Monster Hunter Nation

The Drowning Empire, Episode 18: Naming the Stars

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 Pat Tracy, to explain what his character, Moto Subotai, was doing during our 2 year time break, so we never played any of this. Pat got really carried away and wound up writing this beautiful bit of samurai drama. This is just a great piece of fiction on its own.

Continued from: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/the-drowning-empire-episode-17-isao-on-the-dragonspire/

Naming the Stars

By Patrick M. Tracy

Farm Tract 229

Designation: Minor

Wheat Yield Less Than 2 Tons Per Acre

Xiao knelt on the worn straw mat, the close, warm dimness of his tiny home surrounding him. As he often allowed himself to do, he stared down into his bowl of milled-grain porridge and did not think. At least, he tried not to. Xiao didn’t care to consider all the danger looming around him and his family. He tried to tear his mind from the prospects of another poor season, with the sun too hot and the rain too infrequent. He was a peasant, a farmer, and these considerations were not easily dispensed with.

The vagaries of the weather, the small setbacks that trouble the mind–these were not his prime concern, however. It was the bandits who frightened him like nothing had ever done. They had already burned two farms and killed many. His was the furthest farm from the great road, the one most heavily hemmed-in by the forest. The fact that the farm that he worked with his family had not been razed was unlikely. Each day, he was forced to contend with the possibility that his wife and daughter would be raped and his young son’s throat slit. Things were silently bad, bad in the small ways that caused a powerless farmer to lose all he had ever wished to keep safe. With every day, the likelihood of this good fortune continuing seemed to dwindle.

“Your food will grow cold, husband,” Xiao’s wife whispered, touching him on the shoulder as she walked by, their baby son on her hip and sleeping with the drooling peace of the innocent. “You know that the gruel will turn to glue if you stare at it any longer.”

Xiao reached up and covered her hand with his own. “I am greatly troubled, Ha,” he confided. Let the samurai and nobles swallow their emotions and keep faces like painted porcelain. Such was not a necessity for peasants and the low-born. He shared all with his beloved wife. All the good and bad. It had been so since they had wed at 14, so many years ago.

“We will be protected. I have faith.” She squeezed the muscle of his shoulder, hard from labor and sore from the beginnings of middle age.

“Like Cheppu and his family? Like the overseer and his nephew?”

Ha looked at him with sad, plaintive eyes and said nothing.

“I will eat,” Xiao said, as if relenting his worry.

Ha took the baby and went into the tiny second room at the back of the house, where the sleeping mats and the baby’s crib were. Xiao dug the flat wooden spoon into the thickening gruel and ate it without tasting, still lost in a world of bad omen, where the careless Fortunes and the greater tides of the Empire cared little for the fate of one small farmer. No one cared that he had shorn his daughter’s long hair and forced her to dress as a boy, wrapping fabric tight around her chest to hide her increasingly feminine figure.

None gave a thought that he had shown Ha the best, most painless way to kill the children, so as to save them from the awful fate they would have if the bandits captured them. Xiao was alone with these things, a farmer of wheat who toiled in the most militant of all clan holds. The Lion outpost would send no one. If troops did appear, they would be little better than brigands themselves. Xiao saw the difficulties and could envision no remedy. He could only wait for misfortune to find him.

The sound of pounding feet coming up the dirt path to the house, bare soles slapping hard against the dry earth, caused the glutinous wheat meal to stick at the back of his throat. His heart pounding hard in sudden fear, he held onto his spoon as if it were a club that could be used for protection.

The door burst open. His shorn daughter of seventeen summers, Bai, dropped roughly to her knees at his side, flushed and panting. Her eyes flashed and rolled like a frightened animal as she struggled for breath enough to speak.

“Father! You must come! There are…samurai riding in from the great road!”

*****

Xiao handed his half-eaten gruel to his daughter. “Stay inside, no matter what you might hear. Only come out if you hear my voice ask it of you. Do you understand, Bai?”

The girl nodded, eyes full of questions she would not ask of him. She took the bowl to the wash basin on the side wall and began to clean it. She looked at him over her shoulder as she did so. Xiao levered himself up, groaning. His back again. It gave him but little peace. With the wrong word to a samurai, he would not have to worry about such things. He sighed, dusting his tattered shirt and putting his feet into the wooden sandals that he wore only rarely. It was too late to do anything about his mud-covered feet.

They were much closer than he had imagined, moving without a word, the only noises the creak of their saddles and the rustle of their clothes and armor. They moved with a disciplined stillness, a whole contingent of them. There were at least thirty mounted samurai, and that many more footmen and common bushi. One of them appeared to be on a small rise, gaining the advantage of better sight lines all around. Unlike the rest, his clothes were a rich purple in hue. This put him in stark contrast to the familiar gold of the other samurai, and the dun colored attire of the common bushi.

When the purple-clad samurai moved, though, Xiao gasped. He had not been on a raised point on the earth, but rather, his horse was enormous, the largest that the farmer had ever seen. The purple rider said something inaudible to a man riding next to him, then pointed at Xiao with his chin. A bow with a tall, bulbous upper limb sat easy in his left hand, its lower limb tip tucked into one stirrup.

The contingent stopped some twenty paces from Xiao. The man next to the purple rider took control of the warriors, making small, authoritative gestures that set them fanning out to examine the nearby area. This one was young, but had the clean, hard lines and flint-chip glare of a general. At his gaze, Xiao found that he had assumed a submissive crouch upon the ground, and that his body trembled with the nearness of his own fate. Strangely, the man was crippled, his left arm ending a few inches below the elbow.

