Mamoru’s eyes were fixed on his knees, but he could feel the headmaster’s gaze boring into him. Kwang was kneeling on the tatami of the office beside him, a cloth pressed to his face to stem the blood pouring from his nose. The blow hadn’t broken anything—Mamoru had better control than that—but the northern boy would be bleeding for a while.
“Kwang Chul-hee is new here,” the headmaster said, setting his brushpen aside to fold his hands on the desk before him. “It’s possible that he was not taught any better at his previous school, but Mamoru, you know that this is not how the warriors of Takayubi settle their differences.”
Mamoru’s fists clenched on his knees, the knuckles of his right hand still stinging as his insides curled up in shame.
“I’m very sorry, sir,” he said at his knees.
“I’m sorry that you were not able to set a better example for our new transfer student,” the headmaster said and the hard disapproval in his voice was more than Mamoru could bear. “You’re talented, Mamoru, but talent is meaningless without self-discipline. You will never be a fully realized Matsuda if you continuously let your pride run away with your principles.”
Choked with shame, Mamoru could only nod.
“And Kwang Chul-hee.” The headmaster turned to the bleeding boy. “I want to make it clear that this sort of behavior is not tolerated in this school or this village. The sons of common peasants may come to blows in schoolyard brawls, but not warriors. We settle our differences in single combat. The next time you and Matsuda Mamoru have a quarrel, you will take it to the arena, or you will keep it to yourselves. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Kwang mumbled as best he could with blood still running from his nose.
“As punishment, you will both stay after school and clean the entire roof—without the use of your powers.”
Mamoru’s heart sank. That was going to take forever.
“You may use ice to anchor your feet,” the headmaster continued, “but you will do the cleaning itself with your bare hands. Kwang, I will contact your father and tell him you will be staying late this evening. Mamoru…” He looked for a long moment at his nephew and sighed. “I’ll let your mother know when I get home.”
The shame in Mamoru’s chest turned to physical pain. He had to clench his teeth to keep from blurting out ‘Please don’t tell her!’ He knew a real warrior wasn’t supposed to concern himself with the opinions of women, but Mamoru couldn’t help it. He dreaded his mother’s disappointment more than any man’s hard glare.
“Now, go,” the headmaster said, shaking back his sleeves and picking up his brushpen to continue his work. “Get yourselves cleaned up and don’t be late for your next class.”
Both boys said a quiet, “Yes, sir,” and bowed themselves out of the room.
“What does he mean he’ll tell your mom when he gets home?” Kwang asked as soon as they were out of earshot of the headmaster’s office. “You live with the headmaster? Wait.” Kwang’s eyes went wide. “Is he your father?”
Mamoru could only manage a miserable noise, putting a hand to his face.
“Is he your father?” Kwang repeated.
Worse. “He’s my uncle.”
“Wow!” Kwang laughed, surprisingly cheerful for a boy who had just been punched in the nose. “Is everyone in this town related?”
Mamoru didn’t answer. He just said stiffly, “Let’s go to the washroom and clean off your face. You’re getting your blood everywhere.”
“Technically, you got my blood everywhere,” Kwang said, but followed Mamoru down the creaking hall toward the washroom. “Was the headmaster serious about challenging people to single combat? You guys really still do that?”
“How else would we settle our differences?”
“I don’t know. Talking?”
“Maybe that’s a luxury you have in the cities. Here, we keep ourselves and our convictions strong.”
While Kwang cleaned up his face, Mamoru paced the hall outside the washroom. There was no reason for him to stay really. Kwang knew the way back from the washroom, and Mamoru would still have time for lunch if he hurried. But somehow, he couldn’t get himself to walk away. He couldn’t unseat the feeling that somehow things weren’t finished here.
As he listened to the slosh of water inside the washroom—Kwang cleaning the blood from his face—his own blood seemed to churn inside him. His fists clenched and he felt his knuckles pulsing an echo of his fist against Kwang’s face. The rage echoed too, sending restless ripples through his nyama that he couldn’t seem to calm.
