- Burn The Floor -
Mus et Lepus was still bustling with activity even though the lunch hour had passed. Small box in hand, Siwon headed straight to Zhoumi who was behind the counter, ringing up a bill for a customer. The man’s eyes lit up in acknowledgment at his presence, before wordlessly motioning for Siwon to wait.
Minutes later, the customer left and Zhoumi called for one of his workers to take over the till. He then beckoned Siwon towards the back room, presumably where his office was.
“I gather you have all the items ready?” Zhoumi asked once they entered a small but cozy, well-lit room. He sat down behind his desk and gestured for Siwon to take a seat across from him.
“Yes,” Siwon said, placing the box he’d been carrying on the desk.
Zhoumi opened the lid and looked inside, a smile playing on his lips. “I cannot believe hyung finally agreed to do this, after all this time,” he said, taking out a black wig. “This is of a fine quality indeed,” he praised, the slightly wavy tresses.
“From the manes of a Friesian horse,” Siwon answered. “You said ‘finally agreed’... have you tried to get Yesung-ssi to put on a disguise before?”
Zhoumi smiled, putting down the wig and picking up a pair of oval metal glasses. “Yes, a few times; I even offered to get him a wig. But he always refused, didn’t feel confident enough. Of course, now I know it’s because I wasn’t as comprehensive as you are,” he said, gesturing to the box that also contained a woolen cap and some cosmetics.
Oddly, Siwon felt flustered. “I… just happen to have more experience with disguises.”
Zhoumi returned the glasses to the box, then eyed him curiously. “Why would a merchant such as yourself need disguises for?”
“You forget I’m a traveling merchant,” Siwon said. “When you’re on the road, you learn disguises can come in pretty handy, especially when it comes to getting information and avoiding danger.”
“Ah, of course,” Zhoumi said, looking chastised. He smiled then, a little wistful. “Having lived in Formosus my whole life, I’m afraid I’m rather ignorant of the ways of the outside world.”
Siwon couldn't help but to probe further. “So have you known Yesung-ssi your whole life as well?”
The man was still smiling, but there was no mistaking the onset of wariness in his overall demeanor; he was going to be careful with his words, Siwon knew. “Yes, we grew up together actually. My cousin is a dear friend to his brother, and there isn’t much of an age difference between us, so it’s only natural we got along.” He cocked his head. “Come to think of it, how old are you, Siwon-ssi?
“I was born in ‘86.”
“Goodness, so we’re of the same age!” Zhoumi exclaimed, then quickly flashed a sheepish smile. “Apologies, I might have thought you were the same age as Jo--Yesung hyung or perhaps slightly older.”
“No apologies needed, I’m used to having people think I’m older," Siwon deadpanned. "Then if I may, how much older is Yesung-ssi than us?” he asked, now curious about the noble’s age. He’d always thought Yesung looked youthful but never stopped to think if the other was older or younger.
“Hyung is two years older.”
Hyung… Somehow, that generic honorific term made Yesung seem more… real to him, without the gloss of nobility. It also felt strangely intimate in his mind, quite unlike how he’d used the term with Eeteuk and other older members of their guild. And come to think of it, there was no one outside of his guild whom he’d addressed as ‘hyung’ before.
“I’d really like to thank you, Siwon-ssi, for doing this,” Zhoumi continued, snapping Siwon out of his reverie. “You don’t know how much this will mean to him. I wish I could accompany the both of you tomorrow on your outing, but alas, I’m expecting a new shipment of coffee roasts and have to be here.”
“Ah, that’s too bad indeed,” Siwon said, hoping he looked appropriately apologetic, because for some reason, he couldn’t find it in himself to actually feel sorry that Zhoumi won't be joining.
“Since Kangin-ssi will not be around to shadow him, I hope it’s not too much to ask that you keep a close eye on hyung. Don’t get me wrong, he can certainly take care of himself, but I worry that in his excitement, he might forget himself.”
Siwon gazed at the man before him, noticing for the first time that Zhoumi was a good-looking man. Not that he hadn’t noticed it before but it was as if he was suddenly conscious of the fact. Annoyance pricked at him; a moment later, realizing it, he quickly shook the feeling away. What was the matter with him?
