Six weeks passed before the young samurai, the now so called Teeth of the Mongoose, met again at Kyuden Tonbo. It was the 27th of the month of the Dog, the day before the Bon festival, when they were once again received by Tonbo Sodan as the pleasant faced young lord welcomed them all again to his home. They were once again given the full hospitality of Kyuden Tonbo and enjoyed a magnificent dinner with their host. They discussed what each of them had been doing during their six week break and what they expected at the upcoming Imperial Winter Court. Finally, after everyone was well fed and had enjoyed the full hospitality of Tonbo Sodan the five young samurai, and their new servant Kocho who they had bough a fine kimono for, made their way to their rooms to rest for the two day trip north to Shiro Mirumoto.
The following morning the group awoke early to depart Kyuden Tonbo. They were escorted to the gates by Tonbo Sodan who thanked them for their visit and wished them safe travels. Once again reunited, although without the fourteen Tortoise, two wagons and two Phoenix, the young group traveled together north towards Shiro Mirumoto. Winter was clearly almost there as could be seen by the snow topped mountains and the increasingly cold winds. Shinjo once again used his skills to patrol around the small group and they quickly fell back into their traveling routine.
Around midday the group became suddenly alert as they heard one of Shinjo’s signal arrows fly thru the air. As they looked towards the arrow flying into the eastern sky they quickly spotted the trouble. It was a flying kenku being pursued by some sort of gigantic butterfly-like oni. The kenku has also heard the signal arrow and had spotted the traveling samurai and was quickly veering towards them. The samurai quickly dismounted their horses, handing them to Kocho and Hida, Kakita and Akodo formed a line facing the approaching flying figures as Shinjo, who had ridden out of the forest and joined them, and Shosuro prepared weapons behind the front line. Hida informed them that the oni was a Chocho no oni, which attacked with its wings and would use its proboscis to suck out bodily fluids. The group could also see a small orange humanoid like creature flying alongside the kenku as it grew closer. Shosuro prepared a knife while Shinjo placed an arrow upon his bow and they both attacked together as the oni came within close distance. Both Shosuro’s red handled tanto and Shinjo’s pair of arrows struck the oni, piercing deep into its flesh and killing it instantly. The oni fell from the sky before even reaching the front line of samurai. Shosuro and Shinjo went and recovered their weapons as the rest of the samurai gathered around the kenku.
The kenku introduced himself as Kozue, and introduced his mujina servant as Fuhao, and thanked them for their assistance. It seemed that he had been resting and eating lunch on a tree branch when the Chocho no oni attacked him and knocked his daisho off the branch it was resting on. Unable to reach his daisho and defend himself, Kozue had been forced to flee. Akodo, remembering the name of Kozue from stories about Doji Yasurugi, the first Crane Thunder, and that kenku were a long lived race, asked him if he was the Kozue. Kozue answered that he was, although it was obvious that the Kenku was distracted by Akodo’s polished copper saya for hid daisho. Kakita, remembering that the Kenku had a deep fascination and desire of shiny objects brought out a small golden bell she had brought for a possible gift during winter court and asked if he would like it. He graciously accepted the offer and Fuhao darted over to Kakita to retrieve it. Fuhao then studied the young Crane, darting from her face, down her body and around her back and then back to her face and asked Kozue if she was the one. Kozue studied Kakita for a moment and answered that; “no she was not, but she would be the one to train her”. Akodo asked her if she knew anything about what the kenku said but she was clearly as mystified as he was. Meanwhile Fuhao had returned to his master with the bell and seemed to be enjoying the sound of it immensely. He was entertaining himself by ringing it out and circling around Kozue’s head just above eye level which was clearly distracting to the kenku but tried to hide it. Kakita asked if Kozue needed help finding his daisho but Kozue said he could find it easily and that it was under the giant elm tree and then said it was always under the giant elm tree to the puzzlement of the samurai gathered around him. He once again thanked them for their assistance and told them that he was in their debt. If they ever needed his aid they would simply have to pray at a holy place connected with Sakkaku, the Realm of Mischief, and that Fuhao would know. He then bowed to them again and without further comment took wing and flew off. The group was startled by the meeting but quickly got back up, after taking care of the oni corpse, and continued their voyage north.
