E15 - Small Court of the Asahina, Part 2

The first episode of our next story arc is up! Want to discuss the episode, L5R, or anything in between? Join us on Discord!

After meeting their host and settling in at Son of the Crane Castle, the samurai attend an opulent dinner hosted by Asahina Takeshi. They make the acquaintance of several fellow court-goers, and run into a few familiar faces as well.

CAST, CREW, & CREDITS

Narrator: James
Crow: Mal
Atsu: James
Daiyu: Didi
Ryojiro: Nick
Akodo Torokai: Walt
Asahina Takeshi: Brian Richmond
Kitsune Nori: Michole
Hida Kasumi Debbie
Asahina Kyou: Charlie
Daidoji Shigeo: Peter Violini
Kakita Yuji: Aldrich
Doji Sayuri: Arielle

Ambience: Overland with Oxen (Tabletop Audio)

Script writing & editing: Arielle (& a little Mal)
Audio/sound design: Mal

Special thanks to Raghava and Jordan for their contributions to this episode. They very graciously provided some very quick-turnaround recordings. Even if they are not in the final cut, their patience and generosity are greatly appreciated!!

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


As the road leads on, and the samurai cross into Prosperous Plains City, the smell of the markets and the tang of fish overwhelms their senses. As the largest open air market in Rokugan, it teems with travelers and merchants from every clan, as well as Rokugani making pilgrimage to the great Temple to Koshin, Fortune of Roads.

Crow grows quieter as they near the buildings and open markets, consumed by a mix of awe and intimidation. Atsu grunts for any number of reasons, his eyebrows pulled into a shelf. Daiyu's expression could be described as "complicated".

After a short rest, and a bowl of rice, they return to their journey. They travel a while longer on a wide, main road, several other travelers on horseback ahead of them. The grass is not quite as green as it was near the coast, but the landscape still brims with life.

By the time they are well past Prosperous Plains City's borders, and on their way to Son of the Crane Castle, Crow finally breaks her silence.

Crow: [laughs nervously] "It is quite breathtaking."

Kyou smiles. Torokai looks, in a word, ill, but smiles as she turns toward them.

Kyou: "Have you visited the lands of the Crane before, samurai?"

Crow: [laughs nervously] “Only a few coastal villages, Asahina-sama. Nothing so...extravagant."

Daiyu keeps her eyes low and pretends it’s the sun bothering her. "Many years ago."

Eventually, they come to a small thicket of immaculately trimmed trees and a tended pink and red garden just beyond. Some distance later, the way opens to a small stream and a wooden bridge leading to the town gates.

A tall, blue torii gate looms above the samurai as they approach the bridge, where a semi-circle of Daidoji bushi wielding spears bar their path. A man dressed in heavier armor than his companions stands in the center, a patch covering his right eye and some of the puckered scarring beneath.

Kyou looks up as the Daidoji form, bowing her head. She looks to Daiyu. "Really! Many years, you say, Kuni-san? Well, I suppose it is good you have come then..."

Atsu: "I... hnnmph. I do not believe I’ve ever traveled to this place."

Daidoji Shigeo: "Asahina Kyou-sama." The man looks to Atsu with a raised brow and bristle of recognition and respect, then the others. "I am called Daidoji Shigeo. What is your business?"

Crow's smile lessens as she turns her attention to the Daidoji. She gives Nori's shoulder a reassuring pat, more for herself than anything. Daiyu is thankful for the distraction from the current conversation, even if it's an armed one. Shigeo glances between them, noting their silence.

Torokai clears his throat, reaching into his kimono to present a letter.

Torokai: "I am Akodo Torokai, Emerald Magistrate. We are here to attend the court gathering of Asahina Takeshi. These are my companions."

Shigeo’s jaw works as he reads. Eventually, his face ceases its twisting and he bows, gesturing for the others to part and allow them past.

Kyou grins, pulling her walking stick closer.

Atsu: "Oooh, Daidoji-san. You are known to me!" Atsu looks utterly pleased with himself, little more than a perfectly formed set of teeth amidst a face caked in dust. “Many Crab speak of your presence at the wall!”

Shigeo looks to him with surprise. "What is your name, Hida-san?"

Atsu: [grinning] "It is my privilege to be known as Hida Atsuryokunabe."

Shigeo nods. Slowly, as he begins to understand, he cracks a smile.

Shigeo: "Yes, you are known to me as well. [chuckle] And several other Daidoji here." He motions for them to follow as he and Atsu carry on their conversation, indicating that the other guards stay behind.

Torokai leads on, giving Nori a private, reassuring smile as the samurai follow.

