Sealkeeper: He Who Binds
Chapter 163-A "Two Billion"
Patron Release 2022.08.14
"Doto-Sama," One of his servants leaned down to the Yuki Daimyo's ear and kept their voice to barely above a murmur. "It appears another member of Jūgo's train crew has left the country. A woman by the name of Kari- she was the one who stepped up to fill Jūgo's place when he first vanished…back when the engine went missing."
His attention firmly grasped, Doto straightened in his throne and glanced to the servant. "And you think…."
"We can't know for sure, of course," They were quick to preface their words to cover their own ass in case the information they were sharing was flawed in some way. "But word is the two were…very…close and he personally requested her as part of his crew when he became a lead."
"Do we know where she went?" They hadn't been able to follow Jūgo's trail for whatever reason- which was a ridiculous notion considering the man supposedly had a train with him when he departed- but if this accomplice of his had left something they could follow he might finally know where one of his engines had ended up.
"Nami, my lord. She approached several ships about passage there."
Doto frowned. "Nami? Just about every ship passes through Nami, that hardly tells us anything."
"Ah, but she was determined to find a ship bound directly for Nami, she wouldn't take any of the others even when they would be stopping there eventually. From what we've found, she was willing to pay extra to ensure the trip was direct."
"She could go anywhere from Nami and may have wanted to get there as soon as possible to avoid us," Doto mused aloud. "Or she may have been under a time constraint…."
"Perhaps if she was meant to meet with someone?" The servant suggested. "Or if someone was there who she happened to be particularly close to and wished to see again as soon as possible?"
Was that it, then? She had rushed to Nami because that's where her lover was? Could it really be that simple? And was Jūgo just there because it would allow him to ship the train off anywhere or was Nami itself the final destination?
"Do we have any way to know if the train left Nami?"
"There's been no sign of it, my lord, but if the House of Wolves took possession of it…." There wouldn't be any sign of it, and they were hardly about to announce having it.
It was also the sort of thing he might expect from the Wolves, seeing as how they obtained that country in the first place. Stealing one of his trains was practically tame in comparison, he had no trouble imagining they had been behind Jūgo's appearance and the subsequent disappearance of his train.
Well, one of them, and not even one of the better ones at that. To be perfectly honest, it really wasn't much of a loss at all. Still, it was the principle of the matter. Trains belonged to Yuki no Kuni and, more importantly, to Doto. He couldn't abide anyone stealing from him, even if the object in question was outdated and more than likely in very poor repair.
Hunk of scrap or not, Doto would be getting amble compensation for anything leaving Yuki.
"Try to have some of the Yuki Shinobi- no." He stopped in the middle of his thought. "Write up a bill for the engine, we'll send it to Nami. Either they can help locate and return the engine that went through their ports or they can pay for keeping it. There's no point in wasting our own resources on the matter."
"Ah, very good, my lord. I'll have an invoice drawn up immediately. What value did you wish to assign to the engine?"
He thought about it for a second. How much was it worth? No, that was the wrong question. How much could Nami afford to pay? That's what really mattered here, especially because Nami was very well off. As the shipping capital of the world there was little they wouldn't be able to afford.
"...Two billion." He decided with a lazy wave of his hand. "That should have them looking for my train." And if they choose to pay instead? Well, Doto would actually prefer that.
"You heard me. Two billion, not a yen less."
"...of course, Doto-Sama. I'll have it to you for review shortly."
As the servant scurried away to see his lord's will done, Doto relaxed back into his throne. Yes, this would turn out well. Either Nami would find his train for him- and the thought of being able to command another country so easily pleased him immensely- or they would hand over his set price to avoid the hassle. Either way, Doto won.
Just the way he liked it.
"So this is Yu no Kuni's palace, huh?" Naruto asked as he stepped through the main entrance. It was surprisingly plain, considering the financial strength of the tourist country and the extravagance seen in its resorts. That was actually rather refreshing, obviously the royal family had good taste.
Or they used to, anyway. He hadn't actually asked what had become of them but he could hardly imagine Akishi and the snakes had decided to keep them around when it hadn't been specifically required of them.
"Yes, Naruto-Sama." Akishi followed slightly behind him, her tail hidden under the long trail of her robes. They resembled the robes of a Miko slightly but had obviously been modified to disguise her more obvious features. He had to wonder what the explanation had been for that, maybe she had her followers claim it marked her status as a high-priestess or something?
Whatever it was, it seemed to be working for her and that was good enough for him.
The simple Henge he was using was certainly easier, he knew that much.
"It's much more modest than I'd expected." The sound of her robes against the immaculately clean floors immediately came to a halt, the only thing that informed him that she had stopped following him.
"My apologies. Would you like me to correct that?"
"No, no. I prefer it like this." He stopped to look back at her. "Tsunami and the Wolves are still finishing up the decorations for the Nami palace and it was getting out of hand before I left. I don't know why they think there needs to be so much…stuff…thrown around everywhere but it makes them happy so I left them to it."
"So you like it…plain?"
"If you like. I'd use 'simple' myself, but I suppose they're close enough." A frown pulled at his lips. "On second thought, I'm probably not going to be living here any more than I am in Nami so decorate it how you like."
"But it's your palace."
One of his brows rose. "Mine? Whatever gave you that idea. This is the palace of Yu no Kuni's Daimyo, I'm just stopping by for a visit."
Oh. There was some part of Akishi that found itself rather disappointed to hear that. She had, of course, expected him to stay with them here at the palace now that they'd acquired it- and the rest of the country- so to hear that he wouldn't be made her wonder why he wouldn't want to. It was already to his tastes, from what he'd said, so was it something to do with the company?
She really didn't like dwelling on that thought.
