I was cold when I awoke. I blinked up at the fading light, peeking in through the windows, that seemed to cast everything in pink and orange shadows. A slow but forceful wind blew from the east and battered against the wooden frames, whispering to clouds that moved across the sky in an army of omens.
Sitting up slowly and shivering, I crossed to the window to close the wooden slats in an attempt to block out the wind. For several long minutes, I sat on the edge of the futon trying to encourage myself to get up and leave the room. Judging by the sky, it had been at least ten hours, maybe more, since I had fallen asleep. Then why did I still feel tired?
Finally, I stood and rolled my right shoulder, which I had slept on, and found a fresh kimono to wear. Once I was dressed, I slid the door open and stepped outside into the hallway. I didn’t know where to go, so I started down the hallway toward where I hoped was the room my father was staying, rubbing my neck in preoccupation, and I saw two servant girls whispering excitedly in the hallway. Normally I would have kept walking without so much as a glance in their direction, but as I was passing by, I heard my brother’s name.
I stopped in my tracks and touched one of the girls on the shoulder with a feeling of trepidation sinking in my gut. “Ryukou? What happened to my brother?”
The girl yelped and yanked her arm away, staring at me with her eyes wide as if she’d seen a ghost. Then she averted her gaze and started backing away down the hallway, mumbling something unintelligible under her breath, in a panicked fashion.
“Aya! Aya, get back here!” the other girl whispered urgently. But her words were ignored.
I was stunned, watching the girl, Aya, leave without a clear reason. Before I could ask, her friend bowed deeply and spoke.
“My sincerest apologies, Your Highness. Aya is terribly superstitious. Please forgive her, the foolish girl.”
I beckoned for her to stand upright. “Superstitious? About what?” I asked, baffled.
The girl shifted uncomfortably. “Forgive me,” she said. “Aya belongs to a specific sect that believes that Your Highness is unlucky, and that only bad omens follow in Your Highness’s path. Forgive me please. I meant no harm in telling this to Your Highness. This is only what my friend believes.”
I shook my head, deciding to worry about this problem later. “Never mind that. What about my brother? What were you two whispering about?”
She glanced at the ground. “You haven’t heard yet? His Royal Highness has fallen terribly ill. They’ve called for the Royal Priest. I’m sorry.” She bowed again.
“The Royal Priest? Why?” I asked. But I knew the answer already. Suddenly, I felt very sick. I stumbled backward, shaking my head in denial. “No. By gods, no… You can’t mean…”
“Your Highness? Are you okay? You’ve gone pale.” She reached out to keep me steady, but I had already turned around toward my brother’s chambers, my heart beating rapidly in my chest. One phrase kept running through my head, over and over again, like an increasing chant. It can’t be.
I passed several startled servants in the halls, unaware of their presence. My speed increased without my knowledge. I was running. Cold sweat gathered on my skin. My throat felt dry, and my breathing became rapid. It can’t be.
I reached the door and grabbed the handle, my hand shaking. Several figures stood outside the door, their faces veiled. There were four of them. Around their necks hung long, jeweled amulets, in the shape of the Kitsura Royal Family Crest. My heart filled with dread. It can’t be.
My hand froze on the handle. What if I opened the door, and saw what I feared? What if I was too late? I didn’t think I could handle it. Anything but that. It can’t be.
No… It can’t be. It can’t be. It can’t be.
Finally I slid open the door. I paused in the doorway, suddenly unable to move forward. Inside people crowded in the room, including the physician and his medical assistants crouched beside the Crown Prince’s futon, General Oimé, Lord Rinosuke Kyoji, and Father, who paced, unsettled, around the room. On the futon, Ryukou lay, his skin a sickly white, moist with sweat, his lips chapped and peeling, and his chest moving up and down weakly as he struggled for breath. At my abrupt entrance, the gathered men looked up at me.
“My son,” my father said, holding out his hand toward me. “Soon, you will have to take on his burdens as Crown Prince. We shall see him off together, as a family. It’s a pity your mother cannot be here. But at the same time, I am glad, for I doubt her delicate soul could bear witnessing the loss of her first son with her own eyes.”
I was ready to explode. All the fear and anxiety that had built up over the past few days now manifested itself in another form: pure fury. “Don’t speak like this, Father! Don’t speak as if he’s already dead! Ryukou isn’t going to die! Not yet.” I felt tears build up in my eyes, and I tried to suppress them, but even my voice betrayed me. My hands were balled into fists at my sides.
The room fell silent. After several minutes, General Oimé crossed over to me and gently laid a hand on my trembling shoulders.
“Come, Your Highness. The air is too oppressive. Let’s go outside.”
