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Thread 1: >>41094
Thread 2: >>41628

[x] A stroll somewhere exotic. We could compare our philosophies and spells.

“Perhaps a trip to some dark, mysterious forest?”

“A dark forest, really?”

I pulled away from her. Clasping my hands behind my back, I strolled toward the gate. “Why? Are you afraid I’ll do anything… inappropriate?”

“What? Why would I even think that?”

Still clasping my hands, I shrugged. “Why, indeed?”

And yet, after a few steps, she fell in line beside me. “Surely, there’s somewhere better we can go.”

“Hm.” I chuckled. “Why yes, I think I know just the place.”

“Oh? Where is that?”

“Let’s allow it to be my little surprise, darling.”

She pouted. “Very well.”

Waiting barely until we left the gate, I unhooked my hands, grabbed one of hers, and dragged her toward the lightning-singed tree I’d come from. With a hop and skip, we’d returned to the infinite void and, from there, come out from another damaged tree, this time by a coarse dirt pathway, winding in switchbacks up a mountain face.

She frowned. “A dark forest on a mountain. Your wisdom impresses me, dear.”

“Oh, hush. You’ll see its beauty soon enough.” I offered her my elbow. She glanced at it, a mask of uncertainty flickering across her face before she shook her head and linked her arm with mine. Together, we began a trek up the mountainside.

I breathed in the thin but crisp, mountain air, feeling its chill touch on my skin. “So, how was your temple today.”

She sighed. “For some mysterious reason, your presence has them rattled. Perhaps we should spend our nights at your place, instead.”

I gasped in mock shock. “Why, you’re not trying to kick me out, are you?”

“Oh dear, no. Why, I believe you had to lose to accept sleeping under our roof. You wouldn’t already be seeking to return to it, would you?”

I shook my head, still striding up the steep, winding road. “Of course not. I would just hate to think I’d become unwanted.”

Her eyes narrowed at my banter, but she said nothing. And as it happened, I had no interest in further elaborating anything. And so, we walked, passing free of the trees as we reached a small, rocky ledge, not far from the mountain peak. The trail turned from dirt to rock as we continued, stepping into the open, where a vast expanse of trees laid far, far below us. A faint, multicolored shimmer ran through the air.

The sunlight had faded, growing just a hint bluer as it did so.

Slipping my arm out, I stepped forward and turned around. Grinning, I stared back at Byakuren. “So, darling, what do you think?”

She stood, sweeping her head across, to the side, as she took in the view. “What… is it?”

“The barrier, or so I hear. One of its impassible segments.”

She tilted her head just slightly, in contemplation. “I’m quite sure this is not what lies on the other side.”

I shrugged, tapping my shaku. “Reality is full of illusions. This may well be one of them.”

“Perhaps, but…” She brought a hand to her chin, rubbing it. “This would be a good place to meditate, to ponder such things.”

I approached her, stepping up to the ledge. “Now you see the beauty. Mysterious environments like this make excellent places to seek understanding of the fundamental nature of reality. To become one with the primordial force that drives us.”

She huffed. “True understanding would separate us from such base needs, not bind us closer to them.”

I waggled a finger in the air. “What if one doesn’t want to separate from them?”

She shook her head. “Then they would remain chained to the endless cycle of suffering, until they learned the truth.”

I planted a hand on her shoulder. “How sure are you that it is the truth?”

She then turned to face me, expression firm. “What else would be the truth? Do you not wish an end to suffering?”

I shook my head, stepping back on the path. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You… don’t know?”

I placed my shaku to my chest and stepped forward, away from her. “I want to achieve. To continue to create, to change, and become something better, more glorious. What would that mean, without at least a little struggle?”

She stepped up beside me, muttering something about a conflict with my habits before clearing her throat. “What achievement could be better than nirvana? Better than the end of all suffering and the ultimate understanding of life?”

I shrugged and started walking forward. “One that doesn’t end there but instead keeps going. The greatest achievement is the one you never reach, because each one tops the one before.”

She giggled. “You know, you could’ve been a great Zen teacher.”

I snickered. “You should’ve seen me when I still preached your faith.”

At that, she paused. “I think it’s for the best I didn’t. I’ve been betrayed enough already.”

I sighed, glancing toward the mountain peak, now so very close. “So have I.” I then grabbed her arm and marched forward. “How about we do some of that meditation, eh?”

She hesitated, then let me lead her up through the last few bends, to the rocky summit. It was round but coarse, leaning out in the opposite direction from what we’d seen, toward Gensokyo. Maybe five people could’ve fit here, sitting back-to-back-to-back.

We both settled down, facing the same direction it did, staring out over the village, fields, forests, and other mountains. We breathed in deep, what little air made it to us this high up. We sat in silence a few moments, hearing only our breathing, interrupted by the occasional bird cry.

Byakuren broke the silence first. “You know, the temple has a big festival coming up in a week or so. Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to help us out.”

I blinked. “Me, help prepare a Buddhist party?” Where was that eagerness to spend our time?

“It’s not a party!” She breathed in, desires cooling. “It would be an excellent way to convey our cooperation and to endear you to the temple, would it not?”

I hummed, listening to her heart. She was troubled. She feared sabotage from inside her temple, but also worried about letting me too close to her more sacred rooms or rituals. She did want to spend the festival with me, though.

Likely for more reasons than one, though.

And above all that, she seemed less interested in what I answered with, so much as why.

She wanted to know more about me.

I rubbed my shaku. “That seems a lot of work. What would I gain from it?”

She groaned. “This would be a chance to show charity and industry, Miko. Would it bother you so much to do so out of the kindness of your heart?”

I chuckled. “I think my charity would be better spent on my disciples first. I daresay they’re in greater need than yours.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Very well. What do you have in mind?”

I tapped the shaku to my chin, thinking. I…

[ ] I wanted to learn some of her magic.

[ ] I wanted to see how she handled Taoist meditation.

[ ] I expected assistance with the next festival my dojo hosted.

[ ] I’d offer HER a favor to keep me out of it.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/05/18 (Mon) 19:00

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[X] I wanted to see how she handled Taoist meditation.

Give the byaku lewd thoughts
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[x] I wanted to see how she handled Taoist meditation.

I maintain what I say. Giving up on desires is an ideal, but so is achieving our every desire. Is there a middle ground?
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[X] I wanted to see how she handled Taoist meditation.
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[X] I wanted to see how she handled Taoist meditation.
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[x] I wanted to learn some of her magic.

Just how does she color her hair like that?
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[X] I wanted to learn some of her magic.

No no teach us that gold glowey spell she uses. I wish to be grossly incandescent.
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[x] I wanted to see how she handled Taoist meditation.
free us from physical addictions
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[x] I wanted to see how she handled Taoist meditation.

I smiled, sparing her a sideways glance. “Asking me to devote precious time and energy to the festival of another faith? How audacious, Byakuren!”

She snorted. “Can you not bear to lend a hand to your wife’s endeavors?”

I snickered. “But of course, of course, I’ll help. I just need a little show of… faith, first.”

She settled her hands in her lap. “Well then, you’ve come to the right place, haven’t you?”

“Oh, have I?”

She closed her eyes. “I certainly have more faith to spare than you, I imagine.”

“We’ll see.” I hummed, rocking back and forth. “I want to do some meditation with you, first.”

She blinked. “Meditation? That’s all?”

I grinned. “Just that. But we do it my way, not yours.”


She held still. I waited a moment, breathing in the thin air as I watched the sun hover ever closer to the far mountains. Finally, she shook her head. “Your form pushes you toward pleasure and excitement, does it not?”

“It pushes us toward liberation and discovery. But those are common side-effects.”

“Then, I cannot. It would bring me closer to the base desires we must escape from.”

“Oh?” I gave her a sly grin. “You want me to show some solidarity with your faith, but you’re unwilling to do the same?”

She glanced away. “This is completely different! Offering a hand for a festival is nothing compared to this!”

“But how will my disciples see it if I help? You don’t think it could cause them confusion? That it may make them stumble in their life journey?”

She sighed. “Then, then I retract the request.”

I shook my head. “My wife is unwilling to follow me in even the simplest of my rituals. How tragic…”

She held quiet a moment longer. “You play dirty, Miko.”

“Oh ho? You don’t?”

She pulled her back straight, interlacing her fingers as she stared out over Gensokyo, pointedly looking away from me. “I expect your aid in our festival, Miko.”

“Sure, sure.”

We sat there a moment before she cleared her throat. “So… how do you begin this thing your way?”

I smiled, leaning back as I settled my hands on my knees. “Much the same way you do. Calm yourself, close your eyes, let go of outside worries.”

As she closed her eyes, mine followed. “Breathe in and out. Think of it, focus on it. In, then out, then hold. In, then out, then hold.”

As with the others before her, her desires calmed, growing slowly less intense, more still. In and out we breathed, in and out.

In and out, in and out.

Once our consciousnesses had dipped low enough, I spoke again, slow and calm.

“Now, think of what you want. Focus on it, grasp it.”

I heard a minute shuffle beside me.

“Of… what I want?”

“What you desire. Think on it. Not on how to reach it. Think only of the desire itself. Become the-”

She shuffled again, rising back up in a heartbeat. “No. I can’t.”

I groaned, slowly opening my eyes. I watched her shake her head and start to stand. I sighed.

“Giving up already?”

“Desires are precisely what make us suffer! You can’t insist that I dwell on them.”

I frowned. “An odd thing to say, given your beauty.”

I couldn’t help a snicker at the rush of hot embarrassed confusion that ignited. “What does that have to do with anything!”

“You control your appearance, do you not?”

“That’s-” She sighed, settling back down. “Perhaps I should ask you of all your efforts to lead and control. Do those really seem…” She shook her head. “What’s done is done. It would be a waste of effort to return to my previous state.”

I rolled my eyes, earning a sour look from her. “Of course, it would. Now, just give it one attempt, will you? Who knows, maybe you’ll learn how to finally cure yourself of them.”

“…Very well.”

I nodded, chiding myself for my outburst as I closed my eyes again. I breathed in, then out, then held my breath for a split-second. In, then out, then hold. In, then out, then hold.

The tranquility from before returned, though Byakuren came down far, far slower than I did. It seemed her awareness of where we’d arrive had clung to her psyche hard.

I spoke slowly, quietly. “Relax. Focus on the breathing. No future. No past. Just the moment.”

Slowly, shakily, she calmed to the needed point.

“Good. Good.” I exhaled. “Now, think. What do you most desire?”

“I… don’t know.”

“It’s okay. Don’t rush. Just let it come.”

Time passed. We held still and calm. But nothing came.

I sighed, slow and shallow. “What’s one thing you desire?”


“Then, think on that. Imagine yourself, transcendent.”

We held still another moment, then I heard a bubbling up of-

“Ahahaha!” Byakuren broke out into raw, warm laughter.

My eyes fluttered open to behold a darkening sky. “Excuse me, but what the hell?”

She shook her head, shoulders quaking as she rubbed tears from her eyes.

“Imagine myself, transcendent? That’s just so, so…”

She broke off into a giggling fit.

I sat there, somewhat stunned as I waited for her to calm down. Finally, she did. Breathing hard, she pulled herself to her feet. “Well, I gave it my all! Time to go home.”

Disgruntled, I stood as well. The sun graced us a brilliant orange halo, burning against the violet sky, as it dipped past the mountains. “I’m to help you prepare a full festival, for that paltry effort?”

She huffed. “Really, it took great sacrifice on my part just to get this far.”

“Fine, fine. We’ll try again later.”

She flinched. “You’re awfully insistent.”

“I’m sorry, darling, but I won’t give you this for free.”

“So stubborn. So, how has your temple been today, dear?”

I shrugged, turning back toward the path. “They’ve adapted remarkably well. Why, I daresay that by tomorrow, all will be back to normal.”

Whether or not they’d remain so obedient remained to be seen, but she didn’t need to know that.

She huffed, stepping up beside me. “We’ll see. Now…” she paused, looking around, “perhaps we should head back. Just a little trip to make sure they’re not doing anything hasty. Together.”

I rocked my head from side to side. She wanted to stay a little longer, but also preferred not to continue this ‘meditation’ tonight. I could push her, but I preferred not to. It would be unbecoming for a representative of our path to defy it to the end of educating someone in it. Bringing up the topic of our disciples did also reignite a small worry in her, tugging her back to that temple again.

Still, I’d picked up an idea or two from this. Perhaps there’d be some things we could learn from one another, if we discussed our philosophies in greater detail. And of course, I had yet to show her any of my own domain. I could attempt to impress her with it, or I could keep her away from it, making things easier on both my future self and on Tojiko.

But if she wanted to make the most out of our time together, then, well…

[ ] I asked a few more questions of her take on Buddhist philosophy.

[ ] I made some grand romantic gesture, planning to bring her in for a kiss under the setting sun.

[ ] I suggested we return to her temple, finishing our ‘date’ in one of her chambers.

[ ] I invited her back to Senkai, planning to sweep her off her feet. I’d keep her out of anywhere sensitive, of course.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/06/01 (Mon) 19:00

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[X] I suggested we return to her temple, finishing our ‘date’ in one of her chambers.

Time for [X]Route Stuff
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[x] I suggested we return to her temple, finishing our ‘date’ in one of her chambers.

No need for overt romantic gestures or to push too much on religion. Just enjoy each other's company.
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[X] I suggested we return to her temple, finishing our ‘date’ in one of her chambers.
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[x] I invited her back to Senkai, planning to sweep her off her feet. I’d keep her out of anywhere sensitive, of course.

Byakuren's followers are incredibly distracting. Lets go somewhere where we have a bit more control.
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[X] I suggested we return to her temple, finishing our ‘date’ in one of her chambers.

Time for lewd?
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[X] I suggested we return to her temple, finishing our ‘date’ in one of her chambers.

Time for lewd?
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[x] I suggested we return to her temple, finishing our ‘date’ in one of her chambers.

“You’re right. Let’s go back together.”

I took her arm and walked back down the mountain path. “So, what has you so worried, anyway?”

She held firm, barely allowing herself to lean into my body. “If it turns out to matter, then you’ll see when we return.”

It was something she didn’t want to admit to, at least publicly, but… she quite wished her followers were less rambunctious.

Not surprising, but intriguing. Did they have some prank in mind? Something that would cause us trouble or embarrass her?

Sighing, I let her cling to my side as we returned through to the damaged tree. With a quick step in and out, we found ourselves just outside the steps to her temple.

She parted from me. “You have rather easy access to our sacred grounds, don’t you?”

I sidled up close beside her. “You’re not worried now, are you?”

She turned her head. “Of course not!”

She didn’t resist when I slid an arm around her waist, though. Shaking her head, she pulled me forward.

Together, we walked back up those stairs, toward the calming swarm of desires that mingled among her temple. Faint traces of concern and suspicious lingered, but something else had appeared. Something too confused by the swarm to identify, but whatever it was, it was mischievous.

I’d keep an eye on this, but I needed to know more before I had anything to act on.

As we stepped through the double doors, I rubbed up against Byakuren’s side. She stiffened, but also fought down a rather blatant desire to pull me closer. A sinister grin crept across my face as she guided me down the hall.

“Well, if you must spend your time here, I suppose I should show you where everything-”

I rested my head on her shoulder. A tiny ‘eep’ escaped her throat.

“You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?”

I snickered. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, darling~”

“Really, you shouldn’t…”

The faintest sound of chopsticks on tableware floated through the quiet, dim halls.

“Perhaps we should have a quiet, intimate meal ourselves, darling.”

She huffed, though with a pronounced note of hesitance to her voice. “You shouldn’t put it that way. People might… misunderstand.”

“Oh? What would they find so confusing?”

I felt a light but insistent thump to my side. “This way, dear.”

She dragged me down the hall, to a modest room of counters, a wooden stove, and a wash basin.

“This is our kitchen. It does the soul good to prepare food for someone else.”

“Oh, do you want a freshly-cooked meal from your wife?”

“Th-n-yo…” She stammered, then dragged me back out of the room. I didn’t need my ears to know she’d desperately sought a change of topic. She led me next to the dining hall, then to the chamber where I’d interrupted her group meditation or chanting… thing.

“Here I teach my disciples what I can of the Buddha’s wisdom. Our sacred principles and rules, our mantras, and, when needed, how to treat one another.”

“Perhaps you should tell me then, just how should a husband and wife treat one an-”


I paused, untangling myself and pulling a half-step away.

She panted, breathing hard. “There you go again.”

I shrugged, offering a soft smile. “You committed to such things yourself, did you not? First at the shrine, then in your basement. Will you run from this again?”

“Desire binds us, keeps us suffering. I, I, I… I thought I could control it, but…”

I paused a moment, listening to her soul. She feared… release? I had to wait a moment, processing that thought, to realize what it meant.

“But this is all too much of what you want.”

She sighed, slumping. “Yes.”

I clicked my tongue, grasping my shaku at both ends and holding it against my thighs. “Remember what I said earlier? Consider this a study session. Dive into those desires. See what they look like from the inside. Once you do, perhaps you’ll better understand how to suppress them.”

“It’s not enough to suppress desires, Miko. One must abandon them.”

“And how long have you been attempting just that?”

She leveled a rather flat look my way. “How many cycles do you think the average soul goes through before they finally achieve enlightenment?”

I shrugged. “A long time, I imagine. But if you haven’t succeeded yet, perhaps it’s time to try another approach? Study them much closer to learn how they cling. And from that, how to let go. It’s not impossible to be both a good Buddhist and a good partner, is it?”

She sighed, long and heavy. “No. But such bonds will hold one back.”

“Then take a step back to move forward.”

She let out a tiny smirk. “I’m starting to wonder if you’d be a better Buddhist than a Taoist.”

I shook my head. “Please. That’s a cornerstone of the Tao. Don’t fight the universe, move with it, like a wave. Let what comes, come. Make it your own.”

She hummed. “Are you sure you wish to impart this advice?”

I opened my mouth, then paused. It was time that I committed to just how I wanted this relationship to go. What it was that I’d attempt to achieve over the course of our time together. Would I try to impress her disciples, leave with them the seeds of my own ideology, or to learn something of Byakuren’s own tricks?

I drummed my fingers over my shaku, slowly raising it over my mouth. “Does something worry you, my darling?”

She clasped her hands. “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just… I’ve already committed to some compromise, to make this work. It’s not the faith itself that holds me back this time, but…”

But the fear that, after holding back for so long, she’d dive too deep.

I hummed, considering her worry, but also my own needs. Now wasn’t the time to commit to one path or another, but long past time to start moving forward. So, naturally…

[ ] I assured her it all would be fine. I’d be quick to help, but in my own style.

[ ] I dragged her somewhere more private, where I’d suggest she follow her heart. Getting properly close to Byakuren would be the key to any future efforts.

[ ] I decided to ask what our not-so-subtle audience thought. Perhaps I’d even go full ‘Administrator’ while I was at it.

[ ] Having second thoughts, I changed the topic to asking about this festival of hers. Perhaps it would do her some good to think it over.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/06/20 (Sat) 18:00

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[X] I dragged her somewhere more private, where I’d suggest she follow her heart. Getting properly close to Byakuren would be the key to any future efforts.
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[X] I dragged her somewhere more private, where I’d suggest she follow her heart. Getting properly close to Byakuren would be the key to any future efforts.
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[X] I dragged her somewhere more private, where I’d suggest she follow her heart. Getting properly close to Byakuren would be the key to any future efforts.
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[x] I dragged her somewhere more private, where I’d suggest she follow her heart. Getting properly close to Byakuren would be the key to any future efforts.

All in
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[x] I dragged her somewhere more private, where I’d suggest she follow her heart. Getting properly close to Byakuren would be the key to any future efforts.

I extended my free hand to her shoulder, offering a confident grin. “Let’s save this discussion for a later time, shall we?”

She blinked, frowning.

Holding my shaku out toward the wall, I lifted the hand from her shoulder to tap my earmuffs. I raised my voice, just slightly. “I’d rather save such advice for a more… private setting.”

She glanced to my hand, then my ears, then she shook her head, blushing. “No, we shouldn’t! But, well…” She clasped my hand and marched back into the halls.

A wave of surprise rolled through the temple as she hurried me along. Surprise, deepening concern, and a few pockets of delight. Pesky interlo-

“Wha-hey!” I stumbled after her. “You can’t keep dragging me around like this!”

“What?” She turned around, glancing down at her hand. “Oh, my apologies.” She let go, then returned to marching down the halls, turning up a flight of stairs. “This way.” She marched forward at a rather frantic pace, forcing me to work rather hard to keep up.

Sweating, I kept catching snippets of the temple as I jogged up to her side. Worry that I’d steal something, embarrass them, or even kidnap unwary disciples. All of them misconceptions in need of correction. I’d have a lot of work tomorrow, but for now-

Byakuren slid a door open, revealing the room we’d crashed in last night. She ushered me in but kept herself by the door. She offered an apologetic smile.

“Give me a moment, would you?”


She was already gone, slamming the door shut.

I shuddered, feeling a pang of sympathy for her temple. How do you slam a sliding door shut?

I leaned back, grumbling. She’d gotten far too cozy taking the lead. I’d need to do something about that soon.

I sighed and took a moment to listen and ponder. The desires had moved, slightly, in my general direction. But those disciples kept far more distance from this room than they had the worship room. Did they have business to attend to? Unlikely, given their fixation on us. At most, they may have had to look busy.

More likely, Byakuren had impressed on them to keep their distance. Her, or someone of similar status here. But when and why? Was it just yesterday, to help ensure our little game worked? Or did she set this up earlier?

Did a high-ranking disciple worry about how this would reflect on them? Did Byakuren have something to hide from her followers?

I shook my head. Of course, she had secrets. More precisely, did she hide something here from her followers?

If so, the temple’s suspicion toward me could cause her grief too. I doubted it would be anything beyond her capabilities, but perhaps it would lead to something amusing to see.

Wait. The temple suspected me of wanting to steal something. Just how would I fulfill Tojiko’s request under such an atmosphere? I groaned, perhaps-

The door slid back open and Byakuren waltzed inside, carrying a couple cups of warm, steaming tea, which she set down in the middle of the relatively small room. She kneeled behind them, carefully folding her legs and setting her hands on her knees. She leveled her eyes up toward me.

She blushed, the faintest twitches plaguing her shoulders and arms.

The sheer severity she approached this all with took me aback. She both feared and desired my final comments. I shook my head, grinning. I sat down before her, crossing my legs. After setting the shaku in my lap, I, too, planted my hands on my knees, but then I leaned back, rolling my neck before staring back at her. Those tremors had grown just slightly in the intervening seconds.

I almost snickered at the sight. Instead, I cleared my throat.

“Follow your heart.”

She blinked, face flat.

“That’s… it?”

Hands still on my knees, I shrugged. “That’s it.” I put on my most winning smile. “You’ve done your thinking. Now it’s time to trust yourself. Trust where your gut leads you.”

Byakuren’s chest lifted, then deflated alongside a particularly hefty sigh.

“Then I shall hold you and your religion responsible if this goes poorly.”

“Sure, sure.”

She grabbed a cup and, closing her eyes, lifted it toward her lips. “Follow my heart? Now, just where does it lead?”

I blinked, grabbing the other cup. “You d-”

“Well, right now…” She took a long sip. “Though it pains me to say it, I may, may…” She paused, taking a deep breath. “I want to better understand last night. What I felt, what drove me to do what I did.”

I took a sip, myself. A somewhat bland tea, but with just a hint of earthiness to it. A simple, rustic flavor.

She set the cup down, beside her. Then, leaning forward, she planted her hands on my thighs. I blinked, setting my own cup down. She scooted forward, sliding her hands up my arms and around my back. Then, in a flash, she pulled me into a vice-like bear hug, squeezing me against her soft, curvaceous body.

I wheezed, feeling the hard, rigid angles of my shaku pressing into both our guts. “D-don’t tell me your really in love, now.”

She sighed. “Oh, shush. You know what I’m feeling, don’t you?”

…Yes, I did. Much the same things she’d felt last night. I suppose it made sense, that my company would be so intense she’d not yet come to terms with it. I shuddered to imagine what she’d have done had we, well…

We didn’t, right? Probably. We probably didn’t.

Slowly, the pressure eased and, as it did, I wrapped my own arms around her back. “Want to talk about it?”

She shook her head, nuzzling it into my neck. “No. I want to let it out, so I can return to my journey, and to setting a proper example for my disciples.”

“You got it.” I smiled, patting her back. “There, there. Cry into your wife’s shoulder.”

She groaned. “You’re not helping.” Her hands rubbed my back. “Besides, sometimes I think you should be the one sharing your pains with me. But it’s too soon for either of us to trust each other so, isn’t it?”

I chuckled. “Of course, it is.”

Slowly, I relaxed into her embrace.

Until she kissed my neck. Blushing, I…

The hell?

Sure, she wanted intimacy, but this? There wasn’t even any booze here. How did…

Her grip tightened again. “By the way, you’ve seen quite a bit of my temple by now, haven’t you?”

What? Where did that… She hid something underneath her need for contact, didn’t she?

“Your disciples should have a chance to see their leader’s wife, shouldn’t they?”

I groaned. “Tonight?”

She shook her head, her chest pushing and receding from mine. “First thing tomorrow.”

I sighed. That was going to happen eventually, I supposed. But I preferred not to worry about it tonight. So, before answering her, I…

[ ] Pulled her in for a proper kiss.

[ ] Slipped into Senkai to get some things and clear my head.

[ ] Asked her why her disciples avoided this room.

[ ] Sat back and waited to see where she’d take things.

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[x] Pulled her in for a proper kiss.

Can hear everyone's desires but not her own uh?
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[x] Pulled her in for a proper kiss.
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[X] Slipped into Senkai to get some things and clear my head.
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[X] Sat back and waited to see where she’d take things.
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[x] Asked her why her disciples avoided this room.

Can we really expect privacy anywhere in this overcrowded temple? Pretty sure we made our own entire realm to escape this kind of thing.
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[x] Pulled her in for a proper kiss.

I slid my hands up her back, to nestle in her rather full, silky hair. My heart beat harder than before. Without alcohol, without the mood of noise and revelry, was I really going to do this?

I snorted. Of course, I was. It would be… easier to play my role, if it continued even behind closed doors.

Parting my lips, I pulled her head close. She closed her eyes, not puckering her lips or anything. Just smiling. I felt her breath waft over me.

Slowly, I pressed my lips to hers.

At first, she responded only with some quiet, cocky huff of her own. Then I felt a tongue pressed to my lips.

I blinked. As much as I would have loved to truly taste her, I disliked the thought of letting her take the lead here, of all places.

And yet, her challenge demanded my answer.

So, as I parted my lips for her, letting her tongue slide in, I pushed it back with my own. She resisted, but I knocked hers aside to explore her mouth.

Warm tingles traveled across my body at the sensation. While it would take far more than a kiss to truly turn me on, I couldn’t deny the quiet pleasure of this-

Her hands wandered across my back, one sliding up to keep my head pressed tight to hers. I answered in kind, even as her tongue pressed itself to mine, pushing it back. She dared contest me?

Grunting in defiance, I fought back, rolling my head as…

Her spare hand wandered down, then grabbed my butt.

I squeaked, surprised. I pressed myself forward, into her, until she fell to her back.

Well, more drifted onto it.

In retaliation, I wrapped a hand around one of her rather full breasts. The surprise came when I gave her a good squeeze. She squealed. Squealed.

And I had to admit it. Her breast… felt nice.

Shaking, I pulled back, lifting my face off her. My shaku fell out from between us, thumping into the ground below. She stared up at me, pink and grinning.

“You’re a powerful temptress, Miko.”

“Wh­-temptress?” I stared back, stunned.

She ran a hand along my forehead, nudging my bangs aside. “If you’re not careful, I may find it hard to… end our union when the time comes.”

I huffed, glancing away. “You’d be a terrible Buddhist if you still clung to it, wouldn’t you?”

She chuckled, then tutted. “But I’m afraid I must take all of this seriously, now.”

I shifted my weight, gulping at the sensation filling my hand.

She continued. “We are married, dear. What I really desire right now is to dive in. To know, to feel what it’s like to be not only a wife, but your wife.”

I swallowed, refusing to display any surprise. Whatever she felt now, she would still separate when the deal ran its course. Surely, she would.

She grasped my cheeks, pulling my gaze to hers. She frowned, sighing. “I’ll follow all of your advice for now. But in return, surely the least you could do is tell me how, specifically, you truly feel.” She smiled. “Tell me what this marriage is to you, really.”

Still feeling her breath, one hand still on her breast, I held my face neutral. “I really want that favor.”

“That’s not what I meant, Miko.”

“I think I’ll have her advertise my dojo. I bet if I put her in something really eye-catching, she could…”


I shrugged. “That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To win favors with the Hakurei?”

“You know very well that’s not what I’m asking.”

“Fine, fine.” I leaned closer. “Then please, accept this as my answer.”

I planted another kiss on her lips. She frowned.

“We already did that.”

I kissed her again, dragging it out this time. She hummed until we parted.

“You know that’s not what I’m looking for.”

I sighed. Indeed. Of all her desires, I found far more of them centered around me than I should have. But above all, she sought certainty that, wherever this weird… thing went, I’d be available to-

She dragged me back down and pulled her arms tight around me once more. Pressing my head into her shoulder, she laid back, wrapping her legs around me. She hummed, smiling.

She really did want that contact, it seemed. I closed my eyes, listening close to her heart as she rocked from side to side. I heard a vague sense of age to this desire, perhaps a few weeks? A month or two? Either way, she cared how long she’d felt it. It didn’t spring up the past couple days, nor had it lingered for years.

I felt little direction to it, suggesting I was merely a convenient outlet. That explained some things, but as to why she singled me out earlier, that must’ve been from another…

I gasped as she gave me another tight squeeze, before easing up again. She sighed.

“Tell me, Miko. Do you think we’ve done everything we could?”

I narrowed my eyes, listening for those other desires. Why did she ask that?

Close contact, atone for misdeeds, be a good Buddhist… none of that explained the question. She squirmed slightly, starting to squeeze me again. Answer the question already! No, that wasn’t it…

Fulfill the role of…

Oh. She was still on about that marriage thing.

I chuckled. She eased her grip. I pulled myself up and rolled to the side, dropping myself beside her.

“Neither of us have had to have vomit or filth cleaned off the other. That’s a pretty important part of the full experience.”

She glanced at me, then stared up at the ceiling. “Hm…”

“But never mind that.” I cleared my throat, picked my shaku back off the floor. “What really matters for a marriage is that our families grow stronger through the connection. If your lands…”

I paused, blinking. She snickered.

I grunted. “Well, neither of us have families anymore, nor do we have lands in the usual sense. So, the point to our union would be…”

“Is that what you married Tojiko for?”

“Of course. As a favored daughter of the Soga clan, she was invaluable for…”

“A clan that no longer exists.”

“That’s…” I paused. That pesky fear of death bubbled back up to the surface of her heart.

She pulled herself up, turning around to face me. Slowly, she placed one hand on my shoulder and the other on the clasp for my cape.

“Forget that. Let’s focus on this one. We should make the most of our time together, so…”

I narrowed my eyes, setting the shaku back down as she unclasped my cape and set it aside.

“So, what should we try to get from this marriage? From each other.”

Her hands wandered down, to the buttons on my vest. I placed my hands on her wrists, looking her in the eyes.

Apart from any more sinister schemes, what I wanted was…

[ ] Whatever she had in mind right now seemed an excellent start.

[ ] A deeper understanding of Buddhist magic.

[ ] The experience of being closer to her and her faithful.

[ ] Perhaps to trade or study a few texts or relics between our temples.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/07/31 (Fri) 18:00

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[X] Whatever she had in mind right now seemed an excellent start.
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[X] Whatever she had in mind right now seemed an excellent start.
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[x] Perhaps to trade or study a few texts or relics between our temples.

Can we at least pretend we aren't horny, here?
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[x] The experience of being closer to her and her faithful.
Closer and closer.
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[X] Whatever she had in mind right now seemed an excellent start.

Fucking yeet one option only
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[X] Whatever she had in mind right now seemed an excellent start.
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[x] Perhaps to trade or study a few texts or relics between our temples.

This is a religious building, no horny permitted.
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[x] Whatever she had in mind right now seemed an excellent start.

I held her hands a minute, staring into her eyes. “Finally diving in now, are you?”

She snorted. “Will you try to stop me?”

I shook my head, smiling as I let go. “Lead the way, oh wise sage~”

She pouted, but undid my buttons, one by one. “Good, then let’s continue.”

“Only if you show me how to undo all those ribbons on your dress…”

She paused, fingers poised halfway down my stomach. My vest laid half-open, exposing my plain, cotton bra. For nights like this, I normally wore… well, never mind that right now.

Those fingers still lingered, hovering over my last few buttons. I frowned up at her. “Oh? You expected to witness my gorgeous skin, but didn’t think to spare a me your own in return?”

She glanced down, to my bra. “That’s, that’s not very fu… I mean, you don’t need to, right?”

I planted a hand around her mouth, squeezing her cheeks and dragging her eyes back to my own flat gaze. “Show me, darling.”

She lifted an arm and snapped my hand away, then returned to my vest, undoing it entirely.

“Fine. Fine.” She reared back and started work on the front of her dress, undoing the straps one by one…

Piece by falling, piling piece, her soft, smooth skin grew bare. Wide, curving breasts soon came into view, barely restrained by their wrappings. But what really made me shiver, was what I heard. Whether she did so deliberately or not, her desires made it crystal clear what would follow.

I licked my lips in anticipation.


Daylight streamed through the temple windows. A sight I’d likely grow used to before we were done. Slowly, I stirred. As I did, I felt naked flesh against mine. Warm, wide, and soft flesh. The body of a woman that…

I grunted, slipping a hand between my legs to rub a sore crotch. I shook my head, baffled at her ability to… No. Not my concern right now.

She’d draped one arm over my side, resting the other up against me, her fist curled near my chin. For my part, I’d rested one over her hips and the other between them. Her warm breath blew across my face.

I grunted, pulling myself-

The arm against my body snapped out, somehow slipping beneath me to join its sister in curling around my back, pressing me closer to her. I grunted, her arms pressing me tight against her naked breasts.

Slowly, her eyes fluttered open. She blinked. I stared down at her round, fat n…

I cleared my throat. Then she did. She stared into the distance, possibly to our door. I glanced up, through the window. I pushed against her, but she held tight.

Though her face burned red as she did so. Finally, she parted her lips, licking them once before daring to speak.

“We, we, we did… it.”

I groaned, dragging a hand down over her bare bubble butt.

“Yes, we,” I licked my own lips as it started to sink in, “did.”

She sighed. “Then, what now?”

I gave her butt a light slap, getting an embarrassed grunt from her. “Do you want to… go again?”

She shut her eyes, shaking her head. Then, slowly, she opened them back up. “I, I, I… I have a temple to run!”

“Good.” I rubbed her butt. “Then let’s get dressed.”

“Y-yes. Of course!” Finally, she… still held on.

“Um, darling, I need to…”

She sighed. “You still intend to end this, right?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, obviously. I go back to my dojo, you go return to being a boring, ascetic monk. Why?”

“What if… what if we shouldn’t? What if I shouldn’t?”

I shifted my legs, feeling the weight and texture of her thigh between mine as I did so. “Why? Will the Buddhist leader need me even after she has her favor?”

Now she shifted, that thigh wandering a little too close to my bare crotch. “My disciples… they barely listen to me. They eat meat, they drink, they start fights and, and…”

I slipped my hand up her side, rubbing her back. “Hey. Last time was when you got drunk. Don’t go spilling your heart to me now.”

The faintest hint of a pout crept into her face, before dissolving into a calmer, firmer gaze. “I can teach humans just fine, but… I just can’t seem to get through. Even worse, you…”

She slid a hand up to stroke my cheek, then pulled me in to a short but firm kiss.

As she pulled back, she smiled. Though it was a rather tense, frustrated smile.

“You may have been right last night. Perhaps, by truly feeling my deepest, most forbidden desires again, I can begin to understand what it is that drives them. And from there, finally get them to understand. Finally learn how to reach them.”

I shrugged, squirming. “You’re still convinced you can do it, huh?”

She huffed, her eyes dropping to the pillow. “They appreciate me, and they at least try to follow my guidance. If I could just get a little closer, if I could just understand what keeps them back…”

As far as I was concerned, they didn’t try. They-

Knock, knock.

We both froze, pulling the blanket tight around ourselves.

“Ms. Hijiri! We have a visitor. She wishes to see you.”

Her panicked eyes locked with mine. She wanted time to compose herself. Given she’d just done something nearly unthinkable for her position, I supposed I could sympathise.

I turned my head, breathing in. “Give us a moment, would you?”

“W-Miko? What are…”

Byakuren rubbed her scalp, lifting her head as well. “We’ll be there soon.”

“O-oh, understood, Ms. Hijiri.”

Footsteps scampered away. We looked at each-other another moment before languidly rolling out of the futon. I found my clothes lying in a rumbled but organized pile by the futon. I first grabbed the stylish black panties and shimmied them up my leg. I then grabbed my bra and pulled it on.

I needed a new set, but I couldn’t just start streaking. Once we’d wrapped up this business, I’d take a nice, relaxing bath…

As I pulled my vest over my shoulders, I glanced back to find Byakuren working the wrappings over her breasts. She still wanted time to think, but I’d already grown tired of a temple with no special accommodations for me. So, as I got myself dressed, I decided I would…

[ ] Let Byakuren deal with the visitor while I took a quick stop in Senkai to pick up things and see how some of my disciples were doing.

[ ] Dealt the visitor myself, leaving Byakuren to her thoughts.

[ ] Insisted we see the visitor together, dealing with her feelings later.

[ ] Grabbed Byakuren and ran away to Senkai, letting the temple handle this visitor themselves.
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>As far as I was concerned, they didn’t try. They-

She's pissed on her behalf? Oh wow. I thought Miko was being a stubborn egotist but Byakuren IS getting through!

[x] Dealt the visitor myself, leaving Byakuren to her thoughts.
-[x] But only if she agrees to. Otherwise...
[x] Let Byakuren deal with the visitor while I took a quick stop in Senkai to pick up things and see how some of my disciples were doing.

Dealing with the visitor for her is cool and all but what if she doesn't want us to?
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[x] Let Byakuren deal with the visitor while I took a quick stop in Senkai to pick up things and see how some of my disciples were doing.

The visitor is clearly for Byakuren, and it isn't our place. Besides, the sooner we beat the rumors of this tryst to Tojiko the less electrocuted we may get.
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[x] Let Byakuren deal with the visitor while I took a quick stop in Senkai to pick up things and see how some of my disciples were doing.
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Once more, I've taken way, way longer than I should've to let you all know anything, but for the record: computer troubles have come up, making it difficult for me to get any kind of writing done. It's not the only hurdle I've encountered in trying to write the next update, but it's definitely pushed me back a few days more than I normally would be.

Hopefully, I'm mostly done with it, but I can't say for certain if I am. Hopefully, I'm also mostly through the other issue. Either way, I'm sorry for leaving this so quiet for so long without any explanation as to why.
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[x] Let Byakuren deal with the visitor while I took a quick stop in Senkai to pick up things and see how some of my disciples were doing.

Gathering up the rest of my clothes, I stepped toward a wall, feeling along it for…

Another twinge of worry flitted across Byakuren’s silly heart. I turned to give her a single, cheeky but sympathetic smile, then slipped through the wall.

That would be far from the first or the last concern her temple would face without my personal aid.

I slipped back out, directly to a secluded section of Senkai. A small, calm pool nestled into the smooth stones of my grounds, surrounded by a high wall of polished pine panels. Slipping around it, I stepped up onto the temple’s walkways and, from there, to the washroom. The only room you could reach this section from.

No reason to hold off on rinsing myself down if I wasn’t sticking around to help her. Setting aside the sword that housed my soul, I went to work stripping and washing. Last night… felt good but left deep worries behind. If my followers found out that I engaged in such activities with her, of all people, would they still put their faith in me? Would Byakuren cleave more to her public image and keep these things private, or would she fall back on her other, less noble habits and try to manipulate me through it, somehow?

And what of Tojiko?

Either way, I was… I was all in on this, now. Perhaps I should have reined us in a little more, rather than hoping to count on her. But then, fortune seemed insistent on pushing me to her bosom. In some sense, this seemed the inevitable conclusion of that push.

I grunted, dumping a bucket of water over myself and grabbing a towel to dry off. Regardless, I needed to act, to show the world the confidence and smoothness it had come to expect from me.

I gave myself a quick sniff, then glanced the clothing over. The smell had barely touched them, but I felt a strange uncertainty now in returning to them.

Which is why, still naked, I slipped back out, through the space beneath the outer walkway, and into my personal chambers. Once there, strutting through my chamber, I slipped into the side room, sorted through my effects, and slipped on a fresh, new outfit. Simple but elegant black underwear, a plain, peach-colored vest, and simple skirt. Feeling casual, I opted to leave the cape behind for now.

I belted my blade back to my waist and clasped the bracelets and anklets back around my limbs. Perhaps I’d want to dip a bit deeper into my wardrobe soon, but not today.

With that settled, I glanced through my room for personal objects or affects I wished to keep on hand when I spent time at my rival-and-wife’s temple. A change of clothes, perhaps. Some fine dishes, perhaps one or two of our less-important scrolls.

I chose a single scroll containing an excerpt from the Tao De Ching, a fine cup, and a soft, white nightgown. Sorting them into a small, oak box, I snapped it shut and listened to the temple, considering where to visit first.

I felt a disturbance in the quiet desires of my temple. Futo. I hadn’t seen her for a day, having left her in uncertain circumstances. So, naturally, I tucked the box under my left arm and, swinging the shaku with my right, strolled through the halls in her general direction.

On the way, I took idle stock of the atmosphere that floated through the rest of the temple. Some hopes that I’d do something as dramatic here as I’d done in the village dojo. Some lingering concerns, some worries about Byakuren’s influence, her or her followers sneaking in here, and…

More Futo.

I sensed a lingering agitation as I turned a corner and walked up to an open door, where I found her…

Tilting her head at the furniture of a communal lounge, one that faced the back wall. She’d stacked cushions on tables and spent her time nudging one to the left, another toward the back…

She feared its previous arrangement had invited misfortune, though that was a shallow desire. One she attended to in order to cover up or calm down from something else. Something deeper.

I waited, tapping one foot, until her efforts slowed.

