Asuka wasn’t too certain where the nearest stream was, but she vaguely remembered passing one during her single excursion into the forest, during the game she played with Youko, and so started running in the direction she thought she could find it.
‘Here, Asuka, Shuuichi-sama, this is where the streams are.’ Youko’s mental sketch map showing where the streams were told Asuka that she’d been going in entirely the wrong direction and hit her hard enough that she fell to her knees. But she could muster the will to show proper courtesy to her superior in their Patron’s harem.
‘Thank you Youko.’ And she turned to make her way to the nearest stream instead, climbing into the trees when she could without leaving obvious markings, and envying the other two for their ability to manipulate plants to do this without leaving any sign.
When she reached the first stream she was still in the treetops, and she crawled out along a large branch that hung over the stream, jumping down into the stream as soon as it started to creak. Upstream, or down? There were more rocks upstream, and she could see that there was a wide, shallow rock shelf just in her line of vision upstream, whereas downstream the banks were all of mud, and bound to show her tracks. Upstream it was then. She shifted into fox form as she made her way against the current, calling on the infra spectrum of the light to dry the water from her fur and from where she’d let it drip onto the rock shelf. A quick illusion to hide her second tail...and only then did she remember to suppress her ki, praying that she hadn’t left it too late. She didn’t want to be the reason they lost, or only drew, it would give Youko a chance to mock her, even if he’d never taken such chances before. Her mouth lolled open in a vulpine grin and she tried something different, altering the light that reflected from her to make it seem as if she was mostly a brownish red, with some redder markings at the end of her visible tail and at two paws, a paler underbelly and a black mask around her eyes, muzzle and more black at one paw.
She hesitated at the edge of the rock shelf, glancing around to see if there was any way to get off it without leaving tracks, but eventually she concluded trying to get to the top of the trees would leave too much of a sign. And foxes didn’t normally jump among the tree tops, not normal foxes anyway. The best she could do was pick her way over the other rocks near the stream, until she couldn’t any longer and had to run where she’d leave a trail. Shuuichi had told her to hide, but she’d feel far too vulnerable cowering in a den somewhere...and the bastards who’d enslaved her had taken her from her temporary den as well. She didn’t like the idea of disobeying any four-tail, let alone the one who owned her, but...she could argue that she was hiding by looking and acting exactly like a normal fox would, couldn’t she?
That still meant being cautious, foxes were not the top predator in any ecosystem, so she began making her way through the forest, taking all the cover she could. She got hungry after a while, she wasn’t sure how long, but she started to hunt, catching a few mice and eating them raw. It wasn’t as if she’d never eaten her meat raw before, and it would certainly be suspicious if she cooked them.
She’d just caught one mouse when Hiei ran past her, she froze, in near-instinctive fear, the way any animal would at something that moved so fast. She wasn’t sure, but she thought he might have actually looked at her, and brushed her off as a mere animal. But...there’d been something about his attitude that said he was having some sort of problem, so she began searching for a spot she could take humanoid form to check the time without leaving dangerous trails.
It took her a while, but she found a rock large enough to perch on in both forms, and there wasn’t anyone close enough to spot her. Still, she wove an illusion to hide herself totally before she risked shifting to humanoid form and taking a quick look at her watch. She still had just under half an hour to go. If she made a point of making her way back to the temple cautiously...as long as she stayed in the forest for the full five hours. She was a bit lost too, but she was pretty sure what direction she needed to go in, so she started moving, keeping to the cover. Her artificial colouring was a lot better for hiding than the black was at least, she’d chosen it for how common it was, but the most common colouring gave the best camouflage after all.
She had enough time sense to know when half an hour had passed even if she did lose track when she was doing something like hunting, where you had to lack awareness of how time was passing to do well. She wasn’t quite to the forest’s edge when time was up, but she still wasn’t going to risk being spotted, so she took the extra time to get back to the temple without being noticed, relying on a straight run once she got out of the forest.
She was still the first of the evaders to get back, although Yuusuke, Kuwabara and Hiei were there Shuuichi and Youko were not. Asuka decided to wait in fox form, so that she could show her master what she’d learned to do, but she stopped trying to suppress her ki and wondered absently if Hiei would recognise her. Apparently not. It didn’t matter, but the humans seemed surprised by her appearance, Yuusuke even thought she was a normal fox it seemed.
Youko knew that time was up, but he’d been hunting a bit, and he’d had one of his plants store the meat, so first he had to recover it. Then he could just get back to the temple...he didn’t need to hide now, the others couldn’t win or force a draw by taking him to the temple after their time limit had passed.
