Chasing Threads

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chapter five

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holy days and opportunities

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Aya stared out of the attic window, looking down on the garden and the few people gathered outside, enjoying its beauty. Beyond the red brick walls of the Koneko, the streets were busy with people going quickly about their way, either to buy goods or to get to another part of the city for whatever reason motivated them to be outside for the day. If it were not for a certain wizard, he could be out there with them beneath the overcast sky, running errands for Jo or seeing if there were new books to purchase, or maybe even just walking about to enjoy a sense of freedom that had been beyond him less than two years ago.

<You are a shinigami and so nothing should tie you down, young one. Even the gods acknowledge our freedom,> one of the shinigami that whirled around the darkened library crooned, its brethren picking up the familiar litany and echoing it as well.

"I only allow the things I want to tie me down now," he reminded them with a bit of annoyance, his voice slipping into sibilance as there was nothing to keep his manner ‘human’ at the time being. "I stay here because I want to."

<You stay here because of the golden one.> The shinigami’s voices became discordant as they mentioned Yohji. <How cruel the golden ones are, such chains they have become. Restraints, preying on your emotions. Binding you with love and oaths.>

"Yohji is *nothing* like Rufus." Aya spun away from the window to face the shinigami, his right hand lifting to throw the book he held in it before he caught himself. He forced himself to take a deep breath and calm his temper before he responded. "I keep *telling* you, I’m bound to him by my own choice and will *never* break that bond. And to keep him safe, I remain here." He put as much conviction into the words as he could, well aware that he never had much luck in convincing people of his emotions when required to speak about them. "He’s not forcing me to do anything," he finished with a whisper, his thoughts on his mate and how Yohji was doing his best to leave this choice to him.

For once, the shinigami seemed somewhat mollified. <Your golden one may not be binding you with oaths and orders but with emotions instead, much kinder he is.> Two of them whirled closer to brush against Aya, to comb near insubstantial fingers through his hair and to touch his left cheek. <Reno….>

"I know." Aya set the book down on the nearest table before he did end up throwing it, though the preferred target was sadly absent. "I tried to talk to Rufus when he was last here, but it… didn’t go well." That was somewhat of an understatement, as Yohji would say. In fact, Yohji had to hold him back at the end of their ‘discussion’, as Aya had been ready to beat sense into Rufus with his bare hands when the stubborn soul gaki bound had continued to insist that he knew what was best for Reno and would not listen to any advice. Only the fact that whatever pain Rufus suffered would be inflicted on Reno as well was what stayed Aya’s hand in the end – and he suspected Yohji’s as well.

While Aya was certain that he and Yohji would still have a few fights over each other being too ‘controlling’ or ‘high-handed’ when it came to protecting each other, they had each made impressive strides in doing their best to recognize the overwhelming need to keep each other safe and to balance that out with the fact that they were both intelligent, strong, talented adults who could look after themselves… within certain limits. This recent trouble with Garcia was the perfect example of that; Yohji had not once insisted that Aya remain inside the Koneko at all times, but had only asked that he stay at the inn. Rufus, on the other hand, was still ordering Reno about and showed no signs of flexibility when it came to his mate or recognizing Reno’s talents. "He’s doing what he thinks best to protect him." Even as he tried to explain the idiotic man’s actions to the shinigami, he could not quite make his tone sound as convincing as it should.

<He’s as possessive as a flesh gaki bound over a fresh carcass, he is,> hissed one of the shinigami. <Curses us, he does. Tells Reno to ignore us and focus only on him. Foolish bound, to think he could ever take *our* place.>

Aya sighed as he rubbed his temples. "Let’s just say we all agree that Rufus Shinra is a fool. Unfortunately, he’s also Reno’s mate so there’s little we can do." Ah well, at least while they were busy insulting Rufus, they left Yohji alone. He had to admit that it was nice to have the shinigami focus their venom on someone other than his mate for once, and the fact that Rufus deserved it only made it that much sweeter.

<Break the->

"*NO*!" Aya hissed the words with such vehemence that his throat ached. He knew the shinigami were about to suggest that Reno could break the bond between him and Rufus, and considering that it had been one that had been forced on the dubhach by accident, he was afraid that it just might be possible. From the little that he could tell, all that kept Reno some-what sane and still alive was Rufus, and losing the bond between them would mean that Reno would finally succeed in killing himself. "Do *not* suggest that again!" He had too few friends as it was and felt pain at the thought of losing any of them; he was uncertain if Reno’s death at suicide would mean he would vanish forever or would appear as a shinigami.

The shinigami were quiet for several minutes, leaving time for Aya to gather his composure and resume shelving books. He had just finished with a stack when they once again began to whirl around him. <Know you what day it is?>

He smiled a little as he reached out to stroke one of the shadows that twirled in front of him, prompting a hiss of pleasure from the shinigami. "Yes, it’s your day, sort of. Though these days it’s officially celebrated as one of the days honoring Kisei."

<Yes, young one. Long ago, many offerings were left to us,> the shinigami crooned as they spun around him, touching his face, hair and shoulders in soft caresses that soothed a part of him that ached with a subtle loneliness he never really noticed until they were near. <We still remember the day.>

Aya returned the caresses as much as he could, a sad smile on his face as he stared off at nothing. A day when long ago the shinigami had been honored and worshipped and now…. Now, the shinigami were mostly feared, thanks to Ban and his descendants, two of which were for all intents and purposes confined to their homes. Aya played with his books while Yohji had gone off to negotiate some new liquor licenses, and Reno was stuck at a lavish mansion that he probably considered little better than a prison while Rufus went to the Palace and treated him like a child. How the ‘mighty’ had fallen. So many people feared them for the destruction that they could cause, and their mates….

Well, to be truthful, Yohji treated Aya with respect, yet the same could not be said for Reno. "He’s a prideful idiot," Aya snarled as he thought of Rufus.

<Those with human souls can never understand us. You should be free, young one. Nothing should bind you, not even love.>

"You would have me trade the love I feel for Yohji for the love between shinigami. It’s… not quite the same," he tried to explain to them for what had to be the hundredth time. That love… it had kept him ‘tied’ to humanity when it had been focused on Aya-chan, and it did the same now that it tied him to Yohji. As much as human emotions and thoughts confused him, Yohji made him whole and happy. "I’ll never let him go."

<So foolish, young one. May you never regret your choice in your golden one,> they chided him.

"I won’t."

Perhaps they sensed his conviction, because they fell silent again for a short while. Aya put away a few more books before drifting back to the window. Such a shame that he was stuck inside for the day, because the sky was a wonderful grey hue of endless clouds.

Yohji had left in the morning to accompany Mickey as they went to various liquor vendors to re-negotiate the licenses necessary for the inn’s alcohol. Yohji’s presence should ensure a ‘favorable’ outcome of those negotiations, between his intelligence, skill at bargaining after having done so from a young age and his succubae nature. At first he had been reluctant to leave the Koneko for so long, but Mickey did need his assistance and so far, there was little to indicate that Garcia would come anywhere near the Koneko.

It had been almost two weeks and there was no sign of the wizard. Aya’s eyes narrowed with annoyance, causing the shadows around him to writhe in response to his turbulent emotions. Not only had Crawford taken to avoiding the Koneko, but so had Schuldig and Masato on the off-chance that Aya and Yohji’s presence were somehow affecting Crawford’s ability to predict the future. Even Cassandra had offered her apologies and stayed away the last few days, all in hopes that she would better be able to see the wizard’s actions if she avoided those with shinigami blood or ties. Yohji had been a bit upset and Aya got the impression that he should be, too, but all he cared about was Garcia being found and his freedom, such as it was, being restored. He was starting to grow hungry and very bored.

