E16 - Small Court of the Asahina, Part 3

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Tensions are high even in the earliest proceedings of court. Following an uncomfortable morning, Doji Sayuri seeks to learn more about the samurai in Akodo Torokai's service.

CAST, CREW, & CREDITS

Narrator: James
Crow: Mal
Atsu: James
Daiyu: Didi
Ryojiro: Nick
Akodo Torokai: Walt
Kakita Yuji: Aldrich
Doji Sayuri: Arielle
Asahina Takeshi: Brian Richmond
Akodo Kuro: Ryan Sheehy

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

Ryojiro’s dream was written by Nick & edited by Arielle.

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


[rain]

Three hours into morning, the bell tolls.

Kitsuki Ichiro stands slowly from the low table and slides out the door, his twin swords at his waist. He walks to the edge of the packed earth road, the cool morning air touching his face.

Ryojiro measures his steady footsteps as he joins him from the alley, the distant crash of hooves echoing from beyond the heavy gate. The streets are empty. Unusual for the morning.

[hoofbeats]

Lady Gintoku perches atop the temple’s roof, a bundle of long arrows at her waist, pale yumi in hand. Two young bushi lean inside the shadow of a doorway across from Ichiro and his brother. A nameless shadow plays at the edge of the temple bell as hoof falls echo down the village streets.

Forty, sixty, then perhaps seventy, armed ronin halt their horses in front of the Kitsuki home.

[hoofbeats stop]

A young, black-haired man trots slowly to the head of them, his face a spinning wheel of emotions. He cycles through anger, confusion, and then mirth at the sight of Ichiro, who stands where his grandfather should stand.

Musha: [gruff] “You, kid. Where is your grandfather? Was he too afraid to bring our tribute? Or just too old to make the trip from his bed this morning?”

Ichiro looks at the ronin evenly, hands folded in front of him.

Ichiro: [clear, certain] “There is no tribute today. You may ride on to the next village.”

The ronin’s face cracks, nearly breaking into a grin. It snaps back to anger.

Musha: “See men?! This is what happens when you look out for these insects. You protect them, and what do they do? They scorn you! They send you away, without food for your long march. Farmers, idiots! They wish to grow fat while we do all the hard work. They think their duty more valuable than mine, Musha Naga-killer!” His left hand finds his yumi.

Ichiro lets the air settle, then speaks again.

Ichiro: “There is no tribute. You may ride on.”

Several riders split from their formation, slowly surrounding Ichiro and Ryojiro. Only Ryojiro’s eyes move, slowly observing every ronin, every saddle, bow, sword, and horse. He doesn’t let his eyes tell the secrets he learns.

The wheel spins again. Musha Naga-killer explodes with laughter. It emboldens his band, spreading across the riders in raucous, cruel belly laughs that fill the empty streets.

Musha: “You peasant children are quite humorous! [a moment to compose himself] Ah, tell us where you hid the rice and furs and we shall ride on.”

Ryojiro slowly folds his arms.

Ichiro: “Ride on.”

Restlessness slowly erupts among the riders.

Ichiro: “And tell Lady Yukiko she will get no scrolls today.”

Musha begins to raise his yumi -- but a few of his warriors are faster. The first to touch an arrow to his string cries out as an arrowhead juts forth from his chest, piercing his heart from behind. His horse panics as he falls, lighting a wave of chaos through the rank.

Ichiro draws both of his blades and jolts forward. He blocks the horsemen from riding into the streets, cutting four down before they can tighten their hold on their reins. Ryojiro cuts down one ronin with gritted teeth, but loses his sword deep in another as he dives into the sake house across the alley to avoid a volley of arrows.

The second volley arcs over the temple, where a dozen bodies leave a distinct trail to the assassin on the rooftop. Already prepared, Lady Gintoku slides down the back of the roof and into the alley below.

Locked in the broken formation, Musha shouts the order.

Musha: [shouted] “Burn everything!”

The third volley of arrows bends the village to his demand.


Ryojiro wakes with a start, a sheen of sweat across his brow and chest. He takes in an unsteady breath and stares out the window, into the night beyond, before again settling upon his futon with eyes shut.

The night passes uneventfully. The first signs of approaching summer, warm air and the chirping of crickets, greet the samurai as they begin to stir. Before long, the morning comes -- and with it the first events of court.

Of all of Son of the Crane Castle’s inhabitants, Asahina Takeshi is up the earliest, briefly joined by Torokai before they split into their individual duties. Slowly, the rest of the castle begins to wake.

Crow wakes as early as she always does, going through her morning ritual and dressing quickly in her court kimono. Once she has procured some breakfast for Nori, she heads downstairs to meet Torokai and the others.

Daiyu mechanically goes through her routine, but an added air of dread weighs heavily on her hands. She’s left to wonder how many questions she can handle as she wanders downstairs.

Ryojiro spends the earliest part of the morning dressing for the day, exhausted from restless, unsatisfying sleep. He spends extra time ensuring his makeup covers bruises and burns, grisly evidence of the last several weeks. Each piece of the process helps draw his mind back to the right place.

Torokai greets the samurai with a bow, dressed in a fine court kimono and wide obi, as the samurai appear downstairs. He smiles as they bow in return, idly wringing his hands at the small of his back.

Torokai: “Good morning, samurai.”

Atsu: “Good morning, Akodo-sama! Did you sleep well?”

Torokai: [small laugh] “Well enough, Hida-san. But, I admit court does make me nervous. Let this morning pass quickly.”

Atsu: “Hmm, hmm!”

Laid throughout the common area are small, low tables and rows of large zabutons for sitting. Servants, their heads bowed, stand against the far walls of the room. Several other guests have arrived since the previous night, and stand grouped near a hanging Daidoji banner. By their looks, manner, and purple, fur-lined kimonos, they are Ki-Rin. Crow does not look thrilled by their presence. She keeps her distance.

