Days passed uneventfully after the centipede youkai's attack. A routine was established.
Kagome and Miroku would rise with the sun, eat, and set out on horseback to cover as much ground as possible while there was light in the sky. At night they would pick a spot to settle. Miroku would go around their little camp placing wards and ofudas to prevent any further incidents.
The two would then eat once more before settling into their respective futons for the night. It took Kagome an inordinate amount of time to convince Miroku that the nights were not nearly cold enough to warrant his crawling into her futon with her.
The whole time Kagome was uneasy, too preoccupied to even think much on the fact that she was leaving her village further and further behind. She had been able to laugh off the first attack because she and Miroku had escaped relatively unscathed, but after considering the incident she had been left with several nagging questions.
The fact that the spirits and youkai were restless was unquestionable. They had been for quite some time. But the focus that the centipede youkai had seemed to have when attacking struck her as odd.
It had gone straight for her without so much as a glance to spare for Miroku or even the horse, which would have made an easy meal if that had been what it was after. Nor had it simply devoured her when it had the chance, but rather it had seemed to be searching for something on her person. It had muttered something along the lines of 'Shikon', or the like.
Miroku had offered no explanations or opinions on the matter. At times, though, Kagome had caught him gazing fixedly at the flames of their camp fire in a manner that suggested it nagged at him.
In addition, Kagome could sense other youkai nearby at almost all times of the night and day. That in and of itself would not have been strange, but there was a certain feeling of concentration and purpose to the way they followed so doggedly after the houshi and herself.
They never ventured too near, but were perpetually hovering around the edges of Kagome's spiritual sense. At night she could almost feel them pressed up against the barriers that Miroku erected, their eyes all fixed upon her. Kagome slept fitfully.
Miroku's words just prior to the attack continued to eat at her, as well, though she could never bring herself to broach the subject again with him. Had she really been the cause of all of those attacks? Had the youkai been after her? Was she at fault?
The guilt that thought caused nearly made her ill at times. She pushed it back, though, with the reassurance that at least now she was doing the right thing in going away to get proper training.
Despite it all, Kagome could not help but enjoy the journey a bit. They passed snow topped mountains so large that their tips grazed the clouds, and Kagome wondered if one might meet a kami by climbing to the top.
They traveled through forests so deep that they were actually pitch dark at their hearts, the tall trees clustered so closely together that their branches blocked out the sun. Kagome could feel spirits everywhere in those forests, skimming along her senses at every turn. It was a pleasant feeling, to be surrounded by so much life and energy.
They rode over rolling plains and tall grasses that seemed to stretch on ahead for small, gently swaying eternities. They even passed through a few small villages on the way, and Kagome felt such nostalgia at the sight of the tiny huts and the rough-hewn people that it might have been a thousand years since she had left home.
She learned that the land she lived in was one more beautiful than she had ever guessed, filled with much more than a muddy river that tended towards flooding and tiny dirt hills. She hoped secretly that they would allow her to do more traveling once she had been properly trained in the court.
The month or so it took to reach the court passed with surprising quickness. Kagome was caught off guard when Miroku announced that the capital and the court would probably be within sight sometime the next day.
The night of the announcement she lay in her futon after having eaten dinner, tired yet unable to rest. Her stomach was knotting up horribly at the thought of what was to come the next day. Though for the most part she had been able to avoid thinking about it during her journey, all of Kagome’s latent worries now congealed into a pressure that came to rest squarely on her chest.
She was not accustomed to wearing fine clothes, to bathing regularly, to speaking respectfully at all times, to acting the part of a delicate lady, to being constantly witty and entertaining, to deferring to everyone that she met. None of it had been necessary in her village.
She was aware of her ignorance in comparison to nobles. Her travels with Miroku had proven this to her several times over, though he had never mocked her for it.
But exactly how ignorant would she prove to be? She was prepared for them to be wary of her because of her low birth, but exactly how set against her would they be? She knew she was untrained compared to many other spiritualists, so would she be able to handle the training she was to be given?
Doubts nagged at her through the entire night like biting gnats, but at some point Kagome drifted off into a restless sleep.
In the morning she awoke feeling more tired than before she had gone to sleep, but sheer force of habit had her cleaning up the camp and mounting up behind Miroku.
"You are feeling well, Kagome-chan?" Miroku asked, nudging the horse into a trot.
They were on their way.
Kagome nodded feebly and then, remembering he could not see her, croaked out, "I'm fine."
His slight 'hmmmm' in response said he was not accepting that answer.
"Nervous about our arrival in the capital?" he pressed.
"I said I'm fine," Kagome repeated stubbornly, forcing a bit more cheer into her tone.
Despite the unconventional friendship that had grown between them over the course of the trip, she was reluctant to share her worries with Miroku. At the end of the day, he was still a nobleman and probably could not understand her concerns. There was no point in bothering him with her troubles.
"Rather than listening to what women say, I prefer to listen to what they mean," Miroku spouted, as if he were the sagest man in all of Japan. Kagome snorted a laugh, unable to help herself.
"So you obviously think that when women say 'hello, Houshi-sama', they mean 'feel free to put your hands wherever you like', right?" Kagome quipped.
"I like to think so," Miroku replied lightly. Kagome chuckled despite herself, shaking her head.
"You're such a pervert," she said.
"I am a man of the cloth, Kagome-chan. It is impossible for me to be a pervert," Miroku said with a smile. "But far more importantly, do you feel better?"
The smile slipped from Kagome's face as she realized he had been trying to cheer her up, replaced quickly by a softer, warmer expression. She felt a rush of affection for the him, and the thought briefly occurred to her that he was like the inappropriately amorous older brother that she had never asked for. She hugged him lightly from behind, silently grateful.
"You won't abandon me when we get to court, right? You might be the only friend I'll have," Kagome confided.
"If anyone is allowed to know you as I have come to know you, I'm certain that you will have many more friends than just myself. Nonetheless, I promise not to abandon you," Miroku vowed.
"Thank you, Miroku-sama," Kagome said softly.
"Well, fellow outsiders in the court such as ourselves must stick together," Miroku said softly.
Kagome frowned, leaning out to peer at his face.
"What do you mean?" she said.
"Ah, well, unfortunately my history is an ignoble one, my dear Kagome-chan," Miroku said, a hint of discomfort creeping into his tone. "I was born and raised in the court, but I am not of the court. I belong to none of the noble clans that hold power there.”
“My father was merely a humble wandering houshi before the previous Tennō-sama invited him into the court to work as a spiritualist. Invited or not, though, my father was still of common birth and married a woman of similar standing, leaving me in quite an awkward position as far as the court is concerned."
"They've…have they been unkind to you because you're not noble by birth?" Kagome ventured, catching just the slightest hint of some past hurt in the furrow of his brow.
"Not unkind, Kagome-chan. The people of the court are far too refined to ever do anything so vulgar as to be unkind. Rather they are cold. Or perhaps condescending, at times. Theirs is the kind of politeness that can bite like the cut of a knife," Miroku said, affecting a careless shrug. Still there was a sadness to his eyes that betrayed him.
"I'm sorry," was all Kagome could manage, though she berated herself for the weakness of such a sentiment. "It must have been difficult for you."
She could sympathize with the loneliness of growing up in a place feeling different than everyone else and unable to do anything about it. Her heart ached at the thought of a young Miroku all alone in the midst of the court, wearing his easy grin to hide his sadness. One hand came up to clutch at the fabric of his robes, a small gesture of support.
