The katana speared his throat, hot red fissures jetted out as the blade was jerked forcibly away. An instant later, a hand smashed onto the man's bloodied chin—a sickening crunch. He was flung back a few paces and landed on the hard stone with a soft flump. His head jerked far back, rolling unevenly till it came to a stop against his shoulder.
Takachi stared, bemused, unable to blink. His thoughts were voiced in a dull whisper next to him.
"Monster! What demon is this?" rasped out Tomo.
Miyabi could only answer with his eyes. Their fifth companion had fled, preferring the wolves of Mibu as his hunter to this blood soaked demon as his protector.
Makoto stood in the middle of the narrow street. He closed his eyes against the blood trickling in—none of it his. He slashed at the air, the most stylistic swipe he had taken that night. And looking back, beckoned the remaining men to follow.
They reached the fork and took the turn that led deeper into lightless Kyoto.
The walls were coated in thick dollops of blood, trailing down. Nine men lay dead along the lane—the ambush turned massacre.
The young man had moved through the ranks of Shinsengumi with seeming ease. He seemed to know every step, every move his opponent made a second before they did it. With a simple progression of skill, superior speed and a strength that belied his lean figure he plunged in and out of his targets.
His form comprised of steps of basic kata, the wide flourishes abandoned—swift cuts and low swept blocks that flowed deceptively close to his own body before being shorn away.
Kenjutsu had been stripped of the "art" and was the essential "killing" only. It was far from flowing, but fascinating, hypnotic.
The sword was a part of his self in the half-light. The shadows served him well.
Less than an hour ago a man had stumbled into the Ikedaya inn. His face blanched. His only words as he downed a pitcher were, "they're coming!"
There was no doubt as to who—Shinsengumi.
In the flurry of many men standing at attention, chairs scraping, curses loosened freely and sword's chinking in their sheaths it was understood that at least five "units" of Kyoto's infamous police had been sighted a few streets away.
In the absence of Katsura Kogoro, who had, as if by the hand of fate, been delayed at an important meeting, Takachi Hitana was looked upon for the ordering of the belated escape.
The little garden in the back of the compound was abuzz with Choushu prominents. They fled in ones and twos, those with their own guard giving precedence, by order, to those without. There were two loose destinations, Gion at the heart of Kyoto and the canals at her feet.
In minutes there was silence there once more. And the koi drifted ghostly in the near clear waters by the lily pads, not a ripple in the little pond. The stooping back door that led onto the unlit alley flapped loosely in the slow wind, creaking—as if hungry for more.
The shoji to the garden slid open one more time. A graying head, stooped low, fingers at the temple, appeared at the engawa. Followed by another taller, younger man.
Takachi turned his sharp eyes to the man behind.
"Miyabi, are we ready?"
"All set, Takachi-sama."
"Go on boy. The men here, the serving girls, they're all in their places?"
"Hai. Me and Tomo are ready too, sir!"
"And Katsura's boy— the battousai?"
"No sign of him, sir."
"Tell him, Tomo, to hurry along. It can't possibly take this long to deliver the simple order! All he has to say is scatter, run an—" his words were cut short by a chilling shriek that rent through the night—it came from the alleys.
"Damn the Shinsengumi! Ambush! Go!"
With a swift bow Miyabi raced off down the hall.
Takachi turned stonily to the two men he'd spotted under the shade of the engawa. Both carried two blades on their obi and bowed on being sighted.
Stiff-necks. Still so proud, eh?
"They will be upon us soon men."
The man farther down the porch nodded as he neared. His face was pale and matted. At complete odds with the composed young man standing a few paces off the sliding doors, Takachi noted.
Looks like you've enjoyed yourself boy, watching all those cowards run.
His eyes wandered back to the little gate again as he willed on the two members of his personal guard to hurry.
These twisted filthy streets are no different today then they were when I first came to Kyoto. I know them well enough to avoid a few of those bloody dogs.
"Men, it is necessary for me to reach the canals. I want you," he gestured towards the two "to accompany me and the samurai of my household."
