CHAPTER FIVE

Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin characters or plot.

The audience chamber was crowded when Beppo brought Seta to it.

The trial of the bandits was to be held at the daimyo's residence, in deference to his poor health. Seta thought also that Kanagawa, the head of the police, didn't think that Muneiwa would tamely hand Seta over to him, and wanted to avoid conflict.

Or perhaps he'd wanted to spare Chizuru the hassle and humiliation of traveling to town for the trial.

Kanagawa stood talking to a man in black coat, pants and top hat. They were western style clothes. Many of the unfamiliar faces in the audience chamber were dressed in western style clothing. They would be the government officials.

The daimyo sat at one end of the room, his remaining samurai seated behind him, their swords on the floor at their sides. So much for the anti-sword law. Evidently Kanagawa was picking his battles, and the sword violation was being ignored in light of the trial.

Muneiwa didn't look well at all. His face was pale and dotted with sweat, but his back was rigidly straight. He kept both arms in his lap, so Seta couldn't tell which one was useless, but he saw that the muscles on the left side of the daimyo's face had relaxed, like molten wax. He'd had a stroke, yet he was here, in his audience hall, waiting to see the men who'd killed his grandson tried and sentenced. You had to admire that kind of determination.

Beppo paused at the doorway, ignoring the blue clad policemen and the men in black suits, waiting for Muneiwa to acknowledge him and his prisoner.

Seta took the opportunity to allow his gaze to wander further around the room. To his left a group of officials sat on the floor behind a row of low, square writing desks. It seemed the daimyo hadn't provided them with western style furniture to match their western style clothing.

They were lucky the daimyo hadn't insisted on an old style trial out on the porch with the prisoners forced to kneel, bound with ropes, on the white sand in front of him while he heard the evidence and rendered judgment. In the days before the Meiji era, the daimyo himself could have played magistrate.

But this was the Meiji era now, and the daimyo had to share his dais with a black-garbed judge who sat next to him with an air of grave dignity, watching the impromptu courtroom settle down.

Against the wall of the doorway where Beppo and Seta were standing, the household servants were sitting wide-eyed, intimidated by the sheer number of strangers who'd taken over the audience chamber.

To Seta's right were the prisoners, flanked on either side and behind by grim faced policemen who stood staring down at them.

Gombei, the bandit leader who'd tried to spit at Kanagawa and bragged that he'd violated Chizuru, was seated in the middle of the group of prisoners. He was still dressed in his dirty brown hakama and gi, with the same hateful expression on his face. There were three other bandits with him that Seta didn't recognize, but the last one, sitting on Gombei's left, was the stocky man with the scarred forehead who'd charged at Seta on the road.

A black and blue mottled stain still graced his chin where Seta had knocked the man out by an upper cut with his fuchi, the flat metal tip that capped his sword's hilt. The bruise matched the bandit's dark blue gi and black hakama rather nicely.

Beppo at last caught the daimyo's eye and received a nod. He pushed Seta forward with the flat of his hand to Seta's back.

Seta moved as gracefully as possible after being shoved into the room and walked up to the group of prisoners.

The guards closest to the door fell back as he and Seta approached. Seta saw the black and blue-garbed bandit glance up at him, and do a classic double take. The man stared as Seta smiled politely at the policemen, then dropped to a seated position on the floor next to him.

He kept staring as his hand came up absentmindedly to finger the bruise under his chin. Dropping his hand, he unobtrusively used his elbow to poke the bandit leader in the side.

Gombei's eyes narrowed as he glanced around and saw Seta sitting with the group of prisoners. Seta smiled at him and wiggled the fingers of his right hand in a wave.

Then Gombei stared at the floor in concentration as the black and blue bandit whispered softly and urgently in his ear the story of how he'd met Seta.

Since Seta already knew the end of that story, he tuned it out and concentrated on the scene in front of him.

He knew the end of his own story as well. This was a western style trial, with western style justice, but Japan still had a death penalty.

The audience chamber quieted as a man standing next to the judge called it to order.

Much of what came next was surprisingly dull. One of the officials in western clothes took on the role as prosecutor.

He called up two household servants as witnesses who said they saw the bandits capture Chizuru as they escorted her back from visiting a friend in town. The servants admitted that they'd run away and hid in the forest while Chizuru had tripped and been grabbed by the bandits.

