Hour of the Lotus

 

“IS HE any better?” Iwata asked quietly.

The physician shook his head. He was a large man, but his fingers were long and swift, his touch precise; he’d sewn Iwata together more than once. “No, Lord General. You just saw him. He’s the same.”

“All right. Thank you.” Iwata bowed and turned to go. The halls of the Nightingale Palace were unusually quiet. He saw only a few servants, and none of the prince’s household. The air inside was heavy with summer and thick with the sweetish smell of illness. Iwata held his breath until he reached the walled courtyard. It too was empty. He opened the gate himself, stepping into the town that clung to the palace walls.

The streets were sunlit and dusty. Streams of people choked the roads. Iwata ducked his head, staring at his sandals. The women in their bright summer robes, the men talking loudly as they strode past: they all acted as if nothing was wrong, as if the prince wasn’t deathly ill.

He passed the barracks. Several soldiers leaned out the windows, their faces brimming with questions, but when they saw their commander’s bent shoulders, they drew back. “Lord General?” one of them ventured. Iwata ignored him and strode on.

He went to the inn nearest the palace and climbed the back stairs to avoid the gregarious landlady. He slid aside the door of his room. Hiroshi was where Iwata had left him: kneeling at the desk, writing letters in his precise calligraphy. He lifted his gaze to Iwata, worry pinching his face. “How is Prince Narita?”

“No better.” Iwata took off his dirty sandals and stepped barefoot into the room. The reed matting scraped his feet.

Hiroshi frowned, pulling at the scar on his cheek. It began at his temple, tugging one eye into a perpetual squint, and slashed across his face to the corner of his mouth. When he’d first joined the prince’s unit as an officer, the men had grumbled that it was only due to his older sister being Prince Narita’s favorite consort. Iwata had thought so too, until the previous summer; when a Yennish rebel laid open Hiroshi’s face from temple to chin. Hiroshi had run the man through and kept fighting until the field was cleared.

“It’s hot today.” Hiroshi laid down his brush and went to the jug of water on the corner table. He wet a cloth. “Here, Sho. Wipe your face.” When Iwata didn’t move, he stepped forward and did it himself.

The damp cloth did feel good, washing away the dust and the heat and the greasy film of sickness. Iwata allowed his eyes to close. Hiroshi’s hands were gentle. “I’m going to the palace tomorrow, to visit my sister,” he said. “I haven’t seen her since before the prince took ill.”

“Lady Kumomo never leaves his side.” She’d been there every time Iwata had visited, though she discreetly withdrew to the corridor until he left.

“She agreed to have lunch with me tomorrow, at least. I can ask after the prince for you, to save you the trouble of making the trip again.”

Iwata’s eyes jerked open. Water trickled into them, but he didn’t blink. Hiroshi hesitated, still holding the cloth up to Iwata’s face. After a moment he let his hand drop.

“You think I’m that disloyal?” Iwata hissed. “You think I’m so lazy that I’d begrudge him a few miles’ walk?”

“No. I only thought you need a rest, Sho. You’ll wear yourself thin with your worrying.”

Iwata stared at him. Hiroshi’s gaze didn’t waver; it never had, in all the time Iwata had known him. Abruptly he stepped forward and pulled Hiroshi into his arms. The wet cloth dropped heavily to the mat.

“I’m sorry, Hiro,” Iwata mumbled into his neck. “But the man I’ve served more than half my life might be dying.”

Hiroshi pressed his hands into Iwata’s shoulders.

“I know,” he murmured.

 

IWATA WOKE at dawn, as he always did. For a few moments he lay still, breathing the morning air; it was cool, but swollen with the promise of heat to come. Hiroshi was sprawled beside him, fast asleep. His long, plaited hair fell over Iwata’s shoulder. Iwata stroked the braid, then gave it a yank. Hiroshi started up, blinking dazedly. “Sho?”

“Get up. The sun is rising.” Iwata rose, wincing at a twinge in his back. “That’s your only fault as a soldier. You like to sleep too much.”

Hiroshi stretched. “I don’t have anything to do this early.”

“You’re visiting your sister.”

“That’s not for hours yet. Please, Sho, come back to bed.” He held out his hand. His sleeping robe had fallen open to reveal the sharp lines of his collarbone. Iwata considered a moment. Hiroshi smiled beseechingly. Iwata’s morning was empty.... He took Hiroshi’s hand and let himself be pulled back down among the blankets.

Hiroshi left the inn late in the morning to keep his appointment with his sister. Iwata ate lunch before following his lover to the palace.

