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Yunoko's Final Letter
Lover & Soul-Friend,

Recently I have discovered intriguing facts about the assassination of Emperor Kando. Do you remember that this was the emperor slain by the "husband" of Mieko nearly 60 years ago?

I was studying records surrounding this assassination, and I learned that Eichiro not only slew the emperor; he also murdered two of the emperor's favored imperial guards. These men, if men they were at all — more on this idea soon — were called the "Twin Panthers". They were not defending the emperor when he was assassinated. Eichiro murdered them each separately and at different times.

The book in which I learned this was an historical record of famous assassinations in Wa history. Nearly three decades prior to Kando's assassination, I noticed another tyrannicide. In Wa Year 1669, Goshukara Raimei was slain by his supposed cousin, Konoma, who took the throne, claiming that his cousin was possessed of an evil spirit. Within less than a month, Emperor Konoma was found dead with a bamboo straw plunged through his neck, and witnesses claimed to have seen two men with backwards hands hurrying away from the palace, who were never seen again. Perhaps it is nothing but unfounded guesswork on my part, but I wonder if there is some connection between these two historical events. Have rakshasas, not just one rakshasa but a group of them, a ruler and two minions, been long active in my people's history, working their evil unseen?

I shall have to seek out further answers, but it shall have to wait until a later time. It has been a busy month, with the delegations from T'u Lung and Kozakura both.

My dear husband, how I miss thee! I cannot explain why, but I have been feeling great trepidation these last several nights, as if something terrible is about to happen. I have awoken from several nightmares. Most likely, it is all tied to the loss of our unborn child, but it is not sorrow I now feel; it is anxiety. As you know, for three months, I had felt like I had moved on from our loss, ready to try again, but then this, these strange feelings. I may stop at Hina's rojo tomorrow and see if she can tell me more.

I am dreadfully tired. I have more to write about another topic altogether, the visit of the emissaries from T'u Lung, which you may find interesting, as it pertains to supposed drow activity in wildspace, but I need my rest. Tomorrow, I must travel to Bunden to investigate rumors that a "pale-skinned" foreigner was beaten and left for dead. I suspect that the yakuza were involved. It is unfortunate that I cannot simply continue up the road to be home with you, but alas, you are sailing Celestian's stars. Now, I understand how you ache for me when I travel to Cormyr.

I love you forever, Dearest Onran.

I set down my pen for now, to pick it up again tomorrow night.
Session: 127th Game Session - Monday, Jan 04 2021 from 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM
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Chapter 3 — Return to Uwaji
The party were convinced that this false kashindan from Rukimbaru was the rakshasa murderer in disguise.

   "Keep your eyes open for strangers wearing gloves," said Belvin, after they had regrouped with Sofi and Kytharrah at the monastery.

   "We have a murder suspect now," said Solisar. "We simply need to determine where he currently is."

   "We need a better description," said Belvin, "but that is only going to be helpful if the rakshasa is maintaining the same disguise."

   "Why would he?" asked Leokas. "Cannot they take any humanoid form? It has been more than 30 years."

   "Still, whatever name or persona that he chose could still be of great help in finding him," said Hakam.

   "We also need a motive," said Leokas.

   "It is revenge for him, is it not?" said Hakam. "He wants to eliminate the entire line who killed him."

   "I meant, before he was first assassinated," said Leokas. "Why would an immortal being care about the politics in a place like Wa?"

   "Power?" replied Hakam. "We can certainly try to ascertain the greater motive as well."

   "Rakshasa are said to love manipulating mortals," said Szordrin. "They take great pleasure from it."

   "The emperors are worshiped in Wa," said Solisar.

   "You think that the rakshasa has the same ultimate goal as Samber," said Hakam, understanding Solisar's implication. Then he said, "In any case, I suggest that we return to the shogun's capital, obtain some information on the past emperors from Uwaji's libraries or historians, and wait for Yunoko's ghost to haunt us again."

   "Would there have been a record of the taxes paid to this imposter kept at the shoya's house?" asked Solisar. "We could then confirm with the officials in Uwaji that they did not send a tax collector on that day."

   "Yes," said Hakam, "we should try to speak with the shoya here one final time before leaving the village, if we can even obtain an audience again."

   Shoya Nambu had not seemed happy with them when they had left him, however, as he was sensitive to the topic of yakuza in his village. They considered whether a gift might put him back on their good side, and they discussed what sort of gift this might be. They could not agree on anything, but they walked to the shoya's estate anyhow. The guards at the gate indeed informed them that the shoya was "not interested in taking any more visitors at this time."

