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“Stand up, boy! Don’t have all day for you to lie around like a pampered pup!”

 

Kiri scowled up at the looming colossus standing over him. He spat in the dust next to him, and a bloody tooth came up with it. Great, another sacrifice to the lessons his tormentor was determined to beat into him. Grimly, he shoved himself off the ground and picked up the nicked wooden practice sword next to him. He would not be so easily beaten though!

 

“Now come at me, lad. Your father was a great warrior, do you have his blood or are you just a nameless bastard, hm?”

 

Kiri knew the man was baiting him. 3 years as the warrior’s ward had taught him that much. He was thinner and smaller than his brothers, but he was all sinew and muscle even as his softer brothers learned in the relative comfort of the fortress. All the boys of the Lucianos name were taught to fight, of course, but it was Kiri who had ended up with his father’s Master of Arms. No doubt because he was the youngest son, and therefore the most expendable.

 

The thought stung, and Kiri swung with reckless speed, flailing with what seemed like little thought, and the older man snorted, raising his own practice blade to parry the wild overhead strike. Only to find that the boy had feinted, pivoting and redirecting the force into a sideways slash, aimed at his unguarded neck. Instinct made him dodge the blow at the last moment, but it was a close thing, and he felt the whiff of sliced air near his cheek as he backstepped and brought his own sword around for a counter-thrust, but his student had already danced away, eyes bright and circling for another chance.

 

Pride glinted in the grizzled old soldier’s eyes, and he redoubled the offensive, forcing the young master back with his greater strength, though the boy was devilishly fast. Young Kiri was headstrong and proud, barely a week younger than his older twin brothers. A week and the son of a concubine, which made him dead last in the succession, and heir to nothing.

 

Still, a warlord needed all the sons he could have, in case death claimed any of them early. Vita was not a place of peace, and raids were common. Even if they survived to grow to manhood, illness or injury could always rob a warlord of an heir. The more spares, the better -- though with a new High King taking oaths of fealty from the warlords, House Lucianos among them, perhaps all three of the boys would survive to manhood without falling prey to an assassin’s blade or buried early on some nameless field over a border dispute.

 

Kiri moved carefully, his footwork a perfect mirror of his teacher and guardian. He was a fast learner, even though he had earned more than his fair share of cuts and bruises in the process. Armsmaster Genshin was a hard man, and a strict teacher who made him earn every lesson he learned. Little Kiri had hated the man at first, but the truth was that he saw Genshin more than he ever saw his own father, and fearsome as the man was on the practice field, he was a fair enough guardian off it, and Kiri learned a great deal about war and battle under the man’s tutelage. When not being beaten to a pulp with a variety of different weapons, Kiri learned about small unit tactics, general battle strategy, terrain and weather, and the history of war. He learned to read and write the sagas of his people, and Genshin quizzed him endlessly about battles great and small, challenging him to think about how and why they were won or lost. Mathematics was taught to him via the logistics of troop supply, and Genshin ensured that Kiri could calculate the necessary numbers or go hungry, as any soldier under his command would have had his calculations been wrong. It was an oddly effective way of discipline and an object lesson in the consequences of getting things wrong.

 

In short, Kiri was being trained as a soldier and a leader, and his own pride would not allow him to continue losing, even against his own teacher. Never mind that Genshin was already a veteran before he was anything more than a dream of the Gods, and that he was still only a mere stripling, not even 10 years of age yet. If there was anything his mentor had taught him, it was the fact that if he wanted anything, he would have to fight for it. To seize by his own strength, for himself.

 

Deception was part of war, and he yelled like a wild boy, deliberately leaving openings for the older man to exploit as he unleashed a flurry of strikes, using his superior speed to his advantage. He was already faster than most other boys his age, and as a consequence of daily training with Genshin, tougher and stronger than average as well. The old soldier was too canny to be taken in by his obvious openings, of course -- he had anticipated that much. So he overextended on the final thrust - not too much, just enough to make it seem like he had gotten overconfident in getting a hit in on his mentor - and as expected, Genshin moved to punish his mistake. Kiri grunted as he took the hit to his shoulder, but he had already shifted his grip on his sword to his left hand, and it was his apparently weaker hand that levered the practice blade against his teacher’s groin, a killshot against the merely debilitating shoulder wound he would have sustained.

 

A moment of silence, than a great guffaw. Kiri let out a sigh of relief -- he hadn’t been certain his plan would have worked, but he had been thinking for ages on how to get a hit in on Genshin. He was immediately disabused of any smugness that might have arisen by a cuff across the back of his head though.

 

“Don’t get cocky, brat! If this were a battle, you might have taken me down, but the next asshole in line would have had you easy with you bleeding like a stuck pig from that shoulder.” Genshin was grinning though, obviously proud of his protege. Kiri rubbed at his head, wincing at the soreness there. Another bruise for his collection then.

