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Ahead of them, the green landscape is split by the broad, dark course of the Drowned Merchant River. The road ascends a long earthen levee to a huge, imposing wooden bridge, forty feet wide, which crosses the river on a series of thick wooden posts. Near the center of the river, the bridge turns into an arch, vaulting across an eighty-foot span where the water is deepest. As they watch, a kobune ship passes beneath the arch, oars beating steadily as it makes its way upstream.
Atsuryokunabe idly chews a banana. He is, however, alert and refreshed. Must be all the food he eats.
A pair of Lion ashigaru flank both sides, their spears planted into the bridge, while another man, clearly a tax assessor, stands nearby with a Lion badge on his chest.
Atsuryokunabe looks at the ashigaru impassively and tosses his banana peel aside. Crow doesn’t seem thrilled at the presence of the Lion soldiers, and doesn’t afford them a glance, walking with her head mostly down. Shio straightens herself out of her cold stoop at the sight of the bridge, craning to see what’s going on over Atsu and Crow’s too-tall shoulders. Daiyu, once again lost in thought, has taken up the rear. She nearly walks right into Shio when they pause, but manages to stop herself.
Ryoko reaches into her kimono’s sleeve and wordlessly presents their traveling papers to the tax assessor, giving him a slight bow. The three Lions offer deep, respectful bows in return. After exchanging thanks, she moves on and tucks the papers back into her robes. As they cross the bridge, moving out of earshot of the Lions, she takes a deep breath.
“It should not be long now. I thank you for… handling the situation last night.” She glances over her shoulder and between them all. Atsuryokunabe looks confused for a brief spell before realization dawns on him.
“OH! You speak of the Dragonfly?!”
Ryoko flinches at Atsuryokunabe’s volume, but smiles all the same. “Yes.”
“I handled nothing, Asako-san.” Crow’s smile is soft as she glances down to Ryoko.
Shio bows her head. “It was our—duty.” There’s a bit of a pause there, as if she is considering the irony of it.
Ryoko looks to Crow. “You are modest. You did more than enough.”
Atsuryokunabe nods sincerely and gives a solemn mm, mm, as though to spare everyone’s ears from another unrestrained yorokonde. Crow hums to herself thoughtfully.
The road follows the riverside and the air begins to grow thick with humidity. Trails of mist curl up from the damp earth. Soon they are approaching another bridge, but there are no Lion authorities standing guard here. Behind them, the occasional merchants and their carts have become small with distance. The party is alone, and the mist has thickened to a dense, nearly opaque fog that obscures the bridge’s center.
Shio, who has seemed lost in her own world for the last while, is pulled back to the present by the fog. Her steps slow, and then she freezes in place, her hand going to the hilt of her sword automatically. She puts out her other hand to stop the group.
Crow stops, glancing to Shio, and her hand hovers at the hilt of her sword. Atsuryokunabe’s eyes narrow as he slowly removes his knapsack from the end of his tetsubo. Daiyu also reaches for a weapon, drawing her fan and flicking it open. She hovers toward the rear, holding a defensive stance.
“What is it?” Crow keeps her voice low. Shio’s eyes narrow as she peers into the mist, and she is similarly quiet when she responds.
“Magic, I think. I hear someone.”
“Magic?!” Any pretense of stealth is lost when Atsuryokunabe speaks. “Is it not just fog?!”
Ryoko takes a few steps forward, peering into the mist—and then her eyebrows comes together and her eyes suddenly shut. There is a thump as she falls limply backwards, dropping off the bridge and disappearing into the fog.
Crow turns her attention back to the fog just in time to see Ryoko disappear. Eyes wide, she draws her sword and rushes after her, not a moment’s forethought given. The movement disturbs the fog, revealing the curious sight of Tonbo Ukiya grabbing Ryoko and trying his best to fly away with her.
Shio gapes at him incredulously, stunned. The sight is unexpected (and bizarre) enough to throw Crow for a similar loop, slowing her dash with half a stumble. She quickly regains her bearings, throws her sleeve off, and grabs at Ukiya. He has nearly cleared six feet by the time her hand wraps around his ankle; he grunts in protest and almost drops Ryoko in the process.
“This has nothing to do with you, ronin!”
Shio looks as though she wants to bite someone, a series of inhuman, angry rattling sounds emerging from her. She grabs her hair and pulls, as though undoing the knot of an obi, and the skin seems to slide off of her, replaced by dark feathers struck with white. With a violent heave, she explodes upward to grab Ukiya by the neck and pull him over backwards in a sweep of wings.
Ukiya is too surprised to resist, his eyes going wide before the combined weight of Ryoko, Crow, and Shio is too much for his magic. He clatters to the bridge, his cry of pain muffled against the fog. Ryoko tumbles with him, her sleeping body like a rag doll.
