The sky was grey, and shadows slid across it. Not shadows, trees. Tree branches, laden with snow. And then it became too difficult to focus his eyes, and the branches were shadows again.
He hurt in so many places he couldn't distinguish individual pains, could not have said what was causing the most hurt. He was hot here and there, almost to burning, and cold and getting colder everywhere else. At least it was quiet, now, and everything was still.
"Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell," that was not quiet, that cracked voice with its promise of a man's depth. Nor was it still-- hands were pawing at the places that burned, lifting him, moving him, wrapping something around him. It hurt more, and he opened his mouth to say so-- you bastard, I should chop your idiot head right off, leave me alone-- but he wasn't sure if any of the words made it out.
"Oh hell oh hell oh hell--" It sounded like a prayer. Cloth ripped loud in the stillness, something pressed around the hottest burning. His eyes swam in and out of focus on a dark cross that marked a familiar face-- or it would have been familiar without the blood that marred it, without the worry in normally laughing blue eyes-- or maybe if he could have managed to keep his eyes on that face it would have been familiar, but it was just too difficult. "Don't you die on me, don't you dare die!"
--can die if I want to, idiot, leave me alone. Those words didn't make it out either; he tried again. "Idiot . . ."
"That's it, that's it, keep those eyes open-- open, dammit, open!" Cold, rough fingers slapped at his cheek, but he could only summon up enough energy to wave at them, futilely. He never had managed to land a blow, not since that first one, he'd never been able to get close without a sword . . . his sword, where was his sword? He didn't remember what had happened to it, it wasn't in his hand. "I can't carry you, I'm going to get help, so just sit tight, okay? I'll come back with help, so don't you dare die before then! Promise me, promise me right now!" Those hands were propping him up against the rough bark of the tree, and his head fell weakly forward. "All right, you promised, you can't die now! I'll be back, I'll be back as fast as I can!"
. . . idiot . . . the crunch of running footsteps receded into the snow. At least it was quiet again; all he wanted was a little peace. It was all he had energy for. That, and trying to make the shadows into branches again, but they kept eluding him, kept slipping out of focus.
He didn't know how long his quiet lasted, but it wasn't long enough. Footsteps approaching-- one man, three, horse's hooves? Voices shouted back and forth as they found the edge of the battlefield. He knew somewhere that it wasn't good, knew he should get up and run, but the world was darkening, the white of the snow fading under a mist of brown. And mist wasn't brown, it wasn't supposed to be brown--
"--all dead here, gods! How many are there?"
"--another five back here, no, six-- wait, five, I think--" that voice was close, too close, but he couldn't make himself care. Brown was stealing everything, the last of the light. "--this one is still alive! It's-- oh, hell, it's him! It's the Prince!"
Even the hands on him were stolen by the brown, and he let them go.
When he opened his eyes, the world was white once again. He squinted at it, trying, but no matter what he did the shadows stayed shadows, they didn't turn back into branches. In fact, there were no branches. The cold was gone, too, and the burning, replaced by warmth, and a strange, floating lassitude.
That was no good; if you gave in to laziness, if you dropped your guard, you were dead. And worse, he didn't know where he was. At least no one was there, he had some precious time, he could find out what was going on. He flexed his limbs experimentally, and all of the burning pain came back in a rush, stealing his breath and leaving him gasping. He fought against it with single-minded determination, fought the brown from his vision, and tried again. His limbs felt like they were attached to lead weights, but eventually, awkwardly, he could prop himself up against--
--a pillow? Yes, a pillow, and a plain headboard on a plain bed. A blanket lay over him, rough-woven but warm. The room was plain as well, white walls and well-used furniture, with no decoration other than a rough drawing of a hawk perched in a pine tree on one wall. There was a single door in one wall, simple but serviceable, closed, not locked--
It opened, and he tensed all over, despite the pain. He had no weapon, no weapon, he was vulnerable, he couldn't move! His mind raced frantically as the door swung into the room, and a big man ducked through it. A very big man, broad-shouldered and stocky, with muscle filling out the contours of military-style garb. He would not be easy to kill, and he had a sword at his waist, and his face-- his face was rough as a hatchet, with a double-bristle of matching sideburns, black but grizzled with grey. And his eyes, above a nose that had obviously been broken in the past, were as keen as those of the hawk on its crudely-painted branch.
"Awake already, your highness? Well, no less than I'd expect of you. Rest easy, though. Your wounds are quite severe, you're lucky my men recognized you from your description."