He was also growing rather worried about Reno. His friend had seemed less ‘unified’ during his last two visits to the Koneko, his human and shinigami souls in conflict. Aya knew from past experiences that such an occurrence usually led to Reno doing something self-harming and possibly suicidal. Why Rufus could not see that…. He shook his head to try to clear his thoughts. In the end, Reno and Rufus led their own lives and were responsible for themselves. He would lend them whatever support that he could, but they had to make their own decisions and deal with the consequences of their actions. In the end, he had enough problems with his own life, with all the obligations that came with the relationships that he had developed in the past few years and the responsibilities he was sworn to see through.

For a moment, he was tempted to climb through the window, jump down to the ground and race through the city. Garcia would never notice him if he remained cloaked in shadows; the main reason he stayed at the Koneko was to protect Yohji. If he went out by himself, he and his mate should be safe. Part of him craved for the freedom, to use his talent and prowl through the city unobserved by any humans and bounds. What was the harm in being true to his nature?

He leaned against a bookshelf and growled softly under his breath. Schuldig and Masato *better* find Garcia soon. He understood that it was a big city and the wizard was doing his best to go about it unnoticed, but his patience was coming to an end. Also, Reno was unable to handle being so restricted for much longer and still retain any union between his souls.

Not for the first time, Aya wished that he and Reno were allowed to hunt for the wizard. He understood why they were held back from doing so, and they were good reasons. Yet he still felt that perhaps that Garcia would be found already if he and Reno could use their talents and look for the man, to search out his magic and taint of death. If it were not for Yohji and Rufus, it would be safe to do so. He sighed and went over to one of the chairs and sat down, confused at how bonds could both reassure and constrain him, keep him centered yet hold him back. At times, he understood why the shinigami urged him to ‘free’ himself from his mate, even if it was an action he would never willingly undertake. As much as being with the shinigami eased an ache that being around humans or even other bounds could never appease, Yohji made him whole. He just longed for a day when there would be less obligations and restraints on the two of them, when they would be free to enjoy each other without all these annoyances.

Unfortunately, he doubted that would happen any time soon. Maybe after the war he would get his wish, but until then, he would have to suffer through such constraints. He thought back on how his life had been before he had arrived at the Koneko and knew he would be able to accept it, that such ‘annoyances’ would be endured. In the end, Yohji would make everything worthwhile.

*******

Reno paced along the small bridge, his hands clenched around his ponytail as he fought to control his temper. Yet again, Rufus had left him at home and gone off to the palace to play senseless games at Court, taking Tseng and Elena with him. Rod and Cyril had been left to ‘keep an eye on’ Reno since Rude’s knowledge of the city was needed to run an errand for the controlling, manipulative bastard Reno had the misfortune to be mated to until he died.

Sparks sizzled around his hands as he hissed in fury at the thought that everyone else got to go outside the mansion’s walls, that they could be trusted with important work while he slowly went insane with boredom. Oh, wait, he had been snidely informed just the other night that he was utterly lacking any sanity to begin with, so how could he go any more insane? He hissed in displeasure as he cast out sparks over the koi pond.

<So cruel he is to you, the golden one. Free you should be, free of all ties, free of all bonds but that between your own kind.>

"It must be a damn human thing," Reno complained as he crouched at the edge of the bridge to watch the large fish swim through the water, the dim light flashing off of their multi-colored scales at their panicked thrashing from the burst of his power. "Everything has to be neat and tidy, given orders to be here or there, do this or that." He bared his teeth to show what he thought about such a ridiculous need for order. "They just can’t let things *be*, the anal fucks that they are." They were unable to leave Aya alone to read his books in peace or Reno to play whatever games he wanted, and bitched up a storm over silly things like running through the city when half the time he and Aya stayed to the roof-tops. And what was the big deal about them feeding? Things died all the time. Hell, humans slaughtered animals every day by the thousands, so what was the big deal if he offed the occasional asshole or two? It was not as if he picked anyone who would be missed that much, lowlifes that they were; he had enough sense to leave kids alone, especially since they provided so little energy.

<Never have they understood us, never,> one of the shinigami crooned while stroking through Reno’s unbound hair. <Even on a day they say is ours, that they dedicate to us, they know so little.>

"Eh?" He was confused for a minute, until he remembered the date. At one point he had read everything he could on shinigami and dubhach that he could find in Rufus’ library, mainly to use against Rufus whenever the bastard got all high-handed with him over his ‘nature’. He could vaguely recall the importance of today’s date and how a couple of years ago he had tried to use it as an excuse to have Rufus allow him a party in celebration. That… had not gone over very well. "Cheap, paranoid bastard," Reno muttered under his breath as he stood up and left the bridge.

So today was a day when the shinigami used to be worshipped, or at least acknowledged as the powerful creatures that they were. Only now they were largely ignored, barely spoken of anymore except in fearful whispers, as if mentioning their name would make them swoop in and devour a person like a flesh gaki bound. He snorted in derision at the idea, insulted for… for his own kind. He may possess part of a human soul, but all it did was confuse and torment him, was something that he longed to be rid of with a fervor that he felt for few other things. The only ones who seemed to understand him were Aya and the shinigami.

Right now, he was pissed off, hungry, and bored enough that if he had to remain at home any longer…. His fingers itched to dig into his skin and start tearing, to replace those emotions with pain because he knew of no other way to escape them, to alleviate the madness he felt wearing on his two souls. He teetered on the edge of it, a precarious balance that was the only thing keeping his dual natures from once more lashing out at each other and shredding him apart between them.

What he needed was action, something to do to distract him and his souls. That sure as hell would not happen if he remained sitting on his ass here, playing with the fish or waiting for Rufus to grace him with his asshole presence. A wicked smile curved his lips as an idea formed in his mind, a plan that might placate all of his emotions and the shinigami while reminding his bastard of a mate that he was no more plaything to just sit around as meek as could be until the damn war was over.

He may have been ordered to remain here with the exception of going to the Koneko… but all of Rufus’ people, gokenin included, were allowed time off from their duties to pay homage to their gods. In fact, Tseng was rather adamant about his staff paying their proper respects, as the last thing anyone needed was a pissed off or playful god out for you when you dealt with sharp objects and spells on an almost daily basis. Reno, not the most devout of souls, usually only concerned himself with Kisei’s Night, but who was to argue with his new-found devotion considering the sudden interest that the shinigami had taken in his life these past few months? It would be downright rude of him to ignore their special day.

His mind made up, he headed back into the mansion so he could ‘collect’ his babysitters for the day. As far as Cyril and Rod were concerned, they would just be going to the Koneko so he could hang out with Aya for the afternoon. Heh, it was a good thing that Rude was occupied; his friend would be a lot more suspicious than those two and probably insist on keeping a close eye on him once they reached the inn. Instead, he was pretty sure that once they got to the Koneko, Rod and Cyril could be convinced to stay in the kitchen or the main room so they could eat and drink to their hearts’ content while he sweet-talked Aya into a little ‘exercise’. If his friend was anything like him, Aya had to be bored as hell at being cooped up inside for so long and aching for an excuse to go out for a little bit.

As long as they used their shadows, no one would know they had even left the inn. What could go wrong? All they would be doing was heading down to the Western temple district for a short while, and if the gods were lucky, maybe they would come across a homicide or something along the way. Was it so much to ask for after the shitty last few days he had suffered through?

