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The Red King

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On the fourth day came King Karurusu to the red dome.

There sat two of his advisors: Kyoutarou, in a brilliant white garment accented in red, and Ryouma, similarly dressed but with a dark orange colour. Or more accurately: Ryouma sat, on a plush chair, reading a book. Kyoutarou was stretched out nearby on a burgundy chaise lounge with his eyes closed—perhaps napping, perhaps merely blocking out the world. Karurusu could never tell. “Hello,” he greeted them cheerfully as he approached.

Ryouma looked up and smiled as he put his book down, gesturing for King Karurusu to take a seat. There were a number of stools and chairs spread around the room, and Karurusu grabbed a nearby stool and pulled it up in front of the two Knights of Happiness. “How may we serve you today, Your Highness?” Ryouma asked.

“I’d like you to tell me a story!”

Kyoutarou roused himself at that, “What kind of story?”

“A happy one!” Karurusu beamed.

“Of course…” Kyoutarou settled in again, but the look on his face was contemplative.

“Of course,” Ryouma repeated, “Just let me go fetch us some tea.”

As Ryouma bustled away, Karurusu looked around the dome, admiring it. The red dome was painted on the outside a brilliant crimson, and the inside was alive with colour. The floor and the walls were a warm cream stone, while the various chairs and couches in the main room were upholstered in shades of reds and dark oranges, boldly filling the room. The few tables were of dark wood and there was a mural on one wall, painted in coordinating browns, scarlets, and pumpkin. On the opposite wall, a large window overlooked the beautiful countryside of Honyala. One side of the room had a doorway with gauzy orange curtains which led to Ryouma’s private room, and an identical doorway on the other side with red curtains for Kyoutarou. Karurusu had a sneaking suspicion that Kyoutarou slept in the main room on the couches most of the time, finding it too much effort to move.

Karurusu kicked off his sandals to bury his toes in the sumptuous woven rug on the floor. Ryouma returned then, balancing a tray of tea, and asked Kyoutarou to pull up a table for them. He yawned as he arose, running a hand through his tousled lilac hair as he complied with Ryouma’s request. With the table and the tea set prepared, Ryouma returned to his armchair and Kyoutarou to his chaise lounge. “So, Kyou, what do you think we should tell?”

“Aahh, I was thinking of the Red King.”

“Ah, that’s a good one.” Ryouma handed Karurusu and Kyoutarou a cup of tea and a cookie each, then paused. A far away look came into his eyes as he began.

In a distant land were two neighbouring kingdoms. The red kingdom of Kusatsu was powerful and wealthy and well-respected, and their only prince was named Kinshiro, often called the golden prince Aurite. The small kingdom of Epinard was known for the kindness of its people, and its prince was known only by his name: Atsushi. The two princes had met as young boys, quickly becoming best friends, and that, dear King, is where our story begins.

Seeing as the kingdoms of Epinard and Kusatsu were only separated by a mountain range, and that they had always had good diplomatic relations, the two young princes saw each other often. When they were nine years old, a very special arrangement was made. In the spring, Prince Atsushi was sent to study at Kusatsu Castle with his friend Prince Kinshiro. Both boys were ecstatic, and although they knew there was some diplomatic reason for it, they didn’t mind. Atsushi loved getting to know Kusatsu Kingdom, and Kinshiro’s tutors were incredible. They got to go on trips to explore the kingdom, learning about trade and culture and the world in general. Over the yearsAtsushi heard many explanations of why it was called the red kingdom: there were fields and fields of poppies in the countryside and peculiar trees that had dark red leaves all year and there were odd clay cliffs in the desert at the outer region of the kingdom.

But he found his favourite origin of the name early on in his months studying there. “Hey, Kin, can I ask a question?” Kinshiro looked up from the book he was reading and nodded. “Why is Kusatsu called the red kingdom? I haven’t found a reason yet…” Atsushi pushed his glasses up as he trailed off, a little embarrassed to ask such a silly question.

Kinshiro shut his book and put it down, leaning forward. “You want to see?” Atsushi nodded, and so it was that they spent the rest of the afternoon gathering items for a hike and a picnic dinner. Kusatsu Castle was nestled at the base of the foothills of a great mountain range, and it was away from these walls that the two young princes (with the requisite group of retainers) wandered, some distance into the forest.

