They were in an absolute panic.
My ears picked up their high voices, fearfully calling my name, but their words were lost over the howl of the spring wind and the cadenced thump of the horse’s hooves. The noon sun warmed my face pleasantly, and grassy air whisked past my cheeks.
I turned around the corner of the field, strands of hair whipping about my face, obscuring my vision slightly. Up ahead, I spotted an engraved boulder, the honorary grave of Priest Oghirii, who had died serving the First King, if I remembered my history correctly. I stared at it, deducing the probability of my brown gelding being able to jump over it. The statue was probably more than two thirds of my own height, about four feet high, by my estimation. I smiled and squeezed Kiro’s sides, shouting for the horse to speed to a gallop. He surged forward just as eagerly.
“Prince Izrekiel! Your Highness, please!” the servants shouted, but I’d already made my move.
The animal leapt over the boulder, and I was already applauding our success, but when we touched the ground, I felt, as well as heard, a jarring thwack underneath me as the horse’s hooves clipped the top of the boulder. Kiro whinnied, and suddenly, my body flipped from the saddle. My stomach lurched, and I closed my eyes in preparation for the pain I knew was to come. My hip took the brunt of the impact, but my head snapped back and collided with the ground. I rolled onto my back, a dull pain at the base of my skull, and looked up to the endless mass of blue, realizing with a delay that it was the sky. Grass poked through the layers of my tunic to tickle my back.
From my position on the ground, I noticed Kiro regain his footing and trot away toward the edge of the field. I shut my eyes as my head was assaulted by another wave of pain and put a hand to my face, my heart pounding erratically against my ribcage.
“Your Highness, are you alright?” Bandaro asked above my head. I heard the rustling of heavy fabric, and I knew he’d crouched in the grass beside me.
For a moment, I said nothing, considering the old man’s question. Was I okay? True, my head throbbed, and my hip ached from the impact of hitting the ground, but I knew I wasn’t gravely injured. For a moment I gasped for air, clutched at my chest, waiting for my breath to return, and sat up despite the dizziness it caused.
That was scary… I wasn’t hurt, but I felt my nerves making my skin clammy. When I was a young child, just a bit over six, I had fallen from Kiro’s back before. I was foolishly riding bareback, and I fell when Kiro unexpectedly sped up. I had fallen face-first, and when I reached my arm out to soften my fall, I broke my left wrist. Honestly, I was lucky Kiro didn’t step on me. It had shaken me so much, I didn’t ride for a whole month, even after I had healed.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of that time. It wasn’t the only instance in which I’d fallen—I’d fallen numerous times in fact—but it was the first time I’d been seriously injured. After that, I tended to be more careful when I rode.
Really, I don’t know what had gotten into me today. What had possessed me to be so careless? Maybe is was because I had felt so stifled lately… Yes, that must’ve been it.
“Your Highness?” Bandaro frowned, staring at me while I sat there holding my chest. I turned back to him, remembering his presence once again as I was pulled out of my thoughts.
“I’m fine,” I said, waving him off. “Just let me catch my breath.” I waited for my limbs to regain their feeling after the numbness brought on by the shock, and then I pushed myself off of the ground, groaning as my back twinged.
Bandaro looked concerned, but he knew better than to fuss over me. I had made it known on several occasions that I hated that sort of thing. But the rest of the servants released an audible sigh, relieved that their prince appeared to be uninjured.
“My prince,” Bandaro said, “can you walk on your own?” Instead he was timid about his fussing.
I waved him off, starting toward the palace again. Even though I limped for a few steps, he didn’t attempt to disturb me. My pant legs were covered in grass stains and dirt, but I made no attempt to brush the filth off, knowing it to be a fruitless endeavor.
Bandaro followed me, starting with his lectures: “Your highness, you should not go riding so carefree like that. And to actually jump the gravestone of Oghirii… What if you’d been injured? Or worse—what if you’d damaged the stone itself! That stone has existed for much longer than you’ve been alive. Such behavior is unmannerly for a prince.” He gave me the whole disgracing-my-family speech, but I didn’t care to hear most of it.
“Yes, yes, I am a disgrace and all that,” I said, ignoring him. In all honesty, I’d heard the same reproach for over twelve years, since he’d started watching over me. It had lost its meaning long ago.
