In the aftermath of Adoka’s pronouncement, the samurai sit in silence. Strains of music and laughter reach them through the paper screens. Kaori remains, but her fingers are still on her shamisen.
Daiyu smiles at Adoka, and there is a malicious edge to her voice. “Your friend was very lucky to have run into you then. Not many would be willing to help.”
Ryojiro ponders a moment. “Do you think this is an opportunistic kidnapping or do you have a suspicion he may know his captors?”
Adoka settles himself more comfortably. “Ah, I believe it may be opportunistic. And yes, to be sure. The magistrate especially is surely being watched by local gangs.” He sighs. “In any case, she is a political appointee, unlikely to be of any real help.”
Ryojiro gives a knowing nod. Not everyone is interested in law and order down here.
The Scorpion folds his fingers together. “Anyone bold enough to kidnap an Imperial’s son would not make idle threats. I strongly suspect the house is being watched for any visits by magistrates or… strange samurai.”
Atsu self-consciously glances downward at himself.
“Regardless, I can offer you one detail,” Adoka continues. “Kokare has been often witnessed entering the Drunken Phoenix in the late hours.”
Shio drums her fingers on the tabletop, thoughtful. “Are there particular gangs that would have been associated with it? If they are known at all?”
Adoka shakes his head. “Ah, the Phoenix does have criminal elements. I’m afraid I don’t know who runs it, regretfully.”
The samurai are overflowing with questions now that Sojin has left; Ryojiro steeples his fingers and asks, “Do you know of any operations that would make a bold move such as this?”
Daiyu gives him a sharp glance, adding quickly, “What about Otomo-sama himself? Would he have criminal enemies? The letter could just be an attempt to get him out in the open, alone.”
Adoka’s small smile can be seen through the slit of his mask. “Any who are looking for blackmail and influence, surely. In this city, many make the move. Or make an enemy of an Imperial for gain.”
Crow, historically a failure with anything resembling politics and/or scheming, has taken to allowing her attention to drift to Kaori with increasing frequency.
Ryojiro, knowing that the Owl would burn a city like this to the ground rather than let it fester, wonders exactly what is wrong with all these people. His exasperation is palpable.
Shio glances at Daiyu, eyebrows arched, before returning her gaze to Adoka. “What of the Drunken Phoenix itself, then? Can you tell us anything of it?”
“It is a large, prosperous gambling house on the Way of the Sailor’s Walk. It’s rather… guarded, especially at night, but its street is virtually empty during the day.” This is as bald a hint as a Scorpion will ever give, despite Adoka’s largely unreadable, masked face. “I’ve never been inside, personally. Only heard tales.”
Shio smiles at him, at her most guileless. “I look forward to visiting it. It sounds… entertaining.”
Adoka smiles thinly, and there is a hint of sarcasm to his voice. “I assure you it will be.”
Crow’s attention returns to the conversation at hand when she has grown tired of unsuccessfully trying to capture Kaori’s eye. “Perhaps it would serve the purpose best if we were to split off into smaller groups. I cannot imagine a more suspicious sight than all of us together at a gambling house.”
Atsu frowns once again. He may be uninterested with most petty details, but even he knows he’s rather conspicuous.
Adoka flashes a very brief grin. “Ah, yes, she has the right of it. What is your name? I apologize.”
Crow blinks, taken aback by her own rudeness. “My apologies… I am called Crow.” She bows in her seat.
Adoka bows in return, then sighs and moves to stand. “If you have no other questions, I am afraid I have further engagements this evening.”
Atsu offers an uncomfortable noise in return, distractedly rubbing the back of his head and stooping a quick bow.
Daiyu somehow stares even more suspiciously at Adoka than before. Her eyebrows have practically become living, breathing accusations of wrongdoing. “How certain are you that it’s safe for us to talk here? If Otomo-sama’s home is being watched wouldn’t they also be following him?”
Adoka raises an eyebrow. “If Otomo-sama is being followed, he is already gone. We are as safe here as can be imagined elsewhere. It’s rather impossible to know for sure—is it not?”