"You'll take a room permanently though, yes?" That wasn't quite residency but it felt better than him just popping in and staying in a guest room whenever he visited. "It would be best to have something set aside for you so we can keep it prepared and secured for your visits. Ah, that is if you feel it would be for the best, of course."
"That's fine." At this rate he was going to have more residences then he could ever use. "Just show me something in the back of the palace, somewhere with little traffic, and I'll make use of it for the time being."
"At once, Naruto-Sama, right this way." She started moving again, taking a position before him for the first time since they had arrived. "But if we can't find something suitable here in the palace we do also have the option of the manor the Children of Aū have been working from during our stay in Yu no Kuni. It may prove to be more…private, if that's a concern." Before he could respond she continued. "In fact, I'll have something set aside there too, just in case."
…Wait how did this become two new rooms? They had only just finished that outpost on the north coast, too. What was he going to do with all these rooms? There was no point in having them set aside for him when he didn't have any intention of staying at these places.
Rather than argue that point, though, his years of dealing with the Wolves had him just rolling with it. He'd found it was easier to just let them do as they wanted and if that meant setting aside rooms for him- or, as in most cases with the Wolves, making structural changes for reasons he couldn't begin to imagine- then he would have to accept the fact that he had a room just about everywhere he went.
It's not like it was doing any harm in the end and it was a lot less effort on his part. He doesn't have to deal with it, they're happy to have 'helped', and everyone wins.
He did have to wonder if Akishi realized just how much she and her fellow Children of Aū were similar to his Wolves but if she hadn't she probably would soon enough.
They had work to do, after all, and that meant Akishi was about to spend a lot of time among his children.
Hopefully they'd get along because he had too much to do to be spending his time ensuring they weren't picking on each other.
Sai stared down at the letter in his hands. He knew he was bad with money- everyone knew he was bad with money- but he was pretty sure he wasn't so bad that he wouldn't remember purchasing something for two billion yen. That was most assuredly not in his budget. Hell, that was many times more than his total budget and he'd never screwed up that badly before.
Part of him reminded him that there was a first time for everything but he did his best to ignore that as he went back over the letter and the accompanying bill from Yuki no Kuni.
The two billion was for a…train? He was pretty sure they did in fact have a train now but he was also pretty damn sure that one of Orochimaru's snakes stole the damn thing.
So why in the hell was he being billed for it?
And, more importantly, was this the sort of thing he should be bringing to Mai as Tsukuyomi's right hand or did it need to go to Orodchimaru considering it was the snake sage's actions that had resulted in him holding such an outrageous invoice?
He still didn't fully understand Hanabi's system.
When her door opened without so much as a knock Mai initially assumed it was Orochimaru popping in again. Instead she found herself quite surprised to see her brother let himself into her office, papers clutched in one hand.
"How much did you spend this time?" She joked. Sai wasn't actually able to spend any money, everything he did went through either her or Hanabi these days before a single yen left their accounts. Still, they all liked to poke fun at the budgets he submitted that never seemed to be right no matter what Sai did to try balancing things.
She was pretty sure Tsukuyomi still thought it had something to do with a cursed desk but she'd been afraid to see if he really believed that or was just reaching blindly for an explanation. She had a bad feeling he really did think Sai's desk was cursed but that couldn't have been it because they'd stolen his desk for Tsukuyomi after Anko had, well, broken his usual one.
Some of the Wolves mentioned that Anko had a second desk stored away somewhere that she'd brought from Kiri but no one seemed able to find the damn thing. Probably wasn't in any state to use for actual work, either, but she tried not to think about the things that woman might have gotten up to on the piece of furniture that may or may not exist.
That desk wasn't important, the fact remains that Sai's desk had been used as a replacement and she'd- well, Hanabi had- ordered Sai a new one, so it couldn't be the desk that was the issue.
Though, she supposed it could just be Sai who was cursed. That wouldn't explain the trouble Tsukuyomi had with the budget during Sai and Hana's vacation but maybe the curse was just on all of Sai's work, even if he wasn't the one doing it.
She didn't have a better explanation for that strange phenomenon.
"Two billion." His reply was instant and completely flat. For a split second, Mai thought he might actually be serious.
"Two billion." He placed the papers on her desk and slid them towards her. "Or so this invoice says. Thing is, I don't recall buying a train from Yuki no Kuni."
Snatching the papers, Mai quickly skimmed through them. Yep, Yuki no Kuni wanted two billion for the train Orochimaru had…acquired…from them. She briefly wondered how the hell they had tracked that back to Nami when she knew Jūgo had gone from Yuki to Tetsu, walked into Ta no Kuni, and then took a ship here.
However it was, she now had the pleasure of figuring out how to deal with this. It felt like the sort of thing she should really be bringing to Naruto's attention but he had been expecting her to take care of things more and more lately and she had a feeling this would be the same so taking the time to contact him would probably just be a waste.
Granted, she could just use the seal but that also required him to be present or for someone to fetch him and she really didn't want to be interrupting his vacation for something he would probably consider trivial.
After all, what could Yuki no Kuni really do to them, anyway? That's how he would probably look at it, so how would he respond? Mai considered it for a second and a grin slowly spread across her face.
Sai took a step back. "...Mai?"
"...I have an idea."
A shiver tore its way down Sai's spine. In this moment she reminded him painfully of their lord Tsukuyomi and that was a very, very bad thing. After all, normally it was Mai who ran damage control and kept his plans from getting too out of hand but if Mai was the one with the plan who the hell was going to be reining her in? Tsukuyomi would probably just encourage her further so he'd have to look elsewhere.
Maybe Hana or Hanabi could help?
Couldn't hurt to try recruiting them. If anything, it would be good to have more people aware of what was going on for when they inevitably had to fix whatever mess this became.
