My older brother Ryukou was the smartest, strongest person I knew.
We were only five years apart, yet I looked up to my brother like he was a commanding officer. When I was young, I held onto anything Ryukou said with the sincerest fervency. If Ryukou told me to wear a mask for a full week, or to speak to the horses in their language, or to pour rice-wine into the flowerbed, I would’ve done it without hesitation. Of course, Ryukou would never ask me to do such foolish things, and perhaps that’s part of the reason I held on so dearly to his words.
In the spring when I was seven years of age, and Ryukou twelve, we both wandered off to the lake near the palace. The cherry blossom trees were in full bloom, filling the air with their subtle sweet scent, and the grass was soft and lush. The sun had not yet risen very high into the sky, as it was before noon, and a gentle breeze ruffled my clothing. It was generally fair weather, perfect for the short walk there and back.
It had been Ryukou’s idea originally, to visit the pond. He had wanted to search for a rare plant that grew only near water. He had always been interested in botany, and the plant he was looking for was one that usually sprouted in the late spring and early summer. So far, he had come every day for a week, waiting and hoping for a glimpse of it.
I always tagged along after my brother, eager to follow in his adventures. But I could never understand my brother’s deep curiosities.
Ryukou did not speak much; it was usually I who filled the silence, and I was the best at drawing Ryukou out of himself. It was something I prided myself in, actually.
Bored, I asked, “Brother, why do you want to find this plant? This wild… wild calli—”
“Wild calla,” Ryukou corrected me.
“Yes, wild calla. Anyway, why did you want to find it again?”
“I read about it,” Ryukou said simply, as if that explained his interest.
“I know that, but why is this plant special? There are hundreds of plants in the palace gardens.”
His eyes gleamed. “Wild calla, also called ‘water arum,’ or the ‘calla lily,’ is a poisonous plant found only near the shallow edge of water. However, if the berries are dried and boiled properly, they are edible.”
“Why would anyone want to eat a poisonous plant?” I asked, incredulous.
Ryukou continued, growing ever more animated. “I wasn’t finished yet. The stem of wild calla is also consumable if dried, ground into a powder, and boiled. Then it can be made into a flour for making bread. When brewed into a tea, it becomes an extremely useful medicine and can be used to treat rheumatism, catarrh, ague and fever, shortness of breath, bleeding, swelling, snakebites, and general limb soreness.” He recited matter-of-factly it as if he were reading it from a scroll before his very eyes. “So you see, it is a very useful plant.”
“Yes…” I agreed, although, in all honestly, I understood only a small portion of what Ryukou had said. We were silent for a moment as we carefully walked over the fallen branches and cherry blossom petals on the path, until I asked, “Do you really think you’ll find one this time?”
Ryukou shrugged, strands of smooth black hair near his ears barely escaping from its bun. “If I do not, I shall simply return tomorrow.”
I watched my older brother curiously for a moment, awed by his persistence, even if it seemed pointless and strange to me. My brother was, and always had been, a mystery.
We reached the pond shortly after and began searching around the soggy banks for the wild calla, with no success. After a little over an hour, all we had to show for our efforts were muddy shoes and drenched trousers. Defeated, we returned to the palace, shivering and dragging our feet.
Still, we returned the next day, and the day after that, and every day throughout the rest of that spring and early summer. We never did find the wild calla, but those many hours spent searching in the pond for a mysterious and evasive plant became a sort of ritual for us, a shared pastime between two brothers for a few months. Thinking back on that time in my youth, I always remembered the awe I felt toward Ryukou. The memory spoke of the scent of cherry blossoms, of mud soaking into cloth shoes, of uncertain adventure, and of curiosity.
Despite our closeness, Ryukou and I gained a steady rivalry growing up. There was nothing unfriendly about it; the two of us enjoyed trying to prove our superiority to each other. It was a part of being brothers, with showing-off being a display of respect. It meant that we saw each other as equals, even if it looked like we were bickering and fighting like infantile braggarts.
As children, we often competed in our lessons. Ryukou almost always excelled in his studies. He was a natural scholar, so I knew it would be next to pointless to try and beat him at anything in that regard. When it came to physical tasks, I felt much more confident. I enjoyed horseback riding and archery since I was young, and I was talented in both. But for many years, I was not permitted to practice swordplay with anything but a wooden practice weapon, since I was so young, while Ryukou trained extensively with the blademaster. Ryukou learned single-handed as well as dual-handed fighting styles, and he was taught how to wield both a single-edged blade and the more complicated dual-edged blade. He was very skilled at swordplay as well as academics.
