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|The Fortunes Smile|
|Written By:||Brian Yoon|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
|Released:||4th April 2008|
The Fortunes Smile By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
“Perhaps we should concede defeat and move on to the rest of the tournament,” the Monkey bushi said. He turned to his partner and gave him a wry smile. Shinjo Ichiro looked up at his newfound friend with a smile on his face. Toku Kenichi, as he was already calling himself, was an energetic, outgoing young man who never stopped talking. Though Ichiro had known him for only a few days, he knew better than to take everything Kenichi said at face value.
“Why do you say that, my friend?” Ichiro asked.
Kenichi gestured to the distance. “We are woefully outmatched in this contest. The other party is formed by a Hiruma and a Kitsune. I hear the Kitsune are born in the forest and raised to hunt for their food as soon as they can walk on two feet. The Hiruma, on the other hand, treat the toughest environment in the world the same as a walk through a garden. There is no shame in admitting defeat in face of such an obvious difference in skill.”
Kenichi looked at his companions surrounding him and shook his head in exaggerated disgust. “You and I, on the other hand, do not compare well. Your family’s scouts are widely known, I admit, but you are not from that branch of the military.”
“No,” Ichiro replied. “I requested that I be placed in the tactical school rather than the one for scouts. I admit I am more at ease in the library than on the field.”
“And I,” Kenichi said, “have stepped into a forest only a handful of times in my life. I prefer the city life, with all the beauties of civilization. I do not excel in any field, if truth be told. I suspect I will leave this championship in the middle of the pack, unknown and unsung.”
“If you are so convinced in your mediocrity, what does it matter how we fare in this test?”
“I may not have any chance of winning the Topaz Championship, Ichiro, but everyone knows that you are one of the front runners for this race. I would be an ungrateful partner if I did not try my best to help you along. It worries me.”
“We shall see,” Ichiro replied. He stretched his legs and stood up. “After all, Hiruma Tensin is still the favorite by a large margin. I cannot say that I hold any expectations for the outcome of the tournament.”
“Really?” Kenichi asked. “Your clansmen hold no expectations for the outcome of the tournament? More Unicorn have won the Topaz in recent years than any other clan. They must expect you to keep up the tradition.”
“Right now, there are much more pressing matters that hold their attention,” Ichiro responded quietly.
“I suppose you are right.” Kenichi stretched his arms and gestured to the field. “Enough talk. Shall we go?”
The pair headed out toward the fields surrounding Tsuma with enthusiasm. Ichiro took point and kept his eyes out for his prey. They moved silently through the forest until they reached the stream. The judges had told the pair to locate a nest of the elusive Tsu fish. He did not know if they truly existed but kept his eyes open for the signs of a nest. Finally, he found a small trail of markings that seemed to match the descriptions.
Ichiro turned to Kenichi to point out the correct path and paused. Kenichi was staring off to the east with a frown on his face.
“What is it, Kenichi-san?” Ichiro whispered.
Kenichi turned to Ichiro, but the need for any response disappeared. A loud shout pierced the silence of the forest from the same direction. The pair looked at each other, realization dawning on their faces.
“That sounded like—” Ichiro said.
“Tensin-san,” Kenichi finished.
Kenichi and Ichiro broke out into a run toward the sound at full speed. They threw caution to the wind and trampled through the forest. At their fastest, it took them nearly five minutes before they reached their destination. They slowed to a walk as they came to the scene of a massacre.
It had been an ambush. Kitsune Kazue’s body lay on the ground, blood seeping into a small mound of dirt where her head rested. A casual search of the area revealed a bloody rock on the other side of the tree as testament to the deed. Tensin was nowhere to be found. Still, the Crab had not gone quietly. Three of the ambushers did not survive the attack, killed by expert strikes to the neck and chest. The Hiruma’s katana lay abandoned on the floor, bloody to the hilt with the blood of his enemies. Frowning mournfully, Kenichi leaned down and picked up the sword.
