Revolutions were made by degrees. By the minutest shifts in thought and the smallest actions, coalescing over time to form the new.
These were some of the musings that Kagome entertained in the days following her reluctant revelation-the sort of abstract musings well suited to a mind steeped in melancholy.
She went over and over the events since her arrival in the court in her mind, trying to pinpoint when exactly it had happened. She chastised herself for not having had the sense to guard against it.
She had thought him rough at first, abrasive and off-putting, but small glimpses of a man who was deeply brave and determined to do right where he could had peeked out at her like the glimmer of the sun peeking out from behind storm clouds. And he had been loyal to her, had trusted her in his own way, when few others had.
By degrees her respect had been earned. By degrees she had come to desire his friendship and confidence. She had scarcely noticed when her desire to be of help to him began to take just as high a place as her desire to help the people of her village. Had scarcely noticed when her friendly affections had ceased to be so simple as they once were.
Kagome tried to console herself with the knowledge that she had no prior experience in such matters and that the sheer improbability of such an affection between herself and the Tennō had kept the thought from ever entering her mind. She had not guarded herself against her affections because she had never suspected them until it was too late.
Still, this was a rather cold comfort to heartbreak.
She passed two listless days with Sango and Shippou, seldom leaving the sanctuary of the Tachibana residence. Memories, moments of self-reproach, dark thoughts on the future, and the hopelessness of her situation assailed her by turns during her waking hours, exhausting her beyond the will to do much besides wander the Tachibana gardens.
Sango seemed to bear up under it much better, though the older woman confessed to her that she had had a good amount of time to come to terms with her own situation. She described with a bitter mixture of wistfulness and pain the days of her childhood that she had spent at Miroku's side, drawn to him at first by his obvious loneliness in the court and then by his wit and kindness.
He had been flirtatious with her as they grew older, but she dismissed it as his way and tried not to take it to heart. Besides which she had always known that when she came of age she would be married off to the head of another branch of her clan to assure good relations between the families.
But Miroku's constant attention, his endless support and companionship, had been taken to heart nonetheless. She found herself jealous of his attentions to other women and lonely when he went out of the court on assignment. She found that she desired his esteem above that of any other person.
Privately, for all that she could tell that Sango was as troubled as herself, Kagome thought her slightly better off. Now all the pieces began at last to form a clear picture, and Kagome could not help but believe Miroku's feelings were much the same as Sango’s.
Whether or not that mutual affection would ever come to fruition was the true problem. She did not say this to Sango-sama, though, as she felt it was not her place to declare Miroku's feelings for him.
Sadly she could not claim the same comfort for herself. Inuyasha was already wholly committed to another woman. There was no chance that her feelings could be returned in kind.
Even his tentative trust and friendship must now be in question, serving to compound her suffering further. For those two days the worry buzzed constantly in the back of her mind that she would be summoned to his chambers and dismissed for her behavior towards the woman who was to be his wife. The very thought was unbearable, bringing with it fresh tears every time it surfaced.
The summons never came, though. All was silence on his end, and at last her capacity for suffering and self-pity exhausted itself.
With the dawning of the third morning came resolve. Kagome could no longer indulge her sorrow. Thinking and brooding and mulling over the situation had not changed it one bit or served to dispel her unwelcome feelings.
Thus she resolved that she would bury her feelings, never to speak of them again. They could only be a hindrance if she was to continue to work in the court. And for all that had happened between herself and the future Empress, Kagome had no real desire to come between her and the Tennō.
Inuyasha had made his promise to Kikyou first, after all, and if nothing else she seemed to care for him sincerely. And, much as it pained her to think on it, he seemed to return her affections.
Besides which, even in the rare moments when Kagome allowed herself to indulge in the fantasy that they might somehow be together, she had to acknowledge that such a connection could only be detrimental to both of their positions within the court. She had only her spiritual gifts to recommend her, and even those would be in question if she were to be the thing that broke up his long-standing engagement.
It would seem as if she had merely come to court seeking power for herself and he would seem fool enough for falling for her ploy.
Kagome would not do harm to Inuyasha for the world, not even with her own feelings. And so they were pushed down deep, her burden to bear for the sake of them both.
That morning she decided to pay a visit to the temple, a vague notion of purifying herself and starting anew forming in her mind. She left Shippou to keep Sango-sama company, promising to return soon. The young kitsune was gradually relaxing to the point where she could be out of his sight for more than a stretch at a time, though he still groused slightly at being left behind.
The Chūwain was silent and still in the early light of morning. Kagome tucked her hands back into the sleeves of her robes as she ascended the long flight of stairs, the chill beneath the shadow of the trees sharp and invigorating. She breathed deeply, relieved to be outside once more after days of relative isolation.
She shuddered as she went through the process of cleaning her mouth and hands, the water in the basin icy. Still, it soothed the ragged ache in her chest that had plagued her since that unfortunate night.
She stepped to the entrance of the temple slowly and consciously, moving through the familiar ritual of claps and bows to alert the kami to her presence. The sound of her own motions echoed on the still morning air and she delighted in the sound.
The statue of Amaterasu that Midoriko had once shown her seemed the best place for meditation and she headed towards it. The small pavilion was as empty as the rest of the Chūwain, Amaterasu gazing serenely out at the world which she sustained with her light.
Kagome knelt down before the statue, bowing until her forehead brushed the ground. She remained there, concentrating all of her attention on the statue before her.
"Amaterasu-hime-sama, I pray for guidance and for the strength to stand when others cannot," she began. "I have taken a stand against the laws of the kami, against your laws, but I fear I cannot ask forgiveness of you. I will not. When I think on you, giver of light and sustainer of life, I cannot believe that you could condone a system that counts the lives of certain people for so little. Shippou-chan…Shippou-chan did nothing to deserve what has been done to him."
"Nor, I believe, did his parents. They wanted only to make a way for themselves and their son in the world. I long to follow the ways of the kami, to live with balance and kindness, but I…I will not submit to a law simply because others contend that it is of you, Amaterasu-hime-sama. I must follow my own mind, the mind given to me by the kami, in this. I ask your blessing, but I will go it alone if I must."
She released a breath and rose, glad to have given voice to her resolve. For a moment her eyes caught the eyes of the statue.
Eyes that appeared now to be gazing back into her own. The smile shifted on the kami's face, became deeper and warmer.
The statue was unchanged. She frowned, shaking her head and wondering if perhaps lack of sleep over the course of the last few days was beginning to affect her mind.
Her gaze swung once more to the statue's face. It was unmoved.
A hand came down lightly on her shoulder. Kagome turned to find Midoriko just behind her.
"It is you. I am glad to see you have returned, and in good health it seems. I was worried," she said, a gentle smile sliding across her features.
Kagome noted slight lines around her eyes and mouth, wondering if they had been there before. She looked tired, as if she truly had been worrying deeply over Kagome's disappearance.
Abruptly the girl's mind flashed back. Kaede's final confession. Her first encounter with Midoriko.
She blinked wordlessly up at Midoriko for several long moments. At last her expression dissolved into a frown.
"You knew," she accused softly, unable to stifle it. "All along…you knew."
Midoriko's smile faded by degrees until she was frowning in return.
"Knew what, Kagome?" she said, an undertone of apprehension to her words betraying her.
"About the Shikon no Tama," Kagome returned, searching her face. "You knew from the moment I came to you that I had it. You…you touched my hip. You knew."
Midoriko's eyes darkened. Kagome's heart sank. She could not help but feel that she had been used somehow. She averted her eyes from the older woman's.
"Kagome…I only wanted-"
"What is it exactly? Why were you so desperate to get rid of it?" Kagome broke in softly, loathe to listen to any sort of justifications. "I think you owe me at least an explanation."
She felt Midoriko hesitate behind her. At last she knelt down beside her, her gaze fixed on the face of Amaterasu.
