Is something going on at the House of Petals? Will we finally see the mysterious second Prince of Son?
A Shiba Inu darts by, a streak of gold hardly noticeable against the glare of the midday sun’s vibrant rays. A bubblegum pink leash flaps behind him. At the end is a small girl with her toddler fingers barely hanging on as she runs after the pup, pigtail puffs bouncing and sandaled feet kicking up dirt clouds. Her laugh is an alarm clock chime, light silver bells clinking.
Keeping pace behind her is a young gentleman with rounded cheeks full of mirth, his arm wrapped comfortably around the slim shoulders of a woman with the same bell laugh. Her left hand rests on the slight swell of stomach showing through her yellow sunflower printed sundress. She calls for the girl to be careful, to not run too fast and trip, we just bought those pants, little miss.
The girl, still bubbling alarm clock chimes, whistles a sharp noise and the pup slows before whipping around and running back to her. The pup is nearly her height when it stands on its hind legs, but she doesn’t topple when it jumps at her, balancing with its front paws on her shoulders. She hugs it in that crushing way that kids hold anything soft, like it’ll disappear and take her joy with it if she doesn’t hug it tight enough.
Her father tugs affectionately at one of her puffs when he and the missus catch up. He slips the loop of the leash off his daughter’s wrist and twines it around his own. Empty handed, the girl skips to her mother, holding out wiggling fingers until her hand is taken.
Fiddling with the elastic strap of his black, cotton face mask, Minhyuk watches the family continue their walk of the length of the grass park. A soft smile pulls at his lips, unable to hold a frown in the face of such happiness.
The image takes him back to simpler times, to roaming the gardens during the late spring bloom season and finding himself lost, adrift in the sea of colors. But spring lasts fewer and fewer days with each passing year. He’s been trying to maintain the daisies and irises but the gardens are overrun with weeds, are filled with dandelions masquerading as sunflowers on the cusp of puberty.
His mother says she can’t bear to replant, something about how the floral perfume and the petals are causing the nightmares that keep her up while the moon passes overhead, wandering through the halls like a ghost. And Minhyuk wants nothing more than the woman who used to make up stories of garden sprites when he was a child to be at peace, so he doesn't complain about how foreign it has started to feel as he gets older.
A loud chime fills the air, the clock tower on the edge of the marketplace ringing with the turn of the hour. Minhyuk spares a glance to the plastic, waterproof watch he's had since he was thirteen years old strapped loosely around his wrist anyway. His twenty minutes of peace are officially over. Sighing, he pops the strap circling his left ear, hardly registering the sharp slap against his skin. He flattens his palms against the wood of the park bench, splinters poking into his skin. It needs to be sanded down.
Pushing himself up to stand, Minhyuk grabs his patchwork satchel, a random buy from the market a couple years ago, and slings the long, brown leather strap over his head. The pouch of the satchel hangs at his hip, a flexible yet sturdy abomination of mismatched denims and other fabrics. He loves the thing, even though his father has been trying to throw it out behind his back for months now. His mother thinks it has charm. She's always been the more easygoing parent of the two.
Minhyuk pinches his index finger and thumb around the rim of the black bill of his cap and lifts it off his head. He raises his other hand to ruffle his dark hair, pushing it off his forehead before fitting the cap snug again.
"You have to go," he sighs. "No matter how much you don't want to."
As he begins to walk in the ghost trail of the expecting family of three, in the direction of the west gate, Minhyuk checks the time again. He gave himself a wide margin to get to downtown, accounting for the buses running late (because they're always late). His father offered to have him sent by car, although saying he offered implies that he had thrown the option into the air with a light enough tone that Minhyuk would be able to politely decline without hassle. They had argued for longer than necessary, a good twenty-five minutes spent fighting over how Minhyuk would get to the city, but that wasn't what they were really clashing heads about. Their arguments are never about what they are talking about at the time.
The west gate leads to a residential area of cramped apartment buildings and infrastructure in need of an update. The nearest bus stop is at the corner and Minhyuk leans against the metal post that marks it, the blue sign that used to be bolted to it long since ripped off and missing.