After some time has passed, and no others join the crowd, Takeshi steps onto the raised dais. Akodo Kuro and his tall, red-haired yojimbo stand nearby, looking grim.

Takeshi: “I thank you all for coming. In our attendance, representing the Lion and Crane clans, are the honorable Akodo Kuro and his yojimbo Matsu Ayame, guests from the Lion lands. With us are also Kakita Yuji and Doji Sayuri, guests from the Esteemed House of the Crane.”

Doji Sayuri stands near the front of the crowd. She looks well-rested and impossibly, impeccably dressed given the early hour -- the mark of several servants assisting with her many-layered, feathered furisode. She glances to Crow with a small, private smile before her gaze returns to the front.

Crow’s mood improves by an incomprehensible magnitude at Sayuri’s presence, even moreso when she smiles -- which she returns much less privately.

Takeshi: “We will begin with a morning meal, and then move onward to proceedings and the beginning of peace talks.”

As Takeshi steps down, and Torokai crosses to join him, the guests begin to seat themselves. Sayuri remains standing for some time, lingering near a cloud of Crane. She seems to wait for most others to sit down first before choosing a spot. When she finally does settle in, her furisode spilling out around her, Crow shamelessly ushers the other samurai to sit nearby...while trying to make it seem like that’s not what she’s doing.

Daiyu follows, having no idea what to do otherwise, and Ryojiro finds a seat alongside them and folds his legs under him. Atsu eyes the pillows cautiously. Eventually, he slowly lowers himself onto one, a look of distrust still twisting his face. When Kasumi seats herself beside him, they exchange a grin and quickly tumble into conversation.

Once the guests have settled, a line of servants smoothly enters the room carrying trays of small plates and bowls of food. Pickles accompany the central bowl of miso soup, along with grilled fish, a small bowl of rice, and tea cups that never go unfilled. It is a light meal, one that meets their appetite but is not too heavy or filling. Once the breakfast has finished, the servants whisk the plates away as quickly as they arrived and disappear from the room. Several minutes after the last servant has left, Takeshi returns to the dais.

Takeshi: “While it is not only the Lion and Crane who have seen friction in these times, our two clans have certainly endured the largest conflicts. We will begin with news of troublesome matters from the Lion. Akodo-san?”

Kuro rises slowly, hands folded behind his back. His kimono is much simpler than the others in the chamber. It is the Lion Clan’s yellow and brown, marked with a hexagonal pattern. His yojimbo stands with him, forearm rested against her katana, and keeps her gaze fixed on the wooden floor.

Kuro: [gruff, rumbling, terse] “Thank you, Asahina-sama. And thank you to the Daidoji for arranging this… event in your castle.”

Kuro: [heavy inhale and exhale; tense] “Recently, we have seen one of our clan joined to the Owl. It is not one of our traditions - but it has been tolerated. However. At around the same time as the Ikeda and Fukuro wedding in the early spring, our lands first saw Crane at our borders, skirmishing in our villages, stealing our rice. Matsu whose throats have been cut. There is rumor of Scorpion koku in Crane palms.”

Ryojiro’s eyes race over the assemblage. He makes sure not to crane his head impolitely, but spends every second reading every detail and intent he can. Anger brims in Kuro’s craggy features, just beneath the surface. The mere thought of the Owl agitates him.

Kuro: [growing more tense; teeth gritting occasionally] “Not only this. There is rumor of bandits, paid for with Doji coin, in the Beiden Pass. Scorpion in Crane beds.”

A gasp spreads in ripples over the crowd. The Crane restrain their faces as best they can. The Lion remain stoic.

Daiyu freezes, immovable as a statue. Ryojiro greets this news with an utter lack of surprise, while Crow is less skilled at masking her emotions. She’s never really been to court...at least not a court concerning anything important. Atsu folds his arms over his chest and frowns.

Kuro: “There is more that I have not said. I trust you grasp my point: the Crane push into our lands. If this continues on our borders, we will have little choice but to respond in kind.”

Sayuri smiles thinly, seemingly unfazed while she listens. She watches his features, his barely restrained rage - and prepares to needle it. Sayuri passes her gaze over the crowd. Her eyes come to rest on Ryojiro as she recognizes the mon at his breast.

Sayuri: “Kitsuki-san. You are of the Owl, and bring news, do you not? Tell me - is your clan to be trusted?”

Ryojiro rises to speak. He looks impassively at Sayuri while considering his answer. Crow glances between them worriedly.

Ryojiro: “If you wish the truth, it is complicated. Right now, three villages burn, looted of wealth, food, and scroll, with dozens murdered by ronin in our land. Trust is earned, as I’m sure you understand. Blood earns few things. You can trust that their reaction would be expected.”

Sayuri’s eyebrows lift in surprise. She listens in silence. Crow’s breath hitches. So that was what he meant the night before…

Ryojiro: “If you mean to ask are they honest -- of course. As honest as all of the clans assembled today. The Owl asks for little from the world outside of our forest. As such, we have little use for deceit. Though I am sure you didn’t mean so crass a question, I feel it best to answer both sides that may linger in the air.”

Daiyu shuts her eyes for a moment, centering herself, before returning to the statue-like state she was in before.

Sayuri smiles, bowing her head in apology. “Crass? Of course not, Kitsuki-san. I apologize. Only assuring Akodo-san that his mistrust is displaced.”

Takeshi looks between them. Acutely aware of the brimming anger from Kuro, that they are a hair’s breadth from an outburst, he raises a hand.

Ryojiro bows graciously. “Of course. Akodo-sama has every right to have his grievances heard and addressed.”

Ryojiro ensures his eyes fall over Kuro on the word “heard.”

Takeshi looks to Ryojiro, then Sayuri and Yuji. “May we hear the side of the Crane and Owl in this accusation.”

Sayuri: “Though my role is not so prominent as Asahina-san, I have seen nor heard of deals with Scorpion koku.”

