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: As Ryojiro’s player was absent, I had to make some changes to the way the plotline and the scene progressed. Besides that, things are largely unchanged, but have been edited for better flow of reading!
“I do!” Toru says with a smile. Ryojiro is quick to reciprocate, and he clasps his hands together.
“Shall we play a game?” he asks, looking over the Crane’s shoulder toward the Go board just behind. “I will play white.” Toru bows in his seat.
“And I shall play black.” He smiles. “Do you play often, Kitsuki-san?”
They move to the communal board, and Toru settles into a comfortable sitting position, his travel papers stacked near the edge of the small table. Their stamps indicate a variety of locations: Crane, Owl, Phoenix, Lion lands. Just outside, his cart is visible; it is covered in iron pots and kettles, and small enough to be pulled by a sturdy pony. The rain begins to beat against the small stable and the cloth covering the cart.
“I do.” Ryojiro says, simply. “And do you?”
“I have been known to engage many an opponent.” Toru says, half-leaned over the worn, well-used board. “But I admit it has been some seasons since I last faced a truly worthy one.”
Ryojiro smiles. He slides a white piece and presses it into the board decisively. They play quietly, deep in concentration, for some time—until Toru breaks the silence.
“You are of the Owl.” He states matter-of-factly. “I admit I’ve met few of your kind.”
“It’s true. We rarely travel far from the great Shinomen Mori.” Ryojiro says with a smile. There is something in Toru—his presentation, his smile—that he does not trust.
“And why do you travel, Kitsuki-san?”
“A task in the service of my lord.” He says at a delay, pressing his piece into the board. “And why do you travel?”
“I am but a merchant, Kitsuki-san.”
Ryojiro smiles. Their game continues in silence.
Time passes and the hour grows late. Daiyu has distanced herself again so that she might lay out, inspect, and clean the contents of her traveling bag, and Atsuryokunabe has found himself in front of another bowl of noodles, seated near their charge. By now, Shio and Crow are somewhat deep in their cups; Ryoko has exercised more self control. Still, her cheeks are pink, though whether this is due to sake or the ronin’s persistent advances is unclear.
Crow is just comparing the flush in her neck to a carnation’s hue when the distressed Crane from earlier in the evening approaches. Dryer now, and in somewhat better spirits, he wanders near Ryoko, massaging his temple. Crow gives him a glance, slowly righting her posture; her smile to him is polite, but to fully hide her irritation at the interruption is a lost cause. Her head nods in greeting, as do Ryoko and Shio’s.
The Crane’s bow is perhaps less deep than it should be. He tucks a few stray strands of silvery hair behind his ear and speaks, lips pursed in displeasure.
“I must say, I’m not thrilled to share a road with such thugs, are you?” It is unclear whether he refers to Ukiya or Fuguki, but Atsuryokunabe gives him the hairy eyeball all the same, and even Daiyu glances up from her inventory to peer at him. Undeterred by either of these things, the Crane continues.
“I am Kakita Umasu, a specialist in flower arrangement—and you are?” He looks between them all, but his eyes settle on Ryoko, who does not return his gaze. “I imagine we’ll be sharing the road very soon.”
“What makes you think that?” Atsuryokunabe is nothing if not blunt.
Umasu’s eyebrows shoot straight up. He brushes an invisible speck of something from his sleeve.
“You plan to stay here longer than one night, then? It is a positively dreadful place, do you not think?”
Crow watches the Crane closely, doing her best to keep her expression impassive. Her posture remains straight and relatively formal as the conversation progresses, but she smiles when she interjects.
“I hope you can forgive my friend. He is very…forward!” Atsuryokunabe emits a haughty grunt, apparently oblivious or uncaring of the fact that he is, as Crow has put it, being forward. Nevertheless, she continues. “I am called Crow.”
Shio eyes the Crane with appraisal and snaps her mouth shut at Atsu’s jab, eyebrows twitching upwards before leveling again. “If the road is too muddy, perhaps,” she allows. “I am Kitsune Shio.” She bows in her seat, a shallow thing.
Umasu seems pleased at the exchange and offers a bow, a smile spreading across his face as Ryoko finally meets his eyes.She inhales quietly.
“I am Asako Ryoko. It is a pleasure to meet a Crane in these lands, though a bit odd, would you not say?”
“VERY odd, I think,” Atsuryokunabe picks at his teeth, “for the white-feathered fiend to risk muddying his purity.”
