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 is a good one, and it is a big one. Tamori Isao is played by Brad Torgersen, Analog’s writer of the year, and soon to be Baen author. We had a session where Brad had to skip out because of military duty, so we made up some stuff for his character to do off screen. Brad took it and ran with it, and wrote this.
Continued from: http://monsterhunternation.com/2014/05/02/the-drowning-empire-episode-52-stranger-in-a-crab-land/
Tamori Isao: Second City, Part 1
Mirumoto Nasuo was big. Far bigger than he had any right to be. Especially at his rumored age. Such a man should have been frail: bent at the neck and stooped towards the earth. But Nasuo’s back was erect and his eyes stared alertly about him as he sat on a small stool outside the dojo—his head completely bald, save for the rim of white hair that ran from one ear to the other around the back of Nasuo’s skull.
He stared at Tamori Isao as the young shugenja approached.
“You have the look of a man with a question,” Nasuo said.
“You could say that,” Isao said. “The Dragon embassy told me there was a mighty teacher in the temple district. You appear to match the description the embassy gave me. I would seek your counsel, Nasuo-sama.”
“Many do,” Nasuo said, cracking a small smile that made the lines at the outer corners of his eyes wrinkle pleasantly.
“Come,” the old man said. “Sit.”
He indicated a second stool at his side.
Isao carefully gathered his kimono and sat down, resting his heirloom tetsubo between his knees.
The old man froze.
“I have seen that weapon before.”
“Oh?” Isao said, sitting up a little straighter.
The old man looked intently at Isao’s face, his wrinkled lips moving quietly with words he did not speak. Isao could tell the old man’s gaze was only partially in the present—he seemed to be looking into the past at the same instant.
“Tamori Jitu,” the old man said, snapping his fingers. “That’s right. One of the few Dragon-born shugenja to ever acquit himself on The Wall. With my Crab brothers.”
“You knew my grandfather?”
“I met him. Didn’t really get to know him well, but his reputation for the three weeks he put in on The Wall preceded him. He was quite fond of that tetsubo you’re carrying. From the looks of you, I’d say you’re carrying on the family line?”
“Yes,” Isao said. And introduced himself formally.
“Ah,” Nasuo said, also introducing himself formally. “What a small world we live in, that the grandson of Jitu should find me here, in Second City. So, what else did they tell you about me at the embassy?”
“That you are a formidable Dragon shugenja who is eager to share his experience and knowledge with others.”
“No. I was in a hurry. Also, Kitsuki Shimada doesn’t like me.”
“Shimada is a shrewd one, almost to the point of paranoia. Don’t take it too personally. Whatever you told him your business was, he obviously didn’t believe you. So . . . what is your business, Isao?”
“I am undertaking many missions at once,” Isao said seriously. “Some of them I cannot speak of, as I am under oath. Others I can speak of, but I prefer to do so only with those wise enough to understand the gravity of what is transpiring in the world.”
“You are the young shugenja who has seen the Water Dragon,” Nasuo said.
“How did you know that?”
“Information flows to me from many tributaries. How I know is not as important as the fact that I know. I had a feeling you’d be looking for me. It’s why I’ve been sitting on this stool for the last three days, biding my time. Conversing with students, yes, but keeping a watch out for you. That you happen to bring your grandfather’s weapon with you . . . I take it as a sign—that you are preparing to fight.”
“I have already been fighting.”
“Oh, most certainly, Isao. But whatever bloodshed you have seen to this point is only a taste of what’s to come.”
“Tell me,” Isao said. “What is to come? What can I do about the Dark Oracle of Water?”
Nasuo stood up slowly, and collected a short stick from beside his stool.
“Walk with me,” Nasuo said.
Isao followed. They began to wind their way deeper into the district—headed east, past houses and dojos and temples aplenty, until finally they approached what appeared to be a very small, very decrepit old temple nudging up right against the east wall. With vines crawling up its sides and moss growing thick across the roof tiles.
“Inside,” Nasuo said, pointing with the stick.
“We go to pray?” Isao asked.
“No,” Nasuo said. “This is my home. And we will have privacy.”
Isao went inside, and Nasuo came in with him. Three servants—one male, two female—were busily attending to chores. They snapped to as Nasuo entered, but when the old man spoke to them, he spoke kindly. No commands. He asked with patience. And the servants smiled, quickly forming up at the front door and excusing themselves. One of them stole a glance at Isao as they walked out, but just for an instant. Any longer, and it would have been poor manners.
Nasuo took Isao to a short stair that led from the low-ceilinged main floor to a more comfortable upper floor with higher ceilings and better light. There was a small table in one room—with pillows for seats. Nasuo indicated for Isao to take one, and Nasuo took the other.
“You cannot speak too much of the Dark Oracle in the open,” Nasuo warned. “I am afraid that the only thing more treacherous than Imperial politics in Second City, are the spies and other pests who come in from the jungles and feral lands beyond.”
“This is precisely why I have approached you,” Isao said. “Because I need someone in this city I can trust. To give guidance. And to keep our conversations confidential.”
“I can do that,” the old man said. “But I sense you want something else. You are troubled by a more practical problem you cannot solve.”
“Yes,” Isao said sheepishly. “I am working on a new alchemy formulation—for a new weapon I wish to wield against the enemy.”
“And you’re not getting results,” Nasuo said.
“No,” Isao said, keep his eyes on the tabletop in respectful deference.
