2~ I'm Not a Mistake
In the dark of my room, my eyes opened to the grace of the soft moon’s light. I felt old, much older than sixteen years. Maybe it was because of the dream I awakened from, a dream that felt lightyears away in the foggy nostalgia of a half-forgotten memory. I dreamt I was noble. I dreamt that I was addressed as Kobayasahi-bana and people looked to me with reverence and high hopes. It wasn't because of what I had accomplished. No, I had accomplished nothing. It was because of what my father had accomplished long ago before my birth. It seemed he battled Makoto, Lord of Maak, proving to be the only Kuro to successfully make Makoto sweat in combat. However, my father tasted defeat and became a tool in his enemy’s wicked scheme. He used to be leader of his own clan, his own village. Now, he was just the Panther Beast.
Before the fall, the Kobayashi clan was tightly connected to the Mori clan only in that they were strict rivals, experiencing decades of petty skirmishes. At some point, the clanheads, Mamoru and Madoka realized one had a daughter and the other had a son, sparking conversations of an alliance by marriage. In the dream, I was disgusted by the idea. I was going to be clanhead after my father, and only wanted to see the day my clan was ran the way I saw fit. I had a vision of success and splendor, but now, all my visions were being washed away with my father’s stupid negotiations. Why would anyone want to marry the Chief Madoka’s loser son who wanted nothing in life, no claim or riches. He would only fish, fish, then fish some more.
For a time, Ho-luv was sent to stay with my father to learn the way of the Kuro more adeptly, although he barely listened and spent his day at the lake close to our home in Pala. I was infuriated with his lack of appreciation. Mamoru the legend was personally educating him on the ancient skill of mental prowess, of honing Kuro ability until you were completely aware of everything that moved before you on the planet. My father had taught me what he could, or what I could master at the time, so to see Ho-luv treat it as a trifling thing made me refuse to accept him as groom. Over time, though, my father exercised even more patience to the degree of becoming like an uncle to him, a mentor in more ways than one. He was the only person that stuck with Ho-luv over the years he was deemed a failure. The two of them truly had love for one another.
Eventually, I swallowed my pride and would change the sheets of Ho-luv’s bed every so often when he wasn't around. My parents would order me to do it, of course, since I didn't want anything to do him. Often, Ho-luv would implore Mamoru to stop making me do something he didn’t want me to do, something so unnecessary and unnerving. I would become furious and berate him with insults and reasons why he’d never be my husband or clanhead of the Moris. He’d challenge me to a duel. I would lose, somehow, and I would have to apologize to him on bended knee.
After so long of losing to Ho-luv in duel, no matter how much I trained, how powerful I had become, my father still would refuse to act against him. He would say either one of two things: "Sou has to condition herself to serve the Chief and his descendants.", or "Isn’t it that the two of you are in love?". Both utterings left me inept with anger while the fool would silently go bobbing his fishing line like some peasant. Still, I would sneak around cleaning his room and he'd pretend to be elsewhere.
I would go to sleep not being able to rest until I looked out my window and saw that his hut’s light was out and he asleep. He had become like the house’s pet, a project we were all working on. Sooner or later, I received unsettling news and finally went to him at a time I knew he'd be around to inform him that he was in danger of losing his claim to the Mori clan. I didn't much care about it, but the way my father cared about moved me to try and relieve his worries by going to speak reason to the idiot in our hut.
After a long day at our jointed school of Academa, I walked into the hut to find him asleep in the middle of the day. In a rage, I punched him awake and kept hitting him until he pushed me away, causing me to lose my step, stumbling back into his plants. The pots fell to the floor, breaking to send the flowers and the soil they were housed in all along the floor around me. I was nothing less than livid when I looked up at him, yet his scowl, the anger returned to me was fresh. I had never seen such fury in him.
“What’s the matter with you!? Are you crazy!?” he demanded, rushing to find something to put the flowers into. Despite his best efforts, he could find no replacement containers, giving up with an exasperated sigh.
“Am I crazy?” I asked, hearing my own voice full of venom. “You stand to lose your inheritance, and you ask me if I’m crazy?”
“What are you going on about?” he asked, mind grasping for straws.
“You idiot! That’s why I’m here! You think I’d come here because I wanted to!?”
“You come here every day!”
My eyes narrowed, irritated with the bit of truth I seemed to walk right into. “Failing Academa renders you a peasant, not fit to be of the Warrior class. You can’t inherit your birthright if you don’t pass, and you are due to fail in just two months if you don’t pick your scores up.”
“I can’t be clan heir because of school?” he asked in disbelief.
Standing, I dusted my dobi off and showed him how disgusted I was with him by the contortion of my face. “You sit here and waste time and energy with all your fishing and gardening! You’re a fool! You don’t deserve the clanhead seat! You should stay exactly where you are! The bottom with your fish and your flowers!”
I tried to walk out of the hut, but he took ahold of me and threw me to his pallet. I was overcome with shock, of course, trying to see what it was he was up to, but he was already over me, forcing my head into his bedding. He wrestled with both of our dobis, angrily grumbling, “I’ll show you how an idiot gets respect! You think you can come here and insult me so? Watch this!”
I began thrusting backwards, trying to force him off me, but his grip was so much stronger than I expected, a hand to my head while the other forced my hips still against himself. I felt his warmth, the heat of his breath against the back of my neck. Goosebumps. He reached and ripped the comb from my hair. Black blades of my own hair came down on each side of my face, and I felt rather carnal, my heart beating faster and faster, thumping like the hooves of a galloping steed. Where was the steed going? Yes, where was this going?
I pressed myself against him, raising up high enough to turn my head back to him and ask for his lips. He hesitated only a fraction of a second before suddenly meeting my lips with a kiss. Then, the strange. I couldn’t help this sudden bout of giggles that came rippling out from my womb, and it seemed he was stricken with the same ailment. We were both succumbed to helpless laughter, falling to the pallet beside one another. I could sense servants coming to check on us, surely worried about the grave implications that could be made by the two of us alone in a room together.
I remember my brother who was employed in the royal service of the Mother. He had come home for rest, wearing that same frown he always carried with him. I remember his face being so stern I thought he hated me. He probably should have hated me. I was ten years his junior and was already scoring higher than he ever did in Academa. The future held endless possibilities for me, but to him, I was only his annoying little sister. Where is he, now?
I remember being disrupted from a life where I played ball with Naito and the others then studied all night with Ho-luv. I was disrupted from a life where I wondered if I had feelings for him and if I'd get a chance to kiss him, again. He’d never ask. My worries were simple and minute during those times, and how I’d like to go back there. Then, my father became a "traitor". That's what they called him. Not just my father but the others’ too. Our names were sullied, and our lives thrown into a mess. Everywhere we went, we were either stared at or bad mouthed or both. The only place I had for reconciliation was the pond behind my father's manor where I would find my companion in pain, finding peace within his fishing place. I understood it then. I could see the Solace of sitting there, admiring what was left for us to enjoy. The green grass with its sharp dewy smell. The blue skies that welcomed the solitary flight of hawk above. The easy gusts of warm winds. I began sitting next to him, taking in the moment as it was.
Soon, after we had become the Supreme Unit and chased our predecessors down. We were told the truth. I remember not being able to believe how easily I had believed my own father was a dishonorable traitor. I should have had more faith in someone who assisted in the liberation of Pala from the Palans, not for his own will but for the will of the Mother and her purpose.
If I could do it over again, would I follow my father from the onset? Would I believe him over anything else? Would I be willing to accept the hate and the shame thrown upon me? In a word: Yes. I just needed the opportunity to prove it.
The sad truth of the matter was that I had not the slightest clue of where my father could be, growing as an orphan with only a house name. If I was of the Kobayashis then why was I not with them? Why was I in Frond? Nothing made sense, but fear kept me from asking the thing, afraid that they would separate me from Ho-luv, leaving him terribly alone. Such a tragedy would be solely my fault and I couldn’t deal with that future, so I kept quiet and made the best of the life I lived. Who knew what Cardinal Apprenticeship held for me?
I looked at Naito with one last bout of frustration, but he still didn’t mind. He never minded. It was his idea to go to town and fraternize with the local women, innocent or geisha. He reasoned that it’d be so easy for Cardinal Lord apprentices, which for the most part it was, even "free" at times. However, we were instructed to wipe the floor of the dojo, and we neglected to do a thorough job. Needless to say, Cocha was annoyed with us and punished Naito and I by having us stand out front of the dojo all night while holding up a water bucket in each hand as a sentry kept watch on us.
The inklings of morning shot through the sky, giving me some hope of an impending relief. Naito yawned his eyes closing slowly after. I thought he was just resting them before his arms began to lower. Out of spite, I only watched, knowing that if his arms touched his sides, he’d have another 6 hours to go past sunrise.
“Hey!” His eyes shot open as we both looked to the sentry with shock. “You’re almost finished. Don’t ruin yourself this far into it,” he advised.
Naito smiled and stretched his arms out painfully. I sighed and did the same. Soon, but not soon enough, Bui and Mist came out to us after cleaning themselves up for the day.
Bui's hair had gotten longer over those two years of brutal kata training, and Mist had grown quite attractive. I had finally understood why Cocha thought it would be troubling to have her around. Doubtless, he knew we’d all have a small liking for her.
She stood in front of me and smiled as she began to squeeze my arms. “Complain all you want, but this is putting some muscle on your bones,” she said.
“Come feel my muscles, too, Missy.” She rolled her eyes at Naito, making him chuckle. Helpfully, she pushed my bangs from my eyes. I hadn’t gotten a haircut in ages. My hair stretched down to just under my jaw and curled outwards at the end. Except that morning, it was drenched in sweat.
“Have you seen Cocha? Has he awakened, yet?” I asked.
“Nope,” she answered, “He was drinking with a woman, last night, so I don’t think he’ll be up for a while.”
“What woman?” Naito inquired.
