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Burning Sunrise

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  The place was so quiet he felt like he had to tiptoe. The European Citadel he’d visited while being nothing more than an apprentice had been much different. True, it had also been a huge drafty castle and he much more preferred the low and sprawling structure he was seeing now, but even the thick stone and lone torches hadn’t been enough to dry the spirit of the place. Not many swords there, but it had been warm. Creating the illusion of crowds, it had been almost a family even outside of the confusing ties, both real and born out of the fire of the battle. The floor under his feet now was creaking like a hanging bridge in the fog. And he wasn’t sure why.

  It wasn’t like the Citadel was abandoned. He would’ve never been sent there if it was. The lights were twinkling, both electric and candles. And, unless he was mistaken, some gas lamps. He glanced through one of the very few doorways, noting the shut doors and not liking the implications. True, he’d arrived several hours too early, his supposed ride marked for the early morning, but still. There should’ve been someone.

  Stepping out on in the open night, he tried to find the moon. The unnatural yellow of the artificial lights, on top of the dripping silence, was unnerving him and he needed something familiar to help him clear his mind. Too bad his luck had abandoned him a few hours ago since a careful look around let him know he’d hit a new moon to arrive at his new home. In the distance, under heavy white clouds hanging ominously on black sky, he saw the skeleton of a huge tree that stood like a guardian of the desert behind him. Or like a warden.

  He shook his head. No time for thoughts like that. He had a job to do and he was determined to ace it. Of course, first he had to find the other participants. Seriously, how did a huge group of swords manage to hide without a trace ? Which, of course, brought a different thought to light. How many people he’d be responsible for. It wasn’t like he needed peace anyway. He wasn’t sure what they’d thought, assigning him to a heavily populated Citadel with some old swords, really old, and a previous sage who’d been there for years and years. How was he supposed to fill the shoes of such a presence ? True, everyone had been evasive when he’d asked what, exactly, had happened to the old Saniwa, but sages left all the time. The silence, on the other hand, the silence was bothering him more than he would ever admit. Back inside it was, he guessed. The night was too cold and he was tired.

 

   A soft knock was what woke him up from his uncomfortable slump in one of the huge chairs. He’d looked around but with nobody to point towards his rooms, he’d gotten lost pretty fast and the moment he’d seen a vaguely comfortable-looking surface, he’d dropped in exhaustion. Now, judging by the grey light seeping through the window, it was early morning and someone was knocking on the door. Based on the sound, he guessed the other person really hoped they wouldn’t be heard. Too bad. His neck hurt, he was hungry and cold, and he needed a soak in hot water. A telling rasp in his throat let him know the drafts in the ornate room he’d slept in had done their job – he was willing to bet he was already sick. Feeling his joints pop and creak like he was around the same age as half the swords in the Citadel, he rose slowly. Yep, definitely sick. Talk about a headache.

 - Come in… - Trying to force himself to look presentable ended just about as achievable as he thought it would, but he still made an effort. He was going to live and breathe and eat and work along these people. First impressions were everything, after all. Smoothing down the wrinkles on his shirt, he did his best to clear his throat as quietly as possible and turned to the door.

  The stranger who walked in was…about as tall as him and almost completely covered in a white cloth that just about touched the ground. And that just about summed it up. The hood went so low that he couldn’t really see anything of the other man’s face. Although he appeared to be wearing some kind of dark jacket and grey trousers set that looked way too formal for cold and humid mornings, especially since he himself was feeling all wrinkled and gross from the long trip and sticky air. He sat a little straighter.

 - Master. – And then the man bowed deeply, not saying a word more. He waited…and waited. When no other introduction followed, he stood up, trying really hard not to be too obvious about pressing on his crumpled clothes, and reached out.

 - It’s an honour to be here. I am the new Saniwa here and… - And he still had no idea how his new friend looked like because the man simply wasn’t raising his face. – And you are… ?

  He honestly had no idea. The previous sage hadn’t been reporting frequently or diligently enough but they’d let the woman do whatever she wanted because her army was legendary when it came to getting things done. It had been agreed on that she deserved a bit more leeway all things considered. The woman had been brilliant, or so he’d heard.

 - Yamanbagiri Kunihiro, Master. – Oh, he’d heard that name. Almost giddy that he’d finally found something relatively familiar, he did his best to keep his smile and excitement on acceptable levels. Judging by how quiet the man was, he probably wouldn’t like loud proclamations. Still, one had to give recognition where it was due.

 - Kunihiro ? – That’s it, keep it calm. – I’ve heard a lot about you. Only good things, of course, - The man twitched. He would’ve missed it if he wasn’t staring, right at that moment, to see any signs of…something. All he wanted was a face to pin to the name he’d heard so much about. No such luck so far. But that odd full-body twitch…Was he shy ? It would explain a lot and it meant he would have to be extra careful not to poke too much. What were they thinking, assigning him to a full Citadel ? – and how great of a captain you are…?

  He hadn’t intended it to end up as a question but the silence was getting to him. So far, no other swords had made their presence known. Maybe they were out…? Without a sage…? The silence dragged, heavy and uncomfortable, and he wondered if his entire stay would be like that. Talk about expectations.

 - Thank you, Master. – No casual conversation, then. Especially since the warrior in front of him was still hiding his face.

 - Is there anyone else here or…? – Now he moved. It was just a little sway on his feet and if it weren’t for the breezy curl of the cape, he wouldn’t have even noticed it. But he did.

 - Yes, Master. – And then he spun on his heels, matching out of the room, leaving him to run and try to catch up. From all the things he’d heard of that particular Citadel, he’d never stumbled upon even rumours that the swords were rude.

  He’d seen the previous sage with her little army a couple of times before, on events, and the impression he’d gotten was…distance. She’d always had her First Unit with her, all swords of renown beauty and warriors of undisputed skill, but they never spoke with anyone, not even between themselves. While the Saniwa had been flocking like a butterfly, her silent guards had stood by the far wall, a strange still image of watercolour, gold and steel. He had been younger then, sixteen and barely an apprentice, but he’d sat by the opposite wall and tried to guess who the warriors were before checking their names on the lists.

  First Unit. A sacred sword that used to exist only for blessings and purification. A warrior’s last gift to his own. A Tenka Goken.  A sword so old his skill and experience would be imperative for a smooth battle. A Naginata that was a collective image of a whole class of swords. And their captain, nothing more than a copy that had reached the glory of a masterpiece and was known to have cut a yokai in half. He’d been starstruck. And now…Now he was almost just as amazed. Four years later, and he was still nothing but a child compared to those warriors. And he knew it. Judging by Yamaubagiri-Kunihiro’s silence, the man knew it, too. Damn.

  Back to the present, his new companion was almost out of the corridor and he was still trying to catch up. Curse those long legs on said companion. Through a maze of empty hallways they went, and again, and then some. Finally, when he was all nice and properly lost, his guide slipped through a door that masqueraded as another wall panel and they ended in a garden completely hidden from the outside.

  First thing he saw was the snow. Soft and slow it fell, into huge clumps of snowflakes that seemed to obscure the world for a moment. Why was it even snowing ? It was barely September, why was there snow…

  The second thing he saw were all the people. Swords. Sword warriors ? People. There were just so many of them…True, he’d seen the reports on how many residents would be currently present at the Citadel but he hadn’t been able to really imagine the sheer amount of men who would…stare at him with empty eyes. His attention jumped from face to face, not really finding anything remotely welcoming. Well, if that wasn’t bad, he didn’t know what was. He’d known them for exactly thirty seconds and they already didn’t want him there. Which was stupid of him to think, he knew it.

