The prodigal prodigy.
Part I

Flames were licking his body, but he felt no heat. Sparks jumped at him, but nothing was set aflame. As he looked around, he realized he didn't know where he was. Jigoku? Had he descended into the flaming pits for eternal torture? No, it wasn't that, the flames were… too familiar; they felt too much… too much like home. Suddenly he felt a presence among the flames, he whirled, calling, "Who's there? Where are you?! Why are you hiding!!?" A sense of danger crawled into the back of his head and he turned around, ready to defend himself, but what he saw was nothing he could've prepared for.

A man, seemingly made out of living flames, stood before him and on his face was obvious contempt. "YOU…", the man said, pointing a burning finger at him, "… FINALLY I FOUND YOU… AFTER SEARCHING… I FOUND ONE OF THE THORNS BITING IN MY SIDE… YOU ARE NOT MEANT TO BE… THERE IS SUPPOSED TO BE ONLY ONE… NOW THERE ARE THREE!! THIS IS A MISTAKE THAT WILL HAVE TO BE …CORRECTED…" The man's figure moved back, fading into the sea of flames. "No! Don't you dare go without answering me," he called to the fading figure. Its only response was: "REMEMBER…I AM COMING FOR YOU… Okugi…"

Okugi woke up bathing in his own sweat, all sorts of thoughts flashing through his mind; *Who or what was that? What did he want with me? How can it be that I 'am not meant to be'?* "Zakennayo!", Okugi exclaimed in frustration. "Master?" A fusuma slid aside and Mekura entered his room. "Is something amiss? Are you okay?" She cautiously walked into the room, careful not to walk into anything. Mekura was a young girl, with a simple beauty; her form was lovely and gracious, but nothing special. She was blind since a young age, after she lived through a wrecking disease, though it was thought she would never be useful for anything, Okugi eagerly took her as a servant. People frowned at his choice, but they did not know what secrets are hidden behind his jade mask.

Okugi was found at the steps of the doors of a monastery, his entire body covered in strange patterns. Later on it became evident that they were magical tattoos similar to those the Ise Zumi of the Dragon get, but his were inherited. When he was twenty years of age he had felt their powers for the first time, at the time he was travelling towards the capitol to attend the Imperial Court as an unofficial representatives of the Dragons and of the Monks. His entire life his secret was closely guarded, first by the secure confines of the monastery, later by special clothing and a mask. Even now in the Imperial Court he wore clothing to conceal his body, though their quality had greatly improved, from head to toe Okugi was covered in fine silks and he hid his face behind an ornate jade mask of exquisite craftsmanship.

At first the other courtiers laughed at him, talked behind his back, calling him a 'Scaled Scorpion' and other names. But Okugi didn't take notice of all that, he kept himself to the backgrounds, studying the endless political maneuvrings between Crane and Scorpion. But he was patient enough, he waited and learned, befriended himself with Scorpion and Crane and picked up the edges they had at diplomacy, just like he had done before with other things. He knew that somehow, he picked up things amazingly quick, such as when he played Go for the first time, against Emperor Toturi. It was arranged so Toturi could get to know his new court attendant a bit, for Okugi it was awkward in the beginning, he had never played the game before and he must've blushed beneath his mask. The Emperor was amused and taught Okugi the basics while they talked, afterwards the played Okugi's first game and to the Emperor's amazement he was beaten. "Are you sure you never played Go before?", he had asked with a friendly laugh. Okugi shyly replied that he was used to learning fast, but that it still was a surprise for him as well.

It has been 3 years since his first day at court now, though many a courtier and samurai still don't full trust him, he has gained a grudging respect. He still doesn't say much, but when it is asked he will quote the Tao, speak unquestionable wisdom or simply debate an issue with a voice like honey. He has a way with words that impresses even the most courteous Crane and most cunning Scorpion.

