puss_nd_boots: (Subaru Antithesis)
[personal profile] puss_nd_boots
Title: A Sort-Of Fairy Tale, Chapter 7
Chapter: Chapter 7 of ?
Author: Boots
Rating: This chapter PG, eventual series rating NC-17
Genre: Fairy tale AU, romance, drama
Warning: For this chapter, just language
Pairing: Final pairings of the series confidential for now. Currently, it involves Yo-ka (DIAURA) with a harem that includes Subaru (Royz), MiA (Mejibray), Yuuki (Lycaon/Initial’L), Ruiza (D), Hiyori (Kiryu) and Hiro (Fest Vainqueur). Also Toya (Gotcharocka) x Subaru.
Disclaimer: DIAURA belongs to Ains, Royz and Kiryu belong to B.P. Records, Mejibray belongs to White Side Group, D and Gotcharocka belong to God Child Records, Fest Vainqueur belongs to PLUG RECORDS west, Initial’L is property of Battle Cry Sound Company. I own the story only.
Overall Story Summary: Once upon a time, there was a prince named Yo-ka whose father forced him to go through a Culling – a process by which a group of young men are gathered from each district of his kingdom and he eliminates them one by one until he finds his true love. There was another prince named Toya, who came along to offer his brother moral support, but planned to stay away from the fray. And there was a candidate named Subaru, who arrived from one of the country’s poorest districts with little more than a head full of dreams. All three were about to get more than they bargained for . . .
Chapter Summary: During the last few days of the Culling, Subaru and Toya have an unguarded moment – which just happens to be witnessed by a certain person . . .
Comments: We’re almost there! The next installment of the series will be a long chapter that will be posted over two consecutive days, and then there will be a final wrap-up chapter. (And this very well may not be the last you’ll be seeing of this royal family . . .)

When Yo-ka and Subaru left the royal retreat for their final date together, at least in a Culling setting, Subaru felt a slight pang in his heart. Another finality, another step toward this experience coming to an end.

They got into a car that took them outside the boundaries of Ekkisu proper. “Where are we going?” Subaru said.

“To a fair in the next town over,” Yo-ka said. “I asked myself, what kind of date would Subaru most appreciate? And this popped into my mind right away. Because it's just pure fun.”

Subaru smiled, widely. “You've gotten to know me well.”

“Have you gotten to know me well, too, Subaru? You said last time we were out that you think of me as Yo-ka now, instead of the prince.”

“I think I have,” Subaru said. “I know you're someone who has a lot of love inside him – not just for a significant other, but for his friends, his brother, and his country. And you'll fight to protect all of them. Also? You like cake and bowling, and you tend to set your marshmallows on fire and then frantically blow them out. And you love melon soda.”

“You noticed that?” Yo-ka said.

“You always drink wine with dinner like a prince is expected to do, but you always have a glass of melon soda off to the side,” Subaru said.”

“You really did pay attention,” Yo-ka said. “I like that.”

When they arrived at the fair, Subaru was actually very glad his companion had chosen it. Yo-ka was right – it was just pure fun, and the kind of thing Subaru needed to distract himself from the melancholy idea of everything coming to an end.

They went on a Ferris wheel and bumper cars, where the two of them took childish glee at slamming into each other. They played a game where they shot water into a balloon to make it pop, and Subaru was amused by the fact that Yo-ka's aim was pretty bad. (Good thing princes aren't really expected to be in the military, he thought). Subaru won, receiving a teddy bear keychain as a prize, which he clipped to his belt loop.

If nothing else, I have something to remember all this by, he thought.

After they went on a couple more rides – including a merry-go-round where Subaru thought Yo-ka looked flat-out adorable clinging to the horse pole like a little kid and laughing – they got an order of takoyaki and sat together on a bench.

“I'm so glad we came here,” Subaru said.

“I am, too,” Yo-ka said. “I haven't been to one of these since I was a kid.”

“You went to fairs?” Subaru said.

“Our nanny used to smuggle us out to them,” Yo-ka said. “She never told my father, though. He'd have a fit. Toya was even more aggressive with bumper cars than you were.”

The mention of Toya made Subaru's heart sink to his stomach. Another reminder that tomorrow was the last day with him. He said, quickly, “Your nanny must have been a great person.”

“She was,” Yo-ka said. “She understood that we were kids first, not princes. We spent more time with her than anyone else back then, of course, since our parents had their royal duties.”

