The wooden gate lifted with a rumble to let us inside. Many people bowed when they saw Father, Ryukou, and I at the head of the procession. I took a grateful deep breath of salty air and stared forward at the organized clusters of buildings that just barely obscured the ocean from my view. Oh, how I had missed the ocean.
As we neared the palace, the ocean came into view, a great expanse of blue and green, shimmering with the yellow sunlight.
The streets were bustling with people out on their daily business, but they parted and left a large gap in the streets to make way for the soldiers. Sayari Palace rested in the center of the city, just past the square, where roofs were shingled instead of thatched like most of the city. The square was where the wealthiest of citizens lived. Most of the people living in the square were scholars or philosophers of some sort, or they owned a major business, such as a textile trade.
For the Akas, social class was everything. Your place in society’s hierarchy determined many aspects of your life: where you lived, who you could marry, your education, and even who you were allowed to speak to, and with what form of language.
The soldiers escorted us to the palace before they were dismissed to see their families. General Oimé bowed to the King and departed toward his quarters.
Carved into the wood of the front double doors were exact mirrors of the Kitsura Royal Family crest, which was a collection of half-circles overlapped by teardrop shapes. It was the same symbol that my father, Ryukou, and I all had tattooed on our flesh. I dismounted Kiro and followed Father and Ryukou through the front courtyard to the entrance, where the door guards greeted us with a bow before opening the doors for us.
Mother was waiting for us in the throne room. She stood by the far right wall, staring out the high slatted windows at the fading sunlight, with her back to us. The length of her ornate rose dress flowed out behind her, past her feet, in layers of multi-toned fabrics. When she heard the doors open behind her, she turned to face us, her earrings and headdress bobbing to the sides. There was a moment of surprise before any sound was made, and I smiled at her.
Just as Ryukou was lifting his head, Mother embraced him tightly, and he made a soft sound as the impact jarred his wounded shoulder.
“Yu-Yu, foolish child! How dare you get injured and worry me so!” She pressed her face into the front of Ryukou’s robe and sniffled. He grimaced at the mention of our mother’s affectionate—and somewhat feminine—pet name for him. He was significantly taller than Mother, with his chin easily touching the top of her head, and he wrapped his good arm around her shoulders, his long sleeve trailing over her back.
“Mother…” He tried to pull himself away, but she held him close again, repeating his diminutive name over and over again, and he and I exchanged a knowing glance. It was only to be expected after all; for several weeks the Queen had been convinced that her eldest son had joined the dead, but now he had been returned to her, alive and breathing.
Finally, she wiped away her tears and released him, looking up at his gaunt face with her deep brown eyes. When she saw how much weight he had lost, she frowned and touched his cheek with the palm of her hand. “Yu-Yu… You look like someone else’s son. A much older, frail son.”
“I’m alright, Mother. I will be healthy again.” Ryukou removed her hand from his face.
“My Queen, you’re embarrassing him,” Father said, with a spark of amusement in his cerulean eyes. “Ryukou is no longer a child.”
She dipped her head and said, “My son shall be my son even when he’s wrinkled and has a twisted spine.” Then she turned toward me and held out her arms out to pull me into her embrace. “And how is my second son? Don’t tell me you are damaged too?”
“No,” I said with a light chuckle, accepting her hug. “I am left intact, Mother.” It was only partially a lie.
“Good. It’s hard enough having one son almost die.” She released me and turned to my father. “And how have you fared? Have you gotten enough sleep? You look tired.”
He smiled at her, and that rare smile, filled with all the warmth and affection as can be afforded by a King, made me feel like I had finally returned home. She was the only person in the world whom I had ever seen make him smile like that. For a moment, I was frozen watching them, like they were out of a story and not standing directly in front of me. I watched as Father discreetly stretched out his arm until his hand found hers. They held each other’s hands under their overlapping with a quiet, urgent firmness, locking eyes for a long time.
