Chapter 36: Make Like A Tree
Kimi concealed her presence, as usual, and listened to Sesshomaru’s advisors in the next room. Kento was adding notes to short list he had been working on, doing his best to ignore Hisao’s impatient tapping. Her invitations to the Full Moon Council had gone out only a few days ago, but responses were already coming to the palace. The scrolls from youkai were affirmative and as swiftly delivered as possible. They were writing to their superior, and were aware that Kimi had sent the invitations on behalf of the Saidai Mao; Sesshomaru’s position, power, and personality demanded prompt reply. However, the demons were obviously more concerned with Kimi’s reaction to their messages than Sesshomaru’s – which she found absolutely delightful. The Full Moon Council would be a war council, certainly, but it was also traditionally a time for socializing, vengeance, and jockeying for position among the daiyoukai. And there was none better at such tasks than Mikadzuki Iwakura Kimi.
If it had been Sesshomaru sending out the invitations, most youkai would have simply sent a messenger with their affirmation and expected date of arrival. Where the Lord would prefer concise obedience, Kimi purposefully inspired youkai to try to sway her opinion in their favor – before the politics of the Court had truly begun. It allowed her the opportunity to know where each of her potential enemies and allies stood. Their need for her approval and assistance gave her power. Artful calligraphy on fine papers was accompanied by small, but valuable, gifts for the hostess. Kento’s desk was littered with tokens of admiration, respect, and – although the givers would be wise to never admit it – a healthy amount of fear for the dowager Western Lady.
Kento sighed, the small sound easily discerned by her keen ears even over distance. His attempts to ignore the captain were fruitless. Kimi gathered her mokomoko and left her tea, deeming that she had let the disrespectful dog pace long enough.
Hisao let out an annoyed grunt, “Why do I have to be here for this?”
Perfectly timed, Kimi opened the shogi screens, “Because This One has summoned you,” she answered evenly. Hisao immediately stopped fidgeting and bowed his head as she entered. Although he was quite skilled at hiding his scent, his emotions were clear to Kimi – shame, regret, and a tightly controlled anger wrapped in the metallic taste of vengeance. Ah, she thought, allowing herself a small smile, so the pup has learned his lesson and is ready to focus on important things. Good. She was aware that his reformed behavior could not be entirely credited to her recent displays of power and competence. The return of the miko from the North and Sesshomaru’s accounting of her escape had settled many things in the Western Palace.
“My Lady,” Hisao greeted her. Kento’s bow followed quickly. Kimi scanned over the objects on his desk. They would have to be assessed and catalogued before they could be placed in storage with all of the other trinkets that were received by the Tashio House, and Kimi would personally consider the value and meaning behind every little gift – to better understand the motivations underlying them. There would be time for such things later, she first needed to deal with the issues at hand.
“This One will hear the list of attendees now,” she stated, arranging her kimono and seating herself next to Sesshomaru’s desk. Her sound barrier went up with a whisper of will. Kento began, but the list of confirmed youkai to attend was short. Lord Hirimoto would bring his children, leaving his sister to rule the South during the Council. The otters would send a representative, and the eagles as well. The trees had not yet responded, but to be ponderous was their nature and Kimi would not have been surprised if their answer arrived weeks after the Council was concluded. The leader of the wolf clans sent his regrets, he could not attend due to his age, but would send his granddaughter Ayame in his stead. The last water daiyoukai would come, but that was it. Four daiyoukai. Six counting Hirimoto’s cubs. Seven if a tree managed to get to the palace on time. A few lesser youkai that were of strategic importance would also attend, but the number was still staggeringly small. They would need the humans to bolster their ranks.
