Escorting Ryoko

Our first story episode, Escorting Ryoko, is now available on Pinecast, iTunes, and Google Play! Want to discuss the episode, L5R, or anything in between? Join us on Discord!

Five samurai are gathered together at the request of Akodo Torokai, an Emerald Magistrate, to assist in what seems to be a relatively simple task.

CAST, CREW, & CREDITS

Narrator: James
Crow: Mal
Kitsuki Ryojiro: Nick
Kitsune Shio: Hanna
Kuni Daiyu: Ely
Hida Atsu: James

Asako Ryoko: Maddy
Tonbo Ukiya: Walt

Script writing & editing: Arielle & Hanna
Audio/sound design: Maddy and Mal

Music & Ambience
"Storm" by Roll for Fantasy
"Mountain Tavern" by Tabletop Audio

And a HUGE thank you to our beta listeners!

SCRIPT

 

The process of finding appropriate yoriki is never an easy one; even harder is finding good yoriki. But it was never said the work of an Emerald Magistrate is easy, and so Akodo Torokai begins his search.

The first letter he writes is to Kitsuki Ryojiro of the Owl Clan. It is, after all, never a bad idea to keep a Kitsuki close by--even one just past his gempukku. Ryojiro’s investigations into the blood magic and ritual of maho-tsukai have so far unearthed… troubling implications.

The second is to the Hida, Atsuryokunabe. The life debt of Atsu’s father, Burosuki, to Torokai is yet unpaid. Torokai suspects he will soon need the sincerity and strength of a Crab, whether in strength of courage or the swing of his tetsubo.

The third is sent to the forest of the Fox, requesting one familiar with the ways of the wood and its spirits. They offer the just-adopted Kitsune Shio, so she might bring her new family honor. She will not disappoint, the Fox write, and Torokai is intrigued enough to accept.

The process of finding appropriate yoriki is never an easy one; even harder is finding good yoriki. But it was never said the work of an Emerald Magistrate is easy, and so Akodo Torokai begins his search.

The first letter he writes is to Kitsuki Ryojiro of the Owl Clan. It is, after all, never a bad idea to keep a Kitsuki close by--even one just past his gempukku. Ryojiro’s investigations into the blood magic and ritual of maho-tsukai have so far unearthed… troubling implications.

The second is to the Hida, Atsuryokunabe. The life debt of Atsu’s father, Burosuki, to Torokai is yet unpaid. Torokai suspects he will soon need the sincerity and strength of a Crab, whether in strength of courage or the swing of his tetsubo.

The third is sent to the forest of the Fox, requesting one familiar with the ways of the wood and its spirits. They offer the just-adopted Kitsune Shio, so she might bring her new family honor. She will not disappoint, the Fox write, and Torokai is intrigued enough to accept.

The fourth travels to the lands of the Crab. A shugenja will be needed to understand the murmurs of kami and provide blessings. Torokai’s husband, Asahina Takeshi, suggests Kuni Daiyu, the daughter of an old acquaintance. She is a great prodigy: an Isawa-trained ishiken of Crane and Crab parentage, familiar with the strange territory they may tread.

Last, Torokai seeks out the ronin, Crow. Torokai has never discounted the usefulness of ronin, and her prowess is storied on the road. Her katana and her perspective will be useful in the days to come, Torokai thinks, when he may need a ronin’s freedom.

To these five, Torokai gives the order: Travel to the Village of the Reinstated Hero to meet Asako Kato and his niece, Ryoko. Escort Asako Ryoko to Pale Oak Castle, and then await me at Michita Yasumi.

 

It is early spring in the Lion lands, and the streets of the Village of the Reinstated Hero are newly cleared of snow. The village is home to a little over a thousand people, famed for a shrine to Duty honoring an ancient hero: Ikoma Teidei. The Shrine is small, a simple pagoda surrounded by a tiny garden and a stone-paved path. Residential homes sit on either side among the noise and bustle of urban life, but the modest street leading to the shrine is kept scrupulously clean. A single monk sweeps the stones around it. Another, standing silent and still, hands out sticks of incense.

Two Phoenix dressed in ornate, orange and red robes stand before the Shrine, praying and laying incense before the statue of Ikoma Teidei. Asako Kato is a lean and weathered older man with thinning, black hair streaked with white at the temples, a shugenja’s scroll-satchel at his hip. He leans on a well-used walking stick. His niece, Asako Ryoko, is a young woman close to twenty, her ink black hair tied into a maiden’s foxtail that sits low at the base of her neck. She has the air of someone used to court, or perhaps a temple. She certainly does not have the bearing or build of a warrior. They converse in hushed tones barely audible to passersby, but it’s still clear that they’re having a disagreement.

The samurai summoned by Akodo Torokai arrive soon enough, presenting themselves to the the Phoenix as they do.

First is Hida Atsuryokunabe, bushi of the Crab: a man of both immense height and breadth, a tetsubo hefted over his shoulder. Despite his size, he is young and wears a bright smile. His head, shaved clean, dips into a nod of greeting as he crests the stone stairs.

Kuni Daiyu, a shugenja, could not possibly be more opposite her fellow Crab. Where Atsu is large, she is anything but, and the wide sugegasa obscuring her painted face does little to mask her scowl. Her bow is still and deep, revealing the shamisen slung across her back and a pair of war fans tucked into her obi.

Kitsuki Ryojiro is a small, slight young man who seems barely past his gempukku, though he carries himself with the grace and poise of an accomplished courtier. He wears the deep greens of the Owl clan, his dark hair pulled into a loose knot at the back of his head. His bow is practiced and respectful, and he gingerly rights his small spectacles as he rises from it.

Kitsune Shio, bushi of the Fox, is predictably strange; she stands apart for her darker skin and the twin streaks of white hair framing her face. Her clothing is a bit too big for her slight frame. She pays the pair of Phoenix the respect they are due, her smile lopsided as she rises.