Air was still not easy to come by. He knew this man, knew that bluntly confident manner, knew that rough face. Knew even the sword that he carried at his waist, knew what the flowers inscribed on the hilt meant, he knew--
General Sou pulled up a chair to his bedside and settled into it, the wood creaking under his weight. "Looks like you've been knocked around an awful lot in the year that you've been missing, eh? But you'll be right again in no time. I've been combing the entirety of Sa Province looking for you, Prince Seien. Your father's orders, of course. And here you were under my nose the entire time-- Sa and Shou are going to have a good laugh at me when we return to the palace, you can be sure of that."
He could breathe again, finally, but he still felt light-headed as he sank back into the pillow. Things that he had all but forgotten were swarming back to him now, like an invading army overwhelming the defenses he had built against them. And this time, this time they would not be fought back. Seien closed his eyes, unable to block out the sound of Sou's voice, as the past he had tried to eradicate from his being claimed him once again.
He grew to hate the painting of the hawk over the weeks that followed, because it was the only thing there was to look at in the room and so he ended up looking at it. Sou brought him books to read, and even sent one or two younger soldiers to keep him company. But they were unnerved by his continued silence and unrelenting stare, and soon the visits stopped. Sou didn't seem bothered, though, and made a point of visiting Seien once a day. He talked, and Seien listened, because he couldn't keep himself from listening.
"--you're a strong lad, for all that you haven't been taken care of properly for months now. The doctors say that it'll be four weeks before you're ready to travel, but knowing you it should only be three, maybe even two. We'll be going back to the capital with a full company of guards, don't worry. Wouldn't want a repeat of the circumstances that lost you in the first place. Traveling without an escort, what was your benighted grandfather thinking?"
His grandfather was long since dead. He had died screaming in the snow, with the stench from the deep wound in his bowels polluting the winter woods.
"Even so, we'll go slow. No sense in pushing your recovery, but it's a long way back to the capital. We should arrive just as the spring flowers are starting to bloom. Something to look forward to, eh? Don't give me that look! You think an old campaigner like me can't appreciate the turn of the seasons? All this snow makes my old injuries ache, anyway. I'll be glad for the warm weather, sure enough."
Sou was certainly right about Seien's wounds. They were healing, and quickly. Now that he was getting proper food he was gaining back some of the weight he'd lost, as well. When he could eat. It was all right if he didn't think, didn't remember. But sometimes he did, and the food would turn to ashes in his mouth, and he would push the plate away in disgust. Sou had taken to eating with him, and he knew that the General noticed, but he never said anything or tried to force Seien to resume eating. He just kept talking about preparations for the journey back to the capital or narrating one of his vast stock of campaign stories. And eventually Seien would be able to pick up his bowl again and continue. After a few days, Seien found that the incidents became fewer and farther between.
He was getting stronger, too. As soon as he could get out of bed Seien was out and about, not wanting to return. At first all he could manage were circuits of his room, but anything was better than the too-soft mattress and pillows that suffocated him. His room had a window that overlooked one of the practice yards, and he sat there and watched the soldiers at their exercises, mentally judging their skills. That man was a good hand with a bow, but with a sword he'd be dead in mere seconds. The big man with the halberd was strong at range, but once you got under his weapon he was vulnerable, easy to take down despite his size. The swordsman was more balanced, but he was all technique. Seien wondered if he'd ever killed anyone in his life.
Seien knew exactly how he'd kill every man who frequented that particular training yard before he was strong enough to leave his room to explore the rest of the outpost. Constantly having walls around him made him jumpy, and he sought out the watchtower and the fortifications that protected the garrison. He avoided the soldiers if he could, uncomfortable with their deferential salutes and curious eyes. It felt like there was always someone watching him, and it made his skin crawl, made him acutely aware of just how vulnerable he was.
He wanted a sword. Sou had seen him eyeing the one at his waist one night, and shook his head. "Sorry, your highness. But to be blunt about the matter, I have no desire to see one of my men cut to ribbons because he had the bad luck of surprising you. I've seen men twitchy as you before, soldiers who have been too long on the front lines, survivors of particularly fierce and nasty battles. Mayhap I've been one myself a time or two. Damned if I'm going to give you a weapon before you're calm enough to judge when and how to use it."
That was all he'd said about it, and for that Seien was grateful. Sou treated him as a man grown, and a soldier, but it never even occurred to him to be proud. It didn't seem like something to be proud of.
He wasn't a soldier, though, that was quite clear. When the day finally came for their departure and Sou and his men were forming up in the courtyard, there was a two-wheeled carriage waiting for Seien, with horses to pull it. That first day's travel was torturous. He couldn't relax with the walls so close around him. He kept looking up, expecting to see his mother sitting across from him (her final words still echoed in his ears; they never seemed to stop). The air was stifling, and every jolt made him feel sick to his stomach.
