The training arena was a broad shelf of rock that the monks used to use for exercise and meditation. According to legend, the flattened half-moon had been hewn out of the mountainside by the Whispering Blades of Matsudas long dead, Mamoru’s ancestors.
“Perfect weather for today’s practice!” Yukino Sensei bellowed over the wind whipping across the arena. “Now we’ll have a true test of accuracy!”
Mamoru heard teeth chattering and turned to see Kwang with his arms pulled all the way into his uniform.
“Is it always so cold up here?” the new boy shivered.
Mamoru almost laughed. “Wait until the winter.”
Human-sized bundles of straw stood at intervals across arena, frozen to the rock by Yukino Sensei’s ice. Tied to each bundle was a coarse cloth sign with a number painted on it. Mamoru’s jiya was already itching to surge into action as Yukino Sensei raised his voice above the wind to explain the day’s lesson.
“For most of this week we’ve been working on forming aerodynamic ice projectiles. Now, you boys still have a great deal of work to do on that,” Yukino Sensei said, stopping in front of Mamoru to give him a pointed look, “especially those of you who hope to one day master a certain bloodline technique.” Mamoru gave his teacher a small, determined nod and Yukino Sensei turned to address the entire class. “Despite your sub-par forming work, I’m going to cut you all some slack so that we can train the next technique. Today, I’ve made your projectiles for you.” He gestured to a stack of perfectly-formed ice spears, each one three strides long, with a fine point, razor-blade fletching for straight flight, and a broad base to allow a strong launch.
“What bloodline technique was he talking about?” Kwang asked Mamoru as Yukino Sensei paced further down the line of boys. “What does your family do that’s so special?”
“You’re joking, right?” Keichi interjected with an incredulous look at Kwang. “Mamoru is aMatsuda.”
No understanding registered on Kwang’s face. “Yes?”
“The Matsudas are the masters of the Whispering Blade,” Keichi said. “You must have heard of the Whispering Blade in the capital.”
“Well—yes—but it’s just a myth, isn’t it?” Kwang laughed. But when the serious look on Keichi’s face didn’t change, Kwang’s smile faded and he turned to Mamoru with wide eyes. “Isn’t it?”
Mamoru shrugged. “Some myths are true.”
“But it’s not possible,” Kwang protested. “No jijaka can make ice strong enough to cut through steel!”
“Are you one of them?” Kwang asked in awe.
Mamoru set his jaw. “I will be.”
Kwang considered Mamoru, his eyes squinted in thought. “I don’t believe you,” he said after a moment. “Even Kusanagi jijakalu can’t be that powerful.”
Instead of retorting, Mamoru just nodded toward Yukino Sensei and said, “Watch.”
The master jijaka had lifted one of the spears from the pile with a gentle gesture of his hand. His two fingers were enough to keep the projectile hovering perfectly still in the air before him as he spoke.
“The strongest tajakalu can throw a spear sixteen bounds,” Yukino Sensei bellowed, pointing with his free hand across the arena to the straw dummy painted with a number 16. “The best fonyakalu can use wind to launch a solid projectile twenty-five bounds.” He pointed beyond the first dummy to one farther away labeled 25. “With jiya, you can do much more.”
Placing a hand against the flattened end of the projectile, Yukino Sensei planted his feet, and launched the ice forward. Mamoru had seen Lightning Dai’s jiya in action enough times that it no longer set his heart leaping into his throat. But beside him, he heard Kwang utter a gasp.
The spear blasted through the 16-bound dummy, through the 25-bound dummy, all the way at the end of the arena where it stuck into a third dummy marked with a barely discernable number 40.
“Holy Falleke!” Kwang breathed, staring with wide eyes at the destroyed 16-bound bundle.
“Tajakalu may be able to use their strength to throw a projectile,” Yukino Sensei said, turning back to his class. “Fonyakalu may be able to use their nyama to push against one. Our nyama is in the projectile. When a weapon is made of ice, we can control it down to the molecule. A jijaka is the only kind of theonite who can fight with a solid weapon that is truly an extension of himself.”
Yukino Sensei gave each student a stack of projectiles and had them line up across the arena to practice firing at the army of straw targets.
Using his jiya to lift a spear, Mamoru laid his palm against the flat end and let his power rise. The ocean may not have been visible from Takayubi, but when Mamoru’s jiya pooled in his chest, it seemed to reach all the way down the mountain, to the waves that crashed at its base, and deeper than that, into the boundless depths where the islands jutted from the seafloor.
There were finawu who claimed that the Kaigenese were descended from the ocean gods who dwelt in the Sea of Kaigen at the dawn of time. Like most modern Kaigenese, Mamoru accepted this part of their tradition as more metaphor than fact. Logically, there was no way human beings could be descended from titanic fish and sea dragons. But like many Matsudas before him, Mamoru experienced moments of madness, when the feeling of his jiya consumed him. In those moments, he could almost believe that the power rolling through his body was born from the ancient forces that had raised Kaigen from the sea.