[[Bustling town]]

The town surrounding Son of the Crane Castle is simple, much less extravagant than the markets they passed through in Prosperous Plains City. Lined with market stalls, several noodle shops, and stands for production and trade, it is as typical a castle town as one can expect, with few extra amenities. Daidoji dojos and training areas dot the fields just outside, and servants toil tirelessly to keep up with a much greater population than the town usually sees.

Far above them, Son of the Crane Castle sits imposingly on a rocky cliff overlooking the Lake of Sorrows, much more a castle of the Lion than a Crane holding.

As they come to a stable, several pre-genpuku samurai bow and tend to their ponies.

Daiyu parts from her pony without a shred of remorse. Crow slips off her pony, then helps Nori down. She picks a few twigs out of his hair, dusts herself off, and follows Torokai.

Atsu is still grinning. He murmurs "domo" a few times, awkwardly half-bowing while still burdened with Kyou’s belongings.

Kyou: “Ah!”

Kyou holds up a hand. "You must be careful, you see.”

She prods a smooth wooden plank off to the side of the entryway with her walking stick. It immediately flips up, turning to small spikes.

Kyou: "It can be tricky if you stray from the path. Or do not know the way. Fortunately, I remember.”

Kyou pushes the plank back down with a soft grunt. Torokai murmurs something and leads on.

Crow nearly seems offended. She squeezes Nori's shoulder and swallows. Daiyu remains blissfully oblivious, staring straight ahead with her pack held stiffly at her shoulder.

Atsu's grin slowly twists into a grimace. "It is fortunate that your wits remain sharp, Asahina-sama! It is a perilous path for certain."

Kyou stops, flattens her palms on top of her walking stick, then wheels around on her heel. She stares at him, deathly serious, before breaking into laughter. [laugh] "It is a good thing indeed, Hida-san! [leaning closer to him] Else you would be missing a toe."

Atsu blinks at Kyou. Slowly, a grin spreads across his face. He breaks into boisterous laughter. [laugh here?]

[inside]

Small pieces of pristine gardening and angular sculptures of white cranes flank either side of the long, main hallway leading onward. When at last the hallway ends, it opens into a large, lavishly decorated chamber filled with guests, the Daidoji mon emblazoned behind a shallow dais. Daidoji ashigaru stand vigilant near entrances to the other hallways, hardly moving.

The guests are a scattered lot, but they are mostly Crane, some more ostentatiously dressed than others. It is clear that this space has been recently carved out specifically to host this gathering, an entirely different purpose from the castle’s usual singular defensive use.

Crow openly gawks at the decor. Her discomfort and bitterness fade into awe, at least for a little while.

A thin, fine-featured Crane man wearing a light blue kimono, his long black hair half-drawn into a neat bun, stands at the center of the activity. He greets and carries on conversation with new arrivals, smiling and bowing to emissaries mostly from the Lion and Crane. He looks up while lighting a stick of incense as the samurai approach. He smiles and sinks into a deep bow, several strands of hair falling forward and then settling again.

Takeshi: "It is good to see you, Asahina-sama. Akodo-san. These are your selected companions, I assume. I am Asahina Takeshi, husband to Akodo-san. Welcome to the lands of the Crane."

Torokai smiles, holding his shoulders very straight, and bows. [fondly] "It is good to see you, Asahina-san. These are indeed the samurai I spoke of."

Crow tears her eyes away from all the ridiculousness long enough to smile politely and bow.

Crow: “It is good to meet you, Asahina-san. I am called Crow. And this is Nori-kun.”

Nori hides halfway behind her. He watches the scene unfold, eyes wide. Crow reaches behind herself enough to give him a reassuring pat.

Atsu stoops into a bow as deep as he dares while still burdened with Kyou's things. “I am Hida Atsuryokunabe.”

Daiyu bows, her expression set in stone. “Kuni Daiyu.”

Takeshi smiles at them, then raises a hand halfway, looking around for a moment.

Takeshi: [calling for them] “Mana-chan, Shuji-kun.”

Two pre-genpuku children appear by his side, sinking into deep bows. They are both dressed in deep blue, simple kimonos with loose pants. The girl’s black hair is cut to her shoulders, the boy’s clipped at his ear. They smile at Nori. He smiles back, a little shy.

Takeshi smiles at them and turns back to the samurai.

Takeshi: "You have arrived just in time for dinner, if that is pleasing to you. I know your road has been quite long."

Crow laughs weakly. Then she seems to remember the sort of company she's in. She passes it off as clearing her throat. “Indeed.”

Takeshi looks at Crow, eyebrows raised in question, and gives her a delayed smile.

Atsu nods appreciatively to the two children. He unashamedly clasps and wrings his hands together at the announcement of dinner, still looking like a large dust ball.

Atsu: “Only if we may have a bath first!”

