The murmurs that infected the court didn't escape Reishin. People were muttering none-so-discreetly amongst each other, which was catalyzed, no doubt, by his words, the weight of which still hung in the air:
"This is my adopted son, Li Kouyuu."
Their insolent chatter annoyed Reishin. This unworthy and mindless judgment, he knew it well.
It's been a year since he picked the boy off the streets, yet still this presentation might be too early, but if he was to survive in the Kou family, he must be able to endure it.
Reishin looked back at the boy, whose unruly hair of aquamarine was checked by a white hair tie, and saw that carefully and painfully kept expressionless face. The boy was doing well, so well that only someone like Reishin was able to see the strained fear in his eyes.
Kouyuu breathed, shallowly, and willed himself to blink every three breaths. The curious gazes and hushed chatter bespoke of something even clearer than words: He was not worthy of Reishin-sama, he was not worthy to be his son, that is why he was not given the Kou family name, and everyone standing in this court knew it.
This would be one of his most unforgettable memories, this public and instantaneous declaration of his inadequacy.
There was a tentative knock on the door. Reishin looked up irately from the scroll he was reading, and hissed, "Enter."
A maid stepped in timidly, her head carefully bowed. Reishin noted the way she fidgeted her fingers within clasped hands, and waited for her to explain her intrusion.
"Excuse me, danna-sama, Kouyuu-dono has taken ill." The maid informed almost inaudibly.
The urge to roll his eyes was almost overcoming him. Honestly! The servants were getting dumber by the day. With complaints and official documents piling like pollen grains, did they really think he had the stamina to deal with this spectacular display of…incompetence!
"So call a doctor. I need not be disturbed with trivialities such as this." He snapped coldly.
The maid stood her ground for a moment, seeming to hesitate, but eventually bowed and took her leave. Reishin thought it strange that his orders were not obeyed instantly, but, with his desk still buried six inches deep in scrolls, he thought it best not to waste mental resources on such insignificant speculations.
At two hours past sunset a servant came and announced dinner. Reishin looked up, surprised by the darkness that met his gaze when he looked out the window.
Was it really night already? Funny the way time flies when one has to deal with idiots!He mused with a sardonic smile as he stepped into the dining hall. A single set of dinnerware sat waiting for him on the table.
"Where is Kouyuu?" He asked the servant standing in the let corner, his personal steward.
"Kouyuu-dono has taken ill, danna-sama." The servant replied politely.
Reishin's eyes narrowed. How odd! That boy has never been absent during dinner in all the time he has been here.
"Yes, I was informed of that already." He snapped. "Is he so infirm that he is unable to dine?"
The servant winced visibly, and the timbre of his voice trembled as he replied, "I was given to understand that Kouyuu-dono is running a high fever, danna-sama."
Reishin's chopsticks, which were on their way to the pepper and shredded pork, paused in midair. "Has a doctor not been summoned?" He demanded.
"A doctor is currently attending Kouyuu-dono, danna-sama."
"And his diagnosis?"
"I have not conferred with the doctor. If Your Excellency wishes I shall go right now."
Reishin frowned. "No, that's unnecessary. I'll go myself. It'll be troublesome if he died." He muttered with a roll of his eyes as he made for Kouyuu's bedroom.
Would it really be troublesome? When 'troublesome' was such a simple word?
"Kou…Kou Shousho…" An old man stammered as soon as Reishin crossed the threshold into Kouyuu's room.
Reishin glanced around the doctor, catching the boy's reclined body on the bed; a piece of wet cloth laid serenely across his forehead. The skin of his face looked flushed. Reishin redirected his gaze to the old doctor.
"How is he?" He demanded.
"Ah…well, it's…uh…most puzzling, Kouyuu-dono's condition is. He has taken medicine, but his fever has not subsided. I…" The doctor stuttered, all the while wiping sweat from his brows, which Reishin's scrutinizing gaze always had the effect of producing in people.
"You have not the slightest notion of how to proceed with his treatment. Am I correct in my assumption?" He flicked open his fan and sneered. "How long has his condition persisted?"
"Sin-since this a-afternoon, Kou Shousho."
A shadow crossed Reishin's face. The hand that held the fan tightened just slightly.
This afternoon…that was well over six hours ago…
What are these idiots thinking?
"Go fetch Tou Roushi from the palace." He ordered. "Oh, and kindly escort the honorable doctor back to his residence." So I can find and kill you later if anything happens to Kouyuu.