Small, out of the way, and currently bare of any furniture except a bed and a desk. Naruto thought that was perfect for his needs considering he really didn't need it in the first place.
Akishi didn't quite agree.
"Naruto-Sama," She pleaded. "High-Priest, surely there's better accommodation we can find for you. This is hardly more than a closet!"
"Rather spacious for a closet," he remarked with some amusement. Four meters across both ways, it may have been modest but it was more than sufficient for the bed and desk to occupy the space without it feeling too cramped. In fact, he personally thought it was quite cozy. "I think this will be more than enough."
"High-Priest, please, there's no way this is sufficient for you. These would hardly suit a servant let alone an honored guest or Aū's chosen."
"Akishi," There was still that strange hissing echo when he said her name, the one that shivered down her spine and seemed to enkindle her soul, but she could hardly focus on that when she found his palm gently cupping her cheek and ensuring her eyes were moved to stare directly into his. "I said this will be fine. Trust me."
And she did. She didn't know why she did, but her very being seemed to scream at her that she could trust this man. Perhaps it was part of the bond they now shared, their souls tied together- even if only superficially on his end- or maybe it was because Great Aū was so insistent on him being the High-Priest that reassured some part of her that he could be trusted but either way she found it all but impossible to doubt his words.
Even so, that didn't mean she couldn't want more for him.
"Yes, fine," She agreed. "But you're the High-Priest of Aū. You deserve more than just 'fine'."
He smiled. "But do I want more, Akishi?"
"Exactly, so this will be fine."
He nodded, satisfied with her new answer, and let his hand fall away from her cheek much to her disappointment. "Besides," Naruto added. "I won't be here long. I have one thing for your siblings to see to as Yu no Kuni and then we'll be leaving to take care of something elsewhere."
"You're leaving?" She couldn't disguise the disappointment in her voice.
"Didn't you hear me? We'll be leaving. I'm not about to do the work of Aū without my personal summon, after all."
Despite already knowing she was his personal summon- ever since she'd tied their souls together so she could serve as a bridge between Great Aū and his new High-Priest- it was still the first time she'd heard him acknowledge the fact and a warm tingle settled in her belly. She didn't know why but hearing that she was his personal summon brought with it a great deal of satisfaction.
"Of course, High-Priest." She was sure she was grinning- perhaps beaming was a more proper description- but she couldn't bring herself to care and she wasn't sure she would be able to school her features if she wanted to. "What did you need done?"
"Send an invitation to Amaterasu- Mai -to visit Yu no Kuni as the Daimyo's honored guest. Keep it quiet but not silent, I want this leaking out so people think Yu no Kuni is trying to curry favor with either Nami no Kuni or with the House of Wolves directly. Either will suffice, you could even spread a rumor for each, I just want people thinking it's Yu no Kuni making the first moves and I'd rather they be focused on the appearance of Amaterasu so I can go about my work…undisturbed."
"She's a distraction?"
"To a degree. I'd prefer the attention be on her and her interactions with the Daimyo rather than on a missing Tsukuyomi, but what's important is establishing a reason for a Wolf presence in Yu no Kuni."
"I thought the plan was for the Wolves not to be known in Yu no Kuni?"
"Our influence should not be known, the Daimyo should seem to be a separate entity with his own goals. I'll have to set aside time to work out some ways his actions could go against the Wolves without causing any harm, just to keep up appearances."
"...You're going to a lot of trouble to make people think you don't control the country. Wouldn't it be easier to just take over? Is anyone going to challenge that?"
"Probably not, and perhaps I am overcomplicating things," He admitted. "But there are two reasons to keep our influence a secret for now. First, in case we need somewhere to hide we can have a public falling out with Yu no Kuni which will mean no one will look for us here and secondly so that I'm doing something different. We already took over Nami and turned Kirigakure to dust with overwhelming force, I don't want that to be the only way the Wolves get things done."
The first one made some sense but that second reason….
"But isn't that who the Wolves are, High-Priest? An overwhelming force of ruthless Shinobi loyal only to yourself?"
"They're not so old they can't be taught a few new tricks, Akishi." He shot her another smile. "But yes, that is probably what they would prefer. I still think it would be good to broaden their horizons a bit. They won't always be able to charge in and slaughter everything in their way. Greater Villages, for instance, simply have too many people for that. Their current methods might work on smaller, minor villages and countries but I don't want them getting stuck in thinking that's the only way to approach problems."
Akishi considered that for a moment and came to her own conclusion.
"You just want to see if you can pull of something subtle without having to resort to violence before your plan succeeds, don't you?"
"...Maybe." Everything else he'd done seemed to just become his Wolves attacking everything in sight until whatever goal he'd had was achieved.
Was it really too much to ask that his plans went off without becoming the Wolves tearing through his enemies? Why couldn't his plans be nice and clean? More importantly, why couldn't they stay as safe as possible for his Wolves? That's what he really wanted.
It was a pity the universe tended to disagree with him on that point.
Mai had to admit she was impressed. Naruto's agents- whom she still had not met- had successfully established control over Yu no Kuni's royal palace. Supposedly they had control over the entirety of Yu no Kuni but she would adopt a wait and see policy for that. Until she had access to Yu no Kuni's resources or could utilize the country in some other plan to benefit the Wolves there was no telling just how much influence or control these agents actually had.
Naruto had called them a 'godling' -or something along those lines- and while she didn't think he would lie about that she also wasn't sure what the hell he really meant. Hinata was a goddess as far as the Hyūga were concerned, was this something similar or entirely different? Knowing Naruto as she did her money was very much on some sort of spiritual being but, again, she really didn't know what he was talking about because she'd been gone when he made use of them.
This should serve as an opportunity for her to make contact with them, if nothing else, because if anyone was going to be here in the Yu no KUni palace it was going to be those who took control of it on behalf of Naruto.