Then, a split-second before she moved, I heard it. Her realization that someone was near, manifested in the form of sudden curiosity; a desire to know who it was. And so, she turned around, less a smooth spin or spirited twist, more a twitchy, jerking motion.

At my visage, she sighed a sound of relief, tinged ever so slightly in frustration. “Oh, it be only you, crown prince.”

I smiled. “Good morning, Futo.”

…And she returned to fiddling with the tables.

I groaned, but waited for her to speak, as I knew she would.

And sure enough, after another couple shifts this way and that, she growled. “The youkai meddle and scheme. They’re wont to ruin us, if permitted.” She jerked one table to the side. “Break us away from them, crown prince.”

I spun my shaku, chuckling. “Now, now. They haven’t been sneaking in, have they?”

“It mattereth not.” She grumbled. “Those scoundrels will undo us. Already, they hast ruined my day.”

“Ruined your day?” I stepped inside and leaned against the wall. “That sounds quite serious. What did they do?”

She… blushed. I narrowed my eyes and honed my ears, but the faint, warm streak in her desires matched up. She wanted to… find something. Or someone. It was there briefly, a hint of a face, something… green? Whatever it was, it soon faded into a morass of unfocused frustrations.

She rotated one table a single degree or two. “They’re of no value, save their talent for mockery.”

I raised a brow. She glanced my way for only a second before fixing her gaze back on the table. I waited, studying her soul. But that just raised more agitation within her. If I wished to know what really bothered her, I’d need to confront her directly. Otherwise, I would need to wait quite a while for her to truly calm down.

My interest had been piqued, but I’d yet to spend much time with the rest of my temple, to say nothing of what might be occurring back at my ‘wife’s’ temple.

Thinking a moment, I chose to…

[ ] Press Futo for details. I could not leave a close friend in distress, not matter how much my prodding irritated her.

[ ] Return to Myouren Temple. I was awfully curious who had visited and was certain they wouldn’t mind my surprise re-appearance.

[ ] Spend time with the rest of Senkai. The others were right; I needed to show off again.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/09/26 (Sat) 18:00

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[X] Press Futo for details. I could not leave a close friend in distress, not matter how much my prodding irritated her.
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[x] Press Futo for details. I could not leave a close friend in distress, not matter how much my prodding irritated her.
Prod prod.
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[X] Press Futo for details. I could not leave a close friend in distress, not matter how much my prodding irritated her.
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[X] Press Futo for details. I could not leave a close friend in distress, not matter how much my prodding irritated her.

Koishi, did you just rait the Taoists?!?
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[x] Press Futo for details. I could not leave a close friend in distress, not matter how much my prodding irritated her.

Does futo havew a cru'ush?
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[x] Press Futo for details. I could not leave a close friend in distress, not matter how much my prodding irritated her.

I chuckled. “Aw… you can trust me, can’t you?”

She huffed. “It was but a trifle, crown prince. Worry not of it.”

I hummed, tapping my chin. Curiosity, desire, embarrassment… quite the concoction, but one I’d have a hard time piercing through.

I gave her my most charming smile. “Come now, I can’t let my loyal friend and disciple wallow in confusion, can I? Please, pour your heart out to me.”

She paused, letting go of the table as she dropped to sit at it. She shook her head, that cute ponytail flicking about as she did so. “It is naught but an awakening of hoary feelings at the instigation of a fool and miscreant.”

I stepped around, between the tables, until I stood across from her. “Then, perhaps it’s best if you share these feelings with me. That way, we can work through them together.”

She dropped her head into a propped-up arm. “I was born to the empire’s ruling clan. I gave birth to one who would have been the emperor’s wife, had we lingered. With your pestering, I had mastered much of both the Buddhist and the Taoist arts. And yet, and yet…”

I leaned forward and patted her shoulder.

She huffed. “None take mine efforts with seriousness. Mine lessons are ignored, mine preachings dismissed.”

She thumped her fists on the table. “I am mocked. Mocked. What may I accomplish in this land, suffering under such scanty honor?”

I frowned, rubbing her twitching shoulder. “There, there. We’ve built things we couldn’t have hoped to back then, didn’t we?” I smiled. “Why, this very temple would have been impossible for mere humans to build. You don’t need the favor of every man or woman, do you?”

She sighed. “You art right, crown prince. Yet…” She glared at the table.

Grabbing my shaku, I poked it at her chin. “Let’s take a few breaths, first.” I inhaled, long and slow.

Futo frowned but followed suit. I exhaled, and she followed me there, too.

One breath, then two, then three.

As she exhaled, Futo looked down. “I was beautiful back then, you know. It was no accident my daughter caught your eye.”

“Aw~” I giggled. “You’re plenty cute now, too.”

She frowned. “I caught a dashing, charming husband. One most worthy of mine station. Why, the poems he wrote to me during our courtship, they would…”

“Ooh. Let’s hear one.”

She glanced aside. “…Perhaps another time. They wert too advanced for your young ears.”

“Oh, intimate poetry? What did he like most? Your legs, your delicate hands, or dare I say, your ne-”

“That art quite enough of that!” She fumed, face red.

I threw my hands up, waving my shaku. “Yes, yes. How about some exercises to calm you down?”

She huffed, then stood. “I boasted a fine husband, a strong clan, even a stunning son-in-law.”

I grinned as I stood, mirroring her motions. “Daughter-in-law, technically.”

She lifted her right leg. “Nay. In all respects save the most subtle part of your body, you wert my son.”

I tilted my head as we raised our arms. “Was I even that? She wasn’t the only…”

Futo shook her head. “A trifle. There art no men of such caliber here.”

I blinked. She’d changed the subject.

“Then, perhaps you should try the women? They can be quite-”

“They’re even worse! They, all of them, either cower behind their men, or they consort with youkai, or-” she paused, “it mattereth not. There are none so strong in their conviction, so gentle on the eyes, of such stature as…”

I couldn’t help a chuckle, finally hearing the depth of her true desire. “You really have reawakened, haven’t you?”

She frowned. “I said that, did I not?”

“Yes, but to love? I’d never have guessed.”

Her face turned a faint shade of pink. I answered with a warm smile. “You need a good date.”

“A d-date, huh…” She lowered her leg, then dropped back to the table. “Yea. I desire such. But as I said, there’s none to heed me. None worthy to cleave to.”

I lowered myself down as well, grinning wide. “What if I found you someone?”

She scoffed. “This task lay beyond even you, crown prince. Worry about your own wives-both my daughter and the imposter-for I shall confront mine needs alone.”

I grinned. “Your needs? That’s a bit much to share with your daughter-in-law, isn’t it?”

Her eyes narrowed, lips pursing. Then, her eyes widened and her faint blush went full red again. “That-that-that… that be not what I mean. I merely…”

I laughed. “Relax, relax.” I patted my earmuffs. “I know what you mean, of course. But you also know that I can handle multiple tasks at once, don’t you?”

She grunted, looking down. “You’ll be wasting of your time but,” she sighed, “do what you must. I shall go about mine obligations, regardless.”

“Oh, I shall certainly do as I please.”

And I pleased to…

[ ] Asked more about what sort of men or women intrigued her. If she sought love, I’d be sure to provide what I could.

[ ] Give her a little encouragement before going on my way. This was a matter to leave to her, until she understood herself better.

[ ] Asked more about who had awakened this in her, and how. Someone laid behind this change and I had to know who.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
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[X] Asked more about what sort of men or women intrigued her. If she sought love, I’d be sure to provide what I could.
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[X] Asked more about what sort of men or women intrigued her. If she sought love, I’d be sure to provide what I could.
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[X] Asked more about who had awakened this in her, and how. Someone laid behind this change and I had to know who.
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[X] Asked more about who had awakened this in her, and how. Someone laid behind this change and I had to know who.

The most effective path is to start with the root cause.
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[x] Asked more about what sort of men or women intrigued her. If she sought love, I’d be sure to provide what I could.
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[x] Asked more about what sort of men or women intrigued her. If she sought love, I’d be sure to provide what I could.

“So, what do you like in your men? Big muscles? Lean and firm muscles? Maybe silky hair or suave smiles or…”

Futo turned away, face pink. “Need you put these matters so crassly, crown prince?”

I grinned. “I’m only here to help~ Please, tell me what sort of man-or woman-you desire~”

She huffed. “I’m in no need of such prodding! You understand mine desires, do you not? Use those. Make not me spell this out so plainly!”

“Aw, but that’s half the fun~”

She sighed. “I’m in no need of teasing. The foul youkai hast heaped it enough upon mine shoulders.”

I rocked back and forth. “And you’ve yet to tell me anything about it, haven’t you?”

She stared at the ceiling, grumbling. As she did, I heard a rather blatant desire slip from her mind. This fretting of hers arose from a need to prove someone wrong. She wanted to prove she wasn’t interested in some specific person, but also, well…

What she’d essentially expressed already. She wanted to prove her prowess and value on the marketplace, so to speak.

I wondered. Did someone suggest she was undesirable? Would I need to correct some youkai, if so?

But of course, these were all matters to consider another time, when I knew more of the matter. I clicked my tongue, sighing. “Please, Futo. I know the hearts of people. No one can act as a better matchmaker than I.”

She thumped a fist on the table. “I need no matchmakers!”

I leaned back, answering with a light chuckle. “Humor me. If it goes poorly, you can heap all the blame upon my capable shoulders.”

She groaned. Then, exhaling, she leaned back. “Very well. I…” she breathed in, “tolerate not people who disrespect humanity, or who shirk in their duties. I insist that I not shelter my very partner behind mine own power. They must provide and protect as often, at least, as I.”

I winced. “You’re a little strict there, aren’t you?”

Her eyes narrowed, resting halfway between a glare and a nostalgic twinkle. “My past partner was most admirable. I insist that I need not settle for less than he.”

I rolled my shoulders. “Very well, very well.” I placed my shaku to my lips for only a moment. “Why, the village has its share of capable guards, even a few decent exterminators. Perhaps we should start there.”

She turned aside. “I… trust not their qualities.”

I tilted my head. “Then, perhaps the village protector?”

Returning her gaze, she tilted her head in response. “Whom?”

“Why, Ms. Kamishirasawa, of course.”

“H-her?” She leaned back. “I suppose she art a fine woman, but to wed her? Doth she even like women? Would she consider me in a generous light? Even if she did, would she be…”

I shook my head. “Who knows? Best to risk embarrassment than to let oneself be trapped in routine, right?”

“I… be not sure.”

“Then, perhaps madam Hakurei herself?”

Futo rose to her feet. “Didst you mishear me? She is far too lazy!” She turned on her heel.

Swiping up my shaku, I leapt to my feet, slipped around the table, and threw my arms around her. “Now, now. You know I’m just throwing ideas out there. If we could persuade them to take humans more seriously, how about some of Byakuren’s disciples? They’re strong, sometimes dependable, occasionally diligent…”

She shook me off. “They’re youkai. They honor the witch, and they…”

I took a step closer to her. “But imagine a youkai who tries to make humans safer and happier~”


“It’s very rare, but there are a few who’ve shown themselves to be terribly well-behaved.”

She stepped away. I followed close.

“I shall handle this on mine own. Leave me to it!”

I tapped her shoulder. “Are you sure? If you find anyone, I’m sure I could improve your chances with them~”

“I am most capable. I won a most honorable partner before and I shall do so again. I… need only find one that aligns with mine standards.”

I slowed. “And if there’s none here?”

She slowed, then stopped. She shook her head. “I am a hermit. I shalt make do on my own, then.”

I slid a hand over each shoulder and pulled her back around to face me. Gently, I slid a hand up her cheek. “At least consider a provisional partner, would you? Someone to share in your struggles while you seek out the one.”

She sighed, slumping back. “I shall consider it.”

I stepped back, tapping the shaku on my chin. She was so cute, really. I just wanted to pester her more.

But… in what way would be best? Ought I attempt to drag her to meet some fine prospect, or to let her stew?

But then, was this really the time? If I dallied too long, that temple visitor may have disappeared by the time of my return. To say nothing of other concerns.

So, I…

[ ] Dragged her to the village to meet eligible men and women. I couldn’t let such an opportunity pass.

[ ] Visited the village to find her prospects on my own. I wanted to play matchmaker, but I favored a subtler role this time.

[ ] Left her to ponder my wisdom while I looked into the youkai who’d bothered her. I was sure my ‘wife’ would be missing me, anyway.

[ ] Turned to the mausoleum to meditate on the meaning of last night. Futo’s romantic troubles had reminded me that I had plenty of my own to fret over.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/10/25 (Sun) 18:00

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[x] Turned to the mausoleum to meditate on the meaning of last night. Futo’s romantic troubles had reminded me that I had plenty of my own to fret over.

Futo's ghost crush is cute, but we still have our own ghost to deal with. Lets go see Tojiko and muster up some excuse and/or lie for last night.
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[X] Left her to ponder my wisdom while I looked into the youkai who’d bothered her. I was sure my ‘wife’ would be missing me, anyway.

I'm curious whether or not the hint of green really is pointing more towards a boat sinker as opposed to a mountain echo, and following this option seems like it'd clarify which of the two it is.
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[x] Turned to the mausoleum to meditate on the meaning of last night. Futo’s romantic troubles had reminded me that I had plenty of my own to fret over.
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I am basing my assumption on both the green hint and the fact Futo and Murasa were dancing together at the impromptu party a few days ago. I could be wrong, but in the absence of other evidence its what the author is pointing to.
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[x] Turned to the mausoleum to meditate on the meaning of last night. Futo’s romantic troubles had reminded me that I had plenty of my own to fret over.

I smiled. “I trust you, Futo.”

She nodded, expression firm, but chose not to respond.

I patted her shoulder. “You’re plenty lovely. I’m sure you’ll find someone.” She pouted, but her heart told me she appreciated the thought. I smiled, then turned back to the halls and soon, from there, back to Gensokyo.

Warm, curling mists greeted me on the other side, rising from the broad pool filling the familiar chamber. I eased myself onto the smooth rocks and took a deep breath, spending a moment to prepare my thoughts.

Gently, I set my shaku before me and set my hands on my knees, closing my eyes.

I stifled a groan. I’d crossed a line last night. For good or ill, that monk was utterly useless in keeping any of our undesired urges in check. I should have known, really. She’d shown plenty of weakness before then. Taking a breath, I waited until the calm returned.

I would simply need to do what I was best at. Changing, rerouting, and adapting. It would certainly yield better results than the rather muscle-headed way she sought to approach her own challenges.

I sighed, unsure of how I, myself, ought to have felt. Fate and fortune had refused to hold back in their steady efforts to push us ever closer together. Idly, I wondered if that absurd, barely remembered night was even the first time. Perhaps our tag-team battles were the first sign.

Regardless, something had been drawing us together.

I worked through my breathing exercises, allowing myself to descend ever so slowly into the void. Into the space away from fleeting distractions, first to the stillness that came in letting go of fleeting distractions. I needed a moment of calm before turning into the more passionate side of my practices.


We… cleaved together, last night. Why? What did I see in her? Why did I find her so alluring? Her looks alone would have failed to overcome her shortcomings. The stubbornness, the pride, the foolishness.

So… why?

She stuck so doggedly to her silly, sometimes harmful ideals. She was sincere at times, but sometimes deceptive.

The cozy, moist air eddied around me as I began to hear the universe’s primal beat.

She constantly fought against its tempo. Against the push and pull within her. All for ideology. And yet, it had failed her.


My hands remembered the feel of her bust. The feverish thrusts, the grinding…

I shook my head. She was too distracting!

Her strong, lively body. The sheer power and stamina she possessed. Despite her professed values, she’d cultivated a body, a soul, truly worthy of envy. Of aspiration.

Somehow, her endless series of seeming mistakes only made her stronger.

Her mistakes…

I sighed. The universe beat a slow, quiet rhythm, refusing to bestow its wisdom upon me. I would need to make the decision myself, but…

My instincts warred with one another, one side seeking to revisit that woman’s weight and warmth, to explore the prospects of closer relations to her temple and better access to her knowledge. The other insisted I hold true to the foundation I’d already built, to trust in the people I’d already had.

The tempo held steady, but the quiet beats grew louder.

Slowly, it dawned on me where my path would lead. Timidity was not my style. To hold back merely on account of what might be, of what I might lose, would be to resist, to deny my nature. I needed to reach out, to seize for both futures.

Perhaps that was why, so long ago, I lost…

I chuckled, just a little bitter, as I rose from my meditation. I boasted no lordship, no children, and technically, not even a real wife. Not at this moment, anyway. I had my share of followers, my vast charisma, and the power of my transmuted body. Idly, I rubbed the scabbard in which it rested.

I wielded enormous potential but had little to lose. I would not choose between the two paths.

They would both choose me.

I tilted my head upward, to the monument from which I’d arisen, the structure in which my former teacher resided. Perhaps, she’d rubbed off on me more than I cared to admit. I shook my head.

Nonsense. I was plenty crafty before I’d met her and the only thing she imparted upon me was her insights on the Tao.

I rocked back and forth, taking in the smooth, fragrant scents floating on the air. This place really did soothe the soul. The only question that remained, really, was how I would go about securing my favor with the monk’s followers while retaining the trust of those who already supported me.

And… how I’d break the news to-

A desire dragged through the air.

One that poked at my heart. A desire for company. For comfort and physical intimacy.

From me.

I returned to the breathing exercises for a moment, though not to any meditation afterward. Instead, as my heart stilled, I cleared my throat and started humming. If she was here, then I may as well clear the air before it gets the chance to bite me.

In only a moment, I heard the disruption to those desires, then the shift, the movement.

Tojiko floated into the room behind me. A vague sense of nervousness clung to her. One that hurt me, knowing that I could only add to her concerns.

She huffed. “What is it?”

I blinked, keeping my face forward. “Can I not meditate at my own pool without suspicion?”

“Not like that, no. You called for attention. What is it about?”

I hunched forward, staring into my reflection upon the still waters. My dalliance with the monk was far from the first dubious action that had taken place in my quest for status and admiration, but…

What kind of person was I? How would I break the news to her?

More importantly, what about her? Which would she take best?

[ ] Tojiko was a woman of sometimes brutal sincerity. I would honor that by being blunt and straightforward. Whatever came of it, at least she would know I hid nothing from her.

[ ] Tojiko was a woman I still loved, so I would show what affection I dared and break it as gently as I could. I would show her that, at the least, I still cared for her.

[ ] Tojiko was, in some sense, a rather practical woman. I would discuss my plans with her and explain the reasoning for what I’d allowed to happen.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/11/12 (Thu) 19:00

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[x] Tojiko was a woman of sometimes brutal sincerity. I would honor that by being blunt and straightforward. Whatever came of it, at least she would know I hid nothing from her.
 [x] Confess things are not proceeding precisely to plan and may continue to deviate.

A tough one here. We have already discussed the plan with Tojiko and that got her on board. But things have gone a bit sideways. Miko clearly loves Tojiko still, but trying to sugar coat it will make this more painful down the road. No, Miko loves her enough to tell her the whole truth. This is how good couples work. Tojiko can then choose her own path, as this update puts it. A path Miko is sure she will still be on, with all her charisma and hubris.
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[x] Tojiko was a woman of sometimes brutal sincerity. I would honor that by being blunt and straightforward. Whatever came of it, at least she would know I hid nothing from her.
 [x] Confess things are not proceeding precisely to plan and may continue to deviate.

A decent compromise
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[x] Tojiko was a woman of sometimes brutal sincerity. I would honor that by being blunt and straightforward. Whatever came of it, at least she would know I hid nothing from her.
 [x] Confess things are not proceeding precisely to plan and may continue to deviate.

I concur
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[x] Tojiko was a woman of sometimes brutal sincerity. I would honor that by being blunt and straightforward. Whatever came of it, at least she would know I hid nothing from her.
 [x] Confess things are not proceeding precisely to plan and may continue to deviate.

I breathed in, then out. “I had sex with Byakuren, last night.”

I heard, for a single moment, utter silence in Tojiko’s heart. All her desires, at once, had frozen. As to be expected from such news, I supposed. Not that such a thought brought me comfort. When they returned, they came in a messy frenzy. A drive to know why, for vengeance on me, vengeance on Byakuren, to calm down, to argue, and so on.

An utterly ugly, unpleasant mess to listen to. She’d tied herself in a knot of worry, confusion, and vexation.

But as they cleared, I couldn’t help a bit of a dry chuckle. There was something soothing about it all. As ugly as it was, I need not have worried over what she might want. How precisely she might feel or how she might behave. At the very least, I knew.

She cleared her throat, accompanied by a subtle crackle. One that raised the hairs on the back of my head. “Why.”

She said it with force, as bold and assured as she often was. I’d really miss that, if this path ended in the ruin of what we had. And yet, despite the confident tone, there was this odd undercurrent of uncertainty. Of fear.

That… that hurt.

I couldn’t blame her, but I slumped forward all the same.

I raised my voice a hair, holding a firm, level tone. She needed me to be clear, to be unambiguous, at a moment like this. “Despite her protests to the contrary, she’s not the prude I’d hoped she’d be. She’s a much more physical woman than she lets on. I was unprepared for her desire.”

She snorted. “Of course, she’s physical. That’s entirely how she uses her magic. Surely, with your profound ears, you should have picked that up, shouldn’t you?”

I sighed. “Certainly, I’d heard the occasional slip of carnal desire in the past, but she’s human…ish. It’s to be expected. But, like the true Buddhist she is, she’s remarkably skilled at suppressing her deeper urges.”

There was a pause, an awkward quiet clinging to the air. Tojiko floated out from behind my shoulder and circled around to face me. She folded her arms, her lips tight.

She took a breath. “So, what now?”

I straightened my back. “Chaos has filled the past few of my days and, I suspect, will continue to do so. I… am afraid I cannot predict how events will unfold from here. Perhaps I will return to the original plan soon, or perhaps I will only deviate further. I’m…” My shoulders sagged, if only subtly. “I don’t have the level of control over this situation that I thought I held. I’m sorry, but I cannot give you more than that. I don’t know.”

She sunk down, causing gentle ripples as her tails dip into the water. “Were I in a more charitable mood, I might just thank you for at least not trying to bullshit me.”

A thin, wry chuckle slipped from my lips. “Then let me know when you are feeling more charitable, as I would love to listen to your praises one more time.”

“I’ll… consider it, in case it ends up your last.” She turned away. “I can’t say I’m thrilled to hear you’re keeping around her, but…” her shoulders rose, then fell, “I suppose I shouldn’t’ve expected otherwise.”

Despite my instincts, I held my tongue. Her tone was one more of frankness than accusation, anyway. And sure enough, she soon continued.

“You’re still going to get us something from her, right?”

I brought my shaku close to my chest. “Of course.”

Still facing away, she nodded. “Good. I’ve been busy, you know. All sorts of weirdos pestering me and anyone around for where you were, what I thought about, well…” she groaned, “your intentions with her…” She drifted back, easing herself to the rocks, by my side. “How… how were your days, lately?”

I smiled, just slightly. Despite the turmoil still clinging to her, she made the effort to talk as she normally would.

Something melodramatically, I groaned, leaning back and rolling my shoulders. I opened my mouth to complain about the trouble of trying to date an ascetic, then prudently shut it. “Myouren Temple is an unruly place. Sometimes it feels like every single one of them wants a piece of me, a piece of whatever I bring, or to hear the darkest, dirtiest news they can get their hands on! And somehow, most of them distrust me.”

She chuckled. “Of course, of course. They really understand you, don’t they?”

As much as I appreciated her snark, I put on an obligatory pout.

She leaned forward. She wanted a hug, but also to keep her distance. After a bit, she spoke up. “Futo’s been quiet lately.”

I tilted my head, watching the water once more. The hint, the faintest foreshadowing, of a silly grin creeped across the corners of my lips. “Don’t worry. She’s just… experiencing a shift in perspective.”

“You know something.”

I shook my head. “It’s very private and sensitive to her. It would be terribly rude of me to share~”

She snickered. “Then you’re a terrible woman, taking such amusement from her private affairs.”

“Maybe I am, maybe I am…”

Finally, Tojiko leaned into me, resting her head on my shoulder. Gently, I leaned back into her. If the trend with Byakuren continued, I would miss this.

Hoo boy, would I miss this.

After some moments passed, she stirred. Then, with a start, she pulled herself off and jerked into the air. She patted down her dress and gave me a curt nod. “I have business to attend to. See you later, Miko.”

I nodded back, waving my shaku as she floated away.

Speaking of business to attend to, I had some of my own to consider.

I still had to pick up something for Tojiko and, especially after our exchange, I felt an urge to get to work in earnest. But I’d left Byakuren to herself for longer than a simple supply trip ought to have run. Out of curiosity, I wished to return to her, if only to learn who had visited and how it went. Then there was the concern not of Byakuren, but of her disciples. If I truly wanted their favor-or at least, their tolerance-I would need to start sooner rather than later.

So many things I needed to do. So little time.

I pulled myself to my feet and, with a few steps, slipped into the great between. As I returned toward the temple, I…

[ ] Returned to my other ‘wife.’ I had to know of this visitor and, frankly, we had a lot to discuss as well, after last night.

[ ] Studied the temple’s treasures and secrets. I had to know what it had to offer before I could bargain or scheme.

[ ] Mingled more with the other disciples. I would win their hearts and utilize such favor in my future endeavors.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/11/25 (Wed) 19:00

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[x ] Studied the temple’s treasures and secrets. I had to know what it had to offer before I could bargain or scheme.

OOF this one hurt. This might not end well, either way.
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[X] Studied the temple’s treasures and secrets. I had to know what it had to offer before I could bargain or scheme.

Gotta figure out what we're working with first and foremost.
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[x] Mingled more with the other disciples. I would win their hearts and utilize such favor in my future endeavors.

I feel that the other options can be pursued while using this one, seeing how keeping the followers' eyes on Miko would hopefully help avoid accelerating Byakuren's intimacy and also take off some of the suspicion of inspecting the buddhists' assets if it's done with their approval or supervision.
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[x] Studied the temple’s treasures and secrets. I had to know what it had to offer before I could bargain or scheme.

If Byakuren is busy, time to snoop. Any disciples of interest will probably stumble into us anyway as we muck about.
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[x] Studied the temple’s treasures and secrets. I had to know what it had to offer before I could bargain or scheme.

I came out in the quieter halls of her temple. Carefully, patiently, I listened to the voices, the desires, that hung about her temple. I paid close attention, but not so much to general trends, demeanors, or social dynamics.

I listened for desires tied to the temple itself, or what the various disciples sought from their practice. I paced, idly, through the quieter halls. Places with fewer distractions, but still a decent distance from where Byakuren might be. Sifting through the most common motivations-self-improvement, learning of reality’s most fundamental nature, improving one’s community, and so on-it took some time before the more interesting desires surfaced.

The temple housed a few lovely, elaborate statues in its major chambers, which some members loved to view. But I could not reasonably hope to acquire these without exorbitant risk both to my currency with the temple itself and with Gensokyo as a whole.

I’d need to leave them quite alone. At least, for the time being.

I tapped my shaku against my chin, wandering closer to the crowds. What else, what else?

Magic. Some of the disciples sought to learn of the special, secret spells said to be taught here, or known by its head monk. Something I might just be able to utilize, if I chose of pursue the same sorts of…

Oh? I heard whispers of something else. Reputation. Despite its dubious standing in the village itself, a fair few youkai looked favorably on it. And some disciples sought to attach such goodwill to themselves. Some rather skilled or otherwise helpful youkai favored the temple, judging by the desires.

Or simply insist that Byakuren herself spend some of her capitol on a gift. It would be a… messy way to resolve my duty, but one that, if handled with proper care, Tojiko may find a special pleasure in.

Still pondering, I slipped downstairs, into the temple basement. But no sooner had I touched down then I heard a familiar set of desires. One soon accompanied by the steady, if subdued, sound of munching.

Someone sating their drive for rich, savory meat. At least, as much as they dared. Turning around a stack of boxes, I leveled a companionable but neutral smile on the messy, blonde-and-black locks of the temple’s resident avatar of Bishamonten.

Shou sat on one of the many crates, tearing through a strip of salted meat. With a small cup by her legs. A cup filled, but with neither water nor tea.

Something else that she had, it seemed, smuggled in.

She paused, setting the remaining meat in her lap to take a swig of her cup. She sighed, satisfied, then set it down. As she did, her eyes finally met mine.

She blinked, tilted her head, and blushed. “You’re… still not telling anyone, right?”

I chuckled. “Of course not.”

“Good.” She went right back to chewing. She almost ignored me, really.

I pulled a crate beside her and settled onto it, laying my shaku across my lap. “Good day, today?”

She groaned, mumbling around a full mouth. “Fwine, fwine.” She swallowed. “Hijiri’s hiding something, but she hasn’t hassled me lately.”

I kept my face cool, hiding the faintest hint of a nervous twitch. “Hiding something, you say?”

She chuckled, taking a sip. “But, hey. Who am I to complain, right? She seems happy, at least.”

I swayed from side to side. “Happy, huh?”

She shuddered. “I’m worried, you know. I might just have you to thank for her current mood.”

I tilted my head. In response, she merely shrugged. “I don’t like having you so close to everything, but… you’ve been okay, so far.”

“Of course, I have.” I grinned. “Say, perhaps you’d like to help me ensure she stays that way…”

In a heartbeat, her shrug turned to a dark, suspicious frown. “What’s your scheme?”

I leaned toward her and slung an arm over her shoulder. She flinched but didn’t fight me.

“As fun as we’ve all found this whole arrangement, it’s troubled someone very close to me. I’m afraid, if I don’t satisfy her, it will… poison our marriage. But if I gave her something special, something I could only get from here…”

She threw my arm off. “Our disciples think you’re trying to steal something, you know. They are wrong, right?”

I groaned. “Of course, they’re wrong. I want a gift. A gift or a, a trade.”

She huffed. “And in return?”

“I’ve already committed to some efforts in support of your temple, is that not enough?” Her eyes narrowed, to which I chuckled. “Besides, I promise it’s no worse than our little secret~”

She muttered a question under her breath, something regarding my efforts. Then, she grunted and took another sip, glancing away. “What kind of gift?”

I lifted my shaku, resting it against my chin as I stared at the ceiling. What did I want? It’d need to be something I’d expect Tojiko to appreciate, but something that didn’t cost me too much with the temple. Whether or not Shou herself would be of much help, now was the best time to settle on a general strategy.

Digging into Byakuren’s scroll for a trick or two, either for Tojiko to learn, or to utilize for her, was an easy answer, but I couldn’t be certain just how protective of such knowledge its wielder would be. Otherwise, while attempting to acquire the temple’s extant treasures-the good ones, at least-would raise too much suspicion, attempting to get a commission from it or its supporters may be less onerous. And then, of course, there was the possibility of simple… services. Anyone could, in principle, wait on someone else, and massages may not be out of the question.

What I wanted most, at least right now, was…

[ ] Magic. The chance to gain a new trick or tool was too valuable to ignore.

[ ] A tribute. It wouldn’t hurt to see what sort of artisans most appreciated the temple, anyway.

[ ] A service. Nothing like a good old pampering to smooth things over.

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Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2020/12/14 (Mon) 19:00

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[X] Magic. The chance to gain a new trick or tool was too valuable to ignore.
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[X] Magic. The chance to gain a new trick or tool was too valuable to ignore.
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[x] Magic. The chance to gain a new trick or tool was too valuable to ignore.

Of all the possible gifts from the temple, gaining its magic would draw the least suspicion. Or specifically, gaining some of Byakuren's dark arts that she isn't supposed to have in the first place. Shou may not be the best person to ask about that, but she might just know where to look. Given her status, she must have access to even Byakuren's private stashes.
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[x] Magic. The chance to gain a new trick or tool was too valuable to ignore.

I grinned, putting a bit of a sinister, evil flair to it. “I want a piece of your temple’s other secrets.”

Shou shuddered, shifting away. “Why?”

I straightened my back and grinned. “Because it’s the most painless ‘sacrifice,’ is it not? No labor, no funds or materials. Just a little knowledge. You can trust me, can’t you?”

She paused and pulled the meat away. Idly chewing, she glanced toward me, her eyes narrow. “No.”

I whimpered. “You wound me, my disciple-in-law-”

“Your what?”

I snickered. “Was I unclear? Disciple-in-law. Because you’re my wife’s disciple.”

I suppressed the slightest wince. I refused to let present circumstances deny me my ambitions, but… the word nonetheless felt awkward on my lips, considering those very events. Still, I felt the need to press on, to keep up the momentum. “I’m sure your cloud-wielding peer can tell you more, if you’re interested.”

She grumbled as she swallowed the meat. “…What, specifically, do you want?”

I chuckled, glancing around the basement walls, pillars, and ceiling. “Given the nature of your chief monk, I’ve no doubt this temple holds many, many secrets. But all I’m after is a little…” I wiggled my hands, “magic.”

“Whatever you think of her…” She slumped back, massaging her temple. “What kind of magic?”

“Hm-hm-hm…” I hopped up and paced around the room, weaving between the stacks of boxes. I swung my shaku around. “A most excellent question, isn’t it?”

She frowned. “You don’t know, do you?”

I, I must confess. I pouted. “I can’t be expected to know what sort of spells your temple hides if they’re secret, now can I?”

Shou folded her arms, shut her eyes, and swayed from side to side. “Well, if just any trick will suffice, I suppose it couldn’t hurt too much…”

I grinned, not quite dancing as I strolled around the room. “Precisely. Something to please, to help, or to provide convenience. Nothing so devious as teleporting into secure chambers.”

She growled. “Of course. You already do that.”

I stopped and leveled a comfortable smile her way. “You catch on quick, young tiger.”

She ignored me, so I lifted the shaku to my chin. “It’s quite clear that you lot would know something about cosmetics, but would such a shallow gift truly please my w… my companion?”


I frowned. “Oh, hush. I’m thinking. She always appreciated the spectacle of my danmaku, so perhaps something flashy would please her more.”

Shou bit into more meat. “Why don’t you ask for booze magic, if you’re so interested?”

I chuckled. “Please, if you knew how to conjure or transmute sake, you wouldn’t bother sneaking it in, now would you?”

Shou’s back went straight. Her eyes lurched from side to side, then fixated on the stairs. After a long moment, she eased back. She shuddered. “Please, don’t just bring it up out of the blue like that.”

“But then, maybe if Byakuren alone knew it…” I shook my head and smiled. “Of course, of course. It must be so stressful, hiding such a vital part of who you are from your closest friends.”

She turned away. “It’s just one-I mean, it’s not like that. Really.”

I paused. It seemed I’d hit… not a nerve, but rather something else. An insecurity. After a moment, I plopped myself back down beside her, but said nothing.

“It’s just… it’s a good idea, you know. Your next life isn’t good unless you behave well in this one, right? And, and I think I’m doing good for what I am, but it’s not easy as a tiger or youkai. So, I just let myself have these little, uh, digressions, so that…”

I rested a hand on her shoulder, barely listening to her various thoughts afterward. I heard plenty of further rationalizations, hedging, and early attempts at philosophy, but little in the way of substance.

But then, she was genuinely trying, from the way she spoke. It impressed me, even if she was among the very closest to Byakuren herself. To think that even one or two youkai would truly attempt to put those silly ideas into practice, it…

I gave her a light nudge. She paused, turning to me.

“Have you considered discussing these sorts of things with this wise, lovely teacher of yours?”

She groaned and shook her head, turning away. “Of course, not. She’s… she’s really invested in all this. Looking out for us youkai and helping us push toward enlightenment. If she found out about this, she’d…”

I snickered. She pouted. I glanced away.

“She’s silly and naïve, but not quite as unaware as you might think. Why, when we chatted with the mountain god, they’d bombarded her with such horrendous tales about-”

Shou groaned. “So, that’s why she was so upset, back then.”

I held a quiet, mysterious smile for a moment. Naturally, I refrained from mentioning my own role in such revelations. Instead, I lifted myself back up and took a step toward the stairs. “I don’t care whether she finds out, of course. But what if,” I leaned close, “your troubles help her find a better way?”

She blinked, breathing slow as she turned to study the floor.

I rubbed her shoulder. “But never mind all that. I just need to know what to give my girl.”

She growled. “Byakuren is your ‘girl,’ and if you dare break her heart, you’ll…”

Oh, dear. Speaking of secrets… I turned and bowed to her a bit deeper than I was used to. “Yes, yes. Of course. I shall do what I can to please my wife.” I then rose, spun on my heel, and took another couple steps to the stairs. “And you’ll help me, won’t you?”

I sent a pleasant, comforting smile her way, but needed not even watch her to know her answer. All that remained was what sort of magic to focus on.

[ ] Sparkles, booms, and bullets. Great for entertaining people, intimidating others, and complementing her lightning.

[ ] Arcane cosmetics. Tojiko wasn’t usually much for the sort, but if I applied to myself instead, she may think differently.

[ ] Something to bolster one’s fitness. Certainly, an odd thing to offer a spirit such as her, but I knew I’d get something top-of-the-line.

[ ] Something to help around the house. Can’t go wrong with helping make her life more convenient.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/01/06 (Wed) 19:00

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[x] Something to help around the house. Can’t go wrong with helping make her life more convenient.
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[x] Sparkles, booms, and bullets. Great for entertaining people, intimidating others, and complementing her lightning.

All the other options somewhat sound like declaring Tojiko's the "stay at home, pretty up, and keep the place safe and clean" spouse, which is pretty darn insulting, in my opinion.
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[x] Sparkles, booms, and bullets. Great for entertaining people, intimidating others, and complementing her lightning.

Eh, the reasoning above works for me.
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[x] Sparkles, booms, and bullets. Great for entertaining people, intimidating others, and complementing her lightning.

I stopped at the edge of the stairs. I waited there a moment, then two.

Then, to my satisfaction, I heard that tiger pull herself off the crate, pat down her lap, and shuffle toward me. I hummed and climbed upward.

“I’m… not even sure what you’re expecting me to do. We’re close, but it’s not like she comes to me for advice or anything.”

“It’s all about the journey, not the destination~”

She grumbled. “Do you have to be so mysterious?”

I sighed, then stopped at the top of the stairs. Slowly, I turned around and took her hand, pulling her up beside me. “You mean something to her and, as a result, to me.”

She blinked. I smiled. “Good company never hurt anyone. Now, please follow me.”

I turned on my heel and returned to seeking my quarry. Now, she held rather quiet as I moved through the halls. I couldn’t help a smirk as I listened to her desires. She had, for the moment, all but forgotten her reservations.

By the time we neared the final door, her thoughts had wandered to the person we’d meet on the other side.

I, of course, shoved the door aside and strode in. Inside, Byakuren spun on her heel to face us. For a split-second, I heard an overwhelming urge to bury me in a bear hug. One that she strangled, choosing instead to answer with a clipped sigh. One intended as an expression of displeasure, assumedly. Which I, of course, promptly ignored as I dropped to my feet near her.

The room was rather small - large enough for us to fit, but with little elbow room.

With a grunt, she settled down across from me. Shou settled down to my side, her eyes wandering in some degree of confusion.

Byakuren leveled a neutral but stern gaze on the two of us.

“Good evening, you two.”

Shou’s presence prickled at her, inciting her curiosity. But…

Byakuren cleared her throat. “So, Miko dear.”

I flinched. I didn’t like that tone.

“Our daughter stopped by. It seems she’s unsatisfied with your involvement in her life.”

She meant Kokoro, of course, but… it seemed she wished to keep something about that complaint concealed from me, at least for now. Interesting.

My eyes narrowed. “Oh, is she, now?”

“Y-y-your daughter…”

She and I paused and turned to Shou, her trembling body and twitching eyes the very image of a woman about to crumble.

“When did… is that why you two… so suddenly…”

Byakuren patted her on the head. “There, there. Don’t worry too much about this, okay?”

Air wheezed through Shou’s lips. “When-wait. Wait a second. How? Who?”

I groaned. “If she’s anyone’s daughter, she’s mine. Byakuren just happened to be there when she got that-”

“It may not be by blood, but I’m just as much a mother to her as anyone else.”

Byakuren’s desires dripped with a fair bit of maternal instinct, but also… a sort of religious ambition. One no doubt like her attitude toward that wandering satori.

I huffed. “She’s a tsukumogami. It can’t be by blood any way you cut it!”

Shou’s trembling eased. “Oh, thank goodness. It wasn’t a shotgun wedding, then?”

I straightened my back. “Of course, not! We’re both women. Besides,” I tossed a slanted gaze toward Byakuren, “that ‘child’ is quite literally a work of art. Clearly, she could not be born from h…”

Byakuren fixed her eyes on me. They were quite narrow, her brow hardened and furrowed.

I sighed but backed down. “Regardless, her behavior has grown erratic lately. For someone so keen on experimenting with family, she seems quite set on doing inconvenient things all on her own.”

Byakuren smiled. I closed my eyes, holding a steady, neutral expression. How odd it seemed, for her to take umbrage with my jabs now.

She shifted backward, likely easing back into a resting posture. “She’s in a difficult, questioning period of her life. I must confess that I feel somewhat sympathetic to her at this moment, however, as I’d dearly like to know what it is you came here for, dear.”

I blinked. “Surely, it’s enough that I sought my wife’s company again.”

Shou glanced aside. Byakuren sighed.

“After leaving so suddenly? I doubt it. Besides,” she shook her head, “Shou would not be here were that case.”

I turned to Shou. She kept her eyes firmly elsewhere. So, I turned to Byakuren. Byakuren frowned.

“You didn’t think you could slip such a companion beneath my notice, did you? Surely, you understand how long my lovely tiger and I have known each other.”

I felt the faintest sense that I’d been in a similar situation before, but on the other side. Shou, meanwhile, just blushed.

I adjusted my posture, shifting into a more formal, kneeling pose. I planted my hands on my knees and stared my wife in the eyes.

“You’ve seen through me, darling.” Leaning to my side slightly, I rubbed Shou’s shoulder. “Tell me, Shou, have I done well for our temple, so far?”

Shou’s face spun, from me to Byakuren and back. She swallowed. “Um, yes. I-I was a little surprised, honestly. So far, you’ve been helpful.”

Wow, what a ringing endorsement. I had plenty of hopes from this meeting beyond her support, but this was me she was talking about. She…

“Oh, is that so?” Byakuren grinned, though with a heavy sense of wariness clinging to her heart. “Then, I must thank you, dear, for your help.”

I nodded. “I’d do nothing less for our temple. But I have a difficult request to make.”

