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Stronger than Steel


February 1904

Jena, Germany

The duel wasn’t going well for Armsman Pavel Ustikov’s charge.

By the end of the first beer, the brothers had picked a fight at the new bar. Georgi had asked his older sibling about the heavy facial cicatrices exhibited by the preening Germans. The country’s universities often hosted fencing academies, the main point of which seemed to be gathering scars to demonstrate students’ courage in battle and impressing the ladies. Pyotr, by then more than a few drinks into the evening, replied loudly that it was a dubious distinction to proudly wear your enemy’s superior swordsmanship on your own face. Finally, his brother’s sniggers had provoked the studentkorps cadet from Jena into demanding satisfaction.

“The FEET!” bellowed Ustikov again. The boy wasn’t bad, exactly, but he was overconfident. The armsman was scowling as he critiqued the elder Melishnikov’s movement across the carefully uneven floor of the salle d’armes. The duel was only until the first touch, but even a duel to first blood didn’t mean that your opponent mightn’t “accidentally” open an artery. Still, Ustikov was compelled to criticize his student.

“Even steps, the same distance, until you lunge!” he thundered.

Looking to the edge of the dueling space, he observed Georgi standing with his right arm behind his back. Glancing down, Ustikov’s eyes narrowed as he spied the unbuckled flap of the younger brother’s holster. He couldn’t spare more than a glance, however.

Pyotr’s opponent feinted with a series of lightning passes, seeking to make the young noble over commit with his longer blade. The German’s speed was tremendous, and his weapon seemed to be everywhere, testing Pyotr’s wrist.

The studentkorps fencer continued to dazzle with quick slashes toward the face. Even as Pavel yelled “He repeats!” Pyotr beat his opponent’s blade, disengaged on the low line and lunged quickly, scoring a clear touch to the German’s side. Though he struck without drawing blood, the poke was unmistakable to all, and Pyotr began to withdraw, relaxing. Ustikov saw the referee begin to raise his scarf to signal the end of the duel.

Quick as thought the German closed again and made a creditable attempt to run Pyotr through. In his haste, the older Melishnikov threw himself backwards, tripping over his own feet and falling, his sabre out of position. Pavel swept his own blade out and took the first step too late, too late.

The German drew his schlager back for a lethal thrust and a gunshot cracked, arresting the action.

Pyotr ignominiously scooted back on his hindparts and spared a glance for his younger brother, who was now aiming his revolver quite precisely and obviously at the German’s face, whose sword arm was still cocked.

“You wouldn’t dare!” said the academy referee, scowling fiercely at the young pistoleer.

“The duel was over. My brother clearly won, even if he wrongly assumed that your man would honor the point. My role as his second is to intervene if someone breaks the rules of the duel—as was clearly about to happen.”

Sounding much older than his pink and unlined face suggested, Georgi had thumb-cocked his Smith & Wesson No. 3 in order to permit an accurate single-action shot. Ustikov knew it was a hair-trigger weapon. After watching the boy fiddle with it for weeks, he’d shown him how to carefully polish the sear so that a slight pressure would release the hammer, improving the accuracy of the heavy revolver.

The frozen tableau continued for a moment, the German panting and his supporters poised on the cusp of action. Georgi’s eyes glittered in the gaslights.

Ustikov sheathed his sword and bellowed laughter. In rough German he called to the group. A little distraction was needed.

“Come, honor is satisfied! There are women, there is wine, there is my younger master with his finger on the trigger of a fine Russian pistol just hoping that he finally gets to shoot someone with it! I am too eager to keep drinking your fine beer, and how you say, schnapps! I will buy the drinks with honest Russian gold!”

At least their father had seen the wisdom in bankrolling his armsman with an eye to buying instead of cutting their way out of trouble. Free alcohol provided the excuse needed for the Germans to hustle forward and pull their man back, patting him on the back and congratulating him on his superior form. Everyone could clearly see that he would have won had it gone on, right?

Georgi decocked and lowered his pistol, his eyes cold.

“Get up. You look stupid sprawled on your ass.”

Pyotr might be eldest, but his younger sib was ever the serious one. He scrambled to his feet, glaring as Georgi holstered his weapon.

“I had it in hand, I was about to show you!”

He received a snort in reply.

Pavel gathered up a few of the German’s supporters and swept most of the crowd toward the bar, yelling for the bartender. Looking over his shoulder at Georgi, he met the young noble’s eyes and jerked his own toward the door.

Once they had safely exited, Ustikov could sigh, and reflect on how well he had predicted exactly this danger when he had argued, politely mind you, with “the-count-their-father.”

“Ustikov—it will be no problem. They will accompany Minister Lamsdorf and observe how the negotiations are conducted. They will get to see something of the world. You will temper their enthusiasm and provide them the wisdom of your counsel.”

“Lord, it isn’t my counsel that I will need to use if they take the bit in their teeth!” The First Armsman to the House of Melishnikov had enjoyed his time teaching the lads to ride, fence and shoot. He had “worked” with these two throughout their young lives, and even come to love them as his own. That didn’t mean that he relished the prospect of serving as “eyes behind” and general babysitter to two active, intelligent and independent young noblemen seeking their first adventure in a foreign country.

The count waved his hand in dismissal.

“It is decided. They have learned when to heed your counsel, and when to be Romanovs. Long have you borne your family’s blade in my service. I have no fear that you will suddenly fail.”

Count Melishnikov didn’t have to look; his armsman wore the sword everywhere. If Ustikov was storied in his fearlessness, his sword, handed down from father to son for as long as they had served his own family’s line, was legend. The Cossack version of a sabre, or shashka, mounted an unnaturally long hilt, and the pattern of watered steel shone differently than the regulation weapons that most carried.

“I know that you can keep my sons safe with your weapon’s keen edge. And if needed, you can keep them in hand with the flat.”

Ustikov winced. He took his duties as the martial instructor to the boys very seriously. The elder, Pyotr, had ever been entranced with the romance of the sword and the thrill of a cavalry chase. Even as a tyke, if he saw a strong charger for sale, he would grab Ustikov to “show him something!” Generally, that one listened, perhaps too well, to the armsman’s stories of tradition, battle and honor. His younger brother was more interested in the technic arts. This cannon, or that rifle cartridge, or some new artisan’s contraption held his imagination far more than the traditional ways.

He recalled exactly his promise to the count. “On my honor, Lord, I shall do as you command.”

Several rounds of German beer later, Ustikov carefully navigated the hotel’s front stairs. Through the door opened by the bellhop he saw the brothers gesticulating in conversation with a Russian officer—an embassy staff courier by the mud on his trousers and boots.

Not good.

Spying their armsman, the brothers pivoted.

“Pavel—the damned Japanese have attacked!” shouted Pyotr.

Ustikov instantly sobered.

“Where, when?”

The staff officer clicked his heels. Though technically not an officer, the armsman of an Imperial House warranted respect from any mere lieutenant. Or perhaps the young courier knew of Ustikov’s reputation.

“Port Arthur, two days ago now. The fleet was attacked but repulsed the Japanese. General the Count Melishnikov has sent instructions. His sons are to entrain with the horse artillery as soon as they reach Moscow and report to General Kuropatin’s staff at Chita. You will accompany them and keep the count informed of your progress by telegraph.”

“Chita is nearly two months away!” lamented the older brother. “We will never get there before the yaposhki are beaten!”

“Artillery!” enthused Georgi.

Watching after two demi-noble brothers in Germany wasn’t enough. A war was needed, apparently.

“Well, shit,” was all Ustikov had to offer. The curse didn’t seem to warm him very much.

April 1904

II Corps Rail Assembly Area

Chita, Russia

Cold. Really cold. Southern Siberia in late winter. The trip had taken longer than expected. Between the incompetence of the kanonir who struggled to load their batteries onto the train in St. Petersburg and the effects of the weather on the new rail line east of Irkutsk, they were arriving ten weeks after their departure from Germany.