“I wouldn't do that,” Subaru said, quietly. “If I were royal, and a parent? I'd always make sure I made time for my kids, no matter what.”

“Would you do that, Subaru?” Yo-ka said. “Adopt kids, I mean?”

“Well, sure, I'd be open to it,” he said. “If I was with a person I was happy with, and we had a stable life, and we both felt we'd have enough time to spare? I would.”

Yo-ka squeezed his hand. “You put a lot of thought into that.”

“I'd want to make sure the kid felt loved and happy, of course,” Subaru said.

“I know I've said this to you before,” Yo-ka said, “but I'm going to say this again, because I mean it on so many levels – I'm so glad I've gotten to know you, Subaru. I really am. You made me look inside myself and find feelings I'd pushed to the side years ago.”

Subaru's heart twirled within him. Oh, my God, he thought, is that a love confession? Is he going to ask me to . . . am I The One? And then, the same panicked feeling he'd had in the cafe – do I want this, or don't I? – washed over him.

But Yo-ka continued, “You helped me find a few missing pieces of Yo-ka that I pushed aside in favor of The Prince.”

Subaru relaxed. “I'm glad,” he said. “And . . . and I want us to still be in each other's lives, in some form, no matter what happens.”

“You don't have to worry about that,” Yo-ka said. “At all.”

When Subaru finished eating his last takoyaki, Yo-ka said, “You have a bit of sauce on the corner of your mouth.” He leaned over to wipe it off, gently . . .

Then he leaned over and quickly kissed Subaru on the lips. It was just a brief touch – a couple of seconds, and then he pulled back – but it made Subaru's heart flutter.

“We need to go back soon,” Yo-ka said, quietly. “Is . . . is there anything else you want to do before we leave?”

Part of Subaru was thinking, yes, I want you to kiss me again. Another part was saying, no, no, if that happens, who knows what it'll lead to . . .

Instead, he said, “Let's go on the merry-go-round again.”

“I'm definitely in agreement with that,” Yo-ka said.

He held out his hand to Subaru, and they headed for the ride together.

* * *

Subaru and Toya tried to maintain normalcy as much as possible when they arrived on the beach the next day. They went straight out to the waves, and Subaru watched, impressed, as Toya rode them with confidence – even pulling off a few sharp turns.

He really has come a long way, Subaru thought. His love for this sport is genuine, it's not just an un-princely thing he did to spite his father.

They left the water, and Toya punched the air. “Yes!” he said. “I'm a surfer now! A real one!”

“You are!” Subaru said. “And I'm so proud, Toya!”

“I'm going to make sure everyone I know sees my new skill,” he said. “They're going to be surprised.” He flopped down on the sand, and when Subaru sat next to him, he hugged the other man. “I'm so glad I met you!”

Does he mean that just in regard to the surfing? Subaru thought. Or . . . or other things?

He found himself hugging Toya back. “I . . .I'm glad, too.”

“What's wrong?” Toya said. “You suddenly looked sad.”

Subaru leaned his head on the other man's shoulder. “I don't want to say goodbye,” he said. “We kept saying we were going to make the most of every moment, and now the last moments are here, and . . .”

“Subaru,” Toya hugged him closer. “It doesn't need to be the end. Not at all. No matter what happens from here . . .” He leaned back and put his fingers under Subaru's jaw, tipping it upward. “This doesn't mean you go back to Royz and work as a clerk, and I go back to the prince crap, and we never see each other again. Okay? We'll . . . we'll surf together again, I promise.”

They were so close, their lips inches apart, and all Subaru wanted to do was close that last distance, to bring his lips to Toya's, to experience the kiss he'd wanted all along.

But if I do that, he thought, it will lead to another kiss, and another, and it could lead to us finding somewhere private to do more, and what happens if tomorrow I get chosen as his brother's Pledged . . .

Subaru was so deep in his thoughts he didn't notice the figure standing a few feet away from them on the beach, just kind of staring at them. The person turned and walked away, quickly, as Subaru reluctantly eased back from the other man.

“I want to see you on that longboard next time,” he said, with a forced smile. “Keep practicing.”

“You'd better believe I will,” Toya said.

As they got up and headed back to the palace, they didn't even notice they were passing Yuuki, who was just standing by the edge of the sand, thinking.

* * *

Yuuki wondered if it were fate, or karma, that brought him to a part of the beach where he didn't normally go.

It was his intention to set up his chair, put on his hat and sunglasses, and take a short nap. He was trying not to think about tonight, where Yo-ka would announce his final two, and the possibility of tomorrow, where he might stand before the king as Yo-ka named his ultimate choice.

