The streets show a different face as the night draws on. The market crowds are replaced by the sort of people more suited to darkness, sourced from the nearby Phoenix and seedier establishments. The samurai convene at their decided meeting place: a square not far from the Gentle Blossom.
Ryojiro and Shio have been waiting, Shio having gotten them both some braised tofu to fill the time. They munch together in the dark, trying not to look conspicuous or nervous while simultaneously being very much both.
Atsu, Daiyu, and Crow arrive not long after, though Crow lags behind long enough to collect a small tray of yakitori from a closing stall. “Well,” she says, mouth full, as she finally approaches the gathering, “What did you learn?”
Ryojiro offers quietly (between nervous glances around the square), “We found out that there are two yakuza families that control the city, based on the same street. One controls a dilapidated inn, one the gambling parlor.”
“I think we found one of those.” Daiyu says, “There was a man—Yukira, they called him—who chased us off.”
She tries her best to ignore her stomach, having forgotten that food existed over the course of the night. She is losing. Trying to distract herself, she adds, “They called it the Red Fox Inn.” Her eyes still track the movement of Shio’s tofu; Shio notices, cracks a small smile, and offers the last of it to her. Daiyu quietly and politely accepts the gift.
“We might look to the Blue Chrysanthemum next,” Crow says. “Yukira seemed… amused? I did not leave the conversation with a good feeling in my stomach. I was surprised that he let us leave.”
Ryojiro rubs his chin. “That sounds unusual.”
“It certainly wasn’t the outcome I expected.” Daiyu adds once she has swallowed a mouthful of tofu.
Ryojiro’s eyes dart around to the night crowds once more, suspicious of listeners. No one seems to be paying them any attention, but his hackles are up nonetheless. He tugs at the sleeve of his kimono nervously. “I think we may stand out in this crowd. What is our next move?”
“The Blue Chrysanthemum, and perhaps the Smiling Tigers’ inn?” Shio narrows her eyes. “Though if this Yukira knew something, we may not have to seek out the other family.”
Ryojiro nods. “I imagine what one group does, the other does not let it go unnoticed.”
Crow makes a face that might be described as a prolonged wince. “I’m not sure Yukira is the best option. I may have, ah, bent the truth a bit, and he seemed to have quite a few thugs beneath his control. I’d rather not stir that pot. I had thought to try the Blue Chrysanthemum…”
Daiyu finishes the tofu and fastidiously wipes her mouth. “We should take care to not raise too much suspicion. Let’s not forget that the boy’s father wasn’t supposed to look for help. The more attention we garner, the more danger the both of them are in. We’ve already turned some heads… well, more than some.”
Shio gives the Drunken Phoenix group a ‘whose fault is that?’ look, which Crow meets with a long, long stare. Shio wrinkles her nose at her. “You are correct. This Chrysanthemum is—what, exactly? Another gambling den?”
“A sake house,” Crow replies, her eyes still trained on Shio in counter-accusation
Daiyu arches one eyebrow into the shadows of her hat. “So. Who’s thirsty? And what should the rest of us do? I imagine all of us going would look… odd.”
Ryojiro looks suspiciously like someone that avoids questionable sake houses.
Shio sighs, looking away from Crow’s glare as she forfeits. “I’d like to volunteer for sake duty,” she says dryly.
Crow smirks a tiny bit. “I could go. Perhaps some of us should look around the Red Fox Inn. Preferably… not me. As long as you don’t mention Kokare, I’m sure it will be fine.”
Shio looks back to her, resignation slumping her shoulders. “I suppose I can do that instead.” She gives the ronin a wall-eyed look. “Though I am no investigator, I will do my best.”
Daiyu slides her hands back into her sleeves, her face returning to its usual stillness. “All of us that went to the Phoenix should probably avoid it. Who knows how many of their people there were watching.”
“I can offer my eyes, but I’m afraid I may arouse suspicion,” Ryojiro offers hesitantly, gesturing at his attire: everything is Owl-style, and memorable for that alone.
Crow eyes Ryojiro up and down. “…Do you have any extra clothes?”
He looks at her blankly. “…I have some that are more green?”
