E19 - Small Court of the Asahina, Part 6

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Narrator: James
Crow: Mal
Atsu: James
Daiyu: Didi
Ryojiro: Nick
Akodo Torokai: Walt
Akodo Kuro: Ryan Sheehy
Kitsune Nori: Michole
Doji Sayuri: Arielle
Asahina Takeshi: Brian Richmond

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

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

The sun has set by the time Crow and Nori finish their explorations of the castle town. She guides him on a brief walk through the garden and, though they've done quite a bit of walking already, he seems thrilled enough by all of the nighttime bustle. Once they've eaten and he can barely walk another step, she returns with him to their room to settle him in for sleep, then heads to the bath.

Crow bathes quickly; she has made a promise to Sayuri, or at least it was a promise as far as she is concerned, and she intends to keep it. Though she does take longer to tend to her hair than she usually does, it is mostly in vain. At the least, her new clothing is more presentable and less out-of-place than her wedding garb.

[outside, crickets]

Still, Crow looks almost sheepish as she enters the garden. She is not meant for fine clothes and neither are they meant for her. It is hard not to ponder the value of this kimono, the silk, the fur, the embroidery. To think on it too long fills her with guilt, so she swallows it down when she spots a familiar, crane-shaped headdress. Crow approaches Sayuri from behind, bowing at the waist.

Crow: "Doji-sama. I hope I am not intruding."

Sayuri sits reading, occasionally eating small rolls of sushi and turning the pages of a thick, bound tome: the histories of the Phoenix clan.

Sayuri has shed several of the outer layers of her kimono. The result is lighter, more suited for evening: darker colors, but still bold, sweeping designs of Cranes in flight. Everything said and done and worn in court is a statement, after all, and better to test here than Winter Court.

Sayuri: "Crow-san. Not at all. Does something trouble you?"

Crow bows, offering a quiet apology. This is the second time in two days that she's interrupted her reading.

Crow: "No, Doji-sama, not at all...earlier, when I had said that we could talk later."

A weighty, silent several seconds passes by. Crow second guesses herself and laughs, shaking her head.

Crow: "It is nothing. Please, return to your reading. I will see you in the morning, no doubt." She bows, her face red.

For a while, Sayuri lets her hang there like a fly in a spider's web, or perhaps a carp on a hook. She is quick to give her release, though. It isn’t quite a mercy as much as seeing just how far she'll walk. Sayuri laughs and shakes her head before Crow can make much headway in the general direction of “away from her.”

Sayuri: "No, Crow-san, it is alright. Please. Sit."

Sayuri smiles, indicating to the small table sitting between her and a heavily padded sitting pillow.

Sayuri: "We can talk, of course. Though, I would hate to cause you discomfort. Would you like tea? Sake, perhaps?"

Crow hangs there awkwardly, then slowly turns to face her, face still red, eyebrows drawn. The offered seat brings her pause. Her expression wavers on the brink of discomfort.

Crow: "I think I might like...sake.” [breathes out the word with a laugh as if she's ashamed of herself for it] "Though I'm afraid it is a tale better suited to somewhere more private. [pause] If that brings you discomfort..."

Sayuri’s reaction is slightly delayed, but it does not lessen her smile, at least. She nods, a few bits of her headdress tinkling together, then gathers a sake bottle and two cups into her hands as she stands.

Sayuri: "Of course, Crow-san. Would you prefer the garden? Or did you have somewhere in mind?"

Crow watches with a smile, trying not to let too much surprise seep into her face. Two cups. Perhaps she was expecting her after all. Second thoughts. Third ones. Fourth ones.

Crow: "I'm afraid I am not familiar with much of the castle beyond the path between my quarters and the common area, so I will leave that to your discretion."

Crow reaches out, offering to carry the sake. Sayuri’s lips purse, a play of emotions across her face. She hands over the bottle and cups easily, after only two refusals.

Sayuri leads on, her hands tucked into her sleeves. Crow follows in silence, taking note of the path they take: the walls, the turns, the doors. It doesn't take long for her to become hopelessly lost. Oh well; at least they won’t be here for much longer. She is at once filled with concern and relief when they emerge into greenery. Sayuri seems to notice her expression.

Sayuri: “Don’t worry. We have at least some privacy here.”

Crow smiles, a bit unsure. They stand in a more secluded, private piece of the garden, just outside the castle’s innermost wall. There are more trees here, more plants. It is a short walk away from where Sayuri served them tea, but, fortunately, fewer are here. Samurai and peasant alike sit with lanterns, making conversation beneath the stars, spread out beneath the cherry blossom trees.

It reminds Crow of...something. It tickles the back of her mind and distracts her momentarily as Sayuri lights a lantern, filling the thicket with warm, orange light. When Sayuri sinks into the grass, she sits across from her and smiles. A flat rock, purposefully placed and scuffed with age and use, serves as a makeshift table.

