花 は 桜. 人 は 武.
Hana wa sakura. Hito wa bushi.
Among flowers, the cherry blossom. Among men, the warrior.
April 16, 1863
Aki, Hiko's mountain
The midday sun was high in the sky, signaling the hour of the horse. This of course meant that it was time for midday dinner. Hiko Seijuro XIII's stomach rumbled in anticipation of some food. He had been busy practicing his own kata since early this morning and needed to replenish his energy.
It was thus with no little consternation the swordmaster noticed that the water buckets lay untouched in the corner. It was well past time for Kenshin to have gone and fetched water from the river so he could begin cooking their midday dinner. This was getting way out of hand.
"Hey stupid, where are those buckets of water? You can't cook our midday dinner without water!" Hiko roared at the top of his voice, pausing momentarily to breathe before drinking more sake.
A muffled voice emanated from behind the closed hikido of Kenshin's room.
"Master! Not after practicing all morning. I'm tired."
Hiko veinpopped. Of late, he had noticed traits in Kenshin that he didn't like developing: Laziness and insolence. Sure, it was fine to take a short rest after a hard morning of training, but lately, he would find Kenshin sleeping just about anywhere and everywhere after his practices when he was supposed to be doing his chores. Hiko would get on his case about it, only to receive a smart answer back. Respect was becoming a point of contention between them, as was strongly evidenced by the empty water buckets.
Hiko had first noticed this change in Kenshin over the winter, when he had allowed Kenshin to carry his katana freely after the boy had mastered the Do Ryu Sen and started landing blows during their spars. These accomplishments had gone straight to Kenshin's head, it seemed. Now, there were frequent arguments about practice time, techniques, and chores once done without question.
Which brought Hiko back to the present situation of his idiot apprentice lazing about in his room when he was supposed to be filling the buckets and cooking their midday dinner before their afternoon spar. It was time to put a stop to this, Hiko thought, his face set to a grim line as he reached for the handle to Kenshin's hikido.
Kenshin was snuggled up in his comfortable futon, resting his aching muscles after having trained all morning in his advanced kata. He didn't understand why the Master always insisted on doing those hard chores immediately after practices and spars.
Kenshin heard the hikido slide open. Before he had time to react, Hiko had grabbed him by his ankles and was dragging him out of the room. Hiko didn't let go of Kenshin's ankles till they'd reached the buckets.
"Master!" cried Kenshin.
"Buckets first, then rest! NOW GO!" barked Hiko, jabbing his finger toward the door.
Kenshin got slowly to his feet, looking Hiko directly in the face, jaw jutting out stubbornly. Insolence and indignation shone in the boy's violet eyes. Moving with deliberate slowness, Kenshin picked up the buckets and sauntered haughtily out of the hut.
Scenes like this were becoming more the rule than the exception of late. In the beginning of Kenshin's apprenticeship, Hiko had taunted and baited his pupil into arguments and fights with him because he had wanted to bring out the fighting spirit hidden beneath the fear and trauma the boy had suffered. However, it had worked too well! Now more often than not, there were glares, smart answers and just an over all flippant attitude.
The Hiten master opened the doors of the cabinet where he kept his sake supply only to find to his horror that he was down to one jug. With a sigh of weariness, Hiko concluded that he would need more sake to be able to put up with his defiant apprentice.
A disgruntled Kenshin stomped down to the river with two empty buckets to fill. At the river bank, he knelt down and dipped the first bucket in and allowed the fresh, cool water to fill it.
'This is so unfair! Instead of teaching me the secrets, that old hypocrite treats me like his servant! Fetch the water, sweep the floor, do the laundry, patch the roof! All while he sits around drinking sake!' Kenshin thought petulantly. 'Well, once I do learn the secrets, I'm out of here. I can't help the people of Japan if I'm stuck here slaving away for the Master.'
Hiko looked out the window at the red-haired boy who was just now returning from the river with two full buckets. With a sarcastic smirk, Hiko decided that there was no reason for him to go to town when he had an able-bodied pupil who had been getting too big for his monpei lately. A trip down to the village would be just the thing to burn off some of that excess energy.
Kenshin returned to the hut and wordlessly set the buckets on the floor, not even glancing at his master. Suddenly, he whirled around and caught the bag of gold coins which Hiko had chucked at him.
"Go down to the village and pick me up two jugs of sake. I'm running low," said Hiko.
"What about dinner?" asked the confused boy.
"You know I never eat my dinner without sake and if I have to train you without eating, I am going to be in a very nasty mood," glowered Hiko.
Kenshin nodded, not wanting to push his luck too far. He wasn't truly afraid of Hiko, but he barely found the Master tolerable when he was in a decent mood. Without another word, Kenshin disappeared through the open door after fetching his sword from his room.
'At this rate, that boy will send me to an early grave before I even get a chance to teach him the secret techniques,' mourned Hiko.
Kenshin made his way carefully down the mountain. As he moved, his left hand rested on the hilt of the katana at his side. It was only just this past winter that Hiko had FINALLY allowed him to wear it when he left the mountain and only because he had landed a blow with the move in which he had trained over the winter.
When Kenshin got to the village, he surveyed the typical scene before him: A village full of dirt poor people doing the best they could to survive under the Bakufu's crushing rice tax system, which would take away more than half of anything they grew, made, earned, etc., leaving them with nothing.
Kenshin made his way to the sake vendor from whom Hiko always bought. The elderly man looked out through his barred window at the knock on his door frame. When he saw the red hair, his face warmed with a smile. Hiko and Kenshin made regular forays into the village and never failed to stop at his place. Fudoro found Kenshin a quiet, polite and altogether likable youth, though Hiko insisted that Kenshin was a mule-headed idiot. When he opened the hikido, Kenshin bowed to him.
"Mornin' Kenshin. You here alone today?" asked Fudoro.
"Good morning, Fudoro-san. Yes, my Master sent me to pick up two jugs of sake," replied Kenshin, holding out the bag of coins.
"Ah, he must be drinking too much again," chuckled Fudoro, taking the bag from Kenshin.
"He says I drive him to it," said Kenshin with a petulant frown.
"Well, don't mind him too much. Hiko-san's bark is worse than his bite. Alright, here you..." Fudoro's words died in his mouth as his eyes widened in horror.
Suddenly, Kenshin found himself yanked into the sake shop by his arm and the hikido quickly slid shut behind him, not even giving him time to step out of his sandals. Fudoro gestured for the boy to be quiet and knelt at the window. Kenshin knelt down beside him and surveyed the scene.
Into the midst of the village tromped a gang of 12 sword-wielding ronin. Filthy and dressed in rags, they had come to plunder and kill. Mercilessly, they started slashing and stabbing at people with their katana as everyone tried to get away from them.
"Dammit. I was afraid they'd come here," said Fudoro quietly.
"Who are they?" asked Kenshin in a hushed tone.
"A gang of ronin who have been tearing up and down the countryside for the past month. No one's been able to stop them. They've never been here till now," answered Fudoro.
Kenshin's eyes widened in horror as one of them suddenly grabbed a young woman by the arm and started slicing at her kimono with his sword. Suddenly, Kenshin wasn't in Fudoro's shop anymore; he was back on the scene of the carnage that had led to his present relationship with Hiko. Little Shinta saw Kasumi, Akane and Sakura being mercilessly cut down before his eyes, their blood splattering in all directions. Shinta, too small and weak to even lift a sword, could do nothing but watch.
Kenshin's body shook in horror and rage as the ronin started to forcibly kiss the woman on the throat. Why didn't someone stop them? He moved a bit and heard the clank of the iron sheath at his side. That was right... he was no longer the little weakling Shinta. Now he was a well-trained young swordsman on the verge of mastering Hiten Mitsurugi. What was he doing in the shop?
Ignoring Fudoro's protests, Kenshin jumped to his feet, tore the fusuma open and ran out to face the ronin. He charged at the ronin assaulting the girl and unsheathed his sword, slicing the ronin's arm down the middle and forcing him to release the girl, who got quickly to her feet and ran off as fast as she could in her geta and kimono. The ronin fell to the ground, howling in pain as blood spurted from the gash that stretched from his elbow to his wrist.
"You little dipshit!" roared another of the ronin, drawing his sword.
Kenshin swung his sword, blocking the ronin's, then finished with his sheath, knocking the sword from the guy's hand and breaking his arm in the process.
'SO RYU SEN!'
Another ronin charged at Kenshin, swinging his katana low, only to hit empty air where the boy had just been. A shadow descending from above was his only warning. Kenshin's katana hit the ronin's left shoulder, painfully dislocating it.
‘RYU TSUI SEN!’
The other ronin who had witnessed this spectacle now came charging toward Kenshin, swords drawn. For a moment, Kenshin was frozen in panic. There were so many of them! Then he remembered the new move he'd mastered that allowed him to carry his katana. Kenshin struck the ground, channeling his ki through the blade toward the charging ronin.