The paths are narrow and a few added hands could buy me just enough time.
"Are you willing?"
Thundering steps were heard down the hallway. Tomo arrived first, bowing curtly, his high ponytail whisking behind him.
"They are coming along too."
Tomo glaced back as Miyagi skid to a halt beside him.
"Takachi-sama, that one, the tall one, he's one o' the wild boys" he huffed out. Quelling immediately under his superior's glare, "I mean, one of Ryu's crew, only here for further instructions for their party" muttered out Tomo.
Oh, that completely slipped my mind, more money for their lodgings—Takachi snorted inwardly.
He looked over the man who stepped out of the shadows, his long mane catching the moon as piercing eyes stared directly at his. Takachi fished for a name.
"Ma—makoto-san, would you help me across to the canals. It would be a simple matter to return to your inn once we have reached there."
The man seemed to take in the sweat beading Takachi's face and the way his eye's flickered back and fourth to the exit.
He bowed low.
"I will. My life forfeit." He intoned silkily.
The group of five set off, barring the doorway from the outside. The alley stretched ahead, swallowing them into the night.
Moments later a loud knock sounded on the main entrance.
"We are Shinengumi! Open these doors!"
Kyoto: 1879. Noon
The pile of rags, greasy skin, and bones stirred around noon.
"Kuso! Even you're against me!"
The drunkard tottered to his feet, muttering colorfully while his hand shot up to his face—arm shielding his eyes. Though the sky above was overcast and the sun was nowhere to be seen.
His eyes clouded over as he reached for his forehead, another torrent of swear words escaped him. He clutched at the wooden beam he'd lain against for support.
Pulling at the sodden sleeve of his shirt, he wrinkled his nose at the smell of spilt sake. And turned on his feet abruptly, kicking the bottle—which he had, even a few minutes ago, cradled like a child—clear across the street. It shattered on contact with the ground.
The people in the street went on their ways a little faster.
The man stumbled over to the adjoining alley, dragging his feet, and began to whistle loudly to the unmistakable trickle of liquid streaming over stone.
He returned soon after, visibly satisfied. The few people remaining on the street studiously avoided looking at him as they hurried away.
He settled back into his spot on the engawa of the teahouse and went very still. His drooping mud-colored bangs screening his eyes.
The shoji behind him slid open a crack and then snapped back shut. The serving woman inside had pinched her nose in pure disgust, but was unwilling to shoo away the unwelcome guest.
Many people passed by the street on their way towards the bazaar, but the drunkard seldom moved, seeming to consider it too much trouble to extend his arm—for alms, to just anyone. He would stir to the rustle of an expensive kimono or a western style trench coat or suit but without luck.
The day wore on and the clouds converged in the near sky—grumbling away.
Chou padded back to his room. A cackling Saiatsuchi had informed him that his "quarters" were "at the head of the household." The fourth floor was accessible only by one staircase and the cop stood beneath it now.
He'd noted every niche, every corner on his way there. Men entered and exited doors on both sides of the hall at random. Their everyday attire at odds with their muscled physique and the many scarred faces.
The three men that crossed him on their way down confirmed his guess. The muttered "rat" was inevitability.
He climbed the last flight of steps. Few sounds were to be heard here. Walking down the hall he passed by his room.
Dim light streamed onto the walls at the end of the passage. He reached it. The turn in the building overlooked a veranda of sorts, bordered by a wooden rail.
A large courtyard was visible below, hemmed on all but one of its sides by the wings of the building. Men lazed around, stretched in the engawa, or loitering the open stretch of paved ground. Serving girls wound in and out, pitchers and deep mugs in hand. A high brick wall rose farther ahead.
A break, while the master is away, Chou realized. And the sickening thought struck him again.
Shishio—the monster, he's been burned alive once before, if it didn't stopped him then—
These men had to be the stragglers from the madman's army, he surmised. But they would hardly return at Saitsuchi or Iwanbou's call. He vaguely wondered how the "melon-head" had slipped away from his new post. This also disturbed him.