Crow: "I realize it is late, Doji-sama...are you certain that I am not keeping you from sleep?"

Sayuri leans forward, drawing a stick of incense from her sleeve. She touches the stick to the lantern, lights it, and shakes out the flame.

Sayuri: "Not to worry, Crow-san. I’m more likely to fall asleep in the presence of talks at court, not our conversation."

Sayuri takes her time in pouring Crow's sake, in passing the bottle. Sayuri handles the sake with the same care as tea. It brings Crow a sense of comfort and calms her nerves; the lines of her arm and wrist are pleasant, and she takes the bottle from her just as slowly as it was handed off.

Sayuri: "So. Where are you from, Crow-san?"

Crow pours Sayuri's sake in turn, then takes a careful sip. It is...of much higher quality than the sake she can afford. Crow hums with soft appreciation, indulges in another sip, and then sets her cup down.

Crow: "The west, the Ki-Rin."

The name is harder to say than she would like.

Crow: "The Shinjo." Crow avoids her gaze for several moments until she can build up the courage to find it again.

A slow, cat-like smile creeps onto Sayuri’s face.

Sayuri: "Shinjo. That does not surprise me. At the least, I suspected you were Ki-Rin.”

Sayuri produces a small, wooden box from her kimono, then a a kiseru. She fills and lights the pipe with practiced familiarity. The smoke is sweet-smelling. It's not opium.

Sayuri: "Well. As I feared, I suppose asking the manner of your becoming ronin would be rude this early, after all. I will strive to draw it out.” Sayuri smiles. “Do you speak with the Shinjo often, now? the Ki-Rin?"

Sayuri offers Crow the pipe, bowl-first, her eyebrows raised in question. Or expectation. It shocks Crow back into reality. She hasn't smoked anything in...a long time, but the thought of declining doesn't sit well with her.

Carefully, she takes the pipe, taking a drag with a smile. It burns like nails raking down her throat, and her eyes suddenly water. It takes every single ounce of willpower not to cough. Eventually she slips, and her small, polite cough forces a puff of smoke up with it. It’s not nearly enough of a cough to clear her throat, but she wills it down. Somehow. As delicately as she can, she returns the pipe to Sayuri's hand.

Crow: "No. [voice hoarse; clears throat] If we were on such terms, I doubt I would have ever traveled so far east."

Crow sips her sake. It eases the burning in her throat. Finally, she can smile again.

Crow: "So I suppose to that end it is fortunate that I was made ronin."

Crow chances a wink.

Sayuri: [laugh] "You are unused to smoking, I assume.” Sayuri smiles. “Some ronin become so on their own terms. So, as you can imagine, I was curious if that was your tale. I assume it’s not. How long has it been? Since you have seen the Shinjo."

Suddenly, Crow wishes she had taken a deeper drag. She forces a smile through the spike of heat in her chest and beds it down with another sip of sake - which turns out to be all that's left in her cup. She sets it down carefully, then folds her arms over her chest.

Crow: "Five years. Since I was... cast out." That never hurts any less to say. To remember. Crow braces herself for the look in Sayuri’s eyes, for the tide of questions she is no doubt about to weather.

Crow: "I suppose you think less of me for it now?" Crow's smile is crooked. Authentic, but lined with self-deprecation.

Sayuri is quick to refill her cup.

Sayuri: "Less of you? No, of course not. To be cast out is not uncommon, after all. And it is equally common for it to be a ... minor reason. Or misunderstanding. Something of that sort."

Sayuri takes a drag, blowing out opaque smoke, then passes the pipe to Crow. She is digging. That much is clear, and part of Crow scolds herself for folding to it so quickly. But there is something about her that draws her in, something about her that inspires trust... She smiles easily despite the pain associated with the memories, taking the pipe as it is offered. It goes down much smoother this time; she draws the smoke deep into her lungs, then exhales with only a little cough toward the end. At least her eyes don't sting.

Crow: "I wish that I could say it was a mere misunderstanding." Another, hastier drag. A slow, steady calm begins to creep over Crow’s shoulders - no doubt the result of whatever Sayuri has stuffed the pipe with - and it relaxes her. She breathes out a small stream of smoke in a heavy sigh, handing the kiseru back.

Crow: "I imagine there are some who have called it treason. Though it was not my own treason, I bear the burden of it all the same." Despite the truth, handing off the blame fills her with guilt. It feels... dishonorable. She avoids Sayuri's gaze.

When the pipe is again in her hand, Sayuri holds the smoke in her lungs. A weighty pause passes, a few moments of thought.

Sayuri: "To be so far in the past... I suppose it does not matter anymore. Does it?"

Sayuri smiles, offering the pipe in favor of focusing on the sake instead. Slowly, she drains it in small measures.

Sayuri: "I hope one day you will see the burden lifted. What is your ambition? A fresh start?"