'DO RYU SEN!'
Ground and rock flew up, pelting them mercilessly. The ronin scattered like ants. In less than three minutes, 12 strong ronin had been beaten down by the diminutive 14-year-old. Catching his breath, Kenshin sheathed his katana. He had done it! His sword, wielded according to the principles of Hiten Mitsurugi, had beaten the ronin! He couldn't wait to tell Hiko when he got back to the mountain. The Master would be so proud of him that he would surely pass down the secrets!
Ignoring the stares and murmurs of the people watching, Kenshin turned to head back to Fudoro's sake shop to retrieve his purchase. If he returned empty handed, Hiko would probably delay passing on the secrets for yet another month!
"Kenshin, that was incredible! I had no idea your training had come so far," exclaimed Fudoro, handing him the jugs.
"I was just glad to be able to stop them. That is the purpose of Hiten Mitsurugi," said Keshin quietly.
"Yes it is. With your sword school, you may be the one to bring peace to the land one day," said Fudoro hopefully.
'I could bring peace to the land?' thought Kenshin as he bowed and started to head out.
Kenshin thought that over. In his first true battle, he had used his sword and saved a life, perhaps several lives. That was it! Instead of just fighting small battles here and there, Kenshin would use his skills to save everyone in Japan! All he needed now was to learn the secrets! With this newfound pride swelling in his heart, Kenshin set off for home.
As Kenshin headed to the edge of the village, a large man with his hair pulled back in a high ponytail and a daisho at his waist stepped out of the bushes and blocked his path. Nervously, Kenshin gripped the hilt of his katana with his left hand. He hadn't anticipated another fight so soon!
"Easy there, lad. I mean you no harm. I saw what you did back there and wanted to talk with you about your skills," explained the large man.
"I have to get back to my master," said Kenshin, suddenly feeling more like a shy young boy than a swordsman who had just taken down 12 ronin.
"I'm sure you do, but I noticed that you seemed very passionate about stopping those thugs. How would you like to be able to not only stop more ronin, but also put an end to the Tokugawa Bakufu, which allows things like this to occur every day?" asked the large man.
"Well..." hesitated Kenshin. "I'll listen, but then I really must get back."
"OK," began the large man. "My name is Omara Sadujino. I'm a scout for the Kiheitai of Choshuu and we could use someone with skills like yours."
"Kiheitai?" asked Kenshin. "Is that like the army?"
"In fact, it's the opposite. The Kiheitai is a revolutionary militia put together by Takasugi Shinsaku of the Choshuu Clan to fight against the corrupt Bakufu, which allows this chaos to go on and just keeps taking more from the people instead of protecting them. Our goal is to restore the Emperor to power and make life better for the people of this country. In the Kiheitai, class and rank mean nothing. All we're looking for are those who can fight and want to protect the well-being of this nation's people," explained Omara.
“Class and rank mean nothing?” echoed Kenshin, recalling the unjust system that had sent samurai to rob his village of all the crops the peasant farmers had grown.
“Yes. One of the Choshuu Clan’s goals is to eliminate the caste system and make all the people of Japan equal,” explained Omara.
“All the people, even the peasant farmers?” Kenshin asked hopefully.
“Especially the peasant farmers,” answered Omara, leaning toward Kenshin. “They’re who we’re fighting for the most.”
It was these words that swayed Kenshin’s sensitive heart.
"I want to do that!" the young swordsman exclaimed, eyes brightening.
"So would you like to join?" asked Omara.
"Well, I need to talk to my Master first. I'm not actually finished with my training yet," replied Kenshin.
"Judging from what I saw today, you're fine just as you are," said Omara.
Kenshin's eyes widened. Fine as he was? The Master was always putting him down and saying he wasn't ready yet. But Fudoro-san and Omara-san obviously thought differently. Kenshin decided then and there that he would talk to Hiko and ask if they could join the Kiheitai.
"Let me talk to my Master tonight. If you think I'm good, you should see him. He's much stronger than I am," said Kenshin truthfully.
"Hey, you'd both be welcome," said Omara. "I'll be at the Hiraya tonight. You and your master come see me tomorrow and we'll head to Hagi."
"Alright," said Kenshin happily with a bow. "Good day to you, Omara-san!"
Kenshin dashed off in high spirits. What a day! He had stopped the 12 ronin all by himself and had already been asked to join a militia. He would tell the Master about it and learn the secrets, then they would join the Kiheitai, help overthrow the Bakufu and everything would be perfect thanks to them and Hiten Mitsurugi!
Kenshin got back to the hut to find Hiko sitting on the stump, a surly look on his face. He was rather late in returning and Hiko needed his sake.
"There you are. Did you get lost again?" Hiko asked in that sarcastic tone Kenshin loathed.
"No, Master," said Kenshin, holding out the jugs of sake.
Hiko snatched both jugs from him, popped one open and took a swig. Ah, that was the shit.
"Master, you won't believe what happened in the village," began Kenshin.
"I'm sure I won't," said Hiko abruptly, standing up. "Your fucking around in the village has eaten up valuable daylight. To the waterfall!"
"But I haven't had any food yet!" protested Kenshin.
"That's your fault for taking so long. I've already eaten and am ready to spar," said Hiko without glancing back at his pupil.
With an angry huff, Kenshin fell in behind his Master. For the master of a sword style that was supposed to protect the weak, Hiko could be very inhumane. Kenshin vowed then and there that he would never be like Hiko once he had mastered the style.
When they reached the waterfall, Kenshin, not wanting to be put off any longer, spoke up.
"While I was in the village, 12 ronin showed up and started hurting people," he began.
"Oh?" said Hiko with an impatient glare.
"I defeated them with the Do Ryu Sen," Kenshin declared, drawing himself up proudly.
Hiko quirked an eyebrow.
"And? That was it. My sword beat them," finished Kenshin.
"And you expect me to praise you for simply doing what I taught you to do in the first place," said Hiko.
Kenshin was deflated, but persevered, determined not to let the Master ruin the afterglow for him.
"I was approached by a scout from the Kiheitai of Choshuu. He said our skills could be of great use to the people of Japan by helping them to overthrow the Bakufu and abolish the caste system. Master, let's join the Kiheitai!" said Kenshin, eyes glowing with resolve.
"Idiot apprentice," was the answer Hiko snorted.
Kenshin face faulted.
"Do you have a hearing problem? I-DI-OT A-PPREN-TICE," answered Hiko. "I sent you into town to pick up sake, which you take forever to do and now you come back with nonsense stuffed into your head by some army scout."
"Not army, revolutionary militia," corrected Kenshin.
"Same thing either way," said Hiko. "Now enough of this; we've training to do."
"But if we join the Kiheitai, we can protect the people with our swords," said Kenshin, shocked at the Master's indifference.
"No," said Hiko, turning his back on Kenshin to show the finality of his answer.
Kenshin's eyes lit with anger. He remembered the people of the village being terrorized, especially that woman being assaulted. He wanted to do something, had to do something, but Hiko wouldn't even hear him out. How typical! Well this time, he wouldn't allow the Master to just cut him off without listening.
"Master!" he shouted.
"Don't worry about the outside world. Just concentrate on your training," said Hiko.
Kenshin's eyes widened in stunned silence. He knew Hiko was a rough man, but surely he couldn't be this callous!
"But so many are being killed as we speak!" Kenshin cried. "Isn't the purpose of Hiten Mitsurugi to protect people from suffering? When do we use our swords if not now? Master!"
"You think it's as simple as that?" asked Hiko, glaring over his shoulder. "That you can just go down there, join your little militia and save everyone because you know Hiten Mitsurugi?"
"Yes!" cried Kenshin, gripping his katana's hilt.
"Stupid, arrogant boy..." snorted Hiko, looking forward again.
"Well, if you don't want to come, that's fine. Just teach me the secrets and I'll be on my way!" said Kenshin vehemently.
"If you think I'd teach you the secrets after that line of bullshit you just spewed to me, you've got another thought coming!" Hiko shot back. "You’ve just shown me that I was right not to be too quick to pass them down!”
The Master’s words knifed through Kenshin’s heart like the proverbial katana. He had worked so hard for the past four years, had mastered every move he had been taught, had even spent endless hours training on his own to refine his technique to the best of his ability and still the Master thought so little of him!
But now, he realized, after he had beaten down those 12 large men so easily and had been praised so readily by Fudoro-san and Omara-san… he didn’t even need the secrets! He was strong enough just as he was!
"You know what, just forget it! I know enough of the style to get by on my own! I don't need your secrets and I don't need you!" Kenshin shouted, violet eyes blazing as he jabbed his finger at the Master’s back.