When Mamoru’s temper got the best of him, his father liked to blame it on Kaa-chan. Her clan were a wrathful, passionate lot, born of sea spray and crashing waves. Neither the most powerful nor the most skilled of Kaigen’s warrior houses, the Tsusano had made their name on the battlefield with their fury and spirit. It was said that the power of a true Tsusano was as changeable and devastating as a coastal storm.
But Mamoru was not a Tsusano. He was a Matsuda. And Matsudas were not made of storms. They were ice—cold in their calculations and unyielding in their integrity. He was not supposed to let his emotions whip his soul into storms.
You are ice, he reminded himself, rubbing his thumb back and forth, back and forth over his knuckles as he tried to think of the unyielding Matsuda way to deal with Kwang. The mature warrior would obviously apologize for losing his temper. Like Headmaster Matsuda had said, that was no way for a warrior to behave.
Then again, Headmaster Matsuda didn’t know what Kwang had been saying before Mamoru laid him out on the courtyard floor. Kwang was a traitor to the Empire—or if not that, something dangerously close. If he was just making up lies to stir up conflict, Mamoru shouldn’t bother apologizing. He should take the city boy straight to the arena and beat some respect into him. But if Kwang wasn’t lying… If he wasn’t lying… Mamoru leaned back against a wall, feeling vaguely sick.
Mamoru’s thoughts ran in dizzying circles. He was still trying to decide what to do when the door opened and Kwang emerged, dabbing blood from his upper lip.
“Oh,” Kwang said mildly. “You’re still here?”
Mamoru inhaled and opened his mouth, hoping the right words would come to him. They didn’t. So he dropped to his knees and put his hands on the floor before him.
“Um… what are you doing?” Kwang said apprehensively.
Mamoru bowed until his forehead touched his fingers. “Kwang-san,” he started, “I—”
“I decline,” Kwang said quickly.
“What?” Mamoru lifted his head.
“If you’re challenging me to a duel, I decline—or I forfeit, or surrender, or whatever it is you people do. I saw you in sword class. I’m not going to fight you. You can’t make me.”
“What? That’s not what I’m doing,” Mamoru said, putting his head to the floor again. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry. I should not have said those things to you. A warrior shouldn’t lose his temper like that. It was wrong of me.”
“Was it?” Kwang said.
“You’re patriotic and loyal. You’re exactly what everyone’s told you to be.”
There was a note of condescension in Kwang’s voice that made Mamoru’s fingers tense, aching to curl into fists. But he was trying to demonstrate control, not to lose his temper all over again. When he couldn’t think of anything to say, he pressed his forehead harder into his knuckles, worried that if he looked up at Kwang he would punch him again.
“Get up,” Kwang sighed after a moment. When Mamoru didn’t move a muscle, he added an impatient, “Please. I want to show you something.”
Reaching into the fold of his uniform, Kwang pulled out the smallest info-com device Mamoru had ever seen. It was barely bigger than his palm.
“You brought that to school?” Mamoru said. He wasn’t sure if having an info-com device was even allowed at Kumono, but he got the feeling it wasn’t.
“I bring it with me everywhere,” Kwang said, tapping a command into the sleek glass device. “That’s what us city kids do. Let me just see…” He tapped around the screen, searching for something. “Here.” He brought up the crispest holographic image Mamoru had ever seen, a tall obsidian statue in the middle of a sunny courtyard.
“What is that?” Mamoru asked.
“Near the Yammanka capital, there’s this huge park filled with memorials in honor of the soldiers that died in pretty much every battle Yamma ever fought. While my dad was doing work in in Kolunjara, I had spare time to explore, and I found this memorial.”
The gleaming black glass formed the shape of a fighter jet, and beside it, a Yammanka pilot—a woman—with her helmet resting on her hip, her long braids pulled back and her chin lifted toward the sun.
Mamoru had heard that the Yammanka army and air force employed females, but there was something strange about seeing a curvy young woman in full military gear. She didn’t look bad, Mamoru reflected, as he stared at the pilot; she looked strong. But it was still strange.
“This statue—this whole part of the park, actually—is dedicated to Yammankalu who lost their lives fighting in Kaigen.”
