The pair sat at their designated pedestals which overlooked the rest of the festivities. The extravagant banquet before her was not on the same calibre as the banquets held at the palace but Chayoung didn't mind. All that mattered to her was that she was next to her husband, who she adored deeply.

    Minseok meekly smiled. "You must be very tired" he observed. "But, not to worry, we shall be back in the palace soon."

    "We do not have to go back to the palace, you know" Chayoung answered. "I can stay and live here, with you and your family."

    Minseok looked troubled. "It is not safe, my princess" he murmured. "The palace is the safest place in the city. And besides, you are not accustomed to life outside the palace walls. How can I ever deprive my wife of the standards she is accustomed to?"

    Chayoung pouted. "I am not as fragile as everyone thinks." A crease formed on her forehead as she frowned. "We are equals now, my love. I can adapt to life outside the palace and besides," she mentioned while gesturing at the Kim household, "I think I would enjoy living here."

    "Still..." Minseok mumbled, "living here might prove uncomfortable after a while."

    Puzzled, Chayoung gaped at her husband with a quizzical stare. In return, he gave her a knowing look and she soon relented, having understood the meaning behind his gaze. She averted her eyes as she weakly protested, "But it is unorthodox for the husband to live in his wife's home..."

    "But you are not like every other wife" he reminded her. "You are the emperor's sister. I am sure His Majesty would prefer it if you remained in the palace. After all, it has been many years since you had last lived together."

    Minseok observed as Chayoung gave an audible sigh. But before he could say anything to comfort her, she suddenly agreed, "You are right," and smiled warmly at him. "At least life at the palace will be more bearable now that you will be there with me."

    Chayoung felt Minseok gently squeeze her hand. "Today is the start of our happy life together," he told her, before planting a kiss at the back of her palm. Chayoung gaped at him bashfully as he pulled away.

    When was it that I fell in love with this soft-hearted and considerate man?

    Chayoung was still in disbelief at how blessed she was to have found love despite the circumstance of their union. When she discovered that she was to marry Minseok, she just accepted her fate obediently. She didn't dare hope for anything in return. She didn't dare hope for attention, for happiness or for love to blossom between them but she was very fortunate that it did. Chayoung never once expected that she could be as happy as everyone else. And for once, she was thankful that she was Princess Chayoung rather than just Chayoung. After all, if it weren't for her title, how else would she have met the love of her life?

    Minseok turned his attention to the festivities below them and Chayoung followed suit. Everyone was dancing gleefully along to the upbeat music. It was a joyful banquet that lifted the moods of the attendees, allowing everyone to briefly forget the instability that plagued their fragile kingdom. With the festive spirit in the air, Chayoung couldn't help but radiate with bliss. Everywhere, the sound of jubilant laughter and singing surrounded her, causing her lips to curl into a smile.

    I hope His Majesty is enjoying a similar scenery at the palace, she thought as she swept her gaze across the crowd. It is a shame that we could not celebrate together.

    But as she continued to observe the crowd, a pair of piercing, dark eyes suddenly caught her attention causing her to freeze. Chayoung's smile slowly faded as she realised who was staring at her with such intensity.

    It was Junmyeon.

    From across the courtyard, Junmyeon continued to gape at her, his eyes forlorn and his lips set in a hard line. When he saw her looking at him, he turned away and quickly busied himself by kicking back a shot of liquor. Upon discovering that his jug was empty, he scowled as he signalled for a maid to refill it with soju. Chayoung could tell that Junmyeon wasn't enjoying the festivities at all. A wave of guilt overwhelmed her as she continued to watch him drink the night away as if he were trying to drown away his sorrows.

    It cannot be helped, she internally reminded herself. We were young and naïve back then. She shook her head subtly as if to shake off the guilt that was slowly consuming her. You are married now. Forget about the past and live in the present!

    But as much as Chayoung wished to lock away the memories which threatened to resurface, she couldn't avoid a small part of her that ached at the sight of Junmyeon's despondent reaction- the same small part of her that once harboured romantic feelings for him. Not being able to bear it any longer, Chayoung looked away.

    "Congratulations on your marriage, Princess."