She looks to Kuro.

Sayuri: “I assure you Kakita-sama will speak similarly, Akodo-sama.”

Kuro swallows a snarling grimace, but does not speak.

Takeshi: “Kitsuki-san. Tell me of your experiences and what you intend to raise at this court.”

Daiyu mask crumbles as she pieces together bits of information.

Crow is too oblivious to make sense of what is happening, but concern marks her features.

Ryojiro turns very slightly toward Takeshi. “Two weeks ago, I received an urgent summon back to the town of my birth, that groups of ronin sometimes 70-strong had been working throughout the region, pillaging. The unusual details of their strength and organization led us to not only halt the attacks, but investigate their cause.

What we managed to discover, with news from other regions, leads us to believe these are not independent groups working on their own. They are being directed and financed by some other person or people.

As of now, one of our bushi is pursuing a sorcerer, and the looting of school scrolls has been stopped. If I may offer, the biggest clue may be at issue here, which is that secrets such as these are not coveted as clan business, and some other power outside of a clan would be to blame. To trade in the secrets of another clan like this is anathema, and not indicative of some more usual power struggle.”

The guests listen in silence, various plays of emotion spreading across each of their faces. Takeshi’s eyes narrow in concentration. Crow frowns, looking into her lap.

Ryojiro: “Akodo-sama is right to be suspicious and guarded, as he is right in seeing this unusual and alarming activity. And I offer that he is not alone.”

Kakita Yuji: [smoothly, at length] “You say a sorcerer... Do you mean to speak of the Ki-Rin’s magic?”

Daiyu replays the vision of the shugenja in black in her mind, having little doubt that they are connected, or perhaps even the same.

Ryojiro looks impassively at Yuji. “I speak of darker prayers. The sorcerer in question had no training as a shugenja and spent thirty four summers as a doctor. His face and arm were unmistakably marked by Taint.”

Crow pales a bit. Then, more than a bit.

Yuji’s face hardens. [slowly] “I see. Thank you, Kitsuki-san.”

Takeshi: [a bit shaken] “I ask that any others bring word forward.”

Ryojiro bows, hiding every wince and pang as he folds himself back onto his pillow.

Daiyu looks at Torokai, wordlessly asking for permission. She hardly waits for Torokai to stand before producing the tanto from Kitsune Mori from her robes.

Crow looks up as Daiyu rises from her seat, ill at the prospect of dredging this up a second time.

Daiyu: “Honorable Asahina-sama. This blade was found in the possession of poachers in Kitsune Mori. It is of Crane craftsmanship, as you may see from the stamp. It is superior to anything the poachers could have afforded on their own.”

Torokai: “May I, Kuni-san?”

Daiyu offers it with a bow, stepping back so Torokai may take center stage. Torokai brings the tanto forward, presenting it across his palms.

Takeshi looks upon it with a furrowed brow. Yuji regards the tanto cooly, holding out a hand to deftly flip it over in his grasp. A Crane mon does, indeed, mark the blade. His lips thin.

Yuji: “A poacher you say, Kuni-san. It is no secret the Crab dislike the Crane. Surely a blade like this is easily procured for the Kuni’s purpose?”

Daiyu’s mask begins to splinter. “I promise you that is not the case. This weapon was retrieved from a pile of others bearing the same likeness. I have the testimony of my companions, who were there at the time, to confirm this.”

Sayuri leans forward just slightly and stands, hands folded into her long, hanging sleeves. “What I have heard of Kuni-san is genuine. I would not think her so uncouth. Would you, Kakita-san?”

Crow stares at Sayuri, perplexed by her cool expression. She goes back to staring at her hands as she wrings them in her lap, her knuckles going white with each slow pull. Ryojiro watches intently for any lies weaving their way into the air.

Yuji goes stiff, lips pressed together. He bows mechanically, seating himself without looking at Sayuri.

Sayuri: [long, quiet exhale like she’s about to smack a bitch] “Forgive me, Kuni-san. Please, continue.”

Crow glances at the Ki-Rin present, then Yuji, then Daiyu. Slowly, very slowly, she stands. Her features lined with anxiety, she lets out a slow breath before speaking - and avoids looking even in the general direction of the Ki-Rin.

Crow: [keeping her voice as steady as possible] “To Kakita-san’s point, the tanto could have easily been planted. But, in Kuni-san’s defense, we have...reason to believe the Ki-Rin are involved.”

[whispers in the crowd quiet]

Takeshi: “Reason to believe, Crow-san?”

Crow: [speaking a little more evenly now] “We found...cryptic communication in their camps. Mention of their employer, Sairou, from the west. And several references to a Lotus.” [pause, searching memory] “Speak the words in the green-walled city and the lotus will open to you. [another, much longer pause; sigh] One of their leaders...” [struggles to find the words, then pushes them out] ...he spoke of the Shinjo.”

[heavy silence; a few drifting murmurs]

A long, oppressive silence falls over the room. A few murmurs drift throughout the crowd, the beginnings of gossip that has not yet latched on. Most of the crowd’s eyes fall on Crow -- the questioning glance of a ronin’s presence, and testimony, in court. Yuji’s face tightens.

Daiyu: “Thank you, Doji-san. Crow-san. There is also something else, Asahina-sama.”

Daiyu takes in a quiet, deep breath. She nods to Crow, producing the netsuke from her obi and glancing to Torokai in question as she hands it over. Torokai looks to her with a nod, drawing forth the small sack with the mask fragment inside. He doesn’t open it yet.

Crow’s eyes flicker to Daiyu. That she’s produced the netsuke brings her some comfort, or at least steels her resolve.

Akodo steps forward, presenting the netsuke with a deep bow, then straightens as he retreats.

Takeshi: “Thank you, Akodo-san.”

