The graying physician laid his palm gently on Ryukou’s clammy forehead, feeling for the temperature. He frowned, grabbed the unconscious Crown Prince’s wrist, and counted the pulse beats with a face contorted in concentration. When that was done, he lifted Ryukou’s eyelids and peered at his pupils. His face resumed its worried mask.
“What is it? Will he be okay?” I nearly jumped from my place by Ryukou’s futon, anxious. I’d stayed by my brother’s side for more than four hours, refusing to move until I knew Ryukou was well.
With a sigh, the physician said, “He will recover. His fever isn’t bad enough for you to worry yet. I’m sure he fainted almost entirely from exhaustion, but I still have to check his wound.” He started watching me suddenly, with his expression curious for a moment, then he frowned. “In fact, Your Highness, you do not look well yourself. When was the last you slept?”
I glanced out the window, seeing that the sun was just beginning to rise on the horizon, and I realized in shock that it had been about twenty-four hours since I’d gotten any real sleep. “A while,” I admitted. “But I don’t think I could sleep anyway, even if I tried.”
The aged man made a face, scrunching his eyebrows in worry. “Your Highness…” He trailed off.
“It’s nothing,” I said with a dismissive wave of my hand. “I am only worried about the Crown Prince. That is all.” I stood up. “Well then, I shall take my leave for now. Please let me know if his condition changes.”
“Yes… Your Highness.”
I nodded, and ducked out of the room to avoid the Physician’s questioning gaze. I didn’t want to give the old man a chance to ask about what else was troubling me. I was pretty sure the man wouldn’t be pleased to find out that my inability to sleep was owed partially to the dead.
The man was not someone I knew. He was Humira’s local physician, and he only cared for the Crown Prince because there was no one else nearby who was as practiced in medicine. I had no idea how skilled he was. Father had called for the Royal Physician as soon as Ryukou collapsed. I guess all we could do was wait for him to arrive.
I started walking wearily to my room, yawning and dragging my feet.
As I approached the room, I looked up to notice someone standing there. A young servant girl stood outside my room staring at the papered door as if she was afraid some monster was going to jump out at her through it. I stopped several feet away to watch her, my eyebrow raised in curiosity. My eyes passed over her, taking in every detail. She shifted her feet uncomfortably and raised her fist to knock on the frame, but she hesitated, unsure. Finally, she let out a sigh and knocked with as much confidence she could muster.
When there was no answer, she leaned close to the door and said, “Excuse me, Your Highness?”
I folded my arms in front of my chest and waited for her to notice me. When she didn’t, I cleared my throat covertly.
The girl jumped at the sound and turned to face me with a surprised suddenness. When she saw me, her eyes widened, and her mouth fell agape. I rolled my eyes and approached her.
At my approach, she came to her senses and quickly fell down into a deep bow. “G-good morning, Your Highness,” she stuttered.
I glanced at the sun beginning to rise through the high windows. At this early hour, the sky was still mostly dark, with only a slight haze of dawn. Morning indeed.
“How long have you been waiting here?” I asked, my eyes flicking between the girl and the door.
Very slowly, the girl straightened her posture slightly, so that she could stare at my feet. “Not long, Your Highness. I just came to bring you something to eat, since you missed the meal last night.”
Only then did I notice the tray in her arms. “I see… Thank you,” I said. At the sight of the food, I realized for the first time that I was hungry. When was the last time I ate? I wondered. I couldn’t even remember.
“What is your name?” I asked the girl.
“L-Liu, Your Highness,” she said nervously, her head still down.
“Liu,” I repeated with a nod, trying to remember if I had ever heard it before, in writings or elsewhere. “What a gentle name.” After a moment, I said, “Stand up.”
“Yes, Your Highness!” She stood up with a quickness that was startling, her eyes wide.
“And cut the ‘Your Highness’ nonsense. You can’t be older than me, and it’s weird to speak to someone my own age so formally. Just call me ‘Izrekiel,’ or if you can’t seem to part with all honorifics, ‘Prince Izrekiel.’ ”
“Yes, Your H—” she began, then shifted her eyes uncomfortably. “I mean, yes… Prince Izrekiel.”
