Our Zuihitsu posts are supplementary stories to offer a glimpse at deeper character development and insight. They are either purely narrative roleplay handled outside of session time or short stories written by the players or DM.
This Zuihitsu originated as an off-session narrative roleplay between Crow and Shio. It takes place immediately after the party has successfully escorted Asako Ryoko to Pale Oak Castle and before they have received her letter.
The next day is quiet and the air is wet, but thankfully the sun cuts through the morning chill with relative ease. By noon, Crow has found herself at the nicer of Oiku’s three modest sake houses, grateful for the opportunity to remove her muddy boots. The interior is small and just as quiet as the town outside; most importantly, it’s warm. She settles at a small table far from the entrance and lays her morin khuur across the table before her, nursing a warm clay cup of sake while she wipes mud and scuffs off the carved wooden head of the fiddle.
Shio always welcomes morning, and this dawn is no exception. Darkness requires stillness, solitude, thinking, and she’s had enough of that in the past few days to last her. Morning is dedicated to reconstructing her human seeming—even after centuries of it, Shio has no patience for stares and scraping over her beak and talons—and as noon nears, she emerges a woman ready to drink.
When she sees Crow seated with her strange instrument, Shio decides she’s chosen the right place. Before the hostess can put her elsewhere, she approaches Crow’s table and stops at a respectful distance, bowing her head in greeting.
“I hope I am not intruding,” she says with a smile. “Might I join you? I am fascinated by your—” she pauses, trying to remember the name of the thing. “Your instrument,” she finishes, a little lamely, cocking her head. “It is beautiful.”
Absorbed in her work, Crow barely notices the approach until there’s a voice. Even then, there’s a lack of recognition on her face. Shio’s name pops into her mind a moment later, and then she smiles.
“Ah, no intrusion. Forgive me. I’d nearly forgotten what you looked like without… feathers.”
Immediate sheepishness. Crow knows very little about kenku; only that they are very ancient and wise, and fancying herself neither of these things, it’s easy to feel foolish in the presence of one. But she swallows those inclinations for now and lifts the fiddle by its body and neck, placing it gingerly at the table’s surface just across from her.
“It’s called a morin khuur. One of the only things I have left of the Ki-Rin.” She gestures for Shio to sit, then rests her hands against her thighs.
Shio is far beyond awkwardness about such things, and gives an almost flippant gesture in reply, her smile broadening with amusement. “There is no need to apologize,” she replies, settling herself. “If anything, I am at fault, for giving you such a shock. It was an unexpected situation.” Her eyes narrow as she runs over the events again, the Dragonfly, the masquerading woman.
After a moment she shakes herself slightly, folding her hands in her lap and tilting her head to look at the morin khuur. “Aha, Ki-Rin! That explains—Well.” She gestures to the horse head of the instrument, an eyebrow raised and mouth quirked in self-deprecation. “That. I cannot even imagine the sound! Is it much like shamisen?”
Shio moves strangely, not unlike a bird, but it is only unsettling for a moment. A shared interest in the form of music (and a lack of revulsion at her former clan) eases her nerves enough to smile with more sincerity.
“No, no, nothing like a shamisen. Here.” She reaches beneath the table and produces a bow made from wood just a shade darker than the instrument itself. It’s strung tightly with yellow horse hair. “More like the kokyu—but deeper. Allow me to play for you some time.”
Crow looks delighted by the prospect. She seems to catch herself after a moment, willing her expression back into something more like pleased neutrality. Shio looks equally delighted, but when Crow restrains her own expression she tries for intrigued tranquility. Her success is debatable to onlookers; the pinning of her pupils on the bow as Crow retrieves it verges on unsettling.
“I would be delighted to hear you play,” she says, then clears her throat. “Forgive my enthusiasm—I have always wished to learn more from the Ki-Rin, but it is rare that I find the opportunity to.”
“I am Ki-Rin no longer.” Crow’s admittance of this sobers her somewhat. Somewhat. “But I carry with me what little of it I can.”
Sensing a delicate subject, Shio shakes her head. She leans back again, breathing a short ha. “I can sing,” she admits wryly. “But I must allow that I am untrained, and out of practice.”
