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The Smiling Bowl is little more than a stall, barely sheltered from a spring downpour. The man who owns the noodle shop is vigorously busy behind the counter: boiling noodles and broth, chopping ingredients, and passing out bowls to a gaggle of customers. The sides of the bowls are painted with broad, smiling mouths. Overhead, a wooden sign carved and painted to resemble a similar bowl creaks in the wind.
The steady rain churns the surface of the muddy road, drumming on the roof of the shop.
The samurai arrive in a steady trickle, loosely congregating with one another. Soon enough, Atsuryokunabe and Crow are attacking deep bowls of udon, while Shio pecks at hers and Daiyu sits, mystifyingly, before an empty bowl; her attention is elsewhere. Ryojiro seems more interested in studying the other patrons, but he does eventually settle into his owl bowl of hot soup.
Three other patrons share the bench with them: a Lion man and a pair of surly ronin. The Lion is a slightly plump man, but otherwise in excellent condition, and wears his hair undyed and black in a traditional topknot. He’s friendly and cheerful, trading a few jokes with the ronin near him (much to their displeasure) and anyone who will listen. When his noodles are slid onto the table, he eats with enthusiasm—nearly as much as Atsu, and raises his bowl in friendly recognition at him.
“Ah, nothing like a good bowl of noodles on a rainy day, eh?”
Atsu hesitates before throwing another chopstick-hoisted load of udon into his mouth, his eyes going red around the rims at being interrupted. He all but exhales steam through his nose, then calms himself just as quickly. “HAH! There is no bad time for noodles!”
A pony trots up the street flanked by two others—clearly guards or handlers. The center rider is a woman garbed in gold and red: Asako Ryoko, looking a little worse for the wear in the rain. Mud splatters at her pony’s hooves. She dismounts and leaves it to one of the guards. A fair amount of the noodle shop’s crowd parts at the sight of a Phoenix—let alone a courtier. The ronin are quick to leave, and Daiyu’s eyes track them out into the rain with suspicion.
Ryoko offers a bow to the samurai as she enters, her eye contact brief and cool—but certainly briefest to Crow.
“I thank you for coming, though I do regret the weather.”
Crow manages to flash Ryoko a toothy smirk before she stands to greet her, but it is quickly dashed by denied eye contact.
Shio turns in her seat at Ryoko’s entrance, quickly slurping noodles into her mouth. She puts her bowl down to stand, trying to avoid getting rained on in the process. Ryojiro places his hashi on his bowl, rising as well.
“OH, ASAKO-DONO!” Atsu’s mouth is still full as he notices Ryoko, but he quickly rectifies the impropriety with a big swallow and wipe of his mouth. “So good to see you again so soon!”
Ryoko bows to the Lion bushi, who returns the gesture, and then gives Atsu a smile. “Akodo-sama. Hida-san. I see you are enjoying yourselves—please, sit down.” She does not sit herself. “I trust you received my letters?” She looks from the Akodo to the others.
Atsu nods gravely, though his sincerity doesn’t warrant a pause in his eating. Daiyu is a bit slow in her response, still busy following the departure of the ronin, but offers Ryoko a small, distracted smile.
Crow nods. “It was good to hear from you again so soon. I hope all is well…?”
Shio glances at the Lion, curious, before returning to her seat. “A pleasure, as always,” she murmurs.
Ryoko shifts slightly, lifting the hem of her robe from the mud. “Ah, I thought I may be able to call upon your skills once more. You would be assisting the honorable Akodo Torokai.” She indicates to the Lion. “There is word of… issues at North Hub Village. Some related to the woman you became acquainted with on the bridge. The shinobi.”
Atsu’s face visibly darkens at the mention of this acquaintance, made more apparent by the fact that his eating slows. He chomps angrily. Shio nods, unsurprised, and takes up her chopsticks once more. She taps at the side of her bowl in thought.
Crow’s face falls just enough to be noticed. “I am happy to help, as always. I take it you will not… be accompanying us?”
Ryoko tries to avoid Crow’s eyes, but cannot keep herself from a darting glance. “I am afraid it is not my place to accompany.”
Crow’s sigh is very quiet as she lowers her head in something like a bow.
Torokai grunts and leans back, sliding his swords back under his obi and hastily scooping up the last of his noodles into his mouth. He looks at the samurai with an appraising expression, his bushy eyebrows up, and smiles. He gathers his things and brushes off his chest. “Are you able to assist an Emerald Magistrate?”
A brief silence follows, a delayed shock, as the samurai slowly look up from their things and realization sinks in. There is the loud sound of the wood bench scraping the floor as, in perfect synchronization, they stand abruptly and offer their deepest, most formal bows. Torokai guffaws.
Atsu inhales sharply when he straightens some moments later. After a moment, he juts his lower lip out and gives a nod of consent. “I shall do this. For a fellow admirer of udon!”
Shio smiles as she stands upright, her eyebrows raised. “Of course! I would be pleased to meet our ‘friend’ again and straighten things out.” She seems amused by the situation, a hint of irony in her voice.
Daiyu bows her head towards the Lion in assent. Despite the show of respect, Ryojiro’s eyes narrow in thought. Ryoko looks at him, her arms folded behind her back.