She turned to Shou. “Of course. That’s why she brought you, isn’t it?”

Shou chuckled. “Um, yes.”

“The suddenness of our union has caused some… frictions, I’m afraid. I need your help in smoothing these difficulties over.”

Byakuren rolled her shoulders. “Oh? Does you need help with someone who’s troubling you?”

She cracked her knuckles.

I shook my head, quite emphatically. “No, nothing of the sort! She’s a good woman-”

Byakuren frowned. I groaned. “You should know who I’m talking about. I’ve caused her some trouble and must insist on your help.”

Byakuren’s lips grew thin. “Speak carefully, dear.”

I clenched my fists, pressing them into my thighs. “I intend to help her learn a new spell. Something loud and dramatic, perhaps a burst of bullets or a powerful thunderclap. However, I’ve already taught her as much on the matter as I could, so I…”

“You want me to teach her?”

That was a good question. Having Byakuren herself teach Tojiko seemed a… troublesome arrangement. But then, it may also be a chance for the three of us to go over rather crucial matters together. As dangerous as it may be, it may be even more dangerous to continue to worry about keeping them separate.

On the other hand, this may not be the only such opportunity, and may not be the best time or context to bring them together. Instead, I could suggest she teach me and that I, then, pass it on to Tojiko.

Or I could suggest I be allowed to review and copy certain segments of the scroll down and pass them on. It would easily be the safest route as far as inter-personal matters went, but Byakuren might find it the most threatening to the ‘security’ of her scroll’s contents.


[ ] Request Byakuren teach her directly. The risks to my standing would be worth it to ensure we cleared the air sooner.

[ ] Request she teach me so that I, in turn, could teach Tojiko. If nothing else, Byakuren would surely love the chance to be responsible for a Taoist’s instruction.

[ ] Request I be allowed to copy sections out. However much the proposition might worry Byakuren, it was still the simplest, cleanest option.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/01/23 (Sat) 19:00

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[X] Request Byakuren teach her directly. The risks to my standing would be worth it to ensure we cleared the air sooner.

A direct interaction between the two sounds interesting.
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[X] Request Byakuren teach her directly. The risks to my standing would be worth it to ensure we cleared the air sooner.
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[x] Request she teach me so that I, in turn, could teach Tojiko. If nothing else, Byakuren would surely love the chance to be responsible for a Taoist’s instruction.

When we promised to bring something back for Tojiko, Byakuren herself was definitely not on the short list of possibilities. Taking the monk home would be tantamount to a direct insult to Tojiko. On the other hand, having Byakuren teach us and then we teach Tojiko gets us quality private time with them both. And we get to learn a new trick too. Win-Win-Win.
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[x] Request Byakuren teach her directly. The risks to my standing would be worth it to ensure we cleared the air sooner.

Still bowing, I nodded my head. “Yes, darling. Please, teach her directly.”

Byakuren tilted her head, sparing a brief glance to Shou. “Oh, I just don’t know…”

Now, I met her eyes. “I need your help. Please, it would mean the world to me.”

She folded her arms and, shutting her eyes, turned them to the floor.

Shou turned to me. “Um, who are you two talking about? Why is she…”

I turned and placed a finger to her lips. Her eyes narrowed, but she kept quiet. I leaned close. “Don’t worry about it. She’s just a close, loyal disciple of mine.”

She furrowed her brow, distrust filtering out from her desires.

I sighed. “Oh, fine. If you must know, she’s-”

A hand clapped my shoulder. I turned to find Byakuren staring back. Her eyes had opened, and her desires, cleared.

She now-oh. Oh, dear. She…

She grabbed my other shoulder, then pulled me close. Her breath wafted over my face.

“Very well, dear. I’ll help you out. But I must insist on a certain payment in return.”

“This really isn’t the best time, dar…”

Her hands slid up to the back of my head and pulled me close. Slowly, gently, she pressed her lips to mine.

The most fleeting glance into her desires told me she wouldn’t let go with just this, and the difference between us, purely in terms of physical strength…

Well, I knew what had to be done.

I gripped the back of her head and pressed myself closer to her. Tighter to her. The moment just before she parted her lips, I pushed my tongue forward.

She grunted in surprise, her voice surprisingly cute and soft. Of course, she didn’t shrink back.

As I pressed my tongue to hers, she pushed it back to press her own inside me. We pushed, slid, and batted around one another a moment. But finally, I saw my opportunity.

Though, I must confess, it was not my first desire to exploit it.

Still, I pulled back. It took a second for our tongues to disentangle and for us to fully separate.

Byakuren coughed, then wiped her lips. I did something similar, myself.

Shou stared between the two of us, her face a deep red. “Uh, um, if you, I could just, maybe I should just…”


That was clearly the word she’d been thinking. Between her desires, her floundering words, and the way she shuffled and glanced back, there was no doubt.

I grunted. “Oh, no. Why, if not for your presence, Byakuren would…”

Byakuren forced out a polite cough. “No, no. It’s fine, it’s fine. We were just about to leave anyway. Right, Miko?”

I shrugged. If she wanted to hide her desire for a witness, so be it.

Byakuren rose to her feet and strode between us, to the door. She slid it open, then glanced back, down on me.

I sighed, then smiled and shook my head. I stood up and, holding the shaku to my lips, walked out ahead of her. Waiting only until she said her farewell, I lead her out, through a gap, and back to the mausoleum’s chamber.

As we stepped out into the mists, she glanced around.

The shallow pool rippled, but no other movements or sounds reached our senses. All I heard were Byakuren’s desires.

Her need for control, for peace, for the enlightenment of humans and youkai, all the usual things. Except for…

She dropped to her knees, rested her hands, palm up, on them, and…

And that desire, whatever it was, faded from my ears. All I’d caught was that it had something to do with me.

And with Tojiko.

I took a step forward and stood beside her. My ears caught more than her desires, though the others were a fair bit fainter. One in the tower, the other in the nearby tunnel.

Hers still puzzled me the most. I couldn’t shake the notion that her move to meditation was at least in part to conceal her intentions. Just what went on in that head of hers?

Still holding my shaku aloft, I grunted.

“For a Buddhist saint, you sure keep a lot of secrets.”

She hummed, waiting a moment before she spoke. “I doubt you’re in a position to lecture me, dear.”

“On the contrary. Despite aspiring to things far outside my discipline, I…”

Tojiko cleared her throat. “Am back here.”

I twitched, then turned around. She floated behind us, her arms folded beneath her chest.

“Why, yes. Tojiko. I’m back and I’ve brought-”

“Your ‘wife.’ I see that, Miko.”

I huffed. “Indeed. And as it happens…”

Byakuren lifted herself to her feet and spun around. She clapped her hands on Tojiko’s shoulders, only for Tojiko to jerk away.

Byakuren sighed. “So, you’re my student, then~”

Tojiko’s narrow eyes, beneath her furrowed brow, turned to me. “What is this, Miko?”

I flicked my shaku in Byakuren’s direction. “Your gift, Tojiko. ‘This’ is-”

Byakuren adopted a wide, motherly smile. “I’m here to teach you how to terrify your enemies. How to drive them before you, to fill them with terror, shock, and awe.” She paused, letting out a faint chuckle. “That’s what Miko dear requested.”

Tojiko studied her face a moment, then turned to me, one brow raised.

I pouted. “Yes, that’s essentially what I would have said, had either of you let me speak.”

She frowned. “Your notion of a gift is to bring her to teach me? Need I remind you why I’m-”

Byakuren patted her shoulder. “Oh, don’t worry about such minor details. I’ll be nothing more than your mentor, here.”

Tojiko brushed her off, then groaned. “I don’t need a mentor like you. What I need is-”

Byakuren sighed. “Is power not enough? Why, the wisdom contained in my scroll…”

Finally, Tojiko sagged. “How strong?”

“Why, it’s the very source of much of my own might, you know.”

Tojiko mulled it over. She wanted to be free of Byakuren’s presence, but the thought did intrigue her.

Byakuren turned to me, smiling. “Miko dear. Go ahead and run off to whatever you had on mind while I teach her, would you?”

Tojiko’s eyes shot up. They narrowed, then stared deep into Byakuren. Byakuren, in response, only took a step back and held a mysterious but friendly smile.

I felt a faint sense of tension between them. Byakuren definitely wanted something with her, but Tojiko… while the offer intrigued her, she wanted to stay away from Byakuren. With my grand plan in jeopardy, it seemed it would be my responsibility to help things along.

[ ] I promised Tojiko that she could trust Byakuren, at least for this, then…
 [ ] I returned to Myouren Temple to chat more with Shou.
 [ ] I returned to Senkai to see how Futo was doing.

[ ] I consented to give the two some time alone, but only if and when Tojiko also requested it.

[ ] I refused Byakuren’s request. I’d remain by Tojiko’s side and make sure Byakuren kept on her best behavior.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/02/06 (Sat) 19:00

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[x] I consented to give the two some time alone, but only if and when Tojiko also requested it.
But will she ask for it?
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[x] I stepped away to attend to my own affairs, but double backed a few minutes later. Concealing my presence, I spied on the proceedings, ready to leap in if Byakuren tried something uncouth.

I don't like any of the options here, really. There is definitely something suspicious about Byakuren wanting Miko to leave before giving lessons. Tojiko isn't keen on the idea either. But if we butt in now and stay, we will upset Byakuren and never find out her true intentions. If we stake out whats going on, though, we can accomplish a few goals. We can learn Byakuren's trick, we can ensure Tojiko's safety, and possibly hear what they both have to say about Miko behind Miko's back. That can be quite valuable in of itself.
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[X] I consented to give the two some time alone, but only if and when Tojiko also requested it.

If she wants Miko to stay, then Miko stays. Simple as that.
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Hm. I'll allow this vote.
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[x] I stepped away to attend to my own affairs, but double backed a few minutes later. Concealing my presence, I spied on the proceedings, ready to leap in if Byakuren tried something uncouth.
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[x] I consented to give the two some time alone, but only if and when Tojiko also requested it.

I ignored Byakuren, turning instead to Tojiko. “Want some privacy?”

She answered with a frown and a snort. “Not with her.”

Byakuren huffed, but I only leveled a steady, neutral smile toward her. “Then, there you have it.”

She pouted. “Please, dear. As your wife…”

Tojiko turned to her, her eyes narrowing to slits.

I held a neutral, steady gaze. “I suggest a bit more caution in your language here, darling.”

Tojiko clicked her tongue at my remark. Byakuren, however, sighed.

“Very well. But I don’t recall consenting to offering you a free lesson, as well.” She then turned to me, her voice a little higher than I’d have liked. “And I don’t recall you behaving this way when we were alone…”

I frowned, but settled down, barely off to their side. I breathed in, then forced a smile. “Don’t mind me~ I’ll keep my attention fixed solely on you two, not whatever arcane errata you discuss.”

Tojiko cleared her throat. “This had better be worth my time.” She eased back, floating downward until her wispy legs wafted directly across the stone. “Show me what you’ve got.”

Byakuren pouted again but, after a glance between the two of us, merely let out another, more dramatic sigh, and sunk to her knees. She produced her scroll and unrolled it over her lap. As she did, the shapes-characters? -shifted. She placed a finger on one of them.

“Can you read this?”

Tojiko leaned close, over it. “Nope. It’s all gibberish.”

Byakuren… smiled. She wore a cocky grin, even. “Very well. Think of its meaning as a sort of ‘destruction.’ It indicates the beginning of a spell one uses to summon a terrible thunderstorm.”

I tilted my head. “You’re not worried about her summoning such destruction on your own temple?”

Byakuren let out a clipped, tense breath. “Miko, dear. Your w-I know what I’m doing.”

Tojiko snorted. “You’d better. It’ll take quite the lesson to make this time worth it.”

Byakuren flinched, then straightened her back. “Please, show some patience. This spell is indeed dangerous, requiring the utmost attention to the needs and concerns of the life around you. However, with adequate humility and an understanding rooted not in the carnal self, but in the world around you…”

“You’re asking a lot of a vengeful spirit, here.”

I rubbed my shaku, gently tapping it against my chin. “Are you really all that ‘vengeful’ these days?”

Tojiko grunted. “Miko, please. Don’t interrupt.”

Byakuren leaned forward and, gently, rubbed Tojiko’s shoulder. “Anyone can change and outgrow their old nature. If you ever need another ear for…”

Tojiko brushed her off. “What I need is for you to prove the value of this ‘lesson.’ Would you get to the point, already?”

Byakuren huffed. “This lesson is about far more than some magic trick!” Afterward, however, she shook her head and returned to the scroll. “Your insistence on rewards in place of growth is dangerous, but if you insist.” Her finger moved down. “Now, to begin, you utter this phrase…”

She went through a few unfamiliar words. Tojiko kept her ears focused, hoping to learn something destructive and powerful. Something that, indeed, she could learn to impress or terrify others…

Including myself.

However, as concerning as I found that particular desire, some of her earlier frustrations had already begun to wane. Something I couldn’t help a sigh of relief at. I wasn’t entirely clear yet, but I was on the right track.

“…it’s okay if you don’t get it at first. Just keep studying, and I’m sure…”

The two had been practicing the words, it seemed. Soon, Byakuren lead Tojiko through a few motions-motions that the monk moved gracefully through, but which my companion, of course, stumbled around.

Then, as they finished the first few attempts, Tojiko cleared her throat. Before the first syllable left her mouth, I heard her desire.

I hopped to my feet and took a few steps away.

She grunted. “Oh, come on. It wouldn’t have hurt that much.”

Byakuren blinked, turning between the two of us. “What wouldn’t have…” Slowly, she turned to Tojiko and pinched her brow. “Please, tell me you weren’t planning to test the spell already.”

In response, Tojiko grunted. “I’m spending time with you, aren’t I? Of course, I have to test it!”

I shook my head, choosing to let her previous intentions slide. For now. “Would it even work, underground?”

“Ms. Tojiko, please. I must insist that you exercise more restraint. This isn’t something to just throw around all the time!”

She sighed. “Then, let’s start with something I can throw around.”

Byakuren took a sharp breath, then let it out over the course of what felt like a full minute. I patted her shoulder. “Do you need a break?”

She calmed down, slightly. Tojiko, however, grimaced. She flicked her hair and leveled her eyes on Byakuren. “You wanted some alone time, right?”

Byakuren blinked, turning a pair of narrow eyes to her. “I did request that, yes.”

Tojiko’s eyes softened and her tight lips eased into a gentle smile.

It disconcerted me, just a little, how easily she faked innocence in that moment. How easily she concealed a desire to frustrate Byakuren.

And how she focused so heavily on that desire, to the exclusion of…

Of all other desires.

I sighed and, turning around, took some leisurely steps away.

“Ah! Wait, dear!”

I paused and glance back. “Yes, Byakuren?”

Tojiko’s face twitched, then settled back down.

A moment of uncertainty passed through Byakuren’s eyes, then she smiled and shook her head. “I’ll see you soon.”

I grinned back. “I’ll see you, too.” I then swiveled slightly, to Tojiko. “And you, of course~”

She waved me off. “Yeah, yeah.”

She knew that I knew that she now wanted that space I’d offered. Conveniently, this meant I needed not explain things. However, as I strode away, I couldn’t help but wonder just what both women had wanted to hide from me.

With a careful use of pacing and perhaps a pinch of void transition, I could soon turn back without-possibly without-either of them realizing my presence. But if they did discover my deception, that could easily make things… difficult afterword.

So, I…

[ ] Doubled back. Intelligence is paramount to a competent administrator.

[ ] Departed to the village. Trust is vital to any intimate relationship.

[ ] Returned to Byakuren’s temple. No reason not to poke around when she’s preoccupied.

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Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/02/28 (Sun) 19:00

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[x] Departed to the village. Trust is vital to any intimate relationship.
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[x] Departed to the village. Trust is vital to any intimate relationship.
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[x] Doubled back. Intelligence is paramount to a competent administrator.

Trust is good and all, but its also important to verify. Need to see what these two are up to.
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[X] Departed to the village. Trust is vital to any intimate relationship.
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[x] Departed to the village. Trust is vital to any intimate relationship.

I sighed and kept moving. If trouble came up, I’d find a way to resolve it. But, in the meantime, I would put some faith in these women.

Yet, I kept my ears out as I departed, for whatever last hints I might catch on the way out. As I reached my exit, I heard an inkling of an urge in Byakuren to solidify her connection with me. In Tojiko, a need to know more.

I shook my head as I stepped into the void. If either of them betrayed the trust I was putting in them, I would discover it. And I would make sure to remember it.

A small, insignificant corner of my mind hoped that neither of them held any such objections toward me.

I came out near the village. Several steps and a few polite greetings later, I strolled down its streets. Plenty of folks-mostly human-walked and bartered and fought for space here, letting me nestle myself into the familiar, comfortable buzz of their needs and wants.

Food, money, company, security… dozens upon dozens of them, almost all of which fell along common paths and niches. This was why, although the faces often changed, I found large human groups so comfortable.

Some of the common desires differed from old Asuka, to be sure. Even back then, the fear of youkai never peaked so high, but I’d already gotten used to such feelings.

I stopped by my dojo, while I was here. I didn’t enter it, this time, but I strolled by close enough to hear the general mood inside. A few pockets of mistrust had flared back up, but most of them still floated high off yesterday’s session.

I waited there a moment, then rolled my shoulders and strolled away, basking in the afternoon sun. They’d be fine another day or two without me. Like the village itself, it seemed to manage surprisingly well under minimal leadership. I had to pause only a few steps later, however, for I had heard something.

That same nosey bundle of desires from yesterday. The one that had hovered near the very dojo I’d just departed. Without any other compelling needs to address, I cheerfully listened in a bit longer. A desire to please, one to savor juicy gossip, to know the ins and outs of our relationship-

Ours. Mine and Byakuren’s, very specifically.

And one more, to atone for some mistake. Odd. That one felt different. Out of place, perhaps?

Possibly a new one but, if so, why?

The desires moved, back toward the dojo. I held a distance away, then started to follow. It took only a moment before I found the familiar head of green hair which held all those desires. One accompanied by that white and blue dress she often wore, of the peculiar, bare-shouldered style that the shrine maidens of this realm seemed to favor. She approached the front door and pressed herself to the wall.

I suppressed a snicker, then gently approached. She was… fixated.

Neither her body language nor her desires registered any notice or attention as I slipped in, right behind her. So, naturally, I leaned in and breathed across her ear.

She squealed.

I chuckled and stepped back, a second before she whipped her gohei out and swung it where I had just been.

She paused, turned, and locked eyes with me. As she did, she froze, and her face burned a cute shade of red. Her mouth floundered for a good minute before she found her words.

“M-Ms. Miko. I wasn’t eavesdropping! I-I-I…”

I sighed, then tapped her shoulder and pressed a finger to my lips.

She shut her mouth. Then, with a simple gesture to the street, I had her following me down it. I hummed on the way, which just seemed to agitate her more. I couldn’t help it, her nervousness, in the face of her attempted espionage, was just so cute.

Finally, after listening to her tie herself in knots for a few minutes, I showed some mercy.

“You’re a very curious woman, aren’t you? Always following me around.”

Mercy of a sort, that is.

“I was just, uh, looking out for you! I-I mean, after all that’s gone down, what if something, uh…”

She wanted to convince me her motive and behavior were both entirely benign, as expected. What I expected less was that she seemed to believe it, too.

“Perhaps, you just wanted to see some fine, eligible men, deep in profound thought or working through certain exercises?”

She sputtered, face flushing. I was wrong, but I could tell…

“O-of course, not! I-I’d never!”

That was a lie. I snickered. “Perhaps it’s the women you’re more interested in?”

She let out a rather squeaky noise but deigned not to answer. Despite this, the desire still didn’t quite match up. Women, and the romance thereof, interested her. But their bodies?

Well, maybe she was interested, maybe not. But the difference was stark. Male bodies excited her far more.

Ah, the curse of knowing too many of the intimate details of others~

I leaned in close. “Or, perhaps…”

I paused, pulling back. I heard another bundle of urges. Someone else. Someone I’d…

Sanae gulped. “P-perhaps…”

I paid no attention to the weird tingle in her soul. Instead…

Ah, there. Kokoro stepped toward us, her face hard and gri… her face as flat as usual.

Her desires were rather focused though, fitting with the fox mask that hovered beside her head. I must have confused the two.

I cleared my throat. “Welcome, welcome. We’re having quite the party, aren’t we?”

Sanae flinched and spun around, then froze as she stared at Kokoro.

“O-oh! What a sight! How are you-”

Kokoro pointed a finger at Sanae. “You’re the culprit, aren’t you.”

She yelped. “What? I have no, no idea what you’re talking about! I-uh, I need to go!”

She spun on her heel and…

“You got them married.”

She froze. Again. Her desires now quite interested me. She wanted to convince us that Kokoro was wrong. She also wanted her to be wrong. But her desires showed no evidence she knew one way or the other.

For the supposed culprit, she seemed awfully in the dark.

Kokoro, too. Despite her determination, retribution did not appear among her own desires. Fitting, I suppose, given that she was not directly involved in any of the affairs. But then, why her belligerence a couple days ago?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Kokoro huffed. “Admit it. You waited until they both got drunk, then told them to get hitched.”

Sanae whimpered. Kokoro nodded her head, then turned to me. Her mask switched out for the Young Woman as a sense of pride radiated from her heart.

“It wasn’t a youkai, after all. We don’t need to worry.”

A youkai, why was she…

Wait. I suggested something like that, didn’t I? Something about ‘discord and marriage,’ or something.

Sanae turned around, however shakily, and cocked her face to one side. Now, it was my turn to respond with some degree of nervousness. She hadn’t heard of my ‘theory’ and, dearly, wished to know more.

I fought down a groan and…

[ ] Suggested we all sit down and take a breather. This was far too much to address so quickly.

[ ] Congratulated Kokoro for her deduction. We no longer needed to worry about surprise matrimony.

[ ] Turned the question back to Sanae. Was she really the one behind all this?

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[ X] Congratulated Kokoro for her deduction. We no longer needed to worry about surprise matrimony.

Positive reinforcement!
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[X] Suggested we all sit down and take a breather. This was far too much to address so quickly.

Let's not jump to conclusions if we can help it.
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[x] Congratulated Kokoro for her deduction. We no longer needed to worry about surprise matrimony.

Yes, lets just consider the matter settled and move on to other topics as soon as possible. Stopping to think about it too hard would only bring us more trouble.
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[x] Congratulated Kokoro for her deduction. We no longer needed to worry about surprise matrimony.

And I clapped my hands. “Congratulations, Kokoro! Excellent work.”

Though her face and tone remained neutral, she yearned to hear more. It played into my immediate plans, but I had to wonder if this vulnerability to praise was something I should enable.

Sanae, however, narrowed her eyes. “Ms. Miko. The youkai. What did she mean…”

I tapped my shaku on my chin. “We don’t need to worry about any more surprises, do we?”

Kokoro shook her head very slightly. “We don’t.”

“Why would a youkai be-”

I pushed out a satisfied sigh. “Wonderful. Byakuren and I are free to-”


The two of us turned to Sanae who, as soon as our eyes had turned to her, pressed her hands together. Her fingers engaged in a rather hesitant, nervous dance with one another. Still, eyes shifting this way and that, she aimed them in our general direction. “A youkai, behind the marriage? Why would that-”

I clapped Kokoro on the shoulder. “Come, Kokoro. Let’s celebrate your discovery.”

Sanae pouted. “Hey! I wanna know!”

I tossed an idle wave her way as I nudged Kokoro down the road. “Another time. I must reward this tsukumogami’s diligence.”

She huffed, questions and objections swirling within her. She yearned for answers, both to her original question and my fixation on Kokoro. But my insistence had, apparently, worn her down, as she chose not to pursue us further.

Slipping away, I wandered until the warm smoke of a humble yakitori stall drew me in. There, I purchased a pair of skewers and, once they were ready, offered one to Kokoro. “So, how’d you figure it out?”

She accepted it, tapping the top piece to check its temperature. “I went to the mountain, like you and Byakuren suggested-”

We suggested that?

“-but a green goddess got in my way so-”

“I was there for that, remember?”

She bit down, her mask turning briefly to the Hannya-anger-before returning to her more serious Fox.

“The tengu also got in my way, so I had to fight them.”

I winced a bit as I bit off some chicken. Such behavior was far from unusual but would have done nothing to endear her to them. And, if they felt I was involved in any way…

“Then I got to the shrine, but the goddesses fought me too. I almost beat them. But then more tengu came and forced me away. I just needed a couple more minutes and I would have learned their secret.”

I nodded, munching as she spoke, and stepped back into the streets. “That’s when you found us, isn’t it?”

Her mask switched to the Young Woman, then back again. “Yes. I couldn’t find any answers, but some people whispered about it yesterday.”

I raised a brow as I bit off a bit more, savoring the peppery taste this one had.

“Someone said the Moriya goddesses were behind it, so I questioned all of them.”

I twitched. “You didn’t harass these people, did you?”

Her mask returned to the Hannya, this time staying there for a good moment. “Of course, not.”

I sighed as I chewed. “Then, please, continue~”

She huffed, focusing on her meat. But, a moment later, her mask returned to the Fox. “They lead me to an eye-witness. A messy woman who swore she saw the shrine maiden demand a marriage.”

I hummed. Feeling out her desires, I tapped the shaku to my chin. “Messy?”

“She had stuff in her hair.”

Despite utter neutrality in her eyes and movements, She clearly wanted to move to the next topic. In response, I furrowed my brow. “Oh, but it i-”

She turned and jabbed a finger at me. “You two should stay married.”

I groaned. “First you want us together, then apart, then together again.” I jabbed a finger back at her. “Make up your mind!”

She kept her finger leveled at me. “I did. I made up my mind three times.” Then, she retracted it. “The Moriya shrine maiden got you two married. Her goddesses must want you to stay together, but I don’t know why. If you separated, they’d panic, and their evil schemes would be too hard to discover. Wait until I figure it out, then separate.”

I nibbled a bit more as she spoke, only to sigh as she finished. “We’ll stay together or apart regardless of…”

“While you’re together, adopt me.”

I blinked, lifting my shaku to over my nose as I studied her desires. ‘Learn more of emotions,’ ‘investigate the Moriyas,’ ‘don’t apologize to Hina’… nothing weird. I narrowed my eyes, listening deeper.

Ah, ‘experiment with childhood.’ She was still on that.

I turned away. “The two of us still have a lot to address. It’s too soon to consider such-”

“The Moriyas won’t wait forever. Do it before they slip away.”

I took a couple steps. “It would be difficult to get everything settled i-”

“I’m can perform at your temples to attract more worshippers.”

I snorted. “What do you think a child is?”

“Someone who’s born or adopted by parents, who serves and is spoiled by them until adulthood.”

I snickered. “You really do have a lot to learn about it.”

“So, adopt me.”

I finished off the rest of my skewer, then tossed the stick aside and rubbed my shaku. What to say, what to say?

She spoke up again. “Besides, someone needs to watch over you two and make sure you don’t cause more trouble for the village.”

I tapped her forehead with my shaku. “I’m plenty concerned about the village’s state already. I don’t need your meddling.”

Despite a sudden urge to beat me, her mask remained fixed on the fox. Her determination must have overpowered her irritation. I sighed. She was not going to let me go until she had an answer, so I…

[ ] Gave in for the moment. I’d worry about the consequences later but, for now, I just wanted her off my back.

[ ] Relented, but insisted she move in with me, specifically. Byakuren already had plenty of company.

[ ] Insisted I could not answer her until I spoke with Byakuren, her other prospective ‘mother.’

[ ] Refused. Now was simply not the time.

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[ ] Relented, but insisted she move in with me, specifically. Byakuren already had plenty of company.
Now now miko, making important decisions on your own is a good way to wind up sleeping on the sofa.
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[x] Gave in for the moment. I’d worry about the consequences later but, for now, I just wanted her off my back.

What could possibly go wrong?
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[x] Refused. Now was simply not the time.

Kids are trouble. Kids with an agenda are more trouble. Kids with an agenda and newly formed enemies are extreme trouble. We don't need more trouble.
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Sorry for the delay, but I would like to formally request a tie-breaking vote. I should have made this request a day or so sooner and wish to apologize for that. If none arrive within the next several hours, I shall flip a metaphorical coin instead.
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[x] Gave in for the moment. I’d worry about the consequences later but, for now, I just wanted her off my back.
Lets bring on the chaos!
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We're giving in.
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[x] Gave in for the moment. I’d worry about the consequences later but, for now, I just wanted her off my back.

I stared at her, hard and firm. She stared back.

That damn fox remained pinned to her face.

I sighed and turned on my heel, back toward the village gate.

She followed close behind.

I kept walking. She kept following.

I tossed my hands out to either side and shrugged my shoulders. “Fine. Fine. Follow me.”


I turned back and gripped her shoulder. From there, I slipped out of the village and, through space, to the temple stairs.

She stopped for a moment as we touched down and turned her blank eyes this way and that. “Amazing.”

I puffed out my chest, only for her to, without further comment, march up the steps. I sighed and chose to linger back, at least for the moment. If she was still as belligerent as before, following too close would only get me into more of the very trouble I had just avoided.

“Greetings are the-hey! Don’t just walk iiiin!”

I shook my head. Those sorts of messes, precisely. Despite her insistence, I held no authority over this temple. So, naturally, I waited for Kokoro and the flustered yamabiko to disappear into it, then took a leisurely stroll up the stairs.

My sandals clacked on the stone as I ascended. I had a great deal of work ahead of me if I wanted to properly educate this stubborn menreiki. She had not responded as well as I’d hoped to simple persuasion, but if I couldn’t do better, only more confrontational methods would work. And those would not be reliable without the support of powerful people. People like…


I groaned but kept walking. I’d left that monk alone with Tojiko, before learning just what they’d intended with one another. I needed them to play nice with one another and to come out of their meeting without new reasons to trouble me. I had enough on my plate already.

“Hey! I’m Kyouko! Who are y…”

I tuned the commotion out and stepped around, toward the hallways. I made my way back toward the room, then paused. I held my shaku in my right hand and, in my left…


I jogged back toward the chamber where I had slept with the head monk and slipped inside. I found the futon, now rolled up, and that desk from before.

But nothing else.

I groaned, then slipped, through space, back to my precious Senkai. I sifted through a few halls before retrieving my box and returning to…

I slipped back to my chambers and browsed a bit more. Statues or busts of the three immortals would prove too much-and too valuable to risk in her temple-but a couple diagrams? I shook my head. No, too much to consider just yet.

I slipped back to Byakuren’s chamber with the box.

I kneeled and took a moment to ponder as I opened it. I couldn’t just set these things on the floor, but the room was so painfully simple. I brought the box to the table. There, I retrieved the scroll and cup, then set them both on that same table, but left the dress in the box.

Closing it back up, I unraveled the scroll to the first few paragraphs, then stepped back and rested on my knees. I closed my eyes and poured my mind outward, to the…

A sense of agitation interrupted my meditation. A couple disciples tried to keep someone from barging-

The door to our room slid open.

“Where’s Byakuren.”

Kokoro. Of course. I rocked on my hips. “She’s busy.”

“With what.”

I frowned. “How’s the temple, Kokoro?”

“It’s the same as usual. Is this where you sleep.”

Of course, she’d still cling to me, but did she have to be this nosey? I grunted but patted the floor beside me. “If you’re going to keep yammering, sit down.”

She paused, then shuffled beside me. “They tried to keep me out, but I-”

“Please, stop fighting people.”

She huffed. “I didn’t fight them.”

I cocked a brow, then pressed my shaku to my chin as I answered. “Good.” I then cleared my throat. “Speaking of fighting,” I peeked an eye open, toward her blank face. “Could you tell me more about this eye-witness?”

She blinked. “Eye-witness.”

“The messy one you encountered yesterday.”

“Oh. Her. I already told you everything. She said she saw the Moriya shrine maiden demand that marriage.”

I clicked my tongue. “That’s it? Really?”


I turned away, toward the table, and tilted my head. “Is this what convinced the shrine maiden herself?”

“Convince her. No. She did it, so she must already know.”

“And yet, she didn’t know. At least, not with the kind of confidence I’d expect.”

“She didn’t.”

“Indeed, she didn’t.”

Kokoro turned away, herself, pondering my answer to her uninflected question. Though uncertain, she wanted to disbelieve it.

Either way, I would need to investigate this further.

“What did this witness look like? How was she dressed? What color was her…” I paused, hearing yet more commotion from the hall.

I turned my head to the door just as it slid open, revealing first a pink cloud, then a worried, cowled face.

“Hijiri! Please, we need…” She trailed off, studying the room. Her cheeks turned… not quite as pink as the cloud, but close. “Ms. Miko, where is Hijiri?”

I shrugged. “I’m afraid that she’s busy, why?”

Ichirin studied us a moment longer, her lips tight. So instead, I listened to what she didn’t say.

She wanted answers. She, and some of her associates. They wanted to solve a dilemma that the temple faced. Something about rumors. Rumors of…

She turned away. “I-I’ll ask elsewhere. Sorry for your time!”

Rumors of obstruction? No, danger, trouble… kidnappings! Rumors that the temple disciples had kidnapped villagers. As she took a step away, I pondered how to act.

Despite her fixation on Byakuren, I heard sufficient stress that I knew they’d accept my aid, at least until the monk’s return.

This temple lacked its leader in what seemed a very troubled moment. I could leave them to their trials and figure out who this ‘witness’ was, or I could offer my help. Doing so threatened to leave me ever more entangled to the temple, but could serve a fine chance to show off, too.

[ ] I completed my interrogation of Kokoro, leaving them to their troubles.

[ ] I threw out a few vague notions on how to improve their public image.

[ ] I offered to take charge and help them organize an investigation into the matter.

[ ] I requested they give me some more info on the temple, in exchange for a complete advisement.

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[x] I threw out a few vague notions on how to improve their public image.
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[X] I offered to take charge and help them organize an investigation into the matter.

Seems like the sort of thing that's worth looking into...
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[X] I offered to take charge and help them organize an investigation into the matter.

C'mon, we're Miko, taking charge is what we do!
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[x] I offered to take charge and help them organize an investigation into the matter.

I glanced briefly to Kokoro. The girl still pondered my answer, mulling over what it may mean for this idea or that.

I shook my head and pulled myself to my feet, then strode through the door she’d just left. Kokoro barely even noticed.

Skipping down the hall, I heard bits and pieces of the problem. Worries about whether the disappearances would continue, wondering if this person or that would be next, who was behind it all…

I ran a hand along one earmuff. These weren’t the sort of desires I most enjoyed perusing. Instead, I picked up the pace and pushed through the few figures I found - most of them, as far as my ears could tell, gathered in various rooms, rather than wander the halls.

I kept marching until I caught up with the fretting monk. Distraction had fallen upon her as well, though she feared the meeting she’d arranged more than the trouble. Even as I followed close behind, I heard no notice of my presence. Not my footsteps, nor the swish of my clothes, or even the taps of my shaku against my chest.

She slowed. I slowed to match. Only then did I notice the faint, pink fog filtering through the hall. A fog that fretted over my presence and preferred not to show itself so blatantly, but at the same time…

I heard the hint of its gentle, murmuring whisper.

Ichirin flinched, then spun around toward me. She stared at me for a good second before her composure finally caught up with her. Unzan flowed behind her, seeking protection.

Whether my innocent smile helped ease her nerves, or just rattled her more, who can say? Regardless, her heart burned to know why I’d appeared.

Naturally, I kept my smile and lifted the shaku just short of my face. “You need help. So, here I am~”

Her lips did a rather peculiar dance, flitting between the shapes to start different syllables. No doubt, they sought some sensible question or objection. But in the end, they instead pressed together. Her eyes bounced between my face and a nearby door.

Her face flushed a subtle, but pretty shade not unlike the cloud eddying around her. Only when she’d collected herself did her voice escape her throat. “These are private temple affairs. To share them with you of all peo-"

I shook my head, then stepped past her, to that very door. “Trust me, trust me. Everything will be fine.”

The cloud billowed. He sought to deny me entry, she to protect the temple. Neither acted fast enough, however. I slid the door open, waving them in as I strolled inside. A wide, rectangular carpet rested atop the tatami and, at the center, rested two of the temple’s more noteworthy figures. One of them, Minamitsu, lounged back in her pristine sailor suit. The other, Shou, leaned forward, hands on her knees and sweat beading across her brow.

A good distance behind them, a mouse youkai rested against the corner wall, studying the ceiling. Her heart spoke of an interest in how things went down, yet a firm desire not to associate too closely with those present. One backed up by her closed body language and the impatient-if forced-tapping of her feet.

Well, most of those present.

Both the sailor and tiger’s eyes flew wide as I stepped inside. They held fixed to me for only a couple moments before they slid to the woman who shuffled in behind me.

No. The cloud behind her.

I rolled my shoulders, then settled into a cozy space between the two. “So, kidnapping rumors, eh?”

Minamitsu scowled at the monk behind me. “You told her?”

That monk squeaked. “Wh-no! I didn’t! I tried to…”

“She asked for your leader, but I’m afraid that I’d already entangled her in business of my own.”

Shou straightened her back. “Is she…”

“I’d worry more for her company than herself, but that’s neither here nor there.” I set the shaku in my lap and leaned back. “Since she’d left on my account, I’ve chosen to take responsibility by standing in her place.”

The two exchanged glances. Minamitsu planted a hand on one knee and rose to her feet. She planted her hands on her hips. “This’s too sensitive for-”

I chuckled. “Don’t worry. I won’t spread any of those nasty rumors myself.” I took a long, dramatic breath. “Or did you forget,” I locked eyes with her, “that I’ve fallen victim to a similar scheme?”

Shou and Ichirin turned perplexed gazes my way. Was I too dramatic? Too quick, perhaps?

The cloud’s front resolved into its bearded, gruff face. Minamitsu, however, folded her arms. Her eyes shifted from her earlier, aggravated glare to an excited stare. “Oh?”

She had missed my rumors, it seemed.

I shrugged. “They wouldn’t excite you, I’m afraid.”

She flicked her tongue, glancing away. “Fine. But what about that booze?”

Ichirin twitched. “T-that what?”

Shou joined the mouse in staring at the ceiling. Less in thought, more in a shoddy effort to dodge eye contact.

Minamitsu grumbled, glancing back. “What? Byakuren’s gone.” Her eyes turned back to me. “You didn’t think I’d forget, did you?”

I rubbed my shaku. “I promised only to consider sharing. I had appointments to keep!”

She huffed, this time quite petulantly. “I’m gettin’ a drink off you someday.” She sat back down, though. “I still ain’t tellin’ you a thing.”

I pouted. “I’m sure you can-”

“The disappearances were from last night to this morning. Between the village and the temple.”

I blinked. So did Minamitsu and Ichirin. The three of us turned to Shou, who blushed and averted her eyes in response. “I-I don’t… we need any help we can get!”

Minamitsu groaned. “She ain’t help, tiger! She’s…”

“A rival. She might help us, but…” Ichirin nodded, then leveled a cautious gaze my way. Unzan billowed in agreement. “If you dare share any of this…”

I shook my head. “Me, exploit you now? It would embarrass me to need a method that underhanded to win.”

The monk and sailor’s eyes hung on me, but soon turned to Shou. They’d accept my assistance, as I assumed. But they’d pay close attention to my behavior as well. I would need to act cautiously to keep their favor.

I cleared my throat. “Please, Shou. Continue.”

Shou glanced to the other two, then inhaled. “There were three victims. They visited the temple sometimes. And, um,” she paused and peeked at the mouse, who only shrugged. She turned back to us, “I don’t know who could’ve taken them or where they could have gone. No one told me about anyone they thought could have done it.”

I nodded. They needed information before they could move further. A place, a culprit, something. All they had to go on so far amounted to little more than sudden fear and hostility from losing people. For humans here, that hardly meant much.

Ichirin planted a hand on the floor. “One of the victims wasn’t even a human!”

I flinched. What? I took a breath as I turned to her. “You know this one?”

She frowned. “No.” She turned away. “I-I mean, not very well. Only one of them was very regular and this one, well, she wasn’t. B-but, she had rabbit ears. Real ones.”

Curious. Two humans, one youkai. All attended the temple. Judging by her tone, Ichirin was confident that the rabbit was innocent, just as the relatives or friends of the humans must have felt.

Could any of these people have been wrong? Was one of the three responsible? Or was it some fourth party?

I picked my shaku back up and rested it on my chin. “Whether or not there’s any truth to the matter, the people need to see you taking it seriously. Launch an investigation, find out as much as you can about what happened.”

Shou drooped. “We know that, but where?”

I straightened my back. “We start with the temple itself, of course.”

Ichirin grimaced. “I can assure you, whoever did this was not from-”

I waved her off. “It doesn’t matter who or where the culprit is.”

Several pairs of eyes narrowed at me for that remark. I sighed. “What matters is what people want to see. They fear you’re not taking their safety…”

I blinked, suddenly unsure. The others stared at me, waiting for me to finish my thought.

Was safety really their chief concern? From these humans?

I shook my head. Maybe, maybe not. “They fear you’re not taking your duties seriously enough. Your priority should be to alleviate those worries. Launch a public investigation of your temple. You’ll need to step carefully there, but I can help you through that.” I cracked a wry smile. “Trust me, I have some experience with these matters.”

I studied the room a moment. Their steady attention and curious desires told me all I needed - they’d cooperate. For now, at least.

“If nothing turns up, move out from there to better leads. Now…”

From there, I went to handle a few other matters of logistics and intelligence. As I did, I pondered the room. The mouse youkai, despite her aloof demeanor, listened intently to the discussions. Minamitsu still craved some ‘reward’ for her discretion. Shou worried more for the temple’s adherents, while Ichirin fretted instead over Byakuren herself and what I’d do once our meeting concluded.

Speaking of which, I wasn’t quite sure what to do then, myself.

[ ] I’d poke at the mouse youkai. She was important to the temple in some way, and I didn’t like not knowing important people.

[ ] I’d offer to listen in on the temple’s disciples myself. Just for insights into this incident, of course.

[ ] I’d invite these fine folks to a drink or two to ease their nerves. Perhaps they needed some relaxation.

[ ] My business would be finished, so I’d return to my room. If Kokoro still lingered, I could finish pressing her on the witness.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/05/17 (Mon) 19:00

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[X] I’d offer to listen in on the temple’s disciples myself. Just for insights into this incident, of course.
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[X] I’d invite these fine folks to a drink or two to ease their nerves. Perhaps they needed some relaxation.

