Xiaojun shifts his legs, feeling stiff from sitting for so long at the banquet table. He can feel a crick in his neck forming, but he doesn’t dare move and alleviate the muscles; rather, he sits even straighter in his seat, plastering a smile upon his face as he catches the eye of his father. Xiaojun knows his father expects him to exude dignity, no matter how uncomfortable the situation. However, that doesn’t stop him from envying his father’s lushly cushioned throne.
The King, his father, had begun the evening with a toast and boisterous speech about bridging cultures and future technological advances that would be happening in the next few months. He had continued on to announce the unification of two kingdoms: their own and the Weishen Kingdom. To the interest of all nobles and lords in attendance, he announced a night of feasting and dancing to celebrate the arrival of a Weishen Kingdom envoy. The people rejoiced at their leader’s words, and the servants began to stream into the hall bearing numerous delicacies and spirits.
That speech had concluded two hours ago.
Their esteemed guests from the Weishen Kingdom had yet to make an appearance. By now, everyone in the hall is either finishing off the last of their desserts, or nursing what probably is one-too-many-goblets of wine. Xiaojun can tell his father’s temperament is worsening, his impatience simmering beneath the surface. Luckily, he catches the Queen’s eye, and at Xiaojun’s raised eyebrow and pointed look to the King, his mother smiles and whispers to her husband. Calming words and excuses, no doubt, for their guests’ lateness.
Admittedly, the royal envoy had only just arrived an hour before the banquet began. The King and Queen had planned this grand reception in advance, with the belief that they would arrive at the palace by midday. However, violent weather usurped these original plans, as the journey had become too treacherous during the height of the storm. At least, those are the rumors floating around the castle, conveyed to Xiaojun by his advisor and childhood friend, Yangyang.
Xiaojun hadn’t witnessed their arrival himself. He had been in his rooms, servants busy preparing his outfit for the festivities. Yangyang had burst through his door, causing chatter among the surprised servants. Xiaojun didn’t even flinch at his sudden entrance, as he was far too used to it.
Yangyang had doubled over, catching his breath, until finally he managed to gasp out, “They’ve arrived, Dejun. The envoy — Prince Ten is here.”
Prince Ten. His reputation precedes him — a capable heir to the throne, but a sour personality in the presence of those he is only acquainted with. Xiaojun had heard the infamous stories, but Kun had told him a different tale.
His elder brother Kun, Crown Prince and heir to the throne, had met Ten when they were both young, as they were left to themselves while the adults discussed politics and strategies and other things the young heirs had no interest in at the time. The two kingdoms differ greatly, with different native languages, currencies, and customs. However, Kun and Xiaojun’s father, and Prince Ten’s father, were highly invested in the future, and they both saw a bright one for their kingdoms if their resources were to be combined. When the unification of the kingdoms was announced, Kun was already very close with Ten, having broken through the language barrier early on. Xiaojun’s father still relies on translators to communicate, but Kun’s younger and more malleable mind had been able to pick up the language far more easily. He had also gotten past Ten’s “bratty defense system”, as Kun himself fondly describes it. Kun is the most level-headed person Xiaojun knows, taking after their mother in that aspect, and he seems to balance well with the other prince’s personality.
If only Kun was here now, Xiaojun wishes. Instead, he was stuck near the kingdom’s borders, unable to return from his patrols due to the same storm that delayed the envoy. Although Kun holds the title of Crown Prince, he insists on personally checking the borders, partially to ensure the safety of their people on the outskirts, who rarely come in contact with the royals, and partially to show the people that when he takes the throne he will not be just another royal figurehead.
Xiaojun feels an elbow at his side, bumping him repeatedly. He looks to Yangyang, who isn’t even looking in his direction. Xiaojun follows his gaze to see servants near the banquet hall’s entrance scurrying about and murmuring. Something is happening… finally.
One of the guards—Lucas? Yes, Lucas—dodges a slightly-intoxicated Lord Winwin as he makes his way to the royal table at the end of the grand hall. He halts a few feet away, bowing to the King and Queen. “Your Majesty,” his voice rumbles, “and my Queen.” The man raises his body, but keeps his head slightly bowed. “The Weishen Kingdom’s representatives have arrived.”
