The Drowning Empire, Episode 21: Gifts

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 by Steve Diamond is also from our two year time break. Steve is playing Ikoma Uso, who on the surface appears to be just an honorable bard who lucked into winning the Topaz Championship, but who in reality is a secret agent/spy/assassin. Very few people in his extremely honorable clan know that his order, the Lion Shadow, exists.

This is a long episode, but man, it is awesome.

Continued from: https://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/the-drowning-empire-episode-20-zakyo-toshi-nights-noodles-with-gaijin-pepper/ 

Gifts

Part 1

It was a punch to the face that woke me.

This wasn’t the first time my beauty rest had been interrupted this way. It’s a bit like having a bucket of icy water dumped on you…only more painful. And more bloody.

They key, I’ve discovered, is not letting the pain and disorientation overwhelm your senses. No easy feat, especially when that punch connects straight onto your nose. I felt my nose crunch. I felt the blood gush. The shock of the hit triggered my mouth to gasp open in shock, and that mouth was filled immediately with my blood.

My eyes filled with involuntary tears, making visibility a major issue in the short-term. Fortunately, I had longer than the “short-term”. Otherwise I’d already be dead. That I wasn’t…well that had been the gamble in the first place. Their curiosity.

Curiosity.

There’s a saying about curiosity.

The second punch came at me from my left. There’s an art to these types of interrogations, and if you’ve been here before, you know the way tough guys like to act. They tend to fall in similar categories. They want you so disoriented, so overwhelmed, that you will do anything they say. I know this. As I’d heard my friend Oki say, this wasn’t my first boat ride.

I wondered how he was doing. Last my sources had said, he was…fixing things…for a Scorpion.

Hopefully he was having a good time.

Ah, that second punch. They usually aim for the temple. I don’t know why, only that nine times out of ten, that’s the thug pattern. I’d already experienced the exception to that count a few weeks ago, so my odds were good.

I slumped slightly, right before I knew that punch would hit. It took me on the crown of the head. My Fortune’s blessed hard head. It was an effort not to smile when I heard the guy’s pinkie knuckle pop, followed closely by his pain and swearing.

Like I said, I’ve been in this play before. It’s all a matter of controlling the pain, not letting it control you. Of controlling the fear, not letting it control you.

Next would be the questions.

“Who sent you?”

The words were at my right. Close. What an idiot.

I didn’t spit out the blood in my mouth. No. That was a weapon here. I didn’t answer right away. No. My apparent lack of coherency was a weapon as well.

Time? That was on my side as well.

My ancestor, Satsujin, chuckled darkly in the recesses of my mind. He loved this part.

I shook my head in an exaggerated fashion. They would see it as an attempt to clear the punches from my mind when really, I just wanted to blink away the tears in my eyes and get a better look at my surroundings, and the number of people I’d need to kill.

My eyes cleared.

Ten men. More than I expected. But they weren’t well armed, and none were armored. Why should they be? To them, I was just dressed a simple ronin. And I was bound. Pathetically. I hadn’t even been practicing slipping bonds—traveling companions look badly on that sort of thing from a Topaz Champion—but they were practically giving me the chance to get free and massacre them. I began working my right hand, getting it prepared.

I assessed the situation. I decided…well, they’d all need to die.

“Who sent you?” the man repeated.

To my left I caught a glimpse of a wagon stamped with the Akodo mahn. I could see just the hint of rice spilt around it. I’d been correct. These were the bandits I’d been looking for.

Ikoma Kage wanted their organization crippled.

I looked to my right and saw the man who’d asked me the question. He didn’t look like the bastard son of a pig, which made me smile. He looked like a samurai who’d lost his way. I could see the once proud lines of his birth beneath the dirt and weathering. This would be their leader. The last group of bandits had given me his description and name. Peli. A simple name for a man no one would remember. It was almost poetic.

“My name,” I said thickly, talking through the blood, “is Peli.”

He jerked back like I’d slapped him. The next instant he was right in my face with a tanto held at my throat. He was practically spitting with rage. That will happen when you screw with an idiot’s head but give his name as your own.

It was almost too simple.

“Is this supposed to be a joke?” He screamed. “My name is Peli! If you lie to me once more I will gut you—”

I spit the blood into his open eyes. Having that happen is more of a psychological blow than a real one. It’s blood. In your eyes. Parents scare their children with stories about maho all the time, so it’s easy to prey on that innate fear.

Peli—who’d been gracious enough to confirm his identity to me—literally dropped his tanto right into my lap as he raised his hands to his face. The others were starting to move, but too slowly. My right hand slipped free of the rope restraints, and in a single motion I grabbed the tanto and disemboweled the bandit leader.

There were nine of them left to worry about, and it should have been easy for them to subdue me. No matter how skilled you are, nine, decently skilled men working together should succeed. But these men were not terribly skilled. Nor did they work together.

The first man, one who did look like the bastard son of a pig, died with my blade in his throat. I relieved him of his own knife and went to work on the rest of them. Some say that time slows down for the skilled. Maybe. I prefer to think of it as I speed up.

I was quicker than their clumsy strikes. My blades cut groin and neck of one. I dodged. Then I significantly widened the smile of another before stabbing him through the armpit. I dodged. Two blades through two eyes. I dodged. Backs of the knees, then into the neck again. All the while my ancestor howled in glee.

It was over far too quickly. I don’t even remember killing the latter half of them, but there they were. Puppets with their strings cut.

I turned at the coughing behind me. Peli was curled into a ball, trying desperately to keep in innards…uh…in. I stepped over the corpses and around the blood pooling beneath them. I walked by the stolen wagon and was pleased to see that there was no blood spray on it.

