Chapter 32: Shifting Pieces
Arashi took his time after he left his meeting with the raccoon dog. Hachi’s story had been long, winding, and as informative as it was thought-provoking. The Shikon Miko. The Miko no Mao. They were definitively one in the same. Hachi could not confirm it, but his descriptions of the woman were all Arashi needed to settle any doubts he had. A human girl with dark wavy hair and eyes too blue to belong to a mortal. A power unmatched by any other, save perhaps Midoriko, and Hachi expressed his opinion that the young miko would surpass even the priestess of legend one day.
One day. Arashi felt that day may have come and gone and the miko was still growing in power. He had a few other sources to explore, but it was merely formality to ensure no stone was left unturned. A woman who sees not race, nor class, nor even past transgressions, he mused. The human he had kidnapped and delivered to the Northern Lord was a rare spiritual power that could chart new destinies for those around her – perhaps even the world. Like a pebble dropped in a still pond, the ripples of her actions were felt far and wide. Creatures who had never met her, would never meet her, had been transformed by her travels.
He paused outside a human village, one sometimes frequented by kitsune who lived in a school nearby. He considered all his options, moves and counter-moves, while he eavesdropped on the women gathering at a frigid stream bed to launder their clothes. Their talk began with speculation on rumors of raids in the north. They spoke of a disease and a traveler who brought them word to quarantine any who showed signs of illness. They were not afraid, and Arashi found that most interesting. Ryustokoken had designed his plans around fear, shadows, and intimidation. These human women, the weakest and most vulnerable to such tactics, knew nothing of the dragons or the fear of impending pain and death.
“Are you certain?” A young woman, barely old enough to marry, stopped her work to stare at a snub-nosed girl who wore a superior expression.
“I wouldn’t tell tales,” she replied, and then belied her own statement. “The headman was dining with my father when the traveler arrived. He said Miroku-sama sent him, and others, out to all of the villages with the same message.” The woman frowned when she was interrupted by several heartfelt sighs of ‘Miroku-sama’ and ‘houshi-sama’. One female even wondered aloud if he still needed someone to bear his children. Arashi tasted the varying degrees of lust from the women. Apparently Hachi had taught his master more than sutras and bindings. The raccoon dog’s lecherous nature had rubbed off on the monk. “In any case,” the woman continued sharply, “the headman was warned that a disease was moving south, and that we should use the special medicine sent by Miroku-sama if any villages nearby reported sickness.”
The hanyou was surprised by that information. So, he thought, the miko has given a cure to her friends. It is no wonder the pox did not spread as Ryustokoken anticipated. Not only spiritually powerful, but intelligent as well. Suppositions on the health and marital status of Miroku and the nature of the sickness that had never come all ground to a halt as another woman raced over a hill to the stream. Her panting breath was visible in the winter air, her eyes were wide with a fearful sort of excitement.
“You have to come, quickly! A demon has arrived in the village!” The women abandoned their washing to return to the village. Arashi followed them silently, using his youki and dull clothing to remain hidden in the trees that skirted the edges of fields and huts. A demon, a horse youkai by the scent that met Arashi’s outstretched tongue, was surrounded by a throng of villagers. They kept their distance, but the crowd was too dense for Arashi to make out what lay on the ground at the horse’s feet. It left the coppery taste of blood in the air.
“Hear me, humans!” The youkai’s voice boomed out, silencing whispers and stilling shifting feet. “A message from the Saidai Mao! There is no price great enough to harm what is his! Those who make threats, will be repaid doubly. Those who offer rewards, will suffer this fate ten-fold!” He kicked at something on the ground, and a raspy sound, like stone flaking away from a mountain, grated against the ears of those present and bespoke of unimaginable pain.
The headman, aged and stooped, stepped forward and spoke quietly. His voice was steady and without a hint of the fear and disgust that showed on the faces of other villagers. “I have heard that title, long ago.” His serious tone caught the interest of both Arashi and the horse youkai. “What threat exists to Sesshomaru-sama that cannot be ended with a single strike of his whip?”
“The Saidai Mao protects what is his – his pack. The West. His allies.”