I shook off his touch, glaring at my feet.
“Now, now, Prince Izrekiel, is that any way to be? Just for a while, let’s clear our heads. Come.” Again, the middle-aged man placed his hand on my shoulder. This time, I allowed myself to be nudged outside, numb to everything.
Oimé slowly led me, with his arm around my shoulders, toward what I assumed were the kitchens. An old cook and several assistants were busy steaming rice and grilling spiced meat and vegetables in large skillets over the fire. The General sat me down at the small table near the doorway, and said something to the cooks. But the meaning was lost to me; I couldn’t hear anything clearly outside of my mind, which screamed out constantly prayers for my brother’s life.
You should never barter for someone’s life, I knew that, but I couldn’t help from making little bets, promising to be obedient to my elders from now on, or to study my philosophy well, or to pay homage to the shrine every day, offering up anything I could think of that might appease the gods, or the spirits of death, or whoever else might be able to alter fate.
General Oimé placed two tiny porcelain cups on the table and filled them with a clear liquid from a white jug. Once he was done, he took my hands and wrapped them securely around one of the cups, as if I couldn’t move my limbs myself. And I let him, too busy cursing my existence to care.
“Drink it, Your Highness. You’ll feel better.”
The man brought his own cup to his lips and sipped it carefully, watching the me with an unwavering gaze.
I stared at the cup in my hands, not knowing what to do with it. Then I sniffed its contents. When a sharp smell hit my nostrils, I realized what it was and decidedly emptied the entire drink, gagging as a burning sensation trickled down my throat.
As I coughed, I felt Oimé pat my back. “Slowly, Your Highness. It won’t go down well like that.”
Glaring at him, I reached for the jug. General Oimé started to protest, but he thought better of it and let me pour myself another cup. I gulped that cup down too, grimacing as the alcohol traveled down my esophagus. I repeated this two more times before Oimé decided to intervene. The man grabbed my left wrist as I tried to reach for the jug a fifth time.
I jerked my hand away and defiantly poured myself yet another cup. I brought it to my mouth to drink, but as I started sip the rice wine, my hand trembled. Moisture pricked at my eyes, and I tried to hold it in, biting my tongue and closing my eyes. The pressure built up like steam in a kettle, and I let out a choking sound, unable to constrain it anymore. It sounded kind of like I was gagging. I put the cup down and covered my face, shaking out of my control.
Then, I was weeping like a child, unable to stop it now.
I let out another sob.
The man didn’t know what to do with me. So he remained silent. I tried to forget that he was there, watching a grown man cry. After several minutes like this, I was finally able to stop. I sat up and sloppily wiped at my tears with the sleeve of my kimono, my breathing still unsteady. I picked up the cup again and, this time, sipped it slowly, and without a word, I stood up and returned to Ryukou’s room with Oimé following close behind.
Outside the door, I hesitated and turned to look back at Oimé.
“Can… Are my eyes still red?” I asked, ashamed of myself and my pathetic behavior.
The man shook his head quickly, and I wondered if he was lying. Oh well… I couldn’t very well hide that fact now.
I nodded and opened the door. This time, my entrance only warranted a few nods of greeting, and I crossed to Ryukou’s side on the futon. I remained like that for hours, refusing to leave my brother alone for any reason.
About an hour later, the Royal Physician, named Nioju Hong, arrived from Gō Ataru. Hong was a rather large man, with arms like a bear’s, made visible by the sleeves of his kimono rolled up and tied back with black strips of cloth. He was an imposing man, taller than even my father and brother, with shoulders to rival a bison, his hair bunched into a stark white top knot, and a long white beard falling to his stomach. I’d seen him several times at the palace, when he’s treated me or one of my family members for sicknesses. At his arrival, he demanded to see Ryukou, and when he entered the room, he immediately began checking his wound, much to the other physician’s surprise.
I watched as the man untied the front of Ryukou’s kimono and pulled back the white under-robe at the left shoulder. Underneath, the torn fabric from Oimé’s tunic hung loosely over the arrow wound, stained with dry blood. Slowly, the Royal Physician peeled away the fabric.
I gasped when I saw it. The wound was relatively small, maybe half an inch wide all the way around, and there was hardly any blood, but the circumference was surrounded by white, wrinkled skin, and worse than anything else, yellowish-white semi-transparent liquid pooled from the puncture, cracking as it dried near the edges. The sight of it was horrible, and I didn’t have to know anything about medicine to realize that this was very, very bad. The smell itself was sickening. It was like the stench of rotting fruit. I covered my nose and made a choked sound, disgusted and terrified of such a wound’s implications.
