E13 - Kitsune Mori, Part 8

The finale to Kitsune Mori is now up! Want to discuss the episode, L5R, or anything in between? Join us on Discord!

The samurai return to Kitsune Mori Mura, where Torokai confronts Crow about the incident in the cave. The next day, Kitsune Mara seeks each of them out for a final farewell.

Our next episode will be our 2018 in Retrospect episode, where we gather the entire cast & crew together, get drunk, and talk about how much 2018 sucked (and didn't suck). The story will resume on Thursday, February 7th with the beginning of our next arc: The Small Court of Asahina Takeshi. Hope you're ready for more Cranes than you can possibly handle!!!

CAST, CREW, & CREDITS

Narrator: James
Crow: Mal
Atsu: James
Daiyu: Didi
Akodo Torokai: Walt
Kitsune Mara: Debbie
Kitsune Sakiko: Karen

Ambience: The Bog Standard (Tabletop Audio)

Script writing & editing: ArielleMal
Audio/sound design: Mal & Arielle

And a HUGE thank you to our patrons and beta listeners!


When they depart the clearing where they faced Hotaka and his band, the samurai are silent. Torokai leads them wordlessly through the forest paths, the plates of his o-yoroi clicking together. His features are tightly drawn, thoughtful. He seems eager to shed his armor. Daiyu and Atsu lag behind, both of them alternating between staring into the middle distance and watching the treeline.

Crow remains silent for almost the entire walk back, walking quickly but within range of the others. As they near the village at last, she slows enough to glance over her shoulder at them, and finally speaks.

Crow: [coarse, but trying to soften it] "What did you find?"

Daiyu answers as she keeps her attention on the treeline.

Daiyu: "The falcon was watching us. Otherwise, nothing."

Torokai comes to an abrupt stop.

Torokai: “Watching?"

Crow's eyes narrow. She slows to a stop and glances back at Daiyu.

Crow: “Watching?”

Daiyu looks up at them, her shadowed features pulled into a grimace.

Daiyu: "I have no doubt that falcon was twisted by some darkness. Every kami has told me of a shugenja at the head of these poachers. Its eyes were not its own. Only a puppet on its masters strings -- and they've been watching us for too long."

Crow's eyes widen before her brow becomes a shelf, her features twisted into a scowl. She looks ahead and continues walking at a renewed, brisk pace, slightly ahead of Torokai.

—————

When they reach Kitsune Mori Mura, the village is quiet. Torokai leads them to Toshio’s home and past a tall Fox samurai standing guard at the perimeter, palm poised on her katana.

As they approach the dwelling, Torokai lingers outside of the entrance while a servant retrieves Toshio. He approaches Crow with a quiet, unthreatening posture, or as unthreatening as one can look with imposing armor and a beard dotted with blood. Crow stalks off for a bath, not once looking in his direction. Torokai hums beneath his breath as he watches her go.

Torokai: “I will speak with Kitsune-san and tell him what we have found. I will call upon you later. Or send a courier.”

Atsu: [quietly pained] “Of course, Akodo-sama.”

Daiyu bows quickly, shuffling past him. She leaves to cleanse and purify herself, then cloisters herself away in the inn to study her scrolls. She studies the netsuke she retrieved from the poachers for some time, eyes narrowed. It is expertly carved, its string twined horsehair. Clearly Ki-Rin in make. She hums and gives it a shake.

Inside is a string of zeni and a few small, round seeds she can’t identify. Worth keeping for later inspection. Perhaps Atsu can identify them -- or Shio, when she returns. Staring at the far wall, she exhales, then forces herself into deep meditation.


—————

[outside, raining]

Crow allows herself a few minutes of solitude, soaking in the springs long after she’s scrubbed the blood from her hair and hands. She changes into her nice kimono, then generously pays the servant who handles their laundry to clean her gore-covered clothing. With a small sigh, she departs to meet with Torokai.

[inside, raining outside; sake house; small crowd]

When she enters the small sake house, she quietly shoulders past several laughing patrons. Few occupy its private rooms at this hour, and most are gathered around long, low tables surrounded by floor pillows, sharing small bowls of rice and pickled vegetables.

Crow gently slides the shoji door shut, keeping her back to Torokai for some moments before she straightens. She bows to Torokai as she approaches the table at the center of the private room, her expression schooled into neutrality. The skin of her face is reddened - whether from the warmth of the bath or from tears is difficult to say. She is at least composed, but clearly miserable in her silence.

Torokai smiles and bows his head as Crow approaches. A glazed sake bottle and two cups sit on the, low, dark wooden table. Crow lowers herself onto the pillow across from him, folds her hands, and stares into the smooth whorls of the wood.

Torokai: "My apologies, Crow-san. I did not know what you liked. Please, sit."

