The night passes in fitful bursts, the samurai’s nightmares lending none of them rest. None can say why they sleep so badly; the dreams are cryptic fragments, a nameless fear upon waking that quickly fades from mind. It is a relief when dawn finally comes and the sound of servants beginning their work penetrates the household.
Daiyu regularly has disturbing dreams, but her training and remembered words from her mother let her paranoia take hold. Lying atop her futon, she lets her mind drift, searching for the spirits of the Ikeda residence, and quickly finds a minor air kami in the hallway. She dresses herself as if heading into battle, and slides her door open with a snap. A servant about to knock startles backwards, then quickly gives her a deep bow to recover.
“Good morning, samurai-san. Breakfast is ready in the dining hall.” He bows to Daiyu again and scuttles away. Daiyu does not even seem to register his words, and beckons to the kami in entreaty.
The air spirit, a faint breeze that tugs curiously at Daiyu’s clothing, conveys a sense of unease about the house—that something bitter and strange is lurking nearby. It cannot seem to be more specific.
Daiyu thanks the spirit and bows towards where she’d sensed it. The spell fades and the kami again rests. Frowning to herself, she heads on to breakfast.
Crow goes about her usual morning ritual, dressing herself and making her hair at least presentable, then waits for Shio as she finishes up neatening her bed. She tends to nest in bedclothes rather than sleep like a normal human being, and the wreckage is not fit to be seen. They leave together.
The dining hall smells of sizzling food and herbs as they approach; many of the guests are already awake and chatting over their breakfasts.
Atsu and Jiro are already seated, both eating with appetite despite their own nightmares. Atsu waves to the others as they arrive, busily shoveling rice and natto into his mouth.
Daiyu sits beside him, her eyes narrow and thoughtful as she accepts some food. “Stay alert today. We’re here for more than a wedding, I’m thinking,” she says, then takes a long sip of soup, escaping any kind of explanation.
Shio frowns at Daiyu, but nods as if this doesn’t surprise her, before continuing to peck at her food. Jiro gives Daiyu a pained, concerned look—not that different from the usual.
As the food is starting to be cleared away, Kitsu Mokuna approaches, accompanied by a hunched old man wearing commoner’s garb. Mokuna dips his head in greeting. “Good morning, fellow guests. I hope you had an enjoyable night’s rest.”
He gestures to the old man, who bows quite deeply. “This is Tama. He ministers to our servants. Would you care to join us in the blessing and warding of the Ikeda household for the upcoming festivities? I have been asked to perform this duty today by Ikeda-dono and would appreciate the help.”
Atsu shrugs his shoulders, giving the man a nod. “Perhaps you are too short to reach some places!”
Mokuna grins at Atsu, offering a very slight bow. “It is true, I have never witnessed a Crab so impressively large.”
Atsu grins humbly, which doesn’t much appear humble at all, but still he stands and bows in return.
The others agree to help as well, curious to explore the Ikeda household further. Several of the other guests, Hisayo and Akimitsu included, also deign to accompany. Hisayo’s yojimbo, a brick-like, careworn Seppun, half-rises as if to stop her, but Hisayo stills him with a smile and a few whispered words.
The ceremony to bless the home and ward it from evil spirits is a well-known ritual in Rokugani society, and Mokuna is thrilled at any and all participation. Tama, as a commoner, stays well behind the shugenja even as he assists with the blessings. He is a quiet, but serene-looking old man; the Ikeda seem to have treated him well during his service.
Daiyu only pays partial attention to the ceremony, instead straining herself to spot the strange and bitter something the kami told her of. She has no faith that such commonplace rituals will do anything against any real evil, anyway.
After the ceremony is completed, Mokuna begins placing paper wards on the doors and windows in the house. Daiyu breaks out of her stillness at this, eyeing the wards skeptically.
“Are these necessary?” she asks, with such abruptness that Mokuna startles and almost drops the ward he was sticking to a lintel. “What is their purpose?” Daiyu stares at him, unblinking.
Mokuna bristles a bit before managing to regain his composure, giving Daiyu a thin smile as he finishes tacking the ward up. “Ikeda Tanaka-sama requested this specifically, to ward evil spirits before the wedding. He wishes to ensure no ill fortune befalls us.”