Crow's laugh tastes as bitter as it sounds, and the smoke from the offered pipe dulls it more on the next puff than it has yet. She exhales a cloud, refills Sayuri's cup, and then takes a smaller drag before offering it back.

Crow: "If only it were so. It was a significant crime. Not the sort people are like to forgive - nor should they." She hopes, to this end, that no one here knows who she is.

Questions of ambition cut deeper than memories of her past. Crow frowns and drinks, choosing her words carefully.

Crow: "Once it was to return to my home, to clear my name and to find honor in the eyes of my clan and family again. But now... ambition feels so out of reach for a ronin. A rarely-afforded luxury. Perhaps I will find it again some day."

It occurs to her that speaking so frankly might tarnish her image in a Crane's eye, but the sake and the smoke eases her anxiety. Crow swallows, finding Sayuri's gaze.

Crow: "What is your ambition, Doji-sama?"

Sayuri laughs. For several seconds. She sighs and scratches the corner of her mouth with her little finger, looking into the thicket of trees around them. The sky is dark and cloudless, and the stars are bright.

Sayuri: "Ah, I imagine it is terribly boring to a ronin.” Sayuri pops a small, pink bit of wrapped sushi in her mouth. She continues on anyway.

Sayuri: "But, I would like to travel. Some courtiers travel from court to court. So I suppose that is my ambition."

Sayuri laughs. Crow follows not long after. It's a laugh of solidarity; a laugh born of nothing but the sheer enjoyment of watching Sayuri smile, of drinking in how pretty she is when she smiles or when she turns her head and affords the slightest glimpse of her profile.

Crow is, without a doubt, inebriated.

Crow: "I suppose it is boring in its own right. But to travel of my own accord... there is nothing like it! I have seen more than I ever thought I would in my lifetime. If only I could share it with you."

Crow smiles wide, showing teeth, as she props her elbows on her knees and leans into them. Several moments too late, it occurs to her that this is a bold statement.

Crow: [laugh] [realizing she's been bold] "I hope that you are able to travel one day, Doji-sama. To be trapped in a cage is such a great waste."

Crow raises her cup to the notion, then finishes it, still smiling.

Sayuri’s smile wanes. She, too, finishes her sake.

Sayuri: “Yes. Indeed it is, Crow-san.”


Morning comes and, with it, the final days of the small court.

Crow wakes just as the sun is beginning to rise, taking Nori to the bath the moment he stirs from sleep. When they're finished bathing, she heads off in search of breakfast, giving Nori the opportunity to accompany her to court after they’ve finished. To her surprise, Nori accompanies her in favor of spending time with the other children. He seems excited just by the prospect of wearing his new kimono.

[inside, soft conversation]

As they move into the common area and have a light, but filling, breakfast, Nori's presence draws more than a few glances. At the least, none of them seem malicious. Perhaps a few of them are.

Having risen early, Daiyu stands near a small crowd in the common area, looking uncharacteristically calm. She excuses herself from conversation, managing a short bow to each of the samurai individually. She even brings out a rare smile for Nori.

Daiyu: "The new clothes suit you, Nori-kun. And yours as well, Crow-san."

Nori grins, bowing in greeting.

Nori: “Thank you, Kuni-san.”

Crow smiles. “We were fortunate enough to find someone here to fit him.”

Daiyu: “Yes. Some of the town's offerings do seem a bit sparse.”

Torokai: “Good morning, Kuni-san.”

Daiyu smiles at Torokai as he approaches them with hands folded behind his back. It is a touch grim.

Daiyu: “Good morning, Akodo-sama. Have you seen Hida-san?”

Torokai: [laugh] “I believe he is with Kasumi-san. She invited him to spar so their skills would not dull. I had no objections. I don’t think he would take kindly to...more court discussions, regardless.”

Daiyu: “Hmm. Yes, that does sound like him.”

Ryojiro appears several moments later, having finished an early breakfast. He holds a small, bound book in the crook of his arm. Ryojiro smiles, sinking into a deep bow.

Ryojiro: "Are you well today Akodo-sama?"

Torokai: "I am well, Kitsuki-san! I hope you are rested. I’ve a request to make of you all. I have... arranged a meeting, after hearing some of Kuni-san's findings. Perhaps it will become debate -- I cannot be sure. I ask that you speak before the court in regards to…”

‘Maho' is the unspoken word he cannot say.

Torokai: "What you, and we, have seen. What may be coming."

Ryojiro: “Of course Akodo-sama. I will do what I am able.”

Daiyu nods, looking ill. She keeps her gaze fixed on the floor.

Crow, noticing Nori’s self-consciousness from stares, settles a hand on his shoulder. She looks to Torokai and nods.

Crow: "Of course, Akodo-sama. What's left, one day? Two?"

Torokai nods, looking grim.

Torokai: “Two more days, Crow-san.”

Torokai leads the samurai onward, down a long, wide hall, past the main court where several high-ranking courtiers stand in intense conversation.

