I lifted my head off the floor and groaned. My head throbbed, and my tongue felt thick in my mouth. My cheek had an imprint from the tatami mats I was lying on, and I was glad no one had been with me last night to witness my drunken state. It was mainly a lot of mumbling to myself and then passing out gracelessly on the floor, but it was still embarrassing, especially for a prince. I should not have drunk so much last night… I peeled myself off the floor and stumbled toward my futon in the dark where I practically threw myself onto the silken blankets.
Through the slats in the window above me, I could just barely see the moon radiating the last of its dull light. I couldn’t remember when I fell asleep last night—this night, I reminded myself. I remembered telling a servant to bring a bottle of rice wine to my room, and I remembered pouring the first few cups, but my mind blanked after that. And here I was, waking up with an intense headache and an unsettled stomach.
Groaning quietly, I turned onto my side to hug my midsection. I stayed in a fetal position like that for a long time, dozing off, yet unable to fall asleep. Looking at the moonlit sky through the window, I realized that I hadn’t slept very long. Only a few hours had passed, and the stars still shone brightly in the sea of black. I could hear the vociferous thrum of the cicadas chirping outside, their orchestra of high-pitched clicks and rattling creating a distracting sort of repetition. I listened to them for a while, but my mind began to wander to other things.
Ryukou was with his wife, was he not? The servants had ushered them away together immediately after the wedding, so I could only assume what was going on…
I shook my head at the thought. I didn’t want to think about my brother right now. Thinking of him only reminded me of his current situation, which left me in an impregnable state of melancholy. While I knew marriage wasn’t too awful a practice, I still found it ridiculous for a man to have to bind himself to someone eternally for the sake of heirs. Was it really that important? And right now, while Ryukou was still young and had so much time before him? I thought back to a few months ago, when we thought he was going to lose his life, and I understood a bit better, but I still didn’t find any comfort in that.
My parents had not been ready when they married, and Ryukou was probably even less prepared. He had never shown any sign that he wanted to be with a woman, now that I thought about it. Maybe be was just a lonely type of person, who didn’t know how to recommend himself to others and find easy acquaintances. For a moment, I wondered if it would perhaps be a good thing for Ryukou to be married. Maybe he and Ghita would learn to love each other well, and maybe Ghita would help him to be less reclusive.
Trying to piece things together in my mind, I stared up at the wooden ceiling. After a long time, I realized I had to urinate badly. I pushed myself off the blankets and sat up, rubbing my throbbing temples with my thumb and forefinger. Strands of hair hung messily over my face, and the pins had been tangled into the knots of orange, leaving it completely unkempt. My movements were hazy as I pulled the pins out to let my hair fall over my shoulders in a heap.
When I climbed to my feet, I realized that I was still dizzy, seconds away from falling to the ground again. I stumbled forward and grabbed the wall to support myself. After a few minutes, my head cleared enough that I was confident in my balance, and I hobbled to the papered door. When I slid it open and peered out into the hallway, bleary-eyed, I noticed that there were still lanterns lit at the corners. A few guards stood at attention every few meters, keeping watch over the sleeping palace, but the servants were all gone.
The guards glanced over at me as I passed them, making my way toward the privy house outside. It felt leagues away at this moment, perhaps because of my state of urgency. I barely had time to register any of the details around me as I rushed through the halls and out past the doors of the building. The night air bit at me with its insistent chilly fingers, but I hardly noticed as I slipped into the enclosed wooden building.
After I was finished, I walked slowly back to Niu Miro, feeling much better. I yawned, dragging my cloth shoes over the wooden floorboards, but after a few minutes I started to hear a sound nearby. My ears seemed to latch onto the disturbance, and I froze for a second, listening. I heard whispering voices echoing lightly around the left corner. With gentle steps, I followed the sound, watching the shadows that played against the yellowish lantern light at the end of the hall.
I turned around the corner and almost ran into a servant woman who was perched on the ground in front of a room. I stepped back and blinked, confused, and then I noticed that she wasn’t the only one sitting outside the room. There were four servant women huddled in the dark.
“What are you…?” I started to say, my voice quiet, but then I saw the shadows move within the room, their silhouettes black against the translucent paper walls. I saw one of the figures, a man, sit up from his position on the ground, moving back from the other figure, which I could only assume was a woman, who was lying down. The man froze, as if it was watching me, and I gaped in sudden realization.
