"Kagome. Oi, Kagome."
Kagome hiccupped, raising her head from its resting place on the hanyou's chest. She swiped at her still leaking eyes with the back of each hand, clearing her vision enough to see his face.
He sat up beside her, the poison's effects apparently having worn off. Kagome felt only a detached sense of surprise. For the most part she was just drained, as if everything inside of her had been hollowed out.
"The poison wore off," he said lamely after a long moment, unable to think of anything else. He blanched slightly at the deadpan look on her face, red-rimmed eyes staring blankly out at him.
"That was fast," Kagome replied automatically, though she was not certain how long she had been crying there. It did not seem any darker or lighter out than before.
"Bastard didn't pick a very strong poison," he said, slightly disturbed by the lack of expression on her face.
Kagome’s gaze wandered, drifting about aimlessly to discover a world blanketed in white surrounding them. There were flakes resting on his hair and her own shoulders, but she could hardly feel the chill of it.
A few lengths from her were two raised mounds of snow, a hand sticking out from beneath one and a foot from the other. Kagome's eyes fixed on the two white graves, unable to turn away.
"I killed them," Kagome said without meaning to, and the words hung heavily in the air amidst the falling snow.
The hanyou stared at her empty expression for a long moment, realizing abruptly that this was the first time she had ever killed a human being. Mentally he groaned. Of course this would be the first time. She hardly looked the type to have gotten blood on her hands before.
"It…It ain't your fault," he offered, gratified when she turned her attention on him. "They forced you to do it. They would've killed you."
"That does not make it right," Kagome replied flatly.
The hanyou growled low in his throat, torn between frustration and pity. The bastards had threatened to kill her, but the stupid woman still looked devastated.
"Then think of it like this," he said. "I'd be dead if you hadn't killed them. Whatever shit they were spouting, there woulda been a hell of a lot of blood shed over a power shift that big. Not all the clans woulda just trailed along after the Taira like whipped dogs. You stopped all that from happening."
Kagome blinked slowly at him. Once, twice. Gradually the words seemed to sink in, and a bit of life returned to her eyes as they narrowed.
"You lied to me. This whole time you lied to me," Kagome said, and somewhere in the back of her mind a voice whispered that this was no way to address the sovereign of Japan.
"You're the Tennō," Kagome continued, and somehow it was shocking to say it aloud. "You're the Tennō. You're the Tennō. Genji isn’t even your name! You left the capital-your court! And the guards you trusted to protect you just betrayed you. They tried to overthrow you! And…and…"
"Thanks for the summary of events," he said dryly, though it was clear that she was verging on hysterics.
"Aren't you upset?!" Kagome cried, her voice cracking. "The two guards you trusted to come with you on this mission tried to kill you and take your throne! They…they said all kinds of horrible things!"
"Doesn't bother me," he muttered, turning away from her. "I shoulda known those two were a couple of snake-in-the-grass bastards. All courtiers are. So it doesn't bother me."
Kagome gaped at his stubborn, sullen profile, outraged at his casual dismissal of everything that had happened. She had done the unthinkable to save his life, and he was brushing it off as if it was nothing. Her hands curled into fists at her sides, so hard she could feel her fingernails biting into the flesh of her palms.
"Why did you even do this?!" she exclaimed. "Why in all of Japan did you feel the need to leave the capital and come on this mission? Some kind of odd pity? Twisted curiosity? Did ruling our country just get too tedious for you?"
The hanyou whipped his head around to face her, eyes flashing.
"I did it because I fucking thought you might be worth it!" he barked.
That shut Kagome's mouth quickly enough. She stared at him, eyes wide. Slowly the snarl slipped from his face, and a flush crept up to replace it as he realized what he had let slip.
"That finally got you to shut up," he muttered to cover his embarrassment. "Idiot. We need to get going. We have to get back to Heian soon or there's gonna be a real load of crap to deal with."
The hanyou rose and shook the snow from himself. He offered her a clawed hand.
"But…shouldn't we at least perform the final rites for them?" Kagome asked, feeling that she most definitely could not just leave the bodies as they were. "I mean, I know they were traitors, but…I still-"
"By the kami, woman!" he cut her off, shaking his head in exasperation.
He flopped down to kneel once more in the snow, clearing a patch of ground with his hands. He started to dig, grumbling a steady stream of profanities.
Kagome began clearing her own area. She would have preferred to send them into the next life on a pyre as tradition dictated, but a burial was as much as they could do under the circumstances.
The ground was hard and cold, and soon her hands had gone numb. Fingernails chipped and broke as she scraped at the unyielding dirt. Before long her hands had begun to bleed.
Still Kagome continued single-mindedly. She had taken two human lives, whatever the circumstances. This could hardly even be considered an adequate punishment.
Two clawed hands came to grip her wrists lightly, forcing them to still. Looking over her shoulder, Kagome saw that he had already finished his makeshift grave and covered it over again. She, on the other hand, had barely scratched the surface.