   "We are truly sorry if we have offended the shoya on our previous visit," said Hakam. "As outsiders, there were certain complexities of your society that were beyond our understanding. However, if the shoya will not meet with us, we only need to see the tax collection records from the day before ambassador Yunoko was murdered. It would be sufficient for us to meet with one of the shoya's officials instead."

   "I strongly doubt that the shoya will share official government documents with gajin," said the guard, with contempt in his voice. "Begone!" He waved his pole arm at them.

   "We are returning to the shogun," said Szordrin. "We shall pass on the fact that your shoya was not willing to help his official representatives in this investigation." He held up the legal notice from the shogun as a reminder of their formal authority.

   "We might also have to report to the shogun that the yakuza in this village were improperly convicted during the time of the previous shoya," said Hakam. "I hope that Shoya Nambu's intransigence will not reflect poorly on him."

   This angered the guard. "Are you trying to threaten and blackmail a noble? Dishonorable gajin dirt! I tell you one last time, begone from our village!" He lowered his weapon.

   "Very well," said Hakam, "we shall leave your village, but tell the shoya that if he changes his mind and cares to respond, he can reach us at the embassy in Wa."

   The guard nodded but continued to keep his weapon lowered. The adventurers turned and departed.


Later in the day, they found themselves back at Hina's teahouse and Tanoshihire's tiny lake. They heard splashing and an excited, childlike voice shouting, in an almost singsong way, "Ni huilaile! Ni huilaile! Wo mei xiangdao ni hui!" They saw the strange fish-like dragon doing flips in the water. As soon they reached the bridge, Tano, jumped out and waddled over to Kytharrah on his two stubby limbs and clamped his jaws down around Kytharrah's ankle, which, one would hope, was a sign of greeting. Kytharrah shook his leg back and forth violently until the smaller creature was tossed through the air to land back in the water. The minotaur had a large grin on his face, not caring that he now had blood above his hoof.

   "Kytharrah! Why do you let him do that to you?" said Sofi.

   "Play," said Kytharrah.

   Solisar used his magic to communicate with Tano, and Kytharrah and Belvin showed the odd creature the basket and how it would work. While their minotaur kept the young dragon entertained again, the others walked the short path up to the teahouse to greet Yunoko's old friend. Hina was happy to see them, and she hosted them in another tea ceremony, this time as a gift, not as a test.

   Hina had no memory of seeing anyone wearing gloves pass along the road the day after she had last seen Yunoko, but she once again offered to let them take one of her teacups back to the embassy as a means to help communicate with Yunoko's spirit, and they accepted one of the cups.

   As they walked the remainder of the way back to Uwaji, Tano rode in the water-filled basket and made endless comments about everything they passed that he found interesting, but only Solisar had any idea what he was saying.

   "Why did we agree to take this non-stop-talking fish with us again?" said Leokas.

   They reached the gates of Uwaji. It took some effort to get Tano to quiet down so that they could approach the gate guards and gain entry.

   Back at the embassy, Hakam requested that one of the guards deliver a message to the shogun, asking for an audience to report on their progress. He also requested permission for Hina to enter the city to visit them at the embassy if needed and for an order to the shoya of Bunden to release its tax collection records. (Hakam had the guard repeat the details several times before releasing him.) Then, they entered the compound. Tano was lowered into the little pool in the courtyard. Solisar immediately entered the complex and went up to Yunoko's old room.

   He saw at once that the chess pieces had moved. Particularly, the black queen's pawn had been moved forward, in response to his earlier move, though the black pawn had fallen over. The black rook on the king's side was also missing.

   "Yunoko responded to my move," said Solisar. "She must be able to materialize again. However, one of her rooks is missing."

   Hakam, who had followed Solisar up to the room, immediately prayed a short prayer. "It is under the bed."

   The cleric crouched down and easily found the piece. He set it back on the desk. Kytharrah picked up the black piece and sniffed it. "Dead!" he said.

   "This must be symbolic somehow," said Hakam.

   Szordrin crawled low to the floor and looked under the bed. "What if she was trying to indicate to us something else that we should find?" he said. The bed was set upon a tatami. He lifted the mat up, near where the rook had fallen.

   There was a tiny wooden panel, about a foot square, with a slot for one's finger to lift the panel up.

   Everyone gathered around with excitement. The panel was not locked, and Szordrin lifted it up. Below was a simple, small storage area, under the floor, containing a war fan, two fake feathers made of silk and bamboo, and a miniature token or talisman of a fan made of black paper. All of the items had magical auras — faint evocation magic for the large fan, moderate conjuration magic for the feathers, and faint abjuration magic for the tiny fan.

   "That is the fan that she tried to slit my neck with," said Leokas, referring to the larger item.

