More Romantic Tales from the Meiji Era
Chapter One: Demons, Real and Imagined
Katsura Kogoro was a very patient man. Only a man of great patience could build a revolutionary force to go against the Shogunate. Only a man of extraordinary patience and skill could weather the setbacks of such a revolution and continue to strive for victory. A masterful strategist, he had built his forces with ruthless planning, care and attention to details. He had persevered through the Ikedaya tragedy, the resulting suppression of Choushuu in 1864, and the rebuilding of the Kiheitai. Even the losses of friends and clan members to the ravages of war didn't dull his ardor for the revolution. Despite the loss of his most trusted ally, Takasugi Shinsaku the previous year, 1867, Katsura literally soldiered on, at the cost of his health and his peace of mind. Through it all, Katsura Kogoro had been the steadfast leader of the Choushuu clan, crafting the fiber of the revolution.
In weaving the threads of war, Katsura had been both masterful and adept, but not always perfect. In every opportunity, there was the possibility of a misstep. As with any strategy, there were risks. The risks for Katsura and his Choushuu Patriots were great. It was their very lives he risked when he led them down the path to war by challenging the powerful Shogunate. The Bakufu Shogunate may have been weakened over time to the point that challenge was possible, but any confrontation with the current established authority carried with it the risk of certain death. For most of the insurgence, Katsura himself had been a fugitive.
Working out of the public eye, he remained a fearless leader and gifted strategist. His alliance with Takasugi and the formation of the Kiheitai allowed the Choushuu to raise the first real threat to the Shogunate in nearly 300 years. His shrewd leadership and persistent patience had led their clan to the brink of a new age. Along the way, he had taken every opportunity that presented itself without hesitation. As the challenger, he faced an uphill climb toward victory. Every man, woman and child of his clan or under his command was a tool to be used to pry open the Pandora's Box of Victory over the Bakufu. Each needed to be used to their best effect if they were to succeed. Katsura read his people as if they were the grains of rice in his bowl. Yet as talented as Katsura was at leadership, strategy and understanding, he was not a perfect person. He made mistakes. Even on the brink of success, he had his regrets.
Katsura sipped his warm sake in relative comfort this evening, graced by the company and entertainments of his beloved Ikumatsu. She played simple and lovely songs on her flute, seeking to vanquish his worries with the lightness and pleasure of her music. Tonight she nearly succeeded.
Katsura Kogoro had read the days events swiftly and accurately. As of today, with the winning of the battle of Toba Fushimi, the revolution was his to take or his to lose. The restoration of the Emperor was within his grasp. He had felt sure enough of this judgment to almost allow himself a brief moment of celebration when the arrival of the news of a most dire desertion came to him.
Himura had read the battle as precisely as Yamagata, the General of the Kiheitai. Once, long ago, Katsura had tried in vain to bring Himura into the strategists of the clan. His gifts with strategy and people were too strong to be overlooked despite his value as a hitokiri. Himura had refused, and none too gracefully at that.
Katsura put down his sake and sighed. Ikumatsu brought her lilting song to an end, inquiring if he had need of more sake with the merest of glances towards his cup. It was nearly full, so he shook his head slightly to indicate he had no current need, and gestured for her to continue playing. Her flute, her presence, and her love brought him what peace he could find in these war torn days. Often, he found very little.
Himura had gone, leaving behind the sword of his victory over untold numbers of Shogunate enemies. First, in his days as the shadow assassin, and then in his defense of his fellow soldiers, Himura had slaughtered without mercy. Few even at the highest levels of the clan knew how many the legendary Battousai had murdered for the Choushuu. Katsura knew. Katsura had chosen the deaths for his Hitokiri, easing the way of the revolution through expedient political assassination.
