Chapter 1: It Begins
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there lived a prince in a castle. Handsome he was, and tall and keen of mind, with a jovial manner and generous heart. He was beloved by his servants and all who knew him, and lived an easy life of luxury and joy.
This handsome prince attracted the attention of a fairy living in the woods surrounding his magnificent castle. She called upon him one night, escorted by her large retinue, and was wined and dined graciously.
But the night would have an evil end. The prince offended the fairy, and in her rage she cursed him and his household. He would live an ugly, lonely existence, frozen in time, never allowed to leave the palace. The form she bestowed on him was hideous, a grotesque monster so unlike the handsome young man he had been. And his beautiful home became his prison.
Inside the castle every day was like the one before, but outside time moved as she had always. A king of a foreign kingdom conquered the lands, and years passed, until the prince who never left the castle became nothing more than a story. And all through the centuries the prince remained, trapped, more hideous than any living creature.
Until, one day, someone discovered the castle lost in the woods.
And that is where the story truly begins.
Chapter 2: A Theft, A Debt
A castle is discovered, and an exchange is made.
Thank you for all the attention for the first chapter! I hope you'll like this ♡
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jongwook was lost.
The trees loomed high overhead, canopy of leaves blocking out whatever remained of the dying light. He had been wandering this forest for hours now, and he felt as though he was even farther from civilization than he had been before.
His caravan had been set upon by bandits while making its way through the twisting paths of the wood, and in the chaos Jongwook had managed to flee. He ran deep into the forest, away from the shouting of men and the clash of metal on metal. Then he had only feared being cut down. Now he found there was more to fear than man.
The sun was already setting. In these dense woods there was nothing Jongwook could recognize as edible, and wild animals roamed. He wondered how much longer he could survive when true night fell.
He thought of his school, his students. He had gone on this journey to scout potential positions for them. Jongwook and his school of songbirds, the most beautiful voices in the valley. He had been regretful, returning empty-handed. Now he feared he would not return at all.
He caught a glimpse of golden sunlight to the right and paused. A clearing? The edge of this godsforsaken wood? Jongwook made his way towards it desperately.
He pushed past branches that reached for him with their greedy hands, through thick leaves that tried to suffocate him. On and on, towards that golden light that shone like a beacon of light, until—
Jongwook burst out of the wood and into a clearing, in the middle of which stood a magnificent castle.
It was huge. Its many towers stood stark against the gold tinted sky, a blinding white even in the late afternoon sunlight. Innumerable windows were set deep in the cream white walls. The high fence surrounding the structure was made of metal rods spaced less than a hand apart, covered in a dense lattice of thorny vines and roses of a vivid blue.
Jongwook walked up to the great iron gate, feet moving of their own accord. There was no lock on it. He pushed it, only a light touch, and the heavy iron gate opened, gliding soundlessly as though weightless.
Beyond it was the most splendid yard and garden. A paved path of white snaked between bushes laden with blooms, trees heavy with ripe, juicy fruit. Jongwook walked among delicate pink roses in verdant bushes, wildflowers twinkling like stars along the path, a large vibrant hydrangea plant blooming violet. Double doors of ebony loomed in front of him, reaching to more than twice his height. Entranced, Jongwook raised his hand to the brass knocker.
Before he could lift the claw that served as the knocker the doors swung inward. Jongwook stepped back, shocked, but quickly regained his composure.
The doors opened to a magnificent hall, the richest, most beautiful he had ever seen. It glimmered silver and sapphire, floors polished like diamond, two great curved staircases of pearl white rising at the back. And standing right in front of the door, was a man.
He was attractive. Exceedingly so, with a small face, delicate features and rounded cheeks. He was dressed in fine clothes, and carried himself well, with straight shoulders and hands folded behind his back.
“Good afternoon,” said the man, voice light and musical. “You must be lost. Please, come in, and have food and drink.”
Jongwook could not fathom refusing such a polite request from such a charming person. He entered the hall, shabby in the expensive interior. “Thank you,” he said.
“Of course, it is but basic manners to extend hospitality to those who need it,” said the man, smiling politely. “Our master would not have any man hungry on his land. Come, this way into the dining hall.”
The man motioned with his head, and Jongwook followed the line to a door on the left of the great hall. The finely dressed man followed him a step behind.
“You are not the master of this fine house?” asked Jongwook.
“Oh, no, I am but the one in charge of the household,” said the man with a light laugh.
Jongwook found that strange, that the head of household would come and greet strangers, but before he could remark he stepped into the dining hall, and lost all other thoughts.
The dining area was just as richly decorated as the entrance hall, but it was not that which took Jongwook’s attention. A long table stood in the center, on which was a veritable feast. Roast duck sat at one end, along with stuffed capons, pheasants simmering in their own juices. A leg of lamb, expertly roasted, was placed on a silver platter, along with potatoes, greens, various sides. Hot soup bubbled in a copper pot. Rice was piled high on a plate, steaming, seasoned and fragrant. Bottles of wine and cider stood along the sides of the table. Rich, steaming stew thick with meat and gravy released delicious aroma into the air.
“I hope you enjoy,” said the man, stepping to one side and bowing.
Jongwook was so overwhelmed by the food on display he at once sat down and began eating. He had devoured a large portion before he thought to ask, “Is this all for me?”
“Indeed,” said the handsome man. “Our master is the height of hospitality.”
The question arose of how they had managed to prepare such a feast in such a short time, but Jongwook promptly tossed it aside to continue eating. The food was the most delicious he had ever tasted, beyond anything he had been offered in the rich houses he had gone to find places for his singers.
“You are free to eat what you wish,” said the head of this extravagant household. “We only ask you take nothing else.”
Jongwook nodded, eating with gusto. What else could he take? He was no thief.
He ate until he could eat no more, and then sat back in the plush chair, attempting to regain his bearings. Throughout it all the other man stood by the table, hands folded behind his back, waiting patiently. Once Jongwook had rested enough, the man prompted, “Will that be all?”
Jongwook fought a burp. “Yes,” he said. “Extend my gratitude to your master.”
“I shall,” said the man, bowing, still with hands behind back. “Will you be leaving?”
“It must be dark by now,” said Jongwook. He did not wish to leave this magnificent house, this splendid generosity. “I fear I will be lost once more in the woods.”
“I assure you, you will not,” said the other, with a smile affixed to his face. “Once you leave this place and return to the forest, you need only wander a few minutes before you find the road.”
“Wander? In which direction?” asked Jongwook.
The man tilted his head. “Any direction.”
Jongwook could feel his welcome running out. Unwillingly, he stood, chair scraping against the floor as he did. “Very well,” he said. “If you would condemn a man to the dangers of a dark wilderness, I would leave.”
“Sir,” said the man, smiling, “if you were to stay, you would find you would have rather taken your chances with the beasts of the wood.”
The words were spoken lightly, soft, but they sent a shiver down Jongwook’s spine. He hurried out of the dining room and back to the main hall, to the doors still open.
“Thank you for partaking in our hospitality,” said the man with his light voice as Jongwook walked out. “Godspeed and fair travels.”
Jongwook spared him hardly a glance as he left. He had enjoyed the food, no doubt, but the words of the lovely head of household and how they were said chilled him.
He was halfway down the white pathway when he was startled to find it was still late afternoon. He must have spent at least an hour gorging himself, and yet it seemed time had not moved a second. Jongwook rushed his steps.
He came right up to the iron spiked gate when his steps slowed and he stopped.
The roses that grew over the lattice of the outside of the fence grew inside as well. They were a startling blue, more blue than the most flawless sapphire, and glimmered much the same. Jongwook stared at them, transfixed. Before, he had been too taken by the great castle. Now, staring at the roses, he was mesmerized by their color and vividness. He had never seen or heard of blue roses existing, and certainly not such perfect specimens. And here there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands!
Jongwook glanced back. The doors were closed, the strange man out of sight. Surely they would not miss a rose? It was but one of a thousand, and on the fence no less, available for anyone to take.
Slowly, carefully, Jongwook broke one stem.
The rose in his hands was perfect, all petals open, fully formed. Jongwook cradled it to his chest as he walked through the open gates and out of the yard. He had only walked a few steps outside the compound when it happened.
Something clutched his throat.
It gripped him at the back of his neck, snaking around. Jongwook clutched at it but felt nothing, nothing at his nape, nothing digging into his airway and slowly choking him.
The blue rose fell to the ground.
The force at Jongwook’s neck began pulling him back, slow, impossibly strong. His feet scraped the ground as he fought to free himself, but there was no escape. There was nothing even to fight.
He was pulled back into the yard, back again through the gates, which shut with a heavy clang once he was past them. As soon as they were still, the force at Jongwook’s throat disappeared. He fell forwards onto his knees, choking, gasping for air.
The roar was so loud, so monstrous, it could never be produced by human lips. Jongwook whirled around, still on the ground, and watched in terror as the front doors of the castle flew open, and out stalked—something.
Something terrifying, something hideous. Something more monster than man.
“I gave you hospitality!” roared the thing, closing on Jongwook like a hound of hell. “I gave you food and drink! And you would repay me by stealing from me?”
“I’m sorry,” said Jongwook. Tears of terror fell freely from his eyes, obscuring his vision, and for that he was grateful. The creature before him was terrible to behold. “I’m sorry, please, forgive me, I did not know—”
“There is no forgiveness,” growled the monster.
“Please,” sobbed Jongwook. “It was but a rose, only a rose…”
“It belongs to the castle,” said the creature. “You took from it. Now you must give something back.”
“I will give you whatever you want, whatever I have,” said Jongwook. “Anything.”
Animal eyes looked down at him, one golden, the other ice white. “Your life.”
Jongwook collapsed, falling prostrate. “No! I beg you, please, do not kill me!”
“I will not kill you,” said the monster. “You must give your life to the castle, to me. A life in service for your theft.”
“No, please,” cried Jongwook, not daring to raise his head. “I—I have a school, I have students who love me. My sweet children, my singers… I must return to them.”
For some time Jongwook was met with silence. He dared not move, not even to look for a response. Finally, the beastly thing spoke. “You sing?”
“I—I teach singing,” said Jongwook.
“My halls have not heard music in many a year,” said the creature. “I would be glad for a court singer.”
Terror gripped Jongwook. “No, I do not—spare me, oh lord, please—”
“There is no mercy,” said the beast.
Jongwook felt himself being pulled, away from the creature in man’s clothes, back through the gate. He let it carry him, too fearful to fight. It threw him out past the gate so that he fell back, hand falling beside the blue rose he had plucked.
“Return to the forest,” said the monster. His voice was no longer a growl, but rough still. “You will find the road will come to you. I give you time to say your goodbyes to your loved ones. When the flower begins to wilt, your period of grace is over. Come back to this wood, and let it guide you here. For the magic to spare you you must walk through the gates willingly, holding the rose.”
Jongwook looked at the perfect blue rose beside him. Slowly, he took it in hand.
“I need not tell you what fate should befall you if you do not return,” said the beast. “Go now. Before I change my mind.”
Without hesitation Jongwook jumped up and ran back into the woods. He ran as fast as he could, not caring which way he went, so long as he left behind that dreadful castle and its demonic master.
He burst into a clearing, and was surprised to find it a road. A cart came up, rickety and wooden, but the driver was kind enough to allow Jongwook a ride. He climbed on with thanks.
Among bales of hay and vegetable produce Jongwook sat, shaking. He had escaped that terrifying monster. But for how long?
He looked down at the rose in his hands. The blue petals were still perfect. He did not doubt it was magic, that it truly would lead him back to the castle when it was time. Jongwook was cursed. That castle was some sort of fae creation, and it wanted him, it wanted his entire life. He would be sentenced to a life of imprisonment under the control of a frightful beast. All for one rose—
Jongwook stopped. A life of service for his theft. But perhaps not his life?
He stared at the rose, thinking.
͙*̩̩͙˚̩̥̩̥*̩̩̥͙ 🎕 *̩̩̥͙˚̩̥̩̥*̩̩͙‧͙
“Jongwook is back! Master Jongwook has returned!”
Jaehwan jumped out of bed and ran down the hallway. Around him his fellow students stirred to action, and some followed him down the corridor and into the front room, where their master stood, taking off his shoes and looking weary from the road.
“Are you alright?” asked Minhee, their other master, looking him over with a worried gaze. “We’ve heard talk of bandits on the road.”
“As well as ever,” said Jongwook. “But I was set upon by bandits on my journey back.”
Jaehwan grabbed his arm, eyes wide. “Really? What happened? Did they stab everyone in your party? Did they rob you all and leave you in your underwear? Did they carve their symbol into your rear and then let you go as a warning to everyone else?”
Minhee hushed him, but Jongwook laughed. “Worry not, dear, I escaped,” he said. “I fled into the forest, and took refuge in a splendid castle in a clearing. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen, with rich, high halls, magnificent food, and the most wondrous fence all filled with blue roses.”
A sigh of wonder escaped Jaehwan’s lips. “Blue roses?”
“Indeed,” said Jongwook. “And I spoke to the master of the castle. He is looking for a singer to entertain him.”
At once cries of excitement spread among the students, Jaehwan first among them. Jongwook hushed them all.
“I will tell you all soon,” he said. “First I must rest.”
They parted, though unwillingly, and Jaehwan lingered for some time before finding it truly was pointless and he would have to wait with the rest of them. It did not take long before Jongwook was rested and refreshed, and sat before the fire in the room that served as the study and library. Jaehwan sat by his feet, along with his thirteen fellow students, waiting eagerly.
“It is a castle right in the middle of the wood,” said Jongwook, voice pitched low. “Many towers stand against the sky. I was shown to the main hall, which was splendid; it alone was five times the size of this very room.”
“What would one do with so much room?” asked Heejun, a student a year or two younger than Jaehwan.
“Hold balls, of course,” said Jaehwan. He had never attended a ball, of course, but he had read enough books and heard enough stories.
“Indeed,” said Jongwook, smiling wide. “I believe the lord hosts many balls. Why, his very head of household came down to keep me company, and attend to my needs. Such was this lord’s hospitality.”
“That is incredible,” said Minhee. “And you say he seeks a singer?”
“Yes,” said Jongwook. “I spoke to him before I left, told him of the school. He had heard of us and had stock in our reputation. He wants a singer—any of our students will do—and he will keep them in luxury for a lifetime.” His eyes sparkled as he surveyed his students. “Now, who wants to be chosen?”
A chorus of cries at once rang out, some students merely calling out their names, others attempting to make a case. Jaehwan sprang to his feet and said, “Me, of course, Master Jongwook.”
A flicker of a shadow passed Jongwook’s face. “Oh, Jaehwan, why you?”
“I am the best singer here,” declared Jaehwan.
“And one of the oldest besides,” said Heejun with a snort.
Jaehwan glared daggers at the younger boy. “Yes, one of the oldest too,” he said. At one and twenty years he was one of the oldest students at the school, having been taken in when he was already grown. “And undoubtedly the most handsome.”
This, too, there was no denying. Jaehwan was tall, with fair features, including a sharp regal nose and plush lips that naturally leaned to pink. He ran a hand through his dark hair in typical dramatic fashion, and some of the younger students giggled, charmed by their fun older brother.
“Are you certain, Jaehwan?” asked Jongwook. He looked suddenly serious after the warmth with which he spoke of the castle and the lord. “He—the lord asks for a singer for a lifetime position. You will not be able to leave to sing elsewhere.”
“I am certain,” said Jaehwan without hesitation. “Is this not what we all want? A chance to sing all our lives, and live in comfort because of it? Master Jongwook, I am more than certain. Oh, please do take me.”
The singing master looked at his student, and then all the other students beside, all young and staring up at him with innocent trust. He sat silent, deep in thought, occasionally muttering to himself, and Jaehwan caught little snippets, of sounds of “… he is the oldest…” and “… surely it would be…”. He sat still and waited, willing himself to be patient for once.
And then finally, Jongwook sighed. “Very well then.”
Jaehwan burst into a cheer.
The next few days were busy, and passed in a rush. Jaehwan’s fellow students helped him pack his few belongings, some cursing him for his good luck, but all genuinely pleased for him the same. Jongwook spent most of his time in his personal study. Jaehwan did not think much of it, caught up in his own excitement. He thought of this mysterious lord he would work for, what he was like, how rich and kind he must be. He lost himself in fantasies of a tall, handsome man with a warm smile, being charmed by Jaehwan’s voice, falling in love with him like they were in a romance book.
Finally, the day arrived. Jongwook announced he would take Jaehwan to his new lord and patron the following day. It was an emotional but happy goodbye. Jaehwan embraced Minhee tightly, assuring the woman he would visit often, but she cried all the same. Jongwook only watched in silence.
They left when the sun had just risen off the horizon. Jongwook hired a cart, and they travelled far. Jaehwan begged for more details of his new position, what he would be expected to do, what kind of man the lord was. Jongwook only said he would see once he arrived. Jaehwan could see tension in the older man’s face and ceased his questions. He only hoped the lord would accept him.
They were traveling through a thick wood when Jongwook suddenly bid the driver to stop. “My boy, this is where we must alight,” he said. “The lord’s castle cannot be reached by road. We must trek through the trees.”
Jaehwan eyed the forbidding wood warily. “How will we find the way?”
“Trust me,” said Jongwook.
They went deep into the forest, leaving the road behind. The sun was low in the sky, fast approaching sunset, and Jaehwan could not deny his misgivings. Still, Jongwook moved with assurance, and Jaehwan followed, until his master came to a stop.
“Now, my boy, look at this,” said Jongwook. “This will guide us.”
He reached into his satchel and, to Jaehwan’s surprise, pulled out a vibrant blue rose. The color was unlike anything Jaehwan had ever seen on a bloom, vivid like a gem, rich even in the low light under the canopy of the trees. A few of the petals were browning at the edges, but otherwise it was flawless. Jongwook cupped it in his hands, and held it up.
The rose moved.
Hardly an inch, but it moved, of its own accord, shifting right on Jongwook’s upturned palms. Jongwook turned right.
“What was that?” cried Jaehwan, hastening to follow. “That flower, it moved! Of its own will, I saw it!”
