I'm really sorry for the delay again guys. I had projects that came up, and combined with writer's block, it made the chapter nearly impossible to complete. Well, maybe writer's block isn't quite the right word… I know exactly where this is going (and I'm excited for it!) but I've lacked the will to do… well, very much at all lately, and I'm very sorry for this.
Spring is finally coming, so I hope everyone's starting to warm up!
Guest reviews are at the end, individual review responses will be sent out in a few hours :)
Thank you very much for your patience, and I hope you enjoy!
I need air. I need air. The thought circles in my mind again and again. It's the only thing I can think of. Air, fresh air, it would solve everything. If I could just breathe, I could deal with this. But these spaces inside the castle, they're too cramped. I can't breathe in here. I had never felt so claustrophobic in my life. Air. Space. That's what I need.
So, even though it's the middle of the night, even though I know some of the girls see me dashing through the hallways and will know I'm out of bed, I run. I run outside to where there is air and space.
Winter is starting to tip in favor of spring, but it's still too cold to be outside without a coat. Yet, somehow, I can't feel the chill gusts of wind on my skin. I gulp in the cold air like it's water, waiting for the panic to stop, but it doesn't. A shiver finally runs through me, sharpening my realization. Mika is pregnant. Pregnant with Kohaku's baby.
My stomach churns in a way that makes me feel like it's shriveling up inside of me.
I had willed myself to be over Kohaku. I thought I had put all that behind me. For the past few weeks, when I had thought of him, it hadn't been with longing or desire. It had been only of friendship, or so I had thought.
Hadn't that been enough?
If it had been, then why do I feel this way right now? Something still twitches unpleasantly when I think of Mika and Kohaku together, but it's not quite what it once was. It was still envy, sharp and gnawing, but it wasn't for Kohaku alone.
I sit down on the grass, letting the wind burn my face, hoping for it to give me clarity. I bring my knees to my chest and bury my face in my clothes.
The soft voice doesn't startle me. It doesn't even make me lift my head. I know whose it is right off: Minako's. Her hand rests lightly on my shoulder. I look up. My face isn't tearstained; I haven't even cried a single tear. I guess more than anything, I feel… stunned, angry? I don't know.
"Fumino is looking for you… it's time to take Lord Sesshomaru his tea."
"Oh." Yes, of course, the tea. How could I forget? I stand up and brush the bits of grass off my clothes, but Minako doesn't let me walk any further.
"Nothing," I say with a faint smile. "I just needed some fresh air."
"Rin, please…" her voice is even quieter than normal, and I look directly into her green eyes, hesitating. Her eyes always seem to speak louder than her words, and I knew she's not letting me go until I give her an explanation.
"There are a lot of things you don't know about, Minako. I don't think that it's something that you should worry over. I've got it under control."
She gives me another, long look. I can read her expression too easily. It says that she thinks I clearly don't.
"Look, if I don't go now, then Sesshomaru's tea will be cold and—"
"And somebody else will take him his tea," she finishes my sentence for me.
"We're friends, aren't we?"
"You're not going to burden me, I promise. We're here for each other, aren't we?"
At her words, I break. I tell her everything. About Shiramura, about Kohaku and the cranes, about Mika, and finally…. about the baby.
"Why do I still envy her?" I ask. "After all this time, why am I not any better than I used to be?"
Minako looks at me, her expression sad and knowing. "She's living a life you can't."
I look at her, a little bewildered. "What?"
"You're living a servant's life. You're not allowed to take a husband or to have a child so long as you work here."
Her words start to make sense, but I don't like how true they ring. There had never been anyone I'd ever pictured marrying other than Kohaku, anyone I had ever considered living my life with. I didn't think I'd ever want to love someone after coming here, but the dawning realization of the limitations of my freedom still crushes me.
"Do you hate her?"
"Sometimes," I sigh. "A lot less than I used to. It's hard not to, though."
Minako nods her head knowingly and rubs my back in a slow, smooth, circling motion the way a mother would, and I can feel the emotion draining from me.
"Nothing in my life has ever been mine. I'm an orphan. Everything is a gift I have to repay because I have nothing of my own. What little I do manage to scrape together, I have to fight for, but in the end, it still gets taken away from me." Maybe I'm whining now, complaining, but I don't care. It sounds like something resembling the truth of how I feel. I had fought so hard to keep Kohaku beside me, as a friend, as a lover, as anything, and in the end, I lost him too.
