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.
This week’s episode was written by Zach Hill, who is playing our samurai from the poor Sparrow clan. For our two year time break, because he did so well in the Topaz Championship, Shintaro got the impressive job of bodyguarding Imperial Heralds as they delivered messages around the Empire.
However, Shintaro has the Gullible disadvantage. 🙂
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
Suzume Shintaro walked along the dusty country road and tipped his hat toward the sun. There were no clouds and not a single tree nearby for shade. It was hot and he hadn’t seen a village for miles.
Shintaro had been ordered to meet with an official named Miya Tonotoro in a town called Fushiwara and escort him to the capital, but now he began to wonder if he had taken the wrong road.
Shintaro had new sandals, new clothes, and even new armor befitting his station and a purse full of more coins than he had ever had at one time. Perhaps more coins than he had ever had collectively in his whole life. Once he arrived at Fushiwara he would find the nicest inn and order shark fin soup. He had never had shark fin before. He had never seen shark fin before. But he knew that he wanted to try it.
His rather surprising performance at the Topaz Championship had allowed him to take a position that no other Sparrow had ever held. He was essentially a yojimbo for Imperial Heralds and so far in his three months of service he had seen more of Rokugan than he had ever imagined. The Empire was much bigger than he had imagined as well and it took a rather long time to get anywhere. Next time he would ask permission to bring the fancy new horse Yasuki Dokansuto had given him. Poor old Sakura had died not too long after the Championship.
He looked up at the torturous sun he nodded to himself. “Indeed. Next time a horse will prove better than walking.”
Then he saw something up ahead. At first he thought it was a sign post but as he got closer he realized that it was two people walking toward him on the road.
Aside from his ancestral katana which had been passed down through eight generations of Suzume, he had his bisento pole arm named “Swamp Dragon” after the first thing he had ever killed with it in battle. It had served him well and would continue to do so. The feel of Swamp Dragon’s haft in his hand made him feel safer than if he had five yojimbos with him.
He knew quite well that he was as mortal as any other, but in the three months of walking these lands he knew that the sight of a man with a bisento that was obviously well trained in its use was often enough to keep bandits and thieves at bay.
However, as he got closer he discovered the two figures up ahead were neither bandits nor thieves. One looked like a local, country official and the other was a young woman, maybe about sixteen or so. The official had a rope around her arms and waist and was herding her like a peasant would herd cattle. Once within range the country official bowed to Shintaro’s superior rank, something Shintaro still had not gotten used to.
“I am Suzume Shintaro of the Imperial Heralds. What is going on here?”
“As you know, honorable lord, it has not rained these past two months. The girl’s father is lazy and instead of working he sold her daughter.”
“Sold his daughter?” Shintaro had heard of such things from the stories but had never witnessed it himself. He had never understood how a man could do such a thing and even now he was confused. “To whom or to what did he sell her?” he asked, trying to collect his thoughts.
“The brothel. We have the largest in the region. Just five more miles down this road.”
“Why would this transaction require a town magistrate?”
“Well…let us say that the brothel is good for everyone’s business here. With the crops failing it’s the only source of revenue the town has had lately.”
The girl was stooped over and facing away from them with her head down. She was a pretty, if not scrawny, girl and her hair was falling out of the loose bun it had been tied in. Despair and anguish were clear on her face.
He had no legal right to interfere. It was a legitimate transaction according to law.
Still it did not sit well with Shintaro at all.
“Girl, I would speak with you. Why did your father sell you?” Shintaro asked.
“I already told you—” the official began to say but Shintaro held up his hand.
“Please. Let me satisfy my curiosity and talk to the girl.” He turned back to the poor wretch. “Tell me in your own words what has happened.”
The girl looked up and Shintaro saw that one of her eyes was swollen and bruised and the other was puffy from crying. There was dried blood on her mouth.
Shintaro had to control his breathing to keep his anger in check. This was something else he had heard about from other clans: that they treat their women like animals. He didn’t know if it came from them not relying on women in the fields or if it had another cause, but whatever it was it could not justify beating a defenseless girl.
“My father couldn’t pay the tax of rice! It was all we had to eat!” the girl whimpered.
“Your father sold you of his own free will?” Shintaro asked.
“He said it was one less mouth to feed.”
“How many are you?”
“We were six.”
“And what place were you?”
“I was the youngest and the only daughter.”