The doctor and the servants were gone. The room was silent save for the boy's uneven breaths. Reishin felt rather helpless, standing over the helpless boy on the bed. His years in the political arena had taught him only one way to deal with the weak—to weed them out, which would be inappropriate in this case, and therefore inapplicable.
Reishin sighed. Getting sick a week after he took him to court. Maybe this is some sort of a sign…
He smirked. Those idiots at court! How he wanted to strangle them all at that moment! Their accursed murmurs, their unforgivable doubt of the one whom he had chosen, enraged him.
Kouyuu stirred in the bed and moaned. Reishin looked over.
What to do? What to do?
The boy moaned again, louder this time. Reishin felt something akin to panic slither through his fingertips. But it cannot be, because he was Kou Reishin; Kou Reishin doesn't panic.
"Have you all been calcified?! The rag will not change itself, you realize!" He hissed out the door.
Again, not panicking.
A skinny maid scurried in, her head almost parallel to the floor in her bow. "M-My apologies, danna-sama." She stammered.
Reishin glared at her, and his glared followed her all the while as she changed the white cloth on Kouyuu's forehead.
Too soon, the maid retreated, and Reishin was once again left alone with his adopted son. Of course he had the freedom to leave whenever he liked; he need not endure this discomfort. Yet there he was, rooted to the spot, gazing down at Kouyuu's sickly flushed face, even though the sight grinded against his senses.
It must be the tea he drank at Houju's place, another act of his petty vengeance. There was no other explanation for his present…irregularity of behavior. After all, it wasn't like Kou Reishin to force himself to do something he disliked.
Kouyuu shifted slightly, and the knuckles on the back of his hand, which clutched the cover, turned white.
God damn it! Where was Tou Roushi?
Tentatively, he reached own and touched the boy's cheek, and retracted it again in a swift motion. Even with as little medical knowledge as he had, Reishin knew that when the temperature is burning to the skin, it can't be good.
"Hmm…" Kouyuu turned, the motion toppling the cooling cloth to the floor. "Mmm…"
Reishin stared. The covers soon followed suit. Kouyuu's languishing hands, despite their frailty, tore open the front of his white sleeping robe, displaying the pale but flushed skin of his chest.
The boy looked pathetic, Reishin thought stubbornly, if pathetic was the word.
There was no one in the room now; perhaps it wouldn't be amiss to indulge…
Reishin bent down and picked up the fallen fabric, replacing it gently on the bed. Then, running his fingers softly across his son's burning chest, he grasped the silk of the white robe and pulled it gingerly shut.
Kouyuu caught his hand, its clamminess made the older man flinch, and tore open the collars again.
"Hot…" He murmured, and his voice broke, at the last moment, into something that sounded suspiciously like a sob.
A moment later the suspicions were confirmed. Kouyuu rolled onto his side, almost falling off the bed had Reishin not caught him, and began to cry, very softly, like a kitten crying for its mother in the wilderness.
The agony must be reaching unbearable levels, Reishin thought, for it to break the boy's control like this. But even now, in the depth of feverish unconsciousness, the child in him could still only give rise to the faintest of sobs.
Reishin sat down on the edge of the bed, recalling that his elder brother had done so at the time he had been sick, and patted Kouyuu's back gently.
Just when Reishin was settling into the routine, Kouyuu's eyes snapped open without warning, and stared directly into his own. Reishin's hand froze.
But his fears were in vain; a second later the startling clarity of his son's eyes clouded over with a film of tears, and it became apparent that the boy was not really lucid. Reishin relaxed.
Then, through dry and burning lips, came the word, "Father…"
The boy's voice was soft, almost inaudible from the fever, yet Reishin heard the word as though it had been shouted. Something strange was overtaking him then, something dangerously similar to the paternal instincts he was certain he didn't possess.
"Reishin-sama, Tou Roushi is here." His personal steward announced in the doorway.
Reishin flinched, practically ejecting himself from Kouyuu's bed. A resemblance of a blush crept up to his cheeks. He snapped open his fan, using it to obscure the faint rouge on his face.
"Kou Shousho." Tou Roushi greeted with a bow.
When Tou Roushi looked up, Reishin had already repossessed himself, plastering on his countenance once more that cold and arrogant expression so characteristic of the Kou Shousho everyone knew.
"I trust this won't be too much trouble." Reishin cleared his throat, and said in the most conceited manner conceivable.
