The Topaz Championship
Moto Najmudin fought the urge to release a huge sigh and collapse into an exhausted heap. He had done that often as a child after a brisk run, just fallen down to feel the grass and dirt beneath him. It was a comforting ritual, but he somehow thought his present company would not appreciate it. Najmudin glanced around the courtyard at his fellow contestants. They had come to Tsuma from all across the Empire, each hoping to prove their prowess against the finest young samurai from other clans. Mostly bushi, of course, but Najmudin had seen a few shugenja as well, and there was one girl that appeared to be a Tsuruchi archer. How she hoped to make it through the more traditional competitions, he had no idea.
That thought brought a smile to his face. A Moto warrior could hardly afford to chide someone else for lack of tradition. His grandparents had arrived in Rokugan at Moto Gaheris' side only a few decades before, and both he and his father had been raised with an emphasis on their gaijin heritage. Unlike his father, however, Najmudin had learned to merge his gaijin ways with Rokugani culture. He could fit in easily with the Moto nomads who patrolled the western mountains, or he could attend court with the Ide. He was hardly a perfect courtier, but he knew appropriate behavior from scandal, and could avoid the latter by presenting the former.
"Well done today, Moto-san." The voice broke Najmudin from his reverie. He turned to find one of the tournament's honored guests, an Imperial Legionnaire and diplomat from the Empress Toturi's court, nodding at him approvingly. "You brought much honor to your family."
The young Unicorn quickly bowed very deeply, holding his bow for several seconds. "You are too kind, Doji Jotaro-sama. I am a poor student, unworthy of such accolades."
Jotaro raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Humility? I can't say that I remember much of that from my days studying in Tsuma."
"You were a student in Tsuma?" Najmudin asked, rising from his bow. "I must admit I expected the city to be larger."
"The city's only real function is to house the primary dojo of the Kakita Dueling Academy," Jotaro responded. "It comes alive once a year to host the Topaz Championship. The rest of the time, it is relatively quiet and unassuming."
"It seems strange for a simple contest to bring so much attention."
"Oh, not at all." Jotaro gestured to the young samurai around him, then pointed at Najmudin. "It is the most prestigious gempukku ceremony in all of Rokugan. Only the finest from the clans are invited to attend. It is a huge honor."
"I must have been invited by mistake," Najmudin said morbidly.
Jotaro laughed lightly. "You are too modest. I cannot recall anyone performing as well in the athletics or horsemanship contests. Nearly perfect marks, I believe."
"The judges were very kind," Najmudin responded. "And I did not fare as well in the heraldry or conduct tests, I fear."
"Your marks were still quite good," Jotaro insisted. "I would venture that the only student here who does not recognize you as one of the group's leaders is you."
"Jotaro-san! Mixing with the students again, I see!" The voice cut off Najmudin's response. A man clad in Phoenix colors arrived at their side, his smile polished but somehow not genuine. Najmudin recognized him from the Crane Clan's guests, but could not recall his name offhand. "And I see you've chosen to wager on our young Unicorn friend! You always did have an interest in the exotic. What is your name again, young one? I could not understand it earlier. Quite a mouthful, isn't it?"
"I think that is quite enough, Yoma-san," Jotaro said quietly.
"I am Moto Najmudin, son of Moto Khardin and servant of the Great Khan. It is an honor to meet you, Shiba Yoma-sama." Najmudin's bow was neither as deep nor as long as the one he favored Jotaro with, nor was his tone particularly warm.
"Oh, of course," Yoma replied absently, turning his attention back to the Crane. "Jotaro-san, I had hoped to speak with you about possible tax concessions for the Phoenix. You know how fond the Empress is of Shiba Aikune, and I'm quite sure she will understand how the war has damaged our crops this year. Perhaps we could speak of it over tea?"
Jotaro glanced at Najmudin one last time with a look of resignation. The Unicorn had to look down quickly to hide his smile. The two men receded into the crowd, and he relaxed a bit. The Crane seemed an honorable man, but he had never heard particularly good things about Shiba Yoma, the Voice of the Elemental Masters. Still, he was obviously a man devoted to the welfare of his clan, and Najmudin could never fault him for that. He could only imagine the burdens a man like Yoma must carry.
