The Drowning Empire, Episode 36: Isao faces the Water Dragon

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,

This week’s episode was written by Brad Torgersen. He is playing Tamori Isao, who has a deathly phobia of drowning. The time has come for him to face his fear.

Continued from:


Isao faces the ocean

“It must be now,” Tamori Isao says through clenched teeth.

Moto Subotai and Suzume Shintaro pause, unsure.

“There may be another way,” Subotai cautions.

“Yes,” says Shintaro, “a palliative elixir of the Ivory Kingdoms, perhaps?  Something the shugenja of the Dragon are not yet aware.”

“My fate was sealed the moment the Dark Oracle of Water announced himself to the Empire,” Isao replies, his hands shaking.  He reaches into a pouch at his waist and withdraws a coil of cord.  He hands it to Subotai, who takes it dubiously.

Isao looks from face to face

“believe me, if I knew of any other path through the crucible, I would gladly take it.  I go now to face an experience worse than death.”

“But if you can’t—”

“Do it,” Isao yells, his voice trembling, “before I lose the will to stand here, on this rolling deck!  I cannot help us defeat the evil if I remain a cripple in my mind.  Carry me, Subo.  Up the mast, Shintaro.”

Isao braces himself on the shoulders of the Unicorn and the Sparrow.

They look to Captain Yoritomo Oki, whose eyes occasionally dart in their direction as he navigates.  He nods once, as do Akodo Toranaka and Ikoma Uso.  In another time and place, the mighty Lion bushi might have looked upon Isao with disgust.  But he is their comrade.  A man who has stood side by side with them in combat.  His soul-sickness baffles them but they do not question his heart.  They too believe it is the only way.

“Please,” Isao breaths quietly, between Subotai and Shintaro.  “There are several brave and honorable bushi on this vessel, but you two . . . are my friends.  I would not ask it of anyone else.”

With Isao clinging an arm around the neck of each samurai, the Moto and the Suzume begin to climb the foremast of The Friendly Traveler.

The crew gather below, brows pinched and eyes worried at the sight of the strange magician-warrior being carried up to the topmost portion of the mast.  It is a slow, agonizing affair.  Before Subotai and Shintaro are halfway, Isao’s kimono is drenched in sweat.  The three men grunt and mutter as they work their mutual way up the ropes, Isao’s eyes clamped shut and his teeth bared in terror.

When at last they reach the top, standing astride the spar, Shintaro and Uso work quickly, binding Isao.  The sailing knots are efficient and sure.  Isao cannot fall.  Not unless he wields the fire of the Kami and burns himself free—to fall to certain doom.

“Is it done?” Isao says, voice quavering.

“It is,” Subotai says solemnly.

“Then go,” Isao commands, mustering himself for the ordeal, “leave me to face what must be faced.  When the ship is fully to the open sea, yell.”

The two bushi climb quickly down to the deck, the crew waiting anxiously while Captain Yoritomo Oki gradually pilots The Friendly Traveler away from land, and into the open ocean.

The waves are calm, the sky blue.

Frigates and seagulls cry out here and there, soaring on the wind.

On any other day, it would be beautiful.

But not today.

Subotai looks to Shintaro, and nods.

“Now!” Shintaro cries.

The smallish silhouette of the Dragon shugenja places his head back against the mast, his throat swallowing visibly.

Then he opens his eyes, and stares at the far horizon.

At that moment, a small swell passes beneath the ship, and The Friendly Traveler rolls gently.

Tamori Isao begins to scream.

It is a hard, unearthly sound, not fit for a man, nor a woman, nor even a beast.

As if sensing his terror, the ocean presents another swell, and then another.

Isao’s shrieks are broken only by the sound of his retching.  He has deliberately fasted in preparation.  Nothing reaches the deck.  His thin vomit and spittle is carried away by the breeze.

“How long?” Shintaro says as both he and Subotai approach the place where Toranaka and Uso stand, pondering the strip of land that is rapidly disappearing to stern.

