The following are sample chapters from my Japanese-inspired military fantasy, The Sword of Kaigen, currently available on Amazon.
Mt. Takayubi, Kusanagi Peninsula
The Kaigenese Empire
5369 y. s. p.
It was a harrowing climb to the high school. Eight hundred twenty-one steps. Mamoru had counted one time on his way up—no easy feat while focusing on not toppling off the side of a mountain. For most fourteen-year-old fighters, the winding way up to the school was a true test of nerve and agility, but Mamoru, with his springy legs and boundless energy, woke each morning looking forward to the challenge.
“Mamoru!” his friends panted from the steps far below him. “Not so fast!”
Itsuki and Yuuta had to take the steep path to the school because they lived in the western village, further down the mountain. Mamoru’s family compound was built high enough that he could have taken an easier way if he chose, but Matsudas weren’t known for taking the easy way to anything. He rose every day before dawn, amid the chanting of crickets, so he could make the loop down the mountain toward the western village and tackle the steep climb with his friends.
“You two are too slow!” Mamoru called back. “We don’t want to be late!”
“We’re not going to be late,” Itsuki called in exasperation from the mist below. “Just wait up! Please!”
“Fine, fine.” Mamoru lowered himself to the rock ledge and sat, letting his feet hang over the edge. It had still been dark when the three boys began their climb, but by now, morning had seeped through the veil of fog to touch the rock face with its pale brushstrokes. It was rarely possible to see the base of the mountain from the Kumono steps. Beneath Mamoru’s dangling legs, there was only mist, rolling in slow waves against the cliff side, growing gradually brighter with the sunrise.
The moment Itsuki and Yuuta dragged themselves over the ridge where Mamoru was perched, he grinned and got to his feet.
“Finally!” he said. “Are you two ready to keep up now?”
“Are you kidding?” Yuuta gasped, doubling over to catch his breath.
“You’re a monster!” Itsuki groaned.
Mamoru slapped each of them on the back. “I’ll wait for you at the school,” he said cheerfully and took off up the mountain.
His toes knew each ledge, each jutting rock, and he took the steepest part of the path in swift, confident bounds, skipping six steps at a time. He had just rounded the last curve when his feet slowed. There was a figure hunched over in the fog up ahead, a boy clinging hard to the rock wall as he panted for breath. Mamoru wouldn’t have thought much of it—there were dozens of students who climbed these steps each morning—but this boy’s clothing wasn’t right. Instead of Kumono blue, he wore a modern-looking black uniform Mamoru had never seen before.
“Good morning,” Mamoru said, approaching slowly, so as not to startle the newcomer off the edge.
“Morning.” The boy raised a hand in greeting before putting it to his chest, still breathing hard. He had a heavy accent.
“Are you…” Mamoru started and then switched to Kaigengua, the imperial standard. “Are you a transfer student?”
The boy nodded. “I’m Kwang Chul-hee. Nice to meet you.”
A northern name. This boy hadn’t just transferred from a neighboring province; he had come from a long way away. His uniform was the kind worn in the big cities on the Jungsan Peninsula, with its Yammanka-style cut and military bogolan patterns.
“Matsuda Mamoru,” Mamoru introduced himself, bowing.
“Matsuda Mamoru…” the boy repeated. “How much farther is it to your damn school?”
“You’re almost there,” Mamoru said with a laugh. “I can walk with you the rest of the way.”
“I’m not afraid I’ll get lost.” Kwang looked vaguely exasperated. “I’m afraid I’ll fall off the edge.”
“No one’s ever died falling from the steps,” Mamoru said. Below the mist, there was a spring-fed lake that never froze waiting to catch clumsy students who lost their footing on the steps.
“That’s what I heard,” Kwang said, “but I bet it still hurts.”
“It does.” One time, in his first year, Mamoru had jumped from the steps to see what it felt like to fly. He had regretted the decision deeply when he hit the surface tension of the lake, but he would never forget the feeling of the wind roaring around him, so ferocious it started to feel like ocean.
“But don’t worry,” Mamoru reassured the boy. “I’ve climbed these steps a hundred times. I know where the rough places are, so if you miss a step, I’ll catch you.”
“You’re that fast?” Kwang didn’t look convinced. Mamoru didn’t mind. Let him think what he wanted.
“Speed is valued in this village,” Mamoru said by way of explanation. “We’re all swordsmen here.”
“I see that.” Kwang nodded at the wooden practice sword sticking out of Mamoru’s schoolbag.
“We can fight empty-handed too,” Mamoru assured him, “but traditional swordplay is the preferred fighting style.”
“You any good at it?”
“I’m a Matsuda.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means ‘yes,’” Mamoru said. “And what fighting style is popular in your region?” he asked, curious about what kind of warrior this boy was.
“What fighting style?” Kwang raised his eyebrows. “Video games.”
Mamoru laughed. “We don’t play many of those here.”
“Why not? You do have info-com devices, don’t you?”
Mamoru shook his head.
“What?” Kwang looked stunned.
“Well, the mayor has one, I think. We’re a fairly traditional village.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
Itsuki and Yuuta caught up to the pair on the last stretch of stairs, and the western village boys introduced themselves.
“I’m Mizumaki Itsuki,” Itsuki said, unthinkingly using the Shirojima Dialect the boys all spoke with each other. “This is Yukino Yuuta.”
“Oh. I-I’m Kwang Chul-hee,” Kwang said in a valiant attempt at a Shirojima Dialect greeting. “Yoroshiku onegashimasu.”
“You mean ‘o-ne-ga-i’,” Mamoru corrected him. “Onegaishimasu. And you don’t really pronounce the ‘su’ part unless you’re a little kid.”
“Don’t worry,” Mamoru said. “A lot of the classes are taught in Kaigengua.” That was standard across the Empire.
By the time they reached the school, the city boy was out of breath again. The pillars were the first part of the building that loomed out of the mist, their black finish slick with condensation, followed by the curving clay-tiled roof. Kumono Academy was built into the rock face, its inner structures carved right out of the mountain. The intricate wood and lacquer front of the building was supported by a network of pillars and beams that creaked in high winds but had held the structure in place for a hundred years.
Kwang paused at the front steps, clinging to a carved wooden railing for support, looking like he might empty his stomach into the mists below.
“Why would you build a school in a place like this?” he said in horror.
“Kumono wasn’t built to be a school,” Yuuta said. “It used to be a monastery.”
“Oh. That explains the decor,” Kwang said, eyeing the statues of Ryuhon Falleya saints standing guard at the school doors.
“The place was left vacant after the fina monks built the new temple, further down the mountain in the western village,” Yuuta said.
“And they decided it was a good place for a school?” Kwang said, incredulous.
“Well, Kumono is Takayubi’s elite koro school,” Mamoru explained as the boys walked up the front steps into the genkan. “The village officials thought it would be appropriate if you had to be an elite koro to reach it.”
The smell of incense had never quite left the wooden halls of Kumono. The familiar scent enveloped the four boys as they joined the sleepy gaggle of students at the shoe shelves and knelt to undo the fastenings on their tabi. As Kwang, still shaking, fumbled with his shoes, Mamoru’s gaze was drawn to the northern boy’s feet. Instead of the two-toed tabi the Takayubi boys wore, Kwang was sporting bulky, shiny Yammanka-style shoes that fastened with magnets around the ankles. Mamoru had seen shoes like that on TV, but no one in Shirojima wore them.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to make that climb every morning,” Kwang said, cramming his oversized shoes into an open slot.
“If you want an easier walk, you could always transfer to Takayubi Public High School,” Itsuki suggested.
“Oh, no,” Kwang laughed. “My father won’t have me in any school but the best in the region whenever we move to a new place.”
“You move a lot?” Yuuta asked.
Kwang nodded. “My father’s a traveling representative for a communications company, so we travel all over the country, sometimes outside it.”
“Outside it?” Itsuki said in astonishment. “Where have you been?”
“Um…” Kwang took a moment to think. “I’ve been to Yamma a few times, Kudazwe a few times, Sizwe once, for a few weeks—”
“Boys,” a voice said, “if your shoes are put away, you should be in your classrooms.”
“Yukino Sensei!” Itsuki exclaimed as he and the other boys bowed. “We’re sorry.”
Yukino Dai was the best swordsman in the province—or the second best, depending on who you asked. There was debate about whether he could beat Mamoru’s father, Matsuda Takeru, or his uncle, Matsuda Takashi in a duel. The Yukino clan had none of the Matsudas’ secret bloodline techniques, but Yukino Dai was about as good as a man could get with a naked blade.
“We have a new student with us, Sensei,” Mamoru explained. “He isn’t sure where he’s supposed to go.”
“I see.” Yukino Sensei looked past Mamoru at the new boy, who stuck out starkly in his bogolan uniform. “You must be Kwang Chul-hee?”
“Yes, sir.” Kwang bowed and said very carefully, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
The swordmaster visibly suppressed a smile at Kwang’s pronunciation. “Welcome to Kumono Academy,” he said in Kaigengua. “How was your first time up the steps?”
“Super easy, sir,” Kwang said, despite the obvious flush in his cheeks. “I can’t wait to do it again.”
Yukino Sensei’s face broke into an open smile. “I like you, Kwang,” he said. “You can follow me to the office to pick up your schedule. Matsuda-san.” He turned to Mamoru. “Run to the storeroom and find a uniform for Kwang-san. Your size should do.”
“Yes, sir.” Mamoru bowed and hurried to do as he was told.
He moved quickly through the narrow halls to the supply closet, his legs absorbing the shifting of the floor as the school swayed on its posts.
“Hey, Mamoru!” other boys greeted him.
“Good morning, Matsuda-senpai!”
He made sure he gave each of them a bow and a smile as he went.
There was no lock on the storeroom door. Kumono was a small enough high school—Takayubi was a small enough town—that no one worried much about theft. Where would a thief even keep a stolen item? Where would he try to sell it? Everyone here knew everyone.
Mamoru had to climb over a box of broken practice swords and a stack of dummies to reach the shelf of spare uniforms. Keeping his footing became a challenge as the school creaked and the dummies shifted beneath him, but what kind of Matsuda would he be if a little breeze threw him off balance? With the next gust of wind, the stack of dummies tipped toward the shelves. Mamoru leaned forward, snatched a size-four uniform from its shelf, and sprang from the top of the stack to the floor before anything fell.
After double checking the uniform size, he hurried to the office to meet Yukino Sensei and Kwang.
“Thank you, Matsuda-san,” Yukino Sensei said as Mamoru handed the new boy his uniform. “Now, Kwang-san is going to be entering our second-year class, which means his schedule is identical to yours.” Mamoru nodded. Being the more exclusive of two high schools in a small town, Kumono Academy had only one class per grade level. “I’m putting him in your charge. You’ll look after him for today.”
“Start by showing him where the changing rooms are. And be quick. You boys only have a few siiranu before classes start.”
Kwang took longer than Mamoru would have thought to change into his new uniform, and Mamoru found himself pacing impatiently on the creaking floor before the changing room door. When Kwang finally emerged, he was still fiddling with the waist tie as if he had all the time in the world.
“This is so funny,” he said, shaking out the uniform’s broad blue sleeves. “I feel like I’m in one of those old samurai movies.”
“Well, for us, this is just a normal school uniform,” Mamoru said, frowning.
“This place is weird.” Kwang ran his hands over his sleeves, looking at the ornately-carved temple halls around him. “It’s like I stepped through a portal back in time.”
Mamoru felt annoyance bristle up inside him. He wasn’t sure why. He opened his mouth to say something but before he could come up with the right words, the old temple bell sounded. The single ancient note reverberated through the hall, as it had done for a hundred years, calling the boys of Takayubi to class.
“Healthy, just like his brothers?” Hyori asked, leaning in to put a hand on the infant’s head.
“Yes,” Misaki said, “if a little smaller.”
“I can’t believe this one is your fourth!”
“Yes,” Misaki sighed, trying to make her tone light, despite the heaviness in her limbs, “hopefully the last.”
“No!” Hyori exclaimed, scandalized. “How can you say that?”
“Yeah, you’re doing so well, why stop now?” Setsuko joked, shifting her own baby to her other hip to nudge her sister-in-law.
“Seriously, Misaki-san!” Hyori said with an ache in her voice. “You’re so lucky!”
“Mmm.” Misaki nodded, forcing a smile. “I suppose I am.”
