Chapter 42: Subversion
“Ah, I don’t think that is necessary, Kimi-sama,” Kagome tried desperately to think of some alternative to what the Lady had proposed. Proposed, more like demanded. “Thank you, but I, just, no.”
“Oh, Miko,” Kimi smiled. It wasn’t particularly vicious or fang-filled, but it sent a little shiver of dread down Kagome’s spine. “It is necessary. Absolutely necessary. Even if it weren’t something that I simply insist upon for my own delight, and Sesshomaru’s frustration, it would take place. It must.”
Kagome lowered a spoonful of soup, forgotten as she latched onto Kimi’s comment. “Frustration?” she echoed. “You don’t think he would want to…” It was dumb. Dumb and stupid and foolish and immature, but the suggestion that Sesshomaru might not be excited about announcing their engagement – an engagement that Kagome herself had been reluctant to make a big deal out of – it stung. Hypocrite, she called herself. Twitterpated hypocrite. She tried to shake it off, although she couldn’t pull back the words that had escaped with a sad sort of longing that she found humiliating. Men were not supposed to be into the whole engagement party/wedding, big fancy celebration thing. At least, the few guys she knew in her time that had gotten married couldn’t have cared less about the details of announcements, receptions, and invitations. It was probably a constant across males of any species. They didn’t really see a lot of value between the ring and the honeymoon.
“Of course he will want to,” Kimi’s eyes sparkled, and while she didn’t acknowledge it if she sensed any change in Kagome’s emotions, she did tap a perfectly groomed claw against the miko’s wrist. “That is the beauty in it. Has he not told you about the ceremony at all?” Kagome could do nothing but shake her head and try to keep up with the daiyoukai. “There is an exchange of gifts between families – oh, it has been ages since the nobility had a courtship.” Her youki was nearly dancing around her in excitement. “There is a fair bit of competition, of course. Not just to see which family has more wealth and power between the couple, but also gifts are compared to those from past courtships. The head of the family will stand on a raised platform. I’ll have to see about having that kitsune female make it illuminated – my line has always done these things under moonlight. The male’s gift is revealed first, you know how they are, always so eager. But that means that the female can leave the last impression with the crowd.”
“Crowd?” Kagome repeated faintly. Despite her gnawing stomach, the soup had lost its appeal. She held a hand to her forehead, brushing her bangs away from her eyes and wondering if it was possible to faint from dread.
“Of course! This is no low-level wild-youkai union being announced. This is the mating of the Saidai Mao and the Shikon Priestess, the Miko no Mao.” Kimi’s mokomoko shifted with her as she gestured elegantly. “Under other circumstances, we would demand the attendance of every lord, his family, and many youkai from across the sea. The Inu no Tashio’s mother was from Zhongguo,” Kimi confided in a lower tone that implied the information was borderline scandalous, “and her relations would slaver on themselves to present well wishes and gifts to the Saidai Mao.” The daiyoukai straightened her spine and reverted to a cool, unaffected tone, “Unfortunately, given the state of politics at the moment, I would not feel comfortable with the security of such honored guests, so they will be notified afterward.” Kimi did not sound particularly sorry to Kagome. Then again, the human had been nearly overwhelmed by the immediate intimacy, nearing interrogation, which the Lady had inflicted on her – so she might not have been thinking clearly. Since the time she woke up that morning, with a faint kiss from Sesshomaru as he left their room, she had been treated to a whirlwind of information on politics, torture techniques, and the current topic: mating customs.
“They will all celebrate. Hirimoto will be most obnoxious,” she said that with fondness, “and I have already spoken to Jaken about setting up a rotation, so that the soldiers can all enjoy the feast before or after they are on duty.”
“Yes, girl. Are there no ceremonies for the joining of two families where you are from?” Dark eyes, the color of cool honey, bored into her and Kagome was suddenly extremely alert.
“There are,” she said carefully, “but human marriages are different. And my family is not nobility.”