“But no Yammankalu died in Kaigen,” Mamoru said in confusion. “Hibiki Sensei was just telling us about that. The Empire drove the Ranganese back before the Yammanka reinforcements even arrived.”
“Well…” Kwang tapped a command into the info-com device, zooming in on the white Yammaninke lettering at the base of the statue.
“Bundanu… bundanuttaananu sayara ka…” Mamoru started to sound out the inscription but his Yammaninke wasn’t very good.
“Bundanuttaananu sayara ka dima Kaigenka kelejonyunu ye Kusanagi Gungille la to hakili da,” Kwang finished and translated for him. “In memory of the warriors who gave their lives defending our Kaigenese allies on the Kusanagi Peninsula.”
The memorial was hung with Falleya talismans, the kind family members hand-crafted and left on the graves of their loved ones. It was clear from the photo that real people had visited the site to mourn and remember. But how could that be? How could that be? Hibiki Sensei had said that no Yammankalu died in Shirojima. Not one.
“I was surprised too,” Kwang said. He seemed to be watching Mamoru’s face carefully. “I asked the park jaseliwu about it, and they said that over four hundred Yammanka soldiers died here. “Most of them were air support. Yammanka jets weren’t the best back then. Apparently, the fonyakalu ripped them right out of the sky, and crashed them into the Kaigenese troops on the ground.”
The school swayed, throwing Mamoru off balance, and he had to put a hand on the wall to stay on his feet. Dimly, he was aware that he couldn’t just let Kwang stand there and say these things. He had to fight. A Matsuda always stood and fought. But Mamoru had never taken a hit—from a foot, fist, or practice sword—that shook him this badly. He felt sick deep in his stomach.
“I don’t believe you,” he insisted, even as the obsidian pilot stared back at him from Kwang’s screen. “That’s not real. Th-that can’t be—”
“It’s not the only memorial.” Kwang tapped his way to another image. “This one honors over two thousand Yammanka fighters who died helping the Kaigenese Empire defend Jungsan and push the Ranganese back to our current border.”
The thin mountain air had never bothered Mamoru; why did he feel like there was no oxygen in his body? “No.” He was shaking his head. “No, no. That can’t be. That can’t be right. Hibiki Sensei says—everyone knows—the Ranganese never reached Jungsan. That-that’s ridiculous.”
“I didn’t want to believe it either, but the evidence is really solid. Our Empire wouldn’t have survived the Ranganese Revolution without Yammanka aid. The Yammankalu have no reason to lie about this.”
“But—they must be lying,” Mamoru insisted. “They must be. If this were all true, if all these Yammankalu did fight here, why wouldn’t we know about it? Why wouldn’t Hibiki Sensei tell us?”
“Has he ever been outside Kaigen?” Kwang asked.
“I don’t think so.” It was very possible that Hibiki Sensei had never been outside the Shirojima prefecture. “But my grandfather fought in that battle. A lot of people’s older relatives were there. Why wouldn’t they talk about it?”
“It’s possible the government ordered them not to,” Kwang suggested. “It happens.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Mamoru said, pushing through his inexplicable dizziness to get his thoughts in order. “This is Kaigen. We’re a warrior culture. Our emperor and his officials would never disrespect thousands of fallen warriors by covering up their deaths. Kaigenese or not, those are soldiers who fought and died here. How could you think that Kaigen would show them such disrespect?”
“Because Kaigen isn’t a warrior culture,” Kwang said impatiently. “I know you think it is. I know you guys here in this village have these nice, wholesome, old-fashioned values, but have you ever been outside this province?”
“I… no,” Mamoru had to admit.
“Then you wouldn’t know,” Kwang said, “you couldn’t, but the rest of the Empire hasn’t held old warrior values for a hundred years. The emperor doesn’t care who lives and dies; he definitely doesn’t care about fighting nobly. He cares that his Empire stays intact under him.”
“But…” Mamoru floundered. “But that can’t—that doesn’t explain why the government would lie to us about the Keleba.”
