Island in the Mist, Part II
by Rich Wulf
A samurai did not quest for wealth; such was a simple fact. The pursuits of such a base objective were more suited to the merchant classes; in fact such was a merchant’s purpose in the Celestial Order. A samurai’s purpose was to defend the Empire, and to this end he was provided with all the wealth he required.
Even yet, as Ikoma Otemi and Matsu Kenji stepped out of the jungle and looked upon the village nestled at the heart of the Island in the Mist, they were stunned at the profusion of golden treasure and finely cut gems decorating the simple huts.
Dozens of Nezumi – humanoid rats the size of men – scampered about rough buildings made of uneven timbers, dried mud, and matted grass. Each of the buildings boasted some bit of treasure: an ancient kabuto helmet polished to a brilliant sheen, a golden statue of Shinsei, a priceless silken kakemono painting flapping in the breeze, a jewel-studded staff bearing the symbol of the Doji family. The treasure was strewn about at random, glittering in the morning sun. The Nezumi seemed completely at ease among the lavish splendor, not seeming to care that they sat among wealth that could outfit an entire army. The rhythmic sounds of a large drum sounded from somewhere, giving the entire place a somewhat festive air. Almost as surprising as the village itself was the massive ship that floated in the inlet at the northern edge of the settlement. It was an enormous vessel with many rows of oars and three great sails. Its hull was bound in black metal and great gleaming green chunks of green stone.
“Incredible,” Kenji whispered to Otemi as they stopped and stared. “You could feed a Minor Clan for three years with this hoard.”
“It’s all just laying here,” Otemi said. “Aren’t afraid it will be stolen?”
“By who?” Kenji asked. “Each other? They are the only ones here, and there’s more than enough for all of them.”
“Keep-keep moving!” snapped their Nezumi guide, shaking his spear impatiently.
“Much of this treasure looks to be of Crane make,” Otemi replied. He started walking once more, continuing to stare about in wonder. “Kenji-san, you said that Yasuki Fumoki preyed primarily upon the Crane during his career.”
Kenji nodded. “For the most part. The Yasuki were not fond of the Crane back then.”
“Not much has changed, depending on who you ask,” Otemi answered. The young Lion gestured at the large ship. “This must be his ship, then. It looks like a Crab vessel. A koutetsukan?”
Kenji nodded. “An iron turtle. The jade studs on the hull protect against the dangers of the Seas of Shadow,” Kenji said. “The kanji on the prow says ‘Deathless.’ That was Yasuki Fumoki’s flagship. According to legend, the ship survived its master’s death, though it disappeared five decades after the Crab magistrates took possession of it.”
“Is Captain Fumoki-sama’s ship!” the Nezumi behind them barked. “Questions answered? Good! Captain Fumoki-sama wait for us now! Walk-walk!”
Kenji turned and glared at the creature, one hand resting on the hilt of her blade.
“Kenji-san,” Otemi said carefully. “We stand to gain much by learning what’s going on here. Bloodshed isn’t going to accomplish anything.”
“Fine,” Kenji sighed, a note of disappointment in her voice. They continued walking toward the great ship.
“Well one mystery seems to have revealed itself,” Otemi said. “The story you told me last night claimed that Fumoki’s pirates could leap ten ken-an from one ship to another. Now we can see how they did it.” He pointed at the masts of the great ship, still in excellent condition. A number of small huts now nestled among the rigging. Young Nezumi leapt playfully from one to the next, surprisingly nimble in the air.
“My father told stories of a Ratling tribe that sails the seas,” Kenji chuckled. “So Fumoki had a Ratling crew. Trust a Yasuki to come up with something like that.”
“Not, Ratling, Nezumi!” chattered the perturbed Nezumi guard. “Keep moving! Captain Fumoki-sama busy-busy-busy!”
“Our apologies, my friend,” Otemi said, turning to face the Nezumi. “We were simply stunned by the beauty of your village. We would of course be honored to meet your captain as soon as possible.”
The Nezumi opened its mouth to shriek an angry reply, then paused for a moment. Its spear lowered slightly. “Really think village pretty-pretty?”
“Yes, I do,” Otemi said honestly. “I think the treasures you have collected suit this village even better than the palaces of the Doji artisans who made them.”
“True?” the Nezumi replied, pointing its spear at him suddenly.
“I could not be more honest,” Otemi nodded. “May we meet your Captain Fumoki- sama now?”
The Nezumi flashed its teeth in quick smile and flicked its tail rapidly. “K’Chee,” it said, slapping its chest in introduction.
