The Topaz Championship, Part One
By Shawn Carman
For centuries, the city of Tsuma had been home to the most prestigious gempukku ceremony in all of Rokugan. While perhaps not as prestigious as the legendary Emerald and Jade Championships, the Topaz Championship was held annually and was the dream of every young man and woman throughout the Empire. Each year, the finest students from every Great Clan and many Minor Clans gathered together in Tsuma to compete for the title of Topaz Champion. Although there were no guarantees of glory or power that accompanied the Championship, the truth was that few who were given the Topaz Armor failed to rise to great things.
Throughout the years during which the Championship had been held in Tsuma, the city had changed very little. It was a small, relatively unimportant holding, its only true claim to fame the ancient dojo of the Kakita Dueling Academy, a sacred institution that had endured for centuries virtually unchanged. While the dojo had remained unchanged however, the city had not. Tsuma’s proximity to Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial capitol, had given it much more importance as a key waypoint along major trade and travel routes. Over the past few years, the sleepy little city had dramatically increased in size, so much so that it was now able to accommodate the many guests in attendance for the Championship.
Doji Domotai smiled wryly as she made a few final adjustments to her kimono. She had won the Topaz Championship only a few short years ago, although it seemed like a lifetime had passed since she had surrendered the armor to her successor. Her duties among the Imperial Guard in Toshi Ranbo had dominated her life since then, but she relished them. With the arrival of the Emperor and his court in Tsuma for the Championship, she was almost disappointed that she could not aid her comrades in securing the city for her Emperor. Instead, she had been assigned to serve as a judge. It was a prestigious task, and one she expected to enjoy, but a samurai’s life was duty, not ceremony.
Just before she left her chambers, Domotai paused for a moment. As always, she trailed a single finger along the scar that marred her right cheek, a symbol of the ferocity of her training as a student of both the Matsu and Kakita styles. She did not mind the scar so much, but she knew there were some among the Crane who whispered. Such a tragedy, they gossiped, that a daughter of Doji should be so ruined. Of course, it was the same flock of superficial imbeciles that also frequently lamented she was a warrior rather than a courtier or an artisan. Truthfully, she was grateful for something so minor as a scar if it would save her from the life others seemed eager to build for her.
And, she thought with a smirk, it did not appear as though her new husband felt her scar was particularly disfiguring. She and Kusari may not have fallen deeply in love the first time they met, as her parents had, but they certainly were coming to appreciate one another in the months since their wedding. In time, perhaps she would look at him in the same way that her mother looked at her father. Domotai hoped so. She checked the position of her blades in her obi as she stepped through the doorway and into the passage beyond her chambers.
“Good morning, Domotai-sama.”
The young Crane warrior turned and smiled. “Good morning, Najmudin-sama. How do the Fortunes find you?” “I don’t imagine it is very difficult for them.” The Unicorn patted his stomach. “I blame your rich Crane cuisine.”
Domotai grinned. “I did not see any Kakita chefs forcing you to eat.”
“You must have left early,” he answered. “Are you prepared for the contests?”
“I am,” she said, “though I doubt there will be much for me to do. Judging the Courtier contest is not what I imagined when I accepted the responsibility of judge. I thought perhaps the weapons contest, or possibly hunting. I will defer to the wisdom of my fellow judges, I think.”
Najmudin chuckled. “A wise but unfortunately impossible strategy,” he said. “I have come to inform you that Kakita Mai-sama has fallen extremely ill, as have several others among the Kakita family. Another of her colleagues has been summoned, but it will be mid-day before he can arrive to assist you with the judging duties.”
Domotai’s smile faltered. “Do you mean to say.”
“You will be alone for the morning, yes,” Najmudin said. “None will impugn your credibility, of course. You are a former Topaz Champion, an officer of the Imperial Guard, and the daughter of the Crane Champion. You are perfectly suited to preserve the sanctity of the contest.”
“Of course,” she muttered.
The Unicorn smiled warmly and offered a deep bow. “I am certain you will excel at this task, Domotai-sama.” He turned and headed down the passageway, stifling a light cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.
“And I am certain you will take tremendous pleasure from this!” she said grimly.
“You see?” he called over his shoulder. “Such wisdom you have!”
Domotai tried not to fidget as the first two competitors were led into the chamber. The servant bowed deeply and disappeared out the door as the two students were offering their bows. One was male and the other female, both wearing the colors of the Unicorn Clan. Domotai wondered idly if the two might know each other, and whether or not the contest would be valid if they did, but quickly decided that the clan elders overseeing the contest would never have permitted such a thing. She nodded in return to the two, then gestured for them to take their seats on opposite ends of a small table setting before her table. She was oddly aware of the empty seats on either side of her, and again resisted the urge to fidget. “Good morning,” she said crisply.
