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 is from Pat Tracy, following up on the events from last time, where Moto Subotai faked his own death in order to escape from his Kolat black mailers.
Upon Pain of Life
By Patrick M. Tracy
The old man, Daichi, stood on the other side of the fire from Bayushi Kenshiro. The sounds of the jungle were distant. The rustle of leaves parting against the flanks of a hunting cat. The call of the night birds, the undertone of the tree frogs chirping to each other.
Kenshiro’s right hand was tied to his waist. It had been thus for several days. His face was yet bandaged from the recent beating, his crushed nasal bones causing a whistle whenever he would breathe. The old man threw a stone at him. Reflexively, he swung the bokken in his left hand, trying to hit it. He missed. Again.
Daichi threw the next stone harder. Kenshiro dropped into a clumsy guard, all the angles wrong, and the stone cut his cheek, sending a flare of sparks across his eye. He barely managed to hit the third stone as his sensei pitched it in his direction. Daichi gestured with his chin at something over Kenshiro’s shoulder. He looked, and the old man leaped across the fire, slamming a hardened heel into his stomach, knocking him to the ground, disarming him. Bokken in hand, Daichi pounded Kenshiro about the head and shoulders for nearly a minute. He could only cover and wait for it to be over.
“You still stand like a Moto. What have I said?”
Kenshiro levered himself up. There were bruises all over him, atop older bruises, atop older ones still. Daichi was as much a tormentor as a teacher. Kenshiro said nothing.
“You are not like the others they send me.”
“You hate yourself far more than they do.”
Kenshiro bowed to his sensei.
“Now stand like a Bayushi. A horse will not appear beneath you. Knees to the front, feel the ground, always stand ready to move faster than your opponent, even when none are visible.”
Bayushi Soichiro squinted at the scroll he’d been given. “It says you have a throat injury, and can’t speak yet.”
Soichiro shrugged. “Daichi-sama says you may be of some small use, training the men and accompanying jungle patrols.”
Another nod. Kenshiro’s throat would be weeks in healing enough to speak, and would never produce the sound it once had. The sharp pain still lingered. It was not so severe as the pain in his nose. Daichi had used a small knife to dig at the flesh of his face, then moved the bones within until his breath came silently again. Between the scar tissue around his eyebrows and the lumpy wreckage of his broken nose, his face was not the same as it had been. Such were Daichi’s brutal results.
Soichiro was an older man, perhaps 40 winters, but still moved well and had fair muscle tone. “Let us see what we have in you, Kenshiro.”
They went to the practice ring, and Soichiro picked out two parangu-shaped bokken. Kenshiro examined the weapon rack. Most of the practice weapons there were old, splintered, and dented. More than a few of them appeared to have been made by the young bushi, rather than any skilled craftsman. This was a small dojo, after all, far out in the middle of nowhere. Still, he would see to it that the training equipment was improved, even if he had to carve new bokken himself. There was one no-dachi practice sword, chipped and crooked, the protective lacquer worn through. He selected it, left hand foremost, and turned.
Kenshiro had learned much from Daichi. He could see Soichiro’s face tighten and knew that he would not wait for the traditional bow. Kenshiro leaped to the side just as his new officer committed to his attack, placing the edge of the bokken against the man’s neck. With a sword of steel, a simple pull backward would relieve a man of his head. There had been some luck involved, but Soichiro did not have to know that.
Soichiro relaxed. He stood upright, his small mempo slightly askew. “Very well. Welcome to Camp Heron. You’ll be training the younger men.”
The officer straightened himself and replaced his parangu in the weapon rack. It was only later that Kenshiro was to discover that his best weapon was the naginata.
“Draw the bow with your back, not your arm,” Kenshiro rasped. Another volley of arrows went askew, flying everywhere but the target.
“You may imagine that you have no need of a bow, but you are fools. You, there! What are the keys to archery?”
The surprised young samurai sputtered. Kenshiro did not bother to learn their names. Those were unimportant, as his own was. Scorpions were not individuals, not faces to be remembered. They were a collection of tools and potentials. There was only the need of the Clan, which answered only to the needs of the Empire. Glory was not theirs to grasp at. Only duty.
“Well,” Kenshiro’s jagged voice asked.