   "There is also a letter here," said Szordrin, lifting it out. "It is Yunoko's handwriting, and it is addressed to Onran, and it seems to be unfinished."
Session: 127th Game Session - Monday, Jan 04 2021 from 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM
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Dread Zolos
Two years had passed since we claimed our victory, and it had been nearly that long since Cabhan and I had seen any of the other Scions. Left at loose ends, we all had our own projects and desires, and well... with the danger passed, we did not need to stay together.

We traveled, saw the world, occasionally stopped to save a small part of it. Oh, there were still troubles, of course, small wrinkles to iron out. And there were nightmares and headaches, but that was hardly surprising. We focused on exploring the rich wonders around us, the food, the sights. The two of us, free to explore as we wished.

But we received word that Set Jarrad was being honored, being named Lord Warden. Our presence had been requested and we were happy to go to support our friend, and were pleased to see everyone again.

It was a strange reunion though. More than once we started talking about something, and then after a flash of blinding pain... a new subject was found. Yvor claimed to see the face of someone from Treetown. Padhraig thought he heard Magret speak to him. And I was not the only one plagued with headaches and strange dreams over the last few months.

And then that night I dreamed, more clearly than before, Arlan calling me, pleading with me.

"They told me, you have to... the ring! You never let them go! You have to!"

I woke, shaking and crying, and was already standing, Cabhan close by, when Jokulla knocked on our door. She cast a spell, and the world seemed to melt away.

An illusion.
A cage.
All shadow and dust.

Brann Ocras, the man who has bedeviled us for so long, nearly wailed to see us so awakened to our reality "She gave you everything you wanted!"

They were seeking us, our loved ones and friends, but we needed to fight free to reach them.

Whirlwinds of dust rose from the earth around us, trapping us between them. After a few moments, as the rest of us struggled against them, Kayla called out that we needed to steel our wills against Her and this Place.

A questioning look into my eyes through the column of whirling dust, a slight nod from me, and Cabhan away the first to disappear. I prayed he had found safety as the situation around me degraded.

Just after Padhraig grabbed hold of Orcas and fled, the whirlwinds merged into a towering, inky-black figure. There was a howl of anguish and anger, the world itself hurting now.

I focused on what I wanted, my love, my life, the promises I had made, and how none of it was Here. I spurned Her, and Her world.

And with a great shuddering breath, found myself on a hilltop. Cabhan had made it through, Arlan was waiting for me. Within a few heartbeats the rest of us were through. We were home, and as safe as we ever are.

We are not yet done with our task, and the world is not at peace.

But we are alive, and home, and that is something.
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Michaela's thoughts
He came for me.
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Chapter 3 — Kaji Kumi
~ 8th of Chu, the Year of Ji Chou, morning
outside Bunden, Wa

The morning light filtered through the bamboo leaves above them, casting a green light upon their campsite as they awoke or exited trance to the pleasant sound of the flowing stream to the east.

   As always, Belvin was up at dawn. After his morning prayers, he sat cross-legged on the ground, having gathered bamboo stalks from around the forest floor, which were piled before him. He called upon his druidic magic and began waving his hands intricately back and forth. The bamboo pieces began to dance and move with unnatural flexibility, weaving themselves into the shape of a large basket. After only a few moments, a large, water-tight basket with a long handle for carrying over one's back sat finished on the ground. This would be the basket for carrying around the carp dragon, Tanoshihire, when they returned to Uwaji, hopefully later in the day.

   Haketoko had returned to the village the night before to inform her boss, Kaji Kanamura, that the party would join him for cards in the morning. Solisar had explained to her that they would need more magic to be able to communicate and had to wait until morning for that. Hakam had further instructed her with the following: "We all need to be present, including our bodyguard, and if we play, he must answer our questions."

   As they packed their things together for the trip back to the village, Szordrin expressed surprise that Hakam would be joining them, since card playing was illegal in Wa. The lawyer justified his presence by explaining that, as an official emissary from a country where cards were not illegal, he would be able to observe.

   They made the short journey together back to Bunden, were greeted by the same constable at the gate as before, and entered. Haketoko had told them that she would meet them behind the inn, so they began heading into the center of the village. Hakam, however, explained that before they went with her, he had two quick errands to run on his own. He would join them at the inn in about a half hour. "I need one of the silver bars, Szordrin," said the cleric, holding out ten gold pieces. "This should cover it." Szordrin took the coins and handed Hakam one of the ch'ien. Then the cleric left them and headed south between two of the large shop minka.

   The cleric's two errands were to visit the sick woman and to heal her of her disease, as he had promised. This he did quickly, not even remaining long to receive the thanks and praise from the shocked and delighted family. His second stop was to the trinket dealer, Tensui, where he returned the silver bar to the man, since Szordrin had, in his mind, sold the clothing yesterday for an unfair price. Tensui was dumbfounded, but again, Hakam did not wait around to discuss the matter further. He simply turned, departed the shop, and headed down the dirt road to the inn.

