A Distinguished Personage
In the hot and humid season, merely standing in formation while a party of dignitaries made speeches could be torture. Emily managed to peek over at Oleschenko and Durant, both of whom had begun to sweat through their fatigues. A bit further along the line, she caught a glimpse of Ishikawa in similar straits, but Tsukino and Kano managed to put a brave face on the whole situation, even as the beads formed on their faces. She felt one hanging from her own nose.
“Man, this is interminable,” she muttered. “Why can’t a breeze find us on this infernal base? Is that too much to ask?”
Durant couldn’t suppress a snort at her words, and Oleschenko glowered at the two of them. “Shut it, you two,” he hissed.
Eventually, the proceedings on the shaded podium drew to a close, and several well-dressed people made their way across the front of the formation, accompanied by Colonel Kamakura, commander of the first Airborne Brigade, and Admiral Crichton, Commander of Fleet Activities at the naval base in Sasebo, and the officer in charge of the US contingent of the operation. The command to stand “at ease” made its way around and Emily’s platoon assumed a slightly more comfortable posture, feet apart and hands behind their backs.
“The tall one is Mr. Saito,” Oleschenko whispered. “He’s the Deputy Minister of Defense.”
“Who are the other two?” Durant asked.
“I imagine we’ll find out in a moment,” Emily said. She could just make out what they said to Kano’s unit. Praise for their service in the recent evacuations after the typhoon up north, and encouragement for the tournament to be held later that day.
“Thank you, Heiji-san,” Kano said to the smaller of two women flanking Mr. Saito, before making a deep bow.
“Your family must be proud of you achievements, Tsukino-san,” said the other woman, and he bowed deeply in return. “Your predecessors at the Atsuta-jingu will be honored to receive you into their order, once your tour in the Jietai is complete.”
“You are too generous, Soga-san,” he replied.
“They’re so polite,” Durant whispered, and Oleschenko shushed him.
Mr. Saito said something in a few, clipped Japanese phrases to Capt Oleschenko, and he immediately glanced at Emily, who supplied a translation.
“Thank you, sir,” Oleschenko replied, with a little bow. “We are honored to have the opportunity to serve side by side with the Ground Self Defense Force.”
“We have heard a great deal about you, too, Tenno-san,” one of the women said.
“This is Heiji Gyoshin, my Industry Liaison,” Mr. Saito said. “And allow me to introduce Soga Jin,” he continued, gesturing to the taller woman. “She is the Vice President of the Takenouchi Corporation.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Heiji-san,” Emily said. “And I am honored to meet you as well, Soga-san.”
“Your reputation as a martial artist precedes you,” Soga Jin said. “Will you participate in the tournament?”
“Fighting is a man’s game,” Emily said. “We have several very capable fighters, including Durant-san.” She pointed to Durant with a flourish that left him tongue-tied, and he bowed nervously.
“What was that all about?” he asked, once the dignitaries had retreated to the artificial shade of the stands, and the troops had been dismissed, and various units had begun to disperse across the parade ground.
“You mean the big muckety-mucks coming to our little shindig?” Oleschenko asked.
“Yeah, sure,” Durant said. “But, really, why were they making such a big deal out of Tsukino over there? I thought I heard one of them say something about him serving at a shrine, like he’s some sort of priest?”
“You’ve picked up a bit of Japanese,” Emily said. “Impressive, Sarge.”
“Did I get that right, then?”
“The Atsuta-jingu is a shrine, outside of Nagoya, and the priests in charge of it come from a few families. That’s the way it tends to be at the major Shinto shrines. I guess he’s a member of one of those families.”
“He doesn’t strike me as the priestly type,” Oleschenko said.
“And did I hear you say you won’t compete today, Sensei?” Durant said, before catching himself. “I mean, LT.”
“Of course, she’s not competing,” Oleschenko said. “Why the hell would she?”
“Whatever you say, sir,” Durant said, with a glance at Emily, who said nothing.
“What would be the point anyway?” Oleschenko continued. “It’s not like she can win, and she could get hurt, which wouldn’t be good for unit cohesion. The men trust her to fly the choppers, and I don’t want to mess that up.”
“Yes, sir,” Tenno said. “Never seek a fight, that’s a lesson I learned the hard way.”
Oleschenko eyed her, no doubt puzzling over what she’d said, which she knew wasn’t exactly consonant with the sentiments he’d just expressed.
“Look, Tenno, I know the sergeant thinks you’re tough, but you don’t belong in this donnybrook.”