“Good,” I said with a slight smile. “Now that that’s settled, perhaps you can help me with something.”
Liu looked puzzled, but she answered anyway. “Of course, Your—um… Prince Izrekiel. What can I help you with?”
I walked up to her and slid the tray out of her hands, while she gaped at me. “It’s nothing much,” I said, plopping down to the floor with the tray in my lap. “I just need something to distract myself, and I need you to help me find that something.” I started pulling the lids off the bowls and inspecting their contents. It was simple—rice and steamed fish and vegetables with salt—but I was glad nonetheless. “Unfortunately, I don’t know how to find my way around this estate. Any ideas?”
She seemed awed for some reason. I had no idea what she was thinking, staring at me like that. Didn’t she know that it was rude? “Something to distract yourself…? You mean like a library?” she offered.
I shook my head slowly, my earrings bobbing. “No. Not like that. Reading dry historical documents or political manuals will only make me fall asleep.” I picked up the pair of chopsticks in my left hand and started shoveling food into my mouth gratefully, hardly pausing to breathe. “I need to get my mind off things,” I said between bites. “Please, distract me with something.”
She kept gawking at me, and I wondered if I had something on my face. I wiped my mouth with my hand subconsciously. If it weren’t for her constant gawking, perhaps she might have been very pretty.
“Do you like… puzzles, Prince Izrekiel?”
“Puzzles? What sort of puzzles?” I asked. I paused to take a sip of my tea, looking up at her expectantly.
“All kinds of puzzles,” she said, her dark eyes gleaming with excitement. “My brother sent me a book of puzzles and mind games for my birthday last year. It is the greatest distraction when I need one. Maybe it will work for you too.”
I looked at her curiously. “You can read?” It wasn’t common to find a servant girl who could read. In fact, it wasn’t common to find many people who could read at all. I’d only met five people outside of my family who could read, well, six, counting her.
“Yes,” the girl said quietly. “My father taught me how before he passed away.”
My eyes fell at the mention of her father’s fate. “I’m sorry,” I said. I stood up, leaving the tray outside the door, and straightened the front of my kimono, which had gotten bunched up while I sat. “Well, normally Ryukou is the one who’s good at mind games, but I think I’ll take you up on your offer.”
“Yes, Prince Izrekiel.” She bowed her head slightly and began to lead the way down the hall.
As we walked, I watched as her long, dark braid bounced against the back of her light blue uniform and her feet padded softly across the wooden floor in their white socks. When we reached the servant quarters, I waited with my hands clasped behind my back as she ducked into the room to fetch the puzzle book. Several other servant girls passed by me with startled expressions while I waited. Finally, Liu came back out hugging a cloth-bound book against her chest.
“This is very precious to me, Prince Izrekiel. But you may borrow it as long as you like.” Then, she presented it to me.
I took the book carefully in my hands, turning it over to look at the binding. It was simple in craftsmanship, but pleasing to look at nonetheless, with thin red cloth on both the front and back of the book, and intricate white thread to stitch the pages together. The cover was unmarked, and when I opened to the first page, it had that new ink smell to it. On the page, it read, “Riddles for the Wandering Soul” in bold letters, but no author was written. I traced my hand over it, feeling the coarse paper’s grainy grooves, and turned the page. Each page held a new puzzle or riddle, written with a steady hand in black ink. I skimmed the first few pages quickly, and then chuckled.
“Whoever the author is, he is a genius,” I said, smiling at Liu. “I’ve scarcely read something so amusing.” I flipped gingerly through the book and stopped on a random page. “ ‘I am bountiful as a willow tree’s leaves, and thoughtless as a harlequin. I am often mistaken for my close relative, and I am only given cheaply when I am not wanted. What am I?’ ” I read aloud. I skipped to the bottom of the page to read the answer. “ ‘An opinion…’ ” I stared at the symbols, stunned, and then I let out a laugh.
I looked up, and when our eyes met, Liu started to shift her feet and stifled a cough.
I held the book in my hands. “Can you show me to the courtyard? I should think that would be a good place to read.”
