By clicking the ellipses (…) icon above and to the right of the artwork, you can play some thematically-appropriate music while you read.
DM’s Note: Ryojiro’s player was absent for some of the later pieces of this arc, so some changes were made to what happened over the next few episodes.
Editor’s Note: Following a re-evaluation of our logs, we decided to slightly change up how we present them—namely in being more liberal with our cutting as well as rearranging bits and pieces so that the narrative can flow more seamlessly. Additionally, actions and dialogue have been added where certain players were less active. We’ll be carrying these changes over to Episode 1 as well over the next few days.
The next morning is clear and cool, and the pale blue sky is dotted with clouds. When Kato sees the group again, he thanks them profusely and with deep bows. He provides a set of travel papers authorizing them to accompany Asako Ryoko to Pale Oak Castle, by way of the villages of Oiku and Toi Koku. He departs west toward the City of the Rich Frog, walking briskly with the aid of his stick, leaving them to linger or set out.
By the time Kato leaves, Crow has been up for some time. Ryojiro is likewise well-rested and ready to go, and Shio seems very ready to set out, her hair tied back and equipment in place. She plays idly with some string, making patterns to amuse herself as she waits for the rest of the group to collect themselves. Atsuryokunabe emerges from the inn at a bit of a delay, clearly having just eaten a generous breakfast. His knapsack hangs from the end of his tetsubo, which is slung over his back as he approaches the gathering. Daiyu follows not long after, looking dour as usual.
Ryoko looks prepared, though she travels with little but what she is wearing and a small travel pack. Once the Crabs have emerged from the inn, she bows slightly and clears her throat.
“We should begin our way along the east road.”
There is no debate, and the group agrees to set out. Crow is eager enough to lead, though she pauses halfway through her movement toward the east road. “Would you like me to carry your things?” she asks of Ryoko, gesturing to her pack.
Ryoko is unsure how to react at first, but she does blush, however slightly, refusing with a shake of her head. “It is not necessary, but I thank you.” She seems content to follow Crow, tapping the end of her sandals on the ground to secure them before she walks. Crow nods and smiles before resuming her trek.
Daiyu seems a bit restless by the time they’ve reached the edge of town. She watches the road around them suspiciously as they move, searching for the Dragonfly from the previous night, and counting herself fortunate to see no signs of him.
Atsuryokunabe rests his free arm in the inner fold of his kosode as he falls in with the others, about middle of the group and to the side. Shio happily follows Crow, her pace brisk to keep up.
The terrain beyond flattens as they exit the city, an eastward road following the gentle slopes of land. The parallel river is distant but calm, and the weather is clear. Ahead is what looks to be a several day journey, but thankfully along a main road.
Crow seems to brighten the deeper they venture into grasslands—sometimes she even hums quietly. Ryojiro is enjoying the road, stopping occasionally to pick up and examine any particular interesting rocks he sees. Shio seems content enough to keep quiet, though she does eye Ryoko occasionally—as if she wants to ask her some things but hasn’t quite made her mind up about what yet.
Ryoko stays quiet for as long as she can stand, deep in thought. Eventually, she does feel Shio’s eyes on her. “What is it, Kitsune-san?”
Shio blinks rapidly at her, head cocking to the side. “I was curious,” she admits. “Your uncle seemed very concerned with your welfare, but you appear capable. It is not so long a journey.”
Ryoko sighs gently through her nose, almost slipping into an eye roll. She remembers herself. “My uncle is… overprotective.”
Crow and Atsuryokunabe give a hum and a sniff, respectively, in agreement with this assessment. Daiyu and Ryojiro to keep to themselves, lost in thought.
In the Lion lands, the roads are well-patrolled and safe. More than a few minor villages dot the landscape, both near and far, their lands carefully cultivated. Watchtowers dot the plains beyond.
Shio sighs. “It is frustrating,” she agrees, sympathetic. “I hope we won’t prove too cumbersome to have around.”
Atsuryokunabe laughs uproariously. “What could be cumbersome about our company?!” He is oblivious to the echo despite the lack of cliffs nearby.
Shio rolls her eyes at Atsu. “I have no idea!” she agrees, trying to keep a smile in. “Clearly we are the finest handful of strangers to be hired as guards.”
Ryoko lifts her head from adjusting her tanto, parallel against her lower back. She smiles softly. “It is not cumbersome, I assure you. I am glad for the company, even as circumstances may frustrate.”
To this, Shio smiles, taking a page from Crow’s book and giving a wink. Ryoko isn’t quite sure how to respond to the wink, so she smiles in return, her head bowing slightly.
