Chapter 48: The Quickening
A sweetly scented wind sprite darted past the four people walking in the gardens of the Setsuna Winter Palace, causing Izayoi's unbound hair to be swept to the side and forward as well as her robes, and to the three males walking with her, she made a most beautiful picture. While her father and brother merely looked on with smiling eyes, Touga's were glued to her, a bright and shining golden gaze that made her heart beat faster just from its touch upon her.
He always had that affect on her, even here, walking in one of her childhood homes. He was just so much larger than life, so very powerful and virile and male that she couldn't help it. She dropped her eyes as a blush washed across her face. She always felt so awed when she looked at him, but it was inevitable, really. What else could she be when thoughts of his power and prowess, his loving, yet sometimes stern nature, and his personality and beauty dragged the accompanying information that he was hers – all hers! - along behind them?
Nothing. And so she didn't even try to fight off the feeling, deciding to revel in it, instead. She looked up and caught her husband's eye upon her and smiled widely, her joy in him easy for anyone to see, even the blind. His smile and glittering gaze was just as happy.
For several long seconds the couple stayed that way, entwined within each other's eyes, and then the moment was past as a couple of chuckles drew Izayoi and Touga's attention to their companions. Izayoi's earlier slight blush darkened, while Touga joined the indulgent chuckles of the other two with his own beautiful laugh.
"She is my pride and joy, and I take much pleasure in seeing her this way," he said to the others in explanation, his satisfaction increasing to almost euphoric heights.
For some reason, when he'd awoken this morning at dawn he'd felt better, more energetic, and just downright more pleased with life than he'd felt in months. Since his wedding, actually, funnily enough. It felt as though some dreadful weight - though it took no guesses to figure out what the aforementioned weightwas - had been eased from his shoulders, and life in all its glory was singing in his veins.
It was the way most youkai felt as springtime brought vitality back to the world... though the feeling was usually not quite this effervescent. This time he felt so elated that it was almost primal, leaving his blood singing and high within him. The most odd part, however, was that the same thing seemed to be affecting his wife, and in just as great a way as it was him. It felt like... like some fundamental thing was just all of a sudden right.
He had no idea what that could be, but the feeling was so intense that he met his mate's eyes with a grin. "You feel it as well," he stated more than asked, unsurprised when she just nodded.
"Feel what?" Hiraku asked curiously, though he was still smiling.
It seemed to Touga that whatever it was he and his mate was feeling was so right that even those not normally as much in touch with their instincts could feel it. He could only hope that whatever it was, it was something that would give them the upper hand in all the dark things that were playing out around them.
"That something good has happened, though I have no idea what that might be. And a most powerful sense of hope, as well," Izayoi said in response to her father's question, her eyes still held by her husband and that joyous expression just as vivid.
"Yes," Touga responded, tilting his head into the breeze and inhaling with a deep sense of satisfaction.
"Is that what that feeling is?" Ichirou asked, his head cocked with a peculiar smile on his face.
"Mhmm," Izayoi murmured, lifting her own face into the sun and closing her eyes, though she couldn't seem to stop smiling. She had no idea why she was feeling this way, why any of them were, but she wasn't going to argue with it. After all the darkness they'd suffered through already, they needed the boon this glimpse of the light truly was.
"If I might offer an activity that will only heighten all the feel-good energies surrounding us?"
Ichirou, Touga, and Izayoi paused and looked at an oddly-smiling Hiraku.
After a few seconds, Touga answered. "I'm intrigued," he allowed, one brow in his bangs as the expression on his face changed a little to add curiosity to the mix.
"I thought that perhaps you and my daughter would like to visit the new village being built on Setsuna lands, since you both have an interest in the matter?" Hiraku replied as Ichirou nodded.
Izayoi's face lit up even more, and Touga grinned. "I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we would be delighted to take such a trip."
Hiraku's smile widened. "Very good, then! Do you wish to travel by human means," he teased, "or by a youkai's much faster abilities?"
Glancing between the three men with her and then looking up to judge the time, Izayoi turned to her husband. "Perhaps if we flew together, and Kirara could take my father and brother, my lord, it would be much quicker. If we went by carriage, we wouldn't even arrive at the site until late evening, I don't think, and then we'd have to stay the night there."
Touga paused, considering. Then he nodded slowly. "Hai, that is so. I think it would be easier if we flew. Then we could spend the day touring the village, taking in what they've accomplished so far and yet have planned, and still make it back here before the evening meal."
The smile on her father's face become a very mischievous grin, and she giggled a little behind her hand at the expression.
"I was hoping you would say that, Touga, my friend," he teased, looking almost like an excited little boy. "I find that I quite enjoy flying."