And Misaki was lucky. By normal Shirojima standards, she was the luckiest woman in the world. Fresh out of theonite academy, she had been fortunate enough to marry into Shirojima’s greatest warrior family. And following that, she had been blessed with son, after son, after son. There had been a rough space of years, after Mamoru, when she hadn’t been able to give birth, but five years ago, she had borne Hiroshi, then soon after him, Nagasa, and now Izumo. Four healthy boys, every Shirojima woman’s dream.
“May I?” Hyori asked, an eager sparkle in her eyes.
“Of course.” Careful to support the infant’s unsteady head, Misaki handed Izumo to her friend.
“You’re looking much better,” Setsuko commented as Hyori gushed and cooed over an oblivious Izumo.
“I feel much better,” Misaki said, rolling her shoulders, “at least now that you’re here. I missed you two.”
Normally, the three housewives spent the majority of their waking hours together, letting their little ones play together, passing around the babies as they did their shopping, cooking, and sewing. Since giving birth to Izumo, Misaki had been too exhausted to do much except look after the infant, and Takeru had insisted that she wasn’t well enough for company. This was the first time Izumo was meeting Hyori and his aunt, Setsuko. He could be a fussy baby, but he didn’t seem bothered by the new faces—if he could even make out facial features. He was still so young that his eyes hadn’t found their focus yet.
“Four sons,” Setsuko mused, burping her own daughter, Ayumi, on her shoulder. “I don’t know how I’m ever supposed to catch up to that. “Although, look at these chunky little arms! Ayumi could almost pass for a boy. Perhaps I’ll start dressing her in boy clothes and just pretend I’ve given my husband a healthy son.” Baby Ayumi, only two months Izumo’s senior, was nearly twice his size. “What do you think?”
“I think she’s perfect the way she is.” Misaki was being honest, but of course, the other two women laughed.
When she was younger, Misaki had always pictured herself having daughters. She had enjoyed the vague fantasy of raising powerful, forward-thinking young women with the courage to amount to more than their mother, but it was just that: a fantasy. Misaki had long since let go of the idea that she could raise her children the way she wanted—or that they were even her children at all. Her sons were Matsudas first and foremost. Their sole purpose was to grow to be powerful warriors, like their father before them, and his father before him. They belonged to the Matsuda house, as she did.
“I’m being serious,” Misaki insisted as Hyori passed baby Izumo back to her. “I would be happy to have a daughter.” With a daughter, at least, she might be allowed to pass some of herself on to her own child.
“Easy for you to say when you’re on your fourth son!” Hyori said indignantly.
Setsuko hummed in agreement. “You’re going to have to tell us how you pulled it off.”
“I want to know how she pulled it off and kept her figure!” Hyori said.
“Oh, shut up you!” Setsuko swatted Hyori on the back of the head. “The prettiest little slip of a woman in the village doesn’t get to say things like that!”
“Setsuko-san,” Hyori said, blushing furiously. “I’m not the prettiest—”
“Shut your pretty mouth, Hyori-chan,” Misaki said fondly. “You don’t need to play dumb with us. We like you better when you’re smart.”
Hyori was rarely smart, but Misaki thought she might as well keep encouraging her. Popular wisdom said that a woman as pretty as Hyori didn’t need to be smart. ‘Pretty’ wasn’t even the right word for Hyori, in Misaki’s opinion. The woman was stunningly, achingly beautiful, with an artless smile and eyes as soft as melting snow. Many Shirojima women were ‘pretty,’ but Hyori was the kind of legendary beauty men went to war for.
“Couple of pure-bred princesses, both of you!” Setsuko said, looking from Hyori to Misaki in exasperation. “With your smooth skin, and your teensy little waists. Don’t you sit there and complain about your weight to me when I could fit the two of you inside me.”
Ironically, it was Setsuko who Misaki considered to be the most beautiful woman on the mountain. When Setsuko had married into the Matsuda family, she had brought with her all the crude shameless joy Misaki missed so much from her life before Takayubi. Her beauty had little to do with her physical attributes. It wasn’t the short hair cropped about her ears; it was the way she shook it out and sighed in pleasure when she was enjoying the weather. It wasn’t her big eyes with their dark lashes; it was the way they crinkled up with mirth at the smallest things. It wasn’t her bulky frame; it was the way she threw it around with careless confidence in a world where everyone, ladies and swordsmen alike, stepped so lightly.
Before they were sisters-in-law, Misaki had known Setsuko—as everyone had known her—as the fresh fish lady. Her voice could be heard on any trip to the markets at the base of the mountain. “Fresh fish! Get your fresh fish!”
It wasn’t a glamorous job, but Setsuko was the kind of person who could be at her most charming elbows deep in fish guts, with loose strands of hair sticking to the sweat on her temples. Misaki had to imagine that many people had fallen in love with the stocky fisherwoman with the carefree grin, but it was Matsuda Takashi, the first son of the highest house in the region, who fell the hardest.
Misaki had first suspected the morning her brother-in-law stopped her on her way out the door and said, “You look tired, Misaki. I can go to the market for you.”
For a moment, Misaki had only managed to blink up at him. “You want to go to the market?” she said blankly. Shopping for meals wasn’t something a man was supposed to do—certainly not a nobleman like Takashi.
“I—um—I have business to attend to at the base of the mountain anyway.” Takashi didn’t meet her eyes.
“I’m feeling fine, Nii-sama,” Misaki assured him. “If you have important business, you shouldn’t trouble yourself—”
“It’s no trouble,” Takashi said and Misaki realized that he was speaking in a low voice, as if worried that his father and brother would hear from inside the house. “Just give me a list of what you need.”
“Alright.” Confused as she was, Misaki wasn’t going to argue.
“If you could maybe… not mention this to my father?”
Misaki’s suspicions were confirmed when Takashi returned late that evening and deposited eight bulging baskets of fish in her kitchen. No man but a Matsuda could have carried such a load all the way up the mountain. As strong as Takashi was, the effort had lent his face a bright flush.
“Fish,” he said with a drunk smile that ill-became the son of a warrior family. “You said you wanted fresh fish right? I’m sorry. I might have missed the other things on your list.”
“Um…” Misaki looked in horror at the heaping baskets on her kitchen floor. “I’m sorry, Nii-sama, what do you want me to do with all this?” The Matsuda compound didn’t have freezer space to store this many fish. “Are you expecting company?”
“What? No. Why? Is this too much?”
Misaki looked up at her brother-in-law, incredulous and more than a little annoyed. If you like the girl, just tell her straight, she wanted to snap. Don’t blow the family fortune on fish! But it wasn’t her place to question him, and it wasn’t that simple. A nobleman couldn’t just propose to a fisherman’s daughter and whisk her away up the mountain. Not in Takayubi. Peasants with no bloodlines to protect might marry whoever they liked, but men and women of noble houses didn’t have that luxury.
“Is it too much?” Takashi asked again, still dazed and so much giddier than usual, like a love-struck teenager—like Misaki had been once. The thought pierced her chest with a sudden and unexpected pain.
Be careful, big brother, she wanted to say then, be careful how hard you love what you know you can’t have, but that also was not her place.
So instead, she pursed her lips, looked down at the fish and said, “I’ll think of something.”
“Good,” Takashi said, though he didn’t really seem to see or hear her. “Good,” and he wandered out of the kitchen, still smiling. On his way out, he passed Takeru, who regarded his older brother with the same sour expression he took on whenever he saw someone happy.
“Is my brother ill?” he asked when Takashi had gone.
No, Misaki thought sadly, just doomed to misery.
But Takashi had been lucky—or rather, just the right combination of lucky, determined, and clever. He had struggled, and schemed, and spun excuses, and somehow managed to hold off marriage until his tyrannical father had passed away and there were no Matsuda elders left to tell him what to do. Then, instead of marrying a pure-blooded noblewoman his family chose for him, Takashi married the woman he loved—the peasant with the loud laugh who sold him his fresh fish.
Takashi didn’t know it, but in marrying Setsuko, he might have saved Misaki’s life. The fisherman’s daughter had moved into the Matsuda compound shortly after Misaki’s second miscarriage, a loud burst of color when everything seemed gray.
“You haven’t smiled the whole time I’ve been here,” Setsuko had observed as Misaki helped her unpack the few belongings she had brought with her. “Why so glum, little sister?”
Misaki was two years older than her new sister-in-law, but Setsuko had married the older of the two Matsuda brothers, and in this world, the man’s status was the only thing that mattered.
“I’m sorry,” Misaki murmured. It had become her default response to anything over the past few years.
Setsuko planted her hands on her hips. “That’s not good enough.”
“Look, you and I are going to be here in this house together until we’re both wrinkly old hags with all our teeth falling out. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend the next forty years with a woman who doesn’t know how to smile.”
“I know how to smile.” There had been a time Misaki had been accused of smiling too much, but over the years, Takayubi had worn away at her, turning her into this quivering, brittle thing, afraid the sound of her own voice might shake her to pieces if she spoke too loud.
“I’ve never seen you smile,” Setsuko said. “What’s wrong with you? Are the corners of your mouth busted or something?”
“I miscarried,” Misaki said bluntly, “twice.”
“Oh.” Setsuko pulled up short, her joking demeanor evaporating. “Oh, sweetheart… I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
Misaki thought she might crumble under the concern in Setsuko’s eyes. She felt stripped bare. The years had hardened her against her father-in-law’s cruelty and her husband’s indifference, but she had no armor against that honest gaze.
“You really wanted those children?” Setsuko asked softly.
“I don’t know,” Misaki said, stunned—and slightly horrified—at her own honesty. She waited, her shoulders tense, for Setsuko to berate her for her selfishness, to blame her for losing the children, to tell her she was lucky to have such a tolerant husband, like everyone else did.
Setsuko only said, “Oh. Then why are you so sad?”
“I…” When, Misaki wondered, had her voice gotten so small? When had she become afraid to put a single thought into words? “I’m here to give my husband sons. I don’t want to be a disappointment.”
“You’re not a disappointment,” Setsuko said confidently.
“I said, you’re not a disappointment. You couldn’t be if you tried.” It had been a long time since someone had spoken about Misaki with that sort of simple confidence—taking for granted that she was right and good.
Misaki stared at Setsuko for a moment and realized that she had forgotten how to respond to this type of kindness. It was something she thought she had left behind nine years ago.
“Look at you,” Setsuko continued earnestly. “What could a man possibly complain about? You’re sweet, you’re beautiful, I get the feeling you’re pretty smart too, you’ve already borne a perfect son, and my husband tells me your cooking is to die for.”
“That’s nice of him to say.”
“You like cooking?”
“Well, that’s good because I’m a lousy cook.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Misaki said politely.
“Oh, it is. Ask anyone who’s ever eaten one of my meals. Now, why don’t you make yourself useful, and teach me to cook something for my fancy husband and his refined Matsuda palate.”
“Matsuda palates aren’t that refined,” Misaki said. “Your husband likes the same food as everyone else.”
“Not when I make it, he won’t. Why do you think I was always the one hauling the fish to market instead of staying home to help in the kitchen? My family tried my cooking exactly once and then decided they’d rather live.”
Misaki felt her face split into a smile, and for the first time in an age, she giggled.
“There’s that smile!” Setsuko exclaimed, triumphant. “And look at that!” She poked a finger at Misaki’s cheek.
“What?” Misaki put her hand to her face, thinking maybe there was a piece of rice stuck to it.
“You have dimples!”
Misaki had never had any sisters, but from that day, she decided that she was glad to call Setsuko her sister. Their husbands carried with them all the tension that accompanied growing up as brothers, a first and second son competing for their father’s approval, but the sisters-in-law never let any of that bad nyama in between them.
After Misaki had lived in the Matsuda compound almost a decade, it was Setsuko who made it feel like a home. When Misaki was in pain, it was Setsuko who went to the western village to buy her remedies. When she got lost in the undertow of her own thoughts, it was Setsuko who pulled her back with a joke. A few months after Hiroshi was born, it was Setsuko who said, “That pretty little thing who lives in the Yukino compound. Who is she?”
“You mean Hyori?” Misaki said. “She’s Yukino Dai’s wife.”
“Yukino Dai,” Misaki said, “the house patriarch.”
“I thought the Yukino patriarch was Yukino Ryosuke.”
“It is—it was. He passed away a little while before you moved here, while you were getting ready for your wedding. Didn’t you know?”
“No!” Setsuko exclaimed. “Nami, I haven’t been in on the market gossip! That’s where I used to get all my news. I swear to the Gods, I don’t know how you noblewomen live cooped up like this!”
