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, http://www.alderac.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=295&t=101206
This week’s episode was written by Steve Diamond, who is playing Ikoma Uso, who is a shifty, lying, cheating, murderous, sort that everybody else thinks is just dandy. Wait until you guys see where we get by seven sessions later, because Uso is one step removed from a samurai version of Dexter. 🙂
The Topaz Champion
The door to my room at the Laughing Carp was open just a slit. Would another samurai have noticed? Doubtful. But I did. I slipped my hand into the folds of my robe and gripped the tanto I concealed there.
“Are you going to wait out there all evening, friend Uso?” a voice from inside asked. “I really do have places to be.”
I recognized that voice. Ikoma Kage. How long had he been in Tsuma? I slid the door open and slipped in. I did not release my grip from my blade.
Kage lounged on a cushion, idly cleaning his nails with a ninja-to.
“Have a seat.”
I took my time carefully setting down my gear before sitting across from Kage. There were times to be subservient, and others to show some teeth. I’d had a bad couple of days, so I decided to let a bit of pettiness show. A slight hesitation in his trimming was the only indicator that he had noticed the slight.
“Consider your gempukku passed,” Kage said. “Ikoma Hagio sends his regards in that respect. As to your winning the Topaz Championship…well, that certainly was one way to ensure that Tetsuru did not win. Could you not have poisoned him? Or done something differently? Being the Topaz Champion is not the most beneficial title for one such as yourself to carry.”
“As I’ve already been told.”
“Ah.” I caught the barest hint of a smile on his lips. He knew about Satsujin, my ancestor. Most in Honor’s Sacrifice Dojo did.
“Tetsuru was too wary,” I said. With the words all my pettiness vanished, and was replaced by exhaustion. “I swear, Kage-sama. Tetsuru must have been blessed by the Fortune of Luck. His faults went unnoticed—though I tried to draw attention to them—and his opponents were weak. The dueling event was the perfect example of this. Have you ever witnessed someone receive so many easy victories?”
“Perhaps he cheated more effectively than you?”
“Tetsuru does not understand subtlety,” I replied. “And no one manipulated the contest more than I. Though, that was more out of necessity than choice. It would have been easier to assassinate Tetsuru.”
“Easier, yes.” Kage nodded. “Better? Well, we won’t know that for many years.”
“I could have framed the Spider.”
“Very possibly. Or you could keep your mouth shut and not question your orders.” Kage said, tone unchanged. “Regardless, you did your job. The Lion Clan thanks you. Not only that, but you managed to make friends with Hantei Miike. That could be very useful in the future.”
I nodded in agreement. What else was I supposed to do? It was obvious to me that he still had something to say.
“I also understand that you were overly friendly with the Scorpion,” he said after a moment. “Perhaps you could enlighten me as to your motivations. We gave no such direction.”
Ah. So there it was. “They are the only Clan my Ancestor doesn’t seem to despise,” I answered. “And I can see the way power is balanced within the Empire.”
A test? It had to be. “With the Scorpion and Crab aligned…well, it pays to be on the winning team. The last time the Crab got bored they started a war with the whole empire and nearly won it.”
“So you seek to make inroads between Scorpion and Lion.”
“If that put Lion, Crab and Scorpion together,” I said with a shrug, “who could hope to cast us down?”
“Hypothetically,” I agreed.
“Tell me about the imperial barge.”
I couldn’t suppress my shudder. The truth was my dreams had been haunted by that night. It wasn’t the darkness that can descended on us, nor was it the death and destruction. It wasn’t even the power the…being…had wielded. No, it was the man I’d witnessed running through the barge. It was the way he’d effortlessly moved. How he had casually backhanded Shintaro, sending him sailing across a room.
And that knife. In my dreams it gleamed and glinted, and I could imagine that it somehow laughed at me.
Such things were possible.
It’s not paranoia if it’s true.
“We’d just eaten with Hantei Miike—that he had been posing as Bayushi Arashii was an act of subterfuge I would have ferreted out had it not been put in place by Bayushi Kuronobo.”
“There is no shame in being duped by such a Scorpion… Yet,” Kage said with idle wave of his hand. “Continue.”
“We were leaving the barge when I first noticed the drop in temperature,” I said. “To me it was obvious that it wasn’t natural. The Mantis, Oki, noticed it as well, and the Seppun guarding the boat were immediately on-guard…not that it did them much good.
“The screams started,” I continued. “Quiet at first, then louder. Filled with terror. Darkness followed those death-cries like a jealous suitor. When the water came alive around us, we fled back to the boat to protect ourselves and the Hantei heir. More screams chased us along with tentacles of water that grabbed and killed with brutality. The water was solid, yet impervious to our weapons. The remaining Seppun outside were massacred in moments.
“This all happened within seconds, and then I could feel the boat lifting,” I shook my head at the memory. The lack of control still set fury coursing through my veins. “That old monk appeared, and I think the only reason I was allowed to live was due to my courtesy towards him the previous two times we had met. Arrows did nothing to him. We were utterly at his mercy.
“I’ve never seen such power,” I said. “But I have heard of similar levels of control over the elements.”
“From your father?” Kage asked.
“Indeed. I grew up on tales about the Dark Oracle of Fire. This seemed of equal… ferociousness.” I shrugged again. “My father only exaggerated in public. In private, if anything, he would understate the magnitude of what he saw. From what I remember anyway.”
“So you think this was the Dark Oracle of…Water?”
“Would that be so strange?”
“No. I’ve come to a similar conclusion.” Kage nodded his approval. “You have honed your mind well. You will need to sharpen it further if you are to survive you next assignment.
But I get ahead of myself. Tell me of the other man in the barge. The one with the knife.”
His smile took obvious pleasure in my discomfort. What was my next assignment to be? I could almost feel my ancestor’s curiosity in the back of my mind. This was my punishment for my earlier pettiness. I bowed my head in recognition and in apology.
I still had much to learn.
Yes, whispered Satsujin in my mind. My ancestor’s voice cut across my thoughts like the whisper of a knife across flesh. You have more to learn before you can even glimpse your potential. You have yet to make even your first kill. Do you feel cheated? You should.
“He moved with unnatural grace, and speed,” I said ignoring the voice. Satsujin never spoke to me outside my prayers. Why was he suddenly changing the game?
Because you need babysitting, he replied. I can’t have you making anymore foolish and stupid decisions. I will be looking through your eyes. Hearing through your ears. Maybe my presence will make a true Ikoma out of you. Remember, I learned from Ikoma himself. You are my mule to flog.
I winced, and there was no hiding it from Kage. His smile broadened.
“The…uh…knife he carried was strangely formed,” I managed. I pulled a piece of paper from beneath my kimono and passed it to my handler. He unrolled it revealing a sketch of the wavy-bladed knife. “I’ve not seen the like of it.”
“I’ll bring it to Ikoma Hagio,” Kage said, and slid the paper beneath his own robes. “Now,” he said, “Your next assignment. You actually have two. First you will get this Topaz Champion nonsense out of your system. You will be leading a group of two other Lion from our dojo, and you will cripple an organization of smugglers and bandits in our lands. Second,” his smile returned, taunting. “You have been requested at Winter Court…in Shiro Bayushi.”
“Try not to die, Ikoma Uso,” Kage said as he stood. “It would be a terrible waste.”
Satsujin’s maniacal laughter echoed in my mind.
To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/the-drowning-empire-episode-15-the-one-armed-lion/
Check out Steve’s HUGO NOMINATED book review site http://elitistbookreviews.blogspot.com/