Exalted: Duty and Honor
Sogeki knelt in his finest kimono, the bamboo mat beneath his knees rustling with each restless movement. Before him, his father knelt likewise, in the same prayer kimono he had worn when his son burned incense to the Dragons. Between them, a long, lacquered case stretched lengthwise, the elaborate jade decoration along the case alone worth a small fortune.
“You have made this family proud, my son,” Kirigasa Jubei spoke, though no hint of kindness or pleasure touched his stony face. “You have earned the blessing of the Dragons, and now you take your rightful place as one of the Princes of the Earth.”
Sogeki lowered his head, the gesture serving equally well as honored thanks and shame. “I am sorry, father. I do not deserve the honor you bestow.”
Jubei frowned. “What foolishness is this?”
Sogeki clenched his eyes tightly shut. “I am a Wood Aspect, father. I know that disappoints you. I am sorry I shamed you by failing to become an Earth…”
Jubei moved like a striking snake, his hand clasping his son’s wrist tightly. “Listen to me very carefully, Sogeki. You have not shamed me. I am proud of you for Exalting, no matter your Aspect.”
Sogeki stared. “But… the way you and Mother…”
Jubei let go of his son’s wrist with a disgusted noise. “My opinions about your mother have little to do with her Aspect. Perhaps Wood Aspects tend toward being weaker than Earth, but I see nothing of weakness in you.” He lifted a finger. “You do not shame me. Now, no more foolishness.” He gestured to the box.
Sogeki slowly, reverently opened the clasp, canted back the lid of the box. He nearly choked. Inside was a jade powerbow, carved into the likeness of two dragon’s heads, coiling up and back until their bodies and tails became the curve. The grip was wrapped with fine leather, and the string was a cord of knotted wire.
“This is Mercy’s Last Breath. It was forged in the first days of the Shogunate by your many-times-great grandfather, Kirigasa Wasum. It has been handed down from generation to generation, from the hand of one Dragon-Blooded soldier to the next. This bow claimed the life of Warlord Thrang, when he led his legions to conquer the Thousand Kingdoms. This bow felled the behemoth World-Eater as it gorged itself on the now-lost city of Lom. This bow fired the arrow that slew Bagrosh the Vile, when his hordes of hobgoblins swarmed over Greyfalls.”
Jubei lifted the bow from its velvet cradle inside the box and handed it reverently to Sogeki. “And now it is yours. It is a weapon, a tool of death. Know that, come to embrace that, and it will strike true in your hands. Add to its legend, my son, and pass it on to your child when he or she Exalts.”
Sogeki took the bow, felt its weight in his hands. He bowed deeply over it, clutching it to his chest with a sudden and overwhelming feeling of dizziness. “I will, father. Thank you.”
Qin stared listlessly as the last of the hobgoblins scampered away over the mossy knolls. Sogeki, his anima raging around him like a hurricane of leaves and thorns, leapt down from his perch and slowly approached his commanding officer. The rest of the men backed well away, letting the animas of the two Dragon-Blooded clash and spit sparks of Essence as they drew near.
Qin seemed to regain his wits, and laughed spitefully. “Wood Aspect. I should become an oracle."
Sogeki’s lips tightened, and he felt his hand twitch involuntarily toward his quiver. “I saved your life, Qin.”
“Taizei Qin!” The Fire Aspect’s hand tightened on his sword. “I still outrank you, Wood Aspect.”
Sogeki met Qin’s gaze for long, tense moments, before the tension flooded out of him, and he lowered his head. “I apologize, Taizei. I was out of line.”
Qin nodded slowly, before sheathing his sword. “This changes our orders. We make camp as soon as possible and regroup.” He turned his gaze and voice to the gathered soldiers, many of whom were bloodied and weary. “At dawn, we will return to Lookshy for resupply and reinforcement. Then, we will come back here and drive these fey back into the Wyld!”
His men cheered his speech, the Essence of his words flowing through them and restoring their damaged morale. As they broke away to begin making camp, Qin stepped close to Sogeki, letting the clash and feedback from their animas mask his words.
“This doesn’t change anything, Wood Aspect.” Qin’s voice was bitter and hateful, as hateful as Sogeki had ever heard it. “You are still nothing, and nothing is all you’ll ever be!”
