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~19. August 1750~
~The Outskirts of Boston Colony~
Sebastian Cavendish bit the inside of his cheek, trying hard not to crack even the smallest hint of a smile as four year-old Zelig scuffed the toes of his black leather boots against the smooth plank floor. “Aye, son?”
Zelig scrunched up his little shoulders, his face registering his unmitigated disgust at having to admit to what he had been doing. Hooking his thumbs in his black suspenders, he shuffled his feet a little more and scowled at the floor. “I was chasing Rufus, sir,” he mumbled, cheeks pinking as his frown deepened.
The New Continent’s tai-youkai—a dog-youkai—cleared his throat and raised his fist, covering his mouth to stifle a delicate cough—and his amusement. “You . . . were chasing . . . the cat . . .” he reiterated, carefully keeping his expression completely blank.
Zelig nodded. “Aye, sir,” he admitted.
The wooden chair creaked as Sebastian shot to his feet and strode away to the window, presenting his back to his young son. ‘Chasing cats . . .’ he mused, indulging in a little smile before schooling his features once more. “The fact of the matter is that you didn’t simply chase the cat, Zelig, but you treed him, correct?”
Sebastian discerned the slight shift in Zelig’s aura as the child nodded again. “Aye, sir.”
Silence grew in the study, permeating the room with an invisible force. Zelig waited for the verdict to fall while Sebastian gazed out over the land that was touched by the hand of descending night. Sebastian sighed. “You cannot bedevil the cats,” he remarked slowly, carefully.
“Aye, sir,” Zelig grumbled.
“The cats are helpful in the stable,” Sebastian went on, “and in the fields. If you chase them off, then you’ll have to hunt down the vermin and do the cats’ jobs, on top of your regular chores.”
“I can hunt the vermin,” Zelig replied stubbornly.
Sebastian shifted his gaze to the side, catching sight of his mate, Daniella lingering in the doorway. She was smiling sweetly, her black hair shining in the dim light cast by the oil lamps that adorned the room. She caught his eye and arched a delicate brow before turning her attention to the boy in the center of the room. “I’d wager your mother would rather that her son didn’t spend his days tracking field mice and common rats.”
“But I don’t like cats,” Zelig complained.
“Leave them alone or I’ll find more tasks to occupy you,” Sebastian insisted. “Now wash up for dinner.”
Zelig didn’t argue but his shuffling steps bespoke his belief that he was being unjustly targeted. Daniella laughed softly and reached out, ruffling his bangs as he passed. “Small wonder that he hates the cats,” she mused after Zelig had disappeared from view. “He is a puppy, after all.”
Sebastian finally smiled as he slowly turned away from the window to meet his wife’s gaze. “Was there ever a time when I was afforded the luxury of chasing cats?” he asked with a sigh.
Daniella tilted her head to the side, her skirts whispering softly as she closed the distance between them. “Is the situation truly so bad?”
“Bad, aye . . . unmanageable? Nay . . .” He sighed, long, articulated fingers running through his golden-bronze hair. “At least, not yet.”
“Always the same reason, koishii . . . the edict, of course.”
She nodded. “Sesshoumaru’s edict?”
“The reasons are sound,” she stated quietly, staring out the window into the quiet night, crossing her arms over her stomach as the length of her billowing sleeves fell like wings in cascades of delicate lace. “Surely they can see that it’s for the greater good—for the future . . .” The worry marring her brow ebbed when the resounding crash of porcelain hitting the unforgiving wood floor echoed through the house. She smiled despite the apparent loss of the wash basin that stood in the wide foyer where Zelig had been dispatched to clean up for supper. “For the children.”
Sebastian could sense his mate’s distress; her fear over what was to come. “Most can see that, aye,” he allowed, resting his chin in the down of her hair as he drew her back against his chest. “Those who cannot are short-sighted, full of arrogance and misplaced pride. Hiding who we are—what we are . . . it’s the only way we can possibly survive.”
“I know,” she agreed softly, wrapping her hands over his forearms and giving them a gentle squeeze. Staring up at him for a long moment, she smiled suddenly as laughter bubbled up inside her, spilling over in the quiet. Her laughter soothed him, pacified him, calmed the edges of his ragged psyche. Giving in to a grudging smile, a soft chuckle escaped him. “Shall I scold him?” she asked, arching an eyebrow as she smiled at her mate.
“As if you could,” he countered, the reprieve in his tone tempered by the grin on his face. “The pup is golden in your eyes.”
“And in yours,” she reminded him.
“I suppose the washbasin is replaceable,” he allowed, his eyes bright as he gazed at his mate.
“I suppose it is,” she agreed. “He’s a good boy.”
“About as good as I am,” he grumbled though his smile hadn’t dissipated.
“He takes after you, Keijizen—or so Ben’s said a thousand times.”
Sebastian shook his head. “How long as it been since you last uttered that name?” he mused.
“You shall forever be Keijizen to me, Sebastian Cavendish.”
“And you shall forever be my Akinako.”
She laughed. “I rather like ‘Daniella’. It suits me, don’t you think?”
“Akinako . . . Daniella . . . it doesn’t matter so long as you remain the same.”
“With you, aye?”
He nodded, his smile faded as he shifted his gaze out the window once more. The shadows of the forest seemed inkier, blacker as the stars high above twinkled to life, one by one. “I shall make them understand,” he vowed. “They shall hear me.”
~20. August 1750~
“It’s good to be home.”
Sebastian continued his perusal of the land with a critical eye, sparing only a moment to glance at the speaker. Inclining his head, he acknowledged the youkai general before turning his attention back to the dense forest once more. “What news?”
Ben Rhodes strode up the low rise of the hill and stopped beside Sebastian. “From Nippon? Nothing, though Sesshoumaru sends his regards. The last of the miscreants who were seeking to undermine him were flushed out and dealt with. If we allow humans to forget . . .”
Sebastian nodded. “True enough. I don’t envy Sesshoumaru his task. It’s one small thing I can be thankful for. Those living here do not seem to have heard of us, so forgetting is a moot point.”
Ben sighed, loathe to broach the subject that weighed heavily on his mind. “I’ve heard whispers since my return.”
“The dissidents grow unhappier with each passing day. They blame you as their leader . . . they say that you cannot think for yourself; that you content yourself to be pulled along on Sesshoumaru’s coattails, doing whatever he bids you to do.”
“A wise man would,” Sebastian acknowledged.
“But you know this is not true.”
“To an extent, perhaps. Sesshoumaru does not dictate general policy, but his edicts cannot be ignored, either.”
Ben shook his head. “Especially not when the edict makes sense.”
“Aye,” Sebastian intoned. “This lot . . . they do not lend themselves toward violence.”
Ben cast his gaze over the forest and nodded, conceding the truth in Sebastian’s observation. “I realize that the faction tends to be civil . . . still, I cannot trust them.”
Sebastian nodded slowly, turning his full attention on the man he’d known since childhood. Ben was a couple years younger than Sebastian. Those years didn’t seem to matter. They were likeminded most of the time, and their goals were simple: to create a new place for youkai to be safe: safe to live, safe to raise their families. The panther-youkai had chosen to accompany Sebastian and Daniella when Sesshoumaru had posed the question years ago. Over two hundred years had passed since that fateful day. The sakura trees had been in full blossom in the grove where Sesshoumaru had met with Sebastian, then known by his birth name: Keijizen. “The new continent,” Sesshoumaru had said as the white-pink petals had swirled in the breeze, “needs a strong leader. You will do this.”
“I will do this,” Sebastian had agreed. There never was any hesitation.
“Perhaps you should consider bringing in extra security,” Ben suggested, his tone indicating his ambivalence to bring up the subject.
Sebastian shot him a quelling glance. “I am not a coward, Benjiro. I do not need more security.”
“It isn’t about being a coward, Keijizen,” Ben remarked acerbically. Sebastian’s reaction wasn’t unexpected. Pride and a certain level of arrogance went hand in hand with his station, he supposed. Still, it chafed him that Ben would so much as allude to the idea that Sebastian couldn’t protect his own . . . “It’s about the safety of your family. Should something happen to you or Daniella—”
“I shall not allow anything to happen to Daniella,” Sebastian cut in. “Never.”
Ben pursed his lips, his disgust at Sebastian’s obstinacy quite obvious. “Listen to reason, won’t you? I am not disagreeing that you have the ability to protect your family, but you must understand that things are different now. Whenever there is dissention, desperation is born, and that desperation can lead to impetuousness. It was not so long ago that we were running blindly, hiding from the gunfire that threatened to destroy us all.”
“Youkai do not use guns,” he countered.
“Nay . . . youkai are not supposed to use guns. That doesn’t mean that they don’t.”
Sebastian deliberated that and nodded. Ben had a point, of course. Still . . . “A challenge is forfeit if guns are employed,” he reminded Ben.
“A challenge for your position, aye. Do you think that less honorable youkai will care? You are the threat, Sebastian. You are the one who upholds the laws. If they can remove you one way or the other, will it matter if they used a gun to do it? They would not stand a chance in a real challenge; this they know. That is what makes them dangerous.”
“If I bring in more security in the guise of servants, those who seek to undermine me will believe that I am afraid.” Gaze narrowing fiercely, Sebastian glowered at the surroundings. “I fear no one—youkai, hanyou, man . . . No one. Let them come.”
“And well you shouldn’t,” Ben agreed, “but your son—your heir—he is a child. Should something happen to you or Daniella . . .”
“Then you will help to guide him.”
Ben sighed. “I will help to guide him,” he allowed.
“This faction of dissidents . . . they’ve been peaceful in their unrest,” Sebastian went on. “I do not believe that they mean to force the issue even if they do not like it.”
Ben shrugged. “The unrest amongst the humans is growing, too. Men are divided in their loyalties. Some wish to remain faithful to their motherlands while others seem to want independence from those whom they deem tyrants. I like it not . . . I would not be caught in the crossfire, and ultimately, I fear we will be.”
Sebastian nodded, understanding Ben’s concerns entirely too well. The already precarious situation could easily blow up in their faces if the situation weren’t nipped at the bud. The youkai who were tired of hiding their true natures were watching, waiting for a reason to act. The last thing that anyone needed was a careless action to exacerbate the simmering hostilities. “Their leader . . . his name is Terfoure, isn’t it?”
