Author's Notes: After a lot of debating and suggestions I finally found a good title for the fic (I really couldn't think of one for once). So my thanks go out to Adia for suggesting it ^_^

As you will discover as you read, this is like a retelling of The Swan Princess. I love fairytales and classic stories and the plot of Swan Princess always drew me, so for once I'll be drawing elements off another story into one of my own (or does this mean I'm running out of ideas for stories?)

Right. Now that I've made myself out to be a complete incompetent when it comes to titles (refer to my other stories to see how bad the other titles are) I better get on with the story.

Autumn Bane

Chapter 1

The Dragon's Castle

~Kagome~

The morning was a little too cold for my taste. Not quite cold enough to bring snow and a touch of interest to the scenery, but still bitter enough to make me shiver and stamp my feet to try and chase out the chill in my limbs. I hated the cold… and I could already tell that I would probably have a cold in the morning, my throat felt dry and cold whilst my head felt warm and muggy.

Autumn used to be my favourite time of the year. It was a safe kind of season, that brought around a change in the world around me. The long, hard summer's heat would fade away, along with the droughts and would be replaced by a cooler, more neutral landscape. The leaves would turn from green to more exotic shades of red and orange, even yellow, and they would stay that way until they began to slowly flutter down to earth.

I used to like Autumn. But now I lived for winter. Winter brought the end of autumn, and it would be a whole three seasons before Autumn came back around. Spring was nice… but it was halfway to Autumn which wasn't so nice. Summer was worse… because Autumn was always pressing just around the corner and before I knew it, Fall had arrived.

I'm sure if there was a phobia of Autumn, I would have it. But rather instead of having this irrational fear of that season, I just get very, very depressed. Now when the weather turned cold like today, all I could do was sigh and grumble, internally at least. If my mother ever caught me sighing or acting miserable she'd probably take me behind a screen and slap me.

Yet another muddy, brown leaf detached from the tree over me and twirled its way down. I just happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and the large leaf hit me on the cheek with a wet sounding slap and stuck there. I twitched my cheek slightly… but it wasn't working.

A few metres ahead of me I caught my mother turning to look at me, spotted the leaf on my face and sighed. I was a disappointment, I know, but she didn't have to hint it all the time. Sango, who stood just beside me, followed my mother's eyes, but instead of sighing at the leaf, she giggled slightly and reached up to peel it off my cheek.

"Thank you." I mumbled, bringing my sleeve up to wipe the wet patch off my skin. Sango was quicker, she stilled my arm and did it for me.

At times like this I felt like a complete child. I wasn't even allowed to clean my own cheek. Well at least she didn't bring out the handkerchief and spit on it before scrubbing my skin like my old hand-maid used to do. But then again, if she did that she would probably smear my perfect make-up, which was a big no-no.

This was the trouble with being a Hime… I could barely do anything myself, especially outside in public.

We were waiting on the docks, standing on the wooden pier at the edge of the channel and looking out across the sea. If I squinted my eyes I could just about make out a thin little line on the horizon which was the land we would be sailing to. If the ship ever arrived that was…

"I want to go home…" I muttered to Sango.

"You always want to go home." She responded evenly, keeping her eyes peeled on the boat that was creeping its way ever so slowly across the water towards us. I didn't give a toss about watching it's progress, seeing as how I was too busy darting my eyes all over the place, looking for an escape.

"I really want to go home." I repeated, stressing my words. "I'm cold, tired, hungry and I can't feel my feet anymore."

"Shh." She said discreetly as my mother glanced back at us again. I sealed my lips momentarily until her attention passed and I could talk again.

"Can't you convince her that I don't want to go to Toshiyama?" I had resorted to pleading with my own maid to speak to my mother on my behalf. Well… she probably had a better relationship with the woman.

"But we've done this every Autumn." Sango whispered. "Why are you so averted to going this time?"

Because I'd finally realised that I hated these Autumn trips to Toshiyama. Ever since I was six my mother had packed up most of the household and put us on a boat across the channel to another country – Toshiyama. We always went to stay at the same place, with the same people, for the whole of the Autumn, and when the first snow fell we would turn around and go home again.

I loved the going home part of these trips.

"These little 'holidays' are pointless and boring," More like stressful and nerve-wracking. "I don't think I could take another year without cracking up."

