Chapter One

Rain soaked them all. It ran down the trunk of the tree under which they were trying to shelter, and dripped unexpectedly from tiny branches directly over wherever they were standing. It aimed itself between the few leaves -- autumn had come early this year, and wind and storm with it, and the trees were all bark and branches by now -- and struck with intent in huge cold drops. The wind, for its part, veered inconstantly between north and west, with occasional pauses in the east and south, so that it wasn't even possible to take shelter behind a particular tree trunk or feature of the landscape.

"It's still better than being back at the castle," Doku muttered to himself. Unfortunately, each second made him think less and less of the castle's inhabitants, and more and more of the sheer physical pleasures of hot water and dry clothing. The skirts of his robe clung stickily to his legs, soaked and freezing cold.

Beside him, Kougaiji made a noise that was very close to a sneeze, then stared bitterly into the driving darkness of storm and forest around them. Water slicked his bare chest and glistened on his collars and bangles. In the beginning, he had pointed out that the use of magic might alert the Sanzou-ikkou, who were reputed to be in the area, and that throwing up some sort of barrier against the storm was less important than seizing the sutra. Doku rather suspected that it had become a matter of pride by now not to use magic to keep them dry. Besides, it wasn't as if they could get much wetter.

Yaone came leaping down from the branch above them. Her hair was slicked to her head and matted against her back, and her usually sleek gloves and jacket clung in wrinkles against her arms and body, soggy with accumulated water. "Kougaiji-sama," she reported, formal as ever, "there's a light to the west, approximately half a mile away on the edge of the forest."

Doku tried to remember the maps of the area which they'd checked earlier. "That's an inn, isn't it?"

"With a bathhouse," Yaone added wistfully. "But it's a human one. Given the current climate . . ."

"And there was no sign of the Sanzou-ikkou?" Kougaiji questioned.

Yaone shook her head. "No signs of them or their jeep, Kougaiji-sama, and they usually drive with lights if they're driving by night."

It's much easier to ignore the cold than to ignore the rain, Doku reflected miserably, and wished that the Sanzou-ikkou were somewhere up a snowy mountain. Not only would it be a damn sight easier to spot them against all the snow, it wouldn't involve having freezing water in a steady stream down the back of his neck.

Kougaiji frowned, clearly deep in internal debate. Rain sheeted against him, dripping down his elegantly pointed ears and outlining his high cheekbones, streaming down his leather jacket and dripping from the ends of his hair. "And you're quite sure that Lirin is safe for the moment?" he asked irrelevantly.

"Oh yes, Kougaiji-sama," Yaone nodded. "She's off with that diplomatic party visiting the Lion Demon King to the south."

"Yes, that was the alliance I wanted broken . . . mnh." Kougaiji reached behind him, took his hair between his hands, and wrung it out. Water squelched down and puddled on the ground. "Since the Sanzou-ikkou is supposed to be somewhere around here, it would be pointless for us to return home yet. We'll take shelter in that inn."

Yaone gasped. "But Kougaiji-sama, they're human . . ."

"We've all got limiters," Kougaiji interrupted her. "We will, purely as humans, book rooms, order food and wine, and have hot baths." He paused. "Humans do have decent hot baths, I hope?"

"Oh, they do, Kougaiji-sama," Yaone assured him quickly. "Not as good as the ones back at the castle, of course, but they can manage hot water and dry towels. And steam. And heat." Her eyes were wide and dreamy. "And dry robes, and hot wine, and . . ."

"We're on our way," Doku said quickly before Kougaiji could even consider changing his mind. "Half a mile to the west, right, Yaone? Let's go."


Doku had taken charge of booking them all rooms at the inn, as Kougaiji wasn't carrying any money on him -- after all, why should a youkai prince require such a thing? -- and Yaone had pointed out that his physical presence and forthright manner would undoubtedly get them better rooms. He rather suspected that translated into "you can bully the desk clerk better than I can," but since he agreed entirely on that point, he'd taken her supplies of money to add to his own, and gone out to do battle on behalf of his prince.

"Three people," he told the bored-looking desk clerk. Clearly the man wasn't overworked on a night like this; customers simply couldn't reach the inn to stay there. "Me and my cousins. Two men, one woman. We need baths -- got any rooms left with private bathrooms?"

The clerk suppressed a yawn, made an effort, and checked his clearly near-empty register. "Sorry, but I can do you rooms on the floor directly above this place's bathrooms, so you won't have far to walk. How many rooms do you need?"

"Three," Doku said, making an inner note to rumple his sheets in the morning so that the bed looked used.

"Mm hm." The clerk scribbled. "Name of?"

"Wong," Doku said hastily.

"Riight." The clerk wrote it down three times -- underneath, as Doku could see with a bit of a squint, four entries of "Lee". "Well, we'll certainly be glad to give you our very best hospitality tonight, sir." He glanced towards Kougaiji and Yaone, who were standing together near the door, and then made play of obviously looking away from them. "We're extremely discreet."

Doku leaned over the desk towards the clerk. "Good. I'd hate to think you weren't." He let his shoulders bunch. See the muscle. Fear the muscle. "We're just after a quiet night."

"Oh, you'll have that," the clerk said hastily. "No problems, sir. None at all. Please go right upstairs, here are the keys to your rooms." He handed over three carved keys with wooden tags attached, hand shaking slightly. "The bathrooms are directly below, there are dry robes in your bedrooms, unless you'd like food first?"

Doku assessed priorities. "Hot baths first," he said firmly. "Send a couple of jugs of wine up. We'll order some food later."

"Of course, sir," the desk clerk said. "We do hope that you have a peaceful, relaxing night."


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