By Nancy Sauer
While growing up Hida Fumetsu had heard stories about the Topaz Championship and the glorious careers that the winners of the Championship almost invariably went on to. Imperial Magistrate, Imperial Guard, Storm Rider–nothing seemed out of reach for the one who wore the Topaz Armor. Fumetsu never dreamed that one day he would be in Tsuma to compete in the Topaz Championship. And he never dreamed that it would be so empty, either.
‘Empty’ wasn’t quite the right word, he admitted–there were plenty of people in the street, buying from the shops that lined the main road or passing along on their own errands, but the throngs of people that normally choked the streets at this time of year were absent. Of course, this was probably because most of them were dead in the ruined areas of Toshi Ranbo. Fumetsu considered sharing this thought with his traveling companion and decided against it. Hida Kashin wasn’t exactly a berserker, but he had an intensity that made Fumetsu nervous, and he hadn’t yet figured out how to have a casual conversation with him.
“You! Crab! Halt!”
Fumetsu stopped and looked for the source of the shout and saw a Daidoji soldier coming out of the alley to Kashin’s right. She looked the two Crab over and spoke to Kashin. “You bear the mon of the Damned,” she said. “Do you have permission to be here? Where are your papers?”
“And who are you to ask?” Fumetsu said, stung by her tone.
The woman looked over to him, eyes narrowing. “I,” she said quietly, “am one of the many, many soldiers the Crane have assigned to this city to make sure that nothing untoward happens during the Championship. And if that is not good enough, I can summon a dozen more soldiers very quickly.”
“Daidoji-sama,” Kashin said quickly, “I wear this mon to honor my family. My father fights with the Damned now, as my grandfather did before him.” He held out two scrolls. “My travel papers, and my invitation to the Topaz Championship.”
The soldier accepted the scrolls and looked them over, her manner softening slightly as she did so. She passed them back to Kashin and then took the scrolls that Fumetsu wordlessly offered her. She scanned them and then returned them. “Welcome to Tsuma; may you both bring honor to your families here. You are staying at the Crab estate? Do you know how to find it?”
“We were told that a room has been reserved in the inn next to the estate, and that the estate is in the north part of the city,” Fumetsu said.
The woman nodded. “Follow this road until you get to Eight Street, then turn left and follow it. The Crab estate is on the north side, not that you can miss it.” She thought for a moment. “You’ll need a place to eat. From the estate come back to this road, then go south one block and turn left. Halfway down the block is a cook shop run by Washi–best tempura in town. Tell them that Daidoji Murasaki sent you.”
“Thank you, Daidoji-sama,” Kashin said. They moved on, and when they were out of earshot he turned and gave Fumetsu an incredulous look. “What were you thinking of, challenging her like that?”
“I didn’t like her attitude,” Fumetsu said.
Kashin’s look turned scathing. “And for that you were going to get thrown out of Tsuma before the Championship even began?”
Fumetsu shrugged. “I wasn’t going to do anything to get thrown out.” He was beginning to suspect that Kashin was taking this a lot more seriously than he was. Fumetsu’s invitation had come as a favor for his family, from a Lion lord impressed with his uncle’s skill as an armor smith. Fumetsu had been elated at the idea of taking his gempukku at the Topaz Championship, and he intended to do well, but in the end nothing that happened here mattered. His destiny was to serve his clan on the Wall, and that was that.
They traveled along in silence for several blocks before Fumetsu spoke again. “Kashin-san? You said your father served with the Damned–do you ever…visit him?”
Kashin looked over with guarded eyes. “No. But I sent him letters, and he wrote back sometimes.”
“So,” Fumetsu said, “what do you know about Hida Nichie?”
“She won the Kumitae,” Kashin said promptly, “and earned the right to learn the jiujitsu techniques of Shinsei. She is teaching them to the Damned.”
“I know that,” Fumetsu said. “Everyone knows that. But is she,” his voice dropped in volume, “is she Tainted?”
Kashin didn’t answer immediately. “She lives in her own house in the training compound, and not in the Barracks. She has regular meetings with the Kuni Witch Hunters, but all the instructors, Tainted or not, have regular meetings with them. So, probably not. Unless she is.”
“If she is,” Fumetsu said, “the Horde will pay.”
“Yes,” Kashin said.
* * * * *
Fumetsu knelt before the judges, sweating slightly and trying not to show his nervousness. He had done very well today, scoring perfect marks in the sumai and athletics competitions, and doing respectably in horsemanship and heraldry. But this was the law, etiquette and bushido examination, and he didn’t know what to expect. His judges–a startlingly beautiful Scorpion woman and an old Crane courtier whose white hair Fumetsu suspected of being natural–had introduced themselves in the beginning, and he had promptly forgotten their names. He hoped that wouldn’t be one of the questions.
“Fumetsu-san,” the Crane said, “which is most important for a samurai to serve, the Emperor or the Empire?”
“The Emperor,” he said without hesitating.
“You seem very certain,” the Scorpion said. “Why?”
Fumetsu waved his hand vaguely in the direction of Toshi Ranbo. “Look what happens when we don’t have one,” he said.
The two judges looked at each other. “Pass,” the Scorpion said. “Pass,” the Crane agreed, making swift brush marks on the paper in front of him.
* * * * *
By the time Fumetsu got back to the room Kashin was already there, hunched over a scroll. Fumetsu collapsed on the floor, opened up the sake he had brought and proceeded to drink it straight from the bottle. “Why doesn’t the Topaz Championship have a drinking contest as part of it?” he wondered out loud.
