With a couple of hours before the dinner the young group of samurai went to their rooms to each get ready for the dinner in their own way although Shosuro took an hour to meditate to regain some of her spiritual power she had spent earlier in the fight with the goblins. About an hour before the dinner, Isawa Masanori summoned them to his room for an important announcement.
Once the group was gathered in his room, Isawa informed them that since the beginning of the journey he had been in regular correspondence with the Sparrow Clan. It seemed that there was a possible Bloodspeaker uprising inside the Sparrow lands and Isawa was one of the few shugenja powerfully enough to make a difference and the only one close enough. Kakita explained to some of the others that the Bloodspeakers were maho-tsukai and the followers of the fallen Iuchiban. Because of this he was going to depart north towards Kyuden Suzune, along with Hida Fujuiza’s patrol, while the caravan would follow along the Kaiu Kabe towards the North West. Until his return Kakita Hikaru would effectively be in charge. Kakita was stunned for a bit by the news but gave a bow of thanks and acknowledgement. The group spent a while going over the route, places to stay and arranging to rendezvous at Kyuden Miya. Isawa mentioned he had spoken with Kuni Yori and had arranged for them to pick up a Kuni shugenja at Shiro Kuni. With the details finished the young group of samurai dispersed and finished preparing for the dinner with Hida Yakamo. Kakita and Shosuro took the time to fine tune the entertainment for the night that they would be performing.
As the time for dinner approached the group of young samurai were escorted to a different dining hall then the one used the night before; this one was much smaller and more private. At the table was Kuni Yori, Hida Yakamo (along with a single yojimbo) and Hida Fujizaka. Before the dinner commenced Kuni Yori handled over the Crab Shugenja scrolls to be used for the Setsuban festival. Once again Isawa peformed the ritual to unseal the metal and jade box and place the shugenja scrolls inside. A few people observed the obvious difference in quality between the fine Crane scrolls and the more utilitarian looking Crab scrolls. Once the chest was resealed the dinner commenced. Hida Yakamo explained that Fujizaka was joining them to watch the promised entertainment as his reward for being the one to win the drinking contest from the night before. This news got a series of congratulatory discussions from everyone. Kakita Hikaru and Shosuro Shinriko said that they would then begin preparing for their show. Akodo Akio decided to entertain their host with a quick, somewhat lewd, amusing story in order to give time for the two samurai-ko to prepare. The Crab responded rather enthusiastically to the final punch line concerning a Dragon and a Scorpion and once everyone had calmed down the pair of samurai-ko signaled they were ready. Shosuro proceeded to perform a rather arousing one person version of a story about a Crab removing the mask of a overly “sincere” Scorpion while Kakita accompanied her antics with her biwa, using sharp notes to emphasize certain moments in the play as well as background mood setting music. Their performance was cheered and congratulated as the two samurai-ko bowed and cleaned up before rejoining everyone else at the table. The dinner proceeded well with conversation focusing on the upcoming travels of both the caravan and Isawa’s journey to the Sparrow lands which was none to very few people outside that room. Finally the dinner was over with everyone departing back to their rooms to prepare for the next day. As they were departing Shsoruo slipped Fujizaka a small note asking him to meet her later that night at the gates in order to go someplace and talk.
