Second Alliance – Chapter 18

Back to Chapter 17: Defense and Determination

Chapter 18: Painful Decision

Emi growled in Kagome’s ear, making her laugh and sit up. “Okay, okay, I get it. Time for breakfast!”

The toddler smiled at her, and Kagome raced through dressing them both and combing hair before stepping into the gathering room. Shippo, Rin, and Nankae were already seated. Jaken oversaw servants setting out dishes that made Kagome’s stomach rumble in anticipation. Breakfast was a happy affair. Sesshomaru did not join them, but Kagome had a fuzzy memory of him sliding out of the futon and whispering that he would see her at dinner. That was good, because she was going to need the whole day to plan her attack. She couldn’t help but hum a little with happiness as she helped Emi with her food.

“Is Kagome-sama feeling all right?” Rin caught Kagome’s attention with a worried look. Shippo snorted and Nankae looked confused.

“‘Gome smells happy,” the boy said. He glanced at the kit for confirmation, “Right, Shippo?”

Kagome overrode further discussion before things got out of hand. “Of course I’m happy! How could I not be with you four to keep me company? I thought we could practice with brushes this morning.” She turned to Nankae as Jaken and the servants returned to take away the dishes. “Do you know how to write, Nankae-kun?”

“No, ‘Gome,” he shook his head.

“Then we’ll start with your name. Would you like to learn it?” At his shrug, she decided to offer an incentive. “After you have practiced, and Rin and Shippo finish their lesson, we can go play in the snow. How does that sound?” The children all whooped and cheered with excitement, even Emi smiled and laughed at their antics. Jaken’s squawking could barely be heard over the din.

“You have other responsibilities woman, er, Miko-sama! My most fearsome and prodigious Lord has magnanimously decided to allow you to remain within the impenetrable walls of the Western Palace – but you must earn your keep, lowly human! Er, Miko-sama. Your presence is required in the infirmary this morning.”

Kagome wanted to roll her eyes at the toad youkai’s pomposity and incessant fawning. Sesshomaru wasn’t even close enough to hear him, and the servant still fell all over himself to flatter the daiyoukai. She smiled with wry humor instead. “What requires my presence, Jaken? I thought everyone had been returned to good health. Has there been a injury?”

“You have brought these waifs to beg on my Lord’s generosity. Foundlings-”

“Jaken,” Kagome held onto her smile, but she could feel her temper sparking, “be very careful what you say next, or I’ll throwing something much bigger than a pebble.”

The toad gulped, his eyes bulged comically, and the female servants grinned. “The hatchling, Paho, is in the infirmary. Jun-san requested your presence.”

“Is he hurt?”

“I do not know, hum- er, Miko-sama. Jun-san sent the message to me through another vassal of our Lord.”

“I’ll come down right away.” Kagome continued, trying not to let her worry get out of hand. “Thank you, Jaken. That will be all.” The servants giggled and Jaken squawked, but he hurried them down the hall, leaving Kagome and the children in peace.

ooo

“The treacherous bastard!”

“The North has never claimed friendship, or even neutrality, with the West. I do not think they are treacherous, so much as ambitious. And while it has been a while since I looked over the lineages of the daiyoukai families, I believe Ryukotsusei was properly mated to the mother of his whelp.”

Ambitious coward, then! He slinks through the dark and murders females and pups. He uses assassins instead of challenging his enemies in the open, with honor.”

“We knew it was most likely Ryukostokken behind the attacks, Hisao-san. Confirmation gives us the upper hand. He does not know that we are certain of his involvement. As long as he is trying to keep himself hidden, he will have to keep the size of his raiding parties small. We can use this opportunity to secure the East with Inuyasha and Kouga-san while his movements are hindered by shadows.”

“We do have the advantage, and we should press it. Attack now with the army and we can wipe out the dragons and be done with this!”

“Wipe them out? This is a war, Hisao-san, not an extermination.”

“It should be…” Sesshomaru had been listening to Kento and Hisao debate the merits of various responses to the dragon assaults for several hours. Each inu had proposed the option he favored.

Kento wished to play along with the concealment Ryukostokken had wrapped around his actions. The daiyoukai’s assistant recommended sending spies to the North and an envoy to the South. He even volunteered himself to speak with Hirimoto, the Southern Lord, to make certain he was aware of the situation and gain his support. Kento wanted to gather allies and information and wait for the dragon to make an overt move.