Xiaojun’s proximity to his father allows him to hear the King grumble, “Finally…”, but it doesn’t seem to reach Lucas’ ears.
The Queen pats the King’s hand, and nods to the waiting soldier. “Thank you, Lucas. Please announce their arrival.”
Once again, Lucas bows, but right then the banquet hall’s large double-doors swing open with a flourish. Servants scatter away from the area, and everyone’s heads swivel in that direction, even the drunken ones. The hall falls into a hushed quiet as the envoy of the Weishen Kingdom strides in.
Well, to be more accurate, Prince Ten strides in. The rest of the party seem to be a few steps behind, also unprepared for the sudden entrance. Xiaojun notices one man recover more quickly and walk in almost on the prince’s heels.
The guard Lucas’ eyes are comically wide, and Xiaojun hears Yangyang giggle beside him. The King lets out a sigh.
The Prince is lavishly dressed, and Xiaojun understands how their preparations must have taken up every single minute of the three hours it had been since they arrived. No one would have guessed the prince had just arrived after a long and harsh journey, though it is a little more obvious for some of their servants standing at the hall’s entrance. The prince wears a dark, forest green suit, embroidered exquisitely in a marble pattern, with an additional design of black roses stitched upon the lapels and designed on his back as a bouquet. The light in the room sparkles upon his cufflinks, and when he squints, Xiaojun can make out that they are emeralds, gems which match the many earrings and rings he wears. His fiery red hair—which Xiaojun remembers Kun going on and on about after Prince Ten dyed it—is styled with what must be copious amounts of products, just to get that perfect curl that shadows the left side of his face, while the rest of his hair on the sides is slicked back.
The most stunning of his ensemble, however, are his eyes. Intensified by sharp, dark lines of kohl, Xiaojun is glad that he is not yet the subject of Ten’s gaze. It isn’t particularly threatening, but it gives the prince an air of superiority, despite he and Xiaojun being of similar status.
Prince Ten abruptly halts, and the man closely following the prince inside almost collides with the royal. Lucas, now beside the table where Xiaojun sits, clears his throat loudly, about to announce their arrival, but is cut-off by the prince himself.
Glancing around the room, Ten’s emotionless gaze transforms into a serene smile. His words, spoken in the Weishen language, do not match his visage. “What the hell is everyone staring at? Haven’t they ever seen a prince before?” He bows to the Xiaojun’s father and mother, and Xiaojun realizes what the other prince is doing—taking advantage of the language barrier.
Xiaojun, however, understands every word. Since Kun is his elder brother, and therefore the direct heir, Xiaojun knows he will not take the throne. However, when the Weishen-Vee unification was announced, he spent hours studying the Weishen tongue with both Yangyang and Kun.
The King stands to greet the prince, and everyone else at their table rises as well. Xiaojun feels a poke at his side as they stand, and he knows Yangyang must be dying to at least laugh, but the room’s awkward atmosphere prevents him from doing so. Xiaojun simply quirks one of his eyebrows, deciding to keep quiet and see how things progress.
Ten rises from his bow, and the King and Queen nod their head to him. Xiaojun’s gaze is drawn to the man behind the prince when he suddenly bobs down in a bow as well, clearing his throat a moment later.
“Your Majesties, the Weishen Kingdom’s Prince Ten greets you most honorably, and apologizes for our party’s tardiness to this grand celebration,” he says, in Xiaojun’s native language this time. So he must be the prince’s translator, and judging by the manipulation of the royal’s true statement, his mediator as well.
The man isn’t as flashy as the prince appears, but Xiaojun can tell he isn’t simply another servant. First of all, he wears the Weishen Kingdom crest over his heart, and the rest of his clothes are obviously tailored to him specifically. He is taller than Ten, though his stature attempts to suggest otherwise, as if he were trying to shrink himself to either draw less attention or direct any curious eyes to the man with a higher status next to him.
Whichever the case, Xiaojun doesn’t fall for it. He’s intrigued, both because of the unknowns regarding him, and because of his quite handsome features. His jet-black hair appears perfectly coiffed, effortless in comparison to Prince Ten’s sculpted style. Xiaojun watches the man’s eyes dart between his prince and Xiaojun’s parents, a tactful smile disguising another emotion Xiaojun can’t place quick enough.
