North Hub Village is a large and prosperous town, and the streets are crowded as the samurai ride through the gates. Sake and teahouses, inns, and other businesses are lighting lanterns for the evening customers, and they pass a couple of well-lit streets where geisha wave from upstairs windows.
Akodo Torokai ignores such sights, asking for directions a couple of times as he seeks the residence of Otomo Sojin. Crow, however, only has eyes for the geisha, winking and grinning and being generally insufferable as they pass by. Atsu tries to look natural and relaxed as they ride through the streets. He only partially succeeds, as the veins in his forehead stand out to betray his tension.
Soon, they turn into a residential area. The street is lined with the walled compounds of private homes, though whether these are the residences of samurai or wealthy merchants is impossible to tell.
Torokai begins to count houses, but before he finds their destination another mounted man approaches from up the street. He wears a heavy cloak and pale, near-featureless mempo whose blank white surface covers his nose and upper face, save for small eye holes and a thin opening for his mouth.
Ryojiro bristles. Crow seems wary, keeping her horse at a healthy distance and occasionally glancing around the area for anything suspicious. Daiyu’s eyes track his movements, the only sign of life from her. Atsu frowns to himself, glaring at the obscuring mempo; maybe he’s just ugly? Shio sits up straighter in the saddle, giving the masked man a squinty-eyed look through the dimming light that could be suspicion or just her terrible night-vision.
“Ah, Akodo-sama. I am sorry to be so late,” the Scorpion says in a clear voice. “This is the wrong street. The merchant we seek resides on the Street of Inverted Fate.”
Torokai starts to protest, but before he can say anything, the man has ridden close enough to speak in a low voice: “No questions, please, if we are to help Otomo Sojin. Follow me.”
Torokai hesitates, passing a glance over his shoulder at the riders behind him, and grunts. He seems to decide it’s best to learn what’s happening, and falls in beside the Scorpion. “Of course, my friend,” he says loudly, and nods for the rest to follow.
Water drips off of awnings and the edges of food carts, soaking the mud showing through the smooth brick road. The Scorpion leads them off the street, and Torokai follows, speaking in a normal tone of voice once free of crowds. “Please say nothing, and follow my lead.” He goes silent and leads on. The samurai follow, tense in their saddles.
After some time of walking through the streets, they reach the Gentle Blossom geisha house. Red lanterns bathe its exterior in welcoming light, and music and laughter can be heard from within. Torokai bristles in recognition, his hands going a bit loose. He looks to the others and offers a reassuring smile.
Ryojiro transcends hesitance and goes straight to loud, audible gulp. Shio and Crow, however, both perk up atop their horses, consumed by the prospect of geisha.
The Scorpion leads them to the entrance, and the servants nearby waste no time in stabling the samurai’s horses with care, half-bowed as they do so.
Crow stops short of the entrance and takes more than a few seconds to right her appearance before they head in, making a futile effort to fix her wild hair, straightening her clothing, dusting off any stray particles. Shio also brushes herself down, putting a pleasant smile on and affecting a casual swagger. Crow gives Shio a sidelong look and copies her. Atsu ducks to avoid striking the beams as they enter, frowning at the low ceiling.
The Madam of the Gentle Blossom bows to the Scorpion as they enter and welcomes him effusively. “Of course, of course, friends of yours are always welcome in this house,” she bubbles. She is a slight, pretty woman in her mid-thirties, immaculately dressed and perhaps a little too smooth and cheerful.
Crow beams, bowing to the Madam, who smiles back to her before bowing to them all. “Ah, Crab and Ki-Rin, I see. So strong, the both of you! And handsome.” She nods, then her eyes stop at Daiyu, widening at her facepaint. She smoothes over the pause quickly, regaining her smile. Daiyu does not respond outside of a faint head-tilt of acknowledgement. Atsu scrutinizes the Madam’s lack of muscular features, dissatisfied, but bows slightly.
The Scorpion places his weapons in the care of a ronin bouncer in the front hall, who reverently puts them on stands in a series of cabinets on the wall. They are already brimming with other patrons’ swords. He holds his hands out expectantly to the samurai, who give up their weapons with some unease. Daiyu releases her fan and scrolls to the bouncer with no grace whatsoever, and continues to seethe as they move on.
