Crow frowns, dejected and disappointed. “I’m afraid it’s a matter of some urgency… Do you know when she might be able to speak with us?”
The servant shakes his head. “I am afraid she is feeling ill and wishes to rest until the wedding. The lady Kitsune Mara-sama said that there is no treatment for old age, samurai-sama.”
Shio nods in sympathy. “Should she feel better, would you convey our desire to speak with her? It is of great concern.”
The servant smiles and bows deeply. “I will pass this message on, samurai-sama.”
Shio bows back. “My thanks.” She turns to leave, frowning as soon as the servant can’t see her face anymore. “I think we should find the others,” she says under her breath. Crow nods back and follows, rubbing her prayer beads between thumb and forefinger.
They find Daiyu, Atsu, and Ryojiro in the midst of preparation for an exorcism in a small, unused room. They exchange information and explanations as they settle themselves to watch Daiyu painting careful calligraphy: prayers and direction for the spirit she hopes to soothe or destroy.
“Considering that Ikeda-san’s former betrothed was Kitsune, we thought Kitsune Mara-san might know something of this,” Crow says quietly. “But she has fallen ill, and will not see us.”
Daiyu frowns. “I have a plan to try and contact the spirit. While Kitsune Mara-san’s knowledge would have been helpful, time is short. I can’t let anyone else fall to possession.” She finishes a line of script with a flourish. “We will need privacy for this ritual, if you wish to attend me.”
Crow nods decisively to Daiyu. “I would like to be there.” Shio tilts her head in agreement, solemn.
Atsu frowns. “Privacy? Well, perhaps some of us could stand guard while this… ritual is performed?”
Shio nods to Atsu. “A very good idea. Are you volunteering?”
Atsu looks down at himself concernedly, then raises his gaze back to Shio. He shrugs.
Afternoon passes to evening without incident. Despite the earlier business with Tama, the Ikeda household is harmonious and filled with quiet revelry: food, readings of poetry, and toasts of sake to the engaged couple and their families. No one seems to be upstairs but a few servants cleaning as the samurai settle themselves for the ritual. Atsu closes the door behind them and stands outside it, his body a nonchalant wall.
While the others kneel around her, Daiyu takes a deep breath. “Just as a warning—I’m sure you’re aware, but this could go horribly wrong,” she says, and begins.
Minutes pass as Daiyu reaches out, the minor spirits of the house like flickering embers in a fire to her mind’s eye. They are calm, quiet, comforting. She reaches further, but her fingers comb through nothing but the soft, cool ashes of old firepits—then, suddenly, something latches onto her. Needle sharp teeth dig into her, jerking and tugging like a shark trying to swallow a fish much too large for its mouth. The ashes are hot against her now; there is a flash in the darkness of white, of burning red eyes, of—a fox’s tail?
Then it is gone.
Daiyu starts, as if woken up from a nightmare. “This may not work as I’d planned.” She sounds a bit off-balance, maybe fighting back her breakfast, but quickly recovers her composure. “She’s very angry… Possibly angrier now.”
Shio bows her head, her eyebrows furrowing as she stares at the tatami. Crow frowns deeply and sits up, her nervous fidgeting with her prayer beads stilling. “Did she say anything to you?”
Daiyu rubs her eyes and blinks a few times to clear them. “Red eyes. She didn’t say that. But I saw them.”
Crow continues to frown. She stands up and wanders over to the window, which she looks at for a while. She glances over her shoulder at Daiyu after a few moments. “What else did you see?”
Daiyu stands slowly, seemingly pleased with herself when she manages to do it without wobbling or falling over. “A flash of white, and a tail. I think a fox’s.” She looks back at her preparations around them, considering. “It felt like an attack. Whatever it is she wants, we can take a peaceful chat off the list.”
Ryojiro grimaces and stands as well. He folds his hands behind his back and looks at Daiyu with eyebrows furrowed. “If she wants a fight… What do you fight spirits with, exactly?”
Daiyu lets out a heavy sigh and shakes her head to Ryojiro. “Nothing that I have prepared currently. I am sorry. This was not the success I’d imagined.”
