The Drowning Empire, Episode 61: Ripples Upon the Moonlit Water

The Drowning Empire is a weekly serial based on the events which occured during the Writer Nerd Game Night monthly Legend of the Five Rings game. It is a tale of samurai adventure set in the magical world of Rokugan.

If you would like to read all of these in one convenient place, along with a bunch of additional game related stuff, behind the scenes info, and detailed session recaps, I’ve been posting everything to one thread on the L5R forum,

This week’s episode was written by Patrick Tracy. By the way, Pat is an award winning poet, and did this entire bit as haibun poetry. 

Continued from: 


Ripples upon the Moonlit Water

Haibun poetry

Patrick M. Tracy


Bai came to stand in the doorway as the sound of the horseman grew louder. She saw a flash of purple garb, and her heart surged within her. It had been some time. The baby had arrived, serving as a reminder that Moto Subotai had been real. She had named the child, a strong boy who grew fast and had the sharp eyes of a hunter, Tai-Xiao. Even now, he had slipped from the crib again, and pulled himself to a standing position in the doorway. She looked down. When he caught her eye, a grin spread across his face. There was happiness in him. The world had yet to erode such things away.

The purple-garbed rider thundered closer on a massive steed, coming to a dusty stop before their small cabin. He unraveled a sheet of parchment and squinted. “This is tract 229?” It was not Subotai, but a young samurai with a face coated with grime and a lathered horse. He wore no expression other than fatigue.

Bai bowed low. “Yes, honorable samurai. Make any wishes known to me, and I would help you become refreshed from your ride.”

The Unicorn samurai glanced at her. The baby had accentuated her feminine shape, and she was yet young enough to be desirable.

“No time. I ride hard again in but a moment. Bring a water bucket, so my horse can drink.”

Bai moved quickly to do so. Tai-Xiao bounced on his bare feet, pleased to see the new wonder. He tottered out from the door to stand grasp at the horse’s fetlocks. The beast made a noise low in its throat, but stood still, looking down at the tiny person at its front hoof.

Her heart in her throat, she dropped the bucket and scrambled to scoop the boy up. “Many apologies. He is a curious boy.”

The samurai gave her a knowing look. “And keen on horses, for a peasant child.”

Bai returned Tai-Xiao to his crib and brought the horse’s water. The samurai eased himself out of his saddle and stretched his legs as the horse slaked its thirst.

“There is no man present here?” the samurai asked.

“I am sorry. My father is away at the market today.”

The samurai shrugged. “To you, then. Do not think to keep it a secret, as one will be back next year, and will ask.” He handed over a heavy sack of coins, the like of which she had only seen once, when Subotai had left them. The day he had gone away, they had found enough coin to feed their small family for a year. An off-hand gift, or perhaps not. Subotai was the only samurai she had ever really known. It was likely that he would remain the only one who would allow her close enough to begin grasping what it meant to wear a sword and serve a Lord through blood and risk.

“Did this…did this come from Moto Subotai-sama?” she asked.

The samurai nodded. “It was a condition of his will. The son of Kohatusu was assassinated a few months ago. He left enough koku to see that your farm is comfortably provided for.”

Bai found that her legs had lost their strength. She hit her knees, then rolled to her side in the dirt. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t keep the tears from coming. The horse, startled, backed three paces and shook its mane, stamping its hooves at her. A tiny sound escaped her, like the call of an injured bird.

The samurai put his hand upon the horse’s neck to ease it, looking down at her. Just a hint of compassion appeared in his eyes for a moment. “He was a good man. He is greatly missed. You would do well to hide the boy next year. Others may not be so discreet as I am in their retelling of the day.”

With that, he mounted up and pounded down the path, disappearing. Tai-Xiao, escaping from his crib once more, put his chubby hand against Bai’s shoulder, shaking her. She turned to him, his sharp little eyes clouded with doubt. She took him in her arms and rocked him back and forth, wordless. She had imagined that simply knowing that her great love existed in the world would be enough. That had been wrong. Every day had been filed with loneliness and hope for a return.

Those feelings were as nothing beside the desolation that filled her now.

This tiny farmhouse

the end of a lonely road

once a battlefield

The glimmering dream

slim hope for a love denied

in gloom, a candle

Coins, given for blood

word of a good man’s passing

emptiness triumphs


Shinjo Namori tucked her axes into the sash about her waist and walked to the administrative offices of the Ide couriers. She had not been there since Subotai’s death. It was time to make things official. Today was the day when she was duty bound to remove the mourning clothes and move forward with her life.

She entered her old workplace. The courtiers there regarded her in silence, muting their surprise behind the faces they kept as a matter of habit. She walked past them, the group she had, at least for a few weeks, been in charge of. She dropped off the sealed scroll on the writing table of the lead courtier, a man she had not had a chance to know well.

The letter was her resignation, and it was late in coming. For some time, long before she had married Subotai, she had known that something was growing inside her, something that would prevent her from ever being a great courtier.


Everything resided within the long shadow of death now. She no longer cared for the finely chosen words and carefully-considered stratagems of court. She found that she couldn’t adequately restrain the burning cauldron within her, nor did she wish to. The Ide life, for her, was over.