"The power hungry bastard would hardly return to a ghost" Chou muttered.
Could he really be back?
Shoving away the thoughts, Chou surveyed the compound. Grinning as he assured himself that the roof slats were old-fashioned, as was the brickwork—perfect for scaling.
The clouds lurched overhead, rumbling menacingly. His grin reached the lengths of his face as he cocked shut an eye and drew his imaginary escape route.
He swaggered back to his room, the missing swords his only care.
"Sir! Please! Back to your seat. Now! Someone will be with you in a second. But notti—" that was all Tae could manage before she broke off into yet another coughing fit.
Misao burst out of the kitchen that very moment and spotting her temporary boss, tsk tsked her way to the head of the restaurant, the laden tray on her hand forgotten. She handed it to one of the men who were about to return to shouting for proper service and began to pat Tae's back enthusiastically.
The coughs subsided soon after and the "patrons," as Tae put it, were shown to a table and promised "the fastest, most yummy food they had ever had" by the very cheery waitress.
Misao returned to the kitchen, humming to herself. She retrieved the large wooden ladle and began stirring the contents of the cauldron on the counter. She shot the boy beside the open oven, easing out the temperature, a teasing glare.
"Sometime today!" Misao yelled. She turned fully and looked at him when he didn't respond.
"I'm worried about her."
"What's that, Yahiko-chan?"
Grunting, the boy unloaded a heavy pot from the large fire pit, both the girls who were looking his way with vague concern couldn't help but smile.
"Well, weasel, Tae's been like this for over a week now. Hey! Ever since she let you come here to annoy me. That must be it, you made her sick, o' mighty Okashira."
Misao glowered at Yahiko—her finger's itched for the kunai that rested in the back room with her oniwabanshu garb—she crossed her arms, turning away.
"That is—uh, not—Tae-san has been this way for a while now, I think it's just gotten a li-little worse." Tsubame piped out before returning hurriedly to the unsteady tower of dishes piling in the washbasin.
Yahiko spared an exasperated sigh at the girl's shyness before he turned to Misao.
"We should do something about it, ne?"
"I can cure her, just you wait! I know the perfect remedy for wheezes. I had to take care of Okina, remember."
"Uh, Misao-san, I don't th-think Tae-san is wheezing." Tsubame ducked out of view once more, before Yahiko added.
"Yeah, what she needs is a doctor. And now!"
Misao shrugged, then nodded, returning to work. The curtain to the kitchen opened as Tae stomped in, the beginnings of a scowl painted on her usually smiling face.
"What is with you all today? We have hungry customers lined up and you keep gossiping away back here. Misao! I thought you knew how a restaurant was supposed to be run. You can all take a break once the lunch rush is over. Okay? Now hurry!"
Tsubame had shrunken from sight, but Yahiko and Misao advanced on their employer, flanking her.
"I'll be right back kid!"
Misao brushed past Tae—as Yahiko resisted sticking out his tongue at her—running into the restaurant. She was back in a moment, ticking off figures on her fingers.
"Two more orders to go and another three waiting. I told them all that there's a special on the meaty hotpot." She grinned broadly, teasingly, at Yahiko.
"Right, I'm sure you two can handle that much. Right Tsubame? I'll flip the closed sign over on my way out. Come on Tae, we're going to the Oguni!"
Tae looked around flustered at Misao and Yahiko rushing around. The boy was tugging at her sleeve while he shrugged off his apron.
Tae was confused. And there were people out there waiting to eat her food. She had had enough!
"What the heck! What are you up to, you two? I don't need a doctor. I'm fine see kheck—Misao, Yah-hikeh—" and she bent over, hacking coughs shaking her small frame.
Yahiko and Misao exchanged knowing grins.
"Come along Tae. Its time for a little trip to Megumi's."
"Yeah, clinic's not far."
Tae could hold back the questions only as long as it took her to regain her breath.
I am feeling a little light. Maybe—
She stopped herself from yelling any further, it tired her out she realized. Yahiko had tossed open the back door and was dragging her out. Misao ushering her from behind. Tsubame hovered at her shoulder, patting it, unsure and worried.