Good, Satsujin said. You know how it bothers Kage when there is blood on his rice. The ancestor chuckled.

“Who are you?” Peli asked again. His voice was weak, barely a whisper.

“As you said, I am not Peli,” I said crouching beside him. “Thank you for clarifying that for me earlier. Maybe you’ve heard of me. My name is Ikoma Uso.”

“The Topaz Champ…Ch…Champion?” He coughed, blood appeared on his lips. “But…I thought…”

I cut his throat in a quick motion. “That I’d be taller? I get that a lot.”

***

Ikoma Kage set my nose with a pinch and a pull. It hurt worse than having it broken in the first place.

“You burned down the building they were hiding in, killing them all, and caused extensive damage to the warehouses around theirs.” Kage sighed. “Don’t you think you could have been a little less…destructive in your task?”

“No.”I answered, bowing my head in respect, and to hide the pained expression that must be decorating my face.

Ikoma Kage sighed. “When you said you would execute this mission with…how did you put it? Oh yes. ‘Magnificence’! I thought you just meant you’d do it well.”

“I did do it well.” I replied, head bowed. “You said to cripple the bandits. I crippled them. Permanently.”

“You burned them alive.”

“No,”I corrected, “I killed them all first. Then I salvaged the stolen goods. Then I burned down their warehouse. It had to be visible. I even talked up the fellow that did all this terribleness in the sake houses.”

“You what?”

“It had to be visible,” I repeated calmly. “It had to be public. Any other people even considering stealing from the Lion—and rest assured, they were in those sake houses—needed to know exactly what would happen to them if they crossed that line. Do you know what I saw in the eyes of those who heard the rumors I was spreading?”

“What?”

“Fear. They are scared out of their minds that some deranged avenger is out there massacring anyone who crosses the Lion. This crazy person knows no mercy. His honor can be sacrificed. He is brutal, and maybe even enjoys killing.”

“I see,” Kage said quietly.

Nothing was said for several minutes, but I was accustomed to waiting. Patience was ever one of my virtues.

“This was a difficult mission,” Kage said finally. His voice was level, and his words came out like they were rehearsed. Forced. “The Lion Clan thanks you for your service. As a token of our appreciation, and a reward for your success, I have been authorized to give you this.”

I looked up for the first time and saw a look of wariness on Kage’s face.

He fears you now, Satsujin said.

In his extended hands was a battered journal. Something about it looked oddly familiar.

“Your father wanted you to have this when you had completed your training,” Kage said. The wariness faded, and was replaced by sadness and reverence. “He gave it to me the morning he protested the Spider receiving Great Clan status. He said, ‘Uso loves a good story. Tell him he will love the one he reads here.’”

I took the journal with trembling hands.

This was the greatest gift I had ever received.

“Ikoma Kage-sama,” I said, voice cracking. “Thank you. I will be forever in your debt. I will make the Lion eternally proud of me like they are of my father. I promise you.”

“Uso,”Kage said, “you will do things your own way. And that is good. Your father was a dear friend, and I miss him every time I look at you.” I was shocked to see a tear sliding down his cheek. Ikoma or not, I’d never witnessed such emotion from him before.

“You have already become your father’s son,” he continued. “Though perhaps a bit more…outgoing.” I could swear I saw a hint of a smile.

“What can I do to repay this gift?” I asked.

“You already know that answer,” Kage said. Emotion was gone. Empathy was gone. Sadness was gone. “You will do your duty to the Lion, no matter the cost.”

A curt nod was my response.

“I have another task for you,” he continued. “Let me be very clear. I do not want this to be the spectacle that the bandits were.”

“As you say.”

“I have a man I need you to kill.”

Gifts – Part 2

Everyone wants to hear a story.

To the masses, the story is always better than the reality. That is the way of people. Samurai to peasants, children to adults, they are all the same. Status, class and age mean nothing once a story is being told. I am convinced this is because people prefer to hear the enjoyable lie rather than the boring truth.

The crowd in the sake house was already becoming bored with the story being told by the samurai at the bar. He appeared to be a young Ikoma Bard—not a true Ikoma in the sense of following Ikoma’s actual teachings…but only a handful know that truth. His story lacked the dramatics. It lacked emotion. I had to keep myself from shaking my head in disgust. I caught glances directed my way from other samurai in the room.

Likely they wished I was still telling a story of my own.

Before the current Ikoma began telling his dull tale of some famous duelist, I’d just finished a rendition of the most recent Topaz Championship—though they did not know I was the winner of that contest. My dress was that of an average clan samurai of the Lion Clan. In my story I had embellished everything, from the chaotic melee to the cold and calculating duels…and the winner, of course. I painted them a picture with my words of the man I was sure was the Dark Oracle of Water. All they had to do was look outside at their wilting crops and the dust storms to see how dangerous water—or lack thereof—could be. They applauded my story and rewarded me with free food and drink.

At a table to my right sat a group of shabbily dressed men. Their clothes were worn and dusty, faded from hard work under the harsh sun, the colors leeched from their armor like water from Lion-land fields. The bulges of hidden knives were evident in their garb. A casual word here and there, then pieced together, told me they were regulars here. More words told me they were the unsatisfied. Always hungry. Always thirsty. It was a common sight in the sake houses in Lion lands.

Depressing.