This side of the kingdom has seen better days, though the same can be said about any place that isn’t the small expanse of land considered the city center. None of the people who live in these parts see the same luxuries of those who have been lucky enough to acquire a substantial amount of wealth. They probably never will. Not as long as the Son's neglect to acknowledge the widening gap between their people's economic standing.
The bus pulls in a long ten minutes later, right on time for Minhyuk but half an hour late according to the schedule. It's an ugly thing, a junk metal sausage on four tires that looks like it'll fall apart at any moment. The brakes screech when it slows to a stop in front of Minhyuk, the doors whistling a sharp sound when they swing open.
Huddled in the driver's seat is a bean of a man with a cliff-edge brow and sagging cheeks. Minhyuk nods at him as he boards.
A woman surrounded by deep, cotton totes overflowing with groceries is taking up three of the sixteen seats available. Minhyuk plants himself in a seat across the aisle from her. He kicks one leg over the other and presses his back stiff against the unforgiving metal frame and thin padding of the seat. The window to his left is smudged with oil and grime that blocks the sunlight from filtering through like a stretch of streaky, black clouds. He peers out of the small window where there is a clear gap of glass and watches the wheels of the bus stir up plumes of brown. At each bump and rock, the bus lurches horribly and the body of the vehicle cries out as if begging the driver to be mindful.
Minhyuk doesn't take these buses often, only when he finds the time and the spare change to come out to this side of the kingdom. They strictly circulate South Maua, never venturing into North or East Maua where the roads have been paved over and the buses don't look like a grade school art project. But Minhyuk favors the country charm of the south, finds something beautiful and raw about how content those who live here are without the blinding city lights and constant noise of the rest of the kingdom. It's a life Minhyuk can only dream of.
The bus slows to a creaky stop, five minutes later. His only companion stands with her hand on the back of her seat as the bus pulls up to the corner of a cluster of apartment complexes.
Minhyuk turns away from the window. "Will you be okay? Do you need any help?" he asks, lifting his hand to flag her attention.
She looks at him with round eyes, surprised at his offer. A light smile pulls at her lips. She has a mother's face, soft and round with smile lines that suggest she lives on laughter. "No thanks, dearest. Nothing I've never done before. Best of days to you."
He nods, but he still carefully watches her heave her purchases onto strong shoulders and march down the aisle of the bus. She drops a handful of change into the counter box by the door.
"Best of days to you," Minhyuk calls after her.
She turns over her shoulder to nod and exits the bus.
Minhyuk can hardly follow her walk down the grass lined road through the stained window and he leans back into his seat. He tilts his head back and closes his eyes as the bus continues its ride through the residential area and toward the bridge leading into East Maua. They pick up a kid who looks to be Minhyuk’s age with a chestnut brown crew cut and a red bookbag to match his unbuttoned plaid shirt. He slides into the seat closest to the door, nodding at Minhyuk once when their gazes align and then taking a slim phone out of the side pocket of his bag. He’s most likely a university student from the looks of it, either starting his daily commute or returning to a home away from home in the city, closer to the university campus.
Minhyuk watches him for a second longer, thinking about his own phone buried deep in his satchel beneath a few bags of mixed dried fruits that he picked up on a whim from the open air market this morning before his stroll in the park. He hasn’t touched the device since he left the house half past nine, knowing he’ll have a few missed calls from his father’s people about making it to his appointment on time and nothing more. It’d be different if it was just one or two simple reminders, but there’s always a faint hint of a preemptive scold, like they don’t’ believe that he’ll do what he’s supposed to, even though there is no precedent for that kind of mistrust. Minhyuk always does what he has to. He doesn’t have much choice in that. Whether or not he lives up to expectation is another matter all together.
Forgetting about the lecture he’s in for for ignoring everyone and slipping out of the house this morning without disclosing where exactly he was going, Minhyuk drops his head and closes his eyes once again.
He rouses from a thoughtless trance when he registers a change in the bus’ rocking. Blinking his eyes open, he peers out of the window to see nothing but open wheat fields. The fields don’t stretch for very long, maybe five kilometers or so, but they lead up to the bridge. The final bus stop on this route is at a small rest stop about three kilometers out from Miz River. It’s really nothing more than a gas station and a convenience store, but it has a line of indoor showers for the farmers and anyone else who passes through. Minhyuk doesn’t quite see the point. From the southern-most point of Maua to the northern tip is 3 hours by car and shorter than that from east to west. But he supposes they’re useful for those coming through their kingdom to reach one of their neighbors.