“I will speak to him,” the purple warrior said in a breath.

The leader’s face softened in the smallest way, and he nodded. In a moment, the horse, impossibly tall, stood easy next to Xiao. He could feel the heat of the animal upon his skin, almost hear it as the huge muscles of its legs flexed and quieted.

Konichi wa, farmer. I am Moto Subotai. I follow the honorable Akodo Toranaka, who is the one handed samurai there. We are here to destroy the Forest Killer bandits.”

“Greetings honorable samurai. I am Xiao. Whatever you ask of me, I will give.”

The purple warrior, Moto Subotai, was suddenly and noiselessly off his horse. Xiao was not certain how this had happened, and he had been looking at the man’s legs at the time. The samurai’s words had a slight accent, his voice deep and slightly rough.

“I would have you stand, so I can see your face when we speak.”

Xiao complied, eyes carefully averted from the man’s face, which sported a barbaric mustache that reached the edge of his lip and fell downward off his chin like a twin waterfall. At that moment, the huge horse moved forward a pace and pushed its head against Xiao’s chest, knocking him flat. He looked up into the animal’s deep and glistening eye, which studied him like an interested child would study a captured locust in his palm

“Tento!” came the sharp exclamation of the purple warrior. “Ishi! See that he is fed and does not get into the wheat fields. He is in one of his moods.”

A groom appeared and led the horse away without comment, other than a sigh of one who is always called upon just as he was about to have a moment’s peace.

Xiao rose but didn’t dust himself off, as that would seem to indicate that he had been the subject of any undue harm. He simply stood, watching the Moto warrior, who in turn watched his horse be led to a fence at which he could be hitched. This purple samurai was not particularly large, but had a sturdy build with large leg muscles. He turned around with such suddenness that it caused Xiao to give back a pace. The man was lightning fast, without even attempting to be so.

“I am sorry that my horse knocked you down. He is known to be a prankster.”

“Please. It was clumsiness on my part, honorable samurai.”

The Moto grunted. “On to things of import. Where is your overseer?”

Xiao licked his lips. They didn’t even know. They…it didn’t matter. They were here, and after the bandits. He vowed to make many entreaties to the Kami, Fortunes, and his departed ancestors, in hope that they would forgive him his lack of belief in their providence. “The…the overseer was killed by bandits more than three weeks ago. They set upon him in the road, killing his nephew, three servants, his guards, and badly injuring a drover nearby who was plowing a field. We farmers have been on our own in this parcel since then.”

“Mmm.” The Moto touched his mustache and considered the news. “Is the farm to the east the only one that has been ruined?”

“There is another, honorable samurai. Behind the hill, in a spur of the road that only people from this parcel know of.”

“Has the overseer’s home been ransacked?”

Xiao shook his head. “No. His wife, their servants, and two guards remain. They have been too frightened to attempt escape. They are barricaded in their home, and will come out for no one.”

“And how many workers do you have here? Family?”

“The workers have all run away. It is just my wife and my…sons. We are too few to work the land, but we have tried to keep up.”

“Well, perhaps a few of our Ashigaru will prove worthwhile in that respect. We are going to be basing our campaign against the Forest Killers here.”

“Here?”

“For the summer, yes. Or until they are all slain, though that will not be a trivial task, I think. Our yurts will be there, in your fallow field. I trust the stream behind your property runs pure and does not go dry?”

“It…it does not. Run dry, I mean. The water is good.” Xiao’s mind reeled. In a moment, the samurai had taken over, changed everything. A group like this would draw attention. The bandits would likely attack them to discover their strength. That fight would take place here, with his family hanging in the balance. If the samurai failed, it would be his family to pay the price in blood. Xiao thought he would stagger and fall to the ground, but he did not. The earth did not pitch and heave beneath him.

He stood, watching the Moto lean against his unstrung bow, looking around with an intense but unthreatening mien. “Fortunes help us,” the farmer begged beneath his breath. “Let us not be currency in the wagers of men who think only in steel.”

The Moto did not seem to hear Xiao’s words. He turned, beginning to walk away. “I will enjoy speaking to you of wheat farming, I think.”

Xiao went back to his tiny home with slow and uncertain footsteps. Fate had chosen to save him from his fears by turning his farm into a battleground.

*****

Bai had been kept in the house since the samurai arrived. At first, when the fear had caused her heart to flutter like the beating of sparrow wings, she had been happy enough to stay hidden. It had been almost a day now, and the boredom at being cooped up had set in. Beyond that, she wanted to see these warriors in their finery, with their swords that cost as much as villages and their horses bred for battle.

It would be like spying, almost. When father had first shorn her hair and commanded her to dress like a boy, she had been crushed, but she could see the advantage in being a “boy” to these strangers. She could observe them, enjoy the masculinity of them, without any danger that they would look twice at her. With her breasts strapped down beneath a winding of cloth, she appeared to be a twelve year old boy, on the cusp of puberty and still carrying some childish fat. This seeming was far from the truth.

Before the workmen had fled the parcel in fear of the bandits, she had lain with Wo Hun, the youngest of them, many times. Wo Hun had been closer to her father’s age than her own, but he had been gentle to her, and she had found that she very much enjoyed it when their bodies pressed together. Even thinking about it, her cheeks would flush, and she would be filled with shadows of longing, like waving trees at the edge of a clearing.

“Father, I must go out sometime. I can’t remain in the house until the samurai leave,” Bai said.

“You are willful, daughter.”

Bai stared at him, hands on hips.

“But what you say is true. Go about your chores, but take care amongst these men. Any of them could kill you for the slightest offense. They would not even be questioned about the event, nor would their comrades so much as set down their sake cup in response.”