'Did anyone ever see such a temper?!' thought the aggravated Hiko, who by now wanted nothing more than to club his idiotic student one over the head, then go down to the village and strangle the militia scout. He could already see that there would be no reasoning with the boy.
"Well, if you really want to go, fine. But first, fight me and defeat me," said the Master, shooting a glare over his shoulder.
Without warning, Kenshin leapt up and brained his Master with the sheathed katana.
"You hit me. You really hit me!" cried Hiko as a lump welled up on his head.
"Because you don't understand!" cried Kenshin, with all the certainty of 14.
Now Hiko felt true anger, not just annoyance, boil up in him. How dare this insolent whelp tell him off!
"You're the one who doesn't understand! Hiten Mitsurugi is the strongest sword school in this country. It's like the black ship of the land. That same power will guarantee victory to whichever side you help. If you get involved in the fighting before your training is complete, your power will be used by corrupt men who write their own justice in blood! You will be nothing more than a common murderer! Now do you understand?" he barked.
Kenshin felt his last vestiges of self control snap as his cheeks flushed scarlet with righteous anger.
"No!" he shouted so loudly that his voice cracked. "The people are suffering! They are afraid! No matter what you say, I won't turn my back on them!"
Hiko and Kenshin never did get to training that day. They stood there at the waterfall, arguing back and forth, until Hiko barked at Kenshin to get the hell off his mountain and never come back.
Lithe body shaking with rage and indignation, and eyes burning with unshed tears, Kenshin returned to the hut to pack his things. The young swordsman knelt down and started tossing his clothes and few possessions into a shoulder pack. What did Hiko know anyway? All he ever did was hide on the mountain and drink sake. Hiten Mitsurugi was meant to be wielded for the people to protect them from suffering. How did one do that if they isolated themselves from the world the way the Master did? Hiko had apparently forgotten the true meaning behind the sword school. Omara-san had told Kenshin he should use his skills to make life better for the people. Fudoro-san had said that he might be the one to bring peace to the land. He would join the Kiheitai and show the Old Hypocrite just how wrong he was.
As soon as he had everything packed, Kenshin turned and walked out of the hut, without once looking back at the place in which he had spent the last four years of his life. Kenshin picked his way down the mountain, oblivious to the beauty of the land around him, his soul still stormy after his parting with Hiko. He hadn't wanted it to end like this. He had been looking forward to training in the secrets and to the day he would have mastered the style and he and Hiko would have drunken sake together as equals. Now that would never be.
For what seemed like an eternity, Hiko stood at the waterfall, staring at the path back to the hut he had shared with his young, bright, and yet painfully idiotic apprentice Kenshin. Shared that is up until an hour ago, when said apprentice had declared that he was leaving the safety of the mountains to become a champion of the downtrodden in the world below.
Finally, Hiko couldn't abide standing there any longer. Deeply vexed in his soul, the swordmaster made his way back to the hut from the waterfall, sending a silent prayer to the heavens as he did that his apprentice might have had a rare flash of good sense, changed his mind and would be at the hut, ready to grovel and beg to be taken back. Hiko had already determined that he would indeed take Kenshin back if the little idiot did the bow and scrape and groveled sufficiently. Then Hiko would make him haul 2,000 buckets of water from the river, chop 5,000 logs and do 10,000 sword swings as punishment for insolence.
As the hut came into view, Hiko cast out his senses, hoping to contact Kenshin's young, vibrant ki. There was nothing. Hiko slid the door open, revealing an empty interior.
Heart hammering in his chest, Hiko crossed the room to the door to Kenshin's room and slid it open, only to find that the small room had been stripped of everything Kenshin had collected over his four year residence there. All that remained was his folded up futon.
For a moment, Hiko stood rooted to the spot, staring down at the innocent bed. Then the dam broke. Hiko picked up the futon, took one step out of the room and threw it mightily against the wall, where it hit some shelves, knocking various items and boxes to the floor.
In a single stride, Hiko was at his sake cabinet, whose door he tore open, yanked out a jug of sake, uncorked it and drank straight from the jug, the hell with the saucer! Finished with that jug, Hiko tossed it carelessly aside, uncorked another and gulped it down as quickly as the first. The next two jugs followed those before them in the same manner.
Exhausted from his brief outburst and feeling the effects of the sake, Hiko looked at the pile of boxes that had been knocked to the floor by the flying futon. Among them, a strip of green cloth caught his eye. Hiko snatched it up and held it before his face: one of Kenshin's first training shitagi.
Still clutching the garment, Hiko slumped down against the wall, allowing his shoulders to sag and his head to droop forward. He closed his eyes and let out a sigh that emanated from his toes to the crown of his head. Hiko could still remember the tiny boy with the big, sad eyes shrinking back from the sword Hiko had proffered him.
That tiny, quiet boy had grown into an arrogant idiot who had now thrown himself to the wolves! Well, the little twit would just have to find things out the hard way, as he always had. Kenshin had never been able to learn things by having them explained or demonstrated to him. Only by feeling the pain in his body and soul had the boy ever been able to learn, whether it was a new sword move, or the consequence of a bad decision. Well, if he did indeed end up in the war, learn he would.
Would he survive? Probably. Kenshin was highly competent in the moves he had learned and would more than likely win as long as he kept his sword in his hands and his wits about him.
But what of Kenshin's heart and soul? Superb with the blade the boy might have been, but he was still incomplete as a swordsman and a human being. Would Kenshin be able to retain his kind heart and love for humanity, or would he degenerate into little more than a bloodthirsty killer? At the thought of his bright-eyed, kind-hearted apprentice as a soulless killer, Hiko couldn't repress a small shiver. The contrast was simply too much for him to think of.
Hiko would never train another apprentice! It was too much to sink four years into training and worrying over a little ingrate only to have him throw his master's hard work back in his face and take the skills he had been taught to profane in whatever way he thought best.
Hiko wondered if perhaps he wouldn't see his apprentice again in the distant future. As he thought of this, he gripped his sword and vowed then and there that if he were ever to cross paths with Kenshin in the future and find that Kenshin had succumbed to bloodlust, it would be his final duty as Kenshin's master to put everything to an end with a single clean stroke of his blade.
With another sigh, Hiko dragged himself to his feet. He had made a mess of the place and would need to clean it up. Too bad Kenshin wasn't there, or Hiko would have set him to work, since Kenshin had caused Hiko to lose his temper in the first place. Looking down at the small green shitagi, Hiko carefully deposited it in its box, then set to work picking up the mess.
Once he got to town, Kenshin kept a low profile, moving along silently and keeping to the shadows as Hiko had taught him and headed straight to the Hiraya. Kenshin entered the inn and went to the front desk where a kindly old lady was working.
"Why, hello there. How may this woman assist you, young samurai?" she said when she saw the heart-shaped face and the huge violet eyes.
"Hello, ma'am. Would you be so kind as to tell me where Omara-san is staying? He's expecting me," said Kenshin softly.
"Oh, that big samurai? All the way back and to the right," said the okami.
"Thank you," said Kenshin with a bow before departing.
Kenshin made his way to the last room on the right side and softly wrapped at the wall.
Suddenly the fusuma slid open and Kenshin found himself facing an unsheathed sword. Instinctively, he jumped back and unsheathed his own sword in battoujutsu, his blade meeting Omara's with a solid CLANG, knocking the katana from the samurai's hand! Omara paled when he recognized the boy who stood before him. He had tried to kill the boy who might be the revolution's only hope!
"Ah, kid. Sorry about that. Can't be too careful, ya know. I wasn't expecting you and your master till tomorrow," said Omara with an apologetic bow.
Upon seeing that Omara wasn't trying to attack him, Kenshin resheathed his katana while Omara retrieved his from the floor.
"I'm alone. My Master refused to come," said the boy flatly.
"Did he? Well that's too bad. But no worries. You're more than enough... um," said Omara, just now aware of the fact that he'd never heard the boy's name.
"Kenshin," answered the bearer of said name.
"Good name for you," said Omara. "Well since you're here, you can stay in my room tonight. Have you eaten?"
Kenshin's stomach answered with a low growl before his mouth could. After all, he hadn't had a thing to eat since breakfast that morning.
"Excuse me," said the boy with an embarrassed blush.
Omara smiled indulgently at the young swordsman standing before him.
"You stay here. I'll go get some food from the okami. I wouldn't want you collapsing before we get to Hagi," said the samurai.
"Thank you," answered Kenshin with a bow before entering the room.
While Omara was fetching food for them, Kenshin set down his shoulder pack and went over to the window and looked at the village outside. Everything was beautiful and peaceful; people coming and going quietly in the twilight. There was no sign of the earlier altercation.
'I'll fight and won't stop until it's always peaceful like this for people everywhere,' thought the boy, gripping his katana's hilt.
