A surreptitious relationship chapter thirty

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a surreptitious relationship chapter thirty

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But her lips set more firmly, and the cleft in her chin grew more marked with a new, childish will to courage. Bending down, he kissed her in absolute silence — it was like the sealing of a sorrowful pact. In spite of the fact that he had obviously been waiting to intercept Anna, he now spoke quite lightly.

Collins and the footman must go, he told her. As for Stephen, he had had a long talk with her already — Anna had better just let the thing drop, it had only been childish temper. Anna hurried upstairs to her daughter. But she found Stephen sitting with her chin on her hand, and calmly staring out of the window; her eyes were still swollen and her face very pale, otherwise she showed no great signs of emotion; indeed she actually smiled up at Anna — it was rather a stiff little smile.

Anna talked kindly and Stephen listened, nodding her head from time to time in acquiescence. But Anna felt awkward, and as though for some reason the child was anxious to reassure her; that smile had meant to be reassuring — it had been such a very unchildish smile.

The mother was doing all the talking she found. Stephen would not discuss her affection for Collins; on this point she was firmly, obdurately silent.

She neither excused nor upheld her action in throwing a broken flower-pot at the footman. A reticence strange in so young a child, together with a new, stubborn pride, held her tongue-tied, so that she fought out her battle alone, and Sir Philip allowed her to do so.

She was ugly, having small, round black eyes like currants — not inquisitive blue eyes like Collins. She would sit and scowl at poor Winefred darkly, devising small torments to add to her labours — such as stepping on dustpans and upsetting their contents, or hiding away brooms and brushes and slop-cloths — until Winefred, distracted, would finally unearth them from the most inappropriate places.

And her face would grow blotchy with anxiety and fear as she glanced towards Mrs. Very dreadful indeed were those nights spent in weeping, spent in doubting the Lord and His servant Collins. The grandfather clock on the stairs ticked so loudly that her head ached to hear its unnatural ticking — when it chimed, which it did at the hours and half-hours, its voice seemed to shake the whole house with terror, until Stephen would creep down under the bed-clothes to hide from she knew not what.

a surreptitious relationship chapter thirty

But presently, huddled beneath the blankets, the child would be soothed by a warm sense of safety, and her nerves would relax, while her body grew limp with the drowsy softness of bed. Then suddenly a big and comforting yawn, and another, and another, until darkness and Collins and tall clocks that menaced, and Stephen herself; were all blended and merged into something quite friendly, a harmonious whole, neither fearful nor doubting — the blessed illusion we call sleep.

Mother and daughter would walk in the garden, or wander about together through the meadows, and Anna would remember the son of her dreams, who had played with her in those meadows. The scents of the meadows would move those two strangely — the queer, pungent smell from the hearts of dog-daisies; the buttercup smell, faintly green like the grass; and then meadow-sweet that grew close by the hedges. One day she had said: But her mother had looked at her curiously, gravely, puzzled by this creature who seemed all contradictions — at one moment so hard, at another so gentle, gentle to tenderness, even.

Anna had been stirred, as her child had been stirred, by the breath of the meadow-sweet under the hedges; for in this they were one, the mother and daughter, having each in her veins the warm Celtic blood that takes note of such things — could they only have divined it, such simple things might have formed a link between them.

A great will to loving had suddenly possessed Anna Gordon, there in that sunlit meadow — had possessed them both as they stood together, bridging the gulf between maturity and childhood.

They had gazed at each other as though asking for something, as though seeking for something, the one from the other; then the moment had passed — they had walked on in silence, no nearer in spirit than before.

Stephen loathed these excursions, which meant dressing up, but she bore them because of the honour which she felt to be hers when escorting her mother through the streets, especially Church Street with its long, busy hill, because everyone saw you in Church Street. Hats would be lifted with obvious respect, while a humbler finger might fly to a forelock; women would bow, and a few even curtsy to the lady of Morton — women in from the country with speckled sunbonnets that looked like their hens, and kind faces like brown, wrinkled apples.

Then Anna must stop to inquire about calves and babies and foals, indeed all such creatures as prosper on farms, and her voice would be gentle because she loved such young creatures.

Stephen would stand just a little behind her, thinking how gracious and lovely she was; comparing her slim and elegant shoulders with the toil-thickened back of old Mrs. Bennett, with the ugly, bent spine of young Mrs. Thompson, who coughed when she spoke and then said: Presently Anna would look round for Stephen: Nevertheless she would smile at Stephen while she let the child guide her in and out between the puddles.