Returning to the conversation, he asked nonchalantly, “You really do care about him, don’t you?” When Zhoumi raised an eyebrow in surprise, he went on, “No, I don’t mean anything bad by it. The protectiveness you have for him, it’s the same as displayed by Kangin-ssi. I find it… fascinating.”
The look on Zhoumi’s face seemed to say he didn’t think it was. “Isn’t it only natural to care and look out for the people you love?” He smiled, his expression tender, no doubt thinking about Yesung. “But to be fair, I think the protectiveness you speak of is just something hyung naturally triggers in all of us. I do not know of anyone who knows him intimately who will not do what they can for him.”
Suddenly, Zhoumi leaned forward, arms folded on the desk, a speculative look in his eyes. "And I could be wrong, but even though you’ve only known him for a short while, I think he has also managed to trigger your protective instinct.”
The last conversation he had with Zhoumi played on loop in his mind. Siwon had, embarrassingly, taken his leave quite immediately, citing the need to return to the store. Zhoumi had just smiled politely, though his eyes were positively twinkling with amusement.
Why did he not refute the man’s words? Hell, he could lie if he wanted to; it was not as if he was a stranger to lying.
But therein was the problem. The fact he couldn’t refute and that he wanted to lie meant that what Zhoumi said was the truth. Yesung had indeed triggered his protective instinct. And perhaps something more, though he did not know what it was.
How else could he explain the fact that he voluntarily went on a little shopping expedition to get the items needed for Yesung’s disguise? Or that he even suggested the disguise in the first place as well as offered his company?
Detachedly, Siwon felt as if he was looking at another version of himself.
He reached the store and saw that the Closed sign was up. Puzzled, he wondered if Eeteuk had decided to close early for the day. But surely his brother would have told him so when he left earlier.
He stiffened, hand on the knob as he heard voices conversing. Was one of their brethrens here in Formosus already?
He took a deep breath and composed himself. Squaring his shoulders, he turned the knob and entered the store.
The conversation stopped as three pairs of eyes turned to him. Siwon quickly took in the stranger in the room, who was seated across of Eeteuk and Donghae at one of the display cases. The stranger cocked his head in greeting, a polite smile on his face.
"Oh, Siwon-ah, you're back!" Eeteuk called out, gesturing him forward. To the stranger, he said, "Hangeng-ssi, this is my other brother, Siwon."
Hangeng's smile immediately turned warm as he got to his feet. "Ah, Siwon-ssi, nice to meet you," he said after executing a bow. "My name is Hangeng, advisor to King Heechul."
Hastily, Siwon returned the greeting. "My apologies, Hangeng-ssi. I didn't know we're having company from the palace, else I'd have returned quickly."
"Oh, no, no… I just arrived about ten minutes ago myself. My apologies for dropping by unannounced. Come, have a seat."
Since it would seem rather intimidating to their guest should he be seated on his brothers' side, Siwon decided to take a seat beside the man. He looked at his brothers and they subtly shook their heads; they had no idea what the visit was about.
"We'll, since everyone is here, I'll get straight to the point," Hangeng said, then produced a card from his coat. "His Majesty, King Heechul, has requested for the Flagranti merchants to be at the palace this Friday."
Siwon was shocked, as were his brothers. Eeteuk hesitated for a moment before taking the card from Hangeng. Even in his surprise, Siwon noted it was a good stock paper, finely textured, with the words Royal Invitation embossed in gold.
"M-may… may I know the reason for, uh, this kind invitation?" Eeteuk must have been really taken aback, for the usually smooth talker was actually stumbling over his words.
"Ah, gentlemen, do not be alarmed," Hangeng said, giving what was probably meant to be a reassuring smile. "His Majesty simply requires your services. He wishes to have an engagement ring designed and Flagranti comes highly recommended."
Siwon and his brothers exchanged looks. Everyone looked more at ease now, though still surprised. "That… I mean, we're honored," Eeteuk said, bowing reverently.
"I'm not a man of accessories but even to my untrained eyes, I can see the high quality of your designs," Hangeng praised. "It's no wonder Lord Changmin had shared his enthusiasm with the king; they are cousins, in case you didn't already know that. Even Prince Jongwoon has some of your items and he seemed to like them as well."
