Monster Hunter Nation

The Drowning Empire, Episode 43: Once Upon a Time in the Ivory Kingdoms

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 Zach Hill, who is playing our honorable but clueless farmer samurai Suzume Shintaro. Yuki is an NPC peasant girl who was hired to be the party’s cook.

Continued from: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/the-drowning-empire-episode-42-history-does-not-remember-the-quiet/
Once Upon a time in the Ivory Kingdoms

Yuki couldn’t believe the heat of this place. She had her kimono’s sleeves cut off and the hem shortened to above her knees and still that wasn’t enough. The very air felt just a half step away from becoming water. The entire land was one enormous, bug covered steam bath.

Broken Wave city had been hot, especially summer around noon, but there had always been the cool breeze from the ocean. In this dense jungle there was no cool breeze or breeze of any kind. It was just stifling, like being smothered by a mountain of blankets.

Shintaro was her chance to rise up above where she had been born but now she was starting to doubt whether it was worth it. How long were these samurai going to be here? If it was a day more then it was too long. She hadn’t known what heat was until she came to this cursed place.

She walked along beside the pack horse while drinking from her water bottle. She hoped they carried enough water because she felt like drinking it all. She had never sweated so much in her life and she was no stranger to work: honest or otherwise.

Up ahead the samurai rode together as they talked. Shintaro and Uso were taking turns telling stories. The difference was when Shintaro laughed, it was because he thought something was funny. When Uso laughed, it was because he thought he should laugh because that was what human beings did. They were all blind to what that man was.

Shintaro. For a samurai he was strangely kind and he treated her like an equal. When Uso talked to her it was just because the part he was playing demanded he do so.

She had to warn Shintaro about the predator. But he would never believe her and would probably cut off her head for dishonoring a samurai.

No, she had to think of something else. She had to get Shintaro to see the world for what it was, not the perfect – Bushido – heaven he thought it was. She wanted to yell at him and scream in his ear that people were rotten, dishonest and selfish.

If she just had one day to show him around the docks she had grown up around, he would see the truth of the world.

Suddenly the samurai all grabbed their weapons and the caravan came to a halt.

Subotai and Oki rode out ahead of everyone, bows in hand. Her hand instinctively went to her knife, not that it would do a lot of good when surrounded by samurai.

An earsplitting roar shook her teeth and she ducked down while looking all over. The sound came from up ahead. She had long ago learned that staying out of sight was often the best thing to do. Whatever was making that horrible sound wasn’t something her “meat tenderizer” could handle.

Whatever it was, she wasn’t scared of it. It was an animal or some terrible monster. Either way, all it could do was kill her. Sure, it would be painful, but there were far worse things out there than dying.

Men like Uso knew all about those things.

A blur of orange and black burst from the jungle. Whatever it was, was huge and crashed right into Subotai. The Unicorn was knocked off his horse and Oki whirled around to loose an arrow. The arrow sunk into the creature’s shoulder and it let out a piercing roar that was more out of anger than pain.

It looked like a tiger but stood up on its hind feet like a man. Its arm muscles were massive and the creature glowed with death.

The other samurai moved in, slicing at it with their katanas.

Then she saw Shintaro charge in. He always wore his armor and for once she was glad. She was about to call out to him to be careful when he struck.

His giant bisento named “Swamp Dragon” swung in an awesome overhead swing that came down right between its shoulder and neck. The heavy blade cut down through the creature’s chest sending a geyser of blood in every direction. The thing was practically chopped in half with one swing.

Shintaro then kicked the monster to release his bisento.

The tiger monster slumped to the ground with life rapidly draining from its face. Its yellow eyes rolled up into its head and it crashed into the dirt with another spray of blood.

She had never seen such power from a single man before. The man was as naïve and gullable as a newborn babe, but he could certainly fight. That was why he was there, he was their strong arm.

She no longer felt so afraid of being in a strange jungle full of tiger monsters. If Shintaro was there then she knew she’d be safe.

That wasn’t a feeling she experienced often. At most she had felt “at least I’m not starving” or “at least I’m not being beaten by a thug.” But safe? No, that was new to her.

So, Shintaro was powerful, he just didn’t know how to use that power. As someone who had spent her entire life without power, she had a few ideas of what he could do.

*

Three days later she was walking with Shintaro in the market place of Journey’s End Keep. Not even the docks of Broken Wave City had she seen anything like this. There were merchants from places she had only heard rumors about. Brightly colored tents filled with trinkets from far off places surrounded her.

Each stall made her want to stop and stare, but she had work to do. If she was going to attach her future to this samurai, then she needed to get him educated in a hurry.

