Family Bonds

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chapter 2

Arrival On a Rainy Day

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Maddox frowned, first at the leaky umbrella that allowed fat drops of cold rain to fall onto his face, and then at the long line that led to the city’s Eastern Gate. He muttered under his breath about slow people and rain gods as he pulled the hood of his rain slicker forward a little more. There was a moment of debate over whether or not he should just toss the umbrella aside, but the rain was still coming down rather heavily. Huddled against him in an effort to share the leaky waste of money, Emmie sneezed.

He hugged her closer. "You all right?" He didn’t like how she’d been sneezing more and more often since that morning, and recently had even begun to cough. After all, she usually didn’t become sick very often, but he guessed all the traveling was finally taking its toll on her. They needed to get out of the rain and get to someplace warm and dry soon. Someplace that hopefully wouldn’t cost them a fortune since they were running low on money. Despite his best intentions, they’d still spent more than he’d expected during their trip from Potswick.

Emmie rubbed the back of her hand against the bottom of her nose as she nodded. "I’m just a little cold." She was obviously trying not to complain about the weather, especially after he’d snapped at her last night over how he had no control over it. There was a strong flash of guilt at that memory.

"Maybe you should have kept the hat on," he teased in an effort to cheer her up. Since there was a very strong penalty against using a false identity to register when entering the capital, she wasn’t pretending to be a boy any longer. He felt more than a little anxiety at the thought that he’d have to give the Guards their real names once they reached the gate, but the Guard didn’t release that information. If their family did decide to come here and look for them, the Guard wouldn’t say one word about whether Maddox and Emily Cullen had arrived or not. He kept that thought in his head as they crept toward the massive gates.

The people in line with them were grumpy and cheerful in turns. Nobody was happy to stand out in the rain, but most took it in stride and called out to people they recognized, using the time to socialize and gossip. For himself, Maddox wished that he’d accepted Timothy’s offer to stay in Sado to wait for the rain to pass. He hadn’t believed that it would rain this long. They’d had to stop at an inn just a dozen or so kilometers away last night because of a thunderstorm, something that galled him even now when he thought about how close they had been to the city.

Emmie sneezed again. "How much longer?" she asked, a hint of a whine creeping into her voice.

"Not much longer." Or so he hoped. He had to admit that the Guards were doing a pretty good job of quickly ushering people inside and asking them the necessary questions. "We’ll find someplace dry and warm once we’re in the city." He tried not to wince when he thought about how much a place like that would cost. The entire way here, the prices for everything had steadily risen.

"What about the places Timothy mentioned?" Emmie sniffed and leaned against him a little more. "One of them must be close by."

"I know that, Em, but we have to find a place that’s cheap." Or willing to offer them rooms in trade for work. They were in serious trouble if Glenn didn’t arrive in the next week or so. For a moment Maddox regretted not spending more time in the woods but they’d needed to get here ahead of their family and Emmie wouldn’t have been very happy camping out for so long. Not to mention the risk of running into thieves, poachers or demons. As much as he hated to admit it, they were safer here – as long as they didn’t run out of money.

The way Emmie’s bottom lip started to tremble warned him that he’d have a very cranky cousin on his hands if they didn’t find a place soon. While the last thing he needed was for her to start pouting, she was cold, wet, exhausted and most likely sick. All he himself really wanted to do was to find someplace safe to sit for a bit. "We’ll see what the Guards recommend, okay? Maybe they’ll know a good place for us to stay."

That seemed to cheer her up, and she even took over holding the umbrella – which caused him to have to bend his knees a little as they slowly moved forward. The rain seemed to be lessening – which wasn’t saying much. He couldn’t see the top of the massive stone pillars of the gates.

Finally, it was their turn to enter. Smiling nervously at the tall Guard staring at them, he nudged Emmie forward, out of the rain. The Guard returned the smile as he asked them their names, ages, home town and reason for entering the capital. Maddox stuttered a little as he explained that they were joining a family member here, more than a bit worried that one of his relatives would jump out and drag them back home, or that the Guard wouldn’t find the explanation a good enough reason to allow them inside.

Instead, the Guard just smiled some more and winked at Emmie. "You look about as happy as my cat does when he gets caught out in the rain." When she giggled at the comment, the Guard, a young man who looked an awful lot like his cousin Brennan with his dark hair and eyes, nodded at Maddox. "Where are you meeting your uncle?"

"At the Laughing Carp," he replied, naming one of the two inns where Glenn regularly stayed. His nervousness grew when the Guard immediately frowned.

"Not the best place for someone her age," the man explained as he ushered them to the side, away from the open gates and occasional blasts of rain.

"Well… we were hoping you knew somewhere safe and inexpensive we could stay for a few days," Maddox asked, the stutter back in his voice. He hoped the Guard didn’t give them any grief about having to wait for Glenn to arrive.

The Guard didn’t do anything but motion for them to stand a few more feet away from the gate. "Stay here for a moment, all right?" Since they weren’t being rained on any more, they did as they were told. Besides, it wasn’t as if they could just run away if the Guard had a reason for keeping them here.

As they stood there, the Guard, busy tapping something on his wrist, resumed interviewing the people waiting to enter the city.

Emmie nudged him in the ribs. "Did you say something wrong?"

"I don’t think so." While Emmie was clearly still a minor, he was sixteen years old and could legally go wherever he wanted. Granted, he’d been told he was scrawny for his age, and not many sixteen year olds had eleven year olds in their custody, but he hadn’t thought they’d get in any trouble. No one had bothered them on their way here, after all. Did their family get to the capital before them?

His anxiety grew as they waited, not helped in the least by the fact that the Guard and his partner, an older man with light brown hair streaked with grey, constantly checked on them every time they allowed someone else through the gates. He wrapped an arm around Emmie’s shoulders and hugged her close, terrified that somehow his family had told the Guard about his cousin, that they were about to be jailed and Emmie killed because of her bound blood.

"Gate duty on a rainy day. My, aren’t you two the lucky ones," a cheerful voice called out – and caused Maddox to almost jump out of his skin in surprise.

The younger Guard laughed and stepped away from the gate as two more Guards approached, both covered by their rain slickers. "I don’t know, at least we’re mostly out of the rain and not walking around in it all day."

The taller of the two new Guards pushed back the hood of his slicker, revealing damp, light-colored hair and pale blue eyes that were noticeable even from a distance. "Hey, we’ve had at least six cups of coffee and numerous pastries from all the shops on our watch." He patted his stomach. "Hmmm, the apricot kringle was *delicious*."

"Sure, Declan, rub it in when you show up empty handed." The younger Gate Guard frowned as he waved the two new Guards over to where Maddox and Emmie were waiting. Maddox felt as if his heart was about to explode through his chest and tried to force his body to move, but it refused to budge.

"Declan and Cerise, this is Maddox and Emily Cullen. They-"

"Call me Emmie, everyone does," Emmie chimed, practically bouncing on her toes as the Guards approached. Why wasn’t he surprised that she was pleased to meet several of her ‘heroes’ and didn’t seem to think that they might be here to hurt her?

The dark-haired Guard smiled and reached out to tousle her hair. "All right, Emmie. As I was saying, they’re looking for a place to stay while waiting for a family member and asked for a recommendation. I thought maybe you could take them someplace nice."

Declan frowned slightly as he looked at them. "I take it you’re not looking for anything too fancy?"

His mouth dry with fear, Maddox somehow managed to swallow and then speak – even if his voice was little better than a croak. "I… yes, someplace not too expensive would be nice. I mean, we’ve some money, but-"

Now smiling, Declan waved him silent. "I think I know what you mean." He glanced at his partner, who had finally pushed her hood back. She was beautiful enough that Maddox was almost shocked out of his fear, and he heard Emmie gasp. "Fancy a trip to the Koneko?" Mention of one of the inns that Timothy had suggested helped break Maddox free of his sudden stupor.

"Let’s see, a walk that far would call for a short break and some more coffee. Maybe even a few cinnamon rolls if there are any left," the woman replied with a grin. "I think I can be talked into it." She turned her attention on them, the grin softening a little. "You’ll like the Koneko. It’s a lovely place, and it even has a hot spring that the customers can soak in. I think the two of you could use a nice bath right about now. Have you been walking all morning? In this rain?"

Emmie pulled away and approached the woman, a big smile on her face. "Yes, and most of yesterday, too. Are you really a Guard?"

Embarrassment and the realization that they weren’t going to be arrested helped Maddox to move and think once more. "Emmie, of course she’s a Guard." He tried to pull his cousin back but she refused to budge.

The woman, Cerise, laughed as she tucked back several strands of the wet, black hair which clung to her forehead. "Oh, that’s all right, I get that a lot. Just don’t ask me why I’m not married to some rich man who’d look after me," she said with a wink. "I haven’t been a Guard for long, but I’m the real thing." There was an evident sense of pride and wonder in the words, and her eyes shone brightly with the emotions. "Now, how about we get you to the Koneko, all right? I’d really like some of those cinnamon rolls and they never last for long."