"You have friends in high places," came a rough, surly voice. Najmudin turned to see the Tsuruchi girl he had noticed earlier regarding him with what might be anger. "I suppose you think that gives you an edge."
"They were only making polite conversation. Well, one of them was, anyway." Najmudin noticed the girl wore a daisho on her hip. He remembered hearing somewhere that most Tsuruchi did not carry swords. "As for an edge… I only do the best I can. No more, no less."
"How humble of you," the girl sneered. "Rest assured, Unicorn, tomorrow it won't be your gaijin name on the lips of the crowd. It will be Tsuruchi Fusako they remember this year!"
"Oh, I see," Najmudin said innocently. "Is that your brother?"
Fusako's features twisted in anger; she stormed off without another word. Najmudin smiled. That had probably not been a good idea, but he had never possessed any tolerance for braggarts. And even though he had been in Tsuma only a week, he had long since grown weary of jibes made at the expense of his gaijin name.
Najmudin straightened his blades and dusted his clothing off lightly. The first day of the Topaz Championship was at an end, and he had truthfully done better than he had expected. Under normal circumstances, he might celebrate at a sake house, but that seemed somewhat inappropriate given the circumstances. Instead, he might stop by a teahouse for a quick dinner, then visit the temple for a few minutes. Afterward he would need to retire for the evening. Tomorrow would be taxing, and he would need to be well rested if he wished to bring glory to the Moto name.
The Fortunes had a strange sense of humor, it seemed. Despite the odds against such a pairing, Najmudin was facing Matsu Takenao in the second day's first contest, the prestigious weapons contest. He had faced Takenao in the sumai contest the previous day, and had lost. Najmudin was not a large man, but nor was he weak. Takenao, on the other hand, was roughly the size of his father's horse. Najmudin imagined he could hear the creaking of strained armor as the enormous man practiced his warm-up kata.
Surveying the available weapons, Najmudin selected one of the slighter katana. Its edge was blunted, of course, as were all the others. With dulled edges, Najmudin would prefer a lighter weapon that would suit his more athletic fighting style. The Lion, on the other hand, had picked a weapon that matched his size. It was practically a no-dachi. Takenao favored Najmudin with a slight smile. "You could admit defeat now, Unicorn," he said quietly. "There is no sense in you taking a beating like you did yesterday."
"I'm a slow learner," Najmudin said stubbornly.
"Well then," retorted Takenao, "I will try not to cripple you."
"Thanks," muttered the Moto.
"I won't try hard," Takenao added.
"Take your stance," interrupted the Kakita sensei, directing the two men to a large circle. Across the room, Najmudin could see a Dragon bushi entering the ring with his Tsuruchi friend from the day before. She favored him with a hostile glance before drawing her blade somewhat awkwardly and facing the Dragon. There was a cracking noise from the other side of the circle, and Najmudin paled slightly when he realized it was Takenao popping the bones in his barrel-like neck. "Begin," said the Kakita sensei forcefully.
Takenao's response was immediate. The huge man lunged across the circle and lashed out with an overhead strike that Najmudin only barely managed to parry, and even then the force of it nearly drove him to his knees. A flurry of blows followed, each one pushing the Unicorn farther back toward the edge of the circle. Takenao roared the entire time like an angry beast. His breath rolled over Najmudin in waves, forcing the young Unicorn wonder what in the Festering Pit the Lion had eaten for breakfast. Najmudin knew that he could easily lose this match in one of two ways: being forced from the circle or if his opponent drew first blood. It seemed Takenao's goal was to defeat him in as little time as possible.
Najmudin altered his parry somewhat, allowing Takenao's next strike to slide downward along the edge of his blade and glance off his tsuba and to the right. Najmudin moved left, away from the blade, in an attempt to circle around Takenao, but the Lion was faster than he anticipated. The Matsu swung his blade back quickly, catching Najmudin's arm with the flat of the katana. The impact, while lessened, was still enough to send pain racing along his entire right side, leaving it numb and throbbing.
Takenao frowned. Clearly, he had expected a quick victory, and the Unicorn
was not obliging him. He struck out a few more times, but Najmudin was prepared
and parried the blows easily. The Moto fighting style did not possess the smooth
gaijin fencing techniques their Shinjo cousins used, but it was more than
effective against the brutal, crude style the Matsu was using.