The power rose, thunderous, like a wave from inside Mamoru, and he rode the swell, moving his body with it. As the wave broke, he let its force burst down his arm, through his open palm, into the ice.
The projectile exploded through the air, shooting farther than anyone else’s, but it didn’t fly straight. It glanced off the stone shelf, breaking its fletching blades, and skidded to a stop off to the side of the 25-bound target. Mamoru frowned and shook out his hands. He was just getting warmed up. With his full power, he would launch the spear so hard that it had no choice but to go straight to the target.
Letting a new wave of nyama surge through him, Mamoru launched again. This spear managed to clip the 25-bound target, but it wasn’t a clean hit, and the ice broke apart instead of penetrating.
“Stop pushing so hard, Matsuda-san,” Yukino Sensei said patiently. “You have more than enough power to send a projectile clear across this arena. Relax your shoulders and make sure your aim is true.”
“Yes, Sensei,” Mamoru breathed and raised another projectile.
“Slow down.” Yukino Sensei reached out and laid his fingertips on the ice, stilling it before Mamoru raised it level with the target. “Your jiya is too excited; I can feel it roaring every which way. Take a moment to calm it. Focus your energy. Then try again.”
And Yukino Sensei moved down the line to observe the other boys, giving them each a few well-placed pieces of advice. Mamoru’s mother had once said of Yukino Dai that he dealt his words as carefully as he dealt his cuts. It was what made him such a good teacher.
“Don’t over-rotate,” Sensei scolded his younger cousin, Yuuta, giving the boy a hard rap on the head with his knuckles. “If you swing through, your projectile will crash into the ground short of its target every time.”
“Yes, Sensei.” Yuuta nodded and tried again, this time managing to send his spear neatly into the 16-bound target.
Satisfied, Yukino Sensei turned his attention from Yuuta to Kwang, just as the northern newcomer sent his third spear spinning off course to crash into pieces on the rock shelf.
“Hmm.” Yukino Sensei frowned at the new student, and Kwang cringed, clearly expecting to be mocked. But all Yukino Sensei said was, “I bet you’re very good at the spear-throw.”
“Yes,” Kwang said in surprise. “How did you—”
“Stop trying to throw with your shoulder. Project from the hip, straight out through your palm, like you’re punching a man in the solar plexus.”
“Sensei,” Keichi complained from further down the line, “the wind keeps pushing it off course!”
“That means your power is lacking. These projectiles are made to cut through the wind. Again. I want to see.”
He paused to watch Keichi attempt a launch, sending the spear wide.
“Your launch is weak.” Yukino Sensei put his hands on Keichi’s shoulders and maneuvered him back into his starting position. “Angle your stance this way. Bend your knees. A little bit more. There.”
Having given his jiya time to settle, Mamoru returned his attention to his own task. As usual, Yukino Sensei was right. Mamoru’s aim got much better after he relaxed. But even with his projectiles flying straight, he still couldn’t seem to get one past the 25-bound target.
“What are you scowling about?” Kwang asked him at one point. “You’re shooting way better than everyone else.”
Not as well as Yukino Sensei, Mamoru thought but he couldn’t say that aloud, so he just clenched his jaw and raised another spear from his stack. Mamoru was almost full grown now, and ‘better than everyone else’ wasn’t good enough. A Matsuda had to be the best anyone had ever seen.
In his frustration, Mamoru threw his whole body into the movement, slamming the next spear toward its target. The projectile hit the 25-bound target and went through it.
“Falleke!” Kwang exclaimed as Mamoru’s projectile slid to a stop a bound or so beyond the target. “What was that?”
Not bothering to respond, Mamoru lifted another projectile from the stack. Using his jiya to keep it hovering at chest height, he backed up a few paces and ran at it. He didn’t even put the whole force of his jiya into the launch, but the projectile still managed to penetrate through the 25-bound target and come out the other side.
“What did you just do?” Kwang asked in astonishment.
“Why are we planting?” Mamoru said.
“Why are we planting our feet and launching when we could add the power of momentum?”
“Mamoru-kun,” Yuuta warned, recognizing the look on his friend’s face. “You know what Sensei says about your fancy ideas—”
“I know,” Mamoru cut him off, raising another projectile. “Just give me a dinma.” He had to try it. He had to.
Locking his jiya into the ice, he threw the projectile high into the air and released. As the projectile started to fall, Mamoru backed up as far as the shelf allowed. He would have to hit the spear on its way down. It would require flawless timing, but timing came naturally to Mamoru.
He gave the spear one last moment to descend and then sprinted at it. On his last step, he sprang high into the air and spun. His forward momentum combined with the power of the spin, and the gravity pulling him earthward. Mamoru threw his jiya behind it. As his body whipped around, he drove his palm into the base of the projectile and launched. The power of an ocean storm surged through his palm.
All anyone saw was a flash of silver before the projectile slammed into the 40-bound target in a spray of straw. Mamoru’s feet hit the stone and he let out his breath. He had done it!
The mountainside rang with the shocked cries of his classmates, then with cheers, as they took in the destroyed 40-bound target. But when Mamoru’s eyes found Yukino Sensei, the sword master was not smiling.