A serving girl brought me another sake, courtesy of a beautiful woman whose kimono identified her as Kitsu. I smiled my thanks, then pretended to take a sip. The sake smelled good. Clean. Free of poisons. A bit watered down. I let the liquid touch my lips, but no more. The Kitsu caught my eye again. She was stunning, with sharp, regal features. Her hair was long and bound at her neck with a single yellow cord. She tried to be sly, but I saw how her eyes would drift from me to the upstairs where she doubtlessly had a room.

She’s too honest, my ancestor whispered in my mind. Too innocent. If she is willing to take you to her room after a simple story—poorly told, I might add—then she isn’t worth your time. There’s no danger with her. You wouldn’t have to work for it.

I tried to refocus my attention on the Ikoma and his storytelling while attempting to clear the rasping scrape of Satsujin’s voice from my awareness. True to his promise, he looked through my eyes. Heard through my ears. He was a complete ass.

But he was right.

A shame that. It had been a while since I’d last been in the company of a woman as good looking as that Kitsu. But I knew she would bore me. I needed an intellectual challenge. Sadly, there weren’t many of those to be found in the Lion Clan, not even amongst my fellow Lion’s Shadow.

If you aren’t frightened that the woman you sleep with could cut your throat, descendant, Satsujin said, then she isn’t worth your time. It adds…spice…to the relationship.

Lovely. Relationship advice from a blood thirsty ancestor.

His laughter, once again, filled my mind.

Movement at the entrance caught my eye. A ronin entered the sake house, and I felt a brief moment of surprise. No matter how prepared you are, there are moments that take you by surprise. Call it intervention by the Fortune of Luck. Whatever. A samurai in my position soon learns to embrace those shifts in fate. They often can be the difference between living and a knife in the back.

Through the door walked the ronin formally known as Daidoji Okuda.

Okuda. The man whom Akodo Toranaka had promised to kill the day their paths crossed. Okuda. The man who had attempted to murder the Spider Bofana in the Mass Battle contest at the Topaz Championship.

Just when you think everything is under control, the Fortunes deign to remind us that we are just pieces in their celestial game of go.

He sat down and motioned for a cup of sake. Okuda looked as if he had aged five years in the short time since his banishment. His armor was worn, but well maintained. From the way his eyes scanned the room, I had to wonder if he’d had some…encounters…in places like this.

I stood, and intercepted the order of sake going to his table. The Kitsu got a hopeful look on her face before she realized she wasn’t the object of my attention. She actually looked crestfallen.

“I do not wish any company, Lion,” Okuda said as I sat down across from him. I passed him the cup of sake. “And I don’t accept drinks from strangers—”

He cut himself off, and his eyes narrowed as he studied my face.

“You don’t look like a man of your…title…should.”

Good, I thought. He’s showing discretion. This bodes well for him.

“Sometimes it is better for people to go unnoticed,” I said. “Surely you understand.”

His expression tightened a bit at that.

“At least you came to kill me yourself,” he said respectfully. “The last Topaz contestant sent idiots. I still haven’t figured out who the coward is. That kind of anonymity has no place in the Empire.”

“Perhaps not. Best to kill the person face to face, yes?” I asked. “And who says I am here to kill you? Friend, you have a fairly high opinion of your worth. I’m sure there’s a saying about the dangers of pride…how does it go? Hmm. Oh well. Must not be that important. Not worth my time, I suppose.

“Now,”I continued conversationally, “my mind can always be changed. My father had a saying—this one of the utmost importance, I think. He would say ‘words are the most subtle and dangerous of all weapons’.” I smiled at Okuda. “So let us exchange some words. What’s the worst that could happen?”

He blinked, trying to reason through what I’d said. I really hoped he took my words seriously.

The Fortunes had placed his fate in my hands.

Okuda leaned back, putting just a bit more distance between us. Smart man. Also, pointless. He took a sip of his sake and glanced at the Ikoma still blabbering on.

Is this the first story that fool has ever told? Satsujin commented. Ikoma would have poisoned his sake and let him choke on his vomit. Then he would have told an epic tale of how the man had choked on his own fate. Then…

I let my ancestor rant on. The smile never faded from my face.

“So,” I said. “How’ve you been?”

His mouth thinned into a hard line. “You know, for all your skill, you are not my match in a fight. Your new title means nothing with my spear in your guts.”

“Indeed,”I agreed. “My father traveled with one trained by the Daidoji. His name was Fujo. Maybe you’ve heard of him. So I know all about your skills. Speaking of skills…what have you been doing with your skills of late? Killed many Spider?”

“Several.”

“Good, good,” I said. “Have you heard of my father?”

The sudden change in subject had him confused. “I’ve heard of him. Everyone has. Why?”

“Do you know how he died?”

“No.”

“It’s an interesting story,” I said and gestured to the droning Ikoma. “Far more interesting than this story, in any case. You see, once upon a time—”

“I’m not interested in some fairy tale story…”

He trailed off as a knife appeared—as if by magic to his eyes, I’m sure—in my hand. He eyed me, reconsidering.

“When I tell a story about my father,” I said quietly, my smile slipping, “I don’t like to be interrupted. All your strength and skill with weapons and tactics would mean exactly pig shit if you were to be found with your throat cut in the alley behind this fine establishment. Or maybe not right now. Maybe in a day. Or a week. Or a year. Whatever. I’m not picky. Are you?

“I’m sorry,” I continued, smile back. “Where was I? Oh yes. My father. Once upon a time, a young boy was sitting on Ikoma Katsu’s lap, listened in rapt awe to a story of the Paper Lanterns. The Lanterns were this boy’s heroes. The lengths they would go to, honorable or not, to save the Empire were the things that made this little boy first pick up a bokken.