The next morning he took one of the spare horses from the picket line, saddled it, and mounted up with the other soldiers. Sou didn't say anything, just motioned him forward to ride at his side. By the end of the day Seien was shaking with exhaustion, and it was all he could do to stay on his feet long enough to make it to his blankets. But the next day he grimly mounted up again, despite saddle sores and pain from his still-healing injuries. Exhaustion was good. It meant no dreams.
Even so, he knew that they were going at a slower pace than they would have otherwise in order to spare him. It was annoying, but he knew he wasn't in any condition to go faster. Nor did he really want to arrive. In that sense the journey was pleasant, because he floated in an unconnected state of in-between. Neither here nor there, just scenery and towns moving by at his horse's slow walk.
He shared a fire with Sou and the two officers responsible for the company, though he took no part in their easy camaraderie. They did not exclude him from their conversations, but they didn't try to force him to talk, or seem to expect him to answer their questions. They let him be, and he was grateful. Slowly he became used to their bluff companionship, their easy laughter, and-- hardest of all-- the way Sou trusted them, and relaxed in their presence.
They were only a day's journey from the capital, and the weather was unaccountably good. After a mere morning's travel, Sou called a halt beside a clear-running river. "I want you louts to be fresh when you arrive at the capital," he said, when the soldiers drew up around him. "Spend the afternoon cleaning your gear, and I better see the lot of you dunk your heads in the river! Remember, you're a Prince's escort, not some grimy border patrol. Make camp and get to it!"
"Nice try, General Sou!" one of the officers shouted back. "We all know this is your favorite fishing spot!"
"Is that insubordination I hear?" Sou roared. "Just for that, you're in charge of gutting the catch for dinner tonight! And taking care of my horse, too!"
To Seien's confusion, the officer relieved him of his horse's reins as well, and gave him a friendly wink as he did so. "The General likes to have company when he's fishing," the man said cheerfully, and jerked his head to the side. Seien looked, and there was Sou with a long wrapped bundle under one arm, waving him over.
"Ever been fishing, your highness?" Sou didn't wait for the reply. He led Seien upstream, pausing along the way to cut two bamboo poles that he swiftly converted into fishing rods with line and hooks that he took from the bundle. That didn't explain the long shape of it, though. Sou set it on the grass behind him, disregarding it as he demonstrated how to cast into the middle of the river and obviously expecting Seien to do likewise. Seien tried his best, but the roll of cloth still pulsed on the edge of his awareness, impossible to put from his mind entirely.
Sou was silent for a while, sitting on the bank, his steely eyes on the point where his line entered the water. When he spoke the words were slow, and marked with his characteristic gruffness. The subject, however, was one on which the General had never previously spoken to him. "Well, Prince Seien, tomorrow we'll be back at the palace. I don't delude myself into thinking it will be an entirely pleasant homecoming for you, especially now that you've lost what little protection your grandfather and mother could provide for you. All your brothers, of course, are alive and well."
Seien could hear what Sou wasn't saying. His brothers were all a year older, a year wiser, a year more vicious. And doubtless they had spent that year building themselves up, making alliances, scheming and backstabbing and buying favor where they could. When the General said "all," he meant that none of them had managed to kill any of the others off-- a pity, that.
"Your royal father will want to speak with you, I have no doubt. You'll probably be expected to be present during my official report to the Emperor on the affairs of Sa Province, and my explanation of why it took me an entire year to find one fairly distinctive and able Prince." Seien met the sidelong glance from the corner of the General's eyes with his own flat stare. Sou would have very little to report on that vein, since he had no idea where or what Seien had been doing during that time, and that was just fine. Undoubtedly he had made some guesses, since the General had already proven himself to be an exceptionally observant man, but guesses they would remain.
After a moment Sou returned his gaze to the water. "They'll have you back at your official duties as soon as you've caught yourself up with palace affairs." Sou brooded for a moment, and then sighed. "Well, I'm not going to beat around the bush anymore. From the number of ex-assassins the Uringun has removed from your immediate vicinity over the years, I'm willing to bet that you'll be facing a similarly warm reception not long after your return. And I didn't go to the trouble of digging you up and getting you healed only to see you go right back into the ground after all my efforts. Take it. It's yours, after all."
Seien set his fishing rod aside and pulled the slim bundle into his lap. The cloth wrapping fell away to reveal a familiar ebony sheath chased in gold, and the snowy hilt above that. Its weight felt good in his hands. He stood up to tie Kanshou at his side, where it belonged, and felt clothed for the first time since the soldiers had found him dying in the snow.
