The Matsuda dojo occupied over half the compound. In centuries past, it had accommodated fifty students at a time. These days, the only people who trained here were the Matsudas themselves.
Women weren’t allowed on the floor, and Misaki made a concerted effort not to hover at the door too often. A lady was not supposed to take an interest in sword fighting. It wasn’t supposed to make her eyes light and her blood surge. When she watched others in the heat of combat, she teetered close—much too close—to her old self, and she found it best to avoid the edge altogether.
But for once, it wasn’t hunger that drove Misaki to follow her husband and son to the dojo doorway; it was pure motherly concern. There was a deadly edge to Takeru’s nyama that made her want to stay close to Mamoru. Just in case. Takeru had never been excessively violent with his children, never seriously injured Mamoru in training. But just in case.
She knelt in the dojo doorway to watch as Takeru and Mamoru prepared to fight. Most training was done with wooden blades, but this wasn’t a normal training. The two had brought out their steel katanas, placing them on the floor before them and bowing to the weapons in silence. It was a ritual that marked the beginning of a duel.
Outsiders assumed that traditional steel didn’t mean much to a master of the Whispering Blade. It was only after marrying into the family that Misaki herself realized how much the steel katanas meant to the Matsudas. A Matsuda man’s katana was his dearest companion up until and even after he achieved a Whispering Blade. It was only through rigorous daily training with that steel that he instinctively knew how to shape a blade and distributed weight when it came time to spin his sword of ice. A Matsuda who didn’t train with an excellent metal sword stood no chance of making even a halfway-decent one out of ice.
Takeru, usually so calm and precise in his movements, tied his katana at his hip faster than normal, yanking the strings taught with uncharacteristic ferocity. His sword was Numu Kotetsu Katashi’s proudest accomplishment, an elegant, minimalistic weapon, with a circular hilt of unadorned steel, and a handle of pearly white lacquer. The blacksmith had named the weapon Tsukiyari, the Moon Spire—a blade so bright and clean that it could cut through the dark of night like Nami’s mirror.
Mamoru’s katana, which he had helped to forge himself, was almost as long as Tsukiyari, making it a positively massive sword for such a young fighter. Nami and Nagi’s serpent forms entwined in two-toned silver and bronze to form the hilt above a handle bound in dark teal wrapping. The young sword didn’t have a name yet. That was something it would have to earn in its koro’s hands—hands that faltered slightly as Mamoru slid the sheath into the belt of his hakama. Fingers fumbled with the string for a moment before managing to tie it properly.
Takashi claimed that there were days that Mamoru could fight on almost even footing with his father. But Misaki could see when Mamoru took up his starting stance that this was not one of those days. He did a good job making his apprehension look like determination. It would have fooled the untrained observer, but his upper arms were too tense. His grip wasn’t quite steady. They were the kind of cues Misaki used to look for when she needed to dismantle another fighter—which meant that Takeru could see them too.
“If you think you’re man enough to preach truth to me, you’d better be ready to back it up in combat,” Takeru said, fixing his son with an icy glare. “Are you ready?”
Mamoru nodded. “Yes, Tou-sama.”
“Good,” Takeru said, and shot forward. The first clash made Misaki’s heart leap in something between terror and excitement. The ring of steel blades was like electricity in her veins. With a clang, Takeru knocked Mamoru’s sword aside and sliced downward, bringing his sword to a stop a hair’s-breadth from Mamoru’s neck.
“Your defense is terrible,” he spat, smacking Mamoru’s cheek with the flat of his blade. “I hope you can do better than that.”
Takeru came at Mamoru again and again, each time redoubling the amount of power.
“Sloppy!” he growled and struck Mamoru’s knuckles.
Takeru had excellent control. Like any decent teacher, he would hit Mamoru hard enough to let him know he’d made a mistake, never hard enough to cause permanent damage or overwhelming pain.
But today, he was hitting harder than normal—harder than he needed to.
“Still sloppy! You call that defense?” Takeru blasted through Mamoru’s guard and struck him in the sternum with the hilt of his sword. Too hard.
Mamoru doubled over. For a moment, Misaki thought his knees were going to give out, but he inexplicably managed to stay on his feet.
“Stand up,” Takeru said coldly. “If I wanted to end this fight now, I’d have hit you with the sharp end. Stand and face me.”
Mamoru tried to straighten up, staggered, gagged, and clapped a hand over his mouth. Misaki was certain he was going to throw up, but after a few deep breaths, he swallowed hard and lifted his gaze to meet Takeru’s. Gripping his katana like a lifeline, he resumed his fighting stance.
Takeru took the invitation without waiting for Mamoru to get his bearings back. Their blades crashed together so hard that Misaki felt the impact in her bones, her forearms twitching as she imagined the damage her own body would take under that force. The collision sent Mamoru’s katana spinning out of his hands.
On a normal day of training, they would have stopped after someone was disarmed. But Takeru kept going. Before the katana had hit the dojo floor, he was attacking again. Mamoru caught on just in time to form an ice shield across his arm. Takeru’s blade glanced off the shield once, twice, and then stuck in the softer outer layer of ice.
Misaki recognized the sophisticated disarming technique. She had never mastered it even at her prime, but Mamoru pulled it off neatly. His jiya swallowed the Moon Spire and froze around it. Then, cranking his body around, he spun the sword from his father’s hands.
Takeru let it happen. His jiya was easily powerful enough to override his son’s, but he loosened his grip and let Mamoru fling the sword away.
“Alright, boy.” Takeru flexed his fingers and the temperature plummeted. “If this is the way you’d rather fight…”
The Whispering Blade flashed out of nowhere. Mamoru ducked under the cut and rolled to retrieve his katana—only to meet a wall of ice.
