Rurouni Kenshin

The Silent Sword

Disclaimer: In no way, shape, or form do I own Rurouni Kenshin.

Prologue:

            The world is a place of noise.  Anyone with their ears intact cannot deny this.  Even in the depths of the oceans and down to the center of the Earth itself, there is no place where some sort of sound cannot be heard.  At any time in any place, there is always some kind of noise, be it the chirping of birds, the rumble of thunder in the distance, or the stirring of grass in the breeze, there is always sound.  Even in the darkness of night those sounds that have disappeared are replaced by new ones.  Silence is an unseen abomination of nature.  It is only present, when something is truly and terribly wrong.

            So of course, it was no surprise then that it was silent that night when it all began.  In a quiet country house in the outskirts of one of the many towns dotting the landscape of Japan, everything had gone quiet.  The lights in the house had yet to go out and inside, the occupants had failed to take any notice of the silence outside; a mistake to say the least.  Not far from the house and outside the limits of the town was a forest.  There was nothing truly remarkable about this forest save of course, that it had gone silent.  As the night grew older, the reason for that silence became painfully clear as a man seemed to materialize out of the darkness itself, making his way, silent as death, towards that house and its unsuspecting occupants.

            Looking at this man, one would have been amazed at how it could be possible for one like him to move undetected anywhere.  His hair was an eye-catching shade of red that one would never think could blend into the darkness so quickly.  It was grown long and tied into a ponytail behind his head.  The man's clothes were dark red, the color of dried blood, over white, colors that could fade easily into the night.  His most distinctive feature was the cross-shaped scar on his left cheek.  The man's eyes were the color of amber, and held the promise of silent death within them.  At his side he wore two swords, one, the katana, the classic sword of a Japanese samurai and the other a wakizashi, also a possession of many who followed the warrior's art.  The man moved so quickly that he barely seemed to have the substance of a shadow as he made his way towards that fateful house.

            The house itself was fairly large.  Strangely enough, all the hallmarks that would declare that anyone of some importance lived there were curiously absent.  However, the man of the shadows knew well enough of the significance of its inhabitants.  Once he reached the house, the man stopped just outside the circle of light cast from the windows of that house.  Carefully, he made his way around the perimeter, looking, probing for some kind, any kind of weakness.  Finally, the man found his weakness, a back door left ajar, practically an open invitation for him to come in and finish his grim work.  The man was not the kind to refuse such invitations and slipped into the house with all the silence of a phantom.

            Barely five minutes later, the man exited that same house as silently as he had come.  The lights in the house continued to burn brightly.  It wasn't until morning, that anyone bothered to notice the silence that hung about the place.  When someone finally entered to discern what had happened, he was shocked to find three corpses.  And in one corner of that house, hidden away in a closet, he also found the shaking figure of a child, shocked and frightened beyond all reason.  His silence was the price he paid for surviving that night.  For those who met the Hitokiri Battousai, also known as Kenshin Himura, rarely departed for anywhere except the afterlife.

            The boy, who had not spoken a word since, was taken in by the same kind man who had found him.  Two days later, he woke up to find that the boy had disappeared.  Weeks passed, and no one ever heard from him.  Not that they would have heard from him had he come back, for it was widely believed that the horrors that had been visited upon him that night had left him speechless for the rest of his life.

Weeks later:

            Life in Kyoto went on as it always had.  Many of the citizens hardly seemed bothered by the fact that elsewhere, a revolution that would soon change the face of Japan was occurring.  Few people believed that this revolt would make its way to the streets of Kyoto and were happy to live their live as they always did.

            Seijuro Hiko XIII slowly made his way back towards his home.  He had been living for years now, just outside of Kyoto, making his living as nothing more than a humble potter.  A huge bear of a man, Seijuro Hiko was handsome and looked young for someone who was over thirty years old.  His youthful appearance and muscular physique drew the eyes of more than a few young ladies whom he passed.  Not that he returned their stares for he was quite used to being good looking.  The white mantel that he wore trailed behind him dramatically.  The only thing that suggested that he was human not some god among men was the fact that several large jugs of sake were slung over his shoulder, clunking together hollowly.

            As he walked down the street, Hiko soon noticed that he was being followed.  Looking back carefully, he saw a small figure slipping ineptly from shadow to shadow.  Whoever it was that was tailing him was neither skilled, nor very experienced.  He judged his small shadow to be a boy of about five years of age, awfully young to be alone in the streets.  He could tell from a few brief glances that they boy was thin and underfed.  Hiko understood quite well what this young child wanted from him.  The man slowed his pace to allow the kid to close the distance.  He did so gradually, so as not to raise the boy's suspicions.  The boy foolishly took the proffered opportunity, moving faster to come even closer.  Hiko came to a complete stop and turned away from the boy, pretending to eye the contents of one of the many shops that lined the street.  The boy took advantage of the perceived distraction and struck.

            Hiko was surprised, for someone so young and weak; the boy was incredibly fast, closing the final distance between them in a few short seconds.  However, catching him only slightly off guard would not be enough for the child to get the better of Seijuro Hiko, master of the Hiten Mitsurugi style.  With speed seemingly impossible for a human, much less a man of his size, Hiko spun about and caught the fleeing thief by the collar of his ragged shirt before the boy could get away the wallet he had lifted from Hiko's pocket.

            Again Hiko found himself surprised.  The boy did not struggle to escape, nor did he make a single sound.  Instead, as Seijuro turned the kid to look at his face, he could see the child studying him, watching and evaluating.  If the boy was afraid, he did not betray it.  In fact, the only thing Hiko saw in those sky-blue eyes of his was curiosity as the boy analyzed him from head to toe.  Even as he was looking the huge man up and down, the boy handed back Hiko's wallet distractedly, as if he had done nothing wrong.  For some strange reason, Seijuro Hiko found himself very interested in the child.  An idea formed in his head.  Since that blockhead of an apprentice he had had last time was long gone, Hiko decided that he had to find someone else to inherit the Hiten Mitsurugi.  And, from the look of things, he had found the perfect candidate.

            "You're a strange person," he observed.  The boy did not answer him.  He met Hiko's gaze squarely with one that was equally intense.  "How would you like to learn swordsmanship from me?" he proposed.

            The boy considered it a moment before nodding.  "Do you speak?" asked Hiko.  The boy shook his head.  "Hmm, so you're mute."  The boy merely shrugged as if to say, "If that's what you call it."

            Seijuro set the kid on the ground and began to walk off.  "Follow me," he said over his shoulder.  Without hesitation, the boy followed Seijuro Hiko into his home.

Thirteen years later:

            Seijuro Hiko was more than pleased with his selection of apprentice.  He had found out that the boy's name was Takezo.  After looking into the matter further, Seijuro discovered the truth behind the boy's past.  Takezo's family had been murdered by none other than Battousai the Manslayer, whom Seijuro knew to be his previous dumb apprentice Kenshin Himura.  Takezo had apparently watched the whole thing.  Seijuro figured that the boy must have been at that perfect age when he could understand exactly what was happening, but not why; just right for being traumatized.  The revolution had ended ten years ago and now the government that Himura had fought to create was now a reality.

            Takezo had turned out to be much more than a prodigy when it came to swordsmanship.  The boy was sharper than the sword he wielded.  Takezo could learn techniques almost instantly, able to perform flawlessly after seeing a single demonstration.  Despite this, Seijuro had yet to teach the boy the final techniques of the Hiten Mitsurugi style.

