Now, Atsushi had a few reasons for not taking his family with him to Kusatsu castle. He wanted to be treated like any other person who attempted to obtain Kinshiro’s hand. He didn’t want old family ties getting in the way. He didn’t want this to turn into an official diplomatic visit. Kyoutarou nodded along as Ryouma listed off Atsushi’s reasons, and soon King Karurusu was again engulfed in the tale.
And he didn’t want his mother to see him like this, Atsushi reflected, as he dipped the leg of his pants in blood. He was in the forest just a few minutes’ ride from Kusatsu Palace, and he’d slain a deer—for his dinner, and he had planned to bring the carcass into the city and give it to someone. But as he’d gutted the deer, an idea had taken hold of him and he’d stripped his clothes and dyed them in the blood. Kinshiro wasn’t the only one counting—Atsushi knew the total was up to four hundred and ninety-three lives lost to this challenge. They deserved justice, and Atsushi was going to get it for them—hopefully by succeeding, but if not, by making a statement while becoming number four hundred and ninety-four.
So it was that Atsushi, Prince of Epinard, entered the city, clothes stained and dark, standing out drastically from the clean, bright streets he rode down. He garnered some attention, although yet another stranger riding towards the castle was hardly news anymore. When Atsushi reached the castle gates, he pulled his horse to a stop and just stared. By the gates was the life size version of Kinshiro’s declaration, the original that the golden prince had scribed and painted himself. It was beautiful and heartbreaking, for in the face Kinshiro had painted, Atsushi could see the loneliness hidden behind his proud gaze.
But on either side of the gate… Atsushi felt sick. Lining the walls were heads: set on top of it, hanging down from it—rows of gruesome reminders of all who had failed. The challenge did say that those who failed would lose their heads… but not this . Atsushi’s blood boiled as he considered the cruelty of the red king in making such a horrific display.
Karurusu gasped, But didn’t he know? Oh, he’d heard of it, of course, said Kyoutarou, but how could you comprehend something like this? In any case, Ryouma continued, Kinshiro’s father had never sat too high in Atsushi’s esteem, but he was even lower after this.
Atsushi squared his shoulders and rode up to the gates, announcing himself as Prince Atsushi of Epinard, here for an audience with the Red King. Although it had been some time since he was last at Kusatsu castle, and although his appearance was quite shocking, the guards recognised him and his claim and let him through. A stable boy was called for his horse and a herald to escort him into the throne room.
Atsushi was careful to keep his head high and walk calmly through the palace, aware of how odd he looked (and smelled), but conscious too of the voice of En in the back of his mind—En, who would mock him mercilessly if he were here, En, who would tell him that since he was doing this, he better not screw it up. (He tried not to think of Kinshiro, who would be furious, but the hallways were full of memories...) Come back to us, don’t die. The last imagined words from En rang in Atsushi’s mind as he was shown into the throne room.
The Red King sat in hushed conversation with a few advisors, but they cut off quickly as Atsushi was announced. The King looked up, grinning and striding forward as he exclaimed, “Atsushi, my boy, what brings you here?” The mannerism of the booming, jolly, king that he tried to portray would probably work better were he not such a slight man, just like Kinshiro.
And if Atsushi had not just witnessed the heads hanging on the walls outside.
Atsushi stepped forward and bowed stiffly at the waist. As he straightened, he watched the smile fade from the king’s face. “What… what happened to you?”
Atsushi met his gaze levelly, “I’ve come on my own account to make a declaration, Highness, and a request. The first being that the way you have treated those who’ve attempted Aurite’s challenge is abhorrent, and that it needs to stop. You will take them down and return them to their families, or I shall.”
The king blinked, astounded at such forceful words from his son’s mild-mannered best friend. “And the request?”
Atsushi took in a deep breath, seeming to steel his resolve—
And what could be scarier than remonstrating the Red King?
You’ll see, shh .
—and then he pushed his glasses up, and smiled, “I’d like to ask your blessing as I try to reach Kinshiro.”
Still confused, the king asked him, “You mean, you want to write him? Or visit—I could send you with the messenger boy if you—”
“No, I’m going to take his challenge. If I succeed, I’ll see you soon. But if I fail, I need you to promise me that I will be the last one. One way or another, this ends with me.”
