Second Alliance – Chapter 38

Back to Chapter 37: Taking Sides

Chapter 38: Helix

Denka-ue,” the spy greeted Ryustokokken respectfully. Unfortunately the genuflection was timed perfectly to miss the swing of Wei’s sword. Although the dragon lord would enjoy seeing the day that the half-breed’s head was separated from his shoulders, it would not be an administrator who had the pleasure. And that day had not come – yet.

Wei,” Ryustokokken said in a deadly soft tone. He would deal with the impertinent action later. For the moment, his temper was under control and he wanted to keep his ire reigned in. He did not regret the damage he had caused, to bathtubs and soldiers alike, while he vented his frustration, but that did not mean he intended to repeat it. The Dragon Lord was aware he was quick to anger, and it was his right to expend that rage in any manner, upon any creature, as he saw fit. Such was the power and privilege of one who would be Emperor. Who deserved to be Emperor. However, when not allowing his fury free reign, he was a shrewd youkai. It had been his own intelligence and fighting skills that had seen him across the continent and deep into territories of demons unknown in Japan while he was in exile. Ryustokokken knew he needed to clear his mind to be able to bring his intellect to attack a matter – hence the release of fury before his meeting with Arashi. He had bled several of his own soldiers, raped and eaten his way through a number of his prison cells, during his too-long wait for the return of the spy. All in an effort to remain calm and clearheaded while he considered what must be important information, to have kept the half-breed away for so long.

It had better be absolutely world-shattering, he thought as he pushed away his irritation at Wei’s presumption to attack the long overdue spy.

Report,” he commanded. The bastard nodded and began a recitation of troop movements and interesting tidbits. The fate of his bounty on the human child that Sesshomaru had taken in was aggravating, but more interesting for the fact that it seemed the Lady Kimi, not her son, had seized the unlucky dragon tasked with carrying Ryustokokken’s pearls and message of rewards. Ryustokokken had not thought she would enter the battle, he remembered her impressive youki from his childhood – before even the pretender Sesshomaru was born. He smiled to himself, thinking that the pup must be grasping at straws to have wailed for his mama to help him.

I have given new direction to my associates at the Western Palace. There will be an opportunity put in place in a few weeks’ time to reach the miko, my Lord.” Weeks? Ryustokokken did not want to wait weeks. It has been too long already. His frustration began to heat, but he forced it back down to hear the rest of the report. As Arashi continued, the captains of his army entered, led by the blind wind youkai. He idly considered her stiff movements as she knelt in her place by the door, ready if he needed her. Any consideration for why she was not yet recovered was dismissed as the spy concluded, “Hirimoto moves north, toward the West. He brings only a small contingent, but my sources agree that his soldiers are fully prepared for war, and await only his signal to march.” The news was not unexpected, although his plans had been prepared on the assumption that the South would not mobilize until Spring. The spy’s recounting ended with a bow.

The dragon lord did not immediately respond. He considered the unmarred, grey skin of his most talented spy. The bastard had caught the pox in his youth, and the only outward sign of the disease was his less than impressive height. It would have spurred some jealousy in Ryustokokken, if the spy were not hanyou. Half-breed, only half worth living. He made a slight sound and Arashi straightened. Familiar, flat black eyes met the lord’s own and he felt a moment of hesitation. Stain upon the honor of the North or not, Arashi had always given his loyalty to Ryustokokken; but there was something about that cool gaze, so similar to his own. He wondered what secrets might be hiding behind abject obedience.

Tell This One what you know of the East,” Ryustokokken demanded. The younger of his two captains caught his eye. Natsuo had argued heatedly with his counterpart when they discussed the losses taken by the dragons. The last report they had received confirmed that there was a youkai warlord trying to claim what was left of Kuren’s holdings. Captain Sou had insisted on caution, on waiting to find out more about the demon that struck with ferocity and ambush tactics. They were not even certain what kind of youkai he was – wolf, bird, bear. One half-crazed survivor with the better part of a pine tree impaled through his chest and neck had insisted that a dog with the tricks of a kitsune and the mouth of a gutter snipe had killed the rest of his group and left him trapped under a magic rock while the savage ate a bowl of noodles. The injured man had only survived because another group of scouts had interrupted the enemy’s meal and accidentally cut off the arm pinned under the rock. The idiot with that story had died from his wounds shortly after the telling, but Sou insisted that such wild tales should be dismissed or confirmed with facts before more dragons were sent to investigate.

There has been much confusion and fear following Kuren’s assassination,” Arashi began, and Ryustokokken was pleased. The spy related the stories of two human villages that had been decimated in the wake of fleeing, terrified youkai. “The few who survived have banded together and are moving up the coast in an irregular pattern. They do not appear to have an intent to attack the North, but they have engaged any dragon patrols they have encountered – with not insignificant success.”

An idiot that grasps above his station and skills,” Natsuo scoffed. Ryustokokken appraised the captain. He was strong, brash, and had a thirst for blood and revenge on the West that rivaled the lord’s own. The dark green of his hair and bulky musculature would have made him a highly sought male for breeding – if not for the deep, pervasive scars across his body.

You suggest that our soldiers can be killed by any idiot with a sword?” Sou asked coldly.

Natsuo’s lip curled, “Those that allowed themselves to be beaten did not deserve to fight for our Lord.”

Perhaps not,” the more experienced captain continued, “but you chose the raiding parties and claimed they were best suited for the task. If those dragons were our best, then we may as well open the gates to Sesshomaru today – for we have no hope of defeating him.”

Enough!” Smoke curled in the air over his head, and Ryustokokken’s command was instantly obeyed. He did not care for the barely leashed resentment of Natsou or the clenched jaw of Sou – he would not allow any under his command to speak of the possibility of defeat. “You dare to question the might of This One’s army?”

Sou bowed in apology, and Wei interjected with undeniable glee, “Such insubordination can be punished with-”

You have overstepped once today, Administrator.” The scent of sulfur grew thick in the air. “Do not make presumptions that will cost you your skin.” In the silence that followed, Ryustokokken breathed deeply to reign in his frustration and stared at the newest tapestry on the wall. It depicted Japan in silver thread against a black background. The mountains had been intricately detailed in gold, the rivers in a blue silk that caught the light and shimmered. He had regained ground on the lower island. Land that had historically been the birthright of his line; land that offered harbor for the ships that would carry his armies to war. It was not enough, however. He needed to make additional progress in order to attack Sesshomaru where he was weakest. His plague had been halted, by what means he did not yet know, so he needed a new distraction for the dog.

A knock sounded at the door, and while Wei dealt with the interruption, the lord glanced at Arashi again. The hanyou would die, eventually. He could not be allowed to live once the war was over and Ryustokokken looked to secure his new empire for future generations. He could wipe out the upstart in the East, or he could turn that unwanted youkai into an asset – as he had made Arashi an asset. When the time came that those assets were no longer of use, they would be permanently discarded. The death of one who trusts in the hand of the executioner is sweeter. Ryustokokken savored the thought of the future.

Denka-ue,” Wei approached the dais, his every emotion displayed on his face, “one of the patrols encountered a crane youki just west of Kuzumaki. He was injured before fleeing-” Ryustokokken could feel his temper flaring again. Incompetence! The idiots that allow my enemies to live will not receive the same favor! “-they are searching for the body,” Wei added hastily. “They removed this from him. The crane fought risked his life to protect it.” He bowed, and held out a folded sheet of low quality paper. The simple wax seal was cracked, but not broken, and one corner of the missive had been crumpled. A fine spray of blood decorated one side.

His tongue flickered out, and Ryustokokken tasted the note as he took it. It smelled of Wei and several other dragons that had handled it. It tasted of sweat and the thin blood of a bird. Underneath all of those things, he detected the faint, unmistakable scent of humans mixed with something canine. No dragon would ever admit to a weakness, but by design, their eyes were far stronger than their sense of smell. He could not identify if the original owner had been wolf, dog, or fox. The heritage of the author was quickly understood as he broke the seal and read:

Bring supplies to the eel valley at Oritsume. Any that have hatred for my half-brother may join me. Kill his supporters.

