The Burning Throne, Episode 26: Lessons From the Dojo of the Crab

I really enjoyed writing this week’s episode. Half of it is from the game session last time (Night of Assassins), the other half is backstory I made up explaining what Makoto came from, and then putting the two together to show what kind of person he was today. It was sort of a writing experiment/short story, but is one of my favorite bits from Writer Nerd Game Night.

For those of  you just tuning in, Makoto’s grandfather was from the lowest caste but worked his way up to being a legendary hero, however his father was a traitorous failure, and the sins of the father fall onto the son, which can be extra tough when you are born in the toughest, most militant bunch in an empire of militant tough guys.  

Continued from: 

Picture from the L5R art tumblr.


Fourteen years ago.

“Your father was a failure. His actions shamed this dojo. If there was justice in this world, then his cowardly, eta-spawned line should have died with him. Your very existence has brought shame on our Clan.”

“Yes, Sensei,” the eight year old Crab answered, then he flinched as the hardwood staff slammed into his back.

“I did not tell you to speak!” the sensei shouted in his ear. “You are a wretched blight on this Clan. If it was not for your mother’s reputation I would kill you now and call it a training accident. It would save us all the trouble when you inevitably abandon your duty and leave your brothers to die!” The sensei struck the child again, knocking him over. “I trained your father and now I am to train you! I am insulted that they sent you to this dojo, but what else was your lord to do? You are too lazy to go to the Kaiu, too clumsy for the Hiruma, and too stupid for the Yasuki. Thus, you have become my burden. However, we both know you are not a real samurai, and when you give up, it will be proven to all.” He paused long enough to kick the child in the side. “Stand, you wretched eta pig dog.”

The Crab child got up, wiped the blood from his nose with one trembling hand, and continued staring at the back wall of the dojo. If he focused hard enough, he could survive this. He only had to make it until he could complete his gempukku, so six to ten years…

“A stubborn boy. No tears.” The sensei circled around him. “Very stubborn… Maybe I can drill some lessons into your cowardly eta head after all. Duty requires I try. First lesson—” The point of the staff jabbed into the child’s stomach, doubling him over. “Only a fool stands there and takes a beating. A Hida bushi is strong…” The staff bounced off the child’s back, knocking him hard against the floor. “But he is also quick to adapt. React without hesitation and fight, but do so pragmatically, to maximize your chances of victory,” he recited the lesson from memory, bored, not expecting the child to actually learn it.

The child’s face was pressed against the cold stone floor. The sensei’s sandals filled his vision. React. Fight. Win. Despite the terrible pain and the spreading bruises, the child rose.

“Did I give you permission to stand?” The staff swung in a wide arc, but this time the child stepped into it, lowering his shoulder, and he was very big for his age. The sensei had not expected that, and had only maintained a loose grip on the staff. It rebounded off the child and came flying back to hit the sensei in the nose.

The beating he received for his insolence was quickly forgotten, but the lesson would always remain.

Month of the Serpent, Shiro Tamori

The alarm had been sounded. The great bell was struck and the low pitched sound vibrated through the castle halls.

The rustle of rough cloth.

The movement of shadows in the next room.

Hida Makoto raised his hand to silence the Tamori House Guards. He pointed at the movement through the paper wall. A single bead of sweat rolled down the inside of his helmet. The shadows had heard the approaching clanks of armor and frozen in place. “Protect your lord!” he ordered, and then the tetsubo of Moshibaru Junaro ripped a gigantic swath through the wall, shredding paper and rending wood. “HIDA!” and the gigantic Crab warrior crashed through after it.

The black-clad assassins were ready and there was a flurry of movement as shuriken uselessly struck against heavy armor. The room was cloaked in flickering shadows, but Makoto crossed the space quickly to strike. A short sword was raised in a feeble attempt to block, but a red haze of blood splattered across the storeroom and the broken sword went bouncing away.

Chaos. Grey blades flashed, and Makoto roared as one point slipped past the plate on his thigh to pierce his flesh. Makoto swung and that assassin’s reward was to be ripped nearly in half.

Controlling his breathing, Makoto could feel the unnatural burning in his leg. He had been poisoned. Behind him, some of the Tamori House Guard had fallen from the shuriken. Dizzy, the Crab focused on finishing what he had started.

More shadows. Movement in the next room. The assassins had to be stopped. These walls were also paper, but they would be ready. As a Crab, the choice to attack was already made, but the lessons remained, and though handling the dead was a sin, Hida Makoto prided himself on being pragmatic. The dead ninja was not so heavy, and Makoto knew that he had made the right decision as he drove the corpse through the wall and let it absorb the poisoned throwing stars.

