The office was quiet, the stillness broken only by the steady tick of the clock—an old and beautiful piece fashioned out of a stout branch of the ancient magnolia tree, Bokusenou. It was a gift given to Sesshoumaru when he was recognized as his father’s heir-apparent, the one to eventually inherit the title of Inu no Taisho years ago. There were only three such working clocks in existence, the first of those being Sesshoumaru’s, of course. Toga was gifted one upon his birth, and the third was presented to Sesshoumaru’s grandson—Toga’s son—Mamoruzen. Even now, Sesshoumaru could remember with vivid clarity, the day he and Kagura had presented their infant son—Sesshoumaru’s heir—to the old tree-youkai, as his great and noble father had done with him, well before Sesshoumaru could remember. Bokusenou had smiled upon him, had summoned the timeless winds to blow. Those winds had granted Toga their favor, strengthened by his mother’s natural affinity, and to that end, Toga had grown, strong and proud: the steadfastness of the tree, the will of the wind, with the heart of the inu-youkai.
It was legend that those clocks would stop their time the very moment that the owners lost their lives. Somewhere in the recesses of the mansion, closed into a darkened room that housed the things that Sesshoumaru considered to be family heirlooms, rested his father’s clock: the hands stilled at the very second when his father had died so long ago . . .
When it came time, Toga and his mate, the human, Sierra, had taken Mamoruzen to Bokusenou, too, had asked for his blessings upon the future Japanese tai-youkai—the future Inu no Taisho—and, for the first time ever, Bokusenou had bestowed that special blessing upon a hanyou.
It was interesting, how much had changed over time.
The blessing of the Inu no Taisho couldn’t be given to a younger son, however. Even so, Bokusenou had bid the Inu no Taisho to bring his mate, Izayoi—heavy with their unborn child—and it was then that the wise old tree had given their father instead, the sheathes for the Legendary Swords of the Fang: Tetsusaiga, the Sword of Earth, and Tenseiga, the Sword of Heaven. Then, though he was not compelled to do so, Bokusenou had summoned the earthen fires—the flames that lived so deep within the ground. The lore stated that the sacred fire was delivered by a host of fire rats—hinezumi—and that those rats had transformed themselves into the fire-rat clothing that had come to InuYasha after his birth—the same clothes that protected InuYasha throughout his lifetime.
It was that fabled clock that chimed the hour as Sesshoumaru settled back in his chair, his gaze trained across the wide expanse of the cherry wood desk at his son-in-law.
“You think we should go there. That’s what you’re saying,” Senkuro Seiji remarked, frowning thoughtfully as he considered all that his father-in-law had said—and some things that his mate, Aiko had said, too. “Aiko believes that there might be more to it than either of them has said, but . . .” Brow furrowing as he leaned to the side far enough to rub his forehead in a slow and calculated kind of way, Seiji let out a deep breath. “What if we’re wrong? Opening up that door could be dangerous, don’t you think? Saori . . .”
“She will not be accompanying us,” Sesshoumaru stated. “I think it would be best not to tell her anything—at least, for now. I think it best if we speak with Faine without her presence to complicate matters. For the most part, I merely want reassurance that he will not seek further recompense from her for her impetuous actions.”
Seiji didn’t look like he wanted to agree, but he nodded once. “How well do you know Demyanov Faine?”
Sesshoumaru was not surprised by Seiji’s candid question. If anything, he’d rather expected that he would have asked that sooner, all things considered. “In truth? I don’t know him, at all. The first time I met him was when we retrieved Saori. However, I did know his father well enough. If Fai is anything like him, he is a very competent, highly skilled young man. I would say, though, that the fact that he detained her, but did not truly punish her as should be his right—maybe even his obligation—should speak volumes about his character.”
Seiji didn’t look very mollified by Sesshoumaru’s words. “I’ve heard the rumors,” he said, his voice dropping in timbre and volume. “They say that Russia is about as unsafe a region as there is—and if that’s true, then it’s a direct reflection on their tai-youkai.”
“He is young. They will try him—they have been trying him—and he’s proved his mettle and then some. If it came to that, I have little doubt in my mind that he could keep her safe—and do you discount your own daughter’s ability to defend herself?”
Seiji pinned Sesshoumaru with an entirely unamused scowl. “Of course not, but Saori isn’t a fighter. She’s gentle like her mother.”
“And in that situation, too, I have no doubt that Aiko could well defend herself.”
