E6 - Kitsune Mori, Part 1

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The samurai finally make their way to Kitsune Mori to return the braid of Chizu to its final resting place. They bond over oden, onsen, and sumai wrestling, but soon find that things are amiss in the forest.

CAST, CREW, & CREDITS

Narrator: James
Crow & Kasumi: Mal
Kitsune Shio: Hanna
Kuni Daiyu: Ely
Hida Atsu: James

Script writing & editing: Arielle & Hanna
Audio/sound design: Mal & Arielle

And a HUGE thank you to our patrons and beta listeners!

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It has been a week since the samurai left Beiden, and their journey south is fortunately uneventful. The sparse forest has slowly been overtaken by green, rolling hills and grassy plains. In the distance, another road leads ever northward near the coast.

 

Crow has cheered up bit by bit the further from Beiden and the deeper into the plains they get. Soon, she’s her old chatty self. Shio is deeply relieved to be away from concentrated groups of humanity, walking her mount rather than riding as they pass out of reach of Beiden and its hungry ghosts. She seems lost in thought, but her gait is light. The horse lingering in biting distance of her head doesn't even seem to occur to her as a concern.

 

Atsu stifles a half-hearted yawn atop his semi-willing horse. He occasionally glances around to take in the view, and as their journey continues without any signs of danger, his guard gradually seems to loosen. Daiyu trails them quietly, caught up in her own thoughts.

 

Torokai yawns into his forearm, saddlebags clanking against the sides of his pony. He shifts in his saddle and loosens his grasp on the reins, squinting at the horizon. The green shadow of a forest looms ahead, edged by the telltale sparkle of a river. By midday, they’ve grown close enough that the true immensity of Kitsune Mori is apparent: the trees are massively, almost unimaginably, tall, and coated in moss and lichen. Their trunks are so thick that it would take a handful of men to encircle them. The wind off the plains is swift, but only stirs their crowns; the sound of rustling leaves is high and distant. The river forms a natural border between forest and plains, with only a small wooden footbridge to connect the two.

 

The road forks several miles from the edge of the wood, the larger continuing on and a smaller, thinner track with grass growing in its center leading into Kitsune Mori.

 

Crow seems conscious of Atsu, Daiyu, and Torokai’s lack of enthusiasm. She tries to tone down her rising excitement--mostly. What little tension left in Shio dissipates as the forest comes into view, her posture loosening into an easy slouch. [sighs] "Thank the Fortunes.”

 

Atsu thins his lips, turning a sour glance in Crow's direction, then Shio's. He isn’t thrilled to be heading into a place thick with non-humans. Daiyu’s mouth draws into a thin line in the shadows of her hat; her opinion seems similar.

 

Crow dismounts her horse once the smaller, thinner road comes into view. From there, she walks alongside, leading it by its bridle. With Kitsune Mori in sight, her excitement becomes more like nervousness, quieting her steady talk.

 

Shio glances at Atsu and tilts her head. "Problem?”

 

Atsu sniffs. He inclines his head to the side to observe the approaching forest. "... Not yet."

 

Torokai looks similarly leery, but only hums in thought, his gaze tracing a tree as far as he can see up its trunk. He also dismounts as the tiny road winds closer to the trees. "I cannot say this is a place I've ever visited."

 

[Crow] "I have only visited the forest once, but I found it welcoming."

 

Crow glances over her shoulder at Torokai and Atsu with a reassuring smile.

 

Atsu grunts dubiously, brow furrowing. He doesn't voice the fact that he hasn't visited this forest; he probably doesn't need to either.

 

[Shio, trying not to laugh] "It takes a little getting used to, but it's better than any place we've been so far, I promise."

 

Shio may be crossing her fingers, out of view.

 

[Crow] "It couldn't be worse than Beiden!" [nervous laughter]

 

[Shio] “See!”

 

[Atsu, grunt]  "As long as we do not see another Scorpion among these trees."

 

[Shio, scoffing] "No Scorpion would be caught dead here."

