A/n: Hey, an update live from Paris, how cool is that? It must be late afternoon for you, but here it's almost three in the morning as I'm writing this (yeah, I've always been late sleeper.). Anyway it's really nice around here… as long as you're not too fat. I mean, what do they eat to remain this good-looking? I'm pretty lucky to be rather thin, but I've met plenty of American tourists already, and do they stand out with their two-three hundred pounds…. I went on the Champ Elysees on Sunday, saw Armstrong win his nth yellow jersey (the crowd was huge!). Yesterday night I went to an Australian bar in an area called "Le Marais" (the swamp). It was really fun, I had lots of beer, got wasted, and ended up in bed with a perfect stranger…. Nah just kidding (But I was kinda wasted though.).
Anyway, sorry for this longish rant, here be the eighteenth chapter.
Trust and Betrayal
"The runt," lady Kaoru shouted. "The little liar. He'll pay for that."
Kenshin tried to follow her, but she plowed through the streets like a knife parting water. He had trouble keeping with her. How could she walk so fast in this packed crowd? Maybe her loud voice alerted people not to oppose her advance, lest her wrath befell them. She was certainly drawing attention to herself, and men and women turned to observed her fury at her approach. He, on the other hand, had to frequently bump into flocking passersby to open a path for himself, voicing only the barest of apology, or none at all.
Before him, lady Kaoru turned left, then right into a smaller alley. Did she even know where she was going? He ran after her. "Kaoru," he called. In truth he wasn't comfortable calling her just "Kaoru," but naming her a lady would attract even more attention. It might be misunderstood as a title rather than an expression of politeness—well, she was a true noble in any case. "Kaoru!" he called again. She stumped on, not listening to him. People were looking at him too now, some with a knowing smirk on their faces. Kenshin wondered briefly what they saw. Lovers quarrelling? Probably.
They came onto Suzakuoji. The capital's main road led directly to the imperial palace two miles to the north, where he had been just the day before. It was said to have been almost three hundred feet wide during the Heian era, and it must still have been an awe-inspiring sight to behold when the emperor and his family paraded on it, en route to a summer residence, followed by their retinue of lords and ladies and warriors and servants. But awe was hardly on his mind at the moment. What mattered was the width of the artery. It allowed him to finally catch up to lady Kaoru despite the rush of the mob in the early morning.
"Kaoru," he said, grabbing her arm. He tried to fake a smile, but he was quite sure it came out more as a grimace than anything else. "Where are you going?"
She struggled in his grip, but he held firm. "Let me go," she said fiercely.
"Tell me where you are going first," he insisted.
She glared at him as if he was a halfwit. "To my uncle's house, of course," she said. "I am going to clarify this whole matter with him, since you say you don't know where Soujiro is."
Kenshin almost winced. He knew well where he sent Soujiro, and he suspected the lady Kaoru wouldn't be happy if she found out. When she found out. Still, it was for her own good, even if she would be too stubborn to admit it. The times were troubled, and the assassination attempt had changed everything.
"So?" lady Kaoru said.
He blinked, confused. "So what?"
"So, are you sure you don't want to tell me where Soujiro is?"
"I—no. I mean, yes, I don't know where we could find Soujiro at this moment." Which was the absolute truth. He had been careful in his wording. But a lie still remained a lie at heart, no matter how much one played with words, and it stung on his tongue.
Lady Kaoru gazed at him defiantly. "Then I have to inform my uncle of this… this groundless slander. And I have to tell him of what happened last night."
She tried to break free of his hold, but Kenshin pulled hard on her arm, tugging her close to him. He wasn't going to let her into danger again. "Didn't you hear what I told you? Your uncle tried to kill you," he whispered heatedly. "Going there now is like walking into the tiger's jaws. Why won't you listen?"
"You are hurting me," she said, her suddenly quiet voice almost drowned in the surrounding noise.
