Chapter 50: The Grass is Always Greener
Arashi reverted to his two-legged form on the southern side of the strait. His boat was still hidden where he had left it, and he wasted no time loosening its mooring and putting the paddle to use. He was tired, not just from the flight, which had been a near sprint north, but from the pressure at the back of his skull. Something was wrong, he could feel it. Something had changed, or was changing, or would change soon. It did not bode well for his plans.
Arashi did not like the unknown. He had made a habit of research, bribery, observation, and outright theft to ensure that he always had the upper hand. He had been putting his talent to good use in the Eel Valley. Inuyasha had listened to his words, twisted less than usual but more than the inu thought. Natsou had been restrained from the worst of his stupidity. The Lord of the North had been left scheming and plotting, but all well within the scope of Arashi’s plans. Captain Sou had a level head and would have the soldiers ready at a moment’s notice. There should not have been anything out of place, but still, Arashi was unsettled.
It was the summons. Delivered in the dead of night on youki fueled breeze, a scrap of paper bearing Ryukostokken’s seal and the taste of the slave wind youkai. Arashi did not like being summoned without cause. He disliked even more leaving an operation unfinished and in the hands of one such as Natsou who thought more with his instincts than his head. A cold dawn began to lighten the sky as he rowed, and Arashi frowned. He was tired, but there would be no rest this day.
Kimi strolled through the gardens, heedless of the bitter cold that had settled over the West and showed no signs of letting up. Information had been trickling in all morning, but it was not enough for her to craft definitive advice for her son. Edginess was not a state she was familiar with, but the daiyoukai felt it keenly as she watched the other ladies.
Only one human lord had brought a wife with him, and she sat, composed and admirably unaffected, in the garden tea house. Braziers and furs kept the little building comfortable for the hime and several youkai females that found the weather uncomfortable. There were two others, brother and sister serow youkai that had come to the West with the male’s mate, who moved through the garden with ease on their reverse-jointed legs. They were lesser demons, but alliance with them would make passage through the mountains easier. Kimi nodded shallowly to them as she passed, and they returned the gesture.
Her impatience was why she had found herself outside, with the mates of those at the Council, instead of seated in the hall where Sesshomaru was holding discussions. She was not required by protocol to be present in either, but was welcomed in both places. However, she found that she did not have the temperament that morning to sit among the lords and listen to long-winded discussions on trade and economics. Her tail was twitching with restlessness, and it would be less noticeable in the garden. Of course, she would have to join the discussion soon.
It had taken significant effort, but with Hirimoto’s help she had convinced Sesshomaru that she should escort the miko to the afternoon meeting – rather than the Saidai Mao himself. There would be fewer eyes on the woman that way, allowing her some small measure of comfort in an unfamiliar situation. And while Sesshomaru’s instincts would be denied scent marking her for a few hours, he could endure it and both the woman and Kimi’s plans would benefit from not immediately assaulting their guests with her status.
The smell of rice and meat wafted across the courtyard and servants came to invite the hime and youkai to dine. Kimi excused herself to the senior most of them, Kenjirosu’s mate, and began to make her way to the family quarters. It would have been more polite to eat with the water youkai and make stilted conversation, but Kimi was not patient enough for that either.
Perhaps time with the pups will distract me, she thought hopefully. She did need the distraction, needed to soothe her mind. She could not play her game of point and counterpoint, induction and manipulation with less than her full attention. Sesshomaru needed her skills for the first time that he had ever admitted. Now, more than ever, she would fulfill her duty to the West.
Emi snuggled into her lap the moment she seated herself at the table across from the miko. Rin politely offered her a bowl of food, while Kagome poured into her cup. The fragrance of clean pup, hot meat, and delicate tea was effective. Kimi breathed deeply, letting it settle into her lungs and soothe the instincts that paced inside her. She listened with a smile while Rin recited the lineage of the House of the Moon. The child had learned it quicker than the miko. She made noises of admiration as Shippo temporarily turned Nankae into a rather shaggy black cushion; the eyes and tail were barely noticeable. The meal was simple, and lingered over, and when it ended she was calmed. Pack, she rumbled contentedly as she tucked the smallest pup in for a nap next to the male inu. The servants had cleared away the dishes and the miko’s voice could be heard softly through the screens as she set the kitsune and child to lessons. Kimi scent marked the pups and let the language of her ancestors soothe them to sleep.