She went to the stables, letting Tento out of his stall and using a farrier’s brush on his neck and flanks. It was this alone that seemed to bring her peace, at least for a few minutes. She hoisted the saddle onto his back and cinched the girth straps tight, then mounted up. The horse seemed to know that Subotai was gone, now that she was his mistress now. While his spirited behavior continued, and the stable workers all feared a nip or a kick from the big stallion, he was always on his best behavior with her. Subotai had always said that he was no normal horse, and she believed it now. When he looked into her eyes, those big black pupils would encompass her, as if she were being examined by a Fortune.

And when she dug her heels into his flanks, he exploded forward as fast as an arrow. Every day, she would point him in a direction and allow himself to run himself out. In that frantic burst of power and wind and horse sweat, she left herself behind.

She was always watched, however, always monitored.

Yesterday, it had been Moto Tenzen, who had somehow known where she would ride, and sat there on his horse, face impassive behind his Vindicator paint.

Today, she could hear the heavy hoofbeats of a Yutuku warhorse behind her. Looking back, she could see Yutaku Kaede, standing in the stirrups, her teeth glinting as she gave chase.

If it had not been for Tenzen and Kaede, she didn’t know if she could have retained her sanity. One of them had always been there, making sure that she ate, making sure that she didn’t plunge a tanto into her heart when the despair became too much. Tenzen would come, and they would spar for hours, until she was so exhausted that she couldn’t raise her wooden sparring axe. Kaede would simply appear, and be there, and hold her shoulders when she wept.

Perhaps it was selfish to use them both in this way, to lean on them so much, but she had done so, and now could not imagine doing anything else. They had become, in a way that she couldn’t quite understand or describe, a family.

Tento slowed to a trot, and she steered him towards the bank of a small stream, just on the edge of the forested area to the north of the keep. She slid from the saddle and knelt at the river’s edge, dipping her hands into the cool flow and splashing her face. Delivering her resignation from the diplomatic service took a great weight off of her shoulders. No more pretending to something that was in the past. No more hiding the fire that burned inside. Her family would, perhaps, be disappointed, but she was no longer of great use to them, now a young widow.

Kaede’s massive horse thundered to a halt, putting its shoulder against Tento and pushing with its neck. Tento, outweighed by five-hundred pounds, put up a solid effort before being pushed downstream by several yards.

Kaede dismounted with a graceful movement and surveyed the nearby area. Satisfied, she came and knelt near Namori’s side, closer than samurai would typically chose to. Namori had become used to this, and understood what it meant.

“It is likely that I will marry again, Kaede.”

“If you joined the Battle Maidens…”

Namori shook her head. “I am not a maiden by any stretch of the imagination.”

Kaede looked down at her knees.

“I have done my mourning and you have been a faithful friend through all of it. I thank you for that. I am not unaware of your feelings toward me.”

“I…apologize for the weakness of my heart, Namori-san. It wishes for things that it cannot have,” Kaede said, refusing to meet her eye.

Namori reached to her, tilted her chin upward. “I don’t wish apologies from you, Kaede-san. I wish you to understand what will be. I am not going to retire from life, nor will I end my time here with a blade. I will stoke the flames within me, and I will put them to use. I do not yet know where that road will lead me, but you will always be among my closest and dearest friends. You have been at my side in the darkest moments of my life, and I will never forget that.”

Kaede watched her expectantly.

“Whether I can ever…feel as you do, I cannot say. My heart is not built as yours is, and seeks different paths.”

Kaede reached up, touching Namori’s hand, still beneath her chin. “What path will you walk, then?”

Namori traced the scar across Kaede’s cheek, then let her hand slide away. “If Tenzen-san will allow it, I will become a Vindicator, his apprentice.”

The burden of peace

I let slip from my shoulders

my rage triumphant

Despair left behind

astride my dead husband’s horse

safe at full gallop

The truest of friends

cling hard to the fleeing spirit

keep her safe from harm

What the heart yearns for

wishing for what cannot be

pierces tender flesh


Moto Ayumi examined her face in the mirror. She was still attractive, her skin free of the deep wrinkles that some women developed at her age. Ayumi realized now what she had truly bargained and sacrificed to retain this beauty. The wandering soothsayer had told her that it would be thus. If she did not bear children, she would retain her beauty into middle age. If she bore children, she would lose her beauty and die a hag.

It had been that fortune that had brought her here, that had ruined her family and caused Subotai’s death. The boy that should have been hers. Her great sin. She had damned him at birth, and then treated him with cold distance in life, the reminder of all her schemes.

And now this. Subotai dead by an assassin’s hand, surely the same people who were blackmailing him. Kohatsu retired to a monastery and gravely ill, and she alone left in their large estate in the north. Whatever she had hoped to save, she had destroyed. Whatever she had tried to keep, she had lost. Her life was a failure.

Ayumi dressed in her finest kimono and spent even longer than normal making sure that her hair and her makeup were perfectly done. She was especially kind to the servants as she went through the household.

At the stables, she found the coachman, Hozho. “I wish to go to see the sunset at the top of the hills.”

“Hai, Mistress.” Hozho said, setting to work getting the horses attached to the carriage.

It was a pleasant ride. The road was not as bumpy as the year before, as the lack of rain had kept furrows from developing. The going was fast until they hit the switchback trail up the tall hills to the west of Outsider Keep. After toiling up those narrow roadways for an hour, they were at last at the high vantage point, able to look out and almost see the beginnings of the desert, far out on the horizon. It was a beautiful place to watch the sunset, perhaps the best in the empire.

