Hi, there! Yep, I'm still alive. These last years have been full of changes that have pulled me away from writing. Frankly, it's hard to get back into 'the groove.' I have fiddled with this chapter off and on for the last year, and it has stubbornly refused to change much. I've finished it, at least. It's shorter than I originally intended it, but the other scene I was going to add decided that it belonged in the next chapter, while the end of this one pushed itself in here instead of waiting for chapter 18. I may come back another day and rewrite it.
ANYWAY, only one more chapter to the Choushuu arc. I'm rusty enough that I'm thinking I may break myself back in by writing a couple of one-shots first.
Thanks for your patience!
22nd day, 5th month
"Naota is so mad, he won't even speak to her!" Nami stroked her baby's hair as he nestled close to her, and looked up briefly to make sure that Kin understood the importance of her statement. She was still very weak, and slept a lot, but even sequestered to the little room, she still knew what was going on! "I'd like to give her the silent treatment too, but she's my mother-in-law, and if I upset her now, she'll make my life miserable later. And it's our fault, too…we know what she's like, and Naota should have made sure she was gone before he said anything to me. But I was so scared and sick, and Naota was so upset about everything…we just didn't even think of it!"
Kin made a sympathetic noise. Nami-san's fierce words did not match her whispery voice, but she had a healthier color today and was much more alert. It had been so close! Every time she thought about it, she thanked the gods that Himura-san had been there. And what was his reward for saving Nami? Everyone in the village gossiping about him again! Just thinking about it, she felt her face flushing; she dipped her head to study the rags that had just been changed…and found her mind wandering once again. What must she have been like—Himura-san's wife? Was she pretty? How long had she been dead? How had she died? She gave her head a hard shake and refocused her attention.
"What is it? Is there a problem? I'm feeling stronger…" Nami's voice shook a little as she looked at the younger girl's stern expression.
Kin's head snapped up. "Iie, Nami-san. Everything seems to be fine. There's blood, of course, but no more than there should be. Is the baby nursing well?" Even as she asked the question as O-Ine-san had taught her, Kin thought how absurd it was for a girl, young and unmarried as she was, to be counseling her married senior. From now on, unless a problem occurred, she would just ask either Maruko-san or Honomi-san for updates.
She left as soon as she had looked over the baby, who seemed perfectly fine. As she went down the steps and crossed the road to O-Ine-san's house, she wondered once again about the other baby. Why had O-Ine-san sent her away before its birth? She would have never known anything if Naota hadn't said something about it, as though he assumed she knew…and those odd fragments of words mumbled by the old woman in fevered agitation before she fell into her final silence. Nami seemed not to remember another child…could her near-death have made her forget? Kin rubbed her forehead and tugged at her sidelocks: she didn't know anything!
"I'm too young for this!" Her voice sounded whiney, even to herself.
"Too young for what?"
That was her brother's voice…
Kin looked up and found Norikazu sitting on the edge of the engawa of O-Ine-san's house, swinging his feet, and looking at her with interest. "Too young for what?" he repeated.
"Never mind. Why are you here, Kazu-kun? Does someone need me at home?"
"Iie. I came with Tōsan. He wanted to look over the house and see if anything inside needs to be changed before the elders decide who will get it. "
She started up the steps; if she had been paying attention to her surroundings instead of lost in her thoughts, she would have noticed that panels had been slid aside to air the house out, and seen her father standing in the center of the room, studying the ceiling. The mingled scent of dozens of plants was comfortingly familiar, but the barren rafters made her feel strange. She flicked her brother's hair with a finger as she passed. What had her father done with all the herbs?
"Himura-san's here, too," her brother added. Kin paused. Himura-san?
He was off to one side, sitting at O-Ine-san's little table, surrounded by bundles of plants. As she watched, he dipped a brush in ink and carefully stroked out the excess against the side of the inkstone.
Kin smoothed her hair and went up the last two steps. She paused, a little startled at how fast her heart was beating. Her father looked around as her shadow fell across the floor, but Himura-san seemed unaware of her presence. She inhaled slowly as she regarded the small covered bowl her father held.
