For centuries, the Warder’s Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the nations of the sky a way to avoid war, as their chosen warders settle disputes through magical duels of blade and sigil. But that peace is on the edge of crumbling, crushed between the aggression of the Mertikan Empire and the determination of the still-free nations to not be consumed.
Twaa-Fei may be neutral, but it is also home to a million intrigues, schemes, and deadly intentions. Michiko and Kris arrive in this treacherous world together, bladecrafters eager to serve their countries—Michiko as a junior warder for Katuke, a vassal of the empire, Kris as an upstart challenging to win a seat for his home, Rumika, in the Circle. But before the young bladecrafters have even settled in, a power struggle erupts, a man’s head is parted from his shoulders, and every good thing Michiko thinks she knows about the empire comes into question.
A storm is coming, and Kris and Michiko stand at its eye. Will it bind the nations of the sky together… or tear it apart?
Born to the Blade—a new series co-written by Marie Brennan, Cassandra Khaw, Malka Older, and Michael R. Underwood—launches April 18th with Serial Box. Episode 1 is free to all, and new episodes appear weekly.
Rain cut through the forest like cannon fire.
The sound was terrifying, but it provided invaluable cover as Eriko stalked toward the castle. Reduced visibility. Covered the sound of her steps.
It was a gift from the ancestors, a sign of their approval.
* * *
Eriko spotted the first guard relieving himself off the side of the island, the open sky plunging down hundreds of feet to the Mists below.
Her blade flashed, speckled by the downpour.
He never had the chance to scream.
* * *
She pushed the guard’s body off the side. Watched it swallowed by the Mists, never to be seen again.
Clad in the guard’s armor and cloak, she continued.
* * *
The next guards were better prepared, standing back to back atop a hill along the path to the castle.
Eriko hid behind a tree and traced the sigil Chameleon’s Cloak. Silver light followed the path of her sword, snapping into place as she completed the form.
The rare purple of her Mertikan soldier’s cloak muted into greens and browns.
* * *
Eriko stalked after the fourth guard, walking the road leading to the castle. The soldier sang in a rich, full voice, some Mertikan drivel about a bird flying home through a storm. This woman might not be a killer, might be a fellow Kakutan conscript. But Eriko had made her choice.
* * *
Just inside the woods, barely out of sight, Eriko cut the Songbird, duplicating the young soldier’s voice.
She stepped out and turned the corner within sight of Vigilance Castle. The island floated two hundred feet higher than Kakute, just a quarter mile of open sky between them. It was a perfect perch from which to protect Kakute’s western edge.
And a perfect place for the prisoners the Mertikan empire wished to keep well out of the way.
* * *
Eriko stood at the gates and shouted the words “Lilac Lance!” in the young soldier’s voice. Her colleagues had gleaned the pass-phrase and guard rotation from the drunken private they’d kidnapped the week before.
The Mertikans opened the gate, and she was in.
* * *
The Golden Lord of Kakute sat in his cell, tending the flame of his spirit.
For forty years, his life had been reduced to a cell not four yards to a side, and a hallway beyond. Guards came with food, left with waste, and that was his whole world.
His last true visitor—the empress of Mertika—had come most of a decade ago. She’d regaled him with how Kakute was thriving under the empire, its children adding to the might of her navy—and of how soon his people’s warlike ways would be but a shameful memory. Her cruel smile was burned into his mind like an unending sigil. But she’d failed to break his spirit on that last visit, as she’d failed before.
The sound of a swinging door and hammering rain stole his attention away from his nightly exercises. He stood to watch a guard in a rain-drenched cloak walk inside.
“That storm is something. You’ll need this,” she said, taking off the cloak. As she held it out to the waiting guard, the normal night became something else.
The flash of a sigil filled the room, and with uncanny speed, the newcomer’s blade slashed across the necks of both guards. The two slumped to the floor, dead.
She pulled keys from one guard’s belt and unlocked the Golden Lord’s cell.
