In the year 323.58 AD, I was born. I’m haunted by chaos, by anarchy's clutch. Those of the village, wise man and fool alike, insist that I am that which torments me, but I know in my heart that I’m its natural enemy. There is one person I know is truly connected to me. I have not seen them in ten years and may not recognize them when I see them, but in my heart, I’ll know I’ve found my father.
Every man who’s worth his salt will seek to become a lord. A lord in my time is a man with wealth, power and influence, but there’s few ways to attain such status. Politics and working your way up the legislative ladder were one way. Another was to become a successful businessman. However, the third yet fatal choice was to become a Warrior with clout. This was the path many men toiled down, leaving behind a tragic mess of fallen fighters. Ambition was the key to each path, but one would make you undisputedly lord of lords. I had to become a War Lord.
The problem was that there was no war. The last war was a War that shaped the generation I lived and suffered in. It was a War decided by two brothers dubbed The Twin Titans. I wished to become so strong that my fight would decide society for centuries to come like theirs did. See, the white Titan won the second deciding battle against the black Titan, saving the world from the malice and despair it was slated for. No, instead the malice and despair has grown at a much slower, almost comical, but inevitable pace. A time will come where a War Lord will have to rise and stamp out mankind’s destruction once again.
All I had was my father. But he left. I remembered being very afraid. I remembered fighting, shouts. I remembered running and running until my lungs ached. I remembered my father lifting me from my feet and then there was nothing. There was just blackness and I opened my eyes to an unfamiliar room. My father was gone, and I was now just another orphan for Endo-yo, the Village Caretaker, to feed.
I was with Sou. She was also an orphan, but she belonged to a clan and was the only one who didn’t avoid me, because all I did those days was weep. I missed my father, and I was miserable with the other children who either whispered about me and my white hair, teased me for being a crybaby, or attacked me for being weak…and that I was.
As time went on, it seemed ridiculous to cry any further. When my father returned, as I knew he would, he wouldn’t be proud to return to a son who did nothing but wet his pillow with tears of self-pity. No, I wanted my father to return to a Warrior who could pick up his sword and fight alongside him, for one thing I remembered about my father was that he was undoubtedly a Warrior.
Enough of that. The rest can be learned throughout my tale. At this moment my story picks up when I’m fourteen years old and I was deemed Number 40 in pre-Academa, the school to lordship that spans from the age five to age thirteen. Academa itself was for women in their fourth year of apprenticeship where they learned to be a proper lady for a year. As Number 40 with 1 being the top rank, I was never going to be a Warrior. I was graduated as a failure and put in the task of Assistant to the Village Caretaker. I was to help raise the orphans, and I had never felt more shame.
Sou was ranked Number 3. She was always powerful, and her grace became her. The Number 1 spot was held by Wong, Shogun Chin Taka's eldest son with his foreign bride from the Bloom lands, and the Number 2 spot was occupied by Lao, the younger. Wong was maybe fifteen years old while Lao, Sou and I were at the unbridled age of fourteen, brimming with youth. Except my youth was set to be wasted because of my malfeasance.
I so wanted to take part in the Shogun's Tournament that would take place in a week's time. It was a tournament with Academa's top ten students to do a final evaluation and create the nation's five Cardinal Apprentices of the Cardinal Lords that led all other Warrior of our land, daimyos. They were the strongest of the next generation. At Number 40, it was safe to say I wouldn’t last long in a tournament with such lettered contestants.
Now, I tended to the gardens as the children play around me, making a mess of things. I enjoyed their glee, realizing that most of those children would not be Warriors, either. That made me feel a bit less lonely.
Frond, the village in which I live is of the Land of Fall, named after it's everlasting season. Ten months of the year, we had leaves, yellow or green. In the two months that it became winter, leaves were replaced by snow. Frond laid surrounded by forestry as any other village of the land. It would be nonsensical to cut down any more tress than was necessary to institute a suitable space for village habitation. Frond was located near a cliff named Madoka's Point. It was supposedly where the great Warrior had his deciding battles with the ancient war monger, Kenzo the Wolf Giant. Under the point ran the strong river that allowed our land to thrive, for most of the land's villages bordered it.
Frond, like the others, was a wooden village, crafted over decades and centuries by the carpenters among us. Smiths and carpenters were the most important of our life, yet not the highest in class. The Warriors were. The lords were. Our land wasn't so technologically advanced as lands such as the Land of Cloud. Gradually, The Fall integrated Cloud technology out of its desire to progress and be formidable enough against its greatest antagonist, the Land of Pyre, which was only a direct neighbor on the peninsula both lands sat on. The other neighbor on the three-point peninsula was the Land of Bloom, a friendly nation, pacifists with an innate ability for explosives. The irony escaped no one.
I had personally never been to any other land besides the one I lived in, but it was said that the Land of Bloom was the most beautiful, indeed. No matter where one was to look, there would always be a meadow blanketed by flowers of all sorts. They say even the air of the land was a pleasantry that discouraged any malice an outsider could bring to them. If one was to stay too long in the Land of Bloom, he would become a citizen of the Land of Bloom.
The Land of Pyre was a cultural land, a land obsessed with tradition and upholding the ways of their ancestors. In many facets, The Fall was the same, yet our minds were a bit more open to the weapons of the future or even the tools of the future that would make life much more convenient. These things called automobiles, originating from the Cloud lands, powered by Cloud land crystals, were a much faster way of transportation than stagecoach, and especially, palanquin. The Land of Pyre maintained that the strongest Warrior understood that a set of feet should always touch the earth when mobile, that being human or horse. They were a land of grasslands, a land of unending sunset and unending contempt.
The Stone lands were savages. They pillaged and warred with each other, tearing themselves apart countless times. Other lands would fear their destructive Warriors would make the trek outwards to attack, but that would never happen if they couldn't manage to form one nation and one army. They were mongrels.
Not much was known about the Land of Sun besides the fact that its president was named Lewis Sinclair of Sol. Their names were almost impossible for my people to say coherently, so we simply called their president Bos. They were a nation of Isolationism and cared not for wordy affairs.
The Land of Cloud were filled with geniuses of technology, but their Warriors were nothing to sneeze at. That technology gave them weapons of grappling for mobility's purposes and combustion. They had things such as firearms that could blow a man's head off from yards away further than a bow could ever reach. Their Warriors were called Knights of Asunder, and they were noted to always adorn themselves in fur due to how cold the land of the mountains was. They were a prideful land, near haughty, but they had never provoked another land into battle without just cause. They were strong, yet mild-tempered when it mattered, yielding to combat, though every land knew they would have the fight of their lives against their technology. It just wasn't wise to be their enemies.
I knew these things, because I had always been interested in the way of the Warrior and what made them so unique. Each land had its own cultures and fighter, and that meant that I would have to think of many ways to defeat my enemies to climb to the top. Such wishful thinking for someone as weak as I was. Despicable.
I was getting ready to swing my hoe until I saw boots. The boots belonged to a body and with further, reluctant investigation, I found that the body was of an unconscious Warrior. He didn’t wear the emperor's colors of green and black, so his origin was obscure until he awoke.