Crow continues staring at the table, but after a while she glances at the cup while he pours. She does this several times: glancing, averting eyes, glancing, averting eyes. It is not at all subtle. She quickly reaches for the cup and downs it in one go, as if he won't notice if she drinks it fast enough.

Torokai smiles, but it fades, his eyes remaining solemn, if not sad. He does not speak for some time, only watches her.

Torokai: "I do not wish to intrude on your privacy, Crow-san. We are friends, I would like to think. If not friends, then companions."

Crow maintains her silence. She stares at her hands, barely moving. Eventually, she lifts her gaze enough to look at him but does not say anything, expecting him to continue.

Torokai refills her cup, then downs his own sake with a sound of satisfaction.

Torokai: “I wish to know why Hotaka knew your name. He said you were Shinjo -- yes?"

Crow stares at the table as she gathers her words carefully. At a slower pace than before, Crow sips at her sake before she speaks, then refills his cup. Her expression never strays from forced neutrality. She gives a slow, half-hearted nod in response.

Crow: [quiet, strained] "I do not know why he knew my name. But I believe he works for my sister."

Torokai nods, slowly, his expression suddenly turning, as if he realizes he is wading waist-deep into mud.

Torokai: "I see. Who is your sister?"

Crow stares at her hands and her empty cup. "Shinjo Tomei."

Torokai falls quiet. He freezes, his fingers tap-tapping a few times on the table. He then drinks, quickly, and in one smooth motion.

Torokai: "I see."

Crow, despite the weight of her self-pity, cannot deny she’s intrigued. Her eyebrow twitches.

Crow: "Is the name familiar to you?"

Torokai refills her sake cup. Crow frowns and drinks it almost before he's finished pouring.

Torokai: "Yes. The name is familiar."

Torokai puffs up his cheeks lets out a slow, steady breath. He rubs his beard and stares into the table, his heavy brow knitting in thought.

Torokai: "I have not met her personally. But stories... float about in court. And Takeshi -- Asahina-san has mentioned her.”

Crow stares at him.

Torokai: "None of the wild accusations have taken root. Nothing I have heard has become anything more than rumor. [sigh] Few Ki-Rin often come to court, or not at all. The invitations are ignored or answered with a retainer. Or a letter. Asako-san has mentioned it several times."

Crow hums in understanding.

Torokai taps his fingers on the table, clearly stalling. He awaits the moment that sake gives him greater ease in asking questions that skirt the edge of taboo.

Crow considers for a long, long while. Eventually, she speaks with great care, as if she isn't sure she should give voice to the truth.

Crow: [careful, deliberate] "I know that she has committed terrible crimes. It has been six years now. I... what we saw in the forest suggests that she has continued down a dark path. A dangerous one."

Torokai gives a slow nod. He refills both of their cups, then takes a long drink.

Torokai: "If I may ask, Crow-san. How is it you... became ronin?"

Crow maintains a steely expression for only a moment before her nose scrunches up. She turns her head away to hide the momentary lapse in her resolve. She forces her eyes shut as they sting with tears. She keeps them closed and exhales a slow, measured breath.

"I...I neglected my duty, Akodo-sama. I was betrothed. To an Ide woman. My parents' decision, but it was Tomei who planted the seed." She looks down at her hands and sighs through her nose. "Tomei believed we could only strengthen the Ki-Rin from within. I believed the opposite. I fought the betrothal at every turn. I didn't want it. And when the day of the wedding came, I was not there.".

Crow drinks from the cup Torokai has just refilled, turning it over once it's empty. She pushes it away.

"My family was furious. [bitter laugh] Of course they were. I humiliated them. And the Ide. There was much debate on how to punish me. Tomei insisted on harakiri, that she marry the Ide instead. [pause, bitter laugh] She wasn't wrong. It was her birthright. I wanted to cut my stomach, Akodo-sama. I don't know why I didn't. Spite, I suppose."

Her jaw works, the muscles in her neck tightening.

"Our mother died of...sudden illness several days after the wedding was supposed to take place. It was all too much. Too fast. Our father grew detached. Listless. Tomei blamed me for all of it. She said my foolishness killed our mother and robbed our father of his senses. And then she--"

Crow swallows thickly. She looks toward the ceiling, willing herself to calm, blinking away tears. Several moments pass before she is composed enough to continue, though she is still unable to look Torokai in the eye.

"...she killed my horse, Akodo-sama. I heard the screams late at night, but when I arrived at the stables, it was too late. She had killed Nue, and Nue's foal. The sword was in her hand. And what's worse--she had drained them of their blood. Strung them up like a yak, like--"

[stiff pause, wavery breath]

"...I tried to warn our father, but he was beyond us. I tried to warn the court, but it only incensed them further. They said it was too perfect a deflection from my own shame, and without proof there was little I could do to dissuade them. Tomei reveled in it. There was nothing I could do...so I left."

