He was stuck. Great.
People pressed at Genshu Masanori from all sides, packed like canes of bamboo to make way for the procession of dancers. Lithe bodies leapt around sapphire paper dragons. Glimmering coils spiralled to the rhythm of festival drums. Pops of smoke and light fanned out to reveal the illusory shapes of hulking demons, which the performers slew with precise cuts of their katana to cheers of the crowd.
Masanori craned his neck, trying to look over the parade and to the other side of the dancers. The Dragon Goddess Fountain sprayed a prism of indigo water into the pool below, and several figures sat on the edge, but he couldn’t see their faces. Aihi told him to meet her in the square, but that had been before the schedule for the Midsummer Festival changed and they rerouted a whole parade because some kids thought it would be funny to vandalize the streets that morning with a fake O-Kuruma summoning ritual.
Okay, no, those mock spells were hilarious. When he was younger, Masanori tried conjuring demons—and failed—too. His stunts came much to the dismay of his ‘proper’ parents who wanted nothing more than for him to sit still in a laboratory instead of fantasizing about slaying monsters. Unfortunately, this trickery interfered with the first time Masanori was going to see Aihi for more than a passing smile in the palace hallways in over a month.
He wriggled closer to the side of the procession. Was that her on the edge of the fountain? Glossy black hair, fine blue haori overcoat, looking away from the parade instead of at it? Ugh, who else would come all this way not to spare a single glance at the magnificent dancers?
Now he had to find a way across, and waiting out the show would take far too long. Aihi would give up and leave. Then he could kiss any chance of training with a sword outside the watchful eyes of his clan goodbye.
A woman elbowed Masanori in the ribs, pushing him into another man. Who then shoved Masanori back. Before he got a word in, the crowd fed him to the wolves and threw him right into the dancers.
A katana arced from a performer and toward Masanori’s exposed collar. He leaned out of the way and then ducked a second strike meant for the mirages rising from the smoke. Masanori grinned, and instead of backing off, assimilated into the cadence of the dance.
Now he’d found his way across.
In another lifetime, he could have been a true martial artist, a warrior, dancing on a battlefield and striking down wyverns and any beasts unfortunate enough to cross his path. A swipe and a stab, and the acrobats reduced the illusions to ash.
Masanori swirled under and around swords with each turn. He maintained the dancers’ flow, manipulating forbidden battle stances to inch toward the other side of the road. The katana at his waist was his mother’s, and drawing the blade would have made him a warrior-dancer, too, if for a few minutes. But he was too inexperienced with swords, and he wasn’t foolish enough to risk lopping off someone’s head for a thrill.
The rhythm of the dance shifted, and Masanori twisted in the opposite direction of the acrobats. A katana soared through the smoke—straight for his solar plexus. To avoid the strike, he careened backward and right into another dancer. They stumbled, two more performers toppling onto the market’s cobbled ground.
“Watch it, kid!”
A series of curses, and then a blade flew in Masanori’s direction. Gasps echoed from the crowd as the catastrophe erupted, him right in the middle.
A hand from outside the pack of dancers grabbed his sleeve and yanked him away from the incoming sword. Masanori toppled, praying to the Dragon Goddess that he wouldn’t land on the sharp end of a misplaced weapon. He fell into the centre of the square, smacking his head against the stone edge of the Goddess fountain.
“Trying to get yourself killed already? We’ve yet been here ten minutes.”
Hidekazu loomed from above. Streams of his ebony hair fell over his shoulders, at least what wasn’t captured in a messy topknot. The familiar blue haori Masanori had spotted from across the road billowed around Hidekazu’s thin arms when he offered a hand.
Masanori scowled instead of accepting. It wasn’t Aihi he spotted on the fountain, but his twin brother, Hidekazu. The only other person who would rather read a book than watch the parade.
“Relax, I had everything under control.” Masanori rubbed the sore spot at the back of his skull. The injury would throb for a few days, but better than another stab wound.
“Consider being nearly eviscerated by a blade not aimed at you a warning not to test the Goddess’ patience.” Laughter erupted from Hidekazu, bemused by his own joke. Though it was a joke, the laughter only stung Masanori more.
“You sound like you’re telling me to give up. Why should I when you’re on the verge of achieving what we’ve both wanted our entire lives?” Masanori glared at his twin’s lanky form. “You’re built like a bamboo pole, not a proper bushi, yet you’ll become one before me.”
Bushi. The word spread across Masanori’s tongue like ash—the flavour of desolated dreams.