The insulted stares from the Lions seem to finally penetrate, and Daiyu bows in apology. “Forgive me, Kitsu-san. I meant no offense,” she says. “May I assist? I know several less common wards that will be helpful.”
Mokuna seems to battle with his pride for a moment before nodding in acquiescence. He gestures to Tama, who quickly provides paper, ink, and a brush for her. She begins to work. Jiro peers over her shoulder, curious to compare her work to Mokuna’s.
Mokuna seems to thaw as Daiyu presents her wards to him, impressed by her technique. “That is sure to stop a gaki,” he says, and bows in firm thanks.
Daiyu bows in return. “I would hope. My mother would never forgive me otherwise.” She offers a light smile with that, as if it were a joke—which it most definitely is not.
Behind them, Hisayo speaks quietly with Tama about his rituals, observing the very specific calligraphy and folds in the paper, when the old man suddenly twitches. His eyes roll back in his head, the whites bright against his age-stained skin. His body goes stiff as a board, and a wild cry wrenches from his throat. His fingers scrabble in his robes and withdraw a small paring knife, one best used for peeling fruits and vegetables. He whirls on Hisayo, his voice a warbling howl, and lunges at her, trying to plunge the blade into her chest.
Hisayo stumbles backwards in her surprise, her breath a sharp intake; Akimitsu shoves her away, stepping in to try and grab Tama’s arm. “What is the meaning of this?! Tama-kun, stop, please!”
Atsu and Shio are busily sweeping, and both turn around to see what the commotion is—to no avail: the other guests have formed a panicking wall of bodies. Daiyu turns as well, hands full of wards, but has no way of getting out to help.
Hisayo screams and cowers away as Tama continues to rush at her, bowling Akimitsu out of the way with surprising strength. Akimitsu hits the wall with a gasp. Crow springs after Tama, grabbing the old man in a wide grip from behind to try and restrain him. Jiro leaps in as well, grabbing for the knife, but Tama’s thrashing is too wild; the old man catches Akimitsu’s arm as he wades in again.
Akimitsu cries out, snatching his bloodied arm back, and something seems to penetrate Tama’s madness. The old man’s face pales, a profound horror stilling him in Crow’s arms. “No! Not you!” he gasps, then plunges the knife into his own throat.
Tama twitches fitfully before going limp, blood pouring steadily over his front, staining Crow’s clothing; Crow is unable to do anything but watch in horror. Jiro takes a shocked step backward, and Akimitsu’s eyes widen. He looks away and takes a deep breath, then quickly makes his way over to comfort Hisayo.
Atsu looks a bit uncertain. He takes a tentative step forward, untying his apron and clamping it over Tama’s throat. Shio is still blinking wildly at what just transpired, ceremonial broom clutched like a sword in her hands.
Jiro narrows his eyes in thought. He backs away from the scene to whisper to Daiyu, “What do you know of ghosts and this sort of possession?”
Daiyu shakes her head, putting aside her wards and rolling up her sleeves in preparation to heal Akimitsu. “Only what I learned from my mother and what little research I could do. Not enough.”
Jiro hums under his breath and looks at the wards again as Daiyu steps away to work.
Crow gently lowers Tama to the ground to let Atsu examine him.
“I… Tama was a faithful retainer. We have known him for years. To be so taken by madness is…” Akimitsu trails off, exhaling as he stands. “I thank you for your intervention.” He bows deeply to Crow and calls several servants over to clean up the bits of blood and deal with the body appropriately.
Atsu watches as Tama’s carted off by servants, along with his hastily procured cleaning apron which he wrapped about the man’s neck. Crow has stepped back now that Tama is being carted away, looking confused and horrified.
Hisayo and Akimitsu stand, now that the moment has passed, and Akimitsu clears his throat, hands folded behind his back. “I cannot understand the… seeming madness that would overcome such a faithful servant. I apologize for such an event.”
Crow frowns, brows knit. “Had he not shown any signs of… distress? Before?”
Atsu frowns at Akimitsu. “Or, perhaps, is this normal for your weddings?” he ventures tentatively.
Akimitsu stares at him for some moments. There is a quiet presence of something like resentment in his face. For a second, maybe two. But, in the end, the Crab is a Hida. His smile is tight, stressed. “No. It is fortunate that it is not.” He shakes his head, rubbing at his cheek. “Tama was a faithful servant of this family for… many years.”
