E18 - Small Court of the Asahina, Part 5

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CAST, CREW, & CREDITS

Narrator: James
Crow: Mal
Atsu: James
Daiyu: Didi
Ryojiro: Nick
Hida Kasumi: Debbie
Akodo Torokai: Walt
Daidoji Shigeo: Peter
Kakita Yuji: Aldrich
Kitsune Nori: Michole
Doji Sayuri: Arielle
Matsu Ayamei: Arielle

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

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


[outside, training grounds, crowd]

The Daidoji hold their demonstration in a wide training ground attached to a dojo, set apart from its surroundings by its tall walls. Peasants linger at its edges, only half-focused on their work and chores. Matsu Ayame stands at the edge of the circle at the center of the training grounds, stripped of her court kimono. She wears a kimono and haori of Lion gold, bearing the Matsu mon close to her heart. Kakita Yuji stands across from her, a few steps separated from the semicircle of bushi and assortment of Cranes.

Many of those in attendance are dressed in yukata or less layered kimonos, a world apart from the halls of court. And it is for this reason that Sayuri looks a touch out of place. She sits upon a small, folding stool, attended by a pair of servants and accompanied by several young Crane. Torokai, Takeshi, and the other samurai linger nearby, near the front of the growing crowd. Atsu grins at Torokai as they approach. They begin to talk excitedly as Atsu sits cross-legged beside him, gesturing to the various, armored bushi scattered about the training grounds.

Daiyu watches with a droll expression, fully prepared to demonstrate the longest, most drawn out eyeroll she’s ever attempted. She is, however, poised to bombard Crow with questions when the time is right.

Crow looks more at home near a dojo and less like she is suffering in stifling, unfamiliar clothing. She hovers in Sayuri's general vicinity, careful not to intrude after her earlier rejection. This doesn't stop her from stealing glances, but she at least watches the samurai moving about the training grounds with interest.

Sayuri: “Seeing the differences in their styles will certainly be interesting.”

Torokai: [slightly concerned] “Yes… interesting indeed.”

Daiyu: “Are the Matsu very different from your family, Akodo-sama? Their style of swordsmanship, I mean.”

Yuji and Ayame bow deeply to the crowd, then to one another. Yuji’s bow is longer than perhaps necessary. Ayame's is much shorter. Yuji notices. Torokai watches, his mouth pulled into a crooked line.

Torokai: “They are more...aggressive.”

Atsu hrmms, folding his arms across his barrel chest.

Daidoji Shigeo walks to the the center of the training grounds, hands folded in front of him. He pauses and bows quickly to the crowd.

Shigeo: “Thank you for coming, samurai. Today, Matsu-san and Kakita-san will lead a paired kata demonstration. They will then engage in sparring to showcase the differences between their two schools. And afterward, I will lead the Daidoji in forms.”

Bowing again, he straightens and lets out a kiai, indicating for them to begin. When Ayame and Yuji draw their swords, they are decidedly different in style. Yuji draws his katana in a single movement, lightning fast. Ayame is deliberate, imposing. She casts her decorated saya aside, regarding Yuji with a cool expression that nonetheless has something simmering beneath. A young samurai attendant rushes to retrieve Ayame’s saya from the sand and pull it from their path.

Ryojiro watches intently, utterly focused. He hopes to perhaps learn something, anything, that won’t lead to him losing a hand or part of his face in a future conflict.

Eyes shut, Yuji stands very still for a long series of moments. When he finally does move, he flows effortlessly from Kakita's First Stance, a focus on a single, perfect cut, into a series of quick, precise strikes.

Unlike the Kakita, the Matsu style is born of tightly-controlled rage, a simmering fire that threatens to explode. Ayame is no different. She watches Yuji, her jaw set. Her feet are wider apart, her stance higher than the Crane's defensive, fluid posture. She approaches him with several wide, sweeping cuts more suited for a nodachi’s longer, heavier blade than a katana.

