When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time.
“A jijaka is a fine thing to be,” Master Wangara had once told her.
“Why?” she asked.
“Water is the best substance a fighter can embody,” the wiry old tajaka had said. “Most strong things are rigid. If you are water, you can shift to fit any mold and freeze yourself strong. You can be strong in any shape. You can be anything.”
I can be strong in any shape, Misaki told herself as she packed up the hammer and nails. I can be anything. And if she had adapted to the dangers of Livingston’s dark alleys, how hard could it be to master marriage and motherhood?
“It will all be worth it when you hold a child in your arms,” her mother had told her, all aglow with pride. “It will be worth it when you watch them grow.”
“As Nagi smiles on strong men, Nami smiles on patient women,” her father had told her.
And Misaki had believed them. Not because it made any sense. Because she had to. Because if she didn’t believe it was worth it, then what had she done?
So, when her new husband barely even looked at her in the aftermath of their wedding, she kept smiling. When her father-in-law snapped at her, she bowed, and spoke sweetly, and did as she was told. It would all be worth it. When her husband’s frigid nyama made her skin crawl, she gritted her teeth and endured his touch. It would all be worth it. When the pain of labor was so intense she nearly passed out, she held back her tears and her screams. It would all be worth it to hold the child in her arms.
As she reached out to hold Mamoru for the first time, she forced a smile. But as his tiny body curled up against her breast, he wasn’t warm. She held him close and waited, but the joy she was supposed to feel never came. All she felt was a cold echo of her husband’s jiya, pulsing from the baby, reminding her that the child she held in her arms was not truly hers. He was a Matsuda.
It was then that she should have realized that the divine light she had been promised was not coming. It was never coming. But Misaki had always been too stubborn—or too stupid—to acknowledge her mistakes. So she forced down the tears, smiled her sweetest smile, and held the infant closer, even as the feel of him made her want to shudder and retch. She forced herself to love him.
As Mamoru grew, so did his jiya. By the age of three, he had the aura of a much older theonite. Morning mist would reach out to touch his skin like fingers, standing water would freeze at his touch, and dew drops would slide from blades of grass to dog his footsteps. Misaki had grown up in a household of strong jijakalu, but even she had never heard of such power in such a small child.
“Were you and Takeru like this when you were little?” Misaki asked her brother-in-law one evening as Mamoru splashed in a puddle in the garden. His little hands sent the water flying higher than normal. A few drops turned to ice and pinged off the roof. “Was your jiya this strong when you were three?”
“Ah…” Takashi scratched the back of his head. “To tell you the truth, I don’t really recall. My first memory of using my jiya was when Grandfather started training me for combat.”
“How old were you?” Misaki asked.
Takashi shrugged. “Five? Six, maybe? You could check with our father. Then again…” maybe don’t were the words Takashi meant to say but couldn’t. Matsuda Susumu tended to get particularly ill-tempered any time someone raised the subject of his sons’ overwhelming power. It was a sore subject for him.
“So, you didn’t start properly training your jiya until you were school age?” Misaki said.
“That’s the way it’s usually done.”
“Usually,” Misaki repeated, “but Mamoru is an unusual child. Shouldn’t someone teach him to control that power before he hurts himself?” The average three-year-old theonite didn’t manifest enough power for this to be an issue, but Mamoru’s abilities were fast approaching a level where they would become genuinely dangerous.
Takashi shrugged. “When the boy starts his training will be up to his father.” A gentle reminder that Misaki was overstepping her authority.
“Of course,” she said, bowing her head.
“And, knowing Takeru, he won’t want to train Mamoru-kun himself until the boy has at least learned his fundamentals at school,” Takashi continued. “I don’t—oops!” He threw a hand out to stop an arc of half-frozen water droplets before they hit himself and Misaki. “Careful there, little one!” he laughed, vaporizing the drops with a flick of his fingers. “You almost hit your mother. My, my…” he mused, staring at Mamoru. “Maybe he could use a little help. You should ask Takeru if he can start training a little early.”
Misaki did. But as usual, Takeru had no interest in his child’s parenting and even less interest in his wife’s opinions on it. As Takashi had predicted, he said, “I’m a master jijaka and swordsman. I don’t train little children.”
“I’ll train him once he’s worthy of what I have to teach. Now, bring me more tea.”
But Misaki decided that someone had to teach Mamoru control. And if his father, uncle, and grandfather weren’t going to, why shouldn’t she? She was his mother, after all. And, whether or not it became a lady, she had plenty of techniques worth teaching.
She started out with the simple games she had played with her brothers as a child, racing ice chunks down the floor like cars, building snow towers, tossing a ball of liquid water back and forth without spilling any on the floor. Mamoru excelled at and quickly tired of the games that occupied most jijaka children for years, and Misaki found herself walking him through more advanced techniques.
“You want to make sure you leave a little cushion of snow between your knuckles and the ice,” she said, guiding Mamoru’s jiya as he froze water over his little fist. “That’s it. Now try again.”
