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The blast of humid air hit us full-on, and I got a good glimpse of what was inside. A huge hall-sized chamber, large enough to need support columns, with a full-featured traditional bathhouse inside. The bath itself was much larger than usual, a pool that had to span half the entire chamber. There was a massive furnace, mounted in a bulky, metallic pipe-wreathed mechanism… the boiler, I realized, with pipes running off it. It doubled as the main form of lighting, making for a fire-lit, dim, warm atmosphere; almost sensual, although that couldn’t possibly be appropriate for a public bath. Other than that, it was surprisingly the exact same as I was used to – soaps, buckets, and all that, and bathers, of course. Two or three had their wings out, having them tended to by other tengu.
A dozen heads swiveled our way when Aya dramatically opened the door, and a few lingered. Flinching away from their line of sight, I glared at her. I’d been distracted enough that I didn’t notice it when she took us through a changing room – where we were now standing, alone.
“Just testing your focus,” she said with a smile before either of us could properly react, shutting the door, then tossed us three towels from the neat little wooden shelves. “Anyway, I’m not joking about cleaning up. The oni aren’t exactly sticklers for it, especially once the drinks start flowing, but looking good and smelling nice always helps, with anyone. Now, you can leave your belongings here, if you have any” she started casually unbuttoning her shirt. “I guarantee they’ll be safe.”
She had her shirt off and neatly folded in her hands by the time the boy finally built up enough courage to sputter a complaint. “W-what are you doing!” His voice cracked with unfortunate timing.
“Huh?” Aya seemed genuinely confused for a second, but then the customary smile split her face. “Ah! I’d forgotten about your silly human ideas. This is a mixed bath, little boy.”
He fumed at being called that, flushing visibly – aided by the fact Aya was now unraveling the binding around her chest, and slowly. He turned his back on her abruptly, muttering something, but did start undressing.
I was fine with mixed bathing, but something else was making me squirm. I considered asking Aya whether leaving everything here was truly safe – these were all my earthly possessions. My pack, my clothes, my charms, my food, even my gun. Asking for reassurance from someone I already didn’t trust in the least seemed like a meaningless to do, however, so I silently made the decision to go along with it. I was already risking my life and someone else’s by being in here, my belongings were no great consideration in comparison.
Another question popped in my head instead, and I voiced it. “Why are you bathing with us?”
“Can’t I?” she sniffed. “It’s great for bonding. We can wash each other’s backs and such– ah, maybe I could let you clean my wings? Hahah!” She let out a clipped laugh, cupping her cheeks, and I could swear she actually coloured for a moment. I briefly wondered if it was possible to fake a blush. “That was a joke. We’d need to be much, much closer for that to happen. Our wings are very sensitive, see.”
With varying amounts of awkwardness and hiding behind the small bath towels, all three of us got through the cleansing before the proper soak (Aya asked about washing our backs and was dryly refused). It was a wonder the poor boy didn’t blow steam out of his ears and pass out, with how intensely he was blushing and how hard he was trying not to look at either of us. He didn’t do well at it. I let out a suffering sigh when I slid into the deliciously warm pool. It wasn’t enough to make me forget the situation we’d gotten ourselves stuck in, but it made good headway. The boy looked relieved as he dipped in to my left, likely because the water covered me and Aya up as we sunk to our shoulders in it. It was large enough for us to be more or less isolated off to a corner barely lit by the furnace firelight, I between the two of them. The other bathers politely ignored us just as we ignored them.
Thinking of what Aya said, I snuck a look at one young tengu with his wings unfolded across the room: he was sitting on one of the washing stools, eyes closed, while a young girl knelt close to his body, painstakingly… well, there was no other word for what she was doing. Caressing. Slowly, thoroughly she lathered the wing close to the base in careful circles, close enough for him to feel her breath. Wow, I thought, she wasn’t lying. Calling this intimate might be underselling it. I looked away soon, embarrassed for having witnessed it. It was a wonder they were capable of doing such a thing in a public space.
She followed my line of sight and chuckled. “Told you. Afraid we’re not there… yet.”
She smiled at my expression, shrugging. My companion chanced a shocked “I–Is that really allowed?”
“Nobody complains as long as you do no more than wash. Not that young crows lack for mischief. They occasionally must be disciplined for such kinds of… indiscretions. And quit staring that hard.” She grinned and drifted my way, stopping when I felt her shoulders and hips touch to mine. I managed to stop myself from jumping, but shot her a look anyway.
“Bonding, I said! Don’t worry, I’m not into women.”
I scowled, but didn’t move or push her away. Again, my mind was clouded and I felt clumsy: I wasn’t quite sure how to act, and so realized I had settled into a stubborn hostility purely by inertia. If I wasn’t exterminating the youkai, what was I supposed to be doing?