The bandit leader, Gombei, was identified as the one who'd pulled her onto his horse and rode away.

The prosecutor next called Kanagawa to stand before the judge and testify. Kanagawa verified that he'd been leading the police patrol that ran into the bandits. They'd shot at them, causing their horses to stampede. Gombei and Chizuru had been thrown off when Gombei's horse bucked and kicked the horse next to it, causing it to dump its rider in the dirt as well. The other two bandits had jumped off their horses and drawn their swords to try to protect their leader, Gombei, but had quickly surrendered when they realized the police all had guns pointed at them.

Kanagawa said that the last prisoner had been found lying unconscious across the back of a horse further down the road.

Seta's ears perked up at that. So the taller samurai with the lame horse was still missing? He was probably long gone by now. He hadn't seemed to have much loyalty to his fellow bandits. Seta glanced at the black and blue bandit at his side, and wondered if the man's stomach hurt where the tall bandit had slung him roughly over the horse's saddle.

The prosecutor asked if the police had found the last of the bandits.

Kanagawa frowned. "We believe the last of the bandits were killed when they attempted to attack this house three days ago."

Seta happened to be glancing over at his fellow prisoners when Kanagawa said it, so he had a perfect view of Gombei starting, eyes bulging with fury. Ah. So the loss of his bandits was news to him.

Various expressions crossed the man's face. Shock, angry disbelief, then a sullen festering resentment. When the bandit at Seta's right tried to whisper some commiserating remark to him, Gombei snarled at him. Gombei, reflected Seta, was not a pleasant man.

Seta looked back at the far end of the audience chamber and saw that Muneiwa's eyes were shining triumphantly in his pale, sickly face. It was the first emotion Seta had seen from the man. He had a strong will, though his body was weak.

Beppo, on the other hand, was staring at Seta with absolutely no emotion whatsoever. Seta smiled back with what he hoped was a reassuring sort of grin. Did Beppo think he was going to jump up and claim responsibility for killing the bandits and destroying the illusion that Shimizu had done it? What would be the point in that?

"I call Chizuru Muneiwa to testify."

The prosecutor's words set up a rustling murmur among the servants along the wall.

All eyes were on the doorway as Chizuru, dressed in a light pink kimono with a pale peach butterfly pattern at the edge of the skirt and sleeves, stepped timidly into the room. Her neck was tilted so that it looked like her gaze was on the ground, but Seta saw that she was actually glancing around the room under cover of her bangs.

She stepped past him, pausing just an instant as her gaze met his. He smiled reassuringly at her and she walked on, stopping to stand in front of her grandfather and the judge.

She peeked another look at Seta, then stared back at the floor. He saw that she was trembling. She really didn't like to be looked at.

"Miss Muneiwa, were you kidnapped a week ago on the road to your home?" asked the prosecutor.

"Yes." Chizuru's voice was very soft, but audible.

"Were you taken by force and…"

The prosecutor, a smooth skinned man with a thick moustache and piercing black eyes, faltered.

Two sets of furious eyes, the daimyo's and the judge's, were fixed on him.

"…and carried off?" he ended, correcting what he'd been meaning to say.

Seta realized that the daimyo and the judge struck a deal, protecting Chizuru from having to testify that she'd been raped. He had to sigh at that. By protecting his granddaughter from what he saw as a public humiliation, he also denied her the chance to tell the truth about what happened.

Muneiwa and the judge both relaxed.

"Yes."

"Did you see the faces of the men who kidnapped you?"

"Yes."

"Could you identify them for us, please?"

Chizuru lifted her head a little and stared uncomprehendingly at the prosecutor. "What?"

The prosecutor bit back his impatience and spoke slowly. "We need you to identify the men who took you."

Chizuru shot a panicked glance at the bandits, then looked quickly back at the prosecutor, who continued more gently. "Will you please point to anyone in this room who was with the group of men who kidnapped you on your way home?"

She nodded shakily. Turning jerkily to her right, Chizuru faced the prisoners. With an obvious effort, she raised her arm from her side and pointed at the prisoner on the far left.

"Him."

Her finger moved to the next man. "Him." And the next. "Him."

When she pointed at Gombei, her hand began shaking, and she barely got the word out. "H..h…him."