            Takezo had been learning from Seijuro Hiko for thirteen years now.  He was a dedicated student, but his nature at times seemed almost flighty.  Whenever he was in town, running errands for his master, Takezo would often take detours and disappear for hours on end.  Once he had vanished for a whole day.  At first, Seijuro didn't begrudge his student a few hours of privacy, but as his periods of elusiveness increased in frequency and length, Seijuro began to get worried.  One day, Seijuro followed Takezo secretly as the boy went to take care of his errands.  Hiko was impressed to see that the young man finished his job first thing.  On the way back, Takezo entered a carpenter's shop.  When Seijuro took a peek at what his student was up to, he was amazed to see that Takezo was taking lessons from the carpenter.  On several occasions when he followed his student, Seijuro saw him learning things from the carpenter just as quickly as he learned swordsmanship from Hiko.  After a while, Seijuro decided to talk to Takezo about it.  Seijuro was quite lenient with him, understanding that Takezo was probably using extra lessons to fill up the void in his life that had been left when his parents were slain.  He even paid for formal lessons in a few areas of interest.

            Another interesting observation that Hiko made was how much his new apprentice had grown to resemble Kenshin.  In fact, the two of them could have been identical twins if it weren't for the fact that Takezo's hair was black and his eyes a constant shade of ice-blue.  Hiko had often found it quite eerie that Kenshin's eyes were capable of changing color depending on his mood; lavender when he was his normal friendly self, blue when he was particularly serious or tense, and amber when Kenshin was feeling downright murderous.

            Despite how far he had come, Takezo remained completely mute.  Seijuro was not sure how to solve that particular problem.  Other than the fact that he was incapable of human speech, Takezo seemed like a completely normal person.  He could read and write easily, though he refused to use writing as a means of carrying on a conversation either, and there were no other problems.  Seijuro figured that one day he would have to arrange a meeting between Takezo and Kenshin.  Perhaps the shock of recognition would be enough to awaken his protégé's voice.  However, he wasn't sure when he should do it.

            The opportunity nearly snuck up on him.  One day, after dispatching Takezo to see to his chores, Seijuro was minding his kiln when who should come up behind him but his own dumb apprentice.  Kenshin Himura had come to finish his training, wielding a reverse-blade sword of all things.  At first, Seijuro was furious that his dumb apprentice should come back after so many years just to learn the final techniques of the Hiten Mitsurugi style.  If it weren't for the fact that Kenshin required them for his fight with Makoto Shishio he probably would have never come back for them.  Takezo had been training with Hiko for thirteen years straight now and he had still not taught the boy the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen or the Amakakeru-Ryu-No-Hirameki.  He refused to teach Kenshin.  However, after talking with both Kenshin and his close friends who had followed him from Tokyo, Seijuro decided to change his verdict on the situation.  Later that night, Seijuro sent Takezo to a place where he knew the boy would not have a chance meeting with Himura.  Takezo was not ready for such an event.

            After the entire incident had passed and Shishio's revolution was no more, Seijuro was surprised to find Takezo sitting in the practice yard, staring at his sword.  Upon seeing that he was being observed by his master, Takezo came up to Hiko.  Seijuro watched curiously as Takezo held up his sword and flipped it so that the dull edge was leading rather than the razor sharp edge.  Hiko understood perfectly, Takezo wanted a reverse-blade sword.  Seijuro reasoned that at some point, Takezo must have observed Kenshin's dedication to the cause of not killing and his use of the reverse-blade sword.  It must have intrigued the boy.

            The next day, Seijuro sent word to an old acquaintance of his, a sword smith living in the countryside outside of Kyoto.  The master sword maker was surprised but willing to forge a reverse-blade sword for Seijuro Hiko's apprentice.  A month later, the reverse-blade sword was delivered.  As Takezo continued to study under him, Seijuro Hiko came to a realization.  It would soon be time.

One year later:

            Hiko approached slowly, almost reluctantly as Takezo practiced alone as he usually did.  For the first time in his life, Seijuro Hiko was entertaining some very strange doubts about the level of skill displayed by his student.  What if he is too strong? worried Hiko, What if I can't give him the motivation necessary to learn the final attack?

            However, neither would Takezo find the motivation to complete his training if Hiko continued to hold off.  It was just a risk that he would have to take.  A desperate gamble.  "Takezo," he said as he came.

            The boy looked up from his training.  His face, including his eyes, was completely devoid of any form of expression.  Seijuro knew that Takezo was not devoid of emotions, nor did Takezo pretend that he was.  Rather, he let his emotions guide his sword in battle, but never let them show on his face.  It was an effective method, but one that Hiko could manage in any case.

            "It's time," said Seijuro.

            Takezo merely looked at him questioningly.  Hiko knew the unspoken question behind that face.  Time for what?

            "It is time for you to learn the final technique of the Hiten Mitsurugi style," said Seijuro, "It is time we finish what we started that day you decided to pick my pocket."

            Takezo smiled amiably and nodded.  His face was the picture of innocence, as if he couldn't understand Hiko's grim mood.  Honestly, sometimes he seemed so naïve for someone who watched his parents murdered in cold blood.  After observing Takezo for a moment, Hiko decided that it was time to begin.

            So he taught Takezo the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen.  Takezo didn't flinch as the nine simultaneous attacks landed feather-light blows on all nine of his body's vital points.  Like he had done with Kenshin and like what his master had done with him, Seijuro held back considerably, simply trying to demonstrate the principle rather than the power behind the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen.

            For a long moment, Takezo simply stood there, silently, as always, contemplating the attack that he had been shown.  He was showing a greater degree of caution than when he had learned any of the other techniques of the Hiten Mitsurugi style.  But then, the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen was different from any other attack used by the Hiten Mitsurugi style, than any sword style ever created.  No other style of swordsmanship taught a technique where one blade suddenly became nine.  Impossible to block, impossible to dodge, the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen was a technique like no other.

            Finally, Takezo turned and faced his master.  "Are you ready?" asked Seijuro.  Takezo nodded, but Hiko didn't notice.  In truth, he hadn't asked his apprentice, but rather himself.  Hiko nodded.  "Then, you must attack me and not hold back."  Takezo nodded again.  Setting himself for the attack, his face slipping back into its expressionless mask, he took up the stance necessary to launch the strike.

            Hiko also set himself for the attack.  With a final breath, he threw his trust into his strength and charged.  For a brief instant, all his doubts were forgotten, forgotten in the exhilaration that he always felt as he watched his blade flash so quickly that it seemed to become nine separate blades at once, nine blades that converged on one opponent, each seeking out its own target, nine blades that would strike unerringly.

            Then, his doubts returned tenfold when the force of his Kuzu-Ryu-Sen was met with the awesome power of Takezo's.  For a terrible second, Hiko was sure that he would be overcome.  But then, the power of a true master of the Hiten Mitsurugi style, combined with the weight of his powerful body, finally overpowered Takezo and sent the apprentice stumbling back from the force of the blow.  After a few faltering steps backwards, Takezo sat down hard.  It was all that Hiko could do to stop himself from sighing with relief.  However, he knew that he couldn't allow Takezo the chance to practice the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen, or then Hiko really would find himself overcome.

            "You now know that the only way to counter the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen is with the same attack.  However, if your opponent is stronger than you, you will still fail because his Kuzu-Ryu-Sen will overpower yours," explained Hiko, "There is however, a technique that can defeat the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen.  That is the Amakakeru-Ryu-No-Hirameki."

            Takezo nodded.  He pondered the information he had been given by his master.  After a moment, his slid his sword back into its sheath.  Seijuro Hiko nodded back at his apprentice.  "You are correct, the Battoujutsu technique when used properly, can counter the god-like speed of the Kuzu-Ryu-Sen, by accelerating the blade to beyond god-like speed, the Amakakeru-Ryu-No-Hirameki."  Then Hiko raised an eyebrow.  "But the reverse-blade sword is not suited for Battoujutsu.  How then shall you work around it?"