The inuyoukai laughed genially, and Izayoi turned with a smile and an, "I will go get Kirara – she was going to the kitchens hoping for some fish."
Her family and husband agreed and watched as she walked away, then fell into easy conversation as they waited for her return.
Hiraku glanced around after a few minutes, and finding a servant passing through the gardens, summoned his assistant to give him notice that they would be leaving for the day but would return by the evening meal. Once that was attended to, he tuned back into the talk Touga and his son were engaging in.
"-many survivors from the villages were there in total?"
Ichirou frowned a little, his mind going to what he'd been told by some of the displaced people about the attacks on their hidden villages. And even worse, he could still hear the report by Hisashi of what they'd found when they'd gone to assist those few hanyou children with finding any survivors of the first attack.
He'd rarely been that ill in his entire life.
Yes, life was tough. It was dangerous. There were bandits, dark miko, dangerous youkai, dangerous humans and animals, all sorts of terrible things that could and did happen on any given day. But some things were just so dark, so horrifying, that most beings couldn't even begin to understand how anyone could be that unrelentingly evil. He was one of those. He didn't understand it at all.
He didn't want to, he realized, because if he could understand it, then he'd only be giving himself away as something just as evil. And he never wanted to become that, ever. He was perfectly content to remain Ichirou, to stay himself. There was no need to be more than that, and truly no desire, either.
"Thirty-seven adults and sixteen children," he said, his eyes far away as he succumbed to his decidedly dark thoughts for the moment.
Touga, realizing where the young man's mind had wandered off to from the look on his face, cleared his throat and decided that perhaps a change in subject was in order. This day was too right and alive to allow darkness to cloud it.
"So, Ichirou," he began, a small smile on his face, "where is your wife this morning? She was not at breakfast."
"Oh," he shook himself out of his upsetting contemplations and focused on his sister's husband, "she decided to remain abed. She said she was feeling a little under the weather and still tired."
Looking a little concerned, Hiraku asked, "Has the palace healer seen to her?"
The Setsuna heir shook his head. "She assured me it was not necessary. I thought perhaps that it was her woman's time when she denied there being anything truly wrong."
"Ah," Hiraku said, while Touga merely nodded understandingly.
"It has seemed that you and she have grown closer since last year," the inuyoukai inquired politely but vaguely, not wanting to seem as though he were trying to push his way into the couple's private affairs.
Ichirou's cheeks creased in a slight smile as his eyes dropped and went far away again, although this time to contemplate much more enjoyable things. "Aa. She is... not what I had been beginning to expect from some of her behavior last summer. I think... that we understand each other fairly well now."
"I'm glad to hear that, Ichirou," Izayoi's voice broke in to the conversation, and the three males turned as one to watch her approach. "I had hoped you would find happiness together," she smiled.
He smiled back at her but his glance fell on his sister's companion with a bit of excitement. His father was right – flying was fun. He could wish that he had his own youkai companion that could fly, but since that wasn't going to happen, he informed them he would take every advantage of any offer his sister or Kirara put forward for him to get a ride. The firecat looked at him and then trotted over and rubbed against his leg through his na-bakama with a short, raspy purr.
Izayoi chuckled. "She says she's glad you enjoy flying with her."
Bowing roguishly, the Setsuna heir grinned a little cheekily. "I most certainly do, my lady neko," he said as the others laughed and Kirara rubbed against him once more with a delicate little mew before flaring into her larger form and presenting her back so that Ichirou and his father could mount.
Once everyone was situated Touga lifted from the ground, his cloud forming under him, and Kirara leapt into the air to follow him. Hiraku thought to wonder how the daiyoukai would find where the new village was located, but when he asked he was told - with a playfully smug grin - that Touga could already catch the hanyou and youkai scents on the wind and knew where they were located.
"I had never thought I would say this, but I wish I had been born youkai," Hiraku chuckled. "It never occurred to me that I was missing so very much as a ningen."
But then, while you might be missing much you're also missing less, since a human's gift is to love freely and without question. A youkai can rarely do this. Touga chose not to say anything aloud, though. It would just be another way to make the day more somber than it had started. He wanted to keep this day light and joyous, as it hadn't been in so long.
It didn't really take too long for them to arrive in the vicinity of the new village what with their form of transportation, and far too soon for two of them the trip was over and Kirara was landing. Izayoi couldn't help but grin at the twin pouts on father's and son's faces. Touga just shook his head and smirked knowingly.
It had rained recently, the blustery, overpowering rains of spring leaving their marks on the ground even these days later. The mud had Izayoi stepping carefully as they headed towards the small village that was slowly coming to life. They didn't get far before they were greeted, Touga's aura reaching out to notify the villagers that he was there.