Nori follows happily at first. Slow, gradual worry claims his expression the further they travel down the hall, deeper into the castle. Past a procession of immaculately-dressed courtiers of all clans, past several rooms filled with Lion and Crane.

Crow glances down constantly to check his mood, highly aware that he is unused to such settings. When he seems to be at the peak of anxiety, she gives his shoulder a firm, reassuring squeeze. It’s enough to bring a smile back to his face.

Ryojiro: “Have you heard news, Akodo-sama?”

Torokai: “Some, yes. I haven’t heard everything, but things are not… going well. But so far, we have not come to war. It’s difficult to discern any truths, but Bayushi-san has granted me some insight. Court is not my area of expertise, of course, but she says there are things happening in other places that we...have not heard.”

Ryojiro nods, his mouth pulling into a frown. He spends the walk gathering himself to the full force of his charisma and confidence, clearing his mind of all distractions. He is… mostly successful. This will not be easy, but it is much like what he has done before: spoken of blood magic in the presence of those not willing to hear of it.

Ryojiro: “No war. So far.”

[soft conversation; court scene. This entire scene should have whispering/crowd sounds that progressively grow louder as the conversation between Kuro and the others intensifies]

Eventually, they come upon a wide, sparse room, slightly smaller than rooms they have been in previously. Atop the raised platform in the center of it stands a stoic, severe looking Lion courtier: Akodo Kuro. Matsu Ayame is at his side, arms folded, her face bandaged and expression neutral. Pillows are scattered about for sitting, most of them occupied.

Takeshi stands by Kuro and Ayame, hands folded in front of him. He looks calm, but even his face is stricken by an undercurrent of stress, carefully packed beneath a mask. Stress weighing heavily. He bows to Torokai and the other samurai as they approach, his smile tinged with anxiety.

Takeshi: "Good morning, samurai. I hope today we can continue on our path toward understanding. I’m sure you have heard how things are progressing in the other discussions."

Torokai: “Yes, Asahina-sama.”

Takeshi: “Perhaps if we just convince one favored by the courts…”

Takeshi glances to the side, indicating to Akodo Kuro.

Takeshi: “...we will, in time, convince the other lions to sheathe their claws.”

Torokai nods, his mouth drawn into a tight smile.

Torokai: “One can hope.”

Takeshi: “Of course, it will take more than one week of court.”

Takeshi looks to Ryojiro, bowing with a smile.

Takeshi: “It is good to see you, Kitsuki-san. I’m glad you’ve come.”

Ryojiro: “Thank you, Asahina-sama. I only hope that I can assist.”

Takeshi smiles. “I believe you can. We can only try.”

The last to enter the room is an aged, gray-haired man with a kind face and walking stick. He is dressed in vibrant orange and red, the robes of a Phoenix-- but also an Inquisitor. Ryojiro beams with recognition: Asako Kato.

Kato spots Ryojiro, offering a small smile as he does. Several murmurs ripple across the crowd: clearly, an Inquisitor was not expected here, of all places.

Whispered, random samurai: “Asako Kato? Why is he here?” “Perhaps there IS an investigation after all…”

Ryojiro bows deeply, his smile wide. He moves to assist Kato in finding a seat and carefully helps him sit down. “Asako-sama. It is good to see you again.”

Kato: “And it is good to see you, Kitsuki-san. You are looking well.”

Ryojiro: “You did not encounter troubles during your travel, I hope?”

Kato: “Fortunately the road was not unkind! I have just come from the lands of the Crab, among others.”

Ryojiro: “That is quite a journey! You must tell me about it, when we have the chance.”

Kato: “Of course, Kitsuki-san. Perhaps they will listen, this time.”

Ryojiro: “One can only hope, Asako-sama.”

Kato smiles, bowing to Ryojiro as he stands. Takeshi folds his arms into his sleeves, moving to the front of the stage.

Takeshi: "I request Kitsuki Ryojiro and his companions speak on findings during their travels with the Emerald Magistrate, Akodo Torokai. And their own experiences, if those are relevant."

Crow stands a healthy distance apart from the commotion, more for Nori's sake than her own. She watches with interest as Ryojiro crosses the room, joining Torokai and Takeshi atop the raised platform.

Daiyu hovers near enough to Torokai that she can be easily called if needed, but not too obviously or obtrusively. It’s not that she's less nervous, but more prepared. This time, she will not falter.

Akodo Kuro watches Ryojiro with a grimace, looking unamused. It becomes clearer and clearer that this is, perhaps, the natural state of his face.

Kuro: "Kitsuki Ryojiro of the Owl. Akodo Torokai claims that blood magic is yet again taking hold, and has insisted I come to this ridiculous discussion. We have seen no sign of it in decades. Myself, nor any others I’ve spoken with. Not in my lands. Not in theirs. I do not believe this claim--what do you say of it?"

Crow frowns, her jaw muscles going tight.