“Matsuda!” He roared over the wind, and the class fell silent. “What in the three realms do you think you are doing?”
“Sorry, Sensei.” Mamoru tried to look apologetic, but he couldn’t quite wipe the smile off his face.
“Get your ego under control. You will do the drill as I instruct, or you will leave my class. Do you understand?”
Gradually, the rest of the class finished their excited murmurings and returned to the drill. Mamoru felt Yukino Sensei’s fingers dig into his ear, pulling his head back.
“Sensei!” Mamoru started as the man dragged him out of earshot of the rest of the class. “I—”
“Mamoru-kun,” Yukino Sensei cut him off in a low voice. “There is a reason we begin this drill with both feet on the ground. If I had the rest of these boys flying and spinning during this exercise, I would have a lot of dead boys. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sensei,” Mamoru said with a biting pang of guilt. He hadn’t thought of that; he had been too focused on himself.
“Matsudas are more than flashy fighters,” Yukino Sensei said. “They are leaders. And leaders must think of those around them.”
“Good.” Yukino Sensei released Mamoru’s aching ear and raised his hand. Mamoru flinched, expecting to feel the crack of Yukino Sensei’s knuckles on his forehead. But the sword master just put his hand atop his student’s head.
“Now,” he said, “if you are going to launch from a spin, make sure your knee is tucked all the way in. You lose momentum when you let your foot stick out. Learn to tuck that knee in and you’ll be firing spears further than mine in no time.”
In his surprise, Mamoru could only say, “Oh.”
“Practice at home, yes?”
When the wind on the shelf reached dangerous strength and the students started running low on projectiles, Yukino Sensei moved his class indoors for sword practice. The three hours of sparring wore most of the boys to exhaustion. To Mamoru, they felt more like a warm up, but he kept Yukino Sensei’s words in mind; he kept the other boys in mind. He had been guilty of bruising classmates who were too slow to block his wooden blade—which was all of them. But he was more careful today, bringing his bokken to a clean stop before smashing it into any ribs or necks.
Mamoru found a new level of focus trying to outmaneuver his classmates without actually hitting them. His heart sank when the bell rang, signaling the end of training. Knees shook and sweat dripped onto the tatami as the boys packed up their gear and headed to history class. To Kwang’s credit, he had not passed out as transfer students often did in Yukino Sensei’s sword class, although he didn’t seem to be able to walk without the support of the wall.
“Come on, city boy,” Yuuta teased, taking Kwang’s arm. “You can lean on me.”
“Mamoru,” Yukino Sensei stopped him before he could follow his classmates out of the dojo. “Excellent work today.”
“Thank you, Sensei.”
“I’m glad to see that your control is developing along with your ridiculous speed.”
Mamoru nodded. From the swordsman once known as Lightning Dai, that was high praise.
“I haven’t gotten the chance to speak with your father or uncle in some time,” Yukino Sensei said, returning the extra bokken to the closet. “Have either of them been working on the Whispering Blade with you?”
“I…” Mamoru felt his smile fade. “My father’s been trying to.”
“Good,” Yukino Sensei said earnestly. The pride in his eyes made Mamoru want to shrink in shame.
There was very little that did not come easily to Mamoru. But his father had been trying to teach him for almost a year now, and he hadn’t come anywhere near mastering his family’s bloodline technique. For thousands of years, the Matsuda family had passed down the secret to forming weapons of impervious ice. The technique was so difficult and complex that no non-Matsuda had ever figured it out—and Mamoru was starting to wonder howanyone had ever figured it out. It wasn’t enough to be a lightning fast sword fighter. It wasn’t enough to be good at summoning and shaping ice. The Whispering Blade came from something deeper that Mamoru just didn’t understand. His father understood it. But Matsuda Takeru did not have Yukino Sensei’s magical ability to put his skill into words. And no matter how he explained, Mamoru could not understand.
“I’m not doing well,” he blurted out before thinking better of it. “Father is frustrated with me.”
Mamoru regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. It was beyond inappropriate for a student to discuss his problems at home with his teacher. And it was forbidden for a Matsuda to discuss the details of the Whispering Blade with anyone outside the family. His words were dangerously close to doing both.
“I wish I could help you,” the sword master said after a moment, “but I’m a Yukino, and I’m not your father. Even if it were my place to speak to you about this, I wouldn’t be any help. I don’t know what the Whispering Blade entails.”
“I know, Sensei,” Mamoru said, looking at his feet. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“But I do know a great jijaka when I see one,” Yukino Sensei insisted. “I know that you have the same force of nyama in you as your father and other great fighters of your line. Stay focused on your goal, don’t let yourself get flustered, keep working hard, and I have no doubt that you’ll surpass all our expectations—including your own.”
Mamoru was so stunned—so touched—that he couldn’t find any words to thank his teacher. How did you thank someone for praise you didn’t deserve?
“Now, get to class,” Yukino Sensei said, nodding toward the door.
“Yes, Sensei.” Ducking his head, Mamoru gathered his practice swords and hurried to follow his classmates.
