The Drowning Empire, Episode 41: With Dueling as a Pretext

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 Pat Tracy, who is playing Moto Subotai. Upon their arrival in the colonies, Subotai ran into some of his fellow Unicorn Clan, and was surprised to find they were in possession of a letter to him, to be sent back to the Empire.

Continued from:


With Dueling as a Pretext

Ikoma Uso sat at the end of the docks, leaning against a thick wooden upright. He wore a calm, far away smile as the sweltering heat brought sweat to his brow. He appeared to be without care and bereft of all tasks or responsibilities, a young man enjoying the fields of summer. His hand, however, was no more than three inches from the handle of his nodachi, and his full daisho of katana and wakizashi on his back and at his hip.

Moto Subotai stood several paces away, unmoving. He had removed all the clothing layers below his purple over-tunic, leaving his arms bared to the intense Ivory Kingdoms sunlight. He hooked his thumbs into his sash and said nothing.

“Subotai, you seem to have adapted to the heat.”

The Moto nodded, coming closer and sitting nearby, his legs hanging off the dock and over the water. “I considered removing my trousers, but I didn’t wish to frighten the Crane too much.”

“Your body hair is rather shocking.” Uso gave a crooked smile and looked askance at Subotai. “Why do you stand and wait to be acknowledged like that?”

“It’s an old habit. In the desert, when riding up to someone’s tents, you stand your horses and wait for them to see you and acknowledge your presence before you enter an encampment. You never know what you might happen upon. I sensed that something was afoot behind your eyes.”

“Interesting. You don’t ever seem to do that with Shintaro-san.”

“Don’t I?” Subotai feigned innocence with reasonable skill.

“You begin to learn the game.”

“Hmm. I rarely belch during the tea ceremony of late. I’m told that is progress.”

“What do you make of this place?” Uso asked.

Subotai shrugged. “It has prospects. It will be dangerous, however.”

“Danger is fun. It makes for a better story.”

“That is a bard’s answer.”

Uso made a dramatic gesture with his hands. “I know! A bard is what I am, though no one seems to believe that when I tell them.”

“Oh, we believe you’re a bard, among other things.”

“Come now, Subotai. What else would I be?”

“I don’t know, exactly. A very deadly individual.”

“Now, now. I may give that impression, but that’s pure sophistry on my part, a trick of words and facial expression. The soul of a bard’s work is to be believed.”

Subotai chuckled. “I see. You talked all those pirates to death the other day.”

“I’ll admit…I became overly enthusiastic. You know very well the joys of hacking down pirates and brigands. You and Toranaka-san fought bandits for two years.”

“I know someone gripped with the ecstasy of battle when I see it.”

“What are you really here to talk about, Subotai?”


Uso brightened. “Ah. I see. You’ll want to practice, then.”

Subotai stood. “If you would. I found a good spot down the beach.” Uso accepted a hand up and the two samurai walked down the smooth, black sand beach.

“No bokken this time out?” Uso asked, easing his swords in their scabbards.

“I trust you.”

“There’s a clear mistake,” Uso said. With a casual gesture, his katana was under Subotai’s chin.

The Moto cast his eyes downward, to where his own sword touched the inside of Uso’s thigh. They both stepped back.

“Nicely done. Bayushi Sakai was fond of that maneuver. He taught me much. Now that the duelist’s pranks are out of the way, we should begin.”

After adjusting their scabbards and setting their feet, the two samurai stood, watching each other closely for several moments. Subotai moved first, but Uso was able to draw and counter his strike, then touch him on the shoulder.

The second draw was much the same as the first, though Uso was harder pressed to execute the block.

The third draw saw Uso get the clear advantage and touch Subotai’s cheek with the tip of his katana. On a few successive draws, both swords touched, closely enough to simultaneous to mean that both men would likely have been hurt badly.

“You’ve improved, Subotai. Your technique has sharpened over the last few weeks.”

“Not enough.”

Uso stood back, taking a big breath and looking at the to their landward side. “Sakai-sama had a lot to say about dueling. I will share a few of his thoughts with you. The first: a lot of the physical…is mental. You are fast. You’re a skilled fighter and your reflexes make you a dangerous duelist. That said, it doesn’t matter how fast you are if you don’t know when the race will begin. You need to center yourself better, and you must learn to be more aware of your enemy. You approach dueling like…like a skirmish, but with a few rules. That’s not at all what it is.”

The two samurai went back to dueling for several more passes. Both had some measure of success, though Uso appeared more at ease and less tired with each successive draw.

“Damn! You’re hardly trying,” Subotai grumbled.

“Oh, I’m trying. I just don’t think you’ll kill me today. If all that time surrounded by Scorpion taught me anything, it taught me to conserve energy for the real dangers. You waste sweat trying. A duel isn’t won by trying, but by watching, knowing, trusting that your sword hand will be there when you need it. Let’s take a break.”

