Editor’s Note: Ryojiro’s player had to take an unexpected absence for the majority of the Kitsune Mori arc. A Zuihitsu will be posted to cover the reason for the character’s absence.
The journey toward Kitsune Mori been blessedly uneventful, thanks in part to the easy terrain: the land nearing the Crane alternates between green, rolling hills and grassy plains, parallel to a road that leads ever northward near the coast. The samurai have traveled in contemplative silence for a bit over a week, shaken by the events of Beiden, but slowly their mood has returned to something like normalcy.
Crow and Shio in particular seem to brighten the closer they grow to Kitsune Mori. By noon of the eighth day, Crow is singing her Ki-Rin songs and Shio is walking her pony with a light gait.
Atsu, conversely, stifles half-hearted yawns atop his semi-willing horse, though he does occasionally take in their surroundings with some semblance of lowered guard. Torokai, too, is caught hiding many a yawn into his arm, his saddlebags clanking against the sides of his horse. He shifts in his saddle and loosens his grasp on the reins, squinting at the horizon. There is a massive forest ahead, a river alongside it. There is a fork in the road leading onward. The main road continues north, a small bridge crossing the river, and the smaller, narrow road leads into Kitsune Mori.
Shio loses what little tension remained as the forest comes into view on the horizon, her posture oozing into an easy slouch. “Thank the Fortunes,” she sighs.
Crow dismounts her pony and walks alongside him, leading by the bridle. With Kitsune Mori in sight, her excitement is becoming more like nervousness. It manifests as silence and a hand frequently running through her hair.
Atsu thins his lips, turning a sour glance in Crow’s direction, then Shio’s. He is not as thrilled to be heading into non-human land. Shio catches the tail end of this and glances at him, tilting her head.
“Is there a problem?” she asks.
Atsu sniffs mysteriously. He inclines his head to the side to observe the approaching forest. “…Not yet.”
Torokai looks similarly leery, but does not voice it. He hums instead, dismounting as they take the fork. “I cannot say this is a place I’ve visited, myself.”
“I have only visited once, but I found it welcoming.” Crow glances over her shoulder to Torokai and Atsu with something like a reassuring smile; the gesture is undermined by her obvious nervousness. “What little of it I remember.”
Atsu grunts dubiously, furrowing his brow. He doesn’t voice the fact that he hasn’t visited this place; he probably doesn’t need to, with his huffiness.
Shio tries not to laugh. She coughs at the ground instead. “It takes a little getting used to,” she admits. “But it’s better than any place we’ve been so far, I promise.”
“It couldn’t be worse than Beiden!” Crow chimes in with a weak laugh.
“See!” Shio agrees.
Atsu grunts again. “As long as we do not see another Scorpion among these trees.”
Shio scoffs. “No Scorpion would be caught dead here.” Atsu looks pleased with this, but only just.
Torokai makes a grunt that might be a laugh, then falls silent until they are closer, where the trees begin to grow very, very tall; Crow marvels up at them as they enter. Up close, the forest is even more sprawling than it seems from afar. Shio closes her eyes and breathes in deeply. There’s a little more of a bounce in her step the further they venture beneath cover of the trees.
Several moments pass before Crow finally looks down from the canopy and back toward her companions. “I suppose we should present ourselves in Kitsune Mori Mura first. I will ask where to take the braid from there, if any of you would like to accompany me.” She looks to Shio before they can respond. “Let us hope your Hasako has enough oden to sate the lot of us!”
Shio beams at Crow. “That is the best course of action. Afterward, I would be happy to show you around, if you are at all interested. It has been some time since I have been home, but I’m sure things are much the same.”
Crow nods emphatically. “I was not fortunate enough to have a guide last time! I will follow your lead.” Her laugh is nervous as she runs her fingers through her hair again.
Atsu rumbles with uncertainty, wearing this emotion all over his face the deeper they get into the forest. Daiyu is, as ever, a beacon of silence, though there is a certain extra deadness to her expression; she does not share Crow and Shio’s enthusiasm.
The road leads them to Kitsune Mori Mura soon enough; it is a sprawling village of bizarre, antiquated architecture that integrates seamlessly with the massive trees around which it is built. Sliding screens are made of leaves rather than paper, and heavy carpets of sugi needles cover the rooftops. While it is not in outright disrepair, it certainly does not meet the common Rokugani standard of upkeep.
