Houses of Sword and Flame


From the Declaration by the Founding Council of Harakai, recorded this Fourth Day of the Low Earth in Ascending Yin:

Resolved, that the Valley of Harakai will be guided in all things by the Way, and all decisions will be made in accordance with the Way.

Resolved, that use of the Dust of the Way shall be always the birthright of the free people of the Valley of Harakai, legacy to all future generations from She Who Gives the Dust.

Resolved, that there will ever be Four Houses at the center of Harakai:

  • The House of Song, a place of beauty and creation: a House dedicated to the study of art, and music, and dance. It will be built on the Southern wall.
  • The House of Lore, a place of remembrance: a House to record the history of the people. It will be built on the western wall, and watch the last glimpse of the fading light of the day. Here will be recorded the history of the people; here too will be captured the best and most useful incantations of the Dust of the Way.
  • The House of Sword, a place of combat and healing: a House ready to defend the city Harakai from enemies large and small. It will be built on the Northern wall, facing and always subordinate to the House of Song.
  • The House of Flame, a place for the nourishment of our spirits: a House dedicated to the study of the Way, and at its center will ever burn the Flame of the Way. It will be built on the Eastern wall, and the light of every rising sun will shine first on a place dedicated to the Way.

Resolved, that each House will select one to serve as Master of the House, to lead the House and assure that it remains true to its charter.

Resolved, that the Valley of Harakai will ever be led by a Council of Equals, composed of no more than five members; that the Four Masters of the Houses will serve as the members of the Council of Equals; that a fifth member, to be known as the Sage of the Way, will lead the Council, to vote only if the Masters cannot reach a decision.

Resolved, that the Valley of Harakai will ever remain a place of welcome, open to any who approach, should they come with peace in their hearts, and a spirit open to the Way.

From the private journal of Katrina Laroche:

She was spectacular.

The Book of the Way says, “The Master / acts without doing anything / and teaches without saying anything.” I don’t think I’ve ever really understood that before. She said so little! Looking at the minutes, it looks like she dominated the meeting. But the minutes include almost everything she said – she changed the conversation with a tilt of her head, with a movement of her eyebrow, by catching someone’s eye and smiling. It was like watching a musician play an instrument, watching her guide them to where we needed to go.

We have a government, it seems. Four houses, a Council. And I’m to be the Master of a House. A member of the Council. There will be only five of us! I did not know she thought I was ready. I don’t know if I am ready. I will try so hard not to disappoint her.

I was surprised that she would propose a house to study war, and even more surprised that she put Braden in charge of it. I wonder what the implications of that will be. “We must be prepared for whatever may happen,” she told me. “It has not been so long since we were invaded, here in this valley. If we seek to remain prepared, we must consider all possibilities. We have had none dedicated to the study of Dust; if we are going to practice peace, we must be prepared to use weapons, if compelled.” But Braden?

She has ideas she is not sharing with me, of course, just as she did not share the true charter of the House of Lore with others. “Ever will the selfish strive to take power for themselves,” she told me. “Ever will they look to take personal advantage in crisis. It is tradition that binds a people together. It is customs that create governance, and nothing else. We must make the traditions of our council so deep and unshakeable that it can sustain itself against the attempts of the selfish, and the corrupt, who may try to distort it into something it was never meant to be. To the house of Lore will fall the duty of establishing such norms, of guarding against those who might try to advance themselves at cost to the many.” I hope I am ready for the task.

I will struggle with how much to record of what she has told me about what came before. So much good lies ahead of us, but there is so much darkness just behind us. There was so much suffering. How much more there would have been without her! But she dwells on how much more she could have done. How much of what she has confided in me about the truth, about what she did not do, of her role in it all – how much should I tell? How much should that be allowed to color her legacy?

How much should the future really know about the past?

We will need secret volumes of the History, I think. Perhaps only a few within the House need know the full truth. Perhaps not even them.

I have time. I needn’t decide today. Today I need only begin recording what happens now, what happens next. Today is the beginning of the future. What do we really need to take from the past?
It looks to have taken much from her, this victory. As she left the chamber, for the first time she reached out and took my arm. For the first time she paused for breath at the top of the stairs. For the first time, she looked not just aged, but old. She looked, I think, feeble.

“Crisis always returns,” she told me. “In times of rest all we can do is try to influence the future so we can be resilient to them.

“We must always be hopeful. We must trust in the Way. And we must trust that when each crisis comes, someone will be ready to guide us through it.”