These were the servants instructed to witness the Crown Prince and Princess’ marriage consummation.
“Your Highness?” one of the women whispered, looking up at me. “Do you need something?”
I shook my head, my ears burning. “No,” I responded in the same hushed tones. “I heard something… I-I’ll go back to bed.” As I snuck away again, feeling flushed and silly, I heard their soft giggling ring out behind me.
In the morning, my throbbing headache was hardly better, but I was able to function, which was a miracle on its own. Today, the official celebration of my brother’s nuptials were to occur. It took me until the late afternoon to finally rouse myself enough to get ready.
I walked slowly down the hallway, gratefully letting the afternoon sun soak into my skin. It was hot and arid, but I was glad for it, feeling the wind rustle the thick fabric of my kimono. I was dressed simply, with a black silk kimono with a white and blue leaf patterned sash around my waist, and my hair was arranged in a topknot, keeping it out of my face.
As I passed servants, they bowed and then hurried to continue their tasks. But quite honestly, I simply wanted go back to sleep. The tea I drank that morning was all I’d had all day, but I was afraid to eat anything else more substantial for fear of seeing it anew—in my lap. Even still, my head was foggy, and my stomach was churning uncomfortably.
What the hell? I thought. People drink all the time, and they never seem to be this affected by it. Why am I so weak to it? I imagined for an instant what Ryukou might say in response. “Because you are still a little child,” maybe. “Because you are more like Mother, soft and dainty,” perhaps. “You aren’t a true man yet,” most likely.
Thanks, Ryukou. Thank you for your wisdom, I grumbled back, in my head. When I realized that I’d been holding entire imaginary conversations in my mind, I shook my head. Alas, it seemed I was going mad after all.
I came to a large entryway for the massive double doors, at least twice my height, flanked by four guards wearing warrior’s headbands and armed with tasseled bronze-tipped spears. I paused, listening for the sounds within. I could hear some quiet conversation, a few people chattering, but nothing more. With a deep breath, I approached the doors.
Two of the guards nodded and grasped the gold-plated handles to thrust the door open.
My family had never had much use of the throne room. It was only used to greet important guests, to host large parties like this, and for certain ceremonies, like a coronation. Usually the large hall was almost entirely empty, with a rug leading up to the two large thrones atop a lifted platform at the far wall, one slightly taller than the other (for the King, of course). That was where my parents sat, a tall table in front of them for the feast. Beside Father’s throne, two other chairs had been placed atop the pedestal, surely for the Ryukou and his new bride, and another chair had been placed beside Mother’s throne, for me, I realized. Sometimes, when the King held council, there were cushions spread out for the elders and war leaders.
But now, the hall had been decorated with potted plants and long drapes down the wooden walls. Low tables had been spread out throughout the room, surrounded by circles of pillows. Candelabra and lanterns filled the room with a yellow and orange glow, and jugs of rice wine were set on every table. No tea, for tonight was a special event. Who drank tea when invited to the King’s table? The food had already been prepared; but it would not be brought out until more guests arrived.
There were a few guests already spread throughout the room, mostly noblemen and their wives and children, and perhaps a few wealthy tradesmen, or soldiers who had earned honor with the King. My mother and father were absorbed in their own conversation. No one seemed to have noticed my presence yet, and I was glad for the temporary shield of anonymity. If I wasn’t afraid of my father’s wrath, I might’ve returned to my room to avoid the whole spectacle, but I knew better. Besides, I couldn’t very well leave Ryukou alone at such a social event; he hated crowds. With a shallow sigh, I approached my parents across the room.
Father looked at me when he noticed me in his peripheral. After a moment of appraisal, he asked in a dangerous tone, “Where have you been hiding this whole time, since the wedding yesterday?”
I was about to answer when my mother spoke. “Izka, you look unwell. Are you ill?” She reached a pale hand out to feel my forehead, much to my utter embarrassment.
I gently took Mother’s hand from my forehead. “I’m quite alright. I simply had trouble sleeping is all.” I attempted a smile, but I felt it waver, a fact that my mother immediately picked up on. “Do you need to see Physician Hong? He was able to help Ryukou before, when he had trouble sleeping. That’s what your father tells me.”
Father nodded, watching our exchange with curious eyes.
I simply bursted out laughing. If there was an easy cure to this, then people would drink for every meal, and for the time in-between too. I knew I shouldn’t laugh like that in front of my parents, so unrestrainedly, but I couldn’t stop myself.
