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 Brad Torgersen, and here Brad demonstrates why he got nominated for a Hugo, Campbell, and Nebula award in the same year. This is the sort of thing he writes for kicks after a gaming session. Leave it to Brad to come up with a tragic love story, (oh, and believe me, it gets tragic. Akira Kurosawa would be proud).
Evening draws down on the Dragonspine. A crown of thick clouds bundle about the peaks. Pregnant with water from the sea, the clouds slowly empty their bellies onto the thick forests below. Villages cluster amidst the trees, made from mortared rock, hewn bamboo, and other woods harvested off the mountainside. Houses glow softly from within, their kiln-baked, clay tile roofs becoming slick with rain. Paper lamps illuminate covered verandas and walkways that look out across the beautifully-terraced foothills below, and the gray-filtered gloaming of evening above.
Tamori Isao, survivor of the Topaz Championship of Rokugan, sits with his back to the sliding paper wall of his father’s house. Tamori Kenta, patriarch of the family, sits to Isao’s right, eyes staring at nothing. Two tiny sake cups and a bottle are on a tray in front of them. The bottle is mostly full; their initiatory drink was a formality. With the celebratory retellings and pleasantries of Isao’s return having been dispensed with, it’s time to get down to business.
“When I sent you to represent the Tamori at the Championship,” Kenta says, his baritone voice soft but stern, “I knew I would be losing Isao the boy and gaining Isao the man. But I never wanted nor intended for you to see so much horror.”
Isao merely stares. The misty drizzle beyond the veranda matches his mood.
“I know, Father,” Isao says. “Very little about the Topaz Championship passed as expected. Except for perhaps my mediocre showing in the final point tally.”
Kenta snorts. “I care nothing for the standings. The Championship is a place for courtiers and bushi alike to preen and strut, like Crested Serpent Eagles dancing with Peacocks. What matters is that you were present for the events surrounding the Topaz. Your engagement with the beast of the Ivory Kingdoms, and the rogue ronin in the swamp, your besting of the ronin’s companion shugenja, and your involvement in the repeated defense of the Heir, have all placed you at the center of things for which there cannot yet be a reckoning.”
Isao does not reply. He feels his father is ticking off a list of academic declarations before launching into the meat of his questions. Kenta has purposefully avoided making specific inquiries until all other family and servants have been sent away for the night. It’s now between two shugenja, the junior and the senior. Their confidentiality is tacit.
“Yet,” Kenta says carefully, “I see in your eyes that there is more. Something lingers at the edge of your lips.”
Isao frowns. He has promised not to speak of a specific thing. But he has never been able to keep secrets from his Father. Even when he utters no words, his heart yells them through the expressions on his face. Sighing, Isao turns to face Kenta.
“There was a woman.”
Kenta’s eyes widen ever so slightly, then the slightest of smiles crooks up the corners of Kenta’s mouth. He deftly refills the sake cups, offering one to his son.
“Who was she?” Kenta asks before they tip the cups back, swallowing the potent liquor.
“Mantis,” Isao replies. “A bushi.”
“Bushi,” Kenta says, somewhat surprised. “Another contestant in the Topaz?”
“Yes,” Isao says. “Her name is Yoritomo Kakeko.”
“The tournament is only a handful of days long,” Kenta says, “I did not think you would be there long enough to make a girlfriend.”
“This is more than a mere batting of eyelids between teenagers,” Isao says, his tone serious. Kenta’s smile vanishes and he leans over to stare into his son’s eyes.
“You have made love to her,” Kenta says.
“Yes,” Isao replies.
“She is your first?”
Kenta considers, a tongue running along the inside of one cheek.
“Tell me more about her.”
“Well, she is a ship-rider like all the rest of her—”
“No, no, no, my son, tell me about her. How did the both of you come to be together?”
“I should not say these things. I have promised to not say them. But you are my Father and I have longed to counsel with you from the first morning after Kakeko and I shared a bed.”
“Say what you must.”
Isao swallows hard and closes his eyes briefly, remembering Yoritomo Kakeko’s hot breath in his ear as her muscular arms wrap around his shoulders and pull him down onto her…
“We were opponents in the Sumo,” Isao says, “she threw me so quickly and with such skill, there was no contest. Yet, from that first sparring contact, there seemed to be a spark between us. I watched her through the rest of the Sumo, and for the remainder of the day. After the combat with the Ivory Kingdoms beast in the swamp, news of the victory followed all of my cohort and I back to the Laughing Carp. Kakeko was there. I made an excuse to speak with her, but it seemed immediately that she had also wished to speak with me too.”