*******

Botan smiled in bemusement at the throng of people before him as he made his way through the crowded market. What was it about the approaching caravans that made everyone want to spend their money, both to buy the last of items that had been available for the past several months and the new goods that took the place of the out of stock wares? Perhaps he should have been a merchant like his father after all, selling finely made porcelain that another branch of the family made. He had spared little thought of the past in quite a while, distanced from it both by years and the arduousness of his magical training. There had been friction between him and his father even before he had discovered his magical talent, as he had set his sights on joining the Guard rather than going into the family business, only for the gods to set him on a different path entirely.

Still, from the little he kept in touch with his cousins, the family business was doing well, so he had missed his chance to grow old and rich selling dinnerware to the masses. He touched the silver charm hung around his neck and realized that, despite the losses he had suffered, he would change nothing in his life. Well, he could do without a few of the responsibilities that came with being the Royal Wizard….

He made his way through the crowded street toward a small café where he had agreed to meet Keiko, grateful that she was willing to forsake her stall for an hour or so to talk with him. Considering the stones and charms that he had gifted her with in the last few months and would do so again today, he more than made it worth her while, but he did his best to keep the obligations between the two of them to a minimum. Witches could be a prickly lot – and justly so because of their treatment at the hands of wizards – so he did his best to not offend the lady.

Finally reaching his destination, he opened the door and stepped inside, inhaling deeply the scent of brewed tea and baked scones. He was reminded of the Koneko with the delicious scents, though the small shop lacked the sense of peace that he associated with the inn. Scattered about the café were several tables, and seated at the one in the far corner was the lady in question that he had come to see.

Keiko looked much the same as the last time he had visited her; long black hair sporting only a few strands of grey and pulled back into a loose bun, her tanned face bearing faint wrinkles around her eyes that hinted at a fraction of her true age. She was dressed for the cool, early autumn day in a thin, light yellow sweater and dark brown leather pants.

"Good day, Botan."

"Good day, Keiko. You appear as lovely as ever." He bowed slightly before he took the seat opposite from her.

Keiko smiled as she poured him some tea from the pot that had sat steeping in front of her. "I really must meet this new lady of yours as she’s made vast improvements in you." She gave him an appraising look which made him want to fuss with his dark blue robe that Cassandra had made for him last month.

"I’ll ask her to stop by for a visit some day," Botan promised, and wondered if he would go to Cassandra’s one afternoon to find her with a basket in hand, waiting for him to take her to Keiko’s stall. Somehow, it would not surprise him in the least.

"I imagine that she wouldn’t need to pay me a visit of a business nature, unless you’re holding out on her." She offered him a sly smile over the rim of her tea cup, which she sipped when he laughed and shook his head. "Still, she must be something special."

"Yes, she is." He tried to not appear as too much of a love-sick sap before he sipped his tea as well. "So, how is business?"

Keiko shrugged as she set her cup aside. "I’ve little to complain about since the last time we talked. It’s been busy and people are a bit more leery about being cheated on their charms, so word of mouth is very important. As I’ve yet to have any complaints…." Her voice trailed off and she shrugged again, her eyes intent on his face. "The stones that you gave me have been very useful, as they’ve been incredible anchors for my spells. Not just mine, but the others I’ve given them to as well."

"I hope you haven’t used them all for commissions," he told her, his tone calm as if her answer was of only mild concern to him. They had been a freely given gift, of course, but he had hoped that they would go to protection spells rather than personal requests.

She stared at him for a few seconds longer before looking down at the table. "Only for a few of the more difficult ones. As I said, right now one’s reputation is based on how well one’s spells work and I’m doing my best to take advantage in the increased business while it lasts. Who knows what will happen in the next few years." Her tone grew hushed, as if by speaking something out loud could make it happen.

The green tea Botan was drinking took on a sudden bitter taste. "Who knows indeed." A war would make life difficult for most people, not just those who would be required to fight it. There would be an interruption to trade and possibly even some farming, especially considering the elemental bounds; depending on how far the battles pushed into Kritiker’s borders then most cities would be locked down for security purposes. People would need to conserve most resources, unsure of how long the fighting would go on.

Keiko grimaced as she reached for the pot of tea to refill her cup. "Well, now that I’ve inadvertently made the conversation so depressing, I might as well ask about Garcia." She gave him an apologetic smile as she offered to refill his cup as well. "Have you managed to find him yet?"

Botan grimaced as well as he held out his cup. "I think I prefer the depressing allusions to the future, thank you very much." He managed a smile when his weak joke startled some laughter out of Keiko. "Seriously, I’m afraid that he’s managed to elude us as of yet, but the Guard and my colleagues are still searching for him."

She made a humming sound as she swirled the contents of her cup around a few times. "Garcia has his friends; perhaps they’re helping to keep him out of sight. All I know is that no one I’ve talked to has seen him so he’s definitely hiding somewhere." She sounded frustrated, as if she had a personal stake in the matter.

In a way, he supposed that she did. After the way that wizards put down anyone woman who possessed magical talent, Keiko and her kind had to feel some sort of satisfaction when a wizard overstepped his bounds and got into trouble. If they could help bring that wizard in… so much the better. "Yes, that’s what we suspect as well, and I doubt he can remain in hiding forever." Or that it would take much longer for Schuldig to come across Garcia’s accomplices.

Keiko frowned at something, and moved the napkin near her teacup to reveal the small anti-eavesdropping charm that Botan had suspected to be there the whole time. "Still, if Garcia is blaringly absent at a time when he is always in town, there are a lot of other wizards about who seem awfully busy." She was once more staring at him intently, as if trying to gauge his reaction.

"It is a big city, and the amount of knowledge and rich patrons here, not to mention more mundane customers, means that there’s always a lot of wizards about." Botan wondered where Keiko was going with this; if she had any pressing information to tell him he would assume that she would have tracked him down before now.

"Yes, it attracts a lot of people. And… well, not… quite some people." She blushed as she spoke and ducked her head. "Or at least, what some consider ‘not people’, such as wizards like Garcia." Once again, she looked Botan in the eye. "There have been a few wizards asking questions about bounds, if anyone has known of them being captured by the Guard or Army in recent months."

That came as a surprise to Botan, and he wondered if Birman was aware of this. "Have they?"

His shock must have been what Keiko was waiting for; she nodded once and seemed to relax. "Yes. From what I’ve been told, it hasn’t been much more than that, but I came across it while keeping an eye out for Garcia at your request. I asked around a little more just to be sure."

He would have to let Birman know about this as soon as possible so she could send out her spies and gather more information. It would attract too much attention if he looked into matters himself, and the last thing they needed was to make people wonder why the Royal Wizard was interested in bounds. He was able to discredit the use of bound blood in spells by tying it to the eventual use of human blood and organs, as was the case with Jens Arnold, but to show an interest beyond that…. No, he had to tread carefully.

"Thank you. After the Jens Arnold incident, I’m leery about any wizard showing an interest in bounds," he tried to explain things off as, still a little uncertain how far he could trust Keiko with the truth. The impression he had of her was that she harbored no ill will toward bounds, yet too much of the future was at risk to be careless with the secrets he knew.

She nodded in understanding. "Yes, most wizards would only see them as a means to easily cast spells."

"Speaking of spells…." It was not his best segue into a different topic, but he felt it important to change the direction of their conversation at the moment. He reached into his pouch for the small bag of stones he had set aside for her. "Here are some more stones."

