Chapter 37: Taking Sides
Arashi should have gone directly to Ryustokokken when he arrived at the Northern Palace. He should have, but he was immediately waylaid by a young guard and taken to the barracks infirmary. He listened, he looked, he considered. When he was finished there, he delayed his meeting with the Saigo Mao further.
On his way to the training grounds, staying close to the shadows to avoid drawing attention to himself, he allowed his expression to reflect his thoughts. Ryustokokken was a child. A temperamental, sadistic little brat. He had the loyalty of every living dragon, despite the disease he had inflicted upon them. He had in his service some of the best warriors in Japan, even the mainland, despite his cruelty to the soldiers. He was capable of great strategy and intelligence, but often ignored his own logic to indulge his personal desires.
Ryustokokken was more than four hundred years his senior, but Arashi often felt that his most important task, his greatest burden, was to circle the lord like a watchful parent – moving sharp objects out of the way and picking up broken crockery in his wake. It was exhausting. So many things had been falling into place; Arashi finally had the piece of information he had been missing – the key knowledge that could secure the long standing shogi game. Then he returned to the North to position Lord Ryustokokken correctly and found that the ruler had made a bigger mess than usual. One that was, again, Arashi’s responsibility to clean up.
The dragon lord had lost the priestess. Not just lost her – she had escaped. That end result could have been worse, considering that Arashi would rather have the Shikon priestess look favorably on the North, and the whispers he had heard of her treatment would have made that impossible if Ryustokokken had kept her any longer. It might still be impossible, after what she had seen the lord do. Arashi made a mental note to seek out the wind youkai and hear her account of the matter. Although the more pressing concern was how to deal with the aftermath of the Saigo Mao’s temper.
Three soldiers were in the infirmary after a sparring match with their lord; his violence had permanently maimed one. The same number of guards were now urns of ash and charred bone. Two valuable prisoners, who might have given up vital information, were dead. Not to mention the repairs to the palace that were necessary.
And then there were the ripples the priestess had left in his little pond.
Ryustokokken’s consequences were frustrating. The human’s actions had repercussions that could be far more dangerous to the future the Saigo Mao had envisioned. It was why Arashi made his way to the training grounds, to meet in secrecy with the more reasonable of the two captains in the Northern army. Arashi stopped in a deep alcove made for storing broken training weapons and picked up a worn pike. The ragged gray flag tied to the shaft fluttered half-heartedly as he stabbed it into the ground where it would be visible from the field. Within minutes, a tall youkai strode into the area carrying the severed pommel of a practice sword.
He called back over his shoulder, “That is the third time this week, you lazy, good-for-nothing slobs. If you can’t parry my attack, how will you fare against an acid whip? Thirty laps – no youki!” The sound of muttered complaints and feet pounding away slowly faded as the two dragons considered each other.
“Captain,” Arashi greeted him with a shallow nod that did not require him to look away.
“Hanyou,” the captain responded in kind. “Took you long enough. Another day and the castle might not still be standing.”
“So I have heard. Your ranks have taken some damage as well, it seems.”
“Yes.” Arashi waited patiently while the captain seemed to struggle with what to say. He had summoned the spy to this meeting, it was his place to set the agenda. “And yet the number of strong soldiers at my disposal is the same.” The Captain explained, in a careful monotone devoid of any censure, how several of his men had been ordered to the palace to guard a prisoner – the miko. They had returned soaked with the smell of pain, fear, and holy power. It had taken him a few hours to get the truth of the matter, but Ryustokokken had ordered the men injured, some brutally, so that he could discover if the human could heal youkai.
“The results?” Arashi asked, allowing interest to color his voice. Of course, he already knew she was capable of it, but he preferred to keep that knowledge to himself, at least for the time being. More importantly, he wanted to know if she had completed the task – healing the enemy of Sesshomaru.