She hardly listened. Bai had been told of samurai and their perilous nature many times. While it was true that a few samurai of the most weedy and questionable sort had come through their parcel in years past, these new men were not the same at all. She had managed to get a look at them, and knew immediately that whatever craven attitudes had prevailed in the backwoods samurai in the past would not be shared with this military unit now encamped on their fallow field.

When her father was finished with his speech about samurai, men in general, and all other dangers that might appear beyond their door, she gave him a quick smile and burst outside into the hot sunlight.

There was great industry. The common foot soldiers were felling sapling trees at the tree line and cutting them down into six foot segments, sharpened on one end. Others were burying them in rows, facing outward at an angle that would poke into a man’s chest if he ran at them. Large tents covered a swath of the overgrown field, with fire pits communal to each pair of them. A makeshift hitching rail for horses had been built nearby, as well.

The leader, a hard-faced young man without his left hand, set the group in motion with the smallest of words or gestures. Of all the samurai, his was the sharpest uniform, the most highly-polished leather. He did not appear as if he would be perturbed by a windstorm. He seemed to see everything, and took her appearance in with a sweep of his eyes, though his gaze never lingered upon her.

“You, Boy,” a voice called out from behind her, rough and commanding. She turned, and bowed low as she found herself confronted by a purple-clad samurai with a thick mustache that bracketed his lips like black seams in a farm field. The warrior stood easy, his thumbs hooked into the sash that held his swords at his waist. Despite the hard tone of his voice, he smiled. The element that made fiery sparks shoot up Bai’s spine was that he could look perfectly friendly, while at the same time exuding a sense that he could explode into deadly motion in an instant. She took in a half breath, not certain if she wanted to run away from this savage-looking warrior or throw herself at his feet.

“Are you the farmer’s son?” he asked.

She nodded, unable to form words to respond.

“You needn’t fear me. That is, unless you’ve thrown lots in with the bandits, eh?” He laughed, coming closer than Rokugani usually step, looming over her. A hand came free of his sash, raised slightly, as if he were about to grasp her by the upper arm, but he took his eye away from her face and put the hand down, halting for a moment. “In any event, come with me. We will speak.”

Bai followed the samurai. He walked quickly for a man with the short, thick muscled and mildly bowed legs of a horseman. She trailed, her eyes upon the hilts of his blades and the angles of his armor. He did not seem to have a destination in mind, but rather began a lazy circle of the warrior’s encampment and elements of the farm. Bai waited for him to speak, not sure what to say to him, wondering if it would be poor form to ask the first question, though she burned to know what he would have of her, to either be let free or to be told the nature of their task. She had only seen one of the samurai caste from afar and heard of their deeds. Heroic samurai rarely appeared here. It was mostly old soldiers and young men. Even then, they were rarely in this parcel to do anything but protect the tax collector or do a cursory sweep of the road for robbers.

“Draw even with me, Boy,” the purple-clad samurai ordered, though his voice was now far more gentle than it had been at first, almost as if he had been overtly brusque for someone’s benefit back near the other men. “I would not fling words over my shoulder to reach you.”

Bai did so, matching his stride. It put her just beyond her comfortable pace, and the samurai saw this. He slackened, and they settled into a meander, slowly going around one of the large wheat fields.

“It’s said that the nearby farm, the one that was ransacked, is difficult for an outsider to find. Is this true?”

“Yes…” Bai said, stammering when she realized that she didn’t know the best way to address a samurai in conversation.

“Call me Subotai.”

“Yes, Master Subotai.”

He chuckled, shrugged, and plowed onward. “I take it that you know where the farmstead is?”

Bai told him that she did. “What for, Master?”

“Do you ride a horse?” he asked. “Of course not. How would you? Any horse here would be fit only for the traces of a plow, and an ox requires less upkeep. The primary concern is this: are you afraid of horses?’

“I…don’t believe that I am, Master Subotai.”

“Good. You’ll ride with me and a few bushi, and we’ll examine this farm, hey?”

She bowed, her stomach hollow as she realized that she was absolutely in this man’s power, that he could order to do anything, ask anything of her, do anything to her, and she would have no recourse at all. All of her father’s words suddenly rang in her head like a bell. She was both thrilled and terrified.

*****

“This is Tento,” Subotai told her. “You would do well to stand behind his shoulder, but ahead of his rear legs. He can sometimes be unpredictable.”

Bai didn’t think too hard about what the titanic horse, who could easily rest his chin atop her head while she stood on tip-toes, might do in a moment of aggravation. The other horses were conspicuously tied to the rail several paces distant from Subotai’s mount, and the rail directly ahead of him had been subject to chewing such that there was a three inch deep divot taken out of the wood. She sighed.

“He’s usually beautifully behaved, provided that you don’t take your eyes off of him for a moment.”

“He is so tall. How do you get up there?” she asked.

“Like this,” he answered, taking her by the hips and hurling her up into the front of the saddle with little outward effort. He was up behind her in an eye’s blink. His left arm went around her, as taut as a band of brass, and held her to his chest.

“Ah, ah.” The sound escaped her without volition. The ground seemed ten feet down, and she had only felt this level of physical closeness during her adulthood with Wo Hun.

“I have you,” he said into your ear. “You are safe enough. In the event we’re ambushed, hold hard to Tento’s neck while I fight.”

In a moment, they were off, hurtling across the ground faster than she’d ever been. The wind whipped at her close-cropped hair, and the movement of the samurai’s hard armor behind her, his arm about her body, was the most indelible experience of her life. Even with Wu Hun striving against her in the night, she had not been so alive.