Presently, Omara returned with the takoyaki and saw Kenshin facing the window and gripping his katana. The samurai smiled, sensing the strength and conviction in the boy's spirit. Kenshin turned to face Omara and smiled when he saw the fried octopus balls. Those were a rare treat because Hiko didn't believe in splurging.
"Thank you," said Kenshin, as he happily took an octopus ball and began eating.
"No problem," said Omara, sitting down and eating his own.
As they ate, Omara surreptitiously gazed at the young man before him. When he was eating like this, Kenshin didn't seem as much like a swordsman as he did an ordinary boy. Omara's heart wavered a bit. Was it right to drag this boy with the innocent eyes and high ideals into the ugliness of war? Was his spirit truly ready?
But how could he not? In just his brief viewing of Kenshin, Omara had seen that Kenshin had more ability with the sword than anyone else on whom he'd laid eyes. The war effort needed a strong blade like Kenshin's. Kenshin would be fine with the Kiheitai. It wasn't like they'd make him an assassin or anything!
Presently, Kenshin finished the last octopus ball.
"Thank you, Omara-san. It's been a long time since I've had takoyaki," said the boy brightly.
"You're welcome, Kenshin. I hope you enjoyed it to the fullest because that's the last time we'll get food like this until we're back in Hagi," said Omara cautiously.
"I know," said Kenshin with a smile.
Presently, the boy's face broke out in a yawn and his eyes looked very sleepy. When he yawned, Kenshin only looked about five years old.
"There's an extra futon you can use. We'll head for Hagi first thing in the morning," said Omara, trying to rid himself of these lingering doubts about Kenshin in the war.
"Thank you, Omara-san," said Kenshin with another bow.
'Great manners. His master did a fine job training him,' thought Omara.
Omara slid the fusuma partway open and scanned the hallway. After shutting the door, he turned and saw Kenshin snuggling into the futon, katana within easy reach.
"Night, Kenshin-kun," said Omara.
"Good night, Omara-san," said Kenshin as Omara put out the andon.
Over the next three weeks, Omara led Kenshin to Choshuu by way of the wilderness of Iwami to avoid government checkpoints. It wasn't an easy journey, but Omara was a seasoned warrior and Kenshin had trained in the mountains and was no stranger to the wild lands. Neither of them suffered too badly as they cut a swathe through the timber and bush.
On the third day, Kenshin and Omara were hacking through a field when both their kenki spiked, sensing something. It seemed there was a row taking place not too far away. Grasping the hilt of his katana, Kenshin broke away from Omara's side.
"Wait! Kenshin-kun!" called Omara, but the youngster was already out of his sight.
Omara rushed after him. As he got closer to the tree line at the edge of the field, he sensed spiked ki and heard the sounds of fighting. He emerged just in time to see Kenshin cut down five ronin who had been about to attack a woman with five children with a nine-point attack.
'RYU SO SEN!'
The ronin went flying in different directions, crashing into the ground with sickening thuds. The ones that were able to get up jumped to their feet and helped their comrades away. Amazingly, they were all still alive. The woman with the five children thanked Kenshin and forced some food into his hesitant hands.
"Kenshin-kun, that was amazing," said Omara when Kenshin rejoined him.
"Not really. It was pretty sloppy," replied Kenshin, dubiously inspecting the food.
"If that's sloppy, I'd hate to be on the receiving end of perfect," said Omara, clapping Kenshin on the shoulder.
That night, the two shared the spoils of Kenshin's victory over a roaring fire.
Finally, they crossed the border from Iwami into Choshuu. From there, it was a day's journey to Hagi. Even though he was back in his own province, Omara kept off the main roads. They moved quickly along the banks of the Abugawa, stopping for a drink every now and then. Omara's eyes lit with glad recognition when Hagi came into the sight of the trail weary duo. Kenshin's eyes widened as they entered. Though Hagi wasn't very big, to a country boy like Kenshin, it was a metropolis!
As they walked through the streets, Kenshin's eyes took in everything. Every street corner seemed to have a pottery studio on it. He stopped and looked at the different vessels on display. Most of them had beautiful natural prints on them such as trees, flowers, butterflies or herons.
The pair made their way to the Kiheitai headquarters. Omara was greeted upon his return, but the second-in-command, Yamagata Kyosuke looked a bit dubiously at Kenshin.
"That's all you got, Omara-kun?" he asked, seemingly oblivious to the fact that young Kenshin was standing there.
"He's all I need, Yamagata-san. You'll see when Takasugi-san returns," said Omara with a confident smile.
"That'll be tomorrow actually. Well, I hope for your sake this stripling can do something or you might be laughed out of the Clan," said Yamagata.
"We’ll see who’s laughing tomorrow," said Omara with a confident smile, then he turned to Kenshin.
"You rest up in the rooms down the hall. I have to report to my superiors now," he said.
Kenshin was suddenly rather frightened at the prospect of being all alone in a strange place. Sure, he could take care of himself, but to be alone like this.
Sensing the boy's apprehension, Omara's eyes softened.
"You'll be fine, Kenshin. If anyone gives you a hard time, just mention my name and they'll leave you alone if they know what's good for them. Now the bath's out in back and dinner's at the hour of the rooster," he said.
Kenshin made his way down the hallway to the last room on the left. It was sparse with only a futon folded up in the corner. After journeying all that way and sleeping on the ground, it would be good to sleep in a soft bed again.
Having dispensed with his belongings, Kenshin headed out for the dining hall. When he arrived, he slid the fusuma open and peered into the room, which was occupied by many samurai, all sitting before small trays and eating various rice, noodle and fish dishes. Sadly, Omara was nowhere to be seen. No one seemed to notice him as he entered and sat at an empty tray.
The food was served and he ate quietly, suddenly missing his meals with Hiko. Even though the conversations had been mostly one-sided monologues about the greatness of Hiko Seijuro XIII, at least there had been the companionship and shared interest in swordsmanship.
Finished eating, Kenshin rose from his tray while a serving girl collected his used eating ware and departed the room silently. Now that his stomach was full, it was time to get the dirt and grime of three weeks of travel off his skin and out of his hair. The smell of hot water hit Kenshin’s nostrils as he closed in on the baths.
After getting undressed and letting his hair loose, the youth soaped and rinsed his body and hair. After he was cleaned off, Kenshin headed for the large bathing area. He slid the door open to reveal a room full of large, strong men sitting in the water. A few of them looked up at the youth and smirked at his small stature.
Kenshin's cheeks turned red. Their smirks were almost exactly like those of the slavers before they would... Kenshin tamped those unpleasant memories down. Ignoring the leers and snickers, Kenshin slid carefully into the water in the free spot near him.
"Hey kid, get lost on your way home from school?" asked one.
Kenshin flashed him a glare, but didn't retaliate.
"My, aren't you a pretty one," said another, leering at Kenshin as if he were a piece of meat.
Kenshin turned red and held himself rigidly, feeling very self-conscious and wishing they would all just stop staring at him. Flashes of the slavers' leering faces and the feeling of their clammy hands permeated his thoughts, making him feel dirty even in the bath.
Just then the door slid open again and another man came and got into the hot tub. He was excited and had news to share.
"Takasugi-san returns tomorrow and brings an important guest from Kyoto!" he declared happily.
This news caused excited murmurs to rise in the ranks and Kenshin was quickly forgotten, for which he was grateful. The men fell into talking about Takasugi-san and what the future held for them as a unit. Kenshin picked up that they all thought very highly of their leader.
After soaking for a quarter of an hour, Kenshin arose from the water and wrapped his towel around his waist. He quickly left the company of the older men and found his yukata.
With a heavy heart, Kenshin returned to his room. He unfolded the futon and climbed in. For a long time, he lay awake and thought about everything that had happened. His anger at Hiko had worn off long ago and been replaced by an awful hollow feeling. He hated that he had parted on such bad terms with the Master, but he knew in his heart that this was what he must do. How many more people like that woman in the village were being bullied and killed even as he lay comfortably in his futon?
The next morning, Kenshin was awakened by a knock on the wall. The fusuma slid open, revealing Omara, who looked very excited. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Kenshin sat up and looked at him in confusion.
"Hurry and get dressed, Kenshin-kun. Takasugi-san's back and it's do or die," said Omara, shutting the fusuma again before Kenshin could respond.
After dressing and sliding his katana into his obi, Kenshin found himself being herded out with the rest of the potential new recruits to the training grounds where they would eat breakfast before showing their skills off to Takasugi. The group sat around eating a breakfast of rice and miso. Kenshin was grateful when Omara took a place next to him.
"You nervous?" asked Omara.
Mouth too full of rice to reply, Kenshin shook his head.
"You couldn't lie to save your life," teased Omara. "Don't worry. You'll do fine."
Kenshin nodded and continued eating.