Najmudin continued to weather the Lion's constant assault, striking out only rarely when Takenao faltered in his attack. The Matsu was a proud, arrogant warrior, that much was obvious, and Najmudin believed he knew how to defeat such a foe. He deliberately faltered in his defense, leaving himself open for a devastating attack, hoping that the Lion would take the bait.
Takenao grinned and quickly brought his blade up for another overhand strike. The duel might be to first blood, but the Lion seemed determined to draw a great amount of it. But Najmudin's faltering was a ruse, and he darted forward inside the Lion's defenses. With so little room to maneuver, he brought his blade up and smashed the tsuba into Takenao's face, crushing his nose and possibly breaking several teeth. Even that did not send the great warrior stumbling, however, only drove him back a few feet.
For a moment, Najmudin believed he had made a mistake. Takenao snarled through the blood streaming down his face, and the young Moto was certain the larger man would kill him for his offense. Thankfully, the small form of the Kakita sensei suddenly appeared between the two of them. "Halt," he commanded in his soft, firm voice. "The victor is Moto Najmudin."
Takenao halted in his tracks. The Matsu might be arrogant, but he was wise enough not to challenge the judgment of a Kenshinzen. There was polite applause from the accumulated guests, but Najmudin was too relieved to pay it much heed. "You will pay for that," Takenao whispered under his breath in a disturbingly calm voice as the blood streamed from his lower lip.
Unfortunately, Najmudin believed him.
During the midday intermission, Najmudin returned to the temple to rest. He had always found shrines and temples very relaxing, and it helped him to clear his head between events. Najmudin's mother had died shortly after his birth, but he always imagined that she must have been a very serene person, for he possessed none of his father's notorious temper. Perhaps that was the true source of the strained relationship he shared with his father: they had virtually nothing in common.
"Welcome back, Najmudin-san." The elder monk smiled at the sight of the young Unicorn. "I hope the Fortunes have showered you with their favors this day. You still have your face. I assume all went well?"
"Thank you, Aikoru-sama," Najmudin said, bowing with a chuckle. "If the Fortunes see fit to grace one so unworthy as me, however, I must be too foolish to notice it."
"So your games did not turn out as you had hoped?" the monk inquired, crestfallen. "A man who cannot accept a destiny other than the one he desires is a man who cannot prosper under any other circumstances."
"No, no, it isn't that," Najmudin said. "I was victorious in the weapons contest, and I did well enough in the courtier contest. The poetry contest, though… I did not fare as well as I had hoped."
"Words are inconsequential," Aikoru replied in a consoling tone. "The beauty of form and nature should be enough for even the most tempestuous soul."
"I wish the judges shared your outlook," joked the Unicorn. "I can do well enough with travel poetry, but haiku escapes me, I'm afraid. It makes no sense."
"I was a poet once, in another lifetime," the monk confessed. "One only has to open one's soul to the beauty of things around him. It was a lesson that served me well when I came to this temple years ago." He regarded the young samurai with confidence. "You are young. You will learn these things in time. After all, you seem more willing to accept wisdom than most of your peers." The monk gestured at the temple around them.
Najmudin smiled. "I spent much time in the temple as a child, while my father was away serving the Khan. This one is particularly peaceful, I have found. It is not very old, is it?"
"No," confirmed the monk. "It was built only a few decades ago, a short time before the Clan War. Our sect was started by the compatriots of a warrior who defeated a Shadowlands spirit nearby, sparing the peasants of its evil."
"A noble origin," Najmudin observed.
"Nobility is a word samurai use to make wisdom and courage seem exclusive to their ranks," the monk admonished. "The warrior was no samurai, but a simple monk of Shinsei."
"My apologies," Najmudin said sincerely.
"No need," the monk smiled again and continued. "But let us speak of more pleasant things. Are your games completed?"
Najmudin sighed. "Not yet, Aikoru-sama. Today still holds archery and Go contests, and then the great hunt. After that, there is a dueling competition tomorrow. The most difficult parts are still ahead."
"Adversity is good for the soul, my young friend."
