Exalted: Duty and Honor
“Mother, what does ‘romance’ mean?”
Sogeki looked up from his book of poetry, watching his mother at work. The warmth of the afternoon sun spilt into the operating room through open doors, blowing auspiciously through sticks of healing incense and carrying the flows of diseased Essence out of the building. His mother spared him a smile, her hands wrist-deep in the open chest cavity of another soldier.
“It means love, Sogeki-chan.”
The reek of alcohol and blood always seemed to soak the room, but Sogeki didn’t mind. He’d grown up in buildings like this, watching his mother work, or in command tents where his father marshaled his troops and drilled tactics into them. He tilted his head, looking back at the poem, trying to fit that into his young mind. “Does that mean you and I are in romance?”
Sogeki’s mother nearly dropped her scalpel, and several of her aides tittered behind their masks. “No, it doesn’t.” She took a minute to regain her composure, before resuming the careful implantation of the next in the line of aegis-inset amulets. “There are many kinds of love, Sogeki-chan. Romance is a love between a man and a woman, or two men or two women.”
Sogeki wrinkled his nose. “Like Mariko-chan and me?”
Kirigasa Yumi smiled and turned to her son. “That is the hope, child. But that is many, many years away. If the blood of the Dragons runs as thickly in her veins as it does yours, then she will make an excellent wife for you. And we hope you will feel romance toward her.”
“And even if you do not, you will do your duty.” The entire room subtly drew to attention as Kirigasa Jubei stepped inside. Sogeki swallowed and stood, bowing formally to his father.
“Are you filling the boy’s head with nonsense again, Yumi?” Jubei looked over her shoulder with a critical eye. “He should be studying the harmonic Essence flows in these amulets, not reading flowery poetry.”
Yumi gave her husband a withering glare and elbowed him back away from her table with a grunt and just slightly more force than would have been playful. “I do not tell you how to assign your troops, Kazei Jubei. Do not tell me how to raise my son.”
Jubei grunted and turned to Sogeki. “You will marry Tishina Mariko, if she Exalts as you will. You will sire many children upon her, who will spread forth and continue the Kirigasa line. That is your duty. Romance is irrelevant.”
Sogeki wrinkled his nose. “But… Mariko-chan is a girl!”
Yumi laughed, and Jubei frowned. “Nevertheless, you will do your duty.” He turned back to Yumi and gestured to the soldier on the slab. “Thirteen more await. We march when Descending Fire begins.”
“I will have your weapons ready by then, Kazei.” Yumi did not look up from the table again, and eventually, Jubei left.
After he was gone, Yumi let out a sigh. “Your father is not wrong, Sogeki-chan. You will do your duty, whether or not you come to love Mariko. But he is also not right. Romance is not irrelevant. It can make honor pleasant, duty enjoyable, and obligation tolerable.”
Sogeki thought for a moment. “Are you and father in romance?”
Yumi did not reply.
Sogeki hit the ground hard, feeling the unyielding earth welcome him with stoic disinterest. His cheek throbbed, his vision swam. Slowly, he pushed himself up enough to look up at the smirking face of Nefvarin Qin. The older boy grinned cruelly and slowly, deliberately, wrapped his arm around the waist of Tishina Mariko, pulling her close to him. Mariko made no move to stop him, staring down at Sogeki emotionlessly.
“You’re not good enough for her, Kirigasa.” Several other boys had gathered to watch the confrontation, Qin’s posse of louts and thugs. “A Minor Gentes? Please.”
Sogeki felt his cheeks burn, the shame of his station stinging. It made him incautious. “You think I don’t know about your Gens?” He rolled onto his back, laughing up at Qin. “Your blood is as low as mine.”
It was the wrong thing. Qin turned red. “You fucking little nothing!” A well-aimed kick sent shocks of pain through Sogeki’s ribs, and he curled in on himself to try to avoid the punishment. Qin kicked him again and again, eventually sat on him and punched him into the dirt. Sogeki tried to fight back, but the older boy was Fire Aspected, and Sogeki was nothing, yet.
Eventually, Qin stood, spat down on Sogeki. “You’re nothing, Kirigasa. Weak, just like your mother.” He laughed. “If you ever do Exalt, you’ll probably be a Wood Aspect just like her!”
The boys left, laughing and sniggering about “Wood Aspects,” leaving Sogeki coughing blood into the dust. Mariko looked over her shoulder only once, and the look of pity in her eyes left Sogeki praying to the Dragons that he would never, ever be a Wood Aspect.
Sogeki sat before the shrine to the Dragons and Tien Yu, two prayers laid out before him in red-inked calligraphy. One asked the spirits for their favor as he applied to become a field medic. The other asked the spirits to bless his endeavors as he sought admission to the rangers.
