The visit is over too soon. The pout on Taeng’s face makes Steph giggle.
“You don’t have to be this sad about leaving. We can always stay a little longer.”
Taeng looks at his watch. It’s almost six. There’s just enough time for him to walk to the car waiting to pick him up. “I can’t. I have to go.”
Taeng nods sadly.
“Look, there’s no harm staying a few more minutes,” Hyoyeon chips in. “Besides, there’s something I’ve been dying to share with some people so if you wanna know what it is . . .”
Taeng’s curiosity rockets. “What is it?”
The gleam in Hyoyeon’s eyes promises good things. “Come to the kitchen and I’ll show you.”
Taeng follows the two girls into the kitchen and stares at the huge bowl of red water sitting on the counter. “Is it fruit punch?”
Hyoyeon eyes Steph and they double over in laughter.
“Did I say something funny?”
Steph inhales hard and holds her stomach as she shakes her head. “No, no. You’re right. It’s fruit punch. Fruit juice with a punch.”
“Oh, I’d like to try some, please.”
Hyoyeon’s grin is wide as a clown’s. “Sure.”
Taeng accepts a glass of the red drink from Hyoyeon with thanks and takes a sip. “Oh, it’s . . .”
“It’s nice, isn’t it?”
Looking at Steph who is taking a nice big gulp of the drink, Taeng nods even though he finds it a little bitter and strange. “It’s nice,” he says politely.
“Finish it up before you go then,” says Hyoyeon.
Looking at his glass, Taeng tries not to grimace. “What kind of fruit is this drink made from?”
“Oh, mostly grapes, some pineapple, peaches, berries and orange juice.”
“Oh. That’s interesting. Is there a name for this?”
Hyoyeon’s grin stretches to breaking point. “Sangria.”
“Sangria? It doesn’t sound Korean. More like Spanish.”
Hyoyeon and Steph stare at him.
“It is Spanish,” Steph says, sounding surprised.
“Wow, that’s cool.” Taeng sniffs at the drink one more time.
“How did you know it’s Spanish?” Steph asks.
Taeng blinks. Did he say too much again? “Er, a lucky guess?” Desperate to avoid more questions, Taeng empties the glass of Sangria in a few big gulps. “There. That was nice. I really should get going now.”
“For someone who looked so sad to leave, you sure are eager to leave now,” Steph comments.
“My G-Grandpa said six—” Taeng halts when Steph sticks her face way too close to his.
“You have a curfew? And your curfew is six? Are you really eighteen?”
“I-I have to go back before it gets dark.”
Hyoyeon and Steph burst into laughter.
“Oh my gosh. I never thought—oh my gosh.” Steph bends over, laughing hard.”
“Cinderella,” says Hyoyeon in between her laughter. “Are you wearing glass slippers?”
Feeling a little upset, Taeng shakes his head hard and is surprised to feel a little light-headed. Why is he feeling giddy all of a sudden? He had better head home quickly. “I really have to go,” he says, tight-lipped and heads to the shoe cabinet to retrieve his shoes.
“Aww, are you sad?” Steph asks as she follows him out of the kitchen.
“No. I’m not sad anymore.”
Steph stops giggling. “Are you pissed?”
Taeng doesn’t say a word as he puts his shoes on.
“Oh come on,” Steph punches his arm lightly, “we were only joking.”
“I’m not pissed.” Taeng forces a smile onto his face and gives Hyoyeon his thanks politely before walking out the door. Steph follows him out with Prince in her arms.
“Hey. Taeng. Wait up.”
“I gotta go.” Taeng glances at his watch. Six twenty. How did time pass so quickly? “I’m already late.”
“What about Prince?”
Taeng stops and Steph bumps into him. “What about Prince?”
“I can’t bring him home to my apartment.”
“Bring him home for me and bring him to school tomorrow. I’ll meet you at the same spot where we climbed over today.”
Taeng can’t refuse a request like this. He certainly doesn’t want Steph or Prince Fluffy to get into trouble at her apartment. “Alright,” he says, stretching his arms to take Prince Fluffy.
“You’re welcome, Steph.” Taeng takes a few steps away but stops again and turns back. “How are you going home?”
Steph shrugs. “I’ll take the bus.” Then she smiles beautifully. “See ya tomorrow, Taeng.”
“I’ll ask my d—I can drop you off at a nearer bus stop.”
“Really? Aren’t you late?”
Taeng nods and shakes his head. “I’m late but I can’t let you walk all the way to the bus stop by yourself. Come on.” This time, he is the one who takes Steph’s hand. “Follow me.”