Hisao, ever the military captain, preferred a direct attack with the full force of the West behind it.

Sesshomaru had always preferred the long strategy. His temperament gave him the advantage over his enemies; they always made a final, fatal mistake in their impatience. However, he found himself considering immediate action. There was a part of him that wished to end the threat against his lands as quickly as possible. It had been over a century since he had last waged war, and several years since the evil of Naraku had been defeated. Perhaps age had reduced his interest in stalking his prey from afar. More likely, he admitted to himself as his advisors continued their debate, he had more to lose. A strategy that lasted years, even decades, and resulted in minor losses on both sides was less acceptable when those losses could be personal.

There was also the constant, insistent reminder that not everyone close to him could wait years or decades. He would not let the passage of time take his miko from him, but to ensure success he needed to be able to devote attention to the matter. A war did divide his focus somewhat. It was a delicate balance, and Sesshomaru did not like being in the unfamiliar position of having his desires conflict with his logic. He would simply have to devise a strategy that allowed for both.

He opened the youkai barrier, erected to ensure secrecy, around his study and searched her out. She was with the pups. Sesshomaru touched briefly on each of them. Her cheerfulness had an undercurrent of worry. The female seemed to worry about everyone; in time she would come to recognize that he would not allow harm to come to her or those she cared for. At least her reiki seemed to be recovering. She had enough power to burn Kouga, and he felt confident that she would not injure herself again – at least not before one of the guards or his own youki alerted him to the danger. Still, he kept her close by, holding his meetings in his private study so that she could remain near him.

Rin and Shippo were happy and excited. Nankae was content as well and the last traces of his grief were nearly gone. The littlest one was…with Kagome. There was no other way to describe the perfect combination of joy, serenity, and warmth that filled Emi. He recognized it, as similar emotions mingled with desire, satisfaction, and possessiveness in him whenever he was with the miko. Or when he saw her. Or scented her. Thought of her.

He sealed his barrier again. “This one will send a messenger to the South. Kento, you will remain and coordinate information. Hisao, call up any who owe service. The North will fall before the winter is over.” Sesshomaru pulled a fresh scroll towards him and selected a brush. “This one will consider your thoughts on the identity of a traitor among us.”

ooo

“See Emi? Those are the gardens. In the spring, they will be full of flowers. Can you say ‘flowers’, Emi?” The pup didn’t answer, but smiled up at Kagome from inside her heavy wrap. Fat flakes of snow dusted her dark bangs and eyelashes. The miko sighed, but her determination to get the adorable girl to speak didn’t flag. “Do you see Eiichi-san and Eiji-san?” The pup glanced over Kagome’s shoulder, then swiveled comically to the front, checking the location of both guards. “Do you think they would like the flowers? When the spring comes, should we make necklaces of pretty blossoms for them to wear?”

The rock demons endured her teasing stoically and the toddler giggled and smiled, but still refused to speak. Kagome kept up her one-sided conversation as she followed Eiichi through the courtyard to the infirmary. As they neared the building, she gave Emi a little squeeze. She hoped Paho was okay, he had lost so much recently, he deserved to find peace with a new family. Kagome whispered a little prayer that the youkai who had cared for him would love him, and he them. Eiichi grabbed the door, but Jun caught it from the inside before it could open more than a few feet.

“Do not let out all of the warm air, Eiichi-san. I have a patient. I’ll be putting up a barrier, if you don’t mind. The young one wishes to say some things to Kagome-sama in private.” At Eiji’s reluctant nod, Jun turned to Kagome, and she let out a breath in relief that he did not appear sad or worried. His eyes were tight at the corners, but if he had sick or injured that needed care, a little concern was not out of place. “I have given Paho a clean bill of health, but he wanted to speak with you before he goes back down to the village.”

“Oh, yes,” Kagome smiled and ducked her head in a small bow. “Thank you, Jun-san.” She turned to the guards, “You’ll wait here?”

Jun stiffened slightly, and Kagome wondered if perhaps he did not care for the rock brothers. They shook their head in the negative, and Eiji made her promise not to take too long so that they could return to the castle before Shippo and Nankae got into any mischief. Kagome laughed and agreed before stepping inside. Jun slid the door closed. She felt a twinge of uncertainty, and then a barrier snapped into place around the room.

