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As Ikeda Akimitsu's wedding draws closer, the samurai are forced to investigate strange occurrences in the Ikeda household.
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Night passes slowly. The samurai chase sleep with little success. Horrid nightmares interfere with moments of fitful rest, dreams that shatter into cryptic fragments with the first hints of dawn. The sound of servants beginning their work floats through the estate as the sun rises, bringing relief.
Daiyu often has disturbing dreams, but her training and her mother’s lessons caution her to pay attention. Still lying atop her futon, she lets her mind drift in search of the spirits of the Ikeda residence. She senses an air kami in the hallway, the tiniest breeze against a windchime, and sits up. She dresses herself as if heading into battle, sliding her door open with a snap. A servant startles backwards, recovering with a deep bow.
“Good morning, samurai-sama. B-breakfast is ready in the dining hall.” He bows and hurries away. Daiyu doesn’t register his words. She stands beneath the windchime, beckoning to the kami in entreaty.
A faint breeze tugs curiously at Daiyu’s clothing, then rolls through her chest as a sense of unease—that something bitter and strange is lurking. It roils up in Daiyu’s stomach, lightens in her chest, unsettles her hair, and is gone.
“Thank you.” Daiyu bows. The spell fades and the kami rests. Frowning, she heads to breakfast.
Crow completes her morning ritual of dressing herself and making her hair presentable. She waits as Shio finishes neatening her bed. Shio tends to nest in bedclothes rather than sleep like a normal person, and the wreckage is not fit to be seen. They leave together.
The dining hall smells of sizzling meat and herbs. Many of the guests are already awake, chatting quietly over their breakfasts.
Atsu and Ryojiro sit together, eating heartily despite their nightmares. Atsu waves to the others as they arrive, shoveling rice and natto into his mouth.
[Atsu] “Good morning!”
Daiyu sits beside Atsu, eyes narrowed in thought. A servant pushes food in her direction. "Stay alert today. We're here for more than a wedding, I think.” She takes a long sip of soup, escaping any kind of explanation.
Shio frowns at Daiyu, but nods as if it doesn’t surprise her. She returns to her soup. Ryojiro gives Daiyu a pained, concerned look.
Kitsu Mokuna approaches as the plates are cleared, accompanied by a hunched old man in a brown, cotton kimono. Mokuna dips his head in greeting. “Good morning, samurai. I hope you had an enjoyable night’s rest.”
He gestures to the old man, who bows deeply. “This is Tama. He ministers to our servants. Would you care to join us in the blessing and warding of the Ikeda household for the upcoming festivities? I’ve been asked to perform the duty by Ikeda-dono and would appreciate the help.”
[Atsu] "Hmm! Yes, I will assist. Perhaps you are too short to reach some places!"
Mokuna grins at Atsu. "It is true, I have never met a Crab so impressively large."
Atsu shoots him a cocky grin. He stands to help.
The others agree to help as well, curious to explore the Ikeda estate. Hisayo and Akimitsu also join them. Hisayo’s yojimbo, a brick-like, careworn Seppun with a sledge for a jaw, half-rises as if to stop her. Hisayo stills him with a smile and a few whispered words, and he follows in silence.
The ceremony to bless the home and ward it from evil spirits is a well-known ritual, and Mokuna is thrilled at any and all participation. Mokuna walks slowly, waving a staff covered with countless zig-zag shaped paper streamers over each object and the walls.
Tama, as a commoner, stays well behind the shugenja even as he assists with the blessings, a bowl of purified water in his hands. He is a quiet and serene old man. The Ikeda seem to have treated him well during his service. Hisayo’s yojimbo stands near the door frame, his arms folded.
Daiyu only half pays attention to the ceremony, instead straining to spot what the kami warned of. She has little faith that such commonplace rituals will do anything against a real threat.
After the ceremony is completed, Mokuna places paper wards, o-fuda, on the doors and windows in the home. Daiyu breaks out of her stillness, eyeing the wards skeptically.
[Daiyu, abruptly]“Are these necessary? Did you not place these afresh at the new year?” Daiyu stares at him, unblinking.
Mokuna startles and almost drops the ward he was sticking to a support beam near the door. He bristles a bit, then regains his composure, giving Daiyu a thin smile. He finishes placing the ward, smoothing it with his palm. [offended, but trying to be polite] "Ikeda-sama requested this specifically, to ward evil spirits before the wedding. He wishes to ensure no ill fortune befalls us."
The insulted stares from the Lions finally penetrate. Daiyu bows apologetically. “Forgive me, Kitsu-san. I meant no offense. May I assist? I know several uncommon wards that will be helpful.”
Mokuna nods after a brief battle with his pride. He gestures to Tama, who quickly provides paper, ink, and a brush for her. Ryojiro peers over Daiyu’s shoulder as she works, curious to compare her wards to Mokuna’s.
Mokuna thaws as Daiyu presents her wards, impressed by her technique. [thankful, impressed] "That is sure to stop a gaki.”
[Daiyu] "I would hope. My mother would never forgive me otherwise." She smiles lightly, as if it were a joke—which it most definitely is not.
Behind them, Hisayo speaks quietly with Tama about his rituals, observing the specific calligraphy and folds in the paper, when the old man suddenly twitches. His eyes roll back in his head, the whites bright against his age-stained skin. His body goes stiff. A wild cry wrenches from his throat. His fingers scrabble in his robes and close around a small paring knife. He whirls on Hisayo and lunges, sweeping the blade at her with a howl.
Hisayo stumbles backwards, inhaling sharply. Akimitsu puts himself between them and grabs Tama’s arm. “What is the meaning of this?! Tama, stop, please!”
Daiyu turns, hands full of wards, but cannot navigate the crowd to help. Atsu and Shio sweep busily in the hallway, turning to see a panicking wall of bodies.
Tama knocks Akimitsu aside with surprising strength, sending him stumbling against a wall. Hisayo cries out and cowers away as Tama rushes at her, arms held out. Crow springs after Tama, grabbing the old man from behind, restraining him, holding his arms tight.
[Crow] “Tama! Please!”
Ryojiro leaps forward, fumbling for the knife, but Tama’s thrashing is too wild, and he nearly catches Ryojiro’s fingers with the blade. Atsu shoves his way through the crowd, groping for the knife. Tama slices Akimitsu’s forearm as he wades forward, arms outstretched.
Akimitsu cries out and snatches his bloodied arm away, a thin line of red staining his kimono. The sight of blood seems to penetrate Tama’s madness. The old man’s face pales, profound horror stilling him in Crow’s arms. [gasping, horrified, slightly higher and a little weird, almost inhuman] “No! No!! Not you!”
He goes still, plunging the knife into his own throat.
Tama shudders. He goes limp, blood pouring over his front, staining Crow’s clothing. Crow holds him, horrified, until Atsu steps forward and presses his apron against his throat to stem the flow. Crow gently lowers him to the floor and steps back.
Akimitsu’s eyes widen. He looks away and takes a deep breath, kneeling beside Hisayo to comfort her. She is pale and shaking, a single drop of Tama’s blood bright on her cheek.
Ryojiro narrows his eyes. He backs away and stands beside Daiyu. [whispered] "What do you know of spirits and this sort of possession?"
Daiyu shakes her head, putting aside her wards and pushing up her sleeves in preparation to heal Akimitsu. "Only what I learned from my mother, and what little research I could do, but…”
Ryojiro hums, looking at the wards as Daiyu steps away to work. There must have been some trigger for the possession, but this is not his area of expertise.
[Akimitsu, overwhelmed, shocked] "I... Tama was a faithful retainer. We have known him for years. To be so taken by madness is..." [exhale] "I thank you for your intervention."
He bows deeply, then calls servants to handle the body. Atsu watches them carry Tama from the room, his face grim. Crow steps back, confused and horrified. Shio blinks, ceremonial broom clutched like a sword in her hands.
Akimitsu gently helps Hisayo to her feet. Servants hurry her away, two at each shoulder. [Akimitsu, clears throat] "I cannot understand the... seeming madness that would overcome such a faithful servant. I apologize."
[Crow] "Had he not shown any signs of… distress? Before?"
[Atsu, venturing tentatively] "Or, perhaps, this is normal for your weddings?"
Akimitsu stares at Atsu. Resentment momentarily tightens his face. He forces a smile. “No. It is fortunate that it is not. Tama was a faithful servant of this family for... many years."
[Crow, frowning] "Something is amiss, then..."
Crow shoots a concerned glance at Shio. Shio stares back, her shoulders twitching in a discrete shrug. She bows her head to Akimitsu, trying to keep her eyes from drifting to the bloodstains on the floor. "My deepest sympathies, Ikeda-san."
[Crow, sigh, frown] “I can… look into this, if you’d like.”
[Akimitsu] "Thank you for your kindnesses." [pause, uncomfortable, ashamed] "I apologize, samurai-sans. You are free to enjoy the festival if you wish. I will send a courier to retrieve you for the evening's feast."
[Atsu, clears throat awkwardly, murmured, non-committal] “I am sorry for your loss, Ikeda-dono.” Atsu takes his leave, stepping out into the gardens for some air.
Daiyu eyes Akimitsu. She bows, then follows Atsu, beckoning for Ryojiro to follow. He trails after her, curious to see where this will go.
Crow frowns, bowing and murmuring an apology, and Shio follows suit. They depart the ghastly scene and split ways, Crow to change out of her blood-stained clothes, Shio to find solitude.
Pale pink and white cherry blossoms fall in flurries as crowds gather in the city's many gardens to admire the flowers. Kitsu shugenja in ceremonial garb oversee rituals and prayers to Kuroshin and the kami beneath cherry trees, temples, and shrines. Most revelers are samurai, but the hinin celebrate as well. Those working are cheerful, and those free enjoy sticks of yakitori and dango beneath the blooming trees.
Atsu stops at last in the gardens of the Ikeda estate, the last stop in a walk that he has taken with Daiyu and Ryojiro. He stretches out his arms, taking a long breath. He hooks his thumbs in his obi. Daiyu glances around, making sure they weren’t followed. She stares at the cherry blossoms for a long moment in thought.
[Daiyu] "I may not have been entirely truthful earlier. I am very sure it's possession, some form of angry spirit. Though I can't say with certainty, I suspect that it is one of Akimitsu’s former lovers, or maybe a former betrothed. Although… That seems too simple of an explanation.”
Atsu frowns at Daiyu. He stoops to examine her eyes beneath the brim of her hat, checking for signs of a concussion. Daiyu stares back, unblinking, until Atsu draws away.
[Ryojiro, knowing a thing or two of crazed murderers who like some magic] "Do you know what would normally drive someone so forcefully to seek retribution beyond death?"