He was the last one there, but he presented the three rabbits he’d caught to Yukina first, before turning his attention to his master, Genkai-shihan and the others. Even if Asuka looked weird with her illusion of being a mostly brown normal fox - did that mean she’d gained her third tail in today’s exercise?
“Asuka, drop the illusion and take your humanoid form.” Youko’s drew a hissing breath of surprise when he saw Asuka momentarily take the two tailed fox form she’d always possessed before returning to humanoid form. “That was an impressive trick. How did you do it?”
“I...you know that my element’s light. I’ve been studying the scientific basis as well as what Genkai-shihan has been teaching me in how to use it.” Asuka’s eyes were cast down, and she glanced at Genkai-shihan as she spoke, almost looking for approval. “As she recommended. And I’ve learned how to shift the wavelength a bit, enough to change something’s colour, without using true illusion.” A way of working around her limitations, when Youko hadn’t even thought of using the illusion he was supposed to have mastered, because it was such a new skill, yet Asuka’s skills with light were equally new. ‘Hiei actually looked at me and dismissed me because of my disguise.’
“Well done. Did you end up chasing many of our decoys?”
“The Dimwit brought one back here, then it disappeared. The one of you.” Genkai-shihan laughed at that. Youko couldn’t blame her, he’d set the illusions to seem to explode and leave gobbets of meat all around just before they dissipated, it had to have been funny.
“Hey, what was I supposed to think? When we caught up to the illusions another nine illusions appeared and they split up. Kuwabara and Hiei were fooled too.”
“But I know you’d split up by the last half hour Yuusuke-san.” They looked surprised at that, but only Hiei came to the obvious conclusion.
“Who did you see?”
“You actually.” And that was enough to set the humans laughing. “A good disguise, especially since I was acting like a normal fox.”
“If I’d used my Jagan...”
“You’d have been able to see through how we suppressed our ki, yes. I decided it was best to gamble that you wouldn’t be using your Jagan much, and that when you were our ki would be shielded by the ki of everything around us. Also, I knew that it takes a fair bit of your focus to use the Jagan, as well as power that you might not have wanted to expend when you were facing two plant manipulators in a forest of dangerous plants. Do you know what Asuka was doing when you passed her?” Youko watched how the fire demon responded to his Patron’s veiled criticism, surprisingly well really, he seemed to note it for future use and consider the question carefully.
“No. If I saw her then I dismissed it and filtered it out of my memory.”
“Kuwabara saw through the illusion I was using to hide my extra tails when I was hunting.” Youko had only thought of even doing that because his Patron had suggested it for Asuka. “I suppose my colouring must have been a give away, but he followed the illusion of myself that I created as a decoy.” He was speaking a bit out of turn, but it would distract from Hiei’s embarrassment at not noticing Asuka.
“What did you do to make the illusion seem more tempting than you were?” Genkai-shihan was willing enough to focus on what techniques he’d used rather than what Hiei had missed and Shuuichi looked interested as well.
“I used a rain of rose petals to block his physical sight, and used one illusion to hide myself in a hollow. I also created two illusions of myself in fox form without ki signatures to act as distractions, and set them running along the ground. The final illusion was of my humanoid form, with a simulation of my ki signature and I had that retreat through the trees, using my powers to aid the retreat.”
“An imaginative way of distracting attention from your real location, but still, Asuka did better, as she couldn’t be recognised at all, and I’m a bit disappointed you didn’t think of doing the same as she did.” Youko preened under the slight praise from his master, and noted that Asuka was doing the same thing, even as he pressed his ears back against his skull at the subsequent criticism. “On the other hand I’m the only one who didn’t even see one of our opponents, so I don’t know how well my disguise would have worked.”
“So you didn’t actually find any of the foxes, Dimwit.”
“We split up after we thought I’d got Kurama. You saw me bring him back, then I went looking for them again. I don’t have the sort of senses those two have, you know that.”
“Then you shouldn’t have split up, or you should have met back up with one of them.” Yuusuke couldn’t argue with Genkai-shihan’s critique, and she had something equally relevant to say to everyone who’d been playing. And she had a suggestion for what they should each practice, from her advice for Hiei to try to gain more skill in using his Jagan on the move to her detailed plan to improve Yuusuke’s senses.
“Have you managed to create those other people you promised me for this community?” Youko hadn’t expected his master to bring him here when he fell asleep, they hadn’t been using the dreamscape much recently after all.
“No, not yet. And there’s other things I need to do.” He’d put them in stasis, instead of allowing them to ‘develop’ without him, because it was so incomplete.
“Hmm. What do you need that I can provide?” He’d expected that he would be the only one responsible for creating this little area of the dreamscape, so for Shuuichi to offer his expertise in making this world...