"In that case, my soul should be doing quiet well."
Aikoru laughed. "Come. Let us take a meal of rice and water to purify ourselves. There is nothing a pure soul cannot achieve."
Najmudin took a deep breath in an attempt to calm his spirit. The final contest of the day, the great hunt, was to begin in a few short minutes. The previous two contests had gone well, or at least as well as could be expected. He had lost his Go match to a Phoenix, but had been victorious over the Dragon bushi in the archery competition. As he had expected, the Mantis samurai-ko he had seen earlier dominated that contest with perfect marks, bringing her back into competition for the title. Matsu Takenao had continued to glare at Najmudin throughout the day's events, but he was no longer concerned about the Lion warrior. The competitors were only allowed to carry a knife during the hunt, and he was certain he could outrun the larger warrior if Takenao turned out to be harboring murderous impulses.
The contestants were only allowed to carry knives because their hosts frowned very heavily upon violence toward the hunt's objective: the rare and reclusive tsu fish. Tsu fish were only found in a handful of waterways throughout the Empire, mostly in the Crane and Phoenix lands. The little information Najmudin had been able to find out about them before leaving the Unicorn lands was not much help. Some scholars believed that the fish were descended from creatures that had come through a spirit passage from Chikushudo, the realm of animals. Whatever the truth, they were strange creatures indeed. They appeared to be large coi, but during their mating season their fins changed into crude, strong legs. This allowed the little creatures to leave the water and take to the shore, where they made nests and laid their eggs. They remained on land until the eggs hatched, then the entire brood would return to the water until the following season.
Apparently, tsu fish served as the source of a huge number of practical jokes for Crane and Phoenix youth. Gullible youngsters would be told that the fish made their nests in trees, and would be taken to the woods late at night to try and steal their eggs. The jokers would then leave them high in the trees and return home. Others would have the gullible youths try to steal the eggs from the nests. This was more difficult than it appeared, for the tsu fish were notoriously aggressive in the defense of their eggs.
This last fact was what made Najmudin's task difficult. The goal of the hunt was to locate a tsu fish nest and retrieve three eggs, no more and no less, and return with them to the tournament grounds by the end of the hour of Shiba. It would be a difficult test even for those who had experience in hunting, but those without such experience would have little hope of discovering a fish nest without extraordinary luck. Despite the many hunting trips he had enjoyed as a youth, Najmudin would do well to have a bit of luck himself.
"Each of you understands the nature of this hunt." Kakita Noritoshi, Master of the Kakita Dueling Academy, stood before the assembled competitors. He was a young man for a Master sensei; had he not been properly introduced, Najmudin might have mistaken him for a contestant. "You have each been personally instructed on the rules and expectations you will be held accountable for during your trial. The first to return with the eggs will be declared the victor, and each of you that returns successfully will be awarded points for your accomplishments. Those of you who fail to respect the rules you have been given will be penalized for your failure, and will bring dishonor to your family name." He glanced around at the young samurai before him. "I trust you each understand the magnitude of such a failure." With one final nod to the assembled guests of the Crane, Noritoshi turned back to the competitors. "You may begin."
Najmudin and his fellow contestants leapt forward at his words, scattering across the field that separated the city of Tsuma from the woodlands in which, somewhere, the tsu fish nested. His years of running alongside his kinsmen's horses paid off well as the young Moto easily outdistanced the others. He saw with some satisfaction that Matsu Takenao fell behind the group almost immediately, his huge bulk unable to keep up with his smaller competitors.
Najmudin was the first to reach the treeline, and he disappeared into the forest.
When he had still not found any trace of a tsu fish nest by the end of Togashi's hour, Najmudin was beginning to think he had drastically overestimated his hunting abilities. There were literally dozens of streams running throughout the woodlands, and he had no idea which would have shores suitable for tsu fish nesting. He had examined nearly half a dozen already, some for almost a mile, and found nothing. Surely another contestant would have lucked into finding the fish by now and be well on their way back to Tsuma.
Najmudin stopped for a moment to catch his breath, kneeling on the soft grass. He jerked his dagger from his obi and stabbed it deep into the earth in frustration. This should have been simple mission, yet he was quickly running out of time. If he failed to return with the eggs, his previous successes would mean very little. Even if he won the dueling competition tomorrow, which would be extremely difficult since there was not only a Mirumoto duelist but one of Noritoshi's own apprentices among the contestants, he would be lucky to finish in the top half of the group.