The brothers, stiff in their newly minted rank, clomped to a halt in front of their uncle’s desk and saluted in unison.

“Lieutenant Pyotr Melishnikov, reporting to the general with a party of two!”

Their uncle received their salute with gravity, and then rose from behind his desk with a wide grin under his beard.

“Boys, you made it! And in time to help me teach those little yellow fuckers what it means to attack the Empire of all the Russias! And you brought Ustikov—how are you, old horse soldier? Still finding the worst in everything?”

Ustikov stomped and saluted in best parade-ground style.

“Your High Excellency.”

“Please, so formal! Alexi, some vodka for our newest additions.”

As the aide poured, Pyotr interjected.

“Thank you for the promotion, Uncle Mikhail, we will make you and father proud!”

“What do you think Georgi?” the general directed at his other nephew.

“Uncle, I think that your regular artillery had better be in a condition higher than the pieces that we brought. The horse batteries are disorganized, their training inadequate and their carriages and caissons in poor condition.”

Lieutenant General the Count Mikhail Zasulich laughed aloud, and quickly smothered it in his fist.

“I sometimes wonder if you two are truly related to each other. Hmm. What say you, Ustikov?”

“Lord, the b— the lieutenant may have a point. I am no master of hardware, but the artillery officers seemed to spend more time at the bottle than keeping their troops in hand. The entire group was a gaggle of handless cows when it came to getting their pieces on the train.”

Zasulich tapped his desk.

“Alexi, take a note. You three, come take a look.” He gestured toward a large map.

“The Japanese landed at Inchon about the same time as their surprise attack on Port Arthur. That did more damage than you will have read—our battleships are trapped by sea mines now. The Japanese army will move north and threaten Port Arthur and Vladivostok directly. Kuropatin insists that we need six months to build our forces. However, I will need to delay them while we assemble and exercise the corps—the damned train and the weather is slowing everything.

“To do that, I need information on where they are, which means more telegraph lines and more likely, gallopers between the armies. I am appointing you both to the staff, to be my eyes, and carry messages of the highest priority. You will report to me both on what you see and what you hear.”

“Uncle, surely our troops are more than a match for the Japanese? What can stand before our charging Cossacks and the Czar’s troops?” asked Pyotr.

“Boy, I like your style. I do. The reality is that this is a different sort of war now. We need the infantry to get more time with the new avtomat, the Maxims. We need to exercise the great guns and get better coordination between the cavalry and the main army. We can’t just walk up to the Jap and start beating on him, as you might think we did in the old days when I rode with Ustikov, here.”

“Sir, the Japanese still have officers who took archers to war against the Chinese four years ago!” protested the newly made officer.

“Boy, listen!”

The general was no longer smiling.

“The Japanese are damned good soldiers, some of them. They carved up the Koreans that made the mistake of opposing them. They likewise crushed the Qing during the Boxer Rebellion, and yes, they did bring some archers—but only because the damned things were faster and quieter for night work than the Berdanka rifles which we carried then, and still have for most of the corps!”

“Sir, what of the Mosins? Why are troops still using the single shot Berdan?”

“Well, Lieutenant, we are at the end of a very long supply line after all. But, with the arrival of newest batteries, we can move what we have accumulated here and head south. Captain”—the general gestured again to his aide—“show the lieutenants to the gallopers’ tent and introduce them. Ustikov, stay a moment.”

After the others filed out, the general hitched one leg up on his desk and perched.

“Oh, I said relax, Pavel. When did you start being so regulation?”

“If the general will permit, I am still trying to adjust to the crawly feeling on my spine that this is going to be a pizdetz of the first order. Worse than the feeling I had when you and I crossed the Danube and the Turks had double our numbers.”

“As bad as that, Pavel?”

“Sir, since my last visit to the colorful frontier, I have seen exactly this camp and the train, but as the lads pointed out, our troops are mostly equipped the same as they were when we rode against the fez-heads. And no one failed to notice that you trust your own staff so much that you want to use family to double-check the reports.”

Zasulich frowned, but poured more vodka.

The outwardly stolid armsman paused before speaking again. The general, no matter what familiarity he invited, still held the ear of the man who wielded plenipotentiary power east of the Urals. He was not a man to irritate lightly.

“Your pardon sir, but when I was seconded to help defend the legation in Tianjin, the Japanese had regular troops inside as well. Not many, but they were well led. Their spirit was as strong as any Cossack, and their officers worked hard to learn all they could from the English, the French and us. When the Manchu came over the wall in the hundreds, the Japanese repulsed them using rifles, bayonets, swords and as you pointed out, arrows. The Japanese couldn’t conceive of defeat.”

The general listened carefully.

“And some call you a simple troll with the heart of a Cossack and the sword of a demon. When did Melishnikov send you to the staff officers school? Some of my advisers can’t sum up our opponents as neatly.”

Zasulich stood up and turned around to look at the map again.

“It isn’t complicated. We have to get as much as we can into place on the Yalu and prevent the Japanese from moving their artillery within range of the port. Come full spring, we are joined by Kuropatin and push them all the way back down Korea, and into the sea.”

He glanced up at Ustikov.

“What do you think of that?”

Ustikov considered his words carefully.

“Excellency, it isn’t our equipment, our superior numbers or even the supply lines. Our army is made up of much more than just the Cossacks that you led into that cursed Turkish fortress. The regulars are uneasy—you will have heard of the unrest back at home. The Japanese are made of fighting spirit—their officers call it Bushido—and those two boys that I brought can’t wait to get into the fight. And in the middle of this, Count Melishnikov expects me to return his heirs to him hale.”

“Drink,” ordered the general. “We will keep the boys out of overmuch danger, but they are men now, in the Czar’s service—my nephews will take their chances like any other galloper. And I do need their eyes, damn it. I may need you to help me stiffen the spine of a few of my officers, much as you helped me in Vilin,” the Ottoman fortress they had stormed together. “Fuck their Bushido. I have you, my troll! You keep your family’s Kladenets handy,” he said, referencing a legendary magic sword. “We have need of the old ways.”

May 1904

Yalu River, Korea

Forward elements of the Japanese Third Army

“These new guns are a pain in my ass.”

“What was that, sir?”

Major Tanaka Heihachiro looked over at the platoon leader and shook his head. He had been muttering more to himself than for any audience.

The Russians, inexplicably, had let the forward elements of the Japanese army infiltrate all the way through the town of Wiju completely unopposed. Unmolested, they had advanced their forces north into the hills which guarded the Manchurian border. Then they attacked.

The enemy Maxim ahead of 1st Company continued to fire, traversing slowly. The gunner seemed to know his business, tapping out conservative bursts to economize his ammunition and slow heat buildup. The cost to gain the first few hundred meters had been high—they had already lost dozens of men from the lead company.

A tremendous crash just the other side of the dirt rise he was sheltering behind took his breath away and replaced the sounds of battle with a deafening ringing. One of the Russian field guns had dropped a shell perilously close. He turned to address the lieutenant that had asked him the question and stopped.

The young officer was still kneeling next to him. He must have tried to peek over the top at just the wrong moment, because not only was his helmet missing, but most of his head above the eyes. The corpse slumped against Tanaka, splashing him with blood and…other things. Refusing to look at the mangled corpse, Tanaka spied the whistle still clenched in the officer’s bloody hand. Yanking it free, he looked back around at the next company assaulting toward the first. Already men were falling to the damned machine gun above.

Staying here was suicide. They had to have the shelter of the trenches, or they wouldn’t have enough men left to hold them against a counterattack. Victory lay ahead and upwards—and their lives were the emperor’s, as duty demanded.