He had been an opportunity Katsura had been unable to resist. Even Takasugi and Yamagata agreed. Without Himura, they could not have succeeded. The flight of the sword of Hiten Mitsurugi fighting for the Ishin Shishi was their guiding, blinding, killing pathway to the future. Takasugi had warned him of the danger, first with Himura, and later. It was an opportunity that had a cost. Himura was bathed in the blood of his victims. Hiten Mitsurugi should have only been used to protect the new age, not create it. He and he alone, as leader of the Choushuu was responsible. It was he who had used the strategy of assassination to speed the pace of war in their favor. Choice of the assassins had also been his.
Now Himura was gone, leaving his sword behind as a symbol of his passing. Katsura had hoped that the hitokiri would not have read the battle so well, that he would have stayed longer to save more lives of Imperialist soldiers, but he could not feign surprise. Himura was the most intuitive soldier he had ever seen; there was no doubt that he would know the significance of their achievement this day. He had fulfilled his promise to stay until the revolution was won. Katsura had no doubt that he would try to fulfill the remainder of his promise: to never kill again. Silently, Katsura raised his sake cup to drink, toasting the parting of the man who had given him the benefit of his Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu at the purchase of his soul.
Another message arrived. This one nearly as unwelcome as the last, and just as expected. Katsura had known that his current shadow assassin would surface, in spite of specific orders not to contact Katsura directly. The passing of his predecessor would not go unnoticed by Shishio Makoto.
Katsura expected the contact, but the content of the message surprised even him. Shishio was demanding the sword of the legendary Battousai as his by right as the Battousai's successor.
Again, Katsura sighed, this time accepting the solicitous offer of Ikumatsu to refill his sake cup. He asked her to play a favorite melody of his youth, one he had enjoyed before his own master, Yoshida Shouin, had been murdered by the Shogunate, igniting the flames of revolution in his soul. As the somber song filled the air, Katsura again pondered the measure of regret he should feel at his strategy and use of assassins. How much of a mistake had using Himura and Shishio been? In the balance, how many Ishin Shishi lives had been saved by their clandestine works? He set those questions aside. Drinking and pondering the imponderable was a futile waste of time.
Katsura Korgoro sent word that the sword of the Battousai could be retrieved by Shishio Makoto. It was not his favorite choice to make, but he envisioned how it might be a useful gift to be traded against possible future demands. The assassin's ambition knew no bounds. If he gave him the sword now, he might be able to salvage a relationship or favoritism demand later. Unfortunately, he still had need of Shishio. Now that the choice had been made and the damage done, he would make the most of the opportunity to end the conflict as soon as possible through strategic assassinations. He had already justified the means; he would not now give up the ends.
Himura Kenshin fled the Toba Fushimi battlefield as if chased by demons. His fantastic speed enabled him to avoid any inquiry by either his comrades in arms or his leaders. He knew the time had come for him to leave and he had Katsura's permission. Nothing else was required. He was free to flee.
The setting sun lengthened the shadows of the bridges and willow trees as he left Fushimi, the scent of blood mixing with the heady flavor of the sake breweries. It forever linked the smell of sake with this day, his last as the feared hitokiri, Battousai. He sped over bridges he had helped to secure earlier in the day at great cost without a backward glance. He had no time for the dead lying all around him. His entire life belonged to them, the sacrificial dead on the alter of his future, the future he had decreed with their blood. He was speeding away from revolution and battle, the only reality he had known for years, and into the great unknown of atonement.
His long ago words rang in his ears. "I want to find a way to protect others without taking life. While finding a way to atone for the crime of stealing other's happiness with my own hands." Quickly, he mentally brushed away the images surrounding those words. He didn't have the time to consider them now. He'd spent many a night considering them after the night they had been spoken, so long ago in Otsu.
The shadows disappeared into the night, taking the flight of the Battousai with them. He fled back towards Kyoto, thinking only that on this night he must spend some part of it with his lost love. Once out of Fushimi, the way to Kyoto was marked by frightened stragglers and darkness. Only those forced by dire circumstances would venture out after dark in the midst of such a violent revolution. He was able to run without interference or discovery for most of the way.
