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Chapter 54: Mourning
The celebration had lasted just as long as Sesshomaru had feared. Into the early morning hours, he was forced to accept congratulations and well-wishes. He had to endure admiring glances at his intended and the scent of envy and sexual interest. Not the least of which came from Uesugi. His intended, blushing darkly the entire time, had handled the otter smoothly, but Sesshomaru was not fooled. Although she had bowed and offered well wishes as had every other guest, he knew the voracious youkai well enough to understand that she did not feel defeated. Only temporarily thwarted. He was not looking forward to the maneuvering that would be required to avoid killing Uesugi for offenses committed while she attempted to woo his miko. Although the measures that would no doubt be necessary to keep his jealous intended from using the burn of purification to punish the otter for the suggestive comments she made regarding his person and intimate skills might make up for the task.
He had also noted, as the event dragged on, that Kimi had obviously intentionally mislead Kagome regarding the expectations of the ceremony. He did not appreciate the deception, although it would have been more surprising if his mother had managed to plan such an event without any intrigue. However, the results were more than acceptable. All present were aware of Kagome’s power – her value as an ally, the danger of attacking her – and their mutual desires had been stirred and temporarily sated in a most pleasing way.
He had, of course, been correct in his assessment of their activities as well. Every demon present knew, or strongly suspected, what had taken place in the half-hour that Sesshomaru and Kagome were missing. Several couples also found opportunities for privacy during the night. There were few things that stirred a youkai’s lust like a near brush with power. It was, strangely, that effect which may have swayed his most difficult opposition among the demons on the council.
Kenjirosu, with his mate gliding behind him, had approached Sesshomaru shortly before the moon was to set. Kagome was speaking with Shimazu and Hisao – the children having been escorted to bed long before by Aina and Aki. She was close enough that his need to protect and scent her was met, but far enough that with the many conversations underway she would not be able to hear him speak.
“Many Full Moon Councils have I attended, Sesshomaru-sama. And many Courting Ceremonies. This, I believe, is the first that has combined the two.” Kenjirosu offered him a cup, and his mate poured sake for both daiyoukai. Sesshomaru was vividly aware that the two water demons, despite their naturally insubstantial scents, had been moved deeply by the outpouring of reiki and youki. The female allowed her sleeves to brush across her mate’s arm as she moved away, a small smile at her lips.
“Hn.” Sesshomaru lifted his cup in a gesture of respect and drank. The taste reminded him of Kagome’s mouth. The flavor of his body on her lips and tongue. The alcohol he had offered her to cleanse the scent. The heat of her when he used his own mouth to make certain the sake had the intended effect. He drank slowly.
“Congratulations,” Kenjirosu continued. His stoic face turned to the miko and Sesshomaru tensed, his acid pooling under his claws. Instinct and political benefit were rarely in accord, but he relished the uncommon moment. If a word of threat passed the demon’s lips, he would die. “An extraordinary selection, which will undoubtedly increase the power of the West. In the coming days and for generations.”
Sesshomaru relaxed. The elemental had not praised his miko, which would have been out of character, but his comments were true and held no hidden derision. The demoness refilled their cups and handed the sake to her mate so that he could do the same for her.
“Before discussions resume, I would be interested to hear the details of her experience in the North.” Kenjirosu raised on brow, clearly aware of the threatening roil of youki Sesshomaru emanated. The lord would not accommodate encouraging Kagome to relive her captivity, particularly not with an audience. “Knowledge of one’s adversary is essential to success.” Sesshomaru did not raise his cup, but contemplated the water demon. His allegiance would sway many others to join the West. The unique abilities of the youkai he could bring to battle opened up a myriad of possibilities that Sesshomaru would have to consider.
“If the miko is willing, This One will consider it.”
“It has been many years since a birth was celebrated by one of the Cardinal Lords,” the demoness abruptly changed the topic. “An event most worthy of commemoration, if it comes to pass.”
“Ran,” Kenjirosu cautioned his mate. A look passed between the two, and Sesshomaru was in the surreal position of recognizing a male that had given an order, been considered, and summarily dismissed by his female. He immediately realized that he did not wish to ever be in such a situation, and that it was an almost certainty with the strong-willed Kagome at his side.
“We have not been fated to have such a celebration yet, in our first few centuries together. I find that I look forward to the day when the House of the Crescent Moon is so blessed.” Sesshomaru clenched his jaw. The audacity of the female was staggering, to speak of such things to him, but he could also see the sparkling combination of sincerity and humor in her eyes. The Western Lord of only a few decades prior would have ended her mild teasing with a look; Sesshomaru had changed – his knowledge had changed. Ran and Kenjirosu were some of the last of their kind, and had not managed to procreate. It spoke to the female’s character, that she could admit their struggle, and in the same breath offer well wishes for another to ripen when she had not.