 

Atsu looks pleased with this, but only just. Torokai grunts a laugh then falls silent until they are closer, where the trees begin to grow tall, tall, taller. Up close, the forest is even more sprawling than it seemed from afar.

 

Crow marvels up at the trees as they enter. Even now so many huge, tall things in close proximity stagger her. She looks like a chicken trying to drown itself for some time.

 

Shio closes her eyes and breathes in deeply. There's a little more of a bounce in her step the further they enter the cover of the forest.

 

The road onward leads to Kitsune Mori Mura, but as they travel, it grows fainter and fainter. Soon they walk on little more than a worn trail, half-covered in leaves and moss. The sound of the plains’ wind fades, replaced by a clamor of birdsong.

 

Crow pays more attention to the road as it seems to disappear. She finally looks down from the canopy, back to the others. "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."

 

She glances at Shio. [trying channel her nerves into positivity] "Let us hope your Hasako has enough oden to sate the lot of us!"

 

[Shio] "That is the best course of action. Afterward I would be happy to show you all 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, emphatically] ”I appreciate your guidance. And your company!" [nervous laugh]

 

Atsu rumbles, uncertainty creeping into his face the deeper they go into the forest. He glances around as they walk, trying to spot some unseen threat.

 

Past a wide, worn torii gate, the trail splits into a multitude of pathways between the trees. Soon, the trail opens up, and Kitsune Mori Mura rises before them. It's a sprawling settlement that is clearly very old, perhaps ancient. Few traditional buildings sit in this village. Instead, many homes and shops appear to have grown from the trees themselves, molded from the living wood by magic or careful gardening and encouragement. Their shoji are lined with translucent leaves rather than paper, and moss coats what little stone is visible in soft green carpet. Small, pale mushrooms dot beds of moss covering roofs and small carts selling lacquer bowls, sake cups, and netsuke made of wood and bone. The air smells electrifyingly, and overwhelming alive, heavy with the scent of mulch and pollen as cicadas hum in the trees.

 

The people here seem at ease. Peasants gossip as they pass with carts loaded with spring forest bounty: mushrooms, herbs, and berries. In the distance, several Fox samurai sip tea atop a leafy balcony, nearly blending into the trees in their brown-silver kimono. Once in a while, there are a pair of unsettling green eyes, or the telltale stir of a tail beneath of a kimono.

 

Shio shuffles her feet, smiling nervously like a child presenting a gift. "I haven't had the opportunity to show anyone the sights before--I hope I will do it justice."

 

Crow beams as they enter the village, captivated by it as much as the forest.

 

Torokai looks around suspiciously, but without fear. His eyebrows rise as they pass through the village's wide, worn torii gates. "Well, what's most important right now. What sort of noodles do they have?"

 

Crow laughs, looking immediately to Shio.

 

[Atsu, grudgingly conceding] "Food is of grave importance after a long journey.”

 

[Shio, snorts, then proudly] "Incomparable udon. And soba, if you prefer. But the oden is what I most recommend."

 

[Crow] "Yes! Shall we all get oden once we have presented ourselves?"

 

[Shio] "That was my plan. And perhaps a visit to the hot springs."

 

[Atsu, concerned] "Presented ourselves?"

 

[Crow] "To the daimyo. And I could do with a visit to the hot springs after that journey..."

 

[Shio, soothing] "Do not worry overmuch. I will vouch for you."

 

Atsu clasps his forehead with an anguished and drawn out "atcha."

 

Crow gives Shio a toothy grin. "Lead the way, veteran forest-dweller."

 

Shio scoffs, but takes point. She leads them at a meandering pace beneath the torii. A hint of apprehension flickers across her face; Fortunes help her if something awful has happened here, too. The others fall in behind her, Crow content to take in the sights and Atsu resigned. Torokai folds his arms across his chest as he follows. Daiyu resettles her scroll case to calm her tightly controlled nerves.