Keiko arched her eyebrows as if she was aware that he was changing the topic yet was willing to let it slide, especially if she was being ‘bribed’ to do so at the same time. "How generous." She peeked inside the bag and her eyes widened. "How generous indeed. You have yet to tell me how you manage to be so charitable."

"I think that’s a conversation best saved for somewhere else. For now, just enjoy my munificence, no?" He grinned at the way she rolled her eyes in response.

"Yes, oh munificent one." Keiko grinned as she tucked the bag into a pocket in her pants. "But truly, your generosity is appreciated. I know several witches who will be happy to have some of these."

"So they really don’t all go to customers after all," Botan teased, relieved that the stones were being put to good use. Keiko’s cheek flushed a little at the reprimand yet she shook her head.

"No, as I think you intended, most of them are being used as protection charms and wards. I believe I mentioned a great-grandnephew who recently joined the Army who now wears one of the stones you gave me previously." The look in her eyes grew distant for a few seconds.

"That is all I can ask for." He bowed his head for a moment. "So, I hate to keep you from your stall if things are so busy." That said, he picked up his cup of tea and took a drink.

Keiko looked at him for a few seconds and then checked the contents of the pot. "Hmm, yes, things are busy but I am enjoying the company." She tilted her head to the side in an inquisitive manner as she replaced the pot’s lid. "It occurs to me that I never asked you what’s going on. I know you’re busy looking for a certain wizard, but other than that…."

"Ah, well." He shrugged as he leaned back in his chair. "The Court is the same as usual, so I try to spend as little time there as possible." They shared a knowing grin for a few seconds. "Unfortunately, I’m afraid I’ll have to deal with it a bit more than I like in the future, as I need to take on a couple of new assistants. Right now I’m doing my best to go through the list of candidates and winnow out the most promising ones through the usual political offerings."

There was a sympathetic grimace from Keiko to show that she understood what he refused to say out loud. "I don’t envy you your job on such occasions." She fell silent as she seemed to consider something. "Are there any specific qualifications for the position?" She seemed hesitant about the question, as if afraid to offend him.

He pondered her odd behavior for a moment before shaking his head. "Not really. The wizards in question," he noted the way her lips twisted in a bitter manner at the way he phrased ‘wizards’, " have to be suitably talented and trained, but other than that, I’m afraid that over the years it’s more a habit that the list of candidates are usually young men who come from families of either highborn blood or suitable wealth." He had made the list because of the wealth of his merchant family and his undeniable talent, and suspected that he had been included among Daisuke’s assistants because he was a ‘safe’ choice and had no ties among the Court.

Keiko chewed her bottom lip for a few seconds before seeming to reach some conclusion to an inner debate. "You know, I have a wealth of great-grandnephews it seems." Her crooked grin bespoke the disparity between her appearance and her true age. "One in particular took after me and shows promise to be a very talented wizard. He’s recently finished his apprentice training and is looking for more education." She paused for another moment as she made sure to catch his gaze. "He was even willing to risk being ostracized and learn from me."

Botan was a bit taken back to hear that; most wizards would consider learning from a witch to be too beneath them, though he supposed that being Keiko’s relative would mean that the boy would be well aware just how powerful the witch was and relieve him of many prejudices. "On your word, how powerful is the boy?" he asked, growing interested in the conversation.

Keiko smiled and leaned forward. "I’d say that he has the potential to grow more powerful than me, especially if trained properly." For a second her smile slipped and her eyes dimmed with sadness, as if she thought of the opportunities denied her. "I’m sure he could hold his own with anyone on that list of yours."

Considering how talented Keiko was, Botan would take her at her word. "I would imagine so." He was tempted, and he felt he could trust someone recommended by her as much as anyone put forward by the Court’s highborn, if not more so. "Yet the position requires more than just talent. He would be at Court, you know."

She glanced down at the table top and frowned, leaving him to wonder if the boy was lacking in social graces or something, before speaking in a soft voice. "Takashi… he’s an intelligent child and he’s graced with my niece’s disposition; he always manages to find something to smile about even at the darkest of moments. There’s a core of strength to him that he employs when casting spells that’s hidden behind his smiles, but at heart he’s a good child." She looked up to stare at Botan, her left hand settling on the bag of stones she had tucked away. "He… he accepts *everyone*. My family has always been open-minded because of me, but Takashi bears no one any ill-will because of… well, their circumstances other than how they choose to behave. He’s a good boy, and I mean that in all honesty, that I swear before Byakuren."

He regarded his friend for several minutes, considering with care what she had said and what she had made sure to leave unspoken. He also considered everything he knew about Keiko, how much he trusted her and her talent, how well she was regarded by her fellow witches. "Send the boy to me," was all he said after his deliberations, and as he spoke, he felt as if a weight was lifted from his shoulders. Perhaps he should have waited to discuss the matter with Birman and Cassandra, but he believed he was making the right decision. "Here, give him this so he can get into the palace to see me." He fetched a token bearing his stamp out of his pouch and placed it on the table.

Keiko slumped back in her chair, her expression one of relief as if she had taken a great risk. "I’ll send word to my niece this evening." Then she smiled, the expression tender and heart-warming as she picked up the token. "Botan… thank you. I had never thought to bring him to your attention, but I believe you’ll do well by him."

"I feel the same way." He saw no way around choosing one assistant from the list given him, but if he accepted this Takashi and continued to train Omi… there was hope that he could pass on his knowledge and be assured that he had two young, powerful wizards whom he could rely upon come the war. That was more than he had hoped for this morning.

He finished the last of his tea, which had grown cold by now, and nodded to Keiko. "I have truly enjoyed our discussion today, but I fear that I really have taken up enough of your time and know that I must get back to attend a few things." Judging from Keiko’s rueful grin, she could not deny him about using up her time, so he rose from the table and bowed to her in gratitude. "I’m sure we will be speaking to each other soon."

"I’ll send word to you later on when to expect Takashi. Good day, Botan."

"Good day." He smiled before he turned to leave, his prospects at work a little better now than they had been this morning.

*******

Aya looked up when Yohji came into their bedroom and offered his mate a smile, the expression strengthening when Yohji smiled back. He still was a little cautious around his mate, expecting some sort of lecture over his excursion to the Temple district earlier that day, yet Yohji seemed to have left the discussion of the matter up in the library. He leaned against his mate’s side when Yohji came to stand beside him as he sat in the window seat, soaking in the warmth that seeped through two layers of cloth as well as the love and desire that flowed over their link.

"Hmm, *such* a cat." Yohji’s voice shook with amusement as he stroked his fingers through Aya’s hair.

Aya’s eyes narrowed as he looked up at his lover. "You’ve been waiting all day to say that, haven’t you?"

"Well, it is true, isn’t it?" Yohji’s right hand slid through Aya’s hand and traced along Aya’s cheekbone. "I stopped by the stable to see the latest addition, and I must say that he looks a lot like you."

"Idiot," Aya grumbled as he caught his mate’s hand and gave two of the fingers a quick nip. He should have known that bringing a cat to the inn would end up causing him some grief, even if Ichiro had been pleased to have a new companion out in the barn and the poor thing had needed a home. "If I’m ‘such a cat’, what does that make you?"

Yohji laughed and leaned in to give him a kiss. "Hmm, I guess everyone’s right who’s been calling me ‘pervert’ all these years." He laughed again when Aya sighed and shook his head. "You should have expected that, Cat."