Sou was still looking at the river, not at him. "You're not ready for it, you're still too jumpy. But I'm not going to deliver you into that nest of vipers without giving you the means to defend yourself. Best watch out, your highness. Kanshou is sharp on both its edges."
The General's warning was clear. Seien sat again, picked up his fishing rod, and cast the hook perfectly into the center of the river. Sou chuckled, a good-humored rumble. "You're right, of course. Might as well leave off this worrying until tomorrow. We'll be at the palace soon enough, anyway. And if we don't bring back a hearty catch for the boys to eat for dinner, my reputation as a General will be ruined."
Seien pressed his forehead against his arm, and his arm against the rough bark of the cherry tree. He wasn't used to the drag of the longer sleeves on his limbs, or of the catch of robes around his legs. He'd tripped over his hem three times before he'd gritted his teeth, remembered, and shortened his stride just the right amount.
Sou had not sent messengers ahead to inform the palace of his exact return date. Perhaps it was out of mercy, Seien wasn't be sure. But he didn't have to face the Emperor or the predicted meetings until the next day, at least. Simply getting slotted back into palace life was consuming all the energy he had. And word of his return had spread fast. Various officials and members of the palace staff kept happening by, or halting on the periphery of his vision to stare and murmur. Already he had received polite greetings and inquiries from two of his brothers. One of them might even have been mistaken for warm, if Seien hadn't met his eyes and seen the walls behind his brother's gaze. The other brother, younger, had not been able to hide his disappointment at seeing the second prince alive and apparently well.
Both of them had found Seien's silence unnerving and quickly left. He wasn't sorry to see them go. But perhaps it was better when they were there, where he could see if they tried anything. When they were gone he knew they were plotting, making plans, scheming. He could feel eyes on him no matter where he went, weighing, considering, judging. He couldn't trust a single person, couldn't even claim to know anyone, because in a whole year, anything could change . . . anything could be forgotten. In a year he had changed, after all. Winter had entered him, and made him its own. If he could change so much in a single year, then what else could?
He had come to the garden hoping for a measure of peace, but even now he could feel eyes on him, watching. A faint rustle of cloth carried on the breeze, a hitch of breath as soft as the pink petals that brushed his shoulder as they fell. His senses were hyper alert, and he could practically taste the presence behind him. Only one, he could tell. Doubtless a trained assassin; who else would be so light on their feet? And highly skilled, as well, to risk making an attack in broad daylight, never mind in the private garden restricted to the royal family.
His mind went blank, calm and deadly. Seien eased himself slightly away from the tree, shifted his weight imperceptibly so that he was no longer leaning against it, tested his footing with the slightest movement of a toe. He would have to turn and draw in one motion, without a mistake or hesitation. If he didn't kill on the first swing, he wouldn't get another chance. The assassin was too close.
He could feel more than sense when the assassin's energy released, when light, rapid footfalls darted towards him. Kanshou practically sprang into his hand, it was so easy to draw the blade from the sheath. He let the motion whip him around, fast as a striking snake, and the razor edge of his sword took the assassin's head in a clean sweep--
--except there was no head, no neck that met Kanshou's singing sharpness. Too high! --arms caught him low, a small, flying body connected with his. Off-balance, he reeled backwards into the tree's trunk, and Kanshou's pommel dented the living wood with its impact as his arm completed its swing.
His heart was in his mouth, and the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. His pulse was galloping, and its thunder filled his ears. There were small arms wrapped tightly around his waist, a face pressed up against his stomach. Adrenalin gave him focus, and he strained. That small, soft voice, no more than a whisper-- he could hear it, despite the muffling of cloth and a sandy thatch of ragged, untidy hair.
Kanshou dropped from Seien's nerveless fingers, and the dull sound it made as it landed in the dirt seemed to echo, impossibly loud. His fingers clawed at the bark for purchase, but he wasn't falling, he only felt like he was falling.
"Aniue . . ." The words gained strength as they came, first a trickle, then a torrential flood. "I knew you would come back, I knew it, I knew it all along. No matter what, I didn't give up for even a second, not even a single second! I knew aniue would come f-find me no m-m-matter what, if I j-just waited, if I was g-g-good--" hiccupping sobs punctuated the words. "Aniue-- aniue--"
He allowed his fingers to touch the pale, feathery-fine hair, wondering. The slightest pressure and the too-tight arms loosened, and a tear-streaked face raised to his. Those eyes-- they were golden, luminous despite the storm of tears, so warm-- something inside him cracked, the shard of ice that had been lodged in his chest, with a retort that shook his entire body. He had forgotten, he had made himself forget-- had not let himself remember for so much as a single moment, because it would have meant his death-- those eyes, the feel of small arms around him--
"Aniue is crying," that was a faint, fearful whisper. "No, no, p-please, aniue, d-don't cry, I'm sorry, I'm s-s-sorry, I w-w-won't cry, I'll be g-good, just d-d-don't-- don't go away again, don't l-l-leave me, aniu-u-ue, please!"