  They had lost their sage recently, the woman having just disappeared from the face of the earth, so the natural distrust was normal. He was the stranger. For some reason, the only warrior who held his eyes was standing all the way in the back, leaning on a wall. Pale eyes met his and he had the sudden realization he had been measured and found lacking. The man didn’t back down, or blink, and he looked away first. Picking one’s battles was an important strategy they taught in every class. He was just being smart. And it definitely wasn’t because the stranger looked like he’d observe slaughter with the same disinterested expression.

  He looked back at his guide but Yamanbagiri Kunihiro had disappeared. Just melted in the painfully bright snowy morning. Great. Okay. So, what did one do when facing their shiny new army who they were supposed to lead properly and protect the fabric of time itself ? Their unnatural stillness and heavy silence was not helping, that was for sure. Were they expecting…a…speech…? They weren’t, were they ? Would they ? He was standing on a porch, everyone else on the frozen grass looking up at him. Except for a few warriors whose eye would be on the same level as his with him a couple of steps up, how was that even possible… He swallowed. He could do this. He’d been an apprentice for long enough, had studied for even longer, he could do this. And it was a learning experience, wasn’t it ? He would learn from them, they would learn from him. It would be...a child with bright blue hair and a huge hat made half a step forward to him and he almost opened his mouth to greet him, children were precious no matter their pasts…A mutual…The man beside the child reached like a lightning, grabbing him by the back of the shirt without even looking down or moving otherwise, and pulled him back to his body…Experience. Yeah…The child looked up but the man didn’t move, eyes still almost meeting his but not quite. The little one gave up after a second and settled against his carer’s legs. He was an optimist.

  He took a deep breath and smiled, hoping it didn’t show his nerves. Hesitation, he thought, was okay. Fear was not. He was supposed to be leading those men, making crucial decisions and taking care of them. And, in the end, he had no reason to be afraid. He’d heard only good things about this Citadel. The little ones looked a bit anxious but he considered it normal. He was a stranger and they were children. The adults were a touch more worrying but he wouldn’t let some natural distrust force him to behave the wrong way. And maybe there was no need for a speech. Just an introduction and hope that the conversation would go somewhere.

 - Hello, gentlemen. My name is… - A tall man in the front opened his mouth to say something and he changed the direction, just in case. – I mean, I am going to be the new Saniwa here. I think there was some mix up with the arrival time and… - He tried for a laugh but when nobody joined, or spoke, or moved, he decided to pick his battles. – Yeah. It’s nice to meet you all. I will be at your care and – Should he say it ? He’d been told not to, even when asking specifically about the dynamic he would be supposed to fall into, and had been actively discouraged from building that kind of relationship. Oh, well. Some help those lessons had been so far. – And I will be at your service. It’s an honour. – And then he bowed.

  Which had probably been a mistake but it had seemed a fitting end of his tiny declaration. And, well, he would be at their service, that was what it was all about. He was there to make sure they fulfilled the goal they were summoned for with minimum damage and optimal speed and effectiveness. All he had to  do was help from the sides. Yes.

 - The honour is all ours, Master. – He raised his head to find the tall man who had almost interrupted him closer and with such a rigid posture he could feel his own spine hurt. – My name is Heshikiri Hasebe and I will be your attendant for the time being. Allow me to show you to your quarters, here, this way…

  He had no other option than to comply, stealing one last look at his shiny new army. Which still hadn’t moved or spoken or, probably, blinked. He added it to mental list of things to work on and chased after the warrior showing him his new life.

 

  A few hundred twists and turns or so and he stood in the middle of his rooms. Or, more like the Saniwa’s rooms. Because this was definitely not empty living space.

 - Not to be rude, - He paused. Swords took pride in their names, right ? Especially when there was more than one created by the same master smith. So, following that logic, the appropriate way to address his other new friend would be… - Heshikiri, but…

  And he trailed off. That had been a mistake. He’d turned too fast, he hadn’t been supposed to see it, but the man’s face had contorted into something not too happy just for half a second before smoothing out again in his bland obviously forced expression. New strategy. Ask everyone how they wanted to be addressed. Which was basic human decency, what had gotten into him…

 - Yes, Master ? – Again with the straight back and shoulders.

 - Can I call you Hasebe ? Is that okay ? Because, obviously, I am a stranger here and it would take time for me to get to know each other and I really don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable and also… - Rambling on purpose was a technique that had worked not one or two times. It made people feel better because it made him look nervous. Which he was, close to terrified, but they really didn’t need both sides to stare at each other in mute horror. It wouldn’t be productive. So he swallowed his nerves and soldiered on.

  And, surprisingly, it seemed to work.

 - Hasebe. Is this the previous sage’s quarters ? – The warrior looked around like he was seeing the place for the first time.

 - Yes, Master.

 - Is there anything with sentimental value here that I shouldn’t touch ? – Because he was itching to clean the rooms out. There was too much dark wood and incense. He could feel the sweetness sliding down his tongue and almost making him gag. The windows were shut, locked unless he was mistaken, and the mix of smells was getting to his head. It was just so…ornate. Heavy dark fabrics, heavy dark furniture. Dark wooden floors, well, nothing he could do about those. Mirrors, mirrors everywhere. And behind a just as dark shoji panel…

  Well, it had been a woman. The huge bed was to be expected. And so was the sheer amount of cushions. He had sisters, after all.  The fabrics hanging from the ceiling, draping the floor and walls…That was a bit too much. And while the nauseating perfume was clinging to every surface, it was exceptionally strong here. He stepped back before he did something even more disgraceful and faceplanted in front of his new attendant.

  Who was studying him with carefully veiled interest. He felt measured and evaluated. Only, unlike the man who had obviously found him lower than the earthworms and cockroaches earlier, Heshikiri Hasebe did not show even a hint of the conclusions he had reached. And that was times and times worse than simple disdain.

  What was everyone’s problem ? True, he was new and a stranger and here to take the place of the person who, based on what he’d been studying throughout almost his entire life, was supposed to be those men’s everything, but this was getting too much. Of course, if he had to be honest with himself, he would agree that that bravery was all coming from the fact that it was one sword staring at him, and not fifty. Or five. Or, to be fair, two.

  He waited.

 - Of course not, Master. This is your space now, only let us know what you would like removed or added and we will take care of everything. – And then he bowed, keeping the position for far too long. – Anything you want.

 - Okay… I actually don’t… - He couldn’t finish because the door crashed open. He didn’t scream. He definitely didn’t squeak. He didn’t make a shrill, inhuman noise. He just jumped, almost punched himself in the face and tripped on his own shoelaces.

  For a terrible half a second he was sure he would make it. He knew he would. He was a trained fighter, he knew how to keep his balance and not…

  He felt the impact rattle his brain in his skull and the pain run down every nerve, forcing his toes to curl. Damn it. Damn. Damn. Everything hurt. And Hasebe wasn’t even trying to help. The man was still standing, looking down at him with wide eyes while he was kneeling on the floor trying to figure out if his head was in one piece.

  Life was blurry and after a few moment, when his head cleared enough, he had the random thought if that was the new record for shortest term of a Saniwa. Because the brain damage was probably a good enough reason to be kicked out. He spat out the low table corner that had ended in his mouth and tried to figure out if he had all his teeth. Maybe not. Actually, judging by the dripping red down the silk on the floor, he probably didn’t. It felt like any possible teeth he had had had ended up in his eyeballs. His brain still bouncing in his skull, he tried to stand back up.

  Bad idea. Good thing the damned bed had actual posts and he managed to pull himself up on the second try. Blood still running down his face and in his mouth, he squinted at the newcomer and tried not to glare at the man who had called himself “an attendant” but who had also just stood there while he had smashed his face in a wooden table. Jerk.

  What was by the door was a…Konnosuke. He hadn’t met that one before, based on the red markings, but it was probably the resident helper. He knew they were supposed to be kind creatures, knowledgeable, always there. He stood there, red all over his front, Hasebe two metres away and obviously not in a hurry to do anything, and the local assistant and link to the Guild had chosen that exact moment to appear.

