Please, be sure to read the content warning before getting started.
Mt. Takayubi, Kusanagi Peninsula
The Kaigenese Empire
5369 y. s. p.
It was a taxing climb to the high school. 821 steps. Mamoru had counted one time on his way up—no easy feat while you were focusing on not toppling off the side of a mountain. For most fourteen-year-old jijakalu, the winding way up to the school was a true test of nerve, agility, and spirit. But Mamoru, with his springy legs and boundless energy, woke each morning looking forward to the challenge.
“Mamoru!” his friends panted from the steps far below him. “Not so fast!”
Keichi and Yuuta had to take the steep path to the school because they lived in the western village, further down the mountain. Mamoru’s family compound was built high enough that he could have taken an easier way if he chose, but Matsudas weren’t known for taking the easy way to anything. He rose every day before dawn, amid the chanting of crickets, so he could make the loop down the mountain toward the western village and take the steep path with his friends.
“You two are too slow!” Mamoru called back. “We don’t want to be late!”
“We’re not going to be late,” Keichi called in exasperation from the mist below. “Just wait up! Please!”
“Fine, fine.” Mamoru lowered himself to the rock ledge and sat, letting his feet hang over the edge. It had still been dark when the three boys began their climb, but by now morning had seeped through the veil of fog to touch the rock face with its pale brushstrokes of light. It was impossible to see the base of the mountain from Kumono’s steps—or, in fact, from anywhere in the village. Beneath Mamoru’s dangling legs, there was only mist, rolling in slow waves against the cliff side, brightening with the sunrise.
The moment Keichi and Yuuta dragged themselves over the ridge where Mamoru was perched, he sprang to his feet.
“Oh good!” he said brightly. “Are you two ready to keep up now?”
“Seriously?” Yuuta gasped, doubling over to catch his breath.
“You’re a monster!” Keichi groaned.
Mamoru slapped each of them on the back. “I’ll wait for you at the school,” he said cheerfully, and took off up the mountain. His toes knew each ledge, each jutting rock, and he took the steepest part of the path in swift, confident bounds, skipping four steps at a time. He had just rounded the last curve when his feet slowed. There was a figure hunched over, panting in the fog up ahead.
Mamoru wouldn’t have thought much of it—there were dozens of students who climbed these steps each morning—but this boy’s clothing wasn’t right. Instead of Kumono blue, he wore a modern-looking black uniform Mamoru had never seen before.
“Good morning,” Mamoru said, approaching slowly, so as not to startle the newcomer off the edge.
“Morning.” The boy raised a hand in greeting before putting it to his chest, still breathing hard. He had an accent.
“Are you…” Mamoru started and then switched to Capital Kaigenese, in case the boy didn’t understand dialect. “Are you a transfer student?”
The boy nodded. “I’m Kwang Chul-hee. Nice to meet you.”
A northern name. This boy hadn’t just transferred from a neighboring prefecture; he had come from a long way away. His uniform was the kind worn in the big modern cities on the Jungsan Peninsula, with its Yammanka-style cut and military bogolan patterns.
“Matsuda Mamoru,” Mamoru introduced himself, bowing.
“Matsuda Mamoru…” the boy repeated. “How much farther is it to your damn school?”
“You’re almost there,” Mamoru said with a laugh. “I can walk with you the rest of the way.”
“I’m not afraid I’ll get lost,” Kwang looked vaguely exasperated. “I’m afraid I’ll fall off the edge.”
“No one’s ever died falling from the steps,” Mamoru said. Below the mist, there was a spring-fed lake that never froze waiting to catch those clumsy students who lost their footing on the steep way up.
“That’s what I heard,” Kwang said, “but I bet it still hurts.”
One time, his first year, Mamoru had jumped off the steps deliberately to see what it felt like to fly. He had regretted deeply when he hit the surface tension of the lake, but he would never forget the feeling of flying.
“But don’t worry,” Mamoru reassured the new boy. “I’ve climbed these steps a hundred times. I know where the rough places are, so if you miss a step, I’ll catch you.”
“You’re that fast?” Kwang didn’t look convinced. Mamoru didn’t mind. Let him think what he wanted.