Yuji’s jaw tightens. He responds with a series of lighter, faster cuts, one foot passing over the other as he turns. The form ends several steps from Ayame, his katana held in front of him.

Ayame lifts her chin. In the next instant, her wrist shifts, and she makes a series of feather-light cuts just graze his long, black hair.

Sayuri’s brow furrows. She cracks open her fan, prompting a few nervous, younger Crane around her to do the same, Doji Inoe included.

Crow watches with interest but confusion, her gaze fixed on their flashing blades.

As the moments pass, their swings grow increasingly closer, faster. They pass one another, circling, never quite touching, one-upping one another's complexity and form -- until Ayame's blade nicks the sleeve of Yuji’s kimono. Yuji advances a step, nostrils flared, as their forms demonstration quickly spirals into a duel.

Yuji plants his foot, twists, and brings his blade up. A series of strikes that test his strength bear down on him, pushing him back onto his heels. He side steps a wide swing, and then another, robbed of a chance to retaliate when Ayame advances, relentless.

Crow’s mouth falls open. Torokai’s mouth twists.

Sayuri fans herself more quickly now, looking around to see if anyone is going to do... something? Anything? Ryojiro watches with wide eyes, enjoying the chaos with mixed emotions.

Atsu: "OOH! Do not let it be two in a row, Kakita-dono!" [Crab laugh]

Crow stares at Atsu, wide-eyed. Daiyu adds the outburst to the list of reasons why she misses home.

Atsu glances around at the stunned faces surrounding him, quickly clearing his throat to regain composure. He mumbles an apology and falls quiet, folding his arms across his chest. Crow openly leans forward, watching with unconcealed interest.

Daiyu: “Should someone… do something?”

Torokai: [displeased] “It is a sparring match. For now.”

Ayame avoids Yuji’s slices with little effort, side-stepping and lightly deflecting his swings. She is toying with him--and does not hide it.

No one interferes or steps between them, likely unsure whether or not they are sparring or dueling. And at first, it is only sparring, until, slowly, their masks begin to splinter. Until they grip their swords with passion, fury, frustration.

Ayame and Yuji’s movements are different, and yet also alike. They meet the other easily, side-stepping slices that could, if not avoided, leave a grisly, jagged scar. Then, suddenly, her katana grazes Yuji’s kimono. A strip of blue cloth flutters to the sand.

Neither of them draw blood, nor do they gain any real ground, their blows only serving to exhaust the other. They advance and retreat, shouting kiais and gradually losing composure, their chests heaving. Then, finally, Yuji’s blade flashes. A ribbon of blood forms along Ayame’s hairline. Then, in the next flash, a thin, red line opens along her jaw. Ayame grits her teeth and lunges forward.

As soon as a drop of blood touches the sand, Atsu shoots to his feet with a decisive HMM. Kasumi is quick to join him. She struggles, at first, to safely lock Ayame in her arms, but manages to draw her away from Yuji before more blood is drawn. Both duelists take in heavy, labored breaths, and small streaks of blood cling to Ayame’s knuckles and fingers. Shigeo shouts, stomping forward onto the sands. Finally, Yuji and Ayame separate. Their katanas thump dully into the sand.

Atsu grunts a bit with effort in holding back the angry Kakita, muttering "gokuro, gokuro" and giving him a pat on the shoulder. Yuji’s top knot has come undone, sending his black hair spilling messily around his face. Ayame rolls her shoulder, wiping a streak of blood from her chin.

Ayame: "You are strong, Kakita-san. If only you were stronger."

Kasumi: “Ah, ah. Come now, Matsu-san. Another time.”

Kasumi gives her a squeeze to shut her up. When she’s sure she’s not going to lunge for him again, she loosens her grip and lets her go, not wishing to test a cornered lion’s anger. She slaps her hands together, hmm’ing loudly as she watches Ayame pick up her sword and depart into the sidelines.

