The Sword of Kaigen – Part 9

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MISAKI

If Takeru was still angry the next day, he didn’t show his displeasure any more than Misaki showed hers. At breakfast, she served him his tea with her usual smile and he accepted it with his usual straight-faced indifference.

“Good morning, Misaki!” Takashi greeted her as though nothing was wrong.

“Good morning, Nii-sama,” she said and poured the hot tea in his cup instead of his lap.

“No tea, Misaki.” He pushed the cup away. “This is a day for celebration.”

“Oh—um… Why?”

“What? He didn’t tell you? You didn’t tell her, Takeru-kun?” he nudged his brother. “Takeru is coming back to teach at Kumono Academy!”

“Oh—yes, he did tell me that, Nii-sama.” Misaki screwed her face back into smiling position. “It’s wonderful news. We’re so thankful.”

“You see, this is a happy day!” Takashi beamed. “Today, we drink!”

Judging by the color of Takashi’s cheeks and the volume of his voice, he had already gotten started.

“Of course,” Misaki said. “I’ll go get some sake.”

When she retreated to the kitchen, Setsuko was there, ladling the miso soup Misaki had made into two bowls.

What is going on? Misaki wanted to snap the moment she saw her. What the hell is wrong with your husband?

A moment later, she realized how unfair that was and wanted to slap herself. Setsuko might have a better relationship with her husband than most women, but she couldn’t control what he did at work. His decisions weren’t hers.

“Good morning, Setsuko,” she said.

“Morning, Misaki.” One look from Setsuko told Misaki that she already knew about Takashi’s decision—and understood how disastrous it was going to be. “Listen, I—”

“Kaa-chan, I’m hungry!” Nagasa whined, tugging on Misaki’s apron.

“Sit.” Misaki nodded to the kitchen table, where she, Setsuko, and the little ones ate whenever the men were using the main table. “I’ll get you some rice as soon as I—”

“Kaa-chan,” Mamoru stuck his head into the kitchen. “Izumo is crying. Oh.” He looked back over his shoulder. “And so is Ayumi.”

“Just a dinma,” Setsuko said, as she helped Misaki load up a tray with rice, soup, and sake for the men. “I’ll go get them.”

“Mi-saa-ki!” Takashi sing-songed from the other room. “Where is the saaa-ke?”

“Coming, Nii-sama!” Misaki picked up the tray and started toward the dining room, only to have Setsuko stop her with a hand on her shoulder.

“Ah-ah. Before that…” She took a third cup and put it to Misaki’s lips.

“What? No. Setsuko—I can’t—”

“You need it.”

“Okay.” Misaki relented and allowed Setsuko to tip the sake into her mouth.

“Atta girl.” Setsuko grinned as Misaki squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed the fire.

“Thank you,” Misaki breathed as the liquid burned down her throat deep into her chest. “I needed that—”

“I know.” Setsuko smacked her on the back and hurried off to get the babies.

“Is that Mamoru back there?” Takashi asked, leaning over to look into the kitchen. “Hey, Mamoru! Come out here?”

“Why?” Takeru asked stiffly.

“He’s a young man now. He should sit with the men.”

“He’s only fourteen,” Takeru said.

“You’re just upset because he’s better than you. Misaki, go tell Mamoru to come out here—and bring him some sake.”

“No need,” Takeru said. “He can have mine.”

Misaki was never sure if Takeru refused to drink because he was worried about dulling his senses or just his ability to frown. Today, it might have just been his small way of slighting his brother.

“No, no. Don’t be a stick in the mud,” Takashi said. “Drink it.”

“Nii-sama, it’s not even noon yet.”

Takashi slammed his palm on the table so hard that Misaki jumped. “I said drink.”

Takeru held his older brother’s gaze and for a moment, Misaki thought he was going to object. She wanted him to. He lowered his gaze and knocked back the cup in one gulp.

“There you go, little brother!” Takashi said, slapping Takeru on the back.

Clenching her jaw, Misaki turned to leave. Before she reached the kitchen, Mamoru appeared in the doorway, holding Izumo. “You asked for me, Uncle?”

“Give the baby to your mother, boy,” Takashi said. “Come sit with us.”

“Thank you,” Misaki said as she shifted the tray to one arm to accept a fussing Izumo with the other. “Don’t try to swallow too much at once,” she whispered to Mamoru.

“What?”

