Actions

Work Header

The Red King

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.”

“We?”

“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.”

“Won’t you…”

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…”

“Yes?”

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.

Chapter Text

Atsushi woke the next morning to a knock on his door. Groggy, he called out, “Yes?”

“Prince Epinard, sir? There’s breakfast in the kitchen. Come when you’re ready.”

“Of course,” Atsushi answered as he sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He arose and dressed hurriedly, gathering all of his things into his pack once more. Checking that he had everything, he ducked quickly into the washroom to make sure he looked presentable before appearing in the kitchen. 

Megawa was sitting on the countertop with a plate full of food while Kinshiro sat at the table. Noticing him in the doorway, the messenger boy alighted from the counter and prepared another plate for him. “Here you go, Prince Atsushi!” He set the plate in front of the seat across from Kinshiro.

Atsushi, emboldened by the night before—after  all, Kinshiro hadn’t punched him when he kissed him—moved the chair closer to Kinshiro and began to eat. “This is really good! Kin, did you make this?”

He shook his head, “Megawa did. I can cook, but he likes to, when he’s here.”

Kinshiro smiled fondly at Megawa, who beamed and adjusted his glasses. “I just like to be helpful!” He really is a cute kid , Atsushi thought.

“We can leave immediately after breakfast,” Kinshiro said. “If we make good time, we may make it back by tonight. Or at least we’ll only have to camp out one night.” His tone was brusque and he focused on his food, not meeting Atsushi’s eye. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Atsushi tried to make conversation but Kinshiro’s replies were abrupt and he only ever glanced Atsushi’s way perfunctorily. The conversation was stilted at best.

When they had finished eating, Kinshiro arose and asked Atsushi if he had all his things. After Atsushi confirmed, Kinshiro picked up his own bag and led the way outside to a stable—a shed, really. Atsushi glanced around the yard, which he hadn't seen the night before. The early morning light reflected gently off the dark stone of the wall, which stretched out to the cliffs on either side of it.  Behind the fortress, a matching wall filled the other gap. The amount of time it must have taken to haul all the stone up to create paired twenty-foot walls amazed Atsushi. He noticed the archery targets Kinshiro had mentioned—two, no, three—in various places around the yard. In the small stable were two horses and the related paraphernalia.  They began saddling the horses and Atsushi ventured to say, “What about Megawa?”

Kinshiro glanced up from his horse, “He’ll come down later. He’s supervising the move out.”

“Ah.” Atsushi watched Kinshiro as he finished readying his horse, a dappled grey mare, admiring the way his fingers moved delicately, combing the horses’ mane and outfitting her with the tack. As they led their horses from the stalls and mounted, Atsushi noticed that Kinshiro’s mare was taller than his, so that they were at eye level. 

“Mine’s Argent, and yours,” Kinshiro reached over to pat the palomino mare gently on the neck, “is Pearlite. She’s a little flighty and headstrong, but Argent only listens to me, so you’ll have to make do.”

“I know that, Kin. These are the same horses we spent all summer riding when we were thirteen.”

“Oh, right.” Kinshiro nudged Argent forward and Atsushi did the same with Pearlite. As they approached the barrier wall, Kinshiro reined Argent in, then leaned down to press firmly on the wall. As it had the day before, the imposing stone split open and the two men rode through. This time, as he heard the wall shut behind him, Atsushi couldn’t help but smile. He was riding away from Aurite’s fortress—with Kinshiro! If only he could understand why Kinshiro wasn’t happy with him… He would talk when he felt like it, Atsushi was sure.

An hour passed in silence, then two, while they rode side by side, each stewing in his own thoughts. Kinshiro knew that it probably wasn’t fair of him to freeze Atsushi out like he was, but he was just so confused. “You don’t have to marry me.” Then the kiss on the forehead. Atsushi’s older sister had often kissed them like that, so it was obviously intended as a familial gesture.... Somehow it really did feel like Atsushi had been trying to bid him farewell. Yes, it seemed to say, I have come to save you from this prison, because you are my best friend, but I am not in love with you. I’m sorry . Kinshiro had replayed Atsushi’s speech in his mind over and over, and always, it seemed to be this… let down. But—he had also said he didn’t know where Kinshiro stood, so maybe…

It was Atsushi who finally broke the silence as the sun approached midday. “Hey, Kin?”

“Yes?”

Atsushi had been scrabbling for something, anything, to talk to Kinshiro about, anything to thaw the ice and break the silence, and he’d remembered a particularly funny story. “Did I ever tell you about the time En fell asleep while we were out riding?”