He tugged her out of the way, moving to take her place. He began digging once more.
"I'll finish this. You…make a marker for the other one or something. Without mutilating yourself, if you can manage that."
Kagome opened her mouth to argue, but was unable to find the will. She shook her head and scanned the area for a large stone.
Spotting one, she picked it up and sat it carefully at the head of the burial mound. She then took an arrow from her quiver and began to roughly scratch out the Kanji of the guard's name in the stone.
"Yes?" she responded absently, focused on carefully etching in the symbols. Her injured hands throbbed with the effort.
"I…I'll make sure that these deaths aren't traced back to you. So don't worry about any clans trying to get back at you for this or anything."
Kagome paused in her work. She glanced over her shoulder at the hanyou, but he was focused on his work. She looked back down at the headstone and at the faint, shaky Kanji that was all that remained to mark the fallen guard's place in the world. A few drops of her blood were smeared across the stone, as well.
"I would prefer that you did not do that."
He froze, turning an incredulous stare on her.
"I did kill these two men. Whatever anyone else might know or not know, that fact will not change. I deserve any punishment coming to me," Kagome answered resolutely, finishing the last detail on the rock.
"What? Do you know how many enemies you'll-?"
He cut himself off, the stiff resolve in Kagome's shoulders telling him that he could yell until the last breath left his lungs and he would still get nowhere. He growled low in his throat, cursing her stubbornness under his breath.
Lurking just beneath that frustration, though, was a sinking feeling. She was just some poor country hick that happened to have some spiritual ability, after all. Already she had the blood of men on her hands. Not monsters, the likes of which she was used to disposing of for the sake of her people, but men who had chosen the wrong path and might easily have chosen another.
Jeers of bastard and half-breed from lips hidden behind gracefully flapping fans echoed in his mind, and he knew that anything decent in the girl would not survive long in the world of the court.
"I'll protect you."
It was not until Kagome turned to gaze at him with curious grey eyes that he realized the words had come from his mouth. He could feel heat rush to his face and irritation prickle up to cover it.
"D-Don't misunderstand!" he snapped defensively, swinging around to resume his digging at a furious pace.
"After all the shit you've been put through, I'd have to be a real asshole not to let you serve me in the court! And the Tennō has to look out for his servants! That's all I meant!"
"Oh," said Kagome softly, taking this in.
She watched his rapid movements as he finished the grave and turned to retrieve the body. He laid it to rest with a surprising lack of malice, though there was a brief flash of something akin to regret in his golden eyes.
This was the man she was to serve from now on. Kagome found herself smiling faintly.
"Thank you. I will do my best to serve you from now on, Tennō-sama."
Inuyasha glanced back at Kagome, finding her face earnest and open even in her sadness. The thought that she really had been worth it despite all of the crap caught him off guard, and he coughed loudly.
The two finished the second burial mound and placed another stone at the head to mark it. This time the hanyou prevented Kagome from writing the inscription in favor of using his claws, which proved much faster and less painful for both of them.
They returned to the camp to find Miroku and Sango just finishing up with the preparation of dinner. It was a shock for Kagome to realize that the whole ordeal had occurred in the short span of time that it took them to catch and prepare a meal. For the difference she felt it might have been a lifetime ago that she had left the camp to follow the man she had thought was Genji.
No sooner had the houshi and taiji-ya opened their mouths to greet the pair then did the hanyou begin to bark orders to pack up. He offered no explanations, his stony expression saying clearly that he expected unquestioning obedience.
Sango looked as if she might challenge him on this, but a pleading look from Kagome convinced her to bite her tongue for the time being. Miroku, trusting Kagome, as well, followed suit.
The camp was quickly stricken and the horses readied. With a sharp pang, Kagome released the two horses of the guards into the woods. Their belongings she tossed into the fire, saying a quick prayer for the safe passing of their souls into a peaceful place.
For a time her gaze was helplessly fixated on the flames as their possessions were consumed. That weighted, hopeless feeling crept over her once more.
It was the horrible feeling of having done something so very permanent and so very irrevocable. It was the frightening feeling of knowing that she had the power to snuff out a life almost as simply as putting out a candle.
Kagome shook the despair off forcefully this time, pushing it to the back of her mind to deal with at a later time. For now she needed to focus on getting back to the capital quickly enough to prevent any further disaster.
At length she forced herself to put out the fire and mount her horse, alongside Miroku and Sango. The hanyou stood at the head of the group, impatient to be off.
Miroku and Sango both cast concerned glances at Kagome, but she merely shook her head to preempt any questions they might want to ask. She could not yet bear the idea of recounting fully what had gone on, and some small part of her was afraid of how they might look at her if they knew.
At the hanyou’s command they set out at a gallop, determined to reach the capital in no more than a day's time. Kagome's shoulder protested at the continuous jarring motion and her hands throbbed as they gripped the reins, but she bit her tongue against any complaints.
The wind kicked up as they rode, whipping flurries of snow into their faces. It was not long before the four had gone numb from head to toe. Still they rode on with dogged purpose. Kagome reflected bleakly that it at least dulled the pain in her shoulder.
The watchful glances of Miroku, Sango, and even the hanyou on occasion told Kagome that they were likely to stop if she expressed any discomfort, and they did not have the time to waste on her at the moment.
They rode on for what felt like an eternity to all, halting only briefly every now and again to rest the horses and take a drink.
Just before nightfall the following day, the gates came into sight. Kagome only barely managed to strangle a cry of joy, her shoulder throbbing so badly that she felt on the verge of falling from her horse.
The hanyou glanced back at Kagome, a frown lining his forehead. He yelled back to her to meet him in his chambers in the Inner Palace once she had had her wounds treated, before continuing on ahead of the group to the gates.
This earned no end of shocked exclamations from Miroku and Sango. Kagome realized that her friends had been just as ignorant to the presence of the Tennō on their journey as she had been.
It made sense, considering that only a few among the courtiers were ever allowed to see his Majesty’s face. The hanyou had also been using a false name to travel undetected among them. Absently Kagome realized that she had never thought to ask him what his true name was.
Kagome reluctantly promised them a complete explanation of everything once she had eaten and had her wounds cared for. They agreed to this with equal reluctance as the group arrived at the eastern gateway.
They were allowed to pass without as much as a word of question from any of the guards. Their horses were taken by waiting servants upon their entrance.
Miroku suggested that they go to his residence to care for Kagome's wounds, as it was the closest one. Kagome, slightly dizzy with the pain in her shoulder and leaning on Sango for support, readily agreed.
It was a small building on the north-eastern edge of the Greater Palace, its solemn colors in the style of the Shingonin temple. There was a single snow covered garden behind the building. It had no pond, but did feature a large stone statue of the Buddha in a pose of deep meditation.
Miroku ordered medical supplies and food to be brought by one of the few servants tending the residence. He led the two girls to a modest guest room and settled in to 'supervise' the re-bandaging.
Sango, however, forced him out violently. Kagome nearly laughed at the sight, the strange normality of the scene easing her mind for a moment.
A servant brought the necessary medical supplies and settled in to take care of her, but Sango sent the woman off, insisting that she personally be the one to treat Kagome. Touched by the protective gesture, Kagome managed to summon up the nerve to recount the recent disaster.
She falteringly relayed the story in its entirety as Sango got to work, speaking just loudly enough for Miroku to hear her on the other side of the shoji. She shook while relating the death of the guards, barely managing to tamp down the feeling of horror that recalling it brought.
Sango wanted to discuss the issue in more depth, but the quiet anguish in her friend's eyes kept her silent. She merely laid a supportive hand on Kagome's good shoulder, offering what small comfort she could.
Faintly Kagome could hear Miroku chant a prayer for the souls of the deceased. There was also one said on her behalf, for the pardon of her indiscretions in the name of a righteous cause. Kagome felt her eyes well with tears, moved by their support.
She managed to rein the feeling back to a mere sniffle and a grateful smile, leaning over to envelop Sango in a one armed hug. The noblewoman was surprised at the intimate gesture, but returned the embrace warmly. It was good to see Kagome opening up, even if it was under such circumstances.
"What? Am I not to be included in this beautiful display of affection? I am wounded, Kagome-chan, truly," declared Miroku theatrically, sliding the shoji open to enter upon hearing silence in the room.
Sango glared at him over Kagome's head. "You are lucky we finished bandaging already, Houshi-sama."
"You torment me as always with your suspicion, Sango-sama," Miroku responded, smiling. "I would never harbor indecent intentions towards the honorable Kagome-sama. She is, after all, now a personal servant to his Majesty."
He placed a tray of food before the two women. Kagome released Sango and took a pair of hashi and a bowl of rice from the tray, starting in on the food with vigor. It felt like it had been an eternity since she had last eaten. Miroku watched bemusedly as she nearly inhaled the food, but merely shook his head indulgently.
Sango picked up a bowl and began to eat as well, though at a much more sedate and well-mannered pace. Miroku held off on taking up his own share for a moment, looking thoughtfully between the two women as he considered the tale he had just heard.
"Hmmm?" Kagome said, mouth full as she glanced up at him.
"Well, I feel it necessary to say that I agree with your course of action, though I am saddened that you were forced to do something so obviously against your principles," said Miroku. "However, I also must say that I believe things will become more difficult for you from here on. You killed two agents of a clan powerful enough to plot an overthrow with confidence.”
“You will also now be placed in a position at the right hand of the Tennō-sama, which will earn you more than a small amount of resentment because of your status and his Majesty’s own. I am sorry to burden you with more concerns than you already carry, but I want you to be fully aware of the situation."
"Ah…" said Kagome softly. "Yes…I suppose so."