“I am Ikoma Otemi, protector of Kyuden Ikoma,” Otemi said proudly. “This is Matsu Kenji, Taisa of the Lion’s Pride. We are honored to make your acquaintance, K’Chee-san.” Otemi stumbled slightly over the strange name, but pronounced it adequately. The diction and oratory classes he had endured from his uncle Sume had not been wasted time.
“Where are the drummers?” Kenji asked the Nezumi, tilting her head slightly as she listened to the omnipresent beat. “I can hear them everywhere, but I cannot see them.”
“In jungle,” K’Chee replied. “All around village. Drums play all night. Keep ghosts away. Keep King Orochi’s ghost away. Keep skull tide away. Keep village safe.”
“King Orochi’s ghost?” Otemi asked.
“Ghost of sea serpent that kill Captain Fumoki-sama long time ago,” K’Chee said. “Attacked ship when we came back looking for treasure, many many yesterday ago. Only drum-drum-drumming keep village safe.”
“I thought you said Captain Fumoki-sama was still alive,” Kenji said.
“It very complicated,” K’Chee said. “You see for yourselves soon.”
“And do the drums really work?” Otemi asked. “Do they keep the ghosts away?”
“K’Chee no see any ghosts,” the Nezumi observed, peering around the village.
“That’s a rather stale joke,” Kenji said.
“Was not joke,” K’Chee replied seriously. “Did K’Chee sound-sound funny?” The Nezumi looked confused.
“Never mind,” Otemi said, glancing at Kenji. She shrugged impatiently. “Could we see your captain now?”
“Aye!” K’Chee shouted happily. “K’Chee go-go tell Captain Fumoki-sama you here!” It quickly stowed its spear in a leather sling across its back and scampered off toward the ship, running rapidly on all fours.
“Strange creatures,” Kenji observed as K’Chee departed. “Why are you being so polite?”
“Nezumi are noble creatures,” Otemi said. “They are allies of the Crab Clan, and thus they are friends of the Lion. We must treat them with respect. I thought you were fond of legends, Kenji. Surely you remember the tales of the Clan War. Matsu Gohei himself fought with a unit of Nezumi conscripts.”
“Matsu Gohei did a lot of things,” Kenji said.
“And that’s not to mention the fact that we are alone and stranded on this island,” Otemi continued. “We have nothing to lose by being diplomatic.”
Kenji looked at Otemi dubiously. “If we must,” she said.
“I wonder what they are doing here,” Otemi said, “or who this Captain Fumoki- sama really is?”
“Some swindler,” Kenji replied. “An opportunist who stumbled on the island as we did and is forcing these simple beasts to honor him as the great captain these Nezumi respect and adore.”
“That’s a rather pessimistic deduction,” Otemi frowned at her.
“So be it,” she shrugged, folding her arms across her chest. “At least when I discover the truth, I won’t be disappointed.”
The two Lion waited for several moments. Otemi finally looked at her, an embarrassed look crossing his features. “Kenji-san,” he said. “About what occurred on the ship last night?”
“About our flight from the gaki?” she said tersely. “Yes, I owe you my life, Otemi- sama. Such goes without saying. You don’t need to make an issue of it. The Lion’s Pride remember their debts.”
“No, that’s not what I wanted to discuss,” Otemi replied. “I mean before that. I wanted to apologize for my behavior.”
“No need for apology,” Kenji said. “The skull tide brings madness, stirs up the darkest emotions of the soul. What happened on the ship was because of the spell they cast upon us, nothing more.”
“Nothing more?” Otemi asked, looking at her.
Kenji paused for a moment, looking at him. “Yes, nothing more,” she said, quickly glancing away from his deep brown eyes.
“It isn’t that you’re not beautiful,” Otemi said, “I just want you to realize that I have commitments to my family, and–”
“And taking the name of a Matsu doesn’t fit with them,” she said sharply. “I know, Ikoma. I have heard it before. Many times. I have become quite accustomed to that sort of rejection. I assure you that whatever happened on that ship was entirely the influence of the skull tide. I would never in a thousand years have made such advances on you had I been in a clear state of mind. Your precious name, your honor, and your mission are secure, Ikoma Otemi.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Otemi snapped back, irritated by her accusatory tone. “Had I been in my right mind I most certainly would have put off your clumsy advances. I would never allow such a thing. I can control my impulses.”
“As can I,” she said.
“With the exception of last night,” he said.