The captain was silent for a long moment, his jaw clenching as though he did not want to answer. Their relationship had been centuries in the making, neither willing to commit emotions, opinions, or details to the other without the same in kind. Trust was still not absolute, but it had come a long way between two youkai who were seeking the best possible future for the North – a return to prestige and prosperity long gone. “I inspected them myself,” he finally admitted. “I did not believe their allegations of the human. It is true.” He paused again, and again Arashi waited. “That boot-licking administrator, Wei, came up with the brilliant idea to have her grow a wing…just to see if she could.” The two males shared a pointed look. The most carefully guarded secret in the North was not as secret as Ryustokokken would have liked. They both knew why the miko had been put to that test. The captain’s voice dropped a notch, “He had Jina brought in. The Saigo Mao cut it off himself.”
Arashi stilled. Jina was a golden female dragon Ryustokokken had brought back to the North when he returned from exile. No physical harm had ever come to her, ostensibly due to her age; she had not quite reached maturity. However, no one with eyes and ears would believe that she remained whole and unmolested for that alone; it was clear from her education and clothing that she was part of a treaty with some powerful foreign youkai. Arashi knew she was most likely the daughter of a Hindu dragon, traded to Ryustokokken as insurance on a promise of military alliance. If the Northern Lord was no longer concerned with keeping her in good condition, it implied that he did not feel he would ever have to trade on that agreement. The Saigo Mao was flying in treacherous skies if he was cutting ties to foreign powers.
It did not bode well for Jina’s future either.
Arashi purposefully waved a hand, dismissing her probable fate, “She is his property to do with as he sees fit.”
“Property that is not well-maintained is not long-owned,” the captain muttered. Arashi could not refrain from raising an eyebrow. The old saying was a veiled attempt at implying Ryustokokken should not have what he did not take care of. If it were true, there would be little belonging to the Saigo Mao. More importantly, if the Lord, or the boot-licking administrator, heard those words, it would be lashes for the captain – at best. The punishment for treason was more severe. And more final.
Arashi moved smoothly on, cataloguing the new information he had gleaned on the captain’s loyalty, “It was successful?”
“More than Wei knows, or our Lord bargained for. Jina has confined herself to her room – Wei thinks she is frightened. She is, but it is because she fears what the Saigo Mao will do when he discovers it was not just her wing that was returned to her.” The captain held Arashi’s gaze seriously, “All traces of the pox have been removed as well. Her face is not scarred, her lungs no longer wheeze. The same is true of my men. Any damage that the pox had caused them has at least been reduced, if not completely erased.”
Inappropriate laughter threatened to escape the spy’s control. A jewel beyond compare in his talons, beyond all compare, and he wasted it. He cleared his throat to cover the reaction. “Anything else?”
“Some half-breed has collected the remnants of Kuren’s soldiers and is causing problems along the border.” The prodigal son, Arashi thought, could prove extremely disruptive. “My counterpart wants to move up the invasion and attack; I have counselled that we wait for reports from our agents.”
“I had better report, then,” Arashi stepped away from the wall where he had been casually leaning.
“We agreed on an exchange, hanyou,” the captain frowned. Arashi paused, waiting to be asked for information. “If circumstances…of fate or…right…should change…on the field of battle…” The captain turned and pulled the pike from the ground, tossing it back into the weapon pile. He did not look at Arashi as he continued, “will there be a sign?”
It was not what he had been expecting, and Arashi considered the broad shoulders and scarred forearms of the captain for a long moment. It never hurt to have more pieces available to play with. “If such a thing happened, it could not be mistaken.” The two dragons went their separate ways, saying nothing more. The captain to prepare his men to face the full might of the Great Saidai Mao and his army, the spy to salvage what he could and lead a child to his future.
Sesshomaru waited impatiently for Kagome to finish her instructions to the little inu soldier, although none looking at him would know it. The two warriors had returned expeditiously, as was expected of those under his command, but it had cut short the distraction he had prepared for his intended. Her appearance was completely repaired before they had stepped into the yard, but her scent still announced their activities. He had not allowed himself more than touches and kisses, but despite the serious mien she had adopted as she set out orders for the treatment of the corpse, despite the sadness and anger about her, she still smelled of him.
The inu female was painfully aware of it, he was sure. She was barely old enough to be sent on such an assignment, and had been paired with the more experienced hawk hanyou for that reason. But even at her young age, she could still accurately interpret what her nose was telling her and was having trouble controlling her own reaction. Surprise, pleasure, a sense of security, a tiny bit of envy, and overwhelming awkwardness. He understood her emotions. A strong mate made him stronger, and in turn strengthened the West. Rumors of the Miko no Mao had no doubt spread with supply deliveries, and so the inu knew how powerful Kagome was. The envy was expected. Sesshomaru was always honest with himself, and any female would be envious of the one he choose to receive his attentions.
