River of Gold Part 2

Read or listen to the second story in the ongoing series

The Crab Clan is Rokugan’s first and last line of defense against demonic invasion from the Shadowlands. To keep these monsters at bay, the Crab defend the Carpenter Wall, a massive structure that spans hundreds of miles. The Crab rely on the Yasuki Trading Company to procure the endless provisions needed to supply their defense, which has stood for a thousand years. 

Those supply lines and more are now at risk following the daring raid of the so-called “pirate prince,” Bakuchiku. As the traffic on the River of Gold slows to a crawl, the ripples of Bakuchiku’s treachery eventually reach Crab Clan lord Yasuki Taka, the wily trader himself. Where others see an escalating crisis, Taka is shrewd enough to know that every setback is also an opportunity… 

What follows is part two of the River of Gold short story series. To find out more about the River of Gold, and how you can influence the outcome of the series, click here, or scroll down to enjoy this episode in your choice of text and audio… 

Part 2: The Business of the Crab

by Robert Denton III

Yasuki Taka already knew what was behind the sliding doors. He’d helped draft the floor plans, oversee the construction, and even choose the artist who’d woven the door’s tapestry, depicting the River of Gold. But with representatives from the Yasuki Trade Council present and brimming with excitement – especially the portly Goichi, who beamed like the father of a newborn babe – Taka felt inclined to humor them.

Yasuki no Kijoshu Goichi dabbed his glistening forehead. He’d insisted on wearing his most elaborate outfit to greet the council’s most powerful benefactor. Beside him, the brewmaster Shūko shone like Lady Sun. This must be her proudest moment, Taka thought. She’d been born into a lowly position, and look how far she’d climbed. One more season, and this complex would essentially be hers.

Was that jealousy he saw in the others’ eyes whenever they glanced at her? Only his bodyguard Yasuki Koume – too recent an appointment for Taka to have fully figured out – seemed more interested in the presentation than Shūko’s position.

Goichi cleared his throat as the doors parted. “Lord Yasuki, allow me to show you what your generous investment has purchased.”

A series of gasps provoked Taka’s smile. The main hall of the sake brewery was as grand as the worship chamber of any shrine. Goichi led them through the tavern section where customers could sample the brew, then into yeasty smelling workshops, where rice mash fermented in great barrels. It smelled like profit, Taka thought, picturing himself seated among friends, well into his fifth bottle.

This was what money was for. Enhancing everyone’s lives. Spreading joy.

He’d fought hard for this. The other Crab Clan lords were only interested in how growing Friendly Traveler Village could aid their eternal war against the monsters beyond the Wall. What if more quakes struck the watchtowers? they complained. What if another cotton shortage occurs, or the Crab must arm the farmer levies on short notice? They didn’t seem to grasp that money was best used in making more money, not sitting in a pile “just in case.” Even the Great Bear himself preferred to hibernate on the Hida family wealth.

Only when Taka promised a large return – and the wartime innovations that could fund – did they agree to crack open their offers. Taka really stuck his neck out, but seeing the stars in the townsfolk’s eyes, he had no regrets.

“What’re these hanging bags for?” Koume asked, gesturing to a number of burlap sacks above empty barrels.

It was Shūko who answered. “That is how we filter the sake. We fill the bags with the mash, and the liquids drip down into these containers.”

Koume wrinkled her nose. “That seems like it would take a long while.”

“You cannot rush good sake,” Shūko replied, proudly.

Taka smirked. Shūko was a good choice for sake master, despite her relative inexperience. More proof that the village was a worthy place to invest his money.

If only he could swap places with her. He’d always wanted to be a sake brewer. But such a thing was impossible; even if his duties as head of the Yasuki family didn’t consume all his time, such labor was beneath his station.

Goichi nodded. “Other brewers may rush to produce unfiltered swill, but long ago the brewers of this community decided we would settle for nothing less than the best. The kōji mold from our caves has been cultivated over generations, and we order only the finest rice, which we polish here at the brewery. This is why Friendly Traveler Sake is in such high demand. We have orders as far north as the Isawa family territory of the Phoenix Clan. Even our rivals in the Daidoji family have ordered their yearly barrel.

