Note: This chapter is long and disjointed enough without the added obscurity of the time references, so some explanation is in order. In all the former lands of the Regellan Empire, the new year is reckoned at the spring equinox. It's a purely solar calendar, so when a particular calendar day is referenced it's given a simple ordinal number. For ceremonial purposes there is also a lunar calendar, but since it follows the lunations exactly it's entirely unsynchronized with the sun and is useless in any other context. For that reason, I notate approximate times by the season rather than the month.

The calendar epoch is, for nearly everyone, from the foundation of the city of old Regellus, ab urbe Regelli condita. This is mainly a convenience, just as countries not primarily Christian have adopted the Christian era even if BC/AD is often relabeled BCE/CE. Other than in official documents of the Imperial government, the regnal year of the current emperor has fallen entirely out of use even in those areas still under Imperial rule. Most governments in the area follow the Imperial fashion and use the regnal year of the local sovereign in their own documents, but unlike the Empire they almost always supplement it with the year AURC. Peri's letter to the King in Chapter 11 does not, but in that case he's being at least a little sarcastic. It was rarely necessary for official documents to be quite that pompous.


Early autumn, 2257 AURC

Six days later I sat on the porch deep in thought, exploring the pathways of qi in my body. I began immediately following my afternoon sparring, when energy from all that activity was still coursing around. It was easy then to watch how it moved, and why.

Each night after dinner, Master had been lecturing me. Not as he used to when he had to act unhappy with me, but to help me understand what I could now see and make sense of it all. There was an awful lot to take in. He told me at one point that people who learn this stuff without the other sight usually spend four or five years on just the basics, and I believed him.

It was late in the year to begin a long journey, so Peri decided to stay at least for the winter. He slept either at the inn in town, or less often shared my room in Master's house.

It can't have been easy to sleep in the same room with me. There was a recurring nightmare that plagued me all too often: Dak alive and laughing one moment then dead and mutilated in a pool of blood the next, and fire consuming everything. Sometimes I woke myself up in the middle of the night with my own screams. It was very hard to sleep again after that. Then there were the other dreams, when I remembered how his body felt pressed against mine, how he filled me, the taste of his lips when we kissed. In the morning I'd find my seed drying on my chest and belly, and loneliness and pangs of loss would overwhelm me. These were almost as bad. I'd have to wait for the tears to stop before facing everyone else.

But Peri was there every day to spar with me. He was obviously better than our brothers, but he was still more of a large, friendly punching bag than anything else.

"It's amazing," he said one day after picking himself up for the tenth time, "how you got the King to believe for so long that this kid can't fight."

"It was not an easy thing," said Master. "It is ironic that in this, your brothers' animosity toward Kitaro was most helpful."

"And if I wasn't always so calm and even-tempered, I'd have shown them how wrong they were a lot sooner," I said.

Peri sat back down to laugh. I didn't think it was that funny.

I was surprised when Thal showed up one morning and offered to help too.

"It would be well for Kitaro to experience a range of styles," was how Master put it by way of approval.

"Not that I don't appreciate it Thal, but you don't have to take the trouble."

"What trouble? I got nothin' else to do until spring."

"Well, there's guard training and all―"

"Not no more there isn't."

"What?"

"Your dad's in trouble. Lots of trouble. He's got no guard no more. Once we all had a few days to think it over, pretty much the whole Corps deserted. There'll be a hell of a time when the Pass is supposed to open again. He's going to have to send the trade along without escort, unless he wants no traffic at all."

I shook my head in disbelief. With one stupid act my father had destroyed an institution more than a hundred years old. "I guess he―Dak―was pretty much one of you."

"Yeah. Jess hadn't told him yet, but he'd have been starting with us in the spring. That ain't all, of course. There's you too, ya know."

"Me?"

"Sure. Folk like you."

"What for? I've never done anything important. And I'm just a... You know. People don't like my kind."

"Listen." Thal looked me intently in the eye. "What you got up to on your own means a whole lot less to folk than you were a friend to him in the first place. He didn't have nobody in the world. Not a lot of them the Queen took in as orphans really are, but―"

"They're not?"

