Chapter Three: The Grand Tournament of Suna (Part I)

At the opening of the grand tournament, the sun was shining brightly that day and the sky was clear and blue, without a single cloud to obstruct it.

Within the huge stadium, the crowds which was composed of thousands of voices from every corner of the realm, although the majority of them were locals from the Land of Wind, were all crying out for the tournament to start. Or for a reprise from the heat. The downside to such a clear sky was that in the desert, it had free reign to make anyone under the sun miserable.

As for those people of the Land of Wind, the majority of them had in fact been looking forward to the Grand Tournament all year. With good reason, for it was a break from the humdrum of their regular lives, a chance to view the finest shinobi of the realm display their strength and abilities, especially shinobi of their own land.

However, for those more cynical than others, it was simply a reminder that they were servants of the Uchiha. There was good reason for the cynicism as well, because in the past the majority of the winners of each tournament had been members of the Uchiha Clan. Most believed it was intended that way, since many clans feared what would happen if they dared to try to surpass the Imperial family. For that reason, certain participants took a dive when they went up against an Uchiha.

However, every year there was always some participants who were tired of seeing the Uchiha win the Grand Tournament. And every year, through either a combination of ambitious, bravery, and sheer foolishness, these individuals aspired to outshine their imperial overlords.

However, in any case the air was abuzz with anticipation and expectation. Everywhere, from the rafters where the common people were crunched together, each one of them trying to get some elbow room for themselves, to breath and catch a view, urchins from the street crawled under the legs of the adults, while parents hoisted their children onto their shoulders so the youngsters could describe the spectacles for them.

Meanwhile in the upper galleries of the arena in the stylish private boxes, the nobility sat in luxury. They sat on cushioned seats, eating fine foods and sipping sake while servants fanned them. A few of the more aristocratic families would look down at the lower levels and take turns mocking those struggling to find room while they had more than they needed.

And like with any sporting event, wagers were being placed. From a simple coin among the commoners to a small fortune among the nobles. Spectators gambled on which clan would take home the first prize of the tournament, who would win the most prizes, which clan would be the first to be eliminated first from the tournament, and so on and so forth. Of course, the majority of the bets were being placed for the Uchiha to win, the drawback being since it was seen as the safest bet the rewards would be lower than the riskier gambits. But still, some of the riskier gamblers were willing to bet on the other clans participating, in hopes of the higher payout if they won.

There was an official betting booth where people could see what odds were being offered for each competitor in each event. However, a great deal more of the bets were done unofficially on each and every event.

In the Grand Tournaments there were a number of events in which the shinobi could participate; horsemanship, archery, use of the shurikens and kunai, swordsmanship, demonstration of their use of jutsu and control of chakra.

However, the prestige was far greater in the jutsu combat and in the melee, as were the prizes.

In the Jutsu Combat the first-place winner won 15,000 ryo in gold, second place won 7500, and third place was 3000. In the melee, the third-place winners typically received a sum of 2500 ryo in gold, second place winners got 5000, and the first-place winner received 10,000 gold ryo.

The prize money and the rewards varied from event to event. However, in both the Jutsu Combat and the Freestyle Melee the first-place winners would receive their prize from the Emperor himself.

With such lofty rewards on the line, the grand tournament always brought out both the best and the worst shinobi of the realm.

There were hundreds of Suna guards stationed within the arena, and these guards were reinforced by more guards that had been brought by the Uchiha for extra security.

Past experiences had showed that there was always some kind of mischief at events like these, however if they were not taken care of quickly they could escalate and turn into full scale riots.

But at the moment everything seemed to be peaceful and moving ahead normally. Then the sound of a gong being rung brought a hush over everyone within the arena.

When the ringing of the gong ceased, a lone figure on the field of the arena walked into view heading towards the center of the field, drawing the attention of the crowd.

Due to his thin frame, the strut of his walk, as well as the white and black kimono he was dressed in, he looked a little like a crane-bird, with his thin neck bobbing slightly as he walked, but when he spoke, his voice resonated loud and clear.