“Ran,” Kenjirosu’s caution became a low spoken warning. He went so far as to cup her elbow with one hand, attempting to reign her in. Sesshomaru felt a moment of empathy; he too had more than once had cause to desire his female to cease speaking – and no doubt would again.
“I have had the pleasure of speaking with your intended. Miko-sama is most…charismatic.” The descriptor did not have any underlying tone that would have slighted Kagome; the water demoness seemed to be honestly charmed by the miko. “Will a birth celebration be held soon, my lord?” Ran smirked. Her mate, for all his cool demeanor and precise logic, appeared at a complete loss for how to salvage what was swiftly becoming a social and political disaster.
It had been many, many years since Sesshomaru had been less than inscrutably cold with any outside of his pack. He reflected that the ceremony, and the interlude directly afterward, had left him in a peculiar mood. “If the miko is willing, This One will consider it.”
The shocked guffaw of Kenjirosu and the delighted laughter of Ran made it difficult to conceal a smirk, but the last hour of the celebration passed swiftly after they had excused themselves. Too soon, he found himself gesturing to Kimi across a nearly empty courtyard. Kagome was standing near a low-burning brazier with Hirimoto, Hisao and Ayame. Not even the wolf among them would be able to hear his quiet words to his dam.
“Mother,” he greeted her as she arrived at his side. Resplendent in a detailed new kimono and intricate hairstyle, Kimi had been in her element all night. Even after hours of mingling, maneuvering, and manipulating, she was bright-eyed and full of energy. A sharp contrast to his intended, who yawned demurely behind one sleeve and blinked slowly through some story told by the inu captain.
“You look far too dour, my son, for one who has claimed his female quite thoroughly and categorically swayed your political opponents all in one evening. The additional gift of a powerful relic should surely tip even your iron mouth into a smile.”
“I am satisfied.” It was the nature of the world, Sesshomaru reflected with a touch of bitterness, that the moment which should have been a triumph for him was tarnished with the burden of his responsibilities.
“Indeed,” the smug innuendo behind the one word said more than an hour’s conversation. “Your human is quite exhausted. Shall I delay the morning discussions by an hour or more, to allow time for her rest? And your…satisfaction?”
Sesshomaru took no pleasure in ending Kimi’s teasing. “The Council shall proceed at the usual time. However, your presence is required earlier.” He noted the passing glance Hirimoto sent their way, and how the bear’s gaze lingered a moment longer on the Western Lady. Sesshomaru turned on his heel and led her behind a carefully clipped hedge.
“Sesshomaru-” she began, following him at the command of his youki. His barrier snapped into place.
“The South has been attacked,” Sesshomaru said bluntly. Kimi’s eyes widened, her mouth parting in shock. The true emotion displayed on her face was concealed in a fraction of time, but Sesshomaru would never forget the pain that paled her skin and dulled her scent – all for the coming grief of another.
“Tell me,” she demanded.
“Five mor’ mints,” Kagome mumbled into the softness of the futon. Somewhere in the back of her cottony brain she knew that they had to get up and get ready for the last day of the Council. She knew this was an important day – a war declaring day – but she was just so tired. She hadn’t slept well the night before out of nervousness. Then there had been the ceremony and precisely controlling a great deal of reiki, followed by hours of standing on hard stone pavers making small talk with the youkai and human lords. The memory of what had taken place in between sent a warm flush through her. Sesshomaru’s uncharacteristic seven minutes in heaven with her in the storage closet had been the only relaxing thing she had done in more than twenty-four hours. In fact, the more she recalled of the dark room and makeshift bed of seating cushions and soft fur, the more she thought that a few more minutes of sleep could be foregone if her fiancée was willing to help her out in a more intimate way.
“Kagome,” his voice was deep and low. Spoken directly into her ear, it should have sent a thrill of heat down her spine. She knew him too well, now. That particular tone was not his version of sultry. It was her name turned into something serious and concerning that demanded attention.
“Wha?” She sat up quickly, brushing at the crazy tangle of hair falling into her face. Her stomach knotted when she took in his expression. Sesshomaru had never, in the weeks since she had healed him, worn his icy façade when they were alone in their room. It frightened her. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
He spoke slowly, but concisely, about an attack on the South and how that news must be treated. Mokomoko wrapped around her waist and shoulders while he gripped her knee firmly with his claws. His golden eyes bored into hers, not pleading – never that – but willing her to understand that he was doing what must be done. Kagome could feel her heart twisting. For her new friend, Hirimoto, and all he had lost. For his children that would never return to the home that they remembered – not the way they expected to. For Sesshomaru. Her strong, perfect daiyoukai that would ask his friend to do the unthinkable and ignore his grief – his rage. For Sesshomaru that would not, could not, allow himself to feel guilt or trepidation over what he must do, what he would force Hirimoto, a man that had been uncle and friend and advisor to him for centuries, to do if it came to that. Sesshomaru, who gave everything of himself, even his own emotions and needs, to protect the West. For Japan.
