“And that’s the last of it. Your esteemed grandmother will be here to check on you presently. In the meantime, is there anything else you need, Lord Hakuryuu?”
Kija considered for a moment. “No, thank you.” He nodded politely. “You may go.”
“Of course. My condolences once more on the loss of the previous Lord Hakuryuu, may his spirit find the heavens. The whole village feels his loss and stands at your side in this time of mourning.”
“My most sincere thanks” said Kija, for what felt like the hundredth time that day.
After that the four servants who had brought his clothes and other possessions left in a flurry of white robes and deep bows, leaving him alone at long last.
And suddenly, as the sound of their feet receded down the stairs and faded away to nothing, he really did feel very alone indeed, the room very large and very empty.
He walked all the way around the room that had been his father’s - that was now his own, he had to remind himself - running the tips of his claws very lightly along the walls, touching the woven tapestries and the heavy, purple curtains of the bed with the fingers of his left hand. Someone had lit the candles before his things had been brought in; they must have been burning for some time, as wax had already dribbled down the sides a little, marring their perfect white smoothness.
The candles had been replaced since the last time he had been here, Kija thought. Before, they had been burned down almost to the brackets in which they stood on at the corners of the bed, wax pooling against engraved bronze.
That had been only two days ago now, he thought, flicking the claws of his dragon hand idly through the flame - once, twice, three times - before willing his fingers to be still. It seemed longer; it seemed half a lifetime since he had waited until Granny was occupied with business in the village square and crept out of the nursery. Since he had scampered across the intervening ground, slipped off his shoes and climbed the outside of the building that housed the rooms of Hakuryuu - he was Hakuryuu, of course, he had been since the day he was born, as his father’s life slowly faded away with the scales on his hand - and scrambled up onto the sill and into the dimly-lit room.
Kija stood in the centre of it all alone now, staring at the empty bed - its sheets freshly washed, the curtains aired and cleaned and gently scented with magnolia oil; only the best for the new Lord Hakuryuu, lately come fully into his own.
The sheets were very smooth now, untouched. But the last time Kija had been here, his father had lain there, his skin grey-pale and hanging loosely from his skinny frame, his hand lying on the coverlet, limp and weak and completely free of the pearlescent dragon scales that were so familiar, as they covered Kija’s own right hand.
Kija had been scared then, frozen for a moment in the middle of the bright, woven carpet - about where he was standing now in fact - afraid to venture any closer. Granny had told him that his father wasn’t well, but he hadn’t realised…. he had felt tears come to his eyes then, and he felt them again now, hot and stinging and sudden.
Kija had been so late, when he had come to his father; he had been dying, could barely speak. And so Kija had - for the first time in his life, almost - acted on impulse, letting his touch speak for them both and throwing himself onto the bed, holding him close when his father was too weak and frail to do it himself.
He had died not long after; Kija had not known how long after that it had been that the nurse had come in and found him like that, sobbing and clutching his father’s body in his small arms, the echo of his name - his father’s last word - still in his ears. Someone had called a servant, who had fetched Granny, he supposed. He remembered her voice echoing sharply in the room as the door closed behind him; he did not remember what she had said. He remembered being led by the hand out of the room, moving as though in a dream, as the door closed behind him and he numbly let himself be led down the spiral stairs and back to the his own rooms. He had felt blank, suddenly.
The gap where the familiar soft white glow of his father’s presence in his awareness had been was - still was - like a great void, threatening to open up and swallow him; he had been so used to the brightness that had been there all his life that he had never even thought what being without it would feel like.
And even so, his mind had not quite caught up with what the dragon’s blood told him clearly enough; try as he might, he couldn’t make it feel real. He had seen so little of his father, that it could very well be simply another day without him, but for the great emptiness, and the evidence of his own eyes, back in that room where the candles flickered in the breeze from the open window.
This room. His room now. The thought snapped him abruptly back to the present moment. He walked over to the bed - his bed now - and sat down on the very edge of it, gingerly, hanging his head and staring down at his hands - one skin, one scales - curled loosely in the lap of his new robes, fitted and made up for him especially for his father’s funeral.
