Disclaimer: Creator of Rurouni Kenshin, Nobuhiro Watsuki. No profit is made by this fanfiction. Disclaimer applies to all chapters.
The first time I saw Kenshin, he was a fairly pitiful sight. Looked like he'd just climbed out of a garbage dump, with his torn and tattered clothes hanging off him. Barefoot. He was smudged and dirty, his hair was matted and unkempt, dull with oil and tied loosely at the base of his neck. Some of those "smudges" I was fairly certain were bruises, signs of ill treatment from his master, most likely.
He was a songslave. Sometimes you really can't tell unless you've got a trained eye--and I did, self-trained as it was. But this boy's master had made no effort to hide him for what he was. Kenshin's hands were trapped at his waist by the same chains that tangled around his sword. It was a loose and heavy affair, the chains. Solid black, like they'd been burned and then burnished to an unreflective shine. He looked like he might just be able to shake them off, but I knew very well he couldn't.
He was walking behind a flat-faced old man with an expression that somehow managed to be both bland and sour at the same time. Kenshin shuffled along slowly, shoulders relaxed and head down. I had the distinct impression that he wasn't broken, but was trying to appear so. Just trying to avoid trouble wherever he could. From the look of him, it seemed that steering clear of any castigation from the one who owned him would be his only comfort.
Yeah. I felt sorry for him. Never claimed to have a heart of stone, even if I never really went out of my way to be especially benevolent all that often.
I followed behind the songslave and his master into a small, homey little restaurant. Hung back casually, watching as the lumpy old man sat down to eat. Kenshin remained standing, eyes on the floor. The master lifted up a dumpling to his face. With his fingers, the way one would offer a scrap to a dog.
My own stomach had been empty for quite some hours now, but even my own hunger couldn't keep my guts from twisting in anger for another as Kenshin, eyes down and not reflecting back his ragged pride, leaned down slightly to take the dumpling with his teeth. It did give me the opportunity to see his face, though, lifted a bit and free from the dulled red hair as he maneuvered the bit of food into his mouth with his tongue.
He had crossing scars on his left cheek. And he looked young. Surprisingly young. It didn't mean much, usually, that a songslave seemed young, but there had been laws for centuries that they couldn't be made until they had lived a nice, even twenty years as humans. This boy looked like he had a while yet before he'd see twenty.
But again, that didn't mean much. He could be centuries old. I doubted that, though. He looked dispirited, but there were no glimmers of the madness that immortal servitude brought. But also not the slightest spark of hope or desperation to be free from it. He had not been anyone's slave for that long, but certainly long enough.
All the same, it was good that he hadn't lost himself just yet. That meant there was still hope for him.
Beyond the dumpling, Kenshin was offered nothing else, and he followed the old man out the way they had come. No one gave them a second glance, which meant either they were a common sight in these parts, or sorcery-bound warrior-bondservants were customary in general.
I hadn't seen any others myself, but this small red-headed one was as good as any, I supposed. I had a job to do, after all, and it never got easier with waiting.
So I followed them out. Kenshin knew I was there. He didn't give any outward sign of knowing, but I'd been through this enough times to know better. Besides, it's just not my style to go sneaking around. I'd have to say that, this time, I even went out of my way to be obvious, followed them along dusty streets that badly needed a day or two of rain to wash away the comings of goings of humanity.
At last, not even the old man could take my tailing them any longer. He stopped by a shady alley, turned confidently, impatiently, as I strolled up to them, and demanded what in hell I was doing, and what did I want?
I grinned, shrugging. "I'm going to take that songservant off your hands."
The old man snorted, his eyes traveling from my face to my toes and then back again. "My servant is not for sale," he said in a tone that, if translated correctly, might have meant that his servant wasn't for sale to anyone who didn't look like they had a scrap of money.
And I didn't look like I had any money. What fool goes around looking like they're rich? I didn't need that kind of trouble. I had enough to deal with.
I wasn't rich, but my employer was. Truth was, I did have a lot of money on me. His money. I needed it for this sort of work since most people wouldn't give up such valuable things as songslaves without having their palms heavily greased.
I pulled out a bulging purse and poured a few coins into my hand, fished out a bit of the local paper. Played with the cash on my fingers before the old man's astonished, then lustrously greedy eyes. I named a sum. "For the boy and his instrument," I said.
Kenshin lifted his face to stare somewhat blearily at me. Most of these people weren't always very enthusiastic about being sold. Not only was it horribly degrading to be traded off like property or animals, but one never knew exactly what sort of person in whose hands one could end up. It was usually better to try to live with what you already knew.