After the heart-pumping rush of sword practice, history class was always agony. When the wind was high, like it was today, the school creaked like an old ship, and Hibiki Sensei’s voice had a way of getting lost in the moaning of the wooden beams.
“There were a number of factors that led to the Great War, or what the Yammankalu call the Keleba. Ke-le-ba.” Hibiki Sensei wrote the Yammaninke letters out on the board. “First, there was the tension between the colonial powers, Yamma and Sizwe, which were in constant competition with each other for the resources of Baxaria. Next, there was the tension created by the Baxarian colonies rejecting Yammanka and Sizwean rule. Last, of course, there was the tension between our own great empire and the extremist rebels in the west who would one day betray their nation to establish the Ranganese Union.”
Mamoru had to race to keep up with the notes:
Yamma vs. Sizwe – resources in Baxaria colonies
Colonies vs. Yamma & Sizwe – independence
Kaigenese Empire vs. Rebels (Ranganese Union) – rebel extremism
“Are you not going to take notes?” Mamoru whispered to Kwang, noticing that the new boy had not even picked up his brushpen.
“Oh, I don’t have to. I’m used to learning the Yammanka way, with my ears. Besides,” he murmured even more quietly, “I’ve heard all this crap before anyway.”
“What?” Mamoru leaned in, unsure he had heard right. Had Kwang just called Hibiki Sensei’s history lesson crap?
“Matsuda-san,” Hibiki Sensei said sharply, “no talking in class.”
“Sorry, Sensei,” Mamoru said as the teacher returned to his lecture.
“Now, there are several background dates you will need to know in regard to the Keleba. The first one is 5153.”
He wrote the date on the board and Mamoru sank his teeth into the knuckles of his left fist, hoping the pain might keep him awake.
“This is the year of the first Abirian rebellion, when a group of violent extremists calling themselves the Longhouse Confederacy developed enough of a following to mount armed resistance against the Yammanka Empire. Abiria, despite being plagued by inter-tribal violence and not having a stable government of its own, wanted independence from Yamma. Of course, these disorganized extremists were quickly subdued by Yamma’s superior forces.”
Behind him, Mamoru thought he heard Kwang make a critical, “Hmm,” sound, but when he turned to look over his shoulder, the northern boy was listening quietly.
“With their inferior genetics, the Abirians’ defeat was inevitable. The Yammankalu are pure-blooded tajakalu, born and bred to wield the power they possess, whereas the Abirians who opposed them were of mixed blood, the product of intermarriage between the Abirian Natives, Yammankalu, Kaigenese immigrants, and most damaging of all, white slaves. This kind of impurity waters down the Falleke-given energies that give theonites their power. Mixed theonites such as the Abirians could never hope to stand unaided against a pure-blooded tajaka army.
“Now, I want to give you several dates relating to the Yammanka-Sizwean competition over their colonial territories.”
Mamoru tried to take notes as the history teacher droned on and found himself doodling instead. He started out drawing the straight blade of a sword, but a gust of wind pushed against the school, his brushpen slid, and the sword became a wave. Mamoru followed the new curve and added lines beneath it, turning it into a rough approximation of the Tsusano wave, his mother’s family crest. More waves fell in beside the Tsusano crest, some turned to fish, and Mamoru had filled half the page with stormy sea before he remembered that he was supposed to be taking notes.
“Now, we come to the dates leading up to the Keleba itself,” Hibiki Sensei said, and Mamoru tried to refocus on the lecture.
“5286,” Hibiki Sensei said, writing the year up on the board, “the year that the Carythian Union formed and resisted Yammanka rule.
“5287,” he wrote the next date as Mamoru scrambled to catch up with his notes. “In this year, the Sizwean colony of Malusia staged a major uprising that shook Sizwe’s control of the entire region. At the same time, there was a rash of peasant uprisings in the western part of the Kaigenese Empire. These were quickly put down by our own loyal soldiers, but they foreshadowed bigger rebellions to come…
“5288. Under the influence of corrupt politicians, a collection of city states, led by Ranga, rose against the Kaigenese Empire. This rebellion was put down the same year and its leaders publicly executed for their treason.
“5289, the year that Yamma defeated Sizwe for control of Malusia and pressed to take Sizwe’s other colonies, escalating the long-standing tensions between the two Kelenduguka super powers.
“5290. Kaigen’s western provinces rose up in rebellion once again. Using propaganda and false promises, the Thulanist rebels managed to trick the uneducated peasants of Ranga into following them in greater numbers than ever before. At the same time, the Longhouse Confederacy of Abiria staged a reprisal of its bid for independence in 5153, under the same flag.
“At the tail end of this year, on the twenty-eighth of Kribakalo, Ranganese terrorists attacked a graduation ceremony at Daybreak Academy in Carytha, killing principal Oyede Biida, along with several Yammanka and Kaigenese students. It was following this malicious and cowardly attack that Yamma agreed to support our great empire in its fight against the Ranganese rebels.