Even my father sucked in a breath.
The Royal Physician scrunched his eyebrows in worry. After a moment, an expression of shocked realization crossed his face and he turned toward my father. “Why did his highness not seek care for his wound immediately after his arrival?”
Father solemnly said, “I don’t know. I assumed he had when I saw the sling.”
Pulling my arm away from my face, I shook my head slowly. I couldn’t take my eyes away from my brother’s sickening wound.
“Did the wound get cleaned at all? I see that it has been bound, but I don’t know how good of a job was done.”
Oimé nodded. “Yes. I made sure we poured rice wine over the wound.”
“I see,” the old man muttered thoughtfully. He removed the strip of putrid fabric from Ryukou’s shoulder and placed it aside on the ground. Then he felt Ryukou’s head with his palm again. Making a face, he wiped the sweat gathering on the Crown Prince’s forehead with a damp cloth. After his ministrations, he called for a servant to bring him clean rags, boiled water, ginger tea with honey, and strong alcohol. “Oh, and bring some sage, if possible,” he added as an afterthought. “In fact…” He pulled out a crumpled piece of parchment from the inside of his robe and scratched something onto the surface using a worn down charcoal stick. “Bring me everything on this list,” he said, handing the paper to the servant. “If olive oil is not available, just bring me whatever oil is. Ah yes, and if a slow burner cannot be found, just bring me a small candle, as well as some kind of metal frame for the porcelain pot.”
The young man nodded and bowed his head before ducking out of the room to do as he was told. I watched the aged physician, completely lost as to what his instructions meant.
“I rushed over here as soon as I received the news, so I was unable to bring much in the way of treatment,” the old man explained to Father, reaching into his cloth satchel. He pulled out a few strips of thin white fabric and a small bottle of a clear yellow liquid. “Tea tree oil,” he explained, swirling the bottle.
Hong looked a bit worse for wear. He had been on the road for a day, without stopping for anything substantial, and now he was back to work, tending to the Crown Prince, creating a salve that might stave off infection, and cleaning the young man’s wound. The fever had persisted all throughout the day, and Ryukou’s lips were chapped. He tried to give him water, but it was too dangerous to feed it to him when he was unconscious, with the fear that he might choke. So we waited. All we could do was wait and repeat the same treatments.
Eventually, the Royal Physician decided to try bleeding out the infection. He and his attendants cut a small gash on the Crown Prince’s wrist and let his blood drip into a large bowl. They emptied out three bowls before they stopped and wrapped his wrist to prevent further bleeding. After this, Father dismissed himself, with General Oimé and Lord Kyoji following.
Ryukou’s skin was burning up, and he shuddered often in his restless sleep. Then he finally settled down, his breathing slowed, and he looked more at peace. We all took this as a good sign. Maybe he would recover. Just maybe…
I woke up with my heart beating precariously fast. I had fallen asleep by my brother’s side, my cheek on the tatami mats. My eyes were still closed, but my head throbbed from the remnants of alcohol. I heard a noise, wet and violent from beside me. The thing that had woken me was the sound of gargling. I blinked and lifted my head to see Ryukou shaking uncontrollably on the futon beside me. He was writhing on the blankets, arms spasming, eyes open but not seeing.
“Help him! He’s dying! Help!” I panicked, holding onto Ryukou’s arm. “Please!”
In the corner, Hong, who had dozed off, started awake and rushed over as soon as he realized what was happening.
“Hold His Highness! We have to turn him onto his side!” the old man ordered his assistants. They obeyed immediately. Once they had turned the Crown Prince’s body and propped his head up on the pillow, the two younger men pinned his thrashing limbs down so that he couldn’t move.
The white-haired man held Ryukou’s head, so that he couldn’t hurt himself. “Your Highness, hand me that piece of cloth beside you.” He pointed to a bundle beside me. I was paralyzed with fear, huddled against the wall with my hands trembling, but I had enough sense to do as I was told. I watched as the physician stuffed the piece of fabric into Ryukou’s mouth, and they continued to hold him down.
This went on for over ten minutes, and then, suddenly, Ryukou was still.
They released him and laid him again on his back, covering him in blankets. The physician removed the fabric from his mouth and sat back with a weary sigh. Several minutes passed before anyone spoke.
It was I who first broke the silence. I crawled forward and grabbed my older brother’s limp hand, squeezing it in my fists.
I mumbled, my voice thick, words that I hoped would convince his dying soul to return to us, begging that perhaps I could lend him some of my strength through my hands. “Brother, you can’t leave yet. You can’t… You’re supposed to become King someday. So live. Live.” I paused, trying to keep my voice from cracking. “I need you to live.”