Ben’s gaze traversed the horizon. “Lucien Terfoure, aye.”
Sebastian propped his foot on a tree stump and shot his friend a quick glance. “Find him. Bring him to me.”
Ben sighed but inclined his head. “Consider it done.”
~21. August 1750~
Daniella hid a little smile behind the huge quilting frame. Zelig stood by the window, his little fingers curled over the base of the frame as he stared outside with a sad sort of longing in his expression. Having been ordered to stay indoors since he just couldn’t seem to remember to leave the cats alone, the boy looked absolutely inconsolable. She bit her lip and tried to ignore the pangs of guilt that usually accompanied the punishment of the child in question. She rarely had to discipline the boy, but Sebastian had an uncanny way of decreeing that the suitable punishment should be served under her guidance. She’d have to have words with him later about that . . . He wasn’t the one their son turned his pleading eyes on—eyes so very like his father’s—and he wasn’t the one who had to tell Zelig that he had to serve out his punishment, either . . .
“Tea is served, Mistress Cavendish.”
Daniella didn’t turn away from the frame to address the youkai maid. “Thank you, Trinity.” The maid bobbed in a curtsey before backing out of the room once more. Daniella stuck the long quilting needle through a small fabric swatch and carefully set it aside on the table. “Come, Zelig,” she said, rising to her feet and extending her hand to the child.
He turned away from the window reluctantly, his blue eyes somber, sad. “I don’t want tea, Mama,” he said, his voice tinged with the barest hint of a pout. “I want to go outside . . . I need to check on the family of squirrels I found yesterday.”
“Was that before or after you chased Rufus up a tree again?” she countered gently.
Zelig fell in step beside her, feet scuffing against the wooden floor. “Before,” he grumbled, dropping the subject of being allowed outside.
She ruffled his hair as she led the way to the parlor. Zelig slumped down on the smaller version of his father’s wood chair but straightened up when Daniella touched his shoulder in passing. Hers was the only cushioned seat. Sebastian had made the piece especially for her while she was pregnant with Zelig. Settling herself on the rich aubergine velvet, she carefully poured tea into the two bone china cups on the silver tray. “Here,” she said, offering the cup to her son.
Zelig took great care in handling the delicate cup. Slowly, deliberately, he took his time sipping the hot brew without spilling a drop. She smiled. Sebastian loved to tease her about her insistence that Zelig be taught proper manners.
“Forgive my late arrival,” Sebastian said as he strode through the door. Moving straight to her side, he leaned down and kissed her gently before sitting in the huge wooden chair across from his son. “I trust your morning has been uneventful?”
“Zelig and I worked a quilt,” she replied.
Zelig grimaced at Daniella’s claim. Working a quilt was a woman’s task in the child’s mind—doubtless a terrible slight—the gravest of insults.
“Worked a quilt,” Sebastian repeated. “Good.”
Daniella hid her smile behind the bone china cup in her hand as Trinity slipped into the parlor with one for Sebastian. The maid exited the room as quietly as she’d arrived while Daniella filled the cup for her mate. “I have it on the best of authority that Zelig would behave himself if he were allowed to go outside this afternoon,” she remarked.
Sebastian arched a golden eyebrow before turning his attention back to his son. “I believe the punishment was that he would remain inside all day; not simply until afternoon.”
Daniella smiled indulgently as she glanced at her son. He’d finished his tea and set the cup back on the tray and was concentrating on looking like the very image of innocence. Trying not to look overly anxious, he squeezed his hands together between his knees and carefully kept himself from looking toward the window. “As true as that may be, it is such a lovely day outside . . . Certainly one of the nicest of the season, and with winter coming . . .”
Sebastian chuckled softly, shaking his head as he drank his tea and sat back in his chair, crossing his ankles as he slowly relaxed. Something was troubling him, she could tell. They’d been together far too long for him to hide much of anything from her discerning eye. “No more treeing the cats, Zelig,” he admonished with a serious nod of his head.
Zelig nodded enthusiastically and hopped out of his chair. “I won’t,” he promised. “Thank you, Papa!”
“And mind not to get your clothes all filthy,” he called as Zelig sped from the parlor. Shaking his head in complete exasperation, Sebastian smiled despite himself. “I’d wager he didn’t hear that last part,” he grumbled.
“I don’t imagine he did,” Daniella agreed with a demure laugh. “He’ll be filthy, I don’t doubt . . . then he’ll complain about being made to take a bath.”
Sebastian sighed, nodding in agreement as his smile faded, and he rubbed his face in an infinitely weary sort of way.
Daniella stood up and slipped behind Sebastian’s chair, rubbing his shoulders in an effort to reassure him. “Is it really as bad as all that?”
Patting her hand, he heaved another sigh and leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees. “Some of the youkai in the area are growing more restless . . . I’ve ordered Ben to bring their self-proclaimed leader in. The peace is precarious, at best. If anything should happen to upset the balance . . .”
“Understood,” she agreed. “Have faith, Sebastian. What is meant to be will be.”
Grasping her hand, he tugged her around and pulled her into his lap. Wrapping his arms around her, he leaned his cheek on her forehead. “My senses tell me that something is coming,” he admitted, “a hint of something dreadful in the air.”
“Your intuition tells you many things, and you have learned to heed the signs,” she allowed. “It has made you a good man and an even better leader.”
“It’s one of the things that makes me feel older than I should,” he admitted.
“Trust in yourself, Sebastian.”
“How are you feeling?” he asked, effectively changing the subject as he carefully stroked her belly through the layers of her clothing. She was used to that, too. Sebastian hated to discuss anything at length that he thought might ultimately upset her.
“I feel fine,” she assured him with a bright smile. It would do no good to press the issue. Sebastian was entirely too stubborn that way.
“And the pup?”
Daniella laughed as she reached out to lay her hand along his cheek. “Also fine. Do you think we should tell Zelig yet?”
Grasping her hand, he took his time, kissing each of her fingers, one by one. “Aye,” he said slowly. “He’ll figure it out soon enough, himself, otherwise. That pup is much too quick.”
“I’ll leave it to your discretion,” she decided.
Sebastian nodded, softly kissing her lips as she slipped her arms around his neck. She sighed in a completely contented way, and he couldn’t help the surge of satisfaction that rippled through him. In her own quiet, gentle way, she was stronger than a thousand youkai, wasn’t she? “Care to distract me, Daniella?” he murmured.
Her laugh was shaky: husky and soft as she melted against him, as the fresh, clean scent of her deepened, darkened, called to him. “I think I could do that . . .”
~22. August 1750~
Sebastian stood at the window, gazing out at the falling shadows of night. The forest whispered in the distance as a delicate breeze ruffled the foliage. “I suppose I shall have to go find him,” he commented with a shake of his head.
Daniella smiled as she set her embroidery aside and rose to her feet. “It does seem that he loses track of time quite often,” she agreed.
“The pup’s a dreamer,” Sebastian complained though his voice lacked any real irritation.
“Is that such a terrible thing?”
Taking a moment to straighten the bit of lace that peeped out from beneath the long sleeves of his surcoat, Sebastian shook his head and shot his mate a telling glance. “Not terrible, no . . . not very practical, though.”
“He sat at the table, watching the flame on the oil lamp for better than an hour last night,” she mused. “I almost thought he was going to fall asleep there.”
Sebastian smiled, tugging the coat off and draping it over the back of a chair. “Perhaps it is good that he sees the world in such a different light.”
Daniella nodded, slipping her arms around his waist and resting her temple against his chest. “Zelig is the future, isn’t he?”
“And that future is late for supper—again.”
“I’ll fetch him,” Sebastian assured her. “Likely watching that family of squirrels.”
Letting her arms drop away from her mate, Daniella stepped back and nodded. “Do not be too harsh with him, koishii.”
He chuckled. “When am I ever truly harsh with him?”
Her knowing smile lent her a certain glow in the half-light. “Take care not to get lost, yourself.”
Sebastian stopped for a moment, unsure why he felt the sudden desire to hold her. Sparing a few seconds to hug her tight, he kissed her forehead and sighed. “I’ll bring him home, Daniella . . . Keep supper warm for me.”
He let go of her and strode toward the forest, following the vague hint of Zelig’s scent. It had been hours since the pup had taken off on one of his day-long explorations of the forest. Stopping at the line of trees that surrounded the quiet mansion, he glanced back over his shoulder in time to see Daniella lift her hand and wave. He smiled and returned the gesture before stepping into the forest.
Venturing deeper into the trees, Sebastian trailed Zelig. From what he could tell, the pup had apparently gone in search of the family of squirrels he’d been watching for the last couple of days, but he must have gotten sidetracked, which wasn’t entirely surprising. The child had a knack for watching things. Sebastian didn’t doubt for a moment that Zelig would be happiest if he didn’t have to come home, at all. Staying out for hours on end as he followed a fox or watched a beaver build a dam, he always had that inherent look of disappointment on his features whenever Sebastian found him and brought him home. During his lessons in the morning room, Zelig would sketch the animals on the expensive paper he’d been given instead of the lessons Daniella set for him. The child was a hopeless dreamer, true enough, and Sebastian . . . He sighed as he pulled the scrap of paper from the breast pocket of his vest. Smiling almost sadly as he stopped in a small clearing bathed in the last remnants of daylight, he gazed at the sketch of a family of otter—Zelig’s writing assignment from a few days ago. Stuffing the slip of paper back into his pocket once more, Sebastian sniffed the air to locate Zelig’s trail once more. He hated the idea of curbing that in his son.
The trees grew denser the further he walked. The trace amount of light that had filtered through the network of branches and leaves was gone, leaving darker shadows under the deep blackness of the heart of the forest. Zelig’s scent passed under bushes and over rocks; navigated through ravines and up steep inclines. Sebastian grinned as he followed his son’s path. Zelig was a rare child: Sebastian’s hope for tomorrow . . .
Meandering over hills and through shallow valleys that mapped the forest floor, Sebastian could only shake his head in silent disbelief. No matter how many times this particular scenario played out, it never ceased to amaze him, just how far Zelig could get on his four year-old legs in the course of a few hours.
A sudden shift in the breeze stopped him: a subtle warning that something was just not right. The flash of smiling eyes, of laughter that was carried on the wind . . . the vague feeling that she was slipping away from him . . . but why?