"It's not too bad." Sango encouraged. But of course she could say that, she'd never been to Toshiyama before. She had no idea what it was like over there… if she thought it would be a pleasant break from our own country, then she was up for a bad shock soon. "I'd really like to see Toshiyama." Sango went on. "I heard they have lovely scenery up there."

"Yes the trees are nice but the-"

"Oh! It's docking." Sango effectively shut me up and I fell silent as the boat groaned into it's moors and the servants and soldiers around us began to move forward to secure it. Us women stayed put until everything was in place and the little wooden bridge had been lowered to allow us on. My mother boarded first.

My feet froze. I couldn't move.

"Kagome…" Sango tried to encourage me to move, but I couldn't obey. I just couldn't take another Autumn in that god-awful country with him there. If he wasn't there then maybe… but the only reason we ever went was for him.

My mother's voice called out, her tone more commanding than Sango's. "Kagome. Don't dawdle."

Instinctively my feet tried to obey her voice, but my heart and mind screamed against it. I couldn't go… I just had to find some way out of this. I had to convince my mother that it was impossible for me to come along this year. I couldn't take it. I just couldn't take the strain of being with someone I hated for a whole season. It was asking too much.

"Kagome!" My mother called again, sharply.

The soldiers, sailors and servants all stood around, hovering, waiting for me to board so they could pack up the luggage and send the boat off. No one was going anywhere if I didn't move.

"Mother…" I called quietly. "I don't want to come this year. I'll be staying here." I tried to use the same tactics she used when she wanted something. She didn't ask for things, she just stated. If my mother ever wanted to stay home, she would say so and no one would or could argue with her demands.

My mother had to be this way. If she were anything less then she would be a carpet to other people. As it was she was current ruler of this country and the only female leader there was in all the lands. She commanded people as well as any man, ever since my father had passed away.

But I was not my mother, and I could not be an authority figure like her. My voice was weak and unconvincing. She dismissed my wishes. "You're getting on this boat, Kagome. If you don't then you will be left here in the port, homeless and without a friend."

"I'd have Sango." I challenged. But one look at Sango told me that she would be very unwilling to stay… she really wanted to go to Toshiyama with everyone else.

"And would Sango feed you, clothe you and defend you from ruffians that are roaming the street?" My mother challenged.

Sango did these things already.

"Would she be able to give you suitable shelter and money for an entire season?" She tilted her head slightly. "Think carefully, Kagome, and don't be a naïve fool, because you are anything but."

A strange kind of insulting compliment… but I knew that she was right. Wherever the household went, I had to follow. I may be a Princess of sorts but no one was going to follow my orders or let me have my freedom of choice.

I hated Autumn…

I resigned myself at last and stepped lightly across the bridge onto the boat. Fortunately my mother wasn't the type of person to smile smugly when she got her own way, she just nodded her thanks to me that I'd obeyed and went off towards the helm to talk to the captain about the weather for the journey.

I walked straight to the back of the ship and leaned on the wooden railing, looking down at the dark waters below.

"Don't jump Kagome, it's only for three months!" Sango called as she'd passed by.

I hadn't been considering jumping… but after that little reminder I seriously thought about it.

~Inuyasha~

"They'll be here by nightfall."

I groaned even louder than before and pressed my face harder into my hands. Every bleeding year… every blasted Autumn…

I was seriously going to go insane if I had to put up with that girl again. At the beginning of every Autumn I would be dragged out of whatever cupboard I was trying to hide in and marched to the coast where we would await the arrival of her boat. It always seemed to be the coldest, most miserable day of the year so far… almost as if the climate turned frosty in response to my mood.

Fortunately this year was going to be slightly different. Instead of meeting them as they landed on the docks, we'd be meeting them at the castle gates… well, at least I wouldn't have to get up as early to trek out through the fog.

"Inuyasha? Are you listening to me?" Miroku was nudging me in the ribs with his foot. "Are you even awake? I know you're alive, I heard you groan."

"G'way…" I resisted the urge to scratch his pesky foot with my claws. I'm sure he'd really appreciate that.

I heard him sigh somewhere above me. "You have to get up at some point today, not only do you have to get washed and dressed for you know who's arrival, but Kikyo wants you to help her with something."

"With something like what?" I was going to stay in bed for as long as possible.

"Why don't you get up and ask her?"