He gathered up the dead lieutenant’s men by eye, and drew his sword. In response, they fixed bayonets and with a visible mixture of savagery and fear, awaited his command. Raising the whistle to his lips, Tanaka blew the staccato blast that signaled an all-out attack—all companies to advance at a charge. That done, he drew his pistol with his free hand and plunging over the top screamed, “Attack!”

* * *

Pyotr ducked under the whirring sound of shrapnel.

Too close, Georgi, me lad! The idea is to kill the fucking Japanese, not me! he thought. At least Georgi was safely out of the way. He had drawn duty with the divisional artillery, relaying spotting information if the telegraph lines to that critical support were cut.

The general was using his gallopers to back up the telegraph to the front lines as well. When the command post lost contact with the 13th Imperial Guards, likely due to a Japanese shell cutting the line, Pyotr had been ordered out and he sped to the defending battalion’s command post to deliver the general’s message and await a reply.

In the distance, he saw the Japanese line briefly stutter as one of the two remaining Russian machine guns killed the troops crossing between lines of barbed wire and trenches. He heard one, and then many Japanese whistles start to blow, and all over the facing sector what appeared to be thousands of Japanese troops rose screaming and began running toward Russian lines.

He carefully aimed his modern Mosin downhill at the Japanese. All along the trench, Russian soldiers took advantage at the lull of inbound fire and began shooting at the rushing men.

He squeezed the trigger with exquisite care, just as Pavel had taught him, and the moment of recoil was a surprise, just as it should be. Only a few hundred meters away he saw a figure fall. He aimed again. Miss. Again. Miss. Again. A hit? Another shot and the rifle ran dry, so he inserted a charger clip into the breech and rammed the rounds into the rifle.

Resighting, he was shocked at how close the Japanese appeared now. Firing was continuous, the sounds of massed rifle fire stabbing at his ears. Even as artillery burst on the Japanese, he could see the leveled bayonets driving into the first line of defenders. Looking for a target, he heard the company commander screaming at him, inches from his ear.

“Back, get back you fucking git! Take this to division. We need more guns and troops, or we will lose this line in ten minutes, fifteen at most! Tell them!”

He pulled Pyotr backward and shoved a waxed dispatch folder into his jacket.

“Ride, damn you!”

With another horrified look downhill, Pyotr passed his personal rifle to the commanding officer and bolted for his horse, tied in a trench behind him. The Japanese were consolidating. Again the whistles blew.

This was going to be a close thing.

* * *

Tanaka observed his companies conducting the cleanup of the first set of Russian trenches. From his vantage above the western hills over the Yalu, he could see most of the battlefield, including the causeways that his battalion had used to cross the river.

Despite very heavy casualties during the attack, discipline held and the assault had succeeded. His men were moving briskly, despite the strain of the march to date, and the losses which they had suffered for the first time. The new ways of instilling traditional samurai spirit into regular soldiers had been something of an experiment even ten years ago, but the practice had truly ignited a martial spirit even among the lowest of his men.

Tanaka Heihachiro believed in the code of the warrior. Austerity in life, prowess at war, honor and duty to the emperor—this was the soul of the army now. Men were judged not by noble birth, but by their service. Japan should be judged not by where it started, but by what it had become. It deserved a place among the great powers, and if such a place would not be given, then Japan would take it. Tanaka had arrived too late to serve against the Russians during their annexation of Manchuria a decade or so earlier. The occupation blocked Japan’s route west, and more importantly, allowed a European power the ability to directly threaten the shipping that was Japan’s link to the modern world.


He examined the Russian position below him more closely and looked back at the approach his troops took. Scores in his command had died, and more would succumb to their wounds. Even though many of the Russian artillery batteries had been reduced early in the battle, the rain of Russian shrapnel caused horrific wounds. He had ordered the dead covered to avoid demoralizing the survivors. The neat lines of tarps outnumbered the number of dead Russians littering the emplacements. Yet his troops had maintained discipline, instantly ceasing their pursuit when commanded. His weapons, both the issue revolver and his personal, more finely balanced katana that he preferred to the mass produced gunto carried by most officers, had remained unused.

“Easier than I thought, Tanaka.”

Heihachiro stiffened to attention and saluted as the brigade commander spoke.

“Stand at ease, Major. What is your assessment?”

“Sir, the enemy didn’t hold as long as I had expected. Casualties were very heavy, but we have the field. The enemy survivors fled before we committed our reserve. Their spirit is weak.”

The colonel grunted. His field staff remained below them, out of earshot.

“Maybe. It is early yet and these look like frontier troops—not the fresh units that we know are coming east. We must move ever faster before the Russians can field a larger force.”

“And our navy, sir? What if the Russians sortie?” Tanaka dared the question.

“We are still keeping the Russians bottled up in Ryojun—Port Arthur, as the enemy calls it. If their fleet had any more spirit than their sorry infantry, they could harry our convoys and prevent our resupply. They did catch some transports—we lost an entire battalion, but that’s not for other ears. Fresh troops are behind us now, and the whole of the Second Army behind them. We will advance north across the Yalu to begin the conquest of Manchuria. Soon we will retake what was ceded to the Russians by European treaty—and make our own peace.”

“The new artillery proved its worth, sir.”

This time the senior officer laughed.

“Yes, Krupp sold us good guns, but the guns are not enough. Did you see how the men pushed into the Russian’s fire? Their eagerness to press the attack with steel shocked the enemy—and the Russki fled in sheer disbelief!”

“As you say, sir. I was too busy at the time to appreciate it, let alone draw my own steel.”

The colonel chuckled a bit more. “There will be a time to wield your sword for the emperor. For now, you are done here. We are hiring laborers to finish the cleanup. I am detaching your command for independent duty—take your battalion west, and skirmish to contact. I want to get a feel for how far the Russians will run and where they will reconstitute their front. We must have their ships under our guns by summer.”

May 1904

Nanshan, Manchuria

“I expected you to be proud of me, Ustikov! Instead, you hound me like woman, worried about risks!”

“Master Pyotr, you covered yourself in glory, and not a little of your own blood. Taking on necessary risks in order to serve the Czar is a hussar’s job, sure enough. You, however, have been actively hunting your own death in a ditch since we lost that battle more than a month past. That may be brave, but it is also fucking stupid.”

Pyotr had picked up a promotion, courtesy of a shrapnel wound during the retreat of the Guards from the nightmare at the Yalu. Despite the wound, he had continued to run messages between the surviving commander and the division. He had also helped to rally retreating men, reestablishing something that resembled a formation west of the battle, attracting the attention of a general staff desperate for any good news.

“Stupid is waiting in a trench to be attacked. We should be taking the fight to the enemy—we have numbers and mobility. Haven’t you always told me that the cavalry’s main weapon is its ability to be where it is unexpected? Instead our lancers are gathered in stinking, wet holes—and every third man is down with the squirts.”

The shack to the door flew open.

“Every goddamn Japanese private has a better rifle than the best of our ranks!” Georgi yelled, slamming a rifle onto the tabletop. “Arisaka Type Thirty. Five rounds in the magazine and one more in the barrel, can be rapidly reloaded with a spring clip and accurate past six hundred arshins. And we still don’t have enough Mosins for a single battalion, let alone the entire army. And if we did, where would the ammunition come from!?”

Georgi’s pithy observations about the management of the divisional artillery during the loss at the border had reached the ears of the nobleman who commanded the guns. Despite the accuracy of Georgi’s comments, this resulted in his assignment to the logistics section to speed the flow of men, new equipment and supplies from the west. Even now, only a trickle was reaching the front.

Ustikov looked up from his cold food, his expression mild. The boy was working himself into a fine rage.

“So? Did you expect the Japanese to attack with their oldest equipment?”

“That’s not the point, Pavel!”

“I know, lad. Believe me, I know.”

“And they are indifferent to casualties! We lost the Yalu despite months of preparation. Mines, pre-sited artillery, wire, three lines of trenches, searchlights…we had fucking searchlights for a night battle!”