When he finished by stating that Kimi and Hirimoto were waiting for him, Kagome cupped his cheek. “I just need ten minutes, less, if you will help me with my kimono.”
“I-” he blinked, then shook his head slowly, without dislodging her palm. “I was not asking you to come with me, Kagome.”
“I know,” she replied. She pressed a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth, trying to convey everything she felt for him in that one act. “You don’t have to do this alone.”
“Kimi will be there,” he said.
“Kimi will be there for Hirimoto,” she said softly. Kagome brushed her thumb along the magenta of his cheekbone, forcefully pushing her own tears down. Crying would not help anything at the moment. “I will be there for you.”
He kissed her back, furiously. It was not passionate, but desperate and appreciative. “It is not necessary,” he wrapped his hand around hers and squeezed gently before standing.
She stood too, and Sesshomaru caught her without a word when she tripped over the blankets tangled around her legs. “It is extremely necessary.” She could see he wanted to argue, so she fisted her hands on her hips and arched a brow. “I am your intended. My place is at your side.” Kagome held her breath, waiting for him to deny her again. It would be so like him, to refuse her comfort, her support. It was true that he would have survived, would have succeed without it. But he shouldn’t have to, she thought with a surge of sadness. They faced each other in silence for several long moments. Sesshomaru in his customary white kimono with the red blossoms, his armor and Tenseiga in place, and Kagome in her sleeping yukata, one shoulder threatening to slip off and her hair a mess.
“It is cold. I will select your clothing while you wash and tame yourself.”
Kagome was relieved enough that he was not going to argue the point any further that she let his insult to her bed head go without comment. She washed her face and brushed her teeth in record time. She had her hair combed and pulled into a simple ponytail just as Sesshomaru withdrew her Chinese boots from the wardrobe. He helped her into her socks and boots and tied her obi efficiently before handing her a thick hanten jacket. The symbol of the West was neatly stitched onto the back, the red thread standing out sharply on the blue material. She grabbed her gloves as well, and then followed him into the garden, where he summoned his cloud.
A million stars sparkled in the inky black sky, but Kagome knew that dawn could not be far off. The air was bitter, but she refused to tuck her face against his shoulder. She did her best to soak in the calm, the deceptive peace of the morning before they arrived at their destination. She took deep breaths, sucking in oxygen and the faint scent of cloves that clung to Sesshomaru. She had delivered news of a loved one’s death before, during the hunt for the shard. She had grieved with strangers and friends alike. Never had she been a position to demand what Sesshomaru was going to demand. Nerves and sorrow twined with the ever-present hatred for the dragon lord inside her.
The tea house was smaller than she had anticipated, but still lovely in its simplicity. The structure perched, defying gravity, on a narrow ledge between two high ridges of mountain. A steep path of wooden steps, softened by more than a foot of snow, wound up from the castle below, crisscrossing the mountainside between tall trees and even meandering under the supports for the teahouse itself before flattening out against the narrow porch that surrounded the building. The thin battens that overlaid whitewashed walls were painted a dark red. Circular windows, covered with paper screens on the inside and heavy slatted shutters on the exterior, glowed with the light of a fire within. Kimi and Hirimoto had already arrived.
“I could have gone, if you had woken me sooner,” Sango said darkly.
“Yer too slow,” Inuyasha replied without thought. He paused with a wince and clarified, “Niji is water, so nobody but an air demon can move as fast – and nobody is as sneaky.”
“Sesshomaru doesn’t know her, will he believe her?”
Inuyasha resumed his pacing, following the worn path in the dirt floor of the tent. It had been a risk, sure, sending the demoness, but not for the reasons that Sango suspected. Sesshomaru would smell the truth in her words easily. The problem would be if anyone caught sight of her in the castle and wondered where she had been and where she was going. All the shrouding and lying was making his skin crawl. Never, in his centuries of life, not even right after he met Kagome and got the subjugation beads, had he wanted to kill something so badly and not been able to do so.
“He’ll believe her. Question is, what will he do about it?”
“He has a plan, Inuyasha. You have to be patient.”
“Keh,” he snorted, “that’s easy for him to say. He’s lazing around at his palace with Kagome while I am stuck listening to that fuckin’ dragon. Ice prick needs to get off his ass and stab something.” Inuyasha stopped and stared blankly for a moment. “Never thought I’d want Sesshomaru to be more of a killer.”
“He isn’t exactly having the time of his life, you know. I saw some of those lords, and Kagome and Kimi-sama talked a lot about the council. Would you really switch places with him and sit in meetings day after day listening to people debate?”
