As it turned out, Lord Kyoji had a wife and a young son. His wife was a willowy woman with an oddly pinched face and a big forehead. She seemed nice enough, but she hardly spoke except to compliment her guests. Kyoji had a lot more to say, although most of it, I gathered, alluded to an inner self-importance. Their son, Shinji, who resembled his mother considerably, was a boy of ten and a half years, and he had as little in common with me as a stag beetle.
“What’s your name?” I asked when we were paired together at the table.
“Sh-Shinji, Your Highness.” The younger boy returned to wringing his hands in his lap.
“Do you like living here in Humira?” I tried to get him to open up to me.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
At that insipid reply, I sighed and turned toward my cup of tea, completely giving up on the hopes for anything interesting coming out of my shy little conversational partner for the rest of the meal.
I didn’t realize how hungry I was until the food was served. I made it halfway through the plate before stopping to drink anything. While Ryukou had been unconscious, I had hardly eaten. Most of the time, it slipped my mind, other times my simply didn’t feel hungry. And when I did eat, it was because someone had put food in front of me, and sometimes not even then.
After lunch, I dismissed myself and returned to Ryukou’s room. When I entered, Ryukou was upright, eating a small bowl of plain rice. He wore a fresh kimono, and his hair was combed, although it was still down from its usual top knot. I nodded to Physician Hong and came to my brother’s side again.
“How are you feeling?”
“I suppose I must be doing a lot better to feel hunger. My headache is mostly gone, but otherwise, I’m exhausted. It’s as if I didn’t sleep at all. And yet I missed so much.” Ryukou twisted his mouth and went silent, staring at the wall to ease whatever troublesome thoughts were raging on in his head.
He blinked suddenly, as if returning to himself, and started to scoop rice into his mouth again. I frowned.
I turned to the physician who was dozing off in the corner and said, “Why don’t you go find a place to sleep? I can watch the Crown Prince now. You deserve rest for all your hard work. You have mine, and my entire family’s gratitude for saving Prince Ryukou’s life.”
The old man looked surprised at first. Then he bowed low and said, “You are very kind, Your Highness,” and stood up to leave the room, his massive height towering over us.
Once the door was closed, I turned back to Ryukou, who was giving me an incredulous look.
“What?” I asked, with an eyebrow raised.
“Oh, nothing… ‘I can watch the Crown Prince now,’” he imitated in a much higher voice, smirking. “If anything, I’m the one who should be watching you, little Izka.”
I opened my mouth, but paused before I spoke. He was back to his old teasing, proof that he was recovering. “First of all,” I said. “I don’t sound like that. I’m not a little girl…” I grumbled under my breath. “Second of all, I have every reason to watch over you. Don’t want you fainting like an old woman again, now do we?”
I ducked before the pillow could hit me in the head.
Ryukou got out of bed the next day. At first, he was only able to walk around the room a few times before he was too tired again and had to sit down. But he was gradually getting better. For a week more, we remained at Kyoji estate while Ryukou recovered. I stayed with him for much of this time. Ryukou was irritable. His diet was steadily monitored so that he didn’t eat anything too rich, and he was encouraged to spend as much time possible resting. It was apparent that his shoulder still bothered him, but even that, the physician assured us, was healing well.
My brother spent a lot of time reading, when he was confined to bed rest. He had always been an eager scholar, but when reading was the only thing he could do, I could tell he was beginning to resent it. One time, when I visited him after lunch one day, Ryukou was lying back on his pillow staring at the ceiling. The book he had been reading, a religious philosophy record of some sort, lay draped across his chest, open to the page he’d left off on. Ryukou didn’t move or say anything when I sat beside him. He just blinked up at the wooden ceiling boards as if to decipher their meaning.
After several minutes like this, he said, “I’m starting to see symbols on the walls.” And then he returned to his silence.
Near the end of that week, he was able to walk around for most of the day, and he spent much of his time outside in the courtyards. He also dined with the rest of the household. As Ryukou’s strength returned, it was clear that we were going to depart soon. I wasn’t particularly inclined to stay. I was grateful to the Kyoji family, but I really missed my mother, and even the ocean near Gō Ataru.
Before I lost my chance, however, I wanted to see Liu again, to return the puzzle book if nothing else. I tried to meet her several times, but she always seemed to be busy—most likely avoiding me. The day before we were to depart, I brought the puzzle book to the servant’s’ chambers. I knocked on the door and waited for several minutes in the hallway, staring at my feet awkwardly. What would Ryukou think if he knew I was waiting outside the servant’s chambers for a girl, a girl with common blood at that? I avoided the thought.
My actions this time were inherently innocent, but I knew the implications it warranted to outsiders.
Finally, the door slid open, and a young maid looked up at me in surprise. Not Liu.
“Hello,” I said with a nervous smile. “Have you seen a girl named Liu around?”
For a moment the girl just gaped at me. I was used to this sort of response by now, especially from people who had never seen me before. Usually, they would ogle at my bizarre hair color, and then they would stare at my misshapen ears while they tried to mask their amazement. I knew this pattern all too well.