She will always be “She Who Brings the Dust.” But to me, she will be simply “grandmother.” Never have I been more proud of her. Never have I felt more love for her. And never have I felt less worthy of her.

– Discovered and entered into the Secret Tomes by Master Hana Takeshi, Second Master of the House of Lore. Recorded on this the Moon Day of the Low Air in Descending Yin, in the fifth cycle of Sage Borivoi Rademaker, third Sage of Harakai.

Chapter One

In the evening glow of the reddening sun, the mountains always seemed to soften like warm clay ready for turning. As the sun descended towards the far peaks, the mountain shadow slid rapidly towards Alia across the valley below. The air remained warm, with only a hint of the evening chill to come. The breeze rising from below carried the sound of faint ringing, and as the shadow raced up the hill towards her the sound grew from an indistinct tone to soft individual chiming. At the instant the sun touched the peaks to the west, she raised her own chime and struck it once, sending a clear tenor note to join the chorus.

Alia sat comfortably on a rock shelf, legs crossed under her, back erect. Her black hair fell like a smooth, dark waterfall over her shoulders, and her brown eyes sparkled in the warm light. The shade gathered around her, darkening her caramel skin to sienna; the air began to cool in earnest, but she remained still. The tinkling music came again, and at the moment the top edge of the sun slid completely out of view she raised her chime and rang it once more, listening to the answering chimes from around and then above her. The few wisps of cloud reflected the orange and pink of a clear sunset as the trees in the valley below became indistinct. She breathed in softly, pulling the quiet into herself. The air slowly became chill, and she shivered, once. She could hear others descending, but she smiled, invoked some dust to warm her, and stayed to watch the gathering of the night.

She remained in place until the evening became dark, watching the wash of the sky dust join the evening star. The night was clear and there was no moon; when at last she stirred, the stars were so thick that she could almost see her way from their light alone. But the mountain path was rocky and steep, so she called a mild glow into the air above her to light her way. Then after a moment of thought, a longer invocation moved the glow down to cover the ground around her, making the stars visible above her once more. Had there been an observer watching her descent, she would have appeared a slim shadow dancing lightly in an irregular pool of dim phosphor, a dark bride in a train of glowing light.

She was mildly winded when she reached the flats, so she walked slowly along the rut serving as an unpaved path while her breath slowed. By the time she approached the scattered cabins, some were dark already. Ruddy light spilled from few windows, and the crisp air carried the gentle tang of wood fires.

A gap in the chaparral opened to her parent’s home, and she turned off into the scrub with a light step. Through the window beside the door she could see her parents sitting at the main table, lit by the warm glow of lanterns and a fire snapping cheerfully in the fireplace. Her mother’s head was tilted back in a soundless laugh, and her father’s eyes twinkled above the hand he held in front of his mouth as though to catch a sneeze. She paused for a moment to watch them talking animatedly, then pushed open the door with a small smile.

“And here she is now,” said her mother. Akemi was a compact, lithe woman, hairless except for the short ponytail dangling from the crown of her head to the top of her neck. “Always the last home, little one.”

“Your nother ‘orgets that you are not so little any nore, Alia.” Yuuki’s face was split open at the mouth, his lips torn away and the scarred remains forming a permanent, macabre grin. “Did you enjoy the deyotions?” To those who did not know him his lipless speech was often incomprehensible; but his daughter had never even noticed it until her friends pointed it out to her.

“It is always good to participate, Pé. …Pé, why do you never come to the hills in the evening?”

The expressions in Yuuki’s ruined face were small and difficult to read; no one other than the two women at the table would have recognized his expression as disappointment, and it lasted only a moment. “I hold no great joy in the hills, Alia. You know that. I leave home only when there is no other way.”

“Bells don’t ring in the valley?”

“Mine only goes ‘thunk’,” he said. Alia laughed, briefly.

“I love to hear your laughter, daughter! You need to laugh more often.”

“And you need to be funnier.” Alia crossed to him and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “You are an Adept in the House of Song. How can you not celebrate the cycles of beauty and harmony? How can you object so strongly?”

Akemi put the back of her hand against her husband’s other cheek. “Alia, my sweet. You attack when perhaps you should listen.”

Alia looked at her mother. “What? What is this? The Master of Sword herself, telling me not to attack?”

Her mother did not look amused. “The Houses are not so different from one another, Alia. And your father dislikes the bells. Leave it be.” As she took her hand from Yuuki’s face their eyes caught for a moment.