Minako sighs softly, and it's then that I remember that her life hasn't been so different from mine. She knows the constant loss, the constant battle for what little she can get. It's a war she's fought for longer than I have. I rest my head against her shoulder and we sit there like that in silence for longer than I know.
When I finally return to the castle, the lights are out and my futon is still crumpled the way I'd left it. I climb into bed, completely unaware of the second letter that was lost in the flurry of sheets. It's not until the next morning that I open it, and to my great surprise, find a response from Hatsuriko.
I had written to her the second I had gotten back to the castle after my trip to Kuroken's lands, but the only response I had gotten was a short note, informing me that she was fine, but needed more time to write me fully and would respond later. It had been nearly a month since I had heard from her last, and I had begun to worry.
I am sorry if my lack of correspondence has worried you, but I am writing you now to ease those fears. I am fine. Well, as fine as I can be. I'll talk to you more about that later when I see you next.
I look up from the letter for a moment. When she sees me next? What is she talking about? I didn't know there were going to be any plans for her to come to the Western Lands… Oh for the love of the gods, please don't tell me she's thinking of running away.
Let me explain. No, I am not running away, she writes, as if she could read my mind. My new life here is… more tolerable than I expected as it turns out. Kuroken has spoken to me. Lord Sesshomaru is required back to the North to finalize the treaties between my lands and Kuroken's to make them part of the Western Territory. Kuroken knows how much I like you (far better than any of the silly maids he has here for me, the gods know), and said he shall write to Lord Sesshomaru and encourage him to bring you here again! You may not think that this will work, but I have promised to give access to trade routes (or something like that; it's my advisers' jobs to take care of such political nonsense) if he allows you to come along.
I miss you so much. Everyone here is a fool and treats me like I'm made of glass. I don't know when this shall reach you, but I hope to see you soon. Don't even bother responding. I'll simply wait to hear your answer in person.
I'm not sure when my mouth fell open, but when I'm done with the letter, I have trouble closing it. I'm going to the north again? Well, I remind myself, not until Sesshomaru gives his approval, that is.
A bubble of excitement wells up inside of me. I can see Hatsuriko again, and travel again! Unexpectedly, my stomach flutters uneasily at the prospect, and I'm not sure if it's out of excitement or nervousness at travelling with Sesshomaru again.
Because of the mishap last night, I hadn't seen him since the night in the library when my insides had performed acrobatics around him. If he starts to suspect anything other than loyalty and servitude on my part, I know he will not hesitate to dismiss me without a moment's notice. Well, I may not have anything to worry about anyway. There's no telling whether or not Sesshomaru will bow down to the whims of young Hatsuriko.
Later that evening after the day's work, however, Fumino summons me to her quarters and informs of that I shall indeed be leaving for the Northern Lands once more in two days' time. And, as always, she doesn't hesitate to remind me that I should be on my best behavior for Lord Sesshomaru.
"Right," I mutter as she ushers me out of her quarters. "Best behavior."
The next few days I spend in a mixture of dread and excitement. Save for the incident with the soldiers, travelling with Sesshomaru was probably one of my favorite experiences. Out there in the world, I felt like I was freer than I had been in a long time without even castle walls to bind me. I know that this will be for a short time as well, but I intend to savor ever moment of it.
The dread part of it, on the other hand, kicks in when I think about how much time I'll be spending in front of Sesshomaru. If I let anything show, then I'm out of a job with nowhere to go. That is, unless I want to become wet nurse to Kohaku and Mika's baby. The thought makes me gag.
I fear what he might say when I take him his tea in the evening, but both nights that I am handed the tea tray and sent upstairs, no one answers when I knock. So, I simply leave the tray by his door, thanking the gods for allowing me some respite from my worry.
The night before the trip, I'm able to secure a meeting between Akahito and Minako after much convincing on Akahito's point. After talking to Minako, I feel more indebted to her than ever. If both of us are going to have trouble finding happiness in this small world, I'm at least going to make sure she has the best chance she can get, and I know that it's with Akahito.