            Takezo, of course, did not say anything.  Instead, he smiled cryptically.  Hiko's eyes narrowed.  "Are you ready Takezo?"  Takezo nodded, his smile vanishing as his face slipped back into the same expressionless countenance that he always wore when about to go into combat.

            Seijuro Hiko let his mantle fall to the ground.  He would have to fight unencumbered.  There was no other way to do this.  Hiko set his sword and tensed for the strike.  "Very well then."  This was it, the point of no return.  There was no turning back now.  Seijuro Hiko leapt forward, his blade becoming nine and converging on Takezo, who met the charge head on with a charge of his own, sword still in sheath.

            His left foot hit the ground…

Author Extra: These aren't exactly Author's Notes.  These are little bits of information on Japanese culture and history that have been played upon in the previous chapter.  Today's Author Extra is why it is so difficult to learn the Amakakeru-Ryu-No-Hirameki.  Granted, this does not mean that the technique itself is real, but it is interesting to know why it would be so difficult for swordsmen to grasp.  When Kenshin learns the technique from Seijuro Hiko, Hiko tells his apprentice that the key to the technique is the will to live.  Samurai are known for their resignation to death.  In fact, their willingness to embrace death is legendary.  For a Samurai, there is no greater honor than dieing on the field of battle in the service of his lord.  So, for most swordsmen, possessing such a strong desire for life would be all but inconceivable.  Because the key to the Amakakeru-Ryu-No-Hirameki runs counter to the code of the Samurai (Bushido), it is nearly impossible to understand and therefore, difficult to learn.

Disclaimer: Read prologue for disclaimer

Chapter 1: A New Apprentice

            Two people stood on a hill that overlooked the city of Kyoto.  One of them was a huge man, dressed in a white mantel that weighed considerably more on its shoulders than it should have.  The other was considerably shorter coming up to his companion's chest level.  Both wore swords at their sides.

            The large man looked down at his small companion.  "So you have decided not to take the title of master either then."

            His companion nodded.  The big man looked out at the city once again.  "I suppose that it's for the best.  However, if you think that I'm going to let you go free like I did with my last dumb apprentice, then you are very wrong.  If you're going to take your leave, you had better find me another apprentice; one who'll finish the job."  Then, taking a folded slip of paper, he handed it to the younger man.  "Give this to whoever you select."

            With that, the large man stepped slightly behind his smaller companion and lifted his right foot.  "Now go!"  His boot connected solidly with the other's rump, lifting the young man off the ground and sending him hurtling forward as his hands went to clasp his bruised behind.  "And don't come back until you find me a proper apprentice!"

            The small man landed on his feet.  The instant they touched the ground, his form blurred and he was gone like the wind in the trees.  Behind him, the large man stood on the crest of the hill, watching as his apprentice zipped off to finish this, his final errand.  Sighing, Seijuro Hiko lifted up his shirt slightly to inspect the ugly and massive welt that stretched from the lower right side of his torso to the upper left, the second one he had received in his lifetime.  "One of these days," he muttered irritably, "I'll find an apprentice who'll do it right."  He turned and strode back down the hill to continue his work as a potter.

            It was with a groan that Soujiro awoke from his slumber.  Slowly, he sat up in the pile of hay in which he had made his bed.  Brushing pieces of straw from his brown hair, the young man slowly got to his feet, mindful of the fact that he was very thirsty.  Soujiro had been wandering for about a year now.  He was dressed in the same blue kimono, white collared shirt and hakama that he had worn the day Mr. Himura had defeated him.  Its color had faded considerably now and the garment was in tatters.  At his side, he wore a sheath and the white handle of his sword.  In truth, most of the sheath was empty.  The handle and the badly cracked section of blade that remained were all that was left of his favorite sword, the Kikuichimonji Norimune that had been a gift from Mr. Shishio.  Mr. Himura had shattered the katana with a single strike when Soujiro had been on the receiving end of the Amakakeru-Ryu-No-Hirameki.  At the thought of Mr. Himura and the blow he had struck, Soujiro felt his side throb slightly where the reverse-blade sword had smashed into him after breaking through his Kikuichimonji.  It had contained enough force to send the boy into the air and knock him across the room in which they had battled.

            The Room Without Space was aptly named, given how the power of Soujiro's Shukuchi technique seemed to make the space between him and his target vanish, as if he had used magic to close the distance.  However, even Soujiro's most powerful technique, the Shutensatsu, had not been enough to match the speed and power of the Amakakeru-Ryu-No-Hirameki. 

            After the battle with Himura, Soujiro had wandered, looking for his own truth as Mr. Himura had advised him.  He had seen many things in his travels, brief though they may have been compared to Mr. Himura's.  Mr. Himura had been right in saying that neither his truth nor Mr. Shishio's were the only ones.  However, Soujiro was at a loss as to which one was his truth.  But I have nine more years to find that out, he thought wryly.  His stomach growled reminding him that he hadn't eaten the previous day. That is if I don't starve first.

            Soujiro sometimes wondered how Mr. Himura had been able to wander for ten years without starving to death.  The former Tenken reasoned that Mr. Himura must have worked at odd jobs to earn his room and board whenever he needed to.  However, Soujiro did not have that luxury.  Unlike Mr. Himura, Soujiro was considered a traitor to the government, and he rarely had time to work to earn enough money to pay for his next meal.  While he wasn't wanted publicly, Soujiro knew that the police were looking for him in secret at least.  And heading that search most likely would be the ever dangerous and merciless Hajime Saitou.  Despite all his skill, Soujiro did not relish a confrontation between himself and the former Wolf of Mibu.  He had seen first hand the results of Saitou's handiwork when he passed through Usui's room on his way out of the Juppongatana headquarters.  And unlike Mr. Himura, Saitou did not mind striking the fatal blow.

            Fortunately, Saitou was a very busy man who had plenty of other business to occupy his time that kept him from searching for Soujiro personally.  This allowed Soujiro to use one of his most useful tricks, the ability to vanish into the crowd.  Back when the Tenken had sealed his emotions away tightly, he had been able to mask his presence so completely that even the wolf wouldn't have been able to sniff him out even if Soujiro had passed by him right under his nose.  But now, the inner turmoil that had resulted from Soujiro's confrontation with Mr. Himura leaked out of him at every turn and while his skill was enough to evade the average cop, he probably would not be able to sneak past someone as alert as Saitou anymore.  Nor could Soujiro look for help among Mr. Shishio's old contacts which spread in a vast network across the length and breadth of Japan.  While Soujiro might have found no shortage of those willing to offer him assistance, he couldn't be sure that news of his whereabouts wouldn't reach the ears of Chou, once a fellow member of the Juppongatana, now an agent who worked alongside Saitou but probably still kept his ears open for news in the underworld.

            Soujiro also considered turning himself in willingly.  Many other members of the Juppongatana had managed to reintegrate themselves into society in some way.  Kamatari was the government's prime overseas' agent, Saizuchi working in foreign relations, and Anji was in prison for 25 years by his own choice.  Soujiro knew however, that there would be no easy answer waiting for him in the hands of the government.  He had slain too many men at Mr. Shishio's behest.  Lord Okubo, the Secretary of the Interior was dead by his hand.  No, if the Meiji government didn't immediately demand his execution, then most likely he would be forced to work as their assassin.  And Soujiro had lost any desire he once had to take the lives of others.

            This left Soujiro at a loss.  Thus far he had managed off some of the money he had taken with him when he had left Mr. Shishio, supplemented by caches that the bandaged man had hidden around the country wherever he had established one of his secret hiding places.  But that money was quickly running out and even Soujiro did not know the exact location of every single hiding place Lord Shishio used.  Many of those he had known had been found and cleaned out by the authorities before he arrived, which meant that it was becoming very difficult to take care of himself.

