The Drowning Empire, Episode 46: Brush & Ink, Axe & Armor, Part I

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 is one of my absolute favorites. Pat Tracy wrote this fiction about his character’s estranged fiance. It is a 3 parter. All together it is a novella, and it is awesome. Pat is an extremely good writer.

continued from: https://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/the-drowning-empire-episode-45-the-duel/

Brush & Ink, Axe & Armor

Part One:

“Mistress Namori-san, please awaken.” Atsuko knelt with her hands upon her thighs in the predawn hours, no more than a darker blot in the gloom. Journey’s End Keep was nearly silent, what few guards who paced the dog watches and servants who began at the tasks of the day doing so without comment.

Shinjo Namori forced herself up from the sleeping mat. She had been awake, her mind too consumed with the duty that Ide Zhao-sama had given her the day before to sleep more than fitfully. Try as she might, she couldn’t think of one quick, perfect phrase that would sum up the reasons that the Lion and Unicorn should leave off their fighting.

“I wish this phrase to be like a duelist’s strike, Namori-san. It must be swift and unlooked for. It must land with staggering force. It must feel like both a revelation and an obvious truth that even a child could grasp” Those had been Zhao-sama’s words. It was a trouble with brilliant men. They tended to ask for the impossible. They tended to require brilliance in their colleagues.

“I do not feel brilliant this morning, Atsuko.”

Atsuko waited a moment. “The moon’s beauty can, for a time, be obscured by clouds.”

“I read you too much poetry, I fear,” Namori said. She stretched her neck and rose, going to the washing table where a bowl of warm water steamed. Namori could hear Atsuko stowing the sleeping mat and gathering the linen as she patted the water from her eyes and set aside her sleeping kimono. Atsuko was soon there with her outfit for the coming day, helping her into the many layers that the court still required, even at the absolute end of the Empire. Even on days when the heat caused placid courtiers to sweat through their garments and fall insensate, the proprieties were upheld.

“I ache to see him, Atsuko,” Namori said as the servant brushed her hair. It was too familiar, saying too much, but she had no one here to confide in, no one to share such thoughts with.

“Kohatsu-sama’s son?”

“Yes.”

“You will be reunited when the Fortunes see fit, Mistress,” she offered as consolation.

Namori made a dismissive noise in her throat. She was picking up lamentable habits from the Moto all around her. She was becoming more like a Unicorn all the time. She was both proud and ashamed about this at the same time. Why could nothing be simple? “Light the lamps above my writing board and bring me my brush and ink.”

“Hai,” Atsuko bowed and went to her tasks without delay. There were two hours left before the dawn. There had to be some combination of kanji that she could summon that would help her esteemed senior negotiator. She would stare at the rice paper until she came up with something. All the fathers, all the sons, all the lovers and warriors on both sides of the conflict deserved a resolution. The answer didn’t lie in bloody combat. That had already been tried, and had led only to more dead, more taken hostage, more acrimonious dispute. Families displaced, thousands of koku spent to no purpose, unending piles of horses and men upon the field, dead and dying. It often seemed that the only great winner in war was the eta, who always gathered at the edges of the fray and made themselves busy with the raven’s work.

Atsuko came with her writing implements, and Namori made the kanji for the city of Rich Frog, where the Unicorn had been defeated soundly by Lion troops under the command of Akodo Goro. Rich Frog. That was the crux of it all.

“Rich?” she said quietly. “Not half so rich as it once was, with so many of its businesses and artisans killed or displaced.”

Namori put a finger to her lips. She made another kanji. “Destitute Frog.” A small smile appeared on her lips. It was too early to know if her idea was brilliant, but it was an idea. She dipped her writing brush into the inkwell and began hastily forming kanji on the page. There would be time for precision and beauty later. That would only be important if she really had something worthwhile. A stupid idea could not be improved upon with fine calligraphy.

***

Ide Zhao read through what Shinjo Namori had written. Only a tiny squint of one eye altered his face. He tapped his finger upon the scroll after rolling it up once more. Namori waited, finding it difficult not to fidget or ask him a question.

“It is an interesting idea, Namori. Bold. Confrontational, even. I will keep it and consider it more fully. I’d like you to make another attempt with a different tactic and have it back to me by the end of the week.”

