While Shio and Ryojiro visit the magistrate, Atsu, Daiyu, and Crow make their way to the Drunken Phoenix through the Way of the Sailor’s Walk, the city’s red-light district. Gambling houses, lower-class geisha houses, sake houses, and similar businesses line the streets, advertising themselves with huge paper lanterns over their doors and beneath their eaves. Shouters stand outside each business, extolling their virtues. “Come, come, welcome, try your luck, samurai-sama, try your luck! No bet too large or small, fine sake, pretty girls, welcome, welcome!”
While Crow seems just this side of at home in such a place, Atsu’s mood has soured by the time they reach their destination; only Daiyu’s focus remains honed on the task at hand. Her mood has calmed some since leaving the Gentle Blossom, but to say she’s lightened up would be a blatant lie.
They stop just shy of the Drunken Phoenix, a comparatively large and prosperous gambling house, and Crow turns to speak to her companions in a hushed tone.
Atsu gives a stern nod in response, looking inappropriately intense even for “ready”. Daiyu nods in agreement.
The three of them make their way toward the door, where a massive bouncer stands guard. Atsu tries not to look like he’s staring him down (he is), but fortunately the bouncer seems a bit dim-witted. He grunts at the samurai when they catch his attention and looks them over quickly, but seems to find nothing untoward. He allows them to pass with a jerk of his chin, and they enter in grateful silence.
Just inside, clients swarm around a circular kiosk to collect their betting slips. Nearby, swords are left in the care of a hired ronin. The three samurai relinquish their weapons with various levels of reluctance before heading into the gambling hall proper.
The Drunken Phoenix feels even larger inside despite the raucous crowds, and the air is thick with tobacco smoke, sweat, and even traces of opium. The interior is a sizeable room with several long, low tables, gamblers crowding around them and attentively watching the dealers as they shake and throw dice.
Some bet on simple evens-or-odds, shouting out hach or cho to each throw, while others play more complex games such as Fortunes and Winds. On the far wall is a long bar where servants collect trays of drinks and food for delivery to the tables. The servants are all young girls, and it is plain to see that they, too, are included in the amenities offered by the Drunken Phoenix; there are two steep staircases leading upstairs to private rooms.
As the three of them near the central kiosk, the scarred ronin working at its counter bows his head to them. “Betting slips?” he asks as patrons crowd around, reaching for the strips of parchment he is handing out. Atsu and Daiyu take one each, though Crow declines.
When they have distanced themselves from the counter, Daiyu turns to her companions and speaks quietly, gesturing toward two ronin: one at a gambling table and another at the bar in the back of the hall.
“I recognize them from the Smiling Bowl,” she says, eyebrows raised beneath her sugegasa, “It would be wise to keep an eye on them.” Crow and Atsu exchange a glance before they nod in agreement. The three of them split up not long after—Crow heads to the bar, while Atsu and Daiyu meander to the betting tables.
The bar is crowded, but Crow wedges herself between two patrons and buys herself a drink, then casually glances at the suspicious ronin that she has singled out. He is tall and disheveled, deep in his cups with cheeks red with sake. She lingers near him for some time, downing sake and making conversation with servant girls as they pass by, before she eventually turns her attention fully toward her mark.
“You—have you seen Otomo Kokare around?” She asks, forced to shout over the din. Subtlety is not her strong suit, subterfuge even less so, but she puts on a show of casual frustration. The ronin looks up from his sake, sips, and puts the cup in his palm.
“Kokare? Two nights ago. He didn’t stay very long. Dealers pulled him away, told him something, and he left. He’s had terrible luck for months,” he mutters, rubbing his face. “Owed this place huge amounts.”
“Two nights ago? Gah…” Crow grunts in frustration, shakes her head, and downs her drink in one go. “I should have guessed.” She rests against the bar and eyes the man askance. “Are you friends?”
He shakes his head and takes a long drink. “No, I only knew him in passing. He spends all of his time with Tomoji. Another ronin. When he isn’t here, he’s always at the Blue Chrysanthemum—before or after he’s gambling.”
Crow grits her teeth and mutters about being owed money, then pushes off from the bar after paying for both of their drinks. She makes her way toward the entrance quickly, in too much of a hurry to notice his eyes tracking her as she goes.
Once she has collected her katana and emerged into the open street, she finds a nearby corner on which to lurk; such a sight is not terribly uncommon in places like this, and there is no telling when Atsu and Daiyu might make their way out. It isn’t long before a nearby alleyway, one that leads behind the Drunken Phoenix, catches her eye. A few minutes pass before she grows restless, and when she is confident that she is not being watched, she heads into the narrow dark.
There is a large, one-story house behind the gambling hall, separated from it by another alleyway. A low wall with a gate leads into a scraggly, ill-tended garden, where four armed men lounge, idly smacking their clubs into their palms as they chat. When she has emerged from the alley, Crow lurks just shy of the garden wall, listening to their conversation as best she is able without making her presence known.
They natter about nothing noteworthy, though they occasionally refer to the house as the “Red Fox Inn”. Deeming this intel sufficient, Crow sets out toward the Drunken Phoenix one more, back into the alleyway she had only just traversed.
The two Crab have since found themselves at one of the less crowded tables, where a dealer takes slips and stamps them with the ease of long practice. He holds his hand out for Daiyu and Atsu’s as they approach. “Playing or watching?” He asks with an equally practiced grin.