As Atsu’s hold on him begins to loosen, Yuji shoulders out of his grasp. He picks up his katana, sheathing it in a flash. Bowing hurriedly at the waist, cheeks flushed with embarrassment, he leaves the training grounds.

Atsu falls in place alongside the other samurai, hopefully having made up for his outburst. He hums thoughtfully, exchanging a weary look with Daiyu, who only shrugs at him. Ryojiro studies Atsu’s profile, wondering if he could snap a person into little pieces if he tried.

Murmurs flutter across the crowd. A small, unsure, but polite clap slowly spreads.

Shigeo stands in silence for a time, uncertain where to proceed. He clears his throat. A semi-circle of Daidoji stand in perfect formation and line up in similarly perfect formation on the sand.

Crow glances around, unable to pick just one thing to stare at. Once things have settled a bit, she abandons her cherished spot near Sayuri and gently shoulders through the crowd, seeking Yuji out.

[outside, near stream]

Once Crow has found Yuji, she stops several meters short. His haori is folded on the grass beside him as he washes his hands in the stream. She glances around, trying to discern whether or not this is a good idea. But it is Crow, after all, and that has never mattered to her. She approaches slowly, placing several steps between them.

Crow: [softly, announcing herself] "Kakita-sama."

Yuji freezes at the familiar voice. He looks over his shoulder some seconds after he has finished washing his hands.

Yuji: [long pause beforehand] "...Crow-san."

Crow gives him the most sincere smile she can manage. It's about halfway there, but she tries her best. She bows.

Yuji stands and bows in return, looking to her in question with eyebrows raised.

Crow stands in awkward silence for a moment, socially-paralyzed. She looks Yuji over, second-guessing herself.

Crow: [sigh] "I know it is none of my business, but it is clear that you are not at ease. [pause, fumbling for words] "I thought it might be to our mutual benefit to clear the air. I apologize for the things Hida-san said to you. He is an honorable man, but...brash."

Yuji smiles thinly, looking to the stream, then to Crow. "Ah, yes. I am familiar with the... uncouth ways of the Crab."

Crow's laugh is as thin as Yuji's smile. She doesn't particularly want to agree with him. "Yes, in our travels I have become familiar with our...differences. But he has shown great honor and even greater skill in combat. I hope that you are able to forgive him."

Yuji watches her for a time, then turns and leans forward to again wash his hands in the stream.

Yuji: "What is the purpose in your apology, Crow-san?"

Crow pauses, confused. Her response doesn't come for several seconds, and when it does, it’s best described as cautious.

Crow: [cautious] "You have made your displeasure with the state of things no secret. I only wished to clear the air. [brief pause] I mean you no ill will."

Yuji watches her evenly for a while. He stares into the water, then looks to Crow, straightening his posture.

Yuji: "I understand, Crow-san. It is of considerable honor for a ronin. I mean you no ill will."

Ronin. The word stings. A few moments pass. Crow bows deeply at the waist, then turns to leave.

Yuji bows in return, certainly more deeply than he has before. He turns back to the stream, staring at his reflection and the scar on his cheek.

The demonstration proceeds with Daidoji spear and katana forms, seamlessly flowing from stance to stance. The Daidoji are considerably more intense in their kata and stances than the rest of the Crane, closer to that of the Crab. Atsu nods approvingly as he listens to their kiai and watches their swings, but thinks of home with a thoughtful frown.

Crow returns to watch the demonstrations, but forces herself not to walk over and hover near Sayuri again.

Sayuri sits fanning herself as Yuji reappears. She leans, murmuring something to him as he approaches. Yuji responds with little more than a grunt and transient smile, seating himself beside her. Sayuri looks to Crow sidelong and smiles.

Crow is too busy staring at the ground under the Daidojis’ feet and silently drowning herself in self pity to notice.

Eventually, Shigeo lets out a kiai. At once, the Daidoji freeze and stop, sheathing their katanas and stilling their spears. The demonstration ends. The Daidoji bow and rise again as a single unit.