Ayumi sat on the stool Hozho placed for her and observed the sun’s travel. The lip of the world nibbled at it, the red flame eaten away until only the glimmering remainders could still be seen. It was a good sunset. She had watched it from here many times. This was one of her favorite places. Now was as good a time as any to do what she had to.

She rose, turning to the coachman. “Goodbye, Hozho. You have been a good servant. I wish you well.”

Turning back to the cliff’s edge, she took one step, then another, and met the wind, her kimono’s folds flapping in the sudden wind. She turned away from the quick-approaching ground. She could see the first of the stars appearing overhead.

“I am sorry, Subotai.” she whispered. The sound was lost to the rushing air.

The things we bargain

against a fearful future

we are doomed to lose

A final sunset

two steps from the precipice

the western light dies

The wind steals my breath

my whispered apologies

the ground approaches



To be continued next week:

Really Good Deal: $5.95 Hard Magic Audiobook

Audible is doing a Daily Deal Anniversary Sale. 

Hard Magic is one of the books that was picked. If you’ve not tried an audibook, I really recommend it, and this is a really cheap way to check it out.

Hard Magic won an Audie for best fantasy, Bronson Pinchot was up for best narrator, and this series is one of the bestselling audiobook series on Audible. 

Gauging Interest, Fully Illustrated Christmas Noun Books for Christmas Presents

Random thought. I made the mistake of revealing that I like to doodle cartoons back during the challenge coin kickstarter. Ever since then I’ve had fans asking me for doodles of various things (despite the fact that I can’t actually draw). Then during Sad Puppies I did another cartoon, which you guys seemed to enjoy, and once Jack colored those they actually looked pretty decent.

You know what I’ve got that would lend itself to my remarkable artistic skills? THE CHRISTMAS NOUN! 

So Jack and I got to talking about it. How many of you would be interested in a fully illustrated Christmas Noun book to give as a Christmas present? 

It would be like a demented children’s book, not meant for children. And I get to draw Wendell driving a monster truck having a car chase against a sleigh pulled by velociraptors. I’d do a full color picture for each year’s episode, and then black and white smaller pics for in the story.  

Knowing how much it costs to print stuff here, size wise and with the color pictures and good paper, they’d probably be $20 to $25 each. 

Interested? Or is this idea just too silly to live? 

Baen Spouses Round Table! The Lovely Mrs. Correia Speaks!

The spouses of several Baen authors get interviewed! 

I am really used to people who know me, meet my wife for the first time and say “How the hell did SHE marry YOU?”

I don’t talk about my family a lot on the internet, but I’ve got an amazing wife and 4 kids. 

EDIT: I just listened to it. The very end of the interview at like 59 minutes in, the giant crash was my 2 year old knocking over a shelf, followed by him crying. :D The best part is my wife’s “What did you just do?!” 

Bridget 1

Bridget 2

I totally married a jock. Bridget is a runner and does triathlons. 

Bridget 4 

The Lovely Mrs. Correia is awesome. Here we are looking at fish. Since we’ve got 4 kids she’s got that purse of holding filled with rations and emergency supplies. 

Bridget 5

Here she is geeking out in Apollo Mission Control. 

Bridget 3

She has a great sense of humor capable of putting up with my goofiness. 

Bridget 6

And she is a bad ass who will drop you like a bad habit. Here she is at the monthly Ladies of Yard Moose Mountain Shooting Night.  

Kaiju Rising physical book is out now

For those of you who missed out on the Kickstarter, you can now get the Kaiju Rising in physical book. The eBook has been available for a bit.  It is also available on Audible. It is a big fat anthology of giant monster stories.
I’ve got one in there called The Great Sea Beast.  I had a lot of fun with it. It is a sort of 13th century Moby Dick story about a drunken samurai archer on a mission of revenge against a rampaging kaiju. And yes, I really do love my job. :)

The Drowning Empire, Episode 60: And Let the Liars be Damned

The Drowning Empire is a weekly serial based on the events which occured during the Writer Nerd Game Night monthly Legend of the Five Rings game. It is a tale of samurai adventure set in the magical world of Rokugan.

If you would like to read all of these in one convenient place, along with a bunch of additional game related stuff, behind the scenes info, and detailed session recaps, I’ve been posting everything to one thread on the L5R forum,

This week’s episode was written by Patrick Tracy, and takes place after the White Tiger Expedition. Since he is being blackmailed, Subotai does something desperate. 

Continued from: 

And Let the Liars be Damned

By Patrick M. Tracy

The poisoner had skill. Moto Subotai had smelled nothing, tasted nothing. The chopsticks fell from his grasp, his hand going numb, his lips swelling. The breath would not come when he attempted to inhale.

Blundering up from the table, he clutched his throat, wordless. Namori and the rest of the dinner party rose, their eyes filled with concern as he danced like a puppet with tangled strings, losing control of his bodily functions as the poison deadend his nerves.

“Husband!” Namori called out, going to him, holding him up as the light from the torches grew vague in his sight.

“I…lo…,” he rasped, but his voice was muted. Darkness swooped upward to grasp him and pull him into oblivion. He was dying. The myth of Moto Subotai was ending. All was as it had to be.

HIs heart slowed toward silence. Namori’s face was the last thing he saw.



<Months before>


The nondescript stranger appeared in the stable, standing between Moto Subotai and the door.

