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 Steven Diamond, who is playing a complete sociopath.
A New Kind of Currency
Seven Days from the Ivory Kingdoms
“I owe you words, my friends,” Uso said. His companions fanned out before him, concern written on their faces. Things had been cold between them since the raid on the Serpents of Sanada. It was as if a wall had been erected between them.
Such a wall could be a…inconvenience…in war.
“We have worried for you, Uso-san,” Toranaka said. “You have been shut away in prayer for the better part of the last week.”
Uso nodded. “I had to seek direction from my ancestor. He had much to say.” Uso bowed his head, briefly, then allowed a single tear to make its way down his cheek.
Good, Satsujin said. Good. Now the words to go with the emotion. Make sure you get it right.
“You have my apologies, my friends, for I fear I have been trying to hide my true self from you all.” Uso took in their reactions in a glance. They had all suspected that the Lion wasn’t just a bard. Well, all except Shintaro, anyway. “It is time for me to be honest with you all.
“I am not just a bard.”
Satsujin snickered in Uso’s mind, and Uso could have sworn that Shintaro almost gasped aloud.
“Ever since our time together at the Topaz Championship, I have felt the fraud. Like I was an actor in a kabuki play.” Uso met each of their gazes in turn. “Perhaps you all have noticed this. Perhaps not.”
Excellent, Satsujin said. See how Subotai nods? How Isao’s eyes narrow? Toranaka will be the hardest to convince. Oki will play along…at least if he values his life, he will.
“I have been in awe of your skills,” Uso continued, shaking his head to lend credence to the words. He pointed at Toranaka. “One armed, and yet your honor is greater than ever before. Your ferocity in battle is exceeded only by your honesty.” The Lion’s Shadow pointed at Subotai. “And you, friend Unicorn. Your humility is staggering, and both you and Oki are some of the finest archers I have seen.
“And I tell stories in sake houses,” Uso said quietly.” Yet even in this regard I have one as an equal. Shintaro. Yet I am not the type of man who inspires fear on the battlefield as he does.” Uso looked at Isao. “And who here can claim to be Isao’s equal? Certainly not I.”
“Are you saying you feel…inadequate?” Subotai asked.
“Compared to all of you? Indeed. How can I not?” Uso held out his hands to forestall any arguments. “Please, friends, let me share my words. If I don’t, courage may fail me.
“I have not been myself,” Uso said, “because I have tried to be more like all of you. It shames me to admit it, but I have felt that if I were more like all of you, perhaps I would be a better samurai. Maybe even like unto my father…though that would be a hard act for any man.”
Uso pulled his sheathed no-dachi from where it rested on his back, and held it out as if on display for his companions. “This was my father’s weapon in the War of Dark Fire. He slew many foul creatures with it. Me? The men I killed at Broken Wave City were my first, and I was almost unprepared to face them. Luck guided me. But more than that, your examples guided me. I thought ‘If I were Tornaka or Shintaro, what would I do here?’ I had kept my shameful thoughts to myself for so long. My humiliations as well—for do not think my time in Scorpion lands was absent embarrassment.
“I am a Topaz Champion. Expectations for me are…high.” Uso sighed. It was a heavy sound, full of regret. “If I were of any other family, or amongst any other samurai, surely I would be taking my wakizashi to myself after these admissions. Perhaps I still will. I will leave it to you all to decide. But please, let me finish.
“In the hidden village of the Serpents, I got carried away. I tried to show you all that I was just as capable as the rest of you. I was so desperate that I chased after those dogs who begged for mercy. I am not sad I killed them.” A low, quick laugh escaped Uso’s lips. “Not in the least. But my attitude and comportment we not in line with the way you all acted. In trying so hard to be like all of you, I tried too hard.
“I saw how you all looked at me. Shocked. Dismayed. Maybe even frightened.” The Lion shrugged. “I couldn’t bear it. My mask was gone. You all saw—whether or not you intended to, and whether or not you realized what it was—the depth of my shame.
“I am not just a bard. I am not even that good of a man.”