Namori bowed before the great negotiator, using all her willpower to keep her face impassive. The prospect of starting again, starting anew, made her heart quail. “I will try again, Zhao-sama.”

“Go and rest, Namori. You look fatigued. Good thoughts come from minds at peace.”

Namori walked stiffly from the room, down the long hallway, and up the stairs to her lodgings near the north wall. When safely within her quarters, she gritted her teeth, slid from her sandals, and threw one with all her strength. It pierced a paper wall and clattered against the boards in her study. She slumped to a low couch and repeated her favorite curses that the Ujik-Hai had taught her when during the journey south. She wasn’t entirely certain what they meant, but like all Ujik-Hai, they sounded dire. It was her understanding that the longest curse involved goats.

“Mistress, you seem to have misplaced this,” Atsuko said. She approached, holding the sandal. The servant saw the look on her face and chose to put the sandals away without further comment.

Namori lamented once more at her temper. She had learned to hide it well, but that didn’t keep her from seething inside an outward aura of calm. It could be exhausting. On one hand, the anger fueled her, kept her from quitting or settling for something less than success, but it was also a liability. A courtier could not afford it to be known that, inside, she was a wrathful as a Crab Clan berserker.

She lay back on the couch, centering herself, breathing willfully. In a moment, she was asleep. She found herself in her frequent dream, where she yelled every insult she could dredge up while hurling various elements of a tea set at Subotai. In the dream, she could never stop herself from the unseemly display. His young face would always quirk, first to puzzlement, then to sadness, and finally to anger.

As was so often the case, the supply of tea cups never diminished, and with each throw, she grew more horrifying to look upon, until she was a shrieking Oni with hair that writhed like worms and claws for hands. As it always seemed to, the dream came to its inevitable conclusion, the door slammed so hard that objects jumped from the shelves along the wall, and a titanic, shamed silence. At last, the dream faded into darkness, and she was, at least for a moment, tranquil.

***

She awoke to a shrill squeal and the sound of Atsuko’s slippered feet fleeing. Namori reached into her layered kimono and pulled free a knife from where it nestled on the outside of her thigh. She hid the knife in her left hand sleeve and pretended sleep. Light footsteps came closer. With eyes closed, Namori could feel and almost envision the flexing of the floorboards. When they came close enough, she rolled from the couch, knife forward, and opened her eyes.

The painted face of Vindicator Tanzen flashed before her eyes. He slapped the knife out of her grasp and put two fingers against the pulse point in her neck. He pushed with his fingers, and his opposing foot hooked her at the ankle. Namori fell to the boards hard enough to send air whooshing from her lungs.

The Vindicator sat down and crossed one leg over the other, grinning. He watched her as she fought with the folds of her intricate court kimono and finally got to her feet.

“That was a valiant attempt. What did you learn?”

“I would have been better served to have fled, as Atsuko did.”

“If you suspected a man as dangerous as I am was coming to harm you, of course. That said, you had a good strategy, especially coming from sleep as you did. You acted too soon, though. Once you leaped off the couch, it was a fair fight. Let the attacker lean over you or try to grab at you before producing the blade. That way, the first he knows of it is when the pain starts.”

Namori smoothed her clothes and took a seat on the opposite couch. “It is good of you to take a personal interest, Vindicator Tanzen. I appreciate your tutelage.”

“The Old Man wouldn’t like it if you died. Something about his son, I recall.”

Namori nodded. The Vindicator was remarkably informal with almost everyone. The sole exception to this was Moto Byung-Chuul, the death priest. She supposed that, being a Vindicator, Tanzen was simply so dangerous that he felt that no one would take issue. Of course, none would be so foolish as to exhibit a lack of respect for a death priest.

“Would you like tea, Tanzen-san? Some other refreshment?”

The Vindicator, with his painted face and malleable expression, took on a canny expression. “They say that you have some of the really good sake left.”

Namori nodded. “I have some Friendly Traveler from Yasuki Dokansuto’s last visit, yes. Would you like some?”

“Only if you drink with me,” Tanzen said.

“It has been a trying morning. Your disarming me and knocking me down is the least of my difficulties. Very well,” Namori agreed. “Atsuko! Please bring Tanzen-san and I a cup of warmed sake.”

Atsuko delivered the tray of warmed sake and cups, quickly departing. Namori shook her head as she witnessed the actual quivering of the woman’s lip. When the servant retired, Namori put the cup to her lips and sipped, the warm heat easing down her throat and into her chest. She sighed.