“If you resist, the hatchling dies,” a nasally voice said from the shadows. Kagome turned to her left slowly, pressing Emi against her side and freeing up one hand to defend them both, if necessary. The pup whimpered.

“Do not hurt the young one, Gakuto-san.” Jun stood stiffly, his hands fisted at his sides. No wonder his eyes looked pinched, Kagome thought. Being held hostage would worry anyone. Gakuto, a thin, brown-haired male, had his back to the balcony wall. Paho was clutched to his chest, his neck nearly concealed by a large, clawed hand.

“Shhh, it’s okay Paho,” Kagome soothed. Her eyes flicked to Jun and then Gakuto. He looked familiar, as if she had seen him somewhere before. “What do you want?”

“I want your kind to suffer. The holy human,” he sneered. “You cast youkai into ash with a touch. No more! The Western Lord has already brought enough shame upon youkai by bringing that human welp into his pack. It would have died in only a few decades, but you, you will bring more than shame – you bring the stench of purification and death to youkai! A human whore who would bear weak half-breed bastards like the Inu no Taisho! You and your kind mean to weaken the greatest race to walk the earth! We will raise our hands against the humans, and no one will stand in our way. Not the pathetic isha,” he spat at Jun’s feet, “not a miko whore. Not even the mighty Sesshomaru will stand between the most powerful youkai and the deaths of every last human! Your weakness will not infect Japan any longer.”

Kagome realized where she had seen him before. He had been one of the youkai gathered outside Sesshomaru’s study when the daiyoukai fell ill.

“You can’t do this, Gakuto,” Jun tried to reason with him. “The Saidai Mao will hunt you down and rip your heart from your chest if you hurt any under his protection.”

“Saidai Mao.” The youkai said it as a curse, his claws digging into Paho’s neck. The action drew blood and a pained gasp from the boy. Kagome felt her heart leap in sympathy. “Not for long. He does not deserve the title. A youkai who can lead, who sees that we are meant to rule this land – free of the stinking rot of humans, will take his place. The dogs will follow a new master, as they are meant to do.”

“Inuyoukai will not obey any but an alpha, Gakuto. Only the Inu no Tashio and Sesshomaru have brought us all into one pack.” Kagome could sense the angry aura rolling off of Jun. “You are a fool if you think to bring the West to heel.”

“A new age is coming, Jun. An age where youkai rule the earth as we were meant to and the only humans left alive will serve us and worship us as gods. You inu can fall into line, or you can be crushed alongside your little pets,” Gakuto snarled, and Kagome interceded before their argument could result in further injuries.

“What does that have to do with Paho?”

“Nothing, you stupid woman. He is merely the bait. You will come with me, and my new Lord will use you as he sees fit to bring the end to the mockery of youkai that the West has become. You will taint no one else with your vile spells.”

Kagome took a deep breath. “If I go with you, you will let him go? You will not hurt anyone else? Not Paho, Jun or Emi?” Kagome felt like her stomach was going to jump out of her mouth. Fear, sour and cold, pooled in her chest. Paho was so close to danger…and little Emi…

Gakuto cursed her stupidity, but he nodded. She leaned into Jun, passing over the little toddler, whose trembling escalated into whines. “Shhh, it’s okay, baby. Jun-san will take good care of you until Sesshomaru comes. Shhh.” She kissed the little girl on the head and avoided the grasping hands that reached for her.

Kagome wanted to stay. She desperately wanted to grab Emi and run out the door, shouting for Sesshomaru. She wanted to let the rock brothers deal with Gakuto and rescue Paho. But she couldn’t. No one else would come in time. She wanted to blast Gakuto with purification, never mind how badly it would hurt, but she hadn’t spent much time practicing with her offensive power since Naraku had been defeated. She wasn’t sure she could control herself enough to not hurt Paho. The demon had a boy by the throat, and he would kill him without blinking. She knew he must have been stronger or smarter than he looked as well, since Jun had been tricked or overpowered into letting him into the infirmary and near Paho. No one else could reach them before Paho could be killed, not with the barrier. Gakuto might also be able to get to Kagome, Jun, or even little Emi before the guards realized something was wrong. She had the opportunity to save them, though. Paho and the others would be safe, Jun would look after them and raise the alarm. All she had to do was go quietly.