            If you are strong, you live.  If you are weak, you die.  Mr. Shishio's motto told him that if he couldn't help himself either by finding money or earning enough to support himself, Soujiro did not deserve to live.  Mr. Himura had taught Soujiro that the need for assistance was not condemning.  Soujiro still struggled with this concept.  But he was gradually becoming more convinced of its correctness each time he received help or a charitable offering from the occasional person.  People had helped him when he was in need as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  It just went to prove that there was more to Mr. Himura's truth than met the eye.

            Soujiro had occasionally entertained the thought of visiting Mr. Himura and his companions in Tokyo, to at least thank them.  But Saitou no doubt already knew that Soujiro was in some way indebted or connected to Mr. Himura and probably had the Kamiya Dojo under surveillance in the chance that Soujiro would come to pay Mr. Himura a visit.  And the last thing Soujiro wanted was to bring trouble on someone whom had already given him so much.

            Where then?  To the Oniwaban Group in Kyoto?  Saitou probably had them under observation too, knowing very well Aoshi Shinomori's brief association with the Juppongatana.

            Perhaps Soujiro really aught to get a job if only for a short time and try to replenish his strained funds.  Perhaps if he picked the right job that would allow him to stay out of sight, he would be able to earn sufficient money to suit his needs for a while without attracting the attention of local authorities.  It was a gamble that Soujiro would just have to make.  He also needed to buy a new set of clothes.  Not only were they getting faded and ragged, but they made it easy for the police to mark him.  Soujiro could kill two birds with one stone by getting new clothes.

            Sighing, Soujiro took his leave of the barn, checking carefully to make sure that no one would see him leaving.  It was very early in the morning, even for farmers who typically liked to get an early start.  Seeing that the coast was clear, Soujiro left the barn and went into the woods that bordered the small farm, knowing that there was a stream not far away.  Soujiro slaked his thirst and made his way to the road, skirting around the edge of the farm where he had spent the night.  It would not do to be seen by the occupants.

            Back on the road, Soujiro began to walk in the direction of the nearest town.  He had been on the road for half an hour when it came in sight around the bend.  It was quiet as it was still early in the morning, but that was just fine with Soujiro.  It would give him time to look at likely places to find a job without being noticed by the still sleepy inhabitants.  As he wandered through and around the town, Soujiro picked out a few likely places that might have a job that suited his needs.

            The sun rose higher and the various businesses in the town began to open their doors to customers.  Taking a deep breath, Soujiro went to investigate his first choice.  It was an inn on the outskirts of the town.  Soujiro hoped that they might have need of a waiter of someone to take care of the laundry or some other nondescript job.  As he entered, he noticed that the place was rather empty.  The dinning room/tavern downstairs had several small tables that were at this time mostly unoccupied.  A few early risers sat at one or two of the tables waiting patiently for their breakfasts to be delivered.  Soujiro took a seat at a table in the far corner of the room, away from the other occupants, hoping that they wouldn't be able to recognize them.  Not that they would unless one of them happened to be a police officer in disguise.

            Not much later, a waitress came out to deliver breakfast to one of the customers.  She wore her black hair in a braid that stretched all the way down to her waist and her brown eyes had a warm comforting look to them.  The uniform she wore for the inn was a dark gray color.  She must have been just about Soujiro's age.

            She set the tray of food in front of the man she was serving and began to make her way back to the kitchen.  About midway she spotted Soujiro and came over to his table.  "May I help you sir?" she asked politely.

            "Yes," said Soujiro, "I was wondering if you were hiring."

            "I don't know about that," said the waitress, "You'd have to check with the owner.  I'll get her."

            She went back into the kitchen and came back with an elderly woman.  She came up to about Soujiro's chin.  Her hair, which ran freely down to her shoulders, was a distinguished gray color.  Her equally gray eyes displayed her kindness openly.  Over her kimono she wore an apron.  No doubt this woman was the inn's cook in addition to its owner.  "Otsu here told me that you were looking for a job," said the woman.

            "Yes that's right," replied Soujiro, "Do you have one.  I would only be staying a short while, long enough to pay for my next stop."

            The woman thought it over for a little bit.  During this time, Otsu went back to serve one of the other guests.  "Otsu is always busy serving the customers and I could use help in the kitchen," she said smiling.

            "That would be perfect!" exclaimed Soujiro happily.  The woman chuckled at his enthusiasm.

            "That's nice," she remarked, "You can get started as soon as you're ready.  I'll find you a room and you can leave your belongings there."  Soujiro nodded.  He got up and followed the woman down one of the hallways.  "By the way," she added, "My name is Osugi.  If there's anything you need, just ask me."

            "That's very kind of you Ms. Osugi.  Thank you."

            "Oh it's no trouble at all.  You're not the first traveler to come through here to earn a little money to help him on the way.  As a matter of fact, they're fairly frequent around these parts."  That was all the better for Soujiro.  It meant that there was nothing suspicious about him wandering in from nowhere looking for a job.  Osugi turned to look over her shoulder.  "By the way, you do know that it's illegal to carry a sword nowadays," she remarked.

            Soujiro nodded.  "I do.  But I won't have any problems because this sword isn't any good."  He pulled the Kikuichimonji Norimune to show the woman that more than half of the sword's length had been broken off and the blade that remained was badly cracked.

            "Even if it is illegal to carry a sword around, if you're going to defy that law, why would you carry a sword that was broken off?" asked Osugi.

            "Well, I don't have any intention of using this sword," answered Soujiro, "I carry it because it was a gift from my father."  In a unique way, that wasn't a lie.  Mr. Shishio had always been the closest person to a father that Soujiro had ever had.  "It's my way of remembering him."

            "Your father must have been a great swordsman," said Osugi politely.

            Again Soujiro nodded.  Mr. Shishio had always been one of the strongest swordsmen he had ever known.  "He was."

            "You remind me of that nice man who passed through here a few years back," said Osugi, "Oh what was his name?  I can't quite remember.  He carried this strange sword with a reversed blade.  I just can't remember…"

            "Mr. Himura!"  Soujiro couldn't stop himself from gasping out the name.  There was only one swordsman in all of Japan who carried a reverse-blade sword.

            "Himura!  That's it!"  Osugi stopped and looked at Soujiro.  "Were you a friend of his?"

            "No, not really," admitted Soujiro, "I've just met him once or twice."  That much at least was true.  Of course he neglected the fact that he had sliced that same reverse-blade sword that she had seen in two at the time of their first face to face meeting and also how close he had come to killing Mr. Himura in their second.  Soujiro had also spoken to Himura once while hiding in the crowd that had gathered around Lord Okubo's dead body.  Mr. Himura had not seen him then.

            "That's nice to hear.  He was such a nice man.  He cooked, cleaned, even did laundry.  And he was so polite."  They stopped at a door.  "This will be your room," she said, pointing at the door, "My room is two doors down."

            Soujiro bowed to her.  "Thank you again Ms. Osugi."

            "Would you be so kind as to tell me your name young man?" asked Osugi.

            "Soujiro Seta."

            Osugi nodded.  "A nice name for a nice boy."  She opened the door and Soujiro went inside.

            Soujiro looked around the room.  It was sparsely furnished with a futon, a chair, a lamp, and a small table.  The far wall had a fair sized window in it.  There was plenty of room for him to deposit his belongings, of which he had practically none, save his sword.  He laid his sword down next to the futon and went back out into the hallway.

            "You may want to change into something a bit cleaner," suggested Osugi.

            "I would, but this is the only set of clothes that I have," replied Soujiro sheepishly.

            "I thought as much," said Osugi, "Oh well.  We'll take care of that.  Don't you worry."

            "Uh, thanks," stammered Soujiro.

            "Now let's put you to work in the kitchen young man," said Osugi imperiously.