Crow continues to peer at Ryojiro, only just long enough to make it awkward, and then seems to have an idea. She approaches, hands at the ready, but stops just short and raises her eyebrows at him as if asking permission to touch. Ryojiro looks surprised but doesn’t pull away.
Crow pulls the collar of his kimono open a bit, just enough to show a distracting V of skin, then gives his hair a light tousle. She bows and offers a quiet apology before pinching his cheeks until they’re very flushed.
Ryojiro has no idea what to do now and stands in a state of shock, red and disheveled.
Shio tilts her head back and forth several times, taking it in. “Well… That might work,” she says slowly.
Crow stands back to admire her handiwork, looking pensive. “How do you feel about…men?”
“I…” Ryojiro begins. Shock seems to tongue-tie him. Crow raises her eyebrows expectantly. “…I will do my best?”
Daiyu nods solemnly at him, and Shio scratches her nose as if trying to avoid bursting into…something. She’s not quite sure what. “That’ll have to do,” she says after too long a pause.
Crow brightens up and nods a few times. “Look more rugged if you can. Yukira seems the type to like that sort of thing.” She strikes a strong stance and looks expectantly at Ryojiro. He puffs his chest, trying to look more like a barrel and less like an empty waterskin.
Crow looks doubtful, but does her best to sound supportive. “Great!”
Shio nods hesitantly. “Great,” she repeats. There’s a bit of despair in her eyes. “Try to—” She affects a smoldering smile, a cocked hip. “You know? I will—handle the rest. Hopefully.”
Crow nods emphatically. “Kuni-san, Hida-san, and I will go to the sake house. Hopefully we won’t see any familiar faces.”
Shio gives Crow a wild-eyed look before bowing as well. When she rises again she has stilled her expression. “Best of luck.”
Ryojiro tries to bow in a cool, collected, and masculine way. His success is debatable.
Daiyu writes them off for dead with a tired sigh and departs with Crow and Atsu for the Blue Chrysanthemum.
Shio pulls her hair atop her head in a severe bun and puts on a smile that says stay out of my way. She takes point, parting the crowd for Ryojiro, who is practicing his swagger on passersby as he heads with Shio to the ‘inn.’
The street near the Red Fox Inn is quiet; the lurking thugs are absent and and the alleyway leading to the walled garden is empty.
Shio eyes the house suspiciously as they approach, pausing before entering the garden. Through the half-open door she sees a handful of men drinking inside the common room, laughing raucously over dice games. Figures of geisha and hired women linger with yakuza. She takes a deep breath and looks at Ryojiro, who is evaluating the fear factor of what men he can see with wide eyes.
“Good luck,” she whispers to him, and then strides in purposefully, Ryojiro sidling behind her while biting his lips. She stops at the threshold when they are faced with two men flanking the doorway; one of the guards immediately straightens as they approach, jostling his partner when he realizes that he is slumping against the wall, nearly asleep.
The more alert guard, a man barely taller than Ryojiro but quite a bit more fit, eyes him with eyebrows quirked. Ryojiro leers in return. After a long pause, he turns his attention to Shio, asking gruffly, “What’s your purpose?”
Shio tilts her head at him in appraisal. “Entertainment,” she says, gesturing to Ryojiro imperiously. “A request was made for my employee’s… skills.” She gives him a slight curl of a smile.
The guards exchange a glance. The bigger, sleepy one rubs his face. The shorter one scratches the sparse scruff at his jaw. “Who will he be seeing?”
Shio blinks, as if she can’t believe he’s asking her. “Yukira-sama,” she says. She glances around the room in boredom. “I don’t wish to make him wait much longer.”
They seem to consider fetching Yukira, then the shorter guard looks at the floor in a brief moment of flushed embarrassment. “Proceed,” he says, and the pair step aside.
The room beyond is lined with people sprawled half-asleep on the floor, their sake cups scattered beside them. There are still some dice games going, and too-loud conversation from those yet plying the geisha. None of them pay Shio or Ryojiro any attention.
Yukira’s room is past a short hallway and a series of closed doors. There is a single sleeping guard beside one of the doors, snoring lightly. Shio steps over his outflung leg and gives a careful knock, while Ryojiro summons all of his inner masculinity and gets ready for things he absolutely cannot imagine.
After a moment, the door before them opens halfway, revealing Yukira; he is very much awake despite the hour, and looks suspicious at the summons. His eyebrows soon quirk in curiosity. “And what is this? I see the two at the door let you in.”
Shio bows deeply to him. “I had wished to make your acquaintance, and thought it might be best accompanied by something pleasing to the eye,” she says. “I do hope we have not disturbed you.”
Ryojiro tries out that leer he’s been practicing.
Yukira eyes them dubiously, but Ryojiro’s flirtations seems to thaw him somewhat. His eyes narrow for a moment before he gives them a smile. “Ah, I see. And is this… pleasantry accompanying business?” The thought of financial gain seems to perk him up a bit.
Shio gives a slight smile and a nod. “I would not wish to waste your most valuable time with mere pleasantries.”
Yukira’s smile brightens considerably. He gives a bow and opens the door all the way, inviting them inside.
The room beyond is modestly small but well-furnished, with attractive screens and curtains decorating the more dilapidated or damaged pieces of the wall. Yukira’s youth, beauty, and dress might imply some closeness or intimacy to the oyabun.
Yukira kneels after Ryojiro and Shio have seated themselves on decorated throw pillows, offering them sake. “Tell me, then, of your… plans, if you would?” He trails off. “I am Yukira.” He looks to Ryojiro, obviously intrigued. “Does he speak?”
Ryojiro sits down in a fashion he imagines is coquettish and eager, nodding to Yukira. “I like to do rather than speak.”
Shio gives a wry smile. “As you can see,” she says dryly.
Yukira ‘s eyebrows arch. He gives a soft laugh and pours cups of sake for them; he does not pour one for himself. “Ah. Tell me of your business… plan, then. I am sure I could pass on such information to the oyabun.” Once their sake is poured, Ryojiro leans in to reciprocate.
“I cannot claim to be any kind of strategist, but I am… aware of certain movements within this city that might be of use to you and your family.” Shio bows her head in deference, before stating, “There are rumors of the Smiling Tigers—involving poppy—that I may be able to give you.”
Yukira’s face hardens. “Ah, and what have you heard?” His eyes dart to Ryojiro with an air of distraction; he is trying to fight the allure of Ryojiro clumsily running his hand up and down his own leg and having difficulty.
Shio keeps her face very still. Not hard, really—birds don’t emote much. “Potential sources outside of your control,” she says. “I was very concerned, as well—and while I do wish for nothing but this family’s success, I would be deeply appreciative of a favor in return for this information.”
Yukira nods, slowly. “Hm. A favor,” he muses. “You will accompany me, then, and speak with the oyabun.” This definitely isn’t a question or a request.
Shio’s eyes widen infinitesimally, pupils pinning before she can stop them. Ryojiro’s seductive smile freezes.
Yukira stands in one smooth motion. He folds his arms behind his back, slides the door open, and allows them to proceed first. They rise from their seats stiffly, exiting into the hall from which they came, where Yukira leads them to the largest set of doors.
After a pause to announce his presence, Yukira slides the doors open, bowing his head. The room beyond is dark, lit by shrouded candles, and is deathly quiet; only the muffled chatter of the yakuza in the common area jars the silence. The oyabun of the Red Foxes sits at the back of the room. He is a portly, hunched older man with a bald head, sagging jowls, and a leering, sidelong gaze. He looks up at the approach and bows. Yukira bows in return.
“Forgive me for the intrusion, master. We have visitors with news which may reach us with… timely convenience,” He says, and invites Shio and Ryojiro to sit across from the man on pillows on the floor. Yukira settles himself beside the oyabun with the air of a prince.
Shio and Ryojiro bow, deep and respectfully, before taking their seats.
Chutokire squints and looks between the two, his palms securely on his knees. He hums to himself, whispers something to Yukira, and then returns his gaze to them.
“I am Chutokire of the Red Foxes. What are your names?” He is in no hurry, that much is clear.