“It was given to me by the lord we will meet,” said Jongwook. “To ensure I would not be lost on my journey back.”
A chill ran down Jaehwan’s spine. “Is… is he a sorcerer?” he whispered.
“I don’t know.” Jongwook turned, gave Jaehwan a kindly smile. “Rather, I believe his castle is enchanted. Rather like the stories in the books, I think.”
“People die in those stories,” said Jaehwan, wary.
“Only evil ones,” said Jongwook, and then he turned and continued walking.
After a moment, Jaehwan followed. He could not deny the trepidation that now built with his every step. Faeries were all good in stories, and it was wonderful to imagine yourself in a fairytale book, but Jaehwan did not know how much he could trust real life to give him a happily ever after.
They had been walking near an hour when Jongwook suddenly cried out, “There!” and rushed forward.
“Master, wait,” said Jaehwan, struggling to follow. He jumped over a fallen log, pushed aside branches threatening to claw at his face, keeping his eyes trained on his master’s broad back until he fought through the last cluster of sharp branches and burst into a clearing.
Jaehwan’s mouth fell open at the sight before him.
The castle was glorious. Jaehwan counted five towers, standing tall and proud against the sky, so many windows glided with gold nestled in the cream white walls. And the fence! It was beyond description, the gorgeous sapphire blooms that sat among the vines of green thorns like gems too valuable to be appraised. Jaehwan could not pull his eyes away from them, the way they glowed in the late afternoon sun. He wanted one. He desired one, badly, but he dared not touch the perfect petals. They were too beautiful for the likes of him.
Jongwook walked up to the tall iron gates and pushed them open. Then he turned to Jaehwan and beckoned him forward.
“Go on then,” said Jongwook. Sweat shone on his brow, and his eyes were busy. “Take this, knock on the door, and ask to speak to the master.”
He spilled the rose into Jaehwan’s hands. Jaehwan looked down at the bloom, and then back up at his master. “You will not come with me?”
“No, only you,” said Jongwook. “Hurry now, Jaehwan. Remember, you are a trained songbird of our school. Your master will be kind so long as you sing.”
Jaehwan hesitated. “Master, I think it would be well if you came in and introduced me—”
“No, no, I cannot,” said Jongwook. He mopped the sweat on his brow. “He only asked for one. Go now, they will know you by the rose. Hurry. Your master is waiting for you.”
The rose was wilting in Jaehwan’s palms; he could feel the firmness starting to give. Jaehwan took a deep breath, nodded. There was no point being scared. The rose was enchanted, but it was beautiful, and nothing so beautiful could be evil. He was going to be a singer. He was going to entertain and charm with his voice, and be loved.
He strode forward and through the gate.
“Hurry now, hurry,” urged Jongwook. Jaehwan glanced back at him and continued walking.
The front garden through which the path ran was lovely, but none of the flowers compared to the one Jaehwan held in his hands. He walked up to the huge double doors, and raised his hand to lift the door knocker.
Before his fingers even touched the brass the doors swung open. The man beyond the doorway was tall, beautiful, with dark skin and delicate features, and his hands folded neatly behind his back. “Good afternoon,” he said, in the sweetest, loveliest voice, words almost melodious. “You must be lost. Please, come in for food and drink.”
“I am not lost,” said Jaehwan. The hall beyond was splendid, but he kept his eyes on the man in front of him. It would not do to look so awed. “My name is Jaehwan. I have come to work as your master’s singer.”
A frown marred the lovely man’s face. “Excuse me? How did you find this place?”
In response, Jaehwan lifted the blue rose.
The man’s gaze flicked to the rose, and then back to Jaehwan’s face. The frown did not subside.
“My master sent me,” said Jaehwan. He moved aside slightly so that the other might have a better view of the front gates. “He met your master not a month ago. He said he was seeking a singer, and I am a singer.” Jaehwan bowed with a flourish.
The man looked out to the front gate, and Jaehwan followed his line of sight. Jongwook was there, but backing away, back into the forest. That was strange. His movements looked scared, but why would he be so terrified?
“You have come in his stead?” asked the man, drawing Jaehwan’s attention once more.
“I have come as the singer he was asked for,” said Jaehwan. He did not understand. Was Jongwook to have taken the job?
The man fixed Jaehwan with a careful look. “You have come to pay his debt.”
Jaehwan frowned. “What debt?”
At once the man’s eyes went wide, and he looked down into Jaehwan’s hands. The rose was still there, but somehow more vibrant than ever. The browned petals had regained their color, and the bloom was firm in Jaehwan’s hold.
“You did not know?” asked the man. He approached Jaehwan, hands still behind his back, until Jaehwan had to take a step back.
“Know what?” asked Jaehwan, fear rising in his belly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The man stepped back. “The castle has accepted you,” he said. “I am sorry.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jaehwan. “The castle? Why—why are you apologizing to me?”
“Please, come inside,” said the man. He stepped back, away from the doorway. “We must speak.”
Uneasy, Jaehwan did as told. The hall inside was gorgeous, all silver and diamond and blue like the evening sky, but Jaehwan could not enjoy the sight. The man ushered him with a motion of his head to a side door, and followed him into a study of sorts, with comfortable chairs and shelves of books, and a sturdy table of mahogany on which various scrolls were neatly stacked. The unknown man motioned for Jaehwan to sit with another nod of his head, and Jaehwan did as bid. The man took a seat opposite.
“Forgive me, what did you say your name was?” he asked. “Jaehwan?”
“I am Hakyeon,” said the other. “I am the head of the household, and I handle all affairs under the roof.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Jaehwan. He was scared, and uncertain, but he would not lose his manners.
“And you,” said Hakyeon politely. His expression fell into serious lines. “That man at the gate, who was he?”
“My singing master,” said Jaehwan.
“And how came you by this rose?” Hakyeon nodded towards the bloom now in Jaehwan’s lap.
Jaehwan explained. He told him of Jongwook, how he had told him and the other students of the castle and the lord, how Jaehwan had convinced him to take him instead.
When he was done, a dreadful silence fell over the two men. Finally, when it was nearly too much for Jaehwan to bear, Hakyeon sighed. “Jaehwan, I am sorry,” he said. “You have been deceived.”
He had known, somehow. Jaehwan was not so foolish. His stomach churned with worry. “What happened? What did Master Jongwook do?”
“He has given your life for his theft,” said Hakyeon, voice grim. “He stole from the grounds, and for that he was supposed to work here in servitude. A life for his theft. But the devil tricked you. He’s using your life in place of his.”
Jaehwan gasped in horror. “Servitude?”
“No, you need not worry,” said Hakyeon quickly. “We will not ask much from you. Only for you to sing when the master desires. You may work here as a singer, just as you were promised.”
“Then why did Master Jongwook trick me to take his place?” asked Jaehwan. “If all it was was singing, why would he lie?” He could not trust Hakyeon’s assurance that all he would be asked of was to sing. Jongwook had looked terrified. He had gone as far as to lie to not only Jaehwan but everyone at the school.
“It is only singing,” said Hakyeon. He sighed once more, shook his head. “But you cannot leave the palace, Jaehwan. Ever.”
“What do you mean, ever?” asked Jaehwan. He was antsy, sitting in this expensive room opposite this prim and proper man, and he wished to flee, not caring where. “I cannot leave the job?”
“No, you cannot leave the grounds,” said Hakyeon. “It… a long time ago, there was—”
He stopped suddenly, raised his head like a hound that had caught scent of prey. Jaehwan slid himself to the edge of the plush sofa, ready to run at a moment’s notice.
“The master is here,” said Hakyeon.
“The master?” Fear gripped Jaehwan, shooting down his spine. “The sorcerer?”
“He is no sorcerer,” said Hakyeon. He got to his feet, the picture of grace with hands still behind his back. “Come, back to the entrance hall. He will want to speak with you.”
Jaehwan got up and left the study first, Hakyeon trailing behind. He was scared, but at the same time hopeful. Perhaps the master was a reasonable man. He would understand Jaehwan had been deceived, would release him. Perhaps there was hope.
The main hall was as splendid as ever, twinkling like diamonds and sapphire in the light. Hakyeon came up, nearly beside Jaehwan but still a step behind, and stopped in the center of the room, where the two descending staircases touched the floor. Jaehwan did the same, standing half a step ahead, facing the top of the stairs.
“Compose yourself,” said Hakyeon, voice even. “Hold your tongue.”
Jaehwan frowned, not understanding, when a sound where the two staircases spiraled around and met at the top drew his attention. There was a door leading to the platform there, and he watched as it opened, and a figure stepped out. Jaehwan took a deep breath.
The master had arrived.
Julius jones is innocent. If you haven't, please make the time and sign this petition to save him from execution.
Breonna taylor's murderers are still walking free. Please sign this petition to call for bringing them to justice, and if you can, donate to her family.
Willie simmons has been in jail 38 years for a $9 robbery. Sign this petition for him.
Chapter 3: A Castle of Monsters
The Nightingale meets the master, and the inhabitants of the castle
The master of the castle was tall. Taller than most men, easily exceeding six feet, he was an imposing figure. The shape of his broad shoulders easily showed through the material of his midnight blue cloak. Not much else of him could be seen under his drawn hood.
Jaehwan stood before the staircase the tall man descended down, feeling unease rise in his belly. Beside him Hakyeon bowed. The man’s hands were still behind his back, giving him an appearance of a prisoner rather than a servant, and it chilled Jaehwan.
Finally, the master of the house stopped a step before the two of them. Jaehwan averted his eyes and bowed his head. Sorcerer or not, the man was undoubtedly a great lord, as shown by the grandness of his hall.
“Who are you?” asked the master. His voice was not unpleasant, but possessed an unusual gruffness. “How came you to my hall, and in possession of one of my roses?”
“Master Sanghyuk,” said Hakyeon, rising from his bow. “He is a student of the singing master who stole from the grounds over a fortnight ago.”
There was a brief silence as the lord looked over Jaehwan. “You have come to pay his debt, then?”
“There has been an unforeseen event,” said Hakyeon, all while Jaehwan kept his gaze down. “The teacher deceived his student, and sent him here to unwittingly take his place.”
“Deceived?” the lord Sanghyuk repeated in surprise.
“Jaehwan, please show the master the rose,” said Hakyeon.
With trembling hands Jaehwan showed the lord of the castle the blue rose. It was once more vibrant and perfect, no sign of the slow decay he had seen in its petals while in the forest.
For a time, silence prevailed in the room. And then in his gruff voice the lord said, “Ah, I am sorry.”
For the first time in the man’s presence Jaehwan dared to speak. “Can you let me go?” he asked.
“I am sorry, I cannot,” said Lord Sanghyuk.
“I did not know I would have to spend every second of my life on these grounds,” said Jaehwan. “Your man Hakyeon says I cannot leave for so long as I live. I was deceived. Do you have no pity for my poor fate?”
Beside him Hakyeon made a soft noise, as of surprise. Jaehwan knew not why, and so ignored it.
“I do have pity,” said Sanghyuk, and his voice was not altogether unkind. “However, I cannot release you. It is not within my power to do so.”
“But you are master of this castle,” said Jaehwan. He wanted to look the lord in the eye as he pleaded for his life, but dared not look rude. “Surely…”
“There is much you do not yet know,” said Sanghyuk. “It is as I said, I cannot release you. I am sorry.”
Jaehwan had received many apologies since his entering the castle, and yet not one offer of help. They claimed to pity him. What use was the pity when the very master of the place refused to release him?
“Go with Hakyeon,” said the lord. “He will help you get settled.”
Anger seized hold of Jaehwan. The man had already dismissed his pleas for help. The people of this castle may have been noble in wealth, but they were heartless. They cared not at all that he had been tricked into this fate.
“I will not go anywhere with him,” said Jaehwan, fighting to keep his voice steady. “I did not agree to this. You cannot keep me here.”
“I am not keeping you anywhere,” said the lord. His voice was frustratingly calm. “Please, go. Hakyeon will explain all.”
“I desire no explanations, only my freedom,” said Jaehwan indignantly.
At this time Hakyeon spoke up. “Your Highness…”
A prince? Surprised, Jaehwan raised his head.
The sight that greeted him was terrifying. The face underneath the cloak’s hood was not human. Monstrous it was, and wolflike, with a large snout and mismatched eyes. On one side of the snout fangs extended, thick and pointed, red of the gums over peeking through. One of the eyes was yellow like the predators of the woods, the other ice blue and shot through with streaks of white. It was a horrifying sight.
With a cry of terror Jaehwan fell back. “What are you?” he cried.
Both eyes widened in shock, and the creature jerked its head back. As it did the hood fell back, revealing large pointed ears and shaggy brown hair, more like fur than anything that grew on human heads.
“Jaehwan, please, calm yourself,” said Hakyeon in an even tone, approaching Jaehwan slowly.
“I will not!” screamed Jaehwan. “What is that monster?”
“That is no monster,” said Hakyeon. He stopped and stood straight, both hands still folded behind his back. “That is Master Sanghyuk.”
“Impossible,” cried Jaehwan. “That is a demon.”
“Jaehwan,” said Hakyeon sharply. He turned to the monster and bowed. “Master, I apologize.”
“I do not require an apology, Hakyeon,” said the creature.
Jaehwan watched the exchange in disbelief. “How can you speak to it so?” he asked. “Look at it! Do you not fear it eating you?”
“He is the master of this castle, and a prince besides,” said Hakyeon. “It would do you good to remember your manners. He is your master now too.”
“No he is not!” cried Jaehwan. He turned on his heel and fled down the hall towards the doors.
He understood now why Hakyeon said he could not leave the grounds. They meant to feed him to this beast. But Jaehwan refused to become a meal so easily. He ran as fast as he could, down the hall and out of the doors, terror pounding in his ears along with the monster’s barked command to Hakyeon.
He had just passed the blooming bushes of the garden when he felt a pull on his collar and was whirled around. Jaehwan found himself facing the handsome, grim face of Hakyeon.
“My apologies,” said the man, and then he swung his arm in a blur of polished teak brown.
A heavy blow struck the side of Jaehwan’s head. Black swallowed his vision as he fell unconscious.
Jaehwan awoke in a bed.
The room he was in was lavishly decorated, filled with beautiful things and furniture far beyond he had ever seen at home. He sat up in the soft bed and leaned against the headboard of engraved pale wood.
Memories returned to Jaehwan piece by piece. He recalled meeting the lord of the castle, a tall and imposing figure hidden under a heavy cloak, and then looking up and underneath that cloak and seeing something horrifying, something far from human.
Jaehwan jumped out of the bed. He was a prisoner of that monster in human clothing, kept from fleeing by that seemingly innocent servant of his. He had to escape.
Before he could run towards the door, he heard someone cry out, “Wait!” and a man ran out from the corner of the room and stood before Jaehwan.
He was tall, and handsome, with a long, kindly face and dark hair. He held his hands before him loosely, as though to show he was no threat. Jaehwan tried to move around him but the man mirrored his movement, blocking his path.
“Who are you?” cried Jaehwan. “Move aside!”
“My name is Wonshik,” said the other. “I’m sorry, you cannot leave this room yet.”
“And why not?” demanded Jaehwan. “You cannot keep me prisoner here.”
He tried once more to dart past Wonshik, and once more Wonshik blocked the way. “Please,” he said. “Let me explain.”
“I have seen enough, I need no explanations,” said Jaehwan. “The supposed master of this place is a beast, and he means to eat me.”
“No, he does not,” said Wonshik, still with his hands held before him. “And he is… he is no beast, not truly.”
“Truly or falsely matters not to me,” snapped back Jaehwan. “He says I cannot leave the grounds. Why not, unless he plans on eating me?”
“He will not eat you,” said Wonshik.
“And how am I supposed to believe you?” asked Jaehwan.
“Because like you, I too cannot leave the grounds,” said Wonshik.
Jaehwan stopped. “What do you mean?”
“It is a long story,” said Wonshik. He sighed tiredly. “Please sit.”
Jaehwan was not fully rid of his suspicions, but he was curious enough to take a step back and once more sit on the bed. Wonshik pulled a nearby chair close and sat in it.
“I am not of this castle like the other residents,” he said, starting with a heavy sigh. “Like you, I took something from the grounds, and am now forced to live here.”
Jaehwan opened his mouth to protest, but stopped when Wonshik raised a hand.
“I know,” he said. “You were deceived into taking the punishment. Regardless, our fates are now the same.”
“And what fate would that be?” asked Jaehwan warily.
“Eternity in this castle,” said Wonshik. “There is no leaving the grounds once you’ve taken from it.”
“But why?” asked Jaehwan, disbelief and despair settling heavy on his heart. “Why can I not leave?”
Wonshik fell silent. When he finally spoke, his deep voice was even deeper and he said, “I ask you to keep an open mind as I tell you of what befell this castle and all who lived in it, many years ago.”
Something in the tone of his voice told Jaehwan this was no light matter, and he nodded, face grave.
“Many, many years ago, a curse was placed on this castle and all its inhabitants,” said Wonshik. “It cannot be found unless one is lost. It provides hospitality but no gifts. And once you have wronged it you must live here, for eternity.”
“Eternity?” repeated Jaehwan.
Wonshik nodded. “Time stops inside these walls,” he said. “Outside time passes as ever before, but in here things do not change. The same time, the same year, loops continuously, on and on.”
Jaehwan rubbed his face with both hands, struggling to accept what was being shared with him. A timeless castle, ruled over by a beastly lord. He would have thought it nothing more than a fairy story, had he not been here, trapped in its very confines.
“Why can I not leave?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Wonshik, and he appeared sincere. “It’s part of the curse. I cannot leave, and neither can you.”
“How long have you been here?” asked Jaehwan.
Wonshik paused, deep in thought. “Truthfully, I can’t say,” he said finally. “Many years, I’m sure.”
“But you are so young,” said Jaehwan, taken aback. Wonshik looked just as young as Jaehwan, and could be no more than thirty.
“It’s as I said, time is different in the castle,” said Wonshik. “I do not age, and neither does anyone else living here. Neither will you.”
