Nobuhide’s palace is brightly lit, a beacon of lantern-light in the coming night swallowing the rest of his kingdom. His servants hurry about, passing torch embers from lantern to lantern, revealing the warlord’s home as a series of tiled-roofed buildings, connected by open-air walkways and decorated with pieces of shells like they’d been dredged right from the ocean. In fact, from afar you can hear the waves pounding against the shore, a distant “whooshing” that adds a sense of calm to the busy palace grounds.

The Samurott warlord stands in the garden courtyard at the center of his palace, listening to those very sounds. Nobuhide crosses his arms behind his back, closing his eyes and breathing in deeply, feeling at home in the faint scent of salt and sand that drifts weakly from the sea… then, snaps back to alertness as the doors to his courtyard open. Alaric, Gawain, and the rest of the Aetherians enter the courtyard; the citizens wander throughout the garden of lotus blossoms and bamboo shoots while the king and captain head straight for the warlord.

Alaric Talking: You wanted to see us, Nobuhide-sama?

Nobuhide Talking: (turning around) Please, Alaric, it has been several weeks since you’ve arrived in Sazanami. I believe you have earned the right to drop honorifics around me.

Alaric Icon: Very well. How can we help you, Nobuhide?

Nobuhide Icon: Well, I must admit, I have called you here for… several reasons. But let’s start with news of the other warlords: how did the tasks for Takeshi, Kaoru, and Eboshi go?

Alaric Happy: I am happy to say that Takeshi’s task of fixing the roof and bath in Hanako’s territory went well.

Alaric Confused: … though there was a small incident that happened after the work was finished.

Nobuhide Serious: Oh? Nothing too serious, I hope?

Alaric Icon: No, thankfully the situation was defused before anything horrible could happen.

Gawain Confused: Heh, though who would’ve thought we’d be glad that stuffy deer was around to stop it!

Alaric Disappointed: That being said, I’m afraid we have some disappointing news to share about the other two tasks.

Alaric Serious: While the job for Kaoru -- gathering the Dong Quai root, if you recall -- went without too many problems, we later heard that Kaoru had sent a letter to you, Nobuhide, and it had been stolen before it could reach you.

Nobuhide Shocked: Truly? Who stole it, do we know?

Alaric Annoyed: No. All the messenger recalled was that the thief felt cold and had wet skin.

Gawain Disappointed: Not many clues to go off, for sure.

Alaric Worried: Though, what has me worried is the contents of the letter. If they made such an effort to steal it, what could they want to know?

Nobuhide Struggle: Ohhh, I’m sure it’s nothing too serious! Kaoru had promised to send me a new recipe for helping with my nightmares, that must be the contents, no need to worry. (clears his throat) But what of the third task, catching those bandits for Eboshi?

Gawain Annoyed: The bandits were easy, but turns out they were workin’ for someone.

Alaric Angry: Eboshi’s assistant, Sato Osamu, was behind the attacks on the shipments. He betrayed his warlord’s trust, even managing to escape with his hired thugs afterward.

Gawain Serious: Betcha HE’S the traitor everyone’s been lookin’ for too!

Nobuhide Serious: We can’t say for sure, captain. Frankly, I’m more concerned about Eboshi, she and her assistant are much closer than one might suspect… how is she doing?

Alaric Confused: I can’t tell you for certain -- she sent us away right after Sato escaped -- but from what I could see, she was quite shaken, a bit lost even.

Nobuhide Icon: As I expected. I will have to send someone to her to assist in making sure the province stays stable.

Gawain Determined: Yeah, cuz we know that Eboshi can’t run it herself, ha!

Nobuhide turns, as if to retort… then changes his mind, facing the direction of the distant crashing waves, shoulders slumping. Alaric glares at Gawain, signaling for him to ‘shut it,’ and slides up to Nobuhide’s side, staring curiously at the long-faced Samurott.

Alaric Worried: Something is troubling you, Nobuhide.

Nobuhide Struggle: (laughing derisively) Noticed that, did you? Yes, Alaric, I am troubled -- troubled by the lack of safety in my country. Stolen letters, betrayed warlords: it’s enough to many ANY ‘mon worry about the state of their affairs. All of this has been happening under our noses… and I worry if we will be able to stop this tide from washing over us.

Alaric Sad: I understand your feelings of helplessness. This situation… I have been here once before and would never wish it to befall anyone, not even my worst enemy.

Alaric Determined: But we will make Sazanami whole again. We will root out the traitor, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, and peace will return to this country again!

The Samurott stiffens, eyes shifting in his head; you can almost see the gears twisting in his mind. But before he can voice his thoughts, a flurry of wingbeats sounds, and they turn to see Wakana land in the garden, feathers briefly glimmering as she folds her wings against her side.

Wakana Struggle: I fear that we have even bigger things to worry about. Isas and Shino have gone to war.

Nobuhide Shocked: What? NOW?!

Wakana Talking: Unfortunately. Isas made an attempt to extend the scale of his mining operations to the east -- again -- to gather more materials for the war he sees is inevitable. Of course, Shino clashed with him right away, to stop him from damaging both nature and shrines.

Wakana Icon: But Isas has a new assortment of weapons that are giving Shino trouble, and the battle is quickly getting out of hand. Sho has already headed north to come in-between them, though I’m not sure even he can succeed this time. From what I’ve heard, Isas is extra stubborn about winning, and Shino… well, he’s Shino, he’ll do anything to keep nature untouched.

Wakana Talking: News has already reached Katsumi, and though I flew as fast as I could, Shogo’s armies might already be marching to escort her to the battlefield. Takeshi is up there too, helping Sho, but he sent me here to alert you.

