I love this piece of fiction.
This is a flashback sequence that tied a lot of our game’s backhistory into our current events. Junaro is Makoto’s grandfather, the lowliest of the lowest caste, who went on to become a legendary hero, and this tells part of his story. Then it moves forward a few years. Kuni Kiyoshi was Magatsu’s sensei. And you may remember Yasuki Murato as the Crab caravan master that was rescued during one of our B Team games who then became an ally of the Paper Lanterns.
And I wrote all of this short story for one specific reason. Another L5R game supplemant book came out, and in it there was an item called Kaiu Armor that was super awesome, but very very expensive, and this was my justification to our GM that I really needed a set of it for Makoto. Yes, I am that much of a dork.
The Toymaker’s Craft
I. The Apprentice
The village of Shinsei’s Last Hope was not normally this crowded, or so he had been told. Kaiu Gombei had never been here before, nor had he ever crossed the Wall and entered the Shadowlands before, and in fact this was the first time in his life he had been more than a day’s travel from Shiro Kaiu, where the young man had been born, raised, and trained at the forge. With his gempukku only recently completed, assisting in the repairs of the weapons and armor of the ronin competing in the Twenty Goblin Winter was the first task ever given to him by his daimyo. Gombei had been terrified to cross the wastes with the Hiruma scouts, but he had done as commanded. He was proud to be serving the needs of the Crab Clan.
The last few years had been difficult ones on the Wall, and the clan had taken heavy losses. It was rare for the clan champion to order a Twenty Goblin Winter held in order to increase their numbers. Any ronin that entered the Shadowlands and returned with twenty severed goblin heads would be allowed to swear fealty to the Crab and join the Moshibaru, vassal family to the Hida. It was incredibly dangerous, but the prospects of being allowed to join a great clan was tempting to most ronin, and so they had come from across the Emerald Empire, flooding into Shinsei’s Last Hope. They were exotic, colorful, skilled, and bold.
Most of them would not survive the first day.
The other families of the Crab produced more soldiers for the endless war against the Shadowlands, but without the Kaiu provided weapons and fortifications, the entire clan would surely fall. Only fourteen years old, Gombei had not proven himself skilled enough to make anything worthy of a Crab bushi yet, but he could sharpen blades and hammer out dents with the best of them. Gombei had never had a talent for weaponry, but he had a real knack for creating toys. Crab children loved toys, but now was a time of war, and every skilled smith and craftsman was needed for more important duties. Gombei was here to learn from them.
A representative of the Hida Elite Guard gave a terse speech to the assembled ronin consisting of the usual warnings about how time was of the essence, the dangers of the taint, and about how some particularly nasty oni had been sighted nearby. It was recommended that they avoid it. Then the gates were opened and the ronin charged into the wastes.
For the first time in days, the village was quiet.
Kaiu Gombei had been working late into the night on a project and had been surprised to find a gigantic man searching through the scrap pile in the alley behind the forge.
“Can I help you?” the young smith asked.
“I need a weapon,” the giant replied, not looking up from his task.
Curious now, Gombei took a step closer. The giant’s arms were corded with muscle like unto those of a blacksmith that had spent years wielding a hammer. His clothes were tattered and dirty, barely more than rags, and his hair was long, matted, and unkempt. He was probably only a few winters older than Gombei. “What kind of weapon?”
The stranger shrugged. “Any will do. Preferably something big.”
He turned toward Gombei and grinned. Several of his teeth were missing. “The others have a head start, and if I don’t get out there soon, all the goblins will be killed and there will be no heads left for me. I should have left when they did, but my master had me flogged for asking to participate.”
Gombei noticed that there were several dried, rust colored stains on the man’s back. “Your master? I didn’t think ronin had masters?”
“Ronin?” The giant laughed. “I am merely an eta.”
Gombei was rather taken aback by that response. Normally the lowest of the low did not even dare to speak to their betters, let alone so brazenly. “An eta?”
“I am the torturer for Lord Genzo’s estate. He is here to watch the festivities… But Bishamon appeared in my dreams. I am to participate in the Twenty Goblin Winter and become a samurai… Ah ha!” the giant hoisted something triumphantly. “This tetsubo will do nicely!”
