by Nakaya Sumi (中谷寿美)
“First son, you absolutely cannot forfeit your duty!”
Striding to escape from the councilor’s voice, the oldest son of the late King soon found himself lost among the shadows of the long corridor. He ran to the pace set by the beating of his own heart, as fast as the thoughts racing within his mind as he tried to reason why things had taken a different route. Yesterday he was the heir; today, a castaway.
“Wise man!” the prince called loudly, leaving the observatory’s doors wide open behind him. The sage didn’t bother to face him and continued to observe the starry sky, pausing only to make annotations on the scrolls he always carried. The young man knew it was the sage’s way of teaching him a lesson. Once he had calmed down, he finally asked the question that had been troubling him so. “Why is my younger brother to take my place?”
“You were never the true heir,” the sage answered calmly, and the prince felt humiliated once again. Nevertheless, he waited for the explanation that would inevitably come. “Last night it was finally clear that one born in the age of the Phoenix is fated to reign in this time and place. You, born in the age of the Dragon, have a different destiny to fulfill.”
“Is the Second son really suited to become King?” the prince asked, but in reality it was his pride speaking.
“He is kind,” the sage replied.
“Does my departure speak of his kindness?” he asked, his heart heavy with pain.
“Didn’t you know already,” the sage continued, never ceasing to draw on the ancient paper, “that the one who did not become king is meant to undo what your father caused when he was among the living? As the first-born it is your duty to look after the kingdom’s welfare. Even if it means to leave the palace and travel to foreign lands, never to return.”
The prince lowered his head, his eyes burning. “I understand.”
“If the rage of the Lord of the Rain is not appeased, the drought that has fallen upon us will be our end. Forget your pride and never raise your sword against the deity.”
Even though he heard the sage’s words loud and clear, the prince’s grip was tight on the hilt of his sword. “Tell my brother… Tell the King I will succeed.” Before long he disappeared, as if engulfed by the night.
The sage watched the sky as his brush gave shape to the ink. “Of that I am well aware,” he said to no one in particular.
His horse did not rest until they arrived to the easternmost village, the gateway to the barren land that would take him to his destiny. He did not remember having seen it when it was fully green, but his elders, who did, also told him that if he could call forth his childhood memories, he would be just as appalled as they were. Later on, he thought that perhaps it was not that he could not remember. Perhaps he had simply chosen not to. The journey ahead, however, showed there was a limit to what he could escape from.
As he came closer to the settlement, he was able to distinguish a group of people circling a bonfire, their foreheads to the ground and their prayers pitiful to anyone who had a heart, which was definitely not the case of the Lord of the Rain. The prince knew that making a vow to the villagers would be meaningless unless he was certain the rain would fall again over the lifeless plantations. One promise was enough, he thought, and urging his horse, he dashed through the night and towards his goal.
He reached the White Mountain by the third morning. It was light-colored from base to peak, and smooth as if it had been polished. This was as far as his horse could take him, and he would have to climb the summit on his own. “Return to the palace and do not go astray,” he said as he urged the horse to go. It galloped in circles, and once its owner was out of sight, it set out in the direction they’d came.
Climbing itself was not difficult, but the closer he came to the top, the harder it was to breathe. Having stayed awake overnight, the prince ached and his eyelids felt heavy. He could have easily rested in one of the numerous caves of the White Mountain, but he could not bring himself to come to a stop, not now, not this close. It was then that a drizzle welcomed — or repudiated — him; he could not tell. He kept going until the clouds blocked his view, making it hard to guess when his hands grasped rock and when they met air. But despite the trials, the crystalline palace finally came into view.
Twin servants were there to greet him, their hair fiery red and their clothes a dashing bronze under the sunlight. “Master has been waiting for you,” said one of them.
“But first we must get you clean. If we were to introduce you like this, it would cost us our heads,” said the other. Both servants laughed at unison, and the prince, puzzled by the strange welcome, let himself be guided through the palace.
The twins bathed him, braided his hair and gave him richer clothes to wear. Afterwards, they insisted the prince went to the mirror and saw the marvelous work they had done. “Is your appearance to your taste? I’m certain it must be. How could anyone not find it tasteful?” The one who spoke was brimming with happiness.
“He’s excited, and so am I,” the other boy explained. “We don’t get visitors often, you see!”
“Much less from countries that are about to perish if our Master does not grant the rain you ask. Ah, this is quite an occasion…”
The prince was close to lose his patience. “I wish you spoke less cheerfully of an important matter like that. I appreciate what you have done for me, but you have to understand I must speak to the Lord of the Rain right away.”
“Right away is not good.”
“Not good at all. Our Master will not return until next week. How about you play with us for the time being?”
A week and a month, the prince discovered, were the same as far as the boys were concerned.