He and Hidekazu longed to join the ranks of bushi, the warrior elite who fought to defend Seiryuu, their homeland, from a myriad of threats. Demons, spirits, creatures of the night, and, when necessary, from neighbouring nations who might be foolish enough to challenge Seiryuu.
“If it was up to me, I would let you take my place, Masa.” Hidekazu’s words rang hollow in Masanori’s ears.
“Then why don’t you?”
Around them, the Midsummer Festival carried on, singers and drums filling the evening with music and laughter. Hidekazu wouldn’t meet his eyes. He stared at the statue of the Goddess, Shirashi, where mist spewed from the fanged mouth of her dragon form. “It’s not so simple.”
“Father changed his mind for you just because you have ki and I don’t?” Masanori’s fingers thrummed along the hilt of his mother’s katana, a family heirloom which he’d taken without permission. “He’ll swear up and down that he doesn’t think less of me because I’m not a majyu, but here you are, training to become a bushi, and I’m stuck as a ki-engineer.” He squeezed the sword in an attempt to not let that bother him, too, but it always would: “A ki-engineer with no ki.”
Cursed without the gift of the Goddess—ki, the energy that flowed through every living and non-living object.
Over fifty percent of the Seiryan population could manipulate the natural elements—fire, water, earth, and air—to some degree by using ki. However, many also lived without the Goddess’ grace in their veins and didn’t feel neglected like Masanori did. But he was different. Born to the Genshu clan, one of the most prolific families of majyu—ki wielders—Masanori was supposed to be special like Hidekazu, who could conjure all four elements at will.
Most majyu could use one or two. Masanori had none, not even a spark to fuel his so-called ki-engineering projects.
Until now, at least. He thumbed the leather cord hanging from his collar, weighed down by a pouch tucked beneath his kimono. If Hidekazu refused to talk about his arrangement with Genshu Dano, their father and clan leader, then Masanori wasn’t going to share his latest invention, either.
Hidekazu waggled his hand, still waiting for Masanori to accept. “Come on, the Midsummer Festival is all about embracing the past in a new light.”
“Really? Then why do we always spend the night feasting on sweet pudding and taiyaki?” Masanori could practically taste the flaky, fish-shaped pastries melting in his mouth.
“That, my brother, is my favourite kind of worship.”
With a grin, Masanori conceded and took Hidekazu’s hand. “I thought your favourite was those fake O-Kuruma summoning rituals that Bushi Uriku always tricked the kids into. I wonder if he was the one who got them into trouble this morning.”
“Probably, but we’re not twelve anymore,” Hidekazu said. “I think we’re a little past trying to summon the Demon Lord to fix our problems.”
“Hey, speak for yourself. I wanted to summon him so I could become a bushi. Though, I wonder if the spells failed because we never offered taiyaki.”
“Let’s not try, huh?”
The twins laughed as they strode under streamers of dragon-shaped paper lanterns. Nothing like strange childhood memories to lighten the mood. Fervent years spent trying call one of the Dragon Goddess’ most disobedient children—O-Kuruma—back into the world so Masanori could be the one to defeat him, claim the glory, as well as an honorary title as bushi. The fantasy had seemed like his only chance to prove himself, but of course, it was only that: a fantasy. At least he still had his friends to spar with.
Masanori’s parents would make him wash floors for twelve hours straight and ban him from the Jyutsu Laboratory—where he laboured as a ki-engineer—if they caught him breaking their clan laws again this month. Seldom were he and Hidekazu caught when they used festivals as camouflage, however. Besides, the risk was worthwhile for Masanori because sneaking away meant spending time with Aihi.
The energetic crowd filled the market square. He scanned the throes of attendees garbed in their colourful festival kimonos for any sign of Aihi. Hidekazu had distracted him from finding her. “Speaking of the festival, I thought Aihi and Torra were supposed to meet us to watch the Fire Dancers? And then, you know, abscond…”
“Aihi changed her mind, said they will meet us at the tamashii tree as usual to spar in the morning,” Hidekazu said.
Masanori tried to shrug off his disappointment at having to wait until morning to see Aihi. They lived a stone’s throw away, but he and Hidekazu saw less and less of her. As the princess heir to the Warlock Throne, they expected her schedule to fill with her growing list of state duties; that didn’t mean Masanori had to be happy with reality.
One day, Aihi would replace the emperor, her father, as empress. But to Masanori and Hidekazu, she was a friend, more like an older sister, first.