His rather defeatist thoughts were interrupted by a shrill cry from nearby. Najmudin's breath caught in his throat. The sound was not like any bird's cry he had ever heard, and he had been to the Shinjo family's menagerie of gaijin creatures many times. He retrieved his knife and waited in total silence, listening to the sounds of the forest around him. He waited…
There. From the northeast. Najmudin broke into a run, leaping over underbrush and ducking beneath low-hanging limbs. Wilderness terrain was not new to him, and he covered ground at an amazing pace. He came to the end of the forest and emerged into a clearing. One of the streams ran through the clearing, and widened into a small pool. But that was not what held Najmudin's interest.
There was a man standing over the prone form of a young woman. The color of her garb marked her as a Crab, and Najmudin recognized her as a Kuni shugenja from the competition. He also recognized the man as one of the monks from the temple in Tsuma, although he did not know his name.
The monk looked up at Najmudin with a wild look in his eyes. "Help me!" he cried. "She's been attacked! She is wounded!" The young Moto rushed to her side. As the monk had said, she bore one long, jagged wound along her abdomen. "I did not see her attacker," the monk said, "but he was enormous!"
Takenao? It could not be. He was impetuous and violent, but he was a Lion, and the Lion were an honorable people. Nevertheless, Najmudin was confronted with the evidence of the crime, and had little time to weigh his options. "We must get her back to Tsuma," he told the monk. "The shugenja there can heal her wounds."
The monk nodded mutely, but Najmudin was distracted when the Kuni grabbed his kimono. She tried desperately to speak "B… Bo…"
"Rest, friend," Najmudin said, hushing her. "You will recover. I will get you back for treatment."
"No…" she whispered, "don't… understand…" but then she fell into unconsciousness. Najmudin scooped her up to carry her. She was very slight of build, but the extra weight would still slow him down. The return trip would take longer, and every minute would risk her life. Unfortunately, there was little alternative.
Even as the Unicorn moved back toward the treeline, there was a crashing sound through the underbrush, and two figures emerged: Tsuruchi Fusako and Matsu Takenao. Najmudin's heart sank, but he could not reach for his knife while holding the Kuni. "Don't try to come any closer," he said menacingly. "You won't finish what you started with this one."
"By the Fortunes!" Fusako swore, her eyes wide. Takenao said nothing, but lunged forward toward Najmudin. The Unicorn threw himself to the left, shielding the Kuni's body as best he could. Even as he struck the ground, he knew Takenao would be on him in seconds and would doubtless kill him with the first blow.
Except that Takenao made no attempt to strike Najmudin. He hurtled over the two fallen samurai and crashed directly into the monk with every bit of force he could muster. More correctly, he crashed into something that stood where the monk had been. There was a heap of what appeared to be flesh lying crumpled on the ground and a great, hideous creature stood where the monk had been only moments before. Its thickly scaled flesh was black and green, and moss hung from it in places. It was obviously female, but was the most unquestionable terrible thing Najmudin had ever imagined, much less seen.
The Kuni stirred, awakened by the impact. "Bog hag," she whispered. "In the water."
Takenao had struck the hag full force, but even his massive frame had only driven it back a short distance. "Fool!" it shrieked in its terrible voice. "You cannot harm me! I am Shikageko! I am eternal! You will not drive me from my hunting grounds!" She backhanded the Lion warrior, sending him flying across the clearing to crash into the underbrush. Najmudin leapt forward to defend the fallen competitors and was nearly sickened by the hat's foul stench. "Pretty young things!" it cackled madly. "Your skins will make such pretty clothes!"
The Moto kept a careful distance from the hag, feinting and striking at it with his knife. It cackled again, its tone torn between playful and outraged. Its talons came dangerously closer with each strike, but Najmudin's blows seemed to have no effect. It cursed and laughed at him, vowing to rip his innards out and use them for hair ribbons. It was in the middle of a particularly colorful threat when it screamed in pain and fury, a knife's hilt suddenly jutting from its left eye socket. Najmudin heard a shout of victory from the Tsuruchi behind him, then was knocked to the ground by the hag's flailing limbs when Takenao suddenly tackled the hag a second time, this time bringing it to the ground.