“Don’t do anything to anger him, Kagome-sama,” Jun whispered. He tucked the little girl close to his chest and stepped back, ignoring her whimpers and frowning at the miko. “Obey their directions.”

Kagome nodded shakily and stepped towards Gakuto, suddenly, inappropriately feeling lucky for choosing pants and a jacket that morning. As soon as she was within arm’s length, the youkai grabbed her wrist and shoved the boy away. Paho hit his head hard on the floor. Gakuto bound her hands quickly and gagged her. She stood still, trying to ignore her fear and concentrate on the relief she felt in seeing Jun bandage Paho’s wounds.

“Wait for a count of one hundred before you raise the alarm,” Gakuto ordered Jun, and then he opened the outer shoji, stepped onto the stone aqueduct, and leapt out of sight. Kagome closed her eyes against the sting of snow as they raced through the storm.

ooo

Jun checked the bird youkai’s pulse. The hatchling would wake up with a headache, but he would be fine. The pup was still whimpering, and had crawled away from the spot where he had left her on the floor. Jun doubted that he would be able to pick her up without ruining his hearing with piercing shrieks. “You were correct, he had no problem going with her.” He glanced towards the shadow at the far end of the infirmary.

“Gakuto is a simple one. It was not difficult to know what he would do.”

“You’ll meet up with him near the border?” Jun finished wrapping a bandage around the boy’s neck and stood slowly. He had respect for the spy of the Dragon Lord, both his tactical mind and his fighting skills.

“Somewhat sooner.” Arashi glanced to the pup. She was pressed back against the wall, trying to appear as small as possible. Jun followed his gaze and made an irritated face. “How will you explain her fear of you? She could no doubt scent your duplicity.”

“She is a pup,” Jun shrugged. “I will think of something. Once I bring down the barrier I will have plenty of youki to mask my scent. She doesn’t speak, and no one else will realize.”

“Good.” Arashi stepped up to the aqueduct and prepared to follow Gakuto and the miko into the increasingly thick snow. “Jun-san,” he called over his shoulder, “Your part at the Western Palace is not finished. Be certain that you are able to perform your next task. Or I will not be pleased.”

The hanyou stepped out onto the stone and began his race out of the castle. He did not need the superior sense of smell inherited by inuyoukai to know that the healer struggled to repress his anger. Jun was not as foolish or near-sighted as Gakuto, but he would not be valuable much longer. Arashi had pushed both sides into a new phase in the game, and some pieces would have to be sacrificed.

ooo

Sesshomaru was on edge. His instincts were urging him to inspect his territory, but he could not leave until the discussion was complete. Only his youki could make a barrier strong enough to prevent any form of espionage, and the search for a spy inside the Western castle demanded secrecy. Still, he was eager for Kento and Hisao to agree the list was complete so that he could check on his pack and patrol the castle, if not all his lands. The reports he had received, of threats to Rin that made his blood boil, had him torn between seeking out his enemies or gathering his pack and protecting them.

A frantic knocking cut off the conversation and Sesshomaru quickly withdrew his barrier. Before the guard could enter the room, the daiyouaki was standing at attention. Sesshomaru could not find the miko. The young ones, minus Emi, were all still in the gathering room with no hints of distress. His youki flared out, seeking the two females. He was aware of the stiffening of his servants and soldiers as his energy whipped past them, but he ignored it. Within seconds he had found the pup in the infirmary, but the miko was not with her. That was not right.

The guard was bowing and speaking, but Sesshomaru listened with only one ear as he moved to the outer wall in a blur of movement. He slid aside a screen and stepped onto a balcony, summoning his cloud and bypassing the corridors and stairs that would only slow his passage. The guard’s words echoed in his head, “Miko-sama has been taken.”

Sesshomaru had to force his cold mask into place. He could not afford to lose control. If he did, if he allowed the emotions that statement stirred to be expressed, he would not rest until he had destroyed everything that stood between the miko and himself – even his own people. Rage filled him. The enemy had come into his domain, his very home. He would devour the one who had entered the Western Lands and his castle to undermine his authority. A snarl rose in his chest. He was Alpha, his dominance over what was his was absolute, and any who took from him would pay with their lives. Those who had not done their duties to protect the castle, the miko, their punishment would be swift as well. He had given her his word, made her one of his pack, and he could not, would not, allow his honor to be impinged by breaking a vow of protection.

