Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this short foray into the world of back story… especially for those who shall remain unnamed. ׃׃twinkle׃׃ A nod of recognition is bent towards Rumiko Takahashi for her creative prowess.
A Debt of Gratitude: Many thanks to Fenikkusuken for the once-over… and for the loan!
Author's Note: This oneshot was written because of the Live Journal community iy(underscore)flashfic. On the first of each month, participants' story requests are thrown into a proverbial hat, then assigned to members. If you request a fic, you get a fic. The distribution is kept a secret until the finished oneshots are posted—on the last day of that same month. Resolve fulfills a story request made by YamiKinoko. They asked for a tale in which Sessmom makes an appearance. This is what happened. I hope you enjoy it, m'dear!
This oneshot was originally posted on December 31, 2007.
The sky was still streaked with pink and gold when the tall inuyoukai slipped out of a nondescript side door, glancing into the hushed hall behind him before sliding the door closed. Nothing stirred, and amber eyes sparkled with satisfaction. Though he mentally chided himself for acting like a mere pup up to mischief, he was pleased with the success of his stealth thus far. It had been weeks since he'd employed such a covert maneuver, and even on this small scale, he felt the thrill of success and a corresponding lightness of spirit at remaining undetected. Once a soldier, always a soldier, I suppose. Perhaps I should take to stalking the corridors on a regular basis, just to break up the tedium of winter. He covered the ground with long, easy strides, consciously slowing his steps so that his foray into the chill morning looked less like the tactical retreat that it actually was. As boots crunched through the brittle crust that had formed on the irregular drifts of snow that had fallen overnight, the young lord's lips turned up in a twist of private amusement. Behold, the conquering hero, as he is reduced to skulking around corners in his own home. With a low chuckle that left his breath clouding the air, the Inu no Taisho furtively hunched his shoulders as he continued across the empty courtyard towards the nearby stables.
This winter was proving to be an especially bitter one, but that had done little to dissuade the influx of inuyoukai from outlying clans that now populated the fortress. These annual gatherings to mark the turning of the year were a long-held tradition—older than memory, which was really saying something where youkai were concerned. If he didn't miss his guess, the denizens of his household were attempting to outdo previous years' extravagances for their guests. As a child, he'd loved the tumult of preparations and the break from regular lessons, but after five days of playing the host, the taiyoukai was desperate to escape, even if it was just for a quick patrol.
The determination to do things up in fine style was understandable; there was good reason to celebrate. Over the last several decades, talk of conquest and whispers of a new threat from the mainland had put a damper on their annual observances. In fact, at this time last year, their gathering had been little more than a council of war, with the barest of nods spared to tradition. Instead, they had laid the battle plans which consumed their spring and summer months. Autumn brought victory as the barbaric hordes from the mainland were driven back with finality. With his own hand, he had wrested the demon blade So'unga from the weak-willed fool who had been driven mad by its thirst for destruction. The confrontation had cost far too many lives, but the victory they had scraped together would guarantee future peace for the Western Lands. In the aftermath of his conquest, neighboring youkai had been quick to ally themselves with the triumphant Inu no Taisho. Within a few short weeks, the great dog general found himself in the unaccustomed position of being at peace with all those whose lands abutted his own.
So, the taiyoukai stepped off the road of conquest. He quickly realized that while his prowess on the battlefield had gained him a reputation for greatness, a different kind of strength was required to maintain the territories he had claimed. Turning his attentions to leading and protecting his own, he was somewhat surprised to find that the duties of leadership suited his temperament. His advisors were filled with plans to further secure his claim and strengthen the West. They spoke endlessly of diplomacy and had great plans for the future… for my future.
Over the last few days he had noticed a disturbing trend in his interactions with the various lords and generals that looked to him. No matter where the conversations began, the topic always managed to come around to what they had euphemistically taken to calling 'establishing his reign'. Words like 'dynasty' and 'legacy' were being bandied about with alarming regularity. The taiyoukai growled under his breath and fleetingly wondered if the lot of them had attended some sort of advance meeting earlier in the month to establish a unified front, because their persistence in the matter was bordering on the ridiculous. I am surrounded… outnumbered… besieged. A year ago, they were all saying that he was 'young yet' and there would be time enough for such things later. Now, he was suddenly 'in the prime of his life' and time was wasting. Despite his best efforts to put them off, the inuyoukai of the West had decided en masse that the chief wife's pavilion had been empty for far too long, and they were eager to see the place at his side filled and his line secured by the birth of his heir.
