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DM’s Note: At this point, I was still getting used to, and learning all about, Rokugan. I was also still in the stages of planning out an AU timeline/universe for the campaign, so things may seem a bit rough or odd, here!
It’s early spring, and mid-afternoon. The Village of the Reinstated Hero, Mura Sano Eiyu ni Suru, is a minor village in the Ikoma territories. This Lion town is home to about 1,200 people, famed for a shrine to Duty honoring a hero of an age long passed, Ikoma Teidei. The Shrine of Duty is actually rather small; it is a simple pagoda surrounded by a tiny garden and a stone-paved path. Residential houses are located at either side, and the noise and bustle of urban life is clearly audible, but the modest street which leads to the Shrine is kept clear and scrupulously clean. A single monk sweeps the path around it and hands out incense sticks to those who approach.
Two Phoenix dressed in orange and red robes stand before the Shrine, praying and laying sticks of incense before the statue of Ikoma Teidei. One is an older man with thinning hair, lean and weathered, a shugenja’s scroll-satchel at his hip. He leans on a well-used walking stick. The other Phoenix is a young woman, probably only a couple of years past her gempukku, her hair tied into a maiden’s foxtail. They carry out quiet conversation in hushed tones that are barely audible to passersby.
Crow is wandering by, mostly content to take in the shrine at a relative distance, before she is handed an incense stick by a monk. It slows her step after a few paces and she turns to face the shrine more fully—this quickly becomes an excuse to linger and listen in on the murmured conversation of the Phoenix nearby.
Although they keep their voices down, it is clear that they are having a disagreement. A keen ear could discern that the younger woman is named Ryoko, and the older man is concerned for her safety.
Besides the two Phoenix, there are a few other devotees at the Shrine. A pair of elegant Crane noblemen pray ostentatiously, accompanied by servants holding parasols to shade them from the afternoon sun. A Scorpion bushi stands quietly to one side, murmuring prayers from beneath a wooden mask.
Atsuryokunabe approaches the shrine to carry out his bi-weekly offerings. He pauses briefly to shoot a look at the Scorpion bushi that could readily be described as a baby drinking beer, but he quickly returns his focus to the shrine. He kneels before it formally. The Scorpion pretends not to notice the look, but his eyes do dart to the side.
Daiyu sits off the main path under the shadow of her hat. A samisen sits in her lap, but either out of respect or lack of motivation she doesn’t play. The only movement is her breathing, and the occasional drift of her hair in the breeze.
Shio prays before the shrine, her own incense lit and smoking among the others. She cocks her head slightly at the sound of the Phoenixes argument, but doesn’t comment.
“I will be fine, Kato-sensei,” says the younger one. “You needn’t worry after me.” She sighs, and then seems to notice Crow listening. Crow catches this glance and, not being one to miss such an opportunity, gives her a wink. She stares at Crow, her eyebrows coming together very slightly, then clears her throat. She stops talking very suddenly, looking to the man, and straightens.
Crow sighs to herself, quietly enough to be mostly inaudible. She decides to make her way to the shrine, incense in hand, but lingers close enough to listen inconspicuously.
Ryojiro stands across from the temple for a bit, observing the faithful and not-so-faithful in prayer. He eventually walks over to the monk to ask for some incense, a prayer token, and if there’s any news or he needs a friendly official ear for assistance today. The monk offers a bow, a little lower than necessary perhaps, and shakes his head with a kind smile.
Kato gives an exasperated sigh, then bows low to Crow and any nearby. “My deep apologies for interrupting your devotions. Might I trouble you for a few moments of, well, conversation?”
Crow turns halfway to face him, giving the pair a shallow bow. “Of course.”
Atsuryokunabe peeks open one eye at Kato, then the other, then slowly turns his head. His lower lip is jutting out, like an old person who hates what they are eating. His eyes are inquisitive, however.
Shio raises her eyebrows, unclasping her hands to point a finger at herself in confusion. “What troubles you?” she asks after a moment.
Kato bows deeply. “I am Asako Kato, Acolyte of Air, of the Order of Inquisitors serving Lord Asako Heishi. This is Asako Ryoko, my niece and apprentice in the Order.” His speech is careful, deliberate. “And may I ask what your names are?”