“We are not in the West,” the headman responded slowly. His face was heavily lined, but his eyes were sharp and clear. “Are we to be protected, or should we prepare for his wrath?”
“Those that wish to live peaceably. Those that do not covet the lands and possessions of another. Those that have aided his allies. Those that use their minds and mouths before their weapons.” The horse youkai paused, and Arashi followed his gaze to a mature woman, dressed in miko garb, that stood behind the headman. She had no scent of power about her, but she carried implements of healing. “Those that aided the Shikon Miko-” whispers broke out again, but the horse spoke over them, “these shall be protected. Choose to live protected, and prosper by your own hands – or listen to those who offer rewards for blood, and die amid your illicit wealth.” The horse bent down, and when he was visible to Arashi again he held several lengths of rope in his hands.
The villagers stepped hastily out of his way and the youkai ran south from the village, picking up speed and dragging his creaking, crusted burden behind him. Arashi spent several minutes staring after the messenger and the trail of blood left behind him.
“Bit dramatic, don’t you think?”
Arashi started, but managed to turn his face calmly to the young woman standing beneath him. She did not look up, but leaned casually against the tree and kept her eyes on the red-streaked dirt and snow.
“Actions speak loudly,” he replied softly. He watched the woman carefully, not recognizing her face, but finding something familiar in her aura. “Aina, do you not have students to concern you?”
She smiled, and ignored his question, pointing instead to the gore left in the wake of the horse and his cargo. “Action is one thing,” she said. She took long strides and retrieved something small from the quickly freezing liquid that stained the path. “Spectacles are another, and I am most familiar with the latter.” She picked her way through the snow to stand under the tree again, and held up her hand. Pinched between two fingers was a ball the size of a robin’s egg, crusted in dried browns and wet reds. He met her eyes, which swirled, first brown, then green as her disguise began to fall. One fang fell over her lip and she grinned, calling him by the false name he had given her long ago, “Genji, tell me you have not heard the offers from the North and thought to fill your sleeves with pearls.”
“No, Aina, I have far too much employment as it is. I have no time to wash my payment after it has been stitched under my skin.” She smiled again, and Arashi, had he not been a long-time observer of others, might have missed the relief and fear that washed across her features. He had need of new pieces for his shogi board, and Aina enjoyed a game more than anyone else he knew – even if she could never be allowed to know the entire strategy. “Invite me for tea, little Aina,” he coaxed. She snorted, but her smile remained. “I have another task that may interest you. A role that only a performer of skill beyond compare could master.”
She quirked one brow and nodded, and he jumped lightly out of his tree. “I have not been little for a least a century, Genji,” she said dryly. “I trust there will be no pearls involved, no breaching of the protection of the Western Palace?”
Arashi followed her, watching the tips of her red tails swish across the ground from under her kimono. “No pearls,” he confirmed. “And you are intimately aware that I prefer infiltration over breaching.” Her laughter was sultry and curious at the same time, and echoed against the trees. They left the cold winter afternoon behind, with only the silent trees to consider their conversation.
Inuyasha arrived at the make-shift camp sweaty, tired, and still cross with himself for having given in to the urge to help his brother. Bastard, he told himself, but cursing the daiyoukai didn’t help his mood. Sango met him at the edge of the woods, her boomerang slung over her shoulder. Her eyes were serious and her mouth set in a firm line. She smelled of supple leather, oil for her weapon, rice soup, and Kagome’s future soap. She smelled of camellias and hemlock. She smelled determined, healthy, and had the damp scent of marimo moss that, on her, he always associated with distraction and anxiety.
“Is Kagome okay?”
Inuyasha wanted to roll his eyes. As if I’d be here if the wench was in trouble. That thought made him snort. Sesshomaru was going to be the one in trouble when Kagome figured out what was going on. He almost wished he could watch it. “About time she sat somebody else,” he mumbled.
“What?” Sango was frowning, puzzled, and Inuyasha realized he had spoken aloud.