"Good people, Nobles and Commoners alike. By the grace of our noble Imperial family, the Mighty Uchiha..." The crowd cheered loudly, and in the imperial box Fugaku allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction. "-And funded by Lord Rasa of the Clan Hokori..." The crowd only cheered half as loudly for Rasa as they had for Fugaku "Now… with the blessing of our glorious Emperor-"

The entire fell silent and all eyes and head turned towards the Imperial box. Fugaku rose slowly from his chair, his wife on his left and Itachi at his right. He walked towards the edge of the booth and gazed out at the crowd below. He took in the silence, savoring the power that he held over these people.

For a moment, he truly was a god among insects.

Then slowly and dramatically he raised his arms up outstretched wide and then brought them together with a powerful clap.

At that moment, the entire crowd cheered even louder than they had before… for the Tournament had officially begun.

"This is the worst idea… in the history of terrible ideas." Gaara said for the fifth time. "No, no, no we cannot do this. We need to stop. We need to leave now." He said for the eighth time, but who was counting? Certainly not Naruto who was too busy putting on the armor that Gaara had loaned him.

"Will you relax? Everything is going to work out fine if we just stick with the plan." Naruto told him in a calm way "Now come over here and help me with my breast plate."

They were in the preparation stalls beneath the stadium. Every contender had their own private stall to prepare for the challenges, there was even a section marked off for the horses of each contender.

Only an hour ago they had arrived, with Gaara saying he was entering himself into the lists of the tournament and that Naruto was his aide. The attendant had grumbled at the idea of a last-minute entry, but he had written down Gaara's name and gave him his stall number as well as asking which event he would be competing in, Gaara had named the, Jutsu combat, melee freestyle, and horsemanship.

Naruto arrived a few minutes after Gaara with both the horse and all the gear, looking like he was nothing more than an attendant to a contender, when he was anything but. Now it was just a matter of getting ready before all of the competitors headed out onto the field.

Gaara strapped on the metal plate onto Naruto's chest, and the blonde grunted slightly at the tightness. "Loosen it up would you Gaara?"

"If you didn't eat so much dango you wouldn't be so fat for my armor." The redhead remarked with a roll of his eyes.

"Well if you weren't as skinny as a reed, you wouldn't need such small armor."

"Just suck in your gut or lose weight in the next few seconds."

Naruto took a deep breath and Gaara readjusted the straps. Once he was done Naruto exhaled. The fit was uncomfortable, but bearable.

The two of them were dressed in matching armor, from the feet up to the neck they looked perfectly identical, their heads being the only thing indicating who was who. The armor had a bronze tint to it and the seal of the Hokori clan was stamped right onto the front in a large traditional style.

"Alright, you got the helmet and face cover?"

Gaara nodded and handed them both to his friend. "Yes, but it won't cover your eyes."

Needless to say, Naruto accepted them. "Doesn't matter, no one will be able to get a clear look at my eyes anyway, and by the time it comes to the bestowment of the prizes, we will have switched. Then, I will have gotten to compete in the tournament, you'll get the congratulations of winning and some respect from your father. It is a win-win for both of us."

"Unless someone figures out you're the one fighting. Then you will be seen as a criminal, at best whipped and worst killed, and I will be disowned by my father and sent to the Land of Snow to freeze and die." Gaara warned.

"What is with you and always thinking of the worst possible situation? Pessimism isn't a great trait Gaara." Naruto advised as he placed the helmet on his head. "You will never get a girl that way"

"I like to think it that my pessimism balances out your optimism." Gaara said with a roll of the eyes. "I still cannot believe I allowed you to talk me into this."

"You could never say no to me. Remember our camp-out in Ghost Canyon?"

"Oh yes, I remember it well. Especially the part where you sat on a cactus and I had to pick the needles out of your arse."

Naruto grumbled. "Yeah, I couldn't sit right for a week." He then reached over and placed his hand on his 'brothers' shoulder. "Listen to me Gaara, I know this will work. I can feel it down into my bones. And no one but you and I will ever know the truth. By the end of the day you and I will be back at the old man's eating rice balls."

"And when your father asks where you got all of the cuts and bruises that you will no doubt get from this?"

