The Championship

Iuchi Najiru sat upon the wooden floor inside a local shrine. He simply set himself alone, away from the monks who tended the garden. The shugenja simply couldn't recall his past; his ageless face looks troubled. Whenever he tried, his visions were filed with streaks of colors: blue, brown, gray and white. The kami didn't help either. He felt his minds were murky like troubled water.

"You looks troubled, friend. Can I help you?" The Unicorn looked up and saw a middle-aged man in front of him. He had some white streaks and wore an orange-red kimono. Najiru noted the Phoenix smiled genuinely. His eyes were quick enough to note the unique mon at the kimono. He said,

"It is an honor to have someone from Isawa family as a company," The man chuckled,

"It depends from what you think, my friend." Najiru grinned,

"If you want to confuse me, I'm afraid you must be a Dragon," The Phoenix's smile grew wider,

"Am I? You will be confused if I am really one of them. May I introduce myself?" He bowed,

"I am Isawa Sachi, and you are…" The Unicorn rose and returned the bow,

"My name is Iuchi Najiru, Sachi-sama." The Master of Earth took a seat beside him. The Iuchi asked,

"Are you not watching the ongoing tournament, Sachi-sama?" Sachi replied,

"I have. Now the participants were taking a break for the next events. I just wonder why you don't watch your clansmen." Najiru lowered his head,

"I wish so, but…I can't set my mind straight. It seems I'm out of place here," The Isawa raised his brow, yet he asked calmly,

"You feel this place isn't your home, is that so?"

"Yes, Sachi-sama. I hope I am not offending you…" The master shook his head,

"Don't be so formal, Najiru-san. It is not strange for a Unicorn like you to feel estranged in this place. I have experienced that before becoming the Elemental Master. Truthfully, a ronin might have no honor and place at all, but at least he's free from any bondage." The Unicorn shugenja replied absently,

"As long as I don't remember my past, there will be no place for me…" Sachi looks silently, and then he continued,

"You don't have to go after the past; they will be the one who after you…my friend." He picked a pebble, "Everyone in the ningen-do has their places, even you and me. Who knows? You might be someone else in your place, probably more powerful than I." Najiru couldn't help to chuckle, but he tried to hold it,

"You're flattering me, Sachi-sama. Is it not the contrary? I am nothing compared with the Elemental Master like you," The Master of Earth laughed,

"Perhaps, but the way of the fate is strange. Only the kami knows…nobody can escape from it" Then he saw two Unicorn youths coming to their direction. He rose and turned to other direction,

"I think your friends have coming now. Najiru-san, I really enjoy this conversation. I want to invite you to drink tea at the House of the Laughing Carp tomorrow at the same time, if you have a time." Najiru replied,

"It is an honor, Sachi-sama. I will make myself available. Arigatou for your advices…" Isawa Sachi nodded gently and went to his own way when Jiku and Xuren came closer. The Shinjo immediately asked,

"Najiru-sama, what do you talking with the Phoenix?" The shugenja said,

"Just casual conversation…" He couldn't help to notice the mud-smeared clothes and bruises on both youth. The Shinjo smiled sheepishly, while the Moto smug only.

"Well? What is the progress?" The dark-skinned youth answered tersely,

"Not so good! I was defeated in sumai by that arrogant Kakita…Jiku-san is doing well, I think,"

Jiku added, "It just a stroke of luck. I wish I can say the same to heraldry and etiquette." Najiru merely smiled; the Unicorn sometimes isn't good in the etiquette. He asked again,

"How about horsemanship? Don't say you've got these bruises from there?" Then both youth smiled regarding this matter,

"Najiru-sama, we'd scored highly in that contest! If we couldn't do that, it is better for us to go home!" Xuren said,

"These bruises…we've got from the athletics. Somehow, we experienced a freak accident there," The Iuchi frowned to hear that; his face showed mixture of curiosity and concern.