“I don’t know why you insisted on coming with me. I believe I can protect myself,” Shintaro said.

“Against swords and tiger monsters, yes, I don’t doubt that.”

Not at all. She had never seen anyone fight like him. He could keep her safe and she wanted that very much. But before he could protect her, he needed to learn a few things.

“Then what? You fear a shugenja will attack me?” He said followed by a deep laugh. “I’m not important enough for a shugenja to waste their talents on.”

“You’re wrong about that Shintaro-sama. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to show you real people in the real world.”

“I’m not an isolated Imperial courtier. I traveled the Empire guarding Imperial Heralds. I believe I’ve seen the world.”

“Seen, maybe. But you did not understand it.”

Shintaro stopped and turned his head toward her.

“What, by the Kami, are you talking about?”

“Just watch, Shintaro-sama. You’ve seen the world through the eyes of a samurai of honor. Not everyone is honorable. Now, be still and watch.”

She pulled him into the shadows of an alley and watched the people of the market. The place was filled with strange people and even stranger gaijin, but humans were all the same. She could be in the palace of the Emperor himself and see the same things going on as she had on the docks of Broken Wave City.

It was a few minutes before she saw something.

“Look!” She pointed to rich man in gaijin robes walking through the market. “Now look behind him.” Shintaro followed her pointed finger to three men whose eyes didn’t leave the rich looking man. “They’re planning on robbing him.”

“Then we have to stop them,” Shintaro said.

“No, that’s not why you’re here. Just watch.”

As the three moved up, two town guards moved in and placed themselves in front of them.

“Ah, see? Justice is on the watch,” Shintaro said.

She held her tongue and kept watching.

One of the guards held out his hand and the three men passed him a few coins. Then the guards stepped aside and the three men continued after their prey.

“Why didn’t the guards stop them?”

“The thieves paid them off, Shintaro. That’s what happens.”

“How do they get away with this? Someone has to know that is going on.”

“Everyone knows.”

Next she pointed out a husband beating his wife because she had come to help him home after drinking all day. After that she pointed out a fake cripple begging for money and then a fake shugenja selling useless potions of “vigor.”

“Why show me all of this. I know the world isn’t a perfect place.”

“I’m trying to show you that humans are the same everywhere you go. Even samurai.”

“Nonsense. That is why we have the code of Busido.”

“Can you honestly tell me that every samurai lives up to the code every minute of every day? You’ve never seen a samurai lie or steal?”

That got a reaction from him. His brows furrowed and he began to think. She recognized his thinking face because he shut out all outside disturbances.

“I have,” he finally said.

“Do you think other samurai also do the same?”

He nodded.

“Shintaro, every samurai is capable of doing bad things, maybe even someone close to you.”

“Are you implying that one of my friends…”

His muscles tightened and he could see his hands clinch into fists. Her eyes shot to “Swamp Dragon” that was across his back.

“No! Not at all. I’m sure they are all honorable and true samurai.” She waved her hands as if to banish the idea that his friends were anything but honorable. “What I am suggesting is that you start thinking things through. Don’t accept a situation at first glance. Look for what’s real. Next time you go to a Lord’s castle or meet someone new, don’t trust what you see. Look and see what’s really there.”

She then motioned to the market and he looked out to see the truth.

It was a good half hour before he actually said anything.

“That money changer’s scales are off. He adjusts them every time the local thugs walk by.”

“He doesn’t want them to know he’s working in their territory.”

“That woman over there is a prostitute and that man snatches purses.”

“Is it obvious?”

“Not at first.”

“It is for me, but I’ve lived among these people all my life.”

“Why show me this?”

He turned to look at her and folded his massive arms. If he wanted to, he could break her with no effort. Normally that would have her looking for a place to hide, but for once those powerful arms were going to be working to protect her.

“So you can start being your own man and not a follower,” she said.

“I’m in the company of my superiors.”

“No, you’re not. You’re a samurai just the same as them. It’s up to you to show them that.”

She had placed a hand on his arm but withdrew it as soon as she realized it.

“The world can’t be as dishonorable as you say. The market bring in the worst of society.”

He then began to walk back toward the keep. She hurried after him and struggled to maintain his pace. His legs were longer and he could move like a horse.

“Consider everything you saw today,” she said.

Shintaro didn’t answer.

This wasn’t going to be easy. If she was going to teach this stubborn samurai, she had to accept that it was going to take a long time.

Every day she followed him wherever he went. She watched as he talked to his friends and the local Unicorn samurai.

She could see that his usual ease and smiles were replaced by restraint and thinking.

That was a good sign, but it was only a start. As it was, he was considering the situations but still coming to the same conclusions. She had to train his eye and it would take time.

