Chapter 19: The Burden of Leadership
Kagome struggled to take a deep breath. Gakuto carried her over his shoulder, and with every step she was jarred against him, driving the air out of her lungs. She knew she would be bruised the next day, assuming she didn’t already have a cracked rib or two. The thick layer of snow had hardened underneath, and was coated with a few inches of powder that muffled his footfalls. She had spent the first hour of the journey worrying about Emi, Paho, and Jun. She hoped Sesshomaru wasn’t angry with the rock brothers; they were already on some sort of probation after she had shorted out her reiki. Kagome didn’t want them in trouble because of her again.
The next hour, reality set in. She had been kidnapped. It wasn’t a friendly kidnapping like Kouga, or even a simple matter of using her as bait to get to Inuyasha. This was a war.
Kagome knew what war looked like. She had read more military history since she had first fallen down the well than most graduate students of the subject. The sudden and strange disease, the raids on Western villages, and the murder of the Eastern Lord were preludes to a war. If the opening act was any indication, it would be a bloody, desperate grasp for power that would devastate youkai, if not all of Japan. Her stomach churned and bile rose in her throat. Even if she could have, she probably wouldn’t have stopped herself from throwing up all over Gakuto’s back.
In seconds, she found herself flying through the air. She hit a snowbank, luckily, and skidded to a stop against a tree. Her head snapped against the trunk, and for a moment she saw stars.
“Stupid, filthy human!” Gakuto shucked off his kimono and scrubbed it against the snow. Kagome didn’t respond. He didn’t seem to be interested in what she had to say, and the dizziness was not helping to settle her stomach. The youkai snarled, apparently upset that vomit wasn’t easy to get out, and stomped towards her. A puff of snow exploded in her face when he stopped. “You’ll pay for this insult, whore,” he spat and the back of his hand flashed across her vision and withdrew before she even felt the pain of the blow. Her cheek throbbed, but she bit her tongue to keep from crying out – or losing her temper. Kagome scooped up snow with her bound hands and held it to her face. Something hot trickled out of her hair and under her collar, quickly cooling into an uncomfortable wetness. She leaned back against the tree gently and winced when it sent a stab of pain through her scalp. A whirlwind kicked up flakes and stung her eyes, causing Gakuto to curse. When the area cleared, another youkai stood with them.
“Gakuto,” his voice was flat, “that doesn’t belong to you.” The administrator snarled and stalked away, cursing her species and females in general. Kagome focused on the new demon’s face, sensing that, despite the injury Gakuto had inflicted, the shorter, heavily muscled youkai was far more dangerous. His eyes were black; the iris disappeared into the pupil. His skin had a greyish-brown hue that darkened across the pebbled surface at his brow and down his nose. He stepped forward and examined her cheek.
“Where are you taking me?” Her voice wavered a little bit and Kagome shivered, from cold or fear she couldn’t tell.
“North,” he answered shortly. He reached out to lift her gag from where it had fallen around her neck, and his hand brushed against her skin.
Kagome wasn’t sure what made her say it, but she couldn’t stop the words from tumbling from her lips, “Please.” He stopped, his eyes meeting hers. “Please don’t. Don’t do this.”
His black eyes considered her, and she was unable to read any emotion in them. Kagome could not breathe. It was her worst nightmare, repeated over again. She had thought with the death of Naraku that she wouldn’t have to live through such a situation again. Instead, she was being used, used against the people she cared about. Their enemies would dangle her like a prize and draw her friends, her family, into danger. The snow soaking into her pants, the frost forming on her breath, the sting of her cheek and the raw feeling in her throat were nothing in comparison to the crushing weight of that moment.
“They won’t come,” she said desperately. “Sesshomaru cares nothing for humans, he won’t come after me. And Inuyasha doesn’t even know I have been taken, I haven’t seen him in weeks,” she lied, praying that this demon would not be able to smell her deception. Something flickered across his face, as though he had heard something of interest.
“You may call me Arashi,” he said. He slipped the gag back into her mouth and tightened it to secure it from falling again. Gakuto had put his stained kimono back on and was complaining that they should be off. Kagome kept her eyes on Arashi, waiting for him to tell her that her words meant nothing to him. Instead he ordered Gakuto to go on, and picked up the miko behind her knees and shoulders. He leaned in close to her ear and whispered, “Do not struggle.”
