Two more days went by in a flash. Everyone in the shrine, be they spirit or human, was busy preparing for the festival. Akari was on the hook for anything involving talking to other humans or traveling into town and the other girls helped around the shrine grounds.
Inu was the resident groundskeeper and handy-woman, so she touched up the exterior paint and cleared out dead leaves and branches in the clearing. Usagi continued polishing her festival menu and made a deep cleaning pass on the shrine interior, just in case visiting priests wanted a peek inside and wouldn't take no for an answer. The rest of the public definitely wouldn't be allowed to venture any further than the main worship hall.
Inara was normally content to let the other girls do all the chores, but she insisted on providing a personal touch in the worship hall. From her bedroom, she brought out a few of her most on-theme works of art to display, placing them carefully around the room to create a sense of balance and comfort.
"This statue, for example," she said to Akari as she adjusted the placement of a three-foot-tall wooden carving of a rice farmer, "was carved in the year 1690 by a man named Enku. He was a devout Buddhist who didn't care much for Shintoism, but he had such a talent for imbuing a sense of calm in his works."
"Enku…" Akari mumbled. The name was incredibly familiar. Maybe he's that guy who carved all those famous Buddha statues around Japan? If so, Inara's statue is probably worth an absolute fortune!
Inara smiled as she reminisced, then added, "And he was very kind. He insisted on carving this for me as thanks for letting him stay here just three days. But the man sure could eat. If he'd stayed much longer, I would have needed to miracle up another harvest season."
Akari giggled at the little joke, then said, "Speaking of people who eat a lot, where's Hebi? I expected her to check in with me on the festival progress or at least join us for lunch, but I haven't seen her all day."
Inara's fox ears twitched and she turned toward the door that connected to the main hallway. "I believe she's on her way here right now."
Sure enough, the door opened and Hebi peeked her head through without setting foot inside. Her neck seemed so long and slender like that, but Akari figured it made sense for a snake spirit. What didn't make sense was the dull yellow dust that coated her face and hair. It turned her pale grey locks into a surprisingly close match to Usagi's golden blonde.
"A-ha," Hebi said with a tired grin. "Just the women I'm looking for. I'd rather not dirty up the nice worship hall, so can you meet me in the workshop?"
Inara said, "Gladly. Shall we, Akari?"
Akari nodded, then jogged to keep up with the taller goddess. They followed Hebi and her trail of dust to the workshop, where the source of it was quickly apparent. Every table and bench was covered with yellow sawdust, iron rasps and other woodworking tools, and dozens of small wooden statues, each no bigger than Akari's fist. They'd been carved in the same artistic style as the fox figurines that Akari had fatefully followed to the shrine the week prior.
Hebi stood next to a table that held about two dozen figurines which all appeared to be higher quality than the others scattered about the room. "Ignore all the practice ones. These are the ones for the festival. We'll sell them in grab bags, as the mid-range prizes." She looked very proud of her work and it was clear from the hopeful look on her face that she was expecting praise.
Thankfully, praise would not be hard to give. All the figurines were incredibly high quality and adorable, and each one was unique. There were all sorts of mountain animals, like boars and rabbits, plus other famous creatures from throughout Shinto and Japanese history. Akari particularly liked the cute little maneki-neko, the 'beckoning cat' with its paw raised up.
"These are amazing!" Akari blurted. "You're an amazing artist, Hebi!"
Inara gave a regal nod. "I agree. Your skills never fail to impress, and I am sure these will be a great success at the festival."
But something was bothering Akari: there were no foxes anywhere on the table. Boars, bears, three different cats, and even all 12 members of the Japanese zodiac were present, but not a single fox? She just had to say something, but she needed to tread carefully in case this was one of those touchy subjects tied to Inara's past. She cautiously asked, "Um, is there a reason you didn't make any fox figures?"
Hebi simply said, "I was planning to use the fox messenger statues that you have now, the ones that you followed to the shrine." It had been obvious to Akari that Hebi had carved those statues, but shei was surprised to hear Hebi admit it in front of Inara.
Akari pouted. "What? I thought those were mine now, and I like them. You can't just give them away to strangers." She hadn't done much with them yet, but she was planning to decorate her room properly as soon as she had some free time. She thought the nine little fox messengers would look great on her windowsill.
"Oh, I wasn't going to give them away. They'd just be used as templates, the same as all these other figures I made by hand." She waved her long tail over the table as she spoke.
Akari's frown remained. "I don't understand. Are you going to carve new figures based on them?"
Inara cut in. "Close, but I'll be the one doing it. When I realized the amount of work Hebi was taking upon herself to carve all these figures, working her poor hands to the bone, I offered to use an ability of mine to help out."