In the back of her mind she had already acknowledged the fact that things would not be getting any easier any time soon, but those concerns had been overridden by her guilt over the guards. Now was the time to deal with everything, before going to meet with the Tennō.
Kagome sighed deeply.
“If you would not mind, Miroku-sama, I would be very grateful if you would explain to me what exactly the Tennō-sama’s position here in the court is. Obviously it is not as absolute as I originally imagined, if there are clans willing to try and take the throne into their own hands."
"That is a rather long story, Kagome-chan," Miroku replied. "Hopefully you are in a listening mood.”
Kagome nodded, urging him to continue. Miroku folded his hands in his lap, silent for a moment as he gathered his thoughts.
“The story begins about five years ago upon the death of our previous Tennō-sama,” he said. “His former Majesty, may his soul inhabit peaceful places, had two sons, the elder of which is a full youkai born of the former Empress. Naturally, it was expected that he would be the one to inherit the throne.”
“The former Tennō-sama, however, had a different idea. He had secretly had it written in an imperial decree, read upon his demise to the court, that his younger son would be the one to take the throne. His younger son being a hanyou, considered illegitimate by many as he was born of a noblewoman not even among his former Majesty's concubines.”
“You can imagine the upset this caused in the court. Of course, as this is the court that we are speaking of, the upset was a subtle one. Several court factions rose up to bar the ascension of the younger son to the throne, working through their officials in the Council of State.”
“Clan after clan stepped into the 'lead' role of government, each deposed in quick succession by death or disfavor. All foods had to be checked for poisons-that was a common, hard to trace method for offing an undesirable leader. The walkways of the capital ran red with the blood of those killed in the dead of night so that another might take their place of power.”
“It was a time of great fear and uncertainty in the court. Very few dared to challenge the larger clans as they ran amok.”
“Villages outside the court were also affected to a degree, as courtiers funneled funds out to finance battles fought amongst themselves and used the villagers on their lands as unwilling soldiers.”
“About a year ago, though, the handful of clans loyal to the younger son, or more so perhaps to the previous Tennō-sama’s will, managed to rally their forces enough to finally place the current Tennō-sama on the throne.”
“Of course, it did not hurt that many of the powerful clans had done much in the way of chipping away at each other by that point. They had little means left to continue the power struggle at that time, and most of them acknowledged that they would be unable to hold on to the throne for long even if they managed to get hold of it.”
“This, however, did not mean much other than a general quieting of the clans. The Council of State was and is still composed of members of the clans that fought to keep the current Tennō-sama from the throne, as there would have been further rioting had the loyalist clans attempted to remove them. And they are still determined that his Majesty should not exercise any true power.”
“Funds continue to be delegated on the whims of the Council and clans continue to keep their own armies. No decrees proposed by the Tennō-sama have passed successfully through the Council since his Majesty's ascension.”
“It is rather well known within the court that general opinion is against the Tennō-sama. The unfortunate reality is that more violent insurrections the likes of five years ago are not impossible, or even unlikely."
Kagome gazed with wide eyes at Miroku as he finished, stunned into silence. All of the information came to sit like rocks inside her head, clunky and heavy and hard to turn over.
The situation sounded much worse than she ever could have imagined. There were several parts to the story that she could not fully comprehend with her limited knowledge of how the court functioned, but what she could understand told her that the Tennō was in a very difficult place.
His Majesty was in a position of absolute responsibility with none of the power. Opinions were already set firmly against him, and any grievances with the way things were being run could be placed squarely on his shoulders.
He could neither move forward, nor in good conscience abdicate the throne and allow the court to fall back into pandemonium. The Tennō, the holy descendant of the goddess Amaterasu, was essentially a prisoner in his own court.
To top it all off, Kagome had all but sworn allegiance to his Majesty with her actions. The killing of the two guards would effectively gain her a court full of enemies and the undesirable notice of every clan scheming against the Tennō. Even if she wanted to back out into a smaller position in the court, there was no escape.
Escape was sounding pretty good, though. Kagome sighed, half-heartedly shoveling a few more bites of her rice into her mouth.
She placed her bowl down on the tray, the food like ash in her mouth. She glanced back up to find both Miroku and Sango gazing expectantly at her, awaiting a more comprehensive response.
"I…don't know if I can do this," Kagome found herself saying.
It was shameful, but it was how she felt. It was just too much.
"Kagome-chan…" said Sango, frowning. "You have come so far already. You just need to-"
"Sango-sama," Miroku interrupted her.
She turned to him, surprised. Miroku shook his head firmly. Sango frowned.
"We are in no position to place pressure on Kagome-chan," he said. "I believe she has enough to worry about without us forcing our opinions."
Sango opened her mouth as if to defend herself, but closed it after a moment. Shame crept onto her features. She turned contritely to her friend.
"I am sorry, Kagome-chan," she said, grasping one of her hands. "I did not mean to…"
"It's alright, Sango-sama. I understand. I'm disappointed in myself, as well," Kagome admitted, her gaze falling to her lap. "But I just don't think I…"
"Do not fret, Kagome-chan," Miroku said as she trailed off. "We will support you to the best of our ability in whatever course you choose to take from here."