Looking around, I saw that all the children in the yard behind the sizeable structure that was the orphanage were busy playing around and whatnot, so I let my curiosity get the best of me. I slowly approached and crouched by the Warrior and observed his face. He was tanned, surely because the long battles in the sun. He had bushy eyebrows and a shadow of a beard. He wore a gray headband to match the gray of his attire. The lightweight garb told me that he was on a covert operation and needed to move quickly.
Without another thought, I reached out for the man and picked him up. I was slight of build, shorter and honestly, weaker, than my peers, so it was quite the task to get his body on my back. I knew it would take some time to get him all the way to the orphanage and to my room, and I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it without being noticed. The kids were already staring with wonder.
I put a finger to my lips, letting them know that this was our little secret as I struggled to drag the heavy man along the acres of grass. He was like one big muscle, which made it even more puzzling as to how he came to be in that state.
To my surprise, the weight began to lessen a bit and I looked to see the kids joining along with me to carry him inside. I didn’t want to involve them, but I couldn’t help but smile at their nobility. None of them could have been over eight years old except for Sato. He was ten and he was the most help.
“What will Mrs. Endo say?” he asked. He was always a worrier, crying more times than not.
“Nothing,” I forced out, “She won’t know, for now.”
“He looks to be a rebel soldier.”
This was answered with a few gasps of excitement from the children, but I was just focused on getting the man in the estate before I collapsed.
Soon, we maneuvered him through the door and labored up the stairs until we were finally going the distance down the upstairs wooden hall and to my room. An upper level in homes were rare in this land, but the orphanage was one of the exceptions due to the size of its occupancy. Anyway, we plopped him down on my bed and just all looked at him, all panting from exhaustion.
“Where will you sleep?” Sato asked.
He seemed to worry about that, but I just smiled and playfully punched him on the arm. He smiled too and looked back to the soldier. The man’s long hair was splayed across his face, his breaths deep and relaxed. He would be resting for a while, I knew, so I turned to the children and began shooing them away.
“Come on, come on. We’ll check on him, later.” They groaned with disapproval but did as I asked, and we were all out of the room. I stole one last glance at the rebel soldier before sliding the door closed and going back to my tasks.
I walked through the village marketplace, an open hub in its center, with my basket in hand, shopping for the things Endo-yo tasked me with. The marketplace was bustling with villagers in a hurry to make celebratory preparations for the upcoming tournament. It was an exciting time for many. The visitors, some being famous and powerful former Cardinal Apprentices mingled through the village with other lords and their leagues of followers behind them. The village will be packed tight with politicians, businessmen, and Warriors anxious to see what the next generation holds and how they can exploit it. Lords at their core. I was supposed to be a part of the commotion. I was supposed to be competing with the top tier of my class and showing everybody that I’m not just some weak, pointy-eared freak. That’s what they think of me.
I picked up an apple to inspect, but it was taken from my hand and eaten. I turned with shock and irritation to see who it was that interfered with my task, but once I laid eyes on the tall, black-haired girl with the slightest of smiles as she chewed on my apple, I easily calmed and went back to the apples.
“Ho-luv,” she whined. It was her nickname for me growing up. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”
She leaned in closer to me, her face in my line of sight. She didn’t want to be ignored. I huffed and looked to her. Her clothes were different, now. She looked like a Warrior apprentice. She wore all black with the green insignia of our land on her chest. Her shirt was loose and stopped at her navel. She wore rugged black pants that stopped at her combat boots. Her attire made me sour, because I was supposed to be clad in the black and green of the Fall Warrior. Her hair stopped just under her jaw, framing her beautiful face. The strangest and most unique part of her, though, was those bright red irises of her eyes. She, too, was considered a freak, but no one teased the Number 3. “I have errands to run, Sou.”
“So, you’re too busy for me, now?” I felt that as a slight seeing as how her tasks’ importance would greatly outweigh mine. She sensed that and scratched her head with a reddened expression. “Sorry, Hogo. I didn’t mean it like that.”
I turned and began to walk on through the marketplace, maneuvering through the crowds of oblivious people. “I have to prepare for the incoming visitors. For the less wealthy, the orphanage usually gives them board in the empty rooms,” I explained.
She followed beside me, still eating the apple she never bothered to pay for. Fortunately, the villager at the apple stand was preoccupied with others. “Sounds like you’ll have a lot to deal with.” I turned and led us to where the meat carts were. There, butchers were always carving meats fresh. “Are you going to go to the tournament?” she asked quietly.
“Because you’re my husband,” she said with exuberance, bringing up a memory from when we were just small children. We had promised to marry when we were older, but it became more of a joke as time went on. Truthfully, it wasn’t as much a joke to me as it was to her. I was quite jealous when she began to develop a liking for the Number 1, Wong Taka. I still was jealous. “And I think it’ll be fun. The celebrations, the fireworks, when we have a set-in-stone Five, then everything is going to be moving so fast.”
“You’re excited about the possibility of becoming a Cardinal Lord’s apprentice,” I said as I watched a man make a show of his butchering.
“Well, yes, and I want you to be there.”
“I don’t think I’ll make that much of a difference.”
“We grew up together, Hogo.”
“And that’s all.”
“We won’t see each other for years if I pass.”
“You haven’t any obligation to me. I don’t need pity, either. Enjoy your tournament and live your life.” I put money on the butcher’s stand and told him which cuts I wanted. I didn’t want to look at Sou. I knew I was being intolerable, but I reasoned that it was best to cut ties befor-
“You want to be rid of me?” I swiftly looked at her, surprised that she knew my thoughts. I don’t know why I was surprised, it seemed she always knew my thoughts for as long as I could remember. When she tried hard enough, she could see through the veils and know my true intentions. She was the only one. “You’re my closest friend, Ho-luv. I wouldn’t pity you, but I don’t want you to disappear, either.”
I could tell her feelings were hurt. Her eyebrows were pushed together. Guilt nipped at me. “What would be the point, Sou?”
“You resent me? You resent my passing the exams and your not? It isn’t fair to hate me for that. I couldn’t help that.”
“I just feel our paths are dividing, and we should embrace that.”
“No, why would we have to do that!? Just because we have different occupations doesn’t mean we can’t be friends! People do it all the time! It’s life! The only reason the two of us wouldn’t be able to do it is because you hate me, now!”
I looked away, my hand gripping the bag of meat tightly. I knew I had said some awful things, hurtful, but I couldn’t stop myself. “I think you knew that before you found me, today,” I said, “And you just needed permission to leave me behind. Well, here it is!” I looked to her with eyes ablaze. “You have my permission! Go! Be a Cardinal Lord’s apprentice and let me tend to the children at the orphanage! Just go, and be great with your friends, Lao and Wong! Look down on everyone else!”
She slapped me, and I fell to the ground. Shocked, a little dazed, I looked up to her and held my cheek. Her stance told me she was ready to fight. Straight, solid, with no openings. “Come on, then!” she challenged, “Put your fists where your mouth is, and really say goodbye to me!”
