The young monk leads them into the orchard, where Fuzen is sleeping against one of the plum trees, snoring loudly. He is a portly man in his forties with a three-day-old beard shadowing his chin and jaw. Several empty bottles of plum wine lie overturned in the grass at his side.
Atsu frowns disapprovingly at the plum wine bottles, though he does pick one up to see if there’s any left. Ryojiro walks over and kneels by his side, while Crow gently prods him with her foot. Fuzen starts awake and looks up, blinking blearily at them for a moment before groaning and standing up.
Ryojiro stands again as well, smiling at him. “I am Ryojiro, good afternoon! I hope you are well?”
Fuzen, squinting against the light, straightens himself and wipes off his dirtied gray kimono. He gives Ryojiro a swaying bow. “I am Fuzen, samurai-sama.” He eyeballs Ryojiro’s clan mon warily. “What has brought you here?”
hat would you say if I asked what you knew of the troubles facing the town of Beiden?” Daiyu folds her arms together and straightens her posture.
Ryojiro looks at Daiyu with an expression that claws out, “You’re really going to beat up a drunken monk?“
Fuzen’s face screws up. There is a long delay, then his reddened face smoothes over. “Beiden? I am only an innocent monk, samurai-sama. The villagers are liars.”
Ryojiro chuckles. “Yes, they have difficulty carrying away garbage without causing a town-wide incident.”
Fuzen’s face reddens, and eventually he breaks down beneath their looks. “I wasn’t stealing from their cursed granary, just looking for a place to sleep! I thought it only right to frighten them in return.” He rubs his head as if still feeling the beating. “To treat a holy man with such disrespect! I hope they did get cursed … not that I have any such power, of course.”
Ryojiro’s smile is sympathetic. “They should have taken in a traveling monk with more courtesy, this is certain. There are dark things that happen to those that leave the wanderer to starve in the street. Dark things like Kwaku-shin.” He pauses, lets the silence draw out a little bit as Fuzen sweats. “You wouldn’t know about those kinds of things, would you, being a simple monk?”
Fuzen stares. He shakes his head, slowly. “I—no, samurai-sama, I do not.”
Ryojiro shakes his head. “Of course not. The villagers should know you’re not the evil sorcerer they believe you to be.”
Atsu mumbles under his breath. “We do not want to ‘owe’ a Scorpion…”
Fuzen goes still at this, squinting.
“The truth has great power,” Ryojiro continues, “Perhaps being honest and humble to them for your indiscretions—however justified you may have been—will move them to mercy?”
Despite Fuzen’s insistence otherwise, the samurai bring him back with them, so that things might be repaired. They thank the other monks on their way out; there are many looks of relief that Fuzen is going with them. Fuzen does nothing but whine piteously and drag his feet, generally making himself as unpleasant as possible without actually getting himself outright killed. The journey, to say the least, is quite miserable, and accompanied by rain.
The storm creates an eerie, low-hanging, dense fog, and the distance plays tricks on their eyes. The trail back to Beiden is narrow and treacherous in the stormy dark; it is well past nightfall when they finally reach easier terrain. The rain has picked up, and thunder rumbles in the distance. Lightning flashes, too close for comfort, and for a moment, a bone-white, humanoid figure rears up in the darkness, only meters from the trail, before it is consumed again by the dark.
Fuzen looks up, his bald head rain-soaked, the whites of his eyes bright. Crow, leading the pony they’ve tied Fuzen onto, stops abruptly. Atsu thins his lips and un-shoulders his tetsubo.
Ryojiro pulls out his wakizashi. “We are not alone.”
Shio’s head swivels to stare at Jiro in alarm. She leans towards him over her saddle, blinking rapidly against the dark and the wet. “Another—whatever that was, from last night?” He nods sharply to her.
There is another flash of lightning illuminating the figure. This time, everyone is able to see it in the distance, however briefly.
Shio swings off her pony quickly, not trusting herself to fight atop a large, panicky animal in the dark. She unsheathes her sword and peers shortsightedly into the blackness. Crow grits her teeth and dismounts as well, stepping ahead of the group with her hand at the hilt of her sword.
There is a flicker, a flash of lightning. The figure is gone.
Fuzen looks around frantically, fighting against the ropes holding him into the pony. “What? What is it!”
Shio looks over her shoulder at him, eyes narrowed. “Bad.”
“You are the one that lives in this land,” Atsu snarls.