Rest, dream, and grow strong.
The screens closed softly behind her and she waited in the anteroom for the miko to finish. Her superior ears could not help but listen to the strange lecture, on figuring how far across a lake might be, and how much water it could hold. Kagome was a puzzle, and when the war was over, Kimi assured herself she would discover all of the human’s secrets, but for the time it was enough to know that the miko had power and knowledge that would aid the West. She was loyal to Sesshomaru. She loved him. It was the most important aspect of the woman, but it would not help her in the days to come. It would be self-control, power, and a quick mind that would sway the Council. Only two out of three was not ideal, but Kimi had succeeded in the past with fewer advantages.
Kagome closed the shoji and returned a few books to her shelves. “Is it time?” Her nerves were evident in her scent, but not in her voice. Kimi was pleased to see the human maintained a straight spine and steady hands.
“Soon,” she responded. “We will review our objectives first.”
“I take it that ‘mind your manners and make friends’ isn’t enough?” The miko smiled, despite her obvious concerns, and that gave Kimi added assurance.
“Not quite,” she said with an answering smile. “Although, it is a good start. You know the protocol, Kento did an excellent job drilling that into you, and you are charming enough in your own way for most youkai. However,” Kimi firmed up her expression, despite the slightly hurt scent that the priestess emitted, “you must be more self-assured. I understand that humans defer as a polite mannerism, and Kento has told me that these human lords will expect it of a female – far more than what you would normally offer. But you must not. Polite, correct, but never deferential. Sesshomaru is your only superior in that room, and to allow another to condescend to you is to allow them to condescend to him. He has elevated you in status, and you must live up to that or call his decision into question. Do you understand?”
“I understand, Kimi-sama,” Kagome said slowly. Her blue eyes, so unusual for a human, were almost desperate. “I am just not sure I am capable. I was raised on a shrine – and not a wealthy one. I was never taught these kind of courtly manners. I mean – I went to public school!” The girl kept her voice low, in consideration of the naps and lessons taking place nearby, but her anxiety was obvious.
Kimi paused, ignoring her curiosity over ‘public school’, and considered the source of the miko’s concerns. “It is not the youki and power at the table that worry you, or the gravity of the discussion.” Comprehension and amused shock dawned on the inuyoukai. “You are concerned you will use the wrong form of address or spill tea.”
“Well, yeah,” she blushed and tugged on a stray lock of hair that curled over her collar. “I can barely dress myself in formal kimono, and the tea ceremony is a nightmare – even my mama said I was awful, and formal speech is really hard to remember to use – I was better in English class than at honorific grammar.”
Again, Kimi found herself forcing away leading questions regarding strange words and ideas, and instead focused on what was important to the immediate matter, “I would not say your kimono is barely acceptable.” The miko took that in for a moment, and then flushed brighter. Her scent lost any anxiety – replaced with irritation and embarrassment. “But Aki will assist you with that, so it is of little consequence at this time. As for your speech…” Kimi had given the matter thought and already determined how to spin it to their advantage. “You may speak to those beneath you as you see fit. You will notice Sesshomaru does not use honorifics with anyone. While he is more formal than you, that is in his nature. Your mannerisms can be interpreted as part of your humanity, your station, and your openness. And I will perform the tea ceremony tomorrow, so there is no cause for concern.” The miko opened and closed her mouth a few times, but did not seem able to form a response. Her scent was clear but for a shadow that the Lady could not place, but did not find objectionable.
The spider youkai came soon after, and Kimi watched while she expertly dressed and styled the little human. The blue forest kimono that she had worn to greet Hirimoto was complemented with hair sticks of polished lapis. A balm of shiny red cream for her lips was the only makeup Kimi would allow – although she easily gave in to the miko’s offer to share. It tasted vaguely like fruit and tingled nicely. Aki had brought needlework with her, and sat down to listen for the pups to wake. The older ones had finished their lesson and left scrolls on the miko’s desk before following the rock brothers away to the ima where their kitsune teacher waited. Kimi walked beside the human, linking their arms. It was scandalously familiar with so many guests in the castle, but Kimi did not personally object to the contact and she would rather the youkai talk about the way she doted on the human than have Kagome trip and embarrass herself. She created a barrier for scent and sound around herself and the woman before entering the hall, to allow discretion. It was only half-full, as many of the attendees were still stretching their legs after the lunch break. Sesshomaru stood at the far end. Two humans were beside him, still smelling a little awed and fearful, but deep into a heated discussion with Tsukahara. Sesshomaru’s expression was colder than usual. This situation calls for an entrance, Kimi decided.