[Daiyu] "Strong emotions, usually. Something about this is still suspicious to me, though. It seems too similar to Kitsune-sama’s ghost story from last night--which was fanciful at best and inaccurate to a fault at its worst."
[Ryojiro] "The ghost story? What other spirits could do this? I must confess—I know less about them than I'd like. My studies have focused on… other subjects."
[Atsu, suspiciously] "Then, you found some reason to believe that this is true? That his former love is bitter?"
[Daiyu, thoughtful] “Yes, possibly. But—no. Something doesn't want me to pass it off as just a jealous former lover. I wonder if there could be more we don't know.”
Atsu folds his arms, casting a concerned glance in Ryojiro's direction. Ryojiro returns the look.
Daiyu bows her head, a shadow falling across her face. "It will be impossible to know for sure until we make contact with the spirit."
[Atsu, brow furrowed] "You mean to speak with the spirit? Directly?"
[Ryojiro, jolting backward, suspicious] "Is this wise?"
[Daiyu] "There is a murderous spirit in our midst, and as far as I see it we are the only ones fully capable of dealing with it. Wise or not, it must be stopped before anyone else dies. So unless there are other suggestions?"
Ryojiro’s mouth twists. [tired sigh] “What can one do? Let us be prepared, and go.”
[Atsu, heavy sigh] "Very well. I just hope that you both know what you are doing." He leaves the ‘because I don't’ unspoken.
[Daiyu] "I need to gather some things. Find out what you can in the meantime. Any superstitions the locals might have about this haunting could help."
[Ryojiro brightens. Finally, something he can help with!] “I will question the servants of the household.”
[Atsu, grunts] “I shall speak with the hinin outside, then.”
They part ways to their respective tasks. Atsu hands over small handfuls of zeni to any who give him information, though the commoners are fearful of a samurai’s probing questions. He rumbles his gratitude and continues to wander until eventually returning to share his lackluster findings.
The servants within the household give information less freely. When they reconvene, they compare discoveries in varying states of enthusiasm. Atsu looks neither disappointed nor pleased. Ryojiro looks grim and irritated after discovering exactly nothing important. Daiyu’s face is flat.
[Atsu, deadpan] "The locals believe the house is haunted.”
[Daiyu, deadpan] "Thank you, Atsu."
[Ryojiro, deadpan] "The household thinks the locals are exaggerating. But since a year ago, rumors of a… haunting followed the death of Akimitsu’s first betrothed. They believe it is a mix of emotional conviction and… superstition, perhaps.”
Shio wanders the streets in search of quiet. She finds it in a public garden, where she sits to enjoy the blossoms and a few sticks of dango. A couple nearby tuck themselves into the more secluded part of the garden, leaning close and whispering to one another. Shio watches them while nibbling her treat, trying to smooth her somewhat-metaphorical feathers.
It doesn’t take long for her to recognize Matsu Hideo, the brash young Lion who told the story of the gaki, and a young, pretty Crane courtier woman from the welcome feast. Curiosity piqued, Shio scoots discretely closer on her bench, eavesdropping. Over the noise of the city streets, she can only catch stray words: “beauty”, “grace”, “crane”. She snorts, unable to contain a smile
Crow goes to great lengths to have her clothes cleaned of Tama’s blood—it is the only clothing she owns, after all. Once that is done, she leaves the estate to admire the trees and flowers. She searches for a yakitori stand, listening to gossip. The hinin give her a wide berth, more out of fear than respect, averting their eyes.
One doesn’t look away fast enough. Their gazes meet. Crow smiles disarmingly. He blanches and walks stiffly away at a brisk pace. Concerned, she sets about following him. He leads her on a chase through the streets until she manages to corral him into a dead end.
Cornered, he turns to her with terror in his eyes, bowing nearly to the ground. [pleading, afraid] "Please do not hurt me, samurai-sama."
Crow looks behind her, confused, as if he has mistaken her for someone else. "Why do I frighten you? It is not my intention to harm you..."
He remains bowed. When Crow doesn’t attack him, confusion replaces his fear. He dares a peek up at her. "I... I apologize, samurai-sama. It is—you came from the Ikeda house. I am terribly sorry. Please forgive me for my rudeness."
Crow chances a step forward, extending a hand. "Please. Help me understand your meaning?"
[commoner] "The Ikeda home it is—it is haunted. A spirit of ill will visits it during celebrations such as this. Since the wedding announcement, it has been more aggressive. It wails at night, in the alleyways..." [trail off, shiver] "Some say that the spirit is... that it is the ghost of the young Ikeda-sama's first betrothed, who passed on some time ago."
[Crow, frowning] "Do you know her name? The woman Ikeda-san first intended to marry."
[commoner, whispered] "Kitsune Chizu, samurai-sama."
Crow's eyes widen. She starts to dash away, but stops. She thanks him profusely, bows, and darts towards the estate. She catches sight of Shio in a garden along the way and turns abruptly. With little regard to personal space, she slides next to Shio on the bench. "Are you busy?"
"N-o? What is wrong?" Shio blinks, startled but not offended. She sets her elbows on her knees, hands cupping her face as she looks up at Crow.
[Crow, under her breath] "A commoner ran from me at the festival. Many of them looked afraid. I spoke to one of them—they say the castle is haunted. What's more—" [whispered] "Fukuro-san is not Ikeda-san’s first betrothed! He was to be married to someone else, and her name was Kitsune Chizu! Do you remember Kitsune Mara-sama's story last night?"
