*Warning: MAJOR spoliers for the Revenge story arc in the manga, and the OAVs (though I tend to use the manga as my primary source).
The Snow Raven, Chapter 4
Crush the wounded soul
- excerpt from the private diary of Yukishiro Tomoe
Himura is avoiding me.
I do not know whether to feel frustrated... or relieved. But I suppose I should not be surprised after our unpleasant exchange nearly two weeks ago.
I wonder if he is thinking about what I said?
Well, whether he is or not, he is clearly frustrated that I refuse to leave; that I have taken up permanent residence within his own personal sanctuary.
He... could force me to leave. Of that, I am sure. It is definitely within his power.
But he does not. And when I briefly told Okami-san the result of what had happened between us that first night, she only chuckled and said, "I knew he wouldn't have the heart to throw you out."
Well... perhaps not. But he is still avoiding me.
Each evening, when my chores are finished, I go to his room... and he is not there. I suspect he slips out the window when he hears me coming. As to where he goes, and what he does all night while I sleep on his futon inside his room, I do not know.
I do not think he is... killing. For I know he only kills when he is attacked... or when he is given an assignment... and I do not think he has been given an assignment since my arrival. I don't know why I think this, but... there is just a feel about him. A tenseness. A waiting. And with each day that passes... the feeling builds.
Aside from this, Okami-san has told me that her laundry has lately been free of bloodstains.
I wonder if he just wanders the Kyoto streets at night. He seems like a confused ghost, haunting the inn only during daylight hours, and fleeing with nightfall. All to avoid my company.
Whatever he does in his nocturnal absence, he is not sleeping. Each morning, when I rise to make breakfast, the very next time I pass by his room, without fail, I find him there again, sitting against the window bench with his swords in his lap, his head bowed against his chest as he dozes.
I slide the door open with my broom in hand, making no effort to be quiet, and he lifts his head, immediately alert, and clearly annoyed at my intrusion.
"I'm going to clean," I tell him plainly. "Please leave the room for a while."
He grunts, not moving from his perch against the window. "I never asked you to clean."
"There is a buildup of nearly two weeks' worth of dust in here," I explain, "because until now, I have not disturbed you in your strange sleeping habits. I wouldn't disturb you even now, but Okami-san asked me to take care of it."
Himura sighs heavily, and runs one hand through his red bangs as he stands with irritated resignation, and I silently thank Okami-san for the small power that just mentioning her name gives me. I doubt that I could have budged him otherwise.
Hanging his swords at his side, he then looks over at the small table where his books are scattered, and reaches down, apparently looking for some suitable reading material to pass the time during his unwilling displacement. His hand pauses over a blank white book...
... and I feel my breath catch in my throat as he picks it up curiously.
Oh no! I forgot to put it away last night!
"That's my diary," I say, hoping that the sudden panic I feel doesn't reflect in my voice. "I would rather you didn't read it."
Ano... that was the wrong thing to say, because Himura's eyes widen further with inquisitiveness as he looks at the book in his hands...
...right before I come up to him and pluck it from his loose grip.
We look at each other a moment. My mask is in place... but his expression, as usual, is easily read, and he seems quite perplexed and annoyed... especially when I tuck the book in the front of my obi, away from his curious gaze. "For safe keeping," I say, turning away. And then I pretend to occupy myself with sweeping the floor for a moment, waiting to see how he will respond.
But he doesn't say a word. He merely walks out the door. The feeling of his near-palpable vexation follows after him.
Only then do I sigh with relief. And then, looking at the table, I realize...
Hm... he forgot to take a book with him.
I do not think he will come back for one. He is too proud... and too angry with me.
I suppose he'll find something else to occupy his time while he waits for me to clean the room, but still...
Why do I feel so guilty? Because, once again, I have driven him away from the only place where he might have a bit of peace?
Does he even deserve peace?
But if he doesn't... why do I feel so guilty?
I sweep the floor listlessly for a bit...
Then, without thinking, I rest the broom against the wall, and look over the books, picking up the one I remember seeing open most recently, and go out into the hallway.
I don't know which way he went. But, turning, I see Iidzuka-san, Himura's lanky, droopy-eyed comrade, as he walks out the front entrance, and I decide to look that way first.