“I have always found such gatherings terribly dry,” she whispered to the miko. “I often find myself imagining ways to liven the process. Perhaps your kit would lend me some of his acorns, hm?” The suggestion had the intended effect, and the miko broke into a smile. Kimi dropped her barrier, and the humans closest to her were treated to a quiet chuckle and sparkling eyes. Every youkai in the room could smell the sudden appearance of her fragrance, made lighter and sweeter with amusement. Ears and noses turned toward them, but Kimi expertly steered the miko toward her selected quarry. It had the added benefit of distracting Kagome from the intense scrutiny.
“Matsudaira-san,” Kimi greeted the human smoothly. His secretary fumbled and dropped the scroll he had been holding for his lord. The scent of his excitement and attraction mixed with his fear to create an unusual bouquet that tickled her nose.
“Denka-sama, Miko-sama,” the lord bowed deeply to both females. His eyes were light brown and sparked with intelligence while his rather plain face betrayed no emotion. A worthy adversary and valuable ally, Kimi assessed. “Will you do us the honor of contributing to the discussions this afternoon?”
“Indeed, This One is most intrigued to listen to your thoughts. Humans have not been invited to…contribute to such discussions…in recent memory.”
“Your words, if you will forgive the presumption, indicate that this is not the first Council of its kind.”
“Ah, yes. This One recalls another where a human lord sat at the table of the West. That has been many, long years in the past.
“Then we should express gratitude for such an honor, that the Saidai Mao seeks council from humans.” From another mouth, the words would have bitten with sarcasm, but Matsudaira gave them an air of questioning. He is uncertain if Sesshomaru wants their advice, assistance, or if this is an elaborate trap. He is intelligent.
“Your insight pleases This One. Such favor is rarely bestowed by youkai, and never before by That One.” The lord followed her gaze to Sesshomaru, who kept his own eyes on those around him. Kimi was certain he heard every word of their conversation though.
“And yet, Tashio-denka has favored another of my kind.” His lips turned up in a smile that did not quite reach his eyes as he looked at Kagome. The girl maintained her easy expression, but her fingers tightened on Kimi’s arm. “Shall your holy council be solicited by the Saidai Mao as well, Miko-sama?”
“No, Matsudaira-san,” she responded quietly. For a moment, Kimi doubted herself and her plan to use the miko as a diplomatic tool. “Not solicited, but given freely. Sesshomaru-sama aided me in difficult circumstances. I will do the same for him should the opportunity ever arise.”
“What circumstances would those be, if it is not too personal a matter?”
“Such a simple thing to a daiyoukai of his power, but perhaps you heard news of the purification of the Jewel of Four Souls?” Kagome lifted her brows in sincere inquiry, her smile polite and kind. Kimi could have clapped her hands with glee.
Matsudaira’s eyes widened slightly, but he gave no other indication of his surprise. “I am aware of the tale, but the description of your allies must have lost much in the retelling. You are here, then, to repay such a favor from him?”
“You misunderstand,” Kagome smiled wider, and her unease had disappeared. Kimi was nearly bursting with pride in herself. Although the woman was completely unsuited to deception, in this instance her honesty would be more than adequate. “I know Sesshomaru-sama to be of the highest honor and character. His dedication to the security and prosperity of the West is admirable. Any task which he will undertake, I will humbly request to aid as I know it will further the forces of good in this world, and balance evil where it takes hold.”
“Your words are inspiring, Miko-sama,” Matsudaira said after a long pause. A soft gong sounded, alerting those present that the meeting would resume shortly. He bowed, “I will consider your opinion closely.”