“You are educated.” It was a statement, not a question, but Kagome nodded anyhow. “Your people are scholars.”
“I suppose so.” Papa was a doctor, and Mama has a degree in economics. That’s about as scholarly as it gets, for this time. “We own a shrine.”
“I hope your father has adequate help to run things for him, so he does not have to close down when they travel here.” There was something about the tilt of her head, the way her pointed chin was set and her eyes narrowed that put Kagome in mind of a hunting dog about to snatch a rabbit from a hole. It was nerve wrecking.
“My father passed away, when I was quite young.”
“Your mother, then.”
“Er, no, she cannot travel here.” Kagome saw Kimi’s eyes narrow further, and a smile twitch at the corner of her lips. Crap! “My grandfather is quite elderly,” she sent a small apology his way. Of course, seventy-five was ancient for humans in the feudal ear, but he would still have been offended. “And I have a younger brother who needs looking after.” Souta would take exception to that as well, if he knew. Although he really did need looking after. His new girlfriend was a bit more adventurous that average.
“Is it so far, that you do not think a youkai could fetch them here and back for such an important event?”
“Yep, oh yeah, way too far. It would be a real inconvenience.” She muttered under her breath, “For everybody.”
“If Sesshomaru cannot spare anyone, I would be willing to go myself.”
The realization that she was the rabbit and Kimi was dangerously close to snapping her jaws closed caused Kagome to blurt out, without thinking, “What sort of gifts were there at your mating?” She closed her mouth so fast after that, she bit her tongue. The coppery taste did not drown out the bile that threatened at the back of her throat. Way to go, Higurashi. Just dredge up all the painful memories. Nice. The reaction wasn’t quite what she expected. Kimi seemed to sort of sit back into herself, tipping her head to the side. Her eyes became unfocused, as if she were seeing something far away.
“My family presented his with a chest, carved from demon wood, and depicting scenes of the great battles of my forebearers. A priceless relic from each of the cardinal lands was inside. It was an overt condemnation of Toga’s line. His father was daiyoukai, but he was no noble. That One rose to power through force and married a wealthy inu from an old mainland family to secure his House. The Iwakura were ruling and mating into each of the Cardinal Houses for millennia before That One was born. My father could not resist pointing it out.” Her lips twisted into something between a wry smile and a frown.
“What did Inu no Tashio give?” Kagome couldn’t help but ask, and she held her breath afterward. It was surprising that Kimi had answered the first incredibly rude question; it would have been better to let things lie with that.
Her face smoothed, and then dark gold eyes swept closed. A long, shaky breath that was audible even to Kagome and quite deliberate, was released before Kimi met her gaze. “A foo dog.” She laughed. At first the sound was overly loud and brittle, but it gradually quieted into a genuine chuckle.
“Aren’t those Chinese temple guardians?” Kagome ventured carefully. Of course, she knew they were. A version of them had been imported to Japan with Buddhism. There were a pair of new, and that only meant less than 200 years old, statues guarding the steps to the Higurashi shrine. And about twenty more buried somewhere in her Grandpa’s store house. Kagome wasn’t sure why a demon would give another demon something to ward off evil spirits.
“It was a joke,” Kimi said softly. Her laughter was replaced with a soft smile. “Although my family did not find it amusing in the least. When I first met Toga, I thought him brash and impulsive and terribly attractive – which of course I covered by telling him that I was completely unimpressed. He took to hanging around outside of the shiro where I lived. He made friends with all of my father’s soldiers, begged treats from the kitchen servants, and quietly drove off every other suitor I had. In a fit of pique one day, I told him I didn’t need a guard dog.”
Kagome was enthralled in the story, finding herself leaning forward over the table and hanging on every word. She couldn’t ignore the mist that threatened the corners of Kimi’s eyes. The Lady flicked a silvery strand of hair over her should and made a huffing sound of dismissal. “Of course, it was made of red coral and came up to my knees – so there was no question that it was suitably valuable. But father nearly demanded the mating be called off because of the insult.”