Ustikov kept his voice low, but his eyes were hard, and replied.

“It is almost as though the finest technological creations that our czar buys for his army have not guaranteed our victory, no?”

Pyotr interjected, “We lost Yalu because we didn’t use our forces to attack—we sat on our ass and gave the Japs the initiative!”

“NO!” Georgi nearly screamed. “We lost because that pig fucker of an artillery commander expended half his ammunition shooting at fake bridges. Then, before we had to retreat, he caught a case of cold feet and blew the ammo dumps. HE. BLEW. UP. HIS. OWN. AMMUNITION!”

“Both of you shut up and listen.” Ustikov stood, his hands on his hips. “Pyotr, you have bravery, but no judgment.” He turned to the younger officer. “You know a lot about weapons, Georgi, but you don’t know much about men.”

The stripling drew himself up, his face red with anger.

“Armsman, I am Lieutenant Melishnikov and not the boy you tried to teach to fence with an archaic blade! And I mastered that to your satisfaction, eventually!”

With a grunt, Ustikov made a long arm over his lunch and grabbed the Japanese rifle.

“I am not too impressed with rank, boy, so save your spittle. All those facts, and yet you missed the most important detail about this weapon.” He worked the action to ensure it was empty, and spun it so that the breech first faced Georgi, then Pyotr.

“Do you see this design, the flower stamped into the metal?”

“Of course. The Japanese mark their rifles with a chrysanthemum. Some armory inspector’s mark.”

“No, young master. Listen carefully. That flower is the special symbol of the Meiji emperor. It is the chop of his house, used to mark personal property. That rifle, in fact every weapon that the Japanese issue to their men, is so marked because it means the emperor has placed his personally owned weapons into the hands of his soldiers. They believe that he trusts them, individually, you see?”

Georgi took the rifle back and looked at the mark.

Ustikov continued. “It doesn’t even occur to them to give up, to stop an attack—to fail. They are each holding what amounts to a holy relic that links them to their lord, and they are bound to each other by a code of honor foreign to most of our army—self-sacrifice, discipline and aggression. Their new weapons help, but the power is the men. How many did they lose charging our Maxims, under our artillery barrage, when they took the promontory at Wiju?”

“Hell, I don’t know. A lot.” Georgi slumped in his seat, deflated.

“A shit ton,” offered Pyotr.

“The best estimates are that their lead divisions lost six thousand—about five times what we lost, even during the retreat. And they won. It wasn’t a newer, better rifle, it wasn’t the larger army—it was the army that believed that they couldn’t lose.”

Both young officers looked up disbelievingly.

Ustikov continued. “That is what we are up against. Their soldiers believe in their victory even more with each battle that they win. We are trying to stand and fight against an enemy that isn’t merely trying to occupy a point on some general’s map—we must stand against this foe who wants to eat our army whole.”

Pyotr stood, insulted. “Are you saying that we can’t win! A defeatist in our house?”

Ustikov stood as well. He was no taller, but his bulk forced Pyotr back half a step.

A scarred, hairy hand drew a foot of shining Damascene steel from the scabbard that he wore.

“No young master. Long has my family borne our Kladenets. I don’t know how many times we have replaced the scabbard, the leather on the hilt. My own family’s sigil is etched here. As long as it is drawn in honor, it can never break. As long as you believe in your victory, you will fight with honor.”

He looked at both of the young men, for truly, if they could learn this lesson, their boyhood was done.

“If we can help our army believe that it can win, they will fight with honor. As long as honor lives, our army won’t break.”

He stared at them both.

“So—Pyotr. You must fight smarter, not harder. And you, Georgi, think about how we can win with Russian soul, not the newest German or French inventions.”

Pyotr looked hopeful. “I’m still going to see action, right? I’ll show you!”

Ustikov sighed.

Outside, the occasional rifle fire they had been hearing from the trenches failed to mask a distant series of booms that presaged Japanese artillery. All three looked up as a trumpet sounded.

“To arms, lads. Let’s see what the little yaposhki are up to now.”

* * *

The attack had been delayed two weeks while larger stocks of shells were accumulated. Tanaka’s depleted battalion had been folded into a rump regiment with two other understrength units, and overall command given to Tanaka. This campaign had been hard on the army across all ranks, and experienced officers and sergeants were being moved up, promoted into battlefield vacancies.

Three hundred cho ahead, the Russian defenders were lashed by the Japanese artillery. The hills in the distance protected the landward gateway to Port Arthur. Further in, they would also provide the elevation needed to deliver plunging fire into the port itself. Both sides understood what that meant.

This time, the Russians had aggressively pushed back on the patrols which Tanaka had ordered forward to find the best routes through the minefields, wire and machine guns which protected the outer works. Russian sharpshooters were active, limiting how often he peeked forward. However, the last snatched glance showed the central defending earthworks enveloped in dust and dirty gray smoke, being ground into paste by the Japanese guns. At this point, Tanaka had only permitted a third of his guns to fire. Still, the accuracy was all that he could hope for.

He had organized his unit with alacrity and driven the men hard. Training replacements, preplanning artillery fires, weeding out any officers that showed the slightest hint of reluctance—all of it necessary staff work and properly the job of the commander…and yet. His yearning for personal battle remained unfulfilled.

You couldn’t argue with the efficiency of modern implements of war, however.

“The artillery is actually getting better at this…” muttered Tanaka.

The new junior officer that he now rated as his aide asked, “What was that, Major?”

Tanaka began to reply, but caught himself even as he heard the sound of a melon being split open with a cleaver. He felt a weight across his legs. A quick glance over confirmed that his former aide must have addressed his superior even as he looked directly over the top of the shelter. The lieutenant’s corpse sprawled gracelessly.

Profoundly annoyed, Tanaka continued, “—but maybe I should stop talking to myself.”

He waved his hand behind him in a come-hither motion. Another officer scurried up to his side, assiduously staying as low as possible.


“Message to the artillery: shift fires. And to the assault groups: advance now as planned.”

“Sir, the artillery is still…”

Tanaka jerked a handspan of his katana into view.

“Was my order not clear?”

* * *

“Lieutenant, the damned Japs attacked into their own artillery barrage! They rolled up the first trenchline in twenty minutes, and now their artillery is dropping all over the cavalry staging areas.”

The regimental commander’s eyes showed white all around the iris. Apparently, he had been in the trenches on an inspection when the first artillery fell, and had hastened back to the command post short by a couple of unlucky staff officers. Ustikov had accompanied Pyotr to the command tent once they heard the enemy artillery, and then they had ridden hard for the central sector where the pressure seemed highest, while Georgi headed to the southern lines.

“I need to know how many are coming at the middle so I can time the commitment of the reserve. Observe the center, assess the condition of the battalions that have withdrawn to the second line, and bring word back.”

His job was already more or less what the commander was directing, so Ustikov mentally shrugged.

Some minutes later, they reined in as the battle came into view. The Japanese artillery had paused, and the enemy infantry had stalled against the last trench line and was busily getting chopped up by the Russian Maxims. The Guards reserve infantry had filtered into the rearmost trenches and their fire denied the invaders any additional gain.

Maybe this is going to work out…Ustikov thought.

He had time to snort at his own optimism.

With a tremendous crash that redoubled, and doubled again, the Japanese artillery, which had been focusing entirely on the center, exploded across the Russian lines again, but exclusively on the right flank. So many shells were exploding that from two versta away the defending trenchline was entirely obscured.

“Pyotr—ride to the command post, tell them to shift everything south. The real push is south! Go!”

Ustikov felt his heart tighten. He had sent the youngest into the lion’s mouth.

* * *

Georgi pressed his face as hard as he could into the filthy trench floor. The explosions overhead were less than a second apart. Overpressure from each close shell felt like a hot, tight fist around his chest, battering him. Other defenders lay with him, some quite still. He had gone out of his way to regularly visit the forward regiments and build relationships with their commanders, as his man Pavel had suggested. To his surprise, he was learning something. He was beginning to appreciate some of the differences between efficiently managing the technicalities of a battle and leading the men that fought it. There was in fact a “Russian soul” to the army.