“5291. Early in this year, the Yammankalu allied with us, bringing foreign troops onto Kaigenese soil for the first time. In response to their involvement, Sizwe aligned itself both with our own rebel enemies and with the Abirian rebels fighting against Yamma for their independence. This led to open war between Yamma and Sizwe. Abtya aligned with Yamma.
“5292. This year marked the only time in Duna’s history that all the major theonite powers—Kaigen, Yamma, Abtya, and Sizwe—were at war, as well as the only time there was war on every continent. It was in this year that the Ranganese fonyakalu launched their attack on Shirojima and were soundly defeated.
“In the end, victory in war always comes down to bloodlines,” Hibiki Sensei said, turning to face his class with a dramatic flourish. “We here on the Sword of Kaigen are blessed to have some of the best and purest jijaka bloodlines in the world. Matsuda,” he said, pointing at Mamoru, “Yukino,” he indicated Yuuta, and then went on to point to the other great houses represented in the classroom, “Ameno, Ginkawa, Mizumaki, all of you belong to a chain of great fighters stretching back to mythic times.
“Since the dawn of Kaigen, this peninsula has held its enemies back without fail. This is why we are called the Sword of Kaigen. And again, during the Keleba, the Matsudas, the Yukinos, and the other powerful jijakalu of the Kusanagi Peninsula beat back their enemies in resounding victory.”
This time Mamoru was sure he heard a disdainful noise behind him, but he kept his attention on the lecture as Hibiki Sensei droned on.
“For this is the Sword of Kaigen; to charge it, is to die. When the Ranganese armada reached the Kusanagi Peninsula, the warriors of the Matsuda, Yukino, Ameno, and Ginkawa houses, along with all their vassal fighters formed a line along the beach. At the first news of Ranganese ships, our capital sent a request to Yamma for aid. But by the time the Yammanka forces reached our peninsula, the jijaka soldiers here—your own grandfathers and great grandfathers—had already laid waste to the Ranganese invaders.
“Yammanka pilots tell of flying the length of the peninsula to find the beaches awash in red, like the edge of the blade that has tasted victory. Prepared for battle, the men of Yamma flew lower, only to discover that the battle was done. The bodies in the sea wore Ranganese uniforms. The red staining the sand was the impure blood of fonyakalu. For the warriors of Kusanagi had fought with such fury that there were hardly any Kaigenese casualties.”
Mamoru heard Kwang let out an unmistakable huff of laughter. The teacher heard it too.
“Is our history funny to you, Kwang?”
“No, Sensei. I’m sorry.”
Hibiki Sensei gave Kwang a last cold look before turning back to the class to continue the lecture. “This is your history. This is your heritage. You are here at this school because you are the descendants of the greatest fighters Duna has ever seen. The best blood in the world flows through your veins. If you learn well, listen well, and work hard, the Sword of Kaigen will survive, bright and sharp, to be passed down to your sons, and their sons after them.”
In her first year at theonite academy, Misaki had scored top grades in all her courses. In her second year, she achieved one of the fastest times on the agility course, second only to Robin Thundyil’s. In her third year, she had moved on from Daybreak’s indoor obstacle course to the steep walls and rooftops of North End, Livingston. In her fourth year, she had bested some of Carytha’s most feared machete fighters in single combat. As a teenager, she had worn those accomplishments with pride… never realizing that at thirty-four, her proudest accomplishment would be getting five rambunctious children to nap at the same time.
“Success?” she whispered when she arrived back home, arms full of sleeping five-year-old.
“Success!” Hyori confirmed as Misaki used her toes to slide the shoes off her feet. “They’re all asleep, just like you planned.”
Hiroshi had nodded off on Misaki’s shoulder as she carried him back from the elementary school. Fresh off of two hours of sword practice with children twice his size, even he ran out of steam. His hair was damp with sweat and his little hands were blistered from gripping the oversized practice sword, but he hadn’t uttered a word of complaint, just quietly collapsed against his mother and let her carry him the rest of the way home.
He was a strange creature, her second son. She had known when he was nothing more than a small heartbeat inside her that he was his father’s child. Cold. It was said that all jijakalu were born with something of the sea in them. But most seas had their warm currents and their cold, volcanic springs beneath ice. Even the iciest jijakalu had some body heat, some warm places in their soul—at least that was what Misaki had thought before she married into the Matsuda family. Hiroshi was born with the deadly calm of a sea frozen solid. Like his father, he was cold to the touch no matter his mood or level of exertion. Even his sweat was cool, like morning dew.
He murmured something about footwork as Misaki laid him on the futon where Ryota and Nagasa were already fast asleep.
“Shh,” Misaki breathed into his hair. “We’re almost five for five.”
“What?” Hiroshi’s eyes blinked open.
“Nothing.” Misaki put a hand on his forehead, easing him down beside his brother. “Nothing, little soldier. Just rest.”
“Mmm,” Hiroshi nodded and slipped off to sleep.
“And we did it!” Misaki whispered, sliding the door shut behind her. “All five of them are down.”
“How long do you think it’ll last?” Hyori asked.