Sitting on the fringe of the sand, beneath the verdant fronds of the jungle, the two samurai wiped the sweat from their faces.

“Do you think I can beat Doji Shunya?” Subotai asked. “I know very well that I was lucky in the Topaz.”

Uso gave a thoughtful pause. “Can you? Perhaps. You’ve been fortunate before. The thing that makes me wonder is this: you don’t like dueling. You think it’s foolish and meaningless. You neither expected nor hoped to win the duel at the Topaz. You had more concern for the poetry, even.”

“Mmm. I suppose that’s true. I thought of it as courtly nonsense. I never aspired to be a duelist. I have little choice now.”

“You have a single dichotomy. You can be complacent and remain as you are, or you can improve. If you fail to improve, a duelist will kill you one day. Perhaps not Doji Shunya, but someone.”

“I know this. I know, too, that you forfeited to me in the Topaz, even though you knew you would likely win. I think you did so to prevent yourself from being in this very dilemma,” Subotai said.

“That’s an intriguing theory, my friend. That said, I bowed out of the dueling because I was struck with terror at your hand speed.”

Subotai nodded. “Of course you did. Shintaro-san is certain of it, as he is certain that I was on the roof when we fought the swamp creature, though I leaped out the window just behind him as the hut exploded.”

Uso only shrugged. “Think what you like, but I am unfailingly sincere. I don’t see how Shintaro’s questionable memory comes into it.”

“Perhaps it does not. Please, if you have more to say about the brewing duel between Shunya and I, speak.”

Uso cocked his head, put a finger to his lips, and seemed almost to be listening to a far off conversation. “You see, it’s like this. As a bard, I’m always fascinated with stories. Stories are everything to me. Stories, despite what some might tell you, are not about facts, not about numbers or dates or the color of the trees at twilight. Stories are about people. What they want, what they can’t seem to get, and the ways in which they try to change the world around them. How do I happen upon stories? I watch people. I listen to them. I see what they spend their time on.

“Aboard the ship, I had the opportunity to watch you. I watched Shunya-san, as well. This is what I saw. You played the drums for Isao during his time of madness. Shunya practiced dueling. You helped with the sailing of the ship. Shunya practiced dueling. You twisted up some new bow strings with Oki. Shunya practiced dueling. You wrestled with Shintaro. Shunya meditated. I believe he was thinking about dueling during his meditation. Do you see a theme here?”

“He cares more than I do,” Subotai said with a sigh.

“Infinitely more! He’s totally obsessed. Dueling is everything to him, and you, a random warrior with a quick hand, beat him in front of the Shogun and an Imperial Heir. That CRUSHED him. He will bear the scar to his dying day. Only killing you in a sanctioned duel will heal it. It’s not as if some Kakita dueling master out-touched him, or even someone outwardly mighty, like Akodo Tetsuru. A Moto? Forgive me, but that is a bitter drink to swallow for a Crane.”

“I understand.”

“Do you? Imagine if, say, a Dragon clan shugenja had bested you at horsemanship? Imagine if a Phoenix courtier had beaten you at archery? Would that not shake you to the foundation of your soul?”

“I’d be shamed beyond words to express,” Subotai admitted, poking a stick into the sand near him.

“The only thing that mitigates it at all is that you went on to win the dueling, defeating other worthy adversaries. Even then, your string of good fortune puts you as a superb target for any duelist who wishes to gain fame. It’s likely that you’re only alive right now because dishonoring the Akodo family is an extraordinarily bad idea, and you are their hostage.”

“I’ve considered that. Many times, in fact. It shows how little I knew about dueling at that time that I didn’t even think of the consequences of winning.”

Uso smiled. “I don’t see you as a man who would give less than a full effort, regardless of what came after.”

“Thank you.”

“It wasn’t necessarily a compliment. It goes hand in hand with the headstrong way you approach everything. Sincerity is a great virtue, but there are moments when it must be tempered by discretion…and that, I believe, is all I have to impart about dueling for today. I believe I’ll go and find some sake.”

“Wait, Uso. I…did not really wish to speak of dueling, but something far more perilous,” Subotai admitted, his brow wrinkled with concern.

“Ah, hidden agendas. Superb.” Uso sat back down and knitted his hands in his lap.

Subotai gave a grave look and let out his breath. “Before the Topaz, before I became hostage to the Akodo, my family arranged a betrothal for me. The bride was a daughter of a fine Shinjo household, a family that would be very valuable to have as an ally. The daughter, an Ide courtier, was considered to be highly desirable. It appeared to be a lucrative arrangement for all involved.” His face twisted. “Except, of course, for the principle players.”