He wasn’t going to learn much more from the friendly major in this regiment. His open but motionless eyes were collecting dust from the nearby explosions.

After what felt like hours, the fire slackened. His stunned ears rang, and it was the shaking of his arm that brought him to his senses. He looked up into a dirty bearded face and saw the man’s mouth working, but heard nothing.

Yanked to his feet, he first saw that the Maxim in his trench wasn’t manned. A quick look through a gun port showed the Japanese troops in full view, their bayonets glinting outside long rifle shot. He could also see a clear path to the rear—his horse was another hundred yards that way.


He knew these men now. If the gun was up, they could hold the line until supports arrived. He leaped to the machine gun and started firing.

A dusty corporal slid in beside him and straightened the ammunition belt.

“Feed me!” Georgi yelled.

This time he wasn’t going to ride away.

* * *

Formerly quiet, the Russian machine gun decisively halted his line of troops. The new weapons were shockingly effective, and again Tanaka’s lead elements had paid heavily to close with the Russians. The regimental commander had started in the rear, coordinating individual battalion-sized attacks. He was down to the reserves now. Much further behind, he could see the next regiment forming to reinforce him. They had to hold their gains long enough to deny the Russians a chance to throw the attack back, and catch the Japanese reinforcements in the open.

Initially suppressed by the intense shelling, the defenders were pulling themselves together. The Maxim fired continuously, pausing briefly every ten seconds as the gunner reloaded. He watched more Japanese fall. Above, a screen of infantry appeared to be shaking itself together, adding their fire to the thickening resistance.

That machine gun would have to go. There was no time for a clever strategy or a courier to the guns in the rear. He felt his heart lift.

Tanaka ordered his two courier officers and his guidon bearer to come with him.

“Follow me now! Do not slow, do not hesitate.”

Not waiting for their response, he drew his revolver and sprinted through the tears in the wire. As he jumped down into the trench, he stumbled on a Japanese body and nearly fell. A shot cracked over his head as three Russians ran toward him yelling. His own pistol came up and he emptied it into the press, dropping the first man and wounding another.

The next closed with his rifled clubbed overhead.

Discarding his empty sidearm, Tanaka drew his katana and struck using the iaijutsu, or draw strike. The blindingly fast sword cut forward directly out of the scabbard and the shocked private stumbled as his arms, still holding his Berdan, fell to one side. Without pausing, Tanaka screamed and charged the Russians, more now in plain view. He parried a bayonet with the flat of his katana, and then opened his enemy’s throat with his backswing. Still another Russian charged him as he did so, stumbling over the dying soldier. His bayonet scored Tanaka’s calf, but Tanaka ignored the burning, and reversing his wrists, drove his blade downward at the Russian, who was nearly kneeling at his feet. Blood flew from the massive wound, and the severed head fell off.

Behind him, he heard a warning, “Down!” and he dove to the trench floor as a fusillade of “friendly” fire killed the next Russians to come around the angled trench.

Yells of “Bomba!” accompanied a pair of grenades that flew over his head and exploded.

He levered himself painfully to his feet, as more Japanese filled in behind him. Ahead, the machine gun was quiet again.

* * *

Despite leaving windrows of their dead behind, the Japanese had gained the trench line.

Georgi’s hearing had returned sufficiently that he could hear the crunch of the grenades that his assistant gunner had just thrown. Despite the cooling water jacket, waves of heat rose from his smoking gun. Worse, the ammunition for the Maxim was exhausted.

He risked a look past the firing position, but only a few Japanese were visible.

Shots sounded down the trench and he turned, filling his hands with revolver and sword.

The corporal lifted his single-shot rifle and gut shot the first Japanese to turn the corner in the trench. He fumbled his reload and looked up at Georgi’s hoarse yell, but caught the next man’s bayonet in his chest. Georgi’s revolver barked twice, three times, dropping the enemy even as he jerked his bayonet from the fresh Russian corpse. He heard feet scuffling behind him and finished the ammunition in his pistol as another Japanese threw himself backward out of sight.

Still another Japanese stepped into view, limping as he raised a bloody sword. His pistol holster hung empty above even bloodier trousers.

Georgi moved forward fluidly, stepping evenly across the mud. He stopped outside of lunging distance, blade forward in sixte. The Japanese used British-style insignia—the crown on his collar marked this one as an officer, a major. The major’s eyes searched the trench, taking in the empty Maxim, the bodies and finally rested on Georgi’s sabre. His posture straightened, and he inclined his head fractionally. The young Russian returned the movement and settled into guard.

The major took his sword in a two-handed grip and slowly raised it above his head, the weapon held nearly parallel to the ground.

The blades flashed.

* * *

The cleanup this time had taken longer than the battle at the river. Tanaka’s regiment was too exhausted to participate, and Tanaka had withdrawn the survivors to the assembly area, where they stumbled to their meal.

Tanaka knelt in his tent. Bushido was clear. First, the mission. Next, the equipment and his men. Done.

Now he was free to care for his own equipment. The pistol, recovered by one of his men, was simple. Punch the bore, wipe down with oil, reload. He had used his father’s katana heavily this day, and despite wiping it on the Russian officer’s coat, coagulated blood saturated the silk cord wound about the grip and showed in the seams between the guard and the other fittings. As it served him, he would properly clean and return the sword to perfection, to fighting condition.

He arranged his tools, a small mallet and bone needle, and his parts, including a selection of replacement pegs, or mekugi, for fastening the sword handle to the blade. He allowed himself to relax, even as his hands methodically disassembled the katana. A blend of ritual precision and reverence marked his movements, but his thoughts drifted.

The sword dated far back in his family’s history.

The blade originated before the Tokugawa regime and the spirits of his ancestors had surely guided his hand this day. Yet, the old path dating to the time of the shogunate would never have gotten the empire this far. The European methods, the new army organization and the new weapons, were required, but the old ways—strength, honor, the Code—these were still needed.

He felt a warm wash of conviction. His father had passed knowledge and tradition to his son, not merely a sword. The katana reminded him of his father’s lessons and he added to that store his own hard-won understanding. The useful old ways were not discarded, but preserved. The useful new ways were not idolized, but evaluated and added to sum of what already was.

As he completed each step, he cleaned and set successive pieces of his weapon to one side. Finally, he tapped the old mekugi out. The handle came free, and he used powder and oil to clean and polish the blade.

The Russians had fine soldiers. The young lieutenant that he had fought today had been skilled. A very fine incision the length of his forearm marked one swing of the Russian’s sabre.

Their artillery was hellishly accurate. He frowned slightly as he worked uchiko powder into the blade. It took time to finally polish a faint shrapnel scar from the metal.

They could be brave. None of his opponents had shown him their backs. The fine stone he used to hone the edge required many strokes to restore an edge dulled by repeated strikes to bone.

But…their conviction as a group was weak. Did they believe in the final victory? Did their officers understand their men? Did each know their duty and place? No.

His emperor relied on General Kushiro to defeat the Russian empire. The general ordered his regiment to gain a foothold to take the port. The regiment would have failed if Tanaka hadn’t personally taken the trench and denied the Russian’s their forward guns. It had come down to one man.

He selected a plain, straight-grained mekugi. The bamboo was almost white. He sanded it very slightly, increasing the taper enough to improve its grip on the blade. The entire sword relied on the one bamboo peg that connected the blade to the hilt, and therefore the hilt to the man.

The peg slid home under the patient tapping of the mallet, and he carefully sighted down the edge, before completing the reassembly. Once finished, he noted that the light was dimming. His eyes had adjusted as twilight fell. He gripped the hilt and performed a basic suburi form. The weapon was satisfactorily tight, the many pieces now a single living thing again.