He painted the next room with blood.

Ten Years Ago

The dojo was miserably hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. The spring and fall brought rain, which caused extra discomfort in his heavy armor, but the Crab child did not mind. The blood of Osana-Wo, Fortune of Fire and Thunder was in his veins, and all weather was the same to him. His ability to withstand the elements made him particularly well suited for guard duty, which meant that other, more promising students could be freed up for more important lessons. It was as close to a compliment as the sensei had ever given him.

Being a pre-gempukku dojo guard was a joke, and all of the students knew it. His armor was old and heavy, awkward and unfitted. His daisho consisted of two wooden swords and the bamboo pole over his shoulder was a pale imitation of a tetsubo. Sometimes he would stand for hours, unmoving, watching a door to nothing important. The child accepted this as his lot in life, and was committed that no matter what happened, he would not fail. Regardless of what the duty was, it would be performed unflinchingly.

For how could a samurai who failed to perform even the smallest duty to the best of his abilities be expected to fulfill the important assignments for his lord? So the child became the finest student guard of abandoned storerooms in the history of the Mountain Shadows dojo. He promised the Fortunes that he would guard this door with the same intensity that he would someday lead a mighty Crab army against the Fortress of Fu Leng.

Sometimes the sensei would “forget” to send a replacement, hoping that at best he might freeze to death during the night, or at worst he could strike the child awake with his staff in the morning for dereliction of duty.

However, the child was never once caught sleeping, for another lesson had been learned.

Month of the Serpent, Shiro Tamori

Hida Makoto had borrowed the horse from a Tamori soldier who would no longer be needing it. The soldier had been unlucky enough to catch a poison shuriken in the throat. It was an unfortunate end to a bushi, so Makoto had promised the dead soldier’s ghost that he would return the horse in the morning, but right then he needed to get back to his men as quickly as possible.

It was unknown if the violence that had just washed through the palace had been felt by the Order of the Paper Lanterns, but from the audacity of the assassins, Makoto suspected that the Lanterns were in danger as well. The horse was not used to such a heavy rider, and nearly stumbled as Makoto yelled at the poor terrified animal to run faster. Citizens of Shiro Tamori had come out of their homes, roused by the alarms and shocked by the explosion that had destroyed the bell tower, and now they had to leap out of the way to keep from being run down by the angry Crab.

The house that had been provided to the Paper Lanterns came into view. Their banner still flew on the wall. He was spotted and the call went up. “The Nikutai returns!”

The horse reared as Makoto pulled back on the reins. It was a good thing that Moto Khano had been helping him with the fundamentals of horsemanship recently or that would’ve put him in the dirt. Makoto slid from the saddle, ignoring the pain from the sword wound on his leg. It was not deep and he’d stuffed some silk into the hole. He would tend to it once he knew the men were secure.

Several of the bushi were positioned there, all of them wary, positioned behind cover, with arrows knocked or swords drawn.

“Report!” Hida Makoto shouted as he limped through the gate.

Danjuro sheathed his katana and bowed quickly. “Two assassins, Nikutai. Unnatural creatures. We destroyed them. The shame sword is secure.”

The house that had been provided to the Order of the Paper Lanterns was extremely well lit for this time of night. Every lantern was in use, including the ones that had been purchased for the initiation ceremony. In addition peasant torches had been procured and set all along the interior of the courtyard. A bonfire burned in each corner.

He took in the extra light. “They were made of shadow?”

Hai!” replied several of the bushi at once.

There had been rumors of such things on the Wall. “Foul beasts. Men given in to corruption.”

His second had come out of the house and ran down the path to meet him. The ronin Akimi appeared harried, but she was in her element. “Makoto-sama, your leg! I will call for—”

“It is nothing.” The monks could tend to it later. He had to see to his men first. No… They were Ide Todo’s men, Makoto corrected himself. To think of the Lanterns otherwise would be to claim an honor that was not his. He was merely a caretaker until their proper gunso returned. “What is our status?”

“Safe for now. Magatsu-sama called them Goju. They appeared from darkness, attacked, and disappeared back into the smallest of shadows. They were very powerful. We believe they came for the sword.”

Makoto nodded. Only a handful of them knew about the decoy. Akimi was one of them. “Is it safe?”

“It is, Makoto-sama. The Lanterns responded just as we’ve practiced.” Then her face grew solemn. “However, we failed our duty in part, and Ide Todo was injured.”

The words filled Makoto with dread and he thought of the poison that had felled Shimura. “How bad?”