This was what Sesshomaru was fighting for – what he had always fought for. Kimi was filled with parental pride for a moment. Inu no Tashio had been a great leader, he opened the door to peace for youkai, enforcing long-ignored rules for personal combat, war, and territorial disputes that placed order on savage chaos. His son had exceed him. Sesshomaru, despite his taciturn personality and self-imposed solitude, had fought wars and created alliances that brought an end to the worst, the most bloodthirsty and destructive of their kind. He had walked a path that paralleled the humans and allowed the two species to coexist in a way that had never been possible before.
And he will do greater things.
Kimi knew what it would mean to have the little miko mate her son. Only a few centuries prior the human would have been ripped apart and displayed in front of her village – before it too was destroyed for the audacity of believing a mortal could stand equal with a youkai. Kimi’s own father would have slit the miko’s throat as soon as look at her. Grandfather Iwakura would have probably eaten her. A tasty treat – but a wasted opportunity.
The couple would still be challenged, the rise of the North was more than proof of that, but they could also take the West – Japan – into a new era. She would not have thought it possible, but there was a future where youkai were no more. Sesshomaru had the power to prevent that. With a blink, Kimi set aside her thoughts and focused again on Kento’s recitation. Impatiently, she flicked her fingers in the air. “Enough. Tell This One of the humans.”
Kento paused, his gaze cutting furtively to Hisao before he spoke, “My Lady,” he began, then hesitated.
With deadly precision, she focused on Kento’s face. He met her eyes, and she allowed a wisp of her displeased aura to escape her barrier. The secretary did not shiver, but his eyes closed for a long moment. With icy calm, she asked, “Who has denied This One’s request?” Where another might have felt trepidation, for Kimi there was only strategy – recalculation. If the humans refused to attend, if they refused to join Sesshomaru’s army, the results would be devastating. Not only were their swords essential to ensuing victory, an alliance during wartime would help ease the humans into a time of peace when youkai would be weak from civil unrest. She had no doubt that her son could defeat the north and the human lords as well – if things came to that. But it would be the end of youkai, a reduction in numbers and strength from which they would never be able to recover.
“They have all responded, My Lady,” Hisao stated, his nostrils flaring as he tried to gauge her mood. Kimi plotted and seethed invisibly. She had endured much, killed many, destroyed more. She would not allow human warlords to thwart her plans. If their short-sided arrogance caused losses to the West – to her pack – they would regret it in the most painful of ways.
That, and she would have to completely reorganize the seating arrangements.
“Positively!” Kento burst out, “They agreed, they agreed!” His eyes looked a little wild, and Kimi was reminded of a time, long ago when Kento and his cousin Jun were very young, when a dinner guest had snidely remarked that the tea was over brewed. Kimi had torn out her throat. Of course, the girl would have been killed either way, she was spying on Toga, but Kimi would have preferred to do so where the spatter would not ruin perfectly beautiful cushions. Unfortunately, in that instance her temper had gotten the better of her.
Thankfully, with age came self-control. She was in no danger of actually killing anyone over the current matter, but she appreciated Kento’s concern. She smiled slightly at the secretary, forcing her violent nature into absolute submission.
“How wise of them,” she said quietly. “Perhaps humans are more prescient than This One has believed.” Or perhaps they have a care for their frail little lives.
“More likely they are afraid of not attending,” Hisao snorted and Kimi was pleased with his conclusions, if not his inability to keep his observation to himself. Or at least phrase it more diplomatically. Ah, the curse of a blunt instrument, she lamented.
“I have some small concerns for their responses, My Lady.” Kento continued as though the other two had not spoken, “Although their messages are circumspect, they indicate they intend to bring a significant party with them.”
“How significant?” Kimi felt her brow raise with interest. Her sudden anger had cooled, and her generally amused disposition was once more on display. Kento named a number that far exceed what should be expected of a visiting dignitary. Too large to be overlooked, but too small to be considered a threat – even to other humans. “Each of the humans on the list proposes such a group?”
“More or less, Kimi-sama. We have more than adequate accommodations and stores, but-”
“More importantly,” Hisao interrupted, “that number is a show of force, and I recommend that you keep the visitors restricted to less than half of that. For their safety and ours.”