They travelled for hours, listening to Gakuto complain about the weather, the lack of respect he received in the West, and his general disgust concerning Kagome. They stopped only once – to drink at a stream and allow Kagome to relieve herself.
She hardened her features into a cold mask, trying to replicate the frightening apathy of Sesshomaru. The moment her gag was removed she spoke carefully, having considered exactly what she wanted to say during the long hours they travelled, “If you try to hurt my friends, if you want to use me to hurt them, I will kill you.” She did her best not to let her fear or anger show.
Arashi considered her, and then replaced her gag without waiting for her to drink. They ran on. Gakuto was breathing heavily, but Arashi did not seem to notice her weight. The sun rose high, and then sank, casting absolute darkness over the land. The snow had not let up for days, and as they continued north it seemed to fall even thicker. The wind blew harder and the snow piled higher, forcing the two demons to bound rather than run to avoid sinking into the drifts.
Kagome worried, and boiled with anger, and worried again. She wanted to reach for her reiki. She wanted to purify the two demons who had taken her and run back to the Western Palace. She was afraid. Afraid that she would only injure herself further if she tried to use so much of her power. Afraid that she would fail to summon it, but provoke further punishment from her kidnappers. Afraid that if they believed she would and could use miko powers on them, they would devise a way to keep her from her holy energy, ending any future attempts to escape.
In the end, she did nothing. She felt bitter over the decision. Kagome was always the damsel in distress, always the one taken and held captive or used as bait. She always did nothing, waiting to be rescued; waiting for help to come. It was likely Sesshomaru would save her this time, and it stung that she would have to be saved at all. He would not be pleased by an incursion into his home, and he had said she was under his protection. If she was injured or killed, it would be a stain on his honor. Whatever else Sesshomaru was, Kagome knew he was honorable. It might take him a while; after all, he had the disease, raids, and chaos in the East to deal with.
She stiffened her resolve. Kagome could wait, but she wouldn’t be idle. She would look for the opportunity to make her own escape. She was not the clumsy schoolgirl she had been four years ago. Well, she was still clumsy, but she had learned a lot about herself, her power, and violence. At the very least, when Sesshomaru came for her, she would be able to say she had put up a fight. They reached the northernmost point of the main island, and stepped into a waiting boat. Arashi left her on the boards while he rowed, powerful strokes that ate up the waves and the hours of night.
“There,” Arashi’s voice was low and toneless. She followed his gaze through the darkness, but saw nothing. As they continued to move forward, tiny pinpricks of light appeared in the falling snow. Then a wall emerged, soaring out of nothingness to rise like a cliff face before them. The stone was black and smooth like volcanic glass. Guards stood at the base of a short floating dock, braziers burning beside them. Between them was a massive gate.
Arashi picked her up again and climbed out of the boat. “I have returned,” he stated.
Both youkai bowed low, lower than Kagome thought they needed to, and pulled on the wooden handles of the doors to open the way. Arashi strode forward silently. Gakuto less so. Twists and turns in narrow passageways, the snow still falling on top of them, led them to another gate. And then another. At each barrier, the guards bowed to Arashi and let them through, until finally they approached the castle itself.
Kagome suppressed a shudder. The walls were not whitewashed, but made entirely of the same black stone. Reptilian eyes watched her from positions of defense and followed their progress. Kagome could feel her reiki surging to life, fighting for release. Her base impulse was to let her power loose and run, as fast and far as she could. Logic told her it would most likely get her killed. She battled with herself, doing everything she could to hold back her own survival instincts. The door opened slightly, without any bows, and Arashi put her down, securing her by the cloth that bound her hands and leading her behind him.
Gakuto’s tirade finally fell silent as they stepped into a large stone chamber. A raised wooden floor muffled their footfalls until they were halfway across the large space, then Arashi fell to his knees, pulling Kagome down with him. She glanced wildly around, looking for whomever they were waiting for.
“Remain silent.” Arashi’s voice was barely even a sound, but Kagome did not have time to wonder if it was a threat or a warning.
A screen at the far end of the room opened and a daiyoukai of incredible power stepped out onto the dais. His youki slammed into the space and Kagome’s eyes widened. She had rarely felt anything even approaching his energy before. Naraku. Inuyasha’s full-youkai state. Sesshomaru.
The daiyoukai’s black eyes narrowed and a malicious grin broke across his face. “You have relieved some of the inept shame that follows your name, half-breed.” Kagome’s eyes widened slightly before she could control her reaction. Hanyou, like Inuyasha. “Finally you succeed at the task this one has given you.”