“It’s going to feel like a punch in the nose, but try to keep a straight face. If you don’t, your uncle will mock you for the rest of the day.”

“Come, Mamoru,” Takashi said, motioning him to the table. “Have a drink with us. There…” he beamed as Mamoru knelt down at his left hand. “Look at you. You’re tall enough to sit with the men, aren’t you? You’re growing up in to a fine man, aren’t you?”

Mamoru didn’t seem sure how to respond. “Um—I hope so, Uncle.”

“Fine young man,” Takashi mused as Misaki retreated to comfort Izumo. “You must make your father so proud.”

“I-I hope to some day,” Mamoru said, audibly uncomfortable. “I don’t think I’ve earned—”

“Oh, you’ll earn your father’s pride”—There was a clink as Takashi poured himself more sake—“or spend the rest of your life trying, like he did, like our old man did, like his old man before him. You’ll grow, and you’ll train, and grow, and train with all your soul until one day you’ll be sitting behind the Kumono desk wondering why the hell you took all that time to become a powerful fighter. So you could do battle with schedules and registration forms? So you could pass all that tedious garbage on to your own son?”

“Nii-sama.” Takeru’s voice was so rigid it sounded like it might snap. “You shouldn’t speak that way about our family’s legacy.”

“Quiet, Takeru-kun. I wasn’t talking to you. I’ll tell you something, Mamoru-kun—” a pause for a deep swig—“I’m glad I have a girl.”

There was a confused silence.

“You’re looking at me like I’m crazy,” Takeru laughed, “but I’m serious. Girls are made for peacetime. A girl can thrive in peacetime. It comforts me to think my little Ayumi won’t have to put up with all this nonsense. Training until you bleed, only to be left in a scabbard to rust…”

“I-I’m not sure what you mean, Uncle.”

“I hope you never do. You’re too bright to rust.” Takashi let out a sigh that was almost a moan. “I was bright too, once, you know.”

“Uncle—”

“That’s enough talk,” Takashi said abruptly. “Have a drink, nephew.”

There was a pause, a painstaking gulp, and Takashi burst out laughing.

“Oh, Mamoru-kun! You should see your face!”

……..

“I’ll talk to him,” Setsuko promised Misaki and Hyori later, “for both of you. Just not right now. I think I’ll wait until his head is on straight.”

The three women had just settled down to a rare moment of peace. Mamoru was studying in the next room with Kwang Chul-hee. Hiroshi, Nagasa, and Ryota were scrambling across the floor alongside the older boys, deeply absorbed in an ice car racing game Mamoru had taught them. Izumo was asleep, and Ayumi was quietly feeding at Setsuko’s breast.

“Oh, you don’t have to speak to your husband on our account, Setsuko-san,” Hyori said earnestly. “That sort of thing is men’s business.”

“Hyori-chan is right,” Misaki said wearily, selecting a needle from her sewing box. She wasn’t at all in the mood to talk about the situation with Takashi and Takeru; all she really wanted was to catch up on her sewing, so she was eager to shut down the subject as quickly as possible. “Kumono is Takashi-sama’s school. If he wants to change the staff, that’s his decision.”

“Sure,” Setsuko said, “but it’s a stupid decision, and someone ought to tell him.”

“Setsuko-san!” Hyori gasped. “How can you say such disrespectful things of your husband?”

Setsuko shrugged. “He knows I love him.”

“I’m sure Dai-san has already raised his objections,” Misaki pointed out. Dai was enough of a man that he could speak up for himself. “If he or my husband have a problem with Takashi-sama’s decision, it’s their job to take it up with him. They’re grown men, aren’t they?”

“Wait. Why would your husband have a problem with the change?” Hyori asked, confused.

“Takeru’s not a big complainer,” Setsuko said, “but he really didn’t like teaching at Kumono.”

“Really?” Hyori looked shocked. “My husband talks about it like it’s the best job in the world. Surely, a great swordsman like Takeru would love it too.”

“Well, there’s a difference between being great at fighting and being great at teaching it,” Misaki said. “Takeru-sama would much rather spend all day behind a desk doing paperwork than teach students. That’s why Takashi-sama really wants him around, to help him with the administrative work he hates so much.”

“I don’t know…” Hyori looked doubtful. “Should you really make those assumptions about the head of your family?”

