When I had turned eleven, my parent’s imported the seeds of a strange foreign fruit and had them planted in one of the many palace gardens.
They were bright red and slightly triangular in shape, small enough to fit in my hand, with miniscule greenish seeds on the skin and small leaves sticking out from the wider end. I marveled at them for a moment, turning them up and down.
“Mother, what are these?” I had asked at the time, when they were served during our luncheon.
She seemed surprised by the comment, but then noticed the berries in my hand and smiled. “Those are an import. We purchased the seeds from a trader from a far-off island to the west and planted them in the gardens to grow. They are called ‘strawberries’ if I remember correctly. Try one, Izka, you’ll like it.”
I nodded. Strawberries, eh? I turned it in my hand to look at it again. What an inconvenient fruit to eat, I remember thinking to myself. I started to scrape off the seeds with my knife, but when I heard Mother laugh, I turned toward her with a questioning gaze.
“No, Izka. You’re supposed to eat it whole, with the seeds.”
“Eat the seeds?” I raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
She smiled again and picked up a strawberry for herself. “The seeds are easy to swallow, and they are just as good for you as the fruit.” She stuck the strawberry in her mouth, biting off the leaves and chewing the rest in demonstration.
I was still skeptical, but I trusted my mother, so I put the knife down and hesitantly bit into the fruit, holding it by the leaves as she had. The juice was tart and sweet all at once, and the fruit had a weird thorny texture, but one that wasn’t altogether unpleasant. I found that she was right: the seeds were easy to swallow, and they created a strange, unsettling crunchiness in the skin. For a moment, I tried to understand what I’d just eaten. Then I turned to my mother and smiled.
“It seems you are right,” I said.
“Of course I’m right,” she affirmed, nudging my shoulder softly. “I am your mother after all.”
We both broke into quiet laughter after that, stifling the noise as best as we could so as not to disturb my father and straightening our posture again.
After less than ten minutes my throat began to get itchy. At first, I thought it was nothing. I had deluded myself into thinking that I could never get seriously ill, because for most of my life, I hadn’t suffered of any major illnesses. I don’t even think I’d ever gotten a cold before. But when my skin got hot, and my breathing grew labored, I couldn’t ignore the anxiety that had crept up on me. My brother noticed first, as perceptive as he was. He saw me struggling for breath and scratching at my skin, and he immediately took me to see Physician Hong, alerting Mother and Father of the pertinent situation. He had to carry me there, since I was too weak to walk or even see things properly, and when we appeared at the Royal Physician’s quarters in such a state, he knew of the ranger I was in.
They had all thought it was poison. It had to have been poison for me to have such an adverse reaction, right? But Mother and I had eaten from the same plate, and she was fine. Physician Hong said that simple fruit had been a poison to me, but to no one else. It was not something I could understand very well, but I knew now to avoid strawberries for the rest of my life.
“He’s waking up,” I heard someone say nearby, but the words seemed muffled and slurred. My eyelids fluttered open a few times, slowly. Dim, yellow light filtered in through my eyelashes, but I could only make out blurred shadows and nondescript shapes. My chest was tight, as if someone had placed a heavy stone on it, making breathing difficult.
“Help me sit him up,” another voice said, much gruffer, deeper. It wasn’t long before I felt hands on my arms and back. My vision swirled, and suddenly, I felt air on the back of my head. My neck was too weak to support it, and it fell forward, rough fabric pressing against my cheek.
“Tsk, he’s heavier than he looks. I don’t think he’s fully conscious yet,” the first voice said.
“Aye, we’ll have to try something else,” the rough voice responded. “Keep him upright for a moment.” I felt one of the pairs of hands release me, and heard an indecipherable shout in the distance. After a few seconds, he said, “Okay, hold him in front of you.” The hands shifted, and my head was pulled away from the coarse fabric. Cold water splashed against my face, and I sputtered awake, gasping and shivering.
I noticed a loud rasping sound, and it took me a moment to realize that I was the source. My throat produced a sort of scratchy rattling timbre every time I tried to draw breath. I tried moving my arms, clenching handfuls of fabric to support myself. After a moment, my vision cleared enough to make out the wall opposite me, which was lined with shelves of different kinds of jars of herbs and apparatuses. I blinked to adjust to the light.
“Easy there, Your Highness. You’re alright.” Physician Hong was standing over me, his white beard tumbling over his broad chest. The door to his quarters was open, and a few of his assistants rushed in and out of his room in a frenzy. “Can you see me?” he asked.
Sucking in a painful breath, I clutched at the collar of my kimono and opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t get the words out.
“It’s okay, don’t speak,” he said. “Keep focusing on breathing. You need to stay conscious.”
I nodded, trying to remain calm, but inwardly panicking like a pathetic bastard.
As Hong started to cross to the other side of the room, where his medicine closet was, the man holding me upright asked, his voice vibrating in his chest, “Is there anything I can help with?”
Hong shook his head. “Make sure he’s able to breathe.”
