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 was written by Steve Diamond, who is playing one scary dude. It took place during the same Broken Wave City session as our last two entries. Basically, Ikoma Uso is a magical samurai version of Dexter.
Here, I Ride Chaos
The boat—if indeed it could still be called that—lurched sickeningly as the water beneath it suddenly fell away. The sea was a confusing mass of roiling foam amidst a maze of wall-like waves. They shifted, rose, and fell away in sequential moments…moments that seemed to take a millennia to pass, but once they did so, it was like the blink of an eye or the single beat of a heart.
A crack resounded from within the bowels of the Profitable Salmon, reminding Uso of the time he’d snapped the spine of a faceless bandit in Lion lands. A thick sound. A wet sound. Screams of fear and agony had accompanied it then as they did now.
But not from Uso.
Uso’s blood sang in the tempest, reveling in it. He soaked it in as every wave soaked him in turn.
It wasn’t the sea that caused the emotion. No, it was the battle of it all. The fight. The struggle.
Here, I ride chaos. Here, I embrace it like the lover that wants to put a blade in my eye.
The other sailors were too busy to hear Uso’s howls of glee. They grabbed ropes, rigging and cargo in a vain attempt to keep everything from sliding into the depths. Lines snapped and rails gave beneath the weight of sliding crates. A bulk of sealed goods were pulled over the side along with one of the sailors. His name? Uso couldn’t recall, and it hardly mattered anymore.
Uso snatched a flailing end of rope as the wind caused it to crack an arm’s length from his face. He let the tilt of the deck slide him towards a piece of railing that still held, where he caught himself and tied the rope around it. The knot was simple, but strong. While the others had been learning to sail on this trip, Uso had used it to learn more…practical…skills. One never knew when the knowledge of knots could come in handy.
Another crack from below. Uso doubted the ship would last much longer. For some reason the thought caused him to laugh.
A crate began slipping overboard, and suddenly Oki was there trying to keep it on deck.
Ah, Uso thought, his smuggled goods. Should just let them wash away. Instead he leapt to Oki’s side. They managed to save one cask, but the other was sucked down by the greedy sea.
And then…they were ahead of the storm.
Uso felt his blood quiet. The waves and wind pushed them into the harbor like a piece of driftwood.
The joy bled away. With it came the disappointment of calm.
Uso was exhausted. After the events of the unnatural storm, he’d fast-talked the group around as much of the accusations as possible that greeted them upon arrival.
I should have let Oki’s casks fall into the water.
That the smuggling had been a set-up was obvious now, and it should have been obvious from the beginning. The surviving cask had contained gaijin pepper. The missing one had contained jade and obsidian. Clumsy and obvious. Two things bothered Uso. First, that someone had tried to get them killed in such a ham-fisted manner—which had almost worked.
The second? That he hadn’t been able to steal any of the gaijin pepper to experiment with.
But mostly the first one bothered him. Mostly.
After that lovely encounter had come the invitation to Yoritomo Naota’s home. The first person Uso saw upon arrival was Yoritomo Kakeko. Her face was stoic as the group entered, but Uso saw the slight softening of the eyes when she looked upon Isao. The Tamori thought he too was keeping his emotions in control, but it was obvious to any who cared to notice.
And Uso cared to notice everything.
Their feelings are still intact, Uso remembered thinking at the time. A good thing I suppose. One can never have too much information. Who knows when I’ll have need of something like this.
Now, as Uso hid within the walls of Naota’s palace, he wished he knew a bit less of Isao and Kakeko. She was not the quiet sort in lovemaking. Neither was Isao.
Awkward didn’t even begin to describe the situation.
But, ever the diligent Lion’s Shadow, Uso waited out the end of their passions, and then their soft words after. Kakeko confirmed what Uso already suspected. The child Naota thought his own, Ichiro, was actually Isao’s. Kakeko’s expression when Uso had earlier mentioned that, “Perhaps the boy will become a powerful shugenja!” had been priceless. The trickster that lived in all Lion’s Shadow had gotten a good chuckle out of that one.