“You seem hesitant, Kitsuki-san.”
Ryojiro shakes his head, being familiar with North Hub Village and some of its… issues. “Not hesitant, I am sorry. I am thinking of what we may encounter and what our appropriate response should be.”
Ryoko smiles, very slightly. “Ah, it is… difficult to say, to be sure. It is certainly a very different place.”
Atsu inhales sharply again. For a moment, he almost seems to realizes the gravity of the task they are about to undertake. However, upon pounding his chest, he concludes it is only indigestion and calls for some tea. Shio covers her mouth with a hand, trying not to laugh.
Crow seems to note the cloud of general pessimism settling in, so she forces a polite smile. “I’m certain that we are equal to the task. We worked well together before, did we not?”
Torokai folds his arms across his barrel chest, nodding to them. “Hm, you seem capable, to be sure, yes.” Crow gives Torokai a winning smile and inclines her head.
Ryoko carefully surveys them, her posture straight and her chin lifted. “If you are to agree, Akodo-sama will surely supply you with horses in this unfortunate weather.”
Atsu turns into teeth with limbs. “OH! HOW GENEROUS!” Crow seems likewise excited by the prospect.
Shio’s head draws back a little at the mention of horses, but she continues smiling—though it seems strained. “That is very kind of you.”
Ryoko smiles, though her eye contact drops sharply before it can make its way to Crow. She bows. “I thank you again for your assistance. It will not be forgotten.”
This lack of eye contact, again, does not go unnoticed by Crow. She swallows a frown and forces her attention towards Torokai.
“I will be spending the evening at the Lone Blossom if you require me. You will be in good hands with Akodo-sama.” Ryoko bows to them—giving Crow her own separate, very slight incline of her head—and leaves the noodle shop.
Once Ryoko has departed, Torokai turns to the samurai. “Well then!” He claps his hands together. He’s had a little bit of sake to redden his face, but not enough to make him stumble. “I hate to rush you, of course, but the phrase great importance in Lord Otomo’s letter does leave me uneasy. We will depart at dawn for the ride south.”
Shio looks a little forlorn at Ryoko’s departure, but quickly turns her attention back to Torokai. “It is no trouble,” she assures him. “I will be ready as well.” She then turns her attention back to her noodles, certain he won’t mind her finishing at this point.
“Ohhh! At dawn? Well, that leaves more time for feasting!” Atsu beams at the opportunity and orders round two. Ryojiro continues to pull his noodles from his bowl slowly, lost in thought.
Crow nods, her mood having taken a turn for the dour following Ryoko’s snubbing. “I will gather my things and see you all at dawn.” She leaves little time for farewells, turning on her heel and departing the stall.
Torokai beams and nods. “I will await you at the stables at dawn! Enjoy your meals.” He takes his leave into the downpour.
Daiyu looks over her shoulder at all her worldly possessions: the small bag resting on the floor up against her seat. Her expression remains unchanged. She quickly gathers her things up, bows to the group, and then plunges into the rain.
Much later, Crow heads to the Lone Blossom. She leaves a damp flower and a scroll before Ryoko’s door, but does not wait to see if she receives them. Daiyu catches sight of this drive-by, eyebrows rising in curiosity; she doesn’t ask.
The spring rain has only grown heavier when morning comes; no sunlight is visible through the sooty blanket of clouds, and the air is cold enough to draw plumes from the samurai’s breath. Torokai is already at the stables when they arrive, tightening the girth of his pony’s saddle. He is a bit too awake and excited for early morning, let alone such a dismally wet one, and is dressed in an oiled traveling cloak. He booms a cheery greeting as the group arrives.
Crow is first among them, arriving not long after Torokai. She is full of vigor and excitement at the sight of horses. She greets and acquaints herself with every single pony there, feeding them each a slice of an apple. For her own pony, she has saved an entire apple, and after he has finished it, she hops on with ease.
The rest of the samurai are more hesitant of their ponies, obviously unused to horses and unpracticed at riding. Atsu mimics Torokai, but seems doubtful that his steed will be able to carry him to their destination, while Ryojiro spends his time prying riding tips from the stablehands. Daiyu accepts her reins stoically, as if girding herself for a great and terrible battle, while Shio does her best to stay out of biting range.
Their ride is a swift and uncomfortable journey through chilly spring rain, lasting all morning and afternoon. The terrain, at least, never changes from the gently rolling plains of the Lion lands. The mud is slick and offers some challenging moments, but the Rokugani ponies are sturdy and experienced, even if some of their riders are not.
Crow is beaming for the entire journey despite the rain and stumbles, and is quick to offer help to anyone who struggles. She dispenses useless trivia about horses a few times throughout the ride. The others are less enthused. Atsu is coated in mud from the waist down and grim-faced, though it’s hard to tell if his expression is from the journey or just because he feels imperious riding on a horse for once. Daiyu is also covered in mud, though it doesn’t seem to change the look of her, dark and dour-faced as she is. Shio’s teeth are clenched the whole time.
The rain finally ends as evening approaches, and the western sky is tinged with the orange and purple of sunset as they approach North Hub Village.