Monster Hunter Nation

The Drowning Empire, Episode 48: Brush & Ink, Axe & Armor, Part III

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 is one of my absolute favorites. Pat Tracy wrote this fiction about his character’s estranged fiance. It is a 3 parter. All together it is a novella, and it is awesome. Pat is an extremely good writer.

Continued from: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/the-drownign-empire-episode-47-brush-ink-axe-armor-part-ii/

Brush and Ink, Axe and Armor, Part 3

By Patrick M. Tracy

Namori put her hand on her stomach, breathing hard, the sheets tangled around her. Her whole body shivered, gleaming with sweat.

“We must do that as often as possible,” she said.

“I agree, but there could be…complications. Your family wouldn’t take kindly to a child arriving well before the marriage is official,” Subotai said. He laughed then, a rumbling sound deep in his chest. He caught his fingers in her hair and turned her head to look at him. His eyes were tender.

“What?”

“I never thought this day would come, that we would ease the wounds between us. It always seemed as if the dream would collapse like a soap bubble in the wind if we were ever put in the same room together.”

Namori extracted his hand from her hair, kissing the roughened palm. “No. Those times are in the past. I will not promise to be soft and compromising, or even kind, but I love you. Nothing can change that.”

“Nothing?”

“If you are a clever demon of Jigoku, you are still my betrothed, my beloved. I will be yours, even if you you decide you do not wish it, because my blood burns too hot and my tongue cuts too deep. You are stuck with me, for better or worse.”

Subotai seemed strangely relieved, with a tinge of sadness.

“There are things we must do, Subo. If we are to attend that celebration in your honor tonight, there are preparations to be seen to.”

He scratched at his stubbled cheeks with a fingernail. “I suppose that I’ll need to make myself presentable.”

“You should at least try to achieve the Moto equivalent of tidiness.”

He grabbed her arm and put his scratchy face against it, grinning. “I seem to remember a certain Ide courtier who was recently seen in a shocking state, her hair a rat’s nest and her armor covered with blood and mud.”

Namori poked Subotai in the floating ribs to dislodge him. “I won’t quickly live that down, will I?”

“Live it down? It was the moment that I knew that we really had a chance. In order for us to flourish, we both had to change. The distance was too great for one person alone to bridge the gap. I had to become a little bit less a Unicorn, and you a bit more. When you slipped from that horse, tired from the trail, bristling with weapons…you had never been more desirable to me than at that moment.”

“And when I return to the layered kimono and the parchment smell of court? What then?”

He sat up. “I will hope that, in associating with a coarse brute such as myself, you will not have lowered yourself too much in the estimation of the pacifists and wordsmiths. Whatever your dress and your place, I will always remember that you are a true Shinjo, tested in battle. I can’t imagine a day when I will not ache to be at your side.”

She shook her head and sighed. “The cherry blossom doesn’t stay upon the branch for long, Subotai. You will see me as the same impulsive, sharp tongued harridan I have always been soon enough. I am not easy to live with.”

“Anything that is too easily accomplished is of little relevance. I will always relish the challenge of remaining in love with you.”

Subotai went to bathe, and she was suddenly alone. Her rooms now felt strange, as if his presence had changed them, made them a different thing entirely. The memories that had hung about the room like drapes over furniture in a house closed for the season had been swept away.

Atsuko appeared from the side room, looking haggard and abashed. Namori suddenly realized that she had been trapped in the wardrobe for the entire interval, an unwilling spectator to she and Subotai’s tryst. The poor woman. Namori decided that the less she said about it, the better.

“Atsuko, go and rest for a few hours. I’ll need you to help me get ready for the feast and celebration tonight.”

“Hai, Mistress Namori-sama.”

When Namori gained her feet and walked around the apartment, she winced, and unfamiliar soreness making itself known. She was glad that there would be no horse riding or other strenuous activity for a few days. Easing herself down on the low sofa, she intended to just rest and gather her thoughts. She was asleep a moment later.

***

When she awoke, there was a gift-wrapped package on the low table next to the sofa. It had Subotai’s Mon in calligraphy far too pretty to have been his hand. On the inside, there was a short note that he had written himself.

I give you this while you rest, my love, so that we needn’t bother with the tiresome refusals and entreaties that accompany gift giving. Although it is custom, that makes it no less absurd in my eyes. It is one of the reasons that I sometimes like horses better than people. If a horse wants to eat the apple you offer, she does so. If not, she turns her head away.

This is more of a reparation than a gift, as you once threw the entirety of a tea set at me after I’d made a hasty comment. I had Ikoma Uso pick this one out, as all tea sets look like the cups that are too small and too fragile to my uncultured eye. I hope that you do not have occasion to throw them in my direction any time soon, but know that I will always be glad to buy another set. I shall always be honored to bear witness to your adroit throwing arm.

–Always yours, Subotai

Namori smiled, remembering that day. She’d been so angry. She didn’t even remember what it was that they’d been arguing about, exactly, only the terrible, black rage that had rushed across her eyes. She knew that she wasn’t immune to it now. Far from it, the rage had discovered its purpose and niche. She didn’t know if she could ever adequately pretend to be a pacifist, as an Ide courtier should be. No, she was Shinjo in her bones. She had killed, and she had enjoyed it.

She put her hand over her mouth. The true weight of the thought impressed itself. Could she be an Ide, a true one? If what she knew about herself could not be hidden, the answer was no. The rage, the call of her soul to shed blood…these were disastrous traits for one of her occupation.

What could she do, though? This was her life, her training. Everything she had done up to that point had led her to a life of courtly work. Though her fiery temper had always been a challenge, she had never known herself to be violent, not in a meaningful way. Now, she knew better, knew that, truth be told, she would have made a better bushi than a courtier. Head bowed, she took breath and asked the Kami for their strength. She would need it, if she were to keep up appearances.

A flashing image burst out of the silent darkness of her meditation, a screaming, painted cultist taking an arrow in the throat and going down, clawing at the blood and froth, his tongue protruding, his naked heels kicking in the dust.

