The moment had arrived. Just before dinnertime, without revealing what exactly was going on, Hebi led Inara to the kitchen. The timing was no accident; the girls wanted Inara to be good and hungry for all the food she'd be tasting. Akari, Inu, and Usagi were already waiting there, each holding something behind their backs.
Hebi gave a small bow. "We have presents for you, Boss, in thanks for how wonderful you are to all of us."
Inara smiled, looking quite amused. "Oh? So this is why you four have been so secretive the last couple days." Then she sniffed the air and said, "Something certainly smells good."
Hebi quickly grabbed a plate from the fridge, then joined the others standing next to the table. She gave a signal, then all four women bowed their heads and held their arms out straight, presenting their offerings to Inara.
A faint sound filled the room, growing louder and clearer until it was unmistakably laughter. "This is certainly exciting," Inara said through stifled giggles. "I gather that you all wanted in on Akari's strategy, and it turned into a formal contest? How fun!"
"That's exactly right, Inara-sama," Akari said, looking back up from her bow. She had been annoyed when the other girls decided to cut in on her inarizushi monopoly, but hearing Inara's beautiful laughter made up for it a hundred times over.
"Well I suppose I should start the taste testing then," Inara said as she sat down at the low table. She gestured toward the other cushions. "Sit down and pass those plates this way."
Everyone got their first good look at the competitors' offerings. Akari had correctly assumed that Usagi would make her own inarizushi from scratch, and despite a couple cosmetic imperfections, those golden-yellow pockets looked utterly delicious. Inu had gone the quantity-over-quality route and her plate was piled six layers high with corner-store inarizushi, at least 25 in all.
Hebi and Akari had both acquired theirs from professional sushi chefs and it showed: the fried tofu wrapping was flawless and the sushi rice inside was sure to be of excellent quality as well. Akari just hoped that her journey to the neighboring city of Sakata and the care she had taken to carefully cradle her inarizushi cooler for the return trip had given her an edge over Hebi, whose inarizushi had been shipped through the normal mail system in a chilled package.
Inara started by plucking a pocket from Inu's plate and taking just a small nibble, then she quickly cycled through the other offerings. Once she'd sampled everyone's, she went back for additional tastes of each, humming in thought while she considered. All throughout, she smacked her lips as if tasting wine and chewed slowly, savoring every bite.
After an agonizingly long time, Inara stopped sampling the food, leaving about half of Hebi's, Usagi's, and Akari's plates and the bulk of Inu's towering pile. Then she said, "I very much appreciate this gesture, and I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious inarizushi, but…"
Akari tensed up. But? But what? Is something wrong? The other girls were similarly on edge, sitting bolt upright and awaiting Inara's revelation.
Inara continued, "It turns out that eating this much inarizushi at once really weakens the charm. I'll save the rest to eat later when my palate has had a chance to rest."
The tension melted from the room and smiles returned to every face.
"So which do you prefer, Mistress?" Usagi asked. Her eyes were wide and eager and her ears had stuck straight up.
"Yes, please tell us!" Inu blurted, her tail wagging.
Inara dramatically crossed her arms across her chest and said, "I refuse to pick a winner."
The room went silent for several seconds, then several voices cried out at once. "What?! Why?"
Inara frowned and leaned back from the table. She directed her gaze at Inu. "How did you get all of your inarizushi?"
Inu quickly saw where the conversation was going. She stared down at the table, ashamed. "I took it from shops in town."
"Right." Inara turned towards Usagi. "And you, Usagi? Where did you get the ingredients for yours?"
Usagi's ears wilted. "I already had most of them, but I had to go get the tofu."
Inara nodded slowly, then said, "So the rumors of a strange rabbit seen hanging around the local tofu-maker, and the cause of his missing tofu?"
"That was me," Usagi admitted. Then she suddenly hopped back from the table and groveled deeply, her forehead on the floor. "I'm so sorry, Mistress Inara!"
Inara eyed all four women. She was just sitting calmly but her presence was imposing and her displeasure filled the room like a heavy fog. She slowly said, "I'm disappointed in all of you. Your actions raised enough suspicion in town that I could sense the turmoil from here. That is not the kind of attention we want, especially just before our grand opening."
Hebi raised a hand. "But Boss, all that suspicion was caused by Usagi and Inu. Akari and I purchased our inarizushi entirely legally and didn't attract any attention at all."
Akari had to disagree with that last part, at least a little. She had definitely attracted some attention, taking the train through the mountains with a cooler on her lap, guarding it zealously like it was full of either diamonds or nitroglycerin. But that wasn't the kind of attention Inara was worried about.
