The morning after the wedding, the sky is a clear and flawless blue above Shiro Matsu; only on the far-off crags of the Spine of the World do clouds dare gather. The mood of the Ikeda household is high and boisterous, and cherry blossoms blow in soft pink gusts along the garden paths and roads.
The samurai gather their things in preparation for a journey, though there is some muttered debate over where exactly that will be as they head to the Ikeda stables. Chizu’s braid must be dealt with, but none of them know what plans Akodo Torokai may have in store.
Both Shio and Crow are withdrawn and quiet in the aftermath of the exorcism, though neither seem unhappy to be leaving the Matsu lands.
Atsu casts a concerned look at the box in Crow’s possession, questioning (albeit briefly) the urgency of them returning a lock of hair. A part of him seems to make peace with it, however. In this land it is best not to screw with superstition. Ryojiro goes over his belongings in a quiet but upbeat mood. He is content to leave the talking to others this morning. Daiyu dons her sugegasa in an almost meditative gesture, stilling her face in readiness for travel.
Torokai pauses in some cursory currying of his already well-groomed pony as the samurai approach, bowing in greeting. Mounts for the rest of them are loosely arrayed beside him, saddled and packed for travel. “I’m relieved you look well-rested!” he booms to them as he rises, smiling broadly. “I have not heard from Asako-san in some time. I take that as a positive in times like these,” he says, turning to store his brush in a saddlebag.
Crow seems to brighten at least a little bit at the presence of the ponies. She gravitates to hers almost immediately, apparently much more interested in petting it than talking right now.
Shio eyes the ponies dubiously, then clears her throat. “Might I ask if you have a destination in mind, Akodo-sama?”
Torokai looks to Shio, exhaling heavily through his nostrils and stifling a heavy belly-laugh. He scratches the side of his head and smiles. “The last courier I received spoke of investigations along the land, but I presume those have been taken by another. And I assume, for now, that we are free to travel for several days before word. I am to be expected in Crane lands… soon for court, but that is in some weeks.”
Atsu makes a face that spells out his every emotion on those subjects.
Crow doesn’t quite know what to make of that, or the situation, but eventually she halfway turns away from her pony to speak. “We have been asked to return something to Kitsune Mori, if time allows.”
Torokai pauses in lavishing affection on his pony, scratching her nose, and looks at Crow. A moment passes. He laughs. “Kitsune Mori? May I ask at whose request?”
Atsu looks concerned. Crow’s mouth thins, and an even longer moment passes as she seems to consider how to phrase it. Eventually, she gives him an apologetic bow. “…No.” Shio joins her in bowing to Torokai, eyes pinning anxiously as she tries to watch his reaction.
Atsu slowly becomes covered in a slight sheen, visibly pressing his lips together. A vein stands out in his forehead from effort. He looks like he might explode.
“It is a matter of some privacy,” Crow adds after an uncomfortable amount of time.
Torokai nods, slowly, and then returns their bows with a respect that surprises them. “I should not pry on such a request. I only hope that the Fox Clan looks kindly upon our visit.” He then gives his saddle cinch one last tighten and swings himself atop his mount, testing the reins. He reaches into his kimono and produces a map, flattens it, and squints.
Atsu shakily pats his own pony and wanders away several meters, taking in a great breath of air before shouting “ASA DA” at the sky; Shio jumps about a foot in the air, head swiveling to stare at him accusingly. She pats her kimono down as if to soothe it into submission. Crow breathes a quiet sigh of relief before mounting up.
Ryojiro puts on a face that says, “A detour better not be too much after your last couple of requests,” to Torokai’s back.
Torokai places a finger on a point on the map. “We have a choice: ride east or ride through Scorpion lands.”
Atsu stares at Torokai. He clears his throat. “I thought you said we had a choice?”
Torokai laughs loudly and appreciatively. “Forgive my outburst—but I see we are of the same heart, Hida-san.”
Atsu nods with a grave “mm, mm” added in.
Crow gives a low chuckle. She urges her pony alongside Torokai’s to glance at the map. “East it is, then. …on second thought.”
Shio cautiously peers at the map as well, scratching her chin. “But the journey is much longer… With a lot more Crane.”
Crow sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. “If you are expected in court soon, Akodo-sama, perhaps it would be best for our trip to the forest to wait.”
Torokai nods once, squinting at the map. “If we travel along the road as well as the plains, we will make good time. Court lasts for quite some time, and there is… much to discuss.” He sighs.
Atsu’s nostrils flare.
Shio sighs, thinking of the Bayushi at dinner. “I… suppose Scorpion lands will have to be it, then.”