“Absolutely, sir. But I hope you realize this won’t be like your usual Marine mud-brawl. That’s not how the Jietai thinks about morale. It’s more likely to be some sort of single-elimination, one-on-one tournament.”
“Are you saying you want to fight?”
“No, sir. I prefer watching from the sidelines.”
“All due respect, sir,” Durant began, and then paused to consider his words. “It’s just, Tenno’s no ordinary lady-Marine.” Emily glowered at him and gave a slight shake of the head, but he’d gone too far down this line of thought to stop now. “I mean, if you’d seen her at Quantico…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Oleschenko cut him off. “I know all about Quantico, and the way I heard it, she was lucky not to get killed. You had no business competing with the men,” he said directly to Emily. “Other people could have been hurt. Whose brilliant idea was that, anyway?”
“Don’t worry, sir. I’ve learned my lesson.”
She glanced at Durant as she said this, hoping he’d let the matter drop, even if it meant swallowing the captain’s preposterous notion that she’d endangered Marines by competing. Someone had been hurt at that tournament all right, namely Jiao Long, the assassin who’d snuck a knife into the ring and tried to stab her through the eye with it. She’d stripped his life away with his own weapon, the whole scene soaked in a spray of blood from a severed artery in his neck, as a hundred stunned Marines watched from the side. She’d learned the hard way not to seek a fight, at least partly because you can’t control how others will interpret the results.
In the event, Emily turned out to be correct about the tournament, much to the consternation of the Marines, who would have preferred to fight en masse, rather than be exposed to the hazards and potential embarrassments of single combat. That was how they thought about camaraderie and unit cohesion… not to mention that, given the fact that they were generally larger than their Japanese counterparts, they’d probably have fared better in a brawl, if only by dint of sheer mass and muscle. But the isolated and formalized structure of a tournament served Kano’s men better, and though a few of the Americans did well enough, like Lance Corporal Calvin Thompson, who won several matches in a row, mostly they lost to smaller and more skillful opponents.
In each case, the winner of a match held the ring, and the next challenger chose the weapons, if any. After Cpl Thompson lost to First Private Uchida in a grappling match, finally forced to tap out of a chokehold, Durant got his chance, winning four matches in a row, twice in karate-style fighting, twice with a bo staff. When Ishikawa entered the ring, Emily heard the tail-end of Tsukino’s instructions.
“He’ll drop his guard if you make him block after a kick-combination.”
He was right, of course—she’d seen the truth of it before, and even tried to break Durant of the habit—but the fact that Tsukino had seen it, too, impressed her. He had the strong hands of someone with considerable training in martial arts, and he had sharp eyes as well. The intensity with which he observed the matches also struck her, and seemed almost to suggest something intemperate in his character, a bitterness he might not be able fully to control. Or perhaps she had merely let the fact that he so obviously disapproved of her color her perceptions.
In the end, Ishikawa lost—Durant was simply too quick and strong for him, even though he dropped his guard a couple of times—and the two singing partners shook hands in the ring.
In what looked to be the last match, Tsukino challenged Durant and said, “empty hands.” Oleschenko had already lost his match earlier in the tournament, and Emily figured Kano would probably not fight at all, thinking the morale of his men would be no better served by a victory than a defeat. He would prefer to remain above the fray in their eyes.
“I think you’re right,” Lt Otani said, when Emily offered this interpretation. “Besides, Moon is the battalion karate champion.”
Emily nodded her approval, for Kiku’s benefit, when Tsukino took the first two points on speed moves. As much larger and stronger as Durant was, he just couldn’t keep up with the younger man. In one final point, Tsukino blocked a desperate, lunging punch and scored the winning point with a reverse-punch combination to the center of Durant’s chest that left him gasping for breath. Then, as Durant stumbled back, in what all the Marines standing around the ring took to be a gratuitous move, Tsukino pivoted into a spinning reverse-crescent kick that caught him on the nose. With his face bloodied, Durant fell to the ground in a daze, and Oleschenko and Ishikawa rushed in to help him to his feet.
“You have to challenge him LT,” Durant said, once he’d regained his wits.
Emily shook her head… and glanced over to see Tsukino staring at her, as if he were daring her to do anything about it.
“What would it accomplish?” she asked.
“She’s right, Sarge,” Oleschenko said. “There’s no point. Besides, if you couldn’t handle him, what’s she supposed to do?”
“He broke my nose,” Durant roared. “And he did it on purpose.”
“But it’s not gonna do anything for unit cohesion if I go in there,” she said. “You know this.”