“On this particular night, Ikoma Katsu seemed sad. The young boy asked, ‘Father, are you alright?’ To which Katsu replied. ‘Yes.’ Now, this young boy was very observant, and he knew his father was bending the truth. But it is not a boy’s place to question his father.

“Ikoma Katsu stayed up late with that boy. Far later than was usual. Far, far later. He kept saying, ‘How about one more story?’ The young boy readily agreed every time, even when sleep was threatening to overcome his senses. The boy would remember that day as the ‘bestest day ever’… and that day persists as that boy’s—now grown—fondest memory.

“The following day,” I continued, “Katsu took his son before the Lion Clan Champion. You see, there had been a nasty rumor going around that the nefarious Spider were being made a Great Clan. The boy, even at his young age, understood that this was not right. True heroes, like the Paper Lanterns, did not force the Empire to do what they wanted before helping. True heroes offered their help, never caring if they would receive a reward other than an honorable death. The boy watched his father’s face as the pronouncement was made that the Empress would give the Spider what they wanted. The boy had never seen his father so angry.

“Katsu looked to the boy, his only son, and said, ‘Son, just remember that the Empress was forced into this. When you are older, you will understand what I am about to do. Do not be angry with me. Be angry with those that forced this upon the Lion. Most of all, Uso, do not let fear rule you.’

“He looked at that boy. At me. He knelt down beside me and said, ‘Uso, I am afraid.’ It was a shock. The boy had never…I had never heard my father utter those words before. So I said the only thing I could think of.

“I said, ‘Father, fear is only a weakness when we let it weaken us. Fear works for us. We do not work for it.’

“It was a thing he always told me,” I said to Okuda. “It was, perhaps the one lesson he wanted me to learn above all others.”

Okuda swallowed hard. He took another sip of the drink I had brought him. “What happened?” he asked.

“My father left my side and presented himself before the Clan Champion,” I said as I spun the knife in my hand in a slow, smooth circle. “He took his wakizashi, and without hesitation plunged it into his abdomen. My father wasn’t afraid in the least. It had all been just words. Words to focus my mind on one thing while something else entirely different was happening. My father didn’t scream once.

“The only sound in the courtyard was the sound of the blade tearing through his internal organs. Of blood spilling onto the ground. Then, of him hitting the ground as he slumped sideways. My father was the first to protest with his life, but he wouldn’t be the last. Lion lands were watered with our blood that day. With more blood than the water we had received in that drought.

“But most of all, I remember him being a perfect example.”

“So,” Okuda said slowly, taking another sip of sake, “what is the moral of your story?”

I sighed. “You disappoint me Okuda. My story was about a son losing his father. My story was about a boy who grew up hating the thing that took his father away from him. The Spider. There is no moral to my story, Okuda. Real life has no morals. It has only duty.”

He frowned at that, but then began to nod slowly. “I think I see.”

“Do you?” I asked.

There was a commotion in the sake house as the blathering Ikoma began clutching at his throat. At first the other patrons thought it part of the story, but when the man’s face began to purple, the screaming began.

I didn’t need to look to know exactly what was happening.

Okuda, though…Okuda watched with a look of fascinated horror. Poison is not the best way to die. It is reserved for those who held no honor. The onlookers would see him clawing at his throat, tearing bloody gouges into it as he suffocated. The terrible thing about the death was that the victim made no sound. It was like he was being struck mute by the Fortunes as they cut the thread of his life.

And that was all they would know.

No other cause would be found.

A terrible way to go.

As the Ikoma crashed to the floor, body twitching even though he was already dead, Okuda looked back at me. That was when he noticed that I had been watching him the entire time.

“What…what…?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t quite understand you.”

He tried to speak, and realized that he couldn’t. I looked pointedly at his hands and raised an eyebrow. Okuda blinked and tried to raise them, but to no avail.

“What’s wrong?” I asked smiling. “Lion got your tongue?”

The sake house was in chaos as the owner tried to console the patrons. The Ikoma was positively dead, and the stink of his bowels was filling the air.

“The point here, friend Okuda—for I do think we can become good friends—is that if I wanted to, I could kill you right now. No one would even blink an eye. No one would care. Do you know why? Because right now, you are worthless.

“But I don’t want you to stay that way,” I said, leaning back. “In a few moments you will regain feeling in your arms, and you will be able to talk. I advise you do so with caution.”

I waited as his finger began to wiggle, then move. He bunched his hands into fists over and over. All the while, etas had been summoned to remove the corpse. I imagined that local magistrates would be here shortly.

“Why did you kill that man,” Okuda asked slowly, words slurred. His voice was mercifully quiet. It would have been quite the bother to have to silence him permanently after all that.

“Because my Lord commanded it,” I said with a shrug. Then I smiled again, and took a small measure of satisfaction when Okuda flinched. “Oh, and he wasn’t actually an Ikoma. He was Spider. We don’t take kindly to people spying on us without permission.”

“What do you want of me?”

“Finally,” I said. “You ask the right question. I want you to continue killing Spider. How does that strike you?”

For the first time, Okuda smiled. “Magnificent.”

I pointed at him, “I thought you would like that. As it happens, the shadows tell me that the Crab have a twenty-goblin winter approaching. You don’t have anything against killing goblins do you?”

“Not a damn thing.”

“I thought not,” I reached into the folds of my robe, looking for a small vial. “I wonder why the Crab, after the Shadowlands have been quiet for years are now looking to swell their numbers… All at a time when the Empress has given the Crab permission to settle in the colonies where the Spider make their nest. If you ask me, it all sounds like a terrific time for one such as you.”