“I pride myself on my knowledge of the art,” Nasuo said. “Ever since . . . ”
Nasuo’s eyes suddenly clouded.
“Nasuo-sama?” Isao said.
“Nothing. Nevermind. It’s not important. Anyway, have you anything written down? I want to look at what you’re trying to do.”
Isao carefully removed a small scroll from his travel pouch and spread it across the table, using two small stones to keep the paper laid flat. Kanji characters were written in varying formulations of different types, with marks next to some of them.
Nasuao leaned over the paper and read, his fingertips resting on his chin as he mumbled—eyes deciphering Isao’s work.
“Not bad,” Nasuo said. “I see you’re modifying Grasp of Earth. Most unusual. Hmmmm . . . if I have this right, then I think I can predict your results thusfar. The kami are forming the initial bulge in the ground, but it’s amorphous and unstable, crumbling within seconds.”
“Yes!” Isao said, slapping his right hand into his left fist in frustration. “Every time. Regardless of how I change the language.”
“It’s a question of grammar,” Nasuo said. “One moment.”
The old man got up, left the table, then returned with a small pot of ink and a brush. He sat back down and began to make his own marks on Isao’s scroll.
“See here? You’re focused entirely on the pincer action when what you really want is to keep the thing coherent enough so that it forms fully—then you snap it tight. Like the flytrap closing on a wasp.”
“But if it takes too long then the effect is useless, and my foe will simply step out of harm’s way.”
“Here,” Nasuo said, quickly painting two additional Kanji characters.
“Tell me—” the old man said “—how would you arrange these?”
“I don’t understand,” Isao admitted, after looking at what had been written.
“And that’s why it’s not working,” Nasuo said. “Merely invoking the kami is not enough. What you’re trying to do takes active willpower to shape the kami specifically to your desire. You cannot invoke, and walk away. You must see your foe, and grasp him as if with your own hand.”
Nasuo put a palm into the air between them, then curled it slowly into a fist—impressively sized.
“You are not a Dragon by birth,” Isao said, noticing the muscles that still bulged along the old man’s forearm.
“No,” Nasuo said, the corners of his eyes wrinkled by another smile. “I was Kuni by heritage, but sent to learn at the feet of Tamori masters when I was very small. When the Destroyer War . . . well, when the war happened, I returned to my Crab roots until the fighting . . . the . . . you see, well, many lives were lost . . .”
Again, the old man’s eyes had grown cloudy.
He began to cough, though not from any obvious physical discomfort.
“I don’t mean to pry into business that is not mine to know, Nasuo-sama,” Isao said, bowing his head towards his newfound sensei.
“You must pardon me,” Nasuo said after he collected himself. “What Shimada and the others at the embassy won’t tell you is that I lost my family. Kali-Ma cultists. I came here to Second City to find a place where I could outrun my ghosts. Unfortunately there’s not a day that doesn’t pass without being reminded of my wife and children. Gone.”
“I beg forgiveness,” Isao said. “It was not right of me—”
“Shut up, young Tamori,” Nasuo said gruffly. “What’s done is done. Here in the colonies I have found my place, and I am content to pass on what I know to any student who will listen. And learn. Besides, the acolytes of Kali-Ma are not all dead. Not yet. And I am old. Too old to go out and seek my enemy in the jungle. But I see in you—I feel in you—the potential for much combat. The Dark Oracle has placed himself in your path. You have already been pushed past certain limits, and prevailed. If by helping you I am able to bring the foul servants of Kali-Ma to an end . . . well, the teacher who avenges once, avenges once. The teacher who teaches his pupils to avenge . . . such a man may have a hundred or a thousand blades, striking in his name. So, no apologies. And no more formality. You have a job to do, and I’m going to help you do it.”
“I am honored by your tutelage,” Isao said.
But Nasuo was already making more marks on the paper.
Isao stood in the courtyard of the dojo.
It had been a revelatory afternoon.
Having studied, questioned, reassessed, questioned, re-written his formulation, and then carefully dedicated time and meditation to his task, Tamori Isao was ready to see if his new knowledge would have the desired impact.
With the light going down in the west, and all of the students cleared out of the dojo for dinner, now was the ideal time for Isao to see if his idea would work.
He clutched the kami-charged phial in his left hand.
His right hand clenched, and unclenched—his mind quietly pondering the implications of this, a more complex but also more direct way to achieve the results he wanted.
“Now,” Nasuo said, standing behind Isao.
Isao flung the phial at his feet, hearing it crack like a tiny piece of glass. At the same time he raised his right arm—fingers together, but held wide apart from his thumb. There was an instant of near-electric energy running up from the soles of Isao’s feet as he felt the kami swirl through him, then connect with a mass of earth perhaps two dozen feet away.
Unlike during past attempts, this time the earth did not bulge upward in an unformed blob. Two distinct masses shot from the ground and curled towards each other—but just so far. The invocation was poised on Isao’s physical command. He marveled at his creation, and almost smiled at the sight of something he’d only ever conjured in his mind—now made real.
Isao’s right hand closed into a fist.
The jaws slammed shut.
And held. And held. And held.
Isao squeezed and relaxed his fist several times.
Nasuo began to laugh. Not a mirthful laugh, like one might hear after a joke. But a telling, conspicuously bloody laugh. Like Isao had sometimes heard from the mouth of his friend Ikomo Uso, the Lion bard—who seemed to be much more than that.
