The softly spoken accusation rang loud with reproach, drawing Aoshi's attention to the woman standing in his office doorway. Demurely garbed in apron and kerchief, she was the picture of genteel domesticity save for her disappointed expression and ramrod straight posture. As the manager of the town's only inn, Tae had been well aware that they would be hosting guests; however, he'd told her only that they were coming to help with the Gryffith estate, not that at least one of the women was likely to be marked. Kenshin's announcement had made that omission obvious, and Aoshi had been expecting this confrontation for over an hour.
Exhaling silently and folding his hands together on the desk, he turned to face her fully. "I hoped," he said.
Not surprisingly, she was less than mollified by his clarification. "Oh! You only hoped. Well, that makes it perfectly acceptable that you didn't see fit to share, doesn't it?"
"Yes." His blunt, uninflected reply brought her up short, cutting through her sarcasm and annoyance as easily as a shouted reprimand. He didn't begrudge her obvious upset, but he would not be judged for protecting their convocation. "Tae... hope after so long an absence can be dangerous," he reminded her in the shocked silence. It was a lesson all-too painfully learned a decade before, when overweening hope had made them too trusting, too eager.
She frowned, anger slowly shifting to wary concern. "There's no reason to assume these two would be like Tomoe." Although unvoiced, the question, 'is there?' hung in the air, silently requesting reassurance.
Aoshi offered none. "There's also no evidence to show they won't," he said, raising one hand and shaking his head slightly to silence any half-formed protest she might make. "The blending of traditions in this modern world has broken many of the rules we've long thought inviolate. Despite the seeming impossibility of our kind being twisted, we've seen it happen. If one of the marked can become a practitioner of blood magic, anything is possible." Tomoe had been an unwelcome surprise in more ways than one. Not only had she been a blood witch, but she'd demonstrated that the darker magics could make one immune to the convocation's brand of spells and other innate gifts. He wasn't willing to let his guard down again without at least meeting these two women face-to-face.
Some portion of his thought must have shown in his expression. After studying him carefully for a long moment, Tae stepped into the room and took a seat in one of the plush guest chairs on the far side of his desk. "What is it? What's really bothering you?"
His answering sigh was audible, and even he wasn't sure if it stemmed from frustration or relief. "When I spoke to Ms. Makimachi on the phone," he explained, "she asked all the compelled questions, gave all the expected responses. But folklore is her profession."
And that had at least the potential to change everything.
Compulsion worked best when it followed lines of expected thought. It was far easier, for example, to prompt a potential tourist to ask about historic landmarks and popular restaurants than it was to make them ask about the quality of the local schools. It just wasn't the kind of thing the average visitor would be curious about. Even should one manage it, the subject's resulting unease - that inner voice wondering "why did I ask that?" - tended to make it impossible to go any further. No, with compulsion the artistry lay in prompting a particular response that would go unnoticed by the individual being manipulated, while still being obvious to the caster. Thus Aoshi and Tsunan had woven an intricate net around local legend, one designed to kindle an intense interest in the town and its historic statue, eventually prodding their quarry into coming to them. This time, however, they seemed to have lured in an expert instead of a curious and susceptible sightseer. It was something that had never happened before, not even back in the days when Sano was telling the tale to every drunken minstrel he could find. (Which, considering both the human penchant for alcohol and the convocation's ability to fly, had been a large number indeed.)
"Are you saying you're not sure the conversation was compelled? That it might simply be a coincidence?" Tae's immediate understanding was no surprise; she was perhaps the most familiar of them all with the vagaries of using compulsion on humans. Fed up with guests misbehaving, she'd long since begun 'encouraging' them to act more like civilized beings and less like rock stars on a bender. Sometimes the spells worked, and sometimes they didn't, but over time she'd become quite adept at knowing who would prove problematic.
"In part. More importantly, I wonder if she is somehow immune to our magic - if, like Tomoe and her brother, she can see through it." For the Yukishirous, it was almost as if there were post-it notes identifying each and every spell the convocation had in place: this counterpane urges you to keep your bodily fluids off the drapery; this old folktale prompts you to call Pact and ask about the Scythe of Battle. If Ms. Makimachi were similarly immune, it wouldn't be so much coincidence that she'd asked the right questions, but more like she'd read her lines from a script.
"But... surely if she were already planning to inquire it would make the compulsion less noticeable, not more? Like being hit with a sprinkler during a rainstorm?"
