Chapter Twenty-four – Call to Arms
Kagome didn't realise her knees had buckled. She simply found herself digging her fingers into the sun-warmed grass of the gardens. Her ears were ringing, Akie-san's alarmed cry of "my lady" barely registered at the back of her mind.
Her brain was too busy processing what Takeshi had just told her.
Held as hostage.
She gasped for breath, panic rattling her heart.
They had Sesshoumaru.
Akie-san was kneeling in front of her, clasping at her hands.
Kagome's stomach turned and churned. Her voice came out thin and trembling.
"They can't purify him, right? I mean they – they can't, I don't think even I have enough power to… I mean, this is Sesshoumaru we're talking about!"
"I do not think there is a single monk in their ranks who could rival Lord Sesshoumaru's strength," Takeshi replied. "However…"
Kagome understood well enough, though the grim sentiment went unspoken. There were many of the monks, and together they could well raise enough reiki to wreak havoc on the youkai they had taken. They wouldn't fight fair.
Icy claws of terror wrapped around Kagome's heart, gave it a sharp squeeze. Her thoughts spun into a frenzy.
It was going to happen all over again.
The pain, the loss, the –
From the back of her mind, a single word floated to the surface.
And just like that, everything ground to a halt.
Kagome's shoulders sagged. She drew in a deep breath.
She would not go through all that again. She wasn't going to let it happen.
Kagome pulled her hands free from Akie-san's grasp.
She had buried one mate already and that had been one too many for this lifetime. She would not be standing by Sesshoumaru's funeral pyre.
She took another deep breath, and smoothed down her kosode.
Then, she stood up in one fluid movement.
"Very well then," Kagome spoke, her voice quiet and clipped.
Akie-san shared a quick glance with her son.
"I need you to find Captain Saburou, steward Nobuo and Jaken. We will meet in Sesshoumaru's study as soon as possible."
Kagome didn't stop to see if they obeyed; she began to march across the garden, back towards the manor.
She would bring Sesshoumaru back, safe and sound. If that meant going to war, so be it.
Everyone was already gathered in Sesshoumaru's study when Kagome arrived. Youkai had the advantage of speed after all. Their hushed conversation broke the moment Kagome strode in. They paused to stare.
Kagome had taken a moment to change. The kosode and uchikake were gone, replaced by her trusted miko uniform. Tessaiga was belted on her hip, next to her fully stacked quiver. Her bow was slung over her shoulders.
Saburou recovered first and inclined his head.
"My lady, what is it that you wish to do?"
"I am going to get Sesshoumaru back. And to do so, I will raise an army. If it is war those monks want, we shall give them one."
Nobuo shifted nervously. "My lady, I am not sure if –"
Kagome's eyes flashed. "I will not let my mate die, do you hear me?"
"Of course not, my lady, but there must be more diplomatic means to –"
"I was there, steward Nobuo," Takeshi interrupted. "Diplomacy will not help us with the monks, they are too far gone to listen to any voice of reason."
Saburou paid their argument no heed. He kept his gaze steady and trained at Kagome.
"How do you plan to raise an army, my lady?"
Kagome drew herself up.
"Steward Nobuo. You will make use of Tsumekiri's alliances. Write to other clans. Anyone who owes us a favour, we're coming to collect. Takeshi, you can help Nobuo with the letters. Spread the word of what happened and what you saw and find me youkai willing to fight."
"My lady," Nobuo murmured, bowing his head.
"Yes, my lady," Takeshi replied with a respectful bow.
"Jaken," Kagome barked next.
The imp jumped.
"Once Ah-Un has rested enough to travel, you will go to Edo to get Miroku and Sango. Please appraise Kaede and Rin of the situation as well."
He clutched his staff, puffed up his chest. "Of course. I will take care of it."
Kagome turned to Akie. "Akie-san, I will entrust the clan to you in my absence."
"And where shall you be going, my lady?" she asked, wringing her hands.
Kagome's lips twisted into a tight, wry smile.
Lady Chiyo was fully engrossed in a collection of poetry, and was most cross when a servant appeared in the library to interrupting her.