“I don’t think so,” Takeru said. “If you’re man enough to stand and insult me to my face, then you’re man enough to face me jiya to jiya.”
What came next was painful to watch.
Mamoru had mastered every jiya attack in the Kumono curriculum, and then some. He could shoot projectiles with pinpoint accuracy, sling whips of water at blinding speed, and raise walls as thick as tree trunks. And he was smart enough to use everything in his arsenal to keep Takeru and his Whispering Blade at a distance.
None of it made a difference.
Takeru cleaved through all his defenses like they were rice paper, closing the distance between them. In close, Mamoru had no choice but to try to match his father’s ice katana with his own. In a seemingly perfect imitation of Takeru’s technique, he opened his hand and let jiya pour out of his palm to form a sword of solid ice. It looked like a Whispering Blade—straight, sharp, and clear—but Takeru sliced through in a single stroke.
“Pathetic!” he scoffed as Mamoru scrambled to reform the blade from where it had been severed. “Muddy intentions produce an impure ice.”
Mamoru took a swing with his reformed sword. All Takeru had to do was raise his own Whispering Blade in defense and Mamoru’s ice broke. The process repeated again and again until Takeru lost patience and shattered Mamoru’s entire sword, leaving him with a handful of splintered ice.
Weaponless, Mamoru tried to form a shield, but Takeru punched through it, knocking him to the tatami.
“I y—” Mamoru started, only to have the breath knocked out of him as Takeru’s foot slammed into his chest, pinning him to the floor. “I yield!” he managed to shout at last.
“Do you?” Takeru growled and stabbed downward.
For a single moment of blind terror, she saw Takeru plunge his blade into Mamoru’s mouth—but that wasn’t quite what happened. As Takeru’s fist shot forward, his Whispering Blade collapsed into harmless liquid. It refroze across Takeru’s knuckles just as they connected with Mamoru’s face. The boy’s head snapped back, blood blossomed from his mouth, and he lay there stunned.
Takeru let out his breath.
For a moment he looked like he was going to hit Mamoru again. Then he paused. “What are you doing, Misaki?”
“What?” Misaki looked down and realized that she was on her feet. Not only that, she had taken two steps onto the dojo floor. Ice had formed on her fingernails in the beginning of claws. “Oh…” she said blankly. “I-I’m sorry, I… Sorry.” She quickly backed off the forbidden floor and folded to her knees, shaken. “I’m sorry, husband. Continue.”
Takeru stared at her for a long moment before turning his gaze back to Mamoru. The boy was still lying flat on his back, mouth and nose red with blood. His eyes had a blank, shell-shocked look about them, and Misaki wondered if he had thought the same thing she had for that split dinma: that Takeru was actually going to kill him.
“A Matsuda does not yield,” Takeru said. “He fights through the enemies before him or he dies on his feet.” Takeru’s fist was still clenched, the ice still cold on his knuckles. “If you’re too scared to face the Empire’s enemies, you have no right to call yourself part of this family. You have no right to stand before me in this dojo.”
Misaki barely heard the words coming out of Takeru’s mouth. All her attention was on his fist as her mind screamed, don’t hit him again. For all the gods, don’t you dare hit him again. She didn’t think she would be able to hold herself still if she had to watch Mamoru take another blow. She was so intent on Takeru’s icy knuckles and the crawl of Mamoru’s blood over the tatami, that the sound of approaching footsteps made her jump.
“Setsuko!” she exclaimed as her sister-in-law came to stand in the doorway beside her.
“Sorry.” Setsuko knelt and bowed to Takeru. “I—uh…” She paused as she took in the mess of ice strewn across the dojo, and the blood on Mamoru’s face. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”
“What do you want?” Takeru snapped.
“My husband wanted to remind you that you have a meeting with him at the eleventh waati at his office.”
“Tell him I’ll be late.”
“You’re already late.” Only Setsuko could take that tone with Matsuda Takeru while he stood, prickling with jiya, spattered with blood and ice crystals.
He glared at her for a moment before turning to look down at Mamoru. “Clean up this mess,” he said. “Practice on your own until I get back. You do not leave this dojo until you’ve cleaned up your sloppy technique.”
“Great Nami, what happened here?” Setsuko whispered to Misaki.
“I’ll explain later,” Misaki said in a low voice.
She and Setsuko got to their feet and parted to make way for Takeru as he stepped out of the dojo.
“I’ll go with you to Kumono,” Setsuko said. “My husband forgot his lunch, so I’m going to take it to him. I just have to get Ayumi bundled up for the cold—”
“Go on ahead,” Takeru said disinterestedly. “Pack up whatever you need. I’ll be with you when you’re ready to go.”
Setsuko took the hint to clear out and bowed herself out of his presence. When she had gone, Takeru turned his icy glare on Misaki.
“Is this your doing?” he asked in a low voice. “Or just that city boy?”
“I…” Misaki didn’t know what to say. She may have been guilty of putting dangerous thoughts in Mamoru’s head, and she didn’t know how much influence Kwang Chul-hee had on him; it was hard to say who was to blame for his doubts. But the gall to challenge his father wasn’t something he could have gotten from either of them. Mamoru’s rage was his alone. “I’m sorry. I don’t know—”
“I don’t care.” Takeru turned away from her. “Just fix it.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you had some hand in this… this weakness that’s overtaken him, you set it right. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” Misaki said timidly.
She stood stiffly in the hall as Takeru walked away, taking the worst of the cold with him.
In the dojo, Mamoru had gotten to his knees, but didn’t seem to have found it in his legs to stand. Misaki itched to go to him, to pick him up, to heal the bruises. Instead, she just asked softly, “Are you alright?”
“Yes.” Mamoru stood gingerly, his mouth and nose dripping blood on his hakama. Putting his hands to his mouth, he glanced to the doorway. “I’m sorry.” He said into his hands. “Sorry you had to see that.”
