Heaven-Sent Munno was working at his forge. It was his custom to take up his hammer in the late afternoon, just as it was his custom to rise before dawn and have a cup of jasmine tea as the first rays of morning sun cleared the eastern slope of his mountain.
Munno was a creature of habit and all of his days were carefully planned out. Every morning he tended to his goats and his hens, checked to see how his garden was faring and then walked the entire length of his fields. There was something about the way that he carried himself which caused every stubborn stalk of swamp rice to stand at attention. Even when he tried to play the part of a farmer, his former profession was still quite obvious. No matter how many years passed, Munno would always remain a soldier.
His neighbors knew him as Munno, perhaps because he had never given thought to an alias, but if any of them guessed that he was in fact the legendary swordsman who had slain the demon Iyutha thirty years ago, they said nothing of it. People of Munno's breed, who chose to live far from civilization, generally liked their privacy.
Though Munno was well past fifty and the years had not been kind to him, he still cut quite an impressive figure. He was an intimidating man, more than six feet tall and built in a manner that suggested that he was as fast as he was strong. He had a jaw that resembled his anvil, a very square nose and deep set dark eyes. When he worked his forge, Munno dressed only in his well-worn hakama and a leather smith's apron made from the thick hide of a sabre cat. The scars of innumerable battles criss-crossed his arms and his bare chest. His long black hair was shot with streaks of silver, but he showed no signs of going bald. Munno's childhood nickname had been "Bear" and in many ways, it suited him still.
It was the first of the month, which meant that as I watched him, Munno was preparing for his usual trip to the nearest town. He always packed his wagon the afternoon before, so that all he would have to do in the morning was hitch up his mules. In the town of Riverbend he would spend most of the day trading his simple metalwork for the few necessities that he could not produce for himself. Years ago, his main goal in Riverbend had been to acquire tea and honey, but recently he'd taken to raising his own bees and they were good producers.
In fact, I noticed that he had a few glass jars of amber-colored honey already packed for his impending journey. I wondered momentarily what expensive thing he intended to trade for, and decided that it was probably a new summer shirt. Though he was adept at tanning hides and sewing letter, Munno's huge, square hands were not very skilled with a spindle.
I tried to pretend that I did not know Munno as well as I did, lest my master suspect that I was up to something. As usual, it was very difficult for me not to regard him as an old friend. Every time I saw Munno, I was reminded of how how he had once stepped in and laid out a pair of thugs who'd attempted to relieve a helpless noble lady of her purse. Nor could I forget all of the mornings we'd spent together when I was a traveler simply seeking shelter for the night.
Regardless of what face I wore, Munno always offered me a bed, tea, rice and whatever else he happened to have. After I had rested, we would sit together enjoying the sunrise and talk about his goats and his fields before I went on my way. But each and every time we met, I was a stranger to him. It was becoming very difficult for me to remember that.
There was something irresistibly attractive about the way that he worked so diligently at his forge. In his retirement, the great Munno had achieved something that many monks strove for. He was truly at peace. I would have much preferred to have a cup of tea with him and ask him innocent questions about the weather and the hunting near his little preserve as I usually did... but I did not have that luxury.
I was no longer assigned to Munno. I was assigned to my master.
The live oaks which surrounded Munno's humble cottage were thick with orange butterflies. The sunlight painted the trees with a faint golden luster and the air smelled strongly of woodsmoke and iron. With each resounding blow of Munno's hammer, the butterflies fluttered and then settled again. They were part of Munno's perfect rhythm, his lovely, serene, little world. As usual, I envied him intensely. When I could afford to step away from my work, I had it in mind to find a little mountainside cottage like Munno's... but I somewhat doubted that my request for sabbatical would be approved any time soon.
At present, I knew only that it was necessary for my master to find Munno, and that my master must somehow convince him to return to the world he had forsworn when his wife and children were killed by the same horrible sorcerer who had summoned the demon Iyutha to lay waste to the Hundred Kingdoms. It seemed wrong to draw one such as Munno who had already given so much and suffered so terribly away from the simple, serene existence he had cultivated... but as it is often said, the Heavens work in mysterious ways and sometimes Fate is a complex thing.