“Of course it does,” Kwang said. “You guys are the Sword of Kaigen. You’re the buffer between Ranga and the rest of the Empire’s eastern islands. The emperor needs you to think you’re invincible. And he needs the rest of the eastern islands to believe that the Kusanagi Peninsula can protect them from anything.”
“So you islanders won’t leave. So you’ll stay here and keep fishing the coasts, and farming the land to fuel the Empire, so you’ll die protecting his lands, instead of moving into the overpopulated cities and get disillusioned about the state of the Empire like everyone else.”
“No, no, no.” Mamoru was shaking his head again. “I don’t believe you.” He backed away from Kwang, but the northern boy’s words had already sunk into his mind like poison. He had already seen the Yammanka statues. “I don’t believe you.”
“Matsuda-san.” Kwang reached out to him. “It’s okay—”
“Don’t touch me!” Mamoru pushed Kwang back. “Just stay away!” To his horror, Mamoru realized that his impeccably steady hands had started shaking.
“I said stay away!” Mamoru shoved Kwang so hard that he slammed into the washroom door. And in a few staggering steps, he was running down the hall—he didn’t know where. Just away. Away from Kwang.
You are a Matsuda, he tried to tell himself. You are solid ice. But his inner sea had turned to frothing brine.
The floor shifted, pitching him into a wall. He stumbled to get his feet under him but the whole world seemed to be spinning. It couldn’t be true. But it couldn’t be a lie. But it couldn’t be true. And Mamoru couldn’t seem to find his balance.
Kwang’s words had knocked the world off its axis.
Aimless, Mamoru found himself staggering out onto one of Kumono’s outdoor walkways. Wind stung his skin, scrambling his vision into a mess of bloodstained sand and careening fighter jets. He caught himself on the waist-height railing and found the mountain spinning beneath him, its mists, usually so familiar, suddenly gray and sinister. And for the first time in his three years at the swaying school, Mamoru threw up.
Mamoru’s stomach settled after he had emptied most of its contents down the mountainside. He didn’t understand what had happened to him—and he decided it was best not to give it any more thought. No good could come of revisiting a bunch of shameful weakness and treasonous lies. It had been a mistake. All of it—the fight, the apology, that whole conversation with Kwang. No one had seen Mamoru retching his dignity over the railing. He washed the acid out of his teeth, shook off the dizziness, and pretended it had never happened. None of it had happened. He made himself ice. Uncompromising. Unmovable. And none of it could touch him.
He didn’t speak to Kwang during the second half of the day. He didn’t even look at him. Kwang—perhaps out of concern for his own safety—didn’t press the issue, and Mamoru successfully pretended he didn’t exist until classes finished. It wasn’t until they the two met after school to serve out their cleaning time that the two exchanged any words.
“What is that for?” Kwang asked as Mamoru emerged from the closet with a coil of rope slung over his shoulder.
“It’s for you,” Mamoru said coldly, “unless you want to walk around on the roof for a waati with no safety harness.”
Without meeting the other boy’s eyes, Mamoru tied one end of the rope around Kwang’s waist.
“So, I’m—ugh!” Kwang grunted as Mamoru yanked the knot tight. “Ow,” he said with a reproachful look at Mamoru. “So, I’m supposed to trust you not to let me fall to my death?”
Mamoru glared. “Don’t be an idiot. If you fall, so do I.”
After securing the other end of the rope around his own waist, Mamoru hauled a ladder out of the closet and motioned Kwang to follow him to the nearest outdoor walkway. The wind had calmed since their midday training. Good, Mamoru thought. Cleaning should go fast.
Kwang was not looking so reassured.
“We’re going to climb up there?” he asked as Mamoru positioned the ladder against the edge of the roof.
“And… you’re sure this isn’t all some elaborate plan to have me killed for treason?” The unsteadiness in Kwang’s voice suggested that he was only partially joking. So Mamoru looked him dead in the eye.
“If I kill you, you’ll be facing me with a sword in your hand.” He nodded at the ladder. “Climb.”