Eventually, they came to a clearing on a small rise. There they sat and enjoyed their picnic, talking about their studies and the books they were reading, planning future adventures, until the sun was setting. Kinshiro looked back at Kusatsu Castle and grinned, “Atsu, look!”

He turned about and gasped at the sight before him. The treetops stretched back to the city, deep emerald glowing in the warm light. The city was beautiful, but it was the castle and the mountains behind it that held the gaze of the prince of Epinard. The brown stone of the castle was lit by the sunset and reflected a beautiful dark pink colour, while the mountains standing protectively over it were turned red from the sunset light. It was stunning.

“Wow Kin-kin!” In his excitement, Atsushi lapsed back into a nickname from when they were much smaller. “It’s incredible!” Kinshiro blushed faintly, pleased at his friend’s obvious delight. They sat in a comfortable silence, watching the sunset fade as shadows moved down the mountains and the last glint of sunlight gleamed off the windows in the city.

Darkness fell and Atsushi laid back on the grass, spreading his arms wide and laughing, “Kin! Look at the sky!” Kinshiro laid down too, next to Atsushi, and they stared at the stars spreading across the deep blue above them. The sky was, Kinshiro noted, precisely the same colour as Atsushi's hair. “Look! The dancer! We can’t see her in Epinard, the mountains are always in the way!” Atsushi pointed up at the sky to trace the stars in the constellation he was talking about.

“And over here is the judge! He’s my favourite,” Kinshiro pointed too. Thus began their stargazing tradition. Many nights found the princes slipping out onto the roof of the castle to view the heavens, telling and retelling the myths surrounding the constellations and making up new ones. Kinshiro was better at drawing the lines between the stars to find new images, while Atsushi was better at declaring the legends to explain the hedgehog, the wombat, the two princes (that one was their favourite of all their creations, though perhaps they wouldn’t admit it), the diamond, the clover…. As the months wore on, the night sky filled with their private constellations.

Autumn came, and Atsushi saw yet another side of the red kingdom. In Epinard, the trees were golden and orange and brown and crimson, but in Kusatsu somehow all the leaves turned scarlet and red and maroon and crimson and it was beautiful. “Kin,” Atsushi asked one night as they lay on a hill, looking at the stars, “How is it that all your trees turn red in the fall?”

“I don’t really know, Atsu,” Kinshiro said, “But we have a legend about a sorcerer who enchanted them after a terrible war. He said that the red leaves on the ground ought to be reminder enough of the blood that had been spilt in Kusatsu Kingdom and warning to never enter a war again.”

“Well, that’s depressing,” Atsushi said.

“Yeah, it is... But we haven’t seen war in Kusatsu Kingdom for almost two hundred years now, so I suppose it worked.”

Atsushi laughed at that—such a pragmatic response was so like Kinshiro! Just then, a shooting star streaked across the sky and Atsushi exclaimed, “Oh, make a wish!” He shut his own eyes tightly for a moment and Kinshiro did the same. 

“What’d you with for, Atsu?”

“I… I wished to be a hero one day.”

“That’s so childish!”

“But I am a child!” The grin on Atsushi’s face was genuine and unabashed. “What about you?”

Kinshiro blushed, “I just… wished that we would always be together.”

Impulsively, Atsushi reached over and grabbed his hand, “We will be Kinshiro! We’ll always be friends!” Kinshiro smiled, and the two boys sat in a happy silence. Nine was far too old to be holding hands, but for that evening, neither of them minded.

It wasn’t too long after that when Atsushi had to return home for the winter. He missed his home, with his parents and his older sister, and he did miss his friends in Epinard too. He was particularly excited to hear that one noble family, the Yufuins, were going to be spending the winter at Epinard Palace with the royal family. Kinshiro thought that Atsushi’s friend, Cerulean,or as Atsushi called him, En, sounded dreadfully lazy, but if he made Atsushi happy, that was what mattered.