“Quick, change into the uniform,” she said. “There’s a cart just outside and to the left. The pass-phrase is ‘remembrance.’”
She swung the door open. For a moment the Golden Lord thought he was dreaming.
But this was real. He traded clothes, and as he strapped on one of his jailer’s side-swords, an emptiness more painful than hunger filled him once more. He’d lived his young life by the blade, and now he might have the chance to turn it to rescue his people.
The Golden Lord cut the sigil Enduring Mountain to refresh his stamina. With a surge of golden light, he was flush with energy, more alive than he had felt in ages. The blade nearly called for him to do more, but instead he resheathed the sword. There was little time.
“Keep the cloak up, and don’t answer anyone but Toku, the driver. He’s wearing a golden sword pin. Now go!”
“What about you?”
“One guard in, one guard out. Anything else draws suspicion. I’ve made my choice.”
She chose to die. For him. She’d seen perhaps twenty years. Old enough to be dangerous, young enough to throw away her life for a history she never knew.
“What is your name, child?”
Her voice shook. “I am Hideyama no Eriko.”
Hideyama. She was from the south. He remembered those mountains. That view. “I will remember you, Eriko.”
And then he beat his escape. It was all he could do not to break into a sprint. Hood up and head down, he was indistinguishable from the other guards, especially in this downpour. He wished to throw his cloak back, let the rain wash away his captivity, but he could not afford to be sentimental now.
Fifty yards into the woods, he saw a blurred glint of moonlight on gold.
The sword pin.
“Remembrance,” he called into the stormy night. A horse stirred. A man his age, maybe sixty-five years, emerged from the brush to wave him over to a hidden cart.
* * *
They came for her quickly. Bad luck, poor timing . . . the reason didn’t matter.
The first two she caught by surprise.
Then two more. One caught her across the arm before she ran him through.
Minutes later four came at once.
They could not be allowed to know that he’d escaped. He needed time.
As the guards advanced, hiding behind pole arms, she cut the air, forming sigils for fire. Breadth.
“For Kakute,” she said, and the world went white.
* * *
The two made their way through the muddied forest and onto the road, cloaks pummeled by the rain.
Toku explained the rest of the plan. “There is a Kakute ship waiting, nestled in the mantle of the island. The captain is loyal. Stay in the hold; I’ll take care of everything. We can make Twaa-Fei within a week. From there, we rally the people.”
The Golden Lord clapped Toku on the shoulder. “I wish I could see the empress’s face when she receives news of what you’ve done here today. You make your ancestors proud.”
An explosion rocked the cart.
The Golden Lord looked back. A plume of unnatural fire erupted fifty feet into the air. Then an entire corner of the castle collapsed, spreading a wave of dust.
The driver nodded. “For Kakute. We must hurry.”
* * *
That night, one martyr with a blade and one driver with a horse-drawn cart changed the course of history. Together they cast a stone whose ripples would spread across the skies and touch all of the nations that lived above the Mists.
Oda no Michiko watched the navigator of the Silver Sparrow at work in the pink skies of the morning.
The navigator’s blade was a plain but functional greatsword. She guided the ship with practiced grace, her blade carving great sweeping sigils in the air that wrapped around her in all directions, igniting in shimmering white upon completion. She used mostly Soaring Eagle to keep the ship aloft, but also Turning Stone to navigate and Enduring Mountain to replenish her endurance.
Michiko had learned the sigils for flying a ship early on, but left them behind when she found her passion for dueling.
When the navigator was satisfied with the ship’s course and the strength of the sigil keeping it aloft, she finished her form and nodded to Michiko, yielding the aft deck. She’d continue her work on the foredeck while Michiko drilled.
Michiko drew her own sword—a slim cut-and-thrust blade with a swept hilt—and began her forms. She started slow to shake loose the soreness from sleeping in an unfamiliar bed.
As she practiced, her thoughts drifted to the promise of the journey’s completion.