The ronin Crow is last to arrive, arm tucked into her kosode. Tall and broad-shouldered, with tan skin and ruddy cheeks, she is a sight more disheveled than the rest of them: her mane of hair is long and wild, her nondescript garb lined with fur and tattered from age and use. She bows to Asako Kato and chances a sly grin at his niece as she rights herself.

"I will be fine, Kato-sensei," Ryoko says. "You needn't worry about me." She sighs, keeping her voice quiet. Crow’s smile catches her off guard and her eyebrows furrow. She quickly clears her throat.

Kato gives an exasperated sigh, returning their bows with a smile. “I am glad to see you all arrived safely, samurai-sans,” he says, leaning on his walking stick as he rises. He speaks slowly and deliberately, each word chosen with care. “I am Asako Kato of the Asako Inquisitors.” He holds out his palm. In the center of it is a strange tattoo of an open eye in bold, black ink. “This is Asako Ryoko, my niece, and an apprentice in the order.”

Ryoko fumes quietly, determined not to look any of them in the eye. She turns a stick of incense in her hand. She darts glances at Crow, immediately looking away again when she is caught in the act. The ronin’s smile grows.

“I am pleased to meet all of you on this day." Kato glances upwards, tracking the movement of clouds for a moment. "I have reports on my recent investigations which I must deliver to my lord. However, I have also received a summons to the City of the Rich Frog to investigate an incident there. My apprentice has offered to bring them to the Phoenix lands on her return, but,” he heaves a sigh, motioning to Ryoko, “I do not believe it would be safe for her to travel alone, and the contents of the reports are much too sensitive to trust a courier. And so I have asked Akodo-sama for assistance, though he has gone to the road now.”

Crow raises an eyebrow as she looks to Kato. "Truly it would be a shame to bruise such a lovely flower, though she seems capable enough to my eye." There is something strange in her voice compared to most Rokugani, a hint of the gaijin influence of the Ki-Rin clan. Her attention drifts back to Ryoko, who blushes and quickly looks away.

Atsu suddenly pounds a fist into his other palm. "SO YOU WOULD LIKE US TO ENSURE HER SAFE PASSAGE?!"

Kato gives a little smile. "I would be indebted to you for such assistance. And to Akodo-sama for providing it.”

Daiyu’s expression barely shifts. "I know these roads well," she says to Kato. “I am pleased to assist.”

Kato peers at her, trying to pick her features out in the shadows of her hat. "Thank you, Kuni-san.”

The mention of a Crab family draws Atsu’s attention; he looks down at her, curious and suspicious. Daiyu ignores him, nodding at Kato. "In truth, Akodo-sama’s summon is a relief. I'm thankful for the work. And the company."

Shio folds her hands into her sleeves. "It would be an honor," she says at last, though there is a bit of a questioning lilt to the end of her sentence.

Crow glances around the group of gathered samurai for the first time before she looks back to the pair of Phoenix. "And… what does your niece have to say of this?"

Kato clears his throat. "Ah—well. My niece is hesitant. She possesses a strong heart--and a strong will.” He laughs, hums thoughtfully, then moves on. “I will see to it that your lodgings and travel papers are provided. To Crow, I may offer 2 koku for your services."

Ryoko glances up from her incense to eye Crow, taking in her lack of mon, the fur lining her garb. There is an unsaid question in her expression, but when their gazes meet and Crow is ready with a charming little smirk, she clears her throat and looks away.

Crow exhales softly through her nose, conflicted. A reluctant glance to Ryoko precedes a polite smile to her uncle. "...Very well. I will assist as needed."

Ryojiro bows. “I would be pleased to help you! However, as you can appreciate, I too have duties of investigation to conduct. I will honorably accompany in your niece's escort, and ask only for your assistance on what you may tell me. So that I may stay in the good graces of my lord.”

Kato pauses, looking to Ryojiro. A little tremor runs across his face. "And what may I tell you, Kitsuki-san?"

“As a man educated in the ways of the kami, I'm sure you can appreciate the sensitive nature of discussing powers that fall outside of the celestial order in holy places." Ryojiro is ever tactful. "We need not discuss anything right now.”

Kato smiles slightly, his hands clasping tighter. "Ah, of course, of course. It would be unseemly to speak of such matters here." He shifts his weight and looks between the samurai, indicating down the path with an open palm. "Shall we take this elsewhere?”

"Of course! As you will." Ryojiro gestures for Kato to lead.

Kato carefully places his walking stick and tests his weight on it before he begins to walk. Ryoko follows quickly, but keeps a stubborn few feet between them. Atsu smiles at the others with a face full of teeth, using his tetsubo as a walking stick. He makes a loud thonk on the stones with each step.

Kato leads down and away from the shrine to an area with an old stone bench, several trees, and a pond full of large koi. He takes a seat on the bench, both palms leaned on his walking stick.

"Please go on, Asako-sama," Ryojiro says.

He gathers his thoughts before he speaks. "My lord, Asako Heishi, is currently at Pale Oak Castle. He resides there every year from spring until autumn. My brother leaves twice a year to visit the Imperial capital and deliver reports to the Emperor." He shifts his weight, grimacing. "We share the same deep concern for the Bloodspeaker threat. And so I am leaving in the morning to conduct business and investigation in the City of the Rich Frog.”

Kato looks to Ryojiro. "Your questions, Kitsuki-san. What were they?"

Ryojiro gives Kato his full attention, folding his hands in front of him. "Bluntly, sir, my lord has heard report of strange and disturbing tales that bear the likeness of blood magic. As you, an Inquisitor, know, such matters should be looked into with great care. I am recently arrived, and you assuredly have experience and wisdom in your dealings with the area. I only humbly ask for anything you have seen or heard in your time here."