            Soujiro nodded and followed her into the kitchen.

            Takezo had been wandering for a couple of weeks now.  He had yet to find a substitute apprentice for his master.  He had searched through many towns that he passed through for a suitable replacement, but found no one with the inclination towards swordsmanship.  As he looked through yet another village, Takezo sighed, one of the few verbal sounds he was capable of making.  It was a challenge to find anyone who would be a suitable candidate to learn the Hiten Mitsurugi style.

            Takezo was beginning to loose hope as he entered yet another city whose name he didn't know.  He doubted that there would be anyone here who would fit the bill, but he might as well look just the same.  As he passed by an inn on the outskirts, Takezo sensed the presence of a very strong person.  It was a charisma that almost equaled that of Master Hiko.  There must be someone in that inn who had trained in the martial arts in some form or another.  Perhaps he would be the one Takezo had been looking for.

            Takezo crept stealthily along the outside of the inn; letting his feelings guide him to the source of that strange aura.  As he came around the back, Takezo saw a window on ground level.  The feeling was overwhelming now.  Whoever it was as just inside that window.  Takezo moved until he was hidden under it.  Then, slowly, he rose up to peer through the window and into the kitchen inside.

            A young man who must have been about his age was standing in front of the counter chopping vegetables.  Takezo ducked down quickly lest the stranger see him.  He was the one alright.  A single glance had been enough to show Takezo all that he needed to know.  The person's body was muscular, but compact and with a low mass, perfect for withstanding the forces exerted by the god-like speed of the Hiten Mitsurugi style.  That man had trained to be fast, that was for sure.  But would he make a good swordsman.         As he sat down and leaned his back against the wall, Takezo sighed again.  He would just have to wait and see whether or not the other young man had the potential that he had been seeking.

            Soujiro sighed as he closed the door to his room and lay down on his futon.  For a while he laid there, hands clasped behind his head, staring aimlessly at the ceiling.  It had been a long day's work, but the work itself wasn't all that hard.  Not only was he finally earning money, but his room and board were also free, one of the conditions of employment that Ms. Osugi had explained to him.  At least now he could stay and work here without worrying about the money that he was earning going to paying for staying here.

            Soujiro stiffened; he could have sworn that he sensed something outside the room.  Was somebody out there?  With blinding speed and fluid motion, Soujiro rolled to his feet, instinctively grabbing his sword which he had laid by his futon.  Soujiro drew his sword as he rose into a fighting position, only to be reminded that the blade was nothing more than a badly cracked shard of metal.  Outside, he saw just the slightest flash of black hair as somebody ducked under the windowsill.

            Soujiro's body blurred and he crossed the distance between himself and the window in an instant.  He flung it open and peered into the darkness outside.  There was nobody there.  However, looking down, Soujiro found the footprints of his mysterious observer on the ground outside the window.  They led off into the darkness and around the corner of the inn.  Whoever it was had to be fast…very fast.  Who could that have been? wondered Soujiro.

            Maybe it had been a cop or government agent, somebody who was out to catch him.  It seemed likely.  After all, he was secretly wanted by the government for his crimes.  However, Soujiro couldn't imagine how they would have caught up with him so quickly.  He had spent the entire day in the kitchen, save the meals, which he took with his hosts.  Nobody but them would have seen him, except for maybe the men who had been in the dining room that morning.

            However, the police would certainly do more than skulk around outside his window.  Sighing in resignation, Soujiro slid the window closed and went back to his futon.  He lay facing the window so that if the person came back, Soujiro would be able to see him or her.  The stranger did not return that night and Soujiro slowly drifted off to sleep.

            He was the one alright.  Takezo sat with his back against the wall of the alley where he had chosen to spend his night.  He sat, resting his sword, scabbard and all against his left shoulder.  As he waited out the night, Takezo considered how to approach this person.  He could already tell that the guy was about his age and already possessed considerable skill with a sword.  That would give Master Hiko a head start on teaching this one.

            But how to approach him.  Takezo had the feeling that he couldn't just walk right up to the swordsman.  He would have to wait for the right moment, perhaps when the person was out alone.  There he would probably have a better chance of communicating with him in private.  It was a problem for the next day.  Takezo closed his eyes and fell asleep, careful however to remain alert should an enemy try to attack him.

            How he hated deskwork.  It was the bane of every officer of the government, particularly those for whom actions spoke louder than words.  And Hajime Saitou was just such a man.  He sat behind his desk in his office in Kyoto, going through all sorts of paperwork.  He was in full uniform, his cap set on the desk, off to one side and out of the way.  His sword stood upright on a rack within easy reach.  He was amazed that he hadn't grown fat and complacent sitting behind such a desk doing reports for his superiors nonstop.  Saitou was a very busy man in many different ways.  He did a lot of work in the police department, tracking down gun runners, opium dealers, conspirators against the government, exceptionally dangerous criminals, and anything else that seemed to be a little to difficult for the more mundane authorities to handle.

            In addition to all these other assignments, which came and went like the winds across the sea, Saitou had another job that he had been working on for over a year now.  Ever since Shishio's revolution had been crushed and Shishio himself eliminated, his followers captured and for the most part reformed, Saitou had been organizing a secret manhunt.  For somebody as busy as he was, it was unusual to invest so much time in a single project.

            Ever since Shishio's plot to overthrow the Meiji had been stopped, Soujiro Seta, the infamous Tenken had seemingly vanished from the face of the Earth.  Saitou however, believed differently.  He knew that Soujiro had to be somewhere because the boy wasn't dead yet.  Saitou had many reasons for pursuing Soujiro.  First, Soujiro owed a great debt to the government for all the lives he had taken, particularly Lord Okubo.  Second, he had been part of a conspiracy to overthrow the Meiji and also had the most extensive list of contacts of any member of the Juppongatana, save Shishio himself, who was conveniently gone from the picture.  Third, Saitou's swordsman's pride had left him with an urge to test himself against Soujiro, the young man who had sliced Himura the Battousai's reverse-blade sword the first time they crossed blades.  Saitou was genuinely curious to see how his Gatotsu would measure up to Soujiro's Shukuchi.  Finally, Saitou wanted to find Soujiro, because he would be useful.

            The door to his office slid open.  Looking up from his desk, Saitou sighed.  "I told you that I don't like to be disturbed while I'm working."

            "I'm sorry Mr. Fujita sir," replied the officer apologetically, using Saitou's false name, "But a police swordsman is here to see you sir."

            "A police swordsman," said Saitou, raising an eyebrow.

            "From Satsuma no less," added the man.

            "Of course," mumbled Saitou.  Damn those Satsuma idiots.  They figured that since their province was one of the primary supporters of the Imperialist revolt that that gave them the right to barge in wherever they wanted around the country.  Not only that, police swordsmen were always arrogant bastards who for some reason believed that because they were permitted to carry swords, it somehow instantly made them the best swordsmen in the world.  They irritated him to no end and more than once he had to almost physically check himself from ramming his sword up one of their asses and show them what their swordsmanship was really worth.  Saitou had once heard that Himura had taken down a whole squad about a year ago without breaking a sweat.  It was obvious that even he could not scratch their hubris.

            Take deep breaths and try not to pin him to the wall, thought Saitou, trying to prepare himself.

            Saitou's visitor stepped into his office.  The government agent mentally prepared himself for a barrage of remarks about how superior this man was supposed to be compared to him and so on.  Remarkably, he got none.  Looking closely, Saitou instantly saw that this man was no ordinary police swordsman.

