Sweet! Kyoji thought to himself. "Yes, I would very much like that," he replied with a slight bow.
"Takashi-san, Takashi-san, Takashi-san!" Fukasu chanted. Everyone turned toward her, so she gave them an indignant look, "What?"
Kakeru and Musashi took up positions at the corners of an imaginary ring, and the two monks walked to the center. After bowing to each other, they assumed their fighting stances. Like he had done in the fight with the kitsune monk, Takashi held his fists at the level of his shoulders, and shifted his weight from foot to foot, all the while trying to make himself appear as tall as possible.
Kyoji, by contrast, stood extremely still. His feet seemed almost to sink into the earth as he settled his weight into his lower torso. He raised his fists to the same level as Takashi, but held them close to his body.
He's going to be hard to take down, Takashi realized. Defensive posture, strong stance. Oh well, I'm faster.
Kyoji nodded, and the fight began. Takashi moved in quickly, and made a grab for his opponent's robes. Kyoji deflected the grab with his arms, stepped forward, and slammed his shin into Takashi's thigh. Ow, Takashi thought as he took a step backward, his shins are pointy!
The monk from the Temple of Thunder and Lightning decided to press the fight, and attempted a thigh kick of his own. The monk from the Temple of the Silent Lake blocked the kick with his shin. Again with the shins! Then he slammed the side of his hand into Takashi's neck.
Musashi and Kakeru watched Takashi's face contort with pain as Kyoji's ridge-hand strike slammed into the young monk's neck. Takashi backed away and the two monks circled each other for a moment. Takashi bobbed and weaved outside the range of Kyoji's strikes, then darted in with a jab to the head. Kyoji deflected the blow again, and tried to retaliate with a punch of his own, but this time the disciple of the Way of the Storm easily dodged it. The disciple of the Way of the Tortoise advanced, and threw a thigh kick at the same leg that he had hit before.
Oh, no you don't, Takashi thought to himself as he dodged out of the way. The adrenaline coursed through his body, and he was pretty sure that it was the only thing keeping him on his feet at this point. He circled Kyoji for another moment, then decided his best bet was to try to grapple again. He stepped in and reached for his opponent's robes by extending his arms, and, unfortunately, exposing his ribs.
Kyoji saw the opening, stepped forward, deflected the grab attempt, and smashed his fist into Takashi's ribs. The young monk from the Temple of Thunder and Lightning gasped, then dropped to the ground. Kakeru and Musashi looked at each other with surprise, while Fukasu grimaced.
Musashi stared at Kyoji with admiration. He never got touched. He avoided Takashi-san's throws. He smiled to himself, he is powerful indeed. Kakeru strolled over to Takashi, knelt down, and healed the loser of the match – it was a routine that he was becoming accustomed to.
"Kyoji-san," Musashi said as Kakeru helped a groggy Takashi up off the ground, "the pilgrimage that we are undertaking is certain to be filled with great challenges. Perhaps you would be interested in accompanying us? I have no doubt that we will find many warriors for you to hone your skills against."
The straw-haired monk looked around at the group of adventurers. They seem upstanding enough, he thought, perhaps this is what the fates have in store for me. He bowed to Musashi, "Thank you, Kurosawa-sama. That sounds good." And if they turn out to be not upstanding, I can use them for practice.
Takashi looked over at Musashi and frowned, but said nothing.
"Well," Kakeru said, "We're headed to Tsumago to get some sake for our offering."
"Ah," Kyoji replied, "I just came from there. Tsumago-san was nice enough to put me up for a few days. I can introduce you to him, if you want."
"Really?" said Kakeru, "Hmm. We're also investigating the sabotage of Takayama-san's fields by a ninja group of some sort. Have you seen anything suspicious while you were there?"
Kyoji thought for a moment, "Actually, there were a group of mysterious people that kept coming into and out of town."
"Yeah, the other townspeople didn't really talk to them, but they acted like they belonged there."
"Interesting," Kakeru said as his mind began to race.
"Were these people ninja?" Musashi asked, "Did they meet with Tsumago-san?"
