Punishment

The blood stained Gyokumen's gilded sandals, seeping into the leather, cold and sticky against her toes. Her heels clicked as she paced down the corridor, and the hem of her robe and sleeves swept against the floor, dragging on the dark wet stains, trailing behind her in sweeps of colour. Only a faint thread of breathing, barely audible, disturbed the silence of this place; the castle had become a morgue, and the great hall was now Hyakugan Maoh's tomb.

This was not the kind of service which she expected.

Hyakugan Maoh was precisely what she had wanted. A youkai proud of his power and strong enough to be of use to her, but petty enough in his tastes and weak enough not to be a direct challenge. A convenient agent. A useful tool. And now, apparently, dead, and all his minions with him.

Perhaps the single life that was left could still be of some use; could, at least, tell her what had happened, and let her know if there was some enemy of hers abroad. She caught up her robes in one hand as she descended the steep winding staircase which led down to the dungeons, silk falling loosely over her well-kept nails, brushing like a breath of air (but no air moved here) against her white jade skin.

She knew the basic layout of the castle. When she had visited before, Hyakugan Maoh's oldest son -- a graceful, degenerate young specimen -- had been her escort, and had shown her around the structure. She smiled faintly, remembering him. He had been an interesting youngster, though sadly lacking in scope of ambition. Like his father, really.

The breathing continued. Perhaps this single survivor would live long enough for her to find him.

When she did, she almost passed him by. He looked so very dead. The open wound across his belly had nearly stopped bleeding, and he lay like a corpse, arm flung across his face and clawed fingers limp and hopeless. The cell which he lay beside also held a corpse, but human this time; a woman, knife still clutched in her hands, silent in her own pool of blood, belly curved with the beginnings of pregnancy.

IIf he has survived this long, he will survive a little longer./I Gyokumen looked up and down the corridor. A fallen jagged-edged knife; someone else had been here, then, and had given the youkai that wound across his belly with it. A third pool of blood on the floor, trailing towards the door in the far wall, the traces on the ground mingling footsteps and half-dragged body. ISo. Someone else. The murderer? But why leave this youkai alive? And why did the woman kill herself?/I

There was a strange aftertaste to the air. Gyokumen licked her lips thoughtfully. Some form of magic, no, some form of fundamental power had been exercised here, but she could not recognise it.

She needed more information, and for the moment, there was only one person who could provide it. Settling her robes around her in a billow of silk, she knelt beside the youkai, taking care to avoid the blood as much as she could. Now that she looked at him more closely, he was Icovered/I in old blood; his shirt and trousers were stained brown with it, his hands and face mottled with drying stains.

Fortunate that she had come here alone. Any of her servants might have seen Hyakugan Maoh's fall as a sign of potential weakness in Gyokumen herself, or have exploited the situation to their own ends, and brought back some report which suited them. And as for her stepson -- well, he would be only too pleased when he found out about this. Perhaps she could use that. Later.

With a sweep of her hand she set a binding on his belly wound, staying the blood and blocking a little of the pain. "Wake up," she said, her voice a caress.

The youkai's eyes opened a little, unfocused, lashes clotted with blood. "Kanan?" he whispered.

"No," Gyokumen answered. "In a little while, perhaps. Who are you?"

"Cho Gonou." His gaze wandered. "Where is Kanan? I was looking for her."

"I will take you to her in a moment." IThe dead woman? Possibly./I "What happened to you, Cho Gonou? Who attacked you?"

"Him. The son. The pale voice and the long nails . . . he did something." Gonou's eyelids fluttered. "Something went wrong." He said it as a child would, confused by the world, uncomprehending. "Something bad happened."

"Someone hurt you." Gyokumen let her hand trail down his chest till she touched the edges of his belly wound, and pressed against it.

Gonou whimpered, too weak to move, eyes blind with agony for a moment.

"Someone hurt you," she continued softly. "Who was it? Who came here?"

"I did." For a moment his eyes were lucid and focused. "I came here and I killed them all." He looked up at Gyokumen as though she were a fever dream. "Are you here to punish me?"

"Yes," she agreed gently. "But you have to answer my questions first." Her fingernails traced raw flesh.