“She did not even have a chance to draw her sword,” Kenichi remarked. “Whoever they were, they had the element of surprise. No easy task against this pair. Poor Kazue.”
“We are fortunate we were permitted to carry these blades on the hunt,” the Unicorn mused. There had apparently been an incident during the hunt some years previous, and the Crane did not wish their guests to be unprotected in the woods. “Why would they take Tensin, if they only wanted to kill the group?” Ichiro wondered out loud. “Who would try to disrupt the Topaz Championship? The eyes of all the Empire are fixed on this tournament. No one could get away with this. It is suicide.”
“Perhaps whatever they wanted is worth the risk,” Kenichi said.
Ichiro finally looked up from the bloody scene and stared into Kenichi’s eyes. The Monkey met his gaze with a steely expression set on his face.
“They would want us to report back to the city so that the magistrates could hunt down those responsible,” Ichiro said quietly.
“These men were fast,” Kenichi replied. “We ran here as fast as we could, yet there was no sign of them when we arrived. I believe the Crane magistrates will immediately begin an investigation. Still, the culprits will have a two hour lead on their pursuers. I wonder if they will find Tensin alive.”
“If we headed out now, we could interrupt whatever plans they have set in store for Tensin,” Ichiro stated and gestured to the trampled grass. “This certainly counts as a test of our hunting abilities.”
“We are only two,” Kenichi said with a pessimistic shake of his head.
Ichiro grinned. “Two will be enough.”
It was no easy task to follow the ambushers to their lair. They left very few traces of their trek through the woods. Ichiro and Kenichi could deduce only a few facts about their enemy from their footsteps. First, they only numbered four men. Second, the enemy group was familiar with the terrain; they traveled along a well hidden trail that meandered across the forest. If Ichiro had not noticed broken twigs on heavy foliage, they would have missed it completely.
Ichiro and Kenichi followed the path for nearly an hour before they reached a clearing on the outskirts of the woods. It was a temple — or at least, it had once been a temple to some forgotten Fortune. The roof of the building was broken in some places and the gate hung from its hinges. It was obvious that it had been some time since the temple had anyone care for the premises. The footsteps led directly past the broken gate and into the building. The door was slightly ajar, and Ichiro could hear conversation from inside the room.
The two moved as one without a word. They stepped past the gate, careful to avoid giving away their presence to those inside. They tiptoed up to the building and flanked the doorway. Ichiro slowed his breath so that the whispers of conversation could reach them.
The first voice that reached his ears was that of a woman, apparently the mastermind behind the crime. The voice was deep and raspy, as if she had once suffered a wound on her throat and she had not fully healed over the years. She did not raise her voice but her anger was evident.
“You allowed him to shout out a warning, you worm?” she said. “I told you to be as ghosts in this matter! You will bring the magistrates onto our heads!”
“Mistress Morisue, this worm apologies for his trespass,” returned the sniveling drawl of a man. “We could not move fast enough to silence both of them at the same time.”
“Move faster,” Morisue replied. The sickly sound of wood hitting flesh echoed through the air. The servant cried out in pain and whimpered. The woman mused out loud, ignoring the moans of her servant. “You are sure that this boy will be the next Topaz Champion?”
The servant continued to whimper and began to stammer out a reply. She struck him again, drawing out another scream. “Yes, yes, mistress!” the man said between yelps. “We walked through the streets of the city, listening to the samurai. No one pays attention to mere farmers. They say that this boy, Hiruma Tensin, will be the next Topaz Champion! Another boy is said to be close to Tensin’s score, but he is Unicorn. Everyone hates the Khan. He will not win the title.”
Kenichi glanced at Ichiro and raised an eyebrow. Ichiro shook his head and grasped the hilt of his sword.
“The Crab are at war with the Crane, you idiot,” Morisue said. Contempt dripped from her voice with each word. “Still, I suppose this Crab will do. I can get my revenge for what they did to me, five years ago.”
