Late summer, 2257 ab urbe Regelli condita

There was an opponent to either side of me as I stood ready and waiting for Master Wei-fu's direction. His black robes hung off his bony frame and he leaned on his staff. His sparse beard pointed stiffly at me and his eyes flashed with annoyance in the shadow of his brows.

I was stripped down for exercise. The late afternoon sun is never very warm that time of the year in the mountains when summer is dying and there's a scent of autumn in the air. With the sweat from our earlier passes drying on my skin I was feeling the chill.

"Begin!" he cried.

My older brothers Calcedor and Tristan began circling me, each looking for an opening. I moved with them, trying to keep track of both at the same time. Other than the shuffle of our bare feet on the sandy ground, there was no other sound in the training yard.

Tris made the first move, dropping low and sweeping for my feet. Idiot. Maybe he thought he'd surprise me, but he tried this last time we sparred and it hadn't worked that time either. I leaped up and he passed harmlessly beneath. With his weight advantage I had to avoid grappling with him, so I didn't attempt a kick where he could have gotten a grip on my leg and spun away instead.

I found Cal in front of me. I ducked one punch, then grasped his forearm when he jabbed with his right and yanked him off balance. He flailed for a bit and then tried to steady himself by grabbing me around the waist. Before he could bowl me over, I dropped him with an elbow to the back of his head.

Meanwhile, Tris had gotten back up and aimed a flying kick at my back. I turned just in time to spot it, stepped aside, and with a nudge to his ankle helped his body sail right past me. He landed on Cal, who was busy getting back to his feet, and they went down in a heap.

"Enough!" Master sounded displeased, as usual. He addressed my brothers, who were busy untangling themselves from each other. "I thank Your Highnesses for assisting with your brother's lesson. He will require nothing further today."

They rose and headed for the row of pegs where we'd hung up our clothes. Neither of them said anything, but Tris sneered at me when he thought Master couldn't see it and Cal gave me a look that said he'd make me regret that elbow to his thick skull. I crossed my arms and stared at the ground.

A stinging pain across the back of my thighs got my attention. Master was no longer leaning on his staff. It'd be time for the lecture now. His eyes were positively sparking.

"Kitaro, you fool! When will you cease to fight like a rank beginner? I tell you again and again to read the attack before it happens. And yet you wait for it to begin before you react!"

That was just the beginning. I stood silently while he ranted about every single instance of the past two hours where he thought I was less than perfect, including several I swore he made up just to have more to complain about. At last he got tired of shouting at me. "Go now. Tomorrow you should be prepared to demonstrate several of the forms." He turned on his heel and made for the barracks.

"Master? Which of them?"

He didn't bother stopping or even turning his head. "Any of them! All of them! And I expect perfection!" He slammed the door behind him.

Wei-fu, Master of the Tempest Strike martial art, had trained all four of my older brothers, the sons of King Peredur of the tiny mountain realm of Lipak. Now he was training me, the last of them. I was certain he hated me, or was at least sick of me. He was done with all my brothers by the time they were thirteen years old, but here I was a year past that and he gave no sign we were anywhere near finished. No matter what I did and no matter how well I performed for him, there was always some complaint. Today neither Cal nor Tris, both years older and who both weighed about twice what I did, had been able to so much as lay a hand on me. It still wasn't good enough.

I went to get my clothes. My brothers were standing in the way, smirking. No doubt they enjoyed my scolding. I shouldered my way past them. They followed. When I got to the pegs, Tris' arm shot over my head to grab his own tunic, knocking mine to the ground. I glared at him, then hooked it with my toes and kicked it up to my hand. There was no way I was taking my eyes off them.

"Sounds like you've got a problem," Tris drawled as he pulled on his clothes. "Wei-fu doesn't think you can fight, Father doesn't think you can fight... Just what are we going to do with a little runt like you?"

"Go piss into the wind, Tris."

"Big talk for a little guy," Cal snorted.

"I didn't have any trouble with the two of you today."

They both laughed. "You really think that crap Wei-fu teaches has anything to do with real life fighting?" said Tris. "I've led Pass escort patrols a few times now. You'll find out when you ride it yourself, that stuff just doesn't work. If you ever ride it. Father doesn't think you're good for anything but clerking. I say he's right."