Kinshiro stiffened. As if he wanted to hear about En right now! Kinshiro had never met Atsushi’s wonderful friend, but he didn’t have a particularly high opinion of him.

Hearing no reply, Atsushi hastend on, “So we were… sixteen, I think, and En didn’t want to go riding because it was so cold—you know how he is—”

Kinshiro did not know anything Atsushi hadn’t told him, but he had gathered that En was lazy.

“So I talked him into going, and he just sat there on his horse and he fell asleep. I didn’t even notice, because he hadn’t been talking anyway—which I suppose should have been odd since En is always rambling about something, but I didn’t notice,” Atsushi found himself speaking a little faster, noting the tension in Kinshiro’s shoulders, although not entirely understanding it. “And then he didn’t duck under this branch, and he fell off the horse! There was just this thump and a thud and there was En in the snow, blinking like he didn’t know how he got there. It was so funny! Or…” Glancing again at Kin’s hunched shoulders and downward gaze, he finished lamely, “Maybe you had to be there.”

Had to be there. Ha. Kinshiro had never been there when Atsushi was with his precious En. If Atsushi was in love with anyone, it was probably him… Kinshiro blinked rapidly, pushing back the tears that pricked at the corner of his eyes.. He didn’t notice Atsushi’s concerned gaze. Silence reigned again.


Now, back in Epinard, word had reached the royal palace of Atsushi’s dramatic entrance into the city of Kusatsu, the demands he had made of the red king, and the official beginning of his trial. Atsushi’s mother was astonished at this behaviour from her son, not quite sure what to make of it, but she shared his father’s pride that their son was fighting for well-deserved justice. His sister was worried, but she tried not to let it show. It was En who encouraged them all, En who was certain that the fire burning in Atsushi would carry him through the challenge, En who kept a brave face. But of course, they had no way to know what was happening.

Oh, that must have been awful, Karurusu interjected again. Yes, it was, Kyoutarou agreed. If you would both hush, Ryouma said, I would be able to tell you what happens with Kinshiro and Atsushi. You hush, Ryoukins, it’s my turn to talk.

A few hours more, and they stopped for midday meal. Kinshiro was still hurt  and confused, but some part of him had spoken up, reminding him that he hadn’t seen Atsushi in over two years, that he was his best friend, and that he shouldn’t squander this time he had with him. So he gathered his nerves and forayed into their mutual uncomfortable quiet as they ate. “That book you sent me for my birthday—I didn’t get a chance to write you about it, but I finished it last week.”

The blatant relief that shone in Atsushi’s face when Kinshiro spoke to him sent a stab of guilt into Kinshiro’s heart. “Did you like it?” Hope shimmered from his gaze.

Kinshiro nodded, “It was wonderful!” They fell into a comfortable conversation about the plot and the characters, how it made them feel and think differently. It was the kind of discussion they’d had many times when they studied together and in the familiarity of it, they lost track of time. Their midday break was close to two hours long, but the conversation flowed on as they mounted again and continued down the trail. They talked about all the books they had read in the last few years, Atsushi told Kinshiro about the plays he had seen since Kinshiro had been shut away in his fortress, Kinshiro talked about his painting, fencing, archery, the profound stillness of the mornings between the cliffs.

Of course, they had written about all these things, but, Kinshiro reflected, there was something better about seeing Atsushi’s face light up as he spoke, about being able to ask him questions in the moment.  Atsushi, for his part, was thrilled that Kinshiro had initiated a conversation, but he could see the distance in Kinshiro’s eyes, could feel the resistance any time Atsushi tried to steer the conversation in a more personal direction, or broach the topic of feelings. Kin was not going to open up to him, but Atsushi couldn't figure out why.

As night began to fall, they were almost all the way down the mountain. Barely a half a day’s ride would put them back at Kusatsu castle, but they both knew they needed to camp for the night. They found a small clearing not too far from the path and dismounted, removing the gear from their horses and letting them go to graze. Kinshiro was confident that Argent would stay with him and that Pearlite would follow her example, so Atsushi decided not to worry about them. The autumn air was cool, but Kinshiro asked that they not light a campfire, saying, “I couldn’t do a lot of stargazing between those cliffs, you know.”

Atsushi did. “Remember how the mountains between Kusatsu and Epinard black a lot of the sky? I can’t see the two princes from home, and I’ve always hated that.”

