Colorful paper lanterns are strung between the trees that surround the garden; the soft, flickering lights and gentle drifts of cherry blossoms give the feeling of walking into the spirit realms. Polite low conversation flows between the guests as they find comfortable places, forming small groups of like clans and families. Finally the aged daimyo speaks in a soft, rumbling voice.
“Friends, brothers, sisters, welcome to my home,” he says with a warm smile. “It has been far too long since it has seen so many guests. Tonight, I would like to invite you all to view the lovely blossoms in my garden, and to honor them and our ancestors with the telling of tales. Our Clan has always placed great value on stories, through which we remember the deeds of the blessed ancestors.”
“To thank you for your attendance, I wish to make this a small contest. The teller of the best tale will receive from me this lantern, brought for the occasion by young Kitsu Mokuna. It is said to protect the house which displays it from evil spirits.” He inclines his head towards the Kitsu, a young man who stands amongst the Lions. Mokuna bows deeply in return, holding up the lantern: it is simple but finely made, its paper sides painted with sigils of fire and light.
After the appreciative murmur of the guests dies down, Taneka continues. “In honor of the lady Fukuro Hisayo, who shall wed my son in two days’ time, I would ask her to choose the topic for this evening’s stories—and to tell the first tale. ”
The young Owl bows graciously, acknowledging this honor. She turns to the crowd, her eyes modestly lowered. “I am but a young girl of limited skills, and I fear my tale will be a disappointment. I humbly ask that we tell stories of ghosts, which have always fascinated me.”
There are a few mutters of surprise through the guests, though many seem unsurprised that an Owl would choose the subject. Crow, Daiyu, and Jiro all lean forward in anticipation, while Atsu and Shio keep their expressions taciturn. Quietly, Crow steps back to a nearby servant and requests they fetch her morin khuur.
After the whispers have died down, Hisayo takes a deep breath and begins.
She tells a haunting tale of a woman who committed jigai after pining for her lost love. The woman’s spirit continued to haunt the grove the pair frequented, beckoning any man who passed by. Those who followed her ghost were never seen again, disappearing despite endless searching. There is silence after she finishes as the crowd digests, before murmurs of appreciation drift through the gardens. Hisayo bows and steps back, allowing Kitsu Mokuna to take her place.
“I will share a story,” the shugenja says, “but I refuse any right to the lantern. It is not my gift to receive.” With that, he tells the the tale of a samurai fallen in battle. The samurai’s spirit continues to fight on to defend his honor, rising against anyone who happens by the place of his death.
Crow is very clearly enjoying herself, even if she finds that most of these stories lack any real punch. Daiyu has a bit of a smile, but it’s hard to say why exactly she’s smiling. Shio’s apprehension dies as the tales continue; they’re not what she was expecting. She sits back to listen rather than tell; she knows kenku stories, but doesn’t particularly want to shake the party up that much.
Atsu likes stories with rabbits and other animals helping each other steal food. His frown is intense.
A young, brash looking Lion stands next, and is introduced as Matsu Hideo. He offers a tale of a man who was murdered by a jealous rival. His desire for revenge was so much that he became a gaki, searching for years to find the blood of the man who slew him. Only when his enemy approached his retirement did the two meet, and the ghost achieve its vengeance and peaceful rest.
The Ki-Rin representative, Ide Shizuyo—a young, mousy girl with brown hair—recounts a surprisingly horrifying tale that she insists is true, passed down in her family from a friend of the sole survivor. She solemnly recounts how a Moto patrol in the Twilight Mountains sought to take another route while traveling toward the Kaiu Wall. The group was beset by a strange spirit, something that looked almost like a man, who slew the Moto brutally and ferociously; no mortal weapons or magic could touch it. Only one of the Moto managed to escape, and he retired shortly afterward: his hair had turned as white as a Crane’s, and his body was unnaturally aged by many years.