“Speed is valued in this village,” Mamoru said by way of explanation. “We’re all swordsmen here.”
“I see that.” Kwang nodded at the wooden practice sword sticking out of Mamoru’s schoolbag.
“We can fight empty-handed too,” Mamoru assured him, “but traditional swordplay is the preferred fighting style.”
“Are you any good at it?”
“I’m a Matsuda.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means ‘yes,’” Mamoru said. “And what fighting style is popular in your region?” he asked, curious about what kind of warrior this boy was.
“What fighting style?” Kwang raised his eyebrows. “Video games.”
Mamoru laughed. “We don’t play many of those here.”
“Why not? You do have info-com devices here, don’t you?”
“My parents have one.” They had gotten the device last year, so that Mamoru’s mother could communicate more easily with her old friends overseas and his father could stay up-to-date on Kaigenese news. “But info-com devices aren’t common up here. We’re a pretty traditional village.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
Keichi and Yuuta caught up to the pair on the last stretch of stairs, and the western village boys introduced themselves.
“I’m Mizumaki Keichi,” Keichi said, unthinkingly using the Shirojima dialect the boys all spoke with each other. “This is Yukino Yuuta.”
“Oh. I-I’m Kwang Chul-hee,” Kwang said in a valiant attempt at a Shirojima dialect greeting. “Yoroshiku onegashimasu.”
“You mean ‘o-ne-ga-i’,” Mamoru corrected him gently. “Onegaishimasu. And you don’t really say the ‘su’ part unless you’re a little kid.”
“Don’t worry,” Mamoru said. “Most of the classes are taught in Capital Kaigenese.” That was standard across the Empire.
By the time they reached the school, the city boy was out of breath again. The pillars loomed first out of the mist, then the curving tile roof, black finish slick with condensation. Kumono Academy was built into the rock face, its inner structures carved right out of the inside of the mountain. The intricate wood and lacquer front of the building was supported by a network of pillars and beams that creaked threateningly in high winds, but had held the structure in place for a hundred years.
Kwang paused at the front steps, clinging to a carved wooden railing for support, looking rather like he might empty his stomach into the mists below.
“Why would you build a school in a place like this?” he said miserably.
“Kumono wasn’t built to be a school,” Yuuta said. “It used to be a monastery.”
“Oh. That explains the decoration,” Kwang said, nodding at the statues of Falleya saints standing guard at the school doors.
“The place was left vacant after the fina monks built that new temple, further down the mountain, by the western village,” Yuuta said.
“And they decided it was a good place for a school?” Kwang said, incredulous.
“Well, Kumono is our elite koro school,” Mamoru explained as the boys walked up the front steps into the entry way. “The village officials thought it would be appropriate if you had to be an elite koro to reach it. If you want an easier walk, you could always transfer to the Takayubi High School.”
“Oh, no,” Kwang laughed, sliding off his shoes and stowing them in an empty slot. “My father won’t have me in any school but the best in the region whenever we move to a new place.”
“You move a lot?” Yuuta asked.
Kwang nodded. “My father’s a businessman, so we travel all over the country, sometimes outside it.”
“Outside it?” Keichi said in astonishment. “Where have you been?”
“Um…” Kwang took a moment to think. “I’ve been to Yamma a few times, Kudazwe a few times, Sizwe once, for a few weeks—”
“Boys,” a voice said, “if your shoes are put away, you should be in your classrooms.”
“Yukino Sensei!” Keichi exclaimed as he and the other boys bowed. “We’re sorry.”
Yukino Dai was the third best swordsman in the prefecture, right behind Mamoru’s father, Matsuda Takeru, and his uncle, Matsuda Takashi. The Yukino clan had none of the Matsudas’ secret bloodline techniques, but Yukino Dai was about as good as a man could get with a naked blade.
“We have a new student with us,” Mamoru explained. “He isn’t sure where he’s supposed to go.”
“I see.” Yukino Sensei looked past Mamoru at the new boy, who stuck out starkly in his bogolan uniform. “You must be Kwang Chul-hee?”