Inara answered, "But you didn't help your housemates, despite your full understanding that they would have to resort to theft without you. You could have prevented their crimes with a simple offer to help. Yet you did nothing, making you guilty by association."
Her logic was undeniable. Akari could have easily picked up tofu for Usagi on one of her trips into the city, and Inu's store-bought inarizushi would have been trivial for either Akari or Hebi to procure. They had all let their rivalry blind them to the true consequences of the contest.
Inara took a deep breath. "Now, as punishment for your actions, there's some cleaning I've been putting off…"
Inara charged the four women with the task of cleaning the bathing room from top to bottom and wall to wall. She wanted it spotless and she wanted it finished before they went to sleep that night. As an additional penalty for their literal crimes, Usagi and Inu also had to scrub the restroom, toilet and all, after they finished with the bathing room. Of course, Inara could have cleaned it all in an instant with her purification magic. That bit of knowledge made the punishment even more effective. They accepted their discipline without another word of complaint.
After eating their own dinner, the girls changed into plain work clothes, rolled up their sleeves, and set to work. The bathing room was quite large and got a lot of use, so the chore was bound to be difficult and time consuming. As a bit of a silver lining, it gave them all a chance to open up and just talk to each other. It was a nice change of pace after being so secretive for the contest.
Most of the dialogue was about the upcoming festival, but some of it got personal. Akari shared a bit of her past, avoiding the worst topics but giving the other girls some background to why she loved Shintoism so much. She recounted, "When everyone else thought I was crazy for seeing spirits, I followed one of the little spirits to a Shinto shrine and spoke to a priest there. He talked about Shintoism and how spirits have always been here, even though people can't see them. It was an explanation for my ability, and just hearing it felt like a massive weight had been lifted. I started visiting the shrine often and researching on my own, and I really liked what I found. The more involved I got with Shintoism, the better I felt about myself."
"That makes sense," Usagi said as she scrubbed around one of the faucets on the west wall. "It's pretty similar to my reasons for coming here. I joined the shrine because Inara validated what I was feeling and gave me what I needed, but I stayed because I loved living here with her."
Akari wondered what exactly Usagi had 'needed', but she wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"That was what? 300 years ago?" Inu asked, stretching her arms over her head. She had just finished scrubbing the grout between the tiles on the bottom of the pool, but there was a lot left to go on the sides.
"Barely over 200," Usagi huffed. "I'm not even 300 years old yet."
Akari paused her own scrubbing and sat upright. She tucked some loose hair back over her ear and said, "That's still so crazy to me that you've all been alive so long yet look so young. I heard Inu's at least 30 and Hebi's over 80."
Inu let out a bark of laughter. "Haha! 'Over 80'! That's one hell of an understatement."
Akari looked at Hebi, who was cleaning a mirror with rags in both hands and another grasped in her tail. "Huh? How old are you, Hebi?"
Hebi looked away, but her stern expression was still visible in the mirror. "A lady doesn't ask another her age."
Akari turned to Inu next. "Do you know, Inu?"
Inu shook her head. "Nope. No one does, not even Hebi. For a know-it-all like her, it must really sting not to know her own age."
Usagi jumped in, "All we know is that she's at least 700, since that's when she first met Inara. She didn't move in with her until much later, of course."
"It's rude to talk about me like I'm not here." Hebi was still focused on her work, her face unreadable.
Akari said, "Sorry, Hebi. I shouldn't have kept asking when you didn't want to talk about it. I was just curious."
Hebi sighed and unwound a little. "It's fine. It's not that sore a point for me. I just don't know how much time passed during some of my hibernations. And I didn't know how to read or write back then so I couldn't have figured it out if I wanted to."
"Really?" That was surprising, but it made some sense to Akari, since it wasn't like spirits could just go to school like humans.
It was Usagi who spoke next. "Some spirits are born with knowledge, since they were created by human thoughts and emotions. But us three, we started out as normal animals. Then, for reasons unknown, we ascended to spirits."
Inu laughed again, then said, "Maybe you don't know your reason, but I know mine. I was a good dog. My owner's love for me must have reached the ears of a god, so I was reborn."
"Aww, that's so sweet!" Akari cooed. Then she jokingly asked, "But if that's the case, why are you so grumpy all the time?"
Inu turned away, diving back into her work. "I don't want to talk about it."
O…kay, Akari thought, I stepped on another landmine. Good going, me.
Hebi cleared her throat, then said, "Let's buckle down for a bit. There's not much left, and I've got more festival work to do after this." She smiled and teasingly added, "And I'm sure Inu and Usagi want to get started on their extra punishment sooner rather than later."