Crow frowns and nods. “Something is amiss, then…”
Shio bows her head to Akimitsu, trying to keep her eyes from drifting to the bloodstains on the floor. “My deepest sympathies.”
Akimitsu nods as Hisayo disappears with the servants, comforted by two at each shoulder. He bows deeply to Shio, his eyebrows drawn in thought. “I thank you for your kindnesses.”
Jiro surveys the scene, out of his element, but intensely curious as to any immediate trigger for the possession. He remains quiet.
Akimitsu glances around at the servants, clearly uncomfortable, possibly a bit ashamed. “I apologize, samurai-sans. You are free to enjoy the festival, if you wish. I will send a courier to retrieve you for the evening’s feast.”
Atsu awkwardly clears his throat, murmuring a non-committal statement of sympathy and stepping outside for non-bloody air.
Crow frowns and nods, bowing her head, then the rest of her. She murmurs some kind of apology and heads back to her room to change.
Daiyu eyes Akimitsu, bowing and following after Atsu. She motions to Jiro as she does, beckoning him to follow to somewhere slightly more private. Jiro follows Daiyu, curious figure out where this all will go.
Shio accepts this dismissal with some relief, bowing in farewell and murmuring another condolence. She heads for the nearest exit for some air.
Outside, pale pink and white cherry blossoms fall in flurries, and small crowds gather in the city’s many gardens to admire the flowering trees. Kitsu shugenja oversee ceremonies and prayers about the city, and even commoners enjoy sticks of charred meat and sweets.
Atsu reaches his arms out to his sides, taking in the view and a great breath of air in the same motion. He eventually settles, hooking his thumbs through his obi. Daiyu and Jiro come to stand beside him.
Daiyu makes sure they weren’t followed, and aren’t being watched too closely. After a long pause to stare at the cherry blossoms—admiration would not be the right word for her gaze—she begins. “I may not have been entirely truthful earlier when I said I’d never dealt with spirits before. I am experienced on the matter.”
“I am very certain it’s possession, and some form of angry spirit. Though I can’t say with certainty, I suspect that it is one of Akimitsu’s former lovers or betrothed. Although,” she adds, “that seems like too simple of an explanation.”
She says all of this in one breath, deflating like a large balloon in the process.
Atsu frowns at Daiyu gravely. He stoops to examine her eyes beneath the brim of her hat, checking for signs of concussion.
Jiro, knowing a thing or two of crazed murderers who like some magic, asks, “Do you know what would normally drive someone so forcefully to seek retribution beyond death?”
Daiyu deadpan stares back into Atsu’s eyes before turning her attention to Jiro. “Strong emotions, often. Something about this is still fishy to me, though. It seems too similar to Akimitsu’s bride-to-be’s ghost story from last night. Which was fanciful at best and inaccurate to a fault at its worst.”
Jiro leans forward, unable to contain his curiosity. “The ghost story? What other spirits could do this? I must confess—I know less about the spirits that I’d like.” He leaves out the distasteful bit about knowing some darker magics that can do awful things to someone’s will.
Atsu eyes Daiyu with suspicion for a moment and strokes his chin. “Then, you found some reason to believe that this is true? That his former love is bitter?”
Daiyu chews on her lip in thought. “Yes, possibly. But—no. Something doesn’t want me to pass it off as just a jealous former lover. I wonder if there could be more we don’t know.”
Atsu folds his arms over his chest and casts a concerned expression in Jiro’s direction. Jiro returns the look.
Daiyu lowers her head, a darker shadow falling across her face as she does (probably intentionally, for dramatic effect). “It will be impossible to know for sure until we make contact with the spirit.”
Atsu’s brow furrows. “You mean to speak with the spirit? Directly?”
Jiro jolts backward, suspicious. “Is this wise?”
Daiyu looks back and forth between the both of them. “There is a murderous ghost on the loose, and as far as I see it we are the only ones capable of dealing with it. Wise or not, it must be stopped before anyone else dies. So unless there are other suggestions?”
Jiro’s mouth twists, and then he lets out a tired breath. “What can one do? Let us be prepared, and go.”
Atsu heaves a sigh that ends up rustling his sleeves a little with its passing. “Very well then. I just hope that you both know what you are doing.” Atsu leaves the ‘because I don’t’ unspoken.
