A Dandelion Wish
Chapter 3: First Tasting
"You can learn alot about a person if you just take the time to inject them with sodium pentothal." -Anonymous
The new taster was lead away, bound for the kitchens and the bath house.
"General Hiruma will not be pleased," came a voice from the porch behind him. The red-head didn't so much as twitch at the statement.
"Kohei helped write these laws, He has no room to be displeased," he said making a note in the book with the leather tie then closed it and tied it shut.
A tall, thin young man gracefully removed his shoes then walked silently into the room. His hakama was dark grey, his gi forest green that matched his flat dark green eyes.
"He will be anyway. She surprised you. Did you not know who the next prisoner to be executed was?" he asked. The other man huffed, blowing his long red bangs from his eyes.
"I only knew her last name. I'd forgotten there was a female prisoner on the line," he said.
"I find that hard to believe, Himura. You're overstepping your bounds again," the tall man said simply, "If Katsura finds out-"
"He won't, Aoshi," Himura cut him off. Looking up with an innocent smile that he managed surprisingly easily, he continued, "Leave these boring matters to this one. I'm sure as leader of the Onibanwabsu, you have other things to occupy yourself with. And if not…" his eyes flashed amber for a moment, "I can find you something to do."
The two stared at one another for a long moment, neither looking away or holding any emotion in their gazes. Finally, Aoshi broke the contest by inclining his head fractionally. He swept out of the room and back onto the porch. Pausing to slip on his geta, he cast one last look over his shoulder.
"Be careful, this girl is more dangerous than your usual stray."
Kenshin didn't turn, or acknowledge that he'd heard at all. Aoshi stepped off the porch and into the sunshine. And the man once known as the Hitokiri Battousai bowed his head and returned to his task at hand.
The Captain left her in the capable hands of the palace doctor, Dr. Gensai, after removing her chains. He departed without a word, the clatter of the chains following him down the hall. The doctor clucked his tongue over the state of her body and set out immediately to see her back to full health.
"First things first, my dear, a bath," he said, his kind smile adding a few more lines to his already lined face. Kaoru thought him to be a grandfatherly type soul; and his grey hair and moustache only added to the impression. He wore a crisp uniform as well, with a black hakama and light blue gi. Over top of that was a white apron that tied in the back.
"The baths are this way, well take it slowly," he said leading the way from his treatment room which had been filled to the brim with various boxes, jars, baskets, and other assorted containers. He guided her through, what she felt, were the indistinguishable halls and rooms of the Imperial Palace. By the second garden they crossed, Kaoru was beginning to falter, but managed to hide it. Luckily, it wasn't much further. They cut through a beautiful tatami room, whose walls had been elegantly painted with scenes from a forest and came out on a veranda overlooking yet another garden. This one was larger than the previous two and it held a large independent building within it.
"Go inside, I'd wash twice before going for a soak. I'll leave some clothes out for you and come back in an hour. Is that enough time?" he smiled his easy and kind smile again, which make Kaoru's heart ache a little. She couldn't find the words necessary so she just nodded.
The Imperial Baths. Kaoru couldn't believe it as she made her way inside. But her stupor didn't last long as the over whelming desire to be clean overtook her. She did away with her filthy prisoner garb leaving it in a tainted pile in the corner. Kaoru picked out a wash cloth and a bar of soap from the neat piles on the shelves along one wall, and set about viciously scrubbing every inch of skin and hair. Months, years of caked on sweat, blood and dirt came off under her relentless hands. She paid attention to details, washing away dirt from under her fingernails, and from the wounds she could reach.
She scrubbed at the dark stains on her skin before she belatedly realizing that they were bruises. Kaoru also found a comb amongst the shelves and for the first time in a year relished in brushing out her long, thick, blue-black hair. Feeling daring, she took a tiny amount of perfumed crème made to soften the hair and worked it slowly through her tresses. Breathing deep, she took in the scent of jasmine, her favorite. She rinsed her hair, marveling at the silky feel it left behind. She braided it back and then climbed into one of the deep tubs of hot water.