“Excellent,” Nasuo said. “I think you’ve got it right this time. My compliments, young Tamori. You’ve not only developed a new weapon against your foe, you’ve done it with style, too. Your grandfather would have approved.”
Isao let his concentration and his grip relax.
The form crumbled back into a low heap, tossing up dust.
“I could not have done it without your help,” Isao said.
“Nonsense. You’d have figured it out sooner or later. I just sort of pointed you in a new direction. Now, I’m hungry. All this work has me starved. Do you think your friends will mind if you dine with me tonight?”
“Not at all,” Isao said.
The old shugenja and the young shugenja walked out of the dojo back towards Nasuo’s house—Nasuo’s hand resting on Isao’s shoulder, his walking stick forgotten.
Tamori Isao: Second City, Part 2
It was raining in Second City.
Ordinarily, Tamori Isao liked the rain. In his home in the mountains of the Dragon Clan, a good storm brought fresh water, cool temperatures, and left a delightfully loamy tang in the air.
But in Second City?
The rain was warm, suffocating, and only seemed to enrich the ever-present stench of the streets. The air—ordinarily damp anyway—became almost wet with moisture, and the silk of Isao’s kimono clung uncomfortably, while paper wrinkled and curled. How did anyone manage to keep records in Second City, without having them rot away in a season or two?
Presently, Isao sat inside the threshold of the second-floor balcony of the home of Mirumoto Nasuo. If the old man was as bothered by the humidity as Isao was, he didn’t show it. Though, to be fair, Nasuo had been in the Colonies far longer than Isao. Time enough, it seemed, to acclimate.
“You are uncomfortable,” Nasuo grunted from across the table where he sat with Isao.
“You state the obvious,” Isao grunted back.
“You’ll get used to it, in time.”
“I hope that I do. Every day since our arrival I have found myself growing more and more homesick.”
“Of course,” Nasuo said. “But I see in your eyes that there is something else. You’ve told me that you’re staying at the House of Radiant Fog. A skilled geisha can relieve many a worry. The geisha at the House of Radiant Fog ought to be able to massage the knit from your brow. And a whole lot more.”
“I . . . I am afraid I can’t partake,” Isao said, looking out at the gray clouds huddled low in the sky, their bellies emptying out onto the city in a substantial curtain of fat water droplets.
“Why not?” Nasuo said, sitting up a little straighter. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those kind of men?”
Isao waved Nasuo’s mild criticism away.
“Hardly. It’s just that . . . I have a commitment I cannot break.”
“Married?” Nasuo asked.
“No,” Isao replied.
“Soon to be married?”
“Then what’s the commitment?”
“I have a son.”
“A Mantis woman. Bushi. Very beautiful.”
“And you left her with child, to come to the Colonies?”
“I don’t understand.”
Isao sighed, fidgeting on his pillow. Discussing Yoritomo Kakeko was something he’d not dared do, even with his cohort. The weight of his predicament had tugged at his shoulders ever since leaving the house of Admiral Naota. But now, with the old shugenja’s eyes watching him intently, Isao felt the need to divulge all. The humbling of the Topaz championship. Kakeko’s deliciously ferocious strength. Their liaison in the night. His later having learned of Kakeko’s betrothal to the Admiral. And, of course, the revelation of Kakeko’s son—whom Isao knew from Kakeko’s own passionate lips to be of Isao’s bloodline.
“Ah, to be young,” Nasuo said, chuckling again.
“You find my situation funny?” Isao said, perhaps a bit more sharply than he should have.
Nasuo suddenly became serious.
“No, of course not. It’s a dreadful thing to find the woman you lust after, already wed to another man—with your own child growing up in the midst of an abusive marriage. If I laugh, it is because I remember what it was like to be your age. Doubtless I’d have let myself be taken to bed by this Kakeko woman, if I’d been in your place. She sounds quite beautiful.”
“She is that,” Isao said, his gaze on the table.
“So why does that stop you from making the most of your stay at the House of Radiant Fog?” Nasuo asked.
“Kakeko is . . . is . . .” Isao started to say.
But Nasuo stopped him.
“Is what? Your wife? No. Mother of your child? Yes. Going to be getting away from this Naota bastard any time soon? No. Young Isao, she is effectively beyond your reach. Are you going to be a Tamori, or are you going to become a monk?”
“I don’t know what that means,” Isao said.
“Do I have to spell it out for you? Geisha are geisha. You are a Tamori—a warrior who commands the kami. You have every right to make the most of your accommodations, especially this far from the Empire proper. After my wife and children were killed—curse the wretched Kali-Ma cultists—I think I would have gone mad, except for the tender recreation afforded by the geisha here in Second City. Many of them have been learning from the Ivindi women, you know. There’s some amazing stuff in the Ivindi lore, about the pleasures a woman can—”
“Enough,” Isao said, putting his head in his hands. “You’ve made your point, and I appreciate it. If I thought I could get Kakeko out of my head—”
“Do as you must,” Nasuo said. “Just know that your burden here in the Colonies can be lightened if you will but broaden your mind. I know what it is to feel the cord of love stretched taut. So taut you think it will break. When my wife died . . . well, let us just say that I was inhuman for many months, traveling across the sea and overland to this place. Eventually I had to realize that my wife was utterly beyond my physical grasp. Though never beyond the grasp of my heart. Isao, you will do your Kakeko no shame if you admit that you are still a man. Do you think she is celibate in the Admiral’s house? If or when you see her again, she may have many children, only one of whom will be yours. You do her—and your son—no favors, by clinging to a misguided notion of chaste fealty.”