"Now, now, Kagome-chan. No one need apologize for my life, least of all you. Besides, there are far worse things in the world than some exclusion. For instance, I have never had to struggle for daily survival as you and many of the impoverished villagers have," Miroku pointed out, veering the talk carefully away from his past.
"I suppose so," she replied softly. And then, forcing herself to shake off the gloom, "Everything will be fine in the court now. For the both of us, I am certain."
Miroku nodded along indulgently, and Kagome did not see the worry that lined his brow this time.
They rode on towards the capital.
The sun was sinking low in the sky when Miroku nudged Kagome lightly with his elbow. She stirred, coming out of the daze she had fallen into. Twisting a bit to ease her cramping muscles, she rubbed her bleary eyes to clear the haze from them.
Turning forward and opening her mouth to ask Miroku why he had roused her, Kagome froze.
Never in her life had she imagined that something so grand could exist in the living world. Her grandfather had attempted to describe it to her, as had the few merchants passing through her village, but she realized that they had all failed to do it justice.
In the deep red of the setting sun glowed a low, long beige wall, stretching east to west as far as Kagome could see. The wall was topped by a light green roof of cypress wood, sloping gently downwards from a pointed peak.
"That's the Suzakumon gate. It encloses the entire Greater Palace as it stretches from south to north. Just inside the walls you can see the tops of the Daigokuden and the Burakuden buildings. You might be able to see a few of the residences of the clans and the baths, as well," Miroku informed her, pointing out the buildings as he spoke.
Shifting her gaze, Kagome could see the large structures just beyond the wall. Their roofs rose above the Suzakumon gate, a deeper green than the roof of the outer gate but still of the same cypress wood tiles.
They also sloped down from a point, though as the buildings were aligned north-south Kagome could see that the roof sloped down on both sides in a triangular formation with a slight overhang jutting out on all sides. What she could see of the walls was pure, unstained white with the edges of deep red pillars peeking out from beneath the overhangs.
"It's…it's so big," Kagome breathed, awed.
"You literally haven't seen even the half of it."
"What! How am I ever supposed to find my way around inside? It must be like a maze with all of those buildings and walls," Kagome said, intimidated by the very prospect.
"I doubt you will have to concern yourself with knowing all of it. The residences of the nobles make up the majority of the Greater Palace and are to be entered only on invitation.”
“The Daigokuden is used mainly for matters of state, so it is unlikely you will be summoned there. And the Inner Palace is the residence chiefly of the Tennō-sama and his consorts, along with their ladies-in-waiting. Unless the Tennō-sama takes quite a liking to you, you won't be going there," Miroku said.
"Alright," Kagome said, though her worry eased only slightly. She continued to study the structures with wide eyes, in awe at the idea that people had built such a thing.
As the two large, wooden gates that they would enter through loomed closer, she had to make a conscious effort to breathe. Four fully armored guards came into view, equipped with spears and shields. Kagome's hands flexed nervously where they gripped Miroku's robes.
"Calm down, Kagome-chan. Breathe deeply," Miroku instructed gently, bringing the horse to a halt in front of the guards.
One of the four men stepped forward and Kagome took a deep breath, willing her heart to quiet. There was no turning back now.
"Name, rank and purpose," the guard said brusquely.
"Shingon Miroku. Imperial Spiritualist of the First Order. Returning from assignment to give my report," the houshi answered, equally businesslike.
"Seal," the guard said, extending an expectant hand.
Kagome turned a questioning look on Miroku, but he merely reached inside his robes and pulled out some small square of red lacquered wood. He handed it to the guard who studied it for a moment before nodding and returning it.
Miroku tucked it back into his robes before Kagome could get a good peek at it. She could only guess it was some kind of insignia.
"Welcome back, Houshi-sama. If you will dismount, we will have your horse and belongings tended to shortly."
Miroku nodded and slipped down lightly. One of the guards moved forward to help Kagome dismount, his rough face impassive. She regarded the man hesitantly from her perch. Miroku stepped forward casually as if he had not seen the man and extended his arms to assist her. With a grateful smile she allowed him to help her down.
"Does the lady have some sort of identification, as well?" asked the man who seemed to be the head guard.
The fourth guard stepped through the gate as the other two pulled it open, leading their horse and belongings away.
"She is my guest," Miroku stated, drawing himself up authoritatively. The guard did not so much as blink.
"Apologies, Houshi-sama, but if she does not have anything to verify that her presence in the court is welcomed, we can not allow her through," the guard replied.
He cast a disdainful eye over Kagome, mouth twisting slightly. She was suddenly very aware of the raggedness of her crude kosode and the filth she wore from head to foot. She flushed and dropped her eyes, torn between indignation and shame.
"Though she is unexpected, I assure you that the lady is not unwelcome," Miroku argued.
"We have our orders, Houshi-sama, and no one but the Tennō-sama is above them. You may pass if you wish, but the girl is to remain outside."
The guard bowed in what was meant to be an apologetic manner, but came off as more of a begrudging formality. Out of the corner of her eye Kagome saw the man wince as he straightened back up.
Miroku appeared only slightly ruffled by this unexpected turn, but the way in which he gripped his shakujou more tightly and squared his jaw hinted at an agitation that Kagome rarely saw from him. Silence stretched tensely on and she knew he was at a loss.
Kagome pushed back her embarrassment and forced her mind into action, feeling that it was time for her to do her part. She looked from her tight-lipped friend to the guard and back, considering.
She had nothing like the seal Miroku had shown and no one in the court to vouch for her presence. Miroku had brought her to the capital on more of a whim than an order, hoping that the Tennō and the court would find her spiritual abilities impressive enough to warrant her staying. Slight movement from the head guard caught her eye and Kagome saw he was rubbing discreetly at his back, his face pinched.
An idea struck her like a bolt from the blue. It was a long shot, but…
"Excuse me, sir," Kagome said, stepping forward from behind the human shield Miroku had created for her. Both the guard and the houshi focused on her, the guard's hand dropping from his back.
"I do not mean any insolence in saying this, but Houshi-sama was kind and gracious enough to bring me to the court because he saw something worthy in my spiritual abilities. If I could show you, as well, honorable sir, something worthy of entrance into court, would you be willing to allow me passage?"
Miroku watched her, waiting to see where she was going with this. The guard opened his mouth to reply, a refusal already written on his stern face. Kagome cut in quickly.
"For instance," she said in her most demure voice and with her most unassuming expression. "Your back is hurting you, is it not? Some kind of strain, I would guess. I could easily heal that for you."
The guard's eyes widened, his hand sliding unconsciously over the injured area.
"How in the world-"
"I sensed it, honorable sir. There is a slight disruption in your spiritual flow," Kagome fibbed, pushing her advantage.
She could sense the disturbance in his back now that she knew what to look for, but it had been his behavior that had tipped her off.
"Would you allow me to fix it for you?"
The man looked nervous, hand flexing uncertainly on his back. He shook his head slowly, a refusal on his lips.
"I assure you she is quite skilled. I have seen her work healing miracles before with a mere touch of her hand," Miroku interjected.
He had regained his usual composure, the easy smile resting loosely on his face. Kagome suppressed a grin, unsurprised at how comfortably he lied.
"There can be no loss on your part, honorable sir," she added, forcing him to take that last little step back into the figurative corner. "Either I will be able to heal you, or I will prove myself to be useless and you will not have to allow me entrance."