The thought of it wracked Jaehwan’s gut with unease. He did not want to have fairy magic worked on him, eternal youth or no. He did not want to live in a place filled with it, trapped for the rest of eternity to be a servant. He needed to escape.
Wonshik said he could not, but despite his height and build he did not look dependable and hardy, and not nearly as full of determination as Jaehwan was. It might have been impossible for him, but Jaehwan was certain he would be able to find a way out.
He saw, however, that Wonshik would be no help. He had a warm and friendly countenance, but he had too easily given in to the horror of eternal servitude to a cursed domain, and would likely not take kindly Jaehwan’s efforts at escape. And so Jaehwan made sure to say nothing that revealed his intentions, only nodding along to Wonshik’s words as he waited for the right moment to act.
“It will take you some time to adjust,” continued Wonshik. “It took me quite a while too. But I hope it will be easier for you, as you will have me.”
He smiled, warm and friendly. Jaehwan fought to mirror it.
Surely Wonshik was mad. How could he speak so easily of living here, knowing it was not only lifelong servitude, but eternal servitude? And the master they would serve…
“What of the lord?” asked Jaehwan.
Wonshik frowned. “Lord?”
“The master,” said Jaehwan, endeavoring to keep his voice calm. “Sanghyuk.”
“Oh,” said Wonshik. He hesitated. “What of him?”
Jaehwan saw an opportunity. “What kind of master is he?” he asked. He moved further down the bed, casually, closer to the door and away from Wonshik.
Wonshik was so preoccupied he did not notice. “He is a good master,” he said. “And a good person.”
A mirthless laugh threatened to escape Jaehwan’s lips, and he forced it down. Sanghyuk was no person. “I see,” he said. “You enjoy working for him?” He moved further down the bed.
“Truthfully, there is not much work,” said Wonshik. “And even less so for you. You will find him a wonderful master.”
“I am sure,” lied Jaehwan easily.
“He sent me here to speak with you when you woke up,” said Wonshik. “He thought it would be easier for you if I were to explain things before you went out into the rest of the castle.”
“Oh, how kind,” said Jaehwan. He slowly slipped his feet out from underneath him, let them touch the polished floor.
“There are very few servants,” said Wonshik. “But they are… difficult to get accustomed to.” He flashed Jaehwan another warm smile. “For that reason I think it would be better if you stayed in your room a while, at least until you’re ready to meet them.”
“Certainly,” said Jaehwan, and then he made a dash for the door.
Wonshik was caught off guard. The man attempted to grab him as he went past, but Jaehwan was too quick. In seconds he was at the bedroom door, pulling it open and running down the hallway.
There was no one outside. No bustling maids, no guards posted at the doorways, no one to try and stop Jaehwan as he ran down a gleaming corridor. Jaehwan had no time to ponder his good fortune. He ran as fast as he could, past closed doors, his every footstep echoing around him.
He spotted stairs ahead when a nearby door opened up and Hakyeon’s surprised face appeared. “Jaehwan?”
Jaehwan swerved out of his path and beyond his reach. He could hear quick footsteps behind him, and turned to see Hakyeon in close pursuit, Wonshik just a step behind. Jaehwan put his head down and spurred himself to move even faster.
He jumped down the stairs, going three or four at a time, nearly falling but steadying himself with a hand on the shiny balustrade. Once he reached the ground floor Jaehwan kept running, not daring to sneak another glance behind, and soon found himself back in the main hall, entering through a passage opposite the study Hakyeon had led him to just hours before. To Jaehwan’s dismay, the hall was not empty.
There was a man there, just outside the doorway to the study and with his head bowed over a book. He was handsome, handsome enough to see so from the first glance, and had dark hair, tall build, a beautiful side profile. As Jaehwan skidded into the main hall the stranger turned to look at him.
Jaehwan’s steps faltered and he let out a shocked scream.
Thick black quills covered half the man’s face, growing out of his skin. They looked to be at least two, three inches long, scattered densely over the right side of his face, edging the outside curves of his lips and his eyes. The eye on that side was solid black.
A hand gripped Jaehwan’s elbow, making him jump. He turned to find Hakyeon by him, Wonshik right behind, both of them panting from exertion. Jaehwan fought against the hold, and as he did his gaze fell to Hakyeon’s hand. He recoiled in horror.
That was no hand clutching his arm. It was a horrifying, deformed appendage, a monstrous mix of human hand and birdlike talon. The thumb and first two fingers were covered in warm brown skin; in place of the last two fingers was the curved claw of a bird of prey. Jaehwan stared at it, shocked, and then trailed his gaze up an arm covered in large brown feathers and up to Hakyeon’s dark eyes.
Jaehwan let out a loud scream, startling the man. It was enough for him to break free, pushing the manservant hard and into Wonshik who stood behind. From the corner of his eye Jaehwan saw the monstrous man with the black quills approach. He rushed to the front doors and threw them open.
The darkness of twilight greeted Jaehwan. He ran into the cool night air. He cared not about the approaching night, or how he would fare in the thick wood with no light or fire. His only thought was escape from the creatures pursuing him.
He fled down the path paved with stones. They crunched underneath his bare feet, and his heart hammered in his ears. Jaehwan was so focused on reaching the gilded gates ahead he nearly did not hear it.
Pebbles skittered behind him, like a thousand feet clacking over them. The sound was right behind him and only got louder every passing moment. Something was after him, some monster worse than the human-like ones in the castle. Panic surged up Jaehwan’s chest and he fought to run even faster. The gates were only a few feet away, closed but unlocked, and he needed only a few seconds to reach them, just a little more—
Something shoved Jaehwan hard and he fell forward.
Before he could even think to get up, he was grabbed by the back of the head and pushed into the hard pebbles of the path, sharp stones digging into his chin as the pressure kept him facing forward. The gate was only a few feet away. Only a few feet, yet so far out of reach.
Jaehwan fought against the pressure holding his head down, straining his already hurting neck, but it was no use. It felt as though he was struggling against the very Earth itself. Still he fought, refusing to give up so easily.
“Don’t.” The voice was soft, hardly more than a whisper, feather light. “You do not want to see me.”
Jaehwan fell still. A moment later the pressure abated, only to be replaced by another. His arms were held behind his back and he was raised to his feet. He turned and found his captor to be Wonshik. Two steps behind him stood the other two.
Hakyeon stood once more with both arms folded behind his back. Jaehwan now understood why he always stood so. His beastly arms were hidden in this way, and he appeared a normal human like Jaehwan.
Beside him was the other man. Jaehwan stared at him, no thought of shame. Half the man’s face was so handsome it was angelic, as lovely as a painting. The other was monstrous, covered in sharp black quills that traveled down to his neck and disappeared underneath his shirt.
There was no one else present. Whatever creature had caught Jaehwan had disappeared, and Jaehwan was grateful.
“I told you, you cannot leave,” said Wonshik. He began pushing Jaehwan down the path, once more towards the terrible prison.
“It is for your own safety,” said Hakyeon.
“So you claim,” shot back Jaehwan, struggling in Wonshik’s iron grip. “You are a beast just like your master, how can I trust anything you say?”
“I hope you will learn to be more polite with time,” said Hakyeon, seemingly unbothered. “Master Sanghyuk is your master now as well. You will find he is a wonderful man.”
“Never,” spat Jaehwan. “He will never be my master, or my lord. He is an evil beast and you will not keep me here.”
Hakyeon only sighed and shook his head. As Wonshik guided Jaehwan past the two men he turned to look at the unknown man, the one who looked like fate’s cruel joke, angelic on one side, demonic on the other. One warm golden brown eye followed him.
“Let him run out the gates next time,” said the man.
Wonshik made a soft sound, as of shock. “Hongbin,” said Hakyeon in light indignation.
The man, Hongbin, only shrugged. Jaehwan kept his eyes on him as he was led back into the castle.
He was taken up the stairs to one of the towers, back to the luxurious room he had woken up in. Wonshik placed him gently on the bed, and then hurriedly stepped back, to where Hakyeon waited with arms folded. Hongbin had not followed.
“Do not try that again,” said Hakyeon. “You were fortunate this time we stopped you.”
“Why, or else your master would have chased me down in the forest and eaten me there?” demanded Jaehwan. Neither Hakyeon nor Wonshik answered. Their silence sent unease down Jaehwan’s spine.
“Do not try that again,” repeated Hakyeon, and then he and Wonshik left the room. Wonshik gave Jaehwan a sympathetic look as he passed the doorway. Jaehwan returned an acidic glare.
When the door closed Jaehwan heard the distinct click of a lock.
He was trapped. Unable to leave this room, in a castle filled with monsters where time never moved, with a terrifying beast as master that refused to let him go.
Jaehwan buried his face in the plush pillows of the bed and screamed.
Chapter 4: Dinner with the Master
The Nightingale and the Beast dine together
Happy birthday to our boy with a star ☆
To our little prince, we'll wait patiently for your return ♡
Days passed one after another. Jaehwan remained a prisoner in his room, and he was not wholly displeased for it. He had no desire to see the beastly inhabitants of the castle, only waiting for another opportunity to escape.
It proved difficult. After his first attempt the servants were on heightened guard. The room to Jaehwan’s chambers were locked, and whenever someone entered or exited he could see another standing by the doorway, ready for another sudden dash. Jaehwan fought to save his patience and behaved as a model prisoner.
His most frequent visitor was Wonshik. The man came to see him multiple times a day, and often sat for conversations to keep him company. He gave Jaehwan knowledge of the castle he was trapped in and its few inhabitants, and it was through him Jaehwan learned there were very few servants, less than twenty, which was laughable for an estate of this size and grandeur. When Jaehwan raised this point, Wonshik only chuckled and said, “The castle maintains itself.”
Which is how Jaehwan came to learn that the castle was enchanted in more ways than one. By magic it righted itself in the night, repaired anything of it that came to be broken, cleaned its corners and crannies. The food in the pantry was replenished.
“And of course, when we have guests, a feast always appears,” said Wonshik, with a rueful smile.
Conversations with Wonshik and his forced cheer were not particularly pleasant, but he was alright to look at, with no deformities so far as Jaehwan could see. In any case, interactions with Wonshik were far superior to Jaehwan’s interactions with the other who often came to his rooms. Hongbin did not speak often, and when he did it was in a rude, haughty tone, as though he found it demeaning to be forced to come and serve Jaehwan his meals. Jaehwan for his part saw no reason to treat Hongbin with any manners in return, so their time spent together was in silence with only cold looks being shared.
Hongbin must have been strikingly handsome when fully human. It was evident still in the left side of his face, with his warm honey brown eye and sculpted features. The black spikes that grew from the right were much more suited to his personality, Jaehwan felt.
It was one golden afternoon when Wonshik visited with a tray of tea of sugary biscuits that he brought along an unexpected guest.
“Good afternoon, Jaehwan,” said Hakyeon politely. “I trust you have been well.”
“Indeed, I do enjoy being kept in a room against my will,” said Jaehwan, voice dripping in sarcasm. “Why have you come? To see firsthand how your prisoner fares?”
Hakyeon smiled, perfectly pleasant. “The master desires your company for dinner tonight.”
His words struck base dread in Jaehwan’s gut. “What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said,” said Hakyeon, unbothered by Jaehwan’s obvious distress. “Master Sanghyuk wishes to dine with you tonight. Someone will come to accompany you to the dining hall at dinnertime. Be ready before then.”
“He wishes to dine with me?” Jaehwan laughed in derision. “Dine on me, rather.”
“Be sure to not be so mannerless at dinner,” said Hakyeon. “The master is very relaxed regarding propriety but you must remember that above all he is a prince.”
“So you claim,” said Jaehwan acidly. “I have not heard of a prince in this land for centuries, not since long before the empire swept through and claimed conquest. Your weak lies may have deceived Wonshik, but not me.”
“Believe what you will, but the truth remains the same,” said Hakyeon, as collected as ever. “Behave accordingly, Master Sanghyuk is your master as well now.”
“Never,” said Jaehwan. “He will never be my master and you will never keep me here.”
Hakyeon only watched Jaehwan with a cool gaze before turning and walking towards the door.
Jaehwan released an audible gasp as he finally received his first clear look at the man’s arms. They were no arms, not truly, more like the appendages of a mutant bird monster. The right, the one Jaehwan had had on his person only days before, had a distinct claw-like quality to it, along with the humanish thumb and forefinger. The juxtaposition was jarring and disturbing. The left was more wing than aught else, carefully bent to not be visible from the front. It looked too small for flight, and must have been useless; there were no digits with which he could pick up or hold anything.
“No wonder you are so fond of your master,” said Jaehwan. “He is the only one more monstrous than you.”
Wonshik released a soft gasp of surprise but said nothing. Hakyeon looked over his shoulder. “That was exceedingly rude,” he said. “Do not repeat that behavior before Master Sanghyuk.” And then he left.
Once the man was gone, Jaehwan collapsed onto his bed. If Hakyeon was a monster, Sanghyuk was beyond description.
“Nothing will happen to you,” said Wonshik, approaching Jaehwan with caution. “Sanghyuk is a good man.”
“Man?” Jaehwan straightened. “That—that thing is no man.”
A frown creased Wonshik’s brow. “He is not a thing, Jaehwan.”
“Oh, cease with your pity!” cried Jaehwan. “He is my jailer, and yours too, if you had the brains to see it.”
“He has jailed no one,” said Wonshik, and there was a suffering patience in his deep timbre, as though he saw Jaehwan as some child to be educated. “We cannot leave due to the enchantment of the castle.”
Jaehwan laughed in derision but said nothing. Like he would believe that! Sanghyuk was the master of the castle, and from what Wonshik had previously shared with him, had given Jongwook time to make his goodbyes and the blue rose to guide him back. If Sanghyuk had the power to release that deceitful swine for weeks on end, how was Jaehwan to believe he could not grant freedom to he or Wonshik?
“Hakyeon is right,” said Wonshik after much silence. “Be polite to Sanghyuk, if not for the fact that he is a prince, than for the fact that he is a person.”
“I will treat him however I like,” snapped Jaehwan. “I must be kind to him, when he keeps me locked up for a crime I did not commit? What a great man he is!”
Wonshik sighed. “You should—”
“I should and shall not do anything!” cried Jaehwan impetuously. “If all you will do is scold me for being unkind to your beloved master, then begone!”
To Jaehwan’s surprise, Wonshik left. He made certain to give Jaehwan a long look before doing so, but he did leave, and Jaehwan was left to his already-cold tea and biscuits in solitude.
For the rest of the afternoon his mood was foul. Shinjoo, one of the maids with dark, overlapping scales up her neck, came to take away the tea tray, but beside that Jaehwan was alone through the setting sun and dusk. He took the opportunity to gather his thoughts.
He would be let out of the room in what felt like weeks. If his guess was correct, Jaehwan would be led out of the tower and into the main dining room, commonly situated in the main bulk of the castle. It was close to the front doors. Much closer than Jaehwan’s chambers were, and previously he had gone within a few feet of the estate gates before being captured.
That soft, papery voice was still in Jaehwan’s mind, and he shuddered. He had not yet met the owner of that voice, nor asked Wonshik who it was that had recaptured him. Jaehwan feared the appearance of a monster more terrifying than Sanghyuk.
Twilight deepened into true night. There was a knock on the door, and with no further warning it opened to reveal the half handsome, half hideous face of Hongbin. “I hope you’re ready,” he said.
Jaehwan rose from his seat, chin high, and followed Hongbin out of his rooms.
There were no servants in the corridor, and none by the stairs of the tower. Jaehwan knew there were not even twenty souls in the entire building. It would be easy to escape once he reached the ground floor.
Hongbin led Jaehwan to the entrance hall, directly past the main doors where a manservant had been posted. Jaehwan would have to count for his presence when he attempted to escape. He was ushered across the breadth of the hall and into a dining room on the opposite side. Inside, a long table was laid with white cloth and gleaming candelabra, and sitting at it was the master of the house.
He wore a long cloak concealing most of his body, but the hood was down, allowing Jaehwan his first proper look at the supposed prince’s features. Most of the face was wolfish, with a pronounced snout and nose like a dog, all covered in brown fur. On one side of the snout jagged teeth showed, growing overly long and extending past the bottom jaw. His eyes, however, were not animalistic. They were demonic, glowing in the golden candlelight as though lit from within. The right was gold like molten amber. The left was blue, startlingly so, with streaks of white radiating from the center. It looked like it had been stabbed with ice shards that would not melt. Even the sight of it set off pain in Jaehwan’s own eyes.
“Good evening,” said the beast, making no move to rise from his seat.
Jaehwan did not return the greeting. “What do you want?”
“Your company over dinner,” said Sanghyuk. “We have much to discuss.”
“There is naught I am interested in discussing with you,” said Jaehwan, but he approached the table regardless, not least because Hongbin was still close by and he feared being pricked by his nasty quills.
“Please, have a seat,” said Sanghyuk, and unwillingly Jaehwan complied. There was only one other chair, and that too at the head of the table. Sanghyuk was seated immediately to Jaehwan’s left hand, much too close for Jaehwan’s comfort.
Hongbin left, and moments later various servants entered with trays of food and drink. The older man who placed the dish of roast beef had eyes too large for his face, with slitted pupils and poison yellow irises. Movement showed through the layers of the maid’s dress, and Jaehwan could hear the clack of multiple pairs of shoes as she walked and put down a hearty vegetable stew before him. The young man with the wine held the tray with a claw like a gigantic bird of prey.
He made note of Sanghyuk murmuring something to one of the serving women, a girl who was pretty in the face despite the spiky scales that showed at the backs of her hands, and her gasp of outrage before she quickly scurried away. An ungentlemanly master, Jaehwan deduced. Disgust brewed in his belly.
Once all the food and cutlery had been placed, all the servants exited, leaving Jaehwan alone with the master of the house.
No plate had been set for him. Jaehwan felt unease wrack his gut. His fate appeared set—Sanghyuk’s meal was at the table, not on it.