“I’ve already created most of the buildings for this community, but we need some farms spread out throughout the forest, farms and other dwellings. Can you do that as you feel appropriate please?” He’d made the houses and temples, but he needed to add a blacksmith’s, a few small shops of some sort and an inn, however small, as well as possibly a warehouse.
“Should I try to have them fit in with the style of building here?” Looking around Youko realised that he’d built the houses here in the same style as the temples, a result of unconscious influence.
“Please, if you could.” Youko frowned, it would be easier to age some of the already existing ‘people’ to get a more realistic demographic than to create more older people, but it wouldn’t be easier to change the gender of half than to create a new set of six ‘originals’ and make another hundred or so copies. “Including the houses here we need to be able to home around three hundred people close enough to come for the rituals...so within half a days travel, however you think fit.”
“If you’re creating additional buildings here then you need to remember to add a stable then...big enough for say thirty horses and five wagons.”
“Yes Shuuichi-sama.” Youko thought it might need more room than that, he’d focused on the religion and not paid as much attention in designing the community itself, but then it didn’t need to be that realistic and he could adjust it at any time he needed to. He didn’t expect his master to kiss him before going off to create the scattered part of the community.
Then he lost himself in creating the new people he needed, and adjusting the ones already formed, until he’d produced a set of six interrelated ‘clans’ with smaller family groupings set up inside each clan and apprentice (and full) priests drawn from each clan. The priesthood would need some form of support other than tithing, so he added a school to the temple compound as well as a few beehives, a small, no, a mid-sized distillery and a herb garden, one focused on medicinal herbs, indicating that the priests were also the healers as well as the teachers.
Businesses now...he could attach the stable to the temple, something else for the priests to do, since they couldn’t all be attendants to the avatars. And besides since it was a religious ritual that had people gathering all on the same day, not that that was unusual in early societies...
But the inn should have a stable attached as well, albeit a smaller stable. How big should he make the inn though? Three stories, no two would do plus an attic. The ground floor would need an office, a large common room/bar...with a way to get down to the basement storage and get wine and beer up as well, and a kitchen of course. Adding a bathroom and internal toilet would be easiest on the ground floor, and it would be desirable. About ten separate rooms on the upper floor, then fifteen in the attic, for the workers, or cheaper rooms if needed, and of course people would be allowed to sleep in the common room if they couldn’t even afford one of those rooms. It wouldn’t be a problem, having a room, even having a bed to yourself when you slept was a luxury not that long ago. Youko’d never been high enough ranked to have his own room when he’d been kept in a harem, but he’d gotten used to that luxury after he made a name for himself as a thief.
The community didn’t need a warehouse, there were already cellars large enough for people to store what they needed in each house, but he did build a small storehouse attached to the single village store adding living quarters over the store. Finally he had the smith’s to do, he’d always have work available, shoeing horses if nothing else, and making or mending plows and such. Iron mining would be external to the culture since Youko didn’t know what was involved in mining iron too clearly. He wasn’t really that clear on smithing either, but he could give the smith what little he did know and set up an accelerated trial and error system to make him into a real smith. For that matter he could do that now - or at least once he’d set up the naming parameters for this culture and created a ‘program’ within the dream assigned everyone names within those parameters.
Simple...Two or three syllables as forenames, stick to the syllables indicated by hiragana or katakana, but eliminate certain combinations and require one or two other combinations...select three or four endings that always indicate male personal names, another three or four that always indicate female and two that can be either. Select six clan names...add the option of familial names within the clan? No that wasn’t necessary, but set a prohibition against recycling a personal name inside the clan. He’d just finished designing the naming program when Shuuichi returned.
“I might have gone a little overboard in creating those farms you asked for my silver rose.”
“How many people do you need in total then? I can always create more, but I’d rather name them all at once. I’ve just finished designing a program that should do that for me you see.”
“I’m not entirely sure. Will the program keep if we leave this as it is?”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
“Good, you can finish it off later. I want to talk to you now.” That was enough to terrify Youko, it usually meant he was in trouble. “Don’t look so worried. I’m not angry at you.” Shuuichi laughed at Youko’s reaction, but the reassurance was all that mattered. “Kaasan wants me to talk to you about how you’re going to be added to our family register. Which option would you prefer? No matter what you’ll be recorded with Akari as your personal name, but do you want to keep the Youko clan name as well as mine?”
“Please, yes. It’s the only connection I still have to them...” Youko hadn’t expected the raw pain that came out in that confession, or the way his Patron gathered him into his arms.