"Are they that good?" Emmie asked as she hurried to fall into step beside Cerise. Not quite sure what he was supposed to feel but certain it wasn’t rejection at his cousin’s abandonment, Maddox cautiously followed. Emmie had wanted to be a Guard ever since she was old enough to understand the stories she’d heard about them, so he shouldn’t be upset that she was obviously thrilled to be able to talk to one of them – and a woman to boot. While they’d seen several on their way here, those Guards had been too busy patrolling the roads or market places for her to talk to them. He walked behind his cousin and cringed occasionally at her questions – but all Cerise did was laugh and answer them as they walked.

As his fears were slowly put to rest by the Guards’ cheerful attitude, he devoted a little more attention to their surroundings. The streets around them weren’t as crowded as he’d feared – but then again, it was still raining pretty heavily. At least the wind wasn’t so bad right now, all of the buildings must help block it. Everywhere he looked there was a bit of color, either from a stand or shop’s awnings, or flowers potted around the entrances of various buildings – all of which were made out of stone. He was amazed at how… solid and old things looked. There was a sense here that was missing back in Potswick, of time and history, evident in worn grey and light brown stone.

"How long do you think you’ll be staying?"

"What?" He quickly turned toward Declan, who was looking at him with curiosity. "Ah, well… that sort of depends on my uncle." While he hated to admit that they might have to wait more than a ‘few days’ for Glenn to show up, he couldn’t bring himself to lie to a Guard.

"Who is he and what does he do?" When Maddox told Declan that Glenn worked as a trader in the Ikada caravan, the Guard nodded in understanding. "I see. Most likely he’ll be here in another couple of weeks – all this rain has slowed things down a bit and put most of the northern caravans behind schedule."

His anxiety returned with a vengeance upon hearing that. "Do you really think he’ll be delayed that long? I mean, the weather was fine up until yesterday." He cursed himself for not taking more money when they’d left, and he wondered if he could get a good price for some of the charms he’d brought along.

"I’m pretty sure." Declan pushed back his hood as the rain lightened a little more. "None of the northern-based caravans have arrived yet, and the first of the western ones showed up just in the past few days. While we’ve had a fair mix of hot and cool days the last couple of weeks, the same can’t be said for the rest of the country. Word is that this winter’s going to be earlier and nastier than usual so a lot of the traders are taking advantage of the weather. They’re all arriving in the city sold out of everything and then buying up whatever they can."

At least it sounded like Glenn could definitely use his and Emmie’s help, then. That thought made him feel a little better – at least until he worried about their money again. "We’ll just have to wait for our uncle, I guess. Uhm, is there any temporary work to be found?" he asked, voice tight with nervousness. He’d never thought he’d ever be afraid of a Guard in his life, but right now all he could think about was them taking Emmie from him or locking them both up until their relatives came for them. That two Guards were escorting them through the city didn’t help calm his fears any. Did they do this for anyone who arrived in need of lodging? That didn’t seem very likely.

"There’s always work to be found, especially with several holidays right around the corner. My advice? If I were you, I’d see if there are any openings at the Koneko. They just built a new wing and are counting on lots of new business. My sister just got a job there helping with the dinner crowd." Declan turned to smile at him, appearing to be nothing more than a friendly young man even if he was a Guard. "Not that we’re taking you there so she can make some money. The Koneko’s a good place, and the Guard has been steering business there for centuries. We don’t give out recommendations very lightly. And if you’re worried about catching your uncle, I can leave a message at the inns you mentioned for him about where he can find you and Emmie. I think that would be the best thing to do."

"Thank you." There was now one less thing for Maddox to worry about – two if he counted having found a safe place where he and Emmie could wait as well. Timothy had mentioned the Koneko several times, as had other people along the way. Maddox had been afraid at first that it might be a little too expensive a place to stay for very long, but that mustn’t be the case. A little of the anxiety that had tied his muscles up in knots ever since catching sight of the massive Eastern Gate this morning melted away. They’d made it to the capital safe and sound – if a little worn and poorer – and had found lodgings, not to mention a possible job while they waited. He wasn’t happy to hear that Glenn wouldn’t be here for a couple more weeks, but he started to feel more confident that they’d be fine. They’d just have to stick close to the inn and stay out of trouble.

The rain continued to lessen as they wound their way deeper into the city. More people appeared as the weather slightly improved, covered in brightly colored oiled cloaks or rain slickers, some of them carrying just as colorful umbrellas. He closed his own and carried it clutched in his left hand as he tried not to gawk at the sights. The further inward they went, the older and more ornate the buildings became. There seemed to be stands of some sort on every street, selling everything from food to charms to garments.

"Is it… always so busy here?" he asked Declan while Emmie continued to quiz Cerise about everything and anything that had to do with the Guard.

"Hmmm? Oh, not really." Declan grinned as he glanced up and down the street. "The rain is keeping a lot of people inside today, and there are no major festivals. This is pretty quiet."

"Oh." Maddox thought that they were definitely going to stay close to the Koneko. Granted, he hadn’t been paying close attention at first because of Declan’s questions, but he had absolutely no idea how to get back to the gate. Even now that he was trying to keep track of things, he knew he’d be lost after more than two blocks. "How much further to the Koneko?"

"Just a few more minutes. We’re taking a roundabout way so Cerise and I can patrol our section and avoid some of the more crowded areas. Rain or no rain, some markets are always busy. People have to eat," Declan explained as he stepped around a puddle.

The thought of food made Maddox’s stomach rumble. They’d had a light breakfast before setting out this morning, and right now something hot and filling sounded wonderful. "Thank you for taking us to the inn. We didn’t mean to inconvenience you." The anxiety from earlier aside, he was grateful for the Guards’ presence now. He would never have figured out how to reach the Koneko on his own.

Somehow Cerise heard him, even though Emmie was busy talking her ear off. "That’s all right. We’re just now approaching the edge of our section so we’ve still been doing our job, and we’re owed a break."

"There are some advantages to being on patrol," Declan said as he and Cerise waved to a shopkeeper who called out their names. "You tend to get lots of sympathy on cold and rainy days. Jo – she’s the woman who runs the Koneko’s kitchen and staff – always has a pot of coffee on for those of us stuck working outside."

"As long as we remember to wipe our boots before we enter the inn." Cerise’s voice shook with laughter. "Funny how I’ve been a Guard only a couple of months but *I* know that by heart."

"I was distracted," Declan grumbled as he indicated for Maddox and Emmie to turn down a narrow street with tan and grey cobbled stones. "You try wiping your boots clean while Yuushi’s grilling you."

"Some of us can do more than one thing at a time," was Cerise’s breezy reply. As they walked down the alley, they came across a red brick wall covered with ivy. Trees loomed above it, the air was suddenly perfumed with pine, cedar and something floral. For the first time in over a week, Maddox felt a little homesick. "Here we are."

"Oh… it’s *huge*," Emmie exclaimed as they stopped in front of the inn. Maddox looked up at the six-story brick building and blinked in shock. The Koneko looked old but clean, its many windows gleaming. He guessed the new wing that Declan had mentioned was the one made mostly out of wood, the red bricks only went up the first two floors. There were bushes and trees all around the inn, which was encased with more of the seven-foot tall wall that ran around its perimeter for the rest of the block. The inn seemed much too fine to be a place that they could afford.

Declan stepped forward and opened the inn’s huge, green-painted door. "As Cerise just reminded us, please make sure to wipe your boots."

Before he could reach out and grab his cousin, Emmie hurried over to the door and wiped her boots on the large woven mat before it. "None of the other inns we stayed at was this big or nice!"

"The Koneko’s lovely but it’s nothing fancy. Are you coming, Maddox?" Cerise asked as she cleaned her boots as well, at the same time, she removed her rain slicker and shook it off. She must have guessed what he was thinking as she smiled and motioned him forward. "Don’t worry, the Koneko really isn’t expensive. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who won’t stay here because it’s not classy enough for their tastes."

Declan snorted in derision. "There are a lot of snobbish fools out there. Come on, Maddox, I don’t want to be yelled at for holding the door open and letting the warm air out."

Not seeing what other choice he had, Maddox did as he was told and took extra care when he cleaned off his boots. He also tried to shake off some water from his slicker before he stepped inside.

He hoped coming here wasn’t a mistake.

*******

Aya waited by the counter while Masuda examined the books he’d brought to the store. He felt unaccountably nervous as the older man picked up one book after another and carefully examined its pages, spine and cover. And even though he’d brought the books here for trade, there was a slight twinge of pain whenever Masuda’s eyebrows rose and his hands slid possessively along the books’ leather covers. Aya had to remind himself that these books were duplicates or outdated editions from his father’s and Yohji’s Uncle Touya’s collections. There was no reason to keep them, not when he had so many others now stored in the new library, and he needed to stop spending all his wages on just books. There was the future to think about and the winter solstice just a few months away.