“You’re a noblewoman too now,” Misaki reminded her.
Setsuko made a dismissive, “Bah!” waving her hand.
“Yukino Ryosuke’s funeral was just before you got married. Someone had to assume control of the estate, and the Yukinos’ oldest son didn’t want to move his family all the way back from Jungsan. Dai-san is the second son, so he moved in with his wife.”
“Does he keep his wife cloistered or some kind of weird noble thing like that?” Setsuko asked. “How come we never see her?”
“I think she spends most of her time caring for Dai-san’s mother. She’s old and very ill, so I imagine it takes up most of her time.”
“That must get lonely,” Setsuko said. “We should go visit tomorrow.”
That was how the sisters-in-law had met Hyori. Now, five years later, the three women were inseparable.
Hyori and Setsuko were still teasing one another about their waistlines when there was a tug at Misaki’s arm. She looked down to find her third son, two-year-old Nagasa, clutching the flowered sleeve of her kimono.
“See?” he asked in his tiny voice. “See baby?” It was his favorite question since Izumo had arrived.
“Of course,” Misaki said, kneeling down on the tatami to put Izumo on her knee before Nagasa. “Remember to be gentle, Naga-kun. He’s still very small.”
“Hold baby?” Nagasa asked hopefully, holding out his arms.
“Oh, isn’t he the cutest thing!” Hyori squealed.
“I’m going to hold him for now,” Misaki told Nagasa gently. “You concentrate on growing a little bigger and we’ll talk.”
“Isn’t your older brother around?” Hyori asked, kneeling so that she was at eye-level with the two-year-old. “Why don’t you go play with him?”
“Hiro-nii-san gone,” Nagasa pouted.
“Oh? Where did he go?” Hyori asked, looking at Misaki.
“Hiro-kun is at the elementary school dojo,” Misaki said, gently jouncing Izumo on her knees.
“That’s right,” Hyori said. “He likes to watch the older boys train, doesn’t he?”
“He’s actually training with them now,” Misaki said, “started as soon as he was big enough to lift the practice sword.”
“Isn’t he only five?” Hyori said in astonishment. “I thought that was against policy.”
“The instructors made an exception,” Misaki said. No five-year-old had ever been admitted to the elementary school’s beginner sword class, but Misaki’s second son, Hiroshi, was not like other five-year-olds.
“He’s a serious little boy, isn’t he?” Setsuko said. “Like a miniature version of his father. It’s a little scary.”
“How come you can’t be like that, hmm, Ryo-kun?” Hyori poked her own son, Ryota. She said it in a joking voice, but there was a distinct undercurrent of seriousness.
“Well, he’s still very young,” Misaki said. “Ryota-kun, how old are you?”
“Four,” Ryota said proudly.
“There, you see,” Misaki said. “You may be a little swordsman like Hiroshi by next year. Who knows?”
“I’m already a swordsman!” Ryota announced, brandishing his toy sword. “I’m the greatest swordsman in the world!”
“Is that so?” Misaki couldn’t help but tease.
“I challenge you to a duel!” Ryota shouted, seemingly to no one in particular, probably quoting a cartoon he had seen. “I challenge you to a duel!”
On a whim, Misaki pooled her jiya, pulled the surrounding water molecules together and froze them into a makeshift sword—well, more of a blunt icicle than a sword, the perfect size for combat with a four-year-old.
“I accept!” she said.
“Misaki-san, what are you doing?” Hyori asked.
“Fight me, Yukino Ryota!” Misaki intoned in her best cartoon villain voice, shifting Izumo over to her left hip where he was out of danger.
“Ryo-kun, don’t,” Hyori warned. “Misaki-san is a lady—” but the boy, overcome with joy at having a playmate, was already whaling away at Misaki with his wooden sword.
Misaki’s arm moved on an almost forgotten impulse. In two moves, she had disarmed little Ryota. With another flick of her makeshift play-sword, she had swept the boy off his feet. He landed on his back with a hard ‘oof!’ and Misaki pointed the blunt icicle down at his chest.
“I am victorious!” she said dramatically. “Admit defeat or I shall tickle you!”
“Oh no!” Ryota shrieked, and scrambled away, giggling. “No, no!”
And Misaki couldn’t help it. She hiked up her kimono and ran after him. The quick little boy probably hadn’t expected a refined housewife like Misaki to catch up to him in three strides. He screamed when she caught him around the middle with one arm, and laughed, and laughed as she took him to the ground with tickles.
“Misaki-san, what are you doing?” Hyori cried, seemingly unsure whether to be scandalized or amused.
“Don’t worry, Hyori-chan,” Setsuko said. “This is something Misaki does every once in a while, when she’s in a happy mood.” What Setsuko didn’t understand was that this unfamiliar creature—this fearless, ridiculous woman who ran fast and played with swords—was an echo from a time when Misaki’s whole life had been happy.
Having recovered from the tickle attack, a giggling Ryota picked up his sword and came at Misaki again. This time, she gave some ground, letting the boy pick up on her rhythm and get a few good swings in before she disarmed him again.
“I’m afraid Ryo-kun is a ways away from being like Hiro-kun,” Hyori laughed, “if he loses to a woman.”
Misaki could have mentioned that losing a fight against her was nothing for a young boy—or even a man—to be ashamed of, but that was a part of herself she didn’t talk about anymore. Takeru had forbidden it.
“Me too!” Nagasa squealed, getting his own play sword and bouncing up and down. “Kaa-chan, me too!”
“Boys, careful of the baby!” Hyori warned as Ryota and Nagasa charged Misaki at the same time.
But Misaki was more than capable of fending off two children with her right arm while keeping her infant cradled comfortably in her left. It was only when the noise became too much for Izumo that he started crying and Misaki had to call off the duel.
“Sorry, boys,” she said, turning her makeshift sword to water vapor with a wave of her hand. “That’s all for today. I yield. Good fight, Yukino-dono.” She ruffled Ryota’s hair. “Matsuda-dono.” She chucked Nagasa under the chin. “We’ll have to duel again sometime.”
And she retreated to the couch to comfort Izumo before his wailing could rise to an unbearable pitch.
“Oh no!” Nagasa dropped his play sword and followed his mother to the couch with a look of genuine worry. “Baby crying!”
“He’s not upset with you, Naga-kun,” Misaki assured the two-year-old. “He’s just hungry.”
Tugging the front of her kimono open, Misaki maneuvered the bawling infant inside and gave him her breast. The wailing stopped almost immediately.
“You can’t be too scared of a little carnage,” Setsuko teased, prodding Izumo’s foot. “After all, you’ve got to grow up to be a great warrior, just like your grumpy father.”
“Hey now, Setsuko,” Misaki said with a smile. “Don’t make fun of my grumpy husband. He works hard to keep that frown plastered on his face all day.”
“Mattaku!” Hyori exclaimed with an annoyed ‘tsk’ of her tongue. “Do you know how happy Dai would be if I could give him four good sons. I tell you, he would smile all day if he had a son like your Mamoru.”
“If it’s any consolation, Mamoru really likes Dai-san,” Misaki said.
“Oh yeah?” Hyori perked up.
“Yeah. Dai-san is his favorite instructor he’s ever had, for sword and jiya.”
That sent Hyori into a fit of giggles. “Misaki-san, don’t tease!”
“I’m not teasing,” Misaki said honestly.
“His father is Matsuda Takeru,” Hyori said, “master of the Whispering Blade, the greatest swordsman on the mountain.”
“And a terrible teacher,” Misaki said. “The extent of his instruction is to cross his arms, and scowl, and say, ‘Bad. Do it again. Still bad. Do it again. Listen. Get it right or I’ll gut you, you disgrace. What do you mean you don’t understand? What’s to understand? Just do it right.”
“Stop! Stop!” Setsuko begged, clutching her stomach with laughter. “Your Takeru impression is too good! I’m going to die!”
“How do you even get your voice that low?” Hyori laughed.
“What? You mean like this?” Misaki thundered. “Silly woman, you couldn’t possibly understand such matters. My manliness does not allow for human inflection.”
The trio plunged into another fit of giggles, and because their mothers were laughing, Ryota and Nagasa ended up laughing too.
Misaki had spent years trying to belong with these people. They weren’t like her friends from her school days. They weren’t scrappy visionaries like Elleen, or geniuses like Koli, or unstoppable forces of energy like Robin. They would never change the world, nor understand why someone would want to, but they loved her. She could laugh with them, and that was enough.
There were days Misaki could convince herself that it was enough.
The training arena was a broad shelf of rock that the monks used to use for exercise and meditation. According to legend, the flattened half-moon had been hewn out of the mountainside by the Whispering Blades of Matsudas long dead—Mamoru’s ancestors.
“Perfect weather for today’s practice!” Yukino Sensei bellowed over the wind whipping across the arena. “Now we’ll have a true test of accuracy!”
Mamoru heard teeth chattering and turned to see Kwang with his arms pulled all the way into his uniform.
“Is it always so cold up here?” The new boy shivered.
Mamoru almost laughed. “Wait until the winter.”
Human-sized bundles of straw stood at intervals across the arena, frozen to the rock by Yukino Sensei’s ice. Tied to each bundle was a coarse cloth sign with a number painted on it. Mamoru’s jiya was already itching to surge into action as Yukino Sensei raised his voice above the wind to explain the day’s lesson.
“For most of this week, we’ve been working on forming aerodynamic ice projectiles. Now, you boys still have a great deal of work to do on that front,” Yukino Sensei said, stopping in front of Mamoru to give him a pointed look, “especially those of you who hope to one day master a certain bloodline technique.” Mamoru gave his teacher a small, determined nod, and Yukino Sensei turned to address the entire class. “Despite your sub-par forming work, I’m going to cut you all some slack so that we can train the next technique. Today, I’ve made your projectiles for you.” He gestured to a stack of perfectly-formed ice spears, each one three strides long, with a fine point and a broad base to allow a strong launch.
“What bloodline technique is he talking about?” Kwang asked Mamoru as Yukino Sensei paced further down the line of boys. “What does your family do that’s so special?”
“You’re joking, right?” Itsuki interjected with an incredulous look at Kwang. “Mamoru is a Matsuda.”
No understanding registered on Kwang’s face. “Yes?”
“The Matsudas are the masters of the Whispering Blade,” Itsuki said. “You must have heard of the Whispering Blade in the capital.”
“Well—yes—but it’s just a myth,” Kwang laughed, but when the serious look on Itsuki’s face didn’t change, his smile faded and he turned to Mamoru with wide eyes. “Isn’t it?”
Mamoru shrugged. “Some myths are true.”
“But it’s not possible,” Kwang protested. “No jijaka can make ice strong enough to cut through steel!”
“Are you one of them?” Kwang asked in awe.
Mamoru set his jaw. “I will be.”
Kwang considered Mamoru, his eyes squinted in thought. “I don’t believe you,” he said after a moment. “Even Kusanagi jijakalu can’t be that powerful.”
Instead of retorting, Mamoru just nodded toward Yukino Sensei and said, “Watch.”
The master jijaka had lifted one of the spears from the pile with a gentle gesture of his hand. His two fingers were enough to keep the projectile hovering perfectly still in the air before him as he spoke.
“The strongest tajakalu can throw a spear sixteen bounds,” Yukino Sensei bellowed, pointing with his free hand across the arena to the straw dummy painted with the Kaigengua numeral 16. “The best fonyakalu can use wind to launch a solid projectile twenty-five bounds.” He pointed beyond the first dummy to one farther away labeled with a number 25. “As a jijaka, you can do much more.”
Placing a hand against the flattened end of the projectile, Yukino Sensei planted his feet and launched the ice forward. Mamoru had seen Lightning Dai’s jiya in action enough times that it no longer set his heart leaping into his throat. But beside him, he heard Kwang utter a gasp.
The spear blasted through the 16-bound dummy, through the 25-bound dummy, all the way to the end of the arena where it stuck into a third dummy marked with a barely discernible number 40.
“Holy Falleke!” Kwang breathed, gawking at the destroyed 16-bound bundle.
“Tajakalu may be able to use their strength to throw a projectile,” Yukino Sensei said, turning back to his class, “fonyakalu may be able to use their nyama to push against one. Our nyama is the projectile. When a weapon is made of ice, we can control it down to the molecule. We jijakalu are the only race of theonite who can fight with a solid weapon that is truly an extension of the self.”
Yukino Sensei gave each student a stack of projectiles and had them line up across the arena to practice firing at the army of straw targets.