With a sigh and a displeased frown she put down the book.
"Yes? What is it?"
"Lady Kagome of Tsumekiri is at the gates, my lady. She is requesting an audience."
Chiyo's eyebrows shot up. Kagome was here? Of her own accord? That was odd. With Sesshoumaru away, she was honour-bound to look after Tsumekiri… And in any case, why would she request an audience with her? Surely they were far beyond such formality.
Chiyo pursed her lips. There were too many questions. Too many things that did not add up.
She stood, and was already striding towards the door as she replied. "Show her to the main hall, I will receive her there."
The very air around her seemed heavy as Chiyo made her way through the castle.
She sent forth a pulse of youki to summon Moriyasu. Whatever was coming, having support would not hurt.
He came at a run and caught up with her before she reached the hall. They entered the main hall together through a side door, then parted their ways: Chiyo took her place at the end, seating herself on a cushion set on the raised platform while Moriyasu settled by the right wall.
Two servants knelt on the tatami and slid the main doors of the hall open. Kagome strode in, the captain of Tsumekiri's guards right on her heels, looming over her like a shadow.
Chiyo sat up straighter. She could tell that her unease had not been unfounded the moment she saw Kagome. Something must have happened, for her to wear such clothes, to carry both a sword and a bow in public. The fierce light burning in those blue eyes, usually so sweet and gentle, was the most worrisome sign of all.
Chiyo wound her youki tighter around herself, exercising control.
Kagome stopped before the dais. She offered no greetings, did not take a seat. Behind her, captain Saburou bowed formally, but Kagome herself did not beat around the bush.
"Sesshoumaru has been taken."
Chiyo's hands twitched where they rested in her lap.
"When?" she demanded, her tone flat and cold. "By whom?"
"Two days ago, by the monks the North-eastern clan has been complaining about. I have a written testimony here, by a guard who was accompanying Sesshoumaru and who managed to escape and bring us the word."
Chiyo accepted the letter, but barely glanced at the lines written by a hasty hand before raising her gaze to meet Kagome's eyes.
"You plan to fight?"
Chiyo studied her. "I never took you for one so eager for war."
Kagome's lips twisted. "Me either. But I will do whatever it takes to retrieve my mate."
Chiyo nodded. That she could understand.
"Very well. You have my support. Mikazuki will fight with you, daughter-in-law."
"Thank you, Lady Mother. But that's not the only reason I came."
Kagome whipped around to address Moriyasu. "I need you to remove the seal."
Moriyasu raised his eyebrow, and looked at Chiyo for support.
Chiyo pursed her lips. Kagome had overcome her grief well enough during the past months, but this anger of hers… Were her mind and heart stable enough? Did the darkness she carried within shrink before the light?
If her powers were returned to her now, would they remain untainted?
Chiyo closed her eyes for two lingering seconds, and pushed the worries aside. She did not have the time to fret. And she should trust Kagome's judgement, trust her to know what she could handle.
Chiyo met Moriyasu's gaze and nodded.
Kagome crossed her arms as she waited.
Moriyasu walked over to her. He slanted a quick look at captain Saburou and then bowed to Kagome before stepping to stand beside her.
"Pardon my intrusion," he said politely. Then, quick and precise, she felt his fingers jab the back of her neck. He tapped the centre of her chest, above her heart. His clawed fingers pressed the inside of her wrist.
Then he stepped back.
Kagome took a deep breath to calm herself as she was suddenly slammed from three sides by powerful youki. She'd forgotten what it felt like, to be constantly sensing the energies.
Her skin erupted in goose bumps and the hair on her arms stood from the onslaught of sensations.
And then something surged from deep within.
Bright and cold and oh so familiar, she allowed it to course through her veins for a moment, before she tamped it down. It wouldn't do to let her reiki flare up while visiting a castle full of youkai.
Kagome opened her eyes, not sure when she had even closed them. She met Lady Mother's steady golden gaze.
Lady Mother shook her head. "There is no need for gratitude. And this is no time for pleasantries in any case."
"Right," Kagome said. She ran her hand through her hair.