“It helps,” Tanzen said, taking a more-than-modest drink of his own.

“You’ll have to clarify, Tanzen-san.”

The Vindicator held up the sake glass. “There is a lot of fire in you, Namori. More than can be expended upon courtly pursuits. The sake can calm the spirit, if used wisely.”

“You know?” She put her hand to her heart, surprised that the Vindicator had seen so deeply.

He nodded. “You learn to watch people, when you seek out the tainted. Most hide things poorly, or give themselves away with some unconscious twitch. For you, it was not so hard to see. You came here, out of the comfort and safety of Outsider Keep, because you saw the challenge in it, the things you might learn. When I come to train you, handle you roughly, treat you with too little respect or decorum, you don’t protest, but throw that fuel onto the fire and try harder. The fact that there is a hole in the paper wall there, poorly patched but clear, tells me that you lost your temper this morning.”

“Correct on all counts.”

“Then there is the fact that you are not afraid of me.”

“Am I not?” she asked. “Or do I simply have a better grasp on my outward visage than poor Atsuko?”

The Vindicator grinned. “Both things are true, the first more surprising.”

“I know you are a pious man, Vindicator Tanzen. You have little time for over-formality, but you respect those who earn it, and your faithfulness as a protector of the Empire is not to be questioned. You won’t harm me unless there is good cause.”

Tanzen sat still, considering. “I like you, Namori. Finish your sake, and we will speak of fighting and battles.”

***

“I find it rather unseemly that Kohatsu-sama chooses to send one of my junior courtiers out on these…patrols. Don’t you find it all a bit irregular?” Ide Zhao steepled his thin, adroit fingers on his lap. His hands had surely never held a weapon with serious intent. He was a true courtier, his passions rooted solely in words and policies, in the cultivation of relationships and making of grand deals.

“It was my understanding when I requested to come to the Ivory Kingdoms that I would be, in Kohatsu-sama’s words, ‘put to work like anyone.’”

“I will not go against his judgment, of course. He is the ultimate authority here, and we are all duty bound to accept his will. That said, I think that, if you had chosen to make complaint, you would quickly have been spared these duties. There will come a time, Namori, that you will need to decide what is most important to you. One can’t ride two horses at the same time.”

Namori bowed her head. “Yes, Zhao-sama.”

He wrinkled his brow good naturedly. “A good answer. A political answer. Agree without agreeing with anything. Namori, you have the skills to rise high. You have your share of shortcomings, of course, but most do. Most carry the baggage of all their secondary and tertiary concerns into the arena of politics. To become truly remarkable at anything requires sacrifice. In giving up other aspirations, in settling for less than our hearts desire, we hone ourselves to particular purpose. I understand the truth and weight of your betrothal. You will have to grapple within your soul for what it means. Does it require you to become the match he would want, or can you maintain your own course, while benefiting from the union?”

Namori opened her mouth, then closed it, surprised at the forthright nature of Zhao-sama’s words. He was often so gentle and subtle in his appraisals that she would be hours discovering that she’d been the subject of a rebuke.

“You needn’t answer, Namori. I would not press you. Perhaps what you do now is what must be, the lesson that the Fortunes must impart. I cannot know that. It is possible that, in knowing something of fighting and struggle, you will come back to the court with a new insight that will be vital. Then again, I find myself filled with worry that I will not see this bright young woman again, but for in the funeral white shroud.”

“It is said that we are only fully alive at the moment that death holds its axe above our necks,” Namori said, looking down and away.

“Poetical enough words. Who says such things?”

“My betrothed, Moto Subotai.”

“And he has written such things often enough to be believed, it seems. Go on, Namori. I will see you when you return, if you ever do.”

Namori walked from Ide Zhao-sama’s offices as if she carried a heavy burden. She was blind to everything as she returned to her quarters, her eyes in the far-away nowhere, her spirit pulled between two warring versions of what she had always wanted.

***

“Do you ever grow angry, Atsuko?” Namori asked.

The servant stopped, looking around her as if she might spy some avenue of escape.

“Mistress?”

“I’m not trying to trick you, Atsuko. Please, come and sit.”