Shio bows her head to him. “Kitsune Keiko of Kitsune Mori Mora,” she says, the lie smooth. “And this is my assistant,” she gestures to Ryojiro, giving him leave to introduce himself however he wishes.
Ryojiro grins. “I am called Jiro.”
Chutokire nods, a slight smirk quickly stifled. He hums. “I see. Kitsune Keiko and… Jiro, what news do you bring?”
Ryojiro looks to Shio, sweat glistening on his brow. She takes a deep, quiet breath through her nose. An astute listener might hear the gears of her brain whirring frantically. “We are somewhat new to this city, but this has given us a… unique view of its doings. Because of this,” she says, pausing. “I have been privy to some rumors of late… that hint at the Smiling Tigers’ involvement with a new source of poppy.”
Chutokire perks up at this, rubbing his receding chin. He looks to Yukira, who gives a nod of affirmation, and hums. “I see. They are weak, and so that is unsurprising. You have done well to inform me. From where did such rumors come?”
Ryojiro looks toward Shio, “What was her name, the one that smelled of horses and road? She kept asking about that boy.” He sighs, “He was nowhere to be found? Boys need someone to take care of them, else that’s what happens…”
Chutokire looks between them, leaning forward half an inch. Yukira does the same. “What is your meaning?” the oyabun asks quietly. There is a distant ‘thump’ through the wall beside them, but neither Chutokire nor Yukira react. Likewise, neither do Shio or Ryojiro.
Shio is sitting very, very straight-backed, as if she’s afraid she’ll fall over. “He speaks of a ronin, our source,” she explains. “She is quite reliable, and we have worked together to great success for many years.” She takes a deep breath. “She had hoped that our bringing this information to you would make you amenable to granting us a favor.”
Chutokire narrows his eyes very slightly, and draws back into himself like a toad repositioning his seating. “Hm. I must thank you both, then, for your information. Yukira tells me you desire a favor. What is it?”
Shio bows deeply. “A boy has gone missing,” she says. “We had hoped to determine his whereabouts, as a favor to an old friend. We had hoped you might be able to help us locate him.”
Chutokire nods slowly. Yukira glances to him, but the look is not returned. The oyabun flashes a curling smile. “Ah, I see. And this friend, what is he called?”
Ryojiro mumbles something about there are enough boys already and starts looking for the easiest place to jump through a window; there’s one on the far wall, and he thinks he’s skinny enough to fit.
Shio catches the look and tries not to wince. She only sort of succeeds, a twitch going through her. “We know him only by alias,” she says. “I do not wish to compromise our burgeoning relationship, but I would prefer… a guarantee of our friendship prior to anything further.”
Chutokire nods, his smile fading. “Of course, of course. There is no ill will wished on you or your companion.” Beyond the room, the noise of the common area has slowly been fading, the night’s partying apparently coming to a slow close.
Shio bows her head. “Our deepest gratitude,” she says. “I will say it this way. If you are willing to provide this information to us, I am willing to do the same.”
Yukira grins, as if impressed. Chutokire bows, then says slowly, “Very well. A trade, then. Name your offering of information, and I shall name mine.”
Shio folds her hands in front of her. “The information my ronin has acquired regarding the Smiling Tigers’ poppy operations for the names of the most frequent young samurai at your gambling house.”
Chutokire thinks for a moment, rubbing his chin. He leans to Yukira and raises his fan, whispering to him behind it. After a moment he straightens again, laying the fan in his lap once more. “There is an agreement. As a show of good faith, Yukira will provide a list.”
Yukira produces parchment and an inkwell and begins to write. Once he’s done, a list of five names is provided, and he hands it over to Ryojiro. Ryojiro’s eyes widen slightly, but he quickly tries to hide his recognition: the handwriting is the same as that of Kokare’s ransom note.
Shio bows once more. “You have my deepest gratitude.”
Chutokire bows deeply in return. “In the coming days, I will await your ronin’s information. I trust it will be swift.”
Shio keeps her head lowered, murmuring, “I would be remiss to be anything but.”
Yukira tucks away his writing materials, and after a nod from Chutokire, stands to lead them out. The oyabun’s beady eyes follow their departure until the door slides shut behind them.