He faltered under their double assault, looking back to his fellow guardsmen for support. They were both watching intently now, curious to see what the girl could do. The head guard sighed, knowing he would seem a coward were he to refuse now.
"Well, alright, then. But make it quick and know that I make no promises."
With an internal cheer of victory, Kagome bowed and stepped forward. She circled around the man once, closing her eyes and getting a feel for exactly where the problem was.
It was the upper back, near the left shoulder and probably caused by some sort of strain when working with a sword. She extended a hand to hover over the injured area. The guard watched her warily, fighting not to jerk away.
Softly Kagome began to chant, invoking the words Kaede had taught her to ease the overburdened. The sounds danced joyfully in the air as they spilled from her lips, soft light gathering in her outstretched hands. She pressed her fingertips gently to his back to keep from startling him. The area glowed for a brief moment and it was done.
"Try moving your shoulder," Kagome instructed, stepping back to survey her work.
The guard did so, rotating it cautiously. His entire face seemed to furrow downward in astonisment as he frowned.
"It…doesn't hurt," he said quietly, awed. Kagome beamed.
"Then you will be happy to allow her to pass through the gate," Miroku said, not allowing the man a moment to recover from his shock. It was more of an assertion than a question.
"I guess so," muttered the man dazedly, still rotating his shoulder.
Miroku seized Kagome by the arm, pulling her along through the gates and calling over his shoulder, "Thank you very much for your understanding, and please have our belongings brought to the Shingon residence."
They were away from the gate so fast that it had Kagome's head spinning. All she could see of the inside of the Greater Palace and its people were blurs for a stretch as Miroku pulled her along at a quick clip.
He stopped on the steps of what appeared to be a temple in a small courtyard, empty of any people. Kagome gazed up at the grand structure once she had regained her balance, her head going light with awe again.
The colors of the building were muted in comparison to the brilliant reds, whites, and greens she had seen as they were approaching. The roof tiles were a quiet grey, the walls dull white, and the pillars and detailing a reserved brown.
The building sat on a raised wooden base and had the look of three buildings piled on top of one another, each with its own individual roof. The bottom layer was average in size, the middle exceptionally thin, and the top a much smaller rectangular building situated atop the two squares, the only one with the same triangular sloping roof that she had seen on the other buildings.
"-me-chan. Kagome-chan," Miroku called, touching her shoulder lightly. Kagome turned from the building to focus on him.
"I've been calling you for a bit, but I believe you were too busy admiring the Shingonin. It's the only Buddhist temple within the court," he said, amused. "But I wanted to compliment you on your performance out there. That took more wit than I know most to possess."
"Well, I couldn't have pulled it off if you hadn't stepped in," Kagome demurred, glowing at such high praise and still flushed with her victory.
"So modest, Kagome-chan! Why I am certain that you must be the most charming, intelligent, and beautiful woman that I have-"
"Houshi-sama?" came a voice, halting the man's exaggerated rigmarole. Kagome turned gratefully to the person at the bottom of the steps.
It was a woman, and quite a beautiful woman at that. Her long, dark hair was tied at the ends with a white ribbon and pink powder covered the lids of wide, long-lashed brown eyes.
The layers of her silk juni-hito visible to Kagome were white with solid pink ellipses, trailing down to the ground and complimenting her moon pale skin. The sleeves of her karaginu overcoat enveloped her arms in their entirety, not even the tip of a finger peeking out. Beneath her quiet admiration of the woman, Kagome noticed that she looked displeased.
"Sango-sama!" Miroku exclaimed, going oddly stiff. "What a great pleasure it is to see you again!"
He bowed rigidly at the waist. The houshi looked more uncomfortable than Kagome had ever seen him before.
The woman was silent, gazing up at him with an inscrutable look. Kagome's glance shifted between the two, both of them seemingly oblivious to her presence. There was some sort of odd tension stretching like a wire between them, something she could not quite name. She wondered what the relationship between the two was.
Randomly Kagome's eyes began to sting, followed by her nose. She sneezed, the sharp little sound cutting the silence.
The wire snapped and both of them whipped their heads around to face her. Kagome smiled sheepishly.
"Ah!" the young woman gasped, raising a long sleeve to cover her mouth primly. "Please excuse my great rudeness! I am Tachibana Sango, of the Tachibana clan. We serve Japan's rulers faithfully as taiji-ya."
She pressed her hands together through her trailing sleeves and bowed gracefully.
Good manners dictated that Kagome should respond with her own introduction. Reluctantly she did so.
"I am Kagome. Common born. I serve as a miko in my village."
Sango's face fell, taking in Kagome's rough appearance for the first time.
"I brought her to the court because of her immense spiritual powers," Miroku said, coming to Kagome's aid. Sango's gaze turned to him, the look in her pretty eyes sharpening.
Sensing another awkward silence coming on, Kagome cleared her throat. "So, Houshi-sama, what exactly were you planning to do now?"
"I need to meet with the Tennō-sama to inform him of my findings," he replied. "During the report, I will attempt to arrange for an introduction between his Majesty and yourself, Kagome-chan. I do believe, however, that it would be best if you could be…tidied up before you are presented."
"Might I offer my assistance?" Sango spoke up. "I could accompany her to the baths and have proper attire arranged while you do your part."
"If it is not too much of a bother, I would be very grateful to you, Sango-sama," Miroku said, a wide, genuine smile stretching across his face. "Truly you are much too kind."
"Not at all. Why don't we get going, Kagome-san?"
Sango turned and began walking in measured, graceful steps, obviously expecting Kagome to follow along. She bid a quick farewell to the houshi before trailing after her, her steps considerably less refined.
"Thank you once again, generous Sango-sama. I leave Kagome-chan in your most competent and beautiful hands and look forward to seeing the both of you later on," Miroku called after them. Kagome saw Sango flush slightly, bowing her head to cover it.
"Thank you so much, Tachibana-sama. I truly appreciate you doing this for me," Kagome said, feeling it only proper that she express the sentiment herself.
"Ah, no, not at all, Kagome-san. I am certain you must be thankful to finally be away from the houshi. Though you are probably already aware of it, he has a tendency towards…the indecent," Sango grated out, her lovely face strained momentarily with irritation.
"No, it truly was not that bad, Tachibana-sama. I mean, Miroku-sama-" Kagome began in a placating manner.
"So then you welcomed his advances? Perhaps you have taken a liking to him?" Sango interjected, ice crackling in her voice. Her graceful gait had turned into a small stomping of her wooden geta sandals beneath the hem of her robes.
"Nothing like that, Tachibana-sama!" Kagome exclaimed, baffled by the other woman's behavior. "It might sound presumptuous of me to say it, but Miroku-sama and I became good friends on our trip. Like…brother and sister almost."
Sango halted, turning to Kagome with an unasked question in her eyes. Kagome vigorously in answer. The quick succession of relief followed by rose-red embarrassment on Sango's face was almost comical to watch, but Kagome managed to keep from laughing.
"I apologize, Kagome-san, for my odd behavior, but it has been a trying day," Sango said, bowing. "The thought that the houshi might have been bothering you with his indecent advances did not sit well with me."
"No need to apologize, Tachibana-sama. We all have our off days, and even on such a trying day you offered to take care of me. You must truly be a very generous person," Kagome returned graciously, relieved at the easing of tension between them.
Sango uttered a few denials for the sake of humility, resuming her leisurely walk. Kagome followed, surreptitiously attempting to match her tiny steps.