They are led into the main common area of the Gentle Blossom. The room is spacious and decadent, and several groups of samurai are being entertained by geisha playing music, pouring drinks, and listening to their stories.
Shio follows Akodo closely, apparently unconcerned; she smiles and swaggers.
Crow, too, seems more or less unaware or uncaring of any potential threat. She does her best to be charming, bowing where necessary, and giving any women who look their way slanted grins and occasional winks.
Ryojiro does his best to keep from looking uncomfortable—with not much success. He can’t fathom paying to talk to a woman when he has no idea how to do it even for free.
The Scorpion steers the group as best he can across the room to where an elegant older man, looking anxious and uncomfortable, holds an untouched drink. He half-listens to a shamisen in the hands of an exceptionally lovely red-haired geisha. Her face is painted white, with two purposeful thumb smears of red pigment above her slim eyebrows.
Atsu views their surroundings impassively as they make their way through the ‘establishment’. He looks on the old man, frowning and impatient with all the mystery.
The Scorpion smiles and asks politely, “May we join you, Otomo-sama?”
The older man looks up, blinks, and nods with an expression of sudden hope. As the others settle themselves on the tatami mats, the Scorpion turns to the geisha. “Kaori, perhaps a more vigorous melody would be fitting.”
The geisha, with a smile and nod, begins strumming her shamisen with a stronger theme. It allows them to speak freely, hidden to outside listeners beneath the music.
This safety measure in place, the Scorpion introduces the older man. “This is Otomo Sojin, an honorable noble who serves our beloved Emperor. He has great need of your services, Akodo-sama, and I have been pleased to act on his behalf.”
The samurai bow in greeting before taking their seats. Ryojiro, fastidiously checks for anything untoward, but the music makes it impossible to hear the other clients as well, marking his efforts useless. Crow remains caught up in the geisha, giving her lingering glances and small smirks, but she redirects her attention to the matter at hand eventually.
Sojin launches into an almost too-fast explanation, clutching his cup of tea between his pale, thin fingers. “My son Kokare is missing. This morning, I received this note.” He hands over a crumpled piece of paper covered in crude kanji. It reads:
We have your son.
If you wish to preserve your family’s bloodline and reputation, you will pay us the debt he owes us, either in koku or through favor and assistance.
If you wish to see your son again, come to the well in the Square of Mingled Paths at midday tomorrow. Come alone, and do not seek the help of the authorities, or we will know and punish him.
As the Scorpion seats himself, he offers his clarification. “I am honored to have Otomo-sama as an acquaintance, and when today I met him and saw he was troubled, I offered to help as best I could. He showed me this letter, and I realized at once that a magistrate from outside the city, one who might not be recognized by whatever criminals have done this, would be our only chance.” He glances at Torokai, bowing his head. “I had heard, Akodo-sama, that you were nearby, so you seemed the most likely prospect. I am pleased that you have brought friends to assist.”
Shio reads the note quickly and then closes her eyes, a slow breath gusting out of her nostrils. Crow frowns after reading it, but her attention is still inexorably drawn to Kaori, the geisha; she struggles not to make eyes at her, and manages only a solemn nod in response to the letter’s contents.
Ryojiro examines the letter with a trained eye. Is this authentic, who are these people, what does the handwriting say about the ransomers, why did I get roped into organized crime?
Sojin wrings his hands, clearly distraught but trying his best to save face. “I— Akodo-san. I must insist you serve as my yojimbo. These criminals thought nothing of kidnapping the son of an Imperial servant—they might strike me next!”
Crow’s expression seems to sour a bit at these words, but she refrains from comment. Shio’s face also pinches in distaste for a moment before she forces neutrality once more.
Atsu frowns at the note and shrugs. “How would they know you spoke to the authorities?”
Ryojiro mumbles something about peasants and garbage.
Torokai exhales through his nostrils, looking torn between duty and—well, not dying. “I would know more of this… situation before I accept. As I am sure the others would prefer to know before such entanglements.” The gathered samurai nod in agreement.
Sojin nods, a little unsteadily. “Kokare went out last night and did not return home, as my servants reported. He often… went out late into the evening, with sons of other well-regarded samurai his age, but always—he always returned before morning.”
He rubs nervously at the corner of his eye. “I admit I do not know who these friends are, and I know nothing of this ‘debt’ he supposedly owes. When the servants began the early morning cleaning, they found the letter. I was at a loss—I walked through the city, and, eventually, I came across Shosuro Adoka.” He gestures to the Scorpion.