"We will take care of the place for you Tae-san" she uttered softly but clearly.
Tae expelled a sigh, giving in.
The two made their slow way down the street.
Misao ran through the drapes a couple of times, singing loudly all the while, before all the remaining customers had been served.
Tricks she had picked growing up in a restaurant had come in handy.
The girls came to the front counter to bid the last of the stragglers—patrons—good bye.
As the door clanked shut Misao clapped together her hands happily.
"Well Tsubame-chan, just you and me!"
The smaller girl chuckled nervously as the two retreated to the kitchen, gathering plates and cutlery on their way there.
Sano had finally reached the street that led to the Kamiya dojo. Suddenly, he had second thought about scrounging off a late lunch there. Kaoru's formidable cooking, made worse cold would have made any man stop in his tracks.
Sano however reasoned that it would be unfair to the two, perhaps even the runt, Yahiko, to turn away from the door—which he stood facing now, scratching his head—which to his puzzlement was latched up, locked.
"Perfect!" Spat out Sano.
Kyoto: 1879. Afternoon
"Got some coins to spare—kheck kek—young man?"
The tall man stepped up onto the engawa. The umbrella in his hand collapsed with a sigh, a trail of droplets followed the incline, dripping off in a ribbon.
He spared the beggar a brief glance. And another longer, cooler, warning look as he took off his shoes at the doorway.
He stepped into the teahouse, his trench coat, grayed and sodden with rainwater, rustling as he moved.
The shoji opened onto a dimly lit passage. Booths on both end separated by bamboo slats and white rice paper screens. There were scenes of forests and oceans, dragons and oni and many Kami painted onto the dividers.
"Aah, welcome, welcome master! Allow me, please." The serving woman had, in checking up on the counter caught sight of her first customer of the day. She walked up to him and reached for the wet cloth—and stopped abruptly, as she met his gaze. She stood stilled for another second before—
"Real slow day we are having here," she paused, smiling "as my great aunt would say, no sun and no—." Her stab at conversation was curbed once more by the cool indifference in his gaze.
"What would you like sir?" She inquired stiffly.
"A drink. Something warm." He answered, the words slow and methodic.
"Aah, something to soothe the chills while we wait for this to dry. Some of the new stuff perhaps, or—?"
"Some tea please."
Her face fell slightly at his order. She smiled back at him anyway, and moved to the booth nearest them, sliding open the door she gestured inwards and waited. When he was seated against the table she departed with a little bow.
Aoshi sat against the wall, eyes closed, hands laid flat at his sides. He seemed to be following the sheet of rain marching steadily above him.
His ears pricked at a sudden slight irregularity, a metallic krick-krick-krick amid the heavy drumming.
"Talk" he intoned, almost as a part of the next breath he let out.
"Your network runs strong, I see" returned the rain. "You got here fast."
"Aa, you had to trip all five watchers in the area. The network doesn't seem quite as strong as it used to be."
"This era breeds laziness."
"Ill-effect of peace."
"Talk!" Repeated Aoshi, a decibel louder, the meeting could not be drawn much longer.
"There are things that"—the raspy wind dallied, seemingly unsure, for a moment—"there has been a break in my ranks, it would seem. One specifically known for treason."
"Aa, the swordhunter. Am I right in assuming that he isn't the only Juppongatana on the move?"
"Indeed. The fat one's been spotted around the city, yes?"
Aoshi simply nodded.
"Well Saitsuchi slipped his post about a week ago, but his tongue has been dulling for a while. So the lazy bastards didn't see fit to sift the back-alleys for their verbal blade just yet." The voice continued smoothly. "His apprentice, the giant, returned from his assignment from Hokkaido earlier this month and was engaged in another smaller forest clearing operation."
"Hmm—" Returned Aoshi.
The shoji parted, the slightest bit faster than normal and Aoshi stopped himself from turning his eyes towards the young woman. Crouched down against the sill, she sat with the ornate tray on the ground, telling herself that she had not heard the man talking to himself.