With some reticence, she did so, careful to sit on the ground and thus be lower than Namori at all times. She watched her mistress every moment to make sure what she was doing was right, that she was in no danger. It occurred to Namori that she had never conceived of how much fear some people felt, how everything within them was a war, simply to act in some way or another despite the overwhelming terror that filled them.

“Surely, you must sometimes grow angry about something, when things have not gone well, and you are disappointed in people around you, events, yourself?”

“Mistress, I have never, not for a single moment, held anything but respect and love for you. If someone said otherwise, they were…” Atsuko stopped. “If they were nobles, of course, they were perfectly right to say so. I will submit to whatever punishment you deem appropriate.”

Namori shook her head. “No one said anything, Atsuko. We are not talking about you and I, and the strictures of society. I’m merely asking what you do when you grow frustrated at the course of events.”

“I…I sing to myself, Mistress. There are songs that I learned when I was small. I sing them to myself when I grow sad or the day has not been good.”

Namori could see the pleading in Atsuko’s eyes, the almost forlorn hope that her words were the right ones, and that she’d be left unscathed. She had never beaten Atsuko, and rarely enough even spoken harshly to her, but her temper was not always hidden.

“Thank you, Atsuko. You may go.”

She would ask someone else, someone who wouldn’t be afraid to answer the question. She’d have to take care. It couldn’t be anyone with the slightest political pretension, or even acumen. If the news of her temper became too public, it would doom her. Known flaws of that sort would be exploited within the day.

***

“Are you lost, young woman?” An older, hard faced woman stood near her giant Utaka battle horse, adjusting the girth strap on the saddle. Shinjo Namori stood in the mud of the open courtyard where the Utaka barracks was located, her sandals and the bottom of her court Kimono having been besmirched by the mess.

“I know my course, thank you.”

“Allow me to help you, Shinjo–” the woman began.

“Namori. I am here as part of the Ide contingent of courtiers.” Namori bowed.

“I am Utaka Chuoko. If I can be of service, please let me know, Namori-san.” The Battle Maiden returned her bow, though slightly less deep. Namori could tell that the woman made an attempt to look friendly, though it did not come naturally to her weather-beaten face.

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Chuoko-san. I am looking for Utaka Yanai.”

Chuoko’s eyes widened slightly. “May I ask why? She is very busy, and we do not get visitors from the diplomatic corps very often.”

“I need to ask her advice on something.”

Chuoko took a breath, straightened, and nodded. “I will see if she is available for a meeting.”

Namori was ushered into the barracks after being squinted at by a woman so impressive in build and size that she could have easily passed for a Crab. Chuoko escorted her to a set of stairs upward.

“Take the stairs, and go all the way to the end of the hall. Yanai-sama’s attendant, Kaede-san, will be there to meet you.” Chuoko gave her a look that Namori could not interpret. “Kaede-san will likely require you to undergo a search of your person. Please do not take offense. She is…thorough.”

Namori bowed to Chuoko. “Thank you for your assistance.” She began to ascend the stairs.

“Wait,” Chuoko said in a whisper.

Namori turned, surprised at the furtive look on Chuoko’s face.

“Namori-san, you should be aware that Kaede-san…she will like you.”

Namori kept her face still. “That is good to know. One always hopes to end the day with more friends, and fewer enemies. I believe one of the military writers said that.”

Chuoko wanted to say more, clearly, but did not, only waving Namori onward. She continued up to the top of the stairs, and passed a barracks room that was obviously a common sleeping area for the Battle Maidens. Two maidens were apparently finishing their ablutions after a ride, and were in a surprising state of undress. Namori, as was proper, pretended to be oblivious. She came to feel that the atmosphere in the Utaka barracks was strange and perhaps alien, that she would likely leave the place in a greater state of confusion than when she entered. She could not very well flee without having her audience with Yanai-sama at this point. She dawdled, wondering what Chuoko’s words meant, and why someone liking her would be framed so much like a warning.

Namori put those things from her, took a cleansing breath, and reached up to ring the small bell that would announce her to Yanai’s chambers. The door opened just as she reached out, surprising her.

A young Battle Maiden pulled the door open quickly, her eyes bright, her hair just so. She was rather small, but had an air of intense energy about her. Her perfect features were prominently marked by a scar across her neck and the lower part of her left ear was missing.

“You are Namori-san?” the attendant asked.

“Hai.”

