Disclaimer: Kenshin and all his familiar friends are owned by Sony, ADV, Shonen Jump, Watsuki Nobuhiro, Viz, and probably some others I don't know about.
I am just temporarily using them for my own mental exercise, with no profit whatsoever. Did I leave anything out?
Portions of the dialogue (battlefield scene, Arai's house scene) are taken from the English translations of Rurouni Kenshin manga vols. 10 and 21
After reading some other fanfics, when I wrote this, I put in a moderate amount of Japanese. Then I took some out. If you want more, or less, let me know.
Definitons of odd words: ryu—school or style nani?—what? huh? ryō—gold coin worth quite a bit
hanten—short, padded coat
daishō—set of two swords worn by samurai (long one is a katana; shorter one is a wakizashi)
hakama-shita—a ¾ length version of a kimono, worn with hakama
hashi—here, it means chopsticks
mekugi-nuki—little hammer-shaped tool used to insert and remove the pegs in the swords' handles
uchiko—finely ground powder used to clean and polish swords
koiguchi—the rim along the edge of the saya (scabbard)
genpukku—coming of age, somewhere between 12 and 15
mekugi—pegs in the sword handle that hold the blade in
tessen— blunt metal weapon shaped like a closed fan Wakarimasu-ka?—Do you (he,she,it,they,we,I) understand?
irasshaimase—standard greeting from store clerks So ka?—Is that so?
Oh, and the title of this, "Ichirizuka," means 'mileposts'.
by older woman
The opposition had pulled back, but occasional shots could still be heard as their rearguard fought small skirmishes while retreating. Now there were no opponents left for him. Men around him were cheering, "We did it, we won! It's the beginning of a new era!" He bowed his head in relief and murmured, "It's over…I can finally…" But even as he spoke he heard his name called: "Himura, over here! The fourth unit of the Shinsengumi is still fighting strong in Fushimi!" Turning, he looked behind him to where the commander beckoned and he began to run towards the group gathering. A movement to the side caught his eye and he slowed, preparing to defend himself. He let himself relax slightly, seeing that it was just another group of men farther on, also moving towards the larger group to reform for battle, only to stiffen at the sight of a young face watching him from their other side. The commander, seeing him halt abruptly, called, "What's the matter?", but Kenshin ignored him.
"Enishi!" The youth stared across the distance with palpable malice, and then vanished before Kenshin could move towards him. "Enishi. Pure white hair… Is that the form of your pain?... It's not over…" It was with a sense of unreality that Kenshin moved on: had he really seen him? Why would he be here, where the patriots held the ground?
He had to pull his mind back to the fight as the captains inserted the men arriving from the Toba conflict into the ranks already moving south towards Fushimi and the Shinsengumi. As usual, the commander left it to him to decide for himself where he would be most effective. He ranged alongside of the main group as they moved at a quick jog to the aid of their troops already engaged in a heated struggle, steadily working his way towards the center front. As they closed with the enemy's flank, the initial, startling, impact was strengthened by the speed and fury of his own attack. Hiten Mitsurugi was not at its most effective in the close, confused confines of a battle, but over the years, he had acquired a variety of moves from other swordsmen-- both friend and foe—that worked very well, especially when combined with the speed and power of his own ryu. As he slashed his way through the soldiers turning to face the new threat, the men behind him surged into the gap and the fighting spread into myriad individual conflicts…
Victory was declared by late afternoon. The January sun was nearing the horizon and the sun's red glow intensified the already bloody scene. A breeze was picking up. Kenshin shuddered as it whipped his clothing, sodden with sweat and blood. His hair was dank and matted from the exertions of the day. For warmth, he pulled Tomoe's shawl up over his head and wrapped it across the bottom of his face. He looked out over the chaos of the battlefield; it was fairly quiet now, most of the wounded had been removed and the dead would be dealt with tomorrow. Those few living still on the field were indistinct in the approaching dusk. Is this, finally, the end? Will I be able to stop killing? As the thought came to him, the world and time seemed to shift around him, and the bodies thick on the field seemed to him to be those he saw so often in dreams: his dead, those he had killed over the years, taunting him: "You will never stop. You'll always be a murderer. And when you join us, we'll welcome you as you deserve!"
Kenshin raised a hand to his eyes and the movement seemed to settle the world back into place. With sudden hate, he plunged his bloody katana into the ground, determined to leave it on the field with its victims. He began to stride away, but as he moved, his steps slowed…and he finally stopped altogether, his head hanging. He could feel its silent reproach behind him. A sword embodies the spirit of its samurai. If this sword has been one of slaughter, it has merely been the reflection of the will of the one wielding it. It has fulfilled its duty and is worthy of respect. I…cannot discard it in such a fashion. Reluctantly, he turned back to where the sword shone crimson and black in the dying light. He wrenched his blade back out of the earth and straightened up in decision. This battle would turn the tide decisively in the Imperialists' favor; they could manage without him. He would leave, just as he had told Katsura-san so long ago. He wiped the blade and sheathed it, and strode away from the carnage, feeling part of the weight lift from his heart.
Kenshin spent the night in Fushimi, in the smallest inn he could find. He had nothing with him: what little he owned was back in Kyōto. The innkeeper, looking at the swords at his waist and the blood on his clothing, was afraid to offend and readily accepted his offer of work in return for a night's lodging. So after cleaning his daishō as best he could, bathing, and scrubbing his clothes relatively clean, he spread his clothes close to the brazier. Departing from his usual sleeping position propped against the wall, he crawled onto the futon and wrapped the cover around him as tightly as possible for warmth. As his body settled and his attention was no longer distracted by immediate action, the nightly battle between conscience and circumstances began, pulling at his emotions and making his stomach hurt. Eventually, exhaustion triumphed over psyche and he slept heavily for a couple hours before the dreams began, the blood-red of the freshly killed merging with the bone-white of past victims, all calling for their own tenchu, indignant that he had taken it upon himself to decide the gods' will.
He woke before dawn, still tired. Rising, he pulled on his kimono--still slightly damp, but warm—and tucked it up into his obi. His hakama was completely dry and felt good against his legs. There came the sound of footsteps in the corridor and he was ready for the cough outside his room. "I will come right away," he spoke before the owner could ask. The fur boots he had fought in were still a mess, but would have to do. At least the soles were clean and would not distress the landlord with dirty floors. His hanten and the shawl he left to dry a little longer. He would need their warmth on the way back to Kyōto.