“Ours?” Kimi’s eyebrow was in danger of being lost into her hair, it had risen so high. A bubble of laughter pushed against the back of her throat. “Do you imply that This One might be in danger?”
“Nooo,” Hisao drew out the word in a strange way. His eyes met hers and she could smell his emotions as he struggled to find his way out of a verbal trap.
She let him escape with a flick of her hair over her shoulder. “Obviously. Your vigilance is appreciated. They are all welcome. You,” she pointed one sharp claw at Kento, “shall assign stewards to each lord to insure against misunderstandings that might otherwise become unpleasant.”
“With that many trained warriors in close proximity to our youkai and each other, unpleasant is the least of it,” Hisao muttered.
“Noted,” Kimi stated dryly. The captain flushed slightly, once again caught with his mouth speaking before his brain considered the consequences. She enjoyed his discomfort, but knew it would not do to show a preference for it. “The soldiers, those with the most experience among humans, shall practice in the lower courtyard, near the guest quarters.” Kimi continued with her orders. The lords were necessary to make certain that the North would not only be defeated, but that peace would be possible in the wake of war. This was her duty to the West, and her gift to her son. The warlords would come into the military fold of the Saidai Mao, and they would do so willingly. She would not allow less.
Once her meeting was concluded, she left Sesshomaru’s study and made her way to the family quarters. Kimi sat with the pups while they ate, listening to their chatter and assuring them their miko would soon return. Then she discussed domestic matters with the crass little imp, Jaken, before returning to business. She had only just been poured a cup of tea when a commotion in the hall disturbed her.
Kento knocked perfunctorily before entering. He began speaking even as he bowed, “The trees have sent a response. Bokuseno demands the West attend him.”
Kimi could feel the tension in the hall. The tree messenger radiated the scent of damp wood and barely repressed anger. Flora youkai rarely expressed deep emotions, but the hot, dry taste of smoke scratched at her throat. What matters the trees needed to discuss with the Saidai Mao were enough to push the messenger to the edge of violence. “Get the fastest flyer,” Kimi ordered. The trees were slow to make decisions, but a powerful ally. Bokuseno had long favored the West, and if he was making demands, it must take priority before all other things. “This One will send an alert to Sesshomaru. That One will attend Bokuseno personally – notify the tree messenger.” Kimi sipped her tea impatiently while the hawk youkai that would give her son the news was summoned. Her spies had not brought her any news that concerned the trees, but something must have happened – something dire – to stir the great magnolia in such a way. She would have to get more information.
A tall soldier, her feathers cascading onto narrow shoulders, entered and knelt, waiting patiently for her orders. Kimi felt the pressure of a laugh again, despite new, weighty concerns. Sesshomaru would be most displeased to have his time with the miko interrupted – but playtime with an intended would have to wait until a more appropriate time. She gave the eagle directions to find the Western Lord, but called her back before the screens could close, “Do be certain to make your descent noticeable.”
The Tashio males were incorrigible.
Kagome sat on the step of a tiny hut deep in the border woods between the East and West, breathing deep and trying not to let herself get angry all over again. She had hated the dragon lord after what he did to Ko, to his soldiers, to herself. She hated him, and she wanted to kill him, to encase him in a sphere of purity until he turned to ash, screaming. And then she wanted to vaporize the ash. The woman in the woods had painted Ryustokokken in an even worse light – which she hadn’t thought possible. He was a monster who abused and tortured men, women and children for his personal gain and sadistic tendencies. But what he did to the woman – not just the abuse, not just her death, but erasing her, making her over into Kagome just to get back at the priestess – it was unconscionable. Unforgiveable. Not only was the woman made to suffer, degraded in life, she was not allowed to die as herself. Kagome would have taken that woman’s place in an instant if it had been possible, not just to spare a life, but to show the dragon that he would pay for his crimes. That he could not do as he pleased. That the world would not suffer his existence any longer.