So did the Kin g agree? Karurusu interrupted the telling with his question. Perched on his stool, holding a cookie with both hands, eyes shining with wonder, he looked very much like an otter, and Ryouma had to stifle a laugh at that image. Yes. He gave Atsushi his blessing and the promise that he’d be the last to try. He also promised to return the heads of the challengers to their families. The king insisted that Atsushi stay the night in the palace, so he did. He arose early the next morning, to set off for Aurite’s fortress. Like all the other challengers, his horse was kept at the palace, and he was shown the correct path to take.
What Atsushi didn’t know was that the little palace messenger boy had set out even earlier that morning with the week’s delivery for Kinshiro. Armed with a horse and a shorter route than the one the suitors were informed of, and having a mighty will to tell Kinshiro of this latest attempt, he made it that evening. The messenger boy came in through his secret door and called out, “Prince Aurite, sir?... Majesty?”
He sat down on the chaise lounge in the parlour and waited. Impressive as the fortress was, and two years though it had taken to build, it was not large, with only six rooms and a yard where Kinshiro could practice fencing and archery and ride his horse. He’d been an excellent archer before, but after this year, he was exceptional. The prince wasn’t in the yard, the boy had checked, so he waited. After a few minutes, Kinshiro entered the room. “Megawa, what are you doing here? I didn’t expect you until tomorrow.”
“I know, I know,” the boy nodded, “But I had to tell you. There’s another suitor coming. He came to the castle to demand justice for all the others who tried, and to ask your father’s blessing on his attempt.”
“That’s unusual,” Kinshiro mused.
“Yes, but there’s more. He made your father promise that he will be the last. That no matter if he succeeds or fails, no one else will fall to Aurite’s challenge.”
Kinshiro sat down heavily, fussing with his sleeve, “And… did he agree?”
Megawa nodded vigourously, “And his top three advisors were there, so if he backed down he would look bad.”
Kinshiro was flooded with gratitude and relief, and found himself pushing back tears. “And who is this man who could convince my father?”
The smile faded from the messenger boy’s face as he said, “Truth be told, Prince Kinshiro, his identity is the real reason I raced up here as fast as I could.”
Suddenly on guard, Kinshiro leaned forward as he asked, “Who?”
Taking a deep breath, Megawa met the golden prince’s gaze as he said, “Prince Atsushi of Epinard.”
Kinshiro felt like the earth had dropped from beneath him.
Atsu! But if he failed—but if he succeeded— but if he failed —Finding it hard to breathe in the small parlour, Kinshiro stood up and moved through the hallway, into his training room, where he paced back and forth. Megawa watched quietly from the doorway, unsure if there was something he could do.
After a few minutes, Kinshiro noticed him watching, and said, “Ah, you can go get yourself food, and of course stay tonight. I need to be alone, but I’ll see you off in the morning.” The boy nodded and left Kinshiro to his own devices.
Kinshiro paced a few minutes more, watching his shadow flicker across the window as the sun set. Finding no rest, he picked up his fencing foil and began running through some exercises. Ever pragmatic, he stretched before moving into his full workout.
Though his movements were steady—lunge, parry, tap the dummy—his thoughts were roiling. Atsu couldn’t come, he’d never succeed. Lunge. He’d never bested Kinshiro in archery or fencing or any sport. Parry. And the guardians were enchanted. Stab. Atsu didn’t know magic. Step. Astu had never bested Kinshiro in fencing and his guardians were swordsman. Lunge. They’d always been tied up academically. Parry. The only thing Atsushi had ever bested him at was probably pure goodness. Step back. That was why he was doing this, probably. Lunge. There was no way Atsu actually wanted to— Stab. Stab. Stab. This whole thing was awful, but if Atsushi— The fencing foil clattered to the floor and Kinshiro stared at it.
If Atsushi died, he would never forgive himself.
All of the deaths on his head, but Atsushi’s would be one more than he could bear. Kinshiro picked up his foil and put it away, then went to the kitchen for some water before he retired to his room.
Megawa was almost ready to sleep in the room next door when he felt that he should go check on the prince one more time. Kinshiro was sitting at his desk, writing furiously, hair a mess and obviously upset. Megawa felt his heart break a little to see his prince in such distress and he crept away, aware of his intrusion on this private pain.
The next morning, Megawa walked into the kitchen to eat some breakfast before he started back for the castle. He found the prince sitting at the table, staring at a stack of letters. Megawa recognised the dark green seal on some of them as being from the prince of Epinard. Knowing he might regret it, but that he couldn’t leave Prince Kinshiro stewing in his thoughts, he spoke. “Those are from Prince Atsushi, right? That’s… more than came this year.”