Very protective and careful was Stephen when she and her mother were out alone together. And yet was this love? It was not, she felt sure, the trusting devotion that Stephen had always felt for her father; it was more like a sort of instinctive admiration, coupled with a large, patient kindness.

As for Anna, she would sigh and lean back in her corner, weary of trying to make conversation. She would wonder if Stephen were tired or just sulky, or if, after all, the child might be stupid. Ought she, perhaps, to feel sorry for the child?

She could never quite make up her mind. Meanwhile, Stephen, enjoying the comfortable brougham, would begin to indulge in kaleidoscopic musings, those musings that belong to the end of the day, and occasionally visit children. But you tried not to think about Collins!

Rice pudding, almost as bad as tapioca — not quite though, because it was not so slimy — tapioca evaded your efforts to chew it, it felt horrid, like biting down on your own gum. The lanes smelt of wetness, a wonderful smell! Yet when Nanny washed things they only smelt soapy — but then, of course, God washed the world without soap: And now the horses, nearing their stables, would redouble their efforts as they swung through the gates, the tall, iron gates of the parklands of Morton, faithful gates that had always meant home.

Old trees would fly past, then the paddocks with their cattle — Worcestershire cattle with uncanny white faces; then the two quiet lakes where the swans reared their cygnets; then the lawns, and at last the wide curve in the drive, near the house, that would lead to the massive entrance. The child was too young to know why the beauty of Morton would bring a lump to her throat when seen thus in the gold haze of late afternoon, with its thoughts of evening upon it.

She would want to cry out in a kind of protest that was very near tears: It was a queer feeling; it was too big for Stephen, who was still rather little when it came to affairs of the spirit. For the spirit of Morton would be part of her then, and would always remain somewhere deep down within her, aloof and untouched by the years that must follow, by the stress and the ugliness of life. Then that part of Stephen that she still shared with Morton would know what it was to feel terribly lonely, like a soul that wakes up to find itself wandering, unwanted, between the spheres.

Sir Philip usually came to her rescue: But after a little he and Anna must get talking, amusing themselves irrespective of Stephen, inventing absurd little games, like two children, which games did not always include the real child. Stephen would sit there silently watching, but her heart would be a prey to the strangest emotions — emotions that seven-years-old could not cope with, and for which it could find no adequate names.

All she would know was that seeing her parents together in this mood, would fill her with longings for something that she wanted yet could not define — a something that would make her as happy as they were. Her mind would go groping about for a reason, and would find no reason — unless it were Collins — but Collins would refuse to fit into these pictures; even love must admit that she did not belong there any more than the brushes and buckets and slop-cloths belonged in that dignified study.

Presently Stephen must go off to her tea, leaving the two grown-up children together; secretly divining that neither of them would miss her — not even her father. Arrived in the nursery she would probably be cross, because her heart felt very empty and tearful; or because, having looked at herself in the glass, she had decided that she loathed her abundant long hair. Snatching at a slice of thick bread and butter, she would upset the milk jug, or break a new tea-cup, or smear the front of her dress with her fingers, to the fury of Mrs.

If she spoke at such times it was usually to threaten: The rest of the evening would be spent in grumbling, because one does grumble when one is unhappy — at least one does grumble when one is seven — later on it may seem rather useless. At last the hour of the bath would arrive, and still grumbling, Stephen must submit to Mrs.

Bingham must smile, none too kindly: The nurse would protest: Chapter Four The sorrows of childhood are mercifully passing, for it is only when maturity has rendered soil mellow that grief will root very deeply.

By Christmas, the gusts when they came were quite gentle, rousing nothing more disturbing than a faint melancholy — by Christmas it required quite an effort to recapture the charm of Collins. Stephen was nonplussed and rather uneasy; to have loved so greatly and now to forget! It made her feel childish and horribly silly, as though she had cried over cutting her finger. As on all grave occasions, she considered the Lord, remembering His love for miserable sinners: Thoroughly disgruntled, she bethought her of books, books of fairy tales, hitherto not much in favour, especially of those that treated of spells, incantations and other unlawful proceedings.