The room was very large, and Kija had the sudden impression that one could fit a whole crowd of people in this space. For a moment, in fact, he had the even stranger impression that there really was a whole crowd of people there with him, rustling and whispering and reaching out towards him. But when he lifted his head, of course, there was nothing there.
Silly, he thought, frowning. Such fancies were for little children, and he was Hakuryuu now; the only Hakuryuu there was, until his own successor should be born. Kija lay back on the soft sheets, staring at the shadowed canopy, biting down on his lip. He felt, suddenly, very small and very, very alone. But no, he mustn’t cry; a dragon warrior - strong, brave and noble, someone fit to serve King Hiryuu when he came - must not cry like a child, surely. And if the sound of his father’s voice saying his name that final time kept ringing in his head as it did now, well, surely he could push it aside. If it took leaving behind that name - the name of a child really, not the person who lived in this room - if it took that much, then, well… he would hardly miss his name at all.
He sat up on the bed, unclasping his hands from the covers, lest he slice through the fine weave with his claws. That would be a shame. As he sat up, he was almost surprised to find his cheeks wet with tears.
Well, maybe becoming a strong dragon warrior who did not cry would take some time and practice.
Still, he knew that he was equal to the task; he had to be, not only for the sake of the King who would come - who surely had to come - and could do so at any time - but also for the generations that had come before. Hakuryuu after Hakuryuu stretching all the way back into the distant, shadowy centuries of history.
“I’ll do it” he said, speaking aloud into the silence, clenching his fists. “I’ll become strong, and I’ll serve the king.” He thought back to the day on the riverbank several years ago, that he was still was not quite sure had not been a dream. The strange golden man, the blazing red star in the cold morning… It had to mean something; it had to. “I’ll do what you never got the chance to, father.”
The room was resoundingly silent as his words faded.
Which was why he half flinched, back straightening hastily, as there came a sharp knock at the door.
“Lord Hakuryuu! Are you there?”
“Ah…. yes Granny! A little of the tension ebbed from his muscles. “Please come in!”
He wiped his tears away hastily, getting quickly to his feet, smoothing his slightly rumpled robe and forcing a smile as the four litter bearers bustled in, set down her litter, and retreated outside the door. Kija wondered if they were standing just outside, as they usually seemed to be.
He sighed, bowing. “Granny. I am sorry…. I suppose I am late for the feast and the readings, by now?”
“No, not quite yet” she said. “They will await your arrival.”
He nodded, as much to hide the tears on his face as anything; he suddenly found he did not want her to see. “I will come at once.”
“Hmm?” It was her tone more than anything that made him start, turning to look at her. “Yes, Granny?”
With a sorrowful smile and a flourish, she pulled out a very oversized, snowy white handkerchief, crisp and newly pressed; Kija stood still, almost frozen with surprise, as she wiped his tears away from his face. After she had finished, she beckoned him closer, then gave him a swift, tight hug, before releasing him, holding him at arm’s length and inspecting him carefully.
Kija couldn’t help the tears that came once more then. “G-Granny, I’m sorry” he mumbled, looking down as he felt his face flame. “I shall try to be…” he tailed off. “What…?”
She was shaking her head, tears glimmering at the corners of her own eyes. “Oh, my sweet” she said - it was not something she had called him since he really was a young child, having switched to his title increasingly in these last years. “Do you know, the others were just the same?”
Kija frowned, perplexed.
“You miss him” she raised a hand as he opened his mouth to speak again. “It’s not so hard to see. Four generations I have raised now…. you are the fifth. And each one… each one felt the death of the last, so sharply.” She wiped away the tear rolling down his cheek with a thumb. “It’s the dragon’s blood, I suppose. It runs strangely through the human heart. That was what my very first Lord Hakuryuu used to say.”
Kija had no idea what to say to this, so instead he just stared, as she looked up into the ceiling of the room.
“You will be the best of them, I know. And if the King should come, he will be overjoyed to have one such as you in his service. And that is how you will make your father proud, my Lord Hakuryuu. You will carry on his legacy, and you will have the whole village behind you when you do.”
He felt a warm glow rising in his chest at her words; suddenly the room felt a little less lonely, a little less dark. “I hope so, Granny” he said, hugging her again on impulse. The tears soaked into her crisp white robe. “I hope so.” And then, so low that he wasn’t even sure she could hear, “thank you.”