Chapter One

 

 

Tamazusa

 

WE WERE gathered in Inumura Daikaku’s mansion, having tea in one of the formal gardens, as while the strategy for the Kyushu campaign was being planned. It had taken some time and much negotiating among all the daimyo, the lesser lords, but eventually most of the other lords had accepted Inusuka Shino as the leader of this campaign. It didn’t mean that he led all the armies of Nippon, but it was his strategy that would be followed by them in the attack. We had divided our forces into three armies, each assigned to attack a different area of the island, under a general whom we hoped would follow at least the outline of our plans.

Part of the delay in our attack on Kyushu was from the arguments over who was to claim which parts of it and where. Many of the lords had gokenin—lower-ranking samurai—or lesser daimyo who had pledged their alliance, and so they had suggested them for reclaiming Kyushu. Of the lords of Nippon, the Hakkenshi were the only ones that hadn’t suggested one of their own daimyo for the island. We were all in agreement that the island of Tsushima would be the last kuni to be claimed. The wildness of the oceans, the result of Iida’s pets being let loose, was as much a disadvantage to the Southerners as it was to our troops. We had always had to worry about the treacherousness of the sea between Shikoku and Honshu, so expanding that caution to the seas around Kyushu was easy. What was not easy was that we now feared being eaten as much as the tides and shoals of the ocean. But since it seemed to keep the Southerners confined to Kyushu, it was something I could live with. I just hoped that others could live with it too.

Four of Keno’s brothers—Inusuka Shino, Inuyama Dousetsu, Inukawa Sousuke, and Inumura Daikaku—and I gathered around the tabletop map, which was a diorama of Kyushu and the lower half of Honshu. Two of his other brothers, Inue Shinbee and Inuta Konbungo, were in the field, marching with most of the Hakkenshi’s gundan, or war bands, and armies from the Kanto Plains down to the tip of Honshu. I had no idea what Inukai was up to and was grateful I didn’t, since the man had contacts among the lowest and crudest groups in Nipponese society. I shuddered at the thought of what he might be doing now.

“So everyone has finally decided about Tsushima?” Inumura asked.

“It has been decided,” I replied lightly. The argument had been fierce, every lord putting forth their own candidate because they realized the importance of the island. It had taken almost as much time as planning the campaign had. “I wish the new lord, whomever that might be, a long and happy life there.”

“It has been agreed that the new lord there will claim it after the Southerners have been driven from Kyushu, so they gain no advantage with the calming of the seas,” Inusuka said. “And it will also be someone who has no ties to any of us.”

“But some had thought Dousetsu would be a good lord there?” Inumura asked in amusement.

“I would appreciate the solitude and the island’s beauty, but I doubt I would want to be that far from my family,” Inuyama said quietly.

“And I had thought Samojirou-sama would choose to retire there with his consort,” Inukawa commented sourly.

I raised an eyebrow at him. “I doubt either of them would like to retire to any place that isolated.”

Or that Aboshi would live that far away from me. With his talent of walking the shadows, they would be able to go anyplace they wanted to quickly—but I doubted that Aboshi would want to be that isolated, even if it was with Keno. I knew Keno didn’t care where he lived so long as he was with Aboshi, but I also knew he wouldn’t be happy if Aboshi wasn’t.

“They might have to,” Inusuka told me. “There have been rumors.”

“There are always rumors,” I said serenely. I didn’t feel serene. I was worried and angry that people couldn’t keep their gossip to themselves. Aboshi and Keno didn’t need that to deal with, along with everything else. It would be worse but for the fact that Keno already knew of his ancestor’s terrible reputation, even if he didn’t believe or understand it.

“The name of our lost brother seems to be bandied about more than is wise during these meetings,” Inusuka snapped.

“It will come to nothing,” I assured him. “For all the rumors I have heard, none of them connect your brother to us. I will only worry if someone actually realizes who Keno is and ties him to us.”

Inukawa frowned. “I still don’t like what I have heard.”

He didn’t like that Keno was happy with Aboshi and very willing to play the part of a tayuu, a prostitute, as his consort, so that no one would know who he was. There had been trouble from Inukawa over it during the cherry blossom festivals, and I didn’t think the incidents after that had warmed his heart to the knowledge that Keno’s loyalty was to Aboshi and me instead of to his real family.