The young Bayushi’s eyes were wide above his simple white mempo. They thought of their new trainer as a thing walked from nightmares. Kenshiro did not try to dissuade them from this idea, for it was true. Nevermind that the nightmares were his own, the hounds of his past gnawing at his hide with every heartbeat.
“Start at the ground,” he suggested, drawing closer, crowding the young man.
“Stance,” he blurted out.
Kenshiro gestured that he should continue.
“Firm body posture. Breath is controlled. Bow hand is relaxed. Elbow is extended. String hand thumb is a hook of bone. Back is tense across the shoulder. Anchor is solid against the jawbone. Eyeline is set. Target is sure. Heart is slow.” The form tumbled out, once started.
“Good. What do we know about archery?” Kenshiro put his knuckles behind his back.
“The arrow knows its way. The bow shoots straight. It is only the archer who fails,” they said as a group.
“Archery has two phases. Learn to hit the target. Then learn to hit the target again. You fools are still in the first phase. You will be running three miles each morning until you progress to the second. I will be running with you. Your ineptitude is a poor reflection upon your sensei. This does not improve my mood. Now, try again.”
Bayushi Kuronobo’s mempo frowned. He stood at the doorway like a living stormcloud, a hand casually resting on his katana’s hilt. It was known that he had killed more than sixty men in sanctioned duels. The real number was probably far greater. He was one of the deadliest men Kenshiro had ever met, and he had not lived a sheltered existence.
“It is a feeble disguise, but perhaps it will suffice. Go get your things, we are needed elsewhere.”
Kenshiro bowed and ran to his small room. He did not hide the fact that he did so. He assumed that Kuronobo did not wish him to tarry.
Other than a bedroll, a change of clothes, and his weapons, there was not much to pack. He arrived again in moments. There were two ponies waiting, Kuronobo mounted up, and he followed suit, careful to effect some clumsiness in the action and fumble with the gear he carried.
“You needn’t waste your energy trying to fool my eyes, Bayushi Kenshiro. Even if I were not your patron, I would always sense your deception. Your only advantage is that no one will look for the face of a dead man in your own.”
“Any failure is mine. Daichi was…thorough.”
“What is wrong with your throat?”
“I drank acid.”
“Hmm. Good. We’ll soon be putting this thin disguise to a test.”
Those were the last words Kurnonobo spoke for the entire trip.
As the small Rokugani horses went, the one Kuronobo had selected for him was a poor example of the breed. Even the best of them could hardly compare to any Unicorn horse. In his old life, Kenshiro had owned one of the finest horses in the Empire. He would never see that horse again, never sit astride a steed half so grand. Everywhere he looked, mile he traveled, the true measure of what he had sacrificed became more clear.
His education in misery was only just beginning
The White Tiger Shrine.
Toranaka had really made it happen, and better than anything they had discussed. Entering it that night created a potent and almost overwhelming sense of loss. Kenshiro struggled to keep his face impassive, to remember that Moto Subotai was dead, and all his associations were broken. Nothing of him could be allowed to remain. The memories were simple knowledge. Emotion could not rush from them like ink being smeared upon wet rice paper.
He stood at Kuronobo’s side, hands folded before him, eyes seeing everything, heart deadened against what he feared would be.
And then they arrived. Subotai’s friends. His brothers in arms and deeds and blood spilled upon the earth.
Even Doji Shunya, with yet new strips of colorful fabric decorating the hilt of his blade.
But Bayushi Kenshiro did not know these men, did not care greatly about what befell them, other than the hope that they would work to the betterment of the Empire and die as samurai should. He was an impartial observer, an outsider to all this.
It was the moral imperative that Kenshiro held onto with a white knuckled grasp. If he allowed himself to feel, to identify, to soften toward these good men, he would be doomed. Everything he had destroyed with his own hand would have been for nothing. No. Subotai had to remain dead, and Kenshiro could only parse through a dead man’s memories as one read a history scroll or looked at paintings upon a wall.
Toranaka, as commanding as ever, as sharp and quick as his blade.
Oki, still haunted, perhaps more hard bitten and fatalistic than before.
Isao, wiser, now motivated by the urge to follow in his master’s steps, he had the air of willing death around him.
Shunya, calm and sophisticated, matured somehow, but no less driven to be the epitome of a Crane Duelist. He goads Kuronobo in oblique ways, testing to see if there is any emotional currency he can gain, wondering if he will be able to call the man to a duel one day and spill his blood.