Other horses followed, a few guards and an unarmored man with Subotai’s bow held across the pommel of his pony’s saddle. She could feel the mighty beast they rode straining, wanting to go even faster, but Subotai kept him below an outright gallop, which would have quickly left the shorter horses far behind. Bai found it hard to remember to give directions, wanting only to continue riding, to hurtle all the way to the Great Road without stopping. Even when she put her mind to it, the landmarks came up so much faster than she was used to that she nearly missed the turn to Cheppu’s ruined farmstead.

*****

The exhilaration of the horse ride faded the moment Cheppu’s farm came into view. The devastation of the place was staggering. Bai had come here so often in years past, had spent many winter days playing with Cheppu’s young son, Tikki. Tikki’s mother, Daishu, had been so kind, and had always insisted that she eat a sweetened cake when she came. Now, with the buildings burned, the fences knocked to the ground, and the nearby fields overgrown with weeds, the place seemed foreign, her memories of it made to seem like lies. In just weeks, the place had gone from a vital, wholesome place of hard work and laughter in the fields to a grim, silent tomb for the family that had been almost as much a part of her life as the sky and the forest, and the slow churning of the seasons.

“You knew them well. I am sorry.” Subotai stood next to her. “The evil of honorless men is never easy to behold.”

Bai swallowed the tears that wanted to come. It had all been unreal and distant, the news of the bandits, until now. They were no longer shadows moving in the spirit world, no longer myth. She set her teeth. “I hope that you kill them all.”

“We mean to.” Subotai turned to the common bushi and told them to look around the wreckage of the farm. He stood, looking around from beside Bai, not speaking for several minutes. When the Bushi returned, he took them aside and heard their report. Their faces were grim, ashen. Whatever they had seen, it was enough to shake their spirits. Bai was glad that she had not been with them, imagining what her friends would look like after two weeks in the open, with wild dogs and forest creatures gnawing upon their flesh.

“See that they’re properly cared for.”

“They are but peasants, Sir,” one man protested, though his voice was mild and he did not stare into his officer’s face.

Subotai lifted an eyebrow. This was enough to send them on their way. Only the groom, Ishi, remained with them, holding a slightly smaller bow that he had strung, in case of attack. He stood by next to Tento, the horse resting its muzzle on his shoulder and lightly chewing on his sturdy robes.

“So, what do they call you, Boy?”

It took a moment for Bai to focus on her false name. “Ping, Master Subotai.”

“You are, what, eleven winters?”

“Twelve.”

“It is a good age, twelve. I was that age when I returned with my father from the Burning Sands. It was then that they began to take pains to ensure that I was not a rough beast, that I did not snarl and bite like a wolf.”

Bai opened her mouth to ask Subotai about the Burning Sands, a place she had only heard of in whispers, a land of strange gaijin and the barbaric Desert Moto, an example of which was standing before her now. The question would forever be unasked.

“Master,” Ishi, the groom said quietly. He produced a short blade and held it behind him as he nodded to the path. Three ragged men, unshaven and grinning like foxes, walked toward them. The leader, dressed in a gi that had clearly been pulled from a Lion Samurai’s body, rested his hand on the hilt of a curved sword at his hip.

Subotai moved forward to intercept them, his hand held behind him in a gesture to stay back. The samurai met them at the road, close enough to hear every word. Bai went to stand nearer the groom, a cold, constricting band of fear across her chest. The three interlopers looked pleased with themselves, enthusiastic. Subotai’s expression was neutral. There was no evidence of concern on his face.

“I had heard that the Akodo army brought in a hired killer,” the lead man among the ragged warriors said, smirking. “I had thought I would at least meet a Crab, but I see they stoop to new depths and bring a barbarian from the plains to frighten us.”

“You are mistaken. I am simply traveling with a friend, and am not on retainer with the Lion Clan. As to frightening you, I would not presume to think myself that imposing.”

“Honeyed words! Do you hear that, boys? This barbarian can speak like a courtier. Perhaps he’s been gelded and tamed by the Lion.”

“I am altogether intact, I assure you. Know that you speak to Moto Subotai, son of Kohatsu, graduate of the Shinjo school. If you aim to duel, I am happy to oblige you. There’s no need to strain yourself coming up with further insults.”

“Duel?” The leader of the three bandits spat on the ground. “Dueling is for feminine weaklings! For womanish city dwellers who have never been bloody up to their elbows and muddy up to their knees. No, I will not stare longingly into your eyes, Moto scum. I will fight you, and cut you deep.”

“Agreed. Dueling is tiresome to me, in any case. I’m far happier this way.” Subotai’s katana appeared in his hand as if by magic, and the bandits stepped back a few paces. “Will you fight me yourself, or shall I be contending with your cohorts, as well?”

The lead bandit drew his scimitar. “They are just here to watch. Your doom will come at Ashari Nightwing’s blade.”

“Come at me, then, and let the Fortunes decide.”

Ashari Nightwing rushed forward, his scimitar flashing. Subotai made a small, almost imperceptible movement, somehow causing every grunting swing of Ashari’s blade to find only thin air. Ashari struck again and again, with Subotai’s blade countering him, when he even came close enough to warrant a block. This went on for what seemed to Bai a long while, with Subotai never attempting to attack, only defending with such skill that Ashari was made to look a fool.

Ashari pulled back, panting. Subotai did not try to press his advantage, simply holding his katana at the ready in low guard. Sweat glistened on his brow, but he breathed easily, his feet set.

“What manner of fighting is this? What gaijin wizardry protects you?”