One way or another she would break out of the societal prison mother left for her.

#

Yuki walked into the kitchen, following the scent of something divine. She had a good nose and one that helped her with her cooking. Now she was trying to find the source of that heavenly smell.

Other servants were running about, preparing platters of food for the party. She watched an entire bowl of fried squid rush by her and her hand shot out and grabbed one. No one noticed and she stuffed the fried squid in her mouth and continued to look around to see what else she could swipe.

Everyone was too busy to notice her. She walked through the kitchen unseen. She had never seen so much food in her life. She also didn’t recognize most of it. She was going to have to get the recipies for some of what she saw. Especially one platter that had thin slices of crispy meat of some kind. She had never had red meat or anything like it, but whatever this meat was overpowered the deliciousness of everything else.

Laughter filtered in from down the hall. That was the party where Shintaro and his friends were.

The courtyard was filled with local merchants and lesser nobility trying to get in. She knew that was one place she’d never be able to enter. She was a peasant and peasants didn’t go into places like that.

That’s all she would ever be, a peasant. Even if Shintaro did take her as his official mistress, she would always be a peasant. She’d be a very comfortable peasant though.

She snatched some of the thin, crispy meat and shoveled it in her mouth before anyone noticed.

It actually tasted better than what it smelled like.

“What’s this called?” She asked the nearest cook with the crispy meat still in her mouth.

“The gaijin called it bacon,” the cook said without looking at her.

Bacon.

Yes, she would need to prepare this for Shintaro. He would crave it and she would refuse to tell him what it was. That way he would have to come to Yuki to get more.

Down the hall a panel to the party slid open and the sounds of talking and laughter grew stronger. She swiped another piece of bacon and went to the kitchen door to see who had left the party.

The shadowed form was instantly recognizable.

Shintaro.

She hurried out into the hall and approached him. He had his thinking expression on again and didn’t notice her approach.

“Shintaro-sama?”

He looked up and smiled, but it was a half felt smile. She had never seen that expression on him before.

“What’s wrong, Shintaro-sama?”

“A great deal, I’m afraid.”

She reached up and placed her hand on his arm.

“I haven’t told you the story of my father, have I?”

She shook her head.

“My father taught me everything I know about being a samurai. My bisento was a gift from him. He taught me how to fight with it. Then he left to fight in a war and never returned.”

“I’m sorry.”

He held up his hand to stop her from saying anything else. “Hear me. I’ve recently learned that my father was never of the Sparrow Clan. He was a Spider. He was sent to infiltrate the Sparrow.”

A Spider! She had never met one and hoped to never have to. If Uso wasn’t a Lion she would have guessed he was a Spider. Stories were told at night at the docks about bodies turning up without their heads and hands, victims of the Spider.

Shintaro was half Spider by blood?

“That’s impossible,” she said.

“It’s not and it’s true. That’s part of the reason I’m here. I’m hunting him. When I find him I will clean his stain from the honor of the Sparrow Clan.”

With anyone else she would think they were blustering and only wanted revenge for something else. But when Shintaro spoke of honor, she knew he meant it.

“Is that why Shintaro-sama’s heart has been so heavy lately?”

He nodded.

“That is part of it. Also, your words in the market also weigh heavily on me,” he said.

“Please do not listen to the rambling words of a peasant.”

“You’re anything but rambling, Yuki. Perhaps you are right. Perhaps people are untrustworthy.”

“Not everyone,” she said. “You can trust your friends…most of them. You can trust me.”

He raised a hand toward her face but stopped himself. He looked at it as if he didn’t know what to do with it.

“It’s alright, Shintaro-sama.”

She took his hand and completed its path for him. His large, callused hand rested on her cheek. It was warm and it was powerful.

“I don’t know what to do, Yuki. An emissary from the Spider has invited me to see them. If I go there it will be dangerous.”

“Just remember what I taught you. Look at the situation for what it really is.”

“That might not be enough. I’ve always counted on my skill with the bisento and my honor to see me through, but too often they have failed.”

“Don’t think about this tonight, noble samurai.”

For the first time she actually meant it.

“My father is a traitor. A woman working for the Empire steals and lies. Men betrayed Oki into breaking the law. The entire Empire is tearing itself apart from the inside.”

She didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but if whatever it was opened his eyes then that was a good thing.

“Yuki, the world isn’t an honorable place.”

“No, Shintaro-san.”

“Have I been a fool?”

“Sometimes, but that is not a bad thing. You chose to see the good in the world.”

She’d never seen the honor and goodness in the world that he did, but she wanted to. She wanted to believe that people could be good and honorable for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.