“No, Misaki’s right,” Setsuko said and heaved a sigh. “Poor Takashi has really never enjoyed being the Kumono headmaster. Sometimes I think what he should really do—what he really wants to do—is just pass the job off to Takeru or Dai. They would be good at it.”

Misaki couldn’t stop the incredulous laugh from escaping her. “Dai-san, maybe, but Takeru…” Takeru couldn’t lead his way out of a paper bag, she very nearly said aloud. You need a spine to lead.

“Takeru has those noble book-smarts,” Setsuko said, “which is more than I can say of my poor man.”

“Setsuko-san!” Hyori’s beautiful doe-like eyes had widened in horror. “You really shouldn’t speak that way about your husband!”

And Misaki looked down at her sewing, glad that she hadn’t chosen to voice any of her thoughts on Takeru. She didn’t want poor Hyori to have a heart attack.

“I didn’t mean it in a mean way,” Setsuko said quickly. “My husband is a great man with his own strengths, but he isn’t a perfectionist like Takeru. He doesn’t get any satisfaction from clerical work. It just makes him bored, and cranky, and less fun in bed.”

“Setsuko-san!” Hyori clapped both hands over her mouth and blushed so furiously Misaki was afraid she might faint from all the blood rushing to her head.

“What?” Setsuko said and Misaki wondered if she had taken a few swigs of the sake as well. Even Setsuko usually had more delicacy. “He’s so much more energetic when he’s been in the dojo training than any day he’s spent in the office. I’m sure Dai-san is the same way—”

“I don’t think we need to talk about Dai-san!” Misaki said hastily casting around for a change of subject. “Um—Hyori-chan, you wouldn’t happen to have any dark blue thread to spare?”

“Oh—s-sure,” Hyori stuttered. “I don’t use nearly as much blue as you.” The Yukino family colors were white, silver, and sage green.

Rummaging in her sewing box drawer for a moment, Misaki came up with a spool of pale gray thread and held it up. “Trade you.”

“Oh—Misaki-san, there’s no need—”

“Trade you,” Misaki insisted and tossed the spool into Hyori’s lap.

“Oh… Thank you.” Hyori picked up the spool and clutched it to her chest like it was a treasure. “You’re always so kind, Misaki-san.” The blush hadn’t quite faded from her cheeks. And Misaki wondered how a person could be so ridiculously innocent.

“Give me a dinma.” Hyori rose to search through the bag she had brought with her. “I’m going to find some blue for you.”

Normally, Misaki didn’t mind sewing, but her skill with a needle had its limits. And today, she was just frustrated.

“Mattaku mou!” she swore. “This is a mess. I might just have to pass this one on to Kotetsu-san.” The blacksmith’s wife was a far better seamstress than any of the koro women.

“What happened to it?” Hyori asked.

“Fight,” Misaki said.

“Oh. But—Dai hasn’t trained with your husband in months…” It was common knowledge that Dai was one of the few swordsmen ever to get through Takeru’s guard with a steel katana. “So, who—”

“Mamoru.”

Hyori gasped. “He’s really gotten that skilled?”

For the first time that day, Misaki found herself smiling. “Not that skilled.” She held up Mamoru’s kimono from that day, which was so sliced up it was barely holding together.

“Oh dear!” Hyori exclaimed with a laugh. “That is going to take a lot of thread, isn’t it? Is this a good shade?” She held up a spool.

“That looks perfect,” Misaki said and reached out to take it.

“Oh, Misaki-san!” Hyori exclaimed suddenly. “What happened to your hands?”

“What?” Misaki’s heart dropped. “Oh—! Nothing.” She pulled her hand back quickly. She knew she should have spent more time healing the blisters! “I think I had an allergic reaction to this new soap I tried using. It gave me a rash.”

“I didn’t see any new soap,” Setsuko said, frowning. She and Misaki bathed, did their laundry, and washed their dishes in all the same spaces.

“Well that’s because I threw it away,” Misaki said. “It wasn’t any good.”

“You know, it almost looks like you’re blistered,” Hyori said in concern. “It’s weird… sometimes my husband’s hands get like that.”

Misaki felt her heart start to thud faster. “That is weird.” Takeru was already unhappy with her; the last thing she needed right now was for someone to find out that she had been in his dojo putting her hands on his weapons. And if gullible, naïve Hyori was the one who caught her at it—she didn’t think her pride could take it.