It’s amazing what you can learn in the walls of someone’s home, Uso thought as he made his way to Oki’s room. Isao and Kakeko were starting up again, and Uso had places to be.
The wall slid open easily, and Oki spun around, hands reaching for his bow.
“Feel like a little walk, Oki?”
“I was just thinking it was a perfect time for some fresh air.”
“We’re going to the dungeons.”
“I was just thinking it was a perfect time for some stale air.”
“Leave your bow, not enough room in the wall passages.”
Oki picked up his wakizashi instead and followed. For his own part, Uso had his own wakizashi, his two tantos, and his garrote.
No such thing as over-prepared, he thought, and one can never have too many knives.
The wall passage was narrow. To the left was the wall backing all of the rooms, and to the right the wall that led to the outside. The air was indeed stale, and the odors of sweat, piss and excrement grew stronger as the path sloped ever downward. The light was dim, but not impassable. Uso was no stranger to walking in shadows and dark places.
The passage came to another hidden door which Uso slowly pushed out after listening for any guards. The hallway was empty and lined with a series of cell doors made of sturdy wood. The only opening in those doors was a tiny, barred window used for observation.
In the end, it wasn’t difficult to find the cell they hoped to find. Loud snoring came from it, punctuated my occasional sleepy murmurs in a guttural, indecipherable language. Uso and Oki crept to the door and peered through into the bare, lightless room. The slumbering figure within was massive. As big as the biggest Crab or Daidoji. Uso’s sharp eyes caught a vague hint of yellow hair.
The Lion’s Shadow motioned for Oki to keep watch, then knelt down and peered into the lock. It was a simple thing, and the builder here likely never anticipated anyone breaking in or out of the cell. The thin tip of one of his tantos and a thin, but sturdy, sliver of metal he carried with him for these types of…situations…made quick work of the lock. Really, his metal chopsticks would have been better suited for this particular lock, but those were stowed away in his pack. Ikoma Kage had once showed him a collection of various shaped metal tools that were said to be able to open any lock in the Empire. Uso wished he’d had an identical set commissioned.
Yes, he’d definitely have to send word home for that.
The door swung inward silently, and the unwashed smell of the cell’s occupant hit the two samurai in a wave. Oki stayed at the door as a guard while Uso inched closer. The man’s yellow hair was thick and greasy, and a thick tangle of filthy hair covered his chin and upper lip. This foreigner was the hairiest man Uso had ever seen.
The Lion slipped a tanto out and extended it to touch the man’s throat. The man’s eyes opened instantly. To his credit, he didn’t scream. Fear was strangely absent from his eyes. Not a man to be surprised or trifled with, then.
“Do you speak my language?” Uso asked, voice low.
“You come from the giant ship that crashed off the shore to the north?”
“I do.” He looked at the samurai curiously. “Are you here to kill me?”
“No,” Uso replied. “Not unless you want it.”
“I think I’ll pass.” The man smiled. “Then are you here to set me free?”
“Perhaps.” Uso pointed to Oki. “That man wants to know about some maps of yours he recovered, and some giant sea monster. I want to know why you are here, and why your weapons are ending up in the hands of peasants.”
“What would I know of such things? I’m just a simple sailor.”
Uso bit back a laugh. “Just a ‘simple sailor’ that knows the language better than many samurai I know? Samurai don’t just imprison ‘simple sailors’. I know that line, foreigner. I know it better than most you are apt to meet in these lands. My lands. Tell me, what does the ‘simple sailor’ know about this symbol?”
The Lion began sketching out the symbol he had discovered in the foreigner’s prior cell. Before he had gotten half way, the huge man’s hand darted out to grasp Uso’s wrist.
“Do not draw that.”
“You do not understand what that means, and I assume you want to continue living. That might not happen should you finish that sketch.”