Oh, well done, descendant, Satsujin chortled. If I could clap for your performance I would. Look. Even those hard eyes of Toranaka’s have softened. Now for the finale.
“I cannot promise I won’t be overcome in battle again,” Uso said. “I have a more direct relationship with my ancestor than most, and he was—is—a hard man. His influence sometimes makes me say or do things that are not the wisest. But he is my ancestor, and I will respect him.
“I can promise you this,” Uso continued, straightening. The no-dachi was still held before him. “I swear on my father’s sword that from now on I will be my own man. I will make my own path. I will help you all in any way I can, no matter how insignificant my offerings may be. And I will train. I will work to be the samurai my father was.”
Uso set the no-dachi on the ship’s deck and pulled his sheathed wakizashi from his sash. The Lion’s Shadow knelt and presented it to his companions. “But if you wish me to demonstration my conviction, I will.”
Satsujin laughed again. Magnificent, descendant. Watch now, for here comes your reward.
“Uso-san,” Toranaka said, “put away your blade. Your only faults were in not trusting us sooner, and trying to be a man different from the one you were born as. We have worried for you, but no longer. We understand you now. But you are right, Uso-san,” Toranaka continued. “You are not just a bard.” The Akodo reached down with his remaining hand and gripped Uso’s shoulder. “You are a Samurai.”
“I’ve got to write this down…” Shintaro mumbled.
Uso stood and took the group in. In their faces, what had once been worry was now replaced with…pride?
Yes, Satsujin said. The sin of pride. Tell them just enough of the truth, and they will believe any excuse that spills from your mouth. Such is the weakness of man. A man will always believe that which he wants desperately to be true.
“My friends, you humble me,” Uso said, letting another tear fall.
“No,” Subotai said. “You humble us. I am glad you spent time in supplication with your ancestor. It seems he helped you, and in turn, all of us.”
Uso smiled, but he kept the predator in that smile hidden. “You have no idea.”
Nine Days from the Ivory Kingdoms
Of all of his companions, Oki would be the easiest to kill.
It would be a simple thing. Poison in the sake. Or, should the Yoritomo decide to quit alcohol altogether, a woman could be poisoned as well. There were certain, exotic poisons that were easily transferred with sex. And the best part was the woman would die as well, leaving no witnesses.
It had worked for Uso before.
Shintaro would be simple as well. Likely all it would take is a promise of something shiny at the bottom of the ocean, and another promise that if he believed hard enough, he could breathe under water.
Toranaka. Uso knew he would be a difficult kill. Approach from his armless side, then a quick slash to the throat. Maybe at night after a battle when he is tired.
Isao would have been simple a month ago. Dump a bucket of water on him, and he would kill himself in fright. But no longer. And he no longer will drink tea with me on the voyage. Must have realized I was drugging him so he wouldn’t go insane and set our boat on fire.
There was a much simpler answer, Uso soon realized. All the Lion had to do was send an anonymous note to Yoritomo Naota that Isao had slept with his wife, and that the child Naota has been raising was not his own.
Subotai. Uso knew he would be the most difficult. The man’s horse couldn’t be used as bait, for that would just make him more wary. Ambushes tended to fail around the man. Who knew if poison would even work on a Moto? Perhaps it was time to search for some good blackmail information. Everyone had some. If they didn’t, they weren’t human…which itself was blackmail material.
It’s either that or a knife through the eye while he sleeps, Uso thought. I could steal a knife marked with a Spider mon. Framing them is always a good plan…
Uso shook his head, trying to rid it of the murderous thoughts.
Ever since the battle, two days earlier, Uso had kept to himself. With the extra ship that Oki had taken as “spoils of war”, there had been plenty of room for solitude. The battle had put Uso into a blood haze that still hadn’t faded. After the eighth time nearly wrapping a garrote around Isao’s neck, Uso had sealed himself away, claiming he needed time to cleanse himself.
Every time the Ikoma closed his eyes, he imagined plunging his knife into the face of one of his companions. Uso hadn’t slept since the battle.
Through it all, Satsujin had remained absent.