Gombei bared his teeth at her in a smile that had more in common with a dog's snarl than an expression of happiness.

Chizuru shuddered. Seta remembered that she told him one of the bandits had ripped her kimono and touched her. The leader. Gombei.

She quickly glanced away from Gombei and raised her hand to point directly at the black and blue-garbed bandit next to Seta. "He was there too," she whispered softly.

Seta waited, as did the rest of the room, for her to point to him as well, naming him as one of the bandits.

He'd told her he was responsible for her brother's death. It was the perfect opportunity for her to punish him and avenge Uriu's death.

She left her hand pointing at the bandit, and it began to shake again.

Then her arm dropped back at her side and she turned to face her grandfather once again.

Seta blinked.

The prosecutor's jaw dropped for a second, then he closed his mouth with a snap and glanced at Kanagawa, who merely shrugged in response.

"Miss Muneiwa," he began impatiently. "What about the last one?"

"He wasn't there." Chizuru stared at the space directly between the judge and her grandfather, refusing to look at either of them.

"Excuse me? Are you saying that this young man was NOT one of the bandits who kidnapped you?"

Chizuru swallowed. Seta could see her throat move, watched her clench her fists and straighten her backbone. For a girl who hated to be looked at, this had to be torture for her. So why was she doing it? It would be far easier to do what was expected and pretend Seta was one of the bandits, but she didn't.

"Seta Soujiro did not kidnap me. What's more, he killed the bandits who attacked Shimizu-san. I was there. I saw it."

Seta's eyes drifted to Beppo, who sat near the daimyo. He shrugged apologetically. Beppo leaned over and whispered something in a low voice to the daimyo.

Muneiwa turned his ruined face at Seta and stared as the prosecutor sputtered in surprise.

There was a question in the old daimyo's eyes. His body may have betrayed him, but his heart, and his fighting spirit, were still strong. He wanted to know the truth.

Sighing inwardly, Seta allowed his smile to fade and nodded gravely at the old man.

Muneiwa closed his eyes, acknowledging the information, then opened them and looked at Beppo, raising his right index finger as a signal to quiet him. Beppo subsided immediately, and cast his eyes on the tatami mat at his feet.

The prosecutor continued to sputter. "Your honor, this is most surprising. No one spoke to me of this!" He sounded indignant at the oversight. "Why, if this is true then this young man has been falsely imprisoned!"

Seta was aware that Gombei hadn't stopped snarling, or listening to the words spoken in the audience hall, but he was surprised nonetheless when the bandit leader shot to his feet and pointed his finger at Chizuru, copying the gesture she'd used to identify him.

"She's lying to protect him! He's one of us."

Gombei glared triumphantly at Seta, then nearly fell over as the bandit next to him scrambled to his feet as well.

"You're the one who's lying, Gombei! That kid isn't one of us, and you know it!"

Seta blinked. He leaned back a little to gaze at the expanse of black hakama fabric and blue gi adorning the bandit next to him. He couldn't see the man's face, but his body language, the rigid back and tense neck muscles, radiated an anger that matched Gombei's.

Gombei rounded on his comrade. "Shut up! What do you care if he lives or dies?"

"It isn't right!"

Seta glanced around the room. The prosecutor had been struck dumb by surprise, and was watching the heated exchange open-mouthed. Even the policemen guarding the prisoners had stepped back and were listening avidly.

"It just isn't right!" repeated the bandit next to Seta. "We were samurai once. Well, not you, you were always a CRIMINAL." he spat the word at Gombei. "We were proud, we had honor before the Meiji government took away our stipends and our purpose and left us to starve."

"Hah!" Gombei interrupted him. "Would you go on clinging to your faded glory days like these fools? You want to cling to honor? Honor doesn't exist anymore. Better to take what the world owes us. Take what we can, take it all. Who can stop us?"

Was this the spirit of the new Japan? Was Gombei's unabashed greed how the world was to be from now on without the honor code of the samurai to restrain it?

"We can."

Kanagawa moved quickly for a policeman. Not as quickly as Seta, but very fast for a man of his age. As he spoke the words, Kanagawa came up behind Gombei and kicked him smartly on the back of his knee.

Gombei went sprawling, howling in pain, and grabbed his injured leg.