Akahito and I talk a little while waiting for Minako to arrive. It's clear that Minako hasn't told him much if anything of the other night, and I'm grateful to her for it. We talk instead about his work with the other kingdoms. Apparently the war is starting to agitate many of the demon lords, and talk of a full-scale campaign by Lord Sesshomaru's troops is high. Though talk of war usually bores me, something in my mind does press me to pay attention: how much longer does Kohaku have until he's called off, too?
Minako gives us a gloomy look as she joins us. "Lord Sesshomaru wasn't in a good mood, this evening. Apparently things are not very well on the war front."
"That they are not," Akahito says with a grim nod.
"Enough of war talk," I say with a smile. "Minako, come find me near the pond when you're ready."
She blushes and nods, and I leave them to themselves. In the meantime, I walk to a corner of one of the gardens, sit cross-legged by the water of the pond, and pull a sheet of letter paper from my robes and begin to fold.
The fold of the crane are familiar to me, so much so that I could do it blindfolded. What these cranes had meant to me has changed over the years. From friendship, to hope, to desperation, to now... Resignation. My life seems to be less and less under my control, like a feather pushed by the wind. What I would go back to be a little girl who could run off into the forest all day to play with flowers and to have no one question my absence.
I sigh and set the crane on the pond's surface. It floats for a few moments before sinking down, weighed down by the water.
This morning, I am the one who's early to the gates. Ah-Un is already waiting for me and I run to him, eager to pet his soft mane. Looking around, I see Sesshomaru and Jaken are nowhere to be found. Fumino stands nearby, refusing to leave until her lord appears, continually muttering things such as "Well, I'm sure he'll be along shortly," and "He will work himself to death." I'm not concerned either way. I'm eager to see Hatsuriko again, his lordship... Less so in some ways. My heart sometimes flutters at the thought of seeing him again, that is, before my brain squashes it soundly, reminding it that there are lines not to be crossed.
But when he arrives, a wave of relief washes over me.
I, ecstatically, gloriously, feel nothing.
Well, not nothing. I can still notice with ease how handsome he is and how he looks so much better rested than the night before, but none of the heart-racing adrenaline I had anticipated. Maybe it had been just the sleep deprivation which made me feel what I didn't actually feel. I mean, he was a demon after all. What business would we have together anyway?
I notice something is off, however. Something is… missing. It takes me a moment to realize that there's a particular, Jaken-shaped absence at Sesshomaru's side.
"Where's Jaken-sama?" I ask when Sesshomaru has reached Ah-Un.
"There was business which required his attention."
Fumino is still here, and I realize I shouldn't press Sesshomaru too much in her presence, so I decide not to and instead ask him the questions a servant should ask as to not arouse her suspicion: "Is your health well?", "Is there anything I can to do be of service?", and the like until Fumino bows and leaves us alone.
"Shall we leave, then?" I ask with a smile. "The weather is much nicer today than the last time we set out, isn't it?"
I struggle to climb on top of Ah-Un's tall back and end up falling on my backside. I flush in embarrassment. I'm much better than that. I had never been as athletic as Sango, of course, but I had never been as helpless as Mika. I stand up from the grass and am preparing to try once more when I notice Sesshomaru has approached my side, his arm extended in an apparent offer of assistance. I glare at the arm. I don't need his help or anyone else's. I look back at the saddle and climb on top once more, all by myself. Sesshomaru gives me an eyebrow-raised look for a moment before starting to walk.
"So Jaken, where did he go?"
"There were some tasks of a… particular nature that needed to be attended to."
"Relating to the war?"
He looks at me for a moment. "Yes."
Silence follows after that, and I stare into the bleak, brown landscape. I'm not sure how long it takes for me to doze off, but I pass several times in and out of an uncomfortable half-sleep. By the time I'm fully conscious, it's already late afternoon. Normally, I wouldn't have slept at all, but the nightmares are still tugging at me almost every time I close my eyes for longer than ten minutes.
When I finally am able to slide off Ah-Un in the early evening, I stumble at once, clutching at a tree for support. I had forgotten how stiff my muscles get after riding him all day. I make the fire quickly and find the nearest stream to wash my face, now covered in grime and sweat from the day's journey.
Rin returns to the small camp she's made after a short break. I've already settled myself against a tree, my back resting against the rough bark. Her pallet is laid out at the opposite end of the camp, close to the fire. I had been surprised at first to watch her make a fire with such ease, far more quickly than Jaken had ever managed. She's clearly practiced at it.