When he got downstairs, the owner's wife put him to work bringing in wood and water and building up the fire as she prepared the morning's meal for their guests. As he washed the dishes after the meal, he could catch part of the couple's conversation through the thin wall…something about 'the samurai'…'manners'...'surprise.' He hoped they would not continue to speculate on him once he was gone. Let him be as anonymous as possible. Today he had used the cloth kept to clean his sword to cover the hair tied up on his head, both for warmth and to hide the tell-tale red.
By mid-morning, he had worked off his debt and was ready to return to Kyōto. The roadway was busy again. For several days it had been empty of ordinary people: no one wanted to be caught in the midst of two armies. In that amazing way it had, the news had spread overnight to the entire area. The road was busy and noisy with the chatter of travelers, but the fields to either side were lying fallow in the stillness of winter. In Chōshū, in Ōtsu, this is the time we kept close to the house and planned for spring. Repairing tools, working straw, and eking out our food… But that thought led to the next: This is when I killed my wife! Wrenched by the heart-pain that followed, he willed his mind to turn to other things. Though the ground here below was frozen hard but clean of snow, the surrounding mountains were still shaggy and white with the snow on the trees. The sky was a clear blue, but it was colder than it had been. He walked quickly: it kept him warm and he had much to do before he could put Kyōto behind him.
He had decided to leave. It would do no good to simply stand back from any further conflicts as long as he daily passed through places that held the memory of death that he had dealt. Then, too, there were still a few men left that remembered him as the hitokiri. Many of the men he had known then had died in the Kinmon no Hen, or the Chōshū War on Four Sides, and the recruits since knew him only as a free-striking swordsman. But the memories burned whenever he encountered those few and saw the recognition in their eyes. And, ever since Iizuka, his description would occasionally resurface. Yes, to change his life—to begin again and make restitution—he would have to leave…
He was nearly to the city. Ahead he could see the top of Tōji's pagoda. He should be back at his lodging within the hour. If all went smoothly, perhaps he could leave early tomorrow.
When he reached the southern check station, it appeared to be empty. Other than that, once in the city, nothing seemed to have changed to show that a decisive battle had just been fought not too far away. But then, Kyōto had gone through so many changes in the last years that its citizens tried their best to live ordinary lives while power shifted like the seasons. For all they knew, the Bakufu might return in a matter of weeks, or months, and anyone who had rejoiced with the patriots would regret it. Safer not to show a preference.
The row house Kenshin lived in was close to the center of the city on a narrow side street. When he had returned from Ōtsu, he had wanted to be alone. And since the traitor Iizuka had betrayed him to the enemy, it was felt that both he and the rest of the Chōshū Loyalists would be safer if he lived at some distance. Before, he had received room, board, and a small amount of spending money for clothes and supplies in return for his services. Now he received a larger sum to cover rent, food, and expenses.
The cold in his room met him as he slid open the wooden door and entered, removing his boots. His room was on the north of the building, and without direct sun through the window, it was even colder than outside. Stooping, he lit the wood and charcoal in the brazier and sat cross-legged before it, his swords next to him, watching the flames and planning as the room warmed. Sitting so close, he was soon warm enough to uncover his head, unwind the shawl from around his neck, and remove his hanten. He folded them and set them next to the chest that was one of the three pieces of furniture in the room. He lifted the lid and pulled out the rest of his clothing and some extra cloth, looking it over carefully. If I am to travel now, I will have to replace the hanten: too many tears from the fighting. This hakama, too, will have to be used for cloths. This kimono, my other hakama and kimono will do. And my hakama-shita is fine. So, perhaps, just a hanten and hakama is needed. And perhaps a better pair of geta…
The room was small enough that it warmed quickly. He stacked the clothes in a neat pile by the chest and moved away to the shelf where he kept his food. Still some rice…a few sweet potatoes…some turnips. I will need to buy more food. I do not think I will be able to leave so quickly as I had hoped. He pulled two pots down from another shelf and scooped a handful of rice into one. He had to break a thin film of ice on his bucket of water before he poured some into the pots. He covered them both and set them on a grill over the brazier—that would take care of his next meal. In the time it took to cook, he would get ready for the evening's errand.
From inside the chest, he removed a jar of oil, a can of powder, some cloth and some paper and his mekugi-nuki and lined them up in a row. Rising, he went over and picked up his katana and wakizashi and returned to the spot by the chest. He knelt and sat on his heels. Placing the wakizashi in front of him, he slanted the katana across his lap. Holding the saya, he gently withdrew the blade. He tapped the koiguchi on his thigh to dump out any dust and set the saya to his left. He paused and regarded the blade he held in his right hand. I remember when Katsura-san gifted me with the daishō on my fourteenth birthday to celebrate my coming of age…
Everything was still new enough to Kenshin that he did not realize how unusual it was for him to be sitting alone with Katsura and Takasugi at dinner. After all, he had done it once before while still in Chōshū. That was when Katsura had asked him if he would kill for the cause. He had said that he was willing, but so far had done little more than learn the streets and become accustomed to being constantly surrounded with people. Perhaps tonight that would change…
As the meal came to an end, the lacquer trays were removed by a servant and with a brushing movement of his hand, Katsura indicated that he was done with idle chat.
"Himura-chan, today you are 14, correct?"
"This, then, will be your genpukku." He rose and crossed to the tokonoma where a set of swords rested in a stand below a calligraphy scroll. Removing them, he returned to his place and knelt down formally, facing Kenshin. Kenshin, his eyes wide, followed his example and shifted from sitting to kneeling.
"When you came to us, you had your skill, but no sword of your own. You were still a child. Today you become responsible for yourself and your actions. Now, I ask you again: are you willing to fight in our cause, and kill when it is deemed necessary? Are you willing to die?"
Feeling the weight of the occasion and the possible consequences of the commitment he was being asked to make now-- as an adult--, he sat silent for a moment. This is why I left Shishou. This is how I can help those who cannot stand for themselves…Killing, dying-- I can do it if it will change things for the better. He raised his head and met Katsura's eyes as Takasugi watched with interest from the side.
"Aa. I am willing to do these things."
At his words, Katsura held out the daishō. "Then you must have weapons to match your skill and the work you will be called upon to do. Please receive these as a gift from me." He held them out towards the young man who, in stunned amazement, bowed to the ground.
"Katsura-sensei, you are gracious to give such a gift to one so young and unworthy. I will do my best to bring honor to your trust." And raising up, he received the daishō with reverent hands.
Katsura smiled with pleasure at Kenshin's reaction and looked over at Takasugi, who nodded and spoke: "Now that you have a sword, you must be able to wear it anywhere and at anytime with no questions asked." He removed a scroll from his sleeve and handed it to Katsura, who in turn held it out towards Kenshin. "We have arranged for you to be given the rank of a lower-samurai in order that you may more efficiently aid us." Smiling more broadly, Katsura added, "You see? I have remembered our conversations on the way to Kyoto."
