- Burn The Floor -
The area was blissfully empty, nary a single soul in sight except for the two of them. All the shops had already closed for the day, appearing as dark sentinels lining the sides of the street, saved for one.
Jongwoon eyed the dimly-lit shop as they approached closer. With the illumination coming from the nearby tall lantern posts, he could make out the signboard. Flagranti, it said, written in beautiful calligraphy.
Passionate. A rather quaint description to be describing jewels. Jongwoon wondered what the history behind the name was. But he could certainly relate. He had a fondness for accessories himself: rings, cravat pins, pocket watches, and the occasional pendants. He was excited to see what they had to offer; his cousin had nothing but praises for their designs as well and seeing the items Changmin had bought, Jongwoon was inclined to agree.
"I still think I should come inside with you and Kibum stands guard instead," Kangin groused.
Jongwoon frowned at his friend. "You're being a worrywart. I'm just taking a look and having a chat, that is all. Even if something happens, which I highly doubt so, Kibum is on hand not too far from here, isn't he? Not to mention, I can take care of myself."
Kangin's expression hardened. "Siwon-ssi is not a simple merchant."
"What do you mean? Do you know something that I don't?"
His friend thinned his lips, not saying anything. Jongwoon could tell there was something Kangin was hiding from him. But before he could prod further, the door opened, and his attention was riveted.
"Yesung-ssi, right on time, I see. Kangin-ssi, good to see you again." There was a rather sardonic edge to that last greeting.
Jongwoon could feel there was an underlying tension between the two. What happened between the two when Kangin came by to deliver his message? He made a mental note to question Kangin about it later. "Siwon-ssi, good evening."
The merchant inclined his head politely. "Please, come in."
Jongwoon shot Kangin a warning look before entering the store. "Thank you for accommodating my request, Siwon-ssi," he said as he removed his hooded cloak.
"You're welcome," Siwon replied, closing the door and taking the cloak from him.
The merchant's gaze lingered curiously on Jongwoon's attire. Jongwoon had chosen to dress like a commoner, which he knew would appear strange but he didn't want to be restricted in his movement. Siwon looked as though he had questions to ask, but instead, he proceeded to hang Jongwoon's cloak on the coat rack.
Jongwoon cast a cursory glance around the store. "Where are your brothers?" he asked, moving towards a display case.
"Attending Lord Dongyup's soirée. I don't suppose you know of him?"
"Yes, he's -- I mean, I do," Jongwoon quickly corrected himself; he nearly said Dongyup was his uncle. "He's one of the ministers on the Treasury council." Jongwoon kept his eyes on Siwon who was lighting up more lanterns to further brighten the room. "Actually, you'd do well to be acquainted with him. So why aren't you attending his soirée?"
Siwon stopped what he was doing and looked over his shoulder, his expression deadpanned. "Apparently something I ate didn't sit well with me and so I'm forced to rest at home."
Jongwoon crossed his arms. "You didn't have to lie to your brothers just to accommodate my request. I thought Kangin had made it clear you're under no such obligation."
The merchant shrugged and went back to his task. "It is the only way I could think of. And it's the least I could do for your favor of introducing me to Lord Sungmin. Besides, I haven't told my brothers about you," he said, voice going a little softer. "I'm under the impression the fewer people know about you, the better it is?"
Jongwoon bit his lower lip, feeling a stab of guilt but at the same time, relieved that Siwon was as he had expected. His instincts had told him he would be safe around the merchant, and he was proven right.
"Thank you," he said quietly, looking down. "I know how hard it is to keep certain things to yourself and not let your family know."
"We all have our own secrets, Yesung-ssi," he heard Siwon say, his tone understanding.
Jongwoon scoffed inwardly. Some secrets were just too dark for anyone to understand. Unconsciously, he touched his elbow, squeezing it without thought.
He heard footsteps approaching and looked up just as Siwon came to a stop before him. He realized the room was much brighter now, and he could see things more clearly.
Like how darkly intense Siwon's gaze was.
Absently, it crossed Jongwoon’s mind for the umpteenth time what a fine specimen of a man the merchant was with his height, built and chiseled classical good looks that would put even the Greek statues to shame.
"Are you alright?"
Jongwoon blinked. He must have been too absorbed in his thoughts for the other to have taken notice. Regaining his composure, he offered a smile. "Yes, I'm fine. I was just wool-gathering."
Siwon narrowed his eyes slightly but didn't press further. Instead, he gestured to one of the stools in front of the display case. "Have a seat. I'll be back with some refreshments."
Jongwoon obliged and as he waited, he took a look at the items on display. He saw beautifully crafted jewelry studded with different types of precious stones. Many of the designs were unique, different from what he was used to seeing. No doubt being traveling merchants, the brothers and their guild were exposed to many ideas on their journeys and incorporated them into their jewelry designs.
A fish-tailed pendant studded with sapphires attached to a pinkish-orange crystal orb the color of peach caught his attention. It would make a perfect wedding gift for Princess Momo, his brother's intended.
Thinking about the princess, Jongwoon couldn't help but smile. Heechul had always been adamant that he was not the marrying type. But a year ago, when the royal family of the neighboring kingdom of Alterum came to pay a visit to their ailing father, Heechul had taken one look at Princess Momo and fell heads over heels.