She even requested the surprised Mrs. Bingham to read from the Bible: For Collins now had a most serious rival, one who had lately appeared at the stables. There had been quite a heated discussion with Anna, because Stephen had insisted on riding astride. In this she had shown herself very refractory, falling off every time she tried the side-saddle — quite obvious, of course, this falling-off process, but enough to subjugate Anna. And now Stephen would spend long hours at the stables, swaggering largely in corduroy breeches, hobnobbing with Williams, the old stud groom, who had a soft place in his heart for the child.

It looks to me puffy; supposing we put on a nice wet bandage. So strong, so entirely fulfilling, with his round, gentle eyes, and his heart big with courage — he was surely more worthy of worship than Collins, who had treated you badly because of the footman! It was dreadfully worrying, all this hard thinking, when you wished to enjoy a new pony!

Stephen would stand there rubbing her chin in an almost exact imitation of Williams. She could not produce the same scrabby sound, but in spite of this drawback, the movement would soothe her. Then one morning she had a bright inspiration: It was one of those still, slightly frosty mornings when the landing is tricky on the north side of the hedges; when the smoke from farm chimneys rises straight as a ramrod; when the scent of log fires or of burning brushwood, though left far behind, still persists in the nostrils.

A crystal clear morning, like a draught of spring water, and such mornings are good when one is young. The pony tugged hard and fought at his bridle; he was trembling with pleasure, for he was no novice; he knew all about signs and wonders in stables, such as large feeds of corn administered early, and extra long groomings, and pink coats, with brass buttons, like the hunt coat Sir Philip was wearing. And yet his contentment was not quite complete, so that he looked away again quickly, sighing a little, because, somehow these days, he had taken to sighing over Stephen.

The meet was a large one. People noticed the child; Colonel Antrim, the Master, rode up and spoke kindly: Why, Violet could never come to tea without crying, could never play a game without getting herself hurt!

She had fat, wobbly legs too, just like a rag doll — and you, Stephen, had been compared to Violet! Ridiculous of course, and yet all of a sudden you felt less impressive in your fine riding breeches. You felt — well, not foolish exactly, but self-conscious — not quite at your ease, a little bit wrong.

It was almost as though you were playing at young Nelson again, were only pretending. As for you, you stuck to his back like a limpet. Get in, little bitch! Hi, Frolic, get on with it, Frolic! She had no time to think of her muscles or her grievance, but only of the creature between her small knees.

The meadows flying back as though seen from a train, the meadows streaming away behind you; the acrid smell of horse sweat caught in passing; the smell of damp leather, of earth and bruised herbage — all sudden, all passing — then the smell of wide spaces, the air smell, cool yet as potent as wine. Sir Philip was looking back over his shoulder: The pony took the fence in his stride very gaily; for an instant he seemed to stay poised in mid-air as though he had wings, then he touched earth again, and away without even pausing.

At that moment it seemed to embody all kindness, all strength, and all understanding. Colonel Antrim came jogging along to Stephen, whose prowess had amused and surprised him.

By the way, Philip, can Stephen come to tea on Monday, before Roger goes back to school? I think our young Stephen here takes it. If Colonel Antrim had offered Stephen the crown of England on a red velvet cushion, it is doubtful whether her pride would have equalled the pride that she felt when the huntsman came forward and presented her with her first hunting trophy — the rather pathetic, bedraggled little brush, that had weathered so many hard miles.

Sir Philip fastened the brush to her saddle. But she knew that that day she had not failed him, for his eyes had been bright when they rested on hers; she had seen great love in those melancholy eyes, together with a curiously wistful expression of which her youth lacked understanding. And now many people smiled broadly at Stephen, patting her pony and calling him a flier. One old farmer remarked: Small lights were glowing in cottage windows as yet uncurtained, as yet very friendly; and beyond, where the great hills of Malvern showed blue against the pale sky, many small lights were burning — lights of home newly lit on the altar of the hills to the God of both hills and homesteads.

No birds were singing in the trees by the roadside, but a silence prevailed, more lovely than bird song; the thoughtful and holy silence of winter, the silence of trustfully waiting furrows. For the soil is the greatest saint of all ages, knowing neither impatience, nor fear, nor doubting; knowing only faith, from which spring all blessings that are needful to nurture man.

