It was sunset when we finally caught up with the main force of the troops. It probably wouldn’t have taken us nearly as long had it not been for Ryukou’s injury. I could tell that every gallop of the horses brought a great deal of pain to his shoulder, causing the fabric to chafe his wound and the motion making his arm jostle around, but he refused to complain, though his face betrayed his pain at every hoofbeat. Had it not been for my feigning a pea-sized bladder to Oimé, we might not have stopped at all. But even without such delays, the rain continued to pelt us for several hours, slowing us tremendously. It only ceased during late afternoon.
Once Oimé spotted the King among the soldiers, he rode toward him and dismounted, Ryukou and I following close behind.
“Your Majesty,” he said with a bow.
Father’s eyes widened at the General’s presence. “How is the Crown Prince?”
He turned his gaze toward us, and I climbed off my horse to help Ryukou from the saddle.
Seeing both of us alive, seemed to ease my father’s anxiety slightly. “Thank the Gods,” he said with a relieved sigh.
“I bound his wound as best I could, but he’ll need to see a healer as soon as possible, to get proper treatment,” Oimé said, watching me assist Ryukou from his horse.
My father nodded in agreement. “We’ll have plenty of time for that once the Demali have been subdued.”
General Oimé turned to Father seriously. “Your Majesty, what is the news? Did you catch the attackers?”
“Indeed, we did,” he said grimly. “The criminals have been shot down. They were Demali assassins sent to murder me, but they mistook the Crown Prince for me in the fog of the rain.”
Oimé cursed, then glanced apologetically at the King.
He seemed undisturbed by the foul language, however, and went on to explain that the main Demali force was hiding out about a mile from Humira. “If we keep going, we should be able to catch up to them by the morning. There were only seven-hundred or so men, from what the scouts reported. We could be done within a day.” He watched Oimé for his reaction.
The general nodded thoughtfully. “The command is yours.”
I glanced at Ryukou, who was holding his left arm and staring down at the puddles at his feet in preoccupation, but my brother didn’t seem to be paying attention to any of the conversation that had been exchanged. I sighed and squared my shoulders. What a long night this would be…
Early the next morning, a few hours after dawn, we spotted the Demali army over the hill. I yawned and blinked back my fatigue. They were a motley crew of men—and boys—gathered in hordes. We rode forward, organizing ourselves into formations. Since we were at the bottom of the incline, we were at a slight disadvantage. Our archers would have a difficult time aiming at the enemy without hitting our frontlines.
The Demali watchmen spotted us, as we expected, and alerted the others. I watched their camp erupt into a flurry of activity, going through the tactics in my head, imagining all the possible scenarios, but as we approached, and more and more of them became visible on the hill, my eyes went wide.
It can’t be…
I turned to Ryukou who had noticed it at the same time I did. “There can’t possibly be so many—”
“There are,” he said, his face betraying his unease. I noticed him shift his injured arm uncomfortably, and sweat trickled down his neck. “Their numbers have more than doubled. How is that possible?”
“Ryukou, how greatly are we outnumbered?” I felt dread wash over me.
“I… I don’t know,” he said, paling. “From what it looks like, we only have two-thirds of their numbers. Listen, I have to go speak with Father and Oimé. Draw your weapon and stay alert.”
“Yes… Be careful,” I said as he snapped the reins. I did as he suggested and unsheathed my sword, watching him catch up to Father and the general. The wire-wrapped hilt was cold in my hand, but my grip was firm, as if my hand was already itching to spill our enemies’ blood.
I kept my eyes trained on the Demali on the hill. Before Ryukou returned to my side, I saw them start to pour down the hill like a swarm of ants. So that was their tactic… They were still far away, but I could hear their battle cry in the distance, an ominous banshee’s wail. It gave me goosebumps to hear it, and my pulse quickened instinctually.
My father shouted for our men to ready their weapons. All the captains spread throughout the squadrons were to pass on the message to every corner of our troop. My palms felt sweaty, but I reached into one of the saddlebags and procured my helmet, pushing it onto my head. Although it was open-faced, it still closed off a lot of my peripheral vision. When I turned, I saw that the men around me were hurrying to do the same. My left fist tightened over the hilt.