“Yes, sir.” Kwang bowed and said very carefully, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
The sword master visibly restrained a smile at Kwang’s pronunciation. “Welcome to Kumono Academy,” he said in Capital dialect. “How was your first time up the steps?”
“Super easy, sir,” Kwang said, despite the obvious flush in his cheeks. “I can’t wait to do it again.”
Yukino Sensei’s face broke into an open smile. “I like you, Kwang,” he said. “You can follow me to the office to pick up your schedule. Matsuda-san.” He turned to Mamoru. “Run to the storeroom and find a uniform for Kwang-san. Your size should do.”
“Yes sir.” Mamoru bowed and hurried to do as he was told.
He strode quickly through the narrows halls to the supply closet, his feet and knees moving with the floor as the school swayed on its posts.
“Hey, Mamoru!” other boys greeted him. “Good morning, Matsuda-senpai!”
He made sure he gave each of them a bow and a smile as he went.
There was no lock on the storeroom door. Kumono was a small enough high school—Takayubi was a small enough town—that no one worried much about theft. Where would a man even keep a stolen item? Where would he try to sell it? Everyone here knew everyone.
Mamoru had to climb over a box of broken practice swords and a stack of dummies, to reach the shelf of spare uniforms. It was difficult for him to keep his footing as the school creaked and the dummies shifted beneath him, but what kind of Matsuda would he be if a little breeze threw him off balance? With the next gust of wind, the stack of dummies tipped toward the shelves. Mamoru leaned forward, snatched a size four uniform from its shelf, and sprang from the top of the stack to the floor before anything fell.
After double checking the uniform size, he hurried to the office to meet Yukino Sensei and Kwang.
“So,” Yukino Sensei said as Mamoru handed the new boy his uniform, “Kwang-san is going to be entering our second year class, which means his schedule is identical to yours.”
Mamoru nodded. Being the more exclusive of two high schools in a small town, Kumono Academy only had one class per grade level.
“You’ll look after him for today, Matsuda-san.”
“Start by showing him where the changing rooms are. And be quick. You boys only have a few siiranu before classes start.”
Kwang took longer than Mamoru would have thought to change into his new uniform, and Mamoru found himself pacing impatiently on the creaking floor before the changing room door. When, Kwang finally emerged, he was still fiddling with the waist tie as if he had all the time in the world.
“This is so funny,” he said, shaking out the uniform’s broad blue sleeves. “I feel like I’m in one of those old samurai movies.”
“Well, for us, this is just a normal school uniform,” Mamoru said, frowning.
“This place is weird.” Kwang ran his hands over his sleeves, looking at the ornately-carved temple halls around him. “It’s like I stepped into a portal back in time.”
Mamoru felt annoyance bristle up inside him. He wasn’t sure why. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could come up with the right words, the old temple bell sounded. The single ancient note reverberated through the hall, calling the boys to class.
“Healthy, just like his brothers?” Hyori asked, leaning in to put a hand on the infant’s head.
“Yes,” Misaki said, “if a little smaller.”
“I can’t believe this one is your fourth!”
“Yes,” Misaki sighed, trying to make her tone light, despite the heaviness in her limbs, “hopefully the last.”
“No!” Hyori exclaimed, scandalized. “How can you say that?”
“Yes, Misaki, you’re doing so well, why stop now?” Setsuko joked, shifting her own baby to her other hip to nudge her sister-in-law.
“Seriously, Misaki-san!” Hyori said with an ache in her voice. “You’re so lucky!”
“Mmm.” Misaki nodded, forcing a smile. “I suppose I am.”
And Misaki was lucky. By sensible standards, she was the luckiest woman in the world. Fresh out of theonite academy, she had been lucky enough to marry into Shirojima’s greatest warrior family. And following that, she had been blessed with son, after son, after son. There had been a rough space of years, after Mamoru, that Misaki hadn’t been able to have any more children. Then, five years ago, she had borne Hiroshi, then soon after him, Nagasa, and now, Izumo. Four healthy boys, every Kaigenese woman’s dream. She was a lucky woman.
“May I?” Hyori asked, an eager sparkle in her eyes.