Thal laughed. "Squirt, if no one minded you liked to keep company with a boy, at least part of it was 'cause it meant one less set of royal bastards to worry about. It was real decent of your ma to take in some of 'em, until the King made her stop. But the point is you were a friend first. Everyone could see that. You weren't with him just for what you could get from him."

I remembered something Peri had let slip last time we'd talked in the castle. If the one brother I liked and admired took advantage of the local girls then I could only imagine what the others got up to.

Just then a horrible thought occurred to me. "You're not saying that Dak was my―"

"Oh, no! I knew his dad. Got killed in that rock slide back in '42. He was a good man and we all missed him a lot. Then his ma died in childbed. So he really was an orphan. That's why he was important to us. Like he'd always had just the guard for a family.

"Yeah, folk are as angry as I've ever seen 'em. I'm not sure I'd bet your dad will still be king next year."

It was great having Thal around. He knew more nasty holds, hits, and dirty tricks than I had thought existed. Sparring with him was an education by itself.

It was Thal I'd just finished with as I sat there that afternoon, and I was still a bit sore from it. No real damage, although his holds weren't gentle and it was easy to hurt yourself trying to get out of them, but to judge from what he thought was usual I was pretty difficult to harm. It put the attack on me in a different light. I hadn't been certain in my own mind that my brothers had intended to kill me. Now I was.

I didn't want to dwell on that, so I concentrated instead on what Master had been teaching me about qi and movement. One was essentially the other. Strength of the body was very important, but in human beings it was always handicapped by constricted qi. I understood what he meant. I watched a swallow one day with the other sight as he darted around chasing after insects, and was astonished by the bursts of qi that flashed every time it changed direction. I'd never seen anything like that in a man.

Or had I? I thought of the fight in the corridor that day, and how light and easy I felt then. Although I didn't like to think about it, there was also the way I'd confronted my father that day. There was something there beyond what I was used to. What had it been? In my imagination, I tried to duplicate my emotions at the time to see if my body reacted at all.

There. It was just a slight widening of the channels that fed my muscles. I could see why this was just for times of great need. For them to be as wide open as they'd have had to be to let me do what I did, qi would pour through so quickly that it wouldn't take long to drain most people. That was less true for animals who didn't waste qi doing some of the foolish things people did, but even they kept a reserve for the hunt or to flee the predator.

With the qi I now generated following Master's instruction I had plenty to spare for movement. I made it happen.

My eyes snapped open and I jumped to my feet. I leaped much higher than I'd intended and just missed cracking my skull against a beam. Energy poured into my body and there was no standing still. I bolted into the woods. The air was moving very little that day, but I'd never have known it by the wind in my face. A boulder loomed in my path; I leaped and cleared it by many feet. On the way down I tucked and curled, and had enough time for two complete turns before I hit feet first and dashed off again.

A tree limb stuck out a dozen feet above my head. I sprang up, caught it, and vaulted skyward. One bough after another was in easy reach, and I was soon flying along the tops of the trees, propelling myself by arms and legs from whatever hold or surface I could reach.

It was ecstasy. I never dreamed that movement could be so easy, or so joyfully intoxicating. How sad that most people could never experience this, or only in times of great stress when they couldn't enjoy it. The leap and scamper of the squirrel, the aerobatics of the swallow, the horse's gallop! If this was what it was like for them, then no wonder animals always looked so bright!

Eventually I settled down from that first rush and was able to remain still for a while. I perched in the tree in which I found myself and looked around to get my bearings. I was about a mile from Master's house, not far from the path to town. I could see the clearing in which the town lay another two miles distant. Farther off in the opposite direction, the castle sat upon its higher ground, its ancient granite walls ruddy in the light of the setting sun.