As soon as breakfast was done, a call was given and everyone got to their feet and went to start their initiation. Kenshin watched as different men sparred with different weapons; some with swords, some with spears and some with weapons he had never laid eyes on. All of them were very strong and adept, though he knew privately that none of them could hold a candle to Hiko, or even to him, in a real battle.
Kenshin's eyes traveled over to a hill on which stood two men. One had large, protruding ears, bushy eyebrows and a shamisen slung over his shoulder. The other had youthful and handsome features with black hair pulled back in a short topknot.
"The man in white with the shamisen is our chief, Takasugi Shinsaku. The man in black is Katsura Kogoro, the leader of the Ishin Shishi. If he's here, something important is afoot," explained Omara.
Kenshin wondered what that important thing was.
Ishin Shishi leader Katsura Kogoro and best friend Kiheitai leader Takasugi Shinsaku stood on a hill overlooking the large group of men, all of whom hoped to gain entrance into the Choshuu Clan.
"I came all the way here because you said you had something to show me," said Katsura impatiently "What is this, Shinsaku?"
"You'll see," said Takasugi, grin firmly fixed on his face as he chewed a blade of grass. "They will be the strength of the new era: The Kiheitai. It doesn't matter what class or rank you're born into, only that you have the ambition and strength to fight."
"Well, that certainly seems more appealing than the samurai, who have grown soft after 300 years of peace," admitted Katsura. "But will this really work?"
"You're always such a worrywart," chuckled Takasugi.
Just then, a flash of red among the greens and browns of the crowd on the field caught Katsura's eye. Into his vision came a small, frail-looking boy, who looked no older than ten. The sword at the child's side seemed to be about as long as the child was tall. But the way the boy carried himself was that of a grown man.
"Well Kenshin-kun, your turn's coming up. Remember. No worries," said Omara.
Kenshin nodded, grateful for the support. Stepping toward the training posts, he again felt the eyes of the men on him and heard the mockery in their voices.
"Haha, a kid carrying a sword like a man. Let's see what you can do," teased one.
"If you can split it in half, I'll give you one ryo," jeered another.
Kenshin glared at the two, then concentrated on the training post in front of him. In a flash, he unsheathed his katana and sliced the post in half. While the top half was still hanging in mid-air, he obliterated it with his sheath.
'SO RYU SEN!'
No one laughed or even spoke. All eyes were on him, this time in awe. Coolly, Kenshin turned to the man who had jeered him and held out his hand.
"One ryo," he said.
"Ah..." said the dumbfounded guy as he stupidly dug into his pockets and fished out a single gold coin for the boy.
"What's that kid doing there?" Katsura asked, dumbfounded as he watched the small redhead approach the training post.
"The ki in "kiheitai" is the same as the ki in 'kibatsu'," explained Takasugi. "Startling."
Takasugi's words proved prophetic as the boy suddenly lunged forward while drawing his sword from its sheath, slicing the training post before him in half, then obliterating the top half with the sheath before it had the chance to fall.
A stunned murmur arose from the crowd.
"Shinsaku, I must take this boy to Kyoto," said Katsura when he was able to speak again.
An exultant Kenshin went back into the headquarters with the others and started heading for his room. On his way there, he was approached by the man from yesterday, Yamagata Kiyosuke.
Yamagata looked him up and down, then smiled at him.
"What's your name, boy?" he asked.
"Kenshin," answered the youth, hoping he kept the nervousness out of his voice.
"Where are you from?" Yamagata continued to grill him.
"Aki," said Kenshin, feeling more and more nervous by the second.
Why was he being singled out by the second-in-command?
"Takasugi-san would like you to eat dinner with him in his room tonight," said Yamagata.
Eyes wide as saucers, Kenshin could do naught but gulp and nod dumbly. With a final glance, Yamagata turned and walked off to wherever. Now much too tense to return to his room, Kenshin decided to head out to the countryside and get his thoughts together before his "important dinner" that night.
Away from Kiheitai headquarters and just outside the border of Hagi, Kenshin felt much better with the weight of all those eyes off his shoulders. Unsheathing his sword, the boy swept into his Hiten Mitsurugi kata, which he had faithfully practiced every day, barring injury or illness, during his four years with Hiko. Working the familiar moves was very calming to the youngster's shy and sensitive spirit.
The rhythm of his kata helped to center his spirit and calm his emotions. As he moved from the basic swordsmanship and into the Hiten forms themselves, the kata became faster and also more intricate. Kenshin was now moving with his godspeed in a red, brown and silver blur. Sweat broke out all over, but he wasn't hot or tired; rather he was exhilarated.
Kenshin ended his kata with an enthusiastic Do Ryu Sen, splitting the ground before him in two. Sheathing his sword and standing still to catch his breath for a moment, the young man felt much calmer than he had before and more confident about meeting with Takasugi-san that night.
For the rest of his free time, Kenshin wandered about the countryside, taking in all the natural beauty Choshuu had to offer. He stopped by the Abugawa, removed his footgear and sat with his bare feet in the cool water. The babbling of the water over the rocks in the river reminded him of the river and waterfall back home where he and Hiko had spent hour after hour training together.
'If I were still with the Master, I’d be cooking our dinner right now,' Kenshin thought. 'I wonder what he's doing now that he's not training me anymore.'
Kenshin sighed as he stared at the moving water.
'Even though the Master was a slave driver and his training was brutal, I miss him,' Kenshin thought. 'I wonder if he misses me, even a little. Probably not, after the way we parted. I wish he could have understood why I have to do this...'
A casual glance to the west brought Kenshin back to earth with a thud. The sun was starting to slip into the horizon. He would be late for his dinner with Takasugi-san! Berating himself for being so absent-minded, Kenshin yanked his feet out of the water, struggled into his tabi with his wet skin sticking to the fabric and stepped into his sandals. Finally, he poured on his godspeed to try and make it back to headquarters on time.
"There you are! You're late," reprimanded Yamagata as he laid eyes on the wayward redhead who had just run in through the gate.
"Please forgive my carelessness," said Kenshin quietly with a bow.
"Just follow me," said Yamagata, turning and heading into the building.
Entire body now trembling, Kenshin fell in behind Yamagata, the sense of peace he had just achieved now shattered.
Yamagata led Kenshin to a fusuma where he stopped and knocked. Upon hearing a muffled reply, he slid the panel open and gestured for Kenshin to enter. Swallowing his apprehension, the young swordsman stepped in. Against the wall sat Takasugi with his shamisen in his lap. Takasugi smiled at Kenshin and gestured to the middle of the room where two hakuzen were set out across from each other, each with a delicious three-course dinner on it.
Kenshin approached the empty hakuzen and saw at the other one, the man whom Omara-san had pointed out earlier: Katsura Kogoro. Mystified, Kenshin sat down, placing his katana at his right side.
"Good evening. I hope you're hungry," said Katsura with a smile.
Kenshin nodded politely, mumbled the blessing and began to pick at the food even though he really wasn't hungry at all.
"What's your name and how old are you?" continued the samurai.
"Kenshin, and I'm 14," answered the nervous boy.
Katsura's eyebrows shot up. The boy sitting before him looked no older than 11, but was in fact a young man nearly at his coming of age. Still, his prowess with the blade was beyond his years.
"Do you know who I am?" asked Katsura.
"Katsura Kogoro of the Ishin Shishi," answered Kenshin, praying he wouldn't stutter.
"Any idea why you've been called here?" he continued.
Kenshin shook his head, his whole body shaking by now despite his best efforts.
"Don't be nervous. You've done nothing wrong," soothed Katsura, seeing how nervous the boy was becoming. "In fact, it's more because of what you've done right that you're here. I'm here looking for strong warriors to join the battle in Kyoto. I was very impressed by your moves today. I wouldn't expect one so young to be so adept with the blade. What sword style do you use?"
"Hiten Mitsurugi," answered Kenshin, feeling more composed now that he knew he wasn't in trouble.
Katsura's jaw nearly hit the hakuzen. Hiten Mitsurugi was a legendary sword style from the Feudal Era. He had never been certain if it really existed or was just a story. To find that it was in fact real and still being practiced in this day and age was like a sign from the heavens in his eyes.
"So that's Hiten Mitsurugi. I've heard of it before, but didn't know it really existed," he mused.
As Kenshin picked up his cup to take a sip of his green tea, Katsura looked him over seriously. Sensing the appraisal, Kenshin began to feel uncomfortable again and looked at the elder swordsman with his huge violets.
"Let me ask you a question. Have you used Hiten Mitsurugi to kill anyone?" asked Katsura in a low voice.
"No," answered Kenshin.
"Then, can you?" asked Katsura.
Holding the steaming cup in his hands, Kenshin thought this over. He had seen death many times. He had seen the Master kill people a few times. He had trained with live steel from the first day. Hiko's philosophy on swordsmanship had always been the bald-faced truth.