“He knew her, so I think it was an old friend,” Bui answered, squatting beside us. “Do you think he'll teach us the sword anytime soon?”
“All we've done for two years is conditioning and kata,” whined Naito.
“It's boring, but I think it’s important. Besides, we have three more years to go over technique and kill moves. Cocha is maximizing his time with us,” I said.
“By punishing us for practicing our kill moves with the ladies?” Naito asked.
Missy scoffed before turning and walking away, the three of us instinctively watching.
“Stop gawking,” I heard Cocha say between two persistent yawns, “We've received a request for services.” We all looked to him attentively. His own hair was long and unkempt. His eyes looked weary as he rested his unshaven chin on his hand and looked at us. He was sitting on the courtyard veranda wrapped in robe after robe. Strangely enough, he was always cold. “There’s been a series of disappearances in the village, Kiku-koroni. We’ve been asked to investigate.”
“We don’t usually do these types of missions, Cocha,” I pointed out with a strained grin, “Don’t we usually help with construction projects?”
“I think it's about time we move into more adult territory. How old are you all, now?”
He nodded and leaned back on his palms to stare up into the blue sky. The sun's embrace was beginning to warm on that summer's day. “That old, huh? I suppose, it isn’t totally ridiculous that the two of you went out in search of tail, yesterday. Just don’t let personal pleasures interfere with your responsibilities. You would’ve had more than enough time to go into village and find a girl after you'd wiped the floors properly.”
Naito and I bowed our heads in shame but nodded that we understood. “Okay. Put the buckets down, my boys.” We did so with haste.
“Is that why the woman was here, Cocha?” Missy asked, “Is she someone you used to know?”
“I wonder,” he whispered thoughtfully, still staring up to the sky. “She is that village's secretary and acting chairman since the formal chairman was among those to have disappeared.”
“Did they give us any idea as to how these disappearances may be happening, Cocha?” inquired Bui.
“Even they aren’t entirely sure. The chairman just wasn’t in his bedroom the next morning. A young boy went to fetch water and never came back. A teenage girl was spirited away from her home. A woman lost her infant and husband. There is no common denominator other than the fact that these disappearances are inexplicable.”
“So, we’re basically starting from square one?” I asked.
“We leave in three hours, so pack anything you’ll need and…do what you have to before we leave.” He stood and went off, leaving us to our own devices.
“I’m cleaning up and heading into town,” Naito announced as he scurried off.
“I have some letters to read from the capital. Looks like this will be the only chance I have.”
“From your father?” I asked.
He nodded. “He wants me to stay updated on world affairs even as I train. He says it will help me keep our goals in mind.”
I smiled as he walked off. He was always so serious.
“Let’s train, Hogo.”
I looked to Missy. “Like spar?”
“Yes, grab a wooden sword.”
We walked into the dojo and both grabbed a sword before bowing and preparing. I was tired, but more practice wouldn’t hurt. After all, I had to be stronger than the fifteen contestants that legitimately won all that time ago in the Shogun's Tournament.
She stepped in quickly and swung her sword down at me to be blocked as I side-stepped. “Have you heard of our peers' exploits?”
“Of course, I stay abreast on my competition,” I smiled.
“But do they stay abreast on you?” She swung her sword a couple more times. I blocked the first and parried the second and stepped around her.
“Ho, hooo,” I chuckled, “Trying to say I'm inconsequential?”
“Two years ago, you were.”
“Then, beat me.” She let loose a barrage of swings that I managed to block, parry, or evade by the skin of my teeth. She smiled but I could tell she was irritated, yet that was just the fruits of rigorous kata training. The movements were fluid and the body light, operating purely out of instinct and muscle memory.
“I heard Sou led a mission to sniff out a league of bandits living in the mountains of the Stone. She and her team defeated them all and delivered them to the courts.”
“There was another mission they did where Lao rescued a vassal’s infant son from a kidnapping. He jailed two, killed one. They say he was distraught about having to kill someone, but his sense of duty and honor prevailed.”
“Yes, I've heard.”
“Wong's achievements are endless. From civil disputes to national upsets, he plays a part. Lady Mira’s team has all the accolades.”
“Is there any purpose to this talk?” I jumped at her with a sword swing that she blocked and she countered with a sideways slash that I managed to evade by back-stepping.
“You can’t get Sou to look at you if you aren’t any better than her own team mates. What about Ikki? I’ve heard he’s already challenged some of the Flames’ more successful swordsmen and won without even using his abilities. They say he’s brutal and exercises no restraint. It’s almost as if he lacks honor.”
“Missy…,” I said, growing in irritation.
“I’m only saying, as your team mate, to stay focused. People like you and you’re actually growing into a decent looking man, but two years ago, you had the largest chip of all on your shoulder. That’s why Cocha had to have you. If you lose that, people forget why you’re special.”
“I was never special,” I said forcefully as I swung down on her firmly.
She blocked and stepped forward to shoulder-butt me in the chest. I reeled backward, trying to regain balance, but she swung her stick across my knee and caused me to topple like a stack of wood. From my back, I looked up at her with a loser’ s scowl. She aimed her wooden sword at me. “You are special. You were never supposed to get as far as you’ve gotten. Now, at this moment, your body is strong enough to at least evade anything Lao may swing at you. That’s amazing, Hogo! You were ranked 60 and now you’re 5. That’s over me and it’s all because you’re special. I was happy to be on your team. Me and everyone else live thinking of your bushido, to give it our all.”
I thought about that for a while then gave her a wide, cunning smile. “You adore me, don’t you?” I humored. Her face went beet red before she swung her sword down, again. I had already rolled backwards and to my feet by then and prepared for the next strike. “I'm going to always give it my all, Missy. No compromises. I could care less about what other teams are doing. We’ve finally taken a mission ourselves, and I can guarantee you we're going to make names for ourselves.”
She fought the smile on her face.
“Let’s do our best, Missy.”
She just turned and walked over to put her sword up before bowing to me and leaving the dojo. I chuckled and did the same. In the time I had, I wanted to bathe and get some rest. After all, I’d been awake all night holding buckets.
I looked at my master with shock that I could not conceal as I had trained myself to do for such an occasion. However, as we stood next to the vast pit of flames, he told me something I had expected to hear long ago yet had not for 2 years. Lord Fon had taken a mission.
“Ikki, let’s see how strong our enemy has gotten.” I nodded and bowed in the darkness. “For now, the chancellor wishes to see you.”
“The chancellor, master?”
“Don’t make me repeat myself,” he said as he turned, whooshing his cloak before himself. Suddenly, we were no longer in the fortress, but we were standing outside a tall, iron gate. Looking around, I could see the moon up high, and out, I could see the fireflies in the night, small supernovas burning brightly. For a moment, they were all I could fathom. Little bright lights of hope wading in the air, signs in the darkness like a path through confusion. Was I the firefly? Was I the darkness? Or maybe I was none of it. Maybe I was the boy looking on at them.
“Stand,” my master commanded me, and so, I did just that. I stood and looked through the iron bars to the armored Warrior who came strolling down the long, grassy path, three of them. They were the guard of the chancellor, and we were outside of his fortress.
Staring ahead at the monument, I saw large and high stone buttresses connecting large, high stone walls. Vines crept up the sides of the fortitude and a wide moat encircled the perimeter, making it difficult if not impossible for any invading force to take the fortress. Presently, the bridge was lowered, and we were clunking across the wooden fixture until our boots touched the sodden path that led to the grand oak doors. As far as the eye could see was how vast the fortress was, and I wondered about who occupied it. Chancellor Ogashi Saito and his family. He had sons and daughters. He had a wife who was gifted to him by one of the richer lords of the land, a lord who made his bones by shipping prisoners to the Land of Stone to sell as slaves. The slave market was a wealthy market over there, and since this lord was one of the first to invest from this side of the world, he had a sort of monopoly on it for now. Either way, the chancellor was married to his daughter, and so, shared the spoils to a degree. He had other women labelled consorts and concubines as many lords did in history, living up to the stereotype of greed one would expect, but he also had a daughter of no blood relation. This daughter was Bella Smithdotter, my Cardinal peer.
Bella said less than five words a day and none of those words were ever in greeting. The small girl had a dark way about her, and her skill was undeniable though Takeshi-bana refused to look her way. I had a mind to lean on her in battle, but if my master turned his gaze away from her then I would do the same. Such was life, maybe because she was not a high bred noble. Unfortunately, she would be doomed to play a lesser role for the remainder of her existence, even in the Ogashi home.
Chancellor Ogashi had two sons, Tatara and Tahashi, and five daughters. Three of them were already wed off to strengthen his rule while two more kept inside of the fortress. I had heard the elder of the two, Non, had a mind toward religion and so sought the life of a priestess. Her dedication would have to be discreet, however, because the secret beliefs of this land was that of Maak. The Sacrament was the predominant way of life, yet Kaizen was not born from cushy love and sonnets. Maak bred Warrior, battle-hardened and valiant. I was raised in Maak. Taking is a must since no one shall give, I learned. Live so that you may learn, I was taught. Hate all but love the few, I believed. Who truly deserved your love other than those who were tried and true to you through adversity?
The youngest was named Rin. She was said to have raven-black hair, a long and sharp nose, and knowing green eyes that saw through your every device toward inscrutability. That was as far as her moniker went throughout the land, yet that was enough to draw my curiosity. Who was this girl that she should break a man down by just her sight? I wanted to put my foot on her neck, to crush the pomp she wore like a mink coat, to totally and hideously wring her dry of her arrogance. That was the Maak in me, however. That need to take.
Without haste, the oak doors were thrown open and we were met by the deep darkness of the dimly torched halls that led through the beginnings of the fortress. Along that hall were many tall pictures of the chancellors before ours, his forefathers and foremothers, all in variety yet sharing those knowing green eyes. In every picture, whether it be man or woman, the subject’s eyes followed me, stabbed me with judgement, leaving me to wonder if the royal family was, in truth, inbred. How else could such cold eyes be passed down over generations?