Unless he had already sent them off to take care of something else, which was entirely likely considering just how quickly he could jump between plans and projects. Then again, that would have necessitated transferring control over to someone and she highly doubted he had assumed direct control himself.
Not with the way he seemed to be distancing himself from controlling any of the other groups he held influence over. She wasn't certain if he was trying to be subtle about it and keep anyone from noticing but she most assuredly had recognized the fact that he was pushing most of the responsibility and control to others.
What she didn't know was what his plans were with that or why he would think it was a good idea. Besides the fact that he was involved in far too many things to personally oversee them all, of course. That was the most obvious reasoning, something that immediately led into the fact that keeping himself from being tied down to a specific project allowed him to flit between them as necessary to ensure everything was running smoothly. That was more of his style, taking on whatever problems came up by himself.
Making sure he could always drop what he was doing to take care of a larger issue was exactly the sort of thing he would aim to set up.
Unfortunately while that seemed to be the most likely explanation she had a bad feeling that it wasn't the real reasoning behind his actions. At least, it wasn't the entire reason. That she couldn't think of his other potential motives gave her an extremely uncomfortable feeling because she knew there had to be something she wasn't seeing. With Naruto there was always something that seemed to slip from her vision. He was good at that and she wasn't entirely sure he even did it completely on purpose.
So if he hadn't assumed control himself, he had to have either left it with that 'godling' of his or he had someone else to take the reins. Unless he intended that to be her- which she very much doubted because she already had too much on her plate and he damn well knew it- or there were others he could have passed things off to she could expect to meet those agents of his.
On consideration she realized that he'd set out with a handful of Wolves and Shinobi he'd appropriated from Orochimaru. It was entirely possible for him to hand over control of Yu no Kuni to someone else and send- what did he call them, Children of Aū?- his agents off to do something else.
She really hoped that wasn't the case. Not only did it mean she wouldn't have a chance to see who he was utilizing- they weren't Wolves, so who knew how trustworthy or reliable they really were. She would prefer to know them in case something went wrong and she had to sic the Wolves on them for some reason- but it would mean Naruto was already up to something else.
As he'd just taken over another country- supposedly, they'd see how that worked in practice- she was rightfully wary of what else he might have planned.
Really, she was always worried about what Naruto might be getting up to when he was outside her sight. That man was a magnet for trouble without him going out and looking for it. Her hair was going to be grey by twenty because of him, she just knew it.
"Amaterasu-Sama." A palace servant greeted her and her accompanying Wolves at the large doors of the palace under the watchful gaze of the Samurai guard. "Fushomada-Sama is most pleased that you have accepted his invitation and welcomes you to Yu no Kuni. Please follow me." They bowed almost completely parallel to the ground and turned to lead them into the palace without looking back up at their guests.
That was probably the largest indicator that Naruto was at least up to something else here in Yu no Kuni if he wasn't also working on something elsewhere, the fact that they were calling her by that name. No one outside the Wolves knew of Amaterasu but her invitation from the royal family of Yu no Kuni- Fushomada, she reminded herself. She was going to have to remember that during her visit- had used that name specifically.
That's what tipped her off to it being Naruto in the first place, but the fact that those in the palace were going to be using it meant Naruto had done that on purpose too for reasons known only to himself and, perhaps, whoever had been sharing his bed recently. So probably Anko and Kasuri. He was most likely to tell those two what he was up to and if he didn't they may have been able to put it together from the time they spent around him.
She was slightly jealous of them for that, she missed the days where she, Naruto, and Sai were together planning and working for most of the day. It felt like a lifetime ago at this point, it was hard to believe it hadn't even been two years since then.
Pushing past the nostalgia, Mai figured she might have to track one of the women down while she was here to see what she could get them to slip. It could better equip her to deal with whatever mess Naruto inevitably ended up finding himself in.
Because if there was one thing that never changed it was trouble finding Naruto.
It was almost charming.
Mostly because she was the one who typically had to deal with it.
Sealkeeper: He Who Binds
Chapter 163-B "Homecoming"
Patron Release 2022.08.27
Naruto was in a small sitting room when she was led to him, looking mighty relaxed leaning back on a simple grey couch with some sort of fruity drink in one hand. It might have been her imagination but she could have sworn she could smell the burn of the alcohol from her position in the doorway.
It was, after all, always the most unassuming drinks that contained the most ungodly amounts of it.
You wouldn't even realize it until it hit you over the head with a chair, either.
"Ah, Amaterasu-Sama," He gave her a smile. "So nice of you to join us." His hair may have been completely black- and possessing a lovely sheen- but his eyes were still as purple and piercing as ever. It really wasn't much of a disguise but at this point he'd probably been here for a good week or two so there was no telling how many ways he'd changed his features in that time.
Every time he moved between rooms was Mai's guess. It probably amused him to confuse the palace workers and that was better than him running off to cause chaos in another country.
"Well I could hardly decline an invitation from Fushomada-Dono to stay here in the palace, the fact that he sent the invitation to Amaterasu certainly caught my attention and my curiosity."
"I thought it might. How did you find our dear Daimyo?"
"Very accommodating, though he's more soft spoken than I expected." Naruto nodded in agreement.
"Yes, the snakes were quite surprised to discover that as well. Aruje ended up being the one to take his place because she was already closest to his demeanor. Really, I think it ended up being a surprisingly good fit."
Mai actually had no trouble believing the Daimyo she'd been speaking with was actually a woman, though she had no way to know how it compared to the real Daimyo having never met the man herself previously. But if everyone here in the place was fooled she supposed it had to be close enough.
"He did appear quite feminine." Much like Naruto, actually, but she managed to refrain from commenting on that fact. Barely.