Kimi propelled the miko away and found their designated seats on Sesshomaru’s left, the human between the two daiyoukai. Hirimoto and Shimazu sat across from them, their secretaries at small tables behind them, as Kento was arrayed behind Sesshomaru’s place at the head of the table. The daiyoukai remained standing until all others had returned to the hall and claimed a cushion. Kimi’s impatience was well controlled by the time her son announced that discussion would continue and gracefully took his place. Other matters would be settled in time; now was an opportunity to focus on her particular skills. Such fun.
Inuyasha stomped up the valley to the medical tent. He shouldn’t have, he knew. Sesshomaru would have never allowed anyone to see how angry he was. I ain’t him, he thought savagely. His anger wasn’t really for his brother, but for the blustering thug that he was supposed to be negotiating with. And perhaps a bit for himself. He was there to get Natsou to reveal information, and it wouldn’t have been difficult if the asshole could go more than two breaths without insulting him. Inuyasha could have ignored it, too. The stakes were high enough that even he could let name-calling go if it would mean saving lives. Unfortunately, he was supposed to live up to certain expectations. Miroku had coached him on it before leaving on his own mission.
“Don’t give that fucker a title,” Inuyasha had interrupted.
“Ryukostokken,” Miroku amended, “thinks he can manipulate you. He is going to convince you that you should attack Sesshomaru and that he will support you in a claim to the West.”
“Killing the ice-prince I get, but why the hell would I want the West?”
“Because you are a stubborn, uncouth, power-hungry moron,” Miroku explained patiently. Inuyasha was so mad he couldn’t speak, just drew back his fist. “That is what he believes!” The monk waved his hands defensively and Inuyasha backed down with a scowl. “If he thought you could not be bribed or manipulated, if he thought you were smart enough to ally with your brother-”
“Half-brother,” he corrected.
“Yes, fine, half-brother,” Miroku said patiently. “If Ryukostokken thought that you were capable of recognizing what an evil creature he is, and that you have the moral character to be appalled by it, he would send a larger force than ours to meet you. He would attempt to cut you down before you could become a hindrance to him. He knows you are capable of killing a powerful dragon, so you must make certain that he believes it to have been brawn and dumb luck, not skill and strategy, which fueled your successes.”
Inuyasha thought on that for a moment. It was uncomfortably close to the truth. “A lot of times it was dumb luck,” he muttered.
“Perhaps long ago, my friend. But you have grown in the time I have known you.” Miroku grinned, “I have even seen you use your head, on occasion, for more than beating the earth into submission.” His tone turned serious, “You are not the brash and reckless hanyou you were four years ago, but you cannot let that be known to our enemies. Let them underestimate you, and they will know regret as they are defeated.”
It had been the right move, he knew, but it still, as Kagome often said, sucked. He embellished one of her favorite slang terms in his head with his fury. It sucks giant, hairy, skunk youkai balls. And it did. Every time he was getting close to some useful information, the idiot dragon would insult his heritage, or his soldiers, or his virility, or his mother, and then Inuyasha had to bark back like an angry child. It was fucking exhausting. The most he had determined so far was that the flying-lizard-shit-for-brains had changed tactics and was no longer focusing on a direct hit to Sesshomaru. Apparently the abrupt halt of his plague had been a real disappointment.
Inuyasha snorted, drawing the attention of the soldiers that had hastily cleared a path before his spiking youki. Disappointment, yeah, that’s goin’ around. Get used to it. The whole thing was sitting wrong with him. He was chafing against the role he had forced himself into, and it didn’t help that he was still stewing over everything that sneaky dragon hanyou had told him. And then the scaly bastard had snuck away in the middle of the night. Natsou hadn’t been aware the hanyou was leaving either; Inuyasha smirked at that. The guards on the ridge had gotten a real kick out of it – the captain, shrieking and blowing smoke while his half-frozen soldiers stumbled out of his way, trying to locate the hanyou without actually leaving their camp and incurring the wrath of Inuyasha’s forces.
What he needed was Miroku, in person. He needed advice, because the closest thing he had to a council was the crane lieutenant, who was committed to following orders, but his only suggestion involved dragon guts spread across the valley. He needed information about how things were going in the West, and about the progress Kouga and the pervert monk were making. He needed a cup of ramen, and a warm fire, and about two-days of sleep. And for fuck’s sake he needed to smell something that wasn’t dried-sweat-male-bird. Inuyasha stopped outside of the tent and tried to calm down before he went to check on Daigo. The messenger still couldn’t walk more than a few steps, but he was healing from the dragon attack.