"Otōsan, what are you going to do with O-Ine-san's things? I'm going to need her medicines and the herbs." She gave a small bow in Himura-san's direction in case he looked up, but willed her eyes to stay on her father.
"She has no family, so we'll probably sell anything we can. There's not much, but the village always needs money & anything will help. As for the medicines, you can bring the bottles and jars home, but all those twigs and leaves? There's no way your mother will have those hanging all over the house. We can hang them in the storehouse."
"If you say so, Otōsan. But mightn't they make the grain taste odd? And it may be troublesome for you if I'm always asking for the key; I know you don't like to open the doors any more than you have to." A movement from Himura-san registered at the edge of her vision: he had set down the brush and was looking towards her father.
"Noriya-san, I can hang them in my house, and Norikazu-kun can come down to get whatever Kin-chan needs. Perhaps that would be more convenient?" When they both turned to look at him, he held up one of the bunches and she saw that it had a strip of cloth tied around the stems, with 'ukogi' written on it. "I am putting the names on all the ones I know—I thought it might be helpful."
Remembering her frantic pleading at Nami's bedside, Kin felt herself grow pink with embarrassment, but hoped it was hidden as she bowed, "Dōmo arigatou gozaimasu, Himura-san. That will be most helpful!" As she straightened, she looked towards her father to gauge his reaction to the idea. He frowned, obviously not happy with the idea. Her heart sank. Still, he said nothing—just rubbed his hand along his jaw as he stared into the space above Himura-san's head.
Finally, he nodded reluctantly and made a face. "Saaa! I can't think of anything better."
Raising his voice, he called, "Norikazu! Come in here!"
The scrabble of geta was heard and the young boy promptly appeared, his eyes alight with interest. "As soon as Himura-san is done here, help him carry those plants to his house. You can use one of the clean blankets to put them in. Bring it back, though. We'll sell it." Once he had given his instructions, he turned to his daughter and handed her the dish. "I'm done here. Come home with me. You can come back later with a basket to put the medicines in."
Feeling young and awkward yet again, Kin hesitated a moment and then bowed hastily towards Himura-san before scurrying after her father.
26th day, 5th month
In the dim shop, Yasu held her sleeve to her nose and breathed shallowly; the combined scents of all the herbs made her want to sneeze or cough, or both. She shifted on the zabuton in an effort to ease the ache in her hip, a worry that she might wind up like O-Ine briefly rising before she shoved it aside. She had other things to worry about right now.
Noriya had been fretting about the young women ever since the ugliness with Motoshi and his daughter, and she had promised to watch Kin like a hawk while they were all in town.
Not that Noriya was unreasonable in his concern: Shinta—no, Kenshin—was enough to make any girl's heart flutter, with his unusual coloring and fine features, and his gentle manner…and now, there was his past as warrior and tragic lover. She herself had loved him as a sweet child, and still worried over him, but the village girls—especially Kin!—came first.
The black head and the red were close together as they studied the leaves and blossoms and listened carefully to the apothecary's words as he identified the herbs that had been unfamiliar to them both. Kenshin had produced a tiny writing set from his obi and was taking notes. At this point, she could see nothing to be worried about. On their trip in, Kin had made no complaint at staying with her and Yui, as was proper, and letting Rishou and Kenshin lead the way. And now, even though they were so close together, they seemed totally concerned with their business. Once we're done here …she shifted again. How long is this going to take? Much longer and I'll just stand up and start pacing!...Once we're done here, I'll leave Kin with Yui at the market while I take the cloth to thehan's offices.
When they had emptied the bag, Yasu got up, waiting for them to say their thanks so that they could leave. But instead, the apothecary began recommending other herbs for them to purchase, which began a whole new discussion. Shrugging, she wandered over to listen, and was pleased and proud at the intelligent questions that her granddaughter asked. Before she knew it, she found herself drawn into the conversation.