Yozei was the first to reach them, and he bowed deeply to his alphas, and then bowed equally as deeply to his lord, Hiraku, and his heir. While it might seem that he had a dangerous problem with his differing and split allegiances, in truth it wasn't so at all. Since the Lady Izayoi was both the alpha female of the overpack of the inuyoukai clan, and the daughter of his Lord, he knew he wouldn't be called on to betray his allegiance to either. And as well, the Setsuna Lord and the Inu no Taisho were allies and even friends, it was easy to see. No, Yozei had no fears in that direction.
"Hiraku-sama, Touga-sama, Izayoi-sama, Ichirou-sama, onegai-shimasu - be welcome to our humble village. We are honored by your visit."
"Yozei," Hiraku nodded in acknowledgment, the others following him split seconds later with their own nods – and in Izayoi's case, smile. "How are things here going?"
"Very well, my lord," the inuyoukai reported, a smile breaking out on his face. "We've already got just over half of the huts finished, and the village's storehouse is almost done, as well. Would you care to take a full tour, or a shortened one for the lady's sake?"
Hiraku didn't even have to think about that one. He knew exactly what his daughter would say. "We would like the full tour, Yozei. There is no need to worry about having to coddle Izayoi. She is more than capable of marching ten times as much and still fighting a battle."
Truthfully unsurprised by that confidence after meeting her the previous summer, Yozei's nodded politely and he gestured for the others that had followed him out to move aside so they could start showing their lord what they had begun there. With deep bows from all they did so, and the party moved further towards the village, finally breaching the perimeter and continuing on inside it.
Satori stared at the one in front of her as she followed silently along behind her. She was disgusted. This was the bitch that thought she was powerful enough to stand by Touga's side, and she couldn't even tell she was being followed. She had no doubt that Izayoi would have already felt her presence, whether she could be seen or not. And Teruko thought she was stronger than the Western Lady. Hmph. If Touga had bothered to mate her back when he was having that affair with her, I would have killed her before the bond had even settled, no matter what war I started. There's no way I would ever bow to her as the Lady here. Never.
It's a good thing for his sake that he has much better taste than that.
Of course, she'd never understood why he'd even rutted Teruko the few times he had. If he'd needed female company, there were plenty of much better choices in the palace. She snickered inwardly. It hadn't taken him long to realize that she was a poor bedmate, though. Most that slept with the wench once or twice never went back again unless they were desperate – not because she didn't know how to please a male, but because she was so cold even during such a time that she left her companion just as cold. Too bad that Izayoi was human and so wouldn't find amusement in sneaking in and watching the female make a fool of herself in bed. She'd done so once or twice when she'd been really bored, though mostly she'd been there because the ones Teruko had been rutting had been of interest for one reason or another.
Of the three males that she had personally watched Teruko dally with, the second had been the most interesting because of his 'imperial ambitions'. He'd been stupid enough to set himself against the alpha, though he'd done it in secret and behind Touga's back, proving he was nothing more than a coward. If he'd wanted to become the Western Lord, then he should have had the honor to challenge Touga to formal combat for rule of the West. That's how it was supposed to be done. And while she was not in love with her son's father, she cared a great deal for him. Touga was one of her closest friends, and she wasn't about to let the dishonorable cur plot something that could, by the remotest possible chance, kill him.
Not to mention the fact that he was her son's father, and despite the attitude Sesshoumaru'd had for some time now, she knew he loved and revered his father. Besides... she would never have bowed to the bastard in that bed getting such a mediocre fuck. She'd as soon have ripped his throat out. And she wasn't remotely stupid. If he had succeeded in killing Touga with his plotting, her son would have gone the same route right after, and there was no way in hell that she would ever allow that.
So, when she'd caught the very vague scent of betrayal and dishonor coming from the male that Teruko had been pursuing as a supposedly discreet bedmate, she'd decided to investigate, and when she'd gathered enough information she'd gone straight to Touga with all of it.
That had been the end of that fool... a most fitting and gruesome end. He'd been made example of as Touga had toyed with him, first verbally until the idiot had finally gotten the idea that the Lord of the West knew what he'd been planning, and then the alpha had challenged him to combat when he'd tried to run and proceeded to tear him apart piece by piece in front of every denizen of Kangetsu - slowly.
As she'd said, a fool. Touga was first and foremost a predator, and you never ran from a predator. They only pursued you all the quicker, as the bastard should have known, since he had also been a predator. He'd just been a really poor, weak one.
