Royalty, in the eyes of the common man, was a divine but distant symbol. It heralded images wrought from centuries of tradition - of sun-soaked coronation and moon-drenched consecration, of blood-forged reigns buttressed by the conspiracies of gods and men. Yet the monarchy itself was inert and obscure, so far-removed from ordinary lives that when evoked, bled dim images that only survived because they were too deeply entrenched to be erased.
As such, when the twelfth king of Karasuno ascended to the throne, it was decided that things must change. The monarchy ruled by the grace of the gods - proper respect must be accorded, certain reputations must be maintained. Royalty was no longer to languish behind its high stone walls as such remoteness would hardly inspire loyalty; the rulers could only resurrect their grandeur by touring the kingdom in a majestic display of stately glory. Only then, the councilors insisted, would the people be devoted. After all, who could love a ruler who was never seen and only heard?
The king however, was newly instated and could not be detached from court without upsetting all affairs of state. Similarly, the queen was sixth months pregnant and could not be persuaded to leave the castle. Since neither the king nor the queen could go, the royal heir would have to do. And so, in the first spring of the twelfth king’s reign, the crown princess embarked on a journey across her kingdom.
Princess Kiyoko was the type of beauty that appeared once in a thousand years. She was long throat and delicate jaw, soft lips and softer hands. Her eyes were the secretive blue of depthless lakes and her hair, an unbound river of black dahlias. Wherever she walked, flowers withered in shame. Whenever she smiled, skies wept bitter showers. So great was her beauty that even the sun and moon could not compare to her luminescence.
Proximity did not dim her loveliness; in fact, it enhanced it. Kiyoko was the paragon of grace and beauty even when riding through the streets. She led the procession astride a sable mare, her hair wreathed in a coronet of orange zinnias and marigolds. A gleaming crown crested above the sea of flowers and tourmaline circled her throat. Across her back, she wore the royal shield; against her hip, she wore the royal sword; and in her hands, she carried the royal orb. With a retinue of guards flying banners of the royal crest and heraldic crow, she was a spectacular sight to behold.
Amidst it all, Yachi tried very desperately not to trip over herself.
Yachi had seen the princess twice before; once, long before Kiyoko was named princess, when knighthood was only the fanciful dream of peasant girls toiling away in the countryside. In celebration over Karasuno’s victory, a grand parade passed through towns in a gilded triumph towards the capital. Yachi, who wanted to see the knights, teetered over the crowd on her father’s shoulders and saw the marquess’s daughter instead. Kiyoko was leaning out a window in order to see the sights, her hair spilling over shoulders in eddies of gossamer night. Their eyes met amid the madness and Yachi thought she saw Kiyoko smile.
The second time was at her knighting ceremony; Kiyoko was not yet princess, but her father was now next in line for the throne. During the nighttime vigil, Yachi had glimpsed her from the chapel window. Kiyoko was sitting in the castle gardens, framed by flowering dogwoods and shrub roses. Though her face was hidden beneath the boughs, Yachi could see her shoulders bowed downwards, as if weighed down by many layers of silk and silence. Kiyoko had looked so incredibly small.
But now Kiyoko was crown princess and Yachi, a knight in her guard. The very thought was dazzling - the difference between them seemed so terribly vast. Kiyoko was resplendent, virtue and grace incarnate. Next to her, Yachi felt incredibly unworthy. Her limbs were too gangly, her body too scrawny, and all the fancy armor in the world could not hide it.
Kiyoko was only two paces ahead. Standing so close to her set Yachi’s nerves aflutter. If she hastened her step, she could see the princess’s face; if she called out her name, she would hear the princess’s reply. Yachi had heard her talk once before - it was soft and sweet, like a cool sweep of air, where one did not know how parched they were until they heard her speak. Yachi wanted to hear Kiyoko utter her name, to say anything at all, and the want of it engulfed her in curious anxiety.
Yachi opened her mouth to speak but quailed. The distance between them was still too great.
On the third day of their journey, they stopped by a temple.
The spring sun was warm against their skin. When they stepped inside, a glacial stillness rushed over them in a tide. There was a peculiar heaviness in the air, one that crept past armor and dragged one downwards deathlessly. Yachi shivered and curled into herself; never before had she felt as much a trespasser as she did now.