In what was surely viewed as an effort to aid their leader in attaining a state of connubial bliss, the clans had come to this annual festival fully prepared to meet his requirements. It seemed that every general, every courtier, and even a few allies representing various other species of youkai, had arrived with their daughters in tow. Everywhere he turned, there was an obsequious youkai who wished for a moment of his time, a private word, a humble favor. He had been fielding subtle, unsubtle, and even a few vaguely unsuitable invitations to become better acquainted with marriageable young females. In fact, the competition to catch his eye was being followed with greater interest than the various games and contests that had been arranged as festival entertainments.
In their jockeying for his attention, they'd begun searching for creative ways to edge out their rivals and gain an audience with their leader to present their case. Their growing boldness was the reason behind this morning's stealthy exit. Many of his men knew him to be an early riser, and had tried to take advantage by catching him before most of the fortress had begun to stir. After enduring pre-dawn interruptions two days running, the taiyoukai had decided to take preemptive measures and absent himself from his quarters before the day's invasion of his privacy began. A couple hours' peace is not too much to ask, surely.
He understood their hopes, even sympathized with them to some degree, but their sense of urgency was impinging upon his own short term plans. It wasn't as if he intended to shirk his duty; he merely hoped to delay the inevitable for a time so that he could give his full attention to setting the West in order. The task before him required focus, and the last thing he needed right now was the distraction of courtship. Unfortunately, his advisors disagreed, and based on what he'd overheard during the previous evening's dinner conversations, they were allowing rumors to proliferate. Apparently, it was common knowledge that the Inu no Taisho would be making his choice and announcing his betrothal on the first day of the New Year, just two days hence.
Late last night, he had cornered a few of the interfering old-timers, sharing a few choice words and making his position known in no uncertain terms. They'd listened politely, declared ignorance as to the source of the rumor, and then proceeded to point out that the scheme had several merits and would make for an auspicious start to the coming year. The taiyoukai snorted at the way they'd tried to handle him. They'd actually had the temerity to pretend a betrothal was his idea all along.
Two days. It wasn't much time to make a choice that would intimately affect his entire future, though as a general, he was certainly accustomed to making life-changing decisions on the spur of the moment. You come immediately to mind, he directed with some asperity towards the sword that had not left his presence since coming into his hands. So'unga did not deign to answer, but radiated a fair approximation of a sneer from its place between the taiyoukai's shoulder blades.
To a certain degree, the entire predicament amused him. Here he was: the acknowledged alpha male of all the clans, rightful ruler of the Western Lands, trusted defender of those who gave their allegiance to his house… and yet they thought him ill-equipped to choose a mate. Now there's a vote of confidence. I may be young yet, but I'm no fool. He couldn't really depend on the objectivity of his advisors—too many of them had daughters and granddaughters. Even the most trustworthy probably had aspirations, or at the very least, ambitious wives pressing for the perceived honor of closer ties to himself. Let them scheme all they like. They might connive a way to force me into a choice, but I will damned well make it on my own terms.
Taking a mate wasn't that much different than building an alliance, which was really all he expected from his impending betrothal. The role of mate to the Inu no Taisho carried with it certain expectations and responsibilities, and the onus fell on him to choose a female capable of fulfilling them. The taiyoukai was quite sure that by the end of the week, he would have been introduced to every eligible female of good breeding in the West. He hadn't the time or inclination to fall in love—especially in the prescribed timeframe—and since he didn't want any of them, he would simply have to decide which female would be the least objectionable.
Reaching the stable doors without interference, the taiyoukai gratefully ducked into the relative warmth of the cavernous building. Several heads turned at his entrance, and a chorus of soft chirrups erupted from the closest pens. He nodded wordlessly to Shu, who offered a casual salute from his perch on one of the enclosures' gates. The soft-spoken former soldier had volunteered to stay on at the fortress, serving as head of the stables. He and his two sons had an affinity for the strange tenbaryu, who were neither horse nor dragon, yet encompassed many of the best features of each species. These so-called 'lesser youkai' served as steeds for his troops and were unparalleled for speed, endurance, and intelligence, often forming strong bonds with their riders. Shu was playing idly with the forelock of one of the mares as he kept his eyes trained on a point somewhere further down the central passage. Before the taiyoukai could give voice to any questions, the groom held up a finger for silence, and with a wink, nodded in the direction he'd been keeping watch.