Mamoru hesitated, but obeyed his mother and swung his fist into the rock. “Oh!” His little eyebrows shot up in surprise. “It doesn’t hurt!”
“That’s the idea.” Misaki smiled. “This way, even you’ve got delicate little fingers like Kaa-chan’s, you can punch just about anything without damaging your hand.”
“I want to try again!” Mamoru exclaimed, shaking the water from his hand.
Mamoru practiced hitting the boulder again and again while his grandfather watched from across the courtyard with a sour expression. Misaki had noticed that her father-in-law’s permanent scowl seemed to deepen whenever he watched her showing Mamoru a technique, but she elected to ignore it. A reasonable man couldn’t possibly be angry with a mother for teaching her child to control his power. Of course, Matsuda Susumu was not a reasonable man.
He finally spoke up the day Misaki taught Mamoru to congeal blood. The boy, then five, had skinned both knees on the path in front of the house. Worried that his crying might set off his temperamental grandfather, she had showed him the advanced technique to distract him—not realizing that that would displease her father-in-law more than the noise.
“Misaki!” the old man snapped just as she told Mamoru to try the next scab on his own. “A word.”
“Of course, Matsuda-sama.” Misaki went and knelt before her father-in-law, just out of earshot of Mamoru. “What is it?”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Teaching my son how to deal with an injury,” Misaki said.
“That is not your place.”
“But,” Misaki protested before she could stop herself, “scabbing is a useful technique for a warrior to know.”
Matsuda Susumu’s face twisted. “Know your place, you stupid woman. What would you understand of a warrior’s jiya?”
What would you understand of a warrior’s jiya? Misaki thought savagely. “I’m sorry.” She bowed her head. “I was out of line. I won’t do it again.”
“I should hope not,” Susumu huffed. “Matsuda warriors fight with pure, untainted water. We have no use for filthy Tsusano blood magic. And a warrior has no use for a woman’s input.”
Misaki caught her rage and ruthlessly smothered it before it could rise to the surface. “Forgive me, Matsuda-sama.”
Every time Misaki’s sense of duty failed her and she had the urge to lash out at her father-in-law, she stopped her tongue through sheer vindictive cruelty, reminding herself that her sharpest barbs couldn’t inflict worse than what this man had already suffered. He had spent his whole life a disappointment—an heir to the Matsuda name too weak to master the Whispering Blade, despised by his parents, surpassed by his sons.
As the only son among many daughters, Matsuda Susumu had been his generation’s sole hope of carrying on the Matsuda techniques. The family had poured years into his training, but he never displayed the power or talent of his forebears. He never achieved a Whispering Blade. In desperation, his father taught the technique to Susumu’s sons when they were old enough. Both Takashi and Takeru proved superior jijakalu to their father, mastering the Whispering Blade in their teenage years.
And what happened to a man who devoted his entire life and soul to a single pursuit only to fail entirely? Misaki supposed, after so many years of disappointment, he turned into a wrinkled husk of a being who could only find solace in tormenting those younger and better than himself. The cruelest thing Misaki could do to a bitter creature like her father-in-law was keep serving, smiling, and pushing out babies like nothing bothered her. The cruelest thing she could do was serve her purpose—like he never could.
So, she bowed herself out of Matsuda-sama’s presence with a demure smile and returned to her son.
“Look, Kaa-chan!” Mamoru beamed. “I can do it. I’m doing it!”
“Stop.” Misaki put her hands over the boy’s stilling his jiya.
His smile disappeared. “Why?”
“I shouldn’t have showed you… This is not a technique you should use. Please… forget that I taught you.”
“You mean I can’t use it again?”
Misaki hesitated. “Maybe…” She lowered her voice. “Maybe keep it on hand for emergencies.” Jiya blood clotting could save a fighter’s life on the battlefield, and she would be damned if she was going to tell her son right to his face that the purity of his technique was more important than his life. “For emergencies only,” she said sternly.
From that day on, Misaki was careful to remember that Mamoru was not hers. His accomplishments didn’t belong to her. They belonged to his father. Having taught Mamoru the basics of control, Misaki stopped meddling in his development. Soon, he went off to school, where proper fighters—men of the Matsuda and Yukino lines—would teach him to use his powers as a man should.
Misaki was pregnant again. She felt the nyama of a growing child inside her and plastered her smile in place to do it all again. She had borne the pain once without a single tear or word of complaint; she could do it again. She didn’t realize that the only thing more painful than bearing another Matsuda son would be failing to do so.
“You lost it?” Matsuda-sama snarled. “What do you mean you lost it?”
“I…” Misaki tried to answer but a wave of dizziness overtook her. The lines of the tatami crawled and swam beneath her knees. The room was tilting. She had dragged herself from the blood-soaked birthing bed, washed herself, and dressed when the midwives said that her father-in-law demanded an audience. She had always had exceptional stamina and pain tolerance, but that had been the end of it. Her body was shaking. The tatami swirled and became waves—waves that could swallow her up and wash all of this away…
“You stupid, selfish woman,” her father-in-law was saying somewhere in the distance. She tried to hear him, but only made out splintered pieces. “Sons”… “strong, warrior sons”… “the reason”… “the only reason you are here.” He sounded angrier than usual. Misaki caught herself with a hand on the solid floor before she could fall face-first into the welcoming waves.