And then, he saw Subaru in an embrace with the prince's brother that left nothing to the imagination as far as their feelings were concerned.

He knew Subaru was giving Toya surfing lessons – they'd both casually mentioned it. He didn't know, however, that those lessons had very obviously led to something else.

They're nuts about each other, Yuuki thought. And I know that Yo-ka likes Subaru, a lot. In fact, I'm almost sure he's a shoo-in for the final two.

Yuuki realized he was sitting on a bombshell of information. He could take it to Yo-ka right now and ensure his position as Pledged. The crown prince certainly wouldn't want to put the bejeweled collar around the neck of a guy who was in love with his brother.

He hesitated, eyes on the palace, knowing Yo-ka would be returning from his final date with MiA right about now. All I have to do, he thought, is knock on the door of the royal salon and say it's an important matter . . .

His head dropped. No, he thought. I'm not an asshole. And I genuinely like Subaru. I'm not going to backstab him. But . . . I definitely need to talk to him. He will have a decision to make if Yo-ka offers him that collar, and I need to make sure he doesn't make the wrong one.

* * *

Dinner was a surprisingly boisterous affair, considering it was their last night. They talked about funny things that happened during dates and fun things they all did together. They compared notes on what the worst train ride was, and they laughed at Yo-ka's imitations of the Duke's announcements – which even the Duke seemed to get a kick out of.

When they were finished, Yo-ka said, “Guys, this has been the best month and a half of my life. I mean it. I thought a Culling would be a horrible experience, but it was a great one. But you know what? I'm still not going to make my successor go through one.”

“Really?” Yuuki said. “Why not? You just said it was the best six weeks of your life.”

“I'm going to give him something else,” Yo-ka said. “I'm going to send him on the road with a diverse group of his citizens, to be sure – but not necessarily to find love. To find friendship. To have him get to know all kinds of people from all walks of life, and genuinely appreciate them. That's what a real ruler is – someone who understands and appreciates the needs of everyone, not just someone who appreciates the needs of a chosen few.”

He stood up. “And with that said . . . I guess I have to make a big announcement, don't I? And I want all three of my final candidates to know . . . this isn't a reflection on any of you, because you've all made a huge impact on my life.” He paused. “The two coming to the capital with me tomorrow are . . .”

MiA stood up. “Yo-ka, I know it's Subaru and Yuuki,” he said. “And it's okay.” He walked around the table to hug the prince. “I'm glad. They deserve it. And . . .”

“And?” Yo-ka said.

MiA looked down. “Being away all this time made me realize that there's someone back home I have feelings for.”

The group gasped – except Hiro, who said, “Like all of you are shocked. He talked about Koichi constantly.”

“I asked myself after our date, what would I do if you asked me to move on to the palace? And I realized that I'd say no . . . because of Koichi.” He suddenly gave a proper bow and said, “I'm sorry, Your Highness.”

“MiA, what's all this 'Your Highness' after all this time?” Yo-ka said, softly. “And you don't have to apologize for your feelings. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little bit jealous of your Koichi. But I want you to go home and be happy with him . . . and then, I want you to bring him to the capital so I can meet him too, okay?”

MiA hugged him again and went back to his seat. Yo-ka faced the group again. “Well, I don't have to make that one, do I?” he said. “MiA made it for me.” Everyone laughed. “My next announcement is regarding titles. I've had the royal clerks draw up documents this afternoon, and I'm going to sign them here and now. As you know, under normal circumstances, a king is the only person who can elevate someone to nobility. But during a Culling, that power is also transferred to a prince. And now, it applies to you.” He paused. “ALL of you.”

Hiro and Hiyori looked at each other. “Us, too?” Hiyori said.

“Yes, you, too,” Yo-ka said. “In addition to the nobility titles commonly in use now, there's a title called Viceroy, which hasn't been given out in recent years. It's the old title of the regional governor. Nowadays, well, it's kind of like Baron and Marquis and the others – it conveys no real duties, other than representing your district at official functions. But it does make you nobility.”

He reached for the pile of scrolls next to him, pulled off the top four, and signed them. “One copy for you to keep, one to be filed at the main palace,” he said. “And so, I officially convey on you the titles Hiro, Viceroy of Fest Vainqueur, and Hiyori, Viceroy of Kiryu.”