Masuda finally set the last book onto the counter as he cleared his throat. "These are some very interesting editions, Aya. And did you say you had more at home?"

Reiichi stopped perusing a shelf of books from Cretia to join Aya by the counter. "He has several shelves worth but we didn’t think it would be wise to bring that many here on such a rainy day," the Guard explained in his even, polite voice.

Aya felt better having Reiichi take part in the soon to commence bargaining. While Aya had some rough idea of the books’ values – especially since spending so much time in bookstores the last few months – he wasn’t an expert on the matter. While he doubted that Reiichi was one either, he trusted his friend to know if Masuda tried to take advantage of him. Not that he distrusted Masuda… it was just that this wasn’t a few ounces of cinnamon or a bottle of wine he was about to haggle over.

"I wanted to make sure you’d be interested in the books before we brought all of them," he told Masuda as he stroked his gloved right hand over one of the books. "They’re mostly historical and cultural. I thought that, if you wanted them, we could arrange a new line of credit here and also at your brother-in-law’s store." That way he could save his money for more important things and help clear out some of the books cluttering his bedroom.

"I think that can be easily arranged." Masuda smiled as he picked up the list of books Aya had written. He appeared much like a well-pleased owl at the moment, grey hair sticking out in every direction as if ruffled feathers and light brown eyes glinting behind round glasses. Some of his happiness faded as he looked up from the list. "If the rest of the books are in as good a condition as the ones you brought today, I think a credit line would be best. I’m afraid I don’t have the money on hand to buy them outright."

After a quick glance at Aya, Reiichi took over the bargaining. "Credit will be sufficient. That way you can base what the books are worth on the price you get for them rather than on an assumption of their worth."

Masuda blinked at Reiichi’s comment but then nodded his head. "That would be best. I’d offer a fair price for the books but, considering how rare some of these editions are, they could easily surpass that if more than one person is interested in the collection." He gently patted the stack of books. "To be perfectly honest, your best bet would be to place them up for auction yourself. You’d get more money for them that way than by going through me."

Aya shook his head as he stepped back from the counter. "I don’t have the time for that. Besides, I prefer for you to handle the books as if they were your own." He didn’t want to draw any attention to himself or where he’d gotten the books.

Masuda seemed to understand that. "You have a good point. I’m sure there will be some collectors out there who will go to such lengths as to actually harass you if they feel you have more like these to sell." He carefully straightened the books on the oiled cloth Aya had wrapped them in for travel and then folded the thick fabric around them. Once they were safely wrapped, he held out his hand. "I already have buyers in mind for a few of these, but I think it would be best to put the rest up for auction. How does eighty-five percent sound for the direct sales, and eighty for anything auctioned off? I can extend a tab of thirty gold coins as of right now, for both mine and Ryo’s shops."

Aya glanced at Reiichi, and at his friend’s curt nod grasped Masuda’s hand. "That will be fine. When would you like me to bring the rest of the books?"

"Oh, don’t worry about that," Masuda replied as he ran his hand through his hair and further disarrayed the grey strands. "I’ll send my nephew over… how about tomorrow morning? Around ten? He’ll have the cart."

Aya tried not to think about losing the books so soon. "That’s fine," he answered in a quiet voice. Having someone pick them up would save him the hassle of transporting them, especially if it continued to rain. Also, Yohji would be ecstatic to have some space back in their room.

"Good." Masuda practically beamed with happiness as he thumped his hand against the counter. "Thank you very much, Aya. I know there are a lot of other stores you could have sold the books to, so I truly appreciate that you brought them here."

Unsure what to say to that, Aya merely nodded his head. "You’re welcome. I won’t need the credit right away, unless you find more of Rizu’s works on the Plains."

"Ah, yes! I’ll keep an eye out for those. In fact, I might be able to work out a trade with a few of your books." Masuda rubbed his hands together as his smile grew larger. "I’ll send a message to the Koneko if I find any."

Their business concluded, Aya nodded again as he and Reiichi left the store. The morning’s heavy rain had softened to a light drizzle, but he didn’t see anyone out on the street. He paused to tug his hood up before he stepped out from beneath the brown and white awnings that covered the door and front window to Masuda’s bookstore. "That went well?"

Reiichi smiled as he opened his umbrella. "I’d certainly say so. Masuda’s not taking as large of a commission as he could, but then again, he was right in saying that you could take the books anywhere."

"Hmmm." But Aya didn’t want to take the books elsewhere; he did most of his buying through Masuda and Ryo. "Do you mind if we make another stop or two?" he asked his friend as they crossed the small, red bridge leading toward one of the city’s many shopping districts.

"Not at all. I’m enjoying the exercise, even if it is raining." Reiichi laughed as he tilted back his umbrella so he could look up at the sky. "Not that this is much of a rain, compared to a little while ago."

Aya nodded in agreement as they continued on their way, for once the streets for weren’t packed with other people. He enjoyed shopping on rainy days; not only could he go about outside without the sun draining him of energy, but he didn’t have to put up with the usual crowds. "Lilla should have an order of candles finished, and there’s a spice stall not far from her shop."

Reiichi pushed his glasses up his nose as he made an appreciative groan. "More mulling spices? Then I insist we make another stop or two. Nothing like spending a rainy, cold night in front of a fire while sipping Jo’s mulled wine."

Aya agreed with his friend and looked forward to some time with Yohji, curled up in their room in front of a fire. "I’m sure we won’t have to wait until tonight to enjoy some wine. Since Yohji will be working until dinner, would you mind a game of chess when we return home?" They could play in the library now that all the books were on the shelves and the furniture set up.

"I’d be more than happy to play a game or two." Reiichi urged him to step closer to the building they were walking past as a carriage made its way down the street, splashing water everywhere. "That way I’ll be all warmed up to play against Omi after dinner."

Groaning softly, Aya shook his cloak out to make the muddy water splashed on it by the carriage slide off the shadow-covered material. "I used to think that I was a pretty good player until I met the two of you."

Reiichi smiled at the compliment and bowed his head slightly. "Thank you. You’re a very good player, Aya. It’s not as if you never win."

No, but now he lost almost two games out of every three. He’d spent years learning the strategies and had been taught by a master – his father – but he just wasn’t the strategist that Omi and Reiichi were. While it was a little depressing to lose more often than not, he did take some comfort in the fact that he was playing against two obvious experts and was learning from them.

They walked the rest of the way to Lilla’s shop in companionable silence. Aya never forgot that the main reason Reiichi went on these outings with him was as a bodyguard, but he minded it less and less each day. Reiichi was a good friend, someone who he could spend time in the company of without the need for senseless chatter – unlike Naru, who practically twitched if he had to be quiet for longer than ten minutes. How Eri managed with such a partner was beyond him.

Reaching Lilla’s shop, Aya felt his lips curve slightly at the sight of the bright red and gold awnings and matching drapes in the candle-lit windows. Even from outside he could smell the myriad of scents from her wares and unconsciously began to breathe in shallow breaths as he opened the door. Inside, it was warm and bright, the scents were now overpowering to his bound senses. He could never manage to stay here for very long, but Lilla’s joyful presence made up for the discomfort.

Right now his friend appeared tired and worn, but she still managed a smile in greeting. "Aya! I can’t believe you dragged poor Reiichi out in this rain!" she fussed loudly as she slowly moved from her stool behind the counter to join them in the middle of the shop.

"Please, I’m not some highborn who wilts out in the cold and wet, Lilla," Reiichi told her as he gave her a peck on the cheek. As for himself, Aya merely pushed his hood back and gave her a warm smile.

Lilla returned the smile, her expression was now more natural than it had been a moment ago. "I don’t know; you two have never struck me as being very ‘common’." Her smile then faltered. "Oh no, you’re here to pick up the Koneko’s order, aren’t you?" She stepped toward the counter. "I’m so sorry, I’ve finished most of the candles but I still need to make a batch of the lavender ones."

Aya managed not to frown when he heard his favorite candles weren’t ready. "That’s all right; just let me know when they’re finished and I’ll stop back for them." However, he did frown when he noticed how distressed Lilla was acting, but had no idea what to do to calm her down. She normally didn’t stand there looking at him as if he’d just told her a beloved family member had died, after all.

"I’m so sorry, Aya!" He took a stumbling step backward in alarm when she suddenly burst out into tears and grabbed him by his shoulders. "It’s just… I’ve been so busy and the scented oil didn’t turn out properly and…." She hardly seemed to breathe during the rapid explanations, but at least her crying stopped almost as quickly as it started. Still, all he could do was stand there in shock and confusion because of her strange behavior.

Thankfully, Reiichi had no such problem in dealing with hysterical women. He stroked his hand down Lilla’s left arm and gently ushered her back to her stool. "We’re not in any hurry for the candles. Why don’t you sit down and take a deep breath, all right?" Lilla nodded slowly as she did as she was told.