Shio narrows her eyes. She drums her fingers thoughtfully along her cheekbones. "Yes. This is more complicated than I’d expected." She cocks her head to the side then straightens. She digs into her obi and draws out the prayer beads Mara gave her. She eyes them, gaze edged with suspicion. "I think we should speak with Kitsune-sama again."
Crow nods several times, drawing out her own set of beads. [whispered] "Yes! That was my thought as well.”
Crow and Shio find their way to Mara's room, small and tucked away. A servant stands outside of it and bows as they approach.
"I am afraid the lady Kitsune Mara is indisposed, samurai-sama."
They exchange a wary glance.
[Crow, dejected and disappointed] "I'm afraid it's a matter of some urgency… Do you know when she might be able to speak with us?"
[servant] "I am sorry. She is feeling ill and wishes to rest until the wedding. Kitsune Mara-sama said that there is no treatment for old age."
[Shio, sympathetically] "Should she feel better, would you convey our desire to speak with her? It is of great concern."
The servant bows deeply. "I will pass this message on."
[Shio] "My thanks." Shio turns to leave, frowning as soon as the servant can't see her face anymore. [under her breath] "I think we should tell the others.”
Crow nods, fretting at her prayer beads.
They find Daiyu, Atsu, and Ryojiro preparing for the exorcism in the Crow, Shio, and Daiyu’s shared room. They exchange information and explanations as Daiyu writes careful, practiced calligraphy: prayers and direction for the spirit she hopes to soothe--or destroy.
[Crow, quietly] “Since Ikeda-san’s former betrothed was Kitsune, we thought Kitsune Mara-sama might know something. But she has fallen ill, and will not see us.”
Daiyu frowns. She finishes a line of script with a flourish. "I have a plan to try and contact the spirit. While Kitsune Mara-sama’s knowledge would have been helpful, time is short. I can't let anyone else fall to possession. We will need privacy for this ritual, if you wish to attend me.”
[Crow] "I would like to be there."
[Shio, solemn] “As would I.”
[Atsu, frowning] "Privacy? Well, perhaps some of us could stand guard while this... ritual is performed?”
[Shio] "A very good idea. Are you volunteering?"
Atsu looks down at himself, concerned, then back up at Shio. He shrugs.
Afternoon passes to evening. Despite the earlier tragedy with Tama, the Ikeda household is harmonious, filled with quiet revelry: food, readings of poetry, and toasts of sake to the engaged couple and their families. The upper floor is empty save for the five of them and several servants cleaning. Atsu slides the door shut behind them and stands outside, his body an imposing wall.
Daiyu sits cross-legged, elbows rested against her knees. With the others kneeled around her, she takes a deep breath. "Just as a warning—I'm sure you're aware, but this could go horribly wrong.”
Minutes pass in silence. Daiyu reaches out, the minor spirits of the house like flickering embers in a fire to her mind’s eye. They are calm, quiet, comforting. She reaches further, but her fingers comb through nothing but the soft, cool ashes of old firepits—then, suddenly, something latches onto her. Needle sharp teeth dig in, jerking and tugging like a shark trying to swallow a fish. The ashes are hot against her now. In the darkness of there is a flash of white, of burning red eyes, of—a fox’s tail?
Then it is gone.
Daiyu starts, as if woken from a nightmare. [off-balance, nauseous, trying to recover composure] "This may not work as I'd planned. She's very angry… Possibly angrier now."
Shio bows her head, eyebrows furrowing as she stares at the tatami.
Crow frowns deeply and sits up, her nervous fidgeting with her prayer beads stilling. “Did she say anything to you?”
Daiyu rubs her eyes, blinking a few times. "Red eyes. She didn't say that. But I saw them."
Crow stands up and wanders over to the window, staring outside. She glances over her shoulder at Daiyu, still frowning. "What else did you see?"
Daiyu stands unsteadily. She looks down at her ritual preparations. "Something white, and a tail. I think a fox's.” [pause] “It felt like an attack. Whatever it is she wants, we can take a peaceful chat off the list."
Ryojiro grimaces. He stands, folding his hands behind his back and looks at Daiyu, eyebrows furrowed. “If she wants a fight... What do you fight spirits with, exactly?”
[Daiyu, heavy sigh] "Nothing that I have prepared currently. I am sorry. This was not the success I'd imagined."
A voice calls from beyond the door frame. [servant] "Ikeda-sama invites you to dinner and celebration at your leisure.”
A silent moment passes. No one moves. Eventually, Atsu slides the door open. A servant stands beside him, deeply bowed.
Atsu glares, as if daring him to stop bowing. Ryojiro stares at the servant, unblinking, as if testing how long he will stand there.
Crow breaks the stalemate. She forces a smile. "I'm afraid that I’m not feeling well this evening, but please extend my deepest apologies."
[servant, surprised] "I understand, samurai-sama. I will offer your apologies to Ikeda-sama."
Shio looks like the last thing she wants right now is food, but nods. Maybe Mara will show. She steps past Crow, followed by an equally unenthusiastic Ryojiro.
Atsu casts one last frown at the servant, then goes to change into a more formal kimono in his shared room. Daiyu looks like she might be sick, but she readies herself as well, just in case anything happens.
[Daiyu] “If there is anything more you need of me, Crow-san--do not hesitate to ask.”
[Crow] “It’s alright, Kuni-san.”