“The rumors that Inuzaka has come with the Southerners to avenge his honor?” I asked lightly, starting with the more popular one I had heard. “Or the one that he is in Yoshiwara masquerading as a dancer and plotting his revenge on any of the Chiba clan he could find? Or on Samojirou-sama and myself?”

“If that one is being bandied about,” Inuyama said, “then it will be better if Sakura isn’t seen too often.”

“I don’t think anyone would believe our brother is consort to Samojirou,” Inukawa said stiffly, “since even we hadn’t guessed until he told us.”

“That depends on whether any of them know or have even guessed what their relationship was like in the real world,” Inuyama said softly. “That would be the only danger. Since it is well known that Keno banished Samojirou from the real world, no one would think he was Samojirou’s consort willingly here. It was only by accident that I actually knew the truth of their relationship.”

“How could anyone believe they—” Inukawa spat out, the anger in his tone both obvious and troubling to hear.

I bit back a sigh. He was never going to accept the love Aboshi and Keno had for each other. Inuyama almost glared at him, a look Inukawa was returning with interest. I wondered what Inuyama’s feelings were and made a mental note to talk to him about it when I could.

“I have heard he is wandering as a mad monk, wanting to kill all the other Hakkenshi and their retainers for some reason, and actively plotting to do so,” Inumura said over Inukawa, trying to ease away from a subject that threatened to bring his brothers to blows. “That rumor is making most of our allies very restless.”

I shrugged. “We can discuss it tonight when we go to meet with the others, and see what they say about such things.”

I rose gracefully, dismissing the matter, even though I knew Keno’s brothers wanted to discuss it further. They would do so more easily if I wasn’t there to listen to them wrangle with each other.

“Gentlemen, your brother is safe where he is. And more important, he is happy. We will worry about what to do with the rumors once these tiresome Trust people and the Southerners have been driven from Nippon.”

Inusuka and Inuyama looked thoughtful, while Inukawa looked like he wanted to argue. Inusuka raised an eyebrow at him. Inukawa looked mulish for a second but said nothing. I nodded at them and swept out of the room, knowing that I needed to meet with my own daimyo to receive updates on how our preparations were progressing for the invasion of Kyushu.

 

 

THAT EVENING, Inusuka, Inukawa, Aboshi, and I met with the lords who had organized themselves into the Eastern Army. They were calling the forces that Inusuka controlled the Western Army. None of us missed the irony of the situation, even though Inusuka was not trying to become shogun.

“Shogun” had been a title in Nippon in the real world for centuries before the Tokugawa claimed it. This Nippon had no use for a shogun, since there was no emperor here either, but there was a shikken, or regent. The Nippon of the Dreamlands was content to mimic the Sengoku Jidai in organization, its lords scheming to gain control of what they could.

“As always, it is delightful to see you, Tamazusa-sama,” Sakuna, lord of the kuni of Kii, said while bowing deeply to me.

The others looked surprised that I was there, since I had no military experience and it was well known that Aboshi usually acted for me in these matters. However, it was my fault that we were in this muddle to begin with, so I intended to take a very active part in trying to fix it. I also knew that Inusuka would be planning the overall strategy for the invasion, and I trusted his judgment in such matters—but my carelessness had caused this catastrophe, and I wasn’t going to repeat that mistake. And I also needed to be here because I didn’t know how many of the other lords of Nippon would be using this to play some move in the Game. While I trusted the Hakkenshi to a certain extent, I trusted none of the other lords at all—so I would be present at all these meetings.

Aboshi and I, along with most of the Hakkenshi, were meeting in the city of Osaka. It was a neutral location and halfway to the kuni of Nagato, where the Western army would launch their attack on Kyushu. We were meeting at an upper class teahouse that Inukai knew of, and he had rented the entire place for the evening. The lords of the Western army and their closest supporters were all meeting with us to finalize our plans. Not that I had any faith the plans would be followed once the attack was started, but one must cater to some illusions. Aboshi was with me. He looked tired, but then he had walked the shadows three times in short order to bring us all here. Or he could be feigning fatigue to make the others underestimate his power.

“We will be in position to invade Kyushu in a month,” Inusuka announced to the gathering. “Our armies will be in place on Honshu at that time to be ferried over to retake the island.”

We were studying a map of Kyushu, guessing the locations we thought the Trust would attempt to hold. We had managed to get some information from peasants who had escaped from there in dribs and drabs, the few we managed to find. Even so, we knew very little about the situation in Kyushu—only that the land had quickly descended into chaos, with monsters roaming about freely. Given the creatures the Trust usually had to deal with when monsters managed to slip into their world, they must feel the whole land was inhabited by monsters. Unfortunately, it wasn’t encouraging the invaders to leave.