“That was an exception. It won’t happen again.
“Never again,” he glanced around, hoping that the Nezumi would come back soon.
“Especially so soon after you’d been vomiting in the sea,” Kenji added. “By the Fortunes, I must have been insane.”
Otemi scowled at the memory.
“But I thank you for saving my life,” Kenji said, turning to Otemi again. The anger had departed from her voice. Her hair spread out upon the breeze, and her lips were curved in a small smile. Otemi was struck again by how beautiful she was. A natural beauty, unlike any he had ever seen in the courts…
“Captain Fumoki-sama ready to talk to you now,” K’Chee said suddenly, surprising them both. The large Nezumi was crouched on a nearby rooftop. He watched Otemi and Kenji with interest.
“How long have you been sitting there?” Otemi asked.
“Not long-long,” K’Chee said. “Did not want to interrupt human courting ritual.” The Nezumi hopped from the rooftop with a bound. “Follow K’Chee,” he said, scampering off again before either one could reply.
Otemi and Kenji followed the creature. Neither said a word to the other as they followed K’Chee up the ship’s gangplank and into the captain’s cabin. They were led into a small room, walls plastered with maps of Rokugan. Otemi noted that the maps predated the Great Sea Spider’s rampage across the Crane coasts. He only noticed six Great Clan symbols – both the Mantis and the Unicorn were absent. At a table in the center of the room sat a pair of Nezumi. One was small with grey fur patched with dark brown. It hunched over a map laid out on the table, paying neither of the visitors any mind. The other was tall and lean with an oily black coat. Numerous fetishes woven of bones, feathers, and leaves hung from its coat. It held a short spear intricately carved with strange pictograms. That one watched Otemi with beady eyes. The room was utterly silent. The grey Nezumi looked up at them curiously after a time.
“I am Ikoma Otemi, protector of Kyuden Ikoma,” Otemi introduced himself. “This is Matsu Kenji, Taisa of the Lion’s Pride. We are honored to make–”
“Why you come here?” the dark Nezumi snapped.
The grey Nezumi chattered something utterly unintelligible, looking at Otemi intently.
“Um… we came here searching for the Island in the Mist,” Otemi said. He reached into the furoshiki sack he kept slung over one shoulder, drawing out the wooden map that Ikoma Tashiro had found. “We followed this.”
Otemi noticed that the chewed figures on the warped scrap of wood closely matched the symbols carved on the taller Ratling’s spear. The smaller grey Nezumi’s eyes widened. It chattered something at Otemi again.
“What is he saying?” Kenji asked. “Why does he not speak Rokugani?”
“Why you not speak-speak our language, female?” the taller Nezumi demanded.
“I never thought I would need to learn it,” Kenji answered.
“Proves you be stupid,” the Nezumi replied.
Kenji bit her lower lip to prevent herself from beheading the Nezumi right then and there. She gave Otemi a long, smoldering frown, informing him that her patience was quickly running out. “Enough of this,” she said. “Where is Yasuki Fumoki?”
“Captain Fumoki-sama,” K’Chee corrected from his post by the door.
The grey Nezumi cocked its head slightly at the mention of the name. The taller Nezumi narrowed its eyes at Kenji.
“You look-looking at Captain Fumoki-sama,” the dark Nezumi nodded at its smaller grey companion. “There be Captain Fumoki-sama. I be Namefinder H-Tach’kir, shaman of Chipped Tooth Tribe.”
Otemi looked at the little grey Ratling. It cocked its head back at him, whiskers twitching. One ear swiveled suspiciously.
“It must be some sort of honorary title,” Kenji said.
“No!” shouted the shaman, pounding the butt of his spear on the floor. “Is not made-up title! Is true! True-true-true! Chief is Captain Fumoki-sama! Captain Fumoki- sama is chief! Is that simple enough for humans or you need explain again?” The shaman leaned across the table, livid with fury. Otemi could see that the tips of the creature’s front teeth had been filed down into sharp points.
“Of course,” Otemi said, not backing down from the shaman but not intending to let the situation degenerate into chaos. “If that is your testimony, then it must be true. Offer the captain my apologies.”
“No is ‘the captain,’ is ‘Captain Fumoki-sama!’” the shaman shrieked.
“I understand now,” Otemi said. “Captain Fumoki-sama.”
“Why you come here?” the shaman demanded, speaking very rapidly now. “Why seek our island? Where find map? What you want with Chipped Tooth Tribe?”