   "That was quick," said Belvin.

   "I told you that I would be," said Hakam. "Now, where is the Wanese woman?"

   "She just told her people that we are here," said Sofi.

   Haketoko came out the back door to the inn just then. "Kaji Kanamura is ready for you. He has agreed to your terms. Please follow me." She gave a bow and seemed to be acting more formal than they were used to seeing.

   Haketoko led them up the stairs in the center of the inn and to the hall to the left. At the door to the small room where Hakam and Solisar had met with Ishi, the innkeeper, the day before, she stopped. "Those of you who will be playing or observing may continue around the corner and down the hall." She then spoke to Sofi, and Solisar translated. "Women are not permitted to play with men; do you wish to play a separate card game with me in the tea room? It is called e-awase."

   "Only if Kytharrah can play too," said Sofi through Solisar.


   "Me!" said the minotaur.

   She nodded. Hakam gave her the ability to speak in Wa-an again, and then the two women and the minotaur entered the tiny room.

   The others rounded the corner and walked down the short hall past the western-facing windows. At the end was a huge, hulking man. He was bald and shirtless, and his body was covered in intricate tattoos of dragons, oni, flowers, and warriors. He nodded at them, slid the door open behind him, and stepped aside so that they could pass.

   This room at the corner of the inn was about fifteen feet square and had a low table on a tatami. Nine bowls were arrayed on the center of the table, just as Haketoko had described, and tiny cups of sake had also been provided. Sitting on the floor in the corner of the room on the other side of the table was an older man, presumably Kaji Kanamura. Kanamura was almost as large a man as his body guard at the door. There was a second massive bodyguard, also shirtless and covered in tattoos, standing watch on a small connected balcony that overlooked the road on the southern side of the building. The guard at the door stepped back out of the room and slid the door shut.

   Solisar did not see any magic auras, nor did Hakam observe any chaotic ones.

   Kanamura gave a seated bow. "Yokoso. I am Kaji Kanamura. I take great delight in being challenged by new players. Which of you shall be my three opponents for this game of karuta?"

   Solisar sat next to Kanamura, and, moving clockwise from him, Belvin and Szordrin seated themselves on the other side. Among them, they had enough magic so that all three players could converse with Kanamura in Wa-an, and Solisar introduced himself and his companions. Hakam and Leokas stood to the back and observed. "No cheating," Hakam said firmly in Common, "especially you, Szordrin."

   Kanamura silently raised his arm in some sort of hand signal, and the guard at the balcony entered the room with a medium-sized pouch. "Twenty-four shells per tael," said the guard in a gruff voice. They purchased 48 shells each to begin, as that is the amount of shells that the guard first handed to Kanamura, enough for a minimum of six hands.

   After arranging the shells in front of him, Kanamura gave a bow, and they each bowed back. Then the man slipped his kimono from his shoulders and let it fall to his waist, baring his chest. His torso also was heavily tattooed, like the guards. Solisar observed that since the kimono had fallen over the obi, the belt, it covered the man's sword. It also meant that there was nowhere for him to be hiding any cards.

   Kanamura did not pause for any conversation; he immediately began filling each of the eight outer bowls with a shell, so the others followed his lead and anted up. Kanamura then dealt the cards, five to each person, and turned over the top of the deck to reveal the trump suit for the first hand, chalices.

   Solisar earned the most shells in the first hand. ("It must have been the luck of a beginner," he commented, not wanting to offend their host.) Belvin dominated the second hand without comment. They all played mostly in silence, as Kanamura never spoke beyond his initial greeting and seemed intently concentrating on his hand and upon looking each opponent in the eyes, trying to read their facial expressions. His opponents were wizards, however, and Belvin was more intelligent than average as well, so for all three of them, the logical plays came quite easily. While the middle phase of each round could involve bluffing and strategy, for the most part, they played algorithmically, and who won each hand came down mostly to the luck of the draw.

   The luck of the draw was against Szordrin, however, and he was the first to run out of shells. He sat back and continued to observe.

   Solisar then decided to introduce some small talk to the table. "When did you learn to play kakkuki?"

   "I have been playing since I was a boy, and my older brothers taught me," answered Kanamura, without looking up from his cards.

   "This version of the game is new to me," said Solisar, "but the betting phase is similar to that of a game that we play in the west called talis, and it uses many of the same cards."

   Kanamura glanced up at Solisar briefly, as if to discern if the elf were trying to distract him.

   Szordrin spoke up, while the others were laying down cards. "So, I would propose a modification to the rules. After the trump card is revealed, it would make the game more interesting if three additional cards were turned face up, which anyone could use in combination with their own hands to score points."