The Lion and Unicorn were on the hag in an instant, their knives making only superficial wounds but staggering the creature with the sheer number of strikes. The hag was bewildered but quickly recovering, and Najmudin knew they had only seconds before it killed both him and the Lion. "Run!" he shouted to the women. "Get out of here now!"
"Stand aside!" The voice was weak but firm. Najmudin hurled himself to the side once more, pulling Takenao off of the hag to roll away from the fight with him. There was a great crackle of energy and a blinding flash of light, then the hag screamed. The sound was so loud that Najmudin involuntarily slapped his hands over his ears to escape the wretched wailing. It ended with a splash. Najmudin looked up to see a huge blackened patch of grass in the center of the clearing. Tiny fragments of jade were scattered all about, and there was a trail of some foul ichor leading to the water. He noticed the monk's skin was gone as well.
The Kuni shugenja was on her feet, supported by Fusako, a scroll held in her hand. "She will not threaten anyone any more." Her smile was not warm, but one of the coldest Najmudin had ever seen. "Be sure to get my bag, and we can return to Tsuma. I hope you don't mind carrying me." With that, she fell again, unconscious.
"Bah," Takenao said, hefting her onto her shoulder. "All this and we lose the contest after all," he grumbled. "It hardly seems fair."
"Perhaps not," Fusako said.
"Why do you say that?"
The Tsuruchi held Kuni Jiyuna's bag aloft for the others to see. Inside were a dozen tsu fish eggs, still damp from the water where the shugenja had found them.
The dim light of the sake house made it difficult for Najmudin to find his quarry. After a few moments his eyes adjusted and he spied the Mantis samurai-ko sitting at a table near the corner of the room. He strolled over and sat down without speaking.
"I did not ask you to sit down," the woman said in a surly tone.
"I wasn't waiting for an invitation," he replied, taking a cup of sake from the serving girl. "I didn't think you were the sort for conversation anyway."
Fusako grunted and drank another cup. She sat in silence for a while before finally saying, "I suppose I should congratulate you. They say you are the first Topaz Champion in a hundred years who won the contest without winning the dueling tournament."
"The extra marks the judges gave us for removing the hag helped," the Unicorn confessed.
"I still say you looked ridiculous in that armor," she added.
Najmudin laughed. "The Topaz Armor is a sacred artifact. I have to wear it in execution of my duties. But you're right. Gold really isn't my color."
A slight smile appeared on Fusako's face, the first Najmudin had seen. "What duties are those?"
"Doji Jotaro granted me a position as an assistant to an Imperial magistrate."
"A yoriki?" she asked, her tone slightly impressed.
"Yes," Najmudin smiled. "My family will be pleased. I don't think they believed I would do well here."
"Why did they send you, then?"
Najmudin shrugged. "The Moto don't place a lot of importance in things like this. I caught the eye of one sensei who was given the task of sending a representative. I suppose it was the Fortunes smiling on me for once."
"Fortunate for you," she said dryly.
"Was that a joke?" Najmudin asked the Tsuruchi woman.
Fusako blinked innocently.
"My goodness, a joke from the grim Mantis," Najmudin teased. "Did it hurt?"
"Did you come to mock me?" Fusako asked defensively.
"No," the Moto responded. "No, I came to offer you a position. Jotaro told me I could take a pair of doshin with me."
Fusako looked at him incredulously. "You are asking me to share your duties?"
"Yes. And Jiyuna. And even Takenao." He smiled somewhat sheepishly. "Jotaro-sama did not specify how many, and if I only take two, then my party will have three members. The Scorpion say that three is an unlucky number. I shall have to take the Lion."
"I can't believe you are serious," she said incredulously.
"I am," he countered. "The Wasp have a reputation as fine magistrates, and we work well together. Will you accept?"
There was a long silence between the two of them, and then the Mantis finally smiled. "I suppose I had better," she said with a slow smile. "Your luck has to run out sometime, and you'll need someone who actually knows how to take care of herself to keep an eye on you."