The Golden Lord of Kakute sat in his cell, tending the flame of his spirit.
For forty years, his life had been reduced to a cell not four yards to a side, and a hallway beyond. Guards came with food, left with waste, and that was his whole world.
His last true visitor—the empress of Mertika—had come most of a decade ago. She’d regaled him with how Kakute was thriving under the empire, its children adding to the might of her navy—and of how soon his people’s warlike ways would be but a shameful memory. Her cruel smile was burned into his mind like an unending sigil. But she’d failed to break his spirit on that last visit, as she’d failed before.
The sound of a swinging door and hammering rain stole his attention away from his nightly exercises. He stood to watch a guard in a rain-drenched cloak walk inside.
The flash of a sigil filled the room, and with uncanny speed, the newcomer’s blade slashed across the necks of both guards. The two slumped to the floor, dead.
She pulled keys from one guard’s belt and unlocked the Golden Lord’s cell.
“Quick, change into the uniform,” she said. “There’s a cart just outside and to the left. The pass-phrase is ‘remembrance.’”
She swung the door open. For a moment the Golden Lord thought he was dreaming.
But this was real. He traded clothes, and as he strapped on one of his jailer’s side-swords, an emptiness more painful than hunger filled him once more. He’d lived his young life by the blade, and now he might have the chance to turn it to rescue his people.
The Golden Lord cut the sigil Enduring Mountain to refresh his stamina. With a surge of golden light, he was flush with energy, more alive than he had felt in ages. The blade nearly called for him to do more, but instead he resheathed the sword. There was little time.
“Keep the cloak up, and don’t answer anyone but Toku, the driver. He’s wearing a golden sword pin. Now go!”
“What about you?”
“One guard in, one guard out. Anything else draws suspicion. I’ve made my choice.”
She chose to die. For him. She’d seen perhaps twenty years. Old enough to be dangerous, young enough to throw away her life for a history she never knew.
“What is your name, child?”
Her voice shook. “I am Hideyama no Eriko.”
Hideyama. She was from the south. He remembered those mountains. That view. “I will remember you, Eriko.”
And then he beat his escape. Hood up and head down, he was indistinguishable from the other guards, especially in this downpour.
Fifty yards into the woods, he saw a blurred glint of moonlight on gold.
The sword pin.
“Remembrance,” he called into the stormy night. A horse stirred. A man his age, maybe sixty-five years, emerged from the brush to wave him over to a hidden cart.
They came for her quickly. Bad luck, poor timing . . . the reason didn’t matter.
The first two she caught by surprise.
Then two more. One caught her across the arm before she ran him through.
Minutes later four came at once.
They could not be allowed to know that he’d escaped. He needed time.
As the guards advanced, hiding behind pole arms, she cut the air, forming sigils for fire. Breadth.
“For Kakute,” she said, and the world went white.
The two made their way through the muddied forest and onto the road, cloaks pummeled by the rain.
Toku explained the rest of the plan. “There is a Kakute ship waiting, nestled in the mantle of the island. The captain is loyal. Stay in the hold; I’ll take care of everything. We can make Twaa-Fei within a week. From there, we rally the people.”
The Golden Lord clapped Toku on the shoulder. “I wish I could see the empress’s face when she receives news of what you’ve done here today. You make your ancestors proud.”
An explosion rocked the cart.
The Golden Lord looked back. A plume of unnatural fire erupted fifty feet into the air. Then an entire corner of the castle collapsed, spreading a wave of dust.
The driver nodded. “For Kakute. We must hurry.”
Oda no Michiko watched the navigator of the Silver Sparrow at work in the pink skies of the morning.
The navigator’s blade was a plain but functional greatsword. She guided the ship with practiced grace, her blade carving great sweeping sigils in the air that wrapped around her in all directions, igniting in shimmering white upon completion.
When the navigator was satisfied with the ship’s course and the strength of the sigil keeping it aloft, she finished her form and nodded to Michiko, yielding the aft deck. She’d continue her work on the foredeck while Michiko drilled.
Michiko drew her own sword—a slim...