There were regular slaves, who had a few laws to protect them, limits and boundaries and guidelines to their treatment and the length of their servitude, but songslaves weren't "people" in most eyes, but rather products of magic. Even if they were human once, they weren't now, and were completely at the mercy of whoever held the musical devices that bound them.
"I could get more than that from the bread shop down the street," the old man sneered. I smiled inwardly. I had his attention.
I raised the offer a little. The haggling game hadn't ceased to be fun yet. I knew it might someday, some years into the future when dealing with greedy men would become old and tedious, but for now, I was still young and it still felt good trying to achieve the best deal.
Figures were tossed back and forth for a time. The old man's hands were trembling with the amount of it, just at his fingertips.
I watched Kenshin while the old man watched a few of the coins rolling between my fingers. Logically, I had already far gone over what he was worth at face-value. Logically, I should have switched tactics a long time ago, but… Logic wasn't my thing.
Neither was patience, or tact, but I had learned to at least fake it if I wanted to keep this job. Muscle, I had, but the other things had to come to me touch-and-go, experience. Some things you couldn't rush, I'd found out pretty early on.
The old mans tiny, piggy eyes lingered the hand that held the coins in a way that made me want to scour my hands the first moment a good cake of soap and some hot water became available. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice rough. "But I'm afraid I simply cannot sell my servant without first conferring with my brother."
With effort, I reigned in my frustration. Either the kid must be more valuable than even this insane amount of money, or the old man was going to schedule a meeting, pick a quiet and obscure place, and sic some big guys on me. On one hand, beating up a bunch of guys who were trying to mug me in place of the honest deal I offered wasn't of much consequence. I'd simply turn the tables on them, keep my boss's money and take the songslave with me. But those meetings always took up so much time. I wasn't good at waiting. Again, it came back to more lessons in patience.
I thought about feigning a change of heart, telling him to forget it and turning on my heel and walking away, which would either rekindle the old man's greed, or he, too, would think it simply for the best and walk in the opposite direction. Not a big deal in most cases. I'd simply seek out another master, more willing to part with his songslave, saving myself time and effort, and a lot of my boss's money.
But there was something about Kenshin. Sure, he looked absolutely pitiable by appearance alone. It was obvious the old man got his jollies by reaffirming the young man's humility every chance he got, from not even providing Kenshin with something so necessary as shoes, to hand-feeding him a scrap of food in the presence of others. But it was more than that. In fact, my reasons for doing this, by the hard way or not, had very little to do with pity.
He had very large violet eyes that were suddenly overflowing with hope when he looked at me. This was the highest he had ever lifted his head, so that I was able to see for the first time a thin silver tiara just at his hairline. Fairly common, these. Part of the geas of songslaves, the tiaras dampened or blocked off part of the slave's personality, like violent tendencies, certain urges such a defiance, and in extreme cases, even memory. The Ancients hadn't taken many chances when they'd passed on the craft.
I took in a long breath. So this one didn't look like he'd fight me on this. He was hoping I'd purchase him. Not begging me to with those eyes, not promising anything at all, only hoping. Maybe he thought I'd treat him better.
I shrugged, then let the old man offer another meeting.
The old man surprised me by not plotting my robbery. He only brought his brother, who was a much younger, and very enormous man with a thick black beard. Between the pair of them, They each got almost three times the original sum I'd offered. My boss would probably turn a different color when he learned of how much I'd spent on a single slave, but…I don't know. I felt like I was doing the right thing. Instincts or something.
It turned out Kenshin's instrument was a flute, a simple, serviceable ivory one. Didn't look all that old, but, once again, that didn't mean anything.
I held it lightly in my hand as I walked away from the brothers. The last thing I heard out of them was a tactless snicker and whisper of, "He sure was a sucker, wasn't he, Kihei?"
"Either that, or he knew something we didn't, Gohei," the old man murmured.
He was probably looking my way, but I didn't care. I could see Kenshin following me at just the corner of my eye if I turned my head.
My boss might go into conniptions, but somehow, I just didn't feel suckered. Some things I needed to do first. Find a bathhouse for the boy, get him some decent clothes, some shoes, definitely. He probably needed a meal, too. Yeah, probably ought to get food first. I was hungry, too.
I walked us through a couple of turns until we came to a semi-private spot. I examined his flute, leaning against a wall as I asked him, "What's your name?"
He'd had to think before he recalled his own name. Sad, that. Sad, but not all that uncommon. I'd met some who couldn't remember at all.
"Kenshin, I'm Sanosuke."
He nodded in acknowledgement, eyes on the ground. Again, I had an impression that his manner wasn't so much to do with actual submission than a simple effort to avoid trouble. One might think it was the same thing, but with him…it just wasn't.
"Kenshin, how old are you?"