Taken. He would retrieve her. The miko had been kidnapped many times while she travelled with Inuyasha. Even once while the daiyoukai was with their group. She knew to leave a scent trail or markings to make herself easier to find. And she had her reiki as well. Sesshomaru felt something icy wrap around his spine. If he had known the emotion before, he might have called it panic. Or terror. Her energy had been badly damaged, and although she had used it against Kouga, it had been a small demonstration. He had no real idea of how well she would be able to protect herself, if necessary. He dispersed his cloud and opened the infirmary door with more force than required, snapping the wooden frame. Sesshomaru would simply locate and retrieve her before she needed her reiki.

Paho was unconscious and bandaged. Jun kneeled over the hatchling, wearing an expression of worry and shame. Eiichi stood near the pup, whose wailing could be heard throughout the courtyard. His face was stony with anger, and he stared at the healer. Eiji was not in sight, nor was the miko, although her scent was faintly present.

Report,” Sesshomaru said tightly. His fists clenched inside his sleeves to keep from drawing his sword and demanding answers.

Eiji and I escorted Kagome-sama here to see the orphan boy. She took the pup inside with her and we stood guard. Jun’s barrier came up-”

Sesshomaru’s eyes narrowed. “Jun.” He didn’t have to make the name a question, everyone in the room understood he was demanding answers.

The kidnapper threatened to kill Paho if I did not,” Jun answered.

Sesshomaru’s lost control for only a moment, but it was long enough to grab Jun around the throat. His claws sank into the smooth, tanned skin of the healers throat and blood welled and ran in dark rivulets down his neck to stain the white of his kimono. Such a barrier had been responsible for keeping the guards from protecting the miko as they should have. Whatever the situation, Jun had not chosen wisely. The miko was gone. What was his had been taken, and Jun was responsible. Sessshomaru’s hand closed tighter, his fingers nearly touching inside the hot meat of his vassal’s neck. Jun would pay for that mistake, but Sesshomaru needed more information before he could impress upon the healer how wrong he had been. He took a deep breath, blowing out through his nose and barely managing to contain the instinct, the raging beast that wanted to destroy the weak male that had failed to protect the miko. He withdrew his claws and Jun sank to the floor, gurgling and trying to stem the flow of blood while his youki worked to heal the wounds.

At the Lord’s nod, Eiichi continued, “When the barrier went down a few minutes later, the pup was crying. Jun called for help. When we entered, the boy was hurt and Kagome-sama missing. Eiji went after her the way that Jun said her kidnapper took her.”

Sesshomaru could feel the dokkasou dripping from his claws, unbidden. The guards had failed him, and they would earn back their honor with actions and blood, or be removed from his pack by his fangs. The same punishment would be suffered by any who had failed in their duties and allowed his enemy entrance. His arm raised and flashed out, quicker than any eye could follow, and Eiichi flew across the room. Dokkasou left sizzling holes in the guard’s chest armor and the smell of burnt flesh was strong in the room. Sesshomaru barely restrained the urge to cull them both where they stood. He had more pressing concerns and the incompetence of Jun and the rock brothers would have to wait. Sesshomaru found that he had to clench his jaw in order to speak, rather than snarl, at his subordinates, “She should not have left her rooms. You and your brother will take responsibility once she is returned.” Eiichi nodded, anger, regret and anxiety overpowering his scent.

Sesshomaru turned to Jun. He did not have to speak, Jun bowed low before him, emanating shame. The wounds in his neck were raw, the blood still wet on his skin, and his voice came out weak and grating.

The kidnapper came in while I was examining Paho and took him hostage. He threatened to kill the hatchling if I did not bring Kagome-sama to the infirmary and form a barrier once she arrived. Once she got here, threats to Paho’s life convinced her to leave the pup behind and go. My Lord,” Jun paused and cast his eyes down, “it was Gakuto.”