Bandaro let out a sigh when I didn’t respond to something else that he said. “Come with me,” he gave in. “Let’s get you inside.”
Sayari Palace was the center of the capital, Gō Ataru. Both literally and figuratively. It physically rested in the center of the city, and it was the infrastructure that held up the Aka culture in a tangible way. Most common people who lived in the city passed by the Palace everyday, so it quite understandably became a sort of symbol for the city.
The Palace boasted of three floors in the main building, several gardens, and a concave shingled roof. It was a complicated piece of architecture, made up of a series of adjacent buildings arranged in a half-circle. Niu Miro, the main building, and also the largest, where the royal family lived, was located in the center of the palace buildings, atop a lifted platform. A large gated pathway led up to the steps to the entrance.
As we neared the main building, it was apparent that someone was waiting for us. Ryukou, now as tall as Father and just as fierce, stood before us at the bottom of the stone steps, wearing an ornate silk robe and his black hair pinned up and fastened under a silver headpiece. He watched us approach with an unwavering blue gaze.
“Your Royal Highness,” Bandaro said, bowing low.
“Brother,” I said with a smile.
Ryukou stared at me, silent for a moment. He looked me up and down thoughtfully, taking in my sorry state: trousers covered in grass stains, shoes caked in mud, shirt wrinkled, with buttons undone at the neck, and of course, my bright copper hair falling haphazardly from its bun.
He let out a sigh. “So, Izka, I see you’ve somehow managed to make yourself appear as undignified as possible—again.”
I looked down at my feet in embarrassment. “Speak for yourself,” I muttered under my breath. I started smiling despite myself, remembering an amusing image: Ryukou asleep at his desk that morning, and the dishonorable appearance, as Bandaro might say, he exhibited, with his face sticking to the paper of some important document. I snickered at the memory.
“What’s so funny?” Ryukou asked with an eyebrow raised.
“Ah, nothing.” I started for the stairs, but Ryukou, at least three inches taller than me, and considerably wider-shouldered, easily looped his arm over my shoulders as I tried to pass, trapping me.
“You thought of something discourteous, didn’t you?” He hit the space between my ribs, not hard enough the cause any damage, but en0ugh to assert his authority over me, the damn cocky bastard.
“That hurts, you ass. Don’t you have better things do other than harass me?”
I imagined Bandaro had tightening his mouth into thin line at my crude language. I could practically see him shaking his graying head at the antics before him, the two princes under his charge acting like complete fools. Damn Ryukou was starting to hurt neck with his unbreakable armlock, laughing while he tormented me. I attempted to push him off me without success. Once we were inside, Ryukou suddenly released me and regarded me seriously for a second.
“You didn’t have to be so rough…” I mumbled, rubbing my sore neck.
“Izrekiel,” Ryukou began in a serious tone, “once you’ve changed clothing, come with me to Father’s study. He wants to speak with us both.”
“Father does?” I mumbled. “Why?”
“The same topic as every time: the war. Please hurry. We mustn’t keep him waiting.”
“Yes,” I agreed. I gave my older brother a quick bow—out of habit—and nodded toward Bandaro once before walking toward my room. Detailed ink and paint murals illustrating historical scenes and mythical tales travelled across the walls of the hallways, but they had lost their charm over the many years of seeing at them. I already knew full well the stories they told. I slipped inside the room through the papered doors. My room was on the western side of Niu Miro, overlooking the central courtyard. Looking out the slatted windows, I could see the stone pathways leading up to the steps of the separate buildings, and statues of past religious leaders and kings. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful scene, not like the cherry blossom trees and far off mountains outside of Ryukou’s study, but I didn’t tend to spend a lot of time in my room to begin with.
I quickly changed out of my riding attire and into a clean kimono before I returned to Ryukou in the main hall. When I arrived, Ryukou appraised my appearance.
After a moment, he said, “Couldn’t you do anything with your hair?”
I made a face. “What does it matter? You know how unruly my hair is.” I blew a few strands out of my eyes, and as if to prove my point, they fell precariously over my face again.
Ryukou sighed and shook his head. “I suppose it will have to do. Come, Father’s waiting.”
King Tammamori was staring thoughtfully out the window, clasping his hands behind his back under his long, trailing sleeves. When we entered, he turned around to face us, and Ryukou and I bowed low in the doorway to show our respect. Father let out a breath of air, as if relieved and worried about something
“Your Majesty,” we both greeted him.