That night they rested at a small village which was in the middle of their Bon Festival. The Bon Festival was a festival of remembrance and reverence towards a family’s departed ancestors. During the festival, a family’s ancestors, as well as the malevolent spirits of those who met violent ends or who had no grave, returned to the homes of their descendants. Extended families came together across Rokugan at this time and provided two sets of altars for the spirits: one for the ancestors of their family and one for the spirits of those with no remaining family to provide an altar for them. During the festival Rokugani traveled to the graves where their ancestors were interred, light lanterns to greet their spirits, and then returned to their homes, hanging the lanterns outside to guide the spirits to them. The streets were filled with representations of the Great Kami, the Dragons of Myth, and white-faced ‘ghosts’ and spirits of the past. There also were fireworks, parades, music, traditional dances, and long twisting streamers. Cakes made of bleached white rice and covered in brown sugar were made to remind people that death (symbolized by the white) was a part of all life.
The traveling samurai took the time to pray to their ancestors at a small local shrine as they were far from home before joining in the festivities. They ate the small rice cakes and watched the parade of people in the streets. Kakita and Hida even joined in some of the traditional dances being performed by the locals. At the end of the festival, the people sent the spirits back to the worlds beyond. The people guided the spirits by floating lit candles and paper lanterns down nearby rivers in the called Paper Lantern Festival. With the festival over, and a long day of travel the next day, the young samurai finally retired to the inn and quickly fell asleep.
The next day passed with no incident, and the Teeth of the Mongoose, after six months of travel together, made quick time to Shiro Mirumoto and arrived just before sun down for the beginning of their first Imperial Winter Court. Winter Court was a time of holidays, festival and gathering, during which the finest courts of the land were held for three months within a host’s adobe. There the nobles of Rokugan used courtly graces and political manipulation to gather resources and information for their clans. The Mirumoto court is no different, and this year, it is the Imperial Winter Court, where the Emperor would hear the more important issues of the Empire and his niece, Otomo Yoroshiku, was looking for a husband. Shiro Mirumoto rested on a high mountainside, overlooking a perfectly clear mountain lake. When the winter snow came, the branches of the brown trees would rise like fingers, nearly touching the sky. There many balconies around the palace, most facing the magnificent view. A small waterfall to the north is the water source for the lake, known as Firebird Falls. At the gate stood Mirumoto Daini, the younger, more political sibling of the Mirumoto Daimyo; Mirumoto Hitomi, and his cousin Asako Kagetsu. It was clear that the pair of them had been standing there for hours and as they approached, Asako Kagetsu greeted them all individually by name and introduced himself and his cousin. It seemed that Mirumoto Daini had asked Asako Kagetsu to be the overseer of this winter court and assist Daini in hosting the Imperial Winter Court. Asako Kagetsu then gave each of them a small package wrapped in their clan’s mon, with appropriate family crest. He asks them to refrain from opening it until the night’s feast and it is quickly apparent that that Kagetsu knows who each of this guests are and to whom they offer allegiance and fealty.
After introductions are made they are escorted to an adjoining set of fine rooms, with once central balcony. Although it is on a lower level, it still has a fine view of the lake, down through the trees. The balconies of the lower daimyos are above them and at the uppermost level; the characters can see a terrace with the Imperial banner hanging on the wooden walkway. It seems that the uppermost level is build near enough to the top of Firebird Falls that a small cable bridge, woven of living vines, connects the center of the terrace to a small garden area built on the rocks at the top of the falls. The Iron Mountain Dojo could also be seen in the distance. With the stuff stored the first thing everyone wanted was a bath. Once bathed, and with still some time before dinner, they decided to explore the castle and grounds for a bit. Shosuro went to the libraries and inspected their, regretfully few as most of the library was dedicated to Shinsei, magic and Ninten, play scripts. Akodo and Kakita went into the main gardens and the adjacent dojos, containing paintings of Ninten on the walls, while Shinjo and Hida went down to view the lake, where Shinjo let his eagle fly around a bit and Hida spend some time working on Haikus for the coming court before it was time fo the welcoming dinner.