Ryukou fell back again so that he was beside me on his white stallion, both of our horses riding abreast.
“Are you ready?” he asked me, fitting his own helmet onto his head.
“No,” I admitted with a bitter laugh.
“We never are,” he said, and he unsheathed his sword with a swift motion, the quiet scraping sound ringing through the air.
Before either of us could say anything else, someone shouted, “Look out!”
I tore my gaze away from Ryukou and watched as the first volley of arrows rained down from the hill, killing several scores of Aka soldiers in the front lines. Hearing their screams made the back of my neck prickle.
It had begun.
With that first line of arrows, our soldiers started to charge, yelling and calling to the gods and cheering their King. Joining the momentum of the army, I urged Kiro to a sprint, holding onto the reins with one hand and grasping my sword with the other.
As the Demali broke into our vanguard, the clamor of battle rose into the air, assaulting my eardrums: metal clanking against metal, strained grunting, victory cries, and the howls of death. Very soon, the fighting reached us in the mainguard. A circle of soldiers surrounded my father and General Oimé to protect them, but when I turned to my right, Ryukou was several meters away from me.
“Brother! Brother!” I shouted as the swarm of enemies encompassed us, obscuring Ryukou from sight. Without finesse, I hacked a Demali’s hand clean off, not a fatal wound, but enough to buy me some time. The warrior screamed out in pain, clutching his severed limb. I bit back my disgust.
The distraction gave me enough time to face the other enemy coming my way, an imposing warrior swinging a polearm with a twisted blade. From my position on horseback, I would appear to have the advantage in most scenarios, but long weapons like these could easily reach me. Kiro reared back as the blade stabbed toward us. I struggled to stay mounted in the saddle, soothing the animal with my gloved hand. I managed to back up a pace and bat away the haft of the weapon as it came toward me again. The wood snapped where I struck it.
Foolish wood-wielder, I thought in triumph. I charged forward at the stunned Demali and slashed across his unarmored chest with a harsh cry. Blood coated the steel of my blade.
I was given no time to think as another line of enemies rushed toward me swinging their weapons. I killed a mace-wielder with a single strike, and parried away two enemies with scimitars. I succeeded in killing one of them before the other got a swipe at my leg. The blade just barely hissed past me. That was close. I continued to slash my way through the Demali warriors. I felled ten men before I had a moment of respite. Panting heavily, I urged Kiro forward at a canter to rejoin the ranks. Our men were struggling to fight off the oppressive numbers, despite our preparations.
There were simply too many of them… Even after our archers rained down their first line of arrows, we were still far overwhelmed. Our scouts were deceived. I yelled and surged toward the wall of enemies. I slayed five men, which was enough to free a group of our own men from the chaos. They cheered in response and swung their weapons with newfound purpose, pushing back the Demali. I beamed with pride for a moment. But it wasn’t long before my attention was brought elsewhere.
I scanned the area in search of my brother. “Anavé!” I cursed. Still no sight of him. With his wound so grave, I worried that he might be injured further. All I could hope for was that the other men were guarding him well. “Right,” I said to myself, and raised my sword to again assist my brethren.
I noticed a Demali breaking through a line of our men, and he charged toward me with a javelin. Urging Kiro forward at a gallop, I raised my sword and surged toward the Demali with a fierce cry.
It didn’t take me long to kill the barbarian, but soon enough there was another foe to take his place, swiping a dull scimitar at me. I batted it away and stabbed the man in his chest, in between the ribs. The Demali crumpled to the ground, motionless, but my blade was caught in the bone. I barely had time to yank it out before another warrior was upon me. I swung my sword wildly through the air, striking the man in his upper arm. The Demali dropped his wooden pole and yelled out in Demalian for the others to take his place, but I silenced him with a swift slash to the face. Blood splattered onto my bracers and breastplate. But it was too late: four other soldiers rushed toward me, surrounding me with their mismatched weapons.