The hanyou was more circumspect in focusing on the task at hand, no doubt made easier by her dull sense of smell as well as her practical experience. The miko emphasized again that the soldiers would not be harmed in Edo, but that they could leave the body only with the old woman, Kaede. Sesshomaru repressed the urge to shift his weight. He had delayed their journey long enough. It was time to return to the safety of the palace and their duties. He opened his mouth to call to her, then closed it silently again. The daiyoukai would not let it be said that he did not know the value of patience
“Please answer any of Kaede-sama’s questions; I trust her completely and she can pass any information you give her on to our allies.” Kagome reached toward the body one last time, and a gentle pink glow left her hand to settle over the wrapped corpse. “Please, keep her safe.”
“Yes, Miko-sama,” they chorused, bowing. Kagome returned the bow, surprising the guards, and moved to his side. He handed her the bag from the future without comment.
How, he was not sure – given her weaker senses and his certainty that his face remained impassive, but she responded to his mood. “I’m sorry if it took too long, but this was important. If you are so worried about the time, can’t you use your light-ball thing?”
He might have responded to her uncanny observation, had he not sensed an unnecessarily public youki announcement of an approaching demon. He recognized the demon, as did the hanyou still in the yard. Kagome’s power reached out to him briefly, reminding him that she was not familiar with every youkai in the West. She spoke lowly, “Should I-”
“Sister,” the hanyou called out, and a golden-brown hawk dropped down from the sky to land in a flurry of youki and feathers at Sesshomaru’s feet.
“My Lord,” the guard greeted him, once the dust had settled around her human-like form.
“Why do you approach This One,” Sesshomaru asked without inflection.
“A message from Kimi-sama for the Saidai Mao,” she replied, still kneeling on the ground.
“Speak,” he commanded, silently curious as to what could have prompted his mother to send one of the best castle guards to find him. It was either something of great import – or conversely completely frivolous and designed to irritate him. He would not have been surprised if his dam managed both at the same time.
“Word has come from the trees. Bokuseno-sama demands your audience.” The guard waited for his response anxiously. The little inu gasped audibly. The hanyou ruffled her head feathers. Sesshomaru did nothing. He had not been summoned by another since before his father’s death. None had dared. If any had attempted to do so, he would have been forced to put them in their place for such disrespect. He was the Saidai Mao, the highest of all demons. Of course, Bokuseno had been one of his father’s most trusted advisors. He was an ancient tree that often took liberties considered disrespectful to Sesshomaru’s station – liberties that had earned him little more than verbal admonishments. Sesshomaru was aware that the magnolia youkai considered him to be a pup still; at nearly 800 years of age, the Killing Perfection was painfully young in comparison to the oldest demon in Japan.
“Demands,” Sesshomaru repeated coldly. He could have cursed the tree for placing him in such a position. Although he would come if asked, for Bokuseno did not ask unless the matters were momentous, he could not allow his subordinates to see him agree to the demand of another. It was a requirement of his position. His will was his own, it had to be.
“Oh,” Kagome’s voice caught his attention. “That must be my fault, I am so sorry Sesshomaru-sama.” What is she saying? He did not have time to ask, as she continued, “I am sure that the messenger intended to say that my presence was demanded – and it was anticipated that Sesshomaru would escort me, yes?” The guard blinked – more like an owl than a hawk – and confusion rolled over her scent. Sesshomaru could sympathize, although he had a suspicion as to what Kagome was doing. “I’m sure the tree messenger – or…” she faltered for a moment, “it was a tree, right?” At the guard’s bemused nod, she smiled, “I’m sure the tree just got flustered in Kimi-sama’s presence. Who wouldn’t be with all that beauty and grace? His error should be forgiven, shouldn’t it, Sesshomaru? After all, it is really the fault of Kimi-sama and her overpowering youki that caused this misunderstanding. When we see Bokuseno-sama, we can let him know that the offense won’t be held against him.”