For the first time since their midday break, they lapsed back into silence as they prepared their evening meal. There was something soothing about the sounds of the forest—wind in the trees, animals in the distance, the horses whickering as they grazed. Atsushi leaned against a tree after he finished eating, and gazed up at the stars. Kinshiro hesitated a moment and then joined him, sitting not quite close enough to touch. Atsushi knew there were some things he needed to clear up before they reached Kusatsu Castle in the morning, before he attempted the riddles.

Just as he said, “Kin, I need—” he heard from his left, “Atsu, can I—”

They both stopped and laughed awkwardly.

“Sorry,” Kinshiro said.

“It’s fine,” Atsushi waved a hand, “You go.”

“Can I ask you something?”

Atsushi turned to face Kinshiro, who was already looking at him. “Of course.”

“Last night, you said you don't know where I stand. But, Atsu, I don’t know where you stand either. I don’t... I don’t know why you’re here.” His voice broke on the last word and he looked away, blinking rapidly and swallowing.

Atsushi put a hand on Kinshiro’s shoulder and waited for him to meet his eyes again. “It’s like I said, Kin. I want you to be happy—and I knew you weren’t. And there was something I could do about it… so I came.”

“You want me to be happy… and you risked your life for that?”

“I’ve been training like crazy for the last year, and studying enchantment too. That’s why it took me so long to get to you. But I knew I was ready.”

“But, to risk your life for me?”

Atsushi felt that Kinshiro was still searching for something, but he wasn’t sure exactly what. Hadn’t he made his feelings clear? “Kin, I…”

Kinshiro shook his head. “Never mind. What were you going to say?”

With the vague feeling that he had missed something, Atsushi said, “Oh, right. About the riddles tomorrow. I need you to treat me like you would anybody else. Don’t change them because it’s me. I’m still willing to give my life for this if I don’t succeed.” He sensed Kinshiro’s rising indignation and hurried to add, “But of course I want to solve them. I want to live. And I… I want to be with you, Kin.” Kinshiro had opened his mouth to speak but closed it slowly at Atsushi’s last admission. Atsushi smiled at him, gently. “Can you do that for me?”

Kinshiro huffed. “Of course I will. I’ve had the riddles set for a while. But if anyone can solve them, it’s you.” 

Atsushi wasn’t quite smiling, but there was mirth in shining in his eyes. “You know, that’s just what En said.”

Now Kinshiro laughed, quickly, “You talk about him far too often. When do I get to meet your fantastic En?”

Atsushi laughed, rubbing the back of his neck, “You know, if I get through this, I’m going to throw a giant party—my mother will, really—and I’ll make sure you’re both there. He wants to meet you too, make sure you pass muster.”

“I’ll look forward to it then— when you make it.” Kinshiro leaned back against the tree and Atsushi followed suit, sitting just close enough that their shoulders were touching. The proximity made Kinshiro nervous—what a mess he was where Atsushi was concerned—but then, “I want to be with you, Kin,” Atsushi had said. And the look on his face—that was real. Maybe, just maybe, this would work out the way Kinshiro hoped it would.

They sat in companionable silence for quite some time, just barely touching, just being in the same space, until Kinshiro eventually nodded off, his head falling onto Atsushi’s shoulder. Atsushi had not been planning on sitting by a tree all night, but no power on earth could convince him now to move. He listened to Kinshiro’s steady breathing, thinking over the conversation from the night before and the one from just now.

Why had he been hedging his bets, hiding his feelings behind some invisible wall? Why was it so hard for him to just act on his emotions? Feeling slightly foolish, he laced his fingers through Kinshiro’s and began speaking to the night sky.

“Kin, I… feel pretty stupid right now.  I just have this habit of trying to avoid conflict, of always guarding my feelings, I’m not sure why. And I guess I thought that it’s been pretty apparent, but you keep asking, so it must not have been. And I know I need to tell you when you’re awake, but somehow I can never find the right words.”

Unbeknownst to Atsushi, Kinshiro had drifted awake at the touch of his hand and the use of his name. Assuming he was dreaming, he had remained where he was, imagining that his head on Atsushi’s shoulder and that Atsushi’s hand in his, while wonderful, were not real.