Now that she had her powers back and was standing in the soothing presence of Lady Mother, her anger was slowly ebbing away and revealing the worry that had been simmering right underneath. All of a sudden, Kagome just felt tired.
Lady Chiyo must have sensed the change in her mood, because her golden gaze softened and her voice became gentler as she spoke to her.
"What are your plans, Kagome?"
That was a good question. Though she had been all confident and commanding earlier in Sesshoumaru's study in Tsumekiri, she didn't really know what she was doing. She hadn't thought any plan of action further than just getting everyone together to discuss the situation. She was not a warlord, she wasn't even youkai. Really, now that she actually stopped to think, she was in over her head.
"We're rallying allies and calling in favours with the clans," Kagome replied. "Spreading the news to gather everyone together. Then we'll march against the monks and retrieve my mate."
It wouldn't be that simple. Couldn't be.
But Lady Mother nodded her approval. "The best plan is a simple one. The details can always be worked out later."
That was true. Once again, Lady Chiyo had made Kagome feel marginally better, and she flashed the demoness a brief smile.
"I will probably leave the details to Saburou," Kagome admitted. "And others who are more experienced in both battle and strategy than I am."
"A wise leader is one who seeks advice," Chiyo said, a small smile touching her lips. Then, her piercing eyes flickered towards Saburou. "It is best to start planning immediately, even though it will take time to gather the clans."
Saburou bowed his head, acknowledging Chiyo's advice.
"Ours is a large clan, though we are not soldiers nor trained for battle as meticulously as the guards of Tsumekiri are. But we will lend whatever aid we can," Chiyo promised.
"Thank you, Lady Mother. I – We appreciate it." Kagome inclined her head.
"Moriyasu, please take Kagome and Captain Saburou to the tea room and offer them refreshments." Chiyo turned back to address Kagome. "I know time is of essence, but I need a moment to advise my captain of guards and my father of this development, so I hope you can wait for a little while. We will then depart for Tsumekiri together."
"Of course," Kagome hurried to reply.
She hadn't actually expected Lady Mother to be able to leave with them right away like that. Not because she wouldn't care for Sesshoumaru, but because as a leader of such a big clan there must have been so many practical matters to see to and arrangements to be made before she would be able to take off.
Boy had she underestimated the will of a mother.
"Let's go," she told Moriyasu and Saburou.
Moriyasu bowed to his lady, then to the two of them, before escorting them out of the room.
Strong arms wound around her, pulled her into a loving embrace – and for a fleeting second, Kagome felt tempted to slump against the offered warm comfort, to let her shoulders sag and the tears spill forward.
But she was the Lady of Tsumekiri, welcoming guests into her house. She didn't know much about ruling, but she knew she could not afford to show any weakness.
The clan depended on her.
Sesshoumaru depended on her.
Kagome pulled back, forced a tight, small smile onto her lips.
"I'm glad you could come," she told Sango. Her gaze flitted to Miroku, standing behind his wife. "Both of you."
"Of course." Sango squeezed her shoulder, offered her a brief smile.
"Go on." Kagome gestured at the open doorway. "Akie-san will show you in."
Miroku grasped her arm, the touch a silent comfort, before wrapping his arm around Sango's shoulders and walking towards the manor.
Kagome took a breath, squared her shoulders under the heavy layers of silk, and turned to welcome the next person, a cordial smile pasted onto her lips.
It was unusual, perhaps, for a ruler of the clan to be personally greeting arriving guests out in the court yard. But the situation itself was unusual, and Kagome wanted to at least meet Tsumekiri's allies before facing them in the big meeting.
She might not be able to remember all of their names or clans, but that was why she had steward Nobuo just a step behind, ready to whisper into her ear.
Even more comforting than that was the silent but regal presence of Lady Mother on her right.
Tsumekiri were hosting the gathering, but if they were the retainer, then Mikazuki was the daimyou, and the ties between the two clans were close.
Having Lady Chiyo by her side lent authority to Kagome. Tsumekiri had accepted her, but to most of her guests she was a human, a miko, a stranger.