"That would seem most probable, yes. But if you know I'm trying to compel you, I lose all power to do so. Praemonitus, praemunitus. What if it's similarly impossible to compel an action that was - or would be - undertaken willfully?"
Before Tomoe, they'd never considered whether someone might be both aware of and immune to their innate talents. As long as a spell appeared to work, wondering whether it really had seemed pointless. In the ten years since, however, Aoshi had grown increasingly cautious, frequently challenging what they knew - or thought they knew - about their abilities. Despite understanding his reasons, Tae still felt that he'd become overly suspicious. "Surely at some point we must have urged someone to do something they were going to do anyway," she pointed out, rising to her feet. The inn had been in business in one form or another for more than three hundred years! Even she didn't think her little house-keeping spells were the only reason their cleaning and replacement costs tended to be low. "Yet we've never had a guest check out early for any reason, much less due to a constant, invisible nagging to behave." A slight smile betrayed her amusement at the thought. "Doesn't that imply your proposed scenario is impossible?"
It was a neat if somewhat circular argument, aside from the fact that very few of their guests had been marked. Still, Aoshi decided to keep that observation to himself, along with his other - more personal - doubts. There was no reason to worry the others; when there was reason, he would share.
At the doorway she paused, smoothing her apron in a distracted manner. "I still wish you'd told me," she finally said in a rush, her tone carrying echoes of dismay and lingering reproach. "There's nothing special planned for dinner, and we've only local wild flowers for the centerpieces, and I haven't prepared our best rooms... "
"I'm sure everything will be fine." Aoshi's words were sincere, if not particularly sympathetic. Whereas Tae was of the opinion that every little bit of leverage helped when trying to make a good impression, he felt that anyone who could be swayed by minor details wasn't worth the effort. Especially considering that their standard service was itself impeccable. Additional fripperies were unnecessary.
"Aoshi...What if there's still something there? What if it drives these two away?" She tucked her hands into her apron pockets, although the soft fabric served only to delineate the shape of clenched fists and sharp knuckles.
Their best rooms were not, strictly speaking, reserved for the marked, although they tended to be used primarily by those whom the convocation was courting. Tomoe had been the last such, and upon her departure all of the furnishings had been salted and burned, and everything else washed down with a solution of Tae's concocting. Exactly how she'd managed to blend every cleansing herb from at least three different magical traditions into something that smelled remarkably like lemons was still a mystery, but it had done wonders in dispelling the stench of blood magic from both Yukishirous' rooms. Even so, it took years before Tsubame would enter either unaccompanied, and Tae still repeated the treatment almost compulsively every new moon. As if by doing so she could ward against further evil.
"Tae," his tone was firm, "it's been ten years. Any residue is long gone. There's nothing there. Remember," he added, lips curving just slightly at the thought, "even that famed American psychic claimed we were clean. The least haunted of all the historic sites she'd visited."
Rolling her eyes, Tae gave an unladylike snort. "Yes, and she was also absolutely positive that Scythe's Pact was a complete fabrication. Forgive me if I don't take her word for anything."
Then take mine. It was spoken directly into their minds, the masculine voice faint but definite.
"Kenshin?" Both spoke the name aloud, and almost in unison. It was unusual for their alpha to speak at all, much less so clearly. Tae couldn't help feeling it was a positive sign, although Aoshi was frowning, brows lowered in thought.
There is nothing of the blood witch remaining in Pact. It was a statement of absolute fact, allowing no room for dissent. He would know, having drained himself dangerously close to full petrifaction in order to reset the wards after her meddling. Every care had been taken to ensure the openings she had exploited were well and truly sealed. The monthly cleansing is unnecessary... unless you've grown particularly fond of citronella.
Flushing at his gentle teasing, Tae dipped a small curtsy - he couldn't see her, exactly, but the formality was for her sake as much as his. "Thank you, Kenshin," she said, her earlier tension visibly easing. "Well then... I'd best make sure there are fresh linens in the rooms." With a nod toward Aoshi she disappeared down the hallway, talking quietly to herself about what she could - or should - serve for dinner.
Monkfish. The one word answer was tinged with laughter, Kenshin's mirth lingering in their minds even as his presence withdrew as quickly as it had come.
"I suppose we'll find out why that's funny later," Aoshi murmured, turning back to his computer and dispelling the screen saver. He sat for a long while just staring at the open spreadsheet, his mind turning over the puzzle that was Ms. Makimachi. When he'd spoken to her on the phone there had been a distinct echo, despite the clarity of the connection. It had been soft and uncommonly distracting - more than just a minor nuisance, it had genuinely made it difficult to think. Only now, having so recently 'heard' Kenshin's mental voice, did he realize the truth: he'd been hearing that echo with his mind, not his ears.