The noblewoman's attitude toward the miko warmed considerably as they continued on along the stone paths, winding around enclosed noble residences and small official buildings in various reds, greens, and whites. They all had some architectural variance of square building on a raised base with white walls, triangular sloping green roofs, and supporting red pillars under the eaves, with a few exceptions here and there.
Sango pointed out each building as they passed, giving its name, function, and a bit of the history of its clan if it were a residence. Kagome listened intently, trying to store all the information away for the future.
In the between times Sango asked about Kagome's life and her village, doing her own share of intent listening. Kagome related to her every detail she could think of, and the other woman seemed to absorb it all with utmost interest.
Kagome could not help her surprise, though it made her feel a bit ungenerous for having doubted the woman with no real knowledge of her. Sango's initial reaction to her status had seemed to bode very ill, but it looked now as if that had merely been an instinctive reaction.
The more they talked, the more Sango proved herself to be friendly and open minded, not even pulling so much as a face when Kagome stumbled in her etiquette or speech…or just plain stumbled, as she had managed to do a couple of times in her initial nervousness.
The other courtiers that they happened to cross paths with, however, did not prove themselves quite as tolerant as Kagome's escort.
Every so often the pair would come across a group out for an evening stroll, most of them women, and Sango would stop in order to give the acknowledgement that etiquette dictated proper.
She would introduce Kagome, as well, and each time the miko had the great pleasure of watching the courtiers' expressions twist with varying degrees of distaste. Certainly Sango was turning out to be the exception rather than the rule. Kagome was vaguely disheartened by the brief encounters, but forgot most of her perturbation in the face of Sango's warmth.
Darkness had covered the sky completely by the time they reached the bath-house, a large red wooden building much plainer in style than the others. From a chimney at the top billowed a continuous cloud of steam, puffing gently up into the blackness of the night sky.
"The baths are heated?" Kagome asked, gazing up at it.
"Of course," Sango replied, amused at the excitement she could see blooming on the younger woman's face. "Would you like to go in?"
Kagome nodded eagerly, forgetting her manners for a moment and rushing in before Sango. Sango merely smiled and shook her head when she turned back to apologize.
The inside of the baths was thick with steam, muggy warmth enveloping the two as they entered. The floor was made entirely of wood, not a bit of it dirt as Kagome was accustomed to.
A lowered space where they first entered provided a place for the two to leave their shoes, which they did before continuing inside. At the far end of the room were two large baths built into the floor. Water spilled over the edges occasionally as the courtiers inside moved about.
"These are the group baths," Sango explained. "They are for rinsing off a final time before leaving the bath house. We need to go upstairs to the more private baths first."
Kagome nodded and trailed after her as she ascended the staircase on the right. On the second floor there was a corridor with a series of curtains on both sides. Sango walked down it a ways before selecting a curtain and pushing it aside to enter.
Inside was a moderate sized room with a small heated bath in the center and a few shelves on the far wall. Sango went over to the shelves and pulled from them a few colorful bottles and washing cloths. She began removing the top layers of her juni-hito.
"You are taking a bath, too, Tachibana-sama?" Kagome asked, feeling that it must violate some unwritten rule for a noblewoman and a commoner to bathe together.
"Of course. You will need someone to help you wash properly, and I was planning on taking one soon anyway."
The reply was casual and unconcerned. Kagome felt a little touched somehow.
"Kagome-san? Would you mind helping me with my juni-hito? Sorry to bother you, but I usually bring an attendant. Winter is approaching and I am up to fifteen layers," Sango said sheepishly.
"Oh, certainly," Kagome said, walking over to her. Silently she marveled at how Sango had even been able to move in fifteen layers of heavy silk.
Together they removed the layers of fine fabrics and embroidery, placing them with care on the shelves. Kagome removed her own few layers and they both slipped into the bath.
Kagome felt all her aching muscles turn to mush in the soothing warmth, a pleased sigh escaping her. She was certain she had never felt anything quite so nice in her entire life, sinking blissfully down into the water up to her chin. Sango watched the girl with affectionate amusement, relaxed by the unassuming nature of her company.
After a few moments of contented soaking, Sango handed Kagome a cloth and they both began to wash. Sango added a bit of something from a pink tinted glass bottle to the water and the scent of aloe and sandalwood rose with the steam to fill the room.
Kagome inhaled deeply, continuing to scrub at her skin with the rag. It was strange to see the cloth turning brown with dirt as patches of her skin began to show through.
"Dip your head under, Kagome-chan, and I will wash your hair for you," Sango suggested when they had both finished. Kagome noted her change in address and smiled.
Kagome ducked down beneath the warm water, closing her eyes and savoring the brief feeling of weightlessness. When she emerged Sango was behind her with a purple bottle in her hands.
She poured from it some thick liquid, rubbing it between her hands before working it into Kagome's hair. The older woman worked slowly and carefully, untangling numerous snarls and working the substance in thoroughly. It had a pleasant, light scent to it and Kagome found her eyes sliding shut of their own volition.
"Umm…Tachibana-sama?" Kagome said.
"You can call me Sango, Kagome-chan. Tachibana-sama does not seem right coming from you," Sango said, her hands still working away diligently.
"Oh…alright, then. Thank you, Sango-sama," Kagome said, her voice soft. The allowance of such informality was no small gesture.
"I suppose that will do for now. You wanted to ask me something?"
"I was just wondering…and please tell me if it is too presumptuous of me to ask, but I was curious as to how you and Miroku-sama know one another?" Kagome hazarded, treading cautiously on the fine line of propriety. She always had been too curious for her own good.
The hands woven into her dark hair stilled. Kagome tensed, realizing that she had pushed Sango's kindness too far. She flailed about mentally, trying to find something to say. But the hands stiffly resumed their work and she closed her mouth.
"Ahahahaha…Why, there's no particular relationship between the houshi and I. We're barely acquaintances really. I mean, what woman could ever develop a relationship with such…such an indecent man," Sango said a bit too loudly.
Her fingers flexed against Kagome's scalp, scratching lightly. Kagome winced but remained silent.
"I see," she said, grateful she had not lost a friend over her impertinence. She decided not to push the issue any further, despite Sango's suspicious answer.
"So what about your clan, Sango-sama? You mentioned something about taiji-ya," Kagome said, guiding the conversation back onto safer ground.
"Rinse," Sango ordered.
Kagome dunked her head again. She was excited to find her hair soft, knotless, and pleasant smelling when she resurfaced, running her fingers through the slippery locks wonderingly.
"Do you mind returning the favor?" Sango asked, handing Kagome the bottle before dipping under the water.
Kagome repeated Sango's earlier actions, pouring the substance into her hands and working it into the noblewoman's hair when she came back up.
She worked tentatively, wary of making mistakes. Sango's hair was much nicer than her own, she noted absently, long and soft with few snarls in it.
"My clan has been serving the Tennō-sama for generations and generations," Sango began. "We are taiji-ya by trade, each of us trained in the art of youkai extermination from a very young age. That was how we originally gained our noble status so many years ago."
"Are you trained in the art?"
"Of course," Sango answered, a note of pride in her voice. "I have been trained since I was young in all of the warrior arts, but I specialize with Hiraikotsu."
She looked so pleased with herself that Kagome was hesitant to question it, but asked anyway, "What is a Hiraikotsu?"