It wasn’t clear if he was referring to his attitude, his sloppy fighting, or the blood. Misaki realized, with a bit of very misplaced amusement, that Mamoru probably thought this was the most violence she had ever witnessed.
She finally came up with what she hoped was a reassuring, “I’ve seen worse.”
Mamoru stood alone in the middle of the dojo with his hands covering his mouth until he heard the sound of Takeru and Setsuko’s footsteps leaving the compound and the thud of the sliding door closing behind them.
Then he moved his hands, waking his jiya. Misaki watched in surprise as he drew the blood from his face and clothes then formed a scab over his split lip. She knew that as a child, he had shown promise in blood manipulation, but she hadn’t realized that he still remembered the little she had taught him all those years ago. Not only that, he had taken the time to get better at it. And she took a moment to wonder again, that all these years, this boy had been growing up right in front of her—and she had missed it.
His lip mended, Mamoru walked around the dojo, melting down and evaporating all the ice left over from the fight. He didn’t work with his usual speed and power, but Misaki was glad that he was at least walking and breathing normally. Once he had extracted the last bits of moisture from the tatami, to prevent any mold from forming, Mamoru picked up his katana and shifted into his starting stance. And with a slow breath, he started running through his forms.
Even without a real opponent in front of him, Mamoru moved with ferocity that brought the form to life. Misaki could feel each breath in her own lungs, each shift and explosion in her own muscles. She found herself matching his steps in her mind, striking and parrying the blade with her eyes. Slowly, she started to pick out the weak spots, the lagging movements, the openings… The form was beautiful. Not perfect.
Misaki didn’t realize she had said the words aloud until Mamoru turned to look at her.
“It’s…” nothing, Misaki meant to say. It’s nothing. After all, what would a woman know of fighting? “You won’t fend off your father fighting like that.”
“I know that, Kaa-chan.” Mamoru let his sword arm fall. “It’s obvious how much better he is.” Misaki never would have guessed it from the boy’s beautiful, fluid movements, but the irritable note in his voice betrayed the depths of his frustration. “I don’t know how to close the gap. I can’t fight like he does.”
“Yes, you can,” Misaki said. “You fight exactly like he does—just not quite as clean. That’s your problem; you’re trying to imitate a swordsman with many times your strength and nyama. You need to play to your advantages.”
“Your range of movement, for one. You’re quicker and lighter on your feet than your father.”
Mamoru was shaking his head. “That’s nice of you to say, Kaa-chan, but I’m not. If you knew anything about fighting, you’d have seen when we fought—I’m not fast enough to counter him.”
“Yes, you are.” Misaki stood. “Your reaction time is shorter than his, but you waste movement when you hold all that tension in your shoulders. That’s how he keeps getting through your guard.”
Mamoru stared at her and she could see the wheels spinning in his head—as he registered that what she said made sense, but couldn’t figure out how she knew. “If… if it’s so obvious that I’m doing that—if even you can see it—then why didn’t he tell me?”
“He’s been trying,” Misaki sighed. “That’s what he means when he keeps shouting ‘sloppy.’”
“Oh…” Mamoru looked down at nothing for a moment, thinking, visualizing. Then he made two cuts—in such quick succession that Misaki could barely follow the blade with her eyes.
“Better,” she murmured. Not perfect. “Better…”
Mamoru tried again, and Misaki found that she had taken a half-step forward.
“Don’t swing so hard,” she said. “If you have the angle right, the cut will go through without you throwing your whole body behind it.”
“Yukino Sensei says it isn’t easy to cut through bone and sinew,” Mamoru said, his eyes still focused forward. “It takes a lot of power.”
“Power,” Misaki said, “not muscle. If you trust yourself and your blade… you’d be surprised how easy it is to cut through a human body.”
Her toes curled at the threshold. She tipped forward ever so slightly. Teetering.
“Kaa-chan…” Mamoru was starting to look worried. “What on Duna are you talking about?”
“I can’t tell you…” Misaki tilted, trying to will herself back from the edge. This is wrong. This is wrong, you stupid woman. Know your place—“but I can show you.”
And she was over the edge, striding across the dojo floor, light with an idiot’s elation.
Mamoru’s eyes were wide. “Kaa-chan, what are you doing?”
“Something I probably shouldn’t.” She smiled as she reached the sword rack. “But given your behavior today, you’re not one to judge now, are you?” She stood with her hands on her hips for a moment, surveying the rack of Kotetsu swords in their refined lacquer sheaths. The swords at the top of the rack belonged to Matsuda patriarchs past. Having never seen the men’s weapons so close, she took a moment to admire them.
Beside Takeru’s white Moon Spire sat Takashi’s matching katana and wakizashi, Nagimaru and Namimaru. Named for God and Goddess, both weapons had leaping fish carved into their hilts and ocean blue wrapping knotted around their handles. Higher on the rack rested Matsuda Susumu’s sword, the Mist Cutter, Kirinagi, his father’s sword, the Cloud Whip, Kumokei, and his father’s sword, the God Fang, Senkiba. Just standing before the blades of legend put a tingle in Misaki’s fingertips. She would never dream of putting her hands on such sacred weapons.
But further down rested lesser weapons—katana, wakizashi, and tanto that were worn, damaged or otherwise inferior, but still functional. From those, Misaki selected a slender wakizashi and tested its weight in her hands.
“Kaa-chan!” Mamoru exclaimed sheathing his own katana. “I-I don’t think you should be touching those.”
Misaki ignored him. “Heavy.” She frowned. “I suppose Kotetsu weapons are always on the heavy side. No wonder your shoulders are so tense.”