“Good morning, Doji-sama,” the young man answered solemnly.
The young woman’s eyes seemed to sparkle excitedly. “Good morning, my lady,” she said. She hesitated for a moment, then blurted out “It is a great honor to meet you, Domotai-sama!” she said. She immediately pursed her lips as if to prevent further outburst, then smiled weakly. Her comrade glanced at her with a disdainful expression, as if disgusted.
Domotai could not suppress a smile. “Thank you,” she said. “You are Shiko, of the Horiuchi, and Nichiro, of the Shinjo?” The two both nodded silently. “I will present to you a question, which you will each answer in turn. You may then discuss that matter if you choose, or I shall present a further question. When I feel that you have discussed the question to an acceptable extent, I will stop you, and you will be excused. I will determine whether you have passed this contest or not based on your responses and your knowledge of appropriate conduct and duty. I have the discretion to award each of you a point for success, or deny both of you if your responses are inadequate. Do you understand?”
Both nodded again.
“Excellent,” Domotai said. “The matter to be discussed is this: where does the ultimate loyalty of a samurai lie? Is it with the Emperor, or the Empire? Nichiro, as you are the eldest, you may respond first. Begin.”
“The Emperor,” the young man replied at once. “Through birth and oath, all samurai must live to serve their Emperor. He is the Son of Heaven, chosen of the gods to rule over the Empire and the clans. Honor demands that the Emperor be served above all others.”
Domotai nodded, then glanced at the young woman. “Shiko?”
“I must disagree,” the young woman said quietly. “All samurai have a duty, and the Emperor is a samurai just as surely as any other. The Emperor’s sole duty is to protect the Empire, and as his servants it is our duty to aid him in the fulfillment of that task. Although the Emperor is the Son of Heaven, he is mortal, and capable of falling from the path. Hantei XVI and Hantei XXXIX are proof of this. Should this ever happen, then all honorable samurai must serve the will of heaven and the will of all honorable Emperors, and protect the Empire at the Emperor’s expense.” Shiko glanced down at the floor. “If the Fortunes are kind, such a choice will never need to be made again,” she added quietly.
Domotai raised her eyebrows in surprise. She had not expected such an answer, for traditionally only absolute loyalty to the Emperor was considered an appropriate answer by the older judges. Shiko no doubt knew this, and yet had answered with what she obviously believed to be the truth. She was obviously a very idealistic young woman. “Do you have a response, Nichiro?”
“Yes,” he answered emphatically. “It is the Shogun’s responsibility to protect the Empire. That authority is given to him by the Emperor. The Splendid Emperor, Toturi I, was recognized by the heavens as the rightful and just ruler of Rokugan, and his son the Righteous Emperor is the first of a new line embraced by the gods. We cannot presume to know the duties given such a man by the heavens. It is not our place to question. If, as in the past, the specter of tyranny appears, then it falls to us to be strong enough to continue our service. Such are the trials the Fortunes place before mortals to test their faith and their honor.”
“The Shogunate was created through military might,” Shiko argued. “It was taken during a time when there was no Emperor. That the great Toturi III has endorsed the existence of the Shogun and aided him in maintaining his forces only reinforces my belief that the protection of Rokugan is the Emperor’s duty. To ensure that this duty is fulfilled, he has created a position that rivals his own in authority and resources, even though some believe its very existence poses a threat to his authority. No Emperor in history has performed so selfless an act, and that Toturi III has done so clearly demonstrates that he is well and truly devoted to protecting the Empire above his own interests. We must all seek to hold ourselves to the same example as our Emperor.”
“You grow close to blasphemy!” Nichiro insisted, his tone indicating his growing irritation.
“It is not my intent to offend,” Shiko said with a sad smile. “I am merely answering the question as I was directed.”
“Enough,” Domotai said quietly. “You have both expressed yourself eloquently and well. The question before you is one debated by greater minds than ours for generations, and our children will one day be asked to discuss it as well. Each samurai must answer such questions for himself.”
“Hai, Doji-sama,” they both said.
“Very well,” she said, rolling up a scroll. “The contest is normally much longer than this, but I feel you have both demonstrated the qualities I have been asked to seek out in competitors. It is unorthodox, but I choose to award each of you a point toward achieving your gempukku.”
“Thank you, sama,” they both said again. Shiko looked overjoyed, and even Nichiro seemed pleased, though he struggled to maintain his composure.
Domotai smiled and nodded respectfully to the competitors, who bowed deeply in return. She dismissed them with a gesture, and they turned to leave. If the remaining contests were as quick, then she might well be finished before the other judges arrived. Glancing down at the list, however, she quickly noticed that the next two competitors were a young Mantis and Phoenix. She sighed quietly, then gestured for the servant to admit them.