Today the courtyard was not deserted; a small gaggle of Prince Narita’s servants was gathered around the stone fountain in its center. The sun flashed off their gold-and-green kimonos. They were speaking in low, rushed tones, their voices tumbling over each other. They were so involved in their conversation that none of them noticed Iwata until he was nearly upon them. Finally one of them, a man with a white beard and withered face, shushed the others and bowed deeply. The other servants followed suit. Iwata nodded acknowledgement. “Good afternoon, Asano. What’s happened?”

“Good afternoon, Lord General.” Asano turned to the others. “Don’t any of you have work to do?”

The servants scattered like startled birds, vanishing into doors and archways. Iwata repeated his question, a hard stone forming in his throat. He swallowed it. Surely someone would have brought him the news if the prince had died.

The old man shook his head sorrowfully. “A shameful thing, my lord. Two nights ago, Prince Narita ordered Lady Kumomo to sleep in her own room, so she could get some rest after caring for him all day. A servant was assigned to sit with him instead, but when the prince woke this morning, the useless bastard was asleep! Last night, another servant sat up with him, and he too fell asleep. It’s a disgrace, Lord General.”

Iwata clenched his fists. Those lazy animals were lucky he had not been the one to find them snoring. He left Asano and went into the palace, glaring at the servants who paused to bow to him. The palace was a great rectangle, built around a garden in the center. Rather than walk all the way around through the claustrophobic corridors, he chose to cut across the garden.

A pavilion of green silk had been set up among the peonies. Beneath it, Prince Narita’s women were drinking tea. They all wore somber robes, but trills of laughter reached Iwata as he crossed a delicate bridge that spanned the carp pond. How could they possibly find anything to laugh about?

He intended to pass as if he hadn’t seen them, but one of them called, “Lord General Iwata!”

He recognized the voice: Lady Hagino, the prince’s first consort. Iwata repressed a sigh and crossed to the pavilion. “Good afternoon, ladies.”

Lady Hagino—brassy, loud, and heavily pregnant—leaned forward. “Will you have a cup of tea, Lord General?”

“No, thank you, my lady. I am here to inquire about His Majesty’s condition.”

“It’s always the same. Why don’t you stay home and send a servant to ask?”

“The Lord General is the prince’s oldest friend. He’s served in the regiment since he was fifteen.” Lady Mari, Prince Narita’s wife, intervened. She was the oldest of the three, nearly Iwata’s age. Her temples were gray and her gaze sharp. “He’ll do as he likes whatever you say, Hagino.”

“Such loyalty is wonderful,” ventured the youngest consort, who looked perhaps sixteen. She was so new Iwata didn’t yet know her name.

“Kumomo will be sorry to have missed you,” Hagino continued, undeterred. “She’s having lunch with your consort, General.”

“Yes, Captain Sagawara informed me yesterday.” Iwata’s relationship with Lady Kumomo’s brother was common knowledge. They couldn’t have kept it secret from the busy tongues of the Nightingale Court even if they’d wanted to.

“She won’t miss him. Here she comes now.” Lady Mari lifted her teacup.

Lady Kumomo was coming across the garden toward them, so graceful she seemed to float up the path. She was an exceptionally lovely woman. Her skin was flawless, her eyes large and dark, her hair like a shining black waterfall down her back. She wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Imperial Court, but the prince had never taken her along on any of his infrequent visits there. It was whispered that he feared the Emperor—his eldest brother—would take her for himself. Iwata knew this to be true. As she approached, she smiled at Iwata and bowed her head. “Good afternoon, Lord General.”

“My lady.”

Lady Mari’s gaze settled on Iwata. Of the prince’s women, he had known her the longest, and of them all, he suspected she saw the most. “We’ve kept the Lord General from his errand long enough. Good day.”

He bowed to them again and escaped as Kumomo settled into her place between Hagino and the youngest consort.

The servants knew him well and let him in without announcing him to the prince. Iwata slid the door shut behind him.

As the third son of the old Emperor, Prince Narita had been given over to the military at a young age, and he’d embraced it in all its aspects. Even his private bedchamber was stark as a field tent: a single dresser, a desk, a sleeping mat. On the mat, beneath a mound of green-and-gold blankets, lay Iwata’s master.

Until recently, he had been an imposing man, not tall but powerful, with a booming voice and calculating gaze. But now he was sunken and shadowed, his skin gray, his eyes too large in his withered face. The blankets hid the rest of his wasted body. The room was close and warm, though the windows were all open, and the air smelled of decay. Slowly he turned his head, staring with unfocused eyes. A faint, exhausted smile touched his face. “Sho.”

“My lord.” Iwata knelt at his side. “Are you in pain?”

“No, I’ve never been in pain. Only tired. More tired every day.”

“I am sorry, my lord.”