“Probably not that long,” Misaki sighed, sinking down on the cushions beside the other two women. “The boys are all properly exhausted, but the babies will wake up hungry before long.”
Misaki wanted desperately to close her eyes and drop off to sleep too, but she knew she should make use of her free hands while they weren’t full of squirming infant. So she hauled herself up and got out her sewing. The family crest had begun to tear from the back of Takeru’s haori and needed to be re-stitched. Carefully, she picked out the right thread to match the dark blue diamonds of the Matsuda crest and threaded her needle.
At the height of the Matsuda family’s power, during Kaigen’s wars of succession all the way through the Keleba, the ancient compound had been full of servants who did all the cooking, cleaning, and sewing for the lady of the house. Takeru’s father had complained all the time about the damn vassal houses not sending servants anymore. But Misaki couldn’t fault poorer koronu for deserting a house that could not support them.
Warrior houses like the Matsuda subsisted on the rewards the government paid them for victories like the ones during the Keleba. In the middle of a war, victories were easy to come by. Peacetime was a different story. Over the years, even the promise of the chance to train with the greatest swordsmen in Kaigen hadn’t been enough to keep most of the common koronu in Takayubi’s villages.
Still, the Matsuda crest was a mark of pride, and Misaki made sure it was stitched into every coat, kimono, and haori they owned.
“I should probably get some work done too,” Hyori said, pulling her own sewing project out of the bag she had brought from home. As tired as Misaki had grown of stitching the same four diamonds into a dozen articles of clothing, she didn’t envy Hyori her sewing tasks; the Yukino insignia was a snowflake.
“It’s so quiet,” Setsuko mused. “I can’t remember the last time the compound was this quiet. You might be a genius, little sister.”
“Well, I try.” Misaki smiled.
“And to think, my poor mother raised nine of us in a house the size of this room!” Setsuko said. “No wonder she’s gotten loopy after all these years.”
“Oh, how is your mother, Setsuko?” Misaki asked, turning to her sister-in-law. “You went to visit her a few weeks back, didn’t you?” Misaki had been so busy juggling the new baby and the two older boys that she hadn’t gotten a moment of quiet to ask how the trip had gone.
“My mother is fine,” Setsuko said, “bizarrely, still in good health, but she is getting old. Like I said, her mind is going a bit. She’s convinced the Ranganese are going to come across the ocean to attack us.”
“Why does she think that?” Hyori was laughing, but Misaki stilled, her grip tightening on her needle.
“She says she can feel it,” Setsuko said, “an ‘old fisherwoman’s intuition’ or something like that. She says fonyaka wind tastes different from the normal sea air.”
“Well, she has lived on the ocean for ninety years,” Misaki said. “She was here the last time the Ranganese came. Maybe she knows something we don’t.”
“You think my kooky mother is on to something?” Setsuko said in amusement.
“If the Ranganese were to attack, this area would be the first to feel it,” Misaki said, “and the first hit.”
The Kusanagi Peninsula extended far out into the Kaigenese Sea, barring the way to the archipelago’s safe ports and beaches. Any invader from the sea had to first get past the mountainous spit of land and its inhabitants.
“But we don’t have anything to fear from Ranga,” Hyori said dismissively. “Our brothers and husbands are powerful enough to turn away any invaders. And anyway, if there was a serious threat from the Ranganese, the government would have told us.”
“Maybe,” Misaki said, doubtful.
“What do you mean ‘maybe’?” Hyori asked.
“I mean…” Misaki paused. “I just mean that the news isn’t necessarily true.”
“What?” Hyori looked positively stricken and Misaki wished she hadn’t said anything.
“Misaki-chan says some weird, ominous things sometimes,” Setsuko said with a reproachful look at her sister-in-law. “Don’t worry your pretty head about it.”
But Hyori was still staring at Misaki, uncomprehending. “You… are you saying our government would lie to us?”
The answer was ‘yes,’ of course, but Misaki couldn’t say that straight. That just wasn’t the sort of thing you said in Kaigen.
“Misaki?” Hyori prompted, and there was so much fear and hurt in those pretty eyes that Misaki had to offer some response. She bit her lip, choosing her words carefully.
“I went to school with a lot of Yammanka jaseliwu,” she said finally, “self-proclaimed keepers of Yamma’s history. The funny thing about these jaseliwu was that, depending on their family, their native region of Yamma, and the koronu they served, they told very different histories. Sometimes two of them would sit right next to each other and tell conflicting accounts of the same event. I talked to one of these jaseliwu. I asked him how he could say that his history was true, when the next jaseli over told me a different story and claimed that that was true. In my mind, one of them had to be lying. I told him that.”
“And what did he say?” Setsuko asked.
“He said, ‘there are a million ways to tell the same story. Our job as jaseliwu is to find the one the listener needs to hear. Not necessarily the one that makes them the happiest or the one that gives them the most information, but the one they need to hear to do what they need to do.’ He told me that’s how jaseliwu care for koronu and other kafokalu.”
“Alright,” Hyori said, clearly confused. “What does that have to do with our government?”