Isao stewed where he sat, his mood matching the weather outside.
Silence, for several long moments.
“Didn’t you ever feel guilty?” Isao asked, looking his new mentor in the eyes.
“Yes,” Nasuo said. “But then I realized that, had I been the one to die, I would not have wished for my wife to remain alone—a widow for the rest of her days. She was an amazing creature. All I ever wanted was for her to be happy. I would have wanted that, even if her happiness had included a new lover—even a new husband.”
“You are braver than I,” Isao said.
“Not braver, just older. Less idealistic in certain respects. And now I think I’ve said enough about this particular matter. You have other business to attend to in the city tonight, am I correct?”
“Yes. This evening I will return to Daigotsu Meikuko.”
“The storyteller,” Nasuo said, inhaling deeply, his eyes narrowing.
“Yes,” Isao said.
“I know you’ve gone to her once, so what more do you hope for in a second visit? That woman travels dark paths.”
“Precisely,” Isao said. “I must try to know more of what she knows. I sense that she sees into places I cannot yet see. There is knowledge there I can use against the enemy of Rokugan.”
“The Dark Oracle of Water?”
“Yes. Nothing else matters, but finding and destroying this shugenja—and all who follow him.”
“How do you know that Meikuko is not in league with The Dark Oracle?”
“My cohort and I, we had a discussion with Daigotsu Kanpeki.”
“Also a traveler of dark paths.”
“Yes. But not a man to love chaos. He sees The Dark Oracle as a threat to civilization as much as we do. I have to believe that Meikuko is the same.”
“You tread a sharp edge,” Nasuo said. “But then it’s obvious that, despite your youth, your feet have been set upon a certain path. By forces above and beyond my reckoning. That the Water Dragon appeared to you . . . well, most mortal men would have been driven mad. Yet the Water Dragon seems to have gifted you with sanity. And fortitude. Very well, then. Go to see the storyteller. Come back tomorrow afternoon, and we will discuss what you have learned from her. Only be very, very careful. She is not all that she appears.”
“I will, sensei,” Isao said. “I promise.”
The house of Daigotsu Meikuko was as dark and foreboding as Isao remembered it from before. Barely any light filtered in from the half-shuttered windows, while tiny columns of smoke rose from several incense sticks leaning gently in their holders at the corners of the table.
Meikuko’s eyes glimmered with a faint light.
Unnatural. Almost seductively so.
“How old are you?” Isao asked, feeling the sweat beading on his flesh beneath his kimono.
“Did you come to hear me speak, or to be my inquisitor?” she said, her voice delicately barbed, like the tail of a scorpion.
“I mean no offense,” Isao said, bowing his head low. “When first my companions and I came to you, and you told the honorable Suzume Shintaro a story—a tale that spoke candid truth—I was too hesitant. Now . . . I am learning things about the world, about this vast place the Empire has forged on the edge of all things. A fortress in the quagmire. I believe you may be able to tell me much that may help me to defend our Empire.”
“Our empire?” she said, a bemused, cold smile on her face.
“Daigotsu Kanpeki knows it to be true, and so do you, I suspect. The Spider are linked to us all—your fate is our fate, and vice versa.”
The storyteller watched Isao intently, licking her lips. Though it was dark, Isao could have sworn the woman had a black tongue. Forked, like that of a serpent.
“So what does my age have to do with any of this?” she asked pointedly.
“Nothing,” Isao said. “Or everything. I have met two women in the Colonies, so far, who seem to offer tremendous knowledge—”
“You speak of Agasha Ryo,” Meikuko snapped.
“Yes,” Isao admitted.
“I have told you before—she is a meddler in things she does not comprehend, and a danger to all of Second City. You sit at my table and I smell your fear, yet I tell you now, young Dragon, that you have far less to fear from me, than you do from her.”
“Which is why I seek your special brand of counsel,” Isao said. “Because I believe my path forward will be made clear, if I can discern wisdom flowing from many sources.”
“There is flattery lacing your words,” Meikuko said. “Do not trifle with me, boy. You don’t know what I’ve seen in my years traveling this world. Suffice to say that I am older than you could guess, and have tasted the power few in Rokugan dare taste.”
Isao’s blood went cold.
The glow of her eyes appeared to intensify as she spoke.
“Did it hurt?” Isao asked.
“Did what hurt?” she said.
“The . . . touch of Hell. The Taint. Did it hurt? When it first became part of you?”
“It always hurts, foolish little kami-speaker. To embrace the Taint is to become more intimate with pain than a lover might be with her mate. And yet . . . there is delicious satisfaction in that which is forbidden. Why, are you curious, child? Be careful what you long to experience, it might be the end of you.”
“I would not and can never willingly embrace the Taint,” Isao said sternly. “It would be an offense to all that I am, and to my fathers before me.”
“Yet . . .” she said.
“Yet, I believe that you can see what others may not see, know what others may not know. Madame, I wish for you to tell me a story, so that I may continue on the path down which I have been sent.”
“You’ve been talking to Mirumoto Nasuo,” she intuited.
“Yes,” Isao said, swallowing hard.
“Don’t act so surprised, Tamori Isao of the mountains high. I know of Nasuo just as I know of Ryo, and many others in Second City. We are all aware of each other. Each of us keeps his or her place of power. Delicately we tread the web, lest spiders too big and too poisonous for even me to reckon with, crawl from their lairs to strike. There was a time—when Nasuo was newly arrived in Second City—when I thought to have him as my own. His grief was palpable and delightful on his soul. It would have fed me for many a year.”