“For a simple sailor,” Uso said, “you seem to know more than you let on.”
The man smiled. His teeth were yellow and his gums looked bad. Lack of a good diet and the means to clean himself. But there was still strength in his muscles. “Free me, I will answer anything you want. And I would very much like to get back the journal your friend has.”
“Do you know of any exits?”
“Just one, but it is guarded too well right now.”
“Then your rescue will have to wait.”
The big man shrugged. “You are not the first to say those words. I am patient.”
“Give me one reason to free you,” Uso said. “Why were you here in our lands?”
“The water wizard—the old man—just wanted me to deliver some guns to the peasants.” He shrugged again. “I did my job. Nothing more. Nothing less. Ahhh…I can see this bothers you. You know this man? Well. Set me free, and I will tell you everything.”
Uso was tempted. Tempted to free the man and make a bloody escape. Tempted to shove a knife through the man’s eye…and then the other for good measure.
“Guards coming,” Oki whispered. “We need to go.”
“Think on it, Samurai.” The man smiled his yellow smile again. “I can tell you everything I know.”
“I will come back to free you.”
“I’ll be here…waiting…patiently.” He laid back down on his dirty straw and was already snoring by the time Uso and Oki had closed the door and were back in the wall passage.
“What now?” Oki asked.
For some reason Uso’s mind went to the Ivory Kingdoms statue in Naota’s personal art gallery. He felt…drawn there. “Let’s take a quick peek at the gallery.”
They passed by their rooms again, and still Isao and Kakeko shared each other’s noisy embrace.
“Not gonna lie,” Oki said. “Kinda jealous of the guy’s stamina.”
Uso held back a laugh. There was some truth there.
They followed the passage up until they found another sliding door. The palace must be littered with them, Uso thought. In a way it was fantastic. It was so easy to get around. But why would you want to live in a place where others could find the passages and discover all your secrets. Perhaps the Scorpion did it right with all the shifting walls.
Moonlight spilled into the gallery from an open window. In it Uso saw the silhouettes of three men. They were dressed in black from head to foot. We have surprise on our side, Uso thought, sliding out from the hidden door. They won’t know we are there until my knife has tasted their—
The hilt of Oki’s wakizashi hit the edge of the door. All three men turned to look at the two samurai.
Well, so much for surprise. Uso smiled and felt his blood begin to race. “ASSASSINS!” the Lion bellowed as he drew his wakizashi and charged. “TO ARMS!” Oki followed the Lion’s lead, wakizashi drawn and repeating the yell.
Uso was on the first man within a heartbeat. He feinted low, then jumped high, kicking the man in the chest. The first ninja—the poorest ninja Uso had ever witnessed—staggered under the blow, then screamed as Uso’s wakizashi stabbed up through his exposed armpit. Blood fountained hot over Uso’s hand. Just makes for a better grip when it dries.
Oki attacked the next ninja with his own blade. What the archer lacked in skill he made up for in enthusiasm. The pathetic ninja, perhaps shocked to see his first companion go down so quickly, wasn’t prepared for the onslaught. Oki stabbed him a dozen times.
Pain bloomed in Uso’s shoulder as he felt the impact of something stabbing into him. He felt the wound quickly and encountered a throwing star there. It has missed the joint, fortunately, but it still hurt like demon. Uso yanked it out with grunt and felt blood spill down his arm. He cocked his arm back and flung the star back at its owner. The small piece of metal buried itself in the last ninja’s fleshy cheek. The fellow screamed as best he could with a shruiken sticking out from his face.
Then Oki stabbed him to death as well.
A huge boom resonated from deep below the keep. Where the prisoner was held.
Movement caught Uso’s eye. A naked woman—Kakeko—sprinted up the stairs towards the third floor. The nude figure practically flew up the stairs from where Uso could now hear shouts and fighting. Behind her ran the half-dressed form of Shintaro. While Oki finished stabbing the corpse of the ninja who’d been dead five stabs ago, Uso ran after the woman and his friend. As he began his pursuit, another figure in Crane robes sped past him and sprang from the window.