"You got that right," Usagi said with a smile.
After the bathing room was done and Usagi and Inu moved on to their other cleaning duty, Hebi approached Akari in the hallway. "What are your plans now?" she asked.
"Um, I was going to work on some festival stuff," Akari answered. "I need to organize some contacts in preparation for tomorrow morning."
"Alright. Go ahead and do that. For the next couple hours, I'll be meeting with Inara in her room about the festival progress and the remaining work. If you finish before midnight, you can drop by and give an update on your side of things."
"Sounds good," Akari said, then she waved and started for her room. "Seeya then."
Akari went to her room and flopped down on her bed. She stared at the ceiling and thought about her current planning dilemma. A bunch of staff from other shrines had volunteered to work at the festival, and Akari needed to figure out what to tell them about Inara and the other spirits. She had to say something, since it wouldn't make any sense for her to be managing the entire shrine all alone.
I guess I could say that the shrine manager is sickly, and needs to stay indoors? But that makes my working here alone even more unusual. I'd need additional help to tend to a sickly person in addition to shrine maintenance…
She rolled onto her side, staring at her chest of drawers and the trinkets on top. She was hoping the sight of her precious souvenirs would bring a flash of inspiration, but nothing came and she had to keep brainstorming. Maybe the other shrine staff all went on a trip? But why would we schedule our biggest festival while everyone is out of town?
As hard as she tried, she couldn't think of anything convincing to tell the volunteers. Everything she thought of was too far-fetched or had an obvious flaw. And she was pretty sure that telling them she worked for an invisible goddess wasn't going to fly either.
"Ugh, this is getting me nowhere. I'll come back to it later," she said aloud, a promise to her empty room. Then she shifted her focus onto another planning task. She needed to finalize the coordination between the equipment rental place and the movers who were going to bring the equipment and other supplies to the clearing.
She wrote up a little timetable for when each type of equipment would arrive at the shed, then slotted in times for the movers to carry it to the shrine. Since the forest path was so narrow, she needed to make sure that no one else would be traveling that way while the movers were working. She had wanted to get a proper driveway put in, connecting the shrine grounds to the dirt road, but no one had been able to commit to such a massive tree-removal and paving project on such a short time frame. That would have to wait until after the grand opening.
Making the timetable didn't take as long as she'd expected, and she still wasn't feeling up to her sidelined task. "I guess I'll go give an update to Inara," Akari said as she stood up. "I really have made good progress, and maybe she'll know how to handle the volunteer thing."
It wasn't even 11 when she left her room, turned right, and made the short trip down the hall to Inara's room. The big double doors were closed, but she'd been invited, so she tried the handle and found it unlocked. She let herself in and quietly closed the door, not wanting to interrupt Hebi's own report.
Then Akari turned and looked toward the center of the room. She went completely still, eyes wide. At first, she wasn't even sure what she was looking at. There were red ropes coming from metal rings anchored in the floor and ceiling, and the ropes all met in the middle around a person, a naked woman who was blindfolded and tied up by criss-crossing knots that cradled and accentuated her beautiful figure. Even her three fluffy tails were secured by red ropes and ornate knots.
It was Inara, bound and suspended and completely powerless. Her weight seemed well-supported and none of the knots looked painful, but there was no doubt this was something very kinky all the same. Hebi was nearby, fully dressed in a pencil skirt and suit jacket. She stood tall in a powerful stance with one hand holding the end of a rope that went right between Inara's legs.
"Oh god, I'm so sorry," Akari blurted. She covered her eyes and kept rambling. "I shouldn't have seen this but I was invited to the meeting so I let myself in but I guess you're busy or something." In the back of her mind, she recognized that rope and those knots. It was the same as when Akari had been kidnapped and tied to a chair on her first visit to the shrine. And now she remembered seeing those metal rings embedded in the floor and thinking nothing of them.
Akari's face was burning hot and her breathing was picking up speed. She was uncomfortable and embarrassed and overwhelmed and maybe a little aroused and she needed to get out of this situation as soon as possible. She turned on the spot and reached for the door to leave, but a voice called out and stopped her.
"Wait, Akari." It was Inara's voice, surprisingly calm.
Akari stopped, but she didn't look back. She was far too embarrassed for that. She tried to steady her breathing, then said, "Um, yes, Inara-sama?"
"I wasn't expecting a guest." It wasn't quite a question, but it certainly begged a response.
Akari opened her mouth but Hebi spoke first, "My apologies to both of you. I had invited Akari to our festival meeting, but I completely forgot about that when Inara asked to be tied up."