My administrator. Sesshomaru’s anger boiled up again. He had been looking for a traitor. Someone was passing information about the size and defenses of villages in the West to his enemies. Gakuto, with his position in the outer chambers of the reception room, announced all guests and even handled some correspondence when Kento was busy. He was in a good position to know valuable information. And his hatred of humans was well-known. If the duplicitous youkai harmed the miko, his death would not be quick.

Hisao and Kento arrived, slightly behind their Lord as they did not possess the ability to fly to the infirmary. Jun verbally repeated his story to Kento, rather than using the telepathic communication that their inu line was capable of. Kento remarked on it, but Jun stated that he did not wish to share the shame and fear he had felt when the miko was taken. Hisao questioned Eiichi, the captain’s tone betraying his disappointment and anger at his own soldiers’ complete and monumental failure in protecting one so instrumental to the well-being of the West.

Sesshomaru stood by silently, battling with himself. He needed to go after the miko. He wanted to go after her. If he left immediately, it was unlikely the traitor could make it near the border before the daiyoukai caught him. The miko would still be alive. If Ryukostokken wanted her dead, Gakuto would have tried to kill her rather than taking the risk of fleeing across the Western Lands with her.

Sesshomaru should wait.

That thought sent his instincts howling. His logic, the calm reasoning side of his mind that ruled the largest of the four youkai lands and earned his title as Highest of the Lords, told him that the miko would not be killed. She would likely be tortured, but she could survive for several months while Ryukostokken tried to extract information and bait Sesshomaru with her. The West could use that time to mount an attack without the detriment of a spy among them. She was strong. She was not defenseless.

Going after her would put Rin at risk. It would leave the Palace without a daiyoukai to protect it and make his pack vulnerable to the threats that had been made. It would also jeopardize his entire strategy against the North. Lives could be lost. The Western Lord could not take action thinking only of himself. If he went after her, Ryukostokken would know that his plotting had been revealed. Sesshomaru would kill any dragons that stood in his way, but it was unlikely that their Lord would face him in combat. He was too cowardly. Left alive and exposed, Ryukostokken could cause significantly more damage, increasing the casualties from the pending war exponentially.

His emotions fueled his youki; the instincts of his beast snarled for immediate action. She had been taken from him, and that would not be borne. The Dragon would seek to harm her, and if he did, Sesshomaru would crush the lowest of the youkai lords, the Saigo Mao, between his jaws and melt his castle with dokkasou. He had nearly lost control when the wolf made a claim on her. The image of her bruised, beaten at the hands of his enemy, was enough to make his eyes bleed red. She was his. The miko was strong, but her power was compromised. And the miko was only one. A human miko. Powerful, unique, but only one.

He was the Western Lord. The Saidai Mao, responsible for thousands of youkai, hundreds of thousands of lives. He knew his duty to his people, his title, demanded that he sacrifice one for many. And yet, he owed her – the Western Lands, all youkai, owned her a debt for healing the pox. It was a debt that might never be fully repaid. Her service to the West earned her his protection. His feelings for her urged him to claim her regardless of her utility. The two duties were at odds with each other, and he could not bring them into alignment. He would have to chose – something he did not want to do. He walked the path of conquest, and to conquer his enemies, he had to be cold. Calculating.

He closed his lids and sent mokomoko to comfort the pup. Her high-pitched cries subsided to whimpers and tears as his tails wrapped around her and lifted her close to him. “Quiet,” he commanded her in a low voice. The others fell silent as well, and Sesshomaru focused on the lingering smell of magnolia blossoms and cherry wood that clung to the pup. He had acknowledged that the miko meant much to him. She was his. But with each day, each hour she spent with him, he felt himself becoming further entangled in her. He wondered if she had entered him, as his youki had done to her. His power had made a home within her, and he was not certain that he could live in the cold again.

Is this what father felt? Is this why he risked everything for Izayoi? Toga had risked everything. He had saved the mother of his child, but at great expense to the West. If he had put his responsibility to his Lands, his people first, war might have been averted. Sesshomaru would not have had to step into the role of Lord only to lead his forces in one of the bloodiest engagements in youkai history. He would not, he could not, follow in his father’s footsteps. He had to choose another path.