Umasu scoffs bombastically, and then gives a long-suffering sigh and looks to Atsu. “Ah, to share the road with you is less a pleasure for me than you, I assure you.”
Shio closes her eyes and swallows a smile. Crow tries not to smirk with moderate success, and Atsuryokunabe stares.
“It never crossed my mind otherwise.” Atsu’s tone is far too quiet and polite for someone his size, but then he digs a speck of something from his teeth and softly puhs it into the empty bowl before him.
Umasu scoffs again, raising his eyebrows at the Crab. He bows slightly at the waist, smiles, and takes his leave of them. Atsuryokunabe scowls at his back.
Ryoko watches as Umasu leaves, her lips thinned into a line. She is beginning to look a bit nervous, and picks at what remains of her rice. After a moment, she looks up at Shio and Crow.
Shio looks as though she wants to pinch the bridge of her nose, barely resisting the urge. She leans a little closer to Ryoko and says in an undertone, “Do you wish to retire, Asako-san? Dawn will come quickly.”
Ryoko looks toward the door, then back to Shio. She gives a slight bow of her head. “I think that would be… wise, yes.”
Crow looks to Shio, then Ryoko. She nods. “I will walk you to our quarters, if you’d like.”
Ryoko stands, bowing at the waist, then pauses. She nods to Crow. “Yes. Would you accompany me?”
Crow nods, slowly pushing to her feet. It’s difficult to contain her grin, but thankfully she has sake to blame. She gives Shio a bow, as does Ryoko, before the pair of them make their way out of the common area. The walk to Ryoko’s room is quiet, and Crow maintains a respectful distance despite her inclinations.
When they arrive at their destination, Crow pauses just outside. She turns to Ryoko, brows knit, and looks down to her. “You seem ill at ease, Asako-san. What troubles you?” She speaks quietly.
Ryoko leans against the wall, looking between Crow and the common room beyond. Few people occupy it as the hour grows late. “I would prefer not to share the road with that man from before,” a small pause, “or that Crane.”
Crow hums thoughtfully, but nods with little hesitation, then bows. “I will tell the others. Do not hesitate to call on me in the night if you have need of anything.”
Ryoko nods, hesitating, and looks between the door and Crow. She seems to consider something for a moment, then offers a slight bow and a smile, before disappearing past the sliding door.
Crow lingers for a few more seconds, then turns and makes her way back to Shio. Settling in next to her, she speaks quietly, near to a whisper. “We should gather the others as soon as we are able in the morning and leave early. Asako-san does not wish to share the road with the Crane—I believe she is concerned about something.”
Shio nods once to Crow and after a suitable casual interval stands, meandering towards the back. Crow sits long enough to savor a cup of tea, eventually retiring to her own quarters.
Shio struggles to rest here, so she takes a turn watching Ryoko’s room when sleep does not find her. It is early yet by the time she shuffles back into the common area. Daiyu too, has suffered a restless night; it is apparent on her face as she enters the common area, her usual deadpan replaced by a scowl. Crow joins them not long after, more well-rested, and joins the dour pair at their table.
The sun is on the cusp of the horizon when Ryoko wakes. She enters the common area wearing a thick traveling shawl—well-prepared for the chill of the morning— and takes a seat next to Crow. Tea and rice porridge is shared by the lot of them save for Daiyu, who only takes the former.
“Was there any trouble in the night” Daiyu asks, fingers wrapped tightly around the cup, sealing in its warmth. Shio smiles, however tired, and shakes her head.
“Thankfully not. All is well, Kuni-san.”
Ryojiro appears once the light of dawn has begun to filter in through the windows, and Atsuryokunabe follows not long after.
“Hm! Hm!” He gestures to the group as he approaches their table, reaching into his knapsack and insistently offering each of them an apple. “For the road! We have much ground to cover today!”
Each of the group takes an apple (with varying degrees of reluctance), though Crow wraps hers in a square of cloth and tucks it deep into her bag. This earns her a pointed scowl from the Hida, but she laughs it off.
Once they have taken the time to eat, Ryoko speaks. “We should head to Toi Koku next, through the Path of Changing Hands,” she suggests quietly. The group agrees and they depart not long after, as quiet and inconspicuous as possible.
Crow is content to lead the way, knowing the roads well enough. She keeps an eye ahead and around them, trusting that someone else will watch the back.
Several merchants are already on the road with two-wheeled carts and sturdy ponies, their wares clanking as they make their way northward.
Among them, far ahead, is Toru.