“The wound is not so serious.” Then she looked away, embarrassed. “He will be fine, but I am shamed for allowing—”

Makoto held up his hand to stop her. “Akimi-san, the Lanterns repelled corrupted shadow assassins. Our superior is still alive and you kept a powerful nemurani from falling into evil hands. There is no shame in such things.”

Akimi did not seem convinced. “Would you care to inspect?”

“Show me.” Makoto winced as he limped up the garden path. Despite having shrugged off the effects of the assassin’s poison, the remainder in his system was making his stomach churn. At least he hoped it was the aftermath of the injury and not fear concerning the next question he had to ask, for to fear was sin. No... Makoto decided that the feeling was surely from the poison, nothing more. He took a deep breath. “Casualties?”

“Some injuries, but all the Lanterns are alive and accounted for.”

Suddenly, the pain in his stomach lessened. The poison must be wearing off. Makoto turned and took one last look at the compound’s walls. In the distance, the shattered remains of the once great bell tower could be seen, looming ragged over the city.

“Then we fared far better than the Tamori.”

Six Years Ago

The young man was thankful that he was wearing the full suit of armor, for the mempo covering his face concealed the burning of his cheeks and the hard clench of his teeth. Only his eyes were visible, but apparently the anger in them was obvious. It was one thing to insult his honor, he was used to it, but his family was not to be insulted. His younger brother Kenzan looked over at him and shook his head, signaling that it would be best if he held his tongue.

He was the oldest, and two of his siblings were now assigned to the same dojo. However, they had a different father, and their father was a hero, not a traitor to the Clan, thus they were treated with far more respect. In fact, Kenzan was a prodigy, already a favorite of the teachers, brilliant with word or blade, with a quick mind and remarkable grasp of tactics. He was destined to be a general. Little sister was not so talented with words or strategy, but she was the most feared combatant of her age group, to the point that even the older students were scared to spar against her. 

However, despite their martial prowess, Kenzan’s team had just been outmaneuvered and defeated during the first day of the annual winter combat exercises, and now the sensei was berating him for their failure. There were two groups of fifty students, both tasked with defending an objective and taking their enemy’s, which usually turned into the two groups of Crab in the mud, ruthlessly beating each other with heavy sticks. The combat training was as brutal as possible, stopping just short of death or permanent maiming, but only because none of the teachers wanted to explain to the Clan Champion why they were expending future soldier’s lives uselessly, but many limbs had been broken, and a group of monks were kept very busy treating both wounds and frostbite.

The student was present in the command area as his younger brother’s yojimbo. He had seen some of the mistakes Kenzan had made in the positioning of his forces, but he had not been allowed to speak. Kenzan was brilliant, but he was not perfect, and he had come to understand his mistakes as he’d explained what had happened. Now the sensei was trying to teach his prize student a valuable lesson.

“So, you are saying that it was your fault the line broke, Kenzan?”

“That is correct, sensei.” Kenzan pointed to the map. “I assumed that Kuriko would move his troops up this ravine to attack us directly, but that was only a feint. Instead, he sent a group of skirmishers to flank us. I was unprepared to respond and he took our flag. I accept full responsibility for this failure.” Kenzan hung his head.

“No!” The sensei knocked all of the pieces off of the table. “You are a fool for saying so.” The young man took a step forward, but Kenzan subtly stopped him with a hand on his armor. The sensei did not notice the terrible breach of etiquette. “Learn from this, Kenzan. You are the commander, and thus you must seem infallible. You did not make an error, someone else did.”

“I do not understand…”

“You are nobility. You will lead a Clan army someday. Your army must believe that you can do no wrong, they must believe in your wisdom, they must trust in you completely. You are not one of them. You must be above them. Better than them. As the commander, all the glory of victory is yours, but only if your clan champion requires it is the ignominy of the defeat. If your champion needs you to fight again, then you cannot afford the luxury of being a failure. If this was real life and I was your lord, I would deny your request for seppuku, because you are still my best general. This battle will be fought again tomorrow, and your men cannot enter battle believing you are fallible. Pick someone else to blame for the loss.”

Kenzan was shocked. “But that… I can’t—”

 “Choose one of your men, proclaim their failure, and have them flogged as an example,” the sensei suggested. He looked at the young man, seeing the anger in his eyes for the first time. “This one should do.”

“What? No! The only reason it didn’t turn into a complete route was because my brother faced four of them in combat alone and won!”