“Hn.” Sesshomaru fell back on his standard response. It was fortunate he was well known for being taciturn, because he wasn’t certain he had anything else to say. When faced with a challenging political situation, he would not have expected the clumsy miko, who in the past had often been shockingly disrespectful and ill-dressed, to create a solution. She had made what was most likely an intentional insult that he did not wish to punish into a mistake that could be blamed on the one person no one would fault him for ignoring – his own mother. And she had done it in a way that complimented Kimi. She grew more breathtaking each day he knew her.
“Would you escort me, please, Sesshomaru-sama?” She looked up at him, her blue eyes wide and her red lips smiling, but the suppressed scent of anxiety emanated from her. Breathtaking.
“This One will take the miko to Bokuseno. Return to the Western Lady and inform her that this misunderstanding has been resolved.” Without any further commands, or acknowledgement that he would be obeyed, he formed his cloud and pulled Kagome close. They rose swiftly, and soon were speeding above the trees, far from prying ears and eyes. “Well done, Kagome,” he murmured against her hair.
She let out a heavy breath. “Holy hell, they acted like you were going to disintegrate something. All that anxious youki makes my stomach ache.”
“Your explanation was most fortuitous. I did not expect it,” he admitted.
“Even scandalous girls that pop out of wells know a dis when they hear it.”
“Dis.” Sesshomaru tasted the strange word carefully, wondering if the mandatory schooling she had spoken of included diplomatic training.
“An insult. Disrespect.” She leaned her head against mokomoko and he felt her tension ease. “That wasn’t exactly like Inuyasha calling a wealthy samurai a moron, but it’s nice to know that the principles to diffuse the situation are the same.”
“Such things happened often on your travels with my brother?”
“Oh, yeah. In fact, I remember once…” He listened to the fondness in her voice, if not each word, and held her close as they traveled. While he planned for how to deal with Bokuseno, a small part of him whispered that in the miko he had found something worth protecting. The teasing laughter in his head sounded a great deal like Inu no Tashio.
Kagome was not certain how long they were flying, but it was long enough that she began to fantasize about undon and rice balls, long enough that her mostly one-sided conversation with Sesshomaru ran out of steam and fell into comfortable silence. He finally descended into a small clearing, little more than a few yards of short grass next to a narrow stream. Without even expanding her reiki, Kagome was overcome with the sense of presence in the woods. The sun was low in the sky, and narrow shafts of light filtered through the branches overhead to glint on the water. Dust motes danced in the air, and added to the quiet serenity. But beyond the peace of the moment, there was something more, something waiting in those woods.
It was not malevolent, but it was watchful. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled with awareness; it was as if the forest was waiting for them cautiously – even suspiciously. Slowly, she reached for her power.
“Do not,” Sesshomaru said quietly, and so she stopped, puzzled. She would have thought he would encourage her to be aware and defensive. “We are guests in this aged place, it deserves our respect.” He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, and Kagome noted that his youki was tightly reigned in as well, no longer rolling possessively over his surroundings. “Stay at This One’s side, and walk softly.” She nodded in understanding, although her anxiety rose a few levels. Never before had she seen Sesshomaru express a concern for the opinion of another, and he had reverted to the formal speech he used when there were other people around.
“Is-” She stopped herself, lowering her voice to a near whisper, and barely restraining her head from pivoting to look for unseen eyes, “May we talk?”
She took that as a yes. “I thought Bokuseno was a friend of your father’s? Inuyasha has spoken of him.”
“Bokuseno-senpai advised the Inu no Tashio on several matters,” he responded noncommittally. Kagome was struck by the discord between the meaning of his words and the form he used. He implied that the youkai they were meeting with was a distant, respected colleague of Toga, but the honorific was one she would have attached to a more senior nursing student. Sesshomaru may have intended her to view the tree as a respected, more experienced youkai than himself. Kagome was aware that the daiyoukai always choose his words carefully, so she suspected there was a reason for his strange phrasing. What had been moderate anxiety rose to true concern. Who could be listening that he is so guarded, she wondered. Rarely had she ached so badly to use her power. Time crawled by as they walked
“Do you…” Her voice faded away as she tried to find a question that would give her the answers she needed without offending whatever was in the forest with them.. Is this dangerous? Is Bokuseno your ally? Who the hell is watching us!? She swallowed hard and her shoulders twitched, trying to shake off the feeling that someone was just behind her, reaching out for her. Sesshomaru would not let anything happen to her, she knew, and her imagination was getting the better of her. “Is – ack!” The toe of her boot caught against a root and she tripped, falling to the ground with arms flailing. Sesshomaru caught her just before she would have hit the ground, and set her back on her feet with a gentle squeeze. His left hand remained below her elbow. Just in case I want to go and make an ass of myself, she thought sourly, again.