Shio shuffles her feet, still beaming like a child presenting her first poem to her parents. “I haven’t had the opportunity to show anyone the sights before—I hope I will do it justice.” Crow’s anxiousness seems to dissolve temporarily as they near the village; she is as captivated by it as much as the trees. Atsu stares around as they walk, eyes narrowed as if trying to spot some unseen threat.
Torokai takes the village in with something like suspicion, but he refuses to show even a hint of fear. His eyebrow goes up as they come to the wide, worn torii gates at its entrance. “Well, what’s most important! What sort of noodles do they have?”
Crow laughs, but stops abruptly as she looks to Shio for the answer. It is an important question. Atsu grudging concedes, nodding in agreement. “Food is of grave importance after so long a journey.”
Shio snorts and smiles. “Incomparable udon,” she says with pride. “And soba, if you prefer. But the oden is what I most recommend.”
Crow nods. “Yes! Shall we all get oden once we have presented ourselves?”
“That was my plan.” Shio smiles. “And perhaps a visit to the hot springs.”
“Presented ourselves?” Atsu is clearly concerned. Crow nods, her eyebrow raised.
“To the daimyo? And I think we could all do with a visit to the hot springs…”
Atsu clasps his forehead with an anguished and drawn out atchaaa.
Shio makes a soothing gesture. “Do not worry overmuch. I will vouch for you.”
Shio takes a meandering pace alongside her pony. Fortunes help her if something awful has happened here, too… Though considering her luck lately, she doesn’t entirely dismiss the thought from her mind. Atsu resigns himself to fate, following her lead through the village. He looks less sunken than he did on their approach towards Beiden, at least.
Crow, for now, is content to follow. She idly scans the outskirts of the settlement as they walk, searching for anything of interest… or perhaps a familiar face. Torokai falls in step alongside Shio, arms folded across his chest as he takes in the village. There is a large tree in the center, higher than the other sprawling homes, that is presumably where the daimyo or headman lives.
Atsu is openly wary of such a tremendous tree, and he eyes it accordingly even as they stop to stable their ponies. Once their mounts have been hitched and tended to, Shio takes them all to the central tree and brushes herself off before approaching. The headsman awaits them at the entrance. He is of average height, with black hair worn in a loose bun, and simple robes of deep browns. He bows, perhaps deeper than is necessary, as they approach, his smile warm when he straightens again. The samurai bow in return, Atsu looking wholly out of his element. They are led inside.
“It is good to see you again, Kitsune Shio.”
Shio follows him in with the ease of familiarity, relaxed and smiling. “And you, Kitsune Toshio.”
Toshio leads them past the entrance and into a vast room with two open walls overlooking the expansive forest. Once they have seated themselves on the tatami, Toshio settles opposite them. Two attendants—slight women of brown hair and green eyes—stand behind him at either side, their gazes politely downcast.
Where introductions might have taken place, there is a peculiar silence as Toshio scrutinizes Crow’s features. Eventually, he says, “Please forgive me, have we met?”
Crow’s anxious smile treads toward confused. “It is possible. I passed through Kitsune Mori some years ago. I am called Crow.” She bows her head. Shio raises an eyebrow at her, but says nothing.
Toshio looks thoughtful for a moment. “Ah, Crow, yes.” There is a heavy, palpable quiet, and then, “You enjoyed the oden.”
Crow laughs deep and genuine, its loudness a jarring contrast to the silence. “Yes!” She looks toward her companions and beams, apparently quite delighted. Or nervous. “I hope to enjoy it once more very soon!”
Toshio’s smile is warm even as he turns to Atsu, to whom he bows deeply. “We do not see many of the Crab, but they are a welcome sight. There is a band that passed through not a day ago. I believe they are staying.”
Atsu’s eyes bulge a bit at Toshio’s revelation. “My clansmen? Here?” He does a very poor job at disguising the incredulous tone in his voice. Crow looks toward Atsu with eagerness, wanting desperately for him to be as excited to be here as she is.
Toshio laughs. “Ah, they were just as surprised! But I believe they are enjoying the hot springs, presently.”
“We will be sure to visit the springs, then!” Crow’s nervousness has dissipated in favor of beaming at Atsu, who she claps on the shoulder with a broad grin; he stares at her with bloodshot eyes.
“The hot springs are very nice.” Shio waggles her eyebrows.
“May I ask the reason for your visit?” Toshio’s question is posed almost tentatively, “If you are not simply passing through.”
“Ah—yes.” Shio looks to Crow, who reaches into her kosode and produces the small wooden box containing the braid.