Nobuhide Serious: This is disturbing news, indeed.

Gawain Angry: ‘Disturbing’? More like INSANE! Why would those two decide to butt heads NOW, when they’re at the brink of fallin’ apart?! What ELSE could go wrong?!

Suddenly, Hoori runs in, out of breath and panicking:

Hoori Serious: Someone has attempted to assassinate the Shōgun!

Nobuhide Shocked: WHAT?!

Alaric Shocked: How?!

Wakana Shocked: When?!

Gawain Annoyed: Me and my big mouth.

Wakana Struggle: B-But that’s impossible! Last I heard, Katsumi was still in her palace!

Nobuhide Serious: Explain, Hoori. How did you come by this news?

Hoori Serious: A messenger just arrived with a notice from the Shōgun’s assistant. It said that a masked Scizor snuck into the Shōgun’s private garden and tried to kill her. Luckily, the Shōgun was able to fight him off, but he’s still at large, and the entire kingdom has been put on high alert until he’s been caught.

Gawain Angry: Coward! We should help, Alaric, track this guy down and make him pay!

Alaric Serious: Agreed. Hoori, do you still have that notice?

Hoori Icon: Of course.

Alaric Serious: Good. We’ll need it, in order to come up with a plan of attack.

Gawain Determined: Ha, we’ll squash that bug, right good!

Nobuhide Shocked: No!

Everyone jumps, staring at the Samurott who had been uncharacteristically pale during Hoori’s explanation. Nobuhide recovers, shaking his head vehemently.

Nobuhide Struggle: You mustn’t hurt the Scizor too badly. We will need him to testify against his peers.

Alaric Worried: Peers? You believe he isn’t working alone?

Nobuhide Annoyed: I seriously doubt it. Remember when I was concerned about the safety of Sho’s teahouse, on account of the suspicious ‘mons running amok? Due to the proximity of Sho’s lands to the Shōgun’s palace, not to mention the unlikelihood that one ‘mon was able to sneak into her private garden undetected without assistance, it would seem that this would-be assassin has a connection with that group of ne'er-do-wells. In fact, I might even go so far as to think he is somewhere in Sho’s lands, hiding out until he can leave the country. I’ve managed to find out a little about the group; Hoori can get you copies of those notes so you can decide how to proceed.

Nobuhide Serious: And I would request that once you catch him, you take the Scizor back to Sho’s palace for questioning.

Alaric Icon: Why not to you?

Nobuhide Talking: I am not impartial when it comes to the Shōgun’s safety. But Sho has been neutral in all things: perhaps the Scizor will be more willing to speak with him than me.

Nobuhide Serious: And remember -- do NOT injure the Scizor too badly. Detain, not destroy. Understand?

Gawain Disappointed: Fine, he’ll get to stay in one piece.

Alaric Determined: Do not worry, Nobuhide, this Scizor will be caught before any further harm can come to Katsumi -- and we’ll be sure to come here to let you know of our success, once we’ve delivered him to Sho.

Nobuhide Icon: I’m sure you will… Now go. Hoori, give them those notes and the notice from the messenger, alright?

Hoori bows, leading Alaric, Gawain, and the Aetherians out of the courtyard. Now Nobuhide and Wakana are alone, and the Unfezant glances worriedly at Nobuhide, beak set in a grimace.

Wakana Struggle: Nobuhide, there is something strange going on. I had heard nothing about this assassination attempt during my flight here, and the fact that someone got here around the same time as me with such news, while I’m the fastest messenger we have… Does that not strike you as odd? … I feel something terrible is about to happen… You feel it too, don’t you?

Nobuhide frowns, turning away from Wakana. She can’t see his face as he reaches inside his robe and pulls out a letter, its edges crumpled like they’d been grabbed urgently, perhaps even twisted with anxiety.

Nobuhide Struggle: I did not think I’d be sending this letter so soon…

Wakana Talking: Nobuhide? I… I did not mean to upset you, I only meant --

Nobuhide Icon: No, no, do not trouble yourself, Wakana. Merely the musings of a tired, old man. I agree, something isn’t adding up, and I’d like you to deliver this letter to Sho and urge him to return home to his palace, to meet with Alaric and the others once they capture the Scizor.

Wakana Icon: You really believe they will find him?

Nobuhide Serious: I have the utmost faith in them. You must give this to Sho straight away, make sure he reads it immediately, this is very important.

Wakana Icon: I understand.

Nobuhide Talking: Good. And tell Takeshi I said hello.

The Unfezant nods, grabbing the letter in her beak before flying up and out of the courtyard. Nobuhide watches her go, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. But there’s no scent of salt and sand: now there’s a smell of musk and dirt, and he can sense something--

Hoori Talking: I gave the Aetherians copies of the notes, milord, as well as the notice. Anything else I can do for you?

Nobuhide Struggle: A-Ah, Hoori, it’s just you… No, there’s nothing el -- I mean, yes, yes you can do something. Go to the Dragon Palace and inform Otohime-sama of what has occurred. Perhaps she can offer a prayer for the Shōgun… and the rest of us too…

Hoori Icon: Of course, right away, Nobuhide-sama.

Nobuhide Talking: Good lad. Hurry -- and be careful.

Hoori shoots him a thumbs-up then wanders away, leaving Nobuhide alone once more. The warlord sighs before walking out of the courtyard and towards his office, offering a slight smile to all the servants he passes. He heads inside the darkened room, reaching his desk and striking a match against the wood, lighting a small lantern hanging above him. Immediately, the smell of musk and dirt hits him again, stronger this time...

First pannel

Second pannel

Third pannel