Daiyu is unconvinced, her frown deepening. “Unless whoever was following him has new plans, now that it’s known he’s asked for help.”
Adoka gives her a slight shrug. “I suppose we will find out in time. For now, everyone here is much too far and too deep in sake to notice.” There is an unspoken, and if they are not…
He bows deeply, perhaps a bit longer than necessary, and moves to depart. “I wish you luck in your endeavors. And remember that the Magistrate, she… has an unfortunate tendency to meddle in affairs that are not her own.” Adoka flashes one last smile. “Best not to offer her the temptation.” With that, he departs through a set of sliding doors. Kaori quickly stands and follows on his heel, though not before casting Crow the briefest of glances.
Shio raises her eyebrows sarcastically at his back as he leaves, dislike flashing across her face. Atsu’s eyes rest on the doors where he disappeared, beady and considering.
Daiyu’s shoulders sink, and she releases a breath she’d been holding. “We should hurry. Time is short.”
Crow slumps in her seat and sighs, glancing back to the group—and then less amicably towards Daiyu. “It has been a long journey. We should rest at least for a small while.”
Ryojiro butts into the conversation. “I do not like the idea of poking our noses around this city in the evening, but time is short.”
Crow sighs through her nose, but doesn’t argue. It’s as much an affirmation as anything.
Daiyu frowns at Crow. “It is not how I’d like to spend the night either.”
Shio wrinkles her nose. “I am tempted to bother this magistrate, despite all warnings to the contrary.” She pauses, drumming her fingers on the tabletop. “Or perhaps because of the warnings. They did not want us to speak with her.”
Atsu grunts. “If nothing else, perhaps we will observe something in conducting ourselves normally as well! Do not forsake your health!”
Crow hums thoughtfully, thinking a moment before chiming in again. “Perhaps one or two of us should speak to the magistrate? The rest of us can wait nearby. In case anything happens.”
Shio nods to Crow. “At the very least she may be able to tell us which families this boy was associating with, and we can move forward from there.”
Ryojiro straightens in his seat. “I could try pushing her for more information without tripping her suspicion on the crime involved. It is normally my duty to declare my presence to the magistrate and offer any assistance.”
Crow nods to Ryojiro, then looks around the assembled samurai with consideration. “I will head to the Drunken Phoenix. Perhaps I can find something of use while some of you speak with the magistrate.”
Atsu gives a serious grunt. His eyes have not budged from the door. “I will accompany you to this Drunken Phoenix!” Crow smiles in a creaky, unenthusiastic way at him.
Daiyu is very clearly ready to leave, fidgeting in her seat. “The Phoenix sounds more suited to me as well. Magistrates and I tend not to see eye to eye.”
Ryojiro nods in agreement. “I will visit the magistrate. One or two associates would be a common sight traveling with me. It should be a safer endeavor.”
Shio stands smoothly to give Ryojiro a look. “I will accompany you.”
“Where shall we reconvene?” Crow wastes no time in suggesting, eagerly, “Here?”
Shio gives the surroundings a wistful look, lingering over the fine food, women, and music. “As pleasant as that would be… I do not know that this is as safe a haven as Shosuro-san led us to believe.”
Crow sighs very quietly.
Daiyu’s eyes go distant before she suggests, “The square outside? Close to here, but still not quite here.”
Atsu’s forehead veins stand out a little further at the mention of reconvening at the geisha house, and then recede again in relief. He hesitantly grumbles in agreement.
Crow gives a sound of acknowledgment that can only be described as a grunt. She turns to depart the room, heading toward the rack to collect her sword. Atsu follows after her, eventually remembering that his head must come with and breaking his lingering stare after Adoka. Daiyu is right behind them, impatience keeping her a little too close for comfort.
The bouncer still stands by, waiting and silent, near the shelves. He hands the weapons over with little hesitation, exercising care with each. Atsu retrieves his tetsubo like a caveman recovering a club, and Daiyu seems to deflate with relief as soon as her scrolls are back in her hands. Crow quietly asks the way to the Drunken Phoenix.