“Can’t imagine why she and Torra need to be on their own,” Masanori muttered. “What’s the point of us coming here if we’re not going to, you know, be together?”
Hidekazu shrugged, “Girls will be girls,” and bit into a taiyaki without a second thought.
“Not sure why I’m asking you. You’d rather gaze longingly into your textbooks than even think of women—hey, where did you get that?”
He handed Masanori a second taiyaki, and in seconds, the delicious treat crunched in Masanori’s mouth, releasing the sweet red bean paste. A touch of heaven for his tastebuds.
“I won’t apologize for choosing to advance my mind rather than expend brain cells drooling over unavailable women.”
Masanori chuckled. “We all have our vices.”
The comment about women wasn’t meant as a criticism of Hidekazu but an observation. Ever since Masanori started ‘drooling over unavailable women,’ as his twin put it, Hidekazu instead withdrew further into his books. At times, Masanori suspected Hidekazu was more into men, but he seemed disinterested in relationships of any kind.
Meanwhile, Masanori hadn’t been shy about getting with Zahra, a fellow ki-engineer, as well as a long list of young women who could cut him before he blinked—with words, folding fans, the occasional sword. As one of the explosives experts at the labs, Zahra was more likely to blow him up. Maybe it was for the best that they weren’t seeing each other anymore.
With every lesson Aihi gave Masanori with a sword, he hoped to impress her. That would be no easy feat: not only was she the fiercest warrior their age, but she was also a better majyu than Hidekazu and had the cunning to argue the feathers off a tengu. She’d done it before.
Okay, she also had eyes like cloudy onyx and the natural authority to rival the Goddess herself. Still, it was the first three qualities that had Masanori running in mental circles.
As they came upon the Crimson Gardens, the crowd became dense and oppressive, and Masanori let Hidekazu lead the way. At this rate, finding a spot with a good view of the Fire Dancers was going to be impossible; the show was about to begin. Being short for his age, Masanori didn’t have the advantage of height to peer over the masses, either, unlike Hidekazu.
Sulphur tinged the air from the crackle of amber fireworks overhead, several whizzing above the crowd shaped as birds before exploding in showers of light.
“Maybe we should go in search of those O-Kuruma summoning rituals instead,” Masanori joked when he caught up to Hidekazu. They were now at the back of the gardens amongst the scarlet azalea where they could still see nothing, even as the crowd whooped and cheered.
“I’m not ready to give up.” Hidekazu glanced in the opposite direction of the show, and Masanori’s gaze followed him to a nearby maple tree. “I have an idea.”
Skeptical, Masanori followed him toward the trunk. He glanced back at the show, where they were now far enough to witness one of the Fire Dancers leap into the fiery spirals of an elemental dragon and spring up into the sky, ribbons of amber light twisting behind them.
Masanori’s eyes gravitated toward the stunning display. “Woah…”
Ki buzzed through the garden, and the crowd swayed with the movement of energy. Warmth smacked into Masanori, and he almost toppled over from the force. Yet he couldn’t tear his gaze from the performers who soared like graceful birds.
While the first dancer became a dragon made of fire, the second bounced from the stage, an explosion of cascading white energy and crystals, morphing into a second dragon—this time one of pure ice and snow.
Masanori gaped. “Hide, are you watching this?”
“Yeah. I’ve never seen anything like it. Let me get my notebook…”
“Is now the time?” Masanori glanced from the display at the sound of ruffling paper. Hidekazu was trying to free a notebook he had stuffed into his kimono, tearing a page in the process.
A spark of purple on the other side of Hidekazu drew Masanori’s eye. He shivered in the wake of chilly energy racing across his skin. “Did you see that?” The words were thick in Masanori’s mouth.
Hidekazu diverted his attention from his notebook and claimed his minimized staff from a different pocket. Azure energy flickered at his fingertips as the weapon extended to full length. “I felt it.”
Purple was the colour crystals at the labs turned when their energy became impure. Those crystals were always discarded; they had to be. Such tainted ki was the manifestation of imbalance, corruption in its rawest form, threatening the synergy of the natural elements.
“Somebody help!” a woman’s shrill cry came from the bushes alongside the flickering lavender light.
Masanori’s hand dropped to his mother’s katana. He might be inexperienced with real fights, but he wasn’t afraid to use the sword if he had to. No one else nearby reacted to the woman’s call.
A wicked cackle cut her off.
Masanori’s feet moved. This would be the day he used the sword against his first true enemy.