'A sword is a deadly weapon. Swordsmanship is a way to kill. Whatever pretty names you call it by, that is its true nature.'
Mind made up, Kenshin set down his cup and looked Katsura squarely in the eye.
"If, when I finally lay down my bloodstained blade, there is truly an era of peace, then..." he trailed off, uncertain of what to say next.
"I see. We'll head for Kyoto first thing tomorrow morning. Get some rest upstairs tonight," instructed Katsura.
Face schooled to a neutral expression, Kenshin bowed respectfully to Katsura, then to Takasugi. Standing up, he picked up his katana and left the room, very much perplexed. He had only come here to join the Kiheitai and suddenly he was being taken to Kyoto by the chief of the whole Ishin Shishi.
Katsura and Takasugi sat in silence for a while after Kenshin had departed. It was a silence that could be felt.
"Shinsaku, I'm taking the boy to Kyoto," Katsura finally announced.
"If you need a hitokiri so badly, why don't you do it yourself?" asked Takasugi. "When you were in Edo, you were good enough to get to the top of the school of Shinto Munnen. You're a superb swordsman who has never been beaten by anyone except for Sakamoto Ryouma of Hokushin Itto."
"If I could do it myself, I would," returned Katsura. "But I'm the head of the Ishin Shishi now."
"That's right. You're the portable shrine at the Bakumatsu festival," replied Takasugi sarcastically. "No one wants to carry a bloodstained shrine on their shoulders. This line of work will ruin that boy's soul, so you'd better remain a clean shrine. No matter how dire a situation you're put into, even if it means you become an embarrassment to your descendants, you can never draw your sword again."
"Don't think I haven't thought of that," replied Katsura gravely. "Tonight marks the death of Katsura Kogoro the swordsman."
"Give me your word," demanded Shinsaku.
"You have my word of honor," swore Katsura.
"Alright," said Shinsaku, plucking his shamisen. "Now you can concentrate on leading the Ishin Shishi in Kyoto against the Bakufu. I'll take care of everything here."
"Thank you, old friend," said Katsura with a ghost of a smile as he slid the fusuma shut.
Kenshin ran into Omara at the end of the hall.
"Katsura-san is taking me to Kyoto!" he said excitedly.
Omara's face visibly paled at this news. Seeing Kenshin's confusion at his reaction, he quickly pasted on a smile.
"That's great, Kenshin-kun," he said, though his ki didn't ring sincere.
"I'm off to bed because we get an early start. Thank you for everything, Omara-san," said Kenshin with a bow.
"Eh, you're welcome. Take care of yourself in Kyoto," said Omara.
"I will," returned Kenshin with a smile before heading upstairs.
Omara turned and headed mutely for his quarters. On his way, he ran into Yamagata.
"What's wrong with you?" asked Yamagata.
"Katsura-san's taking Kenshin to Kyoto," answered Omara. "If I'd known..."
"No room for regrets in our line of work. Kenshin's skills are needed badly there. There's nothing you can do about it now," admonished the practical Yamagata.
"I understand," said Omara with a bow.
It would be a long time before Omara could think of Kenshin's bright violet eyes without feeling like he had led a lamb or some other innocent little creature to slaughter.
The next morning, without even stopping for breakfast, Katsura and Kenshin departed for Kyoto by ship. The journey there would take a week. Once they were en route over the Sea of Japan, Katsura brought Kenshin some rice balls.
"So Kenshin, what's your family name?" the Ishin leader asked.
"I don't have one. I'm not a samurai," answered Kenshin, taking a bite of his rice ball.
"How did you learn swordsmanship then, much less a style like Mitsurugi?" asked Katsura.
"My Master took me in when I was ten and trained me," explained Kenshin, hoping that explanation would suffice. The death of his village and his time as a slave were still too raw.
Sensing the young man's apprehension to talk any more about his past, Katsura let it rest.
"Alright, but if you're going to fight among samurai, you must be able to pass for one. How does the name 'Himura' sound?" he asked.
"Scarlett Village?" asked Kenshin.
"It matches your hair," replied Katsura with a smile.
Kenshin glowered. People always seemed to enjoy making cracks about the hair! Nonetheless, the prospect of having a family name intrigued him.
"The fact that you're not truly a samurai is best kept between us, Himura," said Katsura, turning serious. "You will never be accepted or respected among the men no matter how great your skills are otherwise. From now on, you will think of yourself as a samurai. When we arrive in Kyoto, you will be given a wakizashi to wear in addition to your katana and you must watch how the other men carry themselves and do as they do."
Kenshin swallowed and nodded. He had a feeling that being with the Ishin Shishi would be very different from being with the Kiheitai where class and rank hadn't been important. He hadn't even been among the revolutionaries for a full week and already he had a family name.
'Himura Kenshin,' he thought as he looked out the window at the rolling blue sea.
After a week, the ship docked on the shore of Wakasa, through which they would pass to stay off the main roads on the way to Kyoto. For three days, Kenshin followed Katsura on a clandestine route to the capital city. When they came to the end of the road near the capital, they waited until nightfall to enter the city.
Since the revolutionaries were enemies in Kyoto, they had to be careful not to be seen. Katsura led Kenshin into the city through the back alleys to avoid confrontation on the main roads. Even as they wound their way through the narrow alleys, Kenshin's eyes took in everything. The tall buildings rose up on both sides of them like a canyon of concrete. To a country boy like Kenshin, this place was positively overwhelming! How would he ever learn his way around?
Katsura led Kenshin to a nondescript looking house and wrapped on the door frame. The shoji slid open, revealing a man, who glared at them with suspicion. Katsura uttered a cryptic phrase so he and Kenshin could gain access to the house.
"This is one of many Choshuu Clan safe houses," explained Katsura in a hushed voice as he led Kenshin back to the quarters where they would spend the night before heading to their permanent quarters tomorrow. "Each one requires a different password to gain access. You'll be taught the locations and passwords once you're settled in."
Kenshin only nodded. Their trek to the city had made him quite sleepy and he wanted nothing more than to curl up in a warm futon. The man led Kenshin and Katsura back into the sleeping area of the house and put them up in a room with two futon. After Katsura made certain Kenshin was settled in, he left the room to talk with the people who were putting them up.
Despite his exhaustion, Kenshin tossed and turned in the futon and really couldn't get to sleep. He was in Kyoto, the epicenter of the fighting! This was where he would be asked to shed blood for the first time. His heart was in turmoil and his mind mulled a thousand questions. However, he didn't dare ask Katsura because he didn't want to appear weak or indecisive.
It wasn't until about an hour later that Kenshin's eyelids finally grew too heavy to stay open and sleep overcame the exhausted boy. When Katsura stepped in later on, he looked down at the boy lying in the futon, looking to be no more than nine or ten years old. In his heart, he doubted. Was it right for him to ask this innocent, idealistic boy with the bright eyes and burning conviction to kill in the manner he intended? Was Shinsaku right? Would fighting in the war dull the brightness in his eyes?
Katsura shook his head to clear the thoughts as he lay down silently, being careful not to awaken the boy. They were here now and there was no turning back. To fell the Bakufu and bring about the new era, no sacrifice was too great, not even a boy's innocence.
After a quick breakfast of miso and fish, Katsura led Kenshin out of the safe house and they continued through the winding alleys and back roads. Kenshin did his best to commit the geography of the alleys to his memory. As they were coming up through an alley that joined to a main road, Katsura froze and pushed Kenshin up against the wall. As they stood stock still, four men walked by the alley, carrying a palanquin on their shoulders. The people in the street around the palanquin all bowed down as it was carried by them. Kenshin looked from the scene to Katsura and was surprised to see a scowl on the Ishin leader's face.
"One of the Tokugawa family," explained Katsura in a hushed tone. "Whenever one goes by, the people around them have to bow low to the ground, or they could be killed on the spot."
Kenshin's eyes widened. This was the enemy! The people out on the street were only just now getting back to their feet and warily moving on with their activities. Katsura shook his head and finally led Kenshin out of the cramped, narrow alleys.
They went along a bit farther until they came to a medium-sized, neat-looking inn at the riverfront.
"Here we are. This is the Kohagiya where you'll be staying," explained Katsura as he led Kenshin through the sliding gate.
They proceeded to the entrance where Katsura slid the hikido open and led Kenshin inside, where they were promptly greeted by a man with black hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, an ugly mustache and shifty eyes.
"Welcome back, Katsura-san," he said with a bow.
"Thank you, Iizuka-kun," said Katsura. "This is our new hitokiri, Himura Kenshin."
"This runt?" scoffed Iizuka, eying Kenshin critically.
Kenshin's eyes narrowed, but his face betrayed no emotion.
"This runt... is 14 years old and has more ability with the blade in his little finger than all the warriors in this inn combined," said Katsura, looking Iizuka straight in the eye, daring the man to question his authority again.