Daiyu nods in agreement. “I need to gather some things. Find out what you can in the meantime. Any superstitions the locals might have about this haunting could help.”
Shio wanders the streets for a bit, but quickly finds herself craving solitude. She gets herself some sticks of dango and finds a garden in which to sit and enjoy the blossoms. Nearby, a couple tuck themselves into the more secluded part of the garden, leaning close and whispering and giggling to one another. Shio watches them, nibbling her treat idly, and tries to smooth her somewhat-metaphorical feathers.
Crow goes to great lengths to have her clothes cleaned of Tama’s blood—it is the only clothing she owns, after all. Once that is done, she lingers to admire the trees and flowers for a while, listening for any talk of the events that morning in the process, before seeking out some yakitori.
The commoners who watch Crow and the others exit the Ikeda household look upon them with something like fear, or close to it. They quickly avert their eyes the moment they are noticed.
As Crow moves throughout the city, a commoner, clearly a laborer, watches her. The second their gazes meet, however, he looks alarmed and glances hurriedly away. Crow smiles as she meets his eyes, but his reaction is concerning. She sets about following him in the most non-suspicious way she can manage, at a leisurely pace.
The smile doesn’t seem to frighten him any less, and he hurries away into a crowd the moment he notices Crow is following him. She follows him a while longer, expression growing concerned, half-heartedly attempting to corral him into whatever she approximates to be a dead end. Eventually he is cornered, and turns to her with terror in his eyes. He bows nearly to the ground. “Please do not hurt me, samurai-sama.”
Crow looks behind her, confused, as if he has mistaken her for someone else . She keeps a safe distance. “Why do I frighten you? To harm you is not my intention…”
He remains bowed for much longer than is perhaps necessary. When he straightens, his fear slowly melts. “I… I apologize, samurai-sama. It is—you came from the Ikeda house. I am terribly sorry. Please forgive me for my rudeness.”
Crow is silent for quite a while. She glances behind herself again, expecting something more frightening than herself to be there. “Please,” She says, chancing a step forward, making an open gesture with her hand, “Help me understand your meaning?”
The commoner swallows, eyes darting to the side, checking behind her. “The Ikeda home it is—it is haunted, you see. There is a spirit of ill will that visits it during celebrations such as this. Since a wedding has been announced, it has been more aggressive. Wailing at night, appearing in the alleyways…” he trails off, shivering. “Everyone knows this. Some say that the spirit is… that it is the ghost of the young Ikeda-sama’s betrothed, who passed on some time ago.”
Crow’s frown deepens. “Do you know her name? The woman Ikeda-san first intended to marry.”
The man bows again, whispering, “Kitsune Chizu, samurai-sama.”
Crow’s eyes widen. She starts to dash off, then stops, thanks him profusely, bows, then darts off toward the castle again. She catches sight of Shio in the garden—who by then is watching the couple’s truly awful attempts at wooing with amusement—and takes an abrupt turn. With very little regard to personal space, she urgently seats herself next to Shio on the bench. “Are you busy?” Crow asks, looking directly at the dango stick in her hand.
Shio blinks Crow, startled but not offended. “N-o? What is wrong?” she says, tossing the stick away—probably right into the laps of the couple—then settles down with her elbows on her knees, hands cupping her face in curiosity.
Crow speaks under her breath. “A commoner ran away from me at the festival. Many of them looked afraid. I spoke to the one—they say the castle is haunted. What’s more—” She looks around, then hunkers down and speaks in barely a whisper, “Fukuro-san is not Ikeda-san’s first betrothed! He was to be married to someone else, and her name was Kitsune Chizu! Do you remember Kitsune-san’s story last night?”
Shio narrows her eyes, fingers drumming along her cheekbones thoughtfully. “Yes. This is more complicated than I’d expected.” She cocks her head to the side then straightens to dig into her obi, drawing out the prayer beads Mara gave her. She eyes them with an edge of suspicion, then glances at Crow. “I think we should speak with Kitsune-san again.”
Crow nods several times. “Yes!” she whispers, drawing out her own set of beads. “That was my thought as well.”
After a bit of searching, Crow and Shio find their way to to Kitsune Mara’s room. It is a small guest room, and one of the house servants stands outside of it. He bows as they approach.
“I am afraid the lady Kitsune Mara is indisposed, samurai-sama.”
They exchange a wary glance.