Jaehwan told himself he would not partake of this meal—undoubtedly a transparent attempt at fattening him up before he was to be eaten—but the alluring smells of the many exquisite dishes called to him, and he decided he could eat a little. To bolster his energy for his escape, he told himself as he cut into a side of lamb. It was excellent.
“I have heard from Wonshik that you are having trouble adjusting,” said Sanghyuk. There was an unpleasant rasp to his voice, an undertone of wild beast. “I am sorry to hear that. I know this has been a great shock to you. Is there any way I can ease your discomfort?”
“You could release me,” said Jaehwan.
“I cannot do that,” said Sanghyuk.
“Then no, there is no way you can ease my discomfort,” said Jaehwan, savagely cutting into his meat.
There was a beat of silence before Sanghyuk said, “I am sorry, Jaehwan. Releasing you is beyond my power.”
“You released Jongwook,” said Jaehwan. “You allowed him to return to the school.”
“That is different,” said Sanghyuk.
“So you claim,” said Jaehwan. He pointed his knife at Sanghyuk. “Why would everyone here call you master if you could not even control who enters and leaves your estate?”
Sanghyuk made no reply to that. It was difficult to read emotions on his beastly face, and Jaehwan gave up after a few attempts. He focused on his meal.
The beast seemed intent on conversation, however, and said, “Hongbin says you have been unkind to Wonshik. That’s unfair, I feel. He is only trying to make things better for you.”
Jaehwan put down the knife with a clatter. “He is only trying to force me to lie down and accept my imprisonment,” he said. “And what is it to Hongbin? Is that his occupation here, to gossip about my doings?”
There was a pause, and then Sanghyuk very quietly said, “Have you ever considered for one moment that not everything is about you?”
“Excuse me?” said Jaehwan sharply. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing of consequence,” said Sanghyuk. “I apologize for my rudeness. I only meant Hongbin’s interest is not in you.”
Jaehwan scoffed and picked up his knife once more. He knew the prickly man disliked him; he would hardly let himself be convinced otherwise by this creature.
Minutes passed in silence, the only sound in the hall the click of silver on porcelain as Jaehwan ate, before Sanghyuk once more attempted to restart conversation. “Do you enjoy singing, Jaehwan?” he asked.
“Oh, no, I only joined a prestigious singing school on a whim,” said Jaehwan mockingly.
Sanghyuk made no notice of his tone. “Do you play any instruments?”
“I will never play anything for you.”
“I hope you will one day sing for us, then,” said the beast, undaunted. “We haven’t had music for many a year. Taekwoon used to play piano and sing, but sadly he can now no longer do either.”
“How tragic,” said Jaehwan, not altogether unkindly. It would be a cruel life if he could not sing.
“He attempted to teach me music,” said Sanghyuk. “I fear I had no natural talent in it, though of course Hakyeon insisted otherwise.”
He sounded fond. His disturbing eyes were no longer on Jaehwan, instead drifting across the walls as he lost himself to some memory of long ago. Jaehwan tensed, glanced at the door. There was no one else in the chamber, no guards watching over the doorway or his movements.
“Those days, Hakyeon believed I could accomplish anything, and I rather believed him,” continued Sanghyuk, wholly unaware of Jaehwan readying for his attempt at escape. “So much has changed since then, and yet he still—”
Jaehwan did not stay to hear the rest. In a flash he was on his feet, chair crashing to the floor as he made a mad dash for the door.
He did not care to check if the beast was in pursuit. He made it just past the doorway and into the entrance hall when a young man stepped in front of him, eyes wide in surprise as he reached out a hand to grab at his shirt.
Jaehwan did not think twice. He pulled his fist back and rocked the man straight in the jaw. He had no experience in fighting, never having participated in a brawl or any of the scraps so many men his age often faced, but the blow was enough to knock the youth aside and clear Jaehwan’s path. He rushed past the dazed manservant, closer to the main doors, unguarded and ready to be thrown open, knowing that beyond them awaited the night air, the golden gates, and freedom.
Jaehwan took one more step before something closed around his waist and he was lifted straight off the floor.
He screamed and struggled, kicking his feet. The grip at his waist did not weaken; rather it only held on more firmly, and Jaehwan was easily maneuvered up and around until the length of his body was held pressed against a solid mass to his back.
“Release me!” screamed Jaehwan, still struggling. “Let me go now!”
“You sorely test my patience.” The growl behind Jaehwan traveled through his back and reverberated in his ribcage. “Be still.”
The rough words stilled Jaehwan’s efforts. He looked down at his middle, at the monstrous arm curled around it. The fur on it was dull gold in color, like the muscled leg and paw of a big cat, an animal of the jungle. Jaehwan turned and saw the chest he was held against was much the same, golden cat of the arm in lieu of brown wolf of the head. The left side was still covered with the heavy cloak, and he knew not what animal lurked under there.
Jaehwan’s legs dangled uselessly, several inches off the floor, as Sanghyuk turned with his body held easily in one arm. He started towards the tower.
The realization of what was happening was enough to start Jaehwan out of his shock. He once more struggled in the iron grip, knowing it was futile but refusing to surrender so meekly. He cried out in rage as Sanghyuk ascended the stairs, throwing whatever expletives and barbs he could think of, swearing bloody revenge as loudly and as shrilly as his voice would allow. Sanghyuk swallowed them all silently, infuriating Jaehwan even more.
A maid darted in front of Sanghyuk as they reached Jaehwan’s designated chambers, opening the door before just as quickly fleeing. Sanghyuk stepped into the room and threw Jaehwan onto the bed with no care.
Jaehwan flipped himself around from his belly to his back. “You cad!” he yelled, enraged. “You devil, monster! I did not give you permission to lay your beastly hands on me—”
“And I did not give you permission to interrupt our dinner,” said Sanghyuk. He loomed before the doorway, a hulking mass standing over six feet tall, wolfish face fixed in a snarl.
“Our dinner? My last meal, you mean!” said Jaehwan, voice high in mocking fury. He knew he should feel fear before this demonic creature, but no fear could live with the burning rage that flowed through his veins. “Displeased I delayed your meal, noble prince? Here I am now!” He spread his arms wide, making a show of it. “Devour me now and be done with it!”
“I will not eat you, and you are well aware of it,” said Sanghyuk, voice tight. “If my intention was to eat you I would not provide you rooms, or food and drink, or have the loyal men and women of my household wait on you while you treat them with base disrespect.”
“Then what is your purpose, great master?” asked Jaehwan, voice ripe with sarcasm. “What do you require me for, that you will not give me my freedom?”
When Sanghyuk answered, his voice was so quiet Jaehwan nearly missed it. “I only wanted you to sing.”
“I will never sing for you,” spat Jaehwan. “Never.”
“I no longer desire it,” said Sanghyuk, and Jaehwan laughed at that. The beast ignored him. “I see now you are a peacock,” he said. “I had thought you were a nightingale.”
That brought Jaehwan pause. “How do you mean?”
Sanghyuk did not answer the question, instead saying, “You will apologize to Hansol. I will no longer direct anyone to wait on you for, frankly, you are not worthy of it. Ask Hakyeon for what work you can do; you may not sing but you will work as the rest of us do.”
“You cannot do that!” cried Jaehwan, sitting up in indignation. “I am not your servant, and I am not your slave.”
“No, but you are not my guest either, and you must earn your keep,” said Sanghyuk. He paused, just a moment, and then he said in his gruff beastly voice, “Good night, Jaehwan.”
Jaehwan’s incoherent scream of rage was ignored as the beast left the room, and once more Jaehwan was alone and locked in his lavish room.
He buried his face in the plush pillow, feeling the exhaustion seep into his bones as the anger slowly bled out. Sanghyuk was a hateful creature, Jaehwan saw it plainly now. He did not appreciate Jaehwan’s refusal to sing for him, his refusal to meekly surrender, and now intended to punish him for it. Jaehwan cared not. So long as he was alive he would not cease attempting to escape, and one day he would succeed, no matter what the beast did to try and stop him.
Jaehwan curled up on his side, allowing sleep to take him.
The sunlight was golden, filtered through the canopy overhead. Jaehwan walked among the trees, eyes running over the golden rays that glimmered before him, the vibrant green grass underneath. Everything possessed an ethereal beauty, beyond the realm of true beauty.
It was a dream, Jaehwan realized.
He continued walking through the lovely forest, happy to explore his dreamscape, until he came upon a clearing, in the middle of which was a crystal blue pond. Standing before the water was a man.
He was tall, and undoubtedly handsome, though his features did not clear in Jaehwan’s dream vision. He said something Jaehwan could not quite grasp. Jaehwan endeavored to speak back to him but the words refused to leave his lips. Undaunted, he left the cover of the trees to approach the man, determined to speak with him.
Jaehwan awoke in the light of the morning, the faint remnants of a sweet dream clinging to the corners of his mind.
Chapter 5: Nightingale and Peacock
The Nightingale walks in dreams and while awake, and seeks the answer to a question.
Well it's been a minute and a half since i updated this fic. I am very sorry for the long hiatus! Things were going on irl and i was a little busy, and i needed some time to get back into the groove of this story. Thank you for your patience, and i hope you'll like this chapter
Days rolled by in perfect weather. Jaehwan was moved from his luxurious tower room to one alongside the common servants’. He was still a prisoner, but his cage was no longer gilded.
The beast had said he would be put to work but Hakyeon had yet to find a position suitable to his skills, of which Jaehwan had none beyond singing. Until the keeper of the household found him work, Jaehwan was shut inside his bare room devoid of comforts, left to endlessly pace and stew in his thoughts through the long sunlight hours, growing more and more restless throughout the course of the day until the sun finally sank and blessed night fell.
Nights glided by in heavenly dreams. At first Jaehwan could hardly remember more than a few moments. The rest of his dreams slipped through his fingers like wisps of smoke, but he awoke every morning with his heart thrumming and his skin warm to his fingertips. With every passing night the dreams increased in clarity. First Jaehwan remembered a beautiful forest with leaves dappled in sunlight. Next, he recalled walking among the trees until he came upon a clearing. More nights passed before he woke remembering that in that clearing there had been a lake, and by it a figure.
This figure, Jaehwan was certain, was a fairy prince. There was no other explanation why he would appear in his dreams every night, why Jaehwan was so drawn to him, why Jaehwan could not at first recall much more than the smallest details of him.
He was handsome. Of that, Jaehwan was certain. The first few mornings Jaehwan would only recall that he was fair of face and build. It took him many more meetings to trace his features, to commit them to memory so that he could awake with them etched into his mind.
He wondered what had moved this prince to visit his dreams. Perhaps he had come to soothe Jaehwan’s angry heart.
If so, he achieved his goal with every passing day and night. Jaehwan no longer found in himself the ability to hold resentment towards his kind jailers, neither the silent maids and manservants who served his meals, nor Wonshik and his occasional visits. Their master held all power in his beastly claws, Jaehwan knew. He could not hate creatures just as powerless as he himself.
On a beautiful clear day, late in the morning when the sun was more than halfway it the peak in its arc across the sky, Jaehwan was let out of his room to deliver an apology.
“Oh, no, there’s no need to apologize, m’lord,” said Hansol, the boy Jaehwan had hit during his second escape attempt.
“I should not have struck you,” said Jaehwan. “It was wrong of me, and I apologize.”
The young man looked uncomfortable still, but bowed and said, “Thank you, m’lord.”
From behind Jaehwan, Hakyeon said, “You may return to your duties. Also, you need no longer call Jaehwan by that title. He is now in service to the master, same as you.”
“Yes, Master Hakyeon,” said Hansol, and quickly bowed once more before leaving.
Jaehwan turned to Hakyeon in displeasure. “I do not serve the beast,” he said. “I will agree to working here during my captivity, but I will thank you not to refer to that creature as my master.”
Hakyeon appeared decidedly unbothered by this declaration. “We do not require any more hands cleaning,” he said. “I have reason to believe Hongbin would stab you before he would allow you into his kitchen. You may work the gardens with Wonshik for some time.”
Jaehwan was as pleased as could be. He was still a prisoner within the gates, but at the least he could spend time outside the castle and away from its hateful master.
He still shuddered to think of Sanghyuk’s hands on him. The supposed prince had handled Jaehwan as though he was no more than a ragdoll, and it was humiliating. Moreover, the news of it had spread to every soul in the household, for every maid and butler looked at Jaehwan askance, and some with frank hostility like Hongbin. It appeared Sanghyuk was much revered by his household.
Jaehwan no longer felt anger bubble in his heart at the other monstrous inhabitants of the castle and their blind devotion to what was undoubtedly a monster. Sanghyuk had either compelled them through brute force or else deceived and hypnotized them through some other means. Jongwook had said the master was a sorcerer. Perhaps he had been speaking the truth on one matter. Surely there was no other explanation for the vivid sapphire roses that grew on the outer fence and gate.
“Don’t go near those,” said Wonshik, as he and Jaehwan weeded flowerbeds. “It is forbidden to pluck any.”
“Forbidden by whom?” asked Jaehwan, pulling his gaze away from the lush blooms. “The beast?”
Wonshik released a heavy sigh. “Don’t call him that,” he said. “They hurt him.”
“Ha! Do not try me,” said Jaehwan derisively. “If my words could hurt him, I would have been free by now.”
“No, the roses,” said Wonshik. “The sight of them is painful to him.”
That gave Jaehwan pause. He wished to ask why, but then recalled he had no interest in the beast, or his fancies. Instead he voiced a question that had played on his mind far too long. “What is the difference between a nightingale and a peacock?” he asked.
Wonshik frowned. “I don’t know. I have never seen either.”
“They are both birds,” said Jaehwan. “You must have heard of them.”
“I never studied birds,” said Wonshik, returning to his work. “I was only a poor village boy before I came here.”
The man did not look interested in continuing the conversation, and so Jaehwan let it lie. He did not think he would get the right answer from Wonshik.
What had Sanghyuk meant when he had told Jaehwan he was no nightingale, but a peacock? He could guess it was no praise, but he could not decipher the meaning and it irritated him greatly. How could he be lacking in wits compared to a beast playing as a civilized man?
Jaehwan stowed the thought at the back of his mind. He had not much experience with garden work, but he was an enthusiastic student, and Wonshik a patient teacher.
When the two retired to the castle as sunset approached, Wonshik remarked to Jaehwan, “You have been in a surprisingly pleasant mood.”
Jaehwan smiled. “I had a good dream last night.”
“Oh? Of what?” asked Wonshik.
“Magic,” said Jaehwan, and Wonshik laughed.
Jaehwan joined his laughter with a smile, but he spoke the truth. It was magic to him. No matter how things became during his conscious hours, Jaehwan could still find comfort in his dreams.
Days passed in repetitive work as Jaehwan made peace with his new life as a servant. He dined with the other servants, no longer served meals in his bedroom. Jaehwan had been surprised to see that the commoners all dined in the fine hall he had been served that ill-fated dinner with Sanghyuk. He explained this away as imagining it was more convenient to dine so few people there.
At all these meals, there was one notable absence. Jaehwan had not imagined the pretend prince would dine with all the common folk, but he wondered where Sanghyuk did eat, and what his meals consisted of. He was undoubtedly a carnivorous beast; Jaehwan had seen enough of him under the heavy cloak to know he was nothing close to man. He found himself more and more curious about the beast and what he did.
He did not wander the grounds, for Jaehwan would have seen him during his rounds of gardening. He did not roam his halls either, for Jaehwan never saw him during the days he was sent to work indoors. Hakyeon walked among the servants, checking their work and occasionally stopping to chat and keep company, but Sanghyuk never deigned to do the same.
“Where is he?” asked Jaehwan one day, when his curiosity got the better of him.
“Who?” returned Hakyeon.
Jaehwan knew the keeper of the household was not fond of him, and so chose his words with more care. “The master of the castle,” he said.
“Prince Sanghyuk?” Hakyeon appeared surprised. “I was unaware you were so interested in his whereabouts.”
“I am only curious,” said Jaehwan, annoyed.
“Calm yourself,” said Hakyeon with a laugh. “You have quite the temper. It escapes me how one could find it charming.”
Jaehwan’s annoyance was only stoked further. “Do not tell me if you do not want to,” he snapped.
“Your anger will ruin what you touch,” said Hakyeon. “Consider this well-meaning advice.” He sighed, and as he turned and left, muttered, “His Highness was right.”
His words did not escape Jaehwan’s ears. “What do you mean?” he asked shrilly. “What did he say about me?”
But Hakyeon only continued walking, birdlike monstrous limbs crossed behind his back.
The servants of the household were disfigured to varying degrees. With the exception of Wonshik, everyone else was like Hakyeon, some with disfigurements hardly visible, others more removed from human. Hongbin was one of those worse affected. The thick black quills that filled half of his face were terrible to behold, and the few days Jaehwan was assigned to the kitchen he could hardly look at the other man.
“Get out,” snapped Hongbin.
Jaehwan stilled where he had been wiping the fine porcelain plates they had eaten off during dinner. “Excuse me?”
“Are you deaf as well as stupid?” asked Hongbin snappishly. “You can’t even face me, what are you doing in my kitchen? Leave.”
“You believe I am here of my will?” returned Jaehwan. “That I would willingly spend a single instant with you? Know this, if I could leave, I would have left this godsforsaken place already!”
“Then go,” said Hongbin. “We saved you once before, but my patience has worn thin. I have no idea why Sanghyuk is so dedicated to keeping you alive.”
“Because he wants to eat me, no doubt,” said Jaehwan. “He is a beast.”
“If he wished to eat you, he’s doing quite a bad job of it,” said Hongbin, quills bristling. “Letting you live for weeks—no, months—and forcing us to endure your insufferable presence? A very poor bloodthirsty beast he is! Why, if he wanted to make a meal of you, he could have asked me any time. I would gladly carve you up!”
He reached for the gleaming butcher’s knife sticking out of the wooden block. Jaehwan cried out in fear and fled the kitchen.
No one tried to stop him as he ran to his room. Only when he was safely inside with the door locked did Jaehwan allow himself to breathe.
