As Amaterasu rose for the final morning of the Setsuban festival at the Shrine of the Ki Rin, she smiled down upon her children. Stirring from his sleep, refreshed beyond he had been for many mornings, Kuni Kokuri made his morning ablutions freed from the anxieties he had been harboring while he was competing in the festival, anxieties even he had previously been unaware of. Filled with the warmth of the Sun-Mother’s love, he attempted once more to break the thick frost between himself and the only other crab present at the festival, fellow Witch Hunter Kuni Goru. Perhaps he too felt the unseasonable warmth of the morning, for the grizzled one-eyed veteran spoke with Kuni at some length (well, much longer than at any time previously). Kokuri’s legendary humor was tested though, first by the casual viturpertude with which Goru dismissed his intended bride’s “impure” bloodline, and secondly by the scathing remarks aimed at their family’s Diamo Kuni Yori. Kokuri disentangled himself from the uncomfortable conversation as quickly as politeness would allow, and determinedly refixed both his positive attitude and his smile before setting forth to renew an acquaintance too long neglected.
Isawa Takimoto returned from the void, his hand moving with a motion that it took his mind several seconds to catch up with. Though he was no Kakita Kaiga artisan, the likeness of the masked scorpion was quite passable. He had depicted the hand-shaped mask well enough, the hand spreading over the stern face’s mouth, both obscuring identity and suggesting silence from the observer as well. He turned the rice paper sideways, maybe the hand over the mouth was suggesting even more, like the airless fate of one who would oppose the man ? No matter, it took more than a suggestion of violence to disturb one who walked the void’s edge. Takimoto rolled the scroll an stuffed it into his Obi, careless of the slight smearing of ink that resulted. The Phoenix had searched the void for answers to who had sent the assassins against himself and his companions, and as usual, the void has provided. He cleared his mind once more, and began the prayers to the spirits of wind that might aid him in revealing to the world the honor he often kept hidden. It was not his way to wear his soul on his sleeve, but he had a task to perform, and he was determined to be successful.
Meanwhile, secreted within his tent, Daidoji Jiro, the Steel Crane, worked intently on a secret weapon. A single bead of sweat slowly crawled down his face, tracing a this line from his shaved forehead, down his lantern jaw, and finally loosing itself in the folds of his kimono, unheeded in the fierce concentration Jiro spent on the small object before him. It was dangerous to employ such a tool, for it was as dangerous for him if he was found out as it would be effective in disabling his foes. Even his brothers-in-arms would be taken aback if they knew, and they too might be forced to take action against him. As he finished it, he leaned back looking at it from one direction, then another, making a slight adjustment, ever so gingerly, as if the whole thing might explode at any moment. Finally, he blew a silent whistle of relief. Taking one more furtive glance around, peeking through a tent flap held open only a blade’s edge length, he assured himself no one was looking. He carefully placed the little horse he had woven from the few winter-wilted crysanthemums he had been able to gather into the sleeve of his kimono, made absolutely sure that it could NOT be seen, an then went forth with purpose. He NEEDED the morning cup of Sake he knew would be proffered by the Wasp.
Tsuruchi Kyotan yawned, stretched and scratched absently as he rolled his shoulders, working the kinks out of his muscles in preparation for the day ahead. After washing himself, he sent a silent but heartfelt prayer to his ancestors, thanking them again for blessing him with the fortune to be young, skillful, handsome, and unencumbered by the cares of those who were born slaves to their sense of propriety. He understood honor, and agreed with the idea of personal responsibility, but the idea that ancient customs should determine the worth of a man seemed ludicrous. A man was what he made of himself, and the circumstances of his birth should not be chains to bind him to the wheel of destiny. He smiled as he though of what his friends might think of his little blasphemies, amused as always by the small ways each one rebelled against the established order while trying so hard to keep to the ancient codes. Crab-Sama, with his humor and irreverent cherishing the value of truth over the status of who spoke it. Crane-Sama, with his quiet but stoic pride in being the Black sheep of his family, relishing each disappointment he caused in his father while outwardly showing his obedience to the Daimyo’s will. And Phoenix-Sama, who by his very LACK of vanity in clothing and bearing rose above the glory of those in his clan who strutted about like rich peacocks. Relishing the day ahead already, he quickly tucked a bottle of that divine drink sake into his kimono and went out to meet those who would share it with him.
