L5R: The Subtle Tide

L5R: The Subtle Tide

A Story by M.A.Alexander

A short story written for the L5R Honored European competition. It's about a ronin pirate, and other neat samurai type things.


"Just as an encumbered man can drown in the shallowest brook, so too can the shallow man drown in the simplest temptation." - Ancient proverb of an unknown scholar.

The place was darker than Joji remembered. Though his party had arrived in the late afternoon whatever light remained outside was swallowed by the outer walls of the house before it ever reached the central room where his father waited. Wax paper lanterns were hung along the rafters here but they were dim, flickering things, and near the back a single coal brazier glowed softly with an orange half light dispersing a smoky incense into the air. It smelled a lot like a funeral to Joji.

Mirumoto Genchiro sat on a simple mat, his legs crossed, one hand fanning the incense into swirls around him. Behind the old man on a fine display rack of polished wood sat an even finer set of armour. Its beetle like steel was the colour of burnished jade and its curved crest was simple but striking, flickers of light danced on the crest’s golden surface and on the matching intricate filigree inlaid around each metal plate. The armour was the product of a generation of honourable service, a symbol as much as it was a tool, but though Joji respected and even revered his father's prowess and honor he had other opinions on the nature of the old man's service.

"Joji-kun, it is so good to see you." Genchiro said once Joji had taken his place opposite him, bowing low in respect. Genchiro's scalp was shaved and his usually hard lined face seemed rounder, soft and sagging, and Joji noticed bags under his father's eyes; deep black things, like the shadows at the edges of the room, which had not been there only a year ago.

Genchiro and his progeny were a low branch of the Mirumoto family and as such their duties consisted of bodyguard work for initiate monks and the oversight of small nearby villages and the heimin farmers therein. His entire life Joji's father had served the Dragon with quiet distinction, subtle and skilled but otherwise unremarkable, but very rarely had he seen anything outside of the mountain choked Dragon lands. This old man, his very skin sloughing off of his exhausted face, had never seen the Unicorn plains, or the great Crane gardens or the vast Kaiu Wall in the south and Crab on top of it. The incense in the room smelled more and more like a funeral to Joji.

"I bear grave news from the dojo father." He said and Genchiro sighed loudly in response.

"Why can you not be more like your sister?" Said the old man. "She never bears 'grave news', nor is she the subject of the grave news being borne. She simply excels in her training and studies, and brings me news of her success and progress."

It was true that Harue, Joji’s sister, was an excellent student but it was just as true that Joji was also. The thought crossed the young boy's mind, to mention that both he and his sister had succeeded in their gempukku with notable distinction, but instead decided to press on with what was important.

"I am afraid one of the Sensei in the dojo has acted most dishonorably, and I need your counsel on the matter." said Joji. Genchiro sighed again.

"Tell me your worries son." he said.

"Master Kihei, it is said he has been forcing himself on heimin girls in the night on our trips to oversee Two Brooks Village."

"Oh?" Genchiro exclaimed, raising one of his heavy eyelids. "It is said?" He asked, scratching at his pale whiskers thoughtfully. "Have you no proof?"

"I do father. Two of the peasant boys in the village I have befriended say that their sister is the chief victim, they say they have seen it with their own eyes."

Genchiro made a noise in his throat, something that might have been another sigh had it not caught itself on an ill timed cough.

"This is too serious an accusation to base on the word of a heimin, Joji-kun. Remember your Meyo; 'The samurai reserves judgement only for himself.' Mind your own place and let the masters sort these things out among themselves. Or do you think you are wiser, more perceptive, than the Agasha Sensei?"

"But father-" Joji protested but Genchiro was still going on.

"Besides, have you no better ways to spend your time than gossiping with the peasants? Or stirring up trouble for the rest of the adepts?"

"Father-" Joji protested again, but the old man wasn't listening. Joji had indeed been part of minor, yet numerous, instances of misconduct, usually accompanied by his brother and sister trainees who he frequently recruited or cajoled into his mischiefs.

"How long do you think your Sensei will let you get away with your curfew violations and 'overdue' books before even your promising skill can't protect you from dishonor? And now you insist on irreverent scrutiny of your betters?"