Finally, all the questions had been asked, the new herbs agreed on and the bill paid, and she and Kin emerged, blinking, into the bright sun and the fresh air. Kenshin followed, the bag once again on his back, and his head and most of his face already covered with his kasa. As they stepped down into the street, Yasu touched Kin's arm to remind her to let Kenshin go ahead; he was wearing his katana for the first time in a long while, and it drew unwanted attention for two peasant women to be walking alongside a samurai as though they were equals. Kenshin stopped and turned his head partly back to them, but they could not see his expression—only his lips pressed into a straight line—and he said nothing. After the briefest of moments, he looked away and continued on with them trailing behind.
Kin, who had seldom been to Mitō, gazed in awe at the many buildings and the large number of people going about their business, and kept Yasu busy answering questions. About two streets away from the market area, Kenshin stopped. The two women looked at him curiously.
"I need to go down this road. Do you mind going the rest of the way alone, Baasama? Or would you rather I stay with you? My errand won't take very long, but I know that Yui-san has been waiting for you, and we spent longer at the apothecary's than you expected."
Yasu cocked her head and briefly considered. Kenshin was unfailingly polite, but after years of having to decide what men really wanted when they said something, she had a definite feeling that he would rather do his errand now…and alone. She smiled and shook her head.
"Maa, maa. These streets are safe enough for people like us. Go do your business. I'll tell Rishou-kun that you'll come soon. Come along, Kin-chan." Hooking her arm through her granddaughter's, she made her way down the street without a backwards glance. Let him have some privacy…
Kenshin dropped the copper coins into his purse and tucked it into his sleeve before picking up his parcel of steamed buns; the gold ryo sat heavy under his obi. It had been just as Kido-sensei had warned: the paper currency had been exchanged at less than face value. It was a good thing he hadn't waited any longer.
Pausing at the edge of the stall, he looked up and down the street. He'd already checked two or three booksellers to see if any of them had a news-paper, but had had no luck. The last had suggested a print maker on this street…There it was! He tugged his kasa a little lower and strode briskly down to where he could see the sign. It was nearly time to meet back up with his group; Rishou would be waiting impatiently. Kenshin winced inwardly and sighed. The last several days had been a constant, nagging irritation with everyone staring and whispering about him yet again, after the agony of having Tomoe's death brought back again so vividly. It had set his teeth—and temper—on edge. And now Rishou—who had finally seemed to listen to his parents about the girl in town—had pled (nagged?) so hard and so long for him to meet her that he had finally given in. It was probably a stupid thing to have done. Why Rishou thought he would have any answers was a mystery!
The print seller did have a newspaper: three weeks old, but better than nothing. There was no time to read it now; he tucked it into the furoshiki that held the herbs and hurried on his way.
Kenshin was as good as his word: the hour of the Snake had barely begun when he reappeared. Rishou, however, had been on tenterhooks for the last several minutes and practically leaped at him, grabbing his arm and then dropping it just as quickly as he realized that people around them were staring. Kneeling, an aggravated Kenshin looked up at Rishou as he picked up the package that his friend's sudden pounce had knocked from his hand. Rishou rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment.
"Gomen nasai, Himura-san." He bowed low in apology, mainly out of fear of what the surrounding people might think, but also with some caution: Kenshin seemed irked. "I behaved poorly."
Kenshin pushed back the kasa slightly and glanced around before he stared hard at Rishou, eyes narrowed. He'd already agreed to meet the girl; he didn't want to play Rishou's 'careful-of-the-samurai' game as well. Kenshin rose to his feet, but said nothing as he wrestled with his ill-temper.
The bystanders-either relieved or disappointed at the lack of conflict—turned back to their own business. Once their eyes had turned away, Kenshin sighed in surrender and shoved the package at Rishou, saying, "If everyone's steamed buns are smashed, it's your fault. There's enough for two for each of you." He paused to look around. "It looks like you've sold a fair amount. Are you ready to go?"
Rishou took his two buns, tucking one into his sash before passing the others on. All was well, after all. "Arigatō. Aa, it's been a good morning; if it keeps going like it has, we won't have to stay till evening." He took a bite of bun before continuing. "I'm ready."