Kinshiro blushed, faintly. “Ah… yes. I’ve never thrown away a letter from Atsushi—and I brought them all with me.” He huffed a laugh, “It’s silly, I know.”
Megawa shook his head, “No, I think it’s nice. … Are… are you glad that he’s trying?”
Kinshiro sighed heavily, ruffling through the stack of letters. “I’d rather Atsushi succeeded than anyone else on this planet. But the thought that he might not....” A shudder ran through him.
“I think you need to have some faith in him,” Megawa smiled, trying to be encouraging.
“Yes, well…” Kinshiro pulled back into himself, a thin veneer of haughtiness settling over his expression. “Do you fence?” Megawa nodded, and Kinshiro issued a command: “Stay the next few days. I need a fencing partner.” Megawa only wanted to be of service to his country and his prince, and he readily agreed.
Atsushi reached the fortress three days after the messenger boy had, after enduring a gruelling journey on a winding mountain trail. It was clearly marked and well trodden. For each one who had tried and failed, were three more who had walked the path but turned back before reaching the guardians of Aurite’s fortress. Atsushi was moving at a good pace—now that seeing Kinshiro again was so close, there was nothing that could hold him back.
As he passed the trees, it almost seemed that the whole forest was on fire. Atsushi had come in autumn, his favourite time in Kusatsu, supposing that if he were on a possible death mission anyway, he might as well come and see the red kingdom in all its glory.
Atsushi came around a bend in the path and stopped abruptly. There before him was Aurite’s fortress. Nestled between two impregnable cliffs, a wall three times as tall as Atsushi barred the way forward. It was made of a shiny dark purple stone that Atsushi had never seen before. There was no sign of a gap or a doorway of any kind—just irregular stonework fit perfectly together in that style particular to Kusatsu Kingdom, with no mortar. Atsushi saw no guardians, but put a hand to his amulet and whispered a prayer to the gods as he continued slowly forward.
Just as he was one hundred metres off from the fortress, a matched pair of statues suddenly blocked his way. Cut from a pale blue stone, painted exquisitely, they moved with an unnatural grace. Truly, an excellent enchantment. “Halt, traveller,” they ordered, pulling out swords and crossing them in the path, “What brings you here?”
Atsushi knelt as he said, “I have come seeking entrance to Aurite’s fortress.”
The statues nodded, unimpressed—could statues have emotions? “And for what motive come you forth?”
Atsushi simply said, “I love him.”
The guardians blinked, ruby coloured eyes showing confusion as they pondered an answer they had never before received. “Then let the challenge begin.” They unsheathed their swords and took a combative stance.
Atsushi watched them carefully as he unsheathed his own sword, unsure which of the guardians would make the first move. The statue on his left, one with an emblem of the sun painted across its shoulder, lunged at him first. Atsushi met the blow calmly, keeping an eye on the other guardian. It seemed content to watch the battle for the time being. He focused all his efforts on the guardian he was fighting, and then he saw a swing coming in from his periphery. Just barely blocking it, he backed up several steps as the guardians began to laugh.
“You have to feel it, peasant,” the one with the sun on its shoulder said, advancing towards him menacingly.
The other guardian, with a complementary moon emblem, stalked forward even quicker, saying, “He hasn’t got the touch.” An eerie laugh sounded from them both, in perfect synchronicity, and then they charged him again.
Atsushi found himself facing a flurry of blows, and he fed the rage he felt into his defense. These stone guardians were mocking him! Parrying angrily, he looked for some sign of weakness, anything that would help him to defeat the guardians. There was nothing.
The fight wore on, and Atsushi began to be weary. “Oh, it looks like he shan’t make it, what a pity.” The moon guardian commented to its match.
“Yes, boy, are we to add you to our list?” The sun guardian raised its blade. Atsushi was breathing heavily as he watched them approach, and then a sudden bolt of clarity struck him. The amulet. He fought to calm his racing pulse, reaching to connect to the magic in the world around him. A smile crossed his face as the stone statues approached him, which seemed to give them pause.
“Winds of truth, reveal! Epinard hurricane!” Atsushi shouted the phrase with all the energy he could muster, and a powerful wind rushed from behind him, rustling through all of the trees and blasting past the guardians. As the wind hit them, their movements slowed and stopped, and they froze.