“Yes. Clearly.” Crow runs a hand through her hair as the wind rustles it, glancing back at them over her shoulder. “Perhaps we’ll all be friends by the end of it.”
Atsuryokunabe scowls, but his eyes are softer. “Perhaps.”
Shio chortles to herself under her breath.
The road slopes gently downward as morning approaches afternoon. The sun climbs higher on the horizon. Daiyu glances behind them every so often and thankfully finds nothing but a distant, slow-moving merchant cart. By the time the midday heat has set in at full force, another stiff silence has befallen the group of strangers.
“So,” Crow says, breaking the quiet, “Asako-san, what is it that you do for pleasure?” She makes a show of rolling her broad shoulders before tucking her arm inside her kosode.
Ryoko pauses for a half-second, clearly surprised. “For…?” She brushes a strand of hair behind her ear, dropping her eyes in thought, then looking aside. “Hm. I do enjoy my fair share of reading. And you?”
Crow grins. “Ah, a hobby well-suited to such a long journey.” She stalls for a moment, having not been expecting the question in return. “I have a fondness for music. Perhaps I can play for you before our journey’s end?”
Ryoko smiles, giving a slight bow of her head. “Ah, yes. Perhaps you can. And what is your instrument?”
Shio eyes Crow curiously. The only instrument she’s seen is Daiyu’s.
Crow reaches up and behind herself, patting what appears to be the end of a wooden instrument poking out from her large pack. It’s carved to resemble a horse’s head. “The morin khuur—and my voice! ” She glances over her shoulder again. “And what of the rest of you; do you play?”
Ryojiro seem startled by the question, boggling at her. “I play Go…?”
Daiyu turns her head back towards the neck of the shamisen poking out of her pack at an angle. “A little.”
Shio gives a dry laugh. “I’ve no talent for instruments, but I haven’t been thrown out of the inns I’ve sung at.”
Crow seems genuinely delighted by this. “Ah! Perhaps you will sing for us, then. I doubt my own voice would be to your tastes.”
While the conversation carries on, Atsuryokunabe studies the tall grass that grows alongside the road. With his knowledge of medicine, he is able to find a few medicinal herbs amongst the stalks, which he carefully picks and stows away as they travel.
The sun begins to dip in the sky, sunset fast approaching. The village they eventually come upon is Rugashi, a trading crossroads in the heart of Akodo lands. It is a bustling, prosperous place with over 2,000 inhabitants. Lion wardens and magistrates keep a close eye on it, but with respect and papers presented it is easy enough to secure a place to spend the night. Their night here is spent without incident.
The next morning, on their way out of town, the sky is clear and the air a bit cool. The party sets out at an early hour, but it isn’t long before they happen upon a peculiar sight: a man, bare-chested and dressed in tattered hakama made of green cloth, squatting beside the road. His tanned skin is covered with scars, some of them rather fresh, and strange tattoos coil across his torso. He looks up with a broad smile as they approach.
“Well met, friends! Are you sharing my road?”
Crow regards him curiously, but with some degree of concern. “Your road?”
“My road!” he says.” And why are you here?”
The man is wide-eyed and a little too friendly, lacking any concept of personal space. His eyes are wide, very focused, and rove among each in the group with great interest. When he straightens, he is almost as tall as Crow, and introduces himself simply as Fuguki.
“We are travelers, and roads are for traveling.” Crow’s tone is pleasant enough, even if she is clearly wary.
The words are lost on Fuguki, regardless; it is clear that he is not in his right mind. “I am living. Aren’t I? Or are we all dead already?” He trails off and looks to Shio, who stares back up at him, unblinking. She’d rather silently intimidate him out of the way. Ryoko tries to avoid eye contact as best she can and continues walking briskly. The party follows and so does Fuguki, undeterred by Shio’s glare. He walks slightly to the side of the road.
“Where is it that you are headed, friend?” Ryojiro breaks his silence, having taken an interest in the vagrant.
“Ah, I am heading east. Do you seek the Blood?” He watches Ryojiro, now, and Ryoko has since cleared herself of being anywhere close to him. Shio keeps up with her, eyes darting from side to side; she prays this isn’t an ambush of some kind.
“I find myself in possession of enough blood.” Ryojiro is immediately apprehensive. “What… kind of blood are you seeking?”
Concerned by now, Daiyu slows her gait enough to trail behind the man.
“You seek those in cloaks, their hands dipped in it.” Fuguki rattles on, and anything that makes sense is quickly interspersed with sing-song meandering. “The road is listening to us, but the birds swim in the rain.”