Takeshi: “Of course, Hida-san. There is plenty of time.”

Daiyu: “Thank you, Asahina-sama.”

Torokai smiles, bowing his head. "That would be quite welcome, Asahina-san. Thank you."

Takeshi: "Mana and Shuji will lead you to your rooms. Servants will supply you with your things. You are welcome to join us when you are prepared."

The children lead onward up a set of dark, shiny wooden stairs, as servants appear to carry their belongings to their rooms.

As the samurai follow the children to their rooms, Crow slowly releases a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. She keeps her palm on Nori's back as they ascend the stairs. Nori looks about nervously, and stays quiet, but puts on a brave face.

Crow drops her things off, offering to share a room/space with Nori. Nori follows Crow inside without much incident, dropping a tiny bag on a clean, rolled, very thick futon mat.

After she's taken a moment to breathe, Crow crouches down to eye level with him. "Do you want a bath, Nori? I can take you later, too, when there are less people. If you like."

It takes him several moments to reply, focused on staring at the lake just out the window. "Yes, Crow-san."

Crow: "I think it would be best if you stay here while we eat with the Cranes. Cranes are….scary! I will bring you back some dinner afterwards, alright?"

Nori slowly removes his sandals, seemingly uncomfortable in them--it is clear that he feels much more at home once they are off. He smiles and rubs his cheek, then nods.

Crow gives him what may be her first genuine smile all day and ruffles his hair. "You can play with my things, if you like. Just be careful not to break anything." She gestures at her bag before picking up her court kimono and heading to the baths.

Daiyu shadows her once she's found a space and settled in one of the rooms, eager to wash away their journey. Do her court clothes look any different from her traveling clothes anymore?


—————

[baths, quiet conversation, water]

An open wall in the castle bath overlooks a cliff over the lake below, where cherry blossom trees grow along the cliffside. While the bath is large, it is split into several sections by tall partitions, separating private groups from one another. Several small groups of Crane women float near the edges of the baths, while Lion visitors are far less concerned with privacy or lingering for conversation.

The room is sparsely populated at this hour, but faint voices float in the air as Crow and Daiyu approach.

Crow shrinks as they enter, feeling entirely outclassed. By the time she's stripped to her fundoshi and reached the water's edge, she nearly seems sheepish.

Inside the bath, two figures stand out among the others. One is familiar: a large, muscular Crab woman stripped to the waist and wearing a chest wrap. Bruises that look to be about a week or so old mark her torso.

The other woman is much shorter, slighter, cleaned and dressed in an immaculate, blue kimono, the hanging sleeves of which are decorated with white and gold cranes. Her white hair is bound into an elaborate bun. Both women look to Crow and Daiyu as they approach.

Crow smiles with recognition as Kasumi comes into view. She bows to her and her companion, self conscious of her dusty filth in the presence of a kimono that's worth more money than she will ever have in her life. Daiyu bows, quietly hoping she’ll just go unnoticed.

Crow: “Hida-san?”

Kasumi: "Crow-san! You made it after all."

Crow catches a better view of Kasumi's companion as she rises from her bow -- and is promptly dumbfounded. Her face is heart-shaped, framed by eyebrows and eyelashes as white as her hair, and her pale skin holds golden undertones that catch in the firelight. Crow’s moment of blank gaping soon turns to a crooked grin.

As the Crane woman looks up, Crow notices that she, for a moment, goes momentarily pale. Or is it a trick of the light? The Crane bows, several bits of jewelry on her elaborate headdress clinking together.

Crow: "I am glad to see you well, Hida-san. The last we had heard, you'd made your way into the forest."

Sayuri: "Oh? The forest does not seem like your type of place, Hida-san."

The Crane woman’s smile is tentative, but she pulls it off well, passing a decorated fan from one hand to the other. She pretends not to look at Crow, but steals glances in a manner that is very practed. She knows exactly when to look, and when to flutter her eyelashes: when no one else is looking. Crow, however, manages to catch all of them; likely because she can’t stop staring.

Kasumi: "Indeed! Not a place I am used to. We had several encounters with… well, less than reputable ronin!” She clears her throat and stretches.  "And who is this?" She looks to Daiyu.

Daiyu is unsure if Kasumi reminds her more of Atsu -- or her mother. A comforting, or deeply disturbing, thought.

Daiyu: "I am Kuni Daiyu. I'm afraid we must have just missed each other in Kitsune Mori. You are here for court?"

Kasumi: "Indeed I am. And, fortunately, accompanied. It is not my expertise." She grins. "It is good to meet you, Kuni Daiyu! Another of the Crab so far from home."

Daiyu smiles and nods. "It is good to meet you as well."