Daiyu stalls at the door. “I… apologize again. For my failure.” It sounds like it is more to herself than Crow. With a half-bow, she departs.
Once Daiyu’s footsteps have faded, Crow kneels and digs in her travel bag. Eventually she finds her little cooking pot. She sets it over the brazier warming the room, measuring out rice and water from her supplies. She cooks it to fluffiness, along with some thin slices of tofu she’d stowed away as a treat. She arranges the food in the bowl as artfully as she can, poking and prodding until she’s satisfied.
Crow slides the shoji open and steps into the cool night air.
The dining hall is calm, and representatives from all clans fill the small tables. Kitsune Mara’s absence feels conspicuous. Ikeda Taneka smiles broadly, sharing toasts of sake with guests near him, seemingly unaffected by the morning’s events. He speaks excitedly about the Lion Clan Champion's arrival for the next day's wedding. Halfway through the dinner, Matsu Hideo and the Crane woman from the garden excuse themselves, several minutes apart.
Yasuki Arinori stares at Atsu with beady eyes and a furrowed brow as he eats, silent and judgemental. Atsu gives Arinori the Hida Hairy Eyeball™, an elevated form of inappropriate eye contact, a vein bulging in his forehead. Arinori withers beneath it, losing his nerve. He returns to his rice.
Ryojiro picks at his food, listening to the flow of conversation. There is quiet mention of the Hideo and the Crane’s absence--but none of the gathered samurai are so bold as to allude to anything. Not really, anyway. Daiyu hardly touches any food. Shio determinedly picks at her own rice, eventually forcing herself to seek out a conversation partner. She turns to the side and finds a Scorpion woman already eyeing her.
The Scorpion wears a sheer silk mask, her half-obscured features powdered white, eyes lined with kohl and lips painted burgundy. She arches her eyebrows and gives Shio a sneer of a smile. Shio eyes her, but doesn’t make a move other than to chew a little more obviously.
[Reiko’s voice is smooth, a little shitty, curious, knowing] "Ah, one of the Fox. You are very far from Kitsune Mori. I am called Bayushi Reiko.”
Shio tries not to flinch. She gives Reiko an unassuming smile, swallowing her rice. [inanely] "The hospitality of the Lion has been such that I feel quite at home. It is a pleasure to meet you, Bayushi-san. I am Kitsune Shio.”
This only seems to encourage Reiko. She perks up at the chance to needle someone, gently setting her chopsticks down and sipping her sake. "Yes, Ikeda-san is quite hospitable indeed. Especially for such an event."
At the head of the table, Tanaka stands. "I thank you, honored guests, for your attendance and blessings. I retire to rest in anticipation of my son's betrothal, and wish you a healthy night's sleep." He bows and departs, and Akimitsu and Hisayo follow soon after.
Rising from her bow of farewell to Tanaka, Shio returns her attention to Reiko with a slightly forced smile. "I admire their generosity—it will make the wedding all the more memorable."
“Of course, Kitsune-san. I am sure it will be!” Reiko seems to notice the discomfort. Her smirk widens, but she does not follow the thread. She bows to Shio, then turns to the guest on her other side, a severe-looking Lion woman dressed in golden brown. Shio nearly slumps in her seat. Saved. She finishes her drink faster than she should and makes a hasty escape, taking the nearest bottle of sake with her.
The guests feast in the main hall, the sound of their conversations a far-off murmur. Crow sits in the garden, a few steps away from the Ikeda estate. The garden is empty and the night is quiet. A bowl of rice and fried tofu sits in the grass, a foot away from Crow’s crossed legs. The chilled earth quickly seeps through her clothes. She waits.
Time passes and the night deepens. The stillness is broken by a swell of wind, a gentle breeze that plays with the tangles of Crow’s hair. Something swells in her chest, a warmth that spreads and fades just as quickly. She looks around, bemused, but grimaces in embarrassment as the air goes still. Doubt touches her face. After a moment’s consideration she re-settles, producing her prayer beads and lacing them through her fingers.
Time passes. Crow dozes, head nodding against her chest. A grain of rice rolls to the side of the bowl, as if disturbed by a questing, hesitant paw. Red eyes bright as embers blink slowly behind Crow’s eyelids.
Crow startles awake, hair standing on end. Eyebrows furrowed, she reaches with her chopsticks and carefully rearranges the grain of rice, glancing from side to side to see if anyone might be watching. There is no one in the garden.
Silence. Goosebumps line her arms. Very certain something is going on now, she opens the flask of sake she keeps in her obi. She pours a cup for herself, another for her visitor. She sets it carefully beside the bowl of rice, toasts the air, and sips. The night feels warmer. Eventually she dozes off, hidden amongst the greenery.
As dinner comes to a close, the guests begin to disperse. Atsu takes his time wandering about the house, staring down Arinori one last time before he leaves to rest. Daiyu, in a minor fit of paranoia, slips one of the wards from earlier under her pillow and drifts off to sleep.
Shio sits at the edge of a garden and meditates, the now-empty bottle of sake beside her, running her prayer beads through her fingers as night deepens.
In the middle of the night, a tentative, nervous voice at each of their doorframes awakens the samurai.
“Samurai-samas, forgive my intrusion. Ikeda Akimitsu-sama requests your presence with great urgency.”
Atsu rubs the sleep from his eyes, rumbling discontentedly as he rolls out of bed. He ties the obi to his sleeping robe and plods into the hallway. Ryojiro, roused from his fitful doze, follows with nervous energy.