Kanawaga's gaze turned to the black and blue bandit still standing. The bandit wisely closed his mouth and sat back down unassisted.

Another policeman grabbed Gombei by the collar and hauled him back to a seated position as well.

The trial ended quickly after that. With Chizuru's positive identification, and the bandit leader's own damning words, the judge had little option but to declare the bandits guilty.

While the sentences were being deliberated, Seta managed to whisper to the bandit next to him.

"Thank you for telling the truth."

The black and blue bandit gave a crooked grin. "It was the least I could do. You saved my life, after all. You could have killed me, but instead…" He fingered his chin, touching the black and blue mark gingerly.

"Sorry about that," Seta nodded at the bruise. "If you don't mind my asking, what is your name?"

"Seppo Ijuin"

"I'm very pleased to meet you."

"Thanks." Ijuin's mouth quirked in an ironic little grimace.

Ijuin and the other bandits were sentenced to hard labor. Gombei was given the death penalty. Seta realized by the careful way the judge and Muneiwa did not look at each other, that this particular sentence had been pre-arranged. Gombei was the leader. He'd planned to kidnap, violate, and sell back the granddaughter of a daimyo. Such things were not tolerated, even in the new Japan where everyone, every victim, was supposed to be equal.

Gombei, of course, resisted and it took most of the police to pull his screaming, writhing body out of the room.

Seta stood next to Ijuin and watched him go.

"Ijuin-san, there's something I don't understand."

"What?" Ijuin took his eyes off Gombei and looked at Seta.

"Well, if you're a samurai, and samurai believe in honor, how could you go along with the plan to kidnap Chizuru-san?"

Ijuin's mouth quirked. "What plan? That idiot Gombei saw her walking down the road, realized she was rich by her clothes, and took her for ransom. It's not like he consulted us or anything. He was the criminal. We were just the hired help," he ended bitterly.

Gombei grabbed hold of the doorframe and the police had to peel his fingers off one at a time to get him loose.

Ijuin watched dispassionately. "He treated us worse than my last daimyo ever did. I should have stayed in my old Han and starved rather than come to this. It would have been more honorable."

"I don't think dying for honor is a good thing to do." Seta told him thoughtfully. "I think living honorably is better. How can you change anything if you're dead?"

Ijuin looked at him sharply. "You're an interesting kid. Where did you come up with that idea?"

Seta smiled. "Someone once told me I had to live on, and find my own answers. I think that was one of them."

Then the police came and led Ijuin and the other bandits away.

The room cleared. The daimyo waited until the judge and the outsiders were gone before allowing the household servants to lift him to his feet. His left leg seemed to have been affected by the stroke as well, for he leaned heavily on a manservant as he walked painstakingly out of the room, his samurai following. Beppo looked back once at Seta, who'd moved to stand by the wall to be out of the way.

Seta couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw a hint of grudging approval in the samurai's eyes, then Beppo turned his head and followed the others out of the room.

At last only Seta and one other person were left in the room. Chizuru had gone over by the officials to sit after her testimony was over. She'd stayed there quiet, unobtrusive, forgotten by everyone in the wake of Gombei's outburst.

Everyone but Seta.

He stood where Ijuin left him. Smiling, he watched her stand, and waited as she walked slowly towards him. She stopped about two feet away, looking down at her hands.

"Chizuru-san, why didn't you tell the court I was with the bandits?" he asked, curious.

Chizuru was silent a moment, then she drew a breath, and looked him in the face. "I don't think you really killed my brother. You let everyone think Shimizu killed those bandits to protect his reputation. Why?" She stumbled, her voice thickening with emotion. "Why did you let me believe you killed Uriu?"

Seta shifted into a rueful sort of smile. "I just can't get anything past you, can I? The truth is, your brother asked me for help and I refused him. He went after the bandits alone and was killed. So you see, it's my fault he's dead."

Chizuru began shaking her head in distress even before he finished speaking. "You're wrong! It's my fault. If I hadn't let myself get caught…"

"Did you want to get caught?" asked Seta interestedly.

"Well, no, but…"

"Didn't you try to run away?" That was a question Seta already knew the answer to, having heard the servants' testimony.

"Well, yes."