“Pathetic! You’ve just cost me a grandchild and you’re too arrogant to even speak. You really are a selfish woman. You disgust me.”
“I…” Misaki struggled to make her voice work. “I’m sor—”
She registered the impact before she felt the sting in her cheek. Credit where credit was due; Matsuda Susumu hit hard for an old man.
“If you can’t give this family sons, you are worthless.” Through her haze, Misaki caught the note of satisfaction in Susumu’s voice; she had finally proved herself the disappointment he had always said she was. Finally, she was truly lower than he was. “Don’t forget why you are here.”
Misaki had lifted herself onto her elbows, but couldn’t find the strength to push herself up onto her knees.
Above her, Matsuda-sama let out a disgusted noise. “She’s your woman. You deal with her.”
“Yes, Father,” a second voice said.
Misaki was so disoriented that she hadn’t even realized that her husband was in the room. He was so still, his icy nyama was so like his father’s, that he simply disappeared into the background. It wasn’t until the older man had hobbled out of the room that Takeru moved, taking slow steps until he came to a stop over ‘his woman.’
His bare feet and the hem of his hakama swam into focus before Misaki—and suddenly she felt the warmth of tears in her eyes. It was almost a relief; she had spent so many years playing the good wife, holding back her tears. But she was not a good wife anymore. Now, she had failed him. Now, surely, it would be alright for her to cry. In the face of her husband’s grief and disappointment, the only appropriate thing to do was break down.
Even if she had had the strength to lift her head, she wouldn’t have looked up at him. How could she? She had just lost his child. He must be furious…
“Come, Misaki.” His voice was calm. “You need to get some rest.”
She didn’t move.
Crouching down, Takeru cupped her cheek where his father had hit her. The gesture was utilitarian—a cold object to bring down the swelling. He did not even try to meet her eyes.
“Can you stand?”
“I’m sorry,” Misaki said softly, her voice straining against the tears trapped in her throat. “I’m so sorry.”
“That’s alright,” he said, sliding one arm beneath her knees and putting the other around her shoulders. “I’ll carry you.”
Takeru, as always, handled her as if she were a particularly fragile doll. Maybe he could feel how rigid she grew under his touch. Maybe he truly thought all women were that frail. It was impossible to tell what Takeru was thinking behind that impassive expression. Sometimes Misaki considered it a mercy; now it made her feel unbearably lonely.
She didn’t know if she shivered in response to his nyama—but once the shaking started, it didn’t stop. It was more than just cold, more than grief. It was panic, as she realized that he wasn’t going to yell at her. She wasn’t going to cry. If she couldn’t even cry… if she couldn’t even cry, what kind of monster was she?
“Pull yourself together.” Takeru didn’t quite look at her, staring ahead at the floor just past her shoulder. “You’re going to be fine.”
But Misaki was not fine. She was the weak, selfish woman Matsuda-sama had always said. She was a monster who couldn’t even shed tears for her lost child. What kind of husband said that was ‘fine’? What man with a beating heart could say that?
When Takeru lowered her onto the futon, Misaki found her hands tangling in the front of his haori, gripping with all the strength they had left.
Stay, she thought desperately. She couldn’t be alone here with her doubts, strangled, unable to cry, unable to move.
“Let go,” Takeru said without emotion.
But Misaki’s hands curled tighter. If he walked away now, she would turn to stone.
“This is unseemly,” Takeru said coldly. “Let go.”
“Takeru…” She searched his face one more time for some hint of grief, or empathy, or rage, anything. “I’m sorry, I failed you. I—”
“We’ll try again.” He said it as if she had dropped some eggs on the way back from market. “After you have your strength back.” Icy hands closed over hers and effortlessly pried her fingers loose. “Rest.”
“Takeru,” she whispered as he walked away. “Please—”
“Do as you’re told.” He closed the door. And in that moment, he might as well have been the one who slapped her. Nami, he might as well have taken his Whispering Blade and carved everything from inside her. She no longer saw her husband or Mamoru as they passed through the house around her. Every night, Takeru clinically opened her kimono, pushed her down, and lay with her. He put another baby in her, and she lost that one too.
After the second miscarriage, she began to think that she really was a doll—stiff, unfeeling, incapable of producing life because she was not really alive. There were horror stories of Tsusano puppeteers, manipulating the blood in the bodies of others—dead and living. Sometimes Misaki wondered if she had subconsciously become one of them, puppeting her own gutted body through each day.
It wasn’t until Setsuko married into the family that a pulse flickered to life in the doll’s chest. Setsuko was the first person who had ever talked to Misaki about the miscarriages. It had been the subject of their first argument… the first real argument Misaki had had in years.
Misaki couldn’t even remember what she had said to set her sister-in-law off—some innocuous thing about being stupid or useless—and Setsuko had slammed her spatula down on the stovetop.