"But-" Joji started for a third time.

"Joji." said his father sharply, ending the boy's protests. "Listen to me. Finish your training, serve the clan, make me proud. You are skilled with the blade and clever with your tongue, I know this, and I know your sister looks up to you as much as you adore her. Do not tempt fate with your wild child's heart, instead listen to my infinitely wiser counsel."

Genchiro rose to his feet and bade his son to do the same. The old man took a moment to smooth out his kimono and then another to appreciate the intricate armour behind him.

"Trust me Joji-kun." He repeated. "I know much of these things."

Joji did trust his father, knew that of course he was right. But here was the old man, having been right his entire life, dying without having done anything legendary, without even having seen the ocean. Joji had made up his mind. He knew what had to be done.

* * * * *

Ten years later.

"Your first prize brother, how exciting." Said Atsuo to his neighbour, adjusting the straps on his ill fitted leather chest piece.

"Is it?" Kaijo asked.

"Oh yes! When we get back, we will celebrate with sake and maybe even a wench."

"I was hoping to be on a ship with Yuto." Kaijo moped and Atsuo laughed in reply.

The two men were at the centre of a tight square formation, four by four pirates large, on the deck of a softly swaying kobune. Each man had a plank of wood by their side and wore a motley of black and grey and brown clothing; some old and tattered, some immaculate, some decorated with necklaces and fetishes and some plain as a peasant's garb.

"Are you saying captain Joji isn't enough for you, brother?" Atsuo asked, his eyes wide with feigned surprise.

"I just heard Yuto was the Wako king, a great tactician. When I joined, I joined for him." Kaijo said.

"Look there." Atsuo said, turning his head back, bidding the other man's gaze to follow.

Behind them, where the ship would usually have its customary shrine, was a quarterdeck with a dozen archers stringing their bows and inspecting their arrows, and behind them on the elevated aft of the ship stood their captain overlooking the preparations. Joji was tall and broad and was dressed simply; cloth trousers and a reinforced baori with slightly pointed shoulders. There was a dark green sash, weather worn and frayed at the edges, tied about his waist and a daisho sword pair hung from his hips; the long blade on his left, the short on his right.

"Look how the captain considers everything before him." Said Atsuo. "Look how nothing is beyond his sight?"

Joji's face was a mask of concentration. His dark eyes were narrowed, and his eyebrows curved up like raven wings on his deeply furrowed brow. A small patch of black hair was the only thing that marked his square, statuesque chin and as the ship moved with steady speed the backdraft tugged ad Joji’s long, dense hair.

"He looks a proper warrior alright." Said Kaijo noncommittally.

"Oh he is!" Exclaimed Atsuo. "You'll understand when you see him fight, it is like nothing I have ever seen. Some say he used to be a Niten master, and so some have taken to calling him The Exiled Dragon."

"I heard," Chihiyo cut in from Atsuo's left, "that he was a Scorpion spy, which is why he is so quiet all the time. I heard the quartermaster call him The Subtle Tide once."

"Stupid girl." Atsuo replied. "See that belt about him? It is clearly the colour of a Dragon."

"I guess that blue headband of yours makes you a Crane then?" Chihiyo shot back and the rest of the Wako in the formation laughed heartily.

"Doji Satsume at your service." Said Atsuo, mocking as much of a bow as he could manage in the tight grouping. The pirates laughed once more.

There was a shout from across the deck, quartermaster Shih's voice, and in an instant urgency fell across the entire crew. Kaijo glanced backwards once more and saw their captain relaying orders to Shih at his side, who then shouted them across the deck for all hear. Joji's expression had not changed; it was precise, stubborn like the never changing face of a soldier in a painting.

"The Subtle Tide" thought Kaijo. We will see.

Their ship trailed the north eastern coast, just outside the sight of land along a rocky strait where merchant and transport ships had to venture out further into the sea than they would usually like. From where the pirates were it was impossible to tell that only a few minutes sailing to the west would land them on the proud mountains and verdant forests of the Phoenix lands. Their kobune cut through the water with an energetic bob and a constant sifting sound of rushing water, its square sails all unfurled, only the ocean on every edge of the horizon.