Hyori had moved closer, reaching out to take one of Misaki’s hands. “Why would you have blister’s like Dai’s?”

Misaki’s mind was scrambling to generate a lie when, “Takeru-sama!” she exclaimed in relief. She never thought she would be so happy to feel her husband’s unpleasant coldness fill a room. “You’re home early!”

Shimatta—!” Setsuko swore under her breath and pulled her kimono up to cover her breasts.

“I didn’t realize we would have company,” Takeru asked without bothering to greet any of the women. “Why is Kwang’s boy in our house?”

“He has a deal with Mamoru,” Misaki said.

“What?”

“Mamoru helps him with his combat training, and in exchange, he helps Mamoru with his Kaigengua homework.”

Poor Chul-hee usually didn’t last more than a waati in the dojo before he was too exhausted to lift his bokken, and the two would retire to the family room to run through Kaigengua vocabulary until the sky grew dark. It was how the two had spent most of their mid-winter break.

“Hmm.” Takeru huffed, then turned his cold gaze on Hyori. “And you… shouldn’t you get home and prepare dinner for your husband?”

“Oh—y-yes, Matsuda-dono.” Hyori scrambled to gather her things before bowing herself out of the room.

“That was rude,” Setsuko muttered.

“Misaki,” Takeru said, “see your friend off and then come to my study.”

His impenetrable monotone made it hard for Misaki to tell if she was in trouble or not. Either way, she thought it would be best to do as he said without asking questions.

Ryota cried when Hyori told him it was time to go.

“Yosh, yosh,” Misaki soothed the toddler, patting his head. “Naga-kun will still be here tomorrow.”

“Thank you for having me, as always, Misaki-san.” Hyori bowed. “Oh, and don’t worry about Mamoru’s kimono,” she said with an uncharacteristically mischievous smile.

“What?”

Hyori patted her bag. “I’ll have it back by next week.”

”Hyori-chan, I can’t let you do all that work!” Misaki reached for Hyori’s bag, but the younger woman clutched it to her chest.

“No, please!” she said earnestly. “Please let me do this for you, Misaki-san. Dai keeps all his clothes in such good condition, it’s not like I have a lot of my own mending to do.”

“Fine,” Misaki sighed. “I’ll owe you. I’ll help you with your laundry later.”

While Hyori came from a good family, her own jiya was weak. The kind of heavy water-moving work that came easily to Misaki tired her out quickly.

Hyori gave her a loving look that Misaki neither understood nor deserved. “You’re always so kind to me, Misaki-san.”

“Have a good night, Hyori-chan.” After she bowed, Misaki couldn’t help it—she reached out and gave her sweet friend a short pat on the cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Good night, pretty girl!” Setsuko said, waving Hyori off.

With the smile fading from her face, Misaki crossed through the family room and made her way to Takeru’s study.

“Ano,” she said softly when she reached the door. “You wanted to see me?”

Takeru didn’t acknowledge her presence except to wave her inside. He was still absorbed in the papers on the desk before him, so Misaki bowed herself into the room as with soundless steps. She knelt—the way she used to kneel before his father—until he was ready to speak to her.

Finally, he set his brushpen down and looked up.

“There was another letter addressed to you.” Reaching into the folds of his kimono, he produced a scroll and crossed around the desk to hand it to his wife. The rolled kayiri was battered and smudged, as if it had come a long way.

“It’s from Kolunjara!” Misaki exclaimed when her eyes fell on the sender’s address.

There was no name. Her fingers passed over the seal and pause when they found it unbroken. Her gaze flitted up to Takeru’s in a moment of surprise. He hadn’t opened it.

Misaki had the feeling—no, she was certain—that Takeru had spent the first few years of their marriage intercepting her letters from overseas. Only the blandest of congratulations on her wedding had ever reached her, nothing of substance.

There were letters that should have come that conspicuously never made it into her hands. She already knew what most of them would say. Elleen would stiffly express less sadness than she really felt before saying that she respected Misaki’s judgment. Master Wangara would tell her to look out for herself. Koli would go on a tirade that started out making sense before devolving into ramblings on the nature of human ambition and free will. And Robin… well, she tried not to imagine what he might have written. It hurt too much.

She could have objected—and if she’d really wanted to, found a way to get to the letters before Takeru did—but in a way, it was a kindness. It made it easier to forget the life she had left behind… or at the very least, push it to the back of her mind.