Kaoru let out a soft groan as she relaxed fully for the first time. Okay, Kaoru thought dimly, now I could die happy. She sank in the hot water all the way up to her chin letting it soothe all her wounds and abrasions.
Free for the moment to do nothing else but think, Kaoru thought back to the meeting that landed her here.
The man was more legend than human where she came from. He was featured prominently in stories of the Revolution as the Choshu province's personal demon. He was an assassin of the highest caliber; no target once acknowledged was safe. In the stories told to keep children close, he was a fearsome creature: hair the color of fresh blood, eyes of feral gold and a demonic sword that was silent as it brought death. Kaoru compared that description with her memory of the small man she'd seen.
The differences were laughable.
But, at the same time, Kaoru couldn't dismiss the involuntary shiver his eyes could give her. Even now, as only a memory, Kaoru had to suppress a small shudder. No, he may not look it, but he indeed was as deadly as the stories say. The fact that he appeared harmless only made him that more dangerous.
She sighed a little, her breath causing ripples in the water.
But his past wasn't what worried her at this precise moment, it was his plans for her that worried her. Okay, so she had gotten the job as the Commander's food taster. But there were thousands of questions that now piled up in her mind. Questions that she hadn't had time to think of and ask. Questions that she wasn't sure she'd have had the courage to ask.
The foremost in her mind had to do with something he'd said.
"…the training is neither pleasant nor easy. People have preferred the noose."
Training? What kind of training did a food taster have to do?
Kaoru, despite the deliciously warm water she was enjoying, couldn't help the shiver of premonition that thrilled down her spine.
Two hours later found Kaoru, dried; her wounds treated and bandaged, and in a fresh set of clothes that Dr. Gensai had managed to procure for her. She had also been given a bite to eat, some bread and a thin but wonderful broth. The good doctor assured her that she'd be able to eat meals soon without feeling sick. After his careful attentions, she was starting to feel human again; and after eating, she felt ready to take on anything that the Battousai deigned to throw her way. So, it was with her head held up that the doctor returned her to his office.
As last time, he didn't look up right away when they came in. Kaoru wondered briefly it he was just being arrogant or if he really knew who entered without looking. She considered that thought for a second and then settled on the latter theory. Better safe than sorry.
"Himura-san? Here is your new food taster; however I do not recommend you begin your…usual training for a few days. Give the girl time to recover please," Doctor Gensai said, his smile suggesting nothing but humility, while his tone held much more.
The red-headed man looked up, and opened his mouth to reply but instead actually flinched. His sudden start was a noticeable jerk that made Kaoru wonder at the difference her bath had made in her appearance; especially after he swept his violet eyes up and down her form several times.
Kenshin swallowed whatever his reply would have been; frankly, he couldn't really remember what it was anyway.
"Well, what a difference a bath and uniform makes. I shall have to remember that for the future," he said, his voice the same pleasant tenor that Kaoru recalled. His eyes were a rich violet, a color that made her want to curl her toes for some inexplicable reason.
"I don't care how she appears, Himura-san. She is not ready for your training methods yet. I do not want to see my word ruined because you're in a rush. You will give her a couple of days, ne?" Doctor Gensai persisted.
Kenshin waved his hand in a dismissive manner.
"Hai, hai, Gensai-isha. I promise. Would you excuse us please?"
The Doctor bowed, and left. Before he did however, he paused and gave Kaoru an encouraging squeeze on her forearm. He slid the shoji closed behind him with an audible snap. Kaoru studied the room carefully, anything to avoid looked directly at the man before her. She heard the rustle of clothing, and glanced at him from the corner of her eye. He had stood and was brushing the wrinkles from his black hakama with one hand; the other hand was occupied with a sheathed sword.
"I thought guards were only allowed to carry weapons," Kaoru blurted out before she could catch herself. The red-haired man looked up, his eyebrows raised in surprise at her outburst.
"Actually the law states that only guards are allowed to carry standard swords. Knives, clubs, spears, and all manner of sticks are allowed by the general populace," he answered calmly.