The King grins, and Xiaojun can tell he’s just glad that the night can continue finally as planned. His reading of his father is proven correct a moment later as he addresses the prince.
“We are delighted of your safe arrival, Prince Ten, and are honored by your presence tonight despite your lengthy travels. We were saddened to hear your father, the King, could not make the journey, but I hope you enjoy your stay here in the Vee Kingdom.”
Xiaojun observes the prince’s translator as he murmurs in the royal’s ear the meanings of the King’s words. Ten smiles politely as he listens, then speaks to the translator his reply. Although the two are still quite a distance away, Xiaojun makes out the last few words. “Tell him I wish Father was here as well. I sure-as-hell don’t want to be.”
Xiaojun wants to scoff. Kun’s description of Prince Ten has to have been colored by his obvious feelings for the royal, though he always denies the insinuations whenever Xiaojun or Yangyang bring it up. The translator doesn’t seem fazed; he simply nods his head and then addresses the King once more.
“The prince appreciates your welcome to the beautiful Vee Kingdom, and wishes for Your Majesty to know his excitement when he was informed of the festivities prepared for our arrival,” he says, only a hint of an accent appearing, and gestures to the hall around them.
Smart, Xiaojun thinks. Although the translator completely disregarded the prince’s true message (come to think of it, is he really a simple translator?), he successfully directed the attention away from them. At the mention of the banquet around them, the guests and nobles seem to return to life, chatter breaking out among them. Poorly concealed whispers about the prince reach Xiaojun’s ears, but they fade away quickly as his father raises his hand in an unspoken command.
“Speaking of the festivities,” the man begins, “I have an announcement. In honor of our special guests here tonight, we shall have a dance. The first shall be between representatives of our two kingdoms, as a show of personal unity ahead of our political union. Prince Ten, does this sound agreeable to you?”
Xiaojun is surprised. He hadn’t been told about this, and he is equally surprised to see Yangyang, the unofficial court gossip, also had no idea, if his expression gives any indication.
Ten’s translator quickly relays the King’s words. Xiaojun watches the pair but this time he cannot hear from his place at the head table. As the translator finishes speaking, he glances Xiaojun’s way, looking a little startled to be watched so intently. He looks away a moment later, and Xiaojun smiles at the other man’s obvious self-consciousness.
“I would be oh-so-honored to represent the Weishen Kingdom in a dance, Your Majesty,” Prince Ten exclaims in his own language, very sarcastically to Xiaojun’s knowing ears. Those from the Vee Kingdom must just hear something like enthusiasm. The prince falls into a sweeping bow, while the translator relays his response to Xiaojun’s father.
“Prince Ten thinks a dance between kingdoms is a wonderful idea,” he says, then also bows.
Xiaojun’s mother had simply been observing the conversation, but at this she rises from her seat. “Wonderful!” she exclaims. “Dear,” she turns to the King, “shall our son represent the Vee Kingdom and dance? I know he enjoys dancing quite a bit…” the Queen looks pointedly at Xiaojun, and he feels the urge to roll his eyes at her antics. She has been making Xiaojun take lessons for ballroom dancing for a year now, and although he excels, he often voices his disdain for the repetitive and restrictive movements of the dance style.
Also, after observing the visiting prince, the last thing Xiaojun wants to do is dance with him. If Kun were here there would be no problem. Xiaojun knows he would jump at the chance to dance with Prince Ten, though he would neither admit it nor let it show. Hell, Xiaojun has a hunch that Ten would not object either. But the Vee Kingdom’s heir is not there, and that leaves Xiaojun, the next in line and only other royal besides the King and Queen, to take his spot as a dance partner.
Ten does a good job hiding his own thoughts on the matter, as the translator relays the Queen’s words to him. Before the prince can say anything, however, the King claps his hands. “Perfect! My boy,” he looks to Xiaojun, “what do you say?”