Frown still in place, Aya cautiously stepped closer to her, half afraid of making her cry again. He’d never seen Lilla this upset before, nor known her to be late on an order. There was something different about her as well, something that confused him and didn’t make much sense. Despite her evident exhaustion, she somehow… seemed more ‘alive’ than usual. "Are you all right, Lilla?" he asked very cautiously, and hoped that the question didn’t set her off again.

Instead, it seemed to help her calm down. She gave him a shaky smile as she let out a deep breath. "Yes, I’m fine." There was a rueful chuckle as she rubbed her stomach. "I might as well tell you, it’s not like it’ll be a secret for much longer." There was a slight pause as both her arms wrapped around her waist. "I’m pregnant. Just a few months along, I only told my family about it a few days ago."

He had no idea how he was supposed to respond to the declaration, but once again, Reiichi saved him. His friend exclaimed in joy as he gingerly hugged Lilla. "That’s great! Would this have anything to do with why Toshi has been walking around with a silly grin on his face for the last month?" Reiichi asked with a wink.

Lilla chuckled again, this time sounding much more comfortable than before. "Yes. I told him once I was sure, but I… I didn’t want to let anyone else know until… you know."

Reiichi seemed to guess what Lilla was hinting at, but Aya himself had no clue. Although, now he had an answer as to why Lilla had seemed more ‘full’ of energy the last month or two – he’d sensed the baby’s life force.

"There’s no hurry on the candles," he told her, at a loss for something else to say. He had no experience with pregnant women, none that he could recall at least. And a part of him felt nervous just being around her and the new life inside her body. He didn’t drain people just by touching, like Yohji could, but he was a creature of death and a baby such a fragile, uncertain thing. "Oh, and… congratulations."

Rising from the stool, Lilla shook her head as she headed to the door that led to the back of her store. "Thank you, Aya. And I will worry about those candles since I know they’re yours and Yohji’s favorites. I’m hoping to be past the morning sickness soon – most of the women in my family don’t usually suffer it for this long – and I’ll make you a double batch as an apology. But until then, is there another scent you would like?"

He thought about the question while she waited in the doorway. "I… if you don’t mind, something spicy?" he asked as he thought about his earlier discussion with Reiichi. He wouldn’t mind something like the mulling spices he planned to buy on their way back to the inn.

"I’ve a cinnamon and clove blend I think you might like. It’s very popular this time of the year." Lilla vanished for a couple of minutes and returned with two bundles, one much larger than the other. "Try these," she told him after she set the larger bundle down on the counter and unwrapped the cloth around the smaller one.

The candles were reddish-brown and he could smell their spicy scent from several feet away. But he picked one up and held it near his nose as he took a deep breath. "They’re very good."

"All right, then, they’re yours." Lilla grinned as she rewrapped them and picked up the other bundle. "Yohji should like them too; he always did have a thing for cinnamon."

There was a brief spike of jealousy when he thought about how well Lilla had known his mate. However, he easily ignored the emotion. Lilla wasn’t interested in Yohji any more and could be trusted. As could Yohji, no matter how much Aya worried that his lover would grow bored with him. He had to stop worrying about that before he really did hurt someone.

"I’d say that I’d like to give those candles a try, but that wouldn’t be a good idea since I share quarters with Naru," Reiichi said as he picked up the candles. "Yuushi and I would never hear the end of him complaining about how he’s starving for cinnamon rolls."

Lilla laughed at the joke as she patted the Guard’s shoulder. "I did wonder why you and your friends stuck with my cedar blend."

"Because Naru doesn’t much like the taste of wood." Reiichi smiled as he tucked the candles into the crook of his arm. "Nor liver, to be honest, but I don’t imagine Yuushi and I would care for *that* scent. Other than that, there’s precious little that he won’t eat."

"Liver scented candles… somehow, I don’t see those being a big seller," Lilla commented as she settled back onto her stool. She appeared much happier and relaxed than she did a few minutes ago. "But I’ve been selling scented candles long enough to realize that somewhere, someone would be interested." Reiichi chuckled as he nodded, and Aya was left wondering if Lilla had been kidding or not. Sometimes he found it very difficult to know when someone was joking or serious. At least with Yohji, he could sense his lover’s emotions and figure out when he was being teased. Suddenly feeling very uncomfortable, he tugged his cloak tighter around him.

"Thank you for the candles, Lilla," he told his friend. "When would you like me to stop back for the rest?"

She stopped laughing with Reiichi and frowned as she stared off into the distance. "I think… another week, if you don’t mind. That way if I mess up again, I’ll still have some time to make another batch. But I can just ask Toshi to drop them off at the Koneko, if you’d like."

"I’m sure I’ll be back this way in a week," he assured her. There seemed to be an awful lot he couldn’t do at the Koneko because of his nature and past, but one of the things he was good at was running errands for Jo and Mickey. "Good day."

"Good day, Aya. You too, Reiichi. See you next week." She waved as they left the shop.

Once they were a couple of yards away, Aya took a deep breath. He loved how good Lilla’s candles smelled while they burned, but being around so many all at once was just too much. The spice shop was several blocks away, which was good since he’d need the time to get his sense of smell back. After all, Jo preferred to send either him or Yohji out for spices or herbs because of their enhanced senses.

"So, Toshi will be a father." Reiichi’s voice, while soft, still startled Aya from his thoughts. He turned to look at his friend as they walked down the cobble-stoned street,

past the alley that would have led them to Cassandra’s house.

"That’s… good, isn’t it?" he asked, not quite sure of the answer. Other than that Toshi was a Shadow Guard and Lilla’s lover, Aya knew very little else about the man.

Reiichi pushed up his glasses as he seemed to consider the question. "I imagine so, yes. He certainly has appeared happy the last couple of weeks, and I believe he’ll be a good father."

"But…?" There had been a bit of hesitancy in Reiichi’s voice.

"But he’s a Guard, and those from Guard families can tell stories about loved ones they’ve lost over the years. I must admit, it’s not the healthiest profession out there." Reiichi rubbed the hip of his crippled leg. "The chances are good that Toshi won’t see the child grow up."

Not good at all, especially with a war waiting in the not-too distant future. A war that Aya tried not to think about too much, considering the fact that he would play an important part in it. But all he said was that Lilla wasn’t a Guard.

"No, which is good." Reiichi frowned as he slowly spun the pole of his umbrella. "You won’t find too many Guards who marry other Guards for that very reason. No one wants to leave an orphan behind."

"Orphans are made all kinds of ways," Aya pointed out, his voice quiet as he remembered his parents. Reiichi stopped walking and looked at him, appearing ready to apologize for his statement, but Aya merely waved his hand and continued on as he quickly changed the topic. "Maybe we should see if the shop has cocoa, as well. Kira said something about wanting hot chocolate at breakfast this morning."

His friend was quiet as he hurried to catch up to him. "Hot chocolate sounds wonderful," Reiichi said as they approached the spice shop. "Almost as nice as mulled wine but not as likely to make Naru drunk, which makes it even better. I’m very glad he never became a full-fledged wizard," Reiichi said with evident amusement. "He’d have destroyed the city the first time he got drunk."

Pleased with the direction their conversation had taken, Aya smiled slightly as he stepped beneath the spice shop’s awning. "Having seen the damage those stones of his can do, I agree." This time he didn’t mind the overwhelming scents so much and actually took a deep breath as he stepped inside. The thought of sharing some mulled wine with his mate later that night made his smile grow stronger as he greeted the shopkeeper.

*******

Yohji grumbled about how people could be such pigs as he wiped down one of the common room’s large tables. Really, did it take that much effort to not leave a mess behind while one ate? The premise was very simple; one moved the food from the plate to one’s mouth – not all over the tabletop. Feeling more than a little out of sorts, he glared at the smooth wood as he wiped it clean.

The letter tucked inside of his jerkin was an unwelcome reminder of what had set off this foul mood. For the umpteenth time he was tempted to crack its seal and read its contents, but it wasn’t addressed to him. Aya would smack him if he did something like that and invaded his lover’s privacy. He didn’t normally felt the need to read Aya’s mail – not that the man ever received much of any correspondence other than the likes of ‘hey, that book you’re willing to spend a lot of money on has arrived so stop by the shop and make me a very happy bookseller’. But he was dying to know what the hell Kikyou had to say to *his* mate. Wasn’t it bad enough that Aya would have to spend most of tomorrow with the asshole? Did Kikyou really have to bother them with love notes too? Gods, it better *not* be a love note or Yohji was heading straight to the palace so he could rip the bastard’s head from his neck and do obscene things with it.

At least Aya was in a good mood, from what he could tell over their link. Yohji took a deep breath and concentrated on his lover’s emotions. Aya must be having a nice time out with Reiichi. There was a little jealousy at the thought but he managed to squelch it after a moment. Reiichi was a very smart man, one who knew that Aya was off limits and who also wasn’t anywhere near as sexy as Yohji. That thought helped to put him back into a mostly good mood as he laughed at himself. Good thing his cat wasn’t here right now or he’d be sporting bruised ribs for that bit of egoism.