Once at the end of the pass, we were led into a grand room where a deep pit occupied the center, a hearth with a monstrous fire crackling within. Ours was much the same, yet not so large as this one. No one was in the room at the moment but the two of us and our escort, and even that wasn’t for long as we swished past the fires within the hoar cloak of shadows. Soon, we were crossing down another hall of paved stone, dim torches lining the walls with flickering flames that made our shadows dance as if mocking us for our existence. Staring at my own ecstatic shadow, he dancing like the menace of my heart, laughing at me. I wanted to kill him in that moment. I wanted to strangle him, yet I pressed on until we crossed through what looked like the throne room since to our left was the high dais and the grand chair with its gold crests and furs tossed across it. To our right was the deep auditorium that would hold the chancellor’s audience whenever he beckoned one.
One would’ve expected to be received there in the throne room, but instead, we pressed on through a secret door that led down yet another hallway, and this time, we made a right turn and our escort opened the heavy, wooden door before us. Inside the room was orange with firelight. A long table with many high-backed chairs sat in the middle of it, and a host of guards stood around the perimeter of the room, ever watchful of us as we came to stand within the room, staring ahead at the chancellor while he was enjoying a late dinner.
The chancellor was a gray man, face long with many years of pressure, deep-lined from many years of secrecy. The stress of keeping your land’s strength hidden away from the other lands must’ve been enormous, but he had achieved such and he was to thank for our plan that would reach culmination at the next Shogun’s Tournament. We would unleash disaster on the other lands, seizing complete control of the world…and I would be greatly awarded for my part.
Chancellor Ogashi sipped his steaming broth from a wide, ceramic spoon before using sticks to pick up fried pork, dipping it in a dark sauce then eating with relish. My attention was drawn to his curvaceous wife, to his sons, all having the neat queue of their father, to his daughter. I could only assume her to be Rin, for she fit the description perfectly with her dark hair and sharp nose. She stared at me hauntingly, even more than her relatives, giving me this unfounded sense of fury. I seethed within from just the sight of those eyes. I think she knew it, too, for after a moment, she seemed utterly disinterested and went back to her food.
“Welcome, Lord Takeshi,” the chancellor greeted in a solemn voice. “Forgive us for eating during this visit. We’ve only just managed to adjourn a meeting of generals.”
“Very well, my lord.”
“Sit,” the chancellor ordered, so we moved to obey. “Not you, boy. You stand.”
With gritted teeth, I stopped my feet then stood taller. His sons smirked at me, making my sword hand itch as it slowly inched to my hilt. A sword became known against my neck.
“That would be rather idiotic of you, boy,” the guard behind me said.
“He has pride, I see. Good,” the chancellor said, eyes downcast to his food. “Does he have strength?”
“My lord has seen the boy’s test scores,” my master answered, accepting a grail of wine. I could tell the chancellor fancied wine. His teeth were dark from it.
“I’ve seen his aptitude. I’ve seen how many battles he’s won, but all of that is numbers on a page. Tell me from sight. Does he have strength?”
My master looked over to me, narrowed his eyes in analysis. I fought to keep staid composure, lest they see a weakness in me, and then, he turned his gaze back to the table where he picked up his wine and drank a small sip, relishing the taste.
“No,” was his answer.
“I will fight whomever you choose,” I spat with venom.
“You will do what you’re told,” the chancellor said with disinterest. He averted his eyes to Lord Takeshi. “And this is supposed to be your champion?”
“He has no strength yet dominates his peers,” Lord Takeshi replied.
“And his age?”
“My boys are twenty-one and eighteen. Do you wager he can defeat them, who were trained by the finest blades in the land?”
“Both of them,” I hissed. I saw the offence as clear as day on every member of the royal family’s face, but I would not relent. The disrespect shown to me had engulfed me in prideful wrath, a wrath that could only be assuaged with blood.
“Then, live by your words,” the chancellor sneered, his sons rushing to me with blades drawn.
I back-kicked the guard behind me away then ducked under the elder’s blade, slicing his thigh. While he screamed, I blocked the younger’s blow, throwing his force away as I stood up straight. Walking the younger down, I saw the fear in his eyes. It was painfully apparent that I was much more formidable than they could ever be. He tried slicing at me again, but I evaded backwards then stomped into his chest, sending him to the ground. As he crashed, I raised my blade to finish him, but…
“Enough!” the chancellor barked.
With dense irritation, I sheathed my blade, the steel sighing as it slid home. Turning from the wide eyes of his son, I looked to Lord Takeshi’s smug expression then to Rin’s shock. There was satisfaction drawn from both faces. Then, I looked to the chancellor who scowled in my direction. I scowled back, not caring for his pleasure in the least.
“As you can see,” I said, “I am the Number 1.”
“Yes,” he said in guarded contemplation, “I can see that. You show it by embarrassing my sons?”
“You embarrassed your sons, your excellency. You were warned of my power, yet you chose to pit your sorry excuses for princes against me. Did you really expect them to prevail against true Warrior?”
“I could have you beheaded in the morning,” he said calmly, making me tighten with agitation, but he went on eating before looking to his daughter, asking, “Is he the one?”
“No,” she said simply, “This one is an animal. The one you’re looking for will have more reserve in his eyes.”
“A weak-willed man?” her father snapped.
“A Warrior with more sword than mouth,” she replied, unaffected.
“How can you be so sure this man will stumble along your path?”
“Five lands panged by one until the infection spreads. Who can ensure this? A man who seeks every opportunity to show his worth? Or might I describe to you a man whose blade is sure, only striking when the blow propels him to higher heavens than the one he’s already conquered?”
“I am such a man,” I argued, yet I wasn’t so sure what I was so defensive about. What was the conversation?
“You are not such a man,” she herself snapped, looking much like her father in the moment, “You are an animal. You are not fit.”
“Fit for what?”
“Fit for what, your highness,” she corrected.
“I stand by my words,” I said gravely, “Make me change them.”
“Ikki, remain respectful,” Lord Takeshi reprimanded.
“Yes, master. How about I ask her highness what it is I am not fit for?” I replied.
“It doesn’t matter,” the chancellor said, “We’re finished here.”
“Is there no other test he can take?” Lord Takeshi asked.
“It’s impossible. My daughter has denied him. She wants another.”
“Does your daughter know the basis of her own denial? Is it off sheer attraction? There are greater things to consider, my lord. Consider lineage, if you will,” argued Lord Takeshi.
“As I have said,” spoke the chancellor, “Rin doesn’t deem him fit for husband.”
Stupefied, I looked from the chancellor and to his daughter to see a smug smile, indeed, telling me that I had missed out on a grand opportunity because of my need to crush those higher than me. Angrily, I scowled at her.
“I am the very incarnate of Maak, and don’t you doubt that, you pretentious-!”
“Ikki!” Lord Takeshi shouted.
Yet I couldn’t be restrained from my own anger. “I see you sit there and look down on me, I envy your station. I seek to make you grovel, to take what you have. I never had a mind to bind myself to you or your household. If asked, I would’ve refused the union, never binding my hands by your foolish need to hide everything from the other lands. No lust for you I have. No, just a need to see you give me everything you possess…your highness.”
“Lord Takeshi, my patience is running thin with this one,” the chancellor warned with disinterest before sipping his drink.
The princess was smiling an amused smile, however. “Well, while I deem you unfit to be in union with me, I find myself happy you are on our front lines. I can sleep well knowing it is you who fights for us.”
I bowed my head in gratitude, yet I was ever so angry that she rejected me.
“I don’t know my father's name. I was too young to know it,” I answered as we journeyed steadily on the dirt path of our land.
Naito had complained about walking the trek, asking why a Lord wouldn’t command a coach, but Cocha just told him that everything in life didn’t come so easy. Another easy-going lesson, of course. I believed Cocha just wanted us to see the land. It would take us a week’s time to get to Kiku-koroni on foot with luggage in tow, and at the moment, it had been 5 long days of conversation and walking. Somewhere along the lines, we began down the rabbit hole of each other’s origins, which always made me uncomfortable.
“Then, how will you know when you’ve found him?” Bui inquired of me.
“I imagine I’ll just know.” That question troubled me, though. How would I ever find my father definitively? Sou had always told me I’d know when I saw him, and I believed her. But then, thinking of Sou, I didn’t care about my mythological father. I cared about something else that had only been nurtured by the deepening years of adolescence and the fantasies born from it: her affection. Had she…confessed to Wong? Were they an item? That was something you wouldn’t receive a report on. I sighed with helplessness and Bui mistook it for a frustration with him.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” he excused.
I looked at him and smiled broadly before puffing my chest. “Ho hooo,” I sang, “I command apologies from a prince! I must be something!”
He smiled but Naito went as far as shoving me. “You’re a little mongoose,” he giggled.
“The villagers call me Titan, though. With reason, of course.”
“I don’t remember you being this mouthy when I picked you up,” Cocha sighed, waning because of the heat of the day. It was even too hot for him.
“There!” announced Missy. We looked forward, seeing the walls of the Kiku-koroni village’s border. It was quick work to get inside when Cocha flashed his Cardinal seal and produced the documents that hired us for the mission. Looking around the village, I was instantly shell-shocked by its modesty after having lived as a noble’s apprentice on Cocha’ s wealthy estate land in Sakura-koroni. It was much like Frond, but at the same time, it wasn’t. Anything like the orphanage I grew up in and was undoubtedly defined by was nowhere in sight. Did they have an orphanage, I wondered.
“Lord Fon,” someone called. We saw the woman that petitioned Cocha for that very mission standing by a sizeable structure one would assume was the Secretary’s station. We stopped just in front of her, but our eyes were still scanning every little thing. Children ran and played. Adults hustled about getting things done, mostly running or supporting a business. Warrior patrolled the streets in their usual, arrogant air of superiority. They always did and I didn’t want to be one of those kinds, the grunt Warrior. Well, I skipped a step and became a Cardinal apprentice, so I was already off to a stellar start. “I'll show you where you’ll lay your heads. You’ll find that you have everything you may need to make your stay enjoyable despite the circumstances.”
