The Sword of Kaigen – Part 5

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MAMORU

Mamoru didn’t instinctively know his way around this part of the mountain the way he did the steps, but he had deliberately brought their boat ashore near the wide stream that ran from Kumono Lake. He knew that if they followed the water without losing their footing, it would take them to help. Frogs chanted and dewdrops brushed their ankles as they waded into the grass alongside the stream. The fireflies bobbing along the bank didn’t do much to light the way, but between the dewdrops and the running water, Mamoru was able to keep them on course without the use of his eyes.

“How much further?” Kwang asked and Mamoru could hear the fatigue in his voice.

“We’re almost there. Look.” He pointed down the mountain, where a red-orange glow had appeared over a rocky ridge.

“What’s that?”

“Forge fire,” Mamoru said, allowing himself a smile of relief. “We’ve reached the numu village.”

“The what?”

“The numu village. You know, where the sword-smiths live.”

That’s where you’re taking me?” Kwang said, eyes wide and fearful in the firelight.

“They’re knowledgeable healers,” Mamoru said, “the best we’re going to find at this time of night. They’ll know what to do about your arm.”

Kwang was still eyeing the fire like it might leap over the ridge and bite him, but the numu village was like a second home to Mamoru. His father sent him here for a few months each year to apprentice with the Kotetsu sword smiths. In most of Kaigen, it was considered atypical—unclean even—for a koro to train in numu arts, but the Matsudas had a special relationship with their Kotetsu neighbors.

Takayubi’s numu community wasn’t as much a village as it was a large cluster of houses nestled on a rocky shelf alongside the Kumono stream. As Mamoru led Kwang onto the main path down toward the firelight, they were greeted by the sound of hammers, ringing like a hundred temple bells, pounding the impurities from metal. While the rest of the mountain slept, the smiths worked through the cool of the night when the forge heat was more bearable.

“I didn’t realize numu villages like this even existed anymore,” Kwang said as the air around them warmed. “Aren’t there, like, machines that can do their work for them now?”

“If there were machines that could improve their work, that’s what they would be using,” Mamoru said. “The Kotetsu family are the best swordsmiths in the world.”

“If their swords are the best in the world, how come they’re still here?” Kwang challenged. “Why don’t they go get jobs arming the Kaigenese military?”

“Some of them have,” Mamoru said. In his grandfather’s day, the Kotetsu village had been twice its current size. “A lot of the Takayubi blacksmiths moved north to the cities to go into manufacturing. But the best ones stayed here.”

“And they make a living on this?” Kwang said incredulously. “How many swords can you even make per month working out of a fire pit?”

“Three,” Mamoru said, “when they’re in a rush.”

“Wait, what?” Kwang said. “Only three? And that’s all they do? Who even sponsors that?”

“We do,” Mamoru said. “They’re still here because the military can’t afford them; we pay them what they’re worth.”

Truthfully, the Matsuda family currently couldn’t pay them what they were worth. Mamoru’s last two-month apprenticeship with the Kotetsus hadn’t been training as much as it had been paying off the Matsuda family’s last sword order.

“Any one of those swords is worth a whole house.” The Yukino family had actually sold one of their old castles to cover the cost of the last few swords they had ordered.

By this time, Mamoru and Kwang had reached the broad, foot-stamped path that ran the length of the village. While the rest of the mountain slept in the cool moonlight, the numu settlement was alive with the yellow-orange glow of torches. There was firelight here that never went out. No matter the hour of night, there was almost someone at work.

Kwang hesitated, and Mamoru had to coax him on down the main path. His reaction wasn’t unusual; most koronu harbored a healthy fear of the numu’s fiery domain. But Mamoru had walked here enough that he no longer feared the heat.

He did, however, feel a wave of prickling guilt overtake him like flames over kindling. For all his months of training here, he hadn’t been able to translate the arts of steel into ice. The sound of hammers sharpened and each ring stung, reminding Mamoru of his own efforts to create a blade—all his impurities.

They hadn’t gone far down the path when Mamoru caught sight of figure moving in the firelight. The head swordsmith’s son, carrying a towering bundle of firewood.

“Atsushi!” Mamoru called out to his friend.

The young numu paused, looked up, and smiled.

“Mamo—Matsuda-dono!” Atsushi caught himself, remembering his manners.