That child's face was never meant for fear, or for sadness, and it had seen too much of both. He could reach out, just so, with his fingertips he could brush his brother's tears away. His own face was wet-- he was crying, for the first time in years he was crying. That glacial ice inside of him was melting, leaking out through his eyes.
"Ryuuki." After more than a month without use, his voice was hoarse and rusty; it creaked. He tried again. "Ryuuki." It was easier the second time. "Ryuuki, Ryuuki . . ."
"A-aniue?" Ryuuki's voice was uncertain, questioning.
Seien didn't know what it was, the sudden wildness that snapped his ribs. All he knew was that he was laughing and crying at the same time, and he seized his younger brother and lifted him off the ground with a shout that echoed through the garden. Ryuuki's "eep!" of surprise was lost in Seien's robe. Even Ryuuki's weight was too much, though. He still hadn't recovered all his strength, and the burden sent him sliding down the trunk of the tree to land on his rear in the dirt next to Kanshou. But he didn't care, he didn't care at all. Ryuuki was in his lap, wrapped tightly in his arms, safe, and warm, and alive, the hope that he had denied himself for survival's sake was his once again. His brother curled up against him, and Seien could tuck that unruly head of fine hair under his chin as he rocked them both back and forth. Exactly, it had been exactly this way-- well, almost exactly . . .
He pulled himself back a little, tugged gently at his brother's shoulders. "Stand up, Ryuuki, stand up, let me look at you." Words were getting easier as he went. Ryuuki stood as he was bid, sniffling, but his sobs had disappeared, and he tried his best to straighten his ill-fitting robes. A year before they had been oversized, with the sleeves hanging well over his small hands, but now they were almost too short at the wrists, and his attempt to shuffle his feet back under the hem didn't really work. "You've grown so much, it's amazing, but your face is still just the same--" at least his hanging sleeves were of some use; he could wipe the tears from Ryuuki's cheeks with them.
Ryuuki held perfectly still, hardly snuffling now. "Maybe . . . I could get a bigger robe?" his voice was tenuous, seeking approval. "Third older brother said I looked stupid, maybe . . . I could find one somewhere . . ."
"I'll get you some new clothes," of course he would. "You shouldn't listen to a thing that the others say, they don't know what they're talking about. You're growing, that's all."
"I don't need anything new. If, maybe if I could wear some of aniue's old clothes, I would like that--"
"Whatever you want," Seien agreed. Who could say no to such a humble request? "But some new things, too, you should have something that's just yours." Face attended to, he tried to put the rest of his brother into proper order. "For heaven's sake, Ryuuki, what happened to your hair?"
"It was too long," Ryuuki's fingers went to his head, trying to smooth down his wayward bangs. "I tried to cut it so it would be like aniue's, but I couldn't do it so well with just Bakuya . . ."
"You used Bakuya to cut your hair?!" Seien was horrified. "Ryuuki, you don't use a sword to cut your hair! That's dangerous! And Bakuya's very sharp-- you didn't cut yourself, did you?"
"I didn't, I didn't! I was very careful, and I even cleaned up after and made sure Bakuya was shining, just like you showed me . . ." Ryuuki's earnestness softened Seien's attempt to be stern.
"Well, as long as you didn't hurt yourself it's all right, but ask me next time, okay? I'll cut your hair for you."
"You will?" Ryuuki beamed, his happiness so absolute that it took Seien's breath away.
"Yes, I will." He shook his head in asperity when his fingers caught on another tangle. "I'll never get your hair straightened with just my fingers, this is hopeless. You haven't lost your comb, have you?"
"I didn't! I have it!"
"Good," Seien stood up and brushed off the knees of his robe, then picked up Kanshou from where he had dropped it and resheathed it at his side. "Why don't we go get it, and we'll fix your hair. And then we'll see about getting you some bigger clothes, what do you say?"
"Okay!" Ryuuki's small fingers slipped inside his hand and gripped tight. He had to trot to keep up with Seien's longer strides, but his face was turned upwards towards his older brother. "Aniue . . . why did you go away? Where did you go?"
"I'm sorry, Ryuuki. I didn't mean to be gone for so long." Seien knew then what the bursting energy was inside him, knew it by the unfamiliar expression he could feel on his own face. "But it doesn't matter where I was. I'm back now. I'm back."