Xiaojun stands from his seat, joints cracking as his body remembers his discomfort that had momentarily been forgotten because of Prince Ten’s sudden entrance. He quickly bows his head in greeting to Ten, who nods in acknowledgment. He also bows to his father, replying, “As Prince Ten has agreed, who am I to deny a dance?” He almost continues, but he suddenly feels hands cup his ear—Yangyang stands and quickly whispers something to him.
Xiaojun is confused at his advisor’s words at first, but then it clicks.
“Father,” Xiaojun says, turning with a smile. “I am to dance with someone representing the Weishen Kingdom?”
“Yes, my son, that is what I said. You shall have the first dance of the night with our esteemed guests from the Weishen Kingdom.”
“Wonderful.” Xiaojun turns to face the crowd of nobles but makes eye contact with Ten. The translator rapidly translates the conversation to the prince, and as he speaks, Xiaojun can sense the royal’s the curiosity and confusion. “Shall we?” Xiaojun asks, then looks to Lucas.
The guard catches his meaning, ordering the servants to help clear room for the dance, removing some tables laden with the remaining food from the banquet.
With one last smile at Yangyang, who winks in return, Xiaojun leaves his seat and approaches Prince Ten. Musicians take their positions a few yards away.
Ten watches Xiaojun, a strained smile on his face. Xiaojun’s smile, however, is more genuine, but not for the reasons the visiting prince may think.
When Xiaojun stops a few steps away, Ten bows to him again. Xiaojun returns the bow, but before Prince Ten has a chance to greet him, Xiaojun turns away.
The translator stands a few feet from the princes, close enough to provide his services but far enough away as to give room for their dancing. Xiaojun smiles, bowing to the man as well, to the astonishment of everyone in the room, except Yangyang of course.
“Welcome to the Vee Kingdom,” Xiaojun says perfectly in the visitors’ language, and holds out his hand to the shocked translator. “May I have this dance?”
Confusion quickly morphs into panic for the translator, as he bites his lip, eyes darting to Ten. Xiaojun keeps his hand extended, and he hears rather than sees the prince’s reaction; the royal huffs once, like he simultaneously can’t believe what is happening but also is amused at the turn of events.
Apparently not finding a savior in his prince, the man in front of Xiaojun looks between the King and the waiting hand before him. “Pa-pardon? M-me?” he stutters in the Vee language, eyes wide.
Xiaojun lowers his arm and makes a show of looking around at the people standing nearby, before looking back at the translator. “You are a guest from the Weishen Kingdom, are you not?” he asks in Weishen language. He makes eye contact with Ten. “I’m sure Prince Ten wouldn’t mind, right, Your Highness?” Xiaojun then lowers his voice, “What was it you said earlier? That you ‘sure as hell’ don’t want to be here?”
Ten shakes his head, but smiles. “It seems I have underestimated both the skills and wit of the Vee Kingdom,” he says, then gestures toward his translator. “Go ahead, Hendery, a little dancing won’t kill you.”
“What?” the translator—Hendery—squeaks. “Te-Prince Ten?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Xiaojun sees his father at the head table shift his stance, wanting to interject in their conversation, but he does not understand the foreign language. Xiaojun bows again to Hendery, and the Queen lays a hand on her husband’s arm, stopping him.
“May I?” he asks once more, with a smile and a wink. Xiaojun loves how flustered the man becomes, ears tinting red.
Hendery bows almost a full ninety degrees, and when he straightens, he takes Xiaojun’s hand delicately, as if he is afraid to touch him. Xiaojun will have none of that, thank-you-very-much. If he’s going to dance with a handsome translator from the Weishen Kingdom, he’s going to dance with a handsome translator from the Weishen Kingdom.
Xiaojun pulls Hendery closer, placing one hand on the man’s shoulder. Hendery’s eyes widen.
“Will you lead?” Xiaojun asks. “I’m fine with either stance, if not.”
Hendery’s ears have completely flushed red at this point. He nods, murmuring, “Of course, Your Highness.”
The musicians take the cue to play the first notes of a waltz. Xiaojun is pleased to confirm Hendery knows the classic movements well and follows in his steps.
Neither speak for a while, feeling the eyes on both of them. Hendery seems to be focusing his gaze on Xiaojun’s shoulder, which amuses the prince. He tilts his head, as if to catch his gaze.
