Chapter One

The chanting of the man in white filled the room, ringing from wall to wall. His voice was dark and rich; if it had been stone, it would have been rubies, and if it had been colour, it would have been a deep crimson, the shade of roses or hearts' blood.

Light flared at the heart of the circle in the centre of the room, jumping and crackling like a flame plucked from the depths of a fire. It leapt and seemed to unfold, blurring through a dozen images as though trying to find some shape which the human eye could encompass.

wings

spreading arms

a burning woman


Silence fell as the flames hissed out, leaving a tall woman standing within the circle. Her pose was a combination of arrogance and anger, leashed fury and controlled pride. Light from the surrounding candles gleamed on the whiteness of her flesh, and on the slick darkness of her leather clothing and her long swirling hair.

The man in white gave her a polite inclination of his head. "Madam. Good evening."

"You. I know you." Firelight from some unseen source glittered in her eyes. "Muraki-sensei, if I recall correctly?"

"Indeed. I hope that this transit was not unduly awkward for you, madam?"

"No. You are -- most proficient." She shivered, and the masses of her hair trembled like smoke. "The meaning of this summoning?"

"Dinner, perhaps." With the toe of one polished shoe, he broke the line of the circle. "And, perhaps, the discussion of a matter of mutual interest."

The woman considered, then stepped forward with a bright gliding quickness. "You have intrigued me, Muraki-sensei. I will come."

He picked up a wrap of sables which lay to one side, and shook it out, holding it so that she could wrap it around her shoulders. As he did so, his fingers brushed the bare flesh of her arm.

They exchanged glances. There was the same spark, the same danger, in both their smiles.

---

The sushi restaurant that he took her to was so discreet that it did not even have a sign above the door; there was an expensive black door, set in a dingy white wall, and that was all. The waiter bowed his head as he took their coats and showed them to stools by the bar.

She watched, one elbow on the edge of the bar, as Muraki cleaned his hands with the hot towels, then followed his example. Her eyes were dark and predatory as she considered the world around her.

She waited while he nodded to the chef behind the counter, who nodded in response and began to mould rice.

She waited like a smouldering fire in a forest, ready at any moment to spring up in glorious fury.

"Tea?" Muraki asked.

"Thank you." She let him fill the cup, then sipped from it, ignoring the curling patterns of steam that rose from the near-boiling water.

He watched her, in turn, his visible eye as pale a silver as the metal of his glasses.

"You are -- curious?"

He shrugged. "Of course, madam. Power is always intriguing."

"Of course," she repeated, with the same inflexion as he had used. "And the exercise of that power?"

Muraki's mouth curved in a smile. "That is more than intriguing. That is -- passionately enjoyable."

The waiter had placed bowls of soup in front of them as they talked. She folded her hands around her bowl, and sipped from it, not moving her eyes from him. "We have something in common, perhaps, Muraki-sensei?"

"Perhaps a mutual interest?" he offered. "In a particular person?"

She put her bowl of soup down. The liquid slowly began to boil, the cubes of tofu at the bottom stirring and moving as bubbles rose through the soup. "Take care, Muraki-sensei."

Muraki gestured dismissively. "Madam, would I have called you here merely to insult you?"

"Possibly," she said softly, "if you thought it would be worth it."

He shook his head decisively. "But I have not. I would rather approach you in hopes of a potential pact, as I do not see that our interests necessarily conflict."

The waiter placed two small plates in front of them. On each plate lay two pieces of sushi.

"May I recommend the eel?" Muraki added. "It really is excellent at this time of year."

The woman dipped her first piece of sushi into the small puddle of soy sauce that stained the corner of her plate. "Very well. Explain."

"Our mutual interest -- well. Forgive me, madam, but I fear something of your current state is known to me. You must be summoned, as a general rule, yes? Unless desire or an unspoken wish should offer a way, and even then, it must be through someone who has a strong connection with you?"

The woman swallowed. Her hair sifted slowly over her shoulder as she nodded, eyes closing to slits for a moment, fire burning behind the veil of her dark lashes.

"Well, then. The Four Guardians do not submit themselves to a mortal man -- or even a shinigami -- out of mere whim. However kind he may be, or however great his power."

"Submit." The woman spoke the word as though she were tasting it. "Yes. One would not expect us . . . to submit."

"They might, however, seek a path out of where they are currently situated. They might seek for a summoner. And . . ." Muraki paused to eat one of his own pieces of sushi. "They might be waiting for a moment to create a new passage into this world again."

"You know a great deal." Her voice was low, amused, dangerous.

"I have contacts."

The waiter removed their empty plates, and put new ones in front of them. The dim lights glittered on the dark red flesh of the tuna sashimi.

"And what about you, Muraki-sensei?" She dangled a piece of tuna between her chopsticks. "Your interest in his body is well known to us. Your interest in his mind and soul, however -- well, while I will admire an expert in pain, I see a possible reason for us to be at odds."

"There is no reason for that." Muraki smiled. The light sparked on his glasses as he turned his head. "A little wasabi -- no? Well. What I have heard leads me to suppose that matters are about to come to a head. I am prepared to suggest that I cease all my interference, for the moment."

"Mm?" Her tongue touched the edge of her lips.

"But that, when you have finished your own dealings with him, I receive the living remainder. I take it that you will have no use for it by then?"

The woman considered. "I must think on this. A moment, please."

"Of course."

The next couple of plates of sushi passed in silence.

Over the nigiri-sushi, the woman finally said, "I believe we can agree on this. However, one other thing."

Muraki tilted his head. "Of course, if it is possible."

"I understand you have some claim to the boy?"

"Oh yes." Muraki smiled. "A charming toy."

"He -- may be necessary. What is left is unlikely to be of much use to you."

"Hnh." Muraki took a sip of tea, considering in turn. "A pity, I suppose, but -- very well. Use him as you wish."

The woman nodded. "I am glad that we could come to this agreement. Much as other forms of congress might have been more exciting . . ."

"Don't think," Muraki said softly, "that I could forget what I have seen of you."

"Or I of you." Her eyes glittered. "Few mortals could match your power. Had it been you who had opened the doors of summoning, well -- matters would have been different."

"Indeed." He reached up and brushed along the line of her cheekbone with one fingertip. "You would not have been kind or gentle. You would not have tolerated my foolishness."

"No." She tilted her head into the gesture, and her fur cape fell loose, to bare her shoulder. "You I would have tamed with fire and whip."

"And with you, madam," Muraki murmured, "I might even have fallen, in the end."

---

The halls in this place were ancient and unchanging, hung with silk and edged with ivory and gold. The woman who knelt beside the door, a biwa in her lap, might have been waiting there for years. Her robes were arranged around her in perfect order, sleeve lapping against sleeve in smooth perfection.

She looked up, however, at the sound of footsteps.

"Kouchin." The woman who swept in had discarded her sable wrap and her black leathers. She was in black silk now, and it crackled around her body as though trembling in distant flames. "Is Lord Sohryu busy?"

"No, my lady Suzaku." She lowered her eyes again. "I believe he was -- engaged with Byakko, but I do not think that he would consider that he is busy."

"Ah. Good. You may remain where you are and wait for me. I will be requiring your service later." Suzaku smiled. "I have a message for Lord Sohryu, and I believe that he will be extremely pleased."

Kouchin glanced up between her lashes. "Then matters are to proceed, my lady?"

"Indeed." Suzaku's hair and clothing rippled in unseen flames. "The hour is at hand. Let us prepare ourselves for the time of our freedom."

---

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