Might as well resolve the matter with Murasa sooner rather than later.
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[X ] I’d poke at the mouse youkai. She was important to the temple in some way, and I didn’t like not knowing important people.

Let's meet Nazrin.
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I wish to humbly request a vote for one of the three options already chosen. The first such vote within the next ten or so hours shall decide the course of the next update.
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[X] I’d offer to listen in on the temple’s disciples myself. Just for insights into this incident, of course.
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Listening in it is.
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[x] I’d offer to listen in on the temple’s disciples myself. Just for insights into this incident, of course.

“Let’s talk about your temple.”

Minamitsu shook her head. “I’d rather hear about your-”

“Your leader’s taken a profoundly lax stance toward their training and discipline, hasn’t she?”

Ichirin pouted, folding her arms beneath her chest. “It’s only natural. Most youkai can’t just control themselves like humans do. If we…”

I waved her off. “Yes, yes. They make for poor disciples. That’s why-”

“W-They make for fine disciples! They just need more time and patience. It’s a perfectly fine…”

I sat back a moment, taken aback. Now that I listened, I heard the nerve that I’d struck. A vulnerability, one about Byakuren and her methods. But more than that…

“…why, just yesterday, this rabbit…”

About her own habits. I took a deep breath, waiting a few more moments until she finally slowed down.

“…are you even listening to me?”

I smiled the brightest, most inoffensive smile I had to offer. “Not really.”

She puffed a deep red, one that contrasted against the cloud that billowed around her and formed a pair of mighty fists.

I held my hands up and turned my smile visibly defensive. “My sincerest apologies, Ms. Kumoi. I didn’t mean to judge your practices.”

Both her and her pet cloud paused. She tensed up, but she’d listen. I tapped my shaku across my knee. “The other disciples. They’re used to a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, aren’t they? One that doesn’t challenge them-”

Ichirin glared.

I huffed. “-too much, that is.”

She eased back.

Shou leaned forward and shut her eyes. She planted her hands on her knees. “Our evening sessions unsettle most of them. That’s challenging them.”

I shook my head. “But they come to those for fun. If any of you start asking uncomfortable questions, they won’t respond well, will they?”

Shou turned to Minamitsu, who shrugged.

I straightened my back. “I’ll handle your investigation, then. Just tell the village you’re ‘cooperating’ with me in hopes of solving this trouble. When your disciples get offended, pass the blame off on me.”

A moment of silence fell as they pondered my offer. Then, Minamitsu smiled, clapping her hands to her legs. She leapt to her feet and turned toward the door. “Sounds good to me. Let me know when you’re all done so we can start drinkin’.”

Ichirin and Shou cringed, but neither dared deny how eagerly they’d join her. Not in front of me, anyway.

Nonetheless, I hung back as she left to provide some solace-and a couple more tidbits of my wisdom-with the rest. That mouse still held back through all of it. Even as we left the room, she waited until the last of us stepped out before following.

I strolled back down the halls to wherever I’d find the most desires. Sticking close to a few common rooms, I caught whispers of who eloped with who, what fights had broken out, what went on in their leader’s bed…

I shook my head and focused solely on their desires instead. Amid more speculations on my love life, I heard worries about how this could hinder the evening sessions, or what their associates might think about them continuing to visit, or if it would hurt the festival.

Festival, festival… Right. That one I’d committed to helping with, huh?

That would be interesting, but it’d no doubt also be a pain.

Then there were desires that stood out from the rest. A need to pin those kidnappings on the Moriya Shrine? Also, to convince Byakuren and I to let her…

I groaned. “Why are you following me?”

I heard the jolt as Kokoro stopped behind me. “Why are you just walking around.”

She’d deflected. From a glance at her desires, she’d grown either bored or frustrated with the temple already. I massaged my shaku. “I’m working.”


A pause ensued.

“On what.”

I kept walking. She kept following. I tried to listen to the temple further, but her desires kept muddling them up.

For such an unexpressive girl, her heart sure drowned my poor ears out.

I grit my teeth, then stopped again. She stopped as well.

“Don’t you have other things to do? Some sort of mystery to investigate?”

“I haven’t moved in yet. Besides, the temple’s not welcoming me. You need to correct them.”

That… urgh. I took a deep breath. “Whose temple do you think this is?”

“Yours and Hijiri’s. You married her, remember.”

I took another deep breath, squeezing my shaku. “I’m afraid it’s not so simple. You see, I…”

I paused, unsure of what to say. Would admitting to my lack of authority also admit to a false promise? Certainly not, but would she see it that way?

She listened, eagerly awaiting my response. I, however, continued to…

Another set of desires. One for my presence, one to bask in her handling of Toji…

I spun on my heel and looked Kokoro in her unblinking eyes. “Excuse me, Kokoro.”

I then strode past her, toward the front gate, to…

“Sure, papa.”

“It’s ma-!” I shook my head and chose not to continue that thought. Instead, I marched forward, down the halls toward the main entrance. Those desires - I heard something different in them. Tempering her pride was a… frustration? A fatigue? I shook my head, striding forward until I reached the temple’s great front doors. And of course, as I arrived, I found Kokoro standing there, just to my left.

Byakuren climbed the stairs, only to stop near the crest and blink at us. She looked…

Singed. Though her hair and skin seemed pristine, small, black scorch marks hid among her dress.

I panted a moment, hiding my surprise beneath tired huffs as I extended a hand toward her. “Welcome back. Uh, darling.”

She smiled. “I’m glad to be back but,” she paused. Tilting her head, she turned her curious eyes to Kokoro, “why is she here?”

I tapped my shaku across my chest. “It’s a long-”

“I’m moving in, mama.”

Byakuren blinked, glancing between the two of us.

I turned to Kokoro, my brow knotting. “I don’t recall that being part of the deal!”

Byakuren glided up the last few steps to stand over Kokoro. “What did you say?”

She turned her gaze to the woman. “Mama. Papa’s wife.”

I fumed. “I’m not the papa!”

Byakuren clicked her tongue. “Well, I certainly couldn’t be the father either now, could I?”

I expelled a long, dramatic groan, then turned toward the toward the temple, only to glance back at her peppered dress. I heard nothing from her to suggest any violence with Tojiko, and yet…

Byakuren hung back, her heart pondering something. Something that sent a tingle down my spine.

“You wouldn’t leave this child entirely on your wife’s shoulders, would you?”

She wanted to ‘guide’ Kokoro. To parent her, or to instill her faith in her. Or both.

And somehow, she wanted me involved in it, despite the blatant conflict I’d introduce to her religious goal.

Now that we were back together, what did I want to spend our time on, first?

[ ] I needed to address Kokoro and her agenda at some point. It may as well have been now.

[ ] Byakuren had greater issues to worry about, such as how I was about to save her temple’s image for her.

[ ] Kokoro was a big girl. Her schemes could wait until I figured this festival thing out.

[ ] As much as I feared the answer, I needed to know what went on between her and Tojiko. Now.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/06/02 (Wed) 19:00

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[X] I needed to address Kokoro and her agenda at some point. It may as well have been now.
The prince's schemes are tolerated, but only so long as they do not undermine the king's.
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[X] I needed to address Kokoro and her agenda at some point. It may as well have been now.

Just from looking at the other options, we are already working on the investigation thing and Byakuren is going to find out eventually anyways; the festival is not an immediate concern; and it literally says we fear the answer for the last one (and it might be prying, and Byakuren might not answer). So, at least for me it feels like there is little point in doing any of the other options.
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[x] I needed to address Kokoro and her agenda at some point. It may as well have been now.

“I wouldn’t leave this ‘child’ on anyone’s shoulders.” I glanced aside, to Kokoro. Despite her impassive demeanor, her heart bristled at the comment. “Not while she schemed against me.”

Her mask turned to the Hannya. “Don’t lump me in with you two. I don’t scheme.”

Byakuren tilted her head, wearing a mask of innocent curiosity. “What sort of schemes?”

Kokoro’s gaze snapped to her, then back to me. Her mask switched back to the Young Woman as her blank eyes bored into my soul. Her irritation lingered, but some manor of… concern had now joined it. A fear that I’d discover something, or simply that she’d truly lost my trust.

I patted her shoulder, then turned toward the door. “This isn’t the place to discuss such sensitive matters. Let’s take it elsewhere.”

“There’s nothing sensitive about them. I’m not sche-”

Byakuren clapped her hands, then stepped forward, ahead of me. “Oh, my. You’re very right, dear. Right this way~”

I frowned, but followed close, alongside Kokoro. Muted desires laid beneath that snap decision.

I bounced my shaku for only a moment, studying her heart for-

“We can’t just discuss this sort of thing in front of anyone, after all.”

I flinched, clenching my shaku. She’d waited just until we approached a common room before speaking up.

“About how to raise our child, that is~”

“She’s not-”

Kokoro’s glanced back to me, her mask having reverted to one of the happier ones - the laughing man. “I want to stay up to midnight and eat lots of snacks.”

I groaned. “We haven’t even decided whether or not to-”

Byakuren skipped forward. “Now, Kokoro. This is a Buddhist temple.”

The whispers-the murmurs-began, but Byakuren kept yammering.

“If you want those, you’ll need to talk to your other mother.”

Kokoro’s eyes remained on me. I turned away. Byakuren had started falling into something with this girl. She wanted to spoil her, but also to use her for…

Most of the temple’s voices faded away. In my focus on that monk’s intentions, I’d missed just how far we walked. Already, my-our-her room loomed before us.

Byakuren skipped forward and slid the door open. With a frustrated sigh, I followed her in.

Byakuren stopped halfway into the room, her eyes stuck on the table. She turned back to us, pouting.

“Dear, what is this?”

I extended both arms to outward in an elegant shrug. “Some trappings of home, of course. You couldn’t expect me to satisfy myself with only your temple’s dull decor every night, surely.”

Kokoro wandered over to the desk and studied the scroll herself as Byakuren’s pout deepened.

“Dull? You could have found other decorations than the text of a competing faith.” She huffed. “It’s inappropriate!”

I stepped closer to her, clapping a hand on her shoulder. “And last night? Was that appropriate for your temple?”

She clenched her teeth. “That topic is inappropriate for our company!”

I-hm, perhaps I had overstepped. Whether or not Kokoro could handle such news, it wouldn’t do for anyone to learn the fine details of our evening. Not yet at least.

I sighed, letting go. “How convenient.” Then, before she could complain, I spun around to Kokoro, now hunched over the table. “But I suppose you’re right. So, Kokoro. What precisely do you intend to do, here?”

She didn’t even glance up in response. “I already told you. I need to watch over you two.”

Smiling, Byakuren stepped behind Kokoro and wrapped her arms around the girl’s waist. “We’re happy to take on new disciples, but I won’t need help keeping my wife in check.”

I opened my mouth, only for Kokoro to interrupt me.

“You’re the problem.”

Byakuren twitched. My heart fluttered, filled with pride for this girl’s wisdom. …Then, I listened closer to her heart.

“You and her. I’m only keeping you two together so I can learn what those goddesses are scheming. Once I have that…”

Byakuren ran a hand through Kokoro’s hair. “You can stay with us as long as you need.”

Kokoro stiffened. “You’re not listening to me. I’m only here so you can…”

Byakuren’s had undulated across the girl’s head in smooth, gentle petting.

In response, Kokoro’s body eased into the embrace. “You have to keep close to each other, but not too close. If you suddenly broke up, or did weird stuff in public, everyone would-”

“Shsh~” Byakuren patted her head. “Everything will be fine. Just trust your parents.”

Kokoro eased back further.

I stepped up beside them and draped an arm across Byakuren’s shoulders, then glanced down on the woman she petted. “Oh, my~ Are these goddesses really what you’re after?”

“Of course, they are. I hate sneaky people.”

Byakuren hummed. “Does it matter? If she’s close, it can only help-I mean, it’s no big deal for us.”

I patted the monk’s back. “You heard what she said. She’ll try to pry us apart the moment she finds her answer. I can’t allow that.”

Kokoro nestled into Byakuren. “It’s for your own good. If you don’t separate, then the people will…”

Byakuren rubbed the menreiki’s cheeks. “What’s the concern? We can wait a few days, can’t we?”

I squinted back at my ‘wife.’ She wanted to rile me up, somehow. I…

Damn it. With Kokoro here, I couldn’t just confess to my bargain. But, without explaining that, I’d need to dive completely into this charade. Doing so around her, especially in the context of what was starting to feel like an adoption…

I groaned, pulling away from Byakuren to rub my shaku. “Our private affairs are not her business, regardless of how worried she may be.”

Kokoro squirmed until she peeked her head over Byakuren’s shoulder to stare me down. “Are they not, mother.”

I froze. She, that, why…

I took a couple long, steadying breaths. Byakuren just kept holding the girl, but…

She liked the way this went. I had to respond, but they’d dealt me a difficult hand.

[ ] Deny Kokoro her demand. I’d risk whatever influence I had over her to keep her from getting between me and my wi-my reward.

[ ] Pull Byakuren Away. I needed to discuss the matter alone with my ‘wife,’ first.

[ ] Invite them to dinner at Senkai. I’d ply them with good food before diving into anything too difficult.

[ ] Let it slide, for now. I’d offer to continue mentoring her, instead - perhaps she’d be more reasonable afterward.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:

Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/06/21 (Mon) 19:00

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[X] Deny Kokoro her demand. I’d risk whatever influence I had over her to keep her from getting between me and my wi-my reward.
Miko's wife, not yours.
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[X] Invite them to dinner at Senkai. I’d ply them with good food before diving into anything too difficult.

Being hungry leads to rash decisions.
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[x] Pull Byakuren Away. I needed to discuss the matter alone with my ‘wife,’ first.
I don't mean to make it a three-way tie, I just think that being direct is the best policy. If the other votes win, they sound fun as well.
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[X] Invite them to Dinner.

People with full stomachs are less agitated and it'll give Miko time to think about her words. Get the better position so you won't be ganged up on by the two of them.
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[x] Invite them to dinner at Senkai. I’d ply them with good food before diving into anything too difficult.

I squeezed my shaku another moment, failing to dredge up any satisfactory answer. I couldn’t-I wouldn’t-they…

I took another couple breaths. Still nothing. While confined to my role, facing a unified front of Byakuren and Kokoro, there’d be no good answers to give. I needed a drink. A drink, or…

I blinked. Oh. Oh, of course.

If I couldn’t solve it now, I would distract them and, hopefully, get them into a position where they’d be more amenable to my wishes. It took all I had not to laugh at my cunning then and there.

Instead, I stepped forward again and rubbed Byakuren’s shoulder. She barely flinched, still assured in her control. I leaned around her to stare directly in Kokoro’s eyes.

She stared back.

I cleared my throat. “Want to eat something nice?”

Behind her, Byakuren tilted her head. Before she could open her mouth, however, I spun on my heel and strode toward the door, having already heard Kokoro’s heart.

She wanted food. Whether from hunger, or a desire to further play out this game of hers, I didn’t care.

She’d carry me out of this bind, herself.

“Let me treat you two to some delicious food. Then we can discuss such matters.”

Byakuren sighed. “So soon? We just settled down.”

I huffed, then caught myself. Instead, I cracked a wry smile, though I doubted either could see it. “Oh? Not interested in your wife’s cooking?”

After how hard she’d played that card this evening, it was only fair that I play it back.

Byakuren flinched. After a moment, her shoulders sagged. She released Kokoro and pulled herself to her feet. Kokoro leapt to her feet and rushed ahead of her, stopping just behind me. Byakuren followed shortly after and, with a wink, I spread my arms wide.

Kokoro stared. Byakuren huffed.

I scooped them both into my arms and ushered them, through space, to my semi-private extradimensional dojo. As my feet hit the tiled road to the first steps, Byakuren took in a sharp breath.

A creeping unease had settled into her. She shook her head, then stepped forward. As Kokoro’s blank eyes wandered from the dojo to the surrounding mists, to the sky, then back to the dojo, Byakuren kept her own gaze fixed firmly forward.

I gave her a gentle pat on the back as I marched forward. Byakuren barely flinched this time, falling into step beside me at once. Kokoro hung back for another moment, her head swiveling from side to side.

“So big.”

Byakuren huffed. “It’s too b-” She cleared her throat, likely remembering her own temple. “Too ostentatious. It’s more like a palace than a place of meditation or instruction.”

I turned my nose up but kept moving. “This way, Kokoro!”

Finally, she started walking. Though those blank eyes never stopped wandering.

Byakuren wrapped an arm around my side as we ascended the steps. “Still, it’s about time, isn’t it?” Pressing down, she pulled me to her hip. “We’ve been married for a couple days and only now do you invite me to your home.”

I squirmed in her grasp, but more out of instinct than true desire. The softness of her body, and the muscle beneath, they still felt nice.

Begrudgingly, I settled a hand on her opposite hip. “I suppose so. There’s so much for you to learn from my designs, to improve your temple.”

She glanced away at that, squeezing my side as she studied the finer, more ornate halls that decorated my domain. A tranquil calm had settled on the dojo, as befitting its purpose. With a cursory listen, I heard from what few disciples lingered that they’d either settled in for the evening or found business to attend to in the broader world.

“Perhaps you’re right. There’s so much gaudiness here, so many lessons on what to avoid.”

I scoffed as I brought them to the door of my modestly sized, but lovingly furnished dining chamber.

“The same could be said of your…” I shook my head. “Best not to bicker in front of the ‘child,’ isn’t it?”

The brown tips of her hair bounced across my shoulder as she nodded. “Yes, it is. Perhaps you really are capable of lea…” She cleared her throat. “Yes.”

I lead them into the room. Unlike other parts of the dojo, I sought a comfortable, homely atmosphere here. As a result, no gold, silver, or other elaborate decorations gilded the walls or rested anywhere in it. But we walked across rich, polished wood flanked by elegant paper walls. A simple low table rested in the center, which I invited both parties to before excusing myself to prepare the food.

In the time it took for Byakuren to decide to accept the invitation, Kokoro had already settled herself into it. The tiniest chuckle escaped my lips before I departed.

I slipped down a side path, to one of those lingering disciples, to - I shook my head and turned to the storage room instead. Now was not the time to get them too involved. I would simply do it…

Damn it. I was a prince, not a chef. My culinary arts had… I groaned, then scanned the dojo for the most… gah. Of the few disciples who could reach this domain, all those with known recipes or cooking ability had left. I’d need to do this myself.

Well, I suppose I did imply I would make it myself.

I popped into that storage room to pick up some rice, a couple spices, and some of my favorite toppings. Some eggs, some fish, and a loose smattering of vegetables. From there, I grabbed a pan and a few tools, then stepped into my kitchen.

Polished wood and rich, smooth stones greeted me here. A simple counter, a hearth, a charcoal stove, and a good water basin were all a hermit like myself needed - so that was all that awaited me here… even if I didn’t use the room very often.

Perhaps that was why I invested so little in it.

Regardless, I settled my materials down by the stove and, lighting it, got to work.

It took me several minutes and an aborted effort or two but, after a couple close calls with a knife and nearly dousing myself in boiling water, I…

Well, I’d made some fried rice, with some carrots, scallops, salmon, and a few other things. It would be fine. Probably.

It looked and smelled okay, at least. I sealed the pan, stacked some plates and chopsticks atop it, then returned to the dining chamber with it all.

“…eager to spend even another second with me. In fact…”

Byakuren’s voice wavered as the scent of my labors wafted toward her. Kokoro hadn’t even noticed, instead hoping to hear more about how I…

“…had to spend the entire evening alone with me. Knowing her wily ways, I hesitated. But she clung to me so tightly, I knew I’d break her heart if I refused. So, of course, I…”

How hopelessly in love I was.

I grit my teeth as I strode in, setting the dish a little too firmly on the table. Kokoro flinched, finally turning to me as I set the rest of the dishes down and scooped out a serving for each of us. With Byakuren crowding into her right side and-apparently-nuzzling her, I chose to settle into the side on their right. I clapped my hands together.

“Let’s eat.”

“Let’s eat,” they both answered. Kokoro dove in the moment they’d finished.

Byakuren narrowed her eyes at her serving. I sighed, then grabbed hers and manually scooped the bits of meat onto my own plate before handing it back. Finally, with a solemn nod, she started eating.

Kokoro swallowed, then turned to me. “There’s too much different stuff in it.”

I scowled, taking a few bites to see for myself and, thereby, prove her wrong.

Despite her complaint, she kept eating. The taste was… hm. The richness of the salmon complemented the carrots quite well, and-

Then, Byakuren cleared her throat. “You should speak with our resident phantom, dear. She’s no master chef, but I’m sure she can give you a few pointers~”

I glanced up just in time to catch a snarky grin before she wiped it from her face. Glancing to the door, the tips of her lips still twitched. “More tofu would do wonders for you, next time.”

I groaned but, despite the difficulty, held my tongue. For now, at least.

Despite their complaints, their desires suggested a warmer mood. If I were to exploit that, I’d need to act soon. But what move would I make, here?

[ ] I’d graciously dismiss Byakuren’s slights and flirt with her until she helped me put the foot down on Kokoro.

[ ] Argue with Kokoro from a position of parental authority. If she wanted to play the child, she’d have to relent eventually.

[ ] More food! My dinner may not have impressed them, but I didn’t need culinary expertise to pull a good dessert out.

[ ] Lesson time! If Kokoro wanted to stay under two of Gensokyo’s religious leaders, she’d get some religious lessons with it.

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[x] Argue with Kokoro from a position of parental authority. If she wanted to play the child, she’d have to relent eventually.

Kokoro's scheming needs to be put in its place. The more she meddles, the more roadblocks to our goals appear. We will have plenty of time to flirt with Byakuren once the unruly child is dealt with.
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[X] Lesson time! If Kokoro wanted to stay under two of Gensokyo’s religious leaders, she’d get some religious lessons with it.
I see where >>43183 is coming from, but I feel like kokoro is just gonna get petulant if we do that. Also I want it to be jesus time. Or whatever the taoist equivalent of jesus time is. The modern dilemma.
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[X] Lesson time! If Kokoro wanted to stay under two of Gensokyo’s religious leaders, she’d get some religious lessons with it.

Lao Tzu time? Doesn't have the same ring to it...
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Kokoro is already petulant, thats the problem. And a joint religious lesson with Byakuren would only serve to highlight our differences. It would devolve into squabbling over doctrine rather than teaching anything of value.
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[x] I’d graciously dismiss Byakuren’s slights and flirt with her until she helped me put the foot down on Kokoro.

Not missing a beat to swagger about inappropriate 'bed-time' stories, to complaining about Miko's cooking and disapproving her choice of interior design - Hijiri fills the role of the husband amazingly.
If Byakuren's Actions come from a desire to either parent or teach Kokoro, then she my as well get some dad energy going pronto.
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convinced me
[x] I’d graciously dismiss Byakuren’s slights and flirt with her until she helped me put the foot down on Kokoro.
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Fuck jesus time, bandwagons are more fun, and i missed the stuff >>43195 pointed out, changing
>>43190 to
[x] I’d graciously dismiss Byakuren’s slights and flirt with her until she helped me put the foot down on Kokoro.
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[x] I’d graciously dismiss Byakuren’s slights and flirt with her until she helped me put the foot down on Kokoro.

I shook my head, forcing a thin smile to my lips. “Of course, the meal wasn’t to your taste.”

Byakuren held still, but a shadowy current whispered from her heart. She already knew I was up to something.

Smart girl.

Not that it stopped me from dragging a finger along the table, toward her, as I continued. “How could any mundane dish prove worthy of your palate?”

Her hands clenched, her eyes closed, and the corners of her lips twitched.

I drew that finger down the back of her hand. “Even a king’s feast wouldn’t do you justice, would it?”

She cleared her throat, the faintest flush rising to her cheeks. She didn’t want to admit it, but…

Well, the faint, upward curl of her lips gave it away. She enjoyed the flattery.

And, knowing that, my own heart now beat faster. “As the proud, wise administrator that I am, I must do better. It would be a disgrace, after all, to deliver less than the very best to my own wife.” I leaned forward, slipping my right hand beneath hers to press my palm to her own. “To pay you back for the privilege of witnessing your lovely face every day.”

Byakuren sat straighter, but Kokoro shifted away from her, slightly. Without Kokoro at her hip, she smiled at me, lifting her hand and entwining her fingers with mine. “Surely the far greater privilege is to learn from my example, isn’t it?”

I forced down a sputter. Of course, it wasn’t! But to snap back at her now, after what I’d just said, would reflect too poorly on me to even consider.

“Certainly, our time together is precious, as are the many lessons we’ve learned together.”

Byakuren straightened her back. “And my lessons have been more precious than my appearance, haven’t they?”

I clenched my teeth, inhaling long and slow before continuing. “Yes, they’ve been… nice. Perhaps-”

“Mama, do you really love her?”

I flinched, as did Byakuren. Kokoro stared at her, wearing the fox. That wasn’t a joke.

Byakuren twitched, even as her lips broke out into a cozy grin. Flattery wasn’t her only weakness, apparently. She turned from the menreiki to me, then back. Planting her hands on her knees, she cleared her throat. “Of course, I do. Why would you ask?”

Unblinking, she pointed to me. “Shouldn’t you have returned her feelings by now?”

Silence fell on the room, barely interrupted by a slight shuffle here, an aborted clearing of the throat there.

Byakuren squeezed my hand, turning to stare deep into my eyes. As if she would find some treasure or, perhaps more accurately, some lifeline within them.

I couldn’t help the faintest traces of a wry grin as she quested for her answer among my irises.

Then, finally, her lips parted. “You look, well, quite nice yourself, dear.”

My eyes twinkled. “Why yes-”

“I cannot speak for your taste in hairstyle, but your resplendent bracelets and that elegant-if perhaps a bit overdone-cape look lovely on you.”

Biting back a retort at her backhanded compliment, I drew my left hand up to stroke her chin. “And you, Byakuren. You’ve done so much to light up my life. Every moment we spend together leaves its mark on my mind-nay, my very soul. Oh, the joy your presence fills me with, it’s beyond compare!”

Byakuren gasped. Drawing one hand across my shoulder, her face turned hard and firm. Determined, even. “Yes, yes. Your face, your eyes, always so full of confidence, so charming. I’m thrilled to have you at my side each day.”

Kokoro munched on what remained of the food, idly watching us.

I waved at her as I-

Both of Byakuren’s hands snapped to my hips and, as she scooted slightly out from the table, she pulled me onto her lap. I yelped but allowed her to settle my butt on her thighs, choosing to rest my own hands on her shoulders.

She stared-quite fiercely, I’d like to add-into my eyes, more focused than before. “You’ve pushed me to better myself! I’ve become stronger, wiser, by learning how n-by learning from your example!”

She clearly meant that she learned from my poor example.

I huffed. My shoulders trembled at her audacity to continue these veiled slights, but I had to keep going.

“I… I’m scared, darling. For, for,” I paused, struggling to come up with my next phrase until my eyes turned to Kokoro’s blank stare. Ah, yes! I locked eyes again with Byakuren, “for what if we were ever to part? I, I, oh,” I put one hand to my forehead, “I couldn’t bear it! To be alone again, separated from your beauty, your grace…”

Byakuren rolled her eyes. “Yes, that would be,” she sighed, “terrible. After all I’ve learned, it would just be-”

“Stop it. Enough.”

I glanced aside to find the Hannya on Kokoro’s head. The slightest of snickers slipped through my lips at the sight.

“You’re burying my precious food in honey and sugar. Stop.”

I hummed, sorely tempted to remind her of her role in our impromptu play. “But that’s just how it is, when two people are so in love~”

Byakuren nodded. “You would understand too, if you had felt the gentle resistance of her b-”

I froze solid. A moment later, she did too. Her face turned bright red as mine grew burning hot. Kokoro just stared, now wearing the Fox.

She then waved her hand forward, gesturing that we continue. “The ‘gentle resistance’ of her what?”

Byakuren pushed me off her lap and turned her body entirely toward Kokoro. “It’s nothing, nothing at a-”

“My balance. How I only ‘gently’ resist the way that the world flows, compared to her more firm-” a quiet squeak escaped my lips at the phrasing, “-resistance! Her strong sense of discipline.”

Byakuren nodded, far too fiercely. “Yes, that is what I meant.”

Kokoro’s mask had turned to the Young Woman. “Oh.”

I licked dry lips. Byakuren kneeled. Judging by her desires, Kokoro probably bought that, but… what now?

[ ] I have Byakuren on my side now, maybe. Try to double-team Kokoro on this?

[ ] Dismiss Kokoro immediately. I needed to avoid giving her any chances to probe further, and possibly to get something Byakuren’s system.

[ ] Go all in. Threaten to get mushier and sappier unless Kokoro gives in and promises not to meddle further with us.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
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[ ] Dismiss Kokoro immediately. I needed to avoid giving her any chances to probe further, and possibly to get something Byakuren’s system.

( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
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[x] Dismiss Kokoro immediately. I needed to avoid giving her any chances to probe further, and possibly to get something Byakuren’s system.

( ͡°ᗜ ͡°)
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Correct me if I got it wrong but we're doing this to make sure Kokoro stops investigating who instigated the marriage and maybe (maybe-not) believe in the relationship, right?
I think outright dismissal now would lead to her going off on her own some later time again.
Miko does not like Kokoro to be with Byakuren too much. Then the most sensible thing to do in my mind would be to take her along on the more innocuous trips with Byakuren, being at the least somewhat of a parental figure.
Going all in on the mushy, lovey-dovey stuff would either get Kokoro suspicious again or get another wrong idea...

[x] I have Byakuren on my side now, maybe. Try to double-team Kokoro on this?

You worded these choices like this on purpose, right?
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[x] I have Byakuren on my side now, maybe. Try to double-team Kokoro on this?

Fair enough reasoning, count me in too
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[x] I have Byakuren on my side now, maybe. Try to double-team Kokoro on this?
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dont care, too distracted by wife's lap
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I shall refrain from commenting. It was not deliberate, I promise.
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[x] I have Byakuren on my side now, maybe. Try to double-team Kokoro on this?

Maybe with the monk we can finally get Kokoro to back off.
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[x] I have Byakuren on my side now, maybe. Try to double-team Kokoro on this?

“What matters-what matters is that we really, really uh, care about each other.” I took a deep breath, planting a hand to my chest. “We cannot be parted!”

She stared at me. “Yes. You’ve said that before.”

Byakuren straightened, her lips twitching as she sought something to add.

I cleared my throat, shaking off the lingering flush in my cheeks. “Yes, well, you have-you’ve failed to grasp the depth of our connection, the sincerity of our love. I must again insist that you cease wasting your time, that you not trouble your doting parents with such worrisome schemes. We cannot-we will not-part on your request.”

Kokoro flipped back to the Hannya. “It’s not a scheme. I don’t scheme. Scheming is what other people do.”

Byakuren sighed, putting on a gentle, maternal air to cover up her lingering agitation. “I’m sorry, but I must side with my husband-”


“-my partner on this, now. She needs my support, just as much as you do. It’s not good to insist solely on one’s will without consideration for those around them, you know.”

I rolled my eyes. She just wanted to change the topic as badly as I did.

Nonetheless, Kokoro held firm, staring us both down. “I don’t have a choice. I dare not back down, when the consequences could be so…”

I tapped a hand on the table, drawing her blank eyes to it. “You also want to play daughter, don’t you?”

Her eyes fixed themselves-rigid-on my own. “We’ve been over this. You agreed, I am your daughter now.”

I stared back. “Yes, you are. If you agree to let go of your scheme.”

She growled. “Stop calling it a scheme.”

I flinched, shrinking back at such an utterance. Anger burned from that utterance, bursting out even from her muted tone, to sear my delicate ears.

Still, I realigned my gaze, unwilling to give ground. “Be that as it may, I must insist on this-”

“It’s too late to change your-”

I planted both hands on the table. “I can only abide so much meddling, ‘daughter.’ I must alter my terms.” My eyes narrowed. “Don’t make me change them further.”

She twitched, planting her own hands on the table, across from me, and staring into my eyes for another moment before she turned to Byakuren.

“You’re her wife. Bring her back to her senses.”

Byakuren hummed in mock thought, tilting her head to the side. “If we’re changing the terms, I’m owed some rewards of my own, aren’t I?”

Mouth flat, Kokoro’s eyes widened, then snapped back to me. I barely needed my ears to hear the burning desire that I’d save her from whatever Byakuren might have in mind.

I only smiled back. Judging by Byakuren’s desires, her terms would prove no real threat to the menreiki - to my ‘daughter.’

Kokoro’s eyes leveled back to their neutral stare, not in relaxation, but resignation. Finally, Byakuren spoke up.

“I demand cuddles. Weekly-no, daily. And hugs. Hugs and cuddles. As a ‘daughter,’ it would only be fair, wouldn’t it?”

Kokoro turned back to me. “Save me, pa-”

I crossed my arms, shaking my head.

“Mother. Save me.”

I leaned back, expelling a long, exaggerated sigh. “I can’t deny a mother the right to embrace her daughter, now can I?”

Kokoro donned the Monkey - confusion. Her head swiveled from me to her and back. And back again. And back again.

I turned a sad, soft gaze to Byakuren. “We need to give our daughter some space, darling. Perhaps only a hug or a cuddle, once a day?”

Byakuren closed her eyes and turned her nose upward. I fought down a snort at the display.

The Hannya returned. Kokoro’s eyes flitted between us one last time before she leapt to her feet and marched to the door, then disappeared into the dojo’s halls. I groaned, sagging into the table. That girl…

She still had much to learn, and I still had to keep her from pushing us apart too soon. She’d consider our requests, certainly, but as to whether she’d accept them, I couldn’t say.

She still wanted to play daughter, but that pride would prove troublesome - both for her and for us.

Byakuren patted my back, then moved to rubbing slow, gentle circles into it. “Maybe we shouldn’t have pushed her so hard.”

I huffed. “You’re just worried you won’t get to wrap your arms around her and squeeze the stuffing out.”

The hand paused, then slapped my back before returning to its rhythm. “She’s not a puppet. And besides, is that such a bad thing?”

I grabbed my shaku and raised it to my lips, turning my refined, steely eyes to the table. “It’s more important she doesn’t spoil our deal.”

The hand paused again and, this time, slid off my back completely. “Speaking of our deals, I’ve already tried meditating your way, the ‘Taoist’ way.”

I rolled my shoulders, then pulled myself into a straight, proper sit. “Oh? You want to try it again already?”

She settled into the table to my right, then shook her head. “No. You never tried our style of meditation, have you?”

“Of course, I have. I spread your faith, remember?”

She scowled. “That’s an excellent point, dear. As penance for your deception, it would be good to practice that faith you preached, just a little more.”

I leaned forward, grumbling. “Do we need to go over all this again? It was for the good of the empire. In fact, to not spread it would have been irr-”

She tapped the table. “Yes, yes. But poor deeds ought to be fixed, regardless of their ultimate consequences. It would be good for you to-”

I waved her suggestion off, glancing aside. “I’m still committed to helping you with that festival, aren’t I? Shouldn’t that be enough?”

“Well, that…” She sighed. “Yes, that was the arrangement. But,” she scooted toward me, “I’d like to grow a bit closer to you, and I think it’d be a lovely opportunity.”

The things that floated to my ears warmed my face. She wanted to get ‘closer’ to me, alright. I sighed. It was time to unwind, but she still insisted on doing so much her own way. Just how would I crack that barrier? How would I wrap up the evening?

She placed one hand on mine, staring me in the eyes. A warm smile spread across her face. I…

[ ] Acquiesced to her meditation, but requested a brand new favor in return.

[ ] Insisted on further guidance. She dearly needed to learn to better bend and flow with life.

[ ] Suggested the other thing. The one she wanted but dared not bring up.

[ ] Evaded the religious stuff for the night. I just wanted to discuss leadership and the troubles of our followers.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/08/03 (Tue) 19:00

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[ ] Acquiesced to her meditation, but requested a brand new favor in return.

Got a little motto~
Always sees me through~
When you're good to Byaku~
Byaku's good to you~

There's a lot of favors~
I'm prepared to do~
You do one for Byaku~
She'll do one for you~
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[x] Evaded the religious stuff for the night. I just wanted to discuss leadership and the troubles of our followers.

There is honestly quite a bit else to discuss. Ghost crushes, and the like.
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[X] Acquiesced to her meditation, but requested a brand new favor in return.

Eh why not, that's a decent motto
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[x] Evaded the religious stuff for the night. I just wanted to discuss leadership and the troubles of our followers.

No Horny, No Buddhi and especially no horny Buddhi. Business time.
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[x] Evaded the religious stuff for the night. I just wanted to discuss leadership and the troubles of our followers.
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[ ] Acquiesced to her meditation, but requested a brand new favor in return.
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[x] Evaded the religious stuff for the night. I just wanted to discuss leadership and the troubles of our followers.

I stared deep into her violet eyes, grasping her hand tight. “Let’s leave the rituals out of it for now - it’s late and we’ve barely had a moment alone to just talk.”

She squeezed my hand even tighter. I winced as the sheer pressure of grip bore down on my poor flesh. She really needed to hold back sometimes.

Still, I took a deep breath and lifted my unmolested hand to side of her face, gliding it through her hair. “Your temple must be so difficult to lead. So many humans and youkai, demanding comfort, safety, and enlightenment, all at once. I can’t imagine having to balance so many conflicting needs.”

Her grip softened. Now, she merely cupped my hand, though her eyes remained fixed to my own. “Yes, it is. But that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? They need our guidance to find that balance.”

I tilted my head, glancing barely to the side, as if to suggest a more thoughtful tone. “But what about when we can’t? What happens when one group refuses to accept you unless you denounce the other, or when you cannot meet someone’s needs without denying someone else?”

She blinked, releasing my hand. “One group or… oh, you meant different people.” She sighed, then nudged my hand away. “Then, you must try anyway. As exhausting as it may be, you can’t just abandon people in need for the desires of others. As leaders of strong traditions, it’s our duty to care for those who cannot care for themselves, no matter how difficult they make it.”

I picked up my shaku, gently tapping it on the table. “And if they refuse to take care of themselves? What use is a moment of protection or a free meal, if they do nothing for themselves the next day?”

She huffed. “Then at least you have done your best. We’ve all made our mistakes, but at least you’ve given them one more chance to improve.”

My eyes narrowed at the look she gave me, there. My shaku raised ever so slightly toward her. “And what if your efforts only enable them further? How many chances would you give?”

She met my gaze, her own eyes fierce. “As many as it takes until they learn their lesson!”

I shook my head. “So brutish.” She pouted, but I found myself distracted, drawn into my own questions. What about the complacent humans I itch to lead? Dare I deny her those second, third, and fourth chances if I continue letting their recklessness slide?

More subdued, I continued. “How many have your own disciples needed?”

She took a long, sharp breath. “They… are still a work in progress. You’re not looking to brag about your own followers, are you?”

I smirked. “Well, it helps to commit only to those who show commitment. But…” Now was my turn to sigh. “No. Even among my own followers, most just want quick, easy fixes to their frustrations. There’s only two that I really trust, and even then-”

Byakuren’s brow furrowed. “Have you really tried?”

I straightened my shaku out, only to drop it to the table a moment later and glance away. “It wouldn’t be worth the effort. Besides, I don’t have the time anymore, do I?”

A hand of hers that had wandered nearly to my side, paused.

I tapped my shaku on the table. “Between our little ‘relationship,’ these favors, and now my dear Futo falling in love, there’s just no time left. It’s a miracle I find time even for my most sincere followers.”

A moment of silence fell. She glanced between me and the door, then back to me.

Her generous chest rose and fell another second or so before she finally spoke. “Futo. In love? When did that-no, no.” She cleared her throat. “Why does this even matter?”

I extended both arms out and, flicking my hands out, shrugged. “Why, because it’s with one of your own followers, of course.”

Now, she froze. Then, her mouth floundered. Then, finally, she spoke. “Futo. Mononobe, Futo. The one who’s threatened arson on my temple more than once.”

I nodded, very solemnly. “Oh, I had to intervene in precisely such an attempt just a few days ago.”

After spending a good few seconds wide as saucers, her eyes now receded to suspicious slits. “She is in love with someone from that same temple?”

I nodded again.

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “…Who?”

I settled an elbow on the table and leaned forward, toward her. “I’m afraid she couldn’t bring herself to tell me. Perhaps we’ll find out when the next wedding occurs.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes. I’m sure those ears of yours haven’t already picked up precisely who had caught her attention. But,” she yawned, “My heart goes out to her. Why, the private feelings that my own followers have-”

“Where’s the beds.”

We both turned to the door to find Kokoro standing in it, staring down at us.

I blinked, then turned to Byakuren. She yawned again. “Yes, I think I’d like to know, too.”

I sighed. And yet, I pulled myself to my feet and, as Byakuren joined me, stepped past Kokoro, down the hall, gesturing they follow. I’d already heard Byakuren’s desire to share more, anyway. Especially about one woman. A nyuudou-wielding monk who, at some point, felt much more than mere admiration or respect for her.


I patted down my vest one last time as I strode down the halls. Byakuren walked beside me and Kokoro, well…

Get me out. Get me out. Get me out!

She marched behind us, eager to ‘escape’ my domain.

Byakuren pulled me to her hip, sighing in satisfaction as she did. “You know that festival you promised to help with, dear?”

I tilted away from her, sighing. “Yes. I’m aware.”

She squeezed my waist. “It’s a celebration of the harmony our temple has achieved in the past few seasons. One of the peace we’ve cultivated between humans and youkai-”

I flinched. “That’s what it’s celebrating?”

She giggled. “Yes. And, well, it starts this evening.”

I groaned. “You really could have told me sooner.”

She huffed, releasing my waist. “Your help will be terribly useful. Why, with your word, we could have so many new faces visiting. I’m sure it would be-”

“Don’t you have bigger worries right now?”

She turned to me, slowing her pace. “Well, we could use some help moving things around or getting stalls set up, I suppose. Is there anything else you’re worried about?”

I stopped, stunned. Why would she… oh. In all our chatter, she never had a chance to learn about them. I cleared my throat and-

“People disappeared from your temple. It’s probably the Moriyas, but people think it’s your followers, instead.”

Byakuren stopped cold. She glanced back to Kokoro, then returned to me.

I held the shaku to my lips. “We don’t know who it is, yet. But regardless, the timing’s not good.”