Torokai’s face is stony as he listens, but something beneath it is softer. He looks to the table, then past Crow to the far wall, to spare her the shame.

Torokai: "I see."

Torokai nods twice, humming in his throat. It’s all that he says for a long while, allowing the silence to deepen for several minutes as he processes what he has heard. A woman’s laughter echoes from the room beyond.

Torokai: "You do not face these things alone, Crow-san."

He pushes her cup toward her with two fingers.

Crow takes it without question and drinks, quicker to respond to it than his words.

Crow: "I do, Akodo-san. Though I appreciate the sentiment."

She pauses long enough to put the cup down and slide it to the middle of the table, in an intended 'I'm done’ gesture.

Crow: "Is there anything else you would ask of me?"

Torokai shakes his head, smiles, and bows. For a moment, he seems to deflate -- but he is quick to regain his stoic expression.

Torokai: [deflating a little] "No, Crow-san. Thank you. I will call upon you later.”

Crow abruptly pushes up from the table. She bows and takes her leave, out of the sake house and into the forest.


—————

[outside; crickets; forest; raining]

Cricketsong fills the warm night air. When Crow comes upon it, the shrine is quiet, lit by a series of small candles. A figure, easily recognizable as Sakiko, stands before it, her head bowed.

Crow moves past her as silently as possible, trying to avoid her notice without using overt stealth. She sinks onto her knees in front of the shrine, bowing her head in silent meditation.

Though she has heard Crow’s approach, Sakiko’s response is delayed.

Sakiko: [with a smile] "Traveling the forest at night again? Brave. But I suppose that should come as no surprise."

Crow looks up.

Crow: "Perhaps I'm not brave. Perhaps I have a death wish."

Sakiko tilts her head, standing up and lifting her lantern from the ground in one movement. She clasps something in her other hand.

Sakiko: "A death wish? No. I don’t think so."

Crow sighs through her nose, trying her best not to come off as agitated.

Crow: "Why are you here after nightfall?"

Sakiko: "Looking for solitude. As I imagine you were?"

Crow glances up at her again. Suddenly, she feels bad. She pushes up to her feet and bows, deeply.

Crow: "I am sorry, Sakiko-san. It had not occurred to me. I can find my solitude elsewhere."

Sakiko: [laugh; light and surprised] "No, Crow-san, I -- Forgive me, I didn’t mean that. But I...have something for you, if you will accept it."

Crow straightens. She looks at Sakiko with a curious, tired expression, her eyes puffy and dark.

Sakiko steps forward, leaning down to her level before seating herself. She presses a netsuke carved in the shape of a white fox into Crow's hand. A small lock of black hair is tied around the red, woven rope used to attach it to the obi.

Sakiko: "For protection. As my, and...our, thanks. Mara-sama wishes to seek out your companions. When they will have it."

Crow glances down at the netsuke, her expression softening considerably. For a moment, she’s afraid she might cry again, but for a different reason this time. The muscles in her jaw tighten.

Crow: “They are in the village. I'm certain I could find them quickly."

Crow stares at the netsuke. She takes in a breath.

Crow: "Sakiko-san, I...cannot accept it. I have done nothing.”

Sakiko shakes her head and pushes the netsuke into her hand. There is the slightest brush of their knuckles.

Sakiko: [gentle insistence] "Please accept it. I fear that you will need it."

Sakiko withdraws her hand.

Crow stalls, considers refusing again, but ultimately accepts the gift. She nods and leans into a deep bow, her hair brushing the ground. She stays bowed for a few seconds longer than necessary, trying to will tears away. When she rises, one still rolls down her cheek.

Crow: [voice wavering] "Thank you, Sakiko-san. You are very generous...and kind."

Sakiko tentatively leans forward. She wipes the tear away and withdraws immediately after, breaching most social mores and etiquette Crow has come to know.

Sakiko: "Thank you, Crow-san. I will call on Mara-sama tomorrow. And...give you the solitude you sought."

Crow, for once in her life, isn't quite sure what to do when a pretty woman has touched her. She mumbles something like 'no' and quickly stands, taking her leave from the shrine and the clearing with haste.

Sakiko watches, confused. Slowly, she stands and watches her go.

—————

[inside] [rainfall outside]

A steady rainfall quietly drums the roof of the inn as Crow stirs from deep, though largely unsatisfying, sleep. She wakes long before the other samurai do, as she usually does, several hours before dawn. After a moment to listen to the rain and gain her bearings, she has a breakfast of rice and pickled vegetables in the inn’s common area. It's obvious she's been crying, but at a glance, her mood seems to have improved.