Arching a brow in surprise, he followed Shu's line of sight to where a slender figure stood at a cautious distance from one of the enclosures. Though it was not unusual for children to explore the stables, they generally came in groups and certainly not at this hour. This girl stood very straight, the wide hood of her fur-lined cloak thrown back as she gazed dispassionately at the tenbaryu in the pen opposite. At his questioning look, Shu shrugged his ignorance. "This is the third day in a row," the groom confided in a bemused undertone. "She just… watches," he added, gesturing towards his silent guest.
Curiosity piqued, the Western Lord strolled slowly towards the girl, trying to place her within the clans. It was not difficult, for as he neared, he recognized her distinctive markings. Long, silvery hair was neatly parted and twisted back into shell-like combs, leaving the graceful crescent of a waning moon proudly on display—just like her father's. The indigo marking was complimented by a set of single, magenta stripes that swept across her high cheekbones. Shimosakamaru was one of his generals, a poison-user whose holdings were in the northernmost reaches of the West, on the coast. He was a trustworthy inuyoukai, with several grown sons also in the Inu no Taisho's service. It occurred to the taiyoukai that this girl could actually be either daughter or granddaughter to Shimosakamaru.
Though she never moved her head, luminous yellow eyes slanted towards him, and after a quick assessment, returned to the creatures milling about in their box, leaving the taiyoukai with the impression that he had been dismissed as uninteresting. The family resemblance continues, he noted with an inward smirk, for Shimosakamaru often managed to make him feel like a callow youth. Keeping his tone casual, he addressed the girl. "Good morning, my lady. What brings you to the stables at this early hour?"
Her answer, when it came, was unadorned. "We do not have tenbaryu. I wished to look at them," she announced in a voice that was light and remote.
She is here because she wishes to be here, eh? Hearing Shimosakamaru's usual brand of reasoning fall from the lips of a mere girl—and so convincingly—brought a faint smile to the Inu no Taisho's face. He considered her carefully. Though she was tall, he suspected that a decade or two were needed yet in order for her to reach full maturity. That's probably why she wasn't been presented to me during the week along with all the others… though on second thought, the taiyoukai wondered if her family would have tried in any case. The girl's clan had a reputation for being quite proud, and he really couldn't see Shimosakamaru attempting to curry favor in such a manner.
The young lord ambled over to the enclosure she had been watching so avidly and reached out a hand to the green-scaled tenbaryu within. The stallion arched its sinewy neck, shook its dark mane, then butted against the inuyoukai's palm with obvious affection. "Would you like me to introduce you to Ryouma-san here? He's quite friendly."
The tenbaryu in question tipped his head and blinked large, pewter eyes invitingly, even offering a soft croon of encouragement to his admirer. Her lips turned down in a pretty pout before she replied, "I am not allowed."
Interesting. I wonder if her parents even know she is here every morning. "Is that so?" he said offhandedly, hoping to invite more information. He lounged against the gate, crossing his ankles and waiting patiently as he rubbed at a sensitive patch behind Ryouma's ear.
His unspoken request was not lost on the girl, though her next comment came after a reluctant pause. "Mother dislikes tenbaryu," she stated primly. The implicit 'though I do not' hung in the silence between them.
"Ah, I see. Is that why you have none back home?"
"Hnn," she murmured with a flat look that served to chastise him for wasting words on something so obvious.
Well, she's certainly not one for small talk. A second animal, one of the mares this time, jostled her way to the front of the stall and nipped at the taiyoukai's sleeve. As he smoothed a hand over supple bronze scales, he studied the girl out of the corner of his eye. From this vantage point, her guarded expression was much easier to read, and he could see the interest and appreciation flickering in her eyes. Why does she linger so near something that she's determined to deny herself? He had to know. "If you're not permitted to touch the tenbaryu, then why are you here?"
The question brought her eyes to his again, and this time the girl's gaze was speculative. Her glance flicked from the jagged violet markings on his cheeks to the silver topknot, then lingered for half a beat on the sword hilt visible over his right shoulder. Her answer, when it came, was accompanied by a slight shrug. "She did not say I couldn't look."
"No one would know," he pointed out in carefully measured tones, watching the girl with interest. She arched a brow at him, but did not dignify his suggestion with an answer. Drawing her cloak more closely about her shoulders, she deliberately turned away from him, ostensibly to look at the occupants of a neighboring enclosure, but the taiyoukai felt the censure in her actions. The little minx actually thinks less of me for suggesting it. The taiyoukai couldn't resist pressing further to see what she would say. "What if I were to offer to speak with your father, explain things, take the blame for you?"
Without hesitation, she crisply retorted, "I will not."