Ryukou and I passed a subtle glance and left them alone in the throne room. As soon as we were on the wooden porch of the courtyard, Ryukou slumped against the wall and released a heavy breath, suddenly looking tired, like he had run back and forth across the entire courtyard at least five times.
“I’m alright,” he said, waving me away with his hand. “Just give me a minute.”
I watched him warily. When we departed from Humira, I had thought my brother was healed, that he would be perfectly okay. But now, I began to doubt his health again. Was he truly out of danger? What if he fell ill again. I worried that this wound would never leave him. Was he still destined to die…?
Once his breathing slowed to a normal pace, I said, “Do you need me to call for someone?”
He shook his head. After a moment, he opened his blue eyes and tried to straighten his posture, but he was unsteady. I caught him by his undamaged arm to stop him from falling.
“Stay here. I’m going to go get Physician Hong,” I said, turning to leave. He caught me by the shoulder.
“No,” he said firmly. “Let the man sleep. He shouldn’t be bothered over something as minimal as this.”
I started to protest.“But—”
Ryukou cut me off. “I am only over-tired. The trip took a lot out of me, and I was not used to staying in the saddle for so long. My legs are weak. That’s all.”
“Ryukou, brother, how long are you going to be like this?” I asked, removing his grip from my shoulder. It ended up coming out in a whisper.
“Not long,” he said. “Not long…” I took it as a promise.
“Come,” I muttered, grabbing onto his arm. “ Let me take you to your bed.”
He surprised me by chuckling.
“What?” I asked.
He shook his head sadly. “It is a very tragic day indeed when my little brother has to watch over me.”
“Why not?” I demanded. “Am I not my brother’s keeper?”
He didn’t respond, and I brought him to his room in silence. When I laid him down on his futon and began pulling the blankets over him, he took hold of my arm wrist.
“Please…” He began, but stopped when I turned to look at his face.
“What is it?” I urged.
He pled again. “Do not tell Mother and Father.”
I wanted so, so very badly to ask why, but I nodded my acquiescence. I trusted Ryukou, and I was sure that whatever reasons he had, they must be honorable.
“Very well…” I started to leave, but changed my mind and turned to face him again. “Do need me to do anything for you?”
Ryukou shook his head. “No. I just need rest.” He failed to give me a convincing smile.
With a slight nod, I exited his room, closing the door behind me. I stood still in the courtyard for several minutes before I could force myself to leave. Did Ryukou see my silhouette linger through the paper of the door? I realized that I had been subconsciously feeling the pointed tip of my ear with my hand for quite some time while I walked and dropped my left hand to my side.
Now was not the time to be nervous. I was home, I was safe, Ryukou was safe. Everything was back to normal…
Ryukou didn’t seem to get much better. For months, he struggled with the simplest tasks. He was constantly in a state of irritability and tiredness, and whenever Mother or Father asked him how he was, he always responded that he was perfectly fine, and, yes, his shoulder was feeling better. I was the only person he ever showed his weakness to, and it made me miserable.
After about a fortnight, he finally removed his sling and regularly tried to use his left arm, but it always pained him. After a month, he could lift his arm, but if he tried to raise it above his head, it would once again cause him pain.
Despite it all, Ryukou always put on a brave face, and he continually tried to get better. I could tell his weakness bothered him, but he fought through it anyway. After two whole months, he began practicing his archery again. He called me out with him to practice with him, like we used to when we were young kids, competing over every stupid little thing.
Just like always, we took turns trying to hit the target in the center, where a small red X was marked. The first few shots were a bit rusty for both of us, barely hitting the target at all, but after a dozen tries, I had warmed up enough to hit the target regularly. You see, I had always been a little better at archery than Ryukou. That was the one thing I could beat him at. He was a better swordsman, tactician, debater, and he was definitely smarter and wittier. But he had never, by any means, been a poor archer either.