In Twaa-Fei, she would be Michiko, Junior Warder, honored daughter of Kakute. Loyal bladecrafter of the Mertikan empire. She would forge a beautiful tomorrow for her people.
It could not come soon enough.
In the three weeks since she’d won the Cherry Blossoms Tournament, her life had been like the breath between stillness and a lunge. She knew her moment was coming; all she had to do was wait and seize the opportunity when it came.
Now it was here, and she could not wait for the next step. Arriving in Twaa-Fei. Meeting Master Kensuke and the other warders. Testing her mettle against the best and brightest from the other nations.
She took a long breath. Patience was one of the great virtues. She would not let ambition and eagerness overshadow the power of this moment, what it meant to her people. Proof of Kakute’s worth in the empire.
Soon the ship would be stopping in Rumika.
After the governor had offered Michiko the position of junior warder, his attendant had given her a package with carefully copied reports rolled up in a scroll case, bound by a lock that could only be opened by the pommel of her blade. The reports said this much: Rumika had selected a candidate to challenge for a seat at the embassy. Kris would face the Gauntlet, a series of bladecraft duels with representatives of each nation, thereby seeking to earn their votes to make Kris the first warder of Rumika. It was not an unexpected move, given the turn in Rumika’s fortunes, economy booming thanks to an innovation in processing and enchanting aerstone.
For centuries, Rumika had kept mainly to themselves, trading as necessary but not often traveling abroad. But with their new, mysterious breakthrough with aerstone, Rumika had spread their wings and taken to the sky.
Where people from Kakute were born with the birthright to be able to speak with their ancestors, and true Mertikans the ability to remember their past lives, Rumikans’ birthright involved changing bodies between male-coded and female-coded forms. Some did it as regularly as changing clothes or hairstyles, some changed on their birth days, and others, like Kris, followed a schedule based on religious beliefs. Some changed their pronouns when they changed their bodies; some did not.
Kris’s arrival on the ship would give Michiko the opportunity to prepare her own report, a measure of this aspirant and what challenge Kris might present to the empire. She could begin her work for Mertika even before the ship ported in Twaa-Fei.
* * *
The Sparrow made its stop in Rumika that afternoon, taking on three more passengers. Two were attendants: one older, slim, with silver hair and pale features. The second was young, with wide shoulders and light brown skin.
The third was a striking youth around Michiko’s age or maybe a shade older, perhaps twenty. Their skin was the color of mahogany and they had long black hair, tied into a loose tail. They wore a tightly boned bodice and a flowing skirt with a tail tied up and around their waist like a belt, and carried a blade that looked valuable enough to feed a small household for a year, a sword even more fine than her own. Its wielder could only be Kris Denn, the aspirant.
After the captain greeted the Rumikans, Michiko glided across the deck toward them.
“Hello and welcome. I am Oda no Michiko, appointee to be Junior Warder of Kakute. Might you be Kris Denn?”
Kris regarded Michiko, taking in her clothes and her sword. They smiled.
“I am,” Kris said. Their voice was a rich, melodic alto. Kris bowed elaborately at the hip. “A great pleasure to meet you, Michiko. This is Alyx, my seneschal, and Nik, my valet.” Kris gestured to the silver-haired elder and then the strapping youth. The two nodded in turn.
Michiko gave the Rumikan a crisp, shallow bow and nodded to the attendants. “Pleased to meet you all.”
“Kakute, eh? So I’ll be dueling your master soon enough. Any tips?” Kris winked, throwing away the comment.
Michiko smiled politely, and was spared the awkwardness of replying to Kris’s comment by a shout from the rigging.
The deckhands scattered, the bosun shouting orders, calling for sailors to arm themselves. Michiko watched them, unsure what she was supposed to do to help.
Then three huge jagged maws rose over the side of the ship, roaring with hunger and rage.
Excerpted from Born to the Blade, copyright © 2018