   Kanamura looked taken aback. "You would change the rules of a game that have been in play for generations?" Szordrin could not read whether the Wanese man was angry or just surprised.

   "Think of it as a new game to try sometime," said the tiefling wizard.

   Kanamura seemed to consider this and laid down a card. "Your play," he said to Solisar.

   "Since you are so accomplished a card player," Szordrin continued, "why not invent a new game of your own and become known for that?"

   "I shall give it some thought," said Kanamura, still looking at his cards.

   It was the first phase of a hand now, and the shells in the bowl for the sequence of cards had been building up for several hands. Solisar managed to claim them with a run of nine-knave-knight in the trump suit.

   "Oh ho ho!" said Kanamura, with a raise of an eyebrow. "Your ancestors favor you this morning." Apparently, he was not upset to be beaten by a good hand.

   Solisar now had enough shells to take more chances and raise in the second, betting phase. He quickly drove Belvin and Kanamura to fold. Solisar also played all his cards in the second phase, meaning that this hand did not even have a third phase.

   "You are a good opponent," said Kanamura.

   Kanamura and Belvin still had at least eight shells, so they were able to play another hand, and the cards were dealt again.

   Kanamura had an excellent hand, but Solisar, once again, had a better hand, playing the trump version of two of the otherwise winning cards that Kanamura placed down.

   "I have another rules suggestion," said Szordrin. "Suppose a rule were added where, upon being dealt a hand, each player, one time, would have the option of rejecting those five cards and instead receiving another?"

   "I would not like such a rule," said Kanamura, "for it would make it far easier to keep track of the probabilities of which cards were in play instead of in the deck."

   "Have you played many card games in your past, Szordrin?" asked Solisar.

   "In the Underdark, it was a popular activity."

   Solisar knew that the drow played a game called sava, but it was not a card game; it was more similar to elven coroniir or human chess but with a dice-rolling element. He kept his doubts about the other wizard's comment to himself, however.

   Another hand went strongly in Solisar's favor.

   Kanamura looked embarrassed. "I am not playing well this morning. I am glad that my uncle is not here to see me bring so much dishonor to his legacy! You have beaten me fairly, but I admit that I am also distracted by these ideas for new rules. What was the first idea that you shared?"

   Szordrin repeated the option of a set of shared face-up cards from which any player could score.

   "I will pay for more chips for you," said Kanamura to Szordrin, "so that we can play one more hand with this new rule, but let us start with only one face-up card to begin and see how it works."

   This they did. When Kanamura was dealt his hand, he grinned. "Ah, now I shall regain my honor."

   Kanamura indeed had a sequence of four cards for phase one and so also was the first to go out in phase three, but Solisar still managed to earn the most shells in the round overall. There was friendly debate about how to handle a situation when the face-up card was a single scoring card in the first phase, and this discussion lasted as long as two whole hands.

   By now Kanamura's persona had changed considerably since before the game began. "I have never considered such interesting options before!" Kanamura exclaimed.

   Now that Szordrin was back in the game, he managed to win the next hand with a pair of pairs in phase two. Just then, a messenger entered the room and came and whispered something in Kanamura's ear.

   "Arigatogozaimashita. This has been a very enjoyable morning, my guests," said Kanamura, "and now I have many new ideas to consider. I am happy to have had the opportunity to meet gajin with a sense of fun and honorable competition.

   "However, I know that you came here not just to play cards with an old man. You should speak with my brother, Kaji Norizane, at the largest building in the village. He will be able to connect you with the information that you seek."


   "It was barmy!" Sofi exclaimed as they were walking to the yakuza house. "I mean, I am not the most canny blood, but I did not expect.... Well, Kytharrah never made a single mistake, not one! It is a good thing that we were not playing for money; I would have lost all my jink!"

   The game that Kytharrah and Sofi had played with Haketoko was called e-awase. It used the same deck as kakkuki but only the black suits. The cards were arranged in a grid face down and turned over two at a time in an attempt to make pairs. If you overturned a pair, you kept those cards and went again. If the cards were not a pair, you turned them back face down, and it was the next player's turn.

   Kytharrah was beaming, knowing that his little sister was impressed with him.

   They approached the west side of the large minka. It was only a single story, but it covered more ground than even the shoya's house. The main entrance was open now, with two large men guarding the jambs. Haketoko had run ahead to tell her "family" that guests were coming, and one of the large guards from the inn — now fully dressed with a robe covering his tattoos — was walking ahead of them as an escort.

   "Kytharrah, let us go visit Imoko at the shrine again," said Sofi, knowing that she would not be welcome in the building. He agreed, and the two veered off from the others.