“How did Toga finally change your mind?”
“Oh, girl, that is a story for another time.” Kimi settled the folds of her kimono, and suddenly she was all business again. “Now if you are unwilling to discuss the details of the ceremony, we can put that off for a short while. There is still the matter of the kitsune, your wardrobe, and proper court etiquette. And, obviously, you will have to memorize Sesshomaru’s lineage.” Kimi gestured to an intricate mural on the wall of her reception room, and Kagome realized that worked into the hundreds of images of demons, primarily inu, were tiny kanji for names and dates. She barely restrained a groan, and reached for her soup again. She hated homework.
It had been a pleasant surprise to find that the pup, Emi, was comfortable sleeping with Rin after two stories and multiple nuzzling kisses for Kagome. His addition of a freshly scented piece of clothing from the miko’s bag had helped as well. The pup had immediately seized it and rubbed it against her face with abandon. Kagome had called it a security blanket and laughed, but whatever name was used, he had been grateful that he would not have to share his intended their first night back at the shiro. When he left his mother, it was to find the human woman sound asleep on their shared futon. She had washed in the newly repaired bathhouse prior to laying down, and her scent was fresh and thick in the room. He took a few precious moments to prepare himself before lying down with her, pulling her body snug against his. Her contented sigh and the way she willingly wrapped her arms around him warmed his chest and eased him toward sleep. He would have preferred to sate other physical desires as well, but she was resting deeply and her health required adequate sleep.
He woke well before dawn and brushed her hair from her face. Her legs had tangled with his during the night; her sleeping yukata had parted leaving the smooth skin of her thighs to rub against his legs. He was extremely conscious of the ache in his groin and the heavy weight of her breasts against his side. Kagome’s head only reached the center of his chest; his eyes traced the line of her nose and the pink bow of her lips, swollen from sleep.
Sesshomaru did not feel want for her. No mere desire could adequately explain the depth of the craving in him. Every part of him, his flesh, his youki, the innermost beast that was his true self – a demon in its most natural state, it called out to her. Reached for her. Even without taking advantage of her proximity and the muted scent of arousal that undercut the smell of sleep, he was at peace. He lay still for a time, enjoying her with him and anticipating the moment when she would wake.
The approach of a familiar youki reminded him of the sparring match he had arranged with Hisao. He reluctantly eased his miko away from his heat. She frowned and grumbled in her sleep at the loss and a soft smile pulled at his lips. He dressed in near silence and left Kagome with a kiss and a silent promise that he would resolve the threats against them and make time for his intended as well. He enjoyed her presence, but he was certain the satisfaction would be even greater with further intimacy.
Hisao met him at the end of the corridor, near the ima, and fell into step just behind him as they walked to Sesshomaru’s personal dojo. A barrier was secured, the demons stripped to the waist, and they began an intricate series of katas to warm their muscles. Sesshomaru waited for the actual sparring before he spoke. “This One has found the spy.” Saying the words to one of his oldest friends left a bitter taste in his mouth. He slid across the mats, seeing Hisao’s ploy for what it was and knowing the captain would anticipate a leap into the air. Hisao’s claws rent empty space and they both turned, circling each other.
“They must be well-placed, to have avoided detection from either Kento-san or myself,” Hisao responded. He rushed at his lord and then abruptly flipped upwards, narrowly avoiding Sesshomaru’s acid whip.
“Far too close,” Sesshomaru agreed. Lightning feathered out from Hisao’s hands. Sesshomaru allowed the energy to hit him, crackling against a quick barrier. “You will assist in interrogation and apprehension. Information must be guarded closely to avoid alerting the target.” By absorbing the attack, Sesshomaru was well-placed to charge the other inu. Claws raked across tanned skin, drawing shallow lines of blood that would heal momentarily, but could have been made deadly in actual combat. Both males came to a stop, bowing and resetting their positions for another round.
