The teahouse was located within a thick inner garden in a corner of the mansion that was usually deserted. Tonight, however, dim candle light shone from within the closed partitions. A few guards knelt in watchful vigil, well outside the range of hearing. Only the three occupants in the room would know the content of the conversation this late night.
The room the men were seated in was simple to the point of austere, but what few decorations and implements were there were of excellent quality. The fragrance of sake wafted in the room as Katsura poured into three delicate white porcelain cups in front of him. Sakamoto Ryoma lifted two of the cups and offered one to the person sitting beside him. "Here you go, Okubo-san. Did you have a good journey here? It was a long journey from Kagoshima to here."
The other man, in his late thirties with a narrow face and a neat mustache bowed his head and accepted the cup. "Thank you," he murmured. "It was quite uneventful, thankfully. Unlike yours, Sakamoto-san. I am glad I do not have to be the bearer of bad news to Saigo-san."
Sakamoto gave a lop-sided grin. "Thanks to Katsura here and his fine group of men."
Katsura demurred, a round of drink was consumed and re-poured before he turned to their visitor. "I thank you for agreeing to meet with me at such a late time, Okubo-san. But I thought it may help us to have a private discussion." Unspoken was the understanding – away from prying eyes.
"It is of no problem. However, first, let me apologize on behalf of my colleague. It was truly unfortunate that Saigo-san was unable to meet with you last July. He was delayed by government official business, and was unable to make it to Shimonoseki on time. It is not our intention to insult you by our tardiness."
Katsura nodded, somewhat cool. "Apology accepted."
"Sakamoto-san," Okubo nodded to Sakamoto Ryoma, "has forwarded us your letter. We, that is, Saigo-san and myself, found ourselves in agreement with your points."
"I also bring good news. Just before I left, your colleague, Ito-san and Inoue-san had sent a letter to me saying that they have managed to secure seven thousand rifles from Nagasaki, through the offices of our Kaientai trading company."
Katsura could not help a genuine smile at that. "Ah, that is excellent news. We have been trying to bypass the Bakufu blockade on foreign weapons for a long time. But as you know, ever since Shimonoseki, Bakufu has been watching us so closely that it is close to impossible to do some things. We have sent men to Nagasaki before, to see if they could contact foreign merchants willing to sell weapons, but it has come to no avail."
"We are happy to be of assistance. Our han has long prepare ourselves and we are in the process of building naval yards for our new modern navy. I'm sure Sakamoto-san has already told you, we have been using the Kaientai to supply us with artillery and ships. I believe we can continue to help you obtain more advanced weapons through our Kaientai offices in Nagasaki. As for your request for a ship, it may stretch some of our resources…"
"As you know, we are currently building an army. We have the man-power, but Satsuma land is not the most fertile ground, while Choshu has long been known for the richness of her granary."
"Ah… yes. I do believe we have a little surplus this year."
"Perhaps more than a little?"
Katsura smiled but did not elaborate. Just like Satsuma, Choshu had been preparing itself. There was surplus in the granaries for more than two years, but there was no need to reveal the card to Satsuma at this point.
"I will find a way to route some… excess… to the appropriate merchant channels."
Okubo nodded, but his face remained neutral. Too much so. "Katsura-san… the last time we corresponded, quite a few of your people were still opposed to our alliance. They also derided our dealings with our foreign friends. Tell me, how is the situation now? I must admit, my people have started asking questions on when we formalise our alliance in the open."
Here it comes. Katsura affected nonchalance as he responded with a confidence that he did not feel. "There will always be a few stubborn people who cannot see beyond old grudges. However, their numbers are diminishing rapidly and so are their influence."
"I see." Okubo's face revealed nothing except a mild thoughtfulness. "We have a few back at home too, but Saigo-san is even now hard at work in Kagoshima convincing the rest of the nobles to support us. We understand that there is little to be gained by further negotiation with Bakufu. Considering how much armed dealings we had made, on our behalf as well as yours…" A flicker of steel under half-lidded eyes. "We would like some assurance that Choshu is as committed to this alliance as we are."
Katsura saw Sakamoto's eyes flickered towards him, gauging his response. He had schooled himself from tensing in indignation, but it was hard. Fortunately, he was aware of this and had think of a partial solution.