"I guess I should have." Since they were skirting the issue, Aya saw no sense in pretending that it had not happened. He leaned forward and grabbed hold of Yohji’s other hand to pull him down to sit behind him. "So what does everyone else think of the ‘newest addition’?"

"That he’s the cutest thing since Emmie, maybe even cuter." Yohji tugged on Aya’s right eartail as he settled behind him. "If that’s your rather roundabout way to ask if they’re upset about how he came to the Koneko, the answer is ‘no’. You’re an adult, Aya. No one is forcing you to stay here, and we trust you when you say that no one saw you." He was quiet for a moment, his emotions intent, and then he chuckled and gave Aya a hug. "Well, that and Yuushi said there were no reports of you or Reno being spotted at all in the mass chaos, or any mention of kage or dubhach."

Aya felt angry only for a moment that he had been checked up on, as he realized that Yuushi was only doing his job. Also, the decision to go to the Temple district had been impulsive on his part, something that he realized was almost a side effect of being around Reno and the shinigami. Whenever Yohji was missing – when Yohji’s grounding presence was missing – he found himself tossing aside the few human concerns that he had.

Then he found himself smiling once again. "At least you won’t have to worry so much about me not feeding for the next couple of weeks." He leaned his head back to rest it on Yohji’s shoulder.

His mate’s lovely green eyes went wide as the meaning of the words sunk in. "Oh really," Yohji purred, his eyes drifting half shut as he tilted his head to nuzzle Aya’s left temple. "Which is a good thing, considering that I’ve already ‘fed’ once today, and in a hurry at that."

"Hmm, a good thing indeed." Aya closed his eyes as desire and love flowed into him, almost as fulfilling as the rush of energy from the death earlier. Was Yohji’s succubae nature affecting him to such an extent that emotions were actually that comforting now? "You’re such a bad influence on me," he murmured.

"Eh?" For a moment there was confusion and then Yohji chuckled, the sound decadent and warm. "Oh yes, *I’m* the one who drags you off to create massive chaos in the temple district. Bad, *bad* me." Each word was accompanied by a puff of warm, moist air that tickled the side of Aya’s neck and made him shiver.


"Hmph." Doing some hair pulling of his own, Aya grabbed a handful of honey-blond strands and gave them a quick tug. "You corrupt me in other ways." Ways that involved feeling and being ‘human’, something that the shinigami would have many negative things to say about if he paid them any heed. Though, sometimes, he was not entirely sure himself it was a good thing, Yohji making him feel those things when they left him so bewildered and at time weak, yet he knew that he would never let his mate go.

Yohji’s wince of pain quickly changed into a lascivious leer. "Oh really? Well, Cat, let’s see about me going about some real ‘corrupting’, nah?" He wrapped his arms around Aya and picked him up from the padded window seat, startling a yelp from Aya as he was carried over to the bed.

Muttering under his breath the entire time about bound strength, possessive and idiotic mates and how the gods just *loved* to torment him, Aya glared at his lover when he was dropped onto the bed and followed it up with a nip to the idiot’s lips when Yohji leaned in for a kiss. He figured that Yohji could work to put him back into a good mood, something he was certain the man would manage in all too soon a time. Growling a little as his chin was nibbled on, Aya tried to convince himself it was not just for show and bided his time until Yohji’s left shoulder was bared.

*******

"I think you need to recheck these problems, Sunshine." Yohji tapped the sheet of paper in front of him and Emmie and watched the girl frown as she stared at it, her blond eyebrows drawn together as she concentrated on the math homework she had been given.

"It’s a good thing I never hoped to be an accountant," was all the grumbling that Emmie did as she checked her math, her emotions a mix of concentration, slight embarrassment and determination. Her disposition was so sweet that she did her best with the slightest encouragement, and all it had taken was being told a few months ago that she had a better chance of getting an early placement in the Guards if all of her grades were good. Mathematics might not seem like a requirement for the Guards, but basic skills counted and one never knew what talent would be needed for an assignment.

Yohji tousled her hair in encouragement and gave her a grin when she caught the three mistakes that she had made. "I highly doubt they’ll ever trust you with the state budgets, but you at least will know enough to keep from getting cheated while out shopping!" He laughed at her relieved grin and leaned closer, his voice dropping into a conspiratorial whisper. "To tell the truth, that was about all they ever managed with me."

Emmie giggled, a slight blush blooming on her cheeks as she covered her mouth with an ink-stained hand. "That must be why they send Aya out with you all the time, then."

"Guilty as charged." Yohji winked as he leaned back, his hands combing through his hair as he thought about his mate. "Ah well, the gods have granted me so many blessings, such as perfection of form, scathing wit and an otherwise brilliant intellect, so I guess they felt they had to deprive me of something." He was glad that Jo was nowhere around to hear *that* bit of hyperbole, or else the back of his head would be stinging right about now.

Emmie giggled a little longer as her head bobbed up and down. "You are very fortunate." He felt a remnant of the crush that she had on him, the affection turning into something more… brotherly in nature as time went on and she accepted his relationship with Aya. "Thank you for helping me."

He reached over and tousled her hair again. "You’re more than welcome. I always wanted a little sister and complained to my mom that she got it wrong with Teddy." There was a slight ache at the mention of his mother, who would have adored Emmie, but he managed to keep his smile from slipping. Once again, he wished that she could have lived a little longer and had to wonder if his happiness now was in some way at the expense of losing her.

Emmie was teasing him about how unfair he was to Teddy when the pest was unable to defend himself while off gallivanting with Koyu, when Yohji felt a wave of anxiety and fear. "Emmie, *stay here*." He put enough coercion into the words to ensure that the curious girl remained seated at the shadow-warded table in the main room instead of following him to the hallway, where he had sensed the disturbing emotions. The last thing he wanted was to involve another stray in any trouble.

Aya was upstairs in the attic library, so Yohji sent a message to Ken to ensure that his mate remained up there until he knew what was going on. As he stepped into the hallway, he congratulated himself on his forethought, the cause of Natsuko’s distressed emotions standing right there in a bright red uniform.

Natsuko took her job of watching the door very seriously, grateful for the sanctuary that she had found at the Koneko in recent months. While she might lack the ability to read minds or emotions, she was very mature for a bound, that fact attested to by the strands of grey in her light brown hair and the fine lines around her amber-hued eyes, which made her an excellent judge of character after surviving for so long. Under normal conditions, if she felt any threat to herself, the Koneko or the guests, she could use her talent to control air to surreptitiously force the person out the door.

Yohji was willing to bet that it was Kikyou’s uniform that kept the woman from using her talent, just as it was the sight of the red color worn by the Captain of the Guard that had her on the edge. Add to that the fact that the bastard was probably insisting on seeing Aya, something that Natsuko would not allow to happen yet at the same time be afraid to antagonize a human who literally had the ability to order her captured and killed…. That she stood there, her appearance outwardly calm as she continued to shake her head as her emotions grew more turbulent, made Yohji feel torn between giving her a hug in gratitude and wanting to tear Kikyou’s heart out.

"Ah, so what brings you to our humble inn, Captain?"

The two had been so focused on each other – Natsuko on keeping Kikyou from entering the inn any further and Kikyou furious over being denied access to Aya – that they both were startled by Yohji’s question. Natsuko flashed him a grateful smile before bowing her head and stepping aside. He sent the woman a wave of approval and gratitude as he walked past her to stand in front of Kikyou.