I decided to ignore him at that point. Maybe he'd give up and go away… but then again, Miroku wasn't a quitter, and he didn't like being ignored. His foot swung unnecessarily hard into my side and I found myself pushed straight off the futon onto the floor. I scrambled to my feet. "I'll kill you, monk!"

He remained unfazed, and simply turned and headed out the screen door. "Go see Kikyo, after all she's the only one patient enough to listen to your griping about the Princess." He paused as he reached the door. "And we all know why that is, don't we?"

Of course… everyone in the castle knew that Kikyo disliked the Princess… almost as much as I did. I think the Princess was too blind to notice that she was hated, after all she was always simperingly nice and friendly to Kikyo whenever they met.

I remember… in the second year of this stupid arrangement I'd been nine years old, and fed-up completely with the foreign Princess. She was childish and annoying and her two-faced motives had been pushing me too far. The emotional distress for me had been just too much! I had found it too unfair and hard to share my life with someone I hated for three months, my patience was short in those days. So… like any other short-changed child I cried. Fortunately the Princess had never witnessed any of those embarrassing moments, but the first time I'd cried my mother had been the one to comfort me, doing what mothers did best and just holding me until I stopped screaming.

The second time I'd cried my mother had left this life and the only one around to offer comfort had been Kikyo. She'd been eleven at the time, but she'd done exactly the same thing as my mother had done and pulled my head to her chest and let me cry. Like I'd said, she'd only been eleven while I was nine and her chest was practically as flat as mine and in no way as comfy as my mother's. But that had been the day when she'd confided in me of her distaste of the Princess as well… and it had surprised me by the venom in her tone. From that moment on she'd been my ally in the war against the foreign Princess…

I haven't cried since… Other than that time when I trapped my finger in the door last year, but I won't go into that.

This would be the tenth year of the agreement. The tenth Autumn and the tenth visit. I could barely remember what the Princess looked like… I hadn't seen her for almost a year, but I remember the known facts; that she was evil, stupid, and pathetically weak and unfit to call herself a real Hime. And her mother was twice as bad. They were both pushy and snobbish, and everyone knew that they'd plotted together to bump off their father so that the Princess' mother could take over their country.

My father strolled past my bedroom open door. "Get up." He said breezily before disappearing as fast as he'd appeared.

I glared after him and scratched my head, not caring that I ruffled my hair up even more than it had been already. Well… since it was well past noon and moving into the hour of the Horse, I decided that it was probably best to get up or else suffer someone else's wrath.

I really wasn't looking forward to tonight…

~Kagome~

I really wasn't looking forward to tonight. And I really wasn't feeling too well at the moment.

I was currently hanging over the side of the ship, throwing up at ten minute intervals until I had nothing left in my stomach. This was part of the reason why I hated travelling to Toshiyama. I never really did fare well on the water… especially with the boat throwing itself up and down all the time.

Sango approached me cautiously from behind as though afraid she might set me off again, but she didn't have to worry, I'd reached that point when my stomach was empty. "Feeling better?" she inquired in a not so helpful way.

"I'm just fine…" I slurred as I sank against the rail again and closed my eyes, trying to pretend that I was anywhere else but on that boat. But my imagination has always been bad and I can't seem to picture my surroundings as anything other than a fishy deck of a creaky wooden ship with the sea slapping and rumbling around us. I screwed my eyes shut tighter and concentrated on that lovely meadow back home.

"So what's in Toshiyama?" Sango asked as she sat on the floor beside me.

"What do you mean?"

"What's the scenery like? I hear it's very beautiful."

"It is… if you like that kind of thing." I remembered the landscape in Toshiyama. It was very hilly compared to home. There were hardly any little towns and villages which made it seem lonely, barren and cold… but it was a very extensive country, far bigger than my mother's and its military power was superior to any other I knew of. The statistics of the country was its beauty, the land was nothing much to look at… only bumps here and there coated in a carpet of woodland trees. "It's very quiet there I suppose…" I conceded eventually. "Nice place to find some time to yourself."

"And Toshiyama Castle."

I shivered at the name. I couldn't stand that place. It was like some oppressive kind of prison. "It sits on top of one of the tallest hills in the country. It has a grey stone wall surrounding its peak that is fifteen metres high and supposedly impenetrable. It's clouded in fog for most of the Autumn and Winter… and when you look up at it from the valley below it looks like a ghost castle."

