Several days have passed since the burning of the Red Fox Inn, and the sky has finally cleared of smoke. Yukira’s fate is unclear, but he is not executed. It is rumored he remains in a cell, under strict watch. North Hub Village is buzzing with gossip and rumors following the incident; some of the townspeople even know the samurai’s names—or some approximation of them—and curious eyes have followed them through the streets during their stay.
It is a warm, sunny spring morning when they receive word from Akodo Torokai, requesting their presence at yet another noodle shop—apparently his favored place to do business. It is just past noon when Crow arrives, seeming a mix of both hopeful and hesitant; she had hoped to depart for Kitsune Mori with Shio in the coming days, but the summons of an Emerald Magistrate is not one easily declined. The first to show, she finds a seat for herself near the entrance and orders a bowl of udon.
It isn’t long before Atsu emerges through the beaded curtain, holding up his hand in a gesture of “three” to the waiter. He carelessly barges through the lunch crowd to seat himself next to Crow, who greets him with a smile and a nod despite having a mop of noodles hanging out of her mouth. He turns a face full of teeth her way in response. Eating is good. People must eat.
Shio still has a slightly haggard look to her, but she brightens as the crowd momentarily ebbs and she spots the others. Halfway through a bowl of noodles, she noisily slurps up a few before hoisting her things and shuffling over to sit beside them. Atsu nods excitedly to her in greeting, but is very quickly distracted by a tray of three heaping noodle bowls being laid out before him.
Ryojiro meanders in shortly after, apparently having just finished his morning walk, and Daiyu not long after. The brim of her hat is tilted well down to shadow her eyes, but she is dressed in completely different attire from when they’d first entered the city. The two of them seat themselves with their companions and order modest portions; Daiyu hovers over hers, head low, her affect even more grim than usual. Save idle conversation, the five of them are content to eat in relative silence.
As the lunch rush begins to die down, Akodo Torokai makes his entrance. He again seems jovial and light, glad to be free of his charge of protecting the Imperial magistrate and his son. He bows deeply as he approaches the samurai, his face alight with a broad smile.
“I thank you for coming, and on a short notice. I had thought it best to give you such news in person—and over food, at that.” He laughs, seats himself, and orders two (deep) bowls of udon. Once he’s halfway through his bowl and a round of tea has been downed, he plants the cup gently onto the table, then reaches into his kimono and produces letters for each of his companions.
The letters’ wax seals are stamped with the mon of the Matsu family, of the Lion clan. Inside are wedding invitations to the joining a member of the Ikeda, a minor vassal family of the Matsu, and the Fukuro family of the Owl clan.
They all look over the invitations with varying levels of confusion, apprehension, and discomfort. Despite their reactions, Torokai’s smile has not dimmed, and he takes another sip of tea. “I have told the groom of your exploits and your assistance, and he has seen fit to invite you to this day.”
Daiyu stares at the invitation as if it is a concept entirely foreign to her, lowering it after some moments to stare, instead, at her bowl of noodles. The very slight tilt of her head may well indicate her acceptance.
Crow puts on her best smile and nods with as little hesitance as she can manage. “I would be honored to attend,” she says with no conviction whatsoever.
Shio squints at the invitation for a moment before rolling it up again with care. She bows her head to Torokai. “As would I.”
Atsu grunts neutrally, still chewing. Of all the samurai, Ryojiro seems the least stricken by the invitation; his smile is polite and presumably genuine, and he lowers his chin in a gracious nod.
Torokai grins, saying nothing and bowing his head slightly in affirmation. A silence follows; with the exception of Ryojiro, uncertain glances and looks of discomfort are exchanged within the group as Torokai begins to eat again in earnest.
“…I’m afraid the only clothes that I own are the ones on my back.” Crow’s admission is a shameful one, but she tries to smile. “When is the marriage? I should like to buy something better suited to the occasion.” Atsu and Daiyu give nods of agreement, and her face becomes less of a pained grimace.
