"...Fumi, are you sure about this?"
"I am. You have more than enough capable hands on board, don't you think?"
A hand suddenly tapped at her shoulder, and Shiori jolted away from the door she had been eavesdropping against, biting back a surprised yelp. Had someone not grabbed her arm to steady her, her backwards momentum would have had her falling flat on her bum. Raising her head to look for her assailant-turned-savior, Shiori's wide eyes took in the sight of a mischievous face, framed by wavy blue hair.
"My, you're rather quick, Shiori-han," Kaoruko said, lips curled into a familiar smirk. "People that quick tend to have something to hide, hm?"
"I-I wasn't…! I mean, I don't…have anything to hide..." Shiori sheepishly trailed off, averting her gaze from the older actress. "I wanted to ask Onee-chan if she'd practice with me today, but it seems like she's talking to Tomoe-san about something important…"
"Probably the troupe's finances, or something equally as dry."
Kaoruko unfurled the ornate, delicate fan she never went anywhere without. The fan's sakura-patterned leaves concealed the lower half of her face, muffling incoherent mumbles. However, it didn't hide how Kaoruko's eyes glanced briefly toward the room where Tamao and Fumi were conversing.
Before Shiori could ask the older woman to clarify, Kaoruko moved her fan away from her mouth while releasing a short exhale. "Honestly, that sister of yours is so straitlaced when she's off of the stage. It's no wonder Tamao-han recruited her without a second thought."
Shiori straightened up, rising to her full height to match Kaoruko's stature. "Onee-chan is an amazing person. I'm sure Tomoe-san recognized that."
"Yes, yes. Of course she is." Kaoruko smirked. "But so are you, Shiori-han. Which is why you'll be perfect for the job I have in mind."
The tensions winding up in her dissipated at Kaoruko's pace. "Job?"
"It's nothing strenuous, otherwise I would have gone to Futaba-han or even Akikaze-han instead. But you see, those two just won't do for the task I have in mind."
"And what would that be?" Shiori asked with a slight tilt of her head.
Kaoruko smirked, snapping her fan shut. "Why, preparing my afternoon tea of course!"
Shiori blinked in confusion. "Um, you'd like me to… make you tea?"
"Yes! Only you understand the importance of a good pot of tea. Well, your sister does too. And I have to admit Tamao-han isn't so bad herself. But since they're both busy right now, I finally get the opportunity of having the younger sister all to myself!"
Before Shiori could get another word out, Kaoruko grabbed her hand and tugged her away from the door. For someone who wasn't known for a love for physical activity, Shiori couldn't do much except let Kaoruko drag her along with her.
"W-Wait, Hanayagi-san!" Shiori tried to protest.
"Who cares what those two could be gossiping about?" Kaoruko's grip tightened around Shiori's hand. "I'm sure whatever they're talking about doesn't concern you, Shiori-han. Let those two talk about whatever foolish things they want to discuss. The rest of us have more important things to do." Kaoruko turned her head around to smirk. "Who knows? Maybe the smell of chamomile will make them jealous. Or bring out ponzu to lure Yumeoji-han in."
Shiori offered a small smile. "Onee-chan does like her ponzu…"
"A little too much, honestly. But I suppose it's just like Futaba-han with her kinako sticks. And Kuro-han with her macaroons. Oh, we can steal some of those too. Those go particularly well with afternoon tea."
I think Onee-chan is a little more extreme than Isurugi-san and Saijou-san though…
As Kaoruko took them further away, Shiori turned to look back one last time at the room where her sister and Tamao were conversing.
The short conversation Shiori managed to catch came to mind again. Her sister's terse words and Tamao's concern weighed on her like an anchor dragging her down to the deep depths of the sea. Would the heaviness continue to fall deeper into the abyss of her doubts and unease?
Shiori shook her head. I'm overthinking things. Like Hanayagi-san said, if it was important, then Onee-chan will tell me herself. I just have to wait.
And so she would wait. And wait. And wait.
Until the day came when there was nothing for Shiori to wait for anymore.