No time for him now.
Uso took the steps three at a time.
The Lion burst into the main, upper room in time to see Shintaro nearly cleave a man in two with his bisento. Another ninja was running at Shintaro’s back.
Uso leapt, wakizahi held out to side. He twisted in midair to add velocity to strike, which took Shintaro’s would-be assassin in the side of the head. The short sword bit deep, sliding in through the man’s temple, through the brain, and out his opposite ear. Uso ripped the blade out, and came close to taking the top of the man’s head off.
And just like that, the battle was over.
Corpses littered the ground. Blood was sprayed and splattered on every wall and surface. The battle haze faded away from Uso. How much time had passed? One bell? Two? Perhaps not even one? He wiped his blade on a torn piece of cloth that rested by his feet.
There was beauty here amidst the dead. The artistic lines the blood took as it arced from the bodies and from the killing blades.
This marks twice I was almost killed today, he thought. Anger filled the hole left by the end of battle. It is time for me to find who set us up.
To Our Esteemed Ikoma Uso,
We are saddened that there has not been time to meet since you arrived at Broken Wave City. One such as yourself, a Topaz Champion, deserves better, and you have our deepest apologies. However, your stay here is short, and we all have our duties that keep us occupied.
We understand that your stay here thus far has been tumultuous. We understand that you are well, but nevertheless we wish you to know that we are pleased you are well, and we were happy to hear you were able to fend off those wishing to do harm to Yoritomo Naota’s household.
Please take care, Ikoma Uso. May your travels in the Ivory Kingdom bring you fortune, and may the Fortunes guide you safely to the Ivory Kingdoms.
Lion Clan Ambassador
Uso read the letter twice; the second time slower than the first. The letter had come early the morning following the assault on Naota’a estate. Sleep had not come to Uso that night as anger used his exhaustion as fuel.
First he had nearly been executed in a set-up. Then nearly killed at the hands of the worst ninja in the Empire’s long history. It was embarrassing. Pragmatic though he was, Uso felt his honor had been tarnished.
His gear was packed, and his main bag had been sent to their new ship. His companions were out-and-about recruiting a crew for the voyage to the Ivory Kingdoms. If they wanted to hire sailors, that was their business. Uso had other things in mind to pass the time until their ship left. The letter I his hands was the key.
The knot tying the scroll had been his first clue. Overly artistic, and in the intricate shape of an eye. Uso removed a blank piece of rice paper and began to reorganize the characters of the innocent letter. The knot was the instruction. It told the Lion’s Shadow which cipher to use.
The code was as old as the school itself. Switching out characters for different ones, replacing whole phrases with new. It took him the better part of an hour, but at the end he held the true letter.
To Our Esteemed Ikoma Uso,
We were angered to hear about the attack on Admiral Naota’s estate. Though a Crane was seen fleeing, we do not believe they are responsible. The Mantis disagree. We wish to remain neutral in any upcoming conflict between those two clans.
The assassins were hired from a pirate gang known as the Serpents of Sanada. No doubt this explains how poorly their attack went. The Serpent’s liaison in Broken Wave City is a peasant named Nozu the Short. He unloads cargo at the docks. You have permission to extract information from him in any way you see fit.
May the shadows guard your steps as you travel to the Ivory Kingdom.
Uso checked the folds of his clothes to make sure he had every weapon and tool he needed. Tantos. Katana. Wakizashi. No-dachi. Garrote. A handful of shuriken surreptitiously gathered in the aftermath of the fight the prior evening. A variety of vials containing various poisons. I will need to stop for sake.
Yes, Uso had everything he needed.
