Thanks to Ashley H. for her review of North Sea Dawn!
Chapter 56: Impetus for Rebellion
“You will ensure the potion is delivered and used, exactly as This One desires.” Ryukostokken’s barely restrained excitement was far more disconcerting than any angry commands he had ever issued. Arashi murmured agreement and bowed. From the corner of his eye he could see the profile of the wind demoness. She had been summoned shortly after he arrived in the throne room, and the spy was curious as to why. Almost as curious was whether she would reveal what she had seen – and if the lord would believe that a lowly hanyou was capable of transformation and flight which he himself could no longer sustain.
“Then you will meet with Natsou and inform him of This Ryukostokken’s will. Follow the half-breed pup and the Northern contingent. If they deviate or attempt to flee the battle, see their death. This One will meet both sons of the dead dog on the field.”
“I will do all within my power to make it so, denka-ue.” He bowed again, and the tension radiating off of the wind demoness increased. Arashi wondered that none of the others present seemed to notice. But then, the lord and his administrator, even Sou, were well used to the sight of youkai strung taut and ready to fly apart.
“Arrive in advance of them at This One’s side. Have your sword ready.”
Arashi bowed and walked backward from the room, a gesture of respect that was not required, and which he did not usually offer. The excuse for slower movement was necessary to hear Wei’s next task.
“Divide the dark miko and integrate them into the ranks. This One will watch a demonstration of their effectiveness from the sky. Any who fail to impress, will-” The words were cut off as a guard in the corridor closed the screen, but Arashi had heard enough. The idea that Ryukostokken would utilize humans, or as near to human as the creatures tainted by evil magic and unnatural life could be, to reinforce his army was highly improbable. But not impossible, as what he had overheard demonstrated. Fortunately, Arashi was familiar with planning for the unlikely, and he had a contingency for such an occasion. It only needed to be put into action.
Despite her attempt to murder him, Arashi wished Ko well as he departed the Northern shiro. She would find no rest in the coming weeks. When the war was over, and the future of Japan determined, he hoped she would find an easier place in the world. He nodded to the guards at the gate, whom bowed as usual when he passed. The docks were busy, preparing the many boats that would ferry the army to the mainland. As he passed them, dragons paused, some nodding or bowing, others cutting him sidelong glances and curling their lips with disgust. Arashi ignored most of them. He had more important tasks, more undecided action, in his future. There was little time for the prejudices or bet-hedging of those that had no place at the table. Their fates would be decided by the players, and Arashi had already determined who would win.
“Why the fuck would I want to know how to read? Ain’t need for it when I can get answers easier.” Inuyasha flexed his claws to demonstrate how he could extract information without use of kanji. The display made his stomach churn. It hadn’t been all that many years since he had ignored any desire to learn and had scoffed with sincerity at anyone that displayed a scholarly bent. Pretending to be the idiot that he had once aspired to be was revolting. But it did the job.
“That might be the first thing you have said that I find interesting, half-breed,” Natsou snorted. “Life would be easier, no? If we could kill the messenger. Or at least maim him.”
The skinny young dragon that was waiting for Natsou to finish writing gulped – audibly. Inuyasha shifted impatiently and tried to read the upside down ink without looking like he was reading it. The Northern captain had put down exactly what they had agreed upon. Inuyasha and his soldiers would march south with Natsou and the dragons. They would remain hidden until Ryukostokken had engaged the enemy, then they would attack Sesshomaru’s flank. As soon as they received word of where the battle was to take place, they would position themselves for a defeat of the West. There were also several comments on Natsou’s low opinion of Inuyasha and dogs in general, but the hanyou ignored them. He had claimed he couldn’t read, and even if he was willing to tip his hand in this instance, he didn’t really care what the asshole dragon thought of him.
He did care, however, that his tactic to put pressure on that same asshole appeared to be working. The ink brush snapped between Natsou’s clawed fingers, and he cursed. It took several minutes of berating and a kick to his secretary’s ribs, which sounded like the crunch of crisp celery in a bag of cherry mash, for him to be given a new brush and ink. Inuyasha had to hide a smirk. He had seen evidence throughout the Northern camp that the captain had been having a rough couple of days. Several dragons had been assigned to unnecessary manual labor – punishment for perceived offenses. More than one guard stationed close to Natsou sported bruises and cuts. The atmosphere around the table that had been positioned between the two small armies, on the same spot as the drinking match, was tense.
