So it was that Atsushi found himself sitting in a room with the Red King, surrounded by piles of treasure, which he regarded disdainfully. He really, really, was not here for Kusatsu’s wealth. The king had seemed surprised when Kinshiro had strode into the throne room with Atsushi by his side—surprised that the prince of Epinard had survived. Atsushi had never been happier to prove someone wrong.
Kinshiro hadn’t even greeted his father properly before demanding access to the records so he could honour the dead. It had taken them several hours while the king prepared this room for Aurite’s final challenge. The treasure, apparently, was Atsushi’s reward. Kinshiro was in the room as well, but hidden behind a screen with an attendant. This left Atsushi, for all intents and purposes, alone with the red king.
He did his best to remain calm and meet the king’s scrutinising gaze levelly and somewhat arrogantly, daring the king to underestimate him, to assume he was still the child who used to study at Kusatsu Castle. He was pleased to see that the king didn’t exactly know what to do with him.
Emboldened by the king’s uneasiness, Atushi knew this would be the best opportunity he would find to confront the king about his lack of action regarding the fallen heroes.
“Why,” Atushi started, his voice quivering with rage, “Why had you not started to honour those who came before me in Aurite’s challenge? You had time to do something… anything .” Atsushi’s voice was tight, but he was too proud to cry in front of the king.
The red king didn’t know what to say. Until the Prince of Epinard came to his castle, covered in blood and declaring that he would be the last to attempt Aurite’s challenge, he had always thought the young prince was a pushover. To see this young man stand before him and criticise his decisions was astounding. He opened his mouth to respond, but before he could say anything Prince Atsushi began to speak again.
“I was gone for six days. When Kinshiro and I arrived this morning, you had done nothing . And yet, you didn’t have to watch the devastation on your son’s face as he saw the gruesome spectacle you turned his challenge into. Kin never wanted people to die. He wanted to be left alone, and you twisted that.” Atsushi paused here to catch his breath. The red king almost looked remorseful, but Atsushi wasn’t done yet.
“Kinshiro and I were able to return and honour all the heroes in a day . Did you not intend to keep your word?” Atsushi’s jaw clenched as he tried to steady his breathing. He had a feeling he had overstepped some boundaries, and that there was a decent chance the king would have him forcibly removed from the palace right then and there.
Somehow, he couldn’t find it in himself to care.
As the promise had been made in front of witnesses, and the king couldn’t risk his reputation, he had had every intention of returning the heroes’ heads to their homes. However, since he had thought that the Prince of Epinard would fail, it hadn’t been high on his list of priorities. Still, he knew he had to say something, but for the first time in a long while he couldn’t find his voice. When he spoke his tone was subdued. “I was going to get to it. There were other pressing issues I had to deal with, and I didn’t expect you to return.” There was a blatant pause before the king’s next words came out, “So soon.”
The silence that fell between them was uncomfortable. Atsushi kept his gaze steadily on the king, but the king was unable to keep eye contact for more than a few seconds.
Presently, the attendant came from behind the screen and announced that Prince Aurite was prepared to give his riddles.
“So,” the king said, turning to Atsushi, “Let us begin.”
A few moments later, the attendant came around from behind the screen, carrying a small golden pillow upon which were set two delicate pearls. Atsushi considered them a moment, then opened a nearby chest and began searching through it. He removed something, then continued looking. After a few minutes, he had looked through several piles of treasure, but he had found his prize. He placed three more pearls on the pillow with the two Kinshiro had sent out, and the attendant disappeared behind the screen again.
She watched her prince carefully as he received the pearls, but his face betrayed no expression. Kinshiro took the pearls and weighed them with care. Having determined that all five pearls were identical, he wrapped them in a cloth, took a hammer, and smashed them into a fine powder. He mixed the powder carefully into a small pile of sugar, which was sent out to Atsushi on a beautifully gilded plate.