 

Shio leads them first to a stable for their ponies before taking them back onto the main thoroughfare. Crow follows her closely. Atsu, meanwhile, is sweating and wide-eyed in the presence of such colossal trees.

 

A massive tree wrapped in a thick rope shimenawa dominates the center of the village. It is a sugi of such massive proportions that its branches make a shaded clearing large enough for an impressive garden. Mushrooms and strange, deep forest flowers twine around small, still, reflective pools, whose depths reveal not only koi but sleek, silver fish. Two old, moss-softened kitsune statues guard the entrance of the tree, their crimson bibs fresh and crisp, their faces angular.

 

A woman of average height with black hair, her eyes a striking shade of forest green, greets them as they approach. She bows deeply before leading them into the home.

 

The home built into this tree is large, and yet it should not be as large as it is as the samurai enter, where they walk down halls that seem as sprawling as any Crane samurai’s estate. The servant leads them down gently curving, rounded halls, as though the wood has been shaped rather than carved. The air smells of moss and sugi.

 

The receiving chamber is simply, sparsely decorated. A man of slender build with long black hair, loose save for a small bun, stands at its head. He wears a plain but well-made, dark brown kimono with the mon of the Kitsune at his shoulders, a leaping fox. He bows to them, deeply, and rises with a smile.

 

[Toshio] "Greetings. It is good to see you again, Shio-san.” He turns to the rest. “I am Kitsune Toshio. I welcome you to Kitsune Mori Mura."

 

[Shio, relaxed and smiling] "And you, Toshio-san."

 

Torokai bows deeply and steps forward. "I am Akodo Torokai, Emerald Magistrate of the Lion. I thank you for your generosity and welcome."

 

Torokai doesn't seem keen to linger. His stomach and the desire to try New Noodles is probably getting the better of him this late into the journey.

 

“Thank you, Akodo-sama. It is an honor to provide hospitality to an Emerald Magistrate.” Toshio looks them over, but pauses at Crow, recognition striking him. "Forgive me--have we met?"

 

[Crow, pleased, but a little confused] "Perhaps...? I passed through Kitsune Mori some years ago. I am called Crow."

 

[Toshio, thoughtful] "Ah, Crow, yes. You enjoyed the oden.”

 

Crow's smile grows, and she nods several times, nearly beaming. "Yes! And I hope to again. Very soon."

 

Atsu returns the bow, looking out of his element. “I am Hida Atsuryokunabe.”  

 

Daiyu bows stiffly. “And I am Kuni Daiyu.”

 

Atsu's eyes bulge. [incredulous and not hiding it very well] "My clansmen? Here?"

 

Crow glances hopefully at Atsu, desperate for him to be as excited as she is.

 

[Toshio, laughing] "Ah, they were just as surprised by their desire to stay, I think! But they seem to be enjoying the hot springs."

 

[Crow] "We will be sure to visit them, then!" She pats Atsu on the shoulder.

 

[Shio, slyly] "The hot springs are very nice."

 

Atsu looks at Crow with bloodshot eyes, then Shio. "What is wrong with the springs?"

 

[Shio, serious again] “Ah--yes.”

 

Crow reaches into her kosode, producing the small box she's kept the braid in. "We were asked to return the braid of Kitsune Chizu to the forest."

 

Toshio quiets, his expression stilling to seriousness. He is quiet for several moments. He bows his head in reverence, clears his throat, and holds out both palms to accept the box.

 

Crow looks at the box, brow furrowing. She’s almost reluctant to give it up, but after a long pause hands it to Toshio carefully, reverently. Toshio stares at it in his hands for a long while. When he does open it, he does not touch the braid. He shuts the box again after a moment and smoothes his hand over it.

 

[Toshio] "I thank you, Crow-san. It seems you have served us yet again."

 

[Crow, confused] "I can hardly take credit. Were it not for my friends, we would not have been able to do it."

 

He smiles at Crow, then looks to the others and bows. "I thank you as well."

 

[Shio, reverently] "I am glad that we could perform this honor for her. And glad to be home."