Not far ahead, just shy of the flight of an arrow, was their prey. A crane ship, its sails needlessly ostentatious, with samurai on its aft deck standing rigid like arranged toys, their bows at the ready. Captain Joji's ship, Wayfarer, had been trailing their quarry for a while now, gaining imperceptibly all the while due to their lighter load, but now it seemed like the wind was turning against them and that when the Crane ship could turn into the wind and return to shore the pirates would be unable to follow. All the Crane had to do was wait for the wind to change entirely, to repel the Wako long enough with their arrows to avoid getting boarded.

"Lumber!" Came Shih's cry and the square formation on the main deck raised their wooden planks. Almost as soon as they had the first volley of Crane arrows rained down upon them. Below the cover of the planks Kaijo felt like a turtle in its shell, warm from the bodies pressed around him, half deaf to the sound outside. Arrows pierced the wood with hollow thunks which seemed to echo in the enclosed space, and every once in a while one of the projectiles found a good angle and split straight through the lumber and into the man beneath. Kaijo prayed, to no kami in particular, that he would not be one of those men as he waited inside his dark and flimsy shell.

"Oars!" The order was muffled but in an instant the sides of the protective formation collapsed, the men and women holding thinner planks went to the side of the ship and began to row as hard as they could. Kaijo heard the rush of wind and snap of heavy cloth as the kobune's sails dropped down. The wind must have turned completely, there was no time to lose in gaining distance on their prey. Twangs of bow strings rang out from behind, the pirate bowmen let loose their first volley against the wind, there was no way for Kaijo to know if they hit their mark, so he remained silent and turned his prayers to entreaties that they had. Another moment passed, the rush of the sea beneath him, the echo of the rhythmic rowing pirates to either side, then another round of Crane arrows whistled into the planks and Shih shouted for another round of pirate bow fire in response.

On the aft deck Joji could see the battle unfold. He saw the first volley of his archers miss almost entirely due to the shifting wind and cursed internally; the lumber was not meant to withstand this much punishment and they were losing out on speed by holding on to it for so long. The second volley however found its mark, and at this distance he saw a few of the Crane archers falter when men to either side of them in their immaculate formation began to fall. There was an instance of hesitation which belied inexperience, perhaps even cowardice. Joji broke his placid stare for the first time since boarding the ship with a small smile.

"Drop the lumber." He said quietly to Shih at his side.

"Drop the lumber!" She shouted.

The pirates on the main deck tossed their thoroughly perforated wooden shields to the sea and though Kaijo knew it was in his head he thought he could feel the ship speed up. There was another volley of Crane arrows fired at them but it was appreciably smaller than the first two, their numbers and spirits having been thinned in equal measure by the pirates' marksmen.

"Prepare to board!" Shih cried as she stomped down to the main deck in black leather boots, an iron tetsubo resting on her shoulder, her hazel hair tied back painfully tight.

"Prepare to board!" She repeated as most of the archers replaced their bows with swords and daggers and moments later the Wayfarer slipped near enough to its quarry that the fore deck crew could throw boarding lines across. Crane samurai rushed to cut the ropes but the Wako archers who kept their bows shot them down before all of the lines could be severed. With practiced heaves and shouted effort Joji’s men pulled the ships side by side, the rear guard rowing all the way until they couldn't row. It was up to Kaijo and the rest of the main deck crew now. The rowers would be tired, and the archers were better marksmen than skirmishers. He waited for the call to jump across into the waiting blades of the Crane.

"Board!" Joji boomed at his men once he saw an opening. He watched as the first wave of the pirates leaped from one ship to the other, crashing onto what remained of the Crane crew. He looked the enemy kobune quickly one last time, searching for his mark, then made his way down to board her with the second wave.

As soon as he was across Joji found himself in a wanton cacophony of ringing steel and ragged shouting as more Crane poured onto the deck from below. A screaming samurai in white and blue charged him with blade outthrust. Joji side stepped the man, and moved on, not stopping to see if there was a counter attack. He stalked through the battle like a hunter, his eyes tight to help him pick out the details, and like an eel in a jagged reef he slipped in and out of pockets of danger until he found himself face to face with the captain of the ship.