"This one…doesn't know, Master."
Two frustrations in one sentence. One, of course, for being called Master. You'd think I'd get used to it at some point, but I never did. Slightly more important was that he didn't know how old he was, which wouldn't help me figuring out how long he'd been enslaved.
"How old were you?" I asked then, hoping for better clues.
Ah. He was created illegally. Would have to keep that hush-hush, or he'd be destroyed out-of-hand by the authorities or "do-gooders."
"You were twenty," I warned him sternly, and he nodded, already understanding the need for discretion.
So I was going to have to be dealing with a boy who had been fifteen for an unknown number of years. Not a pleasant thought under the most ordinary of circumstances, but he seemed composed for an adolescent. Chances were still pretty good he was technically older than I was.
"How long have you been a songslave?"
He shook his head. He didn't know.
"More than ten, less than twenty," I repeated, figuring we could round it to fifteen in a pinch. "Well, that's good. That means if you're freed, you won't crumble into dust or anything."
He looked stunned for a moment. He hadn't been expecting any talk of freedom at all. If I'd known him then as well as I know him now, I might have been more amused at what I would find out to be a rare moment of surprise.
"You are going to free this one?" His voice was weak.
"I can't do any such thing," I explained. "But my employer can. He's an irritable old coot who's looking for his son or something, thinks he might be still alive as a songslave. So he sends me and a couple of other guys out gathering whoever they can find, and then the old man sets them free. Pays pretty good." It was too simple an explanation, but no less than the truth, and chances were the only words important to him would be "sets them free."
Kenshin nodded slowly. His hands, encircled by chains, shook slightly. I felt another jolt of pity for him. He had been very young for way too long.
First thing was first, though. I asked him for his song, the one that evoked him. He looked a little pained as he shut his mouth and softly hummed a slow and sad little tune that fit him perfectly. I listened carefully, placing my fingers over the notes on the flute. Wasn't very musically inclined, but all it took was a knowledge of notes to work simple tunes. Greater musical ability meant greater effect, but this was the best I was going to get.
I played the notes well enough, and Kenshin nearly fell over when his chains suddenly fell away, more from the sudden change in weight than from true surprise. Lowering the flute, I observed black and blue sores rubbed into his skin, calluses on his wrists. Rare were the moments when he'd not been chained.
"Dangerous, are you?" I asked him.
He blinked, not understanding the question.
"Are you dangerous?" I repeated. "Is that why you were both chained and nullified?" I indicated his tiara.
He went still. "This one is not dangerous, Master," he said. If I hadn't been so experienced, I would have missed the very vague note of desperation in his voice, the faint plea not to chain him again.
"Kenshin, I'm not your master," I said, a little wearily. "You don't have any masters after today. You'll be freed soon. So no more 'master', all right?"
He nodded, but I knew he wouldn't be able to comply, at least not completely. That was part of the geas, to serve, to be submissive. Not all the chains that kept him on his knees could be seen.
Fifteen years old. On not just anyone was the craft of song-enslaving used. He told me he was taught the sword, and my guess as that he must have been good. Good enough that someone wanted those skills sharp and permanent, forever in combination with his youthful body and muscles. I wondered about him, but it wasn't my business--yet. I might ask him when he was free and knew that he had a choice in whether he wanted to tell me anything or tell me to mind my own damn business.
When I reached out to examine his tiara, he thought I was going to hit him. He didn't flinch, but rather braced for a blow, closing his eyes and hardening his muscles.
"Steady," I said, and he opened his eyes, again as my fingers touched the cold metal clinging to his forehead. I took his chin to turn his head back and forth, wondering how the tiara was attached, exactly. But, just as I thought, I couldn't remove it as it was. The metal ended behind his ears, but I could see it was piercing through his skin and continuing into his skull. The magic that created this songslave was powerful, and no corners were cut making certain he was both a weapon and could be kept under control.
So just how in the hell had he ended up in the hands of sniveling little cockroaches like that old man and his brother? Seemed like a warrior-slave like this one should have been some dirty little secret weapon of the government or something.
Unless he was some sort of failure or botched experiment or even a mistake. But I doubted it. The cost of this magic was too great to waste on mistakes. If there were so many geas and restrictions placed on him, then his abilities were something else.
Well, it was none of my business. Had an ornery boss to get this songslave to, but first I had to get us both fed and cleaned up for the journey. I decided I liked the food and relative cleanliness of that little restaurant from before and steered us in that direction. The prices weren't bad, either.
And I tucked Kenshin's flute away in my pocket. Chances were, a creation like him had multiple songs with multiple effects, but he wasn't my slave, and I had no need to learn them. So I figured.
I've been wrong before.