He prowled across the dais, not moving closer, but Kagome could feel the hot, irritating tentacles of youki prodding at her in the same way his gaze inspected her visually. She clamped down on every emotion, picturing only the cool mask of Sesshomaru’s features at his most detached and striving to emulate it. She must have been successful, because the daiyoukai lifted his lip with distaste and pushed harder with his energy, trying to unsettle her and force his way into her body. A distant part of her brain was surprised at how little reiki it took, floating just under her skin in a barrier, to keep him out.
“It was not this lowly creature, but I, Gakuto, who brought Sesshomaru’s whore to you.”
Kagome wanted to look at the traitor, to see his face as he realized how stupid it had been to speak out, but she did not. She had only just met the Lord that ruled the Northern Palace, and she was certain that he would not appreciate such an outburst.
“She is a gift to you, the next Saidai Mao! Break her and throw her bones at Sesshomaru’s feet as you conquer Japan and drive out the human infestation, my Lord!”
Kagome found a spot on the far wall to stare at. She would not have felt a bit of remorse for purifying Gakuto’s lying face, but she had no desire to see what would happen to him if the daiyoukai decided the administrator was not worth the air he breathed.
“You? You have brought a miko for this one’s enjoyment?” the Northern Lord asked.
“Yes, my Lord! Take your pleasure and bathe in her blood before you leave her to rot!”
There was a tiny sound from beside her. In another place and time, Kagome would have considered it a snort of disbelief. The great demon heard it as well. His black eyes turned to Arashi. “Do you disagree, half-breed?” He bared his teeth in a parody of a smile that sent a shiver down Kagome’s spine.
Gakuto foolishly threw himself in the spotlight again. “What else would he say but to try to claim honor for his own? I alone have done as you wished, Denka-ue. I have betrayed Sesshomaru. I have brought you the miko. I should remain at your right hand.” Gakuto preened and puffed out his chest with ego.
“I would not disagree with my betters, Gakuto-san.” Arashi’s voice held no inflection. “I am only confused at the encouragement you give the one to which you have sworn a life oath. I would never be so bold as to assume such ignorance of Ryukostokken-sama. I am eager to see how he will discipline your error.”
“Error?” Gakuto was confused for a moment. Kagome watched from the corner of her eye as his face went slack. She didn’t know why Arashi was doing it, but Gakuto was being played.
“Speak,” commanded Ryukostokken.
“The miko was kept by Sesshomaru for a fortnight, yet she remains pure. I do not know what would stop a lowly dog from rutting with a human female at his disposal, much like his father, but the rumors…” His voice trailed off, and Kagome had trouble staying calm as a sudden gust of wind ruffled her hair and hot, acrid air blew in her face. The daiyoukai had moved across the room in an instant, his face mere inches from hers. His tongue flicked out, tasting the space around her. Kagome was reminded of a snake.
“Pure? As the mud under my feet is pure. As the floor of a human hovel is-” Gakuto’s scoffing was abruptly cut off by the Lord.
“She is still a miko.” Black eyes, hard but curious, bored into hers, but he did not touch her.
“No longer, my Lord! Many in the Western Palace witnessed her collapse. Her power has died, she can not harm you.” The Lord turned slightly to look at Gakuto, who quickly tried to fix his mistake. “Not that you could be injured by even the most holy of priestesses! She didn’t purify anyone at the Western Palace, only healed them, even before she lost her power. Mikos lose their power when they are defiled, my Lord. Her purity is gone.”
“Do you question This One’s senses?” Gakuto sputtered, and the Lord stood straight, glaring down at him. “Or do you think to fool This One into being purified? You have committed treason against one Lord. This Ryukostokken will not suffer such a fate!”
The dragon’s voice rose with every word, until he was shouting. He sucked in a great lungful of air, and then Kagome was blinded by heat and light. There was a shrieking, wailing sound that did not end abruptly, but slowly wavered out with a series of pops and cracks. Kagome was assaulted by the smell of singed flesh and burnt hair. It took several minutes for the fire to die down, leaving a pile of charred remains in a blacked circle on the floor. She blinked back the tears that threatened; the smoke stung her eyes and burned in her lungs. She tried not to think about the person, the mess, a few feet away from her. Sesshomaru would not look. He would not care. Be cold. Be aloof. It doesn’t affect me.