“I have no doubt, either,” Seiji allowed. “This isn’t about Aiko. It’s about Saori—my daughter—and . . . and him. Those two . . . They’re not bonded. Since she’s come home, Saori’s been a little distant, a little thoughtful lately, but physically, she’s fine. They weren’t together long enough for that to happen . . . Maybe it would be better to just encourage her to move on. She has an interview coming up for a job at a school in Morocco . . .”
“And you and I both know that what will be, will be. No, Seiji, in this, I think it would behoove us to ascertain as much as we can and allow Saori herself to find her fate.”
“Her fate,” Seiji repeated with a wholly resigned sort of sigh. It was difficult business, letting go of one’s child. Sesshoumaru knew that as well as anyone because he’d fought against it harder than anyone, especially with Toga when it came time for him to look for his mate . . . Sesshoumaru knew very well, the thoughts and emotions at war in Seiji’s mind. “I miss the days when I could tell her what to do, and she’d just do it,” he confessed with another heavy sigh as he leaned forward, as he buried his face in his hands for a long moment. Letting his hands drop away to dangle between his spread knees, Seiji slowly shook his head. “It’s the best I can do for her, isn’t it?”
Nodding very slowly, Sesshoumaru almost smiled—almost. “Perhaps nothing will come of it,” he ventured, despite the doubt that he held on that front. “I would still feel better once I speak with Faine—once I know that he isn’t still entertaining vengeful thoughts.”
“I . . . I agree . . .” Letting out a deep breath, Seiji sat back, stared at Sesshoumaru for a long moment. Then he nodded. “All right. When should we go?”
“Good morning, kaa-chan! Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Glancing up from the e-reader where she was scanning the day’s headlines, Aiko smiled as Saori breezed into the kitchen and sank down at the table beside her. “You’re in a good mood, Saori. Did you sleep well?”
Uttering a little giggle as she helped herself to the food arranged in the middle of the table, Saori nodded her thanks, smiled brightly at the housekeeper-slash-cook that set a small bowl of rice beside her. Then, like she had done since she was a child, she pressed her hands together, bowed her head, and uttered the customary, “Itadakimasu!”
“And why are you so happy this morning?” her mother prompted.
“I slept insanely well!” she said, picking up her chopsticks and digging into her food with a gusto she hadn’t shown since her return to Japan. “I had such a good dream . . .”
Aiko laughed softly, golden eyes shining warmly in the sunshine tumbling through the window. “Oh? It must have been a really nice dream, then.”
Saori nodded. Suddenly, though, she stopped, mid-chew, her cheeks blossoming in a hint of embarrassed color as she ducked her head. “It was just . . . umm, really, really nice . . .”
Aiko chuckled. “All right; I won’t ask for details. I’m glad, though, that you are in such a good mood . . . I’ve missed my girl’s smiling face.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Have I been that bad?”
“Bad? No . . . Just a little distracted, a little quiet . . .”
“Sorry,” Saori murmured. “Where’s tou-chan?”
“He had an early meeting,” she replied, setting the tablet aside as she got to her feet. “Speaking of meetings, I have to go, too . . . and nii-chan called. He said that he needed you to stop by Kawagashi’s. He ordered a new cell phone, and he doesn’t have time to pick it up.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, leaning into her mother when Aiko gave her shoulders a quick squeeze in passing.
“Have a good day, Saori! Ittekimasu!” she called as she hurried into the hallway near the front door to slip on her shoes.
“Itterasshai!” Saori called in response. A few moments later, she heard the door open and close, and she let out a happy sigh.
Maybe it was foolish to feel so content over a silly little dream, but she couldn’t help it, either. Seeing Fai, even in the confines of her sleep, was enough to bolster her flagging spirits, and falling asleep—crazy, given that she was already asleep—in Fai’s arms?
That was enough to make her blush all over again, and she giggled softly.
It had felt so real, and that was the thing. So real, in fact, that she couldn’t help the trace disappointment when she’d opened her eyes, only to find herself in her own bed in her own room in her own house, and not in that warm and wonderful field, surrounded by the scent of wildflowers . . .
The warmth of his body was so fresh in her mind, the sound of his heartbeat under her cheek, the feel of his arms, and he hadn’t let her go . . .
She only wished that it had been real.
‘Maybe it was.’
Pushing away from the table, Saori wrinkled her nose. ‘I wish . . . I mean, it’s not possible. Just a really perfect dream . . .’
‘You don’t know that it’s not possible. Just because it might not be a common thing doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.’