"And the grouchy bastard so loves knocking me down a peg or two," he told the table as he gave it one final wipe. Ah well, who was he to complain? If he could just get rid of Kikyou in some spectacularly bloody fashion and make Birman leave him and Aya alone for a few weeks, life would be perfect. Well, nearly perfect. Perfect included him and Aya not having to work shifts at the Koneko either, but they did have to earn their keep. Next time he owned an inn, he told himself, he’d make sure that its employees knew he was the boss and treated him accordingly. That absurd thought made him laugh out loud and startled some poor customer who had tried to take a drink just then but spilled it down his shirt instead. "Sorry."

As he blithely ignored the dirty look from the customer and began to set up the now clean table, he heard the chimes on the front door ring. More than content to let Teddy handle the newcomers, he continued with his task. His curiosity was piqued a bit when he recognized Declan’s voice but he continued with his task. First, he’d finish this and then see what brought the Guards to the Koneko. Most likely, Declan and Cerise were here for something to warm them up. He glanced outside and noticed that the rain showed signs of stopping sometime soon, which was good. Unless, of course, that meant the sun came out while Aya was still shopping. That gave him something new to worry about as he set up the rest of the tables for the dinner crowd.

He wouldn’t be so worried about the weather if it just acted normally instead of its recent activity; first rainy and cold one day, then sunny and hot the next, only to switch right back. His anxiety grew as he thought about the news Crawford’s agent had brought them the other week, about how Esset’s bounds were tampering with the weather in an effort to perfect their control over it. Several powerful elemental bounds here in Kritiker were working to keep things in balance, but they couldn’t do too much and risk drawing attention to themselves, so everyone had to put up with the crazy weather and what promised to be a nasty winter. Stuff like this would keep happening until the next war was fought and someone was declared the winner. That wasn’t a very cheerful thought since he and the people he loved would be fighting in that war.

After getting everything all set up, he headed to the kitchen to hopefully distract himself from more depressing thoughts. Soon enough, he reminded himself, Aya would be back and he’d be done with his shift. A nice dinner and maybe they’d listen to a song or two from Koyu and then they’d have the night to themselves. Now that helped to cheer him up.

"And what new bit of mischief did you just dream up?" Jo asked him as he entered the kitchen. "Should I go fetch my rolling pin?"

He gave his friend a wink and settled down at one of the large tables. "That depends on what you consider ‘mischief’. Here I was thinking about ways to make you leave Ichiro and run off with me to set up a new inn somewhere in Esset."

Jo laughed at that bit of silliness while she poured a cup of coffee. "I’ll go pack my bags," she said as she handed him the steaming drink. "To think that I feared I’d spend the rest of my life pining over you."

Yohji almost choked on his coffee as he tried to drink and laugh at the same time. "Oh, I knew you always wanted me," he managed after he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Just think of all the years we wasted by denying our true feelings." Over by the sink, Ani was laughing so hard that she was bent over, hands clutching the counter in an effort to keep on her feet. He gave her a wink before turning to look at Jo and blowing a kiss.

All Jo did was shake her head as she sat down. "’Flirt’ doesn’t begin to describe you, Yohji."

That helped to sober him up as he sipped more of his coffee. "All joking aside, you’re one of the few people I can ‘flirt’ with anymore." While the demon part of him purred at the memory of Aya’s recent bout of jealousy, he was only too aware of how close his lover had come to killing Marcus the other day.

Jo’s thoughts must have echoed his own as she frowned while she wiped the clean table with a corner of her apron. "Just make sure not to take it too far. I don’t want Aya hurt again by some silly joke." She glanced at the door that led to the Koneko’s foyer and glared.

"I wouldn’t do that to him," was all he said. "But as much as I still want to throttle Teddy, some good came of his little prank. Aya and I straightened out something important and I think a few of Aya’s fears have been put to rest. Now let’s just hope that Teddy doesn’t forget part of his punishment and there’s not another repeat of the ‘Marcus incident’.

"Ah, you’ve stopped calling it the ‘Teddy is a humongous idiot with the brain of a flea’ incident, I see," Ani remarked as she joined them at the table and poured him some more coffee. Her cheeks were still a little flushed and streaked with tears from all the laughter. "You’re more forgiving than most. I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but Koyu didn’t spend last night here – nor the night before. He’s staying at a friend’s place."

He couldn’t hold back a smile at the news. Yes, he loved Teddy since the idiot was – thankfully not by blood – his brother, but he couldn’t easily forgive something that had caused Aya such pain. He’d only gotten the one hit in before he’d gone searching for Aya and, while Jo had dished out a suitable punishment, Teddy would be the most affected by Koyu’s anger. Maybe being deprived of his lover for a few days would make Teddy think about how any pranks against Yohji affected Aya as well.

"Koyu’s a wonderful man and a very talented Harper – what are the chances of him coming to his senses and realizing that he can do much better than Teddy?" Even though they were upset with the pest, Ani and Jo gave Yohji disapproving looks for that statement. He held up his hands and smiled. "Just kidding – mostly. I’m still a little pissed off at him, all right? I mean, all the shit Aya went through this past month and what nearly made him become depressed again was a stunt of Teddy’s."

"You’ve got a point, but don’t say something you’ll regret when you’ve cooled down." Jo gave him a dirty look as she stopped wiping the table.

He gave her a sheepish grin in return as he lifted up the coffee mug. "Sorry. Give me another day or two to calm down and I’ll feel guilty about what I just said." Catching a faint ‘crinkle’ sound as he sipped his drink, he was reminded of the letter tucked into his jerkin. Teddy wasn’t the only reason for his churlish mood today, though the idiot could lay claim to a good bit of it. There was an impulse to go over to the stove, hold the letter in some steam to see if he couldn’t loosen the wax seal a little and find out what Kikyou wanted from Aya now – but the sound of approaching footsteps prevented that as it wasn’t a staff member who was headed toward the kitchen. The knock on the door a moment later confirmed his suspicions.

Jo frowned as she left the table to see who it was. "Yes?" she asked, her voice a bit sharp as she cracked open the door.

Declan peeked around it and sniffed. "Is that coffee I smell? Would there happen to be enough for two cold, starved Guards?" He sniffed again, this time more dramatically than the last.

Rolling her eyes, Jo opened the door all the way. "I really need to talk to Yuushi and Birman about the Koneko receiving a stipend of some sort since we seem to be supplying meals for you lot on a daily basis. Go sit down," she barked as she went to fetch two new mugs.

"Thank you, Jo," Cerise said as she sat down at the table. She gave Yohji and Ani a polite nod while she undid the top button of her Guard’s coat. "Believe it or not, we’re here for more than just coffee."

"And cinnamon rolls, if you have them," Declan added in a plaintive voice as he stretched out his legs toward the fire. "As lucky as I am to have a wind elemental who can keep the worst of the wind and the rain away as a partner, sitting down someplace warm and dry is *wonderful*." There was a grateful moan when Jo returned with the coffee. "Need I tell you that it’s a miserable day out there?"

"No, but you could let us know why you’re really here," Yohji commented. Worried a little by their visit, he rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward. Jo sat down beside him and smoothed out her apron while Ani put together a plate of sweets. He didn’t sense anything but a bit of confusion from Aya, but that wasn’t unusual when his mate was out interacting with humans. So he doubted the Guards were here because something bad had happened to Aya.

Cerise swallowed her coffee and then cradled the mug between her hands. "Well, we brought you a pair of strays."

That got an instant reaction from Jo, making her stop fussing with her apron to devote her full attention to the Guards. "Strays? How are you sure?"

"Ah…." Cerise and Declan shared a guilty look. "You see… word came about a week ago that two children from Umeko Mountain were headed toward the capital. Several of us bounds in the Shadow Guard were asked to keep an eye out for them and to help them however we could. We of course spread the word to the rest of the Shadow Guard, and when Ken – uhm, Kennichi recognized them at the Eastern Gate today, he called for us." The long explanation came out in more or less one breath and Cerise had to inhale and exhale a couple of times before she could sip her coffee.

Yohji needed a moment to digest all of that, but Jo seemed to grasp the situation pretty quickly. "So you knew there were strays headed this way and kept an eye out for them." Her eyes narrowed in a manner that made Yohji go very still and Ani step back even as she approached the table with a plate of cinnamon and sweet rolls. "First off, why are they strays, and secondly, if you knew about them a week ago, why weren’t we told about them before now?"

Cerise took a deep breath as Declan’s hand stopped in mid-reach for a cinnamon roll. "Uhm, well, we weren’t sure if we could get them to the Koneko," Declan explained in a shaky voice. "Even though they’re kids we couldn’t just round them up and drop them off here. I mean, we were hoping to get them to the Koneko somehow, and others along the way made sure to suggest that they stop here, but we couldn’t force them…." His voice faded off as his face grew flushed from the intensity of Jo’s glare. "They’re here now, isn’t that okay?" he managed to squeak.