“That is a board with a nail in it,” Gombei pointed out.
“Indeed. But he told me to search here, and who am I to argue with the Fortune of Strength?”
It was rather obvious that the eta was quite mad. “Preposterous. The challenge is for ronin. They are already samurai, just without masters. Collecting the heads only enables them to join a great clan. It is impossible for an eta to do so.”
“Why?” The eta swung his board back and forth, testing the weight.
Gombei had to think about the lessons taught to him by his sensei about the Celestial Order. “Because eta are at the bottom of the Celestial Order! Your caste is unclean. You are below the peasants, below the merchant and the farmer, far below the lowliest of ronin, who are below the minor clans, and they are beneath the contempt of a great clan samurai!”
“And you are all bugs to the emperor and he is a bug to the kami…”
“Perhaps. I am no monk. How would I know? I’m a simple torturer, but trust me on this one, young master, samurai bleed the same blood as the lowliest of eta.”
“I should have you beheaded for such insolence!”
“If you believe that I’m wrong, then you can save yourself the trouble and let the Shadowlands kill me, because nothing is going to stop me from walking out that gate and fulfilling my destiny.” The giant glared at him, as if daring Gombei to call for the guards.
This eta had no training, no knowledge, no skills… Eta were not even allowed to possess arms, so surely he did not know how to use that silly club of his. The Shadowlands routinely chewed up and swallowed the greatest warriors the Crab clan could produce. This stubborn idiot was committing suicide. “You are a fool.”
The eta shrugged. “When I return with twenty heads, then we will see who is the fool.”
Gombei was not about to be contradicted by some mutilator of flesh. “You will need to do better than that. Twenty heads is sufficient to raise a ronin up one level on the Celestial Wheel, and you are no ronin. The Hida will be more likely to execute you for your disobedience than anything.”
He paused to count on his fingers. “Hmmm… You have a point. Bishamon did not specify how many heads… If it is twenty per caste, I’ll need twenty to become a peasant, twenty more to become a ronin, and twenty more to become a Crab!”
“You can count that high?”
“Of course. I have counted and numbered every bone in the human body. There is an order that I prefer to break them in… But sixty? Now I will need to find a cart to carry so many heads.”
Gombei laughed at the foolish eta, but he could not help but be amazed by the man’s tenacity. “Tell you what…” The apprentice unwrapped the bundle he had been carrying. This particular repair project had been a dismal failure. Sure, he had managed to return the broken old weapon to a perfectly serviceable state, but it was so ugly that Gombei was embarrassed to let his sensei see it. He had replaced the cracked wooden handle, tightened the steel bands, and replaced the lost rivets, in fact, he’d basically created a whole new weapon, but it wasn’t good enough. There was simply no art to this one. It was true that every weapon was valuable, but Gombei had too much pride to have his name associated with something so plain. Throwing it back on the scrap pile had been what had brought him back here to begin with. “Take this instead.” He tossed the tetsubo to the eta, who caught the heavy thing with one hand. “It is hardly better than your board with a nail, but should be sufficient for a goblin or two.”
The eta marveled at the heavy spiked club. His hands began to tremble and his lip quivered. “Young master… It is beautiful.”
Beautiful? Gombei snorted. It was sixteen pounds of ugly. It was an embarrassment to the Kaiu family. Then the young smith realized that he’d just armed a disobedient and possibly delusional eta… “I command you to never tell anyone where you got that from!”
The eta fell to his knees and bowed until his hair was in the dirt. When he looked up, his eyes were filled with tears. “I will never speak of this. Thank you, young master. This is the greatest day of my life. I was told to come here to arm myself. You are my armorer. The heavens have declared that our fates are intertwined. Because of your mercy, I will succeed.” The eta rose, wrapped the tetsubo in more rags to conceal it, and hurried down the alley.
“Torturer!” Gombei shouted after him. “What is your name?”
“I am called Junaro, young master. And when we meet again, I will be Crab!”
Seven out of every ten ronin did not return from the Shadowlands at all. Half of those that did come back had failed to collect their heads, and a few had descended into madness, to be forever tormented by the things they had seen in the nightmare fog. Two had been badly infected with taint and were summarily executed by the Kuni witch hunters. The few ronin that did make it back to Shinsei’s Last Hope carrying their sacks of heads were allowed to swear fealty to the Crab Clan.