"I thought it better that you did not know," Midoriko said lowly. "The Shikon…it has a way of twisting things. Of changing people. I thought that ignorance would be safety for you. I wanted to protect you…to atone for my mistakes."
Kagome glanced at her from the corner of her eye, the O-Miko's words resonating inside her head with Kaede's final confession. Her hands, clasped in her lap, spasmed at the memory.
"It's my body, isn't it?" she said, her voice barely above a whisper. Bitterness, acrid like bile, rose in the back of her throat at the thought of her fallen mentor.
"Am I to suffer under the weight of your mistakes in ignorance?"
Midoriko's eyes slid shut as if she had dealt her a physical blow. Kagome felt a twinge of guilt, but it was not enough to cool her anger.
"I wish I could take back…but such wishes do more evil than good," Midoriko sighed, her voice tight.
She turned to face Kagome, her eyes deep and haunted. Kagome felt some of the edge go out of her expression at the stark pain she saw there.
"The story of the Shikon no Tama begins with the throne war," she began. "I was a girl much like you, Kagome. I wanted only to follow the ways of the kami and to do what was best for the people under my care. When the fighting between clans began to escalate, I went on a journey to Mount Hakusan. I wanted to speak to our creators, to plead on behalf of the court for order to be restored and the senseless violence to end."
"I climbed to the peak of Mount Hakusan and sat in prayer for seven days, refusing to eat or drink until the kami would answer me. At last the First Pair appeared to me in a vision. They gave me the Shikon no Tama, a relic of our forebears lost to them in the midst of many wars, and told me that it contained all the forces of good and evil, the balance of the world, within it. They told me that it was the heart of its possessor that would decide the direction in which fate would lean, granting one wish."
"I took the Jewel and returned to the court, determined that I would use the power I had been granted to set things right. When I returned…"
She stopped short, her expression tightening. Her eyes drifted back to the statue of Amaterasu, tracing over the contours of the stone face and form as if she saw them for the first time. The lines around her eyes and mouth deepened into a map of hard lived years.
"…I told you once that I knew the man who carved this statue," she said at last. "What I did not tell you…did not tell anyone…was that I loved him."
She stopped again and closed her eyes, the effort of those words seeming to exhaust her. They carried the weight of years of repression with them, and Kagome could not but think that perhaps she had never spoken them aloud before.
Kagome reached out to her on impulse, all of her own resentments vanishing in a rush of keen sympathy. She could hardly be insensible to such feelings after what she had just finished suffering through. She clasped the woman's hand tightly between her own.
"I loved him beyond reason or sense," Midoriko said, tears slipping from beneath her tightly closed lids. "But I hesitated. And when I returned to the court from Mount Hakusan…he…he had been killed in one of the skirmishes between the clans."
"I was devastated. Certain that I should never recover. I gave in to my pain wholeheartedly, and I desired nothing more than the deepest suffering for those who had had a hand in his death. The Shikon began to grow dark, and my heart grew darker with it. It provoked evil in any who came near it, but in my own distress I turned a blind eye."
"One night, though, I was ambushed by several youkai of the court. The Shikon had built up such an aura of malice that they were drawn to it. I barely escaped with my life. I realized then what I had allowed myself and the Shikon to become…and what might have happened had they succeeded in taking the Jewel from me. I knew that my pain would only continue to feed it, and that those within the court would continue to be drawn to its darkness. So when I learned that Kaede was considering leaving the court…"
She trailed off, shaking her head. Her shoulders sagged inward and it was as if all the weight of the years caught up to her at once. Her face twisted, her mouth working silently for a moment as tears continued to course down her cheeks.
"My heart was weak," she whispered hoarsely. "I readily forced what should have been my burden onto her, hoping to put it away from myself forever. And now it has fallen to you. I wonder daily how many will have to suffer for my folly, and I begin to lose hope of ever being forgiven even as I try to pay penance each day…"
Tear-bright eyes fixed on Amaterasu's face, a resigned sort of longing in their depths. Kagome looked on in silence, trying to process the sordid tale and the fact that a thing brought down by the kami themselves was now housed inside of her body.
Certainly she had felt…something at certain points in her life. Some power outside of her own that seemed to manifest whenever she was in dire straits. But she had always been able to dismiss it as a fluke in her powers or a trick of her imagination once the trouble had passed.
Unconsciously her hand slid to her hip, the same spot Kaede and Midoriko had touched in turn before. There was no lump there, no scar or mark of any sort. And yet it had been with her for years, this thing of ancient legend. It was hers to care for and protect, hers even to use if she so chose.
"If I made the right wish," Kagome began thoughtfully. "If I could make the right wish, then the Shikon no Tama's power would disappear, right? I could end all of the turmoil surrounding it forever. Everyone might be freed of this burden and many things could be set right."
Midoriko's eyes slid to meet hers. She frowned, the hand clasped within Kagome's turning upward to grip the younger woman's wrist.
"The risks of making such a wish are bound to outweigh the possible good to be done," she said. "Even when I first received the Shikon no Tama I was wary of using its power. Unless your heart is pure and your wish is entirely selfless, you stand to tip the balance of the world irrevocably."
"But the kami would not have gifted mankind with this did they not know that there was some chance of such a wish being made," Kagome said. "I want to end this. For your sake and Kaede-sama's. The passing of this burden should end here, with us."
Midoriko searched her eyes for a long moment. She pulled back slowly.
"I can appreciate the goodness of your intentions, Kagome," she said. "Kaede chose well when she chose you to guard the Shikon no Tama, though I regret that it now must be a weight upon your shoulders. But the Shikon is not something to be taken lightly. I will not tell you never to make use of it-it is yours now to do with as you will-but I will ask you not to act rashly. Unless you can come to the point where you are certain that the wish is perfect…"
Kagome nodded, consenting to this.
"I understand," she said. "Until I can use the Shikon without hesitation, I will continue to guard it."
Midoriko nodded, relief tingeing her expression.
"I trust you will do what you feel is right," she said. "And I will continue in my promise to support you in all things…if you will accept such help now that you know me truly."
Kagome frowned, torn for a moment between a sense of having been deceived and her innate sympathy for the woman. It was because of her that she now had another potential obstacle to contend with, and Midoriko would have continued to conceal it from her if she had not learned it from Kaede. A small, spiteful part of her even wanted to place the blame upon her for Kaede’s untimely end.
The moment passed. Kagome sighed, deciding to put behind her any ill will she was tempted to harbor towards Midoriko. The story she had just been allowed to hear was proof enough that she was as much a victim in her own way as Kaede had been.
She turned a small, tentative smile on the older woman. Midoriko's expression echoed her own after a moment, relief softening her features.
"You are too kind to me," she said softly.
Kagome shook her head.
"I have found that there is too little human kindness here in the court," she said, half-jokingly. "I am merely attempting to rectify that through my own meager efforts."
Midoriko's smile widened, but after a beat her expression slid into thoughtfulness.
"I hope you will forgive me, but I happened to overhear you earlier," she said. "It strikes me as something you might like spiritual counsel on."
Kagome hesitated. Though it was clear that she had already been found out, she was uncertain how to go about discussing her thoughts with Midoriko. She could not help but think that she would be seen as blasphemous to an authority within the court such as the O-Miko.
Midoriko, watching her face, saw the apprehension there.
"The way of the kami is not so rigid a thing as you might think, Kagome," she offered. "It is a thing of individual conviction as much as it is a set of laws to live by. I will not claim to have lived always by the letter, though I have always striven to act in the spirit."
Kagome glanced up at her searchingly.
"Then you would say…" she began tentatively. "That I am right in going against the law if I truly feel that it is wrong? Even though it comes from the kami, as well?"
"It is a difficult question. Certainly you are not the first to struggle with it," Midoriko said, frowning thoughtfully. "Nor is it a question I can answer for you. All I can say is that in the end you will only be accountable to yourself and the kami, and I feel that if you can go to that place with the conviction that you did not compromise yourself then no one can ask any more of you."