When the two were children, they had gotten away with calling each other by their given names. But now that they were both young men, Atsushi had to remember to address the son of his patron house with the appropriate respect. He fumbled with his load for a moment before depositing the bundle of firewood on the ground and bowing low.

“Welcome—I’m so sorry. We weren’t expecting you.” He glanced up at Mamoru. “What… what are you doing here?”

“I’m so sorry to trouble you and your family,” Mamoru said. “We have a situation—”

“You’re hurt!” Atsushi exclaimed, catching sight of the blood on Mamoru’s knuckles.

“I’m fine,” Mamoru said hastily, “but my classmate needs medical attention. I’m sorry to ask you—”

“I’ll get my father right away.” Atsushi raced off to the house before Mamoru could thank him, his firewood forgotten in the dirt.

“So, who was that?” Kwang asked.

“Kotetsu Atsushi is the head swordsmith’s son,” Mamoru said, stooping to gather the wood Atsushi had dropped. “I’ve been apprenticing alongside him since we were young.”

“You—wait, you what?”

Before Mamoru could explain, a woman stuck her head out of the house and called, “Matsuda-dono, you silly boy, put that down!”

“It’s no trouble, Kotetsu-san,” Mamoru said. “I can—”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” The blacksmith’s wife exclaimed. “My son will get it. You and your friend, come inside.”

When Mamoru and Kwang entered the house, Kotetsu’s wife was at the stove, cooking, while his elderly mother dozed in a chair. The little children were nowhere to be seen, probably in bed. As grimy as the streets and structures of the numu village appeared from the outside, the inside of the Kotetsus’ modest house was always immaculate. Mamoru had just finished introducing Kwang to Kotetsu’s wife and thanking her once again when Kotetsu himself stepped in through the back door, cleaning his soot-stained hands on a rag.

The swordsmith was a mountain of a man. His arms writhed with hard cables of muscle and his shoulders had a way of filling up a doorway. He made an intimidating picture when he swung his hammer, his eyes furious with focus. But away from the forge, he had a warm voice and gentle smile that could put the most skittish of people at ease. It was that smile that greeted Mamoru now, wide and bright beneath the black smudges.

“Kotetsu Kama, good evening,” Mamoru greeted his teacher. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to interrupt your work.”

“Ah, it’s fine, little Matsuda-dono.” Kotetsu waved him off. “Atsushi-kun can mind the fires for a gbaati. Let me wash up and I’ll have a look at your friend. In the meantime, you two can have a seat in the kitchen. My wife will have tea and food ready for you in a moment.”

“Kotetsu Kama, please, that isn’t necessary,” Mamoru protested. “We don’t want to impose—”

“Nonsense, Matsuda-dono. You’re not imposing. This is your house, as it is ours.”

“We don’t need to eat your food—”

“And what will I tell my Lord Matsuda? That I sent his injured son away with an empty stomach? You’ll stay for dinner,” Kotetsu said with a note of finality that shut Mamoru up.

“Thank you, Kotetsu Kama,” he said with another bow.

Kwang bowed too, murmuring his own quiet, “Thank you.”

When the swordsmith had gone, Kwang turned to Mamoru with a look of surprise.

“You call him ‘Kama’?” he said in a low voice. Mamoru could understand his confusion; the honorific was usually used by a servant or apprentice to address his master. It wasn’t a title the average Kaigenese koro would use to address a soot-stained numu. “I thought you were from a high warrior house.”

“I am,” Mamoru said. “That’s why I owe him my respect.”

“I don’t—what does that mean?” Kwang whispered as he followed Mamoru into the Kotetsus’ kitchen.

“My family has a special relationship with the Kotetsus. You wouldn’t understand—”

“Of course the boy does not understand,” an impatient voice croaked and Mamoru jumped, realizing that it had come from Kotetsu’s mother. He hadn’t known that the wrinkled old woman was awake. “How could he understand? He is an outsider.” The bent woman leaned forward in her chair, her clouded eyes narrowing. “I may not be able to see anymore, but I know every speck of nyama on this mountain. And you, boy, weren’t born here. You blew in from someplace far away, didn’t you?”

Kwang only seemed to be able to stare open-mouthed at the old numu.

“Something wrong with you, boy?” Kotetsu’s mother snapped. “I thought it was your arm that broke, not your tongue.”

“S-sorry, numuba,” Kwang stuttered.