It came all too soon. If Shiori had to resent anything, it would be the fact that she wasn't even given the time to prepare for everything that was to come.
Fumi suddenly took her leave a few days after her talk with Tamao, spiriting away into the night like a princess running away from her castle. All Fumi had left behind for Shiori was a short note that said she was taking a hiatus from her acting career for the foreseeable future to search for something of interest. Shiori would have thought it all to be a joke, if she hadn't opened the door and nearly ran into Tamao standing outside with her fist raised for another knock.
Tamao wouldn't tell Shiori about her sister's plans or her whereabouts, only reassuring Shiori that Fumi would be fine. To this day, their benefactor–and her current guardian in her sister's place–remained tight lipped about Fumi's situation. But as the months had marched on into years, Shiori couldn't stand to wait any longer. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was horribly wrong.
Especially after more and more members of their troupe started taking extended vacations for reasons no one wanted to divulge to Shiori. One by one, each of their departures gouged a hole into Shiori's comfortable life–a hole that deepened with every absence.
First Claudine patted her on the head and left her with a smile and a box of her favorite macaroons. Then Rui came to Shiori in the middle of the night, asking her to look after Tamao in her absence.
Weeks turned to months, then to years. Roughly two years, to be exact.
The void didn't become uncomfortably clear until Shiori saw Kaoruko alone one day, the morning after Futaba had shown Shiori her hidden stash of candy, trusting her to refill them when the time came.
Shiori wished she hadn't kept count of the days that passed. She wished she hadn't sat at home every day after practice, waiting by herself for the door to unexpectedly open and her sister to apologize for being gone for so long. She wished she hadn't hoped for the others to return and tell her they didn't know what souvenirs to buy, so they each got her various versions of horse-shaped gifts and the best tea they could find.
Such nice fantasies; that's all they were.
Reality was different. The world didn't baby her with the time to live in those dreams.
Since then, Shiori had tried to go about her life as if nothing was wrong– as if so many people who had once offered her such strong support hadn't just left her without so much as a goodbye. But even if the emptiness of their departures left Shiori hollow, none of them would have wanted her to stagnate. They had left her with enough to live by.
Shiori focused on improving her acting abilities, so that one day when Fumi and the others returned she could dazzle them with her brilliance. Tamao continued to run her troupe as if nothing was wrong, though there were days that Shiori could hear harsh whispered conversations between the troupe leader and her closest confidant. She tried not to think about how Claudine's box of macaroons had long since been emptied, instead reminding herself to check on Futaba's hidden candy stash. Futaba had left her with an important responsibility to refill it– should the time come, after all.
She didn't expect that time to come so soon.
"Futaba-han was never good at hiding things from me."
Shiori whirled around, slamming her back against the cabinet where the now empty jars were contained. A shadow loomed over her with her arms crossed, brows furrowed in annoyance, impatience, and an unexpected hint of uneasiness.
"Like that time she wanted to buy those boots from that shady auction held in town?" Kaoruko scoffed. "Hah, as if I wasn't going to notice how suspicious she was, trying to sneak off on her own without telling me! Then when she suddenly said she'd be leaving me for whoever knows how long, it was obvious just where she was going to go."
"I don't… I don't follow."
"Of course she would go there. The same place they all went. Akikaze-han, Kuro-han," Kaoruko's eyes found Shiori's, holding her gaze in place, "Fumi-han."
Shiori's breath hitched in her throat. "O-Onee-chan too?"
"All of them–out of their minds! What's so good about a mysterious rumor anyway? How is it worth risking every–"
Shiori surged to her feet to grab Kaoruko by the lapels of her flowery robes. No, at that moment it wasn't Kaoruko staring back at her with harsh exasperation, but her older sister's gentle smile whispering comforts and reassurances to assuage her concerns.
But that person wasn't here. That luxury had long since disappeared from her life. The one in front of Shiori wasn't her sister, but someone who did know where to find her.
"Kaoruko-san, where did Onee-chan go?" Shiori repeated the question she had asked many times over. But this time she added, "Where did they all go? Please… Please tell me."