Setting? Oops. I had no idea how long I'd been out, or how long I'd been concentrating before that. I was about to head back toward the house when movement on the ground attracted my attention. Someone else was going the same way. Now that the leaves had begun to fall I could easily see through the branches, so I looked closer. It was Okamoto. I thought for a moment that it might be fun to drop down in front of him to find out what he wanted, but then I remembered how good he was with those darts and decided that surprising him was a bad idea. I kept to the trees instead, and was on the ground in Master's yard waiting for him when he arrived. He bowed by way of greeting and asked to see Master.

After a polite greeting Okamoto began, "Weifu-sama, please allow me to first apologize for my actions at our last meeting. I meant you no harm. It seemed to me that matters could be brought to a much more satisfying close if some excuse could be made for a demonstration."

"No apology is necessary," said Master. "I can tell when an attack is intended to arrive, and when it is not. Has poor Takegawa recovered from the shock?"

"He had not quite when last I saw him. When the time came for him to depart, he was therefore unable to very strongly protest when I announced I would not accompany him."

I started. "You're staying here? How come?"

"I saw an opportunity to discharge a debt of honor. That is, if Kitaro-denka is agreeable and Weifu-sama has no objection. The Wind Dragon has found that for which he fruitlessly searched the length and breadth of the Ten Thousand Islands. I would assist him in what remains of his task."

"And why would Okamoto-kakka do this?" said Master.

"I have taken a liking to the boy, and if he can be benefit from anything I know, or if my own poor skills can add in some way to his own, it would gladden me to impart these things. But more than that, the Red Mountain Clan has not forgotten the Wind Dragon and the help he gave us."

Master nodded. "I thought I recognized the dart. Kitaro? What say you?"

I hesitated. "What do you want to teach me?"

"That which is not often spoken of openly. How to be in a place and not seen. How to move in silence. The entering and leaving of a place in secrecy. The ways of politics and intrigue. And among many other things, perhaps I can demonstrate one or two elements of combat that you will not see from anyone else."

I couldn't possibly refuse an offer like that.

After he left, Master said, "Kitaro, please believe me when I say I fully understand your need to keep busy. But did you not have quite enough to do?"

I shrugged. "I suppose I do now."

He looked at me for a moment with the other sight and shook his head with a small grin. "Perhaps this is for the best. Were you not overburdened, it would be impossible to keep up with you."


One reason I'd been in such a rush to get back is that I had to cook dinner. Just as he said, Master took steps to make sure I knew what I was doing in a kitchen, and that meant I had to prepare all our food. My first attempts made Peri look like a master cook. To his credit Master never complained, but would use a disastrously bad meal as an opportunity for instruction. That happened a lot at first, but after a while I got tolerably good at it. When you have no choice but to eat your own cooking, you do your best to improve in a hurry.


I learned a lot from Okamoto. He'd been everywhere. When he wasn't giving me a practical lesson, he'd tell me of all the places he'd seen and heard of. I guess this was education, but he made it more like storytelling. He'd been to dozens of the petty kingdoms that had sprung up as the Empire retreated, from the Saevian port of Nan in the northeast all the way south to Orn on its great gulf where some of the southern trade came in. There was Regellus itself, a city that for many centuries had carried on by pure ceremony as little remained there but the principal shrines of the Regellan gods. He'd even been to the imperial capital, New Regellus, where the Emperor still reigned over his dwindling empire from the Basalt Throne.

The places he knew only by report were even more fabulous. There was the distant island of Makarta, where jewels and spices from islands even more remote are traded and whose forests strange animals haunt; the Spice Road with its caravans and exotic oasis cities; the vast jungles and deserts of Maharashtra in the far south; and the mysterious land of Alfheim.

I wanted to see them. I wanted to see them all. I had no idea how I would cram it into a single lifetime. But I wanted to try.


Shortly after new year, spring, 2258 AURC

Spring came, and some of my friends got ready to leave. I wasn't at all happy about that. It had been several weeks since Peri was of any real help with training, but he was the only brother I had who felt like one. Tor came down once in a while, or as often as she could in the winter, and although I loved her a lot it wasn't the same.

Before winter made travel too dangerous he'd written one of the younger royal houses in the lowlands, and with the thaw came an offer of a dukedom. Such kingdoms were always looking for talented men. Their survival depended on them. I hoped it went well for him. No matter how good he was, anything could happen. But I guess that's true just about anywhere.