Gleaming, it shone in the red evening light.

August 1904

The Foot of 203 Meter Hill, Port Arthur

Ustikov watched the new reinforcements moving into camp. Their uniforms were in much better condition than those of the veterans of the campaign. Mostly they were garrison johnnies from the port itself, and a few were scarce infantry whose transports had slipped the early Japanese blockade. He ducked his head back into the tent. In between intermittent Japanese artillery fire, he could hear the rattling breath of the surviving Melishnikov.

Another massive howitzer shell shrieked overhead and burst in an empty field to the rear. The Japanese had brought up huge ship-killing guns. Each shell weighed a third of a ton and made a horrible, distinctive sound. Troops called them “roaring trains,” attendant with the macabre jokes about going on a “train trip.”

They were under canvas now, at least. The first weeks after the retreat west had been a nightmare. If the Japanese had maintained momentum after Nanshan, they could have advanced nearly unopposed west to the port and north all the way to the railroad that was keeping Russian hopes alive. Ustikov, already suspecting that he had lost one of his charges, had rallied broken units by force of will, and on a few occasions, by threat of force. Pyotr had stayed close, quietly hysterical with grief, but ready to explode at a touch. A captain of engineers who wouldn’t halt his retreating column narrowly avoided execution at his hands, saved only by Ustikov’s intervention. Shortly thereafter, likely as a result of fatigue, exposure and sorrow, Pyotr had been driven from horseback by typhoid.

Nearly one in three would die from typhoid, and Ustikov forsook his duties to nurse the remaining Melishnikov. As the weather worsened, evacuating Pyotr became inadvisable. The Russian fleet had lost another battle, and with the loss of many of their screening ships, the big battlewagons were confined to harbor, and the blockade tightened.

Unconscious, Pyotr exhaled weakly. So far, Ustikov’s care and the young man’s natural resilience had staved off the disease when many others lay buried in the mud.

Another shell roared overhead, this time exploding close enough to make the ground shiver. The Japanese had tried an initial all-out assault, but had been thrown back. The defending Russian general experienced a rush of blood to his brain and ordered the river at the foot of the defenders’ lines to be dammed, creating a swamp which the Japanese infantry had to cross under fire.

Ustikov didn’t really care at this point. He was desperate to get Pyotr fit to travel. He had to return the sole remaining heir to his father, and redeem what remained of his own honor. Though Georgi’s body was lost, the story of his ward, a young hero, manning a machine gun and slowing the Japanese attack was carried back to Ustikov by those that fled as the defense crumbled. The entire month had been a series of probing Japanese attacks in company and battalion strength. Slowly, Russian lines were split—one front pushing them back into the port proper, and another chasing survivors as they withdrew to the Russian railhead. The perimeter defending Port Arthur shrank back, reaching the bottom of the hill where he now sat, less than a mile away.

Before Pyotr was felled by the disease, Ustikov had suggested that they withdraw north. The suggestion had not been well received. The slow but burning rage in Pyotr face’s would have frightened a lesser man. New lines crossed Pyotr’s face, and his eyes burned in Ustikov’s memory.

“Leave? Retreat now? Leave the Japanese with their victory? Are you mad?”

Ustikov had expected resistance, anger even. Pyotr had simply refused every subsequent discussion. Too big to carry, too senior to command and now too experienced for Ustikov to overawe, Pyotr sought revenge for Georgi.

The casualty lists had certainly reached Moscow by now. Georgi had been listed as missing, which in battle conditions, was effectively the same as “dead, but mutilated so badly that we can’t tell which body fragments belong to which person.” An old soldier like the count would know that, yet create the kinder fictions suitable for the family.

In order to return with any honor at all, he must get Pyotr ready to ride and escape this rat trap.

He looked over at the cot again. His old soldier’s eyes already knew a truth that his heart denied. If Pyotr didn’t rouse soon and start to eat, he would die.

* * *

The Russian defenses in view were the most formidable of the campaign. Tanaka used field glasses to scan the layered series of trenches, gun pits, obstacles and cleared fields of fire. There was no approach possible that wasn’t under direct observation. During the months since Tanaka took the first line of defense for Port Arthur, the Russians had worked very hard to get ready for the inevitable attack. They had even moved some ship’s guns ashore, improving the depth of their gun line.

This was proving to be a very tough oyster to open.

Recuperating, Tanaka’s command had provided a screening function against nonexistent Russian patrols. Other regiments had attacked the lines defending the two prominent hills whose crests commanded the entire field of battle, as well as the harbor. More than two thousand soldiers had died so far. At one point, the Russians had sortied a cruiser which pumped shells into the Japanese positions from nearly point-blank range.

It was only a matter of time before his regiment was back in the fight.

He nearly thought out loud again, when he heard scrabbling next to him, obviously his aide trying to get a better view of the enemy. Keeping his eyes forward, Tanaka ordered the young man back.

“Keep down, fool! The reason that you have this job is that the last two decided to offer their heads for Russian target practice!”

“What was that, Major?” Tanaka heard the division commander speak at his side.

Jumping down from the observation port Tanaka saluted his commanding officer.


Kushiro was apparently in an expansive mood.

“What was that about then, Major? Are your aides anxious to die for the emperor?”

Tanaka allowed himself to mentally relax for a moment, but his features remained impassive.

“No sir—but despite my effort to keep these young lieutenants alive long enough to be of meaningful service to the Heaven Born, they insist on offering themselves as targets. I thought that you were my third such officer, about to find his fate and leave me to train the fourth.”

Tanaka saw the general smile. He understood officers like himself were a big part of the general’s success during the campaign. Tanaka had kept his men moving forward despite frightful casualties. Like all the surviving line officers, he knew that the casualty numbers were so high that a few Japanese units had refused to advance, which news had been omitted from public reports.

General Kushiro looked over. “We have cadre to train the new men. The heavy losses have been mostly made good, and the units with the most replacements are shaping nicely.” Tanaka’s contacts on the staff had remarked that entire additional regiments were available since the Russian efforts to regain access to the Yellow Sea had failed. Heavy equipment, vast stocks of ammunition and more men were ready for the imminent effort to seize a few more kilometers of the peninsula. At that point, the new Krupp 28 cm howitzers would range the entire Russian anchorage. Once the port was theirs, the Japanese Second Army would march north to help the forces even now trying to push the Russians further out of Manchuria. In short, their logistics was all that they could hope for. The Russian logistics situation was simpler.

They didn’t have any.

“I have more news for you, Tanaka. Your performance in this campaign, and the performance of your regiment in the attack on Nanshan, was exemplary in all respects. As a result, I am confirming your permanent appointment to First Regiment. I am adding another battalion of infantry and best of all, you are promoted to lieutenant colonel. Congratulations, Colonel!”

Tanaka was simultaneously enervated and concerned. By now the soldiers who had won at the Yalu and Nanshan knew how to estimate the enemy’s strength. While he had mentally prepared himself for another attack, he knew that the men were not anxious to throw themselves against the intimidating defenses lying ahead. The promotion and extra men was a clear sign that his unit would not be sitting to the rear when the next assault was ordered.

And yet, duty.

“General, do we attack soon?”

The general stepped up onto the observation point. Tanaka winced as an enemy bullet made a snapping sound as it passed overhead.

Unconcerned, the general tossed over his shoulder, “Soon enough, Tanaka. And your regiment will have the honor of leading.”

* * *

Though he had regained consciousness a few days earlier, Pyotr hadn’t been able to take any nourishment beyond a little water.

This night, Pyotr had seemed to stop breathing several times. Each time, Ustikov’s heart nearly stopped too. He had dragged the divisional surgeon from his tent after midnight, but the exhausted and overworked man looked at Pyotr and pronounced him beyond the doctor’s ability to help.