She shook her head, trying to put those thoughts, and the nearly uncontrollable anger away. Sesshomaru had reassured her on their journey to the outpost that the woman would be laid to rest with her family. That he would find where she belonged and ensure that she was honored, despite the manner of her death. And when Kagome had asked to join him on the battlefield against Ryustokokken, to be there to watch his days’ end and make a strike against him if possible, Sesshomaru had become quieter than usual.
He had tensed, his youki bucking enough to make their flight uncomfortable for a moment. Kagome felt disappointment in him starting to grow, and she tried to smother it. She was weaker than him, less capable, less experienced. Hell, she had been kidnapped, again, just over a week ago. Still, she wanted him to give her the opportunity to defend herself, to mete out the justice that was deserved. To bring balance again, as was a miko’s duty.
The low rumble of his voice brought her out of those thoughts. “I do not wish to ever see you in combat again, Kagome. Risking your life. Fighting to the death.” Her heart sank, she understood, but she did not want to understand. In this instance, as obstinate and perhaps foolish as it was, she wanted him to bend instead of her. “However,” he paused, brushing his nose against her hair and tightening his arms around her, “risk is inherent in life. The miko, the female, which has captured my interest above all others is not one who must be sheltered. You are a righteous warrior, Kagome, and I will be honored to fight our enemies with my mate at my side.”
She was speechless, so tenderly shocked that it did not even occur to correct him that she was not yet his mate. “If,” he continued, this time with a stern gaze and tight mouth, “you complete whatever training I see fit and take whatever precautions I deem necessary.”
That rankled. Sesshomaru would place conditions, would determine that he knew best and would make the final decision. It wasn’t unexpected, it wasn’t even a deal-breaker for her, but it still rankled. “Okay, but those precautions can’t keep me locked away somewhere safe or anything else like that. No loopholes, Sesshomaru.” He had nodded, pressing his lips to her forehead and they had continued on their way in contemplative silence.
It had been only an hour on Sesshomaru’s cloud from the site of the body to the Western outpost. Kagome wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, perhaps a small fort or a stone tower, but the ancient shelter was not it. The place was clean – if not particularly tidy. One futon was still laid out and a few kimono and happi coats emblazoned with the symbol of the West. The soldiers had not been expecting them, but thanks to a few discreet blasts of youki they were waiting in the clean swept yard when it came into view. The two women were holding practice weapons and glowing from exercise. Even sweaty and in simple practice attire their beauty and strength inspired admiration in the priestess.
Without using her reiki, which she felt would be rude, Kagome could not be certain what kind of youki they were, but their attitudes seemed to confirm her guesses. The shorter of the two had silky grey hair, bound into a bun, and eyes that matched. She had no markings, and was submissive in the extreme to Sesshomaru. The twitch of her pointed ears whenever Kagome shifted indicated her superior hearing, and most likely inu heritage. The other female was tall and long-legged. Thick golden feathers dripped like honey from her head. She had no ears to speak of, but her eyes were overly large and red, her mouth thin and hard. She stood, motionless, watching and listening while her lord gave orders to her partner. A bird of some kind, Kagome thought, trying to keep herself occupied with observations rather than images of the body lying desecrated to the east, probably hanyou.
Kagome frowned again at the deal she had made with Sesshomaru, and then conversely smiled. If his methods of ‘training’ Inuyasha were anything to go by, she had a difficult road ahead of her. Then again, Sesshomaru was always concerned for her health. That dichotomy could end up being a hilarious balancing act for him. She put away her sandals and tabi and pulled out her socks and cheap modern boots. They looked ridiculous with her kimono, but considering what they had found in the woods and the quiet discussions between Sesshomaru and his two soldiers, she had the feeling she might need the mobility – soon.
