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Following the burning of the Red Fox Inn, the samurai gather at Akodo Torokai's request to discuss their plans as yoriki moving forward.
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In the three days since the burning of the Red Fox Inn, the sky has finally cleared of smoke. North Hub Village buzzes with rumor. Some of the townspeople even know the samurai’s names—or some approximation of them—and curious eyes have followed them through the streets during their stay. Rumors that Yukira has not been executed, that he sits in the Magistrate’s prison, that he has been spirited away to another city, float through the streets.
It is a warm, sunny spring morning when Akodo Torokai requests their presence at yet another noodle shop—apparently his favourite place to do business. This one specializes in soba noodles. It is just past noon when Crow arrives, both hopeful and hesitant; she’d wanted to depart for Kitsune Mori with Shio, but the summons of an Emerald Magistrate are not to be declined. She finds a seat near the entrance and orders a bowl of soba with glossy mahogany broth.
It’s not long before Atsu enters, holding up his hand in a gesture of "three" to the server. He barges through the lunch crowd and sits next to Crow, who smiles through the mop of noodles hanging from her mouth.
“Good morning, Crow-san!” He beams toothly at her.
[Crow’s mouth is stuffed, barely intelligible] “Good morning!”
Shio still looks slightly haggard, but brightens as the crowd ebbs and she spots the others. Already halfway through a bowl of soba, she noisily slurps up a few noodles before hoisting her things and shuffling over to sit beside them.
[Atsu, excited] “Good morning, Kitsune-san!”
[Shio, tired but content] “Good morning, Hida-san.”
A tray of three heaping noodle bowls laid out before Atsu quickly distracts him.
Ryojiro meanders in, just returned from a morning walk, with Daiyu not far behind. The brim of her hat is tilted well down to shadow her eyes, and she has draped herself in a deep blue travel cape as though trying to disguise herself.
They sit with their companions and order modest portions. Daiyu hovers over her rice, head low, her demeanor more grim than usual. Save for idle greetings, they all eat in contented silence.
As the lunch rush begins to dissipate, Torokai passes through the cream-colored noren in the doorway, his step light; he’s clearly glad to be free of the charge of protecting Otomo Sojin and his son. He bows deeply as he approaches the samurai, face alight with a broad smile.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice. I thought it best to give you news in person—and with food." [laugh] “That always makes things a little easier.” He settles into a seat and orders two deep bowls of soba. Once he's halfway through the first bowl, he places it gently on the table.
He reaches into his kimono and pulls out letters for each of the samurai, their wax seals stamped with the mon of the Matsu family of the Lion clan: a massive lion paw grasping a katana. Inside are wedding invitations to the joining of a member of the Ikeda, a vassal family of the Matsu, and the Fukuro family of the Owl clan.
They look over the invitations with varying levels of confusion, apprehension, and discomfort. Despite their reactions, Torokai’s smile doesn’t dim. He sips his tea. "I have told Ikeda-san of your assistance so far. He has requested your presence.”
Daiyu stares at the invitation as if it’s an entirely foreign concept. She lowers the paper to stare, instead, into her bowl of noodles. She tilts her head very slightly.
Crow puts on her best smile and nods as eagerly as she can muster. [without conviction] “I would be honored to attend.”
Shio squints at the invitation for a moment before rolling it up with care. "As would I."
[Atsu, grunts neutrally] “Yes, Akodo-sama. I will attend.”
Only Ryojiro seems pleased, his smile genuine and ever polite. “Of course, Akodo-sama.”
[Torokai: while grinning, pleased] “Very good! Ikeda-san will be pleased.”
Silence sets in. The group exchanges uncertain glances and looks of discomfort as Torokai begins to eat. Ryojiro takes a long, contented sip of broth, his smile undiminished.
[Crow, ashamed, but trying to smile] “...I'm afraid the only clothes that I own are the ones on my back. When is the marriage? I should like to buy something better suited to the occasion.” Atsu and Daiyu nod in agreement. Crow’s embarrassed grimace eases.
[Torokai, smiling] "There will be time enough for that, Crow-san." Torokai finishes the last of his noodles, washes it down with tea, and stands. "We’ll leave the day after tomorrow for Shiro Matsu. Make what preparations you need!"
With a day left in North Hub Village, the samurai part ways to prepare for the journey ahead. Crow, Atsu, and Daiyu first procure finer kimonos, and alongside Ryojiro and Shio, purchase wedding gifts for the Ikeda.
The journey to Shiro Matsu is uneventful, marked by Atsu’s loud, tuneless humming and Shio’s accompaniment of flourishing, bird-like whistles. The peace is a chance to appreciate the slow progression of plains into rocky hills. Peasants toil in the wide rice paddies under warm spring sunshine, and the fields are green with the year’s first planting.
Crow enjoys the scenery and weather, her spirits higher once North Hub Village is a mere dot on the plains behind them. Ryojiro inspects the pink, budding trees as they pass. Daiyu spends much of the time at camp practicing minor shugenja rituals, meditation, and tea ceremonies to clear her mind. After the first few days, she cannot bring herself to finish her face paint. Bare-faced, her unease is even more obvious.
After weeks of plains and farmland, the splendor of Shiro Matsu’s mighty walls on the horizon is a shocking sight. The immense castle sits stern and immovable above the green valleys, nearly one-hundred feet tall at its summit. Its walls dwarf the teeming city below. As the military heart of the Lion lands, thousands of troops train tirelessly in the plains surrounding its sprawling courtyards and dojos. Golden Matsu banners hang on poles along the walls, fluttering in the gentle breeze.