Takeshi turns the netsuke over in his hand, then shakes out its contents into his palm. He inspects the small, round seeds for several moments, his expression growing troubled. “The green-walled city. They speak of Ryoko Owari Toshi. [pause] And do you also have these letters with you now?”

Ryojiro’s eyes flicker to Bayushi Reiko as she shifts on her pillow, fanning herself to distract from a few scrutinous looks.

Takeshi strives to look unconcerned. He lifts his chin and looks over the crowd, handing the netsuke to Torokai.

Daiyu: “This is the entirety of the letters and messages found on the poachers.”

Daiyu reaches into her kimono, retrieving the stack of papers.

Torokai accepts them with a bow and a quiet thanks, stepping forward and presenting them like he presented the tanto. Takeshi looks them over, handing pieces to Yuji and Sayuri, who look upon them with equally impassive, equally trained expressions.

Takeshi: “I thank you for your presentations, samurai. These pieces and your testimonies will be examined in the coming days.”

Torokai bows, drawing open the small sack. “There is one more piece, Asahina-san.”

He presents the piece of the broken, white mask with both palms, sure to touch it through the fabric. Gasps and whispers jolt among the crowd. Daiyu stares at the mask as if she can see the culprit behind it.

Takeshi’s face pales. He nods slowly, hands trembling, and spends no longer than necessary looking at the mask.

Takeshi: “This is... much to think over indeed. Thank you for...bringing it forward.”

Crow: “There is something else. In the forest...”

She avoids looking at the Ki-Rin, struggling to look at anything but the floorboards.

Crow: “It wasn’t skin and fur the poachers sought. They had drained the blood of the foxes they caught.”

Finally, she looks up, silently hoping that they will fill in the blank so she doesn’t have to say it. Another wave of whispers washes over the crowd, this time longer, more constant.

Takeshi stands, hands behind his back. He is silent for several moments after Crow has finished speaking.

Takeshi: [uneasy] “Thank you, Crow-san. An...Another piece that we may add.”

Crow bows and seats herself, her face troubled and deathly pale.

Daiyu continues to stare at the mask, brow furrowed. He thumb presses into the top of her scroll case.

Atsu strains to not look ungraceful as he rises to his feet, feeling awkward in his formal kimono.

Atsu: “Asahina-sama. To add to Crow-san’s testimony, they had not only drained their blood, but poisoned these foxes using a specific poison called Night Milk.”

Several pairs of eyes flicker to the side toward Bayushi Reiko, who continues gently fanning herself. Kuro’s gaze is among them, fixed and boring into her temple.

Kuro: [gruffly] “Yes. A Scorpion poison.”

Sayuri snaps her fan open, letting out a quiet, measured sigh of spiritual exhaustion.

Takeshi eyes Kuro, then looks back to Atsu.

Takeshi: [concern] “I see. Thank you, Hida-san.”

Atsu bows, looking down a few times to find his pillow. As soon as he is seated, Daiyu stands, bowing to the assembly.

Daiyu: “The seeds within the netsuke are the source of this poison, Asahina-sama. They were taken from the poacher who spoke of the Shinjo.”

Takeshi: “The Shinjo’s mention is... worrying. [quieter] Many pieces are worrying. [normal again] May we yet see at least one piece unclouded in the next several days.”

Takeshi clasps his hands in front of him, so tight his skin whitens around the knuckles. He smiles, bowing deeply to the gathered crowd.

Takeshi: “I thank you all for what you have presented. You have several hours unfilled and free. We will come together for events in the late afternoon.”

With that, Takeshi dismisses the room. As he does, Torokai crosses to him, and soon after the two depart, sharing concerned looks and quiet conversation. Few of the attendees linger, scattering to the corners of the castle or the secluded outer gardens. Whispered rumors fly freely. More than several stares linger in Crow’s direction, half-veiled behind painted fans. Ryojiro stands and tries to interpose some of the more untoward looks pointed at his friends.

Crow stands, releasing a breath she’s been holding since this morning. She feels a hundred eyes on her and avoids all of them. Her attention turns to Yuji as he approaches Daiyu, something like concern, or maybe disdain, on her face. Yuji waits patiently for Daiyu to notice his presence, hands folded behind his back.

Yuji: “Kuni-san. I feel we may solve this friction and question of your honor more...directly.”

Daiyu’s concentration shatters. She swivels to face Yuji and stares. Having known more Kakita than she’d care to admit, she is fairly aware of what is coming next.

Daiyu: [monotone] “Yes, I believe we can.”

Yuji lifts his chin. “Who do you wish to stand for you?”

Atsu: “Hmmmm.”

Atsu casts a long frown in his direction. Yuji’s gaze slides to him.

Yuji: “It is not to the death - not to worry.”

Crow’s eyebrows rise into her hairline.

Ryojiro gives Yuji a look that speaks of having seen enough for today, or for this season for that matter. Why do you insist? Seriously? Now?

Daiyu: [sigh] “If only I could have the honor myself.”

Daiyu turns to the only duelist she’s recently seen: Crow.

Daiyu: “What would you say if I asked you Crow-san?”

She looks a mix of apologetic, but also excited, at the prospect of watching Crow duel again.

Crow seems surprised, doubly so because she was beginning to lose herself to doubt and self-pity following the intensity of the morning. She draws herself back to the present with a clearing of her throat. There’s a small pause. She glances to Yuji. Then bows to Daiyu.

Crow: “I would be honored, Kuni-san.”

Daiyu bows back, a silent ‘I owe you’ in her close-mouthed smile.

Yuji: “There is an open space for sparring, near the gardens. We will meet there.”

The thought of crossing swords with a Kakita floods Crow with doubt -- but she’s not about to say no. Not in a setting so public. She flashes Daiyu a very forced, very tiny smile. She’s wearing her nice kimono. Hopefully nothing will happen to it.

Crow bows to Yuji. “Very well.”