Ryustokokken was torn; his claw tightened involuntarily around the paper. The bastard whelp of his enemy, the son-of-a-human-bitch, the killer of his father, the half-breed was alive and gathering supporters. Fury rose like lava in in his chest, burning for revenge. The only thing that held him back from ordering the gruesome death of the dog-ling was the brutal, furtive logic that was humming in his head. Let them spar. Let the sons of the cur Tashio circle and fight. Let them wear each other down and spill blood. They will not see my jaws closing around them until they have both been devoured. That image cut his face in an abhorrent smile that brought the already quiet room to unnatural silence. The taste of fear, of suppressed flight, of hunger filled the air and his mouth split wider to emit deep, howling laughter that echoed on stone.

For long minutes he laughed, but as he controlled his amusement, the fire of vengeance still burned in him. “An idiot with a sword has indeed killed dragons. Inuyasha stirs in the East and bites at the heels of his betters. Natsou, you will go to the upstart bastard. Offer him This One’s support in his quest to kill Sesshomaru. If he cannot be persuaded – kill him.” Natsou grinned and bowed with relish.

The taller general frowned. “I urge caution, Ryustokokken-sama. We know nothing of Inuyasha, or his motives.”

He is the brother of our enemy, Sou-san,” Natsou sneered, “that is enough for his death.”

Reason for us to kill him,” Sou argued, “not reason for him to accept allegiance with the North. And if he is amenable, what is to say that you can persuade him? You are more likely to attempt to do so with your teeth around his neck, and when he cannot speak agreement through the fangs in his throat, you will say he refuses.”

Natsou snarled and would have spoken, but the calm voice of Arashi interrupted, “Inuyasha is simple, and uneducated in politics or strategy. He has a long-standing feud with his half-brother, made more bitter recently.”

You counsel This One toward alliance with a hanyou?” Ryustokokken’s eyes narrowed. He did not like it when Arashi tried to sway him; it reeked of manipulation, even when the advice aligned with what the lord had already been planning.

I am not capable of such, my Lord.” Arashi bowed. “It is my duty to tell you the facts as I know them, only you can determine the future.” Wei muttered about filthy trash keeping its mouth shut. Natsou snorted, Sou frowned. Ryustokokken smiled again. It was true. A bald stroking of his ego, but still true. The future was his to lay out as he wished.

Speak,” he ordered the spy.

The half-breed Inuyasha broke into the Western Palace some weeks ago and caused a great disturbance. My source witnessed a fight with the captain of Sesshomaru’s army. It seems Inuyasha made a claim on the miko. The brothers destroyed part of the palace, arguing over her, and the younger barely escaped with his life.”

Who is this miko, that the sons of Inu no Tashio draw blood for her?” Natsou spoke, and it was obvious he regretted his words, and the implication that was unspoken. Who is this miko that the Saigo Mao desires her so greatly? Smoke curled from Ryustokokken’s nostrils and what remained of the intercepted message was crushed into a ball.

That, I cannot say,” Arashi answered. “Her origin and value to the brothers is not within my knowledge – although I continue to seek it out. I can only say that the hatred between the dogs resulted years ago in Inuyasha cutting off Sesshomaru’s arm, and their animosity has only grown since that time.”

Did I not hear that they fought together against Naraku?” Sou asked, his brow furrowed. Ryustokokken recalled some piece of information like that as well. The legendary Jewel of Four Souls was said to have been shattered, and a spider hanyou wrecked havoc on the West and East as he tried to claim its power. The lord knew that Inuyasha was said to be responsible for the death of the spider, but few other details had reached behind the walls of the North.

That story has been twisted, Taisa-sama.” Arashi supplied, “Inuyasha felt that Sesshomaru stole the kill from him, and prevented him from recovering the jewel. He and the humans that serve him have sworn vengeance on the Western Lord.” Ryustokokken considered the information. If a hanyou found His miko, he would no doubt covet the fresh-smelling creature that could heal youkai. Sesshomaru, the cowardly pup, would have tried to steal such a prize away from his hated brother at the first opportunity. The only question he had was how Sesshomaru had driven the half-breed – the one who cut off his arm and killed Ryūkotsusei – away from the palace. He resolved the matter with an internal snarl, no doubt the weakling had called guards to protect him from his little brother.