Perhaps she should have been grateful that, after a decade, her husband finally trusted her enough to give her a foreign letter without looking at it first. But when she searched her bitter little heart for a drop of gratitude, she came up empty.

“Why would you be getting mail from Kolunjara?” Takeru asked.

Misaki couldn’t read any suspicion into his voice. But his presence spoke loud enough: he trusted her enough to let her have her mail, but he was going to stand over her while she read it.

“I don’t know,” she said honestly.

“You have no acquaintances there who might have sent this?”

Last Misaki had heard, Koli Kuruma was still living in the Yammanka capital, but the handwriting on the scroll was far too neat to be his. She shook her head.

“Honestly, I have no idea who this is from.”

Curious, she broke the seal, and unrolled the letter. The writing was in Yammaninke—no. Not exactly. The letters were Yammaninke, but the words themselves were in Lindish, a language Misaki had not seen or heard since her school days.

The only kana on the paper were a set of familiar characters—a signature at the bottom of the text. Misaki felt herself draw in a gasp.

“What is it?” Takeru asked. “Who is it from?”

“My… my old roommate,” Misaki said. She neglected to mention that her roommate was Ranganese.

 

Dear Misaki,

It’s been a while. I know you told me it would be better for your marriage if we did not have any more contact, and I’m sorry to breach that. I myself am risking more than I would like to say to get this message to you, but I could not live with myself if I didn’t send it. I am loyal to my country, but you are my friend, and I don’t want any harm to come to you or those you love.

If you are no longer living on the Kusanagi Peninsula, this letter will probably not reach you, and thank your gods that you are out of danger.

However, if you are reading this, I can only assume you are still at your address in Takayubi. If that is the case, you are not safe. I don’t know what information the Kaigenese government has given you about the state of Ranga or the war, but whether they have told you or not, you are in serious danger. Take your family and leave Takayubi as soon as you can.

And if you do survive the coming weeks, if you could send a letter back to this address, so I know you’re alright.

Nyama to you. A million times, nyama to you.

Nami don’t let this be our last contact.

 

Your devoted friend,

Guang Ya-li

 

Misaki felt as if she had turned to stone.

“What is it?” Takeru asked, reading the shock on her face. “What does it say?”

“Please, Takeru-sama, sit down,” she said quietly.

“What?”

“You need to hear this.”

Kneeling opposite her husband, Misaki translated the letter aloud. Takeru listened without expression.

“And who is this Guang Ya-li?” he asked.

“I told you, she’s a friend from school,” Misaki replied in the vain hope that Takeru wouldn’t press her further.

“And where was she born?”

Guang was a common family name across Namindugu. There were as many Guangs in northern Kaigen as there were anywhere in Ranga, but, “Ya-li is Ranganese.”

“Then this letter should be destroyed and forgotten,” Takeru said calmly. “Nothing she says is to be trusted.”

“She was a close friend—” Misaki protested.

“You’re speaking nonsense, Misaki. Even if this Guang Ya-li really was your friend, how would a woman know the plans of the Ranganese military? It’s impossible.”

“It’s more than possible,” Misaki said, trying to keep the indignation out of her voice. “The year Ya-li and I graduated, her sister was promoted to general in the Ranganese army.”

Takeru let out a disdainful noise that made Misaki’s teeth clench. “Her sister? What kind of joke of a military are they running over there?”

Misaki ignored her husband’s comment. “Ya-li would know, and no matter what you think, she wouldn’t lie to me. Not about this. I understand if you don’t want to take the word of a Ranganese woman, but it isn’t just her. Kazu—Lord Tsusano—also warned us, in his own way.”

“All your brother said was that we should take a vacation to Jungsan.”

“It was a strange thing to say. He meant to tell us something.”

“It was a coincidence.”

“Respectfully, husband, I know my brother. And I know this woman. I think the Ranganese really might be planning something—”

“And what if they are?” Takeru demanded, standing to tower over her. “If the Ranganese are coming, they are coming to their deaths,” he said with the same stupid confidence that seemed to possess everyone in the region. “This is the Sword of Kaigen. To make a run on it is to die.”

“Those are pretty words,” Misaki said, “but you haven’t seen what’s out there.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Takeru said, rising to his feet to tower over his wife. “The Empire depends on us to hold back any threat from the west, and we have done so without fail for centuries.”