Of all the chores to be done at Kumono Academy, cleaning the roof was the most dangerous. For the most part, Takayubi’s abundant rain kept the clay tiles clean. But with the run-off from further up the mountain soil, branches, and dead leaves gathered in the curved parts of the roof. When the rooftop became visibly dirty, sure-footed students were sent up to clear it. Using sheets of water to wash the tiles, it was the work of a few siiranu. But Headmaster Matsuda had specifically forbidden the two from using their jiya to clean. Instead, Mamoru and Kwang would have to scoop up the layers of with their bare hands, and throw it off the edge of the roof. The chore would have been hard enough work with a competent cleaning partner. But Kwang was afraid of heights.
By the time he reached the top of the ladder, the northern boy was visibly shaking.
“I can’t—” he stuttered on his hands and knees. “I can’t do this.”
Mamoru felt a surge of vindictive satisfaction at seeing the casually arrogant city boy so terrified, but he crushed the feeling before it could swell beyond his control. You are ice. He doesn’t affect you.
“Get up,” he said.
“I can’t. I’m going to fall.”
“I said I wouldn’t let you fall,” Mamoru said. “I’m not a liar. Now stand up.”
“I can’t!” Kwang called back in frustration. “My leg muscles are all shot from your insane sword class!”
Mamoru could sympathize. He couldn’t count the number of times he had worked his legs until they wouldn’t hold him up anymore. It was how he had gotten his steel-wrought muscles. But it was hard to feel sorry for someone while they were whinging and whining.
“Just endure it,” he said. “As soon as we’re done, we can go home.”
“H-how do I stand up without falling?” Kwang asked.
A fair question. While the roof wasn’t dauntingly steep, the smooth clay tiles were too slippery for even a sure-footed theonite to walk across them safely. And with the exception of the decorative stone dragons snaking their way across the roof’s broad beams, there were no handholds.
“You have to put water under your feet,” Mamoru said, gathering mist and condensation into liquid beneath the soles of his own tabi. “Then freeze it so you don’t slide. Like this.” He waved a hand over his own feet, freezing the water into hard ice that anchored him to the steep roof tiles. “You can do that, can’t you?”
Kwang nodded shakily and started to gather water to the soles of his shoes.
“Good,” Mamoru said, and turned away from Kwang, determined not to give the northern boy any more thought.
Mamoru moved across the roof with careful ease, melting his ice whenever he needed to move and refreezing it when he found a new foothold. Had he been doing the job alone, he would have finished within a waati. But he kept reaching the end of the rope and looking back to find Kwang far behind him, struggling to keep his balance on the steep surface as he collected tiny handfuls of dead leaves. A few times, Kwang let out a short cry and almost flailed off the edge roof in panic when Mamoru changed position.
“What?” Mamoru snapped the third time it happened.
“Could you just—could you just tell me when you’re going to move?” Kwang said, clearly fighting to keep his voice steady. “Just—so I can be sure I’m secure?”
“Fine,” Mamoru said, his impatience starting to wear through his icy exterior. “But hurry up. If we don’t finish in the next gbaati, we’ll lose the light.”
The sun was already low in the sky and trying to navigate the roof in the dark would be doubly dangerous. But despite all Mamoru’s harsh words, Kwang didn’t seem capable of working any faster. They had barely finished a quarter of the roof by the time the sun turned red and began to sink into sea of mist.
“This is impossible!” Kwang complained for what felt like the hundredth time. “Couldn’t we just use our powers and be done with it?”
“No,” Mamoru said shortly.
“Why not? The headmaster doesn’t have to know.”
“He’ll know,” Mamoru said.
“He’s a Matsuda—the head Matsuda,” Mamoru said. “He will know.”
“Just a tiny bit of jiya?” Kwang pressed, “Just to speed things along?”
“That would be dishonest,” Mamoru said.
Kwang made that little scoffing sound that Mamoru had come to hate over the past waatinu. He meant to ignore it, but he found himself turning on Kwang, bristling. “Listen, I don’t know how it works in all the fancy foreign places you’ve traveled, but here in Takayubi, we value honesty. We don’t just make up ridiculous, self-serving lies whenever we feel like it.”
Kwang looked up at Mamoru with an unreadable expression, the lines of his face colored by the setting sun. Without the blood red hue, he almost could have looked sad.