"Yes, of course," said Sango with conviction, nodding.
Kagome offered a feeble smile to the two, feeling oppressed by their kindness despite their good intentions. Or maybe it was not their kindness, but something within herself. Kagome rose to her feet and bowed formally to the two courtiers.
"Thank you both," Kagome said. "I believe it is time I went to meet with his Majesty. Miroku-sama, might I request that one of your servants accompany me? I do not know the way to the Inner Palace."
"Ah, yes, certainly," Miroku agreed, slightly disconcerted by her lapse back into formality.
He stood and slid the screen open once more, calling a name down the hall. An older woman appeared and he instructed her to escort Kagome to the Inner Palace. Her eyes widened briefly in surprise and she shot her a furtive glance, but nodded obediently.
"Thank you both. I suppose…I will see you later," said Kagome, avoiding eye contact with either of the two.
"Kagome-chan…" said Sango, reaching out a hand as if to stop the girl.
Miroku placed a silent hand on her shoulder, giving her a look that said this was a matter in which they could no longer have any say. Sango scowled at him for being so logical when she could not be, but nonetheless clasped the hand on her shoulder and acknowledged silently that this was a decision that Kagome had to make all on her own.
The noblewoman watched her friend trail down the hall after the servant, her heart sinking. Perhaps it was wrong of her to want Kagome to stay and prove herself strong enough to take on an entire court. Perhaps it would be better to just let her go home and live the simple life the kami had intended for her when they placed her in her small village.
Still, it was a hard hope to let go of.
"I know, Sango. I know."
Kagome was only half aware as the servant led her along the avenues to the Inner Palace. Part of it was regret for so obviously having let Miroku-sama and Sango-sama down, but a larger part was worry over how she would face the Tennō. She had no idea what to say.
Every explanation that ran through her mind ended up sounding cowardly. Perhaps that was appropriate, she reflected morosely, as it was cowardice in many ways. She had thought herself stronger than this, and it was crushing to realize that she was not.
But the incident with the guards had left her so drained of resolve. She knew she would not be able to do what she had done again, but it seemed inevitable if she were to remain and serve a ruler in such disfavor with his subjects. Kagome sighed heavily.
Her focus returned to her surroundings as they reached the towering red wall that enclosed the Inner Palace. The servant woman seemed to be at a loss as they reached the guardsman at the gate, her gaze shifting nervously about as if in search of salvation.
The guard, however, took one look at Kagome and stepped aside to allow her passage, informing Miroku's servant that she was free to return to her master.
The guard nodded Kagome forward as the older woman gladly scurried off. Kagome passed hesitantly through the gates and abruptly found herself in a garden so lush she might have thought it a forest had it not been so well-ordered.
Their branches lightly frosted with snow, sakura trees lined the walkway. Just beyond them on both sides she could see glimpses of Wisteria trees lining large ponds filled with water lilies and colorful koi fish. Kagome jumped as two large white cranes strutted leisurely across her path, barely sparing her so much as a glance.
At the end of the long walkway was a wide flight of steps, at base of which towered a large orange and sakura tree on either side. Kagome climbed the steps up to a stone platform on which sat a large, wide building of wood, white walls, and black adornments. The roof was of the same sloping style as the others she had seen in the capital and a few steps led up to an elevated outdoor walkway around the building.
A woman, a servant judging by her subdued clothing, hurried down from the walkway towards Kagome. The woman smiled and the light lines around her eyes reminded Kagome for the briefest instant of her mother. Her eyes stung at the sudden wave of homesickness that swept over her. She would have given anything to go home at that moment.
"His Majesty is expecting you in his chambers in the Jijūden, Kagome-sama," the servant said, bowing. "If it pleases you, I will take you the rest of the way."
Kagome could only nod, unaccustomed to such respectful treatment from anyone inside the court. She trailed obediently after the woman as she was led up the small flight of stairs and through the low, pillared entryway of what the servant told her was the Shishinsen.
They passed quickly through the building, which contained only one large room with the focal point of an intricate throne, and went outside once more onto a covered walkway. It took Kagome a few moments to realize that rather than there being two bodies of water on either side of the walkway, the walkway had been built over the water.
She marveled at this even as her heart began to beat a little harder, anxiety over her impending confrontation setting in full force. She studied the small islands dotting the water to distract herself, each covered in a unique arrangement of smooth stones and colorful flowers. Snow fluttered down to rest on the surface of the water, lending to the entire scene a gentle feeling that Kagome could only wish she was more in a mood to appreciate.
"We are here, Kagome-sama," the servant woman said, forcing her back to the present. "His Majesty awaits you inside."
Kagome looked up at the moderately sized building before her, the walls white with vibrant red and gold detailing. Even the trim of the roof was done in some sort of golden filigree. On either end of the building sat a large stone statue, one of the Buddha in meditation and another of the sun goddess Amaterasu with the rays of the sun shining forth from her brow.