“There are hundreds like him right now. If truly you care about him, try to get him to take some water, and some broth.”

He sat on the bed next to Pyotr, trying to get him to take some thin, warm soup. The young man’s lips moved and Ustikov leaned closer to hear a whispered “Sorry. I am sorry, Pavel. Tell father that I am sorry.”

Ustikov had heard death-bed confessions before. He knew the tone of a man who, feeling his death near, needed to shrive his soul. The nearly inaudible words were plain and he understood what this meant. He felt his heart tear inside his chest as he at long last began to accept the loss of Pyotr.

“Nonsense, lad. You’ll tell him yourself when you see him.”

“No, Pavel. I can feel it.” The words came slowly. “I am paying the price for not protecting him.”

“Please, Pyotr, take a little soup. Once you are better, we can ride to your family’s home, and we will bring Georgi’s things with us. Please, take a little.”

Pyotr turned his head.

“Need to rest some more.”

“Lad, you must eat, or you will die. You’ve listened to me all your life, please listen now. Take some soup, please!” Ustikov begged.

The figure on the bed didn’t answer, but continued to breathe laboriously.

In the distance, Japanese artillery began to rumble.

September 1904

203 Meter Hill, Port Arthur

The “train” landed only fifty yards away, within the circle of Russian defenders. The damp ground rolled away from the point of impact like water, throwing men from their feet. Shrapnel sledged into the side of the bombproof where Ustikov squatted, waiting for the enemy infantry. His expression didn’t alter.

The adjoining hill had fallen. Pyotr was dead. Georgi was dead. Ustikov’s heart was an empty hole in his chest. The port defenses were being destroyed, and Port Arthur would fall.

His given duty was lost, unrecoverable.

After Pyotr had died, Ustikov had thrown himself into his duties as a galloper for the general commanding the final resistance. As the lines continued to shrink inward, pressed by the attackers, he carried fewer messages and fought more often. The Japanese infantry had gained the edge of the summit four times in six days. Each time, Ustikov had led a charge into the teeth of the attack. His heedless advances, the fearsome toll collected by his long sword and his absolute lack of any serious wound had made him the soul of the defense.

It seemed to his fellow defenders that Ustikov wasn’t courting death with his action, he was slapping Death across the face and demanding to be heard. Magically, shells that fell at his feet failed to detonate, and bullets passed closely enough to turn his garments ragged.

The ground shook again. Next to him in the shelter was a small group of orphaned hussars who had adopted him as their leader. Men instinctively seek strong leaders, and absent a cavalry officer, the famed armsman of the House of Melishnikov wasn’t a bad second choice. A nervous man shifted his weight and shot a glance at Ustikov from under his busby. The hussars were in awe of his record and a little scared of him, so this one didn’t stare overlong.

If any victory was possible, it would surely be because of this demon of a Cossack, whirling the shashka with such power that he parted arms and legs from trunks, and souls from their bodies.

Yet another shell landed, closer.

More glances at Ustikov.

Impassive, he stared at the door, waiting for the whistles.

* * *

Tanaka blew his whistle, and the next company surged forward to gain a few more yards of muddy, bloody trench.

His regiment had gained the hill on the morning of each of the last two days. The defenders fought like demons. Their casualties had to be high, but the Japanese, crossing open spaces in full view of scores of machine guns and several hundreds of rifles, fell in numbers so high that attacks didn’t fall back.

They simply ceased to exist.

The 1st Regiment was little more than a thousand men now. One of three assaulting 203 Meter Hill, it had established a lodgement on the side of the prominence. The trajectory of Russian guns wasn’t steep enough to drop on the reverse side of the hill that they defended, without risking hits within the Russian lines.

The company of Japanese infantry crashed into the enemy line. Rifle fire and machine guns harvested more of the attackers, but they actually filled the trench at several points and began to spread laterally, as they had on previous semisuccessful advances. One soldier horsed around a Maxim, and turned it on the defenders.

With a firm beachhead established, Tanaka waited for the company commander to push a little more, making room behind them for another company. Sending more men right away would leave them milling in the open space, exposed to machine guns from points slightly higher in the defenses.

They needed just a bit more space.

* * *

The shells had stopped falling, and the Japanese infantry was coming again. The short squad that sheltered with Ustikov waited for his instructions, even as he cocked his head, judging where the volume of fire was heaviest.

There were several places, so he picked the closest and waved his cohort along with him. The hussars all bore the more modern Mosin rifle, as well as sidearms. With these, they could maintain very heavy fire for a short time. Once the ammunition was expended, or if there wasn’t time to reload, the fight would revert to the old ways.

Entering the trench, they immediately joined the confused fight. Defenders and attackers were intermingled, preventing the little band of reinforcements from simply shooting indiscriminately. They carefully emptied their rifles at the Japanese, who, belatedly recognizing the threat, returned the favor. In moments, the cacophony of fire subsided. All of the Japanese were down in this section, but the original defenders were mostly dead or severely wounded.

Ustikov bellowed, “Reload!” They charged down the trench line toward the next section.

The burly armsman pushed through the narrow aperture and emerged in a gun pit full of more struggling men. He slipped a bayonet thrust and shot that Japanese twice. His men flooded into the space, squeezing combatants so closely together that rifles couldn’t easily be brought to bear. Dropping his Mosin, Ustikov unholstered his Broomhandle Mauser, a battlefield pickup from a dead Japanese officer in an earlier attack. The German weapon held ten rounds and was quicker to reload than the standard Russian revolvers.

He felt a searing burn on his side. Looking down, he saw that another Japanese bayonet had scored his ribs, but the wielder was unable to pull his rifle back for a second thrust. Ustikov shoved the Mauser against the man’s chest, and pulled the trigger several times. The Mauser had a decent round, but he didn’t trust pistols and he wanted to ensure that the man stayed down.

Again, the battle seemed to pause suddenly. Ustikov breathed heavily, almost choking on the thick propellant residue that was confined inside the large trench. Men lay scattered so thickly in the gun pit that he had to watch the ground as he strode. Most bodies were still, but a few figures groaned. He saw a Japanese sergeant lift his head and shot him twice in the back. They couldn’t afford to leave any live ones behind them.

“Reload!” he ordered, again.

Stuffing the Mauser with cartridges, Ustikov heard a new sound—a Maxim, but firing over the encampment. He immediately realized that some enterprising Jap was using a Russian gun against its owners. He gathered the last hussars and once more stormed to the sound of guns.

* * *

Kneeling below the military crest fronting the assembly point of his second company, the new colonel watched his leading assault company filter into the adjoining trenches and called for the commander of 2nd Company. He could hear the now-friendly Maxim still firing, but couldn’t make out any of the critical details of the action. Tanaka knew that duty and therefore his place was ahead. He couldn’t lead what he couldn’t see. He also couldn’t keep his head up indefinitely.

That’s long enough, he thought.

Ducking his head, Tanaka remarked aloud, “Our place is forward. We will plant the regimental colors on that position.”

His aide started suddenly, but Tanaka’s iron grip prevented the young officer from raising his body even an inch just as a burst of fire swept the lip of their trench.

Tanaka smiled.

“Sooner or later you will learn not to stick your head up. It is practically a prerequisite for promotion, you know.”

The lieutenant shouted, “Sir!”

Without time for more professional development, Tanaka turned to the newly arrived, panting captain who led 2nd Company.

“I will reinforce First Company. You are to take your remaining force and assault the section of trench immediately on the right flank. I will direct Third by messenger to reinforce you, if necessary.”

Tanaka overrode the automatic objections to the concept of risking himself and dismissed the captain. The objections might have been a trifle pro forma. He hadn’t even had to show steel to get the company commander to accept his order.

Tanaka turned to his aide. “Have this platoon follow me, and you will follow with the color bearer, behind them. Is that clear?”

“Sir, please allow me to come with you!”

“Enough! To your place!”

