Bellona’s sword whipped around and caught Michiko a stinging slap on the forearm, nearly making her drop her own blade.
“You see?” Bellona said, retreating out of reach. “Your simple bladework is out of practice. You don’t want to be like Takeshi, do you? His craft is beautiful—even I have to admit it—but ask him to carve sigils while actually fighting, and he’s almost useless. Would you have been able to capture the Golden Lord, if Lavinia hadn’t been with you?”
Michiko’s breath caught. She shook out her fingers and bowed her head to conceal the reaction. “I would have done my best,” she said. That much, at least, she could be sincere about. It wasn’t until after his execution that she’d discovered he was her grandfather—along with all the other things his spirit had claimed were true.
“It’s a pity I wasn’t there,” Bellona mused. She returned her practice blade to the rack and began stripping off her padded armor, shaking out her short, sweat-soaked hair. “I know he hadn’t used a blade in forty years, so defeating him wouldn’t have been an impressive feat of arms . . . but still, think of the glory! And it would have been so symmetrical.”
Michiko thought she knew Mertikan idioms inside and out, but if “symmetrical” was slang for anything, she hadn’t heard it before. “What do you mean?”
Bellona’s smile was toothy. “With my previous life.”
What would it be like, remembering past lives? Feeling the weight not only of your ancestors’ expectations, but your own past examples? Whether you remembered success or failure, the weight of it would drag you down. She preferred having her memories fade in between lives.
If only a certain ancestor would do the same.
You should tell her.
Mertikans sneered at the Kakutan birthright, seeing ancestor communion as backward-looking instead of a spur to future accomplishments. Because of that, Michiko kept quiet about her own rituals, especially around true Mertikans like Bellona. But this connection to the Golden Lord . . . she ought to report it.
One glance at Bellona, though, told her now was not the time. Bellona had drawn herself up to her full height, chin tilted so she could look down at Michiko. An instant’s thought showed Michiko her mistake. “What did you do in your past life?” she asked dutifully.
Bellona nodded in satisfaction. “You’ve heard about the Battle of Daigyo? I was the bladecrafter with the Fourth Cloud Legion. New to my posting, and nobody expected anything of me—but I broke the shield over the enemy command post and used the Eagle’s Talon sigil to drag their leader out onto open ground.”
The Battle of Daigyo. Where the Golden Lord’s youngest sister Ishihime had blocked the Mertikan advance on the Kakutan capital . . . until a young Mertikan bladecrafter killed her and the army splintered in panic. Michiko remembered Ishihime’s body, crusted with blood from the fatal wound, because she had demanded to see her sister before the priests began the funeral preparations—
Bile rose in Michiko’s throat. Not my sister. His. The Golden Lord’s. Just like the memory wasn’t hers.
But the pieces clicked into place. Bellona . . . she was Aelia Tullus, the bladecrafter who broke the Kakutan resistance at Daigyo. It wasn’t the end of the war, but some said it was the moment when the end became inevitable.
Michiko had gone rigid, her practice armor only half-removed. Clearly disappointed that her tale hadn’t gotten the admiration she expected, Bellona peered in annoyance at Michiko. “What is wrong with you today?”
“I—I have to go,” Michiko stammered. Without even pausing to shed the rest of her armor, she fled.
Once more the flags flew and the attendants stood in uniformed ranks at the docks, waiting to welcome another new arrival. This time, however, the warder at Ojo’s side was not Kensuke but Penelope, splendid in a long gown of Vanian blue.
She raised one calloused hand to shade her eyes, watching the Whitewing Ibis approach. Twaa-Fei was passing below a scattering of minor islands too small for habitation, and the light kept shifting as the city drifted in and out of shadow. “You said that you know this young man?” she asked.
Ojo nodded, tipping his face up to the sun. “We even come from the same town. Our families have been friends for more than a generation.” He hadn’t expected, when the Bright Chamber reassigned his previous junior warder to Tsukisen, that they would send him someone familiar as a replacement. With...