"I work in a blacksmith's forge. I get cuts and burns all the time. If anything he'd be suspicious if I didn't get hurt once in a while. As for the bruises…well we'll just tell him I got them in a spar to get you ready for 'your' matches." The blonde grinned.

At that moment a loud horn was blown, informing the participants it was time to assemble.

Naruto smiled and fixed the face cover into place, shrouding his identity effectively. "Time for the show."

"I just pray it won't be your last." Gaara said aloud to Naruto and prayed the same thing to the gods.

The Tournament began with the first event being a display of jutsu and chakra abilities. The two opponents would face each in battle; they were allowed to use weapons; however scores were determined by the jutsu they used, how effective their control over chakra was, and how it fared against their adversary.

Like a few other events in the tournament, this event was judged by a panel made up of three individuals; as per tradition, two of the members were made up of the local nobility while the third was chosen by the Imperial Clan.

And the first ones to compete were Kankurō, eldest 'public' son of Rasa, and an Uchiha named Shinsuke. The Uchiha looked the same age as the Suna nin, with short black hair and onyx black eyes, dressed in a brown long-sleeve shirt and black pants with brown shoes. Once the fight started Kankuro attacked with a simple kunai attack, which the Uchiha had little difficulty dodging.

"How pathetic. But what should I expect of someone who wallows in the sand every day?" Shinsuke taunted, looking like his opponent wasn't worth taking his hands out of his pockets for. They were out, but he was making no effort to retaliate.

Kankuro frowned, knowing this smug royal type was taunting him. Worse, he was ordered to figuratively bend over and take it.

"You must lose to any and all Uchiha, Kankuro." Rasa had told his son before this had started. "Any other clans I expect you to win, but if we are to gain a standing amongst the Imperial Family and gain favor, we must unfortunately feed their egos and let each one of them win. However, there's nothing wrong with making them work for their victories. Put on a show to demonstrate the strength of our clan, but you must lose."

For now, Kankuro was complying, but Rasa suspected that his showboating son might over-demonstrate his skills anyway. To be safe, the Kazekage had paid off the two local nobles to make sure that the Uchiha had received the higher score, if only by just a few points. He may have to let the Uchiha win, but he didn't have to let them win by a landslide.

'Just my luck that my first opponent is an Uchiha. The tournament ended for me as soon as it began.' Kankuro thought, gripping the tethers holding his secret weapon in place. "Well if you're going to beat me you're going to have to get dirty. Think you can handle a little dust rich boy?"

Shinsuke smirked then did some hand signs, creating an earth dragon behind him. "Who said I was afraid of getting dirty? Why do you think I wear dark colors? Doesn't show dirt."

The earth dragon lunged forward, stone fangs ready to chomp down. Kankuro got out of the way but the dragon didn't break when it hit the ground. Rather it merged with it, as if it were a dolphin diving back into the water. The head then came back out like a sea serpent and turned towards him.

'My puppet's not going to do much here. My one chance is to attack the caster.' He thought, looking towards Shinsuke for a moment, who happened to just stand there and watch. Some of the audience booed this, telling him to do something. Kankuro began to unravel his puppet while staying on the move.

With the puppet revealed and chakra strings attached, a good portion of the crowd from Suna cheered. This style of jutsu was native to the Land of Wind and it was one that, even those who were non-chakra users, were extremely proud of. Puppets were like specialized but customized clones, though they did require the user to have long-term use in mind beforehand. No other village had been able to figure out how to replicate the technique for actually controlling a puppet, despite several trying.

Up in the galleries there were a few Uchiha trying again, using their sharingan to see how Kankuro was doing it. They could see the chakra strings, but their eyes were telling them nothing about how they were formed, how they worked, or why they were so durable when they should be so easy to disconnect.

Shinsuke however wasn't trying to unravel the mystery of puppet strings and instead focused on trying to bury the puppeteer under dragon-shaped rubble. Kankuro was struggling, since puppeteering worked bet when the ninja remained still. As a result, the Crow was up, but little more than a second target for his opponent to attack. But it seemed Shinsuke wasn't interested in that particular target.