There was little doubt that the girl knew who he was and the authority he possessed, and yet she refused to take advantage of his position. He frowned thoughtfully as he pushed himself away from the gate and strode forward, placing himself squarely in the girl's line of sight as he quietly addressed her. "Why is that, my lady?"
She did not shrink from his presence, despite his greater height and commanding presence. If anything, she straightened further as if bracing herself to meet the challenge he presented. "It would not be honorable," she explained haughtily.
The Inu no Taisho's eyes crinkled and a rumble of approval thrummed through his chest. For a moment, the girl's face betrayed her astonishment, and he chuckled to see her quick mind sort out the fact that he may have just been testing her. Color rose in her cheeks and she dropped her eyes submissively. The taiyoukai shook his head over the child's belated obeisance, but the triumph of actually earning her respect outweighed the slight of its being withheld earlier. When she was ready to meet his eyes again, he spoke kindly. "Honor is important to you, isn't it?" he smiled.
"Of course," she declared proudly, lifting her small, pointed chin.
"I am pleased to know it, my lady," he declared with grave courtesy. "Now if you will excuse me?" She bowed quite correctly, and he nodded before moving further down the stable corridor, headed for Yuudai's pen. One of Shu's sons already had the large black tenbaryu in his harnesses, and the stallion fidgeted eagerly at the prospect of getting out into the open. As he mounted, the taiyoukai glanced back down the central passage to where the girl stood watching. Nothing but her eyes betrayed her fascination with the prancing, clawing, gleaming tenbaryu on which he sat, but their yellow-gold depths shone with pleasure at seeing the creature's antics. Reaching forward, he gave Yuudai's shoulder a slap. "I'm beginning to think I should be jealous, old friend," he murmured as he guided his steed towards the doors.
As taiyoukai and stallion left the fortress far beneath them, the girl stayed on his mind. She is her father's daughter indeed—a tribute to her house. I wonder if I can mention this morning's exchange to Shimosakamaru without getting the girl into trouble. She had both amused and impressed him. For one so young to place such a high value on honor, he knew that its value must have been instilled in her from infancy. It made sense, for Shimosakamaru's family was close-knit, somewhat reclusive, and had a reputation for strict but fair leadership. His admiration for their clan had increased tenfold in the last hour. What a fine legacy to secure… for one's… children…
What would happen if I… The Inu no Taisho's mind raced through the pros and cons and possible consequences of following through with his sudden whim. This could be my answer. Shimosakamaru's lineage was exceptionally strong, and offered the possibility of passing along the ability to use poison—a rare and formidable asset. The girl had shown that she could be respectful, and if this morning's exchange was any indicator, she wouldn't fear him unnecessarily. He had no doubt that she could rise to the challenges that her role at his side would bring. The taiyoukai drummed his fingers against his thigh as his excitement over the new plan grew.
The girl's regal bearing, her loyalty, her tenacious will, her sense of honor—they would surely combine well with his own strengths to produce an exemplary heir. He nodded firmly, mind made up. She will do. Really, his choice was quite diplomatic. He would meet the court's requirement by announcing his betrothal in two days time, but the arrangement was also perfectly suited to his own plans for the future. A wicked gleam flashed through amber eyes as he tightened his hold on Yuudai's reigns. He couldn't wait to see their faces when those wily old schemers realized that his future mate would require several years—decades even—to grow into the responsibilities that lay before her. They would protest, albeit politely, but his reasoning for the selection was sound. The girl was eminently suited to the role, and he defied any of his meddling advisors to find fault with his future mate. A decidedly smug smile curved across his lips. They may have besieged me, but I have outmaneuvered them.
When the time came for him to name his intended, he would be ready. The taiyoukai hesitated a moment, then wryly amended, Well, I'll be able to name her once I actually know her name. It wouldn't do to get ahead of himself now; a few careful inquiries would garner the pertinent information. He'd just have to have a word with Shimosakamaru after breakfast. Provided the girl wasn't already spoken for, he would let the general know of his intentions and set his retainers to work laying out the marriage contract. The solution pleased him—the court would have their New Year's announcement, he would have his respite, and in due course, the Western Lands would have an heir... his heir... and a legacy of strength and honor to carry into the future.
End Note: The unusual reptilian-equine creatures in the Inu no Taisho's stables are predecessors to Sesshoumaru's own steed, Ah-Un. Tenbaryu is a coined term, which is roughly translated "celestial horse-dragon", and comes compliments of mine beta. Fenikkusuken incorporates tenbaryu to good effect in her I/K epic The Phoenix Blade: Time Lapse, and was kind enough permit my usage of the apt moniker in Resolve. 3,615 words.