Gracefully, Kiyoko stepped forward and offered the priests a lamb. They sprinkled wine over its head, uttered a quick prayer, and then sliced open its throat. After examining the innards, they burnt the remains over the altar, gazing ponderously at the thick haze of smoke. A long moment passed before they pronounced the omen as auspicious.
It was completely unintelligible to Yachi. All she understood was Kiyoko: the velvet dark of her hair, the lily white of her skin, and the absolutely and utterly gorgeous way she carried herself, like she was a goddess instead. She stared, starstruck, as Kiyoko gave her thanks, accepted a cage of augury crows, and glided down the temple stairs. Yachi did not come back to her senses until almost all had left, leaving her scrambling in their wake.
In her haste, she stumbled right into Kiyoko. Yachi instantly shriveled in horror.
“I beg your pardon, your highness!” Yachi yelped, bowing so abruptly she nearly toppled over.
“And you are?” Kiyoko asked. Yachi did not dare look up; the princess’ regard pinned her like a butterfly.
“Uh um, Y-yachi Hitoka, your highness!”
Her heart ricocheted inside her chest in blusterous noise. This was not the first meeting she wanted to make. Yachi wanted so badly to sink into the earth and never return, to waste away into the weeds where she rightfully belonged; to decay, to disintegrate, to-
“Yachi,” Kiyoko said, jolting Yachi out of her thoughts. Kiyoko pronounced her name very carefully, as if tasting her name and finding it pleasing. “I’ll remember that.” Kiyoko patted her on the shoulder and left.
Instantly, Yachi unspooled. The world blurred out into a hollowed echo, all sights and sounds pleasantly distant. There was only Kiyoko, her, and the pinprick of warmth. The touch burned like kindled embers and her heart erupted aflame.
They went up mountains, across hills, and along coasts; they passed through forests, around deserts, and over plains. They walked and walked and walked until time blurred into a meaningless haze, where dusk was the same as dawn. Nighttime was their only respite; without fail, whenever they stopped at any village or town, there was a banquet for the princess and the gods.
It was an utterly lavish affair. They dined on braised venison and stewed hare and roasted swan, feasted on poached eggs and baked quails and salmon pie, gorged on apple tarts and sugared almonds and currant custards. Barrels never emptied of mead and spiced wine poured ceaselessly. The guards fell upon the food like starved hounds, but Kiyoko, always immaculate, always refined, pecked delicately at her meal.
This further endeared her to the people; to them, she could do nothing wrong. Kiyoko was a goddess and every glance, every gesture proved it. This Yachi did not dispute - Kiyoko most certainly deserved the title. But the deference they gave was politely distant and deliberately awed, as if they sized up the space between them in meticulous calculation of how she performed. It was not quite unsettling, but it left Yachi uncomfortable nonetheless.
When the banquet drew to a close, Yachi turned to Kiyoko and asked why.
“Legends say our kings descended from the gods,” Kiyoko explained carefully, “That’s what gives my family the right to rule.”
“So you’re actually a goddess?” Yachi squeaked. The corner of Kiyoko’s mouth lifted, then settled.
“I’m as much of a god as the ruler of any other land,” Kiyoko replied, casting her eyes downwards. “We’re only gods in our own kingdoms. In Nekoma, in Aobajousai, in anywhere else but here, I’m only human.”
For a heavy moment, the princess did not say anything. There was a space between Kiyoko’s words, a silence that Yachi could not parse, could not even hope to parse, but it felt so incredibly important that she was at a loss of what to do. Yachi’s heart pitter-pattered like rain. Without thinking, she grabbed Kiyoko’s hands, clasped them within her own, and stared straight into the princess’ startled eyes.
“You’re you!” Yachi exclaimed with earnest brightness. Words tumbled out of her mouth like tangled yarn. “You’re super cool and beautiful and amazing and kind, but that’s because you’re you, not because you’re a princess or anything! You’re just Kiyoko!”
A moment, then silence. Kiyoko froze, caught between pleasure and surprise, as if one unmasked the other. Her hesitance forced Yachi to realize what she had done. Blood rushed to her face and she dropped Kiyoko’s hands, scalded.
“Princess, please forgive me! I was out of line, please ignore what I just said!” Yachi sputtered, squirming. She withered into herself, burying her face in her hands.