 - Sage ? – He made a sound of vague agreement. Anything else felt like it would end up with his brain dripping from his nose to the table he’s bitten into. He didn’t dare even to nod. – We have orders.

  They had what ? But he had literally just gotten there. Also, brain damage. Plus, he was getting the feeling the entire citadel hated him on principle. Of course, he did his best not to forget the brain damage. His lack of experience would definitely not help his cause. Konnosuke obviously wasn’t noticing the hints of brain damage, too.

  He gurgled a little, hoping it could convey his confusion, pain, brain damage and disagreement. Obviously he should’ve added some vomiting, too, because the little fox creature just continued.

 - Ikedaya Inn. It’s a crucial point in history and it is pretty often the main point of conflict. – Didn’t he know.

 - I am a bit…I will need… - He coughed on the blood running in his mouth. – Time…The unit… - The world tilted a little and he gripped the bedpost a little tighter. – I can’t pick…

  The good thing was the pain had dropped to a dull throb in his entire face. The bad thing was…He could barely focus and his hands were almost slipping on the smooth wood.

 - The previous Saniwa had her First Unit be always ready. They can go this time until you feel well enough to make decisions. – That sounded…helpful, actually. He made another sound, hoping it would convey some sort of agreement, and scrambled to hold tighter.

  The Konnosuke ran from the room and he was alone with Hasebe again. Who still hadn’t spoken. They just stared at each other. And then the warrior sighed quietly.

 - Come, Master. Yagen has something for pain that will not leave you hungover for a week. And then I can show you where you can keep an eye on the raids…

  He carefully let go of the bed post and when the floor, or any of the chairs, didn’t rise to kiss him, he made a slow step. And then another. True, he was still a big lightheaded but there was hope.

 - Oi. Ha… - He didn’t finish. Fluid ran up his throat and he barely stopped himself from throwing up right there. Good thing the wall was closer this time. – Hasebe…

  There was blood dripping down his chest, probably spit, too, since he couldn’t feel his mouth, and he was lisping like he was missing half of his tongue. But he had to ask.

  - Master ? – Oh, now he was responding.

 - First… - He couldn’t do it anymore. Making a terrible sound he had heard only from the kind of old men nobody got close to, he wobbled to the nearest open window of the hallway and spat outside. Not much, but it was something. At least it allowed him to breathe in a little easier. – Who…

  Waving with the hand he wasn’t leaning on, he did his best to show the question.

 - Who is in the First Unit ? – A shaky nod. He was not feeling okay. – Hotarumaru, Ishikirimaru, Oodenta, Ookanehira and Mitsutada. Izuminokami is the captain.

  He laid his cheek on the windowsill and closed his eyes, running the names through the mental list of the citadel’s occupants.

  Oodachi.

  Oodachi.

  Tachi.

  Tachi.

  Tachi.

  Uchigatana.

 

  Ikedaya Inn.

  He opened his eyes, meeting Hasebe’s face with what he knew was sheer terror in his expression. No.

  Spitting out again, he pushed himself off of the window and wobbled in the general direction opposite of where they came from.

 - We have to… - Damn it, not now. He knew he looked terrible and his entire face was slowly going numb, he’d probably cracked his jawbone on top of everything and he would bet he’d lost a tooth or three but he couldn’t feel his tongue enough. But still. – Call them back.

 - Master ? – Hasebe hadn’t moved from where he’d been observing his tragedy of a first day on the job. – Is something wrong ?

  Was he the only one seeing the tiny issue ? The teeny-tiny issue ?

 - I need – He coughed, feeling more…fluid drip down his front. – Konnosuke. To call them back. Now.

  Now, where was the creature…

  He made a step, then another, when a large hand closed over his elbow, pulling him to a stop.

 - This way, master. – And then he had to wobble as fast as he could. Because, brain damage. Also because Hasebe was aggressively dragging him behind a wall, through a hidden door and into a dark tunnel where he stumbled and almost slammed his face in the wooden beams several times, only to exit back in the room he’d slept in. – Here.

  Konnosuke was on a chair studying a huge clockwork mechanism on the wall that seemed to flow into itself, ticking quietly. It was an almost hypnotic feeling and he shook his head as much as the murky waters behind his eyelids would allow.

  The spirit turned to look at them and, if he had to guess, looked pretty surprised.

 - Saniwa ? – He squeezed the doorframe for balance.

 - You have to call them back. Now. – The creature blinked slowly. To his left, he could barely see Hasebe waiting for…something. Keeping silent. What was with the swords in this Citadel and silence ?

 - Apologies, sage, but the Unit has already been dispatched. They left.

  What in the… But it had been less than… Didn’t matter.

 - I don’t care. You have to follow them and get them back here. Konnosuke, you have to go now, before something happens ! – Why wasn’t anyone seeing the issue on hand ? Was he wrong to freak out ?

 - The First Unit is more than prepared for…

 - With all my respect, Konnosuke… - And wasn’t it a feat that he could pronounce the creature’s full name when he couldn’t feel anything between his eyelids and his shoulders ? Sadly, he could feel the moisture seeping through his clothes. At least he couldn’t see himself and the terrible mess he probably was. – They all wield pretty long swords. Big swords.

 - Yes, Saniwa. – The three of them stared at each other for a moment. – Is there a problem, Saniwa ?

 - They just went. To Ikedaya Inn. – Still no reaction. Was he misplacing the event ? Imagining a different inn ? What was it ?

 - Yes, Saniwa.

 - It’s a tiny place ! How is anyone supposed to swing a tachi, what’s left for oodachi  or more ? They are going to decapitate themselves ! Call them back ! – He was hunching forward, half-shouting, half-drooling way too close to the spirit. But he had to make it see. A whole Unit was about to be annihilated. Because everyone knew you never sent big swords into small spaces. It was logic. It was…

 - The First Unit is more than capable, sage. It wouldn’t be their first time at Ikedaya.

 - So you’re telling me… - He lost his balance for half a second, vision going a bit hazy, but Hasebe caught his elbow and pulled him back up. – That this team, with this line up, has gone to Ikedaya and returned without a scratch. How ?

 - They are all old and experienced swords, sage. They are more than capable of fighting in other places, not only in open fields.

 - That’s not what…

 - And the previous Saniwa had full faith in her First Unit and their skill to win over any enemy. I believe it might be a good learning experience for you, sage, to soak her wisdom and skill when it came to strategy.

  True, this was all true on theory. But he couldn’t just… Everything he’d learnt from the books was screaming in his head that this was wrong and someone would get hurt and damaged and what would he do then ? How would he look that huge crowd outside and explain that he’d gotten someone’s brother or a friend hurt because he’d been a child ready to follow ?

 The time to learn from others’ notes had passed. Now, he had to be the Saniwa. He was the Saniwa.

 - Konnosuke, call them back. Now. – The creature didn’t move. – Konnosuke. Now.

  The sprit just…shook its head. It was refusing him. Him. He was supposed to be the highest authority of the Citadel and it was refusing him.

 - I can’t allow your hurried mistakes to hurt the Citadel’s reputation, sage. It’s been flawless for far too long. And I am sure that if you sleep on it and think about it, you will see the truth.

 - Konnosuke… - With the corner of his eye he saw a shadow pass and then pause by the door. – I am the Saniwa. I give the orders here. Call the First Unit Back !

  It didn’t move. It dared to defy him. He just stood there, swaying on his feet, and gaped at it. It actually…

  He knew he had to stop and think about it, seriously think, but the whole thing was wrong and he would face the consequences later.

  Still staring the creature in the eyes, he leaned on the back of the closest chair.