He scowled to cover his embarrassment. “She’s fine. Sesshomaru is going to take her back to the West. I was gonna send you with her, but since you don’t have to, you should…” he sniffed, frowning. There was something else about Sango that smelled different, but he couldn’t quite figure it out. She looked ready to question him, but Miroku came up behind her, forestalling any inquiries.
“Is Kagome-san alright?”
“Shit, the wench is fine already. Stop askin’!” Soldiers nearby – some remnants of Kuren’s diminished troops, others powerful allies they had met during the quest for the Shikon – turned curious eyes toward him. He lowered his voice, “She’s fine. Look, we need to get moving. Monk-” Inuyasha snarled and grabbed one purple sleeve before Miroku could connect with his unsuspecting target. If the lecher was knocked unconscious by Hirakotsou, they would be delayed at least an hour. “Keep your curse to yourself, and go get the maps. I got a new idea.” Miroku smiled and nodded as though he had not been caught about to fondle his wife, and made his way to the bag that contained his writing implements and various maps and scrolls.
“What are you up to, Inuyasha?” Sango’s question lacked the suspicion most humans would have used when they spoke to him. Would have. Before Kagome. Before the hunt for the Shikon and the death of Naraku. Because of the clumsy, cheerful little miko he had friends that were proud to fight by his side. He had allies, humans and demons, that respected him. Because of Kagome, he had a brother that was willing to claim him as family. He had a pack. Inuyasha had to shake his head and take several deep breaths to clear the tightness that suddenly gripped his chest. I ain’t got time to get all mushy, he reprimanded himself. Sango’s strange scent bugged him, but her sharp hemlock was a reminder of his responsibilities.
“We gotta take the offensive,” he replied.
“Because we so often run away from a fight?” Sango asked dryly. One dark eyebrow arched under her bangs and she leaned against her weapon.
“Nah. Not literally.”
“Oooo, my friend,” Miroku trotted up to the hanyou, a wide smile on his face and scrolls under his arm, “Perhaps this new association with your brother has truly opened your mind. Such an excellent vocabulary choice!”
“Shut it,” Inuyasha growled. He snatched away the maps and stomped to the nearest group of fighters. With a quick bark, he scattered them and claimed the log they had been seated on to lay out his scrolls. “We were doin’ good, killin’ those scaly bastards up in the mountains. But it was small time work.”
“It is time-consuming to destroy an army one scout at a time,” Sango murmured thoughtfully. Inuyasha was grateful for her experience in battle at that moment. What he knew of fighting had been learned at the sharp edge of a sword. The slayer, however, had been trained from an early age both in practical combat and in strategy. He valued her advice.
“More like ten at a time, but yeah. We were tryin’ to keep things quiet and take ‘em by surprise.”
“That worked well,” Miroku noted. “But the one that got away from Kouga-san and yourself before the new moon will have reported to his superiors. Even if they don’t know who they are fighting, the Northern forces will be wary of an unknown enemy. They will not be caught easily in an ambush, nor in such small numbers.” The monk turned narrowed eyes on his friend, and Inuyasha almost smiled at the roguish glint he saw there. “We can’t pursue them in force without risking your identity.”
“Let ‘em find out.”
“Inuyasha!” Sango sounded surprised, but also curious. “We were supposed to be harassing their flank and gaining information. This isn’t a good position, or nearly enough warriors, to fight the whole Northern army. Surely you don’t mean to taunt them into attacking us instead of the West?” Inuyasha remained silent, staring at the map below him and slowly tracing a path from his position, up the eastern coast, into an ideal location for what he had in mind. The shell of an ancient volcano protected a valley deep in the mountains. It was secluded and easily defended, but difficult to stage an attack from. He didn’t like the idea of even giving an enemy the impression that they had the upper hand, but he understood the necessity.
“No, my love,” Miroku answered her slowly. “Our friend is thinking far too deviously for that. Aren’t you, Inuyasha?”
“If anyone would recognize a devious plan, it’s you, pervert,” Sango muttered.
“I ain’t goin’ up there to get everyone killed. And it ain’t my plan, exactly.” He took a deep breath, scowling at the strangely floral scent that was buried under Sango’s smell and trying not to let it distract him. “Sesshomaru gave me some advice, and it got me thinking-”
“Your brother got you to use your brain?” Miroku whistled. “That must have been some advice.”