    At the sound of a taut voice addressing her, Chayoung looked up. From her side, Minseok grew tense as he curled his fingers tightly around hers. She gaped at Minseok briefly and noticed him clench his jaw.

    "Thank you, General Lee" Chayoung replied as she turned her attention back to the man before them.

    General Lee nodded politely but his cold gaze was at odds with his body language.

    From his seat, Minseok observed the proud way in which he carried himself as his broad shoulders were straightened like he was flaunting his chest. In his fine robes and semi-tied hair, General Lee exuded an intimidating aura, most likely because of his military prowess. From the distance, anyone could see that General Lee feared no one, but in turn, everyone feared him. But to Minseok, all he could feel was contempt towards the man and the family he belonged to. After all, the Lees were known for their underhandedness and General Lee Minho was no exception.

    "Fancy that, Princess" he spoke with a slight sneer, "you are now married to one of the brightest and most powerful men in the kingdom."

    Minseok smiled wryly at his compliment. He knew that Minho wasn't sincere.

    Minho continued, "Not to mention that he has also been appointed to be His Majesty's advisor." He smiled sarcastically as if to provoke Minseok. "I guess one can say that he is the one that pulls the strings in this kingdom-"

    "Hold your tongue!" Chayoung exclaimed suddenly, startling both Minseok and Minho. "I will not have you insult not only His Majesty but my husband too, General Lee."

    Sensing that some of the guests had turned towards them, Minho cleared his throat. "I beg your pardon, Princess" he rushed to say, his neck reddening, "I apologise if I had offended you with my careless remark."

    "You will do well not to speak like that again" Chayoung answered curtly. "Please do not overstep your position."

    Minho reluctantly bowed. "Of course, Princess" he muttered and Chayoung noticed him purse his lips. "If you will excuse me, I must greet the other guests."

    Minseok watched as Minho briskly walked away, evidently humiliated at having been scolded in public. He grinned in satisfaction at having witnessed his detested cousin-in-law amble away in shame. Minseok turned to his wife who was also flushed in the face. "You surprise me, my princess. It was very brave of you to stand up to him like that!"

    "He deserved it. How dare he question you as His Majesty's advisor? You earned that position fairly."

    "But some people may see my rise to such an important political position as the consequence of having married you." Minseok smiled at her weakly and Chayoung saw the resignation in his eyes. "I have yet to prove my worth to the rest of court."

    "My love, you are an excellent politician regardless of the circumstance behind our union." Chayoung squeezed his hand in a bid to comfort him. "Do not pay attention to what others say, especially not General Lee. He is just bitter that the advisory position did not remain in his family's grasp."

    Minseok gave a child-like and innocent smile. "You are right, my princess. If only I could be as brave as you when it comes to confronting people." Minseok averted his gaze as he confessed, "Sometimes I worry that you have married the wrong man. General Lee is very charismatic and has many military achievements under his belt. I, on the other hand, am just a scholar with a powerful name just like his-"

    "Stop comparing yourself to him" Chayoung snapped which startled Minseok again. "You are the better man" she insisted tenaciously. "You are kind, smart and very wise. If I had married General Lee, I would have been very unhappy. Why, he is an egotistical, chauvinistic and manipulative fool that knows nothing more than to demean others mercilessly!" She eyed Minseok sternly before continuing, "You, on the other hand, are affectionate and caring." Her voice softened as she tenderly spoke, "And that is what I love about you."

    Before Minseok could reply, a sweet melody escaped the strings of a nearby erhu, catching Minseok's attention. It was a slow and passionate tune that suddenly gave him a bright idea. He extended his arm out to Chayoung while eyeing her lovingly. "My princess, let us not ruin our wedding celebration by thinking of General Lee." His eyes crinkled in the corners as he smiled. "Will you do me the honour of being my partner for this dance?"

    Chayoung's eyes rounded in surprise at his sudden suggestion. It was unheard of for royalty to dance, let alone dance in front of their guests. But seeing Minseok's earnest expression made it hard for her to refuse. Just for tonight, she thought, I can let myself enjoy just for tonight.

    "Of course, my love. I would be happy to."
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