The palace is covered with thorns.
None of us can make a dent in them—they just keep growing back no matter what we do. But we’re trying everything we can. We won’t let Eiji or his family die in there.
I don’t know how everything’s going to look once you get here, but we’re counting on you. Anyone can tell that this has a dark mage’s nasty spellwork written all over it, and we all know that Eiji’s more powerful when you’re by his side.
Ash knows the trip to Izumo normally takes about ten or so days with rest. But he also knows that he—nor Eiji and his kingdom—doesn’t have that amount of time.
So by removing the carriage from the equation, sleeping as little as possible, and swapping out his exhausted horse for a fresh, energetic mare at the halfway point, Ash manages to shave his travel time down to three and a half.
Shorter’s letter was brief, touching only the surface of what Ash needs to know, but it’s enough to let him understand just how dire the situation in Izumo is. There are thorns growing in the capital city, soaked with dark magic, and the palace seems to be the epicenter of it all. Eiji and his family are trapped inside. Anyone who touches the thorns falls into a deep slumber, with no signs of waking. Sing has already fallen victim to its curse.
Sing is still young, despite the bluster he likes to show off to pretend otherwise. Ash worries.
The Okumura royal family’s palace is built into a mountain overlooking the sea. When Ash was younger, he spent countless summers in Izumo in an attempt to foster the new alliance between his home kingdom and theirs. It was Griffin’s idea, since Ash and Izumo’s crown prince, Eiji, were so close in age.
And Griffin’s plan worked, though some court elders muttered that it turned out a little too well. As the spare to the throne, Ash knew he was free to pursue any marriage opportunities he wanted. He could leave his home kingdom, explore the world as much as he wanted—but then he found the world in one boy, falling in love with Crown Prince Eiji Okumura even before Ash knew what love was.
They’re not engaged yet—not officially—but they both know how they feel.
As a result, Ash knows the sprawling fields surrounding Izumo just as well as the ones around his own home. It’s been a while since he’s visited outside of summer, but he still knows what the land should look like at the height of spring. The townspeople should be preparing for all the springtime festivals, everything awash in pink from the flowering trees. Ash has only come for the annual Hanami only once or twice before, but he still remembers joy in the dregs of his childhood memory, brightly colored and saturated with warmth. He remembers the sunlight on his skin, the songs of the farmers tending the land, the dirt kicked up beneath his feet.
He remembers Eiji’s hand in his as they walked through the flower fields on the edge of the capital, his smile as sweet as the scented blooms.
But what he sees now is not the Izumo from his memories.
Though the fields are lush with vegetation, the people that tend to them are missing. Even the birdsong, playing in the background since the beginning of his journey, is gone now.
Instead, there’s a hush over the land, as if every living thing has fallen asleep… or died. It’s unsettling.
And even worse, he can see the thorns that Shorter described in his letter. Either he’d downplayed their appearance, or the situation was exacerbated in the time it took for the letter to reach Ash and for him to ride down to Izumo himself.
Even from this distance, Ash can see the dark tendrils moving. Growing. They’re already halfway up the palace walls in one direction, and creeping toward the city in the other.
Then a spark of light catches his eye, and Ash watches as a whole section of thorns surrounding one of the castle’s turrets begin to burn. A fire spell—and a strong one from the looks of it. There’s no telling which member of the royal family cast it, but a surge of relief bowls through Ash as he races down the hill.
Eiji and his family are still fighting. They’re okay for now.
Ash grits his teeth.
Hold on, he thinks. I’m coming.
But Ash’s worry only comes back, full-force, as he spurs his horse into the capital and into the direction of Shorter and Nadia’s home. The lack of people is even more apparent here, in the heart of the kingdom—he should barely have any room to walk, let alone ride. Yet the streets are deserted, not a person to be seen, and his horse’s steady gallop against the cobblestone is the only sound he can hear.
So when the Wongs’ restaurant and apothecary finally comes into view, Ash jumps off his horse and runs to the door.
“Shorter! Nadia!” he shouts, his fist pounding against the heavy wood. The sound is unbearably loud in the unnatural stillness of the city, but he makes himself yell louder. “Shorter, it’s Ash—”
Then the door swings open, and his wrist is caught in a strong grip.
“Nice of you to finally show up,” Shorter rasps, grinning as he lets go of Ash’s arm.