“And this was while he was supposed to be protecting you, was it not? There is your reason. Listen to me, boy! Our people live in an eternal state of war. Our well-trained generals are precious few, but our simple soldiers are many and far more easily replaceable. Remember, Kenzan, the glory belongs to the commander, not the soldiers. Have him whipped or I will replace you with a commander that understands the way of things.” The sensei stormed away, confident that his orders would be obeyed.

He looked to Kenzan, who had gone white with fear. “The sensei is a fool. Too long in the school and not on the Wall has clouded his mind. That is not why we fight,” the young Crab said as he removed his helmet. “But you must fulfill your duty… I am expendable. The blame will be mine alone.”

“This isn’t right.”

“No, it is not… I will call for a whip.”

That was the most bitter lesson of all.

Month of the Serpent, Shiro Tamori

The house had taken severe damage, and at first Makoto had thought that had been the Goju’s doing, but then he realized that the path of destruction followed a clear trajectory. Several walls had been destroyed, an interior support hung torn in half, then out into the courtyard where two wooden pillars had been turned to splinters and a tree was lying on its side, then the trail terminated in a fresh crater with a very large boulder in it.

“Magatsu, flinging rocks I take it?” Makoto asked Akimi. She simply nodded. “He does enjoy Earth becomes Sky.” And to think he had been worried about the Tamori being upset because he had knocked Braga through a wall during sparring practice. He sat down on the steps with a grunt.

Akimi clapped her hands and one of the monks scurried over to inspect Makoto’s injury. He had made certain that everyone else had been tended to first, so only now was it his turn. He winced as the monk rolled back the bloody silk. A simple kiho and he would be ready to get back to work, though the monk would probably insist on a ritual purification. So many in the Empire became squeamish around you when your armor was soaked with blood. Makoto supposed that Crab were simply used to it enough not to worry too much.

“What is Buwa doing to that rock?”

“I believe he is carving a haiku on it,” Akimi answered. “And no, I do not know why.”

Makoto just shook his head, but from her account the Yoritomo had conducted himself well. Even Braga had proved to be surprisingly courageous and taken a blow meant for Machio. Makoto would speak to each of the bushi individually and be sure to let them know their actions were recognized and appreciated.

Akimi pointed at his breastplate. “There is a throwing star stuck in your armor.”

“Well… Huh…” He glanced down at the shuriken. “Didn’t notice that one. Sharp little bastards. Thank you, Akimi-san. With my luck I would probably have went to remove my armor later and accidentally cut my thumb off.” He yanked it out and examined the poisoned razor. “Souvenir.”

The ronin’s report had been thorough. This was only the Lantern’s second test as a unit, but they had performed far better than the last. The men had done exactly as ordered. They had adapted quickly and filled their responsibilities, manned their posts, and watched over their brothers. From Fubatsu being prepared to murder Magatsu should he fall, to Chiyoko’s swiftness with the katana, even to the men that had held their assigned posts while their friends fought within earshot, the Lanterns had done well.

Magatsu appeared in the courtyard, looking haggard beneath his face paint. Makoto greeted him warmly. “Kuni-sama, I see you redecorated. Was the Dragon architecture not to your taste?”

“I felt we could use more windows, brother.”

The urge to simply hold his tongue, to let Shimura die through simple inaction was great… But it was not honorable. “The Tamori have need of your wisdom.” And he told Magatsu of the new daimyo’s poisoning.

The terrifying shugenja simply nodded. “I will serve.”

The monk was done praying over his leg, so Makoto stood up. The ritual cleaning could wait. “Akimi, I must go back to the castle. When things have calmed down, we will gather the men and go over our reactions to see what we could have done better. Mistakes will be corrected. Shortcomings will be addressed. If we are to face more supernatural foes, we must prepare ourselves…” Makoto looked to his second and could see she was eager to serve, as were all the rest of the men. Ide Todo was not a petty master, so nor should be his officers. They led through an example of discipline and courage. “You have done very well. I am pleased and I am impressed. Today’s glory belongs to the bushi of the Paper Lanterns. My only regret is that I was not here to witness it.”

Akimi beamed with pride, and then quickly tried to recover her face. “Thank you, Nikutai.” She bowed deeply.

Makoto returned the respectful gesture. “Carry on.”

His sensei had been wrong about so many things.


To be continued next week, with a really cool Steve Diamond story called Proper End of a Bokken. Where we attempt to teach Ide Todo how to defend himself. 


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4 thoughts on “The Burning Throne, Episode 26: Lessons From the Dojo of the Crab”

  1. I really liked the back and forth segments. It gave the present more depth. PS: I really, really like Magatsu. 🙂

  2. Loving the series! I agree that you could turn this into an anthology of some sort.


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