Ryojiro hums, looking around the edges of the training grounds. Why is this place too classy for street food? He wanders off to find some. When he does, he finds a stick of dango does not sate his appetite and wanders off in search of something more substantial. The sun is beginning to set, which means it’s time for a meal.

As the others prepare for dinner, Crow bids farewell to everyone, keeping it brief. She heads back to her room to fold and collect the nice kimono she had previously purchased for the wedding, intent on selling it for a few koku. Crow has Nori accompany her outside this time. He agrees with little argument.

After a while of browsing, and Nori occasionally forgetting how to walk in sandals, Crow finds a buyer for the kimono. Negotiating a price, though, is another matter: Crow is too self-deprecating to be good at haggling. The man regards the kimono with eyebrows raised, handling it delicately. Eventually, he nods.

Merchant: “Hmmmm. I will offer a koku and fifty bu for it, samurai.”

With a great, heavy sigh, she concedes to this price, which is much less than what she paid for it. At least it’s finished. Afterward, she stops at a small stall to buy Nori some dango before looking for a shop to find him a nicer kimono.

Most of the shops in the castle town are small and simple, more suited for the mundane activities of everyday life. But several traveling merchants have come to attend court, and so, eventually, Crow finds one suitable for Nori’s needs.

Nori drags out the kimono buying process, comparing the one he is wearing, marked with a leaf motif, to those he sees in the small stall. The tailor and shopkeeper are two elderly Crane women who handle the traveling stall with the ease of years of experience. They are happy to oblige, but remind Crow, with a furrowed brow, that he will have to be fitted.

Crow is content to sit back and let Nori make his own decisions. She wanders around the shop idly as he is fitted, occasionally turning to watch with a smile.

After a long while of cutting, measuring, sewing, and wriggling, Nori is at last fitted into a kimono and hakama that are not covered in fox hair or dirt. The back and sleeves of the kimono are covered with a stylized fox motif. Wide, arrow-shaped leaves trail along the bottom hem.

Crow claps excitedly for him.

Crow: "Much better! How do you like it?"

Nori smiles, but there is an undercurrent of anxiousness to it. Perhaps he’s a little overwhelmed. He beams at Crow, bowing several times. "It’s a lot better, I think. Very much. Thank you, Crow-sama."

The shopkeeper smiles, her eyes crinkling, and bows. "I will ask for fifty bu, not a koku. I would not wish to deprive the boy of this."

Crow seems conflicted. There's a lot of hand-wringing and stunted beginnings of sentences, but ultimately she decides her desire to pay full price comes second to making sure she actually has money to feed Nori. Eventually she agrees with profuse thanks and lots of bowing.

Crow: "Thank you, truly, you are very kind."

The woman smiles, bowing as they depart and return to the castle grounds.

When they again approach the castle, Nori wanders over to the stream after spotting a frog hopping from rock to rock. The frog spawning season is in full swing, and what is, at first, a dozen tadpoles quickly becomes a swarm as Nori approaches. He squats at the edge of the water, careful not to scare them.

Crow makes her way over with haste, then leans over his shoulder to see what he is doing. Her face lights up at the sight of tadpoles like an actual child.

The tadpoles scatter as Nori reaches out, but he's gentle when he touches the water. He giggles as several of them gather around his fingertip.

Crow: “They seem to like you.”

Nori looks at Crow, smiling.

Nori: “I hope so.”

He flattens his hand at the bottom of the stream, giggling when the tadpoles nibble his fingers. He draws his hand back after a time and wipes it on his hakama.

Crow smiles at Nori, laughing as she flattens her hand in the water, too.

[inside]

Following the demonstration, Daiyu seeks out Torokai, her expression grave. When she finds and approaches him in the castle’s wide common area, he excuses himself from a small crowd, bowing to her in greeting.

Daiyu bows respectfully.

Daiyu: “Thank you for speaking with me, Akodo-sama.” [long pause] [quietly] “I am...sorry to take you from what must be pleasant conversation. But in light of the evidence shown at court I am left...troubled."