The early evening hours were as hectic as the morning had been. It seemed as though the attendants of the Imperial Court were annoyed by the Championship stealing the opportunity to advance their agenda, and made up for it by attempting to force a day’s worth of mindless politicking into a few meager hours of court. Domotai knew that it was not all so petty as she imagined, of course; life among the Crane was more than enough to quickly dispel that misconception. Still, from the perspective of a warrior, it was difficult to appreciate the enormity of what went on the Imperial Court when so much of it seemed so unimportant.
Domotai stood near an exit of the chamber where court was being held. There were precious few buildings in Tsuma of sufficient size to accommodate the Imperial Court, and even this one was a bit more crowded than she liked. Although she was not officially on duty, she felt it was necessary to be present. The crowded conditions made her uncomfortable. In her mind’s eye, she envisioned an attack against someone across the room, and the struggle she would endure to try and reach it.
Thus far, the highlight of the evening had been the presentation of a sacred Kakita Blade to the Scorpion Champion, Bayushi Paneki, by representatives from the revered Kakita swordsmiths. For a brief moment, Paneki seemed both genuinely surprised and delighted by the gift, a rarity indeed for a man known both as the Master of Secrets and the Defender of the Empire. Perhaps, Domotai mused, he had expected hostility from the Crane, given the Scorpion’s recent conflict with their allies, the Crab. Truthfully, Domotai was certain that idealists among the Kakita hoped to forestall the burgeoning conflict by serving as mediators between the two clans, but Domotai considered that highly unlikely. Paneki was not a man who entered into battle lightly, and the same could certainly be said for Hida Kuon and his grandfather, the legendary Kisada.
Domotai frowned. For some reason, she had difficulty forgetting the spirited discussion between the two Unicorn that she had judged earlier in the day. Both had made excellent points, and both were clearly honorable youths. Obviously, they could not both be correct, and as an Imperial Guard, her duty was to the Emperor alone. Why, then, did she have such empathy for the debate young Shiko had made? Domotai’s training with the Matsu had ingrained in her a love of absolutes. Questions about something so important as duty or loyalty made her uneasy.
“Ah, there you are, Domotai-sama. I came to congratulate you on a job well done.”
Domotai made a show of frowning at the broad Unicorn. “One day, Najmudin-sama, I will have terrible vengeance.”
“Excellent,” he said with a clap of his hands. “I despise tedium. And please stop calling me sama. You are the daughter of Doji Kurohito. It’s quite ludicrous.”
“You are a higher ranking officer,” she answered, “not only in the Imperial Guard but in the Emerald Magistrates as well. There are few who hold appointments in both. It is only appropriate.”
“All the same, I suspect you would not do it if you didn’t know it made me so uncomfortable,” Najmudin said. He scratched his goatee absently. “Who is that?”
Domotai followed his gaze and nodded subtly. “Ikoma Masote,” she said quietly. “You noticed as well, then?”
“Of course,” Najmudin said. “There are at least six men protecting him, all of varying clans, though all are acting as though they are not.”
“Not to mention his two Lion yojimbo,” Domotai added. “I find it odd for a number of reasons. What could compel such a diverse group of men to protect someone so relatively unimportant? And more to the point, why would they do such a thing?”
“An officer in the Legions or the Magistrates could do such a thing,” Najmudin mused, “or the Shogun of course. Why they would do it will be difficult to determine. Still, there is a more important question.” Domotai raised her eyebrows. “And that is?”
“If these six men guarding him are so obvious in their intentions, then how many are there who are subtle enough to go unnoticed?”
Domotai frowned and quickly glanced around the room. At first she could see nothing untoward. After a moment, though, she began to wonder if it was her imagination, or were there a handful of Daidoji throughout the room that were glancing at the Lion periodically. Were they protecting him as well, or were they the reason he had such protection in the first place? She started to say something to Najmudin, but was interrupted by the sound of a gong from the front of the chamber.
“Honored guests, the Emperor thanks you for your presence this evening,” an elderly Otomo called out. “The Righteous Emperor and his Empress are retiring for the evening, but will reconvene this most illustrious court following the resumption of the Topaz Championship festivities tomorrow.” The old man smiled and gestured to the Crane assembled to the left of the Emperor’s dais. “Our first order of business in the morning will be an address from the noble Ikoma Masote, who wishes to present a gift of gratitude to our most gracious hosts, the Crane.” With that, the man bowed, and followed the Emperor from the chamber.
“Well now,” Najmudin said with a pleased expression. “That certainly sounds interesting, doesn’t it?”
Domotai said nothing, gazing instead at the concerned expression she spied on the face of courtier Doji Takeji. Interesting it would be, but the Akodo had long had a saying regarding interesting times, and for the first time Domotai thought perhaps she understood it.