Kaoruko pursed her lips. Seconds passed, until finally Kaoruko looked to the side and heaved a sigh heavier than Shiori had ever heard from her.
"Tamao-han was dead set on keeping at least you away from that place. No doubt in agreement with your sister's wishes." Kaoruko stared pointedly back at Shiori. "But what did she expect? You're all fools, after all. Tamao-han most of all for allowing Fumi-han to go."
"Even so...I have to know," Shiori insisted, releasing Kaoruko's lapels and taking a step back. She mustered the sternest face she could, clenching her hands into fists at her sides. "I'm not a child anymore."
Kaoruko huffed, crossing her arms and turning her face away again as her cheeks flushed in irritation. "As if age has anything to do with it… All of them older than you, but even a child knows to be wary of chasing ghosts!"
Ghosts? Dread shot down Shiori's spine, pooling uncomfortably in her stomach. "Onee-chan...is she…?"
"Fumi-han went searching for a ruined theater near a certain city along the coast. Whether or not your foolish sister or the others that went after her are still alive is uncertain." Kaoruko uncrossed her arms to pluck her fan from the sash around her waist, unfurling it with a practiced flick of her wrist. Turning her gaze back to Shiori and lightly fanning herself, she continued, "The others took most of Fumi-han's notes with them, but there should still be something left for you to look through."
Her sister's room. Shiori hadn't been able to bring herself to enter ever since her sudden departure.
"Getting cold feet, hm?"
"N-No!" Shiori dug her nails into her palms, hoping that would stop her shaking hands. "I'm...thinking of how to tell Tamao-san. If I leave, the troupe will be down to half of its members. It was already going to be difficult performing The Lost Princess with so few of us remaining, and our performances have been a struggle lately. Tamao-san was trying so hard to make our next act a success to make up for it all…"
"Then don't leave."
Kaoruko stopped fanning herself, narrowing her eyes at Shiori. The fan concealed the lower half of her face, but no doubt the frown on her lips had deepened.
"As you said, the troupe has been struggling with its shows. It's vexing when I have to use my funds to keep this place afloat rather than educating Tamao-han on proper cuisine. And with Futaba-han still gone, chasing after Kuro-han, things have grown even more inconvenient for me." Her voice lowered to a grumble. "At this rate, I might be tasked with cleaning, of all things…"
"I… I don't want to cause you or Tomoe-san any more trouble," Shiori shakily began, ignoring that last bit. "You've both taken such good care of me, even before Onee-chan left, and I can't thank you enough. I don't know how I could begin to repay you."
"But!" Shiori bit down on her lip, gnawing at her next words–steeling herself for the decision she needed to make. "But… I can't just sit here and wait for Onee-chan to come back anymore. It's been two years, Kaoruko-san. And if Kuro-san and the others also went to the same place Onee-chan did and are also in trouble–!"
"We don't know that," Kaoruko huffed, snapping her fan closed and waving it in some vague direction. "They could have found their stupid treasure and left us all for a better life."
"I don't think any of them would do that." Shiori raised her head, locking eyes with Kaoruko. "You knew Futaba-san better than any of us. You know she wouldn't."
Kaoruko averted her gaze, cheeks puffing into a brief pout. "Clearly I didn't know Futaba-han as well as I thought I did... No," Kaoruko sighed, resting her forehead against the base of her fan, "it's because I knew exactly what'd she do that it's such a bother!"
"I-I'm sure, especially because you're both childhood friends…"
"It isn't just Futaba-han! Kuro-han, Akikaze-han, and your sister too!" Kaoruko then mumbled under her breath, "No, no, in the first place it might have even been Tamao-han's fault. If she had just refused Fumi-han from the start we wouldn't have this problem right now! Always causing problems for me... Honestly, what would everyone do without me?"
Kaoruko shook her head with a small sigh. "Anyway, it's too late for all of that now. Right now… Shiori-han!"