She sighed as she hurried up the stairs, heading for her bathroom to brush her teeth. ‘That would be entirely too easy, don’t you think? Even then, if it was a real, well, whatever, I don’t think that it would have been just like that. It was almost like he . . . like he missed me as much as I miss him . . .’
‘Maybe he does.’
She shook her head. It was a lovely thought, sure, but she wasn’t delusional enough to think that there was even a chance that what her youkai-voice had said was possible.
Even so, it didn’t dampen her spirits, either. Today, she wouldn’t allow it. Today, she was going to savor that dream and cherish it for what it was—even if it wasn’t something that ever would really be . . .
“Here you go.”
Toga glanced up from the file he was looking over as Saori set the new phone, still in the box, on the desk. “Thank you,” he said, leaning to the side to pull his old phone out. “I’m a little busy here . . . Would you mind transferring my contacts?”
“Sure,” she said, slipping into a chair after taking both devices. The new one was the latest model of the Viscue series, and the old one was at least three generations older. For as much money that Toga had, he stubbornly refused to upgrade until his old phone was on its proverbial last legs, cracked screen and all. “You know, this one has seen better days. Why didn’t you get a new one sooner?”
Toga grunted without looking up from the file, his eyebrows drawn together in a thoughtful little scowl. “I think Sie broke it,” he muttered. “She says she didn’t, but it was fine the other night when I went to bed, but when I got up the next morning, it looked like that.”
Saori’s lips twitched at the almost sulky tone in her uncle’s voice. “Are you sure it didn’t just fall off the nightstand?”
Toga snorted. “It was laying on the charger where I put it. The only difference was the broken screen.”
She had to clear her throat to keep from giggling. “And you’re sure it was her?”
That earned her a quick but unimpressed glance. “No one else comes into our bedroom, Saori, so yes, I’m sure it was her. She’s devious. I know you think she’s just sweet oba-chan, but I promise you, she’s got an evil streak that she’s really good at hiding.”
“I think you might be overexaggerating, oji-chan,” she chided, powering on the new phone. “Even then, you can’t say it wasn’t about time to upgrade, anyway.”
Toga grunted. “Oh, I’m not exaggerating a thing,” he assured her. “When I showed the phone to her, she laughed—laughed. Definitely guilty—and if it wasn’t broken, then there wasn’t a reason to upgrade. Besides, I liked that phone. I knew where everything was, I knew how to find all my important things . . . Now, I have to waste time, learning new stuff because they decided that this feature wasn’t accessible enough here or that one should be moved over there.”
“It’s just a new phone, and from what I’ve read, you’ll be very pleased with it, too—maybe even more than the old one.”
His snort stated that he doubted her words, turning his attention back to the file once more.
Hitting the buttons on the phones to tether them long enough to transfer all of his contacts, Saori frowned as names flashed over the new screen. One of them in particular caught her attention, and she couldn’t quite contain the harshly indrawn breath as it disappeared in the transfer. Something about just seeing his name was enough to set off a crazy, but not unpleasant, churning in her belly. “You . . . You have Fai-sama’s phone number?” she asked, struggling to keep an air of neutrality in her tone.
“Hmm? Fai? Of course, I do. I have all the tai-youkai’s numbers on there.”
She said nothing else as the phone finished transferring contacts. Casting her uncle a surreptitious glance, only to find him, completely absorbed in his reading, she bit her lip and quickly scrolled through the contact list. She told herself that she was just checking to make sure that everything was all right. In truth, however, she was trying to find that number . . .
The device rang in her hands, and she squeaked out a choked little sound. Sierra’s name popped up on the call screen, and Saori connected it via speaker phone. “Hai, oba-chan,” she greeted.
“Saori? You’re answering Toga’s phone now?”
Smiling a little self-consciously at her aunt’s teasing, Saori bit her lip. “I just finished transferring his contacts to his new one,” she explained. “Just a moment, please.” Holding out the phone, she waited until Toga took it.
“Sierra,” Toga said, leaving his mate on speaker phone. “Hold on . . . Saori, go ahead and reset that one, and if you could drop it off at a recycling center? And there wasn’t really anything else I needed done today, so you’re free to go—unless you want to hang out with your old oji-chan all day . . .”
“Oh, sure,” she said, seeing no way around it. Ignoring the pang that shot through her, she did as he’d told her, commanding the old phone to reset. Gathering her things, she stood up. “I’ll be going, then,” she told him. “Call me if you need anything else.”