Siwon frowned, trying to recall what he knew of the royal family. He remembered then the conversation he'd overheard at the coronation ball. Wasn't Prince Jongwoon the one that the gossiping lady had said wasn't the king's son? Had the prince actually come by their humble store? He'd need to ask his brothers later.
"Your kind praise means a lot to us, Hangeng-ssi," Donghae said, looking a little teary-eyed. He'd be the most proud, of course, being the designer of their pieces, and Siwon was happy for him.
"So then, may I inform the king his invitation is accepted?"
"Yes, of course!" Eeteuk answered. "We wouldn't dream of saying no to such an opportunity!"
Siwon was about to nod in agreement when he remembered something. It was crazy, but he needed to ask. “Hangeng-ssi, may I ask if all of us are required to be there?”
Though he kept his eyes trained on the advisor, he could see from his peripheral vision that his brothers were staring at him as if he’d lost his mind. Hangeng looked mildly confused. “Well, it’d be good if all of you could come. But if not, a representative would be just fine, though preferably it should be the person who is able to conceptualize His Majesty’s design, of course.”
Siwon nodded. “That’d be Donghae,” he said, allowing pride to creep into his voice as he looked at his brother. “But he lacks tact and manners, so Eeteuk hyung will accompany him as well.”
“Yah, how could you say that!” Donghae burst out. Siwon just grinned.
“So you’re saying you’ll not be coming to the palace with your brothers?” Hangeng asked.
“Someone has to keep the store open,” Siwon said, offering an apologetic smile. “And I just remember we’re expecting a shipment of new materials to come in this Friday too,” he continued, drumming his fingers on the display case, a signal between the brothers to mean to just go with the flow.
“Ah, I understand. Well, Eeteuk-ssi, Donghae-ssi, the palace will be expecting you both this Friday then.”
As expected, after Hangeng left their store a while later, Eeteuk immediately swooped upon him, gripping his shoulder hard. “What do you mean we’re expecting a new shipment this Friday? How come I didn’t know about it?”
Siwon laughed, shaking his brother’s hand off him. “Because there’s none. Hyung, you know better nothing gets here without your knowledge.”
But Eeteuk was not amused. “Then why lie? And why do you not want to go to the palace?”
“I don’t feel like going, that’s all,” Siwon said, shrugging easily. “Besides, my presence is unnecessary. Did you forget my expertise is in forging connections and negotiation? I’ve already done my part with Lord Changmin; now even the King himself is to be our client. So I’ll leave it to you to help keep Donghae in check, lest he offends the King somehow.” He threw a wink in said brother’s direction, grinning.
“I resent that,” Donghae grumbled, crossing his arms and pouting slightly.
Eeteuk stared at him, brows furrowed, and Siwon knew his brother was trying to look past his walls. “No, there’s something else that’s making you stay away from the palace.”
Siwon kept his expression neutral. “Nothing that affects Flagranti,” he said quietly.
The elder’s lips thinned. “Siwon-ah, I don’t mean that. I know you’d never --”
“Then what doesn’t affect Flagranti shouldn’t make you worry, hyung.”
A harsh, frustrated sigh escaped Eeteuk. “You… Fine, do what you want!” he spat, then stormed off to the back room.
“Look what you’ve done,” Donghae sighed. “Now the old man’s going to be upset for the whole day. He’s only looking out for you, you know.”
“I know, but my private affairs are my own.”
Donghae sighed again. "Yes, yes… I know. We know. You don’t have to keep reminding us that you’re hell-bent on keeping us at arm’s length.”
Siwon felt a twinge of hurt and guilt. “Donghae-yah, don’t say that.”
But his normally easygoing brother was in no mood for sympathy. "You're not the only one who's suffered loss, Siwon-ah. All of us have. But me and hyung, we choose to live in the moment. We take things in our stride, we have no room for regrets. Because we know the present is all we have. If you still haven't realized that, then you're not living, Siwon-ah; you're just existing, and that's sad."
Siwon could only watch as Donghae stalked off to the back room. His brother's words weighed down heavily on his heart, not just because of its truth but also because it was the first time Donghae had openly lambasted his fear of loss and attachment that they'd been skirting around for years.
Perhaps, perhaps, it was time he re-examined this fear of his.