Shiori straightened her back as if she was standing at attention for a military officer. With the way Kaoruko was now pointing her fan at her, eyes narrowed, she might as well be. "Y-Yes?"
"You said you didn't know how to repay us for our good will. Well, there is something you can do."
"And-And that is…?"
"It's simple, really." Kaoruko's lips tugged into a familiar smirk. "Go find Futaba-han and bring her back. And if you happen to find those idiots who left on their own while you're out there, well...do as you wish. Tamao-han would be upset and even more hopeless if you never return, so make sure you come back safe and sound too. I won't accept anything less than that! Do you understand?"
"Uh-" Shiori gulped. "Y-Yes!"
Kaoruko nodded, withdrawing her fan to tuck it back into her sash. "Good. If there's nothing else, hurry up and get what you need from Fumi-han's room. I take it you don't need me to show you how to snoop around your sister's things for those notes she left behind?"
Shiori shook her head. "No, I… I think I can manage on my own. Thank you though, Kaoruko-san."
Kaoruko huffed. "Don't thank me yet. I can't help you once you actually start your journey. Now go on! Shoo! The sooner you get started, the faster you can start repaying us both."
Once the realization that she had gained approval from Kaoruko fully sunk in, Shiori's shoulders drooped at the thought of informing her actual leader about what she planned to do. Although she had made the choice to inconvenience her employers and guardians, she still needed to actually tell Tamao that she would be leaving for an indeterminate amount of time.
Shiori sighed. "What should I say to Tamao-san…?"
Kaoruko waved a hand in dismissal. "Oh, don't worry about that. I'll tell Tamao-han myself after rehearsals. If you do it, she might become so distraught with worry that she won't even let you leave. The others were different, but she seems especially fond of you."
Something cold twisted in the pit of her stomach. "Are you saying I should...sneak away?"
"Shiori-han, what did you think you would need to do? And sneaking away from Tamao-han is painfully easy, I'll have you know. She'll never beat me in gift-giving with how oblivious she is."
"But to leave without saying anything…" One way or another, Tamao was going to be hurt. If, at least, she could avoid repeating the same pain that Fumi had inflicted with her sudden absence…
Kaoruko softly exhaled, turning around to leave the room with brusque steps. "No doubt you'll have to do things you don't want to if you're going to bring them back. If you can't even do this much, then this task is too much for you."
At Shiori's outburst, Kaoruko paused in the doorway, glancing at her from over her shoulder. Her amber gaze had turned dark and piercing, rooting Shiori in place like a lion would its prey.
"I...I can do it," Shiori said, taking a shaky step towards her. I have to do it. "I just...need time."
"Then what are you waiting for? Tamao-han may enjoy being in my company, but even I can't capture her attention forever, you know." Heaving another sigh, Kaoruko turned her head to face forward once more. "As a wandering scholar once said, 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.' I'd suggest keeping that in mind while you're out there."
Finally, she swept out of the room, leaving behind the floral scent of cherry blossoms and peonies in her wake, and one final quip.
"...Break a leg, Shiori-han."
True to Kaoruko's words, there wasn't much left of Fumi's notes. Shiori could only find a grand total of three pages of notes hidden within one of her desk drawers, protected behind a simple padlock that had seen better days. Shiori broke it while muttering apologies, reassuring herself that a broken lock was a small price to pay for finding her sister.
Two pages of Fumi's notes seemed to be diary entries that Fumi herself had annotated, though they were so illegible that Shiori could only make out a few words about desertion and a deceased family member and not much else. Fumi's annotations were just as cryptic, featuring unfamiliar names that might have been places or people. The final–and most legible–page seemed to be the beginning of a rough itinerary to her destination: a portside city by the name of Deion. The draft detailed what belongings Fumi would need to pack, how many hours it would take to travel there, and possible places to investigate for more information on where to find…
The oddity continued to weigh on Shiori's mind as she tried to steady herself in the back of the supply wagon she had found herself in, bound for Deion and her third wagon so far. To take her mind off of her soreness from the bumpy rides, Shiori dug into her knapsack for the one page of Fumi's notes that she could read.