The earth dragon went for Kankuro again, this time appearing closer and giving him little time to dodge. Kankuro had no choice but to sever the chakra strings to the Crow and move away from the impact zone. He only just barely managed to, the earth dragon brushing against him with enough force and closure that it ripped his black attire in half vertically. The right half was completely torn off and some of the clothes and skin underneath showed damage too; the left half was intact but not all of it remained on him thanks to the lack of balance or binding.

The earth dragon went back into the ground, taking Kankuro's torn clothes with it. With the Crow down, Shinsuke darted in with a kunai and got in, attacking the puppeteer and managing to stab him in the arm before he could get his guard back up. He grinned a bit when his opponent yelled in pain.

"Want to submit, or want more?" Shinsuke whispered. "I'd take it if I were you, not every Uchiha gives you the chance to surrender and walk away."

Gritting his teeth and glaring, Kankuro snorted. "Fine, not like I'm allowed to win anyway. Hope you enjoy your bought victory royal boy." The puppeteer then made a specific hand sign that had nothing to do with a jutsu, but was a gesture used to signal to the referee that a participant was surrendering.

The referee saw it and called the match in favor of the Uchiha, spurring the crowd to cheer. Shinsuke spread his arms and soaked it in, acting like he couldn't care less what Kankuro had said about his victory being tainted, while Kankuro gripped his remaining clothes, recollected the Crow, and walked away.

In the Imperial booth a servant refilled Fugaku's sake cup; Rasa had given specific instructions to all of the servants that no cup, plate, or dish was to be empty in the booth.

Fugaku took a sip from his cup and then set it down before he spoke. "Your son doesn't seem to be that talented, does he?" Fugaku commented, trying to sound fair but his tone and the look in his eyes made it clear he definitely preferred his outcome to the alternative.

Rasa looked annoyed, but it was at the situation he and his family were in, not at his son's actions. He swallowed his pride, albiet with great difficulty and plastered a smile on his face when he spoke to the Emperor, "Puppeteering is a complex field and a specialized one at that. Why one of our past ninjas once wielded a hundred puppets at once and destroyed a small country all by himself with this."

"Surely you exaggerate." Yashiro stated as he popped a slice of peach into his mouth. To a military man like himself, he found the idea that a 'sand rat' from the Land of Wind with an army of dolls propped up with chakra could destroy a country

Hidden within the sleeve of his robe, Rasa clenched his fist tightly "I assure you I do not." He said with a calm tone

"Then which country was it?" Fugaku tested, his own mentality similar to that of his Uncle on the matter

"The Land of Marble, sire. It used to be one of the small countries bordering between Land of Sand and Land of Earth. Most famous for its artisanry, but in the last great war before the realm was united under the imperial rule of Hashirama. During that time we had reason to suspect they were one of the big suppliers for Land of Earth's explosives. So we sent a small force to disable the supply, but only one puppeteer was truly needed."

"That's impressive." Mikoto noted with genuinity in her voice.

Fugaku looked less impressed. "Considering how your son performed, it makes me wonder which one is the standard and which one is the exception."

Rasa's brow furrowed slightly and his jaw clenched tightly, he seemed ready to say something when very suddenly Itachi spoke up. "How many puppets can one control at once?"

Rasa turned and looked at the Crown Prince, whose focus was still on the field below. "10 is typically the maximum, highness, one for each finger. Controlling more than that requires a puppeteer of extreme ability, the shinobi who attacked the land of Marble was one."

Itachi seemed to contemplate this "I imagine that an armature would require all 10 fingers, each one with a chakra string connecting to a various joint of the puppet. Whereas a more practiced individual, like your son, does not require all 10"

Rasa, feeling his irritation start to subside nodded "Very observant and yes you are correct. My san can expertly control a single puppet but he is currently perfecting his ability and can now use three puppets, but not as fluidly as he does with a single"

Itachi nodded his head approvingly "perhaps he might give a demonstration later."

Rasa beamed at this comment from the Uchiha crown prince, and Mikoto silently praised her son's ability to defuse the tense situation that had been brewing.

It was then that the announcer began to call out the next opponents for the jutsu combat portion of the tournament, and the first name from his mouth was

"Gaara of the clan Hokori!" The announcer soon enough called out as well.

The moment that name was said the Kazekage felt as if his heart paused for a moment, he turned his head in the direction of the announcer.