Every man and woman on these boats was prey. In one way or another, they were there to take. The woman they rescued, Hotaru Kuroko…was she actually that beautiful that it sent Uso’s blood racing, or was this just the drug of battle?
He wanted her.
An image flooded his mind of her hair tangled in his clenched fist, his other—
Uso threw himself in the corner of the closet-sized room, stifling a whimper.
Control, descendant. Control.
Those were the first words Satsujin had said since the before the sea battle.
“What is wrong with me?” Uso babbled into the dark.
Nothing, Satsujin said. You could have been a berserker had the Matsu taken you in. But you are Ikoma. There is something different in you now. I feel a foreign blessing. Someone has taken notice in some of your…skills.
Satsujin was silent for a moment, and Uso thought he would go mad from the absence. When his ancestor spoke again, it was in shock.
A Lord of Death has blessed you, descendant, he said. It is in the nature of all Ikoma to be swept away in emotion—whether in poems, lovemaking or in battle—but this Lord of Death must have made your blood run even hotter.
“I want to kill everything,” Uso whispered.
Yes, Satsujin said. But it will pass. That is not our worry. I will help you through that, for you have shown me something these last few weeks. You have almost made me…proud.
Uso felt himself calming as his ancestor spoke to him. He was left exhausted and sweating, as if a fever had just broken.
“What is our worry then?” Uso asked.
Your companions saw too much of you, the ancestor said. We must direct their suspicions elsewhere.
Pay attention, Satsujin said in a voice that sounded like an evil smile. It is time for us to put on a play for them.
Thirteen Days from the Ivory Kingdoms
Uso could almost hear the heartbeat of the bandits that were just now rallying for a counter attack. The Serpents of Sanada had never counted on anyone finding their village.
And now they died as dogs should.
The group had landed in near silence. What few guards wandered about were silenced with ease. After that, they went from tent to tent, bedroll to bedroll. This was work for knives and stealth. A blanket of fog aided their progress, though few of the bandits made noise as they were executed while sleeping.
Uso felt as if he wore the fog like a shroud. It covered him, making him all but invisible. He picked the bigger tents to enter. Bigger tents have more people.
The first one he entered had three men slumbering in it. He stabbed down with both tantos simultaneously into the eyes of two of the three bandits. One jerked, his hand spasming and hitting the last bandit next to him. Uso lunged forward and shoved one blade up through the man’s exposed chin while the other blade cut the neck to the vertebrae.
Uso exited the tent five heartbeats after entering it.
The Ikoma nearly ran into the next bandit and he rounded a smaller tent that Shunya had entered. The bandits were waking up.
But it was too late for them.
Uso’s left tanto took the surprised bandit in the testicles, his right blade buried through the cartilage of the man’s nose and into his brain.
Cries of alarm sounded.
All they did was tell Uso where to go.
Uso made no sound. No battle cries left his lips. In this fog he was the hunter. He was a predator, like those that had stalked his companions in Otosan Uchi.
Uso was death.
Blood flew, tinting the fog crimson. None of his victims screamed, because Uso didn’t want them to.
His blood roiled, and his knife-wielding hands were a steel and red blur before his eyes. A man with an ono swung at the Lion’s Shadow. The axe descended, almost with a lazy slowness, towards Uso’s head. It was an easy thing to step to the side. It was an infinitely easier thing to slip around the bandit and slide tantos into each of the man’s kidneys. Uso sheathed his two small blades and drew his no-dachi.
The time for subtlety had passed.
The first sound to escape Uso’s grinning lips since the assault had begun was a laugh.
As the bandit screamed—for now Uso wanted to hear that music—he cut down with his sword. The effort required to separate the man’s head from his body was quite simple. The spray of blood was quite unique, as they all were.
The Lion almost didn’t notice the light that surged up into the air. He did notice the impact as a massive stone slammed into the largest hut of the village. The leader of the bandits, Kosugi, was thrown end over end from the exploding building.
Uso had to give the woman credit, she fought to the very last. She drew a katana and delivered a brutal slash to Toranaka. Another got by even Subotai’s defenses. The fools were playing fair.
An arrow streaked in and severed the fingers from the leader’s hand.