A tear held at the corner of her eye, but she was more angry than anything. I turned my gaze to the ground beside me and let the shame build within me. Not to mention the embarrassment from being man-handled by a girl.
“You won’t, will you!? Because you can’t! You’re angry with yourself, and yet you attack everyone else for it! Even your friend! If you really want me to leave you alone, then fine! I hope you have a good life!” She turned and stomped away, leaving me there to pick my face and the meat up off the ground. A villager helped me, an older fellow.
“Hogo, you can’t let anger drive you into adulthood,” he said with a sigh.
Everyone around watched attentively. Yes, they all knew me. Of course, they knew the strange child with white hair and pointed ears. They had grown accustomed to having me around in the past nine or ten years, but it wasn't as if they were going to have me over for a meal. I was just another, less cared for, member of the village. So be it. They thought they knew me, but none of them did. How could they know the pain of being too weak to bring your father back?
I took my meat and headed back to the orphanage, despite all the staring eyes.
The rebel soldier still rested. Whatever he had succumbed to kept quite a hold on him. Was it battle?
I placed another seed into the ground where I had hoed earlier and covered it with dirt. It was how I would spend the rest of my afternoon, gardening. I turned when I heard someone step out onto the back veranda of the orphanage and stand, staring at me. He was tall, taller than me, but I knew he was the same age. His hair was shorter but fashioned upwards, looking just as fierce as he himself. He wore a black jacket with a red cape over his left shoulder. The green insignia was on his chest, and he wore black pants and combat boots. He was of the Warrior class, fighting in the tournament to become a Cardinal Lord’s apprentice. I knew him as Lao Taka, the Shogun’s younger son. His eyes were red like Sou's.
Why was he here?
He sat on the veranda and just watched me. I ignored him and kept planting seeds, and that’s how it was for what felt like an hour but was just around five minutes. “It’s a hot day,” he said, “Heat tends to make one irritable.”
I turned from my crouching position and looked at him with question. He smiled a bit, but it was in no way reassuring. “What do you want?”
“Is that any way to speak to your superior?” I kept quiet, annoyed at best. “Well, to answer your question, I came to get an understanding of what happened between you and Sou Kobayashi-yo earlier this afternoon. There’s talk in the village, of course, but I just couldn’t understand why she was so disturbed.” ‘Yo’ was a way of distinguishing someone’s station without being overly formal which could seem like subservience, or overly familiar which could seem disrespectful. Such was an honorific to use amongst respected peers.
“Why do you care?”
“Wong, me, and Kobayashi-yo. We are the strongest from our land’s youth, and we’re going to show everyone that. For her to be distracted by some weakling like you is unspeakable. I’ve told her many times that she’d best excommunicate you and focus on her training, but she insists you two make each other stronger. I’m inclined to believe it, now, after seeing her today. However, you still have yet to prove that theory.” Suddenly, my face was jerked down into the dirt with a force that scrambled my thoughts. His hand was firm on my head, holding it down. I tried to struggle free, but it was no use. “You didn’t even realize you were speaking to an after image. I didn’t use a lot of power, so the illusion was surely fading quickly. You still couldn’t even see that much.”
He lowered his face so that I could really hear him. “You’re weak trash, Number 40, and it disgusts me that there were ten others weaker than you. Trash like you have no right treating their superiors poorly. And Kobayashi-yo is your superior. Don’t get that crossed.”
He let go of me and fixed his clothing as he spoke on. “There are five Cardinal Lords. I want Takeshi Ito, of course. He’s a dark lord who commands a great deal in the Flame lands. Wong wants Fon of these lands. He never wants to leave our village, Frond. Kobayashi, I imagine, would want Mira of the Stone lands. She pioneered powerful women. That leaves two other lords for three other lands to choose from. They’re not going to like those odds and are going to come at us with immeasurable force. As you can hopefully understand, Kobayashi-yo’s head needs to be in the game.”
Sixty students participate in the tournament. The first round narrows it down to thirty. The second narrows it down to fifteen. Then, the third narrows it down to the final ten. The five students who win the last and fourth round are the apprentices to Cardinal Lord’s.
He turned and began to walk away. “I expect you to apologize to her by the end of the day. If you ruin our opportunity to be the greatest land among the six, I swear I will make your life a living hell."
He was gone, and I was picking myself up off the ground. I gathered my tools and walked them to the shed. I was finished for the day. Twice I had been thrown to the ground to grovel. Twice I could not answer the challenge.
I walked over to a box I kept in the corner and lifted the lid to ensure all my things were still there. Yes, they were. Looking inside the box, I could see all the many, small explosives I had constructed and the gloves I fitted to house some. I was quick on my feet, that much I knew, but this was my answer to their strength. To all the lords looking down on me because I can’t throw as hard a punch. This was my answer: hundreds of explosives and gloves. They’ll see.
I went into the village center after that, walking to a desk inside the grand room of the capitol building and looked at the registration papers. I started to write my name on a paper and submit it, but the woman behind the desk winced. I looked at her questioningly. She didn’t want to speak her mind, but eventually, she did. “Are you sure, Hogo? You can really get hurt. It isn’t something to take lightly, you know. It’s a serious battle to shape the future of the world. The Warrior that rise from that tournament become the Cardinal Lords and the Cardinal Lords uphold order in our world, acting directly under the emperor.”
“I know that.” I wrote my name on the paper and my rank of 40. I would be ranked last in the tournament, donning the new rank of 60. Submitting it, I huffed at the woman and went back in the direction of the orphanage. The day was waning away, and it was time to rest.
To my surprise, the soldier was awake when I returned to my room to sleep. He was looking out of the window as he lied against the wall my bed was pushed up to. I froze, but soon, I realized that his presence was a secret from Endo-yo, at least until the other strangers came for the tournament. I closed the door and pulled a pallet out of my closet and laid it out on the floor.
“You went to sign up for it,” his deep voice spoke. It surprised me a bit, giving me a start, but I soon relaxed and sat on my pallet.
“How did you know that?”
“After Lao made you eat dirt, you left with quite the intensity.”
“You saw that?” He nodded. “You know who Lao is?”
“Of course. I’m a native of this land. By now, you’ve surmised that I’m with the revolutionary army.”
“Are you dangerous?”
“Depends on who’s asking.”
He smiled. “No. I’m dangerous to the people that force others’ faces into the dirt.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Nobu.”
I shot to my feet with shock and stared at him wide-eyed. “The Brave?”
He nodded. “That’s what they call me,” he said.
“You went missing years ago after The Battle of Rising Bucks.”
“I didn’t go missing. I returned to Moon. I trained under him, and I have become stronger than I could’ve imagined.”
“Then, how did you end up like this?”
“Like what? Exhausted? I’ve been travelling for weeks to get here and observe the tournament. I have to report the results to Moon. At least, what I think about all of it. I swear there’s nothing he can’t see himself, but he relishes the insights of others.”
“The revolutionary leader?”