Shizuyo’s storytelling technique is skillful, if a little passionate—but this is the way of Ki-Rin. Many of the guests are noticeably shaken by the end, most notably Yasuki Arinori; the Crab is pale and sweaty. As Shizuyo steps away, there is polite, muted applause, scattered throughout a now-nervous crowd. Crow, however, applauds quite passionately.
Coughing to himself and rolling his shoulders as if to shake off his fear, Arinori follows Shizuyo. He stares at Atsu in knowing, and clears his throat before lurching into the story of Passion, one of Iuchiban’s Bloodswords. Although this is not truly a ghost story, after the Ki-Rin’s harrowing tale such a conventional narrative inspires sighs of relief. Arinori somewhat wears out his welcome, however, by going into some detail concerning the indiscretions of the Crane Champion who fell to the sword’s power and plunged into the sea.
Shio tries not to choke on her sake. Atsu sniffs pointedly, wrinkling his face as he does so, and Daiyu’s face darkens at his outpouring of insults to the Crane. Her smile disappears, and she glares at Arinori fixedly. He splutters to a stop as he notices, giving a hasty bow and stepping back.
Jiro moves to the front and introduces his story. He spins a tale of the haunting of a Tsuno shugenja and the awaking of the Naga. After waking the Naga, the Tsuno was tormented as he had tormented the Naga spirits. He was driven mad and fell upon his own blade.
The crowd goes quiet at the tale. It’s closer to home than they’d like, the forest of the naga, and the applause is muted but impressed. Kitsune Mara gives Jiro a particularly broad smile, bobbing her head to him in approval. Crow applauds loudly, and Daiyu is equally impressed. She may have in fact heard this tale before.
Atsu takes in a great breath of air and climbs to his feet, stopping to pause next to Crow briefly enough to whisper a request to her. She raises her eyebrows in response, but grins, then nods and accompanies him. She getting settles in behind him with her morin khuur propped between her legs, and she improvises a melody to accompany Atsu’s movements.
Atsu stands before the crowd, striking his best kabuki pose—which isn’t very good. He improvises with Crow’s music to the best of his ability, acting out the story of a rabbit who becomes lost in the Shadowlands and must retrieve its bow to escape. Whether this is what the crowd can actually derive from his acting is up to debate. He ends his performance with a fine wide-eyed stare, possibly the best feature of his dance.
The mention of the Shadowlands does bring the audience pause—but these are ghost stories, after all, and all applaud despite their discomfort. Atsu bows several times and steps back, leaving Crow.
She pulls the bow across the strings in a few low, introductory drones before settling into the rhythm of the song. It’s melancholy, but with a solid beat. When she begins to tell her story, it’s in the traditional Ki-Rin manner of throat singing. Intermittently, where it adds dramatic emphasis, she drags the bow across the strings rapidly in a way that quite convincingly replicates the sound of a horse whinnying.
The song tells of a ghost horse that wanders the plains on moonless nights, devouring anyone who strays too deeply into the darkness. When a huntress does not return from her hunt in time, her lover—pointedly another woman—fears for her safety. Despite warnings from her elders, she leaves the village in search of her and is eventually chased down by the spectral horse. Unwilling to give up so easily, she confronts it—dying in the process, but conquering its spirit. The song ends on the note of her spirit riding the horse across the plains to this day, having tamed the monstrous steed but still cursed to search for her love for all eternity.
The throat-singing catches the crowd off guard, though Shizuyo openly enjoys it, grinning and tapping her foot to the beat. Daiyu applauds as soon as she’s sure the story is finished, trying to be first to do so. Shio also applauds loudly, trying to keep herself from whooping, as does Jiro, clearly impressed.
Mara slowly stands, the final story in this event. “I do not wish to be considered for the lantern. Such a lovely gift should be given to the young, not those in their twilight years,” she says before settling into the swaying rhythm of a practiced storyteller.