Kato perks up, his back straightening with visible effort. Near him, Ryoko's shoulders shrink in here we go anticipation.

"Ah, you are quick." Kato gives Ryojiro a smile. "I have heard nothing of late, but I know that the threat has not faded--despite what others tell me. I investigated a small cell in the Phoenix lands. We dismantled it before it expanded. That is six months past, but you must see why I - and her father - fear for Ryoko's safety."

“I understand completely. You are very wise to not let the concern escape you. I would be honored to escort your niece, and to keep a wary eye on the road on your behalf.”

Kato smiles, inclining his head. "I am honored to place her in your protection. My niece and I are staying in the House of the Jade Tiger. I would prefer it if you stay there as well, to leave with the sunrise.""

Shio glances at Ryoko briefly, then returns her attention to Kato. "We will gather supplies this evening, then."

Crow nods. "Perhaps we all ought to acquaint ourselves with one another?" She smiles, and the others nod. Soon after, Kato leads them to the House of the Jade Tiger.

 

The House of the Jade Tiger is a respectable inn: two stories high, with a stable, modest garden, and bathhouse. A small stone statue of a tiger, painted jade green, is mounted on a post beside the doors. The inn’s common room is warm and well-lit, a welcome respite from the lingering chill of the spring air outside.

Samurai and ronin alike crowd the inn’s common room, along with a typical assortment of merchants and peasants. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the samurai guests wear the Lion clan’s mon upon their kimono, but a pair of elegant Crane noblemen with a small entourage of servants and sycophants seclude themselves in a far corner. A bearded Ki-Rin man shares sake with several ronin close to the fire.

Kato and Ryoko sit at a small table in the corner of the inn, mostly removed from other guests. Ryoko’s chopsticks are poised over a bowl of rice and pickled vegetables, but her focus is on a Dragonfly shugenja at the table beside them. His green robes do little to disguise his scarecrow-like build. He watches her intently, his small bowl of rice untouched. Kato is oblivious, eating his rice grain by grain while he reads a small, creased scroll.

Crow’s approach is a brief distraction. Ryoko brushes a strand of hair from her face nervously as she glances up at her, her smile warm, private. “Crow-san,” she says. She bows from her seat, then stares down at a strand of pickled cabbage, stealing glances up at Crow through her eyelashes.

Crow notices Kato—after she’s flashed his niece a playful grin. She squashes her smile in favor of a solemn look. "Forgive me; perhaps it is not the best time." She glances at the Dragonfly shugenja, then Ryoko. "I’m sure we will have plenty of time later." She stalls, awkwardly, then meanders off to find something to eat.

The samurai slowly congregate at tables near Ryoko and Kato, their packs and daisho on the floor beside them. Several more sopping wet travelers trickle into the inn.

Shio looks at the wide spaces between them all and gives a wry smile. She stands and crosses to Atsu, her bowl in both hands. "May I join you?"

Atsu looks up from his meal, wild-eyed, still chewing. He waves Shio over with a muffled invitation, sloppily pouring sake into a lacquered cup. He sets it in front of her, then pours everyone else a cup that is just as overflowing. Shio chuckles and sits beside him, taking a sip.

"Forgive me, Kitsuki-san, but may we discuss the... suspicious activity that we spoke of earlier?" Kato asks Ryojiro. “Now that we are alone.”

Ryojiro pauses, setting his chopsticks aside. “Yes, last spring I followed the trail after an incident near Moto castle. But towards winter the investigation came to an end. We were not given extended permissions to pursue further than The City Between the Rivers. My lord was confident that the maho-tsukai was not acting alone, and had learned his art from a cult he left some years earlier. We were only given permission to return recently.”

Kato nods, sipping his tea. "I also found suspicious activity in the western empire. Two years ago, in Toshi no Meiyo Gisei, in Lion lands. It was a cell with eight members." He sighs. "I discovered them while investigating a drowning. The body had lain in the water for days before its discovery, but the local magistrate still noticed odd cuts on the arms and asked my assistance. It was the blessing of the Fortunes that I happened to be just across the border at the time. Once we began investigating in earnest, we unraveled the cult.” He sits up straighter, proud. "My lord personally praised my efforts in this matter."

Ryoko quietly exhales and sips her tea. She’s obviously heard this story many times before.

“That is quite the honor!" Ryojiro beams. "My initial investigation stemmed from the miraculous healing of several children that a local shugenja could not explain. An old maho-tsukai had taken residence and had been corrupting the children of the local magistrate. Our swift action saved them from a dark fate.”

Kato looks impressed, conceding with a gentle laugh into his tea cup. "I see, I see. Quite honorable indeed, Kitsuki-san."

Ryojiro smiles, shaking his head. “The Lion considered the matter closed after the incident, and the trail of correspondence he accumulated pointed west. The Ki-Rin had no interest in our pursuing the matter.”

Kato nods. "You see, then, why I cannot allow Ryoko to travel alone."

Shio peers at them over the rim of her cup. "Are the Ki-Rin not concerned to have that in their lands?"

Kato glances at Shio. "Some do not believe that blood magic is still a threat. The Empire is far too complacent about the threat the Bloodspeakers still pose."

Shio arches her eyebrows at Kato and nods. "Fair enough," she replies, tipping her cup to them. "It is worrisome, nonetheless."

“Yes," Ryojiro agrees. "As for the Ki-Rin, I imagine they would require extraordinary proof for such claims. They must weigh the risk of disruption against the potential risk of a larger cult.”

"What my uncle discovered may point to such a thing." Ryoko finally speaks. “But for now, most are unconvinced. It is not enough to disrupt the people’s calm.”

“That is dark news." Ryojiro rubs his chin. "Do you know of any specific incidents? Besides what you have seen.”