Her face hardened. Without speaking further, she rushed forward, seeking out the front door. I huffed and ran after her. Grasping her shoulder, I reached my other hand out to snap up Kokoro’s wrist.

Holding both of them, I slipped through a crack, into the middle of Myouren Temple. With barely an appreciative nod, Byakuren marched off in one direction, Kokoro fled in another.

I took a deep breath and considered my own role, here.

[ ] Byakuren was the temple’s proper leader, so I’d wait until she got caught up before trying to help.
 [ ] Instead, I’d advertise the festival in the village and make sure my own followers were safe, while was there.
 [ ] Instead, I’d hound Kokoro for her answer. I needed to be sure she wouldn’t cause trouble later.

[ ] I couldn’t ignore disappearing humans, even if the temple now had their leader back.
 [ ] So, I’d help with the festival by coordinating labor, ready to act if I found anything suspicious.
 [ ] So, I’d stick with her and do everything I could to get this matter wrapped up before the festival.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2021/08/16 (Mon) 19:00

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[X] I couldn’t ignore disappearing humans, even if the temple now had their leader back.
 [X] So, I’d stick with her and do everything I could to get this matter wrapped up before the festival.
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Oh yeah, we did say we'd help them with the investigation. And then, immediately after promising help, we went and had a family lunch, huh.
Now the Buddhist has to investigate kidnappings happening around her temple and the child born out of neglect is - again - being left by herself.
I somehow get the feeling Miko merely pretends to be on top of things. But that'd be ludicrous, right?

[x] I couldn’t ignore disappearing humans, even if the temple now had their leader back.
[x] And in a moment of sincerety asked her whether she wanted me to come and help.
Since the vote didn't have a write-in, this is what I choose out of the given options
[x] So, I’d stick with her and do everything I could to get this matter wrapped up before the festival.

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[ ] Byakuren was the temple’s proper leader, so I’d wait until she got caught up before trying to help.
[ ] Instead, I’d advertise the festival in the village and make sure my own followers were safe, while was there.
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Gah. I'm very, very sorry. I waited way too long to comment, but I'll allow this vote.
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Additionally, because I'm so late, I'm extending the voting window by about 6 hours or so. (And again, past the timer ending isn't guaranteed that I ignore a vote, just no longer guaranteed that I count it, either.)

I'd extend it further, but then I risk delaying the update, which I'd rather avoid.
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[x] I couldn’t ignore disappearing humans, even if the temple now had their leader back.
[x] And in a moment of sincerity asked her whether she wanted me to come and help.

Whoa, a chance to make Miko honest? How can we pass this up?
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Changing my vote.
[x] I couldn’t ignore disappearing humans, even if the temple now had their leader back.
[x] And in a moment of sincerety asked her whether she wanted me to come and help.
Go go, Honest Miko!
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Urgh. I was hoping to get one last update out before I had to make this announcement, but it looks like even that will take a while.

School has started back up for me and looks like it will take up nearly all of my time. So, from here until somewhere around December or so, updates will be very, very slow. In a worst-case scenario, there may not be any until then. So, my apologies, but please be patient until then.

While waiting, all I can do is express my appreciation for following and being patient with me thus far.
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Appreciate the heads up!

This moment is as good as any to say thank you for writing this lovely story and letting us be part of it.
Keep your head up and be so kind to be kind to yourself. Wishing you good luck and good success in (and outside of) school.
Be seeing you the next update!
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I'm pretty bad at keeping up with stories but, for whatever it's worth, I enjoy reading this and am looking forward to whenever you have time to write again. No worries, hope you do well.
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[x] I couldn’t ignore disappearing humans, even if the temple now had their leader back.

[x] And in a moment of sincerity asked her whether she wanted me to come and help.

I turned and jogged up beside Byakuren. I had to pump my legs to keep, but her hurry would not stop me.

She kept walking.

So I pumped my feet until I pulled in front of her, then spun around and smiled back.

“What would you have me do, darling?”

She paused, wearing a puzzled stare. “Oh? Are you asking me?”

I thumped the shaku against my chest. “I’m your ‘wife’ after all. Committed to help and support. And since this is your temple, I will defer to your authority.” I winked. “On this matter.”

She grinned, then wrapped her arms around my back and pressed me against her. I groaned under the pressure, my chin against her bust. But I held my tongue.

She giggled. “Thank you for the support, dear.”

I grunted. “It-it’s nothing.”

To tell the truth, I found my nerves easing under her aggressive affection..

She released me and turned her gaze back down the hall. Her mouth twisted from a smile, to a frown, then she sighed. “I… need to know everything that’s happened, and I don’t want you scaring anyone off.” Finally, her expression settled into a soft smile, directed my way. “Wait for me here, would you?”

I waved her off. “Fine, fine. Go talk to your followers.”

She bowed, then strode off.

I turned down the hall and started wandering. After that little… expression, it felt too wrong to just turn and eavesdrop on her, but I couldn’t wait in the middle of the hall, either.

I held the utmost confidence in my abilities. My ears would pick her up the moment she’d finished..

Besides, my stomach yearned for a meal, so I strolled around until I stumbled upon a simple dining area and, after just a little snooping, acquired for myself a humble bowl of rice and vegetables.

From there, I found a table and settled into it. The food failed to impress me, of course - perhaps I’d need to introduce finer dining to these folks someday. So it was a good thing I’d not settled in merely to fill my stomach. The food would serve as an acceptable distraction, but I’d also hope to become a little less conspicuous this way.

The chatter of humble newcomers, sly outsiders, boisterous old-timers, and other eccentrics filled the air, mingling with the scents of beast, traces of incense, and the simple, salty taste of my breakfast. Of course, they had hushed as I came in, but I could wait.

I worked slowly and most patiently through the boring rice, savoring the hopes and agitations of those around me as my side-dish, instead. Despite their pursed lips and hushed motions, their silence could not hide their desires. And, eventually, the voices returned.

Worries, fears both for themselves and a day they hoped to enjoy-or make a profit off of.

But the kidnappings failed to choke out every worry or question, which was good, because neither their comments nor desires offered any insight there.

Which, in turn, sent a worried tingle down my spine. If the culprits truly were among the temple, surely I’d have heard something of them by now.

Regardless, I heard worries of a competing shrine intending to capitalize on the temple’s struggles by advertising themselves at the very festival. More precisely, that a certain shrine maiden had stated precisely that goal.

There were also scattered worries about strange villagers seen skulking around. A curious possibility, but far too vague to give me anything to work on.

Then, I flinched. In fact, I nearly choked on my rice.

And not just from its drab flavor.

Someone whispered of a zombie-no, a Jiang-Shi-wandering around the nearby woods.

Gensokyo had few of them, and the grounds of Byakuren’s temple held only one that I knew of. But, Yoshika consistently kept to the graveyard. Seiga’s commands and her own limited memory would ensure that. There’s-

A desire blared through my ears. Me. Byakuren had finished her meeting and had gone looking for me.

I shoveled the rest of the rice down my throat, swallowed, and threw myself to my feet. With a whistle and a bit of a skip, I strolled back out into the halls and to that beating, siren sound.

It took only the turn of a single corner to find her proud form turning and marching my way. I answered her with a casual wave.

She strode up beside me, then kept marching. I walked beside her, lifting the shaku over my lips to hide a slight smile. “So, what’s the news.”

She huffed. “We found one of the humans. He had eloped with one of our disciples.”

I narrowed my eyes as a couple disciples passed us by. Worry and anger clouded her desires, too deep to be explained by mere misunderstanding. “But, they were an exception, I take it.”

She marched faster. “We caught a figure dragging someone out into the wilderness. My disciples couldn’t track it further down, but with your ears, we may just hear them.”

I shook my head and answered with a playful shrug. “So, I’m a glorified bloodhound, then?”

She froze, then turned to me. “That’s not, what I-”

I chuckled, patting her shoulder. “It’s okay. I can be your bloodhound for today, darling~”

Her shoulders sagged, but she turned back toward her goal and strode forward. “Good.”

I advanced to half a jog just to keep up with her. “Besides, I daresay this counts as helping prepare your festival~”

She groaned. “This isn’t the time for levity, Miko. Innocent youkai are in danger!”

I narrowed my eyes. Perhaps she was right, perhaps I should indeed have taken this matter more seriously. Lips tight, I pressed my shaku over my nose. “We don’t know that.”

She charged through the temple’s main doors, out onto the stone steps beyond. “But if they are, they need protection.”

I pounded my feet into that stone to keep up. “And if not, their victims need protection.”

She nodded, eyes solemn. “Yes. So either way, we need to save someone. We need to get there before anything happens!”

“Oh, but that-” Fully jogging now, my mouth floundered. That had flowed so naturally from her protective instincts, I didn’t even see it coming. “Yes, I suppose so.”

But still, something gnawed at me. The timing of all of this, the anomaly with Yoshika…

Something smelled rotten, but I couldn’t place the source and, if she was right, may not have the time to explore every angle. My feet slowed, my shaku rose to my lips as I worked through the puzzle, only to hear Byakuren to glance back my way, sighing at my hesitance.

“What, are you scared of these villains, Miko? Do I need to hold your hand?”

I snorted, straightening my back in response. “Of course, not!”

Her gaze held flat. I groaned, then…

[ ] I stuck close to Byakuren. I would trust her all the way, despite my misgivings.

[ ] I followed Byakuren, but at some distance. If she fell into some trap, she’d need a prince like me to rescue her.

[ ] She could handle this on her own, so I’d investigate this matter elsewhere, starting with the graveyard.
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Due to how long this tale's been delayed, and the fact I still cannot promise an update within the next few weeks, no timer for this one. If you wanna vote, just get it in whenever you're ready and it will probably be counted.
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[x] I followed Byakuren, but at some distance. If she fell into some trap, she’d need a prince like me to rescue her.

Whoever is behind this, they may expect Byakuren. But probably not Miko. A chance to maintain some element of surprise. Plus any chance to show off to Byakuren by swooping in to save the day must be taken.
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[x] I followed Byakuren, but at some distance. If she fell into some trap, she’d need a prince like me to rescue her.
It's not like Miko to tackle a problem head on.
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[x] I followed Byakuren, but at some distance. If she fell into some trap, she’d need a prince like me to rescue her.

If Byakuren is willing to risk triggering whatever trap is set in place, it'll be better if Miko isn't also caught in it. The Prince in Comfy Earmuffs should remain hidden in the sidelines, ready to swoop in just in case.

Besides, even if there wasn't a trap in the first place, she had already given Byakuren the spotlight, deferring to her authority. Toyosatomimi no Hair Tufts could let her have all the glory for now.
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[x] I followed Byakuren, but at some distance. If she fell into some trap, she’d need a prince like me to rescue her.

I gestured forward. “Worry not, your shining, gilded prince shall support you. But please, fair lady, try to avoid dragging us both into some wild goose chase.”

She snorted. “Then, let’s not waste your precious time, dear.” She leapt forward, then launched upward, into the air. I yelped, battered by the wind she kicked up, but took off after her. I would keep my distance, but if I allowed only a moment of hesitation, I’d lose her completely.

But to my frustration, the temple hadn’t even disappeared by the time she dropped back down, now plunging through the forest canopy. I had to plummet and weave through the branches in her wake. I took only a second, when I touched the roots and leaves below, to arrive at my desired distance.

Byakuren, of course, sprin-she stood still. Waiting. For… oh, yes.

Just before she turned to me, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. She needed her bloodhound.

Though fairies and other minor youkai could often be found in any corner of Gensokyo, I heard only murmurs and whispers of desire. So, I caressed each side of my earmuffs and, gently, lifted them off my head.

The whispers grew to chatter, then to a low din as more and more voices piled on, stalling me only a couple seconds as I sifted through them to work through them all.

Romantic nonsense, mostly. Well, romance and… other desires. That, and some amount of concern. Worry of getting caught. We’d walked right into a clandestine make-out point, judging by the buzz.

A slow, simmering frustration interrupted those amorous desires, coming from-right beside me.

“Well? Where is i-”

I held up a finger. “Lots of naughty girls and boys around here. But not the kind that would…” I flinched. No. There was something. It was small, barely perceptible, even. But beneath all the amorous desires… something darker. Not very far away, even. So why was it so hard to hear?

Regardless, I heard greed here. Loyalty, too. But the wrong sort. This entity would obey its superior’s orders no matter their nature. And even now, it had its sights set on someone.

I dropped my hand down, stabbing one finger in the direction of those sinister desires as I opened my eyes. “Over there.”

Byakuren nestled a hand behind my head to plant a light kiss on my lips before jerking back in the direction I’d pointed. “Thank you, dear.” And, with that, she sprinted forward. She slowed down for nothing, even as she had to twist around tree trunks and duck under low-hanging branches.

Only as she left my vision completely did I remember my need to-I snapped my earmuffs back on and took off after her.

That rotten scent still clung to this whole affair, even as we came upon-

A fresh, burning thirst for blood burst through Byakuren’s desires, granting me barely enough warning to glide gracefully to a stop behind the nearest gnarled trunk. I wiped a few drops of sweat from my brow, relieved I’d left my cape behind for this. The barest peek outward lined my eyes directly up with her fiery, suspicious gaze.

And only after she made sure I bore witness to her ire did she glance back to its source. “Miko, dear. Could you please explain to me what I’m staring at right now?”

She slung her scroll out as she spoke, already tensed and ready to charge in with it, toward a familiar, dull face and stiff, outstretched arms.

Yoshika. Complete with the poofy hat and talisman pasted over her face. So, that rumor, at least, proved true. I took a deep breath and lifted one earmuff for just a second. Now up close, I could-barely-make out those desires, matching them to what I heard before. “Our target, apparently. Though I can’t quite make out…”

“Then, we shall have a talk later, about your choice of company.”

I groaned. “We barely talk anymore. Besides, I’d like to know just as much as you do.”

But she barely listened. With only a twitch of her heel, Byakuren surged forward, her scroll bursting to life behind her.

I appreciated the rainbow glow as that scroll bolstered my wife’s might, but found my attention fixed on the messy-haired zombie she contended with. The messy-haired zombie with surprisingly wide eyes and twitchy dodges. What the hell was Seiga thinking? Would she be so bold as to make such a blatant move now, to jeopardize her limited standing with me?

Yoshika nimbly dodged out of Byakuren’s opening swing before responding with a clawing strike that grazed my companion’s side, aiming beyond it before she got shoved back.

I watched as the two traded blows, but it was only as the first barrage of glowing bullets appeared that I realized the problem. My eyes snapped from tree to branch to roots to leaves. If Yoshika was present here, then Seiga would have to be nearby.

“Byakuren, be careful! There must be a…”

And yet, even as I called out, a series of sharp pops burst across Yoshika’s chest, knocking her backward. With a ragged grunt, she collapsed, crashing backward to the dirt below. Byakuren’s eyes held to her body, seeking further hints of danger, while I kept studying the scene around us, for the real danger.

I tutted. Honestly, even against Byakuren, she could have given a better showing than that.

But no matter how hard I looked, I could find nothing out of the ordinary. The desires-what I still heard of them-held more or less the same, as well. Romance, craving, worry.

“She’s somewhere around here, isn’t she?”

I blinked. As the heat of battle faded, Byakuren had pieced that together as well. “Yes. She wouldn’t send Yoshika out alone. She must be behind the kidnappings, somehow.”

I felt Byakuren step closer to me, but kept my eyes and ears peeled to the scene around us. Whatever Seiga’s intentions, she would not ignore damage taken to her precious pet… and her meatshield.

Where was she-

Panic. Terror. A desperate urge to escape one’s captor.

I jabbed my shaku to the left. “A victim. That way.”

Byakuren spun in its direction. “So, Yoshika was the lookout, then.”

I tapped that same shaku to my chin. “So it seems.”

But she barely even waited for me to finish before pounding forward again. Jeez, she would wait for nothing, would she? This constant, frantic chasing would surely leave us completely exposed, vulnerable to whatever plot that woman had cooked up. She’d learned new tricks, to be sure. Seiga had never hidden her own desires so well, let alone those of her minion. But then, to put such effort in, she must have indeed targeted this, at least in part, against me.

I would not let that…

I heard a startled shout, followed by Byakuren’s scandalized voice. “You? What do you think you’re-no. Prepare yourself, wicked hermit!”

I raced up just close enough to study her adversary, only to stop cold. Short stature, white dress with colorful underlayers, silver topknot and tall blue hat. Futo herself stood there, wrestling down a young rabbit girl, wrapped tight in veritable miles of rope. Were I less concerned for her well-being, I might find the bunny’s short but soft brown hair or her colorful kimono cute. But of course, Futo’s presence here and this dastardly activity of hers agitated me too much to consider such things. Who would I find next, Tojiko? Had my entire array of allies turned against me? Regardless, Futo’s flitting, beady blue eyes narrowed, turning to Byakuren’s scandalized face. “Don-stoppest nay us!”

The rabbit girl yelped. “Please, help me! My b-mph!”

Futo wrangled something onto the poor woman, then tied a strip of white cloth over her mouth. The rabbit twisted around, grunting and screeching, as her tormentor hurriedly tied loose strands of rope around a nearby branch, barely finishing in time to witness a great glow as Byakuren unraveled her scroll. “We are going to have a long, long discussion after this battle, Miko.”

I blinked once, taking a step back. Impossible. No way. Futo, for all her faults, would never resort to this. I blinked again and shook my head. She… sounded strange.

I popped one earmuff off as Byakuren summoned another field of bullets. Her voice-or rather, her desires, were as quiet as Yoshika’s. Similarly tinged with greed and unblinking commitment to her leader. I-

Byakuren yelped. The lights winked out. Only in the corner of my eye could I catch the jerking, fast-fading glow of her scroll as it raced through the canopy. Something just made off with it.

A dark, sinister chuckle fell from Futo’s lips. “Thou hast dug thy grave, yonder day!”

Byakuren’s eyes flitted between the fleeing scroll and Futo’s cruel sneer. I gripped my shaku, readying to strike my foes with a holy paddling.

We had a hostage, a mystery, and Byakuren’s most crucial artifact already escaping. The worst of my suspicions, that they had crafted this whole scene to confront us, had come true. But in the heat of the moment, even I could address only one problem at a time. Which would it be? Which challenge or disaster most urgently called for my attention?

[ ] Fight alongside Byakuren. Without her prized weapon, she would need my aid.

[ ] Chase scroll. My wife needed her weapon back and I needed to keep it out of strange hands.

[ ] Interrogate ‘Futo.’ This whole situation kept getting fishier and I needed answers.

[ ] Distract ‘Futo.’ I could fight at full strength while Byakuren got that rabbit out of here.
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[x] Let Byakuren fight Futo. Remain vigilant for traps, ambushes, and scroll-snatchers.

Well, things sure went south in a hurry. There is suddenly much to do without enough time or, critically, information to do it. Most concerning is whatever mastermind is behind this seems to be prepared specifically for Miko and Byakuren. Therefore, the most obvious choices of 'dive into the fight' or 'split up' seem the worst. Surely the enemy has accounted for such events. The scroll seems like a dangerous diversion. And talking with Futo is too slow for what the situation calls for.

Instead, we can lean on one thing we noticed while fighting Yoshika- she was unusually weak. Its quite possible Byakuren can defeat Futo without the aid of her scroll. What should scare us more is what could literally snatch the scroll from her hands- and if there are more of them. That is why we didn't barge in with Byakuren in the first place, and it already seems to be wise.
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Oh wow that's a hard choice
Without her scroll can Byakuren handle Futo, fake or not? That's the big question. And whether she can or not, can we? And is Byakuren faster?
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[x] Distract ‘Futo.’

Byakuren might be keep an eye out while doing this if nothing else.
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I'll allow this vote.
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Chase scroll. My wife needed her weapon back and I needed to keep it out of strange hands.
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Alright. It's been a few days and I wanna start hashing this update out. So, since we're in a three-way tie, I would like to request a vote to break that tie, if anyone would be so kind.

(For the record: the current leading options are to hold back, to chase the scroll, and to serve as a distraction.)
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[x] Let Byakuren fight Futo. Remain vigilant for traps, ambushes, and scroll-snatchers.
Your logic makes the most sense. Also, it's not as if Byakuren is completely dependent on scroll to do magic.
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Okay. Time to start writing that outline. Looks like Miko's keeping watch for now. (Hopefully, the update won't take too long to release, this time.)
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[x] Let Byakuren fight Futo. Remain vigilant for traps, ambushes, and scroll-snatchers.

In the end, I chose to address none of them. Even as the scroll disappeared into the woods and as Futo lunged at Byakuren, I held faith in my… wife. Though Byakuren stumbled back, though she barely blocked one thrown fist and staggered under the force of the next, I trusted her.

She had proven a worthy foe even to myself, at her full might. However much she leaned on her scroll when I confronted her, it alone could account for only so much of her ferocity. Futo, of course, had proven herself perfectly capable as well and, if this truly were her-at her full strength, that is-I could have made a grave mistake.

But, as I watched the two exchange blows, my eyes narrowed. Our last battle, against Seiga’s loyal minion, had left me with profound doubts on just what we faced. Even considering her limited intelligence and the gulf in power, Yoshika had lost too quickly. Normally, I would not bet so decisively on Byakuren winning this battle alone and without her treasured scroll, not against Futo’s arrows and flames. And yet, as I watched Futo press her advantage, as she charged forward, hurling out small clusters of blue orbs after one frenzied punch or another awkward kick, I considered my suspicions confirmed. No fire, no waves or boats, no arrows, not even any talismans. In fact, as Byakuren adapted to her own relative weakness, she answered with bullets and lasers of her own, which sent Futo scrambling.

Futo fought with not a single tool nor weapon of her arsenal.

Only her body and the most basic bullets. This-this was strange. Even were Futo converted to a Jiang-Shi, Yoshika proved that Seiga’s minions could do better than this. To resort to something that left them so weak, she must have been rushed. Perhaps even panicked.

Unless, it… I blinked, hearing a phantom at the edge of my senses. Popping one earmuff off-shit. I snapped it back on, then lurched around the trees, toward that poor rabbit. Away from the heat of battle, I found the poor girl thrashing as she slid backward, through the trees. Another few steps then revealed the culprit.

Silver hair, tied into a top-knot. A diminutive stature. A tall but thin, blue hat, perched atop her scalp. White shirt with multicolored layers beneath it. Blue skirt, bare legs.

Futo. Again.

I glanced back to the fight, where I found Byakuren still battling… Futo.

Two Futos, at least one of whom could barely conjure bullets.

This must have been a dream, surely. A dream, or…

I shut my eyes and raised both muffs, listening to the hearts and sounds of both Futos. Had they conspired with one another? Was one stealing the captive from the other? And more importantly…

The first Futo had sounded perfectly authentic - despite her strange allegiance. And the other, now carting this poor rabbit away…

Her heaving grunts, too, sounded just right. Two Futos, with quiet desires, difficult to hear until I’m all but atop them, who look and sound just like the real one. At least one of them can barely fight. Upon further listening, I confirmed something else.

The new one sought not to free the poor rabbit, but to continue her captivity.

In fact, the two sounded awfully alike. Like sisters, close friends, or perhaps just…

Servants to the same master.

One of whom now threatened to-my eyes lurched back to the rabbit, now slipping entirely out of view. Already, my ears barely grasped her captor’s desires, but the rabbit herself still came in loud and clear. Her fear, her frustration. Yes, whatever was done to these Futos had not been done to her. I turned to Byakuren, where I found her standing above the first Futo’s poor, slumping body. Her shoulders heaved as she scanned the trees in search of the missing rabbit.

I beat my shaku across the nearest trunk to get her attention, then cast it toward the fleeing hearts. “There’s more of them, Byakuren. This way, they’re stealing her away!”

She groaned. “If I didn’t know better, I would think you are treating me as the hound, now.” Still, she jogged up to me, giving me a chance to turn my eyes and body back toward the fading traces of the other Futo.

I jogged, then sprinted forward long before she caught up. “They’re difficult, even for me, to hear. We need to hurry before we lose her!”

“Yes, yes.” Sure enough, she soon sprinted up to my side. “But when we get back we’re-”

“Having a talk. Yes, I know.”

“Good.” And, with that, she charged ah-

We both flinched at the sound of a garbled, panicked yelp from up ahead. The rabbit’s. I could not grasp a single hint of any other heart, under her blaring, desperate desires… I halted and signaled Byakuren to do the same. She wanted us to stop, to escape-

A hand leapt from the bushes, swiping down on my right hip. Time seemed to slow as its fingers slid along my scabbard and the figure that hand belonged to made herself clear. Futo. I brought my shaku and left hand out to intercept, but she proved deceptively quick. As her hand approached the handle, it started to close. I would not reach her in-

A black boot blasted through the air by my head. Futo’s hand flew wide open as the boot buried itself in her gut. Then, under the force of the blow, she skidded sideways and crumpled to the forest floor, gasping in pain.

I gulped and took a shaking step back, one hand clutching my precious scabbard. To lose the source of one’s strength is one thing, but if they’d made off with this…

Well, as I wiped my sweating brow, I studied the woman below me. My sword’s radiance would likely have stunned her, giving me plenty of time to yank it back. Yes, certainly. That is precisely what would have happened, what must have happened. Fate itself would not allow the tragedy that would have fallen, otherwise.

I straightened my shoulders and raised my shaku to my lips. “Thank you, darling. That was close.”

Byakuren only nodded in response. “Of course, dear. But,” she studied the woman before us, “how did she catch up to us? And, where’s the other-”

“She was the other.” I then gestured my shaku outward, to where I’d heard the yelp. “The-the victim should be over there.” As I spoke, I stalked toward the sound, myself.

Byakuren only bounced her eyes between me and the crumpled Futo. “But, that’s-how? Two of them? Miko, dear, there are souls far, far more worthy of copying than her.”

I groaned. “Oh, come on. It’s not me! Some foul trickery is at play.” I trudged further forward, working through the trees until I finally spotted the brunette bunny, nestled against the thinner, smoother trunk of a young pine tree. Ropes still covered her body and her lips still hid behind that pale cloth.

Another phantom reached my ears.

“Byakuren, we’ve got her, finally.” Then, another ghost of a whisper. “You get the ropes off while…”

Then another, and another. Hissing in frustration, I raised my earmuffs again. Dozens of whispers, more than a hundred hushed desires, all crept toward us in a sinister, crawling cloud.

Just what sort of cheap, faulty army massed against us? Could we safely fend them all off?

And… just where did they all come from?

With only seconds to act, I would warn Byakuren, then…

[ ] Grab the rabbit and retreat. We came to save captives and we would save at least one.

[ ] Grab the Futo and retreat. We needed a chance at a proper interrogation.

[ ] Insist we hold our ground. Even in their numbers, they were weak. We would take them all on.

[ ] Try to slip past them. If I could track where they came from, perhaps I’d find the villain behind it all.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:

Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2022/02/01 (Tue) 19:00

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Well, that proceeded about as I expected. Fake-Futo was indeed weak enough for Byakuren to beat, and there was indeed another snatcher out there trying to take advantage. But we are not out of the woods yet, literally and figuratively.

[x ] Grab the rabbit and retreat. We came to save captives and we would save at least one.

But we should probably get moving out of the woods with haste. We have been clearly lured into a deliberate trap, and we narrowly avoided having it snap shut on us by losing the sword. Its unwise to fight on an enemy's chosen ground, and it'd be especially folly to take on the leader with a hostile army at our back. Instead, we should rescue at least someone and retreat. We can return in force later.

And its not as though we got no answers. Besides the obviously increased threat, we know we are dealing with an organized bunch of shapeshifting, thieving, kidnapping tricksters with basic danmaku ability sowing discord amongst allies. I'd bet a golden shaku its the tanuki. And we should know their boss.
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[X] Grab the rabbit and retreat. We came to save captives and we would save at least one.

...I agree with the reasoning, but in not completely certain. Interrogating a captive could be really important, which makes it even more annoying that we don't know what they're doing with their kidnapping victim.
The worst part is, if you're wrong about then being tanuki thats much worse.
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Actually, I think nabbing the fake Futo for interrogation would technically be better for uncovering the mystery. If Miko were alone, I'd have voted for that. But Byakuren is with us, and I think she would be extremely irate if we ignored a kidnapping victim to kidnap someone else entirely. Given she already suspects us, bad time to anger her.
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Why not grab both? If they needed someone to defend the other's back they could just leave Futo on the way and prioritize escaping with the rabbit. And that's assuming the rabbit is incapacitated.

Best case scenario would have the rabbit being able to keep up with them escaping, with Byakuren carrying Futo (who's bound by ropes) and Miko defending them.
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If you wish to write in for Miko to grab one person and call out for Byakuren to grab the other or some such similar action, I will almost certainly allow it. And since we're getting close to the "deadline" (if it could even be called such), I would be more likely than usual to count "late" votes, as well.

But, to be entirely clear, this would not be to support the vote specifically, so much as to account for my relatively late response, and to generally extend lenience to write-ins I allow.
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I don't advocate for grabbing both as I suspect Miko will need to be actively covering their retreat from the horde using most of her strength and abilities.
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That's why I worded it conditionally.

Byakuren is currently not at full fighting potential after losing her scroll but she still has superhuman strength, so she'll most likely be carrying one (or both) depending on the circumstances.

Miko, unlike Byakuren, didn't lose anything that would lower her fighting ability, so she would be defending their retreat. If she can reliably hold off all the enemies on her own then maybe Byakuren could even carry both the rabbit and Futo.

Taking Futo with them, preferably with her hands tied behind her back, might make their enemies hesitate throwing anything too destructive at their general direction. She's basically a human shield, and perhaps could even be used as a club when in a pinch.

If the rabbit could stand on her own then she could act as support, helping Byakuren deal with anything that gets past Miko. If she's incapacitated, then she should get herself comfortable on one of Byakuren's shoulders.

[X] Help Byakuren untie the rabbit and retreat.
-[X] If there's time, take the rope to tie Futo's hands behind her back and pick her up.
- [X] If the rabbit can stand by herself, pass Futo to Byakuren.
- [X] If the rabbit is being carried by Byakuren, see if I can reliably use Futo as a shield/club. Putting her in front of the enemies' line of fire might force them to take a less aggressive and less effective approach.
- [X] Throw Futo at the enemies if necessary.
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I'm not terribly fond of many conditional statements in a vote, as I prefer they focus on the general... "spirit" of Miko's decisions and/or the initial action, rather than managing a fine sequence of events or specific priorities. As such, I reserve the right to adjust or defy some or all of the later clauses depending on what pressures or situation Miko faces, even if the conditions are technically met.

If that's unacceptable, I suggest simplifying the vote. But so long as you (and anyone else who votes for it) are okay with that risk, I will accept the vote as-is.
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>>43411 here.

That's fine. No plan survives contact with the enemy, especially one smart enough to lure the leaders of two major factions into a trap, so they'll more than likely have to adapt to the situation.
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[x] Grab the rabbit and retreat. We came to save captives and we would save at least one.

I waited a single second more, confirming where the swarm approached from, then snapped my earmuffs back on and dashed to the single loudest voice still audible—their former prey. “There’s more coming! Byakuren, we’re leaving!”

Byakuren’s heart flared with a passion of its own in response. “Not until we-!”

“We’re taking the rabbit with us!”

Slipping around one last tree, my eyes caught the captive’s bound figure. But just as I stopped before her, I heard terror surge yet again through her heart. So, as I dropped to my knees and stretched my hands out beneath her, I put on the most charming smile I could. “Worry not, fair bunny.” I felt her whole body quivering as I scooped her into my arms. “We’re here to save you.”

She squirmed, grateful yet somehow still wary-no doubt, she was familiar with my less generous stance toward youkai than my rival-my wife. But I had run out of time to explain, so I simply adjusted her weight in my arms and, as Byakuren approached, turned and jogged toward the temple. I cast a single glance her way.

She cleared her throat. “We should at least untie her, first.”

I shook my head, adjusting the rabbit’s weight one last time. “We’ll have time for that later!” I then took off past her, racing toward the distant silhouette of her temple.

Byakuren sputtered, then charged after me. “So, then we hurry! We could at least loosen her ropes, surely.?”

The rabbit muttered something. Something that failed to penetrate the cloth over her mouth. But her sudden desire for my agreement made the utterance redundant, anyway. I huffed, panting hard as I ran.

“As, soon, as we’re, safe, little bunny, I promise!”

Byakuren maintained a more dignified running form by my side, no doubt aided by her ability to swing her arms in rhythm with her feet. “Surely, Miko, we could devote just a few seconds to her freedom!”

“We, don’t, have, sec-!”

A small cluster of blue bullets burst through the leaves. One that sent Byakuren lurching to the left to dodge and forced me to the air, just to move at all around them.

“I need cover, darling! Keep them off us!”

She growled in response, already firing off a small volley back toward them. “How many are there!”

I kept low to the ground, making sure to remain near her. My eyes narrowed, flitting between the trees for any pursuers seeking to cut us off. “Dozens, at least. They’re difficult for even me to hear, though, so watch the trees. And don’t let them get too close to you, either!”

Lights flashed and pops flared behind me, but I trusted Byakuren to keep that side under control. She’d have to, for I was busy. Another grunt rose from the bunny cradled against my chest, drawing my gaze back down. Her eyes-moist, slightly-stared straight back up. Her ears hung low, near the sides of her head. Brushing off my stern, forward gaze, I put a warmer smile on to greet that cute face.

“Those wicked villains can’t hurt you anymore, fine young lady, for we will protect you with our lives!”

Her eyes softened at my speech, her heart calming, slightly. Unfortunately, her weight proved a burden all on its own, one that already ate into my poor, royal arms.

Yet, had I a hand to spare, I would have gently stroked her hair. “I know not what brought their wickedness upon you, but you’ll be home before you know it. So, hang in there, okay?”

Further grunts uttered, muffled terribly by the awful cloth. I honed my ears, fixing them on her heart as I wove between the trees. Her first response to that question took me aback. Fear. She feared for… oh, of course. Someone else. Someone she wished to meet.

Someone she must not have found, who she feared could have suffered the same as she. But with no one to rescue the-no, him.

Her lover.

How curious. I would have loved to-

“Miko, dear. Would you be so kind as to change places?”

I blinked. A growing fear-and fatigue-wore into Byakuren as well. It seemed that, absent the support of her scroll, the constant running and fighting had eaten into her reserves, as well. Another desire reached my ears from our prize rabbit. Another surprise.

Fear, again. Of Byakuren.

That puzzled me. But… another glance to Byakuren forced me to put it to the side. Her volleys grew faster and fiercer, but the distance between her and our pursuers had shrunk. There were simply too many targets for her to keep them all at bay without slowing down or getting close. I groaned, then dropped to the ground and spun on my heel, lifting the rabbit away from my chest.

She charged forward, wrapped her own arms around the girl, and pressed the lucky rabbit to her chest. I scowled-but only briefly!-at the sight. But I kept myself facing in the direction that Byakuren fled from. Futo, Seiga, Ichirin, and Nazrin all charged toward me.

I wielded powerful danmaku, excellent fighting form, and a good, sturdy shaku to confront them with. But I wielded something else to keep them all at bay. Something Byakuren lacked.

Their failure-or perhaps, Byakuren’s timely kick-would prove their undoing. I tore my sword from its scabbard, spraying a blinding white light across the trees. The faint whispers of shock and confusion that followed sung in my ears. Which I needed, because my immediate next action was to sheath my blade and launch myself, backward, into the air. And because they had foolishly chosen a forest to ambush us in, the dazed hermits and disciples could no longer pursue us effectively. Seiga tried, only to crash into a tree trunk. Nazrin tripped over a gnarled root.

So as they floundered in blindness, I rolled over, turned my gaze back to that distant silhouette, and soared after Byakuren. She had now taken to the air herself, soaring far ahead of our disoriented pursuers. But each backward glance revealed new faces - Minamitsu, then Tojiko, then another Nazrin. And, as the first wave recovered their senses, they raced faster toward us. I answered with more flashes, now accompanied by faint bullet sprays. They served only as dazes and distractions, and ones that meant less each time. Our pursuers soon learned to shield their eyes when I gripped my sword. But each one bought us a few more precious seconds.

Seconds that must have turned into minutes, for it was not long before they slowed again. Then some disappeared, back into the trees. By the time we reached the backside of Myouren Temple, I could no longer see any of them. Even when I lifted my earmuffs to be sure, only the desires ahead of us-those within the temple itself-could be heard.

My heart still pounded, but a deep, relieved sigh escaped my lips.

Still, though sweat shimmered across my skin, we would not stop here. Now free of those… whatever they were, I flew up beside Byakuren as she skirted around the temple walls. “We seem to be in the clear, now.”

The rabbit’s eyes twinkled and Byakuren dared to wear a thin smile, herself. “Good work, dear. Now,” her eyes turned to her rabbit-eared luggage, “let us take care of you, shall we?” She nodded, of course, just before we touched down by a back door.

Carefully, we ushered her inside. Byakuren carried her off to a small meditation chamber while I hung back, carefully listening to the nearest desires. Thankfully, though a few faces could be seen around distant corners or through open doors, none bothered us before we slipped inside. And, as I shut the door behind us, Byakuren finally settled the poor girl down, nestling her head on a zabuton - that is, a sitting cushion. I set myself by the girl’s head while Byakuren poked and prodded at her ropes.

Byakuren sighed, groped around the tightened bands another moment, then shook her head and turned her gaze to meet the rabbit’s. “Would you let us roll you over? It seems all the major knots are on your back.”

The girl glanced between the two of us, then uttered an affirmative-if hesitant-grunt and slowly nodded her head. Byakuren smiled and patted her forehead. “We’ll be gentle, I promise.” Then, she promptly rolled the girl over, onto her stomach. While those hands returned to the knots, I fondled a knot of my own - the one behind the girl’s head.

But as we worked, Byakuren sighed. “To think that such wickedness occurred, so close to my own temple.”

I heard something strange as she spoke. That rabbit’s fear, bubbling back up. Fear of-oh, dear. Of getting caught.

“We must put an end to-to whatever this is, immediately!” A sudden jerk of her hands drew a yelp from the rabbit, then a faint squeak from Byakuren. “Oh, sorry, miss.” She worked more cautiously with the ropes, but uttered a frustrated groan as she did. “But… we know so little.”

Here, I shook my head, allowing a faint grin to reach my lips. “Despite their efforts we-or, should I say ‘I’?-learned quite a bit, in fact.” To this, Byakuren pouted and her eyes narrowed. But she couldn’t hide her bubbling hope from my ears. “Even with my earmuffs off, I struggled to hear our enemy, which no doubt helped them steal your scroll and nearly my sword.”.”

She nodded as she undid the first knot. “Yes. They laid a trap for us. That was obvious, dear.”

I snorted, pulling the loosened knot entirely free. “They prepared a great swarm, no doubt to bury us in numbers. But those numbers could barely fight. They knew danmaku, but only in its most basic forms.”

Byakuren worked along the rabbit’s back, loosening further knots. “No one commands a horde of master duelists, Miko. I’m afraid you’ve ruled out only lone wolves with that one.”

Here, I smiled. “Only because I saved the most important detail for last. Visually and audibly, they performed flawless imitations of our disciples. We’re fighting shapeshifters, darling.” And, with that word, I dropped the foul cloth, freeing the rabbit to spit the cursed wad from her lips.

With a weary groan and as Byakuren worked on the last couple knots, the rabbit rose to her knees. “...Thank you, Lady Byakuren and Ms. Miko.”

I smiled, answering with a shallow bow as I rose to my feet. “Of course, Ms…”

She blinked. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m… Toko. Toko Hirano. I, um, I’m from… around.”

I perked an eyebrow at her hesitation, but held my tongue. She wanted to hide her activities here, more so than most visitors to Byakuren’s temple. But whether that suggested participation in this conspiracy or mere religious contraband, I couldn’t say.

Byakuren finished untying each knot, then helped Toko shed the ropes entirely. “Well, Ms. Hirano. Please make yourself at home. You’ll be safe here, I promise.”

Again, that nervousness returned. I stepped back, resting against the wall by the door. “Rest assured, pretty rabbit, that my wife will hold true to her word. Please, do relax.”

Toko flexed her fingers, then patted her knees. “I… I suppose I should.”

Byakuren helped the girl to her unsteady feet. “Let me show you to somewhere proper to rest, okay?” She waited for the rabbit to nod, then turned her gaze to me. “And, dear. Are you sure you’ve adequately ruled out other explanations? No chance of dolls or clones? Or even some simpler illusion?”

I blinked, but then shook my head. “No dollmaker I’ve seen could pull anything like this off.” Then, my eyes narrowed. “And no magician I know would have any reason to engage in this trickery.”

Toko nudged Byakuren back, slightly. “Thanks for the help, but I think I can take it from here.”

“Oh? Then, of course.” Byakuren let go of her, then rested her hands on her hips as her gaze returned to me. “But you think a shapeshifter does?”

I chuckled, draping a hand over her shoulder. “But of…” I blinked. Of the leaders around, only one like Mamizou would command the number of shapeshifters needed to pull this off. But why? What would she have to gain? “I’m not sure. But it looks very, very suspicious.”

Byakuren glanced back to the rabbit, then rested a palm atop my hand, atop her shoulder. “Very well. I… I suppose that, after this mess, I ought to put more trust in you. What should we do, next?”

I turned my eyes to the ceiling, gently stroking one earmuff as I pondered. If I was right, defending against a devious trickster like her would prove almost nightmarish. But then, it seemed as if she most fervently wanted us away from the temple, so perhaps we already had an advantage, which now we had to push.

But if not, and those tricksters slipped into the temple, they could cause untold chaos. And we still knew little of how these abductions even occurred. With each hour, the festival grew closer, leaving us little time to gather more information.

So, we would…

[ ] Interrogate the rabbit girl. The abductions were the problem and we needed a full account from someone who experienced it.

[ ] Charge into the human village. If Mamizou was anywhere, she’d be there. We had no time left to waste on her minions.

[ ] Call for help. The good names of Futo and possibly Tojiko were being dragged through the mud. I would let them prove their virtue.

[ ] Split up.
 [ ] I would… [ write-in ]
 [ ] Byakuren would… [ write-in. ]

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Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2022/02/19 (Sat) 19:00

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[X] Call for help. The good names of Futo and possibly Tojiko were being dragged through the mud. I would let them prove their virtue.
Worst case scenario, fire is good for crowd control. Not sure they aren't
compromised though.
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[X] Interrogate the rabbit girl. The abductions were the problem and we needed a full account from someone who experienced it.