As they pass through the gates, they find the streets decorated for the first day of the Cherry Blossom Festival. Paper lanterns painted with flowers hang from eaves and poles, and hinin and samurai alike picnic beneath the just-blooming cherry trees. The air is warm and sweet-scented with blossoms. Even the stoic Lion are smiling.
[Torokai, smiling] "It seems we are just in time, then!"
[Ryojiro] "Ikeda-san chose a fortuitous time to marry! Perhaps Daikaihime-sama will be watching from the trees during the ceremony?"
Shio reaches up to brush a hand along some blossoms as they ride beneath them, smiling. [cheerful] "And hopefully Kuroshin-sama will bless their fields this year.”
"It's quite beautiful. A sight more pleasant than… Well." North Hub Village’s name is left unsaid, but Crow’s implication sits heavily in the air. The return to civilization has reminded her of it, and her mood sours. Ryojiro shakes his head and pats the road’s dust from his clothes, looking forward to not feeling soiled every time he touches something.
[Shio, hesitantly] "Ye-es.”
Atsu peers at the picnickers with a beetled brow. “Are none of these fools armed? Do they wish to be slain?”
Ryojiro glances over at Atsu, briefly bewildered before he remembers: oh. Crab. “The Cherry Blossom Festival is a celebration of life’s cycle, Hida-san. Life, death, and rebirth.”
[Torokai] “The Matsu revere the traditions of the Empire. Only yojimbo, magistrates, and guards may carry their weapons.”
[Ryojiro, reminding him] “It’s inauspicious to spill blood while the flowers bloom.”
[Atsu, grumbled] “Hmmph. Fair enough.” Atsu grimaces. Being reminded of the existence of court always dampens his mood.
Torokai directs them to the stables first. He stretches as they dismount, clearly thrilled to get off of his pony after days of riding. A servant bows and leads their mounts into narrow, well-kept stalls.
Crow bids a very long farewell to her pony, only joining the rest once she has said her goodbyes and dusted herself off. [no hesitation] "I would very much like a bath...”
[Daiyu] “As would I.” Daiyu’s hat is pulled very low, as if to hide the fact that she hasn’t re-applied her face.
[Torokai, small laugh, grinning] "Of course. If you will follow me, I’ll lead us to Ikeda-san’s home."
The family’s estate is a large two-story house surrounded by an expansive walled garden. A dojo and large stable flank either side of the main building, festival lanterns strung along their eaves. Polite servants hold open the tall gates to the residence. On the polished wooden steps to the entrance, a young man in a fine, golden brown kimono awaits them. He is fine-boned, with decidedly boyish features and the beginnings of a mustache. He bows more deeply than necessary.
“Greetings, honored guests! I am Matsu no Ikeda Akimitsu. You honor my family by attending. Please, enter and be welcome in our home. Rest from your journey.”
Torokai is the first to offer his wedding gift once they are inside. Akimitsu refuses twice, as is customary, then accepts it with murmured thanks and a deep bow, his gratitude genuine.
[deeply grateful] “Thank you, Akodo-sama.”
Shio eyes Akimitsu curiously before she follows Torokai’s cue, digging out her gift from her bag and offering it to him. Unwrapped, it is a finely painted bowl depicting the Matsu's war-cats.
When he’s deemed it is his turn, Atsu bows and produces a box containing a matching set of silver chopsticks, stylized with etchings, their ends shaped into lions.
Daiyu presents a carefully wrapped and tied fan.
Ryojiro presents a scroll of Matsu legends.
Finally, Crow presents a modest wooden box etched with a depiction of rolling plains.
Akimitsu bows deeply with each gift, politely rejecting them twice before inspecting each with care and reverence. He gently passes the gifts to a semi-circle of servants behind him.
"Thank you, samurai-sans. I deeply regret that our… number of guests has limited our private quarters, and that you must share rooms. Bathe and wash away the road, and this evening we will feast."
Atsu stands up straighter at the mention of a welcome feast, his smile wide and bright.
[Crow, trying to temper enthusiasm] “Thank you, Ikeda-san.”
[Shio, beaming at the thought of food] "It is no burden. My gratitude, Ikeda-san."
Daiyu’s face is rigid, but her bow is sincere nonetheless.
The servants behind Akimitsu step forward, bow in unison, and escort the guests in a slow-moving line to a set of rooms on the second floor. They pair up familiar parties, housed at separate ends of the diverging hall.
Shio, Crow, and Daiyu are placed in one room, while Ryojiro and Atsu are led to another, accompanied by a surly Crab. He is a blunt, squat, solid man who looks more like a commoner than a samurai, with beady eyes and receding hair pulled into a small top-knot.
Atsu wastes no time in staring the Crab down upon entering; it's important to get these things out of the way. He eyes Atsu in turn, then leers at Ryojiro’s Owl mon and sniffs.
After an awkward pause, the man gives a stiff bow directed only to Atsu in an unsubtle snub at Ryojiro. [curtly] "I am Yasuki Arinori.”
[Atsu, grunted] "Hida Atsuryokunabe.”
Smalltalk is obviously not Ryojiro’s favourite pastime. He greets Arinori with a polite, but very short, bow. [unsure of how pleased--but not very] "Kitsuki Ryojiro. Pleased to meet you."
Arinori bows stiffly in return, his niceties finished, and proceeds with unpacking. His eyes occasionally dart to the side as though he’s withholding a comment he can't swallow all the way. [blurted] "It's a surprise to see another of the Crab here. Especially one of the Hida."
[Atsu: forced smile] "Yes! It is a surprise!"
Arinori grunts and turns away, his smile forced. Their unpacking is a tense affair from start to finish.