I pulled the vial out and quickly emptied it into my own cup of sake that I hadn’t touched. I then slid the cup to him. “Drink that. It will counteract the rest of the substance in your body.”

“What substance?”

I glanced to where the body of the false Ikoma had been sprawled a moment before. I put my hands out to calm him down as I saw his face go white in fear. “It was just a precaution. Look, remember when I said that my father traveled with a Daidoji? Yes? Well, I wasn’t exaggerating my respect for your old family. The thing is, I have no issue with you killing a Spider. None. My Topaz companions however, should they come across you, would have a much harder time killing someone who was under the protection of another great clan.”

He drank the sake in one swallow. I took it as a sign that he was coming around to my way of thinking. More or less.

“I will do as you say. And…” He hesitated. “And thank you for giving me direction. I will remember this gift.”

Some people just need that direction in life. Give them that path, and they will thank you, and remember you well…no matter the method you use to convince them.

“You are an interesting man, Uso,” he said.

“Me?” I asked. “Hardly. I’m just a bard.”

I got up and left.

Gifts: Part 3

 

I stand before Kyuden Bayushi as the sun rises. I take it as a good omen. The Scorpion have requested my presence for Winter Court, and you never reject a “request” from the Scorpion. I heard a bit of wisdom once that said, “If a Scorpion wants to screw you over, he’ll do it regardless of your actions. You don’t have a choice. However, if the Scorpion isn’t planning on screwing you, you probably shouldn’t put the notion in his head by being an idiot. You may as well play nice. Who knows, maybe they won’t kill you…this time.”

I’ve earned my place amongst the true Ikoma. I am the Topaz Champion. With ease I have slaughtered bandits who thought to steal and profit off of the current crisis in Lion lands. I’ve killed spies with little difficulty. On top of all of this, I’ve been reading from my father, Ikoma Katsu’s, journal. It turns out he was a true follower of Ikoma as well. Between his words—which I have been reading in his private journal—and the guidance of my ancestor Satsujin, I feel confident as I stare at the high walls of the Scorpion fortress.

I am not some stupid, gullible Phoenix. I am Ikoma, and I am ready for whatever they try to throw at me.

From the Private Journals of Ikoma Uso

 

Are you sure about that?

Written beneath the prior entry in a perfect, feminine hand.

Signed, “Maemi”

It seems that I am fated to wake up into bizarre situations. Sometimes I plan for them, but in others, like this one, I find myself fully at the mercy of whoever has woken me.

Only my second night in Kyuden Bayushi, and already I am being stalked in my room, I think to myself. Well, if my attacker thinks he has me at a disadvantage, he’ll soon find my knife at his…

I reached for the tanto I keep up the sleeve of my sleeping kimono and realized with some confusion that I’m not wearing my kimono. At about the same time, I realized that my reaching isn’t accomplishing much. I looked up and to the right, noticing my hand is bound to the head of my bed by a silken rope. I looked to my left hand and found it in a similar state.

This was certainly a new development.

A glance down confirmed that I was indeed naked.

The silken ropes had no give in them, not matter how I tugged. I kept my mind calm, and my outer appearance as smooth as possible. It’s usually best not to let a captor know that you are beginning to worry.

Soft laughter from the shadows pooling in the far corner of the room pulled my attention. Soft, playful laughter. Feminine.

“You look so cute when you struggle,” a sultry voice said from a different corner of the room. It comes like a whisper on the wind. “It reminds me a bit of a fly right before a spider sucks the life from it. Fortunate that I am not Spider. I know how you hate Spiders, Uso.”

She knows my name.

She materialized from seemingly nowhere at the foot of my bed. I’d never witnessed a person moving that quietly before in my life, and I’ve trained under some of the best Lion Shadow in the Empire’s long history.

The woman was stunning.  Moonlight spilling in through the open window seemed to caress the curves of her body. Long legs were visible through a slit in her kimono, as were her pale shoulders. One delicate hand held the clothing in place at the waist. Her dark hair, shimmering in the soft light, was kept from her shoulders and neck, exposing an expanse of her neck and chest that was barely concealed. It looked as if…

It looked a lot like she had just gotten dressed.

I was about to congratulate myself when my eyes took in her face. It wasn’t that her face was repulsive. Quite the opposite, actually. A mempo covered the upper half, and I could barely see the gleam of her eyes through the holes in the mask. Light whorls of dark porcelain danced around those eyes, drawing me in.

I looked again down at my naked form.

Fortunes curse me. Did I sleep with a Scorpion? My eyes took in her stance again. The way her hand held the robe. It all looked a little too perfect. Maybe it’s all just a mind game. Maybe she wants me to think we slept together to put me at a disadvantage.

“I will deny any of this ever happened, of course,” she said. My mind spun. How could I be so confused with so few words? Just her suggesting that we had slept together—well, “together” suggesting I had any choice, which I didn’t—had me alternately pleased and utterly frightened.

The woman bent down and picked my gold kimono from the floor at her feet. “I suppose you will want this back.” Only her lips and chin were visible, and for whatever reason I found I was staring at those red lines of perfection, wanting them to keep speaking. There was something almost erotic in their movement, and what I couldn’t see of her face somehow made me dizzy.

She threw the robe at me, its billowing mass obscuring my view of her.

When my kimono hit my chest, she was gone. The curtains at the window of my fourth-floor room stirred as if by a breeze.

But there wasn’t any breeze.

***

The bokken slashed through the air, a blur of hardened wood. Bayushi Sakai didn’t seem to show any strain of having swung the practice sword with any strength, but I heard the sound of my own bokken cracking under the force of his blow as I blocked.