Jo continued to glare at him for a few more seconds before she pushed the plate closer to his hand. "Yes, that’s perfectly fine. They’re here now and will remain so as long as they’re in need." She turned to look at Yohji and Ani, and they both had the sense to vigorously nod their heads in agreement.

"You know we wouldn’t turn them away." Yohji got up to fetch the pot of coffee, which had been placed back on the stove to keep it warm. While he was up, he decided to brew a new pot as well. "But why are they here? Will someone be coming for them? Are… are they okay?" He hated asking that question with Ani in the room, and felt bad when he saw her flinch. There just wasn’t a polite way to inquire if these kids had been abused in some manner, dammit.

Cerise nodded as she cautiously reached for a sweet. "They’re fine, other than being exhausted and terrified. We don’t think any family members will come looking for them; a few tried back at their home but were… discouraged." The grin on her face contained a feral edge. "There are two of them, a teenage boy named Maddox and his younger cousin, Emmie. She’s the reason why they’ve been watched and helped their entire way here – her mother’s a bound."

"Oh. Doesn’t that… isn’t she one as well?" Ani asked, her voice was much quieter than normal and her shoulders hunched forward as if she was trying to make herself invisible. Jo gently stroked her hair in comfort.

"No." Cerise shook her head as she frowned. "We won’t know for certain until Cassandra meets the girl but we’re pretty sure she isn’t. She hasn’t shown any signs and she’s at the age when one or two of them would be obvious."

"Cass told me that the odds of a bound having a bound child are basically less than fifty percent," Yohji explained as he rejoined the group at the table. "That changes a bit depending on certain bloodlines and if both parents are bounds, but if one of the parents is human, then most likely the child will be one as well."

"In those cases, the bound blood will often wait a generation or two before exposing itself." There was a sad expression on Cerise’s face, one of deep sorrow and loss. "We’re all pretty much aware of the odds. So, Emmie’s mother did what almost all of us do whenever we’re responsible for a half-human child. Once Emmie was weaned, her mother left. That way there would be less danger to the child and it would have a chance to grow up normally."

Much like what Yohji’s father had done, all those years ago. He still felt a small bit of hatred toward Masato for abandoning his mother and not showing up in time to tell Yohji what he really was when he should have – and thus spared Aya some pain when the truth had come out – but that emotion slowly lessened with each day. "So, how did she find out about her mother? Does she even know?"

Cerise nodded as she took a bite out of her cinnamon roll. "Yes, she does. That’s why she’s here, in fact. Her father confessed the truth before he died, and her family found out."

"She’s from one of those isolated farming clans," Declan explained, a look of mild disgust on his face. "You know the ones, Yohji. They come down here to trade or attend some festival and they act as if everyone else is filthy trash."

"That’s their way of life," Jo said in a cold voice. "If you want to be left in peace to live however you like, make sure to return the favor."

Declan ducked his head and mumbled an apology while Cerise managed a weak smile. "You’re correct, Jo, but then again, maybe Emmie and Maddox wouldn’t have felt the need to run clear across the country if their families were a little more understanding." Her smile faded. "They were going to hide her away and forbid her to marry. Maddox, the boy, didn’t want that for his cousin so they both left and came here in hopes of being taken in by a family member who seems more open-minded than the rest." She frowned as she tapped the fingers of her right hand against her temple. "Times like these, I really wish I was a soul gaki-bound. I got the message second-hand about these two so I’m sure I’m missing some important information but now you’ve heard the basics. Eri could probably give you more information."

Declan dared to look up. "Oh, and the kids were hoping to find their uncle at either The Laughing Carp or Porter’s Inn. I think that’s where the boy wanted to stay, but everyone who was in on the plan made sure to point out that those weren’t exactly places for kids. I promised him that the Guards would leave a message at both places for his uncle to come here when he arrives, so hopefully they’ll stay put."

Yohji thought about the two inns. "Porter’s isn’t a bad place but you’re right, it’s not a good idea for two kids to stay at either inn – especially not lately." Since Ani was there he didn’t elaborate but Cerise nodded while Declan’s lips pressed into a grim line. It was more than likely that they were aware of Naru and Eri’s latest assignment, one that he expected Birman to ask for his and Aya’s help. He was willing to bet the Koneko that their vacation was about to be cut short yet again, but couldn’t complain too much. They could always take a few days off later; breaking up a pedophile ring was more important.

"We’ll think of some way to keep them here." Jo looked so determined that Yohji almost felt sorry for the kids. They were about to receive a full dose of Jo’s infamous mothering whether they liked it or not. He had to smile as he imagined two little figures pinned to the ground while Jo sat on them. If she didn’t knock them out with her rolling pin when they tried to sneak off. She must be part soul gaki-bound as she suddenly glared at him. "Did I say something amusing, Yohji?"

"No," he quickly replied, not about to get into a fight with Jo when his lover wasn’t around to save him. "I’m just thinking that they won’t stand a chance against you." That made her glare soften into amusement, and Ani smiled as she uncurled a little.

Cerise left the table to fetch the pot of fresh-brewed coffee. "I don’t think you’ll have too much of a problem keeping them here. They don’t seem to have very much money and the boy was asking about jobs. Declan said he thought there might be something here for the boy to do."

"We could use some help since we opened the new wing." Ani’s voice was softer than usual but she seemed to be recovering from her painful memories.

"Yes, he could clean the rooms and help out here in the kitchen." Jo shot a dirty look at the kitchen’s huge sink. "There are always things that need to be washed around here, and I know that Touya is growing bored with being stuck with the dishes."

"I think Maddox will be ecstatic to hear that he can help pay the bill with some manual labor. Teddy did a pretty good job of wiggling his way out of being paid." Declan smiled at his partner when she refilled his mug. "They’ll be down here soon enough for a bite to eat so you’ll meet them then. Don’t be surprised if Maddox hits you up for a job right away, Jo."

She smiled as she got up and went to fuss with something on the stove. "That’s fine." Glancing over her shoulder, she gave Yohji a slight frown. "Aren’t you supposed to be working in the common room until dinner? I think someone should be there for when those two come downstairs."

He sighed as he pushed himself up from the bench. "Great, no rest for the wicked, I see." At least Aya should be back soon and dinner was only a couple of hours away. "I’ll get going before you fetch the rolling pin."

Jo snorted as she stirred a huge pot of lamb stew. "Sometimes I think you like to be beaten, Yotan."

"Only by you and Aya." He blew her a kiss and then, as she laughed, waved to Cerise and Declan. "Thanks for bringing those kids here."

"No problem." Declan smiled as he motioned toward the empty pastry plate. "But, if you insist on showing us your gratitude, we’ll gladly have some more sweets before we have to go out in that cold, horrible weather."

That managed to wring a laugh from Ani as she graciously fetched them some more rolls. "I think it’s a very good thing the two of you are on patrol duty today as you’ll need to walk off all that coffee and sugar!"

Amidst laughter and warm feelings, Yohji smiled and then forced himself to leave the kitchen. As he walked back to the common room, he thought about the Koneko’s healing magic and the two new strays. Would they end up staying only a short while or would the Koneko have some new staff? Not all the strays stayed, after all; in fact very few did. Usually they stayed only long enough to get back on their feet and have some hope for the future and away they went. There was a flash of possessive emotion when he thought about how Aya hadn’t done that. While he knew that the two kids wouldn’t be anything as special to him as his mate, he had to wish that they might be tempted to remain here. Perhaps the old god whose temple had resided here was responsible for it, but the Koneko usually received help just when it needed it the most. And, considering what the future had in store for them, they needed all the help they could get.

*******

Emmie stared in wonder as she entered the Koneko. The walls were paneled in thick planks of wood that glowed golden in the candlelight, with pretty knots carved along the top. The intricate knots were also carved all over the steps’ banister and as much of the railing that she could see. Not even Great-Uncle Patrick’s house was as nice as this. All the other inns they’d stopped at along the way suddenly seemed grubby and plain.

"Welcome to the Koneko."

She just now noticed the man standing behind a small counter set back a couple of meters from the door. He didn’t look very old and had long black hair. As she stepped closer, she noticed that his face was bruised, as if he’d been punched in the jaw, and he talked a little funny. But the smile he gave her was bright and friendly.

"Hi, Teddy," Declan called out as he approached the stranger. "We brought you a couple of strays."

"And here I thought you and Cerise had decided to start a family of your own," Teddy replied, his eyes twinkling with amusement. She didn’t understand the ‘stray’ comment but Teddy didn’t react to it. "So we have two new customers?"

Maddox pressed against her back and urged her forward. "Uhm, yes. That is, if you’ve a room for us. One that doesn’t cost too much." She resisted the urge to step on his foot at that last bit. Why did her cousin always have to sound so cheap?

Teddy laughed as he leaned against the counter. "Last I checked, we hadn’t booked all the rooms or raised our rates. I think I can find a double that’s available." He opened a large book and flipped through its pages. "If you don’t mind steps, there’s one up on the fifth floor." He peered down at them. "You look like you can handle the hike better than I can."

