Scene at Sea
By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
Doji Tayoaki smoothed his pristine kimono and absent-mindedly removed a stray bit of fluff that did not exist. His painstaking attention to detail, to the point of deception as his attention was drawn to non-existent flaws, was more than just idle pretense. Tayoaki had been in court long enough to know that small distractions, whether real or imagined, were a powerful tool. Distractions could also be used to divert attention from things that he did not want to see, even after viewers had glanced at them.
In the courts, perception meant much more than reality.
In this case, his fastidious grooming was designed to show that he had not noticed Bayushi Ryuzaburo as he approached. Tayoaki had no personal differences with Ryuzaburo. It was just that the Scorpion’s garrulous nature led to longer conversations than the Crane preferred, and his habit of quoting extended difficult passages from overly dramatic plays could quickly get tiresome.
If Ryuzaburo had not noticed Tayoaki seeing him, he might have sought other ears to tire.
Apparently he was too late.
“Good evening, Tayoaki-san! How are you feeling today? You seem a little distracted.”
Tayoaki smiled warmly. “Ah, hello Ryuzaburo-san. I did not see you come in. It is good to see you in court this evening.”
“What better way to spend an evening than in company such as yours. I always feel like I learn so much when I spend time with you. It is as said in The Gilded Sparrow, by Riyoka.”
Tayoaki cut in, “Yes, I know the piece. Quite appropriate. So, what were your plans for this evening?”
“Have you heard the new poet, up from the City of the Rich Frog? She is extremely talented and is taking Toshi Ranbo by storm!”
The Crane nodded. “I heard her yesterday evening, telling a beautiful poem about Shiba kneeling to Isawa. It was exquisite.”
“I was hoping to have a chance to listen to her work tonight. Come and join me.”
The idea of spending time with Ryuzabura was softened by the prospect of being able to hear Ikoma Asa again. Her poetry truly was beautiful. “It would be my honor, Ryuzabura-san.”
The two of them walked through the courts, looking to find the Lion. It did not take long, as she was surrounded by avid listeners, enthralled by her words. The fact that she was radiant was helpful, but it was her voice, as clear as a mountain spring, with words as deep as the great sea, that held her listeners spellbound.
As the newcomers arrived, Ikoma Asa was just introducing a new piece. “I have just made the acquaintance of this gentleman, Kaiu Genji.” Tayoaki recognized Genji. He was a yojimbo to various courtiers over the years and had been in court nearly as long as the Crane had. He mostly kept to himself, but the look on his face said that he was quite taken with the young Lion. “I have promised him a poem about Hida Sadaharu and his defense of the route through the Sea of Shadows. This takes place not too long ago.”
* * *
Hida Sadaharu stood on the deck of the Stone Storm, looking out over the calm waters. The great koutetsukan floated near the entrance of the Osaku Route, the only safe passage through the Sea of Shadows. Sadaharu had received reports from the Mantis that there was increased pirate activity in this area. They believed that the pirates were using the Osaku Route to escape the Mantis magistrates who patrolled the seas of Rokugan.
This could not be allowed. If the Crab were unable to protect this area of the sea, it would be turned back over to the Mantis. That would be a great loss to Sadaharu personally, and possibly a danger to Rokugan, as the Crab doubted that the Mantis were fully knowledgeable of the dangers of the Sea of Shadows. With Yasuki Hachi gone and Shosuro Jimen as Emerald Champion, it was best to just not draw attention to this place, and give Jimen no reason to change Hachi’s orders.
Sadaharu saw the ship moments before the cry came from his lookout. It was a koutetsukan, like the Stone Storm. Kaiu Sunshin designed the koutsetsukan as defense against the Sea of Shadows. This was not a Mantis ship and Sadaharu would know if there was another Crab ship scheduled to come through here.
Most likely, these were pirates, with a captured vessel.
“Take us on an intercept course! All hands armed and ready! Prepare to attack at my command!”
The wind was not strong but there was enough to move the heavy ship at a decent pace. The other was not sailing directly at the Stone Storm, but neither was it making any effort to escape. “The arrogance,” Sadaharu thought. “If they are pirates they should try and escape. If they are innocent, they should stand down and wait for our approach. Instead they ignore us.”
As they got closer, the Crab looked for any sort of flag or standard that would identify the craft, but there were none. When it became clear that there would ultimately be a collision if nothing changed, the other ship finally unfurled a standard, identifying themselves to the Crab.
A Hida lookout reported to Sadaharu. “They are flying Lion colors, Captain. But the flag is somewhat tattered. I am not convinced that they are truly Lion.”
Sadaharu nodded. He had come to the same conclusion. “Continue the approach. Hail when we are in range. Give them an opportunity to present themselves.”
The Crab captain peered across the water. They were close enough that he could make out figures moving across the deck. They looked odd, as if&
“Adjust course! Pull along side, but not in attacking position!” Sadaharu yelled to his crew. “Remain wary, but I want no signs of hostility!”
Sadaharu knew this ship, at least by reputation. This was the Deathless.
“Hail, Deathless! I am Hida Sadaharu of the Stone Storm and the Crab clan! Permission to come alongside?”