Ryukostokken stepped towards her again, drawing a claw down the side of her face. It hurt. The slow drag of burning pain hurt more than any quick punch or cut she had ever received before. Kagome did not look away from the spot on the wall, but sweat trickled down her back.
“She does not defend herself?”
“My informant,” Arashi paused, “my more intelligent informant, tells me she has no offensive skills. I believe it is common for human priestesses to have only one skill or the other, healing or fighting. Once they have been defiled, they lose all of their power.”
“You dare suggest that This One lacks knowledge?” Kagome felt the rising tide of angry youki and wanted to scream at Arashi to shut up before his lies got them both killed.
“Forgive me, Denka-ue.” Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Arashi bow, touching his head to the floor. For some reason, despite the terror trying to claw its way out of her stomach, the action seemed wrong to her. Arashi wasn’t the type to bow to another, or to apologize. You don’t know anything about him, she chastised herself. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling.
Then the Dragon Lord was in her face again, “This One has tested many miko for skills such as you are rumored to possess – and been disappointed. Those human females that could not heal youkai did not need their purity. They were made useful in other ways.” His tongue flickered out and hovered over the blood on her cheek, and she couldn’t think of anything but not screaming. Not clawing his eyes out. Not blasting him with reiki and running as fast as she could into the cold. She needed to be strong. Sesshomaru was strong. This was his enemy; Ryukostokken was her enemy now too. Sesshomaru said she was part of his pack. She wanted that, wanted to be worthy of that. To that end, she would muster up all the strength she could manage in the face of such a monster.
“You will show This One how you heal youkai, Miko no Mao.” Ryukostokken taunted her with the title, and she could do nothing about it. In that room, between the Dragon Lord and his youki that rivaled Sesshomaru’s, and Arashi who she instinctively knew was far more than he appeared, she could do nothing but wait.
She stared at the wall, pushing down the bile that threatened when his hot, sulfuric breath blew her bangs back and dried out her eyes, and remained silent.
“You will show This One your worth, human, or you will become the whore Sesshomaru did not have the virility to make you.” He lifted his hand to his mouth, and flicked out his tongue to taste her blood on his claw. “Sweet, white blossoms,” he said, closing his eyes. “This will be most satisfying, either way.”
He left without another word. Kagome didn’t dare relax her spine, for fear that she would collapse onto the floor and be unable to move. I don’t think I can do this alone. The whispered thought nearly broke her, and then the image of Sesshomaru came to mind. The Killing Perfection. The Western Lord. Something deep inside her warmed, and flexed. She could almost feel him beside her, stroking her with his youki to settle her emotions.
“Remain silent,” Arashi whispered. “Remain alive.”
Then he was gone and four guards, one with a limp and the other three horrifically scarred, entered. A tall, thin dragon youkai followed them and took a seat in front of her. He snapped to one guard, and the male stepped forward, holding out his arm. The dragon pushed up his sleeve, and drew a thin blade, coated with something shiny, across the skin. The flesh was laid open, and it did not immediately knit together.
“Heal it,” the dragon ordered.
Kagome took a deep breath and called her power slowly. Her fingers glowed a gentle pink, and the injured guard had to be pushed forward before he would give her his arm. It was the work of a half hour to eradicate the poison that prevented his healing and push the skin back together. When she opened her eyes, the guards were staring at her with a frightened shock.
The dragon seated before her narrowed his eyes. “Again,” he said and pulled out his knife. It would happen many more times before the sun rose.
Arashi settled into a perch on the inner wall, staring out across the cold sea. The snow had stopped, finally, and a few stars could be seen between the parting clouds. The fire in his chest warmed him, melted the frost on the stone around him. Despite his calm facade, Arashi was a dragon. Half-dragon, but his blood was strong enough that it made him superior to most full-youkai. Thankfully, although he had their physical strength, he did not share the foolish disposition of most of dragon-kind.
The Shikon Miko. He had long heard the rumors, had collected them with interest. A strangely-dressed miko with the responsibility of the jewel of four souls. The girl travelled the lands with a band of allies to defeat Naraku. She was followed by a slayer and a monk. She adopted a kitsune orphan. Her greatest protector was an inuhanyou. He had often sought out information on the miko while he was unoccupied with other duties. He followed the progress in her quest with interest. All of the tales resounded with her ability to make allies–friends–with any creature, regardless of species.