"Real life?" I was incredulous. "Tris, you know damn well we haven't had a bandit in the Pass for more than twenty years! The only reason we still do escorts is to make the traders feel like they're getting something for their tolls and to keep them from walking off the edge. What happened? Did Sergeant Thal beat the shit out of you the first night out?" I chose that moment to pull on my own tunic, but it was a mistake. As soon as it was far enough past my head to make a good handle, Tris grabbed my by the front of it, lifted me up, and shoved me against the wall.

"I'm sick of your mouth, you runty weed," he growled. "You want to find out how it feels to get the shit beaten out of you? Let me show you."

He kept me pinned against the wall with one arm and drew back his other fist. In the space of an indrawn breath I considered my options and decided on a vertical hook below the chin with a knee to the groin right after. With luck I'd break his jaw with the first, which would at least shut him up, and the second wouldn't need much force behind it to be satisfying.

"Put him down, Tristan!" In the doorway stood our sister Toriko with her hands on her hips. Ten years my senior, she was even older than Tris and Cal and I think they were still afraid of her from when they were small and Mother set her to mind them. More than a head taller than me, she was lean and willowy with perfect skin, a well-formed mouth and small nose, and absolutely symmetrical features. She had the dark hair that was usual in our family. In Lipak men and women didn't cut their hair, but hers was longer and richer than anyone else's I knew. Sometimes when she was doing manual work or exercise she wore it like a man's, braided into a single long queue down her back that reached nearly to her heels, but usually it was done up into an elaborately tressed crown as it was now. It added to her air of authority. Not that she needed the help.

Cal had been looking pleased at my situation, but now he turned sullen. Tris fixed resentful eyes on her as he let me drop. If he was hoping I'd have a bad landing he was disappointed. Under her gaze, they slunk out. Tris spoke over his shoulder.

"You got lucky, runt. Big sister won't always be there to save you." He looked furious when I flipped him one, but he didn't dare do anything about it just then. He disappeared down the hall.

Tor stood with her hands on her hips watching them go. Then she turned to me and sighed. "I should be annoyed with you for provoking them like that, but I suppose you couldn't help it."

"I could've. I just didn't want to."

"Well don't. You should learn some self-restraint."

"Why should I be the only one around here with any of that?" I slipped by her and stomped into the hallway.

"Hold it!" she called. "You're not going in like that, are you?"

"Like what?"

"You're a mess. Weren't you even going to comb your hair?"

"I'm just headed up to my room. It's not like I was going to show up in court or anything."

She put a hand on top of my head, spun me around, and pushed me toward the nearby bench. "Sit." I sat, straddling it. She sat down behind me and started unbraiding my hair.

"Honestly, Sprout. It's come half undone, and you've got pebbles and bits of straw in it. Now hold still." My hair was now loose, and I felt the tugging of a comb.

It felt so nice I didn't object. She was always messing with my hair, and I didn't mind as long as there wasn't something else I wanted to do. Right now it felt as if she was combing the tension right out of my body. I let out a happy sigh.

"I suppose Wei-fu give you a hard time again."

"Oh, it's not just him. I can't figure out why he hates me so much, but―"

"You think that's all it is?"

"Don't see what else it can be. He had nothing good to say, as usual. But Tris and Cal... They're probably on their way to tell Father how lousy Master said I did, and I don't want to hear it from him today."

"Oh, those two." She had gotten the ends of my hair untangled and now her comb was working higher up, around the small of my back. "Did you do all that badly?"

"I don't think so. I kicked their butts. Just like I always do."

"So what else are they going to do but make you look bad to Father? If he knew how you walk all over them he'd have them doing road repair for the next five years just to 'toughen them up' or 'build their characters' or some idiocy like that."

That got a chuckle out of me.

"He doesn't hate you, you know."

"Who, Tris?"

"No, he despises you. But you knew that. I mean Wei-fu."


"It's true. No one told him to give you double training sessions, he just did it on his own. He even had to argue with Father about it."

That was odd. Here was one more clue among several others I'd recently noticed that things weren't as they seemed around here. Something was going on, and since it had to do with me I was intensely curious. I might have tried to pry more out of Tor, but I was feeling really happy and didn't want to spoil it. She had gotten all the tangles out and was now combing down the entire length. I'd have to work on her later.