Hebi nodded and elaborated, "As a goddess, the Boss can purify things such as water or sake down to their purest essence. And through a century of experimentation, we figured out just how flexible the definition of 'purify' can be."
Inara gave Hebi a warm smile, then looked back at Akari. "Hebi's the one that came up with the idea, but I'll explain. I can take a plain chunk of wood and imagine all the non-statue parts to be imperfections, then my magic purifies it down to just the desired shape."
Then Inara grinned and bounced on her toes. "In the past we've mostly used it to replace broken kitchen utensils. Making statues with it will be so exciting. I'm just a collector with no artistic talent of my own, but I'll get to play a part in the creation of real art!"
Seeing Inara so cheerful and childlike was a shock to Akari's system. Suddenly, seeing that glorious vision again became her life's goal. If she could make Inara smile like that just once, she could die happy.
But then Inara calmed down and the effect on Akari diminished. The goddess reached out toward Hebi with one hand and brushed a bit of sawdust off her shoulder, then said, "Go get cleaned up and join us for dinner. I'll start on my reproductions of your figures after we eat." For Akari's sake, she added, "It takes a lot of energy to use that ability, so I've found it works best on a full stomach."
Akari made her way to the kitchen, still a little dazed from the intense rush of emotions she'd just experienced. She hoped she could get used to these secondhand 'mood-rushes' over time, sort of like building up a tolerance to spicy food. Otherwise, living with Inara was going to be exhausting.
As unusual and supernatural as Akari's life had become, some parts were still quite mundane. One of those was grocery shopping. Whether or not the spirits needed to, they all ate three meals a day and Usagi had also been using up a lot of ingredients with her menu experimentation. Before Akari had joined the shrine, they had relied on grocery deliveries to the forest shed, limiting their selection considerably. She could see why they were excited to have a personal shopper on staff.
Akari glanced down at the heavy canvas bags in her hands and wished she had a car, and a license, and a road that went all the way to the shrine. But on the plus side, it was good exercise carrying the bags up the mountain. The main trail was under construction so she had to take the shed route. It was a longer walk but it had a much gentler slope that was easier on her knees.
As for the contents of the bags, they were all pretty standard. The handsome boy at the checkout counter couldn't have guessed that she lived with a bunch of Shinto spirits. Unless perhaps he believed in the legend that Inari Okami and her fox messengers absolutely loved inarizushi. The simple snacks of sushi rice wrapped in a fried tofu pouch had even been named after her.
Akari had seen premade inarizushi on display and bought a couple packages on a whim. She liked them enough herself, and if there was even a one-percent chance that they could make Inara smile like she had the night before, the purchase would be worth every penny.
That hope kept Akari moving at a brisk pace the entire walk back home. She counted it toward her daily aerobic exercise, but Inu was sure to be on her case about strength training later. That could wait until after she presented the inarizushi to Inara.
But as she approached the shrine, ducking under low branches that covered the deer-made trail, doubt started to set in. What if inarizushi reminds her of when she was Inari Okami, that part of her life she wants to leave behind? Or what if she's just sick of the taste after hundreds of years of people leaving inarizushi as offerings? She paused her thoughts and her movement. Hang on, how long has that even been a tradition? Maybe it didn't even start until after she retired?
"What are you doing over there?" called a voice, rough and snarky. Inu's.
Akari fell back to reality and saw Inu standing in the clearing ahead, wearing tiny jersey-knit shorts and a sports bra, both bright blue. When it got hot out, Inu had no reservations about showing some skin. With a physique like that, Akari couldn't blame her. If Akari had looked like that back in high school, she would have had real romantic success instead of a single botched romance with a boy who couldn't comprehend her lack of sexual attraction to men. These days, it seemed that even high schoolers expected sex in their relationships.
"Just got lost in thought on my way back from the store," Akari called back as she launched into motion.
Inu nodded and said, "As long as you don't get lost in the forest. It would be easy to get turned around with a sense of smell as weak as yours." Then she reached out toward Akari's right hand. "I'll take the eggs and cream to the fridge."
"How'd you know—?" Akari started. "Oh, right, sense of smell…" She passed the bag with the perishables to Inu and followed behind at a slower pace. Luckily, the inarizushi was in the other bag. Akari wanted to present it to Inara as soon as possible, before the other girls caught wind of her plan. Maybe it was underhanded to bring gifts to the goddess when the spirits couldn't go shopping for themselves, but she didn't care. It was a dog eat dog world, after all.
"Is that…?" Inara started, her eyes wide and gleaming bright gold. She pushed a lock of vibrant red hair out of her face and leaned forward.