None of them trust him. Nor should they. Kenshiro is an unknown, an honorless dog. A faceless Scorpion killer.
Without Uso, without Shintaro, there is no center to them anymore. They are not a group, so much as men gathered from their individual enterprises.
This was a place that Kenshiro hoped he would never be, with the few men who had known Subotai best, with the one audience to which his feeble artifice would hardly be sufficient. Perhaps he could fool them for a day, or a week, or even a month, but they would learn. One of them would see some tell-tale that there had been no time to train himself against.
All he could do is hold them at the greatest possible distance and play for time. There would be a moment, some point when allowing them to know who he had once been. That moment was not today.
Kenshiro listened as Kuronobo told them of the current crisis, the reason that the White Tigers were being called. There was a great sea beast attacking the coast. The gaijin fleet had been found. Great and awful tidings.
Subotai would have had much to say. Kenshiro dared to say nothing, dared to betray no emotion or hope or fear. The man before them did not have the luxury of such things.
Kuronobo forced Toranaka to swear to take Kenshiro into their group, to trust them as they trusted the Shogunate orders they received, to keep him safe from harm at all costs.
The unspoken predicate to his words were to force Toranaka, when the truth came out at last, to spare Kenshiro’s neck from his blade. Not that he would raise a hand to defend himself against the Angry Lion. Kenshiro would accept a death blow from this man, and understand why it would fall. All that had lead to Subotai’s demise and Kenshiro’s invention would be outside Toranaka’s ability to understand.
Had he confronted dishonor, he would have knelt upon the ritual mat and washed the sin from his family in his blood. He was the better man, the greater soul, and thereby had the right to judge as harshly as he wished.
This was why Subotai had told him to leave Ikoma Uso’s journals unread. Sometimes it is no good to know too much about a friend. Sometimes the small fictions we allow ourselves to harbor are the only things that keep friends from becoming enemies.
Kenshiro could see that Toranaka felt as if he had but few true friends to count on. Those closest and firmest in their resolve had fallen away, killed or taken down other paths. He was surrounded by strangers and those he only half trusted. There was nothing that he could say or do that would decrease the Akodo’s skepticism. He continued to stand in silence, impassive on the outside while his heart was a raging storm within his chest.
And then there were noises within the shrine to the fallen.
Toranaka burst in, blade to the disheveled man who was in the process of grabbing Uso’s no-dachi off the wall.
There was much shouting and disagreement. The vagabond, the tattered man holding Uso’s sword spoke only in quiet tones, calm against the storm of their emotions.
“Who was this shrine built for?” he asked. The voice was familiar.
“The honored dead of the White Tigers. To their memory,” Toranaka spat.
“For the dead, then. If it is dead men you honor, then this sword does not belong here.”
Kenshiro watched them, watched them marvel at the man who had come back from the dead, for Ikoma Uso stood before them, his flesh torn and broken by wounds that he could never have survived, his handsome face a wreck, now covered by a mempo.
But it was Uso, and his return was not greeted with pleasure, for Toranaka had learned what he was, learned that beneath his carefully crafted image, Uso spirit traveled darkened roads.
Uso met his eyes. He knew in a moment. Kenshiro had been born into a world where Uso was dead. Uso sighed, ignoring the heated words all around him, and pointed at Kenshiro’s no-dachi. “Really?”
Kenshiro raised one eyebrow and shrugged. They both had secrets. They were both dead men walking. For the moment, though, it appeared that Uso was content to keep that to himself.
And so they were reunited. Much like a broken vase, though, there were pieces missing. Points of fracture spiraled outward between all of them. Oki stalked away with sullen eyes. “Uso is dead!” he shouted over his shoulder.
Toranaka gritted his teeth so hard that his jaw quivered. Isao looked between one face and another, perplexed.
They were sent to their tasks, far from united, Kenshiro subject to the scorn of the group, with only Uso to speak with, as they were both equally distrusted.
Not for the first time, Kenshiro reflected that things would have been far better had he never been born, had Subotai before him never been born. As it was, he was consigned to the pain of living, and would suffer it for as long as necessary. Perhaps there would be a day when the gaijin and the Dark Oracle of Water would be vanquished, when a time for endings would come to pass. Perhaps then, he could finally rest.
To be continued next week: https://monsterhunternation.com/2014/09/26/the-drowning-empire-episode-63-the-great-sea-beast/