So Atsushi went home for the winter. He tried to get En to go stargazing with him, but the other boy insisted that it was too much effort, and too cold, and the one time he did go, it just wasn’t the same. They couldn’t see the dancer, or the hedgehog, and they could only see the legs of the two princes. En just… didn’t get it. So Atsushi went without him, at night, while they passed daytime hours in studies and fencing practice and play. It was this winter that the two princes started up their correspondence, and it was Kinshiro who first closed a letter with, “Still stargazing, Kin”. That became their customary sign-off, something that gained meaning as the years went on.

For the years did go on. For the next several years, the pattern continued, of the princes studying together during the year. The next year, Kinshiro came to Epinard, and the year after that Atsushi went to Kusatsu again, and so on. In Kusatsu, they passed the summers in study and stargazing, and in Epinard they searched for four-leafed clovers and built secret hideaways in the hills. Although they heard much of each other, En and Kinshiro never met in person, as En was only ever in Epinard’s capital during the winter, when Kinshiro never was.

Ryouma said the trouble started when Prince Kinshiro was fifteen, which was the first year Atsushi hadn’t been invited back to study in Kusatsu again. Kyoutarou lifted his head to add, Though it had been brewing for many years before that, huh Ryoukins? He looked at King Karurusu, continuing, Kinshiro was clever, you see, and beautiful, and hard working, well-educated… He trailed off, settling his head on his arms, and Ryouma took over again, That’s true. The seeds had been there for a long time. King Karurusu leaned forward, listening intently, eyes shining.

When Prince Kinshiro was fifteen years old, offers of marriage started coming. Royalty and nobility from many lands had heard of his beauty and his talents. The wealth of Kusatsu kingdom certainly didn’t help either, and the golden prince was soon overwhelmed. Perhaps the decision would have been different if he had talked it over with Atsushi, but they hadn’t seen each other in person for several months, busy with princely duties in their kingdoms. Kinshiro had only his father to discuss it with, and so embarked on a project that took over two years to complete. During this time, he saw Atsushi only infrequently for diplomatic exchanges, although they maintained their regular correspondence.

So it was that Atsushi found out with the rest of the world what Kinshiro had done. One day when they were seventeen, En, now his personal advisor, brought Atsushi a notice, asking if he’d seen it, saying, “Apparently the original is life-sized, hanging next to the gates of Kusatsu Castle.”

Atsushi took it with interest, noting first the beautiful, full body portrait of Kinshiro in a striking black uniform, which took up the right side of the page. He gazed at the image for a few seconds, its emerald eyes almost shining at him, before he read the text. As he read, his face grew ashy and he began to tremble. Upon finishing, he spoke, but his voice sounded strange, distant, in his ears, “En, did you read this? How… how could he?” So saying, Prince Atsushi tossed the scroll on the table and left the room. En looked again at the portrait of Prince Kinshiro, haughty and cold on the paper, and read the words accompanying it.

To any who wish to take my hand

In matrimony wedded

Beware—take care—fulfill my wish

Or find yourself beheaded

Be brave—have courage—let no moth

Gazing at the light come

No cowards, only brave souls with

A thousand lives, not one

Set forth upon this treach’rous road

Fulfill my conditions four

That first, your fame is equal mine,

Your beauty just as sure;

Second, through knowledge gained

Best the guardians on this road;

And third, once free of guardians,

Find the portal of my abode

That who comes unto me

Comes not by roof but by door;

And my fourth condition is return:

That I come unto my father’s court

And question you on learnéd themes

Which you must answer fittingly,

And then I’ll wed that honoured soul

For Aurite promises faithfully.

Hold this admonition in esteem

And find the alchemy of happiness.

But understand you not my words,

Though great now, you’ll soon be less!

To any who wish to take my hand

In matrimony wedded

Beware—take care—fulfill my wish

Or find yourself beheaded

 

En had read it before, but he still couldn’t believe it. He had never personally met the golden prince, but from what Atsushi said about him, he seemed like a decent guy. En sighed and ran a hand through his hair before following Atsushi from the room. This wasn’t going to go over well with him.

En came into Atsushi’s study to find him shuffling papers at his desk, glasses askew and hair mussed up. “By the hills of Epinard, Atsu, you’ve only been two minutes alone and you’re a disaster.”

Atsushi let out an exasperated noise, thrusting a handful of papers at his friend. “Look at these!”

En glanced down to see precise script, which he recognised as Prince Kinshiro’s. “This is your personal correspondence with Aurite?”