“We were asked to return the braid of Kitsune Chizu to the forest.” Crow’s mirth mellows into a quiet reverence as she presents the box to Toshio with both hands, her head bowed. Shio’s eyebrows, likewise, still into seriousness.
Toshio’s mood quickly mirrors theirs. He bows his head, clears his throat, and accepts the box with open palms. Crow watches it closely as it is taken from her, almost reluctant to give it up, but she says nothing on the matter.
Several moments of silence follow; at first, Toshio does not open the box, seeming almost torn on whether or not he should do so. When he finally does, he is careful not to touch the braid, and then shuts the box and smoothes his hand over it.
“I thank you, Crow. You have served us well yet again.” He smiles, then looks to the others and bows. “I thank you as well.”
Crow’s confusion is apparent on her face. She is quiet for some time, smiling politely but quite unsettled by this remark. Once an uncomfortable silence has passed, she remembers herself and bows.
“I cannot take any credit for this, Kitsune-san. Were it not for my friends, nothing would have been accomplished.”
Shio bows her head reverently as Toshio opens the box. “I am glad that we could perform this honor for her,” she says. “And I am glad to be home.”
“And the forest is glad to see you again, Shio.” Toshio smiles as one of his attendants steps forward to collect the box from him. He folds his hands atop his lap and looks to the remainder of the group, awaiting their introductions.
Atsu bristles and bows stiffly. “I am Hida Atsuryokunabe.” His voice booms despite his palpable disdain for this place, while Daiyu’s is much softer, but likewise devoid of enthusiasm.
“Kuni Daiyu.” Her bow is stiff and shallow, her eyes obscured by her sugegasa. Toshio smiles and nods to each of them all the same.
Torokai clears his throat and bows deeply before another awkward silence can come to pass. “I am Akodo Torokai, Emerald Magistrate of the Lion. I thank you for your generosity and welcome, Kitsune Toshio.” He seems on edge, presumably not keen to linger. Perhaps his empty stomach and the desire to try New Noodles is getting the better of him.
“It is an honor to meet you, Akodo-sama.” Toshio seems to sense his restlessness. “I am sure you are all hungry and weary, so I shall not keep you. You may see to any of the inns for lodging.”
The samurai stand when he does, and Shio bows first. “Thank you,” she says. “We shall speak again soon, I hope.” She leads the way out once their farewells have been said.
Outside, the weather is clear and the afternoon gives way to a warm evening. Crow has a spring in her step, though there is still an undercurrent of nervousness in her tone.
“Oden first? Or the springs?” It’s unclear if she’s talking to herself or the group. “I am sure you want to see Hasako!” She directs this, at least, pointedly to Shio.
“I do not find myself hungry.” Daiyu is quick to interject, bowing to her companions. “I will return to the inn later in the evening; I have heard tales of Kitsune Mori Mura’s library and should like to investigate.”
She does not allow any time for a response; instead, she turns sharply on her heel and makes her way in the opposite direction. There is a shared silence among the samurai before Shio clears her throat and looks back to her companions.
“Yes, food I think! This way.” She takes an abrupt turn, not really waiting to see if the rest are following her. She is intent, and steadily picks up speed as they near their destination: a small shopfront with a protective awning, already swarmed by a crowd awaiting their food. She rudely barges her way through a few chattering on the outskirts and plops herself down on a free stool with great authority, waving her hand in the air. “Kitsune oden, please!” she calls out, leaning over the countertop to peer into the kitchen behind.
There’s a call back, “One kitsune oden,” followed by a gasp and a laugh. A tall woman with distinctively green eyes, her hair tied back under a kerchief and apron over her front, darts to the counter and leans over to grasp Shio’s hand tightly, briefly, before she returns to the jumble of pots boiling behind her. “Coming right up!”
Crow makes her way to the counter at a great delay, weaving her way through the crowd with much greater care given to politeness. Though there is no empty seat near Shio, she hovers near her all the same, forced to bend down in order to fit under the awning. She watches the work in the kitchen with a wide smile.
“Another kitsune oden!” Crow calls afterwards, apparently having forgotten she is at a restaurant. Atsu echoes this, Torokai somewhat more quietly, before he retreats from the counter to wait.
Hasako acknowledges their order with three calls back, dishing out meals into bowls. The few orders ahead of them are dealt with quickly before she delivers bowls heaped with steaming inarizushi to Shio, Atsu, and Torokai. Torokai stares at his giant’s portion, offering a few more zeni than is perhaps appropriate, and Atsu promptly gorges himself. Hasako pauses in handing Crow her order, recognition blooming in her eyes, followed by a smile. Crow reciprocates with a stupid, toothy grin, bowing her head in thanks and gladly receiving the bowl with both hands.