“Of course.” Careful to support the infant’s unsteady head, Misaki handed Izumo to her friend.
“You’re looking much better,” Setsuko commented as Hyori gushed and cooed over an oblivious Izumo.
“I feel much better,” Misaki said, rolling her shoulders, “at least now that you’re here. I missed you two.”
Normally, the three housewives spent the majority of their waking hours together, letting their little ones play together, passing around the babies, as they did their shopping, cooking, and sewing. Since giving birth to Izumo, Misaki had been too exhausted to do much except look after the infant, and Takeru had insisted that she wasn’t well enough for company.
This was the first time Izumo was meeting Hyori and his aunt, Setsuko. He was a fussy baby, but he didn’t seem bothered by the new faces—if he could even make out facial features. He was still so young that his eyes hadn’t found their focus yet.
“Four sons,” Setsuko mused, burping her own daughter, Ayumi. “I don’t know how I’m ever supposed to catch up to that. “Although, look at these chunky little arms! Ayumi could almost pass for a boy. Perhaps I’ll start dressing her in boy clothes and just pretend I’ve given my husband a healthy son.” Baby Ayumi, despite being only two months Izumo’s senior was nearly twice his size. “What do you ladies think?”
“I think she’s perfect the way she is.” Misaki was being honest, but of course the other two women laughed.
When she was younger, Misaki had always pictured herself having daughters. She had enjoyed the vague fantasy of raising powerful, forward-thinking young women with the courage to amount to more than their mother, but it was just that: a fantasy. Misaki had long since let go of the idea that she could raise her children the way she wanted—or that they were even her children at all. Her sons were Matsudas first and foremost. Their sole purpose was to grow to be powerful warriors, like their father before them, and his father before him. They belonged to the Matsuda house, as she did.
“I’m being serious,” Misaki insisted as Hyori passed Izumo back to her. “I would be happy to have a daughter.” With a daughter, at least, she might be allowed to pass some of herself on to her own child.
“Easy for you to say when you’re on your fourth son!” Hyori said indignantly.
“Yes, Misaki,” Setsuko agreed, “you’re going to have to tell us how you pulled it off.”
“I want to know how she pulled it off and kept her figure!” Hyori exclaimed.
“Oh, you shut up!” Setsuko swatted Hyori on the back of the head. “The prettiest little slip of a woman in the village doesn’t get to say things like that!”
“Setsuko-san,” Hyori said, blushing furiously. “I’m not the prettiest—”
“Shut your pretty mouth, Hyori-chan,” Misaki said fondly. “You don’t need to be modest with us. We like you better when you’re smart.”
Hyori was rarely smart, but Misaki thought she might as well keep encouraging her. Popular wisdom said that a woman as pretty as Hyori didn’t need to be smart. Although pretty wasn’t exactly the right word for Hyori; she was achingly beautiful, with an artless smile and eyes as soft as melting snow. She was the kind of legendary beauty men went to war for.
“Couple of pure-bred princesses, both of you!” Setsuko said, looking from Hyori to Misaki. “With your smooth skin, and your teensy little waists. Don’t you sit there and complain about your weight to me when I could fit the two of you inside me.”
Ironically, it was Setsuko who Misaki considered to be the most beautiful woman on the mountain. When Setsuko had married into the Matsuda family, she had brought with her all the crude shameless joy Misaki missed so much from her life before Takayubi. Her beauty had little to do with her physical attributes. It wasn’t the short hair cropped about her ears; it was the way she shook it out and sighed in pleasure when she was enjoying the weather. It wasn’t her big eyes with their dark lashes; it was the way they crinkled up with mirth at the smallest things. It wasn’t her bulky frame; it was the way she threw it around with careless confidence in a world where everyone, ladies and swordsmen alike, stepped so lightly.
Before they were sisters-in-law, Misaki had known Setsuko—as everyone had known her—as the fresh fish lady. Her voice could be heard on any trip to the markets at the base of the mountain. “Fresh fish! Get your fresh fish!”