“I have not yet begun to fight, Ashari Nightwing. I merely dance with a clumsy partner.”

Ashari shouted as he attacked, this time with heedless anger. Steel rang once, then Subotai shifted his weight to his front foot. Ashari’s chest burst open with a shower of blood as the samurai’s blade cut him to the backbone. Subotai leaped back two paces in the next eye blink, regarding the dying bandit and his two cohorts with neutral attention, his face betraying nothing.

The bandits watched their friend die, their hands upon the studded clubs at their belt. One moved to attack Subotai, but his partner grabbed him and pulled him back. “He’d tear you apart, Chiro. Let’s get out of here.”

“Tell the Forest Killers of what you saw here today.” Subotai said, just the faintest hint of emotion in his voice. “Run as far as the sea if you are wise, and take a ship bound for unknown lands, where no one knows your name. If you stay, you shall share Ashari’s fate, and worse.”

The bandits turned and ran back the way they’d come, feet thudding against the hard packed trail. Subotai came back, handing his katana to the groom to be cleaned, and squatted down on his haunches. He took many deep breaths, looking out into nowhere. Little droplets of blood coated his face and the front of his clothing. Bai watched him, trying to read his expression. Whatever it may have been, it was not exultant, though he had bested a man in single combat with a spectacular killing stroke.

In the moment she considered this, the full weight of what she’d seen came to rest on Bai’s shoulders. She staggered, leaning up against Tento. The horse didn’t seem to notice her. The vision of how the bandit’s chest had exploded at the touch of the blade would not leave her inner eye. Death was so fast, so abrupt. The loud-mouthed villain’s words had not even left the air, and he was dead, riven to the bone so that the sun peered down upon his inner parts.

Bai shook herself. Subotai’s groom had cleaned his blade and it was at home it its lacquered sheath again. He stood, mopping the blood from his face and hands with a purple cloth that showed blood as simple ink spatters.

“That is the way with samurai and ronin. We are an excitable folk. Our deeds make us, or see us unmade. I did not expect them to attack so soon, or I would not have endangered you in this way. It was a miscalculation on my part, Ping.”

The common bushi came running, arriving too late to do anything but look down at the dead bandit and realize that they had been lax in their duties. As this came over them, they bowed deeply, asking for Subotai’s mercy.

“It is nothing. I was in no danger. When Toranaka-san learns of these events, I will make it seem as if you were at my back.”

The bushi bowed deeply to him, their faces grave. “Shall we bury this one, Lord?”

Subotai sighed. “Drag him off the road and leave him for the dogs and carrion birds. He does not merit honor.”

Bai imagined that this…this state of being a samurai…strained the bounds of being human. Surely, they felt love and hope and fear, just as anyone else could. Somehow, they found a way hide it all, to shutter the home of their soul so thoroughly that none could see the fires burning within.

*****

“This is the reason I wished to keep you inside, daughter,” Xaio said. His heart thundered in his temples. That his baby daughter should be so near the fighting…he had never been so frightened.

“I was unhurt, father. Subotai-sama would have surely died before the bandits could have harmed me. I know nothing of swords, but he made the other man look like an oaf.”

Xiao put his hands on his head, balding and burnt brown from the sun. “Yes, yes. Samurai and their steel, and their honor. You were no less in peril. You didn’t betray yourself, did you, Bai? He mustn’t suspect that you are not a young lad.”

“He noticed nothing. To him, I am a twelve year old boy, nothing more.”

Xiao knelt down on his mat, forcing the frantic beating of his heart to quiet. She was safe. She was safe for one more day.

“You say that this Moto Subotai is a fine swordsman?”

She nodded. “And . . . his horse…”

“Yes, we were acquainted when the beast knocked me down with a flick of its nose. Listen, Bai, I think that these are the good samurai that the stories tell about, the ones who hold their duty sacred and really do care about protecting those who are weaker than they. Remember, though, that they carry danger with them like a heavy cargo. Best not to stand too close.”

Finally, Bai looked as if she really believed his words. Xiao prayed that this was true, and that she would listen to him. He held out but little hope, though. These samurai were bright flames in the dimness, and he could offer little to his daughter to distract her from flying ever closer to them.

****

The attack happened at dusk, just as the heat of the day departed, like the exhalation of a breath held too long. It had been six days since the events at Cheppu’s farm, and the forays that the samurai under Akodo Toranaka had launched had found but little. Only empty camps and old fire pits.

A forward lookout that the samurai had stationed within a patch of brambles called out, “Seven! Gold!” The rest quickly, smoothly went to prearranged positions. Other battle calls rang out. Swords pulled free from scabbards. Arrows were fitted to bow strings. The samurai, who had been restless and irritable, were suddenly calm, purposeful.

Xiao waved at Bai to run to the house, which she did, just as the battle began in earnest. She had learned that much. He was too far away, so merely ran into the wheat and squatted, watching the progress from his hiding place.

A forward samurai scout rushed back from his listening post, passing through the small break in the outward-facing sharpened stakes and taking up his place in the defense. It was at that moment that Xiao heard them.

Hounds.

They came on, running hard. Big dogs with white teeth glimmering and eyes red-rimmed. While they were still a good distance away, Subotai drew back his bow and released it. The string made a quiet thrum, and the arrow whistled through the air, taking the lead hound in the neck and causing it to spin sideways, yelping as the arrow buried up to the feathers in its flesh. Many more arrows arced through the evening air, some finding their targets, many finding dirt.