The lieutenant slunk back as Tanaka, the platoon commander and twenty men ran forward the hundred yards or so, nearly reaching the place where 1st Company had disappeared into the now-silent trench.

Why is the trench quiet? Did the Maxim we captured run out of ammunition?

Tanaka’s unspoken question was answered in a moment as the gun’s fire shredded his group. Next to him the platoon’s officer simply fell headlong, his face torn away.

Tanaka felt bullets pluck at his cap and trouser legs as he dove in the dirt. His right calf throbbed.

Always with the legs! Can I at least make it to the fight with both legs, ever?

The Russians had regained the trench. If the new Russian gunner was allowed to keep his position, the assault would falter, again. His duty was to take the hill. The cost wasn’t material. Their lives belonged to the emperor.

He could claim that storming a trench was a lieutenant’s job, or a captain’s job—and he would be right. He could claim, with some justification, that his regiment needed him to stay alive, to direct the attack. He could even just hold still a moment and let the gun move on.

Every army and navy cadet was required to memorize and recite on command the Imperial Rescript. The five precepts contained therein were engraved in the brain of every officer, indeed, on every soldier and sailor at any rank. Loyalty, Respect, Valor, Faithfulness and Simplicity. These precepts bound each man to the emperor. Loyalty was the essential duty, and the text of the rescript was clear. “Duty is heavier than mountains. Death is lighter than a feather.”

The code was clear. Duty was meant to be heavy.

Tanaka felt the weight bearing down and gripped the hilt of his father’s sword, finding strength.

He yelled. “Grenades, now!”

Then he charged the gun, pistol drawn.

* * *

The Maxim had changed hands yet again.

Ustikov’s heart had finally lightened. The situation was so impossible, so unlikely to be survivable, that he could finally let go of his worry, doubt and guilt. He exulted as he traversed the machine gun across the file of advancing Japanese. Ustikov watched them fall, or dive to cover, then became aware that he was screaming the entire time.

The sharp fight for the gun position had left the Russians with only three men.

One hussar was poised next to the armsman, the next belt of ammunition flaked out neatly, the brass feed tab held ready to be guided into the action. The other was in defilade behind him, binding a deep cut on his arm.

Several enemy rose to charge his position and he finished his belt, hitting most of them.

Small objects flew into his trench.

“Grenades!” came the call, too late. One exploded close enough to kill or wound his assistant.

The gun was askew and his vision was a little blurry, but he was otherwise fine. Three Japanese leaped into fighting position as he stumbled to his feet. One was shot by the wounded hussar and the other finished him in turn.

Ustikov drew his Mauser again, and head-shot the second man, a private, before pivoting to shoot the other who wielded a pistol and one of the funny looking Jap swords.

He squeezed the trigger but nothing happened. The slide was locked back on the empty gun, and he looked down the impotent sights at a bloodied Japanese officer who looked as surprised as Ustikov felt. The Japanese raised his own pistol and squeezed the trigger as Ustikov felt his guts tighten, waiting for the impact of the bullet.

Effectively deaf, Ustikov watched the hammer on the Jap’s gun snap forward.


His was empty too.

In a detached corner of his mind, Ustikov wondered if he could actually hold this bit of trench long enough for…what?

With a ringing of steel, Ustikov drew his shashka and dropped the useless Mauser. The Japanese, looking hard and fit, discarded his pistol as well, and took his sword in a two-handed grip. With a shout, Ustikov closed the distance and lunged, and as the Japanese sword flashed in a parry, he began a remise with passes to his opponent’s face, neck and shoulders.

Quick flickers of the chisel-tipped Japanese sword deflected his strikes left, right and left again and then it licked out, scoring a bright red line on Ustikov’s wrist. Still, the Japanese seemed to have problems, clearly favoring his right leg.

The big Russian paused, and gauged the dimensions of the planked trench. He looked into his opponent’s dark eyes a moment. There was no magic or message there, save determination, or perhaps desperation to match the feelings in his own breast.

He lunged again and again, but the Japanese swordsman expertly parried his attacks, using the flat of his blade, protecting the fighting edge. In turn the Japanese risked an overhand chop at Ustikov’s leading leg. He didn’t seem to have full use of his right leg, and his lunging attack was a bit short, but he still managed a cut across the middle of the Russian’s thigh.

Great, thought Ustikov, Thirty thousand Japs to fight, and I get the fencing master.

He cautiously tested his leg without moving his eyes from his opponent. It began to burn like fire, but he seemed to have full strength, still. Panting, he attacked.

He needed to end this soon, and playing dirty, he began to force the officer to back to his right, punishing the leg injury. All he needed was a slip, an opening, and he could open this one’s throat. He pushed, paused and pushed some more. His target stepped on a body and for just a moment, the Japanese overbalanced.

In that moment, Ustikov put everything that he had left into attacking his target. Without sure footing, the timing of the parries let some of the strikes through. Within two seconds, Ustikov scored cuts on the Japanese, bloodying his shoulder, his temple and ribs. The Japanese fell to a knee, holding his sword up, one-handed in a useless defense.

This will end it, thought Ustikov, and with a yell he brought a two-handed strike down, straight through the Jap’s sword.

Kladenets struck right at the little round guard that protected the hilt, splitting it.

And shattered.

The shashka broke at the point of impact and Ustikov, shocked, overbalanced and stumbled a little past his intended victim. Staring at the jagged stump of his sword for a moment, he whirled back to finish the officer, turning just in time to catch the Japanese’s thrust directly into his heart, slamming him back against the trench wall.

He felt the fire and ice of the wound, and his hands stopped obeying, dropping his ruined weapon. Somehow, he was still upright.

Pavel Ustikov took in the dead, the smoke and the filth. He could see his broken Kladenets, so far below him, and above it, an oddly shaped sword hilt projecting from his chest.

He had broken his vow, and never redeemed his honor. Vision dimmed.

He looked up and saw the Japanese officer staring at him, a sheet of blood covering most of his face.

Then Pyotr appeared, obscuring the Japanese.

“Pavel, there you are! Let me show you something!”

* * *

His katana pinned the big Russian to the wooden trench wall. Tanaka slumped to the muddy floor of the trench, and watched the light leave the dying man’s eyes. At the very end, the Russian smiled, gently.

A beautiful death. Tanaka would honor that.

He took the Russian’s broken sabre and tried to regain his feet, using the sword as a prop, but slipped in the blood and muck and decided to stay down for a moment.

Because he wanted to. Nothing to do with blood loss.

His thoughts came slowly, single file.

His vision blurred from the blood running from his scalp wound. The Russian had been faster than Tanaka could believe. If the sabre hadn’t shattered…

Looking at the katana still impaling the corpse, he could see that the tsuba was split, and the blade notched. Have to see to that. Needs fixing.

He glanced at the sabre in his hand. The pattern of watered steel was evident. The Russian sword was made using the same techniques as his own.

It had been an honorable fight, where two men—not distant cannon or machine guns—decided the victor. In such a fight, he could almost feel a kinship with his opponent.

Slowly, he became aware of the battle still being fought around him. He didn’t have much time before one side or the other interfered with his reverie. He would retain the broken sabre to remember this fight, and this man. Maybe use some of the broken blade to mend his own.

Rifle fire and artillery obscured the hammering of feet on the duckboards until they were quite close. Rough hands hauled him upright, and he winced.

Allies then.

“Sir, are you alright?”

Bakayaro! Do I look alright, fool?”

The cluster of men fell back respectfully, and Tanaka swayed a little, still clutching the ruined sabre.

“Fetch my katana.”

As a sergeant turned to tug the sword free Tanaka added, “Gently! My brother died with honor.”

Incredulous, the soldiers exchanged glances.

But they did as he said.

For meritorious conduct during wartime the Emperor bestows the Eighth Class Order of the White Paulownia Leaves and the sum of 250 yen…

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