Kenshin smiled at the others' thanks, but as they left the group and Rishou fell in a step behind him, his smile faded. It was hard to carry on any sort of conversation in such a fashion. He turned around to argue, but before he could speak, Rishou shook his head and checked to see if anyone was near. "No. Not when you're carrying your katana. We agreed."
Kenshin matched his low tone to that of his friend, impatience rising once again: "This is ridiculous! Samurai talk to peasants and merchants all the time! And someone of my rank isn't likely to have a servant, let alone several. And you asked me to wear the blade. "
Rishou bowed his head as though he were getting scolded. "They give orders to peasants and merchants: that's how they talk. And I've seen plenty of samurai that looked poorer than you, traveling with a servant. Whatever they do when they're alone, when I've seen them, they haven't acted like friends. We need to hurry if we're going to the blacksmith before meeting Hana-san. I thought you didn't like to draw attention?"
Kenshin grimaced in dissatisfaction and spun on his heel, continuing on to the blacksmith without another word. But he had to admit, most of what his friend said was true. The kiheitai had been a mixed group, but there had been distinctions. Even the ronin that he had encountered zealously guarded their pride of class, since it was the only thing of value that they had left.
So, when Rishou suggested he wait outside the blacksmith's while his friend went in to buy a few new scythes, he made no comment, but just sat down on a bench nearby and pulled out the news-paper he had just purchased. There had been heavy fighting at Ueno, outside of Edo, but it had finally been exterminated. The main focus of the resistance was moving north…His fingers tightened and the paper crackled in protest. Toba-Fushimi was supposed to have been the beginning of the end of the war, but instead, the fighting was spreading, creeping like a bloody stain into new sections of the country. He sat, stunned at the news…
"I was able to get them all." Rishou stopped in front of him with a faint, metallic 'clunk'
from the heavy sack he held. Kenshin nodded stiffly and rose to his feet, folding the paper and tucking it into his sash. He took a breath and consciously focused on his friend; there was nothing he could do now, anyway.
"Where are we going?"
"To the temple. The shop is too busy, and the temple is close enough that she won't have to be gone long."
Rishou set off at brisk pace, making no effort to say anything more. Kenshin trailed behind, remembering the uncomfortable anticipation he would feel at the possibility of meeting Tomoe during her first days at the inn. They paused only once on their way, slowing just a bit as Rishou pointed out an eating establishment that they passed: "That's her family's business." Kenshin made note of the name: Taro-ya. It was indeed busy; her family was probably well-off.
Kenshin had not been to the temple since the day he had asked the abbot for help. Through the heavy air, it seemed as though the sun and the white gravel of the grounds had leached some of the color out of the buildings and vegetation. They found a bench in the welcome shade of a pine, and Rishou urged him to sit. Kenshin opened his mouth to ask about the shop, but Rishou spoke first:
"Just wait here, and I'll be back very soon!"
He did not wait for any response, but turned and hurried away as Kenshin sat, reluctantly amused at his friend's urgency. But the amusement faded quickly. The light breeze of the morning had died, and the still heat radiating in waves from the white gravel reminded him of summers in Kyoto. He wondered if Kido-sensei's health had improved, if his trip to Nagasaki had gone as hoped. The paper was three weeks old…. Kido-sensei must have known about the expansion of the war. Why didn't he say anything?
The grounds were quiet; no one was around. Kenshin removed the kasa, fanning himself as he waited. He was too edgy today. He could hear the faint murmur of a chant from the temple and wondered if it might be the abbot… Slowly, he relaxed.
The shadow of the tree's branches had barely moved when he heard the crunch of sandals on gravel, moving quickly. He reached for the kasa, but it was Rishou, striding along with a young woman next to him, scurrying to keep up. Kenshin studied her as they approached, curious about the person for whom Rishou was willing to risk his father's anger.
She looked older than he had expected; for her to be willing to give up the occasional comforts of town life for the hard life of a peasant, he had thought she must be a very young woman without much experience in life. She was no beauty, but had a pleasant face—and a lovely smile as she made some laughing comment to Rishou. Kenshin could see what had probably first attracted him to her.
He rose to meet them.