In my panic, I started to think of strange, out-of-place memories—Ryukou beating me for the hundredth time during sword training, Mother laughing at my messiness while I ate, Father shouting for the men to charge, my old writing tutor hitting my wrist with a cane, the smile of a lord’s daughter I used to fancy—and I wondered if this was perhaps what it felt like to die. Did my family know where I was? Were they looking for me? Would they miss me when I was gone?
Every breath brought a new throb of pain, but I knew I needed to suck in as much air as I could to live. Tears pricked at my eyes as the effort grew more strenuous. With my diminishing strength, I sank farther back into the arms that supported me. I heard the man’s soft voice coaching me through each new wheezing breath. Inhale and exhale. Inhale and exhale. In and out. In, out. Keep going. You’re okay. Breathe. Inhale and exhale…
Just when I thought I was going to pass out again, Physician Hong returned from the other side of the room. “Here, Your Highness, drink this. It’ll help you to expel the poison from your body.” He tried to give me me a porcelain cup of what looked like water, but I was too weak to hold it in my hand, so he held it to my lips to help me drink.
The taste was bitter and unpleasantly potent, but I swallowed willingly, struggling to get it past my swollen throat. I felt it trickle down my esophagus, leaving behind a slight burning sensation. I wanted to ask what the vile-tasting concoction was, but I couldn’t draw enough breath for words. I felt the old man take my wrist and pressing his two fingers into the hollow to count the pulse beats. He released my arm, frowning, and felt my head with his cold palm.
“Lao! More cold water!” he shouted behind him at one of his assistants. I saw the old physician reach under the table and retrieve an empty wooden bucket before placing it in my lap. I didn’t understand why, but then I felt my muscles convulse violently, and an intense feeling pain in my abdomen as nausea came over me, making me gag and cough. Just as quickly, I felt the bile rising in my throat, stinging my tongue and nose, and I clutched the bucket desperately with my fists. I was aware of someone patting me on the back repeatedly as I regurgitated my previous meal. The smell was horrible, and I didn’t need to look at it to know how disgusting it was. This happened to me three or four times—I lost count—before I was finished, shivering and light-headed as the wheezing and gasping returned. Fear gripped me anew, with the helplessness of hoping, praying that my life would be safe in this doctor’s hands.
“Dura, is the tea ready yet?”
“Bring it to me.”
Steam reached my nostrils, and Physician Hong again helped me drink. This too was bitter, but the heat made it more palatable.
“Lay him down now. Slowly, please.”
My head touched the hard surface of the table again, and I felt a thin blanket cover me. I was clammy and weak, my eyes wandering in confusion over the ceiling. For what seemed like forever, I fought for every breath, an unbearable tightness constricting in my chest and throat, until, finally, suddenly, I felt my airway loosen, and I could breathe again. My limbs were heavy, my face hot, my stomach spasming uncomfortably. I lay like that for a long while, shaking, until I fell asleep.
When I woke up again, it was because of the sound of quiet voices. I rolled onto my side weakly, causing a wet rag to fall from my forehead. Physician Hong was stirring a boiling mixture of herbs in a pot and talking to General Unodu who sat across from him on a small stool. Both of them were speaking quietly, trying not to wake me, but I was already awake, blinking in the dim candlelight.
Unodu turned to see me awake, and stood up suddenly, bowing, even though I could barely move to acknowledge him. “Your Highness, I’m glad to see you awake.”
“How are you feeling?” Physician Hong asked from his seated position. He looked tired, his wrinkles more prominent, and his white beard bushy and a bit disheveled.
“T-terrible,” I croaked, barely able to get the word out past my sore throat.
He nodded, grunting as if that was expected. “Do you need anything?”
I shook my head on the table. I couldn’t think of anything that could make me feel better. “How long have I been here?”
Hong scratched his beard, thinking. “It’s been less than an hour. I sent a servant to alert the King and Queen of the situation, but they must be busy entertaining the wedding guests.”
With a nod, I hugged my midsection and tried to pull the thin blanket up over myself again. I had thought the whole ordeal lasted longer, but it had only been a few minutes stretched into an eternity. My stomach still churned and ached, and I knew that if I attempted to sit up, I would be nauseous again. The tightness in my chest had been alleviated somewhat, but my breath still rattled, and my skin felt itchy.
“I don’t believe we’ve met before, Your Highness,” Unodu started to say. “I’ve heard so much about you. It would seem the rumors are true.”
Rumors… I’m sure he meant the ones about my bizarre appearance. Those rumors spread like ants over a dirt hill. I would have sighed if it didn’t hurt so much to do so.
He was right, though: we had never met. I had seen him before in my father’s council room, but we’d never spoken. He was the youngest general, newly promoted, and he was known for being a fierce warrior. Looking at him, I wouldn’t have thought he was so strong. He was quite short, at least three inches below my own standing height, and his face was plain and unassuming. His eyes were flat and dark, and his mouth was thin. I realized he was much younger than I initially thought, maybe somewhere around Ryukou’s age.