I saw some villagers stare at us as if we were royalty, like it was a visit from the emperor himself. At first, I didn’t understand the awed people, but then I looked to my brother and remembered he was, in all actuality, prince of the land. His walk told the story and demanded reverence. It was powerful. Also, when one considered the fact that word may have gotten out that a Cardinal Lord had come with his apprentices to uncover the causes of the disappearances, it would be understandable to receive stares from those wondering if we could actually bring them salvation.
“Should I dance?” Cocha grumbled as we walked through them.
The Secretary smiled. “It's been a long time since such a prestigious person stepped foot into our humble village.”
“I’m only prestigious because your father wouldn’t leave it alone.”
“Because you were stronger than everyone in this village and any surrounding village. You fought off those bandits all by yourself just because they woke you from your nap.” She giggled as Cocha grew red. It was almost a phenomenon to see such a shade on Cocha.
“Why don’t you ever tell us these stories, Cocha?” I demanded as I ran to the front, pretending to unsheathe a sword and fight imagined foes, “It would do wonders in our training process!”
He grabbed me by the back of my robe collar and pulled me back to walk behind him. “Does anyone hear a gnat buzzing?”
“Ho ho hooo!” I smiled as I fell back in line and received a playful punch from Naito. I looked at the back of Cocha and wondered about his past and the accolades we didn’t even know about. Sure, he won the Shogun’s Tournament with flying colors and became apprentice to Los the Hunger of the Stone lands. Sure, he challenged Mira for the Fall lands and won after two days and nights of fighting. Sure, he fought in the battle of Blood Green against Lord Takeshi in a stalemate of two armies and saved the capital until reinforcements arrived from Central Frond. However, what about the things he’s done for the land that escapes the eyes of the thousands but not the few?
“Hogo?” Cocha called.
I walked faster to approach him. “Yes, Cocha!”
“Have you been vigilant with your personal regiment?”
I frowned. “Of course, Cocha. I’m going to be the strongest of my generation. How am I to do that if I neglect my exercises?”
“You’re much like a family,” the Secretary said with a warm smile, “I’m happy for you, Fon.”
No honorifics, I noticed. Yes, they were close friends, indeed. How close, I wondered.
We arrived at a home, sizeable and wide. The house was one story, and when we stepped into the outer gates, we saw an older gentleman sitting with his legs under him and next to him was and older lady pouring del. Del was a warm drink made with healing herbs and steamed water, served in any situation. When they saw us coming through the gates, they immediately stopped what they were doing and bowed low to the ground.
“Thank you, my Lord, for taking time to handle our menial dilemmas,” the man said.
A bit embarrassed, Cocha scratched his face and nodded. “It’s in no way menial, sir,” he said in reply, giving small bow in return.
The man sat up on the heels of his feet and gave Cocha an eager smile. “My name is Takata Kengo. I’ll be your host as long as you’re in Kiku-koroni. Please, allow me to be your eyes.”
The people have gone missing. No leads, no witnesses, or time to practice my kata. Cocha had us asking every villager in sight for any and every piece of knowledge they have regarding the past month and if even the smallest detail was strange, he had us write it down on pain of the water buckets through the night. Not wanting that sort of fun, anymore, I worked rather diligently but not as diligent as Bui, who was always a hard worker and instead of writing down small details, he would write down everything. He was thorough by nature, and I thought no less was needed from the future emperor of our land. Missy did about as much work as me, but Naito found himself distracted by the female class of people and neglected his duty to instead write down girls' names and brief descriptions of them. He would meet the water buckets, I knew.
“A chairman. A boy. A teenage girl. A father and infant. What do they all have in common, if anything?” I heard someone say. I spiraled on my heel to find the voice, and to my surprise, I looked at Shina with my own eyes. She smiled at me pleasantly, apparently happy to see me. I couldn’t help but smile, myself. It had been two years since I saw her last, and my, she was all the more woman. What was pretty at 14 was beautiful at 16. And what was kind at 14 was seductive at 16.
“I want to hug you,” I said with a broad smile, “May I?”
Her face flushed before she stretched her arms out wide and I swept her up off her feet in a bear hug that made her giggle. She wasn't embarrassed as ladies usually were in such a situation out in public.
“You’re so tall, now!” she said through her laughs.
“And you’re so pretty!” I put her down and threw my hands to my hips as I marveled at her. She was truly a sight.
“You’ve blossomed in body and personality, it seems,” she smiled, “Three things you’ve done in thirty seconds would make a girl think you wanted them.”
“Hooo? What’s that?” I asked with a coy smile that defied my ambitions.
“You expressed the desire to touch me. You touched me wholeheartedly. You told me I was pretty. You must have quite the success with women.”
I scratched my head sheepishly, cursing the amount of time I had spent with Naito. “I’m just happy to see you is all.”
She took ahold of my odobi, the thicker robe atop my dobi. “I wasn’t complaining.”
“What have I stumbled onto?” a cheery voice exclaimed. I looked to the side to see someone I recognized as Tadashi Konami. He had that ridiculously long headband on, as usual, and his muscular arms were folded, him standing tall. “It seems you’ve fallen into Shina’s trap, young Mori-yo!”
We blushed and pulled away from each other. I cleared my throat and bowed to Tadashi. “What are you all doing here?” I asked.
“Lord Lee reached out to Kaya-cocha since we were nearby finishing up our own task. It seems you all needed some help with your first mission.”
“That’s not true, Tadashi. Stop teasing,” Shina whined.
I chuckled. “The only person that’s going to need help is the one responsible for these kidnappings.”
Tadashi clapped my shoulder. “Well said. Oi, I don’t think we’re going to reap much from the streets. Let’s get some food then go digging, huh?”
“You know…the darker parts of the village. That’s where we’ll get some info, my friend.”
I sat across from Tadashi and next to Shina in a small restaurant that specialized in chicken items. I settled with chicken with sesame as Tadashi decided to make things inconvenient for the staff and order a beef bowl. Shina chose a simple broth, and when I asked her why she was eating so little, she went apple red and explained quietly that some girls call her a cow. Tadashi went on a rant about how ridiculous the name was and boasted proudly about how happy he was to have such well-endowed woman on his team for five years. She kicked his leg and I laughed. It seemed they were good friends.
“Oi, where’s your third member…the uh…the princess?” I asked, trying to remember her name.
“She’s investigating most likely,” Shina said and gave Tadashi a look. Tadashi himself wore an expression that was unrecognizable to most, including myself. It was humorless. He was serious, for once.
“Ah, yes,” he spoke, “She’s most likely knocking on doors and such. Oi, how about your girl? Where’s Mist?” His eyes became ravenous, again.
“Naito is where the women are. Bui is still-”
“Impossible for an entire village to know absolutely nothing!” Bui vented as he sat down next to Tadashi.
“Good day!” Shina said swiftly as she stood and bowed to him.
He had forgotten he was a prince and took a moment to understand her formality. Growing bashful from the attention Shina was drawing to him, he waved her down. “Thank you, thank you,” he replied urgently, “Oi, friends. Treat me as a normal person.”
“No problem,” Tadashi laughed before throwing his arm around Bui’s shoulders, “Now, where’s Mist?”
“Haven’t a clue.”
Our food came, and Bui put in his order. We insisted on waiting until his food had arrived to eat. He grew embarrassed and we laughed.
“Apparently, Lady Mira has begun teaching her team Node,” Tadashi informed, “I don’t know if they’ll be able to do it, though.”
Node was an ability amongst Warrior that allowed two to work as one. This was different from innate abilities that some of us had. Like me, my innate ability appears to be rejuvenation. I heal exceptionally fast. This makes me more of a defensive Warrior, and if I were to train in Node, I would be best as the Receiver. Yes, in Node, two Warrior meet in mind and body to war against an enemy. The Giver is the offensive Warrior in the duo. Whatever damage he attains during his battle automatically goes to the Receiver, who should stow themselves away. This is a dangerous but very effective battle method mainly used in last ditch efforts. If the Giver wasn’t careful, the Receiver could die from the wounds. Even still, no human could accomplish the task. They could only learn the process necessary to wield it, passing the knowledge on to their apprentices in hopes that some of them could attain the skill. Thinking of Sou, I was positive she could accomplish it.
Bui’s innate ability was the ability to fly, although he could only manage rooftop heights and a maximum of 10 minutes. Naito’s turned out to be teleportation. His ability was almost impossible for him to use, but when he’s struck by his night terrors, we often have to go out searching for him. I saw him disappear one night. His faint cries had awakened me from slumber as my room was next to his in the mansion. I went to check on him, but when I approached him, he yelled loudly and then there was a puff of smoke left where he had been laying. Frightened, I ran throughout the grounds in search for him, many of the sentries joining me without any knowledge of what it was we were searching for. Soon, he came sulking back home, exhausted for he had teleported to the docks where fishermen started and ended their days. Mist literally could turn her body to mist, but only after a great deal of effort. Individual limbs were easier. In battle, if she could anticipate where you would strike, that part of her body would become mist and your strike useless.
I looked down to my food, engulfed in thought about Node and how Sou was fairing. She’ll always be ahead of me, it seemed. She would always be stronger. She was just a genius at becoming a Warrior. Too bad female Warrior have different duties once they become of age. She was one of the best fighters there were, but she’ll most likely expend her energy in a household instead of a battlefield. It was how all women were brought up. After four years of training with their lords or ladies, they would study art and etiquette. She would wear dobis and learn how to please a man, the man they’d look after for the rest of their lives. I didn’t see that life for Sou, but she never voiced wanting anything different.
“I can feel your strength, now, Mori-yo,” Shina said to me, “Before, it was so small, I worried about you in the tournament.” She smiled, causing me to blush because she was just that pretty. “So, you don’t have to worry about losing her,” she added.
“Who?” Bui inquired.