"Accident? What happened?" Jiku explained,

"When we passed the first obstacle, someone pushed Kamahime out of bridge to the mud pit. Somehow the pit was filled with venomous snake. She screamed panicky. Though this may delay us, Xuren, the Akodo and I decided to pull her out from the pit."

"Then? I don't think the Crane would be so careless…" The Moto grumbled,

"She is fine, save some bruises. The judge decided that we can continue though we've got 2 points cut. They said they will check this matter. The only consolation is I manage to reach the third place…the Doji already won…" The Shinjo tried to cheer his companion,

"Don't worry, Xuren-san! We still have another day!" Najiru admired the youth's spirit silently, yet he was concerned with the incident. He hoped it would be the last one.

Even in the night, Tsuma still magnificent. The people still crowded the streets and alleys. Shinjo Jiku just returned from the mochi-pounding contest that the farmers set. Together with Xuren, he joined the contest and won the highest score. In their generosity, they gave him the sweet rice cakes. He might perform terribly this afternoon, but at least he won this contest. On the way back, Hiruma Do and Usagi Kamahime asked them to join the eating and drinking binge where the Crabs had attended. Xuren joined them along with Hanori, since Jiku had no interest to join. He volunteered to join Hazu in his attempt to impress Gojinka by finding eight gifts. Until midnight came, they managed to gather seven; one of them was given by the Yoritomo bushi. Luckily, they came to Medinaat-al-Salaam and bought the last one. At that time, the Tamori already asleep. Even so, the ronin was grateful with his help and promised to repay whenever there is a chance.

When Jiku almost close to his place, he startled to see Hanori falling before the door. The Shinjo quickly lifted him up and put the drunken Agasha inside. Relieved, he came out and greeted by Shiba Takako.

"That's very kind of you, Unicorn…" Jiku didn't trust the people who wearing mask naturally, especially at night. He responded,

"I just hoped to get some help for carrying your clansman…" The girl answered,

"Do you know Hanori's father-in-law coming in this way? He will surely furious to see his in-law drunk. Rumors said that he had one of his daughters' suitors killed when he did not meet his lofty expectations." The Unicorn watched her carefully; though Takako came from Shiba family, she still a Scorpion. The Shiba glanced playfully,

"Take easy, I had flattered him by saying that he was very tired. It is better to visit him the next day…" Jiku was unconvinced,

"If that so, you can tell Hanori-san, not me. Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I want to ask you a favor, if you agree…" The Shinjo's gaze narrowed,

"Tell me! Don't play guessing game!" While producing a small vial, Takako explained,

"I want you to put this poison to Denbe's food. If you do that, I will date you…" Jiku was aghast to hear such proposal. It was unthinkable to poison his roommate. He grabbed Takako, but the girl was very calm and unruffled.

"You expect me to poison my roommate? You speak of dishonor here! What do you want to do such terrible things?" The Shiba told him,

"Denbe's parents had poisoned my father; so I want to take revenge on their son. Do you think it is fair?" Gritting his teeth in anger, the Unicorn asked,

"Why should I trust you? What benefits do I get from doing such dishonorable act?" Slowly but sure, the girl took off her mask briefly and revealed her face for the first time. It was a beautiful girl with sadness inside her eyes. Jiku stunned for a while; his grip on her slacked. Takako continued,

"Well, I have asked you and it seems you have made your answer clear, Shinjo." She put her mask again and said with sweet voice,

"See you, then. I will tell Hanori-san that he owes you…" The Shiba left him alone, and Jiku slumped on the floor. He wondered whether this was the test.

The second day of the Championship began with the most eagerly anticipated competition: the weapons contest. Everyone knew that all the weapons were blunted or wooden, however they liked that they could use the variety of arts that prevailed in their respective clans. It was a dangerous contest, but one that most competitors and spectators looked forward to the most.