Kagome considered this in silence. Her hands twisted absently in the fabric of her hakama.
"…Did you ever feel that the law of the court was unjust?" she asked softly.
"There were moments when it rankled me and I questioned it," Midoriko said honestly. "But I never quite came to the point of opposing it. A great deal of my spirit seemed to desert me after…after the Shikon no Tama and the events surrounding it. I became complacent in many things."
"I cannot believe that the devaluing of the lives of their creatures is something of the kami," Kagome said, raising her eyes to search Midoriko's for understanding.
"I am inclined to side with you, especially after witnessing the execution of the kitsune couple several days ago," Midoriko said gravely. "The future Empress was so determined to uphold the sacred law, I think, that she was blinded to the fact that the Taira seemed only to want to test her and cause a fuss."
"There have been so few of those of common birth who have come into the court that the unjustness of the law towards them was never much more than an abstract thing. But I suppose the worlds inside and outside of the court cannot remain separate forever, however the courtiers might wish it."
"I do not think it is right that they should," Kagome said. "Rather I came here determined that they should no longer be. The people out there suffer and struggle, denied the help that the court could readily provide if they so chose. But as long as the courtiers believe them to be inferior they will never want any part of them."
"I fear court opinion will not be easily swayed on that count," Midoriko warned. "They are raised to believe in little more than the superiority of their own birth. To make them see the worth of anybody else…"
She trailed off, spreading her hands in a gesture of helplessness.
Kagome frowned, acknowledging the truth of this silently. She shrugged, moving to stand.
"I have to at least try."
"Of course. Please inform me when you have decided upon a course of action," she said. "Until then, I will pray."
Kagome smiled, a bit wryly.
"Thank you, Midoriko-sama. I am certain I will need it," she replied.
She bowed and turned to go, catching sight of the statue out of the corner of her eye.
She could have sworn Amaterasu was smiling once more.
Kagome returned to the Tachibana residence to find that Sango and Shippou had gone to visit with Miroku. A servant also informed her that something had come for her from the Dairi and had been placed in her room.
Her heart felt as if it had crawled into her throat. She wondered if perhaps it would not be better to go out and walk for awhile, to take some time to breathe, before she sat down to meet her fate. A few minutes of wandering agitatedly among the halls of the residence, though, brought her to the conclusion that it was better to face it head on. The sooner she knew what was to become of her, the sooner she might begin to formulate a plan to reverse whatever decision had been made.
She found the piece of parchment sitting innocuously atop the pillow of her futon. Taking a deep breath, she snatched the letter up and broke the seal almost defiantly.
I heard what happened from Kikyou. She's pissed. I won't be seeing you for awhile after that stunt. She wants you out of the court, but give her some time and she'll cool off. Until then, lay low and try not to do anything stupid, alright?
Kagome blinked down at the note, paradoxically stunned at both the leniency and harshness of her punishment.
She had been so certain that Kikyou would insist that she be forced from the court, but it sounded as if Inuyasha were giving her some degree of clemency. It almost sounded as if he were defending her to Kikyou.
On the other hand, she was now entirely cut off from him until Kikyou could be reconciled to the idea of her remaining in the court. She could not count on any support from him. She would be unable to confer with him, work on plans with him…unable to see him. It bothered her deeply that the latter might have been what bothered her the most.
She bit her lip, silently chastising herself. It was better that she not see him. It would give her more time to get a handle on her feelings.
It was better that she not see him.
The sinking feeling persisted.
Folding up the parchment, Kagome tucked it away in her sleeve. She sat silent for a few long moments, wondering what she should do.
Inuyasha was asking her to try to blend in for awhile. But she simply could not do that. Not after all that had happened.
Making a scene now, however, might really be the last thing she would be allowed to get away with in the court.
With a sigh, Kagome roused herself and headed out of the room. Miroku’s place was the best option for the present moment. Until she actually had a plan as to what she wanted to do, it was no use agonizing over whether or not she dared risk it.
She walked briskly through the streets of the court, aware of the stares she received from those she passed. They viewed her with critical eyes, their awareness of her position in the world aroused once more after all that had gone on. Kagome held her head high, refusing to bow before it.
She was admitted readily into the sitting room where Miroku, Sango, and Shippou all sat sharing hot tea to ward off the biting chill of the day. Miroku requested another cup be brought for her as she knelt upon one of the cushions to join them.
"Shippou has presented to me an idea that I wish to share with you," Miroku said after they had all exchanged greetings.
Kagome's eyes shifted to the kitsune, her brows raised expectantly. Even in the midst of the gloom of the past few days, she had seen the unusual silence and thoughtfulness of the young boy. Much as she had been struggling within herself, he had seemed to be wrestling with something of his own.
"I wanna have final rites done for my parents," Shippou said without preamble, his green eyes meeting hers steadily.
"He would like you to perform the rites," Miroku put in.
"Of course I will, Shippou-chan," Kagome agreed readily, realizing why he had been so introverted the past few days. "Anything you need. Anything at all."
"Unfortunately it is not quite so simple as that, Kagome-chan," Sango said, setting down her mug of tea.
Kagome turned to her, a slight frown settling over her features. A servant bustled in and out of the room, leaving a mug of steaming tea in front of her.
"What do you mean?" she asked, taking up the tea to warm her hands.
Sango frowned, shaking her head rather helplessly.
"Because they were…" she hesitated, glancing at Shippou apologetically before continuing. "Because they were convicted of offenses within the court, by law they are not entitled to any final rites. To perform them would be to go against the law."
"You can't be serious," Kagome said, setting the mug back down with a slight clatter. "Everyone deserves final rites, criminal or what have you. A soul without the rites is doomed to wander! Does the court hope to punish people beyond even this lifetime?"
"I am glad to see that you feel as I do," Miroku said, diffusing her agitation momentarily. "I had a feeling that you would. Which is why I have a proposition of my own to make to all of you, if I may."
He paused, waiting until he had their full attention. When all eyes were fixed on him he spread his hands open in askance.
"I wish to go through with the rites. It is my intent that Kagome-sama and I should perform them jointly here in the court. We will give the final rites that might be given to any courtier, and we will give them publicly. We will make certain that everyone in the court sees what we are doing."
"And you will see yourselves thrown from the court for your troubles, if not worse!" Sango interjected, her eyes wide. "Houshi-sama, you cannot be serious about this!"
"I can, and I am," Miroku responded levelly, meeting her eyes. "I know well enough that Kagome-sama and I alone, however well-intentioned, would be ineffective. That is why we need your help, as well, Sango-sama."
Her expression cooled slowly. Comprehension of his intent to depend upon her dawned across her face. She leaned in.
"What do you need me to do?" she said, and Kagome could tell that she was prepared to do whatever the houshi might ask of her wholeheartedly.
She had promised to stand by Miroku no matter what, and Sango was a woman of her word through and through. Silently Kagome admired the strength of her friend.
"I want your clan to attend the ceremony of the rites," Miroku said, a slight smile stretching across his face despite the seriousness of the conversation. "As many of them as you can convince to attend. If the Tachibana are in attendance, if members of the court are in attendance, then it can no longer be written off as the misguided actions of the common born."
"It becomes a statement," Sango said softly, nodding to herself. "And you and Kagome-chan cannot be punished without punishing the rest of us for participating."
Miroku grinned warmly at her.
"Precisely. There will likely still be consequences, but we will have made a statement not easily ignored. To give those of common birth a ceremony equal to any courtier and have courtiers in attendance would be an unmistakable assertion of our beliefs and of the legitimacy of them."
A frown creased Kagome's brow.
"It is a brilliant idea, Miroku-sama, but…" she paused, turning to meet Shippou's eyes. "Are you alright with this, Shippou-chan? These are your parents. I do not wish to turn them into merely an end to our means."
Miroku blinked, some of the eagerness draining from his expression. He turned to the kitsune.