“Yes. Can I trust you with my safekeeping?” I nodded. “Good,” he smiled, “Now, tell me this: Would you be Hogo Mori?”
I frowned. “How did you know that?”
“A hunch. The hair, the eyes, the ears.”
“What’s wrong with my eyes?”
“They’re blue. Really blue.”
“You’ve seen the black hair, red-eyed people?”
“Yes, of course.”
“It’s all about the combination. White hair with blue eyes. Black hair with red eyes.”
“How do you know this?”
“When you’re ready, the revolution will gladly accept you. Grow stronger first. The tournament is your first step.”
“You’re not going to tell me to back out of it?”
“Of course not. Once you’ve decided something, don’t go back on it. Stay true and give it all you've got.”
That night he took me outside and began me in training intensified by the fact that the tournament was to take place in a week's time.
Crowds and crowds. One could barely breathe in the grand stadium. Every seat had been filled and in the high box sat Shogun Chin Taka (the vile) and the other members of note, including the Cardinal Lords. I looked out from the dugout room where all the candidates prepared themselves mentally and physically and watched the thousands of people carry on as if this was some sort of entertainment. People could get hurt out there. Looking at the huge arena, my heart began to beat faster and faster and doubt crept up on me.
I shook the negativity out of my mind and decided to trust in the hard work Nobu put into me. We gave it our all in the week leading up the day of the tournament, and that was what was most important.
I gave it my all.
“You must be joking!” I didn’t pay the statement any mind to relevance until the owner of the voice came stomping up to me. Lao grabbed my shoulder and looked at my forehead. I wore the tournament’s headband and it angered him greatly.
“Can I help you, Lao?”
“Not only did you not apologize to Kobayashi-yo, but you decide to make a fool of yourself in front of all these people? I could care less if you die out there, but Kobayashi-yo will!”
“What is this?” We watched Sou as she walked up to us. She looked at me but frowned and decided to forget about her inquiry, because she just up and walked away.
“Do you see!? Kobayashi-yo’s not all here!”
“That’s her problem,” someone said from the benches as he tightened up his boot. He had black hair combed back and his red eyes looked to us with a smugness. “Every man for themselves, now.”
“This isn’t your business.”
“But it is mine,” another interjected. We all looked to someone standing a few feet away who had been doing the same as I, staring out at the arena. I was a bit surprised to see long white hair neatly combed and strong blue eyes looking over to us. I was shocked to see his pointed ears, as well, knowing he was the same as me. He had a thin, golden circlet around his head meaning only one thing.
“Prince Bui,” Lao said quietly.
The prince approached us, headband in his grip, and used his other hand to take Lao’s hand from my shoulder. “He’s here because he has the right to be,” Prince Bui insisted.
Lao snatched his hand away from Prince Bui, did a small bow and walked away. He was visibly angry. The black haired one stood and walked to Bui and I with a smile. “What was all that about?” he asked me.
I just shook my head.
“What is your rank?” the prince inquired.
With a bit of shame, I answered, “40.”
The two of them both gasped.
“Come on, man, you don’t want to get hurt,” the black haired said, “If we have to fight each other, I won’t hold back.”
“Are you sure this is what you want to do,” Prince Bui asked seriously.
I nodded. “I’ll show you when the time comes. I’m not as weak as they say.”
The black haired chuckled and stuck his hand out to me. “Naito. 15. Land of Pyre.”
I shook it. “Hogo. 14. Land of Fall.”
We looked to the prince. He smiled, pleased that we would want a formal introduction. He reached out and shook each of our hands. “Bui. 14. Land of Fall.”
“Good,” a man said as he walked by us. He was tall and wore the robes of a Warrior. If that wasn’t enough, he had two swords on his side. His hair showed that he’s gone weeks without a proper trimming, and his face also had stubble about it. In his right hand was a bottle and his left rested on the blades. He didn’t turn to us as he walked on, but he kept talking. “Fighting and being the best isn’t what's important, today. Look around. These are the boys and girls that will be the men and women in the inevitable war coming our way. Make your bonds, your acquaintances and remember everybody’s tricks. The world’s future depends on it.”
We watched him leave, sensing a greatness about him. “Cardinal Lord Fon Lee,” Bui said, “They say he may be the strongest of them, but he won’t test his abilities against the others.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us,” a loud voice spoke into technology donated from The Land of Cloud. It projected his voice electronically through a large brass microphone, and he was viewable through a monitor raised high on one side that took three years to build with crystal technology found in the Cloud land's mountain.
Every single person in the stadium quieted to pay attention. “We are beginning the 5th Shogun’s Tournament held every five years. There are 60 contestants to start. These are the land’s finest potential, ten from each, and this year…15 of them will be chosen to apprentice with the Cardinal Lord’s.”
There was collective gasp among the crowds and the contestants. 15!? My chances of passing were increased by three times, but I still wasn’t out of the water. “That means after the first round, there will be only one remaining round between the thirty contestants. This will be a round of one-on-one duels. The first round, however, will remain an every-man-for-himself hunt for the red ribbon. There are thirty ribbons, of course, and the contestants are free to use whatever means necessary to obtain the ribbons. Once, a ribbon is obtained, it has to be brought back here and placed in the center of the stage with me. The winners will take their seat here, as well.”
I took a dry gulp as I looked around at my competition. Everyone was either taller or more intimidating than I was. Even the girls. Speaking of girls, there was one girl in particular that noticed my glance and smiled at me. Her hair was long and black. Her eyes were red, and she wore the pink insignia of the Bloom lands. Truthfully, what I really couldn’t help but notice was that she was well-shaped. Either way, she waved, causing me to blush and look away.
“Once the 15 winners are decided, the Cardinal Lords have their choice of 3. Are the contestants ready?” That was our queue to ascend the arena and head for center stage. I looked at the 60 of us and just had a feeling that history was being written with our actions. Bui patted my back and Naito grinned. The Bloom girl had somehow gotten closer. Lao frowned at me and Sou seemed to be intensely focused on the tournament. A taller guy with longer hair smiled with excitement. I knew him to be Wong. “Throughout the village of Frond,” the referee went on, “The ribbons have been scattered. At the sound of the horn, begin.”
We waited all of two seconds before the horn blew and everyone blazed out of the stadium in a fury. Everyone except for me. No, I just watched and looked around. I saw teams of men covering the event for the gazette all throughout the arena and the village, capturing everything with pictures and video, broadcasting the tournament onto the monitor. Somewhere, someone was controlling what camera the monitor projected and he did a good job because it all seemed very exciting.
A camera was fixed on me.
The crowds watched me with curiosity before it all turned into laughter and they all began screaming insults at me, calling me squeamish and a coward. The referee only smiled at me before lifting the microphone to his lips.
“What’s the matter, young…” He reached and put the microphone to my lips.
“Hogo Mori,” I said, looking around as everyone quieted. “Future Cardinal Lord of this land.”
The arena erupted in cheer, applause, jeers, and even insults of negativity, but I didn’t care. I stood straight, waching the referee wave to calm everyone. “Why aren’t you out there looking for the ribbons, Mori-yo, future Cardinal Lord of this land?”