"Oh, sorry, I forget that most people do not know what that is," Sango said, laughing sheepishly. "It is…well, it's…How about I just show it to you? I am not quite sure how to explain it in a way that would do it justice."
"Have you been out in the field often?" she asked.
"Not often. Too much fighting is unbefitting of a noblewoman," Sango said, the words practiced and resigned in the way of a lesson reluctantly learned.
"But I have been out enough to understand what goes on. Mostly we are only employed in defending the capital itself, but a few times I have been further out. The villages are virtually defenseless and the people always look like they are in the midst of hard times."
"They always are," Kagome admitted quietly, sobering at the memory of her own little village.
Sango winced, realizing she had accidentally prodded a sore spot.
"I apologize, Kagome-chan. It must have been hard for you," she said with soft sincerity.
"A bit," Kagome said dismissively, shaking her head to clear it. "But it's all alright now. My village will be fine, and you've been kind enough not to make it difficult for me here."
"Well, if you ever need anything…." Sango left the sentence open, but Kagome understood well enough.
"Thank you, Sango-sama. I will not hesitate to ask."
They finished their bath in amicable silence, grabbing their things and going downstairs for the finishing soak before drying off. They applied some kind of aloe lotion from a third green bottle to their skin before redressing and going to Sango's residence.
The residence was a large, sprawling one near the center of the Greater Palace and, Sango informed Kagome, near to the Inner Palace where the Tennō resided. Several smaller buildings were spread throughout the enclosed space, connected to the main house with covered walkways.
There was a large garden in the back filled with walking paths and sakura trees, beneath one of which was a koi pond. Kagome had the continuous, disorienting feeling of having entered some alternate world, clean and beautiful and full of good smells in a way that her small world in the village never had been. It was amazing.
Even in her awe, though, she noticed how empty the residence was, save a few servants scattered here and there. Sango explained that many of the members of her clan were currently out on duty because of all of the unrest amongst the youkai.
Kagome was quietly relieved at not having to deal with any more nobles. It would have been foolish of her to assume that everyone in Sango's clan was as kind and open as Sango had proven to be.
At one point Sango stopped to speak with a servant, requesting that the woman have clothes brought for Kagome until Sango could arrange to have some made for her. Kagome protested at this, but Sango would have none of it.
The older woman seemed to have made it her personal mission to see to Kagome's happiness and comfort. Kagome surrendered in the end, secretly pleased by Sango's concern for her.
After the two had finished touring the residence, Sango led Kagome to one of the detached houses where she had arranged a room to be set up. The clothes she had ordered were laid out in the room when they arrived, including two juni-hitos, traditional miko garb, and a light sleeping yukata.
Kagome bowed and apologized and thanked the noblewoman profusely for going to the trouble, but Sango waved her off nonchalantly. The noblewoman soon left her to get to sleep as it had grown late.
With the help of the servant Sango had summoned, Kagome put on the two light layers of the sleeping yukata. The servant would have taken her old clothes to be burned, but Kagome stopped her. Somehow she could not bear to part with them, no matter how out of place they proved to be in the court.
The servant woman gave her an odd look, but bowed respectfully and left Kagome to retire for the night. Kagome crawled into the large futon that had been laid out, warm and clean and comfortable.
She could not sleep.
Time stretched on interminably in the darkness and every moment Kagome felt more awake. She knew she should have been tired after such a long day. She even tried arguing this to her uncooperative body. Still she could not find rest and at last she became so frustrated that she had to get up and move.
At first she stuck with pacing around inside her room, hoping to wear herself out. That quickly became annoyingly repetitive, and she wondered if maybe some fresh air would help calm her enough to sleep. She was accustomed to sleeping close to the outdoors, after all, and to hearing the whispering of the wind and the cooing of birds as she drifted off. She crept quietly out to the garden behind the main house.
It was an especially dark night, and Kagome realized that it was a new moon. Even with little light, though, the closed blossoms of the sakura were beautiful to behold. She looked forward to spring when they would bloom, imagining sitting beneath them to share a meal with Sango and Miroku.
The night was reasonably warm, despite the fact that winter was fast approaching. For a time Kagome amused herself with wandering the paths aimlessly, trying to take in everything that had come to pass. It all seemed too surreal, even as she stood in the midst of it.
When she was at last forced to abandon her ambling by the low wall that enclosed the Tachibana residence, she turned her eyes skyward to search for the brightest star. She spotted it quickly, along with a huge Enoki tree stretching so far up in to the sky that the stars seemed to hang from its massive branches.
Kagome craned her head back to gaze up at the behemoth, her eyes going wide. It seemed to be glowing in the sight of her spiritual sense, its aura a deep golden the likes of which she had never seen before. It felt…warm, somehow.
Seized by a sudden urge, Kagome took off in as quiet a run as she could manage, winding her way out of the gardens and through the front gate of the residence.
It took a bit of back tracking and running in circles, but eventually she managed to reach the tree. It towered majestically in the center of the open garden area that Sango had named as the En no Matsubara, presiding with silent authority.
Kagome slowed her approach, reverence in her every step. Its aura pulsed gently as she came forward, enveloping her own in its otherworldly warmth. She stretched her hands out towards the trunk, breath catching in her throat as her palms made contact with the rough bark of it.
"What in the seven hells are you doing?"
Kagome yelped in surprise, heart jolting in her chest. Her eyes cast about wildly in the surrounding darkness in search of the source of the unexpected voice.
The indistinct outline of what she guessed to be young man sat nearly hidden amidst a tangle of protruding roots at the base of the tree. It was hard to make out much of him in the dim light of the stars, but his dark eyes seemed almost to glow as he peered out at her.
His hair, long and so dark it almost blended with the night sky, was draped haphazardly amongst the roots, and he wore a deep black karaginu and sashinuki of some fine looking material. He most definitely looked the part of a noble.
"I…ah, I'm sorry…I…I didn't mean..to…," Kagome fumbled, hardly able to get anything out past her mortification at having been seen. She bowed low at the waist, her face flaming at her unintentional intrusion.
"I didn't ask for an apology, woman," the man huffed, and there was a slight rustling as he shifted deeper back into the shelter of the roots.
Kagome frowned, peering up at him from her bow. He flapped a dismissive hand in her direction.
"I’m saying feel free to get lost. You're annoying."
He turned his gaze away from as if that were the final word on the matter.
Kagome rose up from her bow, her back going straight with indignation. Noble he may be, but that hardly gave him the right to act so boorishly towards her.
"I've hardly said two words to you! What right've you to say I'm annoying?" she shot back, her chin tilting up petulantly.
"Good to know you can form a whole sentence. So I'll try this again, nice and slow for you this time-What in the seven hells are you doing out here?" the man responded, seemingly unconcerned with the fact that he had been chastised by someone beneath him in status.
"The tree," Kagome said begrudgingly. "I sensed its aura and I wanted to come see it up close."
"Goshinboku? Sensed its aura?" This seemed to get his attention and the man extricated himself from his resting place in the roots, standing. He had very strong features, obvious even in the darkness.
"I'm a miko of the Shintō order. The tree…it's got a very strong aura," she explained, her ire cooling momentarily as the barrage of insults ceased.
"Huh? Of course Goshinboku has an aura. It's ancient. You must be pretty dense if you've never sensed it before."
Irritation flared quickly once more. "I'm not dense! This is my first day in the capital!"
"What?" he said, moving forward slightly to examine her. "Well, I can't remember seeing your face before, but just about everyone here in the court looks about the same anyway."