Her full lips pulled back in a self-satisfied grin, her fangs glinting in the soft firelight of the halls as she passed. She was most certainly a predator as well, and Teruko had been begging for her death for years. Her plots to kill Izayoi had just sealed the deal. She, Satori, was going to take much pleasure in killing that bitch as slowly as possibly, and as painfully as possibly, too.
Frankly, Teruko needed to die, and she was more than aware that Izayoi didn't enjoy killing. This way, she wouldn't have to. And the best part was that nobody would be able to scoff at the human Lady and her lack of killing instinct, they wouldn't be able to make anyone doubt her suitability for her position. Everyone knew she'd hated Teruko for years and even claimed her as her prey. The female's plots against Izayoi would just be taken by the rest of Kangetsu as her excuse to finally gut the bitch.
She'd been following Teruko almost every day for weeks now, hoping to get anything she could on her before killing her so that her family could in no way protest or have a right to seek vengeance. And anytime that she hadn't been on her tail, one of her littlest servants had been. Much like Myoga had for Touga, Meiri had worked for her as a spy for centuries, and she'd never had cause to regret her association with the tiny mite. She wasn't regretting it now, either – Meiri had already given her some very good information about some of those that Teruko was rubbing shoulders with, and though the uppity bitch she was now following hadn't given away anything concrete yet, it was only a matter of time before she did. She wasn't the smartest creature out there, though she was cautious enough currently because she knew she was plotting treason and the murder of the Lady. Yes, they all knew what she was doing... now all they needed was proof, and she was going to get that proof one way or another – and then destroy the wench.
She chuckled inwardly as she thought of Touga's probable reaction to Teruko's death at her hands. He would be furious, possibly even furious enough to force her submission publicly because there was no doubt that he would want to kill the female himself, to revel in her blood, pain, and fear. Eventually though, he would get over it, especially since she'd have no problem submitting in front of all of Kangetsu just to get the chance to sink her claws into the bitch. Yes, she was a proud female. But she'd hated Teruko for centuries, and even more now, because she had a very large fond spot for Izayoi and would gladly kill anyone that tried in any way to harm her. She owed that young woman a great deal, after all.
Becoming intrigued – and a bit concerned - by the direction they were traveling in, Satori looked around with narrowed eyes. This was a part of the palace that she hadn't been near in centuries, and Teruko had no need to be here, ever. She shouldn't even know about this place. Interesting, she thought. Just what is she doing down here?
Below the level of the dungeons, in places that most did not even know existed, was a secret area that went deep into the mountain that Kangetsu soared above. These caves and chambers had one purpose – they were areas for breeding of a certain type of dragon youkai. These dragons had never been under Ryukotsussei's rule, and in fact he didn't even know of their existence. They were not daiyoukai, but were somewhat lower in nature as they had no humanoid form and less general intelligence than one of his stature, and their dragon forms were... odd. They didn't look like the normal dragons of these lands, and that was because they were from lands far to the west, much, much farther than the continent. No... these dragons were from Europe.
Touga had been breeding them here for centuries. He'd come across them when he'd met with an old friend, an inuyoukai from one of the regions that these dragons called home, to negotiate a meeting sometime in the future between Sesshoumaru, and this other inuyoukai's daughter. There was to be no forced mating for politics, as some would have done. No, Touga would not allow his son to be forced into anything as permanent as a mating with some female he couldn't stand or was not attracted to. It was another reason that Satori would always be very fond of her son's father, even if she'd never been in love with him. She knew that he would always love their son, and that was enough. At any rate, upon the signing of the contract the inuyoukai, by name Durion, had given Touga two breeding pairs of European dragons, and thus, the West's first foray into breeding them had begun.
To begin with Touga hadn't been certain what he would use them for, but as time had gone on and the trouble with Ryukotsussei had gotten worse, he had decided that they would perhaps make a very good surprise for him if he ever tried to attack Kangetsu. And so the dragons from another land had become the secret guardians of the citadel and the city below it, always staying out of sight of the citizens and responding to no one's commands except Touga's – and the few that he had given his authority to. Even Izayoi didn't know about this place or the guardians, though Satori knew it was just because their alpha simply hadn't remembered to tell her about them what with everything else that had happened since their mating.
All that aside, Teruko certainly shouldn't know about this part of the palace, and Satori now really wanted to know what was going on and how she'd found out. As well as why she would enter the area, anyway. What was she hoping to accomplish down here?
She hissed inwardly and her eyes widened a little as she passed through some sort of energy field and suddenly found her senses dulled. A very high-level barrier had just gone up around the area, and Teruko had continued on around a bend ahead and disappeared for a moment, seemingly unsurprised by the barrier or its effects – which meant that either she was its progenitor, or she was down here to meet with someone and that person had been the one to put it up. Either way, its presence was bad.