Kenshin became aware of his hand clawing into her frail wrist. He also became aware of how close she was. He smelled jasmine, subtle yet insisting. Memory of the night before came back to him, memories of the same scent enveloping him all the way back to Kyoto, memories of her hairs teasing his skin, of her breast pressed against his back, of her slender arms on his chest. Of her kisses on his cheek, on his jaw, on his neck. He felt the heat rise on his face. He let go of her wrist, tentatively. She didn't try to run away.
"My uncle has always been good to me," she said, "especially after my mother…." She shook her head, but Kenshin knew what she had been about to say anyway. "In a sense," she continued, "I was closer to him than to my own father. I…. You cannot ask me to take a stranger's words as gospel where he is concerned."
"But think, Kaoru," he said. "There were no servants at the house last night. Why would your uncle leave you with no protection whatsoever, in a mountain house removed from the city?"
Lady Kaoru averted her eyes. It was as if she was avoiding his gaze. "There were two servants at the house when we arrived," she murmured. "One was a sword expert, and was supposed to protect us."
"And where was he when you were attacked? We found no trace of anyone in the house afterwards." He remembered something. "This sword expert you speak of, would he have broom-like hair, and sporting many weapons on his person?"
She stared at him, surprised. "Ye—how did you know this?"
Silently Kenshin added the man to his to-kill list. Some people were going to pay for trying to murder his future bride. He shuddered, thinking of how close they had been to succeed. "I saw a man like this heading towards Kyoto last night, with two others, when I was heading to where you were."
"Maybe they had urgent business in the city," lady Kaoru said, avoiding his eyes again.
Kenshin had the distinctive impression that she was trying to make excuses. Didn't she trust him, even a little, after all that happened? He'd thought…. He'd been sure there had been a bond building between them, but she had felt nothing of the sort, apparently. "Business in the dead of the night, when their first task is to attend you? What could have been so urgent? And leaving precisely when you were attacked?" He took a step closer to her, trying to let her understand how she had been deceived. Why couldn't she see the obvious? "Don't you think it's too convenient?"
"A coincidence, nothing more," she said faintly.
"Look at me, Kaoru." She wouldn't. "You are lying to yourself. You know you are. Look at me," he insisted.
She turned her face to his. Kenshin saw with surprise the struggle so apparent in her eyes. "I know," she said, her voice slightly wavering. "I know. I agree it sounds suspicious, but I—I just can't condemn my uncle like this." She stifled a sob. "I can't…. At least I have to hear him out. Maybe he has a good explanation for all this. I have to go. In fact I'm sure he has." She looked at him, her eyes imploring. "Let me go, please."
How could he say no to such a plea? He was utterly powerless against her anguish. He nodded. "Then I'll go with you," he said. His hand landed on his sword's handle by pure instinct. He would protect her at all cost, and maybe settle a score or two. Hiko had asked for patience and restraint, but he felt entitled to blood after not one but two direct assassination attempts on lady Kaoru's person. "Promise me to be careful, and don't do anything reckless."
"I never do anything reckless," she said with a weak smile.
Heavens, she was adorable when she was like this, vulnerable and sweet at the same time. He snorted, hiding how moved he truly was. "Let's go."
They went east, across the Kamo River, to the outskirts of the city. At one point they could see the Kiyomizudera, where the monk Enchin was said to have enshrined the image of the goddess Kannon overlooking the Otowa no taki Falls. Or at least enshrined her semblance. No mortal could truly render a god's majesty, after all. Then they turned north, the narrow valley yawning below them on their right, before they finally reached their destination.
The house was vast in proportion, clear sign that a wealthy man resided there. No sound filtered through the paper screens upstairs that Kenshin could hear. Stone lanterns stood atop the roofs, and two gilded lions sat on each side of the main entrance, a massive double door shadowed by tile-roofed eaves.
"Some house," he said lightly. "Your uncle must be quite successful in his trade."