"Inarizushi," Akari answered, trying to keep her voice level and calm. "I was hoping that you'd like to eat some with m—" Akari was interrupted by Inara sweeping her into the bedroom and closing the door behind her. The movement was so fast and smooth that it was over before Akari knew what had happened.
"I'd love to! It's been so long since I've had any, but my nose and belly sure remember." Inara smiled broadly as she sat down at the little tea table near the samurai armor. The room was a little less claustrophobic now that some of the decorations had been moved out to the main hall, but it still felt cluttered and quirky. It felt lived in to a degree Akari had never seen anywhere else.
The look on Inara's face was almost predatory, yet Akari wasn't afraid. In fact she was excited, thrilled that her gift was already so well received, and absolutely elated that she got to make Inara smile. Even if the smile was awfully full of teeth.
Akari opened a plastic tray and passed it to Inara with a set of chopsticks. "Hopefully these are up to your standards. They're just premade from the corner store, but I've always enjoyed them."
Inara accepted the tray and immediately tore into the little pockets of tangy rice and seasoned tofu. As the goddess chewed, she let out a sound that made Akari squirm with embarrassment.
Is that what I sound like when I eat Usagi's cooking? Akari thought as she bit into her own inarizushi, which was very tasty but nothing special. It's just like the sound effects from those pervy video games the boys played between classes!
"This is wonderful, Akari," Inara said between bites, demurely hiding her mouth behind a hand. "Thank you for the thoughtful gift."
Akari finished chewing and swallowed, then said, "You're very welcome." She hesitated, wondering whether to mention the trope of fox spirits loving inarizushi. Before she could decide, Inara spoke.
"I can't believe I never thought to ask Usagi to make these for me. I could have been eating this every day."
Akari froze. Her plan was falling apart. If Usagi started making homemade inarizushi for Inara, it was all over. Usagi would win the goddess's heart forever.
"But some things are better left as rare treats," Inara said sagely, then she took another big bite. She chewed for a while, swallowed, then continued, "Though I could eat these a few more days in a row before I had my fill."
Akari leapt at the opportunity. "I need to go to town tomorrow anyway. I'll pick up some more for us to share."
Inara was silent, since her mouth was already full again. The smile on her lips communicated enough.
Akari's victory was short lived. She got one more private inarizushi tasting with Inara before Inu blew her cover. Akari was sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the sounds of Usagi preparing dinner while she organized her list of contacts. A lot of people had volunteered to help staff the festival and it was tricky keeping track of them all. Hebi sat to Akari's left, managing the shrine's finances on her laptop.
"So, Inara likes inarizushi, huh?" Inu said from the doorway, looking right at Akari.
Akari glanced around and saw that Inara was nowhere to be seen, but Hebi and Usagi had both turned from their tasks and were paying close attention. "W-what makes you say that?"
"I smelled it in your grocery bags, and then I smelled it on you and Inara."
Hebi slithered up to Akari's side and said, "Been bribing the Boss? How brazen."
Akari scooted away. "I wouldn't call it a bribe, really. It's just a gift that she seems to like."
"More than just likes," Inu clarified. She pointed at her big ears. "I also heard her reactions, and they were something else. Something amazing."
Usagi's steady chopping stopped and her rabbit ears perked straight up. She darted to the fridge and started pulling out ingredients for inarizushi. Akari and Inu both watched in suspense, then relaxed when Usagi mumbled, "Damn, out of tofu."
Hebi looked around at the other three, who all wanted to be the one to make Inara happy. She grinned and said, "So that's how it's going to be? Then how about a competition to give Inara the best inarizushi?"
Inu nodded firmly. She was usually the least needy when it came to Inara's attention, but she was also naturally competitive.
"You're on," Usagi said. She tried to look intimidating, but it was clear that she wasn't very confident. She had a major edge with her cooking skills, but she had to rely on Hebi's computer or Akari's shopping ability to get most of her ingredients, and now it was every woman for herself.
Akari swallowed and planned her next move. She'd had a small head start, but convenience store offerings weren't going to cut it anymore. She needed to leverage her one competitive advantage, her ability to interact with humans, and find some high quality inarizushi even if she had to take a train to another city to do it.
Hebi stood up tall and said, "I don't want this getting out of hand and harming our festival preparations, so I'm setting some ground rules. We present our inarizushi to Inara at dinner the day after tomorrow. No hurting or stealing from each other. No drawing negative attention to the shrine. Agreed?"
"Agreed," the others said in unison.
Hebi packed up her laptop and started for the doorway, saying, "Good. Now I've got some research to do."