With a sigh, I added, “She’s about this tall, pale, and has a mole on her cheek, if that helps.”
The girl shook her head, as if to clear it, and returned to looking at the ground between us. “I could try and find her for you, Your Highness, if you wish.”
“Yes, that would be very helpful,” I said. “Thank you.”
She bowed and scurried off to do as she was told. I leaned against the wall and turned the book in my hands while I waited. Half an hour later, Liu approached.
“Your Highness,” she said with a bow. When she straightened her posture, she avoided my eyes.
I stood up straight and said, “I know it is late, and it probably means nothing to you, but… I’m sorry. Truly.” Then I dropped into a bow, knowing that I should.
Her eyes widened, and she started trying to pull me up. “Please don’t! You shouldn’t bow to a lowly person like me.”
I let her pull me up, but continued to stare at my feet. She backed away, once I stood again. “I came to return this. I’m leaving tomorrow, and I wanted to thank you again, even if you are unable to accept my apology. I understand if you won’t. You have every right to that. But I must ask nonetheless.”
Liu took the book and held it protectively against her chest. She was silent for a whole minute, and I felt like I was going to remain frozen there forever. Finally, she said, “You are forgiven, Your Highness.” But tears started to wet her eyes, and I knew that, truthfully, I had not been.
I shifted uncomfortably. After she wiped her tears, I said, “I suppose this is goodbye.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” she said quietly, and I wasn’t sure if I had expected her to say more. How foolish was I to think that this simple servant girl would have anything more to say to me? She was probably hoping to ward me off forever.
I tried to smile. “Goodbye.” I bowed my head once and started again down the hallway, leaving her behind.
Of course, I had liked other girls before, but nothing ever came of my infatuation. A temporary infatuation brought on by curiosity, that was all it was. Being a prince, very little was denied me, and if I had wanted to, I could have forced any girl to bed me, but even I had my reservations. People feared me and showed me respect because I was the King’s son, but I sometimes wondered if anyone would be kind to me if that fact wasn’t hanging over their head. I didn’t want to make love to a girl blindly, with my feelings being the only sincere ones.
I sighed to myself. But I knew I hadn’t been sincere. I had just wanted a temporary reprieve from my stress, a way to pass the time less painfully. Admitting that was too difficult, making me feel like a terrible person, and I pushed the thought away, instead focusing on my eagerness to return home. I smiled at the notion that Mother would be waiting for me.
The next morning, we woke early and met outside the front entrance of Kyoji Estate to bid our hosts farewell. We had already packed our belongings and were now exchanging our goodbyes with Lord Kyoji. The sky was clear, and the breeze was faint. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, letting my skin absorb the warmth of the sunlight.
When we were ready to depart, we led our horses out into the street to meet up with the soldiers. The King and General Oimé started giving out orders, organizing the men in a formation. The streets were still relatively empty at this early time, with only a few inhabitants going about their business.
“After all of this, I’m glad to be going home,” Ryukou said to me. “This is the first time I’ve wanted to return home so badly before.”
“Are you going to be okay on the road?” I asked, glancing at the sling supporting his left arm.
My brother nodded. “I will be fine just as long as we don’t ride fast. Don’t worry about it.”
Finally, once the men were arranged, we started riding. This formation was a little different than the one we had arrived in, however; instead of my brother, Father, and I riding in the center, we rode at the head, while General Oimé brought in the rear. Ryukou and I were both on the left side of Father.
Suddenly, in front of us, someone screeched in alarm, and something else… Outrage?
I looked up to see an old woman drop a large wicker basket filled with fruit. Its contents rolled across the dirt, forgotten by the old woman as she stared forward with wild eyes. Her eyes were full of fear, full of anger, resentment, disgust, a thousand emotions that I didn’t understand, and she was staring right at me.
“Demon! Foul abomination! How dare you infect this place!”
I froze, confused, and murmurs rose up from the soldiers. Somewhere, a horse snorted.
“Watch who you are speaking to so rudely!” Ryukou shouted. “He is the King’s son!”
She took no notice of him and jabbed an accusing finger at me. “This Kingdom shall crumble and burn! Demon, you have brought this!” She made a crude gesture with her hands and spit at me. The spit landed on my right cheek, and I wiped it away quickly, as if I’d been stung.
The men drew their swords in outrage.
“Seize her! Take this madwoman away!” the King ordered.
Several soldiers circled the old woman and grabbed her by the arms. She kicked and flailed in their grasp. One of them struck her across the face.
The woman looked me squarely in the eyes and screamed, “I curse you! You and your whole family! May you and your ancestors rot in hell for all of eternity, you unclean creature!”
Then, they dragged her away.
I was stunned. Murmurs rose into the air around me like smoke, threatening to suffocate me. I caught certain key words and phrases—things like “treason,” and “witch”—but I didn’t know how to respond to them. I stared off into space, unsure of what to do.
“Are you okay?” Ryukou asked once the commotion had settled down a little.