The bus pulls into the small parking lot and stops in front of the doors of the convenience store. Minhyuk rises and follows behind the kid in red. He flips the lock on his satchel and counts out the change from the small interior pocket. He exits the bus with a thank you on his lips that isn’t returned by the driver.
Standing in the middle of the concrete sidewalk, Minhyuk glances at his watch again. He has a little over an hour to make it to the restaurant. It’s plenty of time. The walk from here over the bridge is only about twenty minutes. The restaurant isn’t too far into East Maua and sits close to the blurred line between it and the northern neighborhood.
When he looks up to start crossing the parking lot to the walkway along the road that will take him over into the city, he notices his riding partner drifting toward the small shop. There are some others milling around. A woman is leaning against the stone wall of the shop, hand on her skirt-suited hip and in the middle of a phone call. Over at the gas station, a stocky man with a full beard is filing up the tank of his beat up pickup.
There aren’t enough eyes for Minhyuk to start feeling like someone is going to come up and start asking questions, so he slips his fingers behind his ear and tugs off his mask. He folds it in half and stuffs it in the back, left pocket of his bleach washed jeans.
The parking lot separating the store from the road has a max capacity of twenty cars and Minhyuk is back on the main road just as the beat up pickup pulls up to the stop sign.
He’s thankful for the thick grey clouds moving in from the north, bringing a light breeze in with them. The cool air combats the early summer heat and the sweat beading between the bones of his shoulder blades.
Few cars are traveling at this time. This bridge doesn’t get much traffic in general, but it’s void of traffic while everyone is at work.
Minhyuk keeps his eyes on the teal water of the river. A commercial boat is sailing away from him, upstream. It’s probably heading to Aex, their neighbor to the right. He should know for sure, should be more aware of what is what in his kingdom, but Minhyuk can’t say for sure. It doesn’t really matter.
His brother is the more involved one, keeps up with all of that so Minhyuk doesn’t have to. So Minhyuk doesn’t starting gaining hope that he’ll be able to make a difference in this place. So that Minhyuk always knows his place as the unneeded second Prince of Son.
At the end of the bridge is a sign of cream limestone, the words Welcome to Lily East etched into the front. He takes a left at the first stop light in, reaching into his pocket for his face mask.
No one knows who he is but they know his face as the cute junior worker, as a distant relative to the royal family, as many things that don’t make sense considering he lives in the House of Petals. But that’s what happens when your family pretends you don’t exist outside of the four walls of your home.
Sighing into the black cotton and scrunching up his face at the heat that collects, he flags a taxi. He pops the strap against his face as the silver car with two white stripes painted horizontally down its side drifts as close to the curb as it can.
He pulls the door open the backseat and slides into the car.
“Best of days to you,” the driver greets. He has a young face with fat cheeks and a gentle smile. He almost reminds Minhyuk of his brother. “Where can I take you?”
“Best of days to you,” Minhyuk returns. “I’m going to 22nd Street and Mauve.”
The driver nods and starts the meter before pulling into the early afternoon traffic once more.
Minhyuk checks the time to make sure the seconds, the minutes hasn’t someone slipped past him.
“Did you hear about Prince Hyunwoo’s coronation?’ The driver glances over his shoulder, trying to make conversation.
Sighing quietly, Minhyuk scratches his nail down the ribbed polyester of the seatbelt stretched across his chest. “Oh, yes, I was pretty surprised by the news this morning,” he says, brightening his voice to keep up appearances.
He was quite surprised to walk out of his room this morning to see the staff in a flurry, to turn on his television to reporters standing outside the tall, white gates rushing out monologues about the rumor of the coronation. They had talked about holding Hyunwoo’s coronation soon but no one thought to inform Minhyuk of the actual date. Not even Hyunwoo.
“Although, I am curious about the second prince. My mother told me he’s only a year younger than Prince Hyunwoo and yet no one has ever seen him,” he continues, lying.
The driver hums and taps his fingers along the steering wheel. “There are pictures of Her Majesty, Queen Heeyoung from when she was with child. Rumor has it that he died after birth. Or that Her Majesty had an affair and His Majesty ordered the boy out.”