Ash pushes him lightly in retaliation, like they always do, but Shorter nearly falls over. Ash’s eyes widen and his hands shoot out to steady him. He frowns as he takes in Shorter’s rumpled appearance, concern growing with each part he notices. Shorter’s hair is uncharacteristically mussed, and there are deep circles under his eyes. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days.
“I haven’t,” Shorter answers when Ash voices this. He shows Ash his palms, blood oozing from barely healed scabs. The shape of the wounds fit perfectly into his nails. “Had to wait for you, didn’t I?” he says lightly, trying to pass it off as a joke, but Ash knows better.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I tried to get here as fast as I could.”
Shorter’s answering smile is less bright, but it’s more sincere than the first one. “I know you did,” he says, warm. Then he laughs, a familiar mischief coming back into his eyes. “Come on in then! Can’t have guests standing on the doorstep—what would our neighbors think?”
A few minutes later, Ash finds himself sitting in an armchair, watching Shorter bandage his hands.
“So,” Ash says, getting straight to business. “What’s going on?”
Shorter grimaces as he shakes disinfectant over his palms. “In two words—dark magic,” he answers. “You know the story about the sorcerer the king and queen fought off and banished when Eiji was born?” When Ash nods, Shorter continues and says, “Well. He’s back.”
Ash’s hands curl into fists. “Fuck.”
“Fuck,” Shorter agrees, a bitter laugh escaping his lips. He shows off the wounds on his other, unbandaged hand, and Ash takes it carefully. “I always figured he was a piece of shit from what Her Majesty told us, but gods. What a piece of shit. Pain seems to be the only way to resist the sleeping curse he placed on the whole city.”
Ash’s head snaps up. “Sleeping curse? Like what got Sing?”
“The thorns grew flowers almost overnight,” Shorter says grimly. “It’s springtime. There’s pollen everywhere.” Exhaustion is written all over his face. “A-Jie and Yut-Lung fell asleep two days ago. So as far as I know, we’re the only people awake right now.”
Ash laces his hands together and mentally runs through all the information he has now. As much as he wants to rush in blind, sword swinging, he knows he doesn’t have much experience in fighting against magic. He has to remain calm, and prepare for anything. “So no word on Eiji either then,” he says, keeping his voice steady.
“None,” Shorter says, rubbing at the tension in his jaw. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get to him in time. We both know that Eiji’s capable of taking care of himself, but fuck.”
“I know you all did everything you could,” Ash says, pulling him to his feet. He grips Shorter’s shoulder. “But there’s no time to feel sorry now. We’re the only ones right now who can make sure Eiji and his family stay safe.”
Ash wears a necklace that, apparently, repels curses. It was a gift from Eiji when he’d turned eighteen.
Ash just thought it looked pretty when Eiji gave it to him, with the parting words of my soul is always with you, but Shorter’s eyes widen when he sees the carved metal sunflower peek out from the collar of his shirt. Eiji had meant his words literally, it seems, when Shorter examines the pendant between his fingers and confirms that Eiji’s magical signature is written all over it. There’s no danger of the sleeping curse affecting Ash as long as the necklace is with him.
(Ash decides he’s going to have a Talk with Eiji later about giving him gifts without telling him their actual point.)
Shorter even becomes more alert the longer he stays by Ash’s side, with the residual energy that Eiji infused into the metal protecting him too.
And to their surprise, the thorns surrounding the palace cut easily and shrivel away when Ash and Shorter slice through them with their swords.
“Do you have any other magical artifacts Eiji gave you lying around?” Shorter asks, glancing over. “Because this didn’t happen last time.”
“I don’t think so,” Ash says, brows furrowed. “Not that I know of.”
Shorter nudges his shoulder. “In any case, I’m glad you’re finally here.”
Ash grins. “You couldn’t keep me away if you tried.”
They pass several bodies as they hurry past the gates and into the palace.
“Sleeping,” Shorter explains after holding his hand in front of a servant’s mouth. “The sleeping curse must’ve hit everyone in the castle first.”
Ash shakes his head. “Not everyone,” he says, remembering the burst of light he’d seen on the way here. “Someone’s still fighting.”
Shorter nods, and Ash pulls him to his feet. “Let’s keep moving, then. The sooner we find the royal family, the better.”
They continue making their way into the castle, swords drawn in case of danger, but they only find more sleeping servants. The castle also gets colder the deeper they go, as if they were in the middle of winter rather than spring.