She drew her wakizashi.
Another arrow hit that hand.
She was defenseless.
Toranaka severed her head with a single cut.
It was beautiful.
Bandits—those that remained—threw down their weapons, kneeled and begged for mercy. I will never put myself in that position, he thought. They are cowards to do so.
“No mercy,” Uso said. It came out quietly, but everyone heard it. There was a line of seven bandits, pleading in pathetic tones. Two heads flew with a single stroke. Then another.
Uso bent closer to the remaining three bandits and smiled. They flinched as the Lion drew closer. “Run,” he whispered to them.
He gave them to the count of five before he gave chase.
Mist closed around Uso as he chased the bandits. A hunt. His body burned in excitement. The slowest of the men was suddenly in front of him. Such a slow runner.
Uso sprinted as hard as he could and swung his no-dachi at waist level.
It cut clean through the man above his pelvis.
Uso kept running, the forest was a hundred yards ahead. It was said that the most terrifying creatures dwelt there.
We shall see.
The two other bandits were just a few strides ahead. The one in the lead looked back and made a whimpering noise when he saw how close Uso was. The man tripped, falling and bringing the other man down with him. They scrambled to get back to their feet, but the Lion was already standing over them.
“Please,” one said. He looked like a frog. “Please, I have a fam—”
Uso’s swung his no-dachi as hard as he was able. The blade hit first between the man’s shoulder and neck, then cut down through his chest, abdomen, and exited out through his groin. Blood exploded from both halves of the bandit, showed both Uso and the other bandit.
Uso howled in glee.
The smell of excrement and urine drifted to Uso’s nose. The living bandit had let loose his bowels. The Ikoma leaned in, “What do you fear more?” he asked, grinning. His grin felt stretched at the ends. Almost too wide. “Me, or the beasts in the jungle?”
The man leapt up and sprinted for the jungle. Uso waited until he heard a single, strangled cry that cut off abruptly.
Uso walked back to the village. Prisoners were being freed, including a beautiful woman with a mon he didn’t recognize. Some part of his mind found that detail strange. I should recognize all mon…
Toranaka was on the ground, bleeding. Isao was trying to heal him, but the wound was grievous. At least he isn’t chopped in half. Uso stifled a giggle.
“Are you well, Uso-san?” The voice seemed to come from miles away. He gripped the handle on his no-dachi tighter, ready to spin and slash.
“Fortunes, Uso-san! Is that blood yours?” Another voice. Whose?
Uso turned and saw Oki and Shintaro staring at him.
They looked terrified.
Uso smiled at them and laughed.
“Oh no,” he said. “Not mine at all.”
Fourteen Days from the Ivory Kingdoms
“It’s simple really,” Uso said. “I need you to tell me everything you know about the Serpents of Sanada.”
The prisoner looked up, confused.
Uso sighed, making the gesture as dramatic as possible. “What’s your name?”
“Sono. Hmm. I expected something fiercer as a leader among the Serpents. Whatever.” Uso crouched down next to the bound man.
“I learned a lot about knots the past few weeks,” the Lion said. “It seems you can make them do incredible things. I can make it so you are secure, but also so I can pull one limb at a time away from the main knot. Neat, right?”
“Glad you agree,” Uso said, patting Sono on the cheek. “You’re so much more talkative and civil than the last guy I had like this. See, he wouldn’t tell me what I wanted.” Uso smiled, but he put no real warmth in it. “So I cut off all his fingers. Then his ears. Then his nose. Then, just to make sure I hear him right, I cut his mouth wider.”
Sono’s eyes had grown huge. “But…but…”
“I know what you are thinking,” Uso said, a knife appearing in his hand almost by magic. “You’re thinking, “But, Ikoma Uso—what an awe inspiring name you have!—if you cut him up like that, how did he tell you what you wanted?’ It’s a good question.” Uso tapped Sono on the forehead with the point of a tanto. “See, after I cut off his first finger, he told me everything. I did the rest for fun.”