Itachi at this point took his eyes away from the arena floor to look towards Rasa. "That's your younger son, isn't it? I thought you said wouldn't be competing in the tournament?"

Quickly recovering his composure Rasa looked over at Itachi. "I… well it seems he must have decided to surprise his father by entering the tournament." He answered with a nervous smile on his face. "I… excuse me… I must see to some business." He rose from his seat, if he hurried he might be able to recall Gaara before that foolish boy humiliated himself and the clan.

However, the voice of Fugaku halted the Lord of the Land of Wind. "No, you are not excused. Another of yours sons is about to compete, let us see how this one's jutsu fairs"

Rasa, unable to disobey Fugaku, reluctantly sat down, and though he still had a smile on his face, Temari could see the rage in her father's eyes and wondered what madness had possessed her youngest brother to enter the tournament.

The next match called for was the one Gaara was supposed to partake in, but when his name was called, it was Naruto who stepped into the arena, adorned in armor. But no one there could tell the difference. He received cheers and was tempted to wave in response, but that wasn't the sort of thing Gaara would do so he kept his arms crossed.

His opponent appeared to be another Uchiha, one that wore a mask but clearly was trying to imitate the infamous Uchiha Madara given his armor. It wasn't identical to the historically known set, this one sporting more rounded shoulder plates, shorter leg guards, and an addition of plated gauntlets, along with the metal being dull blue rather than dull red, it was clearly meant to invoke the sense of Madara. As if to say 'I'm as tough as him and you're about to experience it for yourself'. The bigger difference however was the weapons. He lacked Madara's signature gunbai and long scythe with a chain connecting them, instead he had a nodachi and iron weight with a chain connecting them.

'Guy really wants me to psych me out into believing he's Madara's equal. That's probably why he wears the mask, to make me see Madara more and less of the true ninja.' Naruto thought, but smirked under his helmet. 'Well, if he wants me to fight a dead man, I'll show him just how good a corpse really can fight.'

The announcer called for the fight, naming the Uchiha opponent as Marise, and right away the Uchiha attacked. Naruto held himself back, well aware of how Gaara preferred to fight and making the first move was not part of it. Marise took out his sword, holding it in his left hand, and started to swing the iron weight with his right hand. As building enough momentum he threw the weight right at Naruto.

Naruto effortlessly pivoted to his right and repositioned himself on one knee, avoiding the weapon. Marise did a bit of a jerk to the chain to get it to come back, but Naruto was already doing some hand signs.

"Stone Grave." He said, putting both hands on the ground. A crevice formed in front of him and spread forward, widening as it did so. Marise saw it and jumped, just barely avoiding it reaching him, but while in the air Naruto did another set of hand signs.

"Land Restructure." The terrain of the arena began to wave and shift around almost like it was the surface of the ocean, making it impossible for Marise to have a stable landing. He smiled when he saw the Uchiha slip and fall face first. Acting quickly Naruto got upright and did another set, ending with it holding his arm out like he was trying to grab his opponent. "Stone Coffin."

Bits of the ground broke away and clustered all over Marise's body. He brushed it off but more and more took it's place, covering him from head to toe. When it got to his hands he found it impossible to hold onto his weapon and dropped both parts he was holding. More debris covered him until he could barely move. Barely even breathe.

'Sorry, but this is what Gaara would do.' Naruto thought, putting his hands back on the ground. "Stone Grave."

Another crevice formed and snaked it's way to Marise, this time he couldn't escape it. He fell down a newly formed pit, and once Naruto removed his hands the pit closed up, effectively burying him alive. He crossed his arms and stepped back, looking like he was merely waiting for something.

The referee was surprised but did a mandatory countdown when it looked like a contestant wasn't getting back up. By the end, Marise had yet to resurface, and 'Gaara' was declared the winner. There was some cheer, not all that much, but Naruto smiled and walked away. The referee tried to ask him to excavate the Uchiha, but instead did so himself.

"That was... not what I was anticipating." Fugaku said when he saw Marise being uncovered, both from the ground and his stone shell. His tone made it clear that he probably would have been happier to discover his wife was cheating on him with his father.