“Sou,” Shina answered innocently.
“Why would he be concerned with Sou?”
“Ho ho hoooo!” I sang, interrupting a dangerous conversation, “So, they think they’re so cool because they’re learning Node. Well, so what! Ha! In three years, we’re still going to outshine them!”
Bui smiled proudly.
“Cheeky cheeky,” Tadashi teased, “What about Ikki? He’s supposedly formidable. He hasn't even shown his ability, yet.”
I remembered his bloodlust and felt chills run down my spine. I had hoped to never see him, again. “He won’t matter, either.”
Just then, five men walked into the restaurant and sat with authority. They seemed like a rough lot just from their appearance of shabby, black dobis and weathered scabbards for their swords. Yes, they were Warrior, but their gruffness told me they were most likely Ronin. Or bandits.
I looked around the restaurant and saw some of the diners swiftly pay for their unfinished meals and inconspicuously sneak out in hopes of never being noticed. All of the diners had sweat on their brows. Somehow, it had all become clear. This village was not run by any chairman, at all, but was governed by the local gang. These people were prisoners in their own homes. That’s why there was no correlation to the disappearances!
“I want pheasant!” one had yelled.
I felt myself frowning then Shina’s hand on my knee. “Stay calm,” she whispered.
“So sorry, Ota-bana,” the waiter pleaded, “But we haven't that item. Yes, so sorry, but we could send someone out to hunt one and-”
“Outrageous! Do you know how long that would take!?
‘Bana’ was the honorific used in the land that denoted high reverence, that whoever you were referring to was of a higher station than that of yourself. He was a 20-something year old man with a big snake-like mouth. He was self-entitled, and it became obvious that the other 4 men were his bodyguards.
“So sorry, my lord, but-!”
Ota unsheathed his sword swiftly to dispatch the man, but I was already between them, holding his wrist. With a scowl, I faced off with Ota and his band of thugs. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
“That’s my line,” I spat.
“You don’t even have a sword!”
“Don’t need one for trash like you.”
“Touch Junior, you die,” one of his bodyguards screamed as he swung his sword at me ferociously. I leapt backwards in a flip that landed me on top of a table. I cursed not having swords, yet, and resolved to take one of theirs.
The four men rushed me with attacks that I easily dodged and evaded. When an opportunity had presented itself by one of them raising his sword high up in the air, I lunged forward and placed my hand on his face as it exploded and sent him flying. I had taken ahold of his sword as he went and looked to the others who stood there shocked.
“Who are you?” Ota demanded.
“Hogo Mori,” I answered with a grin. They lunged forward and I prepared for them, but Bui was there now, and with three quick jabs, one of the men found his sword arm useless as it dropped to his side. A grand kick sent him away on top of the other bodyguard.
“Just going to hog all the fun, huh?” Tadashi mused as he ran to the third man.
The man readied himself for the assault, but I had run forward and kneed him in the head before Tadashi tackled him and knocked his lights out. I hit the floor and rolled to the other man who slashed his sword at me. I had sprung upwards by then and kicked the side of his head with a charge that exploded and sent him flying sideward. Only Ota stood.
“Leave!” I spat, “And tell Senior his days are numbered!”
Ota scurried out of the restaurant quickly, but outside, we heard screams and so we rushed to tend to it.
“Unbelievable,” Tadashi gnashed as he slowly walked down the street.
It seemed Ota didn’t just run away meekly. No, he slew three villagers while he made his retreat.
“You see,” the restaurant waiter said with unbridled fear, “You’ve made things worse!”
I frowned and looked at Bui. He sighed with equal graveness then nodded to me. “We must report this to Cocha.”
“I should cut you down where you kneel!” Cocha yelled angrily as he sat on the veranda of the home we were staying. With him was the secretary, Ren-yo, the other Cardinal Lord, Kaya-bana, and Takata-yo. Next to me, kneeling with our heads low to the earth was Bui, Shina, and Tadashi. Naito and Missy weren’t there, but I knew they were nearby, spying.
Cocha stood from the veranda and slowly skulked to me.
“What were your orders, Hogo!?”
“To ask questions.”
“Yes! And when did I add the part about starting fights in restaurants!?”
I sat up. “But Cocha, he was going to kill that man!”
He reached down and picked me up by my clothes. He was a head taller than me, so my feet dangled quite a bit. Wincing, I looked away from the gruff man. “And now you’ve started a war. How many villagers will die, now!?”
“You didn’t think that far, did you!? You didn’t use that brain you’re so proud of to deduce even that much!” He dropped me violently. “You should be Dishonored for this!”
“No!” Bui shouted as he stood up with haste, “Cocha, he was only doing what he thought was right, and we all helped him! Hogo can’t bear all the responsibility for this!”
I spat, throwing Cocha’s hands from me and took off running, utterly angry with my cocha for not understanding me and even threatening to make me Ronin, lordless and clanless Warrior without a home. I’d been there before and never wanted to return.
“Hogo!” he called after me, but I was already gone into the village, crying out of frustration.
“I’ll go after him,” Bui said quickly, but I shook my head, knowing I had overreacted. I shouldn’t have gotten so angry with him. The truth was, I wasn’t as much angry with him as I was angry with Ren. She had misled me. This wasn’t just some disappearing case. This was her calling Warriors to war.
I cursed and spun around to scowl at her. She dropped her gaze to the wood of the veranda. I should have seen through it. I should have known that none of this would be so simple. Truthfully, I was happy Hogo ran into trouble. When we received word that he had roughed up some bandits, I was a bit relieved that he could easily deal with ruffians, but disappointed that he chose to fight rather than get the full scope of things. He could just as easily have watched that villager be slayed and report it to us, his lords. It would have been painful for him to watch, but such is the life of Warrior. He would’ve learned a valuable lesson on why his path needed to be righteous, needed to be the unfailing sword of the Sacrament.
This village had always had problems with bandits, because the forestry was so heavy around it. Merchants and business owners alike fell victim to ambushes. Women fell victim to rape and trafficking. Men fell victim to death. I had lived in this village in my youth, and I had fought a brand of these bandits. I had lost many friends. I lost my innocence. I had long lost my parents. Ren’s family took care of me though I never lived with them. I would always come by when I was either hungry or I stunk. Other than that, I was out fighting, because I was just some angry punk without a purpose. Then, those bandits kidnapped Ren and gave her to their boss Bojak Manacle from the Land of Cloud. Bojak died horribly by my sword after I had found out what madness he had done to her. She still had the scars- mentally and physically. So did I.
I exhaled deeply and looked to the youths before me. I really shouldn’t have lost my Solace. Solace was key for Warrior. Without Solace, the mind was a frenzy, and a frenzied mind was a useless mind. I shouldn’t have gotten so angry with Hogo. From the moment I saw him, I wanted him as my student, and when I learned that he was an orphan, I had decided to be as a father to him. I saw a lot of myself in him, and I wanted to save him from the mistakes I would make. There was something deep in me that compelled me to take him in. Under his cheerful exterior was the tortured soul of a boy I wanted to cure by teaching him the most important weapon Warrior can have: Love.
“Secretary Ren, do you mind telling us our real mission, please?” I asked with spite.
“Yes,” she spoke quietly, “So sorry. It’s the same as it was twenty years ago. Save the girl whom the bandits have kidnapped.”
My eyes were wide. “Is this girl…related to you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said with a nod.
“She is my daughter with Murasami-yo, the village treasurer.”
“She’s a teenager?”
“17, my lord.”
“Bandits love 17-year-olds,” I grumbled, wiping the cold sweat from my brow.
“They originally became a nuisance three years ago, but now the boss’s son Ota has become rather violent. The ‘missing’ people we reported to you are the ones he’s killed so far. None of our lawmen can defend us. The bandits have very skilled Ronin in their ranks, one of them, their general, is Naga the Blood Hound.”
“The war monger!?” I demanded.
“Yes, he is the boss’s enforcer. At first, they would take shipment of food here and there or rough up some of our men, but then, they began assaulting our women, beating our young men, and now, killing our people. Even infants,” Takata Kengo responded passionately, breaking the Solace that must’ve taken years for him to master.
“So, you all decided to lie to me? Why should I help you, now?”
“Because you’ve already formally taken the assignment,” Ren answered.
“Agreements are broken the moment a false tongue is discovered.”
“My tongue was false only because I knew you would never fight bandits, again. So sorry, but I know you well, my lord. I know how painful it was for you the last time…. To see a girl so…used.”
“And this time, it’s your daughter…”
Her eyes were firm, speaking to me through waves. “Yes, my lord. Our daughter.” Swiftly, she looked to Takata Kengo and Kaya-yo. “Murasami-yo and mine, of course,” she explained.
“Oh, of course,” Kaya-yo replied sarcastically.
“We need your power, Cardinal Lord Lee,” Takata Kengo said urgently.
I raised a hand and nodded. “I understand. We will deal with them. My team and Lady Kaya’s team. We have to report to our respective lands that our mission has gone from a Charlie-ranked mission to an Alpha-ranked mission.”
I looked to Lady Kaya, the white-haired woman with a wide grin on her face. She was just as ferocious as the huge blade she carried.
“Are you still fine with assisting me on this mission?” I asked.
She chuckled. “Of course, Lord Lee. It sounds like a lot more enjoyment’s to be had.”
I turned to the students with their heads in the dirt in shame. “You all can rest easy,” I assured, “Go.”
They scattered after a bow. I, on the other hand, began walking out of the mansion’s complex.
“Where are you going, Lord Lee?” Lady Kaya asked.
“To look for my boy,” I answered.
I sat on the pier, sniveling as I stared out at the ocean. The sky was pitch black and so quiet that even my thoughts seemed loud. I cursed Cocha and cursed Ota and cursed Warrior everywhere. I cursed my father for leaving me to deal with everyone alone. I cursed Sou for vexing my heart. I cursed the Secretary for lying to us. I cursed myself for being so foolish. I should have sacrificed the one villager for the whole village.
