Title: The Perfect Peach [Atobe/Momoshiro, Atobe/Hyoutei]
Rating/Warnings: R for Atobe having seven wives.
Summary: Emperor Atobe searches the kingdom for the person who can paint him the perfect peach.
AN: This is based on a fairy tale which I read some years ago, which I'm reasonably sure was Japanese, but can't turn up a link for now, where an emperor holds the contest mentioned above, which all the artists in the kingdom fail, but a country woman cleverly wins, by the exact means used in the story. Written for Valentine's Day, 2007. Thanks to goldie for brainstorming with me.
The Perfect Peach
Once upon a time, there was an emperor who lived far to the north and ruled an entire kingdom of ice. His palace was carved of marble and glass, so fine that it seemed to be made of icicles, sparkling in the morning sun.
But the Emperor was not pleased with this.
The emperor, whose name was Atobe Keigo, also had six wives, each lovelier and more accomplished than the rest. His first wife was a tensai at household accounting, so that Atobe's wealth only ever grew. His second wife liked nothing better than to curl up on Atobe's lap and sleep adorably. His third wife had long, beautiful hair that poets had written many haikus about. His fourth wife played the koto so beautifully it made courtiers weep. His fifth wife was bendier than a blade of fresh spring grass. His sixth wife spent all his time thinking about ways to please Atobe and outshine all the other wives.
But his wives did not please him either. (Although occasionally it was very pleasing indeed the way that wives three and four acted as though they were husband and wife.)
One day, as the emperor sat on his throne, glittering of diamonds that seemed as perfect snowflakes, he turned to his first wife.
"First wife," he said, "I am not pleased with you."
"Well, husband," said the first wife, barely looking up from his accounting ledger, "I'm not particularly pleased with the way you spent fifty thousand yen on grape popsicles last month."
"They were for the dinner party," Atobe said stiffly. "They were made from the finest southern grapes and the purest of spring water. And they matched the drapes."
"Mn." The first wife put down his pencil and eyed the emperor from behind stern-looking glasses, which generally Atobe enjoyed in context, but since at this moment it seemed it would not likely end in the first wife punishing him for being a bad, bad emperor, it did not please him. "Perhaps you might find a less extravagant way to occupy your time this month, my emperor? At least until the grapes recover."
"I am the emperor, you know," Atobe retorted.
"Whatever pleases you, lord," the first wife answered mildly, his voice a soothing purr, and with that went back to the accounting.
"Hn." The emperor put his chin in his hand and stroked idly at the hair of the second wife, whose head was as usual located in the emperor's lap. "What pleases me? But I have everything already, and I am not pleased. I have a palace made of such fine marble and glass that it seems to be made of icicles sparkling in the morning sun, and I have a throne that glitters of diamonds that seems as perfect snowflakes, and I have six wives, each lovelier and more accomplished than…"
"Do you mind, my lord?" the first wife interrupted, causing the emperor to ponder silently.
He pondered through the morning, while his sixth wife catered to his every whim and tried to start rumors about the other wives. He pondered through the afternoon, while his fourth wife played the most beautiful songs he knew to please Atobe (Atobe was too preoccupied to weep, but the third wife did end up naked, and that, as previously mentioned, was briefly pleasing). He pondered all through dinner, when his second wife woke up only for the strawberry ices, and into the night, when his fifth wife was at his bendiest.
At last, lying recumbent upon his royal bed, which was covered the finest lavender silks (but still did not please him, just for the record), in between wives one and five, the emperor had an epiphany.
"What this place needs," he announced, ignoring the way it was well after midnight, "is a touch of summer. Kabaji!"
"Usu," answered the emperor's faithful manservant, who was standing beside the best like usual.
"I have a message for the whole kingdom!"
The announcement made its way into every city and town: the emperor was holding a contest, and whoever won would receive unimaginable and wondrous rewards, as well as a lifetime supply of grape popsicles.
All they had to do was paint a peach for the emperor.
"That's it?" the sixth wife asked, raising an eyebrow. "A peach?"
"The perfect peach," Atobe clarified, and the other wives all said "Aha" because they knew all about coming up with something perfectly pleasing to the emperor. Especially wives three and four.
The first to show up to the contest was a tall, handsome man, with glasses almost as stern as the emperor's first wife. He bowed and introduced himself as the finest teacup painter in all of Edo.
"I trained for seven years before going professional," the man said, bowing politely. "My brushstrokes are never careless. Are you sure you would not prefer something more exotic? A dragonfruit, perhaps? A pineapple?"
"I do have more than a passing fondness for gr—" The emperor cut off when the first wife cleared his throat delicately. "I mean, just the peach is fine."