"Ah, well, I will do my be…"
"Excellent. There are still things urgently needing my attention, so I'll excuse myself and let you get on with the treatment." He cut in smoothly and waltzed out the door before Tou Roushi could make another sound.
Reishin made quickly for his office, walking at maximum speed without actually having to break into a run.
He was definitely not discomposed because the little brat he had taken in just called him father.
He slammed the door of his study shut, perhaps a little too loudly to be calm, and made a beeline dash for his desk, which was still toppling with scrolls. Snatching one off the top, Reishin began reading. "From the Department of Foreign Relations: requesting increase in personnel of three persons on grounds of extreme shor—"
"on grounds of extreme shortage, furthermore—"
"furthermore, due to the recent tax cut—"
Reishin threw down the scroll angrily, and began massaging his temple with his fingers. He wondered if this was one of those blessings of fatherhood that Shouka always talked about, this inability to concentrate on work because some little brat was running a fever a few doors down the hall.
Well, on that thought, wasn't it strange that even though he has been given medicine his fever hasn't gone down? And why were the servants so nervous when they reported his illness this afternoon? Was this just one of those ordinary fevers that children get from time to time, after all it was almost autumn, or was it something more serious, say, the forerunner of small pox? He had heard of people running high fevers before getting full-blown small pox. Oh dear heavens, what if it was small pox?
Before he realized he was standing in the doorway of Kouyuu's bedroom, being greeted by the doctor and half a dozen maid's quizzical gaze.
"Kou Shousho, is something amiss?"
Well, my adopted son is running an inexplicable fever and is about to die of small pox…
Reishin flashed the doctor a blank stare.
"You look rather flushed." The doctor explained.
Reishin cleared his throat and whipped open his fan. "Tou Roushi, small pox is a very serious and infectious disease, how is it that you have not already declared a quarantine? Furthermore, shouldn't you be taking more drastic measures…" He declared accusatorily.
"Kou Shousho," The doctor interrupted his rant loudly, after a staring incomprehensibly at Reishin for several moments. "Kouyuu-dono is not suffering from small pox."
Just then Tou Roushi saw the most remarkable series of colors cycle through on Kou Reishin's face. Above the opened fan, which covered nearly half of Reishin's face, his skin went from an interesting shade of pale pink, like a cherry blossom just unfolding, to a fiery, darker pink, like the blossoms of a plum tree, then to a rather unusual shade of red that bore an uncanny resemblance of a rose in full bloom.
"Oh." Reishin croaked. Why didn't he remember that his musings had not a grain of medical basis?
"The resistance of Kouyuu-dono's fever" Tou Roushi, having been the palace physician for many years, ignored Reishin's awkwardness and continued. "is probably due the delay in treatment."
Reishin snapped out of his self-chastisement abruptly. "Delay in treatment? It's only been six hours…"
"Actually, according to your servants, the chill begun a week ago. Kouyuu-dono is young, he could appear perfectly fine for several days, and by my understanding," Tou Roushi eyed Reishin meaningfully. "it was his wish to do so. By now the chill has probably already migrated to his lungs, which is why his fever is so difficult to treat."
A week ago…could it be that he has been sick since the day they came back from the court?
He turned vengefully to the maid, who was Kouyuu's chief attendant, and demanded harshly, "Why was this not reported to me?"
The maid trembled and dropped to her knees immediately. Her voice shook as she made her reply, "A…a thousand apo-apologies, danna-sama. I was ordered by Kouyuu-dono not to say any-anything."
That little idiot….! Reishin thought as he gingerly massaged the bridge of his nose.
"Well, Tou Roushi, what's to be done?" He turned to the doctor, an exhausted expression hung on his face, and asked.
"I'm prescribing some medicine that will help with his fever." The doctor answered as he sat down by the table and wrote down the required herbs. "The elderberry and comfrey leaves can be purchased in herbal shops, although comfrey leaves have been in short supply lately…" He said to one of the maids. "Oh, and some succinum too."
"Succinum?" Reishin raised an eyebrow. "Is Kouyuu epileptic?"
"No. Succinum could be used for placating the mind as well. It seems the severity of Kouyuu-dono's condition is due partially to stress as well, small dosages of succinum would do well for his rest and recuperation."
"Oh." Reishin can't remember another night where he had felt stupid so many times.