“No, please,” Kiyoko said softly, carefully, as if approaching a spooked animal. She gently uncovered Yachi’s face and firmly grasped Yachi’s hands. Her thin wrists and delicate hands belied the strength of her grip. “Thank you.”
Then softer, once again, like a benediction, like a prayer: “Thank you.”
Kiyoko’s eyes were suspiciously damp; in the dim darkness, they gleamed like starlight on stone.
This was the Kiyoko that Yachi knew: crown princess and goddess apparent, effortlessly perfect and carefully flawless. She was the perfect embodiment of all things good and holy, a beauty who could fell a nation. She was like ice and snow – mysterious, cool, and all together distant. To seek her was to risk loss; she disappeared with a single touch.
This was also the Kiyoko that Yachi knew: roseate laughter and satiny smiles, scant with praise but generous with kindness. There was a warmth to her coolness, sunwashed and sacred, but she did not thaw, did not melt for she was already so very warm. In her light, all things flourished: blossoming and budding and blooming. It was with this and only this Kiyoko that Yachi felt a sense of belonging, tender and tremulous.
That was not the Kiyoko the world knew; they could not see past the royal regalia. Careful admiration had given away to a fervent reverence with astonishing alacrity. Nowadays, people fought over the land she tread on, exalted all that she touched, as if her mere presence imbued everything with godly light. A cup she used would be venerated, a pillow she laid on, enshrined. It was a curious, exhausting affair and as the journey went on, Kiyoko looked more and more strained.
“They want a symbol, not a person. I can’t be one and the other,” Kiyoko sighed, her smile paper-thin. She looked so tired that Yachi’s heart ached.
“I’m here if you need me,” Yachi stuttered. Her heart quivered, trembling like her voice. “I-if there’s anything I can do, please let me know! I want to help you!”
Kiyoko hesitated. Yachi pressed on. “I’d do anything to help you!”
“Just stay with me,” Kiyoko whispered, quiet and unsure. “Stay with me, please.”
Kiyoko’s voice burned straight into Yachi’s heart and she vibrated, intoxicated. In that moment, Yachi was certain of what happiness was: mirror-bright and dizzily light, the sight of constellations tessellated delicately in dusky eyes. All paths led to the musky radiance of Kiyoko’s embrace and Yachi fell, willingly.
Kiyoko’s hair was as soft and as glossy as magnolia petals. It was almost unfair how pretty it was but Yachi had long accepted it as the way things were - sky was blue, grass was green, and everything and anything about Kiyoko was utterly beautiful.
Under the honeyed glow of dawn, Yachi brushed knots out of Kiyoko’s hair, its strands dripping through her fingers like an inky milky way. Her hands felt too calloused, too rough to hold something so precious. She cradled the strands gently - like light, like stars, like air.
Kiyoko glanced at her from beneath her lashes, pink powdering her cheeks. Yachi’s heart skittered and sung.
These moments were small and precious, piling up in Yachi’s heart in sandy dunes. A small brush against the arm, a gentle squeeze on the shoulder - being with Kiyoko felt natural, born not from thought or sense but from something deeper, like the relentless pull of gravity or the draw of moon on sea. The thought of anything else left her bereft. Deep down, Yachi knew it would one day end - it was as inevitable and as inescapable as truth, but hope kept piling higher and higher.
Yachi’s thoughts tumbled into hopeless tangles. She wondered if it was greedy to want this much, whether it was greedy to want more.
Three days from their journey’s end, they released the crows. A soldier cast them cake crumbs and was unduly ignored. Cawing loudly, the crows beat their wings and flew away. Troubled, he turned to the princess.
“This is unfortuitous,” he said, frowning. “We best be careful.”
Kiyoko stiffened, then smiled grimly. Yachi felt the princess press against her in a dense concentration of feeling. The warmth of contact was diffusive, soaking through armor and lighting her aglow.
“Then we’ll be prepared,” Kiyoko said firmly. Tentatively, her fingers entwined with Yachi’s. Kiyoko’s palm felt slick with sweat. Nervously but surely, Yachi gripped back.
The next night, Yachi awoke to thunder and lightning, a crashing surge of light and sound that drowned out everything in cacophonous noise. She stumbled to her feet and out of her tent, hefting her sword like the world’s weight, but the swelling weight of magic ploughed her straight into the ground. It submerged her in deafening pressure, like being plunged underwater.