They both ran over to him and hugged him from opposite sides. “Whoa!” Yo-ka said. “You're going to squash me like a wine grape!” He handed each of them their scrolls, and a small box. “These are your badges of office,” he said. “Whenever you come to the capital, or an official function in another district, you wear these, okay?”

“Don't worry,” Hiro said. “I'm going to be wearing this everywhere. I'm going to have this thing on my pajamas.” Everyone laughed.

“As for the rest of you,” Yo-ka said, “I looked into what nobility titles have been given out in your districts, figured out what was available – and I gave you the highest one I could.” He looked at Yuuki. “In some cases, it was harder than others.”

He proceeded to distribute scrolls and badges of office to the others. Ruiza was named the Earl of D – “Well, that's not what it says on the documents, but I don't want to pronounce that full name, either,” Yo-ka said, as everyone laughed. MiA was named the Marquis of Mejibray, with a promise that “if things work out with your Koichi, I'll give him a title, too.” And Yuuki was named the Grand Archduke of Lycaon.

“Whoa,” Yuuki said. “That's a bit heavy. That was really the only one available?”

“Yes,” Yo-ka said. “I checked. Hey, you deserve it!”

“I feel like I need to upgrade my wardrobe or something,” Yuuki said, and everyone laughed.

“And finally, Subaru,” Yo-ka said. “Your district has never had nobility at all, so this was easy. You are now officially the first Duke of Royz – and that is how you will be introduced to my father tomorrow. A true noble, inside and out.”

Subaru swallowed hard. “I . . . I don't know what to say,” he said. “The last thing I expected when I came here was . . .”

To make the final two? he thought. To make it past the first round at all? To meet so many wonderful people? To . . .

He looked at Toya. To fall in love?

But instead, he said, “To end up with a big title. Is that going to go on my boating license?” he said. Everyone laughed.

Subaru sat down, looking at the new badge of office now pinned next to his fully-filled rosette.

I'm a duke, he thought. This is insane. A tugboat clerk from Royz is a duke!

But he knew, on so many levels, that he would never be that tugboat clerk again.

* * *

Yo-ka looked at the stack of suitcases by his door, waiting for the staff to pick them up. It had been a once-a-week ritual until now – but this time, there was something so final about it.

I can't believe I'm going to be back at the main palace tomorrow, he thought. I can't believe I'm going to be back in front of my parents, and that I'm going to make an announcement that will change my life – and someone else's.

Who was he kidding? His life was changed already – and so were the lives of everyone else who'd come with him on this journey to the end. No matter what he said in front of his parents tomorrow, he knew that, in so many ways, he wouldn't be able to let any of them go.

He'd gone on this journey to find a romantic partner – and found a group of friends who'd taught him so much about his own people.

There was a knock on the frame of the door. He looked up, and saw Motoki, holding a manilla envelope in his hand.

“I beg your pardon, Your Highness,” Motoki said, bowing, “but I have those statistics you asked for. The ones about happiness and productivity in our country versus the Duchy of Gazetto, remember?”

“Oh, yes,” Yo-ka said. “Thank you very much, Motoki.”

“I'm sorry it took so long,” the assistant said, bowing again. “I ran into more complications than I . . .”

“Motoki, it's fine,” Yo-ka said. “You were supposed to get it by the time we left Ekkisu. We're still here. You made your deadline.”

He opened the envelope and started to read – and his eyebrows shot up. This was even more than he was hoping for. It most definitely merited discussion with his brother.

Yo-ka looked in the room next door – but Toya was nowhere to be found. He's probably in the royal salon, the prince thought, and took off, envelope in hand.

* * *

Subaru was passing one of the parlors, on his way back to his room, when his way was suddenly blocked by Yuuki stepping in front of him.

“I need to talk to you,” the nobleman said.

Subaru looked at the violet-haired man. He's my one rival, he thought. The only other person Yo-ka could pick. The only person standing between me and . . . what? Happiness?

He stepped into the parlor, Yuuki following him. “Yuuki,” Subaru said, “what's wrong?”

Yuuki paused for a moment, running a hand over his hair. Crap, he thought, now that I've got the boy here, how do I put this? I don't want to upset him, or make him think I'm being a bastard and I just want Yo-ka for myself. Well, I DO, but that's not why I'm doing this.

“Subaru,” he said, “how do you feel about tomorrow?”

“Well, I never thought it would be me, quite frankly,” Subaru said. “I was the last person I thought would make it this far. So, I'm kind of . . . shocked, I guess would be the word?”

“I mean, how do you feel about the possibility of being picked? About . . . about Yo-ka?”