I turn the corner... and see Himura standing in the hall, straight and rigid, like a statue.
"There you are," I say, as I walk up to him, holding out the book in my hand...
... and then I see his face.
His eyes are hard and flat. His jaw is set tight. He is staring at his hands. Instinctively, my eyes follow his, and I see that, in one hand, he holds... a black envelope.
A black envelope...
My blood turns to ice in my veins as I suddenly understand...
For some reason I can barely comprehend, I am still holding out the book. "I... I thought you might want..." I cannot finish my sentence. The words are catching in my throat. The sight of that black envelope fills me with such dread that I cannot breathe.
Himura wordlessly takes the book from my hands. His head is lowered, his bangs shadow his eyes. The black envelope lies crushed within his fist.
He knew I was coming. He could have hidden it in his sleeve.
He allowed me to see it. He wants me to know.
Why? I want to ask. Do you think to frighten me so that I'll leave you alone? How can I? How can I leave you alone now that I know... now that I know that...
"...Someone is going to die tonight," I whisper.
There is a name within that envelope. The name of a walking dead man... someone who doesn't know that he only has a few more hours of life left to him. Does he have a family? A wife and children, perhaps?
"This is war," Himura says, his voice quiet and lifeless. "People die in wars. People... kill in wars. But... if it means a better life for everyone later on..."
"For everyone except the dead," I say. "And those the dead leave behind."
He looks up at me, then... and his face is a mask as flat and emotionless as mine.
"I do what needs to be done," he says, his voice hardening with conviction.
I cannot think of anything to say to that...
"Let me know when you are through cleaning," he says, tucking the book that I gave him under one arm. "I'll be in the garden."
And then he turns and walks away.
I stare after him silently.
When he is gone... I return to his room.
And I clean.
The night comes all too quickly.
Okami-san noticed my tense expression earlier, and asked me what was wrong. When I told her, her face paled, and she nodded tightly. "I was wondering when the next one would be. It's been a while. I was hoping..."
A while... It has only been two weeks since he killed that man who attacked him in the streets. How long is a while? How often do these "assignments" come, dressed in black envelopes, heralding yet another rain of blood on the Kyoto night?
Himura is already gone when I enter his room. The window is still open slightly, and the cool night air flows around me, causing my lamp to flicker briefly in the breeze.
I can't sleep.
He is out there, in the dark, right now. Killing someone. The name in that black envelope.
Probably some high-ranking Shogunate official. Someone who stands in the way of the Ishin Shishi rebellion.
His eyes are probably wild and feral amber now, all his humanity buried beneath his fierce conviction that, for some greater good that he can only imagine, he must kill. Kill, not with the desperate slaughter of the battlefield... but with careful, calculated deliberation. Stalking his victims. Calling them by name. Telling them, as he steps from the shadows, his burning eyes flat and soulless, that he comes to deliver divine justice. Tenchu.
I spread out the futon with mindless automation, and slip under the blanket, shivering.
I can't sleep.
I hear him return in the early morning hours, when the dark is at its deepest.
I've been listening for him intently. I do not hear his footsteps, for when he does not want to be heard, only the grave is more silent.
Instead, I hear the sound of pouring water. Water sloshing, dripping...
Without another thought, I am standing, wrapping my shawl around me because of the night chill, and heading towards the sound. It is coming from near the kitchen. The wash room.
And, looking at his eyes, heavy with resignation... I think he knows that he is slowly going mad; that, with each new death, his soul is decaying within him, bit by bit...
Yet even so, there is a determination within him... a determination that, before he loses himself completely, he will do everything he can to bring about this "better life" for others...
I do what needs to be done.
There is no joy in this for him, no pleasure... I can see that now.
He doesn't look at me. He doesn't speak. He just stares at his hands... and washes, over and over and over...
All I can do is watch.
And wish, suddenly... that I knew him before...
I am moving through my daily chores like a mindless wraith. My head feels hollow and heavy, and my movements are sluggish as I work purely on instinct, barely aware of what I am doing. I am so tired...