Her’s is the story of a fox who has fallen in love with a cat. The fox follows the cat to their home, but is caught by a hunter’s arrow outside and perishes. The fox’s spirit remains, trapped far from her woodland home, unable to move on even as the cat finds new love. She stays, caged, restless, and heartbroken, forever. The story is surreal in many respects, but the crowd cannot help but be captivated by the power of it. When Mara stops speaking, all are reverently silent for several moments.
Crow enjoys the tale, though seems to be taken by a gradual sadness as it continues. By the end she’s appreciative of it, openly so, but apparently quite melancholy. Shio looks down at her hands, wrapped around her sake cup. A twist of something crosses her face—bitterness?—before she takes a less-than-polite swig of her drink.
The daimyo, Taneka, stands once the stories have concluded, clapping appreciatively. “I thank you, honored guests. All of your stories were moving and melancholy, a true delight to behold to conclude our feast. I offer this lantern to the ronin, Crow, in honor of her tale.” He bows low, receiving the lantern from Mokuna and offering it to her.
The lantern is of fine quality, ribbed with gorgeous sandalwood. Inside it is a small candle, as yet unused, which gives off a pungent odor.
Crow seems surprised by this—a nice thing? For her? She tries to keep her face neutral as she stands to retrieve it, bowing deeply as she thanks him for it. “It was an honor to perform, Ikeda-sama.” She bows respectfully, again, to the audience, and takes her spot next to Shio.
She beams at Shio and shows her the lantern, who peers at it, sniffing, then blinks several times. She gives Crow a pained look. “The, ah—” she pauses, pointing at the lantern, then whispers under her breath to her, “It’s fox-repellent.”
Atsu makes an “mmh-mmh” noise, nodding in agreement with Shio.
Crow blinks at Shio’s words, processing. She looks between her and the lantern several times, then frowns openly at it, sniffing at it and frowning deeper. She carries it with her, her arm stiff at her side, aspiring to take care of that later.
The crowd disperses into excited conversation once the competition is over, and the storytellers are congratulated by most and given words of encouragement. Mara approaches them slowly, limping a little as the evening chill bites at her joints.
“Good evening,” the old woman says, her face crackling with a broad, kindly smile. “I hope you enjoyed the stories this evening.” She bows her head to Crow. “You seem a kindhearted soul, one with a noble heart. Take these. They may be of some aid to you when praying to the ancestors.”
She reaches and gently takes Crow’s hand, placing a set of prayer beads into her palm and closing her fingers around them. Crow seems almost unable to make something of this. She smiles, eyebrows drawn, and bows appreciatively while trying to refuse, but Mara insists.
Shio blinks at the exchange, then nearly steps back as Mara winks at her. “And for a fellow Kitsune, far from home,” she whispers, giving her the same. Then before anyone can protest, she limps away, allowing the dispersing crowd to swallow her.
Shio calls her thanks after Mara hesitantly, then frowns at the beads and at her back as she leaves. She runs her fingers over their carved prayers; her eyes widen with pleasure as she recognizes them as prayers to Inari, the Fortune of foxes and rice.
Crow clutches them in her hand and holds them to her chest. Shio looks them over for a moment more, but tucks them into her kimono with care.
The spring night is warm and clear, with a scattering of clouds, and soon the event begins to wind down. Guests begin to disappear into the home to settle in for sleep, and what few remain are served the last bits of sake before the night’s end.
Shio doesn’t stay long, returning to her room before the others and taking some time to meditate and calm down. She holds onto the beads Mara gave her as she does, running them through her fingers to soothe herself. Crow lingers a while for sake, making idle conversation with Atsu, but they both retire to their rooms shortly after Shio, Daiyu on their heels.
Jiro lingers to listen in on conversation or join if anyone feels particularly chatty. He is able to overhear several rumors of strange happenings far to the west, though most art too polite to expand upon it beyond innuendo. When he is convinced that he will hear nothing more of substance, he departs for his room.
When sleep finds the samurai, it is fitful and disturbed, fraught with nightmares. Black hazes, spindly trees, moonless nights—and red eyes, unblinking, watching them. Always watching.