Crow doesn’t relax, but the hand on her sword falls away. Her gaze narrows and she continues walking slowly, very alert now. She continues leading the monk’s pony.
Shio leads her horse, hoping that it won’t panic at the lightning and thunder, and keeps her sword at ready in the free hand. Her wary, nearsighted squint becomes a wide-eyed gape at the figure in the distance. She inhales sharply.
In the next flash, there is a large, elephantine creature in the distance, far more distorted than its likeness. It is pitch black with distended, lengthened limbs, and is quickly devoured once more by darkness.
Crow startles outright. “We should run,” she says decisively. “To Beiden.”
Shio mutters under her breath, urging herself and her horse to a fast shuffle through the muck. Crow jumps onto her pony and quickly spurs it into a gallop. Atsu falls in behind her, egging his horse on with a motivational shout.
Their pell-mell flight back to Beiden is not interrupted; they arrive as the rain begins to slow again, and the city is shrouded in a low, dense, midnight fog. Once again, barely any lanterns pierce the gloom as the samurai slowly drag themselves back to the Emerald Lily, tired and shaken from the events of the evening.
Crow wakes early the next morning as she always does, decidedly less miserable than the morning before, but still quite tired. Fuzen accompanies her, his begrudging affect lessening slightly as she wordlessly purchases his meal for him. It isn’t long before the other samurai awaken and Torokai finally notices them; he has been sharing a laugh with Miyu and enjoying a large breakfast. When he sees Fuzen, his eyebrows draw together slightly.
“So it seems you went after all. Bayushi should be pleased.”
Atsu lowers his eyebrows at Torokai distastefully, but does not pause in his dutiful devouring of rice. Shio, eyes sunken with tiredness, glances at Torokai over her rice, one eyebrow rising.
Torokai sighs and tilts the last of his soup bowl into his mouth, swallows, and stands. “I will accompany you to meet Bayushi. Just in case this monk gets… ideas.”
Crow nods, seemingly sharing his sentiments. She claps Fuzen on the back and laughs. “Let us act with haste, then.”
Atsu erupts a belch accompanied by a murmured thanks to Miyu for the meal. He glowers at Torokai half-heartedly. “Perhaps you may assist us with Bayushi-san, as well.”
Torokai doesn’t give the impression that the drunken monk could do anything of merit. He smiles, his eyes crinkling, and takes up his daisho before moving for the door.
As they walk, the villagers recognize Fuzen. There are glowers, and some throw rocks and mud; Fuzen flinches and ducks, but is caught by some before they reach the doors of the castle. Crow watches him with something like pity, but she does nothing to stop the villagers.
Thankfully, the way to the small castle is a short one, and once they arrive Bayushi Kushiro appears swiftly, bowing in greeting. He looks at Fuzen’s mud-covered kimono, but his eyes remain impassive. Any other expression is hidden beneath his mempo.
The morning passes as Kushiro summons the townspeople. Eventually, a crowd has gathered before the castle, facing Kushiro, the samurai, and the increasingly nervous Fuzen. Hands behind his back, Kushiro clears his throat.
“Citizens of Beiden! Many rumors have spread in our village recently, tales of a curse which may have been laid upon us. I am here to tell you that these rumors are false. These samurai have gone to the monastery, drawn the monk to our holding, and have proof that this curse was merely a lie from a sniveling dog of a monk. He will confess it, so that you may hear it with your own ears.”
He gestures Fuzen forward with a quick motion of his hand. Fuzen doesn’t move at first, seemingly frozen in place. Eventually, Kichi, the younger doshin, has to nudge him with a jitte. Fuzen stumbles forward at last, falling to his knees and launching into a snivelling, pathetic display of confession, recounting his drunkenness and that his curse was merely words; nothing was true, none at all.
Kushiro stands by silently, watching the back of Fuzen’s head. He seems pleased enough, and waves the crowd away once Fuzen’s begging and whining have petered out to soft whimpers. The doshin drag him away.
“Our monk’s curse is a lie.” Daiyu tries to keep her voice low enough so that it doesn’t reach too far past Atsu’s ears. “That does not mean there is no curse.”
Crow looks to Kushiro once the crowd has dispersed. “Bayushi-san, I was hoping we might discuss something further…”
Kushiro stands by, watching the crowd go, before regarding them in a measuring way, for a time. “I thank you for your assistance. That is one less problem for us to worry over. And yes. We may discuss things further inside. Follow me.”
He steps back toward the castle, leading the samurai back into the shrouded halls of the Scorpion.