“I have been honest with you, Matsuda-san.”
You are ice, Mamoru reminded himself and returned Kwang’s stare without emotion. “Just keep working.”
“Matsuda-san, you have to understand—”
“I’m not discussing this with you,” Mamoru snapped. “I don’t want to listen to disgusting lies, and neither does anyone else in this village. So, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop spouting them.” Mamoru glared at Kwang, waiting for him—daring him—to respond.
Maybe the northern boy had run out of energy for argument or maybe he was too scared of falling to anger the anchor at the other end of his rope. Whatever the reason, he didn’t say anything in his defense. Mamoru couldn’t say why, but that annoyed him more than ever.
What’s the matter? he wanted to demand. Nothing more to say now that the teachers aren’t here to protect you? But he forced himself to let the anger go. With a wave of his hand, he melted his ice anchor to allow him to edge further down the roof.
“Wait,” Kwang protested, “I’m not ready—”
“I don’t care,” Mamoru said, and turned away from Kwang to reach for the uppermost beam of the temple roof. “Move faster.”
Kwang, of course, chose that exact moment to lose his footing. It must have happened quite suddenly because his weight jerked against the rope so hard that Mamoru was ripped right off his feet. Mamoru might have been able to recover, but the fall smacked his head into the roof tiles. Stars exploded before his eyes, costing him precious moments. When he regained his bearings, it was just in time to feel his body tumble over the edge of the roof.
His hands scrabbled for purchase, slid helplessly over the clay tiles, over the stone dragon’s head adorning the corner of the roof—then caught on the dragon’s snarling lower mandible.
Kwang’s weight yanked the rope tight, slamming into Mamoru’s stomach like a practice sword to the gut. He grimaced as stone teeth dug into his fingers, but his grip held. Barely. On the other end of the rope, Kwang was flailing in panic.
“Oh Nami! Oh Falleke!” he gasped, his terrified voice echoing through the darkness below. “We’re going to die!”
“Stop moving!” Mamoru commanded through gritted teeth.
If Kwang could just make himself dead weight, Mamoru could pull them both to safety. But the two of them were dangling by fingertips and every time Kwang squirmed, it got harder to hold on.
“Help!” Kwang screamed. “Somebody help!”
“No one’s here,” Mamoru said. The last of the staff would all have gone home at least a gbaati ago. And short of Yukino Sensei and the headmaster himself, no one would have the power to help them out of their current position. “Just calm down. I’m going to pull us back up.”
Mamoru had the strength in him to get them back onto the roof, but it was going to be a delicate operation. And if tried to do it with Kwang thrashing around like an oversized fish at the end of a hook, they were both doomed. Though Mamoru’s grip on the dragonhead didn’t falter, his grip on his temper did as Kwang continued to gibber in panic.
“I’m too young to die! I’m too young to die!”
“Would you shut up!” Mamoru snarled. “We’re not going to die!” But as the words left his mouth, a horrible thought hit him: they were dangling from the easternmost corner of the roof, far from the steps and Kumono Lake. There was no water waiting to catch them—only jagged rocks.
“Kwang!” Mamoru growled, unable to suppress a note of panic. “For the love of Nami, stop moving!”
If Mamoru had not been so busy shouting, he might have felt the telltale crack of breaking stone beneath his hands.
“Just don’t let go!” Kwang begged.
“I’m not going to let go, but if you don’t stop moving, I will cut this rope and let you fall.”
Kwang uttered a terrified sound, but the threat had the desired effect. Kwang went still, allowing Mamoru to shift his fingers, finding a better grip between the dragon’s teeth. Ignoring the whimpers of fear below him, Mamoru took a deep breath, and started to pull up, his arms straining under the extra weight.
He gathered water and froze it around the fingers of his right hand, just to make sure that it held when he reached out for the roof with his left. Satisfied that his grip would hold, Mamoru removed his left hand and reached… but it was not his iron grip that gave.
The dragon’s jaw broke off in his hand.
“No!” Mamoru made a frantic grab for the edge of the roof, but it was too far, his fingertips slid off—
And both boys plummeted into the mist.
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