White early-morning sunlight streamed in through the window, basking everything in a yellowish glow. I squinted in the light and rolled onto my side with a groan. My stomach still ached and made unpleasant movements, but I was glad that my skin no longer felt hot and itchy.
“You’re finally awake,” Physician Hong observed from the corner of the room where he brewed tea. “That’s good. How are you feeling?”
Pushing myself up by my elbows, I turned to face him. “I’ve been better, but at least I’m alive.” My voice was still somewhat raspy, and my chest still felt a bit tight when I spoke.
“Aye,” he said. “I’m relieved to see your eyes open. The Queen came to visit you again, but she left shortly after, not wanting to wake you.”
“My mother did? She didn’t cry, did she?” I looked down at my hands, guilty for some reason.
“The Queen was strong as ever. She didn’t shed a single tear, and she had full trust that you would survive.”
That was a relief. I never wanted my mother to cry, even if it was for my sake. A queen should never cry, not even for her sons. Rulers needed to be strong and stoic, and if a ruler were to cry, it would show weakness to their enemies.
“Here, Your Highness, I prepared some more medicinal tea for you.” When I looked up, the old man was holding a porcelain cup of tea out to me. I hadn’t noticed when Hong approached me, so I was slightly dazed and perturbed as I took the cup. The steam hit my nostrils, and I wrinkled my nose at the sweet, astringent smell.
“What is this?” I asked. “You gave me the same thing last night, but I couldn’t ask about it then.”
“It’s from an herb called ‘máhuáng.’ It will help you breathe easier.” He groaned quietly as he sat on the floor cushion again.
I nodded and carefully brought the cup to my lips. The taste was bitter and pungent, but not altogether unpleasant. I had no difficulty emptying the cup, and as I handed it back to Hong, I noticed that everything appeared somehow brighter and sharper, the edges of everything outlined in my mind. My head felt lighter, and yet a strange pressure encompassed my temples. A new and bizarre energy seemed to buzz in my body, and I was able to focus on every detail of the room better. It did improve my breathing, but to me that was the least noticeable effect.
“Would you like to try eating something, Your Highness?” Hong asked, watching me.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I still feel ill.”
“Perhaps you should try some rice porridge to settle your stomach,” he suggested.
“Fine, I’ll try it,” I said. “But I don’t know if I can keep it down.”
Hong stood up again, pressing on his knees, and said, “I’ll make it then.” He crossed to the shelf and retrieved the necessary ingredients and brought them back to his little flame. Just as he started to boil the rice, the door swung open again, and I looked up to see Ryukou stumble into the room.
“Izka, ’re you alright?” he slurred. His usual impeccably combed hair was a loose mass of black knots on his head, several thick strands hanging over his face, and his kimono was ruffled and twisted haphazardly. When he saw me sitting upright on the futon, he stepped forward to approach, but he stumbled and had to grab onto the edge of the table to keep from falling.
“Careful, Your Highness,” Hong said, standing up to assist him. “Easy now…” He led Ryukou to one of the floor cushions near my bed and helped him to sit without tripping.
“Ah… my head,” Ryukou mumbled, putting a hand to his face.
“Just how much did you drink?” I asked him, utterly shocked by his behavior. I had never seen my older brother so hopelessly drunk before. I had witnessed him empty an entire pitcher of rice wine by himself one time, and even then, he didn’t slur his words or trip over himself.
Ryukou’s eyes narrowed as he mentally calculated. “Ya know, I can’t r’member.” He sighed and rolled his head to look at me. “They gave me nine cups, and spun me ’round, and then they made me walk ‘round th’ room, but I can’t r’member how much I drank after that. Ah… my head hurts…” He leaned forward to put his head in his hands.
Physician Hong was chuckling to himself quietly in the corner. “Do you want some rice porridge too?” he offered Ryukou.
My brother shook his head. “I don’t wanna eat,” he said. “I wanna ask my little brother if he’s okay.” He turned to me again, his eyes half-lidded. “Are you okay, Izka?”