The welcoming dinner was magnificent, filled with excellent sake and beautifully arranged food. Otomo Yoroshiku sits at the table on the dais, surrounded by the Imperial delegation and Lord Asako Kagetsu and Lord Mirumoto Daini. The courtiers are all deliberately seated togetherm rather then by virtue of household or family. It is a formal gathering, and the eyes of the court are sharp to see what this winter’s entertainment will be. Gathered there, besides the Clan Champions, their representatives and the Imperial delegation were many people that the young samurai recognized from the Setsuban Festival. Isawa Tomo, Master of Water, was in attendance, as was Koan, the ronin shugenja who performed at the Festival. He has only one attendant, a young female apprentice named Uisako. Yorishiku’s three maids are also in attendance. As Yoroshiku is noble born of the Hantei line, all of her maids were samurai. The first, Hida Yauta, is a tremendously large Crab woman who has been the Princess’s nanny since birth. Kakita Nantoko and Kitsu Saia are the two younger maids, and they often giggle together, certain that their mistress’s beauty only casts a greater light on themselves.
Also present were a few notable visitors that the young group knew only by reputation. Among these are Shosuro Tage, the foremost actress of the Imperial troupe, along with a group of retainers and actors. She is a smiling, petite woman, with laughing eyes and delicate, almost fragile features. Another notable visitor is the young Phoenix lord, Shiba Himitsun. Many courtiers believe that Shiba Ujimitsu, the Phoenix Clan Champion, is training the young lord to follow in his own footsteps. in addition, there is a ranking Emerald Magistrate present, Hirum Usigo. He had just retired and would be joining a monastery in the spring but decided to accept this last invitation to Winter Court. Lastly, Akodo Akio’s local daimyo was present, Akodo Ryuden, much to Akio’s surprise.
Near the end of the feast, Kagetsu begun giving a speech to the assembly:
“Welcome, friends,” nodding politely at the gathered dignitaries and holding up one of the small boxes which were given at the entrance. “These gifts, my friends, have been prepared for your entertainment by myself and my lovely sister, Asako Nuriko. When you open them, and I ask that you do not do so here, you will find inside a small object. This object is the half of a pair. The other half, you see, is in the hands of another member of the court.” A faint murmur rippled through the courtiers at this, and many people whispered softly, causing Kagetsu to smile. “It is the setting for a small amusement we have planned. The object of the game is to find the other member of court whose bauble matches your own. Once you have, then you may ask that person one question per day, which, by their honor, must answer. Truthfully.” A hush fell over the court, and then voices begun to hiss urgently, as the surprise began to pass through the audience. “Of course,” continued Kagetsu, as if nothing had happened, “you are free to trade objects among yourselves, changing the game each time you do. A person with your object’s match will, of course, also be seeking you, so I suggest you keep the object hidden. There are only two final rules, our dear guests. The object you own can only be traded for another object which is also in the game, and you must keep your item on your person at all times.”
Kagetsu smiled and glanced at the Emperor whose face and glances at his own wrapped box made it clear he had known ahead of time about this game. The Emperor glanced at his niece with a raised eyebrow, who after a moment, begun to clap in appreciation of the game, and soon all of the courtiers followed suit. With that the feast was ended and everyone retired to their rooms to open and examine their gifts. What interesting questions will be asked in this game in the months to come? And what favors will be traded to obtain the perfect item?