 - Hasebe. – He didn’t dare turn to see if the man was listening. – I am sure you know how it works. As the Saniwa of this Citadel I am ordering you. Call the First Unit back. As…

  Finally it happened, he thought with rapidly descending consciousness. The floor was rising to smack him in the face in slow motion. There went his pretty face…

 

  Darkness and then…clarity. He felt his mind wake up first, and then his body. Sensation flowed in bits and pieces. He was warm under a thin sheet. There was light breeze coming from somewhere. It was quiet except for…a tiny rustle. A page being turned. He opened his eyes.

  He was, again, in an unfamiliar room. How many of those were just being empty ? Or maybe he was back in HQ because they’d kicked him out. Okay, calm down.

  It was…wait, no. It wasn’t unfamiliar. He could smell something…Where was he ? He found the possible answer on a wooden chair by one of the windows.

  The man was slumped in the chair, thin book barely held in one hand and ink-blue fringe messy above square glasses. He had no idea who that would be.

 - Um… - The stranger turned to him and seemed to wake up judging by the confused blinking. And that was when he realised something else. His face was numb but it didn’t hurt, not really. He could feel the effect of anesthesia still on his tongue but overall felt much better than before. – Hi…?

 - Master. – Oh, a sword warrior. That…simplified things a little. He, maybe, wasn’t being kicked out for disrespecting a Konnosuke and his mouth felt okay. Things were looking up.

 - I am sorry, I don’t know who...

 - I am here to thank you. – The warrior’s expression didn’t waver. And neither did his voice. – Oh, and Yagen wants to see you soon, but that’s not my job.

  Yagen… Toshirou ? Why would the Tantou want him ? But, the matter on hand.

 - Thank me ? – He sat up in the bed, leaning on the wall behind. He was wearing his own clothes, though not the ones he’d worn when he’d destroyed his face. That was…nice. Someone had been taking care of him.

 - My little brother was there. In Ikedaya. – The sword got up, book still loose in his hand. – He’s alive thanks to you. I will not forget it. – And then he walked out. Just walked out, glanced at something right outside the door and then shut it without a glance back.

  What was with the warriors here ? He got up, trying not to wobble, and found a pair of fuzzy slippers right by the bed. Cute ? They were shaped like…Soot sprites ? Something black and fluffy. It didn’t matter. He slipped them on and just as he was looking up, the door opened.

  The boy, he made a wild guess he was a Tantou, was almost completely hidden behind a huge scarf, leaving only light eyes and red hair to poke on top. And, he also had something in his hands that glinted. Rings catching the light ?

 - Master ? – He looked young but not as young as some of the children he’d seen earlier. Maybe a Wakizashi ? He was tall enough. But he had also asked a question.

 - That would be me, I guess. – The sword cocked his head, blinking a few times and then waving a little, stepping closer. It wasn’t rings. His fingers were tipped with silver claws. O…kay. Was he about to have his eyes gouged out for disrespecting the previous sage or something ? The sword with the glasses hadn’t sounded upset but he had the feeling things would not be that simple here.

 - Yagen would like to see you, if you’re feeling up to walking a little ? – The sword shrugged under the scarf. – He wanted to keep you in the infirmary under watch but… - He stopped. And then exhaled loudly. – He needed the beds. So we had to move you to your quarters and keep watch on shifts.

 He got up, trying to keep the wobbling to the minimum, and after a moment the sword moved to the side, waving to the door.

  Still. He had questions.

 - And you are…? – He didn’t want to seem rude but he was getting a bit sick of not having any idea who he was talking to.

 - Oh, Shinano Toushirou, Master. – Another Toushirou. He knew there were a lot of them in here and apparently it was time to start linking the names to faces. And, he looked down, fashion accessories. He hoped. – Here, it’s just a little walk.

  He hoped it was true since he felt like he’d been bedridden for weeks. Added bonus, the Tantou was chatty.

 - It’s so good to see you awake ! Three days is a lot but you pulled through. And Yagen said you wouldn’t have any complications, so that’s good, isn’t it ? I think everyone else is all patched up now, only Ishikirimaru is still in the infirmary, but Nikkari is hovering enough for half the Citadel, so he’ll be fine, too. How did you know, Master ?

  He was feeling more and more stable when suddenly… He had been asked a question. Wait. Questions. Better play it safe.

 - What ? – Eloquent.

 - How did you know their luck would be that, well, bad ? I mean, we knew it was a possibility, but to call them right after the first battle with the Kebiishi…You must’ve known they would meet them. How did you do it ?

  He stopped, tripped again, and almost fell but managed to catch himself on the nearest wall.

 - What did you just…

 - General. It’s good to see you up and running. – He turned towards the newcomer, slowly, since he had the feeling anything faster would dislocate his head.

  Judging by the white coat, he was seeing one Yagen Toushirou. Which was good but there were more pressing matters on hand.

 - Yes, hello, hi. What do you mean, Kebiishi ?

  The two swords stared at him and he stared back.

 - There are Kebiishi in Ikedaya, general. Come, you look like you need to sit down.

  Oh, he did. He really did. And if he saw Konnosuke now…

  - It’s more than fine. I heard you need the beds. – He leaned on the wall, the two Tantou glancing at each other.

  - I can spare you a chair. – He had no choice but to follow. He really had to work on that side of his personality.  

 

  Inside, the clinical white was broken by the sheer amount of flowers. He stopped, not sure if the colours were real or just his drugged up mind trying to make sense of reality. Had the damage reached his optical nerves ?

  There were pinks and blues and yellows and reds. The pots and vases and glasses were on the floor, several bedside tables and almost all the wooden chairs.

 - Oh, here, let me free you a spot… - Shinano moved around, picking and moving flowers. So they were real ? Good to know. – Everyone stopped by at some point yesterday to wish Ishikirimaru a quick getting better. Where did Nikkari…

 - I sent him to rest. – He looked over to the only currently occupied bed where a man was flipping a book with a serene expression. – He was exhausted. Hello, Master.

 - Hello. – Ishikirimaru, he thought. An Oodachi. Who was still healing after who knew how long. How did one even try to approach that situation ? – I heard you encountered the Kebiishi ? – Oh, yes, remind the warrior who was still bedridden about his most recent trauma. That could only end well, couldn’t it ?

 - We knew it was a possibility and we knew our duty, Master. It was…

   He was interrupted by someone barging in, all long hair and smiles, and that was much more disturbing than the staring he’d been subjected to throughout his entire stay. The smile was…creepy. And he didn’t like the half of it he could see under the sword’s long fringe.

 - I fixed your rooms and everything is nice and clean. If Yagen approves, you should be good to go as I am sure fresh air and the little ones will do wonders. There is only so much repairs can do when it comes to that terrible, terrible wound. Don’t you agree ? – The smile was getting colder and he, surprisingly, was starting to sweat. He was being threatened, he just knew it. He had been measured, again, found lacking, again, and now being warned about any future decisions he could make and also for the consequences for his past actions. – Master ?

  Still, he had made a mistake, true, he was going to go and find the Konnosuke, and try not to wring its neck, and true, a  lot of people had gotten hurt and he would be known as the “Pariah Sage” from now on but he still had a face to keep. Even if his calculations on whether he could take the newcomer in an even mock battle were not very optimistic. So he took a breath and wondered how to diffuse the situation as quickly and bloodlessly as possible.

 - Nikkari. – And…he was beaten to it. Even Shinano had gone quiet. Ishikirimaru had sat up and apparently that was all it took for…Nikkari ? to run to him and help him get up. He just stepped back, moving out of the way and pretending not to see the way the newcomer didn’t take his eyes off of him.

  - Here, I’ll help ! - And then, a few tense seconds later, he was alone with Yagen.

  Awkward.

 - How are you feeling ? The swelling’s gone and… - The sword flipped a tiny light on and checked his eyes. – You look stable. Any pain ?

 - Just feeling a bit numb. – Yagen nodded and went to one of the tall cupboards to look for something.