Sakai halted his relentless attack immediately and shook his head in disgust as he eyed my bokken.

“This is the third bokken I have cracked,” he said motioning a servant forward. “Perhaps someone should have a word with the maker of these pieces of driftwood.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bushi slip from the training hall at Sakai’s words.

I had to suppress a shudder. Showing any emotion was the best way to get yourself into trouble here in Kyuden Bayushi.

The servant Sakai had motioned to brought another of the training weapons forward and presented it to me. I tossed the flawed bokken I was holding aside and grasped the new one, sliding the weapon through my sash.

Sakai nodded and grinned. He slid his own practice weapon into his own sash.

“I enjoy sparring with you, friend Uso,” Sakai said, hands poised on the handle of his weapon. “Your mannerisms and technique are far different than those I am used to.”

“I’m just a bard,” I said.

He smirked, his expression telling me how little he believed my words. “I hear my sister visited your room last week,” he said. “She never did understand the concept of ‘boundaries’. Did you sleep with her?”

The question caught me off guard, and my instincts were dulled. He drew his bokken and struck in a single move, the wooden blade catching me on the side of the head. The blow wasn’t hard, but it was enough to drop me to the ground. My bokken hadn’t even cleared my sash. I reached a hand up to my temple and probed for broken skin. Nothing. Sakai had pulled his blow.

“Oh brother,” a familiar voice said from behind me. “Using me as a distraction to slow your opponent? So devious.”

Sakai smiled and walked past me. His bokken was back through his sash, and his arms were spread wide to accept an embrace from his sister. The same woman that had been in my room the week before.

I pushed myself to my feet, straightening my robes before bowing to Sakai’s sister. “I have not had the pleasure…uh…” Shit. Bad choice of words. “…the…privilege of formally meeting your sister.” I kept my eyes down, focused on the floor.

You are the worst Ikoma in the history of the Ikoma, my ancestor, Satsujin, said in my mind. He sounded amused.

A low swishing of silken robes approached me, and a pale hand, skin achingly beautiful, appeared in my field of vision. I wanted to take that hand and press it to my lips, but I didn’t. I didn’t fancy getting poisoned by something she put on her hand just to screw with me—Scorpion are like that. I also didn’t think that being stabbed in the neck by Sakai would be an enjoyable experience—he’d do that.

Her fingers touched under my chin and lifted my gaze to her own.

She was so beautiful.

I wanted her.

I wanted to run from her in terror.

“Uso, this is my sister, Bayushi Maemi,” Sakai said. His voice suggested he was rolling his eyes, but I couldn’t verify it. My eyes were focused on Maemi’s face.

She wore the same mempo she had in my room. I wanted desperately to know what she looked like beneath that mask.

“To be fair, sister,” Sakai continued. “I was seeing how easily Uso could be distracted. He cannot be a true duelist until he learns to let those things wash over him and off of him. Any conversation you wish to have will need to be postponed. Father is here and seems to wish to talk with us.”

It took me a moment to register what Sakai had just said. Father is here…

Bayushi Kuronobo.

I tore my eyes from Maemi and glanced over my shoulder. There he was, shifty mask and all. He stood a few steps into the practice hall waiting for us. The implication was clear, even for his children. We were to walk to him, he would not walk to us.

Keep your stupid mouth shut, my ancestor said. Speak only if he speaks to you. Satsujin sounded frightened. It was the first time I’d ever noticed that emotion from him.

“I see you practice with our guest, Sakai,” Kuronobo said. “How does the…Topaz Champion…measure up to the Scorpion?”

Sakai stood perfectly straight. I imitated the pose. Courts were not foreign to me. Important and high-ranking individuals were nothing new. But Kuronobo made me feel insignificant. Just his presence made me want to run and hide. I summoned up every scrap of willpower I had to stand there and keep my expression neutral.

“He measures up better than any Ikoma should,” Sakai said bluntly. “There is a promise of greatness in him should he wish to pursue it.”

“You didn’t answer my question, son.” The menace in his voice would have driven peasants and ronin to their knees.

“He would not have disappointed my sensei.”

Kuronobo grunted, and for an instant the mouth line on his mask twitched up. Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe he wanted me to think I caught it. He turned his regard in my direction.

“What of you, Uso? How do you think you stack up against the Scorpion?”

“In terms of iajustsu,” I said slowly, choosing my words carefully, “I think perhaps I can learn much here. In terms of…other…ways of dueling, I wouldn’t hazard a guess as of yet.”

This time his mouth line did curve up. It was unnerving. A nemurani, surely. There was a laugh behind me, soft and whimsical.

“Don’t scare the poor Lion, father,” Maemi said stepping around me to give embrace her father. The curve of his mouth line increased, like he was more than pleased to see his daughter. There was far less formality between them. I didn’t relax. Not one bit.

“Have you already made this Lion your latest plaything, Maemi?” Kuronobo asked. “If so, this is likely to be a long Winter Court for our young guest. Be nice.” He turned to me again and said, “Ikoma Uso, you would do well to learn from your time here. The Empire can always use one of your particular skill set.  You are not quite refined. Yet. Get better.”

He turned and walked away.

Once he was out of sight, Maemi leaned in close and whispered in my ear. “I think he likes you.” She left the room by the same way as her father.

Sakai grinned at me. “It seemed my whole family has taken a keen interest in you, friend Uso.”

The Fortunes were obviously laughing at me from their place in the Heavens.

“What did…” I hesitated. “What did your father mean by ‘latest plaything’?”