A few hours later Shosuro was escorted by one of her guards to the front gates of Kyuden Hida. There she waited while the hundred Crab Bushi who were in charge of guarding and holding the gates stood watching her in poorly hidden curiosity. After a while Hida Fujizaka came out of the citadel and joined her at the gates dressed in what was obviously his finest kimono. After greeting each other Shosuro explained that she did not know the area and was therefore leaving it up to Fujizaka to show the way to a place that they could talk. He said he knew a place they could talk and with that the pair of them departed thru the gates, to the even more poorly concealed leers of the guards on duty, and proceeded into the surrounding village. Fujizaka escorted Shosuro to a small but clean sake house while they found a table and ordered some light sake. They conversed about several small things and told each other what had befallen each of them over the last couple months since they had last seen each other. It was easy for Shosuro to tell that Fujizaka was nervous about being alone with her and was unsure of what he was supposed to do. They spent a while talking and after quite a while Shosuro told Fujizaka that she had made a gift for him. She pulled a small necklace with stone beads and a beautiful shell as the center. She told him it was a seashell from the beaches beneath Kyuden Doji that she had gathered while she was there. Fujizaka was clearly stunned and had no idea what to do before his etiquette education kicked in and he begun the ritual of refusing the gift twice before being able to accept the gift and to give himself a chance to collect himself in order to figure out what to do. Once he accepted the necklace he still had no idea what to do with it or what do in return. He finally brightened and reached to his ankle and untied a small spike resting there. Fujizaka explained that it was a Nezumi tail spike given to him by the Broken Shinbone tribe to show their friendship with him. His alliance with them had helped his patrol immensely. Shosuro, being more cultured then her Crab companion, was able to immediately think of the proper responses. Once the gifts were exchanged the two of them, realizing how late it was and all the people staring at them, decided to return back the citadel. As they walked past the gates they got a few more snickers and glances from the guards before making there way back inside. Fujizaka spent the time explaining the different semi-secret passageways and how they could be used to quickly move guards from one place to another if the citadel was attacked by creatures from the Shadowlands. When they reached Shosuro’s room Fujizaka just stared at her radiating a, at least in Shosuro’s opinion, amusing combination of nervousness and anxiousness. Shosuro stared at Fujizaka before giving him a lingering although fairly chaste kiss on the lips before bowing and disappearing into her room, leaving the stunned Fujizaka standing there.
The next morning the young group of samurai woke up to continue their journey thru the Crab lands. The group assembled at the front gate alongside the Hida Fujizaka’s Guntai that would be escorting Isawa Masanori and Shiba Yosuhiro north to Kyuden Suzume. Hida Yakamo and Kuni Yori also came out to see them off and once goodbyes were finished the two groups exited the gates of Kyuden Hida and each group went on their way. Kakita chose to keep everyone in their current positions and reminded Shinjo to stay alert. That night they spent the night in a small village where the local magistrate gave them a room for the night before continuing on the next morning to Koten. They arrived at the Ancestral Hall of the Crab, was modeled after the Lion Hall of Ancestors, shortly before dark. Koten was dedicated to the thousands of Crab Heroes who had served on the wall but, unlike the Lion Hall, this one lacked the remains and the weapons of the fallen heroes as these were either taken away by the Horde or the weapons were given to a new generation in order to continue to serve their Clan. Koten was watched over by a small group of monks who could recite the story of any of the Heroes depicted in the Ancestral Hall. As the monks should the group around Akodo spent some time comparing it to his Clans Hall of Ancestors while Shosuro asked for a few stories of the more famous Crab Heroes such as Osano-Wo. Shinjo asked for a couple of stories concerning the almost lost family of the Unicorn, the Moto, while Kakita just walked around. That night they stayed in the temple near by before they were to head north in the morning.
It took the group three days to travel from Koten to Shiro Kuni, each night staying at a local samurai’s home before once again getting up and continuing their travels. Late afternoon on the 16th of the month of Monkey they arrived within sight of Shiro Kuni. The Castle of the Nation was the biggest castle in the Empire and was the center of the Crab defense for Kaiu Kabe and could be seen for miles. Still several miles away the group suddenly heard a galloping horse in the distance coming from behind them. Kakita instructed everyone to stop but to stay where they were and remain calm. As the rider came around the bend Kakita recognized him as the Hida Avenger she had encountered the night before with Hida Kengetsu. He was pulling a one-wheeled cart behind him and moving fast. He stopped as he caught up to them and with little ceremony pulled off a rough blanket covering the cart to reveal a bruised and unconscious, but alive, Hida Kengetsu dressed only in a loin cloth. The Hida Avenger pulled Kengetsu out by his foot, dropping him on the ground, before lifting a couple of large wicker baskets out and explaining that the gear was inside. He bowed before Kakita and said that it had been an honor “sparring” with her and that they should do it again sometime, before jumping on his horse and riding off. As soon as he was away, Shosuro came over to Kengetsu to check on his wounds. He told everyone that he was ok and just unconscious. She spent half a minute tending to him with her medicine kit before he regained consciousness. The group was happy to see him back and in one piece and congratulated him on achieving his goal. Hida spent some time carefully putting on his armor and gearing up. They noticed he had abandoned his naginata and tetsubo in favor of a jitte on his right hip and a curiously fine masakari tucked into his obi at the small of his back. Once again reunited with Kengetsu, the group continued towards Shiro Kuni. As they rode Shinjo told Shosuro to remind him to be on the lookout for herbs to replenish her medicine kit.