Then the peace of the evening took possession of Stephen, that and the peace of a healthy body tired out with fresh air and much vigorous movement, so that she swayed a little in her saddle and came near to falling asleep. The pony, even more tired than his rider, jogged along with neck drooping and reins hanging slackly, too weary to shy at the ogreish shadows that were crouching ready to scare him.

And now a great moon had swung up very slowly; and the moon seemed to pause, staring hard at Stephen, while the frost rime turned white with the whiteness of diamonds, and the shadows turned black and lay folded like velvet round the feet of the drowsy hedges. But the meadows beyond the hedges turned silver, and so did the road to Morton.

It was late when they reached the stables at last, and old Williams was waiting in the yard with a lantern. Stephen tried to spring easily out of the saddle as her father had done, but her legs seemed to fail her.

To her horror and chagrin her legs hung down stiffly as though made of wood; she could not control them; and to make matters worse, Collins now grew impatient and began to walk off to his loose-box.

Then Sir Philip put two strong arms around Stephen, and he lifted her bodily as though she were a baby, and he carried her, only faintly protesting, right up to the door of the house and beyond it — right up indeed, to the warm pleasant nursery where a steaming hot bath was waiting.

Her head fell back and lay on his shoulder, while her eyelids drooped, heavy with well-earned sleep; she had to blink very hard several times over in order to get the better of that sleep.

She could feel his cheek, rough at the end of the day, pressed against her forehead, and she loved that kind roughness, so that she put up her hand and stroked it. Her relations with other children were peculiar, she thought so herself and so did the children; they could not define it and neither could Stephen, but there it was all the same.

A high-spirited child she should have been popular, and yet she was not, a fact which she divined, and this made her feel ill at ease with her playmates, who in their turn felt ill at ease. She would think that the children were whispering about her, whispering and laughing for no apparent reason; but although this had happened on one occasion, it was not always happening as Stephen imagined. She was painfully hyper-sensitive at times, and she suffered accordingly.

Of all the children that Stephen most dreaded, Violet and Roger Antrim took precedence; especially Roger, who was ten years old, and already full to the neck of male arrogance — he had just been promoted to Etons that winter, which added to his overbearing pride. Roger Antrim had round, brown eyes like his mother, and a short, straight nose that might one day be handsome; he was rather a thick-set, plump little boy, whose buttocks looked too large in a short Eton jacket, especially when he stuck his hands in his pockets and strutted, which he did very often.

She could bowl at cricket much straighter than he could; she climbed trees with astonishing skill and prowess, and even if she did tear her skirts in the process it was obviously cheek for a girl to climb at all. Violet never climbed trees; she stood at the bottom admiring the courage of Roger. He grew to hate Stephen as a kind of rival, a kind of intruder into his especial province; he was always longing to take her down a peg, but being slow-witted he was foolish in his methods — no good daring Stephen, she responded at once, and usually went one better.

As for Stephen, she loathed him, and her loathing was increased by a most humiliating consciousness of envy. Yes, despite his shortcomings she envied young Roger with his thick, clumping boots, his cropped hair and his Etons; envied his school and his masculine companions of whom he would speak grandly as: Stephen found Violet intolerably silly, she cried quite as loudly when she bumped her own head as when Roger applied his most strenuous torments.

But what irritated Stephen, was the fact that she suspected that Violet almost enjoyed those torments. Stephen had longed to shake her for that: Violet was already full of feminine poses; she loved dolls, but not quite so much as she pretended.

She was always thrusting her dolls upon Stephen, making her undress them and put them to bed. I do think you might play more like I do! He hated to be beaten, yet how could she help it? Could she help throwing straighter than Roger? They had nothing whatever in common, these children, but the Antrims were neighbours, and even Sir Philip; indulgent though he was, insisted that Stephen should have friends of her own age to play with.

He had spoken quite sharply on several occasions when the child had pleaded to be allowed to stay at home. Indeed he spoke sharply that very day at luncheon: It was quite a long drive to their house from Morton — Stephen was driven over in the dog-cart. She sat beside Williams in gloomy silence, with the collar of her coat turned up to her ears.

The Well of Loneliness / Radclyffe Hall

She was filled with a sense of bitter injustice; why should they insist on this stupid expedition? Even her father had been cross at luncheon because she preferred to stay at home with him. Why should she be forced to know other children? And above all the Antrims! Stephen could hear her infuriating voice, the voice she reserved for children: Ah, here you are, Stephen! Now then, little people, run along and have a good feed in the schoolroom.