“Kaa-chan, those blades are all sharp,” Mamoru said in mounting anxiety. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“You’re right.” Placing the wakizashi back on the sword rack, Misaki crossed to the dojo supply closet and rummaged for a pair of bokken. “Put away your katana, son.”
Misaki knew she was violating sacred space. She knew she should leave the dojo now, but her resolve only hardened as her hand found the hilt of a wooden sword. Takeru had told her to fix Mamoru. Well, she couldn’t fix the fact that he was confused. She couldn’t fix the fact that he was fourteen. What she could fix was his technique. And this was the only way she knew how.
After some coaxing, Mamoru put away his metal sword and took the wooden one Misaki offered.
“Wh-what is this, Kaa-chan?” he asked, still utterly confused. “What are you doing?”
“You asked what I was up to at that foreign school all those years ago.” She gave the wooden sword a twirl, loosening up her joints. “Your father doesn’t like it when I talk about it, but this won’t require any talking. Go on,” she nodded to Mamoru. “Take a swing.”
He looked aghast. “You can’t be serious! Kaa-chan, I’m not going to—”
“Don’t want to attack a little old lady?” Misaki smiled. “Fine. Then defend!”
She wasn’t half as fast as she had been back in Carytha, but Mamoru was so startled that he just barely got his bokken up in time to block. The hard thwack of wooden blades against one another woke an old joy in Misaki. And suddenly she was moving on pure unfettered instinct, driving her opponent back.
Mamoru was strong, but Misaki had had made a name for herself fighting theonites far stronger than herself. If she met him muscle-to-muscle, the impact would devastate her joints. Instead she let her blade ricochet off his and turned the energy back on him in her own strikes. Wood had spring to it that metal didn’t. The harder Mamoru hit, the more speed he gave her.
Misaki could see on Mamoru’s face that his mind had gone numb with shock. But his body moved on muscle memory, automatically matching each of her steps in perfect form, neatly countering each strike. But as quick as his reflexes were, that kind of conditioned movement had its limits. For one thing, it was predictable.
Misaki feinted a thrust. The movement was ridiculously slow compared to her feints of fifteen years ago, but Mamoru fell for it, which was all that mattered. As he brought his blade across to block, Misaki flipped her bokken over and struck him in the ribs.
Mamoru uttered an undignified yelp—more out of surprise than pain. Misaki very much doubted that she could genuinely hurt him with a wooden sword.
Stepping back, she clicked her tongue. “You shouldn’t have fallen for that.”
Mamoru’s eyes were wide, his hand on his side where she had hit him. “Kaa-chan… this… this is what you did overseas, when you were at school? You fought?” Mamoru shook his head, seemingly struggling to fit this new piece of information in with everything he knew. He brought his hand to his head, pushed it back through his bangs, and stared at his mother. “I… I guess I’m not too surprised.”
“Well, Chul-hee has been telling me about the places he’s been—Yamma, Sizwe, and Kudazwe. In all those countries, female koronu are allowed to fight and serve in the military.”
Misaki nodded. “That’s how it is in most of the world.”
“Right,” Mamoru said slowly, “and you went to school outside of Kaigen, which means that you went to school with those warrior women, when you were fighting age. Aunt Setsuko is always saying you did really well there. So, I guess, it makes sense that you’d be able to fight just as well as anyone else. I just can’t believe I didn’t know… How did I not know?”
“No one does,” Misaki said.
Honestly, she wasn’t entirely sure that was true. It was common for one fighter to be able to spot another just by the way they moved, and Takeru and Takashi-nii-sama were two of the most perceptive fighters she had ever known. Sometimes, she found it difficult to believe that the brothers could have shared a roof with her all these years and not picked up on her combat background. Then again, it was very possible that the sexism inherent to their upbringing had created a blind-spot so intense that they weren’t capable of recognizing those abilities in a woman. In any case, it was not something she would ever discuss with her husband or brother-in-law.
“You understand why your father doesn’t know—why he can’t know,” Misaki said seriously. “He would never approve.” He would reject her love of fighting, like he rejected everything from her past.
She waited for a painful moment for her son to reject it too. Everything in his upbringing suggested that women shouldn’t fight, couldn’t fight. They were precious dolls to be protected—
“Why wouldn’t Tou-sama approve?” Mamoru asked. “I mean—I know it isn’t normal for women to fight, but Tou-sama and everyone else is always talking about how important it is to keep Matsuda bloodlines strong by marrying women from powerful families. If you can fight, doesn’t that just prove that he married a strong woman?”
“So… you’re not upset?” Misaki asked, surprised at how fragile her voice had become. And in a strange moment, she realized that however improper it was, the idea of Mamoru’s disapproval was far more upsetting to her than Takeru’s. “Knowing I can fight doesn’t bother you?”
“Why would it bother me?” Mamoru said earnestly. “I’m the son of two great fighters, instead of one. I should be proud.”
Misaki stared. It defied logic; how had a soulless block of ice like Takeru and a selfish little thing like her created something so bright? Somehow, despite everything, despite this tiny village, his frigid father, his bitter mother, his brainwashing school, despite all of it, Mamoru was growing up into a good person. He was all her bright-eyed wit and Takeru’s raw talent rolled into something better than her vague dream of a life outside Takayubi. He was more than anything she could have dreamed up.
“Kaa-chan?” Mamoru said uncertainly. “What is it?”
“Nothing.” She shook herself. “We have work to do. You’re going to need to take a proper swing at me.”
Mamoru looked nervous. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Misaki smiled. Eighteen years ago, if a boy had said that to her, she would have bared her teeth and said, “Try it.” Now she smiled. “They’re just wooden blades, son. I trust you.” She took up her stance and gave Mamoru an encouraging nod. “I trust you.”
After a moment, Mamoru returned her smile—and attacked. He didn’t come at her full speed. If Misaki was being honest with herself, she probably couldn’t handle him at his full speed. But if he was going to give her openings like an idiot, she was going to make him sorry.