Torokai: "What is it that troubles you?"

Daiyu: "Too much has warned us of dangers in the shadows for me to not be wary. I fear what would become of what we’ve brought." [hesitates] "And, pardon my rudeness, but if I had known you'd recovered a piece of the mask I could have learned more from it. Perhaps even the culprit’s identity."

Torokai eyes her evenly. He is suspicious, but nods all the same. “Hrmm. I will see to it that you are able to look at the mask. Though... it may take convincing."

Daiyu: “I will await you in my quarters, Akodo-sama. Whenever you are finished.”

Torokai: "Thank you, Kuni-san. I will retrieve the mask and bring it to you tonight if I am able."

Daiyu bows, clearly grateful. "I'm certain I need not warn you of the risks, I simply cannot leave any doors left unopened. All I will need is a few minutes with it. You may watch over the ritual if you have any concerns. You have my deepest thanks, Akodo-sama."

[dinner scene; soft conversation]

Atsu and Ryojiro, meanwhile, have found their way to dinner. The meal is more informal than heavily ceremonial, to their relief. Servants slowly bring out fine examples of Crane artistry disguised as food.

Sayuri sits near Atsu and Ryojiro, making polite conversation. She is, for once, otherwise unaccompanied, but looks quietly stressed beneath the veneer of calm.

Sayuri: "I found your haiku... quite interesting, Hida-san."

Atsu looks up from his frantic chewing, eyes going wide with shock. He looks around briefly, trying to find who Sayuri is talking to. Eventually, he points at himself questioningly and makes a sound. His mouth is full.

Sayuri raises her eyebrows at him. She gives a delayed laugh and grins.

Atsu swallows hurriedly, blustering a bit as he clears his throat. After a moment of hesitation, he offers a polite bow from his seat. "Ooh, domo... I did not think it would appeal to..." He frowns. What was a delicate way to say non-Crabs?

Atsu: "Non-Crabs."

Ryojiro chuckles.

Sayuri smiles, pouring each of them sake. "Do you, too, have experiences with horses, Kitsuki-san?"

Atsu rubs his cheek with a single extended digit, turning a worried look at Ryojiro.

Ryojiro looks a bit sheepish. "My expertise, I believe, has been fully covered so far."

Sayuri laughs, straightening the sake bottle once everyone’s cups are filled.

Sayuri: "I’m afraid I don’t have much expertise with horses, either."

Atsu: “We don’t have need of horsemanship here, do we??”

Sayuri: "Fortunately not! At least, not in my experience. Though I hear the Ki-Rin delight in such contests."

Sayuri smiles, sipping her sake. "I think it would be more frightening than anything! but impressive, all the same."

Ryojiro sweats at the thought of having to ride a horse again. Horses...little-known minions of Fu Leng.

Atsu looks off distantly as he chews, thinking about the horses from Beiden.

Sayuri: "Do you have plans to speak at court, Kitsuki-san? I suspect you are good with debate."

Ryojiro: "Hmm. I can't say I've ever been tested at debate. Not in a capacity such as you'd find at court. Though I have argued investigations before lords." [small pause] "I would be interested in trying."

Sayuri: [laugh] "I am sure you would challenge our finest!"

Ryojiro: “I certainly would like to try.”

Night begins to fall, and outside, servants hang red and yellow lanterns along the town's buildings. Crickets chirp in the evening heat.

Sayuri clears her throat and finishes her sake, officially finished with her meal. Servants appear to whisk away plates and bowls. Slowly, the guests at the tables nearby begin to disperse.

A wave of anxiety passes over Atsu at the sight of an approaching line of servants. He begins furiously shoving everything on his plate into his mouth.

Ryojiro smiles. He stands and bows. “It was good to share a meal with you, Doji-sama.”

Sayuri: “Of course, Kitsuki-san. It is always a pleasure.”