"Tell me, Okubo-san. Ever since the trading between our two han stopped, our people has been bemoaning the loss of a good trading partner. I wonder if it is the same case with yours?"
If Okubo was thrown by the apparent non-sequitur, he did not show it. "Yes, there have been quite a few complaints." The profitable grain trading had vastly diminished, most of it gone underground, ever since the formal trading lines had been cut following the old hostilities between the two provinces.
"Do you think your people would be amenable to re-opening the old grain trade lines between us?"
There was finally a reaction from Okubo. A raised an eyebrow and a stroke of a lean chin. "Economic alliance…ka?" Katsura waited patiently as Okubo pondered his own positions, judging which of his supporters would benefit from the re-opened trading lines, how that would juggle the power balance, and came to the same conclusion Katsura had when he had considered this solution.
Katsura stopped himself from sighing in relief. Okubo had taken the bait. "If we finalise the agreement before this month ends, the grain can starts moving before this year's winter comes around."
Okubo grunted softly. "And the rates?"
"Considering our current trading relationship with Satsuma, perhaps preferred partner rates can be arranged."
Okubo finally smiled a thin-lipped smile. "If you could let me have a look at a draft of the agreements…?"
"I will have it delivered to you by tomorrow, and we can have another discussion after you have a chance to look through it."
Okubo finally smiled a thin-lipped smile. "That is acceptable. I do believe that this shall come as a pleasant surprise to quite a few of my people."
Katsura allowed himself a smile for the first time in this meeting, Sakamoto beaming at the two of them from the side. "That is our sincerest hope. Shall we drink to it, then?"
For Kenshin, the journey back to the mansion passed in a blur. He hid himself when voices or footsteps warned of approaching men, though they were thankfully far and between in the late hours. But otherwise, his mind stayed in a clouded haze. His thoughts were unfocused, but perhaps it was better that way.
He passed the guard that opened the back door for him, ignoring the way the man stumbled back from him with wide-eyed shock. He did not go straight to his quarter, instead taking a sharp left to where the servants' well was located. Dawn was still several hours away and the courtyard was as deserted as the rest.
Kenshin would not have cared if the courtyard was packed with people. Right now, he only wanted one thing, for the water in the well to wash the stink of death and madness away from him. He wanted it with an intense desperation that bordered on irrationality.
He brought the first bucket up with jerky pulls and upended it over his head. The cool water hit his over-heated body with a shock, but it was not enough. He could still taste, smell, feel it. It was in his hair, his skin, his lungs, his mouth.
It was driving him mad.
He drew another bucket with hands that were shaking. It splashed half its load as his haste made him clumsy. He scrubbed his palms and fingernails over every patch of visible skin, trying to remove all trace of blood that was on him, hating the sticky heaviness of the drenched fabric, sickened by the cloying sweet smell that paradoxically became stronger as the water soaked him to the skin. His stomach roiled and he fought against reflexive heaving.
Not the first time he had to kill a large group of men all at once. But it was the first time it took place in such a narrow and enclosed area. So narrow there was no place to evade the falling blood. So much concentrated in so little space that it was practically raining all over him, drenching him. Until droplets of it was inhaled into his nostrils.
He gulped a mouthful of water and spat it without swallowing. He realized not just his hands, his whole body was trembling. But not from shock. Not even from fear.
He was angry. Furious. Guilty too – but most of all… angry.
Angry at the Imawarigumi for being tardy and late, causing the clear road to become a death trap. Angry at them for not turning away and running when they knew the only choice he had was to go through them.
And lastly, angry at himself for butchering them so cursed easily.
He was breathing hard now, body shaking.
That was ridiculous. One should not feel guilty over one's kill, not when the result could have been the other way round.
But he did.
A sound emerged from his lips, and distantly he thought he was laughing. But he did not recognize that sound, surely that mad sound was not his, was it? And a part of him woke up and recoiled at what he had just thought.
Stupid, stupid fool. You are angry because they had not gone along with your clever little scheme of escaping with no deaths involved. Because they had dared to go and messed up your clean, pretty little plan.
Arrogant, presumptious fool! What do you think this is, a game? String along the stupid pawns, lead them on a few merry chases, come back with none the wiser. Who do you think you are?!
