‘Twenty-four names there were,’ the Orator’s voice echoed out around the domed chamber. ‘Twenty-four, who chose to test their mettle against the finest of us. They have danced the dance of steel, until only six remain. These six!’ He spread his arms theatrically to take in the six warriors sitting around the table before him, the flared sleeves of his silken robes adding weight to the gesture.
The crowd filling the balconies above, their small faces gazing down at the table of champions below, began chanting the names of their heroes.
‘For Akano, Oji,’ one man yelled. ‘Do it for Akano!’
That raised a smile from the beautiful albino at the table. She brushed a rogue strand of long white hair back behind her ear and favoured the crowd with a blown kiss. Fresh cheering erupted, doubling in Oji’s favour.
Across from her, Unaga leaned in close to Ajima. ‘Half the battle is winning the people,’ he whispered, ‘and she’s done it in less than a day.’
Ajima nodded. ‘The other half is winning my heart,’ he said mildly. ‘And she’s closer to that than you are.’
Unaga grunted and backed away. The albino caught Ajima’s eye and offered a wink. He almost fell from his chair at that, lost to those sparkling blue eyes… Somehow though he managed to yank his gaze from the woman of his dreams and focus on the Orator.
‘Six champions,’ he was saying, his voice demanding silence from the crowd, his golden robes flowing out behind him as he circled the table, his long black hair flowing with them. He stopped abruptly, a crooked hand flashing out to point at the bottles in the centre of the table, all different shapes and colours. ‘And six bottles.’
He let the words sink in, pausing to stroke his long trident beard. ‘We have tested the body,’ he said at last. ‘Now we test the mind.’
The Orator walked from one champion to the next, looking each man and woman in the eye. ‘Every bottle you see here was taken from a different corner of the land. They are the finest wines ever tasted. Yet in five of the six we have added a single ingredient from the same locale, which, although harmless by itself, can turn the wine into a deadly poison. The last bottle has been blessed with the Emperor’s Gift, which will cleanse any who drink of it of all poisons.’
‘Each of you will drink from a bottle of your choice. Should any of you make the same choice, you will drink from that bottle and any bottles that remain unchosen. Once a bottle has been confirmed for poison, it will be removed from the table. If more than one of you survives the first drink, you will take turns drinking from the bottles that remain. The last man – or woman – standing will be declared the new Emperor.’
Another cheer went up from the crowd, ragged and nervous, before they fell sharply silent as their attention fixed on the men and women sitting below them.
Ajima looked at each of his opponents in turn. To his left, Safumi, the eldest of them, rested her bow on the table. She studied the bottles with the same consideration she had shown her opponents the day before. Next to her was Asuma, the spearman, looking supremely confident.
Then it was Oji, who glanced at Ajima whenever he looked her way. Grab her pale hand and run, a voice whispered. Go live in peace! But that chance was gone, for there was no escape once the trials had begun.
Ajima shifted his gaze to Oji’s right, where Kuya sat. The bald-headed martial artist carried no weapons, but he had proved himself twice as deadly as any of them in the battles. Lastly there was Unaga, the axeman, broad of shoulder and long of hair. Worthy adversaries, all of them, though there was only one Ajima cared for. It was a shame she would have to die for him to live.
‘Ajima!’ The Curator’s voice broke through his thoughts. ‘Choose your poison.’
Ajima studied the bottles. Some were tall and thin, others short and stout, all crafted from different shades of glass. Fortunately, Ajima had spent his youth at the bottom of various bottles and he recognised them all. He could even recall the taste of each, picking out the different ingredients and imagining the additions that would turn the concoction deadly. Time and again though, his thoughts came back to just one bottle. The liquid inside was pale gold and filled with golden flecks.
‘I’ll take the Yamaga,’ he told the Curator. He could think of nothing that would turn it bad.
The Curator poured Asima a small glass and set it on the table. Then he turned to Safumi, who chose Samizo Fire. Asuma followed with the Yakomi Red, a fruity mix in a green bottle. Both mistakes, Asima was sure.
‘Oji?’ asked the Curator. ‘What drink would add colour to your hair?’
The albino locked her gaze on Asima and grinned. ‘Yamaga Gold,’ she said, and Asima couldn’t help but smile back. At least we’ll survive together for a little longer.
‘And for the Fists of Fire?’ the Curator asked Kuya.
‘Yamaga Gold,’ said Kuya, without emotion.
The Curator turned to Unaga. ‘And last but not least, what will the axeman drink?’
The big man glanced at Oji, Kuya, and Akima in turn. His eyes said he knew what he should do, but instead he followed his guts. They’d kept him alive this long. ‘The Banshoga.’
As promised, the two remaining drinks, the Hiro and the Taro, were lined up next to the Yamaga Gold chosen by Ajima, Oji and Kuya.
‘Before you drink,’ the Curator warned, ‘know that the Emperor’s Gift does not last for long. Those of you with three glasses had best drink quickly.’
And drink they did.
Ajima followed the Curator’s advice and swiftly downed his three, barely registering the delicate tastes of fruit or the headiness of the alcohol. He drank the Yamaga second, giving it the best chance to counteract the poison of the others. With his last swallow, he looked up at the others for any sign of pain or discomfort.
It didn’t take long for Safumi’s face to light up once the Samizo Fire took hold. For a brief moment she clenched her teeth and eyes against the pain, and then her head sagged back and she was gone.
Asuma followed, his head suddenly thudding onto the table.
Moments later, Unaga, the famed axeman, groaned softly and toppled from his chair.
Ajima, Oji and Kuya gazed at each other expectantly… but they were safe.
‘You chose wisely,’ said the Curator. ‘But which bottle contains the Emperor’s Gift? You will now take turns to drink from just one of the bottles you sampled. If more than one of you survives, we will bring out the blindfolds and play on until a victor is decided. Kuya shall begin.’
There was absolute silence in the hall as Kuya considered his response. ‘The Yamaga,’ he said at last.
Obviously, thought Ajima. This will go to the blindfolds and the gods truly will decide.
Yet seconds after drinking the Yamaga, Kuya started struggling for breath. He clawed at his throat, gasping for air, until he too toppled from his chair.
Impossible, thought Ajima! It had to be the Yamaga!
‘Oji,’ said the Curator.
Ajima found it bittersweet to think that this next drink might kill Oji but make him Emperor. The albino appeared as shocked as he was that the Yamaga was not the drink of choice. She gazed across the table looking for support, but Ajima had nothing to give. Either way, one of them was going to die.
‘The Taro,’ she said at last, resigned.
Once poured, Oji drank quickly. She waited… and as the seconds rolled by her confident smile slowly returned, her beauty growing with it. Then two tears of blood rolled down her cheeks, and she fell lifelessly to the table, scattering glasses and bottles to the floor. The crowd cried out in disappointment and Ajima felt his heart break a little. Oji may have been the people’s choice, but she was his as well.
‘Ajima?’ the Curator prodded.
‘The Hiro,’ said Ajima hoarsely.
It’s all wrong, he thought. An apple seed was all it would take to turn a bottle of Hiro to poison. How is it left standing?
The Curator poured the glass and passed it to Ajima. ‘Good luck,’ he muttered, though Ajima barely heard him…
…before drinking deeply. Almost at once his throat began to tighten as the airways closed up. Panicked, he pushed up from the table and staggered around the room frantically, trying to ask for help but finding no words.
It’s all wrong…
From behind the table, Kuya pushed himself to his feet and smiled. Unarmed, but deadly.
I was right, thought Ajima. It was the Yamaga all along…
And then he fell.
© Anthony Mitchell 2019
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20th August 2019
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