Kasumi: "Do you still travel with Hida-san?"

The Crane woman quietly clears her throat.

Kasumi: "Ah! yes, right. Crow-san, Kuni-san--this is Doji Sayuri. She is here with the Crane."

Crow laughs, her face flushed. [flustered] "I--I apologize! How rude of me!! I am called Crow.” She bows much deeper than necessary.

Daiyu’s eyes drift toward Sayuri as her face returns to its natural state, much as if a face had appeared in a mountainside, grinned, and then returned to solid stone.

Daiyu: “I am Kuni Daiyu.”

Sayuri: “It is good to meet you, Crow-san. Kuni-san.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Daiyu returns her attention to Kasumi.

Daiyu: "Hida-san is with us. I am sure he will reappear for dinner. Perhaps sooner."

Kasumi: "Good! That is good. [small pause] Doji-san will be joining us as well."

Kasumi looks at Crow conspiratorially. Crow grins with open delight, failing subtleties even more than usual.

Sayuri bats her eyelashes at Crow and then swallows a tiny, shitty smile. She bows her head and snaps her fan shut, collecting her things.

Sayuri: "Ah, yes. I suppose I should prepare. I will see you shortly, Hida-san." She glides out of the room.

Crow watches her go--All the way--then sloshes into the bath and begins to bathe very fast. Daiyu mumbles something as she begins to wash the mud from her hands and feet. She hurries, but not too much, highly unexcited for what is to come.

Kasumi: "I look forward to asking you many questions, Kuni-san!"

Daiyu pauses at the comment, but manages to brush it off--outwardly at least.

Daiyu: "And I look forward to answering them."

Kasumi disappears once she has dressed, leaving them in sparse company.

Crow looks at Daiyu once she is gone, a grin plastered on her face.

Crow: [relatively quiet; stupid grin] "Perhaps the Crane are not so bad after all."

[[Dinner; quiet conversation]]

When they arrive in the dining area, rows of small, low black tables dominate the room. Samurai in attendance sit across from and closely beside one another as servants busily toil, arranging small plates, bowls, and sake cups.

Far more than the scant few that the samurai witnessed entering the castle sit in attendance, though mostly Crane and Lion clan fill the tables. At the head of the gathering, Asahina Takeshi sits alongside a stern, stoic looking Lion man with a thick beard and prominently tufted sideburns. To the man’s right sits a tall, tan, muscled Matsu woman, clearly a bushi, with bright, coppery-red hair. In the unarmed crowd, her daisho remains at her side-- the mark of a yojimbo.

Near the middle of the crowd, Doji Sayuri sits alongside a black-haired Kakita man who has the look and cool composure of a duelist. Dotted among the cloud of Lion and Crane are Bayushi Reiko, several Scorpion women seated beside her, and Hida Kasumi, accompanied by her traveling companions. Akodo Torokai has seated himself close to Takeshi---and far from Reiko.

Crow takes a seat as close to Sayuri as possible. She has at least managed to compose herself following the bath, even if her hair has dried into its usual, wild mess.

Atsu sits beside Crow, looking strained. It might be due to the present company, but is far more likely because he's impatiently waiting to eat. Daiyu takes a seat alongside him, keeping strangers as distant as possible. Unfortunately, that is not so easy at such a gathering.

"Hida-san!" Kasumi announces herself contentedly, much to the steely, silent chagrin of the Crane in attendance. "You have managed to live another day, I see."

Atsu: "OOH, HIDA-SAN! By some luck and the good will of my friends, yes!" Atsu gives the scar on his chest a pat. "I am grateful to see that your party arrived safely as well!"

Kasumi’s gaze follows Atsu's hand. For a moment, her face softens with concern, but then she beams with pride. She laughs, seating herself near him with a thump on a tiny, overly-delicate Crane pillow, occupying him with war stories.

Takeshi clears his throat and stands, arms folded behind his back. Wisps of murmured conversation fall silent. Atsu's stomach growls.

Takeshi: "I must thank those of you in attendance for joining us. I hope that with these discussions we may find peace in these troubled times. I, along with Akodo Kuro," he gestures to the bearded man near him, “will be overseeing them. While we may not solve things in a simple court-- may we take the first step.”

Crow looks to Takeshi, as is appropriate...but not without chancing another grin at Sayuri first. Sayuri has since snapped her fan open, briefly fanning herself before resting it, closed, on her right cheek. She smiles as the Kakita man beside her leans in to speak, but her eyes remain fixed on Takeshi. Crow’s grin fades into a stare; jealousy rolls off of her like heat.

Daiyu watches all of this from beneath the shadow of her hair and face paint, just waiting for something to go wrong.