 - It’s normal. I managed to fix almost everything but if you want those teeth back, I would recommend seeing a specialist. Your jaw’s fine, your cheekbone’s fine… - He kept rummaging, almost climbing into the wooden box. – The soft tissue damage is fixed. Yeah. – He finally came out, smoothing down his coat. – Here.

  He didn’t have time to react much except for fumbling for the small thing that fell in his lap. It was…He blinked at the shiny colourful paper. It was a lollipop. Yagen Toushirou, resident medical expert and one of the deadliest Tantou as far as he knew, had just given him a lollipop. He looked up in confusion. What ?

 - You behaved well. – He what ?

 - I was unconscious. – The sword shrugged.

 - Doesn’t matter. And some sugar can’t hurt with that nasty fall you took. Oh, and Hasebe had everyone pitch in and clean the quarters so you can start moving in your things. There is a rubbish bin by your foot, by the way. For the wrapper.

  He realised he’s been holding on the candy too tight when he saw the little plastic stick was a bit bent. Pulling at the shiny paper, he tried to process what he’d just heard.

 - They cleaned it ?

 - Hm ? Yeah. Took everything out for the troops from HQ to pick up while you were under. Oh, and I used a lot of resources. – The other man paused by one of the tables. – Hope you don’t mind, General.

 - Why would I mind ? Also, - He popped the candy in his mouth. What was that ? – what flavour is that ?

 - Raspberry lemonade. Sayo likes them. As for the resources, you might want to save up and smith someone. There are a few that are not here yet that a collector might be interested in. – A collector ? Did he look like someone chasing rarity and nothing else on the back of the actually present swords ?

 - It’s…fine. Don’t worry about it. So, I am good to go ? - Yagen hummed. He would take it as a confirmation. – Um…Any idea where I can find Konnosuke ?

 - Nope. He can be anywhere. – And if that wasn’t a dismissal, he didn’t know what was. So he got up and headed for the door. No vertigo. Good. – Yo.

  The plastic bag almost took whatever good teeth he had left. He caught in in the last moment, looking back at Yagen. Obviously, his confusion was clear on his face because the sword shrugged again.

 - If you meet any of the little ones.

  The little ones ? The Tantou ? He knew there were a lot of them around but aside from that first day, he hadn’t really seen anyone. Which reminded him…

 - There was a man the first day I arrived. In the back. – Yagen glanced back up at him. – Didn’t seem very friendly.

 - You’re new, General. Everyone is cautious at the beginning.

  And that was when he learnt that everyone at that Citadel could  lie like their lives depended on it. Because Yagen had said it all with a straight face but he had the feeling nothing in there had been the truth.

 - I’ll be… - He waved a little. – Going.

 

    Down halls, through open doorways and hidden closets. And yet there was nobody. He could sometimes hear voices, low, secret, but he never really saw anyone. The little bag turned out to be smaller lollipops and he wandered the Citadel looking for, well, anything. He’s be happy with literally anyone, even the guy who had glared him down…

  He paused. For the first time he could almost make out words. Was he about to listen to someone’s conversation ? Obviously not. He wasn’t like that. He wasn’t. Just as he was about to push the door open and greet whoever was inside, when he heard a name that was sort of familiar.

  New plan. He would wait until it was a good time to interrupt. Obviously, whatever was happening in the Citadel was more than important. And secretive. So he pressed to the wood just a little, enough to…

 -…and you don’t get it, do you, Kunihiro ? – It was almost hissed. Voice was unfamiliar which honestly meant it could be roughly 95% of the swords in there. But the man was talking to a Kunihiro and that took out 3 possibilities. Good, good. Hand tight around the candy, he tried to hear a bit more to get a hint who he would see inside.

 - My name is… - Oh, Yamanbagiri. One out of two. He was getting the hang of it. He was also sure he was witnessing bullying. Okay, not so good. Damn it. He should interrupt. Whoever was in that room didn’t have the right to use that tone with anyone in the Citadel.

 - I know what your damn name is. What you, apparently, don’t know is that the only one allowed to hurt you in the whole time and space… Is me. Not that snake who is all giggles until you turn your back, not that bitch who thought the world was hers, and most definitely not some little rat who just crawled out of their cozy little academy and now thinks he owns the place.

  What, in the…The silence on the other side of the door allowed him to think for a moment. The last comment was obviously an insult to him and honestly who was that guy ? He was trying his best, actually making as much effort as possible, and that random sword was just… The little bag crinkled in his hand and he loosened his fist. This was a bad idea. People said one should have never eavesdropped lest he heard something he didn’t like and, obviously, people knew where they were coming from.

  There were more voices. Quiet. Soft. He just couldn’t make anything out. Which only made him angrier. Good. Let them keep their secrets. He would find Konnosuke, get the whole story out and then sit down with a pile of paper and coloured pens, and start planning.

  And then he would find out who the aggressor in the Citadel was.

  Down more hallways, tunnels and one trapdoor, he finally found himself in a garden surrounded by walls from all sides. Another one of those. Seriously, how much actual space did the grounds take ? Because based on all the running around he’d been doing, he’d guess it was the size of a village. A big village. And there, in the shadow of the mountain, he found Konnosuke.

  The spirit had the nerve to take its time, too, when turning back to look at him.

 - Master. – Bag of candy still in his hand, he stepped forward carefully. He was a calm man, he knew it because people kept telling him how patient and stable young man he was, but if he got close to the creature now, he was sure he’d start with shouting and stop who knew where. So he proceeded with caution.

 - Konnosuke. – He exhaled slowly. That was it, slow. Keep it slow. Slow and even. – I would like an explanation. No. – He held his breath for a few seconds. And out. – I deserve an explanation.

 - What for, sage ? – It cocked its head.

 - What happened in Ikedaya Inn ? – He felt his façade slip, poison staring to drip from his tongue. He knew it could have been a misunderstanding, but…

 - You called the Unit back, sage. No, - It got up on and pattered around him. – you ordered Hasebe to call them back. Against my advice, if I might say.

 - Okay. Second question. – He leaned down, trying to read any possible emotion on the spirit’s face. – How is a Unit of powerful warriors with rather long swords supposed to fight Kebiishi in a place the size of Ikedaya Inn ?

 - The same way they have done it all the previous times, sage. With their blades. – He clenched his fist, feeling nails bite in the flesh of his palm.

 - And how do we make sure they don’t get stuck on a fucking beam and end up decapitated, Konnosuke ? How do we make sure said blades don’t shatter ? Because, let me tell you, that man was in repairs for two days… - And he was done with his promise to try not to shout. The little creature did not seem impressed but he had to let it out. – And you know what’s the next stage of injury after two days of repairs ? Funeral.

 - I know you used to be the star of your class, sage, but are missing one vital bit of how things work here.

  He stood back up, crossing his arms.

 - See, even if you break a sword. – Konnosuke stopped to look around like it was about to share a secret. – You can just smith it again or find it somewhere throughout history. Works like a charm. You wouldn’t even have to waste ore to smith most Tantou since they’re everywhere and in every era. You’ll just stumble upon a random one every time you step out of the citadel. It’s simply logical, you see. Oh, and this Citadel has a reputation, sage. Of victory and success. Please, do not burn it to the ground.

 

    He wasn’t sure how long he’d stood there after that. Konnosuke had left him in the meadow with that last warning. Didn’t know how much time had passed. Had no idea when the darkness had fallen again, blanketing the grass with snow and starlight. He’s knelt there, clothes getting more and more soaked, teeth, or at least whatever was left of them, chattering, and he couldn’t even think.

  Breaking swords. Breaking. Swords. He could see his breath. Nobody really knew how it felt because the warriors who had gone through it never spoke about it. But he knew it was supposed to be like death. Only worse.