Crow, Daiyu, and Shio settle into their rooms undisturbed and make their way to the bath. Shio’s bathing habits are a mess; she manages to get the soap off of herself before entering the water, but it seems to be a near thing with all her flapping and dunking. The spectacle eclipses Crow’s capacity for etiquette. She watches Shio, caught between amusement, confusion, and sympathy.
Daiyu, likewise, doesn’t resist the temptation to stare. If asked later—which she hopes she isn't—she would describe Shio as "hard to watch", but not unlike a terrible accident where one feels drawn to bear witness anyway.
After a short time, the servants in the hall slowly slide open the doors to announce the impending welcome feast, their heads bowed. The samurai finish their bath with haste and return to their room to dress.
When they gather outside of the dining area, they draw more than a few second looks. Though they have donned their new clothing, they each seem slightly off in their own way. Perhaps it’s the severity of Daiyu's expression beneath her reapplied face paint; or the wild mess of Crow's hair, at odds with the pristine brown silk of her kimono; or the worrying creak from the seams at Atsu's shoulders. Shio, at least, seems perfectly at home in her finery, even pleased, preening as they wait; she doesn't get to dress nicely very often and relishes it, even if the hakama are a bit too big on her.
Ryojiro is the last to emerge, looking stressed beneath a practiced veneer of etiquette, but spotless all the same. It’s clear he’s spent an excess of time preparing for this dinner, and his hair and clothing are immaculate--at the cost of his calm.
The feast is held in a long, well-lit hall with high ceilings and wood bracings. The food is hearty and plain, with an abundance of chicken rather than court-popular fish. As with most Lion food, it is presented with little decorative flair, but in impressively large portions.
The long series of tables are lined with a diverse wealth of guests, ranging from minor representatives of the Great Clans to a collection of Monkey clan bushi. The crowd is surprisingly large--larger than expected for a vassal family’s wedding. The core of the Ikeda family sits at the head of the table, along with the bride-to-be and her yojimbo. Only he remains armed.
Torokai sits at a place of honor further up the table. The samurai settle into cushions some ways away from the bride and groom. Seated closest to them are the Crab, Yasuki Arinori; Kitsune Mara, an old, thin woman with a wry smile; and Isawa Gidayu, a young, stocky man with a nervous, preoccupied air.
Mara is bright and active beyond her years, with green eyes, a pointed chin, and gleaming, silver-white hair bound into a single long braid. She smiles as she listens to the conversations around her, nursing a small cup of tea. Shio gravitates to the other Kitsune with delight, giving her a deep bow and a friendly smile.
Mara looks at Shio, smiling at her. She looks at Ryojiro and Crow, who bow in their seats. The deep lines around her eyes and mouth crinkle with pleasure. "Ah, I have not met you before, samurai. From where do you come?"
"I am Kitsuki Ryojiro of Shinomen Mori, though these days I mostly come from wherever my investigations have taken me."
[Seemingly stumped by the question, after a moment's hesitation] "The road." [awkward, apologetic] “I am called Crow.” She gives another half-bow in her seat, eyebrows drawn together.
Shio gives Crow a sympathetic glance, then tilts her head at Mara. “Kitsune Shio, of Kitsune Mori—though I have not had the pleasure of resting at home of late.”
[Mara, brightly] "Ah, Kitsune Mori? That is good, good. Quite a long journey. Too much for my old bones." [laughs, then to Crow] She looks at Crow. "The road is a good place from which to come, though, is it not? Your path is open.”
Crow seems relieved by the answer. She nods and smiles appreciatively.
[Mara] "And a Kitsuki. You are of the Owl, then? I’m truly honored to have met your kind. Unfortunately very few in number!"
Ryojiro offers a respectful bow. "And I am honored to meet someone close to the forest in my travels."
[Mara: soft laugh] “It is indeed a rare sight, Kitsuki-san.”
[Shio, amiably] "I find Lion lands are a fine place to rest if one cannot return to the wood. I’ve spent some time here and they’ve treated me well. And Ikeda-san has been most hospitable."
[Mara, laughing] "Oh, yes. Though the mountains do take some getting used to.”
Ryojiro shifts in his seat, looking away. Nostalgia and anxiety tighten his features as he looks among the pairs of samurai around him, listening to their conversations. He stares at the sea of brown and gold kimonos, focusing on the Lion mon emblazoned over hearts and stretched across backs.
[Ryojiro] “Yes. I am finding that to be true.”
Crow listens, eating in silence for a while longer before it wears on her. [offered tentatively; trying to keep eagerness subdued] "Kitsune-san and I have plans to visit the Kitsune Mori, though they were delayed. How are things in the forest? It’s been too long since I laid eyes on it."
Though Mara contains her excitement, it’s clear that she cares less about etiquette than most. After all, she can blame it on her age. [happy, beaming] "Ah, you have not seen the forest of late? It is still a beautiful place, truly. As beautiful as ever, but..." [pause, saddened] "Troubled.”
Crow stops, chopsticks halfway to her mouth. She lowers them and sits up. "Troubled?"
Ryojiro straightens, his attention caught. Shio glances between them as she sips her tea, interest tinged with concern. She has her suspicions regarding what this “trouble” may be about, but doesn’t dare voice it here.
Mara purses her lips, considering, but her smile never falters. "Troubled is the best word for it, I think? Trouble in the animals, the water. There are... rumors, but nothing substantial." This is obviously innuendo: it's not polite for dinner conversation.
[Crow, frowning] "I am sorry to hear it."
[Mara, waving it off] "Do not trouble yourself. Balance will be restored soon. I have faith in that."