“I had heard that there was some level of bitterness there.”

Subotai shook his head. “There were thoughts of bringing in the Kaiu carpenters to build a wall between us. There was a time that I was happier to die at the hands of the Akodo than have to be in the same room with her.”

“And now?”

Subotai produced a scroll case and handed it to Uso. “Read that, if you will.”

Uso read the letter and pushed it back into the scroll case. “It’s good news, yes? Love blossoming in the boughs of the cherry tree and all that?”

“For me, yes. For Toranaka? I don’t know how to approach him with this. I need to see her. It may be my last opportunity, and I don’t want to die somewhere in the jungle without seeing if this…change in our hearts will survive an actual meeting. How can I make this happen without risking his honor and mine? He is my captor, but he’s also like a brother to me. I’m pulled between two horses here.”

“Well, it’s really not so hard as all that. You have to arrange to meet your betrothed in such a way as to let Toranaka control the situation. We can’t have your Unicorn cohorts spiriting you away and promulgating a war between our two clans. That’s not good for anyone involved at this point. You can’t run off on your own, either. You’d endanger the mission we’ve been given. I don’t care to consider the details. Toranaka’s good at that part. Let him know what you need, and allow him to figure out a way. He’ll likely be hostile to the idea at first. He trusts you, but that’s as far as it goes. He doesn’t trust your clan, just as you weren’t able to trust the Lion when their blood was up. Going to Journey’s End Keep is essentially equal to going into Unicorn territory. There are too many things that could go wrong. Your betrothed, and your father, if you wish to meet with him, will have to come to us on neutral ground, if it’s to be done safely.”

“Hmm. Very well. Thank you. Oh, and, as a bard, what wisdom can you give me about dealings with noble ladies? I am not…skilled at these things.”

Uso arched an eyebrow. “Always bring gifts. Yes, that’s important. Let’s see…always have a knife on you, and never allow them to tie you to the bed.”

Subotai’s eyes widened. “Has that been a difficulty for you?”

“I’d rather not talk about it. If you do suspect that you’ll be bound, grease the wrist on your good hand, to give you a better chance to wriggle free.”

“I…I’ll keep that in mind. Erm, perhaps it is a good time for a sake.”

The two samurai rose and walked back down the beach to the dockside, where the industry of boats being loaded and unloaded caused the dock workers to scurry like ants. When they were well away, the one who had witnessed the whole conversation stealthily slipped from his place of concealment and disappeared into the jungle.


Letter from Shinjo Namori to Moto Subotai

Moto Subotai, son of Kohatsu,

Greetings, my betrothed. Though I know not if you will ever read this letter, I must write it. I must convey the changes these last months have wrought upon my soul. I would first like to thank you for your continued letters, and especially the poetry that you have written. By the great lengths you have gone to prove yourself to me, to indicate that being a Moto is more than riding in the dust and shooting arrows, you have caused me to reconsider all my set opinions, all the assumptions that a life led in courtly purpose have imprinted upon the scroll of my mind.

When we last spoke…no, let us call it what it was. When we last shouted at each other in pain and anger, we were very young, two opposing forces that could do nothing but brew storms in the air between them. I know that I said many unkind things, things that many men would have never been able to forgive. That was not the way with you, Subotai-san. You remembered every word, searched it for meaning, and used my hateful rebuke as fuel for the fires of your progress. I find this honorable. Admirable. I will not lie to you. At first, I sneered at your poetry and your accounts of the Topaz Championship. “So he is improving,” I mused. “He could hardly get worse.”

I was angry at you, angry at my family for pairing me with a Desert Moto, just because it would ensure an important relationship going forward. I was caught up in what I wanted, what I had dreamed of for myself. I did nothing to improve my honor that day, as I turned my back on a daughter’s duty to family and clan. When you said what you did–that anyone who had not felt a horse at full gallop below them, who hadn’t felt the mystery of an arrow arcing toward a target, was no Unicorn at all–that was like a knife in my side. I kept and cherished that pain for months, allowing it to act as justification for foolish behavior on my part.

In silence, I would have continued on like this. If your letters had been filled with self-serving boasts or veiled aggression, I would have never learned anything from our incendiary arguments. You kept writing, always earnest, always quick to minimize your own achievements and give glory to others, even your captors, the hated Akodo. I began to look forward to your letters, as they always contained the sort of wild adventures that one reads about in the legends. Assassination attempts, fights with bandits, entrance into haunted ruins and the like were so different from the staid and careful life of an Ide courtier. You were far away, and it was safe to smile when none could see. It was safe to read your poetry and gaze from my window out onto the plains as the snow fell. It was safe to start feeling something, as each letter seemed bound to be your last. You would either lose interest in me, or the Fortunes would take your life.