“So it is true,” Kagome glanced up, startled by the sudden presence of another youkai, “the Shikon Miko has made a second alliance with the Western Lord.” The voice was dry and genderless, the sound coming from all around her. Sesshomaru, though, seemed prepared and faced a huge magnolia tree. The perimeter of the trunk was at least sixteen feet, and the roots twisted and emerged from the ground as though they had dug so deep they had run out of soil and were forced to grow up instead of down. Although a wide open space separated the magnolia from the rest of the woods, there was no sky to be seen – its branches were so thick and spread so far that it touched every tree around it.
“This One has been informed you wish to speak.” The daiyoukai did not bow or offer introductions, and Kagome worried for a moment that the tree had been offended.
“Speak?” The disembodied voice spoke after a lengthy pause, “No, that is not my wish, Sesshomaru. I do not wish to speak, I wish to walk upon the land as I have not done since time forgotten. I wish to let my roots run across Japan. I wish to find That One whom has the power and responsibility to protect all others. I wish to seize That One in my branches and slap him for the rot he has allowed to fester. I wish to end a life, heir-to-the-West.” Leaves trembled overhead and Kagome tasted bile in her mouth. She still could not pinpoint the youkai, not without her holy power, but Sesshomaru had told her not to use her reiki. Every muscle in her body felt tense, every nerve ending frayed and anxious for something terrible to happen.
The forest was alive. Not just this one tree youkai, Bokuseno. Not just the fleeting presence she had sensed when they arrived. The entire forest; a living, breathing thing with one mind and purpose whose thoughts were centered on Sesshomaru and a wrong that had been committed.
“A wish is not action,” the silver-haired inu said calmly. Kagome blinked. There was simply no way that he did not feel the anger, the terrible retribution that was barely suppressed in Bokuseno’s aura.
“You are familiar with inaction, and I with the results. They are too atrocious to allow delay.” The voice became harder with each word, unflinching and certain.
Branches creaked, and the earth under her feet tremored. Gnarled roots popped free of the ground and leaves fell as the canopy began to descend. Kagome seized Sesshomaru’s sleeve with one hand even as her reiki sprang to attention. Without thought she summoned her power.
“This One agrees,” Sesshomaru stated flatly. Kagome blinked again. The tremors ceased abruptly. The forest stilled, and her power waivered and flickered in confusion.
“Then it is settled.” What? She had been certain only moments ago that the tree was going to attack, and this wasn’t Kagome’s first fight, she knew an aggressive youkai when she saw it. The bark on the trunk cracked and twisted, splitting apart to reveal the crude carving of a face. It was difficult to make out at first, but became more distinct – if not more attractive – as it spoke. “I will hold you to a personal oath, Sesshomaru. This shall be ended before Shutsuga, or by summer the trees will sever ties with the West.”
“Yes.” There was a flair of youki, and with her power raised Kagome could see a small green orb separate from Sesshomaru. Rich red power, slow and massive, twined up from the earth and wrapped around it, pulling the small bit of Sesshomaru’s power with it back into the ground. It was an oath, a binding, Kagome was sure. She had never seen anything like it before, but she knew what it felt like. Sesshomaru had made a promise and secured it by giving away a piece of his power to the tree. It wasn’t enough to make him weaker, but it might give the holder a measure of control if the promise was broken. Even the Great Saidai Mao couldn’t fight against his own youki. The strangeness of it all, the absolute confusion of the conversation and the conclusion, would have stolen her breath if the priestess from the future had not become disturbingly accustomed to the strange, unexpected, and downright weird.