Despite the fact this was the domain of the Lord of the Rain, the weather was constantly sunny, to the point where the laundry was dry only a few hours after it had been hung. The days were warm, and this night was no exception.
The one called number one, who wore his braid always on the left side, tapped his fingers on the bedside table. “They must miss you back on your homeland.”
“Just like we miss our Master when he’s gone,” number two said with a nod, twirling a lock of hair from the braid that hung over his right shoulder.
“They don’t expect me to return,” the prince said with no small amount of nostalgia. “I wonder if they even expect me to succeed.”
“How cold of them if that’s true! We would miss you if you were to leave.” Number one patted the prince’s head.
“We would, we would… Ah!” All of a sudden both boys were unmoving, paying attention to whatever sound only they were able to hear.
Number one clasped his hands. “Sleep tight, for very soon you will meet our Master.”
“Good night!” Number two pushed his brother outside the room and closed the door behind him.
The prince did not notice anything peculiar, but soon he heard the thunder roaring in the distance. He dreamt of rain until the wee hours of the morning, and when he woke, black clouds had settled an arm’s length away from the windows.
“Our Master is here and ready to see you!” The twins burst in and made him repeat the same daily routine: wash, comb, and dress. After that, they tugged at the prince, one boy at each side, and dragged him towards the palace’s main hall. Outside the great doors, the prince felt his throat go dry, his heart racing fast within his chest.
“Will you stay there all day?” number one asked.
“Our Master is an important person. The longer you keep him waiting, the worse it will be for your cause,” number two said with a serious countenance.
Before the prince could react, the boys pushed the doors open and stood at the threshold, leaving him alone to face the Lord of the Rain. The prince had heard countless tales about the deity and expected him to look like the sage, a wizened old man atop a marble throne. The throne was there, but the sage’s lookalike was not. The Lord of the Rain looked as young as the prince himself. His long hair, arranged half-up half-down, was not silver but black, and his eyes shone red and cold like rubies. It was not what the prince had imagined, but even so he could not shake the feeling that he had seen the deity before.
“I have heard much of you, First son, and I know what brings you to my palace. Although I must say I expected you to come earlier.” The Lord of the Rain spoke with a deep voice. “What I don’t know is what you plan to do to change my mind.”
The prince knelt. “Lord of the Rain, my people are suffering. If the drought does not cease, they all will die.”
“Your people denied me. More precisely, your father did,” the deity said. “It is his fault that your people are suffering, not anyone else’s.”
“My father is dead,” the prince said with a firm voice. “As his son, it is my duty to bring an end to the punishment you chose for his kingdom.”
The deity put his elbow on the arm of the throne and cupped his chin in his hand. “And what is it that you offer to erase his offense?”
“My life is yours to take.”
Even though the deity was expressionless, the prince was sure he saw amusement in his eyes. “Only a life that has no worth can be thrown away this easily. I have no use for such a trifle.” The deity rose and walked past him, a step away from leaving the room.
“By no means is my life something I can throw away easily! Nevertheless, I came to you ready to take my own life if needed.” The prince’s fists were clenched so hard that his fingernails drew blood.
“In that case,” the deity said, turning to face him, “show me how serious your intentions are.”
The prince pulled his sword from its sheath, and, holding the blade next to the pulse on his neck, he closed his eyes. His final thoughts were of his homeland as he decided to slide the sword across his throat with a single, clean motion before his hand dared to quaver.
When the prince opened his eyes, he saw with horror the small pool of red beneath his feet. However, only a thread of the blood running down his neck was his own. As his thoughts grew clearer he understood what had taken place. In a blink the deity had placed himself behind the prince, and stopped the blade with his right hand while protecting the prince’s neck with his left arm. “Why…” the prince said, the disbelief clear on his voice.
“If I had merely spoken the word ‘halt’ and not tried to stop your blade, you would have joined your father in the land of the dead,” the Lord of the Rain said, without showing a shred of emotion. He stepped away from the prince and with the warmth of his body gone, all that remained was the echo of the sword falling again and again.
“You two, see to him,” the deity said to his servants as he crossed the main hall’s threshold, his arms dripping blood on the delicate fabric of his robes.
Long after the Lord of the Rain had left, the prince continued staring at the empty space where he had been last. “He won’t die from wounds like that, if that’s what troubles you. Although I doubt it does not hurt him,” number one said.
“And by staying in his human form without receiving proper care, the wounds will heal even slower.” Number two shook his head. “But if he wishes to be alone, he wishes to be alone…”
“Look on the bright side, I think your actions made quite a good impression on him.” Number one took the prince’s injured hand. “He might even accept your petition. But for now we must do as we were told.” That said, the boys started to clean the deity’s warm blood from the prince’s skin.
“Where has he gone to?” the prince asked. He did not know the reason, but he felt as if something was binding his chest.