"Uhhh," Kyoji paused for a second before answering, "I haven't had much experience with ninja, so I can't really say. But they never talked to Tsumago-san while I was around. He doesn't seem like the type of guy who would associate with ninja."
What's that supposed to mean? Fukasu thought as she stuck her tongue out at the straw-haired monk from behind his back.
Kakeru smiled, and then continued his questioning, "Can you think of anything else out of the ordinary that you might have observed?"
Kyoji contemplated the question for a minute before answering, "Come to think of it, the brewmaster, Mieko-toji, seems to be very taken with Tsumago-san, but he doesn't seem to notice."
"Is he married?" Fukasu asked, and quickly stuck her tongue back in her mouth as Kyoji turned to face her.
"No, he's never taken a wife, from what he said."
"I'll bet a cask of sake she has something to do with it," Kakeru mumbled to himself before turning his attention back to group. "We should go," he said as he walked over and climbed back into the cart, "I'd like to talk with Tsumago-san and this Mieko-toji." And some sake wouldn't hurt either.
"You should really drink less," Kakeru's grandfather scolded him as the group continued on to Tsumago. "Sake may be sacred, but it is still an intoxicant, and capable of causing very dishonorable behavior." Kakeru rolled his eyes and made a mental note to ask Tsumago for an extra cask of sake - he was pretty sure he was going to need it.
Twenty minutes later, the group of five adventurers entered the town of Tsumago. In nearly every way, it was the twin of Takayama: small, surrounded by rice fields, a sparse main street with the kuramoto's residence at one end, and a very busy brewery. This time, the group didn't need to rely on Kakeru's keen nose for sake – instead, Kyoji directed them to the brewery.
Kakeru, Fukasu, Musashi, and Takashi looked around suspiciously, but followed Kyoji as he led them into the brewery. They wandered for a minute, before the straw hair monk stopped and bowed to a middle-aged man in a silk kimono, "Hello, Tsumago-san."
The man smiled and returned the bow, "Kyoji-san, to what do I owe the pleasure of your return?"
"I encountered a group of travelers from Kurosawa right after I left," Kyoji replied. Then he turned to the travelers from Kurosawa, "Kakeru-san, Musashi-san, Fukasu-san, Takashi-san, please allow me to introduce the kuramoto, Tsumago Akira."
Tsumago turned to look at the young travelers, and then bowed deeply. "Kurosawa-sama, it is my great honor to welcome you to Tsumago Sakagura."
"Thank you, Tsumago-san," Kakeru said as each of the daimyō's representatives bowed slightly.
"Allow me to take you on a tour of the brewery," he smiled.
Kakeru nodded his assent, and the kuramoto led them through the process of making sake. Almost every part of the process was identical to what they had seen at Takayama, so each of them spent their time watching the brewery workers, hoping to see something suspicious. Tsumago regarded their attention to the surroundings as interest in the brewing process, so he went into great detail at every step.
When they reached the shikomi – the large wooden tanks where the rice mash fermented – Kakeru noticed a stiff, middle-aged woman staring intently at the kuramoto. She followed his every movement with her eyes: every step he took, every hand gesture he made. She even seemed to watch his mouth form each syllable. Kakeru shuddered internally. That's just creepy, he thought.
After a few minutes, Tsumago turned to the woman and beckoned her over. As soon as he turned his attention to her, her countenance became radiant: she smiled and her whole body appeared to relax. She looks ten years younger, Kakeru thought.
"Kurosawa-sama," Tsumago said, "Please allow me to address Mieko-toji, our brewmaster."
Mieko blushed, then placed her hands on the front of her kimono and bowed deeply. "It is a great honor to have our sake offered to the fire crane," she said demurely.
Tsumago nodded, then motioned to the group to continue on. As he led the group away, Kakeru watched the toji out of the corner of his eye. She gazed longingly at him as he walked away, and, once he was out of sight, her face contorted and she turned away. There's definitely something going on there, thought Kakeru.
The kuramoto continued the tour for another half hour, then invited the group to dinner at his manor. "Tsumago-san," Kakeru began, "In addition to collecting the sake for the offering, there is another reason that we are here."
"Have you hired ninja to salt Takayama-san's fields?" Musashi blurted out angrily.