“Spears to the front!” Akodo Toranaka yelled from his position, a raised battle platform from which he could survey the battle, while being shielded from arrows from the chest down. The Akodo pennant hung from a shorn sapling next to the platform.

One dog burst through the line of spearmen and three of the common bushi converged on it, pummeling it to the ground with their weighted clubs. It somehow snapped to the side and got a hold on one of their knees. The man let out a scream of pain. Another bushi broke the animal’s back, and that skirmish was concluded.

The bandits materialized from all around, rushing the farmstead from angles that Xiao would have never expected. He heard one man running, low down between the stalks of wheat. There was a thud, then a scream as his feet plunged into a hidden trap.

Every seemingly brilliant flanking rush that the enemy enacted somehow turned out wrong, funneling them into the strength of the Akodo force, or revealing a hidden trap or obstacle. It was at this moment that Xiao realized that he was witnessing the work of a man who could see battles in his mind, move men like stones on a Go board. He knew that whatever the odds, the Forest Killers were in grave peril.

Toranaka-sama stepped down from his battle platform as the skirmish stretched into minutes, and the fighting at the front became a confusing, twisting knot of close struggles. The bandits had an advantage of numbers, but the superior organization of the Akodo more than counterbalanced that. Subotai and a few of the strongest samurai held the center, repulsing all chargers. Those few who leaked in from the small gaps in the defenses were quickly in a fight for their lives against the common bushi.

One clever bandit appeared from the forest side of the property, and was suddenly running at Toranaka. The Lion samurai seemed to slow himself, to become as still as a pillar of stone. He stood differently, the sword in his one hand held almost straight out at his opponent.

The bandit rushed in, screaming for blood. Toranaka moved in a subtle way, and the bandit’s swing clacked off his armor as the man rushed by. The blade pivoted in his grip, so fast that it could cast no shadow. The bandit ran three steps after his body had ceased to bear a head. The disconnected parts fell to earth in another eye blink. It had taken place so fast that there wasn’t a drop of blood on the samurai’s blade. Toranaka jogged to the battle line without so much as looking back at the man he’d killed.

“For the Golden Plains!” someone yelled. The bandits were soon forced to flee, leaving many of their numbers lying inert upon the field. Several of the Akodo samurai were injured in ways that were easily bandaged. One man had a broken arm. One had lost half his fingers on his off hand to a hound’s bite. The rituals for the dead were enacted for two samurai and three bushi that had not survived the battle the next morning.

Despite the losses, the Akodo contingent were unusually jovial in the following days. Xiao found it hard to understand this, but the ways of the warrior were foreign to him, and they always seemed happiest when rushing headlong into death’s jaws.

*****

Bai had never been on a hunt before, but Master Subotai had insisted that she come along. He still seemed unaware that she was anything other than what she pretended to be. He seemed to like her, however, and they had talked many times.

The hunt itself was not what she imagined it might be. It was a slow and silent walk through the woods, punctuated from time to time with Subotai shooting an arrow, often at an animal that Bai couldn’t see. The Moto did not miss often, though the two of them spooked game and ruined the shot at least half the time. When the shot was successful, Subotai would send her forward with a small knife to slit their throats and let them bleed. After this, a messy and rather repulsive task, she would put them in a large burlap bag and carry them over her shoulder.

It was the middle of a sweltering afternoon when Subotai finally seemed satisfied with the number of game birds and rabbits they’d taken. The bag was heavy and Bai was covered with sweat and blood. Though she was used to hard work, she was tired.

At the river’s edge, she bent and washed her hands and arms, splashing water on her face and neck to cool down. It was such relief, but so short lived in the humid summer air. Subotai was prowling the area to assure that there were no Forest Killers nearby. They had not made their presence felt since the battle the previous week, and the opinion around the farm was that they were licking their wounds and considering their options. Bai knew that, in a drought year, more than a few common folk would turn to banditry just to survive. Unskilled workers sometimes had no other option, some said. She could find nothing but hatred in her heart for the Forest Killers, though. They had hurt her too much, and she would always have more care for the law keepers than the law breakers now. She had seen them both up close.

Master Subotai returned. “I intend to swim in the river, Ping. There is no better way to cool down and wash sweat from the body on a day like this.” He gently placed his swords, dagger, and bow on the grass, then began to unfasten the sash that held his over-tunic closed.

Bai felt her cheeks redden. Her mouth ran dry, and she had to dip a palm into the river’s flow to quench the sudden thirst. “I cannot swim, Master.” She could, of course, but what was she to do? Disrobe before the samurai, and reveal her deception? She couldn’t, mustn’t do that. At the same time, she yearned to with all her being.

The Moto samurai was unaware of the war in her head. “Afraid of the water, are you?”

Bai knew she must play her part in the deception well. “Only of drowning, Master.”

Subotai laughed. “I know a shugenja of surpassing power who is afraid of water. A great mystic who can call upon the Kami to enact his will, and the thought of deep water lays across his heart like the specter of death. We all have our limitations. The only great job of life is to chip away at them, becoming more than we were. One day, you should learn to swim. Cold water and holding one’s breath cleanses the body. Helps you live longer. I have heard that, in the old days, Moto who swam in the river next to the mountain called Pun Kyosho would only die in battle, or because they lost all their teeth and could no longer chew their meat. Of course, this was told to me by my friend Ikoma Uso, so it may well be a fabrication.”

With that, Subotai shed the last of his clothes. His body, solid everywhere and filled with compact muscle, disappeared into the flow of the water. At that moment, and to her great detriment, Bai knew that she was in love with him.