“I know.” Misaki stayed on her knees, hoping that if she kept her temper in check and spoke softly, she could make him see reason. “You and the other men here are great fighters, but you aren’t an army. This peninsula isn’t the military powerhouse it was the last time the Ranganese attacked.”

“Maybe not,” Takeru conceded, “but it will be far worse off if we leave. Did you ever think that perhaps this old friend of yours is trying to talk you into treason?”

“What?”

“She knows who it is your married, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s a good plan, isn’t it?” Takeru said. “Get you to leave the peninsula, along with your family—perhaps the whole extended Matsuda family—when the Empire needs us here the most. Ranganese people are devious.”

What would you know about Ranganese people? Misaki wanted to snap. You’ve never met one, but she held in her anger. A woman didn’t speak to her husband that way.

“I don’t think those were her intentions—” Misaki began evenly, only to have Takeru cut her off again.

“I don’t want to hear any more of what you think!” His voice rose in a rare moment of anger. “Clearly, you don’t understand the first thing about what is coming out of your mouth. It doesn’t matter whether this Ranganese woman is lying or telling the truth. To flee when our country needs us would be treason, and you will not say another word about it. We are the Sword of Kaigen. If we’ve let it rust, then we deserve to die on it, along with our enemies.”

“Including your sons?” Misaki demanded. “Your little children?”

“Yes,” Takeru said without irony or hesitation. “Who do you think you married?”

Misaki’s fists clenched. Now was the time to apologize to her husband and ask for his forgiveness. Now was the time look down in deference and shame. Instead she stood and looked up, directly into Takeru’s cold, unfeeling eyes. In a breath, the rage of fifteen years filled her chest, lifting her chin and pulling her shoulders back.

“I’m taking the boys away.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m taking my sons and going away—to Ishihama to visit my parents,” she decided as the words were coming out of her mouth.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Your parents no longer have a house to visit. If anything, they should be coming to stay with us—”

“You can come with us if you like,” Misaki said, “but I’m taking them.”

“Misaki.” Takeru took a step forward, staring down his wife with a glare that had made hardened men tremble. “That is not your decision.”

Unintimidated, Misaki held his gaze. It had been too long since she had had the courage to fight for something. If she couldn’t fight for her own children, then who was she? Who had she become?

“You can try to stop me,” she said and headed for the door.

“Misaki—” Takeru grabbed her arm. She made herself water and slid through his fingers before his iron grip had a chance to tighten.

Ducking under his arm, she darted for the door, but he was faster. Misaki knew the moment his bruising grip closed around her wrist, that she wouldn’t be able to twist free. But she wasn’t out of defenses.

Moving on reflex, she focused all her jiya into free hand and drove her first two fingers into Takeru’s arm.

Outside of the myth of the Blood Puppeteers, it was impossible for a jijaka to control a significant amount of the blood inside another person’s body. Nowhere was a theonite’s nyama more powerful than in their own veins. But what Tsusanos had learned centuries ago was that was that a miniscule amount of blood, manipulated with pinpoint accuracy, could be the deadliest weapon of all.

Misaki’s power narrowed to a needlepoint. Takeru’s strong body and even stronger jiya was difficult to penetrate, but Misaki managed it. For a split dinma, his blood became her needle, striking a pressure point deep inside his arm. Takeru’s arm jerked, stiffening for a moment, before going absolutely limp.

His hand slid from her wrist, and Misaki almost wished she could stand there and relish the look of utter shock on his face.

“Was that—”

“Blood Needle,” she said with a breathless smile. More specifically, it was a combination of the traditional Tsusano Blood Needle and the medical acupuncture she had learned from Ya-li. “Your arm will work again in five siiranu—four if you relax.” She crossed to the door.

“Misaki,” Takeru’s voice was pure ice. “You—”

“Oh, and I wouldn’t use my jiya during that time, if I were you,” she added. “Not unless you want to risk permanent damage to the muscles in that precious sword arm.”

“You will regret—”

Before he could finish, Misaki slammed the door and sealed it shut with a thick layer of ice. The part about not using his jiya had been a spur-of-the-moment lie—the kind she had always been good at. Whether Takeru called her bluff and freed himself with his jiya, kicked down the door, or waited the four siiranu for the effects of her Blood Needle to wear off, Misaki had only moments.