"What?" Tsumago exclaimed.
Kakeru sighed inwardly, "Tsumago-san, someone has been sabotaging Takayama-san's fields, and we're trying to track down the culprits." He smiled beatifically, and interspersed himself between Musashi and the kuramoto before continuing, "Obviously, we do not believe that you would do such a thing..."
"I should hope not. Takayama-san is no rival of mine, and we have always been on good terms."
"Oh, of course," the young shinkan continued. "We're just trying to eliminate all possible suspects." Musashi frowned and turned away from the conversation.
"Ah, I see," Tsumago nodded, "Is there anything I can do to assist you?"
"Well, would you mind if we talked to your workers?"
"You do not need my permission, but of course," Tsumago said, bowing. "Please, take your time. I will arrange for dinner to be ready after sundown." The group returned his bow, at which point the kuramoto took his leave.
The group spent the next couple of hours talking to the brewery workers. From what they could gather, Kyoji's suspicions and Kakeru's own observations about Mieko's feelings for Tsumago were correct: according to nearly everyone, she loves him, and he is oblivious to her affections.
Additionally, several of the kurabito mentioned the strange workers that Kyoji had noticed. No one was sure where they came from, but no one felt that it was their place to ask about them. As well they shouldn't, Musashi thought, peasants shouldn't be questioning their superiors.
On the way to the kuramoto's manor, the group discussed their findings. "So you believe that the saboteur is Mieko-toji?" Musashi asked Kakeru.
"I think so. Do you think she would attack Takayama in order to impress Tsumago-san?"
Fukasu thought about the woman's behavior and shuddered, "Yeah."
"Probably," said Takashi.
"Shall we tell Tsumago-san?" Musashi asked.
"Hmm, no. Not yet, at least. I think we need more proof," Kakeru replied as they arrived at the manor.
Tsumago proved a more than able host. The five heroes enjoyed a dinner of yakitori and rice which they washed down with lots and lots of sake. By the end of the meal, each of the travelers had at least ten empty skewers of the sweet, grilled food scattered around his or her plate, and had had at least ten cups of the sweet, sacred intoxicant. Kakeru, Musashi, and Kyoji had gone after the chicken with gusto, while Fukasu and Takashi had filled their bellies mainly with the shiitake mushrooms. Mmmmm, mushrooms, Fukasu thought to herself. After dinner, the group retired for the evening, vowing to investigate further in the morning.
While the other adventurers got ready to soak in the hot baths, Fukasu wandered around her room restlessly; all the activity in the past few days had jangled her nerves, and she felt the need to get out. She slid open the rice paper door to her room and padded out into the hallway. Kakeru emerged from his room at about the same time, and, when he cocked an eyebrow at her, she shrugged. "I'm too wound up right now," she said, "I'm going to go stretch my wings for a bit."
Kakeru nodded, "Be careful, Fu-chan."
"Don't worry, Kakeru-kun," she smiled, "I'll be fine." He always worries about me, she thought.
As the young shinkan turned to walk to the baths, he shook his head. She always worries me, he thought.
Fukasu tiptoed outside, so as not to attract attention, stretched for a minute, and then launched herself into the air. The powerful beat of her wings carried her aloft, and within seconds she was gliding in circles around the kuramoto's manor. As the cool spring air washed over her face, she felt herself beginning to relax. She sighed, and delighted in the feeling of flight; circling town, she swooped down over rooftops, danced upon the air currents, and tumbled over the tops of trees.
After an hour, she felt ready to return to the baths, and winged back toward the manor. As she approached the residence from the rear, she spotted Tsumago outside, talking to a young peasant. She couldn't make out what they were saying, but she did see the kuramoto hand the man several cranes and a sealed letter. The peasant bowed, lit the paper lantern he was carrying, and headed off into town.
Well, well, Fukasu thought to herself, that looks pretty suspicious. Catching an air current, she circled around to follow the peasant. As the man walked through town, she fluttered from rooftop to rooftop, as silent as a leaf on the wind. She followed him until he passed through town and began walking south on the road that led to Takayama.
Oooh, this should be good, she thought, I'd better go get the others.