It had occurred to him that the Shikon Miko and the Miko no Mao were one in the same, but he had not been certain. There were not many human priestesses that were found in the company of youkai – willingly in the company of youkai. That the Shikon Miko travelled with Inuyasha, the half-brother of the Miko no Mao’s Lord Sesshomaru should have made the connection obvious. The relationship between the two inu was what had obscured the truth. They hated each other, that was common knowledge. That Sesshomaru had ignored the plight of the orphaned Inuyasha out of bitterness over his father’s death was speculated on so frequently as to have become truth. Arashi had even heard a first-hand account of a battle between the two, in which the Shikon Miko was nearly killed trying to get between them. He had not had proof that the two women of so many tales were one in the same until she’d admitted to knowing and caring for both brothers. The Shikon Miko had not been heard of for several years because she was no longer merely the keeper of the orb. She was the Miko no Mao.
However it had come to pass that she left the hanyou for the daiyoukai, it had happened. If she was to be believed, it had also been willingly. She claimed Inuyasha had not suffered for it, but Arashi found that difficult to believe. Sesshomaru was more lenient towards humans and hanyou in his lands, but to take his brother’s woman without a battle did not seem plausible. He would have heard if there had been anything more significant than a skirmish – anything that resulted in injuries or death.
Arashi needed more information. She was the Shikon Priestess. The holy human who defeated the greatest evil Japan had seen and made companions of hanyou, human, and youkai. She brought enemies together as allies. It could change everything. It might change nothing.
He stood, concentrating on his substantial youki and preparing to depart the Northern Palace. Ryukostokken had given him orders. He was to scout the Southern Lands and find the best route through the East so that they could be taken next. The West was to be saved for last. Savored at the Dragon Lord’s leisure.
Arashi would do what he had always done best: survive. It often required that his plans be mutable, changeable. He was not sure if that would be required, his strategy was long and patient, but he would consider all options. He needed more information. He only hoped that the miko could follow his advice and stay alive long enough for him to return. Perhaps she was only a pawn in the shogi game he had been playing so long. Perhaps she was something more.
But one thing was certain: the Shikon Miko might change the course of the world, alter fate itself, if given time.
Arashi shook his head and drew in his heat. He needed to know more, and he knew just where to listen. He jumped off of the battlements, and flew into the night.
Sesshomaru was punishing himself. He knew it, but he could not stop. He sat at the desk in his private study, bare paper before him, and envisioned every possible torture that could be visited upon the miko while in enemy territory.
Ryukostokken would break her down with words first, or at least he would try. He would not succeed, not with Sesshomaru’s miko. She was strong, and had been through more dangerous and frightening situations than most seasoned youkai warriors. She would not break. Sesshomaru had not seen Ryukostokken since they were both little more than pups, but he well remembered the quick anger of the dragon. After a few days he would lose his temper. It would be a backhanded slap. Then wrenching her hair. Punches. Small cuts…that bled into larger wounds as she refused to give up. Eventually he would go too far and a healer would be summoned. The North was known for its excellent healers and vast medical library. They would revive her, save her, heal her just enough to prevent death. When her reiki did not surface to injure her attacker or close her wounds, the dragon would grow bolder. More vile.
A snarl of rage bubbled in Sesshomaru’s chest. Ryukostokken would torture her, and if the actions of the raiding Northern warriors reflected on their lord he would do more than that. If Sess did not rescue her soon, Ryukostokken would hurt her until she broke and submitted. Until the miko was-
I will not allow it! Sesshomaru plunged his claws into the table. Each deadly point pierced through the wood, clearing the way for his fingers and hand to follow until a pile of sawdust and splinters lay on the floor. The sound woke the pup. She had been sleeping, fitfully, for several hours, but if she was moved away from the daiyoukai she woke and screamed until he returned. He could not even leave her with mokomoko. His fur would satisfy her for a short time, but after less than a half hour she would begin whimpering, then crying, and then the shrieking would begin again. Sesshomaru did not have it in him to reprimand her as an inu should. How could he, when he wanted to do the same.
The miko should be at the castle, with them. He should have gone after her, should still go after her and bring her home. He closed his eyes and pulled Emi close to his chest. He had made his decision. The only decision he could make. The miko would never put her own welfare above that of others, and it was his duty to protect many more than just her. Protect my pup. Our pups. He was frustrated – torn between protecting his pups and protecting his future mate. He wanted to yell too.