   "Sif and I will stay here outside on watch," said Leokas.

   The two men at the entrance made no comment or movement as the other four came up the steps and into the entrance room. It was about 25 feet wide with a large tatami on the floor. A weapon rack with swords was against each end wall, and other boxes and crates were in the corners. The opposite wall had two windows and a doorway into a central courtyard of sorts, and white lilies floated in blue vases on each side of this open exit.

   A third man, not quite as large and intimidating as the other two, was in the entrance room and asked what business they had in house Kaji Kumi.

   Hakam replied, "We just came from a meeting with Kanamura, and he asked that we speak with his brother."

   "Kaji Norizane," added Solisar.

   The man who escorted them nodded in agreement to the guards, and then he turned and went back toward the inn. The smaller man asked them to wait and entered the courtyard through the smaller, open doorway.

   He was gone for less than a minute. "You may enter the central garden. Uncle Norizane will come to you shortly."

   The garden was fifteen feet square, with a little pool of water surrounded by rocks in the center. There were open entrances back into the building to the north and south and a smaller, shut door to the east. The minka was apparently a square in shape, with an open center to the sky. Haketoko was in the room to the south, sitting on the mat with her back to them and combing her long black hair. Two men stood in the room to the north conversing quietly, too quietly for them to make out any of the words.

   One of those two men stepped down into the courtyard with them. He was wearing a dark blue kimono and looked to be about 60 years old. "Aisatsu, guests to our house. I have heard that you impressed my brother Kanamura with your ideas for card games." (The man did not look at all like Kanamura.) "Welcome to the home of our kumi." The magic did not translate this last word. "What business do you gajin have in our town?"

   Hakam thanked the man for his hospitality and then explained that they were there to investigate the death of a former ambassador named Yunoko. "We believe that the shogun's previous investigation came to the wrong conclusion."

   Norizane nodded. "You would need to speak with the oyabun about that, but the oyabun is particular about whom he speaks with. I can put in a good word for you, on account of the good word that I have already heard from Kanamura, but you would need to bring a gift for your host, to do him the honor necessary to be welcomed into his presence. If you already bear such a gift, I can deliver it to him and see if he is able to see you. Or you may leave and return upon obtaining something suitable for his station."

   "Forgive us," said Hakam. "As you know, we are foreigners to this land. We do not know what an appropriate gift would be for one as esteemed as your kumi's oyabun. Perhaps you might be able to provide us with an example."

   Norizane replied, "Yoshio, the oyabun, does like to collect small magical trinkets. I do not mean powerful magics or weapons but simple things, more for entertaining others than for true displays of power. That is what I would recommend."

   "I have some interesting alchemical means of creating fire," said Szordrin, "but only one time. Should the gift be something that can be used repeatedly?"

   "I am not a collector of magic items myself," said Norizane. "It is ultimately up to you to see what gift would be pleasing to the oyabun. Whatever you decide, I shall take it to him, and he will make the judgment of how worthy a gift he deems it to be."

   Szordrin considered instead gifting Yoshio with a sunrod, a sort of rod of iron with a tip at the end. When this tip was struck against a hard surface, it triggered an alchemical reaction and glowed brighter and longer than a torch without any of the heat. Szordrin explained the details to Norizane while holding it out for him to see. "It will glow for six hours."

   Norizane seemed interested and agreed to take the item to Yoshio. "I shall return to you with his response soon. Wait here in the garden." He entered the smaller door on the east side of the little courtyard, sliding the screen shut behind him.

   While they waited, the door opened again, and an old woman came out with a tray of tea. "Would you like to drink any tea?" she asked.

   They accepted the cha, but Belvin told them in Elven to pause before drinking it. He sniffed it and tasted it, to ensure that they were not being poisoned. He nodded to the others approval. It was delicious tea, not quite as high quality as the tea that Hina had served but definitely better than the tea served by Shoya Nambu.

   When they had finished the tea, Kaji Norizane returned to the garden, and the woman took the tray with the empty cups back into the house. "The oyabun seemed pleased with the gift that you had me present to him in your behalf. He was quite intrigued by it. He would like to meet with you now. Whenever you are ready, you may join him in the onsen. If you pass through the door behind me, you will enter the kitchen, and there is a screen immediately on the right. You may undress behind the screen, and the onsen is in the room beyond that."

   The word onsen was not translated by their magic, and his mention of undressing seemed rather odd to them without any context. They kept this confusion to themselves however.