Find the Devil of the Crypt beneath the stars.
No matter how many times Shiori reread Fumi's notes, she still couldn't understand what that could mean. Was it someone's pseudonym? Her sister couldn't have left to find the actual devil, right?
Putting that point aside, at least Shiori had a hint of what to look for once she arrived at Deion. She wasn't familiar with Port Deion or its city, so she would have to ask the townsfolk about any crypts nearby.
The wagon driver's voice startled Shiori from her thoughts. "Y-Yes, Sakuragi-san?"
"Try to get comfortable. The road is going to be a little rough from this point."
Rough...? Lowering the page in her hands, Shiori shuffled to the front of the wagon, peering over Sakuragi's shoulder to see for herself.
Bits of stone and other masonry jutted out of the road ahead, the elements and who knows how many years' worth of travelers having worn down their rough edges. And although most of it seemed to have fallen into ruin, Shiori could still recognize what looked to be a fort rising up nearby to the left of the road, perched atop a small hill. A tattered flag flapped lazily from its highest point, and squinting her eyes, she barely made out the faint emblem of a white lion.
"Oh...this is one of those battle sites, isn't it?" Shiori asked, her gaze sweeping down to the other ruins scattered between the fort and the road. Time had rotted away most of the wooden structures, but bits of stone and iron still poked through the tall grass.
"One of the minor ones. The city was named after this fort, you know," Sakuragi explained as the wagon rumbled along. "Of course, that was back when it was a town. After that, several nations occupied it over the decades until it transformed into the port city it is now."
As if summoned at the mention of Deion, Shiori picked up a faint hint of brine wafting on the breeze.
"Oh! That means we're almost–"
A sharp bump in the road cut off Shiori's words, sending her backwards to fall on her bum. Sakuragi's chuckle drifted to her reddened ears as Shiori shakily picked herself up, using a nearby crate to steady herself.
"I did warn you."
"You would think they could spare a mage to fix this road, but I suppose they wanted to preserve the ruins…" Sakuragi gave a brief glance over her shoulder, smiling faintly. "And yes, it shouldn't be long now until we reach Deion."
Indeed, it didn't take long at all until they rounded a bend, with Deion waiting just ahead. Like most settlements that had sprung up due to the wars, high walls encircled the city, protecting it from attacks by land and sea. Various flags from different nations hung from the ramparts, declaring Deion's neutrality. The only flag that had been raised, fluttering proudly above all of the others, was that of a star–an emblem Shiori didn't recognize from any of her past history lessons.
Is it unique to the city? Shiori wondered as they passed through the open gates. The guards standing nearby had it emblazoned on their tunics and shields, so it must be.
Shiori ducked her head in embarrassment after one of them caught her eye and waved in welcome. Did she make it too obvious that this was her first time in a city like this? Deion from a distance didn't seem that big as far as cities went, but it was still far bigger than her hometown.
She suddenly felt small and alone in this foreign world; a new frontier to brave by herself. And for a fleeting moment, Shiori wondered if it wasn't too late to turn back.
The pungent scent of the sea grew in strength as they left the city's entrance behind. Past the guardhouses and barracks, the rest of the city and the port came into view. Ships of various sizes lined the docks, with a few coming and going out to a glittering sea. Shiori closed her eyes to bask in the cool ocean breeze that blew by, letting the chill calm some of her nerves.
I've come this far. I can do this.
As they entered further into Deion, they passed by numerous townsfolk going about their day with their own shopping and errands. Despite their busy activities, many waved in greeting and wished them a good afternoon. When Sakuragi answered back with natural greetings of her own, Shiori followed her lead and did the same with a few awkward waves and hesitant hellos.
"Are you familiar with the townspeople, Sakuragi-san?" Shiori asked the woman once they had left the main thoroughfare, heading towards the port for her delivery.
"Not in particular. The people of Deion are simply amiable by nature, since they get plenty of travelers from their port. Their charm is quite contagious, don't you think?"