It wasn’t a glamorous job, but Setsuko was the kind of person who could be at her most charming elbows deep in fish guts, with loose strands of hair sticking to the sweat on her temples. Misaki had to imagine that many people had fallen in love with the stocky fisherwoman’s carefree grin. But it was Matsuda Takashi, the golden first son of the highest house in the region, who fell the hardest.
Misaki had first suspected the morning her brother-in-law stopped her on her way out the door and said, “You look tired, Misaki. I can go to the market for you.”
For a moment, Misaki had only managed to blink up at him. “You want to go to the market?” she said blankly. Shopping for meals wasn’t something a man was supposed to do—certainly not a nobleman like Takashi.
“I—um—I have business to attend to at the base of the mountain anyway.” Takashi didn’t meet her eyes.
“I’m feeling fine, Nii-sama,” Misaki assured him. “If you have important business, you shouldn’t trouble yourself—”
“It’s no trouble,” Takashi said and Misaki realized that he was speaking in a low voice, to assure that his father and brother wouldn’t hear from inside the house. “Just give me a list of what you need.”
“Alright.” Confused as she was, Misaki wasn’t going to argue with someone who wanted to do tedious work for her.
“If you could maybe… not mention this to my father?”
Misaki’s suspicions were confirmed when Takashi returned late that evening and deposited four bulging baskets of fish in her kitchen. No man but a Matsuda could have carried such a load all the way up the mountain. The effort had lent his face a bright flush.
“Fish,” he said with a drunk smile that ill-became the son of a warrior family. “You said you wanted fresh fish right? I’m sorry. I might have missed the other things on your list.”
“Um…” Misaki looked in horror at the heaping baskets on her kitchen floor. “I’m sorry, Nii-sama, what do you want me to do with all this?” The Matsuda compound didn’t have freezer space to store this many fish. “Are you expecting company?”
“What? No. Why? Is this too much?”
Misaki looked up at her brother-in-law, incredulous and a little annoyed. She wanted to snap at him: If you like the girl, just tell her straight. Don’t blow the family fortune on fish! But it wasn’t her place to question him, and it wasn’t that simple. A nobleman couldn’t just propose to a fisherman’s daughter and whisk her away up the mountain. Not in Takayubi. Peasants with no bloodlines to protect might marry whoever they liked, but men and women of noble houses didn’t have that luxury.
“Is it too much?” Takashi asked again, still dazed and so much giddier than usual, like a love-struck teenager—like Misaki had been once. The thought pierced her chest with a sudden and unexpected pain.
Be careful, big brother, she wanted to say then, be careful how hard you love what you know you can’t have. But that also was not her place.
So instead, she pursed her lips, looked down at the fish and said, “I’ll think of something.”
“Good,” Takashi said, though he didn’t really seem to see or hear her. “Good,” and he wandered out of the kitchen, still smiling. On his way out, he passed Takeru, who regarded his older brother with the same sour expression he took on whenever he saw someone happy.
“Is my brother ill?” he asked when Takashi had gone.
No, Misaki thought sadly, just doomed to misery.
But Takashi had been lucky—or rather, just the right combination of lucky, determined, and clever. He had struggled, and schemed, and spun excuses, and somehow managed to hold off marriage until his tyrannical father had passed away and there were no Matsuda elders left to tell him what to do. Then, instead of marrying a pure-blooded noblewoman his family chose for him, Takashi married the woman he loved—the peasant with the loud laugh who sold him his fresh fish.
Takashi didn’t know it, but in marrying Setsuko, he might have saved his sister-in-law’s life. The fisherman’s daughter had moved into the Matsuda compound shortly after Misaki’s second miscarriage, a loud burst of color when everything seemed gray.
“You haven’t smiled the whole time I’ve been here,” Setsuko had observed as Misaki helped her unpack the few belongings she had brought with her. “Why so glum, little sister?”
Misaki was two years older than her new sister-in-law, but Setsuko had married the older of the two Matsuda brothers, and in this world, the man’s status was the only thing that mattered.
“I’m sorry,” Misaki murmured. It had become her default response to anything over the past few years.
Setsuko planted her hands on her hips. “That’s not good enough.”