Side-stepping a particularly hesitant stroke of Mamoru’s bokken, she struck him on the knuckles.
“Ow!” He stepped back and shook out his hand. “How are you so strong?”
“I’m not. I’m bouncing off your misplaced force and redirecting it against you. I’m sneaky like that.”
“Maybe for an old lady.” Misaki rolled her shoulder and felt a few joints in her back pop. “You should have seen me in my prime. I would have eviscerated you.”
“You were that powerful?” Mamoru said and—bless his heart—he didn’t even look skeptical.
“No,” Misaki said honestly, “I was never as powerful as you, nor as talented. But I was decisive and willing to fight dirty.”
Of the three friends who had taken up crime-fighting on Livingston’s streets, Misaki was the only one who had never had her picture on the news or acquired a public nickname. There was a good reason for that. Firebird and Hellbat were symbols meant to draw attention. They stepped onto a street intending to be seen, heard, and feared. Nobody thought to fear their creeping comrade until it was too late.
Misaki was an ambush predator. Her preferred tactic was take out a criminal’s Achilles tendons before he noticed her crouched in the shadows. If he saw her before she could spring her trap, she still had the element of surprise; few fighters ever expected a tiny Kaigenese girl to have her unflinching ferocity. And if it came to head-on clash, blades-to-blades—well, she still had plenty of surprises.
In the next bout, Misaki used her signature. She took a swing and missed. Like everyone, Mamoru moved to take advantage of her moment of unbalance. But on the follow-through, she flipped the bokken into a reverse grip. While Mamoru was still starting his swing, she shot forward to meet him. His bokken thumped into her calf; in a real fight, she would have suffered an ugly leg injury—but her blade was at his throat.
“I win,” she breathed as Mamoru uttered a short gasp.
“Why did you let me do that?” she asked.
“I fell for the feint.”
“Only for a dinma.” She had watched his eyes closely. “You had a window of time to correct.”
“Not enough,” Mamoru said. “You were too fast.”
“No.” Misaki shook her head. “Ten years ago, I might have been too fast. Right now, you’re just slow.”
When Misaki attacked again Mamoru blocked the strike to his neck—perhaps only because he was already expecting the feint. His counter was terrifyingly fast, but Misaki anticipated it and ducked. Mamoru’s bokken whistled through empty air above her head. As always, he swung too hard, needlessly throwing himself off balance. In the split second before he recovered, Misaki spun into his ankles, taking both his feet out from under him with a sweep of her bokken.
Mamoru landed hard on his back, but it was Misaki who grunted in pain as they both straightened up. She hadn’t put that kind of strain on her knees in years and they were shrieking in protest.
“Are you okay?” Mamoru asked.
“I’m fine,” Misaki said through gritted teeth. “You, on the other hand, are an idiot. Your father and I are both slower than you. Do you know why we can both get through your defenses?”
“I…” Mamoru looked down at his arms. “I’m too tense.”
Misaki nodded. “And you swing too hard on your attacks. It creates an opening, during your follow-through in which you’re vulnerable.”
“I’m not sure what you’re—”
“I’ll show you. Come at me.”
Mamoru did as he was told and Misaki realized, with a ringing pain in her forearms, that he was starting to fight her for real. She stayed on the defensive, until inevitably, he swung too hard.
“There!” she exclaimed, and shot forward.
Mamoru, with his superhuman reflexes, managed a quick back-step. Misaki’s bokken brushed the front of his kimono.
“Oh.” Understanding lit his face as he looked down at his own chest.
“You see?” Misaki said.
“I see!” Mamoru exclaimed.
Against someone with faster legs or longer reach, he would have been cut in half.
“But… how do I fix it?”
“The first thing you need to do is relax your shoulders and stop gripping your sword so tight.”
“Right.” Mamoru let out a breath. “I’ll try.”
“Then you have to keep your body relaxed all the way through your cuts,” Misaki continued. “You’re trying to cut through your target, not smash it with a cudgel. You don’t need to swing so hard.”
“But if I don’t swing hard, how will I ever cut through anything?”
“With confidence,” Misaki said. “If your stroke is fast and decisive, you don’t have to throw all your muscle behind it.” If she had been fighting with as much exertion as Mamoru, she would have completely worn herself out by now. “A cut is the quintessential final decision—your life or your opponent’s. If you don’t have confidence in your choice, you won’t commit to it. And if you don’t commit, you will fail.”
“Then…” The tension returned to Mamoru’s body, his hands clenched around the wooden sword handle. “I’m a failure.”
“Hey—I didn’t say that.”
“I’m a failure!” Mamoru hit himself in the head with his bokken. “I have too much doubt in me. Tou-sama said my doubt is making me weak, and he’s right. I can’t—”
“Mamoru, Mamoru!” Misaki caught the bokken before he could hit himself in the head again. “I think you’re making this more complicated than it needs to be. You feel disillusioned with Kaigen. I understand that. But think for a moment… does that really change your reason for fighting?”
“I guess… it doesn’t,” Mamoru said. “It just doesn’t feel right, thinking that people have fought and died and we’ll never know the truth about it. There are fighters who aren’t remembered for what they did—”
“Well, do you fight to be remembered?” Misaki asked.
“I… I didn’t mean that—”
“I’m asking honestly,” Misaki said. “Do you fight for personal glory? So the name Matsuda Mamoru will go down in history? Or do you fight for the thrill? Or the privilege of serving your Emperor? You need to ask yourself these questions. The only way to find that conviction you’re missing is to know beyond a doubt what you’re fighting for.”
“Well… where did you find your conviction, Kaa-chan?” Mamoru asked. “Back in your school days, when you were at your best, what did you fight for?”