 

Toshio passes the box carefully to the green-eyed servant. He turns back to the samurai and folds his hands behind his back. "And the forest is glad to see you again, Shio-san. I am sure you are hungry and weary. I shall not keep you. You may see to any of the inns for lodging."

 

Crow leaves confusion behind in favor of bright, if nervous, smiles! She nods in agreement, then bows and looks to Shio.

 

Shio bows. "Thank you. We shall speak again soon, I hope."

 

They make their farewells, and Shio leads them back outside. Crow gives the servant a wink despite the gravity of the situation at hand before she turns to leave. The woman blushes deeply and her eyes immediately go to the floor, but she smiles, just a little.

 

Outside, the light begins to fade, afternoon giving way to a warm evening. There's no sign of the clouds that haunted them in Beiden: only clear dusk sky through the canopy.

 

Crow seems delighted by the weather on top of everything else. There's definitely a spring in her step. "Oden first? Or the springs? I am sure you want to see Hasako!"

 

Crow knows nothing of Shio's relationship with Hasako, really. She's attached herself to the notion that they are Like Sisters.

 

[Shio, humming] "Yes, food I think! This way."

 

Shio takes an abrupt turn and starts off with intent. She picks up speed as they near their destination: a small shop-front with a protective overhang, already crowded with a dense throng of people waiting on food. Shio barges her way through a few lingering on the outskirts and plops herself down on a free stool with great authority. She waves her hand in the air. [calling] "Kitsune oden, please!"

 

Crow is much more polite and gentle as she weaves her way through the crowd, and though there is no empty seat near Shio, she stands by her all the same.

 

[Hasako, calling back--then bursting into a gasp and a laugh] "One kitsune oden--Ah!"

 

A tall woman with distinctively green eyes darts to the counter and leans over to grasp Shio's hand briefly. Her dark brown hair is pulled back under a kerchief and an apron is tied over her front. "Coming right up!" She returns to the jumble of pots boiling behind her.

 

Crow manages to find her way next to her just as Hasako has turned back to the pots. She has to bend down in order to peer under the awning, and watches the work in the kitchen with a wide smile.

 

[Crow, calling] "And another kitsune oden!"

 

Hasako acknowledges Crow's order with a call back, dishing out bits and bobs into bowls. A few orders are ahead of them, but they are dealt with quickly; soon, she delivers a particularly brimming bowl to Shio. She pauses in handing Crow hers, recognition blooming in her eyes, followed by a smile.

 

Crow grins toothily, probably a bit stupidly, at Hasako. She bows her head in thanks, accepting the bowl with both palms.

 

Torokai is visibly surprised, but thrilled, his smile wide. He raises two fingers, polite despite his rumbling stomach. “One kitsune oden.” He bows before retreating from the counter.

 

[Hasako, to Crow, a little flirtatiously] "I thought you might be back. I’m very pleased to have been right!" She bustles to prepare Torokai's meal, handing it off to him.

 

Torokai stares as she hands it over and smiles back. He offers a few more zeni than is perhaps appropriate before he turns to find Atsu and Daiyu. The Crabs have staked out one of the few remaining tables. Atsu gorges himself on the first of several bowls of oden, while Daiyu holds up one of her fish cakes in her chopsticks, examining it. Torokai sits beside them, smiling as he inspects the oden’s contents.

 

Crow laughs, blushing. "Last time, it took a month to break away!" She reaches for the nearest pair of chopsticks, offering a quiet, reverent, "Itadakimasu," with a bow of her head before she digs in. She is hungrier than she realized, and learns exactly how many boiled eggs she can fit in her mouth at once--which is four.

 

Hasako laughs, grabbing bowls left by other customers and placing them in a basin to be washed. "Only a month? I must be losing my touch."  She neatens her workstation, wiping it down with a few passes of a cloth.

 

Crow's egg-cramming-fest unfortunately coincides with Hasako's quip. She would like very much to assure her that she isn't, but instead she just makes some sounds around an enormous mouthful, which she then continues trying to conquer.