I cursed under my breath and held my sword steady. The first two men came upon me with their foreign shouts. One of them wielded a crude mace, and the other stabbed at me with a small dagger. I wanted to laugh at the silly-looking knife, but I knew that now wasn’t the time. I stabbed the mace-wielder without hesitation, and parried a swing from the man with the dagger, but I couldn’t seem the hit the man. He’s fast, I observed. I can’t get a hit on him. I pulled Kiro back a few wavering steps and stabbed again, aiming for my enemy’s exposed shoulder. The man shrieked and fell back against a tree, incapacitated.
I was just celebrating my victory when the two other warriors were upon me. I killed one of them almost instantly, but the other I could not kill so easily, due to his hard leather armor, almost from head to toe. The man swung his club at me, and I had no difficulty dodging. I swung at the Demali, but my blade bounced off the man’s chestplate, leaving a deep scratch, but unable to pierce through it. With another swing of the club, the warrior only succeeds in bruising my upper arm. When I failed again, the Demali grins at me.
Just what are you so chipper about? I wondered.
Just as I started to think that, he whammed his weapon against Kiro’s side.
Before I could prepare myself, Kiro reared, throwing up his front hooves and striking the warrior in the chest. The man was kicked back, the wind knocked out of him, but I lurched in the saddle. I struggled to remain seated, and the distraction cost me dearly.
I felt an enemy club strike me upon the side of my head, rattling my helmet. It wasn’t a fatal blow, but it was enough to knock me off my horse and put me at the mercy of the nearby Demali.
“Your Highness!” someone shouted several yards behind me. I struggled to blink past the stars in my vision. Please, get up, you idiot! I told myself. In front of me, I could see the Demali warrior scrambling to get to me on the other side of Kiro, closing in with his club. Panic filled me, but I couldn’t seem to stir enough to defend myself. Every movement felt ten times slower, as if I was enveloped in a shroud of fog. I raised my head from the ground, feeling nauseous. Through the spinning stars, I saw the brute raise his large club, preparing for the deathblow.
I attempted to get up, but my legs gave way under me. Move, damn you! Get up, or else you’ll die! I willed myself to stand, but my body wasn’t reacting to my vehement pleading. Unable to fight back, I closed my eyes against the presence of encroaching death. Through the dull ringing in my ears, I just barely heard someone calling my name. My last thought was, And I’ve never even been married…
Suddenly, a cry pierced the air. For a moment, I thought it was my own, that my soul was being carted off away from my lifeless body, and that I had heard my own last desperate cry… but with surprise, I realized that it wasn’t the case. I’m not dead…? I opened my eyes and noticed the Demali warrior lying limp on the ground in front of me, with an arrow protruding from his neck. With my heart racing, I searched for the reason. My eyes alighted on an Aka soldier racing toward me, weaving through the other men and stepping over corpses, his red uniform flapping against his chestplate.
“Your Highness!” the man shouted. When he was close enough to me, he dropped his strung bow on the ground and kneeled beside me. “What happened, Your Highness? I saw you fall, and then you didn’t get up.”
What was his name? I tried to recall. I knew I’d met this soldier before, perhaps exchanged some witty banter at camp the night before, but for the life of me, I couldn’t seem to remember the man’s name. I put a gloved hand to my head, trying to stop the endless spinning and throbbing. Around us, the war raged on, but when I fell, it seemed that many of the Akas, the loyal men that they were, had converged in a circle to protect me from any more oncoming attacks. Guilt washed over me as I realized that several had already died because of the sudden change.
“Are you alright?” The man asked again? “Do you need me to rush you to the army healer?”
I shook my head. My voice came out in a raw croak. “Nay, I’ll be alright in a moment. Just… help me up. I think I injured my hip when I fell.”
“Yes, Your Highness!”
I winced as he hoisted me up and a dull pain shot through my hip. I leaned heavily on the soldier for a moment until the pain subsided, then I stood up myself. That’ll bruise in the morning, I thought to myself with a grimace.
With some effort, I climbed back into Kiro’s saddle and scanned the battlefield again. My eyes just barely caught sight of the white stallion in the sea of carnage. There he is. With a shout, I kicked Kiro into a gallop.
My movements were slow and shaky as I cleaned the blood from my blade. Red stained the grass, but at least the steel of my sword gleamed spotlessly. The edges were scratched and dented in a few places, due to excessive use, but I knew it would be repaired. I sighed and slid it back into my wooden scabbard.