The castle truly housed monsters. Most of the others were innocent, despite their ugly visages, and Wonshik was only deluded into believing their imprisonment was just. But Hongbin truly was awful. Jaehwan shuddered, thinking of the cleaver he had reached for. What if he had given chase? It was terrible to even think of.
He could not return to the kitchen, not with Hongbin there, and it was much too late to find any other work in the day. Jaehwan lay back in his bed and closed his eyes, hoping for sleep to claim him.
He was in a forest of verdant green leaves and golden sunlight. Jaehwan moved through the tall, proud trees with no hesitation until he broke through into a clearing, in which there was a lake that shimmered as like liquid crystal. Beside it stood a figure.
A man, taller even than Jaehwan, and handsome. His features were strong, sculpted, like a prince from a story. He always appeared amused to see Jaehwan, lips curling into the barest hint a smile. The sight was enough to set Jaehwan’s heart racing once again.
He stood by the edge of the lake, and Jaehwan sat beside him, legs stretched out on the lush grass.
“Leave,” said the prince. He loomed over Jaehwan like a magnificent tower, his dark hair overlaid with gold from the sunlight. “You are trespassing. This place is mine, and I did not give you permission to enter.”
“Must I ask permission to enter my own dreams?” asked Jaehwan with a laugh. “Rather I feel you are the one who must ask me.”
The fairy prince said nothing in response, only turned his gaze over the crystal lake in annoyance. He was not very fond of Jaehwan, but he was never cruel in his rudeness, and his face was so charming to look upon that Jaehwan found he did not much care that he was disliked. He was drawn to the prince no matter.
Jaehwan groaned and lay himself flat upon the grass. “Do not vex me in my dreams too,” he said. “Already I have had a murderous fiend threaten me, must you be cruel to me as well? Have I not suffered enough?”
The prince appeared unimpressed by Jaehwan’s dramatics. “What happened this time?” he asked. “Hakyeon raised his hand to scratch his cheek, and you feared he was going to strike you?”
“No!” Jaehwan glared up at the prince. The sunlight haloed around his head, and he looked so ethereal Jaehwan quickly lost all anger. “Hongbin said he would kill me.”
“Truly?” asked the prince.
“Truly!” cried Jaehwan. And he related the entire event to the prince, in thorough detail.
The handsome prince looked down at Jaehwan, and then sat beside him on the grass. Jaehwan straightened and sat up to better look at his features.
“Must you be terrible to everyone?” asked the prince with a heavy sigh. “Surely you did not live your entire life in this manner.”
“How dare you!” cried Jaehwan, offended. “I did nothing to anger Hongbin! It was he who was violent to me!”
“He did nothing to harm you beyond flinging a few words,” said the prince. “Words carry no more weight than the look you rested on him.”
Jaehwan bristled. “Well, he does look beastly,” he said. “What am I to do?”
“Hongbin was one of the most handsome men I have ever met,” said the prince. He said more, but Jaehwan found himself unable to grasp or make sense of them. More wisps of smoke slipping through his fingers.
“What am I to do?” he repeated.
“Do not stare rudely,” said the prince. “See only his handsome side.”
“That is impossible,” said Jaehwan.
“It is not,” said the prince.
Without warning, he raised a hand to Jaehwan’s face, cupping his cheek gently. Jaehwan stilled, words on his lips falling away.
“What you see on this side,” said the prince, and then he raised his other hand to Jaehwan’s other cheek, “see on this side as well.”
Jaehwan said nothing. The prince cupped his face gently, gazing at him with obsidian eyes. In Jaehwan’s chest his heart beat out a melody.
“Surely you have enough brains for that,” said the prince, and as he spoke he released Jaehwan’s face from his warm touch and flicked him on the forehead.
If anyone else had done such a thing, Jaehwan would have erupted in irritation. Coming from his fairy prince, however, he could only find it endearing.
They spoke further, of things that escaped Jaehwan’s mind and understanding, the prince remaining seated beside him but never touching. Time ebbed and flowed like the ocean’s tide in that magical place, and Jaehwan no longer attempted to keep track. It was enough simply to exist in it.
“What is the difference between a nightingale and a peacock?” asked Jaehwan.
The prince looked down his handsome nose at Jaehwan. “You ask me that every night,” he said, voice heavy in disdain.
“I never remember,” said Jaehwan.
“How difficult it must be to live life so dull,” said the prince.
“Will you tell me?” asked Jaehwan.
“Ask the one whom you heard it from.”
“The beast? Never,” cried Jaehwan. “I would be mortified to death if he knew I could not decipher the meaning. He is only a witless beast.”
The prince peered at Jaehwan, unreadable expression on his handsome face, and tilted his head. He told Jaehwan the meaning of the beast’s words, and from his lips it sounded perfect sense, and so simple. Jaehwan was overjoyed at finally understanding what the beastly creature had meant.
“If you remember this time, you should tell the beast so,” said the prince.
“I will,” said Jaehwan with determination. He inched closer. “But, my prince, won’t you tell me your name?”
“You know it already,” said the prince, moving further away to return the gap to what it had been.
“I can never recall when I wake,” said Jaehwan.
“It is unimportant,” said the prince. “Only remember what I told you to keep in mind as you live in the castle. You are a vexing thing, but this at least you may do right.”
Jaehwan shook his head. He knew the prince told him the same thing every time they met, but he could never remember the words upon waking. They fled from his mind like mist chased away by the sunrise.
The prince told him the same again, stating the words in his sweet voice laden with exasperation. And then, once more, he told Jaehwan his name.
When Jaehwan awoke the next morning, he remembered neither.
While pruning the orange rose bushes, Wonshik shared that he had heard of Jaehwan’s encounter with Hongbin the night before. “I hope you know he would not harm you, not truly,” said the gardener, seemingly earnest. “It was only an empty threat.”
Jaehwan’s first thought was to argue that the dreadful cook had reached for the cleaver, and certainly did intend to harm him, but stayed his tongue. He tried to recall what the prince thought so important he remember. He was certain it had to do with Hongbin and the rest of the household, and the very thought of it soothed the anger in his heart towards the cook.
Finally, Jaehwan spoke. “So long as he does not hurt me.”
Wonshik appeared surprised at Jaehwan’s mild reaction. “He won’t,” he said. “I guarantee it.”
“And how would you control him?” asked Jaehwan. “Even Hakyeon says he cannot tame the cook.”
“He is no beast to tame,” said Wonshik quietly, voice soft.
Jaehwan thought of asking further, but allowed the conversation to end there. He was still warm from his time with the prince the previous night, and he did not wish to sour his mood with more talk of Hongbin. He could recall more from his dreamworld than ever before. He hoped that with time he would be able to remember every detail.
Once they had completed pruning a few more bushes, the two tired men returned to the castle for rest and refreshment. They were taken to a side chamber opposite the grand dining hall, smaller and less lavishly decorated and yet still grander than anything Jaehwan could have hoped for at his school. Chilled lemonade and drinks of crushed berries were served in crystal glassware, heavenly after the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun. Tarts laden with fruit sat on a platter beside silver boats filled with cream.
Jaehwan watched Wonshik as he emptied his glass. The gardener was the closest he had to a friend in the castle, but Jaehwan did not know much about him beyond what he observed. He knew the man was kind, and simple, easily swayed or manipulated. He knew Wonshik suffered the same imprisonment as Jaehwan did.
“Wonshik, please do answer me,” he said. “How did you come to this place?”
“I was lost in the forest and came upon the castle by chance,” answered Wonshik. “I was taken in and given food and drink. Hakyeon opened the door for me.” He smiled.
His story sounded much alike to what Jongwook had told Jaehwan and the others at the school. “And then?” asked Jaehwan. “How did you become prisoner? They demanded your service as payment?”
“No, the hospitality is freely given,” said Wonshik. “While leaving, I tried to take something.”
“I am stunned,” said Jaehwan. “I did not take you for a thief.”
Wonshik smiled tightly. “It was wrong of me, I admit,” he said. “The trees outside were laden with fruit. I wanted to take some back for my younger sister.”
“And for that he imprisoned you for eternity?” cried Jaehwan in indignation. “How awful!”
“It is the law of the castle,” said Wonshik.
“Of the castle? And what of its master?” asked Jaehwan. “If he truly is the master, he must have the power to release the both of us.”
“He doesn’t,” said Wonshik. “It’s as Sanghyuk said. He can’t set you free.”
“How laughable,” said Jaehwan. They all spoke of Sanghyuk as though he were some great man, a prince no less, and yet claimed he had not even the power to decide who could leave his abode.
“I hope you will soon accept your fate as I did,” said Wonshik. “You might find your real happiness within these walls.”
He stroked his fingertips over the palm of his left hand, a habit Jaehwan had seen before but never paid much attention too. The skin of Wonshik’s palm was covered in calluses, stretching from his wrist and indeed to his fingertips. Jaehwan would have attributed this to hard garden work, but it did not look like the calluses Jaehwan had seen on the gardener that tended the school’s trees, and Wonshik’s right hand was unmarked.
“How did you obtain those?” asked Jaehwan, not often one to rein in his curiosity.
Wonshik glanced down at his palm, and then looked back to Jaehwan. “I handle something very precious, every day,” he said.
“What precious thing would scar your hand so?” Jaehwan was puzzled. Surely no gold or gemstone could cause such a thing.
“The most precious of all,” said Wonshik with a smile Jaehwan could not read, and rose with plates in hand. “I will return these to the kitchen.”
“Haemi is there to take them,” said Jaehwan. The maid had served their refreshments and would return on the hour to clear the table.
“I don’t mind,” said Wonshik. “I will be back in a few minutes.”
The man left before Jaehwan could stop him. Jaehwan returned to his sweet treats, content to rest and eat and drink his fill in solitude for a while. He had just raised his glass to his lips when a hulking figure appeared before the doorway.
Sanghyuk. Jaehwan straightened. The beast looked down at him with his mismatched eyes and wolfish features. It was difficult to read emotions on that monstrous face, and Jaehwan did not waste the effort. He knew the supposed prince was no friend of his.
The creature stood at the doorway, neither making a move to enter nor leaving. Jaehwan was eager to show his fearlessness and did not avert his gaze. He would work in his castle, but he would not bow before the beast.
He had caught glimpses of him in the weeks before, sometimes in the hallways of the castle, other times stalking the grounds like a predator, always dressed in a long cloak that showed not much more of his form beyond his wolf head. There had been no interaction during any of those fleeting moments, and Jaehwan had always been in the presence of others. Now it was only he and the beast.
Finally, after what felt an age, Sanghyuk spoke. “Hakyeon told me you would be working outside.”
“I came inside for refreshment,” said Jaehwan. “Unless you would rather I wilted in the heat outside.”
“Wilting is what flowers do,” said Sanghyuk. “You are a thorn.”
Jaehwan gaped at him. “How dare you!” he cried, once he had regained his senses. “That was rather rude for someone pretending to be a prince, I would say!”
“And you are rather saucy for a servant,” returned Sanghyuk.
In indignation Jaehwan jumped to his feet. “I am not your servant!”
“Rather a servant than a meal.”
The beast’s voice had an animalistic growl to it at the best of times, and it was a hundred times rougher now. Still Jaehwan was not cowed. “So you admit it,” he said. “You truly are no more than a mindless animal who wishes to eat me.”
“You would not be much of a meal, little bird,” said Sanghyuk. “I could swallow you in one mouthful.”
“I would choke you to death on the way down,” grit out Jaehwan.
Sanghyuk only watched Jaehwan in response to this barb. His features were so removed from human Jaehwan could not hope to read his emotions, but his gaze made Jaehwan feel as though he were being raked over coals. The golden animal eye was the fire; the white one spiked through with ice was the spear.
“When Wonshik returns, let him know I wish to see him in my study after sunset,” said the beast.
The command caught Jaehwan off guard, but he quickly rallied. “Tell him so yourself, I am no page of yours,” he said. “He is in the kitchens.”
“I dare not,” said Sanghyuk, with a gruff sound that might have been a chuckle. “Hongbin would likely stick me in the oven to ensure my death is slow and painful.”
A shadow of confusion touched Jaehwan’s brow. “I thought you were his master.”
Sanghyuk did not deem Jaehwan’s words worthy of response. Instead he said, “No matter, I will have Haemi let Wonshik know. At least she has the wits to pass on a simple message.”
His words stirred something in Jaehwan’s gut, something he had gained and lost in a dream, and as Sanghyuk turned to leave, he called out, “Wait!”
The beast stopped and once more turned to Jaehwan. He said nothing, only waited as asked.
Jaehwan shifted on his feet, wracked with indecision. He could not shatter his pride for this beast, he could not! And yet he had nowhere else from where to get answers, and he could not live with the curiosity that still burned in his gut. He could not remember what the fairy prince had said to him, and now he could only turn to this faux beastly one.
“What is the difference between a nightingale and a peacock?” asked Jaehwan.
Sanghyuk went still. Slowly, grotesquely, his uneven lip rose even farther up his snout, revealing more pink gum and white fang.
The beast was smiling.
Jaehwan recoiled. Sanghyuk was hateful enough to look at as is; the smile transformed him into the most hideous thing Jaehwan had ever seen.
“You do not know?” asked Sanghyuk, rough voice light in mocking. “You do not understand? You have spent so long in thought, unable to decipher the words of a witless beast? You must be mortified to death.”
The words were familiar, but before Jaehwan could recall where he had last heard them, Sanghyuk spoke once more.
“They are both birds, but so different,” said the beast. “You have seen the coat of the nightingale, heard its voice? Think then of the peacock and its coat and the songs it sings.”
Jaehwan shifted on his feet. In truth, he could not. He knew nightingales from stories, peacocks from pictures in books.
Sanghyuk waited for an answer, but when Jaehwan would not give him one, he growled in exasperation and said, “The nightingale looks plain but its songs are lovely. The peacock is beautiful but when it opens its mouth only the ugliest squawking escapes, revealing its true worth.”
“What do you mean to say?” asked Jaehwan, raising his chin haughtily. “You think me beautiful?”
A terrible sound filled the room as Sanghyuk threw his head back, barks and wheezes emitting from his snout. The front of the heavy cloak shifted with the movement, revealing a glimpse of golden cat fur before it once more disappeared into the folds of cloth.
“Perhaps I should have made you a jester,” said Sanghyuk, once he had ceased his dreadful laughter. “You are amusing, at the very least.”
“Jesters belong in royal courts, not with evil beasts pretending at being a prince,” returned Jaehwan.
Sanghyuk looked at him a long moment, and then said, “True. And yet you remain with me.”
Jaehwan sputtered in rage and indignation, but before he could make reply the beast turned and left the room, his long cloak following behind like a train.
That night Jaehwan did not remember the canopy of the trees, or the journey to the shimmering lake. He found himself by its shores at the start of his awareness, seated on the thick grass, prince by his side.
“Oh, I must tell you,” he said at once, fearing he would forget or awake before he could. “I learned the difference between a nightingale and a peacock.”
The prince did not reply. He but listened, handsome face calm as Jaehwan explained what he had been told that afternoon.
“You were right, it was quite simple,” said Jaehwan, laughing in delight. “Master Minhee always said I did not have the brain for study.”
“I had thought you would be more wounded, having had to ask the beast for help,” said the prince.
“I am more pleased to finally receive an answer,” said Jaehwan. He recalled that his fairy prince had attempted to give him the answer more than once, and said, “One that I could remember, of course. I greatly appreciate your help.” He smiled sweetly.
The prince did not return the smile, only stared at Jaehwan. “It is difficult to hate you when you are like this,” he said.
“Why would anyone hate me?” asked Jaehwan, as fond as ever of dramatic flair. “I was the most popular singer in my town, I would have you know.”
But the prince would not laugh and joke with Jaehwan. Instead he asked, “Why are you so angry when awake?”
Jaehwan stilled. He wished to continue jesting, but the prince did not look in the mood for such, only looking at Jaehwan with serious eyes. Jaehwan could not remember the prince looking at him so long with no annoyance.
“Because no one else is,” he answered. “Because I have been shut inside a magical castle and everyone I meet tells me only I should be happy, I should think myself lucky to have a kind master.” Jaehwan stopped, took a deep breath. “They say some curse has fallen on this place but will not tell me what happened,” he continued. “I did not choose this! I did not choose any of this and I am being made to feel ungrateful, when I was deceived by someone I trusted for years and am now doomed to this fate for—for eternity, not only until my death but for the very rest of time!” He ruffled his hair with both hands in frustration. “How can I not be angry? How can I calmly roll onto my back and accept my fate?”
Time passed as the prince considered his words, and Jaehwan calmed himself. It was difficult not being angry during his waking hours in the castle, but it was just as if not more difficult to remain angry by the lake, beside the prince.
“I am sorry,” said the fairy prince.
The apology was not owed by he, but Jaehwan appreciated hearing one regardless.
“They will not tell you the truth to protect the beast,” continued the prince. “But please believe them when they say you cannot leave the grounds. Once you have been bound by the curse, you cannot take one step outside the compound walls.”
Jaehwan asked why, and the prince told him what would happen if he dared cross the gates. He then told Jaehwan the events of the curse, what had befallen the castle and its inhabitants so long ago, and how it might end. The words drifted through Jaehwan’s mind like so much smoke, but he nodded still, pleased by the sound of the prince’s voice.
“Remember that,” said the prince. “Do you remember what else I told you last night? It is very important you keep it in mind.”
This time Jaehwan shook his head. “I can never recall.”
“I will tell you once more, then, for the others’ sake as well as your own,” said the prince.
He placed a hand on Jaehwan’s shoulder, and the touch was grounding. It kept Jaehwan rooted in place, aware of everything around him, from the blades of grass against his fingertips to the sincerity in the dark shadows of the prince’s eyes.
“Whatever resentment you bear, it is for the beast,” said the prince. “Do not allow your anger to hurt Hakyeon, or Wonshik, or any of the others. It is only the beast who has wronged you in this household, and you may lay the anger on his mantle. He has more than earned it.”
Jaehwan took in the words and nodded.