Every time, recently. When she reached for the Kami, the Lords of Death interposed themselves. She didn’t wish to do so, but she would have to speak with Moto Byung-Chul about this. She anticipated that he would probably laugh, and the sound of his rough voiced laughter terrified her.

She would tell him. One day, when she was ready, she would. Perhaps.

***

Namori found it fascinating, the way that life could change. An event, once it had come, could make another seem as unreal as another woman’s dream, as intangible as fog lifting slow over still water.

The celebratory feast in Subotai’s honor was such an event. A few days before, she had been fighting for her life against cultists, bloody up to her elbows, hungry, and more tired than she had ever been. Nothing had been certain. Now, suddenly, she was with her betrothed, who was also her beloved. She had shared of herself in the most intimate way, and regretted nothing. She had found a part of herself that had always been missing. The feelings she had always mistaken for anger were something altogether different. The rage was there, of course, but the lingering annoyance, that fugue of ill humor that had often plagued her had been desire, an ache that had been nameless until now. She was not sufficient in herself. She needed another’s touch.

Now, with laughter and friends, with the tales of battles won and enemies vanquished in the air, with the scent of meat and fish and cooked rice thick about the tables, it seemed as if all the torment, doubt, and struggle in her past had happened to someone else, had been a story she’d seen in a kabuki play.

Only the hard, flinty eyes of Akodo Toranaka, the hard set of his jaw, the stump of an arm left boldly outside his kimono for all to see…only these things kept her from dismissing all the troubles of the past. No, he was the cruel anchor of the world that night. He carefully ate only small slivers of fish and scooped the smallest morsels of the steamed vegetables into his mouth, as if too guarded to even eat a full mouthful, lest he be attacked. He, the keeper of the prison key that held Subotai from her, this man that her betrothed thought of as a brother.

It could not be so. Not an Akodo, and certainly not the son of Goro, the monster of Rich Frog. No, Subotai was wrong about this one. Toranaka existed only for the sake of glory and victory and blood upon his sword. Subotai would be in grave danger until he got away from his clutches. She was certain of it. She could say nothing, not this soon. Subotai’s sense of camaraderie with Toranaka was too strong, and her grasp upon him far too tenuous to push things. She would wait. In the end, the Akodo would show his true face, the lion baring fangs.

Subotai had already had much fermented goat’s milk and sake. He roared with laughter and belched, belatedly looking to her to see if she grew angry. She only shook her head at him and smiled. It was good to see him like this, to see that he still had the Moto spirit in him, that it had not been dampened by his experiences of the past. He reached below the table and squeezed her thigh. A thrill of sensation burst through her, a flame that kept building. She wanted him again, wanted him always. When he left, it would be difficult not to go mad with longing. As it was, she couldn’t wait until the party had waned, couldn’t wait for the time when she could spirit him back to her rooms.

Subotai became embroiled in a judo wrestling match with the large Sparrow warrior. The outcome was unclear, as they both began laughing too hard to continue after knocking over a bench and sending everyone’s food and drink across the floor. The Sparrow was led away by his peasant companion soon thereafter, and she found Subotai resting with his head on her lap. The party gradually quieted, people leaving the feast table and spreading out into the courtyards of the keep. Vindicator Tenzen smiled at her as she stroked Subotai’s hair.

“When they are young, they haven’t yet learned to conserve their energy,” he said quietly.

Tenzen was one of the people she felt she could be completely honest with. “He didn’t get much rest.”

He grinned. “Subotai is a lucky man. I have said this before.”

“I think that I am also lucky, Tenzen-san.”

***

Namori was on the verge of sleep when the shouting started.

“They have killed Ide Xiao! Xiao is slain!”

Men came rushing in. “A one-armed man has killed Ide Xiao on the street!” came the breathless report from one of the bushi guardsmen.

Namori struggled to keep her face from slipping. She felt as if she’d been slapped, then kicked hard in the pit of the stomach. She tried unsuccessfully to stand. Her legs had no strength. Subotai had already leapt to his feet and approached the bearer, grasping him by the kimono, demanding more details.

“The Akodo has killed Ide Xiao. Many saw the cowardly attack. I am sorry, Subotai-san, but it is true.”

“No! It cannot be. Toranaka-san would never do such a thing,” Subotai protested. His face went gray, and he doubled over, throwing up noisily.

Namori held onto the wall. Her legs threatened to dump her in a heap. The idea that Xiao was dead was so awful that she had no reference for it. The table of her mind had three legs. Xiao-sama, her mother, and Subotai. Without Xiao’s wisdom, without his restraint, she felt that she couldn’t stand. Despite her best efforts, tears rolled down her face. She hid behind her hands. Everything seemed to shatter, sharp shards cutting at her heart.

There was a general hew and cry, much argument, and a call for Akodo Toranaka’s head. Moto Kohatsu appeared, looking haggard and uncertain on his feet. He sat down hard in the large chair at the back of the hall and motioned for Subotai to join him.

Namori felt rooted to the ground. She watched the tense conversation between father and son, Subotai’s face pained, hurt. His father, Kohatsu-sama looked like he had aged twenty years. His skin had a jaundiced look, his eyes rheumy and filled with anger. Namori had not yet come to anger. She was too hurt and confused. Xiao…who would kill Xiao, whose every urge was for peace?

Only someone who required war. Did the Akodo wish to start the war afresh? If so, why use such a valuable pawn? Surely, they knew that Toranaka would be torn between horses. If war were the purpose, why not kill Subotai or another prisoner publicly? They would lose no important scions in that move.

It all seemed hamfisted and strange. It was not that she didn’t believe the Akodo wouldn’t rush to war with glee. Many Moto and Shinjo would do the same. It was the clumsy nature of it that made the puzzle not fit together. Whatever a graduate of the Golden Plains dojo was, they were never poor strategists.

Toranaka was led into the hall, escorted by many angry-eyed Unicorn. He was presented to Kohatsu-sama. Namori neared, just enough to hear the proceedings. The peasants were all dismissed from the room, the doors shut tight.