The dream became only pleasanter when Kinshiro felt Atsushi tighten his grip and say, “Kin. Kinshiro, I’m in love with you. I love you. When we were boys, we painted our future in the stars, and I want it to come true. That’s why I took the challenge. And why I want to beat your riddles tomorrow, even though I’ve never beaten you at anything in our lives. I really want to marry you. Nothing else matters as much to me as you do.” Atsushi exhaled, hardly believing that he’d finally said it all out loud. He closed his eyes and leaned against Kinshiro, saying again, “I love you, Kin. And I’ll always be here for you.” Atsushi, having said his piece, let himself fall asleep and Kinshiro, too, fell into a deeper slumber, a smile ghosting over his face from the pleasant dream he’d just had.

Kinshiro came to himself slowly the next morning, chilled from the dew and stiff from the odd position he was sitting in. He was leaning against a tree, and leaning on Atsushi! Kinshiro felt the blush enflame his face as he realised that Atsushi’s head was resting on his and they were holding hands ! Hardly daring to breathe and not daring to move, Kinshiro remembered his dream from the night before — had it actually happened? Was Atsushi in love with him ?

The sound of Atsushi’s breathing lulled Kinshiro into a feeling of calm, and he decided to enjoy this moment, take it for what it was. The sun had just risen and its rays were barely lighting the forest. A mist hung over the meadow, obscuring the far side. Argent and Pearlite were grazing not too far off. Birds were starting to sing in the distance, a sweet melody reaching Kinshiro. Everything was peaceful and still and Kinshiro didn’t want to break the serenity. Instead, he stared at his and Atsushi’s boots stretched out in front of them, covered in dew, and at Atsushi’s hand in his, fingers interlaced, and he marvelled. He could feel the stiffness in his shoulders and he knew his legs were going to ache when he stood up… but if he could wake up next to Atsushi every day, he would never mind. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, just relishing the closeness of the moment with Atsushi, but he knew exactly when it ended.

A fly began buzzing around Kinshiro’s face. He tried to wave it away, but he was unsuccessful and he sneezed, jerking forward just enough to rouse Atsushi. He blinked the sleep from his beautiful brown eyes, smiling as he said, “G’morning, Kinshiro.”

When Atsushi smiled at him, Kinshiro could swear that the rest of the world didn’t exist.

Atsushi stood, pulling Kinshiro up with him, reluctantly letting go of his hand to stretch and work the stiffness out of his limbs. “Next time, let’s not sleep sitting by a tree, hmm?” Kinshiro found himself staring at Atsushi, who looked positively ethereal in the early morning light, running his fingers through his dark blue hair, and his glasses framed his face just so... It wasn’t fair, honestly. Kinshiro knew he always looked a mess in the mornings.

Suddenly self-conscious, he too tried to bring some semblance of order to his hair as he walked over to the horses. He brought them back to Atsushi, asking, “Shall we get going then?”

Atsushi picked up Pearlite’s saddle as he replied, “Aren’t you hungry?”

Kinshiro shook his head, silver hair glinting in the sunlight. “Too nervous.”

Atsushi chuckled, “Me too.” They quickly saddled their horses, mounted, and continued down the mountain. For a time, they rode in silence, but Atsushi noticed Kinshiro stealing glances at him, glances full of hope. They both blushed every time their eyes met. Occasionally, they picked up a thread of conversation from the day before, but none that lasted too long.

As they approached the city, Atsushi had a sudden, terrible thought that shattered the idyllic, hopeful stillness of the last few hours.  “Kinshiro…. Do you know what happened to the people who failed the challenge?”

He hated himself for asking the question as he saw the light leave Kinshiro’s eyes, saw him hunch his shoulders and furrow his brow. “Of course I do,” he murmured, and a great sorrow tainted his voice. “I made the rules. They died—no, they were killed.” He stared then at him, and the Prince of Epinard could tell that Prince Aurite of Kusatsu had every single defense thrown up, but Atsushi could tell that Kinshiro was hurting deeply.

Careful to speak gently, Atsushi continued—but now they were passing into the city and the guards at the outskirts recognised their prince coming home and set up a great cry. Bells started ringing in the city and a crowd gathered along the roadside. Children shouted and danced, and the people cheered, welcoming Aurite home. His words were lost in the commotion.

Atsushi noticed the unrest before Kinshiro did: middle-aged couples with tears in their eyes, young men and women who glared... They made it a few minutes into the city before someone finally yelled, “Here’s Aurite, Aurite who killed our children!”

The words hit Kinshiro like a blow.

“Are you happy Aurite?”

“What a proud murderer riding home!”

