The Royal Priest arrived the next night. He first went to see the King, before they both entered Ryukou’s chambers. When the man came in we all stood and bowed, even my father. To a religious man, even a king was nothing.
I had seen him before, during festival times, but rarely had I seen him so close, much less spoken to him. His name was Yonatu, and no one knew his surname. I always found his appearance disconcerting. I didn’t know why. Somehow, his bald head and small, thin eyes, coupled with his narrow frame, bothered me in a way I couldn’t explain.
He crossed to Ryukou’s futon in what looked like one long stride, his ornate robes fluttering around him like rivulets of water. He kneeled by Ryukou’s limp form on the sheets, just beside me, and touched Ryukou’s forehead with his palm. He held his hand there for several minutes, his expression solemn, then he released him.
To my father, he said, “His soul is far away.”
Father looked down at his feet, understanding. “Is it time?” he asked.
The Royal Priest nodded. “It is time.”
I could feel my throat getting tight. I knew why the Royal Priest was here: he was here to send Ryukou off. And I wasn’t ready to send my brother off. Before one died, a priest needed to say the final rites over them to ease their soul into the afterlife. They were so certain the Ryukou would not recover, that he would leave us, that he would… die. I had difficulty accepting it before, but now, with the arrival of the Royal Priest, it made the situation become more real somehow.
“Shall we wake him?” the priest asked.
My father nodded. That was the first time I’d ever seen him look so resigned.
Physician Hong retrieved some sort of glass bottle that was smaller than his hand, containing a clear liquid from his bag on the table, and brought it toward Ryukou’s futon. The facets in the glass seemed to glitter in the candlelight. I moved out of the way so that he could approach, and I saw him uncap the bottle and hold it under Ryukou’s nose.
Suddenly, Ryukou sucked a breath in through his nostrils and snapped open his mouth and eyes. His breathing became fast, and his icy blue eyes searched frantically around the room seeing nothing. Physician Hong pulled the mysterious liquid away and stood up to move away from the futon.
The Royal Priest came close to Ryukou and leaned over him. “Your Highness, can you hear me?” Ryukou shuddered and turned his head to the side, toward the wall. I wasn’t sure if he was entirely conscious right now.
He took Ryukou’s head in his hands and forced my brother to look at him, as wild as his eyes seemed. “Your Highness? Your Highness, are you awake?” His voice was soft and faint, as if it was coming from miles away.
Ryukou’s breathing slowed, and he moved his head in a way that I assumed was nodding.
“What’s your name?” the Royal Priest asked, out of nowhere.
“R-Ryukou… Kitsura,” he said, his voice scratchy and quiet.
“Good.” The bald man nodded. “Now, do you know why I’m here?”
My brother thought about it, silent and still for one moment, even his breathing. Then he suddenly began thrashing about under the Priest’s touch. He screamed something unintelligible. I covered my ears, terrified. I had never heard my brother scream like that, like he was being burned alive. The Royal Priest covered Ryukou’s mouth to stop his shouting, and Physician Hong crossed over to the futon again to hold Ryukou down. Even in this sorry state, Ryukou was strong enough to make things difficult for them.
They held him down until he quieted again, staring up at the ceiling, blinking slowly.
They released him, and the Priest took my brother’s right hand in his own. “Are you ready to admit your sins to me?”
Ryukou kept his gaze focused on the ceiling, as if he hadn’t heard the man.
“Please, Your Highness. You must admit your sins to allow an easy passage to the afterlife.”
There was still no response. The Priest took his head in his hands again and forced him to look him in the eye. “This is for your own good.”
My brother stared at him for what felt like a long time, having nowhere else to turn his gaze, then he nodded weakly, accepting the fate that I could not.
I looked away, biting my tongue to keep from choking out a sob. I couldn’t bear to watch my brother breaking down and accepting death. It was simply too horrible. He was supposed to live a long, happy life, with many children. How could he leave us now?
I felt someone touch my shoulder, and I looked up to see my father watching me with sad eyes.
“Come, let’s give them privacy.”
But I didn’t want to give them some privacy. I didn’t want them to perform the last rites. I didn’t want my brother to die. Yet… there was nothing I could do.
I followed my father outside, fighting back tears. If I cried in front of him, I would have admitted defeat.
He led me to a bedroom—the room he was staying in at Kyoji Estate, I realized—and sat me on a cushioned bench in an alcove by the window, before leaving me alone. I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat there staring at my hands. Hands that were callused and scarred from war. Time seemed to pass quickly, and yet last an eternity. I looked up again to see that Father had returned with a plate of food for me. Normally, such a task was reserved for servants, but my father did it this time. He did it for me, to make sure that I ate something after staying with Ryukou for more than a day. For a moment, he was a father taking care of his son, and not a king worried about his heir. I looked at the plate in my hands, rolled fish and rice with curry sauce and leek soup, something that the cooks had no doubt labored over. I picked up the chopsticks and took a bite of the curry rice. And it was difficult to swallow.
The bite went down slowly, threatening at any moment to come back up. I pushed it down and attempted a bite of fish. When that too was difficult to swallow, I gave up and put the plate down, feeling ill.
“You should eat,” Father said, trying to hand me the plate and sitting next to me on the bench.
I shook my head.