Shiori nodded in agreement. "Everyone did seem very nice."
"Deion wasn't always like that. The wars took a toll on everyone–this land was no exception." Sakuragi lightly tugged on the reins to slow the horses down some more. "Once the survivors managed to rebuild the town, I'd imagine the people here wanted to start anew with a fresh outlook to move past all the death and senseless violence bred from the fighting. And as you can see, their descendants inherited that feeling."
Sakuragi sighed, shoulders drooping a little as she muttered, "Places like this make you forget it was never really resolved."
Shiori greeted another kind woman with a small wave and smile. Once they passed her, Shiori lowered her hand to her lap and dropped her courteous smile. "I can only imagine what the survivors must have felt back then. It must have been so painful to lose everything and have to rebuild."
"I'm sure. But what's important is to keep moving forward, not lingering on the pain." Sakuragi's eyes glanced toward Shiori for a brief appraisal. "I'm sure you've experienced your own hardships. In the future, there will be obstacles that you'll have to overcome with all your strength. It won't be easy–and maybe the pain might seem too much–but you still can't give up. Remember that there are things worth fighting for. Do you understand, Yumeoji-san?"
Reacting just as she would for her old acting instructor, Shiori straightened her back and responded, "I-I understand. Thank you for your insight, Sakuragi-san."
Sakuragi chuckled lightly. "An old habit of mine from my teaching days. Now, where did you want me to drop you off?"
"Anywhere is fine. But if it wouldn't trouble you much, then the nearest inn will be best."
"Staying for a few days?"
"Hopefully not too long. There's somewhere I need to go, but I'm not sure where to find the place." Shiori pursed her lips. "Would you happen to know if there is a crypt somewhere nearby?"
Sakuragi shook her head. "Can't say I do, since I never stay long. But the inn I have in mind might be a good place to start looking for the answers you want. Since travelers frequently check in and out, it's one of the most popular places in Deion where all sorts of people come and go. The staff are also well-versed with attending to visitors; one of them may have the information you're looking for."
It was a start, at least.
After gathering her things and bidding Sakuragi farewell, Shiori followed her directions to the inn. Thankfully it wasn't too far, and she soon caught sight of the coiled snake that marked the Whispering Medusa inn. Even from outside, she could hear the boisterous laughs and loud revelry of the patrons inside.
Clenching the strap of her bag, Shiori took one more calming breath before entering the Whispering Medusa. She immediately had to suck in another sharp inhale to mitigate the shock of seeing so many people gathered in just the common area alone. Only a few heads turned her way, otherwise most of the patrons continued with their conversations as if nothing else mattered. Judging by the tankards and plates of food in their hands, it would seem there was a bar attached–no wonder it looked more crowded than an inn would normally be.
And with this many people, someone is bound to know something!
A tap on her shoulder pulled Shiori out of her thoughts. "Excuse me, are you just going to stand here and block the entrance? You're letting the cold in."
"Oh!" Shiori jumped to the side and into a hasty bow. "I'm so sorry!"
"Don't worry about it. There's no need to bow, either–it makes me feel funny on the inside."
"Ah…" Shiori raised herself back up, blinking in surprise at the black-haired woman standing before her.
Shiori had expected someone larger based on the stern voice that had greeted her. Instead, the woman is only a few centimeters taller than her, at most half a head above her. She also didn't seem to have a significantly larger build than Shiori either. Despite her lithe appearance, the woman's subtle frown and firm stance alone was enough to convince Shiori that she could probably survive just fine on her own. The ornate staff by her side also looked sturdy enough as a weapon, though Shiori herself wasn't well versed with those to reach that conclusion with certainty just from a glance.
She could make a confident guess that the woman's social standing was well beyond her own, if her sleek black cloak with its gold trimming was anything to go by. The clothing by itself looked more expensive than everything Shiori had packed with her.
I wonder where she was able to buy such a nice looking–
"First time here?" the woman asked, gaze critical as she took in Shiori's simple appearance. "And not the traveling type, either. But you don't look like another runaway noble or reckless scholar. In fact you kind of remind me of–" The woman's eyes narrowed further. "Hmph. A musician, I would say."