Startled, Misaki could only stare for a moment before stammering, “S-stop what?”
“You keep saying such horrible things about yourself and I won’t have it! Why do you always have to call yourself bad and useless?”
“Why?” Misaki repeated. It seemed obvious. It was uncharacteristically cruel of Setsuko to make her say it aloud. “Well, I-I haven’t given my husband a son in years. I’ve miscarried twice now.”
“That doesn’t make you a bad woman.”
“Doesn’t it?” Misaki said numbly. “My husband is a powerful jijaka, from a line that has never had any trouble producing sons. If his babies are dying before they’re born, it’s not a problem with him; it’s me.”
The more Misaki had thought about it over the years, the more it seemed that it must be her fault. She hadn’t really wanted the babies. Not with the passion she was supposed to. That in itself was a sin. A strong jijaka like Misaki could drown a child inside her if she didn’t want it enough. She had no recollection of trying to end the pregnancies; both times she had meant to carry the babies to term. Even if she had felt no excitement at the prospect, she had meant to give birth. But there was so much bitterness trapped inside her. Could she have done it in her sleep? While she dreamed? Had her subconscious risen like a sleep-walking demon and drowned the babies?
“You didn’t do it,” Setsuko said fiercely. “Anyone who tries to tell you that you did is an idiot.”
“But… our father-in-law thought…” Misaki choked as his voice rang through her head. ‘You selfish, stupid woman, you did this! You killed my grandchildren!’ For years, she had sat still with those words leaching into her mind like poison—you killed my grandchildren!
“Our father-in-law is dead,” Setsuko cut through her thoughts in a matter-of-fact voice. “Whatever he thought doesn’t matter anymore. If it did, I wouldn’t be here.” Setsuko’s okonomiyaki, forgotten on the stove, were starting to smoke. “The only thing that matters is what you think. Do you think it’s your fault you miscarried?”
“I hope not.” Misaki was surprised at how easily the truth fell out of her mouth.
“Then it’s not your fault,” Setsuko said resolutely.
One of the okonomiyaki in the pan caught fire.
“Oh no—” Misaki started toward the stove, but Setsuko stopped her.
“Let it burn!” Setsuko said savagely. “It was going to taste terrible anyway. Look, I know I look like a dumb country girl—and I am—but I know a thing or two about the messy business you nobles don’t like to talk about. My auntie is a midwife. She’ll tell you a woman can’t get rid of a healthy baby unless she really tries—and more often than not it’ll kill her. I reckon getting rid of a Matsuda baby would be even harder. If you were the reason behind the miscarriages, you would know it.”
Having said her piece, Setsuko turned to clean up the mess she had made of the stove, leaving Misaki to stare at her in a mute stupor. It had been a long time—such a long time—since anyone had had that kind of faith in her. She wasn’t sure what to do with it.
“But if it wasn’t my jiya…” she said, hating that she could hear the fear in her own voice, “then I’m broken. What if I can’t have any more children?”
“Then your husband still has a perfectly good heir in Mamoru. And you have nothing to be ashamed of. I thought you said you didn’t really want more children anyway.”
“But that’s the only reason I’m here.” Misaki’s voice shook. “I’m not here because my husband loves me. I’m here to give him sons.”
“What are you? A baby dispenser?” Setsuko laughed, scrunching up her nose.
Misaki would have laughed too—except that that was exactly what she was. And over the years, the thought had crushed her into something small.
“That’s why he married me.”
“Well, you married him back, didn’t you?” Setsuko said.
Misaki looked up at her sister-in-law in surprise. “I didn’t…” she trailed off, unsure of what she even meant to say. I didn’t have a choice? That was what she told herself sometimes, but in her heart, she knew it was a lie. If she had wanted, she could have fled all of this and set fire to the bridges behind her. It just hadn’t been that simple. It had come down to a choice between her soul and her duty; she had chosen duty.
“I swear, Misaki, I know you’re smart—with your big vocabulary, and your noble upbringing, and your fancy academy education—but sometimes you’re the dumbest woman I’ve ever met.”
“Why don’t you try taking responsibility for the things you can control instead of the things you can’t?”
“I…” Misaki considered arguing for a moment, then cocked her head at Setsuko as the other woman’s words sank in. “Are all fisherwomen this smart, or just you?” she asked finally.
“Just me,” Setsuko said. “How do you think I landed me a handsome husband so far above my station?”
“Listen, little sister.” Setsuko took Misaki’s hands. “I know we haven’t known each other for long, but you don’t strike me as someone so weak she can’t take control of her own happiness. There’s a bright, strong woman in there.” Setsuko put a hand on Misaki’s chest. “I’d like to meet her.”
Misaki let out a laugh—her first laugh in a long time. “Careful what you wish for. You don’t…” She paused when she realized that she had very nearly told Setsuko about the sword hidden under the floorboards beneath their feet. That had to stay buried. But even with the sword firmly boarded up beneath them, Misaki felt a piece of her old smirk turn the corner of her mouth. “Careful what you wish for.”