Torokai smiles, bowing his head. “Ah, that is well enough. There will be time enough for preparation.” He finishes the last of his noodles, washes it down with tea, and straightens. “We will leave at dawn the day after tomorrow for Shiro Matsu. Meet me at the gate with your things!”
With a single day left in North Hub Village, the samurai part ways shortly after to prepare themselves for the long journey. Crow, Atsu, and Daiyu procure finer kimonos for themselves, while Ryojiro and Shio collect their belongings.
The journey to Shiro Matsu is uneventful, giving them all a chance to appreciate the slow progression of plains into rocky hills. The wide rice fields of Lion clan lands are green with the year’s first planting, peasants toiling silently in the paddies under the warm spring sunshine.
Crow quite openly enjoys the scenery and the weather, in high spirits after they have distanced themselves from the city. Ryojiro spends all of his attention on the budding trees as they pass, listening to Atsu’s loud, tuneless humming; Shio occasionally joins in, adding flourishing whistles that could easily have been from nearby birds. Daiyu spends much of the time at camp practicing minor shugenja rituals, meditation, and tea ceremonies as an attempt to clear her mind, though her discomfort does not seem to diminish.
After wilderness and farmland for weeks, the splendor of Shiro Matsu’s mighty walls is shocking. They tower over a hundred feet high, dwarfing the teeming city below. Banners hang on poles along the walls, fluttering in the gentle breeze. It is the first day of the Cherry Blossom Festival, and the weather is fine enough to thaw even the harshest Lion or Crab.
The three-day festival is a celebration of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It is considered a time favored for romance and marriage, as well as a good time to pray to the Kami of Agriculture, Kuroshin, whose daughter sometimes descends from the Heavens to inhabit cherry trees.
Although the Cherry Blossom Festival does not carry the same tradition of peace as the autumn Setsuban Festival, it is still considered quite inauspicious to spill blood during these days of celebration. The Matsu family, despite its warlike nature, is intensely traditional and reveres the ancient ways of the Empire; all Lion, therefore, go unarmed during the festival except for personal bodyguards, magistrates, and the patrols which ensure law and order.
Shiro Matsu is the military heart of the Lion lands, and nearly fifty thousand Lion troops train and base themselves in this city, despite the fact that it is no longer the strategic location it once was. It houses easily hundreds of thousands of commoners.
Torokai stretches as they arrive, clearly thrilled to get off of his horse after days of riding. He directs them to the stables first, where a stablehand bows and takes their mounts.
“Ah, it seems we are just in time, then!” he says with a smile, gesturing to the banners.
“It’s quite beautiful. A sight more pleasant than… Well.” Our last stay is implied in Crow’s voice; the return to civilization seems to have reminded her of the events in North Hub Village, and her mood is partly soured for it. Ryojiro shakes his head and tries to pat the road dust from his clothes, very much looking forward to not feeling soiled every time he touches something.
Shio tentatively pats her pony farewell before following Torokai outside to look at the city more closely. “Ye-es,” she agrees with Crow, unable to keep the downward turn out of her voice.
Crow takes the longest to bid farewell to her pony, joining the rest of the group once she has said her goodbyes and dusted herself off. “I would very much like a bath…” She says with next to no hesitation, apparently finding the city’s splendor secondary to her own hygiene. Daiyu, though relatively quiet, nods in agreement; she is just as eager to wash away the road and put her face back on.
Torokai bows and folds his hands behind his back. He grins as he straightens. “Of course, yes. If you will follow me, I will lead us to the Ikeda estate.”
The Ikeda family’s residence is a large two-story home surrounded by a wide, expansive walled garden and several other buildings, including an obvious dojo and a large stable. Polite servants hold open the gates to the residence, and a young man in samurai garb awaits them on front step of the house. He is fine-boned and has decidedly boyish features.
“Greetings, honored guests! I am Ikeda Akimitsu,” he says with a bow much deeper than necessary. “You honor my family and my wedding by coming to partake in Lion hospitality. Please enter and be welcome in our humble home.”