She was tense, Kenshin could see, her visage set in a mix of hopeful anticipation and grim determination. She was almost trembling. He took her hand in his, trying to calm her down. I am here for you, he wanted to say. She glanced at him, and nodded. A small grateful smile spread on her lips. Again he was struck by the lovely curves of her mouth when she smiled, the charming dimples that formed on her cheeks, the adorable ingenuousness she displayed when she dropped her snobbish act. He was falling for her, he realized. Briefly he wondered if it wouldn't be better to tell her everything, there and then. Stupid question; of course it would be better. The longer he dissembled, and the harder her hurt would be when she finally discovered his true identity. But… not yet. Not yet. They had already come this far, and he wanted to savor the simple relationship he still had with her, unsoiled by layer upon layer of distrust and misunderstandings. He didn't think he could bear her resentment when she learned who he truly was. He shook his head. Just for a little while, that was all he asked. It wouldn't last much longer, if all went well.
She observed him curiously, no doubt trying to decipher his expression. "Why are you staring at me?" she asked. "Something amiss?"
Kenshin discarded firmly his thoughts. "Just remember to be careful," he told her. She nodded. She knocked on the door.
It opened slightly. A female servant's head appeared in the doorway. She almost gaped as she took in lady Kaoru's presence. "Milady!" she said. "We—we weren't expecting your return!" She pulled the doors wide open.
"I wish to talk to my uncle," Kaoru said, walking in without hesitation, her strides confident and purposeful, very much so. Earlier traces of tension were evaporated now; she was wearing her aristocratic persona again. Kenshin had to admire her composure.
"I-I am sorry, my lady," the servant said, hurrying after her, "but lord Houji has already left."
Kenshin saw lady Kaoru stop in the interior yard, collected, as if it was of no great importance. Her lady-like mask was truly regal, the every image of noble breeding and proper education. He would have laughed in other circumstances. "Indeed?" he heard lady Kaoru say. "Then I shall wait for his return inside."
"Ah, that won't be possible," the servant said with an apologetic tone. "The lord is on a journey, and won't be back for some time."
Too bad. He wouldn't be able to kill the man then and there.
"A journey?" lady Kaoru asked. "Where did he go?"
"I-I do not know, milady."
"And did he left any message or any instruction for me?" She was still seemingly cool and detached, even as the truth must be settling in. At least Kenshin hoped it was settling in.
"He has left no words to you, or about you, milady." The servant's gaze dropped to the ground. "He—he said milady wouldn't return."
"I… I have no idea, milady."
Kenshin found the servant's attitude suspicious. She appeared flustered, and her eyes flittered left and right without ever looking straight in Kaoru's eyes. "You know something," he said as threateningly as he could. Speak."
"I—I do not know what you are talking abo—"
Kenshin drew his sword, the sound of his blade's birth reverberating in the air. "Speak," he said.
"I—I…." The woman dropped to her knees on the dirty ground. "I'm sorry, milady." She was crying now. "Yesterday night I heard my lord Houji tell Usui to have you killed."
"Suffice." Lady Kaoru's voice cracked like a whip. "You did not fail me," she said more gently. There was an ever so slight tremor in the inspiration lady Kaoru took then, sole visible sign of her dismay. She rested a hand on Kenshin's shoulder. It was as if she sought to take support on it. "Thank you," she said to the servant. "I've learned everything I wanted to know. Let us leave, Shinta," she said.
"I'm so sorry milady," the servant sobbed. "I couldn't be brave enough to warn you. I—I have failed you, milady—"
"Suffice," lady Kaoru said, her voice clacking in the air like a whip. "Your duty doesn't lie with me. You have not failed me." With that she edged away, not deigning to look back. Walking beside her, Kenshin could see it was no act of arrogance at all. She was fighting to simply keep her poise, her face cloudy and strained as if all mankind's weariness had befallen her suddenly. She tottered once, but she refused his assistance. Her chin and her nose stuck out as if in defiance, and Kenshin was very glad to see that her spirit was alive still, despite everything. At this instant she looked very much like the proud girl she was, not a woman yet, fighting to find her place in a world of cold men and their colder schemes.