Iizuka gulped and nodded, not wanting to irritate the man who could easily order him done in.
Seeing that that was settled, Katsura turned to Kenshin with a gentle smile to reassure the nervous teenager.
"Himura, this is Iizuka who will act as your immediate superior. You will be getting your assignments from him and shall report to him," explained the Choshuu leader.
"Yes, Katsura-san," said Kenshin, who wasn't certain if he liked Iizuka or not. The guy just seemed slimy. However, Katsura-san trusted him, so Kenshin dismissed the feeling.
"Now, I have to get to my office and get caught up on the paperwork. Iizuka will show you your quarters," said Katsura.
"Thank you, Katsura-san," said Kenshin with a bow.
After Katsura left, Iizuka looked Kenshin over sharply. Even if the boy was 14, he didn't look cut out to be a hitokiri. Hell, with those violet eyes and cute little boy face, he'd make a better onnagata than hitokiri. But, it was Katsura-san's call.
"Alright... Follow me," said Iizuka, turning and leading Kenshin upstairs to the warriors' quarters.
Iizuka led Kenshin to the last room on the left side of the second story hallway and slid the fusuma open, revealing a surprisingly large room. It was certainly larger than his old room in Hiko's hut.
"You're lucky. Usually everyone has to double up, but our numbers are kinda low right now, so you get the room to yourself for the time being. Of course that will probably change when we get new people," explained Iizuka. "The bath's out back and dinner's in half an hour."
"Thank you, Iizuka-san," said Kenshin with a slight bow.
"No -san. We're colleagues," admonished Iizuka.
Kenshin nodded and watched after Iizuka as he walked away before sliding the panel shut. Not knowing what else to do, Kenshin went over to the far end of the room, unpacked his few belongings and put them away. He then walked up to the large window, slid the screen aside and looked through it. Below, he saw a narrow cobblestone street on which throngs of people walked up and down, some shoving others out of the way. He looked upward and saw a building right across the street and the rooftops that seemed to stretch on into infinity.
Suddenly, Kenshin was engulfed by homesickness. All his life, he had lived in the countryside. He had never set foot in a large city before and now seeing just how starkly different it was with its cobblestone roads, tall buildings and throngs of people that just came and went, caring nothing for one another, from the beautiful countryside with its mountains, green meadows, babbling brooks, raging rapids, trees, bushes and little animals; it made him want to cry.
Swallowing down the tears, Kenshin sharply reprimanded himself for such unmanly behavior.
'What would the Master say if he could see you?' he thought. 'You know what he would say: So my idiot apprentice thinks he's man enough to join the war and ends up crying like a little girl because he misses home? That's rich!'
Kenshin shook his head vigorously. Thinking of the Master's taunts wasn't helping his glum mood any.
Kenshin headed to the dining hall to see about some food. He wasn't really hungry, but knew that if he didn't eat, he wouldn't be at his best. Kenshin sat down at an empty hakuzen in the dining hall and softly thanked one of the inn girls as she silently served him a bowl of rice. Just as he was about to start eating, Iizuka came and sat next to him.
"Hey, Himura. How you holding up?" he asked conversationally.
"I'm fine," Kenshin answered softly.
"I hope you're not scared. If you're scared, you're better off going back to where you came from," warned Iizuka.
Kenshin glowered. As if he could! Hiko would never welcome him back after the way they had parted.
"I'm not scared. I can do this," he said softly.
"That's good. After you're finished eating, you're to see the okami. She's going to fit you for your new clothes," said Iizuka.
"New clothes?" asked Kenshin, looking down at the dark green shitagi and gray monpei he wore. What was wrong with them?
"Yeah. No offense, but you can't carry a sword dressed in those rags. They make you look like a peasant," said Iizuka.
Kenshin frowned. Katsura had explained to him that he had to "play samurai". This meant taking a family name, carrying a daisho and wearing his hair up. Still though, he disliked the idea that being a peasant somehow made him inferior.
Kenshin nodded his assent to Iizuka.
"Alright..." he said softly.
"No need to hurry. Take your time and eat. After the okami gets your measurements, I'm to show you around Kyoto," said Iizuka.
"Thank you," said Kenshin softly.
Iizuka nodded before tucking into his rice bowl.
'I give this kid a month before he cracks.'
After the midday meal, Iizuka took Kenshin to the okami of the inn. After being bid enter, they were greeted by a middle-aged matron with her hair tied back in a bun. She looked Kenshin over sharply and gave Iizuka a questioning look to which he only shrugged.
"You must be Himura-han," the okami said, trying to set the nervous youth at ease.
"Yes, ma'am," replied Kenshin softly.
"Alright, come back with me and I'll measure you for your new clothes," instructed the okami.
"Thank you," said Kenshin softly.
"See ya later," said Iizuka.
The okami led Kenshin into the back room and gestured for him to stand on a small pedestal and hold his arms out to his sides. Okami took the measuring stick and held it horizontally against Kenshin's arms, taking his measurements. She then measured him up and down and around.
"So Himura-han, what brings you to Kyoto?" she inquired as she worked.
"I want to use my skills to protect people," explained Kenshin with strong conviction in his voice.
"Did your parents let you leave?" asked Okami.
"I have no parents, just my Master," said Kenshin hesitantly.
"And he let you come?" persisted Okami.
"No... we had an argument and I left," explained Kenshin, voice barely a whisper.
"I see," said Okami, proceeding with her work in silence.
After Okami took the measurements and got to work on Kenshin's new clothes, Iizuka came to fetch him again. In his hand was a brand new wakizashi. Kenshin pulled the blade from its sheath, appraising it. Hiko had never trained him to use a wakizashi, but it wouldn't be too hard to figure out.
"Thank you," he said.
"Sure thing," replied Iizuka.
Kenshin started to slide the new blade into his belt, but Iizuka stopped him. Kenshin looked at him in confusion.
"You'll be better off leaving your swords in your room for the time being. If you're caught with a daisho while wearing those country bumpkin clothes, you could get in a shit load of trouble," the older man warned.
Kenshin gulped and nodded, retreating to his room to deposit his swords.
When he returned, Kenshin fell in behind Iizuka and set out. Iizuka led Kenshin out through the front yard and through the gate. They hit the crowded roads and made their way through the sea of humanity. Iizuka had no problem with elbowing his way through the crowd. Kenshin of course, moved with his inimitable grace and really seemed to float through the crowd.
Iizuka took Kenshin all around Kyoto to the different safe houses. There were ten in all, liberally sprinkled throughout the city. That way, if he were to get hurt, or needed a place to hide in an emergency, help was never far away. After being introduced to each house owner, Kenshin was taught the password for each house and memorized it on the spot. Most of the house owners privately shook their heads and wondered what such a young boy was doing in the forces of the Ishin Shishi.
They also went through the heavily Bakufu area of Kyoto where Iizuka showed Kenshin the Emperor's palace and the Shogun's.
"Which one looks nicer to you?" he asked.
"The Shogun's is much bigger," answered Kenshin.
"Exactly. When we're finished, he'll be living in a hut if we don't kill him with our divine justice," said Iizuka.
"Divine justice?" echoed Kenshin.
"The right we've been granted by the kami to kill those who tyrannize the people of Japan. We are casting the justice of the gods on them," said Iizuka solemnly.
Kenshin felt the words "divine justice" resonate in his heart with something Hiko had once told him. The name Hiten Mitsurugi meant literally "Heaven's Honorable Flying Blade", a sword style of the gods wielded by strong men to protect the weak. It had been divinely ordained that he who wielded the blade of the gods would now cast the justice of the gods upon the hated Bakufu.
"To protect the people from suffering, we cast divine justice on the Bakufu," said Kenshin, eyes lighting up strangely.
Iizuka's eyebrows shot up at the tone of the boy's voice and the look on his face. Perhaps Katsura knew what he was doing after all.
"Exactly. Let's get back," he said, turning to leave.
Once back at the Kohagiya, Kenshin retrieved his daisho, went out into the courtyard and started going through his kata. Several of the men gathered at the edge to watch. To them, Kenshin was just a blur of red, brown and silver. They were amazed and even a bit frightened. Iizuka came out and joined the men. When he saw what Kenshin was doing, his jaw almost dropped.
'What is he?' thought Iizuka.
After that display of Kenshin's raw talent, Iizuka never questioned his sword skills again.
After scrubbing himself from head to toe, Kenshin lowered himself into the bath, closed his eyes and let his mind wander.
Academically, Kenshin knew what it meant. The Ishin Shishi wanted him to kill Bakufu supporters in the name of divine justice.
'No matter what pretty names you give it, it is still murder...'
The Master's words echoed in Kenshin's mind and he felt his stomach flipping and knotting up on itself. What was it like to kill? Kenshin had seen Hiko kill the bandits at age ten. Hiko hadn't seemed too bothered by doing it. Perhaps it wouldn't be too difficult. If it meant a better Japan for everyone, it had to be the right thing to do.
