In lands far distant from one another, two similar yet very different tournaments are conducted, determining the identities of those who will take a hand in shaping the future of Rokugan.
Questions of Loyalty
By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
The grounds where the Tournament of the Emerald Championship were held looked exactly the same as they did the last time the tournament was held, and so did the tent city that had sprung up around it to shelter and serve the crowd of competitors, officials, and various hangers-on that the event attracted. The mood of that crowd, on the other hand, was far, far different. But that, Bayushi Nomen thought, was only to be expected.
He moved easily through the tents, listening, looking, hunting. A flash of a kimono dyed the clear blue of an autumn sky caught his notice and Nomen found himself at a temporary cookshop offering soba noodles swimming in a dark amber broth. He ordered a bowl and looked at the other customers. Two Crane men and a ronin–no, he corrected himself, not a ronin, a Sparrow bushi. His noodles were handed over in a cheap earthenware bowl and Nomen slurped them down with pleasure. He never had time to venture out for street food anymore, but here at least he could indulge himself.
“Greetings, honorable samurai,” he said after he had finished. “I am Bayushi Nomen.” He bowed slightly towards the Crane, and nodded to the Sparrow.
“I am Doji Tajihi,” the taller of the two replied. He bowed politely enough, but there was a cool skepticism in his eyes.
“Daidoji Yorio,” the second said. He bowed slightly and then returned drinking the rest of his noodle broth, but Nomen could see how the Crane kept watch over the rim of the bowl.
“I am Suzume Sahara,” the Sparrow announced proudly; his bow was long and deep. “Are you here to compete in the tournament, Bayushi-san?”
Nomen laughed slightly. “Oh, no, Suzume-san. I am here to be of service to the great ones of my clan. Are you then a competitor?” The Sparrow’s name tugged at his memory.
“I am. I am going to bring glory and honor to my lord and clan here.”
Sahara the ronin, Nomen thought. From the Empress’s first winter court; he had impressed his Sparrow employers so much that they had offered him fealty. Sahara was clearly the ambitious sort, and men like him could be useful to know. “I do not doubt that,” he said, “if your deeds at Kyuden Bayushi are any guide.”
Sahara smiled. “Thank you, Bayushi-san.”
Nomen excused himself with some polite words and slipped back into the crowd. Making his way to the Emerald Champion’s tent he presented his papers to the guards and was admitted without question or comment.
Once inside he walked though the area where guests were received and made his way to the Champion’s private chambers. There he stripped off the kimono with its Bayushi mons and the silver mask that went with it and dropped them into a wooden chest. After locking the chest securely he donned a new kimono–this one marked with the crest of the Emerald Champion–and put on his everyday mask with its familiar, mocking grin. The Nomen persona was somewhat simplistic, Shosuro Jimen thought, but sometimes simple was all one needed.
* * * * *
The tea had a scent that identified it at once. The child took one sniff and then set the cup back on the table, far away from the rest of his food.
“Kanpeki,” Daigotsu said, “drink your tea.” Kanpeki gave his father a dark look.
“Kanpeki,” Shahai said, “drink your tea.” Her voice had a tone that Daigotsu recognized. Kanpeki apparently recognized it as well, for he picked the cup up and drank it down, pausing only once to make exaggerated faces of disgust over its taste. Finished, he put the cup down while making loud gagging noises. Daigotsu and Shahai exchanged a quick look and then, by mutual agreement, went on eating as if nothing was happening.
When the meal was finished and Kanpeki had been sent out to be dressed for the coming tournament, Daigotsu looked over at his wife. “The new supply of Jade Petal Tea has arrived,” he said.
Shahai nodded. “We now have enough for all of the children for the whole winter.”
“Well done, my love,” Daigotsu said. The bitterness of the situation was not lost on him, but Shahai had done the near-impossible by obtaining that much of the tea, and she deserved the praise.
“Yes,” Shahai said. “But it treats the symptoms, not the disease.”