Kato shakes his head. "I am afraid I do not know anything specific. But I am sure something is sleeping, ready to awaken. I know it." He slowly rises to his feet and brushes off the front of his kimono. Ryoko stands quickly, abandoning her bowl of rice, chiding her uncle for standing up so fast. He finds his walking stick. "I must retire for the night to prepare for the dawn. You will look after Ryoko, I trust?" She looks ready to protest but is caught supporting his outstretched arm.

Crow looks back to the Phoenix as Kato stands. She sets her bowl down, palms on her thighs. "Yes, of course. You have my word.”

Each of the samurai bow their heads in agreement. Kato smiles and starts moving slowly and creakily toward the back of the inn. Ryoko watches him go, concern furrowing her brow. After a moment she sighs and sits, her shoulders tense. The Dragonfly man has leaned forward slightly with Kato’s departure, his stare unbroken except for small bites of rice.

Crow, who has been keeping an eye on him, collects her bowl and her cup. She sits between his table and Ryoko’s, disrupting his line of sight. She smiles politely at Ryoko.

Ryoko’s face softens as she whispers a quiet, “Thank you.” Crow nods, her smile widening.

Time passes in silence as they finish their meals. A slight drizzle of rain and wind blows in from the door as peasants and samurai come and go. Ryoko breaks the quiet first.

"I should take my leave as well. I will..." She inhales. "I will greet you with the dawn."

Shio throws back the rest of her drink. "Rest well," she says cheerfully. "We’ll have a lot of time to get to know one another on the road, I think."

"If you would like an escort at any point this evening, I hope that you will not hesitate to ask, Asako-san." Crow smiles.

Ryoko’s eyes flick over Crow’s shoulder to the Dragonfly, who is red and frustrated, and back to Crow’s face. She lets out a soft breath, then takes her leave.

Atsu emerges from his meal with a grunt of satisfaction. A table-vibrating belch explodes from his chest, followed by a half-hearted muttering of "Excuse me," as he settles back to relax and pick his teeth.

Shio lingers a few more minutes before making a decision. She orders another bottle of sake then makes her way over to the Dragonfly's table. "You seem intent on making friends this evening," she says, holding up the cups. "I am Kitsune Shio. May I join you?"

He is nearly ready to stand when Shio approaches. He tenses, then bows head and replies tersely, "I am Tonbo Ukiya. But I am afraid I am otherwise engaged tonight."

Shio is not surprised. She smiles entreatingly. "Engaged in watching the young Asako?"

This quiets him for several moments. His face tightens. "That is none of your business." He turns away, sipping his sake.

Shio shrugs and sighs. "As my business is keeping her safe," she continues, sloshing the sake a little as she leans in—maybe trying to intimidate, though how successful a tiny woman can be in this is debatable, "I shall hope your business doesn't include her."

Ukiya clumsily gets to his feet and brushes off his kimono, making a show of not being invested. "It is none of your business, as I have said. My concerns are my own. You would do well not to involve yourself in matters in which you are ignorant."

Shio draws back, giving him a disarming smile. "Very well, Tonbo-san," she says lightly, tipping her cup. "Rest well." She backs off, content in knowing he will likely be a problem, and sits with the others.

 

The next morning is clear and cool, and the pale blue sky is dotted with clouds. Kato thanks the samurai profusely, with numerous deep bows and wide smiles. He provides a set of travel papers authorizing them to accompany Asako Ryoko to Pale Oak Castle, signed with the name Akodo Torokai and stamped with the mon of the Emerald Magistrate. He exits the inn and departs west toward the City of the Rich Frog, patting his pony on the neck as he sets off.

The samurai emerge from The House of the Jade Tiger. Atsu steps out into the village several minutes later than the rest, wiping the remnants of breakfast from his mouth. His knapsack hangs from the end of his tetsubo, which is slung over his back. Daiyu follows not long after, looking dour.

Ryoko looks prepared, carrying little more than a small travel pack. Once the samurai have assembled, she clears her throat. "We should begin our way along the east road.”

Crow is eager enough to lead, though she pauses halfway through her first step. "Would you like me to carry your things?" she asks Ryoko, gesturing to her pack.

She blushes and shakes her head. "It is not necessary, but I thank you." She is content to follow Crow, tapping the end of her sandals on the ground to secure them before she walks.

Beyond the torii gates of the village, the land begins to flatten, and a main, eastward road follows gentle slopes of terrain. The parallel river is distant but calm. Ahead is a several day journey along a wide, main road that is well-traveled and well-patrolled by Lion ashigaru. Minor villages and watchtowers dot carefully-cultivated farmland and golden plains.

Crow brightens the deeper they venture into grasslands—sometimes she even hums. Ryojiro enjoys the road, stopping occasionally to pick up and examine any interesting rocks he sees. Shio seems content enough to keep quiet, though she does eye Ryoko occasionally—as if she wants to ask questions but hasn’t quite made her mind up about what yet.

Ryoko stays quiet for as long as she can stand, deep in thought. Eventually, she feels Shio’s eyes on her. "What is it, Kitsune-san?"

Shio blinks, head cocking to the side. "I was curious," she admits. "Your uncle seemed concerned with your welfare, but you appear capable. It is not so long a journey."

Ryoko sighs gently through her nose, almost slipping into an eye roll before she remembers herself. "My uncle is... overprotective."

"It is frustrating," Shio agrees, sympathetic. "I hope we won't prove too cumbersome to have around."

Atsu laughs uproariously. "What could be cumbersome about our company?!"

Shio rolls her eyes at Atsu. "I have no idea!" she agrees, trying to hide a smile. "Clearly we are the finest handful of strangers to be hired as guards."

Ryoko lifts her head as she adjusts her tanto, parallel against her lower back. She smiles softly. "It is not cumbersome, I assure you. My uncle places great trust in Akodo Torokai. I am glad for the company, even as circumstances may frustrate."

