It was almost noon and the sun was bright, shining in omnipotent glory through the windows of Kyoji Estate. I was sipping absentmindedly from a cup of tea, trying in vain to settle my stomach, while Physician Hong prepared another salve. His two assistants were out on errands.
Ryukou’s eyes slowly opened, blinking up at the ceiling while they adjusted to the brightness of the room. He continued to stare at the ceiling in confusion.
“Ryukou?” I noticed my brother awake and put down my cup. I came to his side and looked at his face to be sure he was actually conscious. “How are you feeling?”
The physician stood and crossed to Ryukou’s futon to check his pulse and temperature.
After a moment, Ryukou turned his head to gaze at me. “How long have I been away?” His question was simple enough, but he sounded like he had indeed been on a journey far away.
“It’s been about three days. You fainted, and the physician came. They called for the Royal Priest. You even confessed your sins for the final rites. Ryukou… you almost died.”
“I feel like that must be true. My head is heavy, and I feel weak,” he responded naturally, as if discussing your own demise was normal. “How did I find my way back?”
I shook my head, furrowing my brow. “I don’t know. You just did. We tried everything we could. I worried we’d lost you forever.” I swallowed hard in an attempt not to cry again. I would not cry in front of my brother.
“I see,” was Ryukou’s simple reply.
“His Highness’ fever’s broken,” the physician said to me in his gruff voice, “and His Highness’ pulse is normal too, if a bit weak.” He turned to Ryukou lying on the futon. “Your Highness, can you sit up?”
Ryukou nodded slowly and started trying to lift himself, but he trembled and ended up sinking down to the futon again. “I guess I’m a lot weaker than I thought.” He chuckled, grimacing as the movement obviously pained his shoulder.
Glancing at the physician, I started to lift my brother, while the older man stuffed pillows behind the Crown Prince for support. Ryukou looked a lot different, with his ebony hair down and his general unkempt appearance. Even his normally round cheeks had been stripped away of their excess fat and left his face looking gaunt, his high cheekbones jutting out and bags under his angled blue eyes. He looked older, though still just as regal. It was as if these changes made him look more mature.
With Ryukou sitting up, the physician found the pot of tea and poured him a cup. “Here. You must drink something. Your fever took a lot out of you, and this tea contains natural pain relievers.”
He tried to accept the tea, but he was still too weak to even lift his right arm. Wordlessly, the man held the cup up to Ryukou’s mouth and began to pour small, steaming portions down his throat. Ryukou coughed slightly as too much hot liquid went down, and they had to take a break before Ryukou could finish drinking the tea.
The physician also rubbed some of the warm liquid onto the Crown Prince’s chapped lips with a small rag, and he used the rest of the tea to wipe his face.
“Thank you,” Ryukou said, letting his eyes wander around the room. His eyes fell on me suddenly. “Brother, you look unwell yourself. You haven’t been starving yourself or depriving yourself of sleep for my sake, have you?”
I shook my head adamantly. “How could I eat or sleep when I worried that you might leave us. I thought I was going to have to stand at your funeral!” I was again reminded of the Royal Priest’s words. Maybe his fate is just…
“As you can see, I’m better now, and you needn’t worry about my welfare any longer,” Ryukou said. “The worst is over, Izka. Now please go worry about yourself for a while.”
“But I want to stay with you—”
“Izka,” Ryukou cut me off. “I may be on the brink of death, but so long as I can speak, I will tell you the same thing: take care of yourself. And I mean it. Just because I suffer does not mean you should suffer with me. Besides, I’m your older brother, and you should listen to me.” He smiled slightly, a little smug that I had no argument against him. He always had to play the age card, didn’t he?
With a sigh, I stood up. “Fine. But I’m coming back as soon as I’ve eaten and changed. And nothing you can say will change my mind. Gods and demons forgive me, because I cannot leave you for more than a moment.” And with that, I stormed out of the room and shut the door in defiance before I could warrant a response.
I wasn’t angry. Not really. If anything, I was relieved, happy that my brother, my best friend in the whole world, was safe from danger at the moment. I smiled to myself and walked the short way to my room.