She nodded. “Right this way.”
When we made it there, the sun had crested the horizon and illuminated everything in a pinkish glow. I sat down on one of the stone benches that overlooked the garden, and cracked open the book again, reading with a new sense of excitement. After a few minutes, Liu bowed.
“I’m sorry, Prince Izrekiel. I must return to my duties. Then—” She turned to leave, and I was hit with the urge to keep her from doing so. Without thinking, I snatched her wrist before she could take even one step. Her eyes widened, staring at me in a combination of varying emotions.
“Please, stay with me. I don’t think I could stand to be alone,” I said, before I could stop myself. I held onto her thin wrist for several minutes, marveling at the feeling of her soft skin in my hand, I said nothing, until she nodded. A sigh of relief escaped me, and I let my hand fall. She sat next to me on the bench, clasping her hands in her lap.
“Thank you,” I mumbled.
“You’re welcome, Prince Izrekiel.”
I adjusted my position awkwardly, and continued reading, my eyes passing from riddle to riddle. Some of them were humorous like the one I’d read before, but others were incredibly insightful. I enjoyed reading them, but I started to get bored, or distracted… I don’t know. All I know is that from time to time, I couldn’t help but glance at the girl beside me.
She was staring at the clouds in the distance, and I could see her face in perfect profile. She had very pleasing features. I grazed my eyes over her slender body. Her shape was mostly hidden by her blue servant’s garb, but she was most definitely a woman, the way her kimono bulged slightly around her hips. When I looked back up at her face, I noticed she had a round forehead, with her dark hair brushed back into her braid to expose her high hairline, her small nose, with little, slightly upturned nostrils, a flat mole on her left cheekbone, just below her eye, large, dark brown eyes with long eyelashes, and framed by faint brown eyebrows.
She glanced at me, and in horror, I realized I had been staring at her for quite some time. I averted my eyes and forced myself to look at the book again. But after a few minutes, my eyes shifted toward her again seemingly of their own accord, making me aware that my efforts were of no use. My gaze travelled down to her lips, curved softly into a neutral position, like pink petals against white sand. My eyes ventured further. Her neck was exposed, and I could just barely see her smooth collarbone peeking out from the ironed neckline of her blue uniform. The slope of her rounded shoulders continued into straight sleeves, just short enough that I could see her tiny wrists leading to small hands. For a common girl, she was quite beautiful, and I couldn’t help but wonder what she would look like underneath her servant’s garb…
Her eyes met mine again, curious, confused even. But this time, I held her gaze. I hadn’t looked at a girl for that long in at least a year. And this time, she was about a foot away from me. I became strikingly aware of how little effort it would take to close the gap.
Liu opened her mouth as if to speak, but closed it again just as suddenly, as if she had thought better of it. But she shifted slightly, and I smelled her, an indescribable human smell that was somehow attractive. She was still watching me. I realized I had subconsciously begun leaning toward her. She didn’t move to back away. I inched a little closer. Her eyes widened slightly, but she didn’t move. I inched closer. If there was ever clear permission, it was here, when she didn’t stop me from coming closer. I supported myself on my right hand as I leaned forward and gave into my urges.
Her lips were soft and moist, warm against mine. It was something I had never tried, and I realized I liked it a lot. It was curious how lips that were made for talking and eating were so incredibly useful for this too. I added kissing to the list of tasks for the lips to partake in.
She put her arms on my chest firm against my kimono, and I came closer, pushing her down on the stone bench. She made a sound, high pitched, in the back of her throat, biting my bottom lip, and I felt myself get hard, sucking in a sharp breath. The sound of my heart, mingled with hers thrummed in my ears, feeling more like blood pumping vigorously. Without opening my eyes, I found her chin and brought my lips down her neck, its little muscles and tendons tightening at my touch. My lips continued their search until they lingered on her collar bone, just above her breasts under the rough fabric of the uniform. She pressed her hands against my chest and brought up her knees.
It occurred to me that it was a very, very bad idea to do this out in the open, where anyone could see us, but I was a bit less than rational at the moment. Arousal clouded my mind with its exciting implications.