She approaches me, a smile on her face still moist with water and, to my surprise (though why I should still be at anything she does, I am not sure) sits by the same tree and begins to rub her legs.
"You should rest."
"I will soon, but I'm not tired right now." She opens the saddlebag and pulls out two pork buns and begins to eat. After a few moments, she looks up at me, a trace of guilt written on her expression. "I'm sorry I didn't bring you your tea."
It had been several nights ago, and I hadn't remembered it until now. I was annoyed that night and the look on my face had frightened the servant girl who had come in her stead, but I had not thought about it since the night she was absent.
She looks at me expecting an answer, but I have no words that she might be searching for.
She sighs and looks down at her food, contemplative. "I'm not a very good servant, am I?"
Before I can control it, a small smile crosses my mouth and a chuckle escapes.
She looks up at me surprised, then laughs. "You finally smiled!"
"You never smile! I got you to smile. That has to be some sort of record, doesn't it?"
I ignore her comment. She's almost finished with her supper by now, and the fire is plenty warm for her to rest next to. "Humans need sleep."
"Well Rin needs food and company. Is that all right with Lord Sesshomaru?"
This girl only gets more curious with each sentence she speaks. I don't say anything, which she has learned to take to mean my indifference.
She breaks off a piece of the bun. "Do you want any?"
I wrinkle my nose in distaste.
"So how often do you need to eat?"
"Three or four times a week."
"That little?" she says dubiously.
"A stag lasts a long time."
"Oh," she says, apparently realizing what food for me consists of. "Are all demons like that?"
"Don't need to eat so often. Many of the demon servants I see eat pretty frequently."
"Those are lesser demons. They do not hunt like I do. Moreover, human food does not provide as much energy."
"When's the last time you ate."
"A while ago."
"Do you need to hunt now? I could stay here if you need to eat."
"You don't have to worry about protecting me. I'll be fine on my own. I'm used to it."
I about to contradict her words, that I'm not staying here to protect her, when I see from the look in her eyes and the smile on her face that she's teasing me. However, curiosity forces me to press her. "What do you mean."
She looks back at me. "I'm sorry?"
"You said that you are used to being alone."
"Oh," she says.
I know from the night that she spent in the hotel with Hatsuriko that she watched her father and brother die. I had long ago put together that those were the nightmares she had been having. Did this girl not have a mother, another brother to take care of her?
"My parents… they died when I was young. My siblings too, all except one brother. When he was old enough, though, he left too. Went off to war and never came back. You know, the typical story." She laughs, but it rings hollow. "That's why I came here. Not unlike the others, I guess. No parents, no family willing to take me in."
I know that this isn't quite the full story. Why had she been so willing to tell Hatsuriko everything and me only the half-truth?
She gives me a long stare as if she knows that I know. "They're about my family, yes."
"What about your parents? What were they like?"
I am taken aback by the question. It is far too personal for a servant to be asking. Furthermore, she has been here for several months, long enough for her to know the story of my father's shame and betrayal. Why would she ask a question that she already knows the answer to?
"My father was strong. Powerful. The most powerful demon who has ever lived, probably."
"More powerful than you?"
I give her a long look. "Not for long."
She laughs. "You're quite determined, aren't you?"
"And you ask many questions."
A grin spreads across her face. "And you're intractable."
"A big word for a small servant."
"I read, you know," she says with a playful wink.
I expect her to inquire about my mother, but apparently she can tell that she's pressed enough into personal matters. Instead, she asks me more questions about demons, about their lands and the history of the Western Lands. I explain to her that it was my grandfather who originally started to unite lands under one hand, but he had died in battle. My father was the one who was responsible for what the Western Lands are today. She's curious about other demons, too, though. She wants to know about the birds of the north, the wolves of the south, and the dragons of the east.
The next time I take a break from talking, I look over to her and see that her head has slumped, her eyes finally fallen closed. Her chest rises and falls in a slow, even rhythm. Asleep. Well, if she sleeps like this the entire night, she will have back pain undoubtedly.
She has a soft, smooth complexion and long, thick eyelashes. Everything about her though is generally unremarkable. Pretty enough for her kind, yes, but nothing out of the ordinary. That's what I had thought the first night I had seen her up close. Now, I look at her, something uncomfortable stirs in me.