Instead, he smoothed one hand, so recently thrust through his table, across Emi’s back and rumbled in the language of his kind, “Quiet, little one. I am here. You are safe.”
The small female responded, as she had so many times, with a dual lament in two languages, “Mother! Kago-mama!”
They were the only words she had spoken, and Sesshomaru feared she would never learn any others if she did not resolve the pain in her heart. Even her tiny youki cried out for the loss of the one she had taken to so quickly. It was not hard for him to understand why. His own self, every fiber of his being, howled for the miko. Kagome.
As soon as he had Hisao and Kento behind a youki barrier, he had ordered a tracking party to find Kagome’s trail, directed by the few times Gakuto had stepped on bare earth and alerted Eiji to his location. The trackers were the three best, after himself. Two inu and an eagle youkai that could use all of the most powerful senses at their disposal to follow the miko, regardless of where she had been taken. They would know her location and report back by morning. If they found signs that she had been injured… Sesshomaru refused allow himself to dwell on that thought.
He still could not leave until Rin was secure and the leadership of the West in strong hands. The burden of his responsibilities grew heavier with each hour, and he had to bite back his urge to throw it off and follow his desire. In the dark of the night, his concern for the miko’s safety in the hands of his enemy was accompanied by the possibility that saving her would provide fuel to those in his lands that would seek to denounce her. Many in the West, and among his allies in the East and South, would not find a human fit for the role of Western Lady. They might twist his departure to retrieve her into a justification for refusing her rule – labeling her as unfit to rule by his side if she was not strong enough to save herself. If the lands were in jeopardy in his absence, their arguments would be given more credibility. It might give rise to rebellion, at least among the daiyoukai, which would make the miko’s position more difficult.
The miko’s power was formidable. Her knowledge of the future and reiki, as a healing tool and a weapon, were advantages to the West, or to any enemy that could break her. Her capture, and his decision not to go after her personally, would jeopardize other alliances, not only with Inuyasha and Kouga, but with other youkai that owed the miko a debt.
Sesshomaru reviewed all of the information they had on the North. With Kento and Hisao, he had sent new orders to all of his own emissaries and spies: to gather whatever knowledge they could regarding movements of the dragons raiders, the North, and the conditions in the East. He had dispatched a trusted soldier to the South to deliver a warning about the North to Hirimoto and invite him to share information.
He had considered his options for an heir or proxy, and in the morning he would send a message to his mother. Kimi was well respected among youkai and possessed a vicious, devious mind that lent itself well to war strategy. He had already selected his strike force, those that would assist him in retrieving the miko. Hisao had quietly informed those that were chosen and would work with them in a hidden location outside of the castle to prepare to go North. Two falcon demons would carry those who could not fly. Three water youkai would bring them across the sea and conceal their approach with fog. The remainder of the small force were inu and wolf youkai. They would work well together to infiltrate the castle quickly and put down any guards that stood in their way. His own superior nose would not have trouble finding her once he was inside.
The strongest of the water youkai had been charged with taking the miko, should they met resistance during the retreat, and conveying her back to the Western Palace through the rivers. Sesshomaru would lead the others in a stand to allow time for her escape. The strategy would leave him at a tactical disadvantage to Ryustokken, but Sesshomaru was willing, even eager, to sacrifice that advantage to have his miko back. If he did not return, unlikely though he was to fall to lesser youkai and one such as the cowardly dragon, the lands would be well-led and his pack safe.
The pressing work – planning the strike on the North to rescue the miko, assessing the impact of the disease and raids, preparing the West’s defenses – was all that occupied his mind from the reality of the loss of the miko. He set punishments for Jun and the rock brothers. Jun was assigned to work in the laundry under Jaken’s watchful eye. The menial tasks were far below the healer’s abilities and station, and were fitting punishment. More than that, they put him where he could not bring further harm to the West through his own stupidity, cowardice, or… Perhaps it had been… Sesshomaru set aside those thoughts for consideration later. Jaken was his most loyal retainer. The toad youkai was annoying, but he would watch the healer carefully, and make note of any suspicious actions for his Lord.