Numuba?” Grandma Kotetsu cackled at the Yammaninke honorific. “He speaks like he’s from far away too. Mamoru-kun.” The woman’s sightless eyes didn’t move but she tilted her head fondly in Mamoru’s direction. “You can’t expect a city boy like him to understand our ways, no matter how you try to explain. We’re just an oddity to him. A myth. A silly fantasy from far in the past.”

“I never said—”

“Please sit, Kwang-san,” Kotetsu’s wife said kindly. “Matsuda-dono, you too. Have some tea.”

She poured them each a piping hot cup of tea before hurrying to set food on the table. Mamoru pulled some water from the air and did his best not to grimace as he used it to clean his hands. His knuckles were still oozing blood, despite the makeshift scabs he had formed over them. The water stung. He could feel Kwang’s eyes on him as he cast the water back into the air around him, and did his best to keep his eyes down.

“Our koro is troubled,” Grandma Kotetsu muttered—it almost seemed, to herself. “His jiya could swirl up and drown him.”

Mamoru pretended not to hear and took a drink out of his teacup. The bitter caffeine should have reinvigorated him. Instead, the heat seemed to seep into his bones, softening him like ice above a flame.

“Now then,” Kotetsu said, re-emerging from the back room. “I’m sorry I forgot to introduce myself.” He turned to Kwang with a bow. “I’m Numu Kotetsu Katashi.”

“I’m Kwang Chul-hee.” Kwang hurried to stand and bow. “Nice to meet—”

“Sit, sit,” Kotetsu chuckled, putting a hand on Kwang’s shoulder to ease him down. “You look like a proper mess. No need to strain yourself. Let’s have a look at that arm.”

“He’s also got some bad bleeding from his leg,” Mamoru said. “I tried to make a scab, but it’s—”

“Hush, little Matsuda,” Grandma Kotetsu said in her creaky voice. “Let the numu do his job.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Here.” Kotetsu’s wife spooned some rice into a bowl and held it out to Mamoru. “Eat.”

“Thank you.” It was only when Mamoru reached out to accept the bowl that the light fell on his hands. The woman’s eyes flicked to his knuckles and then to his face, filled with concern.

“Matsuda-dono… What did you and your classmate get into?”

“I…” Mamoru started, but before he could finish, Grandma Kotetsu interrupted with a reproachful click of her tongue.

“Leave koro business to the koronu, daughter. If these boys went and got bloody, it’s their business.”

“Right,” Kotetsu’s wife said demurely, though the concern didn’t leave her face. “I’m sorry.”

“So…” Mamoru quickly cast around for a different topic of conversation. “The little ones are all doing well?” He nodded to the back room, where he assumed the Kotetsus’ three youngest children were sleeping.

“Yes,” Kotetsu’s wife said with a smile. “You’ll have to visit some time they’re all awake. They get so excited whenever you come around.”

On the other side of the room, Kotetsu Kama had set about tying a splint around Kwang’s arm.

“Relax,” the smith rumbled. “I know a city boy like you is probably used to brightly-lit clinics with lots of fancy equipment, but there’s no need to be worried. I know what I’m doing.”

Kwang swallowed and nodded.

“How did you end up in a little village like ours anyway?”

“My father works for—ahh!” Kwang winced. “Sorry. My father works for Geomijul.”

“For what?”

“Geomijul. It’s a communications company that specializes in info-com devices.”

“So, he’s a travelling electronics salesman?”

“Not exactly. His job is to set up the infrastructure places need to use info-com devices. I guess someone in this area agreed to pay for Geomijul to install satellite towers here, so you guys can get better reception with your info-com devices. He’s here to oversee that.”

“Does your father know that barely anyone here has info-com devices?” Kotetsu asked.

“Well, the company is hoping they’ll sell better after the infrastructure is in place for them to actually work. I know he said something about speaking to the local craftsmen about enlisting their help. He hasn’t gotten a chance to do much yet, but I’m sure he’ll come here soon looking to hire some numuwu. I know building info-com towers isn’t exactly your specialty, so if you guys don’t want to do it, I can let him know—”

“On the contrary, it sounds wonderful. I’ll send Atsushi.”

”What? Really?”

“Oh, yes. A young numu should learn about new technologies. For an old man like me, that sort of thing is hard, but for a growing mind, it is essential. Young Matsuda-dono is a fair metalworker himself,” Kotetsu said with a smile at Mamoru. “If his father allows it, he might be able to help you too.”