"That's a very negative description." Sango told me. "I was told it was a lovely place."

It really wasn't, but maybe that was just my biased opinion. I found the owners of the castle obnoxious, so naturally I found the castle obnoxious too. "I guess it's alright… but there's this well that sits right bang in the middle of the castle, right in the centre of the hill's peak. A dry well…"

"What about it?" Sango looked at me.

A quelled a surge of nausea that threatened to overwhelm me for a moment. I got my breath back. "When I was six I was looking down it when the Lord's son came along and told me that half a century ago an old man threw a dead dragon down the well… and the dust and water vapour that rose up from the well at that time was what made the mist that surrounds the castle. As if that wasn't enough to freak me out he told me that the dragon still festered down at the bottom and came out at Autumn time to gobble up any gullible humans that happened to be around, and bringing up a mass of mist and fog with it."

"That wasn't very nice of him." Sango scowled.

"He's not a very nice person." I agreed hastily. "I couldn't sleep for the next week in fear that if I fell asleep the dragon would eat me. I can't go near that well now… But that's why Toshiyama Castle is also nicknamed the Castle of the Dragon."

"So what are the people like there?" Sango pressed, eager to know the details.

I took a deep breath to steady myself. "The only people I see in Toshiyama are workers in the castle. It's big enough to house a small village in that castle… they all live in the small buildings in the courtyard. They're all human, but the Lord and his two sons aren't. The prince is half human though…"

"I know. His mother, Lady Henna, she died a few years ago didn't she?"

I nodded sadly. "She was the only nice person in that place…"

"What about Lord Inu? He's nice, right?"

"My mother likes him fine." I opened my eyes to glare off towards the horizon. Here at the back of the boat I could see the receding land line of my own country… I felt incredibly homesick already. "Of course she likes him… they're close-knit allies aren't they? I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine, type of thing. The only reason we go to Toshiyama every Autumn is because they hope that one day I might marry the Prince and unify our two countries so that we can never break our ally bonds with each other! It's so annoying! Why doesn't mother just marry Lord Inu and save me all this grief!"

"Because your mother bears no love for Lord Inu." Said a voice behind us that made me jump guiltily. "And Lord Inu bears no love for me either."

Like the lack of love had ever stopped her from marrying anyone before? I wanted to point that out, but my common sense made me hold my tongue.

"We're nearly at the port, try and collect yourself before we arrive there, Kagome." And with that she walked off again.

I gave into temptation and made a rude sign at her back… something I'd picked up from the servant boys at home. Sango gasped and slapped my hand down quickly. "She'll skin you if she sees that!"

"I don't care." I said rebelliously. "All she ever does is criticise me and… well… that's about it, but she doesn't have to be so rude to me all the time. And she drags me to hell every Autumn to get her jollies."

Sango patted my arm compassionately. "Don't worry, you've got me this year." She smiled.

I couldn't help but smile with her. At least this year I wouldn't feel so alone perhaps… I was usually the only girl hanging around the castle, a total stranger, and the prince did nothing to make me feel as if I were at home. My nerves were strung right from the beginning of the visit to the very end… I was usually exhausted by the time I got back home…

It surprised me when we got off the boat. I expected to be greeted by the usual entourage of the welcoming committee. The port was pretty much empty… apart from the carriage that had been sent to retrieve us. It was only big enough for me and my mother… but I managed to squeeze Sango in next to me. Everyone else would have to walk.

The way from the port to Toshiyama castle was one I knew by heart now. We wound our way down the narrow roads between the hills and trees. After passing about five hills in a Northerly direction I felt the carriage start moving uphill. I looked out the window and suppressed my grimace, knowing that my mother was undoubtedly watching my face.

There it was. Toshiyama Castle in all its 'glory'.

The mist still coiled around it, distorting a clear view of it. I'd never seen the castle completely, not when the only times I came here was when it was dwelling in white clouds. It brought back the memory of the old dry well. According to legend, the dragon that lived in it was up and about since the mist had risen. I shivered unconsciously.

"Kagome, you look very grim. What are you worried about?" My mother asked.

"Every Autumn, mother…" I sighed. "You know I hate it here. You know I hate him and that there is no chance of marrying him so why do I have to see him?"