The rock brothers had received a far lighter punishment than he had originally intended. After his loss of control burning Eiichi with his dokkasou, he had given over their discipline to Hisao for whipping. He did not trust himself not to kill one or both of the youkai if he had administered the lashes himself. They were assigned to double shifts: guarding the young ones during the day and occupying Nankae each evening until Hisao would claim the pup. He had been considering the best place for the orphaned inuyoukai prior to the incursion on the castle. He had planned to tell the miko first, to allow her to accept the idea before the pup was removed from her care. Sesshomaru had decided that the male would become part of his captain’s pack, to Nankae’s joy and Hisao’s confusion. Hisao needed an heir, and once the miko returned, Sesshomaru would want her to himself. When she returns, she will be pleased, and sad. His heart lifted as he considered the turbulent emotions of the woman. He glanced at Emi again. She would not be an obstacle to the mating, and the miko loved her as though the pup were of her own blood.
If not for the near constant wails of the female pup, he might have managed to forget, at least for a moment, the gnawing pain in his chest, the furious mania that he longed to give in to… He was diayoukai. He was the Western Lord, Saidai Mao. His actions could not always be his own. Not when it put his pups, his entire people at risk.
Once orders for punishment of those who had failed him were carried out, he had inspected soldiers and completed his own training exercises. His martial practice was enhanced by the presence of two, unarmored, rock demons whom were in need of additional training. They had been wounded badly enough that they would be uncomfortable for days. Combined with the flaying of their backs, Sesshomaru doubted the brothers would find sleep easily. The exercise had vented some of his pent up frustration but the dark emotions that were raging under his cold exterior did not disappear.
He had comforted the children as best he could. Shippo was alternately angry and heartbroken. The kit had even attempted to leave the castle to track down the miko himself. When the kitsune was found and returned, he had challenged Sesshomaru’s right as the miko’s Alpha. Shippo had bared his tiny teeth and demanded, in the barks and shrill howls of the kitsune language, that Sesshomaru either save the miko or stand aside so another could do so. The kit was far too young for the challenge to an alpha to be taken seriously, but Sesshomaru’s own torn desires tempered his reaction. He’d forced his submission with youki, but he also allowed both the kit and Rin to hold onto his arms for a few moments while they cried.
The miko’s son would not remain mired in sadness long, and Sesshomaru had made certain any future attempts which might prove self-destructive would be thwarted. The rock brothers had been set to guard the children against possible attacks and their own misguided attempts to leave. Rin was full of sadness and resolute belief that her Lord would save the miko. He did not have the words, or the courage, to tell her how wrong she might be…
He had torn into his papers and punished himself and his two counselors with a savage pace, refusing to hear the opinions he knew they both wanted to express. He had already had all of their arguments with himself, and more.
He’d dismissed Kento and Hisao both hours ago to sit in the darkness of his study with the pup on his lap. Her cries for the miko subsided, but her whimpers remained. From within the coils of mokomoko, he withdrew a robe the woman had slept in the night before. Her scent clung stubbornly to the thin silk, and Sesshomaru breathed deeply even as he pressed it into the pup’s hands. She grasped the cloth, burying her little nose in the material and curling against his chest to fall back into a restless sleep.
New cherry wood. Magnolia blossoms fresh with dew. Satsuma oranges. A trace of cinnamon…
He missed her. He wanted her back. For the first time since his father had died, Sesshomaru hated his responsibilities. He did not want to be the Western Lord. Saidai Mao. He did not want to walk the path of conquest. Not without her. Those things were who he was. They had defined him. He would give them up, gladly, everything that made him Sesshomaru, if he would then be able to destroy those that kept his miko from him. Kagome…
A familiar youki pulsed gently in the corridor, seeking permission to enter. He did not respond, hoping the imbecile would go away. Kento, ever the foolish one testing and steering his Lord’s temperament, slid back the screen and bowed low. Sesshomaru did not look up in the gloomy shadows to see his assistant’s face. He did not have to. The man reeked of apology. Boldness. Irritation. And…fear. Sesshomaru did not pause in the action of gently rubbing the pup’s back, but he did sharpen his senses.
“My Lord, forgive the intrusion,” Kento began, then paused. He turned and looked over his shoulder. As if there was an enemy there that he feared would catch up to him at any moment. “Sesshomaru-sama, a guest has arrived. It-” he licked his lips and closed the shoji screen behind him. A youki barrier, weaker than Sesshomaru’s but still effective against eavesdroppers, molded into existence. “A guest awaits you in the private reception hall.”
Sesshomaru was not in the mood for intrigue. He was never in the mood for intrigue, but his internal battle had put him on edge. He was prepared to flay Kento with his whip if the inu did not get to the point and leave him in peace.
“Speak,” he ordered.
“Your Honorable Mother is here.”