Ryoko is determined not to look anyone in the eye, still fuming from the previous conversation. She gives a glance to Crow and then away, idly turning an incense stick this way and that in her hand.
“I am Crow.” Crow speaks plainly and bows again, slightly deeper this time.
Atsuryokunabe takes in a great breath of air. He then erupts, “M-M-MY NAME IS HIDA ATSURYO—oh, please forgive me. My name is Hida Atsuryokunabe!” The amendment he makes to his volume is only slightly below way too loud.
Kato bows deeply, acknowledgement given even to a ronin after his inspection of her kimono.
Shio bows in return, head tilting to size up Crow for a moment before she returns her attention to Kato. “I am called Kitsune Shio,” she says. At Atsuryokunabe’s eruption she jumps a little, head rotating eerily to stare at him in affront.
Ryojiro prepares his formal introduction in his mind while searching the man for any telling signs. “Kitsuki Ryojiro. I am pleased to meet you,” he offers with a bow. He inspects Kato carefully, curious as to his sincerity, before giving it up. The old man seems just as he is: harried, concerned.
Crow doesn’t seem outright startled by Atsuryokunabe’s voice, but she does turn her head sharply to give him a once over. There is the slightest glimpse of a smirk there before she’s straight-faced again and returns her attention to Kato, who sighs deeply, rubbing his forehead before clasping his hands behind his back.
“I am pleased to meet all of you on this day.” He glances upwards, seems to consider commenting on the spring weather, and refrains. “I have reports on my recent investigations which I must send to Lord Heishi. However, I have also received a summons to the City of the Rich Frog to investigate an incident there. My apprentice has offered to carry my reports back to Lord Heishisama in Phoenix lands, but,” he heaves a sigh, “I do not believe it would be safe for her to travel alone.”
Ryoko tries to hide an embarrassed glower, looking as though she wishes to melt into the rocks. She twirls her incense stick with increasing agitation.
Daiyu isn’t trying terribly hard to disguise her curiosity. She’s turned herself somewhat towards the growing crowd, but has yet to make any effort of standing, or moving much at all.
Crow does her best to hide her inner conflict, but puts on a good show of deep thoughtfulness. She seizes an opportunity to turn toward Ryoko and eye her over more fully. Both of the Asako wear the insignia of the Inquisitors, with the red and orange robes of the Phoenix clan. Ryoko is young, likely close to 20, with the air of a courtier and certainly not a warrior.
Shio returns her attention to Kato, eyebrows furrowing. “A troublesome predicament,” she agrees, not entirely taken by the show yet. “Fortuitous that you find yourselves at the Shrine of Duty.” There’s a bit of judgement in her voice. A tiny bit.
Kato’s mouth works a little, his brow furrowing. “Ah, yes, it is indeed a predicament. These lands are dangerous, especially for someone as young as she.” Ryoko sighs, determined not to question her elder, but certainly not happy about it.
Atsuryokunabe suddenly pounds a fist into the opposing upturned palm. “SO YOU WOULD LIKE US TO ENSURE HER SAFE PASSAGE?!”
Crow raises an eyebrow, glancing to Kato. “Truly it would be a shame to bruise such a lovely flower, though she seems capable enough to my eye.”
Shio pulls her head back slightly, put off by Atsuryokunabe’s repeated explosions, and his unasked-for offering of their collective service to the Phoenixes.
Kato looks to the Hida, and his face lights up. “It would indeed, I agree. That would be quite helpful. I would be indebted to you for such assistance.” Atsuryokunabe nods, a slight smile creasing the corners of his mouth. He returns to praying.
Ryoko puffs up and withdraws a bit into herself, but does not protest out loud. Her face says enough, however.
Shio folds her hands back into her sleeves, withholding a wince at Atsuryokunabe. “It would be an honor to assist,” she says at last, though there is a bit of a questioning lilt to the end of her sentence, like she’s not quite sure this is the right decision.
Crow glances around the gathered group again to weigh their reactions, though seems to notice Shio this time around. Her attention lingers there a moment before she looks back to the pair of Phoenix again. “And…what does your niece have to say of this?”
Atsuryokunabe appears to have his thoughts interrupted by an errant thought. He’s heedless of anyone else who might be talking. “Do you offer a reward?!”