Finally, a question that was easy to answer. “I fought to protect the people I cared about,” Misaki said. “It was simple. My friends had grand ideals they fought for—things they represented. I just didn’t want them hurt. Some people called me selfish—and they were right—but I was honest with myself, and it made me unstoppable. I never had any doubt about what I was fighting for, and there was nothing I couldn’t cut through.”
“Kaa-chan…” Mamoru’s voice had gotten quiet, like he was afraid to ask the question on his tongue. “Did you ever kill anyone?”
At Daybreak, Misaki had taken a combination of combat and medic classes, then trained herself to cut with clinical precision. She would strike a criminal’s major tendons, rendering them unable to fight, and then clot the blood to prevent them from bleeding out before the authorities got there. She had taken tendons, eyes, and limbs, but never a life.
“I never had to kill anyone, but…” Misaki paused to rub the skin between her thumb and forefinger where a blister was forming.
“I would have.” Misaki lifted her head to look her son in the face. “If it came to it, I would have killed without a second thought.”
This was an argument she had had with Robin many times. From their earliest crime-fighting efforts, Robin had made it clear that he would never kill anyone.
“Not even murderers?” Misaki had asked in her shaky Lindish. “Rapists? What about that witch doctor who feeds his enemies to wild animals?”
Robin shook his head. “I’m not willing to put anyone past redemption. And even if I was—the world doesn’t need another powerful theonite trying to force his idea of justice on a city of adyns. That’s not what I’m going to be.”
And Misaki was left without words. She didn’t understand how, even without his flames alight, a person could burn so bright. It hurt to look at, but Misaki never wanted to look away. Someone like him was worth a thousand low-life criminals.
“What about to save your own life?” she had asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of her voice. “If it was down to your life or your enemy’s—”
“I’d find a way to stop them without any death.”
“But if you couldn’t,” she pressed. “If they were too strong, if there was no other way, would you kill then?”
Robin had answered without hesitation. “No.”
“You’re an idiot.”
Robin shrugged. “My brother’s been saying exactly that since we were little. It’s never changed my mind.”
It was as Misaki stared at him, bristling with anger, that her own purpose started to take shape before her.
“I respect that,” she said finally. “In turn, I would you like you to respect that, if I think your life is in danger, I will kill for you.”
“I don’t want you to do that.”
“Well, it’s not up to you.”
And it was Robin’s turn to raise his voice in anger. “I don’t want you killing anyone in this city.”
“Well, then you’d better keep yourself out of mortal danger,” Misaki said.
“You want to keep your precious murderers and drug dealers safe, don’t let them kill you. All I’m asking is that you keep yourself alive. You can do that, can’t you?”
Robin considered her for a moment. “Only for you, Misaki.”
“If it was to save Robin, I would have killed as many people as I need to.”
“Who’s Robin?” Mamoru asked.
“He’s…” The sun burning through the fog. The only reason I ever fought. The only reason for anything. “A robin is a Carythian bird. It’s a metaphor.”
“I know everything seems complicated now,” Misaki said, “but I suppose the only question that really matters is… If strangers came here intending to kill you, and me, and all your little brothers, what would you do?”
“I would kill them,” Mamoru said resolutely. “I wouldn’t have to think about it. I would kill them all.”
“There.” Misaki pointed to his chest. “That is all you need.”
“Really?” Mamoru thought for a moment. “It’s that simple?”
“It was for me. Then again… you may not want to take your old lady as an example.” After all, Mamoru wasn’t much like her… Now that Misaki thought about it, he was more like the people she would have killed and died for. “You may well find that you have a higher ideal that you want to fight for. You’re a nobler person than I am.”
Mamoru looked surprised. “You’re noble, Kaa-chan.”
“That is the dumbest thing you’ve said all day. Square up.”
Now that Mamoru had absorbed the fact that his mother could indeed fight, his koro’s brain had started to pick apart the way she fought. As he caught on to her tricks, she had to pull out more and more creative ways to counter him. It was a dance she had once danced with the most important people in her life—her teachers, her closest friends, her most dangerous enemies. But her body had changed since then. Her blade didn’t cut as fast as her thoughts, and her joints screamed more insistently with each bout, until finally she couldn’t bear any more.
Realizing that her muscles would give in the next few dinmanu, she parried Mamoru’s overhand strike and went for one of her spinning attacks—just to see if she could still do it. She fumbled the stepping and came up short, but she could see on Mamoru’s face that he was impressed.
“I’ve never seen anyone fight in that style,” he said, “not even Uncle Kazu. Those aren’t Tsusano techniques.”
“No, they’re not.” Misaki put her hands on her knees and tried to conceal how painfully winded she was.
Her first teacher had been her father, who had trained her alongside her brothers for fun, not realizing he was planting the seeds of what would become a deeply rooted love for fighting in his daughter. But he was not her greatest influence. That distinction went to Master Wangara, the wild swordsman of Yamma.
“Where did those techniques come from?” Mamoru asked.
Misaki shook her head and managed to gasp between heaving breaths, “We don’t talk about it.”
“Kaa-chan, are you alright?”
“Yes.” She nodded, kneading her right forearm, “just at the end of my strength. Sorry, son. I think that’s all I have in me. The muscles aren’t there anymore.”
“Have you not trained in all these years?”
“Of course not.” Misaki said. “Housewives don’t fight.”
“I’m sorry,” Mamoru said. “I didn’t realize—That must have been hard for you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Misaki laughed. “This is the most fun I’ve had in years. You’re going to have to keep practicing on your own until your father gets home. If anyone asks, I was never here.”
“You really love fighting,” Mamoru said. It wasn’t a question. “How could you give it up?”