While the floorboards stayed nailed firmly in place, Setsuko had broken through Misaki’s stupor, bringing a part of her to life again. Maybe it wasn’t a perfect life. Maybe she wasn’t truly happy. But she had found it in her to produce three more children— Hiroshi, colder than Mamoru and even more powerful for his age, Nagasa, with his sharp eyes and boundless energy, and now Izumo.
Misaki’s fourth son wasn’t as deathly cold as his brothers had been. Maybe that was a bad thing; maybe he didn’t harbor the kind of frigid power his father was looking for, but it certainly made him easier to hold close to her breast.
“Yosh, yosh,” she murmured into the baby’s soft hair in between humming. “You’re alright, Izu-kun. You’re alright.”
It was only the third time he had woken up that night. Not bad.
“Nenneko, nennneko yo,” she sang softly.
“The moon shines down on dewy fields.
In my hometown
Beyond this mountain and the next
An old man used to play a driftwood flute.
The sun, long sunk beneath the sea,
Shines in Mother’s mirror through the night.
My grandparents are dewdrops on the grass and notes on the wind.
Whisper, little sound, through the field
Murmuring of all that we cherish
Sighing for all that we mourn.
My parents are dewdrops on the grass and notes on the wind.
Quiver, little sound, through the field
Weeping for what is past
Laughing for tomorrow’s joy.
You and I are dewdrops on the grass and notes on the wind.
Echo, little sound, through the field
All the things that are forever
All the things that fade away.
Nenneko, nenneko yo
Catch the moonlight and shine, little dewdrop,
For beyond this mountain and the next
The old man plays on
The old man plays on…”
As she finished her lullaby, Izumo let out a tiny breath against her shoulder. He was asleep. She brushed the tears from the infant’s face and slowly, slowly lowered him into his cradle.
“There you go, little one,” she crooned, nudging the cradle into motion. “Sleep well.”
She had just straightened up when a muffled sound made her stiffen. It sounded like someone was in the hall. Stepping out of the room, she saw something move in the shadows. Her hand flew to her hip, but of course there was nothing there. Stupid. There hadn’t been a sword there for fifteen years.
“Who’s there?” she demanded.
“Mamoru,” she let out her breath as he stepped into the lamplight. Somehow, she hadn’t recognized his nyama or his outline. In the dark, he almost cut the figure of a grown man…
“I was trying to walk softly,” Mamoru said. “I thought you were all asleep.”
“And I thought you must have snuck in and gotten to bed some time during the night,” Misaki returned, trying not to sound reproachful rather than shaken. “You know it’s nearly morning?”
“Yes, Kaa-chan. I’m sorry.”
“Your uncle told me he had consigned you and the new boy to roof cleaning duty. Don’t tell me it took you this long to finish a simple chore.”
“We ran into a problem.” Mamoru looked at his feet. “We didn’t actually finish.”
“So, not only did you get yourself in trouble, you also failed to complete your punishment?” This wasn’t like Mamoru. “Come here.” She motioned him further into the light.
He stepped forward and her eyes flicked over him, taking in his bruised face, and dirt smudged uniform. She had been so preoccupied with the new baby, and Mamoru had been so busy with school, it had been a while since she had really looked at her oldest son. He had grown so much while she wasn’t paying attention, standing almost as tall as his father. His skinny limbs had started to fill out with the muscles of an adult fighter—but his scrapes and bruises spoke of a boy’s carelessness.
“I’m confused,” Misaki said. “Your uncle told me you gave the new kid a beating, not the other way around.”
Mamoru fidgeted. “This wasn’t—none of this is from him. We fell off the roof.”
“What did you do that for?”
“It was a mistake.”
“Matsudas don’t make mistakes.” It was what Takeru always said to the boys, but she regretted the words when she saw the shattered expression on Mamoru’s face. He really took them seriously; of course he did. He was a Matsuda. “Hey, Kaa-chan was just joking.” She offered him a smile. “Change your clothes and I’ll get you something to eat.”
“I already ate,” Mamoru said, “at Kotetsu-kama’s house. Kwang-san—the new boy—was injured from the fall, so we stopped to get his arm fixed, and they insisted we stay for dinner.”
“Oh.” It sounded as though Mamoru had had quite the night. “Well, change out of your clothes anyway. You need to let me wash that uniform before you’re seen in it again.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Mamoru nodded and moved down the hall to his own room.
He emerged clad in his house kimono, washed clean, bandages wound around his knuckles.
“Uniform,” he murmured, handing his school clothes to his mother.
He knelt and looked on in tense silence as Misaki gathered water into the laundry tub, dumped the uniform into it, added soap, and began spinning the garment with her jiya. She spun the water with her dominant right hand, holding her left just above the tub to keep any wayward drops from sloshing over the edge.
Once she was satisfied that she had spun all the blood and dirt from the fabric, she streamed the dirty water into a second bucket and replaced it with fresh water. All the while, Mamoru watched her work, though he didn’t really seem to see her. His mind was somewhere else.
“Is Tou-sama… does he know?” he asked.