“I am Utaka Kaede. Apologies, but I must search you before you enter. I ask you now to declare any weapons on your person.”

Utaka Kaede stood a little too close for Namori to feel comfortable, but the woman’s eyes touched hers, and she saw no threat there. Something else, something she couldn’t quantify, but she had no time to puzzle it out. “I have a dagger on my right thigh, on the outside. There is a hidden pocket in my kimono, here.”

Kaede reached into the pocket, her hand brushing against Namori. An inhalation of surprise came to her lips at the sudden and unlooked-for touch. Kaede came out with the blade, holding it in front of her.

“It is well made. I will hold onto it for you.” The Battle Maiden tucked it into her sash and proceeded to make a tracery of all the places where blades and weapons might be hidden. For a person who was used to only her servant ever touching her, it was a deeply strange experience, and Namori was glad that Chuoko had warned her. Kaede’s touch was light, though, and her expression was such that it was not too unpleasant.

“There. Again, I apologize for the intrusion, but I am sworn to keep Yanai-sama safe. Please, join her in the next room. I will be here if there are any needs that can be seen to.” As if she had not quite touched Namori’s person enough, Kaede’s hand just brushed against her shoulder as she came through the door. A moment later, and hopelessly distracted, she found herself in front of the most formidable woman in the whole castle.

Utaka Yanai had been studying a cloth map that hung upon the wall. It appeared to be the most thorough map of the Ivory Kingdoms anyone had yet created. Yanai turned from it, dusting her hands together. She was tall and impressive, with excellent muscle and long limbs. While not quite beautiful, she had the resilient and handsome bone structure that would see her attractiveness into her middle years before any hint of decline. She also had shrewd eyes, vision that took in the whole room in a single sweep and missed little.

“Ah, Namori-san. I am honored by your visit. Please, sit. Can I have Kaede bring you refreshment?”

Namori bowed. “Thank you for your hospitality. I have neither hunger nor thirst at this time.” She sat down, using all her study of controlled movement to do so. She focused on the moment, the physical gesture, to clear all extraneous thoughts from her mind. Seeing the nature of Yanai up close, this was far more difficult than she had anticipated.

Yanai sat, though she appeared as if, at ease, she were an elastic sapling pulled far over, waiting to snap straight in an eyeblink and with great power. “I have heard stories of you, Namori-san. You are the Rare Bridge.”

This took Namori aback. “Pardon me, Yanai-sama, but I have not heard anyone refer to me as such, and I don’t understand the meaning.” She felt her cheeks flush, and knew that this woman had already put her at a disadvantage with her first passage of words.

Yanai, Namori suddenly understood, was a woman who loved to hold forth, loved to argue and lecture. Unlike so many laconic samurai, she enjoyed speaking, enjoyed the process of teaching and knowing. It was no wonder that her detachment of Battle Maidens was so well ordered, or that she was so well loved.

“You see, you are a Shinjo, trained by the Ide. Someday, you will be married to a Moto of great repute, if the tales are true. You make a bridge across many waters within the Unicorn. Now, you come to my door, to ask counsel. In you, Namori-san, many things align that are traditionally off axis with one another.”

Namori remained silent for a moment. “That is a fascinating insight, Yanai-sama. I am honored to be thought of in this way.”

Yanai shrugged slightly. “I can’t take credit for it. I heard it first from one of the Vindicators, I think. Please, let us get on to what you would ask my counsel upon. While I can talk of battles and tactics until all the tapers burn low, my ability to make sense of the metaphysical implications of our lives’ journey is quickly exhausted.”

“Very well. I came to you because you are a most successful, influential, and respected woman. I have found myself in need of female council.”

Yanai raised an eyebrow. “I am a maiden, literally speaking.”

“Not in matters of the heart, but in matters of…finding ways to achieve greatly in one’s chosen field of endeavor. You are young, but your accomplishments are already noteworthy. I am a woman of some ambition, and hoped you could show me wisdom.”

Yanai nodded, smiling broadly. “I like this!” She leaped from her seat. “Come, let me show you something.”

Namori followed her to a table strewn with scrolls, texts, even a clay tablet scratched with some Gaijin script she’d never seen. She stood at Yanai’s shoulder, not sure what she was looking at. Yanai picked through the stacks until she found a small scroll of something that was not rice paper, but a pliable, tough material she couldn’t pin down. The dark brown writing looked somewhat like Ivendi, but she couldn’t be sure.

