The grip was oiled leather, criss-crossed over a wood handle. It felt warm and familiar in Tauski’s hand. The dark brown leather had been worn smooth by centuries of use; Tauski’s as well as his ancestors who had come before him, wielding the blade for the honour of the Zuko clan and the various kings they had served since the blade’s forging.
The lamplight swam before Tauski’s eyes. Too much rice beer, he suspected. Was it cowardly to become drunk the night before a battle? He didn’t think it really mattered. The evening before a conflict was a time for meditation, and one way or another he had achieved that frame of mind. Holding his family’s ancestral sword in hand, the sword that was his last remaining companion as the world he knew fell to pieces around him, there was nothing really left to do but think.
Tauski took another sip of beer. Setting down his cup, he drew his blade from the scabbard and watched the metal glow in the flickering of the lamplight. Forged by the legendary MaoChu-Ne, warrior-smith and later king of Nisho-Gau, the blade had been folded over hundreds of times in a method that had once been the envy of other nations. A sword from Nisho-Gau was worth ten ordinary blades, it had once been said.
Tauski ran his thumb along the blade, smiling as he drew blood. He watched the dark liquid pool on the pad of his thumb and drip onto the top of his sandal. His smile faded into a cold frown. Deadly ancestral blade or no, the world had left Nisho-Gau behind a long time ago, and Tauski with it. He re-sheathed the blade and set the sword across his lap.
This blade is your fate, his father had told him, and the fate of our entire clan. In a way, it is the fate of all the isles of Nisho-Gau, for we have been forsworn as protectors of the king for as long as that blade has been in our family’s possession. It is an honour to wield it, and a terrible burden.
“A terrible burden, indeed,” Tauski slurred. He had wanted the blade for as long as he could remember, probably before he could even talk. As the oldest child, it had been promised to him, and he had reminded his father at every opportunity. Yes, Tauski, it will be yours when I am gone, don’t you worry. Tauski remembered how guilty had felt, the first time he had fantasized about his father’s death so that he could call the sword his own. He would never forget the weight of the sword as it was handed to him over his father’s corpse. It had not become any lighter since.
Tauski stared out past the flickering light of his oil lamp, out the window and beyond the innumerable street lamps of the city to the murky harbour that lay beyond. Out there somewhere, ships were waiting. Waiting for a response from the king. Waiting to beat Nisho-Gau into submission should it refuse the Alliance’s demands. Waiting for ships from the Empire, to beat back the Alliance and claim Nisho-Gau for itself instead. Waiting for Tauski’s blade to taste its last sip of blood.
It would taste blood; Tauski had promised his ancestors that much. However, the outcome of the battle was all but certain: swords had no place at a modern firefight, Tauski had recently learned to his dismay. The Alliance’s ships held scores of soldiers in their bellies, each equipped with those strange long branches of wood that shot fire and metal instead of lead. Tauski had no doubt that an Alliance soldier in single combat was no match for a veteran warrior of Nisho-Gau, but he also knew that a sword was no match for barbarian magic. They would overwhelm him eventually.
Even if they somehow managed to defeat the Alliance’s ships in the harbour, it would only allow the Empire to the west the freedom to move in and strike the killing blow. Tauski pictured his archipelago nation as a bag of shiny stones being fought over by a pair of children. No matter what happened, one of the children would own the stones, the other would run away with a bloody nose, and the stones would be helpless. Their fate was sealed. The islands of Nisho-Gau, which had held their independence against the Empire for thousands of years, would finally fall to them in a world where honour meant nothing and swords were useless. Even worse, the islands were under threat of conquer by pale barbarian warlocks as well as the Empire.
A knock on his door brought Tauski out of his state of contemplation. There were only a handful of people who would be knocking on his door past midnight, and unless it was a messenger come to tell him they were to strike out in their small raiding ships early, he knew that he would not be pleased. He kept his sword in hand and strode quickly to the door.
It was General Tsho. The old man was bleary-eyed and his whiskers were askew, but Tauski still felt underdressed in his robe when the General boasted his full suit of armour, including a great horned helm that cast a rather impressive shadow on the street.
“General,” Tauski bowed. “I am prepared to do your bidding, whenever and whatever you may ask of me.”
“Stand up, Zuko,” the General said wearily. “You are to accompany me to the king’s palace.”
Tauski nodded. “I shall need to don my armour first.”
“No need. Follow me.”
Tauski followed Tsho down the street. Only their footsteps on the dusty road broke the silence of the city. Up the hill, Tauski could see lights burning brightly at the palace. “A summons, then? At this hour?”
“Every warrior in the city.”
Tauski stopped in his tracks. “What about the strike on the Alliance? Are we not still going ahead as planned? We must be going to the barracks afterward, surely.”
