Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin plot or characters. I'm only borrowing them for a bit.
Historical Note: As many of you know, Kenshin was part of the Ishin Shishi, the resistance movement trying to topple the Tokugawa shogunate (also known as the Bakufu) during the Meiji restoration. Katsura Kogoro led the Choshu branch of the Ishin Shishi, and was Kenshin's commander. This story is set (SPOILER ALERT) after Tomoe's death, and before Kenshin became a wanderer.
Kenshin waited silently outside the teahouse. It was one of those nights that couldn't decide whether it was spring or winter. Winter seemed determined to drag on and on. It crept back each night with a chill that mocked the daytime sun, causing breath to puff out in visible clouds. Kenshin had to resist the urge to stamp his feet, which felt like blocks of ice in his winter tabi.
It was a still night without so much as a breath of wind. Clouds scudded silently across the moon, and the late night reveling of the Gion district below came faintly up the hill, mingling with the muted sounds of music and laughter from the building behind him. Katsura chose the teahouse because of its seclusion, and for the tiny room with its separate garden entrance. Set apart from the rest of the establishment, the room was perfect for clandestine meetings. Kenshin manned the gate as Katsura and his lieutenant waited inside for their guest.
Time passed. The clouds moved on, leaving the moon free to spill its silvery light over the dirt path leading downhill from the teahouse. Two pinpoints of light gleamed, low to the ground, reflecting the light from the paper lanterns hung along the teahouse fence. The dog belonging to the eyes trotted past on some nocturnal mission of its own, its panting loud in the night air. Aside from the dog, nothing else moved along the path. Whoever Katsura was meeting, was late.
Kenshin heard the samurai's familiar heavy tread in the garden before Okuda reached him at the gate. Okuda was an older samurai, beginning to go grey at the temples. He'd been with Katsura for years. Kenshin trusted him about as much as he trusted anyone these days with Iizuka's betrayal still fresh in his memory.
Okuda paused briefly at the gate.
"Wait here with Katsura, I'll be back soon," he said, eyes already scanning the path for threats. Okuda was a cautious man.
"Yes," Kenshin acknowledged with a quiet nod.
Patience was a requirement in bodyguard duty. Watching as the dark clad samurai disappeared down the hill, Kenshin allowed his senses to expand. Sight, hearing, and smell sharpened to encompass an area past the narrow confines of the garden gate. He heard Okuda's hakama clad legs brush by the weeds on either side of the path. He smelled the earthy scent of tree bark dampened by rising mist. The steady hum of music, laughter, and voices came from the teahouse at his back. All were employees and regular customers. They were harmless. Kenshin stood alone in the darkness.
It was some time later that Kenshin felt a ripple in the calm of the night. Already alert, he placed his hand on the hilt of his katana as Okuda charged uphill, breathing hard, sandals slapping against the dirt.
The samurai ran, but no one pursued. Only one pair of feet pounded up the pathway. Kenshin stepped forward to meet him at the gate. A dark patch stained the fabric of Okuda's kimono at the shoulder. It was blood.
Okuda slowed then stopped as he came alongside.
"Himura, come with me," he ordered brusquely, pushing past to enter the gate.
Judging by the size of the bloodstained tear in Okuda's kimono, his wound was shallow. With a last glance down the path, Kenshin turned and followed the larger man through the garden. Pausing only to remove their sandals on the low wooden porch, they pulled back the shoji screen door and entered.
Katsura sat before a low tray where a cup of cold green tea lay untouched before him. His keen brown eyes immediately focused on Okuda as the samurai entered.
Okuda bowed briefly, wincing slightly as the motion pulled the kimono fabric over his wound.
"Tomahizo is gone. His house is…abandoned. It's been that way for several days, by the looks of it. The Bakufu have been and gone."
Tomahizo was a pudgy little merchant Katsura had met with a few times before. Kenshin remembered the odd blend of fear and self-importance on the merchant's face at the meetings. The man wasn't a fighter or a threat, so Kenshin hadn't wasted much attention on him. He didn't know why Katsura was meeting with the Tomahizo; he wasn't privy to Katsura's thoughts. His job was to keep his leader safe.