Crow's smile returns a bit. She exchanges a glance with Shio before they both continue their meal.
Isawa Gidayu is the quietest person at the table, a short, stocky young man with a natural frown, his black hair in a tidy top knot. He silently prods his food with a single, plain chopstick. Atsu pointedly sits beside him. In a rare polite moment, he tries not to stare. Daiyu sits on his other side, attracted by Gidayu’s Isawa mon; she’s spent so much time in the Isawa school that it seems her only choice.
After several minutes of obliviousness to Daiyu’s silence and Atsu’s chewing, he glances over, startled from his reverie, nearly dropping his chopsticks into his bowl. He takes a hurried sip of tea. "My apologies, I was lost in thought. You are of the Hida?"
[Atsu, forgetting to use inside voice] "YES!" [mumbled apology, lowered volume] "I am indeed Hida Atsuryokunabe!"
Gidayu flinches. He tries to smile. It leaves something to be desired. "I see. I know very little of the Hida, I am afraid. The Kuni, though… I’ve heard quite a lot.”
Across the table, Arinori shoots them a look of disdain. Daiyu glares at him, and Atsu meets his gaze, his eyes widening in red-rimmed indignation. He turns pointedly back to Gidayu.
[Atsu, semi-polite laugh, still having trouble controlling volume] "If you do not frequent the Shadowlands, I would not expect you to know a great deal, eh?"
Daiyu freezes in place. Gidayu's smile tightens. He glances around to see if anyone else has noticed. Fortunately, they all seem caught in their own conversations. [quietly] "Yes. Of course.” He looks away, clearly regretting his choice of seat.
Daiyu stares into the middle distance, her eyebrows pinched. Several seconds pass before she thaws and neatly sets her chopsticks down, taking her tea in both hands. "What brings you to this wedding? We're a long way from the school."
Gidayu's face tightens even more. "I was sent an invitation after assisting Ikeda-san's bride-to-be."
[Daiyu, smiling] "How kind of you. What kind of troubles did you assist with? If you don't mind sharing the tale."
Atsu busies himself with a cutlet of chicken, dragging some of the meat onto his plate. It was on the table in front of him; therefore, it was meant for him. He looks between the two as he eats.
[Gidayu, tightly] "I helped instruct the young Fukuro-sama in the ways of prayer and cleansing. Among other topics."
Atsu nods appreciatively, speaking through mouthful of chicken. "Oh! So you are a priest, then?!"
Gidayu stares at him, lip curled, before he forces his expression under control. "I am no shugenja, but I am trained in some small things. My path is that of the court."
Though Daiyu is surprised and a little relieved, her expression is bland. Her own Isawa mon now feels more like a target than anything else.
After sake has been brought to follow tea, Ikeda Tanaka, the family daimyo, stands at the head of the tables. He is a proud, aging man with streaks of gray at his temples.
[Tanaka, over a din of conversation that soon fades] "My honored guests. I thank you all for your attendance. I invite you to my family's garden for an after-dinner gathering and a round of sake."
The spring night is warm, with a scattering of clouds in a red-violet sky. Cherry blossoms flutter like snow in the breeze as cricketsong drifts over soft conversation. Colourful paper lanterns are strung between the trees surrounding the garden, casting soft, flickering light over the paths, as though the guests have stepped from Ningen-do to another realm. Polite, low conversation flows through the crowd as they find comfortable places, forming small groups of like clans.
Tanaka steps forward once everyone has settled, hands neatly behind his back.
[Tanaka, warmly] “Friends, brothers, sisters, welcome. It’s been far too long since my home has seen so many guests. The Lion Clan has always placed great value on stories, through which we may remember the deeds of the blessed ancestors. I invite you all to view the lovely blossoms in my garden and honor our ancestors with the telling of tales.
“To thank you for your attendance, I wish to have a small contest. The teller of the best tale will receive a lantern, brought for the occasion by the young Kitsu Mokuna. It will protect the house displaying it from spirits that may wish harm.”
He inclines his head toward a young, black-haired man who stands amongst the Lions. Kitsu Mokuna is a stocky man of average height, with plain clothing touched by more intricate Kitsu mon patterns on his kimono. Mokuna bows deeply, holding up the lantern: it is simple but finely made, its paper sides painted with sigils of fire and light.
[appreciative murmur of the guests, fading quickly again]
[Tanaka] “In honor of the lady Fukuro Hisayo, who shall wed my son in two days’ time, I request she choose the topic for this evening’s stories—and tell the first tale. ”
The Owl woman bows graciously. She is young, with a round, unassuming face and black hair gathered with a simple, white strip of cloth at the base of her neck. She turns to the crowd, eyes modestly lowered. “I am but a young woman of limited skills, so I fear my tale will be a disappointment. I humbly ask that we tell stories about the spirits; they have always fascinated me.”
A few mutters float through the guests, but most seem unsurprised that an Owl would choose this subject. Crow, Daiyu, and Jiro lean forward in anticipation, while Atsu and Shio’s expressions are drawn, taciturn. Crow’s face lights up as an idea strikes her. She steps back to a nearby servant.
[Crow, quietly] “Please fetch my morin khuur from our rooms.”
After the whispers have died down, Hisayo takes a deep breath.
She tells a haunting tale of a woman who committed jigai after pining for her lost love. The woman’s spirit continued to haunt the grove the pair frequented, beckoning any man who passed by. Those who followed her ghost were never seen again, disappearing despite endless searching. Silence peppered with murmurs of appreciation hangs over the audience as the crowd digests. Hisayo bows and steps back, allowing Kitsu Mokuna to take her place.