“Fuck no,” he swore. “I just wanna…do something!” His youki burned inside him, rippling under his skin with uncomfortable anticipation. He breathed heavily, taking in the reassuringly solid scent of his friend. The dry leathery-wood of teak. Delicate, spicy camilla tea. Heavy, thick taste of hemlock. Muffled traces of renkon. “We don’t have a lotta time to waste, not if we’re gonna keep up this pretense of him and me bein’ enemies.”
Inuyasha ignored Sango’s smile and crinkled eyes. His friends liked to tease him, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d had some schooling before his mother died, and then Myoga had tried. Kagome even left some books lying around that they both knew weren’t for her benefit. Books that were about stuff useful for him, in his time, but were written in simple kanji. Education aside, it didn’t take a scholar to know that things were going to get bloody – fast, as soon as the first blade was drawn. Inuyasha knew, he had been in that situation before. He often had only the barest moment at the start of a fight before his enemy realized that the hanyou had been underestimated. In the coming war, they would have one battle, one instant, where they could turn their enemy’s advantage into a weakness. If they missed their chance, the North would be able to divide their forces.
Added to that was what he had learned and guessed from his conversation with the dragon hanyou. Inuyasha didn’t trust a liar with wings any better than one without, but he still had a lot to consider. He was in command of his rag-tag army; he was responsible for gaining Ryukostokken’s trust and using it against him. There was more than one way to get close enough to stick a blade in the fucker’s ribs, Inuyasha just had to pick one. And there was the real problem. His internal tension made his youki flare again, and he had to close his eyes and count to fifty before he got it back under control. Sesshomaru had given him the responsibility of a captain in the Western army – without any of the training and experience that went with it. The self-serving bastard.
He must have spoken aloud without realizing it, because Sango responded, “Not formal training, no. But you have more experience in battle than many in Sesshomaru’s army, I’m sure. And you are certainly far more experienced than any other full youkai your age.” She stood next to him and placed one small calloused hand on his shoulder. “Sesshomaru would never have trusted you with this if he didn’t think you would succeed. He might be a,” she blushed and swallowed hard, “an, ah, ice prick.” Inuyasha chuckled at her discomfort in repeating the insult. Sango continued, “but he knows how strong you are, how capable you are. That is what I told him when he asked, and he agreed with me.”
Inuyasha could feel his own blush rising and had to look away from Sango’s serious gaze, “You, ah, you said that?”
Sango was silent for long enough that Inuyasha had to look up and find out what kept her from speaking. A smile twisted the corner of her mouth. “Despite your foul mouth and complete lack of manners, you are my friend, Inuyasha-san. But friend or not,” she leaned forward, too far into his personal space for his comfort, and poked him in the chest. Her brown eyes narrowed and her smile fell into a sterner expression. “I would not follow you into battle if I did not trust you, as a warrior and a leader.”
“Well,” Inuyasha’s eyes widened and his voice faded off. Sango was the best tactician he had ever fought with or against – including Sesshomaru. If she had been born a demon, she would have given his half-brother an unpredictable challenge. He cleared his throat. Enough of the sap, he thought. “Well, that’s fine then. Just, just make yourself useful someplace out of sight. I gotta go check on that scaly asshole.” He turned and left the tent, muttering to cover up a pleased blush, “Hope they cleaned that jackass up. I could smell him losing his stomach all across camp this morning.”
Arashi frowned at the little clay vessel in his hand. For once, his lord had surprised him with something that wasn’t completely ill-conceived. Distasteful, yes, but much of a spy’s work was distasteful. And the tasks that weren’t tended to rest on the side of abhorrent. He leaned back against the edge of the window opening where he sat, one leg on the sill and the other dangling outside over the ocean. Even through the spell-sealed container, he could feel the power of the concoction. The old witch Ryukostokken had contracted with was as malevolent as she was vicious, but she had made good on everything she had promised the dragon lord.
“She must drink it all – quickly. The female will become dulled to all senses, as if in a walking death. Then you must speak the name to her – Ryukostokken. What is said to her after, before the time that she wakes, that will be made true in her mind. She will know it, feel it, believe it as does a fanatic. Tell her that her feet have been embedded with fiery barbs, and she will scream when she walks. Tell her that she must come to the Northern Lord, and she will cry and bleed for every step that she takes and still walk across the whole of the earth to reach him. That name which is spoken to her will become her entire world.”
“She will equally fear and desire This One.” Ryukostokken’s eyes had taken on a red glow of his youki as he spoke, and Arashi could taste in the air his lust – for the miko’s body as well as the power over her. “You will make it so, half-breed. She will kill to flee the West and come to me. She will beg to use her power in any way I command. Beg to have me punish her, abuse her, reward her – if I choose.”