"I apologize, Shippou. Kagome-sama is correct. I do not wish to make you feel as if we are using your parents for our own devices," he said contritely, the consideration obviously having escaped him in his fervor to at last make a stand within the court.
Shippou was silent for a long moment, his gaze turned inward as he considered all of this. At last he looked up, his solemn gaze sliding over each one of them in turn.
"You're gonna make sure that it doesn't happen to anyone else, right?" he asked quietly. "I have Kagome, but other people don't. Other people might be all alone if it happened to them."
"I assure you, it is my greatest wish that the injustices that befell your parents should never be visited on anyone else," Miroku replied. "I will do everything within my power to make sure of it."
Shippou blinked, nodding slowly.
"Then I want you to do it," he said. "My parents deserve to have the rites, and they would've wanted to stop this, too."
Kagome felt a smile draw her lips upward. She wished she were close enough to hug the child. He really was very brave.
"Then it is settled," Miroku said, his smile reflecting Kagome's. "I was hoping to hold the ceremony within three days. Will that give you enough time to speak to your clan, Sango-sama?"
"If I cannot do it within three days, than they simply cannot be convinced," she said. "I am certain, though, that at least some within my clan will be sympathetic with our cause if I explain it to them properly."
"Good," Miroku said, nodding approvingly. "I will make arrangements as to the location and the materials needed. Kagome-sama, I also wanted to ask you to speak with the courtiers you know. Anyone you think you might be able to convince to attend. The more support we have from the court, the better for our cause."
"I will talk to anyone that I think might be sympathetic," she promised, mentally sorting through those that might be willing to listen to her. There were not many, but something was better than nothing.
"We should be cautious, though," Sango said. "If certain people catch wind of this, they might put an end to it before we can even begin. And I fear they would come down especially harshly on the two of you if they found you at the root of it."
Kagome and Miroku nodded, assenting to this. Sango might be punished for collaborating, but as outsiders within the court they stood to lose the most if they should be discovered.
Inuyasha's warning to lay low flitted briefly through Kagome's mind, but she quickly dismissed it. Whether or not she would be allowed to stay at the end of all of this could not take precedence over her loyalty to her friends and her people.
With all of the serious conversation out of the way and evening fast approaching, Miroku ordered dinner to be served for all of them to share. They ate together and shared some light conversation, all of them silently contemplating what was to happen in three days though not another word was said of it at the table.
They parted after dinner, Sango, Kagome, and Shippou returning to the Tachibana residence to sleep.
For hours Kagome lay staring at the dark outline of the little boy in the futon beside her. She wondered how he must be feeling about all of this. She wondered if he understood the enormity of what they would be doing in three days. She could scarcely comprehend it herself.
She wished that she could talk to Inuyasha, to reason it all out and make certain that he understood her. She did not want him to feel as if she were going against him in doing this. She did not want to hurt him.
But there was no way he would see her now with Kikyou feeling as she did. His loyalties had to be first to his future wife. Her chest ached at the thought, but she pushed it down.
She would simply have to stand on her own this time and pray that he truly was the man she believed him to be in her heart. If he was, he would understand her.
When she slept at last, her dreams were filled with flames and tears.
Kagome decided to go first to Midoriko for assistance with Miroku’s plan. With her recent promise of support and her feelings on what had happened to Shippou’s parents, Kagome was certain that her appeal would be met with promises of help.
She found the older miko in the main hall of the Chūwain, her head bowed low in prayer. Kagome waited patiently until she finished before she approached her.
Midoriko met her with a smile, rising to embrace her. Kagome was slightly surprised at the gesture, but returned it. She seemed lighter today. Happier.
"Good morning, child," she said, pulling back to arm's length. "What brings you to me so early in the day?"
"I have come to see if I might call upon the support you offered me yesterday," Kagome replied tentatively. "I am sorry to ask it of you so soon, but your help would be invaluable to me right now."
Midoriko's expression sobered slightly.
"Of course," she said. "Shall we sit and have tea while you explain to me what you need?"
Kagome nodded. Midoriko led her through a few hallways to a small sitting room. She prepared and mixed the tea by hand, heating it over the fire-pit in the corner of the room before serving it.
Kagome palmed the warmth of her cup as Midoriko took a seat across from her. She bit her lip lightly, wondering how to broach the subject. Midoriko waited, sipping her tea.
"Yesterday we spoke briefly about what happened to the kitsune couple," Kagome began at last, raising her eyes to meet the O-Miko's. "Well, I spoke last night to the little boy that was left orphaned after their deaths. He expressed the desire that his parents be given the final rites."
Midoriko's expression darkened a notch. She set her tea down.
"I know that it is against the law," Kagome said, forestalling her. "I understand that. But I also know what is right, and it is right that they should be given the rites regardless. I intend to go through with this, along with the houshi Miroku-sama and some members of the Tachibana clan. We want to make a statement that cannot be ignored."
"And you would like my support," Midoriko supplied.
Kagome nodded, silently awaiting her response.
Midoriko frowned thoughtfully down into her cup of tea, swirling it lightly as if seeking something in the tea leaves. She smiled.
"There is no question of whether or not I will help you. My lot is with you for as long as you need me. Rather, I am glad that I might be of help to you so soon," she said, meeting the younger woman's eyes.
Kagome breathed a sigh of relief, a smile lighting her features.
"The ceremony is to take place in two days' time. I had hoped that you might preside over the rites alongside Miroku-sama and myself," she explained eagerly.
"Of course," Midoriko replied readily. "And I assume that any support we can garner from the court would be welcome?"
"Yes," Kagome replied. "The more courtiers that we can convince to attend, the better the chance that we will be heard in this."
"Then I will approach those who I believe might be sympathetic to our cause," she said, nodding to herself. "If executed correctly, this might be the most powerful thing we could do to further consideration for those outside of the court. Grand gestures are something the courtiers are uniquely suited to appreciate."
Kagome beamed, the words buoying her hopes.
"It is Miroku-sama's idea," she explained. "He is very bright. And he wants this very much. I want it for him. He deserves to have this."
Midoriko raised her cup of tea to her lips, taking a thoughtful sip.
"I remember the boy, though I have not seen much of him recently. His father was a good man, as well. It was a blow to learn that he had died just before the throne war began," she said softly, her eyes drifting back through the years for a moment.
"His father…he died before the throne war?" Kagome asked, somehow surprised to hear it.
Certainly she had never met Miroku's father or heard anything more of him than a few words in passing. Unconsciously she had assumed that he was no longer of this world, but she had never really taken time to consider it. She bit her lip, feeling somehow that she had been remiss as a friend.
"It was a strange affair," Midoriko said. "He went out of the court chasing…something. No one ever quite knew what. When he returned, he was drained. Something had happened, but he could scarcely remain lucid long enough to explain it to anyone. After a few days he passed on. Miroku-sama took up his position."
"And no one ever found out what had happened to him?" Kagome asked, brow furrowed.
"I was always under the impression that Miroku-sama looked into it, but I do not think he was ever able to find anything. There was so much turmoil in the court right afterwards that sadly it got buried under a number of other tragedies," Midoriko replied.
Kagome frowned, her gaze sliding down to the mug she cupped in both hands. Idly she took a sip of her tea, barely tasting the liquid as it slid over her tongue. She could hardly comprehend how Miroku must feel, having lost his father without even the comfort of an explanation as to why.
"I did not mean to trouble you, child," Midoriko said softly, breaking through the fog of her thoughts.
"No, no…I just…I feel bad for never having thought to ask Miroku-sama. He has been very good to me since he brought me into the court," she said.
"Well, perhaps you might go easy on yourself just this once. To expect the world of yourself at all times must be exhausting, I imagine," the O-Miko teased lightly.
"I don't-" Kagome began to protest half-heartedly, but cut herself off with a soft huff. "Never mind. You are right. I need to focus right now. I will talk to Miroku-sama when I can."
"Good," Midoriko said, nodding approvingly. "Now, is there anything else that you need from me?"