By now, the uproar among the Marines had largely subsided, but when Tsukino bowed in their direction it came back to life, though now more as perplexity and embarrassment than as the expression of outrage.
“I don’t know, Tenno,” Oleschenko said. “We may have to do something. Just look at the men. They’re not gonna be able to fight alongside these guys, with the memory of him taunting us like this.”
“They’ll get over it, sir,” she said. “Just give ’em time. And don’t look at me like that, Sarge. That nose was never your best feature anyway.”
Oleschenko rubbed his chin and cocked his head to one side, looking at his men, then at Durant’s nose, and then at Tsukino still standing in the ring glowering at them. “I almost can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but do you really think you can take him?”
“Do it for the men, LT, if not for my nose,” Durant said, with a bloody towel pressed against his face. Oleschenko nodded his assent, with an expression on his face that she knew was little short of a command.
Lt Otani rushed over as soon as she saw Emily remove her boots and strip off her uniform shirt.
“No, Tenno-san,” she cried out. “You mustn’t. It’s not permitted, and you’ll get hurt.”
“I’m sorry, Kiku-san,” she whispered. “It is what they wish.” She nodded to Durant and Oleschenko as she said this.
“You’ll need these,” Oleschenko said, and held out grappling gloves, a mouth guard and headgear. Emily pulled the gloves on, tossed the rest to the side, and stepped into the ring.
“Look at their champion,” Tsukino crowed. “This shows who they really are.”
Kano yelled at him to stop, and ran over to Oleschenko, but with Emily in the ring, there was no one to translate for him. Sgt Ishikawa offered his services, such as they were, and translated into the English he’d learned from watching a few too many American movies.
“Kano-san wonders if you haven’t lost your mind.”
“Tell him that your man has made it necessary.”
“And if she is hurt?” Ishikawa translated. “Sgt Tsukino is not a kind man.”
“We’ll take that chance,” Durant said.
Kano grumbled and looked across the ring at his own men, whose consternation at the prospect of this match was easy to see.
“This is unwise,” he said.
“Cooperation will be impossible as long as this hangs over my men.”
“Sgt. Tsukino has not acted dishonorably.”
“Maybe not,” Oleschenko said. “But he has acted foolishly.”
“If you can’t control your man, Lt Tenno can do it for you,” Durant said, and Kano scowled at him.
“Don’t worry, Kano-san,” Emily said, in Japanese, from inside the ring. “I won’t hurt him.”
A few more minutes of growling and chin-rubbing brought no better solution to the quandary the commanders found themselves in, and Kano relented and let the match go forward. But first, he stepped into the ring and said, “You have created this situation. Do not make it any worse.”
“Yes, sir,” Tsukino grunted. “Shame her without physical injury.”
Kano shook his head, and said, “Just behave honorably.”
“I cannot be judged by the Americans, since they have no idea what honor is.”
“Focus on what I think honor is.”
Tsukino grunted at these words and bowed his head.
With her eyes closed, and her hands at her sides, Emily let the air move in and out of her lungs, listening to the sound of her own breathing, and her thoughts slipped into focus. She heard the beating of her heart, at first made rapid by the exhilaration of the scene—in the ring again, surrounded by friends, and maybe a few enemies—then slower, as another side of the reflections in her heart presented itself. It almost felt like she could hear the breathing of all the people around the ring, a cacophony of winds, driven by all sorts of passions: fear, confusion, embarrassment, but also the hope of triumph, of vaunting glory, and anger in expectation of its reward.
Her heart followed her breathing wherever it led, through the crowd standing nearby, and the more distant observers who’d found some better shade on a riser. Tsukino’s heart was there, too, on full display: focused and resolute, and driven by a seething resentment she recognized to be only partly directed at her. Her mind soared past him, rising up through the heavy haze that pressed so much humid air down onto the crowd, always seeking something even more still, more serene, in the clear blue above the clouds. Finally, her thoughts crested the upper atmosphere, and her heart gazed into the black, where the deepest silence held sway. Silence, she craved it, any sort of respite from the turbulence of so many distracted souls, and she had not found it for some months now. Perhaps she would find it once again in the familiar place, in the ring.
When she opened her eyes, she saw Tsukino standing opposite her, his hands and feet in a standard fighting position. She felt his frustration—he so wanted to hit her, to smack her face, anything that would leave a mark, but something held him back, perhaps the puzzle posed by the prospect of fighting her as if she were an equal.