I almost rolled my eyes at his stupidity, but I restrained myself. “I’m fine now. But what about Father? Did he find the culprit?”
Ryukou shook his head. “The guards searched ev’rywh’re, but there were no traces of Demali in the palace. Do you know what that means, little brother?” He stared at me expectantly.
“No. I don’t,” I said.
He lifted his forefinger. “It means that one of our people was respons’ble. It means you were poisoned by an Aka, but who?”
That was troublesome information, even if it was coming from my deliriously drunk brother. I had no inkling of who it could have been. However… my mind automatically recalled the servant girl who had run away from me in Humira, and the old woman who spat at me. There was surely some form of motive for all these bizarre actions against me.
“When the guards investigated, they found th’ seeds of that fruit spr’nkled in many of the dishes. Father interrogated all the cooks and servants this morning, but no one was found guilty,” Ryukou went on. “But you can’t be scared, Izka. We’ll find them.”
I rubbed my temple. “I hate not knowing who my enemies are. Wouldn’t that mean they have the advantage over me, and can strike again any time?” Now that I thought about it, it seemed even more strange that the person who poisoned me knew that I couldn’t eat strawberries. It was not made public knowledge, but I was sure the information had spread throughout Sayari Palace. Didn’t that mean that the culprit had to be among the servants of the household?
Ryukou put a hand on my shoulder, blinking at me slowly. “They’ll meet my wrath when I find them. I swear to kill them. I’ll poison their food, ’cept I’ll do it with a much more powerful poison, so they’ll feel your pain tenfold.” His voice rose to a shout, and he jabbed a finger at the air again before he calmed down. Then he let his head fall forward and muttered under his breath.
With a sigh, Hong stood up again and took Ryukou by the shoulders. “Your Highness, I think you should rest. The King and Queen will get this issue sorted, but you can’t do anything in your current state. Let’s rest until you have a level head, hmm?”
He tried to push him away weakly, but the old man wouldn’t budge. “Come on, up you get, Your Highness.” He hoisted Ryukou to his feet and half-carried him to a small cot in the corner. Once Ryukou was settled in the cot, it didn’t take long for him to fall asleep.
“He’ll never live this down,” I said, shaking my head.
Hong snorted, amused. “No, I don’t think he shall. Be sure to remind him of this instance from time to time, Your Highness.”
I agreed with a laugh and lay back down on the blankets, waiting for the rice porridge to be made.
It took me a few days to fully recover, and I was only able to eat very mild foods during that time. By the end of it, I felt so filthy and sweaty that I was eager to bathe and wash off the grime that seemed to accompany sickness. The search for the poisoners was largely unsuccessful, resulting in several cooks being fired, with little evidence to back up their dismissal. I should have shone my fear more, but for some reason, I acted strangely calm.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t afraid—quite the opposite, in fact—but every time I thought about what might have happened, I was overwhelmed with such an overpowering feeling of dread and terror that it was crippling. My skin got clammy, my sight blurry, my hair stood on end, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe again. These kinds of symptoms were common every time I was reminded of being poisoned. Instead, I preferred not to think about it. That was the only way I could get through a second.
In fact, everyone else seemed more angry about the incident than I was.
Ryukou, for one, stalked around the palace in a fury as soon as he was sober enough to walk straight. He interrogated the servants, he searched for any clues he could, but his pursuits always turned out empty. My mother seemed to make every excuse to summon me, or she would seek me out herself, for trivial matters. She was afraid for me to be out of her sight. And Father… he posted guards around me during all hours of the day and night. It was frustrating and stifling, but I knew it was necessary, for their peace of mind if not for my safety.
Months passed in this manner, with a tense watchfulness pervading the palace.
It was mid-afternoon, sunlight filtering in through the the large, open window and illuminating the golden dust specks floating eerily through the air. In the far right corner, near two tall bookcases and another large window which opened up to green sakura trees and mountains, a low desk was covered sheets of parchment and calligraphy tools. Scrolls and cloth-bound books littered the surrounding floor, and a vase of white lavender rested calmly on the desk, reflecting the light.