“L-look,” Sono said. “J-just drop me off on land somewhere and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
“Well, I was going to let you live as part of our crew, but if you want me to let you ashore—ashore? Is that the right ‘boat’ term?—I can just throw you over by the jungle.” Uso shook his head. “I thought you were more intelligent than this. You disappoint me. The last guy in your position disappointed me. I didn’t care for it.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Uso said pulling out a garrote, two shruiken and another tanto. “I like this game quite a bit. But I’d really rather not cut you into fish food. Hmm. I don’t imagine the celestial wheel would have an easy time putting you back together if I did cut you up like that. But hey, maybe you’d come back as a nezumi!”
“Will I get fed?”
“To the fish? Isn’t that what I just said?”
“No,” Sono said. “If I stay on and help you, will I be fed?”
“Of course, what do you think I am, a monster?”
Sono swallowed, making a gulping sound.
“You’ll be paid too. Good deal, right?”
“Great,” Uso said clapping his hands together. He stowed away his tools. This had gone better—and cleaner—than he had expected. “Of course, if you screw us I’ll open you from neck to stomach. Sound like a deal? And don’t worry, I’ll be watching you to make sure you don’t do something that crazy.” Uso turned and opened the door to the cabin. Oki fell into the room. He’d been listening at the door. “Really?”
“It’s my cabin!”
Uso rolled his eyes. “Fortunes help me. Get the others. Sono here is going to tell us the best way to find the Serpents’ island. Maybe we’ll get to kill some more pirates!”
Shintaro appeared behind Oki. “Uso-san! We need to write down what happened during that sea battle! It was amazing!”
Uso sighed. Everyone wanted some of his time today. “Shintaro-san, maybe it would just be better if you told that story. I was too busy throwing massive boulders at ships, wrecking the crap out of them. Then I caught their commander single-handedly—who incidentally is going to lead us to their base. I didn’t really do much.”
“Good point,” Shintaro said pointing at the Lion. “Don’t worry, Uso-san. I’ll take care of it!”
Uso shook his head and laughed. Behind them all, Daidoji Masafuni was checking the catapult.
Fortunes, Uso thought, how I love that machine…
Twenty-five Days until the Ivory Kingdoms
“You bought a catapult?” Uso asked, looking at Oki. The Yoritomo looked oddly confused.
“Yes?” Oki replied hesitantly.
“I assume it was expensive?”
“You have no memory of buying it do you?”
“Of course I do!” Oki said. He looked to be attempting to work up some indignation. Then the Mantis sagged. “Not at all.”
“The fake knock-off stuff?”
Oki sighed dejectedly. “Yes.”
“It is a good gift,” Uso said. He looked out over the ocean, and took in a deep breath of the sea air. The boat swayed beneath his feet, but the motion didn’t bother him. In Kyuden Bayushi, Sakai had insisted on dueling while they both stood on floating boards in a pond.
In a way, Uso missed his time there.
The Lion snapped out of his memory. “I’m sorry, what was that, Oki-san?”
“I asked why you insisted I let the two Crane onboard for the journey.”
“The Daidoji is worthy of our respect and honor,” Uso said levelly. “His uncle was Kakita Fujo, of the Paper Lanterns. As for Doji Shunya? Well, he could prove useful.”
“In what way?” Oki asked, skepticism heavy in his voice.
“He will be an extra target when we find the Serpents of Sanada. He may kill a few of them. Maybe, if we are lucky, he will even get himself killed.”
Oki laughed for a few moments, then trailed off when he noticed Uso wasn’t laughing. “Wait, you’re serious?”
“Of course,” Uso said. These Mantis think everything is a joke, he thought. “I don’t like him. His dying would remedy that problem.”
From the front of the boat, Daidoji Masafuni approached. The Crane was massive, a man the Fortunes built for war. He looked exactly as he remembered Kakita Fujo being described by his father. Exactly. Even down to the facial structure and expressions…which was a little weird since Fujo and Masafuni’s father weren’t actually related by blood.
“Yoritomo Oki,” the Crane said politely, bowing. “Ikoma Uso. I have a question.”
“Good for you,” Oki said.
“Go ahead,” Uso said, ignoring Oki.