He waved a hand at me before pulling me back to the center of the room to resume our sparring. “My sister occasionally becomes obsessed. You are not the first guest of Kyuden Bayushi to attract her attention. See that you keep her interest.”

“Oh?”

“Yes,” he nodded sadly. “I’d hate for you to be poisoned after drinking tea, or suffocate for no reason, or even fall from your window…all on accident of course. You are the most interesting person I’ve met in quite a while, and I’d rather not lose our friendship so quickly.”

“Oh.”

“So,” Sakai smiled eagerly. “Shall we see if you can manage to strike me this time? Tenth time is the charm, right? Or are you going to concede that you are just a bard, and have no chance?”

Inside, my ancestor growled like a feral animal.

I felt a smile grow on my lips, and I poised myself to draw and strike.

***

Two months. Two long months. That I was still alive was a small miracle.

I was lost. This habit they had for moving walls around was impossible to become accustomed to. Of course that was the entire point justifying their methods, but I found I was longing to return to the directness of my own clan.

I was attempting to find the bath-house after spending three hours in my daily sparring session with Sakai. Every time I thought I was beginning to understand his tendencies, he changed them all. It was like he was toying with me. If he was anything like his father, then he most definitely was playing with my mind. Sakai in his youth was already far superior in dueling to any of the bushi I had trained with at Honor’s Sacrifice Dojo.

I respected him more than most any man I had ever met.

Where I saw Sakai daily, my interactions with Maemi were more infrequent. The only thing predictable about her was her unpredictability.

I feared her more than almost any person I’d ever met…and still I was intoxicated by her.

I turned a corner and found myself facing a dead-end. I sighed and turned around to head back to the last intersection of corridors, and nearly bumped into Maemi. It was like my stray thoughts had summoned her.

“Hello my little Lion.”

“Maemi,” I said bowing. “I apologize. I seem to have become turned around. I was looking for the bath-house.”

“The bath-house? Mmm. That sounds…delicious.” She was suddenly pressed against me, and I felt bands of air wrap around me, immobilizing me. She pulled a small knife from her sleeve…

I narrowed my eyes as I looked at the knife. It looked strangely like one I’d hidden amongst my belongings. No. It didn’t look like my knife. It was my knife.

“I accidentally found this amongst a guest’s belongings.” Maemi said. She slide the blade down my arm, not hard enough to cut. Then she moved it up and I felt the blade nick my cheek before coming to a rest on my bared throat. “Would you look at how sharp this blade is? Well maintained. Non-descript. That such an average knife should be seen in this way speaks volumes…if you know how to look at it.”

“Sometimes the best weapons are those that others dismiss.”

My words were rewarded with a wide smile. Stunning. Chilling. She leaned forward, and I felt her tongue flick softly against my cheek where the blade had made the smallest of cuts. She spun, robes flaring around her. The knife vanished from her hand, and she walked away. When she was gone, her voice drifted to me on a breeze.

“Take the first right to go to the bath-house. Then come to dinner. It should be…fun.”

The bonds of air immobilizing me dispersed. I ran back the way I came and immediately found the corridor she was talking about.

I was positive it hadn’t been there five minutes ago.

She’s insane, I thought.

I like her, Satsujin responded.

Sakai greeted me at the entrance to the dining hall. The table from which we would eat was massive, holding dozens of guests. I identified the mons of Phoenix, Dragon, Crab, Crane, Mantis and Lion. The Miya family was also present, and lack of a Spider banner was unsurprising. The absence of Unicorn did give me pause.

“My sister says you are to sit by her,” Sakai said with a smile. “It pleases me that you have not bored her.”

“She told you that?” I asked.

“You made it to dinner, didn’t you? Hmm. I don’t recall cutting your cheek in out sparring session.” Over the last few weeks, I’d picked up on some of Sakai’s quirks. His tone as he spoke that last bit suggested he didn’t want a response. He already knew the answer.

I followed him to the table and lowered myself to the cushion. Sakai excused himself to go speak with some dignitary. Almost immediately an older gentleman sat in the cushion to my right. His once dark hair was almost completely gray, and the wrinkles on his hands and at the corners of his eyes spoke his age to me. But his eyes were bright. Intelligent. I imagined that my father, had he lived, would look similar.

“You remind me of a man I once knew,” he said, amusement thick in his voice. Unlike his appearance, his voice sounded young and strong. “He traveled with a good friend of mine, Ide Todo. I think you know him by Miya Todo now.”

“This man you once knew,” I said, playing the game. “Was he a storyteller?”

The old man laughed. “One of the best. You have his eyes. The same angles on your face. I was sorry to hear what his duty required, but I was impressed by his unflinching manner through which he accomplished his…protest.”

I bowed my head in thanks to his compliment.

“I will not trouble you any longer, young Uso,” he continued. “I wish I could witness the journey you have, but I fear I must leave that to those with younger legs. I but wanted to meet the son of a man whom I respected. Thank you for humoring an old man. I’m glad to see you getting along with my nephew and niece so well. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Could I ask you to help me up?”

I stood quickly and pulled the man gently to his feet, then bowed before he walked away.

Maemi was sitting in her place next to me when I turned around, as if magicked there. I returned to my seat before speaking.

“I didn’t know Bayushi Ejiro was your uncle,” I said. “My father told me many stories about him.”

“How do you know that was Eijiro and not some other Scorpion?” she asked innocently.

“Not many Scorpion were encountered by my father and the Paper Lanterns. He’s the only one that fit the clues he gave me.”

“Sakai and I wondered if you would catch on,” she said with a quick grin.

“I everything a test or a game with you?”