Takeshi: “Our Daidoji hosts have graciously prepared a meal for us, as honored guests. Tomorrow, we will begin our conversations.”

Takeshi seats himself with a deep bow in one, smooth motion. With almost no delay, servants carrying trays of food--fish, sushi, vegetables--appear from behind a curtain marked with the Daidoji mon, laying out portions quickly and efficiently. Kasumi and her companions waste no time digging in as soon as the plates touch their table.

Everyone else, the Crane especially, sit with their chopsticks poised until every large plate is distributed. Daiyu's nerves force her to wait until everyone else has begun to eat before she can allow herself the luxury.

Crow, however, exercises all her self control to hold off. Finally, she begins to eat, but as she's halfway lifting the first bite to her mouth, the Kakita seated beside Sayuri speaks. Though he is handsome, and his smile and bearing are polite, there is something almost cruel in his gaze.

Yuji: "I do not believe we have met." He eyes Crow, offering Daiyu the same, vaguely suspicious glance. "I am Kakita Yuji."

Crow wills her face into something neutral and gently rests the chopsticks against the side of her plate. She forces a smile and bows her head.

Crow: "It is an honor, Kakita-san. I am called Crow."

Daiyu notices Yuji’s glance just as she’s lifted the first of her food to her mouth. She slowly lowers it back to the plate with a painfully forced smile.

Daiyu: “It is good to meet you, Kakita-san. I am Kuni Daiyu.”

Yuji: [said at length; kind of spitting it; there is at least a layer of contempt here but well-hidden] "A Kuni. [with a smile] It is good to meet you. I must admit, I’ve never had the honor of meeting someone of your Family.”

Daiyu pauses, chopsticks loaded with a bite of rice raised to her mouth--she lowers them again. A forced smile returns to her face. [slight annoyance] "Is that so? Strange, I have met many."

Daiyu has never spoken of her particular distaste for the Kakita family, with good reason. She battles the urge to inform the entire dinner of it.

Daiyu: [trying to keep tone even] "You may be disappointed to know I am not much of a Kuni. I could not answer many questions you might have about the family, for instance."

Yuji’s smile comes at a pointed delay, Daiyu’s annoyance not lost to him-- but his face is no less polite.

Yuji: “Of course, Kuni-san.”

He plucks a slice of sashimi from the platter and looks at Daiyu, inspecting her in a way that one might inspect a slab of meat.

Sayuri quietly clears her throat, sitting up just enough to deftly pluck a few sushi rolls onto a small plate. She speaks cooly once she's finished the first one.

Sayuri: [cooly] "Where do you come from, Crow-san?"

Crow and Daiyu exchange a glance.

Sayuri: [light, airy laugh] "Ah, forgive me. Perhaps that is not the best first question.”

Crow laughs quietly, more to stall than anything, as she still struggles not to gawk. She occupies herself with her chopsticks, pulling a few rolls of sushi onto her plate.

Crow: "We've just arrived from Kitsune Mori, Doji-san."

Sayuri watches Crow, amusement glinting in her eyes, along with something else more difficult to pin down.

Sayuri: "Ah, Kitsune Mori? That is quite a journey."

Crow: "Yes. It was quite a long road, but blessedly uneventful."

Crow finally eats a single piece of sushi. That seems to give her strength. She smiles at Sayuri.

Crow: "I must admit...I was not sure what to expect when we arrived, but I've found the Crane to be quite beautiful. [awkward, fumbling] Er, the Crane lands."

Sayuri smiles, leaning forward juuuust slightly and inspecting Crow. She's interested, now. Yuji notices.

Crow grins toothily at Sayuri, subtlety entirely lost on her.

Yuji: "Ah, yes. Beautiful indeed. Though I must say, this is nothing compared to the gardens of the Doji. Isn't that right, Snowblossom?"

Sayuri smiles. It's a little thin if one looks close enough.

Crow's grin quickly fades, like dumping a bucket of water on a flame. A forced, polite smile follows very quickly. "Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to see them for myself one day."

Sayuri’s smile widens a bit; perhaps recklessly so. A tense moment of silence follows as Crow lifts another piece of sushi to her mouth, her eye contact unwavering. Yuji clears his throat and returns his attention to Daiyu, a tremor across his eyebrows.

Yuji: [clears throat] "So. If not truly a Kuni, who were you raised among, Kuni-san?"

Daiyu stares him down from across the table, her face frozen into the same, forced smile.

Daiyu: "The Isawa. I choose to keep the paint to remember where I am from, so I must thank you for saying I look the part. I do try."

Yuji: [filing this away for later] "Hm. Very interesting."

Daiyu doesn't seem to be coming to her senses, and the forced smile has taken a turn to smugness. Whatever battle she thought she was fighting, she also thinks she has won. She's not ready for court. But at least she can finally start eating.