Using his jiya to lift a spear, Mamoru laid his palm against the flat end and let his power rise. The ocean may not have been visible from Kumono Academy, but when Mamoru’s jiya pooled in his chest, it seemed to reach all the way down the mountain, to the waves that crashed at its base, and deeper than that, into the depths where Mount Takayubi’s roots met the seafloor.
Ryuhon tradition claimed that the jijakalu of Shirojima were descended from the ocean gods who had dwelt in the Sea of Kaigen at the dawn of time. Most people of Shirojima regarded this part of their tradition as more metaphor than fact. Logically, there was no way human beings could be the direct descendants of titanic fish and sea dragons.
But like many Matsudas before him, Mamoru experienced surges of madness, when the feeling of his jiya consumed him. In those moments, he knew that the power rolling through his body was born from the ancient forces that had raised Kaigen from the sea. It was more than faith. It was fact.
The power rose, thunderous, like a wave inside Mamoru, and he rode the swell, moving his body with it. As the wave hit its apex, he let the force burst down his arm, through his open palm, into the ice. The projectile exploded through the air, shooting farther than anyone else’s, but it didn’t fly straight. It glanced off the stone shelf, breaking its fletching blades, and skidded to a stop off to the side of the 25-bound target. Mamoru frowned and shook out his hands. He was just getting warmed up. With his full power, he would launch the spear so hard that it had no choice but to go straight through the target.
Letting a new wave of nyama surge through him, Mamoru launched again. This spear managed to clip the 25-bound target, but it wasn’t a clean hit, and the ice broke apart instead of penetrating.
“Stop pushing so hard, Matsuda-san,” Yukino Sensei said patiently. “You have more than enough power to send a projectile clear across this arena. Relax your shoulders and focus on accuracy over force.”
“Yes, Sensei,” Mamoru breathed and raised another projectile.
“Slow down.” Yukino Sensei reached out and laid his fingertips on the ice, stilling it before Mamoru could raise it level with the target. “Your jiya is too excited; I can feel it roaring every which way inside you. Take a moment to calm it. Focus your energy, then try again.”
Yukino Sensei moved down the line to observe the other boys, giving them each a few well-placed pieces of advice. Mamoru’s mother had once said of Yukino Dai that he dealt his words as carefully as he dealt his cuts. It was what made him such a good teacher.
“Don’t over-rotate,” Yukino Sensei scolded his younger cousin, Yuuta, giving the boy a hard rap on the head with his knuckles. “If you swing through without calculating your point of release, that projectile will crash into the ground short of its target every time.”
“Yes, Sensei.” Yuuta rubbed his head and tried again, this time managing to send his spear neatly into the 16-bound target.
Satisfied, Yukino Sensei turned his attention from Yuuta to Kwang, just as the northern newcomer sent his third spear spinning off course to crash into pieces on the rock shelf.
“Hmm.” Yukino Sensei frowned at the new student, and Kwang cringed, clearly expecting to be mocked or smacked on the head.
But all Yukino Sensei said was, “I bet you’re very good at the spear-throw.”
“Yes,” Kwang said in surprise. “How did you—”
“Stop trying to throw with your shoulder. Project from the hip, straight out through your palm, like you’re punching a man in the solar plexus.”
“Sensei,” Itsuki complained from further down the line, “the wind keeps pushing it off course!”
“These projectiles are made to cut through the wind, Mizumaki-san. Again. I want to see.”
He paused to watch Itsuki attempt a launch, sending the spear wide.
“Your launch is weak.” Yukino Sensei put his hands on Itsuki’s shoulders and maneuvered him back into his starting position. “Angle your stance this way. Bend your knees. A little bit more. There.”
Having given his jiya time to settle, Mamoru returned his attention to his own task. As usual, Yukino Sensei was right. Mamoru’s aim got much better after he relaxed, but even with his projectiles flying straight, he still couldn’t seem to get one past the 25-bound target.
“What are you scowling about?” Kwang asked him at one point. “You’re shooting way better than everyone else.”
Not as well as Yukino Sensei, Mamoru thought but he couldn’t say that aloud, so he just clenched his jaw and raised another spear from his stack. Mamoru was almost full grown now, and ‘better than everyone else’ wasn’t good enough. A Matsuda had to be as good as a hundred other jijakalu put together. He had to be the best anyone had ever seen.
In his frustration, Mamoru threw his whole body into the movement, slamming the next spear toward its target. The projectile hit the 25-bound target and went all the way through it.
“Falleke!” Kwang exclaimed as Mamoru’s projectile slid to a stop a bound or so beyond the target. “What was that?”
Not bothering to respond, Mamoru lifted another projectile from the stack. Using his jiya to keep it hovering at chest height, he backed up a few paces and ran at it. He didn’t even put the whole force of his jiya into the launch, but the projectile still managed to penetrate the 25-bound target and burst out the other side.
“What did you just do?” Kwang asked in astonishment.
“Why are we planting?” Mamoru said.
“Why are we planting our feet and launching when we could add the power of momentum?”
“Mamoru-kun,” Yuuta warned, recognizing the look on his friend’s face. “You know what Sensei says about your ideas—”
“I know,” Mamoru cut him off, raising another projectile. “Just give me a dinma.” He had to try it. He had to.
Locking his jiya into the ice, he threw the projectile high into the air and released. As the projectile started to fall, Mamoru backed up as far as the shelf allowed. He would have to hit the spear on its way down. It would require perfect timing, but timing came naturally to Mamoru.
He gave the spear one last moment to descend and then sprinted at it. On his last step, he sprang high into the air and spun. His forward momentum combined with the power of the spin and the gravity pulling him earthward. As his body whipped around, he drove his palm into the base of the projectile and launched. The power of an ocean storm exploded through his palm.
All anyone saw was a flash of silver before the projectile slammed into the 40-bound target in a spray of straw. Mamoru’s feet hit the stone and he let out his breath. He had done it!
The mountainside rang with the shocked cries of his classmates, then with cheers, as they took in the destroyed 40-bound target. However, when Mamoru’s eyes found Yukino Sensei, the swordmaster was not smiling.
“Matsuda!” He roared over the wind, and the class fell silent. “What in the Duna do you think you are doing?”
“Sorry, Sensei.” Mamoru tried to look apologetic, but he couldn’t quite wipe the smile off his face.
“Get your ego under control. You will do the drill as I instruct, or you will leave my class. Do you understand?”
Gradually, the rest of the class finished their excited murmurings and returned to the drill. Mamoru felt Yukino Sensei’s fingers dig into his ear, pulling his head back.
“Sensei!” Mamoru started as the man dragged him out of earshot of the rest of the class. “I—”
“Mamoru-kun,” Yukino Sensei cut him off in a low voice. “There is a reason we begin this drill with both feet on the ground.”
“I’m sorry. I—”
“Don’t interrupt,” the swordmaster said mildly. “I want you to consider for a moment, that if I had the rest of these boys flying and spinning during this exercise, I would have a lot of dead boys. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sensei,” Mamoru said with a biting pang of guilt. He hadn’t thought of that; he had been too focused on himself.
“Matsudas are more than flashy fighters,” Yukino Sensei said. “They are leaders, and a leader must think of those around him.”
“Good.” Yukino Sensei released Mamoru’s aching ear and raised his hand. Mamoru flinched, expecting to feel the crack of his teacher’s knuckles, but the swordmaster just put his hand atop his head.
“Now,” he said, “if you are going to launch from a spin, make sure the knee that you lead with stays tucked close to your body through the entire rotation. You lose momentum when you let your leg stick out. Learn to tuck that knee in and you’ll be firing spears further than mine in no time.”
In his surprise, Mamoru could only say, “Oh.”
“Practice at home, yes?”
When the wind on the shelf reached dangerous strength and the students started running low on projectiles, Yukino Sensei moved his class indoors for sword practice. The three hours of sparring wore most of the boys to exhaustion. To Mamoru, they felt more like a warm-up, but he kept Yukino Sensei’s words in mind; he kept the other boys in mind. He had been guilty of leaving horrible bruises on classmates who were too slow to block his wooden blade—which was all of them—but he was more careful today, bringing his bokken to a clean stop before smashing it into any ribs or necks.
Mamoru found a new level of focus trying to outmaneuver his classmates without actually hitting them. His heart sank when the bell rang, signaling the end of training. Knees shook and sweat dripped onto the tatami as the boys packed up their gear and headed to history class. To Kwang’s credit, he had not passed out as new students often did in Yukino Sensei’s sword class, though he didn’t seem to be able to walk without the support of the wall.
“Come on, city boy,” Yuuta teased, taking Kwang’s arm. “You can lean on me.”
“Mamoru,” Yukino Sensei stopped him before he could follow his classmates out of the dojo. “Excellent work today.”
“Thank you, Sensei.”
“I’m glad to see that your control is developing along with your ridiculous speed.”
Mamoru nodded. From the swordsman once known as Lightning Dai, that was high praise.
“I haven’t gotten the chance to speak with your father or uncle in some time,” Yukino Sensei said, returning the extra bokken to the closet. “Have either of them been working on the Whispering Blade with you?”
“I…” Mamoru felt his smile fade. “My father’s been trying to.”
“Good,” Yukino Sensei said earnestly. The pride in his eyes made Mamoru want to shrink in shame.
There was very little that did not come easily to Mamoru, but his father had been trying to teach him the Whispering Blade for almost a year now, and he hadn’t come anywhere near mastering it. For centuries, the Matsuda family had passed down the secret to forming weapons of impervious ice. The technique was so difficult that no non-Matsuda had ever figured it out—and Mamoru was starting to wonder how anyone had ever figured it out.
It wasn’t enough to be an excellent sword fighter. It wasn’t enough to be good at summoning and shaping ice. The Whispering Blade came from something deeper that Mamoru just didn’t understand. His father understood it, but Matsuda Takeru did not have Yukino Sensei’s magical ability to put his skill into words. No matter how he explained, Mamoru just couldn’t understand.
“I’m not doing well,” he blurted out before thinking better of it. “My father is frustrated with me.”
Mamoru regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. It was beyond inappropriate for a student to discuss his problems at home with his teacher, and it was forbidden for a Matsuda to discuss the details of the Whispering Blade with anyone outside the family.
“I wish I could help you,” the swordmaster said after a moment, “but I’m a Yukino, and I’m not your father. Even if it were my place to speak to you about this, I wouldn’t be much help. I don’t know what the Whispering Blade entails.”
“I know, Sensei,” Mamoru said, looking at his feet. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“But I do know a great jijaka when I see one,” Yukino Sensei said. “I know that you have the same force of nyama in you as your father and other great fighters of your line.”
Mamoru nodded. But Matsuda power wasn’t necessarily enough. A Matsuda’s ultimate purpose was to turn himself into a weapon strong enough to defend his Empire from anything. This was what Mamoru and every man of his line had been born for. Despite this, there were many Matsudas who tried their whole lives and never produced a Whispering Blade.
Since he was old enough to picture the future, Mamoru had cultivated this image of the perfect man, the perfect warrior, Whispering Blade in hand. He was nearing fighting age, but that man still seemed so far away.
“Wh-what if…” A Matsuda was supposed to be above fear, yet here Mamoru was, too scared to finish the sentence. What if I’m not enough?
“Mamoru-kun,” Yukino Sensei said, as if sensing his thoughts, “Your father was sixteen when he mastered the Whispering Blade, your uncle one year older, and they were two of the youngest masters in history. You have time. I promise, you’ll be fine.”
“You can’t promise that.” In his anxiety, Mamoru didn’t seem to be able to control the stupid things coming out of his mouth. “There have been other Matsudas with powerful jiya who never mastered it. How can you be so sure?”
“Because I know you, Mamoru-kun,” Yukino Sensei said gently, “beyond your lineage and your raw power. In the space of time it takes a normal boy to grasp a technique, you’ve already improved it and expanded it to all its potential applications—to the point that it becomes slightly annoying, as your teacher.”
“Sorry about th—”
“But I have no doubt that it is precisely that kind of ingenuity that gave rise to the Whispering Blade in the first place. That creative thinking that’s so disruptive in my class could very well be your salvation as a fighter. Keep that brain running, and I have no doubt that you’ll surpass all expectations—including your own.”
Mamoru’s mouth opened but he was so stunned—so touched—that he couldn’t find any words to thank his teacher. How did you thank someone for praise you hadn’t earned?
“Now, get to class,” Yukino Sensei said, nodding toward the door.