Crow follows as Yuji leads on, trying her best to look nonchalant, though the events of court have left her shaken. Ryojiro gives Yuji the sort of look one reserves for an unwelcome centipede crawling up your leg and turns away.

Daiyu murmurs a quiet prayer to Osano-Wo. If they are lucky, maybe a sudden storm will strike him down.

[outside; morning birdsong]

Just beyond the gardens is a small, outdoor dojo used for sparring. The open, circular area is lined with tatami mats to soften falls on the hard, wooden boards, and weapon racks stand just outside of its bounds. While it is certainly not in a public place -- it is not fully private, either, and the occasional courtier passes by on their way to the gardens.

Ryojiro finds a spot with an excellent view, keeping an eye out for any untoward activity. Sayuri settles in a short distance from him, looking on with a tight throat, at least two shades paler. Atsu and Daiyu fall in beside her.

Atsu gives Yuji a smug look and rolls his shoulders back, disappearing each of his hands into the opposite sleeve. Daiyu stands beside him, hands behind her back.

Daiyu: [whisper] “What sort of gifts do you think Crow-san would like?”

Yuji settles into a centered stance, his face a mask of calm. Ryojiro inspects every tiny detail in Yuji’s form, face, and eyes, his quiet arrogance: he’s used to winning. Effortlessly trained at it. Ryojiro lets out a quiet sigh.

Crow takes a centered stance, drawing in a breath through her nose. She exhales it in a slow, measured way, stilling her nerves as she studies his form and expression.

Daiyu’s barely moves, forcing every aspect of her being into watching Crow. She can nearly feel the ghostly touch of her mother on her shoulders as Crow and Yuji stare one another down.

Crow’s fingers slowly wrap around the hilt of her katana, tightening after a moment. Slowly, Crow and Yuji begin to strafe one another, their gazes locked. After barely several seconds, Crow grits her teeth and suddenly leaps forward, knuckles going white. She draws her katana with a low, decisive kiai, her blade whistling like wind through the trees.

Yuji jolts in surprise, unbalanced by such an early assault. His blade comes out a fraction of a second too late, barely deflecting her clean arc. A few strands of black hair flutter in the wind and drift onto the tatami. A cut opens on his cheek. Sayuri gasps.

Daiyu’s smile slowly widens into a grin.

The wind unsettles their hair. A thin droplet of blood rolls down Yuji’s cheek. He brings his hand to his face. Slowly, he smears the blood between thumb and forefinger, staring at it in disbelief. He sheathes his katana unsteadily and bows, looking flustered but doing his best to suppress it.

Crow’s chest heaves as she glares at him, anger and jealousy burning in her eyes. She slowly stands to her full height, then gives a delayed bow.

Yuji: “Quite impressive, Crow-san. I did not expect it of a ronin.” He bows deeply and straightens.

Ryojiro’s lip curls. Atsu frowns and draws his hands from his sleeves with a shrug. Well, what did he think would happen?

Crow’s expression quakes. Her jaw tightens. She doesn’t say anything. Nor does she smile. After a time, she finally speaks, if only not to commit an act of impoliteness.

Crow: “The road is a relentless master, Kakita-san.”

Atsu places himself in Yuji’s path as he begins to walk away.

Atsu: [low rumble; huge sarcasm] “Shall I fetch you something to keep that skin soft while it heals, Kakita-dono?”

Crow tries not to let her eyes bulge out of her skull. She can’t help but smile just a teeny tiny bit. It’s gone in a flash.

Yuji braces his palm against his katana. He looks to Sayuri, fingers still pressed against his cut. She has not moved, nor has she made the slightest motion suggesting she will. His face tightens. Yuji tears his eyes away, his carefully maintained expression beginning to corrode.

Yuji does not say anything for several moments. Only bows his head.

Yuji: “If you can find me fabric clean enough, Hida-san. [pause here of him looking at Crow] I stand in envy of your skill, Crow-san. [pointed] Would that I can meet it again one day.”

Yuji turns to leave. Crow can’t quite bring herself to say anything to him before he does. She bows her head in thanks, or maybe recognition, releasing a breath as he rounds a corner and then is gone. Her expression softens. She laughs somewhat breathlessly, smiling more than she has since before they arrived.

Atsu frowns at everyone, his confusion readily apparent. “Is there something wrong with the cloth here?”

Sayuri glides over once Yuji is out of sight. She bows her head, headdress tinkling.

Sayuri: “Quite impressive, Crow-san.”

Crow smiles at her, her face flushing deep red.

Daiyu bows deeply. “Thank you Crow-san. I never doubted you for a moment.” It is a surprisingly sincere moment, filled with perhaps more expression than she has shown in their time together so far. Crow smiles, returning her bow.

Ryojiro: “Fine swordsmanship. I hope to observe you one day against a formidable opponent.”

Crow: “Thank you, Kitsuki-san. Doji-san. I assure you it… it… I’m certain it was a fluke. I have no great skill...especially in the shadow of a Kakita.”

Crow very nearly continues to deflect the praise -- until she’s reminded that Sayuri is still there. All that has become lax in her posture stiffens tenfold; she bows, embarrassed, and laughs weakly.

Daiyu: “I would beg to differ. I wonder if you could show my father a thing or two.”

Atsu: [grinning] “Fluke or not, Crow-san, I humbly offer to pay for your sake when next we stop!”

Ryojiro: [chuckles] “Peerlessly skilled and polite. I’m honored and joyed to have returned to you all, my friends.”

Crow laughs, happy, but...overwhelmed. She continues shaking her head, red-faced, in response to everything they say. Finally, they stop...but she does not stop looking flustered.

Sayuri hums thoughtfully, but it’s certainly just for show. She smiles. [soft hum] “[thoughtful] Certainly the road has more to teach than one expects. Will you all join me for tea? I trust you all require something... lighter before the days proceed.”

Crow nearly explodes at the invitation. “I would be honored, Doji-san.”