[Mokuna, low, clear-voiced] “While I do have a tale to tell, I do not wish to be considered for this lantern. It is not my gift to receive.” He clears his throat and stands tall.
“I once read a story that told of a great warrior of ages past. She brought her Clan back from the brink of destruction with the strength of her will and her sword. In spite of her many victories, she was a true samurai, and upheld the tenets of Bushido without undue pride or arrogance.
“So great was her skill and dedication, that even when death came for her, she could not bear to rest. She was felled on the battlefield, and even as her last breath left her, her spirit rose and raised her blade once more. She struck down all who opposed her, and when no one was left to challenge her, she disappeared.”
Mokuna pauses, assessing the audience with a serious gaze. “But it is said that this mighty samurai still has not passed from Ningen-do--that any who walk across her resting place will hear the rattle of her armor and the hiss of her katana being drawn... That sometimes a warrior rides through the mists, searching for those who would dare question her honor.”
Crow openly enjoys herself, even if she finds that these stories lack any real punch. Daiyu smiles, but it's hard to say why exactly. Shio’s apprehension fades as the tales continue. This wasn’t what she was expecting after all. She sits back to listen rather than tell; she knows kenku tales, but doesn't particularly want to shake the party up that much.
Atsu likes other stories. Stories with rabbits and other animals helping each other steal food. He frowns intensely.
A young, cocky-looking Lion stands next, his mane of reddish golden hair spilling out around a bun at the back of his head. He is introduced as Matsu Hideo.
[Hideo, loudly]“I bring to you the tale of Honda, a skilled and honorable warrior--laid low by the treachery of his brother-in-arms, Yoshitaka! While born of different families, Honda and Yoshitaka were as close as brothers; they played as children, and trained beneath the same master in the ways of the sword and bow.
“As they grew older, it became clear that Honda was the more skilled, and he received great praise and admiration from his fellows. Yoshitaka, meanwhile, languished. He did not work as hard as Honda, but expected the same treatment--and soon, the realization that Honda would always be more beloved festered within him.
“Honda received a proposal of marriage from a family of great rank and status, who were impressed by his honor and prowess. Mad with jealousy, Yoshitaka came to Honda on the morning of his wedding, demanding he be wed instead. Honda refused, and Yoshitaka drew his blade and slew him! Even worse--Yoshitaka painted a tale of dishonor, saying that he had come upon Honda preparing to poison his master, and take the seat of his house and that of his betrothed.
“Yoshitaka wed Honda’s betrothed, and was beloved, while Honda’s name was disgraced.
“Though they burned his body and set his ashes loose to the wind, Honda’s spirit could not rest. Enraged by Yoshitaka’s betrayal, Honda’s spirit drifted, searching for a body to inhabit--and after many years, he found the half-rotten corpse of a ronin, and drove it to its feet. He became a gaki, and sought vengeance on Yoshitaka!
“Many years passed, and Yoshitaka’s secret was not discovered. He eventually became daimyo, but only through further treachery. But one moonless night, as Yoshitaka sat alone in his chambers, he heard something moving in his garden. Wary that a thief was at work, he opened the door and stepped out, drawing his sword. It was dark and cold--so dark that he could not see further than the edges of the lamplight in his rooms.
“‘Begone, trespasser! Or I shall cut you down like a dog!’ he called into the blackness.
“‘You cannot cut me down, Yoshi-kun,’ a voice called back. An awful voice, soft and wet like rotting meat. ‘You’ve never bested me in battle.’
“Yoshitaka felt fear, then, for the first time since he had killed Honda. He stepped back, his hands shaking. ‘Who dares speak to me so?’
“The darkness moved, and there came the sound of long…” Hideo pauses, taking a step forward, dragging his feet loosely against the stone. “Slow…” Another step, and another. “Dragging... footsteps across the earth. A hand, more bone than flesh, oozing rot, reached into the light, beckoning to Yoshitaka.
“‘Come closer, and see.’”
Hideo creeps closer to the audience. He reaches out, eyes wide. A thrilled, frightened shudder runs through them, a few bits of nervous laughter.
“Yoshitaka stumbled backwards, trying to run, too cowardly to face what he knew to be Honda. But the gaki was fast, and strong--he grabbed Yoshitaka by his kimono and held him close! He had no eyes, and his flesh slid off like snakeskin. Worms and centipedes crawled from his eye sockets and mouth, and maggots wriggled between his ribs. Yoshitaka tried to scream, but Honda took Yoshitaka’s sword and shoved it through his belly, just as Yoshitaka had killed him.
“As Yoshitaka fell, Honda’s spirit felt its freedom at last. His body crumbled to ash, leaving only a message burned into the floor beside Yoshitaka’s body: ‘I am Honda, and I claimed vengeance for my murder this day.’”
Hideo bows amidst the applause. He steps aside as the Ki-Rin representative, Ide Shizuyo, a young, shy girl with tan skin and brown hair, presents herself. She is dressed in an ornate, deep purple deel with gold detailing and a wide, silver obi.
“I bring to you a true story, one passed down in my family. My many times great grandmother was given the gift of it by her dear friend, the only one who survived these horrifying events.
“Many years ago, a patrol of Moto strayed from the path in the Twilight Mountains, searching for a shortcut to the Kaiu Wall. While they knew this was dangerous, they agreed that their time was short and this risk had to be taken. The Wall was under siege, and they feared they might be too late.
“The Moto were not foolish. They paid proper respects to the kami of the mountains as they passed. But soon they found the air had grown quiet. Twilight drew close around them, and the birds’ evensong was replaced by fearful silence. The Moto stopped, and their breath began to hang in the air in clouds despite it being close to midsummer.