“Because then the Crab would always win,” Kashin said.
Fumetsu laughed and passed him the bottle. “Congratulations,” he said.
“Same to you,” Kashin said. He drank. “If we do as well tomorrow as we did today, we could be facing off for the Championship.”
“That would make our families proud,” Fumetsu said. He accepted the bottle and took another swig. “What are you reading?”
“It is a collection of classic poetry,” Kashin said. “I am memorizing as many of them as I can.”
Fumetsu blinked. “Why?”
“The poetry competition is tomorrow,” Kashin said. “When we are given the topic, I will take parts of old poems that are appropriate and mash them together to make a new poem.”
“That will be a horrible poem,” Fumetsu said.
“Better than no poem at all.”
“True enough.” Fumetsu cocked his head for a moment, thinking.
“Smoke curling upwards,
Blood runs like stormwater in gutters:
Lordless city’s grief”
Kashin stared at him. “You write poetry?”
“Oh, I never write them down,” Fumetsu said. “But my sensei told me that boredom was a sentry’s worst enemy, and one of the monks at Koten told me once that poetry makes you look at things. So I try it every once in a while.” He finished the bottle and pitched it into the corner of the room. “Let’s go eat. I want to go back to that cook shop the Daidoji told us about.”
“It was full of soldiers wearing the same unit crest as her,” Kashin said.
“So? They need to eat.”
“So, by sending us there she made it easy for the Crane to keep watch on us.”
“They can watch all they like as long as they keep the tempura coming,” Fumetsu said. “It’s the best I’ve had since Kyuden Hida.”
* * * * *
Fumetsu laid his hand on the sheath of his katana and looked across the dueling ground at Kashin. Yesterday they had done equally well in the weapons, archery and hunting competitions, and equally poorly in the courtier examination. Fumetsu had taken the higher marks in poetry, while Kashin had been superior in go.
“Hida Fumetsu. Hida Kashin,” Kakita Hanae intoned. The slight young woman looked more like a student than the Kenshinzen people claimed she was, but Fumetsu didn’t question the Kakita Academy’s selection of judges. He walked out to the center of the arena, bowed to the judge and his opponent, and assumed his stance.
The crowd grew silent as the two young Crabs stared at each other. Fumetsu could see the intensity in Kashin’s eyes and knew that his opponent must be thinking of his father and grandfather, and the honor he would bring them by becoming the Topaz Champion. He emptied his mind of that thought, then tried to empty his mind of all thoughts. In iaijutsu there was only the draw, and the perfect draw happened with no thought.
A breath taken in, a burst of motion, and Fumetsu found himself standing two steps beyond his opponent. The crowd had begun applauding, but he didn’t know for who. After a moment he found the courage to check the paper targets dangling from his sleeves. One seemed to be nicked, but both were attached. He looked back and saw Kashin, the target on his right neatly sliced off just below the sleeve. The other Crab bowed deeply, then turned around and walked off.
“Hida Fumetsu, the winner,” Hanae announced.
* * * * *
Fumetsu walked through Tsuma with the kabuto of the Topaz Armor tucked under one arm. It made him feel faintly ridiculous, but it was the only part of the armor that fit him at the moment, and until the rest of it was resized the kabuto was all he had to show for his victory. Well, almost all. He smiled to himself.
He reached his room and went in to find Kashin just finishing his packing. “You should have stayed for the party,” Fumetsu said. “One thing you can say about the Crane, they know the value of a good meal.”
“That wouldn’t have been a good idea,” Kashin said. “I am happy that a Crab won, but,” he shoved a rolled-up kimono into his traveling pack, “I failed. I had a chance, and I was not strong enough.”
“You brought honor to your family just by competing,” Fumetsu said. “Everyone knows that. Besides, you are better off this way. Topaz Champion only lasts a year, but an appointment to serve an Emerald Magistrate can last a lifetime. Or until you work your way up to being a magistrate yourself, which I don’t expect to take long.”
Kashin left off his packing and turned around to stare at Fumetsu. “What are you talking about?”
“Topaz Champions almost always go on to be Important People, right? Other Important People know this, so they are willing to do favors for the Topaz Champion so that later on, he can do favors for them.” Fumetsu started to grin, unable to bottle it up any longer. “So at the party I was talking to that Crane who was the judge at the bushido competition,” Fumetsu still couldn’t remember his name, “and I was telling him about how smart you are and how good you are at noticing things and figuring out what they mean. He knows someone who knows someone and he’s going to get you appointed as a doshin to an Emerald Magistrate.”
Kashin sat down with a thump. “You did that? For me?”
“No,” Fumetsu said, turning serious. “I did it for the Crab. Any of us who serve on the Wall, or anywhere, could someday be Tainted. Any of us could end up serving with the Damned. In honoring your family, you honor all of us. Make us proud, Kashin.”
Kashin sat still for a minute, eyes wide as he tried to take all the implications in. Then his face split into a huge smile. “I will,” he said. “You know I will.” He climbed to his feet. “This calls for a party! The innkeeper must know which sake house the Crabs here go to–I’ll go find out.” He paused in the doorway for a moment, his smile somewhat sardonic. “Perhaps one day my accomplishments will even outstrip what you’ve accomplished here, eh?”
“I have a koku that says they do not!” he laughed as his friend disappeared down the corridor. Left alone for the moment, Fumetsu picked up his kabuto and looked at it. His being here had mattered after all, he thought. He had a whole year to keep making it matter. He grinned at the thought.
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