“Yes,” Atsushi seethed, “And look at this! I haven’t seen him for months because he’s been busy overseeing the building of a stronghold in the mountains—a personal project he was so proud of.” Sarcasm dripped from his tone. “And it’s a death trap!” He stopped, shoulders shaking.

En flicked through the letters, unsure what to do with Atsushi’s rage; he was so rarely worked up about anything. “Do you… do you think you can change his mind?”

Atsushi laughed, bitterly, “Change the mind of the golden prince of Kusatsu kingdom? Impossible. His father must have agreed to it, and the word of the red king is law. They’re too proud to ever go back on anything they’ve said. No…” He slumped, fixing his glasses, and suddenly all the fire had gone out of him. “No, I better not say anything. Maybe I’ll wait a while before I write him back.”

Atsushi turned to leave the room, but En grabbed his shoulder. “Oh no you don’t, prince-of-avoiding-confrontation, you sit down and write him back now. Just… reply to whatever he’s told you last and tell him you know about his… announcement.” Atsushi let En shove him back into his chair and hand him a quill and a sheet of parchment. “I’ll read it over when you’re done, alright?” With that, En moved to sit in the windowsill, leaning into the sunlight and closing his eyes. Atsushi smiled to himself—how like En to decide he’d done enough work and it was time for a nap. He looked at the blank page in front of him and the smile slid from his face as he considered what to write to his oldest and dearest friend.


Atsushi and En were fencing. They’d been practicing almost daily since En had been invited to the palace as Atsushi’s personal advisor when they were fifteen, but En had noticed a fire in Atsushi’s gaze in the last few months. He had a sinking feeling that he knew why, and he decided to put it to the test. “Atsu… been working… hard.”

Atsushi parried En's strike, “Yeah.” He struck at his friend, “So?”

En had underestimated the effort it would take to speak while fencing, but he persisted as he blocked Atsushi's flurry of blows. “You're trying… Aurite’s fortress.” Atsushi froze at that and En took the opportunity to tap him on the chest. “Point.”

Atsushi shoved his visor up, smiling ruefully, “And that's the match. You've bested me again.”

En moved to lean against the wall, saying, “Don't dodge my question.”

Atsushi stared at En as a flush crept up his cheeks. "What do you mean by that?"

En shrugged, saying, "Just that I know you've had your eye on Kinshiro for years. What's a best friend for if not to notice that sort of thing."

Atsushi rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, searching for something to say, but En just pulled his visor back down and took up a stance, ready to start another match. Atsushi mirrored him, grateful to avoid the conversation for the moment. En was right, of course. Atsushi had known for some time that what he felt for Kinshiro was more than friendship. Part of him had been hoping Kinshiro would say something, do something, because Atsushi thought he might feel the same way too... But then this whole business with the fortress. The death contest. What was Atsushi supposed to do with that? His brow furrowed in grim concentration as he parried En’s blows.


Kinshiro was lonely, up in his fortress. Somehow, this hadn’t turned out at all how he’d expected. He had just been so frustrated with all the marriage offers, the pressure from his father, all the people who only wanted his pretty face and his kingdom. In desperation, he’d proposed this plan, and his father had agreed. Kinshiro had been young and impulsive and also fairly certain that no one would actually attempt it. They’d all forget about him. He had been stupidly, painfully wrong. All these thought swirled in Kinshiro’s mind as he stared at the latest brief from his father—a bit about the kingdom, economy, events, and at the end, almost as an afterthought, “Another eight failed in the last two weeks.”

Just over a year he’d been in this tower, with no company but the royal messenger boy, whose twice weekly visits brought food, correspondence, and books. Just over a year, and with eight more, that brought the total to… four hundred and ninety-three. Almost five hundred deaths he was guilty of.

There had been many, at the start. Those royals and nobles he had met in person, who were sure they could get past his guardians—but no one had bested those enchanted talismans yet. After their failures had come adventurers and peasants, men and women alike, anyone brave or desperate enough to try, foolish enough to think they could conquer, proud enough to stake their lives… The flood had slowed as no one succeeded, but still, they were many. And still coming.

Kinshiro wasn’t even sure where from anymore.

