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On the seventh and final day of mourning for the loss of the war, my brother Iseul came to my chambers to tell me that our father was dead.
I had been expecting the news for some time. There was ritual ensconced in the hour of his death—this, on the seventh hour of the seventh day—which made it all the more unsurprising to see the truth in my brother's eyes, lining his mouth and hardening his jaw. The news was no shock to us. Our father had taken his life in apology for our defeat at the hands of the Volstovics, as we always knew he would; all we could do now was join him or suffer his legacy. For either of these, we were equally prepared.
My brother came with black robes and no kohl to line his eyes, rather than with knives of ceremony. I saw then that his decision had been made. In this as in all things, I would follow the path my brother had chosen for us.
Outside the window, just past the quiet gardens of raked sand and contemplation, loomed the broken roof of the magicians' dome, like the rounded edge of a broken sky as seen from above, where the gods once sat and watched over us in dominion. It was far enough away that it looked almost like a shattered bowl overset, or a forsaken cup of tea dropped by clumsy hands. What remained of the dome was charred. Here and there the blue stone sparkled, but it was no more than feeble protest in the bleaching sunlight.
The destruction of the dome had been a particularly crushing blow to our people, though perhaps not the one the Volstovics intended. We were not a society based heavily on magic; war had forced our hand in advancing the skill of our magicians. And though in later years the dome became a perfect gathering place for the magicians, it had first been built as a temple of worship for our gods. Its demolition had been a huge blow to the morale of the people, as a symbol more than a practical structure.
Iseul pushed his fingers through his hair, each heavy braid a commendation of his prowess as our father's general. He was on the verge of pacing, but practice kept him fearsomely still.
"The delegation arrives tomorrow," he said. "We shall meet them as planned."
The entire city must have known by then—or would soon know—of my father the emperor's death. From somewhere deep in the green garden just below my window, I heard the sudden throaty wail of a songbird, trembling upon the air. The sound echoed the faint trembling of my brother's fists, and I averted my eyes.
The dew had barely left the leaves.
"We'll meet them as though nothing has changed," I said, with the hint of a question.
Iseul's eyes flashed in anger. "Nothing has changed," he insisted.
I sank to my knees before him at once when the look in his eyes betrayed the lie. Everything had changed. Our father was dead and my brother the emperor in his stead, and I had shown grave disrespect to my new lord by neglecting to bow to him; shock had overwhelmed all memory of protocol. I struggled with my shame and could not lift my eyes.
"Mamoru," Iseul said, in place of how he had once addressed me. Brother. "Do not do this. Rise."
"I swear to serve you," I said, instead of obeying him. This old custom was more important even than brotherhood. We were no longer two princes, and I had wasted too much time already without acknowledging his new place as emperor of the Ke Han. "In seven ways I shall serve you. In seven ways I shall offer my life to you. In seven ways, if it is in my power, I shall die beneath your blade, as your blade, for your blade. May your reign be prosperous and long." Then, closing my eyes, I strayed from the words I'd known since before I could form them with my own mouth, the prayer with which I was born. "May the people love you as I do," I whispered. "Iseul—"
My brother held up his hand, fingers spread wide. As always, it was a small sign, but the shame I felt was assuaged by the openness of the gesture. If my brother's fingers had been all together, I would have sensed his anger at my actions, but I had never given my brother cause to close his hand and his heart against me.
"Enough," he said, his voice cold. He must have already been preparing, mentally, for the arrival of the delegates. "Rise."
I did as he'd bidden me. It was as things would be between us from then on, and it was as things had always been, for I respected my brother's elder position just as I loved him, and it stilled the quaking in my chest a little to know that not everything had changed.
"What—" I held my tongue, breathing the way I'd been taught to hide the uncertainty in my voice, my movements. "What happens now, Iseul?"
He shook his head, looking out over the gardens as though expecting to find some answer within their soothing patterns. Of course, my brother was a man who needed no such reassurance. I myself felt an unbidden longing. The sand had no need to worry as to what direction to take, what shape, what form. There was a plan in mind for the sand, and it had only to follow. My brother and I had no such luck.
I fiddled with the smooth, soft fabric of my overlong sleeves, trying not to seem as though I was waiting on my brother's response. Surely the new responsibility was weighing heavily on his mind, and he would have a great many things to discuss with the warlords, our own diplomats, before the delegation from Volstov arrived tomorrow. The proper thing, I knew, was to beg my leave, expecting to be informed of what my new role within the negotiations would be at a later hour, when my brother had taken his time to sort it out. Knowing this, however, did not preclude my stubborn desire to stay nearby. After all, with our father dead, Iseul was all I had of family, and I the same to him—for even as the elder prince, my father had not yet seen fit to find my brother a wife. Now he was emperor, but still my brother, and I would not leave until I'd found some sign that I'd not lost him to dark thoughts of what was to come. But he would not look at me.
"Iseul," I began, and felt reassurance opening like a blossom within me. It seemed then that I knew, from some unseen source of certainty, that everything would be healed in time for my brother and for me. For our people, for all the Ke Han. We would put our heads together, Iseul and I, along with my father's old advisors; and we would manage the task set to us as best we could. I hadn't yet grown past the childish notion that there was nothing we couldn't accomplish together. And indeed, even our father had been proud to claim that Iseul's strengths balanced against mine so fittingly that together we made a nearly invincible pair. Today was going to be onerous for him, and I could not expect reassurances—rather it was my place now to reassure him, in his new station, for if I did not support our new emperor with all my being, then what man could be expected to do so?