Naruto offered a shrug and drained the last of his drink. "I understand Orochimaru took slight liberties with the body when he learned which Child of Aū would be occupying them. Surprisingly thoughtful of him considering he had no obligation to do so."
Liberties? Orochimaru? That wasn't surprising at all but how far had the Snake Sage gone?
"...Is the Daimyo actually a woman now?" She wouldn't put it past the man to create a female body similar enough to the Daimyo to pass for them if he was trying to tailor the form to a female agent- and she hadn't even brought up the fact that rather than just taking their places it sounded like they were transferring Naruto's alternative agents between bodies- but that would also increase the risk of the deception being discovered.
"No, not at all." Naruto paused for a second. "It's just not a man, either."
"How does that-" Mai managed to stop herself. On second thought, she didn't want to know exactly how that worked or any of the details. She'd stick to the fact that it didn't have male genitalia and leave it at that.
Knowing exactly where her thoughts had gone, Naruto gave her a wan smile. "Yeah, best not to dwell on things too much when it comes to Orochimaru. I don't know how half the usual biological functions are supposed to work with the things he comes up with and I really hope I never do."
She was in agreement there.
"So, Orochimaru's changes aside, perhaps you'd like to explain why I've been invited to the capital of Yu no Kuni when you're already here?"
"You almost make it sound like you don't want to see me, Mai. You're going to break my poor, fragile heart."
Mai rolled her eyes. Yeah, his fragile heart. He had enough support at this point- and enough people holding onto parts of his heart- that she was sure he could weather any heartbreak that came his way. Romantically, at least. When it came to his Wolves that was a completely different ballgame. "I was hoping to hit your ego, but I suppose your heart will have to do."
"Ouch." He rubbed at his chest. "Well, I suppose I probably had that coming. You're here for two reasons, mostly, to bring Amaterasu out into the open as a leader of the Wolves and to initiate ties between Nami no Kuni and Yu no Kuni."
"Doesn't that defeat the point of us being unknown as we take over Yu no Kuni? I thought the plan was for there to be no association so we could hide the Wolves here if need be."
"If we have a public falling out with Yu no Kuni who's going to look for Wolves here?" Was his counter. "Just as no one really looks for us in Konoha anymore even though we have easy access via train."
"Train?" She asked, and he blinked as a sudden understanding dawned on his expression.
"Oh, I forgot to mention that, didn't I? Orochimaru got me a train and I had Ganju build a track to Konoha." A brief pause. "Well, he built it to our outpost here in Yu no Kuni first, but then I had him head towards our old compound in Konoha."
"...You have a train that can run between Konoha, Nami, and Yu no Kuni?"
"...And you didn't think to inform me about it?"
"Slipped my mind. Orochiamru brought me the train and then I just let Ganju loose. I hadn't even realized he'd made it to Konoha until I received a letter from Danzō asking me why there was a train station beneath his new base."
"They built a-" She found herself having to stop mid thought again as she brought one hand up to massage the bridge of her nose. "I shouldn't be surprised at this point," Mai mumbled. "I really shouldn't, and yet I am."
"Mmm," Naruto gave a hum of agreement. "I know about things going on and still find myself surprised." She shot him a heated glare for that comment.
"That's because you can't keep track of all the things you have going on and completely forget what you're having people do."
"...This is true."
"You know what? Forget it. There's a train. I'll make sure to up security where they reach our bases in case Konoha eventually finds ROOT and the station now under their new compound. What was the reason I'm here that you haven't explicitly mentioned?" She cut through the insanity that followed him and straight into the important part because with Naruto it tended to be what he didn't say that was of the greatest concern. Fortunately he tended to hint at the fact that he wasn't sharing everything so you knew where to dig for more information.
Or perhaps that was just Mai's long standing familiarity with the young man allowing her glimpses of insight into his mind.
Which, considering it was currently filled with gods knew how many people, she probably should cut him some slack. If he had trouble keeping track of things before she couldn't imagine how he kept anything straight now that he literally had other people in his head at any given time.
She didn't know how he did it, the thought alone was already enough to give Mai a headache and she couldn't imagine how bad that headache would be if she was actually dealing with others in the only place she could really guarantee her privacy.
There was also the fact that it was people like Anko in his head and nothing against the woman- she was nearly as fond of the Tokujo as Naruto was- but that alone was a lot to handle when she was only in the physical plane. Having to deal with her in your head, too? Mai would lose her fucking mind.
"I figure that if people are blindsided by a sudden Amaterasu leading the Wolves and making inroads with Yu no Kuni it will hold their attention for a bit and keep it off me."
Suspicion instantly rising, Mai narrowed her eyes at the relaxed young man. "And just what, exactly, are you planning, Naruto?"
He waved her off. "Oh, this and that. I just have some work to see to as Aū's High-Priest." That was not at all reassuring.
"And just what kind of work would that be?" She really doubted he would be going door to door spreading the word of…Aū- whoever the fuck that was- in a peaceful manner. If anything, she expected something more along the lines of a crusade. It was more his style and the Wolves would be absolutely thrilled- even more reason for him to go for it.
"Don't worry." He gave another lazy wave of his hand as if to dismiss those worries physically. "It doesn't involve people." A beat. "Mostly. It's not supposed to involve people but-" He gave another very unassuring shrug. "You know how it is. People can't help but butt into things that aren't any of their business."
"Don't worry about it, Mai." He flashed her a smile that had her momentarily forgetting the issue as a heat built in her belly and her heart fluttered. "I'll be fine and you'll be overseeing the Wolves, just from the comforts of a palace where you're an honored guest and anything from the Wolves has to go through Hanabi first."
That did sound really good but Mai was quick to refocus on the important things.
"I am going to worry about it, Naruto, especially when you're avoiding the question."