Kagome shook her head, drinking the last of her tea before setting the cup back down.
"No. I will send you a note concerning the details of the ceremony as soon as Miroku-sama has them all settled. For now I need to go and talk to a few more people within the court," she said, rising to go.
"Then I will contact you once I have finished speaking with some people," Midoriko said, rising as well. "Do be careful, though, Kagome. You are putting yourself in a vulnerable position should anyone discover that you and Miroku-sama are at the head of all of this."
"I understand, Midoriko-sama. I promise I will take care."
She bowed to the O-Miko before heading off to put the next part of her plan into motion.
Kagome was well aware that she had few friends within the court that she could truly count on, but she intended to make full use of those few. Every courtier present would tip the balance a little further in favor of their act of protest.
After departing the Chūwain, she went about asking any guards she could find as to where Akitoki Hojo was positioned for the day. It took a few tries, but at last she learned that he was on duty at the western gate until late in the afternoon.
Deciding it would be best to wait to talk to him until he was not in the company of guards that might not be sympathetic to her cause, she penned a quick note asking him to seek her out once his shift was finished and asked a servant to deliver it to him.
Her next move would be a trickier one by far, but she felt it worth the risk to attempt it. She headed to the Takahashi residence, the solemn vows of devotion of Yuutaro's mother echoing in her head. She would need to test the waters to see if that vow still held firm in light of the circumstances, but if it did then she would call upon the Takahashi clan to show her their support in her hour of need.
She arrived at the gates of the residence and waited as a servant went to notify Yuutaro's mother of her desire for an audience. She was surprised when several minutes later not a servant, but Yuutaro's mother herself came rushing out to welcome her. For a moment she thought the woman might actually embrace her, but she seemed to recall herself at the last moment and instead took her hands warmly.
"Miko-sama, I am so glad to see you returned safely to the court," she said, earnest joy lighting her dark eyes. "I was so worried when I heard that I heard that you had fallen ill after healing my Yuutaro. And then to have to go out of the court to save those villages! Oh, but you are back now, and looking so well! Have you come to see Yuutaro? He is in the gardens playing with his cousins. He's so lively again now! He's entirely returned to his former self. He scarcely remembers what happened as more than a bad dream. It is much the same with me…oh, I really cannot thank you enough!"
Kagome smiled at the effusion of happy chatter, pressing the woman's hands in return. She reveled for a moment in the glow of having done well by the little boy, of having accomplished something solid. That gratification had always been present for her in her role in the village, but seldom was it so clear here in the court. The woman's glowing face was a happy reminder.
"Actually, I had hoped that I might speak with you, Takahashi-sama," Kagome replied. "Though I would like very much to see Yuutaro-sama, as well. I am pleased to hear that he is recovering well."
"Of course, Miko-sama. Let us go to the garden. We can watch the children play as we talk," she suggested eagerly, gesturing for Kagome to follow her as she made her way into the residence.
She led her to an open walkway that looked out over one corner of the garden. A short distance away several little boys played a lively game of kemari, their breath rolling out in misty puffs on the chill air as they romped about. Kagome spotted Yuutaro among the group, a delighted laugh escaping her as he bounced the mari off of his left shoulder. His mother clapped loudly beside her, all decorum thrown to the wind.
Yuutaro flushed, flustered at the excess of her maternal joy. He paused as he caught sight of Kagome, blinking a few times before his face lit up. He excused himself from the game and jogged over to meet them as both women settled to sit on the edge of the walkway.
"Miko-sama," he panted by way of greeting, his smile half-eager and half-shy.
"Yuutaro-sama," Kagome returned, smiling. "You look very well today. How do you feel?"
"Great," he replied, flushing slightly at the praise and pumping a slim arm to demonstrate his good health. "I have not felt tired at all since you came. I…I wanted to thank you. You saved my life."
"He has gone on and on about the peculiar gray of your eyes and how he wants his bride to be just like you when he grows up," his mother gushed in addition.
Yuutaro's faint blush deepened to a burning red. He shot a mortified glare at his mother, who continued to beam at him warmly. His look softened to one of acute embarrassment, his gaze dropping to his feet.
"I am flattered, Yuutaro-sama. Any girl you choose will be fortunate to have you," Kagome offered, hoping to alleviate some of his discomfort.
He peeked up at her tentatively. She smiled. His timid grin answered her own, but he turned at the sound of the other children calling for him to rejoin the game.
"Watch me play, Miko-sama. I am very good at this game," he said, puffing up a bit as he jogged off to rejoin the other boys.
"I love him so much," Takahashi-sama said as she watched him run off, her voice so soft she might only have been speaking to herself. "I had three other children before Yuutaro, you know. All of them stillborn. And then Yuutaro was born, and he smiled up at me the first time I held him, and I knew that he was my gift from the kami."
"When he fell ill, I could not comprehend it. I couldn't conceive of why they should give me such a precious gift only to snatch it right back. I knew that if…if he were to...die, I knew that I could not go on living. Ever since you brought him back to me, I just…I know I go to excesses at times, but I almost feel like I need to make up for those years lost to illness..."
She trailed off, her eyes sliding closed. She drew in a shaky breath before turning to Kagome with a trembling smile.
"I apologize. Sometimes it hits me all over again. How fortunate we both were…I can never thank you enough."
"No at all. The kami have given me a gift, as well, and I would be remiss should I fail to use it to help others," Kagome returned, meeting her eyes earnestly. "But I do have a request to make of you, if you will hear it."
"Of course. Speak freely with me, Miko-sama."
Kagome hesitated, wondering how to broach the subject. She wished to appeal to the woman's desire to do right, rather than her feeling of debt for the life of her son.
"Several days ago, two common born kitsune were executed here in the court. Were you aware of it?" Kagome began.
A frown creased the other woman's brow, her confusion evident at the abrupt shift.
"Yes. It was terrible. I heard that they tried to rob the Taira, and even hurt one of them," she replied.
Kagome bit her lip, hearing the 'believed' implicit in the 'heard'. She was already convinced of their guilt.
"Why do you think they would do such a thing, Takahashi-sama?" she pressed, deciding to try and get her to truly think it through.
The older woman blinked. It had not occurred to her to question it. She shrugged, spreading her hands a bit helplessly.
"They wanted the easy income, I suppose. I mean, they were outsiders to the court. I doubt they had been taught any scruples as to…"
She paused mid-sentence, her eyes rounding as realized to whom she was talking. A sleeve came up to cover her mouth as if it might hide the words she had just said.
"Miko-sama, I did not mean…"
"They had a little boy of their own," Kagome interrupted her, setting aside the insult to herself. "One who they loved very much. They had just been paid very well for performing at the celebration of the return of the Tachibana. In fact they were paid beyond that to remain in the court and perform for others after the celebration ended. They had more than enough to support themselves for quite some time. Why do you think they would risk the happiness of their son, their only child, when they were already better off than they ever could have hoped to be before?"
Kagome met her eyes firmly. The woman’s gaze slid slowly to the boys, to her boy. She watched as he played, the furrow in her brow deepening. She was silent for several long moments, her thoughts churning just behind her dark eyes.
"I do not know," she murmured at length. "It doesn't make any sense. For them to risk their child on a whim…it is not the act of a parent. Are you suggesting…?"
She turned to face Kagome. Kagome nodded, encouraging her.
"Then, they did not commit the crime the Taira accused them of?" she said, the color draining slowly from her face. "But…the Taira accused them. The law says…"
"The Taira accused them without proof. And the law said that that was sufficient to condemn them," Kagome said, her voice rising slightly. "But do you think it right that they should die for the mistakes of others? That their son should suffer for them?"
The older woman was silent for a long moment, her gaze sliding between Kagome's face and her little boy's rollicking form.
"What are you saying, Miko-sama?" she asked at last, turning to her with wide and helpless eyes.