 

Crow finally manages to swallow. "I am sure I will be stuck here at least two months this time!"

 

Torokai produces his lacquered chopsticks and approaches the oden carefully, inspecting its contents. He prods an egg, then a fish cake, and plucks a slice of radish from the top. He comes up for air with a wide smile, nodding his head in appreciation. "Ah, it was indeed worth the journey, Shio-san."

 

Atsu continues trying to shove as many fish cakes as he can into his mouth in one go, thankfully not close to polite socialization.

 

[Torokai] "You have been to these springs?"

 

[Shio, swallowing, trying to be polite through her food] "Many times. They are very well-kept."

 

Torokai smiles and bows his head, passing his empty bowl to Hasako. "I see, I see. Surely I will have to visit them, then."

 

[Hasako] "I hope so! Though Toshio-san--" She frowns, giving Shio a significant look. Shio returns it, eyebrows furrowed and mouth full. "Join me on my break? I have some news." She glances at Crow, lips pursed in thought. "I would appreciate your ear as well, Crow-san."

 

Crow is happy to give Hasako her ear, as well as any other part of her. She smiles broadly and nods, then realizes maybe she shouldn't be smiling, and bows her head. "Of course."

 

“Thank you. I’ll be free in four hours or so. Meet me here?”

 

Hasako leaves them to their meals after that, busying herself with other customers.

 

Crow finishes the second half of her meal with slower appreciation.

 

[Crow, to Atsu and Torokai] "Well, does it suffice?"

 

[Torokai, laughing] "It does!"

 

Shio radiates smugness before she drinks the last of her broth, not wanting to take any more of Hasako's time at the dinner rush. She bids her a jaunty farewell, and tries not to let her anxiety show as waits for the others to finish. "I suggest we find lodging, then partake of the springs, if that is pleasing?"

 

[Crow, eagerly] "Yes! I would be grateful for the opportunity to put down my things. And hopefully melt this knot between my shoulders." She rolls one for emphasis, then slides her payment for her meal along the counter. The tip is… ridiculous.

 

Torokai nods, wiping his chopsticks and putting them away. "It sounds pleasing, yes."

 

They set off together to find an inn, eager to shed their baggage and stretch after the long journey.

 

 

 

While the others get ready for the hot springs, Daiyu merely drops off her bags in her room, then leaves again, scroll case in hand. It doesn’t take long for her to find a shrine to the forest kami. She sits and gently places a handful of bu in the offering dish, then folds her hands in her lap and closes her eyes in meditation.

 

The hot springs aren’t far, but lanterns are being lit by the time they arrive, illuminating clouds of steam rising over the walls of the onsen. While there are several small, separate changing rooms to undress and wash for the sake of comfort, the springs themselves are communal.

 

Atsu emerges from the changing area, but not before sticking his head around the corner and checking left and right in case of mysterious threats. He finds nothing save a small sika deer, surprisingly unbothered by Atsu’s presence. It nibbles on the edge of his towel.

 

Atsu stares down at the deer. "Oi, someone's left their dog untied."

 

The deer nibbles for another moment. When it becomes clear Atsu won’t feed or pet it, it wanders off. Atsu stares after the deer with distrusting dead fish eyes, then does his best to sneak into the hot springs. Around the partitioning panel, he can hear the splash of water--and laughter.

 

His brow furrows at the sound. When he finally forces himself past the partition, he stops and gawks at the spectacle: Crabs are congregating.

 

In a semi-circle are what appear to be the Crab samurai Toshio mentioned. Among them is a tall, wide man--a Hida--and a slightly smaller man who may be Kaiu. The third is a woman, tall and powerfully built, with the muscular bulk of a sumai wrestler: certainly a Hida as well. Dressed only in fundoshi and chest wrappings, the Hida drink and laugh boisterously, while their Kaiu companion is more subdued. All of them are red-faced from heat and sake.