She is so different from any other woman, demon or human, that I have met. The few demonesses my mother had forced me to interacting with during a time she had hoped I would choose a mate were nothing more than women who coveted a portion the power that was mine. Beautiful, yes, but nothing more than leeches incapable of using their own wit. This… girl. She couldn't compare at all to the beauty of those women, but this girl was clever, independent. She wasn't frail like so many others who had been taught to rely on the hands of others for their survival. She's weak, so weak, so human, but she fights with the strength of a demon. Somehow, this human had become the first I had ever learned to tolerate. To even… not mind the company of her.
Suddenly a pulsing warmth shoots through my veins. The warmth of power, a sword, singing its song to me. I feel the heartbeat of Tenseiga now as if blood was actually coursing through its steel veins. It hadn't sung to me since the night it had brought. In Tenseiga's song, I can hear the voice of my father. What is he trying to say to me? I grasp the sword's hilt and the power intensifies. I've underestimated its power, that much I know.
The sound of rustling wakes me and I sit up groggily, rubbing my eyes. I don't remember coming to lie down on the pallet last night. All I remember is talking a lot with Sesshomaru, and for once hearing his voice for longer than two-second responses. It had been so calming, listening to and being lulled by the legends of the youkai in his deep voice. I guess I had drifted off while he had talked… When had I gotten up and moved to my pallet?
I look around and realize after a brief moment that Sesshomaru isn't here. My heart skips a beat. Where did he go? Did something happen to him? Is he all right? A small jolt of panic shoots through my bones. "Sesshomaru-sama?" I say tentatively, not wanting to alert anything else that this forest might contain to my presence.
A rustling of leaves followed by a dull thud behind me makes me whip around, searching for something, a rock, a branch, that I could protect myself with. A hand rests on my shoulder, and I turn slowly to find the silver hair of Sesshomaru filling my vision.
"Oh," I say, a little breathless. "Sesshomaru-sama, it's just you."
He raises his eyebrow. "We must leave."
"Yes, yes," I agree, running my fingers through my tangled hair. "I can be ready in five minutes."
"We will be arriving this afternoon."
I hastily pack my things up and wash my face before strapping the bedroll and saddlebag back to Ah-Un, and within ten minutes, we're back on the way.
This time, I don't fall asleep as much, and continue to ask more questions that I had begun last night about demons. Today, though, he doesn't seem as willing to respond, so after getting several, terse responses, I give up the task and instead pull a sheet of paper I had brought with me from the saddlebag. I had intended to use these for letters, but in the meantime, I'll just use them for origami instead. I'm sure Hatsuriko has plenty of paper she'll let me use instead.
Sesshomaru turns around and raises an eyebrow at me as I work, folding the paper into smooth, hard lines.
"It's origami. Have you ever seen it before?"
"Hn," he says, and turns to face the road again.
I finish the paper crane and hold it out. "Lord Sesshomaru," I call out to him. He turns. "See? It's a crane now." I hold the base and pull the tail, making the wings flap. I toss it to him, and he reaches out and catches it in one hand.
"My friend and I used to send messages this way," I explain. "It's easy to write on the inside and then fold it up."
He looks at it for a moment longer. "We are approaching the castle walls. You should dismount Ah-Un."
I hop off of the scaled beast and brush his mane fondly as I wobble, getting used to walking with my own two legs again. Sesshomaru holds out the crane to me. I take it from his hand, and once again, uncomfortably, as we brush fingers, and I want to grasp, to hold on longer. I pull away quickly and focus on the black walls which have come into our vision, swallowing my surprise.
Gods, I curse myself. I thought it had just been sleep deprivation, but it's clearly something more fundamental than just a need for rest. It's now becoming something I can't ignore.
As we approach the castle gates, a blur of gold hair and pale blue silk crashes into me, sending me straight onto my backside.
"Rin!" Hatsuriko cries, her crimson eyes bright and a grin on her face.
"Hatsuriko-san," I groan as I drag myself from the ground, brushing the dirt from my clothing. "A 'hello' would've worked just as well." I smile at her.
"Well, that wouldn't have been as much fun, now would it?"
I stick my tongue out at her, but she ignores me and turns to Lord Sesshomaru instead.