We do need more information on exactly how these kidnappings are occurring. And we have a perfect witness now. Although she is likely traumatized by the recent affair, her desire to help her lover should be sufficient motivation to speak as soon as possible. If we know the kidnappers' methods, we can enact countermeasures prior to the festival.

And from another angle, this rabbit's desires and responses have been questionable. I don't think it is wise to let her have free reign on the temple just yet. It would not be surprising if the bait for the trap were also one of our enemies. If she is also one of our enemies, she is going to struggle to cobble together a cover story so quickly. She would need to balance both her words and desires from the scrutiny of Miko's ears.
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[X] Call for help. The good names of Futo and possibly Tojiko were being dragged through the mud. I would let them prove their virtue.

Both of them are the leaders of their own factions. Assigning roles and delegating responsibilities is part of their MO, and having more hands on deck means they can deal with the situation easier and do multiple things simultaneously. Also, if the situation has been dealt with and they ever needed extra help for the festival, their followers would already be close by.

Even if this vote didn't win, I still think that those who were impersonated at least deserve a heads-up of the situation.
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I'd be happy to see that it's placed on her general priority list, barring objections from other readers.
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[x] Call for help. The good names of Futo and possibly Tojiko were being dragged through the mud. I would let them prove their virtue.

I shook my head, then nudged her hand off. “Take care of her, darling. I’ll call in some support for your temple.”

Byakuren took a slow, steady breath, then nodded. “Watch your hip, dear. I would hate for you to actually lose your sword, this time.”

I groaned, turning to the door. “I’ll remain alert, I promise. No one will catch me unprepared.”


I snorted, but cast out one final wave. “Goodbye, darling.”

“Goodbye.” She, of course, waved back. All the way until I found my seam in the temple walls.

But I paused there, internally squirming at what I ought to do first. By impersonating my own allies and disciples, these villains had all but declared war on my temple. There were two people who most deserved to know, and I much preferred to have the more level-headed of the two on hand before informing Futo.

Some concern lingered in how I had left her, in wondering just what she had wanted with Byakuren, but I shook my head. Indecision-or worse, fear of displeasure-did not suit an administrator, let alone a former prince. I plunged into the space between spaces and came out not in my senkai, but around the mausoleum. It took a few minutes of wandering before I settled into the pool’s bank. Unfortunately, I’d hardly had time to check in on Tojiko’s schedule lately, so she might not even be-

I heard a desire for entertainment-and retribution-first, then felt the water draw away from before me.

Then the lighting bolt crashed into the ground behind me. I leapt to my feet in a manner less dignified than I care to admit, but breathed in a sigh of relief as I realized it had missed me… only to sputter an undignified yelp as a shock burst through me anyway. Spinning around, I found small sparks crawling across the rock for a few moments, before finally disappearing.

And only then did I witness the culprit’s soft green hair and stylish dress floating out to meet me.

I scowled at the mischievous grin plastered over her face, regardless of how quick she may have been to drag her more familiar, dour gaze over it.

“What’s your business with me, Miko?”

I spun and marched to her, stubbornly holding my scowl in place. Really, I was just glad to see her playful mood again, however much the lightning stung. “A much better place to test your new tricks. Byakuren and I,” I retrieved my shaku, rubbing it as I spoke, “we need your help.”

“Her again, huh.” She groaned, but I heard a hint of… something within her. A muddy mix of remorse and frustration-no, she was forcing those out to obscure something else. Something to do with whatever her final encounter with Byakuren must have entailed, most likely. “You come back after so many hours, just to bring her up again. Really…”

I shook my head. “An evil organization-shapeshifters, I suspect-have impersonated many of Byakuren’s followers. But they’ve also impersonated Seiga and Futo. Frankly, I suspect they either have or will imitate you, as well.”

She scowled, floating closer. “Is that it? Some scoundrels might imitate me?”

Here, I kept my tone level and my face firm. “We’ve caught ‘Futo’ kidnapping a scared little bunny. If they do use your face, it will no doubt be for something similarly heinous.”

Her scowl deepened, her eyes turning downward. “That… is considerably more serious a crime than I would have guessed.” She folded her arms, floating in slow, lazy circles around me. When she stopped, it came with a long, frustrated sigh. “Alright, fine. How are we going to stop them?”

Finally, I had the chance to answer with a small grin. “Why, we bring the full might of both temples against them♪”

Another sigh slipped from her lips, this one heavier in aggravation. “Really? You want me to work with he-them?”

I nodded, even extended a hand. “Precisely that. They’ve assaulted the both of us, so we ought to answer in kind.”

“That’s really the best you’ve got, huh? You couldn’t think of anything better?” She huffed, but then accepted my hand. “I’m going with you, but only to help correct whatever other dumb ideas you lot come up with.”

I welcomed her touch, then led her out.

It took us little time to find Futo within my senkai, slowly sipping on a cup of warm tea and staring out through an open wall, into a cozy little rock garden. It took less time for Tojiko to pipe up.

“Youkai are pretending to be you and kidnapping little girls.”

The singular screech that followed must have woken up all my other disciples around here. Certainly, it drowned out the clack of her cup against its plate. “W-w-what madness dost thou-youkai? Of course, my good name would be but chaff to them! To whom shall I direct mine ire?””

“S-she wasn’t a little girl.” But then, I cleared my throat and stepped forward. “The tanuki, most likely. We’re preparing to punish their wicked deeds.”

Futo scowled at her cup. “Tanuki? I ought not have been taken aback.” She planted her hands on the table, then scrambled to her feet, racing up to my side. “I, I must see this with mine own eyes! If it be true, then mine honor must be avenged!”

I nodded, but passed on a word of caution to my lesser disciples - to beware anyone acting strangely today, before departing my senkai. On the way out, I explained the disastrous but informative events of the past few hours to them. A low murmur now filled the halls and not a few of the local disciples shuffled away from us-mostly Futo, based on their desires-as we strode through the temple. Something that worked against my long-term interests but in favor of more immediate troubles. For we quickly found ourselves facing down Shou’s concerned stare after a few of them called for her.

“Lady Hijiri is busy right now, if you would wait out-”

I clapped my hand on her shoulder. “I’ll need her, but also all of you. We need to talk.” I leaned in close, even as she flinched away. “About the kidnappings.”

She bit back a yelp but, with sagging shoulders, she shrugged me off and turned around. “...This way, then.”

I gave a polite bow, then took firm, steady steps behind her, listening to the temple on the way. I heard hints of fears, of worry for a lost rabbit, but nothing of evil Buddhists or Taoists. Eventually, she ushered us into that same meeting room and rushed off to get the rest. Futo fidgeted. “Pardon me, crown prince. But doth this not seem a foolish notion? Art not the shapeshifters youkai themselves? Ought we not suspect these as much as the rest?”

Tojiko muttered. “I do hope you’re not devoting too much of your trust to your new temple, Miko.”

I sighed. “They’ve also been impersonated, Futo. We can spare them some sympathy, at least…”

I had to sit there for a good several minutes, soothing both their nerves and reassuring them of my insight. During which, Tojiko kept relatively quiet, at least. But Futo… I swear, by the time I heard the footsteps that would signal my relief, I knew better how to burn this room down than what some of my own rooms even looked like!

“Hey there, I thought we were gonna talk about kidnappings. What’s all this crap about ‘load-bearing walls’ and ‘ignition points’?”

I blinked, then looked up to face the women filtering into the room. Shou, Ichirin, Minamitsu. The latter two both leveled wary gazes on us. I flinched as I realized to just what she referred. I cast a dour glance back to Futo before clearing my throat and returning to them. “Futo can get a bit excitable sometimes-” Futo scowled, but I kept going. “-Please, forget about that. More importantly, you should know that alongside her, I’ve spotted you two,” I gestured to Ichirin and Minamitsu, “among the kidnappers. Now, I have good reason to believe the lot of you innocent, so I am quite confident they’ve impersonated at least you three, and very likely more.”

They exchanged looks between one another. A mix of unease at the implications of what I said, and suspicion of my sincerity, meandered between them. Then Minamitsu waved her hand and dropped to a casual, cross-legged sit. “I take it that’s why you got us all together, ain’t it?”

I nodded. “As the victims of this scheme, you all have the right to know.” I fondled my shaku and took a deep breath. Futo’s outbursts had soured our encounter, but I was sure I could still bring them all where I wanted. “And, naturally, as we’ve all a shared enemy, it’s only in our interest to devote ourselves entirely to their defeat.”

Ichirin slowly nodded, resting a fist against her chin. “We’re already trying to bring them down. But your help here,” she glanced out to the women beside me, “if they can be relied on, would be greatly appreciated.”

Tojiko frowned, annoyed that they questioned her reliability. Futo clenched her hands into fists. And just like that, my vision of our easy unity sha-

“Oh, there you all are.”

Byakuren stepped gingerly into the room behind her own followers. Her eyes narrowed as they fell on me. “I don’t recall organizing a meeting here, dear. Would you care to explain what my followers are doing here?”

I snorted, then cast both arms out to my sides, gesturing to grandly over Tojiko and Futo. “To receive my aid, of course!”

Concern-and some mounting frustration-rose in both of them, but I had to get to my point quickly. We had to come to our decision quickly. “They all had to be informed of the shapeshifters’ plot, darling. I dared not wait for your business to conclude before preparing for our next steps. Speaking of, how is she?”

Here, Byakuren sighed. “She’s… recovering. She refused to say why, but confessed that she went to the… place, of her own accord. It was only there she was accosted.”

I leaned back, rubbing my chin. “I… worry about her, darling. Not just her wellbeing, but her loyalty, too. Her evasiv-”

“She’s a victim, Miko. We can spare some degree of trust, can’t we?”


We both snapped our eyes to the source of the outburst. Futo’s flushed face.

“She’s a youkai. And, and she could be one of these ‘shapeshifters,’ herself!” She rose to her feet and crossed her arms. “We must strike at their foul heart this very moment! Cut the wickedness out at the roots!”

“A ‘youkai’?” Ichirin beat a fist on the floor. “Is that all that matters to you?” She turned aside, toward Byakuren. “Dare we even bother housing someone with such a short temper as this?”

Minamitsu shook her head. “She’s wrongheaded, but her heart’s in the right place, at least. If we’ve got even a clue about the perpetrator, we oughta strike them where it hurts. Worry about the details later.”

Shou, meanwhile, just wrung her hands. “The person Byakuren’s with. Was she one of the victims?”

I narrowed my eyes. Did Byakuren already tell her or… no. She didn’t. Was Shou eavesdropping? Did she happen to wander by at the right time?? “Yes, she was. She says her name’s Toko.”

Shou closed her eyes, her lips squirming. “Oh, dear. I had hoped it would be someone else.” She turned her eyes to Ichirin before returning her steady gaze back to me. “She’s the regular we talked about yesterday. If she’s the only one to return, then the rumors of us snatching up human disciples… well, it won’t look very good.”

I frowned. Morale in this temple appeared to be circling the drain. I needed to do something about that, quickly. I barely needed listen to the desires in the room to hear-one of them felt odd.

One that sought to avoid our attention. One that preferred not to even be here, but had to. In order to watch over someone they saw as a difficult, childish charge.

Lurking, just behind Byakuren, was one last, diminutive figure. Nazrin. Good. She should be here t-wait.

She might be able to sniff Byakuren’s lost scroll out. But… would that be wise? If it lead to the heart of our enemy’s territory, would we not just walk ourselves back into the trap? But then, dared we keep going with our most powerful ally so hobbled?

The temple still needed protection, especially now that the festival loomed close. And certainly, its denial seemed a likely goal for our enemies. A direct strike, perhaps, was more feasible now, with more people mustered.

But a peek through one window told me the sun was not terribly far from setting. The festival hung close, ensuring a prime opportunity for the shapeshifters to strike, if we emptied the temple’s best women.

[ ] March into the village, look for Mamizou. If we were fast enough, we might still be able to make it back in time.

[ ] Rally around the temple and hold the festival. We’d brace ourselves for their next move.

[ ] Pull my disciples out, alongside Nazrin, and look for Byakuren’s scroll. The rest should handle it fine without me.

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[X] Pull my disciples out, alongside Nazrin, and look for Byakuren’s scroll. The rest should handle it fine without me.

Well, we brought them all the way here, we might as well use them. I feel like Miko would prefer something more proactive than just preparing for a festival and waiting for trouble. If Mamizou is out plotting our doom, she is likely not in the village. That leaves the search. We will have to track the shapeshifters down, and getting the scroll back is a good plus.

And in addition, keeping our disciples (especially Futo) out of the Myouren temple for the time being should reduce tensions (and fires).
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[X] Pull my disciples out, alongside Nazrin, and look for Byakuren’s scroll. The rest should handle it fine without me.
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Maybe we should discuss with the others how we're going to quickly differentiate one another from the shapeshifters, especially in the case of a confrontation? Tojiko has lightning, Futo has plate-omancy, Ichirin has Unzan, and Murasa has water and anchors, but with the others might be harder to tell from a quick glance whether or not they are shapeshifters.
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[x] Pull my disciples out, alongside Nazrin, and look for Byakuren’s scroll. The rest should handle it fine without me.

I planted my hands on my knees and rolled my shoulders. “Futo, Tojiko. We’re going to save this temple.”

Futo sputtered. “Nay, I refuse! What nonsense thinketh you now?”

Tojiko uttered a vaguely disagreeable murmur.

I shook my head as I rose to my feet and leveled my gaze with Byakuren’s own wary stare. “Humans have disappeared, and the very villains who took them away stole my-” I flinched. I stood before Tojiko here, but also before Byakuren’s own disciples, “-wife’s prized artifact, seeking to cripple one of their greatest foes.” Tojiko huffed, but I continued on. “We will steal it back. With the might of our faith, we’ll do what these Buddhists failed to! We’ll corner those scoundrels, rescue the victims, and-!”

Shou groaned. “We’re right here, you know. You called us here, yourself!”

I sighed, but Ichirin piped up first. Her gaze snapped to Byakuren, behind her. “They stole what? Lady Byakuren, what did they take? Do we need to get it-”

Byakuren shook her head and stepped past her. “The sorcerer’s sutra scroll.”

Ichirin gasped, Shou’s eyes widened and her jaw fell slack, and Minamitsu just stared at Byakuren for a good few seconds. Byakuren gave them a moment to take it in as she glanced briefly to Tojiko, then leveled her eyes firmly on me. “But we lost track of the thieves, who’ve left precious little clues for where they could have taken it. Unless you’ve been hiding something, dear.”

I chuckled. “Who, me? No, no.” But my eyes slid past her, to Nazrin, hovering just behind the door. “I am simply considering the resources that your temple has at its disposal. Especially the cute little mouse hiding behind you.”

Byakuren flinched, glancing behind her. Nazrin’s own eyes narrowed, but she turned her head up and strutted into the room. “You expect me to work for you?”

I shook my head, smiling. “I wouldn’t see it that way. Your master is in trouble, she needs-”

She groaned. “Shou’s fine. Byakuren is the one in trouble.”

I straightened my back, flushing slightly. “Your master’s master, then.”

She rolled her eyes as she strode up to stare me d-to stare up at me.. “She’s perfectly capable of handling problems herself. She’ll be fine.”

I scowled, irritated at how easily this rat had muddied my plans. So, I took a moment to more carefully listen to her heart. Comfort, ease, convenience… all common desires. She exhibited far milder desires or ambitions that I’d have expected, so just what could I hope to use to smooth this ov… there. A need for recognition, for fame and praise.

I flipped my shaku out and stroked it with my left hand. “I’m afraid not, Nazrin. She needs your help. Her entire temple might just collapse, unless you lend us a hand.” A bit of hyperbole, perhaps. But not terribly far from the truth.

Her eyes narrowed, but she turned half her gaze to Byakuren. “Hey, Byakuren. Is she telling the truth?”

Byakuren pouted. “Our temple would surely not collapse!” But she then closed her eyes. “But, it’s true that we’re in a difficult position. Without my scroll, my ability to protect our temple will be severely limited. If they were to strike while we’re vulnerable…”

Nazrin scoffed, but turned back to the hall. “Alright, alright. Bishamonten’s gonna get pissed if anything happens to his avatar, anyway. I’ll get my rods. See you at the front gate.”

I gestured to my two followers, then strode toward that same door, myself. But Byakuren clapped a hand on my shoulder as I passed her. She breathed across my earmuff. Her voice came to me low and heavy with worry. “We just barely slipped out of their grasp, last time. If you get yourself caught, this time…”

I smirked as I brushed her hand off. “I’ll be sure to pull out before anything gets too dicey, I promise.”

She huffed, but answered with a slow nod and pulled back. “Alright, then. Ichirin, Minamitsu, Shou. We’ll see to it that nothing befalls our temple this evening, won’t we?”

Minamitsu pumped a fist in the air. “Yeah, we’ll kick any intruder’s butt, if they dare show their face!”

Ichirin pounded a fist into her palm. “We’ll show them our wrath.”

Shou nodded, planting her hands on her hips. “You can trust us.”

Barely audible, Nazrin’s voice rang out from the hall. “Don’t screw this up, master!”

Shou deflated, but Futo walked up behind me-giving Byakuren and her disciples a wide berth-and Tojiko floated alongside me. As we stepped out into the halls, ourselves, Futo lifted herself to her tiptoes and whispered into my ear.

“You plan to steal the scroll for ourselves, dost you not? How wilst we fool the rat, should she linger?”

I groaned, but leaned back to make her whispering easier. “We need her help, Futo. The kidnappers have proven to be more than I can handle on my own.”

She clicked her tongue. “She could be the mastermind, still. You wouldst the power lay right back in her lap!”

I held my shaku to my lips as I narrowed my eyes. “They took it away from her! What point would there be to do that?”

She finally turned away, herself, raising her voice back to conversational level. “She yet might be fooling you, crown prince!.”

Tojiko snorted. “Byakuren’s not smart enough for that level of deception, Futo. That’s probably how she lost the stupid thing in the first place.”

Futo pouted, but turned her gaze forward and kept marching. After a few turns, we found ourselves out on the front steps, where Nazrin held each rod parallel to the ground and shifted them from side to side. She barely glanced over her shoulder before returning to them. “Good, you’re here. I’ll be busy doing the real work, so I want you lot paying attention for any trouble..”

Indeed, she wanted us looking out for signs of trouble. But more precisely, she wanted us to bail her out, if any such trouble came.

Futo huffed. “We art noble Taoist hermits, not ‘you lot’!”

Tojiko sighed. “Fine, fine. Rest assured, so long as you do your part, we’ll do ours.”

I held back, resting my shaku against my chin as I watched her work. After a moment, she lowered her rods, collected both into her left arm, then lifted her necklace. It twinkled a moment, then she set it back down. Once it did, her tail lowered, settling the basket it carried on the ground. The mouse inside that then climbed out. She glanced briefly to it. “Get the rest and set up a watch.”

The mouse scurried off, just before Nazrin’s gaze turned back toward us. “I’ve got a bead. My mice will scout for trouble, so follow me and cover my ass the second you hear any squeaking.” She huffed, then marched forward.

I strode up behind her, followed by my two companions. Futo muttered behind me. “I care not for her attitude, crown prince. We ought do away with her before mine patience is tested.”

I tapped her shoulder. “Focus on the sights and sounds.” As I spoke, I glanced Tojiko’s way to suggest she listen as well. “The unwary make easy prey for our enemies.”

Futo scoffed, thrusting her hands out and, just barely, eeking her fingers past her oversized sleeves. “It mattereth not, crown prince. Such cowardly scoundrels wilt fall to mine powers, no matter how sneaky!”

Tojiko, however, turned her gaze to the trees as we reached the base of the temple’s stone steps. I took a deep breath, glancing across them, myself. “Then, please, at least be sure to listen to my commands and obey quickly, if something does happen.”

Futo now hung her head, letting out a petulant groan. “So be it, crown prince. But I am here, now. There is nothing you ought worry about!”

I sighed. “Of course, of course.”

A few moments of quiet followed as we marched not behind the temple, where the kidnapping happened, but away from it entirely. Toward… the human village, it seemed. I gripped my shaku tighter. Save some prank on Nazrin’s part, the kidnappers seemed to have hidden this prize of theirs in or near the very territory that most feared their operations.

I twisted my gaze this way and that, periodically lifting my earmuffs. But even were the villains right on top of us, I was sure I would miss them. Their desires were difficult to hear when one or two others were by me. Now, I had three and, as the village walls grew closer, the din within them grew louder.

We eventually reached the walls, but turned away from the path leading to the main gate. As we did, fear crept into Nazrin’s heart. Were she not absorbed in her chief skill, I was sure she would have grown visibly tense or cautious.

In the end, we came out to a road trailing out of a back gate. But even then, it was not the gate we turned to, but the road extending out from it. From there, we found ourselves coming up on a wide, crude structure of wooden walls and a similar ceiling - one done more in the bland western style of a single flat slope, utterly lacking any class or adornment.

As we came upon it, I ran my fingers along the wall. It lacked the sheen of fresh construction, but felt quite firm and smooth. Someone had been taking care of it. I lifted my earmuffs again and, this time, heard… something. An almost imperceptible fuzziness just beneath the audible desires. Either something was here, or something about this place interfered with my hearing more completely.

Nazrin stopped just a pace or two away from the structure, glancing back to us. “It’s in there, I’m sure of it.”

My eyes narrowed. “Is there anyone in there?”

She snorted. “Shouldn’t you already know, oh perceptive prince?” She then shook her head. “Regardless, there’s no windows, no back doors, and I’m not risking my mice anywhere they can’t see ahead of themselves.”

I sighed in disappointment, but studied the plain wooden walls, myself. I’d heard neither anomalous desires nor squeaking yet, so we would surely have some time left to spend in extracting the treasure, but their preparedness for our first strike left me terribly wary about this next one. Despite my profound hearing, I couldn’t be certain if the warehouse itself was empty and would need to be prepared for anything we might encounter, so I…

[ ] Sent Futo in first, armed and ready. If we faced any swarms, the threat alone of burning it down around them should hold them at bay.

[ ] Had Tojiko charge up a bolt and see if anything charged or scattered. Discovering them while safely outside would be worth any loss to our element of surprise.

[ ] Called my companions a few paces away and crept up to the door. If I listened carefully enough, I would surely hear any hiding thieves.

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[X] Called my companions a few paces away and crept up to the door. If I listened carefully enough, I would surely hear any hiding thieves.
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If the scroll is in there, the doorway is definitely trapped. Even if it isn't trapped, they're still forced to funnel through the one entrance the enemy expects them the most.

Can Tojiko phase through the roof to scout the room? Can Miko and Futo do like the Kool-Aid Man and dynamic entry through the wooden walls? Because a breach in unexpected places would most likely take the enemies by surprise.
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A breach would be possible, but there'd be no real way to know what's on the other side until said breach is complete, which could lead to unwanted damage or only awkward access into the building. Any method would either be slow enough to be noticed before its done, or destructive enough to cause potentially substantial collateral damage and draw attention as soon as it's complete.

Tojiko, sadly, cannot phase through the wall. (It's quite possible I've screwed this detail up in previous posts, so please forgive me if I have.)

This isn't to say it can't be done. Only that these factors will need to be considered before going through with it.
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Futo might have enough experience regarding fiery demolition to know which portions could be blasted through without compromising the structural integrity of the warehouse. The remaining question would be who'll enter through the door. For my actual vote...

[X] Called my companions a few paces away and crept up to the door. If I listened carefully enough, I would surely hear any hiding thieves.

Listening seems like a free action, unless they fumble horribly.
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[X] Called my companions a few paces away and crept up to the door. If I listened carefully enough, I would surely hear any hiding thieves.

Fumbling? The Crown Prince? Never. A certain excitable individual on the other hand...
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Damn it. I have the update roughed in, but school's crazy again, so this one is still at least another half a week to a week away. So I'm just dropping this here to let you all know that the update's coming, but it will definitely be late.
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[x] Called my companions a few paces away and crept up to the door. If I listened carefully enough, I would surely hear any hiding thieves.

I tapped my fingers at the end of their final pass along the wall, then cast them out, toward the road. “Step back, I need to listen.”

Futo scowled. “If this doth be as serious as you say, then we surely ought go in first!” Tojiko, however, nodded. She also nudged Futo away. Nazrin shrugged and shuffled back with them while I turned to the door. Taking a slow, quiet breath once they’d stepped far enough back-both Futo and Tojiko were familiar enough with me to know how much distance I’d need-I stashed my shaku and gently lifted my earmuffs off my head.

It took a few seconds to filter out Futo’s burning desires, Tojiko’s stunning agitation, and Nazrin’s skittering pride, but when I did…

Fear. Almost immediately, I heard a quiet worry lingering around the warehouse. A desire to leave it. Even a concern for some lover or two. But nothing about keeping intruders at bay, or hiding secrets, or… no sign of thief or perpetrator that my ears could detect, no matter how carefully I listened. I took a quick glance back to my companions.

They watched me, both Tojiko and Futo ready-eager, even-to jump in on this with me. One, to get the annoying job done sooner. The other, to… wreak havoc on the villainous youkai. I held a steadying hand out to signal they continue to hold their distance. In response, Tojiko provided Futo with a steadying hand to physically hold her back.

I crept my fingers around the door. The thieves-the kidnappers-masked their desires well, but barring some yet subtler ones hiding here, I still should have heard them by now. Instead, all I heard were what sounded just like their victims. There was a small lock there, but the slightest nudge showed it to be loose. Actually, on closer inspection, the lock seemed nonfunctional..

So, I took a deep breath and slid the door inch by inch aside.

Dust wafted out as my eyes found piles upon piles of crates, sacks, and blankets. It would take ages to sift through this all, and those desires… somewhere up ahead. Certainly beyond the nearest crates. But if someone else had managed to hide their desires entirely…

I glanced to Nazrin and gestured into the building. She scowled. I scowled back, gesturing to the now-wide gap between the door and its frame. She huffed, but crept up to me and all but hissed into my ear. “What did I just say? It’s dangerous in there!”

I held my gaze firm as I answered. “You just needed them to be able to see ahead, did you not? I’ve granted them the needed vision.”

She shook her head, flexing her hands over her rods, then stabbed one into the open space. “It’s full of boxes. Their vision would still be crap.”

I answered with a daringly casual response - a shrug. “But the forest isn’t a problem for them, is it?”

“There’s always somewhere to run in the forest. If this door closes, they’ll be trapped!”

Now, I brought a long-suffering sigh to spare, instead. She raised a good point, of sorts. I preferred not to let myself be trapped, either. So I waved my companions over. Futo sprinted up to me, but Tojiko floated over more sedately, her eyes constantly scanned around her. I whispered to them, next. “Guard the door. Make certain no one can close it until we’re out.”

Futo uttered a low groan, but Tojiko nodded. Concern and frustration did linger even in her eyes, however. “Don’t let yourself get caught by anything, Miko.”

I nodded, then turned to Nazrin, who answered by muttering something in a rather unkind tone. But she then cast her rod again into the warehouse.

To the sound of low chitters, a few mice slipped out from the bushes and scurried into the structure. She stepped toward the building herself as they filtered in.

I waited a few seconds but, in the absence of any clear threats, crept in behind them. My eyes flitted from one stack to another, from the top of one dusty crate to the…

Dusty. The warehouse was not decrepit, but it was not terribly-well attended, either. If not for the desires-the fears-lurking so close, I might have guessed it to be entirely abandoned - if only somewhat recently. But no, it must have been in use. If there was dust, I should be able to see gaps in it somewhere, or handprints. I studied the boxes in more detail as Nazrin stepped in behind me.

The volume of her desires, as she came close, bore down on me, so I snapped my earmuffs back on. I stepped slowly, cautiously, between the crates. If anyone intended to hide from me, it would be far easier now with Nazrin so close, but I was sure her mice would warn me, first. Through their panic, if nothing else. But as I walked, something else caught my eye. Streaks of clear, shiny wood amid the dust. And… scratches on a few boxes, near those streaks.

A fight, a scuffle? Or… violent cargo? I peeked my head up and beckoned Nazrin over. It took a few seconds for her to notice, then another for her to roll her eyes. But she obediently came up and, when I pointed the marks out, her eyes narrowed.

Her voice came out hushed as she studied them. “Whatever this is, this isn’t the scroll, Miko.”

I nodded, slightly. “No, but there’s something out of place here. And…” I turned my eyes up to hers. “Where in here, exactly, is the scroll, anyway?”

She uttered a clipped sigh, then stabbed a rod at the far wall. “There. But there’s no door but the one we came in from - my mice all agree on that.”

I squeezed my shaku between my fingers. “Do you have anything else?”

She shrugged. “People have been here recently. Their smell is all over the place. Humans and-”

My eyes shot up. “Tanuki?”

She scowled back. “-and youkai.” She then shook her head. “But yeah, there’s definitely some tanuki in the mix. Their scent’s quite strong. Easy for us to pick out.”

I hummed, glancing again at the marks. The tracks wandered around the warehouse, making their origin far muddier than any tanuki scent. Nazrin wandered off as I studied further. The drag marks and scrapes followed no clear, singular path, but as I studied them, I found they clustered more and more together around one part of…

“Over here, Miko.”

I flinched, but barely had to shift my gaze to find Nazrin staring down a single large, heavy crate, positioned against the wall, amid a great cluster of those marks. Of course. A backroom hidden behind the featureless mess of wooden packaging.

I stepped toward it, only to flinch as I heard a new des-no, not a desire. Chittering. Squeaking. Somewhere outside the warehouse. I snapped my gaze to Nazrin, who stared back in confusion, only to jolt to attention a second later. Her eyes narrowed and she spun around. “Here they come. Show me what you’re good for, prince.”

Bail me out of this mess.

I took a slow, cautious breath. “What are they reporting?”

Nazrin gripped her rods. “A half-dozen youkai-Tanuki, by the smell-at least. But there’s more movement further out. I… don’t know how many more, but I’m expecting you lot to do your jobs.”

I set my teeth. We’d just found our-almost found our treasure! I just needed a few more seconds! But even in the tiny window that I pondered, I already saw the mice scurrying into a few sparse braids, converging on the front door - fleeing the warehouse.

And with barely a single glance to me, Nazrin started making her way out, too. With such precious little time - and little faith from the damn rat, I would…

[ ] Martial Tojiko and Futo. Between their fire and lightning, they should easily keep the enemy at bay.

[ ] Charge out myself, counting on Futo and Tojiko to, with Nazrin’s help, retrieve our prize. They could destroy the crate faster than I could move it.

[ ] Pull out. Though I’d return empty-handed, I would not risk my disciples on this quest.

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[X] Martial Tojiko and Futo. Between their fire and lightning, they should easily keep the enemy at bay.

Pulling out and fleeing at the first sign of resistance is both cowardice unbefitting a prince and counter to all of our goals. So lets not do that. Charging out ourselves would certainly be dramatic and daring, but seems a misuse of our resources. Miko's hearing will be best for helping find the captives (and checking for imposters among them).

Meanwhile, we brought Tojiko and Futo here to be some muscle. We should let them do just that. They can hold off some low rank tanuki, if not defeat them outright, while we retrieve the scroll and find the missing people.
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[X] Martial Tojiko and Futo. Between their fire and lightning, they should easily keep the enemy at bay.

Plans should be put to practice until they go awry. So far, nothing has been outside of expectations. Even better, the enemy have set a single defined point for us to defend. Two wide range magic types should be able to hold one door.
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[X] Martial Tojiko and Futo. Between their fire and lightning, they should easily keep the enemy at bay.

"The drag marks and scrapes followed no clear, singular path, but as I studied them, I found they clustered more and more together around one part of…" - Is it a hidden entryway? With how many boxes there are in the warehouse blocking line of sight and how hasty Nazrin was with the scouting, there is a chance that Futo and Tojiko might have to defend us from multiple directions.

We should also plan an exit strategy in case we ever get cornered away from the main entrance. Against the combined might of an electric phantom, a plate-wielding pyromaniac, and a grossly incandescent crown prince, those damn walls wood not stand a chance. Oh, and the tanuki too I guess.
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[x] Martial Tojiko and Futo. Between their fire and lightning, they should easily keep the enemy at bay.

I took a deep breath. “Tojiko, Futo, they’re coming! Hold them off until I have the scroll!”

Futo answered first. “Yea, crown prince! I wilt vanquish them at once!”

Tojiko followed. “Just don’t keep us waiting!”
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My misty legs trailing out behind me, I scowled through the trees before us, at the doppelgangers hiding behind them. Nazrin, Shou, Yoshika, that damn prince, and… my eyes flared wide in rage as I spotted a bastard clad in my own face and elegant green dress, darting out toward us. I brought down another deafening lightning strike on her. The terrified wail and panicked retreat brought a thin smile to my lips, even if it came in my own voice.

A series of plates crashed across a tree to my right, splintering into a million pieces as they sent ‘Sanae’ retreating. Wait, her? Everyone else belonged either to our temple or that thieving monk’s temple. So why would she be here? Regardless, Futo huffed. “Too many, they, art, Tojiko.” She then snapped free a torch, which she promptly lit. “We must-”

“You’ll light the whole damn forest on fire, Futo! We’re doing fine. And, look.” I gestured out to the scene before us, where the doppelgangers all hid behind trees. “We need not vanquish them. Just keep them at bay.”

Futo ground her teeth. “And, thy, thunder strikes, wilt not, spark, a fire?” She scanned the cowering figures, herself. “Youkai, they all doth be. Foul, kidnapping youkai, even.”

I narrowed my eyes, then snapped a smaller spray of sparks at one who ventured a bit too close. “I am exercising caution, Futo. I won’t let even the tiniest flame spread.”

“Control, the spread?” Futo huffed, then cracked a wide, lopsided grin. “Well, that can I do, too.”

I rolled my eyes, utterly unsurprised at her flippant response, and returned my focus to the figures before me. More cracks of booming thunder rang out from judiciously placed lightning strikes. All until, in horrible realization, I snapped my gaze back to her. “Wait, Futo!”
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“Futo, you idiot!”

So the crown prince’s noisy companion thus whined. Yet no heed did I pay her, for mine plan hadst already blossomed around me. Most assuredly, the fire did encroach near her, but these wicked youkai cowered before it. “The flames be yet under mine control!” I did cry out, as much in exultation as in mine defense. All needed I do was to manage the flow of fortunes and energies. With those demons belayed by such great flames-

“If you have it under control,” Tojiko seethed, “you could surely at least keep it away from me.”

I did scoff and shake mine head. “Thou moveth about free of legs, yet thou canst not fly? Move thy lazy tendrils away should it lap at thee.” I bothered not with waiting for her answer as I shewed the filthy kidnappers mine ferocious, eager grin and torch. I savored the rich, hearty scent of smoke and embers. Yea, I did dare the foul imitators of mine elegant visage, or that of the glorious prince, to advance yet a single step toward me.

The cowardly lot did no such thing, so I knew I now could advance upon th-

Tojiko’s pestering fist did bop me about the back of mine scalp. “Futo, it’s almost reached the warehouse.”

I did blink. I did even turn about to expose her tri… Oh. Mine flames did encroach upon it. Perhaps I had allowed mineself overmuch liberty, this time.
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[x] Martial Tojiko and Futo. Between their fire and lightning, they should easily keep the enemy at bay.

I took a deep breath. “Tojiko, Futo, they’re coming! Hold them off until I have the scroll!”

Futo answered first. “Yea, crown prince! I wilt vanquish them at once!”

Tojiko followed. “Just don’t keep us waiting!”

I nodded. With that out of the way, I turned my attention to the crate, calling out to Nazrin next. “Have faith in us, little mouse. I can promise your safety, but only if you stay close by!”

Nazrin groaned. “Don’t call me-”

A violent thunderclap blasted down, somewhere outside the warehouse. Nazrin yelped, then scrambled back toward me. “Alright, fine. I’m staying. Someone needs to keep an eye on you, anyway.”

I chuckled, planting my hands against the crate. “Of course, Nazrin. I wouldn’t dream of making you wait.” I then pu… damn it. There were more crates to its left and the wall behind it. I positioned myself to its right, rolled my shoulders, and heaved backward. I uttered a long, heavy grunt, followed soon by a strained gasp. This thing was heavy.

I glanced back to Nazrin, who rolled her eyes. “What? You’re not making me wait, are you?”

I huffed. “Come, Nazrin. Please, help me haul this thing.”

Nazrin groaned, folding her arms over her chest. “What? Your royal arms are too dainty for this kind of work?”

I hissed, then strained again. A loud scrape sounded as I dragged the crate a few inches back. Then, sweating and panting, I shook my head. “I… can manage, eventually. But if you want to escape quickly, I’ll need your help.”

Her eyes narrowed at that remark. Then, she clicked her tongue and settled herself against the opposite side. “Not calling me little anymore, now that ya need my muscles, huh?” Annoyance at the task simmered within her, even as she planted her fingers in that gap and braced herself against it from the side. “Alright, fine. Now, push, prince!”

A single clear, panicked cry penetrated the warehouse walls as we worked. One distressingly familiar to me.

“Wait, Futo!”

But whatever nonsense Tojiko hoped to prevent, she would need to do so alone. Even with Nazrin’s help, it took a good several minutes of hard pushing and shoving to force the crate even a foot aside.

Before long, I collapsed against the crates behind me, while Nazrin rested against the ones once next to that monster of wood and supply. Sweat poured down my royal skin as I took a breath.

Nazrin groaned, peering around her resting perch to where we’d dragged the behemoth from. “Well, what do you know?” A tired smirk crept over her face. “Looks like I was right. We’ve got a door back here, M-”

A series of terrified wails poured to my ears from outside, jerking both of our attentions to the door, where a crackling orange glow poured back to us. Fire.

Nazrin scrambled to her feet and I was quick to follow. Her gaze tore from me to the entrance and back, all while I raced around the crate. Even as I did, a single cry rose above all the rest.

“Futo, you idiot!”

“The flames be yet under mine control!”

A few panicked wails came, as I handled the inner door, from behind it. The commotion seemed to inspire fear in more than the villains. So, I shoved that door aside to find… a few people, as bound and gagged as the rabbit.

Three women and two men. A pair of cat ears drooped over one man’s hair, while one of the women had unusually long, pointed ears. Dirt and scratches could be seen on their clothes, indicating some struggle. All hunched under a desk. A desk with only a few loose books and papers on it. Perhaps some office for whoever managed the warehouse’s inventory, or its workers. Regardless, I cleared my throat as I stepped up to them.

“Rest easy, poor men and maidens, for your savior has arrived!”

A mix of muffled murmurs greeted me. Eyes brightened at my sight, but some lowered soon after. Suspicion rose among them - some that had my own sinister intentions. Others, that I was just another doppelganger. Smoke seeped in from behind. I cast a short glare through the door, then shook my head and dropped to my knees, grasping my sword. “Now, do close your eyes, lest my blade blind you.”

In truth, I needed not ignite the blade’s light to work, but I refused to let my most precious artifact be seen without proper pomp and drama. Without a proper display of power and beauty! …Even if I was using it merely to cut rope.

Some of them clenched their eyes dutifully shut, but others only widened theirs. Fear poured out, that I would cut them. I scowled at their lack of faith, but shook my head. Grabbing the ankles of the nearest captive - a young man who worried for his missing rabbit partner. And that she might have had some part to play in his abduction. Curious.

Regardless, I held his shins steady as I cast my eyes to the other young man and woman who still watched. “Seriously, this thing’s bright. Turn away, at least.”

The woman did, at least. The man did too… once my blade inched free of its sheath and I unleashed its burning light into the room. I moved quick, slicing clean between the legs of the man before me and severing those ropes in a single stroke. Naturally, I left not even a nick on him.

I then moved quick, admittedly manhandling him a bit as I moved up his legs, then twisted him around to get at the arms trapped behind his back. As he stumbled free, I moved to the woman next to him. And as the others heard the sounds of their peers moving more freely, of them tearing their own gags off, they grew calmer as well. More trusting, if only provisionally.

Soon enough, I had them all torn free and my sword safely sheathed back in its scabbard. But I did not wait for the last gag or two to be yanked off before rising to my feet and scrambling through the rest of the room. Smoke now… it was thinner now, actually. Perhaps Futo was right.

Still, I heard the fatigue slipping into my companions - desires to rest back at my senkai, or to read pulp novels at the mausoleum. I just needed, needed… I heard a click, then turned to a see a Nazrin, hunched over a far corner. She turned to lift a glowing, multicolored scroll from the box, smirking back at me. “So busy playing hero you forgot what you came here for, didn’t you?”

I flushed, but turned my head aside and cast my shaku out to the door and-she now scurried to the door and slipped past me..

I turned and marched through the door myself and strode out of the room, beckoning the captives to follow. “Come, young men and women. You will find shelter at Myouren Temple!”

The four bundles of desires behind me twisted around themselves at that. They all… fretted about returning there.

One of the women rose first behind me. “Right, um, right away!”

The second man I had released-the one adorned with cat ears-followed suit. The woman’s boyfriend, the way their desires intermingled. “We’re right behind you.”

A surprisingly tepid cheer followed, then the voice of the first man I’d unbound. “Um, has anyone seen Toko around?”

I twitched, but kept marching. “I intercepted her captors already. She’ll be back at the temple. Now, let’s move!”

A low murmur rose, but they followed my lead as I marched out through the warehouse, but several of them considered fleeing once we got far enough away. I did not have time for nuance here, so I…

[ ] Insisted that if they could not trust the Buddhists, they could at least trust me.

[ ] Took them to my senkai first, instead. It would be safer for them anyway, so long as Tojiko and Futo could hold out just a little longer.

[ ] I took a moment to scrutinize them. Just what had them so afraid?

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[X ] I took a moment to scrutinize them. Just what had them so afraid?

Alright voters, it is time to finally look into this Toko matter. Her answers were super sketchy at the temple. Like: "I, um, I’m from… around." She was scared of the people rescuing her. And now this bunch is asking about her.

And they are acting funny too. Like Toko the bunny was, they are scared of the temple and not that excited about being rescued. And worse, someone is missing. As in, "Three women and two men" were present when Miko entered the room. But now she hears "The four bundles of desires". We lost track of someone in this short time span.

Something is very wrong and we need to look into it before its too late. Never can be sure of anyone with shapeshifters about.
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[x ] I took a moment to scrutinize them. Just what had them so afraid?
I'll bite at the mystery, >>43491 convinced me.
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[X] I took a moment to scrutinize them. Just what had them so afraid?