"As I was just telling your employee, I’m here to see Aya." Kikyou shot Natsuko a disapproving look before narrowing his eyes in Yohji’s direction, his arms crossing over his chest. "There’s precious little other reason for me to be here."

"Yes, why would someone as important as you want to come someplace where many of your people enjoy spending their time off and get to know them better, hmm?" Yohji let much of the disdain he felt for Kikyou color the words he spoke and smiled when Kikyou’s back straightened in anger. "You can wait for him in the office."

"His note to me said something about him not feeling well," Kikyou said as he followed Yohji down the hallway."

"He’s been tired lately." Which was the truth… mostly. Aya had been feeling some effects of being unable to feed, and enforced captivity had not helped, either. That was why Yohji had done his best, once the initial shock was overcome, to not get upset over Aya’s little adventure yesterday. He held the office door open for Kikyou, grateful for the fact that Mickey was busy shopping for Jo right now.

Kikyou glared at him as he entered the room, quiet only until the door was closed. "He shouldn’t be working in some inn. The man’s bloodlines are almost as good as the king’s, his fortune and family estates eclipse most of those at Court!"

Yohji huffed in bitter amusement as he crossed the office and leaned against the desk. "*Half* of his bloodlines are as good as the king’s, and I think *Aya* would be the first one to tell you he could not give a *damn* about that half. Nor does he care about the money or land associated with his father’s title." He thought back to their discussion about using the Fujimiya estate to hide the cousins and other bounds, on how little Aya truly did care about the property or being a Fujimiya.

"No matter his preferences, *Ran* is the sole remaining Fujimiya heir. He’s meant for better than this." Kikyou indicated everything around him with a derisive wave of his arms. "He remains with you solely because you were the first person to offer him a safe place after… away from the Takatori."

Yohji did not know if he should be thankful that Kikyou had yet to figure out that Aya had suffered abuse from the Takatori because he was a bound. As he was certain that the bastard would just use that knowledge to blackmail Aya even more, he supposed he should be, but it was disturbing to suspect what Kikyou imagined had happened to Aya and see the bastard still press his affections on Yohji’s mate. At least Kikyou had the sense to no longer physically push the issue, or else he would be dead by now.

"He’s exactly where he wants to be." Yohji spat out each word, his hands clenched around the edge of the desk instead of around the idiot’s throat like he wanted. "You need to accept that fact and leave him alone. All you do by coming here is upset him."

"I remind him about what is waiting for him once he rids himself of the fear the Takatori instilled in him and resumes his rightful place in the world." Kikyou stepped a few feet closer to Yohji and swept his right hand down the front of his crimson uniform jacket. "He’s used to hiding himself away, and all you do is encourage him. It’s the only way you can keep him chained to your side. All you can offer him is a lifetime of hard work in some anonymous inn," he sneered.

Wood creaked as Yohji struggled to control his temper. More than anything, he wanted to smash his fists into Kikyou’s face, to stop the torrent of insults to him, his home, and the life he had formed with his mate. The demon side of his nature urged him on to destroy this threat, to tear the man to shreds. Yet he knew that he would only cause Aya harm in the end by giving in to the urge, which was what kept him still. He took a deep breath to calm himself, needing to be centered before he could use his talent. "You know, I think that you’re forgetting that Aya is an intelligent adult who can decide on his own what he wants."

"Which is why I insist on being able to spend some time with the man, to make sure he’s aware of the options available to him." Kikyou made a sound of disgust and tossed back his head, black bangs flying with the sudden movement. "Look, why are you wasting my time? I want to see Aya."

"I know." Yohji closed his eyes for a second and drew upon his nature, the ability to do so growing easier with each passing month. When he opened his eyes, he wondered if they contained any silver or not. What he knew for certain was that whatever they contained, they caught Kikyou’s attention and rendered him unable to look away. "I see it’s time to have another ‘talk’ with you."

He focused his talent, felt it shade his voice until it was smoother than humanly possible, so sweet and coaxing. "As Aya told you, he’s sick right now, and you’re very busy with work. You’ll send the occasional inquiry about his health, perhaps stop by in a few weeks and take him to tea, but you’ll leave him in peace." He put as much coercion as he dared behind the words, wishing more than anything that he could just order Kikyou to forget that Aya ever existed. Unfortunately, the bastard had too many people who looked after him that a sudden change in behavior would go noticed and arouse suspicion. And, despite all of his failings, Kikyou did possess the powerful will and high intellect that was required of the Captain of the Guard. There was a chance that people questioning why he had suddenly changed his mind in regards to Aya would make him suspect that something – or someone - had tampered with his thoughts.

For a moment he felt some resistance, Kikyou’s will putting up a token fight before succumbing to Yohji’s magic. He felt a modicum of respect for the man, as well as a fresh flare of hatred; it was in part a strong lust for Aya give him the strength to fight against the coercion. In the end, it did him little good.

"I suggest that you take your time returning back to the Palace." Yohji frowned as he put his glamour to use, allowing it to feed slightly on the bastard’s desires. "If anyone asks, you had a short chat with Aya before leaving."

He had to tightly control his demon nature as he walked past the man on his way out of the room, Kikyou’s eyes staring off at nothing as he imagined his chat with Aya. More than anything, he wanted to lash out with his wires and break the man’s neck, to eliminate a threat to his mate. How many times would he have to do this? Why could he have not discovered this ability back when Kikyou had approached Aya with the ‘deal’ to keep quiet about Aya’s true identity in return for their ‘dates’? More than anything he wanted to make the Captain disappear, yet it would cause too much trouble for them if he did.

Closing the door behind him, he turned and found Aya standing in the hallway, cloaked in shadows. "Gah!"

"Hmm." His mate gave him a long look from hooded eyes before turning around and heading to the library. Nothing was said, but Yohji had the impression that he was meant to follow.

Resolving to kick Ken’s ass the next time he saw his friend, he went to the library and found Reiichi there already, sitting in one of the padded leather chairs. The Shadow Guard gave him a sympathetic grin and then looked at Aya.

"I assume that you’ve dealt with Kikyou," Aya said, his voice rough with sibilance and his eyes a mix of violet and silver.

So much for hoping that a certain someone was too involved with his books to notice, Yohji thought with a sigh. He gave his mate a rueful grin as he rubbed the back of his head. "Uhm… yeah?" There was little that he picked up over their link just then; it was not so much that Aya was blocking him but that it was one of those moments when Aya went all ‘shinigami’ and his emotions seemed to shut down.

When his lover remained quiet for a minute or two, Yohji sighed again and dared to approach him. "Look, he came in here determined to see you, shaking up Natsuko in the process. I figured it would be best to take care of him right away, before he tried to drag you outside when you couldn’t cloak yourself in shadows." It was one thing for Aya to go off with Reno when the two of them could stay hidden and relieve some of the stress of being cooped up for so long. It was another thing entirely for Kikyou to parade him around the city when there was a good chance that Garcia could see him.

Aya remained quiet for a few more seconds then shook his head. "Tell me that you didn’t go overboard." A hint of emotion began to creep back over their link, a sense of exhaustion.

Yohji wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist. "I basically did the same thing as last time, just told him to give you some space for a few weeks." He glanced over at Reiichi and saw the Guard nod in approval. "Isn’t he supposed to be busy?"

"He is, but I suppose that it’s been so long that he’s seen Aya that he felt it was overdue. We’ve tried to keep an eye on him in this regards, but…." He shrugged as he motioned around him.