The teacup artist bowed again, then settled himself into a perfect seiza and set up his supplies. First, he ground and mixed his paints, pinks like the salmon that grew fat in the mountain streams, and oranges like the flowers that spread over the hillsides in spring, and reds like the fifth wife's favorite hair dye.
He tucked back his sleeves and began to pain, each stroke of his brush precise and graceful. He painted through the morning, while the emperor and his wives watched, and through the afternoon, while not only the second wife, but also the third and fifth, napped with their heads in the emperor's lap (it was quite a magnificent lap for being so accommodating).
Finally, when the last of the sunlight was fading from the hand-carved panes of the palace windows and the thousand painted lamps had been lit, at last the teacup painter straightened from his work, one hand pressed to his shoulder.
"I have finished, Keigo-dono," the teacup painter said, face betraying no sign of either pride or pain. "Here is your peach."
The emperor rose from his diamond throne, scattering yawning wives in all directions, and approached the painting, examining it on all sides and from every angle. Many long minutes passed in silence, except for the third wife's super lame snores.
"It is a magnificent peach," Atobe said at last. "It is perfectly round, and painted with the pink of the mountain salmon, and the orange of the hillside flowers, and the red of the fifth wife's favorite hair dye."
But the emperor still sighed.
"However, it does not please me."
After the failure of the most honored teacup painter in all the kingdom (who had taken his consolation prize of two-weeks' supply of grape popsicles rather well, immediately applying one to his shoulder), several days passed with no further tries.
On the third day, however, the lure of the promised rewards grew too great, and another challenger arrived.
The one was taller and sterner than the teacup painter, and although he lacked glasses, the emperor still drew some of his imperial kimono over his lap. He introduced himself as the finest cricket-cage painter in all of Edo.
"I have trained my arm with archery so that my brush strokes will be firm," the man said, "and I have disciplined my spirit with training in the strictest dojo in Japan. But would your majesty not enjoy something more delicate than a peach? Nightingales, perhaps? Or newly-blossomed sakura?"
"Well, I really like—" The emperor broke off with a sigh when the first wife gave a sharp yank to the swatch of fabric across his lap. "No, just the peach."
The cricket-cage painter set to work, mixing yellows like the first rays of sunlight in the morning, golds like the last rays of sunlight in the afternoon, and a pink so delicate it put the most secret places of the fourth wife to shame.
His brush strokes were steady and did not waver from morning until night, even when the emperor could bear it no longer and disappeared with the first and fifth wife for quite some time, returning with heavy eyes well after the thousand lamps were lit.
At last, when three hundred and twenty-seven of the thousand lamps had already gone out, the cricket-cage painter straightened and presented his peach.
The emperor stood from his throne and approached the peach, limping very slightly. He examined it from all sides and from every angle, standing for many long minutes in silence, except for the second wife mumbling something about fuzzy yellow balls in his sleep.
"It is an exquisite peach," the emperor said at last. "It is smooth and seems so real that I might feel the fuzz against my fingertips, and you have painted it with the yellow of the first morning sunlight and the golds of the last sun in the afternoon, as well as a pink so delicate that it puts the most secret places of my fourth wife to shame."
"You have secret places?" the third wife asked the fourth wife quietly.
And yet the emperor sighed again.
"But it still does not please me."
And so it went in the following weeks, with artists from all over the kingdom arriving and painting peaches for the emperor. They were painters of tables and walls and fish and shougi pieces; they painted big peaches and little peaches, round and fuzzy and split peaches, and still the emperor was not pleased, and the first wife despaired of ever getting rid of the grape popsicles.
At length, a man arrived who was hardly more than a boy, who eyed the emperor lazily from beneath his very strange and small hat.
"I'm the finest yaoi mangaka in all of Edo," the teenager said.
"Now this sounds promising," the emperor said, sitting up straight for the first time in a week and a half. "Can you paint me a—" the emperor cut off suddenly at a sharp kick from the first wife. The emperor sighed. "Just the peach."
"Che," the teenager said, pushing his hat back just far enough to take a good look at the emperor and his wives. "That's all?"
"Believe me," the emperor grumbled, "people with far bigger and less silly hats than you have tried."
So the yaoi mangaka sat down, sprawled out over the floor rather than in a proper seiza, and turned his silly hat backwards so that it looked even sillier than before. But yet, the colors that he used were ivories like skin that had never seen the sun, and pinks like the lips of a young lover, and reds like the blush of the third wife the morning after his wedding.
He worked even longer than the other artists, mostly because he took frequent breaks for naps and Ponta. He painted for so long that the emperor and his wives retired to the imperial bedroom for the night, and when they returned in the morning, they found the teenager asleep in front of his completed peach, and also a three-foot high pyramid of Ponta cans.
The third wife nudged at the teenager with his foot, as gently as a flower is alighted upon by a panda bear, and the fourth wife whacked the third wife across the back of the head equally as gently.