"How much?"

"Don’t worry, we don’t charge too much for the room since it’s on the upper floor. Now, I just need you to sign the guest ledger here and I’ll take you upstairs." Teddy held out a pen as he indicated where he wanted them to sign. "Meals are included with the room, as is access to the hot spring downstairs."

Maddox’s grip on her shoulder prevented her from moving forward, and he repeated his question. Which Teddy then countered with asking them how long they intended to stay.

"Ah, we’re not quite sure," Maddox stuttered as his hand tightened around her left shoulder, right beside where the strap of her backpack dug in. When she twitched from the pressure, he let go and mumbled an apology. "Sorry. We think we’ll be here at least a week but probably longer." He was quiet for a moment. "Declan said something about you needing workers. I could help out… maybe pay for part of the room?" When she opened her mouth to say that she could work as well, her cousin once more abused her poor shoulder.

"Maddie…," she complained, which only led to him squeezing her shoulder even tighter. She finally got the hint and shut up, but she wouldn’t let the matter drop. There was no way that Maddox would work while she did nothing. She wasn’t going to spend the next week or two stuck in a room with nothing to do.

Teddy’s eyebrows shot up as he looked from them to Declan. "Work? There’s always cleaning that needs to be done, so I’m sure we can arrange something. I’ll have to talk to Mickey and Jo first, since I only work here." He sniffed after that comment and rubbed his bruised jaw. "Until then, Declan seems to vouch for you so why don’t I show you to your room? That way you can wash up or whatever and unpack. Once you’re done, come back down here for a bite to eat."

The mention of food made her stomach cramp in hunger and her mouth water. "That sounds great!" She hurried toward the counter so she could sign her name, and once that was done, she handed the pen to Maddox. He seemed to pause before writing down his name and he didn’t look very happy at the moment. Wondering what her cousin was worrying about now, she frowned as he grabbed her hand. Cerise and Declan were Guards and they’d brought them here, so the Koneko couldn’t be bad. Besides, Timothy had said that the Koneko was one of the best places to stay in the city, and Shinji and Elspeth claimed they always stayed here when they came to the city.

"Declan, would you mind watching the door for a few minutes while I show these two to their room?" When the Guard nodded, Teddy smiled and fetched something from behind the counter. "Okay, let me grab you some fresh towels before we go upstairs." There was a small closet behind the counter, from which he pulled out some nice, fluffy white towels that looked much softer than the ones they had to use at the last inn where they stopped. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms in memory of how scratchy they were.

Teddy gave her a wink as he approached. "Not that I’m saying that you obviously need a bath, but since you’re so far up, I figured better safe than sorry. If you do have fresh towels up there, then you’ll have a spare set." He nodded in the direction of the stairs. "Okay, up we go. Do you need any help with those packs of yours?"

"No, we’re fine," Maddox said as he tugged on her pack. "I can carry both of them." He frowned until she shrugged it off and then slung it over his shoulder. While she hated to be treated like a baby, her shoulders definitely felt better now.

"All right, then, up we go." Teddy made a big production of jumping onto the first step. "Now, as I said, there’s a hot spring downstairs in the basement that’s open… well, most of the time, unless… some of the ‘staff’ are using it." He seemed rather amused by something. "As you can imagine, it’s a very popular place so you’ll have to share it with other people." He frowned a little as he glanced over his shoulder. "Uhm, but we do sometimes make exceptions. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing it with a bunch of older strangers, let us know and we’ll allow you some privacy down there."

She was very grateful for that as she didn’t like the thought of sharing a bath with people other than her aunts and female cousins. That had been a terrible shock along their way here, to discover that some places let men *and* women share a bath together.

After Maddox mumbled his thanks, Teddy smiled and waved his hand through the air. "There are also bathing rooms on each floor. Those are a little more private and we’re pretty good on keeping the water stocked in them unless it’s a dry season. Also, each room has a basin and a large pitcher of water for you to use. What can I say, we’re big on cleanliness here."

As they continued their way up the stairs – passing a few people along the way – Teddy kept rattling off helpful information about the inn. "We strip the beds every day unless asked not to, and replace the towels as well. Downstairs is the common room where most people sit to have their meals, but we’ll also bring trays to your room if you let us know. Not many people bother with that, though, since we have a Harper in residence here." His smile faltered and his bright voice became slightly flat. "He’s very talented; you should stop down one night to hear Koyu play."

"A Harper?" Maddox asked, his voice squeaking a little. "How can you afford-" He blushed as he snapped his mouth shut. As for herself, she couldn’t believe that a real Harper would play here. She’d never heard one play before – oh, one or two showed up every now and then at Potswick but the children were kept at a distance so they didn’t bother the heralds.

Teddy’s good humor seemed to return. "Don’t start worrying that we’ll charge you for his services. Koyu lives here so he considers playing at night as his contribution to the Koneko and a way to practice. If he hadn’t just completed his journeyman requirement this past summer, he’d be back on the road and you’d have missed him." He wiped his hand over his face just then, across his nose and his left eye.

"Wow. We heard a few musicians at some of the inns we stayed at but none of them were Harpers." First, she got to talk to Guards today and now she was going to hear a Harper play. She was filled with a rush of excitement… until she thought about how she couldn’t wait to tell Jody and Lynn about her good luck. Suddenly things didn’t seem so wonderful and fun any longer.

"Well, not many places are lucky enough to have one stay on a full-time basis," Teddy said, pride and smugness evident in his voice. "Ah, now where was I… oh yeah, meals." He paused for a moment to let someone walk down the flight of stairs they were about to go up. "Don’t worry, this is the last one. Meals…. Jo doesn’t make anything too fancy but what she does make is delicious. There’s always some meat and a selection of vegetables to eat along with fresh bread and pastries, so you should find something you like. If not, let us know and she’ll see what she can do." He walked down a long hallway lined with doors until they were almost at the end. "Okay, this is where you’ll be sleeping." He handed Maddox a small brass key.

Her cousin was still for a moment, the key in his hand, before he reached for the doorknob. The room wasn’t locked so the door swung open. Eager to be someplace quiet where she could change into some dry clothes and sit down for a few minutes, she gave him a little push so he stopped blocking the door. "Maddox, I want *in*. Let me see."

"Okay, Emmie," he huffed as he stepped into the room. It wasn’t the biggest room they’d stayed in, but it was far from the smallest. There were two narrow beds covered with bright quilts, and she was delighted to see a screen near the washbasin in the corner. The walls were a creamy white and the furniture was small but solid… it almost looked like one of her cousins’ bedrooms. There was even a fireplace with logs stacked inside of it and off to the side, and two more doors.

Teddy went over to the window and pushed back the drapes. "You don’t have the best view but if the weather turns warm, you should at least be able to open the windows and smell the garden out back. You’re more than welcome to enjoy the garden while you’re here – if the weather cooperates – we just ask that you don’t pick the flowers on your own. Aya, who takes care of the garden, gets a little upset when people ruin his hard work." He winced as he rubbed his sore jaw.

Then he waved at the two doors beside the fireplace. "That’s the closet and the other’s the facilities. Was there anything I forgot?"

"Can we stop by the common room and eat whenever we want?" Maddox asked as he set their packs onto the floor.

"Yes." Teddy crossed the room to the door. "At the least we’ll be able to feed you sandwiches and some sweets if nothing else is ready." He smiled as he opened the door. "Okay, I have to get back to door duty, so just come downstairs if there’s anything else you need." He closed the door behind him as he left.

"Have you ever seen a place like this?" she asked as she started searching through her pack for something clean to wear. "I mean, it’s so nice and it has a Harper! Do you think they’ll wash our clothes for us? We could probably do them ourselves I guess…." She was excited and couldn’t believe their luck. Here they were in the middle of the country’s biggest city, in a very nice inn where they could listen to a Harper play! And hadn’t Cerise said that she and the other Guards often stopped here for something to eat?

"Emmie." Her cousin’s worried tone stopped her search for clothes and made her look up. Maddox stood in the middle of the room with a tired, sad expression on his face. "Don’t get too excited about staying. You heard what the Guards said; Uncle Glenn might not arrive for a couple of weeks. If I can’t find a job here, we’re going to have to find someplace cheaper to stay."

"We both can work," she said as she crossed her arms over her chest and glared. "And Declan and Teddy said that the Koneko needs help. We’ll be fine." When she kept getting a worried look in return, she sighed and went over to her cousin. Once there, she tugged on his right hand. "Maddox, I like the Koneko. Not… not every place we stayed at on the way here was very nice." She didn’t like to complain since she knew that he’d done his best to find them safe places to stay, but a couple of those inns had been scary. "Declan and Cerise said this was the best place for us so why should we leave?"

He stared at her a little longer before folding her into a hug. "All right, we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that they’ll let me work to pay for the bill." When she opened her mouth to complain about just him working, he gave her a tight squeeze. "And don’t say anything about you working, too. You’re too young."

