Central District, Teikoku
(19th of Eleint, 1491 Dalereckoning)
Kaileena and Zolin trained in a large, flat patch of land an hour or so from the house, where the forest became idyllic grassland. Gatsuyu had demanded to accompany them, and he watched in disbelief as she summoned a pair of spheres and a single spirit, which had fused with the stone deep beneath the soil and pulled free.
Their exchanges lasted only brief moments; swift, fluid maneuvers, most of which Zolin proved the victor. With only her spells to defend her, and at such close range, she was quickly outmaneuvered, crying out again and again with the slap of the flat of his blade.
"This isn’t going to work." Gatsuyu observed numbly, and with the newest welt adorning her collarbone, Kaileena could hardly gainsay him.
Sighing, Kaileena dismissed her spells; it was too great a pull on her concentration for what she intended, and instead drew Tsukuyumi, her mother’s sword.
If she was going to stand against Minamoto...she’d have to use every tool at her disposal.
“The Moon’s light reveals.” She said, reciting the trigger phrase of one of its numerous enchantments, and the wakizashi thickened, lengthened, and bent audibly into its crescent-sword form. She wrapped it in heavy padding, as Zolin had done with his broadsword.
Assuming it was meant to be wielded with two hands, Kaileena sucked in air as she lifted the heavy weapon, assuming a stance not unlike the one Zolin favored against larger opponents.
He, in turn, assumed a kendo stance, blade forward and tilted diagonally and up, knees and elbows bent. It was assuredly the style Minamoto would favor, for she knew he wielded a katana; a long, single-edged implement with a lightly curving blade.
For a time, they merely appraised one another. Another preparation; kendo specialized in blindingly swift strokes, not unlike the motions of a paintbrush, intended to deplete an opponent’s stamina. Likewise, its almost utilitarian precision allowed a swordsman short periods of rest, spent staring down an opponent to overwhelm and demoralize them.
The most critical moments of a duel between such warriors was the space of time they waited to see who would attack first.
Her nerve broke. Kaileena lunged forward, swinging her sword in a downward, diagonal stroke. He parried with the thick of his sword against the tip of hers, batting it aside.
Kaileena anticipated this, and sidestepped him rather than backpedal, for his superior height gave him the reach to strike farther.
When she butted him with the guard and tried to bolt around him, he interposed his sword, twisted, and struck her in the shoulder. Hissing, Kaileena turned about, interposed Tsukuyumi, and as he thrust forward, she caught it with the hook of her blade, wrenching it forward.
But he was ready for it, and his sword was still up when she struck with an overhead swing, which just reached to his chest.
Blinking, Kaileena held her stance.
She knew the particulars of a sword. Occasionally, when she’d belly danced at Teneth’s, she’d incorporated one or two not unlike Selon. But that had been mere dancing. Here, she was expected to strike with one, rather than merely spin and flourish. It took time to adjust to the radical change in attitude.
“Better.” Zolin conceded, “But you need to try harder. Again.”
They disengaged, and while his longer strides carried him farther, her slight frame offered her superior speed. Her tail like a rudder, her balance was grounded even while running, and she harried his flanks, every strike done with increasing confidence.
And still, he defeated her at every turn. For every glancing blow she dealt him, he dealt her a solid one. For every successful parry, Zolin followed up with another, stronger attack, and soon it took all of her strength to maintain a defense.
“Enough!” Zolin snapped, weary and frustrated, “Your stamina isn’t the issue. If I’m tired, Minamoto would surely be too at this point. We can break for now.”
“Injuring yourself won’t help.” he interrupted, catching his breath and removing the padding from his sword, “You need to consider these lessons, let them sink in. A few hours, and we can continue until nightfall, if that suits you.”
As his love went back towards the house, Zolin held his composure as long as it took for her to leave direct eyeshot. Slumping against a tree, an immature oak by the looks of it, Zolin considered how tired he felt, and laughed.
Kaileena had no shortage of energy; all these years dancing and mating had kept her fit. It was actually proving easier to train her formally with a weapon than he had imagined, for he, like most, saw her slight build and tender disposition and assumed her muscles were as soft and underdeveloped as they looked.
Not so. Not at all.
Still, he was determined to push her, to press her at every step. This wasn’t drilling at the citadel.
He wasn’t really sure exactly how severe his presence was in Teikoku, but he wasn’t going to leave Kaileena here alone, and by Amaunator he wasn’t going to let her get hurt in this insane farce that was Minamoto’s justice! After everything she’s lost...it might very well break her, and he wasn’t going to let that happen.
Let Kaileena win her duel...or let him win it for her, it mattered little. He would see her realization of everything she was owed in life, or die trying his absolute fullest.
She didn’t go straight towards the house, angling slightly east, across a small stream which fed into a pond.
Knowing this place, this hidden place, Kaileena skirted it, circling around a few times to build her courage, even then exercising her natural agility by doing so silently, without disturbing the beds of dry leaves or dense patches of grass. She passed a small group of birds picking the soil for seeds, and they didn’t notice her approach, even at a small stone toss away in a nearly open clearing.
Eventually, her courage drove her into this small grove, just off her old game trails. Situated at a high elevation in relation to the surrounding landscape, its soil was rich and fertile, but not quite so saturated with moisture.
Gatsuyu had assured her it was still here.