Two dragons swooped down from the sky, and Inuyasha had to force himself to startle and grab the hilt of his sword. Right on time, he thought. Luckily, his delayed action was covered by Natsou’s exclamation.
“What the hell are you idiots doing?” he snarled. “I ordered you to walk the perimeter!”
There was a pause, and the soldiers shared a hesitant look. “No, captain-san,” the older soldier said cautiously, “the duty roster assigned an aerial patrol.”
“Are you calling me a liar, soldier?” Natsou stood and stalked over to the uneasy dragons. The youki of their quick transformation was still swirling around their feet anxiously as their superior leaned into their faces, one after the other.
“No, sir,” came a quick, flat response.
The younger dragon’s voice cracked nervously, “No, no sir!”
“Then you disobeyed orders.” He turned on his heel and flicked a glance to his personal guard. “Fifty lashes. Each.” Both of the scouts looked stunned, but the older one quickly shut down his expression. Inuyasha still caught a glimpse of a deep resentment there. Natsou returned to his seat, and Inuyasha catalogued the circles under the captain’s eyes which had grown noticeably deeper from lack of sleep. He was also wearing something fur-lined under his kimono; the cold was clearly affecting him. A few more days, Inuyasha thought, and his nerves would be worn so thin that he would snap and turn on his own men at the slightest provocation. Natsou put more force than was necessary into pressing his seal onto the paper. Inuyasha dipped his first two claws in ink to make a simple scrawl.
“Pardon the interruption, captain-san,” a soldier out of breath from running, bowed hastily. “There is a problem with the rear guard. They claim they were all ordered to laundry duty, as punishment for inattentiveness, so there has been no one watching their position all morning. And I have no record of such an order.”
“I didn’t give it!” Natsou roared. Or the snapping could happen sooner, Inuyasha congratulated himself. The captain flung the paper at the messenger, not even waiting for the ink to dry, and stood so quickly he overturned the table. “Incompetence! They will beg for laundry duty when I am finished.” He threw a command over his shoulder as he left, “Go back to your camp, half-breed. I will summon you when the North is ready to taste blood.” His comments to the soldier at his side were low and punctuated with a hiss, but Inuyasha’s keen hearing still caught them, “I will taste blood this day, if there is one more instance of this wretched stupidity!” The messenger, smart enough not to stick around with such a volatile captain, rolled up the paper and tucked it into his sleeve as he ran off.
Inuyasha managed to keep a smile off of his face until he was well within his own camp. The hatchling appeared at his side, eager.
“Is it working, Inuyasha-sama?”
“Hn.” Inuyasha considered the growing discontent in the northern camp. “Get the kitsune in there right away – while he’s out of his tent. Take anything that isn’t nailed down – then steal the nails if they can. I want him frothing at the mouth.” Tomago nodded and hopped away to carry out his orders. Inuyasha continued on through the camp. It was time to ready his forces. Permission from Sesshomaru or no, he was going to take decisive action with Natsou. Now that the captain had signed the letter to Ryukostokken, he was no more than dead weight.
Inuyasha planned on making him actual dead weight. That night, if possible.
Ko forced herself to remain still while Ryukostokken stalked across the dais in the throne room. Wei sat perpendicular to her, closer to his lord, and she could feel his eyes on her whenever she moved. It was not the administrator, or even the Northern lord – for once – that had her petrified. The spy, Arashi, sat not ten feet to her right. He knelt in seiza and bowed appropriately whenever it seemed to be warranted. He did not seem to be paying any attention to her whatsoever.
She had tried to kill him.
Ryukostokken continued to speak of his plans to descend upon the West and how to maneuver Natsou and Inuyasha as he needed them, and Ko memorized everything as always. Memorized without really listening. She couldn’t make herself – would have to spend hours later reviewing all that was discussed and interpreting the tone of the Saigo Mao and his vassals. There was no possible way to pay attention when at any moment she could be accused of attempted murder. Murder of one of Ryukostokken’s most valued assets.