Taeng gives Steph a weak smile and waves as the car pulls away after dropping her at the bus stop near the hangar. Unease is his middle name as the car enters the compound and heads to where his helicopter is waiting. It is a short flight back to his palace and Taeng is on jitters the entire way.
The first sight of Grandpa Kim’s displeased expression sinks Taeng’s heart. He is truly sorry for breaking his promise and steps forward into the grand hall to apologize but Grandpa Kim gets his word in first.
“I am utterly disappointed in you, my King.” Grandpa Kim paces to the left. “You have never broken your promises before. Yet here you are coming back late. Bringing stray dogs back home. And what’s worse . . . you’re coming home drunk.”
“D-Drunk?” Taeng is confused. He hasn’t drank anything—only the Sangria. “I haven’t drank any alcohol. I’m not drunk. I’m a little giddy but I’m not drunk.”
“Take a look in the mirror, my King. You’re red from your neck to the tip of your ears. That only happens after you’ve drank alcohol.”
“Oh my gosh. I am red,” Taeng gasps when he looks into the mirror on the wall and sees his red face staring back at him. “But I didn’t drink anything. Really. Just the Sangria that Hyoyeon had in the kitchen. But that’s just fruit punch.”
Grandpa Kim buries his face in his hands. “My King, Sangria is alcohol. It is made of red wine and fruits.”
“R-Red wine?” Taeng’s eyes widen at Grandpa Kim’s words. Wine? But Hyoyeon had said—oh gosh—she had said Sangria is made of grapes. He sees it now. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t realise . . .”
“Did your friends trick you into drinking it?”
“I don’t think they meant to,” says Taeng in defence of Hyoyeon and Steph, although he was beginning to feel angry again. “They thought it was a joke. They laughed when I asked if it’s fruit punch. They said it’s fruit juice with a punch.”
“My King, you should not be spending time with people like them.”
“But they’re my friends.”
“They’re the wrong kind of friends. You’ve broken your promise because of them. And you’re bringing home this stray dog from nowhere—”
“He is not a stray dog. He is Steph’s dog. His name is Prince Fluffy.”
“Steph is the friend you went to Hyoyeon’s house with. I know she’s very pretty but it doesn’t mean she’s a good friend.”
Taeng’s nostrils flare. “I don’t think she’s a good friend just because she’s pretty. Steph is a good person and a very nice friend.”
“Who made you come home late and made you bring the dog home because her apartment forbids her from bringing in any dogs. And she’s one of the friends who made you drunk today. My King, I’m afraid allowing you to go to Soo Man High is a mistake.”
“No.” Taeng shakes his head violently and feels giddier. But despite that, he presses on to say, “It’s not a mistake. I was tricked because I’m too easy to trick. It’s my fault they managed to trick me.”
“My King, you should not be defending them after what they did to you.”
“Grandpa Kim, I need to learn about the world outside these palace walls. I know you want to protect me from bad things but there is so much to learn outside.”
“You’re learning the bad things, my King.”
“These things aren’t bad, Grandpa Kim. Steph isn’t bad. Hyoyeon isn’t bad. Prince Fluffy isn’t bad. I know who’s bad. I’ve met one. Ha Min. She’s not a good person. She looks nice but she isn’t.”
“Ha Min? Gim Ha Min?” Grandpa Kim shakes his head. “You couldn’t be more wrong. Gim Ha Min is the principal’s daughter. She’s a good girl.”
“She’s not so simple.”
Taking a step back, Grandpa Kim regards Taeng closely for a moment. “What has school done to you, my King? You have never raised your voice at me before, even though you have the power to do so. Yet here you are, raising your voice at me after attending school for a few days. Home schooling is still the best for you.”
“Grandpa Kim, please trust me. I know it might be hard to because I just broke my promise, but I’ve seen them with my own eyes and heard them with my own ears. I know who my friends are.”
“You don’t have enough experience, my King. You are too easily deceived.”
“Maybe you are right, Grandpa Kim. But if I stop going to school and stop being their friend, I will never learn, will I? You can’t protect me forever, Grandpa Kim.”
For the first time in Taeng’s life, Grandpa Kim does not have a reply ready for him. Instead, the elderly advisor inhales a slow, deep breath and sighs. A long moment later, their eyes meet.
“Very well, my King. You will continue to go to school as you wish.”
Taeng nods but his heart grows heavier as the elderly advisor turns and leaves the hall.