   They stepped up into the kitchen. The old woman was sitting on the floor by the irori, the fire pit, stirring the contents of a pot. The southern third of the kitchen was currently divided off from the rest by paper screens. More noticeable than the smoke rising from the irori was steam coming from the other side of the paper screens. Belvin noticed the scent of familiar herbs carried with the steam. One of them slid the right side of the screen open and passed behind. The others followed. There was a bench behind the screen, and a few buckets. A set of clothes was hanging on hooks on the wall, and this wall opened up into the corner of the minka, the floor of which apparently was almost completely filled by a large circular stone bath. When their eyes adjusted to the steam, they saw a large man standing at the far end of the bath, the water up to his waist. His chest was, not surprisingly, highly decorated with tattoo ink. He held a tea cup in his right hand and was sipping from it slowly. Left of the man in the bath was a tray of tea, with the sunrod lying upon it. A tattooed guard wearing only a small loincloth stood guard on the bathing man's right, though he carried no weapons beyond his massively thick arms, which were crossed in front of him.

   "Welcome, tomo," said the bathing man with a deep but pleasant voice. "I thank you for your most fascinating present. I am Kaji Yoshio. Please, join me in the water. It is freshly heated." Indeed, they saw at a near corner a large brass basin tilted on its side, having emptied its contents into the bath in the floor.

   Belvin started undressing without hesitation, and Solisar slid the door shut to give them privacy from the kitchen. It was a bit crowded behind the screen, but they managed to strip and to hang their clothes next to the oyabuns on the remaining hooks. Solisar was hesitant to place their magic items out of sight, so he made sure that they were set on the bench where they would be visible from the water, and the others did the same.

   They lowered themselves into the water one at a time. It was very hot — too hot at first — but soon felt soothing to their muscles. The oyabun said nothing until they all had entered the spa, sipping his tea while he waited for them all to join him. Solisar scanned the bath room and saw no magical auras anywhere, apart from Szordrin's faintly glowing, very pale skin.

   "Ah!" said the oyabun, as if sighing in pleasure on behalf of his guests. "See, here we are, host and guest, naked and exposed before each other as a sign of trust. What questions do you have for me?"

   The oyabun was probably about 45 or 50 years old, but he was more muscular and fit than most men his age. He would have been alive but very young when Yunoko died. Hakam began his questioning in much the same way as he did with Kaji Norizane.

   The cheerful countenance of Yoshio faded at Hakam's words. "Yes, I remember that day. It is the day that my father and uncles were murdered by the shogun without a fair trial." Solisar sensed a seething rage in the man's voice, which he was trying hard to hide behind a smile to his guests.

   "That is the conclusion to which we have come as well," said Hakam, nodding. "However, we were hoping that you could provide further information about her true murderer."

   "Regretably, I have no knowledge of who killed the woman. I only know that it was no one in Kaji Kumi. We had great respect for the woman Yunoko. She understood the role that we play and our importance to the existence of this town."

   "We believe that we know the man," said Hakam, "but to call him a man would not be correct. We believe the murderer to have been a rakshasa, a kind of spirit or oni, and we believe that he was wounded when murdering her. He can change his form to appear as a human, but we think that he would be missing his right hand, even when in such a form of deception. I suspect that you must know of most people who pass through this village; does such a description sound like anyone you have seen?"

   "Would this have been around the same time that she visited our village the day of her death?" asked the oyabun.

   "Likely so, yes, but perhaps in years after that as well."

   "I recall no gajin, no strangers, with only one hand. A strange man did visit the town before the ambassador arrived and was then murdered, the day before, claiming to be a kashindan, a tax collector, from Uwaji. While it is true that the government sends different kashindan to collect taxes each season, I suspect that this man was a special agent from the shogunate, looking for a way to frame us. The man had two hands, however, but it was the day before. I do not know if he still had two hands the day after, for we did not see the man again."

   "Did you ever hear of any of the villagers reporting seeing a copy of themselves?" asked Belvin.

   Yoshio shook his head. "This is a small village, and we have many eyes among my nieces and nephews. I have heard no such tales."

   "It is possible that the rakshasa was working for or pretending to be working for the shogunate," said Hakam, "as we also believe that the rakshasa had impersonated one of your emperors in the distant past."

   Yoshio made a brief expression of surprise but not necessarily of disbelief. He then nodded. "I shall speak truthfully that I am biased in my answers to you, as I have no love for the shogunate. Thus, I would not be surprised to learn of such pretense and deception."

   "Do you know any further information about this man, this tax collector? Did he ever return here?"

   "I do not know his name, but you might speak with Aunt Yoritoko. She is the keeper of the house. You may have already seen her. You will likely find her in the kitchen here after dressing. She was young then and worked at the inn. She was the one who notified us of the kashindan's arrival. Perhaps she can tell you more about him."

   "There was also a gajin merchant," said Solisar, "who visited some time before the murder and who was the reason that Yunoko came to Bunden on the day that she was murdered."