Ryukou sat back on the ottoman in front of me, trying to get comfortable. “Now,” he said to me, “What was the reason for your visit? I can see it on your face that you had something that you wanted to speak with me about.”
I fidgeted and straightened my posture. “Well... I wanted to know how you are. How are you coping with things?”
Ryukou stiffened and glanced at the window, before shifting his eyes back to me. “I am as I have always been,” he said slowly.
I gave him a sad look. Ryukou was lying, I knew he was lying. I opened my mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Ryukou called.
A maid carrying a tea tray stepped in. She busied herself by placing the tray on one of the side tables and pouring cups of tea for the two of us. She handed Ryukou and I our cups, bowed quickly, and left the room again. For a moment, I stared down at the faint yellowish-green liquid, steam swirling over the surface, before taking a sip to steady my nerves. After a moment, I turned to Ryukou again. “Brother, tell me the truth. You’re a terrible liar.”
Ryukou smirked, tapping the side of his porcelain cup. “On the contrary, Izka, I am a spectacular liar. It’s a skill I have developed over two decades of being the heir of a monarch.”
“You can’t lie to me,” I said.
With a shallow sigh, Ryukou put his cup down without taking a sip. “Aye, I suppose that’s true.” He folded his hands over his lap again. “What do you want to know?”
I sipped at the tea again. “How are things... with your wife?” I asked hesitantly.
Ryukou’s face fell, a perfect image of resignation. “Oh, things are fine, I suppose. We got through the ceremony alright, and in front of everyone, we are a great match. She is beautiful and graceful, and anything a man could ask for in a bride. So, why should I complain? Why should I be discontented? Why should I find myself so miserable?” Ryukou tilted his head forward and closed his eyes, breathing deeply.
“So then... you are miserable...? Why?” I watched him carefully, my eyebrows knitted together in worry.
Ryukou shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure myself. Ghita is all politeness. She is kind and silent most of the time. Yet, whenever she has to prove herself to be my wife, she does it so reluctantly that I feel I shall fade away into a specter.”
“But you consummated the marriage, have you not?” I asked, feeling somewhat awkward to be asking such a question.
Ryukou nodded. “Yes, we have. But she made it clear that she only did so because it was her duty as the Crown Prince’s wife.” He picked up his cup again and sipped at it slowly, careful not burn his tongue. He held the steaming cup in his hands again, absorbing the warmth through his fingers. “I find myself pitying her, because I know she didn’t want this any more than I did. The only reason she agreed to marry me is because our father arranged it with her father, and if she refused, she risked offending the most powerful man in the nation, as well as being punished and possibly disowned by her father. I know this. I understand it better than I think she knows. But still, I try to make her happy. I try to show her kindness, tenderness. I never wanted to be bound to her, to anyone without a mutual arrangement, but I still find myself wishing I can make her happy. But it is not so... She despises me, even if she won’t say it, and there is nothing I can do.”
I frowned, watching my brother express his anguish. “Perhaps, she will grow to love you in time. How could she not? You are a kind person. Perhaps you will grow fond of her over time too.”
“Perhaps,” Ryukou said. “But I don’t have such hope. Once we have an heir, I shall not bother her again.”
Silence engulfed the room as we both brooded on the situation.
I looked up from my tea. “Where is Ghita now?”
“She left to see Mother. I think they are talking about women’s business. I don’t know. Mother, of course, loves her.”
“How could she not?” I said. “Mother has the sweetest, kindest disposition of anyone I’ve ever met. She finds the best in people, and hardly judges anyone.”
Ryukou nodded. “Mother can make anyone feel welcome anywhere.” He paused, and then his expression shifted. “Speaking of which... Mother has been asking around for you again. She’s been worried about you ever since the assassination attempt. You ought to see her and ease her anxiety.”
“Assassination attempt…” I had tried to separate that incident from the possibility of assassination in my mind. Logically, I knew that was what it was, but… it terrified me to realize that there was someone trying to kill me.
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