Sayuri snaps her fan open, angling it a bit toward Crow. It's a careful show of riding that line, staying out of Yuji's line of sight. It's a bit easier when he's focused so solely on Daiyu.

Crow is confused by fans and subtleties and hidden smiles and...court, but she gives her a brief, stupid smile all the same. Sayuri chuckles, the back of her hand over her mouth. Her gaze flickers back to her dinner, focusing on the rice. Yuji notices.

The conversation falls into a lull, giving them all a chance to eat. Daiyu seizes the opportunity, having become too absorbed in her singular quest to be angry at a Crane.

By now, the rest of the hall is well into their dinner. Atsu is listening to Kasumi with at least half of his attention, while the other half is apparently devoted towards stressing over the tiny tea-ware in some fashion. He appears to be trying to determine how to pick it up without destroying it. A bead of sweat forms at his temple. Kasumi seems a touch less aggressive in a court environment, but that isn't saying much. Eventually, she takes note of Atsu’s struggle, brow creasing in quiet concern.

Atsu's hand quivers, his fingers slowly closing around the delicate porcelain with utmost care. Atsu's jaw tightens. His arm flexes as he raises the cup. An errant burst of laughter at the end of the table distracts him, and a vein pops in his forehead. The cup explodes.

He clutches his head with a groan of anguish and defeat.

Sayuri looks to Daiyu with teacup in hand -- just as Atsu's goes crashing to the table in a hundred shards. She pauses, a thin line of a smile on her face.

Crow looks at Atsu, startled, eyes far wider than they were at the dessert. She lifts a hand to her mouth.

Yuji clears his throat. Some of the Lions in attendance look more amused than they ought to, but quickly smooth over their expressions.

Kasumi stares. She glances around at the other samurai in attendance, some of whom watch in silence. She clears her throat and scoops the shards together in her wide, weathered hands. She shoots a throng of Cranes a look, daring them to say anything. They don't.

Kasumi: "Ah, it is fine, Hida-san! These cups are not made for a warrior's hands, after all."

Atsu looks at Kasumi, nearly breaking into a sweat. Then after a moment he lets out a nervous chuckle, which gradually escalates into halting laughter that's far too loud.

Kasumi laughs and hands off the shards to a flustered looking servant.

[small pause]

When most of the attendees have moved past the main course, it is quickly replaced by smaller, even more extravagant desserts: flower-shaped wagashi served with tea, a collection of colorful daifuku, and mochi wrapped with leaves.

Crow seems completely awed at the concept of dessert. She eyeballs all the elaborate displays of food with no small degree of amazement. She tries to keep the eye bulging to a minimum, but it's obvious she has eaten exclusively plain rice and pickles for a long time… Daiyu’s expression mirrors Crow’s wonder, but in her own, somewhat muted fashion.

None of the Cranes seem affected by the elaborate dessert display. The Lions in attendance, Torokai included, eye it with some suspicion and a little agitation.

Sayuri chuckles, gently clearing her throat and pouring Crow a cup of hot sake. Then she fills the other samurai’s cups and hands them off. Crow bows her head in thanks, smiles, then fills Sayuri's cup in return once she’s finished. As SOON as she's finished. Yuji’s face pinches just slightly. He looks to Crow with a small smile.

Sayuri: "So--Kuni-san. Where is it you come from?"

Daiyu, having used the ordeal with the sake as a distraction to pile several different small wagashi onto her plate, tries to keep the look of being caught in a horrible crime off of her face. She finishes whatever she had been eating and tries to form a response.

Daiyu: "I traveled much before my genpuku, but my family's home is not far from Shiro Kuni."

Sayuri smiles. She takes a sip of the sake and exhales quietly, appreciatively. "I see. I don’t know much of the Kuni, I admit, but it is...something of an interest."

Crow glances at Daiyu as the conversation progresses, sipping her sake. She seems momentarily distracted by how good it is, staring down at the cup in silent awe before remembering herself.

Crow: "I suppose we’ve never really had the opportunity to get to know one another since we were first summoned to escort Asako-san. How is it that Akodo-sama came to choose you, Kuni-san?”

Daiyu hesitates. She's always a bit odd, but never so clearly uncomfortable.

Daiyu: "For my knowledge of. [trails off, thinking of a euphemism] secrets, Crow-san. From what I understand, we are viewed as somewhat of an oddity outside of our lands. I cannot blame you for your curiosity."

Daiyu takes a sip of tea and returns to her food, clearly unwilling to pursue the subject any further.

Sayuri pauses midway through a sip. [with a smile] "Which Asako-san, if I may ask?"