"I am saying that I believe those people died for nothing more than having been born outside of the court," Kagome replied solemnly. "And that I cannot sit idly by while ill is done by any children of the kami. In two days time we will hold the final rites for the kitsune couple. I ask you and your clan to consider attending."
The older woman's eyes widened impossibly. She drew back, shaking her head as if to ward off the very idea.
"Miko-sama, they died as criminals," she breathed. "To hold the rites for them…You cannot. You will be punished. You will go against the law of the kami."
"That they were executed without any proof beyond their birth is not something that I can believe is of the kami, any more than any being being forbidden from the final rites," Kagome replied steadfastly. "I have been raised in the way of the kami from birth, and I know it too well to think that they would wish this sort of injustice on any of their children. The court may decide to punish me as it likes, but I will participate in the ceremony."
The noblewoman pressed a hand to her temple, her eyes sliding shut against the younger woman's words. She shook her head once more before opening imploring eyes on Kagome.
"I…perhaps I can understand your meaning, Miko-sama. I can…I can even sympathize with your cause to a degree," she said, her eyes darting about to make certain that no one heard her voice these sympathies. "But to stand with you at the ceremony…the position it would put my clan in…Beyond even the punishment we would incur, the whole of the court would turn against us if we were to…"
She bit her lip, growing a shade paler at the very thought. Kagome's ardor cooled rapidly. Her gaze dropped slowly to the wood of the walkway.
"…I understand," she said at last. "As I said, this is merely a request. I will not seek to force you to go against yourself."
Far from easing the older woman, this seemed to agitate her further. She shifted forward, reaching out to take Kagome's hand.
"Please understand, Miko-sama," she begged. "It is not that I do not wish to support you, but…"
"But you cannot support what I am," Kagome finished for her, meeting her eyes coolly. "Unfortunately, I cannot be separated from the place I was born or the people who raised me. The things that shaped me are no more separable from who I am than my soul itself. I am common born. I cannot-I would not- wish it any other way. So I am afraid that you cannot say that you would support me, if you cannot support them."
The noblewoman’s lips worked wordlessly for a moment, attempting to supply some-any-sort of excuse for herself. Kagome removed her hand, not unkindly, from the other woman's, moving to stand.
"You need not explain yourself to me, Takahashi-sama," she said. "You have only your own conscience to answer to on the count of a boy who had his parents stolen from him on no more than a whim. If this is the answer it gives you, then there is nothing more for me to say. I will ask only that you not make mention of what I have told you today to anyone else."
"O-Of course, Miko-sama," Takahashi-sama conceded hurriedly, her look deeply troubled still.
Kagome bowed and set off without another word, fighting down the bitter surge of disappointment that swept through her like a wave of soul-deep nausea.
Akihiko called upon her later in the afternoon at the Tachibana residence as she sat staring into a rapidly cooling dish of fish and broth, still attempting to regain her former spirits. The Takahashi woman’s refusal of aid, despite her obvious understanding of the situation, was far more disheartening than she had anticipated.
He went on at length about his joy at having her returned to court safely and having found upon finishing his rounds for the day that she wished to see him. He even ventured so far as to say, with much blushing and fumbling, that he had missed her and been quite concerned for her well-being when he had heard she had fallen ill.
This uncomfortable reminder of exactly what his feelings towards her might still be roused Kagome from her darker musings, and she responded to his sentiments as civilly as she could without appearing cold.
After passing a bit of time with some light chatter about nothing in particular, Kagome introduced to him the idea of the ceremony much as she had to the lady of the Takahashi. Initially he blanched as she had, but overall seemed very inclined to listen to her thoughts on the matter. After only a few minutes he appeared to share entirely in her sentiments.
His eagerness faded, however, when she came to the point of actually asking that he attend the ceremony to show support. He floundered, explaining to her in a jumble of anxiety and apologetics that he would certainly lose his job were he to participate, besides which as a lesser son he was certain his presence or absence could not matter much. Kagome's heart sunk once more.
She made a few attempts at convincing him after his initial refusal, but her disappointment was too deep to allow for more than that. He was the one to end their meeting, offering a sincere apology that she could not accept before slinking off.
She retired to her room then, night creeping up slowly. She simply sat for some time, brooding silently without even the light of a lantern to brighten things.
It was one thing that courtiers brought up to believe ill of those of common birth should think nothing of the deaths of the kitsune. It was entirely another that courtiers who knew better, who obviously understood the facts she had laid out before them, should persist in showing no concern over the deaths or the injustice of it.
Or at least no concern material enough to rouse them to any sort of action. Were they all so terribly self-interested, so stuck in the ways of the court, that they would not bestir themselves in the name of what was right?
After a time Shippou came in, temporarily dispelling her darker musings. She brushed his hair for him as he told her about the minutiae of his day with Sango, sparing not the slightest detail. She was glad to see him steadily returning to his former good spirits. She hoped the impending ceremony would not set him back, but rather help to set him at ease. He deserved that much at least.
At length they dressed for sleep and laid down in their respective futons. After a bit of his customary tossing and wiggling to find a comfortable position, Shippou dozed off.
Kagome lay staring up at the darkness of the ceiling for a number of sleepless hours, contemplating what was to come in a day's time. Her mind shied away from what her fate might be after the ceremony, but she did wonder how much difference all of their efforts would make if they could not get the necessary support from the court.
She wondered what Inuyasha would do were she to tell him of their intentions.
Yell, most likely. Bluster about how foolish she was.
But would he support her?
She hoped so. She wanted to believe he would.
She wanted to see Inuyasha.
She drifted off.
The following day she had little to do but wait, which to Kagome was somehow worse than if she had been forced to go the whole day about the court begging for support and finding none.
Miroku stopped by early in the morning to inform them over the morning meal that he had decided upon a location for the ceremony to be held. Rather, he had been offered one.
Midoriko had approached him and offered up the ceremonial grounds of the Chūwain, a site where many a high-ranking courtier had been put to rest in days past. Miroku thought it quite appropriate to their purposes and thanked Kagome for venturing to obtain Midoriko's cooperation.
He inquired of Sango how it went with her clan. She confessed shamefacedly that while she had appealed to many and brought them around to see the reasoning in what they were doing, she had yet to obtain a promise of support from any branch. Many feared, beyond any punishment that might come of it, that they would effectively ostracize themselves within the court should they participate. To alienate the other clans so thoroughly would surely leave them in a dangerous position.
Miroku graciously assured her that it would be fine either way and thanked her sincerely for her efforts. Kagome saw the brittleness at the edge of his smile, though, and knew he was worried.
He excused himself to go attend to a few final preparatory matters, asking that they be ready early the next morning to begin. They continued their meal, though the spirits of all parties were lower than when they had begun.
They were in the middle of deciding whether or not to take a trip to the baths that day when a servant entered. She bowed respectfully to them before placing a small roll of parchment down on the table in front of Kagome. She eyed the note curiously for a moment before picking it up to read.
You will come to my residence immediately. Fail to do so and I will see you thrown from the court without hesitation.
Kagome's blood turned to ice in her veins. For a long moment her mind was all blank horror as she stared down unseeingly at the terse note.
"Kagome-chan? What is it? You look pale," Sango said, rousing her.
She blinked up at Sango, dropping the note as if it were some venomous creature.
"The future Empress is summoning me," she murmured, the words causing her stomach to turn over.
Apprehension crept across Sango's face.
"What do you think she wants?" she asked softly.
Kagome shook her head, scarcely willing to contemplate it.
"I need to go," she said after a beat, rising from her place at the table.
Shippou blinked up at her.
"Are you gonna come join us at the baths later?" he asked, entirely oblivious.
"I will try," she said, offering him what she hoped was a smile. It felt more like a grimace.
She passed Sango on her way out of the room, leaning down to murmur in her ear.
"If anything should happen, I will need you to care for Shippou-chan."
Sango's eyes widened in alarm, but she nodded slowly.
"Yes, of course," she returned.