Munno did not seem to notice either of us as we approached – or rather, he gave no sign that he did. My master, Tepet Genji watched the old swordsman with a critical eye but said nothing. Not that he usually made any sort of conversation with me. As I was a "mere mortal", my personal opinions were irrelevant.
"Excuse me?" My master said, much louder than necessary. He had a tendency to puff himself up when he was nervous, which meant that he usually came off as haughty. Like all of his breed, he was a bit arrogant, but not quite as bad as he sounded. He trotted his horse up to Munno's forge. Munno did not even glance in his direction. His long experience on battlefields throughout the Realm had taught him one painful lesson. Those ordained by the Dragons to become rulers of men were often dangerously detached from the mortals whose sweat and blood they had built their empire upon.
An Aspect of Wood, my master was of an excellent Dragon bloodline himself. In every way he resembled a Prince of the Earth, from the faintly green hue of his skin and the dusting of scales on his neck to the piny scent that surrounded him and convinced Munno's hordes of butterflies that he was in fact, a tree. They sometimes alighted on his head and he swatted them away as if they were biting flies or something similarly noxious.
I smiled despite myself every time a butterfly escaped his attention... but made certain not to laugh out loud lest he demand what I found so funny. There were two on top of his head when he approached Munno. They made him look much less authoritative than he was pretending to be.
Normally my master was more patient and pleasant, but we had just come from a meeting with his father who was a very powerful and disagreeable man. Tepet Iwazo was a provincial governor with a string of unfortunate marriages and two dozen children, most of which were chosen by the Dragons and currently fighting over their petty inheritances. Iwazo, a military man, considered his youngest son Genji to be a monumental failure in every conceivable way, largely because the younger Wood-Aspect preferred to focus his talents on calligraphy and games of Gateway rather than political maneuvering for the sake of his House. Though far from incompetent, Genji lacked ambition and was disinclined to stab anyone he didn't have to. As Tepet Iwazo saw it – such "apathy" was unforgivable.
"Excuse me. You there, blacksmith! Do you know where I can find Heaven-Sent Munno?" My master inquired.
"I don't know who you're talking about." Munno replied. The look on his face said everything. In Munno's eyes, my master was yet another young Dynast, of the same sort that had recently been springing up all over the Hundred Kingdoms like mushrooms after a monsoon. It was no secret that they were all looking for Munno, vainly hoping that he would forge for them another Heaven-Sent Sword.
But what Munno did not know yet was the horrible news that had come all the way from An-Teng. A mad thamaturge, more powerful than any mortal ought to have been, had summoned his old enemy Iyutha again... and now everyone who held stock anywhere in the South was looking for a way to be rid of her. The demon was a force to be reckoned with and clearly, whoever had brought her back into Creation was up to no good.
"Of course you do! Heaven-Sent Munno forged the greatest sword ever made by mortal hands. He used it to slay the demon Iyutha and the bring down the Warlord Phaestus who once ruled these lands with an iron fist. Then he vanished. Retired, some say. I've been told that he lives near here." My master pressed.
"He does." Munno replied.
"And yet you don't know where?" My master paused.
"Munno doesn't like visitors." Munno replied. "I'm sure that you've been told that also."
"I have. And that distresses me because I must find him." My master continued.
"Well, you won't." Munno continued working.
"Will you stop that insufferable clanging and at least hear me out?" My master snapped.
Munno set down his hammer as if it were made of glass, but it still made a sound like a brick when it hit his anvil. The butterflies on my master's head scattered and he finally noticed them. He looked painfully embarrassed as he realized that they had obviously been sitting in his hair for some time. I laughed aloud despite myself.
He scowled at me. "Control yourself, Kit!" He ordered.
I bowed very low in my seat, almost kissing my mare's neck so that he would not see that I was still grinning. Munno watched me with some interest. I felt a little uncomfortable twinge that made me wonder if knew that I'd been following his simple, mundane exploits for some time.