Daiyu takes a seat beside the ronin she recognizes. “Playing.” She calmly slides her slip onto the table. Atsu swats his slip into the man’s hand after hers, practically exhaling steam as he seats himself beside her.
Very little time passes before Daiyu loses her first bet. She slides her eyes to the suspect ronin beside her as the dealer stamps her slip. “I hope your luck is better than mine.”
The ronin lifts his eyes from white-knuckled, gritted teeth concentration, and stares at her. She’s clearly shorter than he expects; his eyes unfocus a little looking for her face then dropping. He grunts as he places his next bet. “No better than usual. How’s yours?”
“As good as the weather.” She keeps her focus seemingly on the game, her face a mask despite the assault of Atsu’s rampant emotions beside her. “Which would depend on one’s point of view, I think.”
His mouth opens to respond just as the dealer stamps his slip; whatever he was going to say is lost as he grunts and slams his cup down, showering those near him with spatters of sake. Daiyu freezes as the spray stains her face paint, then wipes it off as gently as she can and bets again, unfazed.
“But whether you like it or not, it’s a long road in the rain. Are you travell—” The ronin glares at her and shoves his way forward, snatching his stamped slip from the dealer before she can finish.
He starts waddling away from the table at a fair clip. “Hope your luck endures. You’ll need it,” he shouts over his shoulder.
Daiyu glares after him, her train of thought lost. She quickly takes her winnings and makes her way out in hopes of following him, Atsu in tow. The pair of them breach the crowd of patrons gathered near the entrance just in time to catch sight of the ronin ducking into an alleyway outside. Yet undetected, they follow discretely and stop just shy of the corner, peering around the edge of the building to watch his path with narrowed eyes; just in time to see him collide with a very distracted Crow.
“Hey,” the ronin hiccups loudly, “what’re you doing back here?”
Crow stumbles a bit, ducking her head in apology. “I seem to have lost my friends,” she says, confusion and concern plastered on her face, “and I took a wrong turn, I think.”
Daiyu stops abruptly as the scene begins to unfold, tucking herself back into the shadow of the Phoenix’s eaves and pulling Atsu with her. He doesn’t budge for a moment, then lets her tug him in as if humoring her.
There is the sound of raised voices from beyond, near the house, and one of the men with a club starts toward them. “Koji, what are you doing? And you? Who’re you?” he grunts at Crow, his brow knitted. She laughs breathlessly, putting on her best show of looking helpless and lost.
“Just a fool,” she assures him. “Losing my way.”
The man with the club doesn’t move. He jerks his head at Koji, barking, “Get Yukira.” Koji quickly stumbles past Crow and into the house, past the garden. A few tense moments later he reappears, trailing a slim young man.
Yukira is probably no older than 18, but carries himself with arrogant authority. He is slender and beautiful, with long, fine hair and delicate features. His clothes, though of commoner style, are of unusually high quality. He approaches Crow with his arms folded behind his back.
“Koji said you were exploring back here, yes? What interest does a ronin, one who Koji said was—asking around? Have here?” His voice is high and arrogant.
Crow’s smile is as charming as it is panicked, and she gives an exasperated laugh. “Looking and asking around is how one finds someone, is it not? Truly, I mean no disrespect. I am only trying to find my friend.”
Yukira’s eyebrows rise. “Your friend? And who is that?”
Crow’s brow furrows. “Otomo Kokare. If you must know, he has…owed me a debt for five days and I have grown tired of waiting for him to show his face.”
Yukira chuckles, touching a hand to his cheek. “Ah, yes. He did frequent the Phoenix, as I recall. Is he missing?”
Crow tilts her head, eyebrows up. “Is he missing? I thought he’d only been avoiding me.”
Atsu grunts appreciatively in the shadows; how crafty, the Crow. Daiyu gets as close as she dares as the scene unfolds—hopefully close enough to help should things go south. Atsu inches up behind her, shoulders hunched in a futile attempt to appear less massive.
Yukira sniffs, though there is a hint of amusement to his tone. “It’s true, he’s not been seen for some time, after all. Such a frequent gambler, that one.” He looks at Crow appraisingly, eyes half-lidded. “And what were you hoping to find here?”
Crow looks around, gestures to the general area, then shrugs. A few moments of exasperated silence follow. “…him?”
Yukira nods at a delay, as if he is torn between tossing a thug on her and ending this with negotiation peacefully. After a moment he gives a brief sigh and waves the man with the club back to his post. “And you see that he is not here, yes?” He spreads his arms out, palms open, then folds his hands behind his back.
Crow nods very slowly. “Yes…and that is why I was leaving.” There is the barest shred of sarcasm in her tone.
Yukira arches an eyebrow at her, then offers the slightest of bows and turns on his heel. He and Koji disappear back into the Red Fox Inn, leaving Crow alone in the alley, where she lingers in perfect stillness until she is certain they are gone. She is nearly startled when she turns to find Atsu and Daiyu waiting for her on the other end, then laughs quietly at herself.
“I am glad to see you.” She says, closing the distance between them. Atsu nods in approval, clapping a hand on her back as they begin to walk together.
“So,” Daiyu says, her eyes forward and her tone even as it always is, “What did you learn?”