“Daniella . . .” he murmured, scanning the forest with a critical eye, his intuition screaming at him. Something was coming . . . something terrifying . . . Zelig was nowhere to be seen, and for the briefest of moments, he hesitated. ‘Zelig . . . Daniella . . . damn it all!’
The crack of a rifle shattered the serenity, and without a second thought, Sebastian wheeled around on his heel and sprinted back the way he’d come . . .
~22. August 1750~
Ben walked through the familiar stretch of forest beside the badger-youkai known as Lucien Terfoure. The tavern owner had come along willingly enough and seemed almost excited to have a chance to speak with Sebastian despite the initial sense of misgiving that Ben had first encountered. He’d taken the more direct route through the forest to the Terfoure’s property that was loosely adjacent to the tai-youkai’s domain instead of walking the path that branched off in the forest to lead to Terfoure’s home.
“It isn’t in our natures to hide what we are,” Lucien commented as the two strode through the trees. “Youkai are powerful creatures . . . laws unto ourselves! We do not need to be governed like a wayward gang of children. Surely you can see this, Rhodes.”
“You speak too freely,” Ben argued dryly. “You spout your ideals, your convictions, but you do so in the open. We’ve been fortunate thus far. The humans who have chanced to hear you haven’t understood what you’ve been saying. You know the edict, Terfoure, and you know you cannot go against it. To do so is treason—not against Cavendish, but against the house of Sesshoumaru. Will you dare incur his wrath? Would you really be that foolish?”
Terfoure snorted indelicately, waving off Ben’s dire warnings as little more than foppish drivel. “It is an edict that is rooted in cowardice. It is easier to ignore the problem and hide from it than to make it known that we shall not stand for such insolence.”
“And you have figured out a way to move faster than a bullet, have you?” Ben countered.
“There is no reason for humans to fear us.”
“Isn’t there? We’re stronger, faster, we live longer . . . Humanity hates what they cannot comprehend—what they cannot control. Perhaps you have no memory of those days, but I do. You were born later—removed from the darkness; the hostility. Families were destroyed because humans feared us. They bore no kindness; they showed no mercy. Women, children . . . they were all killed. With those guns came a renegade sense of power, and the indiscriminate massacres that came . . . What good is showing our true faces if we die for the privilege?”
Laughing in a rather condescending way, the badger-youkai shook his head, his smile indulgent as though he believed that Ben was simply being obtuse. “So you would have us cower in the shadows, relegated to the role of the pitiful observer while the world passes us by? I thought as much.”
“What I would have is irrelevant. Sesshoumaru is the Inu no Taisho, and as such, his word is law. You call him a coward; I call him wise. He realizes what you do not in your short-sighted views. In order to survive we must adapt.”
Lucien waved his hands dismissively, discounting everything Ben was saying with the gesture as he went on. “And I say we should stand up for who we are, come what may. My father taught me to take pride in what I am. He taught me to stand tall and to face the future with a strong resolve.”
Nodding slowly, Ben sized up the youkai before narrowing his eyes. “And your father was shot by humans, was he not? The foolish end to a foolish life.”
“My father was a great man,” Lucien cut in icily. “He died the same way he lived: standing up for what he believed in.”
“And your mother?” Ben challenged ruthlessly. “Tell me, Lucien . . . how did she die?”
“Mother was never a strong woman,” Lucien bit out. “She supported my father’s decisions. She was fine.”
“A mother who is forced to leave her children because her mate was reckless is a strong woman,” Ben argued, “and if she never voiced her unrest at leading a life cut short by ignorance, then she’s a stronger woman still, for all of it.”
“Spare me your sanctimonious drivel, Ben Rhodes. Even if you agreed with me, it would hardly befit your station, would it? You are little more than Sebastian Cavendish’s pet, aren’t you? It would truly be a shame to lose that position . . . don’t you agree?”
Stopping abruptly, Ben pivoted to pin the youkai with a fierce glower. Eyes glowing in the night, he allowed Lucien to see something that was rarely showed to anyone: the complete anger that surged in him was palpable, crackling in the air like lightning in the void. “If I disagreed with Sebastian, I would voice it, and he would listen, even if he ultimately disagreed. You whine and grovel about hiding in shadows when shadows are all that your ilk deserves. Take care not to slander yourself, Terfoure. The visions of your tainted utopia fall upon deaf ears.”
Lucien smiled—more of a grimace than a grin. Bearing his fangs, he narrowed his gaze on Ben, his patience wearing thin as the carefully constructed calm of his façade started to crack. “Tainted utopia? Interesting . . .”
Ben opened his mouth to retort. It was cut off by the single report of a rifle that echoed through the trees.
~22. August 1750~
“Mistress, there are some gentlemen here . . .”
Daniella set the shirt she’d been sewing aside and slowly got to her feet. “To see Sebastian, I take it?”
Trinity’s brown eyes looked frightened as she forced herself to nod. “Aye.”
She hurried over to the window, scowling as she pushed the curtain aside to see the assembly of youkai—easily forty, perhaps more—approaching the mansion from the forest trail that led to Boston Colony. The ragtag group seemed to ooze slowly, as though they weren’t really certain of their final destination. Shrouded in the dense shadows of the forest, they carried torches, and though she couldn’t hear their voices, she knew they were talking to one other. Stepping into the clearing, the singular entity split into branches that surged over the ground, creeping toward the mansion. Systematically scanning the forest, she pressed her palm against her belly to reassure herself. ‘What do they want?’ she wondered absently. Biting her lip, she turned away from the window and strode past the maid and down the corridor that led to the stairs. The knock on the door rang through the mansion.
Trinity gasped behind her. Daniella didn’t stop moving, descending the stairs with her chin held high and her back straight, proud. “Go to the kitchen, Trinity,” Daniella ordered. “Do not let supper burn.”
“Mistress,” the maid began.
“Do as I say.”
“. . . Yes, Mistress.”
The knock came again, and Daniella paused long enough to peer over her shoulder to make certain that the maid was doing what she was told to do. Blushing as she stopped on the threshold only to notice Daniella’s quiet appraisal, she hurried toward the kitchen at the back of the house, disappearing through the doorway that was carved through the passage underneath the thick staircase. Only then did Daniella reach for the porcelain doorknob. “May I help you?” she asked evenly, her gaze slowly shifting from one face to the next.
“Good evening, Mistress Cavendish,” the boar-youkai who had knocked stated, his voice loud enough to carry to the rest of his consorts. He seemed to be the leader—the other youkai nodding in agreement to his claim. “We’re here for Lucien Terfoure.”
“There is no one here by that name,” she replied, her gaze flicking coolly over the assembly. “I trust you shall be leaving?”
“Where is your mate?” he countered.
“He had business to attend,” she said, “though I’d wager he’ll be back presently.”
The rumbling of the gathering echoed in her ears. Unable to discern more than a word here and there, she did comprehend that the youkai didn’t believe her about the man they called Lucien Terfoure. The man glanced over his shoulder, apparently sizing up his comrades’ complaints.
A chorus of grumbles erupted in the crowd. Daniella could sense their hostility simmering just below the surface. A strange sort of glow delineated the men gathered on the broad porch of the mansion. Glancing past them as best she could, she saw some of the youkai heading into the forest. Their torches cast an eerie light as they waved them to and fro. ‘Just what are they looking for?’ she wondered.
“The forest is dry,” she said quietly. “The torches—”
“The forest is the least of our concern,” someone intoned. “Where’s the tai-youkai?”
The question passed from one man to the next as the angry crowd drew in closer. Squeezing her fist in the folds of her wide skirt, Daniella forced herself to remain where she was.
“We’ll wait to speak with your mate, then,” the boar-youkai finally remarked. “He should be able to answer our inquiries.”
“As you wish,” she replied. “If you’ll excuse me . . .”
She tried to duck back into the house. The boar-youkai smacked the door open wider and caught her wrist, dragging her out onto the porch. “Stay with us, Mistress Cavendish,” he growled in her ear. “We rather enjoy your company.”
She heard the rumble of laughter that erupted in the crowd, the underlying sense of unease as the confrontation teetered on the brink of a temerarious loss of reason. “I’d love to,” she agreed tightly, unwilling to say or do anything to upset the balance. ‘Sebastian, where are you? Hurry . . . please hurry . . .’
“If he’s here, he’s being hidden,” a gruff voice intoned. “Cavendish is hiding him.”
“Where’s Terfoure, Ma’am Cavendish?” someone else demanded.
Daniella didn’t deign to reply to them. Lifting her chin proudly, she pressed her lips together in a thin line and willed herself to remain calm.
“Cavendish’ll see reason, all right, if we have his mate,” a serpent-youkai near the front of the crowd insisted.
“Calm yourselves, boys,” the boar-youkai said in a tone that was almost mocking. “We’re peaceful . . . that’s what Terfoure wants.”
“The barn’s on fire!” someone in the back of the crowd yelled.
Daniella’s head snapped up at that. She wasn’t certain how it had happened, but the man was right. Rapidly spreading, the flames licked the perimeter of the building and started to climb the walls. The cows and horses inside screeched in fear, and she tore her arm away from the boar-youkai, darting forward a few steps, only to be dragged back once more. “What are you doing? Are you mad?” she yelled, trying in vain to regain her freedom. “The animals—”
The shrill neigh cut her off. Bursting from the stable off to the left, the hulking form of Sebastian’s horse rose high against the dim light coming from within. The beast lunged forward as he brought his hooves down, bucking against the air for one dizzying moment before he plunged headlong into the night. Galloping through the clearing, he disappeared down the singular path. In the chaos of the youkai sent scattering to avoid the spooked horse, Daniella didn’t miss the stable hands—Sebastian’s guards—slipping out of the stable and around the dusky perimeter of the clearing.
A flash of light and a deafening shot echoed in the night. She wasn’t certain who fired the weapon, but she gasped as the crowd erupted. Someone yelled, “Grab her!” as she whirled around to shut the door. The boar-youkai grabbed her arms and forced her inside. The surge of youkai pushed her deeper into the house. She stumbled over her skirt and nearly fell, only to be yanked roughly back to her feet once more.