Daiyu, having slept little and spent the morning in meditation, emerges shortly after Crow has settled in. The netsuke, its contents undisturbed, dangs from her obi. She greets Crow briefly, hardly looking at her, before departing to find Atsu.

Crow nods at Daiyu and continues eating. She turns the fox-shaped netsuke Sakiko gave her over in her hand, fondly tracing its smooth carvings with her thumb.


—————

[outside; morning] [raining]

Few but servants and other laborers move about this early, but as time passes other villagers begin to slowly spill into the streets. Some wear straw capes about their shoulders and wide hats to shield themselves from the rain.

When Daiyu happens upon Atsu, he stands near a pair of villagers, watching as they carefully tend to a sugi sapling. They are women of similar, though not exact, height, with brown skin and black hair, but where one is slight, the other’s features are rounder, fuller. They laugh as Atsu gestures animatedly to the tall sugi around them, the grass, and the sapling, faces alight with wide smiles.

Atsu: “Why do you not plant in such fertile soil? Why is the grass so green? And why are the trees so large?”

Fox Woman 1: “We are careful not to take too much from the forest, Hida-san.”

Fox Woman 2: “[laugh] And the kodama are very...sensitive. These are their trees.”

Atsu: “Ooh, I see! So you are afraid to anger them, then.”

Daiyu crosses to Atsu, netsuke held stiffly at her side.

Daiyu: "Hida-san. I found this yesterday. There are some strange seeds that I did not recognize." She offers him the netsuke.

Atsu looks up with surprise, giving a curious grunt. He tentatively accepts the netsuke as though afraid he’s going to crush it, holding it up for closer examination. He gives it a little shake, resisting the urge to slam it against a rock. Instead, he experimentally tugs and twists at it gently until it finally opens, pouring some seeds into his palm and pushing them around with a finger.

Atsu erupts in an "OOH" of recollection and recognition. He gestures at the seeds and looks up at Daiyu excitedly.

Atsu: "WHERE DID THESE COME FROM, Kuni-san?!"

Daiyu falls silent, her lips thinning. She looks around for anyone who might hear.

Daiyu: "On Hotaka’s body. The poachers’ leader.”

Atsu: "Hmmm…! These seeds belong to plants most toxic... and I believe they may be the same poison the poachers used. They must have smeared this on their arrows. To… paralyze the foxes before they were caught.”

Daiyu: "These? They cannot be from this area, are they?"

Atsu shrugs half-heartedly. "They come from many climes, Kuni-san. If we happen upon some again, perhaps we will learn more!"

Daiyu: [sneer] “At least Hotaka is dead."

Atsu: [mm! of agreement] “I find it regrettable that I did not contribute to his death, but at least we had a chance with the other poachers!"

Atsu grins in a discomforting way, unless you're a Crab. He almost too gingerly places the seeds back in the netsuke one by one, then closes it and holds it out to Daiyu.

Daiyu double checks the seal before tucking it away.

Daiyu: "I'm sure you will find opportunities in the future."

Atsu stares for a moment, then seems to go "ohhh." He simply nods, then squats down to inspect the sapling once more.

Atsu: “Come find me when we set out, Kuni-san!”

Daiyu bows, then bids him farewell before returning to the inn.


—————

[inside inn] [rain outside]

Daiyu returns to the inn with purpose, but at least exercises enough restraint to not loudly make any morbid announcements. Torokai is finishing his breakfast when she approaches, her face grim and serious. He bows his head, bidding her continue. Crow, sitting nearby, picks at the last of her rice, listening to Daiyu’s explanation of what she’s learned with eyebrows drawn.

Torokai: "I see. Thank you, Kuni-san. I will... keep this in mind."

Daiyu: "I do not know where one would procure such seeds. But it is something to consider."

Crow: "Poison seems...excessive for the task."

Daiyu lifts an eyebrow.

Daiyu: “I would agree. Better suited for assassination. Perhaps they were afraid of what would happen, should they encounter a kitsune without such deceptions…”

Torokai rubs his beard. He thanks the inn keeper with a bow, certainly overpaying, then slowly stands.

Torokai: "This will be our last day or two here, if we intend to reach court in time."

Crow nods sullenly in agreement. Daiyu frowns deeply at the mention of court.

Crow: "I met with Sakiko-san last night. She mentioned that Kitsune Mara wished to meet with us before we leave for court. I believe she will be seeking us out in the village some time today."

Torokai hums. He is, perhaps, not thrilled with the idea of being surrounded by kitsune...but shows no signs of hostility.

Torokai: “We will meet again later, then. Finish what you will. I will speak with Kitsune-san and Shinjo-san in the meantime.”

Torokai smiles.

Torokai: “If I can find him. Shinjo-san has been… [slight laugh] preoccupied with the local wildlife.”

Atsu: “Hmm. Good luck, Akodo-sama!”