Saying goodbye to him was hard. I had no idea if I'd ever see him again.

Thal's departure was more surprising.

"There's not much keeping me here," he explained when I asked him about it. "I don't got no family around, and I ain't going back to my old job."

"But I've got so much more to learn from you!"

He gave me an odd look. "You're kidding me, right? Squirt, even if there was something I know that I haven't showed you yet, it don't mean much. I never had anything to tell you about swords. You already know the best places to hit a man to make him fold up, and you punch so hard only an idiot would box you. You never had to see a hold more than once before you learned it, and there's not been more than two or three of them where you didn't figure the escape without me telling you. And anyone stupid enough to wrestle you gets himself tied in a knot before he knows what hit him. Another few months and you could be teaching me."

There was nothing I could say to that. "So what are you going do to?"

"There's lots of work for someone in my line these days. Wars everywhere. Maybe I'll find a good Free Company to join up with. I'm through being a king's man."

Father ended up keeping his throne. If there was any disruption of the trade and people's livings I think it would have gone very badly for him, but he was aware enough of the danger he was in to do something I'd never known him to do before: spend lots of money. He ended up hiring some Free Companies to replace the Guard Corps, and I heard he put Tris, Cal, and Lon each in charge of a squad of mercenaries. That meant they were usually in the Pass and were hardly ever in town. Which was fine by me.

Life can't have been good for him though. From what Tor told me, he was almost completely isolated. Mother had never stopped enjoying great respect, affection, and even reverence from both the castle staff and the people in town, but no one had any of that left for Father. He received nothing he didn't specifically command, and that grudgingly. The only exceptions were my brothers. I wouldn't have traded places with him for the world.

This may have had something to do with why he never gave us any trouble. I half expected that spring would bring a troop of mercenaries to our door trying to finish what my brothers had left incomplete, or at least to run me out of the country. It didn't happen. With everything else going on, Father must have had little attention to spare for me. Or maybe he was afraid of us.

I heard a lot of the talk in town. Tor liked to call me single-minded, and it's true that I wasn't often in the mood for concentrating on much else besides my training, but I did have to relax sometime. I stopped by the inn once every seven or eight days just to have a meal I didn't have to cook myself and I visited the baths every chance I got.

I made a few friends in town with people my age too. That did a lot to help me keep my head on straight. Without friends I think I'd have turned completely inward, but instead I could balance my work with a little bit of fun―and finally acquire a taste for beer.


Late Summer, 2258 AURC

My opponent advanced on me, her gleaming, needle-sharp weapon poised to impale my flesh. My back was to the wall and there were no options left. I could do nothing against such an inexorable foe.

"Um, Master? Help?"

Master didn't even look up from his book. "This is your battle, Kitaro. I cannot fight it for you."

Tor rolled her eyes. "Quit squirming. This'll be over before you know it."

I sagged and resigned myself to the inevitable. There's no stopping a determined Tor. With a quick jab she ran one of her embroidery needles through my earlobe. Into the hole she placed a silver stud set with a sapphire.

"Now leave that in until it heals up." I brightened. "Yes, I know you can make that happen before I go home! Leave it in anyway." She leaned back to look me over. "See? I knew that would be so cute on you!"

"Just what I need," I grumbled. "More cute."

"Wei-fu, look at him! Isn't he the cutest?"

"It is said that the better part of wisdom is knowing when to keep silent. This strikes me as a time when I should be very wise indeed."

Later on when I caught my reflection in the bucket by the well I had to admit that it looked pretty good, so I guess it was a nice birthday present.


Winter, 2258 AURC

Okamoto stayed through a second winter. When it came to fighting he was an occasional sparring partner―he was the most deceptive fighter I'd yet encountered―but his instruction was mostly about other things. He taught me everything he'd promised and more.

One relatively mild day in midwinter he arrived at Master's house bearing a small satchel. Inside it were dozens of vials labeled in Yorozushimago. Some were filled with liquids of various colors and thicknesses, and some contained powders.