“One moon, my lord,” the witch warned. “From the time she wakes from that deathly sleep until the strength of my magic wanes. The course of one moon and then the compulsion will begin to fall.”
“This One will not need more. The miko will have nowhere to run, no one to save her, within one month’s time.” The Saigo Mao pressed the small bottle into Arashi’s hand, the stench of sulfur wreathing his breath, “Ensure it is done.”
Distasteful, but yet… There was opportunity within the dark and unnecessary desires that the Northern Lord sought to satisfy; although, what he had proposed would ensure only the miko’s absolute hatred of Ryukostokken, and most likely every dragon in the sky. Arashi’s research on the woman had taught him much, most importantly that she would not break easily. The lord had also underestimated his opponent – again. It was a matter of ego, but Ryukostokken could not even allow the thought in his mind that Sesshomaru might be his equal, much less his superior. Arashi had no such selfish blinders. He could not afford them. It was unlikely in the extreme that Sesshomaru would allow his prized priestess to simply walk out of his castle – calling for the inu’s hated enemy. Even if such a thing were to occur, the damage that Ryukostokken and his arrogant lust could cause to what could be a beneficial relationship with the strongest holy power ever to exist was unimaginable. No, Arashi corrected himself with a wry smile, it was quite imaginable. Unfortunately.
He rolled the brew between his palms and considered the possibilities. Anything spoken to the miko would become true to her. For one month, she would believe those words regardless of her personal thoughts or feelings, regardless of how reality might conflict. He had not asked the witch, although the idea had immediately sparked in his mind, but it stood to reason that if the name “Ryukostokken” had to be spoken to her, than another name could be substituted. Any individual could become the focus of her month-long obsession. And while the dragon lord, of course, thought only of her pain and his pleasure, there were many other suggestions that could be made. More uses for a woman who wielded a power nearing that of a goddess than merely a whipped whore.
“Is that the Saigo Mao’s boot licker, there, or has some other sweat-stained half-breed wormed his way into the castle?”
The cutting tones of the wind demoness lanced across the empty arcade and surprised Arashi; he had not heard her footsteps approach. He casually slipped the potion into his kimono, despite knowing she could not see the object, and turned to face her. As always, he was struck by the contrast of her station and her bearing. She walked with a straight spine and her shoulders thrown back, as though she owed nothing and none owned her. Her pale hair, a color that defied description – sometimes blue or yellow, even silver or lavender, was pulled into a high tail that did not move as she did. No doubt the air around her held even her clothes in place if she desired it. It was a strange dichotomy represented by the female in her simple, unadorned kimono. Her power was exotic, few wind youkai had survived the purge of elementals in the North, and her strength untapped. That strength and poise contrasted to her position, the lowest of the low among Ryukostokken’s slaves. She was transport – comparable to an oxen – and a warm body to slake the lord’s lust. Still, despite her treatment during the decades he had known her, she maintained a superior quality.
In his less guarded moments, Arashi admitted to a keen fascination with Ko, but those were few and far between. More often he kept his thoughts to her utility, far beyond the menial tasks her master set her to, and wondered when that unparalleled strength would be sapped. It was not a prospect he enjoyed dwelling on.
“Boot-licker, perhaps, in the colloquial sense,” he responded lightly, “but if you seek one stained with sweat, you had best look elsewhere. Oh,” he exclaimed, as though just noticing her milky eyes, “that would be difficult, would it not?”
“Ah, yes, such witty charm.” Sarcasm dripped from her words like venom. “It must be the unacknowledged issue of the North. How come you to be back in the North so quickly, and without your brother-in-arms?”
For a moment, Arashi hesitated, turning her insults over in his mind. They traded barbs each time they met, but he had to consider that her words had a deeper meaning – one that he needed to know, or one that he did not want others to have knowledge of. Either could be disastrous for Ko’s continued health.
“Natsou is occupied in my absence,” he replied slowly. “One half-breed is valued as lowly as another, in his accounting. It does make one wonder how he manages his finances.”
“Poorly,” she answered quickly, then stopped, and shut her mouth with a snap. Arashi was intrigued by a pale pink that rose on her neck, stemming from the fading fingerprints just above her collar and rising to the tips of her pointed ears. “One as revered as Natsou for his skills on the battle field has no need for the ability to count beans. That is best left to clerks.” Her monotone praise for the captain was patently false, but the words were enough that any prying ears could not fault her for dishonoring one of her betters.
“As you say,” he inclined his head politely. Ko deserved the gesture, even if it was unknown to her. “You have returned swiftly as well. Was your brief holiday south to your liking?” Arashi watched with interest as full, red lips tightened and flattened into a hard line – pressing the blood out of the flesh. Ah, not to her liking, then. “And from the sky, did dragons enjoy watching the little bears scurry home after your visit?”