He flinched as the memory of accusing scream struck him like a whip-lash. The woman had called him that, aptly. Everything that he touched turned to death. When would he learn his lesson? It did not matter what his intentions were. Death followed him like an extension of his shadow. Laughable that he thought he could turn from killer to protector. Killing came so instinctively to him, alternatives did not even occur to him until it was too late. Certainly too late to do that last trooper any good.
At that moment, with the miasma of blood so thickly surrounding him still, a life-time of killing seemed to stretch before him - an endless road of madness. And he could not breathe for the crushing weight of it.
Maybe this is what my fate is. Maybe this is what I deserve.
He whirled around with a snarl on his lips, whole body taut with barely contained tension. The owner of the voice stared at him with widening eyes, but not backing away. That was important, somehow. It brought him back, a little, enough to recognize the one standing in front of him. Kyosuke. Kyosuke with his gentle brown eyes, who somehow managed to kept the kindness in his soul despite the killings he had done. Kyosuke who had stayed by his side even when everyone else barely tolerated him and watched him as warily as if watching a barely-tamed wild animal.
Kenshin turned back to the well, shame adding to the welter of emotions inside him. He grabbed his katana, suddenly wanting nothing more than to disappear, away from all eyes. Even Kyosuke's. Maybe especially Kyosuke's.
But the other man was not so easily deterred. He stepped in front of Kenshin when he would have moved away from the well.
"What happened… to you?"
"Nothing," Kenshin grated, skirting Kyosuke.
"But… are you injured? There's so much blood…"
"Don't touch me!" The shout seemed to come out of nowhere. "Stay away from me!"
Hand half-outstretched towards him, where Kyosuke was about to touch his shoulder. Hurt now evident in his eyes, along with confusion.
"…Himura?" Another voice, vaguely familiar.
He wanted to shout at the new voice to leave him alone, for all of them to leave him alone. He felt like a rice paper stretched too thin, like the faintest touch would tear him apart. But the angry words caught in his throat when he saw Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro standing by the entrance to the inner hallway. It had been Sakamoto who had called him, but there was a small group of strangers standing behind him. Men who bore arms and whose hands had dropped to their katana hilts with tensed bodies. The narrow-faced man in the middle stared at him with widened eyes.
Katsura took one step forward and to the left, placing himself in his direct line of sight and not so coincidentally in front of the clump of strangers. His handsome face was as tense as he had ever seen it.
He started, realized that his right fingers had tightly wrapped themselves around the hilt of his katana, completely without his conscious thought.
He had to take several deep breaths, focusing on that familiar word to force his thoughts into some coherent form. There is no threat here, Katsura was telling him. Prying his fingers away from the hilt felt almost like physical pain. "It was… nothing… important, Katsura-sama." Nothing. He wanted to laugh at that. Not important to the big picture, just enough to tip him halfway to hell. "I was… careless. I thought…" He bit down on the rest. No. No excuses. "Iya. I was careless. There was a patrol of Imawarigumi. I had to… go through them." Go through. What a nice, clean word. Nothing implied of the carnage that had ensued. But the evidence of it could clearly be seen on his body, in the puddle of water beneath him that reeked of copper. "My sincere apologies. This may make the patrols more aggressive."
"I see." Katsura regarded him for several seconds before quietly speaking, "What's done is done, you do what you have to. But I'm sure you are tired. We will discuss this later, after you had some rest."
Kenshin bowed to him, relieved to be released, ashamed at his loss of control in front of strangers. When he turned away, he knew Katsura had allowed him to flee for a while, had given him some time to gather the pieces of his armor back together before he would need to confront it again during the inevitable questioning to follow.
He was grateful, but he was not sure if his armor could ever fit together again.
Ryoma threw Katsura a troubled look as they watched Himura moved beyond the doorway, the big shishi he did not recognize following suit after a slight hesitation. However, before he could say anything, Okubo asked quietly from behind. "Who is he?"
Ryoma looked at Okubo in surprise. Why would Okubo wanted to know? His bodyguards were still looking a little twitchy, barely relaxing as Himura moved out of sight. Ryoma did not blame them. The unexpectedly vicious aura that Himura had given off had even him twitching for the sword he left in his room, and he had known the kid for years.