“Our foremost diplomat, Ide Xiao, has been murdered. Witnesses saw a one armed man do this heinous deed. What have you to say for yourself?” Kohatsu asked, his voice stern and wrathful.

“I would never do anything so dishonorable, so base. I am insulted that anyone would make such an accusation,” Toranaka spat. “Who are these witnesses?”

Five Unicorn stepped up and indicated that they had seen a one armed man kill Xiao-sama with a sword and then run away.

“I am far from the only one armed man in the city. I was in the courtyard, and others can vouch for my whereabouts for the whole evening. Not that I should be required to do so. The word of an honorable samurai should suffice.”

Kohatsu leaned forward, face stony. “Your word is refuted by five who bear testimony this night, Akodo.”

Toranaka looked at those who had made their report against him with bitter eyes. “I would refute their words with my steel. I demand a duel. Each, consecutively, will be made to know the error of their poor vision.”

“There will be no duel, Toranaka. If you would prove your innocence, bring me the man who killed Xiao. You have one day.”

Toranaka’s jaw clenched. “Hai. This I will do.”

“You will be escorted by Vindicators, who will keep watch on you and examine any evidence you might find. Until your innocence is proven, you must give over your weapons.”

“I…” Toranaka’s eyes flashed.

“Father, I will personally vouch for Toranaka’s honor. I know him well, and have fought by his side for years. He did not do this. I will carry his daisho for him, but there is no need. We will find the villain, and his name will be cleared of all doubts. Of this there is no question.”

Kohatsu squinted at his son. “Faith in another’s honor is earned. I do not know this man, but the deeds of his father are well documented. If his innocence is not proven by the dusk of tomorrow, he will be taken into custody, and the cost of justice will be levied against him. I am tired and sickened by the loss of such a good man. Go now.”

Subotai took possession of Toranaka’s weapons. Vindicators appeared. By this time, all of Subotai’s comrades had arrived. He broke away from them, coming to her, holding her against him so strongly that she could feel herself conform to him, her back bending, her breath stopped. She could feel his rapid heartbeat and the sweat upon his neck as they embraced. “This man was your master, and much loved. I will see his murderer brought to justice. I make this vow to you, my love.”

He broke away and they were gone in a moment, the night swallowing them up. All that had been sweet tasted bitter upon her tongue now. Namori wondered if Subotai could really follow through on his promise. If Toranaka had been the murderer, could he renounce the fantasy of friendship to the man? She prayed that she would not have to find out. It would mean war with the Lion. Not just a territorial dispute, but open warfare across the Empire. Xiao’s death would be followed by thousands of others. It would dishonor all that he had wished for, all that he had spent his life trying to accomplish.

“Please, Fortunes, let it not be Akodo Toranaka. Though I hate the man, I hope that his honor is true. Don’t let the dreams of a noble Ide devolve into a nightmare of blood,” she prayed. Namori could only see death when she closed her eyes.

***

Namori’s efforts at meditating were unsuccessful. She tried to pray to the Kami after that, and then to entreat the Fortunes. Finally, she opened her mind and spoke directly to the Lords of Death. She had never done so before, and her family would have been aghast at her doing so now. They would say that she had fallen, that the death fixation of the Moto and their barbaric ancestors had invaded her mind. Her tutors, and Ide Xiao himself, would have shaken their heads. There was but little she could do about it. The dark ones had called out to her, had invaded her dreams, and they would not be ignored. Their voices were louder and closer than the Kami now.

The Lords of Death did not speak in words, and perhaps they took but little notice of her, but they were there, and she could remember, as if it had happened a moment ago, every sound and scent and taste of the battles she’d seen. She saw battles that she had not been a party to. Rich Frog. The fights that Subotai had spoken of in his letters. The horrors of the Destroyer War. She saw through the eyes of death. She saw Xaio-sama fall, cut down by an assassin’s blade.

Subotai was out there, out in the night that had turned hostile. If he didn’t find Xiao-sama’s killer, he would be lessened in his father’s eyes, in the eyes of those who had witnessed his protestations on Toranaka’s behalf. As with every time he left her, she would have to suffer the fear of a samurai’s woman. In the blessed art of bushido, the highest honor would take him away from her forever. She had only just come to love him in all the ways she wished to. She could not let go now. A picture of Moto Byung-Chul’s hard face, his grim smile, appeared in her mind. The Lords of Death didn’t care what she could or couldn’t do, what she wished for and what she yearned to have.

Namori made her breath even, watching the few guardsmen, watching the kitchen staff and cleaning peasants as they cleared the last of the feast’s mess away. Moto Munuro paced. She had caught him looking at her a few times, but he would play it off as if he hadn’t when she would try to catch his eye. Though she hated to think this way, she always thought of him as a dog who would bite from behind without growling, one who would wait until his betters were away and steal the buried scraps. Though he would never say so, she knew that he coveted everything that was Subotai’s. The birthright, the notoriety, even her. He would never touch her. She would as soon stab him in the neck.

That was probably her fear talking, her pain. Regardless, it was not a lie. She disliked Munuro, and could not pretend otherwise, though she had nothing concrete to base this on.

She closed her eyes for a time. It was late in the night and the room was lit only by a few lamps by then. Everyone had gone, except one still figure who lingered by the door.

“Who is here?” Namori called out. The figure, a woman, came closer. She recognized the face.

“It is I, Utaku Kaede. I would sit with you, if it is permissible.”

“Of course, Kaede-san. Why are you up so late?” Namori was not so tired that she would fall to bluntness and ask Kaede why she was here at this time.

Kaede brushed hair back over one shoulder. She really was quite pretty, but for her scars. Namori noticed the muscles in her wrist as her Kimono sleeve fell up her arm for a moment. Her eyes were perfectly clear, her manner open and giving. Namori did not believe there was any artifice in her. That was perhaps the thing she liked best about being around bushi. Their sincerity was not that construct of the court, but a more natural and wholesome thing.