“Thank you,” he called after her before returning his attention to his wife’s call once more.
Closing the door with a soft click, Saori let out a deep breath, wrinkling her nose as she frowned at the now-empty device. If she’d only been able to get Fai’s number off his phone, she could call him, at least to hear his voice . . .
The good mood she’d carried around most of the day seemed to evaporate in the space of a heartbeat, and she sighed. Somehow, she felt even more lost, even more alone, than she ever had before.
A deep grunt, the jarring clang of metal meeting metal as a shower of sparks shot out of the seam where the two blades met. With a harsh shove against the weapon, Fai sent Yerik sliding back a few steps as he spun around, bringing the blade up and down in a blistering rain of fierce blows that Yerik managed to parry, just barely.
The strikes just kept coming. Over and over again, Fai wasn’t holding back as he hammered at Yerik’s sword with his own. Kamennyy-Nozh, Fai’s sword, seemed to utter a high-pitched kind of shriek that was undercut with every hit. Yerik ground his teeth together and blocked—it was about all he could do at the moment.
“What’s gotten into you?” he ground out, blocking three more strikes in quick succession.
“Don’t lose focus, or I’ll hack you to bits,” Fai growled back.
“Seems like that’s what you’re already trying to do,” Yerik countered, taking advantage of a very brief lull to shove Fai back a few steps. Grimacing yet again when Fai sprang toward him, swinging Kamennyy-Nozh once more, he managed to deflect the blade and hop back. “Enough,” he called, sheathing his weapon as he glowered at his brother.
Fai scowled at his brother, but dropped his sword into the scabbard hanging from his hip. In truth, he hadn’t spent nearly enough of his aggression. Too bad that he’d probably end up causing some very real harm if he didn’t stop . . . “Your intensity is lacking,” he said instead, crossing his arms over his chest. “A hunter cannot afford to slack off.”
“I wasn’t slacking off,” Yerik retorted. “I, however, have no interest in usurping your title, Fai, so killing you off isn’t really an option.”
Fai snorted loudly. “As if you could, Yerik. Now, draw your sword again.”
“I won’t,” Yerik insisted, giving his head a stubborn shake to emphasize his words. “Not unless you tell me what’s bothering you enough that you’re out for my blood.”
“No reason,” Fai said, “and I’m not.”
“Oh, really?” Yerik argued, holding out his arm and twisting it to examine the tear in his sleeve that hadn’t been there before. His arm below it was fine, but Fai had managed to catch the sleeve with the tip of his sword. “I liked this shirt, you realize.”
“Buy another one,” Fai grumbled.
Yerik sighed, letting his arm drop against his side once more. “Is this about a certain dog-youkai? A female? Rather pretty? One who is just a little more impulsive than she ought to be?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Fai growled. “Drop it.”
“All right; sure, but you know, as much as you miss her, has it occurred to you that maybe she misses you, too? I mean, she did kiss you, after all, and from where I stood, it looked like a pretty good one . . .”
Fai narrowed his eyes on Yerik, but held his silence.
Yerik relented, striding past Fai and heading toward the patio. “Have it your way, Fai, but being stubborn just for the sake of the act is really not a good thing.”
Fai watched him go, a dark scowl still twisting his features.
He sighed. Just the thought of her was enough to set his teeth to grinding once more. Truth be told, he was more irritated with himself than he was with anyone else, and all because he really hadn’t meant to fall asleep in that dream or whatever it was. He’d tried to stay awake, wanted to savor the feel of her, there with him, and then to wake up this morning, entirely alone, without even the lingering comfort of her scent on the bedsheets?
‘But what was that? How was that even possible? It . . . It wasn’t a regular dream . . .’
‘No, you’re right. It wasn’t.’
When his youkai-voice didn’t elaborate, Fai’s frown deepened, and he turned on his heel to stomp back inside. ‘Then what the hell was it?’ he finally demanded, stepping into the castle as Vasili neatly whipped the door open to allow him to pass. The aged servant bowed his head. Fai nodded, dismissing him from his mind as quickly and effortlessly as that while he headed toward his office.
‘I don’t know for sure, but I think . . . I think that her youki and yours managed to connect. Maybe it’s as simple as you both falling asleep at the same moment or something . . . Who knows? But she was here with us . . . She should be here with us . . .’