It didn’t take long to find Nozu. This section of the docks was poorly maintained for a Mantis city. It was still ages better than most other Clan docks, but there was an added layer of filth here that all but screamed the quality of characters working therein. Nozu was indeed “the Short”. Many peasants were of his diminished stature due to a life of poor nutrition. The peasant was not strong looking, despite the job he performed. Most of his living must have come from his “other” job.
A local sake house had outdoor seating that overlooked Nozu’s section of the docks. The sake was bad, but it was cheap. Uso purchased a full bottle for twice what it was worth, but he didn’t want to make a scene haggling the price down. The owner of the establishment had been so shocked and grateful that he’d offered an hour in his daughter’s bed. I have no time for diversions of the flesh, Uso had said, but I thank you nonetheless.
That statement hadn’t been entirely true. Though it would be a different type of diversion of flesh he would be occupied with shortly.
Down the road was the burned out husk of another sake house. It contained a basement that was still accessible, the entrance to which was in the back of a dark alley. It would do for the questions he needed answers to.
In the distance, Nozu waved to his companions and shouted something before moving away from his work at a leisurely pace. Taking a break! Nozu’s lips had stated to Uso’s trained eyes. I’ll be back in an hour.
No, Uso thought. You won’t.
Intercepting Nozu was simple. There weren’t many people on the streets this early in the morning, and even less due to the rumors that were spreading about a gang of murderers that had attacked an admiral’s estate the night before. Uso waited at the mouth of the alley leading to the burned out sake house. As Nozu passed, Uso yanked him in with the thin wire of the garrote. The man was short, and he was light. Getting him down the opening into the abandoned basement was easy.
A few minutes later, with minimal blows to the head and diaphragm, Nozu sat bound on the floor. It turned out the knot learned from the sailors on the Profitable Salmon were excellent for binding men as well. Each hand and foot was bound behind Nozu individually, but together, making it easy to pull out one limb for the ease of…convincing.
The man made no reply. He eyes shone with fear, but defiance.
“You work for the Serpents of Sanada.” A statement. Not a question.
Still no reply.
“I can see you are good at keeping your mouth shut,” Uso said, smiling. The smile made Nozu flinch. “What so you say we play a game? You will tell me everything you know. Go.”
“Seriously?” Nozu shook his head in confusion. His voice came out in a rasp from the damage caused by the garrote. “This is your method of interrogation? What kind of idiot…hey…what are you doing?”
Uso had pulled out a small jar of green gel and one of his tantos. “Oh, this? A simple poison. This one makes your veins feel like a blacksmith’s fire is coursing through them. Terrific stuff. I had thought to just use a concoction that makes you tell the truth—would have made thing quick and painless, and all delivered with a cup of sake—but then you went and insulted me. Don’t worry, this won’t hurt too much in the beginning.”
Uso yanked down the front of Nozu’s robe and drew his knife blade across his chest. A line of green gel mingled with the blood that sprang from the thin wound. As Nozu began to yell in pain, Uso punched him in the throat.
“Now, now. You should keep you voice down,” Uso said. “Not because I’m worried about someone hearing, but because I can already tell your particular scream is going to make my head ache. Now. I need you to tell me everything about the Serpents, and why they attacked Naota’s estate.”
Nozu suddenly gasped. Bloodfire poison was quick-acting. But he did not answer.
Uso reached around behind the short peasant and released one of his hands. He used one knee to pin the arm to the ground at the elbow, and the other knee to pin the wrist. From his pockets, Uso pulled twelve shuriken. “These are from the assault last night. I’m going to use one on your hand, and then one more on each finger. They may sever your tiny appendages, but that’s hardly my problem.”
“I’m sorry, but you brought this on yourself. I should warn you. If you scream, I’ll slice off your ears and nose. That’s just for the first shuriken I use. For each subsequent one that causes you to voice a scream, I will cut off something else. As a man, you have some extra bits, so we can go on for a while. Isn’t this a great game?”
“What do you want to know?” Nozu stammered. “Please I’ll tell you—” The man bit his lip so hard to avoid the scream, that blood dripped down the front of his mouth.