She pushed the tray forward and while reaching for the cup caught the white of parchment in the tall mans hand.
Aah! a poet. He sure looks like one. No wonder he's so quiet.
She beamed at him the next second and concluded pouring and serving as fast as etiquette allowed. She didn't want to remain there and disturb him, and made a show of it.
In a few minutes she was out of the booth, a satisfied smile on her face as she felt the shoji click shut. She sent the main doorway a scowl before returning to her haunt at the front counter.
"Amusing." Came the sarcastic drawl.
"Hmm, as I was saying, there is news." Returned Aoshi, drawing forward the saucer.
"News?" The voice was deeper, graver.
"Yes, another fire."
"A huge one, still growing."
"An estate? Must be far from the city."
"Yes, far. Aoi-Jinja, nearly all of the west by now. It started near Setcu and spread. "
"Setcu? Well—that's where Fuji was brought up to for the week." The voiced remained perfectly even.
"Hmm." The pause was long and marked with barely audible sips. "The giant would be the last to return to that alliance." An even answer was whispered back.
"I agree, and even if he is loyal to the uprising, they would hardly call him away in a rush. Fire or not, Fuji would be very hard to whisk away. Unless—"
"No, I doubt they are that desperate."
"Aa. But Chou, my partner, would have a far easier time slipping away. Except, I can't see much of a welcome for him back at Shishio's camp."
"Agreed. He would be a fool to go back."
"Fool that he is, I doubt he has crawled back. The ahou isn't much of a swordsman but he has a brain ticking away slowly up there."
"Which brings us to the how. He may not have been the best but it would take someone skilled, a team perhaps, to make him disappear like this. And the why."
"Perhaps it would be worth taking a look at Setcu—"
"But assuming that fire was staged by the same party you'd be wasting a day and half."
"Exactly. And there is one other thing."
"Oh? He's been spotted?"
"Yes, he has, the Tenken. He's resurfaced."
"I see. Osaka?"
"Tokyo—" Aoshi paused to return to the last of his tea. "And you are leaving for Sectu when?"
"Soon, but sadly not soon enough."
"I doubt there is very much to follow up on."
"While the city is easier to scour—"
"The forest has many eyes, and just as many ears, I know." Aoshi finished the sentence for him. Rising to his feet and retrieving his coat in a single graceful motion. He turned to the shoji. "That woman will probably want you gone now."
"And you will be her hero?" The sarcasm was back, louder and scratchier. The rain had eased and the winds seemed to whistle and howl in the dark skies speeding the spray.
Without an answer Aoshi drew open the door and stood facing the counter. The woman dutifully produced a little slip of paper, the new tradition, and waited, smiling.
The small sum paid, he moved towards the door to avoid the queries about the quality of the drink and the warnings, to dry up and to avoid the rain, that he could see lining her smile.
As the serving woman reached the engawa, moments later, hoping to catch a last glimpse of her "poet" she could see no sign of him. But to her relief, the beggar was gone too.
She decided to close for the day, trusting the rain to continue through the night.
A tall figure in a pale coat arrowed the wispy water-curtains, rushing through the empty streets of Kyoto.
Chou sat cross legged in front of the shoji. The unnatural glow upon it faded in an instant as the thunder took reign from the lightning. His grip on the metal candle stand tightened as he reached for the screen door.
Chou whipped open the door just as the thunder roared out its last scratchy chord. And was blasted in the face, and then there was darkness as the shoji slammed shut once more.
A strange smile was etched on the cop's face. No fear, only excitement. He breathed in deep. He loved the scent of the wick as it cooled and calmed and blackened, but still held onto its inner fire. The wind had been strong and wet and cold. He loved that too. He'd have fun tonight, Chou decided, and he'd get out of the madhouse too.
He was on his feet once more, tossing open the shoji and strutting out into the storm tossed halls.
This has been sitting in the shelves mostly done for months now. Thanks for hanging around guys. And a few changes to the timing and to place details. I'll edit the earlier chapters soon as I can.