Atsu inexplicably begins tying more knots into his knapsack. Crow sighs heavily, thinking of the Bayushi she fucked once.
Torokai folds the map, nostrils flared, and tries to hide his hesitance. He smiles, nudges his pony forward, and begins down the path toward Beiden Pass. The others follow soon after, falling in behind and beside Torokai respectfully. They offer bows and nods to the city guards as they make their way out of Shiro Matsu.
Crow ventures, conversationally, after some time on the trail, “Have you heard any word on Asako-san? Is she well?”
Atsu’s eyes look a little more tired and bloodshot with each passing mile that brings them closer to Scorpion territory.
Torokai looks over his shoulder to Crow. “I have heard that she is preparing for her first venture into court. Any news of her personally is more difficult to say, but I am sure she is well.”
Crow hums and nods, but doesn’t say anything else.
Torokai seems to expect the conversation to continue; when Crow goes quiet, he frowns in understanding. “I know that things in the Phoenix lands have been strange, of late. That may explain her silence.”
Crow frowns. “Strange? In what way?”
Torokai considers for a long moment. Eventually he asks, “What do you know of the Isawa Mori, Crow-san?”
Crow raises an eyebrow, eventually shrugging. “Next to nothing, I’m afraid.”
Atsu stares straight ahead, saying darkly, “I am too.” He doesn’t seem to realize that he doesn’t understand the context. Ryojiro leans forward a bit on his horse to listen more closely, obviously knowing nothing of Phoenix business, but curious nonetheless.
Torokai chooses his words with care, each spoken deliberately. “They say that the trees are the reason the Phoenix chose the land to settle. That it gave power to their shugenja’s scrolls. Much of the roads are hidden by the kami of the forest, and those Isawa reaching their gempukku spend a night alone, meditating. Those young samurai have been disappearing.”
He pauses for a long moment, letting out a small sigh. “Those of the Asako family believe that there is a path to the spirit realms somewhere in the forest, the Heart of Nature. Asako-san has been sending samurai to search for such a place.”
Crow nods slowly, discomfort dawning on her face. “How long has this been going on?”
Atsu grunts neutrally, clearly still sulking, but knitting his brow at the revelation despite it. The road widens and begins to rise as they mount Beiden Pass. It seems much wider in daylight, large enough to move and army through. They pass the shadow trail that lead to their encounter with Chizu quietly.
Torokai frowns to himself, looking down the road. “For some time, I believe. Asako-san confided it in me, but the scholars do not wish to reveal such a thing publicly.”
Crow stalls for a few moments at the path to Chizu’s grove, then pats her pony on the neck to rejoin the rest. “I must admit, I’m surprised she hasn’t sent us.” She pauses. “…Unless that is what you’re getting at.”
Torokai smiles. It’s a little tight, but still friendly enough on his face. “I believe she fears getting others involved before the permission of the Asako and Isawa.” Crow nods, and Torokai gives her a faint smile. “It is what she has confided in me concerning court. I believe she means to bring their theories to bear, but…” He laughs. “The Crane do not always listen.”
Crow laughs somewhat humorlessly. “I haven’t dealt much with the Crane, but that is certainly my… understanding of them.”
Torokai bows as a caravan passes them, straightening enough that his chest is puffed out. The commoners bow deeply, leading their cart and horse, kicking up dust in their wake. “My understanding of Crane ways thins with the passing of the seasons. I only hope that our two clans may see reason before… well.” He rubs his chin. “Before these small conflicts and disagreements may become more.”
Crow frowns. She considers asking more, but decides maybe it’s impolite. “Winter is many months off. I’m sure your clans can find even footing before then.”
Atsu murmurs something about winged Scorpions with a hairbrush.
Torokai laughs deeply and appreciatively. “Were that it were so easy, Crow-san!”
Crow laughs dryly, looking down. Her face may be a little red. “Yes, I suppose my expertise does not lie in politics…”
Torokai reaches over, in a moment of what is perhaps inappropriate contact, and claps a hand over her shoulder. He gives it a shake. It is short-lived, but meant to be reassuring. “Nor does mine, Crow-san. Some are meant to be warriors, some politicians.”
Crow seems almost startled by the contact, but not particularly bothered. She laughs again, slightly less dry, but avoids eye contact and doesn’t pursue the conversation any further.
Torokai awkwardly looks away and behind him to check on the others. Ryojiro, Shio, and Daiyu follow in various states of saddled doze, though Ryojiro is awake enough to give Torokai a polite smile and nod.