“Right.” Kwang looked from Mamoru to Kotetsu Kama in confusion. “So, Matsuda-san says he… apprentices with you?”

“I know it seems strange,” Kotetsu said. “But it’s a tradition that predates modern Kaigenese society.”

“But… why? I don’t understand.”

“It’s a long story. Please hold still, Kwang-san.”

There was a creak as Grandma Kotetsu leaned forward. “A thousand years ago,” she began, “long before metal was ever spun into conductive wires and space-going satellites, the most coveted metal in Kaigen was made by a small family of blacksmiths living here in Takayubi. Their surpassing skill in forging tools and weapons earned them the name Kotetsu, which means ‘steel’ in Shirojima dialect. Though the laws of kafonu and kamaya had not yet come to Kaigen, this blacksmith family had an informal relationship of patronage with the noble house of Matsuda. The Kotetsu smiths subsisted on the generosity of the Matsuda warriors, who paid good money for their superior swords.

“At this time, the Matsudas were masters of making blades from ice. While these early ice blades were rough, the fighting style served them well. Using their ice to fight long range battles, and their Kotetsu-forged steel to fight at close range, they dominated western Shirojima.”

Kwang was looking at Grandma Kotetsu in confusion, but he seemed too intrigued to interrupt.

“Then, at the height of the Matsuda family’s reign, Falleya missionaries came to these shores en masse. Some came from the mainland, some came from Disa, some came from as far away as the Empire of Yamma. These missionary singers brought with them new technologies and new ways of looking at the world. Many people of Shirojima embraced the new religion, eagerly integrating it into their lives, including the Matsudas’ nearest neighbor, the Yukino clan.

“But the Matsuda patriarch at the time, a man by the name of Matsuda Katsuki, openly rejected Falleya, going as far as to send his men to behead missionaries and converts in the streets. In retaliation, a Falleya army, led by Lord Yukino Izumi, laid siege to the Matsuda castle and razed it to the ground. The Matsudas who did not die in battle burned to death in the inferno… all except one. This was the Lord’s youngest son, Matsuda Takeru, for whom this boy’s father is named.” She nodded her head at Mamoru. “As the flames rose around the room where he slept, his mother wrapped him in an embrace of water and ice. The fire consumed wood, flesh, and bone around them, but her love protected him. When the sun rose the next day, the woman was dead, having finally succumbed to the heat. But in her arms, the child Takeru had survived.”

Mamoru was still, his stinging hands resting in his lap. He had heard the story of Matsuda Takeru a dozen times. When he was very young, the razing of the Matsuda castle used to move him to tears. Now he had to look at his bloodied knuckles and wonder if the story was even true. It made him feel hollow.

“The Falleya army did their best to kill every fighter they found in the castle and the surrounding houses,” Grandma Kotetsu continued, “but the resident family of Kotetsu blacksmiths were spared, their precious forges left intact. For under Falleya, it is a sin to commit violence against a craftsman.”

Kwang nodded. Having lived in Yamma, he would understand that.

“It was a Kotetsu man named Toki who picked his way through the ashes when the smoke cleared. It was Toki who found the young Takeru in the ashes and gently helped him to his feet. By this time, Yukino Izumi had proclaimed himself ruler of the region, and Toki knew that if the boy were discovered, he would be killed. So, he took Takeru in and raised him as one of his own sons. And this act—this solitary act of kindness—altered the destinies of the Matsuda family, the Kotetsu family, and all of Shirojima.

“Hiding under a false name, young Takeru was raised to adolescence in Kotetsu Toki’s household, under the rule of Yukino Izumi’s Falleya state. As Takeru grew, he proved himself a genius. Despite what had happened to his family, he was able to listen to the missionary finawu and learn the value of Falleya. Despite his warrior’s blood, he took to the forge like a natural numu, creating swords of excellent quality and incredible beauty. But in his heart, he knew it was his duty to avenge his family and continue the Matsuda lineage. So, as a young man, he set out in disguise to train with the jiya swordsmen of the Tsusano and Ginkawa clans, further north. No one knows exactly where he went during that time or who trained him, though many tried to claim credit after the fact. But it is the story of his return, years later, that propelled him into legend…”

Grandma Kotetsu trailed off, nodding to herself.

“So…” Kwang prompted after a moment. “What happened?”

“Oh, you want me to continue?” Grandma Kotetsu said in amusement. “I thought you might be done with this old lady’s foolish story.”