Ropes gently creaked as Inara tried to shake her head. "It's fine, Mistress Hebi. Akari was sure to learn about this side of me eventually, and I don't mind her knowing."
'Mistress' Hebi? And Inara's okay with me seeing this? Akari thought. It didn't make any sense. None of this matched her understanding of Inara. Inara wasn't subservient. She was regal and powerful, and she was the Mistress, the Boss, and the Goddess.
Akari couldn't help but glance at Inara again. She was still suspended several inches above the tatami floor, all tied up and blind and helpless. Akari tried not to stare at Inara's nudity, so her eyes settled on the bright red ropes instead. The knotwork on her legs and arms looked pretty utilitarian, clearly intended to support her weight and connect her to the anchors in the floor and ceiling, but the knots on Inara's body were… beautiful. Ornate patterns of rope cascaded across her skin, diamond shapes of vibrant red against milky white. Akari had seen knotwork like that once before, in a lewd magazine that somebody had brought to class in high school. Back then, it felt shocking and crass, but this… this was art.
Akari waved a hand at Inara and the ropes, trying to ignore the one going between Inara's legs. "Um, I don't really understand all of this, but the knots are pretty."
Hebi smiled. She kept one hand on that rope, holding it taut. "Thank you, Akari. Shibari is a passion of mine, and it's one that Inara shares, albeit in a different way."
Ah, shibari is the name for that ropework. I think I heard the boys in class muttering about it. A big part of Akari wanted to escape this painfully awkward situation, but another part was curious, drawn in by this bizarre and beautiful thing. "Um, I guess this is BDSM?" she asked. She knew the term from movies, but she didn't really know what it meant, other than some association with black leather and shiny latex and pain.
Hebi walked slowly from Inara's left to her right and Inara gasped as the rope between her legs shifted. Then Hebi answered. "It fits within that umbrella, yes. BDSM stands for 'bondage, discipline or domination, sadism, and masochism', but Inara and I are sticking to bondage and domination. A lot of people assume that BDSM always involves pain, but that just isn't true. I personally despise pain and would never want to inflict it on others."
Akari nodded. That certainly made her feel a bit better about what she was looking at. And looking she was. She couldn't look away, almost as if Inara's aura was influencing her again. She decided to blame that for her itching curiosity. "I still don't really understand the appeal. Why do you want this, Inara-sama?"
Inara answered, "I like the change of pace from being in charge, from being powerful. It's incredibly freeing to let someone else take the reins, to be entirely at someone else's mercy." She shivered as she continued, "And it provides something different than what I get from the other girls."
"From the other girls?"
Inara went to answer, but Hebi quickly stuck a round red object in Inara's mouth: a ball-gag. Then Hebi said, "Since Inara is currently in no position to stop me, I can reveal the relationships she was trying to keep from you, Akari. If you want to know, that is." At that, Inara wriggled a bit, but she said nothing.
Akari had been curious about that since the time in the bath when Inara refused to say what relationships had been going on in the shrine. She found herself saying, "Sure, I guess I'd like to know that, as long as it doesn't betray anyone's trust."
Hebi shook her head. "It's fine. Just like this side of Inara, you were bound to learn eventually." Hebi hummed in thought for a moment, then said, "If I were to boil everything down to its simplest form, I would say that Inara has a bondage-based submissive relationship with me, a socially dominant relationship with Usagi, and libido-driven intimacy with Inu. And with you, dear Akari, she has something new and not yet defined."
"Oh yes, she is definitely getting something from you, and you are getting something from her. I won't presume to know what that is, especially if you don't yet know yourself."
Akari's mind started churning. What am I getting from Inara? And what could I be giving to her? Does it even matter, since she's already got three relationships? Is there any room for me in her life, or am I just a hired miko, here to maintain the shrine and nothing more?
She was also still a bit unnerved at the whole bondage thing, even if it did seem to work for Inara and Hebi. And it was beyond distracting. It was hard enough to contemplate complex relationships without a naked, blindfolded, and now gagged woman dangling nearby.
Flustered, Akari said, "Um, if it's okay, I think I'm going to go. Tomorrow's a big day for the festival preparations and I need to get some sleep. Inara-sama, maybe we can have our meeting over breakfast instead?"
A muffled sound came from Inara and Hebi seemed to interpret it as an affirmative because she smiled and said, "She's on board. See you in the morning."
Akari turned and fled. She hurried back to her room, blushing brightly and trying not to picture Inara's beautiful body, suspended so erotically. She changed into pajamas, turned out the light and climbed into bed, but that image stayed with her long into the night.