“Okay,” she said, trying to remain pleasant and respectful, “this is not settled.”
“Miko,” Sesshomaru began, but Kagome held up a hand in the universal gesture for ‘shut the hell up’ and stepped around him, hands on hips.
“I apologize for not understanding the formalities here, you seem like an honored youkai, Bokuseno-sama, but whatever you think it is that Sesshomaru owes you, I want to know right now. Because if there is something threatening you or the West – we would have taken care of it anyhow.”
“Kagome-” She felt a firm claw on her shoulder but did not let the daiyoukai finish.
Blue eyes narrowed at the wizened face of the tree. “We are pretty busy right now getting ready to kill a dragon, but I’m sure we can find time to take care of your issue. There is no need to bind Sesshomaru’s power. His word is good enough.”
The tree held her gaze, and Sesshomaru added an arm around her waist, “Ka-go-me,” he repeated, this time with an iron warning.
She ignored it, her temper rising. Even at the beginning, even before they became allies against Naraku, she had known Sesshomaru to be unswervingly honorable. The idea that anyone, much less an ally, would try to bind him to his word was disgusting. It called Sesshomaru’s honor into question. Kagome wouldn’t allow that to be done to anyone she cared about. “Take it back.”
There was silence. Between the beats of her heart, Kagome was briefly aware that she might have overstepped. She might have, as usual, jumped into a situation heart first and then found out she couldn’t swim out, much less tread water. Leaves stopped rustling. Air stopped moving into her lungs. The weight of hidden eyes and ritual oaths older than written memory pressed down on her. As if it was struggling to expand, her heart pumped once more, slowly, and the moment was broken.
Sesshomaru yanked her back against his chest, for once heedless of the hardness of his armor against her body. The breath was knocked out of her even as youki exploded around them. Deep red power filled the air, rising from the forest to choke out anything that opposed it. Brilliant green light flashed around her – Sesshomaru, she knew, barricading them. Later she might remember that he was uncharacteristically careful to remain defensive, rather than attacking Bokuseno. At the time, Kagome could only focus on her struggle for air and the nerve of the tree before her. He didn’t trust Sesshomaru to protect the West. The youki oath seemed like the polite feudal equivalent of a shock collar for an ill-trained dog.
Every time Inuyasha had been judged by his ears instead of his deeds, Miroku by his smile instead of his heart, Sango by her occupation instead of her morals, Shippo by his size instead of his determination, it all flooded her and mixed with what she knew of Sesshomaru. He had flaws – his inability to communicate his feelings for starters – but he was the most honorable person she had ever met. She loved him for it. And she wished people would just stop judging others.
Reiki flared to life in her fists, “Take. It. Back.” As though it had never been, Bokuseno’s power disappeared. Pink holy sparks snapped in the air at the sudden release of pressure. A dry chuckle reverberated in the large tree and rustled its leaves. Kagome stared in confusion.
“I believe you have confused your father’s words, Sesshomaru,” Bokuseno said lightly. “It was you who are supposed to do the protecting.”
“This One has been attempting as much,” Sesshomaru replied. His voice remained cool but his arm was almost tight enough around her waist to hurt. Kagome became aware that her feet were no longer touching the ground. “The miko,” an inaudible sigh puffed against the top of her head, “creates challenges.” Bokuseno laughed again, and Kagome understood that she had been insulted, however mildly. She wanted to take offense, but her head was still spinning from the repeated shifting: Bokuseno was an ally, then he threatened Sesshomaru, then they came to an agreement to be allies again, then he bound Sesshomaru’s youki – how that resulted in laughter and shared comradery over silly human temperament was beyond her. Men, she mentally huffed, then corrected herself, men and trees. Dogs and Trees? That couldn’t be right.
“I can see that.” Bokuseno turned his crinkled eyes toward Kagome, “I do not question Sesshomaru’s honor, priestess. The youki oath will not hurt him, it only allows me to know where he is should I need to send him a messenger.”
“Then why set a deadline?” Kagome could feel Sesshomaru’s returned tension and irritation – he no doubt wished she would stay quiet, but she couldn’t help herself. If he was going to act so completely out of character and allow himself to be insulted, someone had to stand up for him.