“All the more reason to practice! Perhaps we can play together.”
When it seems that Shio is satisfied, Crow carefully pulls the morin khuur back towards herself and resumes her cleaning, though her attention is clearly divided between the task and the conversation.
It would be incredibly rude to ask outright why Crow is ronin, but that doesn’t keep Shio from wondering. A failure of duty? An insult to her daimyo? Shio’s eyes narrow slightly, thinking on Ryoko. An ill-chosen lover…?
“I would be pleased to,” she replies, watching Crow clean with interest. “I have not made music with another in many years.” She looks down at her hands briefly, frowning as if her fingers offend her. “Far too many, if I am to be honest.”
Her words and her expression puzzle Crow, slowing her hand until she sets the cloth aside. At least for as long as it takes to sip her sake, then use the cup to warm her hands. Shio doesn’t look all that old.
“I understand your people are long-lived.” This is nearly the extent of her kenku knowledge. “Even without practice, I’m sure your skill exceeds mine. I’ve only had twenty-some springs to learn.” She had stopped counting after seventeen, but it had been a generous handful by now.
Shio meets Crow’s look with raised eyebrows for a moment before politely transferring her gaze back to the morin khuur. Long-lived—well, yes. Shio hasn’t really kept track herself. After 50 one just stops really caring.
“You flatter me,” she says dryly. “Having more years under my belt does not mean I won’t croak—the opposite, actually.” She pauses and tries to offset it with a quick wink at Crow, mischievous. “But it will be lovely to perform with you. I am quite thrilled!”
Crow laughs again, more quiet this times; it seems impolite to draw too much humor from such a thing. She clears her throat and continues on.
“What is your next destination?”
Shio pauses, considering. “I hadn’t intended to come this far north,” she begins. “But I suppose I may head to the coast, once Asako-san is safe. The spring storms are fierce, but beautiful.”
It’s tempting for Crow to make a joke about croaking and the Ki-Rin’s particular brand of singing, but she has little interest in allowing the subject to linger on herself. Instead she smiles and nods once in acknowledgment, maybe appreciation, then finishes cleaning the fiddle and tucks it away beneath the table. Once it’s out of sight (along with the bow), she rolls her shoulders before taking a sip of her sake.
“South, I think.” That desire to return to the Kitsune Mori has been nibbling away at the back of her mind as it has for the past five years. She pauses, lost in thought for a moment, before her attention drifts back to Shio and she laughs. “But now that you mention it, the coast is tempting. The storms over the sea remind me of the plains.”
She manages, for once, to catch herself before she calls it home.
“Though the Crane and I don’t always get along… Their lands are lovely.”
Shio gives a wistful sigh, leaning back from the table. She had been on her way back to Kitsune lands when the elder Asako had hired her—the shrine of Duty had seemed a good place to pause, to mull on the subtle differences of want and should.
That difference still itches at her a little, difficult to card through. Her nose wrinkles in a quick smile at Crow’s laughter, pleased to hear it. “Like the canopy in a gale,” she agrees. “It is… A breath of the familiar.” She closes her eyes briefly, before allowing herself a dry chuckle.
“The Crane are always the same old song and dance,” she says with a flap of her hand. “Make yourself seem dull enough and they’ll leave you be. Unless they turn out to be shinobi, of course.” She sighs again, lamenting. “Real Cranes do have fine taste, I will admit. I’ve never had finer wagashi than Crane-made.”
Just the mention of wagashi makes Crow’s mouth water. In Ki-Rin lands, it was a rare luxury; rarer still for a ronin. All the same, it prolongs her smile.
“Oh, it’s been so long since I had a good rice cake. I’ve never been fortunate enough to try one of the Crane’s…” Crow lifts a hand to catch a servant girl’s attention, exchanging a wink for a fresh bottle of warm sake before her thoughts drift back to food. She grins at Shio with a renewed vigor.