Kato looks between those who agree, to Ryojiro, then to Crow. “Ah—well. My niece is hesitant of assistance. She possesses a strong heart, a strong will.” The talk of reward, though, does bring his brows together. He pauses awkwardly, clearing his throat, and smiles nonetheless. “I will see to it that your lodgings and travel papers are provided. To Crow, I may offer 2 koku for your services.” He offers her a slight bow, then looks to Ryojiro. “I notice your hesitance…?”
Daiyu rises from the ground in one motion with just her legs, using her hands instead to lift up the instrument as she does. She starts walking towards them, slowly, but deliberately.
Atsuryokunabe flares his nostrils. He springs to his feet and bows slightly, completely oblivious of the fact that Kato said to Crow. He erupts into a completely improper, “YOROKONDE!” Shio blinks, stunned once more by the eruption of noise, like a bird that’s run into a glass window.
Crow exhales softly through her nose, torn between money and honey. She glances at Ryoko briefly, then smiles and looks back to Kato. She bows to him. “Very well. I will assist as needed.”
Ryoko glances up from her incense to eye Crow, taking in her lack of mon, the fur lining her garb. There is a brief, unvoiced question on her face, one that disappears when she watches her uncle and her expression turns impassive. She clears her throat. Crow attempts to sneak a charming little smirk in for the split second she meets her gaze, and then it’s back to high-chinned neutrality.
Ryojiro bows. “I would be very pleased to assist you! However, as you appreciate, I too have duties of investigation to conduct. I will honorably assist in your niece’s escort, and ask only for your assistance on what you can tell me, so that I may stay in the good graces of my lord.”
Kato pauses, looking to Ryojiro, a little tremor across his face. He clasps his hands behind his back. “And what may I tell you?”
“As a man educated in the ways of the Kami, I’m sure you can appreciate the sensitive nature of discussing powers that fall outside of the celestial order in holy places.” Ryojiro is ever polite. “We need discuss nothing now, of course.”
Kato smiles very slightly, his hands clasping a bit tighter. “Ah, of course, of course. It would be unseemly to speak of such matters here.” He shifts his weight very slightly and looks between the gathered samurai. He bows to the attending monk of the shrine and then starts down the path, indicating with an open palm. “Shall we discuss this elsewhere? If it please you.”
Ryojiro bows. “Of course! As you will.” He gestures in deference to lead the way.
Kato carefully places his walking stick and tests his weight on it with every step, giving him a slow, ponderous gait. Ryoko is quick to move away from the Shrine, though her frustration is only masked to those behind her. Crow and Shio follow. Atsuryokunabe turns a face full of teeth in the direction that the others are walking, using his tetsubo as a walking stick and producing a loud thonk on the stones with each step.
Daiyu takes her opportunity to start walking alongside them. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I wanted to offer my assistance as well. I know these roads well and have need to go in the same direction you do.” She directs this to Kato. “I require no payment—I merely offer as I shall be on the same roads either way.”
Kato leads down and away from the shrine, down a short path. He brings them to a small garden with an old bench shaded by bowed trees and bordered by pond with large koi swimming in its depths. He looks to Daiyu as he walks, bowing his head in greeting. “That would be a great help. I would be grateful for your assistance, young…?”
Daiyu keeps her voice down, almost a whisper. “Kuni Daiyu.” She bows back. “In truth, it’s a relief. The work that called me here is done and the journey home is long. I’m thankful for the company.”
Kato seats himself, grunting as his hips touch the bench. Ryoko stands nearby, arms gently folded, but leaves a pointed distance between herself and the samurai. Daiyu bows to Kato. All her movements seem stiff and quick.
Kato returns her bow, though there is some wariness in his eyes, and then leans both palms on his walking stick, looking between everyone as he speaks. “My lord, Asako Heishi, is currently in Pale Oak Castle in western Asako lands. It is his home, and he resides there every year from spring until autumn. He leaves once or twice to visit the Imperial capital and deliver reports to the Emperor.”
He shifts his weight. “I am leaving in the morning to conduct business in the City of the Rich Frog, and my niece and I are staying in the Inn of the Jade Tiger. I would prefer it if you stay there as well, to leave with the sunrise.”
Atsuryokunabe turns his head and his teeth disappear as he regards the little person who just claimed a Crab family.
