--------------------------------------------------I bet you never thought I'd come back to this story... Well, I suppose weirder things in life have happened. I predict this particular episode will last 2-3 parts. It really depends on how the mood strikes me
From that point he turned inland, having had enough of the salt in his hair and the sand in his eyes to last him for half a decade at least. And as he walked with his back turned deliberately toward to ocean, the cool spring nights steadily sank into dense summer days, and he slumped beneath the thickening humidity and dreaded the oncoming rain. There was no respite from the sticky coating of sweat that clung to his chest and beaded on his forehead, no relief from the unrelenting heat and sunlight that stretched between the villages scattered haphazardly across the countryside.
Each, he noticed with surprise, had its own particularities, and although all followed the same basic agrarian rural lifestyle, each emitted a slightly different aura, like each individual in a crowd of people jostling and pushing their way through a crowded street. And just as the colored patterns of their kimono and hakama condense into an indistinguishable collage of clashing geometrics, so did his hours blurred into days and days into weeks.
Some nights he sat alone in the flooded rice fields beneath the stars, slowly rubbing his fingers up and down the flute's rounded surface, brushing it softly against his lips, then with an inward sigh, soundlessly lowering it again to his lap. Other times he passed the dark hours beneath the thatched roof of a simple farmhouse, stomach pleasantly full from the evening meal offered without hesitation, reserve, or the expectation of anything in return.
"Sessha…" He'd murmured in a voice that still betrayed his gratitude and disbelief. And they'd in turn dismissed his archaic politeness as the eccentricity of boy coming of age alone in a country awash with change. It became increasingly subtle, of course, as he traveled farther from the urban centers and coastal ports, a gentle feeling that nonetheless tinged the air and flavored the water. Nothing was completely immune from the rolling tide of modernization.
But where, only months ago, he'd felt annoyance, almost anger at the ignorance of his hosts to the microcosm that was Kyoto and the desperate battles upon which the fate of the nation had been hinged—a calmness was settling somewhere deep inside his chest, a whisper that softly reminded him that this was as things should be. This was what he had, in truth, fought for.
It was almost evening when he stumbled into the village, a small jumble of houses nestled in the foothills of the mountain. "Stop by Koyama," a passerby had advised the day before as the two travelers had shared water and information beneath the scorching midday sun. "They always have room for a traveler in need." The other man had gestured back toward the way he'd come as Kenshin stood quietly by. "They even gave me two days' provisions for the road," he'd added as they'd parted ways. And so, with nowhere better to go, the wanderer had followed the stranger's advice and continued along the dusty road with the slant of afternoon sun in his eyes and the lingering melody of a flute in his ears.
It had seemed like a decent idea at the time, but as he neared the settlement's edge, he sensed a hint of bitterness hanging over the area like fog trapped in the bottom of a gully. It was muted, unthreatening—but at the same time, undeniably present. 'Perhaps I've strayed too close to Kyoto again', he thought to himself as he swallowed dryly against the dehydration of exposure on the open road. 'I should have continued north instead.' But despite the unease that nibbled at his senses and fluttered through his stomach, he could think of no rational reason to avoid the village save for the shadows conjured forth by his ever-cautious mind. In the end, it was his stomach that won the battle.
Even before he reached the settlement, the road began to slant upward toward the fading sunlight as if reaching skyward to brush against the disappearing rays. But he walked with his gaze trained on the increasingly rocky ground before him and barely noticed the carefully-cultivated cherry trees that demarked the path—their gnarled trunks silhouetted indistinctly against the encroaching darkness. Twice he almost lost a sandal to the stones jutting irregularly from the incline—and almost missed the first dwelling entirely, so well-hidden it was amongst the delicate lace of overlapping maple leaves. The structure, visible behind the flat-topped wooden gate, hunched low to the ground as if hugging the mountain beneath its thick grass-thatched roof.
He'd lingered beside the open gate—that firm, unmoving stance betraying none of the hesitation that chained his hands immobile to his side. And at last, just as he reluctantly raised a clenched fist to knock against the wooden post, a young man, no older than himself, appeared before him. Their eyes met, and they stood, locked inexplicably in each others' gaze for a moment that might have well been an eternity.
"We have no room for visitors." The would-be host was first to break the silence. "My apologies." His voice caught in his throat, and he averted his eyes as he struggled to sound sincere. And despite the poorly-delivered lie, the visitor would have willingly turned away again, too proud to disgrace himself by asking for shelter when it wasn't freely given. He inhaled deeply, apologies of his own hovering on the tip of his tongue.
"Wait…" The soft exhalation caught him mid-step as he turned silently to leave. Almost like a sigh of the wind, the single word fell on his ears just as they registered the rapid patter of approaching footsteps. "…it's okay. Please stay the night." She stood silhouetted in the doorway, hands side by side clutching a rice-paper lantern before her, white-socked feet pointing slightly inward toward each other. But beneath the soft pink of her kimono, the firm set of her shoulders betrayed her determination though her gaze remained downward and half-hidden beneath stray wisps of soft black hair.
He hesitated, uncertain whether or not to accept the invitation—unsure of the motive behind it. The warm golden glow of the lamp tugged at him, urging him to give into his hunger and exhaustion and rest. And yet—"That's very kind of you, but I can't…" he replied at last, the protest sounding weak even to his own ears.