Then glass crunches under Ash’s boots. He stops walking, suddenly noticing the wreckage and destruction littered all over the hallway. Scorch marks on the walls, half-burnt tapestries… somehow, there are even icicles further down.
“Shorter,” he calls, and Shorter nods.
“Either Eiji or Nahoko’s work,” he agrees. “We’re getting close.”
There is only one door at the end of this hallway, leading to the throne room. The chill he and Shorter had felt earlier drops into freezing temperatures as soon as they open the door, and Ash immediately sees why.
Someone is kneeling in the center of the throne room, their head bowed and hands clenched tightly around their sword. Ash can trace all the ice in the room back to where the sword was plunged into the tiles. They’d summoned magic powerful enough to create an icy garden that covered everything in the room with a thick layer of frost.
A large, shadowy mass looms over their figure, also frozen solid, but its large teeth are sunk deep into the person’s left shoulder—one last effort to kill before succumbing to death itself.
But the details on the sword’s hilt become clearer as Ash and Shorter step closer, and recognition zips through Ash’s mind.
He stumbles closer without conscious thought, moving faster and faster until he’s running to Eiji’s side and dropping to his knees. He barely feels the chill seeping through his pants. “Eiji,” he says, cradling his cold cheeks and staring at his closed eyes. Fear spills down Ash’s spine when he sees just how deeply the fangs pierced him. “Sweetheart? We’re here now. You’re safe—you can wake up. Please.”
“Ash!” Shorter barks from Eiji’s other side, and Ash startles. Shorter is already working on pulling Eiji’s sword out of his grip. “It’s still draining his magic from him—help me remove this,” he says urgently. “Eiji won’t wake up unless he lets go.”
But when they finally pry Eiji’s fingers from the sword, severing his connection to it, he just slumps forward, still impaled on the monster’s bite. Though his breaths are shallow, they find that his blood, soaked over his shoulder and along his side, is still warm. This wound was fresh. They still have time.
“Eiji will be fine, right?” Ash asks, trying to meet Shorter’s eyes. “Shorter?”
But Shorter only frowns, avoiding his gaze. “Be ready to catch him,” he says, wrapping his hands around the monster’s jaw. He breaks it with a sickening snap, and Ash steadies Eiji’s limp frame in his arms before he can hit the ground.
A low moan spills from Eiji’s lips, his eyelids fluttering, and Ash’s heart leaps in his throat. “Eiji. Eiji, I’m here. Can you hear me?”
Shorter moves to his injured shoulder, pulling out the herb-filled sachet. “Keep him awake,” he orders, pressing his glowing hands to the sluggishly bleeding wounds. “He’s not okay yet, but it’s a good sign that he’s woken up. I’ll let you know when you can stop.”
So Ash continues to talk, trying to pull Eiji out of unconsciousness. He tells him stories he’d meant to put in a letter, he talks about how he can finally be here for Hanami again… he tells Eiji how much he loves him.
And Eiji’s eyes finally open, glassy and unseeing as they try to focus on Ash’s face, and Ash smiles at him. “There you are,” he whispers. “You’re going to be okay now, sweetheart. We’ll take care of you.”
“Ash…” Eiji murmurs. “Shorter… you’re here? How…?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Ash tells him, brushing his hair away from his eyes and realizing how much it’s grown. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Shorter pull away. “You did so well. You can sleep now.”
Eiji’s lips flicker up into a ghost of a smile as his eyes slip shut again. “Kay.”
Shorter presses his fingers to Eiji’s neck, then to his wrists, checking both his pulse and magical reserves. Then he sits back again, seemingly satisfied. “A-Jie would’ve done a better job,” he says, “but this should be enough until we get her here. He’ll be fine.”
Ash sags forward, the tension leaving him instantly. “You’re shitty for making me think otherwise,” he says, without any bite.
“I know.” Shorter picks up Eiji’s fallen sword, wiping off the semi-melted slush off the blade before sheathing it. “I didn’t want to say anything before I’d begun and make promises I couldn’t keep.” He gives Ash a helpless smile. “It’s the first rule a healer learns.”
They both look down at Eiji, watching him breathe. Ash can only imagine the struggle he’d gone through, locked in battle these past few days. His hands curl into fists. If he’d gotten here sooner, then maybe Eiji wouldn’t have gotten hurt.