Kenshin bowed low once again, but it took him a moment to be able to express himself. "I have no words for my gratitude. You have given honor back to my family. May you be blessed for your kindness."
"Sit up, sit up. Look at the document…" As Kenshin did as he was told, Katsura continued, "Now you truly are Himura Kenshin."
So much joy that night…followed so soon by such distress as I filled the role they gave me. Coming back to the present, Kenshin picked up the paper and began to slowly draw it down the blade he had been so proud of and now loathed. It was an excellent katana: even with all the use it had, it held its edge well. Even now, there were very few nicks. But, then he had always treated it well: the sharper the edge, the swifter and more merciful the death. Tomoe had died quickly.
With the next several strokes, he focused entirely on the process and stopped the familiar cycle of thought. He picked up the small can of uchiko and sprinkled a little sparingly along the katana's length and repeated the careful strokes with another piece of paper. He wanted the weapon to look as close to its original state as it could. When it was clean, he tightened the seating of the mekugi, as the fighting the last days had loosened it slightly. Now it was ready to oil. He had always enjoyed the scent of clove, and inhaled deeply as he wiped the blade evenly with the oiled cloth. When he was satisfied with the results, he picked up the saya and gently resheathed the blade. He had been able to wipe off the tsuka pretty thoroughly the night before, but inspected it once again. Finally laying the katana aside, he repeated the process with the wakizashi.
The rice had steamed long enough. Kenshin rose and tilted the small table down from where it leaned against the wall. He dipped a cloth in the bucket and washed his hands and face. Then fetching his cup and bowl and hashi from the shelf, he scraped some rice into the bowl and set it on the table to cool while he went back to the shelf for a turnip and some tea. As he settled to eat while the tea steeped, his mind was calm and he enjoyed the mild softness of the rice as it contrasted with the crunch and strong flavor of the turnip. Today, he did not taste blood. When he drank, he could feel the warmth of the tea spreading through his body. He had enjoyed the methodical steps of cleaning his weapons and the ordinary movements of preparing his meal. Ritual soothed him and allowed his busy thoughts to still. After nearly four and a half years, it was still somewhat wearing to be in the midst of so many people, having to deal with their demands and expectations. When he was alone, he did not have to worry about alarming or distressing someone if his mood turned dark. Or having a rare good mood ruined by the injustice and thoughtless cruelty he saw so often around him.
His meal over, he rinsed his dishes and hashi before returning them to the shelf. It would be cold enough that he could leave the rice on the table, but first he spread a cloth on the table and shaped some rice balls that he placed upon it and carefully wrapped.
It was midafternoon now: he had heard the temple bells sounding the beginning of the hour of the Sheep. He removed the hakama that was no longer respectable and set it in the corner to be taken to the dealer. He wanted to look his best. I cannot wear the hanten…Perhaps if I wear the hakama-shita beneath my other kimono; that should be warm enough. Making the change, he had to smile at the added bulk: it seemed sometimes as though everyone commented on his slenderness. This should temporarily silence them! Untying his hair, it was once more to a shelf to get his comb. After washing it and sleeping on it, his hair was a mass of knots and it took time and patience to work them loose before he put it back up into a high club and wrapped it once again with a cloth. As he put the comb back, he took down a jar that had once held tea and shook out some coins into his hand. Putting some back, he slipped the rest into his sleeve. He picked up his wife's shawl from where it lay and once again wrapped it around his neck and shoulders. He banked the coals in the brazier. He picked up his weapons and settled them into the ties of his hakama. Finally, he picked up the small bundle of food. Now he was ready. He slid open the door and stepped back out into the bright sun of the winter afternoon.
There was a market area just two streets away from the row house and that was where Kenshin was heading. As he walked rapidly along, he ignored the occasional sidelong look he got from strangers made nervous by touchy samurai. Most of the people who patronized these stores were from the area and were so accustomed to seeing him that they ignored him in turn. Ducking his head slightly to pass under the noren of a small shop, he found the young woman in charge.
"Irasshaimase!" she bowed. "What may I help you find?"
"Dōzo, I would like a bundle of incense."
"Oh, aa. We have many fragrances. Allow me to show you what we have." She smiled and led him towards shelves filled with bundles and sticks. "Is there a particular scent you desire?"
Her phrasing wrenched at Kenshin's heart— that he desired…—but keeping his face still, he replied after the barest moment, "Do you have white plum?"
She hesitated. "We have many floral scents, but I am not sure if we have that one. It is a rather unusual one for incense." She searched through the shelves and finally turned triumphantly with two bundles in her hand. "Would you like them both?"
"One will do." She wrapped the bundle in paper as he counted out the coins. He barely acknowledged her "Dōmo arigatō," as he left the store and headed west along Takatsuji-dori towards Bukkoji.
As he passed through the temple gate, he paused at the basin to rinse his hands and lips, remembering Tomoe as they visited the temple at Ōtsu. Bracing himself, he slowly moved towards the small cemetery at the edge of the grounds.
Her stone tablet looked small and insignificant tucked between the family memorials, but it had been all he could afford after returning to Kyoto. He could not let her just vanish into his mind alone: there must be some physical sign that she had lived.
He knelt before the stone and placed the bundle of rice balls before it and then lit the incense, watching as the smoke rose in the still, cold air. If anyone asked, he could not say that he believed in these gestures, but they would have meaning for his wife, who had been a sincere Buddhist.
His heart ached and his eyes stung as he looked up into the sharp blue sky. His thoughts were fragmented with his grief and guilt. Tomoe…You are not here-- I killed you! I burnt you.--this-- is just a stone… He clenched his fists as the tears ran down his face. He had not been able to bring himself to come to this place since the stone had been set. Yet another failing on his part. If you have indeed come back to this world, I hope that your new life will treat you more kindly, that you will have happiness. Perhaps you will find Kyosato once again... I am leaving now to fulfill the promise I made you. I will not kill…I will make restitution as best I can. I will keep this promise, though I failed you before.
Though he knelt there for a long while, he felt no absolution, no faint ghostly presence that he had sometimes imagined in quiet moments. There was only the muted sound of the monks chanting in the temple. With a sigh, he rose and went back to the basin for the dipper. As he poured the water over the stone he had a brief flash of memory—Shishou pouring sake over three stones—and murmured, "Sayonara." Returning the dipper to its place, he left the temple behind, but not the memories.