"Yes. Clearly." Crow runs a hand through her hair as the wind rustles it, looking back at them over her shoulder. "Perhaps we'll all be friends by the end of it."

Atsu scowls, but his eyes are softer. "Perhaps."

Shio chortles under her breath.

The road slopes gently downward as morning rolls into afternoon and the sun climbs high in the sky. Daiyu glances behind them every so often and thankfully finds nothing but a distant, slow-moving merchant cart. By the time the midday heat has set in at full force, a stiff silence has befallen the group.

"So,” Crow says, breaking the quiet. “Asako-san, what is it that you do for pleasure?" She makes a show of rolling her broad shoulders before tucking her arm inside her kosode.

Ryoko pauses, clearly surprised. "For...?" She brushes a strand of hair behind her ear, dropping her eyes in thought. "I do enjoy a fair share of reading. And you?"

Crow grins. "Ah, a hobby well-suited to such a long journey." She hums to herself, searching for a good answer. “I have a fondness for music. Perhaps I can play for you before our journey's end?"

Ryoko smiles, giving a slight bow of her head. "Ah, yes. Perhaps you can. And what is your instrument?"

Crow reaches over her shoulder, patting the end of a wooden instrument poking out from her pack. It's carved to resemble a horse’s head. "The morin khuur—and my voice! " She glances back at the other samurai. "And what of the rest of you; do you play?"

Daiyu turns her head towards the neck of the shamisen poking out of her bag. "A little.”

Shio laughs dryly. "I've no talent for instruments, but I haven't been thrown out of the inns I've sung at."

Crow brightens, delighted. "Ah! Perhaps you will sing for us, then. I doubt my own voice would be to your tastes."

While the conversation carries on, Atsu meanders in the grasses on the roadside, occasionally ducking to examine the plants. Ryojiro paces him, watching curiously as Atsu gently cuts several grasses at the root, but is otherwise content to remain quiet.

They spend the night in the village of Rugashi, setting out at dawn beneath another clear, cool sky. Soon enough, they come upon Oiku, a military town with some thousands of troops. There is little here of interest, so most travelers spend only a single night before moving on. Even so, Ryojiro keeps an eye out in the village for anything suspicious, but finds everything as it should be.

After a bath, they gather in the common area of the inn. Ryoko tends to hover near Crow, who is all too happy to accommodate her presence. Atsu gorges while Shio samples the inn’s specialty--a rather unremarkable oden--and Ryojiro inspects the well-used communal Go board. Daiyu eats a modest dinner, then seats herself in a distant corner of the room to play a melancholy tune on her shamisen.

A cold breeze carries the rain inside as a damp-looking Crane man hurries into the inn, vigorously shaking his parasol. He is handsome and well-built, with long black hair held back in a ponytail. He shakes the water out of his kimono. “My pony is simply covered in mud! It’s only the mercy of the Fortunes that spared my kimono from the same fate! Hot sake, please!” he calls in a plaintive voice. He drifts to a small table in the center of the room.

Ryojiro turns a sour look at the outburst, and while Atsu does not stop eating, he glares at the Crane from over his bowl.

Another gust of chill, drizzly air blows into the common room not long after as another man comes through the door: Tonbo Ukiya, his hair wet and lank from the rain. He looks around the room with a frantic, harried expression, his face flushed. It’s difficult to tell whether the drops trickling down his brow are sweat or rain. He spots Ryoko's table and relief floods his face as he hurries over.

“Asako-sama! I am relieved you are well–I thought perhaps the weather had stranded you on the road.”

Shio narrows her eyes at Ukiya and smiles unpleasantly up at him. Ryoko remains cold and unresponsive, her shoulders stiffening. She sips a cup of hot sake and keeps her eyes to the table.

Atsu huffs like a bull in Ukiya’s direction, as if to caution his excitement.

“Has the road been safe so far? No troubles, I hope?” Ukiya looks to Crow, then those nearby. As he recognizes Shio, his expression hardens. Rain drips from his hair as he takes a breath, steadying himself. He removes a damp, folded letter from his kimono and presses on.

“Asako-sama, I have… That is… I wish to present to you once more my petition for your hand in marriage. I… My daimyo would be most pleased by such a harmonious match… It would help improve relations between our Clans…”

Crow slowly pushes up from the table, placing herself between Ryoko and Ukiya. Her stance is defensive, but not threatening.

There is no sound but Ryojiro’s loud, long sigh and the droning pluck of Daiyu’s shamisen.

Emboldened by Crow’s presence, Ryoko takes in a sharp breath, her posture stiffening. "My family has already rejected your offer, Tonbo-san.”

“Please, Asako-sama, if you will just listen.” Ukiya becomes increasingly frantic, babbling, raising his voice, trying to shove his letter into her hands--even with Crow standing in the way. Crow plants her hand squarely in the center of his chest, holding him at bay without struggle.

“Please, Tonbo-san,” Crow says.

Atsu’s eyebrows rise in exhausted disbelief that does not touch the rest of his face. He continues eating.

“A-Asako-sama, please," Ukiya blubbers.

"The lady is on an official trip,” Ryojiro interjects, crossing the room to him to stand close. “I see that the road has tired you--please, come with me and let me buy you dinner. We can discuss matters as you see fit."

Ukiya ignores Ryojiro, ducking past Crow and trying to press the letter into Ryoko’s hands. There is the hard, swift sound of a slap as Ryoko's hand connects with his cheek. He stumbles backward, flushed with shock and pain. He clenches his fists, trembling with humiliation, before he abruptly storms out of the inn.

Atsu slows the pace of his eating enough to watch him leave, muttering something about five fingers to the face.

Crow relaxes, turning halfway to look at Ryoko. Shio heaves out a great sigh.