It takes several hours to travel the pass, and as they ride the sky slowly begins to darken. The distant clouds of the morning are no longer so distant; by the time they crest the final rise and look down upon Scorpion lands, the afternoon has grown dark and the air feels heavy with impending rain.
“The unpredictability of spring,” Torokai says with a sigh.
Small villages dot the horizon, some lights visible to beckon the samurai onward.
Shio shakes herself more awake at the groan, looking upwards and squinting. “Think we can make Beiden in time?” She gestures to the city in the distance.
Atsu looks like a man resigned to his fate. The presence of clouds on their path only seems to darken his despair, but he does not speak.
Crow glances at Shio, then to the clouds, considering. “Do we want to? These are Scorpion lands, after all…”
Torokai smiles slowly at the prospect of a ride that is more than the slow walk of travel. “Ah, I believe we have some time before the rain sees fit to appear.” His smile does not falter even as thunder rumbles above them.
“Are you certain that camping outside would not be preferable?” Atsu ventures hopefully.
Shio gives Atsu a deeply pained look. Atsu wrinkles his face, falling silent. They continue on at a faster pace.
They reach a torii arch over a small side road, beckoning them towards the city in the distance. All pause and eye it with trepidation. Daiyu shifts in her saddle to tie her sugegasa on a little more tightly, then slumps over again. Lightning flashes, so closeby that the samurai are blinded, and thunder booms like a temple gong through their bodies. The ponies are well trained, but are beginning to fidget with anxiety.
Crow sighs. “I suppose if we just settle in Beiden for the night and leave early, it would be fine.”
“It will be fine!” Shio seems to be trying to convince herself of this as she says it.
Crow forces such a smile at Shio’s uplifting words, and Shio beams back. The samurai urge their ponies into a reluctant canter, trying to outpace the storm.
Torokai does not seem any more thrilled by the prospect of staying in Beiden, but quickly shakes it away. He spurs his pony into a gallop down the final slope of the road. The samurai look after him in surprise, and then Crow follows, her face split by a wide grin.
The others follow with a little more caution; as they do, a few final lances of sunlight crest through the mountains before they are devoured by cloud cover. The wind picks up and with a great roar the clouds are torn open. The rain is torrential, soaking everyone within seconds.
Atsu lets out a cry of anguish that can only be described as a howl from a person which fate has robbed of everything.
“I hope this place has an indoor bath!” Crow yells, trying to laugh over torrential rain and galloping hooves. Shio gives a wild screech in response.
The road passes through light forest and then opens onto clear land. Ahead is Beiden, a merchant city and center of trade and travel both. It’s definitely large enough for an indoor bath.
Beiden is surrounded by sparse bits of forest edging wide, open plains thick with rice paddies and other crops. Seven Stings Keep perches in the mountains to the east, overlooking the city from a safe distance. The peasants in the fields are running for shelter from the rain and thunder.
Torokai leads on, producing their traveling papers to a pair of tired looking ashigaru by a small bridge over a creek. After a lot of checking, and some glancing at various mons, they wave them into the city.
There are many buildings along the main street of the city, and many buildings that look empty now appear to have once been businesses: geisha houses, tea houses, shops, and so forth. Some have been converted to cheap boarding house, while others have been replaced with what are now bigger, better buildings built atop others, their signs gaudy: the Emerald Lily, the Lucky Koku.
The streets are empty save for the samurai, but in spite of this there is the eerie sensation that they are being watched. The windows of the buildings are shuttered or boarded up, and what few lights to be made out are dim and distant.
The rain continues in a blinding torrent, so thick that visibility is reduced to the rider in front of them. Time seems to stretch out as they walk, minutes expanding into hours; there is the sensation that they aren’t moving, no matter how fast they urge themselves on. Houses that promise shelter grow no closer. The rain drums on endlessly.
“Am I alone in seeing… this?” Shio asks, glancing around. Her eyes dart nervously. Crow nods a little, bewildered.
Atsu throws his arms skyward and yells, “THIS IS WHY I HATE COMING INTO THESE LANDS!”
Daiyu hadn’t been paying too much attention, mostly just following Ryojiro. At Atsu’s yell, she tips her hat up slightly and slows to a stop. Her eyes slide from one side of the road to the other in consideration.
Then, just as quickly as it came, the moment passes. The rain slows to a more sedate, steady fall, and movement begins once more down the street: children playing in the puddles, a peasant towing a soaked cart. They are standing in front of the Emerald Lily, and a young stable-hand is watching them warily, waiting for the cue to take their wet, unhappy ponies.