Cautiously, Atsushi walked forward to confirm what he hoped: the guardians were mere stone once more. As he approached, he could see the vibrantly painted statues in more detail, including the fine designs on their clothing. A strange inspiration came over him as he inspected them, and he took his sword carefully and stabbed it into the center of the sun, and then the moon. Both guardians crumbled into dust.
Atsushi warily continued to the wall, but nothing else appeared to hinder his way. Sheathing his sword, he sat on the ground with his back against the wall. He traced the amulet as he rested, considering what still lay before him. With the king met and the guardians defeated, that meant he just had to gain access to the fortress and then solve Kinshiro’s riddles. He sat for some time, but eventually climbed to his feet again.
The respite had been nice, but Atsushi was excited to see Kinshiro. And scared. Kinshiro was going to be annoyed at him—furious that he hadn’t told him… But, well, he’d succeeded—or he would, if he found the door. And the riddles… Focus.
Atsushi paced slowly back and forth down the length of the wall, looking for a seam or a handle, something to give away the location of the entry. Over an hour passed, the sun was setting, and he hadn't found anything.
Dejected, he sank to the ground, leaning against the smooth stone of the wall. The first stars were appearing in the sky, and Atsushi smiled to see the outline of the two princes glittering above him. He hadn’t seen them properly in quite some time... Ah, and the hedgehog, the wombat…
Atsushi looked again at the two princes, tracing the bright line of stars that made up their shoulders. He traced the line with his eyes, following it straight down to… a spot in the wall. In the wall! Atsushi leapt up and centered himself on the path, then looked again at the line of the princes’ shoulders, still pointing at the wall, but… Seeking inspiration, Atsushi cast his eyes again to the sky and saw the judge—his brightest stars were in his arm, and Atsushi followed the line to see where it intersected with the line of the two princes. Atsushi walked to the spot with determination, even knowing he’d been past it at least three times already.
But it was different now; this would be it. It was utterly whimsical of him, but somehow he had a feeling that he’d landed on Kin’s reasoning. Checking his lines again, he turned and inspected the wall carefully. He couldn’t see anymore, but… maybe he didn’t need to. He closed his eyes and ran his hands over the wall slowly, searching for imperfections or seams.
The mocking voices of the guardians came back to him. “You have to feel it.” “He hasn’t got the touch!” Ugh. They’d really ticked him off, but… there! His thumb caught on an indent he hadn’t seen in the light. Carefully, he traced its outline, finding three similar indents—they reminded him of a four-leaf clover. The reminder of their summers together in Epinard made him hopeful that perhaps Kin wouldn't be too cross with him. Atsushi pressed gently on the indents, and they split apart as an opening appeared in the wall.
Atsushi walked confidently through, but couldn’t help the shudder that ran down his back when he heard the wall shut behind him. From the light of the moon and the stars, Atsushi could make out the outline of two small buildings. Fortress, indeed! One of the buildings had a light burning in a window, so he strode toward it, suddenly immensely nervous. He paused before the door and took a deep breath, then raised his hand and knocked four times.
A few moments passed and then the door swung open, flooding Atsushi with light. He blinked as his eyes adjusted and he saw Kinshiro standing there before him. All the things he had thought to say fled his mind, and he merely raised one hand in a wave, saying, “Hi.”
Kinshiro shook, his head, “Atsu, you idiot, get in here.” He grabbed the dark-haired prince and pulled him into the building, shutting the door behind him. Atsushi had no time to react before Kinshiro punched him in the shoulder. “I can’t believe you did this! You could have died .”
Atsushi took a half step back, offering, “Yeah, but…. I didn’t.”
A scowl crossed Kinshiro’s face. “Do you know what a mess I would have been if you had died!” He stepped closer to Atsushi, glaring at him ferociously.
Faced with Kinshiro’s wrath, Atsushi did the only thing he could think of and gathered him into a hug, saying, “Hey, hey, now, I wasn’t going to…”
Kinshiro buried his face in Atsushi’s shoulder and said again, softer, “Do you know what a mess I would have been if you had died?”
Atsushi rubbed his back, feeling his own eyes well up with tears as he heard Kinshiro sniffle into his shoulder and felt him trembling. “I’m so sorry, Kin. I didn’t want you to worry.”
The silver-haired prince pulled back to glare at him again, “And that’s why you didn’t tell me? Idiot.” Atsushi let him go and Kinshiro grabbed his hand to pull him through to the kitchen, saying, “C’mon, we kept a plate of dinner for you.”