“Who, then?” Glowing blue cuffs of electricity appeared around Hisao’s fists as he dodged and weaved to avoid another loss.
“This One’s instincts were correct long ago,” Sesshomaru began.
“No, no, Miko. Tomomi sired my grandsire, Iwakara Yamadera.” Kimi’s chiding was neither gentle nor harsh as they descended to the ground level of the shiro. Kagome’s head was swimming with names, dates, and inappropriate images of fluffy white dogs the size of houses chasing down screaming postmen. “He was very powerful, but his death was a relief to the family.”
“Tomomi?” Kagome asked faintly. She tripped on the last stair and found herself swiftly righted by a swirl of white fur. Kimi’s mokomoko settled back into place as though nothing were amiss and they continued their walk to the gardens.
“No, Miko.” Kimi let out a little sigh of disappointment. Whether it was for Kagome’s poor memory or the servant that was a beat late to slide open the doors, she wasn’t sure. “Yamadera. My own sire tore out the old dog’s throat when he refused to allow the mating with my dam.” Kimi leaned in conspiratorially, her voice dropping to a whisper. It seemed entirely unnecessary to Kagome, as the Lady’s youki was swirling around them like a massive hurricane: beautiful from a distance of, say, outer space, but violent on the ground. Kagome was in the eye of the storm, and she wasn’t yet sure she wouldn’t prefer to be out in the wind, if it meant her ‘lessons’ could end for the day. The residents of the castle appeared to be of the same mind if their scarcity was any indication. “Mother was half-kitsune. A terrible scandal, her parents weren’t properly mated even, but had power and resources in excess to keep the fact discreet.”
That explains so much about you, Kagome thought with sudden insight, thinking of the quick smirks and pointed barbs she had been treated to all morning. She wasn’t foolish enough to actually give voice to that though.
“And my uncles and aunts were mostly prepared to overlook the matter, given that Yamadera had eaten so many of their siblings that he had deemed weak. In that day, cannibalism of family was considered beyond the pale – although not punishable by trial as it is now.”
“He ate his children?” Kagome blurted, coming to a complete standstill. She really hoped that Kimi was pulling her leg, maybe giving in to a deep-seated but twisted kitsune penchant for jokes. “And nobody did anything?”
“My dear,” she said calmly, as though she were explaining her grandfather’s penchant for argyle socks, “he was a mass murderer and a sadistic cannibal, but he was a well-bred cannibal. Those sorts of things were taken care of within the pack. And that doesn’t happen anymore.” Kimi waved her hand as if it were inconsequential, but her perfect lips, the color of frozen raspberries, turned down. “Such actions are unnatural to inuyoukai, as well as the animals that bear our likeness. Too many close marriages within the line, I suspect, twisted his mind and instincts from conception.”
“Oh,” Kagome said. Her voice sounded oddly high-pitched. How do I respond to the fact that my boyfriend’s family practiced inbreeding? What is the equivalent for pure-breed dogs? Hip dysplasia? She stepped beside Kimi onto a snow dusted bridge. Under a thick layer of ice she could just make out a few colorful flashes of fish. “Yeah, that…happens. At least you didn’t get hemophilia?” At Kimi’s curious stare, Kagome clarified, her words growing fainter with caution and discomfort, “Thin blood?”
Kimi snorted and even that sounded elegant coming from the Lady. “Thin blood. Ridiculous. That must be some sort of human affliction. Tell me, Miko, do you think the mortal lords suffer from such illness?” Kagome hesitated, excruciatingly aware that her knowledge of powerful people in the feudal era would not jive with what a village miko should know. It probably couldn’t have even been excused if she were a proper hime of the time. Kimi, out of impatience or terrible suspicion, added, “Do not fear to speak of it. Sesshomaru has informed me of your visions.”