Minhyuk’s heard of all of these rumors and more. They could write a book with the amount of tales the kingdom folk have made up to explain why he’s never been introduced to the public. Not even a picture. (Although they have plenty of pictures of him, they just haven’t seemed to connect the dots). He wants nothing more than to say, ‘you know that blond boy who everyone seems to think is a member of the live-in staff? Yeah, that’s me and I’m the second Prince of Son.’’
But he cannot.
“What a pitiful kid,” he mutters with a slight grimace.
“Indeed,” the driver agrees. “One of the most important people in the kingdom and no one knows who he is.”
Sighing again, Minhyuk presses his cheek to the window and trains his eyes on the pale pink lines zooming by. He lets the conversation die in the space between them. There isn’t anything else he can say in return. With the exception of outing himself, there isn’t anything he wants to say. He’s just the shadow of the House of Petals, hiding in plain sight but still just the unknown prince of Maua.
The headline he read at the park asked the question of if the public would finally get a glimpse of him. Minhyuk hasn’t talked with his father about the coronation since its announcement but he doesn’t need to in order to know the answer is no.
It’s always no.
Minhyuk stares up at the bleach white LED sign above the restaurant with an open glass front and a row of peonies lining the door.
“Why am I doing this again?” he asks himself and pushes the door open.
Jasmine punches him in the face as soon as he crosses the threshold, the perfume so thick it fills nose like the barrier of his mask wasn’t there. Minhyuk holds in his snort for fear of choking.
“They would choose a place like this.”
Some posh place with smooth jazz playing overhead, with dimmed lights and an overbearing scent for ambiance. Can’t be too classy — can’t have a twinkling chandelier that looks like dying stars — but can’t be too pedestrian either. It can’t be any regular walk-in joint.
The host gives him a polite smile and steps away from the mid-chest high redwood podium to bow slightly at the waist.
“I have a reservation under Lee,” Minhyuk says after slipping off his mask. He doesn’t imagine these people know who he actually is. It’s not like his father has rented out the entire restaurant like he would have done with Hyunwoo, so there is no cause for suspicion about why a guy who looks like him has the money to spare on a date in a place like this.
The host confirms the reservation on his list and leads him to a square table in the back the restaurant. He pulls out a chair with a silver wire frame and spotless white padding and motions for Minhyuk to sit, placing a menu in the center of the table.
Minhyuk lifts the strap of his satchel over his head as he sits. Remembering his cap, he takes that off as well and hooks it on his bag’s strap.
The host takes his leave, informing Minhyuk that the waiter will be around soon.
In poor form, Minhyuk slouches over the table as soon as the man turns his back. He unlocks his phone, unsurprised at the number of text messages he has. He sends a reply to the first message in the list, telling Mr. Ahn — the Chief Adviser of the Council — that he is in the restaurant, there’s no need to freak out, please tell the others to stop sending me messages before I throw my phone in the river.
He gets a reply almost immediately, a warning to not mess this up.
Minhyuk crosses two fingers on his left hand when he tells him that he won’t.
Minhyuk lifts his head and looks to his right at the call. A woman in a white shirt, black slacks and matching vest stands beside the table. Her hair is tied into a bun atop her head but a few strands fall in caramel ringlets over her shoulders. She looks rather young, somewhere between mid-twenties and early thirties. Her skin is the shade of almonds and she has a dusting of light freckles over her nose.
She lifts the small tablet in her hand. “Would you like something to drink, sir? Or anything else to start you off with?”
“Ah,” Minhyuk stutters, sitting up. He flips open the menu and quickly scans through the first page of starter foods. “Can I have a glass of water? And a slice of lemon on the side. Two. For when my…date arrives.”
“Sure thing.” She doesn’t bother keying in the request for water.
“And I suppose an order of the pesto bruschetta.”
The waitress nods and fingers the tablet. “I’ll be back with your water.”
Minhyuk fiddles with his phone, opening and closing menus absentmindedly while he waits for the water. He smiles at the waitress when she comes with two full glasses, a lemon wedge pressed into each rim, a minute later and takes a sip as soon as she sets one down in front of him.