“In fact,” he continued, “this new sake works will enable us to double our production. Isn’t that right, Shūko?”

“The rice arrives today,” she announced. “And we have already recruited workers, now that the harvest season is finished.”

“Double production?” Taka feigned shock. “I should hope not! We mustn’t decrease our demand, or else we can’t justify the price!” He leaned toward a blanching Goichi. “Is there any way we can be less efficient? Maybe the workers can labor more slowly?”

Goichi stumbled over his words. “I-I suppose we could short a few orders, my lord, if–”

Taka filled the workshop with his laughter. “I am only joking, Goichi! More sake is always better.” He winked in Shūko’s direction. “I did promise Lord Hiruma there would be more drunken Daidoji thanks to this brewery, and we must keep our promises, yes?”

Shūko’s face turned bright crimson. As Taka suspected, she objected to the weaponization of her life’s passion. She opened her mouth to protest.

Goichi spoke faster. “Very good joke, my lord! Yes, we must keep our lords happy.”

Taka nodded at the recovering brewmaster, just enough to signal that he’d seen her reaction.

Come now, Shūko, he thought. That was a test. You must learn to keep your composure. Now that you are the envy of the village, they will aim to knock you down.

He’d provoked her for the same reason he’d proposed for a brewery school to be founded here: he thought maybe someone would oppose him. He’d anticipated the brewers’ objections, that they would be compelled to reveal their secrets. But once it was explained that a school would grow the town and safeguard their trade, they agreed – to Taka’s disappointment. It wasn’t that he didn’t wish for their prosperity. It was just that life had gotten so… dull. Where were the challenges of his youth? As they stepped onto the outside balcony, Taka found himself wishing that something – anything – exciting would happen.

“Master Goichi! Master Goichi!”

The council turned as one. A dock worker flailed up the stone steps, falling to his knees just beyond the balcony. Distressed cries arose from the dockside market, the racket reaching even this far into the village. Koume went for her sword, but Taka waved her away. The dock worker looked as though he had seen a ghost.

“The shipment,” he managed. “Gone. Kidnapping. Disaster!”

Goichi’s face paled. “What happened?”

The worker told the story with trembling breaths. Their shipment along the River of Gold was waylaid at night. Pirates stole most of the goods and scuttled the rest. Only one survivor had escaped; she’d been spared only so that she could provide a letter to the village elder. This, the dock worker presented to Goichi: a soaked rag with scrawled writing.

Reading the note, Goichi shrank. “They’re demanding a ransom.”

“They have hostages?” Realization dawned on Shūko’s face. “The workers.”

“It’s my fault,” Goichi uttered, distantly. “I suggested they travel with the river barge to save on costs. By the Fortunes, I’ve endangered them all.”

“What about the rice shipment?” another council member asked.

The worker shook his head. “Gone, my lords. Stolen, or lost.”

A long silence prevailed. Even Koume understood the implication: without the shipment of this specific variety of rice, they could not make sake. It meant an entire season without production. Just like that, the entire village’s future was in jeopardy. And Taka was not getting his investment back any time soon.

Trembling, Goichi lowered his head. “L-lord Yasuki, I beg your forgiveness. If you give us a few more seasons, I promise we can–”

Yasuki Taka laughed.

Goichi’s glittering brow wrinkled in astonishment. The others exchanged confused looks. Taka’s laughter filled the air as he clapped his hands. He almost skipped. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so happy.

“Finally!” he cried, “Something interesting!”

Even after Taka requisitioned an empty office in the new brewery, the council lingered close, peering through the door like curious children. Taka wrote quickly. If he hesitated, this opportunity would slip through his fingers.

Ever since ascending to his family’s loftiest position, Taka’s primary concern was financing the endless war against the monsters beyond the Kaiu Wall. This was his family’s ancestral duty, and while many Yasuki served the clan in other ways, Taka hadn’t seen any true excitement since inheriting his position. But now, his heart pounded a rhythm on the drum of adventure. He hadn’t felt like this in years!