Pact proved to be every bit as picturesque in person as it appeared in the brochure. Even the tiny train station with its stone facing, slate roof, and wrought-iron benches had an antiquated air, one which the twining wisteria and gravel walkways served only to accentuate. The building, in essence little more than a covered platform, was perched on a ridge that afforded visitors a lovely view of the town proper. Gently sloping hills outlined a vaguely wedge-shaped valley dotted with well-kept homes, and in the center the village green was a triangular park surrounded by modest businesses: a bank, a grocer, a bakery.
"Oh, it's beautiful!" Exiting the train in a graceless rush, Misao went to stand on the edge of the promontory, backpack dangling from one arm and her suitcase leaning drunkenly against her leg. Kaoru followed at a more sedate pace, carrying her luggage instead of dragging it down the stairs behind her. The earlier drizzle had cleared, leaving behind only a trace of damp and the scent of moss and earth on the air as the sun began to set, although in the distance fog gathered against the backdrop of Snowdon Mountain.
"Mmm. I bet the view was even better yesterday," Kaoru said, gazing out across the valley, "it was sunny and clear without a trace of rain."
Misao told herself that 'accidentally' whacking Kaoru with her backpack was probably not a good idea, no matter how satisfying or deserved it might be. Instead she took a deep, calming breath before grasping the handle of her suitcase and turning to walk across the small parking lot. "I told you that the tickets had already been purchased and were non-refundable," she called over her shoulder. "I also explained that I was originally supposed to be traveling with Megumi, and you know what she's like!"
Megumi was their second cousin, an expert on furniture and ceramics from the British Isles. Where Misao was something of a bohemian free spirit, Megumi had strict standards of decorum. She had no patience at all for 'unprofessional flights of fancy', and tended to be slightly pretentious, exceedingly impatient, and acidly sarcastic. Naturally, when thrown together they got on terrifically, in the original sense of the word. It was no surprise, then, that Misao would plan ahead, as the best way to keep Megumi from noticing and carping on her research efforts was to make sure she had ample distractions in the way of sight-seeing opportunities and fine dining.
Knowing why Misao would have had no qualms about dragging Megumi all over Wales did nothing to soothe Kaoru's irritation over having the same done to her. She'd been disgruntled when their lunch plans fell through, and her dissatisfaction had then turned to full-blown annoyance when she'd picked up a copy of the local bus and train schedules for later reference. With the proof right there in her hand, Misao had been forced to admit that they could have taken the train from London to Betws-Y-Coed instead of Porthmadog, and been happily ensconced in Pact the afternoon before. The fact that the 'scenic route' had not only been scenic, but had - due to the B&B in Porthmadog being cheaper - actually cost somewhat less than the direct one, really wasn't the point.
Eyebrow twitching and fingers clenched white against violent urges, Kaoru growled wordlessly under her breath, then raised her voice to call after the living embodiment of cluelessness. "And like I already explained, you should have told me you had an appointment at the Black Boy Inn."
"I didn't have an appointment," Misao retorted, waving her free hand about for emphasis. "Dr. Predith said he would be there and would be happy to speak with me... but we didn't set a time or anything." She slowed her step as she spoke, allowing Kaoru (mumbling something pointed about weasels and semantics) to catch up. With a huff of her own, Misao conceded the point. "Fine! He's the foremost authority on Welsh folklore, and this was my only chance to speak with him without breaking our schedule."
"And what schedule would that be? Does it involve another day or so of dragging me around the countryside for no reason?"
Rather than dig her hole any deeper, Misao chose to ignore the question entirely, focusing on food as the lesser of two evils. "I don't see what the big deal is. We had a fantastic meal in an atmosphere of genuine Welsh culture and ambiance. You can have monkfish some other time."
This turned out to be the wrong thing to say. Suitcase wobbling dangerously over the setts paving the street, Kaoru abruptly turned to face her. "Did you even read the menu at Stones Bistro? Today's special was monkfish wrapped in bacon, served with grilled tomatoes on a bed of mesclun. Perfection on a plate." She sighed, shoulders slumping as she resumed her walk down the hill. "And you insisted we had to have pub fare instead!"
"There was nothing wrong with our lunch!" Misao was actually somewhat taken aback by Kaoru's continuing pique. True, you didn't get between Kaoru and a decent meal; her skills in the kitchen extended no further than pre-packaged foods heated in the microwave, and sometimes even that was chancy. For her, eating out was one of the perks of the job. She was still being unusually adamant about this fish getting away.