“No, please,” Kwang said emphatically. “You have to keep going.”

“Very well, city boy.” Grandma Kotetsu chuckled. “Takeru walked through the town gates with no weapon, only a pack on his back, and announced himself for all to hear: “I am Matsuda Takeru, Lord of Takayubi. I am here to take back my family’s home.” Upon hearing this, the town guards seized him and brought him before Lord Yukino Izumi.

In Yukino’s hall, Takeru faced his family’s killer for the first time, and repeated his challenge.

Yukino Izumi was unimpressed. “You claim to be Matsuda Takeru, son of Matsuda Katsuki,” he said, “but I know that all the Matsudas were killed years ago. This makes you both a liar and a traitor. I have no obligation to accept your challenge. You will be executed.”

“Then I offer you a compromise,” said Takeru. “I will face you unarmed.”

“Unarmed!” Yukino laughed. “You believe you can kill me without a sword?”

“I do,” Takeru said calmly.

“If you are so confident in your skills,” Yukino said, “then why not kill me now?”

Takeru looked around him and replied, “I prefer not to hurt your guards.”

Intrigued, Yukino agreed to the duel, appointed a time, and released Takeru. When his men questioned his decision, the lord said, “He will turn tail and run or he will step into the circle with me and die. Either way, we will be rid of him.”

Upon hearing of Takeru’s return and the challenge he had issued, Kotetsu Toki ran to his adoptive son and begged him to withdraw from the fight.

“The challenge has been made,” said Takeru. “As a koro, I cannot withdraw.”

“Yukino Izumi is one of the best swordsmen in the region,” Toki warned, in despair. “The sword he wields is one of mine—the best I ever made. How do you expect to beat him without any weapon at all?”

Takeru just smiled. “What you gave me was more valuable than metal. You gave me knowledge of the blade itself.” With that, the young Matsuda embraced his mentor and adoptive father, and promised to return to him after the fight.

Yukino Izumi appeared the next day for the duel with the sword Kotetsu Toki had forged for him, an excellent sword, folded a thousand times, sharpened to cut through five men at a stroke. Yukino met Matsuda at the center of the main square, in view of the whole town…”

Kwang leaned forward, his eyes wide.

“Yukino unsheathed the great sword, and the fight was over.”

“What?” Kwang breathed.

“In a single stroke, Matsuda Takeru’s jiya sliced through the Kotetsu-forged blade and straight through Yukino’s body. The usurper was dead before he hit the ground, the first victim of the Whispering Blade.”

“What? But… how?” Kwang looked from Mamoru to the numu family. “Ice can’t cut through metal. It’s scientifically impossible. Even ice at sub-zero temperatures, under a lot of pressure, still can’t get as dense as steel. The military has tested this in labs. Ice can’t cut through metal.”

“Yet it does,” Grandma Kotetsu said calmly, “and has, time and time again since Matsuda Takeru pioneered the technique.”

What neither Kwang nor any of the Kotetsus knew was that the Whispering Blade’s power didn’t come from its density alone. Its cutting power was a product of the wielder’s precision. The swordsman had to have such perfect control over his jiya that he could sharpen its edge to a single molecule, allowing it to cut through anything. It was a feat of human skill and intuition that could never be replicated in a lab.

“You may believe the story or you may not, but you’ve held still for several siiranu.”

“What?” Kwang looked down at himself and seemed to register that Kotetsu Kama had cleaned, bandaged, and splinted every injury. “Oh.” He let out a laugh, as a toothless grin crinkled Grandma Kotetsu’s face.

“You see, an old lady has her tricks.”

“Now, sit and have some food,” Kotetsu’s wife said, motioning Kwang to the table.

“But what happened after that?” Kwang asked as he joined Mamoru at the numuwu’s scrubbed wooden dinner table. “After Takeru cut Yukino Izumi in half? What happened then?”

“They say that the best swordsman can win a fight in a single cut,” said Grandma Kotetsu. “Matsuda Takeru won that fight and all to come in that cut, for after witnessing his power, no one dared challenge him. The only person to step forward was Yukino Izumi’s son, Chiaki, a boy of twelve. The newly-orphaned Yukino said to Takeru, “I don’t intend to fight you for my control of Takayubi, but I will not allow you to execute this town’s finawu or destroy the Falleya temples.”

In curiosity, Takeru asked, “What if I were to order Falleya purged from this region?”