"I'll have Kasuri and Akishi with me. I'll be perfectly safe, supervised, and the chances of starting any sort of global conflict are low even for me."
"But where will you be and what will you be doing?"
"Again, don't worry about it, Mai. You only need to concern yourself with the House of Wolves. You're much too busy to be babysitting me and if I told you you'd just worry about it while I was gone."
And didn't she know it but at the same time; "I'm going to worry about not knowing."
"Well, yes, but then you can't be sending off Wolves to check on me." He gave her a pointed look and she felt a tinge of pink spread across her cheeks. She was liable to do that and they both knew it. "Just trust me, Mai. Everything I need to take care of will be fine and I know our children are going to be okay because they'll be in the hands of Amaterasu. She won't let anything bad happen to them."
Gods damn that man, he knew how much calling the Wolves their children affected her. The glint in his eyes told her he knew he'd just won, too, which was almost frustrating enough for her to push on anyway out of sheer spite.
Almost, but not quite.
He knew that too.
"Just be safe." She pleaded, conceding the fact that she wasn't going to get anything else out of him. "And don't bring the Wolves any more trouble."
"Of cour-" She cut him off with a pointed look.
"And that doesn't mean you can separate yourself from the Wolves and take on whatever trouble you cause as a separate entity. You're still the lord of the House of Wolves, even if you're running about doing things for this 'Aū' of yours."
"...Wouldn't dream of it." He mumbled.
Her look told him she was very clearly remembering what he'd done when it came to matters of the Uzumaki clan but she let it rest at that. He considered that rather fortunate, because if they talked about this too much more he was liable to let something slip to his favorite Wolf and there was no way in hell she would let him run off to deal with demons.
There had been no sign of him in Hanahime which, while odd, was not entirely unexpected. If he'd been there there was a good chance that whoever Asuma had keeping an eye out for him- because with how much he seemed to stress over the Wolves and what they might be up to Asuma had to have someone around- would have relayed that back to Konoha and Yugao's team wouldn't have been needed in the first place.
They had known he wouldn't be here when they set out- unless whoever Asuma had here was doing a very, very bad job- but there really wasn't anywhere else to start from, either. Tsukuyomi- Naruto- was known to inhabit two locations, Konoha and Hanahime. If he was anywhere else they probably wouldn't hear about it until he'd finished whatever he was up to. That would have been the case in Kiri, too, if she hadn't….
No, best not to dwell on that while on an assignment. She gave it enough thought on her own time as it was.
Where they were starting didn't matter, what mattered was where they should be headed next.
The problem there was two fold;
First, it was very hard to gather information without spending time in the city. Considering the fact that Yugao's team and the Wolves had been on opposing sides the last time they had met and her own damaged- and that was putting it lightly- relationship with their beloved Daimyo. Every second in the city was another chance of being recognized and having the Wolves up in arms. They really wanted to avoid that, but getting information from the populace while staying out of the Wolves' sight was by no means easy when they were patrolling the streets and the people of Namihime hardly even realized when their Daimyo was in residence.
It was a little sad, actually, but keeping himself distant from his country seemed like the sort of thing Naruto might do. After all, they weren't his Wolves and she knew far too well what happened when he allowed himself to get close to people outside his pack.
Second, no one really seemed to talk about the Wolves. There had been some grumbled complaints from old men in corners of dingy bars and the occasional gripe from a captain about something not making it past customs but for the most part the Wolves remained outside everyday conversation. Hana- and Yugao was fairly certain that was her friend Hana- was praised liberally for the prosperity of the country but even the Commander of the Wolves who resided here on a permanent basis and worked towards the same ends was only brought up in relation to Hana's achievements- achievements Yugao would put money on being joint efforts between the two.
And if the people weren't talking about the Wolves they also weren't talking about the Lord of the Wolves, Tsukuyomi. Whatever he did- which Yugao suspected might also be attributed to Hana by the people of Hanahime- either was kept from the populace or they simply ignored his hand in it. As Naruto liked to keep to his Wolves, his actions most likely never made it outside his palace.
But that meant if he did leave no one had really heard about it and it wouldn't have been important enough for them to speak of.
Which meant a distinct lack of leads for Yugao and her team.
"Still nothing?" Yugao asked Souji as he returned to camp, slipping under the tarp that covered the slight recess they were currently calling home.
"Not a damn thing. Unless we're going to try breaking into the palace itself there's nothing we can find out from the people of Nami." He didn't have to point out how bad of an idea that would be. The Wolves were ANBU trained and had the home field advantage. Getting in was certainly possible but managing to get in, find what they needed, and get out again without being discovered was so unlikely it wasn't even worth calculating the risk and being caught was absolutely unacceptable for their mission and their strained relationship with Naruto.
Figuring out where he was is one thing, breaking into his home and having to defend themselves against his children was on a whole other level.
"We heard Mai was headed for Yu no Kuni." Hioki reminded the present group. "We all know how close she was to Naruto, could she be going to meet him there under the guise of a vacation or house business?"
Souji and Yugao shared a look. It was sort of a stretch but they didn't really have anything else. They would also have an easier time scouring Yu no Kuni for signs of Naruto because the relationship between Hi no Kuni and Yu no Kuni was blessedly neutral and they could always pretend to be on leave themselves.
It was certainly more promising than hoping the people of Hanahime developed an interest in the affairs of the Daimyo that had saved them from the oppression of Gato.
Yugao was only slightly angered by their ungrateful behavior, mostly because she felt like a hypocrite when she did. She'd taken her relationship with Naruto for granted and then betrayed his trust entirely when she lashed out, she could hardly hold the fact that his people ignored him against them.
At least they weren't causing any harm.