"Then you didn't let yourself get caught at all. So it can't be your fault, which means it's my fault. Not doing what you know is right is just as bad as doing what is wrong."

Seta let the words ring with finality in the audience hall. The girl bit her lip, unable to come up with a good rebuttal.

He smiled again and turned to go. "Well, I'd better be on my way now."

"Wait!"

To his surprise, he felt her hand touch his shoulder. He froze, not sure what to do about it. The last time a woman touched him was when Yumi let his head rest in her lap after his battle with Kenshin. Before that he'd only been touched by the females in his family, and they only touched him when striking him.

Chizuru's voice came out muffled as he felt her forehead touch his shoulder blade. "Please don't go."

Seta let the smile drift away from his mouth. "Why would you want me to stay?"

"I need help. Grandfather is very ill. The doctor said he may live years longer, but he'll never recover the use of his arm or face. That means I'm in charge. I don't know how to be in charge! I don't know about this new Meiji era. Grandfather didn't like talking about it. We don't have much money left. I don't think Grandfather has paid the samurai or the servants in months. How can we survive? Please. You've traveled beyond this Han. You must know more about the world than I do. Please stay and help me."

"You're asking me for…help?"

Seta felt his eyes go wide. Usually he had to go begging for jobs. He'd never had a job come begging for him before.

He shuddered a little when he remembered the last time he'd asked anyone for help. He'd run through the rain, screaming it.

No one had answered.

He came to believe no one ever helped anyone. Yet here was Chizuru asking him for help.

He turned back around, causing her hand to fall off his shoulder. Her head was down and he saw that teardrops were falling on the floor by her feet.

Taking his fingertips and placing them under her chin, he gently lifted it so he could look in her eyes.

"You're crying," he told her.

She sniffed. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. To be able to cry when you want to…it's a gift."

She sniffed again and searched his eyes with her own. "You're not really going to leave me, are you?"

Seta hesitated, thinking of the servants and the remaining samurai. They all loved her and wanted to protect her the way they protected her grandfather. However, they also saw her as something which had been broken. Only he knew the truth.

While he hesitated, a determined look came into her eyes. "Didn't you just say that not doing what is right is as…"

"…bad as doing what is wrong." Seta finished the words with her and laughed.

"You're too clever for me, Chizuru-san. It looks like I'll just have to stay and help you now," he conceded cheerfully. "But if I'm going to stay here, you have to promise me one thing."

"Promise…?"

"To call me Soujiro."

A light grew in her eyes as she nodded, a gladness that he saw and envied. Perhaps if he stayed with her long enough, it would rub off on him. He thought of Hoji, who took care of Shishio's business affairs, the financial side of his plot to build a new Japan. Surely the principles Hoji talked about could apply to one daimyo's land.

And after all, Seta had grown up in the home of a wholesale rice merchant. Even an abused servant couldn't help but overhear the business deals being struck in the house. How hard could it be to get Chizuru's lands solvent?

Chizuru practically glowed with happiness. To be honest, helping her get her lands in order wasn't the only reason he was staying.

She could still cry. Seta admired that.

Shishio saw crying as a weakness.

The strong lived, the weak died. That's what he always said.

Not this time.

This time Seta would use his strength to protect the weak. He would protect Chizuru with his sword, but more importantly, with his mind and his hard work.

'Thank you, Kenshin,' thought Seta. 'I have found my answers. This is my truth.'

THE END

Note to Reviewers:

Yokohama – So you agree Senkaku was killed? I thought so, all that blood in the water is pretty hard to explain away. As for the romance, I'm physically capable of moving my fingers on the keyboard to type it in, but I'd probably die of embarrassment if I ever tried. I still blush when stories get all lemony!

Wyrd – Sorry to kill off Shimizu (Shunme too in "The Choshu Chronicles") but I had to for the sake of the story, and authenticity. In the late 1800s the medical profession wasn't up to fixing gunshot wounds to the chest. Chizuru does indeed have a lousy sense of timing, though her instincts about Soujiro are pretty good.

Applesoveroranges – Someday you've got to tell me the story behind your pen-name! Sorry Kenshin won't be a part of this story. It's the last chapter, and I couldn't fit him in. Perhaps I'll put him in the next one.