*****

Xiao had been given a letter signed by Akodo Toranaka. He was told that there would be a painstaking list of all the supplies that the contingent had used in their stay, and that these costs to the parcel would be deducted from the required tax on his wheat crop. He prayed that the samurai would make a good accounting, and that it would allow him to keep enough to feed his family. He couldn’t read the kanji on the paper, so it could have told the tax collector to stab him in the belly, and he would not have known. He couldn’t bring himself to distrust the message, however. The samurai, especially, Subotai and Toranaka, had been honorable and forthright about everything thus far. The Moto had gone so far as being friendly, though it worried Xiao greatly that he had taken Bai under his wing. Her ruse of being a boy would only last so long. It would only take one slip, and he would know. Xiao only hoped that he would not be angry at her for the lie.

Xiao lingered behind the woodpile, now stacked high. He sat on the splitting stump and looked at his hands, reflecting that he became tired more quickly this year. The heat of the sun seemed more oppressive, every chore a little more difficult.

The common bushi had been helping with the farm tasks, though without any real skill or enthusiasm. They were better than empty spaces where his farm hands had been, however. He was certain that it was Subotai’s idea to put them to work. Of course, the samurai could not directly aid him in such base tasks, but simply acknowledging that they needed doing, and hands to make that happen, was something Xiao was thankful for. Especially with him seeming so old suddenly. Where had the years gone?

Voices came from the other side of the wood pile, familiar ones.

“Good day, Tora. It is good to see you, my friend,” Subotai said.

“I do well. The arm doesn’t trouble me much, and I haven’t had to discipline any of the Ashigaru today. What have you been up to?”

“Hunting. The men need meat to keep them strong.”

“You and your Moto ideas.”

“Don’t worry. I found game birds and rabbits for the spit, knowing the delicate stomachs I had to serve. It is sad, though. More men could have a fabulous mustache like mine, would they only eat more meat. Red meat makes one strong and potent.”

“Strong and potent in odor, perhaps.”

“Nonsense. I recently bathed in the river, and I’m clean as the plates in the Imperial Palace.”

“I saw Ishi around camp, who did you bring for the unpleasant tasks?”

“Ping, the farmer’s boy. Interesting child.”

There was a pause. “Are you taking the farmer’s daughter, then, Subo?” Toranaka asked.

“Daughter? I know of no daughter.”

Toranaka sighed. “I must teach you to look deeper into things, Subo. I knew in the first day that the one they call Ping is really a young woman who masquerades as a boy. A wise move, with bandits nearby, and especially around all these bushi and samurai. You had no clue, even when riding pressed tight to her on the horse?”

“Ah. I never suspected a thing, other than the boy being a bit plump and soft. I am blind, my friend.”

“Not blind, Subo. You are a hawk. You see far away, small things, but the things that are obvious and nearby, you sometimes miss. You will learn. There will be a time when Uso-san can help you do so, perhaps.”

“Perhaps. He would be the person to talk to, as he always seemed to see everything. Here I am, with a woman pressed to me ahorse, and I am unaware. Well, I’ll do nothing to endanger her. I am betrothed, in any case.”

“Betrothal doesn’t mean anything out here in the wilds, Subo. It is like being promised a meal someday, and pretending not to have hunger.”

“I wouldn’t force her. The idea is repugnant.”

“I would never suggest such a thing, of course. I know your heart. I also know that you have suffered ongoing turmoil over your betrothal. Whatever happens, this girl is a peasant. That men of our age and place have appetites is established. There would be no dishonor in it.”

“Tora, these words, coming from you. You must sense the irony. I have never known anyone who holds himself to a higher standard, who refuses to bend to any circumstance.”

“Even for the son of Akodo Goro, there are battles that are better conceded. We all bend, Subo. The art of society is to bend without seeming to.”

“That sounds devilishly complex. Remember, along with being too compassionate, I am also dim-witted. I’ve read it in a letter from our cherished enemy.”

“As our Mantis friend is a pig dog, and I am fit only for an assassin’s blade, eh?”

The two samurai laughed about this last, some private remembrance. Xiao put his hand over his mouth, slowly walking away. He found himself back at the chores around the farm, trying to distract his mind from how very perilous things had become for Bai. Toranaka knew. He had always known. Now, he had very nearly given his permission to Subotai to use Bai however he wished.

“At least he seems kind,” Xiao said to himself as he mended a fence rail that had been broken in the recent fighting. He wondered very much what constituted kindness in such a man as a Moto Subotai. The world became indistinct in his vision. He found that he could not keep from making a low, rattling groan between clenched teeth. There was nothing he could do. “Fortunes protect her,” he gasped, leaning on the fence rail, his heart a cold, jagged stone in his chest.

*****

Bai had been looking for Subotai for some time. In the end, she’d found him down by the river, in the place where they had stopped the previous day. He sat on a rough blanket, a small sheaf of parchment on a writing board before him. Bai hung back, watching him.

The samurai would sit still, looking out at the far bank of the river, and from time to time, he’d dip his writing brush into an inkwell, drawing kanji on the paper with an intense look of concentration. Bai waited for him to finish whatever he was doing, but it went on a long time. At last, she came forward, though she suspected that he had known of her presence all along.

“What are you doing, Master Subotai?” she asked.

“Writing poetry, boy.”

She smoothed her rough tunic, swallowing with fear and anticipation. She could hold onto the secret no longer. “Master Subotai, I must tell you something. I have lied. I am not a boy. I am seventeen winters, a woman grown. Father made me pretend otherwise, so that the bandits wouldn’t rape me.”

“I know.” The samurai didn’t look up, but simply scanned the kanji he’d been writing.

“For how long, Master?”