“When are you going to tell me?” Alia’s tone was quiet but intent. “I come of age this winter. Am I never to know fully what happened to you, Pé?”

Akemi’s face flushed slightly, but Yuuki remained amused.

“‘The Master never expects results; thus he is never disappointed.’ It is not secret, darling. It is private. So let us talk about other things. Have you still not decided which House you will join?”

Alia drew a breath, held it a moment, then released. “No, father. I am still preparing for both the House of Flame and the House of Sword,” and her eyes flickered to her mother, “but should I be accepted to both, I don’t know which I will choose.”

“Flame and Sword?” Akemi’s smile had returned. “You see? The Houses are not so different, Alia. You know I have no desire for you to pursue the Sword if you have no love of it.” Her eyebrows lifted. “Of course, there is no denying your aptitude.”

Yuuki snorted. “I hear them talking,” he said. “They say she may be the best ever to train.”

“Oh, they do, do they?” Akemi looked amused. “I am Master of the House – the youngest master in a century – and she is the best ever?”

“You should hardly be surprised,” Yuuki rejoined. “You began teaching her to defend herself before we even gave her the breath!”

Alia took her fork again. “Was I so eager?”

“Oh, yes, eager.” His eyebrows quirked. “Possibly as much as your mother was eager for you.”

Akemi waved a finger at him, laughter lurking under her stern demeanor. “Don’t blame me. My House is just that much more appealing than yours.”

“Nonsense! When was the last time your House created… well, anything like this?” His sweeping gesture included the table, food, the fire. “Or anything at all?”

“Oh, no doubt, your House is Shambhala itself – a place of peace, tranquility, and plenty, so you all craft with nothing but gold and iridium and float through the air on lush palanquins.”

“Shambhala is a fairy tale. We craft with what we can locate, or trade. And yet, we somehow make things of great elegance and beauty.”

“Yes, dear. All the elegance we could need. Of course, ‘a decent man will avoid them’ – but weapons are no less needed than tables and forks. And no less beautiful.”

“Yes, yes… but Alia showed so much skill at Song, as well.” He waved at the candelabra, an intricate fractal pattern of hair-thin ivory. “She did this when she was only nine, I recall.”

“Aptitude, but it did not call her.”

Alia had seated herself at her place. “No, they all called me, Mé,” she said cheerfully. “But you told me I couldn’t join all four Houses.”

“And then handed her a sword,” Yuuki put in.

“While you handed her a candlestick!” Akemi was pointing at the ivory candelabra.

“And I began to watch the Flame,” Alia added.

“And what has the House of Flame ever produced?” Akemi demanded.

Yuuki interceded. “Two Houses of making,” he said, “and two of watching. A House of beauty, a House of battle; a House of study, and a House of remembering. All have their place, Akemi.”

The look his wife shot at him was amused. “If I recall correctly,” she said, her tone mocking, “I believe I am a member – no, sorry. I am a Master of one of these Houses. I meet with the other masters each tenday. I am acquainted with their concerns.”

“Yet you demean them,” Yuuki said softly.

“No, no,” she retorted, smiling. “I merely point out their inadequacies.”

Alia put a forkful of rice into her mouth, listening to them spar. This conversation wasn’t about their Houses, she knew, nor about any of the Houses, really. Three cycles had passed since she had been allowed to become a Pledge in both Sword and Flame, and then only with great controversy. Every day since, she had known that she was expected to choose only one. Now the Convocation was only two months away. Alia would stand before everyone in the city, and she would choose the House to which she would declare herself a Novice. She would no longer be permitted to pursue both; she would have to choose one, and though she would enter into the secret places of that House, she would no longer be as welcome in the other.

But of course, it wasn’t even really about that, or not entirely. As a Novice, she would live in the House of her choice. Alia would leave this cozy cabin of her youth, and never live in it again. The conversation wasn’t about Houses. It was about their home. It was about their family.

She listened, knowing that if it went too long the laughter might escape, and then the worry underneath it might find a place at the table. There was a pause; she took it. “I don’t think Shambhala is a fairy tale,” she said.

“What?” Her father looked perplexed. “Who was talking about Shambhala?”

“You were,” she said. “You said it was a fairy tale. But I think it’s a legend.”

“What’s the difference? Neither is real,” her mother said.

“But a legend starts from something true,” she said. “Surely there really was a place of endless peace and plenty once.”

“Fairy tales need no literal truth,” her father said. “It is a – metaphor.”