“Take care to remember,” said the prince. He drummed the fingers of his hand over Jaehwan’s shoulder, and then let go. The slightest edge of a genuine smile touched his lips, and he called Jaehwan something, but it was lost in the haze of Jaehwan’s fading dreamscape.
The morning brought with it warmth on Jaehwan’s shoulder, and a flutter in his heart.
Chapter 6: The Broken Tower
The Nightingale goes in search of his fairy prince.
Happy (late) birthday to our flower ❀ we'll wait for you patiently until your return ♡
It was with some difficulty Jaehwan convinced Hakyeon to once again assign him to the kitchen. “Hongbin will not allow me near him otherwise,” he said.
“A wise decision, considering your relationship,” said Hakyeon.
“Oh, please let me work there,” said Jaehwan. “I must speak with Hongbin.”
The keeper of the household looked upon him with suspicion, but a few days later did as asked. Jaehwan was removed from Wonshik’s care in the gardens to Hongbin’s in the kitchens.
The cook glared daggers at him, but said nothing. The edge of his massive knife clattered against the cutting board as he cubed potatoes beside Jaehwan, his prickly and quilled side nearer to the singer.
His fairy prince had advised patience, but Jaehwan had never possessed that trait, and so when the silence stretched past what he was comfortable with, he said, “I wanted to apologize.”
The quills pricked up. Still Hongbin did not speak.
“I was very rude, staring at you in that manner,” continued Jaehwan, undeterred. “For that, I’m sorry. However, you must admit you were overly harsh to me in turn, threatening to chop me up.”
Hongbin put down his knife and turned to face Jaehwan. “Are you chastising me in the middle of your apology?” he asked in disbelief.
“It is only the truth,” said Jaehwan. “I never threatened violence upon you.”
“You punched Hansol in the face,” said Hongbin.
Jaehwan pursed his lips. “That is true,” he conceded. “But I regret it completely and I offered my apologies to him, which he accepted.”
“You’ve been an utter brat to everyone,” said Hongbin.
Jaehwan’s first instinct was to argue, but he reined his temper in. The prince in his dreams had said the same. “Your temper hurts not only those around you, but will hurt you too,” he had said, and he had spoken true. Jaehwan had always known himself to be short tempered, but he had been doted upon at his school, and although he was quick to anger he was as quick to forgive. Now he was amongst strangers and those who would not be as quick to forgive in turn.
“You’re right,” said Jaehwan.
Hongbin looked taken aback by this frank admission. “You know it?”
“Yes, I do now,” said Jaehwan. “I will be better. Please do forgive me.”
“I can let go of you giving the others trouble, and I don’t care that you stared at me,” said Hongbin. “But you were cruel to Wonshik, who treated you with nothing but kindness and patience.”
“I will admit my fault,” said Jaehwan. “But Wonshik and I are now friends, and I hope you and I will be as well.”
Hongbin watched Jaehwan a long minute. Jaehwan made sure to keep his gaze on the other’s warm brown eye, ignoring the one of solid black, just as the prince had suggested. What he saw on one side, he imagined on the other.
After an age, Hongbin said, “Do not do that again.”
Jaehwan beamed. “Then we are now friends!”
“Not likely,” said Hongbin with a scoff but not much bite.
After that they worked in a silence without tension. Jaehwan did not find Hongbin very agreeable, nor did he think his attitude to him wholly justified, but he had indeed wronged the cook and the others, and it would be good to mend relations. He could hold his tongue for the sake of peace.
Later that night Jaehwan told the fairy prince of his success in placating Hongbin.
“I’m impressed,” said the prince. “I did not think you capable of going one hour without angering someone.”
“I am naturally very loveable,” said Jaehwan with a bright smile, only half joking. “I was the jewel of my school, you know, beloved by everyone.”
“Remind me,” said the prince drily, “was it not your teacher that deceived you and sold you out to this eternal imprisonment?”
The smile fell from Jaehwan’s face. A look of alarm passed over the prince, eyes widening, but before he could speak, Jaehwan cried, “Yes, it was, but that—that—wretched donkey is obviously an exception!”
The concern dissipated from the prince’s handsome face to be replaced with one akin to relief. “Oh, is that so?” he asked.
“Obviously!” said Jaehwan. “Even Hongbin likes me now, and he is as prickly as a porcupine. We are friends now, but those quills do suit him well.”
The prince hummed. “Yes. I always thought he was too handsome before.”
“Before?” Jaehwan tilted his head. “Before what?”
“Before the curse fell.”
At once Jaehwan’s curiosity was piqued. He had heard of this curse before, but he was still unfamiliar with the details of it. No one spoke of it. Even Wonshik had only mentioned it in passing when he had first told Jaehwan of his predicament.
“Say,” said Jaehwan, affecting his most charming voice, “could you tell me more about it?”
“The curse?” The prince scoffed. “I’ve told you about it many times before. You’re too empty headed to remember.”
“It’s your fault for visiting me in my dreams,” said Jaehwan with a harrumph. “No one remembers all of their dreams.”
The prince made no comment in reply, only turned his gaze across the shimmering lake.
“No one else will tell me,” said Jaehwan. “So you must.”
“I refuse,” said the prince. “I tire of talking with someone who is too stupid to even remember my words.”
“Then how am I to learn the truth?” asked Jaehwan.
“Ask the others,” answered the prince. “It is not likely they will answer, but you can expend some of your irritating energy into the endeavor.”
Jaehwan fell silent a moment, thinking it over. “It is because of him, isn’t it?” he asked finally. “The beast.”
The prince’s expression darkened. “Yes,” he said. “That horrible creature is the root of all this misery.”
His fairy prince was often rude and averse to Jaehwan and his company, but they had in common one trait Jaehwan did not find in anyone else in the castle—contempt for the beast. If anything, the prince seemed to hate the beast even more than Jaehwan did. His handsome face would always take on an ugly expression when the conversation strayed to the master of the castle, and he rarely missed an opportunity to berate him. His rudeness with Jaehwan was not cruel. His words about Sanghyuk were steeped in pure contempt.
“Did he do something to you?” asked Jaehwan. “Has he wronged you too?”
“He has ruined the lives of all in the castle,” said the prince. “He is undeserving of the loyalty they show him even now.”
“Then he is the cause of the curse,” said Jaehwan eagerly. Finally, some confirmation!
“Yes,” said the prince. “This is why the others will not reveal the truth to you. They do not want you to hate him any more than you already do.”
“Why does it matter?” asked Jaehwan with a laugh. “They all know I will never have love for him, and he in turn hates me for not prostrating before him and begging his favor. Unless they believe he cares how I feel. Unlikely!”
“Without a doubt,” said the prince at once. “Why would anyone care what someone like you thinks?”
“Oh, you’re too cruel to me,” said Jaehwan, affecting a hurt tone, before dissolving into laughter. The prince watched him with an unmistakable mix of surprise and wonder.
“Nothing I say or do here bothers you,” he remarked.
“Nothing at all,” agreed Jaehwan without hesitation. “I feel fortunate to be in your presence. It’s magic, coming here, being with you.”
The look on the prince’s face did not leave—if anything, it intensified. Jaehwan laughed with delight at it. The prince clicked his tongue in annoyance and turned his gaze back over the crystalline waters.
In the silence a question reared in Jaehwan’s mind that he had considered more than once before, but never remembered to ask. “You know the inhabitants of the castle well,” he said.
“Fairly well,” said the prince.
“How?” asked Jaehwan. He straightened as the answer came to him in a flash. “Do you live there too?”
The prince did not answer.
“You must!” cried Jaehwan in delight. “How else do you know them so well? You are in the castle, with me.”
The prince said something, but the words made no sense to Jaehwan’s mind. Undeterred, he asked, “Why have I never met you while awake? Are you hiding from me?”
This time the prince laughed, not kindly. He said more, scoffing and shaking his head, but Jaehwan could make no sense of the words. They slipped through like water between his fingers. The prince appeared to notice this, for he laughed again and then started towards the golden hued forest. Jaehwan scrambled to his feet to follow.
When he awoke the following morning, remembering only up to getting to his feet by the lake, Jaehwan had a new mission.
He asked Wonshik first. “Is there anyone else in the castle?” Jaehwan asked while they pruned fruit trees in the afternoon sunshine.
“Anyone else? Like whom?” asked Wonshik, appearing confused.
“Anyone outside the servants,” said Jaehwan.
“There’s Sanghyuk,” said Wonshik.
“Oh, no, definitely not him,” said Jaehwan, shuddering at the thought. His fairy prince was incomparable to that monster! “He is a brute.”
“Why are you so awful when it concerns him?” asked Wonshik, frowning. “You are charming enough to everybody else.”
“Because he is a monster, and I have no desire to make friends with monsters,” said Jaehwan. He did not tell Wonshik that he now knew the truth, that Sanghyuk had caused the curse and all their misery, and was fully deserving of his hatred.
Failing to get answers from Wonshik, Jaehwan tried the other servants. They all said the same, that the only one within the walls that was no servant was Sanghyuk.
In his frustration Jaehwan turned to Hongbin. Their relationship was better than before, the mending expedited when Jaehwan learned that the prickly man was fond of fruit and started stealing tangerines and other ripe fruit off the garden trees to secretly deposit in the kitchen.
“I can’t have met everyone in this castle,” said Jaehwan, leaning against the counter while Hongbin sliced a pear. “Is there truly no one here beside you all and the beast?”
Hongbin chewed a slice of pear thoughtfully, swallowed, and said, “There’s Taekwoon.”
“Taekwoon?” Jaehwan perked up. “I’ve heard the name before.”
“He used to be Sanghyuk’s singer,” said Hongbin. “He was his music teacher as well.”
Yes, the beast had mentioned Taekwoon and his attempts at teaching. Taekwoon used to play piano and sing, but sadly he can now no longer do either, had been Sanghyuk’s exact words. “What happened to him?” asked Jaehwan in a whisper. “Did he die?”
“Oh, no, he’s still here,” said Hongbin. “He spends most of his time in the southeast tower recently.”
“I have never been there,” said Jaehwan.
“The magic is weaker there,” said Hongbin. “The castle isn’t preserved so perfectly as it is here, and the walls are wearing away.”
Jaehwan asked no more. He secretly resolved to meet this Taekwoon and speak to him. Was his handsome prince no prince at all, but instead a singer? Jaehwan thought that might be even sweeter.
He made no mention of his plan to the handsome man he met in his dreams that night. If he truly was Taekwoon, Jaehwan wanted to surprise him. The following morning Jaehwan did his assigned duties with a smile, imagining finally meeting his fairy in reality.
His good mood did not go unnoticed. “Why are you so happy today?” asked Hakyeon.
“No reason,” said Jaehwan. “Am I done for now? There is something I would like to do before the lunch hour.”
Hakyeon gave him his leave, and Jaehwan smiled and bowed at him politely before going. He made his way to the back of the castle, past the closed doors leading to the ground floor study, past the stairway heading up the tower he had first been imprisoned in. He had no desire to revisit that place.
The first signs of rot began to show as Jaehwan left the front rooms behind. There was an air of disuse, and the furniture steadily took on an older and more worn look. Dust settled on chipped and faded wood. The maids and servants did not extend their regular cleaning rounds so far.
Finally Jaehwan reached what he believed to be the southeastern tower. It was larger than the towers at the front of the castle, and in a much worse state. Jaehwan climbed the stairs warily.
The stairs were thick with dust, the walls of stone that looked worn away. It truly looked like a tower in which man-eating monsters dwelt.
Jaehwan quickly put the thought out of his mind. Only Taekwoon lived here, and Taekwoon could not be dangerous. He could certainly be no worse than Sanghyuk.
And so Jaehwan continued climbing the stairs, going past abandoned floors filled with centuries-old broken furniture and tattered tapestries, until in the dead silence interrupted only by the scuffle of his soles on rough stone, he heard something.
A clacking, skittering sound. As of many pairs of hard heeled shoes walking over a polished floor.
“Hello?” Jaehwan called out warily into the silence. “Is anyone there?”
He left the staircase to venture into the tower proper. Unlike the tower Jaehwan had been kept in, this one was not all long, twisting hallways lined with doors. A short corridor opened into a massive, high ceilinged room, furnished with multiple sofas and chaises amongst which sat a few tables. Great windows faced the east, and the bright sunshine of midday snuck into the room through holes in the drawn, tattered curtains. A balcony ran along the walls of the room. On it was placed yet more seating and what appeared to be bookshelves.
Jaehwan marveled at the faded opulence. The sofas must have been plush and comfortable when first placed; now they were falling apart with age and disuse. The curtains appeared not motheaten but simply decayed by the passing years. Jaehwan wondered just how long the castle had remained frozen in time.
As he pondered the question, Jaehwan heard it again. The fast moving clacks, this time nearer than before, and over his head.
Jaehwan peered at the balcony above, but the drawn curtains and slivers of harsh midday light cast dark shadows in the far corners near the ceiling. A sudden fear of what hid in those shadows took Jaehwan’s heart, but he willed himself to be strong. Again, he raised his voice and called out, “Who’s there?”
The only reply he received was silence. Jaehwan refused to be dissuaded and said boldly, “I know you can hear me. Don’t be afraid, I only want to speak with you.” When he again received no reply, Jaehwan ventured, “Taekwoon?”
Something made a sound in the darkest corner of the high balcony. Jaehwan saw something stir in the shadow. He wanted to move closer and see, but feared that would only make the other retreat further, and so he remained where he was at one end of the large room.
“Hongbin told me you stayed here,” said Jaehwan, speaking in the vocal technique he had been taught at school to ensure Taekwoon could hear every word clearly. “I wished to see you and speak with you at least once. Do you know me? I am Jaehwan.”
A soft sound emitted from the shadowed corner. It sounded much like a whisper.
“I am Jaehwan,” repeated Jaehwan. “I heard you were a singer, as I am. Will you please come down and speak with me?”
Another quiet sound sounded from the corner, but this time Jaehwan had been expecting it and strained his ears. He caught one soft word, spoken hardly above a whisper.
Jaehwan frowned. “Please do not refuse me so thoughtlessly,” he said. He took a step forward, and in the shadows he saw the faint outline of the mysterious singer move. “Do come down. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
“Not for me.”
Had Jaehwan heard correctly? Taekwoon’s words were very quiet, a stark contrast to Jaehwan’s naturally bright, loud tone. “Why won’t you come down?” he asked, with another step forward. It was difficult to catch Taekwoon’s voice.
“You do not want to see me,” said Taekwoon.
“I do!” exclaimed Jaehwan, never more sure in his life. Even if Taekwoon were not the handsome man from his dreams, Jaehwan was very curious about the singer, and wished to speak with someone who shared his love for music.
“Then I do not want you to see me.”
“That is fine with me, so long as you are comfortable,” said Jaehwan. “Will you speak a little louder? I am straining my ears for you.” He laughed lightly.
“I cannot,” answered Taekwoon. “This is as loud as my voice can be.”
Jaehwan thought this over. “Then may I come closer? If I stand under the balcony I will not be able to see you. Is that alright?”
There was a moment of silence, and then Taekwoon said, “Yes.”
Jaehwan took his place directly under the raised balcony, keeping his gaze lowered as he walked over. There was an old chair that looked as though it could still take his weight, and he settled gingerly in it, first blowing off as much dust as he could.
“There,” said Jaehwan, satisfied. “I hope you can hear me.”
“Anyone would be able to,” said Taekwoon, and now Jaehwan could hear him much better. “You are very loud.”
Jaehwan laughed. “I’ve heard so before,” he said. “I find it a blessing.”
“I do as well,” said Taekwoon.
They conversed awhile, Jaehwan sitting under the balcony, Taekwoon in it. Taekwoon seemed shy and did not speak much, and so Jaehwan spoke twice as much as usual, so as to fill in the gaps. He told Taekwoon of his singing school, and some of his memorable experiences growing up with his fellow students and the doting teachers.
In hardly any time, Jaehwan realized he had been talking too long, and would soon be late for lunch. “I must go now,” he said, getting to his feet. “It is nearing lunch.” A sudden idea came to Jaehwan, and he lit up in enthusiasm. “You should come join us for our meal! We all sit together at the long table, it would be no trouble to add another chair.”
“Perhaps… perhaps later,” murmured Taekwoon, so quiet Jaehwan nearly missed it.
Despite Taekwoon’s assurances, he never joined Jaehwan for any meals. Jaehwan visited the mysterious singer daily, any time he could sneak away unnoticed, to sit under the balcony and converse with him. He told no one of the meetings, not even the handsome fairy in his dreams. He had already ascertained that the man was not Taekwoon, but he enjoyed the idea of meeting Taekwoon secretly. He could keep at least one precious secret to himself in the castle.
Taekwoon was a quiet man, and at the beginning rarely spoke unprompted. Slowly, he opened like a blooming flower, saying more and more with his hushed, quiet voice colored with enthusiasm and excitement. He was very pleasant company. Although he did not sing, Taekwoon was well-versed in matters of music and singing, and was very eager to learn more about how music had changed since his time trapped in the castle. He had a kind, sensitive nature, but he was playful and enjoyed Jaehwan’s stories and occasionally bawdy jests.
One day, while Jaehwan sat in his rickety chair in the darkness thrown by the setting sun, he dared to ask, “Why do you not sing anymore?”
Silence answered the question. Jaehwan could hear the soft click-tap of Taekwoon moving over him, but he made no reply.
“I heard you were the singer here,” continued Jaehwan. “You even taught the—the master of the castle.”
“That was many ages ago,” said Taekwoon, soft voice even quieter. “The curse changed me, Jaehwan. I no longer have the control over my voice as I used to. I cannot even play my beloved piano.”
Taekwoon’s voice was thin and papery, and Jaehwan recalled now that even in throes of excitement it never grew any clearer or higher. He thought of Hakyeon and his birdwing limb; if Taekwoon had something similar, it would make playing the piano impossible. Regret at asking the question and pity for the man twisted Jaehwan’s heart.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I should not have asked, that was horrible of me. I hope you can forgive me.”
“I am not angry,” said Taekwoon. “But I am curious. Why do you not sing?”
Jaehwan was puzzled. “What do you mean? I do sing.”