Father shook his head. “Stand up, both of you.” We rose, standing in the doorway, and I passed Ryukou a glance.
“Come here please.”
I obeyed, taking measured steps toward our father, as Ryukou did. It wasn’t that I feared him, not really. But I often didn’t know what to say or do in his presence. I had been taught what I couldn’t say in his presence, but never what I could. When your father is the leader of a great many people, you find that it’s difficult to drop formalities. This time was no different.
Once, when I was thirteen, my father asked me to join him for a game of Shi-Tak. I had been surprised by the request; my father rarely said more than a sentence to me at once, and he hardly had time to share in any kind of pastime with me. I was eager to spend time with him. He always intimidated me, but I wanted to make my father proud. I had learned to play Shi-Tak from Bandaro when I was young, but I had never been very good. Still, I hoped I could play well against my father, to make him pleased to have such a clever, capable son.
The rules were fairly simple, and I was sure I was making the right choices about where to put my stones on the board, but I realized at the end of the game that I was completely talentless in Shi-Tak. I lost the first match, which wasn’t surprising, but we played another game. I lost that match too. I was frustrated and humiliated for some reason. I didn’t want to fail in front of my father. After the third time he had defeated me in less than five minutes, my father only sighed and leaned back in his chair.
He asked me what hobbies I had, and I told him I liked to practice my riding and archery. He only nodded and simply said that he’d had fun before leaving to return to his duties.
I realized then that he knew absolutely nothing about me. It wasn’t surprising really. We hadn’t ever shared many conversations, and he was a King. He didn’t have time to entertain or bond with a teenaged boy who couldn’t even play a board game proficiently.
Father regarded us curiously with his chin resting on his fist, his gaze shifting between us.
I was quite used to people staring at me by this point; I knew I was peculiar. But I ducked my head under my father’s piercing blue gaze.
After a moment, Father let his hand fall from his chin and sighed. “I was lost in thought… My apologies.”
Ryukou and I both nodded respectfully.
“I’m sure you know why I summoned the two of you here,” he continued. “It seems that all we ever have time to think about is war.” He shook his head, somber. “In any case, I have received word that a force of over seven-hundred Demali were spotted near the eastern border. Our scouts tell me that they continue to march westward, toward Gō Ataru.”
“Seven-hundred men?” Ryukou asked, surprised. “That’s a large force for Demali. Do they think to claim our capital? Those savages can’t be so reckless as to think only seven-hundred soldiers would be enough to take this city.”
I too found it difficult to comprehend the situation, waiting for Father’s response.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Their movements weren’t exactly clear, as reported by the scouts. The details are all in this letter.” He raised his hand to show it to us.
“May I see it?” Ryukou asked.
Our father nodded once and handed it to him. As soon as the paper was in his hands, Ryukou had unfolded it and was scanning the page. His eyes darted over the words there, his eyebrows knitted together in focus.
I leaned over and tried to read the symbols as well, but it was difficult to see without leaning over Ryukou’s shoulder. Instead, I waited for Ryukou to finish reading.
“I see…” Ryukou said as he refolded the letter and handed it back to Father. He let out a soft sigh, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
It was an image I was very familiar with. I had seen Ryukou show the exact same expression many times when he was formulating some sort of tactic in his head, or puzzling something out.
“Obviously,” Father began again, tucking the letter back into his sleeve, “I intend to crush them before they can move closer, in any case.”
“What would you like us to do?” I asked, eager to be of some help.
“Obviously, Father wants us to march with him,” Ryukou said. “Am I correct?”
“Yes. Unfortunately, there is no time to delay. I have already sent word to the barracks. We depart tomorrow at dawn with the troops. Any preparations you must make, do it before the day ends.”
“Is General Oimé coming?” Rykou asked.
“Yes,” Father said. “For such an urgent threat, I thought it best to have him lead the men with me.”
Ryukou nodded. “That’s a good idea. He is our most experienced general.”
Father sighed and sank into the chair in front of his writing desk. “That is all. You may both go and prepare.”
“Yes sir,” I said, while Ryukou simply bowed his head.
As we both started toward the door, Father added, “Ah yes, and don’t forget to say goodbye to your mother. She’ll want to see you both before we depart.”
I shared a knowing glance with Ryukou, and he shook his head, amused.