Kagome also felt a bit more at ease now that Sango and Miroku were here. It was a relief to know she'd have some familiar faces waiting for her inside. And perhaps, even more than that, it was a relief to have a few more humans fighting on their side when facing an enemy wielding powers the youkai would be susceptible to.
Sango couldn't be purified, and perhaps Miroku, as a monk, could give them insight to the minds and powers of the war-mongers.
The representatives of the clans arrived in a steady stream. Some were lords or ladies, some were captains of guards, some were kin of the clan's ruler. Kagome greeted everyone, trying to commit their faces to her memory.
All too soon, it was over. There was no youkai left to welcome.
Akie-san stepped out to the courtyard.
"Everyone has been seated," she reported after a quick bow of her head. "Refreshments have been served. Everything is ready, my lady."
Kagome gave a curt, stiff nod.
Chiyo looped her arm around Kagome's.
"Let us go, then," she declared.
In that moment, her regal calm reminded Kagome sharply of Sesshoumaru.
"Any last minute advice?" Kagome asked, trying to quell the nervous flutters in the pit of her stomach.
"Just keep your head held high, little one," Chiyo said, patting her arm. "Everything else will follow."
The endearment soothed her, even more than the advice itself, and Kagome flashed Lady Mother a grateful smile.
"All right then. Time to roll."
She and Chiyo stepped into the Tsumekiri manor, arm in arm, Akie-san and Nobuo trailing after their steps.
They made their way down the corridor, and walked into the main hall as the servants standing guard slid the doors open.
It was a big space, but Kagome had never seen it this full. She kept her gaze firmly on the dais at the end. Moriyasu and Mikazuki's captain of guard were sitting in front it facing the hall, Saburou on the other side.
A hush fell over the crowd as Kagome and Lady Mother made their way across the room. They stepped onto the dais, took seats on the two cushions set out for them.
Nobuo and Akie-san sat down in front of the dais, on either side of Saburou.
Kagome slanted Lady Mother a look, and she gave an imperceptible nod.
Kagome sat straighter, let her gaze sweep across the hall, and tried not to be intimidated by the way everyone's attention was focusing on her.
The words came easy to her, thanks to the pointers both Lady Mother and Steward Nobuo had given her when they had practiced for this earlier.
"Friends and allies, I'm glad to see you have answered our call." Kagome paused, met a few of the intent stares aimed her way. "I am Kagome, Lady of Tsumekiri, and I welcome you all to this meeting."
"You all know why my daughter-in-law has called this gathering," Chiyo spoke. "But it is best to start off with a reminder. I call Tsumekiri's guard Takeshi to relay his account of the recent events he witnessed when he accompanied my son, Lord Sesshoumaru of Tsumekiri, to his visit to the North-eastern inu clan."
Takeshi walked to the front of the room, bowed to his audience.
Kagome breathed a little easier now that she no longer was under everyone's intent scrutiny.
As Takeshi spoke of everything he'd seen happen at the North-eastern clan, Kagome studied the faces of her guests, trying to gauge the mood in the hall. Thanks to her close relationship with Sesshoumaru and Lady Mother, she'd learned to decipher the minute flickers of expression pretty well. She could detect concern, grim determination, outrage, and thirst for blood in the minor frowns, twist of lips, and set jaws of the youkai in the room.
Takeshi finished speaking, went to sit down as quiet murmurs began to ripple through the hall.
They quieted again as soon as Kagome looked up.
"The monks have declared war on us," she told her audience. "They have laid siege on the North-eastern clan, our ally. They are holding my mate, Lord Sesshoumaru, hostage, as well as representatives of several other allied clans."
The hall had gone perfectly quiet, every single pair of unblinking demon eyes trained on her.
"I say we give the monks what they want. Clan Tsumekiri will go to war, to retrieve its Lord. Will you fight with us?"
Kagome held her breath, feeling the tension in the hall, the tumultuous swirl of youki pushing against her skin.
And then, one by one, the youkai began to spring to their feet, their growls and shouts filling the room.
Kagome gripped at her mating bond, hoping the savage satisfaction of her victory would pulse over the bond to Sesshoumaru.
I'm coming, she promised silently, even though he couldn't hear the words. Wait for me.