“This is something one of the Maidens brought me. I’ve had a local scholar translate some of it, and it is fascinating. Listen to this:

  • The one who sets the conditions of victory will always be victorious. If the game does not favor you, change the game.
  • If your opponent is strong, make weakness a virtue. If your opponent is fast, choose a route at which speed is irrelevant.
  • The person who can bear the greatest discomfort will always prevail in long battles.
  • More can be learned from failure than success. It is in our ability to learn that we show our true worth.

“These are good words, Namori-san. I have read all the books of strategy I could find, and they each have wisdom in them, but I have been intrigued by this old scroll,” Yanai looked to her, then back to the scroll again, beginning to be engrossed in the words of the old Gaijin strategist.

“Yes, clearly. Intriguing. That said, I was hoping for your personal insights. For instance, how do you balance your love of strategy, your study of all the things that make a Battle Maiden what she is, and your other interests?”

Yanai looked genuinely puzzled. “I’m not sure what you are asking. Being a Utaka is everything to me. I make no choice. My attention is never divided.”

“Ah. I see.” Namori inwardly quailed. She would find no help here, either. Nevertheless, she would continue, for at least a few minutes, if only to make a good showing of it. “What of setbacks? How do you cope with times when events do not go as you hope?”

“When I am angry?” Yanai gave a grin that was more than a little frightening. “I savor it. I keep it like a memento of a childhood friend. I wait until the time is right, and then I use that anger, until the blood bursts from my enemy’s body and splashes on the legs of my steed.”

Namori unconsciously moved backward a few inches. She could see the dreams of battle in Yanai’s eyes. She was not frightened of Vindicator Tanzen, because though he was a killing implement to the roots of his being, he was in perfect control. Utaka Yanai, like Namori herself, was made up of barely restrained fires. She was no more efficiently coping with the forge within her belly than Namori did.

They talked for a few minutes more, but Namori had already learned as much as she would from this woman. She prayed only that there would be some man, some samurai equally consumed with the art of war, who would come into her life one day. Otherwise, she would be lonely, a Maiden who would grow old in the service of her Clan and never know a gentle touch.

Kaede met her at the door, returning her knife. She seemed shy now, looking out from under her bangs with veiled eyes. “I hope your meeting with Yanai-sama went well, Namori-san. If you ever wish to speak with me, about anything and at any hour, I am at your service. I would like very much to be your friend.”

Namori bowed to Kaede and took her leave. She had missed the mark when she had planned her visit here, and she was not certain that she had accomplished anything more than putting herself in a series of uncomfortable positions. Why did Kaede want to be her friend? Was there anyone she could talk to about all this? There was only one person she really needed to have words with, and he was across the sea, unreachable. She didn’t think he’d ever received a single letter she’d sent. They got lost, or the monstrous Akodo kept them from him, so that he would not be tempted to leave their bondage and come to her.

“Perhaps all the better,” she said to herself as she walked back to the castle proper. She would never wish to spur him to dishonor. After accidently serving as an inspiration to his deeds with her wicked temper and sharp tongue, she did not want to harm him with her now-loving attentions.

Namori made a fist, but there was nothing to strike. She would have to change her kimono, and her trip seemed to have been a a total waste of time. Dejected, she entered her quarters and turned herself over to Atsuko’s ministrations.

***

It was late, the sun having set, and Namori had consumed far more sake than was prudent. She would leave on another week-long scouting mission the next day. She looked forward to it, to the air around her face as her horse swept down jungle corridors, knowing the next moment might bring an ambush or a rampaging wild beast. It also filled her with a sense that her life was no longer understandable or moving in the direction she hoped. What was she? Was it to be the courtly life for her, or did the siren’s song of the danger and the dust have her ear now?

Namori burst up from the couch and clumsily tore the fine upper layers of her kimono away, throwing them in a heap. From an overhead beam, Vindicator Tanzen had installed two wooden pegs. She leaped up and grasped them, hanging there, feeling the ache begin in her hands and shoulders. She held on until sweat burst from her brow, until there was nothing but the compounding sense that she could not, the relentless stretching of her frame as the Earth Kami pulled her back down where all humans were bound.