The Crane samurai was dressed in polished steel and armed with gleaming sword. He looked resplendent even in the chaos and when Joji reached him he had just finished slaying two of his men with as many strokes of the blade. Joji pulled his katana, leaving his short blade sheathed and called out to the captain. The man smiled below his wide browed helmet and readied his weapon.

Joji dropped into a casual, lazy stance.

"Show me your kamae, Crane." He taunted and the other man obliged by assuming a precise martial stance himself.

Their blades clashed once before Joji drove into the Captain's guard and shouldered him roughly back. As the Crane reeled from the impact Joji danced backwards, away from his opponent, shuffling across the wooden deck. The Crane regained his footing and locked eyes with his retreating enemy, judging Joji’s poor stance and amateurish attempt to create space. The battle around him was being lost, the Crane knew, but he shut his mind out from the distraction nonetheless. He would slay this brigand and then the rest of the pirates would crumble without a leader. Joji leaned heavily on his front foot to meet the inevitable charge.

The Crane let loose a battle cry, a shout that cut across what remained of the fighting, and charged with his sword rising in a perfectly elegant arc. There would be a moment soon where their blades would meet, where the Crane's force would drive the katana from Joji's limp hold and then there would be a moment where a sharp downward slice would cut into Joji's shoulder and keep going until he was split in two. There would have been anyway, had Joji not dropped his katana willingly just as the arc of the Crane's sword reached an upward climb. Joji’s blade fell to the wooden deck with a clang and he dropped to his knees down with it, diving into his opponent's attack. With both hands outstretched Joji grabbed the crane's wrists and in a swift pivoting motion used the man's momentum to send him careening over the side of the ship. There was a great splash as the armoured samurai broke the surface of the water, and though it was only some twenty feet deep he began to drown almost instantly.

The rest of the ship had mostly been taken in the meantime, what little resistance from the Crane remained ceased when their captain was thrown overboard. One of the pirates rushed to the side of the ship, whether to rescue or finish off the enemy captain Joji did not know for he stopped him with an outstretched hand.

Kaijo, at his captain’s side, watched the Crane struggle in the water, fumbling with the various clasps of his armour, unsure of which to unfasten first as the steel pulled him further down. The thrashing of the drowning man churned the water into a white broth until all of a sudden it stopped. A moment later the Crane's helmet bobbed to the surface.

"'A vain enemy will be fooled with humility.'" Joji said to the pirate. "Send someone down to fetch the samurai's weapons and armour, they will be useful to our cause."

* * * * *

The spoils of the battle were recovered and a temporary captain assigned to the formerly Crane kobune. Six Wako had perished in the battle, and a dozen were injured, but the day had been theirs in an overwhelming victory and once the dead, both pirate and Crane, were returned to the sea Joji found himself alongside Shih on the aft deck, their ship rocking gently towards home.

"Six bags of rice and enough Crane koku to buy several more." Joji said as he looked over the records of the recovered goods. The captain leaned on the back of the deck, papers in hand, watching his helmsman quietly steer the ship.

"Not a bad haul." Said Shih seated on a small chair beside him. Between her legs was a wash bucket and in her hands was a bloody cloth and an even bloodier tetsubo. The scraps of flesh she dug from the weapon dropped into the bucket with sickening squelching slaps.

"Not considering the added information." Joji replied, leafing from supply logs to the Crane intelligence report they had found hidden below decks.

"New champions popping up all over." Shih said. "And the Phoenix set their own library on fire?"

"Indeed. Their new champion is a girl barely fresh from her gempukku." The captain added and Shih snorted in amusement.

Joji looked to his quartermaster and her grisly work, her eyes were fixed on her weapon, methodically cleaning it of viscera, her face a ridgeline of thick scars from forehead to neck. She had an angular, pointed nose and her ravines of battle wounds reminded Joji of the mountains back home sometimes.

"I wish you wouldn't do that in front of me." He noted.

"What's wrong, Mirumoto-ue, too uncivilized for you?"

Joji dropped one eyebrow in a sort of disapproving scowl and looked to the helmsman to see if he would react. The man knew better than to stop steering the ship as if his superiors were not there.

"I wish you were more subtle, Shih-san."