Sayuri watches Ryojiro go. She turns back to Atsu just in time to watch him shove what remains of his meal into his face. She observes with a mix of fascination and quiet horror.

Atsu turns a wild look on Sayuri. He chews hurriedly, maintaining eye contact all the while, and swallows before mumbling an apology.

Atsu: [mumbled] “Forgive me, Doji-sama.”

Sayuri: [laugh] "You needn't apologize, Hida-san. You are... unused to such environments."

Atsu grins, though somewhat sheepishly. "Is it apparent?! Ha!"

Sayuri: [laughs] “It is practice for Winter Court, at least.”

Atsu frowns. Did she have to remind him?

Atsu: “Hmmmm. Yes, there is at least that!”

Atsu stands. He flattens his hands against his sides and bows deeply.

Atsu: “Thank you, Doji-sama.”

Sayuri smiles.

Sayuri: “Be well, Hida-san.”

She bows her head as Atsu departs.

After dinner, Atsu busies himself wandering around the grounds. Unlike in Kitsune Mori, his scrutiny of the Daidoji's gardening does not come with the offering of tips or a gardener appearing from a shed. Compared to the other Crane, the Daidoji sense of aesthetic is more functional. Sparse. Very little is superfluous or overly fanciful, even in their flowers.

The corner of his mouth quirks upward. Even so, he stoops and stretches and admires the handiwork; or at least the parts he enjoys.

When nothing comes of his attempts to make conversation with the guards or other nearby samurai, he wanders for a time. Eventually, he stumbles across Nori and Crow as they skip rocks along the stream. Ryojiro stands nearby, observing with a smile.

Crow: "Can you beat that, Nori-kun?"

Nori stretches onto his toes as Crow’s stone whizzes across the water, his eyes going wide. He grins, digging around in the dirt nearby for a suitably smooth stone. He runs his thumb over it, then chucks it at the water with a soft grunt of effort. It skips over the water a little shakily, not as swiftly as Crow’s.

Atsu: “Very close, Nori-kun!”

Nori laughs, smiling at Atsu.

Daiyu appears from behind Atsu, her face impassive. Crow spots her and takes a step or two back from the stream, making room.

Daiyu, having no idea what’s happening or what they’re talking about, doesn’t jump in just yet. She does take a moment to lean down and search for a stone of her own, though.

Nori yawns and rubs a fist into his eye, looking over his shoulder into the distance, where lanterns have been lit. Something like familiarity flashes in his face, but he doesn't say anything.

Crow watches Nori with a smile that slowly grows more concerned the longer he continues looking over his shoulder. Stooping low, she hefts him with an exaggerated grunt as if trying to pick up a boulder.

Nori cries out in surprise, laughing as Crow places him onto her shoulders.

Daiyu risks a quick glance at Nori when he's not looking. A flash of a worried frown crosses her face before she looks back to the stream. She hums, brings the stone to chest-level, and throws it.

Nori laughs as the stone skips lightly over the water, then falls in with a plop.

Atsu frowns, arms folded across his chest.

Atsu: "Kuni-san! Surely you can do better than that?"

Daiyu raises a single eyebrow. "Are you challenging me, Hida-san? I needn't remind you of what happened to the last person to do so." She doesn't take her eyes off the stream.

Crow laughs in stunned surprise. Nori giggles.

Daiyu glances at Nori. She hopes her smile is hidden from them while her eyes stay trained on the stream. "I do owe this to Crow-san's skill, and I am in your debt. Either way, the Kami are on my side. If it is a challenge should we make a wager?"

Atsu juts his lip out as he considers. “Hmmmm. Perhaps.”

Crow laughs, righting her grip on Nori’s ankles.

Ryojiro saunters over to get a closer look at… whatever is unfolding.

Daiyu: "Very well. The loser will wash the winner's kimono...and polish their wakizashi."

Atsu: “Hmmm. Fair enough.”

Ryojiro watches with a smile, but wonders: is it polite to toss stones in someone's well-manicured courtyard?