My father narrowed his eyes. “Have we said something amusing to you?” he said, serious.
I trailed off, forcing myself to go perfectly still. “No, Your Majesty. I’m sorry, Your Majesty.” I offered a little bow of my head.
For a moment, it was just the two of us locking eyes. I forced my eyes to fall to the ground between us, and I could feel my father’s gaze boring into my head.
It seemed like ages before he mumbled, “You silly boy... Please seat yourself.”
The result of his words was instant. I straightened myself, forcing my face into an emotionless mask… but I knew I couldn’t hide my true emotions as well as Ryukou. No one could. “Yes, Your Majesty.” I crossed to the chair beside my mother and sat without another word.
Whenever my father was angry with me, he referred to me as a boy instead of as a man. I had already gone through my rite of passage, hadn’t I? By legal rights, I was a man, I knew.
But it didn’t matter, because, by legal rights, a man was still bound to his parent’s words. And all the more, for my father was a king.
I watched as the room filled up. Men and women, and a few younger children entering and finding a table to occupy. Men pouring rice wine and congratulating each other. Women chasing their children. Old women gathering to pass blessings and gossip. A few nobles and war veterans approaching the King and Queen to offer their congratulations. Everyone was occupied doing something.
I watched it all in half-interest. Only every now and then did someone say something requiring my attention. Rarely did an important person care to speak to the younger prince when the King and Queen are before him.
By now, the servants had begun bringing food to the tables. All of it was hot and rich or otherwise carefully prepared, but my stomach only churned at the thought. When my mother pointed out my lack of eating, I had no choice but to fill my plate. I tried to be sure to only take the simplest things, but even then I didn’t feel up to eating. I nibbled on some plain rice and some steamed vegetables, but I didn’t bother with the rest, twisting my chopsticks in my hand absentmindedly.
Weariness started to wash over me suddenly as I ate. I really wished for water or tea, or anything other than alcohol, in all honesty. My mouth was starting to feel dry, and my throat was scratchy. I touched my neck subconsciously. Did thirst also make it harder to breathe? Either way, I decided to get something to drink from the kitchens, nevermind why I wouldn’t drink rice wine at such a boisterous event. I stood from my chair and began toward the door, easily getting past the hordes of people who backed away to let me pass.
I slipped out of the throne room and down an empty hallway, making my way to the kitchens. I knew they were most likely in chaos right now as they tried to prepare all the dishes for the tables, but I needed to get water or tea to ease the dryness of my throat.
It dawned on me that my face felt hot, all of my skin really, and it felt like little ants were crawling all over my body. It was getting more difficult to breathe. What is wrong with me? I wondered. Weak, I thought. I am such a weak bastard. Half a day without water and I can’t breathe? No wonder they thought I would die when I was born…
I sucked in a strained breath, trying to gulp in as much air as possible, as if it was water and I a fish. But I still couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen. I could hear my pulse beating faster and louder in my ears, a drum against a thin blanket, and my palms felt sweaty. Breathe dammit! Breathe! I commanded myself, panicking.
This had happened to me before. I remembered it with clarity, but I didn’t understand how it was happening again. I didn’t know what to do. I needed help. Someone please… help me.
I stopped walking and leaned a hand against the wall to keep myself from collapsing. I began to focus on breathing, despite the pain in my throat. My vision was blurring to black, but I couldn’t call out for help.
My ears picked up someone’s concerned voice in the distance, and I looked up, the world shaking around me. In the corner of my eye, I saw a figure walking toward me. Who? I cocked my head to the side, wheezing, but I couldn’t make it out. Whoever it was said something again, but it registered in my brain as a strange buzzing thrum. Everything slowed down, like the clocks had stopped telling time.
“....alright, Your Highness...?”
He was a few inches in front of me, touching my shoulder. I finally recognized him as General Unodu, one of my father’s trusted men. His brow was furrowed in concern, and his mouth was open as he spoke.
“Your face is red,” he said, taking my arm as my knees started to buckle under me. He said something else, his voice louder for some reason. What was he saying? Little dots started to appear in my vision, and I blinked to clear them away, but it didn’t work. Help… Help! I tried to speak, but my mouth felt like a pile of mush. I felt a pressure on my shoulder… Help… me…
The ground rose to meet me, and I saw no more.