"Could be." Yugao eventually answered. "Either way, it's probably the best lead we're going to get. This-" She gestured to their camp. "Isn't getting us anywhere."
Of course, Naruto managed to sneak into Konoha whenever he pleased so who knew if they'd be able to find him when he could be anywhere in the world at the moment.
Asuma was fortunate that ANBU were salaried because there was no way they'd remain on what very well could be an impossible mission indefinitely otherwise.
If Naruto didn't want to be found there was a very good chance he wouldn't be.
"Mei-Sama!" Ao entered her office briskly, his usual frown deeper than normal. "Our troops-"
"I've already heard, Ao." Much like her trusted advisor, Mei's lips were pulled into a frown at the news. Kirigakure Shinobi who were supposed to be stationed in Kaze no Kuni to maintain a hold over the country on behalf of Hi no Kuni were, for some reason, back within Shin-Kirigakure no Sato.
They were also heavily injured and missing a good portion of the numbers she had originally sent. She'd like to believe that was because the rest were doing their duty and remaining in Kaze no Kuni- Sunagakure, to be specific- but she knew the likelihood of that was slim based solely on the state of those who had managed to get back to her.
"Yes, Mei-Sama, but I've debriefed them for you and the news is…troubling."
She knew it. Pinching the bridge of her nose and releasing a resigned sigh she asked; "How troubling are we talking about?"
"Ninkai Taisen troubling, Mei-Sama." Her eyes shot open immediately. Ao was not one for jokes, if he said there was the possibility of a full Shinobi War breaking out then you could be certain things would be getting very close at the least. There was always a chance for things to be defused but that mostly depended on the parties sparking the conflict in the first place and whether they could drum up support from other countries.
"Iwagakure forces hit us in Kaze no Kuni, it's assumed they've taken full control of it." Which means they were going against Hi no Kuni. That was the sort of rivalry that wouldn't be easily defused. "With word from the Godaime Hokage about Iwa forces around Taki and Kusa, it's apparent that this is more than a handful of skirmishes and territorial disputes. Tsuchi no Kuni is committing itself to this."
"And what remains of Sunagakure is sure to support them." Mei groaned. This was not good, not good at all. As Konoha's ally they would be expected to join in too but she'd committed a majority of her forces to Suna already and Iwa had caused massive losses. With no financial strength of their own they couldn't aid Konoha that way either. At most, they could provide a haven for refugees but even then they would be supporting them using what Konoha had already provided them. It wasn't much, but it was something at least.
"Have word sent to Konoha, make sure they know Iwa's split its forces. Chances are they'll head east through Kawa, we don't want Hi no Kuni taken unaware and caught between the two and we especially don't want them to have free access to Kagayaku Machi." It was generally poor form to target a Daimyo- there was a reason gaining the stigmata of Daimyo-Slayer more or less barred one from being a legitimate Shinobi ever again- but Iwa might attempt to hold the entire city hostage for "strategic purposes" to much the same effect. That would provide them an immediate advantage over Kiri's ally that Mei simply could not allow.
"At once, Mei-Sama."
They'd only just escaped over a decade of bloody civil war that reduced Kirigakure to rubble and now they were about to be dragged into what was sure to become a world-wide conflict.
Looks like there would be no rest for the Village Hidden in the Mist.
Was it too much to hope that Konoha and Kumo might put aside their own bad blood and work against Iwa in this? Yeah, it probably was. Really, she'd just be happy if they stayed neutral.
Unfortunately that might have been asking for too much as well.
"Numa no Kuni?" Katsuri voiced her confusion to the rest of the group. "What on earth do we need to take care of here, Tsukuyomi-Sama?"
"There's something here." Naruto explained. "And Aū would very much like for it not to be. That's what brings us…here." He couldn't say he didn't understand his High-Captain's reluctance to be here, either, this place was humid and unpleasant. Of course, being a place no one wanted to go to made it the perfect location for hiding away things that were best left undisturbed.
"So we're looking for some sort of artifact?" She asked. "A temple to an opposing god?" She really didn't know much when it came to Aū and his snakes and she really didn't care to. Her own god- Tsukuyomi- was working with him, though, and that meant she would be there to support her lord.
Naruto shot her a small smile but the light amusement in his eyes only seemed to be a distraction for whatever secrets he was keeping. "Something like that, Katsuri."
"Something like the artifact or something like the temple?"
She didn't get an answer to that and the slight frown that tugged at her lips seemed to gain the attention of the third member of their group.
"If Tsukuyomi-Sama doesn't deem you worthy of knowing more about our task you should worry more about bettering yourself than being upset that he won't tell you." Akishi spoke up. The look she shot the High-Captain wasn't exactly a glare but it was filled with disdain for the one who dared question the High-Priest of Aū.
"And do you know why we're here, snake?" Was Katsuri's counter as she turned to better face the Ak'Gyun.
"I don't need to." Akishi turned back to following Naruto, her head held high and the entire air about her entirely dismissive. "The High-Priest has a task here, so I shall follow and support him as is my duty as his personal summon."
"Which still means you don't know either, so are you unworthy too?"
"Of course I'm worthy, I just don't have any need to question the actions of the High-Priest."
"Well how are you supposed to support him in a task when you don't even know what it is?"
"When he requires something of me, I'll see to it that it's done." Was the Elder's answer.
"Not a very good assistant then, are you? You'd think a personal summon would be more proactive in seeing to the High-Priest's needs." Katsuri countered. "Even when Mai was his assistant she still saw to things before they became a problem for Tsukuyomi-Sama. Are you telling me the, what, 'Fifth-Born of Aū' can't reach the standards of a teenage human girl? That's almost enough to earn my pity"
A frown breaking though the impassive countenance she'd tried to maintain, Akishi sped up enough to be directly next to her High-Priest, her chest pressing into his left shoulder. "Tsukuyomi-Sama, perhaps there's some insight I could provide to aid you on this task for Great Aū if you'd see fit to share it with me…." She trailed off with her suggestion.