“Your father didn’t come home today,” Misaki said, working the clean water into a spin. “He’s sleeping overnight at the office. So, you’re off the hook for tonight.”
“Oh. I thought… you might…?”
“I might what?”
“Give me a talking to.”
Misaki sighed. “I rock the babies to sleep and keep the little children safe. Are you a little baby?”
“When it comes to business like this—men’s business—that’s for your father to handle. But,” she continued before she managed to stop herself, “if you want someone to scold you, I’m annoyed enough to stand in for him at the moment.”
“Oh—I-I didn’t mean—”
“It seems you’ve made one stupid mistake on top of another,” she said, pulling the water from Mamoru’s uniform. “How do you intend to fix it?”
“I’ve apologized to Kwang Chul-hee,” Mamoru said. “I thought I would go to school the short way, a bit early, and finish cleaning the roof on my own.”
Misaki looked out at the sky and raised an eyebrow at Mamoru. “It’s dawn, son. When are you planning to sleep?”
“Oh.” Mamoru blinked. “I-I guess I’m not.”
“I don’t think that’s a brilliant idea,” Misaki said. “You should lie down and sleep for at least a little while.”
Mamoru shook his head distractedly. “I don’t think I can.”
It was only then that Misaki looked more closely at his face and realized that he wasn’t just exhausted. He was in pain.
What’s wrong? She wanted to ask. But that wasn’t the sort of thing you asked a man and a warrior—even if you were his mother.
“It’s not like you to get into a fight with another student,” she probed finally.
“I know.” Mamoru looked down at his knees. “I…” He fidgeted. “Can I tell you why?” The question seemed to tumble out of his mouth before he could stop it.
“Can I tell you why I hit him?”
“If you weren’t able to control yourself, I don’t care to hear any excuses,” Misaki said sternly, “and neither will your father. When he hears about this—”
“Please.” Mamoru’s voice was strained. “It’s not—I’m not trying to make excuses. I just…” There was a strange desperation on the boy’s face that Misaki couldn’t remember ever seeing there before.
And before she could stop herself, she said softly, “Tell me.”
“Kwang-san was saying bad things—treasonous things—against the Empire. He said the history Hibiki Sensei teaches us isn’t true. He said that during the Keleba, a lot of men died in Kaigen, and the Ranganese had to be driven back by the Yammanka reinforcements. He says the Empire covered up the deaths of all those people.” Mamoru was watching her face. Intently. Waiting for her reaction.
“I see,” she said stiffly.
“You see?” Mamoru’s voice broke. “That’s all you’re going to say?”
“What else would I have to say about it?”
“You… you…” Mamoru looked at her like a drowning man watching the shore recede—and Misaki realized that he was waiting for her to tell him what to think.
She was his parent, after all; she was supposed to have the answers; she was supposed to steer him right.
“You must have something to say,” he begged.
“I…” Misaki opened her mouth, closed it, bit the inside of her cheek. Finally, she said, “Your father would be very unhappy to hear you repeating those things in his house.”
Mamoru’s gaze dropped in shame and she felt a sudden surge of guilt. It was up to her to steer him right…
“The things that boy tells you are certainly treasonous,” she said slowly.
“I know, Kaa-chan. I’m sor—”
“But they are true.”
Mamoru’s head snapped up, bloodshot eyes wide open. “Kaa-chan—!”
“You are not to repeat this,” Misaki said quickly, “to anyone. I should not need to explain that that kind of talk is not becoming of a Matsuda.”
“But…” Mamoru looked like he was on the verge of a panic attack. His eyes glazed like the whole world had started reeling before them. “But if it’s all true, then…” Misaki watched the wheels turn in the boy’s head and felt a bit of panic bubble to life in her own chest. What had she done? What had she been thinking? Mamoru was fourteen—unstable and impressionable. And he was a Matsuda. What had she been thinking telling him the truth?
“Why did you say that?” Mamoru demanded alongside the admonishing voice in Misaki’s head. “Why—why would you tell me?”
“Because I assumed you were man enough to handle it,” Misaki masked her anxiety under a harsh tone of voice. “You’re a Matsuda, aren’t you? Pull yourself together.”
“B-but… but…” Mamoru was so shaken he couldn’t get ahold of his words—let alone his tumultuous nyama. “You’re saying Hibiki Sensei really wasn’t telling the truth about our history. The Empire has been lying—”
“I just told you not to repeat any of that!”
Mamoru flinched as though struck. “I’m sorry.” He bowed his head. “I-I was out of line. I won’t forget again. I’m sorry.”
He clutched one bandaged hand in the other and hunched in on himself. Misaki could feel the pain radiating from him. Not just physical pain; he had taken worse beatings in combat training. His nyama was churning. All that terrifying power he had inherited from his father, writhing like a knotted serpent trying to free itself from its own coils, strangling and biting itself in confusion.
Her boy was in agony.
And Misaki experienced a stab of something she had not felt in a long time: protective instinct, an overwhelming desire to shelter, to comfort, to heal at any cost. She supposed this was what a good mother was supposed to feel towards her children every waking moment, but she had not felt it since Daybreak. Since she had something worth protecting.