Ryojiro: “You are too kind, Doji-san. I would be honored.”

Atsu: “Yes, Doji-san!”

Daiyu nods, hoping to fade into some obscurity after the duel.

Sayuri smiles. “Follow me, then. It’s not far.”

[gardens; birdsong]

Sayuri leads them to a small thicket near the gardens, far enough away that the air is not filled with the grunting of Daidoji training nor the whispers of courtiers. Though the garden is not quite as manicured as even the humblest Doji holding, red, white, and purple blooms soften the castle’s overbearing practicality.

Crow follows just behind Sayuri, keeping a respectful distance. She admires the flowers as they walk, having since willed her breathing to steadiness following the duel.

Ryojiro drinks in every sight, bloom, and tree, ready for calm and peace, while Daiyu remains quiet, focused. Atsu wears a satisfied smile. It speaks volumes to the fact that he expected no less than Yuji’s utter defeat at Crow’s hands.

When Sayuri at last comes to a stop, a large, carved stone that acts as a table sits in the middle of a circle of sitting pillows. It is shaded by a cherry blossom in bloom, its branches dotted with small, pink flowers. A pair of servants flank either side of her as i thoughtshe settles in, inviting the samurai to seat themselves first. Either Sayuri has prepared for this, or the servants know her routine.

Sayuri: [wistful] “The cherry blossoms are beautiful. I thought we might picnic here. Fortunately, the day is not too hot.”

Atsu settles in unceremoniously, instantly flattening his pillow. He spots tea cups on the stone and begins to sweat.

Ryojiro sits gingerly, smoothing out his clothing.

Crow slows as they approach, scoping out the sitting situation...she eyeballs the pillow closest to Sayuri and then, deciding it too obvious, takes a seat across from her instead. After just enough awkward hesitation, Daiyu settles into a seat that seems to her the most inconspicuous -- and secluded, well-shaded by the tree’s branches.

What follows is the start of a tea ceremony -- albeit a much shorter one than classic four-hour Crane affairs. Sayuri lights incense while the servants assist in cleansing the area. Next, she begins to nonchalantly cleanse the tea pot and cups, looking at each of them as appropriate.

Sayuri: “You must still be weary from your journey. I thought we may share an afternoon. And I may learn something about each of you.”

Sayuri goes through the steps with a practiced familiarity that suggests she’s done this before, many times. Once everything is laid in, she places the matcha powder and then water into the pot with ceremonial, careful motions. When at last it’s finished, she pours each of them a cup while holding the sleeve of her furisode, then slides it forward just an inch. With the barest glance from Sayuri, the servants bow at the waist and depart.

Atsu stares down at his cup as though it might bare fangs. His posture and form is nervous and unwieldy, but passable. If Sayuri notices, she doesn’t show it.

Ryojiro takes the cup and turns it three times, admiring the craftsmanship.

Crow is...unpracticed in tea ceremonies, to say the least. She smiles and nods in thanks, staring at the cup for a moment before pouring Sayuri’s tea. Her motions are much less elegant...but at least she doesn’t spill anything.

Sayuri smiles, seeming to appreciate the gesture more than flawless accuracy.

Sayuri: “Thank you, Crow-san.”

Crow doesn’t allow herself to linger on how terrible she is at remembering all of the components and motions -- especially not the Crane’s traditions. She only smiles and nods, then sits upright to sip her tea.

Daiyu pinches the teacup between her hands and pretends to be a normal Rokugani for once in her life. Atsu dares a sidelong glance in Daiyu’s direction, though he quickly returns to staring at his cup so as not to dump it all over himself.

Sayuri smiles and looks to Atsu. “Hida-san? If you would honor me.”

Atsu stares without comprehension.

Atsu: “Ha?”

Atsu head turns towards Sayuri, that dull look still in his eyes. Daiyu is a statue.

Sayuri: “Ah, forgive me. What is your story, Hida-san? Surely one of your stature must have many to tell.” She gestures to the scar on his chest, the tail end of it just visible at the top of his kimono.

Crow visibly leans forward, looking to Atsu with raised eyebrows. It occurs to her that she knows absolutely nothing about him.

Ryojiro swivels to Atsu, sipping more tea with barely contained interest.

Atsu: “OH! THIS IS A MORE RECENT SOUVENIR! [laughs] No doubt my friends can share similar stories. But I do have... several. What is it you wish to know, Doji-sama?”

Sayuri smiles, perking up a bit -- as politely as one can. “Oh, more recent? Hm. To begin. Where do you come from, Hida-san?”

Atsu “mm, mm”s as he nods gravely, though it’s hollowed by a trace of levity. “I have the privilege of being born of Kyoukan, to my mother and father; Tsuyoko and Burosuki.”

Ryojiro lets many polite looks fall on Sayuri while trying to discern any ill intent behind her questioning. She appears to be hiding nothing but genuine interest, but it’s difficult to tell in court, especially around a Doji.

Sayuri’s eyebrows lift as she listens. She holds her teacup aloft, otherwise still, and smiles. “You have stood upon the Kaiu Wall, I take it?”

Atsu: “Haa, I have had the honor, Doji-sama! After my gempukku, I served for several years. Off and on, of course.”

Ryojiro stops worrying. He ponders for a moment if the Wall looks like Atsu’s mouth, giant warriors like him protruding like perfect teeth. He looks around for wagashi to nibble on. The long, silk-covered plate in the middle of the table is a sure enough bet. He could probably take the silk draped over it off without incident.

Sayuri laughs quietly, her smile mostly concealed by the tea cup. She sips and sets the cup down with a quiet clink. “And now you are in Akodo-san’s service. He has seen your potential as a warrior, I am sure.”

Atsu: “Would that I be so honored! Akodo-san is a fierce warrior.”

Sayuri: “Unfortunately I have never witnessed him in battle personally, only heard tales. Perhaps I will one day!” She gives a bow of her head, eyeing those who remain unprompted. Daiyu is the obvious choice, quiet and drawn into herself like a wilting sapling.