He leads them inside, and Torokai is the first to offer his wedding gift. Akimitsu accepts it with murmured thanks and another, very deep bow; his gratitude seems quite genuine.
Shio eyes Akimitsu curiously, a little off-balance from the too-respectful greeting, then follows Torokai’s cue and digs out her gift from her bag. She offers it to him carefully; unwrapped, it is a finely painted bowl depicting the Matsu’s war-cats.
When he has deemed it is his turn, Atsu bows and produces a box containing a matching set of silver chopsticks, stylized with etchings and ends shaped into lions. Daiyu presents a carefully wrapped and tied fan, Ryojiro a scroll of Matsu legends, and Crow a modest wooden box etched to depict rolling plains.
Akimitsu bows deeply with each gift, inspecting each with care and almost reverence. “I thank you, samurai-san,” he says after each, passing the gifts gently to a semi-circle of servants behind him. “I deeply regret that our number of guests has limited our private quarters, and that you must share rooms. I offer a feast of welcome after you’ve a chance to bathe and wash away the road and weariness.”
Atsu appears far less moody at the mention of a welcome feast. He is teeth again. Crow, likewise, perks up at the mention of a feast, but she does her best to temper it.
“Thank you, Ikeda-san.” She bows deeply.
Shio beams at the mention of food, and bows as well. “It is no burden,” she says. “My gratitude.”
Daiyu keeps a rigid expression, but her thanks are deeply sincere nonetheless.
The servants behind Akimitsu step forward, bowing in unison, and escort the group and other guests behind in a slow-moving line to a set of rooms on the second floor. The servants do make some effort to pair up familiar parties, but men and women are housed separately.
Shio, Crow, and Daiyu are placed in one room, while Ryojiro and Atsu are in another, accompanied by a surly Crab. He blunt, squat, stolid man who looks more like a commoner than a samurai, with beady eyes and close-cropped, receding hair.
Atsu wastes no time in staring the Crab down upon entering; it’s important to get these things out of the way ahead of time. He eyes Atsu down in turn.
After an awkward pause, he gives a stiff bow that seems directed to Atsu—the snub to Ryojiro is not subtle in the least. “I am Yasuki Arinori,” he offers.
Atsu’s eyes almost imperceptibly narrow. “Hida Atsu,” he grunts.
Ryojiro doesn’t care much for smalltalk, but complies for politeness’ sake. “Kitsuki Ryojiro. Pleased to meet you.” He is unsure how pleased. Probably not very.
Arinori bows, his niceties done with, and proceeds with unpacking his things. His eyes occasionally dart to the side as though he’s holding in a comment that he can’t quite swallow. Eventually, he blurts out, “It’s a surprise to see another Crab here. Especially one of the Hida.”
Atsu’s toothy smile is forced. “Yes! It is a surprise!”
Arinori grunts and purposefully turns away.
The awkwardness does not cease. Their unpacking remains a tense affair from start to finish.
The women, fortunately, are able to unpack quickly and make their way to the bath with haste. Shio’s bathing habits are a mess; she does manage to get the soap off of her before entering the water, but it seems to be a near thing with all her flapping and bobbing. The spectacle eclipses Crow’s capacity for etiquette; she watches Shio with something between amusement and confusion and sympathy. Daiyu, likewise, does not resist the temptation for long. If asked later—which she hopes she isn’t—she would describe Shio as “hard to watch”, but not unlike a terrible accident where one feels drawn to bear witness anyways.
After a short period, the servants in the hall slowly slide open the doors: they announce the impending welcome feast, their heads bowed. They finish their bath with haste and dress themselves to return to their room to prepare.
When they begin to gather outside of the dining area to make their entrance, they are quite a sight; enough to draw more than a few eyes. Atsu, Daiyu, and Crow have donned their new kimonos, though each of them seems just slightly off in their own way. Perhaps it is the severity of Daiyu’s expression beneath her reapplied face paint, or the wild mess of Crow’s hair at odds with the pristine brown silk of her kimono, or the worrying creak from the seams at Atsu’s shoulders that suggest his robes are ill-fitted to his mountainous frame. Shio , at least, seems perfectly at home in her finery, even pleased, preening as they wait; she doesn’t get to dress nicely very often and relishes it.