Kagome thanked the servant and took a deep, steadying breath before moving forward through the low entryway, pushing aside an ornate silk door hanging depicting a large white inu-youkai.
The room she entered was surprisingly warm, lit by the glow of a small fire pit in the center. It was a spacious room with white walls, several of which were covered in an assortment of intricate murals.
The walls were trimmed in gold filigree, and on the right side of the room sat a large, low desk of rich cedar wood. It was covered in a litter of official looking scrolls.
On the left side of the room was a sheer canopy of some gauzy white material, enclosing the Tennō's luxurious futon. The rest of the room was scattered with lush sitting cushions and ornate trunks filled with things Kagome could only imagine.
In the very center of the room had been placed a silk screen, depicting the same inu-youkai Kagome had seen on the hanging in the entryway.
On the screen he was shown bounding across a star filled sky on the night of a full moon. Each thread was so delicately woven that Kagome imagined she might be able to feel the shaggy texture of the youkai's fur if she touched it. A stern-looking guard stood on either side of the screen.
Lighted from the back, the vague outline of the Tennō was visible. Ignoring the plummeting of her stomach into her feet, Kagome came to kneel stiffly on the cushion placed before the screen.
"You guys can leave now," came the rough voice from behind the screen, addressing the guards. "I want to speak to the miko alone."
The guards nodded and exited without question. Kagome watched them go warily, recalling her last encounter with royal guards. She suddenly regretted not having brought her bow with her, and was repulsed a moment later that she had even had the thought.
"Not all of my guards are traitors," groused the Tennō.
Kagome jumped as the voice sounded closer to her than she had expected. His Majesty had come to recline on a cushion just to her left, most definitely not behind the screen any longer.
"Ah…but, the screen, Tennō-sama," Kagome said, gesturing feebly at it.
"Tennō-sama?" he echoed, his face twisting as if he had smelled something unpleasant. "Oh, yeah. I guess I never told you. The name’s Inuyasha. All that ‘Tennō-sama’ bullshit weirds me out.”
“And the stupid screen's just for show. If I didn't make it look good then there'd be rumors flying all over the court in no time."
"But, your Majesty…" Kagome floundered, caught off guard by his familiar manner now that she knew the truth of him. She had naturally assumed that they would be observing the proper formalities once in the capital.
"...Inuyasha-sama-" Kagome tried in placatingly.
"There. Glad we got that outta the way," Inuyasha interrupted. "I summoned the Council for an emergency meeting."
"And what…happened?" Kagome asked reluctantly, setting aside for a moment her own concerns.
"Obviously they all played dumb about the whole thing, even the Taira clansmen," Inuyasha said, disgust thick in his voice. "They all said it was all just those two guards acting on their own. They're pretty quick to dump their clansmen when their asses are on the line.”
“Seems like there were instructions not to make any moves 'til they got word of my death, 'cuz none of the Taira clan did anything while we were gone according to the reports I got."
"What do you intend to do to them?"
"Do to them?" echoed Inuyasha incredulously. "If that's how you think it works then you don't know shit about the court."
"Of course I don't," Kagome returned, irritated. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I can't fucking do anything about it," Inuyasha bit out. "Since you and me are the only ones that saw what happened with the guards, we've got no proof that's worth shit to anyone.”
“If I try to punish a clan without damn good proof of what they've been doing, not only will that clan riot, but so will every other clan that's got the smallest problem with anything. It'd be like handing the bastards an excuse to rise up against me."
"Then you're just going to let them get away with this?" exclaimed Kagome.
"Court politics," huffed Inuyasha, the sharpness of what was meant to be a careless shrug betraying his irritation. "I'll watch 'em closer from now on. Bastards'll probably be on guard and play good for at least a couple months."
"And then what?" Kagome snapped. "You let them try it again and maybe succeed? You let them take over the court? You let them throw everything into chaos and use helpless villagers to fight their battles?"
Inuyasha's keen golden eyes slid over to her, staring hard at her for a long moment. "Someone told you?"
"Miroku-sama told me everything, and to be honest I'm not sure if I can do this anymore," Kagome bit out, unable to contain it any longer.
If nothing was to be done, if the plotting clans were just going to win anyway, then why had she killed those men? What was the point of any of it?
"…You're backing out?" asked Inuyasha, his eyes darkening. "Then go. No one's forcing you to stay."
He turned away from her to glare fiercely at the cedar desk, a clear dismissal. Kagome sat frozen at the abruptness of it.
"Inuyasha-sama, I-" Kagome said, uncertain of what she would say but knowing she could not simply leave things like that.
"You said you can't do it, so get the hell out already," snarled Inuyasha, getting up to pace agitatedly back and forth behind the screen. "It's not like it's a surprise or anything. You're just some village hick from nowhere. My fucking fault for thinking you had some guts."