“I would challenge you to single combat,” Yukino Chiaki said without hesitation.

Takeru was moved by the boy’s bravery, and he was wise enough not to repeat his father’s mistakes. Despite his power, he did not wish to rule through fear.

“I am the blood of the gods,” he said to the assembled crowd. “The moon and ocean fear no change.”

According to Chiaki’s request, he kept Falleya temples standing and incorporated Falleya laws into his rule, eventually becoming a devout Falleka himself. Under the new laws of kamaya, he named the Kotetsus numus to the Matsuda family, binding their two houses in loyalty and mutual support for all time to come.”

“And the Yukino boy,” Kwang said. “He just let him live?”

“Not only that, he let him return to the ancestral Yukino castle and rule there. And he married Yukino Izumi’s oldest daughter, Megumi, to ensure an enduring peace between their houses. Your sword master, Yukino Dai, is a descendant of Yukino Chiaki, as Matsuda Mamoru and his family are descendants of Matsuda Takeru. Their two families have coexisted in this region for a thousand years. It was our ancestors—Matsuda, Yukino, and Kotetsu—who ushered in the first Falleya state in Shirojima.”

“Wow,” Kwang said. “And the Whispering Blade has just been passed down Matsuda Takeru’s line all this time?”

Grandma Kotetsu nodded her head. “Takeru passed the Whispering Blade down to his sons, who in turn passed it down to their sons. And ever since that time, sons of the Matsuda family are always sent to apprentice with Kotetsu smiths, in the hopes that skill in steel will lead to a Whispering Blade.”

“But… wait a second,” Kwang said. “Under Falleya, isn’t it kind of weird for koronu like the Matsudas to apprentice with numuwu?”

“The Whispering Blade is the sacred force that brought Takayubi together,” Kotetsu Kama said. “For the sake of preserving the Matsuda bloodline technique, we make this one exception. Without the combination of numu and koro arts, the technique can’t be carried on. Matsuda Takeru was the sort of genius who comes around once in a millennium. Those who are able to replicate his technique are often one in a generation.”

Kwang turned to Mamoru. “Wait. So, there are some Matsudas who can use the Whispering Blade and some who can’t?”

“Most never master it,” Kotetsu Kama said, sparing Mamoru from answering, “though it is the fate of all Matsudas to spend their lives trying. There have been weak generations in the past, when people feared that the technique might disappear from the world. We are fortunate that this generation will have at least one Whispering Blade.” He gave Mamoru a smile that Mamoru couldn’t return. “We’re certain of it.”

Most days, Mamoru was certain of it too. Not right now. Now he felt like a brittle shell, capable of nothing, containing nothing.

The moon and the ocean fear no change. “So, Matsuda Takeru ended up adopting the ideals of his parents’ killer?” Mamoru said quietly.

The three numuwu looked at him in surprise. “Well… yes,” Kotetsu Kama said. “You know the story.”

“He was so strong,” Mamoru murmured. “He had the blood of the old gods in his veins, and he just… gave way to these foreign ideas?”

“He saw that Falleya was the way forward,” Kotetsu Kama said, his deep voice that was usually found so calming grating somehow grating at Mamoru’ nerves. “While it was Falleya that killed his family, it was Falleya that spared the Kotetsus he depended on.”

“But how did he know?” Mamoru frowned at his knuckles. “How could he be so sure?” How could anyone be so sure of a decision that determined the fate of thousands? How?

“Are you alright, Matsuda-dono?” the numu asked gently.

Mamoru was not alright. He was churning again, his jiya agitated by the heat. “How could he just abandon everything he knew—his family’s legacy—for a new religion?”

“Takeru grew up learned in the tenets of both religions. He studied both with the same diligence that he studied the blade. And as a leader, he had a decision to make.” Kotetsu paused. “Are you sure you’re alright? Your jiya feels unwell—”

“Kotetsu Kama.” Mamoru looked up sharply. “Tell me about Yammanka obsidian.”

“What?” Kotetsu said, taken aback.

“The really hard types of Yammanka glass,” Mamoru said. “Are there Kaigenese craftsmen who know how to make it?”

“Of course,” Kotetsu said. “Nowadays, there’s so much commerce and cultural exchange between Kaigen and Yamma, there are many Kaigenese who work in jonjo glass.”

“But not Zilazen glass?”