The bouncer raises an eyebrow. “On the Way of the Sailor’s Walk. You can’t miss it.”
Crow gives him her most charming smile, then nods in acknowledgment.
As the three samurai leave, Kaori watches them go, hovering by the door and giving a bow and a wink. Crow’s disposition softens at this, unaccustomed to receiving winks. She returns it, gaze lingering just long enough to turn her head as she walks by. After half a stumble she she’s all business again, tucking her sword into her belt.
Ryojiro leaves the Gentle Blossom not long after Shio retrieves her weapons and follows him closely, affecting a guard-like stance. Asking around a bit reveals that the magistrate is a woman of the Tortoise Clan, Kasuga Tenmei. Her home is next to the walled compound housing North Hub Village’s prison.
Satisfied with the answers he has received, Ryojiro heads to the residence to inquire about an audience, with Shio in tow.
The magistrate’s residence is a fine house near the center of the city, next to the walled compound housing North Hub Village’s prison. A low wall surrounds a modest garden with a koi pond and a private stable. Attentive servants look up at the approach, curious at visitors arriving so late at night.
The servants are short, slight men in their early twenties, perhaps late teens. One of them looks on as Shio and Ryojiro approach, polite and attentive but also firm. “Good evening, samurai-sama. May I ask the reason for your visit?”
Ryojiro greets the servant with a nod. “If I may inquire, I am Kitsuki Ryojiro of Shinomen Mori, and if your lord is amenable, I am here to offer my services while my associate and I are in the city.” He smiles winningly. “I am pursuing leads on a minor investigation as a matter of thoroughness, and only wish to offer our greetings and service to your lord while we are here. It would be remiss if I were to not be as forthright with her as possible.”
The servant smiles and bows his head in a nod, then another, eyeing the two of them and then relaxing. “Yes, yes. Right this way, then. Please, follow me.”
Ryojiro bows respectfully and follows. Shio follows after her own bow to the servants. She eyes her surroundings carefully as they go, squinting against the gloom.
Kasuga Tenmei meets them in a small room with a polished wooden floor, the walls lined with elegant paintings on shoji screens. She is a small, compact woman with narrow eyes and a sharply pointed chin, dressed in a simple but high-quality kimono, hakama, and kataginu in Tortoise colors of blue-black and gold with white details. A set of swords lie on the floor, laid politely to her right. She bows and smiles. “Welcome to North Hub Village, samurai-san.”
Ryojiro bows politely in return. “I thank you for your welcome. I am Kitsuki Ryojiro of Shinomen Mori, and I have been given leave by my lord to follow up on a connection of a recent investigation. I must confess it is a very minor detail, seeking the underworld connections to goods found in another case, but it would only be right to be thorough. I do not wish to waste your time on details that would really only seem prideful, but I would be happy to answer any of your inquiries.”
Shio bows respectfully. “I am Kitsune Shio, of Kitsune Mori Mura. I hope we offer no inconvenience at this late hour.” She settles back, still affecting the look of an uninterested yojimbo.
Ryojiro folds his hands together. “In an effort to be as helpful as possible, my associate and I would like to offer you our services while we investigate, as the investigation I imagine will not tax our time.”
Tenmei’s eyebrow goes up. There is clearly some things she is not aware of, even as the magistrate and a Tortoise, and rubs her chin. “Underworld connections? What do you speak of?”
Ryojiro shakes his head apologetically. “Oh, I do not mean to alarm you. I have no reason to believe there is any untoward activity happening in your jurisdiction. There was a minor detail and the only unwoven thread left were contacts that were known to favor your city. As I said, it is a minor detail that we only sought to pursue out of thoroughness.”
Ryojiro gives her a slightly strained smile. “I am confident there will be nothing to uncover, which is why we have come to express our desire to make ourselves useful to you in the time we are here.”
Tenmei nods, clearly suspicious but content to let the thread lie. After a moment’s thought, she nods again. “I see. I take it you speak of the Red Foxes and Smiling Tigers?”