Idiots! Unlike most samurai, Shintaro understood farming. Did they not know that the strength of the clan rested with the farmers? Did they not know that the larger the farmer’s families the more farmers and farms they’d have next year? They were slowly destroying their own source of income and power.
Short sighted fools.
This girl did not look it but she was the power behind the clan. She would raise crops and children.
“Who struck you?” Shintaro asked.
“My father. He hit me when I refused to go.”
“I tried to tell her that the brothel isn’t so bad. She’ll get plenty to eat and all the nice clothes she could want,” the magistrate said.
“Please! I don’t want to go!” the girl cried.
“How much?” Shintaro asked as he turned back to the magistrate.
“For…one hour? One night?”
“To purchase her.”
“Purchase her? But…my lord…”
“I do not like to repeat myself. I wish to purchase her. How much?”
Shintaro held back a cough as the staggering price hit him. A whole koku? That had been almost a year’s stipend for him back in Sparrow lands.
He mentally checked his purse. Two koku: all in smaller bu. He did the math and figured that he could get to his destination and get some shark fin with a few bu to spare.
“I will buy this girl,” he said and dug one koku out of his purse.
The stunned magistrate took the money and handed him the rope.
“Thank you,” Shintaro said to the magistrate and motioned for him to leave.
The smiling magistrate hurried off down the road.
Without speaking he began undoing the rope.
“Do you have a place to go, girl?” Shintaro asked.
“I’m setting you free. Do you have a place to go?”
“I do not. I’ve never left my home before.”
Shintaro wondered if life outside of Sparrow lands was ever simple.
“Come with me then. I will take you to the nearest town and ensure that you find employment.”
The girl began crying again and Shintaro turned away and began walking. He did not have time for weeping. He had very little experience with women. He had no sisters and most of his time had been taken up by managing the farms and training. This crying annoyed and confused him and he’d rather not deal with it at all.
“Thank you, lord!” The girl said after she had calmed down.
Sometime near midday he came to a fork in the road where a family of four peasants sat near the direction marker. They were huddled close and their hands were out begging for alms.
“Please, lord! We have lost our farm! We have nothing!” The father said.
Shintaro bowed his head as he sighed deeply as he realized that he would never get to try shark fin.
He had been a dishonorable bandit in another life. It was the only reason Shintaro could think of to explain how he had been stuck with Sayako the peasant. He had bought the girl from a local magistrate in order to free her, but such a simple, noble plan was doomed to reward him with further trials.
There had been no work at the village.
There had been no one to take her in.
There had been no rain and thus, no crops.
“Shintaro-sama? Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked for the tenth time in as many minutes.
“There must be something.”
The scrawny girl gracelessly walked just behind him. He could hear her wooden sandals clopping along: a constant reminder to his burden. The pebbles she clumsily kicked as she stumbled along were arrows shot into his patience.
He had to get to the town of Fushiwara to meet up with the herald he was to escort. It was his duty.
Instead he was without money and hauling a useless girl behind him.
“Look!” Sakako exclaimed.
He turned to see where she was pointing. There was nothing but trees and dried up fields. “I see nothing.”
“On the branch.”
He didn’t see anything except a small bird.
“Nothing but a bird,” he said.
“I know. Isn’t it pretty?”
He hung his head and wondered what foul deeds his past life had committed. Perhaps he had burned a temple?
“See its yellow beak?” Sayako asked.
“I’ve never seen it before. Do you know what kind of bird it is, Shintaro-san?”
“It’s called ‘woman with infinite mouth,’ in the old tongue.”
“Is it really?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course not.”
The cloudless sky was growing purple and still there was no sign of a town or inn. They would have to find a place to camp for the night. It wasn’t so bad. The days were furnace hot but the nights were actually quite nice.
Off in one of the desolate fields he saw what looked like a crumbling old barn.
“There. We’ll stop for the night?”
“You see an inn?”
“No, a barn.”
“I hope it’s dry.”
“I hope it’s quiet.”
Of course, she’d be there so there was no chance of a peaceful night.
They got off the road and walked through the dusty field to the old barn. The roof was sagging in the middle and weeds filled the ground on the inside. It smelled of dried leaves and dust. Still, it was better than nothing.
“This is nice, don’t you think? I remember when me and my brothers would go out to sleep in the barn on hot nights like this,” Sayako said. As she rambled on about some game they’d play with the stars he looked in his pack and saw he only had two rice balls left. Either they could each have one now and go hungry until they found something else or half now and half in the morning.
He hated missing breakfast.
Shintaro took out his tanto and cut one of the rice balls in half and handed one to her.