Daiyu's mouth twists. This is going to be a long, long day.

Ryojiro takes a moment to gauge the mood and intentions around the room, eyes narrowing at traces of agitation and animosity. Most in the audience are a mix of nervous and ill, their faces lined with stress hidden beneath masks of composure. Few hide it well. No one seems willing to question an honored guest’s words or manner, let alone one so favored by the courts, but they chafe beneath Kuro’s presence. His impatience.

Ryojiro quietly releases a breath. He works to the mood of the assembly and Kuro's suspicious nature, practiced at dealing with volatile personalities.

Ryojiro: "I agree. In my years of training as an investigator into those who read and deal in blasphemous scrolls, the evidence that has been presented could bring no charges. I believe you are correct in your assessment. I see no admissions of dark prayers, no physical presence of Shadowlands taint, no writings that detail the powers of blood or The Fallen Kami.

What we do have are reliable accounts of unusual occurrences and artifacts that do not fall cleanly into polite explanations. These things will inevitably bring rumors, whispers, and fears of maho. If I may be allowed, this is something I have experience in and would like to offer a suggestion?"

Kuro’s eyes narrow. He passes his gaze over the crowd, over the mix of shock and stoicism. After a few moments of glowering, he looks back to Ryojiro.

Kuro: "Speak, then."

Ryojiro: "I have seen the damage rumors and fear of this nature can cause. It is the most common issue when we are called to investigate such whispers. When we are asked to report on hearsay, we know to work thoroughly, carefully, and thoughtfully, as the final goal is always to restore tranquility, and the guarantee general safety against dark Taint. While I am of the strong opinion we should not rush to arms, or sound alarm, I would ask that a full and honest report be commissioned for experts in blasphemy and investigation to leave no unanswered rumors and follow every option that would leave them open."

Ryojiro bows and retreats a step, awaiting a response in silence. Kuro's thick hands disappear into the sleeves of his kimono.

Kuro: "I see. Then we will call upon the Owl. We will yet see if such investigation is warranted in the coming months. Perhaps at Winter court."

Kuro is tense, Ryojiro notes, but listens to him well enough for someone of his considerable status. Or, as well as can be expected of someone of his disposition. But the word 'maho' has rippled across the crowd like a shockwave, spoken with unfamiliar plainness in the halls of court.

Torokai glances at Daiyu, then clears his throat and steps forward.

Torokai: "Thank you for your willingness to hear Kitsuki-san, Akodo-sama."

Kuro gives a grunt of affirmation. He glances to Ayame beside him, who has barely moved, then out across the crowd.

Kuro: "Well? Are there others? Speak now, or do not be heard."

Kuro studies Crow with eyes narrowed. Crow scowls at the floor, refusing him eye contact, her mood having soured considerably. She squeezes Nori's shoulder, more to reassure herself than anything. Nori glances up at her with a frown, unsure exactly what is happening.

After a moment, Daiyu steps forward.

Daiyu: "The Kuni remember well the horrors of the past. It is our duty never to forget the atrocities that the darkness, and Taint, can bring. You say you see no evidence, I cannot blame you for this. Merely a pile of letters, covered in nonsense and a shattered piece of porcelain.You do your duty as you see fit. Why believe an ancient threat has resurfaced so suddenly, in such times of relative quiet? I, however, have seen the evidence, as my companions have.

We saw, fought, and slew the thing that wore that mask. Burned its deformed, monstrous corpse in the rice fields of Beiden and watched its dark brethren circle the town in the dead of night. We scoured the sacred wood of Kitsune Mori and found a heap of corpses, drained of blood to the last. The diseased monsters, the poachers, that hunted them wanted for nothing else! History tells that evil sinks its roots in when we are least wary, when we are lenient, and when we are most certain that we are safe from it. I beseech you to heed our warnings, and take just, and swift action. Lest we all be forced to see what we have seen."

Kuro: [suspicious, recognition but being quiet about it] "What did you say your name was, Kuni-san?"

Daiyu meets Akodo Kuro's gaze evenly, as strong and sturdy as the Wall.

Daiyu: "Kuni Daiyu."

Kuro lifts his chin, his thick eyebrows rising onto his forehead. It might be recognition. It might not. Perhaps he is impressed by her boldness.

Kuro: [slow, knowing] "Kuni Daiyu. Thank you.”

The room falls abruptly, utterly silent. All eyes fall on Daiyu. Whispers form in pockets among the crowd--Daiyu's name among them.

[whisper sound effect here]

Sayuri watches from the far corner of the gathering, eyes narrowed in thought. So far, she has not spoken, nor made any move to. For now, she only exchanges occasional glances with Yuji, who sits beside her.

Crow: “Kuni-san is right, and I regret not speaking her words myself. To wait for politics to play their course could prove worse than a death sentence for countless more."

A few gasp.