“I thought you might be back,” she says to Crow with a wink, “I am very pleased to have been right!”
Crow laughs, her cheeks flushing. “It took a month to break away when last I was here!” She reaches for the nearest pair of chopsticks, offering a quiet, reverent itadakimasu with a bow of her head before she begins to shovel tofu and rice into her mouth.
Hasako laughs, grabbing used bowls left by other customers and placing them into a washing basin. “Only a month? I must be losing my touch.” There’s a pause as she neatens her workstation. Crow, meanwhile, learns exactly how many boiled eggs she can fit in her mouth at once (which is four). When she finally manages to swallow, she bows her head in half-flustered apology.
“I am sure I will be stuck at least two months this time.”
Torokai produces his lacquered chopsticks and approaches the oden tentatively, carefully inspecting its contents. He prods an egg, a fish cake, and, finding it sufficient, digs in. When he comes up for air, it’s with a wide smile, his head nodding once in appreciation. “Ah, it was indeed worth the journey, Kitsune-san.”
Atsu continues trying to shove as many noodles as he can into his mouth in one go, hopefully not very close to the polite socialization.
“You say you have been to these springs, then?” Torokai asks in the general direction of Shio and Crow once they’ve all had sufficient time to conquer the initial wave of hunger (and once he has downed about half of his bowl).
Shio nods to Torokai, somehow managing to swallow and answer semi-politely. “Many times,” she says. “They are very well-kept.”
Torokai smiles and bows his head, passing his empty bowl to Hasako. “I see, I see. I must make time to visit them, then.”
Hasako is quick to snatch up his empty bowl, talking as she does so. “I hope so! Though, Shio-san—” she frowns, giving Shio a look which is promptly reciprocated, eyebrows furrowed, mouth full. “Join me on my break? I’ve some news.” She glances at Crow as well, her mouth pursed in thought. “I would appreciate your ear as well, samurai-san.”
Crow nods. “Of course.”
Hasako gives them a wan smile. “It will be an hour or so.” With that, she leaves them to their meals and conversations, busying herself with other customers. With her back turned, her two fox tails are difficult to miss; they hang past the hem of her yukata, occasionally flicking—and are apparently of great interest to Crow, who stares openly at them with little care for propriety. Shio watches smugly.
Eventually the samurai all finish their meals, and Torokai waits patiently now that he is content. When she is finished, Crow looks to him and smiles. “Well, does it suffice?”
Torokai grins a very broad grin and laughs, nodding his head. “It does!”
Once they are done, Shio bids Hasako a jaunty farewell, trying not to brood too much on the ominous news. “I suggest we find lodging, then partake of the springs, if that is pleasing?”
Crow nods eagerly. “Yes! I would be grateful for the opportunity to put down my things…and to melt this knot between my shoulders.” She rolls one of them for emphasis, then slides payment for her meal along the counter. The tip is ridiculous.
Torokai nods in agreement, wiping his chopsticks and putting them away. “It sounds pleasing, yes.”
Though Atsu seems the least enthusiastic of all, even he can’t argue after such a meal. He grumbles his compliance as the four of them make their way to the inn and bathhouse.
The inn the samurai choose is small and modest where lodgings are concerned, but the crowd in the common area is more diverse than the rest of Kitsune Mori Mura; a handful of different clan mons are visible as they make their way to their respective rooms. It does not take long to offload their things and make their way downstairs to the main attraction of this humble inn: the hot springs to which it is adjacent.
Shio is there first, soaking in the water with her eyes closed, utterly at peace. Atsu is next, sticking his head around the corner from the changing room and checking left and right for a threat of any kind. Thankfully he finds no such thing, save a sika deer wandering over and nibbling on his sleeve. He stares it down in unmoving silence for several long moments.
“Oi, someone’s left their dog untied.”
The deer nibbles for another moment and then wanders off once it’s clear that it’s not about to receive any food or pettings; Atsu stares it down with mistrusting dead-fish eyes until Crow nearly mows it down in her rush to the bath. It honks angrily at her and she stumbles to maintain her footing, then turns long enough to bow and apologize to the creature before she resumes her brisk walk to the water. Once there, the rush is gone. She is content to float in blissful silence.