“And what did she say?”
“Formalities at first. You know how the bushi are, especially the women bushi. When in the presence of other bushi, their words are armored and hard. It did not help that one of her cousins, Yoritomo Oki, of my cohort, attempted to embarrass me.”
“You said he was a woman-chaser,” Kenta interrupts.
“Yes,” Isao replies.
“Simple, you were cutting in on his territory.”
“So I assumed,” Isao continues, “and it would have been the end, because Kakeko could not believe nor understand why I am afraid of the ocean.”
“Oki revealed this?”
“Not at all sportsman-like.”
“I did not think so, but then, Oki was half-drunk.”
“Drunk men sometimes do rude things for the humor of it.”
“I was mortified, and ready to strangle Oki. Kakeko moved to leave me, but something told me I should not let her go. I raised a hand and called for her to halt. I politely pleaded with her to stay and talk. I don’t know why I expected a woman bushi to be receptive to a shugenja of a different clan—especially one she’d defeated in the ring. Yet she countered my plea with an offer that we both depart the Laughing Carp and take the night air of Tsuma.”
“Which you did.”
“At first, yes.”
“When did that change?”
“When we were beyond the noise and banter of the Laughing Carp, I sensed a change in her. The hardness of her demeanor softened. We talked about the water, and the mountains. She has never been to the mountains, and considers them to be as alien and foreboding as the sea is to me. It became a point between us to discuss our fears. At first I was ashamed, but when Kakeko did not mock or draw away from me, my shame turned to confidence. I divulged all: the caravan in which I travelled with Mother as a boy, while you were away on Tamori business for the Empire, the sojourn to the sea, the tsunami that swept in during the night as the caravan camped on what had seemed to be a peaceful beach, and Mother’s cries as she and I clung to separate pieces of driftwood, and Mother’s voice growing distant, every distant, and then…”
Isao looks away, the tears welling in his eyes.
“I know the story too well, there is no need to relive it, my son,” Kenta says, placing a hand on Isao’s shoulder.
Isao recomposes himself.
“So you have shown this woman bushi your heart,” Kenta says.
“Is that when she went with you to your room?”
“No, it was I who went with her to her room. Under pretense of her showing me some of her family’s strange heirlooms from their travels across the sea. It was very late, and had I been less tired and more sensible, I’d have returned to my cohort. But I was curious about the heirlooms, and the longer we spent time talking, the more intoxicating she became. Her lips invited like the petals of Lotus flowers. They proved soft and warm, as did her breasts beneath her kimono. I felt as if both my mind and loins were consumed be fire as she pulled me onto her futon, her every movement as deft and skilled as when we opposed each other in the Sumo match. Her hands and her mouth moved liked magic over my body. I could not resist her. So much so that before long the student became the master. She accepted my aggressiveness gratefully, and encouraged me with vigor. We did not sleep until the first brightening of dawn began to turn the sky purple. And then we arose exhausted as the first bells of the Topaz rang through Tsuma’s streets. The competition would not wait. When I left her, she made me swear to keep it all between us only. No one could know. Especially not the other contestants. I have kept all of this locked up in my soul during the weeks of travel back from Crane country.”
Kenta’s eyes seem to go far away. He is listening, and yet he is remembering too.
Kenta allows himself a low, knowing chuckle.
“When women take up the blade-oath of the samurai, they forsake much of what it means to be female. But unless they are the sort of women who prefer other women, they are still women. Does that make sense?
“Yes Father, but how do you know this?”
Kenta pauses, toying with his sake cup, refills both it and Isao’s, and together they swallow the burning liquid.
“I have never told you this. I never even told your Mother. But before you were born, in the days before I was married, I too met and bedded a woman bushi.”
“Yes. Oh, don’t look so shocked. You might ask me how it happened, and I would tell you to look in the mirror of a calm koi pond.”
Isao waits, suddenly fascinated.
Kenta clears his throat, wiping a hand experimentally across his mustache.