            He wore the uniform of a police swordsman and carried the standard sword at his side, his brown hair was cut to regulation length and everything about him spoke about strict adherence to regulation and rule…most deceptive.  The man's body was bulky and thuggish looking.  His face, instead of bearing that customary look of arrogance that most of his ilk wore, was almost expressionless.  His black eyes bored into Saitou, analyzing and studying him in detail.  His aura, amazingly enough, was the aura of a true swordsman.  Saitou instantly recognized that the man was not at his level of skill yet, but he obviously had the potential and the drive to reach that level before his life was over.  He was also older than most police swordsmen that Saitou had met, closer to his own age.  Clearly this man was much more than he seemed.

            This revelation prompted Saitou to smile.  His was a cruel smile that had frozen the hearts of pathetic peasants and hardened warriors alike.  It was the smile of a man who had and still did spill blood on a regular basis.  It was the cold smile of a killer without equal in the art of dealing death.

            And yet, the man did not even flinch.  Saitou actually saw his own smile mirrored on this man's face.  It appears that I have found a worthy adversary from that no good province after all, he thought wryly.

            Saitou waved a hand, gesturing for the underling to leave.  "You may go," he said.

            The man almost scrambled out.  From the moment the eyes of those two men had met, the poor officer could have sworn that the temperature in the room had dropped at least ten degrees.  It was truly an unnerving experience.

            "You are far from the average police swordsman," Saitou remarked offhandedly.

            "It honors me to warrant such a comment from the great Hajime Saitou, former leader of the third squad of the Shinsengumi," replied the man coolly.

            Saitou's smile widened ever so slightly.  A worthy adversary indeed.  He calmly pulled a cigarette and match from one of his shirt pockets and lit up.  He took a drag and slowly exhaled the smoke into the air in front of him, obscuring the view of his visitor.  The man did not so much as bat an eyelid as the putrid cloud billowed around him.  "You are well informed," he said, "Unusual for a man of your position."

            "Unlike the members of my late family, I am not so fastidious in who I associate with.  I have acquired an extensive network of informers and information brokers around Japan."  The man smirked arrogantly.  However, for once it didn't agitate Saitou in the least.

            "You play a dangerous game, an officer of the law consorting with such criminals."  Saitou flicked his cigarette, sending the glowing embers that remained of the tip tumbling into the ashtray set out on his desk.

            "As does a man who serves the very government whom he had once risked his life to prevent from becoming a reality," retorted the other.

            "Indeed," agreed Saitou nodding, "So, to business.  What brings you here Mr.…?"

            "Seta," replied the man, "Matahachi Seta."

            "Seta hmm," mused Saitou.  He could already guess what had brought Matahachi here.

            "I trust from the fact that you seemed to recognize my name that you already have a good idea as to why I'm here Mr. Saitou."  Matahachi folded his arms across his chest.

            Saitou nodded.  "So, do you have information on the whereabouts of Soujiro Seta or is there some other reason you're here that pertains to him?"

            "I've come for multiple reasons," replied Matahachi, "The one that probably will be of the greatest use to you is that I have information on an incident in Soujiro's past."

            "If you're referring to the incident with the Seta rice merchants, then we are already aware of that."

            "I see; it appears that you too have done some searching around."

            "It wasn't too hard to conduct an investigation looking for the Setas.  To find out that Soujiro's family was killed one night while a supposed rebel was in the area wasn't surprising."

            "Of course they would pin the blame on that damn rebel!  That little bastard Soujiro was too damn cute for anyone to think that he could just cut down his family in cold blood!"  Matahachi was fuming.

            "That's an interesting take on the matter."  Saitou smirked superiorly.  It appeared that he had touched a sensitive spot as far as Mr. Seta was concerned.  "But then, I wonder where Soujiro Seta, an eight-year-old boy could get the means and the motivation to cut down his own family."

            Any sign of Matahachi's former arrogance disappeared.  It was replaced by smoldering rage and hatred.  "I very much doubt that the brat required motivation.  Bastard children like him always bite the hand that feeds them.  It was only natural that he would be ungrateful for everything they did to raise him.  I wouldn't be surprised if he threw his lot with the damn rebel just so he had an excuse to do in his own family."

            Saitou took another drag on his cigarette, before grinding it out in the ashtray.  This man was beginning to amuse him.  "Things are rarely so black and white my dear Seta.  From witnesses I gathered that the Seta family was very abusive towards Soujiro.  That definitely goes towards motivation doesn't it."

            "Ha!  It was better than the little ass deserved.  That's all bastards like him are good for."

            Saitou held down a chuckle while simultaneously suppressing the urge to test his katana on the man's chest.  The man was both amusing and annoyingly close minded when it came to Soujiro.  It was time to get to the heart of the matter.  "What is your relationship with Soujiro?"

            "I was a cousin to his family.  I lived in Satsuma and fought in the revolution while they looked after their rice business.  I visited often as they were my favorite relatives.  Then, just after the revolution had ended, I learned that the entire family had been murdered, cut down one stormy night while a rebel was reported in the area.  One interesting piece of information was that little Soujiro's body was never found, even though he was assumed dead.

            "I joined the police swordsmen in Satsuma and have worked there ever since.  During my time working with them I acquired a network of underworld contacts to ensure that one day I would be able to find that little monster and kill him."  Matahachi's arms had dropped to his sides and his hands were clenched into fists and shaking with barely contained fury.

            "I see," remarked Saitou, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the desk, folding his hands together and resting his chin on them, "What is your true purpose in coming here then?"

            "I want to help you find Soujiro so that I can watch him walk up to the executioner's block and get what he's deserved since the day he was born."  Matahachi's eyes clouded over as he blissfully imagined what it would look like.

            "Well then," said Saitou, nodding knowingly, "If that is your true purpose in coming here then I am afraid that I must decline your offer of assistance."

            "What!?" Matahachi was furious, "How dare you turn me down after I've waiting for so long for the chance to stick my sword in that kid's gut!"

            Saitou really did chuckle this time.  "Do you know where Soujiro has been these past eleven years?" he asked amusedly.

            "Probably with that thrice cursed rebel friend of his."

            Saitou leaned back in his chair and slowly lowered his left hand to rest on the hilt of his katana, which he had left resting against the side of his chair, well within reach when he sat down.  He was beginning to lose his patience with this man.  "Soujiro Seta did indeed join with this rebel, named Makoto Shishio.  For the ten years since his disappearance, Soujiro trained under Shishio and became an incredible swordsman.  He was known as the Tenken because his swordsmanship was considered to be a gift from the heavens.  Soujiro carried out a number of assassinations for Shishio over the years.  Only recently were we able to break up Shishio's syndicate and kill the rebel himself.  However, Soujiro escaped and remains at large."

            "I don't understand," said Matahachi, "Why does that mean that you are turning me down?  If anything, that should make Soujiro even more worthy of facing execution."

            "The Meiji government has a reputation for being merciful and granting second chances to those who betray it.  Shishio himself was killed in the fight to prevent his plans from reaching fruition.  However, his associates have all been reintegrated into the government and now serve us.  It would reflect poorly on us if we did not grant young Soujiro the same opportunity."

            "Wait a minute!  Are you saying that not only would you let Soujiro escape punishment unscathed?  Not only that but you are saying that you would be living to give that demon a job!  You might as well be rewarding him for conspiring against you!"  Matahachi's rage was intensifying with each passing second.  He had rested his right hand on the hilt of his sword, as if Saitou's words were intended to provoke a fight.

            "I could care less about that," replied Saitou coolly, "The fact is that former traitor or not, Soujiro's skills would make him an infinitely useful asset if placed at the disposal of the government."

            "A brat like that couldn't have any skills worth mentioning," spat Matahachi.

            Saitou sighed.  There it was; that classic exhibition of thick skulled intellect that was the trademark of these imbecilic police swordsmen.  Quite obviously this man wasn't as worthy as he at first seemed.  "Haven't you been listening to a single word that I have been saying?  Soujiro has more than earned his title as the Tenken."