The Nezumi on the deck of the Deathless were already in position to accept the lines from the Stone Storm, so there was no delay as a voice came back. “Yes-yes!” It was followed by commands in the Ratling tongue that sounded more like chattering teeth in the cold to Sadaharu. Still, the creatures seemed adept seafarers and the two ships were quickly lashed together.
Sadaharu stood at the gunwale. “Permission to come aboard?”
A Nezumi with reddish-brown fur met the Crab and said. “Yes-yes, Captain Crab. I am I-m’jek and this is my-my ship. Come. Come.”
Sadaharu raised an eyebrow as he stepped onto the deck of the Deathless. “Your ship? You are flying Lion colors.”
“Was once Lion ship. Now Nezumi ship. Fair and clear. Ask Otemi.”
Sadaharu shrugged. He would check with the Lion when he could, but he was not going to make an issue of this now. “Very well. We have had some disturbing reports of pirates in these waters. Would you know anything about that?”
I-m’jek got visibly agitated. “Not us! Not us! We come for same reason. Not us!”
Sadaharu put his hands out in a gesture of peace. “I am not accusing you of anything, Captain. I am just asking questions.” The Crab knew full well that the Deathless were not the pirates in question. The reports had come from the Mantis, and they would have recognized this ship. In addition, he was sure that if the pirates had been Ratlings, that he would have heard that as well. “You said you came for the same reason. What do you mean?”
“The humans in green offer payment. They say, I-m’jek, you find pirates, and you sink and bring-bring proof. We pay. We know that they go this way. We find them. Green humans pay.”
It seemed that the Mantis had hired the Deathless to help them hunt pirates. That was not a terrible idea, as pirates would be less likely to try and avoid a ship crewed by Ratlings than they would a Mantis vessel. “Have you seen them?”
“Yes. We chase, but they are faster. We no catch.”
Sadaharu thought for a moment. “I think we can help each other, Captain, if you are willing. Here is what you need to do.”
* * *
K’chee stared out over the sea at the ship in the distance. In the strange language of the Nezumi he said, “Those are the pirates, I-m’jek. They are not running.”
I-m’jek stood near the helm. He turned to the helmsman, “Do not go straight to him, Tok-ik. Aim for behind the stern. He is already facing the right way.”
The Deathless was quick for a koutetsukan, but it could not hope to outrun a kobune like the pirates had. The pirates knew it too. They made no effort to escape.
I-m’jek looked at the ship sitting nearly motionless in the water. That would not do. Suddenly he yelled, “Death to pirates!” He then urged all the other Nezumi on board to join in until there was a chorus calling out across the sea. I-m’jek allowed himself a smile as the Kobune let out full sail and moved away from the Deathless.
The pirates easily broke away from the Nezumi, but every time they thought they had lost them, the Deathless reappeared, relentlessly stalking them. Knowing that there was no way they could outfight the heavier ship, they chose their usual option and sailed directly towards the Sea of Shadows. As Sadaharu saw the ship come into view he knew that the rumors were correct. These pirates knew of the Osaku Route and were using it to evade capture by the Mantis.
“Captain! That damned Rat ship is ahead of us!”
“What? It can’t be! You are an idiot! Give me a correct report or I will toss you overboard!
The lookout shook his head. “It is the same damned ship, Captain! The beasts got ahead of us! They are making their way straight at us, Captain!”
Swearing loudly, the pirate captain gave the orders to come about, heading away from the Osaku Route and back into Mantis-patrolled waters. He outran the Rats many times already. He would do it again.
As they completed their turn, the lookout called down again, “Captain!” He stood pointing at the ship approaching them from whence they had come. There was not one exceptionally fast koutetsukan. There were two of them.
“Damnation! Get out from between them!” He looked off his port side and saw that if they went that way they would hit land, and there would be no escape from the two pursuers. If he went the other way, they would be sailing into the Sea of Shadows, without the protection of Osano-Wo’s passage, the Osaku Route. He tried to order his ship to sail into the tainted waters, but he could not bring himself to do it. He knew that the uncertainty of the Sea of Shadows gave him a better chance than facing the two ships, but the danger was worse than merely capture and death. He could not do it. “Turn back around! Try and get past that ship into the Route!”
His crew struggled to complete his orders, but the Deathless was too fast. It could not outrun them on open water, but it could easily cover the space between them as the pirate captain struggled with indecision and over maneuvering. He watched as the Deathless crashed into the side of his ship.
* * *
Hida Sadaharu handed I-m’jek a sealed scroll. “Take this back to the Mantis, Captain. I have sworn that the Deathless was responsible for sinking the pirates. You will get your pay.”
The Nezumi smiled, showing many sharp teeth. “Thank you, Captain Crab. You help-much. But no get half.”
Sadaharu smiled. “No worries, Captain, You get your payment. I am satisfied with my duty.”
* * *
Ikoma Asa finished and looked to Kaiu Genji. “Well, Kaui-san? Did you like the poem?”
The grizzled Crab bowed deeply. “You honor the Crab with the telling, Asa-san. I am very grateful.”
Bayushi Ryuzaburo turned to Doji Toyoaki. “That was wonderful, don’t you think?”
“She is an amazing talent.”
“I think I shall have to learn that one. I prefer theater, but this Ikoma may make me change my favor to poetry.”