Again, the black tongue licked—yes, forked. Definitely forked.
Isao could not take his eyes away from her face.
The storyteller had been beautiful once. But now her features were hard, like marble. Cold and cutting. Her eyes were literally alight as she smiled wickedly, remembering.
Then the light began to fade.
“But Nasuo sated himself in the geisha houses, and was not swayed from the Tamori path. His love for his wife and children was too pure. As is, I suspect, your own love for the woman and the child you have not even named. Oh, don’t look so surprised, Tamori! You came to me to hear a story, from the soul-font of my darkness! Did you think you could keep so much hidden from me? Your grief is also palpable. Differently-flavored from Nasuo’s. But tantalizing just the same. I could show you things, if you dared to leave the path upon which you are rigidly fixed.”
Isao opened his mouth to object.
“But I know,” Meikuko said, holding up a hand to silence him, “that like your new sensei, you too are pure. Saccharine and steadfast. You believe there is still goodness and rightness in this world. So surely that it turns the air over my table into a cloying perfume. I’d make you gone if I didn’t feel burning within me the tale you so eagerly desire. Very well, shugenja, I shall give you your story. But do not let it be said that I did not warn you!”
Tamori Isao: Second City, Part 3
Rain thudded heavily on the roof tiles.
Daigotsu Meikuko’s gaze seemed to smolder: wicked and brilliant.
Behind her, as if on command, a light came up on the far wall. Or rather, the impression of light. It was green, like the leaves of the trees, and Isao could see the silhouetted shadow of a mountain range.
“Let me tell you the story of the Mountain Prince,” Meikuko said.
Again, as if on command, the black silhouette of a man—no, a bushi—appeared. He began to walk slowly down the slope of one of the mountains.
He’d not seen shadow theater since he’d been a boy.
Only this time, there were no tell-tale puppeteers in black smocks. The silhouette of the Mountain Prince appeared to move of its own volition.
“He was a fair and noble son,” Meikuko said, her voice commanding. “The heir of a great line. Steadfast in his duties. Honorable and true. Ancient as the Earth, from a time before the kami fell. Before Rokugan.”
The light at the far end of the scene began to shift to the color blue.
“But the Mountain Prince had an enemy: the Sea King.”
A new silhouette rose up from a jagged, saw-toothed line of shifting wave tops. This one was also clearly a bushi, though his armor was differently-styled and shaped. He proceeded up out of the water and onto the land.
Emerald and sapphire blended at the mid-point of the scene, as the two silhouettes faced one another, bowed, and then began to pose and strike the air: kata stances.
“The Sea King was wrathful, for the Mountain Prince had presumed to claim all the land between the foothills and the beach. And when the Prince and King could not resolve their quarrel through show of skill, they each raised up an army against the other.”
Suddenly, hundreds of little silhouettes began to troop out of the ocean and down the mountains, until they were arrayed against each other: two seething masses of tiny men, swords and spears waving high in the air. The Sea King and the Mountain Prince also waved their katanas, then thrust their blades at each other across the open space.
The opposing armies rushed to meet.
And a ferocious battle occurred.
Isao felt his skin crawl. The mass engagement looked like two hordes of beetles all crawling and fighting and stabbing at one another.
He could almost hear the din of combat.
The shouting and shrieking of the men.
The armies fell back, melted, and reformed, only to attack again.
And again, and again.
“The war was terrible,” Meikuko said. “The people of the Mountain Prince were brave, but the cost in blood was high. Even the Mountain Prince himself suffered many hurts, while losing close counselors and friends. Such that his heart was made hard and bitter.”
The Sea King and the Mountain prince each retreated: the one to the edge of the ocean, the other to the foothills.
They seemed to consider themselves across the distance, which was littered with the shadows of the corpses of the dead.
“And then came a woman,” Meikuko said, her voice suddenly taking on an alluring tone.
A third silhouette appeared—heedless of the war—and traipsed across the battlefield to stand before the Mountain Prince.
“She was as beautiful as the morning, as fierce as the wind, and she touched the heart of the Mountain Prince.”
The two shadows appeared to exchange pleasantries, then gifts. They conversed. They even laughed: backs arched and heads thrown back.
“But it was not to be,” Meikuko continued. “For the woman was of the islands far across the Sea King’s domain. And she was forbidden to the Prince.”
The male and female silhouettes parted, their necks bent and their hands to their faces in sorrow. The woman traveled forlornly across the land—which was now free of corpses—and back to the beach. The shape of a sampan appeared, and the woman climbed aboard, sailing away from the shore and across the domain of the Sea King, who waited and watched the Mountain Prince as he staggered from the foothills, then fell to his knees, his back shaking with sobs.
Isao was riveted.
“Because he was constrained by the laws of the Mountain, and the mountain tribe was very fond of their old fashioned laws and backwards customs, he was not allowed to pursue her. Being dutiful, he obeyed the foolish laws of his tribe to the letter, and she was lost to him forever. This loss made him weak, heart sick, and unfocused—no match at all for the King of the Sea.”
Again, armies rose up around the shadows of the Prince and the King.
And again they each went to war.
Only this time, the Mountain Prince was not standing tall and proud, his face to the enemy and his katana raised high.
He was turned, chin on his chest, his katana sheathed.