The first to be called was Mirumoto Otakan, and the opponent is Hazu. Three matches passed without satisfying results. Kakita Soichi grew impatient, but the contest goes on. Shinjo Jiku knew that he must prepare. After thinking around the various weapons, he chose tachi. The Unicorn usually chose a scimitar, however Jiku also learned how to use the different Rokugani weapons. Tachi was suited for him. When he tucked the weapon, the name of his opponent was already announced…Doji Wakao.

He tried to suppress his nervousness, clearly not expecting the Crane to be his opponent. The magistrate had picked katana as his choice and practiced his kata at the center. From what he witness, Jiku understand that his opponent was clearly tough and skilled in kenjutsu. He glanced to the other contestants; Xuren simply show his usual smug, while Yuriko simply disinterested. He managed to see Hanori, who looks ashamed. The Agasha was defeated by Kamahime at the previous match. What unnerves him was the Shiba. The girl wore her stoic expression; he didn't know whether she expect him to lose or otherwise. The damned mask really made him unable to see what in her mind. Anyway, he had to concentrate fully to the fight. Jiku stared Wakao intensely. The Doji casually said,

"May the best won…" The Unicorn remarked,

"I hope it is me," The young magistrate continued,

"We'll see!" Then they took their stance and measured their enemies. The Crane had adopted a casual stance, while pointing his katana downward. In other hand, Jiku pulled his tachi to level at his eyes. Few seconds later, he charged forward to his opponent, sending a wide slash. Wakao feinted gracefully and parried his blow. Realizing that, the Shinjo pulled back into his stance. He hoped the opponent would chase him, but it won't. The Doji pulled his katana again, yet not attacking. Jiku wondered if this was the right time to probe the enemy further. His teacher's lessons echoed inside him. Finally, he decided to attack him. Shouting aloud, he charged again and sent three slashes: horizontal, vertical and vertical. He closed those strikes with a single thrust. To his surprise, the Doji magistrate weathered those assaults and began his charge. Unlike tachi, the katana offered him a wide range attack that almost reaches Jiku. The Unicorn felt that his attacks now get powerful. Even now, he was cornered.

Wakao couldn't help to admire the Shinjo's tenacity, but he must won! Had this is not the Topaz Championship; he would like to have some friends. Hoping to end the duel, the magistrate sent an overhead slash to the enemy.

In sheer desperation, Jiku finally lifted himself and braced for the defeat. He charged again and swung a powerful slash. When those weapons impacted each other, the katana was shattered into pieces. Instinctively, the Doji jerked out and let his weapon down to avoid further injuries. A wooden shard managed to slice his face. The Cranes around the arena shouted foul, before the contest turned into turmoil, the judge announced the Doji was the victor. Jiku was stunned with the accident; he dropped his tachi. His face was paled. The Kakita judge went closer to him with stern look. He tried to answer,

"I…I don't know what happened…" Xuren quickly came to his aid. The judge took the tachi and examined the weapon carefully. He announced his examination,

"The Unicorn is innocent; someone had tampered with our weapons!" The murmurs were heard around the contestants and the judges. The Moto quickly pulled him out from the circle. Meanwhile, Wakao was surrounded by his clansmen, including Shino. Amidst the chaos, both bushi managed to trade glance. From the Doji, Jiku realized that he didn't hold grudge to him. It was another freak accident. He knew that someday they had to continue this duel until there is a victor.

Juriken watched what happened with dissatisfaction. He actually hoped that the Doji or the Shinjo would be injured seriously. For mean time, this only served to confuse the Crane. This served him little. He wanted to see the Crane humiliated, and he would do anything to achieve that. The ronin growled,

"We have to go directly! We shall meet them in the forest!" He cursed again,

"The Unicorn have to wait another time to die!"

Author's Note: Well, I'm sorry if the previous chapter don't live your expectation, but I promise to correct the mistakes. Anyway, just wait the last chapter, "Show of Courage". See you soon!