“Why do you have a giant tarp covering what I assume is a siege weapon at the front of the boat?”
So, Uso thought, he is a thinker too. I like him more and more.
“Because I didn’t want to intimidate everything,” Oki said.
“Because it isn’t assembled yet,” Uso corrected.
“I’m going back to the wheel,” Oki said, disgusted, and stomped off.
Masafuni peered after the Mantis. “He doesn’t trust me.”
“Why should he?” Uso asked.
The Crane nodded in appreciation. “He is smart. I will follow his direction on this ship. Do you trust me, Ikoma?”
“Some men have to work hard to earn my respect, Daidoji,” Uso said carefully. “You already have.”
“Thank you.” Masafuni looked at the tarp. “I have some knowledge in the construction of siege weapons. I can help build it.”
“On one condition.”
“You instruct me as you build it.”
Masafuni’s eyes narrowed, then he nodded. “Done. Perhaps you will join me for a game of go later?”
Uso looked into those eyes. He doubted men ever got past the hulking physique to notice just how intelligent this Crane was. Go was often used to see into an opponent’s mind. No, I will not give this man that level of insight, trust or no. “I’m afraid I would be a poor opponent, Masafuni-san.”
“I doubt that, but I will respect your wish.” The Daidoji paused for a moment, then spoke again. “Tell me something, Uso-san. Are your companions honorable?”
“I wish to know the samurai I may be fighting and dying beside.”
Uso nodded. I must tread carefully here. “They are, in the ways honor varies between clans. Toranaka values honor more than most I know, as does the Shintaro—he’s the Sparrow over there writing in his journal.”
“What of the man on the mast?”
“Isao? Well, he’s a Dragon. Honor is different to him, I imagine. What other samurai would lash himself to the mast in order to overcome a phobia of water?”
“We should just kill him,” Masafuni said. “His squeals shame him.”
“Not yet. He is shugenja. We will let him work through his issues. Those blessed by the kami deserve that benefit.”
Masafuni grunted his agreement. “What of the Unicorn?”
“Again, different values. He is Moto. Same with our captain, Yoritomo Oki. At times he is erratic, but you will be hard pressed to find a better archer and loyal friend. There is honor in that for the Mantis. That just about sums up everyone.”
“What are your thoughts on honor, Uso-san?”
Uso smiled. “My honor is my own, Masafuni-san. I will do with it as I see fit.”
Present Day, Kalani’s Landing – One Day after Landing in the Ivory Kingdoms
It is time for you to understand something, descendant, Satsujin said.
What would that be, ancestor? Uso asked.
That honor is nothing more than another form of currency, Satsujin replied. You gain it. You lose it. You use it. You barter for it and with it. It is a tool. A tool that you employ to make you stronger in battle and with words.
Uso looked out over the nighttime city of Kalani’s Landing. Lanterns glowed with muted efficiency, and in less populated areas of the city actual fire’s burned in designated locations. At night, it seemed not unlike any other city he’d visited.
But Uso knew well that appearances could be deceiving.
His nerves were calm. His focus absolute. This was where their journey would really start. This land was not calm. It was not focused.
It was wild.
This kind of land called for a new set of rules.
Your companions can follow their codes as they see fit, Satsujin said. But you…you will play by your own set of rules whenever possible. You will cheat. You will lie. You will assassinate. You have only two rules, descendant. What are they?
The first is to complete my mission—whatever it may be, Uso answered. The second is to do whatever is needed to complete that mission.
Exactly, Satsujin replied. And your mission, right now, is to save this damn Empire in a way that makes the Lion Clan stronger. You will play any role necessary to get this done. That Scorpion Kuronobo had the right idea. It is better that we cull thousands than lose hundreds of thousands. So you will be that knife if need be. If you kill a thousand—or a million—and it helps the Empire, so be it. Whether the Empire realizes the need or not.
Whether the Empire realizes the need or not, Uso echoed.
The Lion’s Shadow nodded, then said aloud, repeating Satsujin’s words, “Honor is currency.”
To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/the-drowning-empire-episode-40-bandits-dont-surf/