He didn’t know how to respond to that. Even if he wanted to go find her, her family was never going to allow him anywhere near her, were they? And, considering who her family was, the girl was likely to be guarded more securely than the Moscow Kremlin . . .
‘Yes, but you’re also forgetting. You wanted to offer her the job of dealing with the orphanage, in helping to find placements for the children if possible. Don’t you still want her help with that?’
He flopped into the chair behind the stately desk, slumping to the side, rubbing his temple as the start of a blistering headache started to take hold. ‘I do . . . but . . .’
‘You realize, too, don’t you? That dream last night—if she really was there with you—then you remember what she said, right? She’s got an interview for a job in Morocco. If they offer it to her, and she opts to go, that will complicate things a hell of a lot, don’t you think?’
He sighed. There was that, too . . .
The abrupt ringing of his telephone interrupted his thoughts, however, and, with another sigh, he reached over to grab the receiver. “Demyanov.”
“Chang Laquan here, Your Grace. I trust you’re well?”
Frowning at the warm tone from the Chinese ambassador and Chinese-egret-youkai, Fai sat back once more. It wasn’t often that Laquan called, and it was never a social call. Though he seemed to be willing enough to share information with Fai, Fai wasn’t entirely sure where the man’s loyalties really lay. “Laquan, I am, and you?”
Laquan sighed. “Fine, fine, thank you. I’m sure you’re busy, so I’ll get right to the point. I have it on good authority that Qiang Shui has been sighted in Moscow—Otradnoye. I thought you would want to know.”
“Qiang . . . the rat-youkai . . .?”
“Yes. He’s known to be responsible for more than twenty human deaths over the last fifteen years.”
“When was he spotted?”
“A little over an hour ago, my source tells me. I have one of my men, keeping an eye on him so that he doesn’t manage to sneak away again.”
“Good. I’ll send my hunter and have him call you when he arrives in case you find out anything else.”
“Absolutely. I’m glad to be of service. A beast like Qiang needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.”
“Any time, Your Grace.”
The line went dead, and Fai sighed.
It only took him a few minutes to pull the extensive file on the rat-youkai. It was a better file than he often had, complete with a description and picture of Shui Qiang. Letting out a deep breath, he sent the entire file to the printer, including he hunt order he’d issued years ago that had never been carried out since Qiang was very gifted in hiding.
Rising to his feet, he rounded the desk, pausing just long enough to snatch the papers from the printer before he strode out of the office and down the hallway, heading for the stairs.
He didn’t get far. Yerik dropped a duffel bag on the floor as he turned to face Fai, a defiant kind of expression on his face. “Where are you going?” Fai asked, cocking an eyebrow as he slowly and deliberately looked down at the bag.
“I’m going to find Saori,” Yerik replied.
Yerik shrugged. “Come on, Fai. You’re unbearable—entirely insufferable—and you have been since she left. If you’re too damned stubborn to go get her, then I will. You can thank me later.”
“No, you’re not,” Fai growled, grabbing Yerik’s arm when the younger man reached down to retrieve his bag.
“I need you to go to Moscow,” Fai cut in, thrusting the papers into Yerik’s hand. “This is your target. When you get there, call Laquan Chang at the Chinese embassy. He currently has someone following Qiang, but his man doesn’t have the clearance to carry out the hunt. You do.”
Yerik scowled at the documents. “All right,” he finally said, rolling the papers in his fist, digging into the inner jacket pocket for his phone, which he fiddled with for a minute before Fai’s phone chimed to let him know that he’d received an email. “I forwarded you the reservation for the flight to Tokyo—it’s in your name. Be on it, and don’t come home without her.”
Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he frowned at the itinerary. Sure enough, the reservations were all in his name . . . “How is it in my name?”
Rolling his eyes, Yerik slowly shook his head. “You don’t really think that I am foolish enough not to realize that you’d never let me go do what you want to do, anyway . . .”
“I don’t have time to go to Tokyo,” he argued with a snort.
“Are you trying to say that you’ve gotten anything done since she left? Because you haven’t; not really.”
Fai opened his mouth to argue, but Yerik quickly shook his head. “Just do it, Fai. You’re miserable without her, and I’ll bet she’s just as miserable without you. Just don’t arrest her this time.”
Yerik chuckled, shouldering his bag as he headed for the front doors. “Surely, you’ve figured it out, haven’t you? I mean, it’s poor form to handcuff your future mate, don’t you think?”
His chuckles lingered in the foyer long after the door closed behind him, leaving a scowling Fai, staring at the itinerary.