But it didn't matter how far Okugi looked back on his history, he realized he had never met the man in the flesh before. He noticed that Mekura was still waiting for a response. "Hai, I am fine Mekura. I am sorry that I waked you up. You go back to bed, I think I will take a walk." She tilted her head slightly, "Won't you get tired, master?" Okugi smiled and laughed softly, "No, I won't I hardly ever sleep, I don't need to. But I have felt so tired the last few days. Quite strange actually… but nothing for you to worry about." Mekura carefully slipped back into her room as Okugi was getting dressed.

Okugi slid open the shoji, put on his jade mask and stepped out, closing the paper door behind him. He looked around and headed for the nearby gardens, knowing he'd find a rock to sit on and meditate. When he sat on the stone peacefully, he closed his eyes and meditated upon his surroundings, using the zanji-methods taught to him by the monks. As Okugi reached out with his senses he slowly became aware of everything surrounding him. At first he only felt the stone, then slowly the rest of the garden rushed into his mind's eye, grass, small insects, sakura and other flowers, the few trees and even a nearby stream became sensations to Okugi. He tasted the water, smelled the flowers and heard leaves that were bustling many paces away.

Okugi always regained inner rest when doing this and he would do it days on end, if he had the time. As Okugi sat there with a light smile the sun came up, crawling up the sky, slowly lighting and warming the Emerald Empire. Okugi felt the sunrays as soon as they fell upon the grass, they warmed him, and he felt filled with the light of the Sun. He dedicated a small prayer to Yakamo, Lord Sun, when suddenly another presence entered his senses. He smelled a flowery perfume and felt a fine kimono, combed hair, a soft skin as well as the symbol of the Crane on a hairpin. She, it was a woman, passed Okugi without noticing him until he spoke. "Good morning Doji …Karisuma-san? Karisuma wasn't it?" She was obviously startled and had to look around before she found Okugi, shocked she replied, "Yes… I am Doji Karisuma. I do not believe we have met… You are Okugi, aren't you? The monk representative?" Opening his eyes Okugi felt all the sensations leave his mind and he found himself 'reduced' to his own body again. He jumped off the rock with amazing grace, a grace that was covered by his heavy clothing most of the time. "Yes, I am indeed Okugi and I do indeed represent the monks and Dragon Clan, unofficial of course. Douzoyoroshiku, Karisuma-san, I hope this beautiful morning finds you pleasing, even while it is still young, the day looks promising. Shall I walk you to your destination?" While he had been talking to her, Okugi had moved closer, and when he stopped a few feet away from her, Karisuma found herself looking up at Okugi already. "Yes, I would appreciate some company, I am headed for the training dojo to meet someone," she replied.

During their walk to the dojo Okugi and Karisuma met only a few other 'early birds' and most of them were servants, Okugi also told her that he had seen her in court several times and how he was impressed by her skill at poetry and debate. According to his own words 'he had learned a great deal from her'. They rounded a corner and the entrance to the dojo was right ahead, they walked through the hallway and entered the dojo. At the far end of the dojo a Crane samurai was training his iaijutsu skills, he was a young man, perhaps even younger than Okugi. "That's the one I am looking for, Doji Senetsu," Karisuma said, "maybe I will see you later." Okugi nodded and replied, "Please give Doji Shoriko my greetings, should you see her."