“I…” Misaki paused, still massaging her arm, trying to come up with an answer that would make sense to her son. “Something I learned is that the act of fighting in and of itself isn’t important. What was really important to me was protecting the people I cared about. I’ve never needed a sword to protect you—to raise you in the way your father wanted. Caring for my family meant putting away the fighter, so I did.”
Mamoru was quiet for a moment and Misaki looked up to find him staring at her with a confused expression on his face.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Why do you call yourself selfish?”
Before Misaki could think of a way to answer, a whimper echoed down the hall and Mamoru turned to the sound. “Izumo.”
“Eyes forward, son.” Misaki put the tip of her bokken to his jaw, turning his face forward. “The enemy is ahead of you.”
Izumo’s crying had woken Nagasa, but both boys had slept far longer than Misaki expected.
“Thank you,” she murmured, ruffling Nagasa’s hair before reaching into the cradle to pick up Izumo. Thank you for giving me that time with Mamoru, was what she meant, but the two little boys were far too young to understand that kind of sentiment.
“You’re welcome, Kaa-chan,” Nagasa responded politely as Izumo kept crying.
After feeding Izumo, Misaki tied the infant to her back, helped Nagasa into his boots, and swung by the elementary school to pick Hiroshi up from training. Normally, having Nagasa along slowed her progress through the snow, but today, she was thankful for the little boy struggling along beside her. It gave her a periodic excuse to rest her own shaky legs.
“Uh-oh!” Nagasa exclaimed as he fell down in the deep snow for a third time. “Too much snow!”
The toddler had developed the ability move water particles, but he lacked the control to move them where he wanted them to go. He still needed his mother to clear the path before him and to hold his hand where it was too icy. Mamoru and Hiroshi had both been more powerful and skilled than Nagasa at three, but what Matsuda Takeru’s third son lacked in jiya, he made up for in chatter.
“I fell down, Kaa-chan,” he explained as Misaki picked him up and brushed the snow from the front of his coat. “Three times.” He held up three fingers. “I fell down three times. If it’s again, then it will be four times. Now we’re walking again. I can see our house.”
Misaki had learned that he didn’t really need her to respond; he kept going all on his own. She had no idea where Nagasa had inherited his overgrown vocabulary and love of talking, but it could be convenient to have a son who could entertain himself with his own running monologue.
“Hey, there are birds up there. Those birds can fly, way up there. Maybe Izumo can see the birds. There’s Ryota’s house!” he said, happily pointing at the Yukino compound. “See? Izumo, see Ryota’s house? Can we go see Ryota?”
“We already saw Ryota-kun today,” Misaki pointed out. “You played with Ryota for a long time, while Hyori was at our house.”
“I like playing with Ryota,” Nagasa said. “Ryota is fun.”
“I know, but right now we have to pick Hiroshi up from training.”
“Okay,” Nagasa said and then promptly launched into another ramble about the snow and how it felt when it got in his boots.
When they reached the elementary school, Mizumaki Samusa was waiting at the door to see his youngest student off.
“How did he do?” Misaki asked.
“He’s getting stronger,” Mizumaki said. “It’ll be quite a while before he’s ready to be taking on serious opponents, but I’ve never seen someone his age with such good control. I’ve been teaching here for two decades now and I don’t think I’ve ever seen his equal.”
“What about Mamoru?” Misaki asked, just out of curiosity.
“Mamoru was exceptional,” Mizumaki said. “This one may be better.” He shrugged. “Only time will tell.”
“Thank you, Mizumaki-san,” Misaki said, bowing. “Hiro-kun, get your shoes on. Time to go.”
“What does ‘only time will tell’ mean?” Hiroshi asked as they made their way back to the Matsuda compound.
“I think Mizumaki Sensei means, we’ll have to wait until you’re big enough to fight your brother.”
“He thinks I could beat him?”
“In ten years, maybe,” Misaki said with a laugh.
“Like Tou-sama beat Uncle Takashi?”
“Hiro-kun!” Misaki exclaimed. “Who told you about that?”
“The teachers talk about it sometimes,” Hiroshi said.
“Oh—well—just, try not to mention it in front of your uncle, alright?”
The results of the Matsuda brothers’ last duel were common knowledge throughout the village, though most were polite enough not to discuss it. One Whispering Blade wasn’t necessarily equal to another. Takashi was a creative, devastatingly powerful fighter with a hundred clever tricks up his sleeves. But when it came down to jiya against jiya, his ice couldn’t quite Takeru’s cold focus.
“But you know, Takashi-nii-sama has had his share of victories against your father,” Misaki pointed. That was the fate of all male Matsuda siblings, wasn’t it? To beat each other into greatness like hammers on steel? “They’ve always been close in combat ability. But you should keep in mind that they are close in age. It will be ten years before you’re big enough to challenge your older brother.”
When Misaki looked down at Hiroshi, she was unnerved to find that her ever-serious second son had something like a smile on his face.
“I’m going to grow as fast as I can,” he said.
It was dark by the time Takeru came back from Kumono Academy. He seemed distracted. The anger wasn’t gone—if anything his frown had deepened—but it was dispersed. It was only when he walked past the dojo and saw Mamoru practicing that he seemed to remember his threat from earlier.
“Are you ready, son?” he asked.
“Yes, Tou-sama,” Mamoru said with a small smile. As exhausted as he was, his shoulders had relaxed.
Misaki hovered at the dojo doorway to watch the fight, Izumo perched on her hip.
In a flash, Tsukiyari was out of its sheath.
His muscles loosened, Mamoru responded just as fast, drawing his own katana in the perfect defensive position. The two swords rang against one another, Mamoru absorbed the impact and returned in his own clean cut, grazing the front of his father’s shirt—a split dinma before Takeru’s blade came to a stop at his neck.
Takeru took two measured steps back, glanced down at the cut across the front of his kimono and uttered a neutral, “Hmm,” before lifting his eyes back to Mamoru.