He rubbed his temples, setting his father’s missive aside to see what else the message boy had brought. A few letters from would-be suitors, trying to woo him out of his stronghold, which he shuffled past dismissively, until he found what he’d been hoping for: a letter from Atsushi, who was basically the only bright point in his life anymore. They hadn't seen each other since he’d become consumed with the fortress at sixteen, and he’d been living here over a year… He had just turned eighteen, so more than two years since they'd actually been in the same city. He opened it, excited to read, and saw just this:

Dear Kin,

I received your last letter. I’m sorry to hear that you’re so lonely. I wish I could be there. I’m sorry that I don’t have a lot of time to reply, everything is busy right now. I’m actually preparing to leave on a long trip—diplomatic relations, you know? So I’m afraid I won’t be able to reply to you for a month or so. Please write, I promise I’ll answer as soon as I can. I wish I could see you before I go. (I’m hoping I’ll see you soon.)

Yours, stargazing,

Atsu

Kinshiro couldn’t help but be disappointed that the note was so short, but he had to respect Atsushi for being so responsible to his kingdom. He’ll be a good king someday, Kinshiro thought, if only- but he caught himself and he blushed. No. That would never happen. Needing a distraction, Kinshiro rose, then went to his wardrobe and pulled out a light outfit for fencing. Having no partner for the last year hadn’t done him any favours; nonetheless, he practised most days, determined to keep his skills as sharp as possible.


“Atsu, are you sure you want to do this?” En surveyed the belongings spread out on Atsu’s desk, waiting to be packed in his bag.

“I have to. I sent Kin that letter, didn’t I?” Atsushi smiled grimly and picked up his second set of clothes, layering it at the bottom of his pack, then turning to the next item. “And anyway, En, you’ve known the whole time I was going to try. I’m not…” Atsushi pushed his glasses up, “I mean, I need…”

“I know, I know.” En laughed at his friend’s discomfort, “Just… remember what we know. Enchanted guardians, you’ll have to defeat them.” Atsushi nodded, placing an amulet around his neck and some packets of herbs in his bag as En rambled on, “And we’ve done all the research we could, and I think the counterspells we have should work, especially if you use that amulet to help you cast… and then there’s the matter of finding the door, but you know Prince Kinshiro better than anyone, so I’m sure you can figure it out. And then of course he’ll go back to Kusatsu Castle with you, and if you can’t pass that interview nobody can.”

Atsushi had long since finished packing, and he put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Cerulean, I know. It’ll be alright. I’ll be alright.”

En sighed and shoved his hands through his hair, saying, “Let’s go then. And don’t call me that, it’s too long.” They left Atsushi’s quarters together, making their way out of the palace. A horse was waiting in the courtyard for the prince, with two weeks worth of food. It would be one week to Kusatsu castle, and supposedly wasn’t more than a week from there to Aurite's fortress. They hadn’t talked about it, but En knew full well that there were no plans for a return journey. Also, he knew that Atsu wouldn’t need that much food anyhow; he never ate enough.

The king and queen of Epinard and Atsushi’s older sister were there to say goodbye to him. En hung back as Atsushi hugged his family goodbye. Words were exchanged, and En couldn’t hear them, but he saw the tears the whole family was holding back. Atsu got on his horse, riding slowly toward the gate and En walked with him. Just before the prince rode off the grounds, En put a hand on the horse’s bridle and looked up at him, “Hey, Atsushi.”

He started at his full name, which En never used. “Yes?”

“Just… come back, okay?”

Atsushi nodded firmly. “Look out for my family, most wise advisor.”

En scoffed at that, but he smiled as he replied, “Anything you command, my prince.” He dropped the bridle and stepped back, lifting one hand in a farewell. Atsushi matched the gesture before spurring his horse on and riding towards Kusatsu.

Someone came up beside En, and he turned to see Atsushi's sister with her arms crossed. “I know he has to approach the fortress alone, but really, couldn’t he have let us go with him to Kusatsu Castle?”

En matched her stance, saying seriously, “You know how he is―he would never want to put anyone out.” She nodded and En went on, “And besides, it would be too troublesome to go all that way.”

At that, just like En had hoped, she laughed. “Good to see you never change, En.” Together, they watched Atsushi fade into the distance. They stayed there, staring after him even after he crossed the horizon.