What he needed was some damn information that he could actually use. And that meant he would have to go back down the valley and stand across from the mouthy idiot and pretend like he gave a shit what some half-assed dragon warrior thought of him. When he agreed to help Sesshomaru, he hadn’t imagined this. Prick probably did, though, he thought with a bitter taste in his mouth. Probably enjoying this from his cushy, warm castle. Got Kagome all snuggled up and a bunch of hoity-toity youkai lords all ready to take their armies wherever he says. Lucky son-of-a-bitch.
“-thirty bushels more than previous years, and still those villages go hungry!”
“Do you complain that they willingly give away their harvests, or that the grain does not go to you?”
“You demons think you control our lands, but when some thing steps in and steals my rice, you don’t-”
“So it is your rice now, not the villagers?”
“Thing? I suggest you watch your tone, human!”
Sesshomaru desperately wanted to pinch the bridge of his nose to stem the ache that was building behind his eyes. That, or to cast out his acid whip across the table. Evenly. At neck height. Then he would have some peace, and, finally, agreement. He had never enjoyed council sessions even when they comprised only youkai. Too often they descended into trivial arguments and little was accomplished. The same appeared to be true for humans. The only differences were the addition of racial slurs and constant, restrained hum of violence. Perhaps there was only one difference. At least his mother was enjoying herself. Kimi was smiling into another cup of tea – they would all need more soon if the meeting continued much longer. Her amused façade was at least partially genuine. He did not enjoy being the only aggravated being present. Tsukahara had leaned over the table, his palms flat on the wood and his youki flaring. Shimazu sat several places away, between Hirimoto and Sesshomaru. The human was shouting down the eagle – which was a notable feat. The lesser youki to Tsukahara’s right was practically folded in on herself from the pressure of power around her.
“You know, I have been trying to hold my temper, Lady Kimi,” Kagome was speaking softly, and his ears immediately focused on her words. His mother had her head tipped to the side, listening, but he doubted any others in the hall could make out her polite tone under the argument. “I really have, but I cannot listen to this any longer.”
Kimi nodded and whispered in the miko’s ear, “Sometimes one must grab a pup by his ear to make him see reason.”
“Hm,” Kagome took a deep breath, and then slapped her hands against the table. A wave of purification rippled out, blowing papers away and toppling teacups. Several youkai unfortunate enough to be touching the wood yelped and snatched away smoking hands. The humans had to turn their heads from the bright pink light that followed. Sesshomaru took a deep breath of warm, salty breeze and felt his spine relax and the ache behind his eyes ease. Blessed silence, he thought.
“I am sure these are all terribly important matters to those who have brought them up,” his miko began pleasantly. Shimazu opened his mouth, brows beetled and one hand raised in objection. “I am not finished,” she said, her voice uncompromising and eyes flashing. Sesshomaru made certain her desires were made clear. He lifted one hand from his lap, dokkasou dripping onto the table, leaving holes and motioned toward Kagome.
“The Miko no Mao will speak,” he said flatly. Shimazu correctly interpreted his threat and closed his mouth.
“However, the issue of the North takes precedence. We must discuss the matter at hand, or we will not have the luxury of discussing anything at all. If you disagree, if you do not feel that this threat must be addressed – leave now. But,” her eyes blazed with conviction and Sesshomaru took pride in the snap of her aura, “do not request assistance or protection should you fall to the dragons. Those who remain will be occupied with a war – we will not have time to bury your dead, much less account for your harvests.” The hall was silent, but in that time the atmosphere smoothed out as well. Youki was still high, the stench of human emotions strong, but they were listening. Considering.
“I agree that these arguments must be set aside and more important matters discussed. However, I see no need to involve the humans in our situation. Let them return to their fields and young courts,” Uesugi was the first to speak.
“And depend upon demons to protect our interests?” Date snorted angrily.
“As These Ones have been doing for thousands of years, Date-san,” Kimi said evenly. One perfect eyebrow arched, “Or did you believe that you had not suffered the fate of your northern neighbors because of good karma?”
“I can take care of my own,” his voice dripped with derision. “My soldiers have defeated demons many times.”