“Do you enjoy it?” he asks, still in the Weishen tongue, “Translating for the Weishen prince?”
“Of course,” Hendery responds, eyebrows scrunching, for the first time seeming a bit annoyed. “There’s no higher honor. In fact, I’m not just a simple translator,” he says. A second later his own words seem to register, rushing to add on a “Your Highness.” He almost misses a step in the waltz, but Xiaojun helps him cover for it with a sudden spin away. Their audience around them claps politely at the sudden display. Hendery catches on, bringing the prince back to him a moment later, expression changed completely back to his former bashfulness. “I apologize for my unintentional tone.”
Xiaojun throws his head back in laughter. “No need, no need for apologies, Hendery—may I call you Hendery?” Xiaojun squeezes his shoulder slightly and smiles. So there’s more to this man, just like he thought.
Xiaojun doesn’t let the man respond. He continues, “Although this is our first meeting, I could immediately tell you’re more than just a translator, Hendery.”
The prince watches the corners of Hendery’s lips upturn in a small smile. “I’m flattered by your words, Your Highness,” he says.
The song is at the halfway point, Xiaojun knows, and it seems the rest of the guests have realized as well. Xiaojun sees over Hendery’s shoulder Yangyang offer his hand to someone in the crowd to dance, and even Prince Ten is approached by a particularly brave soul.
Hendery clears his throat, and Xiaojun’s gaze returns to the man. “Your Highness,” he begins, serious once more, to Xiaojun’s chagrin. “If I may ask… why did you ask me to dance, rather than Prince Ten? I thought you two… you and the prince…” he trails off, unsure how to continue his question.
Xiaojun raises one eyebrow. “Prince Ten and I?” he asks, “I’m not sure what you’re asking, Hendery, would you elaborate?”
Hendery clearly regrets his words. Instead of replying, Xiaojun finds himself in another spin, initiated by his partner this time. When he returns to Hendery’s arms, his partner’s gaze is elsewhere, and a few steps later, Xiaojun realizes it was on Ten.
“Are you two not…” Hendery surprises Xiaojun, “are you not… unofficially… matched?”
“What?” Xiaojun can’t keep the surprise out of his response. “Matched? No, definitely not. I would never marry the heir of the Weishen Kingdom.”
“But—the unification…” Hendery starts to argue.
“Hendery, please. Why would you think I would marry the prince, when my brother exists, and to be quite honest, is far more interested?”
Hendery’s expression is the definition of confusion. “Y–your brother? Your Highness—”
“Xiaojun, please, call me Xiaojun,” he interrupts Hendery, “No more ‘Your Highness’, I honestly can’t stand such stuffy titles.”
“Oh.” For a man fluent in two languages, Xiaojun thinks, Hendery seems to be at a loss for words, for some reason.
The song, and therefore the dance, begins to end. Xiaojun mourns losing the opportunity to talk more with Hendery. Although the end of their conversation remains a mystery to him, the prince had enjoyed flustering the handsome man with his words.
As the last few bars begin to play, Hendery opens his mouth once again, and Xiaojun anticipates his last few words. They are not, however, what he expects at all.
“So, you are not… the Vee Kingdom’s Prince Kun?”
It is Xiaojun’s turn to feel shocked. His brother? How… had Hendery really thought he was the Vee Kingdom heir? It would explain the translator’s confusion, but how was he uninformed of Kun’s absence from the celebrations?
The song ends, and Xiaojun still hasn’t answered. They stop dancing, and Hendery seems to take his silence as an answer. He appears to grow anxious, even more so than before, but this time Xiaojun’s flirting is not the reason, unfortunately.
“Prince Xiaojun,” the man begins, letting his hand fall from its place on Xiaojun’s waist, and the prince feels its absence sorely. “My sincere apologies. I seem to have been misinformed.”
Xiaojun comes to his senses. Hendery tries to step back, but Xiaojun holds fast to the hand he still grasps, pulling the man back towards him once more. It is clearly unexpected by Hendery, and Xiaojun even hears some whispers from guests hovering nearby. He ignores them.