The microphone came back to me. “Because there’s one under your foot.”
The crowds gasped as he lifted his foot and displayed it to the camera men. I sat and folded my legs as I watched the monitor. I had already passed Round 1, and I wanted to see who would join me. An announcement went through the village that the first ribbon was found. It reported every time one was. I sensed eyes on me, but I ignored the attention and just watched.
One after the other, ribbons were being found. However, it wasn’t as simple as finding the ribbons. After locating them, it was imperative that one was to get it back to the stadium. Why keep searching when you can take a ribbon from someone who’s already found one? Battles sprang up left and right, eliminating the weak or unfortunate by any brutal means possible. Soon, Prince Bui joined me. He was shocked before I told him the story. Then, he was just disappointed with himself for not noticing the ribbon under the referee’s foot.
Naito came strolling in casually as if we all didn’t just watch him destroy four contestants for the ribbon in his hand. He grinned at us as he took his seat. Sou came, froze when she saw me, surely wondering how someone as weak as me could’ve been in the first 3 to make it past the first round. Lao and Wong were after her, having had teamed up to find and take two ribbons. They sat opposite us, seeming to want to oppose the three of us. I looked to Bui and Naito, wondering if we looked like a team. I hoped I wouldn’t have to fight either of them in Round 2. A few others came until we were only looking for ten more ribbons. The day was darkening but no one was tired or bored since meals were being served and fights were still being viciously waged.
The Bloom girl came with a ribbon and placed it at the referee’s feet. We learned her name was Shina and she was 14. She sat next to me and we all just waited for the next nine.
On the monitor we watched a blonde gentleman with a very long headband, not the tournament's headband since that was tied around his wrist, showboat and guffawing in front of his foes. He had a ribbon in his hand and soon he was among us, laughing to himself. He told us his name was Tadashi Konami and that he was 14. He also said he’d grow up to be the strongest Warrior of all. He said he’s going to make us bow before him in war. He was from the Pyre lands. Strangely, I found him familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
A contestant by the name of Hiro- get this- Mori, 15, a native of my land came and quietly sat among us. He nodded to me as I stared, wondering if we shared a last name out of coincidence or relation. I wasn't brave enough to ask, for ironically, his appearance made me wary. He was white-haired, and his irises were white. I saw that when he didn't have them closed. The light must've been a burden to them, so he had learned to see with his ears. He wasn’t like Bui and me.
However, a girl that was like us, her hair pulled tight into two braids came and sat among us. She was chewing on something and seemed to be a very nonchalant individual. I saw the insignia of the Clouds lands on her chest. Her name was Mist Belvedere, and she was 15.
Next came the only representative from the Land of Stone, a long-haired boy named Jon Yamada, 14. He seemed pleasant in demeanor, nothing rushed.
A girl by the name of Suto Miki, 14, from the Flame lands, strolled in eyeing all of us, surely trying to determine if we were truly better.
A girl from the Cloud lands named Hana Longbow, 16. She wore a circlet similar to Bui’s on her head, so it was safe to say she was a princess for that land. She looked at Tadashi, though, and his smile seemed to fade. There was something deeper between the two, I could tell.
Ito Ikki was a 15-year-old that made me uneasy. He was from the Pyre lands and he remained to himself. His aura was that of malice. His gaze was Reckoning.
There was a 13-year-old girl from the Cloud lands named Bella Smithdotter that was without a doubt the most beautiful girl I had ever seen even at her tender age. I wasn’t the only one to think so, either. All the young men stared at her but refrained from saying anything considering her age. Maybe I was the only one to notice her black hair and red eyes, or the fact that she was stronger than most of us there, if not in strength, then in will.
The last was a girl named Oye Sumi whose body was surely more precocious than her mind. She was pretty, as well, but she seemed to be of a more…volatile sort. We learned that she was 15.
“Will the contestants rise?” We all did as the referee asked. “These are the 30 contestants to pass Round 1 of the Shogun’s Tournament. You’ve all performed well, and the better man or woman won. As the sun has begun to set, we find ourselves at a very pleasing conclusion to our first day of this weekend event. We adjourn today and welcome you all back, tomorrow.”
It was a long dispersal, but we were finally out into the village, the winners invigorated.
“That was pure fortune,” Lao spat at me, “Sheer luck.”
He stood in front of Bui, Naito and I with his rather relaxed brother and Sou. She seemed apologetic to be approaching me as a perceived enemy.
“I think he might be the most suited for Cardinal Lordship if he was the only one with a level enough head to notice the ribbon under the referee’s foot,” Bui defended.
“With all due respect, Bui-bos” Lao said, “That’s hogwash! If you knew him like we do, you’d know how weak he was! Do you even know his rank!? Has he gotten around to telling you that much!?”
“40,” Naito grinned, “At least, it’s not 50.”
“Well, in the tournament, I’m 60,” I grumbled.
Wong chuckled. ‘Bos’ was the honorific for a lord who led Warriors, nations, clans. This was a powerful honorific only rivaled by ‘Bana’. However, ‘Bos’ was only to be used when speaking with a leader.
“Good work, today,” Tadashi said as he approached me. He patted my back. “It’s idiotic I didn’t see it under his foot.”
A crowd surrounded us, Shina, Hana, Jon, Mist, Bella and Sumi. Tadashi noticed, too, and turned to them.
“Let’s all go eat in celebration!”
“Yeah! Where?” Jon agreed.
“I haven’t much money,” Shina said.
“There has to be free food for the winners,” Tadashi argued.
“No, there isn’t.” We turned to see Fon walking to us with his money bag out. He pulled out a few silver coins and gave them to me.
“Take that and treat everyone to dinner. It should be enough. If it’s not, charge it to the prince here,” he said with a smile.
I was frozen with shock. How could he be so kind!? Looking at him, I knew I wanted to win this tournament. I knew I wanted to impress only this man so as to become his apprentice. I feel he could sense that, for he laughed and ruffled my hair before walking away and rejoining his entourage.
All of us, including Lao, Wong, and Sou went to a barbecue restaurant, and we were seated at a big enough table for the 13 of us. Shockingly, Sou made sure she was next to me and on the other side was Bui. In front of me was Naito as he wrapped himself in a battle against Tadashi for Bella’s attention. Wong was on an end, talking to Jon while Lao sat on the other side of Sou. He was in conversation with Sumi and Shina across the table. Hana was fairly quiet, watching Tadashi make a fool of himself and so was Mist as she listened intently to Bui speak on whatever he spoke about. Everyone seemed to be getting along well and I felt glad in my heart to be a part of such a moment. Then, sadness began to spoil the feeling when I thought of how we may be enemies in the future…as Warrior.
“What are you going to eat?” Sou asked innocently.
I looked at her and unexplainably felt embarrassed. “Beef, I think. No, pork. I think I want it all.”
“I understand.” She giggled, looked around absently then turned back to me. “You did well, today. It was a surprise.”