 

“You were using that head of yours though, so you’re not completely hopeless. Don’t let me catch you looking smug, boy! Real battle isn’t about fancy footwork and flashy moves. You might win a duel or two with those tricks, but they won’t save you in a melee. Remember--”

 

“Kill fast, not flashy. I’m making corpses, not art.” Kiri parroted back, earning another cuff on his ear.

 

“Smartass.” Genshin grunted, but he seemed pleased that Kiri remembered his lessons. Kiri smirked, and then ducked as the expected fist whooshed past where his ear was. A boot caught him in the abdomen though, and Kiri found himself on his ass for the second time that day.

 

“There’s always more than one angle of attack, boy. Never forget.” Trust the man to turn even this into a teachable moment. Genshin did not offer to help him up, and Kiri did not expect it, nodding as he pushed himself up and dusted himself off. Physical contact beyond the brief smacks was rare between teacher and pupil, an unspoken courtesy held to even on the training field. Kiri was young yet, and his empathy not fully developed. They were all trained from youth to shield their own thoughts, but it was still considered rude to touch another without consent.

 

"Your father's home, boy. Got in just before dawn. Get some food into you, tidy up, and then go wait outside the war room. The warlord wants to see his sons."

 

Kiri straightened and saluted his guardian, one hand over his chest, balled into a clenched fist. Genshin nodded his approval and dismissed him, and Kiri all but ran off at top speed, knowing that he had little time to do everything needed before the expected audience. His mentor had not stated a time, but it was unstated that he had better be ready and waiting outside the door until his lord father was ready to see him. Which could mean any time 5 minutes to 5 hours from now, so he couldn’t afford any time to waste.

 

All in all, it only took him 15 minutes to make a beeline for the kitchens and gobble down a quick morning meal before racing up the stairs to the east wing of the outer fortress where he lived with his mother and sister most of the time. His baby sister had learned how to crawl out of her cot just last week, and was already being an unholy terror to the servants minding her. He stopped briefly to pick her up and swing her into the air, one of his few moments indulging big brotherly instincts, and the toddler squealed happily while trying to pull at his fringe. Kiri grinned and nuzzled at his baby sister, before handing her back over to the harried nursemaid. The 3 year old wailed at being separated from her big brother, mangling his name horribly (“Kiwi! Kiwiiiii!!”). But Kiri had already vanished round the corner into his rooms, yanking his torn and bloodstained shirt off and rummaging around for fresh clothing. Getting cleaned up and dressed took another ten minutes, and all in all he was outside the war room a mere half hour after getting kicked out of the training grounds.

 

The guards outside the room barely acknowledged his presence, but he did not press the issue, taking up a ready stance on the other side of the corridor, waiting at attention as if on a parade ground. He could stand at attention the whole day if he had to, but he would not barge in on his father without being summoned. Kiri would never admit it out loud, but his father intimidated him. If the man told him to jump, the only thing he would ask was “how high?”. He desperately wanted his father to acknowledge him as a worthy son, which was one of the goads Genshin often applied on him for results. He might be the youngest, but he was still of the blood, and he would show that he deserved a place beside his half-brothers.

 

His elder brothers arrived a half hour later, the twins bigger and broader of shoulder than him. They were around the same height, but Kiri looked half starved and scrawny next to his stocky brothers, who looked like proper warrior sons of a noble household. They sneered at him with dislike; the eldest, Kenichi, turned away from him as if offended by his presence, while the younger twin Kenji stuck his tongue out childishly before following his older twin’s lead. Kiri clenched his jaw, but forced himself not to react. He used to fight with his brothers over such perceived insults before, but the swordmaster had punished him severely for being a headstrong idiot, since the fights rarely ever did him any good. For one thing, he was outnumbered, and for another, the twins could get him in trouble if he started the fights. A true warrior picked his battles -- Kiri swallowed his instinctive dislike of his brothers, mentally shelving the new slight for later accounting when the time was right. Revenge was a dish best served cold. He could wait. There would come a time when he could pay those smug brothers of his for every insult they had hurled his way ever since he could walk.

 

The silence in the corridor was oppressive. None of the boys would dare interrupt their father, who had a terrible temper when provoked. Fortunately, they only had to wait another half hour before the doors to the war room opened, a number of their father’s senior officers filing out neatly. Genshin was among the last to appear, having apparently joined in on the meeting after dismissing Kiri earlier. The armsmaster was scowling as he stomped out,and he grimaced on noticing his ward standing at attention outside the doors. The veteran halted in front of the boys, addressing all three of his lord’s sons.

 

“Warlord Lucianos will see you now.”

 

Kiri took a deep breath and fell in behind his brothers -- no matter how he felt about it personally, he knew where he stood in the hierarchy, and that meant he always brought up the rear, as the third son. Truth to be told, he did not mind so much being last in line: it meant that no one else could stab him in the back after all.