Behind him, Jubei and Yumi both knelt, clad in their finest kimonos, their hair neatly pinned with lacquered needles. Neither spoke. An hour before, they had cajoled, pleaded, entreated, and even ordered Sogeki to choose. Now, the choice was his to make.
He looked at his hands, felt a surge of helplessness well up in his chest. His sixteenth birthday had come and gone, and the Dragons had not yet seen fit to bless him. While Exaltation was not beyond him, it spoke poorly of his character. The time had come for him to choose a path and hope that his destiny was yet to be revealed.
He let a hand linger on the first prayer. The lines of the calligraphy were slow and careful, almost longing. It promised a life of meaning, of service. It meant a life of safety and security. It was a life that, if he was not chosen by the Dragons, he could survive.
The other was slashed angrily onto the page, and furious brush-strikes marred the otherwise skilled writing. It meant a life of violence and isolation, of time spent away from home and family, of service to the greater Legion. If he did not Exalt, it meant a short and brutal life.
Once again, he heard Nefvarin Qin’s mocking laugher, felt the words “Wood Aspect” spat in his face time and again. He clenched his fist around the first prayer, tossed it aside. Behind him, his mother sobbed once, softly. He refused to turn around. Slowly, reverently, he pushed the second prayer forward, pressed his forehead to the floor, and began to chant.
“The hobgoblin advance force is closer than reported, Taizei Qin.” Sogeki bowed formally to his commanding officer, struggling to keep the resentment from his voice. “They will be upon us within the day.”
Qin snorted disdainfully, looking to his other scouts. Sogeki was the only ranger assigned to the wing, but Qin had his own forward reconnaissance, hand-picked from the soldiers of Gens Nefvarin. He gestured to the map laid out in his command tent, where numerous markers indicated the reported location of the Fair Folk.
“Your report conflicts with my own intelligence, Chuzei.” Qin wielded the lower rank like a whip, driving home Sogeki’s place in the hierarchy.
“With all respect to your scouts, Taizei, they have been misled. The hobgoblins are cunning, and have used their fey magic to befuddle your men.”
Qin sneered, shaking his head. “It is you who have been ensorcelled, Kirigasa. Or perhaps you are seeking to make me look foolish, eh?”
Sogeki shook his head, muttering under his breath. “You do not need me for that.”
Qin caught the comment and turned red, smoke curling from his arms. He backhanded Sogeki hard, driving him once again to the ground. Only the stares of his subordinate officers kept him from going further.
“Get out of my sight, Kirigasa. I can’t stand to look at a weak little Wood Aspect like you.”
Sogeki stood, wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth, bowed, and left the tent.
Sweat poured down Sogeki’s face, stuck his brown leathers to his skin. Resplendent Fire made the East a sauna, thick and oppressive. The din of battle did nothing to cool the afternoon. The hobgoblins whooped and screamed as they descended on the legion force, a seemingly endless tide of them pouring over the mossy ridges and charging down on the beleaguered defenders.
Nefvarin Qin stood at the fore, his flaming aura forcing his men to keep their distance, but likewise keeping back the Fair Folk. His jade sword slashed into the attackers again and again, but there were always more coming.
Sogeki crouched in a tree two hundred yards away, impotent and removed. The defenders were packed so tightly together, he could only fire a shot here and there, and though every arrow unerringly found its mark, it did nothing to stem the tide. In front of his eyes, men were dying, lying bleeding on the moss, and he knew that if he had been trained as a medic, he could save them.
Sogeki’s vantage offered him a view of the battlefield that could not be matched on the ground. He saw the hobgoblin reinforcements swinging around to pin Qin’s troops in a vice maneuver. He saw Qin standing atop a small pile of dead Fair Folk, his anima flaring like a righteous banner.
All the abuse, all the insults, suddenly seemed to come back to the fore of Sogeki’s mind, replayed in slow motion a hundred times. Qin looked so self-important, so proud and righteous, and yet, for an instant, Sogeki understood that he had the superior position, had all the power of life and death over Qin in his hands.
Sogeki felt a sudden, deep-rooted anger grow in his chest, and he drew an arrow, nocked it. The fletching touched his cheek almost before he realized he had drawn. He sighted down the length of the weapon as he moved to a crouch. The movement drew Qin’s attention, and Sogeki took some measure of satisfaction from the sudden blanch of fear on his face.
“What are you…?”
In the instant he released the arrow, time seemed to stand still. A bright, pulsing energy flowed through his limbs, and he felt one with the arrow in a way he had never known before. Before the fletching cleared the curve, he knew it was a killshot. His smile was beatific.
The arrow buried itself in the skull of the Fair Folk riding down behind Qin, and suddenly there were two Dragon-Blooded facing the horde. Before Sogeki could do more than stand, the hobgoblin attack had turned into a rout, as Fair Folk fled in all directions. In moments, the forest was clear of all but the dead and dying.
Sogeki sighed softly, his bright green anima clashing with Qin’s fiery red.