Atsushi considered the sugar for a few moments, before an idea seemed to light up his eyes. The king watched curiously as Atsushi whispered to the attendant, who nodded, then left the room. A few minutes passed in a dead silence, with Atsushi staring up at the ceiling and tapping his fingers idly. He had a good feeling about what he was doing, but still, it was possible something could go wrong, or that Kin could misunderstand somehow… In any case, he pushed his doubts aside when the attendant returned with a glass of milk and a bowl of steaming curry. Atsushi grinned at her, then poured the sugar into the milk and gestured for her to take the curry and the milk back to Kinshiro.
Kinshiro had been sitting behind the screen, wondering what could be taking so long, and beginning to become anxious about Atsushi not being able to solve the riddles, when he heard the door open again and that unmistakable smell wafted into the room. Curry. His heart sank. Did Atsu somehow not know how much he hated curry? Had he misunderstood Kinshiro’s meaning? Was his father going to kill Atsushi because of curry?
Just then the attendant walked around the screen, and set a tray down in front of Kinshiro. On the tray was a bowl of curry—curry—and a glass of milk. When he saw the milk, Kinshiro let out a deep sigh of relief, hoping beyond hope that Atsushi had done what he expected. He pushed the bowl of curry aside, picking up the glass of milk and drinking it. A residue coated the bottom of the glass. With great care, Kinshiro cleaned the glass and weighed the residue, determining that it weighed precisely the same as the five pearls. Kinshiro pulled the silver ring from his finger and handed it to the attendant.
She walked around the screen, presenting to Atsushi again the golden pillow, upon which sat Kinshiro’s ring. Atsushi picked it up reverently, and slid it onto his finger. Again, he took to the treasure chests, searching through them carefully until he selected a beautiful pearl, unique in its fine quality. This he placed gently on the pillow, which the attendant then carried back to Kinshiro. The Prince of Kusatsu raised an eyebrow slightly, then turned to a long string of pearls resting on the table nearby. It had belonged to his mother, and now Kinshiro unstrung it with great care. He held each pearl up to the one Atsushi had sent him, setting each one aside when it didn’t quite measure up. Finally, one met Kinshiro’s standard, and he threaded it on a string with Atsushi’s pearl.
The attendant carried the pearls back to Atsushi, and a small smile crossed his face when he saw the two rare pearls sharing a string. Turning again to the treasure chests, Atsushi selected a small bead of dark blue glass. This, he threaded on the string in between the two pearls. Dutifully, the attendant took this latest development back behind the screen to Kinshiro. He received Atsushi’s gift with a smile, fixing the pearls and the bead to his coat, just over his heart.
The king had been watching this exchange with an ever-growing sense of bewilderment, but a few moments after Atsushi sent back the two pearls with the bead in between them, Kinshiro emerged from behind the partition with a brilliant smile on his face. He walked toward Atsushi, who quickly closed the gap between them. They reached each other, paused—and then Atsushi reached up, putting a hand gently on Kinshiro’s face. Kinshiro put his hand over Atsushi’s, leaning into the touch. The moment seemed to stretch on impossibly long as they gazed into each other’s eyes, but just as the king was about to say something, Kinshiro took hold of Atsushi’s shoulder and pulled him in, his other hand threading into Atsushi’s hair as their lips met. Atsushi wrapped his arms around Kinshiro, holding him impossibly close as their kiss deepened.
The king looked away, feeling awkward and intrusive. If Prince Epinard was so upset about the heads... Maybe the people were as well. I'll have to do something to ensure that no problems arise... Laughter brought him back into the moment and he looked again at the two princes to see them both flushed and beaming, still holding each other close.
“Atsushi, I love you.”
The grin on Atsushi’s face grew as he replied, “And I love you. Stars, it feels so good to say that out loud!” And at that, they both laughed.
Kinshiro stepped back, clasping both of Atsushi’s hands in his, and turned to his father, saying, “Announce the wedding!”
The king blinked, “Of course, but… Would you explain to me what just happened?”
Kinshiro laughed, “Of course, father. With the first two pearls I sent, I said, Life is only two days, use them wisely. When he added three others to those two, Atsushi said, Even if it were five, it would also quickly pass.”