“When last I was in Musume Mura, there were carts selling the most delicious thing. It was called okonomiyaki—have you heard of it?” She pauses a beat, but only a beat, too consumed by excitement to wait for a response. “It’s a type of fried cake filled with cabbage, squid, gull eggs, sauce, and then—I asked the hinin how they do it—there’s a particular fish they catch, gut, and smoke it until it’s solid—like wood. Then they shave flakes from it on top of the cake!”
It isn’t until after she’s finished that she realizes she’s downed half a cup of sake (again) and her breathing is just heavy enough to be noticed. Overexcited. Unbecoming. Crow tempers it with a clearing of her throat and another drink, but even beneath all that sheepishness, she can’t help but smile.
Crow’s enthusiasm draws an almost unbecomingly wide smile from Shio, and she doesn’t feel like correcting herself. As the ronin talks, she also orders herself some sake, letting the warmth of it sink through her hands before she sips.
“Okonomiyaki?” she repeats, curious. She tries to envision it and ends up with an image of a dumpling full of All Good Things, and her eyes narrow in anticipation. “I will have to try one,” she says decisively, tapping a fingertip on the table with determination. “All the more reason to venture to the coast!” Shio bobs her head without seeming to notice the slip, then turns her head to the other side to eye Crow intently from another angle.
“I must encourage you to see about having some Crane yomogi daifuku, if you have not,” she says. “And taiyaki! I know the best places in Yufuga na Heigan Toshi, if you ever venture there.” She stops herself short of offering to go with Crow, some measure of propriety rearing its head and scolding her before she can go too far.
“Perhaps I will see you there!” Crow’s own sense of propriety is fast escaping, though some lasting degree of social cognisance prevents her from lingering on the thought too long.
“Taiyaki…” Holding her sake with one hand, Crow rubs at her chin with the other, brow knit in thought for some moments—and then it dawns on her and her face lights up. “Ah, I remember those! The cakes filled with red bean, yes?”
“Yes! Shaped like fish.” Shio sketches a vague fish-like shape in the air above her cup. “Usually with red bean, but I have had them with sweet potato, too.” She closes her eyes and lets her head fall back a little, daydreaming of cake. “This was not the best choice of topic, was it?” she asks, a tinge of melancholy in her voice.
Crow chuckles at Shio’s lament, shaking her head in agreement before she runs a hand through her hair.
“No, not at all. Another fortnight of pickles will make the seafood taste all the better though, hm? But your taiyaki…I remember having those just after passing through the Kitsune Mori some years ago. I fed half to the foxes, since they seemed so hungry. I should like to go back and try a whole one… if you’re so inclined to share your recommendations.”
At the mention of Kitsune Mori, Shio pauses in raising her cup for another sip of sake. The foxes seemed so hungry, did they? Her mouth twitches upwards, fighting against another smile. She hides it behind the cup in her hands, pressing the warm ceramic against her lips to still them.
“They are always hungry,” she says, laughter in her voice as she puts the cup back down. “Even after a banquet, they are at your heels asking for more. But they don’t get taiyaki often; it was very kind of you to treat them!”
The serving girl brings them a fresh bottle of sake and, following another shameless wink, Crow gives her a shallow bow in her seat. She then invites herself to fill Shio’s cup, followed by her own once more.
“You speak as though you have experience.” Crow’s head is buzzing by now, but she drinks anyway. It will be at least three more cups before she’s really drunk, anyway. “Have you spent much time there?” It’s hard not to be distracted by the memories, but the sake helps.
Shio accepts the fresh sake with a nod of thanks, settling back to enjoy the pleasant drift of her thoughts, softened by alcohol. She is warm and in good company. Things couldn’t be much better, as it stands.
“Quite some time. It is my home. My—family.” She straightens up, smoothing the cloth of her mon self-consciously. She still doesn’t quite know how to feel about it. “As close as I may call anything, that is. I have not found anywhere else so beautiful and comforting.”
She sighs, taking another sip of her drink. “Any time I am away, I miss the sound of wind through trees, and I dream of kitsune oden.”
It’s nearly too much for Crow to take in. The initial urge is to ask, but that is too forward—even for her. Instead she dulls the edge of her excitement with a drink from her cup.