I wiped my face and willed myself to be stronger. Cocha had every right to be angry with me. I had come to the realization that I was chalking up to be a failure of a student, and overall, a failure of a Warrior. I should slit my belly.
“There you are,” I heard behind me. Recognizing my cocha’s voice, I swiftly went into a bow with my face on the wood of the pier. He approached and sat next to me with his legs dangling off the pier.
“Come. Sit, Hogo.” Slowly and uncertain, I did as he asked. We were both quiet for a moment, but soon, the guilt overwhelmed me, and I opened my mouth to speak. “You’re a good student. More than a good student, you’re a good person. That’s what’s more important. Wanting to save that villager wasn’t wrong, and if those bandits retaliate, we’ll handle them like you handled them earlier.”
“Cocha, I don’t understand,” I said quietly.
He smiled under his messy hair and looked down. “The real mission is to take out these bandits, Hogo. What you did was what we were going to have to do, anyway. We have to rescue the hostages and either kill or arrest their boss and their enforcer. Leave those two to me and Lady Kaya, understand?” I nodded. “And you won’t be slitting anything,” he added as he playfully punched my shoulder.
I grew sheepish. “How do you always know what it is I’m thinking?”
“You have to build the fences around your mind. Or else, your enemy will always know your next move. Don’t worry about that, now. We’ll begin to seriously train when we return home.”
“No more kata and conditioning?!”
“No more. After today’s report, I know you’re more than ready to learn the sword. You also need the mind of the Warrior. By the time you’re 19, you’ll be the strongest of your peers.”
I shook my head. “No, Bui and Naito are stronger than me, and Missy is just a genius. Soon, she’ll have to go away and learn to tend a household, though.”
“She’s going to hate that. But at the same time, it’s going to make her desirable, indeed.”
“I think Tadashi is fond of her.”
“Yes, I discerned from his mind.”
“Is that your innate ability, cocha?”
“Reading the mind? No. Every Warrior can dig into another’s mind.” I frowned as I thought about that little morsel. “I shouldn’t say it that way. Millenni can dig into a person’s mind.”
“What are Millenni?”
“You don’t know?” he asked with surprise. I shook my head. “It’s what you are. It’s what Bui is. It’s what Naito and Mist are.”
“Is it a condition?”
“It’s a species.”
“Yes. You with the white hair and the blue eyes. Your kind is called the Shiro Millenni. Naito, and your girlfriend, Sou, are Kuro Millenni.”
“Cocha,” I whined.
“I sense your thoughts, Hogo,” he chuckled, “You think about her every day. Why do you think I bring you all news of their exploits? You want to know about her, right?” I nodded, embarrassment apparent on me. He laughed some more before continuing. “Well, the truth is, it’s surprising that you two were such good friends. Shiro and Kuro are two kinds that mix violently.”
“Pardon me, Cocha?”
“Throughout history, every war at its origin was waged because a Shiro and a Kuro were not able to come to an understanding. Even today, they say the leader of the revolution is Shiro, and common knowledge is that the leader of the Land of Pyre is Kuro.”
“The revolution wages war against the Land of Pyre?”
“In a way. The Land of Pyre is becoming the world power, and are therefore the biggest threat to the revolt. I want nothing to do with any of it, but as a Cardinal Lord, I’m going to have to fight against this revolution when the time comes.”
“I don’t think they’re all bad,” I said, remembering Nobu.
“No one is all bad, young Hogo. But, then again, no one is all good. Even myself.”
I nodded. “So, is that why I heal so quickly?”
“And why Bui flies? Naito teleports?”
“Shiro’s abilities tend to be a bit more on the physical side of the spectrum while Kuro’s are that of the mental. Be careful when you fight a Kuro. They can warp your mind and kill you without you ever knowing what happened.”
“The mind? Naito’s is more physical, isn’t it?”
“Kuro’s are especially dangerous because when their mental prowess has gotten so strong, it grows into physical prowess. I don’t know for sure what his ability began as, but I would imagine he could confuse his opponent regarding his exact location, disturb their perception. In his dreams, he’s pushed to the edge, and his adrenaline is pumping. While he can’t teleport consciously, we know he has that ability.”
“It sounds as if Shiro’s are weaker,” I pouted.
“Not by any means. Madoka of old, Savior of the Six Lands, was a Shiro. Shiro’s five senses can be tuned to perfection while developing a sixth sense of intertwining their genki with that of the world's, becoming one with it. Do you know how useful accelerated healing is? Everyone’s going to want to partner with you when Node is necessary.” My stomach dropped when I thought of it. “No, Hogo. I think you’re going to save this world.”
I felt my mouth open from shock.
“I think, even if you aren't the strongest, Hogo, you’re going to be the most formidable Warrior to walk the earth. Bui’s going to need you when he takes over our land.” I smiled, warmed by Cocha’s confidence in me. “Just keep working hard like you have been. I know you’ve been keeping up with your regiment. There’s more control in your movements because of it. Good! Lao isn’t going to know what hit him!”
“Who is the strongest lord in the land, Cocha. Is it you?”
By the way, ‘Cocha’ meant teacher or instructor. Lord Fon Lee was a mentor to me. He scratched his chin. “Now, that’s a tough question, son. Strongest in might or influence?”
“Is there truly a difference?”
“Of course, there is. See, I can be the strongest in influence since I am the Cardinal Lord. However, there are men of this land I do not wish to tangle with if I have the choice.”
“Strength-wise? There was a lord named Axxel. He was a foreigner that came to this land many years ago. He challenged every school, every house, and never lost. Axxel was so heartbroken that there was not a single person capable of bringing him to the brink of death that he hid himself from the world. If he isn’t dead, by now, which I doubt, he is about somewhere, most likely in the vast wilderness of the Fall lands, and that’s where I want him to stay.”
“Is he Millenni?”
Cocha shook his head. “He was something else. Something much stronger.”
“But not human.”
“Was he so strong?”
“I have little confidence that I could give him the battle he wants.”
“That’s hard for me to believe, Cocha. That sounds very much so like a tale for children.”
“Oh, but it isn’t, my dubious boy. He destroyed many a house. Some say he once fought Madoka of Old. That even that the great Titan had to retreat from his might.”
“Then, I too hope he stays hidden away.”
“Now, influence is another problem. Money and reputation both play valuable parts in this. Lords with more money than myself can influence more people. Important people. The lord Deklan is the richest. He is a glorified merchant, young but a clanhead, nonetheless. He can buy at least one thousand mercenaries at the drop of your sheath. The lord Tru has been of the strongest for decades. There is no unmounting him unless through considerable force. Not to mention he has the credentials to become Shogun, but he fancies playing each Shogun to his tune.”
“I see. There are those that will stand in the way of my becoming the greatest lord.”
“Naturally. In the Warrior world, you have a lot in common with almost everyone else. We all want to be the greatest, remembered in time. All you have to do is work hard and defeat them all one by one.”
He stood and I did the same, and then we walked on home.
There was a scream deep in the woods while I patrolled the village with Shina. We looked to each other then ran. Strangely, as we hoofed in the direction where the scream originated from, Bui, Naito, Mist, Tadashi, and Hana joined us. Shina and I looked to them with surprise as to how quickly they had met with us. They must've already been about.
With a wide smile, Tadashi said, “We got restless!”
I looked at Hana as we ran. She was a stern one, I could tell, and she kept close to Tadashi. I turned to see Bui had run on ahead until he was ultimately flying, and in the distance, leaving Kaya-bana's team stupefied. As long as I saw his back, I always felt certain I was going the right way. I had no doubt he’d make a fantastic emperor. His own father was elderly, in his sixties, and there were rumors that he was ill. It seemed he didn’t want this information reaching his people and especially Bui. His main concern for Bui was for him to become the greatest Emperor of the Fall in history, the greatest Warrior on the battlefield, and the greatest man on the surface of the earth. This is why he allowed him to live with normal residents of the land and learn with other apprentices. This is why he kept him abreast on political matters and dealings pertaining to his household. He always bid his son a good learning year and wished the best for him. The emperor was only doting towards his son but firm towards his enemies. It’s why our land was always in contention with the other lands. Pyre, Stone, Cloud were constant combatants throughout the centuries while Sun exercised Isolationism, and the Bloom have been our allies. Like the Pyre, Bloom was a brother land on the same peninsula, but this brother never stabbed us in the back.
“Bandits,” Naito scoffed, running next to me.
“This is more dangerous than I thought,” I said, “Bandits rape and pillage. They have no souls.”
“But they have the Secretary's daughter.”
“Cocha's gotten really serious about this because of it. Apparently, the boss took her as one of his possessions. It’s what bosses do. They wait for the girls in a village to ripen, then they take them. I’m surprised they've waited this long. They usually snatch them at 14 or 15.”
“Well, this is the Secretary’s daughter we're talking about.”
We caught up to Bui, but he was no longer running. No, he stood in place, pale and shaken to the bone as he looked down at the battered and lacerated body of a girl no older than any of us. Her hair was tossed, and her eyes stared to the sky in agony, a silent agony that could no longer be relieved.
Tadashi ran to a bush before he vomited, Hana crying as she patted his back. Mist put a hand to her mouth, aghast with the sight. Naito crouched next to the body and closed the eyes. Shina took ahold of my arm as she fought tears. I myself felt a hate churning inside like molten lava, making me yearn to sew this girl's revenge.
Naito reached into the girl's dobi and pulled out a note with crude writing etched onto it. He read it and scoffed before passing it to Bui. The Prince himself took a deep breath and fought for Solace as he turned from the body and read the note.
“This is their answer to us,” he announced. “They say more will be tortured and killed tonight if ‘Mori-yo' doesn’t surrender, soon.” He turned to me.
“Does it say where they’re located?” I asked.
“You’re not thinking of surrendering yourself, Mori-yo!?” Shina exclaimed.
“Of course, I am.”
“I won’t allow my brother into the hands of trash like these bandits,” Bui refuted sternly.