It was an uncomfortable feeling.
I longed to go back to my routine, no matter how devoid ofwarm water and sweet-smelling soap it was. There I had certainty of what I was doing – there was only me, Mother, my friend, the road, and occasionally an audience of villagers. Nothing more. I had to find her. That’d settle everything.
The thought should have been enough to clear my mind of all doubts – it always had been, before. She had been perfect, beyond questioning or reproach. She had had my complete faith, as it rightfully should be between a goddess and a priest.
The idea didn’t fully form in my conscious mind, instead settling as a sickly feeling in my chest. Us humans are remarkably skilled at ignoring such uncomfortable truths, and I was very much human. Thus it went unchallenged, despite the moment of wrongness that wasn’t supposed to be there, and was swiftly ignored: I just had to find Mother, yes, and all would be solved. In the mean time, I could be friendlier to the crow, slightly, for as long as we remained on the same side.
I refocused in time to catch a question from the crow. “–will you tell me about it?”
“Tell you about what?”
“In all my years, I’ve never heard of a shrineless shrine maiden before. How does it work?”
The other Aya piped up for the first time since coming out of the dressing room, embarrassment still in his voice. He’d get used to it, I was sure. “I’d like to know too. You seem very used to traveling on foot...”
“I am.” I paused, uneasy, being stared at from both sides. It wasn’t as if there was much to keep secret and Mother had never told me to be secretive about any of our work, but I’d never been directly asked about it.
I cleared my throat, preparing. While I generally wasn’t much of a talker, I was practiced in speaking at length when I needed to – to teach a group of villagers something, or answer questions, or whatever occasional similar duty fell into my lap.
“There’s not so much to tell. I wander from town to town, guided by the Goddess. I arrive, make sure I am noticed, find a place to stay. People come to you if there’s a chance you’ll solve their problems for them. That’s the case in smaller towns, leastwise.” I scowled, thinking of the insulting treatment I’d gotten whenever I’d gone closer to the larger cities. Mother’s power being treated like a circus act… despicable. “People come to me for all sorts of problems. In love, in business, and much less spectacular problems. If a village lacks a proper doctor or veterinarian, that ends up being most of what I do. I don’t charge money, so it’s worth a shot to them. I do my best to help, whether our particular kind of misfortune was involved or not. It feels more like being a handyman than a miko, to be sure. We never minded it.
“I always walked, rather than taking carriages or any of that – a good portion of my work was performed on the road, anyhow. It’s where the more mundane sort of problem happens. Tired animals, broken carts, common injuries and broken bones.” I shrugged. “Not as much misfortune to be collected as in the towns, but more food and necessities. It works out well in the end.
“When I began, Mother followed close and protected me, but as I got more experience, I suppose there wasn’t as much need. For some time now, I’ve only been able to talk to her directly occasionally, for directions on where to go next, and… catching up.”
The crow interrupted. “You’ve been all over Japan, then.”
“Yes. Even down to the southern islands, once.” That had been a special request. A haunting in a little island village west of Okinawa.
She whined and slapped the water. “Awww, I’m so envious! I do love this hole in the ground, but I haven’t gone anywhere for over a year! Take me with you, once this is all settled.” She grinned. “A tengu will be sure to draw in the customers, don’t you think?” She sounded disarmingly girlish, and it wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment. Young people from small villages sometimes get that itch.
“Thank you for the offer,” I said flatly, “but it’s not a business.”
“But the more misfortune you get, the better, no?”
“No. We help people who want to be helped. There’s no urgency and no quota.”
She hmmed, looking unconvinced. “No offense, but I’ve never heard of a selfless god.”
“You’ve never heard of a shrineless shrine maiden either.”
She shrugged. “Fair point. But you can draw it out just like her, then? I didn’t think it was possible for a human.
I blinked. The boy was looking at me with wild eyes, shame momentarily forgotten. “You’re giving her exactly what she wants! Don’t you see?”
She rolled her eyes, an expression I still found tremendously out of place on a youkai. “Please. I’m just making conversation. Ah, but we’re just about out of time for relaxing.”
She resolutely got up and very purposefully crossed in front of him before stepping off, making him squeal and shut his eyes hard. Poor kid. Far too sheltered for someone who’s supposed to have lived through several lifetimes. I got what he was trying to tell me, but it didn’t feel like that sort of a scenario.
“Thank you, I think.” He opened his eyes and looked in mine, briefly. “You mustn’t trust her. She’s the worst, craftiest kind of youkai.”
I nodded shallowly, for his benefit.
“We should hurry,” I said. Getting up as modestly as I could, I laid what I hope was a friendly hand on his head and then walked off, following the crow girl back to the changing room.