“Greetings, my friend,” the man said. There was a slight but definite air of menace about him, although this was not portrayed in on his face or in his eyes.

“We have not met,” Subotai said. It was late, and he was exhausted from the events of the day.

“Ah, but I know much about you, Subotai. How is your mother?”

Subotai tried not to flinch, but he face slipped, betraying the cutting remark. This was the man behind the letters, the blackmailer. He had known that this day would come, that he would be called to account for the fiction of his birth. Though it was not his sin, he had perpetuated it, living the lie he had been born into. How someone had found that he had been birthed not by Moto Aiyumi, but by her handmaiden, sent to Kohatusu-sama’s bedchamber in her stead, was immaterial at this point. The knowledge existed in the world. Its debilitating venom wafted in the air and tainted the water. There was no escape.

“My mother…is well,” Subotai forced himself to answer. “What of it?” The rage burst within him. Rage at the woman he had known as his mother, rage that his true mother had been there with him as a child, and he had never known to cherish her, rage that all his hopes and dreams could be toppled by the crack in the foundation of his lineage.

“I only ask because I come to you as a good friend, a confidante, a helper in difficult times.”

Subotai forced himself to breathe deep and release his wrath as a green cloud before a dragon’s maw. “If we are to be friends, what should I call you?”

“You may call me Atsushige.”

“I assume that you are here at the behest of others?”

Atsushige nodded. “How perceptive. I represent Master Coin and Master Cloud. We feel that there is a great future before you, and we wish to make sure you fulfill all your potential.”

“My potential?” Subotai let his mouth twist in disgust. Atsushige ignored his frown.

“You are Kohatsu-sama’s only son. You stand to inherit his position in the Unicorn Clan. You yourself have become a notable samurai, a man known to have honor and skill at fighting. It is only natural that interested parties would wish to aid you along the way.”

“And what would you have of me in return?”

“Straight to the point, then,” Atsushige agreed. “As we are now friends, it’s well known that friends will, upon occasion, do favors for each other. We may sometimes ask you to do small things for us. Easy things. Nothing that would have to be widely known.”

“And this kernel of knowledge you think you have about me, you will use this as insurance that we stay..friends?”

“You have it exactly right. But don’t think of us as holding these things over your head. We are holding the facts secret and safe, as true friends would. I think that I will enjoy working with you, Subotai. You are more perceptive than some reports would indicate.”

Atsushige looked over Subotai’s shoulder, and Subotai followed the direction of his gesture, turning his head. One of the stable doors creaked open, and Yoritomo Oki, drunk and staggering, came in, collapsing in the hay near Tento. The horse pushed at Oki’s shoulder and flipped him onto his back, making a low sound and stamping one foot.

When Subotai turned back. Atsushige was gone, as if he had never been there. The only thing remaining was a chrysanthemum, nestled in the hay where he had been.

His mother’s secret had caught up to him. Not just any random blackmailer knew of it. No, that would have been far too easy. He remembered those names. Master Coin. Master Cloud. Those were masters of the Kolat, the secret organization that had nearly brought the Empire to its knees.

Subotai felt dizzy and sick. The rage was gone, and a wave of hopelessness and recrimination rode behind it. How could he fight the Kolat? It was like fighting shadows. No, he couldn’t. The best he could do would be to string them along, letting them manipulate him as little as possible. When the time came, and they asked him to do something that his honor wouldn’t allow, he would have to be sure that his tanto was sharp and his will strong enough to end things in a way befitting a samurai. Perhaps not all of his blood was of the caste, but he hoped that he could still be his father’s son and preserve the family honor.

Subotai stroked Tento’s neck, then bent to move Oki to a safer location. He left the archer on his side, so that if he became ill, he wouldn’t choke on his own sick. He walked under the starlight until almost dawn, trying to think of a solution he could live with. Nothing came to mind. He was damned. Damned for something he had no hand in doing. Damned for the very fact of his birth.



Subotai stood in the throng of samurai and courtesans in Second City’s ambassadorial square, staring at the fountain. He tried to make himself feel anything but boredom when it came to the courtly aspects of their mission, but found it difficult. He became lost in the rippling water of the fountain. He thought of a poem he wanted to write. He envisioned the flight of an arrow toward a distant target, the graceful, deadly arc. More and more, it was difficult to attend to the details of the day. His mind slipped away like the glimmer of fish in a muddy pond.

When he looked up, he saw a Lion samurai standing near him.

“Greetings, my friend.”

It was Atsushige, standing before him in Lion garb. Subotai knew that this had been a calculated decision on the blackmailer’s part. The Unicorn and Lion still feuded, and he could not strike a Lion down in the street. That did not keep his sword hand from resting on his katana’s hilt at the blackmailer’s presence.

“So, today you are a Lion.”

“I had thought you fond of Lions, close as brothers with your traveling companions, Uso and Toranaka. I thought this would put you at ease, calm those violent Moto passions of yours.”

Subotai sighed, waiting for the important details of their byplay to be revealed.

“Ever on to business with you, is it not?”

“You may as well say what you came to say, Atsushige.”

The blackmailer feigned hurt feelings for a moment. “I keep telling you, Subotai. We really can be good friends to one another, if you’ll only relax a bit.”

“I’m finding that difficult.”