I nodded. I didn’t much want to speak about rankings or the tournament. It was a sore topic with the two of us. “I hope you win, tomorrow,” I said. “And I hope Lao loses.”
Lao heard this and began to speak, but Sou laughed and spoke on. “What if a Cardinal Lord chooses the both of us and we’re on the same team?”
“That would be favorable,” I smiled, but I involuntarily turned and looked at Wong. I knew it was his team she truly wanted to be on.
“He’s set on Fon,” she said to me.
“Fon is great,” I said as I nodded.
“You seemed taken with him.”
“I respect him.”
She smiled, but a waitress came to take our orders of meat. Within the sizeable table was a grill that we’d grill our own meat on. She went away to retrieve the meats and we all went back to conversation amongst one another, all the while sipping on the broth the house prepared for us with chilled vegetables.
“Hogo,” Mist called from around Bui, “You’re only a rank 60?”
My face went hot, and I knew it was as red as the Pyre's insignia. I nodded sheepishly being answered with a smile.
“Interesting,” she said.
“60!?” Tadashi demanded, “How’d you get in!?”
“Good fortune,” Lao insisted.
“I don’t think so,” Shina refuted.
“Me neither,” Naito smiled.
It was actually because the Land of Fall fell short of the required ten applicants until I submitted my application. Maybe it was a stroke of fortune.
“Don’t hold back, tomorrow, Hogo,” Mist said with this easy-going smile that made my embarrassment fade.
“I’m going to give it my all. That’s my bushido.”
Thank you, Nobu.
Each of them paused as it sank in. Bushido was the unique creed of Warrior. Every man or woman that carried a blade had to have their own reasons to fight, to do what he has to in life. For me, if I don’t give it my all, then it’s all futile. How could I hope for success when I only put half of myself into the effort? When I heard what the challenge of Round 1 would be, I immediately began to search for a ribbon. That’s how I noticed the red peaking from under the referee’s foot. No matter what, I would give it my all. I saw that this impressed on them a warmness, causing them to smile at me.
The meats came and we all began to grill and eat. Yes, we ate, drank, talked, laughed, and told stories. Most of us hadn’t met each other before that day, but that day gave birth to relationships that would last a lifetime. Yes, that included the man I fought with for the meat cooking on the grill, Lao.
“What if we both win and we’re with different lords?” Sou asked quietly under the merrymaking.
I looked to her. “That’s a possibility.”
“Then, for the next few years, you’ll have your wish. You’ll be rid of me.”
I supposed it was that time. We danced around the elephant in the room for long enough. I scratched my head, but decided to relax a bit, smiling before gently bumping her ribs with my elbow. “I don’t want to be rid of you, Sou. You’re my closest friend. I only want the best for you. I think you’ll prosper without me around. You can even get closer to Wong, hopefully.”
She went chili pepper red and looked around to make sure no one heard me. “What are you saying!?”
I smiled. “It’s clear as day. I think you should focus on growing with him and even Lao. They’re stronger and they’ll lead you to success. You shouldn’t worry with me, because my path is going to be a bit rockier and it’ll only be my responsibility to improve. I don’t want you worrying about me.”
She smiled and ate some food in thought. I knew she wanted to say something, so I ate and waited. “What is it that you truly want, Ho-luv? What’s your true goal?”
“You know that.”
“I know you want to find your father, but what’s after that? You want to become a Warrior, and what’s more, a Cardinal Lord’s apprentice. Say your successful. What’s next?”
I looked down to my drink for a while and then drank it all before answering.
“My father once said that there’s never a night where a war doesn’t exist. There hasn’t been a great war for many years, now, but there’s always a civil war happening somewhere. I suppose I just want to create an endless night where there is no war. Just peace. Just enough quiet to hear the crickets’ chirps and your friends’ laughter. My father said he was beginning to lose hope for humanity, but I don’t want to. I want to sacrifice my body for the generation after us. To do that, I need to restore my household and become the greatest lord there is.”
She only stared for a moment before a smile grew on her face and tears welled in her eyes. She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. “That’s my husband. I’m going to miss you, dearly,” she said with affection.
Stunned, I tried to reply, but was interrupted. “Oi, oi,” Tadashi exclaimed, “Hogo’s pulling ahead of us!”
There were jokes and laughter to follow, and that went on for some time before we all went our separate ways.
I laid on my pallet in the dark of my room. Nobu wasn’t asleep, I knew, but for the most part, we were silent. I was dying to speak with him, yet I just couldn’t bring myself to spit it out.
“That was something else, today,” he said, “It made me proud. And to see you’ve made some friends. I can leave a happy man, now.”
“After the tournament, of course,” he said. “It’s my mission, after all, but I want to see how well I’ve trained you. I want to see how far you’ll go.”
“Do you think I can do it?”
He sighed. “I just hope you don’t get paired with any of your friends.”
“We understand that we’ll have to give it our all.”
“I didn’t say it because of that. I don’t want you pinned against your friends because your friends are the strongest in the bunch. If you get matched with any of them, you’ll have the fight of your life.”
“Yes, you’re right.”
“But I know you’re going to turn some heads, tomorrow. You’re going to get some respect.”
When we were informed of our matchups, and it was displayed on the monitor, my stomach dropped. I felt a sweat develop on my forehead that trickled down until it dripped from my chin and to the ground. The only consolation I had was that I didn’t have to fight any of my friends. Actually, none of those who dined with me last night was pinned against each other. Of course…that was except for Lao and I.
Bui’s hand came to my shoulder as he looked at the monitor. A loud laugh told me that Lao was pleased with the results, but I kept quiet. I just had to remind myself to remember my training. I looked down to my gloves and checked the friction of the left middle and thumb fingers. When I saw a spark create from snapping, I was satisfied.
“You’ll do great,” Shina smiled a reassuring smile.
I smiled back, yet I still felt my stomach churning. I thought I’d have to go to the latrine.
The fights carried on throughout the day without hiccup. Coincidentally, mine was the last one, so I had all day to sit and battle my stomach’s demand to turn tail and run. However, besides my personal pride, I knew the proctors set up the fights by interest. I suppose the lords wanted to see Lao and I fight the most.
Bui won his fight. Naito won his fight. Sou won her fight. Wong won his fight. Tadashi won his fight. Hana won her fight. Shina won her fight. Sumi won her fight. Jon won his fight. Hiro won his fight. Ikki won his fight. Miki won her fight. Bella won her fight. Mist won her fight. Each of them were far more capable than their opponents, and the proctors most likely wanted to ensure they move on to study under Cardinal lords. Now, it was all on Lao and I to finish off this tournament. The sun was setting and anticipation was unusually high for a match that looks easily won. Of course, they compared the two duelers before the match started, and everyone was so surprised to see that a rank 60 had made it to the second round. Everyone seemed to think that there must have been a flaw somewhere along the line, either with the ranking or with the tournament. It was just ludicrous for the Number 2 in the Fall lands to be pitted against the Number 60. Lao was the instant favorite.