Atsu bows in return from his seat, closing his mouth into a pleased smile. That went well, didn’t it? To him, it did. He has no clue.

Sayuri: “Kuni-san.”

Sayuri refills what little is missing from Daiyu’s teacup and gives her the most unthreatening smile she can manage, though that isn’t saying much.

Sayuri: “What is your tale?”

Daiyu takes a moment to pretend to think, as if she hadn’t been dreading this exact, specific scenario since walking into Crane lands.

Daiyu: “My tale is rather short and uninteresting I’m afraid. A turn in my studies led me to Lion lands, and by the design of fate I ended up in service to Akodo-san. Which inevitably brought me here.”

Sayuri tilts her head, eyeing Daiyu with a small, practiced smile. Her eyebrows rise. “Surely it is more interesting than you think, Kuni-san? I am sure your companions would like to hear it, would they not?”

Daiyu: “Perhaps.”

Daiyu doesn’t actively try to avoid Sayuri’s gaze, but she certainly doesn’t seek it out either.

Daiyu: “I am merely a product of...good luck and privilege. I was chosen at a very young age to travel to the Isawa school. To learn from the fellow Ishiken there. I am not even much of a Kuni when it comes down to it. I couldn’t tell you of any truly dark or mysterious secrets even if I wanted to. The Phoenix are who I have come to know.”

Sayuri leans forward. Something has been piqued. “The Isawa school? Interesting. They are quite... secretive of their ways. That you were chosen is quite a privilege indeed.”

Daiyu: [quiet] “Indeed it was, Doji-san.”

Sayuri sips her tea, eyeing her for a moment longer before disengaging, like a fisherman severing the hook from a fish’s mouth. She slips the blue silk from the long, covered plate. Beneath it are colorful wagashi shaped like flowers, small sticks of dango drizzled with sauce, mochi sprinkled with sesame seeds, sakuramochi tucked into pickled cherry leaves, and tiny daifuku powdered with flour.

Crow tries not to be distracted by the food. It is nicer than anything she’s been fed in...a long time...

Sayuri takes a moment to refill everyone’s cups, then looks to Ryojiro with an easy, practiced smile.

Sayuri: “Kitsuki-san? If you would indulge me. I’m afraid I know very little of the Owl and your forest, but I have heard many stories about kenku!”

Atsu reaches for the food with a meaty hand, the opposite of discreet. He crams a pink daifuku into his mouth.

Daiyu stares longingly at the plate, too fixated on the possibility of Sayuri asking her another question if she were to move. She freezes as Atsu picks up a lotus-shaped wagashi, jealousy flashing in her eyes.

Ryojiro takes a moment to gather his thoughts, a polite smile on his face. Crow looks to him. She hasn’t given in to the sweets yet, and now she is far more interested in where Ryojiro has been.

Ryojiro: “I would be honored to tell you of the Owl, especially to one so eager to know. It’s a misconception that we are secretive in our forest. It is merely that the clans outside seem to have little interest in seeking to upend their own opinions. The forest of my home is quite beautiful, with the plum and cherry blossoming by serpentine rivers. Which isn’t to say that the beauty found there is always calm. We keep peace with the other peoples of Shinomen Mori and the west, and while we have no wall to stop the dangers -- walls would do nothing to stop them anyway.”

Ryojiro sips his tea, thinking for more to say. “It is here I found myself born, and as a son of my father, I was expected to learn the long-kept knowledge and skills of my family. Though… [chuckles] You may have noticed that should have gone to the first son.”

Atsu makes muted “mmh” noises as he chews, eyeing Ryojiro thoughtfully while he speaks.

Sayuri eyes Ryojiro with interest, though it’s unclear whether she’s inspecting his face, posture, or merely listening. That is the courtier way, after all, but she’s smiling regardless.

Sayuri: “I must say I find myself counted among those who think you are secretive. While your clan does seem reclusive, I suppose I have never been given quite an... accurate picture of its peoples. You honor me in that. And what is the reason for it? Your name.”

Ryojiro: “Yes. My brother chose another, quite honorable path, one that he excels at I am proud to say.”

Sayuri smiles pleasantly. It’s accompanied by a sip of tea. “Ah, that is good to hear. Akodo-san tells me you are recently returned from an assignment?”

Ryojiro keeps his calm. He takes a sip of tea. “This is true, there were several matters to attend to, with my esteemed brother, Ichiro. It was wonderful I found he was well and busy. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for a wonderful ceremony such as this. We do not have wagashi like these at home. I would have loved to share one with Ichiro.”

Sayuri smiles, admiration in her gaze. A few beats pass. She’s impressed, it’s clear, and she bows her head. She doesn’t quite completely concede -- but she also does not press with further questions. “I am glad to supply such an occasion, then, Kitsuki-san.”

Ryojiro smiles appreciatively and bows.

Atsu turns an enthusiastic grin in Daiyu’s direction as he chews yet another wagashi. Daiyu stares at him.

Sayuri smiles. She turns to Crow. “And at last: Crow-san. What is your story?”

Crow was so absorbed in...whatever just occurred between Ryojiro and Sayuri that her own name startles her. She is in the middle of a sip when her gaze snaps back to Sayuri. Somehow, she has not prepared for this.

Crow laughs quietly. She makes a show of casually sipping her tea and sets it down. Her eyebrows rise and fall with her shoulders. She smiles.

Crow: “I’m afraid there is not much to say. I wander from place to place. I work as I need to so that I can pay for rice. That is the beginning and the end of my existence.”

Sayuri smiles. Her eyebrows rise just slightly. “Surely there is more to know about you -- is there not, Crow-san?”

Crow looks down. She can’t bring herself to look Sayuri in the eye with a lie like that. She sips her tea, then shrugs again. A tremor of something like sadness passes across her face for a fraction of a second as she lowers her teacup.

