The Drowning Empire is a weekly serial based on the events which occured during the Writer Nerd Game Night monthly Legend of the Five Rings game. It is a tale of samurai adventure set in the magical world of Rokugan.
If you would like to read all of these in one convenient place, along with a bunch of additional game related stuff, behind the scenes info, and detailed session recaps, I’ve been posting everything to one thread on the L5R forum,http://www.alderac.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=295&t=101206
This week’s episode was written by Patrick Tracy. By the way, Pat is an award winning poet, and did this entire bit as haibun poetry.
Ripples upon the Moonlit Water
Patrick M. Tracy
Bai came to stand in the doorway as the sound of the horseman grew louder. She saw a flash of purple garb, and her heart surged within her. It had been some time. The baby had arrived, serving as a reminder that Moto Subotai had been real. She had named the child, a strong boy who grew fast and had the sharp eyes of a hunter, Tai-Xiao. Even now, he had slipped from the crib again, and pulled himself to a standing position in the doorway. She looked down. When he caught her eye, a grin spread across his face. There was happiness in him. The world had yet to erode such things away.
The purple-garbed rider thundered closer on a massive steed, coming to a dusty stop before their small cabin. He unraveled a sheet of parchment and squinted. “This is tract 229?” It was not Subotai, but a young samurai with a face coated with grime and a lathered horse. He wore no expression other than fatigue.
Bai bowed low. “Yes, honorable samurai. Make any wishes known to me, and I would help you become refreshed from your ride.”
The Unicorn samurai glanced at her. The baby had accentuated her feminine shape, and she was yet young enough to be desirable.
“No time. I ride hard again in but a moment. Bring a water bucket, so my horse can drink.”
Bai moved quickly to do so. Tai-Xiao bounced on his bare feet, pleased to see the new wonder. He tottered out from the door to stand grasp at the horse’s fetlocks. The beast made a noise low in its throat, but stood still, looking down at the tiny person at its front hoof.
Her heart in her throat, she dropped the bucket and scrambled to scoop the boy up. “Many apologies. He is a curious boy.”
The samurai gave her a knowing look. “And keen on horses, for a peasant child.”
Bai returned Tai-Xiao to his crib and brought the horse’s water. The samurai eased himself out of his saddle and stretched his legs as the horse slaked its thirst.
“There is no man present here?” the samurai asked.
“I am sorry. My father is away at the market today.”
The samurai shrugged. “To you, then. Do not think to keep it a secret, as one will be back next year, and will ask.” He handed over a heavy sack of coins, the like of which she had only seen once, when Subotai had left them. The day he had gone away, they had found enough coin to feed their small family for a year. An off-hand gift, or perhaps not. Subotai was the only samurai she had ever really known. It was likely that he would remain the only one who would allow her close enough to begin grasping what it meant to wear a sword and serve a Lord through blood and risk.
“Did this…did this come from Moto Subotai-sama?” she asked.
The samurai nodded. “It was a condition of his will. The son of Kohatusu was assassinated a few months ago. He left enough koku to see that your farm is comfortably provided for.”
Bai found that her legs had lost their strength. She hit her knees, then rolled to her side in the dirt. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t keep the tears from coming. The horse, startled, backed three paces and shook its mane, stamping its hooves at her. A tiny sound escaped her, like the call of an injured bird.
The samurai put his hand upon the horse’s neck to ease it, looking down at her. Just a hint of compassion appeared in his eyes for a moment. “He was a good man. He is greatly missed. You would do well to hide the boy next year. Others may not be so discreet as I am in their retelling of the day.”
With that, he mounted up and pounded down the path, disappearing. Tai-Xiao, escaping from his crib once more, put his chubby hand against Bai’s shoulder, shaking her. She turned to him, his sharp little eyes clouded with doubt. She took him in her arms and rocked him back and forth, wordless. She had imagined that simply knowing that her great love existed in the world would be enough. That had been wrong. Every day had been filed with loneliness and hope for a return.
Those feelings were as nothing beside the desolation that filled her now.
This tiny farmhouse
the end of a lonely road
once a battlefield
The glimmering dream
slim hope for a love denied
in gloom, a candle
Coins, given for blood
word of a good man’s passing
Shinjo Namori tucked her axes into the sash about her waist and walked to the administrative offices of the Ide couriers. She had not been there since Subotai’s death. It was time to make things official. Today was the day when she was duty bound to remove the mourning clothes and move forward with her life.
She entered her old workplace. The courtiers there regarded her in silence, muting their surprise behind the faces they kept as a matter of habit. She walked past them, the group she had, at least for a few weeks, been in charge of. She dropped off the sealed scroll on the writing table of the lead courtier, a man she had not had a chance to know well.
The letter was her resignation, and it was late in coming. For some time, long before she had married Subotai, she had known that something was growing inside her, something that would prevent her from ever being a great courtier.
Everything resided within the long shadow of death now. She no longer cared for the finely chosen words and carefully-considered stratagems of court. She found that she couldn’t adequately restrain the burning cauldron within her, nor did she wish to. The Ide life, for her, was over.
She went to the stables, letting Tento out of his stall and using a farrier’s brush on his neck and flanks. It was this alone that seemed to bring her peace, at least for a few minutes. She hoisted the saddle onto his back and cinched the girth straps tight, then mounted up. The horse seemed to know that Subotai was gone, now that she was his mistress now. While his spirited behavior continued, and the stable workers all feared a nip or a kick from the big stallion, he was always on his best behavior with her. Subotai had always said that he was no normal horse, and she believed it now. When he looked into her eyes, those big black pupils would encompass her, as if she were being examined by a Fortune.