Gently, she reached out and gripped Mamoru’s arm. “Sit with me,” she said.
“If you’re going to take the short cut to school, you can spare a few siiranu to sit with your mother. Come. We’ll watch the sun rise.”
The front deck of the Matsuda compound had a clear view down the mountainside. When the day was bright and cloudless, Misaki could see all the way down to the twinkling ocean. On chilly mornings like this, the lower half of the mountain disappeared in a sea of fog that changed color with the growing light. Right now, the it was a deep blue, verging on lavender.
Misaki sat with her knees tucked beneath her, her hands folded in her lap, the picture of the demure housewife she had cultivated over the past fifteen years. Beside her, Mamoru crossed his legs in a rigid approximation of his father’s posture. But his heart was beating faster than Takeru’s ever did.
Misaki knew she had it in her to ease his pain, but she couldn’t do it with a housewife’s soothing touch and meaningless reassurances. This was different. For this, for once, she needed to be honest.
“You know, I…” She started with a small truth, to test how it would feel. “I never liked the cold.”
Mamoru turned to look at her with a question in his eyes.
“I’m a cold enough person—in my nyama and my personality—that I can get quite enough it all by myself. When it comes to the rest of the world, I like a little heat to offset all the ice in me. I know jijaka koronu are supposed to hate fire, but I envy you whenever you leave to apprentice at the forges. Warmth is so hard to come by in this village… That’s why I watch the sunrise out here whenever I can.”
Misaki stared wistfully over the mist.
“I like how I can feel the sun, burning on the horizon. I like the moment it lights up the fog, and then shines through it. It reminds me that there’s a world beyond this mountain, beyond Kaigen. No matter how cold the nights get here, the sun is rising somewhere. Somewhere, it’s making someone warm.”
“You’ve been out there,” Mamoru said after a moment. He spoke cautiously too, hesitantly venturing out after his mother into this new territory. “You never talk about it, but Aunt Setsuko said you went to theonite academy outside of Kaigen… all the way on the other side of the world.”
“It was a very long time ago,” Misaki smiled out at the mist. “I was the age you are now.”
For a long time they were quiet. More than once, Mamoru took a breath as though steeling himself to speak, then seemed to think better of it. His body was still, his eyes focused ahead, but the tension in his hands and the thud of his heart betrayed his anxiety. He was afraid, Misaki realized, afraid to ask what she knew of the outside world.
His fear wasn’t misplaced. There was a reason Takeru had forbidden any discussion of Misaki’s school years. A good deal of what she knew was not only against the Matsuda creed; it could be considered treason to the Empire. She couldn’t give Mamoru her knowledge from Daybreak any more than he could ask for it.
But she had to say something.
“Listen, son… when I was your age, I had to face truths that seemed to shatter the world. That’s what happens when you come into contact with people who aren’t quite like you. You learn over time that the world isn’t broken. It’s just… got more pieces to it than you thought. They all fit together, just maybe not the way you pictured when you were small.”
“But how?” Mamoru’s voice cracked. “I don’t understand. How do I fit them together? If nothing is what I thought… Kaa-chan, please… what am I supposed to think?”
“That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself,” Misaki said. “That’s part of becoming an adult.”
Mamoru shook his head. “I don’t understand. I—”
“A child doesn’t have to take responsibility for his decisions. A child can trust in his parents to tell him what to do. A man trusts himself. You’ll understand that when you’re older, but man who can’t take responsibility for his own decisions is really just an overgrown child.”
“But… aren’t we all children of the Empire?” Mamoru asked—and of course he would think that. That was what he had been told in every story and song since he learned to speak. “Don’t we have to trust our government?”
“I suppose so,” Misaki said, and before she could stop herself—“if you really want to be a child forever. Do you, son?” She looked sharply at Mamoru in the growing light. “Or do you want to be a man?”
“I want to be a man,” Mamoru said determinedly. “It’s just that—I don’t understand, Kaa-chan. I’m a koro, a Matsuda. When I grow up, I’m supposed to be a man of action with the power to shape history. H-how am I supposed to do that if I don’t even know what’s going on?”
A fair question, one that had no simple answer. “See that’s the hard part,” Misaki said, “coming to terms with what you don’t know, finding the answers, and acting on them without regret. Some people never learn; some people learn too late. Nami, I wish I…” Misaki pulled up short, shocked that she had let the thought even start to come out of her mouth. Because what had she meant to say? I wish I had had the courage to go against my parents and the Empire. I wish I had made my own decisions when it mattered. If she had then the boy looking anxiously into her eyes would not exist.
What kind of mother was she?
“What do you wish, Kaa-chan?” Mamoru asked with such earnest interest that Misaki could have curdled her own blood in shame.
“Nothing, son.” She touched his face. “I’ve borne a powerful Matsuda heir. What else could I wish for?”
“A smart one?” he suggested.
Misaki laughed. “You’re smart, Mamoru—or you’re starting to be. I’m sure you’ll grow into a fine man.”