“I thought…that it may be important for someone to sit with you. This cannot be an easy night. Your mentor is slain, your betrothed on the hunt for an assassin, his hostage keeper the primary suspect. It is almost too much for the spirit to bear, is it not?”

Kaede looked down at her hands and fell quiet, her breath coming in the manner of one who hopes not to be chastised, but fears it greatly. Kaede was afraid of her. Afraid and drawn to her equally. It was a singular experience, one that she did not have the time to figure out at that time.

Namori bowed slightly. “I am pleased to have company, and one who is as compassionate as you. It occurs to me that I haven’t been as friendly to you as I should have. I will not forget you coming to see me tonight.”

Kaede gave her an earnest look. “I am sure that the Subotai-san will find the killer and do what must be done. Word of his deeds, even while in the clutches of the Lion, are spoken of with respect and honor. I have only seen him from afar, but he is Kohatsu’s son, and has greatness in his blood.”

“And my heart in his hand.”

Kaede swallowed, then nodded. It was clear enough that the Utaku maiden both yearned to hear such a thing and was terrified of it. “I will get large pillows. We will rest here, so whatever is known will be known by us first.”

Namori nodded. She didn’t know how to respond to it, but she felt that Kaede had fallen in love with her.

***
The light before the true dawn was filtering into the high windows of the feast hall. Namori had found sporadic sleep, but was far from refreshed. Kaede knelt at her side with a bowl of warm water and a cloth, as well as a rudimentary makeup kit with rouge and powder.

“The tea will be here in a moment. Gentle and refreshing, with mint leaves. I have also ordered rice with cinnamon. I heard an hour ago that they had found the villain, and were bringing him back here. All shall be well, Namori-san.”

“It is not Akodo Toranaka?”

Kaede shook her head. “He had nothing at all to do with this. It was a ronin, an honorless killer, from what the gossip has said. Kohatsu-sama will be here soon, as will the investigators.”

Namori took her first untroubled breath in a long time, then let it out. “Kaede-san, you have treated me with great kindness in this difficult time. Know that you are appreciated. I only hope that, in your moment of difficulty, I can be as good a friend, and as thoughtful.”

“Please, think nothing of it. It was my honor to do so, and I would do it again, a thousand times.”

Namori washed her face and hands. Kaede held a small silver mirror while she adjusted her hair and applied enough makeup to be presentable. The tea and spiced rice came, and though she hadn’t thought of it, she was able to eat. It helped her feel less weary. Kaede was able to be still and quiet without fidgeting or making meaningless small talk, which was a great blessing. They waited. Though it was only minutes, it seemed that the investigators’ arrival took all day.

When the investigators brought in the murderer, it was clear that he’d been beaten severely. Blood still leaked from the corner of his eye, a large cut across his brow. His nondescript tunic was torn and the seams and stained with blood and dirt. He was altogether underwhelming in appearance.

She wasn’t sure what she’d imagined. A painted savage? He was just some one-armed brigand, no doubt having killed the noble Xiao for a handful of koku. It made her sad, exhausted her in spirit.

Subotai touched her hand and went to the front of the hall. Kohatsu arrived a moment later and the details of the villain’s capture were relayed. The Vindicators corroborated all the testimony with nods of their heads. Toranaka still appeared furious, though he had been proven innocent. He faced each of the samurai who had testified to his guilt with burning eyes, hand resting just below the guard of his now-restored katana.

“We found him in the new Sake distillery. Under duress, he has revealed who commissioned this act.” Subotai announced to his father. “It was…”

Kohatsu narrowed his eyes. “That is not a discussion for today.”

“Hai, Father. We will discuss it when the time comes.”

Kohatsu nodded. “The villain will be punished at the coming dawn. He will be drawn between three horses, his body burned with none to commend him to his ancestors. Thus, let this unfortunate episode be concluded.”

The honorifics were observed, the bows performed, and the tired samurai dispersed. Subotai broke away from his friends and came to her. His eyes were bloodshot, but he was strong and whole. He pointed toward the door with his chin, a uniquely Moto gesture. She followed him, looking back to see Utaku Kaede, gazing after her with wistful longing.

***

It was mid afternoon before they rested. Namori had expected something similar to their previous lovemaking, but everything was new. Subotai was tender, quiet, gentle. Some things they did she had never imagined possible. Her legs had no strength, her sleeping mat soaked through with sweat by the time their strength was gone.

At dusk, they sat in a tub opposite one another, still tired but also hungry and feeling the need to return to some sort of normalcy.

“You are quite creative, my love,” Namori said.

Subotai looked up from her foot, which was on his chest, being lavished with attention. “Oh?”

“In the bed chamber.”

He laughed. “You noticed that?”

“I did. I believe everyone in the keep may have. I made an immodest amount of noise.”

“I will tell you the truth. There is an Ivindi book, one of those my tutor used to keep us interested. It is an encyclopedia of methods for lovemaking. We’ve only explored the more conventional techniques so far.”

“All that today…conventional?”

Subotai nodded, grinning. Namori took an involuntary breath, unable to imagine what might come next.

“I may have to look at this book.”

“And spoil the surprises? I think not.”

***

They gathered at dawn in the courtyard. The three horses stamped and wickered, steam rising from their withers in the cool of the morning. The grim faced Vindicators, Tenzen among them, held the bedraggled assassin. He gazed at the ground, his cheeks hollow, his body slack with defeat.

Another Ide, a young man who was related to Xiao-sama, stood at the side, blinking at the scene, obviously uncomfortable. Subotai and his group stood along one side, eyes flinty, hands resting on their sword sashes.

The jailors came forward and took the assassin, pushing him down and attaching ropes to his two legs and one arm with knots so tight that they bit into the man’s skin. The ropes were affixed to the horses’ saddles with equal surety. Vindicator Tenzen handed a whip to the Ide boy, who looked at it as if he’d been handed a live snake with venom-filled fangs.

“The honor is yours, if you wish,” Tenzen said quietly.

The boy shivered, shaking his head. “I cannot. It is not my way.”

Surprised at herself, Namori stepped forward. “I will do it, if this is permissible,” she offered.