            "I refuse to believe that that bastard could amount to anything in this world," growled Matahachi.

            Saitou smiled mockingly.  "All the more reason not to allow you to get involved in this investigation."

            "Why you…!"

            Saitou raised his right hand to forestall any further arguments.  "You fail to recognize Soujiro's usefulness which means that the likelihood of you bringing him back alive is nonexistent.  For that reason I must bar you from this investigation because we want Soujiro alive.  Also, you also fail the recognize his skill which means that pitting yourself foolishly in battle with him would most likely result in your death.  As you can plainly see, this means that I cannot allow you to continue any further."

            "You…"  Matahachi's voice was trembling with his anger.  "I won't let you stop me!  If you try to I'll cut you down where you sit."  He pulled his sword out.

            Saitou sighed and drew his own sword.  Still in a sitting position, Saitou gripped the pommel of the handle in his left hand and let the tip sag down towards the floor.  With but a flick of Saitou's powerful wrist, he could bring it into position for a powerful attack.  "If you are going to insist on tracking down Soujiro, I'll have to give you a fair idea of the level of swordsman that you are up against," he explained.

            Matahachi had completely forgotten whatever he had been taught about swordsmanship and did not even register how open he had left himself.  He held his sword out to the side, away from his body.  His purpose had been to intimidate Saitou, not actually fight him.  However, Saitou was not easily cowed.  Matahachi didn't answer.  He only glared at Saitou.

            "Very well then," said Saitou lazily.  Slowly, he raised the tip of his blade from the floor, lifting it to point at Matahachi's head.  Twisting his wrist, Saitou oriented the edge of the blade out to his left and held his arm poised for the strike.  Very suddenly, all the muscles in his upper body tensed and then his sword hurtled forward.  Matahachi yelped in surprise and threw himself to the side.  But it was too little too late.  The point of Saitou's sword slammed into the handle of Matahachi's sword with such surety that it must have been his target all along.  The full force of the blow was enough to tear the sword from Matahachi's fingers and send it hurling into the wall behind him.  It impacted with enough force to crack the wood before it fell to the ground.  Saitou's blow had been so powerful that he had stripped a considerable portion of the skin from Matahachi's hand when he had ripped the sword from it and had even broken a couple of fingers.  Matahachi was knocked off balance and went spinning to the floor.

            "Soujiro's skill is at least equal to my own if not greater," stated Saitou, sliding his sword back into its sheath.  During the whole exchange, he had not left his seat.  "Now you know why you would not be able to defeat Soujiro should you fight him."

            Matahachi simply growled as he looked up at Saitou, cradling his injured hand.  Finally, he managed to get to a standing position, glaring at Saitou the whole time.  Saitou waved him away dismissively.  "You are, of course, free to seek Soujiro Seta on your own time," continued Saitou, "However, you will not do it in any official standing.  And if I get to him before you do, I'll have you locked away for interfering with the law."

            Stalking over to the wall, Matahachi bent down and picked up the sword with his left hand.  "Oh," added Saitou, "If you care to try me again, I would be more than glad to show you what I can do standing up."

            Matahachi cursed continuously under his breath as he slid the door open and left.  Saitou settled back into his seat and folded his hands across his lap.  As the door closed, Saitou released a low chuckle and pulled out another cigarette.  Not as worthy as I thought.

            Rain.  Rain was falling all around.  It drenched him from head to toe, soaking into his clothes, chilling him to the bone.  Despite this, not a single shiver moved across his form.  His feet, calloused from years of labor without so much as a single set of shoes, were planted on the cold hard ground.  His entire body was a mass of pain from the beatings he had received only moments ago, yet he hardly noticed.  Despite the cold and rain, he did not seek shelter.  The only thing colder than his surroundings was the handle of the sword, a wakizashi clutched in his right hand, which barely maintained its grip, letting the blade of the weapon hang down towards the ground, streams of red running down its length to drip of the tip and edges.

            In this world, only the fittest survive.

            Around him lay the bodies of people he had once called his family.  Their bodies lay still on the ground, growing slowly cooler as blood pooled around them, mingling with the rain that fell from above.

            If you are strong, you live.

            These were the people who had hurt him day and night; beating him to within an inch of his life, abusing him, working him until he dropped from exhaustion, exploiting him, causing him endless pain at every turn.  From the day that he had arrived here, they had made his life a living hell.  His elder stepbrother loved to hit him with that sword while it was still in its sheath, wielding it as if it were just a long club.  If anything, the younger of the two brothers was even worse.  Whenever his older brother did something stupid or destructive, whenever he did something destructive, whenever anything went wrong, the younger one always blamed it on him.  And then there was his stepsister and stepmother.  While they rarely if ever abused him physically, they never missed an opportunity to scold him, to remind him about just how much of a worthless, thankless bastard he was.  They loved to scream and shout about how he should be grateful that they took him in, put clothes on his back and food in his belly, particularly when he was being beaten by the others.  And then, there was his stepfather, a man whom he should have been able to look to for strength and protection.  He was the man who beat him more than anyone else in his family, pounding him like a slab of raw meat whenever he felt like it, guzzling sake down until it dribbled from his chin and then chucking the empty jar at him.  This was his family.

            If you're weak, you die.

            So they had been weak.  And so had he.  As he stood their in the rain, he should have been proud of what he had just done.  He had ended the screaming, the insults, the merciless beatings, and the constant slavery.  That night, he had been strong, stronger than them, stronger than he had ever been in his life.  But then, why didn't he feel happy.  A smile tugged at his lips, but it was reflexive, the smile that he had worn almost his entire life, the smile that would not leave his face again for ten years.  That night, rain was not the only water that fell, for trickling down his face, mingling with raindrops and the sweat of fear, dropping down to mix with the dirt and blood that littered the ground were his tears.

            Soujiro let out a slight whimper and slowly came awake.  He had had these dreams ever since the day Mr. Himura had beaten him.  Sometimes he dreamt of the men and women whom he had sent to the underworld.  Other times he dreamt of his old life as a slave to his own family and weathering storms of beatings and sleeping outside constantly on the cold, hard ground.  But the worst dreams to this day, were always of that rainy night, the night he made Mr. Shishio's truth his truth, the night he took up a sword for the first time and cut down the people he had known almost his entire life.

            Looking out the window, Soujiro saw the sky beginning to lighten before the coming dawn.  It wouldn't be long now before he was called back to work.  But what of his mysterious visitor last night?  Would he make a reappearance today?  And if he did, would he be a foe?  Soujiro was not at all sure about what he would do if the strange person who had been watching him last night decided that he was an enemy.  The only weapons Soujiro had were the half blade of his Kikuichimonji Norimune and its sheath (which also could be used as a weapon in a pinch).

            It's probably better not to dwell on it, he thought.  Getting up, he threw his uniform over his shoulder (he always wore his gi, even when he slept and took it off only when he intended to clean it), and left his room.  Osugi had told him that there was a bath in the far wing of the inn, but he would have to stoke the fire himself.  Used to bathing in rivers and lakes, Soujiro was just fine with taking his bath cold.

            Ten minutes later, refreshed and considerably cleaner, Soujiro got out of the room and went to the kitchen to get started on that day's work.  He was bringing in firewood for the ovens when Osugi came bustling in.

            "What?" she gasped in surprise, "You're up and working already!  Have you even had breakfast yet?"  When Soujiro shook his head, she waited until he set down his latest armload before grabbing him by the sleeve of his uniform and hauling him into the dining room.  "Sit!" she ordered, pointing to a table.  Soujiro did so.

            After about twenty minutes in the kitchen, Osugi came out with food for both of them.  Sitting herself across from Soujiro, she bade him to eat.  "You can't do work without starting off the day with a good breakfast," she lectured as she ate.