“It’s not your fault, Sho. Though I wish the gods would let me die in battle, rather than bit by bit like this. But tell me about the men. Any more teahouse brawls? I know they’re bored, but you must strangle that right away.”

“I had two of them whipped, my lord, and that put a stop to it. But now I have a use for them. I heard from old Asano about your worthless night-watchers. Why don’t I assign two of the men to sit with you at night? It will give them something to do, and disciplined soldiers won’t fall asleep like lazy servants.”

“Excellent idea, Sho. I approve. Do you remember....” Prince Narita’s bulging eyes fell closed, his voice trailing off. Iwata waited. In the past two weeks, the prince had often asked if he remembered things they had done as young men, when they had invaded and annexed the southern country of Yen for the Empire. Sometimes he mentioned events that had never occurred; perhaps they had happened to the prince and his brothers. Iwata had agreed to everything. But now Prince Narita said nothing more. He was asleep. For a few moments, Iwata studied the worn face: the lines, the scars Iwata had seen him earn. His graying hair, loosed from its customary topknot, was thinning.

Prince Narita’s first boy had been killed years before in a riding accident. If the prince died his second-eldest son, a lifelong soldier, would assume his command. Iwata had known the young man since his birth; he was strong and competent, more like Prince Narita than any of his other children. Iwata had no worries for his men or his own rank. His concern was entirely for the prince.

Iwata left without waking him. He made his way through the palace so as not to encounter the consorts again. Every servant he met bowed and skittered away at the dark looks he gave them.

Hiroshi was waiting in the courtyard. He stood by the wall, one hand resting absently on the hilt of his katana. When he saw Iwata, his lips parted, but he said nothing. Hiroshi fell into step beside him. Together they opened the gate and emerged into the town.

“Is your sister well?” Iwata asked.

“She’s not my sister.” Hiroshi spoke so softly that it was a moment before Iwata realized what he had said.

“Not your... what do you mean?”

“I mean, the Lady Kumomo who is in the Nightingale Palace right now is not my sister.”

“I saw her myself, Hiro. I even spoke to her.” Iwata stopped in his tracks. “What are you talking about? She seemed the same as always.”

“Keep moving!” Hiroshi caught his arm and propelled him forward. He glanced behind as if he was afraid whomever he believed was impersonating Lady Kumomo might hear them from inside the palace walls. “I know it sounds mad. We talked together, ate together, drank tea and laughed... but it was wrong. Her eyes are wrong, and her voice.”

“She looked fine to me,” Iwata grumbled, uneasy at the thread of anxiety in Hiroshi’s tone.

“Yes, she looks fine, but her eyes are farther apart than they were. And her laugh is too high, and when I called her Momo she didn’t look up until I said it twice.” His shoulders slumped miserably. “Ever since my face was slashed, she’s wept every time she saw me and cried at what a shame it is. She didn’t even mention it today.”

“Perhaps she grew tired of weeping.”

“No. Momo has said there are three people she could weep for endlessly: her sons and me.”

“Not for the prince?”

He’d meant it as a joke, but an unintended edge of bitterness crept into his voice. Hiroshi pressed his lips tighter. “That woman in there is not my sister.”

Iwata rubbed the bridge of his nose, thinking. Iwata had only met Lady Kumomo a handful of times. Was Hiroshi mistaken? Was he going mad? Iwata reached out and tilted Hiroshi’s chin up, so he could gaze into the younger man’s face. Hiroshi looked back, unblinking, his features still as stone. There was nothing mad in his eyes. His gaze was as steady as ever. They’d been lovers only half a year, but Iwata had known him much longer. No, Hiroshi had not abruptly gone mad. He knew his sister better than anyone. If he said the one Iwata had met was an imposter, then surely he was right.

But if someone was pretending to be Lady Kumomo, surely she’d been sent by one of the prince’s enemies, to harm him. How could she have slipped into the palace undetected? “I believe you, Hiro. We must tell Prince Narita.”

“No!” Hiroshi grabbed his wrist. “I saw her only last month, and it was Momo then. I don’t know when this woman came. I didn’t let her see that I knew, so she still thinks no one suspects. The imposter could have been here for weeks, so if she wanted to kill the prince outright—”

“She would have done it.” Iwata thought a moment. Prince Narita was ill, probably dying—the word made his stomach turn. How could Iwata possibly tell him that his favorite was an imposter, almost certainly an assassin? He must handle this himself, quietly. Iwata glared at the ground. How dare someone try to trick them and hurt the prince! How could Iwata have allowed it to happen?

“I know you want to rush back there and strangle her, Sho.” Hiroshi echoed his thoughts.