The boar-youkai let go, and she straightened her shoulders as she crossed the floor to the base of the stairs before slowly turning to face them. “Who are you? Why do you seek this man, ‘Terfoure’?” she asked quietly.
“Terfoure’s no man: he’s youkai, and he’s our leader,” someone else said. She couldn’t see who had spoken in the ring of youkai that blocked the door.
“And why do you believe he would be here?” she continued calmly. ‘Hurry, Sebastian . . . where are you?’
“Ben Rhodes took ‘im,” someone snarled over the rising din. “Saw it, I did!”
“He is not here,” Daniella said once more.
“Just because we can’t smell him don’t mean he ain’t here,” someone else spoke up. “Let’s have a look, what say?”
A few youkai broke away from the group, striding through the house and down the long corridor that ran the length of the main floor. Smacking open doors and stopping long enough to peer inside, they were searching for their leader, weren’t they? She made herself look away, folding her hands together in front of her as she willed them not to shake. The hostility in the air choked her; a cloying thing that wrapped around her; that refused to let her go. The mob mentality was growing denser by the moment, and if Sebastian didn’t come soon, she wasn’t certain how much longer the gathered youkai would be able to hold themselves together.
A tremendous howl rose above the rising din of youkai voices. Daniella gasped, peering around bodies in time to see one of the intruders fly through the air as a brilliant burst of reddish light erupted from one of the guard’s fingertips. A blast of unnatural wind swept through the yard as blinding flashes like lightning illuminated the night. Two—no, three youkai disintegrated in quick succession, and Daniella turned her face away, her hair coming dislodged from the neat chignon secured at the nape of her neck to blow into her eyes, her mouth as a sickened lurch of her stomach nearly brought her to her knees. Pressing her knuckles to her mouth, she swallowed hard and flinched inwardly as the boar-youkai’s hand jerked her upright once more.
“They killed Maroutte,” another voice called out—louder, panicked . . . afraid. The man was staring out the window beside the door, his back trembling as he muttered something that she couldn’t catch. Some of the men turned to seek the owner of the voice as the murmurs grew louder, harsher. “And Nester . . . and Hodges . . . the tai-youkai’s henchmen! It’s a trap! A trap, I tell you! He lured us here to kill us all!”
“He did no such thing!” Daniella insisted. Her voice wouldn’t carry over the angry mob. “Please listen . . . Sebastian wouldn’t have—”
Stifling a shriek as a strong hand snaked around her arm, she jerked her head to the side in time to see the head of Sebastian’s security team—a polecat-youkai named Tarse Cartham. The normally reserved man’s gaze met her own, and she nodded once, understanding the urgency writ in his eyes. He’d come in through the kitchen, and he tugged her along the expanse of wall that led to the archway—to escape. Moving slowly to avoid drawing notice, she swallowed hard and scuffed her shoes as she willed herself not to run. The men were arguing amongst themselves as the unity of the group fell apart before her eyes. Some wanted to run; some wanted to stay, and in the rising din, they didn’t seem to notice that Daniella was slipping away. ‘Sebastian . . . Zelig . . . you’re safe, aren’t you? You’re safe . . .’
A youkai near the back of the crowd cuffed his comrade hard, sending the second man staggering back. He hit the wall, the building shaking under the force of the impact seconds before the first youkai lunged forward, drawing his claws back. Another youkai caught the aggressor, hauling him away from the still-dazed youkai. In the confusion, Daniella slipped along the wall. She was almost there; almost free . . .
“Get her! She’s getting away!” someone hollered over the din.
Tarse’s grip tightened, and he jerked her toward the passage. The wooden door that closed off the kitchen from the rest of the house wouldn’t hold the youkai back for long, but maybe it would be long enough . . .
A mighty crack erupted behind her. Daniella spared a moment to look over her shoulder. “Akinako!” Sebastian bellowed, swinging his arms, cutting down youkai without a second thought, his eyes trained solely on hers.
“Keijizen!” she screamed.
The click of a pistol being cocked to fire was lost in the rampant swell of voices and motion, but the flash of the blackened metal and the thunder of the discharge were not . . .
~22. August 1750~
Breaking out of the smoldering trees, Sebastian noticed in a disjointed sort of way that the yard before the mansion was teeming with youkai. The barn was ablaze, the charred skeleton of the building a macabre contrast to the glowing, dancing flames. Two of the five guards he employed as stable hands were fighting: two had been cut down. The blasts of air were coming fast as youkai fell in the fray. He heard a muffled voice—angry yelling that he didn’t deign to acknowledge. One thing twisted in his mind as he drew his claws back, as he whipped around to meet the combatant who had stupidly stepped into his path. He felt his fingertips slice through the youkai’s neck; felt the tendons give way as a fountain of blood shot up in the air. Bones scraped against his knuckles as liquid heat flowed over his fingers, thick and dark. The youkai’s body disintegrated seconds before his head touched the earth.
Sebastian kept moving, closing in on the house with a singular vision: Daniella, standing in the doorway, her skirts billowing around her as the gentlest breeze tossed her bangs. Daniella, lifting her hand to wave goodbye . . . ‘Daniella . . . Daniella!’
Catching a cougar-youkai by the throat, Sebastian tightened his fist, crushing the youkai’s windpipe and shoving his body away as his claws dug into the interloper’s jugular, the fine sheen of blood misting down on Sebastian’s face, his chest, his hand as he sent the unfortunate youkai flying. The youkai’s torch sailed out of his hand, end over end across the yard. It landed on a haystack near the stable, adding to the fierce glow. The blast of purple light and surge of wind propelled Sebastian toward the front door, and he lowered his shoulder, smashing it open.
“Akinako!” he bellowed, scanning the room, the blur of muted color and dulled sound. She was there, being tugged toward the kitchen doorway by Sebastian’s head of security, Tarse Cartham. Unleashing a ferocious growl, he slashed through the crowd. Bodies fell around him, and in his haste to reach Daniella, he simply didn’t care.
She stopped, face snapping to the side, her dark eyes wide as instantaneous relief surged in her aura. Her absolute belief reached out to him; her conviction that he could save her. “Keijizen!” she called out to him, stretching out her arm as Tarse continued to drag her toward the kitchen.
He heard the metallic clink of the pistol being readied to fire. Somewhere in the mass before him, he could hear it even if he couldn’t locate it. Slashing wildly, he waded through the mob, cutting down anyone who was unfortunate enough to be standing between his mate and himself.
The pistol’s report rang out in the air, silencing the din of voices. Daniella saw the pistol, her eyes flaring wide in disbelief. Wrenching her arm away from Tarse, she threw her weight against him, shoving him out of the way. “No!” Sebastian screamed, lunging forward. The bullet ripped through Daniella’s chest, throwing her back against the wall. She slumped to the floor in a pitiful heap, lying deathly still in the shocked quiet. Carting around on his heel, Sebastian’s eyes lit on the pallid face of the boar-youkai who was still holding the pistol in his trembling hands, as though his actions shocked him as much as it had the rest of the assembly. The man didn’t even think to try to reload the weapon, not that it would do any good. With an outraged cry, Sebastian shot forward, his rage consuming him. Eyes glowing fierce, crimson—the color of the blood pooling on the floor around Daniella—Sebastian slashed through the boar’s body, ripping him open from sternum to groin. Thrusting his hand into the open cavity, Sebastian jerked his entrails free, shoving him away as the dull light in the boar’s eyes faded to black.
The remaining youkai in the room didn’t even try to fight, or maybe Sebastian didn’t notice. Cutting them down, one right after another, he emptied the room as flashes of light; of fabricated wind rattled the windows and shook the walls. The more blood he drew, the more his anger escalated. ‘Akinako . . . Daniella . . . mate . . .’ Those three words echoed in his head; the words of his salvation. The rage that enveloped him didn’t lessen. Unable to discern friend from foe, he seized Tarse Cartham and heaved him away from Daniella. The youkai hit the far wall, shattering the window beside the front door before he slumped to the floor.
“D . . . Daniella . . .” he murmured, blinking as the red haze that had tinged his vision waned. Gently lifting her into his arms, he shook his head as a tiny whimper tumbled from his lips. “Akinako . . .”
She grimaced, squeezing handfuls of his blood-soaked shirt in her fists. Gasping sharply, she forced her eyes open. She looked weary—so weary, and her teeth chattered as she swallowed hard and tried to speak. “Keijizen . . .” she whispered. “Zelig . . .”
“Zelig?” he echoed, shaking his head at the mention of the name that sounded familiar to him. “Don’t speak . . . you’ll be fine,” he said, his voice breaking and shattering like a thousand shards of glass on the floor. Was he trying to convince her or himself? “Akinako . . . don’t . . .”
“Protect . . . Zelig . . .” she mumbled, her eyes slipping closed once more.
“Zelig,” he repeated again as the vague image of a child’s face solidified in his mind. “My son . . . Daniella . . .”
Her hands dropped from his shirt as she went limp in his arms. This flash of light—pale pinkish light—and the gust of wind that disintegrated her mortal body cut through Sebastian like a winter’s chill. The last thing he remembered was the peace that settled over her features, her hands dropping to cover her belly—their unborn child. Throwing his head back, he howled—the sound of inu-youkai mourning—as the lingering remains of Daniella’s body evaporated from his arms.
~22. August 1750~
‘The storm is coming, isn’t it?’
Darting through the trees on the outskirts of the forest, Zelig stumbled over a root and slipped, catching himself with a hand on the dry forest floor, he pushed himself to his feet once more and ran.
The thunder didn’t make sense, did it? There hadn’t been a cloud in the sky all day, and even now, he could see the stars through the patches of leaves so high above.
‘It’s not thunder, Zelig,’ a voice in his head whispered. ‘You know that sound . . . remember? Your father . . . he told you . . . it’s gunfire.’
An orangey fog came into view. It made no sense to him, either. The forest was full of thick, acrid smoke, hazy on the ground and glowing with an unnatural light. Coughing, eyes burning, he lifted his forearm to shield his face but kept moving. He’d lost track of time, but the worry that he’d be confined to the house had dissipated when he’d heard the first crack of gunfire. “Papa!” he called, his throat choked and raw. Stopping long enough to glance around, he shook his head and forced himself to run deeper into the smoke. Low hanging branches scratched at his face, whipping into his eyes as he batted at them with his arm. Slipping on the decaying leaves that littered the forest floor, he whimpered at the sting in his palms as he skidded over the ground. Pushing himself to his feet once more, he gingerly brushed off his hands, breaking into a sprint once more, peering over his shoulder as though he feared that the very hounds of hell were fast on his heels.