Father let out a sigh and put the plate down again. I saw him slump his shoulders beside me and turned my head to look at him. This was the first time I’d ever thought he looked old. His eyes were tired, with circles under them, and small wrinkles at the the outer corners, and creases lined his forehead like marks made in ink. His blue eyes which normally appeared bright almost seemed to take on a dark grey tone. His eyebrows scrunched over them to complete the worried mask.
“My child, why must you be this way? Is it not cruel enough that your brother will leave us? You must eat and stay healthy.” He didn’t look at me as he said it, and I knew that he was scared that our line would die out.
My father was gone. Once again, he was a king worried about his heirs.
Without a word, I turned toward the wall and put my head in between my knees and hugged my legs. I wanted to be alone now, and the King’s presence was only making me even more uncomfortable. I tried to ignore him, until finally, I heard him sigh and stand up to leave. I let out a breath.
What could I do…? There seemed to be nothing to save him now. It began to sink in that he would actually die. Ryukou was going to die… and I was stuck here waiting for it to happen. I felt the night creep in and touch my back through the window, making me shiver.
“Do not be afraid.” I nearly jumped when I heard the soft, smooth voice beside me suddenly, and looked up to see the Royal Priest sitting on the bench beside me. “You were shaking. Can you tell me why?”
Looking at the man, it was difficult for me to speak. He made me nervous, and I didn’t know why. Maybe it was his connection to the gods, ever seeing, ever knowing, watching us all through a thick lense of right and wrong. There was no in-between for those of the other side. And a priest was one who communed with the spirits, trusting them, sometimes, more than his fellow men.
Still, I thought I must give him an answer, if only for politeness’ sake. “By brother’s going to die…” I stopped, knowing that there was nothing more to say. I was confused, and even I didn’t know where my sadness began or ended on the matter.
“Ah… I see,” he said, like I had revealed some mystery that alluded him for a long time. “But what about you?” he asked, in his otherworldly voice. “How do you feel?”
I straightened my position on the padded bench, pushing my legs over the edge and letting my hands fall to my lap. Wasn’t it already obvious? Did I have to spell it out for him like the inky symbols on his intricate robes?
“I’m upset. I’m filled with sorrow. I’m confused, hopeless. Angry!” I nearly shouted, emphasizing with my hands. My voice echoed off the walls, and I put my head in my palms to keep from trembling.
After a moment, the priest spoke again. “Why are you angry?” he asked, calm.
I closed my eyes, unsure. It’s strange how these things made sense when I was by myself, thinking, brooding. But when forced to say them outloud, to explain myself and my grievous thinking, all of a sudden, my emotions were like scattered cracks in a rock, mismatched, random, and broken apart. And then came the searching for answers, because it was one thing to not know to myself, but it was another thing entirely to feel my argument melt in front of another person. I could find myself a fool, but gods be damned if I let someone else think so.
“I’m angry… because…” I hesitated. How could I admit it outloud to this man? He would be offended by what I placed the blame on. But for some reason, I felt I could trust his confidence. Maybe that’s what happens when you are so close to the spirits. “Because,” I continued, “the gods have forsaken us.”
“Forsaken you?” he asked, not an accusation, but leading me to speak.
“Yes. They have forsaken my brother when they shouldn’t have, and are going to let him die. They let the arrow pierce him, they let the sickness take his body, and now they are taking his soul as well…”
The priest nodded his bald head, resting a hand on my shoulder. “Maybe his fate is just,” he said simply.
“How could you say that?” I asked in frustration.
The older man pulled his hand away and let his eyes wander over my face, taking in my bizarre appearance, to be sure. “Do you know why you are named ‘Izrekiel?’ ”
I shook my head. Mother had told me where my name came from, but not why I had been named after an ancient king of myth. Ryukou was named after a spirit that took the form of a dragon of light, but I didn’t know the reason for that either.
“I’m sure you know,” the Royal Priest said,” that when you were born, I was the one who chose your name.”
I nodded. It was a tradition, going back further than even my ancestors stretched. When a royal child was born, the Royal Priest named him and bestowed him with a blessing to ward off misfortune and disease. That was how it was always done.
“When you were born,” he continued, “the King and Queen thought you were ill. They waited for me to bestow my blessing, of course, but they were fearful all the same, for they knew that if the gods had willed you to die, no blessing or prayer could save you from the fate the gods chose for you.
“When I first saw you, I knew that you had been chosen by the gods to fulfill their will. Your discolored hair and misshapen ears”—I felt their pointed tips self-consciously—”were not simply a deformity; they were a sign. A sign that you were of divine origin, a vessel for the Great Orato to manifest himself on earth once more. I knew that had you been born first, you might have made a great king someday.”
It took me a moment to register what he had said. My whole life, I had been told repeatedly by my parents, tutors, even my brother, that I was special in some way, but I never understood why. And even now, with a holy man telling me that I was linked to the gods, it was difficult to believe I tried to piece it together, but couldn’t.
“Why are you telling me this,” I asked.
He sighed and watched a candle flicker in the far corner of the room. “I tell you this because everyone should know the origin of their name. And,” he said, “because maybe now you can understand why the gods have forsaken the Crown Prince; he was never meant to be King, and perhaps now, he is fated to die. You cannot change fate, Your Highness.”
I did not respond. If the gods wanted my brother to die and me to take his place, then I hated them. They could rot in the heavens for all I was concerned. My brother didn’t deserve this.
After a moment, I turned silently to stare out the windows behind me at the night sky. The stars were faded, like they no longer cared to watch down on earth. I wanted to curse at them too.
Even the stars had turned away from us.