The most difficult visit was behind him now, and the next would be quickly reached. But Kenshin walked slowly, pausing to watch the river, allowing himself to reach an emotional balance again. This was the part of town most familiar to him, the hardest for him. Chōshū headquarters had been on this road and within a few blocks had been the Kohagi-ya where he had lived with the other men. Both had burnt in the fires. To reach the house where Katsura was staying, he would cross the Kamogawa at either Shijo-Ohashi or Sanjo-Ohashi---both, haunted bridges for him. Just before Sanjo, he would pass the Ikeda-ya where treachery had led to so many deaths both that night and in the later battle. And the bridge itself had seen several of his running fights with the Shinsengumi. On Shijo, he would see the face of the man he had slain whose blood had spread across the planks and dripped into the river. Iizuka had joined him on the banks that night and praised his skill.
Kenshin continued along the river, choosing to cross at Sanjo. The river farther down mirrored the blue of the sky. Blue above, blue below. All the rest was neutral, from the tan of the dregs of ice in the shadows, to the gray of the stone pavement and the browns of buildings and barren trees. Even the people passing by seemed to merge into the scene with their black hair and dark winter clothes.
Now he was moving towards the base of the mountains where many of the wealthy and important shared space with shrines and temples. Tall evergreens and feathery bamboo began to relieve the monochromatic landscape and soften the lines of the tall wooden or plaster walls around the compounds. Katsura's gate was closed, of course. The gate at this house was heavier than many and great care was taken with security. Despite the Loyalist's victories—or because of them--, their leaders' lives were always in jeopardy. He rapped on the gate, knowing that he would have been spotted while he was still at some distance from the house.The gate was swung open and he was faced by one of Katsura's armed house guards, hand on sword. The guard's eyes widened with recognition and he bowed.
"Himura-san! Katsura-san will be very pleased to see you! No one seemed to know where you were after Fushimi. Please to come in." The other guard standing behind the partially opened gate relaxed and they both stepped back to allow Kenshin entrance. Once in, the first guard preceded him up the nobedan and up onto the engawa. As their steps resonated on the boards, a household servant slid the main door open and offered greetings.
"Himura-san! It is good to see you again. Katsura-san is in the main room. May I take you to him?"
Kenshin moved into the entry and slid off his straw zori as the guard retreated back to his post. Once he was ready, the woman moved quietly off down the corridor with Kenshin following soft-footed. They turned the corner of the building and went part way down the next side before coming to the main room. Despite the cold weather outside, a panel of the corridor wall had been opened, as had the room's shōji. The room, though chill, was bright with southern light and a pleasing view of the garden. Katsura sat at a low table facing the view, head down, writing.
The servant knelt and bowing, spoke: "Katsura-san. It is Himura-san that has arrived."
Katsura looked up quickly at her words and smiled with pleasure to see Kenshin standing there. He rose and came towards his guest, dismissing the woman with a wave of his hand once she had moved his writing materials from the table. He was a tall, handsome man who towered over his young visitor. Briefly setting his hand on Kenshin's shoulder, he welcomed him to his home.
"Himura-chan! I am relieved to see you! I was concerned that something may have happened to you. But here you are, apparently in good health. Sit down with me and let us talk."
The two men settled themselves on either side of the table and spoke desultorily for a time of the weather and the garden. They were a study in contrasts as they sat there: the well-dressed older man of large stature and the short, slender young man with his neat but well-worn garments. But they were alike, too: both soft-spoken, both accomplished swordsmen, both firm in their commitment to a cause.
Eventually the talk turned to the recent battle as Katsura questioned Kenshin closely on what he had seen. Kenshin responded with as much detail and objectivity as he found possible. Katsura already knew from previous conversations that though he was committed and reliable, he hated every battle he fought, especially the unnecessary deaths caused by the unwillingness to take or be taken prisoner. But that was one of the reasons that Katsura valued his opinions. Kenshin had no desire for personal glory or vengeance; he fought with the sole aim of bringing an end to the shogunate and its oppression.
"It seems to me that the Bakufu has received the killing blow with this battle. Anything else will simply be the final spasms of its death throes," Kenshin concluded and fell silent. How unreal life often seems. I'm sitting here in a fine house with a peaceful garden when just yesterday I was covered in blood and surrounded by bodies. Life is there and then it's not…
Katsura watched regretfully as his guest sat silently, staring out to the garden. He was accustomed to the occasional pauses that fell in conversations with Kenshin, when the young man seemed distracted by things unseen. It was just one of the changes wrought in Kenshin by the path on which Katsura himself had placed him. After a moment, he responded to Kenshin's last statement as though there had been no interruption.
"I agree with you. The Bakufu has steadily weakened over the past several months. And now that Yoshinobu has surrendered authority to the Emperor, their presence in Kyōto is minimal. Now, with Toba Fushimi, Yoshinobu is pulling back to Edo for a last attempt to preserve face."
Kenshin nodded acknowledgment, but continued to gaze at the garden pensively. Katsura contemplated the scene as well, wondering what his friend saw. The light had shifted and softened to a gold that edged the trees and bushes and traced the ripples in the koi pond where the fish rose to investigate the sparkles. But even as they watched, the gold dulled and the shadows grew heavier as the sun continued its slide. The room grew cold.
Katsura clapped his hands twice and the inner shōji slid open to reveal the serving woman kneeling in the doorway. "Bring some hot sake. And bring the evening meal as soon as it is ready." The woman bowed and slid the screen shut as he stood to light the lamps with a coal from the brazier. As though the oncoming night had released his thoughts, Kenshin sighed and focused on the older man as he closed the outer door and then the shōji. His hand rested on the familiar shape of the katana lying beside him. When Katsura had reseated himself at the table, Kenshin spoke:
"Katsura-sensei, three years ago when you asked me to stay and fight, I agreed. It would have dishonored all those I killed so that the new age could begin if I had walked away before the fight was complete. But we have both agreed that the old age is close enough to death to not recover, and the new day will soon begin. I am leaving."
Dismay combined with affection in the exclamation, "Kenshin! Don't rush into this…" He leaned back and ceased speaking as a brief knock came on the shoji. "Hai!" With his word, the shōji slid open and the servant brought in the tray of sake and set the bottle and cups on the table before bowing and exiting quietly, sliding the door shut behind her. Katsura picked up the flask and filled Kenshin's cup.
"There will still be a need for you…The new government will need reliable, honest men who understand the price that has been paid---who have helped pay that price. I can find you a position…"
"Iie," Kenshin cut him off as he leaned forward to pour for Katsura, "Even if I were interested, I know that if I had not surprised you, you would not have made the offer. A hitokiri as a government official? Everyone with any feeling would cry out in protest! I have no desire for people to know my name, or to learn my background, as they eventually would." He lifted the katana onto his lap and regarded it solemnly before sipping the warm sake. Katsura raised his cup and drank as well.