Jongwoon thought the princess made a fine match for his brother indeed. She was not only beautiful but also smart and down-to-earth, able to balance Heechul's carefree nature. Though perhaps most importantly, she had treated Jongwoon no differently from Ryeowook, her interactions with him genuine and effusive since their first introduction.
"See something you like?"
Jongwoon smiled up at Siwon as the other placed a silver tray laden with a small teapot, two cups and a plate of wafers on the display top. "Yes, I did."
Siwon cast him a side glance before pouring out tea for two. "For someone special?" he asked.
"You could say that," Jongwoon said. "Actually it is for my future sister-in-law," he went on, feeling a need to clarify for some reason.
"Oh, then congratulations on the new addition to the family! When is the wedding?"
"In a couple of months, hopefully," Jongwoon answered, watching Siwon make his way behind the display. The wedding was not yet public knowledge, so it should be safe to let the merchant know.
Siwon took a seat and gestured for Jongwoon to have tea. Lifting the delicate china cup close to his nose, Jongwoon inhaled the scent of the tea. It was flowery sweet but with a hint of citrus.
"Vanilla white tea infused with tuberose and bergamot. A rare blend and a personal favorite of mine."
Jongwoon met Siwon's gaze over the cup as he took a careful sip. The man seemed unnaturally still, perhaps awaiting his verdict on the tea. He swished the liquid in his mouth a little before swallowing, savoring the delicate, refreshing taste that was also a tad smoky. He took one more sip, finding that the taste was pleasantly growing on him. "I like this; it's delightful," he praised as he set his cup down. "I prefer coffee, of course, but I do appreciate a good cup of tea."
There was no reply from the other. Jongwoon, who was picking at the wafers, looked up to see Siwon staring at him.
Jongwoon stiffened, wondering if he'd said something wrong that made the merchant look at him in such a manner. But before his thoughts could run any further, Siwon broke the gaze and reached for his own cup.
"I'm glad you like it," came his casual remark before he took a sip.
Feeling strangely self-conscious, Jongwoon decided to talk about the pendant that’d caught his attention. "This fish-tailed pendant is unique. How did it come about?" he asked, tapping on the glass display.
Siwon set down his cup. "The inspiration came from a mermaid."
Jongwoon looked up in surprise. "A mermaid?"
The merchant gave a mysterious smile as he set up a velvet-lined tray on the display top. Then he opened the display from his end and carefully drew out the pendant Jongwoon had pointed out. "Are stories of mermaids familiar to the people of Formosus?"
"Yes. The neighboring kingdom of Alterum is a port city. They have a few legends concerning such creatures." He’d remembered the tales Momo had regaled them with during one particular dinner affair.
The pendant was laid out on the velvet-lined tray. “Do you believe they exist, Yesung-ssi?”
Jongwoon’s heart skipped a beat at the unexpected question. “W-what are you saying? Of course not. Mermaids are not real, everyone knows that.”
There was a strange glint in the merchant’s eyes at his words, but it was gone in the next instant. “Well, real or not, they do provide interesting inspirations in terms of creativity. On one of our travels, we came across a story of a mermaid who fell in love with a mortal she saved. In exchange to being a mortal, she sacrificed her voice and could never return back to sea. But the mortal didn’t know the mermaid was his savior, believing it to be another woman. Having no voice, she couldn’t tell him the truth. When he married the other woman, she went mad with grief, killing both of them, then went on a murderous rampage.”
The story struck a chord with him. Jongwoon didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath, or that his hands were balled into tight fists. He stared at the pendant in front of him, its blue stones twinkling too brightly. “What happened to her?”
“The story ends there... but, if there was any ending to it, I supposed she would have been subdued. It wouldn't do to allow someone like her to continue with what she'd done.”
Something in the offhand way Siwon spoke of the mermaid's fate irked him. “But why would you choose to take inspiration from such a story?” Jongwoon demanded, lifting his gaze.
His question -- or perhaps the irate disbelief in his voice -- earned him a questioning look from a surprised Siwon. “I don’t quite understand you, Yesung-ssi. It's just a story and why does it matter when you have said that mermaids are not real?”
Jongwoon realized too late how absurd he must have sounded. He blinked, willing himself to let go of the dark feeling that was starting to unfurl in him. Siwon was right to be surprised; what was he getting emotionally affected for? Forcing himself to smile, he said, “Yes, of course… forgive me, I was just caught up in the story.”
Siwon’s gaze gentled at the admission. “A story is meant to educate or entertain. In this case, the mermaid’s story is a reminder that too much passion can cause one to lose one’s self and even lead to destruction.”
“Is that so?” Jongwoon remarked, eyeing the pendant again. Slowly, he traced its shape with one finger. He wanted to say the mermaid just seemed too pitiful. She’d sacrificed a lot, only to be left on her own, and in the end she couldn’t save herself from her own mind. But he kept it to himself; he was already showing too much interest in the subject matter.
“I don’t suppose you’re still interested in getting this pendant for your future sister-in-law?”
Jongwoon couldn’t help but smile at the gentle tact -- amusement, even -- in Siwon’s question. He was also grateful there was no awkward tension between them, the merchant seemingly unaffected by his strange outburst. “No, I still want it. I’ll just keep the story a secret from her.” He looked up, giving Siwon a reassuring smile. “Do wrap it up for me. I’ll have someone come by tomorrow with payment.”
Siwon nodded, and set about wrapping up the purchase.
Alterum - Latin for twice