Katsura glanced back, then deliberately resumed their interrupted walk. And to think that they had deliberately chosen the back gate to prevent Okubo from encountering any uncomfortable confrontations.
"He is one of my trusted men." Katsura replied quietly. "I trust him with my life. He will not talk. I will make sure the other one won't either."
Okubo's voice was subdued. "For a moment, I thought a shura had stepped out of hell itself."
"He is not a berserker," Katsura said in a sharper tone than normal.
Ryoma was not so sure of that, but he did not want to voice that out loud where Okubo could hear it. There was something thoughtful in the man's eyes that made him uncomfortable.
Once they had escorted Okubo and his entourage out, Ryoma turned to Katsura and spoke without preamble.
"He's breaking apart."
Katsura took a deep breath, turning to walk back to their lodgings. "I know."
"I'm not squeamish, but even so that's a lot of blood. How many do you think?"
"More than half, probably all of them. He was trained to kill, Ryoma, not fight honourable duels in dojos where matches stop at the first blood."
"You told me once that he's not suited to be a killer."
By tacit agreement, their path took them back to the now deserted teahouse. They left the lanterns unlit, choosing to leave the wall partition open for moonlight to filter in. Ryoma seated himself and watched Katsura filled both their sake cups to the brim. The opened Katsura took a small sip, then sighed. "But he is too strong, too valuable, to risk being used by any other parties. Shinsuke once described the sword of Hiiten Mitsurugi Ryuu akin to a force of nature. If I let him go, do you think one of the others would not have approached him?"
"And I honestly don't think he could have stayed out in any case. He's young, idealistic." Katsura's soft smile was self-mocking. "He reminds me of Shinsuke and myself when we were both young. And it's not as if there are that many people I can trust my back to these days."
"I don't want to see him ruined."
Katsura's reply was harsh. "You think I want to?"
Sakamoto took his time answering. "No. But I know if you think it's worth it, you'll sacrifice him."
Katsura flinched minutely and was silent. Sakamoto took a gulp of the sake that did not taste as good as before. "Damn, it's gone cold." He waited for the other man to collect himself.
When Katsura spoke, his voice was soft with bone-deep anguish. "I watched more friends die the last two years than I did my whole life, Ryoma. I watched more good men hunted to death like animals, stripped of their honour and executed like low criminals. And some of those men, I sent to their deaths."
Katsura downed the content of his cup in one gulp and slammed it down on the mat.
"When I started down this road, I know there will be sacrifices, innocents or not. I know I'll be walking on a road paved by the fallen dead, both my enemies and my friends. Whether or not it is right, what is done cannot be changed. But it is my responsibility to see it to the end, to finish this the way it should be. No matter how hard... I have to do my best to see it through. To do any less would demean the worth of all the people who had died."
"So you're right. If I think the price is worth it, I will use up and sacrifice the lives of young men like Himura. And if fates are kind, all of it may actually mean something in the end."
There was a long silence, then Sakamoto said, not looking at Katsura, "Bakufu is not going to let this slide." A tacit apology, letting the matter slide to less personal matters.
"I'll instruct our people to lie low." Katsura wiped his palm over his face, betraying his weariness. "I wish this hadn't happen at this time. We can't afford close government attention right now. And something else is happening, my sources have been telling me there are a lot of underground activities. It could just be some criminal gang actions, or it could be something else. I wish I know more." Katsura gave a gusty sigh. "But let's talk of something else. You haven't told me how your meeting went tonight."
It was Ryoma's turn to sigh. He sipped the hot sake, grateful for the warmth it gave him. "The contact said the shipment was gone in a raid, and they didn't know who did it. We know we didn't do it. So either he's lying or…"
"…or there's a third party interfering." Katsura frowned down at his cup of sake. "To tell you the truth, I don't know which of the possibilities worries me more."
Ryoma sucked down more sake. "Well, if he's lying, the Brits have betrayed us and we are completely out of luck. If he isn't, then we just acquired ourselves another enemy." He leant back against the railing of the pavilion to stare thoughtfully at the half-full moon. "Personally, I don't think he's lying. On the other hand, without insider information and help, I really don't think it's possible to get away with that kind of weapons raid on heavily guarded warehouse."