“We have to if we want to save…what was her name? The secretary's daughter?”
“Asa-yo,” Missy replied.
“Saving Asa-bana and the rest of the village takes precedence,” I said to Bui. “Go tell our lords what is happening, I’ll stall for time until you all arrive.”
“I’m going with you,” Naito said firmly.
“No, they want me alone, right?”
“I'll stay at a distance, but the moment your life is in danger, I’m stepping in, and we’ll look to escape. Understand?”
I nodded and looked to Bui. He was still skeptical and wanted to refuse, but then I smiled to him. “If you’re so worried then hurry up.”
He managed a tortured smirk before he nodded. “Fine. With Naito watching over you, I feel better.” He looked to Tadashi and the girls with a stern expression of certainty. “All agreed? We go inform the lords while Hogo stalls for time?”
“I don’t like it,” Tadashi negated.
“Me neither, why don't only one of us go inform the lords,” Shina agreed.
“I think it’s fine. Acting on our own is against bushido. We report to the lord while a minimum of us stall. The lords will disperse us how they see fit,” Bui answered.
“Your prince is right.” We all looked to Hana with surprise, unsure of how to react to hearing her speak for the first time. Her face was firm, and her posture rock solid. Yes, she was a small queen in the making. “It's honorable that Mori-yo would put himself in danger for the sake of the villagers. It’s only right since it was he who put them in danger in the first place. The lords will be angry that he’s acting on his own, but we don’t know when they'll attack another villager. We have to act now and stop bickering over coddling Number 5. He can handle himself.”
“Ho hooo, Hana-bana! Well said,” I bellowed, “I think you’ve stolen my heart!”
She scoffed with disgust. “In your wildest dreams! Besides, I'm already betrothed.”
“Most princesses are,” Tadashi replied. “She’s right. It’s the only plan we've got, right now, and we need to move fast.”
Bui nodded, handed us the note with the address on it, and took off in his ridiculously swift sprint that became flight. Tadashi and Hana ran off after him before Shina did so after great reluctance. Missy lingered for a bit before turning to follow them.
“Watch each other's backs, you hear,” she ordered. She was gone and the two of us were left there in the dark of the woods, the quiet where doubt and fear nipped at a person's sanity, my sanity.
“What a first mission, huh?” Naito sighed.
“I suppose we had to make up for lost time.”
“Have you heard of Naga before?”
I nodded. “Everybody knows about the man who fought thirty Warrior at the Battle of Torchwood and slayed them all. He’s a warlord."
“What’s he doing working for a bandit boss?”
“He killed his own lord five years ago. He went Ronin, and it looks like we've found him.”
“I don’t know if we’re a match, my friend, but I’ve got your back.”
I smiled. “I know.”
We ran on to the marked place.
I froze in place. My body wouldn’t move, acting on its own, panic coursing through my veins for a reason I couldn’t discern.
“Sou?” my teacher called. I looked around the designated training field just beyond my teacher's yards and at the faces of my teammates. Lady Mira, Lao, and Wong all looked at me with question, wondering what was wrong with me. Even I couldn’t answer them that, but at my core I couldn’t shake the feeling. Lady Mira approached me and put a hand to my shoulder, frowning as she looked me over, ascertaining my condition. “What is it, Sou?”
I shook my head. “I-I don’t know,” I said, putting a hand to my racing heart. “I just feel like someone is going to do something extremely dangerous. I feel….”
She nodded. “Your ability may be manifesting. Who are you feeling? What is it?”
“Fear, my lady. It’s fear…. What did you say Hogo's mission was?”
When I arrived at the mansion, the band of trash was already waiting outside. They began to tease and laugh when I approached, but their presence seemed to prevent me from entering into the home. Looking around the village, I saw I was in a spacious area where the homes were a ways away. Of course, bandits kept their distance from the populace, but this seemed to be a lord’s home that was taken by the fiends. Somehow, I felt a thousand eyes upon me, and I knew villagers were in the wood, waiting to see if I’d surrender peacefully so they can be relatively safe, again.
“Who is your boss?” I demanded.
A buck-toothed ruffian stepped forward with a wily grin on his ugly face, hand on katana hilt. “The boss ain’t going to waste his time on a runt like you. We can chop you up just fine.”
I quickly palmed him and sent him away with the power of my explosive, taking ahold of his sword before he was out of reach. Due to all the conditioning Cocha had me doing, my body was strong enough to withstand the blast. Too bad my opponents couldn’t. Besides, pilfering his blade was an easy way to arm myself. There was a shock amongst them as I held the katana at ready for any challenger. “Why's everybody so angry?” I grinned out, “I was only trying to fix his teeth.”
Someone charged, but he was called off by a voice most intimidating, indeed. Out of the shadow of the homes’ doorway came a tall, solid man with a gruff beard and his thinning hair pulled back into a traditional queue. He wore several layers to his dobi, and his hand rested on the hilt of his katana. His small eyes looked at me, him a brick wall standing atop the home’s veranda. “You are Hogo Mori-yo?” he asked. He didn’t yell but his voice seemed to boom through the air.
“Are you the boss?”
“I am Naga. It is a pity that you are but a boy, but even so, well met.” He stepped down onto the ground and approached me slowly.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked, “Torturing these people? You are a Warrior. You even still look like one. I know you still have bushido!”
“You know nothing, Mori-yo. You are but a babe in the world of wolves. You’re like a pup, anxious to defend your master but not realizing the beast that attacks. So, you tell me. Why did you stop Ota-bana? Why did you become a Cardinal apprentice?”
“Power. I need strength to stamp out the trash like you.”
“What makes me trash?”
“You’ve abandoned your code. You’ve abandoned decency and chose to kill your Lord. Loyalty, honor. It means nothing to you.”
“No. No, it doesn't. In the world of Warrior, we obsess over honor, but to what end? Does honor dictate I kill innocents because my master ordered me this? Or does it dictate I disobey and slit my belly for disobedience? Through complete honor, there is no justice. In the world of Ronin, there is only justice.”
“Hogwash! You create your own self-gratifying justice!”
“The strong survive. We take what we need. We teach others of their own malfeasance. We do these people a justice in terrorizing them. They’re forced to adapt to the cruelty of this world. Have you any idea how many weak villagers I’ve had to slaughter like sheep to a butchering, none of them fighting back with a piss-worth of resolve?”
“Ronin are scum with no code! You answer to no one, so you care for no one! Where is Asa-bana!? Where is the girl you’re abusing, the girl you’re teaching about this cruel world!?”
“Somewhere in the mansion. Strung up, bound, vulnerable to the master's wishes.” I unsheathed the sword. “You do that, you forfeit your life.” I stopped all movement. “Why do you fight, young Mori-yo?”
I grimaced, angling myself into fighting position. “Justice.”
“Lies. I’ll tell you my reason. To instill fear. Fear is the only way to make humanity stronger.”
“Fear destroys hope.”
“Is hope why you fight?”
“I’ve no use for hope. But the people of Kiku-koroni do.”
“I don’t care about them. I care about your reason. I need to know your reason before crossing blades with you.”
“My master teaches us to fight for love. Love will get us through the cruelty.”
“Do you believe that?”
He narrowed his eyes, staring into my very soul with those dark eyes of his. “Now, who’s spouting hogwash?” he asked.
I tried to intervene the moment Hogo touched his katana, but a hand took ahold of my shoulder and kept me in the shadows of the wood that surrounded the village. I turned, scared witless because I heard not a thing in the night, and I saw Cocha looking out to Hogo and Naga with the stern expression of severity, a rare face, indeed, for him. “Let him face the consequences of his actions,” was all he said.
He let go of my shoulder and folded his arms. Lady Kaya and her team came up behind. Missy stood next to Cocha and Bui descended from the canopy of the trees. I wanted to argue, but when Cocha was so serious, there was no point in refuting anything he decreed. So, we would watch to see if Hogo lived or died.
“I believe what my Cocha says is the truth, but it isn’t yet in my heart,” Hogo answered him.
“I don’t know what love is.”
“There are four kinds according to your Sacrament: love for family, love for neighbor, love for everyone unconditionally, and love for your mate. I understand why your master would say that mastery of those four elements of love can cure the world of injustice. Love compels man to do right.”
I looked at everyone with me to see them just as anxious as I.
“Are you sure, Lee-yo?” Lady Kaya asked.
“Absolutely.” My stomach churned with anxiety as I fixed my gaze back on Hogo.
“However, such thinking is idiotic,” Naga continued, “In this world, such thinking is an impossibility. You know it to be true yourself.”
“I know you’re lost to the world. You’ve lost your way. The moment your vision clouded, your life was forfeit.”
"You think you'll win?"
"I'll give it all I got!" Hogo unsheathed his sword completely and charged for Naga without hesitation. I moved to help, but Cocha's hand again held me back. Hogo swung his sword, and with expert efficiency, Naga deflected it and returned a blow. Hogo managed to roll backwards and regroup before the veteran sent a barrage of strikes at him. He did well in seeing the attacks and blocking, but we all sensed he was falling into Naga's trap.
“Cocha, please!” I begged, “Hogo has never been strong!”
“Hush! Watch!” Naga’s sword hit violently against Hogo’s, the difference in strength obvious. Hogo was knocked off balance, stumbling to the side before Naga slashed his back. A spray of blood sent the bandits mad with cheer as Hogo went to the ground in pain. He winced, yet fought to stand and grab his blade, his wound already healing. He readied himself. I had never seen Hogo's blood before.
Naga narrowed his eyes in suspicion before unleashing another attack that Hogo could only do his best to defend against. Then, the inevitable, yet again. Naga’s slash cut open Hogo's chest. After the successful attack, he thrust forward and stabbed Hogo through the belly. The bandits whooped in glee.
Lady Kaya stepped to Cocha, seeing the dread on all of us apprentices. Even she was distressed. “Isn’t this enough, Lee-yo!? You’re going to lose your apprentice!”