“A k—” She catches herself before even the first syllable is fully formed, lowering her voice enough to keep the conversation somewhat more private than perhaps it has been, “A kenku from the Kitsune Mori…” Even though she says it out loud, it’s apparently mostly to herself. Her gaze drifts to the middle distance as she ponders it, and then she beams and smacks her thigh as her words stir up a memory.
“I remember the oden! It must have been a month that I lived off it. I just couldn’t pull myself away. Who would have thought to fry tofu? The foxes certainly seemed to like it. It’s no wonder that it was named so.”
Crow is delighted in every way that it’s possible to be delighted; she doesn’t have many fond memories to pull from, and this is among the few. It is so rare that she has an outlet for it.
Shio leans forward in time with Crow’s enthusiasm, body drooping and head tilting in an intrigued hunker. “You have had it!” she exclaims, then hushes herself, pulling back again before she falls onto the tabletop. If a woman could self-consciously rouse feathers, she would; she gives a full-body shudder as if trying to extrude embarrassment from her pores.
“It is absolutely the best oden in all Rokugan,” she says, with a hint of pride. “No one else’s has ever come close. The perfection of the stock, the contrasting textures of radish and fried tofu…” She closes her eyes, taking a deep breath through her nose. “I was taught the recipe,” she says very quietly, half-opening her eyes to give Crow a hooded, conspiratorial stare. “It is not the same, in my hands, but a quite decent substitute, if you ever wish to join me.”
“I would be happy to join you!” As if on cue, Crow’s stomach growls. “I’ve been on the road for so long, I fear I’ve forgotten the taste of anything that isn’t pickled or cured.” She leans forward as she says it, still relatively conscious of her volume, but apparently very interested. “Tell me about your family!”
She blinks, startled at the question. “The Kitsune took care of me,” she says after a moment’s consideration. “When I was injured. It was a dark time, and their kindness saw my recovery. The Rokugani and the foxes,” she adds with a quick smile. “A foxwife took me into her household and saw me settled. I even worked with her—she taught me that recipe!” She peers at Crow curiously, unable to contain herself any longer.
Shio’s peculiar mannerisms catch Crow off guard again, drawing her brow and tilting her head just slightly—at least for the half second where she wonders if she’s alright. Then she remembers, and Crow can’t help but laugh at her own forgetfulness. It’s been so long since she’s felt anything like kinship with someone else, it’s almost too difficult to focus on any one thing.
And then there is talk of kitsune, of foxwives, and Crow’s attention is newly honed, leaned forward in an attentive posture with her brows knit, then high on her forehead. A look nothing short of child-like wonder, somewhat out of place on the long, gaunt face of a seasoned ronin.
“A foxwife!” She’s never heard the term outside of fables, and it only takes some moments for doubt to settle in. Surely Shio is teasing her. Or tricking. But then her mind wanders to the woods, to her… and she allows herself to feel something again, at least for now. Her smile is wide.
“Truly, she was kitsune?” Her voice is just above a whisper and her hands grip the edge of the table as she leans. “I thought it was an act! To sell more oden to travellers”
Shio gives Crow a sidelong smile in response, very much a cat with cream. Or, well, a bird with breadcrumbs. Something between the two, sly and pleased and tipsy. She takes a long drink before setting the cup down again and steepling her fingers on the tabletop. “Well, yes,” she says, as if it’s obvious. “Of course, that’s a huge draw. It only helps if it turns out to be true, doesn’t it?”
She gestures to herself, as if she’s living proof of, well. Everything. Which she is, isn’t she? People are always so shocked—which is entirely why she sticks to clothes rather than feathers. It’s less exhausting than having to explain and dodge requests of young samurai to teach them ancient kenku arts. At least Crow is smiling, and Shio so far hasn’t felt anything but goodwill towards the ronin.
“I forget sometimes that not everyone is as familiar with kitsune as the Fox Clan are,” she says, a little apologetically, her own voice gone hushed as well. “I’m sure Hasako will be delighted to hear she tricked you.”
Crow laughs. Though quiet, it’s full and unhindered by self consciousness, her cheeks and the bridge of her long nose well-reddened by sake now.