There is a gentle tap at the door frame.
“Ikeda-sama invites you to dinner and celebration at your leisure,” a voice from beyond the door says. When it slides open, there is a servant standing deeply bowed.
Atsu is glaring at the man, as if daring him to stop bowing. “He would not accept no for an answer,” he mutters to them.
Ryojiro stares at the man unblinking, as if testing how long the servant will stand there, until Crow breaks the stalemate. She forces a smile and gives a shallow bow. “I’m afraid that I am not feeling well this evening, but please extend my deepest apologies.” She steps aside to make room for everyone else to go.
The servant seems surprised, but nods to Crow. “I understand, samurai-sama. I will offer your apologies to Ikeda-sama.”
Shio looks like the last thing she wants right now is food, but nods. Maybe Mara will show. She steps past Crow carefully, followed by an equally unenthusiastic Ryojiro.
Atsu casts one last frown at the man who negated his Great Wall of Atsu, turning to change into formalwear in his shared room. Daiyu looks like she might be sick, but she readies herself as well, just in case anything happens.
The dining hall is calm and full with Clan representatives; Mara’s absence feels conspicuous. Ikeda Taneka is all smiles, seemingly unaffected by the morning’s events. He speaks excitedly about the Lion Clan Champion’s arrival for the next day’s wedding.
Yasuki Arinori stares at Atsu with beady eyes and a furrowed brow as he eats, silent and judgemental. Atsu looks a little less content and gives Arinori the Hida Hairy Eyeball™, an elevated form of inappropriate eye contact. A vein is apparent in his forehead. Arinori seems to wither beneath it, losing his nerve and returning his attention to his rice.
Ryojiro picks at his food, listening to the flow of conversation. Daiyu hardly touches any food, uncharacteristic for her to be sure. Shio determinedly pecks at her own rice, and eventually forces herself to look for a conversation partner. She turns to the side to find a Scorpion woman eyeing her.
The Scorpion wears a sheer silk mask, and her half-obscured features show signs of middle-age, despite the aggressive powders and kohl she’s applied to them. She arches her eyebrows and gives Shio a slightly sneering smile. Shio eyes her back, but doesn’t make a move other than to chew a little more obviously.
The Scorpion seems to appraise her, then consider. “Ah, one of the Fox. You are very far from Kitsune Mori, samurai-san.” She inclines her head. “I am Bayushi Reiko.”
Shio tries not to flinch. She gives Reiko an unassuming smile, swallowing her rice. “The hospitality of the Lion has been such that I feel quite at home,” she replies, trying for inane. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Bayushi-san. I am Kitsune Shio.”
This only seems to encourage Reiko. She perks up at the chance to needle someone, gently setting her chopsticks down and sipping her sake. “Ah, yes. Ikeda-san is quite hospitable indeed. Especially for such a minor event.”
At the head of the table, Tanaka stands. “I thank you, honored guests, for your attendance and blessings. I retire to rest in anticipation of my son’s betrothal, and wish you a healthy night’s rest.” He bows, retiring early, and his son and Hisayo follow soon after.
Rising from her bow of farewell to Tanaka, Shio returns her attention to Reiko with a slightly forced smile. “I admire their generosity—it will make the wedding all the more memorable.”
Reiko seems to notice the discomfort, her smirk widening, but she does not follow the thread. She bows to Shio before turning to the guest on her other side. Shio almost slumps in her seat. Saved. She finishes her drink faster than she should then makes a hasty escape, taking the nearest bottle of sake with her.
Eventually, the other guests begin to disperse for the night. Atsu slowly takes his time wandering about the house, not before staring down Arinori one last time. He eventually lays down with a hefty yawn and attempts to rest. Daiyu, in a minor fit of paranoia, slips one of the wards from earlier under her pillow before drifting off to sleep.
Shio sits in the garden and meditates with the now-empty bottle of sake beside her, combing over the prayer beads in her fingers as night deepens.