Ryojiro is the last of them to emerge, looking quite stressed beneath a veneer of etiquette, but spotless all the same. It does not take a particularly keen eye to see that he has spent an excess of time preparing for this dinner; his hair and clothing are immaculate, though apparently at the cost of his calm.
Not long after they have all gathered, they make their entrance.
The feast is held in a long, well-lit hall with high ceilings and wood bracings. The food is hearty and plain, with an abundance of chicken rather than court-popular fish. As with most Lion food, it is presented with little decorative flair.
The long table is lined with a diverse wealth of guests. Minor representatives from the Great Clans and a collection of Monkey clan bushi sit on the left and right side of the table. At the head sits the core of the Ikeda family, as well as the bride-to-be, who is accompanied by what seems to be an Imperial bodyguard. The guests in attendance are many—perhaps more to be expected for an Ikeda wedding.
There are open seats some ways away from the bride and groom’s party, and it is here that the samurai settle in; Torokai himself has a place of honor further up the table. Seated closest to them are the Crab, Yasuki Arinori; Kitsune Mara, an old woman with a wry smile; and Isawa Gidayu, a young man with a preoccupied air.
Shio seems delighted to find a Kitsune, giving her a deep bow and a friendly smile upon noticing her mon. Crow and Ryojiro’s attentions also gravitate toward her, following Shio’s lead. Mara is bright and active beyond her years, smiling and nursing a small cup of tea when the party seats themselves nearby. She looks up at Shio’s greeting, smiling at her, then Ryojiro and Crow. The deep lines around her eyes and mouth crinkle with pleasure. “Ah, I have not met you before, samurai-san. And a Kitsune. From where do you come?”
Ryojiro bows in his seat. “Kitsuki Ryojiro of Shinomen Mori, though these days I mostly come from wherever my investigations have taken me.”
Crow is seemingly stumped by the question, but after a moment’s hesitation, she responds, “The road.” She gives half a bow in her seat in something like an awkward apology, her eyebrows drawn together. “I am called Crow.”
Shio gives Crow a sympathetic glance before tilting her head to Mara. “Kitsune Shio, of Kitsune Mori Mura—though I have not had the pleasure of resting at home of late.”
Mara’s eyes light up at Shio’s answer. “Ah, you are? That is good, good. Quite a long journey, that. Too much for my old bones.” She laughs, then glances at Crow, smiling. “The road is a good place, though, from which to come. Your path is open,” she says.
Crow seems relieved by this answer, smiling appreciatively and nodding once.
Mara looks to Jiro, and then seems to come to a realization with a smile. “You are of the Owl, then? I am truly honored to have met your kind. Unfortunately very few in number!”
Ryojiro offers a respectful bow in return, “And I am honored to meet someone close to the forest in my travels.” Mara laughs and bows deeply in agreement.
Shio gives her an amiable head bob. “Lion lands are a fine place to rest if one cannot return to the forest,” she agrees. “I have spent some time here and they have treated me well. Ikeda-san has been most hospitable.”
“Oh, yes. Though the mountains do take some getting used to,” Mara laughs.
Ryojiro is halfway lost between childhood memories and a nervous regard for the abundance of Lion around him. He shifts in his seat.
Crow listens to the three of them converse, eating in silence for a while longer before it begins to wear on her. “Kitsune-san and I have plans to visit the Kitsune Mori, though they were delayed.” She offers tentatively. “How are things in the forest? It has been too long since I laid eyes on it.” Her efforts to keep her eagerness politely subdued are only moderately successful.
Mara similarly restrains her excitement, but it’s clear that she cares less than the younger ones do; after all, she can blame it on being just an old woman. She beams, a twinkle in her eye. “Ah, have you seen the forest of late? It is a beautiful place, truly. Still as beautiful as ever, but…” She pauses. “Troubled,” she finishes.