"Well, I'm not of the court. I just arrived today. The houshi Miroku-sama brought me," Kagome said.
"That lech?" the man burst out, eyes widening. "You ain't pregnant with his kid, are you?"
"No! No!...What? No!"
The man snorted. "Then why’d he bring you?"
"My spiritual abilities. Miroku-sama thinks they will prove useful," Kagome said, cheeks flushed with the indecency of his previous suggestion.
"So that's what he did when he was out there," the man muttered, more to himself than to her. "Figures he'd find a way to bring a woman back. You're village born, huh?"
"Yes. My name is Kagome," she offered, years of etiquette training making the offering of her name almost reflexive.
"Kagome?" he echoed as if testing the word, and somehow she was unsurprised at the liberty he took with her name. "You're pretty mouthy for a miko."
"And you're pretty coarse for a courtier," Kagome returned, bristling once more. Their eyes met through the dark, holding for a long moment in silent challenge.
With a huff the man turned to look out towards the horizon. There was something vaguely anxious in his gaze and Kagome turned to look as well. All she could see were stars.
"I never asked why you were out here in the middle of the night," she said, the thought occurring to her suddenly.
"So does that mean you're gonna ask now?" he said, glancing at her from the corner of his eye.
"I am asking."
"Didn't sound like a question."
"Fine. What were you doing out here in the middle of the night?" Kagome sighed. It was like speaking with a small child.
"Thinking," he replied.
"Yes, thinking. It's probably not something you're real familiar with," he quipped. There was just the barest hint of a smirk lingering around the corners of his lips, and Kagome could have sworn he was getting some kind of enjoyment out of this.
"What were you thinking about out here at this time of night, oh sage one?" Kagome said, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.
"Keh! Lots of stuff."
"Lots of stuff?" she echoed incredulously, pressing a harried hand to her forehead. "Thank you for being so terribly candid with me."
"Fancy word, woman."
"Only to you."
Kagome was already in mid-glare by the time she began to wonder how they had degenerated back to that again. It was odd, though. Beneath all of her ire…some part of her was enjoying this a bit. It was a relief to be able to speak so freely. And the brightness of his eyes in the dark suggested that she might not be alone in that.
Abruptly the man looked away. Light was beginning to tinge the edges of the sky and there was alarm on his face.
"I gotta go."
He started to walk off, but paused and turned back to her.
"See you next new moon, wench."
"It's Kagome!" she called after him, but he was already gone.
With a small laugh, the young woman turned and walked back to the Tachibana residence. When she lay down in her futon for the second time she drifted off immediately, realizing just before she passed out that she had never gotten the strange man's name.
In the morning when a servant came in to wake her, Kagome found that she felt oddly well rested despite how little sleep she had actually gotten.
The servant helped her to dress before she could go meet Sango for breakfast, though Kagome opted to wear the miko garb of a white long-sleeved karaginu and red hakama with tabi socks and zori sandals. She was afraid of the effort it would take to put on one of the fifteen layered juni-hito.
The servant then brought in a basin of water for her to wash her face before helping her to comb out her long hair. Once she was deemed presentable the servant led her into a large main sitting hall containing a long, low dining table of shining dark wood. Miroku and Sango were both seated on cushions at the table, apparently awaiting her arrival to begin breakfast.
"Kagome-chan! Why, you look even lovelier than I could have imagined," exclaimed Miroku, jumping up from his place at the table to lead Kagome to a seat.
The gesture was distinctly brotherly, but she could not help glancing at Sango to see her reaction. Her friend had turned her face away quickly.
Kagome mumbled an awkward thank you and sat down, still looking anxiously towards the noblewoman. The taiji-ya turned back to face the table after instructing a servant to bring in breakfast. A too wide smile was plastered firmly to her face.
Kagome winced, looking towards Miroku to see if he had noticed. He was putting more effort into looking disinterested than she thought necessary, examining his hashi with great interest.
"How did you sleep, Kagome-chan? And as the houshi so kindly pointed out, you do look lovely. The miko robes really suit you," Sango said stiffly, though a little sincerity slipped in at the end. It seemed to be her own attempt at nonchalance.
"I slept…well," Kagome said, opting not to tell the two about her late night encounter.
It seemed a little too risqué to be proper, and in the light of day she half-thought that it was just some odd dream brought on by nerves.
"And thank you again for the robes, Sango-sama. This is probably the nicest thing I've worn in all my life. I'm glad you think it suits me."
Sango's smile softened around the edges.
"Not at all, Kagome-chan."
"We have something very important to do today, Kagome-chan," Miroku spoke up, sensing that the tension in the room had dissipated. "I was unable to meet with the Tennō-sama last night due to the fact that his Majesty was not feeling well.”
“However, I did manage to speak to a few members of the Council morning of State to arrange a meeting for today. After conversing a bit on the issue, the Council members thought it best that you and I be presented together to his Majesty."
"Oh, alright," Kagome said, relieved at the idea of having Miroku with her when she met with the Tennō. The houshi, however, looked slightly shamefaced.
"I am afraid that that was not all that they decided," he confessed. "They also said that it would be best that our meeting be a public one, rather than a private meeting with the Tennō-sama. All those currently residing in the court will be invited to a welcoming ceremony, to see you with their own eyes."
Kagome had gone cold at the words 'welcoming ceremony'. A ceremony centering around her, and so soon after her arrival…she wasn't prepared in the least…
"I am truly sorry, Kagome-chan," Miroku said, his face sincerely apologetic. "I tried to inform the Council that you would most certainly be uncomfortable with such an arrangement, but they would not budge. This is simply how things are done in the court."
"Kagome-chan," Sango said sympathetically, coming over to kneel beside her friend. She pulled back one of the sleeves of her karaginu, placing a hand consolingly over the miko's.
"I'm alright," Kagome managed, trying to convince herself. Sango's hand on her own returned some warmth to her. She flashed the older woman a grateful smile.
"I mean, I am a bit scared, but Miroku-sama has gone to so much trouble to bring me to court in the first place, so I have to start doing my own share in all of this. I will be just fine, I promise."
"That's the spirit," Miroku said approvingly. Sango nodded heartily in agreement, patting the Kagome's hand before returning to her place.
"When is this 'welcoming ceremony' to take place, Miroku-sama?" Kagome asked, picking up her hashi and attempting a few bites. Her stomach felt unsettled.
"When the sun is at its highest point in the sky. We still have some time yet," Miroku replied, beginning to eat as well.
The delicious fish Kagome had been chewing turned to sand in her mouth, but she forced herself to swallow and continue eating. She knew she would need any strength she could muster.
"And exactly how many courtiers will be there?" she made herself ask, bracing inwardly for the reply.
"Oh, not nearly so many as there used to be in the capital. Only some hundreds are here currently," Sango said in what was meant to be a heartening manner.
For a village girl who had not seen even a hundred people in all her fifteen years of life, it was not quite so comforting.
"Many of the courtiers moved back out to the residences on their own lands when the current Tennō-sama ascended to the throne."
"The courtiers have separate residences outside the capital?" Kagome asked, curious and glad for the momentary distraction.
"You did not know?" said Sango. "I suppose your village is not one of the ones connected to a clan, then. Well, almost every properly established clan owns a good amount of land granted to them by the Tennō-sama, and the capital is the sole property on the Tennō-sama himself, though the courtiers are allowed to have residences here in order to be near the court.”