“We can’t answer that question,” number two said.
“It would be improper if we told you,” number one agreed. “But if someone wanted to stay away from our Master, that person shouldn’t approach the body of water behind the well.”
The prince smiled.
“Won’t you take this with you?” number two asked, handing the prince a box with bandages and ointments, among other items.
“We would like to keep our Master’s porcelain skin from being marred,” number one said with a wink.
After the prince left the room, number two said: “But most of all, we would like our Master’s loneliness to disappear.”
The place was not as hard to find as the prince had expected. It was a secluded spot in the mountains, but the unusual vegetation there displayed made it easy to pinpoint: tall trees surrounded the emerald waters, providing shelter from the sunlight that filtered gently through the leaves. The prince was admiring the scene when he took notice of a stone isle in the middle of the lake, a pergola as its roof. Beneath the pergola’s shade, the deity sat on a set of stairs with half his body inside the water, strands of his now-loose hair waving in the wind before his closed eyes. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully, unaware of the prince’s unwavering stare.
When the Lord of the Rain finally woke up, he extended his arms in front of him and out of the water. The blood had been washed away but the cuts were unchanged. “You are free to return to where you came from,” the deity said suddenly, making the prince step back in surprise. “The rain will fall soon.”
The prince overcame his stupor and bowed to the Lord of the Rain as the villagers had done when praying. “I have no words to thank you.”
“Your servants are worried about your injuries,” the prince continued, showing the wooden box that the boys had given him. “Am I allowed to come close?”
If the Lord of the Rain nodded, he did so imperceptibly.
The prince hid the box inside his robes and approached the deity until the water reached his waist. Only then he noticed that the isle set the limit between the shallow and deeper areas of the lake.
Without delay the prince opened the box and took the deity’s left arm between his hands, drying it carefully with one of the towels before applying the ointment. The prince assumed it would hurt, but the Lord of the Rain did not move nor utter a single sound; he just closed his eyes until the prince wrapped the bandages around his arm.
“There is something I wish to know,” the prince said as he moved to tend the injuries on the deity’s right arm. “What did my father do to anger you so?” He felt foolish asking this question, especially because earlier he had been close to take his life to erase a crime he did not know.
When the deity stayed silent, the prince did not pry any further. Perhaps, he thought, he should accept it was meant to remain a secret between his father and the Lord of the Rain. Nevertheless, it bothered the prince that the deity would not confide in him. After all, he had injured himself to save the prince’s life. But above all, the deity’s silence bothered the prince because he found himself wanting to know more about the enigmatic Lord of the Rain, but did not know how to proceed.
The ointment’s strong, mint scent pulled the prince from his reverie. How exactly, the prince wondered, had he gone from despising the Lord of the Rain for what he had done to the kingdom to feeling drawn to him?
The Lord of the Rain suddenly spoke. “Your father refused to hand one of his children to me.”
The prince dropped the bandages he carried in his hands. “What?”
“He even tried to trick me by offering me a child that did not carry his own blood.” The deity’s piercing eyes made the prince lower his gaze.
“Whom had you chosen?” the prince asked, even though he was certain that this time he did not want to hear the answer.
“The child whom your father refused to hand over,” the Lord of the Rain said, “was his first-born.”
Aghast, the prince let his arms fall limply to his sides. “So I am really yours to take…”
The deity took the prince’s head between his hands. “If you tried to remember…” he whispered.
Closing his eyes, the prince did as the Lord of the Rain said, his earliest memory being of a rainy afternoon on the palace. Both princes had been forbidden to go out whenever it rained, but since the younger one was already in bed with a fever, it meant that on that day the prohibition was directed to the oldest prince. He loved the sound of the rainfall hitting the pavement, and, eager to experience it himself, the King’s first-born fooled the soldiers and went outside. With his arms open towards the sky and the rain falling gently over him, he felt happier than ever. But his joy did not last, for a servant pulled him inside soon after. “You should have never let the rain touch you,” she told him between sobs. He had not understood why she’d been in tears.
“If my brother had been the one who had gone outside that day…” the prince began, walking towards the opposite side of the isle and away from the deity. A handful of leaves fell gently on the water below him, forming ripples that did not last enough to be fully appreciated.
The Lord of the Rain shook his head. “I knew the First son would be the one to greet me,” he said and approached the prince from behind. Despite the moisture on his skin and clothes, the deity felt warm against the prince’s body, and his hands, the touch of which was so strangely familiar, disappeared with ease under the prince’s robes.
He shuddered when the deity left him clothed only from the waist down, but under no circumstance did the prince question the Lord of the Rain’s actions. What kept the prince from offering resistance went beyond the claim that the deity had made years ago over him. It was the unexplainable certainty that this was where he was meant to stay. With this thought, the prince chose to give himself in.