She wanted to argue about that but figured now wasn’t the best time. No, she’d wait and ask the Jo or Mickey that Teddy had mentioned that she could work sometime when Maddox wasn’t around. So she just hugged him back. "Thank you."

"Emmie…." Maddox tightened his embrace again. "I’m sorry if I’m worrying too much but I don’t want anything to happen to you. I couldn’t take it if something hurt you, all right?"

"I know." She felt the same way but couldn’t say it, so she just hugged him closer for a moment before she stepped away. "Yuck, you’re all wet and muddy." She wrinkled her nose and then suddenly smiled. "I’m getting washed off first!" she called out as she ran to her pack. The dirty clothes she tossed aside, hoping that they’d be washed soon, and luckily she found a clean pair of pants and a thick jerkin that was one of Maddox’s hand-me-downs - but not much else. "We really need to get some clean clothes."

"Yes, we do. I’ll ask about it when we go downstairs for something to eat." Maddox joined her as he also searched his pack for something clean to wear. "I really want a bath, but right now I’d rather have something to eat. Maybe we can ask about the hot spring, or give the bathing room on this floor a try." He had just as much trouble as she did finding something clean to wear.

Clothes in hand, she went over to the washbasin and moved the screen so she could have some privacy. "I won’t take long. I’m starving too and something smells so good." She’d practically drooled while they’d checked in, and all the Guards’ talk of cinnamon rolls hadn’t helped her hunger at all. Setting the clothes aside, she smiled when she noticed the clean towels and a bar of soap. Not very happy with the thought of washing with cold water but used to it by now, she carefully lifted the heavy pitcher of water and poured some of its contents into the lovely porcelain basin decorated with gold and orange fish – and nearly dropped the pitcher when steam rose from the bowl. "Maddie! The water…." Quickly setting the pitcher aside, she poked the water with her finger and squealed again. "It’s hot!"

Her cousin cautiously poked his head around the screen before hurrying to her side. Touching the water as well, he pulled his hand back and stared at both the pitcher and the basin. "I… it must be spelled or something. Glenn told me about stuff like this but…. Oh, I really hope they don’t charge too much to stay here! Harpers and hot springs and magic washbasins…," he moaned as he jerked his fingers through his hair.

"Teddy said they weren’t expensive," she pointed out as she pushed her cousin back to the other side of the screen now that the mystery was solved. Then, grateful for the privacy, she stripped off her muddy clothes. The warm, soapy water felt wonderful against her skin and the towel was very soft. She couldn’t wait to take a bath either, to wash her hair and soak in hot water. The past few weeks it seemed that she always ached a bit from all the traveling. At least they’d be able to stay here for a while. She purposely didn’t think about what would happen when they found Uncle Glenn.

Once she was dry, she pulled on the clean clothes with a content sigh. Now all she had to do was wait for Maddox to wash off and they could go downstairs for something to eat. Carefully picking up the basin, she dumped the dirty water into the tin bucket by its stand. Then she poured a little bit of clean water into the basin and rinsed it out. "All done," she called out as she stepped around the screen.

"Thanks." Maddox smiled as he shooed her toward the bed. "My turn, *finally*."

"Oh, shut up," she pretended to snap as she sat down on one of the beds… and then groaned as she sank into the soft mattress. "I didn’t take very long and you know it."

"Well, you weren’t the one standing around in muddy, wet clothes too afraid to sit down anywhere, now were you?" There was the sloshing of water and another happy groan. "Hot water… I really can’t wait to have a nice, long soak in a tub of hot water."

"Me, too," she said as she played with a strand of her hair. She wanted to wash it today, if possible, as it felt greasy. At least she didn’t have to wear that awful cap anymore, which had made her head sweaty and itchy. "Teddy seems very nice; do you think everyone here is like him?"

"I hope so. I can’t imagine that so many people would tell us about the Koneko, though, if the staff wasn’t nice."

"I guess so." She could see why Timothy, Elspeth and the others had told them about the place. But if the Koneko wasn’t very fancy or expensive, she was very curious to find out what it was like at those types of inns. There must be spells everywhere and people to wait on you hand and foot.

Pushing herself off the bed, she rummaged through her pack until she found her brush and then combed her hair. Thankfully, Maddox didn’t take very long to wash off and was soon ready. She quickly put her brush aside and tugged her clothes straight. "Can we eat now?"

He rolled his eyes and went over to the door. "I wouldn’t want to chance you biting me again so I guess so."

She stuck out her tongue as she joined him in the hallway. "You taste too bad, remember?" The joke was a familiar one these last few weeks – and the closest they ever came to talking about… why they left home. Which was something else she didn’t want to think about right now.

"If you’re as hungry as I am, trust me, you won’t care about how anything tastes." He reached out and tousled her just-brushed hair and earned a smack to his hand. "My, someone’s grouchy today."

She stopped glaring at her smirking cousin so she could go down the steps without falling. "Because someone’s a jerk," she grumbled as she combed her hair with her fingers. "You’re so *mean*."

"Yep." He gave her a wink and then jumped ahead of her. "And I’ll get downstairs before you and eat everything up, just because I’m really, really mean."

"Maddie!" She couldn’t believe he was doing this to her! Practically running down the steps to keep up with her cousin and his stupid long legs, she had to apologize when she almost knocked into a middle-aged man walking up the stairs. He just laughed as she hurried after Maddox – and couldn’t stop in time when he came to a halt at the first floor’s foyer. "Don’t stop like that!" she yelled as she crashed into him.

"I see you don’t have a problem with the steps," someone with a very, *very* deep voice said. Pulling away from her cousin, she almost squeaked when she saw the man standing beside Teddy. "Welcome to the Koneko, I’m Mickey."

All she could do was stare up at him. He was the tallest person she’d ever seen, and his shoulders were even broader than Owen’s. But he had friendly grey eyes and a very nice smile so she managed somehow to smile back. Like Teddy he had dark hair and he was wearing a very nice shirt with plain pants. Somehow, she doubted he was a blacksmith like Owen – he looked much too clean.

"Mickey? Oh, no…," Maddox moaned. "I… we… I’m Maddox and this is my cousin Emmie," he said in a weak voice a moment later. "I’m really sorry about… well…."

Mickey waved him quiet. "You didn’t knock anyone down and nothing’s broken so don’t worry. Nor did you slide down the banister and nearly give someone a heart attack," he said as he turned to frown at Teddy.

Teddy just smiled. "Mom always thought it was funny."

"Mom also liked you, which proves how weird she was," Mickey retorted, but he was smiling once more. Then he turned his attention back onto them. "I bet you want something to eat. Jo’s already putting together something nice and warm for you, so let’s get you seated. Things are slow enough that you should be fine in the main room." He motioned to the door on their left.

Eager for food, she quickly went through the door and found herself in a *huge* room. There were tables everywhere, a fireplace that looked big enough to hold both her and Maddox, and a small, raised platform with a few chairs. None of the other inns’ main rooms had been this big.

"I think it should be nice and quiet over here," Mickey told them as he made his way over to a smaller table in the back of the room. "Yohji will be out with some food in a minute."

"Uhm, Mickey, sir," Maddox stuttered as he stood by the table. "Teddy said something about asking you for a job? I… I was hoping I could work to help pay for our bill. We just found out that our uncle is going to be-"

Once again, Mickey cut him off with a wave and a smile. "I know, Teddy already told me. Just sit down and eat right now. We could use some help around here but that can wait until tomorrow, all right?" His smile slipped into a stern look. "Have some food and get some rest first. You two look exhausted."

"I… thank you." Maddox bowed his head before he slid onto the table’s bench. She quickly did the same as her stomach rumbled in protest. She could smell that wonderful aroma again, the one that now made her even hungrier than before.

"You’re welcome. Now let me go see what’s keeping Yohji." Mickey smiled again as he walked away from the table.

"Did you hear him?" she asked as she dug her elbow into her cousin’s ribs. "You can work here so we won’t have to leave!" And, if they needed Maddox to work, then they could probably use her help as well. Maybe she could work with Teddy.

Maddox gave her a gentle shove. "I heard." He let out a long sigh. "Let’s just hope I can earn enough to cover our room. We need to stock up on some supplies and I’ve got a feeling that nothing is going to be cheap here."

About to tell him that he was a cheap worrywart, she didn’t get much further than rolling her eyes and whining out his name. Just then she got a very strong whiff of something wonderful and noticed someone approaching their table. A someone who was carrying a very big tray with lots of food and a pitcher of something on top of it. Someone with long, wavy hair and the brightest, clearest green eyes she’d ever seen. Not even Becca’s were that green…. She could only stare in awe as the most handsomest man she’d ever seen walked toward them with a big grin on his face.

"Hi, I’m Yohji. I hear you two want something to eat." He gave her a wink as he set the tray down on the table.

Too stunned to say anything, she just stared at him with her mouth open while she felt what seemed to be butterflies suddenly burst into life inside her stomach.

*******

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