“Let’s take your mind off of this,” she said.

She grabbed his hand and began leading him back to his room.

“Yuki?”

“There are a few more things I need to teach you.”

She led him to his room and closed the screen behind her.

*

Yuki lay in Shintaro’s arms and grabbed another piece of bacon from the platter. She fed it to Shintaro who had a grin that covered his entire face.

It had been different this time. Very different. Shintaro actually cared about her comfort. He was surprisingly gentle and loving. She had never held anyone like that.

This night had turned out very different than she had imagined.

“Maybe the world isn’t as noble as I thought it was, but there are some things in it worth protecting,” he said.

“Are you talking about me or the bacon?”

“You, but the bacon is second place.”

She lay there with her head on his chest listening to his heartbeat. He was a good, honorable, powerful man and he was hers.

Yuki had forgotten all about using him to advance her own station. For the past hour or so, she only thought of having him.

Where had her mind gone? Yes, this was pleasant and….very, very pleasant, but she had to think of her future as well. She needed to eat. She needed to live. Things samurai didn’t have to worry about.

But in doing this, was she following in the path of her mother?

No, she had done this of her own will, not to get something. She had wanted to help Shintaro.

“Yuki?”

“Hmm?”

“I just wanted to…”

He didn’t get to finish his thought. Suddenly dozens of voices ran through the hall, shouting something about a murder.

Shintaro jumped up and began putting his kimono on. She grabbed his armor and helped him strap it on. She put on his breastplate and tightened it into position. Next she pulled his gauntlets on followed by his grieves.

As she worked to get him ready, she wondered if this was what a samurai’s wife did. Was this as close as she’d ever get to that dream?

And as soon as he was fully armored he charged out the door.

Just like that, he was gone.

Then his face reappeared in the doorway. He made as if to say something but his face broke out into another smile.

He hadn’t forgotten about her. Every other man forgot about her as soon as they had left her bed.

“Just go, Shintaro! They may need you!”

He nodded and ran off down the hall.

She slipped her shortened kimono back on and hurried to the open door to the main hall. The room was full of samurai. Apparently someone had been murdered. The witnesses claimed it had been a one armed man.

All eyes were on Toranaka.

That was impossible. Toranaka was the kind of samurai that wouldn’t lose sleep over letting a peasant village starve, but he would never attack someone in the back like a coward. For all its good and bad, Toranaka was Bushido to his core.

Of course, they wouldn’t listen to a peasant girl.

Shintaro and his companions were hurried into another room that was guarded by men with spears.

That was one conversation she wasn’t going to be able to listen in on.

An hour later the companions emerged from the room, still alive. She followed them and heard them talking to a scary man in full armor about finding the real killer.

Good for them. Toranaka was no killer.

She followed them through the streets, sticking to the shadows and staying out of sight. They found a wig under a cart and a paper with a symbol of some kind on it. She didn’t know what all that meant but the way they treated the objects told her they were important somehow.

Then they came to a sake brewery. She crouched down behind a barrel with a good view of the inside.

Suddenly a man leapt out of the shadows and ran out of the brewery. Isao used some kind of spell that made a painful burst of light in front of the fleeing man and then Tornonaka tackled him and somehow twisted him into a knot with one arm. His speed was amazing.

But the man looked like a peasant…and he had two arms.

She turned back to the brewery in time to see someone hit Oki in the back of the head. Oki tumbled out of the window, landing on the ground with a thud she heard from her hiding place.

Shintaro and Isao stood there, facing the man that pulled out his katana in a slow way that showed he wasn’t scared of them.

She wanted to shout out to Shintaro to be careful. If that man could take Oki out like that, then there was no telling what he was capable of. She hated watching but couldn’t take her eyes off of it.

If something happened to Shintaro…

Shintaro leveled Swamp Dragon at the man and challenged him. The man laughed and charged.

Shintaro stepped back while swinging his bisento in a wide circle. The heavy blade crashed down onto the man, cutting through his sword and slicing through his armor: completely shredding it and sending pieces of it flying in every direction.

The man stumbled back with blood pouring down the diagonal cut in his chest. Then Isao made a fist and punched it out toward the bleeding man. Rocks from the ground shot out, striking the man in his exposed chest. He flew through the air, smashing through a vat of sake and through the wall. Sake poured out everyone in a great flood.

That was her man right there! He had challenged that man and blasted him apart like a tsunami!

Yes, she was safe with Shintaro. As safe as anyone could be.

She had no illusions that this meant she had nothing to fear.

##

To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/5670/

If you want to check out some of Zach’s other works, here is his post apocolyptic thriller which I’ve not read yet:  http://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.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=B00H7HXOPM

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