I suspected that he might recognize me as Kit Waylay, the no-account mountain guide that he sometimes bumped into when he purchased necessities for his humble farm in Riverbend. If he did remember seeing me before, his powers of perception were truly astounding. Still, I wasn't worried about being identified as Kit - that was the same alias I'd given my current master. But if Munno had any suspicion, however faint, that I was notactually the boy that I was currently playing... things might become troublesome.
"I'm listening." Munno said.
My master surveyed Munno's work with genuine interest. He was a connoisseur of good craftsmanship, particularly quality steel. It was one of the reasons that Fate had decided he should be the one to find Munno. "Kit, come hold my horse." He ordered, dismounting.
"Yes, my lord." I meekly obliged. His gelding sniffed my mare and rubbed his nose on my leg. The effect that my master had on butterflies was something akin to the effect that I usually had on horses. They were always convinced that I was something like a hay bale or another horse, meant to be nibbled. Not that I minded. Generally speaking, I prefer the company of animals to that of most people.
My master ignored me, not even looking at my face. As usual, I was beneath his notice. He thought he knew everything, Exalted as he was... but he was too blinded by his own sense of self-importance to realize that the great Heaven-Sent Munno that he and all of his fellow Princes of the Earth had so fervently sought was currently standing right in front of him.
My master sighed heavily, probably guessing that he had best get straight to the point if he expected any sort of answer at all from the man that he was questioning. Without his horse underneath him, my master was significantly shorter than Munno, his shoulders not half as broad. Despite being a Dragonblood, he looked very small and vulnerable in Munno's shadow and indeed he was.
Though my master had studied martial arts like any Dynast, he'd only barely scraped his way through his obligatory physical training. His real talent was for sorcery, which was only to his benefit when he was standing a good distance away from his opponent and behind a very large rock.
"I must find Munno because all of the astrologers say that only Munno can forge another Heaven-Sent Sword." My master explained. "Someone has summoned the demon he once slew and it must be killed again."
"Munno doesn't make swords any more." Munno replied. "And he's too old to kill demons. Besides, astrologers are all liars. They'll tell you anything you want to hear if you pay them enough."
I twitched a little at Munno's callous comment. Personally, I placed a good amount of faith in the stars. Of course, if I'd ever had cause to tell him how I used astrology, I knew he would neverbelieve me.
"Hm. So you believe you're immune to Fate? That's very arrogant of you." My master snorted. "Is there no way that I can convince you that I speak the truth? Surely others have already come this way looking for Munno! And as you must know, we Princes of the Earth have a tremendous number of responsibilities! We don't make a habit of traveling so far from civilization on an idle whim! This situation is very serious and getting worse as we speak! Iyutha is ruthless and whoever has turned her loose must be as bad as Phaestus ever was – or even worse."
Munno considered everything that my master had said. I could see the wheels in his head turning very slowly but with tremendous force – like a mill grinding grain to flour. He was a man of few words but they were almost always well-chosen ones.
The only thing about him that I really found infuriating was his stubborn refusal to believe that anything in all of Creation could possibly be attributed to Fate. That bit about astrologers being liars didn't sit particularly well with me either.
"All right." Munno sighed heavily. "Come inside and tell me what's happened. And then we'll see if Munno will help you."
"You won't regret this." My master smiled slightly, perhaps just a little arrogantly. He already thought he'd succeeded where so many others had failed, crediting his own charisma and persistence rather than the bevy of carefully crafted astrological aids that I had set upon the both of us before we came within ten miles of Munno's cabin.
I knew that it was important that Tepet Genji take all of the credit for finding and retrieving Munno and I tried not to get too upset about the fact that I was risking my own hide by using what my other identities knew about Munno to manipulate him in my current guise. The only thing more difficult than deceiving Munno was impressing him – and I had to ensure that my master would succeed in doing both without drawing any attention to myself.
I turned our horses loose where Munno instructed and for a few minutes I actually set to work cleaning our tack as my master had ordered. Later, I knew I'd be scolded for not doing a very good job on the leather, but presently it was more important for me to listen in on my master's conversation with Munno than to pretend to be a good servant.
I hid myself cleverly on the roof of the barn, a vantage point which allowed me a good view of Munno's kitchen through his only window. I could see him and my master seated at his table, a pot of tea between the two of them. It would have been impossible to make out what they were saying or even to read their lips from such a distance... if I were only what I appeared to be.