‘Killing Bakufu supporters isn’t murder, it’s divine justice,’ Kenshin made up his mind firmly.
The next few days passed peacefully. Kenshin began helping Okami and the girls in the kitchens early in the morning and during the day would wander the streets of Kyoto to continue learning the layout of the city. He was good with directions and had it completely memorized by the end of the second day.
During the second day, Kenshin also received his new clothes from Okami, who had stayed up through the night to work on them. As he stared at the gray hakama, navy blue kimono and matching tabi, he felt as if he would turn into another person when he donned them for the first time.
One week had quickly passed since Kenshin had arrived at the Kohagiya with Katsura. During that time, he had learned the layout of Kyoto and had become fast friends with the okami and Iizuka. One day though, Iizuka approached Kenshin with a very serious look replacing his usual easy-going smile. Wordlessly, he held out a black envelope.
Eyes wide with confusion, Kenshin took the envelope from Iizuka's hands and opened it. Inside was a paper with a person's name, brief physical description, location and time of day on it. Kenshin's eyes met Iizuka's solemnly. It was time for his baptism of blood.
Kenshin spent the rest of the day holed up in his room, trying to get his wits together for what he knew he must do tonight. Kenshin looked down at the gray hakama and navy kimono he was wearing and the daisho strapped to his left hip. Everything had come down to this: his sword training, his argument with Hiko, his trek across Japan. If he failed tonight, it would all be for nothing.
'No failure. No doubts. With my blood stained blade, I will carve a new era,' Kenshin thought to himself, eyes narrowing.
The night sky was almost pitch black except for the bright stars that dotted it with their diamond-like light. The new moon was completely invisible to the eyes of man.
A young boy with red hair tied back in a top knot crouched down on the roof of a house. Luminous violet eyes scoured the landscape below for his target, who the paper had told him would be by this place at this time of night.
Himura Kenshin's entire body was taut with dreadful anticipation of what he was to do tonight. Every sound made his body twitch and muscles tighten up. He felt a thousand invisible eyes glaring at him accusingly. He thought he heard voices on the wind.
Kenshin closed his eyes and trained his mind into a hard set. Yes, he would kill tonight, but it was for the new era. Although he knew nothing of his victim, the men to whom he had entrusted his sword had determined that he was guilty of crimes against the people of Japan and deserved to have divine justice cast on him. His death would hasten the new era of peace, freedom and equality in. That was all Kenshin needed to know.
Just then, Kenshin heard the sound of straw sandals shuffling over the cobblestone road. Entire body tensing, he looked down over the edge of the roof and saw a fat, bespectacled man making his way slowly down the road. He matched the description.
Now Kenshin's training took over completely. His senses became augmented, everything he saw grew crisp and vibrant, everything he heard came into his ears with trebled clarity. His heart thundered in his chest, pumping adrenaline to every inch of his body. Gripping the hilt of his katana, Kenshin leapt down from the roof, landing with the grace and silence of a cat.
"Yamani Nishou, supporter of the Bakufu?" came the quiet, smooth voice from the darkness behind the middle-aged man.
Startled, Yamani whipped around to find himself face to face with a red-haired boy who looked to be no more than 11 years old. Yamani smirked at the kid.
"That's right. Need help finding your mommy?"
"Old man, for your crimes against the people of Japan, I have come to cast divine justice on you," announced Kenshin, flicking his sword loose from its sheath with his thumb.
"Children shouldn't be playing with dangerous weapons," teased Yamani.
Those words were the last that would cross his lips. In a blurry silver arc, the katana was drawn from its sheath and sliced through his neck, severing his head from his trunk. In that instant, Kenshin saw Yamani's face change from cynical to fearful; his eyes looking like those of some poor animal just before it's slaughtered. Yamani's head went rolling down the alley and the body collapsed in a lifeless heap, blood spurting out like a geyser from the open throat, splashing Kenshin's face and hands.
Kenshin stood stock still, dumbly looking down at the headless, twitching body on the ground before him. Adrenaline fading, Kenshin felt a cold numbness clawing its way up his body, starting at his feet and not stopping till his scalp was tingling. Moving automatically, Kenshin flicked the blood from his katana and slid it into its sheath.
The roiling in Kenshin's stomach returned with a vengeance. It was stronger this time, complete and total nausea. Swallowing the urge to vomit, Kenshin broke into a run. He couldn't be in that alley next to the body anymore. He had to get away! Kenshin made it around the corner into an adjoining alley before the bile forced its way up his esophagus, nearly causing him to choke. Kenshin removed one of the wooden slats covering the water flowing underground and disgorged into the sewer. His stomach kept spasming, forcing everything he'd had to eat earlier that day up and out through his mouth. The blood was thick and viscous on his face and hands, dripping and oozing in red rivers. All he could smell was its coppery tang.
As soon as he slid the gate shut behind him, Kenshin made his way over to the well. He grasped the rope and drew the bucket up from the well's depths. Taking the bucket, he poured the icy water over his head, causing water and blood to mingle and fall in rivulets down his hair, his face and over his clothes.
There was still blood! He had to get it all off. Kenshin quickly lowered and raised the bucket again. Again he picked it up and dumped it over himself, spilling more blood and water to the ground. Kenshin repeated this process about four more times until he at least didn't feel the sticky, nasty blood on his face and hands anymore.
Dropping the bucket carelessly back into the well, a dripping wet Kenshin made his way into the inn. He was exhausted and just wanted to fall into a deep slumber and never wake up. Once back in his room, Kenshin peeled the wet and bloodstained kimono and hakama off, balled them up and threw them in a heap across the room.
Kenshin spread his futon and lay down in it without even bothering to change into his yukata. He closed his eyes and fell into a fitful, restless sleep. A dream rose up before his eyes of the Bakufu supporter he had killed that night. The man's severed head flew at him from out of the darkness, eyes blazing with anger and jaws clacking in silent accusation. Kenshin unsheathed his katana and slashed at the head, cleaving it in two. It dissolved into nothing, leaving him in the darkness.
Kenshin's body jerked as he came awake, drenched in sweat. Grasping reflexively at his katana, he sat up and looked wildly around. The room was dark and silent and he was quite alone. Even though it had just been a dream, he shook with dread. Kenshin half expected to see Yamani's ghost standing in the corner of the room, glaring reproachfully at him.
This thought in his head, coupled with the darkness and silence of the room, made it impossible for Kenshin to get back to sleep. Gripping the katana, Kenshin left the futon and took a seat in the large window frame. Sliding the screen open part way, Kenshin looked outside at the starry sky. The sun wouldn't rise for another three or so hours.
Kenshin settled against the side of the window frame and propped his katana against his left shoulder, ready to be drawn at a moment's notice. As he continued to stare up at the stars, he felt a tiny bit calmer than he had in the quiet, accusing darkness of the room. As his body slowly relaxed, the fog of sleep crept silently back into his brain. Kenshin's head drooped forward a bit and he actually fell asleep sitting up.
The twittering of birds and light flowing in through the open window finally forced Kenshin's eyes open. His back felt stiff and sore from sleeping upright all night. Slowly, he stretched out his achy body. Even though he had gone back into deep sleep, he still felt tired and dirty.
Moving slowly, Kenshin got to his feet and made his way over to the pile of bloody clothes. Even though he would just as soon touch a fire ant hill as those clothes, they needed to be washed. Just as he was about to pick them up, he heard a soft knock at the door. Kenshin groaned inwardly. He really didn't feel up to dealing with people right now.
"Himura-san, are you alright?"
It was the okami, checking up on him.
"I brought you a cup of tea. Would you like me to wash your clothes for you?"
"You don't need to," Kenshin replied quietly.
"It's not a bother. You don't want to go around in dirty clothes. Just hand them to me through the door and they'll be done by midday," she offered gently.
Kenshin picked up the pile of clothes and slid the door open to face Okami. Her heart softened at the sight of the pale, exhausted boy, his red hair tangled in knots, standing before her in only his fundoshi and juban. Okami smiled gently at Kenshin as she took the kimono and hakama from him and handed him the bamboo cup.
"I'll bring you a breakfast tray in a bit. You need to eat a little even if you're not hungry," she said in a soft voice.
"Thank you," Kenshin managed in a strained voice.
Okami nodded and left with the clothes in her arms.
After sliding the fusuma shut, Kenshin sat down in the window frame and peered at his reflection in the tea cup. It was as though a stranger were staring back at him with pale face and dark circles under the eyes. Kenshin was subconsciously aware of the change in his eyes. The warmth and life had been drained from them, replaced by exhaustion and a growing numbness.
'Hitokiri! Murderer! Unclean!'
The baptism of blood was complete.