“What next, mistress?” a third voice asked.
“Now,” Morisue said slowly, “we must move to the caves. The magistrates will find their way here soon enough, since I cannot even trust you to silence a pair of children. Make sure the boy is breathing. We must keep him alive until the Chrysanthemum Festival. Our master will not accept a poor sacrifice.”
“Yes, mistress,” a pair of voices chorused. The room was silent once more except for the sound of scuffled sandals and slow movement. Ichiro gestured toward the room and slowly drew his blade, taking care to make no noise. Kenichi drew his blade and replaced Tensin’s katana into his scabbard. Slowly, quietly, Ichiro leaned toward the open doorway and peered in.
Ichiro quickly assessed the situation. There were four dirty and blooded peasants walking around the bound and unconscious form of Tensin. None of them paid any attention to the doorway, yet they were clearly threats. All of them had weapons hooked onto their belts; these weapons were all crude peasant weapons, and one carried a wakizashi, yet he knew they could not be ignored. The last figure in the room could be none other than Morisue. She was a statuesque middle aged woman. Her clothes were made of fine silk, and the gray streaks in her hair only added to the charm of her image. Yet that was the extent of her beauty. Her face might have once been perfect, yet it was now lined with years of hatred and corruption. Her skin was marred with splotches of gray, and her hands were shriveled and rotten. She watched her servants handle Tensin with a disdainful sneer. She seemed to carry no weapon, only an old human skull. Ichiro knew better than to dismiss her from her appearance.
Ichiro looked at Kenichi. He raised five fingers then pointed into the room. Kenichi nodded and smiled. The look in his eyes seemed to claim that he was prepared — no, he expected — to die. Ichiro hesitated for a brief moment, but Kenichi slammed the door open with his shoulders. He gave a shout and raised his katana to shoulder height. Though Ichiro was caught off guard, he immediately followed his friend into the fight with his weapon at the ready.
Morisue and her servants turned to the door with surprise. While her servants paused, taken aback at the sudden intrusion, Morisue reacted immediately. “A couple of boys?” Morisue said. She raised her hand and pointed at Kenichi.
Ichiro reached down to his obi and drew out his hunting knife. Without stopping he threw the knife in the direction of the maho tsukai and hoped it would throw off her aim. The blade flew through the air and pierced Morisue’s throat. She choked and blood began to ooze out around the knife. Her hands rose up to her throat in an instinctive gesture. Ichiro lunged and ran her through with his katana. Morisue’s eyes widened and she shot Ichiro a look of pure hatred. He slashed his sword free of the body. Breathing heavily, he turned to assess the situation.
Kenichi was cornered by the others as they drove him away from Tensin with their weapons. The Monkey had downed one of his opponents but in return had suffered several slashes to his forearms. He feinted but was forced back once more by the peasants.
Ichiro charged with his sword raised high above his head. The peasant nearest him turned to face him and raised a wakizashi in his defense. The enemy struck out with his stolen blade. Ichiro met the strike with his katana and parried the blade to the side. With a twist of his wrist he struck the peasant’s gut and slashed him open to his chest. Kenichi took advantage of the distraction and struck out. The very tip of his blade smoothly glided through flesh and bone and ripped open his opponent’s wrist. The kama dropped out of his hands. The peasant screamed in pain and instinctively raised his arms to protect his chest. Kenichi struck once more and the corpse thudded to the floor.
The last of Morisue’s servants turned heel and ran for Tensin. He raised his kama high and struck down at the helpless target. Before his blow could reach its target, he convulsed violently and dropped the weapon. The kama harmlessly clattered on the ground in front of Tensin. He coughed blood and his unfocused eyes stared out at nothing as he slowly went limp. Ichiro yanked the sword back. The body slid off the blade and fell to the ground.