"I must admit, you are right in your evaluation of both me and the people. And yet, there are certainly things you could do. In the police force perhaps, or the military?"
"I will not kill again. Battousai will disappear back into the shadows. I was pleased to hear that no one was sure of what had happened to me in battle. I have tried not to draw attention today," and he tugged gently on the cloth that wrapped his head.
Katsura raised a brow and dryly remarked, "There is still a rather noticeable scar…"
The younger man's lips twitched and he gave his head a brief shake. "The scar is nothing of itself; there are badly scarred men all over town. The hair is the first thing anyone notices. It is the thing that causes them to take a second, closer look." His expression turned serious once again. "I have kept my promise to you. Now it is time for me to keep another promise. I will do what I can to help ordinary people live in peace and safety during Meiji. And so, I will no longer need these blades."
With that, he shifted to a formal kneeling position and, raising the katana while bowing his head, presented the sword to his mentor across the table. Katsura reluctantly reached out to receive it as Kenshin raised his head and met his eyes directly, "You honored me with the gift of this daishō. In returning it to you, I have no wish to belittle that gift, or deny its importance to me. But I can no longer use it, and it is too valuable to go to waste. Please accept it back with my great respect." And he also withdrew the wakizashi from his ties to hand to Katsura who placed them both to his right.
They were interrupted again by a knock as the woman entered the room with their meal. The men sat back in silence as she placed the dishes in an attractive pattern on the table and refilled their empty cups before she bowed and left the room again without a word. Katsura picked up his hashi and began to eat. Kenshin followed suit as he waited to see what the response would be.
"So. Where will you go?"
"I think I will just wander for a while. I have a very limited knowledge of our country. After having read some of the books you have loaned me, I would like to see more. It would be good to see ordinary towns that have not been torn apart by fighting. I hope to leave tomorrow." He felt an unaccustomed sense of anticipation as he spoke of his plans. It added savor to the meal that was much more elaborate than his usual fare. There was bream and shrimp, okra and sushi, chrysanthemum rice, and even mandarin oranges.
Katsura watched his young friend eat, pleased that for the moment there were no shadows. But he had to ask…"And how will you keep yourself while wandering?"
Kenshin looked up from reaching for a shrimp and raised his brows in question, "Nani?"
"How will you provide for yourself? Where will you get money?"
"I have some saved. When it's gone, I'll look for work."
Katsura shook his head slightly and smiled. "Most of the time, I forget how young you are. But every once in a while…"
Kenshin had an odd moment of déjà vu, remembering a similar expression on Shishou's face just before he referred to him as "baka deshi." It had been a long time since he'd felt that uncomfortable uncertainty. "And what have I just done to remind you of that fact?"
The older man sat back and folded his arms. "It is your optimism. I don't know how much you've been able to save, but depending on where you go, it may not last as long as you think. And you will have lots of competition for work. But I am pleased to see it there, even so." He smiled, sat forward and picked up his hashi once again. "For now, let's just enjoy the food: you may not eat this well again for quite a while."
The rest of the meal was eaten with little conversation beyond comments on the food. Katsura ate with a thoughtful expression that piqued Kenshin's curiosity. What was going on in that cunning mind? He was determined not to be persuaded into staying…
As they finished their tea and the woman came in to remove their dishes, Katsura excused himself and left the room with the daishō. Kenshin sat and appreciated the moment: he was in a large and attractive room, he was warm and comfortably full, he liked and respected his host, and he no longer bore the weight of a killing sword. He could not remember the last time he had felt so hopeful.
He heard the soft shsh of tabi approaching the door, and Katsura entered carrying a slim book and a small bag which he set on the table before retrieving his writing materials from the top of a chest. He settled back down across from Kenshin and rested his hands on his knees before speaking in a business-like tone.
"You have been in the service of Chōshū for nearly five years. And though we have made extensive use of your remarkable skills, you have only been paid as a regular fighter." Kenshin opened his mouth to speak, but Katsura held up his hand and continued on. "I know it was by your own choice, and I know there were brief exceptions. But the fact remains that other assassins—such as 'The Butcher'—made a great deal of money through bounties on those they slew." Another palm up to stop Kenshin's protest. "And I know that you have never been like those others. It has not been a sport for you, a game, only a duty. Which, I believe, is one reason that you are still living and they are not. I also believe that Chōshū owes you more than it has given. That I owe you more than I know you will accept."
He opened the small bag and poured out a pile of gold coins. "Ten ryō. Money for emergencies or when you cannot find work. Consider it part of the yearly payment you should receive as samurai." He scooped up the coins and dropped them back in the bag, which he pushed in front of Kenshin. Picking up the book, he held it for Kenshin to see: it was a book of poetry—Basho. "When life is spent dealing with necessities, beauty and reflection are vital to refresh the soul." He placed it in front of Kenshin also and then pulled a piece of paper towards him as he picked up his brush. Dipping it in ink and beginning to write, he explained, "Once the new government is firmly established, these passes may no longer be necessary, but until then, this will keep you from being declared outlaw or ronin." As it was passed to him, Kenshin skimmed it and found that it was a document declaring him to be a Chōshū samurai authorized to travel wherever necessary for an unspecified period of time.
He was stunned and speechless, looking at Katsura with amazement. Katsura merely smiled, but then, sobering, told Kenshin. "If you do not accept these things, I will be offended. This is a debt that I feel is owed to you, and I will lose face if it is not paid." And with those words, he effectively stifled any protests or denials Kenshin could make.
Once Kenshin had looked at the paper, Katsura took it back and stamped it with his seal as Kenshin stammered his thanks. Pushing it to the side to finish drying, he placed his palms down on the table. "There are two more things I need to speak to you about. Earlier, you mentioned your hair…"
"Hai?" This was a rather odd topic…
"Just recently we have received notice that a decree has been made that samurai are to no longer wear their hair pulled up. It will be published and posted within the week. If you do not change, it will be more than just the color that draws attention."
"I have no problem with changing. Perhaps it is a good sign if we wear our hair like everyone else. And the other matter?"
"There is something I would like you to do before you leave tomorrow."
What will Katsura-sensei ask? All my past assignments have involved the use of my sword…
"What may I do for you?"
"You are acquainted with Arai Shakku, the swordsmith? He has provided quite a few weapons for the Ishin Shishi over the years."
"Hai. I've seen him coming and going, doing repairs. And spoken to him once or twice."