“Of course. That’s the way life was meant to be played.” She leaned in close to me and poured me a cup of tea. “That’s all any of this is. A game. A test. Someone is always testing us.”

“It’s just a matter of how quickly we learn the rules?” I asked.

“Exactly,” she said. “Because the quicker we know the rules, the quicker we can exploit them.”

I shook my head. “Then what is all of this?” I waved a hand to the dinner. “What game is being played?”

“Oh, Uso. The best kind.” With her eyes she gestured to the end of the table where a sullen Phoenix sat. The man was talking to the Dragon next to him. “Tell me what they are saying.”

“I’m no shugenja.”

“Neither are the majority of the Scorpion in the room. But every Scorpion courtier present, regardless of where they are in the room, could have answered my question. Why do you think so many of those courtiers cover the bottom half of their faces?”

“You read their lips?”

Maemi sighed and patted my arm. “For one so clever, you are often so slow at picking up on hints.”

“Only here.”

She nodded her agreement. “Likely. And I do find a measure of your helplessness adorable.  But, Uso, do you know what I would like more?”

“What’s that?” I asked, dreading the response. Wanting the response.

“I would…love…for you to learn my game. Otherwise all of these dinners will be dreadful. And boring. I hate boring.” Her smile seemed to grow sharper, if such a thing were possible. “You don’t want to bore me. I would hate to have that wonderful tongue of yours cut out. On accident, of course. I mean, I did just find the sharpest knife earlier…”

“So how do I become skilled at this game of yours?” I asked. I was pretty sure my voice wasn’t shaking.

Maemi’s smile softened and turned genuine again. “Good. I think you’ll be a quick study.”

***

“You survived Winter Court, Uso,” Sakai said. “That suggests you are a worthy foe, or maybe even a friend.”

“I’ll hope for the latter,” I said as I walked down the road from Kyuden Bayushi.

“Where will you go next?”

“You don’t already know?” I asked, not unkindly. It was another game we had developed. Always games and tests.

“A bird told me you were heading across the river to Lion Lands,” he said. “And you have to give back that ridiculous Topaz Champion armor. I don’t think I saw you wear it more than once.”

“You have the wisest birds, Sakai,” I said grinning. “Showing off that armor would only lead me into more trouble. I’d rather let others soak up the attention.”

“Let me know how that goes,” he laughed.

A breeze picked up around us, and suddenly Maemi was there next to her brother. The mask she wore today covered only her left eye. It was the most of her face I had ever seen. It was gift, to see that much of her face. I wanted to reach out and touch that cheek, but knew I’d likely not get my hand back if I tried. She smiled at me, and for a heartbeat I considered staying longer.

I was sure that I would miss these two.

“Not all Scorpion are the devils of the Empire, Uso,” Sakai said.

“Not all Lion are filled with a Fortune’s portion of pride,” I replied.

“But all men say stupid and boring things,” Maemi said with a sigh.

Sakai pulled a small wrapped bundle from his bag and handed it to me. I refused as custom dictated, then took it from his grasp. “This has been in our family for a few generations. It was my mother’s before she passed into the Fortune’s embrace.”

I untied the twine and found a tea set. Black and red lines wrapped around the lip of each of the cups. The pot was red with black and white spiraling and twisting lines. It was a work of art.

Sakai bowed to me. “May you find health and strength in the bottom of every cup, my friend,” he said. “When next we meet, we will spar again. There are so few who actually make me work like you do. Until that time.”

I returned his bow, and then he was walking away, back towards Kyuden Byushi.

“It is custom to give a gift,” Maemi said, looking at a wrapped package of her own. “Just the fact that you didn’t die should be gift enough, but I still like you. I still find you interesting. None have held my interest for quite so long. So…a gift. And if you go through that silly custom of making me offer you this gift three times, I will rip your spine from your body and use it to flail little children who disobey me.”

I took the package without a word.

“What to get a man who wishes he were less noticed,” Maemi said as I opened the cloth. “It is a difficult thing. But, I am nothing if not brilliant.”

Inside the cloth was a full faced mempo. Black spirals spun around the eyes,reminding me of the mask she had worn in my room that night so many weeks ago. The spiral on the right eye spun out over the white material of the mask and resolved into an abstract Lion. Over the left eye it resolved into a similarly designed scorpion. There was a little of the other creature in each likeness. The mouth line…was it smirking?

“This is priceless,” I said quietly. “Thank you, Maemi. I wish I had something to give you in return to remember me by.”

“You mean,” she replied, “like this knife?” She held up the non-descript knife that she had taken from my belongings earlier. “Have no fear, Uso, my little fly. I will remember you. How about one last game? I’m going to walk up that road behind me, and when I get far enough away, I’m going to turn and say something. Sound like fun?”

“Always.”

She walked up the road, further and further, then finally turned around. She was at least a hundred paces away. I focused on those exquisite lips.

I will miss you, Uso, her lips moved. We will meet again, I promise you. One last rule for our games: don’t die.

She bowed, and I returned it.

When I straightened, as expected, she was gone.

I walked down the road towards the docks, my steps light. I suddenly felt invincible.

“I am just a simple bard,” I said aloud to no one in particular.

I am the Lion’s Shadow, I said inside to my ancestor.

For once, Satsujin said, I agree.

###

To be continued next week: https://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/05/31/the-drowning-empire-episode-22-summons/

Check out Steve’s Hugo nominated book review blog here: http://elitistbookreviews.blogspot.com/

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for another good episode. I think this just proves that Steve Diamond must have a twisty mind. Keep up all the good work.

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