Ryojiro tries not to look too pleased with the information, shaking his head to Tenmei. “We do not know the names of the contacts, sadly. Only a possible location to find them. May I ask you more about the Red Foxes and Smiling Tigers? Would they be involved in smuggling? Or were they more into banditry and more violent acts like kidnapping?”
“Kidnapping?” Tenmei moves on from this for now, and hums in her throat. “And what is this possible location you speak of? The… ‘shady businesses’ in this city are split two ways, two yakuza.” She sighs. “The Red Foxes and the Smiling Tigers. The Foxes control the Drunken Phoenix, quite a popular spot for many young samurai in the city. I have seen nothing of their smuggling.”
“I do thank you for that knowledge, that would certainly preclude your city as a possible destination, as I had suspected. I was searching for a smuggling ring, and did not think there would be reason to suspect this to be more than a nearby landmark at best.” Ryojiro hums to himself thoughtfully. “If I am not being too forward, my own curiosity is eager to hear any tales of these yakuza. Is there more to these Smiling Tigers? Is the Drunken Phoenix popular for its entertainment? We do not have interesting occurrences in Shinomen Mori, I’m afraid.”
Shio smiles self-consciously. “Nor in Kitsune Mori.”
“Ah, of course, of course. Too small for that, then, correct?” Tenmei laughs. “Well. In the past, they sometimes clashed… openly. In the streets. But my yoriki and I put a stop to it. The previous administration was much more… lax about such matters. The gangs are based on opposite ends of the Way of the Sailor’s Walk, and the Foxes are stronger. They have a larger residence near the Phoenix. The Phoenix is quite popular, especially among young samurai. And the Tigers inhabit an abandoned inn, procured from its owner several years ago.”
She sighs. “Unfortunately, the yakuza are an unavoidable aspect of city life. I would rather see them gone, of course, but I prefer to keep things orderly.”
Ryojiro nods in agreement. “Completely understandable, of course!”
Shio nods as well, giving the magistrate a sympathetic bow. “Better the evil you know, as they say.”
Kasuga Tenmei smiles, nodding in affirmation in Shio’s direction.
Ryojiro continues, sounding curious, “The Tigers, being in an abandoned inn, are they of poor financial position then? It sounds as if they could not afford to front a reputable operation.”
Tenmei frowns. “Ah, that is difficult to say. But they have not yet been squashed, so I imagine they are doing well enough. Their new leader is said to be a rather young man compared to that of the Foxes—young for an oyabun, at least. In his forties.”
Shio raises her eyebrows.
Ryojiro continues, eyes aglow, “Fascinating! Do you know more of him? Did your work to control the gangs leave them with a power vacuum or does he have special talent?” He stops himself. “I am sorry if I am being too inquisitive—I find your city to be quite interesting and wish to learn more of your ways of leadership. Keeping check of two yakuza gangs is an honorable feat.”
Tenmei’s eyebrows go up, but then she smiles, a chuckle escaping her. “Of course, of course. I’m afraid I know very little but the names of their oyabun. Chutokire of the Red Foxes—he is well into his sixties—and Ajira of the Smiling Tigers.”
Ryojiro digests this information and then bows to her. “I do not wish to waste your time this evening; is there anything we may do for you in our time here? You have shown great honor in your openness and your assistance to closing our case. It is only right we return the generosity.”
Tenmei nods. “It would be a great help if you provide me with any information you find in your investigation. If any such information is related to the city, in your findings.”
“Of course, I will give you a full report of everything I have learned before I depart North Hub.” He lowers his eyes respectfully. “You have been most helpful. In the interest of not disturbing the peace, are there any other establishments or people of interest to avoid riling and causing a disturbance?”
“I believe that is all! I thank you for your interest in maintaining peace. It is a great help.” Tenmei bows deeply, a sign of respect to them both. “I thank you for coming and grant you fortune in your time ahead.”
Ryojiro gives a deep, respectful bow and takes a polite leave with the servants.
Shio bows deeply, bids the magistrate farewell, and follows Ryojiro.