“But almost all of them also have residences on their own lands, as well, and usually the lands that they own coincide with a few villages that people have set up. Thus the clan who owns the land also owns the village on it and is responsible for its care."
"That makes sense," said Kagome contemplatively. "It must be good for those villages to have the courtiers' protection, especially in these times."
"Not quite, though it might seem that way at first glance," Sango said, frowning. "The villages get a bit of protection, but most of the efforts of the guards and spiritualists are focused around protecting the residence itself. On top of that, the villages have to pay a percentage of their crops in taxes to the clan in return for being allowed to work the fields on their lands.”
“I mean, the villagers are given better tools and plots and irrigation systems to work with, but a lot of the harvest still goes towards the clan's wealth. They might be worse off in the end than unconnected villages such as yours that are left to their own devices."
"That…doesn't seem right," Kagome said, troubled. Would her village become like that now that it was connected to the capital?
"Unfortunately that is also simply how the court works," Miroku said with a certain amount of resignation.
It should not be, Kagome could not help but think. She finished her meal in silence and rose, bowing to both of her friends.
"Thank you very much for the meal. It was delicious," Kagome said, though that was a small lie. While she was certain that it must have been delicious, her frustrations had kept he from tasting most of it.
"Would you mind if I went and meditated out in the garden until it is time for us to go, Sango-sama? I'd like to try to collect myself before the ceremony."
"Alright. I will come get you a bit before we have to leave so that we can make certain you are looking your best. You probably would not be surprised to learn that appearances are very important here in the court."
"Really? I never would have guessed," Kagome joked, fingering the fine cloth of her karaginu. She exited towards the gardens.
The bite of winter was back in the air despite the strong sunlight, but Kagome found the cold did not seep in through her new robes the way that it had through her old clothes.
She picked out a spot beneath a sakura tree near the koi pond, sitting down cross legged with her hands resting on her knees. She closed her eyes and began to concentrate on her breathing.
Panic jabbed at her a few times from the edges of her mind, trying draw her back to worry over the impending ceremony and the plight of the villages, but Kagome expelled it with each exhale.
Through the palms on her knees she drew in small amounts of the spiritual energy from the hibernating tree behind her and the fish swimming leisurely in the pond, absorbing their peace into herself. Soon she had managed to lose herself amid the quiet, continuous pulse of the surrounding nature. Time swept by her oblivious form like the rush of a river over smooth stones.
When the sun had climbed high in the sky a hesitant hand reached out and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. Kagome slipped back up into her body like one resurfacing from the depths of water. Sango was there, looking apologetic for having disturbed her.
"Is it time to get ready?" Kagome asked, rotating her shoulders to clear the stiffness from them. Sango nodded.
"Yes. My apologies. You looked so peaceful like that. Actually I walked past you a couple of times and did not even notice you were sitting there. You looked like a part of nature, somehow."
"That's pretty much the goal of it," Kagome said, pleased at the admiration in her friend's tone.
"Could you teach me how to do it sometime? It would probably prove useful right before I have to go out on a mission," Sango said, assisting Kagome in her clumsy attempts to stand. The miko's legs had gone entirely to sleep.
"Certainly," Kagome said readily.
Sango aided her in hobbling back to the side house that was her current residence, Kagome fighting back pained giggles at the pinpricks that coursed through her legs as they regained feeling. Sango helped Kagome to wash her face thoroughly and re-comb her hair.
"Are you sure you do not want to wear one of the juni-hito? The blue one would really make your eyes stand out," Sango said, holding up the karaginu of the aforementioned juni-hito.
"That's alright, Sango-sama. I have a feeling I won't be near as graceful as you are the first few times I wear a juni-hito, and I don't think that's quite the impression I want to make on the court. Besides, I'm presenting myself as a spiritualist, so I might as well look the part."
"True," Sango allowed, a bit disappointed as she set the overcoat back down amongst the other layers.
Sango was eager to see how her new friend would look in the formal attire of the court. She anticipated her proving to be a classical beauty, maybe even the court beauty. That would easily win the approval of the male courtiers, if nothing else.
"Are we done, then?" Kagome asked, examining herself in the round hand mirror Sango had given her. She certainly looked clean and tidy enough to at least not stick out so much.
"Ah! Just one more thing!" Sango exclaimed, rushing as much as her juni-hito would allow over to a small, ornate wooden chest. She opened it and pulled out a circular box of ivory, bringing it back over to Kagome.
Sango knelt down beside her, removing the lid from the box and placing it aside. Inside was a series of different sized brushes and several powders of varying hues.
"Your skin is a bit tan from the time you have spent out in the sun. We can use powder to make you appear pale until it fades," Sango explained, taking out one of the brushes and dipping it into the white powder.
She swiped the brush lightly over Kagome's face and neck to the edge where robe met skin. Kagome watched in the mirror as her skin was turned as pale as Sango's. Suddenly her grey eyes seemed very obvious in contrast.
"It smells a bit funny," Kagome said, wrinkling her nose. "What is it made of?"
"You probably do not want to know," replied Sango, replacing the brush in the box. Kagome pulled a face.
"Hmmm," Sango hummed, turning Kagome's face this way and that to examine her work. "That is good, it makes your eyes stand out a bit more, but there is still something missing…"
Picking up a smaller brush, Sango dabbed it in some deep blue powder and ordered Kagome to close her eyes. Lightly she painted over the lids of her eyes.
Kagome opened her eyes when Sango had finished and examined her face in the mirror. It was amazing how powder could alter a person, she reflected. She turned her face this way and that, admiring the effect on her reflection.
The pale skin and blue shadow covering her eyes made her look regal in a distant sort of way, her unusual gray eyes sharp and obvious. It was a slight advantage she was grateful for.
"Thank you, Sango-sama. I think I am much more suited to face them all now."
"You will be fine, Kagome-chan. The houshi seems to have a lot of faith in you, and I know that he does not rest his faith lightly on things," Sango said soothingly, putting away the ivory box.
So much for the two of them being 'barely acquaintances', Kagome observed slyly. She nodded anyway, accepting the praise.
"Well, it is time for us to be going. Are you ready?" said Sango.
"As ready as ever I will be."
"Then let us go."
Sango took Kagome's hand, and together they headed to the Daigokuden for the meeting that would decide Kagome’s fate.
When they reached the looming, multi-roofed building, Sango was allowed to enter while Kagome was instructed to remain outside until the courtiers finished arriving.
Sango parted with her friend reluctantly, pressing both of her hands and wishing her luck before going inside to join her clan.
Fear began to wiggle its way into Kagome's pounding heart at the parting, but she fought it back valiantly with the memory of her earlier peace in the garden. She had to maintain her composure to get through this.
Miroku soon joined her in waiting outside, informing her that it would only be a matter of moments before they were allowed to enter. She truly hoped so, because the waiting was beginning to wear her thin.
At last a court guardsman emerged from the building and informed them that it was time for their entrance.
Miroku gave her a gentle smile and squeezed her hand reassuringly. She nodded, her heart thumping wildly in the pit of her stomach. Returning her nod, Miroku stepped through the doors first. Kagome stepped through behind him, a dizzying rush of blood surging up to pound in her ears.
The sight that greeted her was almost more than she could take in.
The building was spacious and low roofed inside, lined around the walls with red pillars. On both her left and right sides knelt a sea of nobles on the polished wooden floor, in an array of colored silks and finery so bright and varied that Kagome thought she might go blind. They formed a long aisle down which Miroku was slowly walking, Kagome trailing after him with steps as small and carefully measured as she had ever seen Sango take.