I was slow to respond. “Yeah,” I muttered. It wasn’t even convincing to myself.
Ryukou frowned. “I wonder what that old woman was going on about. She seemed to hate you for some reason. Do you have any idea why?”
I shook my head. “No… I’ve never seen that woman before in my life.” Suddenly my mind went back to the servant girl Aya, how she had run away from me without warning, and I wondered anew the reason why. Maybe there was something wrong with me; people couldn’t just hate someone for no reason, and hating a prince was particularly dangerous. Yet these two people had found some fault with me, some fault great enough for them to show outward signs, and in the old woman’s case, enough for her to shout threats and insults and to spit at me.
“Don’t take her words to heart, Izrekiel. She’s just a mad old woman, delusional in her old age,” Ryukou said, breaking me from my thoughts.
It was such a logical thing to say, yet I felt a cold, inexplicable fear grip me despite his words. I kept hearing her words over and over again. I curse you! You and your whole family! A tremor passed through my entire body.
“Izka?” Ryukou was watching me with an apprehensive gaze. “Don’t worry about that madwoman, Izka. Her ramblings have no truth to them. Nothing is going to happen. Nothing. It will all get sorted, and we’ll finally go home.”
“I know,” I said with a shrug. “I just want to leave and never return.”
Ryukou frowned and tightened his fist on the reins. “Stay here. I must speak with Father. Hyah!” With a snap of the reins, he galloped off on his white stallion, leaving me standing in the street in Kiro’s saddle.
The remaining soldiers murmured tensely amongst themselves in their formation. Some of them repeatedly glanced in my direction. Crowds of people had begun to gather in the street after the woman’s outburst and subsequent capture. Many of them craned their necks to see what was going on, others stared directly at me, and a few more discreet fellows watched quietly from their windows. It seemed that even after a Demali attack, curses and royal visitors were still a spectacle in Humira. I shifted my posture, uncomfortable under their watch. Instead, I focused petting Kiro’s mane.
The sky had gotten brighter, the air warmer, when Father, Ryukou, and Oimé had returned with the rest of the soldiers. I looked up and immediately began scanning the group.
“The woman has been dealt with,” Ryukou said, riding up beside the me. “You’ll never see her again.”
My father and Oimé exchanged a grim glance, and I picked up on my brother’s meaning. The woman was dead. I didn’t know why it bothered me. I knew her death was justified, and that she had threatened me and the entire Kitsura royal family, but somehow her immediate disposal seemed cruel. She was a frail old woman? What could she possibly have done to harm me?
All the same, I was glad it was over. I mounted my horse and stared forward. Nothing else had to be said.
Once we were all situated and back into formation, the King gave the signal, and we were off. As we rode west, Humira began to fade away into the distance as if to make way for the approaching forest.
It took us four days of leisurely travel to reach Gō Ataru. The weather was fair, and the morale of the group was high. The soldiers were returning home to their families, where they would be welcomed back as honored warriors. Even my father was in high spirits. When we stopped and set up camp each day, he would join the rest of the soldiers and share in their merriment with drink and games.
During these times, I again remembered my father’s age. Often, I forgot how young he was because of his severe nature. He was younger than many of the soldiers and General Oimé to, having not yet reached the age of forty.
My father became King when he was very young. Younger than me. My grandfather, Honored King Jihoron Kitsura was only thirty-nine years old when he was poisoned in his sleep. No one knew who murdered him, but the whisperings in the palace pointed out the Queen as a suspect. She was exiled, died of some unknown disease less than a year later, and was buried in a common, shared grave. And so, at the tender age of fourteen, my own father, Tammamori, was forced to take the throne, after just losing both his father and mother. He was the eldest and only son, and there were no other living relatives who could take the throne. Responsibility is not very often offered willingly; it is thrown at the recipient suddenly, like an unwanted gift.
At that time, my father was little more than a figurehead, but he had to learn his responsibility quickly all the same, and from that, the current King Tammamori was created, one who was sometimes detached and stiff with his own sons.
I seemed to be the only one who couldn’t enjoy myself. For most of the journey back, I hardly spoke, and only responded with curt answers when someone asked me a question. While everyone else laughed and celebrated around the campfires, I simply stared down at my plate and absently picked at the food with a blank expression.
Ryukou noticed my voluntary seclusion and continually asked me what was wrong, but I never had an answer. I would always respond with the excuse that I was tired from travel and wanted to go home, and then I would offer a weak, somewhat sad smile and return to pushing the food around my plate.
The one time Ryukou directly asked if it was the old woman’s antics that was bothering me, I said, “Maybe a little. It’s a strange feeling to be publicly hated by someone. But I’m sure it’s nothing.” And then I waved it off with a hand, and nothing more was spoken of on the subject.
As we travelled west, the trees became more sparse, and the air got slightly cooler. Thin wispy clouds formed high into the sky, creating little stringy patterns in the great expanse of blue. Finally, on the fourth afternoon since we had left Humira, the giant stone walls of Gō Ataru came into view.
We were finally home.