Crow makes sure that the other guests are out of earshot, then closes the door and starts digging in her travel bag until she finds her little cooking pot. She carefully sets it over the brazier warming the room, measuring out rice and water from her own supplies and cooking it to fluffiness, followed by some aburaage she’d stowed away as a treat. She arranges the food as artfully as she can, poking and prodding until it looks satisfactory.
After grabbing her chopsticks, she slides the screen open and steps into the cool night air, stopping a few paces away from the house. She sits, setting the bowl of rice and fried tofu on the ground a foot or so opposite of her, and waits.
The garden is empty, all of the guests in the main hall having dinner; the sound of their conversation and activity is a far-off mutter. The night is quiet, the season too early for much insect song, and the air still. The cold of the earth quickly seeps through her clothes.
Time passes, the night deepening. The stillness is broken by a swell of wind. The gentle breeze plays with the tangles of Crow’s hair, and something swells within her chest: a gentle warmth that spreads, then fades just as quickly. She looks around, bemused, but the air is quiet again; embarrassment and doubt force a quick grimace over her face. After a moment’s consideration she settles herself again, withdrawing her prayer beads and running her fingers through them.
For a while longer, there is nothing. Crow begins to doze off, her head nodding down against her chest. A grain of rice rolls to the side of the bowl, as if disturbed by a questing, hesitant paw. Red eyes bright as embers blink slowly behind Crow’s eyelids, considering.
Crow startles awake, hair standing on end. Eyebrows furrowed, she reaches with her chopsticks and carefully rearranges the grain of rice, glancing from side to side in search of watchers.
Silence. Still, she’s covered in goosebumps, and very certain that something is going on, now. She opens the flask of sake she keeps in her sash and pours one cup for herself and another for her visitor. She sets it carefully beside the bowl of rice, toasts the air, and sips her own. The night feels warmer, now, and eventually she dozes off again, hidden amongst the greenery.
In the middle of the night, they are awakened by a gentle tapping at their doorframes. Beyond is a nervous servant, who requests for them to accompany him to Lord Ikeda Akimitsu-sama’s room.
Atsu drearily rubs the sleep from his eyes, rumbling his discontent as he rolls out of bed. He ties the obi to his sleeping robe and plods into the hallway. Ryojiro, roused from his fitful doze, gathers himself up to follow with nervous energy.
Daiyu wakes up normally: she sits bolt upright. Eyes bloodshot, ready for death. Shio squints, dry-mouthed and disoriented. She shakes her head to clear it. She and Daiyu accompany the others out.
When they arrive at the Ikeda quarters, they find Akimitsu is pale with distress, beads of sweat glimmering on his forehead. His breathing is harsh, as if he had recently been running. “Honored guests. I apologize for interrupting your rest, but I have an urgent matter requiring the most immediate of attentions. I—I fear that I have none left to turn to in this regard.” He pauses, groping for words. “I need your help to find my betrothed, Fukuro Hisayo-sama. I fear that she is in great danger.”
Atsu blinks slowly, almost dispassionately. It almost seems like he’s internally wondering why this happens to them.
Daiyu opens and closes her mouth, once, twice, then finally decides she’s at a loss for words. Shio’s body goes rigid for a moment before she can contain her anxiety. “What has happened?”
“She isn’t here?” Atsu asks. “Are there assassins?”
Akimitsu shakes his head loosely, as if to deny the thought rather than the actuality. “She and her bodyguard, they—disappeared, some hours ago from the house grounds. I received word from the servants, and have been searching for her, but… to no success.”
Atsu makes an unhappy noise and thumbs his chin thoughtfully.
The disappearance of a member of an Owl in the Lion lands would be a massive loss of face for the Matsu family, the Lion Clan—and especially the small Ikeda family. Akimitsu’s fear is plain on his face.
Ryojiro bows. “I could not refuse you in this tragedy.”
Akimitsu returns Ryojiro’s bow quickly. “I—I thank you, samurai-san. I must remain here with my father and the guests and there—there is little time with the Lion Clan champion arriving tomorrow.”
Daiyu is quickly rousing herself from the aftereffects of sleep. Adrenaline taking over. “You’re saying she’s left the castle?”