Crow: “Why should there be? I am only ronin.”

Sayuri keeps smiling. There is a flicker of what might be disappointment across her features, but she does not press.

Sayuri: “Of course, Crow-san.”

She finishes her tea, her eyes averted, and quietly clears her throat.

Sayuri: “Please, help yourselves. I apologize for such a lengthy discussion. [laugh] My curiosity tends toward the boundless, I am afraid.”

Sayuri gestures to the plate of food.

Crow’s smile comes at a long delay, nowhere near as bright as the earlier ones. “There is nothing to apologize for, Doji-sama. We have scarcely had a moment to speak to one another since we met. I am glad to learn more of my companions.”

Daiyu: “That is true, Crow-san.”

Daiyu finally takes a wagashi. She hopes it’s poisoned.

Ryojiro chews his sweet slowly, enjoying the breeze.

Sayuri smiles. She waits a while, until they have finished their tea and enjoyed the afternoon sun, before turning to them with a renewed smile. “Well. I thank you all for joining me this afternoon. I hope that I was not too forward in my inquiries.”

Crow finishes her tea. She steeps awkwardly in her silence for a time, but Sayuri speaking again seems to bolster her. “Might you tell us your story, Doji-sama?” She leans forward, smiling.

Sayuri pauses halfway through starting to clean her tea cup, halfway to even considering it. She smiles. “Mm, of course. How rude of me. [clears throat] I am afraid it is disappointingly boring! I am from a village near the forest of Osari Mori, near Kyuden Doji. Close to the coast. I was raised a courtier in the Doji school. Now Kakita Yuji is my...something of a mentor. And he is accompanying me for this court season.”

Crow’s smile comes at a delay, as if it takes her a bit longer to process this. She nods.

Ryojiro: “How did Kakita-san come to be your mentor, if I may ask?”

Sayuri: “Ah, I am afraid it is nothing interesting. I came to know Kakita-san several years past, during his time in court. It seems quite a long time away, now. At the time, he was much more... versed in court than myself.”

Crow smirks, leaning forward, daring to ask. “Do you mean to say that is not the case any longer?”

Sayuri smiles. “Do you mean to say he is ill-mannered, Crow-san?” There is something in her face much like the look of a cat chasing a mouse, but more restrained.

Ryojiro sets down his teacup, prepared to jump in when this goes sideways.

Daiyu has been staring into the middle distance for much of the conversation, a half-finished daifuku in front of her. Although she does seem vaguely aware of the sudden change in atmosphere, she doesn’t make a show of it.

Crow leans back a bit so she is sitting upright. Her eyebrows rise onto her forehead and, despite all things, her grin lingers...even if it wanes. A little. “Those were not my words. But if that is the meaning you choose to take...”

Sayuri meets her gaze evenly, sitting perfectly upright. She stoically inspects Crow’s face, unblinking, until she cannot anymore. She breaks into a surprisingly pitched, light laugh. Then she clears her throat and begins to clean the utensils, saving the whisk for last.

Crow is surprised, but relieved, by her laugh. She takes it as permission to do the same, and it’s more full-bodied than the ones before.

Sayuri: “Ah… Of course, Crow-san. I would hate to misinterpret.”

Daiyu glances between Crow and Sayuri, lips pursed.

Sayuri laughs again. She quiets with a clearing of her throat, taking each of their cups as they are handed to her and cleaning them. When one of the servants reappears, they exchange several whispers behind a splayed fan. After a moment, she snaps the fan shut, then turns back to the samurai with a smile and a bow of her head.

Sayuri: “I’m afraid I must depart. I thank you for your company. It was an enjoyable afternoon. A respite, I hope, from the pressure of courtly affairs.”

Ryojiro: “Yes, thank you for the hospitality and skillfully prepared tea.”

Sayuri smiles. “Thank you for telling me of your forest, Kitsuki-san. Perhaps I may yet see it.”

Ryojiro: “It was most welcome, Doji-sama. The kindness--and wagashi--were most generous.”

Crow smiles and bows in her seat. “Few have afforded us such hospitality on our journey. I hope we may return the favor someday. You are very kind, Doji-sama.”

Daiyu: “Yes. It was very kind indeed, Doji-sama.”

Sayuri smiles. She waits several moments while the servants gather the empty plate, cups, and tea pot before she stands. She straightens, bowing at the waist with her hands gathered inside her furisode’s sleeves. The two servants stand at either side of her.

Sayuri: “Your company was most welcome. May we see one another again.” Sayuri bows.

Daiyu bows, closer to non-existence than ever before. She bows to Sayuri, avoiding her gaze. Atsu bows to Sayuri as well, sharing a “what just happened” glance with Daiyu once Sayuri sets off.

Crow smiles and bows. When Sayuri turns to leave, she begins to set off after her - but then she seems to only just then notice the servants accompanying her. She stops abruptly, arms visibly slumping, then turns back to the Atsu, Daiyu, and Ryojiro.

After a lengthy, though not legendarily long, session of tea, it is early afternoon. Few remain in the gardens except a far off pair of women in fine, layered court kimonos sharing a stick of dango. One is dressed in the pale blue of the Crane, while the other is dressed in Scorpion red, wearing a red half mask in the image of a cat.

Daiyu: “That was strange…”

Atsu: “Hmm!”

Ryojiro: “Indeed. I will see you later this afternoon, then?”

Daiyu nods.

Daiyu: “Be well, Kitsuki-san.”

Ryojiro bows, then finds his way to one of the convenient Go boards nearby to recreate famous matches he’s seen. Atsu and Daiyu wander off to get a feel for the castle.

Crow watches after Sayuri for some time. Finally, when the last of her kimono disappears around a corner, she exhales through her nostrils and then abruptly sets off toward her room. She neglects to say anything to anyone, leaving the samurai to go their separate ways for now.