Slipping forward on silent and currently invisible feet, Satori slunk forward until she was pressed against the boulder which the path vanished around and peeked past it, extremely cautious now despite her cloaked form. Even with being rendered invisible to most, if whoever was down here with Teruko was strong enough, he or she could possibly detect something of her presence, and that wouldn't be a good thing. And so she fought off her natural desire for confrontation and kept herself hidden as carefully as possible – she was getting a very bad feeling about this situation.
A vague muttering ahead began to become clearer the more she tightened her senses and focused them, despite the barrier currently trying to render them down to a human's much lesser abilities, and Satori forced her power to push the effects of the barrier back as much as possible without giving herself away. She needed to hear what was being said by Teruko and whoever it was she was down here meeting immediately. Slowly she managed to press against the blanketing energy smoothly enough that it shouldn't be noticed, and the conversation taking place began to become clearer as the murmuring of a moment before coalesced into words.
"... you so determined to take one who discarded you in the manner he did and mate him just to gain the title? I have familial claim to Kangetsu and the west, as Touga is a cousin. Get your clan to back me, and then when Touga and Sesshoumaru fall, I will take you as my mate. In one fell swoop you would become Lady and mother of the future heir."
"You may be a cousin," Teruko said to the male, whose back was to Satori and who was hidden behind heavy robes and a deep cowl, "but you are simply one of more than a dozen. Why should I tie my hand to yours rather than one of them?"
The voice of the male, which was guttural and odd-sounding and clearly being disguised somehow, responded almost mockingly. "Because I have something that none of the rest of them do – knowledge of this place and just what it is that my dear cousin is doing down here. This is what will give me the edge to be able to attempt a coup – and succeed where others have failed."
Satori's eyes narrowed. Just who was this? Touga had several cousins as Teruko had pointed out, most of which had seemed in good standing with him though he wasn't close to but a few. And how was what was down here going to help them? In fact, she wasn't aware that any of them had even known of what was beneath Kangetsu. Only the handlers, Kenji, she herself, Sesshoumaru, and Touga were supposed to know.
One of the handlers had to have turned traitor, and this being had become involved somehow. She would have to see if she could find out how the leak had begun, and with who. The handlers had been trusted by Touga for centuries, and had been loyal all that time. So why had one – or possibly more – suddenly turned on him? What had this cousin offered to them?
Perhaps, she reluctantly decided, she might have to forego taking Teruko's life for the good of the west. At least for now. Later, though... once the bitch was no longer so full of useful information, then things could change. She tuned back into the conversation as the heinous bitch asked what in kami's name he was talking about, and why they'd had to meet down there in the first place.
"Suffice it to say that what is down here is enough to give me just the edge I need to take the west away from Touga. Take this offer to your father, and have him meet with me here in two days at this same time if he is interested enough in my proposition to be curious. If he isn't here then I will take it as meant that your clan isn't interested and I'll take myself elsewhere for an alliance. Fair enough?"
"Why did you contact me first?"
The male laughed in response, and Satori's attention was firmly grabbed; why had the male contacted Teruko first of those that would possibly be willing to support a coup? Chiaki's clan and Rika's clan would be just as interested in the possibilities of what the male was offering, and were pretty much of equal standing with Teruko's family. Why not one of them?
"Oh, I felt as though your assistance would be a little more... how should I say this... fervent, perhaps? The entire citadel knows of the hatred you have for the human wench that Touga brought in. You, more than any of the others, took a rather personal offense to her presence. That, my dear lady, is why," the male responded facetiously.
Satori huffed softly, the sound no more than a brief sussuration of air. That's not all by far, though. There's some other reason. But what? What could Teruko give him that one of the others couldn't?
It was apparent that the meeting taking place just ahead was about to end, and Satori set the matter aside for the moment so she could continue to follow Teruko – at least until she was back into the citadel above. She certainly didn't want the bitch to try to head deeper into the caverns and discover for herself what was down there. There was a barrier across the doorway into the caverns where the dragons were kept, but just in case, she wanted to make sure she couldn't force her way past it – though it was unlikely, as she wasn't that powerful. It was just too dangerous a chance, however, which even this potential ally of Teruko's family had obviously already figured out, since he'd not actually told the bitch what it was that was hidden there. There was no telling the havoc she could create if she chose to disseminate that information to others.