Daiyu wakes up normally, sitting bolt upright, eyes bloodshot. Shio squints, dry-mouthed and disoriented. She shakes her head to clear it. She and Daiyu accompany the others out.
When they arrive at the Ikeda quarters, Akimitsu is waiting. He is pale with distress, and beads of sweat glimmer on his forehead. He is panting, as if he had recently been running. "Honored guests. I apologize for interrupting your rest, but I have an urgent matter requiring the most immediate of attentions. I—I fear that I have none left to turn to in this regard." [pause, groping for words.] "I need your help to find my betrothed, Fukuro Hisayo-sama. I fear that she is in great danger."
Daiyu opens and closes her mouth, once, twice, then finally decides she's at a loss for words. Shio’s body goes rigid for a moment before she can contain her anxiety. “What has happened?”
[Atsu] “She isn’t here? Are there assassins?”
Akimitsu shakes his head loosely, as if to deny the thought rather than the actuality. "She and her yojimbo, they—disappeared, some hours ago from the house grounds. I received word from the servants, and have been searching for her, but... to no success."
Atsu makes an unhappy noise and thumbs his chin4 thoughtfully.
Ryojiro bows. "I could not refuse you in this tragedy."
Akimitsu returns Ryojiro’s bow quickly. "I—I thank you, samurai-san. I must remain here with my father and the guests and there—there is little time with the Lion Clan champion arriving tomorrow."
Daiyu is quickly rousing herself from the aftereffects of sleep. Adrenaline taking over. "You're saying she's left the castle?"
Akimitsu seems to be barely holding it together, but hehi manages to nod. "Yes. She is nowhere to be found in the grounds nor the neighboring areas. Fukuro-sama often takes such trips, but... never so late."
Shio narrows her eyes. “Trips?”
[Akimitsu, swallowing, anxious] "She often visits shrines and temples, impromptu trips."
Daiyu frowns. [business-like] "I'm sure you've had your servants check all the places she frequents then. Is there any lead you can give us?"
Akimitsu shakes his head, fretting at his folded hands. "I—I cannot, Kuni-san. I only hope that it is... a personal emergency, something with explanation. Not something darker."
Shio looks at Ryojiro, eyebrows furrowing in an attempt at communication. Atsu’s lips press into a line. Ryojiro acknowledges them with a slight inclination of his head before turning back to Akimitsu. "If it would not be improper, may we investigate the house to see if there is any sign of her or where she may have gone? For something your servants may have missed?" [pause] "I mean no disrespect, only that I have had schooling in these matters."
Akimitsu swallows, then slowly nods. His eyes linger on Ryojiro’s mon. "I—yes, of course, Kitsuki-san. But I assure you that I have searched high and low."
He leads Ryojiro to Hisayo’s room, then bows and withdraws. There are no signs of struggle. The room is untouched, and her serving maids are still asleep. Her belongings remain, but some clothes deeper within her small cabinet seem to be in disarray. Her geta are missing, along with a small pack Ryojiro spotted her with the day previous. Ryojiro’s eyes narrow.
Ryojiro steps out of the room, quietly closing the screen behind him. He turns to his companions. [quietly] "She's left with purpose, taking a bag and belongings. We should hurry if we are to follow. The disappearance of a member of an Owl in Lion lands would be a massive loss of face. Especially for the small Ikeda family.”
[Daiyu, announcing] “I will see where she’s going.” Daiyu turns on her heel and departs without waiting to see if the others will follow.
A flash behind Crow’s eyes, the same red eyes as before, wakes her. She looks around, wipes her face, and checks the bowl. It is empty, as though the rice and aburaage never were. The sake cup shines as if licked clean.
Crow beams. She straightens and sinks into a deep, formal bow, then collects the bowl and cup. Daiyu passes into the garden, stirring the tall grasses that shield Crow from view. Atsu, Shio, and Ryojiro pass soon after. She pauses when she catches sight of the others and gathers her things, crossing to them.
Daiyu stands before a small koi pond in the garden, extending a hand in beckoning. Shio glances over at Crow in surprise and inclines her head as she approaches. The night is still for a long, long moment as they all look into the pool. The water draws itself up beneath Daiyu’s outstretched fingers, forming into a droplet that floats and swirls slowly before them.
Atsu stares and freezes in place as the water kami manifests. He’s never been terribly good at dealing with things like this. Ryojiro remains respectfully quiet.
Shio smiles at the kami, giving it a slight bow. Its gentle ebb and flow seems to bow in return.
Crow looks between the pond and Shio, confusion tightening her features. [murmured] "What's wrong?"
[Shio, whispered] "Fukuro-san has gone missing.”
Crow's eyes widen. She wills them back to norma
[blurted] "What? When?" She quickly shuts her mouth as the water swirls a little faster.
[Daiyu] "She went missing sometime during the night.” Though the kami has no eyes, a sense of intent stares back at Daiyu expectantly. The water calms, a signal to ask a question. Daiyu bows respectfully before the kami. "Where has Fukuro Hasayo gone?"
The water stills. Its night-dark surface trembles, and what it shows only Daiyu can see: a path rushing underfoot; the rush of raindrops; a mountain pass, rocks dampened by springs; and finally a copse of trees, with small pools glistening with starlight beneath their boughs.