“Yes, Sensei.” Ducking his head, Mamoru gathered his things and hurried to follow his classmates.
After the heart-pumping rush of sword practice, history class was always agony. When the wind was high, the school creaked like an old ship, and Hibiki Sensei’s voice had a way of getting lost in the dull moaning of the wooden beams.
“There were a number of factors that led to the Great War, or what the Yammankalu call the Keleba. Ke-le-ba.” Hibiki Sensei wrote the Yammaninke letters out on the board and Mamoru sank his teeth into the knuckles of his left fist, hoping the pain might keep him awake. “First, there was the tension between the colonial powers, Yamma and Sizwe, which were in constant competition with each other for the resources of Baxaria. Next, there was the tension created by the Baxarian colonies rejecting Yammanka and Sizwean rule. Last, of course, there was the tension between our own great empire and the extremist rebels in the west who would one day betray their emperor to establish the Ranganese Union.”
“Are you not going to take notes?” Mamoru whispered to Kwang, noticing that the new boy had not even picked up his brushpen.
“Oh, I don’t have to. I’m used to learning the Yammanka way, with my ears. Besides,” he murmured even more quietly, “I’ve heard all this crap before anyway.”
“What?” Mamoru leaned in, unsure he had heard right. Had Kwang just called Hibiki Sensei’s history lesson crap?
“Matsuda-san,” Hibiki Sensei said sharply, “no talking in class.”
“Sorry, Sensei,” Mamoru said as the teacher returned to his lecture.
“Now, there are several background dates you will need to know in regard to the Keleba. The first one is 5153.” He wrote the date on the board. “This is the year of the first Abirian rebellion, when a group of violent extremists calling themselves the Longhouse Confederacy developed enough of a following to mount armed resistance against the Yammanka Empire. Abiria, despite being plagued by inter-tribal violence and not having a stable government of its own, wanted independence from Yamma. Of course, these disorganized rebels were quickly subdued by Yamma’s superior forces.”
Behind him, Mamoru thought he heard Kwang make a critical, “Hmm,” sound, but when he turned to look over his shoulder, the northern boy was listening quietly.
“With their inferior genes, the Abirians’ defeat was inevitable. The Yammankalu are pure-blooded tajakalu, born and bred to wield the power they possess, whereas the Abirians who opposed them were of mixed blood, the product of intermarriage between the Abirian Natives, Yammankalu, Kaigenese immigrants, and most damaging of all, white slaves. This kind of impurity dilutes the divine energies that give theonites their power. Mixed theonites such as the Abirians could never hope to stand unaided against a pure-blooded tajaka army.
“Now, I want to give you several dates relating to the Yammanka-Sizwean competition over their colonial territories.”
Mamoru tried to take notes as Hibiki Sensei droned on in Kaigengua and found himself doodling instead. He started out drawing the straight blade of a sword, but a gust of wind pushed against the school, his brushpen slid, and the sword became water. Mamoru followed the new curve and added lines beneath it, turning it into a rough approximation of the Tsusano wave, his mother’s family crest. More waves fell in beside the Tsusano crest, some turned to fish, and Mamoru had filled half the page with stormy sea before he remembered that he was supposed to be paying attention to the lecture.
“This brings us to the dates leading up to the Keleba itself,” Hibiki Sensei said, and Mamoru tried to refocus on the lecture.
“5286, the year that the Carythian Union formed and resisted Yammanka rule.” Hibiki Sensei wrote the year up on the board.
“5287,” he wrote the next date as Mamoru scrambled to catch up with his notes. “In this year, the Sizwean colony of Malusia staged a major uprising that shook Sizwe’s control of the entire region. At the same time, there was a rash of peasant uprisings in the western part of the Kaigenese Empire. These were quickly put down by our own Imperial army, but they foreshadowed bigger rebellions to come…
“5288. Under the influence of corrupt politicians, a collection of cities, led by Ranga, rose against the Kaigenese Empire. This rebellion was put down the same year and its leaders publicly executed for their treason against the Empire.
“5289, the year that Yamma defeated Sizwe for control of Malusia and pressed to take Sizwe’s other colonies, escalating the long-standing tensions between the two Kelenduguka superpowers.
“5290. Kaigen’s western provinces rose up in rebellion once again. Using propaganda and false promises, the Thulanist rebels managed to trick the uneducated peasants of Ranga into following them in greater numbers than ever before. At the same time, the Longhouse Confederacy of Abiria staged a reprisal of its bid for independence in 5153, under the same flag.
“At the tail end of that year, on the twenty-eighth of Kribakalo, Ranganese terrorists attacked a graduation ceremony at Daybreak Academy in Carytha, killing principal Oyede Biida, along with several Yammanka and Kaigenese students. It was following this malicious and cowardly attack that Yamma agreed to support our great empire in its fight against the Ranganese rebels.
“5291. Early in this year, the Yammankalu allied with us, bringing foreign troops onto Kaigenese soil for the first time. In response to their involvement, Sizwe aligned itself both with our own rebel enemies and with the Abirian rebels fighting against Yamma for their independence. This led to open war between Yamma and Sizwe. Abtya aligned with Yamma.
“5292. This year marked the only time in Duna’s history that all the major theonite powers—Kaigen, Yamma, Abtya, and Sizwe—were at war. It was in this year that the Ranganese fonyakalu launched their attack on Shirojima and were soundly defeated.
“In the end, victory in war always comes down to bloodlines,” Hibiki Sensei said, turning to face his class with a dramatic flourish. “We here on the Sword of Kaigen are blessed to have some of the best and purest jijaka bloodlines in the world. Matsuda,” he said, pointing at Mamoru, “Yukino,” he indicated Yuuta, and then went on to point to the other great houses represented in the classroom, “Ameno, Ginkawa, Ikeno, Katakouri, all of you belong to a chain of great fighters stretching back to mythic times.
“Since the dawn of Kaigen, this peninsula has held its enemies back without fail. This is why we are called the Sword of Kaigen. And again, during the Keleba, the Matsudas, the Yukinos, and the other powerful jijakalu of the Kusanagi Peninsula beat back their enemies in resounding victory.”
This time Mamoru was sure he heard a disdainful huff behind him, but he kept his attention on the lecture as Hibiki Sensei continued, “For this is the Sword of Kaigen; to charge it, is to die. When the Ranganese armada reached the Kusanagi Peninsula, the warriors of the Matsuda, Yukino, Ameno, Ikeno, and Ginkawa houses, along with all their vassal fighters formed a line along the beach. At the first news of Ranganese ships, our capital sent a request to Yamma for aid. But by the time the Yammanka forces reached our peninsula, the jijaka soldiers here—your own grandfathers and great-grandfathers—had already laid waste to the Ranganese invaders.
“Yammanka pilots tell of flying the length of the peninsula to find the beaches awash in red, like the edge of the blade that has tasted victory. Prepared for battle, the men of Yamma flew lower, only to discover that the battle was done. The bodies in the sea wore Ranganese uniforms. The red staining the sand was the impure blood of fonyakalu. For the warriors of Kusanagi had fought with such fury that there were hardly any Kaigenese casualties.”
Mamoru heard Kwang let out an unmistakable huff of laughter. Hibiki Sensei heard it too.
“Is our history funny to you, Kwang-san?”
“No, Sensei. I’m sorry.”
Hibiki Sensei gave Kwang a last cold look before turning back to the class to continue, this time in Dialect. “This is your past. This is your heritage. You are here at this school because you are the descendants of the greatest fighters Duna has ever seen. The best blood in the world flows through your veins. If you learn well, listen well, and work hard, the Sword of Kaigen will survive, bright and sharp, to be passed down to your sons, and their sons after them.”
In her first year at theonite academy, Misaki had earned top grades in all her courses. In her second year, she had achieved one of the fastest times on the agility course, second only to Robin Thundyil’s. In her third year, she had bested some of Carytha’s most feared machete fighters in single combat. As a teenager, she had worn those accomplishments with pride… never realizing that at thirty-four, her proudest accomplishment would be getting five rambunctious children to nap at the same time.
“Success?” she whispered when she arrived back home, arms full of dozing five-year-old.
“Success!” Hyori confirmed as Misaki used her toes to slide the shoes off her feet. “They’re all asleep, just like you planned.”
Hiroshi had nodded off on Misaki’s shoulder as she carried him back from the elementary school. Fresh off of two hours of sword practice with children twice his size, even he ran out of steam. His hair was damp with sweat and his little hands were blistered from gripping the oversized practice sword, but he hadn’t uttered a word of complaint, just quietly collapsed against his mother and let her carry him the rest of the way home.
He was a strange creature, her second son. She had known when he was nothing more than a small heartbeat inside her that he was his father’s child. Cold. It was said that all jijakalu were born with something of the sea in them, but most seas had their warm currents and their cold, volcanic springs in the depths, free water between ice flows. Even the iciest jijakalu had some warm places in their soul—at least that was what Misaki had thought before she married into the Matsuda family. Hiroshi was born with the deadly calm of a sea frozen solid. Like his father, he was cold to the touch no matter his mood or level of exertion. Even his sweat was cool, like morning dew.
He murmured something about footwork as Misaki lay him on the futon where Ryota and Nagasa were already fast asleep.
“Shh,” Misaki breathed into his hair. “We’re almost five for five.”
“What?” Hiroshi’s eyes blinked open.
“Nothing.” Misaki put a hand on his forehead, easing him down beside his brother. “Nothing, my little fighter. Just rest.”
“Mmm,” Hiroshi nodded and slipped off to sleep.
“And we did it!” Misaki whispered, sliding the door shut behind her. “All five of them are down.”
“How long do you think it’ll last?” Hyori asked.
“Probably not that long,” Misaki sighed, sinking down on the cushions beside the other two women. “The boys are all properly exhausted, but the babies will wake up hungry before long.”
Misaki wanted desperately to close her eyes and drop off to sleep herself, but she knew she should make use of her hands while they weren’t full of squirming infant, so she hauled herself up and got out her sewing box. The family crest had begun to tear from the back of Takeru’s haori and needed to be re-stitched. Carefully, she picked out the right thread to match the dark blue and white diamonds of the Matsuda crest and threaded her needle.
At the height of the Matsuda family’s power, during Kaigen’s wars of succession all the way through the Keleba, the ancient compound had been full of servants who did all the cooking, cleaning, and sewing for the lady of the house. Takeru’s father had complained all the time about the damn vassal houses not sending servants anymore but Misaki could hardly fault poorer koronu for deserting a house that could no longer support them.
Warrior houses like the Matsudas once made their living training sons of lesser houses in jiya and swordsmanship. Students came in droves in times of unrest, when battles were common, but peacetime was a different story. In the decades since the Keleba, even the promise of the chance to train with the greatest swordsmen in Kaigen hadn’t been enough to keep most of the common koronu in Takayubi.
Still, the Matsuda crest was a mark of pride, and Misaki made sure it was stitched into every coat, kimono, and haori they owned.
“I should probably get some work done too,” Hyori said, pulling her own sewing project out of the bag she had brought from home. As tired as Misaki had grown of stitching the same four diamonds into a dozen articles of clothing, she didn’t envy Hyori her sewing tasks; the Yukino insignia was a snowflake.
“It’s so quiet,” Setsuko mused. “I can’t remember the last time the compound was this peaceful. You might be a genius, little sister.”
“Well, I try.” Misaki smiled.
“And to think, my poor mother raised nine of us in a house the size of this room!” Setsuko said. “No wonder she’s gotten loopy after all these years.”
“Oh, how is your mother, Setsuko?” Misaki asked, turning to her sister-in-law. “You went to visit her a few weeks back, didn’t you?” Misaki had been so busy juggling the new baby and the two older boys that she hadn’t gotten a moment of quiet to ask how the trip had gone.
“My mother is fine,” Setsuko said, “still in bizarrely good health, but she is getting old. Like I said, her mind is going a bit. She’s convinced the Ranganese are going to come across the ocean to attack us.”
“Why does she think that?” Hyori was laughing, but Misaki stilled, her grip tightening on her needle.
“She says she can feel it,” Setsuko said, “an ‘old fisherwoman’s intuition’ or something like that. She says fonyaka wind tastes different from the normal sea air.”
“That’s a strange thing to say,” Hyori said.
“Well, Setsuko’s mother has lived on the ocean for ninety years,” Misaki pointed out. “She was here the last time the Ranganese came. Maybe she knows something we don’t.”
“You think my kooky mother is on to something?” Setsuko said in amusement.