A few minutes later, as soon as the male had redirected another inquiry into the nature of his plan and what was down there, Teruko got tired of trying and left in a huff, sweeping past Satori's hidden form with inches to spare, and still not aware that she was even being watched. She followed, her features tight and irritated. The bitch's schemes would just never end. She'd been telling Touga for centuries that Teruko needed to die, but he'd been reluctant to take such a forward action against her and her family because of their standing for less than the most heinous crime. Either way, whether it was her recent suspected plots against Izayoi, or this, now he'd have no choice but to accede and either kill the bitch himself, or let someone else do it as soon as they had enough proof to appease any who might question things.
A candlemark later found her summoning Kenji and her son to Touga's study.
Time to let them in on what she'd already found out, and search for anything more that they could. Touga and Izayoi were supposed to be home soon, and she wanted to have as much information about what was going on as she could to hand over to them.
Two days later found she and Kenji back in the same place and hidden even more carefully than she had been the first time. Neither had any doubt that Teruko's father, Sen, would be there, so they had arrived early so as to be in place already when he and this 'cousin' appeared.
Kenji and her son had both been just as disconcerted as she had been to find out about what had been leaked, and especially to whom. And even worse, that it was at the current time! They still had Ryukotsussei out there somewhere to deal with, and he was enough of a danger even without his armies that they could ill afford something like this right now. That wasn't even including what was going on with Takemaru and Izayoi's family, as Kenji was most definitely aware.
Just when you think everything's as bad as it can possibly be, it gets worse. The universe is truly a capricious bitch. Kenji knew full well that was usually the case, but it would be nice to get a break once in a while. Couldn't all these scheming bastards just line up and take their shots one at a time instead of all at once? Of course not, the kitsune sighed to himself as he and Satori waited, silent and unmoving, for the traitors to appear. That would be too easy.
It was even worse timing for the fact that no one had been able to find out anything about where Ryukotsussei had disappeared last fall after the war, and he hadn't been seen or heard from since. It was almost too quiet from that quarter, but not a one of them thought the bastard dead. Izayoi had certainly damaged him greatly, but she hadn't had time enough or even the presence of mind what with her terror over Touga's badly impulsive move when he'd attempted to follow through the mirror, to make it fatal. And no one at all would ever believe that he would simply give up the fight and disappear permanently. No... something was definitely coming from that direction sooner or later.
All he could hope for was that this particular circumstance would be solved easily, and before Ryukotsussei decided to reappear would be an added bonus.
His attention was sharply drawn by a slight noise coming from behind them, and he turned his head carefully and looked back, to see a heavily disguised figure coming around the bend. It would make sense that the schemer would wish to be in place first before Sen could arrive. Now all they had to do was wait for him, and Kenji suspected that it wouldn't be a long wait.
He was right.
Not even a quarter candlemark later, Sen strode into view.
"I am here," he said peremptorily as soon as the one he was to meet appeared before him. "Although I do not know what you wish from me. It would appear that you are attempting treason. What makes you think that I would join such you in such an enterprise?" He huffed. "Then there is also the chance that this could be a trap. Why should I stick my neck out for you?"
There was a chuckle at that. "It could be, I suppose. So what guarantee would you like that this is not a trap but a genuine offer? What surety do you need to – as you put it – stick your neck out for me?"
It was silent for a moment as Sen eyed the figure before him thoughtfully. "Surety?" he murmured. "How about the knowledge of who you really are? Why would you need to remain hidden in such a way from one who you would ally with?"
That was met with sarcastic laughter. "Let's be blunt. This could also be a trap on yours or even Touga's part. How can I be certain that you aren't already working with him as one of his spies?"
"I would never work for him in such a capacity... though I won't say that I would work against him, either. And it isn't I that needs to prove myself. I'm not the one bringing some traitorous scheme to the table. You approached my daughter, and thus myself. Prove your words, then. Give me surety by allowing me to see your face."
"And how would that be assurance of fidelity in this matter?"
"Because then I would know who my clan needed to gain vengeance against if you betray us."
Kenji couldn't help but exchange almost amused glances with Satori at the suspicious back and forth between the two potential plotters. And for some reason, his senses were pinging uncomfortably with something... he couldn't tell what, but for some reason something about this seemed... almost familiar to him.
He frowned, concentrating on that feeling, but couldn't get anywhere else with it. There was just a very faint familiarity in something that he was seeing that he couldn't put his finger on. He growled inwardly at himself in frustration. He'd have to think about this later. He didn't want to miss any of what was being said.
"Or maybe you could tell me just what it is that's down here that you think will allow you to succeed in your scheme, when all others have failed to outwit Touga before," Sen added when the other male didn't respond to his first statement.