 

The springs are spacious enough that even with the spectacle of the Crabs, the water is not crowded. Several other people lounge at the far, far edge of the spring, but they seem content to give the Crab samurai their space. Rough stone stairs lead down into the clear water.

 

Crow is so ready for the hot springs that she doesn't wait for the others at the inn.

 

She washes quickly, then lowers herself into the water with no hesitation, electing to keep her fundoshi on. After a few minutes of sitting, she stretches out and lets herself float. Shio follows soon after, lowering herself in nearly to her chin with a deep sigh of contentment.

Eventually, Crow's float bumps her into Shio, and she rights herself enough to splash her then swim off again, laughing. Shio startles out of her doze with a squawk, then narrows her eyes at Crow in exaggerated disapproval. Crow's laughter grows, but she leaves her alone... for now.

 

Torokai follows Atsu after a moment, wearing a modestly tied yukata and carrying his towel over his arm. He glances from the Crab samurai to Atsu and back again, eyebrows raised, then gives a tiny shrug that’s almost imperceptible. He finds a quiet spot to himself, seated on the edge with only his feet and calves in the water.

 

The Hida woman is oblivious to the others for some time, but only until she catches sight of Atsu sneaking by. Her brow goes up and she laughs in recognition, possibly relief. She is tall and broad, heavily-muscled, with a square jaw and kind face despite an initially stern brow.

 

[Kasumi] "Ah, a son of Hida!"

 

[Atsu] "H-HOO! ARE YOU A HUMAN?!"

 

[Kasumi, confused] "Human? Of course! [laugh] “We are hardly Kitsune, after all."

 

Shio jumps at Atsu’s yelling. She gives him a wide-eyed stare.

 

Crow startles, on her feet in an instant--but then she laughs. She settles into a backstroke and meanders back over to Shio. "Are you happy to be home?"

 

[Shio, smiling] "Yes. Deeply happy."

 

[Atsu, sigh of relief] "I did not expect to find others here... least of all kin! You are... not being mistreated?"

 

[Kasumi, laughs, too much and too loud] "Not at all, fortunately. We are very well fed, in fact! What are you called, son of Hida? I am Hida Kasumi." She manages to bow without swaying. "And what are your names? Do you travel with him?"

 

Torokai isn't sure what to make of an aggressive Crab. He thinks of the Matsu and smiles, bowing.

 

[Torokai] "Akodo Torokai, Kasumi-san."

 

[Atsu] "Hida Atsuryokunabe! Domo yoroshiku..." He bows.

 

Crow, who hadn’t been expecting attention from the Crab samurai, struggles to her feet. She looks away from Shio long enough to bow. "I am Crow."

 

Shio relaxes again, and then forces herself to stop oozing steadily downward into the water to return the greetings. "Kitsune Shio, Kasumi-san.” She gives a half-bow, then shivers and returns to hiding most of herself underwater.

 

Kasumi grins and bows, eyeing Atsu approvingly. "That is quite a name. Very good. To where do you travel? Unless you plan to stop here."

 

Atsu flares his nostrils, reddening slightly. [huffy] "Taking some well-deserved rest after Scorpion dealings, of course."

 

Torokai straightens wearily and withdraws his foot from the pool, shakes it off, and sticks it right back in. [clears throat]"We are traveling to the court of Asahina Takeshi."

 

[Kasumi] "Asahina-san? Yes, yes, that is where we are traveling as well. Scorpion dealings, you say?"

 

[Atsu] "Yes, we--" Atsu pauses, looking skyward as he wonders if he should mention exorcising ghosts. "...We helped with a family situation, albeit grudgingly."

 

Kasumi folds her arms and nods. A number of old, worn scars criss-cross her thighs and knees. They look goblin-height. "I must wonder why you'd help a Scorpion so easily… But it is good that it's been solved."

 

[Atsu, trailing off] "It was more for the sake of those living there, but--tell me, Kasumi-san. Do you move well against goblins?"

 

Atsu gestures at the scars on her thighs and knees.