"I've always loved your hair, Sprout. It'd be even nicer than mine if you took care of it."

"Mmmmmm..." I had my eyes half-closed and was grinning like an idiot. I probably looked like a cat getting its ears scratched.

"Does your boyfriend like it?"

My eyes snapped wide open, and I gave a start I was certain she could feel. I tried to make the best of it and forced my body to relax again. "That's real funny, Tor."

"It's no use pretending. You and Dak are pretty obvious."

If she wasn't holding me by the hair I'd have jumped to my feet. At that point I gave up with a sigh. "Who else knows?"

"Oh, just half the castle. All the staff, anyway. Probably all their relations in town. And―"

Panic rose in me. "Father doesn't know, does he? They... they call me 'weed' all the time... I thought it was just an insult, but they know too don't they? And they'll tell Father..."

She laughed gently. "That's what they call everyone they don't like. I think if Father and our brothers knew, there'd be no mistaking it."

I started to relax again. Tor separated out the strands for the braid as she went on, "Mind you, I'd like you to keep it that way. That's one reason I brought it up. You guys are going to have to be a lot more careful. Two little boys can be affectionate with each other and no one cares, but you're not little anymore. You really don't want Father to notice."

She started to braid, and I was silent for a while. Finally I blurted out, "But if everyone knows... Why don't they hate me? For that matter, how can you stand me? Nobody likes... weeds."

"Sprout, you're a handful. You're stubborn, you have the most annoying sense of humor of anyone I know when you're not being single-minded beyond belief, you're as subtle as a kick to the stomach, and you pay no attention to your appearance." She finished the queue and tied it off, then put her arms around my shoulders. "You're also my favorite little brother. I couldn't hate you even if I had a reason. And this isn't much of a reason, is it?"

"Most people think it is."

"Do they? Well, they might say so when it's no one in particular. It's different when you already have good reason to like someone before you knew he was a cinaedus."

I had to laugh. "When you say it in Old Regellan you make it sound so dignified."

"Maybe it can be."

"And Father?"

She leaned around and gave me a peck on the cheek. "As I said, please be careful." She rose and went to the doorway. "Don't be late for dinner tonight. The ambassadors from Hachido will be there. You can practice yourYorozushimago."

Her footsteps receded down the hallway, but I remained where I was. Outwardly I was calm: my heart was steady, my breathing regular. But a piece of my world had just been turned upside down and my thoughts were in turmoil. I should talk to Dak about it, but first I wanted to put myself back together. I took my tunic off again and went back into the training yard.

I wasn't really worried about Master examining me in the forms tomorrow. Even though it had been years since he last made me demonstrate them, I practiced them constantly. These were exercises, sequences of slow, deliberate movements that Master said were supposed to instill proper fighting reflexes. I guess some of them did that, especially the weapon forms, but many of the empty-handed forms seemed to have nothing to do with fighting at all. I had good reason to work at them anyway. There was always that feeling, a wonderful feeling, when I performed them just right, as if a fresh wind blew through my whole being that cleansed my mind, swept away confusion, and left me feeling strong and energized. I didn't know what it was. Master hadn't told me to expect it, and after a lesson he was always so busy picking at my least imperfection that I never even considered asking him any questions. But it was absolutely glorious. It was even better than a hot bath, and almost as good as what Dak did to me.

All the forms had these ridiculous poetic names. The one that worked best for me was "Summer Afternoon Rainstorm." It was one of the longest and took the better part of an hour, so I didn't use it as often as some of the others, but today I had little else to occupy me before dinner.

I stood in the middle of the yard and began. The slow movements and the precise positions of the body required concentration, and although my eyes remained open I took no notice of my surroundings. The hand movements cupped the air, swirled, and swept like the breeze blowing through the trees or the billowing clouds, or the waves of tall grass. My feet stepped like the advancing rain across the landscape, rising or falling as it was driven by the wind. Then the strikes, like the lightning followed by the thunder rolling over the mountain peaks only slow, smooth and controlled. The energy built slowly but steadily, and by the middle of the form it was so strong I could almost see it whirling before my eyes. I let it carry me along to the end, when I arrived at the final movements and closed the form. The outside world came back into my awareness.

"Do you know how beautiful you are when you do that?"