The other lords frowned and looked quickly at one another. “I feel we are moving too fast,” Yoshida Shoun of the Bizen kuni said slowly. He was a thoughtful man and didn’t like coming to a decision quickly. He thought the months of wrangling we had already gone through were still not enough time.

“Our enemies are men who will think we are moving too slowly,” Inumura said quietly.

“Men who are not used to the slow pace of the Dreamlands, men of the modern world,” Inukawa added. He made it sound like an insult.

“And they are men who are handicapped because none of their modern weaponry will work here,” Inuyama added.

The daimyo smiled savagely at that statement. One would have to have been unconscious not to feel the satisfaction in the room at the Trust’s misfortune.

“But that does not mean it will be easy,” Aboshi murmured. “They have had time to adjust to their handicap. Nevertheless, I doubt a lifetime of dependence on their technology will be erased in so short a time. And while the attack on Kyushu was cowardly, it doesn’t mean their soldiers are cowards, but rather that their generals are. We cannot count on it in a battle, but once the campaign is started their generals might continue to be cautious and underhanded, with their treachery overwhelming all else.”

“And that is something you know about, Samojirou-sama,” Ii Naosuke of the Mikawa kuni added slyly.

I stiffened and opened my mouth to say something, knowing that he was referring to Aboshi’s seizure of Awa in the real world—an incident five centuries past that many still held against him. He had proven his loyalty to me time and again, but no one ever remembered that. All they remembered was the one act of betrayal that had started the curse of the Hakkenshi. Aboshi calmly raised his left eyebrow at Ii, but no one missed the tension in his body.

Inusuka talked over me, his tone both amused and soothing. “Samojirou-sama is loyal to his lord, as was demonstrated by his escorting her back to her kuni when she reclaimed it instead of claiming the kuni for himself. The care and respect he has shown my mother over the centuries is rivaled only by the attention he has shown Tamazusa-sama. He has been a good and loyal companion to both of them. Samojirou-sama has proven a loyal friend to my family, following us into the real world to rescue our mother from the deceitfulness of the Trust’s spies at great cost to himself. My father owes him a great debt.”

That Inusuka, the grandson of his greatest enemy, was defending Aboshi was not ignored by the daimyo, and the tension drained out of the room with his statement.

 

 

Samojirou

 

I SHOULD have known someone would bring up the incident that caused me to become an oni, a demon. That Inusuka had defended me wasn’t unexpected either, since he would want his troops to be at least nominally cooperating with one another. And though Ii had been rude, he hadn’t been rude enough for me to call him out for his remark.

“We are all agreed on the time,” Inusuka continued easily. “We have to work together to drive the invaders from Kyushu. If we do not, the task will be much more daunting. We have agreed on the candidates who will attempt to claim Kyushu and rule there, and for now the kuni will be smaller than they had been.”

The group nodded or grunted, and I was grateful they didn’t ask about the incident Inusuka had mentioned. It had cost me dearly, but having to explain how those people had managed to seize Fuse-hime would be even a larger loss of face than I had suffered when it had happened. But the incident had also taught me that Keno’s love for me was true. He had not hesitated to declare his love, no matter what I had looked like at the time.

Because of what the first Keno had done to me, I had been unable to return to the real world for centuries. I doubted I would have been able to in any other circumstances, since it was only my desperate need to rescue Keno that seemed to have brought me there. And I didn’t want to return there again, because all I loved was here. In the real world, however, I appeared to be the monster I truly am, with claws and a horn along with the skin of a corpse. Confronted with my monstrosity and covered with the blood of his captors, Keno had still proclaimed he loved me. I treasured his love dearly and feared it would be torn away from me again by fate. And the hostility of some of his brothers didn’t help.

“And since Mogami-sama will be leading Tamazusa-sama’s troops, Tamazusa-sama and Samojirou-sama will be part of my command staff,” Inusuka continued.