Two events changed my world.

The first came in the reporting of the news. You know the one I speak of, where a duelist’s blade set Lion and Unicorn at the brink of war once again. Even as overt action was avoided, I knew that you were there, a nearby enemy for them to vent their anger. It surprised me, the chill feeling of anxiety for your health that I felt. I had grown to enjoy your letters, to respect you, even to send a few noncommittal letters back to you, but I hadn’t expected to have such a reaction. “What does one do,” I asked my mother, “when her beloved is in danger and far away?”

“Do you love him, then, after all this time, and when all appears to be lost?” she asked. I could not answer. She shook her head. “You worry after them, you say their names to the Fortunes and the Kami first thing in morning and last thing at night. There is little else to do.”

The second incident that lead to my change of heart came to me on an arrow, falling from the leaden sky as a storm threatened. I sat, huddled in my winter robes within a carriage. An elderly courtier had taken ill, but was required to give his sanction to a proposal of joint business venture between two important families. Three of us, junior courtiers, were sent to his outlying estate in a carriage to receive his signature on the document.

Several miles from the keep, we were set upon by bandits, men hungry and hollow eyed, come up from the populace southlands after the tragic growing season and its grim aftermath. The two Shinjo bushi who guarded us had been merely a formality, I thought. Who would dare strike so near Outsider Keep? But the times are desperate, and desperation gives men boldness they would otherwise lack.

One of the courtiers, a man named Ide Hideko, tried to aid our guards, and was not two steps from the carriage when he took an arrow to the throat. I pulled him back in, his lifeblood pumping out from nose and mouth, his eyes wide and terrified. He died in my lap, choking on his own fluids. Of the two bushi who guarded us, one succumbed to his wounds later that week, another took a slash to his leg that will give him a permanent limp. I could do nothing but watch, powerless and horrified. It was, perhaps, the first time I had any inkling of what you really do, the dangers to which you are subject.

I lived, and I was unharmed, but that was the moment that I knew that, until I had ridden hard across the land on horseback, until I’d grasped a weapon and looked an enemy in the eye, I would not be whole. I would not be a true Unicorn.

Subotai, you will not comprehend how long I stopped in my writing of this letter, considering burning it after I wrote the last part. It is more than my mind wishes to say, but my heart seems to have triumphed in this battle. It written now, and I won’t take it back. My feelings have changed, and I want you to know. If we ever have the opportunity, I want us to be together. Perhaps I have waited too long, and there will never be a time for us, but I will pray that the Fortunes are not cruel today, because I finally understand, at least a little.

After the events in the carriage, I knew that I had to taste life for myself. Real, wild life, outside the cloister of the court. I volunteered to join your father on the road to the Ivory Kingdoms, to do whatever needed doing. He took me at my word, and put me to work.
I imagined that whatever I encountered would be easy enough. I was wrong. I know now that I had never done a moment’s hard work in all my life, never felt the sweat upon my brow and the sting in the center of my shoulders. I had been an ornament, nothing more. I had never done anything useful. Not really.

In a haze of work and broken sleep and discomfort, I began to know life and taste its full gamut of flavors. Though your father was patient, I was a hazard with a bow, and could not seem to master a sword. “Take this axe. I expect I’ll see my son married to a cripple as I hand it to you, but you must have something in hand to keep savages from carrying you off,” Kohatsu said. I somehow managed to keep from maiming myself with the weapon, and slowly, I began to gain some small skill. I am afraid I bought that skill with all the softness my palms will ever have, though, and that the hard wood of the axe handle has turned my hands into those of a laborer.

It was just last week that, on a meeting with a local antiquities seller, I had occasion to finally put my axe to a test. I will not forget the sound of the blade as it thudded into a ronin’s skull. It wasn’t an honorable kill–his back was turned and he was trying to hoist an Ivendi servant girl to his shoulder–but it happened. It was an act of my own. I could not eat or sleep for a few days afterward, couldn’t close my eyes without seeing the man hit his knees, slapping at his own face as his spirit left him. As the nameless ronin died, it seemed that I was born, something awake in me and singing after years of silence. After all this time, I was finally alive, a Unicorn, a Shinjo.

After saying all this, I will only tell you that I care for you, and that I have learned much. I will be at Journey’s End Keep for another season, and then I return again to the north. I hope this letter finds you, though I doubt any of mine ever have. Of all of them, this is the only important missive I’ve sent. Live, Subotai, and return to me. Don’t let the Lion, or a bandit, or some duelist out to prove his mettle destroy you.

With humble prayers for acceptance and love,

Shinjo Namori


To be continued next week:

Christmas Noun 6: Yes, Wendell, There Really is a Christmas Noun
Angsty Emo Outrage and Ducks

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