There was nothing I could do. Nothing I could say to him last night that could change anything. In my weariness, I finally left him, returning to his room alone, only to immediately slip into the dark comforting oblivion of an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
I do not know how long he stood there, washing his hands, but I can't help but think, from the look on his face, that he could not have done enough to satisfy him. But however long he stood there, he must have gone back out into the night when he was through.
It is almost noon, and I have passed by his room several times... but he is not there.
Where could he have gone? Why has he not returned? What is he thinking?
So lost am I in these thoughts that I nearly run into Iidzuka-san as I turn the corner of the hallway.
"Whoa, pardon me, Tomoe-san," he says, stumbling back a step to avoid the collision.
I offer him a hasty bow. "Sumimasen," I apologize. "I'm afraid I was not paying attention."
He brushes off my apology with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry about it." He looks down at me with those sagging eyes. The smile on his thin face seems friendly enough... yet, there is something underneath it that makes me... uneasy. "You're just the person I was looking for anyway," he says. "I've been meaning to ask you something."
"Indeed?" I ask, looking at him with my calm mask in place, though my mind is whirling. What could he possibly want to talk to me about? Most of the Ishin Shishi who frequent this inn speak to me rarely, and only then if it is concerning the service of meals. I suspect they are afraid to approach me more often, simply because of my association with Himura.
"It's about Battousai," Iidzuka-san says.
I wince inwardly. I despise the nickname they have given him; a word that praises his efficiency and method of killing. Even worse is that he seems to have accepted it for himself. My distaste at hearing him referred to by this name, that goes hand in hand with his title of Hitokiri, burns through my worry about being questioned. "If it is about Himura-san," I respond, deliberately referring to him by his most respectful name, "then would you not be better informed by putting your question to him?"
He raises an eyebrow at me in surprise for a moment, before chuckling. "Perhaps I would, since you seem to be even more evasive in answering than he is." He shakes his head. "But in this instance, I don't think he could answer my question, even if he wanted to."
Thin threads of fear begin to steal through my heart. Has he seen through my charade? Has he surmised my original purpose in coming here?
"What I want to know is, what did you say to him yesterday?"
I blink. That wasn't a question I was expecting at all. "Pardon?"
"You know," Iidzuka-san says, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall. "After I gave him the black envelope. I saw the two of you talking in the hallway."
My relief that he is not questioning me about my past is dampened with the onset of a new sort of dread. So... Iidzuka-san is the one who delivers the demands of death. The tall, lanky man before me has suddenly lost his air of harmlessness. "I am afraid I do not understand," I say with a quiet tone of deferring politeness, "how our private conversations could be of any consequence to you."
"But they are," he says, still smiling. "Battousai is my responsibility. Kogoro-sama assigned me to watch out for him. And he's been acting strange, ever since your little conversation in the hallway. Hell, even before that, but whatever you said yesterday... I didn't think it was possible for him to become even more quiet and anti-social than he already was, but what ever you said to him sure did the trick."
I regard him evenly. "I am still not sure I understand how this affects you."
"It wouldn't affect me," he responds, smoothing his thin moustache in an absent gesture with one finger, "except for one thing. Last night, on his assignment, he seemed to be... off a bit."
A chill ripples across my skin at the reminder of the dark deeds of the previous night. "'Off?'" I repeat quietly.
"Yeah. Don't get me wrong, he still got the job done, and anyone else probably wouldn't have noticed. But I've been watching him do his job for over a year now, and I can tell. His skill with the sword was just... off."
I look at him silently, not knowing how to respond. You watch? I want to ask incredulously. You stand back and let him kill, and take mental notes on how good he is at ending life with a flash of his blade?
"You don't like what he does, do you," he says suddenly, looking at me with a slightly bemused expression. It is not a question, and it takes me off guard.
I cannot respond. All the replies coming to my lips are less than polite.
Iidzuka-san shrugs in the face of my silence. "Oh well, maybe it really isn't any of my business. Who am I to interfere with lovers' quarrels? I need to track down Battousai anyway." And so saying, he straightens and fiddles with his sleeve for a moment...
...allowing me to catch a glimpse of black envelope he has kept concealed within.
My heart plummets within me.
Another one. So soon. So soon...