“Of course not.” Kotetsu laughed. “That material is a bloodline technique, like our steel folding and your Whispering Blade. Its secrets do not leave the Zilazen family.”

“Oh.” Mamoru hadn’t realized that. “So, the Kaigenese military has never produced anything made of Zilazen glass?”

“No, no,” Kotetsu said. “Although, my cousin tells me the Empire has been importing a lot of Yammanka bullets, so maybe—”

“What about bigger things?” Mamoru asked. “Has Kaigen ever had Zilazen glass machines? Like tanks or planes?”

“Not that I know of,” Kotetsu said. “The Zilazen make machines to be operated by tajakalu, not jijakalu. Importing that kind of equipment would be nonsense. And Kaigen certainly doesn’t have any craftsmen capable of creating Yammanka obsidian. I believe a Kaigenese smith would have to marry a Zilazen senkuli to be privy to the technique. Even then, it might be too carefully guarded. I think it might be that only those with Zilazen blood are allowed to learn—so, the child of a mixed marriage, maybe?”

His wife gave a disapproving ‘tsk.’ “What good theonite would want to sully their bloodlines like that?”

“I don’t know,” Kotetsu said with a shrug. “If we ever get to see a Zilazen glass katana, the impurity might be worth it.”

“Do you think that would be possible?” Kwang asked, and Mamoru couldn’t tell if he was genuinely excited or just eager to steer the conversation away from planes.

“I know that Zilazen glass swords have been made in the past,” Kotetsu said.

“Really?”

“They’re extremely rare,” Kotetsu said. “There are no more than a hundred in the world.”

After Kwang had asked a few dozen more questions and Kotetsu’s wife was satisfied that both boys had eaten as much as they could, the blacksmith walked Mamoru and Kwang to the edge of the numu village and sent them on their way up the mountain.

Mechanically, Mamoru bowed to his teacher and wished him a good night. As he and Kwang set off up the mountain, he expected the northern boy to give him some form of ‘I told you so.’ He was prepared for it. But Kwang didn’t gloat. He just followed wordlessly at Mamoru’s elbow up the path to the western village.

When he did speak, all he said was, “Are you going to be okay?”

Mamoru’s voice was neither hard nor stormy. It was empty. “Yes.”

They walked on in silence for a while. Kwang no longer needed Mamoru to lead him. The first light had crept into the sky, illuminating the way before them.

“How is your arm, Kwang-san?”

“Chul-hee.”

“What?”

“Call me Chul-hee,” Kwang said. “We fell down the side of a mountain together. We can be on a first name basis, can’t we?”

Mamoru didn’t turn to look at the other boy. “If you like.”

“Thanks for introducing me to your numu friends, by the way. I’ve never really hung out with numuwu before.”

“I’m glad you liked them,” Mamoru said, “although I’m sorry you had to sit through a whole history lesson.”

“It’s alright,” Kwang said. “I like listening. And your history’s pretty cool.”

If it’s really history at all, Mamoru thought. If Hibiki Sensei could be mistaken about Takayubi’s past, so could Grandma Kotetsu. So could anyone.

“So, um…” Kwang must have sensed the heaviness of Mamoru’s nyama because he changed the subject. “It’s pretty cool what Numu Kotestsu said about Zilazen glass weapons, right? I had no idea the Zilazen made swords!”

“Neither did I,” Mamoru said. “I guess the world’s craftsmen share things with each other that don’t always concern us koronu.”

“Do you think a Zilazen glass katana would be even stronger than your magical Whispering Blade?”

“I can’t make a Whispering Blade,” Mamoru said. “And anyway, there would probably never be a chance to test it. Kotetsu Kama said there are fewer than a hundred Zilazen swords the whole world.”

Not far up the path, the two boys parted ways.

“Good night, Chul-hee-kun,” Mamoru said to see how the words would feel on his tongue.

They felt strange until Kwang turned and smiled at him—an exhausted smile full of gratitude and fondness that he hadn’t earned. “Good night, Mamoru-kun.”

Mamoru had no way of knowing that he had lived his whole life within an arm’s reach of a Zilazen glass sword. The black blade had been bundled away under the floorboards of the Matsudas’ kitchen shortly before he was born and had stayed there, untouched, ever since. It was a little weapon, barely bigger than a traditional wakizashi—but it had seen more combat than any katana in the Matsuda dojo.

But Mamoru had no way of knowing any of that.

His mother, after all, did not talk about her past.

 

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