The boy nodded, pressing the bull whip into her palm.

“I was Xiao-sama’s student. I feel his loss as a wound that will be a lifetime healing. Please, turn away, and I will assure to you that it has been done.”

“Even as a student of the Ide, you would do this?” he asked.

Namori shrugged. “There is Shinjo in my heart. I have seen battle and death. I have less innocence to preserve. Please, turn aside. It is nothing that you want to behold in dreams.”

“Thank you,” the young Ide whispered, facing the open space beyond the courtyard, that place that the assassin would never again walk.

Namori lofted the whip and then ripped it downward with all her strength. The quiet morning air burst with a loud crack, and the horses surged. Their hooves clopped against the paving stones, and there was a tearing sound, a wet splash, a momentary scream. It was over in a matter of a dozen heartbeats, and the Eta were brought in to collect the bloody remainder. Namori watched it all, watched the way the mighty strength of the horses, retired Utaku steeds who lacked the endurance for campaigning, easily tore the man asunder. The steeds stood placidly a dozen paces from where they’d begun, their nostrils flaring at the familiar blood scent.

Most of those present looked satisfied, but Akodo Toranaka did not. He whirled from the grisly scene with a face made of granite, striding quickly away, his hand hard upon his katana. Subotai tarried, his head tilted as he watched her gather the bullwhip into a coil and hand it back to the stable hand who had carried it here.

Did she feel any better? Was Xaio-sama’s death redeemed? She did not feel that it was so. It was a public end to things, a show so that society could continue on without qualms, but it was an empty gesture, a fool’s attempt, as doomed an attempt as trying to repair a chrysanthemum after it has wilted.

***

All that day, Namori found herself engaged in giving a thorough overview of all the diplomatic issues that Xiao had been overseeing. This, she presented to Moto Byung-Chul and Utaku Yanai, who would pass along the most salient points to Kohatsu-sama. It would be some time before another lead courtier could be dispatched. If no one suitable could be spared from Second City, it was possible that it would be months before they could have a courtier brought in from Rokugan proper.

In the meantime, the work needed to be done. In the absence of a true leader, it fell to her and a few junior courtiers to make sure that it did.

“What shall we do? It’s hopeless. There’s no way we can do all this work ourselves. We’re ruined.” Ide Masahiri said, waving her tiny hands near her shoulders as if she were a dying flower being carried over a waterfall.

“Get a hold of yourself, Masahiri-san. We will certainly be ruined if we allow ourselves to succumb to doubt and panic,” Namori said, trying to make her voice gentle. She made a soothing gesture, like one would do with a frightened horse. The other junior courtiers either pretended not to notice the lamentable outburst or stood by, hoping that whatever their share of the work would be, it would not eat too much into their time.

Namori had noticed that at least half of the diplomatic staff was populated with idlers who would do no more than the bare minimum, and needed their work checked to see that it came up to even the most lenient standard of quality. They were here, most of them, because they were not good enough to hold their positions on the mainland of Rokugan. It would be a challenge to get anything out of them. Xiao had done it with subtle manipulation, and the fact that he could have them stripped of position with the flick of his writing brush.

Namori sighed. It appeared that she would, for at least a little while, be required to hold this group together and make them work. She had neither the status or the masterful rhetoric to do it the way Xiao had done. She’d need to take a more direct approach.

“Moto Iabuchi!” she said loudly tot the ringleader among the lay-abouts.

“Yes, Namori-san?” he asked. “What would you have of me?”

“Have you ever been punched in the groin, Iabuchi-san?”

He looked shocked and confused. “No. I’ve never had the misfortune to have that happen to me. I have steered well clear of all violent pursuits.”

Namori nodded. “That is as it should be. We are diplomats here, peaceful folk, for the most part.” Some narrowed their eyes at her, an unspoken indictment of her words. She went on. “We have lost the honorable Xiao-sama, our leader, our heart and conscience. Despite this, we must carry on, and all his works must be safeguarded. We are the public face of Journey’s End Keep. We are the hands that write the missives, the gentle smiles that forestall warfare and ruin. Each of us must do his or her part to make sure this work is done, and done to Xiao-sama’s standard.”

Ide Masahiri raised a hand and Namori nodded for her to speak. “How does this have anything to do with someone being struck in the…well, sensitive areas?”

“A good question, Masahiri-san. Only this. The work must be done, and done well. If it is not, we dishonor the memory of our great teacher. Let this be known. Anyone who dishonors Xiao-sama will have to answer to me. I will spend all the time and effort necessary to make sure that they are made to feel discomfort for their shortcomings. Am I understood?”

Thus, Namori took over de facto leadership of the courtiers. She knew well enough that she was not the most subtle or skillful among them, but she was filled with fire, and could work harder and longer than the rest.

Tasks were parsed out. She formed groups, trying to put at least one conscientious person on each of them. The courtiers scurried around, finding letters to write, tasks to accomplish, subject matter to study, strategies for further negotiations to create.

She herself was at the writing table until late in the evening, when her hand ached from writing and her eyes swam when she looked at the rice paper and the kanji written upon it. She was back. This was the work. It was strange how impermanent, how much like swimming in unfamiliar waters it felt.

Through the day, she’d heard rumblings of a tense meeting that had happened in private, something to do with the fallout from Xiao’s murder. It was not yet done. These things were always more complex than they looked like on the surface.

Upon returning to her rooms, she found Atsuko sitting in the dark, awaiting her arrival. She gladly allowed her servant to undress her and wash her limbs with a cool cloth and water. It was good to be out of the thick, intricate court kimono, to have her hair released from the tight upsweep that was the fashion this year in the Ivory Kingdoms. After Atsuko touched her at the pulse points with a lightly-scented oil and helped her into a more comfortable kimono, she sat by the light of a small lamp, drinking tepid, too strong tea that had been warmed and allowed to cool too many times. She ate a small bowl of rice and steamed vegetables, too tired for anything heavier.

“Has Subotai been here?”