"Lord Sesshomaru," Hatsuriko says as she bows. He gives her the slightest nod of his head in acknowledgment.
A few moments later Kuroken approaches dressed in black armor. The air about him is solemn as ever, but his expression is softer than I remember it.
"Welcome, Lord Sesshomaru. I hope that you travelled well."
"Well enough. Shall we begin the negotiations?"
"Lord Sesshomaru, my servants have been busy all day preparing a feast for your arrival. Surely you will not scorn their efforts. There is plenty of time for negotiations later."
Sesshomaru looks clearly displeased that they won't be getting the negotiations over with as quickly as possible, but he says nothing.
"What shall we do while they feast? Explore more of the castle?" I whisper conspiratorially as Kuroken leads us through the gates.
"Don't be a fool, Rin. You'll be attending the feast as well!"
"As a maid?" I say, a little wearied by the idea. I mean, I knew I would be helping out Hatsuriko, but I hadn't expected to serve others as well. Besides, I had seen plenty of servants around Kuroken's estate the last time I was here. Didn't they have enough to go around?
"This time you don't come as a maid; you're here as a guest!"
This brings me up short. "A what?"
"A guest! You'll eat with the rest of us. Don't worry. I've had everything arranged."
I stutter, lost for words. "I don't have anything to wear to a feast with lords!"
"You can borrow something of mine. Don't worry. Just come upstairs so we can get ready!"
Amidst my protests, she drags me through the gates and up the stairs to her quarters to prepare for the feast that evening.
As you can probably guess, there's a lot of room for some exciting scenes to be happening while they're at the castle together, so I hope you enjoy what's coming up! Sorry that this chapter was mainly a lot of setup again :( Next chapter will have some great scenes though. I'm pumped!
As always, thank you very much to everyone who reviewed last chapter: December Sapphire, Kibachow, sotam, Taraah36, Shadowmeld13, Mirja, Aya, TemariFire, Shay, InsanitySilver, SessRinz, Flowergirl25, StoriedFabric, waterlit, Happytello98, AliasStars, chrysanthemum-nhu, nikkiesha legair, HawkAngel XD
You guys are super amazingly awesome!
If you guys have time to leave a review, please do! I love hearing your comments and concerns, that way I can address any issues there may be in the story. It's wonderful to hear from my readers!
General comments based on previous chapter reviews:
— There will be more stories from the tales of Inutaisho and Izayoi! They'll just come in a little later. And yes, there are many parallels, you smart people!
— I don't think Mika actually knows that Rin had been so deeply invested in Kohaku as more than a friend. She understands that they were really close friends, but I'm not sure she got that Rin wanted more from the relationship and had tried to make it more. Mika's definitely not the type of person to believe rumors or rub it in if she actually knew.
To the guest reviewers of the previous chapter:
Mirja – Thank you very much for being so understanding! And yes, Sesshomaru is such a fun, but simultaneously complicated character to write. He definitely has a heart underneath it all, as you say ;) Thank you so much for your compliments and taking the time to review! It's wonderful to hear from you. I hope you enjoyed the latest chapter and that everything is going well with you!
Aya – Wow! You're such an amazing person! Way to go on two degrees! I understand that you don't want to let too much information out, of course =) I'm very happy to see that you noticed the parallels. They are intentional, of course. I hope you enjoyed the latest chapter as well, even though I put it out late again –sigh- Anyway, thank you very much for taking the time to review as always!
Shay – I'm so glad to hear that you like story! And yes, Rin will get over her jealously little by little. It'll just take time, of course, as she has everything Rin never did: a family, a supportive home, and a marriage with someone she actually loves. I'm very sorry for the long delay on the update, and I hope you enjoyed the latest chapter!
Flowergirl25 – I'm very happy that you liked the chapter! Thank you so much for all of your compliments and for taking the time to review. I hope you enjoyed the latest chapter as well, even if it was delayed and a bit slow.
Happytello98 – I'm happy to hear that you enjoyed reading it! She is very much a free spirit indeed, and more love story background of Inutaisho and Izayoi will come up in later chapters for sure. I'm so sorry to hear that you had bad news at the beginning of the year, but it's great that your kids keep you going. Best of luck to you with everything you're going through. Thank you as always for the review, and I hope you enjoyed the update as delayed as it was :)