She could feel his fat fingers pinching her arm; pinching cruelly, slyly, as he strutted beside her. You eat much more than I do, mother said so today, and boys need more than girls! I could never eat big bits of plum cake like Stephen.

The dog-cart was slowly climbing British Camp, that long, steep hill out of Little Malvern. The cold air grew colder, but marvellously pure it was, up there above the valleys. The peak of the Camp stood out clearly defined by snow that had fallen lightly that morning, and as they breasted the crest of the hill, the sun shone out on the snow. Away to the right lay the valley of the Wye, a long, lovely valley of deep blue shadows; a valley of small homesteads and mothering trees, of soft undulations and wide, restful spaces leading away to a line of dim mountains — leading away to the mountains of Wales, that lay just over the border.

She must gaze and gaze, she must let it possess her, the peace, the wonder that lay in such beauty; while the unwilling tears welled up under her lids — she not knowing why they had come there. And now they were trotting swiftly downhill; the valley had vanished, but the woods of Eastnor stood naked and lovely, and the forms of their trees were more perfect than forms that are made with hands — unless with the hands of God.

Twice every spring they drove up to these woods and through them to the stretching parkland beyond. There were deer in the park — they would sometimes get out of the dog-cart so that Stephen could feed the does. She began to whistle softly through her teeth, an accomplishment in which she took a great pride.

Steady boy — steady on! He be feeling the weather — gets into his blood and makes him that skittish — Now go quiet, you young blight! Antrim was waiting for Stephen in the lounge — she was always waiting to waylay her in the lounge, or so it appeared to Stephen. The lounge was a much overdressed apartment, full of small, useless tables and large, clumsy chairs. You bumped into the chairs and tripped over the tables; at least you did if you were Stephen.

There was one deadly pitfall you never could avoid, a huge polar bear skin that lay on the floor. Its stuffed head protruded at a most awkward angle; you invariably stubbed your big toe on that head.

Stephen, true to tradition, stubbed her toe rather badly as she blundered towards Mrs. Come here and let me have a look at your feet. Stephen was longing to rub her big toe, but she thought better of it, enduring in silence.

a surreptitious relationship chapter thirty

She had cried until she had got permission to wear that particular pale blue frock, which was usually reserved for parties. Her brown hair was curled into careful ringlets, and tied with a very large bow of blue ribbon. Antrim glanced quickly from Stephen to Violet with a look of maternal pride. Roger was bulging inside his Etons; his round cheeks were puffed, very pink and aggressive.

He eyed Stephen coldly from above a white collar that was obviously fresh from the laundry. A special small teapot had had to be unearthed, in order that Violet could lift it.

a surreptitious relationship chapter thirty

You know I want milk and four lumps of sugar. He nodded, and swiftly crossing the outer room, was gone. Wrapping her arms around herself, Sango bit her lip. Scornful red eyes flicked across her troubled thoughts, and she flinched. Hands tightening on her upper arms until the knuckles stood out in sharp relief, she shook her head.

Maybe later, after she had a shower and maybe a nap, for she suddenly felt drained, more tired than she actually should. Rousing herself, she picked up the yukata and was thankful to find the bathroom more modern in design than the rooms suggested.

A Surreptitious Relationship

The water-closet was separate from the shower, which was heavenly. She took her time, grateful for the simple luxury. Wrapping her wet hair in a thick towel, she donned the yukata and tightened the belt quickly, for she suddenly felt a presence outside the door. Not the bathroom door, but the sitting room. It was as if the person had just announced themselves by revealing their aura. Dressed in a blue kimono with a bright yellow obi, her long, black hair was caught in a traditionally low ponytail.

Although she appeared human, the purple sheen to her midnight hair and the slightly red tinge to her chocolate-brown eyes gave her true nature away. She smiled sweetly, and bowed. The servants, both women as plain of face and dress as the other servants Sango had seen, each bowed over the bundles in their arms. She exuded a sweet, winsome femininity, and Sango did not think it was feigned, for the clear gaze held no hostility or calculation. She looked questioningly at Sango, who nodded awkwardly, and then directed the two women to take the clothing into the bedroom.

At a loss, Sango could only nod, which was all that Amaya seemed to require. Opening the first of the wrapped kimono with a sweet smile, the demoness held it up thoughtfully. A pretty light green, pink cherry blossoms decorated the fine silk.