Her hands slipped, and she landed with bent knees, taking the impact as she’d been taught. The booming of her heart sent the sake coursing through her, and she swayed on her feet. She thought that it was possible that she would be overcome with tears, and considered sending Atsuko away. No, she had already done so. She was alone. She could do anything she wished without the dishonor of another witnessing her lack of control. She went to her lacquered chest and opened it, picking up the masakari axe that Kohatsu-sama had given her. Its wide, deadly edge had taken a man’s life the week before, burying into his flesh and creating a hole where his spirit departed. It had been her hands holding the weapon. It had felt right and good, and that very fact made everything more complicated. She put the cool metal against her cheek for a long time. With oil and a soft cloth, she then washed the smudge from the steel. The chest’s lid closed, and she found herself half-dressed, standing forlorn in her rooms. She was at the very center of her life, and two paths diverged. She would have to choose one. She could not tarry here for long.

This was the moment when a knock came upon her door.

Namori looked at the pile of clothing on the floor. She looked down at herself. She was far from naked, and it was her room. She said something rude, took a swing of sake from the bottle, and went to the door. Her head was swimming. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve, a lamentable gesture if she had ever conceived of one.

“Yes,” she said to the door, or perhaps the person on the other side. It had become unclear. She heard a voice that she did not recognize, and opened the door anyway. Vindicator Tanzen stood there. Namori laughed. Her own mortification at her drunken foolishness caused the laughter to grow to the point that she had to put her hands on her knees and lean against the wall.

“Ah, I see. You will excuse me for the presumption, Namori-san, but I am all for the most expedient path.” With that, he bent and scooped her up, carrying her to the couch and gently placing her there.

“Everyone has been touching me today. I wonder why?”

Tanzen shook his head, went back to close the door, and busied himself with the process of making strong tea. When it was finished, he took a seat in the chair opposite the couch, as was his frequent habit. “So, you’ve been examining your own soul.”

Namori managed to sit up, grasping a tea cup with numb hands and burning her lip with the scalding liquid. “I am…in the road. It goes…it goes in two directions.”

Tanzen gave her a permissive look. “They often do. What path will you choose, Namori?”

“I am a fool. I shame myself.” She only just managed not to begin crying.

“This is true. Then again, knowing your own foolishness is the beginning of wisdom, just as knowing your own shame is the first step on the road to great honor.”

“You must, Tanzen-san, think little of me, to allow you in when I am in such a state,” she slurred.

He raised his teacup to her in a small salute. “Quite the opposite. You show, if not decorum, courage. Many choose not to look the difficult choices in the face. Many allow themselves to abide in a comfortable in-between place, not knowing. You, instead, rattle the bars of your cage and demand an answer. I respect that. I also appreciate your trust in me.” The Vindicator gave a small, meaningful look at her attire.

Namori looked as well. She sighed. “I have gone to many seeking council, but I am constantly more con…confused. I want to be what I dreamed of, but I want to be what he needs, too. And then there is this fire that can’t be quelled.”

“I think Moto Subotai is a lucky man. Luckier than he yet knows.”

She rose on unsteady legs and stood, looking down at the Vindicator. “Did you call me ‘Rare Bridge?’”

“You talked to Yanai? She said this?” Tanzen nodded. “This is most surprising. I would not have imagined that you’d go to her. I may have made the analogy you speak of.”

“I…” Namori held her hand over her heart. “Yanai always knew what road she would take, I think. It makes her hard to talk to.”

Tanzen rose and gently escorted Namori back to the couch. “She is single minded. This is true. It makes her great at her chosen task, and that is what the Empire needs, often as not.”

“Her attendent, Kaede, wants to be my friend.”

Tanzen laughed. “I would suppose she does.”

“But why?”

“If she were a man, and looked at you as she does, would it make sense then?”

“Wait…she…oh.” Namori covered her mouth with her palm. “Really?”

He nodded. “Kaede could be a good friend to you. No questions would be asked.”

“You’re suggesting this?”

He shrugged. “While we’re being honest. It would have to be kept quiet, of course, but it is not a rare thing in the Empire. Your betrothed is far away, and I’m sure that he has not been altogether chaste.”

“I cannot think of that now.”

“You’ll have time, and you will figure out what you want out of life along the way. For now, we need to accomplish a few things before your next patrol. The first is to get you sober enough to get some rest, the second is to quiz you on what we spoke of last time.”