While his friends were still making their way to the fields where heimin were rushing to clear light snow which had fallen during the night, Kuni Kokuri made his way to the Unicorn encampment that edged the road that traveled from Gisu castle to the North-West all the way to the Spine of the World in the South. The Caravan master Shinjo Gidayu could not bring himself to be far from the way that lead out and beyond the horizon. Kokuri made a great show of seeking out Shinjo Iruko, clowning to beat the best Yose actors. He asked those of the camp if they had seen a young Unicorn maiden, fair of form and voice, whose beauteous face and smile were only surpassed by the glory of her riding skills, but lamented that he could not fully describe any of her features, as his memory could not stretch back far enough to recall last time her had seen her. Making sure his friend Iruko could hear every word, he continued his queries up to the very spot where she breakfasted with her father. Though Iruko was sorely tempted to launch a clopd of the fresh earth at her feet towards her embarrassing friend, she was saved by the applause and laughter from her father, who invited Kokuri to breakfast with them. Kokuri happily accepted for the company, but quietly refrained from ingesting most of the unfamiliar and disquieting gaijin cuisine. Gidayu took the opportunity to inform the young Kuni that he had decided to “gift” him with his daughter, both to serve the dangerously curious crab as a Yojimbo and to learn the ways of the court from someone he felt was competent in them. Taken aback by the completely unexpected compliment, Kokuri attempted to clarify that he was in fact considered to be undecorious and forward in society, and did not feel competent to be a teacher in this arena. Gidayu waved away his concerns, stating that he was not seeking a master courtier, but rather one who was both effective in court AND un-effected in his behaviors. Kokuri attempted to refuse once again, stating he had no need of a Yojimbo, but Gidayu once again disagreed, citing Kokuri’s own self-admitted penchant for making enemies in court by his unsophisticated, though telling, maneuvers. Kokuri tried to refuse for a third time, but Gidayu simply pointed out that the crab had proven him wise in his choice of teachers, as Kokuri had shown great manners in refusing the gift of his daughter’s blade the proscribed three times, and would brook no further discussion. Though glad of the company of his amiable Samurai-Ko companion, Kokuri was highly nervous with the idea of being her teacher. He dealt with it the same way he dealt with all of his fears – though a mixture of bravado and humor, diving into the role of “sensei” with false confidence.
Once again, for the first time in several weeks, all five companions were together once again. Takimoto, Jiro, and especially Kyotan welcomed the return of Iruko to the circle, but as had happened many times before, contention reared before them. This time, it occurred upon the now ceremonial offering of a shared cup of sake. Iruko was scandalized by the idea of partaking so early in the morning, and fell into debate with Kyotan over the merits of his favored beverage. Iruko found no allies in her cause though, as both Kokuri and Takimoto had quickly moved forward with their own agendas for the morning. Kyotan used all of his considerable skills of persuasion to overcome Iruko’s reluctance, and after quaffing the sake, she quickly moved to rejoin the Witchhunter and the Phoenix near the encampment of Otomo Yoroshiku, dubbed Kyuden Otomo by the ever irreverent Kokuri.
While Kokuri moved to capitalize on the successful results of his earlier investigation into the mysteriously appearing letters that had caught the attention of the Emperor’s niece, Takimoto began seeking an aid in his courtship. He started by casting about for an appropriate go between that would be sympathetic to both his clan and his endeavors. He had barely begun when he apprehended an amazing display of artistry by Kakita Tsukune. The Crane had already shown herself an accomplished dancer and was rumored to be a superb flower arranger, but it was her current show of origami skills that truly amazed. Her creation of a paper butterfly was so realistic, it actually flew off her extended finger an into the air, performing a bit of aerial acrobatics before landing once more ! Luckily, the artisan had also drawn the attention of Kitsuki Inara, a Dragon Clan magistrate well renowned for her skill in investigation, but more importantly for Takimoto, as an impartial and honest mediator who was sympathetic to the Phoenix clan. Takimoto immediately began to cultivate a relationship with the two ladies of high court standing.
Kokuri was not idle. He sought out the servants he had determined responsible for delivering the Scorpion’s letters, which he had deduced were being affixed to the bottom of the dinnerwear that were used to bring the Yoroshiku’s meals with an adhesive that quickly released the notes, making them seem to mysteriously appear without being delivered. Kokuri took the servant who had been bribed to carry the letters aside, and made it clear that he would not reprimand her, but that he would require her to allow him a moment of privacy with the most recent note. He composed a haiku with which he adorned the letter that admonished the mysterious Scorpion for assuming himself too clever and overstepping his reach by wooing the Royal Maiden, and advised Otomo Yoroshiku to not overlook the devious and dangerous side of dealing with the scorpion clan.
The morning concluded with a tea ceremony in which Isawa Takimoto proved his mastery, serving a total of seven samurai flawlessly, impressing both the Dragon Magistrate and the Crane Artist mightily. Thus, both Kitsuki Inara and Kakita Tsukune happily joined the Crab, the Phoenix, and the Unicorn. The Crane of Steel and the Wasp had … other arrangements.
To Be Continued !