Of course, neither Munno nor my master suspected that I was anything more than an obnoxious slip of a boy with some meager horse-sense and a good sense of direction.
Among other things, I am a truly exceptional actor.
While I hadn't heard the beginning of Munno's conversation with my master, it wasn't difficult for me to figure out what had happened. Not as stupid as he sometimes appeared to be, Tepet Genji had obviously guessed that Munno was... well, Munno!
"I said I couldn't reforge the sword, not that I wouldn't!" Munno protested. "I've been trying to explain and you're not listening! I did notforge the Heaven-Sent sword alone~ An old man helped me. I never saw him again and I never knew his name. But he did something to that sword – something I could never duplicate. It was as the stories say, not a thing of this world!"
A familiar chime caught my attention and I turned around just in time to catch the appearance of a little ornate box. It sat in midair and looked so outrageously out of place hovering above Munno's barn that anyone who saw it would have certainly suspected that there was some kind of fae trick involved.
Nothing could have been further from the truth – but explaining that the hovering box was actually the method by which agents of Fate retrieved their orders while they were at work in Creation sounded even more absurd. Most people, like Munno, did not understand how powerful Fate was and would be shocked and horrified to learn that there were hundreds of Gods and those Chosen like me in the employ of the Bureau of Destiny. Worse still, we regularly pretended to be their friends for the sole purpose of manipulating their lives to some degree or another.
I quickly opened my box and seized the scroll inside – new orders from my superiors. Two small objects were also inside... a shard of beautiful iridescent steel and a little vial of something that looked like perfume. The moment I took them out, the box itself vanished.
When I read my new orders, I smiled at first.
My superiors wanted me to get rid of Tepet Genji in the most thoroughly humiliating manner that I could possibly have devised. I was supposed to drug him and leave him in the forest where he would wake up several hours later completely covered in butterflies.
As I kept reading, I felt a knot rise up in my stomach and swallowed a few curse words.
The shard of steel was a piece of Munno's Heaven-Sent Sword and it was "on loan" from the Convention on Deathlords, a powerful organization that I had no desire to run afoul of. After leaving my master to the butterflies, I was to give the sword shard to Munno and then tell him the most terrifying thing I had ever told anyone in my life – the absolute truth about who I was and who I worked for.
But it was the signature on my orders that really caused my heart to start pounding.
I was working forOversight.
Put simply, no one in Heaven knows who or what Oversight is... aside from indisputable proof that even those of us who regularly operated "behind the scenes" of Creation are not really in control of anything at all.
I sat on the roof of Munno's barn for a full ten minutes before it occurred to me that I should probably get down before someone inquired as to how I'd gotten up there. My orders vanished after I had committed them to memory and I put the vial and the shard of the Heaven-Sent sword into my purse.
I'd just started to busy myself combing our horses when my master emerged from Munno's house. He looked extremely cross, which I'd anticipated, and he actually hit me when he saw that I hadn't scrubbed most of the soap off of his saddle. If I'd been as weak as I appeared to be, he would have definitely given me a good bruise. As it was, I had a bit more incentive to leave him for the butterflies.
I waited until my master and I reached the road and then I "remembered" belatedly that I hadn't refilled our water. I ignored Tepet Genji's curses and quickly excused myself to go draw a bucket from Munno's well. When I was sure that I was alone, I emptied the contents of my little vial into my master's waterskin. It didn't smell particularly strong, but I knew better than to doubt the drug's potency. While it must have been very difficult to brew up an undetectable sleeping draught that would knock out a Wood-Aspect, whenever Oversight was involved in something, it was best to do as they requested and trust that Fate was on your side.
I did notice that Munno was following me as I galloped back in the direction of my irate master. He was damned stealthy for being as big as he was. I wondered momentarily what he'd seen and suspected that he'd caught me putting something into Tepet Genji's water. Keeping to the trees, he followed the both of us as we rode, not seeming to tire at all, despite keeping pace with a pair of good horses.