Once within Kyoto, he avoided all places where he might be immediately recognized, pausing only when he passed the burnt remains of the Kohagiya. A searing pain took him when he remembered her there, within those walls that had sheltered the Ishin Shishi. He forced himself onward, but slowed his pace, unable to speed to the final resting place of his beloved. His pain of loss was still too fresh, too great. It was still an open wound on his riddled soul.
Near dawn, he reached his goal and collapsed once more at her feet. He had not visited since entrusting her to this sanctuary, too afraid to draw attention to anything of value to him now that his identity was known and recognized. Now, on the brink of departure, he made his final goodbyes. The peace he felt in this cemetery was not new to him. Often had he slept in cemeteries after an exhausting day of battle. Often had he felt the presence of his beloved, her ethereal arms encompassing his battered and bloodied form, his weariness waning in her comfort and care.
He sat up, leaning against the trunk of a nearby tree. She came to him one last time, on this last night of self-hatred and remorse, to drain the overwhelming dread and angst which haunted his days of bitter service. She wrapped her arms around his drained body and graced him with her smile. Sleep took him, and he dreamed of far away places where men lived in peace and made their living at peace with themselves and the land. Families worked together in prosperity and children played with toys, not swords.
At the first pink streak of dawn, he awoke and bade farewell to the only tie he had left in Kyoto. The murkiness obscuring his path ahead seemed to be dissolving like the morning fog. He had met his clan obligations and fled to offer his token of remembrance to his lost love. Now the immediate path seemed clear.
He gaze fell upon the one last outward and visible token of his love. The scarf he wore to honor her, to bind him to her, to remind him of why he fought on and the promises he had given. Today was the first day of his new life of atonement and protection. His dream and the protection Tomoe had offered had shown him the next step in his journey into the future. His future where there would be no killing.
Seeking to avoid any recognition that might come in the city where he had fought so many battles and taken so many lives, he used his former connections only to seek a modest amount of provisions. This was not a place where he could seek to work for his keep, that would come later. For now, he only sought escape from all of the trappings of his life as Hitokiri Battousai.
He left Kyoto before the sun was high in the sky, bent on securing his next destination before nightfall. He traveled light, with only basic provisions strung over his shoulder. Again, he used his training and speed to avoid the eyes and ears of those who might notice and wonder at his passing. Only when he was safely on the outskirts of the city did he ease his pace.
Walking without the sense of the Ishin Shishi soldiers near him was his first solitary experience since leaving Otsu. At the sound of an animal stirring in the nearby forest, he started and reached instinctively for the hilt of his sword. For the first time since he had been owned by slavers he was unarmed. Not that any student of Hiten Mitsurugi relied exclusively on his sword, but he felt naked and extremely uncomfortable without it.
Shrugging, he shook off the unusual feeling, and looked at his hands, grasping at where the hilt of his sword and the scabbard beneath met the ties of his hakama. On his hands and wrists were the gauntlets of a swordsman. Briefly, he wondered why he had not discarded them, as well. The unwelcome details of his new life were just barely starting to dawn on him.
He had yearned for this day, ached for it and bled for it. Now that it had arrived, he came to the realization that he was without the only thing he was trained to hold and wield: his sword.
Lost in these thoughts of his new existence, he heard a familiar voice calling to him. The voice held bitterness and sadness, but not at him. For him it was the voice of a friend, Shakkuu Arai. Himura turned, and offered his friend a respectful greeting befitting the best sword smith in Japan.
Shakkuu returned his greeting and requested news of the fighting, wondering at the young swordsmen's solitary appearance with no sword by his side. Kenshin advised him of the success at Fushimi, and his own newfound swordless path. His response was not at all what the former assassin had been expecting. Shakkuu stared at him in surprise, and then called after him as he turned to leave. He threw Himura a sword, which he caught with ease.
"No matter how many people who kill, you'll never escape. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. That's the only way for you. Try using this for a while. You'll find out how naive you really are. When that one breaks, come and see me again, if you still believe in that weak joke . . ."
Withdrawing the blade, the Battousai found himself armed with a sakabatou, a reverse blade sword – a sword that would not kill if he wielded it with care.