There were no snickers at that announcement, even though some were to be expected. No one wanted the wrath of Inusuka Hamaji on their head. They thought that either Tamazusa was a hostage for me, which was patently untrue, or that Inusuka was canny enough to use our guards as his protection, so he could have more men on the field. The truth was that Inusuka valued her counsel, even if she wasn’t a warrior, and wanted her with him. And I wanted her with him as well, because with me guarding the two of them, it was the safest place she could be. Inukawa frowned, but I sensed nothing would make him happy at the moment. He certainly had shouted loudly enough about the arrangement when Inusuka informed him about it earlier.

“I went to war to get away from nagging females,” Ii-sama grunted.

“Nagging is not a word that can be used with Tamazusa-sama.” Inusuka chuckled.

“Nor can it be used for Hamaji-dono,” I said. Both Inusuka and Inukawa laughed at this.

Thankfully, the rest of the meeting was filled with details for retaking Kyushu and didn’t touch upon personal matters again.

 

 

I TOOK my lord Tamazusa and the Hakkenshi back to Inumura’s castle in Edo. I was tired, having made many shadow-walks in a short time, but I wasn’t exhausted—and I enjoyed the manipulation of shadows, especially when it brought me back to Keno. I found him in the southern garden having tea. Wolf and McGann were with him, and I was under the impression that he was chaperoning them. This amused me, considering they had been his captors just a short time ago. Wolf’s courtship of his former superior was amusing many of us here. It was as slow and careful as if the woman were a sheltered Heian lady, while McGann seemed willing to have something a bit more earthy.

“I trust I am not interrupting anything?” I asked.

Keno stood up gracefully and bowed to me. “You are not, Samojirou-sama,” he said huskily.

Wolf frowned at me, annoyed about something. It was a constant with the man from what I had been told, and from what I had seen with him. I really didn’t see any reason for Keno to have been as fond of the man as he had.

“Sakura was just giving me some language and etiquette lessons,” McGann said in halting Japanese. She smiled tentatively at me. “I think I am as much a project to him as Helga is to Fuse-hime.”

“Caitlynn!” Wolf growled.

“I assure you, McGann-dono,” Keno murmured, “I would never think of you in the same manner I think of her.”

McGann laughed, but this seemed to annoy Wolf even more. “K—” he started.

“Sakura,” Keno hissed at him, losing his composure for a moment. “Can you not understand that!”

I didn’t blame him. It had been a constant argument between the two of them since Wolf had found out who he was.

“Wolf-san,” I said. “This is not merely an amusement for either of us.”

I was still smiling, but there was something in my voice that caused McGann-dono to glance sharply at me. “Wolf, I think we need to talk,” she said softly.

I wasn’t the only one who heard the silence again at the end of her statement. Wolf wasn’t an idiot, as much as I would like him to be. Even Mason understood the necessity of Keno’s alias. Wolf was much more intelligent than Mason, but he couldn’t seem to grasp the importance of using the correct name. He had to be constantly coached not to use Keno’s birth name, so he wouldn’t make that mistake in public—where it would be disastrous.

“Honestly, Wolf,” McGann continued, “nothing in your file ever said you couldn’t grasp the need for secrecy and didn’t understand undercover work. Treat Sakura as if he is an undercover agent.” She paused for a second. “It isn’t like you didn’t have an alias too, Thor.”

With that she swept out of the garden, almost as elegant as Tamazusa. Wolf glared at me and then followed her, no doubt to get another lecture on his idiocy.

“Sometimes Murphy called him that,” Keno allowed. “And there were some notes in his file that hinted at things he doesn’t want to talk about.” He smiled at me mischievously. “And Sakura’s a grown-up. Wolf doesn’t want to be reminded that I am old enough to enjoy such things.”

“A pity,” I said dryly. “I have never thought of you as anything but an adult.”

“Even in the beginning?” he whispered, past hurts shadowing his eyes.

“I didn’t, once or twice,” I said honestly. Those had been times when he had still been timid because of what had happened to him—not just the rape, but his whole life as a prisoner of the Trust. I was being honest with him now because I hadn’t been honest with his ancestor. “But now I think of you as nothing but an adult.”

Keno fluttered his lashes at me and giggled, hiding behind his fan suddenly. “Then let’s go and do some very adult things,” he teased me in a sultry voice.

 

 

Keno

 

I COULDN’T believe I had just said that to Aboshi. He looked a little shocked and then took a step toward me, leaning over to kiss me. I was glad there wasn’t anyone else in the garden, because I wanted him to just strip me out of my clothes and make love to me right there. I didn’t care who saw us, I wanted him in me so badly. I usually didn’t feel like this. I loved him—I didn’t doubt that—but ours hadn’t been a very physical relationship, because of my issues. It had gotten more so when we had been separated for weeks and Aboshi had thought I was dead. Before that we had been intimate and had a very sensual relationship, but it wasn’t as physical as we had become recently—probably driven by our knowledge that Aboshi would be leaving soon to go off to war. With that kiss, he shadow-walked to our apartment.