And slowly but surely, the army of the Sea King began to overwhelm the army of the Mountain Prince.
“The Prince could have turned to blood magic to make himself unbelievably strong,” Meikuko said, “but that too was against the laws of the Mountain. The Mountain tribe was crushed, and enslaved by the Sea people, and the Prince had his hands and feet hewn off in vengeful retribution.”
The army of the Sea King apprehended the protesting form of the Mountain Prince, who struggled mightily as he was brought to the beach before the Sea King. Who raised his blade and brought it down four times: once for each hand and each foot. The Mountain Prince appeared to writhe and cry silently in agony. Then the army of the Sea King carried the tortured Mountain Prince to the edge of the water, and hurled him in.
“The Mountain Prince was drowned in the sea.”
Isao waited with no breath, hoping for some sign that the Mountain Prince would rise.
But there was only the gentle motion of the waves: back and forth, back and forth.
The Sea King proceeded up the beach and strode proudly across the land, his army in front of him. They devoured the last of the Mountain Prince’s army, then swarmed up the sides of the mountains proper.
“Despite his loyalty, his honor, and his sacrifice, the Mountain Prince could not prevent the inevitable. His beliefs were too rigid, his back too straight. And in the end, it took just a single woman to distract his heart at the critical moment. The mountain tribe’s laws meant nothing. The people were taken to serve the Sea King as slaves. And over time, the memory of their mighty domain was forgotten. The story of the Mountain Prince whispered only as a sad fairytale—for the ears of children.”
A low roll of thunder punctuated Meikuko’s final words.
The light across the entire scene flared blue, then faded slowly to black.
Leaving only the dim glimmering of Meikuko’s eyes.
Isao felt ill.
But he swallowed hard.
“You sow seeds of bitterness with your words,” he said in a hushed tone.
“I give you only what was asked me for,” she said. “No less, and no more. And now if you will excuse me, young shugenja, I must retire for the night. Go back to the House of Radiant Fog. Think on what you have learned. And beware. Beware!”
Isao rose slowly from his seat.
Without looking, he pushed his way out of the dark house and out into the pouring storm.
“I warned you,” Nasuo said.
Isao didn’t reply.
Morning had brought with it a gentle respite from the rain.
Rays of sunlight shot down and through the balcony door.
The air still stank of the street outside, but now there was a gentle hint of flowers on the breeze.
“Always the young ones go to dare against Diagotsu Meikuko, and always the young ones come away with clouded eyes and sorrowful faces. Your pain amuses her, you know. She thrives on it.”
“She told me she greatly desired to feed on your pain, when you were newly arrived in Second City,” Isao said bitterly.
“Of that I have no doubt. And almost, she had me. But I could see past the veil of her heart. There is darkness in that woman no man should partake of. Not without eternal cost. I turned her away. And she has been bitter with me ever since. The witch!”
Nasuo practically spat his last word.
“So, my foolish Tamori, what will you do now?”
“I will seek again the counsel of Agasha Ryo.”
“From the frying pan into the fire!” Nasuo chortled.
“What else can I do? My cohort and I must see this temple in the jungle. Agasha Ryo appears to have more knowledge of Ivindi magic than most. Even more than you.”
“What Agasha Ryo does and does not know, remains a mystery even to me,” Nasuo said. “For much of your young life, I have attempted to extract certain pieces of knowledge from that woman, and have been cleverly rebuffed. She is a Phoenix. They think they know more about the kami than anybody. And Agasha Ryo has spent her time in Second City learning about the Ivindi rituals and lore, to the extent that I suspect she is no longer a true Agasha in practice. But a strange hybrid of Ivindi and Agasha, unlike anything else in the Empire.”
“All the more reason to see her again,” Isao protested.
“And get burned by the fire which is twice as hot?”
“If you have a better idea,” Isao said, “I am all ears.”
Nasuo seemed to considered the situation, his eyes narrowed and his old mouth puckered.
“What are your friends doing tonight?”
“Some will be attending a play. Others go to look for a man we have been seeking.”
“The Chonitsu fellow?”
“And where do you plan to be?”
“At the library.”
“There is no need for any of the bushi to come with me to do research. Besides, Agasha Ryo frightens them.”
“As well she should,” Nasuo said.
“Are you telling me a Phoenix shugenja is more dangerous than a Spider soothsayer?”
“Perhaps,” Nasuo said.
Isao considered, his brow knit.
“Why do enemies seem to surround me on all sides?” he finally said, standing up and pacing back and forth in the balcony doorway. “Ever since we departed Rokugan, we’ve been forced to watch our backs, always be wary of alternative and hidden motives, seek answers from those who may not be our friends, and deal cunningly with Rokugani who appear to have all kinds of loyalties to anyone and everyone besides the Emperor.”
“Welcome to reality,” Nasuo said. “I sympathize, Isao. I really do. The mountains are a protected place where ideals can sprout and grow unchallenged. But you’re in the colonies now. Second City is a nest of serpents. The rules you’re used to? They don’t necessarily apply here. I’ve been gently trying to teach you that ever since you sought me out. Because I know how you feel. When I first came here, I was put off by the whole thing too.”
“Then why did you stay?”
Nasuo also stood up, and walked carefully out onto the balcony itself.