Ryukou looked up at me as I crossed to the boulder where he sat, cradling his injured arm, which had begun bleeding again during the fight. Although his face was a mask of calmness, I knew he was in a great deal of pain. He would never betray his emotions, but I could see it in the set of his shoulders and the weariness in his azure eyes.
“How are you holding up?” I asked as I crouched in the grass beside him, groaning softly as my joints popped and my muscles twinged.
He shrugged—only his uninjured right shoulder. “I live,” he stated.
“That’s good enough for me...”
It made him chuckle. “What about you? You look like you took a beating.”
I wasn’t exactly sure where my body ached the most. Everywhere perhaps? I opened my mouth to answer, but the pressure that had built up in my nose made it impossible to speak, so I spat a combination of mucous and blood into the grass.
My brother stared at the sanguine fluid for a moment and said, “That bad, eh?”
“One bastard punched me in the face when he couldn’t hit me with his weapon.” Thank the gods my nose wasn’t broken.
“Ow,” he said with a sympathetic shake of his head.
“Well, I much prefer a fist to a mace,” I admitted.
A smile touched his lips. “Any broken ribs or a sprained wrist this time?”
I shook my head. “No, just a lot of bruises.”
“I’m sure you’ll look gorgeous tomorrow,” he teased.
“Not as beautiful as you will be,” I shot back just as quickly. And it was sort of true. I could already see his left eye swelling up from some kind of nasty blow. We were both sure to be quite colorful the next day.
We were silent while we watched the other men cart off the dead. The sun was setting, casting everything in a reddish light, but the ground was already painted crimson. It was much quieter now, but my ears continued to ring as if the battle was still ongoing.
The fighting had lasted all day, until finally, the last hundred Demali withdrew. We had been far outnumbered, but we still managed to win in the end. I felt like both shouting in joy and sobbing, for our victory had not been free. We lost over three-hundred of our one-thousand soldiers, and even now, I felt like the dead were crying out to me in sorrow. Nothing could be done until their bodies were buried and their souls were laid to rest. We all knew that their spirits would haunt us forever if we didn’t follow the proper rituals.
“I’m going to go help,” I said, gingerly rising to my feet again. “The faster this gets done, the faster we can get something to eat.”
Ryukou nodded. “If I could help, I would.” In explanation, he motioned to his left arm, blood caked under the cloth wrappings.
It took another several hours to finish the task of counting the dead and burying the bodies, and by then, the sky was dark. The injured men were treated as quickly as possible and sat in the back of wagons, and the rest of us prepared for departure.
We would have camped there, but we were only a few miles away from the town. As soon as everything was done, we mounted our horses and departed. I couldn’t wait to sleep indoors again and eat a decent meal.
It was well after midnight when we reached Humira. It was a small town, and in even worse state because of the Demali’s “visit.” Several houses had been burned down, livestock had been stolen, and many windows and doors had been broken. Lucky for the townspeople, there wasn’t much of anything of value that the Demali would find worth stealing. As we approached the town, the streets were mostly dark, except for a few torches every few yards. Most of the windows were dark at this late hour, as the inhabitants settled down to sleep. The only place that seemed to be illuminated—besides the local brothel—was a large building near the southern edge of town. It was clearly one of the nicest buildings in the town. Paper lanterns hung at the posts of the fence and outside the large oak door, and the building itself had two stories, each of the slatted windows glowing with light through the cracks between boards. The majority of the soldiers had departed to find a place to sleep among the local inns, but Father, Ryukou, General Oimé, a few soldiers enlisted as royal guards, and I followed the overgrown brick path to the building.
While we waited out on the small terrace, one of the guards knocked on the oak door, and another led our horses around back to the stables. Father adjusted his gold headpiece—which now replaced his helmet—and squared his shoulders. After a few minutes, the door opened to reveal a man in his early fifties, wearing a layered robe with silver clasps. He was the Lord of Humira, Rinosuke Kyoji. He bowed low, so that his head was parallel to the ground, and folded his arms under his full sleeves.