"Poisons, Kitaro-kun." he explained. I had finally convinced him to drop the royal honorific some months before. "Poisoning is one of the hazards you are likely to encounter at one time or another. I bring these to familiarize you with their appearance and smell. Some are fairly harmless when sufficiently diluted, so I can also introduce you to a suggestion of their taste. It has saved my life more than once that I was able to detect poison in my food or drink before I partook of it."

"Okamoto-sensei, you carry all these around with you?"

He shrugged. "It is well to be prepared for any need."

The liquid poisons ranged from clear to murky brown and from volatile to syrupy. The powders were usually white. To the nose some were extremely pungent, some sharp and eye-watering, some flowery or fruity, and some had no detectable odor at all. After giving me strict instructions about how they were to be handled, he left the satchel behind when he returned to the village so I could study them on my own.

Master had been watching this with interest. Instead of his usual lecture that evening, he took bottle of clear liquid out of the cupboard.

"I had planned to show you how to cope with toxins a little later, but since the subject is to hand we may as well address it now. It is good to be able to recognize them. But since many of them are entirely undetectable until consumed it is better to render yourself immune to them. This is accomplished by a movement of qi that casts them from the body. Since the technique is the same whether you are eliminating a poison or a less dangerous toxin, we will begin with spirits of grain. Have you ever drunk spirits?"

"Gods, no!"

"Good. It will not require much for you to feel the effects." He took one of his smallest teacups that held maybe an ounce and filled it from the bottle. "First I will show you what must be done." He drank it down and waited quietly for a short while. "There. It is beginning to enter the blood." I watched him with my other sight as the spirits moved into his body and what it did to him. "Now observe." There was an abrupt shift in his qi. I missed some of the details but I saw the spirits dissipate.

"Could you do it again more slowly?"

"Ah. Forgive me. I rid myself of toxins by reflex and must suppress the reaction to be affected at all. I must have relaxed too quickly." He did it again, and this time I could see the entire process clearly. I looked inside myself and tried to imitate it.

"It doesn't seem too hard."

He poured me a cup. "It is easiest if you swallow all of it at once."

I picked it up. There was practically no odor. I decided it couldn't possibly hurt that much, and tossed it back. I was wrong. My throat felt like someone had taken a red-hot wood rasp to it, and the heat traveled all the way down to my stomach, where it bounced around a few times before rising back up to my head. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

"Are you well, Kitaro?"

Note: The line of Kitaro's dialogue that occurs here should properly read "..." but unfortunately FictionPress doesn't think this is a legitimate thing to write and removes it when I post the document.

"It will comfort you to know that no one has yet died from a single drink. You will become accustomed to it before long, considering how much you will have to drink in order to master the technique."

"What good news," I gasped.

When my head started to spin a little Master said, "Now dispose of it as I showed you."

I wasn't that far gone, so it only took me a couple of tries before I felt my head clear.

"Very good." He poured me another. "Again."

By the time we were done for the evening, I was downing five cupfuls in a row and detoxifying myself afterward, and we'd gone through the entire bottle.

"We have made a good beginning. You must practice this until you are doing it by reflex. You will therefore attempt to get very drunk every night after dinner for another fortnight. Next time you go into the village, you will need to stop by the inn and purchase more of the spirits. We will be using quite a lot of it."

By the end of the fortnight not only was I having to make an effort to feel any effect from the spirits at all, I never got so much as lightheaded when having beer with my friends. After a month I was able to rid myself of a lethal dose of Okamoto's poisons, and a month after that I caught Master slipping some into my food. I wondered how long he'd been doing it, because I never noticed.

If Okamoto thought it remarkable that his stock of poison was so depleted when we returned the satchel to him, he didn't say so.


New year, Spring, 2259 AURC

I didn't often have trouble learning a technique the first time I saw it, but some were more difficult than others. For my lesson one day, Master introduced a new subject by saying, "Strikes augmented with external qi can be extraordinarily effective. Come with me."