“Her name was Maoura and she was of the Unicorn—like your friend Subotai. I met her during one of my Imperial visits into Unicorn lands at the behest of our Daimyo, who wanted to learn if the shugenja of the Unicorn had anything to teach the Tamori. Maoura was assigned to me as my yojimbo. At first she ignored me. The bushi of the Great Clans are not always respectful of shugenja, regardless of our heritage. But when I brought the power of the kami to bear against a host of hill bandits intent on robbing our company, she became curious. We started talking. Within a week she was sharing my bed.”
Isao stares at his father, as if to stare at a stranger.
Kenta chuckles once more.
“It was discreet, of course. I don’t know that anyone else in our company knew. I too was sworn to secrecy.”
“Amazing,” Isao says.
Seemingly relieved of the weight of his long silence, Kenta becomes effusive.
“I have a theory about women bushi who take shugenja as lovers. It’s something Maoura told me one evening, as we lay together; spent and sleepy. She told me that for one bushi to love or make love to another bushi, it is forever a game of power and dominance. A battle for control. Proverbial katanas and bisentos, striking and counter-striking. As a shugenja, and especially as a shugenja from another Clan, I did not threaten Maoura the way a fellow samurai would have. She said she felt safe with me.”
Isao snaps his fingers, “Yes, this is what Kakeko told me too!”
“With us,” Kenta says, “the women bushi are free to be women. You and Kakeko may have been opponents in the Topaz, but that was a short-lived and artificial arrangement. As a Tamori, you demonstrated your power in the swamps. You defeated your rival shugenja as any samurai would defeat another samurai in open battle. You demonstrated bravery and strength, which all women desire in men, and yet your strength as a shugenja is not that of a samurai per se, thus you are not a challenge to Kakeko’s mastery of herself, nor her standing among other samurai.”
Isao considers at length, toying with the idea of taking another drink, but decides to abstain. Now it is he who has questions.
“What happened with Maoura?”
“What was destined to happen,” Kenta says. “When the mission was completed and I returned to Dragon lands, we parted ways. Regretfully, of course. I found her exotic as well as beautiful, and her physical strength was delicious during the act of love. But our destinies were not aligned. It was a chance affair, and fondly remembered. So much so that after your mother died I actually made discreet inquiries through the Emerald Magistrate’s various lines of communication between the Great Clans. Last I knew of her, Maoura was married and teaching at one of the Moto dojos.”
“Moto Subotai might be her relative!’ Isao exclaims. “She might have been his sensei!”
Kenta pauses, thinks, and shrugs, “I suppose it is possible. If the Fortunes swirl at all between the Moto and the Tamori, it may explain why yourself and Subotai developed a bond during the Topaz. When you see him again, you might inquire about Maoura.”
Isao remains quiet for many minutes as he and his father listen to the gentle rain drumming on the roof, and on the leaves of the trees around their home.
“I feel as if I love her,” Isao confesses.
“Of course you do,” Kenta says. “I felt the same way. Kakeko will always be a part of you now. She was your first woman, and in this way she is immortal in your mind.”
“No, Father, I believe there is more to it than that. Yoritomo Kakeko, she seems to be… I feel as if… I feel as if she has been placed in my path for a reason. It is fate.”
Kenta straightens up. “Then you intend to pursue her?”
“No,” Isao says. “She is betrothed to Yoritomo Naoto, a merchant of some standing in the Mantis Clan.”
“Then you must forsake her,” Kenta says, almost as if ordering it.
“But she professes no love for this merchant,” Isao protests.
“Not everything under the sky is arranged for our desires,” Kenta says sternly. “Be grateful that you held this woman in your arms for the time allowed between you at the Topaz, and savor her memory. But do not hope for more. It is done. Over.”
Isao sighs. He does not dare challenge his Father on the matter. But hope and passion linger in his heart, even as the light of possibility seems to slowly go out. He still feels a connection to Kakeko. A connection he doubts he can simply put down and walk away from, like one might misplace a water jug at the well.
Kenta slowly stands, his hand motioning for Isao to join his father at the veranda rail.
Together the father and son look out into the wet night.
“Knowing your fear of the water,” Kenta says, changing the subject, “I am amazed the overturning of the Heir’s barge did not drive you mad.”
“I have nightmares,” Isao admits. “About them I also desire counsel.”
“Are they the same ones you’ve always had, about your Mother?”