The trees lining the perimeter of the yard were engulfed in flames. Diving through a narrow gap between trees—through the miserable blackness of empty space, he landed on his shoulder and rolled to his feet. The stable was a configuration of blazing beams and supports. The fire had spread to the wooden fence that surrounded the pen where the cattle exercised during the winter and ran along the length of railing. It had almost reached the house. Strange youkai—he knew they were youkai—fought in the center of the yard. He recognized a couple of them—they worked in the stables and tended the animals.
“Find the boy!” a man yelled as he rounded the corner of the house. Gripping his arm as blood stained the pale fabric of his shirt, the youkai fell to his knees and didn’t try to rise again. The front window beside the closed door shattered. Zelig winced, stepping back once in retreat only to realize that the forest was still ablaze. “Cavendish has gone mad! Find the boy! Find the boy!”
The fiercest howl drowned out all other sound. Zelig shrank back, smashing his hands over his ears as his father’s wail consumed the forest. ‘Don’t run, Zelig!’ the voice in his head commanded. ‘You cannot be afraid. Find your father . . . he’ll know what to do!’
‘Papa . . . will know . . .’
His legs felt numb as he forced them to move, to carry him forward toward the house. The chaos surrounding him was disorienting. Darting around piles of burning hay, shielding his face from the harsh glow of the flames that reached heavenward, Zelig stumbled and ran. ‘Papa . . . Mama . . . help me!’
The howl reverberating through the clearing—through the forest and through the trees—echoed in Zelig’s head with unmerciful clarity. It was his father, wasn’t it? The sound was unlike anything he’d ever heard before, cutting him deep, hurting him, and yet he couldn’t understand why it was so.
Strong arms locked around him, hefting him off his feet and swinging him around in a compact circle. “No!” a voice hissed in his ear. “You cannot go in there!”
“Let go! Let go! Papa! Help me!” Zelig cried, his raw throat as he reacted in the most primitive way. The fierce little growl that welled up inside him spilled over as he dug his tiny claws into the man’s hands. Ripping, tearing, shredding flesh, he writhed and squirmed in a vain effort to gain his freedom. The youkai smelled like pine trees and earth . . . Zelig renewed his struggle. “Papa!”
“Stop it,” the man—a youkai—hissed. “Listen! If they hear you—”
“Let—me—go!” Zelig yelled, slashing at the youkai’s hands that were still locked around his chest. His blood covered Zelig’s fingers, and he kicked hard, fighting against the hold that was just too strong for him to break. “Where’s my papa? Let go of me!”
Hauling him a few feet toward the forest once more, the youkai tightened his arm around Zelig’s chest in an effort to hang onto the terrified child. Smashing his hand over Zelig’s mouth in an effort to quiet him, the youkai grunted as Zelig sank his teeth into the man’s hand between his thumb and index finger. Jerking his head from side to side, he tore a chunk of skin free. The man gasped but didn’t let go. Zelig spit the skin out and grimaced as the coppery taste of blood that filled his mouth and gagged him. “Into the forest, boy! Run now!”
Zelig stumbled as the arms released him—shoved him, but he ran. Peering over his shoulder as he sped toward the trees, Zelig caught a glimpse of the youkai. Standing in the center of the burning yard, he watched Zelig’s retreat. The deafening crack of collapsing timber rang in his ears as sparks shot into the night skies from the falling stable. The only thing Zelig could discern was the man’s outline—black and solid against the dancing flames, trembling in the waves of heat that rose from the flames . . . and his eyes: fathomless, empty, haunted by the things he’d seen, yet glowing so brightly that they looked like pinpoints of light in the darkness . . .
Zelig turned and barreled into the trees . . .
~22. August 1750~
Ben broke through the tree line and skidded to a halt, taking a moment to stare at the desecration of the once-beautiful land. “Kami,” he muttered in disbelief. Two of Cavendish’s guards were trying to hold their own against four attacking youkai—members of Terfoure’s regime. They were doing well enough in the midst of the rollicking flames.
“Merde,” Lucien breathed, shaking his head as he surveyed the carnage. “Where is Cavendish?”
Ben scanned the area quickly, narrowing his gaze at the figure in the center of the yard. Holding onto a wiggling bundle, the youkai was masked by the shifting flames, the image contorted by the waves of heat that radiated from the flaring land, and Ben’s eyes widened as he realized just what the stranger was holding.
“Let—me—go!” Zelig screamed, his tiny growls coming to Ben over the expanse that separated them. “Where’s my papa? Let go of me!” The youkai stumbled a few feet before throwing his hand in the air. Whether he had just struck Zelig or Zelig had hurt him, he couldn’t tell, but the motion wasn’t natural, and Ben’s eyes flashed wide as fear gripped his stomach, and he breathed deep, trying to ascertain if the man had hurt the child. He was too far away to tell.
“Zelig!” Ben hollered, running toward the flames, skirting the wall of fire as he tried to find a way through it. The boy didn’t hear him, and he kept struggling against the stronger hold.
The huge bear-youkai whispered something as he stooped down, shoving Zelig roughly. The child faltered but caught himself as he darted toward the burning forest.
A resounding crash drew his attention, and Ben whirled around in time to see Cavendish charge out of the house, his eyes glowing fierce, red. Blood stained his white shirt; his vest was ripped and ragged. Lifting his head, he seemed to be trying to find something, and with a savage growl, he dashed forward. Snarling as he reached the man who had just let Zelig go—Sebastian must have smelled his son’s scent on the youkai—he paused for a moment, his growl surging and spiraling dangerously. Moving so fast that it was hard to discern a singular motion, the tai-youkai caught the stranger by the throat, hefting him into the air. With a swat of Sebastian’s hand, the youkai was sent flying, blood arcing in the wake of his body as the irate tai-youkai lunged toward the combatants in the center of the yard.
Ben rushed forward. Cavendish was half-crazed. By the time he reached his friend, Sebastian had laid waste to the last of the men, including his own. Unable to discern friend from foe, it seemed, Sebastian was dangerously close to losing the last of his control. Ignoring the blasts of light and wind, Ben caught his arm and called out his name. Sebastian whipped around to face him, raising his hand to strike. “Don’t do it, Keijizen! Zelig needs you!” Ben yelled, and for one dizzying moment, he had to wonder if Sebastian could hear him at all.
The mention of his son’s name stopped him. The crimson staining his eyes flickered with his pulse then receded completely, leaving behind the haggard-looking eyes of the man Ben knew. “Zel . . . ig . . .” he whispered uncertainly. “Where is he?”
Ben glanced around and grimaced. “He ran back into the forest,” he replied, breaking into a fast stride as he scanned the area for Lucien Terfoure. “Damn it! Keiji . . . Terfoure was with me,” he explained, grabbing Sebastian’s arm and sprinting toward the trees where Zelig had fled, “and Zelig’s alone.”
“That bastard,” Sebastian gritted out, passing Ben as he broke through the burning trees. His sleeve caught fire, and he swatted at the flames without breaking his stride. “This is entirely his doing! Zelig!” he screamed. “Zelig!”
Ben caught Zelig’s scent and whistled. Sebastian veered back on track, cutting down trees that stood in his path in his haste to find his son.
They broke into a small clearing next to a rippling stream. Ben stopped short, grabbing at Sebastian’s arm. Sebastian shook him off and kept moving though he had slowed to a walk. There, beside the water, was Terfoure, and in his arms was an unconscious Zelig.
“Stay back!” Terfoure intoned, his voice rising, cracking as he stepped back in retreat. His eyes were wild, bright, like an animal that had been trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. The squelch of his heel in the thick mud on the water’s edge resounded in the clearing over the gentle ripple and the far away groan of the burning forest.
“You,” Sebastian growled, his voice barely audible as he strode toward the youkai. “Damn you.”
Terfoure shifted Zelig in his arms, catching the boy around his chest and grasping his neck in one hand. “Stay back,” he demanded once more. “Stay back if you value your son’s life!”
Sebastian didn’t stop stalking, the predatory shock in the air as thick as fog rolling off the ocean. Sebastian’s hatred was palpable—vile, choking. Eyes flashing red in the night, he was still precariously close to losing his mind. Ben forced himself not to act. Sebastian wouldn’t thank him for it, in any case. It was his fight, his battle, and in the end, it was his, alone, to win or lose. “You murdered my servants. You murdered my mate. You murdered me. You shall not murder my son, too.”
“Akinako . . .” Ben whispered, grimacing as Sebastian’s words sank in. In the commotion, he hadn’t even stopped to wonder why Sebastian had left his mate alone. “Daniella . . .”
“I’ll do it!” Terfoure insisted, squeezing Zelig’s neck, digging his claws in just enough to draw blood—fresh blood that lingered in the air and stopped Sebastian abruptly. “Do not be a fool!” Sparing a moment to glance at Ben, Terfoure seemed struck by a sudden inspiration. “Leave him with me!” he blurted. “I shall raise him—teach him the things you want him to know! I’ll protect him as though he were my own! I . . . I’ll do this for you . . . my liege.”
Sebastian’s growl started as a low rumble, as ominous thunder that cut through the air, gaining volume as it gained intensity. The trees swayed, the world stilled, and all the land listened for the tai-youkai’s command. “You draw his blood and say you’ll protect him? Damn you, Terfoure . . . Your dreams die with you. May you forever rot in hell.”
Extending his hand before himself, Sebastian grimaced as the blue flame grew in the center of his palm, flaring higher, brighter. The trees shook, the earth rumbled, and the water ceased to flow. The flames that had spread through the trees crackled and sizzled and died away as a terrific crack of thunder split the starry heavens wide. Heavy droplets of rain fell, unnatural rain that stifled the flames. Terfoure glanced up at the sky, his grip on the child slackening. Ben understood the youkai’s reticence. The power to invoke the rain . . . it was something that was awesome to behold. It was Daniella’s power. Somehow Sebastian had managed to harness it, at least this one time . . . or maybe Daniella had done it? The rain pelted down on them all—warm rain—soothing rain. Sebastian flicked his wrist, unleashing the ball of energy that engulfed Terfoure’s feet, growing larger, brighter as it encased his legs. The youkai howled as pain invaded—the pain of burning from the inside out. Rooted to the spot and powerless to stop the fire that raged under his skin, the youkai’s face twisted in an agonized scream. Steam rose from his body, and Ben understood. The rain protected Zelig from being scorched by the dying youkai.