"I didn't say there was anything wrong with it. Just because my Welsh pie was perfectly lovely doesn't mean it was what I wanted." Glancing over her shoulder she waggled her finger in a scolding gesture. "You're the one who hyped the seafood before we ever got off the train, so if I'm upset it's your own fault."
Which... was actually true, much as Misao would like to deny it. Even if it had been Kaoru's idea to check both menus before deciding where to eat, Misao had used the suggestion to her own advantage. "Alright, I'm sorry," she said, grudging but sincere. "I really thought there would be time to eat at Stones when I suggested it, but it took longer than expected to store our luggage. I also didn't think we'd make quite so many stops along the way."
Tired of fighting with both her cousin and the uneven pavement, Kaoru paused in the street, braced one hand on the handle of her bag, and gave Misao her full attention. "So what was your plan? Were you going to shout: 'Look! Monkfish!' and then run while Megumi was eating?"
"Pretty much!" Unabashed, the younger girl actually bounced a bit on her heels as she, too, came to a stop in the otherwise deserted street. "We both know she would've been pleased as Punch to ditch me for an hour."
"True." Kaoru nodded, granting that Megumi preferred dining alone over dealing with Misao's chatter any day. "But why couldn't you just tell me you needed to go to Caernarfon for lunch?"
One sneaker scuffed back and forth over the pavement as Misao peeked at Kaoru from under her bangs. "It didn't seem like a good idea? Not that you're anything like Megumi!" she hastened to add as Kaoru looked skyward as if seeking strength or, possibly - mayhem being best perpetrated without witnesses - checking whether the area was wired for CCTV. "But it was nice being in charge for a change."
"You'd get to be in charge more often if you used your powers for good rather than evil," Kaoru muttered, rubbing her hands over her face. "Just... promise me there won't be anymore surprises, okay?"
Satisfied she straightened, wrapped her hand around her suitcase's handle, and resumed walking. For a scant few minutes all was quiet save for the faint, sandy grate of luggage wheels against the pavement.
"Um," hesitant and vaguely sheepish, Misao's voice brought Kaoru's forward momentum to an immediate halt. "In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that you're not here to attend an estate sale."
She blurted it out in a rush, and it took Kaoru a minute to sort the flow of sound into meaningful words. "I'm not?" Misao shook her head. "Then why are we - why am I here?"
"To organize one?" Closing her eyes, she leaned away as if expecting either a verbal or physical backlash. Possibly both. When neither came she dared a look, sighing in relief that Kaoru appeared too stunned to respond. Seizing the opportunity, she trotted quickly ahead, turning at a safe distance to walk backwards while adding: "The Gryffith manor house is apparently packed with antiques, as well as assorted items that may or may not be valuable. Oniwaban has been hired to sort through it and decide what to auction, what to sell, and what to preserve."
Kaoru blinked once, then her brows lowered and she increased her pace, stalking determinedly after the younger girl. "So why isn't Megumi here? She's the expert!"
At the foot of the hill the lane entered the town limits, where a wide walkway surrounded the village green. Still backing away, Misao's heel hit the curb, and she flashed a bright grin as she shifted her grip on her bag to lift it over the tiny hurdle. "Okina agreed to send you instead, because Megumi always complains about being sent to out-of-the-way places." At least she does when she travels with me. "Besides, you needed to get away for awhile."
"Get away from where? I'd been home for less than a week!"
"And see how easy it was to be shipped off again? Out here you'll have a chance for some peace and quiet." That garnered a glare and an uncomplimentary mutter, both of which Misao ignored as she turned to scan the surrounding buildings for their inn. The Feathered Nest was a remodeled church house, large enough to stand out among the smaller businesses even if she couldn't spot the sign. However, what caught her eye was no mere building, nor a quaint old-fashioned business shingle.
"I... That's... Wow."
Glancing sideways, she nodded in agreement with Kaoru's fumbling assessment. 'Wow' pretty much summed it up.
Even larger than the pictures had led them to believe, the Scythe dominated the sharpest point of the wide, triangular village green, where he stood screaming eternal defiance at the sky. Inanimate, yet nevertheless daring all comers to test his patience and protection, he possessed a sense of presence which only grew stronger as they walked closer.