Crow’s grip on Ukiya’s ankle falters from the added weight—then the shock of something so far beyond the realm of her comprehension: a bird, a giant bird, a kenku here, now, why—until the pieces fall into place and panicked apprehension becomes immense relief. Atsuryokunabe gawks similarly, but is not one to waste time; as a now-feathered Shio struggles to keep Ukiya pinned, he hefts his tetsubo and lumbers over.
The approach of the massive Crab is a sight that instill true terror in the Dragonfly, his eyes wide as he scrambles backwards. He holds up a hand in a silent plea, but Atsuryokunabe unblinkingly delivers a single, massive blow, void of anything except for focus. Ukiya shudders, and then stills. The fog immediately begins to thin, being drawn back into the water and the air.
A pregnant silence passes. The tetsubo is embedded in the heap of gore that had only just been Ukiya, the kenku and Crab looming over it. Crow and Daiyu stare openly, though it only takes a moment for the ronin to come to her senses and dart to Ryoko’s side. Though she is still asleep, she was not harmed by the fall, and appears untouched save for a speckling of Ukiya’s blood on her cheek; Crow wipes them away and lifts her carefully.
Ukiya’s blood begins to spread slowly across the bridge and runs in rivulets into the dark river below. Atsuryokunabe snaps out of his daze once he seems to realize that his opponent isn’t going to move again, though he seems strangely expectant of the opposite. Apparently satisfied with this, he sniffs, producing a rag and cleaning the gore from his tetsubo. Shio looks flabbergasted at the attack, glancing between the body and Atsuryokunabe and back again.
“Kitsune-san!” Crow’s tone is most certainly one of confusion as she looks to the kenku, but the sound of fast-approaching footfalls draws their attention behind them. The merchants on the road have begun to catch up, Kakita Umasu among them. Wide-eyed and holding his parasol delicately, he gasps and clears the distance to them. Propriety apparently forgotten in his distress, he flutters over Ryoko. At Umasu’s gasp, Shio’s head swivels around to stare at him, her pupils pinning wildly in distress.
“My, is—is Asako-san well? H-how terrible!”
Though his spindly fingers may work deftly, it is not deft enough; in his fussing over Ryoko, there is a shift of silk, the sound of parchment, as he pulls a folded letter from her red kimono and attempts to palm it. Daiyu narrows her eyes and takes a step forward, her fan pointed at the Crane.
“I don’t believe that belongs to you. Shall I be forced to call you a thief?” Daiyu does not curb the accusation in her tone. Umasu gasps in affront.
“You dare question my honor? You misunderstand me!”
Though it takes a moment for Crow to catch on, her bewilderment quickly becomes a pointed glare at Umasu. “Sneaking something off an unconscious woman? I see little to be misunderstood.”
Shio’s feathers rise in agitation, her head swivel becoming a full body swivel to face the Crane. She glares viciously at him, hand on the hilt of her sword. Atsuryokunabe flares his nostrils, trying to look like he wasn’t waiting for this. “IGOKUNA, DOROBO!” He lunges for Umasu.
Kakita Umasu sighs as the situation does not unravel as he had wished. He steps back, reaches into his kimono, and throws down a smoke bomb. Through the clouds of black smog, his silhouette tears himself free of his loose-fitting Crane garment to reveal dark, slimmer attire with no mon.
Umasu is revealed to be a woman, who wastes no time in slipping away from Atsuryokunabe’s grasp. She draws a blowgun from her robes and dives headlong into the river. The Hida wastes no time in pursuing, dropping his tetsubo to the bridge with a thud and leaping into the water after her. Shio spits something unintelligible and takes a running hop into the air behind him, flapping awkwardly to try and gain some speed and altitude. The air is still sodden, impeding her. Crow does not relinquish her grip on Ryoko, but she does follow alongside of the river as best she is able.
While Umasu is fast, Atsuryokunabe is faster. She dives beneath the surface, using her blowgun for air, and moves swiftly down river. When he begins to catch up with her, she abandons the letter in favor of using both hands to swim. It drifts downstream quickly; Daiyu slides to her knees in the mud to catch it as it rushes past.
Atsuryokunabe can be seen thrashing his head around in the water as though he is eating an invisible giant marshmallow. While he keeps pace with her for a while longer, Umasu clears the distance like a fish–quickly enough that her silhouette beneath the water soon disappears.
Shio gives up the chase and drifts back once she sees that the letter has been reclaimed. She lands messily, cursing at the mud, and tiptoes her way back to Crow, who is by now doing her best to wake Ryoko. She stirs soon after, eyebrows coming together. Slowly, her eyelids slide open, and when she sees Shio she cries out. Immediately awake, she seems to recognize the kenku’s garb and bites her lip. “Ukiya—where is—”
Crow feels a tad more awkward now that Ryoko is awake, but sighs with relief all the same. She lowers her down and helps steady her. “All is well, Asako-san. Kuni-san recovered your letter.”