Naruto paused and glanced back to meet her crimson eyes. "Have faith in me, Akishi, I know my task and what must be done."
"O-of course, Tsukuyomi-Sama." Even as she bowed in apology he'd already resumed his walk through the swamps of Numa no Kuni. It was fortunate that there were solid paths of packed earth through the still water, it made for a much more pleasant journey even if they would likely have to veer off of them at some point to reach the destination he felt no need to share.
Katsuri shot the snake a victorious smirk as she stepped past her to follow her lord, pleased that the 'worthy serpent' had also been denied an answer.
"So, what was that about being worthy 'oh great Akishi'?"
"Katsuri." Naruto called back before Akishi could respond.
"Stop taunting my Akishi." The Ak'Gyun felt a pleasant shiver trail down her spine at the High-Priest's choice of words. Flashing a smile at Katsuri, she relished in the fact that she was his personal summon and not just one of many like the Wolves. Katsuri scowled back at her but only responded to Naruto.
"As you wish, Tsukuyomi-Sama."
"Stop provoking my Katsuri." As soon as she heard that the Wolf's spirit rose and her scowl was replaced by triumph. Akishi exerted no small amount of effort in keeping her face neutral and her tone even as she responded to his orders.
"By your command, High-Priest."
"Good, I'm glad we have that settled." With his back still turned he didn't see the way the two were glaring at each other less than a minute later but he really didn't need to see it to know what they were up to.
'I give it another five minutes until they're at each other's throats again.' He thought morosely. 'How is it that two women so similar in purpose can't manage to get along to fulfill it?'
Really, he thought they should have been getting along smashingly. He just hadn't expected Akishi's feelings of superiority to somehow ignite a competitiveness in Katsuri that the Ak'Gyun was only happy to match.
Briefly he wondered if Anko would have been a better choice for working with the Ak'Gyun but quickly dismissed it. She would have either been worse due to her remaining hatred of Orochimaru or she would have been worse because she'd have been too busy trying to get into Akishi's skirts to focus on the task at hand.
Maybe next time he should just head out by himself.
That is, if he could successfully hide that excursion from Mai.
There was no way in hell she would let him wander the world without any support and if he tried he was bound to end up with half a company of Wolves trailing his ass.
He still wondered why people thought he was the one in charge.
The water rippled under their dry feet as Naruto ducked under a branch to find his quarry; a cave gashed into the side of Numa no Kuni's mountain range like a wound that had never healed. He felt Katsuri come to a stop behind his right shoulder and could hear Akishi's tail propel her through the water until she was to his left.
Water walking was a difficult exercise when one did not possess feet, he had learned, though it was no less impressive that her torso remained upright and balanced while her tail was mostly submerged. Akishi's focus was less on her surroundings and more on the thin skirts she was attempting to keep out of the water.
"Why have we stopped?" She asked, looking up from the cloth at her waist to the High-Priest she'd been following. "Have we arrived?"
"Nearly, Akishi." NAruto pointed towards the rocky scar. "Our first stop is in there. With luck it will be dryer within, but knowing how things typically go I'd expect it to be flooded." Katsuri hid a grin behind her hand, knowing very well how much her lord's luck seemed to swing from impossibly good to horrendously bad.
"Well at least there probably won't be as many bugs." She offered a positive note. They had left her serpentine lower body alone for the most part but they'd been happy to go for her human torso. As she didn't feel the need to cover herself at the best of times and wasn't about to layer up in the humidity of the swamps she had been the most exposed of the group. What attention didn't go towards remaining upright in the water and following the High-Priest had gone towards shooing off swarms of stubborn insects.
A cave, though, that was likely to have bats at the least and possibly frogs or toads too which meant, hopefully, that they'd eaten a majority of the flying annoyances in the immediate vicinity.
Dumb creatures, all three of them, but at least they had some use now that she was an Ak'Gyun.
"I don't suspect we'll find much of any animal in those caves." There was a tinge of humor to his voice. Katsuri normally thought that would have been from Akishi's obvious frustration with bothersome insects but something told her this had more to do with whatever he was looking for within the cave instead.
"Really? I'd think something would take shelter within a natural formation like that, unless it regularly receives human visitors."
"Are you questioning the High-Priest?" Katsuri was quick to turn the Ak'Gyun's earlier words against her but the serpent had only enough time to narrow her eyes at the Wolf before Naruto stepped in.
"Girls, I know you like pushing each other's buttons but save it for when we're home."
"Of course, Tsukuyomi-Sama."
"As for your question, Akishi, I'm quite confident that no animal would find shelter in the presence of a demon." Reaching to rest a finger on the blade strapped across his lower back, the blackened metal of the cursed blade seemed to hum in resonance with the demon it was originally intended to wound.
Mōryō's Tooth had finally come home.
I have taken- and will continue to take- liberties with matters of Mōryō. Partially because it allows me to connect it to some Aū lore, even if only slightly, but mostly because I couldn't find any pictures of the second shrine and I wasn't about to go watch the movie again. The Wiki mentions the guards and the ghost army were located at the site in Oni no Kuni which holds Mōryō's spirit even though I'm fairly certain the ghost army was located near his body canonically- mostly because I seem to recall the Konoha Shinobi having to fight past them to get Shion into the second shrine so she could seal Mōryō as his spirit was brought back to the location of his body.
Then again, it has been many years since I saw the movie so I could be very much mistaken.
Either way, I'm changing things up a bit. Figured I'd mention this in case anyone found themselves confused by things being 'wrong' in the coming chapters dealing with parts of that movie.
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