Otemi waited until the creature was done, then pushed the warped wooden map across the table. “I will be honest,” he said. “We came here seeking the treasure of Yasuki Fumoki… Captain Fumoki-sama. We found this map in the saddlebag of a dead bandit in Lion Clan territory. Looking at your spear, I would say this map was made by a Nezumi. We have no quarrel with the Chipped Tooth Tribe. We did not even know you would be here.”
“I thought the Chipped Tooth lived further south, in the Mantis and Crab territories,” Kenji said.
“Came here searching for treasure many yesterday ago,” H-Tach’kir snapped. “We find it first! It ours-ours! Belong to tribe! We keep it long time! Keep it clean! Keep it shiny. No meddling Lion steal it away from us!” The Nezumi referred to as Captain Fumoki-sama leaned toward the bark map and sniffed it curiously.
Otemi frowned. He could see Kenji nonchalantly reaching for her sword again. “The Lion are not thieves, H-Tach’kir-san,” he answered, not entirely certain what honorific to use when addressing a Nezumi shaman. “We were not aware that your tribe had already claimed this island and its treasure. Now that we know this, we would be happy to settle for a chance to study the artifacts that you have here. At the very least, we would appreciate it if you would transport us back to the mainland. Perhaps my clan would be prepared to offer you some food or other resources in return. It would not be unusual for Lion and Nezumi to work side by side. During the time of the Clan War, the great hero Matsu Gohei was known for fighting alongside Nezumi warriors.”
The shaman looked at Otemi suspiciously, tail flicking in the air. “What be Clan War?” it asked.
“A very large, important conflict,” Otemi said. “It happened some time ago.”
The shaman turned to Captain Fumoki-sama, chittering something in their strange language. The chieftain snapped something back in reply, slamming one pink paw on the table as it glared at Otemi and Kenji.
“Captain Fumoki-sama say that no one ever leave island,” K’Chee said.
“What?” Otemi asked. “I don’t know what you mean. Isn’t this ship seaworthy?”
“Seaworthy, yes,” K’Chee said. “But no can leave island. Ghost of King Orochi kill anyone who try.”
Kenji sighed. “This is ridiculous,” she snarled, turning to face the chieftain. “Listen to me, Captain Fumoki-sama or whatever it is you call yourself. You will sail us back to the mainland immediately. This is not a request. Either you will help us, or we will force your hand. We are Lion, and we will not allow ourselves to be intimidated by beasts.”
The shaman’s lip curled, showing several more sharpened teeth. Captain Fumoki- sama looked blankly at H-Tach’kir, as if waiting for a translation.
“Kenji-san, let me handle this,” Otemi said quietly. The fierce Matsu hesitated, then nodded, stepping back behind Otemi. “As I have told you already,” he said, “we did not come here seeking conflict, but we will not back down from it if you refuse to help us. Is there no way we can convince you to assist us?”
“No way,” H-Tach’kir hissed. “No way in–”
“Everyone but the two Lion bushi must leave,” Captain Fumoki-sama said, interrupting the shaman. The Nezumi’s voice was mellow and clear.
“But Captain Fumoki-sama,” the shaman said.
“You heard me,” the chieftain replied.
The shaman looked at the chief, then brushed one hand across its whiskers in a gesture of acknowledgment. It turned and left the chamber, pausing long enough to shoot Otemi and Kenji another suspicious glare. K’Chee shut the door as they exited.
“I thought that you could not speak Rokugani,” Otemi said to the grey Nezumi.
“You must have misunderstood,” the Nezumi replied, flashing its teeth in a brief grin. “Only Captain Fumoki-sama can take-take the Deathless out to sea. You want to take my ship, you will need to be Captain. Even if you were to, say, wait until dark and steal a ship from the village,” the Nezumi looked pointedly at Kenji, “you would never get through the skull tides alive without a Nezumi crew to guide you.”
“Your people know how to defeat the skull tide?” Otemi asked.
“There are many ghosts in the sea,” Captain Fumoki-sama said. “The Captain will know how to sail a ship past them all. All you need do is become Captain. Incidentally, becoming Captain would give you access to the various items of treasure on this island as well, though I guess a samurai would not be interested in that. What you say-say?” The Nezumi flashed its teeth again.
“Tell us what we have to do,” Otemi said.
“You must challenge me to barehanded fight. No armor, no weapons,” Captain Fumoki-sama said. “The first one to lose consciousness – or his life – loses.”
“I’ll do it,” Otemi said.