"He is the one that forged the swords that you have returned to me. The last I spoke to him, he was telling me about several unusual swords he has made these last years. Lethal things, most of them, but hard to use. However, I believe I've found a use for one. Will you take a message to him for me? He lives on the southeast edge of the city, but if you went very early, you should still be able to leave tomorrow, as you desire."
Kenshin rubbed his neck in consideration. "If you feel that it is not something you can entrust to your regular people, I would be most willing to do it. Do you not wish it to be known? Is there a need for caution?"
Katsura folded his arms as an odd smile appeared on his face. "Let me say that I would prefer that you not be seen. Another reason why the very early morning would be a good time."
"Ah, sō ka? Then give me your message and I will take it before dawn."
Katsura drew another piece of paper in front of him, and after remixing the ink with his brush, proceeded to write the letter. Kenshin was careful to keep his eyes away from what was written and occupied his mind with planning his next day's schedule. He looked up when he heard the rustle of paper being folded. Katsura held a bar of wax over the candle in the lamp near the table and dripped some on the note, sealing it with his stamp. As Kenshin reached out to take it and slip it in his sleeve, he caught the low tone of a distant bell: it must already be the hour of the Dog! He started up from his place and bowed.
"Gomen nasai, Katsura-sensei. I did not intend to take up so much of your time! Please forgive me."
The older man rose at an unhurried pace and responded, "I have enjoyed your company and am sorry you are leaving. I would try to keep you longer, but I do have things that must be done tonight. And you have your journey to prepare for. I'll make sure no one here speaks of your visit. If you find it convenient on your travels, perhaps you would write occasionally and tell me what you see."
Kenshin slipped his warrant into a sleeve, the money into his obi, and picking up the book, followed his host to the front of the house where he bowed once again. "Katsura-sensei. Dōmo arigatō gozaimashita. I am grateful for the gifts, and for all you have done for me these years. I look forward to the new government that you and the others will create. Sayonara."
The de facto head of Chōshū stood at the door and watched his visitor walk down the path and vanish out the gate—into the shadows, just as he had said. Kenshin had thanked Katsura for all that he had done, but Katsura knew that all the books he had loaned, dinners shared, or small favors offered would never balance out the grief and guilt that his decisions had engraved in the younger man's heart.
Kenshin was restless. It was too late for the shops he needed to go to, but if he went home, he would not sleep: he was tight with anticipation. Rather than going back towards the city center, he followed the road east further up the slope and took the dog-leg that would bring him to the Path of Philosophy. There were few lights up here—an occasional glow through the trees from a temple. But it didn't matter. The moon was full and the world was black and white with crisp edges to silhouettes and shadows. The moon kept pace with him, floating along the canal as he walked the bank. Sometimes the shadows of the tree limbs would try to trap it, but it always slipped through their net and continued at his side.
It was odd to be out at night, and swordless. Bright nights like these had made the killing harder; he looked for shadowed places where he would be harder to see and where the aftermath of his work would not be so clear in his sight. He paused at a spot where a property wall ended and he could look down onto the spread of the city. Most of the lights were like fireflies, but there were larger clusters that marked temples or shrines. The most lights shone at the Imperial Palace and at Gion.
He continued on, thinking about the evening with Katsura. He remembered the moment when he had been reminded of Shishou—the amused smile, the chuckle at his naiveté. Funny how he had never before noticed how similar the two men were: persuasive, cultured, tall, and single-minded in their pursuit of a goal. They would probably get along well with each other…
The night was very still. No wind to rattle branches and too cold for insects. The high walls and evergreens muted any sounds of people. His thoughts drifted like the moon, through the shadows of his past. His family; the people who took him in briefly; the slavers; the bandits; Shishou; Katsura and the Shishi; Tomoe. And as though this night's moon made all things clear, he saw that although he often felt lonely, he had never been entirely on his own. Never made all my own decisions; never had complete power over my own actions. Just as the country was facing a new beginning, so, too, would tomorrow bring him an entirely different life.
It was as he passed Honen-in that the skin along his spine and shoulders began to prickle with an awareness of desperate intent. He listened carefully and soon caught the faint sound of bare feet stepping softly. He began to move his hand to his hip, only to remember that he no longer had a sword. The footfalls sped up and in that moment, Kenshin knew that this was an amateur attacking: the idiot had let his shadow fall before him, so that Kenshin could see an upraised arm holding something too short to be a sword. As soon as he could hear the assailant's breathing, Kenshin stepped to his right and turned slightly towards him, grabbing the upraised arm with his right hand and pulling him in the direction he was already going. The attacker's balance shifted and Kenshin bore down on the arm. As the man bent, Kenshin swung his left leg over the man's right shoulder, forcing him to kneel. Twisting the arm up and back took him the rest of the way down, onto his stomach, and allowed Kenshin to remove his weapon. It was a tessen; the man might have knocked him unconscious, but unless he knew more about fighting than he seemed to, death was unlikely. So, if he wasn't trying to kill him…robbery? That was a novel thought: this was the first night he'd ever carried any amount worth stealing.
As he stood there, considering, he could feel his prisoner trembling. Dismayed, it suddenly occurred to him that he was not really sure what to do next. Whether as assassin, bodyguard, or soldier, all his previous fights had ended in an opponent's death. But now he had taken an oath not to kill…and yet, if he let him go, what was to keep him from harming others? Plus, there was the added problem that if he truly intended to 'just disappear,' it would not be wise to show up at the police station tonight with a criminal in tow.
The trembling was getting worse. Kenshin eased up on the arm, but placed a foot firmly on the back. "Why did you attack me?"
His assailant shifted his head to the side and answered in a shaky voice, "I needed money. I saw the wallet you are carrying." Something about the voice made Kenshin carefully lean over to get a better look at the face. It still had the youthful fullness and smooth skin of a young boy; he looked to be about 13. Kenshin removed his foot from the boy's back.
"Baka! I could have killed you! Sit up." He released the arm, but stood ready with the tessen in case the boy tried something else foolish.
"I thought it would work! You didn't have any weapons and you're a lot smaller than me…"
The incredible ignorance in the words made Kenshin want to shake the child. This must have been his first try at robbery, or someone else surely would have already killed him.
"Do you have no sense? You can't judge by appearances! There are men—even small men, like me—who can kill with their hands. Many carry hidden weapons. If you see someone walking alone, it's not always because they are stupid; it may be because they are confident that they can take care of themselves in any situation. Look at my clothes! They are not the clothes of a person with money. And that wallet that you thought you saw was a book." He gestured to where it lay in the dirt. "You could have died for a book."