Minhyuk scopes out the other occupants of the restaurant. There aren’t many, the lunch hour having past for most workers, but there’s a group of smartly suited women at a table closer to the door. They’re all smiling pleasantly at one another as if they actually enjoy each other’s company so Minhyuk supposes they’re coworkers on break and not in a business meeting.
A similarly suited man is seated at another table, nursing a small glass of wine while he flicks his thumb across the screen of his tablet. Two tables to the left of him is a brunette woman sitting across from a young girl who looks to be younger than Minhyuk who looks just like her, a mother-daughter date it seems.
He checks the time. He did get here a little early but the woman he’s to meet should be arriving soon. As much as he hates to, he pulls up the browser on his phone and skims through the news on the buzz at the House of Petals to pass the time until he can’t take it any longer.
When the waitress returns with his order of bruschetta, she’s also followed by a woman Minhyuk has seen only once in a picture shown to him by Mr. Ahn.
The woman is a looker; Minhyuk can admit that much when he stands to greet her. Her skin is a cool, sandy color, her pale cheeks filled with the summer sun. It matches well with her salmon, lace-lined blouse and light denim jeans.
Minhyuk is thankful she also didn’t see the need in dressing up despite their venue.
Her hair, the shade of midnight in the countryside, falls over her shoulders past her collarbones. She brushes at her straight bangs and sticks her hand out. “Hyunjung Kim,” she introduces herself. “But please call me Seola.” Her voice is neither deep nor tinny, just like her face is soft but her eyes are filled with fight.
Minhyuk opens his mouth but stops when he notices the waitress loitering behind Seola. He had been intending to use his real last name, but remembers his place. “Minhyuk Lee,” he says at last, taking her hand in his. It was his mother’s idea to use the last name Lee, something different from his father’s last name and her maiden name.
Her palm is ice against his but her grip is strong. After a firm, single shake, he slips his hand away and motions to the seat across from his. “Please sit.”
With a nod, Seola rounds the table and pulls out the chair, filling her place at the table as Minhyuk does the same. Once she’s seated, the waitress places the cream plate of toasted bread between them and tells them she will be back in a few minutes to take their order.
Seola picks up the menu from where Minhyuk left it hanging on the edge of the table and cracks it open. “Do you know who I am?” She asks, glancing up over the top of the laminated booklet for a quick second before dropping her eyes again. “My father showed me your picture but didn’t give me any information about you other than that you were in some way connected to the royal house. I and my friends were all convinced you were a member of the cleaning staff.”
Minhyuk laughs, genuinely laughs because at least she’s honest. “Why did you agree to come if you think I’m a staff member?” He asks but continues without waiting for a response. “I’m the son of one of the King’s cousins.” It’s the lie he goes to the most when asked who are you? Why are you always at the House of Petals? Do you know the second prince?
“I didn’t agree. My father is the second lieutenant of the land forces. He forced me to come, saying things like how if I didn’t come ‘it would be such an insult to His Majesty. What if you actually like him, Hyunjung? This is the royal family’s graciousness’,” she explains, deepening her voice in a reenactment of her father. Her lips twist into a scowl and she rolls her eyes.
Nodding shallowly, Minhyuk hums in understanding.
“So I apologize if you were looking forward to this.”
“I wasn’t,” Minhyuk reassures almost bitterly, matching Seola in bluntness. “My parents like to make decisions for me without consulting me about it first. Actually, I only found out three days ago that a reservation had been made in my name and I was supposed to take you out.”
Setting down the menu, Seola looks at Minhyuk with wide eyes. “Wow, my dad talked to me about this almost a month ago. “I’m upset, but I don’t even know how mad I’d be if I was you.”
You have no idea, Minhyuk thinks. “I’m used to it. A perk of being related to the royal family but not important enough to matter, apparently. They probably think they’re doing me a favor because I’ve shown no interest in dating.”
A shadow passes over Seola’s face at his statement. “There is a man I like. But my dad likes to pretend those feelings mean nothing.”
Minhyuk grimaces. “I’m sorry.”
Seola shakes her head. “No need. It’s not your fault.” She looks at something out of the corner of her eye.
Following her gaze, Minhyuk turns his head and meets the crinkled eyes of the waitress as she approaches the table.
“Are you two ready to order?”