“Thank you, Shintaro-san.” She looked down at the half a ball in her hands. “You must be used to much finer food than this.”
He chuckled. “Hardly.”
“But, you’re a samurai. You eat the finest foods and where the finest clothes.”
“I’m Sparrow Clan.”
Perhaps the Fortunes would understand if he left during the night while she was asleep. “Sparrow Clan. It’s a small and poor clan. I’ve done my share of plowing and eating beats and millet.”
“A poor samurai? You’re joking.”
“No, that money I spent on you and those poor families was all I had. I don’t have a bu to my name at the moment.”
“But…but what are you going to do for food?”
“There are wild onions and berries in these parts. Lord Agemonshi once lived three years off the land as he hid from his enemies. The usurper, Lord Kenyishi sent his men into the mountains looking for him and every time fewer of his men returned. If he can live for three years I think we can make it three more days.”
She curled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them. “I guess lots of people are going hungry now.”
“Normally it’s rainy this time of year. Haven’t had a drop in months.”
He knew the dangers of dry rice fields. Maybe if they had proper irrigation from the mountains they could alleviate some of this suffering. He’d have to write home and ask about their irrigation.
“Oh! Shintaro-sama, your sleeve is torn.”
He looked down and saw a small rip in his new robe. These expensive clothes were more delicate than what he was used to. Shintaro reached in his pack for his sewing kit but when he took it out Sayako reached for it.
“Please, Shintaro-san, let me do that. That isn’t a job for a noble warrior.”
“I can do it.”
“But I’m here and it’s my job.”
“You always argue with samurai?”
“Only when they’re wrong. Now take off your outer robe and let me take care of it.”
He considered telling her to mind her place, but she made a valid point. Everyone in Rokugan had a place and a duty. So, he removed his outer robe and handed it over. At least she was quiet while she was concentrating on sewing. Unfortunately she was very quick and finished in a matter of minutes.
“Good as new, Shintaro-sama. See? I’m useful to have around. I once entered a sewing contest during a festival and I beat three girls from the village. Of course, Hitomi won. She won every year. I was getting better though. Ayaki said I had a chance to beat her next year.”
“Why must you speak so much?”
“I don’t talk a lot. I just don’t like silence. Who would? It’s boring. I’d rather tell jokes or stories.”
“You know stories?” Shintaro loved history, and was a collector of stories.
“I know quite a few!”
“Really, please share one, if you would.”
“Of course! Ayaki said I was the best story teller in the village. And don’t think that just because it’s a small village I didn’t have competition. We had quite a few good story tellers if I do say so.”
Sayako went on to tell some folk tales he had heard before but as he listened he had to admit that she was fairly skilled at it. What she lacked in sophistication she made up for in enthusiasm.
They shared stories back and forth until they finally grew too tired.
He awoke to the sound of horses and yelling.
Grabbing his bisento Water Dragon, he crawled over to the open doorway of the barn and looked out. In the field were peasants, dozens of them, running from men dressed in shoddy, mismatched armor.
Sayako scurried over beside him and looked out. “What is it?”
“Bandits. Perhaps one is a distant relative.”
“No. Never mind.”
Shintaro had no patience for criminals. He threw the sheath off Water Dragon’s blade and ran outside.
A frail man carrying a small boy on his back saw him and almost fell over from fright.
“Keep running, fool! I’ll cut them off,” Shintaro ordered.
The man nodded and hurried past him.
As the peasants ran by he ignored them and looked at the men in rusty armor and ill kept weapons. Had they never heard to oil their swords? They had not been expecting a samurai, but their numbers gave them courage. One of them, a spearman, charged right at him. He was yelling and running with such a clumsy stance that Shintaro wondered if the man would even be able to hit him if he didn’t move.
But he did move.
As soon as the spearman came within reach, Shintaro dodged to the side and let the spear thrust right past him. As if training in the dojo he stepped beside the man and brought his bisento down. He barely felt the resistance as the heavy blade cut through the man’s arms.
Both arms, still clutching the spear, sailed into the air.
As the man toppled over, screaming, Shintaro turned to the others.
He had no sympathy for those that would prey on the weak. It was a samurai’s duty to protect those weaker than himself. “Come at me, cowards. I am Suzume Shintaro and I will face you today.”
The bandit with the largest helmet, presumably the leader, stepped forward with an grin. His helmet looked two sizes too big. “Arrogant samurai. You think you can take on all of us?”