"Well, I should be going then. There are still some things needing my care in the palace. Please excuse me, Kou Shousho." The doctor bowed respectfully and collected his medicine chest.
"Oh, and Kou Shousho," He called just as he was passing Reishin at the doorway. "You need not worry; Kouyuu-dono's condition is not fatal. He should be fine in a few days."
The rosy shade of red returned to Reishin's cheeks again. He could've sworn he saw a forcefully repressed smile in the doctor's eyes as he said those words to him.
Stress…huh? Reishin mused quietly as he sat at his desk, sorting through the mountain of scrolls. (The Department of Foreign Relations is not getting any additional personnel, nor are they getting an increase in budget, because both requests are unreasonable and definitely not because he was pissed and worried about Kouyuu's stress-induced fever.) He leaned back into the chair.
Midnight struck over an hour ago. The servants must have all retired by now…
He rose, and walked swiftly toward Kouyuu's bedroom.
The lights were all out, just as he expected. Slowly, so as not to make a sound, he pushed open the door and stepped inside. Through the rice-paper windows, shafts of pale moonlight pooled on the floor just in front of the bed. The faint scent of herbal medicine whirled around him as Reishin stood over the sleeping boy.
He's still too young, Reishin thought regretfully, the murmurs of the court will crush him ruthlessly.
Of course he could just give Kouyuu the Kou family name and silence their tongues forever, but that would bring on a whole new array of troubles, perhaps more deadly than simple, malacious gossip.
Reishin heaved a sigh.
Shouka made it look so easy…or maybe he was simply incompetent…He thought as he returned to his study.
Reishin dabbed the brush in the inkwell, and began to dictate a letter to his brother, Kurou.
The rustle of robes made Reishin look up from his scroll. The sight of his adopted son standing in the doorway greeted him.
"You wanted to see me, Reishin-sama?" Kouyuu asked respectfully, and bowed.
"I take it your illness has improved?" He asked nonchalantly, his nonchalance afforded by the ceaseless and meticulous interrogations, which he had personally conducted, of all the servants that have attended Kouyuu for the last few days; there was no way he would repeat the error of being misinformed about his son's health again, he made sure the servants understood that.
Kouyuu flinched slightly at the mention of his recent sickness. Reishin-sama had not visited him, not once…
"Yes." He answered when the bitter taste in his mouth had receded; Reishin-sama would not be pleased if he cried.
"Very well. Go have the maid prepare your things, I'm sending you to my brother, Kurou, in Kou Province. You will complete your studies there until you are ready to take the Official Exam." Reishin forced himself to focus on the parchment before him and not look up to meet Kouyuu's eyes. "I've already sent a letter to my brother. He'll know what to do with you once you get there."
Kouyuu stood still for a moment, trying to stifle the growing sense of panic gnawing at him. Was Reishin-sama angry with him? Because he was sick? Because he hid the fact that he was sick? Why else would Reishin-sama want to send him away?
Mechanically, Kouyuu bowed, and uttered obediently, "Yes, Reishin-sama."
"You leave two days from now." His fingers were leaving permanent crease marks on the parchment, Reishin noted.
"Yes, Reishin-sama." Again came Kouyuu's hollow reply.
"You may go."
"Please excuse my intrusion." Kouyuu bowed deeply, and exited the room.
The silence left behind by Kouyuu's absence weighed heavily in the air. The parchment in Reishin's hand tore from the pressure of his clutch.
"This is for the best." Reishin chanted to himself. "It has to be this way."
At dawn, two days later, Reishin stood behind the open window, obscured from sight by the shadow of a column, and watched as his son ascended the carriage that would take him to the Kou Province.
Kouyuu turned around one last time, and searched the premise of the Kou manor for the familiar figure of his guardian. The compound was deserted save for the retinue of servants preparing for his departure.
As Reishin watched Kouyuu's figure disappear into the carriage compartment, the most peculiar feeling of desolation overcame him. Silently, with his hands twisting the fabric of his robe, he murmured his farewell.
The sun was just beginning to rise when the driver took the reins. Kouyuu glanced out the window. Behind one of the columns, where the shadows were shifting with the ascending sun, stood a figure, still partially hooded by the dewy darkness, clad in a white sleeping robe, with a cascading pool of unfastened hair of silk.
The carriage began moving. The sight, fleeting as the tumbling zephyr of spring, whirled into the blurred green of the passing trees, and dark stains of liquid spotted the cloth of Kouyuu's robeFather…