Crow takes her place standing nearer to Ryoko than Kato, though at a respectful distance. She nods to Daiyu in greeting as everyone settles. Shio hums to herself quietly, eyeing Daiyu for a moment before finding her own personal space.
Daiyu finds a comfortable distance from the others. She nods to them, but says nothing more. Atsuryokunabe grunts quietly (for him) and returns the nod. Crab solidarity.
Kato looks to Ryojiro. “And your questions, if I may ask, what were they?”
Ryojiro gives Kato his entire attention. “Bluntly, sir, my lord has heard report of strange and disturbing tales that bear the liking to blood magic. As you, as an investigator, know, such matters should be looked into thoroughly and with care. I am recently arrived, and you assuredly have experience and wisdom in your dealings with the area. I only humbly ask for anything you have seen or heard in your time here.”
Shio zeroes in on Ryojiro, pupils pinning slightly at the mention of blood magic. Atsuryokunabe frowns slightly, and Crow’s investment in the discussion seems renewed. Daiyu remains expressionless, unmoved.
Kato perks up at this. The mention of blood magic does bring a slight pall, but he is no coward; he obviously takes his duty very seriously. Near him, Ryoko’s shoulders seem to shrink in here we go anticipation.
“Ah, you are keen, to the quick.” Kato gives Ryojiro a wan smile. “I have heard nothing, of late, but I know that the threat has not faded. Not as others have told me. Even so, I investigated a small cell in the Phoenix lands, before it expanded. That is now six months past, but that is my fear for Ryoko’s safety.”
Ryojiro nods, taking note of the reaction. “I understand completely then. You are very wise to not let the concern escape you. I would be honored to escort your niece, and to keep a wary eye on the road on your behalf.”
Kato smiles, bowing as well as he can in his seated position. “I am honored to place her beneath your protection.” He refers to everyone in the vicinity, but his expression does freeze very briefly as he glances at Daiyu again, as though her family and facepaint might invite the very things he wishes to avoid.
Crow glances toward the sky, enjoying a light breeze while she estimates the time. “Dusk will soon be upon us. Do you require our immediate departure?”
“We should not leave without eating!” Atsuryokunabe booms.
Kato nods to both of them. “I would prefer you depart with the coming of the dawn.”
Shio glances at Ryoko briefly, gauging her response, before returning her attention to Kato. “We will gather supplies this evening, then.”
Crow nods to Shio. “Perhaps we all ought to to acquaint ourselves with one another if we plan to spend the next several days together?” She smiles again, as slight as appropriate.
As evening approaches, the early spring air turns cool.
The House of the Jade Tiger is a respectable inn: two stories high, with a stable, garden, bathhouse, and other standard amenities. A wooden post in front of the main door mounts a small stone statue of a tiger, painted jade green. The inn’s common room is warm and well-lit, a welcome contrast to the chilly spring air outside.
The common room is crowded with other samurai and ronin, along with the usual assortment of merchants and other commoners. The samurai guests are, unsurprisingly, almost all Lions, but you can also see a pair of elegant Crane noblemen with a small entourage of servants and sycophants.
At another table, a man in the colors of the Ki-Rin sits with some ronin, while at a third table sits a shugenja wearing Dragonfly green with a rainbow spectrum on the edging of his kimono.
Ryoko and Kato are seated at a table together, beginning their dinner. Ryoko is frequently distracted by the Dragonfly, glancing to him with concern. She looks up as Crow approaches, brushing a strand of hair from her face, her chopsticks poised over a bowl of rice and pickled vegetables. She bows to her from her seat, then stares at her bowl.
Crow seems to notice Kato after she has already approached. The smile wanes in favor of a more formal expression. “Forgive me; perhaps it is not the best time.” She glances briefly in the direction of the Dragonfly shugenja, then back to Ryoko. “Please, finish your meal. We will have plenty of time later.”
Crow stalls awkwardly a moment and then meanders off to find her own food before taking a seat nearby with her apparent traveling companions. Atsuryokunabe practically exhales steam through his nose as he digs into his meal. Ryojiro seats himself with the unfamiliar party not long after, trying to find a seat with the best angle to observe the room and keep both Ryoko and the Dragonfly in comfortable eyesight.