As she stood, boots firmly in place, the bird youkai gave a sharp nod. Youki, yellow and light on the air, swirled in the yard concealing the tall female’s form for a moment. When it dissipated, a golden hawk the size of a motorbike stood in its place. The grey inu took off at a quick jog into the forest and with a powerful beat of its wings the hawk followed in the sky.
Kagome blinked in shock. “Hanyou can change?” she blurted, then blushed at her unintentional disrespect. Sesshomaru did not seem to take notice.
“It is rare. The youkai parent must possess considerable power to pass enough on to the offspring to enable such transformations.” His eyebrow quirked, just a fraction of an inch, as he walked to her. “How did you know she was a half-breed?”
Kagome frowned at the terminology, but knew that Sesshomaru did not use it as a slur. She had heard him say it insultingly before, and the acidic condescension and heavy disgust were absent from his tone. “She looks more animal than human, er, humanoid. And her youki is rougher, not quite like Inuyasha, but more like my friend Genshi.”
“Explain,” Sesshomaru ordered even as he took her elbow and led her back to the step to remove the boots she had just put on.
“All the hanyou I have met have youki, just like full-demons, but theirs is wilder, less…under their command I guess. Inuyasha’s is like a hurricane held back by a window. Genshi is more like overgrown vegetation – harmless and beautiful until you go digging around in it and find poison oak.”
“So my hawk soldier is an untamed garden,” he stated. The undertone of amusement in his voice was real, but Kagome knew he only allowed himself to express it to take her mind off of what they had seen and distract her from their grave circumstances. She was grateful, and now that she knew she loved him, the trip of her heart was less staggering, but the warm comfort of the feeling was even stronger.
“I did not say that,” she played along with his attempts at distraction, allowing him to remove her boots and usher her back into the shelter of the hut. Sesshomaru seated himself regally, which Kagome took as an indication that they would be staying, at least for a while. “Not exactly. But something like it. It’s strange,” she said conversationally as she started a fire to ward off the winter chill, “when I first began travelling through the well, youki was almost incomprehensible to me.” She laughed, “Almost as difficult to understand as reiki. The most I could tell about a demon was their general location. Well, except for you, of course.”
“Of course,” Sesshomaru stated, ego in evidence.
“Don’t think you are so special,” she cautioned with a grin, “you’re just so big!”
There was a long pause, in which Kagome wished she could rethink her words as her face flushed dark red. Sesshomaru’s eyes took on an intent gleam.
“Of course.” This time the words were more purr than speech.
“Tea?” Kagome managed to choke out. She knew he was teasing her, knew that she could tease back and he would probably enjoy it, but embarrassment was hard to shake off. The change in the intimacy of their relationship was just too new to be comfortable. Enjoyable, definitely. Desired, obviously. But finding an easy demeanor in a strange, unimagined situation would take time. Coolly, he gave a brief, regal This-One-Shall-Allow-It nod, but she wasn’t fooled. The corner of his mouth had lifted up and his youki seeped along the floor, curling around her ankles and calves predatorily. “I’ll just get water, then.”
She beat a hasty retreat through the mat that hung over the doorway and slipped on her boots to walk to the well. It was less than fifteen feet from the hut, but the exercise and winter air gave her a chance to cool her cheeks and wrestle her ridiculous grin into something resembling a mischievous smile. Life had not been easy for Kagome since she had fallen down the well years ago, but she had always been able to find the good in her situation. Sesshomaru’s heated gaze was definitely part of the good.
Kagome had a full bucket in hand and had turned to head back inside when she felt a whisper of something familiar. She barely had a moment to place it and know it was no threat before Sesshomaru was in front of her, the breeze of his movement still stirring his hair. She glanced up at his face, and found that the Killing Perfection was once again living up to his reputation. His expression was carved from a block of ice: beautifully sharp and without mercy. He was prepared to eliminate any menace.