Kaoru licked her lips out of nervousness, but mustered up a reply.
"That seems like a 'standard sword' to me," she said.
He smiled again, and it was yet another cold smile, one that made Kaoru suppress yet another shiver.
"It isn't what it seems," he said and with that turned to face the shoji screens to her left. He walked silently over to the screens and slid them open. "Come with me," he said over his shoulder almost as an after-thought.
Kaoru followed out of curiosity rather than obedience. The room beyond the neat and bare office served as the first rooms polar opposite. It became clear to Kaoru that the previous room was for receiving appointments, while this room was where all the work really got done. Shelves lined all the walls, except for the spaces occupied by the shoji screens. Only the wall they had just passed through had two movable shoji, the rest held only one, no doubt to make room for more shelves. Most of the shelves were covered with all manner of books and scrolls. They seemed to have no organization to them. The large desk faced the door they had just entered through, while at its back was another screen, this one made of wood rather than paper.
On the shelves along that same wall were bottles, beakers, jars, glasses, cups, and bowls, each seeming to hold some kind of substance or another. In front of the shelf to the right of the desk was a small stove on a stand which currently had a steaming teapot sitting on top.
Kenshin walked around the desk, and gestured absently at the two chairs in front of his desk.
"Have a seat, please," he said, his tone telling her it wasn't really a request. Kaoru sat down in the one on the left, shrugging off some almost forgotten emotion at being told what to do. Petulance. That was it.
The ex-assasin kept his back to her while he rummaged around on his shelves for two clean cups. Kaoru watched, as he lifted the tea pot off the stove by the handle and she heard the sound of liquid pouring. He placed the teapot back on the stove; picked up the two cups and turned around once more. He walked around his huge desk and handed her one of the cups, then returned to the other side of the desk and took his own seat there. He raised the cup in a silent salute before taking a careful sip.
Kaoru, not sure what was going on, decided it would be rude to not do the same. She too took a careful sip of the hot tea. The taste was like a starburst on her tongue. Bright, rampant flavors rolled inside her mouth as she closed her eyes in bliss.
Quick, and crisp taste of an orange mixed with a darker duskier hint of what she thought might be cinnamon. This was followed by something sweet that strangely enough smelled of roses more than tasted of them. It was all finished off with a kind of sickly sweetener, perhaps honey?
She opened her eyes to find him watching her intently. His eyes were still violet, but she could seen hints of his Battousai gold at the centers. He smiled again, it seemed slightly less colder than before.
"You like it?"
"I've never tasted tea like this," was Kaoru's honest answer.
"What does it taste like?" he asked, sounding honestly curious.
"Orange…at first. Orange with something like cinnamon. Then there's this…rose flavor, but it seems to…to I don't know, tease my nose more than my tongue? Does that make sense?"
"Perfectly," was his brusque reply.
"And something like honey…but not," Kaoru finished lamely, her temporary pleasure at tasting the delicious tea fading quickly as she remembered exactly where she was.
He sat rolling his cup between his palms as she looked at her calmly.
"Food tasting is not just being a test case for any food the Commander eats. It is much more than that. Specific poisons can point to a specific region, or group, or single even person. If, in the moments before your death, you manage to tell me that the tea you drank tasted like an orchid smells I would know that it was a rare kind of nightshade that you ingested. And not only would that point me in the direction of a religious sect in the southern tropical forests that is known to use that poison on its enemies, it also might mean I could save your life," he pointed over his shoulder at the shelf of containers. "I have antidotes for many poisons, just as I have many poisons on this shelf."
Kaoru swallowed thickly, "So I have to memorize what certain poisons taste like? Is there like a book on this or something?"
His smiled was fridged again.
"Something like that. Being a food taster requires heightened senses. Some people are born with this advantage, most have to be trained. However, this is where your prolonged incarceration is a benefit. Your tastebuds and nose have tasted and smelled little else besides gruel, filth and decay, so it is sensitive to everything else. Something I think you've noticed?"
Kaoru nodded numbly.
"With training, you can keep this sensitivity; and become a perfect food taster."