“Then tell Kaasan that tomorrow. She doesn’t want to hear it from me.” Then Shuuichi kissed him, ever so gently and moved them to another setting, a large, soft bed filled with cushions.
Youko frowned as he looked into his clothing chest, Shiori-sama had ordered him to wear a yukata today, but he wasn’t sure which she’d prefer. She hadn’t seen the amber yukata with the silver roses yet, and he had some hair ornaments to suit that outfit as well, the hair pins and combs Shiori had once commented on seeing so often. He picked out a series of subtle brown shades to paint his eyes with, and his amber lipstick, as well as some amber nail polish and wore the entwined foxes necklace. He’d asked his Patron to alter his control of the collar and cuffs that marked him as a concubine, so that instead of them only being apparent to youkai senses in the Makai, and then in their basic form, they could sometimes take the jewellery settings most of his previous Patrons had enjoyed seeing on him. Shuuichi had laughed and done as he asked, even allowing Youko the choice of which jewellery settings were apparent to human senses, giving a set of five options for each cuff and for the collar. They were still only apparent to anything beyond human senses in the Makai, an option which was usually only used if a Patron didn’t want to advertise that he had a concubine with him for some reason. But now at least his wrists didn’t have to look as bare as they usually did, even if none of the jewellery options for his collar would look quite right. He shifted all his cuffs to simple amber circles, elegant enough to please Shiori-sama he thought, but looking expensive enough to reflect well on Shuuichi.
Finally he put the thought of fussing more over his appearance firmly away from his mind. He looked as perfect an image of a traditional woman was he was going to look, and any further worry would just be an effort to delay the time he’d need to set off to visit Shiori-sama. He paused to fasten his geta on then locked the door behind him. Admittedly in a way it was an unneeded precaution since their wards were so specifically attuned to them, and the apartment building had guards despite it being in a good neighbourhood, so Shuuichi could justify charging more. But always locking the door when no one was in was something explainable to the humans, and it made it a bit less likely that any humans would run afoul of the wards. He didn’t even want to think about what the Reikai would do if that happened, they usually issued execution orders on any demon living in the human world responsible for the death of a human. At least if they could catch the demon in question, no matter what the circumstances were. Of course they didn’t care what happened to any human stupid enough to get himself killed in the Makai.
He’d got halfway to Shiori-sama’s house while he was thinking about that, not really paying attention to his surroundings, but he wasn’t blinded enough by his thoughts not to notice when a man was beginning to stalk him. He let the idiot think that he wasn’t aware of what he was doing while he considered his options; there was still a bit too much of an audience for him to use his powers, but there was one mostly deserted alley he could cut through. That would have the benefit of ensuring he was attacked at a time of his choosing, and let him deal with the man without risking damage to his outfit. Besides, even if he made a point of staying where there were a lot of people, he couldn’t be certain the human wouldn’t try to grab him anyway, or that anyone would dare intervene. Humans tended not to intervene a lot of the time, because they were scared that they’d be hurt themselves, whereas demons didn’t intervene because they had no reason to bother...actually human thinking and demon thinking on aiding a stranger or casual acquaintance were pretty similar. He wouldn’t share that conclusion with anyone but Shuuichi, Asuka or possibly Hiei he resolved as he took the alley he intended to use for his own little ambush, lifting the hem of his yukata to keep it clean. There were enough weeds in the alley that he wouldn’t even need to resort to the seeds he kept stored in his hair, and that would keep him from even mussing his hair, and if he wasn’t attacked before he left the alley Youko was going to bind the man anyway.
He needn’t have worried about the human having the brains to realise he was being lured, as soon as they were out of easy view from the street they’d just left he tried to grab hold of Youko by the shoulder. Any youkai had good enough ki-senses to detect when he was about to be attacked, and the bindweed nearest them lived up to its name, binding the human helplessly against the fence. Youko glanced back at him coldly, considering whether it would be a good idea to use a drug to make him forget what had just happened, or if he was likely to edit it out of his memory anyway.
He concluded that even if the man didn’t edit this out of his memory it wouldn’t be believed so it wasn’t worth risking messing up his hair by drugging him. Instead he just knocked the man out with a fist to the head, then let him fall to the ground as the bindweed returned to its original state. He made a point of checking the man’s pulse, without messing up his yukata, and since it was strong and steady he knew he was in the clear so far as hurting a human went, but still, it would be a good idea to phone someone and report a version of this.
Shiori felt as if she was meddling too much in her son’s life, almost as if she was trying to arrange a marriage for him, even though she’d always felt that was inappropriate in these times. She firmly reminded herself that Shuuichi had asked her to add Akari to the family register before she was transferred to the Hatanake family register, so all she was doing by having Akari perform the engagement tea ceremony for him was reminding him of his human heritage.