By the time he held the blade in his hand and turned to thank Shakkuu, he was standing alone on the pathway.
Tucking his new blade into his hakama ties as he walked away, he felt the familiar rhythm of his gait returning. He hadn't yet become used to moving without the company of his sword, and now there was no need.
He made his way carefully and stealthily into the foothills, leaving the city of Kyoto receding below him in the distance. He was headed to a place he knew very well. A place he had not been since he had joined the Ishin Shishi. He was going home.
Kenshin followed the familiar path that led to the small village where he had grown up. He almost laughed at that thought. He had been fourteen when he left, and certainly had considered himself very much a grown up. Now he fully understood just how wrong he had been. Not that he would have changed anything. Then, as now, he was incapable of standing by and watching anyone suffer. He had the means at his disposal to help and the intuitive moral obligation to do so, however much the personal cost had been. In truth he had not expected to live to see this day.
Silently, he made his way towards his goal. There was a full moon on this fateful evening, appropriate to his task. It easily lighted the field of rugged crosses. Finding the ones he sought was an easy task, for it was he who had buried them and marked the graves with the crosses and the rocks. The three rocks remained undisturbed by the passage of time. Here he took his rest and knelt in honor and supplication.
Gently and with great reverence, he placed the scarf of his dead beloved on the center cross above the rocks. Now they were gathered in one place: all of the women who had loved and defended him to their death. Kasumi, Akane, Sakura and Tomoe. All had loved and protected him to the best of their ability and at the cost of their lives.
He couldn't stay. He couldn't risk discovery by Shishou. He did not know if his former master, Hiko Seijuurou, the 13th Master of the Hiten Mitsurugi sword style, was still living nearby or not, but he did not wish to confront or argue with his former master. He did not wish to see him at all, especially not on this night, when he was facing all of the failures Hiko had warned him against. His words rang out in the night as if Hiko was repeating them again, "…because of the strength of the Hiten Mitsurugi school, you have to be sure you'll win before you take sides!"
Kenshin shuddered as he stood to leave. No, it would not do at all to encounter Hiko in this place or at this time. No purpose would be served, except Hiko's and Kenshin had spent his entire life in the service of other powerful men. That time of his life had now come to an end. He walked to the edge of the clearing and leaped into a tree. He was not yet ready to leave the last evidence of his wife behind, and felt the need to keep vigil here, at least for the remainder of the night.
So it was that the student watched from a nearby tree as the Master, sake in hand, took his solitary walk into the clearing. The master spied the scarf and came to a complete stop. It had been an exceedingly busy day and he was in a hurry for his sake. Rarely did he do as much traveling as he had done today. He didn't speak, but after a long consideration of the tableau of pain and remembrance before him, chose to gaze at the inconstant moon.
Not a word passed between the last surviving masters of the Hiten Mitsurugi style, yet each knew of the other's presence. How could they not? Hiko passed, showing only the back of his cape to his former student. The night passed in much the same way.
Shishio Makoto waited in the lengthening shadows. The sword would be his, whether Katsura allowed it or not. He would not be denied this token, this representation of his place in the clan and service to it. He had no desire to use such a blade. He had already been using his Homura Dama, his serrated edged sword of flame, when Katsura had recruited him. There was no way he would replace his favorite blade with the Battousai's, no matter how fine the katana might be. He suspected that it was a fine blade from Shakkuu Arai, but it was not the blade he coveted, it was the symbol. He intended to wear the blade of the Battousai in his obi like the badge and symbol of violence it represented. Even in the shadows, there were those who would be stunned to defeat by its mere presence.
Impatiently, he waited for the sun to go down just a bit farther, just enough so that his crossing of the battlefield could not be readily seen. Then would he take what was his. Finally, the sun sank a bit more and darkness began its creep across the area. Shishio moved in stealth and silence towards his goal, only to be denied. He reached the spot where the sword had been only moments ago to find it empty.
August 6, 2004