Sango hesitated, but the two servants were already waiting on either side of her, white undergarments in hand. Sango gave in reluctantly, knowing it was the way of things in such a fine place but still uneasy with having others wait on her.

It was strange to don the familiar garments, though of a finer weave than any she had ever owned. Her uneasiness grew as each layer was added, though it was nothing like the truly formal wear of a lady in full traditional garb. There were only three kimono: The silks were of summer-weight, and although the long skirts felt strange around her ankles, were not encumbering.

The stiff obi, in a brighter shade than the pale yellow of her under kimono, was tied expertly at the small of her back, and Amaya stepped back to admire her work. She had never thought much of her hair, had always kept it in the same style as it was simple to cut square across her brow and cheeks.

Sango bit her lip, strangely troubled by the simple act, which she had unconsciously done a thousand times herself. Her unease grew, as stepping back, Amaya smiled with true delight and drew her to the floor-length mirror to view the results for herself. A woman who had stepped straight out of the Sengoku Jidai to stare around her in bewildered confusion.

Her neatly trimmed hair, now tied back with a white bow down her back, the beautiful silk of her kimono and the smiling approval of the woman behind her made Sango pause. A strange lump formed in her throat, and Sango blinked rapidly, the sudden desire to cry prickling behind her lowered lashes. One hauntingly familiar and yet unwelcome. She inhaled raggedly, and turned her eyes away, thankful that Amaya did not notice, busy as she was summoning the servants to fetch proper footwear, intending a stroll in the gardens before the formal dinner to be held that night.

Sango distractedly agreed to the walk, and the woman pressed her hand warmly, her smile open and friendly. Why, you betrayed me once by sending this decrepit brute to kill me. Not that I blame you, Kuramaas I already said, I hold no grudge, and only brought up the past so that we can move beyond it, let bygones be bygones. This Yomi was not the rash creature he had once known, and the king had already revealed that he knew far more than he had first let on when they initially met outside the city.

The council had gone much as Kurama expected. He knew already that Yomi plotted to take control over demon world once the Toushin died and King Mukuro moved against him.

The ever-sneering Yuda, of course, had attended as well. Kurama had earned an enemyalthough the aquatic demon posed less a threat to the fox than his inflated ego would ever let him believe. To expunge the past, yes, but that was not the only purpose. Yomi had become as calculatingly cold and cruel as he claimed Youko to be, and the change in the brash demon was so drastic Kurama was still trying to predict what he would do. Yomi knew more about him than he knew about the king, and that disturbed the fox, for Kurama did not like being caught so off-guard.

Yomi had just detailed in succinct amusement how he knew that Youko, mortally injured, had fled Spirit World and took refuge in the unborn human child of Shiori Minamino. How that childcalled Shuichi by his human mother, but known as Kurama to those who knew the truthhad later met Yusuke, which had led him to demon world fighting Sensui, and then, eventually, to Gandara and its king.

It was a sequence of casual events the king tried to tie together as if it were fate or kismet that had brought them back together. Yomi claimed he needed Kurama, for his ruthless ability to think without emotion, but how much did he really? That was what Kurama was testing with his deliberate provocation.

I have to consider that, old friend. It would hurt me too much. He was drawing out the moment, relishing the way he could keep Kurama on edge for as long as possible. In some ways, Yomi had not changed. He had always had a flare for the dramatic. Kurama waited silently, refusing to be so easily baited. Then what about your young lady friend? Such a lovely creature. To say I was surprised by her arrival would be an understatement, but her presence here proves quite fortuitous.

Yomi casually twisted the knife deeper. Really, that would be a worse tragedy than the mishaps that could befall your sweet mother and the love of her sad, humanly short, life. You, my old friend, have taught me well. I really do value your insight and cool ability to think without emotion. Even now, when I have angered you greatly, your ruthless mind is methodically sifting through the possibilities, wondering how you could turn this situation to your advantage. While a lesser apparition would be overcome by their emotion, you are already thinking three steps ahead.

Already considering in what ways you might manipulate the circumstancesand no one can say if was because you actually have feelings for these people, or if you do not want anything to jeopardize your control. Damn him, Yomi was rightthough even Kurama did not know in which way.