“It is all right, Sesshomaru,” she said softly, placing on hand on his sleeve. The muscle in his arm flexed, but he did not look down. Kagome followed his gaze to the sky, but saw nothing. The faintly familiar youki was drawing closer, but its power remained indistinct. After a few moments of tense silence, he relaxed marginally. He was still stiff and ready for any action, but his aura no longer crowded hers.
“I believe it is for you,” he said.
Puzzled, she turned to tip her head back against his chest, scanning the sky. “Where-” He lifted her hand in his and pointed one claw; after nearly a minute, it finally came into range of her human eyesight. A single leaf was caught in a draft, curling and winding slowly through the air in a gradual downward spiral. It would not have been strange, except that no breeze stirred the trees or brushed against their skin. Down and closer it floated, twisting gently. Kagome could clearly make out the blackened color before she recognized the youki.
She gasped, involuntarily dropping the bucket to put a hand over her mouth. Cold water splashed against her boots and seeped into the cheap fabric, but the priestess could not spare a thought for it. She recognized the silvery green currents of power that bore the leaf – it was the same signature that had carried her from the North. Tears pricked at the backs of her eyes and she held out her free hand, Sesshomaru’s palm still cupping the back of it. A single black leaf, the edges curled as though burned but the center still flexible and waxy, settled against her skin.
“Stay quiet, and remember this: black for treason, blue for danger to your allies, red for attack.”
“Treason,” Kagome breathed. Her heart and mind were blank, and then a torrent of emotions and thoughts rushed at her. Ko is alive. Ko is still at Ryustokokken’s mercy. Ko is warning me. There is a traitor in the West. Ko is alive.
Demon ears caught her whisper easily. “Among our own, or the dragons?”
That question pulled Kagome’s jumbled thoughts to a standstill. “I don’t know.” She frowned, “we didn’t have time to come up with a very complex code. And I didn’t think to – oh,” she stomped her foot in frustration and tried to stem the growing anxiety inside herself, “how stupid of me! I should have known better. This doesn’t even help if we can’t-”
“No,” Sesshomaru turned her in his arms, his voice stern, “you will not feel inadequate. To have made an ally and secured a spy among the enemy, to prepare for secretive communication, all while in the hold of an enemy – I would feel pride over any of my trained soldiers who accomplished this much. This is an excellent thing, Kagome. It will be extremely beneficial in our strategy to defeat Ryustokokken.”
“Do you not believe This Sesshomaru?” He asked, refusing to give her room to criticize herself. “Do you think you know better than I what accomplishments merit praise in times of war?”
He was right, of course. It was damned frustrating; but also a relief. Kagome wanted to punish herself all over again for getting captured, hurt, healing the enemy. For leaving Ko behind. For not being better. The arrogant dog demon refused to allow it, and she was as grateful as she was put out. “Then what do we do, O Great Saidai Mao?”
“Hn.” He seemed pleased by her respectful words, if not the sarcastic tone. “First you will explain your code. Then we will think on the meaning. By the time my soldiers have returned and we are ready to begin travelling again I will have determined a course of action and-”
“With my help,” Kagome interrupted insistently.
“With your input,” he conceded, “I will have determined a course of action. You will make us tea,” he held her wrist, careful not to disturb the leaf, and pulled her back to the hut. “We will sit. You will talk, eat, and rest. I will strategize.”
“Is that all?” She muttered, trying to hold onto her irritation despite the warmth she felt towards his protectiveness, his praise, his willingness to admit that she might be of intellectual value. She wasn’t going to let him think that reasonableness and having her best interests in mind excused mind-boggling arrogance. She toed off her boots next to his and followed him inside. “What will we do after the first twenty minutes?”
He settled himself down, producing the remaining half-full bucket of water ready to be made into tea. His response was as easy as it was shocking, “We may also have time for additional intimacy.”
For some reason, Kagome thought she should have seen it coming. A pink blush covered her cheeks as she prepared the kettle. “Dogs,” she stated. “Why can’t I stay away from dogs?”