“Ash, there’s no point in blaming yourself,” Shorter tells him, somehow reading his expression perfectly. “None of this was your fault.”
“I just hate that I couldn’t do anything,” Ash says, frustration building within him. “I left him to fight alone!” He’s never been the type of person to sit still and let others take the fall for him when he could just do it himself. And after seeing the damage left on Eiji’s body…
Shorter pokes his shoulder. Hard.
“Hey, you’re here now, aren’t you?” he demands. “You came for Eiji when he needed you most, and now he’s going to completely recover because of you. I would’ve eventually fallen under the sleeping curse too,” Shorter reminds him. “If you didn’t come, Eiji definitely would’ve died. No one would’ve been here to pull his sword away or heal his injuries. Would you have wanted that to happen instead?”
“Of course not—”
“Then be happy he’s okay,” Shorter says, gentler now. “You told me yourself that there’s no point in feeling sorry for things we can’t control. Remember that. There’s nothing we can do to change what happened, so now we just have to focus on helping our crown prince heal. All right?”
Ash hugs Eiji closer, feeling his skin warm up with each passing minute, and he knows he’ll be fine. “Yeah. Thanks, Shorter.”
After the sorcerer’s death, it takes a full day for everyone affected by the curse to wake up again.
Shorter brings Nadia in as soon as she wakes. Ash watches as she infuses the angry, puckered bite marks on Eiji’s shoulder with more healing magic, making them fade into white, barely noticeable lines. There was nothing she could do about the broken ribs except bind them and put him on bed rest for the foreseeable future, but a weight lifts off Ash’s chest when she confirms his health.
“You both did a good job,” she says, wiping the sweat off her brow. “He’ll be asleep for a few days to recover, but thanks to you we still have our crown prince. You’re okay here?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Nadia,” Ash says, shooting her a smile. “We’ll sit with him.”
Nadia lets her gaze linger over the three of them for a while, before nodding. “All right then. I’ll check on Her Majesty and Her Highness. Shorter, join me when you’re finished here.”
“Sure thing, A-Jie.”
The room falls into a comfortable silence once Nadia leaves. Ash’s exhaustion from the past few days of straight travel has caught up with him, pressing into his mind, and he wants nothing more than to climb into the bed with Eiji and sleep (uncursed) for as long as he can.
“You know… I was thinking that Eiji must’ve killed the sorcerer around the time you arrived,” Shorter says after a while. “That’s probably why we could cut the thorns so easily.”
“He’s better than the both of us,” Ash says fondly. Then he yawns, stretching out his limbs as he does so. “I’ll have to write a letter to Griff soon. I bet he isn’t very happy with me right now.”
Shorter snorts. “Don’t tell me you left without letting him know?”
“I might’ve,” he says casually.
“Sometimes I forget you’re a prince,” Shorter says, leaning back in his chair. “No fucks to give, vocabulary of a sea-battered sailor, no self-restraint,” he lists off, and Ash glares at him.
“Fuck you,” he says, and Shorter laughs. “Only with you guys.”
“I’m glad you’ll be here when you and Eiji finally get married,” Shorter says, oddly sincere. “We all do our best to keep Eiji company, but at least he won’t be as alone anymore once you’re here. He doesn’t say much about what he’s feeling, but Nahoko’s said once or twice that she feels he’s getting more distant.”
Ash looks back at Eiji, and the way the sunlight falls across his chest. How long has he been holding all these feelings inside himself?
“I’ll stay,” he finds himself saying. “I’ll tell my brother that I won’t leave until Eiji’s fully recovered.”
Shorter squeezes his shoulder as he stands, his expression full of approval. “I’ll go help A-Jie with her patients,” he says. “You should sleep soon.”
“I will,” Ash agrees. “Same to you.”
Then he and Eiji are alone. Ash brings Eiji’s hand into his own, lifting it to his lips.
“Sweetheart, this really isn’t what I meant when I wanted to see you sooner,” he says to Eiji’s unconscious figure, chuckling softly. “You didn’t need to risk your life just to get me by your side. I’d be here anyway.”
Then he feels a light pressure against his fingers as Eiji squeezes back. His eyes are still closed, but there’s a tiny hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Gods, Ash is so in love with him.
“I’m here,” Ash says again, because he can. “For as long as you want me.”
(Hours pass before Ash moves from Eiji’s bedside, both their hands intertwined and their breathing in sync as they sleep.)