Murder that had failed.
The failure would be her death, she knew that. If nothing else, she could have tried to pretend that Arashi had attacked her, or that he had ill-intent toward Ryukostokken. Neither were believable and for all of his faults, his depravities, the dragon lord could taste a lie before it even passed her lips. She had tried to kill the favorite, most skilled spy of the North and if questioned, there would be no getting out of responsibility for that act. Her death for it would have been quick, as quick as Ryukostokken ever made such things, and no more painful than her life over the past twenty years, if not for her blunder.
He knew her secret.
Not that she was a traitor, although she didn’t feel the term applied. She had never sworn any oath – freely given or otherwise – to Ryukostokken. Arashi knew that she could see. More than that, even, he knew that she was willing to kill to upset the North’s battle strategy. If the hanyou shared that information, she would wish for death a thousand times over. Her sight would be nothing more but another way that she could be tortured. There were youkai that had been in the dungeon for decades – tormented until they could not be recognized as demons any longer. Until they could not recognize themselves, even in their own minds. That would be Ko’s future, if Arashi talked.
At any moment, she expected him to speak up, to catch the Saigo Mao’s attention with a word or a cleared throat, and then the end of her life would begin. Ko could feel her heart beating in her chest, quickly, hard enough that the dragons could have heard it if they were listening. Her youki was coiled up, tight. Tighter than a spring. So tight her chest ached and her stomach cramped from the force required to keep it buried inside. There would be no explosion of power to help her escape. There was no flight on the wind that could carry her from that place. Even if she could be quick enough to live to breath freely, if she did not use her position to end Ryukostokken then it would all have been for naught. Years of brutal mistreatment and slavery had led to this moment, where she could choose to risk everything in order to gain what she wanted most: the death of Ryukostokken. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from trembling.
Arashi was standing, bowing, moving backward toward the doorway even as Ryukostokken continued. It took a long moment before Ko breathed again. Before she realized that she had stopped breathing for several minutes. Air rushed into her lungs and the haze of fear cleared with each sweet inhale. She was safe. For another day. Arashi was leaving the shiro, and would not return until after the battle.
The sudden release of pressure inside her seemed to pop her ears, and she could comprehend what the dragon lord was saying, “…will watch a demonstration of their effectiveness from the sky. Any who fail to impress, will be drained by the crone in the grotto. Wei, make sure she is aware that any power or vitality she takes from the other females is to be used in service to This One. Have Sou brought here – the soldiers must be prepared to move.”
“With humility, what is their destination, my lord?” Wei was groveling more than usual. Ko noted absently that the scarring in his throat from Ryukostokken’s claws was still making his voice rasp – weeks after the assault.
“Do not question This Ryukostokken,” he answered in a dark voice, his pacing falling to a stop. “This One will decide when and where the dog will meet his end. You shall know when it pleases me to tell you – not before.” In a sudden burst of movement, he was standing before her. Ko could feel the heat of his body against her cheeks. She surmised that he was mere inches away. “This One has use of you,” his voice dripped with a sour lust that turned her stomach. Her fear and disgust must have been palatable, although she kept them from her expression. His claws thrust into her hair and he used a painful grip to haul her to her feet. “Oh, no, little breeze,” the stench of sulfur blew against her face, “you will share your duties with others tonight. This One must keep you well enough to fly, for there will be blood even sweeter than yours. Soon. Very soon.”
Hours later, still covered in sticky liquids, none of which were hers but few that had been given freely, Ko stood atop the oldest portion of the castle. The rock around her was crumbling, the roof open to the snow that fell steadily. None came to this abandoned area, except her and a few rats too wise or too cowardly to steal from a dragons’ lair. She dismissed the haze from her eyes and watched the snow pile for a few minutes, softening the broken edges of discarded stone blocks. The peace was calming after the tension that had screamed inside her all day.
From within her kimono she pulled a branch of boxwood. The evergreen bough was only eight inches long, but it was covered in small leaves. Ko was aware that the code she and Kagome were using was imprecise, at best. However, once she knew the human had survived to return to the West, she began thinking of ways to impart more meaning to each message. Ryukostokken had, at first, been furious when news came that the miko lived, but Ko had struggled to contain her joy and excitement. Even while she toiled to meet the whims of the Northern Lord, she plotted the best way to smuggle information to Kagome.
