The party finally arrives in the capital, Shinonome. The largest city in the world, Shinonome has been hit particularly hard by the plague of the son. As positions in the highly clerical and bureaucratic government were vacated, there was strong resistance to pushes for SK members to be promoted to these jobs. As a result, men are constantly being brought to the city to work jobs for which they are not fully qualified, leading to much confusion and stagnation of productivity. As they enter the city, Kazuo and Kagari notice that a small shrine is selling foxtail omamori to interested locals; Kazuo decides it’s better to pass this by.
Our heroes arrived just in time for the Fire Festival held only once every five years. During this holiday a large offering is torched for Ohirume to honor her blessings to the country. During the last festival, just before the plague of the son began, the offerings did not light well, as if the kami were unsatisfied and had turned their back on the proceedings. This year, the as yet uncrowned Prince Yukiteru will be lighting the pyre, and the public is very excited to catch a glimpse of his retinue procession. Kazuo decides to attend this event while Ren takes Kagari shopping for a nice new kimono to better help her blend in the fashionable city. At the ceremony Kazuo witnesses the lighting of the pyre; the young prince is wracked by coughs during the event, which begins a serious of terse rumors that his health might be failing.
Later that night, having overheard that Chiyo Kirihara would be attending a play in the area, Ren follows her to a potter’s workshop, where she purchases a strange custom urn. The man has been working on such an item for years, and is being paid a handsome sum for his efforts. Ren and Kazuo interrogate this man, who reluctantly reveals that he and his family defected from the inugami clans, and have been using their knowledge of conjuration and necromancy to aid Kirihara in creating an urn that will pacify anything held within it.
Rumors of unrest give Ren all the reason he needs to take a stroll through the walls of the palace grounds. During his first reconnaissance he is turned back, unable to find a way around a regiment of the Empress’s Flower Guard, a group of female bodyguards drawn from the ranks of SK. Ren makes his way inside the final walls on a second try, noting that the White Palace where the royal family resides has been joined by a Red Palace where the sister of the late emperor, the Princess Ama has taken up residence with her husband, the regent and minister of the left Lord Midorikawa. While trying to sneak into the White Palace through a window Ren encounters the empress Izuna herself, sitting solemnly in a high chamber. During a conversation with her, Ren learns that Izuna believes her sister-in-law hired the Mu ninjas to help her steal control of the throne by stalling the coronation until Yukiteru is dead. Ama probably poisoned Yukiteru to give him the plague of the son; a private shrine contained within the White Palace has been excreting a mysterious black substance ever since the late emperor’s death, which gives the plague to any man who touches it. The shrine is dedicated to Kikonon, who Izuna believes is somehow tied to the curse.
During this conversation a sudden commotion breaks out across the grounds. Smoke is visably rising from the Flower Guard’s training field, obscuring much of the gardens. Guards rush into the chamber to inform Izuna of terrible news while Ren hides; the princess Hinata who was observing today’s training exercises has gone missing after a sudden smoke bomb went off. Though the Flower Guard intuited what was happening, with their obscured vision they were unable to defeat their foe, who presumably carried off the princess. Izuna orders search teams to be sent out, but for news to be kept quiet, for she is certain her sister-in-law is responsible. Ren pledges that the party will aid in the search, and returns to the inn to gather his comrades. On his way out he briefly investigates the site of the attack, and notices the princess left faint footprints heading into the stream that cuts through the gardens, which lets out past the walls. A slim girl of 12 could easily shimmy through to the outside.
Kazuo, Ren, and Miyo return to the outer walls, where Kazuo shifts to the form of a fox in order to follow Hinata’s trail better. Her scent winds through the city, eventually making its way to the Floating District, and adults-only neighborhood of entertainment. Although Ren would gladly bluff his way into the geisha house the trail leads to as a customer, Kazuo opts for the direct approach. However, the bemused staff say they haven’t seen any little girl, and seem to be truthful. Sneaking around the upper floors, Ren sees a geisha presenting an expensive platter of food to a small boy in a private room. When confronted, the startled child makes a run for it.
Kazuo confirms the scent matches that of the princess, and the group eventually finds the child sleeping under a small shrine. Kazuo shows his true form to encourage the child to drop their disguise; sure enough, the little boy was actually the princess, using an alter self spell. Hinata had used enchantments to woo the geisha into taking her in and sheltering her. The group takes Hinata back to their inn for the time being, while Miyo muses on the strangeness of the situation on the way home. With Hinata’s permisson, she casts detect magic, and realizes Hinata is still under the effects of an alter self spell. Hinata reluctantly allows Miyo to break it, though she says her mother told her it was unsafe to do so around humans. With her final illusion broken, Hinata is revealed to have hair the color of fire, and two small fox ears where her human ones should be. Miyo says this confirms her hypothesis, that Hinata is a sorceror of the rare kitsune bloodline; however, the girl’s appearance is quite unorthodox, and would only make sense if she was a first-generation sorceror.
After a good rest, Hinata explains what happened the previous day. During the exercise she saw one of the new recruits unleash a bottle of smoke on the field; her private guard pushed her out of the way and told her to make a run for it. Ren confirms that this is a likely ninja hit; the aim was probably murder, not kidnapping. That evening, Ren and Kazuo leave Miyo to guard the princess while they sneak back into the castle to report to Izuna, who is waiting as expected in her private tower chamber. She is glad to hear her daughter was found unharmed, but surprised when Ren inquires about the girl’s appearance. Laughing, she says she is surprised he missed her veiled references during their last conversation, and unveils herself as a six-tailed kitsune. Kazuo is overwhelmed with emotion; this is his first meeting with any other kitsune, and he has no idea where to even begin speaking to her, aside from asking if they are the only kitsune left. Izuna attests that this isn’t the case; though many of their kind remain in hiding, much of their race left the mainland to live on a hidden island to the north, created for them and concealed by a powerful druid. Torn about whether or not he’d ever want to go there, Kazuo puts it off for the time being ,prioritizing the quests at hand.
Ren asks Izuna how she’d like her daughter returned to her. For the time being, it’s too dangerous to do so; if Ama really is out to kill her neice while her nephew wastes away, bringing her back now is a poor plan. The current threats have to be completely eliminated, which would entail:
- curing the prince and cabinet members who are ill, likely poisoned by Ama
- Tracking down the would-be assasin and defeating her
- Finding some way to to stop the castle shrine from oozing “essence of plague” , and
- politically undermining Ama’s relationship with the Mu to prevent future schemes
Ren and Kazuo agree to address these issues as best they can while keeping a low profile, and return to the inn.