Atsu bows at the waist, giving him a wide grin, before he departs with the others.


—————

[outside, raining]

Atsu goes about scavenging for herbs, intent on refilling his pouch after treating one too many wounds. He specifically seeks out antidotes, for… obvious reasons, careful to not clip too many herbs as he remembers the villagers’ words about taking too much. The variety is somewhat lacking compared to the deeper forest, but he refills his pouch before long, pleased with the mix.

Crow visits the Kitsune Oden shop after the crowd has lessened, seeking a final meal there before they leave the forest. She’s sure to greet Hasako as she enters, her smile small and subdued. She is friendly enough with the few patrons who greet her, but an awkward pall hangs over their conversations. She eats in silence for a while, more glum than usual but not entirely closed-off.

Daiyu settles atop a large rock surrounded by trees, the hum of cicadas all around her as raindrops roll off of the brim of her hat. She wills herself to relax, slows her breathing, and loses herself in meditation, hypnotized by the ebb and flow of the Void. She barely moves throughout the afternoon, and before long, the sun has dipped low in the sky and crickets chirp in the warm air.

As evening takes hold, a white fox appears from the underbrush at the edge of the village. Its neck is ringed with a jagged scar, and four, white tails trail behind it: Sakiko. She seeks each of the samurai one by one, Torokai included.

Sakiko finds Crow easily, as the ronin has been wandering the village in wait for most of the afternoon, dressed in her fine court kimono. She is friendlier with Sakiko than the night before.

Daiyu, too, follows without question, dressed in her finest kimono. It’s the only thing left not stained with blood. To her their time in the woods, even the conflicts, felt more like a strange, waking dream than anything. She entertains herself with trying to memorize the path they follow, but cannot seem to grasp it for long.

Atsu casts a wary look at Sakiko when she approaches, but follows where she leads given a moment of recognition, his blood-stained clothing cast aside for a finer kimono. He very openly has no idea where he is, falling on the mercy of everyone around him.

Sakiko glances back at them several times over the course of their journey. It’s unclear if her meandering path is out of concealment or necessity, but it’s likely on purpose. For the sake of protection. They pass through several untread, splitting paths, and ancient torii arches that are as vibrant as if they’d been painted that morning. The trees begin to thicken as they tread deeper into the forest, and overhead the branches tangle and curve into elaborate shapes and patterns. Then, suddenly, the canopy thins just enough for soft slants of moonlight to touch the grass.

Sakiko leads them onward, into the clearing. Her tails and fur slowly fade away into skin, coalescing into a human form and a white kimono streaked with black. Far ahead of them is a heavily-forested area with more than a dozen impossibly green, unimaginably enormous trees. Thick shimenawa made of rice straw wrap around their trunks, and at their ancient roots sit dens and burrows that look to reach deep into the earth.

Crowds of kitsune, many in human form, fill the clearing, which is dotted with strings of paper lanterns and motes of green and blue foxfire. Most of the kitsune linger around the largest tree dominating the center of the clearing, or the pond nearby, where Kitsune Mara stands. Several children tumble by, one of them missing his left hand. He watches the others from a small distance away, laughing as they chase one another with sticks, play-acting what seems to be a tale of Fox and Lion samurai.

Crow finds herself unsure what, exactly, to do with herself, or what to look at. General dourness gives way to awe, and the dark cloud hovering over her features lifts. She is momentarily distracted by the children, and she briefly slows as she resists the urge to stop and play with them. Mara is enough of a distraction, though. So are the pair of kodama blinking at her from a branch nearby.

Atsu presses his mouth into a line, nearly breaking a sweat to stop his face from scrunching up. Daiyu is somewhat more relaxed then usual, though not by much. Several kodama staring at her unnerves her less than it perhaps should, but she is unphased by most kami and spirits. Torokai moves and bows stiffly, the pure culture shock nearly sending his eyes rolling from his skull as he soaks in his surroundings.

The samurai and Kitsune Mara exchange deep bows as Sakiko leads them onward. Sakiko falls in place beside and slightly behind Mara, chancing a small, private smile at Crow. She avoids her eyes, her cheeks flushed deep red. Crow allows herself a grin. She's not so avoidant of eye contact, but it's easy enough to focus on Mara at the same time. Mostly.

Mara glances between them, raising an eyebrow. Crow bows deeper.

Mara: "I thank you for coming, samurai. I thought it better to thank you in person."

Torokai: “It is good to see you, Kitsune-sama.”

Mara nods to Sakiko, who retrieves a wooden box nearly the width of her arm span from several paces behind them. She sets it onto the grass beside her.

Mara: “I--and the other kitsune--wished to thank you all in a more… personal way."