“This is the match the Lords wanted to see,” the referee whispered to us, “They created this matchup, so give them a show, yeah?” I frowned with irritation. Their desires and whims meddled with the matches and now I had to fight a caliber fighter that was leagues above me. Still, I knew that, coming into this tournament, everyone would be stronger than me. In fact, I was always operating under the assumption that I would fight Lao. I suppose when it was finally so, I wasn’t sure I was ready. It was too late for doubt, though. I had to give it my all, no matter what. “As always, no fatal moves. Choose whether you wish to use a wooden sword or not. Or you may use whatever means you're capable of so long as it isn't fatal. Ready yourselves,” the referee said through the microphone.
Lao picked up a sword, looked at me, then decided he didn’t need a weapon. I didn’t, either. Nobu wasn't Warrior.
“Hogo, what are you doing!?” demanded Sou, “Pick up the sword!”
“Get the sword!” the crowds told me. They all whined, not wanting to see a horror show. They wanted to see a nice, satisfying fight to conclude the day and tournament. So, I ignored them.
I knew I was staring at an after image of Lao, so I jumped to the side swiftly to evade his punch. Instinctively, I threw two jabs at the side of his face that made him stumble sideward a bit. He was appalled and the audience was quiet.
Lao grew angry and charged me, again. I ran for him and when he was close enough, I jumped and flipped over him. I ran and evaded his attacks for a good ten more minutes until all my preparations were finished and the crowd was booing me. They thought I was cowering away.
Panting, Lao spat at me. “Are you ready to fight, yet, you toad!?”
I waved him on, and he took a step to run at me, but his step set off one of my small explosives, and he went backwards and to the ground. There was a gasp among everyone, but I was waiting to see how much damage it would cause to Lao.
He rolled to his feet and stood, a bit wobbly with his balance. He ran for me and I flipped backward over the next charge that he set off, and again, he was flying backward.
The audience sat at the tips of their chairs as Lao got to his feet again and fought to remain cognitive. He knew there would be no bombs where he had previously stepped and blown up so he ran down that line to get to me. I evaded, and he froze. He was unsure of the ground he stood on. He was afraid of where the charges might be, and that’s how I wanted him.
I dove in, and when I was close, I entered into a melee with him that surprised even me. Punch after punch, kick after kick, we were trading blows that none of us thought we would. Pound for pound, I returned his punches and he returned mine. Multiple times, we sent each other to the ground, but it came to the point where he was warming up and overwhelming me, besting me with hands and feet. I was on my knees with an arm in his grasp when he began punching my face viciously.
“Hogo!” Sou called.
I elbowed the side of his knee and kicked myself to my feet to head-butt him under the chin. He stumbled backward, and I kicked him in the chest to further things along, the crowd responding with cheer. He stepped on a charge and he was blown forward this time. I timed it and tried to match his incoming force with a punch, but he saw it coming and ducked his head enough to force a roll to the ground and spring up feet first into my chest. Air bound, he came at me with a cocked fist that planted itself in my jaw, sending me to the ground some ways away. I tried to pick myself up from the floor, but his foot came down like a mallet and slammed my head into the ground.
I had blacked out for what seemed a brief moment, yet I heard counting. When the referee counted seven, I panicked and forced myself to stand. He checked me to make sure I was in well enough condition to continue the battle, which I was. The crowd was ablaze with spectating. I looked at Sou to see the prevalent anxiety. Her eyes begged me to concede lest I be hurt beyond repair, but she would never say it. She would never allow herself to encourage a path in which I lose. No, worse. A path where I accept defeat. I looked at the other contestants to see them all biting their nails.
Angry with myself for giving him the knockout, I evaded his attacks until I was able to get him blown away, again. I had to even the scales, because with that knockout, if this battle went to decision, he would have a greater chance of receiving the deciding vote. I needed to fight my chances.
He was getting frustrated. “How many of those things did you plant!?”
I smiled. “In this dark, the explosions look rather mesmerizing, don't they?”
Such was true. The sun had gone down and torches were lit throughout the stadium, light shining on us.
“Hogo, just hang in there!” Naito admonished.
I’m sure it was apparent how tired I was. Evading was fine if you could do it well, sure, but at the end of the day, it takes a lot of effort to jump out of harm’s way. He was catching on to how to get the upper hand, and I was paying the price with my stamina. The truth was that he had already blown up the last charge, but I was hoping his not knowing that would still make him cautious about his steps, a little distraction to increase my odds.
Looking at Lao, I could see he was exhausted, too, and bleeding from his head. The loss of blood helped in slowing him down and his visions weren’t coming out, anymore. I believed he was reaching his limit.
“No matter what, you’re just going to annoy me,” he said through breaths.
“I don’t want to lose.”
“Accept it. This only ends one way.”
He threw his guard up and awaited me as I ran to him. I jumped and led with my feet in a kick that he didn’t bother evading, but blocked, instead. We were both past evasions. He swung a punch that hit me in my ribs and a kick that hit my liver. I went to a knee and tried to block the punch to my face, but it was too heavy and sent me away. I struggled to get to my feet, but he was already over me, punching me over and over again.
“You won’t bleed!” he exclaimed.
Ever since I was young, I could not be harmed. Well, of course I could, but regarding cuts and bruises, they faded away in seconds. I still looked to be in top shape, but still felt the pain of each blow, and exhaustion weighed heavy on me. In fact, the more tired I got, the slower my healing was. And the more I had to heal, the more my power was drained. A vicious cycle.
I bucked my pelvis and threw him off of me. Standing, I squared up my fist and awaited him to do the same.
“Who trained you?” he asked. “You were never supposed to last this long.”
I waved him on, and he spat before restacking all his anger and charging me, again. With a snap, I created a spark that ignited the fireworks in my bulky glove. Cocking my arm back, I prepared to punch him as hard as I could. He did the same, not noticing the small sparks of the firework wire burning.
Right when I was swinging my fist, the fireworks exploded and sent my fist forward with a speed and ferocity that I was never used to. A gust of orange and red combustion came from the glove as my fist connected with Lao’s face before he could connect to mine, and he was blown several yards away from me, almost off of the ring. There was a silence among the audience, all of them trying to ascertain what just happened. Then, as I looked around, just as surprised as everyone else, there was a shout and then a cheering.
Amazed with their support, I looked to the dazed Lao. To capitalize on my feat, I ran to him with everything I had and prepared to punch him senseless, but I found that my right shoulder was dislocated from the force of the fire work’s explosion, and right when I was reaching for him, he jumped up and punched me with even more force than was in my combustion-enhanced attack. I went flying in the opposite direction, off of the ring, and into the stadium wall. Sliding to the ground, I looked at Lao, frozen in place with deranged eyes. When he realized that he had won, he fell to his hands and knees.
I bowed my head and rested, feeling a blackness rise over my consciousness like a veil.
“Hey, stay awake, Hogo!” Naito yelled as he slapped my face, “You could be concussed! You have to stay awake!”
I forced my eyes open to see my friends surrounding me. In the middle was a medic, making sure the blow wasn’t fatal. I put a hand to my head and winced with shame, groaning, “I lost.”