Again and again, I watched him knock an arrow, pull the bowstring taut near his face, and aim for the center mark. Again and again, he missed, and he could never get closer than two inches from the red X. After the fiftieth shot, he couldn’t even pull the bowstring far enough back to shoot the arrow a few feet, sweat coating the skin of his forehead. The arrow landed head-down in the dirt.
For a second, I saw anger flicker in his eyes, then a disturbing calm took control of his features. He picked the arrow out of the ground and walked away toward the palace without a single word.
I began to pity him, and that pity probably made him feel so much worse. He could sense it, I’m sure, with his ever-knowing eyes. Whenever I assured him that he was recovering well. Whenever I offered to help him. Whenever I forced myself to laugh or smile. Whenever I saw him struggle, and then went silent. Every time, he knew.
When summer came, he stopped going outside to exercise altogether, choosing to remain in his room and study maps or read philosophy accounts.
“It’s too hot and arid today,” he said one time. “I’ll catch hyperthermia.”
When I asked him another time, why he remained inside, he made the excuse of “having way too much work to do.” I knew he was just hiding from his own shame.
One day, in midsummer, Mother and Father called Ryukou to the study. They said they needed to speak to him about something important. When I asked what it was, Father said, “You’ll find out soon enough,” and I was told to wait until Ryukou came to hear what they had to say. It was something I had to hear too, it seemed.
Ryukou entered the room with only the slight look of curiosity on his face. He stood in the doorway and waited.
“Sit down, son,” Father commanded.
He obeyed, taking his seat on a cushion beside mine. Mother and Father sat across from us at the low table, glancing nervously at each other. Mother suggested we call for tea, and then we waited for the tea to arrive. Then we waited for the servant to pour cups for all of us, and to set them out on the table, and to leave. And then we waited some more, because Mother assured us that we had to make ourselves comfortable before we settled into serious conversation.
I wondered if they were going to speak about the war. It wouldn’t be unexpected, after all. The war had taken over all of our thoughts since it began. If we weren’t worrying about the troops at the border, or the towns being ransacked, we were worrying about the next time we had to fight ourselves, or when we might lose a loved one to the enemy lines. Even a prince wasn’t immune to such fears. Hell, even Ryukou had almost died. My powerful brother. Even he wasn’t safe from death at the Demali hands.
For several minutes, we sat in awkward silence, trying to ease into conversation, but the silence only made it more uncomfortable. I glanced at Ryukou beside me, who was calmly sipping his tea. He seemed completely unperturbed. Perhaps it was just me worrying over nothing. Perhaps the matter they had to speak to us about wasn’t nearly as serious as I thought. I held the teacup gingerly in my hands, soaking in the warmth. I waited.
Finally, Father turned to look at Ryukou, his bright eyes probing. I guess he decided it was time, because he cleared his throat and put his cup down.
“Ryukou,” he began, “You know your mother and I have been married for a very long time, yes?”
Ryukou nodded, taking another sip of his tea. His eyes just barely met Father’s. It was such a stupid question. We all knew our family’s history.
“I was Izrekiel’s age, and your mother was even younger,” Father continued, hesitantly, glancing in my direction. “We didn’t know each other at all before we were wed, and for the first five months after our marriage, we didn’t speak to each other unless out of necessity. When your mother was carrying you in her womb,” he paused and looked fondly at Mother, “I believe we began to love each other.”
The scene was so strange. Why would they bring up something so obvious and sappy?
“Well,” Father went on, “the point is, we were forced together out of necessity, and eventually, we grew fond of each other, despite everything.”
Ryukou blinked slowly, clearly not understanding what the point was.
“What we mean to say,” Mother chimed in, reaching over the table to hold Ryukou’s left arm, which was free, and he flinched slightly, “is that you mustn’t feel despair over what is to come. It may—”
Father cut her off. “Ryukou.” His voice was suddenly firm. I watched the pair of them: His Majesty with his eyes fixed on Ryukou, and Ryukou staring back at him in uncertainty.