  He thought of his own blade, sheathed and covered with his luggage, and imagined it breaking. Metal bending out of shape, sleek lines disappearing in dust and shrapnel. It would feel like his own ribs were breaking and stabbing his heart, drowning him in blood. He had the sudden desire to go and check it, just to see how it was faring. True, he would have to take it out and display it at some point, though he still wasn’t sure if the people here would be kind to it with their eyes. He knew Konnosuke wouldn’t be.

  Everything felt frozen. He sighed, trying to move in his sodden clothes. It was late, he was cold and hungry, the sky was just as dark as it had been…who knew how long ago and he needed a nap. And a hot bath. All he had to do was find his way back to his rooms. Or, he looked around, he could sleep in the yard and spare Konnosuke the headache. They would bury him in the morning and that cursed place would get a sage who was good enough for it.

  Yeah. He would, but then the creature would put its filthy paws on his blade and…

  And he wasn’t alone. He could feel it in his ears. Turning slowly, because one never knew here, he met the wide eyes of one Shinano Toushirou. Great. He’d probably scared the kid, too. As if his day wasn’t terrible enough.

 - Master ? – He got up, propping himself on his hands and getting even more wet.

 - Hey. Isn’t it a bit late to be outside ? Snow and… -- He waved on the general direction of the miserable night.

 - It gets dark early, Master. – The sword buried his nose deeper in the scarf. Why was he always running around in that ? Was he cold ? Missing half his face ? – Master, are you okay ?

  Was he ? Probably not. But the Tantou was the only one who had seemed relatively normal and hadn’t straight up lied in his face so he considered him almost a friend. He couldn’t be picky.

 - Yeah. Can you show me where my quarters are, please ? – He blew on his hands to warm them up. – I am afraid I am a bit lost.

 - Of course, Master. Here. – He followed in the warm hallway.

 - Can I ask you something ? – Shinano looked up at him in question. – What was the previous sage like ?

  He got a shrug. Light, just a rustle of the scarf. For what felt like forever the sword was silent. He was sure he wouldn’t get an actual response when…

 - She was the Saniwa.

 - And…? – Shinano looked up, seemingly searching for the words on the wooden beams of the ceiling.

 - And that’s all. She was the Saniwa. We’re here.

  They were where ? He looked around. Huh. They actually were at the room he’d woken up earlier. And he still had no idea how they’d gotten there.

 - Thank you, Shinano. – The smile he got was roughly the same brightness as the sun. He could almost feel his fingers from the sheer warmth the kid was glowing with. – Have a good night and… - Should he ? The sword had been nothing but kind. – don’t stay up too late. It’s cold. Here, I’ve head you have younger brothers… - Taking the candy, the Tantou nodded and turned on his heels.

 

  His rooms were warm. That was the first thing he noticed. The second were the lights. And how they were on. The third was the man in the armchair.

  Another stranger. In his room. Lounging.

  Layers upon layers of muted colours that carried the brilliance of the moonlit night. Hints of blue and gold, ornate cloth and jewels. With the snowy light coming through the window the sword’s perfectly smooth and symmetrical features stood up in a monochrome of shadow. He was gorgeous in an objective and pure way, like a fine piece of art. All glass and broken lights. And within all those reflections the reality became twisted and curled, dark and foggy. A pretty picture, but he had no idea what hid behind it.

  He pushed the door shut without turning, eyes on the sword.

 - Hello…? – The man cocked his head.

 - Master. It’s an honour. – Soft smile played on the sword’s lips and yet his eyes remained cool. His eyes…There was something odd about his eyes. And then he had to step back because said sword got up slowly and the fabric covering him slipped gracefully like Autumn leaves. – Let me show you exactly how happy we all are to have you here.

  Upper body clad only in a neck and shoulder guard, the warrior stepped forward carefully, every slide of muscle under his pale skin nothing less than a caress for the eye. Every step felt measured for maximum effect, every rustle of fabric felt planned and every breath – calculated. Anyone in his place would be frozen on the spot, drooling over the piece of art slowly approaching him with clear intent in his eyes. Anyone.

  Good thing he wasn’t anyone. True, a half naked man who probably could cut armies down without breaking a sweat was not a good thing to find in one’s bedroom but aside from that ?

 - Can I help you… - The sword paused, moonlight highlighting his cheekbone and strange eyes, and almost smiled. It was there, right beneath the skin, but he hid it well.

 - Mikazuki, Master. At your service. – That explained the odd eyes and the dance-like gait. The man was an actual National Treasure and he knew it. The man actually the most beautiful National Treasure. And he knew it.

 - It’s a pleasure, Mikazuki-san. What can I do for you ? – He made sure to keep his voice even and posture – loose. The sword was not being threatening and with his actual goal remaining unachieved, he probably would leave soon. Probably.

 - I came to greet you personally.

 - I feel greeted. Thank you. – He even bowed a little, eyes not leaving the sword’s. He’d heard all about the warrior, how he’d been the jewel of the Citadel but also one of their deadliest. One had no choice but to respect that kind of power and skill. – Anything else ? – Because he was cold, wet and shivering, and still had no idea what was going on here. True, anything was better than remembering Konnosuke’s words, but he still needed sleep.

 - Actually, yes. – Mikazuki pulled the square acres of cloth he’d dropped on the floor and with one smooth move he couldn’t even try to follow, got his clothes back on and decent. Talk about useful skills. – What would you like us to do with the previous sage’s blade ?

  Talk about shift in the conversation.

 - Yagen mentioned that all of her possessions were taken for people from HQ to pick up ?

 - Yes, except for the sword. It’s difficult to move and we wanted to clear it with you first. – And then he smiled, all charm and soft eyes. He still didn’t trust that, though. He couldn’t exactly forget how cold the man’s eyes had been when he’d taken his clothes off.

 - Difficult to move ?

 - How about you change out of those wet clothes, Master, and I will show you ? Here let me help you…

  He almost laughed. The night could not get more ridiculous, even if it really tried.

 - Sure. – He allowed the sword to work on his jacket and shirt without complaining. But it allowed him to think about other things. And with how everyone seemed to consider him dumb enough to be lead around like a horse, he felt like he was allowed some leeway. – Can I ask you something ? – He got a hum in a response, while long fingers were unbuttoning his cuffs. – Did swords break a lot here ?

   From his high point he could see Mikazuki’s lips press tight, just a little but the warrior didn’t react in any other way.

 - Why would you ask such a sensitive question, Master ? Accidents happen.

  Bare to the waist, he unzipped his pants and went to look for his clothes. No need to allow the sword close to all his delicate parts while asking uncomfortable questions.

 - I don’t mean accidents. – Oh, there it was. Pulling on a soft pants and an even softer t-shirt, he felt ready to face the night. – And I think you know it.

  The cold was back in the other man’s eyes but he didn’t comment on it, or on his clothes. He just went around an empty bookcase and pushed the wall to reveal another secret hallway.

 - As I said, accidents do happen. Accidents in battle… - He pushed a shoji screen and they were in a brightly lit stone room that was empty aside from a huge glass case on a pedestal…on a raised dais. And he thought the man in front of him was extra. Feeling safe in his plaid pajamas, he walked to the case. – Accidents in judgement…

  In it was a sword…He squinted. Flipped through a mental catalog. Went up and down a memory of a textbook.

 - The previous sage had a…Tsurugi ? – He circled around it. It looked like the photos he’d seen. A bit rough. Old. Heavy, if he had to guess. It was strange that a woman would wield it in battle though he knew it all depended on skill. It just looked a bit uncomfortable if one didn’t have the upper body strength but, on the other hand the woman had been a sage for long and had probably gone through the kind of training he himself had experienced. She had probably been able to cut down Yari with it.

  Though a Tsurugi…

  No way.

  He had made an almost full circle and was facing what he guessed was the front of the case. It had a shiny gold plaque. He had to see it better.

  Kneeling on the marble floor, he almost pressed his nose in the metal when a light clicked on, making the entire room shine. He squinted at the sudden brightness but Mikazuki obviously took pity on him and didn’t say a word. The sword just stood in the back, waiting.