Subotai looked up at last. “Not long.”

“I…I can swim. I lied to you. I am sorry.”

He shrugged. “Duty to family is our very foundation. Even when they ask difficult things of us, we must do our best to comply.”

They fell quiet. Bai sat with him by the riverbank. “What is it like, writing poetry?”

“Like holding onto steam as it rises from a teacup. Like naming the stars. It is a road with no ending.”

Her body shivered with his words, with the cognizant nearness of him. She stood. “I think I will swim today.”

Turning away, she began to disrobe. She could hear nothing from behind her, and was terrified to look back. Naked, she stepped into the shallows, the chill of the water shooting up the nerves, right to her hip. Subotai’s hand touched her shoulder, gentle. Closing her eyes, Bai leaned back against him. The touch of his lips to her neck sent blasts of fire pinwheeling through the void.

*****

A light rain was falling from a colorless afternoon sky. Autumn had come, and the fields were shorn of their wheat now. In the end, more than a few of the common bushi had shown a little aptitude for farming, and perhaps even grown to appreciate it. Xiao stood in the doorway and watched the samurai return. As he had become used to, a few lay across their horses in death, many bearing bandages in one or more places.

Akodo Toranaka’s armor hung off of him where it had been broken by a blow during the fighting, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. For once, he truly appeared at ease, happy even. Xiao could see him banter back and forth with the men, particularly Moto Subotai, who had a bandage running all the way down his forearm on the left, and another on his right thigh. The Moto looked to have had some sake, as he swayed a little in the saddle, and laughed loud at every jest.

The coarse burlap bag tied to one stirrup may have had something to do with it. It contained something roughly the size of a melon, and dripped blood. Xiao had a fair idea what it might be, and what it would mean.

While the other men stopped at their tents, the two officers rode closer, stopping just within earshot and letting their sodden horses stand.

“Shintaro should have been with us, Tora. He would have loved this mission,” Subotai said.

Toranaka nodded. “He would have been in his element. There would have been nothing we could do to keep him away from a plow, and we could have used his bisento to knock bandits to the grass. Still, what would he have learned here?”

Subotai produced a flask and upended it. “How to better slay bandits?”

The Akodo smiled gently. “He would have learned little. Farm life would have been no mystery to him. No, my friend, he is where he must be. For a Sparrow Clan samurai, what is better for wisdom than to roam the entire Empire, learning the ways of all the provinces, speaking to every type and sort of person? For me, for my samurai, this has given us insight into what it is to be a humble farmer, what their troubles and tasks really are. Because of this,” he gestured with his foreshortened left arm, “I am a wiser man that I would have been.”

“No one will notice what we did here, or care about the extermination of a few bandits. I’m proud of what we’ve done, though. I’m proud fight with you, Tora. Many of us who return from the road today do so because you were there to lead us, there to use us properly in battle and keep us safe.”

Toranaka turned to his friend, seemingly about to say something, then looked away. He touched his horse’s flanks with his heels and the animal walked toward the hitching rail, into the obscurity of the rain. Subotai sat still on his massive stallion for another moment, the elation of battle now gone, leaving the signs of exhaustion and pain visible. He gave the slightest of nods to Xiao and receded into the growing downpour.

*****

Bai stood with Father and Mother, just beyond the threshold of their home, and watched them ride away. Mother put her arm around Bai’s shoulders, and she clung to her like she hadn’t done since she was very young. Tears didn’t come, but she could feel them, down deep somewhere like a crack in the bedrock of the earth where water rises.

He had come to her one last time. Wordless and with desperate energy, they’d expressed all that needed saying the previous night. Now, her hand stole across her belly as she saw his arm rise in a final farewell before his horse turned the corner, and the rich purple of his uniform was gone from her vision.

The day was filled with the bright but distant sun of the autumn, and they went back into the house to escape the chill. Father’s bowl stood, overturned, in the middle of the low table at the center of the home. Her baby brother was fussing in the crib, and Mother went to see about him. Father knelt on his mat of woven straw, new-made this week, and lifted the bowl.

Within, there was a small sack made of purple cloth. Pulling the string that bound it, father sent coins spilling across the table. Xiao gasped. Bai put a hand across her mouth.

“How much is it?” she whispered.

Father’s face, eyes wide, turned to her. “Enough to feed us for a year, daughter.”

Her tears came then. She knelt, picking up a coin and holding it to her heart. It would be hard now. She would always yearn for something she could never have again. Bai understood that love was like poetry, like catching steam, like naming the stars.

End

Gray clouds gathering
stagnant heat, there is no rain
tonight no one sleeps

The raven calls out
speaks the names of dead soldiers
tales of battles lost

At the river’s edge
respite exchanged for blindness
content in not knowing

I am not fighting
with a blade I am dancing
a clumsy step, death

Afternoon so still
lions prowling the wheat field
jackals creep nearer

Shapes hidden beneath
her phantom territories
all secrets unbound

All that is so sweet
sinks teeth into tender flesh
pleasure’s debt is guilt

A gruesome trophy
that shape within the burlap
so ends our small war

One small concession
left beneath the wooden bowl
warrior’s leave-taking

###

To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/the-drowning-empire-episode-19-a-fist-full-of-bu/

To check out some of Pat’s other fiction: 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=0985825464

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Pete
Guest

Yowza! This is excellent. Is Pat Tracy working on any novels? All I see when I google him are short stories.

Mike
Guest

Patrick, you’re hitting on all cylinders now. I love the ending Haiku. Great story.

Christopher Potvin
Guest

Holy crap that was fantastic! Well Done, Pat!

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