She smiled lightly and turned to look out the window. "Things have changed over the summer. Things are going to be different this year."

"Oh yes. And why would this year be different from any other year?" I couldn't keep my angry heat out of my voice.

"How old are you, Kagome?" she asked mildly.

I thought for a moment. "Sixteen summers."

"Inuyasha was seventeen last winter."

I gave a small shake of my head. "What difference does that make? All that means is that he's regressed another mental year back."

She gave one of her rare smiles and laughed. I didn't often see such a display on my mother, so it took me by surprise for a moment. "The difference is that you were a child the last time you came here. Now you two are adults at last."

That struck a note of fear in me that I tried to hide. Adulthood meant that I was finally at that age when I should marry… and my only suitor was that guy! Was this the final year? Was this the last of my freedom. Would I be forced to marry this Autumn and live here in Toshiyama for the rest of my natural life? Would I never see my own home again?

"Kagome, you look pale." Sango whispered.

I turned my eyes away from my mother and out the window as the carriage drew to a stop. This was the end of the line. From here it was a small trek up a long set of steep stone stairs that let to the Castle gates. I hated this part as much as the boat journey… only because the stairs were wet and slippery and one look down was enough to make me feel scared and dizzy.

I owed a lot of my fear of heights, wells and lizards to this place.

Picking up the skirts of my kimono I followed after my mother up the stone stairway and kept my eyes firmly fixed on her back. I refused to look down. Looking down would only increase the chances of me falling – not something I wanted to do. For a start it would be embarrassing and the lord's son would be laughing at me all Autumn. Oh, and I'd probably be dead.

Actually… maybe I should look down? It might give me an excuse to go home.

Sango could barely contain her excitement as we reached the castle gates. She was gaping at the height of the perimeter walls and when we were allowed through into the inner compound she was further gaping around at all the space. While the walls were stone, the buildings were made of wood and trimmed in gold.

"It's pretty." She confided in me as we were walked across the courtyard towards the largest building – the inner castle itself.

"It's pretty oppressive," I shot back, looking around warily. A few people had stopped work to look across at us. Some of them I recognised from the previous year, some I didn't. Our own servants spread out in the courtyard… entering the inner castle was for military, private servants and nobles only. It was a tall building… I had no idea what the top looked like because the roof was blotted out with fog.

We went inside and were led straight down the wide corridor to the room at the back. It was decent sized… and it was the room where I'd first met Lord Inu and his two sons. I remember that day as if it were only a few years ago… not ten.

I'd only been six at the time and had no idea what I was doing in Toshiyama. I thought it was going to a wonderful little holiday to getaway from the boring old home. My father had died the year before, and since then my mother had been doing a lot of travelling and work. I'd thought it was nice to travel with her for once.

How wrong I was.

The first time I saw Lord Inu was in the large wooden chair in the back room. His appearance hadn't scared me, but I remembered being very curious about it. It wasn't often that I saw demons, and I'd never seen a powerful one before. I remembered thinking that if his ears were rounded and his eyes just a little bit more brown, he could have passed for any other human with snowy white hair down his back to his waist.

The greeting between him and my mother had been formal, but friendly. I'd knelt down beside my mother on the open mats before the chair and had risen when he requested to see my face.

"She looks like you, Jun." He had said to my mother. "You must be very proud."

"I am." That had been one of my mother's only admissions of pride in me.

Then he had been brought forward. He had done the most curt bow I'd ever seen and had glared at me the entire time like I was infringing on his personal property. A few minutes later when we'd been left together by our parents, I'd made the mistake in commenting on his shortness (at that time he'd been a year older and an inch shorter than me). He'd then made the mistake on commenting on the colour of my eyes.

Within five minutes of meeting each other I punched him. It had been the start of a very ugly relationship…

The back room hadn't changed in the slightest since that first year I was there. Looking around I saw the chair was still in the same place, the table with the map of all the countries in the land printed on it was still against the wall, even the guards were standing in the same way… perhaps they were the same guards as well? The only things that had been changed was the flooring… it must have been warn down over the years.

Lord Inu wasn't sitting in his chair when we arrived in the room. He was standing at the table and turned the minute we entered. He had smiled at once and greeted us a lot less formally than he should have really.

"Lady Jun, it's a pleasure to see your face again. It's been too long."