“I see you can’t decide if there is any glory to be won by defeating a woman. I can assure you it is somewhat less than what you will gain by losing to one.”
“This is not the time for words,” he said, and Emily raised her guard.
He didn’t know how to start, she saw this much right away, so she settled on a very traditional karate technique, a front-kick to the knee that was only meant to induce him to block low, so she could flick the same foot up to the side of his head in a roundhouse kick. But she’d already seen enough to know he was much too quick for the second kick to find its mark, and he might even trap her leg, even though this was against the usual rules of karate-sparring, and strike her knee so as to disable her.
She gazed at him over her gloves, peering into his hard, dark eyes, and kicked low. He leaned in to block and readied his counter. But she didn’t flick her foot up into the trap he had prepared, instead lunging forward and jamming her fist into his face. His head snapped back, but the strike did not break his nose—Durant would be disappointed—though she knew it stung like hell, and blood oozed out along his upper lip.
Tsukino stumbled back and glared at her through watery eyes, then glanced around the ring to see the reaction of the crowd. Of course, the Marines roared their approval, and the Jietai murmured on their side, uncertain how to respond to the sight of their champion struck by a woman.
“Fine,” he snarled, and tore off his headgear. “Let’s do this your way.”
When he attacked this time, no longer able to wait for her to make the first move, he meant to hit her hard. But Emily’s fighting stance was perplexing, since she didn’t hold her fists up in the usual guard position. Instead, with open hands, she extended one up high, as if in greeting, and the other low, as if to receive a gift. Her block, such as it was, barely grazed his fist, just enough to push it aside, and the next strike as well; and when she didn’t retreat after several more, increasingly frantic strikes, the blocks became sticky, as if he couldn’t extricate his hands from hers.
She never grabbed on, since that would make her vulnerable, but neither did she let him pull back, always threatening the counter-strike his retreat would create an opening for. When his puzzlement reached a maximum, she saw in his eyes what he meant to do, and as he lunged at her, she ducked under his outstretched arms and threw him over her shoulder. An elementary jiu-jitsu technique, one even the youngest students learn in their first year—she knew the shame of falling for it would sting more than the impact with the ground.
He tried to spring to his feet, but before he could fully right himself, she’d scissored her legs around his neck and twisted him face-down into the dirt, folding the wrist trapped between her legs into an exceedingly awkward position.
“I’d rather not break a limb, Tsukino-san,” she hissed into his ear. “There is no honor in losing like that.”
He groaned and roared at her, though in a higher pitch than one might have expected to hear. She increased the pressure on the back of his hand, until he tapped out.
Another point, another chance to hurt her—she glanced over to see Lt Otani cover her eyes, Durant and Ishikawa standing on either side, but oblivious to her distress. When she saw the expression on Lt Kano’s face, a few feet away, Emily regretted having stepped into the ring at all. What else could she accomplish there? Reconciliation with Tsukino now seemed impossible. The only other option, she knew, was to demonstrate the utter futility of his position. She studied him over her gloves, peered into his eyes again, and readied herself for the desperation of a beaten man.
He would probably remember little of it, but the crowd might—the Jietai and the Marines—and maybe leave her in peace. “That’s wishful thinking,” she muttered. He attacked first, for how could he not, since patience was all on her side; a fierce kick-combination, much too slow to catch up to her, since she’d anticipated it and stepped inside his leg before he could even extend the fist he’d meant for her face. The first strike merely caught his bicep just below the armpit, while a slap across the face dazed him as she struck the opposite bicep. He winced and tried to step back, to get out of range, but she’d already struck him several more times in the chest and face, none full force, but so many that he began to lose his bearings. Blocking was no longer possible, since she was still too close, and her strikes anticipated his responses, flowing from the back-and-forth movement of her hips and shoulders even as they thwarted the geometry of his body.
In a last, desperate attempt to create some distance, he tried to raise his foot, to kick her away, but she jammed a knee into his thigh and struck him once again, this time full-force, a reverse-punch to the soft spot in the center of the chest, just below the sternum. She let him stagger backwards, as he gasped for breath, then crossed one leg behind the other and stomped her heel into the same spot on his chest in a ferocious side-kick that practically lifted him off the ground.
“No,” he said, when she offered to help him up, and pushed himself on to unsteady legs to face her.
She stared at him as he stood opposite, and waited to see if he would bow. To do otherwise would seem absurd, given how she’d dominated him, the bow in such circumstances suggesting a plea for mercy. When he placed his hands together and lowered his head ever so slightly, she grunted and turned away.