Atsushi picked up, “When Kinshiro added sugar to the five pearls, and ground together the sugar and pearls, he meant that this life, polluted by desire, is like the pearls and sugar ground together. Who can divide one from the other, by incantation or by alchemy? So I poured milk on the mixture, so one melted and the other stayed.”
Kinshiro smiled up at Atsushi as he took over again. “I drank the sugary milk, to acknowledge Atsushi's wisdom, and weighed the paste of the pearls to ensure that no value was lost. Then I sent him the ring to acquiesce to his wedding me. The pearl bestowed by him showed that, like the pearl, his match could not be found. So I searched mother’s necklace for a matching pearl, to point out that I am his match.”
“And when I saw those two pearls, I knew there was no other pearl in the world to resemble them, so I added the blue glass bead to ward against the evil eye.” Atsushi said it almost shyly, as though he couldn’t quite believe that he had come so far.
“And by setting the bead as a seal upon my heart, I show myself devoted to Atsushi. I trust him to protect my heart and give it fully to him. For solving all my mysteries, I honour and acknowledge Atsushi as king.”
So it was that the wedding was arranged. All was set in order for a grand ceremony in one month’s time — to allow word to spread through Kusatsu and Epinard, and allow time for Atsushi's family to travel to Kusatsu for the wedding. Treaties were drawn up cementing this new relationship between the two countries. It was determined that Atsushi and Kinshiro would rule Kusatsu, and the crown of Epinard would pass to Atsushi’s sister.
The evening after this had been decided—two weeks out from the wedding—found Atsushi and Kinshiro sitting on the roof of the palace, gazing at the stars and holding hands. Kinshiro hesitated, but knew he had to ask—avoiding issues had done them no good in the past.
Kinshiro stared down at their linked hands as he asked, “Are you… really okay with losing Epinard?”
Atsushi tipped Kinshiro’s chin up to look in his eyes, “What do you mean?”
Kinshiro shrugged, “I know how much you love your people, and your hills, and… I’m taking them away from you.”
Atsushi laughed softly, “But it’s not like I’ll never go back! And, Kin, you mean more to me than anything.” He moved closer to Kinshiro until their foreheads touched, closing his eyes as he said, “I’d be happy if I were a pauper as long as you were by my side.” Kinshiro sighed, smiling, and then kissed Atsushi, slowly and gently. Atsushi leaned into the kiss and soon Kinshiro forgot anything other than Atsushi’s lips on his, Atsushi’s hands in his hair, on his back, and the stars exploding behind his closed eyelids, and Atsushi, Atsushi, Atsushi-
“Atsushi? Are you up here? They told me you—oh.” Kinshiro pulled away from Atsushi, blushing furiously at the unexpected intrusion. An unfamiliar man with messy hair was standing sheepishly on the roof a few metres away from them.
Atsushi sprang to his feet, exclaiming, “En! I didn’t think you’d be here for a few more days!” He strode over to the other man and embraced him.
Ah. This tired-looking man was the legendary En. Kinshiro rose then, too, maintaining some distance. He couldn’t help the stab of jealousy that pierced him when he saw how comfortable they were together, how happy En looked to be with his prince again.
Atsushi was asking how he had gotten there so quickly. En pushed a hand through his hair and smirked, “Would you believe that I got impatient and rode ahead of the caravan by myself? They took too long.”
Atsushi laughed and clapped En on the shoulder, “Too lazy to go so slow, hmm?” As En answered, something about why he wouldn’t make a journey take more time than it has to, Atsushi turned to look at Kinshiro—and Kinshiro saw the look in his eyes change to one he knew was meant only for him, and it melted the ice that had been threatening to freeze his heart. Atsushi gestured to Kinshiro, and he walked to stand by his side, the barest hint of a smile on his face as Atsushi wrapped an arm around him.
En wouldn’t have noticed it, but Atsushi had seen the anxiety rising in Kinshiro’s eyes fade when Atsushi looked at him, so he held him close as he introduced the two people dearest to him. “Kin, this is Cerulean of the Yufuin family, my best friend and personal advisor.” Kinshiro inclined his head politely. “And En, this is Prince Kinshiro, Aurite of Kusatsu Kingdom, my dearest friend and precious fiance.”