"I saw you drown a man earlier." The quartermaster said brusquely, looking up from her work and fixing her flinty eyes on him. "Hardly a move befitting 'The Subtle Tide.'"

"Defy Definition." said Joji and Shih snorted the same way she had at the Phoenix.

The ocean winds had turned once more to favour the Wayfarer and the currents carried the smell of salt and stone across the ship's deck. Joji listened to the bustle of his crew for a while and watched the sun march steadily across the horizon, pulling the blue of the afternoon down with its passage to be replaced by the faintest hints of pink.

"Declining birth rates in the Dragon lands." Joji said finally. "And talk of a dangerous, counter-taoist cult." He stared on the horizon placidly as he spoke, his eyes narrow and his expression grim, as was his usual way.

"Increased bandits on the roads too, if the Crane intelligence is to be believed, and severe food shortages for heimin and samurai alike." He continued, oblivious to the fact that Shih had replied to his previous comment. She did so again but he remained oblivious, her words lost to the undertow of his own roiling thoughts and the sound of the water sloshing against the hull of the ship. It had been a long time since he escaped from his home and for all those years he had convinced himself that as long as his sister and clan mates were safe, were living the lives they had always wanted to live, that his exile was the best thing for them. Now however, with times growing more dangerous the thought of them facing adversity without him tugged at him more than he liked.

"Stay with me, Joji." Shih said to grab his attention and the captain pulled his eyes from the horizon to see his quartermaster standing by his side.

"Stay with me." She repeated, her tone softer this time. Beneath the scars and behind the severity of her expression Joji saw affection.

"You do not need me all that badly." He said and she nodded her head sharply in agreement.

"No I do not. And neither does Yuto. But I like having you around, as do all the Wako men and women. Yuto trained them and I brought them in line but it was you who convinced them that our brotherhood was the best thing for them."

There were so many options, Joji thought, he could travel west by himself, back inland, or he could seek amnesty in a minor clan and exert his influence from there. He could even leverage the pirate community he had helped build, somehow use one family to help another. And there were always the Mantis in the south, eager for stout sea faring men.

"You give me too much credit." Joji said.

"Perhaps. But either way these pirates would have a hard time choosing between you and both Sagacious Yuto and myself put together. That's worth something."

Shih turned to face the back of the ship.

"If the two of us are of one mind, however." She said circumspectly. "There is nowhere the men would not follow. We could rally them, the majority of them, and march across Phoenix lands, across no man's land, gathering bandits and ronin to our cause as we went." She watched the trailing foam below the ship, her hands tightening as she spoke. "We could march straight into Dragon territory and then, with a small army, we could do whatever it is you feel you need to do there."

Joji did not reply, did not even react to the suggestion, but in his mind yet another cog was added to an already restlessly churning machinery of thoughts. On the horizon the shore of the pirates' most recent hideout, a small uninhabited island not charted on any map, slid into view. Joji knew there would be at least forty men there, and twenty more out sailing with Yuto. They would be drinking and betting, bragging of their latest exploits or practicing the forms of battle better men had taught them and Joji personally knew every one of those men.

Joji weighed these things up; the duty to his clan and homeland against the temptation of Shih and her pirate brotherhood. The duty to his Wako brothers and the lives he had built for then against the temptation of being reunited with his clan and his sister Harue. He watched the smoke from a shoreside bonfire rise from his little island hideaway and thought of the men and women there. They relied on him and he on them, though most of them might not know it; it was for their sake as well as his own that he had to make his next move very carefully if he wanted to avoid a disastrous fate for everyone. As the Wayfarer slipped into port Joji had made up his mind. He knew what had to be done.

© 2017 M.A.Alexander

Author's Note

A short story I put together in a few days for a competition to preview the remake of the Legend of The Five Rings card game by Fantasy Flight games. I tried to copy the fiction FFG have been putting out on their site as much as possible without it coming across as too fan-fiction-y. I think it worked out alright, I'd definitely do more given the chance.

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Added on July 22, 2017
Last Updated on July 27, 2017
Tags: Samurai, L5R, Ronin, Pirates, Asian



Dublin, Ireland

M. A. Alexander is a struggling writer of zero renown and probably negative talent. Follow his page to witness his newest failures and inevitable break down more..