"I… I'm a performer, actually. Although I don't look like it right now," Shiori said, hugging her bag closer to her and suddenly self-conscious of her clothes. It wasn't as if she had a lot of time to grab her favorites. "I'm...on a small break from the troupe."
The woman raised an eyebrow. "From my experience, small breaks usually wind up being not so small. One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know you prefer a new life of endless indulgences."
"B-But I'm not–"
"It's not easy budgeting your relaxation time and remembering that you need to go back to the daily work and toll. You can only run for so long, after all."
"Like you, Amemiya-san?" a new voice cut in, light and cheerful in comparison.
A single black eyebrow twitched as its owner addressed someone next to Shiori. "Hold on, I do plenty of work. Especially whenever I need to run errands for you."
Turning to follow her gaze, Shiori nearly jumped at the sight of a shorter woman with long brown hair standing near them. She hadn't heard her approach, although that could be due to the hustle and bustle of the inn. The kind expression on her face was also much less intimidating compared to… Amemiya's?
The brunette giggled at the frown Amemiya directed toward her. "Yes, and then you'll disappear for a few days before coming back to my inn to try to lecture any unsuspecting visitors."
"I'm just being amicable. And offering advice is never bad."
"You're frightening the poor girl." The brunette poked a finger onto Amemiya's cheek. "With your oh-so-scary and serious frowning."
"Not everyone can smile as much as you do on a daily basis, Masai-san."
"It comes with the job and all. That said," the woman flashed Shiori a kind smile, "welcome to the Whispering Medusa! I'm Masai Kiriko, one of the employees here. If you would like to arrange a stay, I'd be happy to help you with that. A few rooms just opened up." She then gestured to her acquaintance, "And this is Amemiya Shion-san, a long-time friend of mine. Unfortunately, Amemiya-san won't be of any use to you when it comes to the inn, so it's best not to trouble her about that."
"If you need any artifacts made or appraised, however, I can help with that." Shion's frown softened into a faint smile as she tapped Kiriko's shoulder with her staff. "And if you need a lantern lit, Masai-san knows how."
Kiriko huffed. "It can't be helped that it's the only spell I know."
"And there's no problem with that. I think more people should at least know the simplest spells in case of any trouble."
"Or carry more matches with them," Kiriko sighed.
"Spellwork?" Shiori muttered in confusion. Come to think of it, Sakuragi-san mentioned something about mages before…
"Wait, are you unfamiliar with even the basics? Please tell me you at least know how to cast a spell to light a candle?"
"Um, I've always had enough matches on hand…?"
Shion scowled. "Oh great, another 'pragmatic' person who thinks they can survive without innovation. Let me guess, you still do your laundry by hand, don't you?"
"How else would anyone?"
Shion's scowl shifted into a milder frown at Shiori's own question, although it carried a hint of confusion rather than disapproval. Actually, there's some disapproval there too, Shiori thought, trying not to flinch when the mage moved to cross her arms.
Kiriko sighed with a slight shake of her head, bringing her hand to rest on Shion's shoulder. "Now now, no more lectures for today. I'm sure our weary guest would like a room to rest in after a long trip." Kiriko's reassuring smile helped alleviate some of Shiori's concerns about upsetting Shion. "If you're curious about learning some spells, Amemiya-san will be around to answer any of your questions once you've settled in. She spends most of her time here in the Whispering Medusa–the inn has already become her workshop, so to speak."
Shion's lips pulled up into a proud smile. "All of my treasures are stored here, after all."
Her eyes had fixated on Kiriko, eliciting a blush from the other woman. "A-Amemiya-san! No flirting in front of my guests!"
"I wouldn't say that was flirting, but if that's what you'd like to call it then I won't object."
"A-Anyway!" Kiriko stepped away from the mage to steer Shiori toward the front desk. "Let's get you paid for and settled in. I'm sure you have plenty to do in Deion yourself. Once you have a comfortable place to store your belongings, you can get right to it!"