"Training? What kind of training?"
"Well…tasting poisons, what else?"
Kaoru felt her stomach drop from her body. She looked down at the cup in her hands in horror.
"Did you poison me!?" Kaoru screeched, her hand tightening on the small cup.
"I don't know, did I?" he asked, still calm. Kaoru leapt to her feet and slammed the cup down on his desk.
"How am I supposed to know?! Is this the 'usual training' that Doctor Gensai was talking about?!" she screamed at him.
And he, still calm, though his eyes were showing a little more gold than before, answered, "Yes, of course."
Kenshin was surprised, though he didn't show it, when his words seemed to bring some measure of peace to the young woman. She straightened from her position leaning over his desk, and let her arms fall to her sides. Her jaw was still clenched, and her eyes were flashing with anger but she no longer seemed panicked or ready to throttle him.
"It's not poisoned, is it?" Kaoru asked, forcing her voice to be even. She was feeling light headed, but his answer to her half-hysterical question had actually brought her a measure of certainty.
"What makes you say that?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Doctor Gensai. You promised him you would give me a couple of days to recover before you started your 'usual training'. You're just trying to scare me," she said, her fingers closing into a fist. She was so un-used to having to reign in her temper. She recalled having to do it a lot before she was thrown into prison. Once upon a time, Kaoru had had a legendary temper. That thought made her smile inwardly, perhaps, just perhaps, she still did. And while his face gave nothing away, she knew she was right.
Her wounds throbbed, reminding her of the stress her panic and hysteria added to her already stressed to the limit body. She tried to take slow, deep breaths like the doctor had advised her when his cleaning of her whip cuts had made her see spots. It wasn't helping.
"What makes you think I would keep a promise like that?" his tone was curious again, he tilted his head to the side just a fraction, and the violet had drowned out the amber.
"I don't know," her ears were beginning to ring, and blackness ate at the edges of her vision. She felt the sensation of swaying. It must have been visible, because he stood up from his chair, while something akin to concern and real surprise flashed across his face for an instant. It was at that moment that she knew for sure she was right. "But you are a man of your word…aren't you?"
The tatami floor rushed up to meet her, and she was only dimly aware that she'd been caught by a pair of strong arms before she met said floor. Dizzily she wondered how he was able to move so fast, and what kind of soap he used that made his smell faintly of ginger.
Her last thought before darkness took over, was that she could trust this man, at the very least, to keep his word.
Kenshin cradled the young woman in his arms as gently as he could. He frowned, and tried to squash the little seed of guilt that had sprung up the moment her face had begun to pale. She was right, he hadn't poisoned her tea; but her momentary panic had pushed her exhausted body over the edge.
He sighed, Gensai-isha was not going to be happy with him for this.
Kenshin sighed and stood up, carrying her around his desk to the wood sliding door behind it. He toed it open with the ease of long practice and stepped inside his small and cluttered apartment. He preferred the ground floor, despite the Commander's offers of the upper, more spacious rooms of the palace.
The first room was the main living room, it was plain and held little since he really spent most of his time between his office and bed. However, there was a low settee like couch along one wall. He mindlessly kicked some books off the surface with one foot and then laid the unconscious young woman down. Once she was safely resting, he stole into his bedroom silently and returned with a blanket that he spread over her. He tucked the edges around her, his nose brushing her hair. He couldn't help but pause for a moment, she smelled of jasmine. He pulled back, and let himself examine her, not as the Commander's head of security, but as a man, looking at a woman.
He could tell, that before her incarceration, she had been a stunning beauty. Even now, in the lines of her half starved face, that gave her a unhealthy and fragile appearance, he could see her potential.
Kenshin gave himself a shake and stood. He went back to his bedroom, pulled the much thicker than usual wooden sliding door shut and locked it. He pulled out the key and tucked it inside his dark blue gi. He made for the door back to his office, but before leaving he cast one more glance at the young woman.
Her breathing was deep and even.
Satisfied, he left and pulled the door shut behind him.
A/N: more to come.
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