There are several others in the springs at this hour, a rocky set of stepping stones leading into clear water and scattered brush. In a semi-circle are the Crab that Toshio spoke of; among them is a tall and broad Hida man, and another that may be Kaiu. The third is a woman, tall and powerfully built and with a build for sumai, certainly a Hida. Atsu’s attempt to sneak into the bath is foiled when he is caught by the sound of their boisterous laughter. He narrows his eyes as he seeks the source, then gawks in spite of himself at the spectacle. Crabs are congregating.
The Hida woman has remained oblivious to the others in the spring until the sight of a sneaking Atsu catches her eye. Her eyebrows go up and she laughs in recognition (and a hint of relief).
“Ah, another son of Hida!” Her voice is booming.
Atsu emits a keen sound of horror in spite of himself. “H-HOO! ARE YOU HUMAN?!”
Her look of confusion immediately precedes a boisterous guffaw. “Human? Of course! We are hardly Kitsune!”
Atsu grabs at his chest, looking haggard. He breathes a sigh of relief after a moment. “I did not expect to find others here… least of all Crab-kin! You are… not being mistreated?”
“Not at all! Well fed, in-fact!” Kasumi laughs, too much or too loud—or both. “What are you called, son of Hida? I am Hida Kasumi.” She manages to bow despite ample amounts of sake.
“Hida Atsuryokunabe! Douzo yoroshiku…” He bows.
Kasumi is practically glowing when she reciprocates, and then turns to the others floating about. “And what are your names? Do you travel with him?”
Torokai is just stepping into the springs when they are all called upon by Kasumi. Stopping where the water reaches halfway up his calves, he looks as though he isn’t sure what to make of all these Crabs, but responds with his usual politeness all the same. “Akodo Torokai, Hida-san.”
Crow scrambles to her feet from her lazy backstroke, having not been expecting attention from the Crabs. “I am called Crow, Hida-san!”
Shio forces herself to stop oozing steadily downward into the water to return the Crabs’ greetings. “Kitsune Shio,” she says with a half-bow, then shivers and returning to hiding most of herself underwater.
Kasumi grins at Atsu. “That is quite a name!” She looks to the rest of them and nods to each of their introductions. “Very good. To where do you travel? Unless this is your destination?”
Atsu flares his nostrils, reddening slightly. Was he huffy? “Taking some well deserved rest after Scorpion dealings, of course.”
“I hope that we are able to stay for at least a few days.” Crow adds, falling easily into her back stroke.
“At least.” Shio agrees.
Torokai clears his throat. He straightens wearily and withdraws his foot from the pool, shakes it off, and sticks it right back in. “We are traveling to the court of Asahina Takeshi.”
Kasumi looks at Atsu, then Torokai, beaming. “Asahina-san? Yes, yes, that is where we are traveling as well.” Her eyebrows knit. “Scorpion dealings, you say?”
“Yes, we—” Atsu pauses, looking skyward as he wonders if he should mention exorcising ghosts. “…We assisted with a family situation, albeit grudgingly.”
Kasumi folds her arms and nods, still standing. There’s a number of worn, goblin-height scars on her thighs and knees. “I must wonder why you’d help a Scorpion, but it is good that it’s been resolved.”
Atsu trails off. “It was more for the sake of those living there, but—” He is arrested by the scars as he notices them, “—tell me, Kasumi-san. Do you move well against goblins?”
Kasumi seems confused for a moment, her eyebrows furrowing rather dramatically. Then she follows his gaze and realization sets in. “Do I move well against goblins?” she echoes. She is laughing but also… maybe offended? Or looking for an excuse. “Hida-san—do you like sumai?”
Atsu frowns, knitting his brow in confusion. “Yes, it is enjoyable to watch… but why do you ask? Did you engage in a sumai match with goblins?”
Kasumi bellows a laugh, but nods several times. The two men behind her cease their conversation and the Kaiu nearly seems ready to speak up, but she hands off her sake jug to him unceremoniously and grins. “Honor me, then, of showing me your expertise. Surely you are a capable warrior.”
Atsu’s face falls. He stares at her, lifting a hand to point at himself questioningly. She only grins and nods, to which Atsu grunts as he considers. He drops the sleeves of his little bathrobe and flexes his fingers. “Do not regret it, Hida-san!”
Kasumi laughs and rolls her shoulders, stretches her waist, and crouches easily into a grappling stance, the water level touching her ankles. For a long time she is still, focused, and sizing him up.