Crow’s chopsticks stop halfway to her mouth. She lowers them and sits upright. “Troubled?”
Shio glances between Crow and Mara, sipping her tea. Her interest is obvious, tinged with concern. She has her suspicions regarding what this “trouble” may be about, but doesn’t dare voice it here.
Mara seems to consider if this is the right time for this sort of conversation, but her smile never falters. “Troubled is the best word for it, I think? Trouble in the animals, the water. There is… rumor, but nothing substantial.” This is obviously innuendo: it’s not polite for dinner conversation.
Crow frowns, but nods. “I am sorry to hear it.”
Mara waves it off. “Do not trouble yourself. Balance will be restored soon. I have faith in it.”
Crow’s smile returns a bit. She nods, exchanging a glance with Shio, before they both resume their meal.
Atsu has pointedly seated himself in the near vicinity of Isawa Gidayu, and in a rare polite moment, he is trying not to stare. Daiyu gravitates in a similar direction; she’s spent so much time in the Isawa school that it seems her only choice.
Isawa Gidayu is perhaps the most quiet person at the table. He does not seem to notice Atsu staring, and eats in relative silence, poking and prodding his cutlet of chicken. After a too-long period, he glances over and twitches a little at Atsu’s penetrating look. He stops picking at his rice and takes a sip of tea, bowing his head. “My apologies. You are of the Hida?”
“YES!” Atsu momentarily forgets to use his inside voice, fixing this by clearing his throat with a mumbled apology and lowering his voice a couple dozen decibels. “I am indeed Hida Atsu!”
Gidayu flinches. His smile leaves something to be desired, but it’s an attempt. “I see. I know very little of the Hida, I am afraid. The Kuni, though… I’ve heard quite a lot,” he directs at Daiyu. Across the table, Arinori gives them all a look of disdain.
Atsu laughs semi-politely, tongue seemingly ejected out of his mouth from the poorly controlled force of his voice. “If you do not frequent the Shadowlands, I would not expect you to know a great deal, eh?”
Daiyu freezes in place, and Gidayu’s smile tightens at the mention of the Shadowlands. He glances around to see if anyone else has noticed. Fortunately, everyone else seems caught in their own conversations. “Ah, yes. Of course,” he replies quietly and looks away, as if he regrets his choice in seating.
Several seconds pass before Daiyu thaws, setting her chopsticks down. She takes her tea in both hands. “What brings you to this wedding? We’re a long way from the school.”
Gidayu’s face tightens even more. Maybe he’s remembering something. “Ah. I have been sent an invitation after assisting Ikeda-sama’s bride-to-be.”
Daiyu offers him a faint smile. “How kind of you. What kind of troubles did you assist with? If you don’t mind sharing the tale.” She is about halfway done with her tea by now. She’s too focused on remembering what she knows of etiquette to pay much attention to the murmurings around the table.
Atsu has busied himself with harrying a leg of some kind of avian creature. It was on the table in front of him, therefore he decided it was meant for him. He looks between Daiyu and Gidayu.
Gidayu does not seem to budge in answering such a question. He smiles tightly. “I instructed the young Fukuyo-sama in the ways of prayer and cleansing.”
Atsu nods appreciatively as he gnaws on the bone. “Oh! So you are a priest, then?!”
Gidayu bows his head slightly. “I am no shugenja, but I am trained in some small things. My path is that of court.”
Daiyu is surprised by this, but makes no show of it outwardly. The small mark of the Isawa school she’d had embroidered under her mon feels now more of a target then anything else.
The meal slowly comes to a close. After sake has been brought out to follow up the tea, Ikeda Tanaka, the family daimyo, stands at the head of the table.
“My honored guests,” he says, and the din settles as the attendees look to him, “I thank you all for your time and your attendance this day. I invite you to my family’s garden for an after dinner event and a round of sake.”
Kitsune Mara’s portrait is by @petarvee.