Turning his head, the fox stared at the wall for a long time. Yomi waited quietly, giving him the time, at least, to contemplate what he could do with what had become an untenable situation. There were ways he could turn it to his advantage, although even Yomi might not guess how personal they were.

Give me two months to wrap up my affairs in human world, and I will also use that time to recruit for you six powerful demons I met during a previous tournament.

With intensive training, they could provide you with a tactical advantage that would shift the outcome of the war indelibly in your favor. On the surface, it would seem you have garnered the ability to make friends, but little do they know, they are just tools, like everyone else, for you to use.

I will allow you to return to human world to tend to your affairs. Thankfully, she will have a stepson come July to replace her absent son, Shuichi. The girl will stay here as collateral for your good behavior. I will be watching, of course.

I know you intend to set out in the morning; you were never one to waste time putting a chosen course into action. The king met his cold gaze, as if he could actually see the hard flint in his eyes. But the king had arbitrarily decided that a formal reception to welcome their guests would be more appropriate, and a perfect opportunity for both Sango and Kurama to meet everyone at once.

Amaya, of course, was included in the last group, who were a bevy of demur flowers with not a single thought in their beautiful heads. Sango soon grew bored of their conversation, which centered around what they and others wore, what they and others said, and what they and others didwhich was really not much when all was said and done.

As she did not know anyone else, Sango was stuck with them, for Kurama and the king had yet to arrive, and it would be unheard of for a strange man to approach her without formal introduction by either. Or so Amaya had told her in a shocked whisper when Sango quietly asked.

They will be along shortly. Unlike the others, she sported two horns curling prettily around her ears, the tips painted to match her claws and the delicate pattern woven into her kimono.

She was as cool as Amaya was warm, and Sango was glad when the youkai pointedly moved on with the merest nod of her haughty head. She had always detested such women; she had always been too forthright to play such games and had never really understood why they did.

Closing her eyes and wishing she could be alone right now, Sango sighed. She might hide her growing irritation behind a bland mask, but the need for that mask was irritating in itself. The demons, as strange as some appeared, were dressed in naggingly traditional formality.

Such constant reminders of her pastnot one she had been a part of, being born in a village of taiji-ya, but one she knewstirred up emotions she did not want to deal with right now. Opening her eyes, Sango smiled in relief.

His green eyes, so achingly familiar in such strange surroundings, studied her expression. Without a word, he tucked her arm in his and led her across the overcrowded room to a remote corner.

Nipping a glass from a passing servant, he tucked her fingers around the stem. It might be a little strong, but it will help. The wine trickled down her throat, adding warmth to her belly, and she did feel better. The warmth spread, and her tiredness and irritation fled with the headache that had been coming on.

Not from his compliment, which was sincere, but for the fact that she did not feel beautiful. She felt lost, and the last time she had felt lost, she had lost everything. And the one who had made the world solid again, even for so short a time, had left her alone, lost and adrift once more. Her hands clenched inside her long sleeves, and she was grateful when the king approached.

Sango made some polite comment she could not recall, and the king smiled. I want you to be comfortable in my home, for I understand you will be staying for quite a while in our fair cityas my dear Kurama has so many things to attend to.

Surreptitiously withdrawing her hand, she demurred. Predictably, Yomi accepted it as she thought he might, given his penchant for submissive women.

Yomi pointed out various youkai, making some ironic observation on this one or that, and Kurama smiled tightly. There was a strangely husky quality to his rough voice that made Sango look up at him in surprise. But the king only laughed, as if that was exactly the reaction he had been hoping for. It was an arrogant laugh, one that drew raised brows and surreptitious whispering behind raised hands, as if the king did not laugh that often.

Sango stirred, uncomfortable with all the sudden attention turned their way, and Kurama casually moved to block her view of the rest of the room, or perhaps, block their view of her. Yomi stopped as suddenly as he started. You should trust me more than that, Kurama. He used words as his daggers, and flung them at random just to see the reaction. His motivations baffled her, and his cruelty was subtle. She wondered what was the real youkai behind the many masks Yomi donned.

Again, it was not something anyone who did not know him well would be able to discernthe fox really was good at keeping his face impassive. But for those who knew what to look for, it was easy to read the intensity of emotion in his dark green eyes, the little white lines at the edge of his pressed lips, and the minute tension across his relaxed shoulders.

He took her hand, and squeezed it lightly.