Atsushige smiled. “I can understand. This is just the beginning of our relationship. You’ll grow accustomed to me after a while, I’m sure. For now, I need you to do a small task for me. Just a convenience, really.”

The blackmailer held out a letter. “If you could give this to Moto Byung-Chuul’s son, Moto Yoon-Dao, that would be most appreciated. I know that you have the ability to get in and speak to him. He’s currently a guest of the Lion Embassy. You’re welcome to read the letter. There is nothing untoward in it, just a letter from his beloved. I’m sure you’d want the letters Shinjo Namori wrote, wouldn’t you?”

Subotai knew that he had to at least feign acceptance of his situation. He took the letter.

“Any time in the next few days would be fine. Just to prove that you are as good a friend to us as we are to you.”

A clamor arose in the crowd with no obvious reason. Subotai’s eyes flicked away for the tiniest fraction of a second. Even in that moment, Atsushige found a way to disappear without a trace.

Subotai tucked the letter into his kimono. He would have to confess. As innocuous as the letter appeared, he knew that there was malicious intent behind it. He could not simply pass it along. Though Yoon-Dao appeared to be a hostage, he was there awaiting orders that would rain death down upon the Lion. If hostilities broke out, Yoon-Dao would serve as a first, deadly strike. Subotai wouldn’t dare slip him any communication that might cause two clans to explode into open warfare. There was nothing for it but to share his plight and the dishonor it entailed.

He could feel everything begin to unravel, the tapestry of his life shedding fabric with every passing moment.



Toranaka squinted, his face flushed. “Blackmailed? By the Kolat? How can this be? What have you to be blackmailed about.”

Subotai felt the weight of a heavy stone upon his chest. “I cannot share the nature of the secret. It is not my deed that is at issue, and it involves others in my family whose names I would keep unsullied.”

“The way is clear. We find this Coin, this Cloud, and we destroy them.”

“It is unlikely to be that simple,” Uso-san said. “These are masters of assassins you speak of. No one knows the real identity of such high level Kolat members. Who knows what sort of power they have, what connections.”

“I don’t care about that. When challenged, we strike,” Toranaka said. Subotai could see that Tora would not be consoled or calmed for a while. His blood was up.

“I will pass the letter, but I will tell Yoon-Dao that it is likely a fraud. That is the best I can do. We will see what transpires after that.”

Subotai could see that something that had been in Toranaka’s eyes was gone, some regard that the One Armed Lion held for him had been dissipated. In all his comrade’s eyes, he was lessened, and rightly so. This was his dishonor, his undoing. It had taken all of his will not to simply thrust a knife into his belly and remove the shame. Perhaps there would be a day for that, but not today. He had more to do. He would not leave the fight against the Dark Oracle of Water so easily as that.




Toranaka grinned. It was a true smile this time, not the frozen mask he wore when he dashed the heads from men’s shoulders. Subotai, numb with the news they had been given, gaped at the rare expression on his best friend’s face. Though they were not as close as they had been, though there was doubt where there had once been surety, they were yet close, so much blood between them, so many deadly fights all over the empire. Subotai wondered if the bonds of their friendship were strong enough to weather telling Tora the whole truth, revealing himself to be a fraud, a half blood. He’d been on the point of telling him a hundred times, but had always turned aside and left the truth unsaid. Toranaka was unbending, unyielding, just as his father was. It made him a great samurai, a faithful friend, but his judgements were harsh and final, the codes by which he lived unbending. In this, his great lie, he could not count upon Tora to understand.

The diplomat read from the scroll, the public proclamation of the accord between the Lion and Unicorn. All the important announcements had already been stated, and it was down to the bureaucratic details like land easements and levies on acreage near Rich Frog.

“You’re a free man, Subo. No longer a hostage under my care. You’re free to marry at last, and I find myself betrothed. Our clans have made peace, and there will be prosperity for us both in the future.”

“It is a great day,” Subotai answered. He did not feign happiness well. Freed from his hostage status, he would be expected to take over for his ailing father, expected to marry and assume his rightful place. It was everything he ever wanted, and the one thing he could never allow himself. The Kolat could only do so much against him as a lone samurai. As the leader of Journey’s End Keep, they could force him to play their game in a hundred ways. The more important he became, the more deadly the secret they held above his neck like a sharpened sword.

While the rest rejoiced, he slipped away, writing the letters that he felt might at least forestall the inevitable time when he would have nowhere left to move, no delaying tactic left to play.



The White Tiger expedition was nearly ready to depart. The grand celebration and spectacle was over, the political intrigue and backbiting concluded, the hard weeks of organizing the journey and purchasing the necessities at an end. Subotai walked among the ranks, nodding to the men. He had managed to put off his duties to his family for one last mission. It was a mission that, in his secret heart, he hoped he would not return from.

If the fighting claimed him this time, he would be saved from what came after, from having to either capitulate to the Kolat and work as a double agent or find a terrible alternative. Yes, it would be far easier if he died. Perhaps he could manage to be lost in the struggle and assume the mantle of ronin. Perhaps…it did no good to consider now. He only hoped to be spared the decision, the fates interceding and making the choice for him. The longer he lived under the shadow of the blackmailer’s grasp, the more his honor unraveled. Previously unthinkable solutions came to him like ghosts out of the night. He hardly knew himself, and only through the most rigorous discipline could he manage to maintain his public facade. He was surprised that his friends had not commented on this, the fact that his every action and word was that of a charlatan, a pretender to what Moto Subotai had once been. He was merely an actor playing the part of a man who had been tainted, and was consumed by the disease of his sin.