Kagome slumped forward, exhausted. Her reiki still thrummed inside her, barely tapped and difficult to contain with so much youki flaring around her, but her body was ready to drop. Hunger had come and gone hours before. It would soon be time for breakfast, but the gnawing emptiness in her belly did not have any hope for food. Her throat was dry. She had been given a cup of water, between the fourth and fifth injuries she had healed, but she was not willing to drink it. Kagome was well aware that many things could be slipped into water that would kill her, or impair her. She wouldn’t risk it. Her eyelids drooped after staying awake all night, and her ears had grown numb to the barks of the dragon who injured his own men and then ordered her to heal them. Over and over again. The wounds only became worse with each passing hour.
“It appears the miko has limits. We will test them further tomorrow, when our Lord may be present to observe. You,” he snapped at the nearest soldier, Kagome recalled that she had sealed a scalp laceration for him, and regrown a finger. “Take her to the chamber of the Setting Sun. Two guards outside the room at all times. No one enters without express permission from myself or the Denka.”
Her hands were unbound, had been since the demonstration had begun, but she was in no condition to take advantage of it. Where the reception room had been dimly lit, the hallways she was prodded along were in absolute darkness. The youkai did not need lanterns to find their way, and it seemed they had no intention for providing such a courtesy to a prisoner. After a long, steep flight of stairs a door opened. Not a sliding screen, but a heavy, wooden door set with iron hinges and a real lock.
“In, Miko,’’ the guard muttered. He did not look at her face, or touch her. None of them did.
Kagome smiled wryly. It was ironic that her acts of healing, even saving, the dragon soldiers, had resulted in a fear of her that bordered on terror. She stepped carefully into the freezing room, trying to feel her way with her sandals and prevent her usual clumsiness. The door shut behind her with a thud that reverberated in her bones and made her sink to the floor.
This was it. This was her prison. The floor was wood and smooth beneath her bare feet. Her eyes pricked with tears and she felt her way to the nearest wall. At least no one has tortured me, yet. Hysterical laughter threatened to erupt, and she turned her head away from the door to prevent the sound from alerting the guards. Light, faint and far-off, winked at her. Kagome closed her eyes and opened them again. There it was. And another. She crawled forward, almost crashing her face into another wall. Her hands slid up glassy stone. The occasional bolt or shackle bruised her fingers and reminded her that she was not a guest – and Ryustokken did not treat prisoners well.
The light came from a window. A short, narrow window, perhaps eighteen inches by thirty inches, was cut into the rock. No glass or covering barred the opening, explaining the bitter cold seeping into the room. She could see storm clouds, parting and drifting to reveal the occasional star. The faint light danced on something far down. Kagome squinted, waiting for another moment of illumination. Another cloud moved, and she realized what lay below: the sea.
The window was large enough that she would have no trouble squeezing through. No trouble at all. She would only have to deal with a sheer drop, of at least three hundred feet, into the wintery depths of the Tsugaru Straits. If she managed not to be killed on a rock outcropping or from the impact with the water, that is. She would most likely freeze to death in the water. Assuming she didn’t drown first.
Kagome sank back to the floor and let out a harsh chuckle. She had told herself she would be strong. Strong enough to prove to Sesshomaru, to everyone, that she was worthy of the Lord of the West. Why was it that every time she made a vow, fate conspired to make it so hard for her to fulfill? She’d promised to repair the jewel, and had to defeat Naraku to complete that quest. She was determined to live up to the expectations she had of herself, of a woman that would seek out and win Sesshomaru’s heart, share in his life. And she was given obstacles that seemed insurmountable.
Kagome tilted her head back against the wall and absently rubbed her blood-encrusted hands against her pants. Her face was achy and itchy where the cut on her cheek had dried. Every wince or frown cracked the scabs and allowed new blood to sluggishly seep through. She couldn’t give up. She wouldn’t give up. She had just made a decision to make something new of herself, to become the type of person she had always secretly wanted to be. She was tired of being the damsel in distress. She wanted to be strong, to be seen as more than just the keeper of the jewel. If Sesshomaru never loved her, it would hurt. She didn’t even really love him yet, but it would still hurt if he rejected her. But she would live. She would still be someone she was proud of. Someone better than she had been before. Kagome would not let any obstacles keep her from achieving her goals.
“Right,” she nodded to herself and glanced up at the sky again, “I can do this.” I will do this, she promised herself.