"I do want to help!" protested Kagome, rising to stand in his path. Lurking beneath all of his ire was something that sounded suspiciously like disappointment, and it cut just as much as Miroku and Sango's had.
"I really want to! That's the whole reason I agreed to that ludicrous mission in the first place! But I…I killed two men. I know you must have seen a lot worse, and suffered through things much more horrible, but I can't do that again.”
“And I don't know how long I could last in a court filled with people that I would have to be suspicious of every moment of every day. I just wanted to help the villages, and I don't think I can…"
Kagome held his gaze, willing him to understand and valiantly holding back tears. Inuyasha's expression remained unyieldingly fierce, but a subtle easing of his posture told her he was listening. He could understand what she was saying at least.
It occurred to Kagome suddenly that everything she was now so desperate to flee from was everything that Inuyasha had already fought through three times over. And worse than she could imagine, as an illegitimate half-breed son in the ultimate position of power and scrutiny.
But she was frightened. She had not been raised for this or among this. All she had anticipated in coming here was to do what she had always done in a higher context, heal the sick and protect against evil youkai who would cause harm.
Court politics, secretive plots, underhanded power plays, poisoning, murder in the dark of night…it was all so far beyond anything she had ever had to deal with. In such a large and complicated world Kagome was utterly lost.
She longed for home and simplicity and family. For the place where she held the respect and regard of the people around her. For the place where her hands were always covered in dirt, but never in blood.
But if she ran away now, back to the safety of her village and a world she understood, what would that accomplish? The villages and common people of Japan would be no better off than before.
Sango and Miroku, who had been so kind to her despite everything, would be left to suffer through the same fear and oppression of five years ago. The capital would fall back into chaos and would probably drag the rest of the land down with it before long.
There was Inuyasha, too. He would be left to struggle alone again, with no one to depend upon and everyone to suspect. Some part of him had been looking for an ally in her, Kagome realized.
That was why he had done something as outrageous as leaving the capital to go along with her. She was uncertain of what he had been hoping to gain from it, but his upset with her desire to leave told the story clearly enough.
"Listen, just go back already," said Inuyasha, breaking Kagome from her thoughts. His voice lacked some of its earlier harshness, and his gaze was fixed firmly just over her shoulder.
"You weren't meant for this. You're already half-crazy, so you'd be out of your mind within the week. Just…go home. No one will come after you again."
Kagome considered this and him for a long moment. He was willing to let her go to spare her. This was the out she had been hoping for. She was not meant for this, after all.
"You…you said you would protect me, didn't you, Inuyasha-sama?" Kagome said slowly.
"Eh?" Inuyasha’s gaze shifted to her face, dark brows rising in question.
"Back on the Fujiwara lands. You said you would protect me, didn't you?" Kagome pressed.
"I-I didn't…What in the seven hells does that have to do with anything?" Inuyasha sputtered, flushing faintly.
"Well, you said you would protect me. You're trying hard to keep your end of the deal, but I forgot mine. I promised I would serve you faithfully," Kagome said quietly.
The discomfort vanished from Inuyasha's countenance. His eyes searched hers, his expression sobering.
"What are you saying?" he said lowly.
"I'm saying…" Kagome hesitated, searching for the words to fit what she felt. "I am saying that I do not want everything I have done until now, and everything that has been done for me, to be pointless.”
“I'm scared out of my wits. This is all so much bigger than I ever could have imagined, and I can't help but think that my presence here will be useless. But that should not stop me from trying. That's not the way I want to live. That won't accomplish anything.”
“I want to help you make a better country, Inuyasha-sama, for everyone's sake. And if that's not your aim as Tennō-sama, then I want to make it your aim, as presumptuous as that may sound. I want to help you, Inuyasha-sama."
Inuyasha's jaw clenched and he shook his head.
"You already know that everything is stacked against me," he said at length. "I don't have a single damn thing working in my favor. I'm the half-breed mutt, the bastard child, the second son. I wasn't even allowed the formal education most courtiers get.”
“I've got no idea why in the seven hells my old man decided to do this to me. One of those battles must have knocked his wits loose or something. And I sure as shit can't see things changing anytime soon.”
“The only thing I want is to get through all this shit alive and without the whole thing collapsing. So I don't think I can build this perfect world you're imagining."
"I'm not naïve enough to ask you to build a perfect world, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome said. "Perfection is impossible. Even I know that.”
“I won't ask you to make the people happy, either. That's a choice that they have to make for themselves. All I would ask is that you work hard to make a place where each person has the room to make that decision.”
“I don't think you have completely given up yet, either. I don't think you would be bothering yourself with me if you were truly done with everything."
"You assume a lot, woman," Inuyasha said, though he did not argue with her. "What about the guards? I can't promise you'll never be put in a situation like that again, not with things in this court as fucked as they are."
Kagome's heart clenched at the question. She had expected it, but had no real resolution for such a problem.