Ko gripped the exposed wood tightly and ran her fingers down the spine – removing the leaves and creating a waxy green pile in her hand. From her obi she pulled a small paper packet of red clay. Painstakingly, she smeared a thumbprint of soil on each leaf. Ko held out her palm and called out her youki. A warm wind, dry and sweet, swirled around her. It picked the leaves out of her hand and hardened the clay as it carried them upward. Drops of water, snowflakes that melted around the funnel of air, fell onto Ko’s shoulders and face.
She stayed there, staring into the thickening snow, long after her message had disappeared into the night. Anticipation was thick like an invisible fog around her, seeping into her pores and collecting in the marrow of her bones. She shivered. Not from cold or fear, although she felt them both. Ko wondered by Arashi had said nothing. Wondered why a spy, a male that would be outcast for the circumstances of his birth alone were it not for his infamous talents, would keep such valuable information to himself. Ko shook her head and took one last glance at the world around her before clouding her vision again. Arashi’s reasons, his end-game, were inconsequential. He could not reveal her secrets when he was not at Ryukostokken’s side, and that would not happen again until the final battle. Twenty years of slavery. Twenty years of the sounds of death, the screams and pleas of those begging for it, ringing in her ears. Twenty years since her body was her own. Ko breathed deeply and a brutal smile twisted her lips.
The end was coming.
Arashi remained motionless, allowing the deep shadows of old growth trees and the steep rock of the mountain to conceal his position. Night was still heavily upon the West, although dawn would begin to lighten the sky in little more than an hour. He kept his eyes closed, rather than allow the sheen of his dark vision to reveal his location. Instead, he relied on his other senses to track his surroundings.
Large, fat flakes of snow fell on his face and exposed hands, chilling the dark skin in tiny stinging slaps that quickly melted into cool rivers, cascading into his collar and sleeves. His tongue flickered out and he tasted the biting cold of the season, the slow decomposition of leaves and old vegetation under the snow, the tang of iron and silver in the mountain, and the growing trace of heavily sweetened fruit and delicate flowers. The wind was dying down, but it still whistled faintly through a distant rock formation. The faint crunch of boots on snow, a deliberate sound he was sure, caused him to open his eyes.
She did not speak until she was almost within arm’s reach, and then she halted, “I saw your request for a meeting.” One red brow rose pointedly and her mouth puckered into a suppressed smirk. “I would have guessed you to be more subtle than that.”
Arashi smiled easily. Aina was one of the few informants he worked with that made his skills enjoyable. “It has been a while since I have practiced drawing, but I thought it turned out quite well.” The huts on her path from the shiro to the dog captain’s home had been decorated with tiny figures traced into the snow on their ledges and porches. Miniature foxes, constellations that appear only just before dawn, and the kanji for mountain and forest. “I do hope that you erased my masterpieces as you passed by.”
“Perhaps I should have left them,” she teased. “Captain-san would have been most entertained, I’m sure, to smell dragon on pictures of his adopted pup’s nanny.”
“You were to gain employment within the lord’s family,” he chided, much more gently than he wanted to. His plans had hinged on her placement near the miko. Aina had never failed him before, but if she had, his objectives would become much riskier to secure. For both of them.
“Have faith, my scaly friend.” The kitsune laughed and the sound of tiny bells rang melodiously under her voice. Manufactured, to be sure, but still pleasing to the ear. He relaxed at her reassurance. “Is this the portion of our consultation where I share all the details of the household? I should demand better treatment. At least buy me tea first.” She blinked slowly, coyly. “Or pay my fee.”
“Such a hard bargain you drive,” he murmured appreciatively. Arashi withdrew a bag of coins and small trinkets and tossed it. Her quick hands snatched it from the air and tucked it away in the space of a heartbeat.
“There was quite the revelry here, just a few nights ago,” she began.