“No, I will do it,” Kenji said suddenly, her voice strong and confident. “I will challenge you in the name of my commander, Ikoma Otemi.”
Otemi cleared his throat distinctly and stepped to one side. Kenji turned to speak with him.
“Kenji-san, what are you doing?” he whispered, turning her face away from the Captain.
“It is my duty to protect you,” she said. “I will fight the Ratling.”
“Kenji, I realize that an unarmed fight against a Nezumi is not an easy prospect, but I am not afraid,” he said.
“I should hope not,” Kenji said, “but I think that we would be better off if you were not involved. I sense deception here. This Nezumi is up to something. Your trained Ikoma eye is more likely to pierce this falsehood, but not if you’re entangled in a brawl.”
“What could he be planning?” Otemi asked.
“I shall find out,” she said, turning toward Captain Fumoki-sama again. “I accept your challenge, Ratling,” she said confidently.
Captain Fumoki-sama squeaked in glee as he rose from his seat. The Nezumi chief was much taller than he appeared when sitting, standing almost Kenji’s height. “I will meet you outside,” it said in its strangely elegant voice. “And, by the way, don’t call me a Ratling.”
“Fine,” Kenji said. “Nezumi. Whatever.”
“No,” the Nezumi corrected her again. “I am not a Nezumi. I am Captain Fumoki- sama.”
A circle had been cleared at the center of the village. Dozens of Nezumi gathered around to watch. Tiny pups, grizzled elders, all watched the dueling circle with interest. Captain Fumoki-sama paced the edge of the ring while Kenji sat in meditation at the far end. Otemi stood nearby, watching over Kenji’s daisho until the duel was complete. The omnipresent drumming continued in the background. Otemi guessed that the drummers were probably the only Nezumi in the village who were not here.
“Any last minute advice?” Kenji asked, standing and stretching to loosen her muscles. She smiled at Otemi. “Any words of Ikoma wisdom?”
“Mind the teeth,” Otemi said, nodding toward the Nezumi challenger.
“Arigato,” she said.
She walked across the ring, hands held out to either side as if preparing for a grapple. She moved slowly, but gracefully, a large cat preparing to pounce. The Nezumi scuttled on all fours, tail switching back and forth in the breeze. It clicked its teeth together as it watched her, scuttling several feet to one side and sitting up on its hind legs. Scratching the sand with one hind paw, it leapt through the air.
Kenji rolled low to one side, catching the creature in the stomach with one foot as it passed over her. It landed hard in the sand. She turned and leaped onto its back, locking her arms about its throat as she buried her knee in its spine. The creature squealed in pain. Its tail quickly wrapped about Kenji’s face, attempting to pull her off. Another sharp shriek erupted from the Nezumi and its tail pulled away from her face. Kenji spat something out with a grimace of disgust and tightened her grip, digging her knee further into the creature’s back. The Nezumi pounded the sand feebly with its paws, unable to reach or dislodge her. After a few more seconds it lay still, unconscious.
The crowd was silent as the tribe slowly realized Captain Fumoki-sama had been defeated. Suddenly, they broke into cheers. Otemi met Kenji in the center of the ring and returned her daisho. She tucked the swords beneath her obi and wiped a fleck of blood from her chin.
“You bit him?” he asked.
“On your advice,” she answered with a wry grin.
“The Lion’s Pride reputation for ferocity is well deserved,” Otemi said, looking at the unconscious Nezumi. He noticed the creature’s eye quickly close when he looked at it. Otemi rose one eyebrow. “Kenji, is it just me, or did that fight seem to go rather quickly?”
Kenji had already walked away, toward the Deathless. A chill ran down Otemi’s spine as he realized something was suddenly very different about her pace and posture.
“Kenji-san?” Otemi called out to her.
She kept walking.
“Kenji-san!” Otemi followed behind her. She ignored him. “Kenji-san!”
Otemi stepped in her path, trying to get her attention.
He was quite surprised when she balled her fist and punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground.
“Kenji-san?” he said, looking up at her in surprise as he wiped the blood from his lip.
“I am not Kenji-san,” she said, a strangely aristocratic echo in her voice. “I am Captain Fumoki-sama. I thank you for bringing me this vessel, Lion, but I will not allow you to interfere with my duty. The King Orochi awaits.”
Kenji stepped over the prone Otemi, heading toward the Deathless once more. She began shouting orders to the Nezumi crew in their own language. They scrambled to prepare the great koutetsukan for departure.
Ikoma Otemi sat where he had fallen and stared, utterly confused.