[gasp sound here]

Then, silence takes hold of the crowd, but never completely. Crow and Daiyu glance around, eyebrows furrowed, visibly irritated. Why are they not more upset? Outraged?

Kuro whirls on Crow. "Who are you to speak of politics, ronin?"

Takeshi: "With respect, Akodo-san, you asked for their words."

Crow grits her teeth. Her jaw sets, her nostrils flare. She blinks away tears, knocked completely off-guard. Crow opens her mouth to speak, but then, everyone else does first. No words come. She settles on glaring a hole into the floor.

Ryojiro: “If I may speak out of turn. These are the fears I spoke of gaining foot. I can testify to many of the unnerving experiences of my companions and friends. These concerns advance rapidly without the truth."

With a clearing of her throat, Sayuri stands to her feet despite a quick, stern look of warning from Yuji.

Sayuri: "If I may speak plainly, Akodo-sama? I would think a courtier of our experiences does not… see these things quite the same way as Akodo Torokai and his companions."

Crow glances up at the sound of Sayuri's voice. Doji-sama is here? Embarrassment flushes new and hot in her cheeks.

Sayuri: "Ronin of course feel and live the politics of the Empire, Akodo-sama. But what care do ronin have for them, really, with a road as a master? I have come to know their hearts in our very brief time together, and I believe that they experience the world /differently/ than you. Differently than I, Akodo-sama. And so if they speak of maho, with what they have seen as testimony -- then I am inclined to believe them."

The muscles in Kuro's jaw work. Takeshi passes his gaze over the crowd, nervousness creeping into his expression.

Daiyu stares. Her ego will be uncontrollable after this.

Crow’s face floats through several emotions throughout Sayuri's speech. By the end she is smiling, an expression charged with unpleasant energy. She turns her gaze on Kuro, her face twisted with anger.

Crow: "You say you hesitate to act because we have not seen maho in so long, so why should we fear it? Is this not how maho has taken its grip in the past? Wrapping its jaws around a throat slack with complacency?"

Crow releases her grip on Nori's shoulder.

Crow: "I have seen maho with my own eyes, and I know that it stirs still in the west. Why should it not have crept eastward now? He has seen it." She points to Nori, who shrinks beneath his mention. "Or he has suffered its effects. Who are /you/ to tell this boy that this fear is unfounded, /Lion/?"

[crowd gasp sound effect; whispers]

Ryojiro glowers. Is Kuro a coward, to try and dispel fear? Or only a fool?

Sayuri stares, wide-eyed, her composure unraveled. Yuji's face, however, has not shifted.

[crowd grows louder; not quite mayhem but getting there]

Maho. Its mere mention, its utterance, is enough to unsettle the crowd. Kuro's grip on them is lost. It's too late: the mere whisper of the word has taken hold, spreading across the crowd, unsettling them into a flurry of fans and rumor.

Kuro glances around, wide eyed. Frustration reddens his face. He grits his teeth, seemingly growing taller where he stands. "We do not speak of it, ronin, so that we do not spread its fear!"

Crow grits her teeth. [nearly yelling] "I have felt its fear; that is why I speak of it!"

Ryojiro strives to look as unshocked as possible, with only the faintest, scathing look on his face. If only Kuro had listened.

Sayuri exhales. Whether or not she is actually calm is difficult to tell, but there are telltale cracks in her composure.

Sayuri: "Those of the Crane know of your family, Akodo Kuro. Would you not say your... warmongering along the Crane’s borders is the result of your fear? Or are you simply taking advantage of these happenings for your own gain?"

Kuro: “Warmongering?”

[crowd grows louder]

Takeshi quickly steps forward, raising a hand.

Takeshi: "Please! Please. I know these are difficult times, but we must not lose ourselves to this here. We are all fearful, but we all strive for peace in the Empire."

Ryojiro’s eyes narrow. He lets his flat, droll expression convey his skepticism of Takeshi’s sincerity.

Every pair of eyes in the room fix on Kuro, unsettling his composure. Kuro falls silent. He has no answer for Crow’s words, nor Sayuri’s. Murmurs drift among the crowd. He quakes with rage. Fists clenched, he sinks stiffly onto his sitting pillow. Ayame looks on in steely, stoic silence, her expression softening just a hair.

As Takeshi works to handle the unsettled crowd, Torokai steps away. He watches Crow and, for a moment, it looks as if he wants to speak. In the end, he says nothing.

Nori: [quiet, tentative, worried] “Crow-san…”

Crow lets out an unsteady exhale, forcing her heavy breaths to slow, to become less jagged, less like there is a great weight pressing down on her chest. She glares at Kuro until she cannot stand the sight of him anymore. In a slow, progressive trickle, Crow’s composure begins to crumble. She squeezes Nori’s shoulder. Wordlessly, Crow turns to leave. Every pair of eyes in the room follow her, including Torokai’s.

Torokai: “Hmmm. We will finish this. Thank you, Kitsuki-san. Kuni-san. You have been a great help.”