Sakiko slides off the top of the box. Inside is a series of items, each different in size and shape, wrapped in red cloth. She produces the first, beckoning Crow forward.

Crow hesitates for a few moments, almost sheepish, but then she steps forward and sinks into a deep bow.

Sakiko produces a pair of dark, wooden geta with a red, v-shaped cloth strap and presents them with both palms. She smiles, looking away self-consciously.

Mara: "You have traveled far, ronin. These will see to it that you travel farther."

Atsu "ooh's.” How practical! His Crab shows.

Crow can't remember the last time she's been given a gift of this quality, much less a gift...at all. It seeps into her expression before she forces it back into something formal. Slowly, after a refusal, she raises her palms to accept, bowing again.

Crow: "Thank you, Kitsune-sama... It was an honor to serve you and your family. I hope to do so again soon."

Crow smiles at Sakiko as she straightens, stepping back to her place in the line of samurai.

Mara’s white braid falls forward as she returns Crow’s bow.

Mara: "There is no need to thank me, Crow-san."

Sakiko reaches into the box, producing a heavy object wrapped in red cloth. She beckons Atsu forward.

Atsu’s face scrunches up in confusion. He points at himself in question before sheepishly approaching, a concerned crease in his forehead.

Sakiko removes the cloth, producing a dark wood box. When she unlatches the top, sitting inside is a small weapon maintenance kit with a series of small jars tucked beside it. Sitting alongside them is a polishing stone for a tetsubo’s spikes, and a small bag of powder -- likely jade.

Mara: "You defended this forest and my grandchildren, Hida-san. I will see to it that you are able to defend more in need of your help."

Atsu scrunches his lower lip, his expression softening. He accepts the gift with a bow and murmured, deep appreciation.

Atsu: “Thank you, Kitsune-sama.”

Crow beams at Atsu, mood significantly lifted.

Mara smiles, bowing deeply in return. When Sakiko beckons Daiyu forward, Daiyu takes a moment to remember where she is and what's happening. Relaxation quickly drains from her posture. She stiffly steps forward.

Sakiko produces a metal, ornate scroll case with a woven strap. She gently presents it with both palms.

Mara: "You have protected my grandchildren, Kuni-san. See that you protect your friends as well, and continue to honor the kami."

Atsu "ooh's" at the intricacy of the case, nodding in approval.

Daiyu stares at the case, rendered speechless. Confused and hesitant, she stammers out her first attempts to speak. She accepts the case very, very carefully, as if unsure she’s permitted to touch it.

Daiyu: “I… This -- Thank you, Kitsune-sama. Thank you.”

Mara bows deeply at the waist and smiles. After a few moments have passed, and it seems as if she will release them, she takes a step forward, hands folded inside her hanging sleeves. She smiles at Torokai, close-mouthed.

Mara: “And I have not forgotten you, Akodo-san.”

Torokai lifts his gaze in surprise. He smiles tensely, hands tightly folded at the small of his back.

Torokai: “There is no need for such gifts, Mara-sama.”

Mara: [high pitched, obnoxious laugh] “Of course there is, Akodo-san. Very few Lion have helped us in such a way. [pause] Or at all.”

Torokai’s lips thin. He manages to retain a smile, however small.

Mara peers at him for several moments, smiling, a glint of...something in her gaze. She hums, then extends a hand. Sakiko places a cloth-wrapped box into his palms.

As he removes the cloth and opens the box, Torokai’s eyes widen. Inside, laying atop red padded cloth, is an elaborately crafted, hexagonal tsuba marked with the Akodo mon, a shard of a katana’s blade lying alongside it. He stares at her, not comprehending for some moments, until suddenly he does. Mara only smiles, looking to the other samurai before Torokai can respond.

Mara: "I do not wish to keep you for long. But if you would like to join us, there is more than enough rice and sake!"

Atsu shrugs. He will never say no to a free meal. The mention reminds Daiyu that she hasn't eaten since the day before. She glances behind Mara, to the small crowds gathered around bowls of rice and meat, and frets at her lip. Perhaps it’s a good idea to remedy that.

Crow raises an eyebrow. She glances around as if to receive more context.

Mara: [horrible high-pitched laugh but slightly subdued] “Ah, of course, forgive me.”

She gestures to the small, paper lanterns that line each branch and pathway.

Mara: “We have just celebrated a wedding today. A sunshower is very auspicious.”

Crow: "I...cannot speak for the others, but I would be happy to join you."

Mara: “Good. We will be pleased to see you off.”

Eventually, she straightens and smiles, departing for the middle of the settlement. Sakiko watches her go, gently closing the box and tucking it away.

A series of red, paper lanterns are strung among branches, and the sound of koto drums rumbles through the trees. Far behind them, several of the kitsune in the grove twist and hop in elaborate acrobatics, dressed in brightly dyed and patterned kimonos, entertaining a small crowd. Their dances are nothing like what the samurai have seen before in court. Only the drumming is familiar, and even this stretches their experience.