When we got there, I fumbled with the ties on his clothing, wanting to see him naked. He laughed as he kissed me, helping me strip his hakama—his loose trousers—and then stepped back so I could see all of him, enjoying my ogling.

Naked, Aboshi was wonderful. Lean and muscled, even if he didn’t look it, without any body hair, not even the shadow of curls that I have around my own penis. His penis jutted out from his body, his precum pearling on the tip of it. He let me drink in the sight of him, even though I was so hard I couldn’t believe it. Not that he wasn’t used to seeing me like that. My member was straining against my fundoshi, my underclothes, which were so tight they felt like a torture device against my loins.

“Strip,” he ordered hoarsely.

It was my turn to fumble with ties, and I was grateful that my obi’s ties were simple. In fact, for once my outfit was so simple that I was able get out of it without any help at all. I wondered for a minute if the maids had realized that Aboshi and I were acting like two hormonal teenagers most of the time and planned what style of kimono accordingly. It isn’t easy to get out of a kimono quickly or easily with most women’s styles because of the layers of kimono and the obi.

After a couple of endless seconds, I had my obi untied and stripped off my outer kimono as well as the ties to the inner one. It was hanging loose around me as I removed my fundoshi, sobbing a little as the pressure eased.

I dropped to my knees and took Aboshi in my mouth, sucking on his member eagerly. He ran his hands through my hair but didn’t try to use it to control me in any manner. He groaned at my attentions but after a few minutes pulled gently at my hair so that I stopped, and then he lifted me to my feet.

We kissed and fumbled about while we made our way to the futon to make love in comfort. I slipped out of the inner kimono during that journey, not caring that it crumpled someplace on the floor.

“I want you,” he said huskily as we collapsed onto it.

“Take me,” I begged, opening my legs as far as they could go.

I felt wanton and moaned when Aboshi licked a trail down my chest. I shivered as I felt his tongue on my skin. I grabbed at his hair, not knowing if I wanted to make him stop or beg him for more. Incoherent sounds were all I could make, and I writhed at his touch. He chuckled at my reaction and then licked the head of my member lightly, teasing me. I whimpered when I realized he wasn’t going to do any more than that.

We shifted so he was kissing me again, his fingers teasing the skin between my sac and my opening. I arched up at his touch, making an odd sound.

“So shameless,” he teased me.

“We’re in our bedroom, at least,” I said breathlessly.

He laughed at that, and I felt him slip a slick finger into me. I moaned at his intrusion and ran my hands along his back. Soon my senses were lost in the feel of his lips on mine as he slowly stretched me for our pleasure. I was riding his fingers and sobbing occasionally as he teased me by curling a finger over that special spot deep inside.

He didn’t say anything as he slid his fingers out of me and then wrapped my legs around his waist. He slipped into me easily, and I tightened my legs around him. There was a second of stillness before he pulled back and then pushed into me. I cried out and arched up into it.

Aboshi smiled at me as he leaned over and rested his weight on his arms. “You want this,” he crooned. “You want me.”

I scraped my nails along his back, tipping my hips so he could thrust deeper and harder.

“I want you,” I said throatily. “I want you to make me scream.”

Aboshi smiled as though he was going to eat me one bite at a time and then started to thrust hard and fast, riding me ferociously, pounding me into the futon. I wailed as he hit that good place in me. I pulled him closer, bowing up so that eventually all my weight was on my shoulders. He wasn’t silent either, making deep sounds in his chest as I was driven to breathy little screams, the pleasure wild and intense. I didn’t care who heard me when I came with another wail, trying to merge with Aboshi during my orgasm. He came a few strokes later, driving into my limp body hard with a groan before collapsing on me, his head buried in my shoulder.

“That was intense,” I murmured as I stroked his back.

I felt his sex soften and slip out of my body. I was hot and sticky, my opening throbbing contentedly.

“Are you all right?” he mumbled into my neck.

“More than all right,” I assured him, kissing his temple.

He snuggled tight with that reassurance, and we both drifted into sleep, not caring about the mess covering us.