"I…" Kagome faltered. "I realize that. And I really don't want to ever be forced to take a life like that again. The thought makes me feel sick.”
“I don't want the kami to shun me when I die because I dealt carelessly with the lives of their children. But…better that I carry the weight of every life I take with me for all eternity and do what I can to atone, than that many should suffer because I am afraid. I think the kami would see that as far more disgraceful.”
“Besides, if I quit now, taking the lives of those two guards really will have been for nothing. I should appease their spirits, at least, by continuing forward with the cause for which they died."
Inuyasha eyed her contemplatively, silent respect welling within him. She did have guts, he'd give her that.
"…I did promise to protect you, as the Tennō, if you really intend to stay and see this through," he said at length.
"Then I can remain and serve you?"
Her face was hopeful as she raised it toward him.
"I-I guess so," Inuyasha muttered, looking away.
"Well, there is the first thing we can fix," Kagome said, beaming and feeling truly relieved for the first time since the death of the guardsmen. "You are the Tennō-sama. You do not 'guess' anything. You simply know. Or at least that is how it has to seem."
"…Yeah," Inuyasha agreed slowly, surprising Kagome. She had expected some sort of snarky comment, but he seemed willing to listen to her.
That was good, Kagome thought. Together with him she was going to try to rebuild a nation. They would probably need to be able to at least hold a decent conversation first. She grinned wryly at the thought.
"I'll hold a meeting with the Council tomorrow and tell them you'll be serving officially as a court spiritualist from now on," said Inuyasha, recalling her attention. "They already know you're the one who took down the guards, so this ain't gonna sit well with most of them, especially the Taira clan. Be on your guard for that.”
“They'll probably insist on having a court ceremony held to officially induct you, so be ready for that, too. You'll also 'officially' be a target after that. I'll arrange it so you can start training next week. I've also got a way I can keep you nearby so I can make sure you don't do anything stupid."
"How is that?" Kagome asked, aware that it would look suspicious for even an official servant of the Tennō to be in close quarters with him for extended periods of time.
"Ah, well," Inuyasha coughed, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "I…told Kikyou that you succeeded in your mission, and about what happened with the guards. She took the story, but still looked suspicious. When I asked her what you could do to convince her, she said she…wants you to serve as her lady-in-waiting."
Kagome's brows shot up to meet her hairline.
"It'd give you a way to stay in the Inner Palace without questions," said Inuyasha defensively. "Besides, she said it was the only thing that would make her accept you. Obviously she's around me a lot, so she's gonna have to accept you if this is gonna work."
Kagome suppressed a groan. Working under that ice woman who had caused her such trouble to begin with was not appealing in the least. But if it was for the cause, then it had to be done.
"Alright, then," Kagome sighed. "I can play at lady-in-waiting if need be. I just don't understand why Kikyou-sama seems to mistrust me so much."
"Kikyou just has a rough time with change," Inuyasha said, his expression softening a fraction.
Kagome wondered at the fondness that warmed his eyes. It was an expression she had never seen from him before. It was nice to know he still had those sorts of feelings in him.
Inuyasha and Kagome whipped around simultaneously at the unexpected voice. Inuyasha turned and shoved Kagome into a sitting position, dropping down to sit in front of her to block her outline against the silk screen.
"Yeah, what is it?" he barked.
Mentally Kagome groaned. They would need to work on getting him to speak in a manner more befitting his station.
"My apologies for the intrusion, Tennō-sama," the guard said from the other side of the screen, his outline shifting as he bowed low. "But there is trouble. A gate guard has brought word that an outsider has somehow managed to gain entrance to the capital without permission.”
“The guards attempted to stop him, but he proved to be too swift for any of them to catch. As of now he has harmed no one, but they sent me to warn you that he seems to be making his way towards the Inner Palace."
"The hell?" Inuyasha swore. "What-"
But the hanyou was cut off as an almighty wind swept into the room, sending the papers on the cedar desk flying and blowing in with it a flurry of snow flakes. The guard cried out and there was a thud as he was knocked aside.
"Oi, dog-shit!" called a voice. "Come on out, and bring Kagome with you! I know she's in here! I tracked her through this whole stinking place!"
Kagome froze, her every muscle winding tight. She could feel Inuyasha tense beside her. He recognized the voice, as well. Kagome prayed to all the kami that they were both wrong and it was just a murderous maniac out for their heads.
Slowly Kagome peeked her head out from behind the edge of the screen. There in the entryway, snow dusting his hair and shoulders, stood Kouga. He looked quite proud of himself, too.
He caught sight of her and a beaming smile stretched its way across his face, fangs glinting in the firelight. His tail waved enthusiastically behind him.
"Kagome! See, I told you I would come to save you!"
Kagome would have laughed at the absurdity of it had Inuyasha's growl not been rumbling through the ground beneath her. She turned her gaze to the hanyou. His eyes seemed to be glowing, filled with a burning brilliance of their own.
"I'll kill him."