“I heard you do not work as a singer, but as a mere servant in the castle,” said Taekwoon. “Your voice is pleasant and you were the student of an esteemed music school. You must be a singer worthy of a prince.”
“I have no wish to sing for the beast,” said Jaehwan.
“The beast?” Taekwoon’s papery voice was tinted in confusion.
“The master of the castle,” said Jaehwan. “Sanghyuk.”
Taekwoon made a soft sound of no words, but heavy in sadness.
“I apologize if you are fond of him as the others are,” said Jaehwan. “He is no friend of mine. Still, for your sake I will not call him that with you. Let us not talk about him anymore.” He boosted his voice with cheer. “Shall I tell you about the time Jaewon embarrassed himself trying to chase a carriage down the street? It was quite hilarious.”
For some time Taekwoon was silent. When he spoke, his voice was even quieter than before. “If you see Sanghyuk as a beast, I hate to think how you would see me,” he said.
“Oh, no, you could never be a beast,” said Jaehwan in indignation. “You are my friend! It matters not what you look like. Sanghyuk is a beast because his behavior is beastly. You are kind and gentle, so you must be lovely.”
“That is kind of you to say,” murmured Taekwoon. “You would not think the same if you were to see me. That is why I hide here, in the shadows of this broken tower.”
“What an awful existence,” said Jaehwan, heart wrenching in pity. “And you have lived here for centuries, only because of what you look like?”
“Not centuries,” said Taekwoon carefully. “Only since you joined the household.”
Jaehwan jumped to his feet. “You have been hiding here because of me?” He could not stand the thought of it, of Taekwoon living in the old, derelict tower only for his sake. When Taekwoon made no reply, Jaehwan said indignantly, “Come out of the shadows, right now! I must see you!”
He stormed out from underneath the overhanging balcony and raised his gaze to it. With the sun low over the horizon the shadows above were too dark for him to see anything, but he half imagined he could see movement there, the edge of something pale.
“No,” said Taekwoon, hushed voice edged with distress. “You do not want to see what I look like.”
“I do!” cried Jaehwan. “I will not have you live here, in dust and decay and away from everyone else, simply to spare me the sight of you. Come out of the shadows, Taekwoon.”
“I will not,” said Taekwoon. “You will be horrified. Please, leave.”
“Not until you show yourself to me!” said Jaehwan. “You cannot hide forever. Please come down so that I can see you. I do not care how changed or disfigured you may be. You are my friend and I wish to see your face.”
Heavy silence followed. Jaehwan waited where he was, not moving an inch. He would wait for hours if need be. Taekwoon had become a dear friend, and he could not bear the thought of him spending one more second in the tower already falling apart, for no other reason than his appearance.
“Jaehwan,” said Taekwoon after an age of quiet, “do not scream.”
“I will not,” said Jaehwan. “I promise. Are you coming into the light?”
Jaehwan steeled himself, but his heart pattered with nerves and excitement. Taekwoon claimed he was hideous, but surely he could not be so bad as that? His voice did not have the same growl Sanghyuk’s did, and Taekwoon himself was so pleasant and lovely. Perhaps his face was disfigured like Hongbin’s, and Hongbin was still quite handsome, so long as Jaehwan kept his gaze off the side covered in quills. Yes, he was certain he would handle seeing Taekwoon for the first time well, and put his friend at ease.
A figure emerged from the hood of shadows in the balcony. Jaehwan watched it with eyes blown wide, horror gripping his heart.
Man-like it was, from midsection to head, and the skin was ghostly pale. The arms were too long by half, and Jaehwan could see the hands were massive to match, with long, pale fingers that stretched out and caressed the darkness. The creature had short, dark hair, and its face was not wholly unpleasant—it was as pale as powder and surprisingly human and handsome, striking a harsh contrast with the rest of the body.
But his legs. His legs could never be human.
There were eight of them, radiating out from the pale midsection parallel to the floor, bent sharply at the knees. It had no feet. Its legs ended at point, sharp and lightly curved like pincers.
“Jaehwan,” the half spider monster said, voice hushed.
Jaehwan screamed and turned and fled.
He ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He escaped the room, and rushed down the short corridor, heart pounding in his ears in a deafening cacophony. He just managed to reach the head of the stairs when in his blind haste he crashed into something heavy and solid, and staggered back.
It was Sanghyuk. Jaehwan stared up at his beastly face, eyes wide, heart still racing. His body quivered with the terrified rush still in his veins.
“What are you doing here?” asked the beast, voice gruff. His mismatched eyes suddenly widened. “Did you see him?”
The terror clouded Jaehwan’s mind, causing him to seek the most familiar thing before him. He grabbed Sanghyuk’s arm through the cloak and stammered out, “There—in the room behind me—there was a—a monster—” His tongue felt all wrong in his mouth, refusing to produce the right sounds.
Sanghyuk shoved him away roughly. “You horrible thing, did you call him that to his face?” he growled. “You are heartless. Between the two of you, you are the monster.”
His words struck Jaehwan. Sanghyuk was right. That had been no monster he had seen in the tower room. That had been Taekwoon.
“I…” Jaehwan could not find the right words.
“Get out of my sight,” said Sanghyuk. The walls shook with his animalistic growl. “Do not ever dare show your face here again.”
Before Jaehwan could make reply, Sanghyuk put one massive golden paw on him and shoved him away towards the stairs. The beast stormed down the corridor without a glance back.
Jaehwan stood where he was as his heart calmed. Once it had returned to its regular rhythm, it was seized with guilt. He had behaved dreadfully. Taekwoon had been nervous and self conscious regarding his appearance, and Jaehwan had run away. He had even broken his promise to not scream.
He needed to apologize. Jaehwan was filled with the urgent need to seek Taekwoon and apologize, sincerely and with his entire heart, but Sanghyuk was there now, and Jaehwan dared not face the beast again so soon. Sanghyuk had been furious unlike Jaehwan had ever seen him. He was reminded of the time he had struck Hansol during his ill-conceived attempt at escape so many weeks hence, and yet worse. Taekwoon must have been someone precious to Sanghyuk.
The thought of the beast caring for someone put Jaehwan ill at ease.
He resolved to wait until Sanghyuk left the tower. Jaehwan lingered at the base of the stairs, just out of sight should the beast descend in silence. The sky outside darkened from sunset to twilight, and then to true night. Still Sanghyuk did not leave the tower. In the end Jaehwan was forced to go to his room and fetch a candle for light.
On his way out of his room he was accosted by Wonshik. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “You didn’t come to eat supper. We were worried about you.”
“I’m sorry to make you worry,” said Jaehwan. “I’ve been exploring other parts of the castle. I lost track of time.”
Wonshik frowned. “Exploring where?”
“Nowhere in particular,” said Jaehwan. He had no desire to tell anyone of his meeting Taekwoon without first repairing their friendship. “I must go.”
“Is this where you’ve been disappearing to as of late?” asked Wonshik. “Come eat. Hongbin saved you a plate.”
“Perhaps later, I am not hungry now,” said Jaehwan, stepping past the other, unheeding his expression. “I will see you again later, Wonshik.”
He returned to his waiting spot beside the tower stairs, lit candle cradled in his hands. Jaehwan was just beginning to think Sanghyuk had left while he had been in conversation with Wonshik when he heard the sound of heavy footfalls on stone, and the beast emerged from the stairway.
Jaehwan retreated farther behind his corner, hoping Sanghyuk would not see him. Thankfully, the beast did not. He walked down the other hallway without a glance in Jaehwan’s direction. Jaehwan saw him carrying a cloth bundle of sorts slung over that golden cat arm of his, and heard a faint clinking as he walked. Curiosity seized Jaehwan, but he quickly buried the thought. He had more important things to attend to.
In the night, the old tower was terrifying. The weak candlelight threw frightful shadows over the rough stone walls. Jaehwan could hardly see more than a few feet ahead of him in the winding staircase. Darkness and shadows were all around him, and he could easily imagine monsters and ghouls lurking in them, ready to snatch him and swallow him up in seconds.
“Nonsense,” Jaehwan told himself shrilly, raising his voice to raise his spirits. “I already live with a monstrous beast feigning himself a prince, what more could I fear?” With these words he bolstered his courage and continued the ascent.
In a few minutes he reached the floor of the giant study, and entered it warily. The room looked ghostly in the night, barely lit by the moon in the sky outside. Jaehwan held the candle out before him as he walked and called out, “Taekwoon?”
His voice rang out through the room, sounding louder in the still darkness. He received no word in reply.
“Taekwoon, I am sorry,” continued Jaehwan. “I broke my promise and behaved awfully. I regret my actions and I hope you can forgive me.”
Jaehwan strained his ears for that soft voice, but did not hear it. His chest heaved with regret and hurt.
“You startled me,” he said. “That is a poor excuse but it is the truth. Regardless, I should not have reacted in such a way.”
Still no voice returned to him in the darkness. Jaehwan concentrated, and thought he could hear the soft clicking of something sharp tapping against something hard.
Taekwoon’s many feet, Jaehwan now knew. The thought of those spider legs made Jaehwan shudder, but he quickly swallowed the feeling down. Spider legs or no, that was Taekwoon, and Taekwoon was his friend.
“If I ever behave in such a rude way again, you have my freely-given permission to scold me,” said Jaehwan. “It was unwarranted and I am very sorry.”
He heard another clicking sound, but Taekwoon did not speak. Jaehwan could hardly blame him. He had been so uncertain about revealing himself, and Jaehwan had urged him and given him confidence only to behave in such a terrible manner.
Sanghyuk was right. Jaehwan was a horrible thing.
Slowly he lowered himself to the floor and sat cross legged on it. “If you no longer wish to speak to me, I understand,” said Jaehwan into the darkness. “But I hope you will still allow me to keep you company.”
Jaehwan began to sing.
It was his first time singing for an audience in months. He had had no desire to sing since the start of his imprisonment in the ensorcelled castle, and had only ever hummed a few spare notes to himself when alone. And yet Jaehwan felt he must sing to Taekwoon. He must show him he truly valued him and his friendship, and his voice was the only way to convey his feelings.
The first Jaehwan sang was a simple folk song, about the seasons that passed and how time had changed even the fields and the hills, learned from the villagers he often met and talked with outside the school. A pang resonated in Jaehwan’s chest as he realized he would likely never see those warm, kindly people again. The sadness colored his voice, tinting it pale blue and edging it azure, giving it a depth and sweet taste.
When the last note left his lips and hung in the air, Jaehwan sat still in the darkness, letting the lingering melody sink into his skin and embrace his heart. The sadness remained, but it was bearable now, merely one more note in the song.
He started once more. This song had been one of his favorites to practice at the school, and Jaehwan had always rushed to pick it for their frequent shows at the village center. It was more lively than the one before, speaking of a love to lift the heart and set it soaring. His first thought was of his handsome fairy prince, but Jaehwan set it aside. Instead he thought of Taekwoon, and the friendship he had built with him. A love of sorts itself, and enough to lift Jaehwan’s heart.
He was halfway through the song when he heard once more the pattering clicking of Taekwoon’s many feet, gradually growing louder as he approached. Jaehwan did not allow his voice to quiver even the slightest. He finished the song, as flawlessly as he had in all the times he had performed for his classmates and teachers and friends in his village, and just as the final note faded into silence, Taekwoon stepped into the light.
Jaehwan fought his base instinct to flee at the sight of Taekwoon’s towering body, his needle-like fingers, his array of spider legs. Instead he sat where he was, and looked up at the other singer and smiled. From where Jaehwan was seated on the floor, Taekwoon loomed terrifyingly tall.
“You have a beautiful voice.”
Slowly, the fear bled from Jaehwan’s veins. That was Taekwoon’s voice, speaking Taekwoon’s words. This was no vicious, terrifying spider monster.
It was but Taekwoon.
“Thank you,” said Jaehwan. “You are the first person I have sung for in months.”
“I am honored,” said Taekwoon.
“You should be,” said Jaehwan, affecting a haughty tone. “Do you know, I will not sing even for princes or fairies? Only you.”
In the candlelight, Taekwoon smiled. He should have looked monstrous, but he did not. His face was quite human, if pale, and rather handsome besides, with charmingly serpentine features. Jaehwan kept his gaze fixed on it, willing the rest of his appearance from his mind.
It was like his fairy prince had advised him. Jaehwan looked at the handsome parts of Taekwoon, and imagined it to extend to the rest of him. Like this, his singer friend was quite handsome.
“So will you leave this broken tower?” asked Jaehwan. “Will you finally come and have a meal with me? For I skipped supper to come apologize to you, and I am quite famished.”
“I’ve already eaten,” said Taekwoon, appearing surprised.
“Then simply watch me eat, I have no qualms with that,” said Jaehwan. “Only say that you will come with me.”
He held out his hand. Taekwoon watched him with eyes that shone in the flickering candlelight, and took Jaehwan’s hand in his large, pale one.
Jaehwan left the tower with his dear friend following.
Chapter 7: Mysteries Abound
The Nightingale has questions, and none to give answers.
It's been much too long. Apologies for the late update, and i hope you'll enjoy it.
Days passed in sunshine and rain. Jaehwan found himself adjusting more and more to the enchanted castle and its strange inhabitants, until he spent his days busy and smiling with people he had come to consider his friends.
He spent his days either in the gardens among the lush trees and bushes with Wonshik, or in the kitchens enjoying the delicious aromas of Hongbin’s cooking and the humor of his wit. At night he and Taekwoon sat together and sang songs. He became close with the maids he occasionally dusted with, chased Hansol and the other groomsmen in the yard during lazy afternoons, and regaled the older servants with humorous stories and listened to theirs in turn. Little by little, Jaehwan released his grip on his grudges, and came to grow accustomed to life in the castle.
There were but two blights in his life: the monster of his days and the prince of his nights.
He saw the beast more than ever before during the daylight. Sanghyuk no longer spent his days doing whatever he had done that had saved Jaehwan from the sight of him, instead spending his time with the others in the castle. He walked the gardens often, so that Jaehwan saw him among the rich trees laden with fruit and bushes heavy with flowers, a blight in the midst of beauty. He roamed the halls of his castle, and invited different servants to his study at different times, even drawing Hongbin out of the kitchen.
The more Jaehwan saw of his beast, the less he saw of his prince. His dreamscape of the golden forest and crystalline lake were empty. Jaehwan recalled speaking to his fairy prince a few times, but he could never grasp their conversations after waking, and the effort only hurt. He did remember the prince looking at him with a curious gaze, speaking words in a fascinated tone. And yet the words themselves escaped him.
It was one warm afternoon when Jaehwan sat in the shade of the large trees by the south end of the compound, eating of fruit and spiced drinks prepared by Hongbin. The groomsmen were at play with Sanghyuk in the yard. Jaehwan could hear cries of laughter and delight from beyond the corner, and occasionally one voice with a certain animalistic tone, loud with excitement but edged by roughness. He stewed in sulkiness. He had intended to play with Hansol and the other younger boys, only to be refused in favor of the beast. Hansol had offered for Jaehwan to join. Jaehwan had refused.
“He is compelling them to do his will,” he said hotly. “They obey him as master, so undoubtedly they will take his side.”
“Perhaps,” said Taekwoon. “They do enjoy his company regardless. Sanghyuk is a pleasant companion.”
“Don’t say that in front of Jaehwan, he is like to storm away in a huff,” said Hongbin with a short laugh. The cook had joined their impromptu picnic, and now nibbled on a peach.
“You do not like the prince,” said Taekwoon to Jaehwan.
Jaehwan made no reply. He certainly did not like the beast, and he considered him no prince. He knew, however, that his singer friend was fond of Sanghyuk, and rather sensitive in nature moreover, and as such avoided speaking of him in his presence. Still, Jaehwan’s feelings towards Sanghyuk were known by all.
“I do not understand why,” said Taekwoon.
“He is a brute, and put his claws on me and threw me about,” said Jaehwan.
“You hit Hansol and were trying to leave the grounds,” said Hongbin.
Jaehwan flushed in embarrassment. “I apologized to Hansol. The beast offered no such apology to me.”
“I don’t think any apology owed,” said Hongbin with a shrug. “Rather, you owe Sanghyuk a word of gratitude. He saved your life. We might not have been able to catch you had you made it out of the castle.”
His words sparked an older memory in Jaehwan. “When I previously attempted escape, it was you that stopped me, Taekwoon, was it not?” he asked.
His pale friend nodded. In the sunny afternoon he looked like ivory.
“What would happen were I to leave the grounds?” asked Jaehwan.
Taekwoon and Hongbin exchanged a careful look. “Put simply, Jaehwan,” said Hongbin, “you would die most horribly.”
Startled, Jaehwan laughed. “Surely not.”
“Surely,” said Taekwoon. “That is why it is very important you do not cross the gates.”
Jaehwan found the answer difficult to accept. “How do you know?” he asked. “I am not like you. Has Wonshik ever tried to leave? We do not know what would happen if either of us tried to cross the gates.”
“We do,” said Hongbin shortly.
“Wonshik was not the first to be pulled into the curse of the castle,” said Taekwoon. “Another came before. Like you, he hated having to remain here. Sanghyuk told us not to allow him to leave, but we were moved by his pleas, and in the night Hakyeon took him to the gate and allowed him to go.”
“What became of him?” asked Jaehwan.
“The moment he stepped outside the castle grounds, the roses attacked,” said Taekwoon, voice hushed. “I saw it with my own eyes. They grew from the boundary and moved like living animals, wrapping around the poor man and binding him tight. The thorns cut into his skin and drew blood. The vines slid into his flesh. The blue roses bloomed inside him and the petals spilled from his mouth and eyes.”
Horror overcame Jaehwan. He wished more than anything to reject Taekwoon’s words as fiction, but he could see in his friend’s eyes the truth of them. It had happened, and Taekwoon had been there to witness it.
“It took him the better part of an hour to die,” said Hongbin, voice clipped, eyes averted. “When he had finally stopped struggling, the vines attached to the earth and pulled the body in underneath.”
“How awful,” said Jaehwan. He put a hand on Taekwoon’s long white arm. “I am sorry it happened, and that you had to see it.”