Kaiu Gombei had been kept so busy at the village forge that he had not given much thought to the strange eta he had met nearly a week ago. Surely by now he was dead or consumed by Jigoku. Someone of such low caste could never be expected to succeed where so many of his betters had failed. The celestial wheel would continue to turn. Gombei could only hope that perhaps when that poor eta was reincarnated, he would be rewarded by the heavens for his faith and be reborn as something higher, like a farmer, or perhaps if he were really lucky, a peasant craftsman, and not condemned for his insolence and reborn as a… What was lower than an eta?
Yet, on the final day of the Twenty Goblin Winter, a lone figure appeared on the road leading into Shinsei’s Last Hope. It was the torturer, and he was pulling a cart that was practically overflowing with severed heads.
II. The Craftsman
For the last twenty years he had honed his technique and Kaiu Gombei was renowned throughout the Empire for his work. Though he hailed from a martial family, in the most martial of clans, Gombei had the soul of an artist, and his passion lay in creating intricate toys for children. A few periods of desperate warfare had pulled him away from his shop and back to building armor for the Wall, but other than those trying times, he had been totally devoted to his craft.
He was so successful that Gombei’s toys had been presented to the clan champion’s children. The Yasuki valued them so highly that they were constantly used as gifts in distant courts. Even the best of the Kakita artisans respected his abilities. It was not uncommon for a daimyo’s child even in far off Unicorn or Phoenix lands to be in possession of something made by Gombei’s hands. Each toy was different and better than the one before it, and the most prestigious of lords was prepared to pay many koku in order to be able to say that their child had something created by Kaiu Gombei.
And though he had brought riches and honor to his family, Gombei’s greatest happiness was found in the laughter of children… Especially his own.
The toymaker’s daughter would be happy to see him. He had been away, teaching for a time at Shiro Kaiu. As soon as anyone at the estate sighted him or the dogs began barking, she would run down the path of their estate to greet him as soon as possible, as she always did. And just as she had her routine, he had his, and as usual he had a surprise for her. He always brought back sweets from the city, and no matter how busy life became, he always found time to craft something special for his oldest child. This time it was a delicate bracelet of woven steel, which when looked at from only a certain angle revealed a tiny crab. Gombei knew that she would love it.
He travelled alone and on foot, caring not for horses or company, and though his status allowed for it, did not wish to ride in a palanquin. The estate was not that far from the city, and he reached it just before sundown.
Yet something was amiss. The toymaker’s daughter did not run down the lane to meet him. His dogs did not bark in greeting. No servants were in the gardens. No lanterns had been lit. The home was still. A baby began to cry… His infant son, yet no one came to comfort the baby. Gombei called out a hesitant hello, but there was no response, and now with dread turning his legs to water, he began to run toward his home.
Faster and faster, he forced himself down the path, until he came upon the first body. His daughter had been waiting for him after all.
They never learned where the beast had come from, if it had snuck across the Wall and made its way north, or if it had been summoned by foul magic and set free, or even why it had chosen this particular household to slaughter, but come to slaughter it had.
The mighty oni leapt upon him from where it had been hiding in the trees. It was made of hatred and things that tear. Teeth shredded his kimono and spilled his blood. Gombei fought, desperately managing to draw his katana, but his strike did not even pierce the oni’s hide. He lost the left side of his face to the swipe of a claw.
Gombei found himself on the ground in a spreading pool of blood. He tried to crawl toward his house. “My son… Must protect my son.”
The oni squatted next to him in the grass and hissed, “Already gone, Toymaker.” And then it tilted its head back and made a sound that was the perfect imitation of a baby’s cry. The oni mocked him with laughter, then turned and ran on all fours into the garden, never to be seen again.
From that day forward, the toymaker turned all of his attention to making the implements of war. The laughter of children sounded too much like the laughter of the oni.
III. The Master
Decades passed, but Kaiu Gombei no longer paid attention to what year it was. It did not matter, because to the Crab, every season was war.