“Because here it doesn’t hurt so much. The memories. And also, because I suppose I always hoped that one day I’d get a chance to strike back. Against the murders who took my wife and children from me. The acolytes of Kali-Ma live still. Not in the great numbers they once did. But even a few of them, acting in a coordinated fashion, could be very dangerous. My sense is that they merely awaited a flag around which to rally. I think the Dark Oracle of Water has given them that flag. And you and your cohort have come to oppose the Dark Oracle. I believe our fates coincide in this manner.”
“I will go to Agasha Ryo,” Isao said finally, his mind made up.
“Very well, then,” Nasuo said as Isao went back into the house and collected his tetsubo and his satchel.
“Just one thing,” Nasuo said.
Isao paused to listen, his eyes on the old man.
“What Meikuko told you, is true—as fables go. But fables are not destiny. Remember that.”
Isao’s jaw was tight.
But he breathed deeply, his eyes closed, focusing his thoughts.
“I will, sensei. And thank you.”
Isao went to the library.
And was told that Agasha Ryo would see him when the time was right.
So he waited. And waited. And waited.
Through late morning and much of the afternoon.
And also into the evening.
“I have been very patient,” Isao said to one of the library’s functionaries who was waiting at the threshold to the portion of the library designated as staff-only. “I must see Agasha Ryo and speak with her tonight.”
“She is not feeling well today,” the functionary said. “She asks that you come back tomorrow.”
“What I need to know might not wait until tomorrow,” Isao said, knowing fully well that his companions were now split on separate missions. He couldn’t return to them at the House of Radiant Fog empty-handed. Already they’d been gently prodding him about spending too much time with his new master in the temple district. Isao had seen the concern in Toranaka’s eyes: that Isao was losing focus on their mission.
“Nevertheless, you cannot see her before tomorrow at the soonest,” the functionary said with edged politeness.
Isao felt his hands curl into fists.
He wasn’t used to being dismissed in such a manner. At least not by one so obviously beneath Isao’s station. But what could he do? He was dependent on Agasha Ryo’s good graces. It wouldn’t do to upset one of the library’s staff, who could then run back to Agasha Ryo with exaggeration on his lips, about how Tamori Isao was a violent and unlawful man.
“Very well,” Isao said, barely keeping his composure. “Give Agasha Ryo my sympathies, and inform her that I still desire to speak with her as soon as she is able to see me.”
The functionary bowed low.
Isao bowed as well—just not as low.
Then he quickly marched out of the library and into the portico.
The air was damp, but mildly cool. The storm had held off all day, and there were stars occasionally peeking through breaks in the clouds above.
Isao was ready to kick something.
In the back of his mind, he considered what Nasuo had said to him the day before, about the geisha. Maybe the old man was right? What good did it do anyone for Isao to remain a pent-up ball of frustration?
Just as Isao began to proceed into the street, a cloaked individual approached from out of the evening darkness.
“Tamori Isao?” a voice asked.
“Yes?” Isao said, pausing—his hand tightening on the haft of his tetsubo.
The figure stepped back three paces, then muttered something.
At once, a tiny hurricane of wind erupted in Isao’s face.
He closed his eyes and braced, but it was too late.
The wall of air threw Isao backward into the portico, flinging pottery, dirt, and bits of masonry like arrow-points.
Blinking away the surprise and the pain, Isao levered himself out of a smashed urn and stood to confront his foe.
The enemy still wore a cloak.
Cries of alarm from inside the library only yielded the tell-tale ka-thunk sounds of wooden beams being lowered over the insides of the doors proper—there would be no escape that way.
A quick glance up and down the street revealed that there were no city guard to be seen, either. Odd, given the fact that the guard were numerous when Isao had entered the library earlier in the day.
“No matter,” Isao said. “If it is me alone you seek, it is me alone you shall fight!”
The last had been a shouted challenge.
The enemy cast aside his cloak.
It was difficult to see who or what he was.
Isao reflexively reached into his satchel and retrieved one of the many small phials he kept prepared.
He smashed the phial on the ground at his feet.
Pieces of the pavement around Isao leapt into the air, hurling directly at the enemy’s chest.
The rocks passed through the enemy without effect.
The image of the enemy shivered and shook.
“Deception!” Isao yelled.
Suddenly, from a different direction, Isao felt the carving bite of a new attack. Worse than the first. Instead of being blown off his feet, Isao experienced the focused wind—like tens of blades slicing into his body. He drew his arms across his face and screamed as his kimono was ripped from his torso.
Staggered, Isao dropped to one knee.
The pain was phenomenal.
He looked down to see blood pouring from deep gashes across his naked chest.
“Where are you?” Isao screamed, ignoring the false avatar which he’d attacked before. “Face me like a man!”
But there was only laughter.
Not thinking twice, Isao pulled out and smashed a second phial.
At once, a tendril of light flashed into existence in his left hand. He whirled it over his head and whipped it out to its full length, sweeping in front of him as he trudged out of the portico, the rope of fire waving back and forth, back and forth.
Until finally sparks flew as Isao’s weapon made contact.
The enemy—real this time—grunted and stumbled.
At once, Isao reached for another phial.
But the enemy was too fast.
Isao braced as he was fileted by another hurricane of air knives.
He collapsed to his knees, hugging his lacerated upper body. His blood was hot and slick on his fingers and the pain was unlike anything he’d yet experienced.
The enemy walked slowly forward.
“You should have known better than to poke the hornet’s nest,” the enemy said. Isao looked up to see a faint smile on the man’s face.
“Who are you?” Isao spat between clenched teeth.