At the end of the seemingly eternal aisle was a raised dais with a few steps leading up to it. It was topped with an ornate throne of gold and ivory, pictures of the sun goddess Amaterasu carved into the bottom.
The throne, though, was partially obscured by a slatted golden silk screen set up in front of it. Through it Kagome could see the indistinct outline of a man, which she could only assume to be the Tennō himself. She remembered Miroku mentioning to her once that the Tennō always sat behind a screen, only permitting those of the highest rank and his direct servants to view his hallowed person.
At the right side of the throne knelt a strikingly beautiful, incredibly pale woman in a red and white juni-hito upon an intricately embroidered silk cushion. Her face, despite the fineness of her features, looked horribly cold.
The whole room had begun buzzing upon Kagome's entrance, fans flapping excitedly in every hand, but silence fell as the houshi and the miko came to kneel at the base of the throne. Both bowed low.
Kagome waited for Miroku to rise before lifting her own head, trying to focus on him and tune out all else. She did not dare to try and search for Sango among the strange painted faces of the crowds.
"Your Majesty," the houshi began grandly, raising his voice to carry throughout the room. "I have returned from the honor of my assignment to report my findings on the situation along the southern edge."
He paused, awaiting the response.
"Go on," came the voice from behind the screen. Kagome was a bit surprised at the rough quality of it.
Miroku bowed quickly and continued.
"I was, regrettably, unable to discover the exact source of the disturbances. However, I was able to discover the village that had survived the attacks and the reason it was saved, which I believe to be related to the unrest."
He made a sweeping gesture in Kagome's direction. She fought not to flinch as all eyes turned to her, the chattering in the crowd resuming to a lesser degree. It felt as if all of the blood in her body had rushed up to heat her face.
"Kagome," came the voice again from behind the screen.
Miroku's brow furrowed in consternation and Kagome felt her own do the same. No one had mentioned her name yet.
"Ah…The Council told Us," the Tennō said quickly.
The noblewoman on his right turned a vaguely puzzled look on him, the first real hint of expression Kagome had seen on her face since the beginning of the ceremony. At least it confirmed that she was not merely some odd, life-sized porcelain doll.
"Yes, of course," Miroku said, though he did not seem wholly satisfied with the answer.
Kagome heard the name of the Tennō enter the chatter surrounding her, followed by a few tittering laughs. She frowned, wondering at this.
"Continue with your explanation, Houshi," the Tennō ordered. Miroku bowed again.
"Of course, your Majesty," Miroku said. "As I was saying, Kagome-san was the source of the village's salvation. Using her spiritual abilities, she was able to erect a barrier large and strong enough to ward off any youkai attacks. Thus her village was saved.”
“Unfortunately, Kagome-san is relatively untrained in the spiritual arts, and I believe it may have been her powerful and distinct aura that was attracting youkai to the area in the first place."
Kagome winced, having forgotten that detail in the midst of everything else. A rippling gasp spread out through the crowd. Fans and mouths went crazy, chattering and flapping in mad chaos.
"Shut up!" yelled a voice, and Kagome was shocked to realize it was the Tennō's. His manner of speaking was no better than many of the rougher men of her village.
"We are sure that the court is wondering why you brought the wen-….woman here when you think she's the one who caused that disaster," his Majesty continued, and Kagome wondered yet again at his slip.
This was the man that was supposed to be descended from the sun kami herself?
"As I mentioned earlier, your Majesty, I believe Kagome-san to be in possession of potentially unrivaled spiritual abilities. That being the case, I thought the best option would be to bring her here to be properly trained in the use and control of them," Miroku explained.
"In this way the disturbances on the southern edge cease and your Majesty gains a powerful spiritualist to employ at his discretion. I believe she will prove particularly useful in the times such as we find ourselves, your Majesty."
"You know how unorthodox it would be to accept someone of common birth into the court?" the Tennō asked.
"I am aware, your Majesty. However, I believe Kagome-san to be fully capable of adapting to any situation, and I do not believe her birth status will hinder her in any way," Miroku declared with conviction.
The room fell silent once more, everyone waiting on the Tennō's decision. Miroku turned partially to Kagome, offering a small smile. Kagome managed to smile back, grateful for the faith he had shown in her. She braced herself to learn her fate, turning her gaze expectantly up to the silk screen. Her hands trembled slightly where they were clasped in her lap.
"Houshi, We have considered your opinion," the Tennō spoke at last. Kagome sucked in a breath.
"And We say that the miko Kagome will be allowed to stay, on the condition that she completes all court training successfully."
The room burst into motion once more and Kagome heard several cries of protest go up. She turned with wide eyes to Miroku who was beaming at her amidst the clamor. An echoing grin stretched across her face. Distantly she thought she could hear Sango cheering.
A voice rang out above the clamor. Eyes turned to the source and fans slowed gradually.
It was the woman on the right side of the dais, and she did not look pleased.
"Though I do not to presume to contradict the Tennō-sama's word, which we all of us know to be law, I feel it is my duty as future Empress to speak my piece," she said, her voice ringing clear and crisp like a bell.
"My Lord and Majesty, I do not believe it proper to allow a commoner into the court, however questionably gifted she might be. If the kami did not see fit to give her noble status from birth, then she is no more meant to be among us than any other commoner."
Many of the courtiers erupted into cheers and applause.
How in the world was that not contradictory, Kagome wondered. The future Empress' eyes met the miko's for a brief moment, but there was none of the dislike or upset that Kagome had expected to see in the other woman's deep brown eyes. They remained vaguely detached.
"Kikyou, We understand what you mean, but it isn't your place to make those decisions," the Tennō spoke up.
"It is simply not proper, my Lord," the woman, Kikyou, persisted dispassionately. “We have nothing save the Houshi’s word that she possesses any spiritual gifts worth noting, and even should she they would have to be quite considerable to even entertain the notion of bringing her into the court.”
"What will change your mind, then?" the Tennō asked, seeming to relent slightly.
Kagome frowned, wondering why someone with absolute authority would allow himself to be led in that manner.
Kikyou considered his words for a moment.
"There is a nest of youkai near my clan's lands in the east that has been proving particularly troublesome. If this girl were to go there and dispose of the entire nest, with only the spiritual knowledge that she has now and no court training to aid her, then I would change my opinion and say she was truly among the ones gifted by the kami."
"Kikyou…"said the Tennō incredulously.
"With all due respect to her future Majesty and your Majesty," Miroku interrupted, rising to stand. "I believe this test to be unreasonable. Such an errand would be a death sentence to almost any spiritualist-"
"Then she obviously was not meant to be here, Houshi-sama," Kikyou cut in. "Return her to her village."
Her gaze met Kagome's again, the future Empress' eyes unconcerned with the miko's fate. Anger rose like bile in Kagome's throat.
"I will do it," she declared loudly.
Miroku whipped around to look at her, his expression one of horror.
She shook her head and rose to her feet, her eyes never leaving Kikyou's. The future Empress looked somewhat surprised, one delicate eyebrow arching.
"Do not presume to think I will feel bad if you should perish in the effort," Kikyou said coolly.
"I do not. After all, if I die then it must be what the kami willed for me," Kagome returned.
"As you wish. You will depart in a week. Be ready."
Amidst the cheers and flapping, bright fans of courtiers, Kagome’s fate was thus sealed.