 

"Do I move well against--?" Kasumi seems confused for a moment, her eyebrows furrowing dramatically. Then she follows his gesture and her face brightens. [laughing, but almost offended, or spoiling for a fight] "Tell me, Hida-san--do you like sumai?"

 

Atsu frowns, brow knitting in confusion. "Yes, it is enjoyable to watch... But why do you ask? Did you have a sumai match with goblins?"

 

Kasumi nods. The two men behind her cease their conversation, and the Kaiu nearly seems ready to speak up, but she hands off a sake jug and cup unceremoniously and grins. "Honor me, then, by showing me your expertise. Surely you are a capable warrior."

 

Atsu's face falls. He stares at her and points at himself questioningly.

 

Kasumi grins. It's not a menacing grin--rather, a challenge.

 

Torokai seems torn on whether or not to do something about this. His hair is unbound from its top-knot, steamed to the sides of his head. He rubs his mustache and makes a sound that is probably, 'Nah,' stands up, and leaves.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, Crow is content to let Torokai and Atsu answer Kasumi’s questions. She returns to floating, letting herself drift towards Shio again. "I hope we are able to stay for at least a few days."

 

[Shio, agreeing] "At least.”

 

[Crow, long pause, then with no shame] “Hasako is very pretty!"

 

[Shio, pause, dreamily] “She is. Even more so when she's out of the apron."

 

Crow sighs dreamily at the thought, but then seems to have a revelation. She sits bolt upright, looking at Shio with wide eyes. "Are you..!!" She points, then her hands go into her hair. "I am sorry, Kitsune-sama! I didn't… I did not even think! I meant no disrespect!" She bows several times.

 

Shio balks a bit at Crow's reaction, then seems to realize. She waves her hands frantically, trying to stop the bowing. "Oh no no no, no--it's--uh--" [embarrassed] "She is my friend, first and foremost. It is not like that right now, you have not offended me!"

 

Crow seems uncertain what to make of this, perplexed by Shio's words. She scratches her hair.

 

Shio pinches the bridge of her nose, not quite sure how to explain--or even if she should. "We aren't--lovers. And she likes you very much, from what I can tell..."

 

Crow’s expression shifts several times. It passes through 'confused' between each stage.

 

Shio searches for any kind of distraction from trying to explain and sees the Crab samurai behind them, preparing for… something? Her eyebrows contort.

 

Crow stares into the middle distance for the remainder of her several-seconds-long mental journey before eventually noticing Shio's attention elsewhere. She turns around to watch. ”...Has it been long enough? Perhaps we should go speak with Hasako.”

 

[Shio] "Hida-san seems busy... Perhaps yes."

 

Crow watches Atsu, then nods. A few times. She dunks her head, scrubs her sweaty scalp for a few seconds, and then is apparently done. Her hair hangs well past her waist when it’s fully wet.

 

Crow wanders out of the springs and fumbles around for a towel. Shio follows after a moment, trusting that Atsu won't end up… harming himself. Maybe just a little, but... he'll survive. Hopefully.

 

 

 

On the other side of the hot spring, Atsu grunts consideringly. 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.

 

Then Kasumi lunges forward in a low stance, attempting to initiate a grapple.

 

Atsu grunts and meets her charge, the veins in his forehead protruding.

 

Though she has the upper hand at first, the tide turns quickly. Her foot slides back in the hot spring with a splash over its edge. With a burst of confidence, she shoulders forward again--a move that is likely her downfall. She gets a grip around him to push him back, but doesn’t get as far as she’d like.

 

[Kasumi] "Not bad, son of Hida!"

 

Atsu grunts in gratitude, the veins in his forehead standing out. He yells with effort as he tries to push her back again.

 

Kasumi grunts and struggles against the sudden show of force, impressed by his patience as well as his ferocity. Eventually, she's pushed out of the tub, onto dry land, and laughs appreciatively. She bows deeply, her hair loose and drenched.

 

[Kasumi] "Thank you for your demonstration. It was most impressive."