Daigotsu was silent. As Kali-Ma’s hold on Jigoku firmed up, her will was beginning to be felt by all who were subject to the Taint. Already a few in the Fingers of Bone had snapped under the stress of it, and Daigotsu was now forced to consider how, or if, he could tell when one of his vassals had simply given up their loyalty and gone over to Jigoku’s new champion. He himself would never abandon Fu Leng, but he was uncomfortably aware that not all of his followers shared his strength of faith.
“I am reasonably sure that Hotako is loyal to you alone,” Shahai continued. “Do you think it is wise to go on with the Championship? Her successor might,” she paused for a moment, “might suffer from divided loyalties.”
“I have considered the matter,” Daigotsu admitted. “But Hotako is certain she can defeat any challenger, and I do not wish to give the appearance of undermining her.”
“She is quite formidable,” Shahai agreed. “Perhaps this is the best way.”
* * * * *
“Of the Crane: Doji Tajihi and Daidoji Yorio,” Miya Masatsuko said. “Of the Phoenix: Shiba–”
“Stop,” Jimen said.
“Shosuro-sama?” Masatsuko said, looking confused. “You wished to hear the names of the competitors.”
“There are no Kakita in the competition?”
“No, Shosuro-sama. The Crane sent only the two I have mentioned.”
Noritoshi’s family was snubbing him. Jimen felt a wave of unfamiliar emotion wash over him as the implications sank in. An Emerald Championship with no Kakita in attendance was unprecedented. It would cause talk. “This is outrageous,” he said. “The Crane have insulted the office of the Emerald Champion, and thus the Empress.”
“I am sorry, Shosuro-sama,” Masatsuko said, “but I do not understand how this could be considered an insult. The two Crane candidates were trained as magistrates in the Doji school, and both have had years of honorable service to their clan. Either man would be a splendid addition to the Emerald Magistrates.”
To be a Crane was to have friends everywhere. It was one of the first things a Scorpion courtier learned, and it never stopped being irritating. “Masatsuko-chan,” Jimen said, “you are quick to defend the Crane. One might wonder where your loyalties lie.”
The herald did not react to the familiar use of her name. “My loyalties are to my lord and my Empress,” she said in a level tone, “and there are none who can say otherwise.”
“You are dismissed, samurai,” Jimen said. Masatsuko bowed correctly and left. Jimen sneered at her back, but put aside any thought of retribution. Shoin was ridiculously protective of his vassals, and the last thing he needed was another feud.
* * * * *
The dojo was empty save for the white-haired warrior. He stood relaxed yet alert, his attention not on the bamboo pole just inside of his zone but on his own killing spirit. When the moment came he drew, sliced through the top two inches of the pole and then re-sheathed his blade, all in the flicker of an eye.
“Impressive as always,” came a voice from the doorway.
“Thank you, Isoroku-san.” Shimekiri stepped over to the pole, picked the cut portion up, and examined it with a critical eye.
The commander of the Spider’s undead legions stepped into the dojo and slid the door closed behind him. “I had heard that you had changed your mind, and were no longer going to challenge Hotako at the Championship.”
“That is correct,” Shimekiri said. “I have discovered a flaw in my art.”
“It’s not about art,” Isoroku said. “It’s about killing.”
“They are the same,” Shimekiri said.
Isoroku’s face did not change expression, but then it had lost that capacity years ago. “I had hoped to fight you at the Championship, but now I guess it will have to happen another time.” He opened the door and departed.
Shimekiri put the conversation out of his mind and returned to his training. If he focused hard enough, he thought, he could surely extinguish the voice that murmured in his mind, just below the level of thought.
* * * * *
It was exhilarating, Sahara thought. He stood on the margin of the dueling grounds, waiting for his next match to be called. The tests of the first day had been much easier for him than he had expected, but–whatever else he could say about the Sparrow style of storytelling, he had to admit that if you could stay awake you could learn many things. Who could have imagined two years ago that he would need to know the protocols of taxing tea that was shipped through a port that no clan claimed sovereignty of?