“No, I am not my brother, Prince Kun,” he begins, “I accept your apology, though again, it is unneeded. As you said, you must have been misinformed somehow.” Xiaojun doesn’t hide his grin as a thought occurs to him, and the musicians begin the next song. “I do hope this doesn’t deter you from another dance, would it?” he teases.
Xiaojun is happy to see Hendery relax at his words, a matching smile adorning his face. “I would be honored, Your—I mean, Xiaojun.”
They resume their positions, Xiaojun resting a hand once more on Hendery’s shoulder, Hendery’s hand guiding their steps from its position on the prince’s waist. They begin to move in time with the music once more.
“So,” Xiaojun says, “Now that we have established my identity…” Hendery laughs, the most natural action Xiaojun has seen all night. He is pleased to have been the reason for it.
“You’re the type to hold this over my head for the rest of my life, aren’t you?” Hendery says, shaking his head. The prince laughs, and this time it is he who almost causes them to stumble.
“I would never,” Xiaojun says. “As I was saying, you know who I am, so why don’t you tell me something about yourself? Let’s start with your deepest, darkest secret.”
Hendery chuckles. “Well,” he begins, looking somewhere over Xiaojun’s shoulder for a moment, “I suppose it isn’t my darkest secret, nor a secret for that matter, but…” he says, leaving Xiaojun in suspense.
“What is it? Out with it, Hendery, please!” Xiaojun is sent out into another spin but resumes his questions a moment later. “Who is Hendery of the Weishen Kingdom? How are you more than a simple translator, hmm?”
His answer about to spill from his lips, Xiaojun leans closer to his dance partner, but at that moment, a light tap on Xiaojun’s shoulder interrupts. Their movements halt, and Xiaojun realizes the second song is almost over. When he turns to dismiss whoever it is, he comes face to face with Prince Ten. Xiaojun attempts to mask his annoyance.
“Pardon the interruption, Prince Xiaojun,” Ten says, “I know Hendery is quite the dancer, but I was hoping for at least one dance with my dear brother tonight.”
Xiaojun looks at Ten, then to his dance partner.
Then back to Prince Ten.
And once more to Hendery—no… was it…
“B-brother?” Xiaojun says, and Hendery smiles, shrugging once.
“I told you I was more than just a translator.” Hendery steps back from Xiaojun, then lowers into a bow. “Prince Xiaojun, it was an honor.”
Xiaojun feels, rather than sees, the smirk on Ten’s face, and he also senses other eyes from the nobles around them. They may not understand the details of their conversation in the Weishen tongue, but it must be easy to read their facial expressions, and Xiaojun knows that his is one of surprise. Therefore, he schools his expression back to a smile, genuine even while it disguises his inner shock.
“No,” he responds, bowing to him as well. “It was my honor… Prince Hendery.”
Ten pulls Hendery away to another part of the dancing area, and Xiaojun loses sight of them among the nobles. The events of the past few minutes roll rapidly through Xiaojun’s mind, as he applies his new knowledge to the nuances of their conversation. “Tonight has been full of surprises, it seems…” he says to himself, lost in thought.
Handsome-translator-man is really handsome-younger-prince of the Weishen Kingdom. And Xiaojun is most definitely not his brother, and instead is the handsome (if he does say so himself), younger prince of the Vee Kingdom.
Xiaojun smiles. This night has only increased his anticipation of the unification, despite Prince Ten’s brattiness. Hendery more than makes up for that, in his opinion.
He feels a poke in his side, giving away the person’s identity immediately; no nobleman or noblewoman would dare. Xiaojun turns to Yangyang, smile still on his face.
“So,” his friend says, conspiratorially, “what an interesting translator. Got any gossip for me?” He winks, and Xiaojun rolls his eyes. “You seemed to be enjoying his company quite a bit.”
Xiaojun shakes his head and laughs. “Oh, Yangyang, couldn’t you tell?” He leans in, as if about to tell a secret, and Yangyang does as well, intrigued.
“Prince Hendery is far more than just a simple translator.” Yangyang gasps at Xiaojun’s words. He continues, “Perhaps Kun and Ten’s expected royal union will not be the only relationship that results from this alliance…” Xiaojun is the one that winks, this time.