Ryoko breathes heavily as Ukiya departs, hands clenched into loose fists at her sides. Once he is out of sight and the people around the inn have returned to their meals, her face softens. "Thank you," she offers to Ryojiro and Crow, giving a shallow bow.

Daiyu keeps her voice low, her music sliding to a halt. "How many may we anger before the flames have grown too tall?” she muses.

Atsu severs the sour mood with a few swats of his hand against the table, sending its contents hopping into the air. "You should all be eating! You cannot finish a journey without the strength to carry you! EAT!”

Shio laughs. It isn’t long before Crow’s nervousness melts away and she laughs as well. Together with Ryoko they resume their meal, though Ryoko seems drained following the confrontation. When Crow has finished eating, she resumes her attempts at conversation. Shio’s responses are distracted at best. She often lapses into odd silences to stare into the dark. With each downed cup of sake, Crow’s focus drifts further and further toward Ryoko, and her contributions to the conversation take a slow, steady turn towards brazen flirtation.

Atsu inhales another bowl of noodles, while Daiyu distances herself to inspect her traveling pack. Shio and Crow are somewhat deep in their cups, while Ryojiro sits nearby and reads from a small, bound book with a blank cover. Ryoko has exercised more self-control, but still, her cheeks are pink and her smile is easy. It’s unclear if this is due to sake or Crow’s persistent advances.

Crow is just comparing the flush in her neck to a carnation’s hue when the distressed Crane from earlier in the evening nears their table. Drier now, and in somewhat better spirits, he wanders near Ryoko, massaging his temple. Crow watches him, slowly righting her posture. Her smile is polite, but to fully hide her irritation at the interruption is a lost cause.

“Ah, fellow travelers. I am Kakita Umasu, a specialist in flower arrangement traveling to Crane lands—and you are?" He looks between them all, but his eyes settle on Ryoko, who does not return his gaze. "I imagine we'll be sharing the road quite soon."

Umasu bows perhaps less deeply than he should. Daiyu glances up from her pack to peer at him.

"What makes you think that?" Atsu says bluntly.

Umasu’s eyebrows shoot straight up. "You plan to stay here longer than one night, then? It is a positively dreadful place, don’t you think? I would hate to see that horrible man on the road again." He adds in a mumble.

Crow watches the Crane closely, doing her best to keep her expression neutral. Her posture is straight and formal. "I hope you can forgive my friend. He is very… forward!” she says with a smile. Atsu grunts. “I am called Crow.”

"I am Kitsune Shio." She gives a shallow bow in her seat. "If the road is too muddy, perhaps we may need to stay.”

Umasu bows, a pleased smile spreading across his face as Ryoko finally meets his gaze.

Ryoko quietly inhales. "I am Asako Ryoko. It is a pleasure to meet you, Kakita-san. Though it is a bit odd to meet a Crane in these lands, would you not say?"

"VERY odd, I think,” Atsu picks at his teeth, “for the white-feathered fiend to risk muddying his purity."

Umasu gives a long-suffering sigh and looks to Atsu. "Ah, to share the road with you is less a pleasure for me than you, I assure you."

Crow tries not to smirk. Atsu stares. Shio swallows a smile with a gulp of sake.

"It never crossed my mind otherwise." Atsu’s tone is far too quiet and polite for someone his size, but then he digs a speck of something from his teeth and softly puhs it into his empty bowl.

Umasu scoffs, raising his eyebrows. He bows slightly at the waist, smiles, and takes his leave of them. Atsu scowls at his back.

Ryoko watches as Umasu leaves, lips thinned into a line. She picks at what remains of her rice. After a moment, she looks up at Crow.

Shio leans a little closer to Ryoko and says in an undertone, "Do you wish to retire, Asako-san? Dawn will come quickly."

Ryoko looks toward the door, then back to Shio. She gives a slight bow of her head. "I think that would be... wise, yes."

Crow looks to Shio, then Ryoko. "I will walk you to our quarters, if you'd like."

Ryoko stands. "Yes. Would you accompany me?"

Crow nods, slowly pushing to her feet. It’s difficult to contain her grin, but thankfully she can blame the sake. Each of them give Shio a bow, then make their way out of the common area. The walk to Ryoko’s room is quiet, and Crow maintains a respectful distance despite her inclinations.

When they come to the sliding door to her quarters, Crow pauses just outside. She turns to Ryoko, brow knit, and looks down at her. "You seem ill at ease, Asako-san. What troubles you?" she asks quietly.

Ryoko leans against the wall, looking between Crow and the common area past her shoulder. Few people occupy it as the hour grows late. "I would prefer not to share the road with that Crane.”

Crow hums thoughtfully, but nods with little hesitation and bows. "I will tell the others. Do not hesitate to call on me in the night if you have need of anything."

Ryoko nods, hesitating, and looks between the door and Crow. She pauses, as if considering. Then she bows, smiling, before disappearing past the sliding door.

Crow lingers for a few more seconds, then makes her way back to Shio. She settles in next to her, speaking in a whisper. "We should gather the others as soon as we are able in the morning and leave early. Asako-san does not wish to share the road with the Crane—I believe she is concerned."

Shio nods once to Crow and after a suitable casual interval stands, meandering towards the back. Crow sits long enough to savor a cup of tea, waiting to see if Tonbo Ukiya will return, before retiring to their quarters.

 

A wide, well-used road ascends a long earthen levee to a forty-foot wide, imposing wooden bridge. It crosses the broad, dark course of the Drowned Merchant River on a series of thick wooden posts. The bridge arches near the center of the river, vaulting across an eighty-foot span where the water is deepest. A kobune ship passes beneath the arch, oars beating steadily as it makes its way upstream. Several merchants travel the road with two-wheeled carts and sturdy ponies, their wares clanking as they journey northward.

A pair of Lion ashigaru flank the sides of the bridge, their spears planted into the wood.