“Well, I think that’s the way the Kaigenese government takes care of us,” Misaki said, “the same way a jaseli in Yamma takes care of his koro.” Of course, in Yamma, jaseliwu were free to decide the way they sang their songs and told their histories. They weren’t issued government-approved scripts to recite. But that wasn’t a discussion Hyori would appreciate. “Our government tells us the things we need to hear.”
From the way Hyori was blinking at her, Misaki could tell she didn’t understand.
“So, do you think our government is right about how safe we are?” Setsuko asked. “Or do you think my dear old mother is onto something?”
“Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve been out of the country,” Misaki admitted, “but I know that the fonyakalu can do more than our government lets on.”
“Really?” Hyori didn’t look convinced. “Like what?”
“Well, back when the Ranganese first split from the Empire, warfare was different,” Misaki said. “The Kaigenese Empire’s military had always been based on jijakalu like us, with fonyakalu as an afterthought.”
“Well, that’s only natural,” Hyori said. “Fonyakalu are just untrained peasants. Jijakalu are purer, more powerful.”
“Well, not really,” Misaki said. “Not always.”
“What are you talking about?” Hyori asked with a note of annoyance. “If fonyakalu are truly as good as we are, why would our Empire ever keep a military of all jijakalu?”
“Because the Empire’s main centers of power—Jungsan, Shirojima, Haijing—have always been peopled mainly by jijakalu,” Misaki said, her sewing forgotten in her lap. “The success of the Ranganese Revolution proved that a big force of fonyakalu, even a disorganized one, could defeat a jijaka army.”
“But they didn’t defeat us,” Hyori said indignantly. “The revolution wasn’t a success.”
“Well,” Setsuko said, “they did split the Empire in half.”
“But they didn’t truly best our armies,” Hyori insisted. “As soon as they reached the ocean, we drove them back inland.”
“Right.” Misaki forgot that that was what you learned if you went to high school in Kaigen, but she didn’t need to argue that with Hyori right now. “You’re right. But that’s part of my point. During the Keleba, the Ranganese military was not well-organized or well-trained. Fonyakalu had never worked together in those numbers, so they hadn’t figured out specialized military formations to rival ours or Yamma’s. But the Ranganese Union has been a sovereign power for seventy-eight years now. They’ve had decades to figure out how to function as a fighting force. Those groups of fonyakalu can do things no one would have dreamed of fifty years ago.”
“How do you know all this?” Hyori asked.
“Hush now, Hyori-chan,” Setsuko said in a conspiratorial whisper. “Takeru-san doesn’t like anyone to mention this, but Misaki-chan actually lived outside Kaigen for a long time.”
“No!” Hyori’s pretty eyes widened in shock.
“Oh, yes,” Setsuko said. “When she was a teenager, she attended this fancy international theonite school in Carytha.”
“Carytha!” Hyori’s eyes got even bigger. “So far!”
“Yes,” Setsuko said, reveling in the younger woman’s shock, “and at that weird international school, Misaki made all kinds of weird international friends, including this roommate of hers, who was…” Setsuko paused for dramatic effect before whispering, “a Ranganese fonyaka!”
“No!” Hyori exclaimed again, dropping her sewing to put both hands over her mouth. “Misaki-san, wasn’t that scary?”
“Not really,” Misaki said, not looking up from her own work. “She was just a thirteen-year-old girl, and I think she was more scared of me than I was of her—at least until we got to know each other better.”
“But you couldn’t really be friends, could you?” Hyori said anxiously. “I mean, she wasRanganese!”
Misaki shrugged. “We argued a lot during our first two years. Her table manners weren’t my favorite…” but she stopped before trying to elaborate any further. Trying to explain her school days to Hyori would probably do more harm than good. Misaki generally considered it a bad idea to talk about Daybreak to anyone but Setsuko—and even Setsuko couldn’t really understand. There was only so much a person could understand, having lived her whole life on the same tiny island cluster.
“And your fonyaka roommate… she’s the one who told you these things about the Ranganese military?” Hyori said.
“Some of them, yes,” Misaki said. Of course she had also had other Ranganese friends, acquaintances, and professors, but Hyori didn’t need to know that.
“Well, then she probably made it up,” Hyori said with the kind of innocent confidence that could only come from a life lived in the mists of nationalism. “Everyone knows Ranganese people can’t be trusted.”
Misaki didn’t respond.
“And anyway,” Hyori continued matter-of-factly, “it doesn’t matter how strong the Ranganese Union has gotten because Kaigen is stronger now too. You can look at any news report to see that our military is bigger than ever and our economy is booming.”
Misaki didn’t comment, focusing instead on her sewing. Personally, she suspected that Kaigen was not actually experiencing the economic paradise that the TV reporters claimed. Or if they were, the wealth wasn’t extending to Shirojima. Setsuko’s fishing village had fallen on hard times, and the last time Misaki’s parents had visited, they told her that the two major factories in their town had closed, leaving a thousand people without jobs. Years ago, the Empire had promised a modern magtrack between Shirojima’s major islands, but the project had never been finished.