“You did great, Hogo,” Bui assured, but it was of no consolation, because he too was moved with despair and allowed himself to shed tears. Seeing this, Sou began to weep and walked away from sight. I had felt no lower.
I bowed my head, again, and ignored all life as I pushed myself into slumber.
I opened my eyes to find myself in my bed in the orphanage. I was a bit disoriented on what had happened to me, but after remaining in bed with my thoughts for that hour, I had recollected the important parts. I lost and was injured. What a disgrace I was.
“Even if you aren’t a Cardinal Lord’s apprentice, you’ve proven that you can be Warrior. You can be Warrior, Hogo.” I started when the person spoke, but on recognizing Sou’s voice, I calmed. She was standing in my doorway, a place she had stood so many times before, looking onto me with concern. I couldn’t look at her, though. My shame was too heavy. “You were amazing,” she said weakly.
With that, Bui and Naito rushed in with wide smiles on their faces. I forced myself to sit up to greet them as they sat on my bed. Funny, one wouldn’t think Bui was a prince from his behavior, but I suspected he wanted to live normally, anyway.
“That fight was awe-inspiring!” Bui exclaimed.
“How’d you set all that up without anyone noticing!?” Naito asked with just as much excitement.
Shina walked through the door and smiled when our eyes met. I took that time to look around and marvel at the number of flowers that had been sent to me, all wishing me a speedy recovery. At that moment, Tadashi came in and threw a newspaper at me. I caught it with a bit of difficulty considering that I was still a bit shaken and only my left arm functioned properly, then I opened it up and held it out in front of me. There were reports about the aftermath. Lords made their choices and the rankings for the six lands’ candidates were posted, as well.
My eyes went wide as I looked to the smiling faces of my friends. Hana, Jon, Bella, and Mist had entered, and were smiling back at me with anticipation. All except Hana. She had yet to show an expression more lenient than a scowl.
“Is this legitimate?” I asked.
“Sure is,” Naito answered.
As I read the page. The front-page article had a picture of me smiling broadly, obviously delirious which told me that it was taken the night of the fight. The article went on about underdogs and the excitement of the tournament and had quotes from a few people of my village about how good of a kid I always was. The caption of the article is what sent chills down my spine.
From 60 to 5.
Apparently, I was now ranked Number 5 amongst my peers, and according to the article, I was only going to get better under the leadership of…Fon Lee the Cardinal Lord!?
“But I lost!” I exclaimed.
“Lord Fon wouldn’t accept anyone else,” Bui explained “He said he wanted you, Naito and I and no one else. The other lords obliged after a long time of deliberation, and now, there’s a team of four out there. It will most likely be ours.” I couldn’t help the smile that stretched across my face as my head lowered and tears welled up in my eyes. Bui’s hand stretched out to take ahold of my shoulder. “You deserve it…brother.”
Just then, someone stepped in, wrapped with bandages and a frown of confliction. His eyes panned everyone in the room, then he took a step past Sou. With a scoff, he spoke. “I suppose, you do deserve the 5 spot. If you were physically stronger, that combined with your strategic prowess would have decided the fight.” I could tell it was hard for him to admit it, but all the same, I appreciated it. “The next time we meet, I’ll defeat you without hiccup,” he promised, “So prepare yourself.”
He turned and began to walk away, but suddenly he stopped then turned. With determination, he bowed respectfully to me. Then, he was gone.
I picked up my bags and threw them across my back. Looking out of my bedroom window, out to the garden I had cultivated daily, I realized that it would be the last time I saw it all. I felt a sadness in me, but it was overwhelmed by a feeling of happiness about my achievement.
I turned and walked out of the room and ultimately out of the orphanage. To see me off were all the kids corralled by Endo-yo. She smiled her stern smile, and I could tell she was legitimately sad to see me go. I smiled and bowed to them.
“I am truly surprised, Mori-yo,” she said, “But I’m also very proud.”
“I'm coming behind you,” Sato promised.
I held up my thumb and smiled. “Give it all you've got!”
He smiled and I was off to meet my team. I couldn’t deny my excitement.
As I walked through the village, many waved to me or bowed. Gifts were given me as they thanked me for devoting my future to them. I felt a burning throughout my face, knowing I was blushing my way to the city gates where Lord Fon Lee waited with Prince Bui, Naito, and Mist. Yes, we were the five-member team and it irritated cocha that we had a girl on our team. He seemed to think that having a girl would complicate things greatly. She didn’t care either way as she stood with her bags on her back, chewing on wheat, watching me approach.
“You’re bringing all that?” Naito asked as he eyed all the gifts I hefted.
“They’re from the villagers. I can’t just leave them.”
“Just throw it in the cart, and we’ll be on our way,” Cocha ordered. I did as he asked.
With one final look at each other, getting used to the idea of being a team for the next five years until our lord has to train up others (that's if one of us doesn’t take his spot), we began toward the gates.
“Ho-luv!” We all turned to see Sou running for me. To my surprise, she grabbed ahold of me in a hug I thought would break my spine. “You weren’t even going to say goodbye?” she asked softly.
“I thought you’d left,” I strained to say.
She shook her head. “I’ll be thinking of you. For all five years, I’ll think of you.”
I smiled and squeezed my arms around her. “Let’s meet here this day in five years and have barbecue,” I said.
She pulled away and playfully punched my shoulder. “I’d like that. And don’t you go cheating on your wife.”
“Of course not.”
We only looked to each other for a moment, dazing until Cardinal Lord Mira approached with Wong and Lao. She gave Cocha a small bow and stare before looming to me. “Interesting fight. I'll be waiting to see what Fon makes of you.”
I bowed deeply. “Thank you, my lady!”
Her presence struck reverence in me. She had long black hair with brown eyes that matched her robes, her land's color. I felt her power emit from her and knew I would have to work hard to compete with Lao, Sou, and Wong in five years.
“We fight again before that barbecue,” Lao challenged.
I nodded as he took my confirmation and left to his duty in the Land of Stone.
“I have such a popular student,” Cocha mused as he turned to walk through the gates.
“Goodbye, Soko,” I said, startling Sou with my old nickname for her. Her fae grew red and I knew she wanted to say something, but I waved at her one last time before turning and following my team into my new life.
Just then, Ikki came by, bumping me with his shoulder. Stunned, I looked to the pale beast. He was slender under his black fur cloak and he threatened me with blood red eyes. His hair was as black as midnight, wild and shaved on the sides. He had no eyebrows and he had thick blackness around his eyes. So, that was the new Number 1?
He walked and his two teammates followed. Sumi, a petite beauty that showed obvious disdain for me and Bella who looked at me with disinterest before following on. Soon, their cocha walked past. He was Cardinal Lord Takeshi, daunting in body and spirit. His ears were drastically pointed and his teeth were sharp, as well. His black hair seemed to continue on with his black robes and those seemed to carry on with his black aura.
He looked at Lord Fon for a moment that showed his contempt, then he scoffed and disappeared until next time. I had a bad feeling about them.