Atsu glances neutrally at the ashigaru and tosses his apple core aside. Crow, not thrilled at the presence of the Lion soldiers, doesn't afford them a look, walking with her head down. Shio straightens herself out at the sight of the bridge, craning to see over Atsu and Crow’s too-tall shoulders. Daiyu, lost in thought, nearly walks right into Shio when they stop.

Ryoko reaches into her sleeve and wordlessly presents their traveling papers with a bow. The ashigaru offer deep, respectful bows in return. She moves on, tucking the papers into her obi. As they cross the bridge, moving out of earshot of the Lion, she sucks in a deep breath.

"It should not be long now. I thank you for... handling the situation last night." She glances over her shoulder at them.

Atsu looks confused for a brief spell before realization dawns on him. "OH! You speak of the Dragonfly?!"

Ryoko flinches at his volume, but smiles. "Yes."

“I handled nothing, Asako-san.” Crow’s smile is soft as she looks down at Ryoko.

Shio bows her head. "It was our—duty."

Ryoko looks to Crow. Her cheeks flush pink. She looks to Shio and Atsu. "You are modest. You did more than enough."

Atsu gives a solemn mm, mm of agreement and a sincere nod. Crow hums to herself.

The road follows the riverside, where soon the air begins to grow thick with humidity. Trails of mist curl up from the damp earth as they approach another bridge. No Lion stand guard here. Behind them, the merchants and their carts have become small with distance, and the mist has thickened to a dense, nearly opaque fog obscuring the bridge’s center.

The fog pulls Shio, who has seemed lost in her own world for a while, back to the present. Her steps slow as she tilts her head, listening. She freezes in place, her hand going automatically to the hilt of her katana. She puts out her hand in a signal to ‘stop.’

Crow stops, glancing at Shio, hand hovering at the hilt of her katana.

Atsu slowly removes his knapsack from the end of his tetsubo, eyes narrowed. Daiyu draws her fan and flicks it open. She hovers toward the rear, maintaining a defensive stance.

"What is it?" Crow keeps her voice low. Shio’s eyes narrow as she squints into the mist.

"Magic, I think. I hear someone," she says quietly.

"Magic?!” Any pretense of stealth is lost when Atsu speaks. “Is it not just fog?!"

Ryoko takes a few steps forward, peering into the mist—and then her eyebrows draw together and her eyes suddenly snap shut. There is a thump of as she falls limply backwards, dropping off the bridge. The fog swallows her.

Crow looks back in time to watch her disappear. Eyes wide, she draws her katana and rushes after her without thought, her path cutting through the fog. Beyond it is Tonbo Ukiya, Ryoko under his arm, chanting beneath his breath. He takes flight, a swirl of mist beneath his feet.

Shio gapes at him incredulously, stunned. The sight slows Crow’s dash with half a stumble. She quickly regains her bearings, throws her sleeve off, and grabs at anything she can reach. He has nearly cleared six feet when Crow’s hand wraps around his ankle; he grunts in protest and almost drops Ryoko as he struggles. "This has nothing to do with you, ronin! She is mine!"

A series of inhuman, angry rattling sounds emerge from Shio’s chest. She grabs her hair and pulls, as though undoing the knot of an obi, and the skin slides off, replaced by dark feathers struck with white. With a violent heave, she explodes upward, grabbing Ukiya by the neck, wrenching backwards in a sweep of black wings.

Crow’s grip on Ukiya’s ankle falters from the added weight—then the shock of something so far beyond the realm of her comprehension: a bird, a giant bird, a kenku here, now, why—until the pieces fall into place and panicked apprehension melts into relief.

Ukiya’s eyes go wide, his neck straining and shoulders quivering. The weight of Ryoko, Crow, and Shio is too much for his magic. He clatters to the bridge, his cry of pain muffled by the fog. Ryoko’s sleeping body tumbles like a rag doll.

Atsu gawks, but he is not one to waste time. As a now-feathered Shio struggles to keep Ukiya pinned beneath her small frame, he hefts his tetsubo over his shoulder, beating his chest with a loud kiai.

Tonbo Ukiya scrambles backwards on his palms as Atsu advances on him, massive, focused, terrifying. He holds up a hand in a silent plea, stumbling over sounds that are almost words. Atsu delivers a single, massive blow, void of anything but focus. Ukiya shudders, then goes still. The fog immediately begins to thin, drawn back into the river and air.

A pregnant silence passes. Atsu looms over the heap that was once Ukiya, his tetsubo pressed into the bridge. Crow and Daiyu stare, but it only takes a moment for Crow to come to her senses and dart to Ryoko’s side. Though still asleep, she is untouched, unharmed by the fall. Crow wipes a speckling of Ukiya’s blood from her cheek and carefully lifts her.

Ukiya’s blood spreads slowly across the bridge and runs in rivulets into the dark river below. Atsu sniffs, producing a rag and cleaning the gore from his tetsubo. Shio looks between the body and Atsu and back again, stunned.

“Kitsune-san!” Crow cries out in confusion and question, but the sound of fast-approaching footfalls draws their attention behind them. The merchants on the road have begun to catch up, Kakita Umasu among them. Wide-eyed and holding his parasol, he gasps and clears the distance to them. Propriety forgotten in his distress, he flutters over Ryoko. Shio’s head swivels around to stare at him, her pupils pinning wildly in distress.

"My, is—is Asako-san well? H-how terrible!"

There is a shift of silk, the scratch of parchment, as he pulls a folded letter from her red kimono. Though his spindly fingers are deft, he cannot conceal his intent. Daiyu steps forward, eyes narrowed, her fan pointed at the Crane.

"I don't believe that belongs to you. Shall I be forced to call you a thief?" Daiyu asks, accusation in her tone.

"You dare question my honor? You misunderstand me!"