"Himura-san, this is Hana-san. You've heard me speak of her."
The young woman bowed low gracefully, though she was still slightly out of breath. "I am Hana. My father is Taro-san. Dōzo yorushiko onegaishimasu. I am glad to meet Rishou's greatest friend. I have heard much about you."
Kenshin bowed back, catching a trace of surprise as it flitted across her face. "I am Himura. Hajimemashite."
"I wanted you to at least meet Hana-san. I had hoped that there would be time for us to talk, but she can't stay. I've pulled her away from the shop at a busy time, and she has to get back." Rishou said regretfully. Hana stared at him as he spoke, her flustered expression a mix of gratitude and alarm. She turned back to Kenshin and bobbed an apology with her eyes cast down:
"Gomen nasai, Himura-san. Rishou has misunderstood. I would never be so impolite…"
Kenshin shook his head and smiled. "Daijobu. Obviously, family obligations come first. It was thoughtless of us to ask you to leave your work at such an awkward time…but I am grateful that you came and I could meet you. I hope that your day goes well."
Hana looked up hesitantly and her eyes shifted to Rishou, who smiled and nodded. "I told you: you don't have to worry. If you need to go, just go."
Bowing once again, the relieved young woman addressed Kenshin, "Dōmo arigatou gozaimasu. I really would like to be able to stay, but I'm needed. Shitsurei shimasu." She left at a trot and disappeared out the gate as the two men watched.
Rishou dropped his sack, sat down on the bench, and tilted his head back to enjoy the shade as he regarded his red-haired friend.
"I wanted you to have a chance to talk to her, but a large group just came in and they need her there. She just barely managed to slip out for a moment. What do you think?"
Kenshin rolled his eyes in exasperation and sat down again at the other end, shaking his head. "Really, what do you expect me to say when I have seen her only long enough to exchange greetings? Yes, she seems pleasant. Yes, she is attractive. But why are you introducing me to her, instead of your parents?...If you are serious."
Rishou shifted uncomfortably and studied his dusty feet.
"Ano…" The young man reached down and straightened a strap on his sandals, glancing up briefly before returning his gaze to the ground. "I thought you might be able to help me with them. You've changed castes, and you've been….married."
Kenshin closed his eyes and was silent. Images flitted through his memory: the other samurai keeping their distance from an assassin, days of fighting with little to eat, the pain of watching Tomoe trying to learn to be a farmer's wife, the agony of…..
His eyes snapped open and he spoke harshly. "I can't give you any encouragement. Their shop is busy and it looks as though her family is prosperous: none of our village women have a kimono as nice as the one she was wearing. Does she know what village life is like? Will she be able to plant and harvest? Will she get tired of not being able to eat rice whenever she wants? If she is unhappy, you will both be miserable." He paused and asked, "Does her family even know of you? What do they think?"
Rishou straightened up and regarded his friend uncertainly, stunned at his reaction. "I… think she has talked to her parents a little. She seems hopeful. After all, they are just merchant class…and they have several daughters. We thought that if my parents would at least consider our marriage, that maybe she could come out to the village for a month or so. Then everyone could decide whether or not to go through with it."
Kenshin ran his hand through his hair and down over his face, taking a deep breath. When he spoke, to Rishou's relief, it was in his usual mild tone, though his eyes were solemn. "I am relieved that you are giving it serious thought. If you wish, I will at least ask your parents to give you a chance to explain. But, Rishou, think deeply and move slowly." He paused, and Rishou was sorry he had drawn his friend into this, as he heard the pain in Kenshin's voice as he continued. "If it goes so far that she comes to stay with you, there may be grief for you both either way: whether you marry, or whether you part." He picked up his kasa and turned towards the gate as he placed it on his head and tightened the chinstrap.
"The others will be missing us. It's time to go back."
The man paused in the doorway of the temple's tiny guest room, and rubbed his eyes against the glare of sun off white sand. Had he really seen it? Coming from the dark room into the bright day, his eyes could have been fooled… but as he had come to the door, he could swear that he had seen a flash of red before the kasa had settled on the samurai's head.