General Tsho sighed. Tauski had never seen him so tired. In the soft light of the streetlamps, the bags under his eyes were hollow and dark.
“Are you commonly in the habit of questioning your king, Zuko?”
“No.” Tauski regretted his outburst, blaming the rice beer.
The remainder of the walk to the palace was done in silence. Tauski began to wonder why the General himself had come to fetch him. Yes, he had served the king faithfully and with honour, but if every warrior in the city was being summoned to the palace, why had Tsho himself come for him, specifically? Something had happened; Tauski could feel it in his gut. His grip on his sword tightened.
The General led Tauski straight to the audience chamber. The great big space, normally empty, was full of warriors – any and all who had vowed upon the blade of their ancestors to protect the king. If it hadn’t been for the rising sense of tension in his gut, Tauski would have found it comical. There was HauRoShi the silent, rubbing his eyes and yawning, and old Ten-Ming who had fought with Tauski’s father at the battle of NomGau River was wearing the silliest nightcap. All the bladed warriors were present, those who had fought with and against Tauski during the Restoration. Every last man who had sworn his life to protect the king was present, save for the honour guard.
General Tsho watched more warriors trickle in, accompanied by messengers or soldiers. He leaned over to whisper in Tauski’s ear.
“I brought you here myself to make sure you didn’t do anything foolish. There’s been a change of plans. Just follow orders and you’ll live through this to a ripe old age like me. Or you can die young and stupid, Zuko, like your father did.”
As the General approached the dais in front of the throne, Tauski finally realized what was wrong. Where is the king? Is Tsho staging a coup? He’d have to be stupid to invite all the bladed here like this. If anything has happened to His Divinity, Tsho’s life is forefeit.
Flanking General Tsho on either side were his four lieutenants, but Tauski knew that there was no way they could best five hundred or so bladed warriors, even if most of them were practically naked. Treason against the king would have been a death sentence for the General.
Then the great big gold-painted doors at the rear of the audience chamber swung open, and Tauski realized the folly of following Tsho to the palace. The army began to stream into the room, bearing hand-cannons and swords at the hip. But the uniforms were wrong; it wasn’t Nisho-Gau soldiers entering the chamber, but men of the Imperial Army from across the Sunset Sea. The bright red emblems they bore over their shoulders were like a promise of bloodshed to come for the isles. Well these isles were forged from the blood and guts of the gods, so it’s only fitting their glorious history should end in blood, as well. How honourless of Tsho to trick us into coming here, thinking it was to defeat the Alliance when he had already sold us to our most ancient enemies.
Bladed warriors shuffled nervously as the soldiers filled up the great hall. Tauski’s hand never left his weapon. As the soldiers finished filing in, the golden wood doors creaked shut. It’s a deathtrap.
“My bladed brothers,” General Tsho began. Tauski spat at the words, and was glad to see he was not the only one who did so. Let the old bastard tremble before he butchers us like an honourless craven. “Today we usher in a new era of peace for Nisho-Gau. As we speak, the white barbarians are being driven from our shores. Soon Nisho-Gau will rejoin the world as a power to be reckoned with.”
“As a slave to the Empire, you mean,” somebody shouted. The soldiers against the walls shifted nervously but did nothing else.
“As a friend to the Empire,” Tsho stressed. “We have forged a brotherhood that-“
“Where is the king?” somebody else demanded. Tauski realized suddenly that those words had come from his own mouth.
“The king is indisposed at the moment,” Tsho replied. “But he has asked that you lay down your ancestral swords; they will no longer be needed. The cannon is the way of the future. Swear fealty to me as the new General of the Imperial State of Nisho-Gau and you will each be given officer’s ranks in the Imperial Army.”
The room was as silent as a temple graveyard. Tauski looked over to see that not a single bladed warrior had moved forward to swear fealty to Tsho. It was enough to bring a tear to his eye.
A collective gasp rose from the warriors as Tauski stepped forward.
“Have you come to swear fealty, Zuko Tauski?” General Tsho asked. A look of relief was on his face.
“No. I have come forward to tell you that if you repent for your cowardly deception, I will give you a quick death. However if the king is dead, you will not find any mercy in this life or the next...and I know that His Divinity would never whore out his nation to the godless Empire. Do you repent, Tsho?”
The General took a step backward, shielding himself behind his lieutenants. “Shoot them,” he muttered. Then, more loudly, “Shoot them!”
Tauski smiled. It was what he had been waiting for. His fate, tied in with the fate of his nation. Nisho-Gau would fall; it had not been a mighty nation for hundreds of years...but the honourable and the traitors would fall along with it, as pure as poetry.
Tauski drew his blade and rushed the dais as the cannons exploded about him and the room became awash in blood. His sword was no longer a burden...
It felt lighter than air.