I must have gone pale, because he regards me with something almost akin to seriousness. "You knew what he was when he brought you here, Tomoe-san," he says. "And I'm sure you must have your reasons for staying. But I'll tell you one thing. If you keep messing with his mind like that, you're going to get him killed eventually."
He says it so casually that, for a startled moment, it almost sounds like encouragement.
But no... his expression is grim, his droopy eyes heavy-lidded, as he turns from me and walks away, leaving me to wonder at his words...
Once again, I sit alone in his room as the evening swallows the day with darkness.
I should write in my diary. But my thoughts and feelings seem so muddled and confused... I do not even know what to write.
Himura has been gone all day. Or, if he has returned, he has kept himself well hidden from my sight.
The thought... pains me. And the very fact that it does...
No. It cannot be. To even think such a thing...
I wonder if he has even had a chance to sleep, since the night before. He must be tired...
I wonder if Iidzuka-san found him, to give him the latest... assignment.
All these thoughts whirl in my head so overwhelmingly that I feel faint. I raise a trembling hand to my forehead to ease the ache that throbs behind my eyes, but it does no good...
Ah, what am I doing here? Why can't I understand what is happening to me?
It should be so simple. My mind tells me that I have come to bestow vengeance on the murderer of my beloved.
And yet... with every rare moment spent with him, my soul is tossed about, like a paper boat lost at sea amidst a raging tempest. Each quiet word he speaks, each glance from his amber eyes, drives the memory of revenge from me until I am filled only with him, and the agony of his existence. And the pain is so exquisite. Beautiful and terrible all at once...
Just like him...
I... I cannot think on this more. I cannot...
I... have some sewing that needs to be done. Quickly, I gather my materials. A tattered garment. My needle cushion. Spindles of scarlet thread. Before I kneel to my task, I light the tall red sandalwood lamp on the floor before me, the warm light of flame shining through its paper screens illuminating the small room, chasing away the shadows of fading twilight.
Within moments, I lose myself in the rhythmic preciseness of moving the silver needle. Guided by my hands, it bites in and out of the worn yukata, a thread of silk flying behind, mending the fabric with tiny, perfectly even stitches, binding it together so that it is whole once again. When I am finished, I move on to the next garment. And the next...
I am startled out of the comforting monotony by a soft knock at the door.
I look up from my sewing. "Yes?"
The door slides open, to reveal a man...
...tall, handsome, with the face of a god and the bearing of an emperor...
My eyes widen slightly. Okami-san was right...
"Kogoro-san, I presume," I say with a polite bow of my head, which does much to conceal my surprise.
He smiles an acknowledgment. "Sorry for coming so late," he says. "May I intrude for a moment?"
As if I could say otherwise. "If you are looking for Himura-san," I say with a calm that belies my sudden inner fear, "he is out tonight."
"I know," he says, kneeling across from me. "I am his boss. I coordinate everything that he does."
His words bring my heart to a dead standstill.
Iidzuka-san might deliver Himura the message of death... but this man before me is the one who composes it... who writes the name of a man of a sheet of paper, and places it in a black envelope, sentencing him to die at the hands of a fifteen year old boy.
And he has come to talk to me. He must know how I have been affecting his prize killer. Iidzuka-san must have told him...
I am barely able to keep my voice steady. "Why have you come to see me?"
He looks at me in silence for a long moment. His intelligent eyes seem to peer right through me, and it takes all my self control not to fidget under his scrutiny. "Tell me," he says, "have you ever heard of Yoshida Shoin?"
Surprised as I am at the direction he has chosen to take the conversation... the name strikes a familiar chord in me. As I think on it, I realize that it is a name that I heard my father curse on more than one occasion. Yoshida Shoin, he raged, was a radical-minded foreign-loving fool, and the leader of fools.
"I believe," I respond cautiously, "that I may have heard his name in passing."
He nods and closes his eyes briefly. When he looks at me again, his gaze is clear and intense. "He was a great teacher. He believed in freedom and individuality -- not just for the ruling class... but for everyone. Man, woman and child, whether they be samurai, merchant, or peasant." He speaks, his voice low, but thick with passion. "I had the great honor of studying at his feet for two years at the Shokason School... myself, and eighty other students. After two years, he sent us out to try and bring about this change... to try and create a new Japan. A Japan that is kind to all her people, and not to just a select few.