Liu’s voice rose, and I didn’t hear what she said, jumbled as it was by my brain. I felt her legs push against my abdomen, and she spoke again, this time louder. Her fists slammed against my chest, and I opened my eyes.
Tears streaked down her face, and she kept mumbling something loudly. I tried to make it out. “S-s-stop! Don’t! Y-your Highness! P-please stop!” she cried through her sobs. I realized with confusion that she was trying to prevent me from coming any closer with her knees. Her hands pushed against my chest again, hitting mostly ribs. In a haze, I let her go, backing off from the bench.
As soon as I was off of her, Liu scrambled to her feet and started to run off toward the building again, hugging herself and crying. Her hair was escaping from her dark braid and falling about her face. It was both beautiful and tragic.
“Liu!” I followed her and tried to grab her wrist again, this time, to apologize, but she tried to tug her arm away. I tightened my grip so she was forced to look at me. “I thought you… well…?” I trailed off, suddenly uncertain about a lot of things.
“I am not a whore!” she wailed. She yanked her arm out of my grasp.
“Liu!” I started after her again, but she would not speak to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another servant girl peeking her head around the corner. I stopped, watching as Liu slipped away, down one corridor to the next, and… I was hit by an immense feeling of guilt.
How had I perceived the situation so wrong?
I released a sigh and stood still for a moment, staring at the empty hallway, and then I kicked one of the oak wall panels, hissing in pain through my teeth as my toes collided with the wood through the thin fabric of my shoe. The other servant girl peeked her head around the corner again to watch me warily, but when I glared back, she went away.
After a moment of frustration, I remembered the riddle book on the ground by the bench and took it again in my hand. Luckily, it was free of dirt or grass stains, so I brought it back inside. I decided to leave it in my room for now, until I could return it. Then I went to visit Ryukou again.
Ryukou was upright when I returned to his room, although he still didn’t look well. Sweat was gathered on his face, and he looked paler than usual, but otherwise, he seemed okay. He smiled when I entered. I glanced at the physician who had passed out against the wall opposite Ryukou’s futon before I approached my brother.
“How are you?” I asked him, sitting on the tatami mats beside his futon.
He folded his hands over his stomach, leaning back on the pile of pillows behind his back and head. “I’m alright. A little cold maybe, but alright.”
“Do you want we to have some food brought up for you?” I asked.
Making a face, he shook his head and pulled the blankets farther over himself. “No. My stomach’s a little unsettled. I think I’ll wait.”
I nodded, simply glad that there wasn’t anything seriously wrong. I had been so scared seeing him collapse like that… But now he seemed okay. That was all I could ask for.
From across the room, I heard something stir, and looked up to see the physician sitting up. He blinked at me, scraggly strands of gray hanging limply over his face. In his state of disarray, you’d think he was the patient and not Ryukou. Still, he asked me again if I was alright and whether I would sleep.
“I can’t sleep right now. I am tired, but I know I won’t be able to sleep if I tried.”
The old man looked at me, thinking about something. Then he said, “I have an herbal remedy that might help you rest, if you would like to try it. You can take it in your tea.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, and whether such a thing would work, but I was open to trying it.
“Are you sure you don’t need me?” I asked Ryukou.
He smiled at me and nodded. “I will be fine. The good physician is here. Get some rest.”
I accepted the physician’s offer, and he told me he would have the tea sent to my room. After I dismissed myself and found my way back to my room, I lay down on the futon. The candles had burned out, but the room was illuminated by the morning sun outside the windows. I had half a mind to close the blinds, but for some reason, the bright light was soothing. I put my arm over my eyes.
What an eventful day… Well, night, I realized. I couldn’t help but feel terrible about Liu. What a horrible person she must think me now. The poor girl would probably never speak to me again, not that it really mattered. I would be leaving within a matter of days, anyway.
There was a knock at the door, and a servant entered with the tea. I drank it quickly, at the table, and was shocked to find that it actually worked quite well. Within maybe twenty minutes, I began nodding off. I undressed to my under robe and crawled under the blankets on the futon. It only took a matter of minutes for me to fall asleep.