That was enough for Kagome. She started off toward the Dairi before any further questions could be asked.
She scarcely remembered the walk to the Fujiwara residence as more than a blur of motion and anxiety. Her heart drummed in her ears loudly enough to deafen her and she was hot and cold by turns.
Inuyasha could not intercede for her this time. Her fate must be in Kikyou's hands.
She was admitted easily into the Fujiwara residence-once a residence she had shared, though she felt it must have been in another lifetime-and a servant showed her to Kikyou's personal chambers.
Kagome stared at the shoji door for the space of several thundering heartbeats, wondering if this was the end for her. If she would be forced out when she was only just beginning the real fight.
Kneeling, she drew in a deep breath and composed her face as best she could. Slowly she slid the shoji open, stepping inside before kneeling once more to slide it closed.
She could feel the other woman's eyes on her back, cold and unwavering. Slowly Kagome turned to meet her, bowing as low as was appropriate.
Kikyou did not return the greeting. Not so much as muscle twitched in her face. She was like a statue, cold and immoveable.
"I should not be surprised any longer by the things of which you are capable," she said at last. "You have shown yourself clearly enough to have no respect for authority or order of any kind. And yet even so I find myself astonished at this newest audacity of yours."
Kagome frowned, a thrill of apprehension sliding down her spine. She tamped it down, struggling to keep her expression neutral.
"What do you mean, Fujiwara-sama?"
Kikyou arched one fine brow coldly.
"You would go so far as to deny it?" she said, an edge so sharp it might cut stone hiding just beneath her words.
"I am not certain what I am accused of denying, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome returned faintly, though her knuckles had gone white in her lap.
The expression that then took hold of the future Empress' face might have degenerated into a snarl in a lesser woman. As it was she was white-lipped, her eyes lit by a cold flame from within.
"I had hoped you would at least have the decency to own it," she said softly, though it was clear she had held no such hopes. "In light of your behavior until now, however, I was foolish to think it. After your last…address to me, I told my Lord that you should be put out. That your willfulness would never cease if he failed to check you. I find now all my assertions validated."
She pulled from her sleeve no more than a scrap of parchment, though she brandished it like a sword.
"I have been informed of your plotting with the Houshi Shingon Miroku. I know what you intend to do on the morrow. I can assure you, though, that you will be stopped here and now."
Kagome feared she might be ill. Her mouth worked wordlessly for several moments.
"How…" she managed to choke out at last, though her throat closed around whatever else she had intended to say.
"A courtier caught wind of it and sent word to me," Kikyou replied with grim satisfaction. "The people of the court know their duty. They understand the proper order of things."
Kagome heard the unspoken commentary on those not of the court clearly enough, and it roused her slightly from her terror. She met Kikyou's eyes.
"I-I have already attempted to explain to you my reasons," she began shakily. "I am sorry that I did it in a manner that showed disrespect to you, but I am not sorry for what I said. I will never be sorry for it. The laws of this court, the value which they place on certain lives above others, are things that I can never reconcile myself to."
"The laws of this court uphold order," Kikyou returned, her eyes flashing. "They keep the world from degenerating into blind chaos. They prevent…"
"They prevent atrocities like those inflicted upon your clan not so very long ago," Kagome finished, meeting her eyes squarely.
Kikyou froze. She blinked at Kagome, entirely derailed for a moment.
"I understand your fears, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome pressed on. "Perhaps better than most can. For most of my life I lived in fear in my village, always under the threat of attack from raiders or youkai. I feared daily for the lives of my family. I know the horrors you were forced to suffer through in the throne war because in another way I lived them. I lived through days of brutality and uncertainty and chaos."
"But because we are not of the court, we cannot hope even for the comfort of the law. We are not allowed to hope for anything. I know your heart is set on order and justice. Does this seem like justice to you?"
Kikyou sat wordless for a long moment, only the slight furrowing of her brow revealing the rapid whirl of her thoughts. Kagome waited, watching intently for any sign that she might find understanding at last in this woman.
"What you propose…" Kikyou said, her voice rising just above a whisper. "What you propose would cause chaos. It would upset the order of the world and the law as it stands."
Kagome shook her head almost violently, frustrated.
"No!" she cried. "I don't ask for upheaval. I don't ask that commoners become courtiers or courtiers become commoners! I respect the order created in the world. I ask only that every child of the kami be treated as valuable. That no one be left to suffer chaos and fear alone because others do not consider them worthy of help. That no one be counted for so little that their lives are treated as expendable. I want order, but not at the expense of justice."
Kikyou actually blanched. Her eyes dropped to the floor between them.
Kagome waited anxiously, hardly daring to breathe. Silently she prayed, pleaded fervently that she just be willing to see.
Kikyou looked up. Her face was beyond its natural pale, almost vulnerable for a moment. And then, slowly, her expression closed off. Her fan spread open with painful deliberation, coming up to cover her mouth.
"I cannot allow it," she pronounced, her painted eyes shuttered as they met Kagome's over the fan.
Kagome's heart sank. She knew without asking what exactly it was that could not be allowed.
But nothing further came. Kikyou made not another move, said not another word. She looked almost unable to push any further. Kagome frowned.
At last she rose.
"I have no intention of calling off tomorrow's ceremony," she said softly.
The fan twisted in Kikyou's hand, then stilled. It did not lower.
"I will not allow it," she returned. "I will have you thrown from the court. I will see the ceremony stopped."
Their eyes met and held.
"You will do as you see fit," Kagome said sadly. "And I will do the same, Kikyou."
And she left, the future Empress unable to stop her.
Kagome did not sleep that night. She could not.
She despaired and writhed in anger by turns. She railed silently at the selfishness, the willful blindness, the immovability of the obstacles that stood against her.
There were moments even when she questioned her purpose. If reason and common humanity could not compel these people to do right, then what could possibly be accomplished by the ceremony aside from securing punishment for all those involved? Was it worth it, if it gained nothing and cost them all?
Quiet, bitter tears plagued her. She railed against the untouchable and wondered, in the darkest moments of that night, if she was doomed to run again and again into the same wall without hope of ever seeing even a dent made. Surrender, at least, would allow her some rest.
But the dawn came at last and with it the return of her reason. Shippou awoke and blinked up at her from the cocoon of his futon, reviving in her all of her previous certainty. He deserved this.
She readied him and herself in silence, making certain that their appearances at least were irreproachable. His face and hands were scrubbed in a basin brought in for them, along with her own.
She combed and tied back his hair and her own, dressing him in some of the finer clothes Sango had recently borrowed for him from one of the children of the Tachibana clan. For her it was her miko robes, as it should be.
Sango awaited them in the sitting room, her expression solemn. She was arrayed in her finest, from head to foot. Every inch the noblewoman.
Her greetings were subdued, warning Kagome clearly enough how little to expect from the Tachibana clan. It seemed as if all of their hopes of the courtiers had fallen through.
Kagome did not allow her disappointment to show, though her mind circled dizzily around the previous day's conversation. She wondered how far they would be able to get before guards stepped in to stop them. She doubted it would be far, but knew it had at least to be attempted. Surrendering without a struggle was simply not an option.
The morning wore on as they each picked half-heartedly at their respective breakfasts. A more substantial anxiety began to arise within Kagome. Miroku had promised to come to them early in the morning, but they did not receive so much as a word from him.
"Houshi-sama is a bit late," Sango ventured at last, giving voice to the fear of all three.
Kagome bit her lip, wondering if Kikyou had chosen to go after him first. She knew of his involvement, perhaps even that it had been his plan, and he was the one responsible for retrieving the bodies of Shippou's parents. Without him they could do almost nothing.
Sango met Kagome's eyes across the table. She frowned, catching a glimpse of something there.
"Kagome-chan, do you know something?" she asked, her brow furrowing.
Kagome clasped her hands in her lap, wondering if she should tell them. Shippou was gazing up at her with wide, solemn eyes. She shifted, averting her eyes.