Standing there with his arms crossed, looking down at the sniveling boy into whose skull he was trying to drive some sense, he felt a brief moment of sympathy for Shishou. If I was ever this ignorant, I truly was 'baka deshi'.
"But I have to have money! And I have no other way…" The sniffs were turning to actual tears now.
I don't think I was ever that young. This boy should be home. In a milder tone, Kenshin asked, "What causes this desperate need for money?"
"My family fell into debt and so they sold me into service. But I hate it! My master is cruel and beats me! I've run away, but I can't go home: they'd just have to send me back. I want to leave Kyōto, but I need money!"
Foolish as he is, how can I not help? I've lost family. I've been sold for debts...I've said that I want to help the poor and unfairly treated; no person should be bought or sold as though they were shoes or sweet potatoes. So, what do I do? He stood pensively looking down at the hopeless youth while turning over possibilities in his mind. He couldn't actually afford to give the boy any of his own money. But perhaps…
He nudged the hunched form with his toe, "Oi! In what part of Kyōto does your master live?"
The dark head raised and a sleeve was drawn across the runny nose. "North and west of here. Not too far from the Imperial Palace."
"Good. Are you willing to stay in Kyōto for a while—at some distance from your master—and earn the money?"
After the barest hesitation, the boy nodded. Kenshin slipped the tessen into his obi and walked over to pick up his book and brush it off. Walking back past the boy, he said, "Get up and follow me." He kept walking and soon heard the beat of feet hurrying to catch up.
Kenshin was able to enjoy the peace of the night as they retraced his steps along the Walk although he was conscious of the repeated glances of the boy who trailed along just behind his right shoulder. He was bigger than Kenshin—by at least 4 inches and probably several pounds—and his bafflement was almost palpable. But by the time they reached Higashioji-dori, his fear evidently eased and he began to talk. And talk. In a voice that occasionally cracked, he told Kenshin his name. About his family. What his father did. How they got into debt. What his master did. How he decided on robbery. On and ON. How could one person talk so much? Finally, when they reached Shijo–dori, Kenshin turned, and with only a mildly threatening tone in his voice, said, "Please. Be. Still."
The silence was instantaneous.
I've always liked children. I manage well with people older than I. But I have never been around someone this age. He's like that puppy I once saw: big and eager and awkward. And needing discipline. I can't turn him loose outside Kyōto on his own. He'll be eaten alive.
Kenshin was relieved when they finally came to the shop several streets west on Gojo-dori. He had begun to feel guilty for snapping as he felt the embarrassment and uncertainty radiating from his companion. Fortunately, it was not too late: he could still see lights from the living quarters upstairs. He picked up some small stones from the edge of the road and threw them at the shutters. Three, and then one. And then waited.
Soon they heard the rattling of the lock and the door slid open. The interior was dim and it was hard to see the face of the man in the doorway, but he recognized Kenshin and let them both inside. Kenshin sat the boy down and told him to wait while he spoke to the man. (Sit! Stay!) The two men wentto the back of the store and began to speak in low voices that did not carry.
"Himura-san! What do you need?"
"Do you still need help with your store, Kotaro-san?"
The elder man stroked his beard in confusion. "Hai. But why would you need to come in the dark and give the sign for the safe-house to ask me this?"
"I have two reasons. First, I need you to forget that you saw me tonight. Second, the helper I've brought you is a runaway slave. He tried to rob me tonight to get money to leave Kyōto."
"Tried to rob you? And he's still living? Must be quite a fighter."
Kenshin rubbed his neck. "You obviously didn't look closely at him. He's 12 years old and has no idea what he's doing. But he is willing to earn the money. His master lives on the other side of the palace. I believe if you keep him close to the store, no one's likely to find him. Are you willing to take him?"
"Certainly. It will be good to have someone young around again. But he'll be moving on?"
"That's currently his plan. But he has no one to go to. If there is somewhere you could send him that is safe, it would be a good thing. He seems to have little understanding of the real world." I hope he is not crushed before he learns.
On Kotaro's agreement, Kenshin returned to the boy and gave him back his tessen. "Kotaro-san has agreed to hire you. He needs help here because his son was killed during a fight. You'll be able to sleep here and eat here and earn a wage. But in return, you do exactly as he says. Wakarimasu-ka?"
The youth stood and bowed deeply to both Kenshin and Kotaro, who still stood at the back. "Hai! I will do my best. Dōmo arigatō gozaimashita!" Kenshin nodded and without another word, slid open the door and left.
He was easily up before dawn. His night had been restless. There was the tightly wound feeling that comes with expectation. And bad dreams, of course: it was a rare night when he did not dream of blood and fighting. But last night's misadventure had left a nagging question: if it had not been a boy, but a determined criminal, what would he have done? What degree of injury, short of death, was acceptable? And once incapacitated, what to do with him? Leave him? It was something that he was going to have to work through and get clear in his mind if he was to be able to keep the spirit of his oath, as well as the letter.
He stood and stretched to loosen up after having slept in his usual sitting position. By the time he'd returned home it had been late enough and cold enough that he had not bothered to undress or light the brazier. He'd just wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and leaned back against the wall. Even without a sword, it was a safer way to sleep than flat on his back, tangled in covers.
The dropping temperature told him that the sun would rise in about an hour. He stirred up the banked coals and added a couple new ones. He ate the cold rice that was left in his pot, but made a cup of tea for the inner warmth it would give. As he drank, he read the directions to Arai's house that Katsura had written on the outside of the paper. Walking quickly, he would be there within twenty minutes. Leaving the book and the warrant on the table, and banking his fire once again, he put the pouch of coins in his sleeve for safe-keeping and went out into the dark of the morning.
The moon was still up, but was starting its descent behind the western mountains. The south and east were beginning to fade to pearl gray. He could hear the chirps of a few birds. As the sky lightened, the numbers would grow until it seemed that every tree had its own chorus. The air would be filled with sound. As he walked, a breeze began to whisper past him, pushing a few thin clouds towards the southwest. The houses and shops were much farther apart out here. Many of the people had skills that required space for their work, such as Arai's forge.
By the time Kenshin arrived, the sky was pale blue halfway up and the clouds had increased. Arai's house was off by itself, one side of the house fenced for a private garden, the other left open to the fields and the breeze. To one side was a smaller building that he saw was the forge. Even at this early hour, the door was open and the fire glowing within. As he approached the door, he was not sure it would be wise to call out loud enough to be heard over the pounding if this errand was supposed to be discrete, so he settled for standing in the doorway until he was noticed.