“My messenger boy, Megawa, is here too. He’s the one who told me you were trying.”
“Ah.” The kitchen was bright and pleasant, with a fire burning and a small table. A young boy was pulling a pan of food off of the fire and as Atsushi watched he served it onto a plate. “There’s only two chairs?” Atsushi observed, and the boy turned around, smiling.
“Oh, that’s alright. I don’t need one.” He set the plate on the table and continued, “Prince Kinshiro, I’ll be sleeping in the parlour, okay? Prince Atsushi can have the other bed.” So saying, he bowed slightly before leaving the room, tossing one last grin at Kinshiro.
Kinshiro sat in one of the chairs, gesturing to the plate and the other chair, as he said, “Go ahead, eat.”
Kinshiro shook his head as Atsushi sat down, “No, Megawa and I ate about an hour ago. Thirsty?” Atsushi nodded and Kinshiro fetched two cups and filled them with wine. One he gave to Atsushi and the other he kept for himself. The prince of Epinard took a few bites, commenting on how good the food was, then a silence settled between the two of them as he ate.
As the silence stretched out, Kinshiro’s anger faded—he hadn’t really been mad anyway, just worried. But, he wondered, how does one talk to the best friend one is in love with, when they haven’t seen one in a few years and when one is responsible for almost five hundred deaths since? Also, when one is unsure of the motivations for said best friend in even being here? He really was trying not to hope that Atsushi returned his feelings—that was such an unattainable star.
As Atsushi finished eating, he looked up and caught Kinshiro’s eye, “So… I guess I take you back to Kusatsu Castle now, right?” He pushed his glasses up, endearingly uncertain. “You… do want to go back?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Kinshiro hurried to reply. “We can go back tomorrow—we’ve got horses.”
“And I had to walk up here? Hills.” Atsushi leaned back, smiling.
“You know me; I never make anything easy.”
“No, you certainly do not.” The look in Atsushi’s face changed somehow, but before Kinshiro could identify it, he stood up, “Umm, should I put this…?” He gestured at the dish in front of him.
“No, no, Megawa will take care of it…” Kinshiro stood as well, fidgeting. “I suppose you must be tired, I can show you to your room…”
Atsushi stared at the space in between them, unsure of what to do about it. “Actually… Would you show me around?”
Surprise crossed Kinshiro’s face, “Aren’t you tired?”
“Yes,” Atsushi shrugged, “But I want to see where you’ve been living before we go.”
Kinshiro smiled, “Sure. This,” he gestured around him, “is the kitchen. I’ve made all my meals here.” He pointed out a root cellar in the corner, the pump for running water, then led the way out of the kitchen. They walked back toward the front door, down the hallway and Kinshiro pointed out the washroom on the right, and then they entered the parlour where a low fire was burning. Atsushi realised this was the light that he had seen from outside. Megawa was sleeping on a long comfortable-looking couch, next to which was a small table with a few books on it. It seemed a comfortable room, if sparsely decorated. Dark wood floor—the same as in the rest of the building—a rug in between the couch and the fire, one other chair. There was no art on the walls, which struck Atsushi as odd. Kinshiro had always been a great appreciator of the arts.
As they left the room and crossed the hallway, Kinshiro gestured to their right, saying, “You know, of course, the door.” Atsushi chuckled, nodding.
Kinshiro pushed open a door directly in front of them, and as they entered the room he whispered a word. A small orb floating near the ceiling began to glow, casting a warm golden light over the room. Atsushi stopped just behind Kinshiro, not quite daring to touch him. The wall was covered in mirrors, a dummy stood in the center of the floor, and on the opposite wall were a few shelves, holding various pieces of equipment: fencing foils, masks, a quiver of arrows, an unstrung bow. “My practice room,” Kinshiro said, “I spend a lot of time in here.”
“Surely not shooting?”
“No, I have targets outside.”
“Ah.” Atsushi moved past Kinshiro and picked up the foils, extending one to Kinshiro, “Care for a bout, Kin?”
“But, surely you’re exhausted?”
“That food fixed me right up. And I want to see if I can beat you. I’ve been practicing.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, Kinshiro took the foil, backing up a few paces as he said, “We’ll go to first touch, then?”
Atsushi nodded, fixing his stance. “Ready when you are.” He brought his sword up, a serious look on his face, brow furrowed.