Shio arrives with a bag slung over her shoulder, and loses a layer of stiffness as the crowd envelops her. She notes Ryoko and Kato’s positions, and follows Ryoko’s glares at the Dragonfly with curiosity. The Dragonfly watches Ryoko closely, with a very intent expression. He tries not to make his observation too open, but lacks the subtlety to succeed.
After a moment, Shio moves to sit with everyone. “May I join you?” she asks.
Atsuryokunabe looks up from his meal with wild eyes and emerges from the feast still chewing. He waves Shio over with some muffled approximation of an invitation, complete with sloppily pouring a cup of sake and offering it to her by setting it down near her. Shio allows herself a small laugh and seats herself with Atsuryokunabe, accepting the drink with a grateful nod. She sips carefully, occasionally glancing at the Dragonfly. Her curiosity is piqued.
Kato perks up a bit as he notices Ryojiro, his chest puffing up a bit. “Forgive me, have you been, may I ask, looking into… suspicious activity? As you asked earlier.”
Ryojiro pauses his eating long enough to respond. “Yes, last spring I followed the trail of suspicion following an incident near Moto castle, but towards winter the investigation came to an end as we were not given extended permissions to pursue farther than The City Between the Rivers.” After setting his chopsticks aside, he continues. “My lord was confident that the sorcerer was not acting alone, and had learned his art from a cult that he had left at some point years earlier. We were finally given permission to return recently.”
Kato nods deeply, pausing a moment to sip his tea. “I found much suspicious activity in the central empire. Five years ago, in San no Mura in the Kintani Valley. A cell with eight members.” He sighs. “I discovered them in investigating a drowning. The body had lain in the water for… some days before its discovery, but the local magistrate still noticed odd cuts on the arms, and asked my assistance. It was the blessing of the Fortunes that I happened to be just across the border in Phoenix lands at the time. Once we began investigating in earnest, it was only a matter of time until we unraveled the cult.” He is clearly quite proud of this achievement. “My lord Asako Heishi personally praised my efforts in this matter.”
Ryoko exhales quietly and sips her tea. Crow slowly works at her meal, glancing to Ryojiro following Kato’s remarks.
“That is quite the honor!” Ryojiro beams. “My initial investigation came from the miraculous healing of several children that the local shugenja could not explain. An old sorcerer had taken residence and had been corrupting the children of the local magistrate. The swift investigation saved the children from a dark fate.”
Kato looks quietly impressed, conceding with a gentle laugh into his tea cup. “I see, I see. Quite honorable indeed.”
Crow raises an eyebrow once she’s relatively certain that none of them are looking, then sips her tea and resumes watching the Dragonfly. He is a slim man (except for a slight potbelly), with lanky limbs and a receding chin. His black hair is tied back in a loose ponytail.
Ryojiro continues. “The Lion considered the matter closed after the incident, and the trail of correspondence he had accumulated pointed west. The Ki-Rin had no interest in our pursuing the matter.”
Shio peers at them over the rim of her cup. “Are they not concerned to have that in their lands?”
Kato nods. “You see, then, why I cannot allow Ryoko to travel alone.” He looks to Shio. “For some, they do not believe that blood magic is still a threat. The Empire is far too complacent about the threat which the Bloodspeakers still pose.”
Shio arches her eyebrows at Kato and nods. “Fair enough,” she replies, tipping her cup to them. “It is worrisome, nonetheless.”
Ryoko glances at Crow, clearly curious but hesitant. She sighs through her nose as her uncle speaks.
“Yes.” Ryojiro nods. “And for the Ki-Rin, I imagine they would require extraordinary proof for such claims. They must weigh the risk of disruption against the potential risk of a larger cult.”
“Yes. We discovered much suspicious activity.” Ryoko speaks for the first time this evening.
“That is dark news.” Ryojiro rubs his chin. “Do you know of any specific incidences spoken of?”
Kato shakes his head. “I am afraid I do not know anything specific. But I am sure something is sleeping, ready to awaken. I know it.” He slowly rises to his feet and brushes off the front of his kimono. Ryoko is quick to help him, abandoning a mouthful of rice and chiding her uncle for standing up so fast. He finds his walking stick.
“I am afraid I must retire for the night, to prepare for the dawn. You will look after Ryoko, I trust?”