He nodded weakly. "Yes. Yes please . . . do it, make it over, kill me, please . . ."

"You came here?"

"Yes."

"Who killed them?"

"I did."

"All of them?" Gyokumen couldn't hide the surprise in her voice.

"Yes." He sighed, and a little of the remaining strength went out of him. "They took her away from me. I came to get her back." He was speaking faster and faster now, trying to make his confession. "Kanan. I love her so much, you see. I told her I'd know if there was anything wrong, but I didn't know, and they took her away from me, and so I came to find her, and I walked through the castle and I killed them all because they were keeping her away from me, and I came down here, and . . ."

She laid one bloodstained finger against his lips. "You cared that much for her, even though she was a human?"

"But I'm human," Gonou said. His tone made something utterly simple of it, as though no contradiction were possible.

IImpossible./I But something nagged at the back of Gyokumen's mind, something she'd read more than five hundred years ago. ISomething to do with blood sacrifice and killing. Something . . ./I And there was something in the face of both this Gonou and the human woman, as well; a likeness, a similarity, even between the human and youkai features. "Gonou," she whispered, tracing the line of his lips, "Iwho/I is Kanan?"

Seconds went past like drops of blood.

Gonou shut his eyes. "My sister. My lover. The other part of me." IKill me/I lay behind his words like a shadow. IPunish me, hurt me, kill me, make me not exist so that I am not here any longer and this never happened./I

Gyokumen's mouth curved. What admirable dedication, what extreme purpose -- and what a waste. "Murderer," she breathed.

His lips barely moved, forming assent.

Gyokumen ran her hand down his body to the open wound again. Now she remembered. The human who kills a thousand youkai becomes youkai himself.

What a Iwaste/I of a potential tool to have this man die now. Hyakugan Maoh and his servants were lost to her, but little point in brooding over the matter; if they could be slaughtered by one man, they were little enough loss in any case. More important to save what could be saved from the debacle, remove any possible proof of her involvement or weakness, and bide her time for later. Matters were progressing in the West, and needed her constant personal supervision.

So. She couldn't take Gonou with her; it would attract too many possible questions, especially if Kougaiji took an interest. And any youkai tribe would question Gonou himself, the moment she was gone . . .

. . . but Gonou thought he was a human. Still believed he was human, with all the sanity that was left to him, whatever his outer body.

She reached into her left sleeve. From time to time she or her agents walked abroad in the guise of humans, and had to wear limiters to appear as such. Yes. These would do.

"Gonou," she whispered. "Kanan doesn't want you to be here. She's sending you away."

Gonou whimpered, twitching under her. "No, please, tell her I'm sorry, tell her I have to . . ."

Her hand closed on his stomach again, silencing him in a gasp of agony. "This is your punishment, Gonou. You're going to go away from here and never, ever see her again. Because you sinned, Gonou. You fornicated with your own sister. You killed everyone who lived here." Gyokumen considered what might be enough to keep him alive. "You don't deserve to die. That would be too easy."

Slow tears ran from the corners of his closed eyes.

"Hush." She bent to kiss him, his lips cold against hers from shock and blood loss, and forced his mouth open. With her free hand, she fastened the limiters on his ear; one, two, and a third. His body jerked underneath her, muscles receding and bones prominent through the flesh, younger, more harmless.

Some day, she thought, she would like to do this to Kougaiji.

His mouth tasted of blood.

"Let me die," he whispered when she released him.

"You don't deserve to die." Gyokumen smiled. "You said you wanted punishment."

She raised a hand and invoked a spell of teleportation. Gonou shimmered and vanished. The spell would leave him somewhere near a human village; there were dozens nearby, it really didn't matter which one. Some other human would find him and see that he got medical care. Humans were like that. She could find him again when she needed him.

Rising to her feet, she walked over to the bars of the cell, and looked at the woman's body. "Kanan." She considered the name. "Kanan. Well, my dear. Did you think he'd go that far for you?"

The dead woman made no answer.

Gyokumen laughed, and left the corridor. As she walked through the castle, flames followed behind her, licking in the wake of her silken robes and springing up from her bloody footprints. By the time she stepped into the open air, the whole castle was ablaze.

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