Ryojiro bows, looking over Torokai’s shoulder at the scene that has begun to unfold. Takeshi’s words do not stop the rumors nor the looks that linger at Crow’s retreating back, nor the whisper of her name.

Ryojiro: “Be well, Akodo-sama. I apologize if my words have set a fire that cannot be put out.”

Torokai: “There’s no need for apology, Kitsuki-san. It will hopefully be handled, by Asako-sama or otherwise.” Torokai glances to Asako Kato in indication. Ryojiro nods.

Torokai: “Go with Crow-san.”

With a final bow, Daiyu and Ryojiro follow after Crow, leaving Torokai and the others to finish. As they depart, the crowd begins to quiet, and Takeshi calls for Asako Kato. Kato stands, taking in a great, steadying breath as he makes his way to the front of the room.

Court has been unpleasant, but not for the reasons Crow expected. Crow has seen more wary glances or outright disdain since their earlier session adjourned than she has seen collectively in all of her time is a ronin. Following their appearance at court, she is content enough to avoid everyone, emerging only to feed herself and Nori, and later to bathe.

After Nori is tucked into bed and the hour is late enough that she suspects that most have followed suit, she heads downstairs. Nothing but sake will do after today, so she takes a bottle and a cup for herself (and a second, just in case she is lucky enough to see Sayuri) and tucks away into a well lit corner.

Two cups down, she pulls a leaf of parchment and a pot of ink from within her kosode. (She is no longer in her new clothes; it's hard to feel like she deserves them in this moment.) Her brush perches unused between her fingers for some time.

Eventually, she begins to write. The characters are rough and unrefined, as she has not had much cause to write in a decade, but she presses on. Occasionally, she stops to drink or to glance up toward the door as figures pass by.

Several minutes pass, and Crow continues writing. She does so in relative silence and solitude until Daiyu emerges from a hallway, carrying her walking stick from Kitsune Mori.

The low light works to her advantage--Daiyu’s silhouette is more easily recognizable than her unpainted face. Crow's eyebrow raises in confusion as she glances up at just the right time, catching sight of something that takes her a few moments to process.

Crow: "Kuni-san?"

Crow's brush is poised over the parchment mid-stroke. The ink blots the page. When she is convinced that it is Daiyu, she takes note of the pack and the stick. Her other eyebrow raises as she pieces things together.

Crow: "Has Akodo-sama given you leave?”

Daiyu hesitates. Her shoulders slump, and an uncommon, bitter grin forms on her face.

Daiyu: "It would seem I am not always as prepared as I thought." Guilt overtakes her. After triple checking behind her to ensure that no one followed, she moves into the light.

Daiyu: "Crow-san. I do not know. [sigh] I did not ask. Nor would I. I... would ask if I might join you instead though. If only for a short time." She stands with arms folded, head bowed in shame.

Crow's eyebrows stay high on her forehead for a while longer until they draw together in concern.

Crow: "Is something wrong?" Crow places her second sake cup on the table. She fills it carefully, then slides it toward Daiyu, watching her carefully.

Crow: "Has something happened?"

Daiyu: "Everything that has been, and will be are one and the same to the void."

Daiyu sits opposite Crow at the table, setting her pack and walking stick beside her. She downs the sake before giving herself a chance to second guess.

Daiyu: "That was one of the first lessons my sensei taught me."

Daiyu keeps her gaze pointed sharply down at the table, occasionally looking up at Crow to ensure she still exists.

Daiyu: "I'm sorry. I do not mean to bore you with old lectures intended for novices. I owe you the truth. After all, if you hadn't bailed the waters out of my sinking ship, I would have drowned in this court mere hours after it started."

Daiyu struggles with how to proceed, trying to pick words from a patch of thorns. "Names carry weight. Would you agree Crow-san?"

Crow listens to her in silence, looking away only to wipe the ink off her brush and set it aside. She downs her sake. The subject of names is a difficult one. Her smirk is dry and humorless.

Crow: "I do agree, Kuni-san. A name is a terrible burden; one that I am not strong enough to carry. Crow is not what my family called me."

Crow reaches across the table, refilling Daiyu’s cup to the brim, lifting her gaze enough to watch her as she does.

Crow: "But you will have to forgive me. I am not clever enough to discern the greater meaning behind your words." After setting the bottle down, Crow folds her arms over her chest and watches her.

Crow: "What is the weight of your name?"

Daiyu: "You are right, it is foolish and unnecessary for me to try to dance around words, not with you and not when it's like the whole court may soon know." Daiyu smiles, soft and sincere. It's quickly soured by the subject.

Daiyu: “If you can forgive me. I did not wish to offend. I've never asked about you, nor spoken for long outside of what needs to be done at the time. And for that, too, I must apologize."

Daiyu downs the second cup appreciatively and takes a quiet, steady breath. There's a slight tremor to her hands as she sets the cup back down. And to Crow, the apology is as surprising as her smile. In all their time together, Crow cannot recall seeing a single one on her face. She smiles encouragingly.