Unsure of how to respond, Shiori could only allow Kiriko to guide her to the front desk. The process was simple and didn't require much except for an upfront payment for her total stay. Meals would also need to be paid for, but at least the baths were free to use. Since she was lodging alone, Kiriko recommended a small room on the second floor close enough to the baths for convenience and to the stairs should an emergency arise.
"My inn is the safest in Deion, especially thanks to Amemiya-san's wards," Kiriko said as she wrote Shiori's name down. "But you can never be too cautious."
After handing over a portion of the funds she had managed to bring with her–and panicking a little at the higher-than-expected price–Kiriko gave Shiori her room key and pointed her toward the stairs on the right in the general direction of her room. Upon reaching her floor, Shiori noted a few lodgers exiting what she guessed to be the baths at the end of the hall before entering her assigned room.
Just as Kiriko had recommended, the room wasn't large at all. A single bed big enough to comfortably fit herself was placed in the corner, away from a window with its curtains partly drawn shut. Next to the window was a small, round table and a single chair. There was also a dresser across from the foot of the bed. The only decoration in the room was a single painting hung on the wall opposite of the window, depicting a ginger-haired bard playing beneath the stars.
After checking the room for any abnormalities–she had heard stories before of peepholes in places like these–Shiori took a seat on the bed, dropping her bag at her feet. The fatigue from an almost full day's travel finally kicked in, tugging at her eyelids with a weight she could no longer ignore.
Masai-san did say to get some rest first… I think… I'll do that…
Collapsing onto the bed, Shiori closed her eyes and allowed herself to take a break for now.
She had made it this far. She could plan her next step once she had enough rest to think properly.
"Shiori. If you're reading this, by now I'll already be on my way–"
The books and stories and plays always set this sort of thing during a rainy day. A dramatic departure beneath cloudy skies that mirrored the grief of the one being left behind. It was almost unfair how warmly the sun bore down on them; how cheerfully and energetically everyone went about their morning as if nothing was wrong.
Did they know? Why weren't they as troubled as she was?
"–unsure of how long I'll be gone–"
The words on the page blurred before Shiori's eyes; or perhaps that was due to how badly her hands were shaking.
"–Please, don't follow me."
They always spoke of the rain and the tears. But they never quite captured the way the ground slipped beneath her feet, nor the rush of blood in her ears from the fall, pounding incessantly and drowning out all further thoughts. Her body felt hot and itchy–too small to contain the feelings welling up from her broken heart.
She had noticed that their conversations had grown fewer these days; her sister too busy to practice with her; meals taken alone or among the others instead.
Was it because of me…?
"...Do you always have to make it about you?"
At that hiss, the scenery abruptly changed. Her room bled away into darkness, surrounding her and the one other person in this void. A stage light flared to life, illuminating them both in a pale yellow.
"Always so annoying, chasing after me!" Fumi spat, lips curling back into a snarl. "It would've been better if you never existed!"
She didn't notice the swordbreaker in her sister's hand until it was too late. All it took was a single lunge forward for the blade to race towards her heart.
And then Shiori woke up.
Her hands immediately patted at her chest, searching for a wound to match the one she felt inside, newly reopened. Breathing became difficult with her panicked gasps, and the gloom of her room felt too much like the darkness in her dream.
It was just a dream… Only a dream…
Eventually–after counting slowly and controlling her breaths–she calmed herself down, rising out of bed and properly preparing for another attempt at sleep. Night had already fallen, and judging by the moon's journey through the sky, it was too late to visit the baths. Her dream had also robbed her of any appetite she would've had, not that she would've been able to bring herself to bother Kiriko for a midnight meal.
Which left sleep as her only option.
Onee-chan would never say that, Shiori told herself as she slipped under the covers, properly dressed and boots kicked off. She wouldn't try to kill you. She cares about you, even if she hasn't shown it lately. Just think of happier thoughts; think of when we went fishing together...
But her sleep was fitful after that, too haunted by jade eyes burning with hate.