What is he getting at? Subaru thought. “I . . . I think he's a wonderful guy,” he said. “One of the sweetest ones I've ever met.”

“But it's not him your heart belongs to, is it?”

Oh, no, Subaru thought. That doesn't sound good. Not at all. “What do you mean?” he said.

“I saw you on the beach with Toya,” Yuuki said. “Subaru, I'm not saying this because I want you out of the way so I can have Yo-ka. Believe me. I'm not a backstabbing bastard. But . . . but when I saw you and Toya, the way you were looking at each other, touching each other . . .”

“Nothing's happened between us!” Subaru said, panicking. “Nothing! I . . . I've just been giving him surfing lessons, that's all! And, I mean, we hung out in town, but that was with everyone!”

“Nothing needs to have happened,” Yuuki said. “When two people are meant to be together? Sometimes, their hearts start talking to each other before their bodies catch up.”

Subaru looked down. “Yuuki, I'm . . . I'm sorry, I never meant for anything like that to happen, I didn't want to mess up the Culling, I . . .”

Yuuki reached down and grabbed the other man's hand. “Subaru, it's okay! You don't have to apologize! If anything . . . you may have made it easier for me.”

“You're in love with Yo-ka?” Subaru said, quietly.

“Well, as you know, we've all spent the same amount of time with him,” Yuuki said. “I don't think it's enough time to truly call myself in love with him yet. But I want to get to know him better. I . . . I really think the potential for a relationship is there. Just like it is for you and Toya. In fact, you've spent much more time with Toya than you have with Yo-ka, so you're probably a lot closer to true love than I am.”

“You think that I should go to Toya and confess to him?” Subaru said, quietly.

“No,” Yuuki said. “Not yet. Let's see what happens tomorrow. But remember, the candidate has the right to refuse being Pledged if he doesn't return the Crown Prince's feelings. All I'm asking you to do is look within yourself and ask yourself honestly . . . if the prince chooses you, how will you answer?”

Subaru looked away. “Even if Yo-ka doesn't choose me . . . even if I don't choose him . . . how can I be with Toya? He has to go through a Culling of his own . . .”

“He doesn't need to!” Yuuki said. “He's already found someone in a Culling! And if their father doesn't like that . . .” He put his hands on Subaru's shoulders. “Just sleep on everything I've just said, okay? And be ready for what you're going to say tomorrow.”

Subaru nodded quietly – and then was shocked when Yuuki flat-out hugged him.

“You really are a good guy,” Yuuki said. “You deserve to be happy, no matter what form that happiness takes.”

“So do you, Yuuki,” Subaru said, quietly.

They both left the parlor in silence, neither noticing the figure by the door who ducked away into the shadows.

* * *

Yo-ka pressed up against the wall, thinking over what he'd just heard, trying to catch his breath.

He'd just been passing by on his way to find his brother. He didn't mean to eavesdrop. But once he'd heard the conversation of his final two candidates, he couldn't help it.

His first reaction was shock. My own brother? he thought. My own brother, my flesh and blood, my best friend, the person I love most in the world . . . has made a claim on Subaru's heart?

He didn't know whether to be furious or happy for them. He was just baffled. How could this happen? he thought. How? He was just around to observe . . . I knew Subaru was showing him how to surf, but I didn't know things went that deep . . .

Yo-ka closed his eyes, the past weeks running through his head. But of course, he had time to spend with Subaru, didn't he? he thought. He didn't have rigidly structured dates, he could be with the candidates whenever he wished . . . and when people are together a lot, feelings grow naturally, don’t they?

He almost laughed. I was right about Cullings the first time, he thought. They really are a lousy way to find romance – for the prince at the center of it all.

Yo-ka knew he had to do some thinking. A lot of it, in fact. But first, he needed to see someone. . .

* * *

Toya had gone straight to the royal salon after dinner. He needed some time alone, and he didn't feel like going back to his room yet.

He'd been avoiding the idea of this being his last full day with Subaru until now. He couldn't any longer – it was staring him in the face.

Tomorrow, he felt, was going to be like knives in his soul – especially if Yo-ka picked Subaru. Well, hell, he couldn't do anything about it, could he? This was a Culling – his brother's Culling. The whole damn purpose of this whole thing was for Yo-ka to get to know these men, and find a potential mate, and become Pledged to him.

Toya was supposed to be an observer and to lend moral support. Nothing more. He certainly wasn’t supposed to find the possible-love-of-his-life among the candidates.