“As long as it takes,” Toranaka says, his good hand unconsciously reaching for the maimed stump of his other arm, wrapped in its sleeve.

“The shugenja said it himself,” Uso says, withdrawing his wakizashi and eyeing the razor sharp edge, “he either comes down a whole man, or he doesn’t come down at all.”

Isao’s shrieks quickly turn to rasps—and the horrible, gibbering sound of a man halfway gone to madness.


Tamori Isao, Shugenja of the Dragon Clan, steps silently through the threshold of the Friendly Traveler’s galley.  In the dark, the coals of the dinner fire still glow softly.  A thick roll of paper is clenched in Isao’s left fist.  It has taken him most of the night to compose his thoughts and feelings.  So much has happened.  Both inside, and out.  He approaches the hearth and supplicates himself in the usual manner—heart and mind imploring the spirit of his drowned mother to receive his message.  The scroll smolders on the coals, catches fire, and quietly burns to ash.  Isao remains prostrate much longer than usual, searching the invisible fabric of the universe with his senses.  If once the water under the boat filled him with inchoate terror, now it is merely uncomfortable.  Because under the water is the mud and silt of the shore bottom.  Earth.  To which Isao is wed fastly; more fastly, almost, than a man to a woman.

Suddenly a memory swims into Isao’s consciousness: the softness of Tamori Kakeko’s hips as his hands grasp them, pulling her into his pelvis.  Kakeko and Isao moan with mutual physical delight as her back arches, her knees spread wide on the futon and her hands grasping the futon’s edge—

—and Isao is suddenly snapped out of his jarringly delicious reverie.  He is disturbed that the discipline of his meditation has been so easily broken by a quick, visceral flashback to the last night he spent in the house of Yoritomo Naota.  Guilt and desire swirl in Isao’s stomach.  Kakeko is more forbidden to him than ever before, but her words of devotion and desire haunt his ears.  When will he see her again?  Will he ever see her again?  Or his son, Ichiro, who is growing up under the aegis of an emotional brute, the Admiral?

Isao shakes his head to clear out the confusing cobwebs left from his unexpected tryst with Kakeko, and the news that she and Isao are joined by blood.

The moment for deep connection to the ether is lost.  Isao rises from the floor and turns to leave, then stops short.  A smallish figure is in the galley with him.  Her face is just visible in the red light from the hearth.

“Yuki,” Isao says, startled.  “You have much stealth for a cook.”

“A cook who can’t find her way around a kitchen—blindfolded, with both hands tied behind her back—doesn’t deserve to feed noble Samurai,” Yuki says quietly.

“Have I stayed up the entire night,” Isao says, “such that you now come to prepare the morning meal?”

“No,” Yuki replies, “I thought I heard something passing my cabin, so I arose to check on things.  The Shukan has lectured me at length about the need to be wary in foreign waters.  Who knows if someone or . . . some thing . . . might try to slip onboard unannounced.”

“The ronin Hisao is wise.  It is good that you heed him.”

Yuki merely stands there, staring at Isao.

Despite the relative warmth and humidity of the air—in the Ivory Kingdoms, even the night breeze is cloying—Isao feels a slight chill go down his spine.  Yuki’s eyes look both perplexed and worried.

“You find me strange,” Isao says plainly.

“Yes,” Yuki admits.

“Doubtless the Shukan does as well.”

“Of course.  He thinks that perhaps it might have been best if Captain Yoritomo Oki put an arrow into your brain while you were tied to the top of the foremast.”

Isao smiles, if only just a bit.

“There were many moments during the ordeal when I would have certainly welcomed a precision shot from our good Captain.  Right to the ear.  Painless.  My path out of this life, and into the next.”

“You have someone waiting for you?”

“You might say that.”

“Is that why you come in here sometimes, at night?  When everyone else is asleep?  To talk to the dead?”

“That is essentially correct.”

“And do the dead hear you?”