Akimitsu seems to be barely holding it together, but he manages to nod. “Yes. She is nowhere to be found in the grounds nor the neighboring areas. Hisayo often takes such trips, but… never so late.”
Shio narrows her eyes. “Trips?”
Akimitsu swallows. “She often visits shrines and temples, impromptu visits.”
Daiyu frowns, business-like. “I’m sure you’ve had your servants check all the places she frequents then. Is there any lead you can give us?”
Ikeda Akimitsu shakes his head, fretting at his folded hands. “I—I cannot, Kuni-san. I only hope that it is… a personal emergency, something with explanation. Not something darker.”
Shio looks at Jiro, eyebrows furrowing in some attempt at communication. Atsu joins her after a moment, his lips pressed together in an immobile line. Jiro acknowledges them with a slight inclination of his head before turning back to Akimitsu. “If it would not be improper, may we investigate the house to see if there is any sign of her or where she may have gone? For something your servants may have missed?” He bows again. “I mean no disrespect, only that I have had schooling in these matters.”
Akimitsu swallows, then slowly nods. He looks to Ryojiro’s mon, then nods to himself. “I—yes, of course, Kitsuki-san. But I assure you that I have searched high and low.”
He leads Jiro to Hisayo’s rooms, then bows and withdraws. There are no signs of struggle within. The rooms are untouched, and her serving maids are still asleep. Her belongings remain, but some clothes seem to be in disarray, and her traveling pack is missing, suggesting she has gone elsewhere outside of the city.
Ryojiro steps out of the room and closes the screen quietly after him. To the others, he says quietly, “She’s left with purpose, taking a bag and belongings. We should probably hurry if we are to follow.”
“I will ask where she’s going,” Daiyu announces, and turns on her heel without waiting to see if the others will follow. She strides with purpose into the garden, the speed of her passage stirring the grasses shielding Crow. Atsu, Shio, and Ryojiro eventually pass as well, their pace slow and bemused.
Crow is awakened by a flash behind her eyes, the same red eyes from before. She looks around, confused, wipes her face, and checks the bowl. It is empty, as though the rice and aburaage never were. The sake glass shines as if licked clean.
Crow beams. She straightens into a proper posture and bows deeply, then collects the bowl and cup as she stands. She pauses when she catches sight of the others, blinking in confusion before approaching quietly.
Daiyu stops before the small koi pond feature of the garden, and extends a hand in beckoning. The night is still for a long moment as all assembled look into the pool, then the water draws itself up, a droplet that floats and swirls slowly before them. It is silent, and though it has no eyes there is a sense of intent, as though it is staring at Daiyu expectantly. It emits an image of a calm lake, a signal to ask a question.
Atsu simply stares and freezes in place upon seeing the water kami. He never was terribly good at dealing with things like this. Ryojiro stays quiet out of respect.
Shio smiles at the kami, giving it a slight bow. Its gentle ebb and flow seems to bow in return. At Crow’s approach, Shio glances over at her in surprise. “Ah,” she says softly, “I had wondered where you’d gone.”
Crow looks between the kami and Shio as she turns to her, confusion rampant on her face. “What’s wrong?” she murmurs.
“Fukuro-san has gone missing,” Shio replies, turning her attention back to the kami.
Crow’s eyes widen momentarily before she wills them back to normal. “What? When?” she blurts, then shuts her mouth quickly as the kami swirls a little faster.
Daiyu bows respectfully before the spirit. “Where has Fukuro Hasayo gone?”
The water tightens briefly, its night-dark surface trembling, before Daiyu is shown—a path, rushing beneath her in the pattering of raindrops; a mountain pass, rocks dampened by springs; and finally a copse of trees, small pools glistening with starlight beneath their boughs.
Daiyu gives a slight sigh of relief. It’s something. “Thank you.” She bows again, and lets her concentration on the spell fade. The kami trembles, then flows back into the pond soundlessly. Her eyes remain closed as she tells Crow, “She went missing sometime during the night. She’s taken the Beiden pass. We should hurry.”
With a growing sense of unease and urgency, the samurai arm themselves and set out on horseback, into the Beiden Shadows.