Of the samurai, only Crow recognizes some of their motions. They remind her of Ki-Rin feasts, of celebrations from her childhood. She frowns, her stomach turning. Sakiko’s voice jars her from her thoughts, and she wills her attention towards her instead with half a smile.

Sakiko: "Do you...enjoy dancing, Crow-san?"

Crow turns to look at Sakiko, caught off-guard.

Crow: [laugh, embarrassed] “No… not really.”

Sakiko: [laugh] [said with a smile] "Sake, then. Come."

Crow: [laugh] "I don’t speak for the others, though!"

The mention of sake is enough to spur her into following, and she keeps a respectful distance as Sakiko leads on to the dens. Atsu follows tentatively, as though uncertain, but is too hungry to refuse. Torokai and Daiyu follow shortly after, lost in thought.

Atsu awkwardly sits down near a large fire circled by a crowd of kitsune, eyebrows lifting in surprise as they approach to offer food and sake.

Atsu: “O-ooh! Thank you!”

They offer dried fish, pickled vegetables, fresh-picked fruits, and leave him to sear his meat to his liking. He toothily accepts, stabbing the meat with branches and holding it over the fire. Several of the villagers watch with quiet fascination -- some with more anxiety than they know what to do with. Many of the kitsune eat their meat raw, and one or two of them look up self-consciously in the presence of humans, but Atsu’s wide grin and easy, boisterous laugh brings relief.

Daiyu hovers near Atsu and Torokai, holding her scroll case in both hands, considering whether watching kitsune is people-watching or nature-watching. Most of the foxes here are red and white, the color of foxes common to Rokugani forests. Very few are white-furred or white-haired, and every so often there is a black or gray fox lounging on a rock or branch.

All of the samurai are, before long, mobbed by kitsune kits or children who recognize them. The kits quickly divert Crow’s attention away from winking at pretty kitsune women. She stoops to play with them, laughing as they tumble and roll over one another in the grass, and at first does not notice the boy lingering a few steps behind them.

He is far more tentative than the others, at most ten or so winters, with green eyes and thick, shaggy black hair. A red cloth is wrapped around his left wrist, where he is missing a hand. He stares at Crow, wide-eyed, for several long moments. He sinks suddenly into a deep bow when Sakiko lifts her eyebrows at him.

Despite her confusion, Crow slowly stands and bows in return. Sakiko looks between them, fretting at her lip. She smiles, carefully smoothing the boy’s hair.

Sakiko: [clears throat] "This is my son Nori-kun, Crow-san. I believe he said he was in your...haori?" When she looks to him in question, he erupts into a giggle and nods.

Crow looks between Sakiko and the boy. Nori shrinks, his small hand self-consciously touching the cloth on his arm.

Crow: [uncertain laugh] "You seem to be doing well, Nori-kun. I’m glad. [growing more comfortable] And what a scar to tell of your bravery! I am jealous." She gestures to his red-clothed wrist and beams. Nori grins.

[[probably drop Michole’s voice a half-octave or so]] Nori: [growing more confident] "Th-thank you, Crow-san! She told me about you, I think. Jiaying-sama did."

Sakiko goes still, her eyes widening. She smiles, smoothing her expression, and distractedly ruffles his hair.

Crow glances to Sakiko in question just in time to see her freeze, then back to Nori.

Crow: "I'm afraid I've never met a Jiaying in these woods...but I would like to meet her all the same!" She smiles, not entirely sure what to say. That it sounds closer to a Ki-Rin name, if that, draws her eyebrows together momentarily.

Sakiko: [clears throat] [really eager to change the subject, quietly trying to hide it] "Perhaps you will! Nori-kun, have you seen Kou-sama?"

She bends down to his level and smiles.

Sakiko: "She may be lonely!"

Nori nods, glancing between the two of them. He bows as he turns and runs off with several other children, toward festivities that vary from dancing to playing with foxfire.

Crow watches him go, perplexed, but tries not to let it show. She glances over her shoulder toward Daiyu, Atsu, and Torokai, then smiles at Sakiko.

Sakiko: "Will you and your companions... leave tomorrow, Crow-san?"

Crow glances over her shoulder at them again, briefly.

Crow: "I...believe so. We are expected in court. I wish we were able to stay longer."

Sakiko: "I see." A small pause. "Though I do not know what for, I...wish you well."

Crow holds out her hands in a gesture of helplessness.

Crow: [laugh] "Neither do I! [small pause here] Thank you. I hope to return soon. I will think of you in my travels."

Sakiko: [laughs] "Thank you, Crow-san. [pause] I should...wish them well, I think."