“It’s laughable to think that Ranga poses any threat to us here,” Hyori said. “Any warrior will tell you, Kaigen has the strongest fighters.”
“Any warrior will tell you even the strong can’t afford complacency,” Misaki murmured.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Misaki shook her head. “It’s not important.”
As Setsuko offered Hyori laughing reassurances, Misaki stared at the blue cloth diamonds in her lap, and wondered why she hadn’t thought about this sooner. The Keleba had cost Kaigen its most productive agricultural provinces, most of its underpaid work force, and many of its major trade routes—resources that now belonged to the Ranganese Union.
The fonyakalu at Daybreak had been able to do things Misaki never would have dreamed of—and that had been a long time ago. What could Ranga’s armies do with sixteen more years of practice? Kaigen may have avoided total collapse the last time it went to war with Ranga, but would the Empire fare as well against a new attack? When Misaki stepped back to consider all the pieces, it stood to reason that Ranga was far stronger than it had been at the time of the Keleba, and Kaigen was far weaker.
But here, high in the obscuring mists of Takayubi, where nothing seemed to have changed for a thousand years, it was easy to believe the fantasy of a stable world.
As the class made their way to the schoolyard for lunch, Mamoru picked up his pace to catch up with Kwang.
“What was that about?” he asked, falling into step beside the city boy.
“What was what about?” Kwang asked.
“Back there in history class. Why were you laughing?”
“I was trying not to,” Kwang said, “and I wouldn’t call what that jaseli was spewing history.”
“What do you mean?” Keichi demanded as he and Yuuta caught up.
“You realize that at least half the stuff he tells you isn’t even true.” Kwang looked around at the three Shirojima boys. “It’s propaganda.”
“Propaganda?” Mamoru had only heard the word used a few times before. People said that propaganda was what the Ranganese Union used to trick its uneducated citizens into fighting its battles. But it was a distinctly Ranganese thing. Kaigen didn’t use propaganda. Everyone knew that.
“Falleke!” Kwang swore. “You guys in this village really believe all this stuff don’t you? You believe everything the government tells you?”
“Why wouldn’t we?” Keichi asked earnestly.
“You must see what’s happening here.” Kwang’s voice was almost imploring as he looked from one face to the next. “The emperor is using you.”
“We’re happy to serve our emperor,” Yuuta chimed in passionately. “How can he be using us?”
“He can feed you lies about Ranga, and about your own ancestors. He can make you think you’re invincible when you’re really not.”
“We’re the greatest warriors in Kaigen,” Yuuta said fiercely.
Kwang scoffed. “That’s a fancy way to say cannon fodder.”
Mamoru’s voice turned to ice. “What did you just say?”
From the way Kwang went tense, it was obvious that he felt the simmering fury of Mamoru’s nyama. Mamoru watched the northern boy’s eyes flick in indecision, and then felt a grudging flutter of admiration when the city boy held his ground and looked him in the eye.
“I said you’re cannon fodder.” Kwang’s voice was even. “The emperor will give you guys any made-up story if it means you’ll stay put and die for him. You may think you’re great warriors with some noble purpose, but as far as the capital is concerned, you’re just pawns.”
Mamoru stood, staring down at Kwang, his eyes narrowed. The ocean seethed in his fists. “Take that back.”
“I’m not taking anything back,” Kwang said stubbornly. “I’m going to lunch.” He made to walk away, but Mamoru stepped in front of him, barring his way out of the courtyard.
“I said take it back.”
“You think you scare me, Matsuda?” Kwang’s fingers curled and Mamoru felt the other boy’s jiya ripple, ready for action. “I don’t care how good a fighter you are. If you take another step closer, I’ll—”
Mamoru stepped forward. “You’ll what?”
Kwang moved fast. His ice-knuckled uppercut would have worked on just about any theonite, but Mamoru was not just any theonite. He dodged the attack and had the city boy on the ground in an instant. There was a satisfying thud as Kwang’s back hit the courtyard’s stones, knocking the breath from his body.
Still stunned, the northern boy tried to draw the surrounding water vapor to his hands for another attack, but Mamoru’s jiya smashed through his, yanking the molecules from his control. He hauled Kwang up by the front of his uniform. The mist gathered to form a blade of ice along the back of his free hand, protruding from the knuckles to point at Kwang’s throat. It was no steel-cleaving Whispering Blade, but it would pierce a human body.
“Whoa!” Mamoru could barely hear Keichi and Yuuta’s alarmed voices through the rising swell of his rage. “Easy, Mamoru-kun! Take the edge off that blade before we get in trouble!”
“You’re a good fighter,” Kwang said, somehow still smug with a blade at his throat, “and your small town pride is cute, but it’s all based on a lie.”
Mamoru’s teeth ground together and his ice sharpened.
“Mamoru-kun, you don’t want to kill him!”
“You’re right.” Mamoru let out his breath, his blade turning to water. What he wanted to do was punch Kwang in his smug face.
So he did.
Right as the headmaster walked into the schoolyard.
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