Daiyu approaches Crow and Ryoko, gently shaking water from the letter.
“My letter?” Realization dawns on her. She looks toward the bridge, towards the crushed, blood-splattered remnants of Ukiya, and gags. She’s quick to cover her mouth with the back of her hand. “Who—Why did you—”
Atsuryokunabe resurfaces near to the others, red-eyed and haggard-looking. He’s breathing heavy and soaked, but otherwise alright.
Crow seems to come to a realization after several moments. “Ah…! You were asleep! The Crane from last night, he… She. Slipped a letter from your kimono.”
“No! Not that! You killed him—why did you—” Her voice rises an octave into outrage, but she’s a bit too breathless and shaken to summon up more. She looks down at the grass to calm herself, smoothing her hands over her kimono, and eventually lifts her gaze once she finds her composure. “Where is the Crane?” she asks, holding out her hand to Daiyu for the letter and bowing her head in thanks.
Shio cocks her head to the side, looking at Ryoko from another angle. “The Dragonfly attempted to kidnap you. His death was justly deserved.” She says this matter-of-factly. “The ‘Crane’ escaped.”
Atsuryokunabe places both hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He glances over to Ukiya’s corpse and seems satisfied that it hasn’t moved. When he looks back to Ryoko, he’s grateful for Shio saving him from the effort of speaking and instead nods towards the bird—then double-takes upon realizing she is a bird.
Ryoko shakes her head, a bubble of frustration splitting her otherwise placid features. “You do not understand. He will require a funeral, his daisho and body sent to his family. I was present for his death. This will not—” She takes a deep breath. “This will not end kindly upon my family.”
Atsuryokunabe grunts. “Can anyone recognize him?”
“Please try not to worry, Asako-san.” Crow speaks after a quiet sigh, tempering her aversion to politics and formalities. “You were unconscious—and it was his own dishonorable deeds that brought these consequences to him.”
Ryoko exhales, glancing toward his body. She looks a bit green. After some time, her face softens. “I… Thank you. For keeping me out of his hands.” She looks to Crow, a lingering glance, before she looks to the others and smiles weakly, offering a bow.
“We are the only ones here.” Daiyu interjects. She flicks her fan shut and tucks it away. “Aside from a ninja who has no proof, since she lost the letter.”
Shio has mild disapproval in her voice, as if Ryoko’s lack of confidence hurts her. “He brought shame to his family, not to yours. We will make sure of that.”
Crow nods in agreement. “We’ll report this to the ashigaru at the bridge we passed earlier. We will collect his daisho. They can handle the remains.”
Shio nods to Crow, smoothing her feathers down at last. She folds her wings fussily, taking a moment to finger-comb errant plumage back into place.
Asako Ryoko nod her head, slowly inhaling. “Crow is correct. That would be proper.”
Atsuryokunabe sighs and grimaces, then walks over to collect his belongings… and the corpse.
One of the ashigaru meets them halfway to the bridge, his eyes wide at the horror that has become of Ukiya’s head. He offers a deep bow all the same, lifting the tip of his helmet. He swallows, his eyes darting from side to side. “I will… I will see to it that he is handled properly. Word has reached me of his conduct last night.”
Shio bows to the ashigaru, hoping that her presence is enough to forestall any awkward conversation.
Crow looks lost in thought for a few moments. “The Dragonfly… he attempted to kidnap our charge, Asako Ryoko. His fate was unfortunate, but necessary. We will collect his daisho and return it to his family.”
The man looks at Crow, then nods. He gives a slight bow of his head. “Necessary indeed. I will see to it.”
“Our thanks.” Shio bows. The ashigaru bows deeply in return, and holds out his hands to see to the body. Atsuryokunabe hands it carefully over to him.
Crow sighs, smoothing a hand over her hair before she tucks her arm back into her sleeve. She looks toward the group, then Ryoko. “Is everyone alright?”
Shio levels a look at Crow that reads of deep tiredness, with which Crow nods in agreement.
“Let us hope there’s a good sake house in town.” Her chuckle is strained.
Shio sighs. “There’d better be.”
Atsuryokunabe considers this with a frown… but his frown eventually relents, and he nods in agreement.
The remainder of their journey passes without incident. The weather proves fair, and though Ryoko is sobered from Ukiya’s death, her mood lightens with each passing day. Upon reaching Pale Oak Castle in the Aoijiroi province and seeing to their charge’s safety, each samurai settles in or around the city to recuperate from the long journey. Only a handful of days pass before a courier finds each of them with a letter bearing the Asako seal.
I thank you again for your services of varying sorts. In investigating our assailant, I have found a lead. Please convene at The Smiling Bowl at midday. We have much to discuss.