It will be done,” Ryustokokken affirmed his decision to approach Inuyasha.

Then allow me to manage the negotiations on your behalf, my lord,” Sou offered. “Natsou is not experienced in matters that don’t end in organs on a spit.”

Wei coughed back laughter and Natsou looked furious at the insult. Ryustokokken smiled. Sou was correct, not that the lord considered a quick temper a detriment in his captains, but the offer was suspicious as well. The assignment was not prestigious – so far from where the battle against Sesshomaru would take place – and Sou had always been an annoying voice of caution and even peace. Thin flames of fire escaped the corners of his mouth as he considered that he would need to keep a closer eye on Sou. “Arashi, attend This One.” The spy had not moved or even blinked during the display, which marred Ryustokokken’s enjoyment slightly. The half-breed should have been barely holding onto his courage, as was appropriate his station and strength. “You will go with Natsou and manage the negotiations. The Captain will handle any…repercussions…if the outcome is not as This One desires.”

His subjects bowed and left Ryustokokken with a much lighter mood than he had experienced since the miko escaped. Sesshomaru was no doubt trembling in fear over the thought that his miko had been in the Great Dragon’s claws and could be taken again at any time. He imagined that the Saidai Mao was weak from his bout of pox, leaning upon his dam for courage, and gathering his guards close in a futile attempt to secure the human females he surrounded himself with. Soon the sniveling dog would be harassed by his own brother; either one of them would die, a cause for celebration, or they would weaken each other in advance of the Northern attack. His plans had not progressed as he had intended, but his destiny would not be altered.

They would all be at his mercy.


Sesshomaru’s intended had fallen into an exhausted sleep shortly after darkness fell in Bokuseno’s glade. He made her as comfortable as possible with mokomoko, and the magnolia assisted him by creating a sheltered bed of soft moss for her to rest on. While she rested, the two youkai talked of the dragon and what must be done. The Saigo Mao had intended for the trees to blame the West for the mangled corpse and others like it, that much was easy to discern. Although the youkai that found the bodies half-hidden on the Western border were taken in by the deception, the Great Magnolia was not so easily misled. He had still summoned Sesshomaru, of course, as it was the responsibility of the Saidai Mao to deal with the lesser lords, but Ryustokokken had not been successful in driving a wedge between the allies. Instead, his actions had brought the overly ponderous trees to a swift and brutal conclusion: the dragon must die.

Bokuseno spoke long into the night, imparting information gathered by the plant youkai and more cognizant spirits of the earth regarding the movements and intentions of the northern troops. It was deep in the night when talk of war subsided and turned to other topics.

So you will take this child as your mate,” Bokuseno stated.

Woman,” corrected Sesshomaru quietly, so as not to wake the subject of their discussion. He studied the curve of her cheek and the white puff of her breath in the winter air as she slept. With a thought, his fur slide tighter around her shoulders to keep her warm. “By human standards she is an adult.”

Ah, humans. They all seem as children to me, even those grey and stooped and wrinkled.”

Some are wise beyond their years,” Sesshomaru noted.

This is so,” Bokuseno agreed, “but I would never have thought you would be one to notice.”

Little goes unnoticed by This One,” Sesshomaru stated, then corrected himself, “…for any period of consequence.”

Then it has not escaped your notice that your intended is quite human – and holy. I imagine that caused a disturbance at the palace.” The tree’s curiosity was tangible, and Sesshomaru indulged it for a while with a recounting of her arrival and reception at his shiro. He took no small satisfaction in the surprise and respect that emanated from the tree with the tale of Kagome’s kidnapping and escape. The daiyoukai felt his turbulent emotions from that time ghosting through him as he retold her story. Without thought, he lowered himself to sit beside her among Bokuseno’s roots so that her feet pressed against his hip and his hand could rest on her calf.