"Very well, then," the disguised inuyoukai responded finally, his tone heavy with irony. "If that makes you more comfortable in considering alliance with me, I will. Since I had planned to already, it makes no difference to me."
"You know you will eventually have to show yourself to me if we are to be partners."
"I am aware of that. However, until we have a sealed pact as some guaranty for your part, I will not risk it," the distorted voice stated calmly and very clearly. "Until then, I'm perfectly happy to remain hidden."
Sen growled faintly. "Get on with the telling, then, before I lose patience and report this to the alpha, instead."
The figure bowed mockingly and began his tale, and both Satori and Kenji were much more concerned after the meeting was over, because whoever the male was, he definitely did know what was down there, and Sen had agreed to assist in the plot if he was shown the dragons as proof. Even worse, the barrier that wasn't supposed to allow anyone but Touga or his agents through, responded to the supposed 'cousin'.
Just who in all the hells was this?
After the meeting between the two was over, they had more information to give to Touga when he returned... but not nearly enough to identify the disguised being. Nor did they know exactly how he'd found out about the dragons, or just how he intended to use them. All they knew was that Sen was now definitely involved, and probably the only way to bring down his co-conspirator now. He would have to be watched constantly. Hopefully, they could quickly discover the identity of the one and then take all of them in one fell swoop – and even better yet would be before Touga and Izayoi arrived home.
He didn't hold out much hope, however. This was probably going to take quite some time, because those that toyed and plotted with treason were usually very, very careful – at least at first.
The only good thing in this was that even though Sen now knew what was beneath Kangetsu, he wouldn't say anything to anyone else, at least not while there was a chance that whatever they plotted had a chance of succeeding. Maybe Touga would still be able to contain this leak before it could get out if they played it right.
Dammit, Touga, hurry back. I hate the position I'm in as charged master of Kangetsu and the west until your return. Then you can do the ordering, and I can do the following, as it was meant to be.
He had to admit, though, he was definitely interested in finding out how Izayoi would react to what was now happening. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Hmm... come to think of it, this might actually be fun.
"We should use Arata."
Kenji and Satori blinked, then looked at Sesshoumaru.
"Why?" his mother finally asked.
"We do not want to alert any of the plotters that we have even an inkling of what is coming," he replied coolly. "That means that we three must remain placidly in the places that father put us when he left. For one of us to start acting oddly would only tip them off. It's a risk we cannot take. Therefore, Arata is the only choice. He was not given any instructions before father left, meaning he was free to do as he pleased, and he has been doing just that. No one will note it if his motions are not always visible. He is also the only one currently outside this room that father trusts enough to investigate something of this magnitude."
"But Arata doesn't know about what's below us," Kenji began slowly, sitting back and staring out the windows at the mountains surrounding the city. "This means that we would have to take the initiative and inform him without your father's prior approval."
"Bah," Satori waved that aside, "the only reason he hasn't told Arata before this was because that playboy was always too busy working on other things for him. He will not mind if we do, especially in these circumstances, because Sesshoumaru is right about we three being unable to take direct action ourselves... much as I hate to admit it. And my mate is not even a choice in this, for the same reasons. He is a General, not a scout or spy."
The heir gave his mother a cold look, and she grinned at him. "Oh, don't look at me that way, Sesshoumaru. I meant that only in the context that I hate you being right in this because it means I won't get to have anymore fun shadowing Teruko - or her father – around this huge pile."
Sesshoumaru sighed slightly. His mother could be so childish sometimes. But at least she knew when it was time to be serious. He supposed he should be glad for that much.
"Then perhaps we should send for Arata now," Kenji mused. "The sooner we get someone on Sen, the sooner we might begin to get some of our answers."
They discussed everything they knew so far about what was happening while awaiting Arata. There were some very good conjectures put forth, but not enough information was available yet to really go beyond that, so by the time Arata arrived, the discussion had fallen off and all three were lost in their own thoughts.
Immediately on entering the barrier around the study and looking at the faces of the three waiting on him, his face creased into a mischievous grin.
"So what have we here?" he asked facetiously as he sat down after bowing to them. "Something exciting, from the expressions currently greeting me. Planning to let me in on the fun, are we?"
Kenji sighed almost tiredly. "Yes, Arata, we are. Now sit back and listen." Sometimes the younger kitsune wore him out with his endless and boundless energy, even for a youkai.
Once the story was told, Arata sat back and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hm. Interesting. So which one am I to spend my time following? Teruko or her father? And why didn't one of you follow this supposed 'cousin'?"
"I tried that first day," Satori said. "Whoever it was, they were using high-level magic, because that male wasn't actually there. It was an illusion."