"The future Empress-" she began lowly.
The clack of the shoji door being thrown open cut her off. All three jumped, turning with wide eyes to the source of the abrupt intrusion.
Miroku stood with the door flung wide, nearly panting. There was a light in his eyes that was a step from manic, his expression so openly agitated that Kagome scarcely recognized him.
"Come now," he ordered without a trace of his usual eloquence.
Sango, eyes wide, opened her mouth to ask what in the world was the matter with him, but he had gone out of the room before she could get a word out.
Kagome and Sango exchanged worried looks. Kagome scooped up Shippou and they both hurried out of the room after Miroku.
He awaited them impatiently in the entryway, motioning hurriedly for them to follow him outside. His agitation was so great that he did not wait for them before exiting himself.
Kagome and Sango, their fears deepening at his eccentric behavior, rushed out after him to the outer gates of the residence.
Both stopped dead.
Miroku turned his feverish, exultant eyes on them and flung his arm out in a sweeping gesture.
Hundreds of people, as far as they could see in any direction, crowded the streets around the Tachibana residence. Painted faces, flapping fans, and brightly colored robes surrounded them on all sides. They were courtiers.
"They're here for the ceremony," Miroku announced breathlessly. "They've been arriving since early this morning. I've been trying to arrange them and inform them of what is to happen for hours. Can you believe it? Look at all of them!"
"How…" Kagome began, only to be choked by a surge of abrupt tears. She fought them back, blinking hard.
Midoriko stepped towards them out of the throng where she had been standing near the bier on which Shippou's parents lay.
"Several clan leaders came to me for guidance after having heard your arguments," she said. "I encouraged them to follow their stronger inclinations. I suppose this is the result."
Kagome could not get out a single word, her eyes scanning the crowd again and again in disbelief. She saw the Takahashi, the Akitoki, many of the Tachibana, several minor human clans she did not know, lesser officials of the Chūwain and Shingonin, even some in the dress of guards. Hojo waved timidly to her from a short distance off. The lady of the Takahashi stood on the fringe of the expectant mass with Yuutaro securely in tow.
After all of their protests, their reservations, their refusals, they had come.
The wall was dented. There was hope.
"Shall we begin?" Miroku suggested once the three had had a moment, gesturing to the ornate bier.
Kagome blinked at him several times before nodding wordlessly. She swallowed back her awe, turning her focus to the two bodies resting motionless and covered atop the bier.
He and Midoriko moved to the bier, grasping their respective ends. Following their lead, Sango and Kagome took up their own positions, raising the bier up above the crowd. Shippou remained on Kagome's shoulder, his small face set determinedly.
Midoriko took up the chant first, the words of peace and mourning spilling musically from her lips. Miroku's own chant answered her, the two complimentary despite their differences.
Voices took up the chant throughout the crowd as they began to move forward down the street, the bier swaying above them all. Kagome took it up, as well, the words pouring from the very depths of her to join the chorus. She scarcely felt the weight of the bier as the crowd swelled and moved around them, propelling them forward.
They moved slowly and purposefully through the streets, their words echoing on the bright morning air. They moved from one corner of the court to the next, reaching each gate before continuing their procession. They covered as much of the court as they could.
They would be seen and heard.
Everywhere people emerged from their residences to gape at them, their numbers swelling as they went. Courtiers stared, jeered, were outraged. Kagome was satisfied. She held the bier higher for them all to see the tragedy they had wrought.
At last they came to the bottom of the steps of the Chūwain. By then their number had swelled beyond the hundreds, many gawkers trailing in stunned silence after the group.
They ascended the steps, passed under the tori, and reached at last the temple grounds. In groups the participants cleansed themselves before passing the komainu into the temple proper.
A wide area before the temple had been cleared and a pyre erected in the center. The four cleansed themselves and moved forward to place the bier atop the pyre.
A hush swept over the crowd. The chanting died out. Midoriko, after looking to both Kagome and Miroku, stepped forward and raised both her hands.
"We gather today," she began, raising her voice to carry over the crowd. "To put to rest the souls of Shintaro and Shizune. Their end was tragic, but now we will give them the peace that they deserve."
Miroku stepped forward to stand beside her.
"These two were not born of the court, but their souls count for no less than yours. They are as much a part of the great wheel of existence as you or I, and we choose to honor them as such," he said emphatically.
Shippou tugged at Kagome's sleeve. She turned her eyes to him and saw the pleading there, quickly grasping his meaning.
She stepped forward to join Miroku and Midoriko, Shippou standing tall upon her shoulder. She raised her hands to gain the full attention of the crowd. Shippou cleared his throat.
"They were my parents," he said in his loudest voice, no elegance and all sincerity. "I loved them. They loved me. And then they were killed. I still don't understand why. I don't think it was right. They were my parents. I-I miss them. Please help me say good-bye."
He was crying, trembling on her shoulder by the time he finished. All that he had worked so hard to contain during the procession burst forth at last. He swiped roughly at his tears, sniffling as he tried to put back on his brave front.
Kagome took him into her arms, embracing him and shielding him from the eyes that looked on with pity and sympathy.
"We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for following the path you know to be right," Kagome said, her own voice hoarse with feeling as she addressed the crowd. "I understand with what difficulty and apprehension you must have made the decision to come here. It is no easy thing to go against all that you have known. But I ask you to look upon the world in which you live, in which we all live, with new eyes. Do not allow the mistakes of the past to dictate the future. We are all of us brothers and sisters beneath the kami."
Midoriko and Miroku nodded their agreement on either side of her. Midoriko stepped back to the small furnace placed at the head of the pyre, grabbing from it a lighted stick of incense. She brandished the incense, waving it over the bodies atop the pyre as she stepped in a slow circle around it. Miroku took up his own incense, and Kagome followed his lead with Shippou tucked securely in the crook of one arm.
They made several rounds, purifying the bodies with the smoke in preparation. They each finished at the head of the pyre, placing the incense atop it. Midoriko bowed her head and pressed her hands together, beginning the final prayer. Miroku took up the rosary around his wrist, passing the beads through his fingers as he recited the final words. Kagome bowed her head, adding her voices to theirs.
All around them heads were bowed and hands clasped as the finals rites echoed across the hallowed grounds of the temple.
The prayers finished. Midoriko took from the small furnace a torch, the end glowing red from the heat of the coals.
She placed the torch amongst the wood of the pyre, working until it caught flame. The pyre began to smoke, small flames leaping up. Slowly they grew larger, spreading until they had consumed the pyre and the two forms atop it. The flames cleansed them, releasing their souls from the confines of their bodies.
Shippou cried silently in her arms, his eyes fixed on the growing flames. Sango approached them, slinging an arm around them both as tears streamed from her own eyes.
Miroku came to stand at Sango's side, and they shared a long look. He reached out tentatively, taking one of her hands in his own. Sango squeezed his hand in return, offering him a tremulous smile.
One by one those who had participated in the procession came forward to the pyre, placing final offerings to the spirits at the foot of the pyre or offering their own final prayers. Kagome trembled to see it, grief and gratitude and awe rushing over her in dizzying waves now that she had a moment to reflect.
And then she caught sight of her through the rising flames.
She stood alone and apart from the crowd, isolated. The substitution of plain servant's robes for her usual finery allowed her to go unnoticed. Her arms were folded tightly over her chest, her whole posture seeming to cave in on itself.
She was crying.
For the briefest of moments their eyes met and held. Kagome knew that the tears on her cheeks mirrored Kikyou's own.
The future Empress turned away abruptly, hurrying off down the steps of the temple. Kagome watched her go, hugging Shippou more tightly.
Slowly the courtiers began to trickle off in groups and pairs, the ceremony winding to a close. Kagome, Miroku, Shippou, Sango, and Midoriko remained until the pyre burnt itself out, keeping silent vigil.
When nothing more than ashes remained, they gathered them and scattered them to the wind.
They each prayed in their heart for new beginnings.