Katsura grimaced. "You just pointed out the third possibility. That someone from the embassy leaked out information to aid in the raid. With or without the Ambassador's knowledge."
"Which puts us back to square one. We don't know either way." Katsura leaned forward. His face looked haggard under the moonlight.
"We need this alliance Sakamoto. The second punitive force, led by Shogun Iemochi himself, will arrive in Choshu sometime late this year. Shinsaku is even now rallying and training our people for war. We don't know what the outcome of this will be, we don't know how long it will take, but we do know that there will be more battles after this."
"What we do know for sure is that we are going to war with Tokugawa. And for that, we have to prepare for the worst."
Sakamoto grimaced. "Yes, I know. Look, they promised a replacement shipment coming in next Friday. The contact was also willing to arrange a meeting with the new ambassador. I told him we'll meet this guy when they can show us the shipment, so we'll arrange a meeting sometime end of next week. We'll see then if they are really sincere with this, hmm? If not, well, it's better to know sooner than later."
"How far can we trust them?"
"Heh, always hope for the best and prepare for the worst. That's how we've lived so far, isn't it? And let's just pray there won't be any idiot hot-heads stirring up troubles in the meantime."
Katsura gave Sakamoto a tired smile. "I don't think both of us combined have enough good karma for that."
"Damn, you're right. Oh well, here's to hope anyway." The sound of ceramic cups clicking was soft in the dead of night.
Hours later as false dawn swept the sky, one man sat alone in his room with a cooling jar of untouched sake, while another lay beside a slumbering woman and listened to the whispering of the wind. Elsewhere, a simple farmer turned soldier carefully refold a yellowing letter spotted with dark-brown patches, the thin rice paper creased from many refolding, and in a neighbouring room, a boy turned killer tossed and dreamed of carnelian rain.
OMG, I can't believe I actually started writing this again, and actually finishing a chapter!! I deeply and abjectly apologize to all of you who had read DSBL and were left hanging for so long. I stopped writing this for a long time because it's by far the most labour-intensive fic I have, and I can't handle the pressure of full-time work (horrible, horrible underpaid-overworked job), family stress, and fic writing at the same time. I did finish a few shorter fics and started a few others on a whim, but DSBL is more than a whim to me and I have this horrible need to give this ficcie the best I can. Which translates to almost no writing for years, bleh! ;;.
As for why I started writing again – this is solely due to all of you wonderful, wonderful people who wrote in and ask for continuations, and some who even spent time and effort (both of which I know are in such short supplies) to help me preview some sections. Lisa, this chapter is so definitely dedicated to you! (forgive me for going quiet and dead again after the last email, no excuse, just my deepest apologies)
I still have a horrible feeling that I'm tangling my plotlines all over the place, and that I may be forced to re-write certain sections once I've progressed far enough. But as long as I know that people are still reading this after all this time, I will try to keep on writing (ok, I think you may need to prod me now and then ;;). Feel free to scream at me to get off my butt and go on writing. And as always, suggestions, recommendations, errors pointing are all gratefully welcomed.
And gods, I've forgotten what it was like being gripped by the muse . I've been locked here in front of the screen for almost 8 hours non-stop, and I got work tomorrow, uwaaa…
The meeting described here, did not actually exist in history (not in recorded history in any case :). But the Choshu and Satsuma leaders were in contact during this time, which lead to the resumption of trade between Choshu and Satsuma han, Choshu supplying grain to Satsuma army, and Kaientai helping Choshu in obtaining foreign weapons. For the history buff, there was an attempted meeting between Katsura Kogoro and Saigo Takamori on July in Shimonoseki, but Saigo cancelled at the last moment. Katsura was already there, and was pretty pissed that Saigo decided not to come just like that. From many accounts, even though Katsura and Saigo were pretty much the spear-heads in their respective han for Sat-Cho alliance, they were still at logger-heads with each other. Okubo Toshimitchi supported the alliance, but was not as strongly involved in its creation. Takasugi Shinsaku himself was strongly against Satsuma. Sakamoto Ryoma really had had his work cut out for him, trying to bring these two together ;.