They went back at the inn, for there was no other place to go for the lady. He had to guide her, for she seemed lost in a daze, hardly speaking a word, oblivious to the bustling city around her, to the merchants and farmers and mothers and children and servants and workmen attending their own business in broad daylight, to the beauty and ugliness of everyday's life, to the indifferent mountains and glazed sky. A ghost walking through the livings. Once a woman called to them, her brow set in perpetual creases, asking if they were newlyweds. She had talismans to sell them, she said, fantastic jewels that guaranteed many children to come and a fabulous stone ring that warded off evil spirits. But lady Kaoru ignored her, her hazy eyes were set on a distant vision only she could see. When Kenshin asked, she insisted she was perfectly fine.
They reached their inn at last about half an hour before noon, and lady Kaoru headed straight into her room. He followed her, stopping just on the sill.
"He betrayed me." she said, her back to him.
It was the very thing that he had tried to convince her of earlier, but now that she'd come to the same conclusion he felt a nagging desire to tell her she was wrong, that it was all a misunderstanding somehow. He knew how it felt to be betrayed—he knew. It stung you, perhaps harder than anything else. And she was about to be betrayed again, soon. He would be the one to do it this time.
But what he simply said was, "yes."
"You were right after all," she said with a dying voice.
"Please leave me alone, Shinta. I… I need to be alone."
Kenshin nodded, even if she couldn't see him do so. He understood that need. He judged the risk of silent killers lurking in broad daylight slim, so there was no real danger leaving her alone in her room. "I will wait outside." He slid the door shut.
It was maybe half an hour later that Soujiro found him sitting on the boards outside the rooms.
"I am back," Soujiro greeted. His clothes were covered in dust, as if having spent the night on the road. Which he must have had. "Did you miss me?"
"You are here earlier than I expected," Kenshin said, rising. His heart was pounding a little harder, its rhythm ringing louder and louder in his skull. The moment he'd dreaded and longed for was finally there. "Did you bring them?" A rhetorical question, that. He was sure Soujiro did what he'd asked him to do.
"They are coming," Soujiro said. "I went ahead of them to warn you, samurai-san."
"Did you meet them on the road?"
"Ah, no, I had to go all the way to Izushi."
The boy was decidedly full of surprise. "You went to Izushi and back in less than fifteen hours?"
Soujiro smiled happily, scratching the side of his jaw with a finger. "Well, less than that, in fact. I lost some time when I tried to get an audience with lord Izushi. They didn't want to wake him up, you know. And when I mentioned the lady Kaoru they went all mad and became violent and all." He made a face, then smiled again. "I had to crack some heads to make them see reason." He nodded, as if satisfied with himself.
"I hope you didn't kill anyone," Kenshin said, amused despite himself.
"Oh no no, that would have been a very impolite thing to do, right? Just some bruises here and there, nothing severe. Three months in bed and they should be able to walk on their feet again."
Kenshin snorted. The boy was growing on him, even if he had been an enemy just days before. Strange really. Kenshin couldn't remember getting attached to someone this fast in the past. Apart from lady Kaoru, but that was another story entirely. "When will they be here?"
"Soon. I left them just a little while ago."
Kenshin raised an eyebrow. "Are you telling me you run faster than horses?"
Soujiro rubbed the back of his head with a sheepish grin. "It's not my fault if horses are so slow."
Kenshin chuckled. But he sobered as soon as he remembered exactly why Kamiya men were coming here. He rose, drank some water from the cistern to calm himself down, then pointed at an unremarkable room. "Lady Kaoru is in there," he told Soujiro. "Bring them in as soon as they arrive."
He padded to the room's door, stopped outside. He wanted to say his goodbyes. "Kaoru-dono," he called softly. No answer. "Kaoru-dono." Still no answer. He opened the door, not particularly worried, went in, and closed it behind him. Lady Kaoru lay beneath her blanket in her futon, the back of her head turned towards him on the small pillow.
"Lady Kaoru," he murmured.
"I thought I told you I wanted to be left alone," she said, her tone blank.
"Are you crying?"
"I am not."