Sebastian strode forward, knocked Terfoure’s hand away from Zelig’s throat before taking the child and stepping away, his expression stoic, blank—his gaze, alone, betraying the animosity that he couldn’t quite contain.
He turned away, cradling Zelig against his chest to protect him from the blast of light and wind blew the dust that was Terfoure to scatter on the breeze. The rain died down and stopped completely as the ripple of the stream returned to life. Ben bowed his head in deference to the stars so high above.
“I will take him to Sesshoumaru,” Sebastian said in the silence that followed, his voice almost toneless; defeated . . . and weary. All of his anger seemed to have dissolved—perhaps it had been washed away in Daniella’s rain.
“Keijizen . . .”
He shook his head and started to trudge back into the trees, this time heading toward Boston Colony. Turning his face to the side without faltering in his gait, he glanced at Ben out of the corner of his eye. “Walk beside me, Benjiro . . . just this one last time.”
~23. August 1750~
He was moving . . . rather, his bed was moving. His head throbbed unmercifully, and for reasons he didn’t quite understand, he didn’t want to open his eyes. “M . . . mama,” Zelig murmured, whimpered, wincing as the sound of his own voice pounded in his skull.
A tired sigh that sounded entirely too masculine to be Daniella sounded seconds before a warm hand touched his forehead. “I’m sorry, son . . . Mama’s . . .” He cleared his throat. “Mama’s not here.”
Forcing his eyes open, it took a minute to focus on his father’s face. Drawn, haggard, Sebastian’s skin was pale, ashen, and Zelig blinked, scowling at the vision of the strong man that he knew to be his father. For some reason, his papa seemed somehow diminished and infinitely sad. The windowless cabin they occupied was illuminated by a single oil lamp that was bolted to the small table. He was lying on the near side of a wide bed. Sebastian sat beside him in a thick wooden chair, his shirt draped over another chair beside the table. Scowling at the lacerations transecting his father’s broad shoulder, Zelig tried to sit up only to be forced back gently albeit firmly by his father’s shaking hands. “Papa . . .?”
“It’s all right, Zelig. You need to rest.”
Gingerly feeling the lump on Zelig’s head, Sebastian grimaced when he whimpered. “Smoke,” Zelig murmured, turning his head, seeking to escape the examination. “Fire . . .”
Sebastian grunted in response, letting his hand fall away from his son’s forehead. “Don’t think about that; you hear me? You’re safe now . . . safe . . .”
“Mama’s . . . gone?” Zelig asked, unable to grasp the implications of those words.
Sebastian sighed and nodded, his jaw ticking but his expression blank. “Mama’s gone . . .” he said softly, his voice rasping, hoarse. “She’s gone.”
“And she can’t come home?” Zelig whispered.
“No, she can’t.” Blinking rapidly, Sebastian couldn’t meet Zelig’s confused gaze, and he had to clear his throat before he could speak again. “I . . . I failed to protect her. I’m sorry, Zelig . . . I’m sorry.”
The hotness of tears prickled the back of his eyelids. He wasn’t sure exactly what his father meant, but he understood the gist of his words: Mama was gone; she couldn’t come back. He’d never see her again, would he?
‘Stop, Zelig . . . don’t cry. You’re too old to cry, remember? Your father . . . he feels bad enough. Don’t add to his sorrow by crying . . .’
Zelig screwed his face up in a concerted effort not to cry. Biting back the tears that pooled in his eyes with a viciousness that belied his age, he nodded slowly and opened his eyes, laying his hand atop his father’s. “It’s all right, Papa.”
Sebastian gazed at his son, his eyes suspiciously bright. For a moment, he tried to smile—so sad, so broken, and in that moment, Zelig somehow knew the truth. “You’ll be fine, Zelig; I promise you.”
Zelig nodded again as he let his eyes drift closed. Sleep still lingered around the edges of his mind, and in the stillness, he could hear the waves slapping against the walls. “Where are we going?” he mumbled, unable to sleep until he assuaged his curiosity.
“We’re on a ship bound for France,” he replied in a monotone. “Then I’m taking you . . . I’m taking you home.”
That didn’t make sense in his clouded brain. Home was in the forest, wasn’t it? Flames . . . flames so big that they licked the heavens; so high that they touched the stars . . . burning things as far as he could see . . . and smoke so thick that it choked him . . . Zelig flinched and forced his eyes open once more. Something terrible had happened, hadn’t it? That was the reason Mama wasn’t with them . . . He opened his mouth to ask his father, but the single tear that slipped down Sebastian’s cheek stopped him. Leaning his head back against the wall, he was staring at the ceiling without seeing a thing, but that one tear . . . Zelig closed his eyes again. Why did it hurt to see his father cry?
‘It’s because your mama’s gone,’ the voice in his head whispered gently. ‘Your papa belongs with your mama, and she’s gone . . . She’s gone.’
‘Papa . . . belongs with Mama?’
Unable to withstand the ache that those words inspired, Zelig rolled onto his side to face the wall, squeezing his eyes closed as his nose tingled, as his lip quivered . . . as two fat tears slipped from his eyes to course down his face in the silence.
~30. June 1751~
“You grew up there, Papa? In Nippon?”
Sebastian coughed weakly, nodding vaguely as he gripped the ship’s railing and willed the surge of nausea to pass. “Aye, Zelig,” he replied. “Your mama and Ben and I did.”
Zelig clamored up on the bottom rung of the railing and leaned into the wind. Now, at five years of age, the boy had become a sober, quiet child. In the nine months since they’d left Boston, it grew more and more difficult with every passing day to coax him into smiling, though Sebastian tried to do that despite his declining health.
He was barely hanging on, and he knew it. He should have been dead long ago; should have followed Daniella to the next world. The only thing keeping him going was the consuming need to see that Zelig was safe; that he’d be left in the most capable hands . . . with the one being that Sebastian knew could instill the knowledge and training that Zelig would need in the years—no, centuries—to come. He hadn’t realized how true it had been, the thought that his son would be the future.
Sebastian had stopped eating food long ago. When it became apparent that anything he ate could and would be thrown back up, he’d given up on that. Youkai didn’t need food, after all. Some survived for years without eating, but the result had been the marked loss of body mass. So thin and frail-looking that he’d often caught humans staring at him in something akin to horror, he’d started to avoid going anywhere during the day since the darkness of night offered him a semblance of cover. If it had been that, alone, he might have survived, but his physical body . . . it was decaying around him. His senses were slowly dying out, one by one. His sense of smell was nearly gone, and his eyesight was worsening by the day. His body ached as though his bones were brittle with age, and even his emotions were dulled. Sheer determination kept him moving, brought him out of bed in the morning when all he really wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep . . . but he couldn’t sleep, either. He’d found that out in the very beginning. Sleep brought on the dreams—beautiful, terrible dreams. Daniella was there in his dreams, and he . . . He never wanted to wake up from them, to face the reality and the pain that always seemed that much harsher in the thin light of the hazy mornings. It was like losing her all over again, and that pain . . . It was the worst of all. Unable to relinquish himself to the beckoning promise of seeing Daniella again, he could not let himself be dissuaded him from his solitary purpose. Zelig was relying on him, wasn’t he, and Sebastian would be damned to an eternity of hellfire before he’d fail his son, as well.
They’d traveled across most of Europe and Asia via Sebastian’s energy form with Zelig tucked carefully against his chest, but had to abandon that method when his stamina started to wane. Luckily, they’d been able to find a ship heading to the Orient out of Bombay. The last leg of their journey was taking its toll on him, too. Unable to leave the cabin for days on end because he was just too weak to summon the strength necessary to climb the stairs to the deck above, it had taken much of Sebastian’s waning strength and sheer determination when the child had reluctantly asked to go above.
“I can go alone, Papa,” Zelig had insisted stubbornly.
Sebastian shook his head, unwilling to let his son out of his sight for any length of time. “Bring my boots, Zelig,” he’d finally said.
The pup had gazed upon his father with an expression full of dubious hope. That was enough to goad Sebastian out of bed and up the stairs to watch as Zelig basked in the early summer sunshine.
If the child noticed his father’s declining heath, he never remarked on it. Spending hours upon hours sketching quietly in the thick book that Sebastian had bought for him in Bombay, Zelig chronicled their journey in images of the animals, mostly in families, and landscapes they’d seen. Never did he sketch a face; not once did he draw a person. Whether that was a conscious decision or just a coincidence, Sebastian wasn’t certain.
“Did Sesshoumaru train you, Papa?”
Sebastian smiled wanly. ‘Zelig is being extraordinarily talkative today . . .’ he mused to himself. “Nay, Zelig, he did not, but I believe he will do well with you. Mind what he tells you and do your best.”
“Aye, sir,” Zelig answered seriously.
“You’ll be fine,” Sebastian assured him.
Zelig’s blue eyes shone with the sunlight reflecting off the ocean. “Then I’ll go back to Boston? I’ll be the tai-youkai . . .”
Sebastian grimaced as memories nipped at his precarious calm. The child didn’t see it. “You’ll be the tai-youkai, but you need not return to Boston. Pick another city, Zelig—wherever you want to be. Ben will be waiting for you.”
Zelig nodded slowly, his eyebrows drawing together in a marked scowl. “Will I . . . will I see you again, Papa?”
Sebastian sighed. He’d seen that question in his son’s eyes far too often over the last nine months. The time had come, he supposed. Keeping the truth from him; telling him a bald-faced lie . . . that wasn’t going to help Zelig in the end. He only wished he didn’t have to teach his son this particular lesson. “Not in your lifetime, son.”
Zelig absorbed that statement in his own quiet way, shifting his gaze back over the water as the breeze blowing off the ocean ruffled his hair. “Because Mama’s alone, right? Because Mama needs you.”