“If the Ranganese were to attack, this area would be the first to feel it,” Misaki said, “and the first hit.”
The Kusanagi Peninsula extended far out into the Kaigenese Sea, barring the way to the archipelago’s safe ports and beaches. Any invader from the sea had to first get past the mountainous spit of land and its inhabitants.
“But we don’t have anything to fear from Ranga,” Hyori said dismissively. “Our brothers and husbands are powerful enough to turn away any invaders. And anyway, if there was a serious threat from the Ranganese, the government would have told us.”
“Maybe,” Misaki said, doubtful.
“What do you mean ‘maybe’?”
“I mean…” Misaki paused. “I just mean that the news isn’t necessarily true.”
“What?” Hyori looked positively stricken and Misaki wished she hadn’t said anything.
“Misaki-chan says some weird, ominous things sometimes,” Setsuko said with a reproachful look at her sister-in-law. “Don’t worry your pretty head about it.”
But Hyori was still staring at Misaki, uncomprehending. “You… are you saying our government would lie to us?”
The answer was ‘yes,’ of course, but Misaki couldn’t say that straight. That just wasn’t the sort of thing you said in Kaigen.
“Misaki?” Hyori prompted, and there was so much fear and hurt in those pretty eyes that Misaki had to offer some response. She bit her lip, choosing her words carefully.
“I went to school with a lot of Yammanka jaseliwu,” she said finally, “self-proclaimed keepers of Yamma’s history. The funny thing about these jaseliwu was that, depending on their family, their native region of Yamma, and the koronu they served, they told vastly different histories. Sometimes two of them would sit right next to each other and tell conflicting accounts of the same event. I talked to one of these jaseliwu. I asked him how he could say that his history was true when the next jaseli over told me a different story and claimed that that was the truth. In my mind, one of them had to be lying. I told him that.”
“And what did he say?” Setsuko asked.
“He said, ‘there are a million ways to tell the same story. Our job as jaseliwu is to find the one the listener needs to hear. Not necessarily the one that makes them the happiest or the one that gives them the most information, but the one they need to hear to do what they need to do.’ He told me that’s how jaseliwu care for koronu and other kafokalu.”
“Alright,” Hyori said, clearly confused. “What does that have to do with our government?”
“Well, I think that’s the way the Kaigenese government takes care of us,” Misaki said, “the same way a jaseli in Yamma takes care of his koro.” Of course, in Yamma, jaseliwu were free to decide the way they sang their songs and told their histories. They weren’t issued government-approved scripts to recite, but that wasn’t a discussion Hyori would appreciate. “Our Emperor tells us the things we need to hear.”
From the way Hyori was blinking at her, Misaki could tell she didn’t understand.
“So, do you think our government is right about how safe we are?” Setsuko asked. “Or do you think my dear old mother is onto something?”
“Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve been out of the country,” Misaki admitted, “but I know that the fonyakalu can do more than most Kaigenese believe.”
“Really?” Hyori didn’t look convinced. “Like what?”
“Well, back when the Ranganese first split from the Empire, warfare was different,” Misaki said. “The Kaigenese Empire’s military had always been based on jijakalu like us, with fonyakalu as an afterthought.”
“That’s only natural,” Hyori said. “Fonyakalu are just untrained peasants. Jijakalu are purer, more powerful.”
“Well, not really,” Misaki said. “Not always.”
“What are you talking about?” Hyori asked with a note of annoyance. “If fonyakalu are truly as good as we are, why would our Empire ever keep a military of all jijakalu?”
“Because the Empire’s main centers of power—Jungsan, Shirojima, Haijing—have always been peopled mainly by jijakalu,” Misaki said, her sewing forgotten in her lap. “The success of the Ranganese Revolution proved that a big force of fonyakalu, even a disorganized one, could defeat a jijaka army.”
“But they didn’t defeat us,” Hyori said indignantly. “The revolution wasn’t a success.”
“Well,” Setsuko said, “they did split the Empire in half.”
“But they didn’t truly best our armies,” Hyori insisted. “As soon as they reached the ocean, we drove them back inland.”
“Right.” Misaki forgot that that was what you learned if you went to high school in Kaigen, but she didn’t need to argue that with Hyori right now. “You’re right, but that’s part of my point. During the Keleba, the Ranganese military was not well-organized or well-trained. Fonyakalu had never worked together in those numbers, so they hadn’t figured out specialized military formations to rival ours or Yamma’s, but the Ranganese Union has been a sovereign power for seventy-eight years now. They’ve had decades to figure out how to function as a fighting force. Those groups of fonyakalu can do things no one would have dreamed of fifty years ago.”
“How do you know all this?” Hyori asked.
“Hush now, Hyori-chan,” Setsuko said in a conspiratorial whisper. “Takeru-sama doesn’t like anyone mentioning this, but Misaki-chan actually lived outside Kaigen for a long time.”
“No!” Hyori’s pretty eyes widened in shock.
“Oh, yes,” Setsuko said. “When she was a teenager, she attended this fancy international theonite school in Carytha.”
“Carytha!” Hyori’s eyes got even bigger. “So far away!”
“Yes,” Setsuko said, reveling in the younger woman’s shock, “and at that weird international school, Misaki made all kinds of weird international friends, including this roommate of hers, who was…” Setsuko paused for dramatic effect before whispering, “a Ranganese fonyaka!”
“No!” Hyori exclaimed again, dropping her sewing to put both hands over her mouth. “Misaki-san, wasn’t that scary?”
“Not really,” Misaki said, not looking up from her own work. “She was just a thirteen-year-old girl, and I think she was more scared of me than I was of her—at least until we got to know each other better.”
“But you couldn’t really be friends, could you?” Hyori said anxiously. “I mean, she was Ranganese!”
Misaki shrugged. “We argued a lot during our first two years. Her table manners weren’t my favorite…” but she stopped before trying to elaborate any further. Trying to explain her school days to Hyori would probably do more harm than good. Misaki generally considered it a bad idea to talk about Daybreak to anyone but Setsuko—and even Setsuko couldn’t really understand. There was only so much a person could understand, having lived her whole life on the same tiny island cluster.
“And your fonyaka roommate… she’s the one who told you these things about the Ranganese military?” Hyori said.
“Some of them, yes,” Misaki said. Of course, she had also had other Ranganese friends, acquaintances, and professors, but Hyori didn’t need to know that.
“Well, then she probably made it up,” Hyori said with the kind of innocent confidence that could only come from a life lived in the mists of nationalism. “Everyone knows Ranganese people can’t be trusted.”
Misaki didn’t respond.
“And anyway,” Hyori continued matter-of-factly, “it doesn’t matter how strong the Ranganese Union has gotten because Kaigen is stronger now too. You can look at any news report to see that our military is bigger than ever and our economy is booming.”
Misaki didn’t comment, focusing instead on her sewing. Personally, she suspected that Kaigen was not actually experiencing the economic paradise that the TV reporters claimed. If they were, the wealth certainly wasn’t extending to Shirojima. Setsuko’s fishing village had fallen on hard times, and the last time Misaki’s parents had visited, they had told her that the two biggest factories near Ishihama had closed, leaving a thousand people without jobs. Years ago, the Empire had promised a modern magtrack between Shirojima’s major islands, but the project had never been finished.
“It’s laughable to think that Ranga poses any threat to us here,” Hyori said. “Any warrior will tell you that Kaigen has the strongest fighters.”
“Any warrior will tell you that even the strong can’t afford complacency,” Misaki murmured.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Misaki shook her head. “It’s not important.”
As Setsuko offered Hyori laughing reassurances, Misaki stared at the blue cloth in her lap and wondered why she hadn’t thought about this sooner. The Keleba had cost Kaigen its most productive agricultural provinces, most of its underpaid workforce, and many of its major trade routes—resources that now belonged to the Ranganese Union.
The fonyakalu at Daybreak had been able to do things Misaki never would have dreamed of, and that had been a long time ago. What could Ranga’s armies do with fifteen more years of practice? Kaigen may have avoided total collapse the last time it went to war with Ranga, but would the Empire fare as well against a new attack? When Misaki stepped back to consider all the pieces, it stood to reason that Ranga was far stronger than it had been at the time of the Keleba, and Kaigen was far weaker.
But here, high in the obscuring mists of Takayubi, where nothing seemed to have changed for a thousand years, it was easy to believe the fantasy of a stable world.
As the class made their way to the schoolyard for lunch, Mamoru picked up his pace to catch up with Kwang.
“What was that about?” he asked, falling into step beside the city boy.
“What was what about?”
“Back there in history class. Why were you laughing?”
“I was trying not to,” Kwang said, “and I wouldn’t call the garbage that jaseli was regurgitating history.”
“What do you mean?” Itsuki demanded as he and Yuuta caught up.
“You realize that at least half the stuff he tells you isn’t even true.” Kwang looked around at the three Takayubi boys. “It’s propaganda.”
“Propaganda?” Mamoru had only heard the word used a few times before. People said that propaganda was what the Ranganese Union used to trick its uneducated citizens into fighting its battles. It was a distinctly Ranganese tactic. Kaigen didn’t use propaganda. Everyone knew that.
“Falleke!” Kwang swore. “You guys in this village really believe all this stuff, don’t you? You believe everything the government tells you?”
“Why wouldn’t we?” Itsuki asked earnestly.
“You must see what’s happening here.” Kwang’s voice was almost imploring as he looked from one face to the next. “The emperor is using you.”
“We’re happy to serve our emperor,” Yuuta chimed in passionately. “How can he be using us?”
“He can feed you lies about Ranga, and about your own ancestors. He can make you think you’re invincible when you’re really not.”
“We are the Sword of Kaigen,” Yuuta said fiercely, “the defenders of the Empire.”
Kwang scoffed. “That’s a fancy way of saying ‘cannon fodder.’”
Mamoru’s voice turned to ice. “What did you just say?”
From the way Kwang went tense, it was obvious that he felt the simmering fury of Mamoru’s nyama. Mamoru watched the northern boy’s eyes flick in indecision and then experienced a grudging flutter of admiration when the city boy held his ground and looked him in the eye.
“I said you’re cannon fodder.” Kwang’s voice was even. “The Emperor will give you guys any made-up story if it means you’ll stay put and die for him. You may think you’re great warriors with some noble purpose, but as far as the capital is concerned, you’re just game pieces.”
Mamoru stood, staring down at Kwang, his eyes narrowed. The ocean seethed in his fists. “Take that back.”
“I’m not taking anything back,” Kwang said stubbornly. “I’m going to lunch.” He started to walk away, but Mamoru stepped in front of him, barring his way out of the courtyard.
“I said take it back.”
“You think you scare me, Matsuda?” Kwang’s fingers curled and Mamoru felt the other boy’s jiya ripple, ready for action. “I don’t care how good a fighter you are. If you take another step closer, I’ll—”
Mamoru stepped forward. “You’ll what?”
Kwang moved fast. His ice-knuckled uppercut would have worked on just about any theonite, but Mamoru was not just any theonite. He side-stepped the punch and had the city boy on the ground in an instant. There was a satisfying thud as Kwang’s back hit the courtyard stones, knocking the breath from his body.
Still stunned, the northern boy tried to draw the surrounding water vapor to his hands for another attack, but Mamoru’s jiya smashed through his, knocking the molecules from his control. He hauled Kwang up by the front of his uniform. Mist gathered to form a blade of ice along the back of his free hand, protruding from the knuckles to point at Kwang’s throat. It was no steel-cleaving Sasayaiba, but it would pierce a human body.
“Whoa!” Mamoru could barely hear Itsuki and Yuuta’s alarmed voices through the rising swell of his rage. “Easy, Mamoru-kun! Take the edge off that blade before we get in trouble!”
“You’re a good fighter,” Kwang said, somehow still smug with a blade at his throat, “and your small-town pride is cute, but it’s all based on a lie.”
Mamoru’s teeth ground together and his ice sharpened.
“Mamoru-kun, you don’t want to kill him!”
“You’re right.” Mamoru let out his breath, his blade turning to water. What he wanted to do was punch Kwang in his smug face.
So he did.
Right as the headmaster walked into the schoolyard.
Mamoru’s eyes were fixed on his knees, but he could feel the headmaster’s gaze boring into him. Kwang was kneeling on the tatami of the office beside him, a cloth pressed to his face to stem the blood pouring from his nose. The blow hadn’t broken anything—Mamoru had better control than that—but the northern boy would be bleeding for a while.