If he picks him, Toya thought, I have to smile and be supportive and get used to the fact that he might end up my brother-in-law. If he doesn't . . . what do I do? Do I just charge out to Royz and pull him out of that damn tugboat office and tell him that . . . that what? I'm going to carry him away on a white steed like those heroes in ancient stories?

The door of the salon burst open. Toya looked up to see his brother with an agitated look on his face.

“Toya,” Yo-ka said, “I need to talk to you.”

* * *

In the town of Royz, the same merchant boats that normally went out loaded down with goods were being filled – but this time, with people, many of whom were carrying picket signs bearing the slogan “POWER TO THE PEOPLE.”

“The plan,” Ohbuchi said, “is for the boats to arrive at the capital at dawn, looking like just another merchandise drop. But then, we get out and immediately head for the palace. By the time the prince arrives to make his big announcement? We will be there, and we will make SURE they hear our voices. We won't let up until His So-Called Majesty comes out to listen!”

“And if he sends the guards after us?” one of the younger members of the crowd said.

“If we have to fight, we'll fight!” Ohbuchi said. “I can kick a gun out of a guy's hands, you know! We can't back down – not if we want the palace to finally LISTEN to us! Look, one of our guys is a Top Two finisher in this Culling, that means we're being taken seriously, right?”

Subaru's three friends stood off to the side, watching. “I don't know about this,” Tomoya said.

“Look, we don't have to get involved with all this Power to the People stuff,” Koudai said. “We're just riding along with these guys so that we can get close to the palace and see Subaru. If he's chosen, he'll come out on the balcony with the prince and be introduced to everyone as his Pledged. If he's not, he'll be sent home, and we'll be out there waiting for him, because he'll need to see friendly faces then.”

“And if these guys DO get into it with the palace guards?” Tomoya said.

“We find a place to hide,” Kuina said. “Look, Kodai's right. If Subaru's chosen, we want to see that moment in person. If he's not, he's gonna need us. Either way, we should be there.”

“All right,” Tomoya said. “But we're staying hidden, at least until the prince makes his decision.”

“Nobody will notice us,” Kuina said.

Ohbuchi, meanwhile, was standing there beaming, watching his improvised troops march into the boats. “That's it!” he said. “We're going to make a show of strength like nobody has ever seen! The Royal Family is never going to be able to ignore the voices of their own people again!”

* * *

In the study of the main palace, the king sat, quietly fuming.

He'd been fuming since the first reports started coming in from Lycaon. His son had approached this whole Culling – this sacred duty to find a mate – like it was a roving frat party.

Instead of trying to get to know young men of breeding and distinction – the proper mates for one of his kind – Yo-ka tossed them all out in the early rounds and chose to surround himself with ruffians and riff-raff. The king had listened to the radio interview with horror. None of these boys was a suitable mate. Even the one noble in the group was, of all things, a cabaret singer.

And then came the reports from Ekkisu that Yo-ka was even refusing to send home the young men he'd cut. He kept them hanging around – thus completely defeating the purpose of a Culling. Discards were supposed to be just that – discarded. Out of sight, out of mind, never heard from again.

Well, sometimes a discard found their way back into your orbit later – but that was after the fact, after you were properly Pledged, then engaged, then married.

But the final insult was the announcement of the final two candidates – and one was the boy from Royz. My son has picked a guttersnipe, the king thought. A young man from the lowest dust. The kind of person we would barely hire as a servant here. Lower Districts are invited to Cullings as a formality. Their candidates are supposed to be just for show, let go after the first round – not to be held on to until the end!

Yo-ka has made a vile mockery of this entire process, beginning to end, the king thought. If I had known his Culling was going to go like this, he would have never gotten one. The very thought of a lowlife from Royz sitting on the throne of the Royal Consort, where only ladies of quality and distinction had sat before . . .

He opened a drawer full of correspondence and pulled out a letter he'd filed away several weeks ago. It seemed the king of a far-flung kingdom was seeking to marry off his two daughters to men of royal blood, and was asking if he would be interested.

In the morning, he thought, I will have my secretary draw up a letter to that king, accepting his offer. And if Yo-ka does not make the right choice tomorrow . . . or if he shows no repentance at all for his behavior during this mockery of a Culling . . . it will be mailed. One princess brought here for Yo-ka, to be his bride . . . and Toya sent to their kingdom to marry the other.

This is still a royal family, no matter what kind of antics my son pulls, the king thought. And it will be respected as such – or else.
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