“For what? What do we lack?” Akemi demanded.

“What do you lack?” Yuuki smiled. “Where shall I start?”

Akemi snorted and leaned back. “I set myself up for that, I suppose.”

Alia opened her mouth to respond when a sharp knock on the door interrupted. “It’s late,” Yuuki said after a moment. “Were we expecting anyone?”

Akemi pursed her lips as the knock came again, insistent. “It will be for me,” she said, and stood to cross and open the door.

“Yes?” All warmth and laughter had left her tone; it was no longer Alia’s mother who swung the door open, but rather the Master of Sword.

The response was muffled, and Alia heard only parts of it: a scouting party in the hills, perhaps; the phrase “too fast to follow.”

“A definite sighting?” Akemi asked.

“Unquestionable.” The man must have moved; the voice was more clear.

“How many?”

“Only one.”

“Are they still tracking it?”

“Yes. A party of three. Two Acolytes, led by Adept Nami.”

“Good. Send out another scouting party, prepared for conflict. No fewer than…” Akemi paused. Her attention flickered over her shoulder to her family, still sitting at the table; she pursed her lips and stepped out into the night, closing the door behind her.

Yuuki was still looking at the door, frowning slightly, when Alia turned her attention to him, “Do you know what that was about?” she asked.

He shook his head. “There is always one thing or another, of course,” he replied lightly.

“A scouting party? ‘Prepared for conflict?’”

Yuuki shrugged. “There is always something troubling your mother. I’m sure it’s nothing serious.”

Alia looked back towards the closed door, frowning. Then she matched his shrug. “I wonder if it is – should we be listening, when she conducts House business here?”

Yuuki’s eyes warmed with affection. “Oh, sweet girl,” he said. “Your mother is if nothing else aware of her surroundings.” He leaned forward to clasp her arm gently. “If she speaks in your presence, you may be assured she intends you to hear it.”

Alia shrugged, recalling her mother’s brief glance back before exiting the House. “Perhaps,” she said.

“Believe it, daughter,” Yuuki emphasized. Then he released her arm. “In any event, all we heard tonight is that she has scouts in the hills. She always has scouts in the hills, does she not?” His tone had a teasing note.

Alia drew a breath. He was trying to distract her, she knew; then, nodding, she decided to let him. “Always prepared, and never an enemy more fierce than a mosquito.”

Yuuki smiled, and considered for a moment. “A falling tree,” he countered. “A ferocious rock fall, on occasion.”

Alia considered. “A heavy rain,” she offered. “No – avalanche! In the winter, when Yin is high.”

Yuuki nodded gravely. “Indeed, yes. We must ever be vigilant against avalanches, particularly during this Span, while Yang ascends towards summer heat.”

“Can never be too cautious,” Alia agreed. Then they both chuckled.

As Alia lifted another forkful to her lips, Yuuki leaned back and crossed his arms. “You know,” he said slowly, “Next cycle – next Span, even – you will be one of them.”

Alia looked down. “An avalanche?” she offered; but she realized it wouldn’t be funny even as she said it.

He shook his head. “It will be very strange, Alia, not having you here.”

“I will visit often, Pé. You know I will.”

“I know,” he whispered, and his eyes were unfocused, looking at something far away. When the door latch rattled, his expression shifted instantly, the lines at the corners of his eyes returning. “Perhaps,” he said as the door swung open, “I will move to the House of Song and return to my studies as well.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” Akemi moved briskly back to the table, then leaned over and put her hand against his cheek. “I need you here, Yuuki, and you know it.”

He put his hand up against the back of hers, pressing it in. “I know,” he whispered back. Akemi leaned forward and kissed the top of his head. As she withdrew her hand and sat down, he asked, “What was so serious that it must interrupt our evening?”

“Nothing of import,” Akemi responded, waving a hand dismissively.

“Yet it could not wait until morning?”

“It is what I do, what the House of Sword does,” Akemi said. “Protect you. Protect us all.” Alia watched her mother’s face, and decided she disagreed with her father. There was surely worry lurking behind her mother’s eyes. “And what of you?” Akemi asked abruptly. “What did I miss here?”

Alia knew a request to change the subject when she heard one. “We,” she announced, “were discussing a pressing and important issue.” She waved her fork at her father. “We were discussing the grave and imminent danger of summer snowstorms.”

Akemi tilted her head slightly. “Of what?”

Yuuki and Alia laughed aloud at her consternation, and the conversation slid comfortably back into the gentle winds of family.