Although many people were earnestly cheering, sincerely glad that he was home, that it was over , every voice of dissent, grief, rage , pierced Kinshiro to the soul. He blinked back his tears, willing himself to sit up straight and look ahead. He had no other recourse, in the face of what he felt was deserved. Atsushi could see Kinshiro wincing with every blow, but he knew the crowd saw only their prince, Aurite, proud and still in the saddle.

Atsushi nudged Pearlite closer to Argent, “Hey, don’t listen to them.”

Kinshiro looked over at Atsushi, eyes shining with tears, “But how? They’re right.”

Atsushi grabbed Kinshiro’s hand, “No, they’re not, Kin, they’re not. We’re going to get through this, Kin, I’m right here with you.” Atsushi squeezed his hand, relieved that he hadn’t pulled away.

They were approaching the castle now and Atsushi felt his own anxiety rising as they neared the castle walls. “Listen to me, Kin—the walls, next to your proclamation—your father, he… he’s been hanging a warning. It’s awful. But just… brace for it.”

Kinshiro looked wary as he asked, “What kind of a warning?” His heart dropped as he saw a grim expression fall over Atsushi’s face. He said nothing, only shook his head slowly. Dread settled over Kinshiro as they rode toward the castle amid the cheers and jeers of the people of Kusatsu.

Atsushi kept watching Kinshiro and knew the exact moment when he saw the horror on the walls.  His face paled impossibly and he withdrew his hand to wrap both arms around himself tightly. Atsushi felt wrath grow in him as he witnessed Kinshiro’s pain, and determined again that the Red King would be held responsible for his inhuman actions. 

They rode up to the gate and Kinshiro stopped, staring in horror at the macabre sight: his life-size portrait, his challenge, and on either side of the gate, heads hanging. Hundreds of them. “How could he?”

The crowd gathered behind the two princes, murmuring, and Atsushi knew they had to do something before they continued into the palace. He rode over to the proclamation and put one hand on it, then caught Kinshiro’s eye. At his subtlest of nods, Atsushi tore it down, then turned to face the crowd, shouting, “Aurite’s challenge had ended! One way or another, I will be the last! You will lose no one else to this fate!”

The crowd cheered, but a few people called out, “And you, Prince Epinard? What of you?”

He smiled ruefully, pushing up his glasses. “I may still fall to Aurite’s riddles, but that is a risk I will take.” Again, the crowd roared their approval. When the excitement subsided, they turned to their own prince. Atsushi did too, waiting to see if he was ready to continue.

Instead, Kinshiro slid from his horse and took a few steps toward the people before falling to his knees, head hung low. A hush settled over the crowd. In the silence, Kinshiro raised his head, barely, and his face was solemn. “My grief is greater than the mountains and my heart pounds with the crying leaves.” Atsushi recognized the formal phrase as one from the funeral rituals of Kusatsu kingdom.  Then Kinshiro began to sob, tears streaming down his face and his shoulders heaving as he said, “I am so, so sorry.” He fell to the ground, prostrating himself before his people.

Atsushi dismounted then, and moved to kneel at Kinshiro’s side. As he walked, he watched the crowd. Many he could see were crying as well, and all were solemn. Then someone in the front row knelt.

In a wave, the crowd followed suit, until almost all the people were kneeling. When Kinshiro stopped shaking, Atsushi touched his shoulder gently, saying, “Kin, look.” Kinshiro raised his head slowly and his tears started afresh at the sight of his people on their knees.

Taking in a deep rasping breath, Kinshiro stood. He walked over to Argent and put a hand on her bridle, ready to mount again, then turned to look at the crowd once more. “My people, we have dishonoured your champions. No longer. This day, we return them to you!” He mounted and Atsushi followed suit.

 As they rode through the gates, the people cheered behind them. “Long live Prince Aurite! Long live Prince Epinard!”

So did they return them?

Karurusu, you ask too many questions. 

Yes. They rode into the castle and stabled their horses, then demanded access to the palace’s records. They spent the rest of the day and into the night, finding out where each champion belonged and returning them with the highest honours. The people were very impressed with the princes, by Atsushi’s bravery and his rage on their behalf, by Kinshiro’s humility and grief and honour, and they began saying among themselves that one way or another, they would have these men to be their kings. “For,” they said, “the Red King has stolen our heads, and they have given them back.” As the evening wore on, they finished, and then Aurite’s riddles were set to begin.

Will Atsushi pass?

Hush, just listen.

Chapter Text

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. 

“Atsushi?”

“Hmmm?”

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.