“Those in cloaks…? I may seek them. Are they friends of yours?” Ryojiro tempers his growing concern beneath a cool veneer.
Atsuryokunabe slowly removes his knapsack from the end of his tetsubo. Ryoko places Crow between herself and the man, content to watch but with her hand near her tanto.
Fuguki seems to have the sense to notice weapons and slows a bit. “No need for that, no need for that. No, no friends of mine.”
“That is good.” Ryojiro seems to relax, if only by a bit. “What do you know of these men of blood?”
Fuguki has by now followed the party quite a ways, yet undeterred and muttering beneath his breath. He shakes his head, smiling unsettlingly at Ryojiro. “What do you know of them?”
Ryojiro says as forwardly and sincerely as possible, “I know they are friends to no one.”
Fuguki slows a bit as he finally seems to notice that the others are wary of his presence. “I am heading east, as you are. With the Inquisitor?” He looks to Ryoko, who is some paces ahead by now. A town is visible in the distance.
Ryojiro tries not to sneer. He does not like people being nosy back at him. Fuguki seems largely unaffected, but the sight of a tetsubo in the possession of a musclebound Crab makes him wary.
“No trouble, no trouble. The grasses whistle, the sky is coming.” He slows to a stop, squats at the side of the road, and by the time he stands up again they’ve cleared a distance of road, leaving him behind.
Daiyu still follows behind, a careful eye trained on the strange man as they depart. She looks to Crow for a signal of some kind, but the ronin walks far ahead with Ryoko, more concerned for the safety of their charge than a conversation with a madman.
The large town ahead is Oiku, boasting some 5,000 troops within its walls. It is a military town, and a Lion one at that–there is little here of interest, and most travelers spend only a single night before moving on. Even here, Ryojiro keeps an eye out in the village for him and any other suspicious characters, blessedly finding none.
Eventually, the group finds their way to the inn, and it isn’t long after that a light spring rain begins to fall. Following a bath, the group settles into the common area. Ryoko is clearly shaken by the day’s events, but stubbornly maintains a neutral expression. Still, she tends to hover near Crow, who is all too happy to accommodate her presence. Atsuryokunabe gorges while Shio samples the inn’s specialty—a rather unremarkable oden—and Ryojiro inspects the well-used communal Go board. Daiyu seats herself in a distant corner of the room, idly plucking a melancholy tune from her shamisen after a modest dinner.
After some time, a chilly breeze carries the rain inside as a somewhat damp-looking Crane hurries into the inn, shaking his parasol. He is handsome and well-built, with long white hair held back in a ponytail. He shakes the water out of his kimono and calls for hot sake in a slightly plaintive voice.
“My pony is simply covered in mud! It’s only the mercy of the Fortunes that spared my kimono from the same fate!”
Atsuryokunabe snorts. Loudly, for him—which means it startles a few guests in their seats. Nonetheless, the Crane continues.
“And to be assailed by such a man. The nerve! Ronin are truly eccentric, aren’t they?”
Ryojiro looks sour at the outburst. Crow glances up from her bowl of rice and calls out to the Crane. “Do you speak of the man on the road?”
He looks at Crow, a slight curl of his lip preceded by an even slighter bow. It’s quickly replaced with a smile. “Ah, the man on the road, you say? Yes, very strange, green hakama.” He tilts his head, eyeing her across the inn, and brushes a damp strand of hair back from his face. “He did not say much. Only dreadfully unsettling words about the road and sky.”
Crow frowns, but says nothing else on the matter, her suspicions confirmed. The Crane goes about his business.
By now, Atsuryokunabe appears to be eating at a far more moderate pace. He does glare in the Crane’s direction every so often. Shio settles near to Ryoko and Crow, picking at her own food slowly, seeming on edge.
A gust of cold, drizzly air blows into the common room as another man comes through the door not long after: Tonbo Ukiya, his hair wet and lank from the rain. He looks around the room with a frantic, harried expression, his face flushed. It is difficult to tell whether the drops trickling down his brow are sweat or rain. He spots Ryoko’s table and relief floods his face as he hurries over.
“Asako-sama! I am relieved you are well–I thought perhaps this weather had stranded you on the road.”
Shio narrows her eyes at Ukiya and smiles unpleasantly up at him. Ryoko remains as cold and unresponsive as she can within reason, her shoulders stiffening. She sips from a cup of hot sake and keeps her eyes to the table.
Atsuryokunabe belches explosively in Ukiya’s direction, as if to caution against his excitement. The patrons of the inn look utterly aghast at this breach of etiquette, but it is ultimately excused — he is a Crab, after all.