So, Katsura noticed Okuda's bit of hesitation. The Ishin Shishi leader's sharp brown eyes saw and weighed everything. It was disconcerting, but it was also what made him such a good leader. It was one of the reasons why Kenshin still followed him.
Okuda swallowed. "Tomahizo wasn't there, sir. His wife and child weren't so lucky."
Katsura's eyes darkened. Kenshin saw him sink back ever so slightly as the news sunk in, but his gaze never wavered from Okuda's face.
The older samurai looked away as he spoke. "They were…tortured to death. The house was ransacked and they left a spy behind in the building opposite."
"So Tomahizo is still at large." Katsura said the words slowly, reflectively.
"Yes, I think he must be," Okuda agreed gruffly.
Kenshin despised the Bakufu with all his heart, but even they wouldn't torture a man's wife and child without reason. They'd done it to get information, information the woman obviously hadn't known. The child would have been tortured to get its mother to talk, and when that failed they would have started in on her. They probably wanted to know her husband's location. The fact that they'd ransacked the house for clues and left a spy to watch it meant that they were still looking for the merchant, and for whatever information he had that made him so valuable.
Katsura nodded at Okuda's bloodstained shoulder.
"Dead," Okuda answered. He gestured apologetically at his shoulder. "He cut me a little first."
"You weren't followed back here." It wasn't a question, but more of an affirmation. Katsura relied on Okuda because he was efficient as well as trustworthy. "Get that seen to at the inn," Katsura continued.
The Ishin shishi leader rose to his feet with a measured grace that spoke of his own samurai training.
Kenshin and Okuda followed as Katsura led the way out of the room, through the garden, and out the gate. The moon was once again hidden behind clouds, and the darkness and mist swallowed them up as they left the teahouse.
Okuda's wound festered and Katsura ordered him to bed until it healed. Informants came and went, but Katsura remained at the inn, leaving only to meet with other Ishin Shishi leaders. Kenshin had almost forgotten about the abortive meeting at the teahouse when Katsura sent for him.
The older man was standing by an open window, his eyes on the branches of a maple tree outside where sparrows flitted and twittered among the young buds and new green leaves. Katsura stood in a relaxed posture, the morning sun slipping between the wooden slats and spilling over his face and shoulders. Kenshin noticed the fine lines beginning to appear at the corners of Katsura's eyes, and the dark smudges underneath. The struggle was aging him prematurely, though there was no hint of exhaustion in his eyes as he turned to look when Kenshin came up to him.
"Himura, I have a job for you."
Kenshin nodded. It wouldn't be an assassination. Katsura had promised not to ask him to use his sword that way ever again, and he'd been true to his word, giving Kenshin only bodyguard or soldier's duties. The truth was, Kenshin felt numb for months after Tomoe's death once the storm of his first grief passed. He did as he was told mechanically, obedient but not passionate in his obedience. His youthful idealism was dead.
"I need you to go to Nagasaki, to find Tomahizo."
A mental image of the merchant's round face with its sagging cheeks and droopy eyelids came to Kenshin's mind. Tomahizo was the man who hadn't shown up at the teahouse days ago.
"I'd send Okuda," Katsura continued, "but he's feverish and you're the only other one of my men who's seen Tomahizo, at least the only one I'd trust to get him back in one piece. He has information that I need."
Katsura folded his arms and stepped away from the sunlight.
"He was seen boarding a ship bound for Nagasaki. He was disguised as a monk, though he's probably not wearing the robes anymore by now. We aren't sure if he was traveling alone. I've sent word to our safe house in Nagasaki. They're expecting you. Hopefully they'll know more when you get there."
Kenshin nodded once he was sure Katsura was finished speaking. He'd fought and killed for Katsura, but never had he been asked to retrieve someone and bring them back alive. If finding Tomahizo helped topple the Bakufu faster then he'd do it. Squelching down feelings of unease at the unfamiliar task ahead, Kenshin replied succinctly.
"I'll go pack."
He'd need food for the voyage, and money too. He bowed and turned to go, only to stop halfway out the room at Katsura's final words.
"Be careful, Himura. If our informants could find Tomahizo's trail, so can the Bakufu. They've been nosing around the docks. It's only a matter of time until they find him."
Kenshin nodded without turning and left the room.
To Be Continued…