The boy continued to eye him, not with outright hostility or aggression but rather a solemn wariness and ingrained scowl which contorted features that otherwise would have been almost handsome; it an expression worn perhaps more out of habit than conscious thought. At long last, he finished his appraisal and disappeared back inside the gate without further comment.
And the two remaining shadows, dark blurs against the flickering lamplight and last vestiges of the setting sun, silently faced each other, eyes betraying none of the nervousness of their rapid heartbeats. "My brother…" She was the first to speak. "…please excuse his rudeness." She shifted her weight from foot to foot as she knotted and unknotted her fingers together against the lantern's handle. "These are just difficult times, you see…" And with a short, breathless laugh she finally met his eyes with hers. "This village used to be widely known for its hospitality."
He watched her out of corner of his eye as she worked though her nervousness through fidgeting. His master had cured him of that habit long ago. "I understand." He forced himself to smile, to draw the corners of his mouth upward and let the lines of his face soften into an expression that he'd filed away as being reassuring. The breeze at his back brushed stay strands of red across his vision
The room was small, just a few paces wide and not much longer, but the sliding doors opened out onto the narrow wooden deck that encircled the garden contained within the center of the dwelling. The wooden panels had been worn smooth over the years by the quiet shuffle of socked feet, and the garden, two steps down, was cool and dark. As he stood in the doorway, hand resting absently against the doorframe, the darkness gradually became awash in soft lamplight as first one, then two, then three lanterns illuminated the night scenery. From somewhere on the opposite side of the enclosure came the comforting sounds of cooking preparation, and from the darkness, the continuous buzz of summer cicadas.
"…traitor." The word sliced through the quiet like a knife through water. It was followed by a stream of indistinguishable murmurs that rose and fell in pitch.
A pause. Then a second voice, female. "…no choice but to…" Snippets of conversation, a word here and there, frustratingly vague with no context to explain them. Kenshin pressed his lips together as he stared out into the garden. The landscaping was more extensive than the limited lamplight suggested, and carved posts of a bridge at the edge of his vision hinted at the manicured expanse that would become visible in the daylight. Everything was meticulously tended with a skill that characterized the past era more than the one that was just dawning.
"There's time for a bath before dinner." Though his mind had registered the approach of footsteps along the hall behind him, the voice was unfamiliar, and when he turned away from the garden landscape, it was an older woman, plainly-dressed with salt-and-pepper gray hair who returned his gaze. "If you'll follow me, sir."
It was easily apparent from the house's function layout and the simplicity of the decoration that its owners cared more for the garden than the interior. Nevertheless, the tatami, through worn, were swept clean, and the paper shoji had been recently dusted and repaired. The bathroom likewise was plain yet clean, and as he closed his eyes and submerged himself in the steaming water, he was at a loss to recall the last time he had stayed in such comfortable surroundings.
It wasn't until after breakfast the following morning that he finally had the opportunity to explore the grounds that had inexplicably been calling him since he'd squinted out into the lamp-lit darkness. As would be expected, the landscaping was more casual than the expansive strolling gardens so prevalent in Kyoto. Paths gave way to secluded groves which dead-ended into overgrown tangles of branches and weeds. It was as though a pragmatic gardener had mentally laid-out the boundaries of his jurisdiction and resigned himself to letting nature take hold of the rest. By far, the most impressive feature was the summer hydrangeas. Blue and purple against their dense greenery, from some angles they dominated the layout, while from others they merely accented it with unexpected blushes of color.
He found her seated on a bench in the far corner of what could be considered tended grounds. Part-garden, part-nature, claimed completely be neither, it was as though someone had deliberately let the grove be consumed by the natural progression of seasons, then stubbornly tried to reclaim it for human use. "What do you think of our gardens?" She inquired as though unsurprised that he'd stumbled upon her personal spot. "Are they to your liking?"
"They're lovely," he replied, voice tinged with a touch of embarrassment. For all his years in Kyoto, he'd never learned the erudite terms that one was supposed to use for complementing such things as gardens or fine lacquerware or theater.
"Father brought most of the detail-work all the way from Kyoto," she continued. "It was more a matter of pride than anything else. Hardly anyone out here can recognize genuine craftsmanship." Though her quiet chuckle covered the silence that hung in the air after she'd mentioned the city's name, it couldn't hide the anxiety in her eyes or dispel the feeling that she'd said too much. "But of course, such things hardly matter now."
There was, of course, no standard reply for such a statement, no bland socially-acceptable phrase to toss into the air and hide behind. Not that he had much use for such words anyhow. "Have you ever been to Kyoto yourself?"
If the question seemed somewhat out-of-place, she didn't appear to notice. "Only once. And I was too little to remember it properly." There was a tinge of longing, of nostalgia for a vague childhood impression that slipped away like sand.
"And you live here alone with your brother and the old housekeeper…" He quickly shifted the conversation away from the city of his past before unwanted memories could resurface.
"For the past two years," she replied. "We manage just fine." Though her voice remained congenial, it did not invite further questions.
So he nodded, and with a smile only slightly forced, he turned back toward the main section of the garden. "Please tell me what I can do to pay for my stay." If the past years had taught him anything, it was that people were only sincere when they genuinely desired to be, and questions asked in the wrong environment only brought less-than honest answers. And before she could call him back, he'd disappeared into the short mid-morning shadows.
end of part 5