  It really said what he thought it did. Damn. Just, damn. Fuck.

 - Is there a problem, Master ?

 - Yeah… - He rubbed the plaque, trying to change the words with touch only. Sadly, it didn’t work. – Can you tell me what this means ?

  No answer. Not even a rustle of clothes. He turned to look at the other man. Any possible mirth had disappeared from his face. He was unreadable.

 - I believe the sign is more than clear. – Oh, it absolutely was. It just didn’t make any sense.

 - I would still like an explanation.

 - It’s the blade’s name.

 - No. It’s not. – Mikazuki raised his eyebrows just a touch.

 - It is. – He got up, ignoring the pops in his knees. He was too young for that anyway.

 - No. It’s not. This is absolutely not the sword that carries the name written over there. Try again.

  Shaking his head so the jewelry in his hair would tinkle, the warrior stepped towards the case.

 - What if I tell you it’s a copy ?

 - I would call you a liar. – The other man didn’t even turn to look at him.

 - That’s quite daring for one so young. Master. – He crossed his arms, doing his best not to feel intimidated by the legend standing a meter away from him.

 - I feel justified. See, for someone to copy something… - He waited for Mikazuki to shift his gaze from the sword in the case. – They have to see it first. And we all know that’s just not happening. What’s the name of the blade, Mikazuki-san ?

  The sigh he got this time felt more real than anything so far.

 - That’s its name. No. – He raised a hand to stop him from interrupting. – That’s its name. It was used in a battle and put in the case when she became the sage of this Citadel. It was made for her and she gave it the name.

 - But that’s the name of a different sword. – He didn’t understand. – That’s an insult to this blade.

  The warrior laughed softly. In the sharp light he looked vaguely demonic and he didn’t like that too much.

 - It is what it is. Are you saying a copy has no value, especially if it carries the name of the original ?

  Talk about putting words in his mouth…

 - Copies are one thing. It’s all about design. That’s not a copy. Acting like one sword is actually a completely different blade, on the other hand…I can’t accept that. Tell me, Mikazuki. How do you call it ?

 - Its name is… - He crossed his arms. Slowly.

 - Not what I asked.

 - It’s Nanashi.

 - Na… - Nanashi. Damn, that was cold. – Who’s the blacksmith ?

 - Do you think, Master, - The sword raised his chin – that if we knew, we would call it that way ? And before you ask, no. We don’t know who made it, we don’t know when or which blade they were looking at when making it…We know nothing of it.

   Talk about a mess. That was, in his opinion, the worst fate a sword could have. To be left nameless.

 - What if it gets summoned ? – Mikazuki glanced at the glass case.

 - I don’t think there is enough spirit in it for that. You need to rest, Master. You’re frozen.

  And then he was alone. With the blade. A Tsurugi. He’d never really seen one in person. He remembered seeing a photo once, of a young man, almost a boy, with a snow fox on his shoulder. The sword had looked so distinctly other that he’d been entranced. Which was almost funny considering what he’d found in his quarters tonight. Did they think him so low ?

  But a Tsurugi. An almost foreign concept of a sword, defying the core techniques for swordsmanship. And for a shorter, slighter woman… Of course, he was now absolutely sure that the woman had either been mad or… He looked at the plaque. Or been mad. There was no other explanation. That was for tomorrow, though. Now, he really wanted to get warm and sleep.

  What had that been with Mikazuki ? Oh, he knew the goal, one did not simply walk in their own bedroom and find objectively the most beautiful man in the Citadel lounging around half naked and not know what was up. But the thing that was confusing him was…why. Did they all think he needed entertainment ? No, the warrior’s eyes had been way too empty. Why offer him the kind of sex almost nobody would be able to refuse, then ?

 

  Down the corridor and then turn…

  Did they think he wanted that from them ? He stopped at a corner. Did the swords think he would ask them for…that ? No way. Nah. He was wrong. No.

  No way.

  The image of the previous Saniwa’s huge draped bed flashed in his mind but some people simply enjoyed luxury. He couldn’t imagine a sage to ever…

  Mikazuki hadn’t looked happy or honoured. He’d been cold. Enduring him. No.

  He simply needed sleep. Yeah, that was it.

 

  The morning was just as grey as all the days before. What was also grey was the…thing on his chest currently blinking at him. His muddled brain took a second to manage to sort all of its parts into proper categories, which was not helped by the fact that there didn’t really seem to be that many distinct parts. It was warm, not as heavy as it looked, and purring. He’d heard there were animals in the citadel but what was that ?

 - Sage… - He turned slowly. The man at the door was in the middle of reaching forward, one foot in the room. He looked terrified from what he could see with all the blond hair obscuring half of his face.

 - Um… -  He wanted to run his eyes but the creature on his chest sort of wiggled to get more comfortable and he didn’t dare to move. Just in case. He couldn’t see any teeth but one never knew.

 - I am so very sorry, Master. Here, Nue, come here… - And all that while waving around like a windmill.

  Nue, he guessed, chirped like a cat and rolled to its back, still blinking at him.

- Does it bite ? – Because, priorities.

 - No, no, no, no, Master, absolutely not. He’s a good boy, he was just with Nansen but I guess he fell asleep and Nue got bored and he knows he’s not allowed in here but the door might have been open and he’s curious and…

  The sword looked sincere enough so he decided to be brave. He was still alive, wasn’t he ? Even if that nameless man he’d seen on his first day was probably plotting his murder. But still. That was for later.

  He raised his hand, careful not to disturb the yokai which, if it were a dog, would be probably lolling its tongue and waving its tail, and touched its…belly. Bottom side. Or at least he thought it was the bottom side. It was difficult with demons. It was just as fluffy as he’d expected. Oh.

  That was nice. It kept purring and he buried his hand in its fur, scratching lightly. Which led to him almost getting a mouthful of yokai as it wriggled up his body and nuzzled at his neck. It was basically a huge cat. Oh.

  He liked cats. Cats were nice.

 - Hey… - He glanced at the sword. The man looked a little less terrified, which was progress, and was running his hand through his already messy hair.

 - It’s Nue.

 - The nue’s name is Nue ? – He got a shrug. Oh, well. - Hey, Nue. You’re a big one, aren’t you ? You’re so cute, though… - And then his hand froze. Judging by the sword’s face and how fast it was draining of blood, he’d felt right.

  Because it had just licked him. Only, he hadn’t seen a mouth.

 - Um… What is it doing…?

 - He’s affectionate, Master. Nothing to be afraid.

 - Does he have teeth… - He was still afraid to move.

 - Shishiou, Master. And yes, he does. But he’s just being a cutie now, aren’t you, Nue…Here, let me…

  With careful hands, the man picked the yokai up, pulling it up slowly.

  He got one last long lick and a nuzzle, and then it crawled up Shishiou’s arm to settle around his shoulders.

 - Is he always around ? – The sword ran his hand through his hair again.

 - He doesn’t bother anyone, sage. He mostly hides or hangs with Kogi. You’ll never see even a hair of him, promise ! Sorry ! – And then he almost away ran from the room. Talk about a 180.

  He rose and went to get dressed. It was time to get some answers.

 

  And talking about cute… The warriors he could see across the yard probably wouldn’t appreciate being catted that but. He counted three swords and a pile of animals. It was such a post card moment he wished he had a camera. He recognised Mikazuki Munechika, but the other two were strangers. The white haired man with baby tigers hanging off of him looked about as serene as one could when in the company of literal kittens and the blond with the…choker ? Collar ? Was that a bell ? Well, he was sleeping under a tracksuit jacket with Nue on his back, seemingly just as tired. He didn’t think he’d ever seen anything that adorable. And he’d grown up with younger sisters and an army of pets. But that was taking it to the next level.