You have found one worthy of you, Sesshomaru, worthy of what you may become.” Bokuseno spoke softly, almost reverently, “It is a thing to be cherished, for all the years you may have together.”

Sesshomaru felt his mouth draw down and his hand tightened in reflection of the frustration ever present in his chest. “Years?” He scoffed, his voice low and unusually bitter. “What years we may have are but a blink if This One cannot cure her mortality.”

You think such is not possible?” Bokuseno’s eyes widened in surprise.

Of course it is possible,” Sesshomaru answered immediately. “This One will not allow her to die. It will not happen.” He knew that his statement would seem arrogant, but it was only the truth. He wanted Kagome at his side, smiling across from him, moaning under him, walking ahead and teasing him, protected in his arms, yelling up at him with her red cheeks and ridiculous threats, for all of his long life. He would put every drop of his determination and power into securing that end, and so he could not possibly fail.

Bur you-”

This One,” Sesshomaru interrupted the tree, “only states that it has not yet been resolved.”

Crackling laughter, loud enough to cause Kagome to stir and several nocturnal animals to be startled in the darkness, burst from the tree. Sesshomaru glared at him and wrapped his youki around the miko to muffle the noise and keep her slumber undisturbed. “You find This One’s frustration amusing, tree?”

Indeed,” Bokuseno smiled. “I am most amused that you have not found the answer.” His eyes sparkled with sap, not unlike unshed tears of mirth. Sesshomaru’s irritation rose, but he was not given the opportunity to vent. “Tell me, young inu-lord, have you not given the miko a bit of your youki?”

Sesshomaru nodded sharply. That much would be obvious to a demon of Bokuseno’s power. The green energy that he had used to cradle her damaged reiki had dissipated long ago, but he had continued to place more inside her. The female seemed to constantly be damaging herself and needing his assistance. The daiyoukai would not admit it to the tree, but he would have found any excuse to do so if she was not injured; he liked the sensation of his power inside her. Liked the smell of her, the taste of her, the feel of her with his essence in-twined with hers. Even as he thought it he sent another thin thread of youki heat under her skin. Kagome sighed in her sleep and relaxed further with a soft smile. Bokuseno laughed again and Sesshomaru knew the tree had sensed his action.

You have already found your solution, Sesshomaru, and instinctively put it to use.” Information and experiences began to fall into place in the demon’s mind as the tree explained, “A human life force burns hot, and quickly uses up all of the fuel their delicate forms can sustain. A demon’s life force is strong, and burns so slowly it does not even seem to consume any fuel. It is nothing to an exceptionally powerful demon to add the substance of another body to his own. If the youki is strong enough, plentiful enough, it can keep a human vital and young for as long as it would have sustained the demon alone.”

Sesshomaru had to force himself to remain still. His claw, already holding Kagome’s leg tightly, wanted to pull her to him. To crush her against him and breath in her scent to find the truth. His mouth wanted to open, to drink in the taste of her and search for her mortality. His youki wanted to surround her completely, flood her body and make absolutely certain that she was truly a part of him. He did none of those things. Instead, he inhaled, only slightly deeper than usual, and considered Bokuseno’s words.

The solution was so simple, perhaps too simple, and that was why it had not occurred to him. He had assumed, given that no human he knew had been given the lifespan of a demon – even those few who happily mated youkai, that the answer would be complex and fraught with hazards. Then again, perhaps it was – had been. Simple and intricate. Serene and dangerous. If the tree was correct, then only the most powerful youkai would be able to provide enough energy to extend a human life. There were few that even approached his level, and the chances that any of them had desired to keep a human were small and diminished the pool of potential successful instances that he might have heard of. Complicating matters further was the innate substance of youki. It was a personal thing, and extension of body, mind, will, and soul. Few beings would welcome the invasion of another’s will into their own body – few would want to experience such a sensation from the giving end. If both parties were willing, and the youki strong, problems could still arise if the human body was not receptive or resilient. Sesshomaru considered that such an issue may have prevented his father from creating a lasting bond with Izoyai. The hime had been willing, Sesshomaru had never questioned her love for or devotion to Toga, even in the bitterness of his youth. However, she had not been strong – not like Kagome was strong.