Adoka nods. “I suspect the kidnappers, whoever they may be, are watching Otomo-sama’s home to ensure he does not summon assistance. Fortunately, my family has an interest in this geisha house,” he indicates with a hand, “and I am sure we cannot be watched here. By villains or criminals.” He smiles charmingly. “So none shall know of our meeting.
Ryojiro and Crow both eye him doubtfully, and Atsu gives a grunt.
Adoka continues, hands once again folding neatly, “Otomo-sama has not told the local magistrate. I’m afraid a near-commoner who does little to control the city’s criminals would do little to assist. She may well also be watched.”
Shio raises her eyebrows, mouth pursing in thought. “Do you know of which families the other young men were? Or which he was closest to?”
Adoka shakes his head. “Ah, I’m afraid neither of us are sure of which families.”
Ryojiro frowns thoughtfully. “Otomo-sama, do these kidnappers know how close you are to your son?”
Sojin bristles a little. “My son is an honorable heir, a dutiful one. Surely any would know that.”
Crow knits her brow in thought, seeming to doubt herself for a few moments before finally, tentatively asking, “With the utmost respect intended, is there any chance that your son might have left of his own accord?”
Shio’s eyebrows rise into her hair.
Sojin seems momentarily offended at such a suggestion, but smooths his face quickly. His voice is cold when he replies, “My son would not leave in such a way.”
Crow bows deeply in her seat. “Of course, Otomo-sama.”
Sojin turns to Torokai, who has gone silent, his features strained in frustration. “I am of the Imperial house—my very family has been attacked! It is your duty to keep me safe.” He is clearly shaken by recent events and desires a security blanket to make him feel safe.
Torokai goes silent, his face blank save for his furrowed eyebrows. He closes his eyes for a moment and exhales quietly. “I will pledge my protection to you, Otomo-sama. Until your son is found.”
Atsu sniffs. His face is a rictus of disdain. Shio barely withholds a wince as she glances at Torokai sidelong before bowing her head slightly—something that could be construed as agreement or tiredness. “I am sure he is safe,” she says. “And will return in good health.”
Ryojiro thinks wistfully of simpler times when children were just devoured to be turned into dark magic.
Daiyu finally breaks her silence. “I assure you we wish nothing more than to help.” She bows her head slightly to Sojin before continuing, eyes sliding to Adoka. “How well do the two of you know each other?” Her expression remains unchanged, still caught in quiet outrage at having to leave her weapons at the door.
Adoka stands, but gives a thin smile at Daiyu’s question. “Otomo-sama and I have had several occasions, but none quite as deep as this.” He turns to Sojin and bows to him, his voice light with concern. “Ah, Otomo-sama—you are troubled. I will handle this, yes? And speak to our assistants while you rest.”
Crow watches Adoka stand, brow still knit, but doesn’t tempt another outburst. Her eyes are downcast respectfully soon enough—at least until they find Kaori again.
Sojin agrees with a heavy sigh, waving his hand to the geisha in indication for her to cease. Kaori offers Crow a slight smile as her fingers still on her shamisen, but otherwise tries to avoid eye contact—though she does not entirely succeed.
Torokai stands as well, turning to the samurai. “I ask that you carry this investigation out on my behalf.” He offers a bow, a slight strain in his voice.
Shio bows her head to them in farewell. “Of course, Akodo-sama.” As they leave, she levels a dead-eyed look at Adoka, politeness gone a little chillier.
Once Sojin and Torokai depart, Adoka lingers meaningfully, as if there were things he could not say. The samurai look to Adoka once the others have left, their collective mood a mix of curiosity and apprehension. The Scorpion clears his throat and seats himself once more, looking toward the group
“You understand, we of the Scorpion are required to maintain contacts with certain… unsavory aspects of society. I would not wish to sully Otomo-sama’s ears with discussions of such matters.” He smiles with a self-deprecating air. “Otomo-sama’s son Kokare is a young man known to frequent the… less reputable districts of the town.”
He pauses long enough for the samurai to consider this, and they look among one another with confusion and perhaps a modicum of dread. Sensing that they have caught on, Adoka continues, choosing his words carefully.
“I fear it is in one of these districts that he fell afoul of whoever has committed this crime.”