En bowed grandly and came up laughing, “Hills, Atsu, do you have to be so formal? It’s not like we haven’t known each other since we were six. Pleased to meet you, Prince Kinshiro.” He turned his piercing gaze on the prince of Kusatsu then, appraising him from head to toe in the moonlight. “You’re just as good-looking as Atsushi always said you were.” Matching blushes rose on both their faces and En began to laugh again, “I knew I’d get Atsu with that, but not you, Prince Kinshiro. So sorry for that, Aurite, sir.”
“Kinshiro will be fine,” Kinshiro said stiffly, “Since I assume we’ll be seeing each other with some frequency.”
En grinned then, “Sure, Kinshiro, sounds good.” Atsushi felt Kinshiro stiffen just a bit as En casually addressed him, but he tried not to let it show as En continued, saying, “Well, sorry for interrupting you. I’ll just… leave you to it.”
He smirked again at Atsushi, who felt a blush creeping up his cheeks, but he asked, “Do you need us to show you to a room?”
“There’s a page waiting for me, I’m fine. But,” he said, “I expect to hear everything about Aurite’s challenge tomorrow.”
With that, he ducked inside, leaving Atsushi and Kinshiro alone with the stars. Kinshiro rested his head on Atsushi’s shoulder and asked, “He rode harder because… he was too lazy to prolong the journey?”
Atsushi laughed, holding Kinshiro tightly, “En has his own way of thinking, that’s for sure.”
They stood in silence for a few moments together, staring at the familiar sky. “Atsushi?” Kinshiro pointed up at the two princes, saying, “I remember what you said. We wrote our future when we were children—the two princes together forever.” He met Atsushi’s gaze then, eyes blazing with determination and love, “And that’s all I want, Atsushi. Even if we were paupers, if we were together, I’d be happy.”
Atsushi matched his gaze, as he said, “It’s just like you wished back then, Kinshiro. We’ll be together forever.”
“Do you remember what you wished?”
Atsushi blushed yet again as he said, “To be a hero.”
Kinshiro nodded firmly, “And you are. You’re mine. And everyone’s—my people love you. The hero who defeated Aurite’s challenge and melted his heart.” He kissed Atsushi again, fiercely, then took his hand and pulled him inside. “It’s late. You need to get some rest before your family gets here.” Atsushi smiled fondly at Kinshiro’s back as he let himself be led along.
So Atsushi’s family came to the palace and two weeks later, Atsushi and Kinshiro were married at sunset beneath the crimson leaves of Kusatsu Kingdom, in the glade where they had first been stargazing all those years before. The two princes wore beautiful red outfits, Kinshiro with beautiful green embroidery in honour of the kingdom of Epinard and his husband, and Atsushi conversely with gold in honour of his husband, Aurite. The setting sun painted the sky a stunning red to match them, and the ceremony was warm and inviting, bathed in the light.
“Red, you see, is the best colour—from the leaves of Kusatsu kingdom to the mountains at sunset to the love and desire felt by the two princes for each other. It is red blood that beats in our veins, red that keeps us all alive.” Ryouma leaned back as he finished the story, pleased to see a wide grin on King Karurusu’s face.
“And they were happy? And their people?”
Kyoutarou looked up and blinked, “Yes, they were, last I heard.”
Karurusu flung himself across a chaise lounge, arms stretched out above his head, declaring with a smile on his face, “I’m tired. I’ll sleep here tonight.” He closed his eyes and Ryouma chuckled as he cleared away the tea set. He hauled Kyoutarou to his feet, shoving him gently in the direction of the red doorway to his private quarters before pulling an extra blanket from a cabinet by the wall and spreading it over King Karurusu, who appeared to be already asleep. Ryouma glanced over the room again, then walked the other way to his own orange doorway, and clapped his hands once, gently. The glowing orb floating in the center of the room flickered out, leaving only the starlight to illuminate the room.
And that night, King Karurusu slept happy.