He edged closer, knelt by the bedside. "I know how you must be hurting right now, but—"
She turned brusquely towards him. She was indeed not crying. Instead, her features burned with anger. Anger at her uncle? Anger at him, for intruding on her privacy? Anger at herself, for letting herself be fooled? A little of all that, he suspected.
"How would you know how I am feeling?" she said through clenched teeth. "I don't want your pity. You know nothing. Nothing of how it feels to be betrayed—"
"I know about betrayal," he whispered. "Oh yes."
Lady Kaoru was observing him with surprise, he saw, the sharp words on her tongue dying down. He smiled at her. "Let me tell you a story," he said. It was something he'd never confided to anyone. He wanted to tell her now.
"Once there was a boy living somewhere in Japan. The boy's father had a good friend, and this friend had a daughter just a little older than the boy, and she was beautiful and smart, and the boy liked her very much. Very much indeed.
"The girl wasn't particularly interested in the boy at first. She was beautiful, as I said, a sort of cold beauty that was remote and utterly compelling at the same time, and once a man had set eyes on her he was completely under her spell. And so even at age fourteen there were many men courting her, men of rank and prestige, all vying for her favors and her hand. The boy was just one among many, and too shy to really approach her at that, so she paid him no attention.
"But the boy's father would visit his friend often, or the friend would visit back, and the boy would often see the girl. He found out over time that she wasn't as remote as her bearing suggested, and not vain despite all the attention she received from older men. He became less shy, and the two of them grew closer, and they would always play together whenever they met.
"The more he saw the girl, the more the boy grew smitten with her. He was captivated by everything about her, and he thought she was the woman of his life. He started stopping paying attention to other girls, dreaming only of her, of white plum scent that always lingered about her. She must have noticed his heightened attention, for she already had some experience dealing with men infatuated with her, but she didn't say anything, and continued as if there was nothing out of the ordinary between them.
"The both grew older, and one day, the boy found enough courage in him to declare his undying love to the girl. Oh, how naïve he was back then." Kenshin stopped there, a small lump in his throat. He suddenly wondered if it had been a good idea to broach this subject at all.
"What happened then?" Lady Kaoru was drawn into the tale, it seemed. At least it made her forget her own worries for a while, which was what he'd sought to do.
"She just smiled at him, something she did rarely. The boy was delighted, of course. She hadn't answered directly, but hadn't rebuked him either, and he took it as a sign that she loved him as well. Who knows, maybe she really did." He paused. "In any case, they continued seeing each other, closer than ever before. One night, as they both sat in his father's garden, chatting about this and that, the boy felt bold enough and did what he had wanted to do for a long, long time. He took her hand, and as she gently looked back at him, calm and unafraid, he kissed her." Kenshin snorted. "It wasn't the boy's first kiss by any mean, mind you, but he could have sworn then that it was the sweetest thing he'd ever tasted. Afterwards she told him that she liked him as well. He could have died from happiness.
"Their parents saw this, and they were pleased. They began talking about marriage between the two. It would have been a convenient union, cementing the two men's friendship, and also be a love match, something both men had been denied. The boy learned of it, and was overjoyed. There hadn't been much warmth in his youth, you see. His mother had died while giving birth to him, and he had never been close to his father or his elder brother. The girl was the lone beacon in his life, and he swore to never let her go."
"But something went wrong," lady Kaoru guessed. She looked at him, her eyes very wide and blurred with sadness. She was very beautiful, and yet she looked nothing like Tomoe.
"Something went wrong indeed," he said, taking a sharp breath. "The country was going through a time of great confusion. The old shogunate was dying, while the emperor tried to reassert his power. It happened that the girl's father was a samurai, and he had a parcel of land that was of great strategic importance. He was attacked, by both armies and hired assassins. He survived, but feared more and more for his life and his land. He discussed this with the boy's father in great secrecy.
"You see, the two men were friends, but their clans were not. The boy's father could not come to his friend's aid directly, for his clan wouldn't allow it. The boy was too young, not of age to be wed yet. So it was decided that his father would marry the girl instead, so that no one could honorably oppose him going to his friend's—and now father-in-law's—aid.