[Daiyu, sigh of relief] "Thank you." Daiyu bows, eyes shut, and releases her concentration on the spell. The kami trembles, then flows soundlessly back into the pond. Her eyes remain closed. “She's taken the Beiden Pass. We should hurry."
With a growing sense of unease, the samurai arm themselves and set out on horseback, into Beiden Pass.
The small road splitting from Beiden Pass is an easy route, but seldom used. The Lion keep it in fair but not, excellent repair, making lanterns and a slower-than-preferable pace necessary. The recent hoofprints of two ponies marks the dust of the road as it winds into the foothills, splitting off the main trail onto a small, secondary track that winds steeply upward.
The path crests a low rise, and the samurai come upon a copse of trees nestled into the foothills of the Spine of the World Mountains. A still pond fills the center of the clearing, reflecting lantern-light and stars. A small shrine, its stone softened by years and moss, sits at the foot of the largest sugi beside the water. A statue of a fox is tucked within the shrine’s hollow center, a red votive bib around its neck.
Before it kneels Hisayo, head bowed as though in meditation. Her yojimbo, Seppun Tadashiro, stands nearby. He is alert and anxious, his hand on the hilt of his sword. A small lantern hooked on a nearby branch pools light around his feet.
As the samurai start towards Hisayo, Tadashiro turns, sliding into a balanced stance. [called sharply] “Halt! State your business.”
Atsu gives Tadashiro a dour look.
"We were asked to ensure Fukuro-san's safety by Ikeda Akimitsu-san..." Crow bows deeply.
Tadashiro’s face is marked by tiredness, his expression uncertain. His eyes dart reflexively to Hisayo every few moments. He relaxes slightly at Akimitsu’s name, then stiffens again as Ryojiro takes a tentative step forward.
[snapping] “I cannot let you near Fukuro-sama. We will return on our own."
[Atsu] "We were sent by Akimitsu-dono to ensure her safety; we cannot simply leave."
[Crow, carefully] “We needn’t be near you. Is everything alright?"
Tadashiro grimaces. Finally, he shakes his head. His hand slowly loosens from his katana. “Fukuro-sama sometimes takes it upon herself to go on spiritual pilgrimages, but she has never done so in the dead of night. Or left a place where she was an honored guest.”
Crow approaches tentatively, hands far from her sword. She stops alongside Tadashiro, peering at Hisayo’s back. “And you are… concerned?”
[Tadashiro, exhale] “I am careful. She said that a shrine to Lady Kitsune existed just inside the mountains, that she wished to pray there. I tried to argue, but she was insistent.”
Crow hovers for a few moments, then steps toward the shrine. Tadashiro does not stop her.
Shio follows after a moment, sure to move slowly, with her hands clearly visible. "Lady Kitsune…” [pause] "Has she shown concern over Kitsune before?"
"No. This is recent." Tadashiro shifts, his brow furrowing as Crow kneels beside Hisayo.
Hisayo sways like a tree in a breeze, her face still and calm, her head bowed. A small bowl of rice sits at the base of the stone. A smile creeps across Crow’s features, unbidden, and she too bows her head. She withdraws her prayer beads and runs them through her fingers.
[Shio]"If I may ask... How recently?"
Tadashiro’s eyes dart to Shio, then back to Hisayo. "She has shown interest only over the last week."
Daiyu narrows her eyes at the shrine and starts towards it. “In the interest of her safety I would ask that you allow me to make sure the local kami are comfortable. A shrine is a dangerous place to be if they are in a state of unrest—"
Daiyu pauses, her eyebrows coming together as if drawn by a thread. Recognition flashes on her face as she looks at Hisayo, feeling the same uneasy, lurking sensation in her chest that the air kami demonstrated. She freezes and reaches for her satchel, no longer having the time to wait for Tadashiro’s answer.
[Daiyu, blurted out] "A powerful spirit is possessing Fukuro-san. It is critical that we deal with this immediately."
Tadashiro's calm shatters. His eyebrows come together and his hand goes for his sword. "Possession? How do you know this?"
Shio makes soothing motions with her hands. Atsu steps forward and places a hand on Tadashiro's shoulder.
[Atsu] "Kuni-san is quite experienced in dealing with things such as these. You said yourself that Fukuro-dono was behaving strangely!"
Tadashiro goes still, looking at Atsu’s hand. He grits his teeth. "Do what you will. If you harm her, it is on penalty of death."
Atsu eyes him, expression unreadable, but gives an understanding nod and what he hopes is a reassuring pat. "We are familiar with this arrangement!"
Daiyu turns to Crow, ignoring Tadashiro. "That lantern you received, it was blessed, wasn’t it?”
[Crow, confused] "Is it?”
Exasperated, Daiyu waves a hand at the others without looking at them. "Something blessed would help. Anything. Quickly!"
Crow glances between the shrine and Daiyu, an internal debate furrowing her brow. Reluctantly, she unloops the prayer beads from her fingers and offers them to Daiyu. Shio blinks a few times, trying to parse what she's yelling about, then pulls her own from her sleeve with a questioning look.
Daiyu snatches them and wraps them around her wrist, then steps back, unfurls a scroll, clears her throat, and begins to chant. The others move a respectful distance away, wary and unsure of what may happen next.
Daiyu’s voice weaves through the words of exorcism, the only sound in the clearing for some time. Hisayo sways, slowly—but soon she has found the rhythm of Daiyu’s incantation and matches it. Then, suddenly, her body shudders. The kanji adorning the prayer beads pulse with a soft, blue-green light soon matched by a ghostly glow rising from Hisayo’s skin.