“Welcome, Your Majesty and Royal Highnesses. I assume that your presence here means you have successfully dealt with the foreigners.”
Father nodded slowly. “We have killed the desecrators. Any damages to the town shall be reimbursed.”
The older man rose from his genuflection and said, “Your kindness is unsurmountable, Your Majesty.” He stepped aside to let us pass through the doorway. “I have prepared rooms for your stay. Please feel free to refresh yourselves before the tables are set. I’ll have the servants show you to your rooms.”
My father nodded his approval and ordered the remaining guards to find lodging. Then he led the way inside.
Kyoji Estate was much more grand inside, not quite as ornate as Sayari Palace in Gō Ataru, but it was richly furnished and decorated tastefully. My eyes passed over the wall screens painted with delicate orchids, but I failed to notice any of its intricacies. Painted orchids were nothing to the detailed gilt murals of the palace.
It wasn’t long before the servants came to take us to our separate quarters before supper, and my mind began to wander as I was led through the dark hallways.
When we reached the room where I would be staying, the servant bowed to me and without a word, disappeared around the shadowy corner of the hallway. I slid open the papered door and slipped inside.
The candlelit room was large, not as spacious as my room in the Palace, but just as serviceable. The first thing I noticed was the repeated pattern of the orchids on the walls. In one corner of the room rested a large futon, with silken sheets. Extra blankets were folded near the wall by a simple rectangular wardrobe. In the section of the room nearest to me, the floor was covered in tatami mats, and a low unadorned table sat in the center, a silver candleholder flickering on the surface. The wall to the right held a floor-length mirror and a dressing table with combs, an assortment of hairpins, a washbasin, and bottles of fragrance.
A paper wall divider separated another small section from the main part of the room. Upon further investigation, I found that behind it was a small wooden tub that was filled already. I dipped my fingertips into the steaming water and was glad to discover that it was just cool enough to bathe. Looking down at my muddied clothing and ruined shoes, I disrobed and climbed into the tub.
Breath escaped me as hot water enveloped my body. After letting my hair loose from its bun, I reached my arm over the edge to retrieve the bottle of oil soap and began to rub it over my skin. The tub was too small for me to completely submerge myself when sitting, so I dunked my head in the water, my hair spreading out behind me in long coppery tendrils. Once I washed myself, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, simply letting the steam whirl over my skin. After about half an hour like this, the water had begun to get cold, and I finally stood and wrapped myself in a towel.
I dressed in the kimono that had been left for me, dark forest green with a black sash, and combed my hair. I then began the tedious task of attempting to arrange my stubborn hair neatly into a bun and held it in place with a polished ebony hairpin. I let out a sigh of defeat over several strands that still stuck out precariously despite my efforts, but I gave up in the end.
Knowing I had nothing to do but wait to be called to supper, I lay on the futon and stared up at the wooden ceiling. I was exhausted, my body heavy and sore, yet I could not sleep. Everything hurt. I turned over on the futon so that I could bury my face in the pillow. I wanted to sink into it, so that someone had to go looking for me and pull me out. I knew that such thoughts were selfish, childish, but I was irrational in my weary state.
Every time I closed my eyes, I saw things I didn’t want to see. It felt like something was pushing on my chest, and I had to focus on breathing. Leave me alone, I told them, but they didn’t listen to me. I lost track of time as I lay there sinking into a state of half-sleep, not even noticing when the candle flickered out.
The sound of someone knocking on the wood panes of the door woke me from my detachment, and I rolled onto my side, blinking dazedly in the darkness. After a moment, the door slid open, and Ryukou stood squinting into the unlit room.
“Izrekiel… Are you asleep?” he asked quietly, trying to see through the shadows.
Sitting up, I said, “No, not really.”
Ryukou crept into the room and used the dim light from the hallway to locate the matches and relight the candle on the table. He went around the room and lit more candles in a similar fashion. Then he blew out the match and turned to me on the futon. Now that the room was illuminated, I could see that Ryukou’s left arm had been tied into a sling to keep it bound against his chest, and he wore a fresh change of clothes with a small silver headdress that covered his neat black top knot, traditional for the crown prince.
“Why was it so dark?” Ryukou asked.