“Kwang Chul-hee is new here,” the headmaster said, setting his brushpen aside to fold his hands on the desk before him. “It’s possible that he was not taught any better at his previous school, but Mamoru, you know that this is not how the warriors of Takayubi settle their differences.”
Mamoru’s fists clenched on his knees, the knuckles of his right hand still stinging as his insides curled up in shame.
“I’m very sorry, sir,” he said at his knees.
“I’m sorry that you were not able to set a better example for our new transfer student,” the headmaster said and the hard disapproval in his voice was more than Mamoru could bear. “You’re talented, Mamoru, but talent is meaningless without self-discipline. You will never be a fully realized Matsuda if you continuously let your pride run away with your principles.”
Choked with shame, Mamoru could only nod.
“And Kwang Chul-hee.” The headmaster turned to the bleeding boy. “I want to make it clear that this sort of behavior is not tolerated in this school or this village. The sons of common peasants may come to blows in schoolyard brawls, but not warriors. We settle our differences in single combat. The next time you and Mamoru have a quarrel, you will take it to the fighting circle, or you will keep it to yourselves. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Kwang mumbled as best he could with blood still running from his nose.
“As punishment, you will both stay after school and clean the entire roof—without the use of your powers.”
Mamoru’s heart sank. The chore wasn’t insurmountably difficult—he just didn’t want to do it with Kwang.
“You may use ice to anchor your feet,” the headmaster continued, “but you will do the cleaning itself with your bare hands. Kwang, I will contact your father to tell him you will be staying late this evening. Mamoru…” He looked for a long moment at his nephew and sighed. “I’ll let your mother know when I get home.”
The shame in Mamoru’s chest turned to physical pain. He had to clench his teeth to keep from blurting out ‘Please don’t tell her!’
He knew a real warrior wasn’t supposed to concern himself with the opinions of women, but Mamoru couldn’t help it. He dreaded his mother’s disappointment more than any man’s hard glare. She was a small woman with a sweet smile and a quiet voice, yet there was a knowing intelligence in her eyes that Mamoru had always found the smallest bit unsettling. There were times it felt as though she could see straight through him, to his beating heart and the flaws it sent pulsing through his veins.
“Now, go,” the headmaster said, shaking back his sleeves and picking up his brushpen to continue his work. “Get yourselves cleaned up and don’t be late for your next class.”
Both boys said a quiet, “Yes, sir,” and bowed themselves out of the room.
“What does he mean he’ll tell your mom when he gets home?” Kwang asked as soon as they were out of earshot of the headmaster’s office. “You live with the headmaster? Wait.” Kwang’s eyes went wide. “Is he your father?”
Mamoru could only manage a miserable noise, putting a hand to his face.
“Is he your father?” Kwang repeated.
Worse. “He’s my uncle.”
“Wow!” Kwang laughed, surprisingly cheerful for a boy who had just been punched in the nose. “Is everyone in this town related?”
Mamoru didn’t answer. He just said stiffly, “Let’s go to the washroom and clean off your face. You’re getting your blood everywhere.”
“Technically, you got my blood everywhere,” Kwang said but followed Mamoru down the creaking hall toward the washroom. “Was the headmaster serious about challenging people to single combat? You guys really still do that?”
“How else would we settle our differences?”
“I don’t know. Talking?”
Mamoru was tempted to point out that Kwang had actually thrown the first punch, but that would have sounded childish, so instead, he countered, “Maybe that’s a luxury you have in the cities. Here, we keep ourselves and our convictions strong.”
While Kwang cleaned up, Mamoru paced the hall outside the washroom. There was no reason for him to stay really. Kwang knew the way back from the washroom, and Mamoru would still have time for lunch if he hurried. But somehow, he couldn’t get himself to walk away. He couldn’t unseat the feeling that somehow things weren’t finished here.
As he listened to the slosh of water inside the washroom—Kwang cleaning the blood from his face—his own blood seemed to churn inside him. His fists clenched and he felt his knuckles pulsing an echo of his fist against Kwang’s face. The rage echoed too, sending restless ripples through his nyama that he couldn’t seem to calm.
When Mamoru’s temper got the best of him, his father liked to blame it on Kaa-chan. Her clan were a wrathful, passionate lot, born of sea spray and crashing waves. Neither the most powerful nor the most skilled of Kaigen’s warrior houses, the Tsusanos had made their name on the battlefield with their superhuman spirit and fury. It was said that the raw power of a true Tsusano was as changeable and devastating as a coastal storm.
But Mamoru was not a Tsusano. He was a Matsuda. And Matsudas were not made of storms. They were ice—cold in their calculations and unyielding in their integrity. He was not supposed to let his emotions whip his soul into storms.
You are ice, he reminded himself, rubbing his thumb back and forth, back and forth over his knuckles as he tried to think of the unyielding Matsuda way to deal with Kwang. The mature warrior would obviously apologize for losing his temper. Like Uncle Takashi had said, that was no way for a warrior to behave.
Then again, Uncle Takashi didn’t know what Kwang had been saying before Mamoru laid him out on the courtyard floor. Kwang was a traitor to the Empire—or if not that, something dangerously close. If he was just fabricating lies to stir up conflict, Mamoru shouldn’t bother apologizing; he should take the city boy straight to the arena and beat some respect into him. But if Kwang wasn’t lying… If he wasn’t lying… Mamoru leaned back against a wall, feeling sick.
His thoughts ran in dizzying circles. He was still trying to decide what to do when the door opened and Kwang emerged, dabbing blood from his upper lip.
“Oh,” Kwang said mildly. “You’re still here?”
Mamoru inhaled and opened his mouth, hoping the right words would come to him. They didn’t. So he dropped to his knees and put his hands on the floor before him.
“Um… what are you doing?” Kwang said apprehensively.
Mamoru bowed until his forehead touched his fingers. “Kwang-san,” he started, “I—”
“I decline,” Kwang said quickly.
“What?” Mamoru lifted his head.
“If you’re challenging me to a duel, I decline—or I forfeit, or surrender, or whatever it is you people do. I saw you in sword class. I’m not going to fight you. You can’t make me.”
“What? That’s not what I’m doing,” Mamoru said, putting his head to the floor again. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry. I should not have said those things to you. A warrior shouldn’t lose his temper like that. It was wrong of me.”
“Was it?” Kwang said.
“You’re patriotic and loyal. You’re exactly what everyone’s told you to be.”
There was a note of condescension in Kwang’s voice that made Mamoru’s fingers tense, aching to curl into fists, but he was trying to demonstrate control, not to lose his temper all over again. When he couldn’t think of anything to say, he pressed his forehead harder into his knuckles, worried that if he looked up at Kwang he would punch him again.
“Get up,” Kwang sighed after a moment. When Mamoru didn’t move a muscle, he added an impatient, “Please. I want to show you something.”
Reaching into the fold of his uniform, Kwang pulled out the smallest info-com device Mamoru had ever seen. The rectangular screen was barely bigger than his palm.
“You brought that to school?” Mamoru said. He wasn’t sure if having an info-com device was even allowed at Kumono, but he got the feeling it wasn’t.
“I bring it with me everywhere,” Kwang said, tapping a command into the sleek glass device. “That’s what us city kids do. Let me just see…” He tapped around the screen, searching for something. “Here.” He brought up the crispest holographic image Mamoru had ever seen, a tall obsidian statue in the middle of a sunny courtyard.
“What is that?” Mamoru asked.
“Near the Yammanka capital, there’s this huge park filled with memorials in honor of the soldiers that died in pretty much every battle Yamma ever fought. While my dad was doing work in Kolunjara, I had spare time to explore, and I found this memorial.”
The gleaming black glass formed the shape of a fighter jet, and beside it, a Yammanka pilot—a woman—with her helmet resting on her hip, her long braids pulled back and her chin lifted toward the sun.
Mamoru had heard that the Yammanka army and air force employed females, but there was something strange about seeing a curvy young woman in full military gear. She didn’t look bad, Mamoru reflected, as he considered the obsidian pilot; she looked strong. But it was still strange.
“This statue—this whole part of the park, actually—is dedicated to Yammankalu who lost their lives fighting in Kaigen.”
“But no Yammankalu died in Kaigen,” Mamoru said in confusion. “Hibiki Sensei was just telling us about that. The Empire drove the Ranganese back before the Yammanka reinforcements even arrived.”
“Well…” Kwang tapped a command into the info-com device, and the image zoomed in on white Yammaninke lettering at the base of the statue.
“Bundanu… bundanuttaananu sayara ka…” Mamoru started to sound out the inscription but his Yammaninke wasn’t very good.
“Bundanuttaananu sayara ka dima Kaigenka kelejonyunu ye Kusanagi Gungille la to hakili da,” Kwang finished and translated for him. “In memory of the warriors who gave their lives defending our Kaigenese allies on the Kusanagi Peninsula.”
The base of the memorial dripped with Falleya talismans, the kind family members hand-crafted and hung on the graves of their loved ones. It was clear from the photo that real people had visited the site to mourn and remember… but how could that be? How could that be? Hibiki Sensei had said that no Yammankalu died in Shirojima. Not one.
“I was surprised too,” Kwang said. He seemed to be watching Mamoru’s face carefully. “I asked the park jaseliwu about it, and they said that over four hundred Yammanka soldiers died here.”
“Most of them were air support. Yammanka jets weren’t the best back then. Apparently, the fonyakalu ripped them right out of the sky, and crashed them into the Kaigenese troops on the ground.”
The school swayed, throwing Mamoru off balance, and he had to put a hand on the wall to stay on his feet. Dimly, he was aware that he couldn’t just let Kwang stand there and say these things. He had to fight. A Matsuda always stood and fought, but Mamoru had never taken a hit—from a foot, fist, or practice sword—that left him this shaken. He felt sick deep in his stomach.
“I don’t believe you,” he said, even as the obsidian pilot stared back at him from Kwang’s screen. “That’s not real. Th-that can’t be—”
“It’s not the only memorial.” Kwang tapped his way to another image. “This one honors over two thousand Yammanka fighters who died helping the Kaigenese Empire defend Jungsan and push the Ranganese back to our current border.”
The thin mountain air had never bothered Mamoru. Why did he suddenly feel like there was no oxygen in his body? “No.” He was shaking his head. “No, no. That can’t be. That can’t be right. Hibiki Sensei says—everyone knows—the Ranganese never reached Jungsan. That-that’s ridiculous.”
“I didn’t want to believe it either, but the evidence is really solid. Our Empire wouldn’t have survived the Ranganese Revolution without Yammanka aid. The Yammankalu have no reason to lie about this.”
“But—they must be lying,” Mamoru insisted. “They must be. If this were all true, if all these Yammankalu did fight here, why wouldn’t we know about it? Why wouldn’t Hibiki Sensei tell us?”
“Has he ever been outside Kaigen?” Kwang asked.
“I don’t think so.” It was very possible that Hibiki Sensei had never been outside the Shirojima province. “But my grandfather fought in that battle. A lot of people’s older relatives were there. Why wouldn’t they talk about it?”
As he said the words, Mamoru realized that no one he had spoken to about the Keleba had ever really elaborated. His grandfather, Susumu, when he had been alive, had only ever offered the vaguest of references to the war.
“It’s possible the government ordered them not to,” Kwang suggested. “It happens. If the Emperor is good at one thing, it’s censorship.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Mamoru said, pushing through his inexplicable dizziness to get his thoughts in order. “This is Kaigen. We’re a warrior culture. The Emperor and his officials would never disrespect thousands of fallen warriors by covering up their deaths. Kaigenese or not, those are soldiers who fought and died here. How could you think that Kaigen would show them such disrespect?”
“Because Kaigen isn’t a warrior culture,” Kwang said impatiently. “I know you think it is. I know you guys here in this village have these nice, wholesome, old-fashioned values, but have you ever been outside this province?”
“I… no,” Mamoru had to admit.
“Then you wouldn’t know,” Kwang said. “You couldn’t, but the rest of the Empire hasn’t held old warrior values for a hundred years. The Emperor doesn’t care who lives and dies—he definitely doesn’t care about fighting nobly. He cares that his Empire stays intact under him.”
“But…” Mamoru floundered. “But that can’t—that doesn’t explain why the government would lie to us about the Keleba.”
“Sure, it does,” Kwang said. “You guys are the Sword of Kaigen. You’re the buffer between Ranga and the rest of the Empire’s eastern islands. The Emperor needs you to think you’re invincible. And he needs the rest of the province to believe that the Kusanagi Peninsula can protect them from anything.”