"I agree." My mother was smiling again. She probably had missed her old friend.

"And Lady Kagome." He turned to me, beaming even wider. "You've matured a lot over the past year. You are truly a stunning young woman now."

I tried not to blush too hard. "You're too kind." He really was.

Over the years I'd witnessed a change in this man. He'd seemed stoic and all leader-like when I'd first met him, but he'd softened with each passing Summer, even when his wife had died he remained to let things slide and get informal. My mother said it was typical of all men, no matter what species. Age turned men weak and women strong… or that was her theory anyway.

I still liked Lord Inu more than I had. He reminded me of a cushy old Grandfather back home.

"Where's Inuyasha?" My mother inquired almost at once. She wasted no time at all…

"Oh he's coming." Lord Inu chortled happily. I ground my teeth together… this was all a ruse to make us fall in love and marry. It was so blindingly obvious, though no one had officially stated that was the purpose to these visits. I would never love or even like Inuyasha. That was the end of the matter.

He entered the room from behind us, obviously having run and was out of breath. He stopped beside us, facing his father and looked at me the same time I looked at him.

My knees went weak and my mouth grew dry. My heart started beating to a new tempo, fluttering helplessly in my chest as my breathing grew shallow. It was hard to stand so straight with the room swaying as much as it was… before I realised that it was actually me who was swaying. Sango rushed up to steady me. "What's the matter?" she asked with concern.

He was staring at me insolently, waiting for an explanation. My fluttering heart turned icy and I nearly felt my lip curl. I found myself slipping into the attitude I'd bore for him last Autumn too. "You're stench is even more overpowering this year, Inuyasha." I managed weakly. "You nearly had me faint."

"Oh what a joy this year is going to be." He grumbled and turned away from me. I waved Sango off me and looked to my mother and Lord Inu… I could see them mentally snapping their fingers in exasperation and saying 'Oh, so close!'.

That had been close. If he hadn't given me his usual arrogantly superior look I may have done something to embarrass myself. But that sudden feeling when I'd seen him… it had taken my by complete surprise and it left me shaken. What was that…?

With a droll half-sigh half-gasp Inuyasha made his presence known. "Can I go now?"

His father gave him a very disparaging look that would have withered a weak heart on the spot. Inuyasha remained unaffected. "What is it that is so important that you must miss greeting our Autumn guests?" he asked.

"Kikyo needs my help."

Kikyo… Kikyo… oh yeah, I remembered her. Resident miko and herbalist extraordinaire. I always had the impression that the miko didn't particularly care for me. I had no idea what I had done to offend her… I remembered trying to be friends with her when I'd first come here. She had been under the apprenticeship of an older miko at the time and her heart had seemed in the right place… she liked caring for people and helping old and young alike. But for some reason she'd never warmed to me. I left her alone after that.

"Kikyo?" Lord Inu echoed. "You may go… but could you please inform her that Lady Jun requires some ointment for the cold she's coming down with."

That man was amazing. My mother wasn't even sniffling yet, but he still knew when people were ill. Mother just smiled and nodded. "You're fast, Inu."

I saw Inuyasha roll his eyes at my mother. Even though I rolled my eyes all the time at her, I still felt angered that he had the nerve to do that. I glared at him sideways, glaring, but still taking in the little changes that had taken place over the last year. He seemed taller, broader in the shoulders, his jaw a little stronger… and he seemed to have filled out subtly with muscle. I swallowed hard as I realised I was glaring anymore, I was just staring in awe. Quickly I turned my face down and tried to fight the heat that rose in my cheeks. Fortunately no one noticed.

"You may go see her." Lord Inu told Inuyasha wearily and I felt him leave our side and exit the back room.

It was almost as if some heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders when he'd gone. I found myself wondering… what was that? I strongly believed that in my absence from this place Inuyasha may have learnt some form of witchcraft to make my knees so wobbly at the sight of him.

I pursed her lips as I pondered that line of thought…

"Jun, you must accompany me to the gardens," Lord Inu said suddenly. "Have you ever seen a flower garden bloom in the Autumn?"

"I haven't, that's unusual." She said as she followed him. I trailed after them. "It must be a good omen."

Or a bad one. A very bad one.

~Inuyasha~

"Different? How so?" Kikyo asked as she bent double, tending to the herbs in the small lot behind the servants quarters.