Kiyoko! The thought roused Yachi back into motion and she struggled and scraped against the tide of smoke and fire. Her heart pitched wildly as she scoured the camp and did not stop until she found the princess at last.
When she did, the world slowed to a crawl; a witch was spinning towards Kiyoko in a thunderous rage, mouth contorting in poisonous spells; black thorns erupted in jagged mountains, spilling blood in barbed rivers. Yachi froze, her heart stuttered to stillness. But the sight of Kiyoko, pale and daring, spurred her into motion.
“Get away from her!” Yachi screamed. Scared, defiant, and utterly determined, Yachi leapt through the air and drove the sword straight into the witch’s back.
Silence, then a roar. All at once, the world exploded.
In the moonlight, everything blossomed.
Red carnations rained from the sky, yellow tulips sprung from the ground, and pink camellias coiled through Yachi's hair in a redolent crown. The blood coating her sword had long transformed into a thick cluster of roses, its splattered droplets blooming into velvety petals. In the distance, the witch’s body disintegrated in bursts of poppies and winterbloom.
Yachi staggered to her feet. Immediately, she clutched her head. Everything was melting into a muddled daze reminiscent to liquor’s hazy burn. Her limbs and mind were torpid, but her heart felt feverbright; every movement felt as if she was slogging through a sea of sand.
Sweat trickled down her brow. Yachi moved to wipe it, but it was already dusting down her face in a trail of daisies. It was ridiculous, all these flowers. Even when she closed her eyes they swallowed up the world.
At Kiyoko’s cry, Yachi turned. The princess hurried towards her, acacias unfurling in her wake.
“Are you alright?” Kiyoko’s asked, voice strained high with worry. Her hands fluttered in abortive motion. For one silly moment, Yachi wondered if Kiyoko would burst into flowers too. What kind of flower would Kiyoko be - black lilies, like her hair? Marigold, like her family crest? Or dark delphiniums, like her eyes?
Then the world tilted and she lurched into Kiyoko’s arms. When had Kiyoko gotten there? How had she moved so fast? It confused her to just think about it so she ceased thinking all together.
“Hang in there,” Kiyoko muttered desperately. Wrapping her arms around Yachi, she lifted her up with a soft grunt. Her mouth trembled, but Yachi could not tell whether it was from worry or from the effort. Probably both, she decided drowsily. Kiyoko was still unbelievably cool either way. Terribly, awesomely cool. So cool that the crown princess was doing a knight’s job, her job, and carrying her away. Yachi would have died of mortification but she was too tired to care.
Kiyoko was saying something again, but the world had long blurred into incomprehensibility; as her lips parted, gardenias poured out of her mouth instead of words. Yachi giggled insensibly, asters fluttering out with every exhale.
In the warmth of Kiyoko’s embrace, the last vestiges of tension drained out of her in a heavy sigh. Her body slackened, her head lolling against Kiyoko’s shoulder.
Yachi promptly passed out. And still, the flowers bloomed.
When Yachi opened her eyes, it was midday. She blinked the sleep out of her eyes and discovered the world moving by at a leisurely tempo. If the distant glimmer of stone walls were any indication, she would arrive at the castle before sundown.
It was then that she realized that she was on a horse. On a horse with Kiyoko’s arms wrapped tightly around her. With a startled yelp, Yachi jerked upward and smashed her head right into Kiyoko’s jaw.
“I-I’m so sorry!” Yachi squealed, ducking her head in mortification. Tendrils of hair slipped past her face in a curtain.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kiyoko said lightly; Yachi could almost hear the wince in her voice. Then, more gently. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
Yachi unbent at Kiyoko’s soothing voice. She glanced upwards and saw Kiyoko staring back. There was something akin to a pledge in her eyes, but of what, Yachi did not know; it was like an invocation, but deeper and duskier still. Warmth enveloped Yachi, airy and whole, and she nestled herself into Kiyoko’s shoulder and found it to be home.
When you slay a witch, there is celebration. When you save a princess, there is ceremony. When you do both at the same time, it becomes a never-ending holiday.