“Look, you and I are going to be here in this house together until we’re both wrinkly old hags with all our teeth falling out. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend the next forty years with a woman who doesn’t know how to smile.”
“I know how to smile.” There had been a time Misaki had been accused of smiling too much. But over the years, Takayubi had worn away at her, turning into this quivering, brittle thing, afraid the sound of her own voice might shake her to pieces if she spoke too loud.
“I’ve never seen you smile,” Setsuko said.
“I miscarried,” Misaki said bluntly, “twice.”
“Oh, Misaki…” Setsuko stilled, looking sad—sadder than anyone else had bothered looking on Misaki’s behalf in a long time. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
Misaki thought she might crumble under the concern in Setsuko’s eyes. She felt stripped bare. The years had hardened her against her father-in-law’s cruelty and her husband’s indifference, but she had no armor against an honest gaze.
“You really wanted those children?” Setsuko asked softly.
“I don’t know,” Misaki said, stunned—and slightly horrified—at her own honesty. “My husband wanted them.” She waited, her shoulders tense, for Setsuko to berate her for her selfishness, to blame her for losing the children, to tell her she was lucky to have such a tolerant husband, like everyone else did.
Setsuko only said, “Oh. Then why are you so sad?”
“I…” When, Misaki wondered, had her voice gotten so small? When had she become afraid to put a single thought into words? “I’m here to give my husband sons. I don’t want to be a disappointment.”
“You’re not a disappointment,” Setsuko said confidently.
“I said, you’re not a disappointment. You couldn’t be if you tried.” It had been a long time since someone had spoken about Misaki with that sort of simple confidence—taking for granted that she was right and good.
Misaki stared at Setsuko for a moment and realized that she had forgotten how to respond to this type of kindness. It was something she thought she had left behind nine years ago.
“Look at you,” Setsuko continued earnestly. “What could a man possibly complain about? You’re sweet, you’re beautiful, I get the feeling you’re pretty smart too, you’ve already borne a perfect son, and my husband tells me your cooking is to die for. You like cooking?”
“Well that’s good, because I’m a lousy cook.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Misaki said politely.
“Oh, it is. Ask anyone who’s ever eaten one of my meals. Now, why don’t you make yourself useful, and teach me to cook something for my fancy husband and his refined Matsuda palate.”
“Matsuda palates aren’t that refined,” Misaki said. “Your husband likes the same food everyone else does.”
“Not when I make it, he won’t. Why do you think I was always the one hauling the fish to market instead of staying home to help in the kitchen? My family tried my cooking exactly once and then decided they’d rather live.”
And for the first time in a long time, Misaki giggled.
“There’s her smile!” Setsuko exclaimed, triumphant. “And look that!” She poked a finger at Misaki’s cheek.
“What?” Misaki put her hand to her face, thinking maybe there was a piece of rice stuck to it.
“You have dimples!”
Misaki had never had any siblings, but from that day, she decided that she was glad to call Setsuko her sister. Their husbands carried with them all the tension that accompanied growing up as brothers, a first and second son competing for their parents’ approval. But the sisters-in-law had never let any of that bad nyama in between them.
After Misaki had lived in the Matsuda compound almost a decade, it was Setsuko who made it feel like a home. When she was in pain, it was Setsuko who went to the western village to buy her remedies. When she got lost in the darkness of her own thoughts, it was Setsuko who brought her back with a joke. A few months after Hiroshi was born, it was Setsuko who said, “That pretty little thing who lives in the Yukino compound. Who is she?”
“You mean Hyori?” Misaki said. “She’s Yukino Dai’s wife.”
“Yukino who? I thought the Yukino patriarch was Yukino Ryosuke.”
“It is—it was. He passed away a few months before you moved here. Didn’t you know?”
“No!” Setsuko exclaimed. “Nami, I haven’t been in on the market gossip! That’s where I get all my news.”
“Yukino Ryosuke’s funeral was just before your wedding. Someone had to assume control of the estate, and the Yukinos’ oldest son didn’t want to move his family all the way back from Jungsan. Dai-san is the second son, so he moved in with his wife.”
“Does he keep his wife cloistered?” Setsuko asked. “How come we never see her?”