“Will I?” He asked with genuine worry. And Misaki had no idea how to answer.
“I…” With her words failing, she borrowed some from her sword master. His wisdom may not have saved her, but maybe Mamoru could make more of it than she had. “A jijaka need not fear change. We are all water. We can fit any mold. No matter how we are broken and reshaped, we can always freeze ourselves strong again. It’s not going to happen all at once,” she added. “You have to wait for the season turn to see what shape the ice will take. But it will form up. Clear and strong. It always does.”
Mamoru nodded. “But I… I’m not to repeat anything you or Kwang-san have told me?”
“No,” Misaki said, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t listen. You can learn a great deal listening to people with different experiences from your own. A jaseli once told me, listening never made any man dumber, but it’s made a lot of people smarter.” She waved a hand. “That wasn’t a very good translation. I promise, it sounds more poetic in Yammaninke.”
“Like Matsuda Takeru the First…” Mamoru murmured, staring hard into the fog below.
“I suppose.” Misaki didn’t really follow his train of thought, but he seemed to have reached some kind of conclusion in that fourteen-year-old head of his.
“He learned from people who weren’t like him,” Mamoru said. “Even though he was a koro, he grew up with blacksmiths. He was willing to learn from them, and the foreign missionaries, even the son of his greatest enemy—and in the end, it made him stronger.”
For a moment, Misaki could only stare at her son. She had never thought of Matsuda history that way—in any way that related to her own experience. And here her bloodied, sleep-deprived fourteen-year-old boy had just connected two pieces of the world she never thought could fit together.
Maybe she still had some growing up to do herself.
“Thank you, Kaa-chan.” Mamoru turned to her with a wide smile. “I think I learned something.
Misaki only stared.
She tilted her head. “You have dimples.”
“I got them from you.”
The sun was visible now, burning through the mist, and Misaki brushed Mamoru’s bangs back from his face.
“You know, Mamoru… you’ll be a man sometime soon. But just for today, let me be your mother, and tell you in all my motherly certainty ‘everything is alright. The world is whole. You are on the right path. Everything is going to be alright.’ And Mamoru…” She put a took his chin in her hand, turning his face toward hers. “You’re a good person. I trust you to grow up well.”
“Thank you, Kaa-chan.”
The slopes below had turned gold with sunlight. The sun set off the dewdrops like sparklers. Beside her, Mamoru made a concerted effort keep his eyes open. But as the sun warmed the mountainside, his head sank against her shoulder. His nyama, finally relaxed, started pulling him into the embrace of sleep.
“Someday, will you tell me about your foreign school?” he murmured. “About all the things you did when you were young?”
Misaki was not prepared for the ripple of warmth that shook her heart. She had never thought anyone here in Takayubi would ask about Daybreak. Hearing the words from her own child was more than she ever would have wished for.
“Someday, my son. Not today. Right now, you have your own future to look toward.”
“Mmm…” Mamoru breathed out, his eyes falling shut.
This was it, Misaki realized. This was the joy they had all promised, in a single, simple hope: Mamoru might grow up to be different from his father.
The sound of small bare feet interrupted her thoughts.
“Good morning, Naga-kun.” She recognized the springy steps of her third son before she turned to look at him. “Did you sleep well?”
“Kaa-chan…” the toddler slurred, rubbing his eyes. “Baby crying.”
“I’ll be right there,” Misaki said softly.
Mamoru was so deeply unconscious that he didn’t even stir as she laid him down on the wooden deck and went to comfort Izumo. She hoped that Mamoru would be able to sleep for a little while before heading to school. But when she emerged from the little ones’ room with Izumo in her arms and a sleepy Hiroshi following after her, she realized that this had been a foolish hope.
“Nii-san up!” Nagasa giggled. The three-year-old had clambered on top of his brother and was alternately tugging his hair and slapping his face. “Wake up!”
“Kaa-chan,” Mamoru grumbled, his eyes blinking open. “I’m being attacked by a demon.”
“No!” Nagasa laughed in delight. “No demon! It’s me!”
“Hmm.” Mamoru sat up, pitching his giggling brother into his lap. “That’s just what a demon would say.”
“No!” Still laughing like a maniac, Nagasa squirmed out from under Mamoru’s arm and made a break for the kitchen.
“Not so fast, demon!” Rolling onto his feet, Mamoru caught up to the toddler in two quick strides and scooped him up. “I bet you haven’t brushed your teeth yet—or I’m sorry—your fangs.” He prodded his brother’s cheek and Nagasa snapped playfully at his finger. “Yeah, let’s brush those little demon fangs.”
As Mamoru slung Nagasa over shoulder and carried him toward the washroom, Misaki was overtaken by a memory more distant than Daybreak—giggling through wood-paneled halls with her own brothers. Takashi said that he and Takeru had never really played as children—or rather that Takeru had never wanted to play with him.
Fifteen years, Misaki had been lamenting being fated to raise Matsuda boys. All that time, she hadn’t considered that these boys might have something of her in them too.
She wondered, what else could I wish for?
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