Closing his eyes against the pragmatic tone in Zelig’s young voice, Sebastian willed away the ache in his chest. It was the first time since the morning when he’d had to tell Zelig that she was gone that the child had mentioned his mother, and Sebastian realized with a sharp pang that the boy knew far more than he had ever let on. “Aye,” he rasped out, clutching the collar of his shirt so tightly his knuckles turned white. “Mama needs me.”
“And I’ll be all right because you’re taking me to Sesshoumaru,” Zelig went on as he bounced on the railing, “so you won’t have to worry about me, Papa . . . I’ll be as strong as you one day.”
How was it that his young son could lend him strength when his own faltered? Smiling sadly, Sebastian ruffled Zelig’s golden bronze hair, turning his face up toward the heavens so that Zelig wouldn’t discern the tell-tale brightness that was gathering in his eyes. “You already are,” he replied in a whisper. “You already are.”
~30. July 1751~
Sebastian sighed as he gripped the fountain pen in his trembling hand. The oil lamp on the table burned low, and it was difficult to keep his eyes trained on the paper, but he didn’t have much time left. Too many things needed to be said; too many things needed to be explained, and time was of the essence now. Time . . .
Hunching his shoulders, resting his forearms on the table, he refreshed his grip on the pen and tried to keep his fingers from shaking. The questions kept tumbling over themselves in his head; the same questions he’d asked himself time and again. Had he taught Zelig everything he wanted to teach him? Had he imparted the knowledge so that his son would understand? Would Zelig be able to find his place in the world without the mother and father that he deserved? How could Zelig ever forgive Sebastian for leaving him completely alone . . .?
‘30. July 1751.’
‘We have almost reached our destination. While I have not seen the sky or the ocean for myself in days, I feel it coming closer: the land of our rising sun. I wished to thank you, my friend. Your years of devotion weigh heavily on my heart these last days, for I never got the chance to thank you. There were so many times I should have said as much. Forgive my oversight, I beg you.
‘As the interim tai-youkai in this time and in that place, I know that you will endure where I have failed, and I know that you shall prepare the way for Zelig. I have tried these last months, to instill the beliefs that he needs. More often of late, I feel like a hypocrite, telling him to look to himself for strength—to trust in his own heart and in his own intuition for the guidance that I, myself, seem to have lost. I’ve told him to keep his word when he makes it. I’ve advised him never to give his word lightly. I’ve taught him that fairness and compassion should stand firm against those things that would be simpler to achieve in less upstanding of ways. I have implored him not to trust too freely, but to give trust freely when it is earned. Yet I fear that in all my lessons, the one lesson I cannot impart him is the one that he truly needs to know: there is beauty in the misting skies of dawn, beauty in a child’s smile. There is beauty to be found in the eyes of those who look to you for strength, and there is beauty in the quiet rise of the moon. I shall entrust you with this lesson, Benjiro, for I am now blinded to the vitality of color, and I cannot remember the swelling of hope that used to fill me when I observed the rising dawn. Precious little emotion is afforded me of late, and the emotion I do possess is devoted entirely to Zelig.
‘You must help to guide him, Ben. I trust in your oath that you will never leave him. Those words—your vow—they ring in my mind, offering me a semblance of strength to see my last task through. You promised that you would aide him in whatever capacity he requires, and I trust you. Aye, I trust you.’
Pausing to refill the fountain pen from the inkwell weighted to the table, it took some minutes for Sebastian’s clumsy fingers to complete the task as a fine sheen of sweat broke over his forehead. A surge of nausea swept through him, vertigo so strong that he had to close his eyes to keep from slipping from his chair. Digging his claws into the table’s smooth surface, he swallowed hard, drawing a deep breath as he willed the cabin to stop spinning.
Clearing his throat, he opened his eyes, sparing a moment to glance at his son before pushing himself to his feet and shuffling across the tiny cabin to touch Zelig’s bangs—hair so soft and so fine it reminded him of Daniella’s hair. Huddled under the thin blanket on the bed with Sebastian’s Mokomoko-sama wrapped around him, Zelig soundly slept. Ben had the presence of mind to return to the house long enough to find both Zelig’s as well as Sebastian’s furs. Sebastian had meant to head out before Ben returned, but in the end, he sat on a rock with Zelig nestled against his chest and waited for Ben in the darkness. ‘Forgive me, Zelig,’ he thought with a grimace. ‘It wasn’t . . . supposed to be this way . . .’
Stumbling back to the table, he shook his head to dispel the weariness—the dizziness—that never seemed very far away. Dropping heavily into the chair once more, he flexed his fingers and slowly, carefully took up the pen once more.
‘Zelig still sees the world through the eyes of a child, yet I fear that his vision is tainted. Though his nightmares come less frequently now, he does not comprehend that which he has seen. If he has ever cried, I know it not. To have never mourned the loss of his mother . . . for my sake. I sought to tell him that it was not a sign of weakness. I wanted him to know that Daniella loved him; that I love him still. Looking into his serious eyes, I find that I cannot do it. He does not remember much of that night. He seems to have forgotten, and perchance that is for the best. What good could come of that, I ask you? Dwelling on things lost along the way . . . It is the path of the fool.
‘If this is to be my final confession, then let it be known: I failed Daniella. I failed Zelig. I failed you, and I failed myself: the one vow I made that I could not keep: the oath I swore to protect her. In my miscalculation, I cost Zelig not only his mother but his unborn sibling, as well. They could have comforted one another, and Zelig wouldn’t have been left alone in the end. I damn myself for that. I’ve damned myself for many things. There is only one thing that keeps me going. I must not fail Zelig in this. He will live, and he will overcome, and I swear on all that is holy that he will not repeat my mistakes. It is my singular resolve to see this through. I leave it to you; in your capable hands. You will not falter where I have failed, and Zelig will live to see a new day. To look upon the rising sun with a smile . . . to see his own children thrive and flourish . . . that is my unspoken vow: to ensure that he carries on.
‘The daylight faded long ago. I sit in the darkness, afraid to sleep, afraid to dream. There is no comfort in anything; not for me. In rejoining Akinako, I shall be abandoning Zelig, and the irony of it all stands out in my mind. Perhaps this is the real punishment for having failed her. Perhaps this is the damnation that I truly deserve. I grow infinitely weary, and like a coward, I look to my son to lend me strength. When I open my eyes to face the new day, it is with the knowledge that my moments are limited. Still I selfishly drink in every detail I can: memories of Zelig in this time that I have stolen. Daniella might want to know, after all. I owe her that much. I owe her so much more.
‘The cabin boy who brings our meals has told me that we shall be at our destination within the week. It seems so short, and yet it seems like ages, too. Thank you, my friend. I owe you so much. You have walked beside me so many times through the years. The only thing I can leave you is my most precious achievement. Guide him as his father would have had he not been such a foolish man. Walk beside him as you have walked beside me. Advise him when he asks your opinion; lead him when he falters. Of all the things that have brought me shame, Zelig, alone, has not.
‘I close this now with one last plea. Do not let Zelig lose the qualities that make him shine. The way he sees the world is remarkable, and perhaps a dreamer can endure where the more pragmatic man has failed.
Heaving a sigh as he dropped the fountain pen once more, Sebastian pulled the scrap of paper—Zelig’s sketch—from his pocket before pulling the perforated tin cover from the oil lamp. Carefully rolling the papers together, he held them in one hand as he melted a stick of sealing wax over the lamp’s flame. It only took a moment to smear the wax on the seam of paper. He sealed it closed with his signet ring: the seal of the tai-youkai. Slouching back, he frowned at the ring. It didn’t fit his finger any longer. It hadn’t fit his finger in months. Slipping it into his pocket, he sighed, rubbing his temple with a trembling hand. Zelig’s seal would be slightly different. He would have his own signet ring when the time came. This one . . . he should return it to the one who had bestowed on him the blessing—and the curse.
Grimacing as another wave of vertigo threatened to consume him, he breathed slowly, willing it to pass. His youki was diminishing fast. He could scarcely hear the voice in his head anymore. When it stopped whispering, it would all end. When it stopped whispering, he could sleep . . .
~7. August 1751~
Sebastian trudged along the dirt path that led through the forest on the outskirts of Edo. Zelig had been curiously quiet since they’d arrived. Maybe he sensed that everything that he had ever really known was changing. Things had changed in the centuries since Sebastian had left his motherland—more people . . . new villages, and even Edo, itself—and yet the overall feel was familiar, welcoming him home with every whisper on the wind.
Sparing a glance at his five year-old son, Sebastian blinked back the moisture gathering in his eyes. Zelig’s hair had grown longer in the year since that fateful night. The journey that had carried them both from one side of the world to the other was nearly completed, and the child knew, didn’t he?
As though he sensed his father’s turbulent thoughts, Zelig slipped his hand into Sebastian’s . . . or maybe that wasn’t really the reason, at all. His little fingers trembled, his palm cold and clammy in Sebastian’s dry grip. He was frightened, wasn’t he? Afraid of being left alone . . . The surge of righteous indignation slammed through Sebastian: the strongest emotion he’d felt in weeks. Zelig was too young to feel such fear; much too young to be made to understand that some things could not be changed, no matter how badly he wished they could be . . .
“I’ll be good, and I’ll work hard,” Zelig finally said, his face grave, solemn. “I’ll be tai-youkai like you.
“You will, no doubt, be a better tai-youkai than I ever was,” Sebastian intoned, careful to keep his tone even. “You’ll be stronger and fairer because you know what you are destined to be from the start.”
“Will I be big like you when I grow up, Papa?”
Sebastian managed a thin smile. “Bigger, I’ll wager.”
“No one is bigger than you,” Zelig argued dubiously.
Sebastian chuckled, seeing the irony in his son’s candid claim. Perhaps he used to be big. He’d wasted away, though, to a mere shadow of his former self, and not for the first time, he had to wonder if Sesshoumaru would recognize him on sight. Worse yet was the underlying knowledge that Daniella’s scent was fading from him. Sometimes in the night when Zelig would start awake from his nightmares, he’d stare at Sebastian as though his father were a stranger, and even though Sebastian’s sense of smell was nearly gone, he’d realized the truth from the look on Zelig’s face as the pup struggled to understand that the skeleton of a man who tried his best to comfort him really was the same father he’d always known.