  - Whatever you’re planning, it’s not going to work. So I advise you to run to wherever you crawled out from and tell them all that we can manage just fine without your kind.

  He breathed deeply through his nose and turned slowly. The voice matched the faceless man who had threatened Yamabagiri the day before and the face…The face matched the cold stranger who had not been impressed all the way back when he’d tried giving a speech.

  Of course. Who needed good luck when he could have that ? Up close the man looked disturbingly familiar but he couldn’t, for the life of him, place his features. He was probably about to get kicked out. Probably.

 - What if I tell you I am not planning anything ? – The stranger snorted.

 - You refused a Tenka Goken. Are you going to run after Midare or one of the others ? Because, if you do, - The sword took a step closer. They were of equal height but it didn’t make him feel better. Also, why was he talking about, he guessed, Midare Toushirou ? -  I can promise you you wouldn’t follow the previous sage’s fate. Because they will know exactly what happened and why. Ichigo Hitofuri has never been one for plotting. They will find your head on the floor with the walls bathed in red. Or even if you have different type, well, everyone here has at least one protector, I’ve heard.

 - That sounds awfully like a threat. – And he was getting sick of those. From Konnosuke, from Mikazuki, from whoever that was. Where had he seen him ? – Can I at least ask who is threatening me ?

  The sword smiled a little. It looked like Nikkari’s smile when he’d been helping Ishikirimaru. Like a premonition. A bad omen. The butcher picking a lamb. An angler fish twitching its light.

 - It’s Yamanbagiri. – And then he turned, disappearing into the trees.

  Yamanbagiri ? He’d already met Yamanbagiri. That same sword had threatened Yamanbagiri. Who did he think he was ?

  Okay. Count to ten. How possible was it for him to end up in a shallow grave in the forest ? Nil, probably. How possible for him to end up getting punched ? Pretty high. But on the other hand, he could get some answers. Some. He sighed. And Yagen had just put his face together… He glanced back and the several pairs of eyes would be odd enough but the blond sword with the bell actually had his blade in his hand and looked ready to run after the other man and that was just plain disturbing. Light eyes met his through the yard and Mikazuki laid a hand on the warrior’s arm, making him settle back down.

  He had no idea what it all meant so he turned and ran after the other sword. He would dig through details later.

 

  The forest was denser than he thought. Great. He was going to get lost and Konnosuke would report his death as “suicide by stupid” or something. And everyone would be happy.

 - I thought they were supposed to teach basic skills in your Academy. Like not dying in a forest.

  Leaning on a tree, the stranger was pulling black gloves on. He wasn’t going to get punched, he realised. He was going to get decapitated.

 - And I thought swords were supposed to be honest. – The sword glanced up from rolling his sleeves up.

 - Tell me, sage, when have I lied to you ?

 - Your name, as a starter. – In the grey morning, the man’s eyes were as blue as his shirt and he still couldn’t place his face. Where had he seen him…

 - I told you my name.

 - I met Yamanbagiri… - The man’s lip curled in distaste.

 - You met…. I would appreciate it if you don’t call it that. Whatever Kunihiro was thinking, it was wrong and now it has to roam the world with its cursed name and even more cursed face. – He spat on the ground.

  Oh. It was Yamanbagiri. Only, the original. Not Kunihiro’s masterpiece, but the other one, the one he had seen and just had to replicate. He hadn’t known the original blade was around.

  That at least explained the animosity between them.

 - I did not mean to offend. – What else could he say ? He’d gotten too far and the sword still looked ready to kill.

 - Doesn’t matter. I am going to advise you, again, to run away. Master. – In the cold light Yamanbagiri…Chougi looked both painfully ordinary and like a hellhound barely disguised as a human. He didn’t like the feeling. – This is cursed ground, you see.

  If he had to be honest, it didn’t feel like he was talking about the Citadel in general. So he looked around the meadow they were at. It was surprisingly barren of grass. Even in the wet cold of the season the rest of the gardens were showing signs of life. Here, it was just cracked black soil, with the two of them standing in the thin ring of yellowish green surrounding it.

  He looked at Yamanbagiri and when there was no indication of anything on his face, he stepped forward. It was…dry. He knelt and reached…

 - I wouldn’t do that. – Back in his pocket his hand went.

  The whole forest was wet with slush and rain but the ground he was standing on was bone dry. Bone…It looked scorched. Black and ashy, it didn’t look like soil, but more like a volcanic crater.

 - What happened here ?

 - A lightning hit. Right in the middle. – He hadn’t expected an actual answer, but that was nice. On the other hand, a lightning… He knew those were powerful but he also knew people survived a lightning strike. This looked like the soil had melted into glass and something on top had burnt, covering it with a thin layer of ash.

  And then he had to put the question of the logistics of a lightning strike to the back of his mind because he saw the bones. White, dry and just sitting on top of the ground. Scattered around like feral beasts’ food, there were no traces of clothes or flesh. But, on the other hand, they were too white. Too shiny. New bones, clear of meat. New bones.

  He knelt again to where the torso and skull were laying about half a meter away from each other. No idea what roamed those woods but…But it definitely hadn’t been what had separated the head of the corpse from the rest of it.

  The top of the spine was severed. Not a clean cut but he knew what a vertebra that had been cut looked like, as opposed to a neck that had been broken. And that…

 - Master ! – They both turned. It was…Well, it was Yamanbagiri. And he was panting, hood off and eyes on where he was still kneeling by the bones. – It’s Ikedaya again.

  Timing. He looked back at the other sword and got exactly nothing. He was being measured again but this time didn’t have the few seconds to spare to see the outcome.

  Getting up, he ran after Yamanbagiri Kunihiro. He would think about the implications of the meadow later. If he survived. Okay, think. Think, think, think. Who was in this Citadel and who had he heard of ? Ikedaya, Ikedaya. Possible Kebiishi. Damn.

 - Your Unit, Master ? – Hasebe was waiting by the entrance. Yeah, that was the entire problem. Think, think, think. Short sword, nothing larger than an Uchigatana. Think !

 - Nikkari Aoe, tell him he’s captain. – Hasebe nodded, no other reaction. – Yagen and Honebami Toushirou. Ookurikara. Hizen Tadahiro. And… - Who else, who else…What would they need more than anything ? Ah, of course. – Monoyoshi Sadamune. Fifteen minutes.

 - Yes, Master. – His first actual sortie. In Ikedaya. With Kebiishi. He thought of his own blade, covered and just laying there. He thought of the whole Citadel tiptoeing around him like he was a leper. Or like he would order them all to go and just break for the fun of it.

 - Tell them to wait for me. – Hasebe opened his mouth. No time. – I want to say a few words.

  And then he ran. By pure wonder he ended in his quarters on the first try, breath coming in short but he had to keep going. Light armour, hair away from his face. And then, the last bit. The most important bit. He pulled the cover off. What a beauty.

  She lay in his hand like a caress and as he ran back to the giant clock in the front yard, he tried to draw from her strength. She carried the power of generations upon generations and he knew she would strike true.

  - Master… - Six warriors on the stone platform, Hasebe on the side and at least several dozen eyes watching from the shadows.

 - Let’s go. – And he stepped on the platform.

 - Master. – He turned. Hasebe looked…concerned ? – There is no need for this.

 - I know.

 - You can’t…

 - I will. Let’s go. Captain. – The wind swept Nikkari’s fringe, revealing his red eye and he raised his chin to answer to the sword’s cold smile.

 - As you say, Master.

  She would strike true and he would protect her with his life but he had other responsibilities now and if he had to choose... Not only when it came to his ancestors but to these warriors, too. His great great…grandmother would understand, too. He knew it. Hangaku Gozen would be proud of him. And if Konnosuke ever did anything, he would fight. Even when ill equipped, he thought, glancing at his blade shining high above his head. Even then, he would fight.