“An army against one wild youkai is not a display of power,” Ayame interjected. Her youki was vibrating with repressed temper, which Sesshomaru understood. Wolf clans near Date’s castle had been systematically hunted, along with other lesser youkai. The humans there isolated and killed off weaker demons.
“One or ten makes no difference,” Date stated boldly.
“Something on which we agree.” Tsukahara ignored the rest of the table to focus on Sesshomaru. “Let us leave off talk and go North now. Our strength, without the humans, is more than enough.”
“You are wrong, Tsukahara-san.” Kagome’s firm statement brought silence again, and Sesshomaru’s nose was flooded with the eagle’s anger. “There is no peace to be found unless all of Japan is united in this. The dragons do not fight with honor, they will not meet you on a battlefield and respect any code. They will attack your family while you march. They will poison your wells. They will torture the bodies of your subjects and when that is not enough they will break minds and spirits. You have never faced an enemy such as this.”
“You have defeated powerful youkai, Miko-sama,” Kenjirosu said calmly. His voice was smooth and cool, without any inflection. “However, you have no experience with war, nor have you lived long enough to speak with authority regarding dragons.”
Sesshomaru’s temper rose. How dare he. The insult was not in his belief that Kagome was unlearned in the art of war, such ignorance was expected and true to an extent. The water daiyoukai had questioned her fitness to serve on Sesshomaru’s council. That was inexcusable. Reiki reached out and brushed against him, gaining his attention. His miko tilted her head for permission. The Saidai Mao hesitated. He did not want her to feel pressured to discuss her experiences, did not want her to display the weakness that she had in her fear from her captivity, but it was her decision. He nodded.
“I have met Ryukostokken, Kenjirosu-san. Have you?” There was a collective intake from the table at her challenge, but she did not give anyone the opportunity to respond. “I was his prisoner recently, and saw and experienced first-hand what kind of creature that dragon is. I know how he treats his captives. I have seen how he treats his soldiers. I have heard from his own mouth his plans for the West, the East, and the South. I have watched him defile youkai – and seen both resilience and defeat. It is true that I have not lived as long as you, but I have studied wars that your teachers could not even comprehend.” Sesshomaru knew she spoke of events that were in the past as she knew it, but the flush of her skin and the spark of holy power in her eyes cast her words in a supernatural light. “I have known the death of my enemies at my hand. I know this enemy.” Sesshomaru felt a fierce pride in his miko. Her voice was steady, even hard, and her words resolute. The scent of her truth was thick. She had taken her weakness, something she had felt shamed her, and made it into a weapon with which to sway minds and hearts. He turned his gaze to Kenjirosu, waiting to see if he would deny her. The elemental did not refute her claim, but nor did he voice agreement. His jaw clenched, and he nodded to acknowledge that he had heard and would consider it.
“Ryukostokken was cruel and selfish, even as a whelp,” Hirimoto spoke up, “but even those many centuries ago, This One did not believe him to be stupid. Kagome-san is correct; this enemy is not to be taken lightly.”
“There is much to consider, and a mind should be in order before discussions continue,” Matusdaira, for the first time that day, spoke up from his place at the opposite end of the table. His scent was controlled, but Sesshomaru could still make out the irritation surrounding him. The source of it could not be determined, but the daiyoukai would have guessed it was similar to his own. “Perhaps a break,” he suggested. “A new day may bring more enlightened perspectives.” Privately, Sesshomaru was pleased that it had been suggested. Outwardly, he maintained a nearly bored countenance and released the Council.
When all but Hirimoto, Kento, and his own pack had departed, he turned to face Kagome. The shoji screen softly closed behind the last guest, and Kagome sagged against the table. A cloud of her emotions expanded around her, and he only then recognized that his mother had been shielding the woman’s scent. Dry, dusty mace. The sour pickle of niguari melon. Inuzansho pepper. The sharp bite of turnip flesh. His miko rose even further in his estimation. So many, strong feelings had been coursing through her but she suppressed them all to say what must be said. He needed to speak with Kimi, Hirimoto and Kento regarding their impressions of the council, but the instinct – the desire to soothe his intended and assure her of his pride in her action took precedence.