For the third night in a row, there was a ball. Yachi shuffled nervously in the grand hall, feeling nakedly uncertain and frighteningly certain that everyone knew it. With every passing second, she wilted more and more; only the promise of Kiyoko’s presence kept her rooted. When Kiyoko finally appeared, she sprung up with palpable relief.
As Kiyoko parted through the crowd, Yachi flushed with sudden shyness. Kiyoko had always been radiant, but now she positively glowed; it was a sweet, lustrous light, like the sun rising after a stormy winter day. The world stilled, with Kiyoko at the center. Yachi licked her lips and found them dry.
“May I have this dance?” Kiyoko asked, eyes lively with mischief. When Yachi squeaked a yes, Kiyoko’s answering smile was almost coy.
Next to Kiyoko, Yachi felt small and graceless. Even when clad in armor, she did not feel nearly as brave or as confident as a knight should be; the dance floor only doubled her fear. As they stepped into line, Yachi clasped Kiyoko’s hip in an iron grip.
Time felt agonizingly slow, every movement burdened with self-conscious purpose. Yachi’s gaze wavered to Kiyoko’s eyes, her mole, her hair. Even through several layers of silk and steel, the heat of contact burned. But with every dance, with every song, Yachi felt tension unwind and uncoil. And with every step, Kiyoko spun Yachi’s wheaten existence into gold. Happiness bubbled within Yachi, frothy and light, and it lit her up like a lantern.
When the dance ended, Kiyoko’s hand grazed slowly down her arm and lingered. Her eyes darted downwards in uncharacteristic nervousness. Yachi wondered if Kiyoko was as reluctant to part as she.
“I have something to tell you. Meet me in the gardens?” Kiyoko asked, eyes solemn.
As they walked through the garden, Yachi felt as if they were floating inside a sea of light. The lanterns shone like pale suns amidst the thick greenery, mellowing out deep shadows until the boundary between light and darkness was soft and gauzy. The moon was a swollen pearl girdled in stars and fireflies, studding the sky with needlepoints of light. Amidst it all, the scent of flowers hung thick and fragrant.
They walked until darkness brought the castle back into its fold, until its lights were nothing more than colorless smears against a blackened world. Kiyoko stopped, turning to face Yachi. She was haloed in lamplight, her crown gleaming bright against the dark of her hair.
“I have something to confess,” stammered Kiyoko. It was strange seeing someone as composed and self-assured as Kiyoko choke on words, rattling them out like stones. It was like the world sliding out of place, where solid earth slipped into sand, than water, than air. “… I really like you.”
Yachi stared, stunned. The world fell away at her feet. She scrabbled for purchase with shaky fingers.
“Me?” Yachi squeaked once she found her voice again. She seesawed between elation and fear; there was no inbetween, just one extreme and the other. “Why me? N-not that I’m not flattered, because I really really really like you too! But isn’t there someone who’s better for you? I’m not really good at anything, I’m not even that great of a knight! I’m not tall or brave or smart-”
“Because you’re you,” Kiyoko interrupted softly. Yachi still did not understand. She gawped like a landed fish.
“Because you’ve always been by my side supporting me,” Kiyoko said, blushing lightly, “Because you like me for being me and no one else.”
Then she leaned forward.
And this – this Yachi understood: Kiyoko’s face, perpendicular to hers; eyes shuttered, eyelashes feathered with smoke. Her body said it all - there was nothing else but love. Yachi pitched forward, propelled as much by the force of her will as the tilt of her world.
Their kiss was a clumsy, gentle press - a question, then a promise. Soft, like shadows dappled across water. Kiyoko’s lips were a holy chalice from which Yachi drank, and she drank and drank and drank until she was completely drunk from the hope of it.
Kiyoko’s mouth descended along the curve of Yachi’s neck. A kiss below the jaw, against the flutter of her pulse, and then down to the hollow of her throat. Then she paused, her breath ghosting warm and gentle against skin. Yachi trembled.
Kiyoko exhaled and pressed her head against the crook of Yachi’s neck. Her eyes fluttered closed, her lashes skirting softly against skin. Yachi giggled in a giddy fluster.
“So um, what now?” Yachi asked in tremulous, delirious joy.
“Anything I guess” Kiyoko replied, blushing prettily. “As long as we’re together.” Their hands entwined. She smiled and Yachi unfolded, a morning glory in the sun.