"Oh, it's you," the yaoi mangaka said, sitting up and rubbing at the marks the tatami had pressed into his cheek. "There's your peach."
The emperor approached the peach and examined it from all sides and from every angle, bending closer than usual because his imperial eyes were still heavy with beauty sleep. Many long minutes passed, although it wasn't very quiet at all since the wives had long since learned to have their breakfasts without bothering for this interminable peach business.
"It is a marvelous peach," the emperor said at length. "It is curved like the spine of my fifth wife and looks sweeter than the ripest strawberries in summer, and you have painted it with ivories like skin that has never seen the sun, and pinks like the lips of a young lover, and reds like…"
"It doesn't please him!" the third wife interrupted hastily while the other wives laughed and pointed at him.
"It doesn't please me," the emperor agreed sadly.
"Whatever," said the mangaka.
Despairing of the entire situation, the emperor decided to take a walk through the luxurious gardens which surrounded his palace, full of sweet roses and lilies, fragrant with exotic fruit trees. Hoping to escape the attentions of even his wives, especially the sixth one, Atobe slipped out the back and proceeded through the royal kitchens and out to the back courtyard.
It so happened as the emperor was leaving the palace, a local fruit vendor was making his delivery to the imperial kitchens. The emperor was immediately captivated by the young man, whose muscled forearms flexed in the sun as he lifted his crates of fruit, and whose hair was blacker than the finest lacquer and spikier than the fugu fish. He did not notice the emperor at first, but went on humming a song to himself as he worked that involved him grunting 'Fight-o' in time to the thump of the crates.
The emperor was so involved in the sight, that he forgot himself and heaved a sigh, making the fruit vendor nearly drop a crate on his foot.
"Oi!" the man snapped, turning with a glare, but as soon as he noticed it was the emperor, he immediately bowed as deeply as he was able. "Excuse me! You startled me, your majesty."
The fruit vendor's eyes were deep purple, deeper than the finest grapes from the south, and the emperor's head emptied of all but one thought.
"Oh," he said, voice wistful, "how I wish you could paint me the perfect peach."
"Peach?" the fruit vendor straightened up and tilted his head to one side, then grinned so that his strong, white teeth flashed in the sun. "I can do that, for sure!"
"Do you paint?" the emperor asked as the fruit vendor led him back inside the palace, because painting was a strange hobby indeed for a strapping young fruit vendor.
"No, not at all," the man shook his head, smiling more. "Not at all."
The wives eyed the fruit vendor disdainfully when he entered the throne room and whispered among themselves, but the vendor ignored them. On the floor was still the bowl of paint left from the yaoi mangaka, a wide, shallow bowl made from the most delicate porcelain, and the fruit vendor inspected it.
"If you require other colors," the emperor offered, "we also have pink like the fat mountain salmon, and orange like the last sun in the afternoon, and red like the—"
"Will you knock it off with the reds already!" the third wife snapped, tossing his gorgeous hair like an irritated waterfall.
"Nope, this'll do fine," the fruit vendor answered, reaching down to flip over the canvas from the mangaka. "Just fine."
And with that, the vendor hiked up his yukata in both hands, so that the rough cloth rose above his well-muscled thighs ("Oh MY," said the first wife), and sat down right in the bowl of paint.
The emperor, too shocked to speak, held his tongue until the fruit vendor had stood up again, and calmly sat back down on canvas.
And when he arose, where his skin had touched the canvas, there remained the perfect curves of a peach, sweeter and rounder than all the others.
The emperor examined the peach from all sides and every angle, and he remained speechless for long minutes. At long last, he spoke.
"This peach is rounder than the full moon," he said, "and looks softer than the first snow in winter. This peach, more than all the others, is truly perfect."
"Well, I am a fruit vendor," the man said, rubbing the back of his neck. "A fruit vendor. Say, what's the prize for this anyway?"
And so the emperor took a seventh wife, one whose smile pleased him more than all the simpering of his sixth wife, whose spine curved every bit as nicely as his fifth wife, whose voice was sweeter than the koto strings of his fourth wife, whose dark hair felt softer than the tresses of his third wife, whose head found Atobe's lap more often than his second wife, and whose eyes, purple like the ripest grapes of the south, moved the emperor even more strongly than the glasses of his first wife.
"Say," the emperor said, after his seventh wife had attended to all his wifely duties thoroughly and even the fifth and third wives had been satiated, "what's your name?"
"Hm?" his seventh wife cracked open an eye, his voice rough from being so sweet all night long, "Oh, it's Takeshi. But everyone calls me Momo." The seventh wife yawned and settled in closer, the curve of his ass fitting in perfectly against the emperor's lap, and already falling back asleep. "Momo."
And the emperor was very, very pleased indeed.