“No, they are new. I am aboard the barge as the river sweeps up and dispenses with the Heir’s soldiers. Over and over again, I experience the terror of the barge capsizing, rolling, splintering, and this time I am pulled under. I cannot breath. There is no hope. Icy hands reach up and take my legs, and I am pulled down to death. When I awake I am soaked in sweat, and my throat feels raw, as if I have been screaming without actually making sound.”
“How often do they come?”
“Usually every night.”
“What about the nights they do not come?”
“I dream of… her.”
“I see. So you experience either agony or ecstasy.”
Kenta lays a hand gently on Isao’s shoulder.
“My son, it is a heavy burden you now bear on your shoulders. Were it within my power to call down the kami and erase from you all memory of these terrible things, I might do it. But I have no such power, and since you seek my counsel on this and other matters, I would give it.”
“I hear you, Father, and I implore your wisdom.”
“Very well,” Kenta says, placing both hands on the rail and staring intently into the night. Only the gently flickering of the paper lanterns reveals Kenta’s grimace as he prepares to offer judgment on all that he has been told.
“Rokugan has a new enemy. The Great Clans will be slow to see it, and will instead look to turn the attack on the Heir to their exclusive advantage. But if what Moto Subotai and Yoritomo Oki told you is true, this is a threat from the outside, perhaps working in concert with an internal enemy already well hidden; and waiting only for the chance to strike against us.
“The Fortunes have placed you and your cohort at the center of the typhoon. The Heir is not only aware of who you all are, he now trusts you as he would his closest confidants. All the moreso because you risked your lives to defend him before you knew who he was. I cannot say why the enemy allowed the Heir to live, suffice to say that few Tamori have ever been so intimately acquainted with anyone in line for the throne. This is also true for the Shogun, who will remember you and your bushi comrades too. The Topaz Championship was merely a canvas, upon which the Fortunes painted the events as they have unfolded. Now, things change.”
Kenta draw a deep breath, and proceeds with deliberation.
“My son, of your cohort I would specifically say this.
“Moto Subotai is your most loyal ally. I hear in your words the truth and dignity of his deeds, the power of his honor, and the fortitude of his resilience. When the enemy brings ultimate war to Rokugan, I wish very much for you to be at Subotai’s side, and he at yours. The other Great Clans do not understand the Unicorn, as you and I do. I believe the Unicorn will save Rokugan some day, if not from the enemy, then perhaps from Rokugan itself.
“Akodo Toranaka and Ikoma Uso are the true future of the Lion. This Tetsuro Akodo bushi represents the worst, most archaic aspects of what it is to be Lion. Ignore him. Focus your spirit on your new friends. I understand that Toranaka’s pain and disgrace especially will be difficult for him to bear, but if he is not allowed to commit seppuku this pain and suffering will be the fire that forges him into a remarkable leader of samurai. Uso… is haunted by something at which I cannot guess. Nevertheless, that he bested all comers in the Topaz, fought with honor at every step, and conceded to Subotai… there is a greater destiny at work in Uso than any mortal man might know. Both of them will be crucial, as the Lion are the Emperor’s greatest weapon when Rokugan is under siege.
“Suzume Shintaro may be the man to keep you all tied together. Few Sparrow have ever soared as he seems to have soared. He will enjoy respect and prominence within his Clan, and in the war against the enemy all of Rokugan will need such stalwart, capable bushi. He seems to have the ferocity of the Crab without their thick-headedness, and the prowess of the Lion without their overbearing pride. Like Subotai, I would have you at Shintaro’s side when the tide of battle is highest. Treasure him, for greatness can be born from the most humble soil.
“Yoritomo Oki is the wildcard. A man of supreme skill, yet also ruled by his appetites. I fear for him that he has been dispatched to Pleasure City. I have been there, and seen even strong men tempted to their doom. Yet the carnal fires of Pleasure City may be the furnace which hardens and hones Oki into a man of honor? If Yoritomo Kakeko was placed in your path by fate, I believe Oki may have been as well. He will need you and the others to remind him of his obligation to Rokugan, and you will need his gift with a bow during moments when neither spells no swords can reach the foe.”
Isao takes it all in, listening intently. Kenta has never been a visionary, yet he is speaking as if he already knows what will come to pass. Isao is breathless as his Father exhales slowly, inhales, and prepares to make a final pronouncement on Isao’s own prospects.