“We travelled by sea,” she stated shortly.
That was information well received by Arashi. If there was movement, one direction or another, by the enemies of the North, the spy preferred to be the one reporting it to Ryukostokken. Or choosing not to report, as he determined was best. He would need to gather information on the Southern army before he could make further plans, and a great deal would hinge on Lord Hirimoto. While Arashi had contemplated moves and countermoves, Ko had glided closer to him. He did not dare move, but he was aware of the firm stance of her legs and the angle between them. Her breathing had evened into precise, deep breaths. Her hands were oddly free of her sleeves and held relaxed and wide near her waist.
“With the stench of so many dark humans descending upon us – that witch first among them, your foul odor is barely worth noticing.” Arashi filed away that bit of information. He had met one witch, but if Ryukostokken was bringing in other magic wielders, it could change his tactics. “Will you leave again soon? Or does the Saigo Mao have footwear that needs spit-polished?”
Arashi tilted his head at an angle, wondering at the female’s motives. He was aware that she had no loyalty to the North; in fact, she carried a deep hatred for Ryukostokken that he had warned her, obliquely and overtly, to conceal. He had not seen any indication, however, that her rage extended to him. Irritation, disappointment, disgust, yes, but not hatred. Not a desire to end his life. He carefully tested her intent. “Soon enough. The lord has want of my talents.”
“Which talents would those be? Lying? Thievery? Assignation? Killing?”
With a silent flick of his tongue, Arashi tasted her scent. Crushed, dried leaves. A whisper of wood smoke. Smooth green tea. The spy knew the taste of every youkai in the North; the knowledge was essential to his cause. As he savored Ko’s essence, rolling it around in his mouth he became aware of another flavor. A sourness. He struggled to place it while he spoke, “I would humbly suggest that I can accomplish more than a single task at one time.”
“And you always follow your master’s command.”
It was a bitter statement, and it sent a tingle of warning down Arashi’s spine. Ume plums, he finally identified the taste, a fruit he had never liked. What it portended, he could not yet determine. Still, he knew he needed to respond carefully. Ko had long been a source of information, her allegiances clear, but his words could condemn them both if spoken without care. “What I do, I do without regret for the honor of the North.” His tongue flicked out again, and he could not help how his mouth twisted with the explosion of sour that overwhelmed the taste of her.
“Only a fool has no regrets,” she whispered harshly. With a flick of her hand, the milky clouds in her eyes cleared, and Arashi was shocked to see the focused green intensity that bored into him. His speechless immobility lasted only a moment, but it was all the time Ko needed. Her hands flattened, palms out and pushed forward. Their flesh did not connect, but a mighty gust of wind blasted into his chest. As carefully as he had been perched, his balance was still easily overcome by the youki-fueled air.
He fell backward out the window, knowing the rocks below were intended to crush the life from him. Ko leaned out, watching with eyes not as blind as he had believed – as any believed – to see the evidence of his death at her hands. She had revealed more than one secret to him, and Arashi believed that the one he would be forced to give up in return was well worth the information. He controlled the release of his youki expertly. Dark wings unfolded and beat the air inches from the rocks. The hazy grey light of day, filtered through a misting fog, glinted on the frigid waters below as he executed a tight circle and settled on a disused dock, slick with slime and ice.
His youki retracted just as quickly, as though it had never been, and his body reformed with the same speed. The tingling pain of the sudden transformation and reversion still rippled under his skin as he tilted his head back to see the window. He caught only the flash of white and pale blue as Ko turned and fled inside.
Arashi could feel the slight weight of the potion in his kimono and the wet spray of salt water against his boots and legs. Opportunities were swiftly opening before him, he needed only to weave them into his strategy. A secret for a secret, Ko-san. But will you fear exposure more than you believe I would? And what has given you the courage to become an assassin? A smile played at his thin mouth and he began the tedious hike across the sharp rocks to the castle entrance.
Hirimoto was waiting for them in the little vestibule at the front of the tea house. He had already changed into the thick, warm tabi socks that had been provided. His sandals and discarded socks were neatly stored under the bench where he sat. He smiled widely, wagging his eye brows, and Kagome was relieved and ashamed to have to look away. The bear probably thought she was embarrassed by his innuendo. Under other circumstances she might have been. As it was, she could not hope to conceal the scent of her riotous emotions if Sesshomaru had not provided his barrier for them both.
Hirimoto noticed the lack of odors, and commented slyly to Sesshomaru, “In too much of a rush this morning to bathe? More important activities keeping you busy, eh?”
“Hn,” Sesshomaru responded coldly, and sat between Kagome and Hirimoto to remove his boots. The other lord laughed, and it stirred hot coals in her stomach. Kagome would have given anything in that moment to change what needed to be said. To change the need for the saying. To travel back to a time of her choosing and truly have the power to change the past.