Garcia running around loose was becoming more and more of a pain, Yohji thought with a slight growl. Aya leaned back to look up at him wit a slight frown on his face, which made Yohji shake his head and smile. "Just thinking that life will get a lot better when a certain wizard is dead."

"Hm." Aya blinked a few times and his eyes went back to pure violet. "How much longer is Kikyou going to remain here?" He sounded mildly curious, which was encouraging as any sign of emotion meant that he was returning to ‘normal’ and less likely to bitch Yohji out for being too ‘possessive’.

"Just long enough to imagine a little chat with you." Yohji grimaced as he tightened his hold on his mate. "I thought maybe if I threw him an imaginary bone it might help the coercion take better this time."

Aya felt a bit unhappy about that, yet remained quiet which indicated that he was willing to trust Yohji’s decision. He frowned a little more as he leaned against Yohji, confusion, dislike and distrust flowing over their link. Yohji was not completely certain since he read emotions and not thoughts, but he thought those feelings were directed at Kikyou since his shoulder was – for the moment – spared any new bites.

He looked over Aya’s shoulder at Reiichi, an eyebrow raised in question.

"I doubt that Ken and Miko will come downstairs any time soon." Although Reiichi smiled as he spoke, he gave a significant look in Aya’s direction that indicated that a certain redhead had something to do with the two Guard’s hiding upstairs. In other words, Ken probably had tried to keep Aya in the attic and been unable to restrain a more powerful bound. At least Reiichi had been able to stay near Aya, in part because he was human and so unrestrained by the whole bound ‘pecking order’ as well as possessing one of the strongest wills that Yohji had ever come across.

Yohji tugged on one of his lover’s eartails. "Hey, what do you say to helping me with Emmie’s math homework, Cat?" He smiled in the face of Aya’s glare and even dared to give his lover’s pale forehead a kiss. "I left her out in the main room when this all started."

Aya’s glare slowly went away and he glanced over his shoulder at Reiichi. "I suppose we could use a break?"

"Something to eat right now would be appreciated, and I did promise Emmie to help her with a history assignment. I can start on that today, I suppose." Reiichi rose from the chair and groaned a little as he stretched out his back. "At least Ed’s not here to get into any debates tonight."

"I would love to know what Emmie’s teacher thought about the opposing views to the Third Battle of the Kenshin Plains," Yohji said with a laugh as he urged Aya to leave the library. Reiichi, Aya and Ed had spent several hours ‘debating’ that topic, only stopping when Emmie had fallen asleep at the table.

"She told me that she got a perfect grade on that assignment, so I assume the lady was impressed." Reiichi flashed an impish grin as he held the door open for them.

Yohji checked the hallway to make sure that Kikyou was still in the office and then hurried Aya to the main room. He motioned Reiichi and his mate to continue on without him so he could talk to Natsuko for a moment and let her know to allow Kikyou to leave on his own, as well as warn Jo to keep everyone out of the office. Judging from the look she gave him, he would have to better explain things later, but she allowed him to return to Aya after a quick summation. He paused by office’s door for a moment, once more struggling with the urge to permanently deal with the possible threat to his mate, before forcing himself to move on. Kikyou was a nuisance, one that he was managing. Right now, they had bigger issues to deal with, much larger threats that needed faced. A case of infatuation was not much of a problem in the long run.

*******

Victor looked up from the book he had been studying at the faint rasping knock at his door and nodded to the young girl who slipped inside the room, a slight smile on his face as she bowed to him. "Did you have any luck tonight, Haru?"

"I got almost everything on your list, sir!" The girl hastened forward with the messenger bag she used to carry the goods held out as if in offering, a grin on her dirt-smudged face. Strands of her short black hair clung to her forehead from sweat, testament of how she must have hurried about the city the last few hours in search of the items he wanted. "Some of those herbs are pretty rare." The grin slipped from her heart-shaped face and her shoulders hunched forward as if in preparation of a blow.

No doubt she had dealt with the wrath of some employers before, but he had no cause of being so brutish when she had done such good work. "It’s as I expected." He smiled in reassurance as he took the bag from her, his motions smooth and slow. "If anything, I’m surprised that you managed to find as much as you did." He had given her explicit directions to avoid the markets that catered only to magical items, in the hopes of attracting less attention that way. Haru must have worked very hard indeed to cover a lot of distance; one thing he was certain of was that she was trustworthy as he had used her for various errands in the past.

"Thank you, sir." Her grin returned as he held out several silver coins for the day’s work. "Will you be needing anything else?" From her tone, she was eager to earn more money despite all the running about it required.

"Check back in two days."

Haru bowed once more and left the room as quietly as she entered, the money tucked safely into one of the pockets of her dark grey vest and not even clinking at her speed. Victor watched her until she was gone, considering her agility and awakening beauty, the speed in which she completed the tasks given her and her seeming inability to break oaths. In another year or two the girl should be old enough to test for bound abilities, and if his suspicions were correct…. Well, no one would miss a street urchin vanishing in such a big city, and he could always find another child to run errands for him, if perhaps not as well as Haru managed.

For now, his main concern was how *he* would manage. Damn Botan and whatever demon had crawled up the man’s ass over using bound blood or human organs in spell-casting. Why the man could not follow along with all of the other Royal Wizards…. Daisuke had been particularly uncaring about the use of bound blood, even if he had been too squeamish to do so himself. Victor had not believed that to be a fatal flaw, but perhaps that squeamishness had been a noteworthy weakness after all, in that Daisuke had allowed his successor to be the same – or so they had all thought.

Only now, it seemed that Botan was not so much squeamish about bound blood as downright against it. What made the whole situation worse was that he had the king’s support as well, in both tracking down wizards who used it and in an unofficial suspension of bound hunts. According to Victor’s sources, no bounds had been taken into custody in the past year. There were rumors of a few captured around the border, yet whenever his colleagues inquired about them, the bounds in question seemed to have vanished into thin air. They failed to show up at any executions and they certainly were never turned over to any wizards for ‘questioning’.

Some of Victor’s colleagues wanted to raise the issue about the lack of captured bounds with the king, until that damn fool Jens had to go and get himself caught creating charms made from human organs. It was as if the gods had given Botan all the ammunition he needed to check Victor and his friends with that one ill-fated discovery. Why the fool could not restrain himself to bound blood…. Victor shook his head as he undid the ties to the messenger bag. Even he found Jens’ actions to be reprehensible and would have welcomed the man’s downfall if not for the damage it did to his own cause.

Those who would have visibly supported his research now considered it too distastefully tied to Jens’ actions. Their thoughts were that it was too close a leap between bound blood and human, a point that Botan had been oh so eager to make. To support the one risked supporting the other, so the Royal Wizard got his way and those known to be the main proponents for the use of bound blood had become outcasts – at least, for now.

Victor still had some supporters and had been warned that Botan was interested in questioning him, which was why he was doing his best to avoid the man. He had managed to enter the city with the aid of an illusion charm and find an out of the way inn to hole up in, hiding out for the time being and limiting his contact to a few people he was certain he could trust. Haru was invaluable in getting him a lot of the items he needed for spellwork, but there would soon come a time when he would need to go out himself for the rarer items that she was unable to retrieve or that he did not trust her judgment in purchasing. Also, there were customers he needed to see if he hoped to continue to support himself.