“I am drunk, and don’t wish to take a quiz.”

“Being your sensei in these matters, I make these choices. Now, what is battle?”

Namori pushed her mussed hair back from her face. “A game of keeping.”

“And what is kept?”

Namori bolted the last of her tea down and winced. It was strong. Tanzen must have put something into it. “Keep your wits. Keep your feet. Keep your weapon. Keep your breath. Keep your distance.”

“What, above all else, can never be lost?”

“You mustn’t lose your wits. Lose that, and your life is forfeit.”

“That is the good thing about teaching courtiers, I suppose. They remember. Good luck on your patrol. I would advise you to drink as much water as you can stomach, then to get some sleep. Riding out with a hangover is unpleasant.”

With that, he departed. Namori washed her face and had a cup of water, then scrubbed at her teeth and stumbled to the bed chamber. Atsuko had put out her futon and blankets, which she burrowed into.

“Kaede?” she muttered. “Huh.”

***

“Mistress Namori, please awaken,” Atsuko said.

Namori was slack jawed and numb. Atsuko helped her bathe and dress in her light riding kimono and armor. The previous day seemed like a fever dream, but she was quite sure that it had all happened. It weighed upon her, but she could take none of it back. She would put all her quandaries aside for now, but when she returned, things would have to be decided. Many things. She sent up a prayer to the Fortunes to guide her, and to put her where she must be.

With her axe strapped across her back and a long dagger at her waist, Namori stood before the dressing mirror. She looked nothing like an Ide courtier now. “Keep your wits,” she told her reflection. “Atsuko?”

The servant came to her and gave a low bow. “Mistress?”

“I will be gone for several days. There are bu in the strongbox, should the need arise. Be sure that you eat well and rest. If I am killed, please send the letter that I have written to my betrothed, and also present my formal apology to Kohatsu-sama. Both letters are written and sealed, near my writing board. Finally, I have indicated to my family that you are to be treated well, and given choice whether to stay here or travel back to the Empire, as you see fit.”

Atsuko’s breath caught audibly in her throat. “Namori-sama, you are very kind. I beg you not to be hurt or killed. I…wish to serve you for many years.”

Leaving her rooms, there was a package outside the door, something wrapped up in silk and tied with a purple ribbon. A small scroll leaned against the package. Namori bent and picked up the scroll, reading it. The calligraphy was not a hand she recognized. It was neat and small, with a certain female flare.

I would not wish to see the perfect lines of your face marred by the wounds of combat. Please, wear this and know that a friend thinks tender thoughts of you as you ride.

There was no signature, though Namori had an idea who had sent it. Unwrapping the package, she found a helmet of gaijin design, with bronze cheek pieces that covered her face. The interior was padded with shearling. It did not appear to be new, but had been polished to a luster and carefully prepared.

Namori sighed. Yet another complication. Yet another issue she would need to contend with.

“But not until I return. Until then, there’ll just be the road.” She upended the helmet and pushed it down over her face. The eye slits reduced her vision. She could hear her heartbeat stronger. There was the lightest pressure against her face and neck. In here, it was different. She was different. She was awake and knew her course, at least for a while.

##

To be continued next week: https://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/the-drownign-empire-episode-47-brush-ink-axe-armor-part-ii/

5 Responses

  1. Have the other PCs gotten the 1000 fortunes blessing? Are you going to write that up?

  2. Completely off topic, but I have to admit to being more than a litte curious about your reaction to the reaction of the girl at UCLA when a student government vote didn’t go the way she thought it should. It’s the valley girl equivalent of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. With an unbelievable amount of liberal tears surrounded by some pretty clearly uncomfortable people.

    Sorry for being off topic, just wanted to see if you’d seen it and what your reaction was (I love reading your skewering of liberal tantrums and this definitely qualifies).

  3. OK, Larry, I totally blame you for making me take an interest in the continuing comedic implosion of the Scalzi crowd at SFWA. 🙂

    And since you posted about the Hugos again this year, this caught my eye today:

    http://www.bleedingcool.com/2014/03/01/when-jonathan-ross-was-presenting-the-hugo-awards-until-he-wasnt/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    Looks like the fainting goats connected with Loncon3 decided that publicity, fame, and star power were less important than making sure the host didn’t say something cisgendered or, God forbid, humorous.

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