“And from the dark came a sound...”
Shizuyo draws her voice from herself as only a Ki-Rin can: a low, buzzing moan emerges from her throat, tapering off into a hiss. The sound slithers through the garden, held for an impossibly long time, until Shizuyo ends it with a sudden, harsh yell. Several people in the audience jump. Shizuyo waits until they have resettled to continue, her face calm.
“‘Forgive us, kami-sama,’ the leader of the Moto, my grandmother’s dear friend, said. He prostrated himself on the earth, and his patrol did so as well. ‘We did not know we trespassed. Please forgive our error, let us return with proper offerings in apology.’
“But the spirit did not reply. The air grew colder, and the Moto began to shiver. Frost clawed at their hands, tempted them to rise from the earth and flee, but none of them dared move. My grandmother’s friend gathered his courage, and looked up.
“What he saw he did not have a name for, for it was a spirit shaped like a man, but so pale and cold and angry that it shook the very stone of the mountain. Its voice was a scream of wind and raging, dying things. With hands like razors, it cut down his companions--no matter that they stood and fought with great bravery. It swept aside blade and magic both, until none remained but my grandmother’s dearest friend: a single man standing amidst the mutilated bodies of his brothers, his spear raised as the spirit faced him.
“But the spirit stopped then, and looking at him, its fury turned colder, crueler. It touched its ice-sharp hand to his heart, and from the dark came a sound…”
Shizuyo moans and the crowd shudders, tensing in anticipation of another shout--but the sound tapers off into nothing before she speaks.
“He felt his life drawn from him, just as it had taken the lives of his patrol, pulled from his belly like thread being unspooled. Just before the last of him had been stolen, the spirit stopped, smiled with an unknowable rage--and was gone.” [pause] “When my grandmother’s dear friend finally escaped the mountains, his youth had left him: his strength devoured, leaving him stooped and withered, his hair gone white as a Crane’s.” [pause] “This is the story he gave my many times great grandmother, before he, too, died.”
Many of the guests are noticeably shaken by the end of Shizuyo’s tale -- most notably Yasuki Arinori, pale and sweaty atop his cushion. Shizuyo bows, and the audience seems to remember to applaud--but it’s quiet and scattered, polite rather than enthused. Crow alone claps wholeheartedly as Shizuyo steps aside. Kitsune Mara catches her eye and smiles.
Coughing and rolling his shoulders to shake off his fear, Arinori follows Shizuyo. He stares at Atsu challengingly, then clears his throat before lurching into his story.
[announced] “I will tell you the tale of Passion!”
There is a mutter of relief from the audience. Such a conventional narrative is a welcome departure from the Ki-Rin’s harrowing tale.
[Arinori] “Many years ago, Asahina Yajinden stood before the Anvil of Despair and created the Bloodswords for Iuchiban: Ambition, Judgement, Revenge, and Passion! Nemuranai of unimaginable power, these swords would not empower their wielders, but corrupt them--turning them from the path of Bushido to evil!
“Each Bloodsword was given to a Clan Champion, to destroy the Empire from within. Passion was a gift to the Crane Champion, Doji Tanaka. Little did he know, that all of his secret indiscretions and desires would soon be revealed by Passion’s power!”
“Doji Tanaka held Passion for little more than two years before the Bloodsword’s influence became too much for his fragile mind. His weakness opened the way for a great tragedy of his own making, for he had been taken by lust for a maiko. In time, he began to speak of it openly among friends and the court.
Arinori radiates smugness as he leans towards the audience--most of which are beginning to look a mix of agitated or uncomfortable. “Crazed with desire, he slaughtered his own family with Passion, and stood before his court covered in their blood--to proclaim his love for this maiko!”
The Cranes in the audience mutter amongst themselves, shooting insulted looks at Arinori. Daiyu’s eyes are fixed on him with a deadly intensity. Akimitsu clears his throat significantly, and Arinori abruptly straightens up again, flushing with embarrassment. [rushing, sputtering] “His shame and dishonor were so absolute that they penetrated the thrall of Passion, and Doji Tanaka flung himself into the sea, taking the Bloodsword with him. It was never seen again.”
Arinori bows hurriedly and shuffles out of the way. Crow watches him go, mystified.
Ryojiro stands and clears his throat. He glances anxiously around the room, then begins to speak, quiet and hesitant as he searches for confidence.
“Once, in the hidden glades of Shinomen Mori, there was a band of Tsuno who grew tired of waiting for a life beyond hiding in shadows. Chief among them was a sorcerer, a Soultwister who remembered the days of imprisonment in Toshigoku, who vowed never to be chained again. He saw the forest as a new prison, and sought his escape.
“One day, searching for lost smugglers down forgotten roads, the Tsuno found a silent city of the Naga, where hundreds upon hundreds were lost in their endless dream. They took delight in their find, arguing over the ways they could kill and abuse the sleepers. But the Soultwister had an idea. ‘Dreams can be stolen,’ he told them. ‘And the dreams of the Naga never cease. Our delight at their torment never needs to end.’
“And so, the Soultwister sent his Tsuno into the dreams of each one, giving instruction on how best to lay their souls bare and turn night into nightmare. With the pain and torment growing in power, the Soultwister cast a spell that drew upon it, tearing a swirling hole through Toshigoku to far-reaching places of the empire, where more victims could be stolen and sacrificed for their evil delight.