There was something wrong, she could tell from the way Akari held herself when she arrived, not that her discomfort could be seen on her face. Akari removed her geta with the incredible grace she’d learned was so characteristic of her son’s chosen lover, the grace she’d grown used to seeing in her son. Most of her jewellery was familiar, but the amber bands at her wrists and ankles were new, almost matching the amber yukata. Shiori wanted to help, but she couldn’t say anything unless Akari asked her for help.
“I don’t think I’ve seen that yukata before, is it another of my son’s choices?”
“Yes, he sometimes calls me his silver rose.” She was blushing faintly, but Shiori could see how the yukata was appropriate for that nickname.
“Oh, is that why he chose that particular pattern?”
“No, it...Shuuichi-sama likes making jokes that only make sense if you know certain secrets, and I always used a rose as a weapon before I died, so...” There was something about her reaction when she mentioned using roses as a weapon...
“You only used roses as a weapon?”
“No, but they were always my favourite plant to use as a weapon, and the only plant I really reshaped to use as a weapon, instead of just directing their growth.” From the look on Akari’s face...
“I don’t really want to know more, do I?”
“No Kaasan, I do not believe that you do.” She arranged herself gracefully on her knees in front of the table Shiori had set up to test her, without saying any more.
“I always wanted to see my son get married properly, but I won’t, will I?”
“I doubt it, not unless Shuuichi-sama decides to go through with the form of a wedding to please you. And even that would be unlikely unless he chose a consort, rather than just keeping his concubines and giving us, or me at least, the protection of his name.” Shiori couldn’t understand some of Akari’s attitudes, and she wasn’t sure whether to attribute it to her age, or to her demonic nature. But this gave her an excuse to change the subject.
“Speaking of names, have you decided which option you’d prefer for when we add you to the family register? Do you want to keep Youko as a second personal name?”
“Please, Shuuichi-sama has approved of that and I don’t want to lose my last link to my clan.” Shiori realised that she hadn’t even thought about that, about how she’d lost all of her kin when she was young and that this might have made her feel as if she was deserting them or something.
“I understand, I don’t want to deprive you of that.” She wished that Akari wasn’t quite so dependent on her son’s approval, but that was most certainly one of the demon things Shiori would never understand. The reference to consort, as opposed to concubine seemed to be one of those things as well, but perhaps she could learn to understand that at least. “What did you mean when you mentioned Shuuichi taking a consort rather than a concubine?”
“It is a difference in status and level of commitment. A good analogy would be samurai in a way, at least I think so. A consort would be the equivalent of his wife in many ways, while a concubine or courtesan would be equivalent to a geisha contracted to serve him exclusively and prostitutes and whores in the Makai are equivalent to geisha who aren’t contracted exclusively, that or untrained whores. It isn’t exact, but it is good enough. And both concubines and courtesans can be dismissed by their Patron, while a consort is for life, and always submissive to his or her lord.”
“Her lord, so a female demon can’t have a consort?” It sounded as if the Makai was very much behind the human world socially, although the existence of concubines should have already cued Shiori in to that.
“Oh, no, of course she can if she’s powerful enough. I’ve had female Patrons before, while I was just a one-tail, the term I’ve translated as lord is gender neutral in the original language. Some races of demons have pretty severe gender imbalances, the Koorime for example are exclusively female, at least in appearance, asexual might be a better term in many ways.” Shiori noticed how demurely she was sitting, hands folded in her lap, except for when she hid her smile at Shiori’s suggestion of sexism in the demon world behind her hand.
“What of kitsune then?”
“I cannot say for certain about birth rate, but I would estimate about 60% female kitsune in the population, although even male kitsune look feminine in human form.” And that was a reminder she didn’t really need of Akari’s true nature, even if Shiori did have to agree that her son had always looked rather effeminate.
“I want you to perform the tea ceremony for an engagement.” And that was enough to make Akari smile, without trying to hide it.
“Yes Kaasan.” Shiori watched as Akari went through the ritual flawlessly, probably better than Shiori could have done it herself she had to admit. But she still looked at Shiori uncertainly, waiting for approval.
“That was perfect. On Friday could you bring an appropriate Ikebana for that ritual as well?”
“That will not be a problem Kaasan. We’ve covered arrangements for special occasions fairly recently in our class, and I can always ask Fujimiya-sensei for advice if I need to.” She blushed, bowing her head. “If I might ask, are you intending for me to perform this for Shuuichi-sama?”
“Yes, why? Do you think he’ll object?”
“More likely he will take it as a sign that you approve of his choice to take me as his concubine and give me the protection of his name.”