Ichiro breathed heavily as the rush of the moment left him. He flicked the blood off his blade on reflex and stared around the room. He had never killed anyone before. He looked down at his kimono and stared at the blood that had splattered him during the battle. He paused for a moment. Some of that blood came from what may have been a maho-tsukai. With a shudder he pulled the kimono off and crumpled it into a small ball. Kenichi was faring much better. He walked up and knelt down next to Tensin.
A sudden bright light descended from the roof. It radiated out until it overwhelmed everything else and banished the darkness from every corner of the room. Ichiro looked at the light but it was too brilliant to gaze upon directly. He could barely make out the source of the light. It took the form of a man, yet it was too large and too pure to be human. The form raised its hand. Ichiro was suddenly filled with the sense of perfect peace that filled every inch of his body.
After a few moments the light faded away and slowly the world returned to normal. For a long moment Ichiro and Kenichi remained still, awed by the sense of majesty that still filled the room.
“I’ve felt this before,” Kenichi said slowly.
Ichiro turned to face him. “What do you mean?”
“We celebrated as a Clan at the Year's End Festival in the month of the Tiger. We met by the grave of our clan’s founder, Toku-sama, and prayed to the Fortunes for guidance throughout the new year. A strange light appeared in the air before us and I felt serene and calm for the first time in my life. Our shugenja say that it was the Fortunes answering our prayers.”
“The Fortunes,” repeated Ichiro. He had never been a religious man, but what could he say in the face of such overt magnificence? “Why would the Fortunes watch such as us?”
Kenichi frowned. “I could not say,” he replied. “There really is no reason…” his voice trailed off, and he snapped his finger sharply. “The Chrysanthemum Festival!”
Ichiro blinked in confusion. “That is not until the summer,” he remarked. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Morisue said they would sacrifice Tensin!” Kenichi said. “The followers of Fu Leng attempt to sacrifice someone to their god at the end of the Festival! And at the same time, the Fortunes choose who will receive their blessings!”
“The festival isn’t until this summer!” Ichiro repeated.
“Well, then,” Kenichi said smartly. “I suppose if we found a tall enough tree you could shout at the gods to take their blessings back. I am quite sure they would understand.”
Tensin groaned and opened his eyes. “Shinjo Ichiro, Toku Kenichi,” he said flatly. “You heard my call.”
Kenichi drew his knife and cut the Crab’s bindings. Ichiro nodded. “Are you badly wounded? Can you walk?”
“I will be fine,” he said and coughed. “I owe you two my life.”
“You would have done the same,” Ichiro said sincerely. “The bonds between Unicorn and Crab are deep, and will not be easily forgotten, friend.”
“I shall approach the judges and tell them that I will withdraw from the Topaz Championship,” Tensin said resolutely. “Your efforts must be rewarded.”
Kenichi looked at Ichiro and grinned. Ichiro’s eyes narrowed. “No.”
“I am not conceding to you out of pity, Ichiro-san,” Tensin protested. “You have proven yourself worthier with your actions. The judges must see that.”
“If what you say is true, the judges will see it,” Ichiro said. “Do not insult me, Tensin-san.”
Tensin and Ichiro stared at each other. Tensin broke the gaze and nodded. “I am sorry, Ichiro-san. I did not mean offense. I assure you that everyone will know what you have done this day.”
Ichiro and Kenichi reached forward and lifted the Crab to his feet. Together, they began the long trek back to civilization.
He turned around to see Toku Kenichi’s smiling face in front of him. He placed the armor of the Topaz Champion back onto its stand and grinned back. “Thank you Kenichi-san. It’s Shinjo T'sao, now.”
“Such an ugly name,” Kenichi said, softening the remark with a wide grin. “It suits your face.”
T’sao shook his head and extended his hand out. “May the Fortunes be with you, my friend.”
Kenichi stared at the hand then bowed. “T’sao-san. With everything going on within your lands, I hope that they will remain with you instead.”
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