We also need to remember that the Crown Prince's hearing is not entirely infallible. Tojiko had masked her desires after her lesson with Byakuren, and even Futo's doppelgangers managed to make their desires appear as something different.
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[x] I took a moment to scrutinize them. Just what had them so afraid?

So I slowed my pace as I approached the warehouse entrance, anyway. Something smelled rotten. Something prickled at me. I listened again to the desires behind me. Fear of being caught again by the intruders, fear of reporting back to the temple. Four bundles, in total.

I must have lost someone already. But-how? This was the only exit! I glanced back over my shoulder to see who it…

Two men, three women. Five in total. I still heard only four. Outside, the desires of my companions grew ever clearer. Nazrin had stopped not far from the warehouse, it seemed. She sought still to impress myself and my companions, but also to hide behind us. Our enemies clearly still lingered outside. Time grew tight, but I dared not move on until I knew why I heard so little.

I stopped at the door and spun on my heel. “How did you all get here, anyway?”

One man yipped, another flinched. A woman held stone-still, one shuddered, one slumped. All of them wanted to defer that answer. But whatever the answer was, it had to do with rendezvouses. For all four. Illicit meetings. Secret trysts.

The cat-eared man coughed. He was a somewhat older sort, and a bit chubbier than Toko’s lover. He stepped close, attempting to move past me. “Uh, ma’am, shouldn’t we be escaping?”

I cleared my throat but cast my shaku out to hold him back. “Rest assured, young men and women. You are safe with me.” As I spoke, I scrutinized the bunch, paying careful attention to which desires I could pin to which person. “But I fear your trials have left one of you weakened.”

Confusion broke out at that. Their gazes wandered between one another and myself. The tubby man questioned the lover, who turned to a smaller, stockier girl, who worried about the tall, knife-eared girl, who fretted over the ratty brunette, who…

I had no idea what she wanted. So, as the fatigue of my companions grew louder in my ears, I offered a warm smile to that brunette and pulled her close. “It’s okay, young lady. I’m here for you~”

She squeaked, she squirmed in my grasp, but she did not resist my pull. My voice softened as I leaned into her ear. “Those ruffians hurt you, didn’t they? Please, let me carry you to safety.”

She stiffened, but then answered with a tiny nod. Stashing my shaku away, I scooped her into my arms and nestled her against my bosom. With her settled, I marched forth, leading my ragtag charges through the door and beyond the warehouse, to freedom!

And for all my efforts, all I won was the very faintest whiff of confusion. That, and some surprise from her peers. Spikes of worry and confusion sounded behind me, which I listened closely to. They worried about what I’d just done and why. Over just why I’d do that with this person in particular.

Not one of them worried about my attention on them, or of any hands holding them aloft.

I grinned. “Nazrin! Do you still have the scroll?”

Futo and Tojiko spun toward me. Embers wafted in the air. Burn and scorch marks littered the grounds. Nazrin had her arms crossed over her chest, the scroll held tight in her right hand. “Who do you think I am?”

I nodded, then-Tojiko leveled a dark scowl my way. “Really, Miko? We’re not even safe yet!”

I shook my head, and adjusted my grip of the poor, frightened girl. “I can hear her heart, Tojiko. She needs my help getting back home~” In truth, she needed a warden - at least until I understood why I couldn’t hear her. But I was unprepared to wrestle a live captive while surrounded by enemies and dearly hoped my friendly demeanor would keep her from bolting until we reached safety.

Tojiko growled. “I doubt that, but-”

A small spattering of bullets sailed toward us, barely intercepted by a crashing plate. Futo huffed. “Cease your idling, ye flock! Move ye your slothful backsides, lest I strike them myself!”

Smoke billowed through the air and flames crawled up nearby trees, but Futo had left a clear path back to the main roads. I cleared my throat. “You heard the woman. Move, before our enemies close in on us!”

Casting a single gentle smile back on my own cargo, I charged forward. “Rest assured, young woman, I will see you to safety.”

The others scrambled after me. Nazrin charged ahead. Futo and Tojiko took up the rear. The smoke-

“Futo, put out the damn fires!”

“Yea, yea. Already, I will do so. Thou art free to close thine jaw at any moment!”

Still, the scent of smoke faded. And the sounds of scattered bullets soon followed. This brought a faint, worrying sense of warmth to my cargo’s heart.

But as we charged on and into the main roads, even those bullets faded. Relief seeped into my companions at the familiar and safer sight, though the lingering threat of those doppelgangers tempered the security that the village normally offered. And that faint warmth disappeared from the woman I carried, replaced with something cooler, tenser.

She started to squirm in my arms, the faintest hint of agitation seeping into her heart as we moved ever further from the warehouse. And for the first time since her rescue, she spoke up. “I am fine, Miko. Let me down.”

My heart tensed at those words. I still didn’t know who this was. I didn’t know why I struggled so much to hear her heart. But that notion worried me. I… I shook my head. “Please, young maiden, it’s the duty of a saint to help all those she can. What tales would they spread of me if I left your safety half-finished?”

She huffed, and still squirmed. But she held still enough under my assurances. Futo and Tojiko kept their gazes dutifully oriented behind us to ward off any further incursions. The men and women we protected grew mercifully more relaxed as we moved, their tension bleeding away as they grew used to moving freely again and their enemies failed to appear.

But the efforts of my disciples failed to keep their gazes from slipping my way every now and then. Futo yearned to know just why I chose to carry this woman and Tojiko, well… she wished I would just drop her on her ass. A crude and inappropriate desire which I pointedly ignored as we marched on.

As we approached the temple steps, however, the strange woman in my arms calmed down. Her movements stilled, even as my arms grew weary. I pulled to a stop at their base to catch my breath. Some sense of relaxation now settled into her heart. A sense of comfort. Of security.

Even as the agitation rose amongst the rest.

As my arms reached their limit and Nazrin marched up the steps with Byakuren’s scroll, I set the woman down on her feet and took a step back. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I glanced back to the rest. Four captives freed and a scroll recovered. A downright stellar haul, if I dared say so myself. So I…

A single whisper of a desire reached my ears as the ratty woman slipped forward. For the scroll. I snapped my gaze back to see her advancing up the stairs. Other desires quickly drowned it out, however. A fresh wave of agitation-mixed with some panic-poured down from the temple. A final-hour rush to prepare the temple for its festival.

All while the men and women before me debated whether to stay or take their-actually, while they clustered close to us. They dared not step one foot into the wilderness, despite their trepidations about myself and Byakuren’s temple. They would need my leadership. As might the temple. And that woman advancing toward the temple - what did she want and why did she find both the warehouse and this temple more comfortable than the roads?

This situation demanded quick, decisive leadership, so I…

[ ] Assigned my companions to usher the captives into the temple while I sought out Byakuren.

[ ] Personally lead the captives to the temple, discharging my companions to avoid further complications.

[ ] Left the captives in my companions’ capable hands while I pursued that mystery woman. She was too suspicious to let loose.

[ ] Sicced my companions on that woman while I charged into the temple. Something was fishy and I needed to know what.

Votes not guaranteed after this time:
Time remaining: ::Timer ended at: 2022/06/11 (Sat) 19:00

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[X] Left the captives in my companions’ capable hands while I pursued that mystery woman. She was too suspicious to let loose.

Well, this woman continues to grow more suspicious. And really, only Miko's special hearing is reliable to get insight into exactly why. She looks normal enough on the outside. If she is after that scroll, we cannot let her out of our sight. Though maybe we can stay out of her sight and see what she tries to do.

The rest of them can enjoy the festival and whatnot, under the care of our definitely competent and certainly not fire-starting companions.
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[X] Sicced my companions on that woman while I charged into the temple. Something was fishy and I needed to know what.

While Nazrin can be trusted, perhaps we ought to escort her, lest she gets jumped before reaching Byakuren. Getting the scroll back to its owner should be our top priority, since in combat she's severly limited without it.

Other than mystery-desires woman, which needs keeping tabs on, the other captives can be left to do whatever they want; they're probably no threat.
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[x] Left the captives in my companions’ capable hands while I pursued that mystery woman. She was too suspicious to let loose.

I thrust a firm, bold hand aside, fluttering my cape aside with the motion. “Tojiko, Futo, see that these people are escorted safely to the temple. I have other business to address!”

“Yea! We shall cast them to their own kind!” Futo huffed. She then flinched. “I-that is, we shall usher them unto the den of y-”

“We’ll take care of them, Miko. Move along.”

I nodded, then marched up the steps and through the doors of Byakuren’s temple, where many youkai and a smattering of humans milled about, dressed in mostly common colors and kimonos. A mix of nervousness and excitement hung in the air. Many of them carried rolls of rope, paper lanterns, food, and dishes. They called out directions, requested support, and chattered about who would come or what they’d eat. For a ragtag mess of humans and youkai, they seemed rather industrious. At least, when food and festivities were involved.

But none of them looked quite like my quarry. None of them looked quite like the woman I had taken my eyes off for but a second. And none of them seemed puzzled by any speeding madwoman, or from someone entirely vanishing from among them. I marched forward, but my eyes narrowed as my suspicion grew heavier, focused strictly on that rogue, ratty-haired woman… a heavy, rich scent wafted through the air. Freshly cooked and spiced vegetables, sizzled rice…

No, no, no! I pushed my way through the crowd, keeping my ears peeled for h… no. That wouldn’t do. Her desires were too quiet. There was no possible way to hear her amid the din, even were I right atop her. Instead, I studied the desires of everyone else, searching for any hint of her presence. Perhaps a worry about someone’s hygiene, or curiosity about a strange woman bursting through.

The lot seemed distracted by their tasks, and the desires I did catch worried more about the host of unfamiliar faces, rather than-crap. Fresh visitors had shown up early - faces that the temple residents would not immediately recognize. Who would notice her amid them? I scowled. Even the random curiosities about strange faces or unkempt figures was hard to make out among a cluster of shifting fears for the temple’s security. Fears ebbing and flowing amid… oh, a conversation. Away from the spacious and bustling chamber, I spotted one particular doorway from which the faintest pink fog could be spotted. A cloud seeking to watch over his charge without having to meet anyone, based on what reached my ears..

I blinked. His… charge. I studied the crowd again, where I found Byakuren and her closest disciples - well, Ichirin and Shou, that is. They addressed a cluster of folks standing still amid the bustling humans and youkai. Early attendees? No. Their desires spoke more to concerned citizens. Friends and family of the lost… the captives. I moved around, hoping to avoid the whole thing while I tracked this woman down, but the meeting, of sorts, had convened annoyingly near the entry hall, such that-

“…doing everything we can. In fact, Miko’s here to tell you the good news!”

I flinched, then cast my narrowed gaze back to the figure who just called me out. Byakuren, my alleged wife. I had to take a good breath to calm myself in light of her rude interruption. That woman might yet escape! But I could not disappoint the masses after that introduction. So, with but a fleeting glance back to her, I turned my eyes to the crowd, then whipped out my shaku and violently thrust it toward the halls from whence I came. And to my chagrin, a pregnant pause immediately followed as I frantically scanned the desires of Byakuren, her disciples, and her audience. Fear, disappearances, losing favor… yes, yes. The kidnappings. Byakuren sought the assurance that the rescued captives would bring! And assumed that my return meant my success, it seemed. “Fear not, indeed. For I have just now saved the men and women who had disappeared! The mastermind behind these disappearances is soon to face justice as well! Turn to the entrance, and you will find the loved ones lost, ushered to safety by my very companions!”

A low murmur rose among them. Some, thankfully, turned in the direction I had indicated and even started shuffling that way. But others were less courteous to my needs. “The mastermind?” “Are we safe, then?” “So there really is a plot?” “How will this affect your relationship?” “Who? Who is it?”

Though my face remained firm and proud, my heart pounded. I needed to be elsewhere. Or I needed to put those disciples to work in hunting this rogue down. But I could do neither with this throng hounding me. I shook my head and marched through the crowd, toward Byakuren herself. She smiled innocently as I approached, even turned her gaze away from me, back to the crowd. “There you have it. Thanks to the cooperation between our temples, even the most devious evildoers cannot succeed. So, please, continue to put your faith in us.”

I blinked, then nodded and wrapped my hand around hers. “Yes. And, now that this is resolved, I need some time with my wife. Now.”

Byakuren yelped, then turned her gaze my way. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Really, dear, now?”

I nodded, then nudged her with me, toward the crowds and the hall beyond. “Yes, darling. We have a matter to attend to.”

She took a deep breath. “Very well, then. Let’s hurry back to my room..” She turned back to the worried visitors and gave them a brief bow, raising her voice to address them. “Excuse me. We will step away for just a moment.” Then, finally, she followed me until we reached the hall. People still milled about, forcing our conversation to remain hushed as I marched forward. She scrutinized me. “Did you find my scroll?”

I answered first with an absent nod as I flicked my gaze about. “Nazrin has it. But forget about that for now. One of the captives acted suspiciously. I can barely hear her heart, but she wanted-” I gulped. Maybe this was not the time to forget about it, after all. “-the scroll. She snuck away the moment we reached the temple.”

Byakuren let out a tiny, cute squeak, then started marching faster than I. I stumbled to keep up, but she furrowed her brow as she pushed through the temple. “Nazrin came with you, didn’t she?”

I stopped to press my shaku to my chin. “She did, but she ran ahead. She seemed less than eager to wait on us.”

“She is rather impatient.” Byakuren scowled. “Let’s hope that impatience hasn’t lead to her failure.”

I tapped the shaku. “Rest easy. I won’t accept my grand rescue coming to such paltry-”

We pushed past a couple messy-haired men in hushed conversation. They whispered to one another as we passed, worried about…

I couldn’t tell. Their hearts were too quiet to hear among everyone else.

Were they another source of trouble, or was that effect spreading to innocent disciples or visitors? Something screwy was going on, but I could not tell immediately what, nor could I be at more than one place at a time. The temple couldn’t afford to split its resources more than absolutely necessary, either. I needed to act quickly and decisively.

[ ] I turned and hounded these men. Maybe it was nothing, but those quiet hearts were getting on my nerves. The temple could be left to its own labors while I interrogated them.

[ ] I kept fixed on that woman. Anything else was just a distraction, and a possibly intentional one at that. Once I had her secured, I’d worry about the scroll and other possible threats.

[ ] I abandoned my pursuit to race to Nazrin. I should hear her more easily and I had to make sure the scroll was secure. Only then would I resume the search.

[ ] I turned back to the temple’s disciples. The culprits had proven resistant to my ears, so I would lead the temple while better seekers like Nazrin and Unzan handled this task.
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[X] I abandoned my pursuit to race to Nazrin. I should hear her more easily and I had to make sure the scroll was secure. Only then would I resume the search.

I don't really like the wording on this one, but it seems most appropriate. Considering the mystery woman is apparently after the scroll, finding Nazrin and finding the woman could be one in the same. Plus, it is a bit concerning that Nazrin raced off ahead of Miko and yet apparently has not delivered the scroll already. She must have passed by Byakuren, right?

However, I would hope as soon as Nazrin is found and the scroll delivered into Byakuren's hands, Miko gets right back to tracking down mystery woman. There are definitely suspicious elements about this venue.
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[X] I abandoned my pursuit to race to Nazrin. I should hear her more easily and I had to make sure the scroll was secure. Only then would I resume the search.
Yeah, grab rat.
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[X] I abandoned my pursuit to race to Nazrin. I should hear her more easily and I had to make sure the scroll was secure. Only then would I resume the search.

Part of me thinks that the mystery woman was a way of luring Miko away from the scroll and the party, seeing as how she's probably the one most suitable for identifying intruders. Also:

A red spy bake-danuki is in the base temple!
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[x] I abandoned my pursuit to race to Nazrin. I should hear her more easily and I had to make sure the scroll was secure. Only then would I resume the search.

Byakuren waited with baited breath as I rubbed my shaku. We’d come all that way, risked life and limb, all for the scroll. Well, that and the captives. If we lost it, inside Byakuren’s own temple, no less, I would… I’d do something very, very impolite.

“I won’t accept my grand rescue amounting to failure, even in one aspect. We’ll find that scroll.” I marched forward, but I lifted one earmuff as I did. I wouldn’t be able to hear that rogue, but I would hear Nazrin.

But what I heard first was just more about the damn festival - folks fretting over all the rice and vegetables they were cooking, over getting the stalls and displays finished in time, about when that damn shrine maiden would leave them alone. I shook my head. Interesting, strange, but not my concern yet. No, what I needed was…

“Miko? Dear? This hall leads to my-our room. No one will be hiding there.”

I flinched, leveled my shoulders, then spun on my heel, down another hall. “Of course, darling.” My eyes narrowed. Just where was… ah! Just a whiff of that cowardly pride was enough to bring me to her general direction. “This w-” A cowardly pride flared from chasing a lost treasure.

The scroll.

“This way, Byakuren!” I raced down the hall, shoving my way through my wife’s disciples. They yelped, they grunted. Some cursed at me. My blood heated at those sounds. At losing even small amounts of favor from these people. But my glory was at stake!

I weaved from corner to intersection to corner, moving further and further from Byakuren’s little meeting, toward-Shou, her eyes wide and panicked, charged straight toward me. How the hell did she get all the way over here so fast? I parted my lips, slowing down as she came closer, reading her desires for… her desires for…

Byakuren shoved me aside, only to skid to a stop just in front of me. “Shou? What are you doing back here?”

My studious gaze fell to a dark glare. In an instant, she yelped, skidded to a stop, and spun on her heel. I still heard nothing. She had to be… “That’s not her, darling - I can’t hear her desires. Hold her b-!”

Byakuren burst forward. Even lacking the might of her scroll, that proved enough to send Shou scrambling for the distant door. I raced after her. But I couldn’t help some confusion. I heard Nazrin near, so where was sh-

A lone, black rod swung out from the nearest, open door, striking Shou’s ankles. She crashed to the floor, just as Byakuren caught up and Nazrin stepped out into the hallway. Byakuren glanced back to me. “Are you sure th-”

“Who are you and what the hell did you do with my master?”

And, finally, Shou spoke. “Your master? O-oh, yes. I’m right here, Nazzy!” She twisted around just in time for Byakuren to drop to her knees atop the tiger, staring her in the eye.

“I just left Shou behind. You’re the imposter, aren’t you?”

I marched up behind Byakuren. “Shou’s fine, Nazrin! She’s back out front, greeting the guests.”

‘Shou’ now squeaked, twisting a panicked gaze back toward us. “She i-w-wait! That, that one’s the imposter! She’s trying to make me look bad!”

Nazrin emerged from the doorway and, dusting herself down, dropped to her own knees, beside Shou. “Whatever. Then,” completely ignoring the outburst, she snapped a hand into the imposter’s skirt, then yanked the scroll out, “I’ll take this back.” She rose back to her feet and, with a faintly abashed pout, offered that scroll to Byakuren. “Sorry, folks. I got a bit sidetracked by my ‘master,’” she punctuated the statement with a kick against the imposter, “here.”

I chuckled, but held myself back from immaturely rolling my eyes. Byakuren, meanwhile, rose back to her feet, accepting the scroll as she did. “Thank you, Nazrin. You really did save us.”

Nazrin huffed, then stood back and kicked ‘Shou.’ The imposter yelped. “Seriously, you’ve got the wrong girl!”

Here, my eyes narrowed. As Nazrin stepped further back I swept into her place, beside her and Byakuren. “Then, why can I hear the other Shou louder - despite crowds between us - than I can hear you?”

She whimpered. Byakuren sighed. “Darling, Nazrin, help me find somewhere safe to leave this woman, will you? I’m rather out of patience for this sort of mischief.”

Nazrin let out a petulant whine, but her heart sang at the chance. “Fine, fine.” In fact, I heard a soft spot for her master in there, beneath her sharp tongue.

Regardless, despite continued protests, we wrestled the woman into a storage room, tied her down a little, and closed the door. Byakuren, exhilarated with her scroll’s return, ushered me close. I crept up to her, as I had some matters of my own left to address. This woman’s exact plot, what those other figures meant, and-she pulled me in, pressing our bodies flush to one another, and planted her lips against mine. I uttered a tiny squeak and, obviously waiting only the most bare minimum amount of time so as not to offend her, and paying no attention to how soft they felt or that faint, pleasant taste, pulled back. “H-hey! We still have work to do, darling!”

Byakuren smiled, worryingly slyly, because-damn it! She cleared her throat. “Make sure she doesn’t cause any trouble, darling. I’ll leave the rest to you, then~” Gripping her scroll, she spun and jogged away. She’d pulled a fast one on me! With the kiss, she’d distracted me from her desire to focus on the festival itself and leave me to handle its security, until it was too late to protest.

And worse, Nazrin started creeping away, too. I already heard that woman groaning, huffing as she fought her ropes. She was quiet for now, but how long would that last, if we left her alone? Would she call for help? If she did, would that just bring proper guards back on her, or somehow get her out? Most of the temple didn’t know what she was, so if they heard her…

I snapped a hand onto Nazrin’s shoulder before she got too far away. “Get me my disciples.”

She answered with only an annoyed grunt and half a glance back. “You’re really working me hard, here. I’ve got other crap to do, you know..”

I groaned, but graced her with a sympathetic, if shallow, nod. “Yes, yes. But I can’t leave the imposter alone, now can I?” I then narrowed my eyes for effect. “If we leave her alone, she might really do something to your master, next time.”

Nazrin huffed out an exasperated sigh. “Fine, fine. But you’ll owe me for this one.” She then shook my hand off her shoulder and scurried off, leaving me alone… with the other dozens of disciples and the captive imposter. Just what was going on? What was the ringleader thinking? What did she want with the scroll, or the captives? I twirled my shaku as I waited, listening to the grunting and stirring of the woman behind me. I’d need to do something with her, soon. The situation was far too delicate to devote precious manpower like myself or my favorite followers to keeping her secured.

Were the kidnappings intended to draw us out? To sow distrust in Byakuren’s temple? Or something else. That woman, the first thing she sought upon returning was the scroll. Was that their ultimate goal? But why? What power, precisely, did it offer? Why… A bundle of desires screamed at me to escape this den of depravity. And to spend more time with one of its denizens. And to chew that same denizen out. I turned to its source, needing not wait long until she made herself visible.

Futo shoved a few common disciples aside to stand before me. “There you art, crown prince! We didst conclude our escorting of those shifty youkai. With-with none but the utmost of care, of course.” Folding her arms into opposite sleeves, she bowed before me as Tojiko floated in behind. “The time doth be now for ourselves to depart, doth it not?”

Tojiko sighed, glancing around as she did. “I’ve had plenty of this temple, myself.” She then shrugged. “But you’d better not let any nasty ‘youkai’ get the better of you. Or your… wife.I’d rather hate to have to mount any rescue operations for you two… or for your personal effects.”

I rolled my shaku in my hands. Just how was I going to utilize their talents? And what would I do with the imposter? Byakuren now had her scroll back, but just how secure was her temple? What needed I do to protect her festival?

[ ] I would task Futo and Tojiko with interrogating the imposter - back at my senkai, where she’d be secure. I could handle temple security on my own.

[ ] I would depart to my senkai with the imposter and interrogate her personally. My disciples demonstrated they could provide plenty of security on their own.

[ ] The shapeshifters had proven a formidable foe, so I would keep both my disciples close. The imposter, however, I would just have tossed quickly to my senkai.

[ ] I would leave the imposter where she was, tasking Tojiko to see if she made any moves, and Futo to cover her back. I would handle other security myself.
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No timer for this one - it just doesn't feel right if I can't get the updates done in less than two weeks.
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[X] I would task Futo and Tojiko with interrogating the imposter - back at my senkai, where she’d be secure. I could handle temple security on my own.

As much as I still want Miko to personally interrogate the shapeshifter (like she should have with that "Toko" from earlier who is surely one of them), it is not appropriate at this time. Both Tojiko and and Futo have made it clear they don't want to stick around the temple. And Miko's hearing is the best detection we have seen so far for the shapeshifters.

Sending them back with the imposter ensures that imposter at least won't be causing trouble in the temple for sometime, and reduces tensions that may be caused by a certain firebrand sticking around. If we are lucky they might wring some useful information out of the imposter. Miko is needed to root out any other accomplices at Myouren.
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[X] I would task Futo and Tojiko with interrogating the imposter - back at my senkai, where she’d be secure. I could handle temple security on my own.

We should probably give Eientei a heads-up in case a burn victim needs treatment after the festival.
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[X] I would task Futo and Tojiko with interrogating the imposter - back at my senkai, where she’d be secure. I could handle temple security on my own.
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[x] I would task Futo and Tojiko with interrogating the imposter - back at my senkai, where she’d be secure. I could handle temple security on my own.

With a brief glance back to the muffled protests in the nearby room, I found my answer all too obvious. The imposter was a liability, but a valuable one - assuming she was privy to anything of the plot she supported. My companions had plenty to offer, but the temple didn’t suit them-Futo, especially. To get the most out of each one, I would have to move each piece to another tile. Somewhere better suited to what they offered. And, thankfully, I knew just the place.

“Futo, Tojiko.” I glanced from one to the other as I spoke. Futo answered with a curt bow, Tojiko with a slight huff. “Your tour of the temple is complete. Take the imposter back to my senkai and,” I let out just the tiniest grin, “find out everything you can from her, will you?”

To that, Tojiko scowled, but Futo’s eyes widened alongside a growing smile. “Your meaning, then, doth be that I may exercise mine authority over the wicked-”

Tojiko groaned as she floated to the room and shoved the door open, beckoning my shorter, grayer companion follow. “Yes, Futo. We’re interrogating her. You’re opening the way, so you take the front..”

I nodded. “Make sure you report your findings as fast as you can, before her boss has a chance to sow any further evil.”

Futo bowed. “Verily, crown prince, we shall!” And so, Tojiko slid the door open, then they both disappeared. I heard some squirming, some grunting, and an indignant yelp as my companions hauled the imposter up. But soon enough, those sounds just… vanished, signalling that Futo had opened the gate to my senkai, through which they’d all disappeared. I nodded, absently, to myself, before I turned to stroll down the hall. I passed by a few small chambers in which young youkai or older humans meditated, before moving on to thicker crowds in assorted dress - from simple kimonos to the more eclectic messes and dress that many Gensokyoans adored. With my loose ends neatly tied, I turned my ears back to these assorted disciples and a few guests, looking for any fresh clues I might glean.Well, these folks, and the swarm of desires I heard slowly building outside. Was there anyone else I needed worry about? Any other covert intruders? Any other outright imposters?

There-hm. After only a few steps, my clearer mind caught something interesting. A commotion outside. A pushy shrine maiden, wishing so fervently for the stuffy monk to let her celebrate with them in peace that I could barely hear anything else from the area. I did my best to keep my ears peeled elsewhere - it was the quiet ones I needed watch out for, after all. But that commotion kept calling to me.

There was some… complexity in the shrine maiden’s desires. A constant need to preach, to spread the word of her goddesses, of course. But also a desire to share in our celebration, genuinely. And to… to gift us something. To make up for some wrongdoing. Some… mistake.

And, to some shame, by the time I’d realized just how deeply I’d interrogated her desires, I had stepped outside the building entirely. Sanae stood behind a whole stall, stacked with talismans and charms, arguing with Ichirin. Assorted men and women climbed the temple steps to pour into a growing crowd around the entrance. A gaggle of other humans and youkai-mostly youkai-had already set their own stalls up, as well. Warm, rich scents wafted on the air from inside. A few notes could be heard as well, from around the temple corner. Scratchy, bitter vocals-no, whispered screams. I had to bite down a bit of a giggle, there, just at the absurdity of such a sound. And from that temple greeter, no less. She sought to practice her singing with some sparrow friend of hers, but desperately yearned not to be caught in such training.

I shook my head. What charming, naive innocence. Still, I had to scan these folks for-a gray topknot bounced among the crowd, from a head too short to be easily seen amid most of them. If not for the tall blue hat, crisscrossed with white laces.

My eyes narrowed. To think they were so bold as to invade this place with someone they should have expected to already be here! I marched forward, pushing my way through men and women alike. What’s worse, mischief could be clearly heard in her desires. An urge to hide, to avoid detection by some nefarious empress - no doubt, she meant m…

Those desires were awfully easy to hear, even among the crowd. I froze and spun my gaze from left to right, forward and back. Even above and below. Was this a trap? Was it bait? No fitting desires could be heard and, anywhere I looked, I found only people interested in the festival. Not in me. Well, okay. A little interest in me. But only the usual sorts of things I’d expect. A desire to be able to display the wealth I do, some for my prestige, some to avoid my possibly dangerous self. Entirely unremarkable stuff.

Still-damn it. That gray head moved off. I lurched forward and grabbed at-the wrist of some unremarkable young woman in a plain brown kimono.. I coughed, face flushing as her eyes widened in fear. This wasn’t-no. This was the woman I heard. Now, I scowled. And though my narrow eyes locked to hers, it was not the woman herself who irritated me, so much as my struggle to grasp how I managed to grab the wrong shorty. Unless… Quietly, I spoke. “Have I found you at last, Mam-?”

Her eyes burst wide. She knocked aside my hand to plant both of her hands over my mouth, then hissed into my ear. “Not here, not here!”

I scowled back. She pulled back and jerked her head to the side, fervently trying to hint at a more quiet place for discussion. Whoever that empress was, it wasn’t me. In fact, it seemed to be someone she wished hadn’t come here. Someone she wished would leave, well… us-myself and Byakuren-alone. So, not likely Byakuren, either. Her desires showed no clear hint of ill will toward myself. In fact, she seemed hopeful I could help her. Curious, but not something I was ready to take much risk in. I whispered back. “Who are you?”

As the bickering between Sanae and Ichirin rose in volume, the woman before me pressed a single finger to my lips. “Don’t you…” Her wide eyes narrowed. She shook her head. “I’m just here for the food, not to be interrogated.” As she spoke, I couldn’t grasp even a scrap of interest in food, but I did hear a single desire pouring loud and clear above the rest.

That this empress not discover she was a shapeshifter.

A nue.

I groaned, but nodded. “Of… course, young lady. My apologies.” I shook my head, then stepped back and returned to the crowd. I found myself… reeling. Was this Nue herself, or had another of her kind filtered through the barrier? If it was her, was she in on all this? If not, was my assumption all wrong? Either way, Should I expose her? Conspire with her? Leave her be? What on earth should I… I faced an oddly familiar pair of men. They smiled, but their desires remained just as murky as before. Just as difficult to read. At least, until I caught a single surge of mischief, just barely loud enough to hear above the crowd.

“What nonsense didst thou just do, ye wicked foul youkai! Thou didst not think I would miss thy loose fingers, surely!”

A woman cried out, then crashed to the flagstone path. Gasps rang out around the crowd and, slowly, they backed away from… Futo. Futo, huffing and standing over some petite, gray-haired bird youkai. One that laid, sprawled across the stone ground, clutching herself. She stood in the middle, her topknot whipping about as she glared at any who dared make eye contact with her. Here, Ichirin paused, casting one last glance to Sanae. “Pack your stall up and go home, before I’m done with this intruder.”

She rolled up her sleeves and stalked toward Futo, who glared back. I couldn’t hear either of their desires. And where the hell was Unzan?

…Shit. They were both shapeshifters. The same as the rest who sought to undermine my glory, based on those muffled desires. They were staging some act, here. One I needed to stop. But just how would I best go about it?

[ ] I would play the hero, standing between ‘Futo’ and the fallen youkai. In the face of ‘Taoist’ abuse, a Taoist savior was needed.

[ ] I would play the mediator, offering Sanae support. Amid rising tension, a calming influence was needed.

[ ] I would play the brute, kicking both out for their belligerence. I needed to send a message to our enemy that their mischief would not be tolerated.
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[X] I would play the mediator, offering Sanae support. Amid rising tension, a calming influence was needed.
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[X] I would play the brute, kicking both out for their belligerence. I needed to send a message to our enemy that their mischief would not be tolerated.
 [x] I made a show of dragging the imposters out of the temple gates, but actually tossed them to my senkai for Tojiko and Futo to handle.

Well, clearly we need to deal with this mess swiftly. Dealing with just fake Futo isn't good enough, and leaves room for the other one to slip away and cause more havoc. I don't think we calm them down, as they seem to be explicitly trying to cause trouble. Plus, Sanae is about as reliable as a flat tire.

Therefore, we just need to toss these louts out of the festival. But that alone isn't quite good enough, as they could adopt another disguise and walk right back in. So we should pawn them off to our allies already handling one culprit. Maybe we can get more information, but really we just need them out of our hair until the festival is over.
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[X] I would play the brute, kicking both out for their belligerence. I needed to send a message to our enemy that their mischief would not be tolerated.
 [X] I made a show of dragging the imposters out of the temple gates, but actually tossed them to my senkai for Tojiko and Futo to handle.

Darn shapeshifters. If we are forced into an act, it might as well be one for which we play a forceful leading role. Isolating the troublemakers as quickly as possible seems like a reasonable option to me.
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[x] I would play the brute, kicking both out for their belligerence. I needed to send a message to our enemy that their mischief would not be tolerated.
 [x] I made a show of dragging the imposters out of the temple gates, but actually tossed them to my senkai for Tojiko and Futo to handle.

‘Ichirin’ stalked up to Futo and glared down on her. She cracked her knuckles, heedless of ‘Futo’s’ darkened glower back up. The tense atmosphere seeped into my own body as they shifted their feet. But before they could throw fists or bullets or whatever the hell they planned, I leapt forward, sailing through the air in a golden, glorious lunge. And with proper flair, I slammed sandal-first to the ground between them. They were stunned, surely awestruck by my decisive strike, which allowed me to snap my hands around each one’s wrist and raise my voice to the startled crowd. “A festival of harmony is no place for your shameful display!”

‘Futo’ grappled my wrist with her free hand, digging in her heels as she threw her body weight away from me. “Crown prince, what madness doeth this of thine be? Un-unhand mine wrist, damn you!”

‘Ichirin’ huffed and panted, as she tugged on my opposite wrist. “I am the authority, here. You, you’re just an interloper!”

I groaned, then yelped as ‘Futo’ wrung herself free. Patience fast fading, I snapped my shaku out and hurled a golden volley her way, knocking her to the ground. And when ‘Ichirin’ yanked herself free, I half-unsheathed my sword and struck her with a blinding beam of light. And of course, that proved enough to floor her, as well. “Authority is earned, not declared by fiat. And both of you have shown yourselves unworthy of it this evening!”

Snapping their wrists back up and hoisting them to their feet, I turned and marched toward the outer gate, hauling both belligerents with me. Belligerents who grunted and hissed, but who I’d already exhausted too much to be able to break my hold-or perhaps, dared not defy me too aggressively when I had such an audience. Ones far inferior to both the women they impersonated. Some of the gathered people shifted toward me, as if to stop my progress, while others stared on, confused. Some were stunned that I would so aggressively handle my own loyal follower. Others felt Ichirin’s authority did outweigh my own - and of those, few were terribly fond of the naive shrine maiden I had rescued. Their lack of faith disappointed me, so I naturally had to correct that. With my flawless, charismatic tongue.

I swept my gaze across them, studying each man or woman before me-or at least, whoever stood out at any given second, as there were far too many to bother with every one-before finally opening my mouth again. “Those among you who still cling to disguises, who plot against the good men and women among us, know this. Your tricks will not succeed. Justice and-” I shook each imposter’s wrist, “-honesty will prevail!”

That swayed them a little, at least. But it also inspired some tiny squeaks, some nervous squirming, among the crowd. And when I marched into the crowd, some had been placated, others confused, and still more intimidated. None barred my way. So I marched straight out the gate with them and down the stone path, until I found a nice little gap in the stones. There, finally, I stopped. My hands, however, remained firmly in place. “How strange, don’t you think? Where’s the fire? Where’s Unzan?”

They only scowled my way, still tugging on their caught wrists. So, naturally, I cont-Futo wrung her wrist free, followed shortly by Ichirin. Damn it! I had to-I slammed a foot against Ichirin’s ankle, then leapt atop Futo and wrapped my arms around her. She let out a panicked squeak as I tackled her. And that surprise proved my salvation, as it bought precious time for me to snap one arm out and snag Ichirin’s wrist again as she crashed to the stones. And from there, I simply shifted my body over that crack and… well, I fell straight through it.

I tumbled out into the hallway just outside a few rarely-used rooms. Already, I heard an unfamiliar voice whimpering in one-a room whose door had not even been shut yet. So, I dragged the imposters to it, where I found a shaking, fluffy, brown-haired girl tied down and kneeling on a wooden board lined with steady rows of sharp wedges - an ishidaki board. Additionally, a stack of heavy stones sat nearby. Round ears twitched atop her scalp and a thick, striped tail curled out behind her as she glared at the ground. To one side, Futo-the real Futo, judging by her roiling hatred for the tormented imposter, ran her slow, deliberate fingers through a row of candles she must have pulled out from her own closet, while Tojiko hovered before the kneeling woman, sparks flickering across her body.

A second later, however, both snapped their eyes my way. Pure shock forced Futo’s eyes wide, only for fresh disgust to narrow them. “To what filthy deeds do ye youkai steep, that thou dare adorn thyself with mine elegant countenance?”

Tojiko’s question, however, was rather blunt. “That’s not the real Ichirin either, is it?”

The false Futo gulped, now cowering against me. “C-crown prince. I-I be the true Futo. That lady over there… she doth mayhap beith the trueth f-fouleth impostereth!”

And ‘Ichirin’ followed suit. “I… I’m the real one. Those dirty tanu-imposters have, have fooled you! You need to, to get the imposter before it’s too late!”

I shook my head, then shoved both women forward, toward my disciples. “Restrain these idiots for me, would you?”

Both women stumbled forward, then twisted their heels and prepared to bolt. I had no idea where they expected to flee to, but a single thunderclap from Tojiko startled them still, all the same. My disciples gripped and held them still as I studied the bound, furry captive. “Any discoveries yet?”

Tojiko groaned. “It’s barely been a few minutes, Miko. We haven’t had time to fig-”

“They be Tanuki, crown prince. Amidst the foulest of youkai, verily.” Futo, however, solemnly nodded her head-even as she wrestled her weaker lookalike. “Even lesser tanuki, doth they be.”

My shoulders slumped, even as I nodded. “Very well. Continue your work while I return to managing this festival. Who knows how many more of them still lurk among the crowds?”

Tojiko scowled my way, but did not stop me from slipping away into another crack and marching back to the temple grounds. And to the lingering commotion I had left… one already calmer, now that I’d removed the troublemakers.

In fact, as I marched back through the gate and down the path, I even found a few attendees helping the ambushed youkai dust herself off and patting her back. To my disappointment, however, Sanae still seemed to struggle. She’d planted her forearms on the stand, behind her unsold trinkets and charms. Her shoulders shook - the only outward sign of her turbulent desires. To sell merchandise, to impress her goddesses, to not be thrown out, to apologize, to be seen as a good girl…

The main doors opened, through which Byakuren marched. Behind her, Shou and Ichirin filed out. And behind them, the scent of sweet fruits and wonderfully-seasoned vegetables wafted on the air. Scents that kept Shou’s gaze wandering from the crowd before her to the temple behind. Byakuren herself, however, kept her eyes firmly on us… save for the flickers my way, always accompanied by a faint blush, which I chose to politely ignore.

My own eyes never wandered her way in return, of course. And I most certainly did not blush in response to any inappropriate thoughts such glances might have triggered!

“Welcome, humans and youkai; Buddhists, Shintoists, and Taoists; men and women, to this festival of harmony! On this auspicious day, please, seek out those beyond your circles, those of different beliefs, experiences, and species, to share in good food and pleasant conversations.”

Sanae slowly glanced her way. The wounded youkai looked upon her with wet, starstruck eyes. For some strange reason, Nue had elected to abandon all disguise, for I caught her familiar figure, complete with red and blue wings openly skulking around off to the right of the main building, behind Byak-a desire screamed through my ears from some bland face and brown kimono, that someone else would stop wearing her face. That they would stop before they exposed her presence. That… Nue would stop wearing her… damn it. That probably wasn’t Nue. Through all of this, however, Byakuren continued her speech.

“For, if I, the advocate for youkai and leader of Buddhism in this isolated land, could find it within me to share my life with,” now, her eyes turned specifically my way, “the advocate against youkai and the leader of Taoism here, then any barriers can be broken, any wounds mended! So, please, whenever this holy day comes, think of us, this of-”

My eyes snapped firmly to hers, but did not slow down. In this moment, I dearly, dearly wished my wife would just shut up. If I let her keep going, she’d close down every chance to slip out of this marriage gracefully! But… damn it, damn it, damn it. Didn’t she know we had greater troubles right now? The victims were freed, but their kidnappers were still loose. On her own temple grounds!

Thinking quickly, I…

[ ] Tailed Nue-that is, the one who looked like her. And kept my ears out for the one who sounded like her. Something was fishy here.

[ ] Guarded Byakuren. If she wouldn’t focus on the threat, I would. And her safety was my greatest concern.

[ ] Lunged at Byakuren. I had to interrupt this speech before she dug my deal’s grave-by announcing the tanuki threat, if needed!

[ ] Mingled with the crowd. Wherever the shapeshifters struck next, their targets would surely be here.
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[x] Tailed Nue-that is, the one who looked like her. And kept my ears out for the one who sounded like her. Something was fishy here.

Well, Miko is right that there are more pressing concerns than the marriage thing. It will just have to wait. And given Byakuren has her scroll back and is flanked by her (real) associates, she hopefully doesn't need guarding.

That leaves Miko to deal with the remaining shapeshifters. She could filter back into the crowd to do that, but we already know where one is. One of those two Nues is another shapeshifter. Well, they are both shapeshifters, but I mean one is likely of the tanuki sort, who will also need to be dealt with before their plans come to fruition.
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[x] Guarded Byakuren. If she wouldn’t focus on the threat, I would. And her safety was my greatest concern.

She is a great target for them and us standing around will allow us to save face, now that all eyes are on us due to her speech.
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[X] Tailed Nue-that is, the one who looked like her. And kept my ears out for the one who sounded like her. Something was fishy here.

Yeah, the nun seems safe for the moment considering her retinue and the scroll she holds.

If we got a target to trail, we might as well focus on them. Though I wonder if this might not be a red herring for Miko so that the mastermind could complete other plans. I guess we will see at the end, hopefully.
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[x] Tailed Nue-that is, the one who looked like her. And kept my ears out for the one who sounded like her. Something was fishy here.