His intended had toned her body with years of fighting and working. Her mind was sharp from formal education and strategy learned in the heat of battle. Her will was…impressive. Never had Sesshomaru met another as determined, as focused, as Kagome. Except perhaps Inuyasha, and that could be attributed in no small part to the hardness of his head. Her soul as well was not only generous, willing to share space with his youki, but also willing to give up a part of itself as she had done for the clay priestess. And although in theory her reiki should have made such a joining more difficult, battling his youki instead of allowing him to fuel her – dominate her at times, it made the process so easy as to be…not forgettable – never that – but almost a foregone conclusion.

She had invaded him first, given to him, supported him. Merged with him, on a certain plane. Sending his youki into her had been something he did almost without thought; which, upon reflection, was nearly alarming. He had never attempted such a thing prior to her reiki being injured. He had never considered that such an act was possible or desirable. Perhaps it was merely the recent memory of her successful use of power to assist him, perhaps it was some long-dormant instinct in him that knew, even then, that she needed his power. He needed her to have it.

Bokuseno was correct. He had already found the solution to the dark seed of fear that had been planted in his heart. He had everything he needed to keep Kagome vibrantly alive. As long as he took breath, she would as well. He must only endeavor to hold her at his side and maintain a connection with her that he avidly desired – one that he would deepen and expand at the soonest opportunity. White blossoms and cherry wood. Cinnamon and sweet carnations. Warm, salty breezes. Sesshomaru slipped more of his youki under her skin, gradually increasing the power until her cheeks grew pink and she murmured in her sleep. Until his mind swam with the knowledge of her that flooded in – overwhelming and tantalizing at the same time. Until his skin tightened and grew warm. Until her reiki responded, snaking back into him and curling into a ball of heat deep inside him. Until the creak of wood snapped him out of an intimacy that he was shocked to realize he had initiated in front of Bokuseno and might have continued if not for the scrape of branches that amounted to a discreet cough.

He forced all emotion from his face and straightened from where he had unconsciously leaned over his intended’s prone form, breathing in her scent, his body preparing for further intimacy. Once he was certain his thoughts were locked behind an icy mask of indifference, he raised his gaze to the magnolia.


The laughter of the ancient tree did not detract from the sense of tranquility that settled over the daiyoukai. Not even time could take her from his side. Of course, it had been a inevitable, he assured himself. He never failed in a conquest.


Off to follow Natsuo, hanyou? Do you never tire of being on your knees?” Ko let her barb hang softly in the cold air of the courtyard. Arashi paused in his movement, halfway down the opposite arcade, and slowly turned to face her.

Do you?” He fired back, but his voice was honest and smooth, softening the blow.

It does afford certain opportunities, does it not?” Ko was shivering in the winter night. She had waited for hours for the spy to appear where they could speak without being heard, and she longed to move past the dance of insults and probing so that they could exchange information and go their separate ways.

I myself appreciate the opportunity to remain breathing. But it can also provide unique experiences – I get to meet many individuals.”

He got to the point quicker than usual, she thought with some mirth. “As do I. The most recent guest of the North was most unique.”

I understand the guest was not…satisfied with her stay.”

She will live,” Ko responded shortly. She almost stopped there. Arashi was sly, and after years of dancing around an association, she had come to trust that whatever information she gave him was not used to hurt her. What the hanyou did use it for, she still did not know. The stakes were higher, now; she had other outlets for her news. If Kagome still lived, she would receive the messages Ko sent and that information would help to destroy Ryustokokken. If the miko had died… “Unfortunately, the etiquette of this court was not to her liking,” Ko said. “She prematurely cancelled her stay.”

Arashi was silent for a long time, but Ko could feel his eyes on her. She wished she could risk removing the film from her sight so she could take in his expression. He finally asked, “Was she dissatisfied with the environment, or the host, do you think?”