“Nobody who can’t handle a stupid young Tamori who’s in over his head. They told me you’d put up a better fight. That I should come prepared for a struggle. I see now that we overestimated you. Hopefully the same is true of your companions. They’ll be getting theirs right about now, too.”
Isao’s mind suddenly whirred.
He must have been followed. Perhaps all the way from the temple district? If Toranaka and Subotai and the others were also being attacked . . .
“No,” Isao growled.
With all his strength, he leapt to his feet and swung with his tetsubo.
The end just grazed the enemy as the enemy deftly evaded the blow.
“Much better!” the air shugenja crowed, a smile on his face. “I was beginning to think things would be boring.”
The man began to mutter an incantation.
Isao reached into his satchel, only to find it too had been shredded.
His phials? Where were his phials?
He found just one at the bottom, close to falling out.
Isao snapped it between his fingers.
Suddenly Isao vanished into the street.
The world had become murky.
In all directions, like faint outlines, Isao could see the layers of pavement, gravel, and soil that made up the thoroughfare. As well as the stone foundations of the nearby library, and the bottoms of the enemy’s feet standing over Isao just a few arm-lengths away.
The enemy was cursing.
Isao swam around the enemy, like a fish through water.
There, the spilled phials. Though Isao couldn’t tell which ones.
And there, his tetsubo.
What was the best tactic?
Isao decided he was too angry and in too much pain to care.
He came straight up out of the street at the enemy’s back, wrapping an arm around the enemy’s throat and pushing his opposite forearm into the back of the enemy’s neck.
The air shugenja began to gasp, and lurched backward, hands clawing at Isao’s already-bleeding flesh.
“You seek to kill us,” Isao snarled in the air shugenja’s ear, “but it is we who will kill you. We know about you. What’s your number? Are you the least of your kind, or the most?”
The two men lurched around the street, locked in a deadly embrace.
Unfortunately for Isao, his opponent managed to gasp just enough of an incantation, so that the air itself burst Isao’s grasp. Isao stumbled away while a cyclone-funnel of wind swirled protectively around the enemy, who had bent over—trying to get his breath back.
Recognizing that time was of the essence, Isao dove for the scattering of phials on the street.
He managed to get two of them into his hands before the world exploded painfully.
Isao was down before he knew it, the smell of ozone and burnt hair in his nostrils.
Bits of flame lit the street now, from where the concussive double-blast of lightning and fire had touched down.
Isao rolled onto his hands and knees, barely able to hear or see.
“I’ll give you credit,” the enemy yelled over the whirling roar of his protective layer of circling wind, “you’re making this interesting. It’s too bad I’m going to have to kill you. The Dark Oracle could have used a man with your talents.”
The air shugenja spoke an incantation.
A translucent yari materialized in his hands.
He swung it deftly.
Isao had just enough sense to roll out of the blade’s way.
The enemy struck again, and again Isao rolled once more.
If he’d had his tetsubo, he might have parried, or tried for a knock-down blow.
But all he had were the phials.
He cracked one between his fingers.
The stone pavement around Isao buckled and cracked, then flowed up the sides of Isao’s body until it had formed a dense, armored cocoon around his lacerated and bleeding flesh.
Isao pushed himself back to his feet, letting the tip of the kami-induced yari glance harmlessly off his armor-of-earth.
“That’s not very sporting,” the enemy yelled. “Now you’re just going to make me burn you out of there!”
The enemy’s mouth began to move.
Isao cracked the other phial between his fingers, though he wasn’t sure which spell he’d stored therein.
Isao suddenly realized his luck.
Just before the enemy could complete his incantation, Isao raised his right arm out, then curled it back at the elbow, palm open with fingers and thumb wide apart.
The street beneath the air shugenja seemed to roar of its own accord.
The enemy’s eyes went wide as he stared down at his feet.
Instantly, the head of a dragon erupted from the street, catching the air shugenja in its jaws. The rocks along the dragon’s head were like scales, and its eyes glinted in the pale light of the emerging moon.
Isao closed his extended hand into a fist.
The jaws of the dragon snapped shut.
The air shugenja uttered a simple yelp, his hands gyrating in panic just outside the stony dragon’s shard-like teeth.
Isao kept his fist closed as he advanced on the enemy.
For a moment, he considered two possibilities.
Release the foe, and parlay for information?
Or finish the bastard.
Isao’s body quivered in pain.
He took one step towards the stone-and-rock dragon’s head, then opened his mouth and howled. A long, low, ragged howl of rage, many months in the making. Then he began to clench and unclench his fist.
The dragon-of-earth chewed.
The air shugenja screamed: muffled agony.
Isao kept clenching and unclenching his hand.
Until the cries of the enemy ceased.
Isao let his arm fall, and the dragon-of-earth collapsed into gravel and sand at Isao’s feet.
The body of the enemy was nicely pulverized: blood, gore, bone, brains, and bile all leaking onto the street.
Isao snorted, then spit solidly on his foe’s mangled body.
Then he looked up to see a figure watching him from one of the library’s balconies above.
She was barely more than a silhouette, but Isao knew when he saw her that it was Agasha Ryo. Blind to the world. And yet, she had apparently “watched” the fight without intervening. Was she friend, or enemy? At that moment, Isao was less sure than ever before.
He dropped to his knees, feeling dizziness come over him.
To be continued next week: http://monsterhunternation.com/2014/05/23/the-drowning-empire-episode-54-second-city-stories/
Here is Brad’s collection of short stories: