Yukira escorts Shio and Ryojiro to the door, bows, and shuts it behind them. Muffled conversation between him and Chutokire is audible afterward, too low to discern the subject matter—though undoubtedly it is about the “deal” they just struck. Shio stares at the door for a long moment, then looks at Ryojiro. A tremble of contained nerves runs through her.
The common room is dark and quiet now, all of its revelers either sleeping or gone home. After a glance to make sure no one is watching, Ryojiro leans close and whispers to her, “Yukira wrote the ransom note.”
Shio nods sharply, unsurprised. “Of course. I think they know who we are, too,” she murmurs back. Her eyes follow the line of doors yet untried, calculating which one the thump from earlier could have come from. Choosing one, she gives Ryojiro a look and carefully sidesteps down the hallway, light on her toes. As Ryojiro moves to follow, his heavier gait produces a heartstopping creak. They both freeze, looking at one another with wide eyes.
No one comes to investigate. Ryojiro remains tense, and shakes his head at Shio. “I don’t think I can keep my feet quiet,” he hisses. Shio nods and motions for him to stay put, carefully sliding the door open.
Beyond is a dark, small room obviously used as storage space: it is packed to the gills with crates and sacks, and smells of moths. A small space has been cleared beside a tower of boxes, where a teenaged boy sits: Kokare. He is gagged, blindfolded, and has his limbs tied to a creaky chair. The sound of the door sliding open, quiet as it is, jerks his head up. He starts to shake, and gives a muffled, terrified sound through the gag.
Shio nearly jumps out of her skin, rushing over and removing his blindfold and gag. His eyes are dark and his face sunken and sallow. It’s clear he hasn’t eaten in some time. He squints into the dark, and immediately begins sniveling. “P-please, don’t kill me—” he blubbers. Shio hurriedly covers his mouth with his hand.
“Keep silent,” she hisses to him. “We are here to rescue you.”
Kokare immediately shuts up, but his breathing remains loud and labored. Shio glances over her shoulder to see Ryojiro peering wide-eyed in from the doorway, making frantic motions toward the room where the oyabun has retreated to. Withholding a curse, she begins untying Kokare as fast as she can.
“We have to sneak out of here,” she whispers to Kokare as she cuts the last tie with her tanto. “Can you walk?”
He nods, but when he tries to stand his knees nearly buckle. His hands and feet are purple from the too-tight ropes, and he is trembling with weakness. Shio almost hops up and down with nerves and frustration. “I will carry you,” she tells him under her breath, and with a quiet grunt, hefts the boy into a fireman’s carry. He whimpers and clutches at her shoulder.
In the hallway, Ryojiro takes a moment to look for an escape route. He carefully slides the last door they haven’t tried open, and finds a set of steep, narrow stairs likely leading to an attic. He’s not nearly light enough on his feet to make that climb without noise, so he takes a deep breath and starts tiptoeing back into the common area. He’s ready to flirt with anyone who tries to stop him.
The Fortunes are smiling upon him this evening, and he manages to navigate the maze of snoring yakuza, sake glasses, swords, and abandoned snacks without incident. He stops at the way out and looks back at Shio, starting to beckon her and then freezing as one of the sleeping men stirs. She shakes her head to Ryojiro and goes for the stairs, praying that Kokare won’t weigh her down too much.
She scales the stairs as quickly and quietly as she can into the attic, a low-ceilinged and dusty space filled with old, musty bins. A small, shuttered window overlooks the back garden. It’s about a fifteen foot drop, which Shio judges with a jaundiced eye. There’s a sound of yelling suddenly from below: Kokare’s escape has been discovered. Taking a breath, Shio jumps.
Perhaps from the weight of carrying Kokare, Shio falters a bit and lands on top of the garden wall’s nearby bush. It thankfully breaks her fall, but leaves a few bruises. Behind them, the Red Fox Inn is a disturbed wasp’s nest of activity that Shio and Ryojiro quickly leave behind.
Following an dead-ended venture to the Blue Chrysanthemum, Atsu, Daiyu, and Crow have since returned to their designated meeting place. They do their best to blend into the scenery while they wait, and an hour or so passes before the sky opens again and it begins to pour. Not long after, the sound of slapping sandals on wet streets heralds the return of their companions.
The three waiting boggle at the approaching spectacle: Shio with Kokare slung over her shoulder, and Ryojiro nearly bare-chested, his kimono flapping as he runs ahead of her. Shio is panting and wide-eyed, and when she sees the others she nearly melts with relief. She wobbles over to Atsu and shoves Kokare at him insistently. Atsu stares flatly, but accepts the boy without question.
Crow recovers from her shock quickly, murmuring, “Best not to lurk in the street with…” She turns a bewildered look on Kokare, “…him. Where shall we go?”
Kokare looks around, wild-eyed, at the gathering around them, the geisha house, the mix of people. He croaks, “Wh-who are you? What is this? Where is my father, did he—”
“Relax, boy!” Atsu booms. Quietly. “You will not be harmed!”
Daiyu doesn’t seem at all phased by any of this, at least outwardly. “Into the geisha house with the boy. One of us should go tell his father, and his yojimbo.” She says the last word with a tinge of disgust.
Atsu gives a curt nod. “Quick to the place with that annoying masked ponce.”
“Or should we not travel the streets alone?” Daiyu directs the question at Ryojiro and Shio, accusing, which nets her a sharp look from her in return.
“Better in there than out here,” Shio says. “And no. Definitely not. The—” she drops her voice to an undertone, “Red Foxes are very displeased.”
Crow raises her eyebrows. She nods once and moves toward the geisha house. Atsu trudges behind, carrying Kokare like an oversized baby. Ryojiro hurriedly pulls his kimono shut.
As they enter, they surrender their weapons with even greater reluctance than the first time, but the red-haired geisha, Kaori, perks up a bit at the group’s entrance, recognition on her face. Her gaze lingers on Crow for a moment before she bows and secures the samurai a private room. It’s smaller than the common room, but comfortably quiet. Beyond the paper walls are muffled, distant biwa and soft conversation.
Daiyu looks penetratingly to Atsu as the group shuffles into the room as directed. “Once you’ve deposited the boy, could I ask you to accompany me to his father’s house? I’m sure that would be more than enough to dissuade any unsavory types.”
Atsu sets Kokare down in a corner like a piece of furniture. He observes Daiyu with his dead fish eyes briefly before giving a nod. “Very well, but we would do well to be unseen if possible.”
Daiyu nods in return. “Swift as well. Let’s hurry.”
Atsu takes a moment to construct a disguise, “borrowing” a sugegasa from beside someone’s table as the two of them take their leave. He gives Daiyu the “ok” hand gesture while looking conspicuously inconspicuous. Daiyu also dons her hat—although since she always has it, it isn’t much of a disguise—and leads the way back out.
Shio sees to getting Kokare vaguely comfortable before taking a position beside the doorway of their room, back stiff and hands clasped tight at her sides. Kokare is too thirsty and shell-shocked to do much besides be directed about. He’s thankfully gone past blubbering for his life and sniveling and now sits silently against a wall, much like a plank of wood leaned against it. Not much more than his eyes move, and he’s covered in dirt and sweat.
Crow moves to him and leans in, looking him over thoroughly now that things have calmed down for a moment. “Are you alright? Do you need anything?” She violates some taboos, reaching a hand out to squeeze his shoulder reassuringly.
Kokare looks at her, slowly shaking his head. It’s a tie between politeness, starving, and saving some sort of face in the wake of humiliation. “I… I don’t know what to say. How did you—are they dead? The Foxes? They’ll come for me again, I…”
The door slides open, cutting him off; Kaori bows deeply, kneeling at the door. Shio is given a start, but she admits her entrance and slides the door shut behind her. As before, Kaori promptly seats herself and takes up her shamisen, muffling their conversation with vigorous music.
“They aren’t dead,” Shio says tiredly, relaxing slightly when she begins playing. Her movements are tight and mechanical.
Ryojiro leans towards Kokare, exasperation and exhaustion giving him a bit of a scowl. “What did you do to incite them so? Kidnapping? Was this merely debts?”