Torokai seems torn on whether or not to do something about Crab sumai in the otherwise peaceful hot springs, his hair unbound from its topknot and steamed to the sides of his head. He rubs his mustache and makes a sound of dismissal before he ups and leaves.
Kasumi lunges forward in a low stance; Atsu meets her charge, hooking his arms in hers and pushing her back. Though she has the upper hand at first, it seems to be quickly fading, and her foot slides back a pace. Eventually she manages a grasp, tries to push him back, but can’t establish a grip as firmly as she’d like. “Not bad, son of Hida!”
Atsu grunts in gratitude, veins bulging from his forehead to accompany a cry of great exertion. His efforts to push her backwards are met with powerful resistance. Kasumi grunts and struggles against it. Eventually, she’s pushed out of the tub, onto dry land, and laughs appreciatively as she catches herself on the steps. Once she rights herself, she bows deeply, her hair loose and drenched now. “I thank you for your demonstration! It was most impressive.”
Atsu, now soaked from the waist down, squishes as he bows in return. He becomes teeth and lets out a breathless yaa. “It has been too long since I have last seen fellow Hida, much less had such a challenging match!”
Kasumi grins, bowing deeply again. The two Crab behind her are cheering, even the Kaiu, and she reaches for her light brown kimono after drying herself off. “From where do you come, HIda-san?”
Atsu hums. “The Village of the Reinstated Hero. We have traveled quite far, now that I think of it.” Atsu futilely tries to wring his pant legs while still wearing them. “Where have your travels brought you all from?”
Kasumi laughs in appreciation and a bit of wonder. It is, again, a bit too loud and too much. “Truly? That is quite a ways! We come from a village near Kyuden Hida with word of the Wall for the court.”
Atsu nods gravely. “While I find a lack of envy for courtly matters, I am gladdened to know that at least we will have strong voice there!” He is teeth again, and clearly has no idea what he’s about to go through.
Kasumi looks grave for a moment, but laughs again. “I would not envy myself, either! Truthfully, it is news of … stirrings beyond the Wall.”
“Stirrings?” Atsu frowns.
Kasumi nods, her face serious now. “The Kuni speak of omen and prophecy. Several bands of Berserkers have not returned.”
Atsu rumbles discontentedly. “Ill news indeed, if heads have gone missing to support the words of the Kuni.” He wipes some of the water from his scalp. “What does the Champion propose?”
Kasumi rubs her chin. “He proposes several steps. The first is traveling news. And so we are here.” She ties the blue sash of her kimono and ties back half of her hair. The two other Crab have dressed, bowed to Atsu, and made their way down the stairs, likely for dinner. Kasumi bows. “I must depart for oden. Sleep well, son of Hida! We will see each other again.”
Atsu bows deeply. “Be sure to replenish your strength for our next match, daughter of Hida!”
Kasumi grins as she starts off after the two other Crab. “I can guarantee one!”
Once the Crabs have departed, the spring is considerably more quiet. Crow and Shio float by themselves, and a gentle breeze carries stray sugi needles from their swaying boughs to the water’s surface. One such needle lands across Crow’s nose, eliciting a sneeze and causing her to sit upright.
“Hasako-san is very pretty.” A dreamy sigh follows as Crow rubs at her itchy nose; Shio chuckles and nods in agreement.
“Yes. She is even more pretty without the apron.”
Crow’s smug grin transitions quickly into something like horror, and there is a cacophonous splash as she turns to bow to Shio.
“O-oh! Are you—! I am sorry, Kitsune-san! I had no—I had no idea! I did not mean any disrespect!”
Shio, flabbergasted, raises her hands as if to calm Crow.
“No, no, it isn’t like that, Crow-san. We…I…” She exhales through her nose, struggling to find the words. “…we are not partners. And she seems to like you very much, at least from what I can tell.”
Crow, red-faced, looks marginally less horrified, though still quite embarrassed. At least she has stopped bowing.
“It was presumptuous of me, Kitsune-san. I should not pretend to understand the ways of foxes and birds.” A stiff, awkward silence culminates in an abrupt dunking of her head in the water, long enough to scrub at her scalp for a few moments. When she straightens, her hair hangs well past her waist and she looks not unlike a soaked dog, face almost entirely obscured.
“Do you think enough time has passed?” In lieu of anything substantial to follow up the awkward exchange, Crow turns the unrelated question toward Shio, who lifts her head from the water long enough to consider. Eventually, she nods.
“I think so, yes.”
The pair of them wade their way out of the water and dry themselves off, and then dress themselves before Shio leads them out of the inn and back toward the oden shop.