Wolfdaughter – Goodness, I never get tired of hearing how readers like my story. Go ahead with the compliments, repetition is welcome and I don't mind at all reading the same thing over and over, especially if it's as nice as your reviews! By the way, I read in another author's review responses that you had a birthday. Happy belated birthday!

Linay – I knew I'd catch a lot of flack for bumping off Shimizu, but I'm happy you liked chapter four anyway!

Loise – I hope you liked the ending! I tried to wake Soujiro to both the real world and to the fact that he can be needed and have a role in life that doesn't involve killing. Thanks so much for the compliments on the last chapter!

Alilmatchgirl – Thanks for explaining 'cnxn'! I though it was an acronym and I was racking my brain to try to figure out what the 'x' could stand for! Hope you liked the last chapter!

Skenshingumi – Perceptive review last time! I tried to make it seem like Soujiro was trying to do what he thought was the right thing to do, not so much because he's wracked with guilt, but because it seems like the right/Kenshinesque thing to do. He's being honest in his own weird way, but in this chapter Chizuru turns the tables on him.

Sueb262 – I didn't know that about closing eyes, I guess real life is a great deal less cooperative than fiction. I'd read somewhere that the romans used to put coins on the eyes, so I should have realized that it takes more than a touch to keep them closed. Soujiro is still pretty detached, the difference is that now he knows that it's not good to be that way, and he really wants to change (of course taking responsibility for something he didn't do because he felt like he ought to have done more is a rather excessive way to try to do that!).

Lolopopoki – Sorry for bumping off Shimizu! I liked him too. I hope you enjoyed the last chapter – that courtroom scene gave me hives! I still don't know if Japan really had the death penalty, though Saitoh mentioned that they did in one of the episodes.

Potato-sensei – Thanks for the information about Soujiro's age! You're so sweet to say that my stories are good! I like your name, by the way!

Moeruhimura – Yep, Soujiro has a ways to go before he can hold strictly to a no-killing oath like Kenshin did. He spared the bandits on the road because they were only threatening him at the time, but a mass attack on the household, and the example of Shimizu (who, like most samurai, are trained to fight to defend their daimyo to the death)…I figured it was plausible that Soujiro would resort to killing in the last chapter. I'm helpful to other writers? Really? I try, but I've only just emailed some research here and there, so I can't really claim to be all that helpful! Still, it was a sweet thing to say! As for the swords, you were right about the kiku Ichimonji getting destroyed in the second fight. Kenshin actually snapped the blade in half, and the tip went sailing across the room to imbed itself in the tatami mat – so I doubt that one could be fixed. The Nagasone Kotetsu, on the other hand, was just cracked along the hasaki (the sharp edge). Katanas are actually made of two pieces of metal – the interior shingane, and the exterior hadagane that wraps around it in the forging process. For the purpose of the story, I'm pretending that the shingane was intact and a new hadagane could be wrapped around it and sealed to it. Whether or not that could actually happen in real life is debatable! I wasn't able to find a website on Japanese metallurgy that addressed that question, though I found a great book on katanas called 'The Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords'.

Keirin-Sama – You got it! Here's the last chapter, and I hope you enjoy it!

Another Baka – Shivering? Cool! I didn't know my writing could cause shivers! Er, was that a bad shiver or a good shiver?

SailorEarth13 – I definitely agree that Soujiro didn't have the right teacher while growing up! It's tough for him to try to figure out morality and honor when Shishio had none. I hope you like the ending. I had fun allowing Chizuru to best him in an argument, though I'm not really satisfied with the last line. Switching to a thought/dialogue directed to Kenshin seemed awkward, but I liked it so I left it in.

Conspirator – Oh yes, I'd definitely grab Soujiro by the shoulders and tell him to stop being legalistic (right after I gave him a big hug and told him he's allowed to be happy since it's not his fault he was brainwashed by an insane social Darwinist) I've made Soujiro annoyingly self-sacrificing and legalistic about who owns the responsibility for Uriu's death. He is, after all, taking Kenshin as his model of morality, and we all know how irritatingly selfless he can be! Will that man ever just forgive himself and move on? Thanks for saying my story is great! You're making me blush!

Ayumu-in-Blue – Sorry about killing off Shimizu! However, dying for your daimyo was considered the highest honor for a samurai, so we can assume he died happy. I hope you like the last chapter!