I shrugged. “The candle went out.”
Ryukou cocked an eyebrow, as if reacting to the absurdity of the fact that I hadn’t thought to relight the candle when it went out, but he didn’t comment on it. “I came to fetch you for supper. That is… if you’re not too tired. I could ask the maid to send your plate to your quarters, if you wish.” I noticed he glanced at the door as he spoke.
“No.” I stood and straightened my kimono, which had wrinkled a little while I rested. “I’ll go with you. We owe our thanks to Lord Kyoji.” I passed Ryukou and exited the room.
With a nod, Ryukou followed me out into the hall and slid the door shut behind him. We walked in silence for several minutes until Ryukou stopped in his tracks suddenly.
When I noticed that Ryukou was no longer beside me, I too froze and glanced behind me at my brother, with my head tilted curiously.
“Why have you stopped?”
After a moment, Ryukou said, “You seem incredibly subdued. What is the matter?”
“The matter?” Without thinking, I looked away at the wall. “It’s nothing.”
“Come now,” Ryukou said. “I’ve known you for sixteen—nearly seventeen—years, since you were born, and I’ve never seen you act so stiff before in my life.”
I was silent for many seconds, avoiding my brother’s gaze. When I finally did speak, I stared straight forward into the hallway before us. “Ryukou…” I stopped. I didn’t know how to approach the topic.
Ryukou waited expectantly for me to continue, but when I didn’t, he asked quietly, “What is it? You can tell me.”
I don’t know why I hesitated. Ryukou had piercing, all-knowing eyes that could see through you in a minute. He always had, and I could never defend myself against them.
Swallowing my pride, I said, “I still see them.” Ryukou raised his eyebrows, puzzled, but he waited patiently for me to continue, watching my face without a word. When I finally gathered my thoughts enough to speak, my voice was strangely quiet, so quiet it almost didn’t sound like me. “The dead. All the people I killed. I can’t forget their faces...” I trailed off, unsure of what else to say.
He frowned, watching me.
Gathering my courage, I went on. “When I ended their lives, I didn’t even think twice about it. It makes me sick to think about.” I swallowed hard, welling with emotion suddenly. “I know I shouldn’t feel this shame. War is war after all.”
Ryukou looked at me with pity deep in his blue eyes. He almost appeared as if he was beginning to go pale. “Yes. War is war…” he repeated, his voice soft. “You’d be surprised,” he said carefully, “how incredibly easy it is to kill someone. One moment, just a blade to the ribs, or a stone to the head, and the deed is done. You’ll hardly be able to tell you’ve done it. And after a few sleepless nights, you’ll get over it, and their souls will haunt you no longer. Soon, all the men you kill will be faceless.” His voice was soft, shaky even, like a sharp shard of glass that might turn into droplets of clear water at any given moment.
“But right now, the dead still have faces. I see them every time I’m alone.”
He placed a hand on my shoulder, his face looking weary. “It’s okay,” he said. “The dead cannot touch you.”
I nodded, trying not to shiver “I know. I know… I must be a little baby to dwell on this.” But Ryukou’s frown told me that my face still betrayed traces of my anxiety.
“Izrekiel… Killing in battle is far different than cold-blooded murder. Please know that. It will save you a great deal of heartache.” The conviction in his voice was clear.
I nodded, letting my gaze fall to the ground. “I know.” We walked in silence for several minutes. Neither of us had any idea what to say next.
“Please, Izrekiel, don’t think too much about this matter. It will only…” Ryukou stopped suddenly, blinking repeatedly as if to clear his head. “It…” He tried again, but stumbled in his steps.
I caught him by his good arm to steady him. “Ryukou?” I watched my brother warily. What was wrong for him to suddenly lose his balance like that? I wondered if he had been injured more than I knew.
He shook me off with the wave of a hand and closed his eyes. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. I just got lightheaded all of the sudden. I’m fine.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, his forehead moist with sweat.
“Ryukou? Maybe you should lie down. You don’t look well.” I tried to steer him back to my room, but Ryukou resisted.
“No… I’m fine… I swear…” He pulled his arm out of my grasp. “I…”
I was barely able to catch him before he pitched to the floor.