“Of course I do.” Iwata tapped his sword hilt. His fingers brushed the familiar linen knotted around the grip. He could go back to the palace now and cut the bitch down.... No. It would be foolish; he’d end up with his head on a pike outside the palace gates. The Lord General of Prince Narita’s regiment was known to be patient, methodical. Iwata closed his eyes briefly, shutting out the sunlight. He breathed deeply twice, then opened them. Hiroshi had been waiting for him before answering.

“But she’s almost certainly someone else’s tool, Sho. If we watch her, if we wait, she may lead us to her master.”

“And to your sister.”

Hiroshi’s grip tightened until it hurt. “Our parents are dead. Momo’s all the family I have. I need to find her.”

“There has to be a way to keep her from him; she’s already been banished at night.”

Hiroshi’s eyebrows rose in surprise; apparently his false sister had not told him of the prince’s order. “You could ask Lady Mari to order the consorts to stay away. She’s his wife; the others have to obey her.”

“Perhaps.” Despite all the years they’d known each other, Iwata felt the prince’s wife was still a stranger. It had never mattered before. “I’ll order the men to stay with him at all times, three to a shift.”

“I was afraid you’d think I was mad or possessed by a spirit.” A vague smile flickered across Hiroshi’s face and was gone.

“Anyone else, I would have. But not you.” Iwata raised a hand, intending to pry Hiroshi’s grasp from his arm, but instead found himself squeezing the younger man’s stiff fingers. “I was going to order some of the men to watch the prince tonight, but I’ll have them go immediately instead. I’ll go back to the palace now and request an audience with Lady Mari.”

“Tell me who you want to go to the palace tonight.” Hiroshi released him, but his grip had been so tight that Iwata could still feel his fingertips pressing into his skin. “I’ll go to the barracks and issue the orders.”

 

“WHERE ARE they?” Iwata roared, flinging open the door with such force that it bounced against its frame and escaped the track. “Where are they?”

But the three soldiers, sent back from the palace in disgrace that morning, were standing at attention in the common room. Only their rapidly blinking eyes betrayed their fear as Iwata reached for the whip he’d tucked in his obi.

After delivering the punishment, Iwata stormed to Prince Narita’s bedchamber and fell to his knees, pressing his forehead to the floor. “I apologize for my failure, my lord. The useless beasts in question have been severely punished. I’ll personally sit with you tonight.”

“My wife has taken it into her head to nurse me herself.” Prince Narita rasped. “She’s put my other ladies out. I don’t mind; Hagino sat with me earlier and I thought her chatter would make my head burst. But if Mari’s feeling stubborn tomorrow, I’ll just order her to allow Kumomo in. No one is quite as soothing as my Kumomo. Did I ever tell you how I swept her out of a rice paddy?”

He had, more times than Iwata could count. “No, my lord.”

“I was out hunting near a tiny farming village, nothing more than a few shacks, when I passed a girl working in the rice paddy. She glanced up as I rode by.... The hat she wore hid half her face, but what I saw was so lovely... I turned my horse around and went back. I waded right out into the paddy and asked her to become my consort. ‘I am honored,’ she said, just like a noble girl would. And when my servants brought her to me, she was followed by a twelve-year-old boy who was nearly as beautiful as she was.” A faint smile touched his gaunt face. “Our sons are the handsomest of all my children.”

What had Hiroshi looked like at twelve? Iwata hadn’t met him until he’d left school and joined the regiment. “Captain Sagawara should be here soon with the other watchers.”

“Reliable Sho.” The prince’s eyes slipped shut.

Iwata went back to the inn. Hiroshi stood by the window, gazing out at the street. He looked up when Iwata entered. “They told me at the palace that our men fell asleep.”

“They’ve been punished,” Iwata said grimly. His wrist ached; he hadn’t used a whip himself in some time.

“I don’t doubt it.” Hiroshi smiled, but something haunted hung about his eyes. “At the palace I asked to see Kumomo. They said she was ill.”

Iwata stretched out on his sleeping mat. He stared at the featureless ceiling. “Maybe tonight I’ll learn something. I’m taking two men and sitting up with the prince myself.”

In the edge of his vision, Iwata saw Hiroshi cross the room. The afternoon sunlight fled as he closed and latched the shutters. He threw himself down on his own mat, which overlapped Iwata’s. He lay on his side, the wounded half of his face hidden in the crook of his arm. Iwata turned his head. Like this, Hiroshi looked even younger than his age—only twenty-four, six years his sister’s junior, and twenty years younger than Iwata. Iwata reached out and ran his fingertips down Hiroshi’s face to where his neck curved into his shoulder. Hiroshi sighed. “I’m coming with you tonight.”

Iwata rested his hand on Hiroshi’s arm.

“I know,” he said and closed his eyes.