“I think she spends most of her time caring for Dai-san’s mother. She’s old and very ill, so I imagine it takes up most of Hyori’s time.”
“That must get lonely,” Setsuko said. “We should go visit tomorrow.”
That was how the sisters-in-law had met Hyori. Now, five years later, the three women had become inseparable.
Hyori and Setsuko were still teasing one another about their waistlines when there was a tug at Misaki’s sleeve. She looked down to find her third son, two-year-old Nagasa, clutching her kimono.
“See?” he asked in his tiny voice. “See baby?” It was his favorite question since Izumo had arrived.
“Of course,” Misaki said, kneeling down on the tatami to put Izumo on her knee before Nagasa. “Remember to be gentle, Naga-kun. He’s still very small.”
“Hold baby?” Nagasa asked hopefully, holding out his arms.
“Oh, isn’t he the cutest thing!” Hyori squealed.
“I think I’m going to hold him for now,” Misaki told Nagasa gently. “You concentrate on growing a little bigger and we’ll talk.”
“Isn’t your older brother around?” Hyori asked, kneeling so that she was at eye-level with the two-year-old. “Why don’t you go play with him?”
“Hiro-nii-san gone,” Nagasa pouted.
“Oh? Where did he go?” Hyori asked, looking at Misaki.
“Hiro-kun is at the elementary school dojo,” Misaki said, gently jouncing Izumo on her knees.
“That’s right,” Hyori said. “He likes to watch the older boys train, doesn’t he?”
“He’s actually training with them now,” Misaki said, “started as soon as he was big enough to lift the practice sword.”
“Isn’t he only five?” Hyori said in astonishment.
“The instructors made an exception,” Misaki said. No five-year-old had ever been admitted to the elementary school’s beginner sword class, but Misaki’s second son, Hiroshi, was not like other five-year-olds.
“He’s a serious little boy, isn’t he?” Setsuko said. “Like a miniature version of his father. It’s a little scary.”
“How come you can’t be like that, hmm, Ryo-kun?” Hyori poked her own son, Ryota. She said it in a joking voice, but there was a distinct undercurrent of seriousness.
“Well, he’s still very young,” Misaki said. “Ryota-kun, how old are you?”
“Four,” Ryota said proudly.
“There, you see,” Misaki said. “You may be a little swordsman like Hiroshi by next year. Who knows?”
“I’m already a swordsman!” Ryota announced, brandishing his toy sword. “I’m the greatest swordsman in the world!”
“Is that so?” Misaki couldn’t help but tease.
“I challenge you to a duel!” Ryota shouted, seemingly to no one in particular, probably quoting a cartoon he had seen. “I challenge you to a duel!”
On a whim, Misaki pooled her jiya, pulled the surrounding water molecules together and froze them into a makeshift sword—well, more of a blunt icicle than a sword, the perfect size for combat with a four-year-old.
“I accept!” she exclaimed.
“Misaki-san, what are you doing?” Hyori said, seemingly unsure whether to be amused or alarmed.
“Fight me, Yukino Ryota!” Misaki intoned in her best cartoon villain voice, shifting Izumo over to her left hip where he was out of danger.
“Ryo-kun, don’t,” Hyori warned. “Misaki-san is a lady—” but the boy, overcome with joy at having a playmate, was already wailing away at Misaki with his wooden sword.
Misaki’s arm moved on an almost forgotten impulse. In two moves, she had disarmed little Ryota. With another flick of her makeshift play-sword, she had swept the boy off his feet. He landed on his back with a hard ‘oof!’ and Misaki pointed the blunt icicle down at his chest.
“I am victorious!” she said dramatically. “Admit defeat or I shall tickle you!”
“Oh no!” Ryota shrieked, and scrambled away, giggling. “No, no!”
And Misaki couldn’t help it. She hiked up her kimono and ran after him. The quick little boy probably hadn’t expected a refined housewife like Misaki to catch up to him in three strides. He screamed when she caught him around the middle with one arm, and laughed, and laughed as she took him to the ground with tickles.