“It was long before any of us could lie at ease following the incident,” said Taekwoon. “It was why when Wonshik came to us we made certain he would not leave.”
“Thankfully, he was much more reasonable than you,” murmured Hongbin.
“I did not know leaving the grounds would mean my death,” said Jaehwan. “You might have told me that.”
“Would you have believed us if we had?” asked Hongbin, raising the eyebrow on the handsome, unmarred half of his face.
“Likely not,” admitted Jaehwan.
Hongbin laughed. It sounded unkind, but Jaehwan knew it was not so in truth. The cook could be rough and uncouth, but he was not a bad man. He and Taekwoon appeared to be in a sharing mood, and so Jaehwan dared ask a question long in his mind.
“What is the curse?” he asked.
Taekwoon looked surprised. “What ever do you mean?” he asked. “The curse is what you see before you.”
Jaehwan could guess it was the curse that had disfigured them so, but there was much still he could not puzzle out. “How did it start?” he asked. “Who cast it? Surely they must have had a cause to be so cruel, and powerful besides.”
“That is ancient history now,” said Taekwoon with a sigh. “The prince—”
He was interrupted by a sharp poke in the ribs from Hongbin. The cook leveled him with a glare, and then turned to Jaehwan. “It is unimportant,” he said.
“Impossible,” said Jaehwan. “Only by learning as much about this curse as we can might we be able to find a way to break it.”
“There is no breaking it,” said Hongbin.
“That cannot be,” said Jaehwan. “I refuse to accept all of you remaining like this until eternity.”
“Hongbin speaks true,” said Taekwoon sadly. “I was there when the curse was cast. No terms for breaking it were given to Sanghyuk.”
Jaehwan jumped to his feet. “Then it is Sanghyuk’s curse,” he said. “It was placed to punish him, and you are all suffering because of him!”
“Certainly not,” said Taekwoon quickly.
“Do not attempt to deceive me,” said Jaehwan. Even seated Taekwoon was nearly as tall as Jaehwan on his feet, and Jaehwan could look him straight in the eye. “I knew it. This is why you refuse to speak of it. You would not have me hate him more.”
“We do not speak of it because there is no point,” said Hongbin. “It would do you good to hold your tongue on the matter as well, particularly in Hakyeon’s hearing.”
Jaehwan could hardly believe their reactions. “How can you be kind to him, when he is the cause of your imprisonment and disfigurement?” he demanded. “What caused him to be cursed?”
“As I said, there is no reason to talk about it,” said Hongbin, irritation rising.
“So you will not tell me,” said Jaehwan hotly.
“No, we will not,” snapped Hongbin. “No one in the castle will.”
“But you admit it is his fault,” said Jaehwan. “He is the reason behind everyone’s pain. And yet you continue to defend and shield him.”
“He is suffering most of all,” said Taekwoon quietly. “We cannot hate him, when he loves us so.”
Jaehwan scoffed in disbelief, and would have continued his impassioned tirade if not for the expression on Taekwoon’s face. The singer was truly fond of Sanghyuk, and seemingly could not suffer any harsh words against him. For the sake of his friend, Jaehwan stayed his tongue.
“Fine, we will not speak of it,” he conceded finally. “Let us go inside.”
They returned to the castle, and Jaehwan offered to entertain for the remainder of the sunlight hours as an apology for upsetting the pair of them. At this Taekwoon brightened considerably, and suggested he play the piano. He led them to a room Jaehwan had never entered before, beside the grand hall in which they ate all their meals. This was much smaller, and had a small table on either side of which were arranged chairs of expensive ebony wood and upholstered in plush velvet. Silver candelabra decorated various other tables, and crystal vases of flowers were placed beside each. In one corner of the room sat the most wonderful piano Jaehwan had ever seen, white as ivory and gleaming as such. Awed, he ran his fingers over the polished white wood.
“Can you play us something, Jaehwan?” asked Taekwoon.
“With pleasure,” said Jaehwan, taking the seat before the piano. “We could play together.”
“I cannot,” said Taekwoon. He raised his hands and moved his freakish long fingers. “I no longer possess strength in my fingers, not even enough to press the keys. I will listen, if you would be so kind.”
“I am sorry, it slipped my mind,” said Jaehwan. “I would be glad to play for you.”
He began with a simple song. It had been long since he had touched a piano; even while at school he preferred to have someone else play accompaniment as he sang. He was not nearly as skilled as some others at the school, and could only play a handful of songs from memory. Jaehwan was halfway through a simple song popular in the taverns of his village, smiling brightly and in high spirits as he played the merry tune, when he saw a figure looming in the doorway. He immediately stopped playing.
It was Sanghyuk. The beast stood just outside the room, cloaked as ever from neck to ankle. Half in the shadows of the room beyond he looked as monstrous as ever.
“Yes?” Jaehwan lifted his chin at him. “Is there anything you might need?”
Sanghyuk tilted his wolfish head. “You play well, little bird,” he said.
Jaehwan felt his face color. “I did not play for you,” he said shrilly.
“Do you always behave so rudely when paid a compliment?” asked Sanghyuk.
His words caused Jaehwan to falter. The beast had indeed complimented him, and with sincerity. This was an unexpected turn of events. “What do you want?” he asked, attempting to hide his momentary lapse.
“Nothing.” Sanghyuk’s hulking figure leaned against the doorframe.
“I will not play for you,” said Jaehwan, bristling. “Go away.”
“You are playing my piano,” said Sanghyuk conversationally.
At once Jaehwan jumped off the seat. “I no longer have any desire to play,” he said.
“It is no matter to me whether you play or not,” said Sanghyuk. “I give you leave of my castle to do as you please, so long as you do not venture past the gates.”
“You may cease your worry, I have no intention of doing so,” said Jaehwan.
“That is good to hear,” said Sanghyuk, seemingly sincere. “Hongbin, to my study, if you would.”
The cook left at once, following after the beast. Jaehwan was upset at having his friend stolen, and made no attempt at hiding his feelings.
“Hongbin will be back before dinner, worry not,” said Taekwoon.
“What does Sanghyuk do with them in his study?” asked Jaehwan. He would call them up any time, and had no preferences, asking a different person every time. Jaehwan’s imagination jumped to nasty spells being worked in secret.
“He only seeks their company,” replied Taekwoon.
“In private?” asked Jaehwan. “What could he need them for?”
“If ever he asks you to join him, you will know.”
The newcomer to the conversation was Hakyeon, standing in the doorway until recently occupied by Sanghyuk. “Will you remain here?” he asked pleasantly.
“No, we will be leaving,” said Jaehwan. The head of the household was not unpleasant, but he could not call him friend.
That night, Jaehwan walked the forest of his dreamscape. He moved among the trees, swift as a deer, until he broke into the clearing of the shimmering lake. To his joy, he found his prince there. “Do not go,” he called out.
To his surprise, the fairy prince obeyed. He stood where he was, even as Jaehwan walked up to him.
“Why do you flee from me?” he asked. “Are you upset I did not tell you about Taekwoon? Am I so ugly you cannot bear the sight of me?” He said the last as a jest, but in truth Jaehwan feared he was right.
“I am no one to speak about ugly or handsome,” said the prince. He gazed at Jaehwan at a long moment, and then said, “I no longer know what to make of you.”
“What do you mean?” Jaehwan was confused.
“I had thought you a mean, vain creature, unworthy of the effort Wonshik and the others spent on you,” said the prince. “But you call Taekwoon a friend. You drew him from the ruined tower, where I had failed a thousand times over. You are kind to him, and the others now as well. And yet you are vain, and mean. It is vexing.”
“I do not understand,” said Jaehwan.
“You would not,” said the prince, with a strange sort of smile. “You are slow-witted as well as overbearing.”
He said something else, calling Jaehwan by a sweet name, but it slipped through Jaehwan’s mind like mist. Still, the knowledge that it had been spoken filled him with joy.
The prince agreed to sit with Jaehwan a while, and Jaehwan told him of all that had happened that day. “They will not tell me what the beast did,” he said, “but it must have been awful indeed to incur such a terrible curse.”
The prince only hummed. “Did you enjoy playing the piano?” he asked.
“Very much,” said Jaehwan. “I was having a wonderful time before Sanghyuk appeared.”
“Pay no mind to the beast and play whenever you like,” said the prince. “Everyone will be glad for the music, Taekwoon especially.”
“I shall,” said Jaehwan, determined.
The prince smiled, and looked even more handsome. Jaehwan’s heart fluttered. “Will you tell me your name?” he asked.
“I tell you every time,” said the prince.
“I forget every time,” said Jaehwan.
One more time, the prince said his name. And one more time, it vanished from Jaehwan’s grasp before he could remember.
A few days later Jaehwan awoke to the household in disarray. The maids huddled together and exchanged whispers. The serving boys were gripped in nervous excitement. The grooms paced the gardens, attempting to work off their nerves, and would occasionally give a cry of distress. The castle was as like an overturned beehive.
Jaehwan found Wonshik standing before the heavy oaken doors that led to Sanghyuk’s study. The gardener looked to be in great anxiety, chewing on his fingernails. “What has happened?” asked Jaehwan.
“The prince received a letter,” said Wonshik.
“A letter?” Jaehwan frowned. “I thought the castle enchanted. Who could send him a letter?”
“I don’t know,” said Wonshik. “Hakyeon is with him now, discussing its contents.”
There was naught to do but wait, and that is what Jaehwan did. He and Wonshik hovered by the door, even after Hongbin arrived and attempted to impose some sense of order. Everyone slowly returned to their jobs, spurred by the cook’s whip-like tongue. There was no Hakyeon to assign Jaehwan work, however, and so he remained. Wonshik did too. Hongbin did not extend his scoldings to the groundsman, it appeared.
After many an hour, the doors opened and Sanghyuk emerged. He looked unsurprised to find Jaehwan and Wonshik waiting.
“I hope you have not been waiting all this time merely to see my face,” said the beast. It sounded like a jest. Before Jaehwan could make reply, however, Hakyeon came through the doorway.
“Your Highness, please, you cannot,” he was saying, before he caught sight of the two other men and stopped. “What are you two doing here?”
“What is this letter we received?” asked Jaehwan in turn.
“Not we, little bird, only I,” said Sanghyuk. “It is no concern of yours. Take your squawking elsewhere.”
But Jaehwan would not be denied. “What have you decided on?” he asked. “Why is Hakyeon in such distress? What have you done to him?”
“That is our own business,” said Sanghyuk.
“It is not if you have hurt him,” said Jaehwan hotly. He had never seen the man in such a state, face ashen, eyes pained. “What did you do?”
For a moment Sanghyuk said nothing, only looked down at Jaehwan. Then from the folds of his heavy cloak a hand emerged. It was not the golden cat paw of his left; this was his right and scaled and clawed, a muted gray-like green, like the hand of a giant lizard. He reached out and rested one sharp claw on Jaehwan’s cheek. It was cold and hard, and sent a shiver of revulsion down Jaehwan’s spine.
“Rejoice, little bird,” said Sanghyuk. “You may be rid of your beast soon.”
He turned and left. Jaehwan stood as he was, too shocked to react.
The mood in the household was somber for the remainder of the day. Hakyeon was often missing, as was Sanghyuk. None of the others knew neither what business they had spoken of nor the contents of the letter.
“It is her,” said Hongbin, growling low as he sliced vegetables, but when Jaehwan asked him who this woman might be he would give no answer.
At supper Hakyeon was not present, which Jaehwan remarked on. “Dining with the prince, likely,” said Wonshik.
“Why does Sanghyuk not eat with us?” asked Jaehwan.
“He did, before,” said Hongbin as he spooned a second helping onto Wonshik’s plate.
“Before I came here,” said Jaehwan.
The thought that his presence had driven Sanghyuk away should have brought him malicious glee, but it was only disheartening. He had learned that the beast had taken all his meals with Taekwoon in the abandoned tower. Taekwoon now ate with the others, leaving Sanghyuk to eat in solitude. Perhaps it was well Hakyeon was with him.
“What does he do all day?” he wondered aloud.
“Sanghyuk?” Taekwoon raised his quiet voice as much as possible. “He used to keep me company before. Now he often plays and reads with everyone.”
“Reads?” repeated Jaehwan. “Is that what he calls the others into his study for?”
Taekwoon did not confirm his words, however, and for the rest of supper conversation was scarce. Jaehwan was thankful when time came for bed, and even more so when he found his fairy prince beside the lake in his dreams.
“Oh, I am glad to see you,” he said. He would have said more, but the expression on the prince’s face gave him pause. “What is the matter?” he asked.
“Nothing at all,” said the prince, but his smile carried regret. “Have you been well?”
“I have been,” said Jaehwan. “Has anything happened?”
“Naught at all,” said the prince. “How fared your day in the castle?”
His words failed to convince Jaehwan, but he told him of the unusual day still. The prince listened carefully.
“The beast has indeed hurt Hakyeon terribly,” he said. “He can do nothing without hurting someone. But he must carry that burden. This is the right decision.”
“What decision?” asked Jaehwan. “Is it to do with the letter Sanghyuk received?”
The fairy did not answer. He but looked at Jaehwan a long while, peering at his face as though he were painting his features in his mind. Jaehwan gazed back, enraptured.
The handsome prince called Jaehwan something sweetly. The words were as smoke in Jaehwan’s mind, intangible and impossible to contain.
“Why did you return to my dreams?” asked Jaehwan. “Do you understand me now?”
The prince chuckled. “Less and less every day.”
For some time the prince was silent. Just as Jaehwan feared he would not answer, his handsome fairy spoke. “Despite all,” he said slowly, “I found myself missing your company.”
Jaehwan’s heart sang. “Truly?”
“I am most surprised of all,” said the prince with a laugh. “But I came upon you smiling, and I thought it had been too long since you smiled upon me. And so I have returned, though I remain as troubled as ever regarding you.”
“I am glad,” said Jaehwan. “I am glad you came back. I am glad to have you with me. I have missed you so.”
The prince gazed into his eyes a moment before he looked over the crystalline lake. Jaehwan watched his handsome features, the way his dark eyes drifted over in the shimmering water.
“Do you know what was in the letter?” he asked. “Will you tell me?”
The prince was slow to respond. “Yes,” he said finally, after long. He began to tell Jaehwan of the contents of the letter and what Sanghyuk had decided, but the words made no sense to Jaehwan, and before he had finished Jaehwan’s eyes fluttered open and he found himself once more in his room as the morning sun streamed through the window.
The more Jaehwan tried to learn about the enchantment of the castle, the more mysteries bloomed like the deadly roses of the boundary walls. He had many questions he sought the answers to, and none to help him. He knew, however, there was but one in the castle who held all the answers.
Jaehwan did not know if his desperation was enough to put aside his pride. He knew only that he had to speak to the beast.
He searched the castle for him, but found him with none of the servants. He was not in the garden with Wonshik or the groomsmen. Jaehwan searched the kitchens and the larders, the outer wall, the dining halls. He asked Koyeon, the maid who cleaned the mysterious study that Jaehwan had never set foot in, if Sanghyuk was in, but was told he had not been since the night before. He even climbed the stairs of the broken tower and found every floor empty. The beast was nowhere to be found.
Jaehwan was nearing the end of his patience when he recalled the room with the lovely piano. He did not think it likely, but having no other recourse made his way there.
The beast was there.
Sanghyuk sat before the piano in silence. He raised his wolf head as Jaehwan entered.
“Little bird,” he said.
The byname was familiar in more ways than one. Jaehwan felt as though he had heard it from some mouth other than Sanghyuk’s horrible snout. He put the thought aside, saying instead, “I have come to speak to you.”
The hideous face became even more so as the mouth stretched into a mockery of a smile. “You seek my company?”
“Hardly,” retorted Jaehwan. “I only seek answers.”
“How disappointing, I do enjoy the tittering of a bird to build my appetite for lunch,” said Sanghyuk. “Perhaps you should return after I have eaten. I feel my hunger climbing the longer I look at you.”
“Cease that, I know you have no intention of eating me,” said Jaehwan. “It is true the curse has been laid on you, is it not?”
Surprise appeared to pass across Sanghyuk’s face; it was difficult to be certain with his beastly features. “You are asking me?” he asked.
“No one else will tell me true,” said Jaehwan. “Beast though you are, you may have the courage and honor to admit it is your doing.”
For some time Sanghyuk was silent. He but watched Jaehwan with his mismatched eyes, one glacial, the other golden. Jaehwan squirmed under the gaze.
Finally, the beast spoke. “It is true,” he said. “It is my doing. I am the cause of all his suffering.”
“You are the eye of the curse,” said Jaehwan.
“I am the eye of the curse,” said Sanghyuk.
“What did you do?” asked Jaehwan. “Something terrible indeed, to be punished so heavily. You must be as monstrous inside as your appearance is now.”
“Monstrous indeed,” agreed Sanghyuk. “I was vain and foolish. I thought myself superior, and behaved as such. Conceited I was, and arrogant, and most haughty. I behaved horrendously with a guest I believed beneath me. She showed me how wrong I was.”
His words brought Jaehwan no understanding, only disquiet. Surely that could not be the cause of so severe a punishment. “That is all?” asked Jaehwan, wary. “That is all you did to bring this upon your household?”
“I was quite unbecoming,” said the beast. “Even the smallest of slights to a fairy is grievous.”
“A fairy?” cried Jaehwan in surprise.
Sanghyuk made an ugly noise like a laugh. “You live in a castle of frozen time with a monstrous beast,” he said. “A fairy must be ordinary to you now.”
Jaehwan recalled Hongbin’s words the day the letter had arrived. “Is she who sent the letter?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Sanghyuk. “She writes she is preparing for another visit to my castle. I must welcome her and her entourage with utmost hospitality.”
“And what is the decision you have made?” Jaehwan remembered the handsome prince’s words, the distraught look on Hakyeon’s face as he emerged from the study. “What will you do?”
“What I must, little bird,” said Sanghyuk, beastly features twisting into a hideous smile. “I will offer my apologies, and I will make amends.”