An Ox Clan samurai came to him as he toured the long line of warriors. It was only when he came within a few steps that Subotai recognized his tormentor, Atsushige.


The blackmailer smiled. “Me.”

“You are coming along on the journey then?”

“Of course, Subtai. We’re friends, and my other friends wish to make sure you get through safe. We’d hate to see anything untoward happen to you out in the demon-haunted jungle.”

“Your friendship means a great deal to me, Atsushige. I’m touched by your concern.” The longer Subotai looked at his life as simply a part he was playing, the better control he had over his emotions. It was as if this were all a play, and he merely an actor reading the correct lines, hitting the proper places on the stage, the easier it was. This, at least, was what he told himself.

“It is good that we’ve established a rapport. Which reminds me, I believe you sent this letter during some kind of mental doldrum. We were able to intercept it, so that you’d be saved from the embarrassment of a retraction.”

Atsushige handed him back his letter to his father, the one in which he’d forsaken any control over Journey’s End keep and advised his father to pass it along to another. It had been his last attempt to throw the Kolat’s noose from his neck. It had failed.

What had been Subotai began to fall away, to ablate like a statue made of sand when a strong wind howls against it. Killed by inches, all that he had ever aspired to be was dissipating, the last battle to keep all those dreams alive lost. There was only death now. The only question was the nature of that death. The man who wore Subotai’s clothes no longer cared how. He only hoped that it would be soon.

“I think you’re growing up, but just like any child, a few corrections need to be applied. Think of this letter as a correction, Subotai. I believe that you’ll do well as our friend in Journey’s End Keep. We’ll do a lot of good together, you and I, and we’ll make Masters Coin and Cloud very happy.”

“I’m sure that’s true, Atsushige. I’m pleased that you could join us on this journey.” His face was blank, his heart desolate.

Atsushige gave a slight nod. “Just to let you know, if something unfortunate should happen to me along the way, there are many others in the company who will continue to look out for your best interests. Although it would be a shame if one of our companions were to succeed in killing me, my associates are very thorough. We don’t leave anything to chance.”

With that, the blackmailer walked away, rejoining the anonymity of the crowd.



Subotai came awake gasping, clawing at the bedding. He shuddered like a man taken with fever and was drenched in sweat. He had been plagued with nightmares and could rarely sleep the night through. It was good that he did not share a tent with Toranaka anymore, or there would be further questions to answer. The decline in his morale and certainty was getting difficult to hide. The role of Moto Subotai had grown taxing, as he was so much less than that man now. Every day it became more likely that one of his friends would see through his feeble illusions and understand that his spirit had collapsed upon itself, leaving him broken into pieces.

It would not be long now. Only a few more days, from what Jagdish and the other Ivindi guides said. Their great battle would take place in the hidden valley where the waterfall flowed. The fates, if they were kind, would allow him to die as a samurai would wish to, to lay down his life for something greater and more important than himself. He would spare himself no danger, leave no risk un-taken. If they would kill him, he would not hide from death.

The next night, Suzume Shintaro was asked to a meeting of the Minor Clan Alliance. Subotai went along, having nothing else to do. He found that keeping busy allowed the time to pass, keeping him from meditating upon his failures and shame.

It was not long before the meeting veered to the topic of betrayal. Not simply betrayal, but treason against the whole Empire. Subotai was not surprised. His evaluation of the world was not what it had been a few years ago. He was jaded, cynical. He believed that all stories ended in tragedy.

Shintaro did not. Brave, he challenged a man that could best him on ten consecutive days to a duel. As they walked away from the scene, Shintaro suddenly aware of his mistake, the big Sparrow looked gray, ill.

A small female figure materialized, wearing the garb of a peasant camp follower. Up close, though, the beautiful face of Bayushi Maemi looked out from beneath the hooded tunic. She reached up, sweeping her finger against Shintaro’s tongue. She sniffed the saliva and sighed.

“Well, you’ve gotten yourself poisoned, haven’t you?” she asked. “Here, take this. Drink a swallow now, then another at dusk, and the third in the morning. You’ll need to stay near the latrine, but you’ll feel better by midmorning tomorrow.”

Maemi looked to Subotai. “I was never here. My brother is not to know. Tell him, and I’ll stab you in your sleep.”

Shintaro sat down in the mud after drinking a swallow of the antidote. “I’m not sure whether I want to strangle her or kiss her.”

“She might enjoy both, but I don’t believe that you are the object of her affections, Shintaro.”

“That’s just as well. Yuki would chop me into stew meat in my sleep.”

Subotai looked around at the camp, at all the men that had been sent here to do a good deed, to work in the defense of the Empire. He wondered how many were here for other reasons, working at cross purposes or for their own reasons. He shrugged. There was no way to tell. It was impossible to know another person. Not fully. Some doors were open, others closed for ever.

Whatever happened, many of these people would not live to see the return journey. They would be missed. There would be holes in the world where they had once been. For better or worse, he hoped one of those lacunas in the weave of the Empire would be his.