Qin turned and stalked away before Sogeki could reply, leaving the ranger staring thoughtfully after him as he departed.
He kept his footfalls soft as he walked through the courtyard of his family’s house, taking in the warmth of Resplendent Wood, watching the blossoms fall lightly off the cherry trees into the koi pond in the center of the sprawling campus. Still, she heard him coming. She did not say so, but he saw in the subtly defensive shift of her shoulders as he knelt behind her.
She lowered her head. “You are leaving.”
He nodded. “I have received orders.”
“From your father?”
Sogeki nodded again. “He has reassigned me.” Sogeki’s mouth quirked in what was almost a smile. “For some reason, my former taizei does not wish to retain my services.”
He could tell she smiled at that. “Good. You deserve better than Nefvarin Qin as a commanding officer.” She sobered quickly. “You will become like him.”
“Your father.” She turned, and he could see tears glistening on her cheeks. “He will make you hard, like him. Hard as stone.”
Sogeki shook his head, though doubt lingered in his throat. “I am my own man, Mother.”
She touched his cheek sadly. “You want to be, my son. You are not yet, but you want to be. That gives me hope.”
She pulled a small, lacquered box from within the folds of her kimono. “I know he has already given you his gift, his weapon. Let me give you mine.”
Sogeki curiously took the box from her, opened it carefully. Inside, a gleaming green sphere sat nestled in silk, flecks of floating, glowing Essence swirling deep inside its crystal depths.
“A Stone of Healing.” She bowed her head. “The hearthstone of this manse, your home. Your father does not know I have given it to you. Let it remind you of home while you are away, and let it remind you that there is more to you than being a weapon.”
He closed the box, bowing deeply. “Thank you, Mother.”
She touched his hair lightly. “I am sorry, my son. I am sorry things did not work out as we planned for you. You were meant to have more than a ranger’s life. I wanted you to be a healer, a surgeon. You would have prestige, honor, wealth, comfort…”
Mariko. The word went unspoken between them.
Sogeki lifted his head and gently kissed his mother on each cheek. “Perhaps I will have all those things, Mother. But first, I will be a weapon. First, I will do my duty.”
He rose and turned, so he would not have to see the fresh tears on her cheeks.
She came to him that night, as he lay in his tent, staring up through the thin muslin at the stars glittering above. He saw her first as nothing more than a shadow, moving stealthily through the camp. He watched the indistinct figure resolve into soft curves and slender fingers parting the flaps of his tent, allowing her to slip inside. He did not move as she knelt near his feet, watching him with those hypnotic eyes. Eventually, she spoke first.
“I am not sorry I did not wait for you, Kirigasa Sogeki.”
He snorted. “How could you? Even I doubted I would receive the Second Breath.”
Nefvarin Mariko nodded. “Perhaps that is why it took you so long.”
Another silence stretched between them. In the shadows of the moonlight and torchlight, Sogeki watched the slow rise and fall of her breasts beneath her kimono, watched the flutter of pulse at her throat.
“Did you come to shame me, Mariko-chan?”
She shook her head, lifting her hands to the neck of her clothing. “Not so little anymore.”
He sat up, grabbing her wrist. She seemed so frail in his grip. “You have a duty to your husband.”
She sneered and lifted her head into the light, letting him see the angry purple bruise on her cheek. “My husband is a monster. He spends more time with his soldier boys than he does with me. When he performs his duty, he is angry, and brutal. I am a trophy; he won me, and now he is burdened by me.”
Sogeki touched the swollen flesh of her face, feeling the rough skin beneath his fingers. She did not flinch, though he could see the touch hurt her. “If I had become a surgeon…”
“Then you would not have been here to receive the Second Breath. Or to receive me.”
Suddenly, all Sogeki’s timidity snapped like a bowstring drawn too taut. All the years of abuse, of striving to please his parents, of bowing and scraping, it all bowled him over in a rush of desire. He yearned to taste the flesh of the woman before him, to send an arrow through the eye of Nefvarin Qin, to live free of the constraints and demands of the world around him.
He moved smoothly, pulling Mariko down onto his bedroll and rolling on top of her. His lips pressed down on hers with a hot, fierce need that drew a pleased sound from her throat. Her hands clawed at his bare back, leaving thin lines of raised red along his skin.
And then there was nothing but moonlight and sweat and fulfilled longing.