“So you islanders won’t leave, so you’ll stay here and keep fishing the coasts, and farming the land to fuel our dying economy, so you’ll die protecting his lands, instead of moving into the overpopulated cities and getting disillusioned about the state of the Empire like everyone else.”
“No, no, no.” Mamoru was shaking his head again. “I don’t believe you.” He backed away from Kwang, but the northern boy’s words had already seeped into his mind like poison. He had already seen the Yammanka statues. “I don’t believe you.”
“Matsuda-san.” Kwang reached out to him. “It’s okay—”
“Don’t touch me!” Mamoru pushed Kwang back. “Just stay away!” To his horror, Mamoru realized that his impeccably steady hands had started trembling.
“I said stay away!” Mamoru shoved Kwang so hard that he slammed into the washroom door. In a few staggering steps, he was running down the hall—he didn’t know where. Just away. Away from Kwang.
You are a Matsuda, he tried to tell himself. You are solid ice, but his inner sea had turned to roiling brine.
The floor shifted, pitching him into a wall. He stumbled to get his feet under him but the whole world seemed to be spinning. It couldn’t be true—but it couldn’t be a lie—but it couldn’t be true, and Mamoru couldn’t seem to find his balance. Kwang’s words had knocked the world off its axis.
Aimless, Mamoru found himself staggering out onto one of Kumono’s outdoor walkways. Wind stung his skin, scrambling his vision into a mess of bloodstained sand and careening fighter jets. He caught himself on the waist-high railing and found the mountain spinning beneath him, its mists, usually so familiar, suddenly gray and frightening. And for the first time in his three years at the swaying school, Mamoru threw up.
Mamoru’s stomach settled after he had emptied most of its contents down the mountainside. He didn’t understand what had happened to him and he decided it was best not to give it any more thought. No good could come of revisiting his own shameful weakness and Kwang’s lies. It had been a mistake. All of it—the fight, the apology, that whole conversation with Kwang. No one had seen Mamoru retching his dignity over the railing. He could put it behind him.
Gathering liquid water from the mist, he washed the acid out of his teeth, shook off the dizziness, and pretended it had never happened. None of it had happened. He made himself ice. Uncompromising. Immovable. And none of it could touch him.
He didn’t speak to Kwang during the second half of the day as they sat beside each other through the remainder of their classes. He didn’t even look at him. Kwang—perhaps out of concern for his own safety—didn’t press the issue, and Mamoru successfully pretended he didn’t exist until classes finished. It wasn’t until they the two met after school to serve out their cleaning time that the two exchanged any words.
“What is that for?” Kwang asked as Mamoru emerged from the closet with a coil of rope slung over his shoulder.
“It’s for you,” Mamoru said coldly, “unless you want to walk around on the roof for a waati with no safety harness.”
Without meeting the other boy’s eyes, Mamoru tied one end of the rope around Kwang’s waist.
“So, I’m—ugh!” Kwang grunted as Mamoru yanked the knot tight. “Ow,” he said with a reproachful look at Mamoru. “So, I’m supposed to trust you not to let me fall to my death?”
Mamoru glared. “Don’t be an idiot. If you fall, so do I.”
After securing the other end of the rope around his own waist, Mamoru hauled a ladder out of the closet and motioned Kwang to follow him to the nearest outdoor walkway. Mamoru didn’t need a ladder to get onto the roof, but he was guessing the soft city boy wouldn’t share his agility. The wind had calmed since their midday training. Good, Mamoru thought. Cleaning should go fast.
Kwang was not looking so reassured.
“We’re going to climb up there?” he asked as Mamoru positioned the ladder against the edge of the roof.
“And… you’re sure this isn’t all some elaborate plan to have me killed for treason?” The unsteadiness in Kwang’s voice suggested that he was only partially joking, so Mamoru looked him straight in the eye.
“If I kill you, you’ll be facing me with a sword in your hand.” He nodded at the ladder. “Climb.”
Of all the chores to be done at Kumono Academy, cleaning the roof was the most dangerous. For the most part, Takayubi’s abundant rain kept the clay tiles clean, but with the run-off from further up the mountain soil, branches, and dead leaves gathered in the curved parts of the roof. When the rooftop became visibly cluttered, sure-footed students were sent up to clear it.
Using sheets of water to wash the tiles, cleaning duty was the work of a few siiranu, but Uncle Takashi had explicitly forbidden the two from using their jiya. Instead, Mamoru and Kwang would have to scoop up the layers of twigs and grime with their bare hands and throw it off the edge of the roof. The chore would have been hard enough work with a competent cleaning partner, but Kwang was afraid of heights.
By the time he reached the top of the ladder and got onto the roof, he was shaking.
“I c-can’t—” he stuttered on his hands and knees. “I can’t do this.”
Mamoru felt a surge of vindictive satisfaction at seeing the casually arrogant city boy so terrified, but he crushed the feeling before it could swell beyond his control. You are ice. He doesn’t affect you.
“Get up,” he said.
“I can’t. I’m going to fall.”
“I said I wouldn’t let you fall,” Mamoru said. “I’m not a liar. Now stand up.”
“I can’t!” Kwang called back in frustration. “My leg muscles are all shot from your insane sword class!”
Mamoru could sympathize. He couldn’t count the number of times he had worked his legs until they wouldn’t hold him up anymore—it was how he had gotten his wrought steel muscles—but it was hard to feel sorry for someone while they were whinging and whining about a simple chore.
“Just endure it,” he said. “As soon as we’re done, we can go home.”
“H-how do I stand up without falling?” Kwang asked.
A fair question. While the roof wasn’t dauntingly steep, the smooth clay tiles were slippery. Even a mountain-born theonite like Mamoru couldn’t walk across the surface safely, and with the exception of the decorative stone dragons snaking their way across the roof’s broad beams, there were no handholds.
“You have to pool water under your feet,” Mamoru said, gathering mist and condensation into liquid beneath the soles of his own tabi. “Then freeze it so you don’t slide. Like this.” He waved a hand over his own feet, freezing the water into hard ice that anchored him to the steep roof tiles. “You can do that, can’t you?”
Kwang nodded shakily and started to gather water to the soles of his shoes.
“Good,” Mamoru said and turned away from Kwang, determined not to give the northern boy any more thought.
Mamoru moved across the roof with careful ease, melting his ice whenever he needed to move and refreezing it when he found a new foothold. Had he been doing the job alone, he would have finished within a waati. But he kept reaching the end of the rope and looking back to find Kwang far behind him, struggling to keep his balance on the steep surface as he collected tiny handfuls of dead leaves. A few times, Kwang let out a short cry and almost flailed off the edge roof in panic when Mamoru changed position.
“What?” Mamoru snapped the third time it happened.
“Could you just—could you just tell me when you’re going to move?” Kwang said, clearly fighting to keep his voice steady. “Just—so I can be sure I’m secure?”
“Fine,” Mamoru said, his impatience starting to wear through his icy exterior, “but hurry up. If we don’t finish in the next gbaati, we’ll lose the light.”
The sun was already low in the sky and trying to navigate the roof in the dark would be doubly dangerous. But despite all Mamoru’s harsh words, Kwang didn’t seem capable of working any faster. They still hadn’t finished by the time the sun turned red and began to sink into the sea of mist.
“This is impossible!” Kwang complained for what felt like the hundredth time. “Couldn’t we just use our powers and be done with it?”
“No,” Mamoru said shortly.
“Why not? The headmaster doesn’t have to know.”
“He’ll know,” Mamoru said.
“He’s a Matsuda,” Mamoru said. “He will know.”
“Just a tiny, undetectable, bit of jiya?” Kwang pressed, “Just to speed things along?”
“That would be dishonest,” Mamoru said.
Kwang made that little scoffing sound that Mamoru had come to hate over the past waatinu. He meant to ignore it, but he found himself turning on the other boy, bristling.
“Listen, I don’t know how it works in all the fancy foreign places you’ve traveled, but here in Takayubi, we value honesty. We don’t just make up ridiculous, self-serving lies whenever we feel like it.”
Kwang looked up at Mamoru with an unreadable expression, the lines of his face colored by the setting sun. Without the blood red hue, he almost could have looked sad. “I have been honest with you, Matsuda-san.”
You are ice, Mamoru reminded himself and returned Kwang’s stare without emotion. “Just keep working.”
“Look, you have to understand—”
“I’m not discussing this with you,” Mamoru snapped. “I don’t want to listen to disgusting lies, and neither does anyone else in this village. So, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop spouting them.” Mamoru glared at Kwang, waiting for him—daring him—to respond.
Maybe the northern boy had run out of energy for argument or maybe he was too scared of falling to anger the anchor at the other end of his rope. Whatever the reason, he didn’t say anything in his defense. Mamoru couldn’t say why, but that annoyed him more than anything.
What’s the matter? he wanted to demand. Nothing more to say now that the teachers aren’t here to protect you? But he forced himself to let the anger go. With a wave of his hand, he melted his ice anchor to allow him to edge further down the roof.
“Wait,” Kwang protested, “I’m not ready—”
“I don’t care,” Mamoru said and turned to reach for the uppermost beam of the temple roof. “Move faster.”
Kwang, of course, chose that exact moment to lose his footing. It must have happened quite suddenly because his weight jerked against the rope so hard that Mamoru was ripped right off his feet. Mamoru might have been able to recover, but the fall smacked his head into the roof tiles. Stars exploded before his eyes, costing him precious moments. When he regained his bearings, it was just in time to feel his body tumble over the edge of the roof.
His hands scrabbled for purchase, slid helplessly over the clay tiles, over the stone dragon’s head adorning the corner of the roof—then caught on the dragon’s snarling lower mandible.
Kwang’s weight yanked the rope tight, slamming into Mamoru’s stomach like a practice sword to the gut. He grimaced as stone teeth dug into his fingers, but his grip held. Barely. On the other end of the rope, Kwang was flailing in panic.
“Oh Falleke!” he gasped, his terrified voice echoing through the darkness below. “Na-Nyaare! We’re going to die!”
“Stop moving!” Mamoru commanded through gritted teeth.
If Kwang could just make himself dead weight, Mamoru could pull them both to safety. But the two of them were dangling by fingertips and every time Kwang squirmed, it got harder to hold on.
“Help!” Kwang screamed. “Somebody help!”
“No one’s here,” Mamoru said. The last of the staff would all have gone home at least a gbaati ago. “Just calm down. I’m going to pull us back up.”
Mamoru had the strength in him to get them back onto the roof, but it was going to be a delicate operation. And if he tried to do it with Kwang thrashing around like an oversized fish at the end of a hook, they were both doomed. Though Mamoru’s grip on the dragonhead didn’t falter, his grip on his temper did as Kwang continued to gibber in panic.
“I’m too young to die! I’m too young to die!”
“Would you shut up!” Mamoru snarled. “We’re not going to die.” But as the words left his mouth, a horrible thought hit him: they were dangling from the easternmost corner of the roof, far from the steps and Kumono Lake. There was no water waiting to catch them—only jagged rocks.
“Kwang!” Mamoru exclaimed, unable to suppress a note of panic. “For the love of Nami, stop moving!”
If Mamoru had not been so busy shouting, he might have felt the telltale crack of breaking stone beneath his hands.
“Just don’t let go!” Kwang begged.
“I’m not going to let go, but if you don’t stop moving, I will cut this rope and let you fall.”
Kwang uttered a terrified sound, but the threat had the desired effect. He stilled, allowing Mamoru to shift his fingers, finding a better grip between the dragon’s teeth. Ignoring the whimpers of fear below him, Mamoru drew in a deep breath and started to pull up, his arms straining under the extra weight.
He gathered water and froze it around the fingers of his right hand, just to make sure that it held when he reached out for the roof with his left. Satisfied that his grip would hold, Mamoru removed his left hand and reached… but it was not his iron grip that gave.
The dragon’s jaw broke off in his hand.
“No!” Mamoru made a frantic grab for the edge of the roof, but it was too far, his fingertips slid off—
And both boys plummeted into the mist.
“Fantasy and martial arts aficionados alike should enjoy this emotionally supercharged novel about love and loss, which pierces readers’ hearts with the precision of a samurai’s razor-sharp blade.” – Blue Ink ★ Starred Review
“Highly imaginative… intricate and original.” – Kirkus Review
“The Poppy War’s darkness meets The Last Airbender’s Elemental Magic… I haven’t been so emotionally moved by a book in a long while.” – JC Kang, USA Today Bestselling Author of The Dragon Songs Saga