"But, we found that not everyone craves freedom for all, as we do. Many of my comrades were killed for trying to bring about such a radical change. Yoshida Shoin, our beloved teacher... was killed in a mass execution that was kept quiet." He pauses a moment, and I see a brief flicker of unspeakable grief in his expression.
"One thing that Yoshida-sensei taught us," he continues, "was that at the end of the Tokugawa's 300 year reign, this era of the Shogunate rule will be thrown into chaos, and be no more. To accomplish the job of constructing a new era, we, also, must be thrown into disorder. The Choshu way is to embrace the chaos, to use it to destroy the old order, that a new one might be built in its place. The chaos that exists now is the strength that moves the Choshu Group.
"Sometimes..." he says quietly, looking down at his hands, "it seems hopeless. We Choshu Ishin Shishi are outnumbered by the Bakufu forces, so, at the moment, a direct conflict to settle our disputes is out of the question. On top of that, we are at odds with the Satsuma clan, when they should be our staunchest allies." He sighs wearily. "But... Yoshida Shoin taught that 'Sincerity and perseverance always win.' And I believe that. We must persevere, no matter what. And our hearts must always remain pure and sincere in our goal."
He lifts his head once again to look me in the eye. "Himura has the purest heart I've ever known," he says. "And yet, he has been given the cruelest job of all. He must act as the guardian of Chaos."
He falls silent. But I can see the question in his eyes as he looks at me. Do you understand? Can you see why this has to be?
I... I don't know.
His goals... I never really understood, before, what the Ishin Shishi were after; why these men chose to fight against the established order.
But... freedom... for all...
It is a strange new concept to me.
And... it feels...
I... must think on this.
"So," I say after a long moment. "Having said all this... what is it that you want me to do?"
He sighs heavily, and shakes his head slightly. "I won't tell you what to do. I... just thought I'd let you know what we're doing. You deserved to hear it from me, since I am the one responsible." And with that, he stands and bows. "Thank you for listening. Please excuse me."
I sit in unmoving silence for a long time after he leaves me alone with my thoughts.
Then... I put away my sewing, and pull out my diary, my ink stone, and brushes.
I have something to write about after all. And I believe I am thinking more clearly than I was before...
Himura came back this morning. When I walked by his room after breakfast, he was there, sleeping against the window bench.
And I was almost not surprised at how relieved I was to see him there again...
The rest of the day passed in a blur as I worked in silence, pondering Kogoro-san's words of the night before...
"Thank you," says Okami-san, startling me out of my thoughts as I put away the last of the dinner trays. "You don't have any more chores for today."
I nod my thanks. I am glad to be able to return to Himura's room. I have had a lot to think about, and I am anxious to record my thoughts on paper. Writing, I have always found, helps me to clarify what I am feeling, and put it into focus.
I slide open the door anxiously... and stop in my tracks.
Himura is still in the room.
I stare at him in surprise, and find myself suddenly unsure what to do. This is the first time that I have returned to his room at day's end, to find him still within. Usually by this time, he has already fled for the evening, slipping out the window, leaving me to occupy his room alone.
He is still sleeping...
He must be exhausted. I think this is the first chance he has had to sleep since I saw him with that first black envelope two days ago...
I... I believe I understand what Kogoro-san told me. That Himura is the guardian of the Code of Chaos. That he is the one who bears the blood of the slain Shogunate leaders, so that the leaders of the Ishin Shishi can keep their hands clean as they struggle to construct a new era from the ashes of the old.
Well. I must think more about that. But all of that aside, I do know that Kogoro-san was right about one thing.
Himura has been given the cruelest job of all.
Looking at his sleeping face now, the setting sun casting fiery light and shadow on his young, scarred features... I still see a boy that has yet to become a man.
And he looks... so tired...
Without thinking, I slip my shawl from around my shoulders, and walk up to him silently.
Gently, I lean over to wrap my shawl around his shoulders.
His eyes snap open. Wild, and full of fury --
And then... he keels over, almost sinking to his knees, wide-eyed and shaking, clutching his sword hand as if fearful that it might attack again with a will of its own...