“I know I can.”
The bandit’s grin faded a little. “Attack!”
Four bandits came at him but they approached in a staggered line and not all at once. The first one carried a katana and held it like he was afraid of it. Another bandit had a katana and the other two had spears. Their possible moves began to play out in his mind and he began planning out his own strategy.
As the first katana man rushed forward, the other swordsman ran past him and toward Sayako.
“Sayako, run! I’ll catch up,” Shintaro shouted.
He couldn’t afford to take his eyes off the men in front of him. If she ran she would live.
The first katana wielding bandit slashed down at him and Shintaro blocked with the blade of his bisento, then turned the curved blade so it knocked the sword out of the animal’s hands. Shintaro wasted no time and applied a quick chop to the man’s neck. Blood gushed out and the man desperately clutched at his ruined throat.
Then one of the spearmen charged at him. He wanted to protect the peasants and had to end this fight as quickly as possible. He needed to frighten the bandits and he’d do it by making this spearman an example.
Shintaro held his bisento high with the butt of the shaft toward his enemy. When the spear thrust toward his chest he knocked it out of the way and swung in a wide, overhead arch.
They said that a battle was decided before the first move was made. This battle had been decided much earlier than that.
The heavy polearm came crashing down onto the shoulder of the man. The blade tore open the man’s torso and cut through his rusty armor as if it were a paper screen.
The man opened up like a melon and his juices flew into the air.
The other bandits stopped where they were and gaped, eyes wide.
They would no longer be a problem.
He risked a glance back to see if Sayako had done as he had instructed.
Instead he saw Sayako standing over the body of the bandit. The bandit’s sword was sticking out his back.
“He…he tripped and accidentally fell on his own sword,” Sayako said, throwing her hands out to the side as if confused.
“He just tripped?”
“And impaled himself. Yup.”
“Remarkable. How did—”
“They’re running away,” she said and pointed.
He turned back to see the two remaining bandits running off toward the woods. Hopefully they would turn from their life of crime back to honest work. Shintaro walked over and checked Sayako for wounds. She was untouched. “You’re alright?”
“Couldn’t be better. I thought it was the end of me when I saw that scary bandit coming after me.”
“And he just tripped?”
It was very odd because at that angle…oh well. Luck was on her side apparently.
“Let’s go, Sayako. We have a long way to travel and we’ll be hungry before we get there.”
“I’m right behind you!”
Shintaro sat in a comfortable chair in a comfortable inn. Sayako sat across from him sipping at her tea and watching the other patrons carry on with their lives. Maybe she wasn’t completely awful company. She was passably pretty and the way she held her tea cup was dainty and almost regal.
He wished he’d stop noticing such details.
Shintaro sat with his back to the wall so he could keep an eye on the door. This was a nice inn but he couldn’t let his guard down. Any number of dishonorable villains would want to attack and steal from an Imperial Herald. Though he wasn’t one, he wore the trappings and even the armor of one.
“You don’t like the food?” Sayako asked.
“I’m fine, just thinking.”
“It’s pretty good. You should try it.”
He looked down at his plate of inexpensive noodles. It did look good so he picked up his chopsticks and began eating.
“You’re still thinking,” she said.
“Tell me what’s wrong. I might be able to help.”
“You helped me more than you ever had to, so let me repay you.”
After taking a few more bites he sat back and folded his arms.
“It’s a matter for me and you don’t need to worry about it.”
She looked at him with her eyes that bored into him.
“Last night I received a summons. I must go as soon as I deliver this message to the magistrate.”
“You have the message? But…isn’t that against the rules?”
“It was necessary.”
She sat back, looking away from him as if thinking.
“It’s not a summons I can ignore and it has me concerned,” Shintaro stated.
“But you’re not allowed to carry the message, correct?”
“Under normal circumstances, no.”
She was oddly concerned about the message.
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “Tomorrow I’ll meet with the magistrate and deliver the message.”
“So, when we arrived at Fushiwara and you met with the magistrate there, he gave you the message instead of going with you? Why?”
Truth was, he didn’t know either. The herald Miya Tonotoro had seemed frightened of something and had demanded that Shintaro take the letter. He had thrust the scroll into Shintaro’s hands and ran off without an explanation. Something was happening that he didn’t understand. “It is not important.”
She scowled and sipped her tea. Then Sayako was looking at him again with those warm, lovely eyes.
He quickly went back to eating his noodles.