"The boy was horrified to learn this. He couldn't bear to lose the girl. He went to see her, thinking that she could convince her doting father to change his mind. But she wouldn't. He was… very surprised at this. He thought she loved him as much as he loved her, and told her so. She simply smiled at him. She liked him, she said, but there were things that went above such considerations. She would wed his father, and that was that."
"I see," lady Kaoru murmured. "He must have been very shocked."
"And then, what happened?"
Kenshin shrugged. "In desperation, the boy ran to his father, and provoked him to a duel. It was… childish behavior, but his father accepted nonetheless, and beat him soundly. The wedding took place as planned, and husband and wife lived happily ever after." He sounded bitter to his own ears.
Lady Kaoru touched his cheek with the palm of her hand. "This boy, it's you, isn't it?"
Obviously. Kenshin shrugged again. "Probably," he said lightly.
He heard a ruckus outside, followed by metallic steps on the alley boards. So they were here at last. He rose from where he knelt. He feared lady Kaoru's reaction, but he couldn't deny his relief that the dissembling game would come to an end at last. "Whatever you come to think of me, my lady," he whispered, "remember that I do it for you own good. It is far too dangerous for you to wander about," he said, "lady Kamiya."
Her eyes rounded to two saucers. Behind him, the door slid open. Kenshin heard men burst in, saw their shadows stretch on the walls, felt their presence, suffocating in the small room. Lady Kaoru looked past his shoulders at them with horror.
"S-Sado?" she stammered, "Nishiga, Reito... Takeshi. What… What are you doing here?" They were there to retrieve her, of course. Kenshin saw her come to the same realization. Her gaze flew at his, harpooning it. Her whole face contorted in anger. "You," she snarled with more venom than he'd thought she possessed in her slender frame, "it was you, wasn't it? It was you who brought them here!"
He nodded. He fought to keep an expressionless mask, but there was pain in him now. She would hate him, everything they'd gone through together flying out the window. He wondered if he would ever be able to be rid of this hatred, if she would ever forgive him for that.
"You sold me out!"
He turned around, unable to endure her rage anymore. He gave a small shrug, as if to say that it didn't matter at all, when in fact the gesture cost him more than maybe anything else he'd ever done. "Take good care of her," he told the men. He couldn't see the warriors' faces clearly. Everything was blurry, every lines jammed together in some mad pattern. "Take good care of her," he repeated softly.
"Why? Why, Shinta?" Lady Kaoru was all but shrieking.
He paused in the doorframe. He considered fleeing, but she deserved better than that. He had to tell her. "My name is not Shinta," he said, his voice as clear as he could make it. "I am Kenshin." He stepped out. "Himura Kenshin." There was an audible gasp behind him. He closed the door.
-There was a girl, in the room he just left, staring at the rice screens long after the seedy yellow papers cut off the day's dull brightness. She was gaping, her heart pounding, her lungs burning, but she was aware of none of that. She tried to speak, but only hoarse whispers could be heard from her. There were a thousand thoughts whirling through her mind, a thousand fragmented memories, none of them coherent. All she would see—could see—were lighter blots staining the paper panes on the door, and all she could hear was the sound of muffled steps slowly moving away, one foot after the other, one foot after the other, one foot after the other, one foot after the other.
The girl, not yet a woman, had thought she knew about betrayal. Not so well after all, it seemed.
Heiankyo's first architects certainly meant to inspire awe and evoke glory when they planned for Suzakuoji, the road that would divide the city in half. Of course, mortals planned and gods decided. The city—which men now called Kyoto—lost its intended balance, but the road remained, and it was on the same road emperor Godaigo made his grand return a day in summer under the sweltering heat, restored as head of state. His triumphant entry had certainly evoked glory then, the son of heavens coming back to reclaim what belonged to him by divine right. The loss of Kyoto had been a massive blow to the Kamakura shogunate still in power back then. And that loss had been made possible by a sole man, Ashikaga Takauji.
It was now three and a half years later, and the same Ashikaga Takauji was riding off the city on the same street, in no less impressive pomp, but his retinue, instead of courtiers and nobles, consisted of orderly ranks of soldiers marching or riding, two thousand of them. Hojo Tokiyuki was stirring a rebellion in Kamakura, trying to revive the old shogunate. No one would be foolish enough to lead an army across snow-covered passes in the dead of winter, or so Hoji must have counted on. Unfortunately for him, the general Ashikaga was just foolish enough to do so. More troops awaited the general outside the city, and more still on his road. He and his mighty host would crush the rebellion, of that the common folk had no doubt.
From the shadow of an alley, a man—Himura Kenshin—observed the general through slanted eyes, his head hidden under a large circular straw hat. He took in Ashikaga's straight back, his thick beard gleaming under his crimson helmet, his powerful build visible under his intricate armor, his surprisingly thin and long fingers on his reins. Everything in him spoke of powerful confidence, of brutal arrogance even.
Himura Kenshin had his doubts about the man, as did many others, albeit few dared to voice them openly. It was whispered that the general had his brother kill prince Morinaga, the emperor's first son, in the chaos that followed the uprising in Kamakura. Why, no one was really sure. The general Ashikaga had a well-known dislike for the prince, perhaps because the prince had had the audacity to accept the title of Shogun, a honor Ashikaga himself had aspired to.
In any case, the prince was no more. Changes to come hung in the air, and troubles were brewing; Himura Kenshin felt them in his bones. But for now he could just wait and see, like everyone else.
"Look here, samurai-san," Soujiro said beside him, pointing at a man riding behind Ashikaga. "That's Houji." The boy was unusually quiet.
Kenshin observed the man, engraving each line of his face in his memory. So that was where the man was. Kenshin itched to confront him then and there, but refrained himself. Patience was a virtue, or so the priests taught. One day, he knew, he would find the same Houji on his path again, and that day would be the day heads rolled. Scores would be settled, prices would be paid. It was the way of the samurai, and it was also his heart's desire.
"Soujiro, can I ask you something?" he said.
"Why did you betray your master?"
Soujiro pondered this for a moment. "Well, Houji wasn't really my master. He saved my life once, and I've just followed him since then."
Soujiro laughed softly. "I was getting bored of doing Houji's dirty works. And you seemed really strong, so I thought it would be interesting to follow you. Besides," he said beaming, "I'm not a samurai to begin with. I'm only a farmer's son, so I have no code of honor to follow or to betray."
"I see." Kenshin observed the procession of soldiers for a time. "Houji is a mortal enemy of mine now," he said at last. "I will have his head one day. What will you do then? Will you seek to stop me? To protect him?"
A long silence, then Soujiro murmured, "I don't know."
"When the day comes, don't oppose me, or I will have to kill you too."
They both fell silent after that, watching warriors walk down Suzakuoji under a masked sun, until they were nothing more than minuscule mirages buried in thick clouds of dust. Eventually they disappeared entirely. Crows croaked over them, somewhere in the world.
Kenshin thought of a prince now dead, and of a general riding to Kamakura, once the seat to a shogunate, with thousands of soldier at his command, many of them discontented by the emperor's new policies. He also thought of a woman's shrieks, accusations resonating in his head still. He thought of her gasp as he left her. He felt confused, but didn't bother to sort out his emotions, whatever they were. The general was off to war, and the woman would be escorted back to her father's estate. What was to happen next could begin now.
End of Part I
A/N: Part II begins next chapter, which may take some time to be posted, since I want to rewrite a second draft of the first part first (I would prefer to wait a bit for that, but that's internet posting for you). Besides, I don't really have much time for the moment!
Now some historical remarks if you would allow me: I've taken enormous liberties with History. The actual rebellion didn't start until summer for one thing, and Ashikaga certainly didn't have had a grand exit in Kyoto. In fact it seems he went to Kamakura without the emperor's assent, and his army was a hastily scrambled one. So I'm considering changing historical characters' names to fictional ones, to make it a sort of alternate history. History isn't the main focus of this story anyway. Please tell me what you think of it.