And when she dug her heels into his flanks, he exploded forward as fast as an arrow. Every day, she would point him in a direction and allow himself to run himself out. In that frantic burst of power and wind and horse sweat, she left herself behind.
always watched, however, always monitored.
Yesterday, it had been Moto Tenzen, who had somehow known where she would ride, and sat there on his horse, face impassive behind his Vindicator paint.
Today, she could hear the heavy hoofbeats of a Yutuku warhorse behind her. Looking back, she could see Yutaku Kaede, standing in the stirrups, her teeth glinting as she gave chase.
If it had not been for Tenzen and Kaede, she didn’t know if she could have retained her sanity. One of them had always been there, making sure that she ate, making sure that she didn’t plunge a tanto into her heart when the despair became too much. Tenzen would come, and they would spar for hours, until she was so exhausted that she couldn’t raise her wooden sparring axe. Kaede would simply appear, and be there, and hold her shoulders when she wept.
Perhaps it was selfish to use them both in this way, to lean on them so much, but she had done so, and now could not imagine doing anything else. They had become, in a way that she couldn’t quite understand or describe, a family.
Tento slowed to a trot, and she steered him towards the bank of a small stream, just on the edge of the forested area to the north of the keep. She slid from the saddle and knelt at the river’s edge, dipping her hands into the cool flow and splashing her face. Delivering her resignation from the diplomatic service took a great weight off of her shoulders. No more pretending to something that was in the past. No more hiding the fire that burned inside. Her family would, perhaps, be disappointed, but she was no longer of great use to them, now a young widow.
Kaede’s massive horse thundered to a halt, putting its shoulder against Tento and pushing with its neck. Tento, outweighed by five-hundred pounds, put up a solid effort before being pushed downstream by several yards.
Kaede dismounted with a graceful movement and surveyed the nearby area. Satisfied, she came and knelt near Namori’s side, closer than samurai would typically chose to. Namori had become used to this, and understood what it meant.
“It is likely that I will marry again, Kaede.”
“If you joined the Battle Maidens…”
Namori shook her head. “I am not a maiden by any stretch of the imagination.”
Kaede looked down at her knees.
“I have done my mourning and you have been a faithful friend through all of it. I thank you for that. I am not unaware of your feelings toward me.”
“I…apologize for the weakness of my heart, Namori-san. It wishes for things that it cannot have,” Kaede said, refusing to meet her eye.
Namori reached to her, tilted her chin upward. “I don’t wish apologies from you, Kaede-san. I wish you to understand what will be. I am not going to retire from life, nor will I end my time here with a blade. I will stoke the flames within me, and I will put them to use. I do not yet know where that road will lead me, but you will always be among my closest and dearest friends. You have been at my side in the darkest moments of my life, and I will never forget that.”
Kaede watched her expectantly.
“Whether I can ever…feel as you do, I cannot say. My heart is not built as yours is, and seeks different paths.”
Kaede reached up, touching Namori’s hand, still beneath her chin. “What path will you walk, then?”
Namori traced the scar across Kaede’s cheek, then let her hand slide away. “If Tenzen-san will allow it, I will become a Vindicator, his apprentice.”
The burden of peace
I let slip from my shoulders
my rage triumphant
Despair left behind
astride my dead husband’s horse
safe at full gallop
The truest of friends
cling hard to the fleeing spirit
keep her safe from harm
What the heart yearns for
wishing for what cannot be
pierces tender flesh
Moto Ayumi examined her face in the mirror. She was still attractive, her skin free of the deep wrinkles that some women developed at her age. Ayumi realized now what she had truly bargained and sacrificed to retain this beauty. The wandering soothsayer had told her that it would be thus. If she did not bear children, she would retain her beauty into middle age. If she bore children, she would lose her beauty and die a hag.
It had been that fortune that had brought her here, that had ruined her family and caused Subotai’s death. The boy that should have been hers. Her great sin. She had damned him at birth, and then treated him with cold distance in life, the reminder of all her schemes.
And now this. Subotai dead by an assassin’s hand, surely the same people who were blackmailing him. Kohatsu retired to a monastery and gravely ill, and she alone left in their large estate in the north. Whatever she had hoped to save, she had destroyed. Whatever she had tried to keep, she had lost. Her life was a failure.
Ayumi dressed in her finest kimono and spent even longer than normal making sure that her hair and her makeup were perfectly done. She was especially kind to the servants as she went through the household.
At the stables, she found the coachman, Hozho. “I wish to go to see the sunset at the top of the hills.”
“Hai, Mistress.” Hozho said, setting to work getting the horses attached to the carriage.
It was a pleasant ride. The road was not as bumpy as the year before, as the lack of rain had kept furrows from developing. The going was fast until they hit the switchback trail up the tall hills to the west of Outsider Keep. After toiling up those narrow roadways for an hour, they were at last at the high vantage point, able to look out and almost see the beginnings of the desert, far out on the horizon. It was a beautiful place to watch the sunset, perhaps the best in the empire.
Ayumi sat on the stool Hozho placed for her and observed the sun’s travel. The lip of the world nibbled at it, the red flame eaten away until only the glimmering remainders could still be seen. It was a good sunset. She had watched it from here many times. This was one of her favorite places. Now was as good a time as any to do what she had to.
She rose, turning to the coachman. “Goodbye, Hozho. You have been a good servant. I wish you well.”
Turning back to the cliff’s edge, she took one step, then another, and met the wind, her kimono’s folds flapping in the sudden wind. She turned away from the quick-approaching ground. She could see the first of the stars appearing overhead.
“I am sorry, Subotai.” she whispered. The sound was lost to the rushing air.
The things we bargain
against a fearful future
we are doomed to lose
A final sunset
two steps from the precipice
the western light dies
The wind steals my breath
my whispered apologies
the ground approaches
To be continued next week: