Frost crept up the tree branches as the month of Koronkalo froze into a sparklingly cold Sibikalo. The sun set early, hearths burned brighter in the frozen evenings, and Misaki was thankful that this new baby wasn’t quite as cold as the others. Mamoru, Hiroshi, and Nagasa had all gotten progressively icier as they grew stronger, but Izumo’s little body stayed warm even as his muscles came in, and Misaki found herself genuinely enjoying holding him close through that first month of the cold season.
According to the news, some other villages and cities along Kaigen’s western coast had been ravaged by storms. But Takayubi remained a picture of a small-town peace as Nagi cast her first snow on the mountain. Izumo learned to focus his eyes to a world cloaked in white.
Where previous winters there had been a solitary set of footprints through the first snow, now there were two. Kwang Chul-hee showed up at the doors of the Matsuda compound each morning to meet Mamoru, and the two made their way down the mountain together, talking. When it came time for Geomijul to begin construction on its info-com towers, Mamoru begged his father to let him join Chul-hee and Kotetsu Atsushi on the construction team during his winter break. Misaki hadn’t expected Takeru to agree, but he allowed it, on the condition that Mamoru keep up with his training and schoolwork. So, under mounting snow-cover, Mamoru, Chul-hee, and little Atushi began work on the towers that would change communication in Takayubi forever.
If Misaki had been a better mother, maybe she would have discouraged her son’s friendship with the opinionated northerner. But Mamoru was a young man now, she told herself in justification.
She didn’t know what he talked about with Kwang Chul-hee. True to his promise, he never brought any of those conversations home with him. But the change in her son was visible. It was the marked difference between a carefree man and a thinking one. A swordsman was supposed to be wary of his surroundings. But it was one thing to be attuned to wind and water droplets; another to analyze and understand human actions. As Izumo’s little baby eyes started to bring the physical world into focus, Mamoru’s eyes were changing too. There was a sharpness to the way he looked at everything around him—a hunger—as he scrutinized the rough edges and shifting layers, trying to make the pieces fit together.
Misaki should have realized it was only a matter of time before he did something stupid. He wasn’t a jaseli, trained to retain and process the truths of the world, nor was he a peaceful craftsman. He was a fighter, with a fighter’s ferocity. And there was a reason the jaseliwu, finawu, and numuwu of the world kept certain things from their koronu. It was only a matter of time.
“You seriously forged all of these yourself?” Chul-hee said, raising his eyebrows at Atsushi. “Without any help?”
“I’m in training to make the greatest swords in the world,” the blacksmith’s son said indignantly. “I don’t need help to forge big, straight-forward beams like these—especially since your father provided the steel and molds.”
“Well, they look beautiful.” Chul-hee rapped his knuckles against the steel beam at the top of the pile with an appreciative smile. “I know numuwu in Yamma who would kill to be able to do this.”
The three boys had already aided in the construction of two info-com towers further down the mountain, near the village hall. This was the first time Atsushi had forged the steel beams, rods, and screws without his father’s help as well as the first time the youngsters were being allowed to work construction without supervision.
The foundation had been set—cement solution poured into deep holes—earlier that week. All the boys had to do now was assemble a three-bound-tall tower on top of it, working from the Kwangs’ blueprints.
“Do you know if they got the first two towers working?” Atsushi asked, as they moved the first beam into place.
“My father told me they already have all the utilities set up,” Mamoru said. “They were hoping to get it working today.”
Since Mamoru was a little boy, his father had worked an administrative job at the village hall. In the old days, Matsudas hadn’t needed regular jobs; the surrounding koro houses had provided them with everything they needed in return for the privilege of sending their sons to train in their dojo. But as the population of Takayubi dwindled, the Matsuda family had had to turn to other means of making a living.
After the Keleba, Matsuda Mizudori had become a sword instructor and then the headmaster of Kumono Academy. His son, Matsuda Susumu, followed in his footsteps, and his son, Matsuda Takashi, followed in his. As Takashi’s younger brother, Takeru had spent a few years serving as the head sword instructor at Kumono. But after his father passed away, he had ceded the position to Yukino Dai to take a government job at the village hall.
Mamoru wasn’t entirely sure what his father did at work—just that it involved lots of papers and numbers, and kept him extremely busy. And whenever the government or a business introduced something new to the village—like new roads, or trash disposal systems, or info-com towers—Tou-sama was there to facilitate the process.
“So, once its working, the computer at the village hall will be able to send and receive messages from anywhere?” Atsushi asked.
“Not anywhere,” Chul-hee clarified. “To start with, probably just other places nearby with working towers.”
Atsushi looked excitedly down the mountain toward the village hall. “Do you think it’s working yet?”
Chul-hee pulled his info-com device out of his pocket and glanced at it. “Not yet.”
“How do you know?”
Chul-hee held the device up to show Atsushi the screen. “No signal.”
“So, that thing… that info-com device will just connect automatically if there’s a working tower around?”
“That’s the idea.”
“So, for an info-com device to work all the time, there would have to be towers all over the world?”
“Not necessarily,” Chul-hee said. “The Yammankalu have satellites that send and receive info-com signals from space.”
“What?!” Atsushi dropped the end of the beam he was carrying and Mamoru just barely managed to catch it in a pillar of ice before it crushed the blacksmith boy’s toes.
“Sorry, Matsuda-dono!” Atsushi bowed to him. “Sorry, I just… you’re joking, right?” he turned to Chul-hee. “Right, Kwang-san? You can’t send communication signals that far!”
Chul-hee smiled at the boy’s disbelieving face. “It’s not a joke, numuden.”
As Chul-hee explained Yamma’s satellites to Atsushi, the boys maneuvered the first beam into place.
“Is everything lined up?” Mamoru asked from where he stood, supporting the heaviest part of the beam while the other two tugged it into alignment with the base.
“Perfect,” Kwang said. “Go ahead, Mamoru.”
Nodding, Mamoru let his jiya surge into action. The snow around them rose to encase the base of the beam in ice and form pillars to hold the top of it in place. This was a system the three of them had worked out over a week of working together: Mamoru maneuvered the pieces of the tower into place and held them there with the huge ice formations that only he could make, Chul-hee and Atushi inserted the screws, and then Atsushi welded the pieces together with his blowtorch. As they worked their way upward, Mamoru started forming steps of ice for the other two to climb to reach the tower’s joints.
“So, no matter where you go in Yamma, there’s always a signal?” Atsushi asked as he and Chul-hee sat atop one of Mamoru’s ice platforms a bound and a half from the ground, screwing a beam in place.
“Almost,” Chul-hee said, “not underground.”
“Wait.” Atsushi paused. “Does that mean these towers will be obsolete in a few years?”
“No. Why would you say that?”
“Well, if Yamma has already had info-com satellites in space for years, Kaigen can’t be far behind, right?”
Chul-hee pressed his lips together and focused on tightening the screw before him. So far, he had avoided sharing any of his anti-government thoughts with Atsushi. Maybe because the numu was younger than Mamoru—and he seemed so bright-eyed and innocent. “Satellites are expensive,” he said finally.
“But Kaigen has more money than Yamma,” Atsushi said. “The economy’s the best it’s been in history.”
“Well…” Chul-hee started. “The thing about that is—”
Mamoru coughed. The ice under his control cracked violently, nearly pitching Chul-hee and Atsushi from their perch—nearly; he wasn’t irresponsible. Atsushi screamed and grabbed onto Chul-hee, who grabbed onto the nearest beam.
“Sorry!” Mamoru cleared his throat and righted the ice platform beneath them. “I just—inhaled some snow.”
While Atsushi righted himself, Chul-hee stared over the edge of the platform down at Mamoru. Meeting his eyes, Mamoru slowly shook his head. Atsushi wasn’t stupid, but he was only ten; he wasn’t ready to have his world turned upside down.
Mamoru knew by now that he couldn’t stop Chul-hee’s dangerous mouth by yelling at him, or punching him, or pleading with him to be more careful. He suspected as he held Chul-hee’s gaze that it was only a matter of time before little Atsushi was treated to the same horrible revelations he had experienced the day he met the northern boy. But for the moment, Chul-hee relented, and changed the subject.
The three were just discussing heading back to the village hall for lunch when Mamoru caught sight of a pair of figures coming up the mountain toward them. Even at a distance, Mamoru recognized his father’s even, deliberate gait—eerily smooth over uneven ground. The other figure, trudging and stumbling alongside him could only be Chul-hee’s father, Kwang Tae-min. The travelling Geomijul representative, despite his breadth of knowledge and worldly air, was not a sure-footed creature. It was easy to tell that he was a stranger to snow and mountains.
“Oh—Matsuda-dono,” Atsushi said as he too caught sight of the men. “What is he doing up here?”
“I don’t know.” Mamoru’s brow furrowed. Tou-sama wasn’t known for leaving his desk. After Chul-hee and Atsushi finished securing the beam they were working on, Mamoru used his ice to lower them to the ground.
Atsushi scrambled down, as the men approached, and bowed deeply.
“Appa, Matsuda-sama, good to see you,” Chul-hee said with a more casual bow. “What are you doing up here?”
“Unfortunately, I need to collect my son and head home,” Tou-sama said. “Something has come up.”
“Oh—it’s going to be difficult to keep working without him,” Chul-hee said. “He’s been doing most of the heavy lifting.”
“It’s fine,” Kwang Tae-min said. “I was going to call you boys down to the village hall anyway. I need your help with a few things.”
“Are the towers working?” Atsushi asked excitedly.
“That’s where I need your help, kid,” Kwang said with a smile. “We have some frozen wires. I was hoping you could help me find some better insulation.”
“Oh. Of course, Sir.”
After Chul-hee and Atsushi packed up their tools, the group made their way back down the footpath toward the village.
“I’ve never personally overseen construction in a place this cold,” Kwang Tae-min said, carefully picking his way through the snow. “As a jijaka, I suppose I should be embarrassed; after years of setting up Geomijul infrastructure in Yamma and Sizwe, I’ve completely underestimated the destructive power of ice.”
The Kwangs and Atsushi went on discussing wiring, insulation, and a lot of technical things Mamoru didn’t understand until they reached the break in the path. One fork led toward the snow-covered village hall and the much bigger info-com tower looming beside it. The other led back down to the village itself.
“Goodbye, Matsuda-dono,” Atsushi said, bowing to Mamoru and his father.
Kwang just punched Mamoru in the arm. “See you tomorrow, Mamoru-kun.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Mamoru was so sure-footed that he was used to being the fastest up and down the rocky mountain paths, but Tou-sama didn’t even both with the rocks at all. Ice changed shape to form level steps beneath his feet with each stride. Deep snow parted before him like it couldn’t wait to clear his way.
Like most jijakalu, Mamoru needed to put in visible effort to manipulate water. Tou-sama’s power was on a level where water scrambled to obey him, and Mamoru found himself struggling to keep pace.
“That boy is very familiar with you,” Tou-sama said without looking back at him.
“Yukino Yuuta and Mizumaki Keichi are your classmates too. You haven’t been spending very much time with them this winter.”
“We still train together sometimes,” Mamoru said. “I just wanted to work on the info-com towers with Chul-hee and Atsushi.” He paused, glancing nervously up at his father’s face. “If you want me to stop, I will. I only joined the construction team because you said it was alright—”
“It’s fine with me. Just as long as you stay focused on your true purpose.”
His tone made Mamoru’s gut clench in guilt. He still hadn’t gotten any closer to mastering the Whispering Blade.
“So… why are we heading home so early?” he ventured, hoping for a change of subject.
“I was going to leave early anyway. I have a meeting with my brother at the eleventh waati at his office. But a letter just arrived for your mother, from Ishihama.”
“Oh.” Mamoru still didn’t understand. It wasn’t unusual for Kaa-chan to receive letters from her family in Ishihama. The post workers at the village hall sometimes gave Tou-sama the family’s mail to take home with him rather than delivering it to the door, but Mamoru had never known his father to rush them straight home.
“This letter was marked as urgent,” Tou-sama explained at his look of confusion. “It was sent through the one-day express post with Lord Tsusano’s personal seal, which means it must contain news he needs delivered right away.”
And Mamoru found himself picking up his stride, wondering what news from his mother’s home was so urgent it couldn’t wait a day.
“You’re home early,” Misaki said in surprise. “I’m sorry—I just put Izumo down for his nap, so I haven’t gotten lunch ready yet.”
“Where are the other two?” Takeru asked. He tended to do that—talk about the boys like they were items on an inventory.
“Hiroshi is at the elementary school for extra training, and Nagasa is napping.” After an uproarious three-waatinu chasing Ryota around in the snow, she was hoping he would stay down for a while. “Give me a siira. I’ll make you tea and put some lunch together.”
“Before that,” Takeru said, “there’s something you need to see.” He pulled a scroll out of his sleeve and held it out to her. “This is why we came back early. It’s from your brother.”
“Oh.” Misaki took the scroll from her husband. While Ishihama had working telephone lines, Takayubi did not. So, on the rare occasions Kazu contacted her, it was always through letters. But this was the first time one of them had ever been marked as express mail. She tore through the Tsusano seal and unrolled the scroll.
I hope this message reaches you in time that you don’t have to worry. Yesterday, our hometown and the neighboring area was hit by a coastal storm. Many homes were devastated, including our own Arashiki, and over 100 people have turned up dead so far. I just want to let you know before you hear about it on the news, that our family and friends are all alive and well.
My wife and I sustained some minor injuries, but Mother, Father, and all the little ones are unhurt. After all, we would hardly be Tsusanos if we couldn’t weather a bit of wind and rain. But all jokes aside, it seems like these storms have been especially bad recently. See if you can talk your husband into a vacation further inland. I hear the capital is lovely this time of year.
Nyama to you,
Your brother, Tsusano Kazu, Lord of Arashiki
“What does Lord Tsusano say?” Takeru asked.
Misaki suppressed a smile. Even though it had been years since her father passed on the title, it was still funny to hear people refer to her silly baby brother as Lord Tsusano.
Misaki handed Takeru the letter. His eyes flicked up and down, reading through it.
“What’s this part at the end? Why is he recommending we go inland?”
“I don’t know,” Misaki said honestly. “Sometimes Kazu… has an odd sense of humor.”
“He knows we live on a mountain, right? We’re hardly in danger of flooding.”
“I know. It’s strange.” The whole thing was strange.
Arashiki, the Stormfort, was an old castle built into the rock face overlooking the sea. The power of the Tsusano clan made it the only safe landing place along a coast of wave-beaten rock. In the old days, the inhabitants of the Stormfort used their jiya to bring trade ships from the mainland safely into port. During the Keleba, when the mainland became the enemy, the Tsusanos of Arashiki made a new name for themselves dashing Ranganese ships to pieces on the rocks and raising the sea to swallow the survivors. Now the Stormfort served as the Empire’s guard tower, a watchful eye looking ever westward toward the Ranganese Union.
While Misaki had reason to doubt her grandfather’s stories that the Tsusanos had single-handedly wrecked half the Ranganese armada, it was hard to imagine any seafaring force passing their coast intact. But the ocean was a fickle ally. And for every day of diving gulls and bright sunshine, Misaki remembered a night of thunder and crashing waves that shook the cliff side. Tou-san and the servants would go around shuttering the windows while Kaa-san took Misaki and the two boys into the safe stone rooms deep inside the house. Misaki remembered gritting her teeth against the plaintive creaking of the walls, huddled into her mother’s arms.
The storms, Kaa-san said, were a reminder of their place in the world. “Always remember, children, ours is borrowed power. It is a gift and a blessing. The true power belongs to the gods.”
But the gods were always merciful to the Tsusanos. Despite the noise and fear, none of the storms had ever taken more than a few shingles and shutters off the mighty Arashiki. Misaki couldn’t imagine a storm powerful enough to damage the stubborn barnacle of a fortress, much less destroy it. And Ishihama was in Shirojima, not far down the coast from Takayubi. If they had just suffered waves big enough to take out the Arashiki, how could the waters here remain undisturbed? How could the sky above the mountain be so clear?
“We should put on the news,” Takeru said, “to see if there’s any more information on the storm.”
It wasn’t unusual for the Matsudas to have the TV on while they ate meals. Most of the time, it was background noise—an endless procession of bland propaganda. But recently, Misaki had noticed Mamoru giving the screen his full attention, watching the waving flags and talking with almost predatory fascination.
“I’m here in Ishihama,” the reporter jaseli told the camera in Kaigengua, “where many homes were recently devastated by a terrible storm. Our imperial troops have been working tirelessly to provide aid to the displaced and retrieve survivors from the wreckage.”
Misaki watched anxiously, hoping they would show some of the damage—and at the same time hoping they wouldn’t. Ishihama was the place of her youngest, most innocent memories. She didn’t know if she could bear to see it in ruins. But they didn’t show any footage. The reporter went on talking in front of a white winter sky, her hair and kimono blowing in a restless wind.
“Out of concern for our safety, the soldiers have not allowed myself or my camera crew any closer to the destruction than this hill. We are truly lucky to have their help in this time of need, and to have a leader who cares so deeply for all of our safety. For some words from the capital, I give you to Jali Banhyang Jee, Voice of the Emperor.”
“Greetings, people of Kaigen, children of the Empire.” Banhyang’s entrancing voice was as smooth and strong as ever, though it carried a note of solemnity. “Today, His Majesty’s heart is heavy with the tragedy that has befallen his children in Ishihama.”
As the Emperor’s jaseli spoke, the screen finally began displaying still images of the destruction in Ishihama—houses reduced to rubble, bamboo forests flattened, cars floating in flooded streets flooded. Then, soldiers arriving in their royal blue uniforms to help people out of the rubble, to carry the wounded, and cradle lost children.
“That’s not real,” Mamoru said quietly.
“That,” Mamoru pointed just as the image disappeared from the screen. “That photo of soldiers handing food out to civilians. They used it a week ago, when they reported on the storms in Heibando and Yongseom.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken,” Misaki said with a nervous glance at Takeru. “A lot of coastal towns look similar.”
“I’m not mistaken,” Mamoru insisted. “That’s the third time they’ve used it.”
By this time, the broadcast had switched to different footage—decimated houses and flooded streets. As Misaki looked more closely at the wreckage on the screen, she couldn’t say that the landscape and architecture looked particularly familiar. Then again, it had been a long time since she had seen Ishihama.
“Why do you think they’re not showing us the real footage?” Mamoru asked.
“Mamoru,” Misaki said warningly. “This isn’t the time to be worrying about tiny technicalities—”
“It’s not a tiny technicality. They’re not showing us any video footage. All the images could be faked—”
“Mamoru,” Takeru said. “Your mother’s hometown was just struck by a terrible tragedy. Show some respect.”
“Is that respect?” Mamoru demanded, pointing to the screen. “They won’t even give us the truth about what happened to those people. Do you call that respect?”
Misaki felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. She looked at Takeru and realized that she had no idea how he would react. She had never said anything like that to his face. She wasn’t an idiot.
“Mamoru, I-I’m sure you don’t know what you’re saying,” she scrambled to repair the damage. “His Majesty, the Emperor tells us what we need to know. It’s not so much a matter of literal truth—”
“I want to know what Father thinks.” Mamoru looked to Takeru.
“I think… you must be running a fever,” Takeru said after a measured pause. “Kotetsu Atsushi was sick with the flu last week and now he’s passed it on to you. Are you feeling unwell?”
He was giving Mamoru a chance to back down—a chance any sane person would take under the weight of that icy stare. But Mamoru had apparently gone insane.
“I’m feeling fine, Tou-sama,” he said in a strong voice. “Respectfully, I just want to know how you feel about your government lying to you.”
Takeru’s expression barely changed—except for a deepening of the groove between his severe eyebrows. It was the scariest thing Misaki had ever seen.
“It’s that Kwang boy, isn’t it?” he said darkly. “He’s the one who’s put these ridiculous ideas in your head.”
Mamoru took a breath and held his father’s gaze. “Does it matter where the ideas came from, if there’s truth in them?”
“What has he been saying to you?”
“A lot of things. He says the hurricanes the government keeps reporting aren’t really natural storms; they’re Ranganese attacks.”
The feeling in Misaki’s stomach turned from anxiety to pure dread.
“Then he’s either a liar or an idiot,” Takeru said dismissively. “The Ranganese aren’t powerful enough to cause that much destruction, especially in places like Ishihama and Yongseom, where there are strong warriors to oppose them.”
But he was wrong. The Ranganese Union was—and always had been—more powerful and cunning than the ruling Kaigenese were willing to admit. It was a mistake that had already cost them two thirds of the Empire.
Buildings damaged by fonya looked different from those damaged by natural storms. Could that be why the news crews weren’t allowed at the scene of the disaster? Was that why they weren’t showing real footage?
“Kwang Chul-hee says the Emperor doesn’t want us to know how strong the Ranganese have gotten so we won’t panic, so we’ll stay here and die defending his coastline.”
“You sound angry,” Takeru said evenly. “It is our duty to defend Kaigen, no matter what information His Majesty, the Emperor chooses to share with us.”
“But… doesn’t that just make us cannon fodder?”
“It makes us the cannon.”
Mamoru faltered. “But—that’s not— If the Emperor won’t even tell us—”
“What the Emperor does or doesn’t tell us is irrelevant,” Takeru said. “None of it changes the fact that we are here to lay down our lives for the Empire. We are the Sword of Kaigen.”
“You say that—everyone says that—but in the end, a sword is just a tool.”
In one motion, Takeru stood and backhanded Mamoru across the face.
Mamoru looked surprised. He shouldn’t have.
“You will not say such things in my house. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Tou-sama. I’m sorry.”
“I thought I was raising a real man. But your words just now show me how weak and ignorant you really are.”
“A warrior’s sword isn’t made of ice or metal. It is his soul, his pride, his conviction. That is what makes a Whispering Blade and it’s why you continuously fail to produce one.”
“If you knew, you wouldn’t let such disgraceful nonsense come out of your mouth. The Empire depends on us to be stronger than doubt, stronger than fear. As long as we are not broken, the Sword of Kaigen will not break, and the Empire will stand. Only a weakling would let himself doubt that. Are you that weakling?”
“We’ll see. Get your sword. I’ll be in the dojo,” and he swept from the room.
Still stunned, Mamoru lifted a hand to his face. He didn’t touch his cheek where Takeru had struck him. Instead, he brought his fingers to his mouth, as though unable to believe what had just come out of it.
“I just said that.” He looked at Misaki, wide-eyed. “I just said those things to my father.”
“You did,” Misaki said, rather stunned herself.
“Am I an idiot, Kaa-chan?”
“Might be.” Misaki offered her son a smile, even as anxiety twisted in her stomach. “Now, do as your father says. Go defend your idiocy.”
“Is he going to kill me?”
“If he is, you’d better die like a man, on your feet.”
Nodding, Mamoru rose slowly, squared his shoulders, and walked out of the room.
“Glory to Kaigen!” Jali Banhyang bellowed at his back. “Long live the Emperor!”
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