We walked through the woods to one of the larger of the nearby boulders. It was about ten feet across and came up to the level of my nose.

"Now observe closely with the other sight."

Qi flowed down his arm to his hand, where it erupted from his palm and collected itself into a spinning ball of energy.

"We call this the Whirlwind, after the flow of airs which it resembles and from which it was learned. You should be able to take its pattern directly from the winds, but opportunities to observe a whirlwind are rare in this region and this is a basic technique you should know. It is released thus." He drew his fist back and made a simple straight punch. As it contacted the rock, the Whirlwind burst. There was a sound like a thunderclap and shards of rock were blown outward. Master's fist was in the center of a crater about a foot deep and four times that across.

"Now try."

I raised my hand to eye level and made qi flow out of it. This was the first time I'd tried to project it outside my body without touching something directly, so it wasn't easy. It rose out of my palm in a chaotic jumble. How could I get to spin like Master's did? I passed my other hand by it, and that got it going. It wasn't exactly the same as his, but it was there. I looked to him for some sign of approval, but he didn't react at all.

It wouldn't have been the first time he said nothing about what I was doing until it was done, so I didn't think it meant anything. Maybe it wasn't supposed to look identical anyway. I cocked my arm, and drove my fist into the rock.

"OW! Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow! Son of a hellspawned whore!"

"You see, this is what happens when you execute it incorrectly."

I doubled over my hand and yelled curses I'd forgotten I knew. There was no noticeable dent in the rock. Master's comment was extremely unhelpful, but my glare made no noticeable dent in him either.

"Amusing as it may be to take your collection of invective out for an airing, I suggest you quiet the pain so we may consider what you did wrong."

I'd been so annoyed with myself for screwing up it had slipped my mind that I could make it stop hurting at all. I got my temper down to a low boil and did it.

Master took my hand and examined it. "Fortunately, a broken hand is not a serious injury for you. It would be for the best to prevent the bones from knitting until we set them."

"That was pretty stupid. What did I do wrong?"

"You did not observe me closely enough and were therefore using the wrong variety of qi in the wrong way. Direct warm moist yang qi to the center, and cold yin qi to the edges.

"But then how do I get it to spin?" I said, as I struggled to follow his direction with my other hand.

"If you do it correctly and with sufficient intensity, it will of its own. The direction depends on the hand in which it is held."

It took me some time before I managed to coordinate it so precisely, and then it was a struggle to pump out enough qi to make it work. I was sweating by the time it finally started to turn on its own, but once it did it built all by itself. "Now what?"

"Despite your earlier failure you need to maintain your focus. Strike with every expectation of success."

"What if it doesn't work?"

"Then you may count yourself triply fortunate." I looked at him quizzically. "A second broken hand is not a very serious injury for you either. And I will be compelled to cook dinner this evening."

"How am I supposed to eat with two broken hands?"

"You are a resourceful young man. I am confident you would somehow manage."

And Tor says I have an annoying sense of humor.

Ignoring Master as best I could, I cocked my fist and focused on not allowing the Whirlwind to disperse before I struck. It occurred to me that, as badly as my failed attempt hurt, I'd been in far worse pain before―and after all, having a night off from cooking would be nice even if I had to eat with my feet. That made it much easier to concentrate. I struck.

A small thunderclap echoed around me. I blinked as a spray of rock dust and gravel flew past my head. My fist rested in the center of a small crater. It wasn't as big as Master's, but it was there.

"Excellent. I do not expect very much peace around here for the next few weeks. I do expect you to practice this constantly until you can do it in the span of a moment. I believe the area will supply sufficient material for your needs. The mountain is very unlikely to run out of stone."


Early summer, 2259 AURC

Okamoto returned to Hachido just before midsummer, and I was left with no one but Master to spar with.

"What of Toriko?" he said, when I complained about this one evening at dinner.

"What about her?"

"I trained her in her youth as well. She is very talented, and as I was able to take more time and bring her farther along than Peredur it might be instructive for you to spar with her."

"I can't do that!"

"Why ever not?"

"Well... She's a girl! I can't hit her!"