I am paralyzed with terror, even as my mind struggles to comprehend what I am seeing... that I am still alive... that his blade never even touched my throat...
...though it came... so... close...
Himura is standing over me... and as I look up into his face, I am surprised to see a stark fear in his wide, horrified eyes that matches my own.
"I'm sorry," he gasps hoarsely. "I'm sorry..."
The desperate anguish of his apology stuns me to the point where I almost forget my fright.
He is trembling, sweating, as he shakes his head with a fierce, sharp movement, as if to shed some last trace of lingering bloodlust. He staggers back with a groan, to sink heavily onto the window bench.
"I... I say that I don't kill civilians, but... I almost just did. I almost..." His breathing is ragged and heavy. "You need to leave this place," he whispers. "If you don't, then someday, I might really..."
He trails off with a choking sound that is almost a sob.
The sound pierces through my fading terror, right to my heart. And, as I look into his shadowed face, I can see all too clearly that the killing demon within him has fled for the moment, leaving him hollow, shaken... and alone...
Suddenly, I understand exactly what Okami-san was feeling when, on that first day, she wept for this boy...
You didn't know, did you, Himura? You were just a child who saw suffering all around you. You wanted to help, and you thought you knew what you were getting in to when you agreed to become the Ishin Shishi assassin; what price you would have to pay...
...but you didn't, did you?
And now I can see you drowning in a morass of death and blood and madness before my eyes.
The murderous rage that flashed across his face in that brief instant brings up the memory of my original purpose in being here, from where I buried it in the depths of my confusion.
Ah... Akira-san, my beloved... What should I do? Upon your grave, I promised you vengeance. I swore to you that I would destroy the Hitokiri who had cut your life so short--
I freeze as, with that single thought... another path opens up before me. A path so simple and clear that I almost gasp aloud with realization.
Himura sits, his shoulders tense, his head bowed in guilt and remorse, even as he holds on to his sword with a white-knuckled grip, as if it were his only comfort...
...and suddenly, I know what I must do.
Picking my shawl up from off the floor, I stand on unsteady feet. The all-too-fresh memory of his burning eyes and the whispering brush of his blade's razor edge against my throat almost makes me falter in my resolve.
I approach him carefully... and place my shawl on his lap.
He glances up at me, startled.
"You need a sheath... to suppress the madness," I whisper gently. "So... let me stay with you for the time being."
He looks down and stares uncertainly at the shawl in his lap for a long moment.
Then... slowly... he releases the hilt of his sword... and grasps the silken cloth tightly in his fingers. He pulls it to him hesitantly, yet clutching it like a life line, as if both afraid and hopeful of what it might mean...
"Tomoe-san," he whispers at last. "You... asked me before... if you had a sword in your hand, if I would kill you or not..."
His head is lowered, and his scarlet hair hangs about his face, so that I can no longer see his expression.
"The answer... is... No. I won't kill you. No matter what the circumstances, I won't kill you, ever." His voice is low and hoarse with emotion. And as he speaks, I can't help but wonder... or hope... if perhaps a hint of warm violet might be softening the cold amber of his hidden eyes...
"Not you," he vows quietly. "Ever."
With the utterance of his solemn promise, a deep, aching warmth fills my heart, joining with my new resolve.
You see, Beloved... now it truly begins. You shall be avenged.
Such an unusual kind of vengeance... trying to restore the conscience to the tattered, wounded soul of this young man...
It is, perhaps, more difficult and less sure than my original long-abandoned desire; my plan to discover his weakness, that I might betray him to his enemies...
But... if I can help him... if I can soothe the madness that is devouring him... perhaps even ease it from him entirely... would not the Hitokiri be destroyed just as surely?
Destroy the killer, while saving the man. And, looking at him now as he sits silently with his head bowed, holding my shawl in his hands as if it were the most precious thing on earth... I think I finally catch a glimpse of the gentle spirit that lies beneath all the shrouding layers of blood and death.
And I believe it is possible.
You were always so gentle and compassionate, Akira-san.
I think you would approve of this strange vengeance of mine...
To be continued...