Noodles. He could have been eating shark fin if the frightened herald had thought to give Shintaro the rest of his stipend. Nothing to be done about it now.
“We’re sleeping here tonight?”Sayako asked.
“Good. I haven’t slept in a proper bed in days.”
He put down his chopsticks and cleared his throat. “Sayako, tomorrow when I deliver the message, I will give you what money I have left. You are to use that money and travel to Sparrow lands. I will give you a letter of introduction and they will find work for you. You need a home and you can find one there.”
“Live in Sparrow lands? That would certainly be something.”
“I know with the drought going on that farming is difficult, but we Sparrow know how to take care of our people. You will be taken care of.”
She didn’t answer for a few moments. She must have been shocked by the generosity of his offer. “Thank you, Shintaro-san. I will be most grateful.”
After they ate he went to his room to write the letter of introduction for Sayako. She was a good girl and she needed a place to go. He had rescued her from the brothel and couldn’t just let her go with nowhere to go and no money. Halfway through the letter he stopped and pulled out another piece of paper. On this one he wrote a poem about Sayako’s eyes. It was awful so he crumpled it into a ball and started over. By the time sleep started creeping in on him he had written eight different poems about Sayako’s eyes. None of them did them justice. In fact, they were all so far from what he felt that to show them to anyone would have been an insult to Sayako.
Yes, she was pretty, but that was all. He could admire a flower without having some kind of emotion attached to it.
Of course he didn’t feel anything for the scrawny peasant girl. Nothing at all.
Maybe he’d write a poem about her voice instead.
He woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of something rustling in the dark. Footsteps. “Hello?” He asked as he grabbed his katana.
“It’s just me, Shintaro-sama,”Sayako said.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
It was dark but he could make out her silhouette, crouched down near the foot of his mat. “Perhaps I should, but I couldn’t rest without coming here and telling you how grateful I am for everything you’ve done for me.”
“It was nothing that a samurai with a shred of honor wouldn’t have done.”
“Nonsense. No one else would have been as kind and wonderful as you.”
“I don’t know about that. You should go back to sleep.”
“I will eventually. But first…”
She crawled up on top of him. Her shadowy form looked down on him and for the first time in his life, he didn’t know what to do. This sort of thing had never happened before.
What was the honorable thing to do? He should know this!
She lowered herself down and he felt her impossibly soft lips touch his cheek.
“Thank you, Shintaro-sama. Whatever happens I want you to know that I find you a very remarkable samurai.”
Then she was gone from his room, leaving only a faint, flowery scent behind.
In the morning Shintaro finished the letter—no poem though—and walked over to Sayako’s room. He knocked and waited.
He knocked again.
“Excuse me, noble samurai,” a man’s voice said.
Shintaro turned around to see the innkeeper sweeping the hall.
“The young lady that was staying there left this morning.”
“I’m afraid so. She left in quite a hurry and paid for your rooms.”
With what money?
“You must be mistaken,” Shintaro said.
“The young, skinny girl with the long hair and gray kimono?”
“Yeah, she’s the one.”
Shintaro opened the door to the room. Sayako wasn’t there.
All the possibilities ran through his head as he walked back to his room. He sat down at the small writing table and looked at the poems he had written. Shintaro shuffled through them for the one he wrote about the sound of her voice but it was gone. She must have taken it when she was in his room. Maybe that was what she was looking at.
Money. Where had she gotten money?
He hurried over to his pack and found his purse. Not a bu was missing. Could she have taken something else?
Then her questions from yesterday swarmed through his mind.
Dropping his purse he tore though his pack looking for the message scroll from the Imperial Herald.
It was gone. He looked all over his room and through everything he had and it wasn’t there.
She had taken it. Sayako had betrayed him and taken the scroll.
That lying fox!
This was a terrible dishonor and an insult to his office. He grabbed his bisento and stormed out of his room.
“When did she leave?” he demanded of the innkeeper.
The old man recoiled away from him. “Before dawn, my lord. She left about two hours before dawn.
Three hours ago? She could be anywhere.
If she ever showed her face again he would cleave it with Water Dragon. Sayako would know the price of betraying Suzume Shintaro
This one was fun, as Zach came to me with the story idea of what he wanted Shintaro to be doing during the time break, and he had the idea of him being taken advantage of because of his gullibility. This worked perfectly (as you’ll discover as the story progresses) and we’ve not seen the last of Sayako.
And if you want to check out some of Zach’s work, here is his zombie novel: http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=monshuntnati-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=1618080571