A bell rang, clear and perfect in the early winter morning, and all three stood to enter the tea room. Kagome was the last to take her turn at the bowl of water that had been provided for purification. Once she had dried her hands, she looked up, hoping and fearing that she would catch Kimi’s eye. When the Western Lady entered she gave Kagome no such opportunity. Her kimono was heavy and formal. Her face painted artistically to highlight the sweep of her lashes while the remainder had been powdered white. Her mouth and nose disappeared into the blank canvas, concealing any expression that might have seeped through Kimi’s control. Kagome wished for a moment that she had though to do the same. She doubted she could make it through the ceremony without giving away her state of mind.
Kimi seated herself formally behind her tray of implements and began the cleansing ritual without speaking. It was a time to allow the guests to clear their minds and focus, but despite the elegant and precise movements of the lady’s hands and the soothing steam of the water, Kagome was not focused or eased. An ulcer burned her insides and she had to bite her lip to keep from frowning. She was grateful that Sesshomaru remained in the center, shielding her from Hirimoto. From the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of his stoic face. Perfect, cold, and ruthless. He was what he needed to be – even to someone as close to him as Hirimoto. Her heart ached for him. For them both.
Without Kagome realizing, Kimi had finished preparing the thick matcha tea. She held the bowl before her and bowed deeply, offering the it to Sesshomaru. He placed his hands, without touching his mother, and returned the bow before turning the bowl and sipping at the green liquid. He offered the tea next to Hirimoto, and the bows and rotation were repeated. Sesshomaru brought the bowl to Kagome, and she sipped and bowed as the ceremony called for it. The tea was excellent. Perfect. It tasted like cardboard in her mouth.
Kimi cleaned her equipment and carried her tray through a screen at the back of the room, before returning to rekindle the fire. She did not bring the expected food and thin tea with her when she returned, but added charcoal to the fire and placed her hands in her lap.
“Are we not-” Hirimoto began with mild amusement, but Sesshomaru interrupted him.
“The Northern army had made an attack upon allies of This Sesshomaru. Breeched in their stronghold and taken by surprise, they were massacred without honor or mercy. None present were left alive.” His voice was flat and hard, his face turned to the bear. Kagome watched Hirimoto’s expression move from ease to shock to anger. “It is a diversion to divide the forces under This One’s command and pollute with vengeance minds best left clear for war. This Sesshomaru cannot allow the enemy to succeed in this endeavor.”
It was a split second, less than that even, before Hirimoto grasped the meaning behind the discussion. Kagome wished that moment could have lasted longer. A minute, and hour, all of eternity so that a youkai she called friend would not have to realize the truth. A roar shook the roof and made the tea utensils clatter nervously. The sound was filled with pain and anger unlike anything Kagome had ever heard. There was no time to soothe, no time to question and grieve. Hirimoto’s mouth had not even closed before his youki exploded around them. Even through Sesshomaru’s barrier she could feel the fury of the bear’s power. It incited her own reiki to rise.
Kagome found herself outside, the snow seeping into her socks, before she realized what was happening. Sesshomaru’s tall back was between her and the tea house, his mokomoko withdrawing from around her waist. She leaned around him and gasped to see the finely carved wood and ancient roof tiles shatter and blossom onto the mountain. Mokomoko covered her face, protecting her from shards of the building that shot through the air.
“No! NO!” Sounds continued angrily, but no more words came from the remains of the building.
“Protect yourself, my miko,” Sesshomaru commanded, and then he was gone and her face was abruptly uncovered.
Where the tea house had been perched, there was only a pile of splinters and crushed terra cotta tiles. In the center stood a great bear, two stories tall and just as wide. Muscles rippled under thick brown fur and Hirimoto’s jaw opened to let out another roar. His eyes were red, the gold hairs reflecting and catching the light that shone there until he looked to be crying blood. His massive hind legs bent and tensed, ready to jump. Another storm of youki, more familiar to her, blasted the mountainside. The reassuring white mass of Sesshomaru stood between her and Hirimoto. His tail was straight, the fur on his neck raised and his teeth bared. The two youkai had a conversation voiced in growls and grunts, howls and roars that sent her reiki to glow protectively at her fingertips.
Hirimoto snapped his teeth and, like a coiled spring released, he jumped into the air. He was met with the bulk and deep bark of a massive white dog. They both crashed to the ground, sending powdery snow spraying into the air. Kagome was blinded momentarily by the icy dust, but the crack and crash of trees being felled by the battle was unmistakable. Her heart clenched in her chest and her hands fisted without thought. Holy pink light wreathed her, ready to defend Sesshomaru if it became necessary. She prayed it would not.