In all their years training together, Kinshiro had never seen him look so willing to fight. He mirrored Atsushi’s stance, a smile ghosting across his face as he said, “Begin.”
This time it was Atsushi who made the first move, catching Kinshiro off guard, but he parried the blow and the sparring began in earnest. Atsushi knew that he had improved immensely in the last few years, but Kinshiro was still as brilliant as ever. He lunged and parried expertly, moving with a grace Atsushi couldn’t help but admire, even as he returned the attacks. After several minutes of back and forth, Kinshiro launched a vicious offensive, a flurry of blows coming quickly, and Atsushi couldn’t keep up. Kinshiro feinted to the left and then tapped Atsushi’s open side when he blocked the strike that did not come. They stopped, breathing hard, and then Atsushi began to laugh.
“What,” Kinshiro snapped, “is so funny?”
Atsushi ran a hand through his hair, still grinning, “I just really thought I might beat you, but you’re as stellar as you ever were.”
Kinshiro averted his eyes, glad that the exertion had reddened his face and hid his blush as he took his foil and Atsushi’s and stowed them away. “But you’ve improved immensely. You really almost had me. If you hadn’t already fought today…”
Atsushi shook his head, “You still would have bested me.”
Kinshiro shrugged, “Well… anyway, I’ll show you the rest.” He held the door open for Atsushi, again whispering something to cause the orb to flicker our. As Atsushi walked past him, Kinshiro had to restrain himself from reaching for his hand again. Yes, Atsu had held him earlier and he had taken his hand for that instant—but he had been so overly emotional and Atsu was so clearly just responding to him. Kinshiro knew he wasn’t imagining the distance between them since dinner.
He moved down the hall to their right, back towards the kitchen, and stopped at the next door, pushing it open. “This is my room.” Atsushi stopped next to him, close enough that the back of his hand brushed Kinshiro’s. He felt Kin stiffen, but he was pleased that he didn’t move away.
The room was sparsely furnished: a bed, a chair, a table, two small shelves. A sliding screen covered what Atsushi assumed was the closet. Two beautiful paintings hung on the wall, stunning landscapes. “Wow, Kin, did you paint those?”
“Um, yes,” Kinshiro said, willing himself to breathe evenly, but Atsushi was touching his hand, did Atsushi even realise, “I did. Something to remind me of home.”
Atsushi looked again at the pictures after Kinshiro’s admission. One was a stunning view of the mountains surrounding the castle in autumn, alight as if on fire with the brilliant reds of all the trees. The other was of a night sky with the two princes right in the center. Atsushi realised it was the view from the rooftop of Kusatsu castle. The hope in Atsushi’s chest burned a little brighter at that, and he couldn’t hold back a smile. “They’re really good, Kin. Really good.”
“Yes, well… I had a lot of free time.” Kinshiro smiled ruefully, stepping away from the door, “C’mon, I’ll show you your room.” Atsushi felt a hand brush his back as Kinshiro walked past him, and his heart fluttered at the touch.
Kinshiro moved down the hall to the last room in the fortress, across from the kitchen and next to Kinshiro’s room. “This is the extra room,” he said as he opened the door, “It’s where Megawa sleeps when he comes, usually.” He glanced at Atsushi and smiled, “He cleared out for you, though.”
Atsushi fidgeted with his glasses, “He didn’t have to do that. I could have—”
“But he did. Don’t worry about it.” Kinshiro hesitated and looked away. “Anyway. You’re welcome to use the washroom if you want. I’m sure you’re tired and we probably should leave early tomorrow. It’s… it’s late.”
Atsushi could feel Kinshiro throwing up his walls again, and the doubt in him welled up, that Kinshiro didn’t feel the same way, and didn’t want him to be there, and didn’t want to go with him, and didn’t want… him. “Kin, I…”
Atsushi couldn’t read Kinshiro’s expression, and after a moment he shook his head. “Never mind. I’ll just wash up… Ummm, do you want me to get you when the room is free?”
He nodded, “Sure. I’ll be in my room, just knock.”
Atsushi went and fetched his bag from the kitchen before entering the washroom. He ran the pump into the basin, splashed some water on his face and took the comb from his bag to run it through his hair. He noticed a pile of rags and stripped his shirt off, using the rough soap to give himself a quick scrub down. Although they had let him take a full bath at Kusatsu palace, he still felt as though he could feel the blood on his skin. Atsushi shuddered as he scrubbed at his arms.