Atsuko nodded. “He came here after the dinner hour. He asked that I tell you to come to his rooms, if you had the energy. It seems that you may not have, mistress.”

“I will find a hidden reserve of energy, Atsuko. A woman may always find additional strength for the man she loves, I think.”

“I am sure that you are right.”

“You are free to do as you wish tonight, Atsuko. Rest or do otherwise. It is your choice. I will see you in the morning.”

Atsuko bowed. “Mistress?”

Namori indicated that she would answer a question.

“How is it that your life has become so…dramatic?” She lowered her head, blush appearing high on her cheeks.

“It is a fair question, Atsuko. In short, I don’t know. I believe that I wished it to be so. My heart isn’t made for quiet contemplation, for mild status quo. It is made for storms and trouble.”

“They say that you were the one to crack the whip and cause the horses to tear the assassin into pieces at the dawning.”

“This is true. It was not pleasant. Despite my anger and sadness, it was an awful sight. The punishment was just, but it gave me no peace. Xiao-sama is still gone, the hole in my heart still aching and livid.”

“But you have Subotai-sama now, and he is…he…” Atsuko again became abashed.

“He is, and he does. I have him for a moment, but he is a warrior, a wanderer. I don’t know when I’ll have him for an extended time, if ever. I do not give myself to him lightly, Atsuko. I do so because I never know when our last day together will come. The fact that we ever managed to come together as we have…it seems as if it required the intervention of the Fortunes to bring this about. I am not one to doubt something this strong.”

***

Namori awoke in Subotai’s arms. She could feel him move, his solid muscle against her back, his breath on her neck. He touched his teeth to the lobe of her ear, applying just enough pressure to send waves of sensation propagating through her body. The covers were thrown back. In the gray light of early morning, she looked down at herself. She had seen such exertion of late that she could see the hint of muscle across her abdomen, her thigh, her calves. Subotai put his hand against her belly and squeezed her until the air pushed from her lungs, the roughness of his bearded chin against her shoulder as her heart thudded and the blood sang in her ears.

“I am not yet recovered, love. Please.”

She wasn’t sure what her plea was for. Before she could come to a conclusion, she felt Subo hoist her up from the sleeping mat, carrying her across his body, walking to the window. He stood there, easily holding her up, the muscles of his shoulders standing out in sharp relief. They watched the sun crest the horizon over the plains, a ball of copper fire that would soon heat the Ivory Kingdoms to its accustomed, cauldron-like temperature. As yet, it was still mild.

Namori reflected that she and Subotai had lived far more than their years would indicate. She felt twice the age she had been before leaving the Empire. She could see the difference in Subo’s eyes, that depth that spoke both of sadness and experience, that knew that dreams were bought only with the most precious currency.

“They tell me of your progress at arms, my love. I would see this for myself. The lads and I spar together in the early morning. Come with me.”

“Of course. I am honored to do so.”

“This will be a day of some moment. The individual whose actions brought about Ide Xiao’s death, and who is responsible for many other crimes, will be brought to account. You will be there. It will be early this afternoon.”

“Who is it?” she asked, her heart hammering with the news.

“A terrible woman named Iuchi Xiong. She has harbored a grievance against the Akodo family since Rich Frog, and has chosen the dishonorable path to try and redress her grievances. She has attempted to assassinate Toranaka-san three times, each time causing danger or even death to others. Even now, when all the evidence proves her guilt, she rages against it, demanding a duel. Her yojimbo will meet meet steel this afternoon, and that will be the end of it.” Subotai put her down.

“A Unicorn did this, framing the Akodo for the murder of Xaio-sama?” It was monstrous, too awful to imagine, a terrible dishonor to the woman’s family and house. Something that had to be redressed. The idea that this Xiong had not chosen seppuku to cleanse the shame was hard for Namori to imagine. “You were one of those put in danger, your friends?”

He nodded. “And others. It is hard to fathom.”

“So you will duel this day?”

He shook his head. “Not I. Ikoma Uso. It is for the Lion to seek redress, as they are the primary injured party. Anyway, Uso is the better duelist.

“But he forfeited to you in the Topaz.”

“That was mere gamesmanship on his part. He has practiced with the finest Bayushi duelists and is a deadly foe.”

Namori squinted at him. “You have strange friends, my love.”

He took her in his arms. “You have no idea. Strange is not a word that even begins to cover some of the things I’ve seen Tamori Isao do. There is something else, as well. There is a Crane, Doji Shunya, who wishes to kill me in a duel. I shamed him by being the one opponent who has defeated him publicly. It was sheer luck on my part, but it was in front of the Imperial Heir and the gathered crowd. Uso was clever to sidestep at that moment, and therefore minimize the number of duelists appearing at his doorstep.”

“But, Doji Shunya travels with you, fights by your side, does he not?”

Subotai agreed with this. “He is a friend, a good warrior. It is just that he feels he must kill me. If I were to duel this yojimbo, he would be within his rights to interpose himself as Xiong’s champion. If the Fortunes willed it, I might beat him again, but the chances are poor. Even if I were to win, it would mean killing a friend, a good samurai. That is to be avoided. Thus, Uso shall duel.”

Namori went back to her rooms and dressed in her sturdy sparring gi. She opened the lacquered cabinet and tucked her wooden sparring axes, tucking the long axe across her back and the two short ones she’d recently had fashioned into her sash at her waist. She had never seen Subotai and his friends with swords in hand. It was thrilling, but also frightening.

“Do not make a fool of yourself,” she whispered. “You are the student of Vindicator Tenzen.”

***

Subotai’s group of friends were already in the courtyard by the time she arrived. They were just getting back from a run to get their bodies warm. It appeared that Yoritomo Oki was the quickest afoot, but he also looked ill. He stripped off his tunic, threw up in a bucket, and splashed his face from the fountain. No one remarked upon this.

Last to come in was Tamori Isao, but he looked as if he had the boundless endurance of a draft horse. Ikoma Uso jogged next to him, looking altogether uninterested in the whole affair.