Hiking up her kimono, she sprinted down the hall. Pausing at the boys’ bedroom, she took Izumo from his cradle. The sudden movement mixed with his mothered frenzied jiya woke him and he started crying, but Misaki had no time to worry about that.

“Yosh, yosh, Izu-kun. It’s alright, it’s alright,” she chanted as much to herself as her baby as she ran to the family room. “Kaa-chan is going to make this all alright.”

“Kaa-chan!” Mamoru exclaimed when Misaki burst into the family room, visibly breathless, her jiya radiating panic. “Are you—”

“Help your brothers get their coats and boots on,” Misaki said. “We’re leaving.”

“We’re—what?” Mamoru said blankly. “Kaa-chan—”

“Chul-hee-kun,” Misaki addressed the northern boy, who was still kneeling at the study table opposite Mamoru. “You’re going to want to run home, get your father, and get off this mountain.”

“Matsuda-dono, what is this? Did you hear something—”

“There will be time for you to ask questions later,” she said—and Gods, she hoped it was the truth— “Right now just do as I say!”

Setsuko appeared at the door. “What’s going on?”

“You too, Setsuko. Get Ayumi and let’s go.”

“What?”

“There’s no time to explain,” Misaki said, finagling Izumo into his coat and handing him off to a confused Mamoru. “We just have to get out of here, off of this mountain.”

“What? And go where?”

“I don’t know—your parents’ house,” Misaki said as the thought occurred to her. “We’ll stop there first.” The fishing family was sure to give them shelter if they needed it, and Misaki was sure Setsuko wouldn’t be willing to flee Takayubi without them.

“Why?” Setsuko demanded. “Are we in danger?”

“Sort of—yes.” The answer was yes. Misaki just didn’t mention that the most immediate danger was from her own husband.

“Well, I can’t leave without Takashi,” Setsuko protested. “He isn’t home yet.”

“He’s fast,” Misaki said. “He’ll be able to follow us if he needs to. With the little ones, we’re slow. We need to leave here now!”

Misaki had never seen Setsuko look so scared.

“A-alright,” she said, “but what about your husband? Where is Takeru?”

“He’ll be along in a siira.”

If Misaki had truly wanted to buy herself the time to escape with the children, she should have done more to incapacitate her husband. During his moment of surprise, she should have tried to take out his knees or render him unconscious with an elbow to the temple. But she wasn’t at the point where she was willing to commit overt violence against her husband… was she?

Was she?

Now that she considered the situation, Takeru was certain to follow them. He was certain to be furious. It was unlikely that Misaki would be able to talk him over to her side after she had so openly defied him. Inevitably, he would catch up to them. He would try to force them back. Then, would she hurt him? Would she fight him in earnest?

Then rose a darker question: would it even make a difference?

Misaki had fought her fair share of terrifying theonites, but Takeru was more powerful than any of them.

Should she go back and properly disable him now? This might be her only chance—now, while he didn’t have the use of his right arm and might hesitate to use his jiya.

“Kaa-chan,” Mamoru’s voice shook her from her thoughts. “Hiro-kun and Naga-kun are in their coats. Chul-hee-kun says he won’t leave until someone explains something to him. What do I do now?”

“Mamoru…” Misaki said slowly, staring at her son.

In all her anxiety about Takeru coming after them, she hadn’t considered that in any of those scenarios, Mamoru would be there too… Mamoru, who was powerful enough in his own right to tip the scales in either direction.

Factoring in everyone’s level of skill, power, and experience, it was very likely that the confrontation would come down to who Mamoru sided with.

But that couldn’t happen. Not to Mamoru who was earnest, and loyal, and cared about both his parents. No child should have to make that choice. But the reality was that if Misaki and Takeru engaged in combat right in front of him, he would have to choose.

If she fled with the boys now, knowing Takeru would follow, she would be forcing Mamoru to draw his sword against one of his parents.

She couldn’t do that to him.

Her decision was made.

“Mamoru.”

“Yes, Kaa-chan?”

“Those ice sleds you make for Nagasa and Ryota—can you make one big enough to hold your aunt, and all four little ones?”

“Um… sure. I think so.”

“Good. You’re going to make that sled, get everyone into it, and take it down the mountain as fast as you can without crashing.”

“What—now?”

“Yes, now. Go!”

“Wh-what about you, Kaa-chan?”

“I won’t be far behind you.” Squaring her shoulders, Misaki turned back toward the hall. “There’s just one more thing I need to take care of.”