"I dunno…" I replied, picking at the wicker of the basket I was holding for her. "She just seems different this year… different from before."

"Is she pretty?" Kikyo asked bluntly.

A grimace pulled at half of my face. "What kind of a question is that?"

"A simple one." She straightened and put a few herb clippings in my basket. "Is she growing in beauty or not?"

Not something I wanted to think about… but… "Yeah. She's got a nice face I suppose." Kikyo remained quiet after I said that, and went on picking at the small plants as conversation lagged. A new thought occurred to me. "She kinda looks like you."

"I'm insulted." She said evenly. Was she really? Her tone never actually changed to indicate her mood…

"No, that's a compliment." I followed her as she moved to another row of herbs on the lot. "If she's pretty, it means you're pretty too."

I heard her sigh and continue. Women were hard to understand… hard to please. "What do you want me to say? You want me to lie and say she's ugly and plain? 'Cause that would only be insulting you."

She straightened again and headed for another lot. I followed close behind her. "Inuyasha, please do not think that my level of attractiveness runs parallel to that child's looks. The question now is what will you do? Will you marry her?"

Another strange question. Kikyo was full of them. "Of course not! I hate her!"

She made an indifferent kind of shrug as she surveyed the plants below her. "When it comes down to it, it will not be your choice whether or not you will marry her. It is your father's choice and Lady Jun's wishes that determine who and when you will marry."

Thanks for reminding me…

"But I suppose… if you were determined enough… you could always kill her and save yourself the trouble of having to live with her."

My chin jerked up to look directly into her eyes. She looked deadly serious… "Kikyo…"

Suddenly a tiny smile tilted one corner of her lips. Almost a smirk. "Don't look so horrified. I wasn't being serious." She went back to searching through the leaves of the herbs again, but her joke had sobered me a little. Sometimes Kikyo's dislike of the Princess seemed intense… "What I really meant was that you really don't have to be forced into anything… if you really don't want to marry her, you might not have to."

I gave a curt nod. "Damn right. No way am I marrying that stuck-up, annoying bubble head!"

Kikyo looked at me strangely. "But then again, would you really be willing to fight your parents for that?"

Yet another question which had me wondering what she was really asking. "What do you mean?"

"Feelings change over time." She took the basket from under my arm and placed a few leaves in it. "Perhaps this year you'll find that you won't be so adverse to marrying Lady Kagome."

"I doubt it." I snorted. "I've never wanted to marry her and I never will!"

Kikyo turned away. "We'll see." As she walked off she called over her shoulder. "Lady Jun's medicine will be ready by morning. I'll give it to one of the servants to give to her."

"Thanks." Something about Kikyo always brought out the almost non-existent polite side in me. And as she walked in response she half turned and gave me a 'you're welcome' kind of nod of the head. She disappeared into her one room house amongst the other servant's huts.

I exhaled deeply and headed back toward the main building. Kikyo had always been a puzzle to me… I doubted I'd be figuring her out any time soon. She always seemed to say one thing and mean another. She never said what she really meant… sometimes I missed the quality in her that would make her more literal for once.

I stopped by my room, feeling tired even though I'd only been awake for a small portion of the day, but it was growing increasingly dim outside and some of the servants and the younger children were going to bed. In my room I discovered something that made me want to kick myself. Miroku. Well, not only him but three more beds than there should have been.

"Oh yeah… I forgot about this." I sighed as I moved over to the window to join him. He was looking out over the compound below. "I have to share a room with that twit and two chaperones."

"Mm." Miroku's eyes were firmly fixed on something outside.

"I mean, what's the point in getting us to sleep together if they put chaperones in with us anyway? What exactly does that accomplish?!" I ground out and glared at the four beds. "Let me guess that you're chaperone number one this year?"

"Mm."

"'Mm'?" I copied. "'Mm' is all you can say now? You're usually full of wise and wonderful words, monk. What are you looking at?"

"Mm? Oh!" he pointed with his gloved hand. "Is that Lady Kagome?"

I narrowed my eyes and followed his gaze. Yep. There she was; the brainless wonder. She was standing with a girl I didn't recognise… probably her handmaid. They were both talking to a couple of servants with three children. The Princess was letting herself slip again… talking animatedly to the servants and their children, making the group laugh at the things she said. Princesses weren't supposed to tell jokes. They were supposed to stand like planks of wood with expressions of stone and look pretty and marry men so they could hand their wealth over to them. This princess seemed determined to break the mould. Like mother like daughter.