“Visions,” Kagome turned the word over for a moment, both grateful to Sesshomaru for coming up with a cover story and put out that he hadn’t let her in on the lie. “I have not seen an indication that those men you say are invited here have any, ah, defects of the mind or blood. But that doesn’t make it the truth.”
“Wisely said, little Miko,” Kimi praised. Her smirk expanded into a smile that showed off dainty fangs. “I will not pry into your unique gift…not today.” Kagome’s sigh of relief got caught in her throat and she stared at Kimi with wide eyes. The inudaiyoukai laughed shortly. “Come, lessons continue, and I believe we must begin with a method to hide some of that human emotion. Your enemies and allies alike cannot be allowed to know your heart so easily.” Slender fingers tipped with deadly claws took Kagome’s hand and tucked it into the crook of her elbow. “Before sparring,” Kagome’s stomach did another flip-flop at the casual announcement and Kimi continued as if she hadn’t noticed the sudden jump in the human’s pulse, “we will practice your mask. Sesshomaru prefers indifference, which tends to make anyone with a spark of personality want to poke him until he responds.”
Kagome laughed and then clapped a hand over her mouth. She had felt that compulsion on more than one occasion.
“I know,” Kimi said dryly, “but it is delightful when he cracks.” She steered them along the edge of the garden, admiring the dormant plants and the frost limning the trees. “You have not had the opportunity to admire it yet, but my own mask of amusement is vastly superior. They tremble before my smile – and soil themselves when I do not grant it.” The Lady bared her teeth in a cross between a grin and a snarl. “We will find what suits you best, of course.”
She patted Kagome’s hand. It was intended as reassurance, the miko was sure. It only inspired dread and a sense of inevitable doom. At that moment, she would have been glad for Inuyasha to stomp in and cause a scene. Jaken’s squawking and complaints about the children would have been welcome. If Sesshomaru had appeared with a stoic stare and demanded she wash mokomoko, she would have jumped at the chance to get away from the adversely helpful, frighteningly commanding, happily vicious daiyoukai at her side. Her eyes glazed over a little, thinking of what had happed the last time she was given the chore of cleaning his fur. A very welcome interruption. Kimi’s cultured voice began instruction on scent, adrenaline, and pheromones. With a hard blush and stumbling feet, Kagome began to hope a savage, rabid youkai would leap into the garden just to break up the conversation.
“Shall I summon Kento?” Hisao asked as they made their way to the prison cells on a lower level of the shiro. There were not many in the Western Palace. Sesshomaru’s grandfather had spent most of his life defending the West and fighting for the security of his pack which did not allow for the imprisonment of those deemed enemies or criminals. Inu no Tashio had favored swift justice and strict adherence to ancient code and trials by combat, which rarely necessitated detention. Sesshomaru himself had not made much use of the chambers for longer than a few days at a time. As he saw it, his enemies would die at his hand. Criminals were either malicious, in which case no amount of time considering their actions would reform them, or desperate, in which case they could be molded to loyal subjects that added to the security and economic superiority of the West. Torture was not a tactic to gain reliable information from the prisoner either. It did, however, make an excellent tool for convincing others who feared the same treatment to speak up.
“You should not,” Sesshomaru replied. The two youkai shared a look of understanding. They had discussed the situation at length during their early-morning training exercise. Hisao had agreed with his lord, but he did not enjoy that accord. Sesshomaru could smell the frustration and disappointment on his captain. “Interrogation first.” Hisao nodded, clearly uncomfortable but resigned.
Their time spent in Geiken’s cell was shrouded by a youki barrier. It held back sound, but scent and youki passed through it freely. Before he even stepped out of the room, calmly retracting his dokkasou while Hisao tried to get the smell of fear out of his nose, Sesshomaru was sure that every youkai in the palace was aware that his time with the prisoner had resulted in wild surges of frantic youki, blood, acid, and terror.
“Have the Ringu prepared, he stated coldly, golden eyes hard and unforgiving. “And summon Kento there. For combat.”