When I finally reached the age of ten, I was allowed to practice with a real sword. I was eager to prove my worth as a warrior, and more importantly, to test my skills against Ryukou. The two of us fought each other often, keeping the scabbards on our weapons, to prevent any major injuries, but I lost more often than I could land a hit. It was an enormous blow to my pride, even though I knew Ryukou was fifteen at the time, and much taller than I was. At times, I wished that Ryukou would take it easy on me, but I refused to admit it. The only advantage I had was my unorthodox left-handed fighting style, which occasionally tripped up Ryukou. But besides that, I was always outmatched.
Still, we continued to practice together, no matter how much it humiliated me. This too became a ritual for us.
We were inseparable. We were so close that we shared jokes together that no one else could possibly understand. We laughed together, broke rules together—usually at my encouragement, I admit—and shared our minor sorrows with each other. It was like this for a long time… until Ryukou turned sixteen years of age, and went through Verishim, the rite of passage all young Aka boys went through when they became men.
Since Ryukou and I were princes, the ceremony was much grander than for the commoners, but the major principles were the same: For three days before the ritual, Ryukou fasted, drinking nothing but water, to purify himself. At midnight, he was brought to the temple, where he was marked with a tattoo of the Kitsura family crest upon his right shoulder, and his ears were pierced. He returned to the palace in ceremonial robes of blue and black, and then was anointed with blessed oil on his head, temples, and the middle of his collarbone. After all the prayers and blessings were said, a grand celebration began. There was dancing, and singing, and beating on drums, and a great feast was prepared. Ryukou was finally allowed to eat then, and he was given alcohol for the first time. He was then proclaimed a man.
A few months later, sometime in the spring, when Ryukou’s tattoo and piercings had completely healed, my father, the King, took him into battle for the first time.
We had been at war with the Demali for a little over a decade, since before I was born. Since war was all I had ever known, it became normal for me, a type of calm. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance or gravity of Ryukou going to battle. I had seen my father come and go, returning from this battle or that, and he was never any different from when he left.
Mother seemed worried, but of course, all mothers worry about small things, so what was I to know of the severity of such an event? She kept wringing her hands when things became quiet, and crying softly when she thought no one was there. I realized later that she wept because she worried for her son’s life.
I watched her cry from time to time, hidden from her view behind the arras. I wanted to comfort her, but as an eleven-year-old boy, I had no idea how. So I just watched her on my own, and prayed to the gods that she would find solace when Ryukou returned home unscathed.
He and Father were only gone for a few days over a fortnight, and when I saw them riding through the palace gates, I eagerly told my mother, so that she too could be happy again. The two of us rushed out to greet them in the courtyard, and I ran up to Ryukou’s horse smiling eagerly. I wanted so badly to hear all of Ryukou’s no-doubt amazing stories, how he saw the enemy up close, how they had been victorious, how, in the end, when Ryukou’s blade was stained red with the enemy’s blood, the soldiers had cheered their victory with wine and song… But when I saw my brother’s face, I knew that something was wrong.
I had wanted Ryukou to smile at me, to tell me that he missed me, or that he was glad to finally be home. Instead, Ryukou stared at me silently, his expression blank. It was as if Ryukou was looking through me, at something beyond, that no one else could see. Some unknown and menacing thing held his gaze far off in the recesses of his mind. I had never seen him with that expression before, and it scared me.
My smile fell. “Bro...ther…?”
“I am tired. I want to sleep,” Ryukou said softly, almost to himself.
“Of course, brother! You must be weary from the travel.”
He dismounted his horse silently and began walking with slow steps toward Niu Miro, the main palace building, without saying another word to anyone. I was confused. I tried to stop him, calling his name.
“Ryukou? Ryukou!” I reached out to grab my brother’s arm. “Ryuk—!”
Father snatched my hand away, shaking his head slowly. He took off his helmet and held it under one arm, passing the Queen a glance that seemed to convey the message, I’ll tell you later. I knew better than to go against Father’s wishes. Disobedience against your parents or superiors was a sin, and he was both, as King and my father.
Besides, he had been there. He knew something I didn’t. Whatever had happened to Ryukou.
When my older brother was out of sight, I turned to our father immediately. “Father, what’s wrong with Ryukou? Why won’t he speak to me?”
“Izrekiel,” he said with gravity. “One day you will understand that sacrifices must be made when you become a man.” That was all he said before entering the palace with Mother.
I never did find out what happened to Ryukou during that battle, but whatever it was, it changed him irrevocably. Ever since then, from time to time, I saw not the innocent Ryukou of the past, the brother that I used to know, but a mysterious spirit capable of passing judgement on anyone beneath him, with eyes without mercy, like glass before it shatters.
Maybe it was just that he had to kill. Maybe just ending someone’s life was enough to make him a different person.
I never again asked what had happened. I figured it was something that was better left unspoken.
Life went on, more or less as it had before.