What a violent flight of fancy that was—thank heavens Kin hadn’t seen him like that—what was he do do about Kin, he couldn’t force him into a marriage, he wouldn’t, but—Atsushi grimaced at the thought of letting go of Kinshiro, pressing a hand to his heart to ward off the pain. He grabbed another rag to dry himself then gathered his things. He crossed the hall to Kinshiro’s room and tapped on the door gently. “Hey Kin, I’m done. Will you… will you come talk to me for a minute before you retire?”
The door opened as Atsushi finished speaking, and Kinshiro began, “Of course, Atsu, I…” he trailed off, seeming to forget himself and blinked at Atsushi.
Atsushi was struck again by the green of Kinshiro’s eyes, how his silver hair framed his face. Without realising it, they began leaning closer to each other, and Atsushi’s breath caught in his throat. “Kinshiro…” he said, dreamily—and at that, Kinshiro seemed to come back to himself.
Blushing furiously, he moved past Atsushi to the washroom, snapping, “Put a shirt on, will you? You’re indecent!” Atsushi glanced down at himself and a matching flush burned on his face as he moved back to the messenger’s bedroom. Kinshiro watched him go, unable to stop himself from appreciating his finely sculpted abs and the muscles in his back. Apparently, all that fencing practice had paid off.
Atsushi found the other room to be even more sparsely furnished than Kinshiro’s, with only a bed and a small table next to it. The room was lit by a golden orb like the one in the fencing room; he would have to ask Kinshiro for the command word. A window was set in one wall, and next to it was another of Kinshiro’s paintings. Moving closer, Atsushi saw that it was the mountain range that divided Kusatsu and Epinard, viewed from the Kusatsu side. A rising sun lit the pass over the mountains, shining through from Epinard. He stared at it awhile, then Kinshiro’s voice came back to him, “Put a shirt on, will you?” Atsushi set his pack on the table, then pulled his undershirt on. He sat on the edge of the bed and pushed off his boots and socks, then lay back, gazing at the ceiling.
It was just a few minutes later that Kinshiro came and stood in the doorway. “What did you need, Atsu?”
Atsushi raised one hand, holding up two fingers as he said, “Two things. First, what’s the command word for your enchanted orb?”
“You just clap once.”
“You have an enchanted orb that functions without a command word?” Atsushi had never heard of such a thing.
Kinshiro shrugged, “I had a lot of free time.”
Atsushi chuckled, “You keep saying that.” He sat up then, and came to stand in the doorway, across from Kinshiro.
Kinshiro’s breath caught at the proximity. “And the second?”
Atsushi took in a deep breath, seeming to steel himself, and then met Kinshiro’s gaze head-on. “I… I don’t know where you stand, Kin, I only know that I couldn’t bear to leave you in suffering here if there was anything I could do about it. And I just… I want you to know that I made your father promise I would be the last, regardless of if I succeeded. And that even if I pass those riddles when we’re back at the palace, you don’t... have to feel obligated to marry me. You’re my best friend, Kin. I just want you to be happy.” Kinshiro listened to this speech in growing amazement, but before he could reply, Atsushi put a hand on his cheek. Kinshiro stopped breathing and his eyes fluttered closed as Atsushi leaned in. He pressed a gentle kiss to Kinshiro’s forehead and then stepped back. “Goodnight, Kinshiro.”
“Night,” he managed to answer as Atsushi closed the door. Kinshiro sank to the ground, leaning on the wall next to Atsushi’s door, trying to process what had just happened. Atsushi didn’t know how he felt. Atsu wanted him to be happy. Atsu… didn’t want to marry him? How did Atsu feel? Atsushi had kissed him! On the forehead, but… Kinshiro had thought he was really going to kiss him and he was going to let him! On the forehead—was it a goodbye sort of thing? Or more platonic? Or…
Kinshiro groaned and rested his head on his arms, which were wrapped around his knees, and his thoughts swirled relentlessly. Some time later, he heard a clap from the other side of the door and the golden light seeping out from beneath the door blinked out. Coming to himself, Kinshiro rose and made his way to his own bedroom, where he put on a nightshirt and got into bed.
No more at ease than he had been in the hall, he couldn’t help but think of Atsushi in the next room over, only three meters away—what a distance that felt like. His thoughts kept circling around to Atsushi’s hand on his face and how softly he had kissed him. Atsu had kissed him… holding on to that thought and the warm glow he felt inside, Kinshiro drifted off to sleep.