Master sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "I suppose it was a futile hope that you would be spared this absurd gallantry. Kitaro, when you are fighting an enemy who happens to be a woman, I assure you that she will not hesitate to hit you. In general, women are not as physically strong as men, but there are exceptions. And what they lack in strength they often make up in ferocity. They can be utterly ruthless. It is best you are prepared."

So Master decided, but I still wasn't expecting to be ambushed one day on my way back from town. I heard nothing until the last moment before my attacker put a choke hold on me. I could have blocked it anyway, but I let it happen just to see the reaction when whoever it was found the tables turned.

It was only when I'd thrown her down and had my fist drawn back that I saw it was Tor. I relaxed and let her go.

"Tor, what―oof!"

Her foot caught me squarely in the stomach, and only my self-control kept the wind from getting knocked out of me. I stepped back out of range.

"What in the dozen hells are you doing?"

"Hi, Sprout. Wei-fu says you don't want to hit girls. I'm here to change your mind."

And we were at it. She was very good, much better than Peri. She might not hit as hard, but she was fast. More importantly, she knew exactly how to hit and where. I never could have believed her vicious enough to go for my groin so often, but it became almost predictable. Then I realized it was usually a diversion, and her real attacks were aimed at some other sensitive spot, like my throat. Usually, but not always, which kept me on my guard.

I did my best to avoid engaging her, but after a while I got tired of suppressing my reflexes. When she got back up, she was grinning even as she limped toward me.

"See? You can do it."

"Are you all right?"

"It hurts like the twelfth hell. I see what Peri was always complaining about now. You hit hard. I'm real proud of you, Sprout."

It was always nice to hear that from her.

After I fixed her leg with the healing techniques I'd been learning, she combed out my hair and complained that I wasn't taking proper care of it, and when she stayed for dinner she actually complimented me on my cooking.

In the end, the trouble I had hitting her was less that she was a girl and more that she was Tor. She'd practically raised me, what with Mother having to do her part in running the country and all. It was several months before I could really get used to it.


Late summer, 2259 AURC

My sixteenth birthday passed by without Tor poking any more holes in me, and a week or so afterward I had a free afternoon to spend in the town. Most of my friends were working that day, so I intended to stop at the inn and have a bite to eat, and then spend an hour or two at the bath.

The inn was moderately busy. It was crowded with the usual mix of our own people in for some food or a pint, and traders of a dozen races either stopping before entering the Pass, or resting after the return trip.

I'd found a table in a quiet corner and had just gotten my food when the door burst open and a troop of guards came in. They were a lot louder and less respectful of the locals than the old Guard Corps, who had been locals themselves after all, but I was pretty much used to them by now. Escort patrols often stopped here for some decent beer after a trip through, so I didn't give it a second thought until their captain spoke up.

"Landlord! Beer for my men, as much as they want! And send the chit to my father!"

They sounded a cheer, but at the sound of that voice my jaw clenched. I knew who it was without looking, but I scanned the room for him anyway. When I spotted him, I saw red.

A crackling sound reached my ears. I looked down to see I'd dug my fingers into the table and crushed two handfuls of wood into splinters. The place was now so noisy this hadn't attracted any attention. Slowly I forced my hands to relax. Barely in control of myself, I dropped some coins onto what was left of the table and faded toward the back door in a discreet way Okamoto had taught me. As soon as I was out of sight, I sprinted as fast as I could back to Master's house. Three miles later I stood in his yard, breathing hard and trembling all over. I didn't dare go into the house because I didn't know what I might do next. A Whirlwind was in my hand; I had no idea how it got there. I blindly drove my fist into the nearest thing I could hit. The force had no direction at all, and the tree trunk I punched shivered apart. The sound attracted Master's attention, and he emerged from the house.

"Kitaro, what―?"

"I want to kill him. I want to rip his heart from his chest and stuff it down his throat while it's still beating."

"Whom?"

"Tris. In the town."

"I see."

He sat in his chair, and motioned for me to sit at his feet. I walked over slowly and lowered myself to the floor, still shaking. I told him what happened in a monotone.