Everyone but Uso-san stripped to the waist and shook their shoulders, loosening up for the sparring. Uso found a shady spot and sat down, closing his eyes. He was either wholly confident of his abilities, or a fine actor. She couldn’t tell which. Perhaps both. She could only tell that he was more than he appeared, and that he was a dangerous man.

“Keep your trousers on, if you please, Isao-san,” Subotai urged with a grin. “There are ladies present.”

“That is the time when he’s most likely to lose them,” Oki-san remarked, stringing his bow with such an expert movement that it appeared like magic. He drew back, did not seem to aim at all, and drove an arrow directly into the center of a target all the way across the courtyard. He shrugged, then proceeded to do this again and again. He saw that she was watching, did a theatrical yawn, and lay down on the cobblestones. He then shot six more arrows from his back, each one clustering within a few inches of the others.

The Tamori shugenja looked hesitant to say a word. He had borne a great many angry looks and even some overt threats since coming, and it was clear that he wasn’t sure what kind of response he would get from her.

Namori smiled. “I am a courtier, Isao-san. It is not my place to act bellicose with you.”

He bowed. “Thank you, Namori-san. I am not the most popular person in the keep right now. It is kind of you to make me feel more comfortable. I should point out that, for all that is said, I have only lost my trousers in the midst of our adventures a few times.”

“I count at least five, my friend,” Uso called. “Then again, I am but a bard. My counting is not so practiced as it could be.”

Toranaka and Subotai began the sparring with a mock duel. It set the heart to pounding to watch them, tense and still, gauging each other. The moment of the draw and strike came in a lightning twitch, so fast that it was hard to tell who struck first.

“Nicely done, Tora. I believe that we are both dead,” Subotai said.

From there, they began to spar in skirmish style. Subotai set himself, his feet planted, his practice sword in low guard. Toranaka, though he had but one hand, attacked in a ruthless barrage of strikes, each blow landing hard enough that the clacks of the bokken colliding almost hurt the ears. The two fighters were a study in contrasts, Subotai a master of defensive tactics, Toranaka a whirlwind of powerful strikes. Their skirmish went on for over a minute, ending in a stalemate.

“They are artists, are they not?” Isao-san asked.

“They are. I have seen a few men who are their equals, perhaps even better, but only a few.”

“Who would you name the best swordsman you’ve ever seen?” Isao asked.

“This will seem strange, but an Ivindi swordsman named Jagdish was the finest I ever saw. He would leap and spin, his curved blade flashing, killing in all directions with no seeming effort. He is as the Ivindi once were, before their culture fell into ruins.”

“A Gaijin…better than Toranaka or Subotai…the mind recoils against it.”

“Everyone here is but young, with much left to learn. We must remember, though, that what we think must be the truth is not always the truth.”

Isao-san bowed. “Wise words.”

Namori bowed back to the Shugenja, careful to give him all the respect due to a powerful invoker of the Kami. He leaned comfortably on an old, battered tetsubo that was nearly his equal in height.

“Shintaro and Isao!” Toranaka roared in his battle voice. The two sparring combatants took their place, Shintaro using a weighted pole that was only a marginally safe equivalent to a bisento. This battle was not well matched. Suzume Shintaro soundly trounced the shugenja, who rarely managed to land a blow. The Tamori had mettle, however, as he jumped back up after being hit solidly again and again. Blows that would have sent a normal man in search of a healer simply knocked him down for a moment

“Uso?” Toranaka called.

Uso shook his head. “I am conserving my energy.”

“Oki?”

“Already practiced. An admiral needs to maintain his tan.” the Mantis said. He had found an ox cart that was filled with hay and was lazing atop the pile, hands behind his head, eyes closed.

“I’ll take these two,” Subotai said, pointing his bokken at Isao and Namori.

“Shintaro-san?” Toranaka said, motioning for the Sparrow to get ready.

“Watch this,” Subotai whispered.

The two combatants proceeded to go at each other in a wild melee. Each rush would see one or the other one land a monumental blow and send the other one flying backward. Namori could see that no fight that featured either of them would last long. They both swung with all their might with every stroke. It was said that Suzume Shintaro was as deadly a killer of great beasts as anyone in the Empire, his bisento striking like thunder. Even as young as he was, Toranaka carried the nickname of “The Headsman” for the number of decapitations he had dispensed in battle. Their battle, though dramatic, was soon over. She felt that even one more pass at arms would have found someone with a legitimate injury, rather than the standard bumps and bruises of sparring.

Subotai gestured for Isao and her to attack. She had seen enough to know that she needn’t be tentative. She pulled her long axe from her back and attacked as Tenzen-san had taught her. Isao gave a battle hoot and swung his tetsubo with gusto, still exhibiting boundless energy. Neither of them could so much as press Subotai, even with a combined effort. When they would become reckless and overswing, they would find themselves tapped on the wrists, a move that would have cut them to the bone with a real blade.

She and the Tamori attacked until their strength was gone, rewarded only with light taps on the wrist when they grew too bold. At last, Subotai hit Isao on the back of the knee, knocking him to the cobbles, then went on the offensive and pierced Namori’s guard in two moves. His blade touched her under the chin, then withdrew. He nodded at each of them. Practice was over.

***

A palpable wave of animosity shook the inner courtyard as Iuchi Xiong and her yojimbo arrived. The issues involved had already been articulated, the stakes of the duel already understood. If Ikoma Uso was victorious, Xiong would be required to commit seppuku. In the event of Uso’s defeat, Toranaka would take the blade.

Uso seemed altogether relaxed, almost jovial. During the preamble, as Kohatsu-sama arrived with his attendants and the guests were seated, Uso strolled over and said a few words to Xiong’s yojimbo, leaning in close. As he returned to await the duel, he looked satisfied, much like a domestic cat who has caught a fat barnswallow and eaten it whole. The young woman who would duel in Xiong’s stead, on the other hand, looked as if vengeful ghost had reached in and frozen her heart. Her face was pale, sudden sweat upon her brow. Whatever the words Uso had spoken had been, they were well chosen, and potent. Namori wondered again at what sort of man this Ikoma Uso really was. She felt that he wore a mask, just as opaque and inscrutable as a Scorpion. What lay beneath was a mystery.