The miko had to be strong. If he would mate her, and he had already made that decision, then she would rule the West at his side. He would throw aside tradition, culture, and the prejudiced arrogance of millennia to keep her. There would be detractors. Even after her display of power, of compassion to youkai when she healed those at the castle, some would not think her fit to be at his side. She could very well be the only certain means of curing the pox, and her ability to sense and repair the damage to the fertility of youkai might be the key to ensuring their continued survival.

He had already admired and determined to secure her knowledge of the future for the West; he could not let that fall into the wrong hands. However, she was also his weakness. His desire for her, his feelings for her were dangerous – to her as well as to the security of the West. His enemies could use her against him, if they knew her value. If war came too soon, to a West unprepared, if many died because he placed his attachment and concern for her above the welfare of thousands…he could not afford for her to be perceived as weak. The West could not afford it.

And yet…he could not do nothing. He would send scouts. His most trusted and experienced trackers. The heavy snow would make it difficult, but they would find her trail and where she had been taken – and by whom. Sesshomaru knew the opportunity to save her, to bring back what was his and correct the injury that the incursion on the castle and her kidnapping had done to the security and pride of the West, would be narrow and with great risk – if it came at all. He would still be ready.

He would be truthful with himself, always, and he wanted her back and would risk almost anything for her. He wished he could risk everything. He wished he did not have the burden of leadership that he could claim what was his, without wait, and destroy his enemies without creating consequences to so many lives. That was not to be, but Sesshomaru had always had a long-term strategy, and he would be prepared for the moment that circumstances could be manipulated in his favor. He would consider alternative plans as well. Perhaps there was another…

Jun.” He did not open his eyes, but his ears easily noted how the healer snapped to attention. “Finish with the hatchling and a guard will return him to his caretakers. When you are finished, report to Jaken for new duties. The junior healer is promoted; he will take over here. Eiichi, fetch your brother.”

My Lord, if there is even a single bare patch of dirt or stone that Gakuto steps on, he may yet find Kagome-sama’s trail and-”

Now.” His voice allowed no room for argument. “Return to the castle and guard the pups. If you and your brother fail in this assignment, it will be your last.”

Hisao, Kento.” He opened his eyes, certain that he had cleared the red from them and could maintain an emotionless facade. “This one is not finished with your counsel.”

Surely, my Lord, we will not wait until spring-”

Speak out of turn again, captain, and this one will remove your undisciplined tongue.” He turned to leave, the pup held close against his shoulder by mokomoko. “The miko was told to remain in the castle.” He shuddered, almost imperceptibly. His anger, and a sadness that he refused to examine out of concern that it would overwhelm him, tried to drag his next words back. With all of the self-discipline that Sesshomaru had honed over eight centuries, he forced out what had to be said, “There are consequences for every action.”

He stepped over the remains of the door and out into the snow. Heavy, wet flakes stuck to his fur and hair. The deep drifts dampened the ankles of his pants. The pup squirmed and wriggled until she could look over his shoulder, and suddenly threw her weight against him, arms outstretched.

Kago-mama!” Her little cry was high and sharp in Sesshomaru’s sensitive ears. The twisting of his heart hurt far worse. Kagome.

ooo

It was a good day for the North. Ryukostokken left the cell deep underneath his castle with a smile. It had been thoughtful of his captain to bring a few Western captives back for his Lord’s use. The daiyoukai had already finished with the first female; his servants disposed of the corpse before he had started breakfast. His experience with her child had been just as pleasing. Humans were filthy, uncivilized creatures, but he had nearly forgotten how tender their meat could be. After such a meal, he turned his attention to the male. Unfortunately, Ryukostokken had also forgotten how much weaker humans were than youkai. The torture session had been disappointingly short. Still, the taste of fear and pain in the man’s hot blood was enjoyable, and he had the second female waiting for his pleasure.

He would request at least one captive from each village going forward. It was an amusing pastime, a way to whet his appetite for vengeance before the time came to move his army forward and attack the pup.

Ryukostokken detoured to walk past the training grounds where his men held weapons practice. The soldiers were ready. The path of attack had been cleared for their approach. Sesshomaru’s ranks were thinned by disease, both at the castle and among those stationed across the Western Lands, and his closest ally had been killed. Soon, Arashi would return with the miko, and then the dragon would take even more from the dog. First his people. Then his whore. Then his life.

It was a good day.

Chapter 19: The Burden of Leadership

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