That gave Ko pause. What is he up to, with such a distinction? “She seemed unusually…forgiving. Her…her…” She struggled to find the right words. Words to describe the miko that might be her salvation, was her hope, without giving too much away. “Her heart is open,” she finally settled on an opinion, “but some few cannot be forgiven even there.”

That is…interesting.”

Ko could feel her eyes widen involuntarily. An uncertain shiver ran up her spine, making her wonder if she had said too much, if she had misjudged the spy that seemed to thrive under Ryustokokken’s boot – the hanyou with the flat black eyes and respect of many, many dragons. Her uneasiness lead her to ask, “Is you interest personal?”

Is yours?” He countered.

How dare you,” she uttered with a hiss. For the first time in years her anger was uncontrolled, instantly sparked. Wind swirled around her. “My family, my entire people murdered, my body and honor no longer my own, fouled and shamed by that high and mighty thing – how dare you ask-”

The rest of her accusation was cut off with a claw around her throat. The pressure did not close off her air, but the sudden sensation of hot skin, rough callouses, and dangerous claws was enough to snap her mouth closed. The urge to fight back was strong, but years of captivity had taught Ko that while she might win one such battle – the next one would leave her twice as bruised. “Do not,” he hissed in her ear. “If that is what is in your mind, do not speak it. Do not dare to voice such treason against Ryustokokken.”

Why not?” She blurted the question without thought, but did not regret it. Arashi could have killed her for what she said; he could have dragged her before Wei or the lord himself and been rewarded for bringing her sedition to their attention. He did not. If his careful but unyielding grip was any indication, he would not. The question repeated in her mind, why?

The North of Ryustokokken is not a place for dissention, Ko-san.” She held her breath at the use of the honorific, something she had not had attached to her name in years. “You have survived, hold that as your honor and continue for a while longer. Speak your heart again, and I will not be able to be so forgiving – or forgetful.” His had fell away and she listened to his near-silent footsteps as he moved away. No other ears in the palace but those of a blind youkai could have caught his low mutter, “I should not now.”

Her thoughts were tripping over themselves, trying to make sense of the hanyou’s strange behavior. She had never considered him more than an outlet for her impotence during her slavery to the North. He parried words with her as though her station had no bearing on her honor or person; his barbs were accurate, but not used to denigrate. He was not kind, but she had never seen or heard of him participating in the overt cruelty Ryustokokken and many of his soldiers enjoyed. He had a quick mind and a polite demeanor that was refreshing for one like her who spent her days ignored or degraded. To imagine that he would threaten her, protect the name and position of the daiyoukai that had leashed them both – held their lives in his bloody claws, it was completely foreign to her. The idea that he might do so out of a concern for her welfare, perhaps at the expense of his own, shook her enough that she physically stumbled, falling back against the rough stone wall behind her.

In the next instant, his strange manner was dismissed as though it had never existed. “Was the guest well enough to travel safely?”

Yes,” she answered. She blinked several times, trying to recall the controlled cool that she reserved for their brief interactions. It was nowhere to be found.

We part ways, now.” A wry tone affected his speech, but it sounded forced to her ears, “Back to our knees to serve-” his voice hardened, the change so fleeting she wasn’t certain she had heard it, “-to take opportunities where we may.”

Ko listened to him turn away, his boots stepping lightly on the snow-dusted stone. At the last moment, she banished the mist from her eyes to see the spy for the first time. He was not overly tall, but the width of his shoulders and his bulk was surprising for a figure that walked so quietly. His hair had been bound into a short, thick tail with wide bands of leather, revealing the smooth grey skin of his neck. It was only a glimpse, but she ingrained it on her memory, puzzling over the familiarity of his voice when had had spoken so seriously. It reminded her of something or someone, what she could not say for certain, but a whisper in her mind told her that the knowledge was important. She reached a trembling hand to her neck and felt the lingering sensation of heat where he had held her.

Kagome, she thought desperately, live and bring your Sesshomaru down upon the North like a vengeful kami to obliterate this place. Soon, before the wind changes.

Chapter 39: Conception