It seemed like time crawled by until the air cleared and she could once again see. The two demons faced one another, both breathing heavily and snarling. Hirimoto again tried to leap out of the little valley and away from the mountain. Again Sesshomaru herded him back to the ground. Despite the advantage in size and strength, Sesshomaru displayed several red patches of fur where blood had matted the hair. The bear showed no signs of injuries. He’s holding back. Kagome had no sooner had the thought than Hirimoto snarled and charged the great inu. Unlike Sesshomaru’s deadly elegance, the bear was made of broad planes and heavy bone intended to crush enemies, not slice them open. He hit Sesshomaru just behind his foreleg; the weight behind Hirimoto’s heavy skull produced a sickening wet crack and Sesshomaru slid back on the snow. He held his weight off of that paw and shielded his side. Stern chuffs and woofs were no doubt intended to calm and admonish, but Sesshomaru did not appear to be accomplishing either. The longer the fight continued, the angrier and more reckless Hirimoto seemed to become.
Kagome refused to see Sesshomaru be injured further. Refused to allow Hirimoto to endure the shame he would feel when he realized how he had hurt the Western Lord. “Stop it!” she cried, but neither youkai paid any attention to her. “Stop!” she yelled again, the second time with a wave of purification that drew the eyes of the giant inu, and the wrath of the bear. She had only wanted them to calm down, for Hirimoto to calm down and listen. Kagome locked eyes with Kimi, standing untouched in her silks on the far side of the rubble. The priestess had no way to appease the demon that opened his mouth on a roar and rushed at her.
Moving too fast for human eyes to see anything other than a magenta silk blur, it was Kimi that ended things. Youki swirled and stormed. Snow was kicked into the air again amid a cacophony of snarls and growls. When it settled, her eyes found Sesshomaru first. He stood straight and tall, not a hair out of place, with blood dripping from a cut above his eye and a bruise beginning to darken on his jaw. He held one arm stiffly at his side where he had last been hit. His golden gaze met hers for a moment, and his eyes narrowed, but he swiftly returned his focus to the two youkai before him.
If a photograph had been taken in that moment, Kagome was sure a viewer would think the two nobles entwined in a passionate embrace. Hirimoto had his hands braced at the bottom edge of Kimi’s purple obi, his face tucked down against her much lower shoulder. The Lady was braced against him, leaning up to thrust one hand through his hair, the other balanced on his bicep. Her face was hidden in the crook of his neck. It was intimate, but the targeted weight of Kimi’s youki made that image an obvious lie. Kagome’s eyes saw what her senses were telling her a moment later as Hirimoto sank to his knees. Kimi bent at the waist to follow him down, and when she straightened and turned, her face was dripping with blood.
“Go,” she said to Sesshomaru. Her voice was low and sent a chill down Kagome’s spine. When she opened her mouth again, it revealed sharp fangs stained dark pink. “Your miko will see to your wounds. Eat. Tend your Council.” She did not lick the blood from her chin and it dripped onto her chest, staining the elaborate silver embroidered flowers at her collar. Kagome shivered involuntarily. She had always been aware of Kimi’s power, but in that moment, she saw the terrible beauty in the inudaiyoukai. She was a creature of absolutes that would not be thwarted, not even by the love of her greatest friend. She was a ruler, in every sense of the word, and her will was fact. Kagome prayed that she would never see Sesshomaru and Kimi in opposition. The world would bend and break and crumble away under the force of their wills.
“My responsibility-” Sesshomaru began in a heavy tone, his eyes flashing.
“Has been fulfilled,” Kimi finished. Her face was cold, and her voice remained devoid of emotion, but her shoulders relaxed slightly. The sloping line gave her an aura of exhaustion. “It is done. Grief must be allowed, then you shall have obedience.”
“Mother,” his voice had a note of warning, his youki still tense and large in the new clearing.
“Saidai Mao,” she snarled. Kagome took an involuntary step backward, her reiki flaring under the oppressive weight of youki. Kimi’s eyes burned red and her power became a tangible, visible whorl of amber sparks around her legs. She leaned forward, exposing Hirimoto and threatening her own son with wicked claws. The bear remained in the snow, the hem of his kimono wet with melt and his eyes downcast – defeated. Dark blood stained his collar and hair. As quickly as she had moved, Kimi withdrew her youki and her aggression. “Allow me this, my son,” she said calmly. The shining brass of her eyes beseeched him to understand. “See to yourself, your Council, and allow me to see to my old friend.”
Sesshomaru was silent for a long moment, and Kagome held her breath fearfully. Finally, he nodded and walked stiffly to her side. He was hurting, she could see that, but the worst of his injuries were more traumatic and less easy to cure than broken skin. He did not speak to her, only wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her to his good side. As they rose on his cloud, she looked back on the decimated tea house and the two forms kneeling together, their heads bent and hands clasped.