His duels so far had also gone well. His first two opponents had been clearly below his level, and though Sahara took care not to be sloppy he had no fear he would lose. The next few were highly skilled, and Sahara had been surprised at how easily he had won. Watching the other matches proceed he noticed that a number of contestants did not seem to be performing at the highest level of their skill. It was if, Sahara thought, they were not completely sure they wanted to obtain a prominent place on Shosuro Jimen’s staff. He grinned. So much the better for him.
* * * * *
Kanpeki watched the challengers fight with undisguised fascination, cheering when a warrior he liked triumphed and pouting when his favorite lost. Shahai held him in her lap, chiding him when he became too noisy but otherwise letting him be. On the step below Daigotsu’s family Hotako sat, watching the matches with as much interest as Kanpeki, but much less visible emotion.
There were far more challengers for the Obsidian Championship than usual; an effect, Hotako thought, of the current turmoil. Daigotsu had dealt with it by declaring a formal festival and setting up a series of matches for the contestants–to be worthy of facing Hotako, a challenger would first have to prove themselves better than all of the other challengers. As the day wore on she found herself more and more interested in Daigotsu Isoroku’s matches. Hotako had always thought of him as a competent but unremarkable warrior, more valuable for his ability to keep control of his legions than his personal prowess. Today, however, he was steadily mowing down fighters she considered superior to him.
Hotako idly tapped a fingernail against her teeth as she watched Isoroku square off against a new opponent. She didn’t recognize the man, but looking at his stance and the ease with which he handled his no-dachi she could tell he was strong and skilled. He dominated the early phase of the fight, and Hotako was beginning to wonder if Isoroku’s luck had run out when his opponent slowed his motion–not much, and not for long–but just long enough for the undead commander to get inside his guard and disembowel him. Hotako’s eyes narrowed for just a moment, considering.
The afternoon wore on until it was time for the final battle, and Hotako was not surprised that her challenger was to be Isoroku. She rose from her place on the dais and walked to the center of the arena. She did not bow to her opponent–that was the foolish weakness of bushido, to show courtesy to those weaker than you. Instead she simply drew her sword and waited.
There was a moment of absolute silence, in which even the crowd noises were stilled, and then Isoroku hurtled across the space between them, his sword coming down like a hammer. Hotako slipped aside and turned for her own blow, and the battle was on. They had had two exchanges of blades when Isoroku suddenly paused, pulled back, and spoke. “You would be stronger if you called upon your taint. But you fear knowing who your true master is now, don’t you?” He had barely finished speaking when he swung in again, ready to take advantage of the opening he had created–
–and found his blade stopped in midswing. From behind the arm she was bracing her blade with, Hotako looked contemptuous. “You have been using that trick all day,” she said. “Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?”
Isoroku only snarled and stuck again, putting all of his strength behind the blow, and then staggered as Hotako simply let go of her blade. Stepping close to him she rammed the sai she now carried in her off hand into his neck. He stared at her for a moment, his undead features managing to show his amazement, and then she jerked the sai sharply, breaking vertebrae and ending his unlife. Stepping away from the body Hotako turned and bowed towards Daigotsu.
“Formidable, yes,” Daigotsu said.
* * * * *
The Scorpion was skilled, that was clear, and he had focused his entire being on victory. Sahara steadied his breathing and focused himself on the moment. They drew almost simultaneously, but Sahara’s blade scraped along his opponent’s, forcing it down hard and spoiling his cut; Sahara continued his own cut unimpeded and cleanly sliced off the paper target attached to the other man’s sleeve. “Suzume Sahara, the victor,” the Miya herald announced.
The crowd murmured a little at the ugliness of the victory. Sahara kept his face solemn, but inside he wanted to laugh at them. What was grace when it was strength that gave one victory? He moved over to the dais and knelt before the man who sat there.
“You have brought great honor to yourself and to the Sparrow Clan this day,” Shosuro Jimen told him. He gestured, and an aide presented a carved jade seal to the kneeling man. “Receive now your commission as an Emerald Magistrate.”
Sahara closed his hands around the seal, feeling all the possibilities that lay in its carved surface. “Thank you, Champion-sama,” he said. “I am sure I will prosper in your service.”
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