Atsu pauses in his brief attempt to look astute with his hands folded behind his back. Then he stoops and picks up a small, flat stone dwarfed by the size of his palm.

Atsu: “Are you prepared, Kuni-san?”

Several Daidoji guards eye Atsu as they pass, but they are quick to bow in greeting before anything is perceived as aggression. Atsu bows in return, confusion creasing his forehead.

Daiyu, having taken two rocks when she grabbed the first, produces the second from her sleeve with a flourish.

Daiyu: "I am always prepared, Hida-san."

Nori leans forward into Crow's hair, effectively giving himself a full-beard and mustache while he watches.

Atsu: “Go first if you wish, Kuni-san!”

Daiyu tilts her head towards the river with a small grin.

Daiyu: "How could I refuse such a gracious offer."

She makes a grand, sweeping gesture with the rock, holds it...then makes the toss with a flourish. The rock whistles at high speed, over the water and across the stream.

Daiyu takes a much less formal, more sweeping and obnoxious bow, and steps back from the river to allow Atsu space.

Atsu makes an unsure sound.

Daiyu: "Fear not Hida-san, you've shown us all how full of surprises you are. I am not without my own worries on the outcome of this challenge. Make your throw."

Atsu eyes the stone beadily, unsure. He rubs it a few times with his thumb, hefts it in his palm, and then flings it. He watches the stone skip once, barely, bounce off of a rock, and plop unceremoniously into the water.

Atsu: “[groan of defeat]”

Atsu plants his fists on his hips and laughs, throwing his head back. He rubs his chin.

Atsu: “Ahhhh. Hmm.”

Crow laughs and claps. Nori giggles.

Daiyu: "I must thank you for your confidence in me, Hida-san. It would seem you were in the right. I can do better." Daiyu doesn’t bother to hide her smile anymore as she savors her moment of victory.

Atsu: “You have bested me, Kuni-san! Very good.”

Crow: "Well, it has been an honor to witness your competition, but I find myself in need of rest. I will see you all in the morning." She bows deeper than necessary, holding tightly onto Nori's ankles.

Nori laughs as Crow leans down, bowing with her, and straightens as she does.

Crow heads back to her room with Nori, not bothering to take him off her shoulders despite being surrounded by Crane. Meeting with Sayuri this evening is motivation enough not to care.

As Crow and Nori take their leave, Atsu, Ryojiro, and Daiyu are left alone. After a moment of watching the very last remnants of sunlight fade to deep purple, Ryojiro smiles.

Ryojiro: “I suppose I should rest as well. Sleep well, Hida-san, Kuni-san.”

Atsu: “Sleep well, Kitsuki-san!”

Ryojiro departs, intent on settling in for reading and note-taking.

A sudden frown strikes Daiyu’s face as she watches the setting sun. The time. She’s lost track. Her face pales.

Daiyu: [suddenly remembering something she forgot] "I've nearly forgotten, Akodo-sama is expecting me. I must take my leave as well."

Atsu: “Of course, Kuni-san. I will see you in the morning.”

Atsu raises an eyebrow, bowing and watching her go. After a few moments of peace, he, too, shuffles off toward the castle.

Fortunately for Daiyu, Torokai is not difficult to find, given the directions of several servants. Daiyu bows very low once she spots Torokai awaiting her in her quarters, embarrassment flushing her cheeks.

Daiyu: "My deepest apologies Akodo-sama. I lost track of the time. I hope you have not been waiting long."

Torokai smiles, though it looks a little thin and nervous. He steps forward, gently shutting the shoji door, then produces the mask fragment. He presents it like something that will burn him.

Torokai: "It is no worry. I cannot keep it for long, Kuni-san. I must return it to Asahina-san."

Daiyu: "I need little time. It can be done now. May I see it?"

Torokai nods, handing over the fragment with a grimace.