As Karisuma headed over to Senetsu, Okugi took a bokken from a nearby stand and made a few very simple slashes and cuts with it. "Now that's what we call a 'bokken' Okugi-san," a voice from behind said. Okugi immediately recognized the voice; it was Toku, the Captain of the Imperial Guard. "I thought so, Toku-san," Okugi replied while turning around, "it is the training version of that tetsubo your are carrying, isn't it?." Okugi pointed at the katana in Toku's daisho. Toku looked down at his weaponry with a bewildered look and Okugi let out a hearty laugh, he bowed at Toku and said, "I do know it's a bokken and that's a katana, Toku-san, I have trained with the bushi in the Dragon lands." Seeing Okugi's clever joke Toku bowed with a smile and replied, "I didn't know you knew the art of kenjutsu, maybe you will join the tournament this evening?" Behind his mask Okugi frowned, "Tournament," he said, "what are you talking about?" "Tonight Doji Senetsu's father, Doji Eriito, and his entourage will arrive, in his honor we are preparing a tournament," Toku said, "that's why Senetsu is out training this early," Toku leaned in a bit closer, "He probably wants to impress his father and the Emperor, since he's organizing it," stepping back again Toku continued, "You should come tonight, if only to watch. Now I shall I continue my duties. Shitsurei Okugi-san." Toku bowed and Okugi returned the bow. "Goodbye to you too, Toku-san."

That evening Okugi attended the tournament as a spectator. He was well rested after spending the entire day in quiet meditation and contemplation. His mind had temporarily wandered of his dream last night and was now focused on the tournament. It soon became obvious that Senetsu had set up the tournament very cleverly. He had opponents challenge him to either a kenjutsu duel or a iaijutsu duel, the opponent had the choice, but for Senetsu it did not matter which they'd choose, since his skill in iaijutsu was also his skill in kenjutsu. He fought over a dozen opponents and had beaten them all, the only one coming close to defeating the Crane was a Bayushi swordsman thanks to his left-handed fighting style. After having defeated his 14th opponent there were no obvious contestants left, so Senetsu applied to the public. "It seems I have beaten all of the contestants, but maybe someone from the public would like to test his or her skills against mine?" Okugi looked around and he saw that were many younger attendants willing to jump in and try, but they knew the Crane was to good a dueller. "Is there no one willing to join me in one last duel this evening? No one at all," the Crane continued looking at the spectators. "I would like to duel you then, Senetsu-san." The young Crane scanned the public to see who accepted his challenge, he found Okugi standing in the public.

"Ah, Okugi-san, are you sure you will face me? You are a courtier after all," the Crane haughtily remarked. Behind his jade mask Okugi smiled at the Crane's arrogance and replied, "One must never judge a book just by looking at its cover." "What if the cover is all one can see, Okugi-san," the Crane replied, hoping to make Okugi look foolish. Okugi simply replied. "Then you should beware its contents."

*This is my chance to see what lies beyond that mask, I will simply hit it off his face by accident* Senetsu smiled at Okugi and said, "Very well then, take a bokken and tell me, how shall we duel? A battle of swordsmanship or a fast-draw contest?" Okugi took one of the wooden training swords of a nearby rack as the Crane implied and adjusted his grip to the weight and balance of the bokken. "Since the difference will be none to you I choose a test of kenjutsu," Okugi answered. "As you wish," the Crane said bowing. Okugi returned the bow and watched as the Crane took his stance, holding his sword high with two hands, the tsuba at ear's height and his left shoulder facing Okugi. Okugi held his bokken loosely, the tip only an inch or two above the ground, his other hand hung beside his body and he was facing the Crane with his chest. *This man is no swordsman! Were this a real fight I could him in a single strike!* Senetsu's smile broadened at Okugi's apparent lack skill and he charged at him, aiming at Okugi's mask. Before the blow could hit him Okugi had practically danced several passes backwards, but before the Crane could advance Okugi spun and aimed a cut at Senetsu's waist, Senetsu parried the blow, but Okugi simply spun the other way and slashed at Senetsu's neck, he parried this blow as well but with obvious effort. The Crane stepped back as Okugi did so too, this time they were facing each other with their left shoulders, Senetsu had taken his stance once more, Okugi held his sword behind him. One of the spectators, an old Kakita swordsman gasped when he saw Okugi's position as he recognized this stance, described in Mirumoto's Niten. The Kakita knew that Senetsu could not win with his skills, but he could not intervene, so he leaned over to his lord, Doji Eriito and whispered to be prepared for a very angry son.