He hammered out blades in a quantity so great that he could not begin to count them. He built suits of armor, churning them out, working from his waking moments until fatigue forced his eyes closed. The intricate mechanisms he had used in his moving toys was used to improve the pendulum traps beneath the Wall. Gombei could no longer teach students, because he had no patience for even the slightest imperfection, and a temper that often led him into bouts of rage.
There were no comforts, no indulgences. He ate only to live, and no matter what it was, there was no flavor in his mouth. Sleep was a rarity for him, a weakness that had to be indulged, or so he told the other smiths. The reality was that the realm of dreams held mostly terrors, and it was a place that he did not like to visit. For the unknown period that made up the last portion of his life, there had been only the crafting, and only recently had that changed, and Kaiu Gombei had once again had a purpose in life.
He had only one friend, and it was that friend’s responsibility to kill Gombei if necessary.
“You haven’t been drinking your jade petal tea?” Kuni Kiyoshi asked.
It was Kuni Kiyoshi’s responsibility to check on Gombei periodically to see if the curse in his blood was growing worse. The oni’s bite had left him tainted. It would consume him eventually, as there was no cure for the blight of Jigoku. His death was inevitable, and since that horrible day, it had been a race to see how many weapons he could arm his brothers with before the end.
The Kuni’s face was painted in their traditional and intimidating manner. “You have to drink the tea, my friend. It helps stave off the spread of the taint. Failure to do so is a direct violation of the Emperor’s laws, and for very good reason. If you fall under the sway of evil…”
“I know.” Gombei narrowed his one remaining eye. “But the tea clouds my mind. It makes my hands clumsy. I cannot finish this project if I’m drinking it.”
“What project?” Kiyoshi asked.
“My masterwork. The most important thing I’ve ever built.”
“Is it worth dying for?”
He did not hesitate. “Yes.”
Kaiu Gombei got up, limped across his workshop, and pulled the oilcloth from the armor stand. “It is nearly finished.”
Kuni Kiyoshi remained kneeling as he studied the suit of heavy armor. “It does not look like your regular workmanship.”
“There is no art in this one,” Gombei said with a sad smile. “But that is on purpose.”
“If you will excuse my impertinence, master smith, but it is rather plain.”
“It is meant for a rather plain man.”
“The hero? The eta turned samurai?” The shugenja cocked his head to the side. “Junaro is dead.”
Of course he knew. The torturer had gone on to become a legendary warrior among the Crab, one of the finest of their time. Gombei sighed and patted the massive shoulder plates of the armor. “I have been informed.”
“So you are prematurely ending your life in order to make a suit of armor for a dead man?”
Gombei returned to kneel across from his curious friend. “The only peaceful dream I have had since my household was slaughtered has been from a time long ago, when I was a young apprentice and I met an upstart eta who had decided to challenge the celestial order. Have I ever told you what Junaro told me?” Kiyoshi shook his head. “He said that our fates were intertwined and I was to be his armorer.”
Kiyoshi did not laugh. “And this dream?”
“It has come many times since, more now that I know I do not have long left in this realm. I believe Xing Guo has guided my hand,” Gombei spoke reverently about the Fortune of Steel. “This armor is meant for Moshibaru Junaro and him alone. I believe that his spirit waits in the Realm of Thwarted Destiny. A man that willing to challenge the celestial order does not quit so easily, and when his spirit returns to this world, I will fulfill my duty.”
“How do you intend to find this reincarnated soul? If you expect to present it to Junaro’s son, there may be… issues.”
“It is not meant for his son. The armor will find its way to the one it was meant for,” Gombei said. “It is made for one with a great destiny, and destiny finds a way… Long ago I made a foolish request based in pride, for my first tetsubo to not be identified as my work. I was ashamed of its simplicity, yet, that tetsubo has served our clan more than any other thing I have ever created. Today, I would make that same request to you, but this time out of humility. This armor will not bear my mark. My first creation and my last, both without art, yet hopefully, this armor will serve the Crab as well as that simple tetsubo.”
Kuni Kiyoshi was silent for a very long time, looking first at the humble armor, and then back to the Kaiu. Finally he spoke. “How long do you need?”