"We can't win them all Fugaku, that would make the tournament boring." Mikoto attempted to assure her husband. Fugaku once preached that there were only two outcomes in battle, total victory and total failure. Sure it was far less practical in real life and even he was rational enough to not take it literally, but it was one of those things that you know isn't true but a part of you wants it to be true.

He took a breath and slowly nodded. "True, and Marise was always a bit of a showoff, thinking he could run before he walked. He forgets that even Madara had to start out as a genin."

"I apologize for my son's behavior." Rasa added, trying to sound diplomatic. Inside he was seething, but also confused. He knew Gaara wasn't stupid enough to embarrass him or their nation, but a part of him was happy to see one of his children be brave enough to snub one of the Imperials. The confusion came from the use of Gaara's jutsus. Gaara was one of the best they had in Suna regarding earth jutsu, he could practically weaponize the desert itself if he wanted to. This seemed more like he was holding himself back, or rookie at best.

'Perhaps he was smart enough to withhold his strength to avoid directly killing his opponent, even if he was dumb enough to still try and go for a killing result.' The Kazekage concluded, eyeing the armored boy as he left the stadium. 'Still, don't think this means you'll be congratulated or anything Gaara. I will not let you win if it means Suna as a whole loses.'

"No need, besides this was the jutsu portion of the tournament and from what I saw Marise never attempted one. Your son actually followed the rules, so if anything, he should be congratulated." Mikoto assured.

"Yes, quite." Rasa agreed, though he said it like he was trying to make a lemon sound like a wine. He then stood up and humbly excused himself so that he could go and 'congratulate' his youngest son.

"I hope it was worth it." Gaara said when Naruto made it back to their hiding spot.

Naruto removed the helmet. "Sure was, now get me out of this before someone comes here to pat you on the back."

"More like stab me in the back." Gaara muttered, but he complied and the two boys worked in haste to remove the armor. "By the way, how long have you been practicing my jutsu?"

"We train together pretty often Gaara, did you really think I wouldn't be able to learn some of your moves?" The blonde boy asked back. "But we both know I can't do it as good as you can."

"And let's keep it that way." The redhead replied in good spirits.

It was then that they heard someone coming. Naruto moved quickly, ducking into the smaller adjoining stall where the female palfrey that was to be used in the racing portion of the tournament was being held. He grabbed the horse blanket and used it to cover himself as he laid down on the hay covered floor of the stall and Gaara shut the door to the stall just as Rasa stormed in.

"Father I..." Gaara started to say before Rasa silenced him with a quick flick of his fingers.

"YOU FOOLISH LITTLE BOY!" He said with a snarl as he glared at his youngest child. "If you were not my own blood I would..." He clenched his fist tightly and let the threat hang in the air. His nostrils flared for a few moments as he regained his composure.

At that moment Gaara expected that his father was about to forbid him from competing any further, and hidden in the stall, Naruto feared the same thing. However what Rasa said next shocked them both.

"The fact that you won, and that it was only a minor member of the Uchiha clan whom you defeated, is the only reason I will allow you to continue to participate in this tournament." He said as he glared at Gaara. "But if you embarrass our family in any way, there will be consequences."

Rasa then turned and started to leave, pausing at the doorway for a brief moment to add "You did...well" before disappearing entirely. It was said harshly and a little forced, but there was some sincerity to it.

Gaara stood there, as still as a statue, processing what he had just heard with his own ears.

"Did your father just...praise you?" Naruto asked, rising up from the floor and removing the horse blanket from himself

Gaara looked over at the blonde and nodded slowly. "I... I think he just did."

Naruto suddenly grinned. "You see, I told you that this was the greatest plan ever."

Eventually the jutsu display ended, and thus the first portion of the tournament came to a close. But this was not the end of the day for them. The first day usually had two events, the second one being the horse races. In honor of the days when the Calvary still held power over the land and the first ninja had to learn how to outrun the mounted samurais, there would always be a race. Each of the competitors would mount their steeds and line themselves up, where they would race around the sand covered oval track that was the interior of the arena. Whoever got across the original starting line was declared the victor.