My master berated me for more than twenty minutes before the tonic I'd fed him finally kicked in and he slumped forward mid-sentence, nearly falling off his horse. I caught him and deposited him on the ground, propping him up against a tree where he wouldn't be liable to choke himself to death if whatever I'd given him made him sick. A butterfly almost immediately landed on his nose.
Sometimes being an Agent of Fate really is quite lovely.
Still watching me like a stalking wolf, Munno emerged from tree cover. He was holding a big stick as if it were a nodachi sword, presumably to defend himself.
"He's not dead." I informed him, suspecting that he was probably worried about what I had done to my master. "Just sleeping."
With my orders in mind, I slowly turned around and dropped my Resplendent Destiny. Really, I didn't look any different without it, but the supernatural effect that caused Munno to perceive me as a dirty teenage boy instantly dissipated. Munno had never seen my real face before and I was somewhat curious to see what he would think. It had been a very, very long time since I'd been in Creation as myself and the feeling was liberating. I stood slowly and drew my swords from concealment.
Tepet Genji would have been even greener than usual – green with envy if he had seen the weapons I'd secretly been carrying on my person since our first meeting. I'd taken great pains to hide them well. The twin blades called "Thought" and "Memory" were my treasures, several thousand years old and inherited through a long line of my previous incarnations.
"You're a girl?" Munno blinked in surprise.
"Technically, I'm a woman. That's a girl of a certain age or more." I retorted, a little annoyed by his reaction.
"I won't fight a woman." He put down his stick.
"Oh, don't start with that patronizing patriarchal nonsense! I don't want you to kill me! I just want to see if you're still any good with a blade. Here!" I offered, tossing him one of my own swords.
"I haven't picked up a sword in years." Munno admitted, staring at Memory. I hadn't considered which I was offering him, but when I did notice, it seemed painfully appropriate. And yet he didn't turn down the weapon. I suspected he couldn't endure the sight of something so fine lying on the ground.
"Gods, these swords are heavy! Heavier than solid jade!" He mused, drawing the blade a few inches from its sheath."Good balance though. But you're so small!"
"I'm a lot stronger than I look." I replied, striking at him. He parried my blow with some effort but very good speed. Despite his argument that he would not fight me, he followed through with a decent enough counter. I parried in return.
"So I've noticed." He observed, noticing the I could wield Thought with the ease of a light Tai Chi sword – while he handled Memory in the manner of a broadsword himself. "Who are you?" He pressed.
"Presently? I'm Tepet Genji's servant." I smirked.
"I see. But he's no one of consequence. You, on the other hand... it is you who came looking for me?" Munno hazarded a guess.
"Well, Genji is obviously not going to be killing Iyutha. He thinks he is, but he's no warrior." I remarked, jerking my thumb at the Dragonblood who was still snoring, blissfully unconscious after the cordial that I'd given him. When he woke he'd surely be furious, but by the time he did, there was a good chance that Munno and I would be far enough ahead of him not to care. "Not like you are." I informed Munno.
"I wish I could help you, but I'm not as young as I was. And as I told your master, I did not forge the Heaven-Sent Sword alone. The man who helped me is probably long dead and I don't know why that weapon was able to slay the demon or if it is even possible to make another like it." Munno shook his head heavily.
"You won't even try?" I pressed.
"I don't have the strength to fail." He replied.
"Then don't fail." I replied, reaching into my purse and producing the unusual sliver of steel that had come with my orders from Oversight. Munno clearly recognized it immediately and swore under his breath as he caught it in his hands. He swore again as he looked up and noticed that I was surrounded in a faint aura of blue light.
Munno stared at me, obviously bewildered by what he had just seen. I'd never seen him so completely thrown off guard. Then again, it was a rare day indeed that any mortal got to hear what I was about to say. "My name is Estelle and I am a Chosen of Serenity. I know you don't know what that means yet, but I work for Fate and The Heavens and I've been watching you for a long time. It's really quite complicated. I promise I'll explain everything that I can but basically... I've been sent by Heaven to help you. Forge the sword. Kill the demon. Save the world."
For a long while we stood facing one another in silence... and then Munno did something I had never seen him do.