“One more month. And should I still live at the end, then I will be painting my mon with blood and joining the Legion of the Damned,” he spoke reverently of the tainted Crab warriors who chose to fight to the end, ”Or committing seppuku, as you see fit. I would prefer to join the Damned. There is a certain oni that I would very much like to meet again.”
Kuni Kiyoshi bowed. “I will allow this request, master smith.”
“You honor me, noble Kuni.” Gombei returned the bow.
After the Kuni had departed, Gombei returned to work. He carefully removed the steel bracelet he had made for his eldest daughter so long ago, from a silk bag and placed it near where he would fasten it to the breastplate. It was not much ornamentation for such a large suit, but it was the artist’s personal touch that counted. This armor would not be completely without art.
IV. The Trader
Yasuki Murato, Caravan Master of the Jolly Crab Trading Company, waited impatiently for the gunso to continue with the equipment inventory. After arranging for the delivery of a large quantity of rice and lamp oil to the local garrison, the Jolly Crab had received permission to clean out this particular storehouse from the local magistrate. The gunso was checking off items on a long scroll as they moved down the shelves.
It had been years since anything inside the storehouse had been disturbed. Supposedly, everything in here was second-rate equipment, hardly worthy of the Wall, but even shoddy goods would bring top koku from the desperately besieged Dragon Clan. Luckily, everything had been packed in grease or wrapped in oiled cloth, so there was no signs of rust. Though Murato’s personal opinion on rust was that a heavy coat of paint and a suit of armor would look good as new… Sure it might not stop a spear thrust anymore, but the Jolly Crab did not offer refunds on armor.
There was one particularly large bundle of oil cloth standing on an armor rack, but the gunso quickly passed it by without even making a checkmark on his scroll. Murato stopped in front of it. “What about this one?”
The gunso paused and bit his lip. “You do not want that armor Yasuki-sama.”
“Why?” Murato reached out and took hold of the cloth.
But Murato had already ripped the cover free, revealing a complete set of heavy armor, not much to look at, but adorned in traditional Crab colors. “What’s wrong with it? It’s old, but seems perfectly sellable to me… There’s not a scratch on it. If somebody died in it, you can’t hardly tell.”
“Please, Yasuki-sama, trust me. You do not want to take this armor. Let’s continue on.”
Murato snorted. “The magistrate said that I could fill a wagon out of this warehouse with whatever I wanted… Are you trying to disobey your magistrate or are you just stupid? I know an acceptable suit of armor when I see it, and this, despite needing some decorative tassels, or maybe a plume, or some feathers, is perfectly sellable armor.”
The gunso bowed. “My apologies.” He glanced quickly at the armor. “You don’t want this one, my lord, because it is haunted.” The trader demanded an explanation, and the hesitant gunso had no choice but to continue. “It may not look like much, but it really is extremely well made. Nice as anything most of us on this section of the Wall have ever seen. Whoever built this knew a thing or two, but it doesn’t like being worn.”
“The armor, my lord. It doesn’t like being worn…” The gunso looked around conspiratorially. “It whispers to you.”
That was the not the strangest thing Murato had ever heard about a piece of merchandise, and he was already thinking about how he could spin that to make it sound like a feature. “What does it say?”
“Nobody can understand really, since it is very faint. Nobody in the garrison even knows who put it here. We thought the first few that tried it on had got a case of Wall madness, but I tried the kabuto myself. I swear on the black balls of Fu-Leng that it told me ‘you are not the right one’. Our Kuni said there is no sign of taint upon it, and even a mighty ghost hunter, Toritaka Sujin, came in and sat with it for awhile. He said it isn’t a gaki or anything from any of the evil realms, but that somebody is still watching over this armor. Sujin-sama said it was safe to wear, but nobody likes their armor whispering to them… You can see why we stuck it in here.”
Murato rubbed his chins while he thought that over. Dragons were always being mystical and inscrutable. They would probably enjoy talking armor. “I’ll take it.”
# Photo taken at the MET’s samurai collection. Found a couple of days ago while in NYC for Book Expo. I refrained from shouting CRAB CLAN!
To be continued next week on the road to Pale Oak Castle. http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/the-burning-throne-episode-32-road-to-pale-oak-castle/