Crow: “There is no need for apology, Kuni-san.”

Daiyu: "There is a longer, more complicated story to what I am going to tell you. But I will spare you that...And I trust you to do what you think is right with what I say. Whatever that may be."

Daiyu: "I mentioned my sensei for the weight that I carry is...is that of his death. And those of his wife and children. I killed him." Daiyu takes great pains to avoid Crow's gaze.

Daiyu: "It was for my own protection. I tell myself this while I relive the memory of this walking, laughing...screaming corpse coming for me with a knife stained in his family's blood… The courtiers will not tell this story. They will say...only what they could know. That the remains of my sensei's family were found inside the wreckage of his burned home. That is my fear, that it is what they will say when it comes to light. In my panic, and terror, I did the only thing I could think to do to....purify. Foolishly burning the evidence of any real evil away. And then I ran. They will say my sensei was found dead, and his only student missing."

Daiyu: "I am telling you, because if there is to be a judgement for my crime I would rather it be you to decide whether my tale is true or not. Had you seen the thing walking around in that man's skin...seen what it had done to his family....If I died here and now for telling you all of this, I would still suffer the same again. To rid the world of it again."

Daiyu seems a bit smaller in her seat now, exhausted.

Daiyu: “...I swear Nori looks just like his oldest child."

Crow promptly drains her sake cup. By the end of Daiyu’s story, her brows are tightly drawn and her jaw is tight. Their tales are so different, and yet there is a thread of familiarity there. She regrets not asking Daiyu anything personal sooner.

Crow: "That is... quite a tale." Crow fiddles with her sake cup, her thumb fretting around its lip as her gaze drifts to the middle distance.

Crow: "You needn't explain your actions to me, Kuni-san. I am well acquainted with the lies people spin to hide uncomfortable truths. Or to placate their own fears, however rightly founded they may be. The Celestial Wheel is as mysterious as it is dependable. And perhaps...Nori-kun is related somehow.”

Or perhaps it's a coincidence, but Crow has never been one to dismiss the notion of fates and fortunes. She shrugs, offering the most reassuring smile she can muster.

Crow: "I am honored that you trust me enough to tell me these things. I will keep your secrets."

Daiyu: "You've defended my honor and more, twice at least in as many days." [either about to laugh, or cry. Maybe both.] I find myself deeper and deeper in your debt Crow-san. You honor me more than I deserve but I am glad of it nonetheless."

With now somewhat steadier hands, Daiyu picks up her cup and stares at the sake inside.

Daiyu: "My paranoia seems to have gotten the best of me again. Perhaps nothing will come of any of this, and I've merely made a shameful, foolish display of myself to you. If anything is to happen, I will find solace in the fact that someone knows the truth. At least what little truth is known to me."

Daiyu: "Perhaps another time I can tell you the rest of the tale, under better circumstances."

Daiyu meets Crow's gaze, the faintest trace of tears glistening in her eyes.

Daiyu: "Hopefully I don't interrupt your night then, as I have done now. You have my thanks, and my apologies. I fear I would not have made it far alone. I will remain the night."

Crow: [laughs] "It was - and is - no trouble, Kuni-san. I am honored to have helped and would gladly do so again, given the chance."

Daiyu turns her cup over to indicate that she's finished.

Daiyu: "I am glad that you have decided to stay, then." She says with a smile after the fact, even if it's tired and spread far too thin. "I doubt that Akodo-sama would begrudge you any of these things that you have told me. He showed great understanding and generosity when I spoke with him of my own sordid past."

Not a topic she wishes to touch on. Crow shakes her head, then seeks Daiyu's eyes and smiles with a touch more authenticity.

Crow: "I hope that you are able to find rest. I am grateful for your trust in me; it is not a feeling I've known for quite some time."

Daiyu: “If what you say about Akodo-sama is true, I may be in luck...I wonder if I should tell him before he finds out on his own. From Akodo Kuro-sama. Or someone else. That may save me… some shame at least."

Crow: "For what it is worth, I think you should should tell him what you have told me. If only to ease your conscience - but I am certain that he would appreciate your honesty, all the same.”

Daiyu stands; Crow does not. Crow watches her, taking note of her slight hesitation, the slow, exhausted way she picks up her pack, and smiles. It's soft and fond, even if it's tired.

Daiyu: "Whatever may come, I will always think of Crow as one of the strongest names I have had the pleasure, and honor, to know. Until tomorrow then, Crow-san."

Crow: "You flatter me, Kuni-san, but there are many stronger than me. 'Til tomorrow. Rest well."

Daiyu smiles. She looks as though she wants to say more, but doesn't. She leaves, the slightest bit of unsteadiness to her step. Daiyu returns to her room, leaving Crow alone with her thoughts and a half-written letter to Sakiko.