 

Atsu, soaked from the waist down, squishes as he bows. He grins toothily 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. The other two Crab behind her are cheering, even the Kaiu. She reaches for her light brown kimono after drying herself off.

 

[Kasumi] "From where do you come, Hida-san?"

 

[Atsu] "The Village of the Reinstated Hero. We have traveled quite far, now that I think of it."

 

Atsu tries to wring his pant legs while still wearing them. "Where have your travels brought you all from?"

 

[Kasumi, laughing with appreciation and wonder, too loud] "Truly? That’s quite a ways! We come from a village near Kyuden Hida. We’ve word of the Wall for the court."

 

[Atsu] "While I do not envy your courtly matters, I’m gladdened to know that at least we will have strong voice there!" He grins. He clearly has no idea what he's about to go through.

 

[Kasumi, laughs, but quickly becoming grave] "I would not envy myself, either! Truthfully, it is news of... stirrings beyond the Wall."

 

[Atsu, frowning] "Stirrings?"

 

[Kasumi, serious] "The Kuni speak of omen and prophecy. Several bands of Berserkers have not returned, as well."

 

[Atsu, discontented rumble] "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] "He proposes several steps. The first is traveling news. And so we are here."

 

Kasumi ties the blue sash of her kimono and ties back half of her hair. The other Crab samurai have dressed as well. They bow to Atsu and make their way out of the springs, likely for dinner. "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 the next match, daughter of Hida!"

 

"I can guarantee one!" Kasumi grins and bows in return. She starts off after her companions.

 

 

Crow dries herself off, then changes into her nicer kimono, since it's the only one that's clean. She waits outside the inn for Shio. When Shio joins her, she is dressed plainly in Fox colors, and leads her back to the oden shop. Crow follows gladly, her hair slowly becoming more bushy and curly as it begins to dry.

 

Hasako has shuttered the shop for her break. She beckons them as they near. She has taken her apron off and does, as Shio said, look better; her clothes are plain but well-made, with subtle patterns of leaves. Hasako circles around the back of the building, where a small vegetable garden flourishes in carefully-tilled soil. She motions for them to sit upon a moss-encrusted rock beside it.

 

Crow takes note that Shio was correct. For a moment she is shameless in her admiration, though polite. She bows in greeting and sits on the rock. Hasako bows in return, seating herself opposite them on another boulder. "Thank you for returning to the forest, Crow-san. You did great good for my home your last visit."

 

[Crow, laughs, unsure] "I...do not remember much of it, if I am being honest. I was hoping to...find closure here in regards to it. But that is later. I am glad to help. What was the news you spoke of?"

 

[Hasako, angry] "Poachers are growing in number once again. I have seen them in the village itself. I have heard of their presence from my family and others in the wood. I am--concerned."

 

Crow is on her feet quickly, frowning, her hand on the hilt of her sword. She glances at Shio. "I will take care of them."

 

Shio stills, gone stiff and cold for a moment, before she nods once. [softly] "Yes."

 

Hasako looks at her hands, then back at them. She looks very tired. "I cannot thank you enough. Toshio-san may know more about them, but--please, be careful. The woods are dangerous of late."

 

[Crow] "We will speak with Toshio-san, then."[concerned] "Are you unwell?"

 

Hasako blinks, surprised, then gives her a wry smile. [quietly] "I am worried. I fear for my family and friends. Many do not live in the village, and would be... easy targets."

 

Crow's expression goes from concerned to something softer. She wages an internal battle over whether to touch her shoulder reassuringly. Eventually reason wins out and she keeps her hands by her sides. She bows. [soft]  "Not to worry, Hasako-san. We will handle it."

 

[Hasako, softly] "I trust you. Thank you."

 

Crow beams. She smiles, all teeth, and looks back at Shio. Then back to Hasako. Then Shio. Shio smiles back.

 

Around them, Kitsune Mori Mura’s lanterns are slowly lit. The last sunlight fades below the horizon, and the forest is blanketed in deep violet shadows of night.