“Again,” he said.
This time it was Mamoru who attacked first. Misaki felt her own rigid shoulders relaxing as she saw that he had absorbed everything from her brief lesson. Freed from the tension that had tied him up earlier, he had become a new creature—liquid lightning. In his movement, she saw the promise of a fighter as fast than Yukino Dai, as powerful as Takeru, as free as Takashi, and perhaps as cunning as his mother.
The volley was long and ferocious, each man gaining and losing ground as fast as Misaki’s eyes could flick between the two of them.
At last, a particularly savage stroke of Tsukiyari sent Mamoru stumbling. And instead of pressing in for the finish, Takeru stepped back. Mamoru regained his footing in a fraction of a dinma and snapped back into his fighting stance.
In a moment of stillness, father and son stared at one another.
Mamoru was coiled deep in his stance, ready to spring back into motion at the smallest twitch of his father’s blade. Takeru appeared to be thinking. Hunger had brightened Mamoru’s eyes, and the smile of a fighter’s high had turned the corner of his mouth. He wasn’t dreading his father’s next move; he was looking forward to it.
But instead of attacking again, Takeru gave a curt nod and said “Good.”
“Yes. You’re dismissed.”
“Really?” Mamoru looked almost disappointed. “You didn’t—”
Takeru slammed the Moon Spire back into its sheath with a clang that made Mamoru start. “I said you’re dismissed.”
That night, Takeru wasn’t in the bedroom or his study. Misaki found him standing on the front deck.
Misaki glanced around them. The breeze was light and the bare branches were calm. “Is there?”
“At sea,” Takeru clarified.
Misaki had keen eyes and ears, but her senses were nowhere near as sharp as her husband’s. Takeru could feel a dewdrop slide off a blade of grass halfway across the village—and cut it in half before it hit the ground. If he felt something more than natural air currents coming from across the sea, it wasn’t something he would discuss with his wife. That sort of thing, he would say, was not a woman’s business.
So instead of pressing, she leaned into the railing and studied him. In an objective sense, her husband was perfect. From the precise lines of his face, to the powerful ligaments of his arms, his whole body could have been sculpted by a numu angel of the ancient world.
The perfect weapon.
She may never have loved him, but he fascinated her. In the way that powerful theonites always fascinated her. It was why, when her parents told her she was going to marry a Matsuda, she thought she might grow to love him. Love might grow out of awe. But after all these years, Misaki still studied her husband the way one studies an animal. Searching. Searching for understanding or common ground. Never quite finding a connection.
For a long time, she had believed that he was more ice than man, more ocean than human. But he had been different today. She had never seen him hit Mamoru that hard. Was it possible that there were cracks in the ice?
Misaki realized that her husband’s hands were clamped rather tightly on the wooden railing. His knuckles were bruised. And she was reminded suddenly of Mamoru’s bloody-knuckled fists clenched too hard on his knees.
“Did you have a good day?” she asked softly.
The wood uttered a creak of protest under his grip. “Not really.”
“What did Takashi-nii-sama want to speak to you about?”
Her husband often told her to keep her nose out of ‘men’s business,’ so she wasn’t really expecting an answer.
“He wants me to quit my job at the town hall.”
“What?” Misaki couldn’t keep the surprise or the anger out of her voice. “Why?”
“He wants me to teach combat at the school.”
“But Kumono already has a sword instructor,” Misaki said. “They have Dai-san.”
“Takashi-nii-sama is going to make Dai a part-time instructor. He says that Dai is too soft with the students. He’s concerned that the standard is going down.”
“What?” That was patently untrue. Misaki could tell just from the few times she had watched Yukino Dai teach that he was a brilliant instructor. He may not have been able to win a jiya-to-jiya fight with Takeru, but as far as passing on knowledge, he was worth twelve Takerus.
She knew exactly why Takashi wanted his younger brother back at Kumono. He wasn’t cut out for administrative work. He had stepped into the role of headmaster because his father and grandfather had held the position before him, not because he had any desire to run the school. When Takeru had worked at Kumono with him, Takashi had relied heavily on his younger brother’s sense of organization and professionalism. Misaki could see why he wanted Takeru back—but it still didn’t make it a good decision.
“And what is Dai-san supposed to do?” Misaki demanded. “He has a wife and a small child at home. How is he going to support them on a part-time salary?”
“That is not my brother’s concern,” Takeru said coldly, “nor is it yours.”
“Of course it is!” Misaki protested. “Hyori is my friend.”
“It’s not your place to criticize the head of this household,” Takeru said sharply.
And Misaki bit down on her pride, as she had for so many years. “You’re right. It’s not,” she conceded, “but am I not allowed to worry about my friend’s happiness… and my husband’s?”
“Happiness?” Takeru’s tone was not so much bitter as baffled. “What does any of this have to do with happiness?”
“You love your job at the village hall. You love crunching numbers.” Love was perhaps a strong word. All evidence suggested that Takeru was incapable of love—but the only times Misaki could ever remember him being remotely animated were when he talked about his work at the village hall. It was usually mind-numbingly boring stuff like rice inventory, but it seemed to make him happy.
“Surely you can convince him otherwise.”
“I asked him to reconsider,” Takeru said. “He’s made up his mind.”
“You can still say ‘no.’”
Takeru gave Misaki a look—that look, like he was contemplating having her committed. “My brother is the head of this house. It’s not my place to question him, and it’s certainly not yours.”
“But you…” You just lectured Mamoru about not being strong enough to fight through his doubt. You’ll beat your son into the ground, but you can’t be bothered to fight for yourself?
“What is it, woman?” Takeru snapped, and Misaki knew she had no choice but to back down.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have contradicted you.”
If he wanted to make himself miserable, so be it. It wasn’t her place to argue.
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