Crow: "Asako Ryoko; she had need of an escort when we encountered her. Or--her uncle tasked us with it, that is. Asako Kato. That is how we all came to know each other!"

Sayuri nods, her smile coming at a delay this time, but it's no less practiced. "Ah, I see." She clears her throat, finishes her sake, and cooly ignores Yuji's stare boring into the side of her head.

The rest of the dinner, thankfully, passes without incident. Eventually, Takeshi stands to announce its formal end.

Takeshi: "I thank you all, again, for your attendance. And your cooperation. I hope that these days pass in peace. I will see you all tomorrow." He bows deeply and accompanies Torokai, Akodo Kuro, and his yojimbo out of the room.

Daiyu doesn't linger long. She says her farewells and leaves in the midst of a crowd once her plate is finished.

Crow lingers long enough for the crowd to thin, then slips a few bits of mochi and sushi under the table and into her kimono when she thinks no one is looking.

Unfortunately, that is not the case; Sayuri gives her a look, but it may or not be about the food. Crow gives her a slight, sheepish smile in return.

Crow: "I am glad for the opportunity to share a meal with you, Doji-san. [long enough pause to be intentional] And Kakita-san."

Sayuri smiles, bowing her head a bit deeper than is necessary for a ronin. Yuji gives her a lingering look.

Sayuri: "And I am glad for the opportunity to share a meal with you, Crow-san. I hope that sleep finds you easily."

Yuji smiles thinly. "Good night, Crow-san."

Crow looks to Sayuri and smiles. She stands, bows, and then heads up to her room in no rush, hands in her sleeves.

[pause, sounds of dining hall fading, walking up steps]

Crow tucks away into her room as stealthily as possible. Nori has fallen asleep by his bedroll, though he stirs as Crow makes her way over to him and lays out a feast of stolen sushi rolls and sweet rice cakes. She looks very proud of herself.

Nori’s eyes widen as he sits up. He bows several times once he's gathered himself, torn between being too excited and trying to calm down. "Th-thank you, Crow-san!!"

Crow: "It's nothing, Nori-kun. I am sorry you had to stay here. I'll make it up to you soon. And once I've made a bit of money, we will find you a nicer kimono."

Nori eats slowly despite his enthusiasm. Crow smiles at him and glances about the room; it’s clear that he has inspected and dug through each and every drawer while she was gone, though he has made some attempt at covering it up. She smirks after a few moments, then looks back to Nori.

Crow: "Did you find anything interesting?"

Nori drops his eyes, shaking his head. His smile is a little delayed. "Not really."

Crow: [laughs] "Were you looking for something?"

Nori shakes his head, embarrassed. A few moments of silence follow before he finally admits, [sheepish] "A blanket."

Crow’s expression falls. She exhales and frowns, looking down.

Crow: "I'm sorry, Nori-kun. Here." She reaches for her pack and rifles around before producing a very old, worn, and ratty--but large--sheepskin. She hands it over to him with a smile. Like her, it somehow manages to smell like horses.

When there comes a soft call at the door, she stands and graciously receives the fresh fabrics from the servant with a smile, wishing this had come BEFORE she'd embarrassed herself with the nasty old animal hide she calls a blanket.

Nori seems to appreciate the sheep-blanket more, though. He wholly rejects the silky, blue Crane fabric that Crow offers him first--though he eventually accepts it as a futon.

Nori: "Thank you, Crow-san." He curls up on top of the Crane fabric a little awkwardly, still unaccustomed to one arm.

Crow stands up and dusts herself off once Nori is settled. "Is there anything else you need before I head out for a while, Nori-kun?"

Nori shakes his head, smiling. He curls up into the blanket.

Crow smiles. She stands there awkwardly for a moment, unsure of what to do. Eventually she leans down to ruffle his hair, then leaves the room.


—————

The cool, spring night has since taken hold when Kitsuki Ryojiro arrives at Son of the Crane Castle. Accompanied by a sparse entourage of guards, and having traveled alone, he enters the gates with little fanfare. He bathes alone and in silence, eats a simple meal of rice and vegetables, and disappears into the room a servant tells him is his.

After settling in, he slowly slides open the door to his room, taking a moment to steady his breath. He shuts the door silently behind him. He looks down the corridors for a place to watch the night pass, settling for an open balcony and watching the clouds pass in front of the moon.

Daiyu passes Ryojiro on her way back to her quarters, stopping herself from doing a double take. She bows deeply but doesn't say much of anything, offering little more than a warm smile and forcibly concealing the shock on her face as she returns, exhausted, to her room.

Ryojiro smiles, even nods, but does not look away.