Before Mamoru could protest, she was off down the hall, her resolve hardened to ice.

She had to go for Takeru’s head, she decided. He wasn’t like the enemies she’d dealt with in the past, who could be disabled by a single severed tendon or well-placed blow to the knee. His nyama ran so deep that he could move water with only his mind. A Takeru with all his limbs shattered was still dangerous. A Takeru who could twitch was still dangerous.

Her only option was to render him unconscious. So that was what she would do.

Her heart rate picked up as her mind raced to map out every possible reaction he might have—any attack he might launch, and how she might counter it.

She turned the last corner—only to find her path blocked.

“Nii-sama!”

She had been so wrapped in her own anxiety that she hadn’t even sensed the swirl of Takashi’s nyama entering the compound.

“Misaki, what on Duna is going on here?” Takashi demanded. “Why is my brother’s study door frozen shut? Why is everyone in a panic?”

Misaki’s ice broke into disarray. Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest. Takashi was here. Takashi was here. That changed everything. If her chances against one master Matsuda were slim, her chances against two were astronomical.

“What is going on?” Takashi repeated more insistently.

Misaki’s jiya seethed inside her, knowing it had to leap into action, unsure what to do, where to go.

“I…” Misaki’s head spun. The words wouldn’t come.

“Your jiya is behaving strangely, little sister,” Takashi said, his brow creasing in concern. “Are you alright?” He reached out to her.

If she struck at him now, before he had a chance to anticipate it—but, no. If she raised a hand to Takashi, Setsuko would never forgive her, let alone follow her to safety. And she couldn’t go without Setsuko…

“Answer me, Misaki.”

Misaki opened her mouth, but before she could lie—CRASH!

Takeru’s study door exploded, flinging pieces of broken wood and ice in all directions.

“What was that?” a voice said, and Mamoru raced into the hallway, Setsuko and Chul-hee close behind him. “Kaa-chan, are you…”

But all voices fell silent as Takeru appeared in the wrecked study doorway. The force of his anger was so heavy that no one could speak or even breathe beneath it. He took a step into the hallway, and everyone stepped back—everyone except Misaki, who had lost the ability to move.

His right arm still hung motionless at his side, but he didn’t need it to hold Misaki down. His gaze pinned where she stood, like a blade through the gut. His voice could have frozen the sun when he spoke.

“Misaki…”

And with those three syllables, she was certain for the first time that her husband could feel an emotion. He could hate.

She waited, rigid, for Takeru’s glare to turn to ice and end her life. Unable to look him in the face, she closed her eyes. She knew the sound of a sword piercing a human body. She knew the deathly cold of the Whispering Blade. She knew what it was like to bear that ice inside her.

But the next sound to hit her ears was not the sickly crunch of ice through bone. It was the distant tolling of a bell. The next thing she felt was not hard ice through her abdomen, but the tender touch of breeze on her cheek. Faint. So faint, but distinctly alive. And in a moment Misaki’s jiya, Takeru’s, Takashi’s, and Mamoru’s were all swept away by something foreign—something lighter, and softer, but every bit as powerful.

Misaki’s eyes snapped open to a new and terrifying clarity. The world reoriented. Dread expanded like a dilating pupil as the threat shifted from the two Matsuda men to something so much bigger, so much worse…

Takeru’s gaze released her as his attention to the unexpected sound. “Is that the temple bell?”

“That’s what it sounds like?” Setsuko said, her head cocked to the side.

“Why are the finawu ringing it now?” Mamoru asked. “Is there a storm?”

“There must be,” Takashi said. “The news has been warning us about storms hitting the coast.”

“That’s not a coastal storm, Headmaster.” Kwang Chul-hee spoke the realization Misaki was too frozen to voice. “That’s fonya.”

“Kwang-kun,” Takashi began in exasperation, but whatever reassuring thing he had meant to say was swallowed by a sound unlike anything any of them had heard before, a roar—not quite animal, nor human, nor thunder of gods, but some shuddering thing in between.

The sound shook the mountain, rattling the floorboards beneath their feet. The fina’s bell—meant to toll steadily through the ages—quickened, faltered, and drowned in a roar so savage and hollow it might have been the yawning mouth of the Laxara itself.

Misaki knew for certain when the wind raked her skin that Ya-li’s letter had come too late.

“They’re here.”

 

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