“Has the road been safe so far? No troubles, I hope?” Ukiya looks to Crow, and then to anyone else nearby. As he recognizes Shio, his expression hardens. Rain drips from his wet hair and he takes a breath, steadying himself, looking between the three women at the table. Removing a damp, folded letter out of his kimono, he presses on.
“Asako-sama, I have… That is… I wish to present to you once more my petition for your hand in marriage. I… My daimyo would be most pleased by such a harmonious match… It would help improve relations between our Clans…”
Without missing a beat, Crow slowly pushes up from the table, placing herself between Ryoko and Ukiya. Her stance is defensive, but not particularly threatening.
From the Go table, Ryojiro sighs loudly. The droning pluck of Daiyu’s shamisen lends a tense mood to the scene.
Perhaps emboldened by Crow’s defensiveness, Ryoko takes in a sharp breath, her back stiffening.
“My family has already rejected your offer.”
Ukiya, however, refuses to accept this rejection, and becomes more and more frantic, babbling, raising his voice, and eventually trying to shove his letter into her hands–even with Crow standing in the way. Her hand comes up to plant squarely against his chest, holding him at bay with little struggle.
Atsuryokunabe raises his eyebrows in an expression of exhausted disbelief that fails to touch the rest of his face. He’s still eating and isn’t stopping for this guy.
“A-Asako-sama, please.” Ukiya all but blubbers.
“The lady is on an official trip.” Ryojiro intervenes, standing and crossing the room to him. “I see that the road has tired you–please, come with me and let me buy you dinner. We can discuss matters as you see fit.”
Distressed, the Tonbo shoves the letter at Ryoko’s hands perhaps one too many times, ignoring Ryojiro in favor of shoving his way past Crow. Eventually there is a hard, swift sound of a slap as Ryoko’s hand connects with his face. He flushes and clenches his fists, trembling with humiliation, before abruptly storming out of the inn. Atsuryokunabe slows the pace of his eating enough to watch him leave, muttering something about five fingers to the face before he resumes his feast.
Crow relaxes, turning halfway toward their table again. Shio heaves out a great sigh.
Ryoko is still breathing heavily as he departs, standing with her hands clenched into loose fists at her sides. Once he is out of sight, the spectacle over, and the people around the inn have returned to their meals, her face softens. “Thank you.” She offers to Ryojiro and Crow, accompanied by a shallow bow.
Daiyu keeps her voice low, her music coming to a pause. “That makes it both the Dragonfly and the man from the road waiting for us outside. How many more can we anger before the flames have grown too tall?”
The sour mood is abruptly severed by Atsuryokunabe swatting his table a few times, unintentionally causing its contents to jump in the air. He gestures to his traveling companions and complains loudly, “You should all be eating! You cannot finish a journey without the strength to carry you! EAT!”
Shio laughs, and it isn’t long before Crow laughs as well. Together with Ryoko they resume their meal, though following the confrontation she seems a bit drained. When Crow has finished eating, she resumes her earlier attempt to engage Shio and Ryoko in conversation. Shio’s responses are distracted at best, and she often lapses into odd silences to stare into the dark. With each downed cup of sake, Crow’s focus drifts further and further toward Ryoko, and her contributions to the conversation take a slow and steady turn towards brazen flirtation.
Daiyu’s eyes slowly track across the room as she resumes her song, eventually settling upon a man with a Crane mon proudly emblazoned on his fine clothing. He is quite openly observing their group, and her gaze is heavy with suspicion.
It isn’t long before Ryojiro notices this man as well; he approaches his table with a polite smile and offers a most sincere apology. “I am terribly sorry if that display disturbed you. Is there anything I can do to offer apology? Service to remedy any inconvenience you have found this evening?”
The man bows his head. “Forgive me, samurai-san.” He shakes his head. “There is no inconvenience to be treated.”
“Oh, no, no forgiveness is necessary. May I join you?”
The man nods quickly, sliding a chair out and standing up to assist.
“Thank you!” Ryojiro seats himself, his smile perhaps the most genuine it has been since they began their journey, “If I may ask, how is the merchant trade? Do you serve the town here?”
“Ah, yes, I serve many places here. Owl, Lion, Phoenix lands. I am called Daidoji Toru, a vassal of the Daidoji family. Daidoji Satoshi is my lord and patron.”
Ryojiro nods enthusiastically. “That sounds like quite the exciting life! I am sworn to my lord Kitsuki Manjuro, so most of my days are spent deep in the forest. Which is nice— you can spend the days playing Go.”
He leans forward, eyebrows raised.
“Do you play?”