Uso took a shuriken placed it on the back of the peasants hand. He then took the hilt of his tanto and used it as a hammer to drive the point through the flesh, and into the wood below. The points of these shuriken weren’t terribly long, but Nozu’s hands weren’t terribly thick. His hand was now forced into a splayed position on the floor.
“For each piece of information you tell me,” Uso said with a pleasant smile, “I will let you keep a finger.”
“Please, I have a family—”
“Shhhh. I know. And two children. I found out about them from the sake house I watched you from. I hear your wife is beautiful, and your children show promise. Think of their future. Do you wish to tell me about the Serpents?”
Nozu nodded frantically, tears streaming from his eyes. “They are pirates. They attack the shipping lanes mostly and have a base on a nearby island.”
“There you go, my short friend!” Uso patted him on the head like a puppy. “That’s the spirit. For that I’ll let you keep your thumb. Tell me more. Your pinkie depends on it. Now I know what you are thinking, ‘What do I need a pinkie for?’ Honestly? I have no idea. But I’m sure you can think of some use for it. Go.”
“It was my job to get the assassins in the city undetected, give them weapons, then point them in the direction of the estate to attack.”
“Wait, so you gave them the shuriken that currently is pinning your hand to the floor? Is that irony, or just bad luck?” Uso shrugged. “No matter. You’ve saved your pinkie. Well done. Keep going.”
“Uhh…oh!” Nozu exclaimed, now eager to please his torturer. “It’s a rumor, but the leader of the Serpents gets paid a lot of koku to loot ships full of gaijin artifacts.”
“Hmm.” Uso pressed down with a shuriken into Nozu’s index finger. There was an almost inaudible pop, and the finger was severed at the half-way point of the finger at the joint. To his credit, Nozu didn’t scream. But he did piss himself. “Oops. I slipped. I feel like you know more. Tell me about the leader of the Serpents.”
“He is called Kosugi the Vicious. I’ve never met him.”
“Ever been to his island?”
“No…please I don’t know anything else.”
“Are you certain?” Uso asked. “You still have a finger to save. Do you know who is paying this Kosugi?”
“Some old man,” Nozu said. His voice was pleading, and he was very pale. It would be time to finish this very shortly. “He is a water shugenja, or something. I don’t know. I’ve never met him either. Please, show me some mercy! I’ve told you everything I know.”
“Mercy.” Uso nodded. “I think I can do that. I will show mercy on your family, and not let them be dragged down by your activities.”
“But what? You almost got me and my friends killed. Do you think I’d let you live after that?”
“But you are samurai. You are honorable. Please…”
“Honor.” Uso spat the word out. “Do I look like I care about honor? Do I?” He spun the tanto around so the blade was pointed down and drive it through the man’s cheek, then pulled it out in a slashing motion doubling the width of the peasants mouth. The peasant screamed. Uso, true to his promise, sawed off one ear, then the other, then the fleshy nose.
“Thank you for the information,” Uso said, voice completely steady and calm. “Now, I apologize for what I’m about to do, but one can never be too careful. Someone will eventually find you.” He yanked open the man’s robe more fully and began carving on his chest. The Spider Clan mon soon stood out on the blood ruins of flesh. An interesting effect of the Bloodfire poison was that it prevented a man from passing out.
Uso then slashed the peasant’s throat.
The Lion’s Shadow stood and looked at his own clothing. Amazing. Not a drop of blood that he could see.
You are getting good at this sort of thing, Satsujin whispered in his mind.
I’ve had a good teacher, Uso replied.
His companions were waiting for him when Uso arrived to look at their new boat.
“We wondered where you had gotten off to,” Subotai said.
“I was in a sake house,” Uso replied with his friendliest smile. “A man there had very loose lips, and I heard quite a few rumors. Come, let me tell you what I overheard.”
To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/the-drowning-empire-episode-34-good-judge-of-character/