“I am glad to have been tricked by her, and you can tell her as much.” She glances toward the door to approximate the time and the room swims a bit; perhaps it’s time to stop drinking for now, but the hour isn’t terribly late. Her gaze averts again, down to her lap this time, as she idly thumbs the threadbare cuff of her sleeve.
“I will be sure to inform her,” Shio says, full of warmth and fondness. She’s a little lightheaded, and that undoubtedly is painting everything Crow says brighter and better. Knowing that doesn’t bother her in the slightest.
“I am not certain I’d call tricking me much of an accomplishment, though. Perhaps that’s why the foxes took a liking to me?” Crow grins, eyes squinting from the force of it, and she pushes those memories away. For now. Perhaps later, when she’s not nearly drunk.
Shio laughs. “Perhaps! I’m sure she will remember you, if you were in the area for so long, and would be pleased to know you better.”
“Selfishly, I should like to be better acquainted with them. I knew nothing but hospitality in those woods. It was a sight more enjoyable than my travels anywhere else. Perhaps you might introduce us some time.”
Looking at Crow, Shio sure Hasako would be more than pleased to formally make her acquaintance. This also does not bother her; she gives a soft chortle into her cup. “They do like those they can trick,” she agrees, setting down the cup a little clumsily. “But they’ll also fall in love with anyone who feeds them and calls them pretty and scratches their chins just so,” she taps her own chin with a fingertip in demonstration, smiling.
Crow laughs and clasps her hands together given the instruction on how to woo a kitsune, then mimics the chin-scratch on herself and raises her eyebrows as if seeking approval from the sensei. By now, she is somewhere between amused and flustered at the thought; many of her memories of this apparent Hasako pertain to her prettiness. What begins as a stupid, red-faced grin soon drifts into something more somber, though.
“Tell me…” she begins, clearing her throat, “…is there still a problem with poachers in the forest?”
At the mention of poachers, Shio’s face stills to seriousness again. She slides her cup between her fingers in sudden agitation.
“They are always a problem,” she says. Her eyes flicker to Crow’s and then away again, finding some point on the far wall. “Some years are worse than others.”
Crow’s somber expression takes a sharp turn towards a scowl. “I encountered a band of them before my last departure. How someone could stoop to such a vile thing…” For a moment it sounds as if she might continue, but the words escape her. A shake of her head, a frustrated sigh as the tension in her face gives way.
Shio looks at her sidelong, her face still and thoughtful, her eyes narrowed. She thinks about skinned kitsune, about—no. She hopes for dead poachers.
“Desperation does strange things to men,” she says after a moment. Her voice is a little metallic and strange. “Though that gives most too much credit.”
Shio forces her hands into stillness again, fingers steepled against her cup. “I am glad to see the encounter ended well for you.” She doesn’t add ‘but not for them’, her lips pressing together into a thin line. “It gives me hope…”
She struggles for a moment, for the right words, and then gives up with a heavy sigh.
“Well,” Crow allows herself a chuckle, “It certainly ended better for me than it did for them.”
She pauses long enough to shake her head, to sigh. “I apologize. Not the most polite of topics. Nor a pleasant one.” A smile comes easier now. “You must take me to meet your Hasako, then! I would be glad to be tricked by all the foxes in Kitsune Mori ten times over if it meant another night of her delicious oden. And the hot springs!”
At Crow’s apology Shio bows her head in acceptance, and then clears her throat.
“Sometimes we must speak of unpleasant things,” she says, forcing her mouth to relax into a smile again. “The world is full of them, after all.” She raises her glass in a half-jaunty toast. “To the good things. Kitsune oden,” she clarifies, eyes searching upwards. “And hot springs.”
Crow watches Shio speak with interest. Her choice of words, the way in which she moves and reacts, they’re all distinctly different from what she’d expect. In her mind, kenku have always been withdrawn, stoic, unknowable… but Shio is decidedly human, and that she cares at all for the fate of foxes and poachers warms her heart.
Not as much as a toast, though. She tops off her sake and lifts her cup in kind.
“To kitsune oden and hot springs!”