“But the Naga have had a thousand seasons to dream, and had learned much. An old vedic, a holy man of his people, was cunning and wise. The torments visited upon him held little sway, for when he was just hatched he was smaller and weaker than his broodmates. He learned to face his fears and pain, how to use skill and guile to deflect the attacks and taunts of his larger siblings. He waited for his moment to act.
“In the endless years since that time, he had grown monstrous, titanic. He was a hundred hands long, and the width of a bundle of trees. But he was sworn from fighting, and knew his strength would fail against so many Tsuno. Still, stronger than his coils was his wit, and so in his tormented visions he set a trap. During a nightmare, he dreamt of a specific young Naga bushi who was terrified of fire. The vedic wept in his dream, as he could not stop the men of the forest from burning the youth. This bushi was close to him, as they shared a strong and ancient bond, and the Soultwister was convinced this would be his next victim.
“When the bushi, who was unafraid of fire and had friends among the Clans, saw these visions in his sleep, he knew it was a message. As the Soultwister dug deeper into the bushi’s slumber, it made the spell holding him fragile. He broke free of the Tsuno’s magic, and could awaken. He waited until the Soultwister grew frustrated, and when the sorcerer finally left his mind in search of a more fearful victim, the bushi made his escape into the forest.
“The bushi followed the old road to the town where he had met a friend in ages past. He did not know how long these men lived, or how long it had been, but he was confident the village was full of those honorable and strong enough to assist. At the road’s end, he found that he recognized no one, and the people were hesitant and fearful. None remembered him. But a young boy and girl, both observant and curious, knew him for what he was.
“The two children listened to his tale and brought it before the magistrate, who felt sympathy, but was still consumed by fear. He told them he would not send anyone, but any who felt they wanted to help could, and he would not stop them. The children searched the village for any who would go, but the villagers’ fear of the Naga and Tsuno stopped them. They spoke of Honor preventing them helping, or the propriety of minding their own business, but the children were observant.
“The young girl realized their courage, and turned to the boy. ‘We are the only ones giving aid to the helpless, and so we should continue. Will you go with me?’
And with that, they left with the Naga, uncertain what they would do but certain they would do it. Along the way, the children, inquisitive and fearless, asked the bushi many questions: who he was, what he could do, where he came from, and how he could talk to them. He explained the history of his people, their ability to shed their skin and change shape, and of the power of pearl magic that lets them understand others despite sharing no language. This was all that was needed.
“The children had their plan, and entered the city, tied up and carried by a vicious-looking Tsuno--one called a Ravager. When brought before the Soultwister, the children cried out in terror, and the Ravager explained there was a village with thousands of children to torture and eat. But he could only bring back two, as he had only two arms. If they could send all of the Tsuno through the portal to the village at once, they could bring back many more children before they fled.
“In his greed, the Soultwister summoned the portal, and the Tsuno fought each other, racing for the chance at new victims. When the last one was through, the Ravager shoved the Soultwister through his own portal and closed it, trapping them all within Toshigoku again. And after the bushi shed his skin once more, he and the children made sure the Naga had settled into their peaceful sleep. Then the bushi was taken by slumber as well. The children, satisfied all was well, left with a prayer to the fates that the dreams of the city stay forever peaceful.”
The crowd is quiet as Ryojiro finishes his tale. Shinomen Mori is closer to home than they'd like, and the eventual applause is muted but impressed. Kitsune Mara gives Ryojiro a broad smile as he returns to the audience. Crow claps loudly, beaming at him. Daiyu nods at him, impressed that he knew the story.
Atsu takes in a great breath and ambles to his feet, pausing next to Crow.
“May I--ask your assistance, Crow-san?” He gestures to her morin khuur, then plants his palms on his thighs.
She raises her eyebrows, then grins. “Of course, Hida-san!” She settles in behind him, morin khuur propped between her legs.
Atsu stands before the crowd, striking his best kabuki pose—which isn't very good. Crow improvises a melody to accompany his movements. He acts to the best of his ability, pantomiming the story of a rabbit who becomes lost in the Shadowlands and must retrieve its bow to escape. Whether this is what the crowd can actually derive from his acting is up to debate. He ends his tale with a fine wide-eyed stare, possibly the best feature of the performance.
Those who recognize his story--and the dark matter of the Shadowlands--recoil, but the majority don’t seem to understand and applaud him. Atsu bows several times and steps back.
Crow remains, sitting cross-legged with her morin khuur settled in her lap. She drags the bow across the strings in several low, introductory drones before settling into a rhythm. The song is melancholy, with a solid, thrumming beat that vibrates in the chest. It’s a story she’s always told through the traditional Ki-Rin means of throat singing, but they are far from the plains here.
“Mine is a tale known to all Ki-Rin, though few have the heart to speak of it… It is said that on moonless nights, a spectral steed tears across the plains, cursing the grass beneath its hooves and devouring all who are unfortunate enough to cross its path. To what end, no one knows. But this is what is known: the story of Sechen and Nergui.
“Nergui, a skilled hunter, and Sechen, a spearmaiden; her wife. When the moon did not rise and Nergui did not return from her hunt, Sechen feared the worst for her love. The wind howled--it screamed as night swallowed the steppe, but she would not let Nergui be lost to this fate. Spear in hand, Sechen charged fearlessly into the darkness, knowing full well what awaited her where light could not reach.
But the plains are vast--endless, some say, on nights like those--and she did not find Nergui before the thundering of ghostly hooves overtook her.”
Crow drags the bow across the strings quick and harsh, the low, steady thrum cresting into a convincing reproduction of a horse’s whinny, before settling into a more frantic pace.
“Stubborn, still, Sechen fought the steed! And though her spear could not pierce its ghastly hide, her fiery spirit proved an equal match. Though she perished, the fiend horse had been conquered.”