The swordsmith gave a few more blows to the blank and plunged it into the water bath before walking out to meet Kenshin. He was a man of about 30, with hair shorter than usual, and skin tanned to leather by his fires. Despite the cold, he was running with sweat and wore nothing but a sleeveless leather vest and pants like a peasant. Kenshin held out the message: "From Katsura-sensei."
The smith, pulling the scarf from his forehead, used it to mop his face as he reached out for the folded paper. Shoving the cloth into his waistband, he proceeded to break the seal and read over the contents. As he finished, he gave a hmph and stared at Kenshin for a moment. Grunting a brusque "Wait here," he strode into his house.
Kenshin moved towards the field to watch the sky as he waited. The sun was not yet in sight, but the sky had turned pink. The clouds scudding by were two-tone. Rosy beneath to match the horizon, blue above to match the rest of the sky. I wonder if the weather will be good enough to travel today…
Arai emerged from his house. He'd belted a kimono on loosely over his work clothes and carried a sword over his shoulder. While still some distance away from Kenshin, he stopped. "I hear you are leaving the revolution, Himura. We've just won the first battle at Toba Fushimi, the revolution has finally started to become a reality--and you run out." Kenshin reminded himself that Arai-sensei had a very abrasive manner; it would be easy to take offense, but not wise. The smith nodded with a smirk towards the emptiness at Kenshin's side where a sword should be, "And where do you plan to go without your sword?"
He replied mildly "I have Katsura-sensei's permission, Arai-sensei. A way will be found to protect the people of the new age… without having to kill."
The smith shrugged and grunted, "If there is such a way, I'd like to hear it myself. But after all the men you've killed, why run away now? Live by the sword and die by the sword. That's the only path you have." Arai dropped the sword from his shoulder and abruptly tossed it towards Kenshin, who automatically caught it. "It's a gift." The man turned his back and began walking back toward the forge as he spoke: "It's a failure. But for you, right now, it's enough. Try being a swordsman with that at your waist. You'll soon see how naïve you're being."
Confused, Kenshin looked down at the sword in his hand. Katsura-sensei, you did this. But why? He reluctantly slid the blade a little ways out of the saya. And then, his eyes widening in surprise, drew it fully. The edge is on the wrong side! Why would a swordsmith make a sword such as this? Katsura-sensei, he realized, had known of this blade. Who would want a backwards sword except a swordsman so backwards himself as to vow not to kill?
Pausing at the doorway, the smith called back without turning, "When that sword breaks, and still you're able to believe your own sweet lies, come to Kyōto and seek me out." Before Kenshin could reply, he strode back into his forge. Kenshin carefully resheathed the sword and slid it into his ties. He paused to watch the sky a while longer as it brightened to gold, filled with gratitude towards his friend.
The things he needed to do before he left had seemed to stretch and multiply, but he was finally ready and on his way to the west check point. His landlord had not been happy to lose him, but he only paid for a week at a time anyway…It had taken more haggling than he liked at the second-hand dealer's, but he had finally acquired the clothing he needed as well as a bamboo container for water and a second blanket, which was currently serving as a sling to carry all his possessions across his back. He hadn't purchased much food: some rice, dried fish, a daikon.
After packing everything else, he had knelt for a time with his wife's diary in his hands. He had decided to leave it at Bokku-ji: it seemed that all that was truly left of her spirit should remain where her memorial was. He had had no body to place there, no ashes—they had long since mingled with the ashes of their home and the ground it was built on. Only her thoughts, written down each night. Her secrets, her feelings, never revealed to him until it was too late to change their fate. He knew it was the right thing to do: he felt it was right. And yet….
So he had gone to the temple. He did not go back to her headstone—he had already said his farewells and knew he could not bear it again—but merely sought out a priest and gave him the book and a small amount of money that sutras might be chanted on her behalf. And left, fighting the desire to change his mind.
He was close to Nijō now. He had not been here during the day since he became an assassin. Now the Shōgun was gone. The Emperor had power-- with armies to enforce his decrees-- and had declared the beginning of "Meiji." The streets should be safer. But Kenshin's hair was still covered, and his senses were still stretched and alert. On his left was the wood and plaster fence surrounding Nijō-jinya. He had been there once, one evening with Katsura. He had spent most of the time sitting above the main chamber, listening and watching through the seeming skylight without being seen. But it had ended badly. Tempers had overcome reason and a fight had started. He had had to jump down into the midst of the melee to protect Katsura and lead him down the dark hall and up the thrusting beams to a hidden room until all was safe and quiet.
At the end of the street, the high castle walls loomed above him, presenting a blank face to all who wondered about the magnificence inside. Turning west, he followed the imposing wall—aware of his smallness, but not intimidated. Shinsen-en beckoned to passersby with its spring of clear water and its garden, still beautiful in winter. He was content to merely admire it as he walked past: he had no desire to retrace the steps he took for one of his 'assignments.' There were surprisingly few people out, considering that the scudding clouds of the morning had given way to a clear and pleasantly warm sky. But much of this area contained the houses of the upper class, people who had served the Shōgun. Many were empty now that the Shōgun had left, with the owners fearing for their safety.
Kenshin strode along at a rapid pace, ready to put the city far behind him. This check point was manned, although it was not clear by whom. From the guards' speech, he would guess Satsuma. He reached into his sleeve and presented the warrant that Katsura had given him. The name Katsura and the fact that he was leaving the city rather than entering sped him through inspection with no more than a brief remark about the recently fought battle. Once out, the plain stretched before him, the long brown grass of winter growing in the few spots where farmers had not cleared and planted. It was the hour of the Horse. The sun was high and warm and the fields were still. He watched the faces of people he passed. What am I looking for? What do I expect to see?
After searching his heart, it came to him that he was seeking vindication, hoping to see signs already that life was better for these people. The realization made him feel foolish at his impatience. If Sakamoto-san had lived a little longer, he may have been able to prevent these last senseless battles. But he was killed by an assassin like me…Until they're ended, any change will be slow. After that, he kept his eyes on the mountains, watching them draw closer.
He was surprised at how hard it was to leave Kyōto. He had looked forward to this day, to the changes that would follow. But as the city fell farther behind him, he felt as if something were missing. The few friends he had were back there. The physical connection to his wife was there. He was the person he was because of Kyōto. All the things that bound him to the city were pulling at him, calling him back. Even the dead reached out to him, seeking to keep him bound to the site of his crimes.
But he would go forward to the mountains. He had considered traveling east first, but had found something inside him urging him back to his beginnings, to the village in Chōshū where his family had lived. As he left his old life –and Kyōto—behind, the first part of his new life, then, would be a sort of pilgrimage to his past. Along with Chōshū, the mountains before him were a part of that past.