            Soujiro hid a smile.  When he had been a child, his father wouldn't have even thought about feeding him until he had done at least half of his work for the day, which often meant working until noon on an empty stomach.  It was a much different experience when his employer actually cared about his welfare.

            "You're not an ordinary traveler young man," observed Osugi.

            Soujiro looked up from his breakfast.  "What makes you say that?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

            "I can see it in your eyes boy," she said calmly, "When you get to be as old as I am, you tend to be able to pick things up about people.  You haven't always had the happiest life."

            "That is true," replied Soujiro sadly, "But it wouldn't be life without its sad moments."

            "You're also much sadder than you show on the outside," continued Osugi, "It isn't that you've just had unhappy moments, but at one time you suffered some sort of tragedy."

            Soujiro suppressed the urge to gasp.  Could this old woman really read him that well?  "It's not a story that you'd like to hear," was all he could say.  He genuinely feared that if he told her the truth he would be thrown out of her establishment or worse, she would bring the police down on his head.

            "I'll be the judge of that," she said firmly, "Once and a while it's good to get it all out of your system."

            "It isn't a pretty tale and I am not on the best of terms with the law," said Soujiro.

            "I've had more than a few felons come to work for me boy," she said, "Normally they're on the run or simply trying to find a new life.  And if you're a criminal, I can tell you're trying to find a new way to live.  I've seen some bad things in my life, so don't be afraid that your tale is too gruesome for my old ears."

            "Thank you Ms. Osugi," said Soujiro nodding.  He might as well get started.  She was determined not to give up until she got his story out of him.

            "Remember when I told you about meeting Mr. Himura?"  She nodded.  "Well, Mr. Himura and I weren't on the best of terms.  In fact, we were enemies.  About a year ago was known as Soujiro the Tenken."  Osugi's eyebrows went up at this.  "I was an assassin working for a man plotting to overthrow the government."  This elicited a gasp from the old woman.  "I met Mr. Himura four times.  Two out of those four times, I was trying to kill him."

            "So you don't like Mr. Himura?" she inquired curiously.

            "Well, that's a little farther down in the story."  Osugi nodded at this and motioned for him to continue.  "I was an assassin, but I actually committed my first murder when I was eight."  Osugi's eyes widened at this information.

            Soujiro told her everything.  He told her about his family and the beatings they administered.  He told her about his smile and how it saved him from Mr. Shishio's blade.  He told her about the wakizashi and how he cut down his own family with it.  He told her about his ten years as an assassin, living only to kill at Mr. Shishio's beck and call.  He told her about his battle with Mr. Himura and about the aftermath.  And finally, he told Osugi about his first year as a wanderer, going around the country and trying to find his own truth.

            Soujiro lowered his eyes to his food, which he hadn't touched since he had begun his tale.  What would happen now?  Surely Osugi had never heard such a gruesome story before.  Would she want him out of her establishment?  For a few moments, Osugi was silent as she thought on Soujiro's story.  She had been the first person Soujiro had ever told his story to.  Only Mr. Shishio had known the truth of Soujiro's past and that was because he had been there himself.

            "It seems," she said finally, "That you've never really had a chance to be a proper child."  That surprised Soujiro.  Where exactly was she coming from with such a remark?  Osugi continued.  "I can't imagine what it must have been like for you.  However, at least you were lucky enough to find someone who was like a father to you.  And even in the end he was proved wrong in your eyes, I hope you still look upon him as such."

            Soujiro nodded.  "I will always respect Mr. Shishio for as long as I live.  Mr. Himura probably wouldn't disagree with that."

            Osugi's stern façade broke and she started to laugh merrily.  At first Soujiro wondered briefly if she had gone mad.  Finally she ran out of breath and looked at him, still smiling.  "I'm sorry if that offended you.  It didn't have anything to do with your past.  Something just occurred to me.  That nice Mr. Himura was a good man, but he always seemed like a bumbling klutz to me.  And now I find out that he was actually one of the greatest swordsmen in Japan."

            Soujiro smiled and chuckled.  "When you put it that way, it is pretty funny."

            Osugi looked over and saw some of the customers filing in for an early breakfast.  "Oh dear," she said, "That was such a long story that I lost track of time.  We need to get to work now."  With that, she and Soujiro cleared the table they had shared and went into the kitchen to get started on breakfast.

            Takezo had been working just before the sun itself capped the horizon.  When one whittled, one usually used a knife to shave and shape the wood.  A sword was often just too clumsy to do the job; it was too large and broad.  Attempting such a feat with a sword whose blade was facing the wrong direction further compounded the difficulty.  However, as dexterous as he was, Takezo was more than up to the task.

            By the time the sun had fully cleared the horizon, Takezo had managed to shape two medium sized tree branches into a pair of rough bokken.  While they weren't the real thing, they would serve for the task that he had in mind for them.  Getting up, Takezo headed for the inn where his candidate was staying.  Tonight he would test his fellow swordsman's prowess with a blade and his fitness to inherit the Hiten Mitsurugi style.

            Soujiro sighed with relief as he lay on the grass in the failing light of evening.  It had been a light business day and Osugi had given him the rest of the night off.  As he stared up at the stars above him, he sighed with contentment.  He had found someone who had accepted him despite his past.  Soujiro now knew that there were people who could understand where he was coming from, who could help him.  It was a wonderful feeling not to be alone anymore.

            His eyes widened.  It appeared that the mysterious visitor from the previous night was approaching.  Soujiro could sense his presence with ease.  It had been well masked the previous night, almost imperceptible.  But now that his observer had dropped his concealment, his aura was almost overwhelming.  Sitting up, Soujiro's eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw who was approaching.

            "Mr. Himura?" he whispered.  No!  It couldn't be; not unless Mr. Himura had decided to dye his hair black.  This one also wore clothes of blue where Mr. Himura's had been lavender colored.  He also did not have a scar across his cheek.  The man must have been close to Soujiro's own age.

            Whoever it was wore a sword at his side.  But what made Soujiro the most curious was the pair of bokkens that he carried casually against his shoulder.  Stopping a few paces short of Soujiro, he smiled in greeting.  For some reason, Soujiro got the impression that the other was not able to talk.

            "Can I help you?" he asked cautiously, getting to his feet, prepared for anything.

            The man smiled again.  He reached down with his left hand and pulled his sword, sheath and all, from his sash and tossed it aside.  Then, taking one of his bokken, he tossed it to Soujiro and took up the other in a guard position.  Soujiro caught the bokken and the message at the same time.  This mysterious swordsman wanted to fight him, but not in a serious or life threatening manner.  It seemed that he wanted to test Soujiro's skills for some odd reason.

            Thankfully, he obviously doesn't want this to be to the death, thought Soujiro, looking his bokken over.  It was roughly made, obviously without the benefit of good woodworking tools.  He must have carved these with his sword, he thought.  Deciding to oblige his new opponent, Soujiro began his own preparations for the match as well.  He tied off the sleeves of his kimono and the legs of his hakama so that the loose folds of clothing wouldn't interfere with his movement.  Then, he checked to make sure that his sandals were secure and the straps were well tied.  He remembered well the rather high number of sandals he went through when he had been working for Mr. Shishio.  Shukuchi tended to wear them out pretty easily.  Finally, he took his wooden sword and held it in the guard position.

            "Alright," he said, "If it's a fight you want, it's a fight you'll get."

Author's Note:  No author's extras this time I'm afraid.  Earlier in the chapter, you'll notice I had Saitou launch a Gatotsu from a sitting position.  Of course, those of you who watched his showdown with Usui in the Anime might recognize this as his Gatotsu Zero technique, which relies solely on the muscles in his upper body.  It was from this that I determined that Saitou should be able to use that technique from a sitting position.