   Hakam added, "It is possible that he was related to this rakshasa, perhaps setting a trap for Yunoko."

   "I know of this man too. The story is simple. I am sure that you will find it uninteresting and unhelpful, but at least you will have enjoyed a warm bath and have clean and soft skin. The gajin trader was an agent from the shogunate. He sold a series of tainted decks of cards to our fence at the edge of town. The decks had been enchanted, so that the shogunate could catch us breaking his foolish laws. My brother, the waka gashira, learned of this scheme and sent the wakashu to teach the man a lesson, which I am sure that he learned. This, unsurprisingly, caught the notice of the abassador for the gajin, this Yunoko. She came to speak with us. She met with my brother, Fujifusa, (not here in the onsen, of course, for that would be inappropriate, dishonorable, and unbecoming. Fuji was a man of respect, as all yakuza are.) It is regretable that she was found slain the next day, but we had nothing to do with that."

   "Did you also know a man named Onran," asked Szordrin, "who was the husband of Yunoko?"

   "I have never heard of this name. Yunoko spoke with the oyabun, who was Fujifusa, directly and without her husband present. I did not converse with her. I know the basics of what they spoke, for I was saiko-komon to Fujifusa. I was young for the role, but I have been with the kumi since only a boy."

   Hakam queried Yoshio about the bridge where Yunoko was murdered. "Is the bridge east of the village known as a place of ambush to travelers? Or is there anyone in your group who might have witnessed events at the bridge that day?"

   "The people of this village have been tasked by the shogunate to maintain the road from here to Uwaji, and thus there have been members of the kumi who have repaired the bridge in the past. The village carpenter would be the man to tend to the bridge itself, but the road and the grounds around it are also tended by the villagers, and the lanterns along it are made here in Bunden too. If you are asking me if we of the yakuza ever have 'used' the bridge in the administration of justice, I tell you that the wakashu generally work within the village walls, unless they are tossing an unwelcomed individual outside those walls." The man smiled, but maintained a calm tone as he spoke this last sentence. "It would be dishonorable to go beyond the bounds of our authority."

   "Are there no bands of highwaymen in the region about?" asked Hakam.

   "Between here and Uwaji? No. It is too close to the city, and the forests are not deep enough to shelter such criminals. There are indeed robbers and bandits as one travels west. It is more dangerous as one heads into the mountains. Such bandits know not to challenge our kumi here."

   "May I ask where it was that your family members were executed?" asked Solisar.

   "They were lined up along the road near the bridge," said Yoshio.

   "Where were they buried?"

   "They were not buried. The law of the land is that the executed are not permitted the honor of a burial."

   The party could not think of any further questions for the oyabun. Also, they were starting to feel a bit dizzy from being in the hot water for so long. Yoshio seemed to observe this. "I sense that you have soaked long enough. If you have no further questions of me, let us dry ourselves and dress. I have business elsewhere in the building, and Brother Norizane can show you out after you have spoken with Yoritoko, if you so choose."

   After they had clothed themselves again and entered the kitchen, Kaji Yoshio crossed the room and entered another to the north, sliding the door shut behind him. The old woman who had served them tea still crouched by the coals, working on her soup. They greeted her and asked about the so-called tax collector.

   Yoritoko did not remember the kashindan's name, but she did note the following. "He could not have been from Uwaji; he must have lied to us and to the shoya. When I cleaned his room, I found that his clothes were of a silk only made in Rukimbaru, not Uwaji." They remembered that Rukimbaru was the emperor's city and also the home of Yunoko's family.

   "Did you happen to see what the man's hands looked like?" asked Hakam, but she had never actually seen the man from up close; she had only cleaned his room as the maid at the inn and heard about his claims.

   "Did the shogun's real tax collector later arrive?" asked Hakam.

   She did not know, but she did say, "The kashindan are not known to be consistent at their tasks. There is little order to their comings and goings."

   Norizane entered the kitchen and then led them back to the main entrance. Leokas and his wolf were there waiting for them. Solisar and Szordrin were convinced that the oyabun had been truthful with them, and they quickly updated the forest elf on what they had learned within.

   They decided to return next to the inn to ask Ishi, the innkeeper, about the kashindan. Ishi also remembered the man, though he too did not recall his name. "I did not have a long interaction with the man. Kashindan collect their money directly from the shoya; I only know about him, because one of my maids seemed to think that he was not really a kashindan. Even so, he came, spent the night, collected the taxes, and left the next day.

   "I thought it strange though," he continued, "because the man wore gloves the whole time that he was here at the inn and never took them off."
Session: 127th Game Session - Monday, Jan 04 2021 from 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM
Viewable by: Public
Tags: Bunden , Chapter 3 , Recap , Wa