He kept solid, causing me to look out at my teammate as he stood to his feet, again, healing slower and slower. Even still, every time he was knocked down, he kept standing.
“Why persist?” Naga asked, a bit shaken by the sight.
Hogo raised his sword and spat blood to the dirt. “You can’t kill me with just that.”
The bandits were all quiet, now, fear spreading among them.
“Is he some kind of devil,” they asked one another.
“Look at his ears! He must be!”
“How many times has he died, now!?”
They all began calling Hogo ‘monster’ and throwing rocks at him. One stone hit his head and the wound barely healed. He was close to his end.
Hogo shook off the daze and ran forward against Naga, again, showing not an ounce of trepidation. How did he do it? How did he always enter into a match he had no chance of winning and just kept on lashing back? How did he just keep on fighting, taking the beating?
He gives it all he’s got. That’s how.
Hogo parried Naga's slash and spun to swing his own slash across his opponent's thigh. Naga’s face contorted with the pain of the cut, but he kept defending against Hogo’s violent onslaught. I saw the desperation in his slashes, but oddly, it seemed like his movements were getting sharper, his slashes stronger, like he was progressively growing comfortable with the sword.
Naga noticed and attempted to create distance, but his cut leg prevented swift movement. In the moment Naga's pain distracted him, Hogo tossed an explosion at the man and let it blow while he ran through the explosion and drop kicked him. Naga stumbled back, shocked by the sudden bomb, but he regrouped swiftly. Not swift enough. Hogo was behind him and cut the Achilles tendon on his right root. The man went down to his knee with a yelp but still turned and slashed at Hogo to the best of his ability, cutting Hogo's face across the bridge of his nose.
Blood gushed from Hogo's face, but he remained resolute against his opponent. The pain made Naga pant. Exhaustion was Hogo's biggest foe. They stared each other down.
“I’ve underestimated you greatly. You’re in excellent shape. Your swordplay could use some attention, but your movements are too fast for an old man like me. Cardinal Lord Fon Lee of the Fall was wise in conditioning your movements first.”
Hogo leapt forward to finish it but Naga grunted as he parried away Hogo's attack and planted his sword into Hogo's side. Hogo screamed a gut-wrenching scream of pain that I had never heard from him before. It broke my heart to hear it. I looked to my team to see if I was the only one struggling through the fight. Missy was holding her breath, and Bui was crying with frustration. Tadashi watched seriously and Shina crouched with her head in her legs.
Naga pulled his sword from Hogo and whirled around to do the same to the other side, but it was deflected. Hogo stumbled back and fell to the ground, bleeding out heavily. His body was too exhausted to heal such a deep wound. For a long time, he lied there as if he had finally breathed his last breath. I could see his eyes were open, staring into the sky wearily. Sweat wet him along with the droves of blood he leaked. So much blood, so much more than I had ever seen from anyone prior. He couldn't possibly survive, or even think to continue this battle. Before I knew it, I had begun to pray he forfeited, to pray he lose this match so we could intervene without being the cause for his losing face. He was at the pit of defeat. Still...he forced himself to his feet, gathered his bearings, then despite better logic and sanity, he charged Naga.
One slash. Blocked. Another parried. Naga thrusted forward to end Hogo, but Hogo forsook his wound and spun around the attack with a speed Naga couldn't see. Nor could he react because his head was already rolling beside his body. Soon, the body fell backwards and Hogo reached down and picked up the head. He held it up high for all to see, then he screamed his war cry. The bandits all went for their swords, angry and shamed with their loss. Hogo threw the head to one of them and turned to the man that approached him, applauding. He was a broad man, arrogant with his numbers. Hogo raised his blade and the bandits began to surround him. His eyes were barely open, and he couldn’t catch his breath, but he wouldn’t relent.
The man was definitely their boss. One could tell by how no one stepped in his way as he unsheathed his sword and stepped to Hogo. “Admirable, boy. Too bad you won’t live to enjoy your feat.”
He swung his sword down, and I felt a gust of wind. Somehow, there was no one beside me, anymore, and Cocha was between Hogo and the bandit boss. It was the first time I saw Cocha unsheathe his sword.
Every one of the bandits were shocked to see such a sudden appearance and looked to their boss for the answer.
“A-And who are you!?”
“Cardinal Lord Fon Lee of the Fall!” Cocha forced the man's sword away in a blur of a slash that took his head off at the same time. He turned to us. “Kill them all!”
We rushed out of the wood, waging war against the bandits.
I slid to Hogo and caught him before he hit the ground. His consciousness was all but gone and his wound was still bleeding. I laid him down, starting first aid, but Cocha crouched down, digging in his pouch for materials.
“I’ve got this, Bui,” he said, “Go save Asa-yo.”
I nodded and jumped to flight over the fray, forcing myself to stay in the air long enough to land on the veranda. Two men rushed me, and I answered them in kind with evasion along with attacks to their crotches. I took one of their short swords and stabbed him in the back before ducking under the other's slash and sticking the short blade into his throat. Both were shocked, but even their deaths weren’t enough to quell my rage. I yanked it out and ran into the mansion.
All was quiet since all the men were outside fighting. It wouldn’t be too difficult to search the home other than the fact that there were many rooms to check. In a matter of ten minutes, I found the room where I heard hoarse breathing then slid the door open quickly. What I saw horrified me.
A chain hung from the ceiling, attached to the collar gripping around her throat. A chain hung from the ceiling, attached to the shackle around her ankle. She hung lopsided, her head about three inches from the ground, her big toe from the dangling leg grazing the ground occasionally in a struggle to ease the pressure off her throat. She was completely naked and sweating. Many cuts about her body bled and her battered face was nearly completely covered by her rustled hair. She noticed me come, but she made no move to react.
I stepped in and she groaned. Taking another step, that groan turned into a whine. Another step and that whine turned into weeping.
“I am Prince Bui of the Empire of the Fall. I have come to free you in the name of my master, Cardinal Lord Fon Lee.” Slowly, her head inched to face me. It took her worn eyes several seconds to look at me and see it was true, and once she saw that, the crying became worse as she began to wail. I rushed to take ahold of her chains, and looking back to the doorway, I confirmed no one was around. I took ahold of the collar, and with a power I told no one of, I ripped it from her neck. I did the same with her shackle. She was free, crying in fetal position. I took my top robe off, wrapped her in it, and picked her up into my arms. “This will never happen to you, again.”
Her crying froze for just a moment before she continued on and her head rested in the nook of my neck. I held her tighter and ran for the escape.
Lady Mira walked into the house with a long document after reading it several times outside. We all watched her curiously since this was strange behavior for her.
It was dark outside, and a messenger delivered the document with haste before riding off to return to their duty. We were all exhausted from a hard day of Node training but even my mind was mush since my ability had begun to manifest. For some reason, I would spontaneously connect with someone in the world, their intense emotion, and suffer. It was always fear or despair, rarely happiness. I hated the curse I’d been born with.
Sitting in the living area on the home's couches, the three of us watched our teacher walk to us and sit amongst us. She took a deep breath and smiled. “Lee-yo's mission turned out to be an Alpha-ranked mission to rid a village of its bandits,” she informed.
We all sat forward with sudden interest. “How did they fare?” Lao asked.
“It was a success. Lee-yo killed their boss and Kaya-yo’s team assisted in eradicating the bandits.”
We looked to each other and nodded with a bit of satisfaction. “Easy enough. So, they had help, then?” Wong replied.
Lady Mira nodded. “Any outstanding details?” I asked shyly, “What of…what of Hogo?”
Lao and Wong looked at me with judgmental eyes, but I stood my ground. Soon, they conceded and allowed their own curiosity to show as they looked to Lady Mira for the answer. She sighed and rolled the document up. “He's been bedridden for a week.”
“What!? Why!?” Lao demanded.
“Apparently, he sustained heavy wounds during his duel and nearly passed on.”
My heart seemed to skip a beat. I felt panic, fear, yes, fear that I would lose my friend, the friend I loved. “What now, Cocha!?” I begged, “How is he, now!?”
“The report says he’s healing every day, and his energy is revamping. He's a healer, you know.”
“That’s just like him to be the only one injured to such an extent,” Wong scoffed.
“He’s too weak. Lord Lee should have left him at the orphanage,” Lao muttered.
I shook off their negativity. “Does your message tell of the circumstances, my lady? How did he sustain such wounds?”
She smiled softly. “He charged up to the bandits lair alone and challenged them.”
“What!?” Even Lao and Wong were out of their skins.
“He dueled with Naga the Blood Hound and decapitated him at length,” Cocha continued.
“Naga the warlord!?” I asked, purely dumbfounded.
“Yes, he dueled an infamous war monger and won,” Lady Mira replied, “Lee-yo has not trained them in the sword, yet, and Mori-yo defeated a veteran in his first duel as Warrior. Amazing!”
I sat back, hugging my legs to my chest to hide the wide smile on my face. Truthfully, I was jealous of the fame he would receive when this news spread, knowing it would outshine all the accolades I worked hard to accrue.
“That's not possible,” Lao refuted, “There’s some mistake. So sorry, my lady, but you must have read that report wrong.”
“I have spies in high places copying those reports, Lao. I doubt these are lies. The truth is that young Mori-yo wasn’t a mistake. What Lee-yo saw that day was true.”
“He killed someone,” I said softly.
“Yes, they all did. They completely wiped out the bandits. It seemed Lee-yo had forced everyone to watch Mori-yo's duel, surely to motivate them to do what had to be done.” She giggled, surely missing Lord Lee.
“Naga the Blood Hound. The Warrior that killed thirty alone in one battle,” Wong said to the floor. “Killed by little Hogo.”
I stood and bowed to them. “I’m going to go to bed, now. Please, excuse me.” I felt their eyes on me, so I kept composed, but when I closed my door and got into bed, I cried out of relief, happy Ho-luv was growing strong, but so sad that he might grow past me, never needing me.
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