Something was going on outside the walls of his rather drab little room, something that had envoys from Xan and Thracia extending their stays at the palace well past the princess’ Naming ceremony, something that had the queen meddling with the Army so soon after giving birth, something that had prompted the king to change his policy on bounds. Victor liked to consider himself a somewhat intelligent man, one who had spent many of the one hundred and thirty years that magic had gifted him with studying as much as possible both the world around him as well as magic, and he had a suspicion that the answer to that something was ‘Esset’. He was not the only one with that suspicion, which was another reason that his fellow wizards were holding back their questions to the king on what was happening with the ‘missing’ bounds; what if they were being kept as potential weapons instead of sacrifices?

If it were true that another war was on the horizon, then what he had devoted the last several decades of his life studying and experimenting with would soon prove invaluable. There were only a handful of wizards who were as knowledgeable about the use of bound blood as he was, and he doubted most of them could match the enhanced spells that he had developed with the use of bound blood. Botan might turn his nose up at the use of blood, but perhaps the king would change his mind when it was his people out there dying on the battlefield when facing Esset’s army. If not, then Victor was certain that many of the highborn would be more than happy to pay for spells that would keep their people and lands safe.

All he had to do was avoid Botan’s reach until he established a powerful enough patron that he could resume his studies in better comfort and less fear of discovery. Surely he and his fellow wizards were not the only ones in Kritiker to have concerns about the near future.

As he went through the items that Haru had purchased for him, there was another knock on the door. Since he had been waiting for another ‘guest’ to arrive, he set aside the goods and went to welcome the new arrival. The gentleman was much more cautious than the errand girl, which was only natural considering Sanji’s occupation. "Good evening," Victor offered to man, who appeared older than himself.

Sanji nodded in return as he slid inside the room, his dark eyes darting about as he took careful note of his surroundings as he refused to sit down. "This won’t take long," he explained, his cultured voice belying the cheap material of his worn, faded clothes.

Whereas Victor paid Haru to retrieve items for him, Sanji brought back much more valuable information. Sitting back in his chair in front of the small desk, Victor made himself comfortable and opened his notebook so he could record anything of importance that Sanji had to say. "I assume that to mean you haven’t found out much, then." Disappointment colored his tone, not so much for Sanji’s skills but in general with how the gods seemed to enjoy trying his patience lately.

Fortunately, Sanji did not seem to take things personally. "I hope you’re not in a hurry," the spy drawled, a hint of a smile twisting the corners of his lips. When Victor managed a grim smile in return, he shrugged and motioned at the window. "It’s a big city, and finding things without attracting unwanted attention takes time. All I can tell you at this point is that if the king’s hiding bounds anywhere near Eto, he has to be doing it in small groups to avoid people noticing."

Victor nodded in understanding. If the theory that the king was amassing bounds to use against Esset was correct, he was hoping for proof to use as leverage against Botan’s sudden vendetta against him. Should he be proven wrong… it still left an intriguing premise on why the king had halted the creatures’ executions, something he could look into at a latter time. "What about the other item I asked you to find?"

This time it was Sanji who did the grimacing. "Are you certain that this ‘Reno’ is still alive?"

"Yes, most certain," Victor answered as he reclined back in his chair. He knew that the bound was still alive all because of the way the marks he had put on the redheaded brat had vanished over a decade ago as if snuffed out. That he was unable to sense the boy meant that he had been correct in assuming that the rare combination of coloring had indicated that the whore’s child was indeed a shinigami bound. The marks were some of his best work, elaborate spells that should tell him the location and condition of their bearer – had indeed done that until a couple of years after they had been placed on the redhead. Then their magic had vanished as if the spell had been disabled. Now if the redhead had died since then, then the shinigami magic of its kind would have faded from the corpse and the marks would have once again called out to Victor. So the brat was out there somewhere, by now a young man with pale skin, aqua-colored eyes and bright red hair and distinctive red tattoos on his face.

"Well, as of yet my people haven’t found any trace of a redhead named ‘Reno’ who entered the city in the past year or two, and they keep track of the gates almost as well as the Guards. I have them checking out a few people who mostly match the description you gave me." If Sanji was curious as to why he was being paid quite a bit of silver to track down redheads, he showed no sign of it; Victor supposed it was a welcome change from cheating husbands and highborns who were behind on paying the bills.

"As I’ve mentioned before, be aware that he may have altered his appearance somewhat. Also be on the lookout for reclusive behavior and… how shall I put it, a lack of social breeding." There was a chance the redhead used illusion or cosmetics to hide his appearance, though from Victor had read, kage had little concerns about such ‘mundane’ things and rarely thought to do so. However, he doubted that sullen brat he remembered glaring at him from the shadows of that hovel of an apartment would have changed in anything but outward appearance.

Sanji snorted in amusement as he picked a piece of lint off of his working clothes. "I do remember you briefing me on the fact that he’s the son of a gutter prostitute. We’re searching the Eastern district first for him and will expand outward through the city."

"Thank you." When Sanji was quiet for several seconds, Victor took that as a sign that the man was finished with his report. He fetched the agreed upon amount of coins that would purchase Sanji’s services for a few more days and handed them to the spy, who nodded in appreciation before leaving the room.

Once alone, Victor locked and warded the door before returning to the small desk. He stared at the open page of the notebook, a bit disappointed that he had nothing to add to it at this point. More than likely, he was spending needed money on mad gambles, yet it was almost as if there was something in the air, something that told him that things were happening and to take the chance.

The last time there was a war was when kage had been created, and over a decade ago he had stumbled upon a young boy who had bore what a few people suspected were the hallmarks of that rare breed. More than once he had cursed himself for not snatching up the creature then and there instead of just marking it, and now he searched for it in every city he found himself in. Merciful gods, let it be here and not in Esset…. The only reason he had left it with its mother was because, as a wizard, he had so little ‘power’ in Esset, even in a border town where he had found the creature. He had serious doubts, though, that Reno would remain in his native town for long. As it was easier for a kage to feed when people were near and to hide in a large crowd, he had to hope that he would come across it in a large city like Eto.

The last war had seen the creation of kage and other bounds… what would happen if Esset and Kritiker went to war again? This time bounds were already a known quantity, and from everything he had heard about the other country, Esset would have quite the bound army at its ready. His spells had yet to create anything on par to the creatures, but then again, he had devoted his efforts more to enhancing existing knowledge and pushing it in new directions with the aid of bound blood, to being able to destroy with a fraction of the effort. If he could obtain enough blood and a year or two of peace, he might be able to come up with something to do the wizards of that last war proud and keep Kritiker safe. Could Botan not see how much he was hobbling the craft and harming the country with his foolish squeamishness? Bounds were created to be used as weapons, all of them, and time was only proving once again how much that was true.

The gods had even brought about another kage just in time for the next war. Victor would find it and use its blood to create the most powerful spells that any wizard had ever seen, even Kritiker’s great Wizard. He would keep it alive until the war in case it was needed, but this time, it would be the creature’s blood that brought down the enemy. He would show Botan and the king the mistakes their ancestors had made in the last war; they did not need the bounds themselves to do the fighting, not when wizards could use the creatures’ blood to fuel more powerful and better-controlled spells. This time, there would not be so much destruction and prolonged fighting, and no plague of bounds unleashed on the country afterward.

He could prevent so much horror. All he needed was to find the right person to listen to him, the right spells, and then let the word would spread from there. Others would agree with him, once reminded of the past. The value of human life was priceless, especially when compared to magical constructs that had been created for the purpose of war in the first place. The army the king was massing for cannon fodder would much better serve as fuel for spells that would end the war in days, not years.

He would make Botan see reason.

*******

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