The duelists came forward. The crowd fell silent. Uso stood in a loose posture, looking almost serene. Not a line formed in his face. His eyes were utterly dead. A thrill of terror went through Namori at that moment. Of one thing she was sure. Uso was a stone killer. The opposing yojimbo visibly quailed under his gaze, her lead hand quivering as it prepared for the draw.

The idea of being that close, having to look deep into those empty eyes…Namori could not imagine it. Uso’s sword appeared in his hand too quick for the eye to follow. He waited, a full beat coming before his adversary could clear her sheath. Uso’s blade flashed forward. Namori gritted her teeth against the fountain of blood she was sure would ensue, but no. Steel clashed against steel, and the yojimbo’s sword clattered across the cobblestones, leaving her empty handed. His bladed twisted almost impossibly, coming back across for what would surely be the killing stroke.

Again, it was not. The katana parted the sash that held the outer layers of the yojimbo’s kimono. He withdrew a pace to allow for the crowd to see what he’d done. It had all taken no more than the span of two eye blinks.

The yojimbo, looking young, alone, and very afraid, sighed. She went to her knees and dipped her head, revealing her neck for a clean death. Uso stepped forward, touching the flat of his blade to the tender flesh. He was facing Kohatsu-sama. Namori, who sat just to the side, could see into his eyes. They didn’t ache for death. They were simply flat, hard, calculating. She imagined that this was a man who could make himself into almost anything that the situation required. She considered warning Subotai about him, but what would she say? There were no words.

“Is this not enough? This yojimbo had no hand in Xiong’s dishonorable deeds. The duel is won, the point proven. Does this young woman’s blood need to decorate the stones?” Uso asked.

Kohatsu-sama deferred to his son. Subotai arose. “You have won the duel, Ikoma Uso. The Fortunes have indicated that Toranaka’s words are true. Iuchi Xiong’s deeds are her own, and her yojimbo needn’t pay for them with her life.”

Uso smoothly sheathed his katana and stepped back, a small, pleased expression stealing across his face. The yojimbo collapsed to the stones, the spirit having utterly deserted her. A few low level samurai assisted her exit from the ring. Her face was pale, sweat on her brow, her eyes dull.

“And to you, Iuchi Xiong,” Subotai said. “To you falls the burden of regaining your honor, and redeeming your family’s honor. You have tonight to perform the ritual purification and ready yourself for the spirit world. You would do well to pray hard and consider what has come to pass as a result of your decisions.”

Xiong glared, her teeth bared in a feral expression. She was unrepentant, still raging against what was clear to everyone. Her grief and hatred had put her feet on a dark path, and sense, perhaps, would never return to her in this life. It was sad. She had lost all sense of honor. Bushido was silent in her heart.

“I have prepared a poem for this occasion,” Subotai said, still standing at his father’s side.

He began to read. At the same time Utaku Yanai and Utaku Kaede came to take Xiong away. She slapped at Yanai’s hand once and received a stern look and a harsh word from the gunso of the Battle Maidens, a woman who would not stand for any foolishness. Yanai extended a hand to pull Xiong to her feet. Xiong balled a fist and began to swing. The punch never had a chance to land. Without hesitation, Utaku Yanai drew her scimitar and beheaded Xiong. Blood burst from her empty shoulders and her body sagged to earth at the head rolled away on the stones.

Subotai’s poem ground to a halt. All were silent. Yanai met Kohatsu-sama’s eyes, then Subotai’s. They nodded in unison. As if by general consensus, all the spectators turned their back on the scene. Before she herself turned away, Namori met Kaede’s eyes. They were filled with fierce pride for her captain. She fell into step with Subotai, who gazed down at the poem that would forever be unheard. He called for the eta to come and cleanse the scene, doing the distateful work of carrying the headless body away. It was justice, of a sort. In the end, it was, at best, bittersweet.

***

“We will be leaving soon, for Second City.” Subotai’s lips were so near that his breath moved a strand of her hair. He held her with legs and arms in the cool light of the early day. She swallowed. She would accompany him on the road, but it would not be the same. They would have no more time, not like this. Not the long, slow afternoons, not the nights together that had exploded her vision of how love could be. As she had known it would, the world’s requirements were pulling them apart again.

Something had changed. Enemies swirled around her beloved, things she didn’t know, things that were better that she never learned of. She turned in his arms and pressed herself against him so hard that it hurt. He stroked her hair as she tried to push herself into him, to climb into his skin so that they would never have to be apart.

“There will never be another man for me,” she whispered.

“And if I die?”

“Then my heart shall be as a chunk of ice within my breast.”

Subotai touched her cheek, drawing her eyes into his own. “I would not have it be thus. I am yours and yours alone, Namori. This will always be so. I am young and reckless, engaged in the most dangerous of all possible pursuits. Please tell me that you’ll try to go on and find further happiness, should I fall.”

“You don’t know the difficulty of that which you ask. I am a Shinjo. We do nothing half way. Our loves and hatreds are deep and abiding. They create their own light, their own shadows.”

“Just try. When we are apart, no matter how long, do what it takes to stay alive, to stay sane.”

She took a breath and let it go, holding him gently now, a tear clouding her vision. She attempted to promise such a thing, but could not bring the words to the surface. Subotai’s hands were in her hair, his pulse a slow cadence in his chest as he whispered words that she couldn’t focus on. He did not ask again. She knew he would never ask it, and her heart broke that she’d been unable to bend, to tell him even the comfortable lie and allow him to move forward, safe in the knowledge that she would flourish in his absence.

To be continued next week:  http://monsterhunternation.com/2014/03/21/the-drowning-empire-episode-49-the-hunt-is-on/

New web address and fixing up the blog
World Building my next project
stephenfleming
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Good stuff, but please have Jack figure out the MORE tag (I’m not using WordPress syntax since I don’t know what that would do inside this replybox)…

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