When I entered the room, after lighting a few candles and oil lamps, I saw the riddle book resting on the low table, the red fabric binding folded neatly over the pages. Guilt washed over me anew, and I picked up the book again, turning it in my hands. Would Liu ever forgive me for my horrible sins?
After calling for a bath to be prepared, I sank onto the futon and cracked open the book while I waited for the servants to finish drawing the bath. I hadn’t bathed or even washed my face since the night we had arrived at Kyoji Estate—I had more important things to think about, like whether Ryukou would live or die—and especially after drinking more rice wine than I ever would have dared previously, I felt particularly dirty. I grimaced at the thought. Sure, I had drunk alcohol before, but it was usually just a few sips with supper, and only on special occasions.
I looked back at the book in my hands, remembering myself. I stared at the page for several minutes, focusing on reading, but I couldn’t seem to decipher any meaning from the words. I reread the same riddle six times, only to go back to the start with no idea what it was about. It was like I had never been taught how to read before. When the symbols began to dance around the page as if taunting me, I shut the book and pulled the pillow over my face with a groan. This is ridiculous, I thought. What is wrong with me?
I wondered if I was going mad. I’d heard somewhere that people who had endured much suffering in their lives ended up becoming rambling vagabonds, wandering the wilderness working their heretic magic on unsuspecting creatures and plants, with no place to go, and no one to understand their nonsensical mutterings. They had lost their sense of self somewhere far in the past, before the suffering infected their mind like a plague. This thought troubled me for some reason.
I laughed at myself. My mind must surely by deteriorating if I began to think like a superstitious peasant and rely on hearsay. I was a prince, by the gods! And above all else, a prince must be educated in the ways of science and logic, not rumors and mysteries.
Someone knocked at the door, and I told them to come in. When I realized it was the servants come to fill the bath, I lay back down and silently watched them pour jug after jug of warm water into the wooden tub, lulled by the repetition. After the servants finished their task, they bowed and left. I shut the book. I bathed, dressed myself in a fresh kimono, and combed my red hair into a bun, and then I asked a servant to ask when the King would be eating lunch.
The young man answered almost immediately. “Lord Rinosuke Kyoji has asked for the tables to be set by noon today for His Majesty and the rest of the household.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Let the kitchens know that I will be joining them.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Judging by the light outside, it couldn’t be more than half an hour before noon. I decided to start toward the dining room, partly because I didn’t know where else to be.
When I entered the large room, I found that my father and Oimé were already there at one end of the table, speaking to each other.
At my entrance, Father smiled, little wrinkles deepening at the outer corners of his pure blue eyes. “Ah, Izrekiel, I’m glad you have decided to join us. Come,” He beckoned for me with his hand.
I crossed the room and sat on the cushion at my father’s right side.
“I’m sure you’ve already heard the great news, haven’t you?” he said.
I nodded. “I was there when Ryukou awoke. But he is still very weak.”
He clasped his hands on the table with a thoughtful expression. “Yes. I did hear. This is such great news. I don’t think I could stand to see your mother’s face had he died.”
“He will not die,” I said, promising myself that such a thing would not come to pass. “He’s going to live a long time…”
I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder, and I looked up to see my father smiling warmly at me. “It was because of you,” he said. “The reason why Ryukou is still alive is because you never gave up on him. You were the only one who believed he would live, when the rest of us had given up hope. And the gods must have felt your earnest wish and granted him more time on earth. I am proud of you, my son. You have shown wisdom beyond your years.”
Suddenly, the King embraced me, wrapping his arms around me and pulling me close. It took me by surprise to be hugged by my father. Such displays of affection were uncommon for people like kings and their sons. I couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, my father had hugged me like this. It made me feel weird now, as a man, but I decided to silently accept the warmth for a little while, never mind the long, heavy sleeves that were draped over me like a child’s blanket. It was as if General Oimé wasn’t there. Finally, Father released me, and we each sat upright on our cushions again.
I stared awkwardly at my knees for a few minutes, unsure of what to say or do. After a bit, Father and General Oimé fell into easy conversation about war tactics again, and I was left to let my mind wander.