Crow’s grin widens into a smile, then a laugh, before she tilts back the contents of her cup and finishes it off in one messy gulp. Another laugh as she wipes a few spilled drops from the collar of her kimono.
“And perhaps we can dispatch a few more poachers on our journey to visit Hasako.”
“If any dare show their faces!” she laughs, then shakes her head a little to try and clear it. “I’ve yet to see you fight, but with that reach—” she gestures to Crow’s arms uncoordinatedly. A deep satisfaction warms Shio’s core at her words—good. Good. She gives her a pleased smile and settles down into herself a little more comfortably again. There will always be more poachers, of course, but knowing Crow took care of at least a few is reassuring.
Shio can’t help but grin back and drink in tandem with Crow, stifling a “hoo” with her hand as she finishes. She hopes the trees are finding their bodies filling. She hopes kitsune children play with the bones.
Crow’s face burns in her drunkenness, as does her chest, but it’s been so long since she’s been happy-drunk she can’t complain. Or maybe that’s the sake talking. Either way, perhaps it’s best to take it easy for now.
“I fight well enough to survive. That is all that I can say for myself.” Truthfully, wielding a sword has been one of the only things she’s excelled at in her life, but to accept such a compliment in the presence of what she could only assume was a master swordsman would no doubt go far beyond humiliation.
“But if you wish to see, I would be honored to spar with you some time, Kitsune-sama.”
She bows in her seat, smile fading just a bit—lest she seem too informal.
The honorific makes Shio wince little, shake her head. “I admire your modesty,” she says, trying to remember that—right, Crow knows. Right. She doesn’t have to play human quite so much. Not… that she has been. She hopes, a little vaguely, that her eyes haven’t been pinning. That’s always a conversation-killer.
“It is I who would be honored. Swordplay is my greatest passion.” Shio bows back, holding it probably a little too long as her head spins. She has to clasp the tabletop to pull herself back up instead of just letting herself sink down against it. It’s clearly a struggle.
“Perhaps we can teach one another some tricks along the way,” she continues once she’s sure she’s not going to fall over. “To Kitsune Mori,” she adds quickly. “If that is pleasing to you.”
Crow bows again, less prolonged this time, and smiling brightly when she straightens.
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure!”
She’s already drunk, but she pours herself another cup. This is the final one, she tells herself. Actually the final one this time. She tosses it back in one gulp, then returns it to the table with slightly more force than is polite. Thankfully, her head is spinning too much for her to care.
“I suppose I should see to my things, then. It has truly been an honor to share a drink with you.” The act of getting up promises to be a rough one, so she takes it slow.
Shio is hard pressed not to beam at Crow—whether she’s succeeding in not is highly debatable and probably best not discussed. She claps her hands together and bows her head to her in agreement, then regrets it, popping back up and trying not to sway. She sees Crow take another shot and peers at her own cup, then remembers that she finished it. Regret.
Crow’s admirable efforts at standing inspire her to try and do the same, and with surprisingly minimal struggle, Shio manages it. She stands still for a moment, eyes focused on the far wall, before she’s sure she isn’t going to fall or possibly vomit—no, don’t think about it, that makes it worse—and returns Crow’s smile.
“I could not have wished for a better drinking companion,” she agrees. “Thank you for allowing me to join you, Crow-san.” What time is it? Where is she staying again? She’ll figure it out, maybe. Food… would probably be a good idea, but she doesn’t fancy her chances of keeping it down for long.
“It will be—very good to travel with you,” she finishes. Yes. She roots around in her kimono for her purse, finds it, and then begins the long process of fumbling out the right coins for her tab. The serving girl doesn’t seem bothered by her complete lack of coordination—at least, that’s what Shio hopes as she thanks her (probably too profusely) and stumbles for the door.
Crow watches Shio leave, set to follow suit, when the serving girl catches her eye again. It’s difficult to gauge her interest when she is this inebriated, but her hair is dark, her hips swell pleasantly, and her green eyes meet her own dark ones shamelessly. Quickly enough, that is all that she cares to see.
Her things can wait. She will pack them in the morning.