She didn’t have to look carefully, for there were a pair of markers; unmarked, unadorned, roughly chiseled slabs of stone.
Kneeling before them, by at least six paces, Kaileena then fell to her side, and lay there, her left temple pressed against the grass, horn nubs digging into the soil beneath it.
"I’m home, Father." Kaileena whispered, eyes downcast, ”I’ve been away, but I’m home now."
Again, that awful grief, that guilt, gnawed at her.
Here was Shinabi, a simple hunter, then a farmer.
And her father.
Her father, who’d raised her, cared for her, though he was human and she...wasn’t. Who’d suffered the mistrust and abuse of their village for keeping her, for calling her his daughter.
Who’d failed to save her from Minamoto’s justice and instead found death at an executioner’s blade.
The thought that he’d been beheaded, and that his remains lay in two pieces down there, brought an enraged hiss, and a surge of fresh pain and guilt. Her claws dug into the earth.
The other stone marked the grave of his wife, Gatsuyu’s mother, who’d perished in childbirth. Though she’d never had the chance to meet the woman, Kaileena had visited this place often, with her father and later without, when his grief had run its course and his attentions returned to his home.
He’d spoken little of her, but she’d managed to gather a few tidbits from Hana on their trips to the school and boarding house in Kazeatari. She’d been a plain woman; slight, with straw-brown hair and dark eyes. Full lips. A beaming smile, and a laugh like music.
Kaileena had always wondered what might have been, had she survived. What it might have felt like to have a mother.
And now they were together again, husband and wife, in this quiet place. Forever.
How long she lay there, she couldn’t say.
She wept into the grass, eventually smelled Brother’s spoor but didn’t care.
"I’m sorry." she moaned, ”I’m...I’m so sorry. For everything. I let them take you. I let them..."
But her guilt was misplaced, wasn’t it? They’d been seasoned warriors, and she...a mere girl of fourteen, inhuman that she might be. What could she have possibly done?
"I accepted pacifism too easily." she decided, ”That was my sin. I was too afraid to fight, and meekly accepted my fate without a word of protest. A little flower, so light and fragile, my roots so shallow, to be swept up by the faintest wind."
Anger replaced the grief. She sat up resolutely, though her tears still fell freely.
"No more. I won’t let this happen again." she promised him, promised to herself, ”I won’t let them do this to me and our family, old and new. This time, I will fight. I will fight and I will be victorious. I will show them what I am, father; unabashed."
"I will show them all what I am capable of."
Kaileena found her feet, accepted the lesson for what it was, and smiled, her hand caressing the stone marker, ”Thank you, Father. For this. For...everything. I will make you proud, I promise."
Now she knelt at the base of the other stone, planting a single, gentle kiss, before rising anew, ”And to you too, Mother. Though we never met, know I would have loved nothing more. I would make you proud, and your son, who has made a fine family of his own. Thank you, for bringing him into this world, at such a high price. I can never repay you."
But determined to try, Kaileena passed her brother, who had remained near all this time, not to the house, but back to the clearing.
"I will make you proud. I will show this world what we are capable of..."
The night before his beloved’s duel with Minamoto, they didn’t stay in Gatsuyu’s house, but instead returned to the iron tower.
“Good evening, milady.” Golem said jovially as he greeted them, “Are you-”
“Not now, Golem.” Kaileena said resolutely, “Is my father’s room the only one in this tower, beside the entry hall?”
Curious, Zolin eyed her, gauging the purpose for such an odd question.
“No, milady. There is one other.”
“Show it to me. Please.”
Nodding, the construct led them back up the stairs, but somehow, though he hadn’t previously marked it, there was other opening for a hallway, not quite as far up. Taking this passageway led them to another door, identical to the one for Lenao’s chambers.
The room itself, however, was very different. A small bed, lined with wooden framework, rested in the corner. The floor was covered in animal pelts, and a few sitting cushions. There were shelves, their corners polished to be more rounded, and they held only a few items each. A stuffed likeness of an animal he didn’t recognize. A tall cylinder with five separate stacked pieces in different primary colors, the very top painted in the likeness of a man’s face, grimacing, with a small hammer beside it. A small kite of handmade paper painted in rich colors. While they hardly resembled anything he knew, Zolin intuited that these items, by their simplicity and coloration, were children’s toys.
“This was your room, milady.” Golem explained, “Uchiki would spend most of her time here, just waiting for you to grow enough to leave that crib. She was so delighted, every time you kicked and thrashed, trying to crawl. Sometimes, she would tease you with-”
“A string of beads.” Kaileena finished for him. Her hand brushed the bed’s frame.
“It’s so faint...but I remember...a string of beads. Everything else was dark and cloudy.”
“...Yes.” Golem said blankly, “Do you remember her face?”
Kaileena clamped her eyes shut, shivering.
“No.” she eventually replied, “I can’t see her face.”
Her eyes averted. Her back went rigid, and Zolin reached for her.
“It’s alright, Zolin.” she said quickly, “It’s...just what it is.”
Something changed in her then...resolutely, she returned her gaze to him, “This will become my favorite room as well. I want to...”
He knew well enough. Golem had offered them the means...and he’d always wondered, in a deep, private place...if they could ever....
Embracing her, unable to contain his smile, Zolin shook as well, “I look forward to it. But first we deal with Minamoto.”
“I intend to.”