Seated across from him, Koume seemed to be searching for words. “I wish you had controlled yourself better,” she finally said.

So the bodyguard has some backbone, he realized. Good. Up to this point, Taka had worried that she only knew how to agree.

“There is no reaction so natural as a joyful refrain,” he replied without looking up. “The Little Teacher once said that, didn’t he?”

“Yes, and now everyone thinks you are insane.”

Taka waved his hand dismissively. “Bah. Everyone already thinks I’m insane. What difference does it make?” Finishing, he blew on the ink until it was dry, then wrapped the letter into a tight cylinder and sealed it with wax.

“We’ll pay the ransom in full. I have the assets to cover it. But whoever fetches it, we’ll have followed. That’s how we’ll find the culprits. Once we know that, we can observe them, learn as much as we can.”

The council, hovering at the door, each had the same question for him, but only Shūko seemed willing to ask it. “My lord, isn’t this better suited for the Hiruma family? One squad of scouts–”

“And pull warriors from the Wall?” Taka shook his head. “Unnecessary. An overreaction. We can handle a few river pirates.”

Goichi looked like he might explode. “A few river pirates! Lord Yasuki, I implore you to reconsider! If not the Hiruma, then surely the Hida family can spare the samurai to handle this!”

Again, Taka shook his head. “If O-Ushi were to catch wind of this – or Fortunes forbid, her brother – they would take over the whole thing and handle it all themselves!”

Goichi grasped for words. That had been his entire point.

Taka set down his brush. “I used to have such grand adventures in my youth. Now, I only sit in offices all day long. I read ledgers and I listen to reports and I watch the river go by. Everyone else gets to have a little excitement. Now, it is my turn. And it is long overdue!”

Koume carefully chose her words. “I am charged with your protection.”

“Oh, you’ll get your chance,” he replied.

Her jaw went slack. “I suppose you have a plan, then?”

Taka let a grin run wild over his features. “Judging from the magistrate’s reports, I’d wager these pirates are a large operation. Large and expensive. Large ventures are inherently fragile. That’s the weakness, you see. An operation can easily grow bigger than the profit it is capable of making. And, actually, I think the pirate prince – what was his name?”

Koume glanced at the survivor’s written statement. “Uh, Bakuchiku.”

“Bakuchiku. That’s right. Well, I think this Bakuchiku is their weakness, too. If we can turn prince into pauper, so to speak, then I think he will find himself without followers. Bandits are more loyal to coin, after all.”

Taka clapped his hands. The room collectively jumped.

“That’s the plan!” he announced. “We’ll bankrupt the operation, then buy his workforce out from under him. They’ll be working for us, instead!” Taka held out his hands, as if transfixed by his own brilliance. “Yes. That’s perfect.”

Koume frowned. “And how do you intend to do that?”

“I… am not sure yet.” Taka scratched his neck. “I’ll figure it out, though.”

“This is the Yasuki family daimyō?” came Shūko’s loud whisper.

Goichi shook his head. “Fortunes spare us.”

Taka barely contained his laughter. If he released it, then there would be no doubt in their minds as to his lack of sanity. Perhaps other lords would punish Shūko’s statement, and especially Goichi’s. A samurai only had his reputation, in the end. But Taka heard how the villagers spoke to one another. That they would dare say such a thing here meant they were comfortable around him. That they thought of Taka as one of them. He rather liked that.

But if he said nothing, Koume would take offense on his behalf. And she was the one with the sword. So he stood before she could draw it, disarming the room with his broadest smile.

“Don’t worry. It will all work out fine! Make preparations to open the new brewery. We’ll be back on schedule soon. But first.” He thrust the many scrolls into Goichi’s hands. “Have a herald deliver these right away. Ours was not the only waylaid shipment. There are other clans affected. Perhaps they know something we don’t.”

“And you are certain,” Koume said, “that you do not want to involve the other families?”

“When we can handle it ourselves?” Taka chuckled. “Now Koume, where is the fun in that?”

River of Gold continues later this week with part three. Learn more and get your copy of River of Gold, the exciting new game in the world of Legend of the Five Rings, here.

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