"She certainly has turned out quite lovely this year, hasn't she?" Miroku commented. My gaze slid slowly to him.

"What?" I barked.

"I mean… I never really noticed before, but she really is quite lovely." Miroku gave me a disbelieving look. "Don't tell me you hadn't noticed."

He wasn't Kikyo so I didn't feel I had to be honest. "No, I didn't notice – because there's nothing to notice!"

"Denial." Miroku said bluntly. "But look at the way her hair shines… how graceful her arms move and how sleek her skin is. Smooth curves in just the right places… an exquisite swan like neck, delicate hands…"

"Nice neck and hands. Got it." I glowered off at the darkening horizon. "Well it's better than last year. You kept going on about her breasts and ass."

"Which look splendid from where I'm sitting." He smiled to himself. "That kimono does wonders for her figure."

My hand moved of its own accord, about to hit him upside the head. It was a pity that Miroku was faster these days and read my moves before even I realised I was making them. His staff blocked my fist, jamming between my fingers painfully. I glared at him while he looked calmly back up at me. "You did that last year as well."

"Did what?"

"Reacted rather protectively when I commented on the shape of Lady Kagome's behind."

I nearly hit him again. "Don't think of her that way! She's barely even considered female – don't go making a fool of yourself by panting after her like you do everything else that moves on two legs!"

"How about her friend then?" he asked me.

I threw up my hands in disgust and went back into the room to lie on my bed. With a sigh I pillowed my head on hands and gazed up at the ceiling.

Before I knew it I was asleep. At first I was having a stupid dream… I was chasing a duck which had stolen my shoes… which somehow changed into a cat at some point then ran up a tree to where I couldn't reach it and danced arrogantly in my footwear. But strangely the dream changed to a dream about the Princess herself…

I was standing at the edge of a vast lake. Inky black and rippling ever so slightly here and there despite there being no breeze. The water seemed too thick to be real water… or real ink for that matter. The Princess was stood in the very centre of this lake, like she was standing on the surface of the water itself… she looked very sad. She looked up and saw me, smiled and waved… an odd reaction to get from her. I didn't wave back, so her face fell again and she looked down. When I followed her gaze that's when I noticed that something odd was happening. The pristine white kimono that she was wearing touched the water she stood on… and it was soaking up the water little by little. A red stain horribly like blood was creeping up her kimono, turning a deeper shade of crimson.

That dream ended quickly, only to move onto something else. I was in paradise. All the food I could possibly want surrounded me everywhere I looked… and well, that was about it. My father was stood in front of me, watching me eat. "Don't you have more important things to do than eat?" he asked me.

I shook my head and carried on eating.

"Don't you have somewhere you want to go?" he asked again. "Somewhere you want to end up?"

I shook my head again. "I'm happy here."

"You can't live in gluttony for long, son. Things change. People change."

I stopped chewing. "But I'm happy right here." I said more slowly, hoping he would understand.

"Your life is scaled small now. It'll grow. Your importance will grow. You have a destiny… you must meet it."

"My destiny?" I didn't like the idea of having a destiny, but I was intrigued. "What's my destiny then?"

He opened his mouth to reply. That's when someone stood on my chest and I felt like I had just died.

I snapped awake in an instant and jolted up into a sitting position. Looking up I saw Kagome moving towards her bed… considering the way she was walking, it looked like she'd just stepped over me to get to her futon, or more like stepped on me. "Hey!" I croaked indignantly in my sleepy voice.

"Sorry." She said rather insincerely as she knelt down to ready her futon. Beside her bed the other girl who I presumed was her handmaid and chaperone number two was already settling down in her bed. On my other side Miroku looked like he was sleeping peacefully. I seriously doubted it.

"Goodnight Sango," The Princess said to her friend and blew out her candle.

Ten seconds of shuffling and everything was quiet again. I sat dumbly for a moment, trying to retrieve some of the memory of my dream, but the harder I tried to think, the further it slipped from my mind. I quickly gave up and sighed irritably as I flopped back down onto my bed, still fully clothed.

It was going to be a long season…

AN: Done with chapter one: Back soon ^_^