Crow’s bewilderment quickly turns to a pointed glare. "Sneaking something off an unconscious woman? I see little to be misunderstood."

Shio's feathers rise in agitation as she swivels to face the Crane. She glares viciously, hand on the hilt of her katana.

Atsu flares his nostrils, trying to look like he wasn't waiting for this. He lunges for Umasu with a loud kiai.

Kakita Umasu sighs as the situation unravels. He tears himself free of the loose-fitting Crane kimono to reveal drab, slimmer attire with no mon.

What was once Kakita Umasu is revealed to be the guise of a woman, who slips deftly from Atsu’s grasp. She draws a blowgun from her robes and dives headlong into the river. Atsu wastes no time in pursuing. His tetsubo drops onto the bridge with a thud as he leaps into the water after her. Shio spits something unintelligible and takes a running hop into the air behind him, flapping awkwardly to try and gain some speed and altitude, but the air is still sodden, impeding her.

While Umasu is fast, Atsu is faster. She dives beneath the surface, moving swiftly down river. Atsu keeps pace with her, his head thrashing in the water as he swims, but Umasu clears the distance like a fish--quickly enough that her silhouette beneath the water soon disappears. When he begins to catch up, she uses both hands to swim, but the water rushes into her, knocking the letter from her grasp. Daiyu slides to her knees in the mud to catch the letter as it drifts quickly downstream.

Shio drifts back to the ground once she sees the letter has been reclaimed. She lands messily, cursing at the mud, and tiptoes her way back to Crow, who is doing her best to wake Ryoko.

Atsu resurfaces near the others, red-eyed. He is waterlogged and winded, but otherwise fine. He places both hands on his knees, catching his breath. He glances over to Ukiya’s corpse, seemingly satisfied that it hasn’t moved.

Ryoko takes in a tiny breath, coughs, and stirs, eyebrows coming together. Slowly, her eyelids slide open, and when she sees Shio she cries out. "Ukiya—where is—"

Crow feels a tad more awkward now that Ryoko is awake, but sighs with relief. She lowers her down and helps steady her. "All is well, Asako-san. Kuni-san recovered your letter."

Daiyu approaches them, gently shaking water from the letter.

"My letter?" Realization dawns on her. She looks toward the bridge, towards the crushed, blood-splattered remnants of Ukiya, and gags. She covers her mouth with the back of her hand. "Who—Why did you—"

"Ah...! You were asleep! The Crane from last night, he… She. Slipped a letter from your kimono," Crow says.

"No! Not that! You killed him—why did you—" Her voice rises an octave into outrage, but she's too breathless and shaken to summon up more. She looks down at the grass, smoothing her hands over her kimono, and eventually lifts her gaze once she finds her composure. "Where is the Crane?" she asks, holding out her hand to Daiyu for the letter.

Shio cocks her head to the side, looking at Ryoko from another angle. "Tonbo-san attempted to kidnap you. His death was justly deserved," she says matter-of-factly. "The ‘Crane’ escaped."

Atsu nods in agreement with Shio--then double-takes upon realizing Shio is a bird.

Ryoko shakes her head, a bubble of frustration splitting her otherwise placid features. "You do not understand. He will require a funeral, his daisho and body sent to his family. I was present for his death. This will not—" She takes a deep breath. "This will not end kindly upon my family."

Atsu grunts. "Would anyone recognize him?"

"Please try not to worry, Asako-san,” Crow speaks after a quiet sigh, tempering her aversion to politics. “You were unconscious—and it was his own dishonorable deeds that brought these consequences to him."

"We are the only ones here,” Daiyu interjects. She flicks her fan shut and tucks it away. “All will be well.”

Ryoko exhales, glancing at Ukiya’s body. She goes a bit green. After some time, her face softens. "I... Thank you. For keeping me out of his hands." She gives Crow a lingering look before glancing to the others.

"He brought shame to his family, not to yours. We will make sure of that," Shio says, smoothing her feathers down at last. Mild disapproval touches her voice, as if Ryoko's lack of confidence hurts her. She folds her wings, taking a moment to finger-comb errant plumage back into place.

"We’ll report this to the ashigaru at the bridge we passed earlier. Asako-san will collect his daisho. They will handle the remains," Crow says.

Ryoko bows her head, taking in a slow, steady breath. "Crow is correct. That would be proper."

Atsu grimaces, then walks over to collect his belongings... and to alert the ashigaru.

One of the ashigaru meets them halfway to the bridge, eyes wide at the horror that has become of Ukiya's head. He offers a deep bow, lifting the tip of his helmet. He swallows, eyes darting from side to side. "I will... I will see that he is handled properly."

Crow looks lost in thought for a moment. "Tonbo Ukiya… attempted to kidnap our charge, Asako Ryoko. His fate was unfortunate, but necessary.”

"Necessary indeed. I will see to it."

"Our thanks," Shio says as she bows. The ashigaru bows deeply in return and departs.

Crow sighs, smoothing a hand over her hair before she tucks her arm back into her sleeve. She looks toward the group, then Ryoko. "Is everyone alright?"

Shio levels a look of deep tiredness at Crow. She nods.

"Let us hope there's a good sake house in town," Crow says with a strained chuckle.

Shio sighs. "There'd better be."

Asako Ryoko leans down, carefully collecting Tonbo Ukiya’s wakizashi.

 

The rest of their journey passes without incident. The weather proves fair, and though Ryoko is sobered from Ukiya’s death, her mood lightens with each day. After reaching Pale Oak Castle and seeing to their charge’s safety, the samurai settle in at the city of Michita Yasumi to recuperate. Several days pass before a courier finds them, carrying a letter bearing the Asako seal.

I thank you again for your services. Please convene at The Smiling Bowl at midday on the 5th day of the Sun. I would like to see you off before your journey.

Asako Ryoko