Daiyu settles in the center of a loosely organized pile of her own belongings, meditating before sleep. She rises after a time, searches through her packs for few slips of something to write on, and sighs. With a healthy air of paranoia about her, she begins to write some wards out of the purest sense of suspicion (and superstition), as practiced as ever, and applies them successfully to the walls of her quarters.

Finally satisfied, she settles in for sleep. Hopefully.


—————

Kasumi lingers long after her companions have left, until few others but she and Atsu remain, trading war stories. She nurses a cup of hot sake. Tiny cuts mark her palms from the earlier incident with the cup, but she refuses a servant's bandages more than once.

Kasumi: "This is not a place for us, Hida-san. But it is not so bad."

Atsu grunts heartily in agreement, his shoulders sagging with a sigh. What was he doing here again? He doesn't have long to pursue the thought, catching sight of Kasumi's injured hands as his gaze strays to the side.

Atsu: "OH! You have been cut?! Please, let me see!"

Kasumi shakes her head, her eyebrows stubbornly furrowing. "It is fine, Hida-san!" Eventually, she lays them flat. Her palms are covered in tiny cuts from what was once probably a very old ceramic cup.

Atsu rumbles a thoughtful "hmm, hmm" as he examines her hands. Kasumi's hands are, in a word, seasoned. They're wide and weathered, the very picture of a Hida’s. He takes a pinch of something from his pouch and mixes them with a bit of water to make a paste. Then he steals a nearby piece of loose fabric.

She hardly flinches when Atsu rubs the paste on, but sniffs suspiciously and eyes him.

Kasumi: "Where were you taught such things? Kuni-san?”

Atsu nods with satisfaction, binding her hands with a napkin he tears clean in half. Hopefully no one would notice its absence.

Atsu: [murmured] "I have learned much from my time on the Wall, Hida-san! What I did not learn from my sensei, at least." He smiles, uncharacteristically soft.

Kasumi grins, but it is a bit softer. She nods, flexing her hand. "Hm. Thank you."

Atsu: [grinning] "You won't even notice the cuts!"

Kasumi: "I will ask you more of your battles in time, Hida-san. We will need it after several days with Cranes!"

Atsu nods with a weary grimace. "Indeed! Perhaps even here, there might be a sake house which we may retreat to when all is said and done!" He grins.

Kasumi laughs, bowing her head. She pushes up from her pillow and adjusts the sleeves of her kimono, rolling them to her forearm once "good company" has dispersed.

Kasumi: "Perhaps there is! We can yet hope. Sleep well, son of Hida."

Atsu: "And you, daughter of Hida!"

Kasumi departs for her quarters, leaving Atsu alone with the waiting servants until he, too, returns to his room.


—————

The hour is late and the halls are empty; a fact that Crow is quite grateful for as she navigates them blindly. Though she’d set out with the intention of training, she has since become very lost, and her motives have shifted closer towards escape. Or, at the very least, to gain her bearings.

She has just found her way to a staircase down when a familiar silhouette passes through her peripheral vision. After a pause--and several steps backward--Crow stops and stares at Ryojiro where he stands on the balcony, looking out across the town below. She blinks several times, rubs her eyes, and then beams and calls out:

Crow: "Kitsuki-san!" It seems she cares little care for disturbing the guests. "I wasn't expecting to see you here!"

Ryojiro restlessly tightens the bandages under his kimono. He stops short and pulls his sleeve down quickly at the sound of Crow approaching, then turns to face her and bows graciously.

Ryojiro: "I apologize for the unexpected disappearance. I hope you weren't troubled -- and that you are well?"

Crow stares into the middle distance for half a second as the sheer amount of what’s happened since they last saw one another flashes before her eyes. At a delay, she smiles and nods. It’s a bit more tempered than the one before.

Crow: "Well enough. Though I feel very out of place here. [laughs] Have you been well? Oh, have I interrupted you?"

Ryojiro: “No, I welcome the company. It is...far more pleasant than the thoughts I was sharing the time with before. And thank you, yes, I have been well enough.”

Crow smiles, an all-teeth Atsu style of smile.

Crow: "I am glad to hear it, though I wish you could have joined us in Kitsune Mori. I suppose there will be other times."

A half-smile crosses Ryojiro’s face.

Ryojiro: "I would have enjoyed seeing the forests there again. Forests without fire and blood."

Crow: [short, weak laugh] "Ah...well. Unfortunately, I cannot say it was without blood... but I am grateful that we were able to help the Fox clan, at least."

Crow seems to remember she came here for a purpose. A long, awkward pause passes before she bows.

Crow: "I am sure I will see you again soon, Kitsuki-san. I'm sure the others would like to catch up as well."

Ryojiro nods. "Yes, of course."

Crow smiles and bows again, then runs off, leaving Ryojiro to stand alone in the moonlight.