Isao pauses to consider his answer.  By social station, he can dismiss her summarily from his presence.  That she is questioning him at all—prying into the personalized and sacred conduit of communication between Isao and his mother—is an affront.  Yet he cannot be angry with Yuki.  She fills his belly with delicious sustenance morning noon and night.  Her feminine presence lightens the occasionally heavy, male-dominated atmosphere of the Friendly Traveler.  Does she not have the right to be curious, especially given Isao’s mad display on the first day of their voyage?

“I believe certain folk among the dead do hear me, yes,” he says finally.

“And do the dead also speak?”

Again, Isao pauses.  On this matter he is not nearly as certain.

“There are times when I believe I hear them,” Isao says, placing a hand across his bare chest, right over his heart. “In here.”

Yuki appears to take this as a sufficient answer.

“Thank you,” she says.  “I apologize, master shugenja, for disturbing you.”

She turns to leave.

“Wait,” Isao says.  Yuki pauses at the threshold.  He walks over to her until they are almost face to face in the darkness.

“Do you think it’s fair?”

“What, master shugenja?”

“The Celestial Order.  The way it all is.  Life.”

“That is a strange question.  Like asking why the sky is blue, or why the sunlight is warm in the morning.  Many things just are.  To deny this would be folly.”

“But you serve us,” Isao says, pressing.

“A welcome task,” Yuki replies.  “You and your comrades are noble samurai who do noble deeds in the name of both the Empire, and your own devotion to bushido.  What servant of the bushi would be unhappy with any of you?  You show gratitude for the food I make and none of you have taken liberties with me the way other men might.  I feel safe here, on this ship.  I have not always felt safe.”

“Yes, but . . . ”

“Please, master shugenja, it is not time yet for me to begin my morning chores, and we both have to get some sleep.  Know that I am content to place bowls of savory food on the table of men who earn it with bold, hard deeds.  I do not wish to step beyond my place, lest the Shukan be angry with me.”

Isao stares at her, then sighs and nods.

“Very well.  Let us both go.”

Yuki shuffles out of the galley and vanishes back to her tiny cabin.  Isao follows onto the deck at a more leisurely pace, still marveling at the fact that the slight motion of the ship on the water doesn’t fill him with dread.  Not anymore.

Freedom, Isao thinks.  For the first time in his life he can travel the entirety of Rokugan and not get sick to his stomach upon encountering rivers, lakes, or the ocean.  If the trial he faced when he was lashed to the mast seemed impossible beforehand, that he now roams the deck of a ship without blinking seems equally impossible.  And Isao is grateful for the change.  He feels different in his skin.  As if he has become larger.

Isao spies a new figure, watching from the gunwale.

“Speak of the devil . . .” Isao whispers.

“The Shukan never sleeps,” Isao says softly as he approaches the ronin Hisao.

“Nor does the talker to the Kami,” replies the Friendly Traveler’s crewmaster.

Hisao’s tone is controlled.  Diplomatic.  Obvious.

“You share our cook’s feeling that I am not quite right,” Isao says, joining the Shukan at the gunwale.  Below and to the side of the Friendly Traveler is their captured prize, a smaller tramp ship the group has collectively dubbed the Vicious Serpent, after the pirates from whom the smaller ship was taken.  The Shukan does not reply at first.  He simply turns and stares down at the Vicious Serpent’s empty deck.

“You have seen the depth of my fear and it offends your honor,” Isao says, this time more sternly.  It is not a question.  Rather, a statement of fact.

“Yes, shugenja,” Hisao replies, sighing.  “The bard among us says that all Dragon fear the sea in such a manner, but while this fable may suffice for the Crane, I know it to be false.”

“And yet you have said nothing to dispel the story.”

“Why would I?  I serve Captain Yoritomo Oki and Toranaka-sama, and by extension serve you, shugenja.  I have no wish to interfere in the workings of the Clans.  What Uso-sama chooses to tell our passengers is his business.  I do not think it wise to anger him.”

“I think you are correct,” Isao says, remembering the euphoric giddiness of Uso’s countenance as he stood on the beach of the vanquished island of the Serpents, blood covering Uso from head to foot.