By now Doji Senetsu had realized his mistake in underestimating Okugi, he proved to be quite an excellent swordsman, but Senetsu had defeated a Dragon earlier on in the tournament, so Okugi would be 'no problem'. He charged at Okugi again and aimed several consecutive cuts at his waist and head, Okugi easily parried these blows and Senetsu was getting frustrated and he aimed more attacks at Okugi's mask and neck. Okugi, noticing that his opponent's attack became more aggressive, parried the blows at his head but when the Crane attack his neck he ducked, stepped aside and spun, he caught Senetsu totally off-guard. The audience held its breath as Okugi aimed his attack for the young samurai's neck, stopping only a hair's length from Senetsu's skin, Senetsu stood still, as if nailed to the ground. "I believe I have killed you, Senetsu-san. My sincerest apologies about that," Okugi said with smiling as the Crane turned around, a look of total confusion on his face. As the two samurai bowed to each other the spectators gave them a warm, honest applause, when it had stopped the Emperor stood and all became silent. "With this tournament we welcome Doji Eriito and his entourage in our midst. I must say I personally have enjoyed this evening's events. Doji Sensetsu has demonstrated his swordsmanship as well as has Okugi done," Toturi turned to Okugi, "Really Okugi, you keep amazing me and the others. What else do you have up those long sleeves of yours?" Okugi bowed low and replied, "Many pleasant surprises I hope, Otennoo-sama." The Emperor smiled and continued, "A great meal has been prepared, we hope all of you will join us." With that the Emperor stood and left the dojo, after he and his entourage were all gone, the other spectators also left and headed for the feasting hall.

Okugi walked to the hall with several young admirers behind him and the old Kakita next to him. "You are truly a master swordsman, Okugi-san," the old samurai said, "I saw your stance and immediately recognized it. I have read Mirumoto's Niten and that stance of yours was 'the Fifth Position', wasn't it?" Okugi simply nodded, he didn't want to brag about this victory, he enjoyed the attention at some level, especially that of the young boys, but he didn't cling to it like Senetsu did. Upon entering the feasting hall a servant approached Okugi, she bowed low and said, "Okugi-sama, the Emperor has requested that you would sit next to him, the spot at the Emperor's right hand is free tonight." Okugi almost gasped, had he impressed the Emperor so much? Or was the Emperor merely concerned what else Okugi had to hide. He answered the servant, "Please tell the Great Lord that I am more than honored to join him this evening." The servant bowed again and left. Okugi moved into the hall and headed for the spot usually reserved for the Emperor's general, unsure what to do he bowed low for the Emperor and seated himself on the tatami. He looked around, marvelling at the wonder of the hall, knowing that this was but one of the least feasting halls.

At the Emperor's command the feast had begun and the foods were served, during the meal Okugi ate as little as possible, he didn't need to eat anything at all, but knew to act according to etiquette. He and the Emperor talked about his time at the monastery and his training in the Dragon lands. Toturi was glad to meet someone who could appreciate the simple life as a monk. The evening seemed to go well, but just as the last course had been served Okugi felt a crawling sensation in the back of his head and somehow looked at the doors of the hall. When his eyes met the doors they swung open and a stream of billowing flames entered the hall, Okugi's mouth fell open as he stared at the flames. Though they engulfed the people, the flames did not burn them, but slowly they started to shift and grow into a vaguely familiar shape, a long serpentine shape. "Okugi… Know you are in danger because you are of the blood… Know that you can choose, either to await the danger or to seek it out yourself... Remember this: only in the eyes of the ignorant and scared three is too much…" The flames receded the same way they came and when the doors closed again, Okugi still was sitting agape, his senses slowly returning to him. "Okugi-san? Okugi-san? Are you feeling alright," it was the Emperor who was asking him this. Turning his head towards Toturi and finally closing his mouth, Okugi opened it again to say, "My Lord… I believe I just saw a Dragon…."

[To be continued]