Her information was interesting and useful, as always, but it was not the primary purpose of Arashi’s visit. As soon as she began to wind down and show signs of returning to her teasing demeanor, he interrupted, “I do have another task for you, and this is not one you may refuse, little trickster.” He stepped away from the tree where he had been leaning and allowed some of his youki to escape, twining around her ankles. Her eyes widened and some of her fear scented the air before she brought herself under control.
“I always like a challenge,” she boasted, flipping a lock of red hair over her shoulder, “for the right price.”
Arashi pulled both hands from his sleeves and revealed another tinkling sack of coin as well as the nondescript clay vessel that was his mission in the West. “You must prepare a tea…”
Inuyasha jerked his head to the side and motioned to Kirara. “Go, as fast as you can and still stay hidden.”
Sango’s brown eyes sparked with concern and more than a little defiance. “You need me here. I should be watching your back.”
“What I need is for the ice prick to know things are about to get bloody up here. I ain’t waitin’ on orders from him, but I’m not stupid enough to think he shouldn’t know what I’m gonna do.” Inuyasha firmed up his jaw and folded his arms over his chest to show her he was serious. As usual with the two females in his pack, she ignored him.
“This plan is, at best, just reckless enough to take Natsou by surprise. If you’re lucky, you might even accomplish this with only minor injuries on your side. But if you-”
“What I need,” he placed as much stress on the word as he dared, then quickly lowered his voice when it drew attention. It was nearing dark, but those few soldiers still tending to duties or walking through the camp stared curiously at their leader and his human companion. “What I need,” he continued in a quieter voice, “is for your little bamboo shoot in there to be safe and sound when this is all over.” He glanced pointedly to her stomach. Her eyes widened in understanding and a twinge of fear, and Inuyasha felt a little guilty for playing on her emotions. Then her eyes narrowed and her mouth opened. Shit, that ain’t good, he thought desperately.
“I wouldn’t bring it up,” he finished hurriedly, “but this message has to get to Sesshomaru. There isn’t anyone I trust more than you to get the job done. If that protects the, the,” his eyes darted to the side and he whispered, feeling silly but knowing it was a secret that should be kept, “the baby safe, then that’s two birds – one stone, yeah?”
“I can be more help here.” Her voice was calm, but her body was set in tense, stubborn lines.
“I’ve got lots of idiots that can crack skulls, Sango. I only got one person here I trust with my life – with the lives of everyone I am responsible for.” His voice felt raw and he turned his head to the side to clear it, embarrassed. He was completely surprised with the scent of saltwater hit his nose.
Tears were flooding the slayer’s eyes, and Inuyasha had no idea what to do. With Kagome, a gruff hug and a pat on the back would have solved it. But this was Sango. She was not a crier. Thankfully, she solved the problem for him.
“Fine. I’ll go. But you better not get killed while I’m away, or I’ll tell Kagome all about where her precious homework was disappearing to – back in the beginning.” Inuyasha’s stomach blanched. The priestess from the future could hold a grudge a long time, when she put her mind to it, and Sango knew how to fight dirty. “Just make certain you follow the plan, Inuyasha.” He followed her over to Kirara and stood by while the neko transformed and Sango hopped on. “Oh, and Inuyasha,” she called with a smile. He breathed a sigh of relief and smiled back. “If you tell anyone about this,” she waved to her still watery eyes, “I will make the kotodomo seem like a shiatsu massage.” With that, the slayer took off.
It was several minutes before he realized he was still standing in the same place, mouth open and staring at the spot where she had disappeared into the darkening sky. Soldiers were throwing glances his way, although none dared come close enough to have overheard his conversation. His teeth snapped together loudly and he pivoted on his heel and stalked toward the tent where monks were preparing for an attack. Women, he muttered to himself, let Sesshomaru try to manage ‘em. That thought cleared his mood considerably, and he had a spring in his step by the time he reached the place where Tomago was waiting for him.
“She’s off then?” his secretary asked with trepidation.
“I told her to go, so she went,” Inuyasha simplified with a blustery snort. “That’s how to deal with women, Egg.” He brushed open the flap on the tent, making the gathered soldiers inside look up from the maps and diagrams laid over a barrel. “Now pay attention, and I’ll show you how to deal with dragons.”