“For you, my son, who is now a man in every sense of the word, I see but one choice. The answer to your nightmares is the answer to Rokugan’s dilemma. You must prepare yourself to rise and fight this water-borne enemy. That which you fear most is that which will confront you eternally, until you master your fear and confront it where it dwells. Therefore I—we, the Tamori—will do our utmost to prepare you to fight. Tomorrow I will take you to see the Daimyo and I will say some of what I have said here. You were our champion at the tournament, and so shall you be our champion against this new enemy.”
Isao closes his eyes and swallows hard. He longs to deny the truth of what his father is saying, yet he is grateful for the words; for he suspected such all along.
“What must I do?” Isao asks.
“We will decide that tomorrow, after securing the Daimyo’s approval. For tonight, I want you to rest. I will wish for you to dream sweetly of your Kakeko, and not the water demons of blackness and death. May your lust and want for the Mantis woman be transformed into energy and vigor for your new training. When you were a boy I worried that you were too gentle for the Tamori arts. We are a fighting shugenja, and I saw in you the gentile manner of a philosopher, not a war-mage. But now the die is cast. You must learn some hard learnings, you must harden your body and soul, you must seek out and confront the new enemy.
“You, and your cohort with you. For I predict that none of them can escape this joined fate. The spectral shugenja you saw at the bank of the river, and again on the barge, he saw this too. That you were all not destroyed tells me he either has further need of you, or the Fortunes are such that your participation in future events cannot be prevented, even by an opponent with such awesome powers.”
“But how can a man fight a god-like sorcerer?”
“You know the story of the Dark Oracle of Fire, yes?”
“The Tamori have labored greatly to live down the Dark Oracle of Fire’s betrayal of Rokugan. Perhaps now we may have a chance to strike a blow against a similar foe, and once and for all wipe clean the stain left by the Dark Oracle on the Tamori name, and on the Dragon as a whole.”
“Father,” Isao says, head bowed, “you do indeed lay a heaven burden on my shoulders.”
“I know,” says Kenta. “But I will help you carry this burden. It need not all be addressed in one evening. There is time yet to prepare. To gather allies and information. Tonight is but the planting of the seed. Take heart, my son. These are momentous times. You have been given the opportunity to shape what it will mean for your children and their children to call themselves Rokugani. This is not a foe the samurai can fight alone. We shugenja know what it means to do battle, and to fight for our land with honor; to the giving of our lives. I would see you give such tremendous combat to this enemy, either to his utter defeat, or to your death in glorious service to the Emerald Empire. A death worthy of song and remembrance down through a score of generations. Let it be written. Let it be so.”
Isao looks at his knuckles, made white as he grips the rail with his fists. He is reminded of his friend Toranaka’s wails of agony as Isao pours the essence of the fire kami across the gushing stump of Toranaka’s left arm. Isao wonders how Toranaka—proud and invincible Toranaka—will bear the wound to both his body and his spirit. For a moment Isao imagines Toranaka: older and captaining the armies of the Lion into battle, as he captained the combined might of the Topaz competitors against the Daidoji Iron Warriors during the Mass Battle of the Topaz. Isao thinks Toranaka, and Uso, and the stalwart Subotai, and the brave, noble Shintaro, and even the hard-drinking Oki, will need an ally to wield the kami on their behalf, before all is said and done.
“Very well, Father,” Isao says, releasing the railing and looking up. “I have heard your counsel, and while it is a hard counsel, it is good. I am afraid—”
“We are all afraid. Only a fool is not afraid. Take hold of the fear. Use it. Turn it to your advantage, my son.”
“But I do not know how!”
“You will learn,” Kenta says. “We will learn. Together.”
The two men—one old and one young—look into each other’s eyes. Kenta outstretches his arms, beckoning. Isao walks slowly into them, and father and son hug tightly.
“I cannot do it alone,” Isao says, near tears.
“You will not be, nor have you ever been, alone.”
Isao closes his eyes and squeezes his father tightly, then the two men step back, hands braced on each others’ shoulders. Kenta nods once, Isao returns the nod, and together they walk into the house as the last of the paper lanterns of the veranda silently flickers out.
To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/the-drowning-empire-episode-17-isao-on-the-dragonspire/
And if you want to check out some fiction where Brad was actually trying 🙂 http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=monshuntnati-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B007E5ZTKA