I bit out a quiet, but very tight and annoyed sigh. I could not afford to interrupt Byakuren’s nonsense here. So, instead, I turned to the six-winged creature trying to slink around the temple - seemingly heedless of the half-dozen pairs of eyes fixed on her, attached to people wondering why she was sneaking around. I stepped subtly and quietly, of course. My cape barely billowed out behind me and I spent at least as much time watching Byakuren and her audience as I did the mystery Nue. And yet, somehow, that suspect’s eyes picked me out, anyway. As if she knew I was tailing her!

She shifted backward, attempting to evade my gaze. The other Nue’s desires-the ones I could hear-moved slowly, but always inched toward us. She, too, had picked up on my movements, and sought to know why I insisted on interfering with her affairs when I had a festival to help with and kidnappers to worry about. And hoped I would do what she could not. Or at least, not without breaking her “cover” or some such silliness.

And of course, through all this, Byakuren kept monologuing.

“...past few days have been difficult for some of us. But together, as human and youkai, Buddhist and Taoist…”

As Byakuren continued her speech, the sneaking Nue ducked behind a column, but I-Sanae’s desires shifted. Terror crept into her heart, at having to confess her failure, her struggle, to her goddess. I blinked. Why the hell would that-

“O-oh, Lady Suwako. How are-I mean, I’m, um…”

I craned my neck in an effort to glance through the crowd. Just barely, I caught traces of an unusual hat bobbing near her stall. A hat with a pair of eyes atop it. Suwako’s, almost certainly.. “There, there. Did these mean youkai bully you?”

Oh. Oh dear. This festival was already sagging under the weight of tanuki-sparked conflicts. If one of Sanae’s goddesses charged in as well, that could well be enough to destroy what… I had to narrow my eyes here, as I listened to the crowd again. I could still make out Sanae’s worries even through the crowd, but her goddess’s desires proved seemingly impossible to pin down.? Was she not angry at us? Worried for her shrine maiden? Had she really come out here merely to check up on her shrine maide-

Another spike of panic surged among that crowd. This one from… someone vaguely familiar, but not someone I had… ah. It was a terror that she’d be spotted by the friend she worried about, overpowering the fear that the Nue I chased would expose her in some way. I glanced through the crowd again, but her humble appearance made her impossible to pick out from where I stood. All else I could glean was one other desire. A desire her friend would adopt a less ostentatious form.

Which was odd, as no one around seemed especially eye-catching, save myself or Byakuren. And I still heard Byakuren’s heart just fine.

All the while, Sanae sniffled. “Th-they said I couldn’t stay here. And, and I’m sorry, Lady Suwako, but I couldn’t-couldn’t sell any…

“Sh, shhh~” Suwako’s hat bobbed as she did… something. “It’s not your fault.”

Sanae gulped. “It, it isn’t?”

Suwako giggled. “Nope. Some no-good youkai’s been plotting against us, but I’ve got her all figured out. It’s,” even from my vantage point, I caught her hopping onto the stall and stabbing her finger out over the crowd, “her fault!”

A hush fell among the crowd. They shifted, then turned. They all glanced in my direction! And then they stared at someone behind me. Following their gaze, I found the very woman I had been tailing-the Nue-who had now starting cautiously circling back toward the crowd, among whom a murmur rose now rose. One that forced Byakuren to pause her speech. “What are you-Nue? Why are you here?”

The desires of that unassuming but panicked woman-the one who worried over some disguised friend-wound themselves tighter and tighter. She was getting scared. And angry. Pissed that her friend would sell her out this way. Her desires moved across the grounds, slowly. They wandered toward the front gate. And only then did I catch the first whiff of properly strange desires among the crowd. Someone who wanted Nue-the ‘real’ Nue to act, to show herself.

To take her bait.

Honestly, even my enlightened head was starting to swim with all the maybe-Nues. Desires floating around, directed toward people who looked like one person but were someone else, or vice versa. Through it all, the apparent Nue yelped, then scrambled away from the crowd, attempting to push past Byakuren’s followers and slip into the temple. Byakuren, however, snapped her wrist out as she tried to pass and held her firmly in place. Her eyes narrowed. “Is that true, Nue? Are you the mastermind behind this all?”

For a moment, I paused. I felt certain she could not have been the ringleader - or at least, that she could not have worked alone. But was she involved? Was this some grand conspiracy? Was-the woman shook her head. “W-what? Me? No, no, no! I’m innocent! I didn’t kidnap anyone. I’m just a good little, um, nue!”

As expected, that was certainly Nue’s voice. But something felt strange about her language, and her still-quiet heart. One from which I barely hear a whisper of her terror, even now. Well, terror and a whiff of betrayal.

But another desire rose among the crowd, one which brought my eyes straight back to Sanae and her godde…

Sanae’s head bobbed, accompanying a desire to listen to her goddess’s words and do her best. And only as those desires fade did that goddess - the short blonde with a large, eyeballed hat, made herself truly visible. As she hopped over to the front gate.. As she moved, a single desire rose from her heart, clear enough for me both to hear, and to pin to her. One rising from amid the faintest whiffs of disappointment and anticipation.

She hoped to get to a safe distance, where she could watch the chaos her agents had sown.

Chaos I had to prevent.

[ ] I pursued Suwako. Whether or not she was in on this conspiracy, she clearly sought to undermine Byakuren’s festival.

[ ] Helped wrestle captive ‘Nue.’ Maybe she was in on this whole disaster, maybe she was another plant.

[ ] Quietly chatted with Sanae. I needed to know what Suwako had whispered to her and possibly keep her from doing something dumb.

[ ] Chatted with the departing ‘Nue.’ I had to know what was really going on in her head, now.
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Apologies for bein' so slow on this one. Psychological issues have been coming up and, though I think I'm dealing with 'em okay, they are taking a toll on my writing. All I can promise is to keep up as much as I still can.
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[X] I pursued Suwako. Whether or not she was in on this conspiracy, she clearly sought to undermine Byakuren’s festival.
 [x] I called out to Sanae to join in me urgently

Oh dear. Another case of too many things happening at once. The fake Nue at least seems to be under control for the moment, so more cooks could spoil that pot. The other, more-likely-actual Nue is a concern, but doesn't seem to be a hostile concern. So we can hopefully leave those two aside for the moment.

That leaves the fake-Suwako. Even if not the mastermind, they are definitely the closest we have heard to some kind of leader. We need to neutralize them immediately. However, it seems just whispering to Sanae has already set their plans in motion. So we really need to stop Sanae before she does something dumb. That is almost her default state to begin with, so even the smallest nudge could be a disaster. But if we could drag her along and show her the Suwako is a fake, she should become a quick ally.
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[X] I pursued Suwako. Whether or not she was in on this conspiracy, she clearly sought to undermine Byakuren’s festival.

Cut off the head of the snake. I don’t know if Sanae trusts enough of us to take our side if we end up coming to blows with Suwako.
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[X] I pursued Suwako. Whether or not she was in on this conspiracy, she clearly sought to undermine Byakuren’s festival.
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[X] I pursued Suwako. Whether or not she was in on this conspiracy, she clearly sought to undermine Byakuren’s festival.
-[X] See if Sanae can verify if that was actually Suwako.

Sanae's a priestess of Kanako and Suwako, so she could just probably ask them by praying to them. Depending on her answer, we can easily determine if it's another Moriya Shrine Conspiracy™, or if she's simply been fooled by a tanuki.

Assuming she's not Suwako and the Moriya Goddesses didn't do anything wrong, I feel like the tanukis made a really risky play by forcibly involving another religious faction into this conspiracy. Maybe they'll get Reimu involved later to complete the collection?
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I may be a bit late, but I wish to note that I am formally allowing both write-ins thus far.
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[x] I pursued Suwako. Whether or not she was in on this conspiracy, she clearly sought to undermine Byakuren’s festival.
 [x] I called out to Sanae to join in me urgently.

I turned my attention to the greatest concern here - retreating goddess. But I had a possible asset here-who’d be a liability otherwise-that I’d be a fool not to call on. “Sanae, come with me!”

To that, Sanae’s eyes burst wide and she slammed her hands on the stall counter. “With you? But I need to take care of Nu-?” That familiar, fanatic devotion poured from her heart, just about strong enough to make my teeth grind. How would I punch through something like that before the mysterious godd-oh, of course!

“Your goddess might need you, Sanae! Let’s help her, together!”

Now, however, she just tilted her head. “Need me? But she just told me t-”

My teeth clacked. My eyes barely tracked Suwako, anymore. Throwing up my hands in frustration, I skipped past Sanae and toward the damn goddess. But not without one final plea. “That might not even be her!”

That finally, got her to perk up. And then I lost sight of Suwako for a second. Panicked, I started jogging forward. Then the damn goddess picked up and sprinted away from me, forcing me to start charging after. Only then, finally, I heard Sanae’s panicked footsteps pounding the flagstones behind me. “Wait! What did you mean by that?”

I grunted, but cast my shaku forward as I ran. “Look, Sanae! She’s running! She must be an imposter!”

Sanae’s face flushed, but she shook her head and waved her gohei in wild, frantic strokes back at me. “No way! She’s running because you’re chasing her!”

I huffed. Suwako had ducked through the grounds gate, forcing us to escape the outer walls to keep chase. “Nonsense. The innocent have no need to fear me! Search your feelings. Why else would you be helping me now?”

“H-helping you?” Sanae screeched. “I’m here to help her! I won’t let you do anything weird to her!”

I had to groan, now. Really, even now, she couldn’t trust me? How cold. Regardless, Suwako leapt into the woods - ducking behind one tree, only to swiftly slip to another. She’d slowed down, but now shifted to much savvier movements. Fluid, even, for what she moved through. I soon lost sight of her again but, absent the crowds, her desires proved easy enough to track. Were anyone but my glorious, wise self chasing her, they no doubt would have lost her by now.

“Miko! Let her go, alre-!”

I heard her desires twist. She wanted to shake me, of course. But she wanted to shake Sanae just as badly. We’d abandoned even the road now, plunging back into the woods those creatures had ambushed us in before. Sweat beaded across my brow. This woman’s escape path proved terribly suspicious, leaving me ever more certain of her guilt. But it proved dangerous, too. And I yet had a festival to protect. I had to-there! She was about to leap from one tree.

“Sanae! Grab her!” Was all I shouted before leaping right at her. But the slippery goddess jerked aside at the last second, escaping my grasp entirely. At least Sanae’s enthusiasm held strong as she charged almost blindly forward, even as the familiar fixation on contradicting me poured from her heart.

“No! I’m go-kyaaa!”

And, with that sadly cliche cry, she crashed into something. Something with a familiar voice that tumbled to the forest floor and groaned in pain. Sanae let out a tight, panicked squeak. “Ow, ow, ow, ow…”

I skidded to a halt and let out a huff. To be shown up be Sanae, of all people! Though, admittedly, a tiny chuckle escaped my lips as well. Despite her protests, she had helped me after all. And, perhaps, accidentally helped her own goddess, too. Panting as the adrenaline faded, I turned and marched up to the two-woman pile nearby.

“L-l-lady Suwako! I, I’m so sorry! Here, um, let me, uh…” Sanae whined, as she pulled herself off her own alleged goddess. She then extended a hand. “At-at least let me help you back up…”

Suwako accepted the hand, but glared back up at her shrine maiden. “I’m fine, I’m fine. I don’t need your help to evade the haughty princeling.”

I snorted, then stabbed my shaku toward the rising goddess. “Oh? And just why were you trying to escape, hm?”

Her glare snapped from Sanae to me. “I hate pointless conflict. And no one wants to waste time with you.”

My teeth clacked as my brow furrowed. “Hey! A whole host of people want to spend time with me. Just ask my loyal disciples, or my wife!” I had but one wife, of course. Even if I struggled to keep track of which one it was. Regardless, I shook my head. “And what brought you all the way out here, anyway?”

Her eyes narrowed. “To watch over my dear shrine maiden, duh.”

Sanae giggled as she dusted her goddess off.

I snapped my shaku back, my face flushing as I cursed myself for tossing Suwako such a softball. Of course that would be her answer. I needed more from her. A lot more. But how would I… ah, of course. My eyes slid into a steady, steely gaze. “And tell me, Suwako. Just why had you sent her out here?”

She only snorted back. “To spread the faith, of course.”

Sanae’s hands froze. She inched back. “Um, Lady Suwako? When, uh, did you say that?”

A sudden desire to have kept her mouth shut tore through Suwako’s heart, only to leave a hope of pulling her plans back together in its wake. None of that escaped to her steady tone or annoyed face, however. She sighed, then patted Sanae’s head. “Through your heart, of course.”

Sanae answered with a nervous giggle, suddenly hoping her goddess would overlook her silliness. “Oh, right. My bad.”

I had to snort at that. To see the shrine maiden let just anything and everything slip right by her, if they came from the lips of her goddess… clearly, she had chosen the wrong one. A wiser leader, a saint like myself, would never push her to such embarrassing corners. Regardless, I could not let this person, whoever they were, squirm out of this without giving me something. So, I prepared my final card. “You are Suwako Moriya, right?”

In response, Suwako stood tall and steady, showing me no hint of tension or concerns. “Of course. How much more of my time do you intend to waste?”

I took a long, steadying breath. And gently strode toward, then around Suwako. If she tried to flee again, I’d be ready. “Then, just to be sure, let’s have a quick duel, shall we?”

Suwako scowled. “A duel? Why?”

To this, a smile escaped my grasp and crawled across my face. “Haven’t you heard? There’s too many shapeshifters playing pranks around here lately. But they’re terrible at emulating anyone’s powers.. Just show us a little water, a little earth, and those lovely iron rings. Easy, right?”

Now, now, she froze. She glanced briefly between me and Sanae. And now it was Sanae’s turn to pause. And to turn an eager glance to her goddess. “Ooh. You get to show your might over our rival! Oh, if only the crowd could see this!?”

Suwako took a step back, away from us both. To which I rested a hand on my sword, subtly shifting the handle a hair outward. And then, she tossed her palms up and sighed. “…Fine. Ya got me, dearies. I ain’t no goddess.”

With a puff of smoke, her diminutive, blond form gave way to a taller, fuller woman with a simple vest, green capelet, and enormous tanuki tail falling from her back. “No point in hidin’ it any further, is there?”

I snickered, eyes narrow and smile wide. “So, not only are you the ringleader, but you dared show your face at our festival, after the crimes you’ve committed.”

Sanae’s jaw hung slack. She stumbled a step backward. “L-lady Suwa-what did you do to lady Suwako?”

The great tanuki-Mamizou-waved the shrine maiden off. “Oh, hush. She’s probably just relaxin’ back at her shrine, same as the other layabout goddess.” Then, however, she turned a narrow gaze my way. “But are ya sure this is a wise idea, princeling?”

I opened my mouth, but she rudely cut me off, not even bothering to listen to my answer. “Say I am the mastermind ya claim me to be. That must mean my underlings are still out there, don’t it? Minglin’ among yer wife’s festival’s guests as we speak. Is it really worth it to harass little ol’ me?”

I blinked, myself. Then tapped the shaku to my chin. She, naturally, wanted me to rise to her bait. She wanted me out of her hair more than she wanted her henchmen unmolested. But she did still hope they’d foil our festival - that they’d damage the bridges we’d apparently been building. Was foiling her personal agenda worth risking that? Though my stomach churned at the thought of letting her get anything she wanted, if she really was the mastermind, I had to wonder just what she had going down in my absence.

[ ] Race back to the festival.

[ ] Keep interrogating.

[ ] Get Sanae to help toss this woman to Senkai.
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[X] Get Sanae to help toss this woman to Senkai.

A youkai impersonating one's god? That surely will inspire some anger in the wind priestess.

I'd say it's best to get this troublemaker in a place where they can't do more damage and be interrogated later. We also caught some of the disguised tanukis already, if I'm not mistaken. And who knows if the answers we would get from questioning her would aim to plant false leads instead of actual answers.
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[X] Keep interrogating.

Finally making some progress here. But racing back to the festival puts right back where we were a few updates ago, fumbling everywhere trying to dig out the imposters. And it lets Mamizou slip away to adjust her plans. Taking her to the senkai seems good, but she is the perhaps the most slippery person in Gensokyo. There is no telling if our allies are prepared to keep her pinned.

On the other hand, she has a lot to tell us. Even if her words are poisoned, Miko can hear her desires. And we really need to know what her goals are, as that can inform us how to stop them. And maybe Miko's gift of gab might convince her to just abandon the scheme altogether and call off her remaining followers, given she has been caught red-handed.
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[X] Get Sanae to help toss this woman to Senkai.
Shoot first, ask questions later.
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[X] Get Sanae to help toss this woman to Senkai.

And to get her really motivated to help us (if she wasn't motivated enough to help after seeing her goddess get impersonated), we could casually suggest asking Reimu for help. It'd rile up her competitive spirit due to her desire to be seen as a competent incident resolver.
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[x] Get Sanae to help toss this woman to Senkai.

No, I shook my head. Byakuren could handle her goons, if needed. Cutting this infection off at its source was far more important. Mamizou swayed slightly, twirling a pipe around one finger as her narrow eyes watched us both. In contrast, Sanae stood rigid, her eyes locked on the tanuki and her gohei at the ready. She wanted to punish this imposter, while Mamizou only wanted us-wanted me, for she knew the true brains behind this operation-to make my decision soon and let her be on her way.

I took a long, steady breath. I even slumped my shoulders for effect. “She’s right, Sanae. I don’t have much time left to detain or interrogate her.”

Sanae sighed. Unfortunately, Mamizou caught the twinkle in my eye before she did. The damn tanuki’s feet twisted in preparation to bolt. In that tense, dramatic moment, every second counted. So first, I whipped my sword out and battered her with its blinding light. Then, I circled in front of her to cut her escape off. But! Somehow anticipating my maneuver, even through my flare, she swiveled to the left!. Yet, sensing the need to act, Sanae then leapt into motion! Though blind to details, she tumbled directly into Mamizou’s attempted path of escape. All while wasting her breath to question me. “Why are we fighting? I thought we had to leave!”

I snorted. Mamizou jerked now to the right, instead. I grabbed one wrist and a shoulder as she did. Sanae, however, just thwacked the back of her skull. I had to jerk my gaze to the other shoulder and shout, “grab her!” before she finally grasped what she needed to do.

Mamizou grunted. She tugged against my grip, then against Sanae’s. “This, is hardly becomin’ of a prince, is it? Deceivin’ and manhandlin’ a poor ol’ lady like this.”

I scoffed. “You’re hardly one to speak to us of deception or strong-arming, queen of the kidnappers.”

She huffed. “Oh, come now. I might have played a wee ol’ prank, but kidnappin’? That surely ain’t my style!”

Sanae twisted her wrist. “A little prank? You impersonated my goddess! You, you embarrassed me in front of a rival-in front of her!”

Mamizou grunted, wishing we would let her off before she spilled anything further. “T-that may be, but-”

I narrowed my eyes. “A tanuki, abstaining from abduction?” I could not help my voice falling into an utterly flat tone. “Really?”

She huffed. “Oh, deary me. Prejudice don’t become ya, ya would-be prince.”

My eyes twitched and my fingers pressed into her shoulder. I glanced around the woods until I spotted a tree with a nice gap in its trunk, then pushed her toward it. “This way, Sanae. We’ve no more time to waste.”

“Yes, Miko! T-that is, I agree!”

I chuckled, but she proved helpful enough-

“Look, dearies.” Mamizou’s voice sunk in both register and mood as she pushed and pulled back. “I’ve gone along with yer harebrained accusations this far, but I ain’t lettin’ ya drag me any which way ya please!”

That, and a faint whisper in her heart, were our only warnings before the spectral animal silhouettes burst into the air. Still, it was enough for me to escape the initial barrage, and for Sanae to get away with only a grazing. I was quick to rain down my own light and bullets. And, eventually, the shrine maiden assisting me joined in with her own snakes and frogs.

Mamizou proved a slippery foe, difficult to strike or pin down. But she started her battle flanked, outnumbered, and against me. It took us mere minutes-minutes of sloppy, messy combat, but still minutes!-to wear her down and force her toward the tree.

Once Sanae realized she should be helping me drag her, that is. “Um, Miko. Why are we leading her to a tree?”

I let out a sigh. “To bring her to my senkai for questioning, of course.”

She nodded. “And that is… in a tree?” She did not, however, understand.

Mamizou groaned, still idly tugging against us. “This ‘prince’ yer helpin’ ain’t the wisest leader, is she?”

I snorted, but we had come up on it. From there, I needed only pull them both through the gap and out into the senkai basement I’d used last time.

A basement where a handful of mournful tanuki rested, restrained, in a corner. Singes could be seen on their outfits, and sparks still flickered across one of them. Their captors, Futo and Tojiko, huffed before them. All while Sanae just sort of… stared at it all, her eyes rather blank as question upon question tumbled from her heart. Mamizou’s heart flinched at the sight - spiking with fear that the nuances of some plot had already been foiled. But one she still held close to her metaphorical chest.

But Futo, when she turned around, was a little less reserved.

“Wha-you hast detained the foul mastermind, crown prince?” Her eyes downright sparkled as she leapt toward us.

Mamizou groaned. “I, I ain’t no such villainess, I promise!”

But with her heart still insisting she keep her secrets, I beckoned Tojiko over. “That, we shall see.”

Tojiko obediently floated over and relieved me of Mamizou. Futo came to help too, but Sanae gripped her end of the captive tight. Tojiko’s narrow eyes wandered from Mamizou’s pout to my proud countenance. “How are we going to keep her secure? We don’t exactly have a prison down here.”

Mamizou snorted. “Oh, deary me. Can’t y’all just trust little ol’ m-?”

“No!” “Nay!” Came the mixed cry of Sanae and Futo, shouting in unison.

She answered with a tragically fake sniffle. “Oh, how cruel.”

Tojiko then passed her part off to Futo, leaving herself free for me to sidle up to. But my dear, phantom partner brushed off my advance. “I’m not sure what you expect us to get out of her, either. You know she’ll hold out far better than her stooges.”

I smiled back. “Well, how much have you gleaned already?”

Futo and Sanae grunted. Mamizou pushed and twisted. But Tojiko just sighed. “They were supposed to sow division between your temples. The ringleader never told them why, but given the timing with your ‘wedding,’ her motive’s not hard to guess.”

I nodded, sagely. “The sheer radiance of a marriage with me would no doubt inspire jealousy beyond-”

Tojiko pressed her knuckles to each of my cheeks, then pinched down on them. “Would you please take this seriously?”

I yelped in pain. “O-of course, Tojiko.” Then, pushing her fingers away and massaging my sore cheeks, I continued. “She sought to undermine me, to cast me as the fool and traitor to my followers.”

Mamizou yelped. “That’s a mite much. But, as ya see, my plot’s well and truly foiled now, ain’t it? No need to worry your pretty little heads about me, anymore.”

Futo huffed as she bound Mamizou’s wrists to one another. “Sit ye still, wicked tanuki!”

Sanae stuck out her tongue and beat her gohei against the tankui’s forehead. “And leave my goddesses alone!”

“Ow, ow, ow! Spare my face, ye daft shrine maiden!”

Sanae only followed with more vigorous strikes. “You should’ve spared Lady Suwako’s! People will confuse her for a conniving schemer!”

Tojiko grumbled, then sailed over to help Futo by binding Mamizou’s legs. “Just finish this whole affair quickly, Miko.”

I took a slow breath, idly nodding to her demand. Sowing division, huh? What might they have-I blinked. She did still have plants at the temple. Now that I’d ferried the captive over, I needed to…

“My deepest apologies, dear Tojiko. I must depart at once!”

“Yeah, yeah. Return to your wife. I’ll be right here with your tanuki when you’re done.”

I nodded my head in a shallow bow, then took one last glance behind. Sanae had calmed down slightly, but her weapon remained pointed directly at the captive tanuki. Her heart sounded tense, determined to keep the imposter at bay-and to report her achievement once she’d discovered Mamizou’s motives. I smiled, even as I stepped back. With no time left to spare, I leapt back through a crack, into the woods, and charged back up to Myouren Temple’s grounds.

There, I found Nue-well, the one who looked like her-wrestling with her own restraints against a corner of the temple, with Nazrin watching her. Apart from that, humans and youkai munched on steaming bowls of rice, noodles, fruits, and vegetables. All stalls but one-Sanae’s now abandoned one-bustled with attention as those not eating browsed wares and games. Byakuren engaged in hushed conversation with Ichirin and Minamitsu, while Shou laughed and mingled with the partiers.

And, oddly, the plants had otherwise kept entirely to themselves. I could spot no further seeds of discord sown. Was the whole thing a red herring? Had Mamizou truly been foiled after all? Was she correct-despite blatant ulterior motives-in having been innocent, somehow? And how was that other woman doing, the one whose heart sounded like Nue’s?

[ ] Coordinate with Byakuren.

[ ] Keep watch, ready to move at the first sign of trouble.

[ ] Drill the Nue-looking person - figure out once and for all if she’s really Nue.

[ ] Figure out what the Nue-sounding person’s up to.
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[X] Drill the Nue-looking person - figure out once and for all if she’s really Nue.
Ask her to click on the vent.
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[X] Keep watch, ready to move at the first sign of trouble.

Both Nues I think are not worth the attention. One of them is already in custody. And the other seemed more concerned about the person posing as her than causing trouble.

Talking with Byakuren is always good, but she honestly seems busy here. Once again, I think Miko is best used- or rather, her special hearing is best used keep watch for more troublemaking tanuki. From what Mamizou implied, there are more of them up to something.
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[X] Coordinate with Byakuren.

Though I agree with the assessment that the nun seems busy, I can't help but feel that the knowledge that something is going on behind the scenes could only aid in disrupting said plans. Also, there's the thing about not being informed about a threat that could cause a future wrinkle in the relationship.
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[X] Coordinate with Byakuren.

What are the chances of there eventually being a Miko imposter? We might have to coordinate and communicate better with Byakuren to reduce any confusion just in case.
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I am very sorry, I should have noted this a while ago, but I've found myself quite suddenly busy lately. I'm trying to find time to eek my update out, but it just hasn't been manifesting, and it could still be another week away.

Sorry for the delays, and not saying anything sooner.
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[x] Coordinate with Byakuren.

Clearly, something had transpired in my short absence. And, though tasked with security, I had to work out just what that was before I could most judiciously apply my wisdom and enlightened hearing. So, I strolled up beneath Unzan’s pink cover, to the table against which leaned a ship-sinking sailor. Ichirin frowned and Byakuren smiled, but both expression and desires suggested it to bse more polite than expressive.

Minamitsu shrugged as she spoke. “…aren’t doing anything. The festival’s going fine, so let’s just enjoy it while it lasts.”

Ichirin huffed. “But what if they abduct people here? If we lose the trust of our own disciples, what will…”

I draped a hand over both Byakuren and Ichirin’s shoulders. “It would be lovely if some of you could take a turn on security, but I’ve conquered their mastermind and-”

Byakuren knocked my hand off Ichirin, only to pull me up against her side and sling a hand around my hip. And just to establish her connection to-no, her possession of-me. “Oh, my lovely Miko, you’re back~”

Two spikes of jealousy bubbled up from Ichirin and Minamitsu’s hearts, dragging a flushed heat to my face. Ichirin wished to share in Byakuren’s embrace, Minamitsu wanted to feel Byakuren’s body. I groaned, then pushed back and cleared my throat. “Byakuren-dear, I appreciate your enthusiasm,” despite their jealousy, both disciples barely bothered suppressing giggles at my consternation, “but need I remind you of the shapeshifters still lurking in our midst? We can’t let our guard down just yet.”

Despite her desire to establish her dominance and to… reunite with me, Byakuren answered only with a giggle. “Oh, but I was so worried about you. What if something terrible happened to my head of security while she was gone?”

I huffed. “Excuse me, but I’m not the one who lost my most precious artifact to a band of rogue tanuki.”

At that, Byakuren clicked her tongue, even as she held me close. “Only because I saved it from their paws, remember?” As she spoke, she leaned in and planted a kiss on my lips. One that, admittedly, I savored. A little. “Come, come. If she’s gone, we can enjoy the festival toge-”

A finger tapped Byakuren’s shoulder from behind. “I hate to butt in here but I need to know. Who’s gone?”

She blinked, Minamitsu flinched back, and Ichirin spun around, chakrams out and Unzan drifting closer.

Behind Byakuren stood a small, unassuming woman in a plain brown kimono and short, choppy black hair. A woman deeply wishing to know who exactly I’d ‘conquered’ and how. Who feared-and hoped-it to be her friend.

Minamitsu’s eyes narrowed. “This is a private conversation. Move along, would ya?”

The woman answered with a pout, then a huff. “Oh, hoho. No. This conversation is too important to leave me out.” All just before her form rippled, shedding the kimono for a tight black dress and sprouting six tendrils from her back - three blue and arrow-tipped, three red and hook-tipped. By now, Byakuren had turned around as well. All three murmured in some confusion, their eyes drifting from her to her bound body double. Minamitsu kept lounging, but conjured her giant anchor all the same. Ichirin’s eyes narrowed as she folded one hand into a fist. Neither moved to fight, but both wished to be ready, should one break out.

But this Nue only squeezed herself between Byakuren and I, wrapping one arm around my shoulder. “You said the ‘mastermind’ had been conquered. Exactly who was she, and where is she now?”

I couldn’t help a light, if slightly nervous, chuckle, to hear her coming out so directly with her desire. But the culprit’s identity would become clear soon, and this Nue’s desires rested more on ensuring the end of the kidnapper’s plot than on the mastermind’s wellbeing… even if not by much. With only the slightest gulp, I chose to take a chance.. “Lady Futatsuiwa, of course. No one else commands so many shapeshifters as her, let alone doing so while also possessing the means to frustrate my power. Of course, upon realizing my discovery, she attempted to flee the scene.” My eyes twinkled as I spoke, my smile growing wide. “But against the great Miko of the Toyosatomimi, both her plot and her flight were doomed to fail. All that remains is to weed out her remaining goons.”

Nue’s shoulders visibly sagged at the news. “Oh, thank the gods.”

I frowned. She snickered. “...And thank you, too.” But, though Byakuren huffed and tried to peel her off me, she responded by slipping around to my other shoulder and whispering into my ear. “I know a few things about how to slip out of even the most secure confinement, you know. Hit me up if you want to make sure she can’t get out.”

I sighed, but smiled back. “We are quite familiar with her antics by now. She’s not going anywhere.”

Apparently, now was the time for my ears to catch a spike of jealousy from Byakuren’s heart. She groaned. “Would you please quit hugging and whispering around my wife?”

Nue snickered, but took a step back and answered with a melodramatic bow. “Of course, of course. Far be it from me to get between a pair of lovers~” Despite her words, I needed none of my fine hearing to catch the sarcasm dripping from them. Even after, her tone sobered only slightly. “But make sure you treat her carefully. You know how much damage someone like her can do, if you give her a reason to hold a grudge…”

I groaned. “She will be punished, but most fairly. As a saint and a champion of wisdom and just administration, I am above petty power trips.”

Ichirin snorted and Minamitsu rolled her eyes. Even Unzan had the audacity to scowl. But I ignored them all to-

“All right. Good, good.” Nue rolled her shoulders, then leapt up onto a table and took a deep breath. “The kidnapper mastermind’s been apprehended!” She shouted, then stabbed a finger to the other, bound Nue. “That girl’s a filthy imposter!”

The other Nue flinched, then squirmed and tugged against her ropes. Byakuren huffed, pouting at the shapeshifter’s lack of decorum while I groaned at her so brazenly spilling the revelation I had intended to announce myself, but the standing Nue just smiled wide. “So!” She snapped a bottle off the table she stood on - a motion that made Minamitsu flinch and Ichirin gasp. Especially when she then thrust the bottle high into the air. “Let’s get the real party started!”

She whooped and a mess of murmurs answered her. Shou snarfed down a bite, then threw her fist into the air, cheering. And when Nue thrust the bottle up a second time, a scattered chorus of cheers answered. She cackled. “To the end of kidnappings!”

“Wait right there.”

The cheers died and all heads swiveled to the entrance, from which that firm, monotone statement arose. With the Hannya floating near her face, Kokoro marched through the crowd, glaive in one hand and the collar of a messy, brown-haired girl’s kimono in the other - a girl she dragged along behind her. “I’ve uncovered the plot. It wasn’t a marriage youkai, it was a bunch of tanuki plotting to consolidate their enemies.”

She passed by Nazrin, then shoved the girl at her. “Take care of her.”

Nazrin yelped but grabbed the girl - only for her to nearly yank the mouse off her feet when she tugged back. Nazrin hissed. “Gah. Shou! Help me out!”

And as Shou scrambled to her servant’s aid, Kokoro marched right up to me, trading her mask for the Young Woman. “Good work, moms.”

Byakuren giggled, but I rolled my eyes. Her continued desire to experiment, to explore, needled at me. Still, this was another role I’d committed to - and besides, who was I to turn down a complement? “Thank you, Kokoro. I did quite splendidly, didn’t I?”

Byakuren huffed and nudged me aside. “I did much of the work too, you know. But we make a wonderful couple, don’t we?”

I pouted, but took the moment to observe the crowd and the two women before me. With much of the fear and tension abated, I had to consider how I ought devote my efforts for the rest of this festival.

[ ] With an unknown number of plants still lingering, I maintained my focus on security.

[ ] With the threat largely passed, I turned my attention toward building relations.

[ ] With this bratty tsukumogami butting into my affairs, I turned some attention to her education.
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[x] With an unknown number of plants still lingering, I maintained my focus on security.

If we stay to build relations, it seems more like Byakuren will glomp on Miko and just further the ongoing confusion as to their relationship status in public. Kokoro is a little brat, but she is not an issue at the moment. She is even being helpful catching stray tanuki, so might as well let her continue.

On the other hand, we know from Mamizou she still has some conspirators at the festival. And she hinted her schemes are not totally foiled yet. Miko needs to stay vigilant and keep rooting out the shapeshifters. Maintaining security is what we pledged to do, anyway.
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[x] With an unknown number of plants still lingering, I maintained my focus on security.

They're still out there with their funny leaf hats and fluffy tails. Who knows how many heads this scheme still has?
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We could probably pull Kokoro into our security detail and teach her how to maintain security around the temple. We could even lead by example if a Tanuki does end up infiltrating the temple.

It's basically a hybrid between the 1st and 3rd options that allows for some mother-daughter bonding time while still providing the temple some degree of security.
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[X] With an unknown number of plants still lingering, I maintained my focus on security.
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[x] With an unknown number of plants still lingering, I maintained my focus on security.

I patted Byakuren’s shoulder. “Yes, darling, you did. But I still have work to do, to be sure that rat-” A narrow gaze stabbed my way from the temple’s pet mouse. “-that scoundrel didn’t cause us any more trouble. If you’ll excuse me.” Gently, I nudged her arm away and, though she hesitated, she released me a moment later.

Kokoro pressed a hand against my shoulder. “You just got here. Your wife needs yo-”

Byakuren nudged her aside. “Ah, yes. Of course, dear.” But she didn’t step away until she’d planted a light kiss on my lips.

I answered with a kiss of my own, and an irresistibly charming smile. One which got a blush from her, but somehow failed to impress her companions. Plebeians, the lot of them. But of course, as the magnanimous, thoughtful prince I was, I brushed off their poor taste to turn my attention back to security.

To observing the crowds, to keeping them calm and under control. Humans in a mix of humble kimonos and finer robes mixed with youkai draped in everything from simple dresses to eclectic mixes of seemingly random garments.

Mamizou claimed there to still be plants lurking here and, judging by Kokoro’s catch, she wasn’t entirely wrong. So, while Kokoro pulled Byakuren into a hushed argument on whether my wife ought to drag me back into her arms, and while a few disciples hauled bottles of booze out-and Nue cracked three of them open, one with her hands and two with her… wings-I made an effort instead to mingle with the crowd. Perhaps Kokoro’s catch was the last one, or perhaps there was yet another scheme, another contingency, waiting to foil us. Their strategies seemed to change as the broader situation evolved. From kidnapping to making a scene to turning a shinto priestess on us. If they attempted yet another stunt, yet another way to undermine our festival, just what would it be?

A couple humans in humble kimonos stepped away from me as I walked, tapping my shaku to my chin. A cute girl in a fine, red dress turned her gaze away as I approached, seeking to avoid my own. But her heart came out loud and clear, and her desires showed no hint of trouble-mak… well, she wanted to fool around with a few youkai, but she wished to avoid a scene, and to avoid any ire or undue attention from us. A blue bird youkai wanted a peek at Byakuren’s scroll, but similarly sought no conflict. If anything, her desires hinted at a particularly intense desire to avoid anything resembling a fight.

Somewhere behind me, still miffed that I had distanced myself from Byakuren so quickly, Kokoro now also fumed that her other ‘mother’ had abandoned her as well. All to-

“Wait-no-stop!” Having just noticed the booze flowing from table to table, Byakuren raced to try to halt it, rather than indulge whatever scheme that tsukumogami wanted to wrap her into. “This is a Buddhist temple! A beacon of moderation and-worldly attachments only weigh y-for goodness’ sake, not in my temple!” She moved to intercept several youkai, but now they’d made a game of keeping their booze, and the monk avoided bringing it to an outright brawl, for fear of severing the very unity her festival was founded on. At some point, Nue had returned to her humble disguise and Nazrin had wrangled Shou into helping her drag the fake Nue into the temple, out of sight. Or more pressingly, based on her desires, away from anything sensitive - to slow her down from causing further trouble, if she broke out again.

But of course, none of this helped me much. No guests showed any clear signs of coming shenanigans, and the only desires I could hear came from those who were all but certainly ‘clean.’ Picking out those I couldn’t hear proved annoyingly tricky, as everyone either avoided me or attempted to pull my attention to themselves. Human and youkai mingled peacefully, now united in a common cause - keeping Byakuren from denying them their drinks. It proved an amusing mess to listen to as I scrutinized what guests I could, moving around the crowd’s perimeter. But even after I good few minutes of prying, I could glean little without a way to slip in closer. I needed something to-

“Excuse me, you pink, puffy dancer, but Lady, Hijiri, isn’t the-she’s our girl. Find your own!”

“What are you saying now, you drunk monk. You’re too old to cling to her like that.”

A cup thumped against a table. “Wha-I’ve barely had a couple drinks. Besides, you’re more’n a thousand years old!”

“If you count my awakening, I’m only a few dec-”

Ichirin growled. “If we count that, then how about Hijiri’s unsealing? By that lo… that thought, she’d be your junior!”

My shaku migrated from my chin to my scalp, threatening to smack it more than once. Of all the stupid ways for someone to make a scene… I blinked. Perhaps they were the plants. I lifted my earmuffs for just a moment, to make sure.

Kokoro wanted to chase Ichirin and Minamitsu off, so she could monopolize Byakuren and I for herself. Ichirin wanted to put the tsukumogami in her place, and to remove the obstacle between herself and her dear leader. All of them perfectly audible and distressingly plausible for who they rose from.

Damn it. They were genuine. Neither even noticed-or, perhaps, no longer cared-that Byakuren had abandoned them to bicker with Nue about the sake. But I tuned both matters out to focus on the crowd, to hover around them, to try to pick at least one or two suspicious figures out. But a good couple dozen minutes passed and I still had nothing to show, nothing clearly in need of my attention. Only a fresh pair of desires returning to the party broke the tedium. A desire pounding with frustration and a little embarrassment. Someone who wanted to protect the dignity of Bishamonten and, by extension, his avatar. Someone who wanted help watching over the festival. Someone frustrated that Shou had plopped herself at a table to take heaping scoops of food, and long, mighty gulps of sake. By contrast, Shou just wanted a break from all the stress, and a chance to indulge in the fun of a festival.

Giving up on my effort to find the plants for just a moment, I shuffled over to Nazrin, who had collapsed to her knees by one table, scowling over to another, where Shou ate and drank. Her tail flicked in irritation, her head low and ears flared. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her. With one disciple having recently made a scene and unknown scoundrels waiting to cause trouble, losing another helper to the festivities irked me as well. Worse, if she drank too mu-I… I tilted my head, sliding my shaku back to my lips. Just where had all the sake come from? The disciples had to hide what bottles they kept, and seemed likely not to dish them out so brazenly. Did Nue bring it in? If so, why and how and when? Byakuren made it quite clear it wasn’t her idea, but who else was there? Sanae?

Kokoro and Ichirin, apparently exhausted from their bickering, only now roused from such stupor to try to get the crux of their argument to weigh in. But Byakuren had now turned to Murasa, demanding to know where the bottles had come from and that she help clamp down on them. Minamitsu wondered herself why they-

Another desire spiked in the crowd. A sense of worry, of concern for a disciple and priestess. My gaze whipped around to find a diminutive figure with blond hair, purple dress, and a tall hat, poking at Sanae’s abandoned stall. A hat with a pair of eyes atop it.

The goddess, Suwako Moriya. Again. I turned from Nazrin and the plants to this goddess. But thankfully, only a few seconds later, Byakuren noticed her presence as well and moved in to address her, saving me the time to-

“You again? What do you think you’re doing here?”

Suwako blinked, as did her hat. She turned to Byakuren with four narrow eyes. “I don’t know. How about you tell me where Sanae is, first?”

Somehow, I felt a worrying mass of belligerence in Byakuren’s desires. And an unfamiliar, off-centered side to them. Just what was going on?

[ ] Apologize to Suwako, explain, pull Byakuren aside.

[ ] Personally show Suwako to her shrine maiden.

[ ] Investigate the source of the booze.
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[X] Apologize to Suwako, explain, pull Byakuren aside...
 [x] ...to talk about the booze.

Well investigating the booze is important, and we should get to that, the matters right in front of us need to be dealt with. Suwako could cause a ruckus very quickly, and a simple, clear explanation should prevent it. Taking her to the senkai would take too much time, though. The goddess may also be annoyed with exactly how Sanae is 'punishing' those imposters.

So we want to quickly persuade Suwako. But we do also want to talk to Byakuren. The booze is a problem, but Byakuren's vehement disapproval of the booze is making it an issue even faster. We need her to calm down and help track the source rather than wrestle with festival goers.
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Ah, right. Hmhm.

>>44072 I'll formally rule this a valid write-in.
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[X] Apologize to Suwako, explain, pull Byakuren aside...
 [x] ...to talk about the booze.

The booze mustn't flow.
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