He put his tea down suddenly, straightening his posture. “Yes… Father?”
“I have arranged for you to be married. She is a girl from a prestigious family, and her father is one I know well. The date has been set before the summer’s end, and…”
“You can’t!” I shouted. I had stood without realizing it. “Ryukou’s only just recovered, and he is still—” I stopped short. I almost said what he forbade me to say: that he was still unwell.
Father looked at me in confusion and anger at my little outburst. “Spit it out. What is it, son?”
I shook my head. I had promised.
Mother broke the tension by touching Father’s shoulder. He let out a shallow sigh.
“Perhaps there is someone else…?” She looked at Ryukou, searching his face for any trace of emotion. But Ryukou revealed nothing.
Father turned again toward Ryukou. “Is there another girl?”
My brother just stared at him, silent and emotionless.
He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw impatiently. “Ryukou,” he asked quietly, “Is there another girl?” After a moment, he added, “Don’t make me ask again.”
Ryukou opened his mouth to speak, but paused apprehensively. Mother and Father held their breaths. “No,” he said. As soon as the word was uttered, we all collectively released a sigh of relief.
“Ryukou…” Father put a hand to his head.
Mother reached out and hugged Ryukou for no apparent reason. “I’m glad there isn’t another girl,” She said. “Now I needn’t worry that your heart will be broken.” He seemed stunned, staring blankly forward, unable to register the situation.
I began to pity him again. I hated to pity my older brother, whom I’d always looked up to as a mysterious and powerful man. But here I was, pitying him like he was a starving dog.
“Since there is no… girl that could possibly dissuade you, I assume, you have no problem with this then.”
“No, Your Majesty,” Ryukou said, his voice empty.
“And you will be getting married in no more than a month.”
“Yes… Your Majesty.”
Father waved a hand in dismissal, and Ryukou bowed stiffly and left the room without another word. For a long, tense moment, I stood still in my Father’s study, watching the door. I glanced back at Mother and Father, meeting their eyes in turn. Father was unwavering, Mother looked apologetic. I frowned and followed him.
Ryukou was already halfway down the hallway, his step slow, and his posture as straight and stiff as a reed. I watched him sadly for a moment before I ran up beside him.
“Why did you go along with everything? Why didn’t you fight back?” I asked adamantly.
“Why must I fight back?” He responded, glancing at me beside him. He continued walking.
I stepped in front of him so that he was forced to stop and look at me. “Because it’s your life. You should be the one to make its choices.”
Shaking his head, he stepped around me. “I have made my choice: and that choice is to not fight Father’s decisions.”
“Do you want to get married to this girl? Do you even want to get married at all?” I demanded, falling into step with him again.
“Not particularly,” was his simple response.
“Then why…?” I trailed off, shaking my head.
“Because I am tired,” he said. “I don’t have the will to fight them on the matter.”
“But—” I began.
Ryukou spun to face me suddenly. “Royals don’t have the right to fall in love of their own will. We must marry someone who will bring honor to our family, and continue the bloodline.” He released a sigh. “And besides, I am much older than they were when they married. Much too old. I almost died but three months ago, Izka. What might have happened if I had, and there was no heir to take my place? What if you had taken my place? Then you would be the one being married, and not me. I will not fight this, because I know it is necessary, and because I am simply too tired to make enemies with Mother and Father.”
After several seconds, I finally spoke. “Do you think they would resent you?”
“Mother wouldn’t, but Father might. And I don’t want dissention in our family.”
I stared at him long and hard. “Are you going to be okay?” I asked, glancing down at his left arm by his side.
He grabbed it with his other arm self-consciously, then let it go again. “I’m going to have to be.”
The numb sadness in his eyes was hidden once again as he turned around and stalked past me. I watched the back of his head, black hair immaculate in its topknot, as he walked to the end of the hallway and turned around the corner, disappearing from sight once more.
And I knew with certainty that my brother was unwell in more than one way.