Absent the bizarre photo treatment, it was apparent he was carved from some sort of deep red stone, most likely granite, which had then been polished until smooth and reflective. At a distance, gleaming in the late afternoon sun, the surface appeared utterly unmarred by weather, pollution, or even disrespectful birds. The beak and talons glinted with the bright metallic sheen of gold leaf: perfectly, implausibly immaculate.
After a long moment, Misao reminded herself that the statue wasn't really a powerful, majestic being frozen forever in stone, and shook off the sense of awe that strove to keep her silent. "That's the cleanest statue I've ever seen in my life," she said. Folding her arms atop her suitcase handle, she bent forward to rest her chin on her wrist, head tilted in a considering manner. "What do you suppose? Think they make someone scrub it every day to keep it looking like new?" When Kaoru didn't reply - didn't even huff in exasperation at her irreverence - she turned her head to find the older girl staring, glassy eyed and entranced. "Kaoru?"
Despite her extensive experience with all manner of priceless antiques, Kaoru was at a loss to explain her reaction to the Scythe. Her single utterance certainly didn't do him justice, and barely managed to convey her dumbfounded sense of wonder. She'd handled intricately detailed hardstone figures that were less awe inspiring. Maybe it was because of his size, but the sheer power and grace in his form simply... took her breath away. Animal or not, fictitious or not, his lines and bearing were princely, his long-gone sculptor having successfully captured the essence of a protective, territorial male.
Drawing a shaking breath, she shadowed Misao as they moved closer, her pulse seeming to increase with each step. Absurdly, her palms were sweating, her entire body feeling flushed and overheated. As if this were an important meeting or a first date, and one she desperately wanted to go well. Crazier still, she had the undeniable impression that the statue was anxious, too. Which was surely Misao's fault for encouraging her to see the Scythe as real, as the focus of a true story. And even if it could care - which it couldn't - why would it want to impress her?
They slowed to a stop where the flagstone walk made its closest approach, standing outside his shadow, yet only yards away. That close, she was impressed anew by the level of detail. It was more than just the windswept lay of feathers and tail, discernable even in photos. Now she could see the way carved muscles flexed in the stone haunches, and strained to brace the wings against an absent storm. Hundreds of feathers covered those wings - not just an impression of veined ovals in neat lines, but individually carved primaries, coverts, and secondaries in varying lengths, shapes, and groupings. Where the feathers gave way to pelt, the stone bore faint ripples, as if the velvet-short fur had been tousled by the wind.
The realism was stunning. Impossible. How could anyone just make up something that seemed so believably life-like? Unless the sculptor had spent hours studying both raptors and lions, it seemed unlikely that the minutiae could be so accurate. Yet the alternative hypothesis - that gryphons were real, and the sculptor had managed to study one - was even more ludicrous. Yet she more than half believed, if she dared to reach out and touch him, that he'd prove to be flesh and blood. That if she blinked, he'd move.
"Hey, Kaoru!" Slender fingers snapping in her face forced the issue. Flinching, she blinked a few times in reaction before swatting Misao's hand away. A brief glance confirmed the Scythe remained the same, unmoved and unmoving... although her sense of nervous excitement had vanished.
"Look at you, gawking like an amateur!"
"I was not gawking." At least, she hoped she hadn't been. A fresh wave of nervous heat flooded her cheeks with color. She was supposed to be the calm, professional one, the foil to Misao's off-the-wall, candid reactions.
"I don't care if you gawk," Misao said, patting Kaoru's shoulder consolingly. "He's a fine specimen, as mythological beings immortalized in solid rock go." She grinned as Kaoru clapped a hand to her forehead in exasperation. "Just try not to let our employers catch you - they might decide to hire someone else to handle the estate."
"If your lack of professionalism hasn't cost us the contract, I doubt we have anything to worry about."
"Well then," hoisting her suitcase, Misao skipped across the street to the inn and all but leapt up the steps to the wide wooden door at the top, "I'll just leave you two alone!" With a wink she vanished inside, sunlight obscuring any glimpse of her that the door's glass inset, transom, or sidelights might otherwise have offered..
Alone on the sidewalk, Kaoru sighed, then straightened her shoulders and crossed the street, refusing to hurry although heaven only knew what Misao was doing inside. At the door she paused to spare one last glance at the statue. She still wanted a closer look. More than that, she wanted to feel for herself that the impression of sleek feathers and plush fur was only an illusion. I'll see you later, she thought.
And as the door closed behind her, surely it was only her imagination that turned the sun's glare into the glint of masculine satisfaction in one round, amber eye; or insisted that, in place of the earlier desperate hoping, the statue now radiated an infuriating smugness.