Ryoko looks ready to protest but is caught supporting his outstretched arm.
Crow finally looks back to the Asako pair once Kato stands. She sets her bowl down, palms at her thighs, and watches. After a moment, she nods.
“Yes, of course. You have my word,” Ryojiro says.
Kato bows deeply, smiles, lingers, and starts toward the back of the inn, moving slowly and creakily. Ryoko watches him go, concern bringing her eyebrows together, in a slight bow. It’s quick to fade. She sits, sighing.
Crow watches Kato go, if only to make sure he can make his way out on his own two feet, and then resumes eating. Shio bows her head to his exit, sighing very quietly to herself. Ryojiro stands and bows in return to Kato before he exits. When he returns to his seat, he falls into deep thought. Atsuryokunabe is still buried in his meal, but acknowledges Kato’s exit with several hasty head bobs.
Ryoko finishes her meal, complacent with sitting in silence. She is clearly tense, and the Dragonfly is still watching her intently. Daiyu, having taken notice, stares right back at him. He does not seem to notice.
Crow finishes her rice after a few more moments, occasionally glancing at the Dragonfly. Given a few moments to collect her dish and her cup, she invites herself to stand and sit directly within the Dragonfly’s line of sight to Ryoko. She smiles politely and nods at the group following her relocation.
Ryoko looks up from her now-empty bowl, noticing that his view of her is disrupted. Her face softens, and she nods her thanks with a sigh and a soft “thank you” to Crow.
Some time passes in silence as the rest of them finish their meals and sort through their inventories for the journey tomorrow. Ryoko is the first to break the silence.
“I should take my leave as well. I will…” She inhales. “I will greet you with the dawn.” She gives a bow, then she moves to stand. Crow can’t resist another shameless wink, given the opportunity.
Shio throws back the rest of her drink. “Rest well,” she adds after a moment. “We will have a lot of time to get to know one another on the road, I think.”
“If you would like an escort at any point this evening, I hope that you will not hesitate to ask, Asako-san.” Crow smiles.
Ryoko looks between Crow and the Dragonfly, to Crow, then the Dragonfly, exhales softly, and nods. She bows again, deeply, perhaps more than required, and straightens. She disappears into a room.
Atsuryokunabe emerges from his meal with a grunt of satisfaction, leaning backwards with the effort. A table-vibrating belch explodes from him with a half-hearted muttering of “excuse me” as he settles back to relax and pick his teeth.
Shio lingers a few more minutes before making a decision. She orders a bottle of sake and two cups, then makes her way over to the Dragonfly’s table. “You seem intent on making friends this evening,” she says lightly, holding up the cups. “I am Kitsune Shio. May I join you?”
He nearly seems ready to stand up when Shio approaches, his body turning tense. He is polite enough—but distant. He bows his head, keeping up formalities only long enough to introduce himself as Tonbo Ukiya. “I am afraid I am otherwise engaged tonight.”
Shio does not seem surprised, nor really disappointed. She smiles entreatingly. “Engaged in watching the young Asako?”
This quiets him for several moments. “That is none of your business.” He turns away, sipping his sake.
Crow, with no subtlety whatsoever, moves to her previous seat at the group’s table—this makes it easier to watch Shio’s conversation. It has piqued Ryojiro’s interest as well, and he watches intently.
Shio shrugs a little, giving an overblown sigh. “As my business is keeping her safe,” she continues, sloshing the sake a little as she leans in—maybe trying to intimidate, though how successful a 5′ middle-aged woman can be is debatable, “I shall hope your business doesn’t include her.”
It’s obvious that Ukiya is more emotionally invested than he lets on, but he’s quick to get to his feet and brush off his kimono. “It is none of your business, as I have said. My concerns are my own. You would do well not to involve yourself in matters on which you are uneducated.”
Shio draws back, smiling disarmingly. “Very well, Tonbo-san,” she says, tipping a cup to him. “Rest well.” She backs off , content in knowing he will likely be a problem, and sits with the others again. She offers the other sake to anybody who wants it and downs her own quickly. Crow accepts the offer.
Ukiya doesn’t linger much longer. He retires to a room at a different wing of the inn.
By now, the hour is late. Daiyu slips away to her room sometime after the Dragonfly leaves. The rest of the group follow suit not long after.