“Misaki-san, what are you doing?” Hyori cried, seemingly unsure whether to be scandalized or amused.
“Don’t worry, Hyori-chan,” Setsuko said. “This is something Misaki does every once in a while—when she’s in a happy mood.” What Setsuko didn’t understand was that this Misaki—this fearless, ridiculous woman who played with swords—was an echo from a time when Misaki’s whole life had been happy.
Having recovered from the tickle attack, a giggling Ryota picked up his sword and came at Misaki again. This time, she gave a little ground, letting the boy pick up on her rhythm and get a few good swings in, before she disarmed him again.
“I’m afraid Ryo-kun is a ways away from being like Hiro-kun,” Hyori laughed, “if he loses to a woman.”
Misaki could have mentioned that losing a fight against her was nothing for a young boy—or even a man—to be ashamed of, but that was a part of herself she didn’t talk about anymore. Takeru had forbidden it.
“Me too!” Nagasa squealed, getting his own play sword and bouncing up and down. “Kaa-chan, me too!”
“Boys, careful of the baby!” Hyori warned as Ryota and Nagasa charged Misaki at the same time.
But Misaki was more than capable of fending off two children with her right arm, while keeping her infant cradled comfortably in her left. It was only when the noise became too much for Izumo that he started crying and Misaki had to call off the duel.
“Sorry, boys,” she said, turning her makeshift sword to water vapor with a wave of her hand. “That’s all for today. I yield. Good fight, Yukino-dono.” She ruffled Ryota’s hair. “Matsuda-dono.” She chucked Nagasa under the chin. “We’ll have to duel again sometime.”
And she retreated to the couch to comfort Izumo before his wailing could rise to an unbearable pitch.
“Oh no!” Nagasa dropped his play sword and followed his mother to the couch with a look of genuine worry. “Baby crying!”
“He’s not upset with you, Naga-kun,” Misaki assured the two-year-old. “He’s just hungry.”
Tugging the front of her yukata open, Misaki maneuvered the bawling infant inside and gave him her breast. The wailing stopped almost immediately.
“You can’t be too scared of a little carnage,” Setsuko teased, prodding Izumo’s foot. “After all, you’re going to grow to be a great warrior. Just like your grumpy father.”
“Hey now, hey now, Setsuko,” Misaki said with a smile. “Don’t make fun of my grumpy husband. He works hard to keep that frown plastered on his face all day.”
“Mattaku!” Hyori exclaimed with an annoyed ‘tsk’ of her tongue. “Do you know how happy Dai would be if I could give him four good sons. I tell you, he would smile all day if he had a son like your Mamoru.”
“If it’s any consolation, Mamoru really likes Dai-san,” Misaki said.
“Oh yeah?” Hyori said, glowing.
“Yeah. Dai-san is his favorite instructor he’s ever had, for sword and jiya.”
That sent Hyori into a fit of giggles. “Misaki-san, don’t tease!”
“I’m not teasing,” Misaki said honestly.
“His father is Matsuda Takeru,” Hyori said, “the greatest swordsman on the mountain.”
“And a terrible teacher,” Misaki said. “The extent of his instruction is to cross his arms, and frown, and say, ‘Bad. Do it again. Still bad. Do it again. No. Listen. If you do it like that again, I’ll gut you, you disgrace. What do you mean you don’t understand? What’s to understand? Just do it right.”
“Stop! Stop!” Setsuko begged, clutching her stomach with laughter. “Your Takeru impression is too good! I’m going to die!”
“How do you even get your voice that low?” Hyori laughed.
“What? You mean like this?” Misaki thundered. “Silly woman, you couldn’t possibly understand such matters. My manliness does not allow for human inflection.”
The trio plunged into another fit of giggles, and because their mothers were laughing, Ryota and Nagasa somehow ended up laughing as well.
Misaki had spent years trying to belong with these people. They weren’t like her friends from her school days. They weren’t scrappy visionaries like Elleen, or geniuses like Koli, or insatiable forces of energy like Robin. They would never change the world, nor understand why someone would want to. But they loved her; she could laugh with them, and that was enough.
There were days Misaki could convince herself that it was enough.
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