"I am glad to hear you had not sought him out. Questing for vengeance often leads to a tragic end whether justified or not. Why did you not act on your desire?"

"Should I have?"

"That is not for me to say. You are free to choose your own path. We may wish it otherwise in our hearts, but this world is a violent place and most often the violent cannot be dealt with by means other than violence. After all, the brigand will not stop robbing and murdering, the tyrant will not cease oppressing his people or putting them to death unjustly, the sorcerer and magician will not spare their sacrificial victims, just because they are asked politely. You may well be called upon to kill more than a few times, and you are perfectly able to do it. So why did you not kill this time?"

"I... I don't know. I wasn't thinking. I just knew I was about to lose it, and I ran away before anything could happen."

"Your instincts have proven reliable in the past, but it is better to understand what you are about. Let us do nothing more today. When you know your own mind, you will find yourself in better control of your reactions."

He left me alone. I remained sitting on the porch and turned my other sight to the clouds. I wasn't afraid of them anymore. They were still awesome, but now that I understood them and myself better I felt connected with them. The same forces ran within me as within them, and I looked to them almost as incomparably greater kin.

I looked inside and compared myself to them anyway, and saw that I was a mess. No wonder I couldn't control myself. My rage had closed off some channels, forced others unnaturally wide, and everything was moving the wrong way. I concentrated on setting myself right. It took my attention off my anger, and as I got my qi to flow as it should my body calmed itself. My mind followed. There was still a dark mass of anger seething inside me, but I could ignore it for the time being. When everything else was as it should be, I turned my attention back to the clouds.

What an amazing blend of opposites they were. Dynamic and serene; powerful and insubstantial; remote and untouchable but without them the earth would be a dry husk. The death today of one man wouldn't have affected them at all. Why did it affect me so?

It didn't matter what anyone told me. If one of us had to die, it should have been me and not Dak. If that vision the night before his funeral was a true one he'd told me otherwise, but he'd always thought less of himself than he should have. I knew no one I could even begin to compare to him. Certainly not myself. Sure, I could fight better than him, but that's hardly the best way to judge a man. I could never be everything Dak had been with his strength of character, his courage, his cheerfulness and his beauty, but if I didn't make the best I possibly could of myself I'd be dishonoring his memory. I was well aware of that. I reminded myself of it every morning. Sometimes it was all that got me out of bed.

Would that involve killing? I hadn't really thought about it before, but I supposed it would at some point. Much of what I learned from Master was good for almost nothing else, and I could think of few great men in history whose hands weren't red with blood. My own family owed its position to it, and it occurred to me that Master must have done his share.

Had my life gone on in a normal way I'd have been a killer anyway. I'd always known that. Part of our job was to keep the Pass clear and safe for traders. Bandits never dared to enter it these days, but if one had I'd have done what we'd always done with them: hunt him down and kill him. That would have done anything but raise a protest. It was expected.

In all justice Tris deserved to die for what he helped do to Dak. But then so did Cal. And Lor. And more than them, Father. Were I to invoke justice to kill one, the same justice would demand I kill the others. But how would Dak be honored by killing half my family? A story beginning like that would be a tragedy, with the killer spending the rest of the tale under a curse. Then too, if I hated Tris and the others for trying to kill me, their own blood, what would it say about me if I did the same to them? I'd be no better than they are. The thought of descending to their level was revolting.

I have no business dealing out justice anyway. I'm just an angry kid who can hit hard. Maybe I have good reason to be angry. But once I began killing for justice, where should it end? And where should mercy begin?

There were any number of reasons I might kill, but as long as I had no answers to these questions the pursuit of my own idea of justice can't be one of them.

Regardless of what I wanted, I wasn't sure I could trust myself. I hadn't anticipated my reaction to seeing Tris at all. I never even thought about him if I could help it. I might have all the reasons in the world to behave honorably, but it would do no good if I let myself get that angry again. The anger was still there, but I forced it down. Little by little, I walled it off until I couldn't feel it anymore.

The sun was long gone by the time I finished.