This was among the shortest and simplest of the events, but it did have its perks. For starters, everyone who had been in the chakra combat could be in this too, assuming they were still fit to ride. This helped give them another chance to stay in the tournament for another day. If you lost in the jutsu fights but won in the horsemanship, you were allowed to participate in the second day. Those that won both events got to see the second day too, but were considered elite participants now as opposed to the normal finalists. The ones who failed to make it to the second day were those that lost both events, and only the first eight cross the finish line were considered true winners of the horse racers.

Another aspect of the races was the first place winner got to claim ownership of all horses that came in ninth place and up. From there, the winner could either ransom them back to the original owners, keep them for himself, or sell them off to another party. This was often done because aside from being allowed to continue in the tournament there were no actual prizes in the horsemanship event, not to mention it provided great incentive to win.

And due to the fine specimen of horses that were often used by the competitors, a fair profit could be made from selling them back, to anyone.

From the arena floor, the announcer called off the names of the 12 individuals who had chosen to enter this event. The track was more than large enough to accommodate the large number, Rasa had spared no expense for that.

After their name and clan was announced each individual would ride out, have their horses perform a quick strut, wave to the cheering crowd and then line themselves in between the two poles that marked the starting line.

The first to be announced was Sasuke, introduced as "His Imperial Highness, Sasuke of the Uchiha clan, Second Prince of the Realm, and blood of Ōtsutsuki Indra." For his horse, Sasuke had chosen from the imperial stable a black stallion, its coat so dark that the light of the sun itself did not seem to escape its surface. He brought his horse round a few times so that the crowd could get a good view of it.

Meanwhile in the Imperial Booth, Fugaku and his family kept their eyes fixed on Sasuke. Fugaku watched Sasuke to make sure his son displayed himself with the bearings of an imperial prince. Mikoto watched with worry for her son, she had known many a strong man that had been killed after being thrown from their horses. Itachi however watched Sasuke because he simply wished to see how his brother fared in the event.

Yashiro was not among them, he had excused himself to run a quick patrol with the guards. In the back of his mind he suspected that the 'sand rats' were plotting something against the Uchiha. It had been he who had insisted that the Uchiha guards should be added to the teams of Suna guards assigned to protect the stadium, and it wasn't because he doubted the efficiency of the Suna nin. Well, okay he did doubt their efficiency, but his true concern was their target, not their skill. The Uchiha guards were there for the benefit of the imperial family, not for this filthy hole of a village.

Rasa and Temari were still with the Uchiha in the imperial box as their guests. Kankurō was not with them, he was abstaining from the races and instead preparing for the Melee Event to come tomorrow, nursing his own pride over having to take a fall in the jutsu event. Rasa was still playing the host.

"A magnificent animal, your son rides." He complimented as he gazed down at the arena grounds.

Fugaku nodded but did not turn to meet Rasa's gaze. "One of the finest thoroughbreds from the imperial stables. Anything less would be beneath a member of the Uchiha family."

Rasa nodded. "Of course, if anything it signifies the impeccable lineage of the Imperial family. But, I have found that a mixing of lineages can often time strengthen the bloodlines." As he said that last part, his eyes darted from Temari to Itachi, a glimmer of hope shining briefly, the meaning of his statement not lost on the younger generation.

Meanwhile, below in the arena floor, Naruto was once more dressed in Gaara's armor and riding a chestnut brown palfrey. With the hot sun high in the sky, Naruto was baking inside the armor. Most the others were wearing something lighter or freer to allow air to flow, but Naruto could not, otherwise his identity might be discovered. So for now he would bear the heat, and he had gulped down large amounts of water to keep himself hydrated before coming out.

His moved his palfrey in at the starting point with the other riders, there were three other competitors between himself and Uchiha Sasuke. On sight, Naruto felt a disliking for him. He had an arrogant and superior look on his face, like he had already won a race that had not even begun. Well the disguised blonde was not about to give the prince the satisfaction of victory.

The announcer called for the riders to ready themselves.

Each of the competitors steadied their steads and gripped their reins, each of them waiting as the announcer slowly brought his arm, holding it high for a moment before as if in slow motion, it was brought down.

At that exact moment, the horses sprang forth, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake as the crowd cheered.