Earlier in the day, they’d killed a demon. That had been the beginning, the first hurdle in a mind-numbing race. Subotai had thrown himself at the line, daring both men and Destroyer constructs to kill him. Long beyond the point of exhaustion, he had rotated to the front lines again and again. No one had found a way to kill him, but they would. The line was driven back and back, the endless waves of Destroyers lumbering out of the jungle dissipating their ranks. Things built, not born, the felt no fatigue, no doubt or fear. Such was not the case with the White Tigers. The men that fought beside him were heroes, all worthy of honor just for coming this far. Were they above all human frailty? No.

“Fall back! Fall back!” Toranaka yelled above the sound of the melee. Subotai held the line, defending until everyone else had given ground. The Destroyer before him swung a huge, spiked club downward. He angled his body, somehow still able to continue after he thought he would collapse. It would have been so easy for him to step into the swing and allow himself to fall, but he couldn’t give up, not when his blade might make the difference between life and death to even a single samurai.

He leaped over a dry mote that they’d managed to dig early in the day. Far behind them, in the darkened temple where the gateway to the Tigerhell threatened to open, their most powerful shugenjas were busily importuning the kami, offering their lives in trade for the sealing of the gate. It was not done. Moto Byung-Chuul and Tamori Nasuo knelt, deep in the trance of their lifecasting, the only hope to keep the unbeatable legion of Rakasha from flooding into the world. The White Tiger front was being pushed back, and it didn’t look like there’d be enough time for them to complete the ritual.

Just then, he saw Ikoma Uso, sprinting forward through the gap in the lines where the front rank Destroyers had surged. He carried a heavy chest, his eyes wide and staring, his jaws clenched. Uso reached the barrier dam, dropping the chest and unraveling a fuse. Subotai’s heart contracted as he understood what Uso was about to do. Destroyers closed in on all sides, about to smash the bard into a pulp. He knelt there, trying to get the fuse to light. When it finally did, he was flanked on all sides.

He jumped between the slow constructs and bolted, but the explosion came far too soon, blowing him upward and out toward the lake, his form covered with fire. The dam collapsed, and a mighty rush of water swept the field clear of their enemies. Destroyers and men were washed away in the flood, the whole field of battle emptied.

Subotai sat down in the dirt, unable to summon the emotion he knew should be there. Uso was gone, so many good men dead. He looked around. So many samurai wandered the ancient temple grounds, empty eyed and blank faced. They had won. It seemed that they had won, but there was no celebration, no joyous revelry. The whole company lacked the energy to do so much as shake a fist in the air.

“Come on, Subotai,” Oki said, helping him up. They trudged back to the shrine, following the few remaining shugenja. Byung Chuul and Tamori Nasou were dead, sprawled on the floor as if in sleep. The kami had taken their offer and sealed the rift. The legion of Rakasha would not destroy their world.

“I am surprised I lived,” Subotai said.

Oki grinned, fishing a bottle of Angry Bear sake from his undertunic. “I’m surprised any of us did. If anyone was going to live, though, I’d have picked the bard. He was…he had.” Oki turned away, bringing a sleeve across his eyes.

“We need to be going,” Isao chimed in.There were tears in his eyes, his mentor lay dead, but he was not broken. “This place is cursed.”

At the periphery of the new lake where the battlefield had been, shadows seemed to coalesce, demons hiding within the darkness of the jungle. Subotai was sure that he was not the only one who saw this.

Sadly, they gathered the many injured, the gaijin and eta dragging litters for the dead, and trudged up the long incline to the top of the valley. Once there, the remainder of the captured gaijin pepper was rigged to blow up the point of egress,making sure that the valley was sealed forever. Few even jumped as the explosion shook them.

At the side of the trail, Subotai saw Bayushi Sakai trying to console his sister. In her way, she had loved Uso. She buried her face in Sakai’s shoulder, pounding her small fist into his arm. Subotai looked away, not wishing to dishonor her by watching the outburst. Tears should have stained his own cheeks, but none came. His soul was a broken thing within his flesh.

It would be a long, long walk home.



They had not been back in Second City a full day when Subotai went to see Maemi. She had been silent and still almost the whole way back, but had thrown off her mourning pallor before she met the crowds of the city. He knew she still ached. She must, if she had loved Uso. She was also her father’s daughter, and Kuronobo-sama had raised them to be iron hard.

“I am surprised to see you, Subotai-san.” Maemi said, inclining her head as she gestured gracefully toward the tea that was already brewing for them.

They sat, and Maemi officiated a tea ceremony as beautifully as Subotai had ever seen it done. He forced himself to be silent, to gird himself for what he was about to say. He had gone over it a hundred times, a thousand, but it still felt like madness. When madness offers your only road, then it is madness that must act as your traveling companion, he told himself.

Subotai took a deep breath. “I come asking for a favor.”

Maemi raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“A favor the likes of which few have ever asked.”

She sat forward, curious. “You have been known to be bold at times. Tell me more.”

“I need you to arrange for my death.”

“Excuse me? I don’t believe that I heard you correctly.”

“I face an untenable situation ahead. One that stands to dishonor me, my family, my whole clan. The only way out for Moto Subotai is death.”

“That is what seppuku is for, Subotai. You’ve seen it done.” Maemi lifted her cup and took a tiny sip, then replaced it carefully.

“There are many things that remain undone. I am not ready to take my leave of this world, but I would have it seem so.”

“So you wish me to fake your death, then? Why do you imagine that I would have such skills?”