We would find ourselves within this new rhythm once we'd settled into this new way of being. It was only a matter of time.
My brother's face turned toward mine, and then to the door as Kouje cleared his throat just beyond, filling the silence my brother had left in the wake of my appeals.
"Your pardon," Iseul said to me, sounding distant somehow, but how could I blame him? He moved with a steadiness of purpose that I longed to imitate, and slid open the door on the kneeling figure before us.
"My lord Emperor," Kouje began, proving that news traveled faster among the servants than I'd have believed possible, and that my brother's decision was known now throughout the great house, if not the palace proper. "Word has been sent that the delegation from Volstov is set to arrive rather—earlier—than we anticipated."
"Earlier," my brother repeated.
He did not need to phrase it as a question; it was Kouje's duty to anticipate and respond in kind.
"We believe they may be here in a matter of hours, your Supreme Grace."
It was then that I envied Kouje's propriety in keeping his face averted. This way, he did not have to see my brother's expression at that moment, terrible as the gods' fire.
"Gather the warlords," said my brother, in a voice I didn't recognize. It was a voice that had commanded our warriors in the mountains. "We will hold counsel in the green room."
Kouje rose, clad all in mourning black. The sight of it seemed to remind my brother of something, for he lifted his hand—an emperor making his decision. I scarcely had time to marvel at the completeness of my brother's transformation, as though he'd been living all his life on its cusp.
"Take the prince to be dressed," Iseul commanded. "The seven days have passed, and the delegation must find us prepared to receive them with all due hospitality."
Kouje bowed, though not so low as to find himself on the floor once more, and turned to me with a waiting expectation I'd come to know well.
"Iseul," I said. I was quiet enough, but I found myself unable to keep my silence entirely. It would have been different, in the company of servants, or the other warlords; but before his death Kouje's father had served ours as Kouje did me. While he was not of distinguished blood, he was certainly trustworthy—too trustworthy, in fact, for he had forgiven me many an error in decorum over the years. I didn't have my brother's facility in assuming the responsibilities of a prince, nor could I possibly imagine the weight on his shoulders now that he was emperor. Still, we were brothers. I could offer him comfort, if nothing else. "We shall persevere."
We had no other choice beyond that, save to perish in the attempt. But I left unsaid the second half of the old warrior's idiom, knowing it would only make my brother frown and Kouje regret teaching me such things in the first place.
"Go with Kouje," said my brother. His voice betrayed nothing but an iron calm that so reminded me of our father that for a moment I was overcome with a sharp awareness of how things were to change between us. "Then . . . return to your chambers. I will send for you."
I bowed low to my brother, the emperor. Despite his remonstrations to the contrary, it never occurred to me to act in any other way.
We parted ways without further talk, and I found myself relieved for the silence. My brother never had such troubles as I with keeping his silence or maintaining the peace of his spirit; I was always at war with myself, my father had once said, and it seemed a quality I might never entirely lose.
Kouje, too, said nothing. There were no lamps lit, nor were there servants moving swiftly and surely in preparation. The halls seemed like the winding passageways of a warrior's tomb.
Luckily, there were tasks immediately to hand that would serve as ample distraction from this unfortunate comparison. While Kouje waited just outside the door, I slipped into the silent, hot bath that had been drawn for me, holding my breath as I sank deep inside. The water was hot enough that I felt it might scald all my skin from my bones—a clean, new birth.
I knew with certainty that my brother had been strong enough not to shed a single tear for the father we had both lost—and not only our father but our lord emperor as well. He had died the only noble death left for him, and though I mourned the victory for which we had all hoped, I could do nothing more than be a loyal son to him.
The bath was swift, and the incense already burning when I stepped out. Servants came to dry me, twisting dry the braids of honor in my hair. This, for the victory at Dragon Bone Pass. This, for the victory of the tunnels. This, for the victory of the forsaken men. This, for the victory of the auspicious moon.
I bore no scars from those battles. I was a general, a second son. I rode no horse, but did the best I could to keep the men serving me from dying. In the later months of the war, when the fighting had grown too fierce for an unexpected general such as me, the council of warlords had recommended my return to the palace. In place of earning more braids, I had attempted to set up facilities of care for those displaced by the war. It was a necessary task, and I took great pleasure in helping those who'd been caught living too closely to the Cobalts, but I was no warrior.
I imagined that I would always bear the shame of my own shortcomings held against my brother's fiercer nature were it not for something my father said to me, less than a week before the dragons' final assault on the capital.
"The people's needs are never so simple as they seem," he said, taking his favorite seat in the pavilion, built overlooking the koi pond. "Even I, with two such hands as these, could never hope to meet them all at once. My sons will not suffer with such difficulties. Your brother protects what land we have, while you provide for our subjects. Just as we cannot provide if the land is taken from us, so the protection becomes meaningless if you squander what gifts may be gleaned from it."
My father had never been one to waste words on meaningless praise. He had never spoken to me thus before, and I sought to memorize his words even as I watched the multicolored fish swarming over and past one another like brightly colored veils, orange and white, blue and gold.
I had not returned to the pavilion since the assault on our city, but it bolstered my spirit somewhat to know that the fish would remember our conversation. That though I could no longer ask my father for confirmation of his words, there was some creature left who had been witness to them.