Daiyu takes the piece gingerly and kneels down onto the floor. Her movements ever careful, she retrieves a scroll from her case. It's relatively new, written on cheap paper by her own hand. She flattens the scroll out beside the fragment and places her hand on it, tracing the writing on the scroll with the other. She closes her eyes, her lips barely moving in a near-silent chant.

Torokai settles cross-legged at the rear of the room. He folds his arms, watching with brows furrowed.

For a long time, Daiyu sits in silence. As silent as everything else around them, save the crickets beyond the castle walls, the distant murmur of conversation. Dull, quiet footsteps pass their door. A breeze drifts in from the window. The silence is long enough that she’s sure this won’t work, that any remnants have long since been wiped clean of the mask. And then, slowly, a vision coalesces in her mind like thick, morning mist, like the last gasps of winter over a lake.

A black-garbed figure, a hat, a parasol. A black-gloved hand outstretched, fingertips tracing a porcelain mask. A masked woman in red, her eyes wide and mouth parted in a silent scream.

The vision persists. It coils around Daiyu’s shoulders, her throat, locking her in utter stillness. Her neck twitches to the side. Torokai edges forward, once, in concern.

Another flash of the woman, of sticky blood on a wooden floor. Daiyu’s eyebrows knit. Her neck twists. There is a flash of a landscape from the view of someone walking, the outer edge of a city with high, jade green walls.

The ritual releases her and Daiyu’s eyes snap open. She sucks in a sudden, deep breath, not realizing she hadn't been breathing. Her hand recoils from the mask and she blinks, repeatedly, to will away a few of the images still seared into her mind’s eye.

Torokai steps forward, frowning.

Torokai: "What is it, Kuni-san?"

Daiyu: "I no longer have any doubts that the "green walled city" is exactly where we must go. But that is not all." She pauses, not for dramatic effect but for another, steadier breath. "Akodo-sama. Do you recall the moment we first entered Beiden in the rain. The road that wouldn't seem to end?”

Torokai nods, his brow furrowing. "Yes. I remember."

Daiyu slowly begins to roll up the scroll. "You must also remember then, the figure in black who confronted us and then vanished into the alley."

Torokai gives the mask a look of contempt and anxiety. He nods.

Daiyu: "I am unsure whether that truly was them, or merely a vision we had while we were caught in Yume-do, which is what I believe had happened there. That is without a doubt the one behind this mask, and many of our other troubles. I am certain they have been watching us. Perhaps even for our entire journey, perhaps even now, at this castle, in this court."

Torokai sits in silence for some moments, turning this over in his head. He rubs his beard, staring into the floornboards.

Torokai: "This convincing will not be so easy, Kuni-san. We may yet need Kitsuki-san's assistance. Or another's, as well, before we perhaps eventually set foot in..." [exhale] "Ryoko Owari Toshi"

Daiyu: [solemn] "Would that we could recall their face."

Daiyu starts to rise and reaches for the mask. She hesitates, then hands it to Torokai.

Daiyu: "There was one more thing I saw. A masked woman...it… seemed she was...suffering. Perhaps dying. I wish I could give you more. I can't be sure if it's just another victim or a more significant clue."

Daiyu pauses, the wheels in her mind spinning furiously as recognition strikes her, as everything catches up at once. She freezes as if struck.

Daiyu: "Wait...no. No...I do know who she was. Although, we have only met once. When we were escorting Asako-san. A shinobi tried to deceive us and steal the sealed letter she was carrying. We'd retrieved it but...she escaped.... Although it would seem she met her despite it."

Torokai nods, swallowing. He remains stoic, however, when he nods a second time. He bows deeply at the waist.

Torokai: "Thank you, Kuni-san. I will... think on this and present your words tonight. It may not help, not yet -- but it is something. Sleep well. I will see you in the morning.”

Another, deeper bow, and he starts toward the door.

Daiyu: “Of course, Akodo-sama. Thank you.”

Daiyu takes notice of his reaction, but does not press, not after making him go through the risk of retrieving the mask for her. She breathes out slowly, knowing she will not sleep well tonight.