“But you’ve not come to discuss the Lion,” Hisao says.

“No,” Isao replies,  “I would actually ask you the same question I asked Yuki.”

“And that question is?”

“Do you believe in the Celestial Order?”

“What samurai does not?  I am ronin, but this only means I believe in the Celestial Order all the more.”


“What else would there be to believe in?  I am of ordinary birth, yet there stirs within my breast a longing for glory, and for greatness.  I have labored all of my life, serving many lords, putting my skill and my sword on the line for my betters.  I believe that there is honor in this work.  I believe that honor is enough.”

“Honor, and reward?”

“Honor is its own reward, shugenja.  You are not bushi.  I do not expect you to understand.”

“Careful, Shukan.  The Tamori are fighting men and women.  Go to my quarters and pick up my grandfather’s tetsubo.  The blood of the enemy is written upon it, for the first time in half a century.  You look at me and you see a mad magician.  A soul made odd by conversing with the Kami.  And you may be right.  But I know a thing or two about honor.”

“I stand corrected, Isao-sama, please forgive my impertinence.”

Isao stares at the Shukan, who has not stopped looking past the gunwale to their second ship below.

“You have the heart of a Clan samurai,” Isao observes.  “It is unfortunate that you were not born to a family appropriate to your spirit.”

“The Celestial Order is the Celestial Order, Isao-sama.  You ask me if I believe, and I do.  More than any man on this ship can truly know.  The Celestial Order is the essence of the universe.  It is both the structure and the framework of existence.  Those who question the Celestial Order entertain destruction.”

“But don’t you think it’s ironic that a fearful half-mad Earth wizard like me outranks a battle-toughened, veteran ronin such as yourself?  Merely because of an accident of lineage?”

“Do you tempt me to blasphemy, shugenja?”

“Hardly.  But I saw things during my ordeal on the foremast.  Heard words spoken from a great foe who seeks to disrupts the Celestial Order.  He calls it liberation.”

“I call it chaos,” Hisao says, spitting over the side of the ship.

“No more castes,” Isao says.  “Everybody is the same.”

“Madness,” the Shukan says, finally turning and staring at Isao.  “You know this better than anyone, if you’ve faced this Dark Oracle of Water—as it seems you have.  I seldom speak, but my ears hear well.  I know much of what you have not told me explicitly.  If the Dark Oracle is successful, Rokugan would be destroyed, and with it, all of civilization.  The entire world would be swallowed up in the bowels of jigoku.  The Celestial Order is all that stands between us and hell, Isao-sama.  I have seen Tainted men in battle.  We would all become like that.  Twisted.  Lost.  Irrecoverably evil.”

“Something I cannot allow,” Isao says, but not entirely to the ronin.  Now it is the shugenja who gazes over the gunwale.

“No you cannot,” the Shukan says firmly.  “And while I might have thought you odd and ill-minded when I first came into Oki-sama’s and Toranaka-sama’s service, the self-torture you endured during our first day and night of travel does seem to have restored you to at least a state of serviceable sanity.  Perhaps it takes a half-mad Earth wizard to battle a completely mad Water wizard?”

“That would seem to be fate,” Isao says.

Hisao turns, and together the shugenja and the ronin stare silently together at the docks.

“When the blade of the foe strikes hardest,” Hisao says, “I will be here.  In my place.  Doing my duty.  As a samurai should.  Now, go to sleep.  The Friendly Traveler is safe with me.”

“This is fact,” Isao says.  “Thank you for talking with me, Shukan.  May your steadfast service and quest for honor bring you all that you seek, in this life as well as the next.”

Hisao does not respond.  He simply turns and renews his patrol of the deck.


To be continued next week:

To check out some of Brad’s real writing:

Fisking the NYT: It isn't just me. My whole religion can't be *real* writers!
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One thought on “The Drowning Empire, Episode 36: Isao faces the Water Dragon”

  1. Whoever said “There aint no such thing as a free lunch”?

    Read Larry’s blog and read free books, one chapter at a time, not even in book yet!

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