"Which probably means a yamauba – or a kitsune," Arata returned slowly, meeting the gazes turned on him seriously. "Kitsune magic focuses heavily on illusions, especially amongst certain clans."
Kenji snarled faintly. "Damn. I hadn't even considered things from that light before. Now that you've brought it up, though... there are several clans that live outside the west that could be involved."
"As opposed to those that live in the west?" Satori asked curiously. "What makes you think that it isn't one of those behind this?"
"It's possible, but much less likely," Arata claimed. "Kitsune prefer to keep their homes safe and stable, usually unleashing any mischief on those that live away from them. And I haven't heard of any bit of unrest amongst the native kitsune houses. For obvious reasons, I keep a fairly close eye on them, just in case. There hasn't even been a breath of any dissatisfaction with Touga's rule of these lands."
"Hm," Sesshoumaru voiced. "Perhaps our focus then should be on any kitsune who might have a grudge against my father... or one who might wish to rule in his stead."
"That would also be a rarity," Kenji inserted. "Most kitsune do not wish to be tied down in such a manner. Even I, having tied myself to your house and thus to one place for the most part, do not wish to rule. It is too... confining for one of our playful and sometimes nomadic natures to deal with. That is why none of the cardinal lands were ever taken by kitsune. You must admit, the east especially would be vulnerable to us and would not be hard to take from the ookami."
Sesshoumaru cocked a brow at that, a faint scowl on his face at the mention of the wolves. "That is true," he allowed. "They would not pose much threat to an army of kitsune – or anything else, for that matter."
Satori sighed and shook her head faintly at her son's disdainful comment. While it was true that for the most part she didn't have any care or particular liking for the wolves, as they were rather barbaric compared to most youkai, prejudice was something a leader could ill afford. She glanced darkly at her son, who returned the look without expression. In this instance, despite his disdain, he was correct, however. The truth was that ookami were not really warriors, they were hunters. They could fight, as they'd proved last fall against the dragons, but the losses they'd suffered then gave that truth away clearly. Atop that, they were scattered around the eastern lands in pockets, and there was no coherence in how they operated much of the time. An army of kitsune bent on taking the eastern lands would meet little that could truly stop them.
As that had never happened, it looked as though Kenji was most probably correct on that score. However, the chance he was wrong couldn't be overlooked. It was possible, even if unlikely, that kitsune could be involved.
But... it was more likely that it was a yamauba working for whoever they were after. And that meant...
"We need to send someone to ascertain just where Touga's cousins are at the current time. There are always one or two in the citadel, or course, but most are not. If we can narrow the list of those that could be involved it would be greatly beneficial in at least determining if one or more of them might actually be the ones behind this rather than someone simply disguised as one of them."
Kenji nodded at Satori, his fingers idly tapping against the desk as he thought about that. "I'm not even sure I know who all of them are."
"I will provide names," Sesshoumaru inserted, and immediately Kenji pushed parchment and ink across the desk to him. They were all silent as they waited.
Once he was finished Kenji studied it. There were fourteen names on it, only five of which he knew, and that was because they'd caused problems at previous times. He indicated the ones he didn't. "Does anyone know where any of them are supposedly at so that we might send someone to verify their locations?"
Satori leaned in and looked over the list. She nodded after a few moments. "The last that Touga had heard from Akihiro here," she pointed to one of the names, "he was on the mainland adventuring around. That was a few years ago, but that is no surprise. Apparently he prefers wandering and getting himself into trouble to sticking around in Nihon, let alone the west."
"Can we take him off the list of possible suspects, then?" Arata asked.
She shook her head, though it was just a bit hesitant. "No. It is not likely to be him, but there is no way to be certain right now. It is worth noting, however, that of all those on this list, he would probably be the hardest to find."
"Then we'll focus on those most likely to be involved first, and leave that one for Touga's consideration when he returns. I'd like to have as much of the initial investigation done as possible before he and Izayoi-sama return."
Arata looked over Satori's shoulder at the parchment. "Why is Kenomaru even on this list? Touga and he have always been close, though he's not often around, either. Still... it seems very unlikely that he would be involved in a plot like this. Or any plot, really."
"He is one of father's cousins, that is why," Sesshoumaru replied in a dry tone. "We cannot rule out any one of them at this time, regardless how close he and my father have been."
None of them could deny that, and little more was able to be accomplished by further discussion at that point in time. After filling in every blank they could on the supposed whereabouts of all of Touga's cousins so that scouts and spies could be sent to ascertain the truth of things, the meeting broke up.
Within a candlemark, an entire group of those discreet and skilled at tracking and gathering information had left the citadel.
Now it was left to see just what they would all unearth.