The rhythm lulls into a drone again, a steady, thrumming beat evocative of a galloping horse.
“It is said that the spirit of Sechen haunts the steppes to this day, riding atop her monstrous steed, cursed to search for her love for all eternity.”
Daiyu applauds as soon as she's sure the story is finished, the first in the crowd. Shio joins in, unable to stop herself from cheering, drawing stares. Ryojiro claps wholeheartedly, his face alight.
[Jiro, thoughtful] “Quite interesting indeed, Kuni-san.”
As the last threads of sunset dip below the horizon, Mara slowly steps to the front. She bows to the crowd. “I do not wish to be considered for the lantern. Such a lovely gift should be given to the young, not those in their twilight years."
“There was once a fox and a cat that lived at the edge of the Fox lands, when the Empire was very young. They ran through the forest, played along the river, and shared meals at dusk. The fox caught and shared her rabbit, and the cat shared his mouse. They fell in love despite their differences. And so the fox followed the cat to his home in the plains, but was caught by a hunter’s arrow outside of it. The cat could not free her. She perished in the snow. And so the fox’s spirit remains, trapped far from her woodland home, unable to move on even as the cat finds new love. She stays, caged, restless, and heartbroken, watching the passing of the season, her voice unable to be heard except as roaring, whistling winds over the grasses.”
All are reverently silent for several moments.
Crow enjoys the tale, her features gradually taken by sadness as it continues. By the end she's appreciative, but melancholy. Shio looks down at her hands, wrapped around her sake cup. A twist of something bittersweet flashes across her face before she takes a less-than-polite swig of her drink.
The daimyo, Tanaka, stands once the stories have concluded. He leads the audience in a final round of clapping and cheering. "Thank you, honored guests. Your stories were moving and… melancholy, a true delight to conclude our feast. I offer this lantern to the ronin, Crow, in honor of her tale." He bows low, receiving the lantern from Mokuna and offering it to her. Crow struggles to contain her surprise--a nice thing? For her?
[Crow] "It was an honor to perform, Ikeda-sama." She bows respectfully to Tanaka, then to the audience, before she stands besides Shio and Atsu. She beams, showing off the lantern. It is of true artisanal quality, ribbed with sandalwood and highly polished. Inside it is a small candle, as yet unused, which gives off a pungent odor.
Shio peers at it, admiring -- but pauses at the candle’s smell, nose wrinkling in recognition. She shoots Crow a pained look. "The, ah, candle—" [awkward pause, then whispered] "It's fox-repellent."
Atsu leans forward to examine it, sucking in a big whiff. He and nods. [agreeing] “Mmh, mmh! To ward off night creatures. Usually from gardens.”
Crow blinks at them, processing. She looks at the lantern. Then Shio. The lantern. She frowns at it, sniffs, and then frowns deeper. She carries the lantern at her side, arm stiff, aspiring to take care of that later.
The competition over, the crowd disperses into excited conversations and congratulations for the storytellers. As the air grows chilled and true night sets in, the guests make their way inside for warmer evening distractions: poetry, music, and sleep.
[Shio] “Your stories were wonderful! Though--Hida-san, I couldn’t quite figure out what you were trying to be. A nezumi?”
[Atsu] “Hmm! It was a… rabbit, Kitsune-san.”
[Shio, sheepishly] “Oh.”
As the samurai begin to leave, Kitsune Mara approaches, limping a little, her face creased with a broad, kindly smile.
[Mara] “Good evening. I hope you enjoyed the stories. I quite enjoyed yours.” [pause] “Crow-san. You seem a kind soul, one with a… noble heart. Take these. They may be of some aid to you when praying to the ancestors.”
She reaches out and gently takes Crow’s hand, placing a set of prayer beads into her palm and closing her fingers around them. Crow smiles, but her eyebrows are drawn with confusion. She bows appreciatively, but pushes the gift back into Mara’s hand.
“I--Kitsune-sama, you needn’t do this, truly.”
[Mara] “I insist, Crow-san. May they help you on your path.”
Crow clutches the beads in her hand and holds them to her chest, running her thumb along the carvings: they are prayers to Inari, the Fortune of foxes and rice. Familiarity pricks at the back of her mind. She looks them over for a moment, turning them in her palm, then carefully tucks them into her kosode.
Shio blinks at the exchange, and nearly steps back as Mara winks, leaning toward her. [Mara, whispered] “And for a fellow Kitsune, far from home.” She presses another set of beads into Shio’s hand and limps away to be swallowed by the crowd.
[Shio, calls after her, hesitantly] “Kitsune-sama--“ She frowns down at the beads and touches their carved prayers. Her eyes widen with pleasure as she recognizes them. Smiling, she slides them into her sleeve.
Soon after, guests disappear into the home to settle in for sleep. What few remain are served the last bits of sake before the night's end.
Shio returns to their room before the others, taking time to meditate. She holds onto the beads Mara gave her, threading them through her fingers to soothe herself.
Crow lingers for sake, making idle conversation with Atsu. They both retire to their rooms shortly after Shio, Daiyu on their heels.
Ryojiro lingers to listen in on conversations, joining in where it suits him. Though he overhears rumor of strange happenings to the west, most are too polite to expand upon it beyond innuendo. There is also the occasional judgement of a fellow guest’s choice of kimono. Once convinced he’ll hear nothing more of substance, he departs for his room.
When sleep finds the samurai, it is fitful and disturbed, fraught with nightmares. Black hazes, skeletal trees, moonless nights, dense forests—and red eyes, watching. Unblinking.