 

Warlord Hayato du von Lucianos stood over the holographic map table, arms folded as he studied the spread of territory around the ancestral lands of House Lucianos. At a glance. Kiri could see the colours and crests of the great Houses and smaller Clans arrayed across the map, representing the spread of alliances and feuds in miniature. A growing blob of yellow marked by the Sunburst crest dominated the western half, not far away from House Lucianos, the red lightning bolt of their House marking a bloody swath on the tapestry.

 

“Father, you summoned us?”

 

Kenichi, as the eldest, represented them in addressing their lord father. Kiri straightened almost imperceptibly, determined not to show any kind of weakness in front of his father.

 

“My sons...”

 

The warlord said slowly, eyes sweeping hawk-like over his progeny. House Lucianos had been a shadow of its former glory when Hayato had taken over in his youth, but the young warlord had proven his mettle and out-fought and outfoxed his rivals and enemies alike, forging House Lucianos into one of the foremost Houses in the eastern sphere. Had Hayato willed it, the encroaching power bloc formed by House Ignacio in the west could have been beaten back, or at least held to a stalemate, by a broad coalition of eastern families led by their House.

 

Kiri had not understood why his lord father had not in fact done so. Instead of resisting the rise of House Ignacio, or even suppressing it before it ever became a threat, Warlord Lucianos had been among the first to swear fealty to the self-declared High King from House Ignacio. Without the bolstering influence of House Lucianos, the eastern powers had no clear leader, and fell to squabbling over whether they should accept the upstart king from the west. It would only be a matter of time before High King Yukihito united all of Vita under his rule.

 

“The High King has invited us to a Gathering. I will have the three of you accompany me. We set out two days hence.”

 

Kiri almost swelled up with pride. His father acknowledged him as one of his sons! This was a formal event, and regardless of his personal views about the legitimacy of this High King, it made Kiri happy that he would be included. The warlord made a dismissive gesture, clearly done with the audience. All three boys started backing out of the room; they were well trained enough to know when their father was done with them.

 

“Kiri, you stay behind.”

 

Now this was different. The twins glared at him, wondering what Kiri had done to earn the attention of their father. The warlord was a busy man, and not given to much warmth. The boys rarely saw him, and he did not indulge in paternal pursuits beyond checking on how their studies and training were going.

 

Kiri’s palms were sweaty as he stepped forward, feeling his brothers glare daggers into his back. He stared resolutely ahead, exhilarated and terrified at being left alone with his father as the great doors behind him clicked shut. Hayato continued staring at the map table.

 

“Genshin tells me you show promise as a warrior.”

 

Kiri wasn’t sure if there was a correct answer to his father’s question. Was it a question? It sounded like a statement. Confused, he said nothing, hanging on his father’s next words.

 

“The High King has requested one of my sons be left with him as a ward to his household.”

 

A chill ran down Kiri’s spine as he processed the flat statement. He had read the histories, he knew what it meant. Hayato showed no emotion as he finally lifted his eyes to look directly at his youngest son.

 

“You are my youngest, but also the quickest. Genshin tells me you will outshine him in ten years, that you will be the best swordsman in your generation if he had the time to beat the family smugness out of you first.” There was the faintest hint of a smirk in that last line, and Kiri tried very hard not to beam at the praise.

 

Only to be crushed by his father’s next words.

 

“I do not require more swordmasters, however. The time for that has passed. The High King’s new world will not be dependent on insignificant border disputes and small-scale raids. I have chosen. You will join the King’s household when we travel to the Gathering.”

 

Kiri froze. He was going to be sent away. As a hostage. There was no doubting what the High King was doing with this command, and Kiri felt a bubbling outrage rising within his throat.

 

It must have shown on his face, because Hayato stepped forward, rounding the huge map table to lay a hand on Kiri’s shoulder. Kiri almost jumped at the contact -- his father had never touched any of them like this before.

 

Even with his weak child’s empathy, he could feel the powerful emotions held in check by his father’s iron control. Indeed, Warlord Hayato’s face was still calm even with one hand gripping his youngest son’s shoulder, despite the flickers of anger and cunning Kiri was sensing from him.

 

“I expect you to do well there. Listen and learn from your betters. Do not shame me or House Lucianos. Do you understand, my son?”

 

Learn all you can, my son and weapon. You are my sword, Kiri, I expect you to cut.

 

The anger and outrage in Kiri transformed into a fierce pride. He would not shame his father or his House. His father counted on him to learn of House Ignacio’s secrets and weaknesses. He would learn all he could. Even if he had to be sent away, even if he was just a pawn and a hostage for his father’s continued good behaviour, Kiri knew that so long as he survived, he had a chance to make something of himself and bring glory to the family.

 

“I understand, Father. I will make you proud.”