Veering off the path, Sebastian sank down on a fallen tree. He needed a moment to regain his strength, and he drew a few shallow breaths—deeper ones always resulted in fits of coughing. Zelig scrambled up to sit beside him, his shoulders slumping as he stared at his little hands. Sebastian had paid a villager to deliver the scant luggage they had to Sesshoumaru’s home. They carried nothing with them, and maybe it was better that way.
‘Just a little further,’ he told himself. ‘We’re almost there . . . almost there . . .’
“Your mother grew up not far from here,” Sebastian said quietly as he lifted his gaze to the trees. “A little north . . . a little toward the west in a tiny village . . . I’ve . . . forgotten the name . . .”
A sad expression passed over Zelig’s features. He scrunched up his shoulders and let them drop. “Do you think Rufus is all right?” he ventured at length to ask.
Sebastian blinked quickly, willing the surrounding forest to come into focus once more. “Rufus?”
“He was just a stupid cat,” Zelig grumbled just before his face contorted, just before the smallest of whimpers escaped him. “Why didn’t we bring him with us?”
“I’m certain Ben’s taking care of Rufus,” Sebastian mused rather absently, forcing himself back to his feet. His strength was ebbing fast. If he didn’t get moving, he wouldn’t be able to do it at all. He had to get Zelig to Sesshoumaru. “Come.”
Zelig sighed but did as he was told, scuffing his shoes in the dirt as the two stepped back onto the path. They walked on in silence for a time. Sebastian reached down and took Zelig’s hand again. The boy shot him a curious glance but didn’t speak.
He could feel his body shutting down. As though it realized that the journey was nearly over, the struggle to draw breath made him slow his gait as a cold sweat broke over his forehead. It took all his concentration to keep moving. The trees slid in and out of focus before his eyes. Zelig, alone, seemed bright, clear, and Sebastian stumbled slightly as a fierce need to hold the boy shot through him. Without a second thought, he stooped down, scooping the child up in his arms. Zelig, who always insisted that he was a big boy, didn’t complain at all. Letting his temple fall against his father’s shoulder, he seemed to understand that he was somehow lending his father a measure of strength, deepening Sebastian’s already unwavering resolve.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d kissed Zelig’s cheek, couldn’t remember the downy softness of his skin. Pressing his lips to his son’s forehead, Sebastian closed his eyes against the wash of moisture that clouded his vision for a precious moment before moving on once more.
The trees thinned around them, and he stepped into the hazy sunlight of the early evening sky. The house—more of a castle, really—loomed before him, standing tall, majestic against the backdrop of trees. The gates stood open wide, and he walked through. The guards near the walls nodded as he passed. He couldn’t rightly make out any faces and wasn’t certain he’d recognize anyone, anyway. Garnering curious glances from the few youkai assembled in the yard, Sebastian ignored them all, shuffling toward the porch that ran around the perimeter of the edifice.
The doors slid open, and Sesshoumaru stepped outside. Sebastian thought that he could see the Inu no Taisho’s mate slip out to stand behind Sesshoumaru, but he couldn’t be certain. The hazy, dreamlike quality of his thoughts, of his actions precluded a deeper sense of reality as he tightened his hold on the boy in his arms.
Sesshoumaru’s eyes lit with recognition even before the hint of shock entered his gaze. Sebastian bowed his head slightly, refusing to relinquish his hold on his son. When he lifted his chin, he saw the understanding in the depths of Sesshoumaru’s stare. “Leave us,” Sesshoumaru called out, eyes sweeping over the grounds. Sebastian smoothed Zelig’s hair, ignoring the rustle of movement behind them. Zelig didn’t open his eyes. “So it has come to this,” he said at last, breaking the silence that rang in Sebastian’s ears.
“I ask that you teach him the things he needs to know,” Sebastian stated, clearing his throat, unable to keep his words from slurring the tiniest bit.
Sesshoumaru let his eyes fall to the child. Zelig finally looked around, lifting his head from his father’s shoulder. Golden gaze narrowing as he assessed the boy, he nodded once as his eyes flicked back to meet Sebastian’s. “He knows all that he needs to know.”
Sebastian swallowed hard. “Then . . . then train him so that he can protect himself and what is rightfully his. Do this for me.” Digging the signet ring out of his pocket, he dropped it into the Inu no Taisho’s hand. “Do this because I . . . cannot.”
Sesshoumaru nodded once. “You have my word, Keijizen.”
Sebastian shook his head and quickly dashed a hand over his eyes. The line of his vision was dimming too fast. Fumbling for his pocket, he handed Sesshoumaru the scrolled papers—the letter he’d written to Ben. “See that Ben gets this?”
Sesshoumaru nodded again, accepting the scroll with a steady hand. “It shall be done.”
Sebastian licked his lips, hugged Zelig tight, if only just for the moment. Zelig clung to him, uttering a choked sob. His little body stiffened, and he pushed his head under Sebastian’s chin, seeking the comfort of his remaining parent in a primitive sort of way—the actions of a desperate child who didn’t understand what he pretended to know. Sebastian kissed Zelig’s cheek, willing his son to know how very much he was loved. The wind gathered in his ears; loud, wailing . . . a hundred-thousand voices of the ones who had gone before called to Sebastian, and he forced himself to let go. Time was precious, wasn’t it? He had to hurry . . .
Setting the child back on his feet, he knelt down stiffly, lifting Zelig’s chin with a spindly finger. “Be strong, Zelig. I am so very proud of you.”
Zelig nodded, blue eyes sparkling like diamonds in the sun. The unshed tears pooled in his eyes but didn’t spill over. “I’m proud of you, too, Papa,” he said.
Sebastian choked back a sob, opting instead to force a smile. Zelig returned the half-hearted expression. Shifting his gaze over his son’s head to Sesshoumaru, Sebastian nodded again. “Thank you.”
“Don’t go, Papa . . . I’ll be good,” Zelig whimpered, throwing his arms around Sebastian’s neck as a choked little sob slipped from him. “I won’t tree the cats, I promise! I . . . promise . . .”
“Zelig . . .” Sebastian whispered as words failed him.
Two delicate hands gripped Zelig’s shoulders. The child jerked his body in an effort to dislodge the hands, and Sebastian lifted his gaze in a disjointed effort to see who was seeking to interfere. Sesshoumaru’s mate, Kagura frowned, her eyebrows furrowing as she shot Sebastian a helpless sort of look; a pathetic little shake of her head, and maybe in that moment, she felt as helpless as he did. “Please, Papa,” Zelig begged.
Gently pushing Zelig back, Sebastian cleared his throat gruffly. His vision cleared for a moment as he stared at his son, drinking in all the details of the adult’s eyes carefully masked in the disguise of a child’s face. “Your mother . . . she . . . loved you,” he rasped out, cupping Zelig’s cheeks in his hands, “and I . . . I do, as well.”
Shoving himself to his feet, he turned on his heel and strode away. He didn’t dare look back. Trusting that Sesshoumaru would keep Zelig from following him, he stumbled through the gates of the manor and along the path that led into the forest . . . Clouds still drifted high overhead; birds still sang in the trees, but his perception of his surroundings was disoriented, skewed. Unable to reconcile himself to the idea that his journey really could come to an end, Sebastian scratched the side of his head in silent confusion . . . In the long run, the passing of a solitary life would mean nothing, would it? In the end, he would just . . . fade away.
Veering off the path and into the forest, he collapsed beneath an old magnolia tree. Breathing harsh and labored, he managed to push himself up against the stout tree trunk. His arms felt heavy, leaden, and the world around him dimmed.
He’d done it, hadn’t he? He’d delivered Zelig to Sesshoumaru. Zelig would be safe, and he’d be strong, and above all, he would survive. Mouth slackening as he struggled to breathe, he blinked rapidly in a vain effort to clear his vision. A bright pinkish light sparked to life before him, slowly growing larger as wind whipped his hair into his face. A slender hand reached out of the light, delicate fingers extending toward him. A familiar scent surrounded him, and with the last of his waning strength, he reached out to her.
‘Akinako,’ he thought weakly, his fingertips slipping through the misty vision. His fingers took on a hazy glow, and when he reached toward her for the second time, their fingers locked as the gentlest whisper of her laughter filled the aching void that had surrounded him for far too long. A foreign sound filled his head. It took a moment for him to recognize it. He was laughing, wasn’t he? Laughing with her because she was laughing, too . . . ‘Daniella . . . I’m . . . coming home . . .’
Sebastian hadn’t noticed the solitary figure standing in the shadows of the falling night. The youkai didn’t blink as the wind ripped through the forest, and he didn’t flinch at the blinding light that exploded under the branches of the ancient magnolia tree. The dust that rose in the air seemed to swirl in place, hovering just above the ground. In the midst of the unnatural wind, the vague outline of a silvery form seemed to rise to its feet to stand before another—this one gauzier, foggier. The two forms joined hands; the smaller form rising up as the taller one leaned down. The shape of the two lovers silhouetted in the vortex of the billowing wind—wind that sounded like laughter . . . Distorted by the whirling gale, the image dissolved beneath the cover of a flash of blinding light.
Bowing his head just slightly, acknowledging the life that had passed from this realm into the next, Sesshoumaru stood in silence for a long moment before slowly turning and walking toward the gates of his home.
May 5, 2006.
Keijizen: (Keiji: “Governs with discretion”; zen: “good; virtuous” … Governs with virtuous discretion) Sebastian Cavendish’s Japanese name. He changed it to Sebastian shortly after arriving in Boston in 1546.
Akinako: (Akina: “Spring flower”; -ko “child” … Child of the Spring Flowers) Daniella Cavendish’s Japanese name. She changed it to Daniella shortly after arriving in Boston in 1546.
Zelig: young Cain Zelig.
Koishii: Japanese term of endearment.
Benjiro: (“Enjoy peace”). Ben Rhodes would later come to be known as Ben Philips and would change his name to Benjamin.
Edo: Tokyo, at that time.
Youki: magical energy.
== == == == == == == == == ==
Final Thought from Sebastian:
He will be stronger than me …
Blanket disclaimer for Revolution: I do not claim any rights to InuYasha or the characters associated with the anime/manga. Those rights belong to Rumiko Takahashi, et al. I do offer my thanks to her for creating such vivid characters for me to terrorize.