Kokare shakes his head harder. “I didn’t—I didn’t do anything!”
Ryojiro can’t keep the disbelief from his voice. “…Nothing?”
The geisha clears her throat, pausing in her strumming. “Do you, ah, need anything, samurai-sama?”
Crow looks around, at Kokare then back to Kaori. “Sake.” A pause. “Rice?” Crow nods. “Rice.”
Shio frowns, bowing her head slightly as if Crow reminded her that politeness exists. “Tea, for our friend,” she says, gesturing to Kokare.
Kaori smiles and puts aside her instrument. She stands up in one smooth movement and disappears much the same she arrived. The door slides shut behind her and silence falls once more. Crow’s eyes follow her as she leaves, but then she gives Kokare a forced smile.
“It would help us if you told us.”
Kokare, obviously frustrated and exhausted, seems to be struggling not to cry again. He swallows a visible lump in his skinny throat. “I—I didn’t do anything! I… Yes, I frequented the Phoenix, but… They are trying to use me against my father—for political gain. To gain the magistrate’s p-protection—I heard it. I swear it.”
Ryojiro keeps his eyes fixed on the very naughty boy who couldn’t stop gambling. His voice is flat. “Do small-time yakuza with one gambling parlor need protection? What plans could they have?” He inspects him closely, but as best he can tell, he is telling the truth—or the best version of it that he knows. Kokare wipes dirt and rain from his cheeks, his eyes averted.
The door slides open again, and Kaori enters with refreshments. Crow stands immediately to assist her (much to the geisha’s dismay), taking the tray from her and laying its contents out across the table. She pours everyone’s sake, even offering Kaori some, who returns the favor once the ronin has finally relinquished her hold of the bottle.
“I—I know that the magistrate, she,” Kokare takes a breath and restarts, “I heard that she does business with the Foxes. With their smuggling.”
Confident Kokare doesn’t know any more, Ryojiro softens. “You father will be with us soon, and help sort all of this out. You’ll be safe for now.”
Kokare flinches a bit at the word father, but does concede with a sigh. “I—thank you. Thank you again for your rescue. But you must understand, they will not stop. They are coming for my father, I know they are.”
“Eat first, Otomo-san. It will work out.” Crow’s smile is softer and less stilted than before.
Kokare looks into his tea, his shoulders slumped.
Atsu and Daiyu easily locate the home of Otomo Sojin, a large estate within the city. The rain falls much harder now, and the streets are empty and dark outside the Otomo home. The pair pause at the garden gate, peering through the slats. There are no lights on within, and there is no sound other than the dull pounding of the rain.
Daiyu slowly turns her head, canvassing the area. Eventually, her eyes stop on a small, dark figure on another nearby house’s roof. A watcher. She gives a small tilt of her head in their direction. “Look.”
Atsu stares straight ahead, then gives a low grunting noise. “This is not good.”
The figure moves. A flash of lightning illuminates the night long enough just to see the figure run across the roof—presumably to tell his masters. Daiyu’s eyes narrow to slits. She snatches a scroll from her satchel and, standing tall, calls out to Osano-Wo.
The resulting bolt of lightning sets the world ablaze for a heartbeat. The yakuza doesn’t know what hit him: his body is an unnatural smear of charcoal against the sky. As soon as the electricity has released him, he drops. There’s a distant thud of his body sliding from the roof and crashing to the earth. A nearby tree bursts into flame, hissing and spitting in the rain.
Atsu blinks away the aftereffects of the lightning with a grim expression. “Someone will have seen that.”
Daiyu returns her scroll to its satchel as quickly as possible to avoid it getting too wet. “Just lightning in a storm. Happens all the time.” She sniffs. “They shouldn’t have been on a roof in this weather. We should check inside quickly, while we still can.”
They find the house locked and conspicuously empty of life—not even a guard comes to meet them as they near the entrance. Either Sojin has been kidnapped as well, or he has taken the advice of his yojimbo and found other lodgings while the Red Foxes watch. With this worrying information, Atsu and Daiyu quickly make their way back to the Gentle Blossom.