Suddenly, the door slammed open and hit the wall with a sharp bang, and I felt thin arms encompass me, long, silk sleeves trailing over my face. The smell of lavender reached my nostrils, and I buried my face further into the fabric.
“Izka, are you alright?” Tears wetted my mother’s eyes, making the honey brown shimmer. She stroked my face with her hand, her touch cold.
I nodded slowly. “I’m okay… now,” I said, the sound raspy and difficult to decipher even to my own ears.
Her lip trembled, but she didn’t openly cry. She simply continued to run her fingers over my cheek and brushed back my hair with her fingers. I would never say so out-loud, but her touch was soothing, and I was glad to have her with me.
“Your Grace,” Unodu and Hong both greeted her, once they could get past their shock at her sudden appearance. There was a dull scrape as Unodu pushed the stool toward the table I was lying on.
“Please, sit down, Your Majesty. I’ll excuse myself with your permission.”
“Thank you for bringing my son here,” she said softly. “Who knows what might have happened had you not been there.”
He bowed low and said, “It was an honor.”
She nodded and gestured to the door to let him leave. When he was gone, she sat on the stool and turned to Hong stirring the contents of the pot. “I thank you for saving him. Without your wisdom and knowledge, he would be gone.”
Hong inclined his head. “You honor me, Your Majesty.”
I reached out and grasped Mother’s hand. “Does Father know?”
She blinked once and then nodded slowly. “He is in a great rage, trying to find the ones who have done this to you. When the culprits have been found, he swears to kill them, for their insulting and treasonous actions against our family.”
“Was it poison then?” I asked. “The symptoms were the same as before…”
Mother frowned. “I don’t know. You didn’t willingly eat strawberries, did you, Izka? Knowing you might become ill?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t eat them…”
She stroked my cheek again. “We’ll find them,” she said. “They’ll suffer for what they’ve done to my child.”
Normally, I would have denied the title of “child,” but I was too weary to argue. My insides felt all twisted and displaced, and my skin burned with a horrible tingling sensation. I was sure my face was swollen, because I couldn’t seem to open my eyes completely.
With a grunt of discomfort, Physician Hong got to his feet and crossed to the table I lay on. He held a small jar in his hand. “This should help relieve some of the itching, Your Highness. Can you sit up to take off your clothes?”
“Yes, but…” I glanced at my mother beside me, my face feeling even hotter, if possible.
She laughed, but stood up from the stool regardless. “I will go take care of our guests for a while. Be safe, Izka. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” And she crossed to the door to leave.
When she was gone, I pushed myself up off the table with a wince. Now that I sat upright, my head throbbed anew, and my stomach flipped dangerously. I started to unfasten the front of my kimono. Once I was down to the white under-robe, which was drenched in sweat, Hong helped me to pull it off. “Please hurry,” I said, already queasy.
The skin of my chest was covered in hives, and I assumed my face was in a similarly horrid state: red and inflamed. Hong scooped out some of the oily substance from the little jar, and I picked up the distinct aroma of basil. As soon as he started to rub the ointment on my affected skin, I felt the soothing, cooling effect. I closed my eyes for a moment.
“Physician Hong, how old are you?” I asked.
He said nothing for a few seconds, and I cracked open my eyelids to peek at him. He was raising one bushy white eyebrow at me. “You’re asking for my age, Your Highness?”
I nodded. “It just occurred to me to ask.”
He made a deep sound in his chest cavity and finally said, “I am over sixty-four. Why do you ask?”
Admittedly, I was somewhat impressed. Not many lived to such an advanced age. “That means… You have been the Palace Physician for a long time, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, Your Highness, I have served your family for over thirty years.”
“Then… does that mean… you knew my grandfather?” I felt awkward asking such a question for some reason. I hardly ever asked about my grandfather, Jihoron, for he had died before I was even born.
“Aye,” he said, pausing for a moment. “I knew the Late King.”
“Then… you must know… how he died?” I looked up to meet his eyes.
His black irises were perceptive and wise, and they seemed to bore into my face, knowing all.
“Yes, Your Highness… I know how he died. He was very young.”
“The poison,” I started to say, “was there any way to cure it?”
He shook his white head slowly, looking down to finish his task. “No. I knew not of any cure, and even if I did, it was too late by the time I knew what had happened.”
“Who poisoned him?” My voice had dropped to a low whisper.
“I don’t know.”
“Then… if someone tried to poison me, with more than just a fruit… would I also… die?”
The old man froze and looked up at me in concern. I kept my eyes trained on him. Several seconds passed in this manner. He blinked and closed the lid of the jar.
“Your Highness, I think you should rest. You must be very ill. Please get dressed. I’ll go get some extra blankets and cushions to make you more comfortable.” He didn’t meet my eyes after that and crossed to one of the cupboards to retrieve folded blankets and a pillow. I climbed off the table did as he said, while he laid out a bed for me, silence encompassing us. I left my kimono undone, but tied the under-robe so I could sleep. My head throbbed anew, and I climbed into the blankets carefully.
Within minutes, I had drifted.