“Go, refresh yourselves,” he instructed them. “This One will escort the miko. Progress will be discussed in This Sesshomaru’s study after you have eaten.” Each of them left with bows or smirks, as befit them, but the miko remained with eyes closed and her cheek pressed against the smooth surface of the table. His youki reached her moments before his fingers touched her neck. His power seeped under her skin and she made a sound between a moan and a purr.
“Ugh, Sesshomaru,” she mumbled. “How much longer do we have to do this?”
“The Council will last the week,” he answered absently. His awareness of her intensified with the intimacy of his power. She was exhausted, and shaking inside from nerves and the release of pressure she must have felt during the meeting and her speech. He wanted to hold her close and shield her from ever having to endure such a thing again. He wanted to display her strength proudly. She was overcoming her fears, growing. Each action she took confirmed what he had decided weeks ago. She would be the Lady he needed, not just the woman he wanted. “Your words,” he began, but she cut him off.
“I know, I’m so sorry,” she said, sitting up with a grimace of contrition. “It wasn’t my place and I’m sure you will have a terrible time making up for my insult. I am so sorry! And I completely forgot the right grammar!”
Sesshomaru blinked. She is concerned for her honorific form? Then he chuckled. She stared at him, wary and biting her lip. “I am proud of you, Kagome,” he said simply. Her mouth fell open and her eyes widened comically, showing white all around the blue. He chuckled again, and grasped the corner of her cushion to pull her closer.
“I…” She blushed, and the fear and anxiety faded as happiness and trust suffused her scent. Sweet carnations filled his nose and he breathed deeply of her, finally dragging her close enough to brush his mouth across her cheek.
“It was most excellently done,” he smiled against her flesh and the last of his headache disappeared. “I have often had to remind Kenjirosu of his place, but never have I managed it with such…style.” Irritation sparked around her, and he was sure she felt insulted, which would not do. “It was most enjoyable, my miko.” He pressed another kiss to her mouth, managing to pull back before he became too insistent. “And effective,” he said more seriously. She offered him a small smile, and then her stomach rumbled.
“I think I missed supper,” she said with a blushing grin.
“I will eat as well.” He stood, picking her up and waiting for her to find her balance before leading her toward the corridor. One claw on the door, he bent to her ear, his tone pitched to an affecting rumble, “and afterward, I may hunt for my own meal.” They had nearly reached their private quarters before her blush faded.
“Where has he gone?” Arashi asked quietly. The guard visibly flinched, and bowed again, even lower.
“I do not know, Arashi-san. It is not my place to-”
Arashi nodded, releasing the young dragon from the interrogation with a sharp wave. It was not his fault that he knew nothing. It was not his fault that the lord of the North had once again changed his plans without consulting with his spy. Not that Arashi expected to be consulted, he was well aware of the disdain and contempt Ryukostokken held for him. But it would have made things easier. It was not hard to guess what the lord had done, but it was infuriating. Not the guard’s, or anyone else’s fault, but still infuriating.
The plan had been thought out carefully, so many contingencies and alternatives considered, and Ryukostokken had… Arashi could feel the heat building in his chest and he consciously pushed it down. Losing his temper would be futile. It would not solve the current dilemma, and he doubted he would feel any relief. He pivoted away from the guard and strode back out of the castle and into the courtyard. He acknowledged the deep bows and respect of many soldiers with a curt nod. Measures would have to be taken. Resources would need to be utilized and valuable favors called in to salvage the situation. No action could be taken until he knew the extent of what the lord had accomplished – and how many dragons were lost to his aggression, but it would be wise to begin gathering information.
Unfortunately, the two most highly placed at the Northern shiro who were likely to provide insight were both with Ryukostokken. The wind demoness was required to transport the lord, and enough soldiers had been taken to require Sou command at least half of the company. Wei, even more unfortunately, remained to supervise the castle. Arashi did not find it difficult to avoid the administrator’s threats and thinly-disguised informants, but it was irritating. And he was already in a poor mood. Arashi pushed it down, bringing himself under tight control. There was no room for him to make emotional mistakes – the North had enough of those as it was. It would be a calm mind that won this game. A calm mind, and a ruthless determination.
A bitter wind blew across the sea, and Arashi welcomed the bite on his skin. The last pieces would be played soon, and then all of Japan would know a new fate.