Seola and Minhyuk share a look.
“I don’t think there’ll be a need. I don’t plan on staying.” Seola smiles at her.
Minhyuk’s eyebrows rise. “Are you sure? It’d be a waste if you came out here and didn’t eat anything,” he says out of courtesy.
“That won’t be appropriate, don’t you think? I’ll help you eat the bruschetta since you’ve already ordered it. Feel free to get something yourself.”
He would rather not eat alone and he says as much.
The waitress looks between them, her polite smile replaced with a confused twist of her lips. “Alright,” she says hesitantly. If you change your mind, just call.”
Minhyuk nods. “Thank you.”
Seola, as she said, doesn’t stay much longer. She sips her water and eats most of the bruschetta. They make small talk, exchange simple tidbits like age and course of study at the university and complain about how much it’s forecast to rain later on in the week.
When the plate is littered with nothing but crumbs and flakes, Seola opens her beige purse and fetches a tan and mint floral, fabric wallet. From the wallet, she pulls out ten silver and drops it on the table in from of Minhyuk.
She smiles at him lightly. “That should be about half of the appetizer. May be a little bit more but take it as payment for having to spend your time meeting me.”
“If you’re paying me for that, then I should be paying you as well.”
“It’s fine. Just take it.” Her chair scratches against the floor when she pushes it back and stands. “I hope I don’t have to see you again under circumstances like this, Minhyuk. Best of days to you.”
“Best of days to you.” He watches her sidestep from between the chair and the table. He follows her path to the door with his eyes.
“Well, that went better than expected,” he mumbles to himself.
Heaving a tired sigh, he leans back in his chair and closes his eyes. And here he thought he was going to have to pretend to be a jerk to disinterest her.
Minhyuk drowns in jasmine and jazz for another fifteen minutes, thinking of everything and nothing, before he reopens his eyes. In the time spent watching splashes of color and abstract lines waltz around, the waitress must have slipped the check on the table because a black, rectangular file is sitting on the edge of the table.
Opening his own wallet, he deposits Seola’s money inside and pulls out the royal card, the one with his real name on it — Minhyuk Son — that is used whenever he spends money on official House of Petals business. The waitress gives him a pitying look when she takes the card and check.
He doesn’t really need the sympathy. This was the best case scenario.
What he needs is answers. He doesn’t understand why his father set him up with her. There are just no logical reasons for the decision. His parents would faster wish for Hyunwoo to court someone, wouldn’t even think about Minhyuk pursuing a relationship if they weren’t planning to also bring him into the spotlight. It doesn’t make sense no matter how much he thinks about it.
Standing, Minhyuk pockets his phone. He pops the adjustable snap on his cap and unhooks it from the strap of his bag. He hangs the satchel on his shoulder. Picking up his wallet, he steps away from the table. The waitress looks up at him when he approaches the front counter.
She smiles and taps a few more keys. “That you for dining with us, sir,” she says and slides his card over to him, wrapped in the white paper of the receipt. “She’ll come around.”
“I hope not,” is on the tip of Minhyuk’s tongue but he swallows it down thickly and smiles. “Thanks.”
“Best of days to you,” she says as she walks from behind the counter to tend to the other diners.
Minhyuk hums his reply.
Turning on his heel, Minhyuk heads for the exit. Once outside, he stops in the middle of the sidewalk and inhales his first breath of fresh air in nearly fifty minutes. He wrinkles his nose at the lingering perfume still coating his nostrils.
His exhale is more a sigh. “If you go back now, they’ll know you ruined it.”
Groaning, he takes out his phone. He goes straight to his contacts and dials the only person whose name doesn’t also include a proper title. In the half a minute it takes for the call to be picked up, Minhyuk check the numbers on the bus stop sign at the end of the street. Thankfully, the bus number he needs is listed.
“What?” The voice on the line is groggy, heavy with sleep.
“I’m coming over,” Minhyuk says simply.
There’s a mumble that Minhyuk can’t quite decipher. “Bring breakfast. And toilet paper.”
“It’s almost three in the afternoon.”
Minhyuk rolls his eyes. “Yeah, okay. See you in twenty.” He ends the call and leans against the steel pole of the sign to wait for the bus that’ll take him away from home.