Inuyasha grunted and slapped the monk on the back of his head. “It got me thinkin’ that it is a lot easier to overhear somebody talkin’ if you can sit at the door, rather than in a tree in the yard.”
Miroku rubbed his head, hissing at the throbbing pain that indicated a lump was certainly forming. “I am afraid I do not follow you, my friend.”
“Oh, Inuyasha,” Sango breathed. She bent over the map as well, tracing the same path his claws had followed. “How did I not think of it? ‘We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors’,” she quoted.
Miroku frowned. “I am not certain how that particular war strategy from the mainland applies here, Sango-kasan.”
Inuyasha had never heard the proverb she quoted, so he glanced between the couple, one on either side of him. Miroku looked confused, while Sango stared at the map with a smile of dawning comprehension. She replied to her husband, “We aren’t the ones wanting an alliance, houshi. That bloodthirsty dragon is. Inuyasha wants to get close to the dragon, so he’s going to pretend to be interested in an alliance with him, right, Inuyasha?”
“Keh.” He let the scroll roll up against Sango’s hand and stuffed his arms into his sleeves. He bent his head to hide the satisfied smile that threatened to erupt at her tone of admiration.
“What on earth did Sesshomaru tell you that made you think of such a thing?” Miroku’s incredulity chipped off some of the hanyou’s good mood. He mumbled a response, and pushed the scrolls into the monk’s hands, pushing him towards his bags.
“What was that?” Sango asked.
Miroku obligingly began to walk away, but he grinned over his shoulder. Both males knew what Inuyasha had said, and that he wasn’t eager to repeat it. “He said that it would be impossible for someone like Ryustokokken to believe that after two centuries of sibling warfare Sesshomaru would accept such a senseless, impudent vagrant as a trusted ally,” the monk paraphrased. It was enough for Miroku to break into laughter, which trailed behind him as he walked through the camp drawing the stares of many demons.
“It wasn’t a very nice thing to say,” Sango began. Inuyasha knew she intended to comfort him, but he could clearly see the smile twitching the corners of her mouth.
“Whatever. At least I don’t have ice in my veins like that bastard.” He waved the matter away, hoping his blush would follow and changed the topic, “We should leave at dark. One of you should take Kirara back to Edo and…” Another inhale had him losing his train of thought. There was nothing a dog demon hated more than a scent he couldn’t place. Swiftly, Inuyasha cataloged the usual smells of the forest. Frozen earth. Pine and juniper. Clean snow. The rotting carcass of a rodent to his left and the raw, bloody smell of talons on the carrion bird that circled overhead. The camp scents were familiar as well. Charred wood. Fresh meat. Steel and sweat. Demons – birds, monkeys, neko, and even a kitsune. The scent of Miroku was faint on his sleeve and trailed away from the puddle of smells the monk had left behind. Lotus. Charcoal. Sharp ink. Golden honeyed amusement. Sango stood silent and waiting on his left. Camilla. Hemlock. Renkon. The leathery smell of fresh teak.
His eyes widened. Renkon. That was the strange smell that had been bothering him. The young shoots of the lotus plant. Stress and embarrassment were quickly followed by excited happiness. Inuyasha crushed the germ of joy the scent and its meaning brought on and forced an outraged irritation in its place. “Oi,” His loud exclamation attracted attention, and Inuyasha quickly lowered his voice. “What the hell do you think you’re doin’? You shoulda said something and I would have found somebody else to help train these idiots. And, hey…” He frowned, trying not to feel hurt, but not quite managing it, “How come Miroku didn’t say nothing’?”
Sango stared at him, her brown eyes wide and her mouth slightly open in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“You…you know…with the…” He found he couldn’t say it plainly, and so instead gestured with his claws and swiftly turned his head away. From the corner of his eye he could see her. A frown deepened on her face and she glanced from his hand, to his face, to her own body and back again. When she opened her mouth, ready to ask him for an explanation, Inuyasha blurted out, “Why didn’t you say you are going to have a baby?”