Once closer to Shiro Kuni they noticed thousands of tents surrounding the great castle filled with armored bushi. At the gates they were received with little ceremony and were introduced to Kuni Yuddai, the shugenja that Kuni Yuni and Isawa had arranged to assist them in their travels. They were given rooms and once again instructed not to leave them without permission and an escort. As they had been on the road for quite some time and the places they had stayed had lacked even the rudimentary and coarse luxuries in these new rooms. Kakita took the time to clean herself using a small tub of water provided while Shosuro arranged for a courier to take a letter for her back home. Akodo and Hida just relaxed and meditated respectively. Later a small dinner was brought to their rooms and Shosuro decided to gather everyone in Akodo’s room to share the meal. Her reasoning was that it was the first time that they could talk all together without having to worry about impressing their hosts. They talked about a couple of things with Shosuro commenting it was nice to have Kengetsu back as he was an uncultured beast but with a heart of gold. Hida and Kakita told everyone the story about their fight in the sake house and Hida’s use of mizu-do as Hida explained his new training and got Shosuro to agree to assist him in learning how to use knives more efficiently. Hida also told them he had received a letter from the Blacksmith Tsi informing him that the Lion and Crane had officially declared war on each other and that the Lion were trying to seize Toshi Rambo. Once the dinner was complete everyone headed to bed as Kakita promised Hida she would visit him in the morning to try to help him with his injuries. That night Hida used some of the tea he had bought from Yasuki Jodeiga “Crab Clan merchant of many things” back in Tsuma before the Topaz Championship. Much later that evening Kakita awoke to a great commotion in the Castle and when she asked the guard in the hallway he explained that the “Great Bear” had arrived.
The next morning Hida Kengetsu politely knocked on Kakita’s door before everyone was awake. Kakita, who had also awoken extra early to help Hida, answered the door and bid him to come in and using her medicine kit she was able to tend to the rest of his leftover injuries. Once finished Hida thanked her and returned to his room as he and the rest of the group prepared for the day. When they were ready they were met at the gate by Kuni Yuddai and quickly set out on their way with Kuni Yuddai riding in between the two wagons next to Kakita. When they reached the road Kuni bid them to halt so he could help speed them on his way. When asked he explained that he was going to ask the kami inside the stones of the road to assist them in their travels. He removed a scroll from the bag at his side and begun chanting. When he was finished it seemed as if a great wave passed beneath the road towards heading north. When the ritual was complete they noticed the silhouette of an extraordinary large man on the battlements of Shiro Kuni looking towards them. Kakita explained that it must be the “Great Bear” as the guards had informed her that he had arrived late that evening. Once they were able to get under way again they realized that they were moving much swifter then they had before but their mounts were not actually the ones moving any quicker. Kakita asked Kuni Yuddai about himself. Kuni Yuddai explained that he was a retired Kuni Witch hunter and now was now a disciple of Kuni Yori studying new ways to beat use magic in order to defeat the constant threat of the Shadowlands. Kakita also asked about his makeup as Kuni face was masked by the traditional Witch Hunter makeup. He explained it served to confuse and intimate his enemies.
That night they once again rested in a tiny, unremarkable village where they were housed by the local samurai magistrate. Kakita prepared tea for them all as they gathered their things in the common room for the night and served everyone while Akodo, knowing the rituals of the Crane, served her tea when she was finished. They talked for a while about their journey, and got to know Kuni Yuddai who had a fascinating discussion about makeup with Kakita and Shosuro while Hida was just thankful to have another Crab along. They also discussed their next stop, Midaki Sano Mura, and the spirits that haunted the area. Kuni explained that the spirits were called Shakoki Dogu and were guarding spirits that resided in the Twilight Mountains. Although they were not malevolent, they did grow lonely and were known to kidnap people to keep their company. With this on their minds they got into their bedrolls and went to sleep with dreams of floating sprits.