“Maemi-san, I think you are even more dangerous than you are beautiful. That said, I ask this of not you alone, but your father, of all Bayushi.”

She touched her lips thoughtfully. “How do you imagine this will work?”

Subotai nodded. “I go on about my life as normal, awaiting confirmation that the plan is in order. When it is…”

“If. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“If the plan is agreed upon, you must find a time and place to adequately convince all that I have been killed. I know that my ability to plan such things will pale before those of a trained assassin. Once my death has been established, all ties severed with the Unicorn, I submit to becoming a Bayushi samurai. Up to the point of revealing the deep secrets of my clan, I will help the Bayushi in any way they deem most appropriate. In doing this, I am aware that I renounce all honor, all birthright, every friend and loved one. You allow me to escape my fate, and I am in turn created as your tool, your dutiful servant.”

Maemi rocked backward slightly. “You are either far more devious than I had ever imagined, or you have taken all leave of your sanity.”

“Both contentions may be true. What do you say?”

Maemi stood, walking to the wall where a writing desk stood. “Such things are not for me to say. This will need to be proposed to my father. It will not happen suddenly.”

Subotai rose as well, feeling drained and heartsick after saying aloud what he had been considering for weeks.

Maemi turned around, her face suddenly softer than he had seen it. “You understand that there will be no coming back from this, no possibility to ever reconcile with the Unicorn? They will kill you on sight if you’re ever discovered. To them, you would be guilty of treason.”

Subotai nodded. I know what I will lose. Trust me, I do not do this lightly, or with the hope that it can be undone.”

“And your betrothed? What of her?”

He let his chin touch his chest. “There is nothing on this earth that I would wish more than to bring her with me. For days, I deluded myself into thinking that I could. No, that would be an even greater crime than any I have yet considered. She is an honorable woman from a good family. She deserves to remain so. If I had not been so weak, so frail, I would have stayed away, spared her of one who doesn’t deserve her.” Subotai shrugged. “But I am not strong. A strong, good man would have taken a tanto to his stomach at the first hint of dishonor.”

Maemi approached. “I can see you are truly committed to this plan. I will see what my father has to say. Go on as if you would never die, but flourish in this life for a hundred years, and happily. When it happens, if it happens, it will be a surprise, a sudden tragedy that none imagined could occur. Now go, and don’t come to visit me or any of the Scorpion again. This cannot be questioned, cannot look false.

With that, Subotai took his leave. Walking down the crowded streets of Second City, he found that it was the first time he didn’t feel like a stone weighed down upon his chest. The first time in many months.



Subotai awoke from the deathly paralysis of the poison in a tiny hut, far out in the hinterlands of the Ivindi jungle. He was naked, and he had been shorn of hair from head to toe. It was strange and smooth. His chest and arms did not look like his own. He was alone in the hut. As he levered himself onto unsteady legs, an old man came in.

“How long,” he began, but the man leaped forward, pummling him with iron-hard fists, beating him to the ground, defeating his feeble guard and continuing to punch and kick him until he could feel the bones of his face fracture, the skin burst into bloody welts. Amid the rain of blows, he lost consciousness again.

He came awake again, aware that his face was wrapped in bandages, swollen. The stink of herbal compresses was clear, even though his nose was horribly askew, twice its normal size. The old man stood over him.

“I have beaten you thus because your face is known. I have to destroy that face. When the bandages come off, I will beat you again, just as severely. Do you understand?’

Subotai nodded. He couldn’t speak.

“In the meantime, we will set about trying to make you left handed. I am called Daichi. I will be your caretaker for these first few months, your friend, your torturer, your healer. They say that you wish to be a different person, and turning men into clay, to bake them anew…that is my skill. Let us begin.”

The image of Namori, her two wooden sparring axes in her hands, a devilish grin on her face and a single trail of perspiration running down her cheek, stole across his mind. She was lost to him, the memory of another man. He force the image away, but that act of will hurt far worse than the swollen wreckage of his face.


To be continued next week:

Salt Lake ComicCon – Booth and preliminary schedule

I’m going to be at SLC ComicCon coming up here pretty soon. 

People always ask where they can find me or where my booth was, but normally I just like to wander around at these things. This time I’m doing something different. I’ll be hanging out at Kevin J. Anderson’s Wordfire Press booth for most of the show. Kevin has brought in a bunch of my books to sell too, so please come and buy them, otherwise Kevin will be sad, and nobody wants that. 

Also, CorreiaTech’s entire Marketing Department (meaning Jack) is flying up from Texas, and will be bringing stuff to sell. We will have t-shirts and MHI patches and that sort of thing. 

Side note, that sort of stuff makes great Christmas presents. An autographed book says that the giver is a suave intellectual of discerning tastes. An autographed Correia novel is sort of like that, only with more explosions instead of nuance.  

I don’t know if this is the final schedule, but this is what I know I’ve got for panels so far.  

Thursday September 4, 3:00 pm 3:50 pm Building Plot: How to Implement Rising Action, the Try/ Fail Cycle and Character Arcs into Your Stories Room 151G ::
Thursday September 4, 7:00 pm 7:50 pm Writing Suspense Room 355D ::
Friday September 5, 5:00 pm 5:50 pm Credible Magic Systems: Method to Madness North Ballroom ::
Saturday September 6, 11:00 am 11:50 am How to Write Great Science Fiction and Fantasy Room 255B ::


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