The air chills. The trees shake in a sudden gust of icy wind, the creaking and rustling of leaves nearly overcoming Daiyu’s words until she raises her voice. Her incantation rises, louder, louder yet, over the gusts of wind as the area around the shrine, around them, is cast in a greenish haze. Hisayo freezes, then slumps limply to the side.
The green light coalesces into the misty, pulsating form of a young woman dressed in a fine kimono of Fox Clan colors: red-brown and silver. The tip of a red fox’s tail stirs below the hem. She stands slowly, turning to face them. Pale tears track down her cheeks. A bitter smile twists her lips. She looks at Crow in recognition.
[Chizu, whispering] "I am sorry.” [wavers and echoes, as though speaking from a great distance.] Crow’s face cracks with emotion. She takes a few tentative steps toward Chizu, but stops as the spirit continues to speak. "It was too much to bear, to have died before our wedding night. To see him wed so soon. I could not..."
[Chizu, voice breaking] "It was selfish of me. Please, tell my love... Tell him to see that my braid returns to Kitsune Mori. Beneath my tree."
Crow slowly approaches, looking her over in wonder—with an edge of fear. She nods slowly and bows, equally slow. “Is… there anything else?”
Chizu shakes her head, her hair drifting in the air as though underwater. "I need nothing else, samurai. I only thank you for your kindness." She fades away, leaving Crow stricken beside Hisayo’s body.
Daiyu rolls up her scroll, placing it in her satchel. She bows to the shrine. [murmured] "Help Tama find his way, if he needs it.”
A deep chill lingers in the air, but the wind has died. As the greenish cast around them slowly begins to fade, a flicker of movement in the trees catches their eyes. Half-hidden amongst the greenery, a familiar old woman watches, framed by a fan of seven tails. She smiles at them and bows deeply, tails coiling about her like smoke. Shio stands frozen for a moment, then bows in return, not caring who sees. Ryojiro returns the bow, eyes wide. Crow catches sight of her from the corner of her eye and her expression goes blank with shock before she, too, bows. When they rise, Mara is gone.
Crow waits several long moments. She kneels, placing a hand on Hisayo’s shoulder. Hisayo stirs at the touch, confusion blooming over her face as she struggles to sit up.
Tadashiro rushes to her side and kneels, bowing nearly to the ground. Hisayo gently touches his head and urges him to sit up. She glances at Crow and blushes with embarrassment, quickly looking away.
Crow retreats a step to give them space.
[Hisayo] “I...do not know how I came to be here, but I thank you, samurai-sans. It is as if the days have been a passing dream."
Atsu opens his mouth to ask something, but squints and slowly closes it again. Shio kneels in the dirt before the shrine, ignoring Hisayo and Tadashiro as she bows to it. After a moment, she rises to her feet, watching Hisayo with half-lidded eyes.
Daiyu hands the prayer beads back to Crow and Shio. "Don't lose these. And thank you." She bows slightly, then goes to examine the shrine. Ryojiro joins her, offering a moment of silent prayer and reflection.
Hisayo stands up shakily, braced against Tadashiro’s arm. "I... am unsure what the spirit wanted."
Shio gives Hisayo a sad smile, but doesn't answer. She tucks her prayer beads into her obi.
Tadashiro bows. "I thank you for saving Fukuro-sama from the grip of the..." [pause, discomfort] "The spirit. I apologize deeply for distress we have caused."
Hisayo straightens and brushes her kimono clean. "I thank you for your help. I... I think it thought it could take my body forever. I will tell Ikeda-san of your deeds." She bows deeply and begins to walk to their ponies.
Atsu glances between the others, impatient to leave. Crow smiles, exhausted, and bows to Hisayo. Ryojiro lingers behind as the others leave, taking in the peace of the moment. He catches up before the lantern light fades.
When they return to Shiro Matsu, Ikeda Akimitsu listens to the circumstances of Hisayo’s disappearance in grave silence. He, equally gravely, thanks them for their assistance.
[gravely, but thankful] “I thank you for your assistance, samurai-sans. I…” He looks to the side a moment, despondent. His gaze drifts back to them. “If you would return Chizu’s braid to the Fox Clan lands--to her home--I would be…I would be deeply honored.”
Akimitsu presents them with a delicate wooden box. Within it rests a clipped braid of red hair, tied off carefully with ribbon. Crow accepts it with a deep bow.
“I will do this, Ikeda-sama.”
[Ryojiro] “Thank you, Ikeda-sama. We were glad to assist.”
[Daiyu] “I am glad that Fukuro-san is safe.”
The wedding is a highly formal affair. Kitsu Mokuna presides over it with traditional seriousness and grace, his smile undimmed. At the completion of the ceremony, Ikeda Taneka stands, looking tired but pleased.
“Now that my son Akimitsu is wed, I wish to formally announce my retirement. Should the new daimyo wish, I will remain for several years to advise him. But it is time for a new generation to take the reins of our family. I wish my son well in leading us to a bright and glorious future.”
The crowd applauds and the meal continues joyously. Akimitsu and Hisayo smile in their seats of honor, accepting gifts and congratulations. As the morning passes into afternoon, the sun shines, and several drops turn to a sunshower.
Kitsune Mara meets their eyes as they search for her. She smiles at them. It is knowing, but never anything less than polite.