Sakiko seats herself near the fire, where the other samurai sit conversing. She plucks a few slices of meat from a communal serving bowl, spears them with a small stick, and idly holds it over the flames. Searing it is probably more for the samurai’s comfort, sparing them the sight of sharp teeth and raw meat.

Crow settles in beside her, quickly distracted by pulling a wayward kit into her lap and scratching him behind the ears.

Daiyu, who would normally be on the more extreme end of discomfort in such a situation, finds herself at peace this deep in the forest. She shares her food with a kit, idly stroking her head as she listens.

Sakiko: "The kits have worried after you since their return. I am glad to see you all safe." She pauses to pluck off one of the bits of meat and drops it into her bowl of rice.

Sakiko: "I hope that your journey is safe. I... am afraid that few places will be, soon, if what Mara-sama has said is true."

Crow’s smile fades.

Crow: "What has she said?"

Sakiko: "She is not able to share her visions. Only pieces. She has said such things for several years, but only now are they seemingly coming to pass." She presses her lips together. “The winter will be...difficult.”

Crow frowns and glances toward the rest of the samurai to gauge their reactions, then back to Sakiko.

Atsu has not stopped chewing, despite staring right at Sakiko and listening to her speak. Torokai eats in silence, lost in thought. Sakiko’s words pull Daiyu back to reality, and with it her usual blank scowl returns to her face.

Sakiko: "You look troubled, Kuni-san."

Daiyu: "It's nothing. I merely hope we've done enough here." She keeps her fears of the mystery shugenja to herself for now, at least when there are children nearby.

Sakiko smiles reassuringly. "You and your companions have done more than enough, Kuni-san."

Crow eventually nods, slowly, in agreement. She skewers a few pieces of meat and holds them over the flames until they are barely browned. She tries to not eat too much like a barbarian in Sakiko's presence.

Sakiko: "I would request you visit us again, but know that your journeys branch elsewhere."

Crow: "We will return! I am certain of it."

Sakiko smiles, smoothing her palms over her lap. She stares at her hands and does not look up again for several long moments.

Sakiko: "I know that the children would be disappointed if you did not. And Nori-kun! He wishes to know more about you."

Crow laughs, uncertain how to take such a compliment. So she laughs some more, nods a few times, and then awkwardly continues eating.

Daiyu watches the exchange with raised eyebrows. She slowly takes a bite of rice.

Sakiko clears her throat, schooling her face into neutrality. She smooths a hand over her kimono and pushes to her feet, an embarrassed pink touching her cheeks.

Sakiko: "I should see to the others. I thank you again, samurai. We will see you off in the morning."

Crow bids farewell to Sakiko as she starts off, as well as the kit in her lap as he tumbles away after her. She finishes eating, then tosses her stick aside and folds her arms, looking to the rest of the group.

Daiyu frowns a bit when the kit in her lap leaves. Just when she'd grown accustomed. She turns away from the dancing and fire and instead looks out into the dark of the forest, unable to shake a sense of unease.

After a few moments, Crow awkwardly clears her throat. She shoves to her feet and stretches, looking around.

Crow: "We have a long trip ahead of us. I will find you later."

Atsu: “Mm!”

Torokai nods, offering a small, distant smile. He nurses a cup of sake that has gone untouched.

Torokai: “Be well, Crow-san.”

Crow lingers awkwardly for several moments before setting off.

Atsu continues eating. A few kitsune cast worrying glances in his direction as to how much he's eaten already, but so far no one has protested. Eventually, after Atsu has cleared several bowls of rice and meat, a few of the kitsune approach him, intent on making a contest out of it.

Several kitsune make some attempt at re-engaging Daiyu in conversation, but her steely silence and concentration deters them. She stares into the dark forest beyond with such intensity that she hardly notices the kitsune, too preoccupied with her thoughts. After they’ve given up, she sits for some time, wracked with awkwardness and guilt. She stares into the treeline for a while longer before standing to seek them out for conversation.

Atsu laughs uproariously, bowing appreciatively to a man when it’s obvious their contest is finished. The kitsune man laughs. “You have bested me, Hida-san.”

Atsu: “A good challenge! You would make a good Hida!”

Crow mingles for a while longer, playing with kits and half-flirting with various kitsune girls scattered around the clearing. After a little more rice, and a bit of sake, she seeks out Sakiko.

After several minutes of Sakiko insisting, Crow reluctantly joins the dancing. While she is nothing like the acrobats or more practiced dancers, she at least has a decent sense of rhythm. To her relief, the kitsune laugh in appreciation, not shock. Crow blushes, but laughs along easily enough.

Eventually, Crow coaxes Sakiko away. She doesn't require much convincing. She blushes, bows her head, and makes sure Mara isn't watching before dragging a small jug of sake with them into the trees.