The deity traced the prince’s shoulder blades before going down his chest with a caress more meant to tease than anything else. In response to the swaying motion of the deity’s hips against his backside, the prince felt his flesh pulsate underneath his clothes and below his navel.
As if the prince’s wishes had suddenly become transparent, the deity slid his hand under the opening on the prince’s robes, cloth brushing past his thighs while the deity’s steady fingers wrapped his erection. They knelt, one against the other with the landscape as mute witness.
One by one the deity’s oiled fingers went inside him, making the prince instinctively reach for the deity’s hair cascading over them both. It felt like wet silk between his fingers, something he could hold on to while the scenery’s details blurred before his eyes. The only thing the prince was completely aware of was the deity’s tangibility as he entered him, silencing the ache he had felt within ever since he left his homeland. For the first time the prince felt acknowledged for something other than the power that his title granted him.
The rhythm increased, and the prince bit his lower lip so as to not cry out, even bending to further muffle the sound. The deity touched the prince’s cheek with the back of his left hand, and the prince welcomed the gesture by moaning softly against it, brushing his lips against the injury he had left untreated. From that point on, it was like music, like hearing a range that shifted from bare percussion to light woodwind chords, their sound distant as the quiet fell upon them.
Finally awake from the light sleep he had fallen in, the prince curled up on the stone floor and looked towards the lake. The deity was inside the water again, cleansing himself.
“When will you depart?”
The prince rose to his feet, leaning against one of the pergola’s columns. “Depart?” he echoed.
“The former heir must attest that his willingness to die for his kingdom has been properly rewarded. Furthermore, he must attest that whether they signal a punishment or restore an alliance, my words are never shallow,” the deity said.
“Am I no longer welcome here?” the prince said, stepping into the water.
The deity walked towards the shallow area of the lake, pearls of water glistening on his pale skin. “Why would the prince wish to remain captive within my dwelling when his own kingdom awaits to proclaim him its hero?”
“I will do as the Lord of the Rain wishes. But I will come back,” the prince said.
“Your father once swore he would give me anything his kingdom could offer as a token of gratitude. I chose his son, and he broke his oath. Will you do the same? To give away promises you cannot possibly keep?” Unlike his outward appearance, the deity’s eyes had something ancient in them, having witnessed a past that the prince had not.
“My actions will speak in my behalf.” The prince knelt, reaching for the soap the deity held between his hands.
He slowly soaped the deity’s flank, forming tiny bubbles as he went down, between his legs. With equal care the prince rinsed every area he touched, until the sudden redness in the deity’s skin clashed with his usual paleness. As the prince took the deity in his mouth, he did not notice the sky becoming clouded until it had already started to pour. The drops fell one after the other in continuous synchrony, and the prince found it was unavoidable to drink the rain that slid down his throat with ease.
Then, as the prince let go of the deity’s warmth, the raindrops became thinner, and when the rain finally came to an end, the deity was gone.
“The stars must be hard to read now that that the rainfall has returned to this land,” the prince said.
The sage nodded. “But there are other ways to foretell. And I do not need to look at the sky to know you came in the middle of the night to avoid being recognized. If the King knew his older brother has returned, he would surely begin the celebrations in your honor.”
“I did not come to stay.” The prince pulled the hood over his head.
Lifting his cup of tea, the sage looked through the window that faced east. “I know. You must return to the White Mountain.”
The prince wondered if the sage was really able to read his thoughts, or if his age had given him enough wisdom to always guess correctly at what troubled people’s hearts. However, he did not voice his doubt.
“Do you know a method to remember one’s past life?” the prince asked before walking away.
The sage scratched his chin. “Perhaps,” he said, smiling, “it would be good to ask to someone who does remember it.”
Understanding, the prince returned the smile. “Perhaps I will.”
“Have you come to stay this time?” Number two asked and held the prince’s hand.
Number one tugged at the prince’s clothes. “And you won’t go again, right?”
The prince nodded.
“In that case,” both said, pulling at the prince’s sleeves in order to lead him to the hall, “our Master is inside and waiting.”
Once the doors were closed behind him, the prince sought the deity’s eyes. “I kept my promise,” he said. Although the deity did not answer nor meet the prince’s gaze, he nodded to show he had heard.
“Who I was to you before I lived this life?”
“You were of my property. You always have been,” the deity said, ignoring the look of surprise on the prince’s face. “In every reincarnation, I wait for you to return to my side, but sometimes you do not.”
“But sometimes I do,” the prince offered.
“Sometimes,” the deity said, finally meeting the prince’s eyes, “you do.”
Outside the room, the twins, who had their ears pressed to the door, beamed.
“Our Master never smiles,” number one said, holding his brother’s hand.
“But when he’s happy,” number two said looking at the rainbow through the skylight, “we can always tell.”