“Youkai have long lives and so often move slowly. But the trees cannot endure this enemy another season.” Bokuseno spoke at the same time she realized how stupid her reasoning sounded. As if the Killing Perfection needed a defender. As if he needed a clumsy, mortal girl to defend his honor. A hot blush flooded her cheeks. I am an idiot.
“Has Ryustokokken attacked your kind?” Sesshomaru lowered her slowly, until her boots touched the ground and his arm was secured just under her breasts. She tugged on him to let go so she could distance herself from her embarrassment, but he ignored her.
“He has,” Bokuseno’s voice hardened again, all traces of humor gone. The foliage to his left parted and two youkai entered, their heritage difficult to discern under the thick fur that hung on their bodies and their more-animal-than-human posture. Between them they carried what Kagome first thought to be a bundle of sticks. They gently set it down before Bokuseno before retreating, and nauseating realization slowly dawned.
A tree youkai, in a form that resembled a man, lay on the ground. Thick, green hair flowed over the grass like smooth water. His eyes were closed, the skin of his face a rich brown that was dusted with darker freckles. One hand had fallen away from the body to lie open and the fingers were long and slightly gnarled like dry twigs. It was the cloth wrapped around him that first began to make sense of Bokuseno’s anger. It might once have been a simple kimono, but the material had been torn, even burned, so many times that it more closely resembled old bandages than clothing. Where the flesh underneath was revealed, she could see scars. Layers upon layers of rough, broken skin – some old and smooth with time, others skill angry and pink. There were round, shiny burns. Long, narrow cuts. Starbursts of puncture wounds. And, most disturbing, jagged ripped half-moons made by jaws and sharp teeth. One whole side of the youkai had been destroyed by hungry mouths. The meat and bone was exposed, some white-pink stubs of partially regenerated flesh emerged from under the scars, only to end in more recent, bloody bites.
Sesshomaru barely gave way in time to allow her to fling herself to the side before she vomited. She listened to the rustle of silk as he crouched beside her, his hand on her back, while she retched. “Such a display was not necessary.” His voice was taut with anger.
“It was,” Bokuseno disagreed. “You must know what has happened while you have roamed the West. You thought that the actions of the Northern Lord were of no concern, as long as he stayed in his borders, and the youkai of Japan have followed your lead these many years. Even I, who have seen tyrants such as Ryustokokken come and go, was swayed by your assertion that peace for Japan required that the North be left to die in its own time – or heal if it could. Even after I lost contact with the last of the tree youkai across the water, in his domain, I trusted in your vision of time bringing about a solution without war.” Kagome heaved again, bringing up the last of the food in her stomach and trying to drown out the image of the body with Bokuseno’s words and the steady circles Sesshomaru rubbed to soothe her. “It is in my nature to be patient, to allow new growth to cover over the injuries and diseases of the past. This,” he paused, and Kagome knew both youkai were looking at the mangled corpse, “is the result of our patience.”
She wiped her mouth on the edge of her sleeve and sat back on her heels, trembling. She turned to face Sesshomaru’s chest, away from her sickness, but she could not look at the ancient magnolia or the remains at his roots. Although she felt shame for her weakness, she could not see Ryustokokken’s savagery again.
“You condemn This One now for a peace made a century ago, a peace upheld twenty years past.” His tone was even, but from her position at his side, Kagome could feel the coiled tension in Sesshomaru.
“No,” Bokuseno responded, “I condemn a continuation of that policy. Nature is capable of tremendous change,” he seemed to change the topic. “Forests can be burned, and with time, the evidence is erased. A limb can be lost to a storm, and in a few seasons, the hole filled with nests and surrounded by new growth. I did not know the name of this youkai, but he was young, young enough to bend easily, to grow swiftly. It would have taken years, decades perhaps, of systematic torture to bring his body to this state – to eat away enough to pain and scar and incapacitate and still leave enough to rebuild. This was cruelty for the sake of cruelty, not by only one youkai, but many. Ryustokokken has sealed the north and behind his walls we have allowed him to create a culture of sadism and malice that defies nature. He is a wound on the earth that will not heal, but has been covered and ignored to fester and spread. His rot has infected those that serve him, and it must be cut out – or it will threaten us all.”