CHAPTER FIVE: EPILOGUE
Chokichi was quiet on the trip back down the trail. At one point they had to hide behind some rocks as the Bakufu soldiers trooped past. She stayed obediently hidden while Kenshin waited for the soldiers to make it to the gorge, realize what had happened, then come back.
"I tell you, he's dead. He and the girl both," came a voice from behind the rock.
A clattering sound and an oath signaled that another soldier had stumbled on the rocky steps.
"You don't know that for sure," another voice suggested dispiritedly.
"We smelled smoke. In the rain," an angry voice clipped out. "You know of any other place around here aside from that hut that has a hearth? You think someone could've sustained a campfire in a downpour? They were in the hut, the rockslide buried them, end of story."
"Stop arguing," the next voice was tired, but had an aura of command to it. "We don't even know if the horses we were following belonged to our prey. Let's just get back, collect the horses and report."
"What do you bet he 'forgets' to tell the commander about the two horses he found wandering around? He'll get a good price for those at the next market day."
A few more grumbling retorts followed, then the sounds of their passage faded and Kenshin led the girl quietly down the rest of the way.
Two horses. The soldiers only mentioned two. That meant one was left. It took Kenshin half the night, but he found the horse. It was the chestnut with the white markings on its hind legs, the sturdiest and savviest of the three.
Kenshin pulled a saddle and bridle out from under the bush where he'd hidden them, stuck Chokichi on its back, and led the horse down the mountain in the dark. It was dangerous, but there were stars once the rain stopped and the storm passed.
At dawn he swung up behind her. She barely seemed to notice him, silent and withdrawn as she was. It was no wonder. She'd witnessed two earthquakes, a rockslide, and seen her lover disappear right in front of her.
When she slumped against him, he was relieved that she'd at last taken refuge in sleep. She slept for a while, then woke, yawning.
"Where are we?"
"On the road back to Nagasaki," Kenshin answered. He'd skirted the onsen town and managed to avoid the soldiers as well. Now he was retracing his steps back to Kamui's safehouse to return the horse.
Chokichi glanced around, focusing on a mountain up ahead.
"That's Aso," she said excitedly, pointing a finger and glancing back at him.
Doing a mental check of the map still in his sleeve, Kenshin nodded.
"My village is just over there," she pointing again, this time to the left of the peak.
"Umm hmm. There was a drought. My parents sold me to a procurer who sent me to Kyoto to become a geisha. That's how I ended up with Tomahizo. He'd ask for me a lot. Then he bought my contract and took me with him. He was always asking about my home. He wanted to retire to an onsen someday."
She broke off and lapsed into silence again. Kenshin wondered if she was missing Tomahizo. She seemed more real somehow, now that she was away from the merchant who'd bought her. It was as though he'd stifled some essential part of her. He supposed it was because geisha were taught to behave a certain way, to present a pleasing manner and face to the world. Now it was as though the rain had washed away Chokichi's mask, allowing her true self to show through.
"Great samurai, may I ask a favor?"
With a start, Kenshin realized he'd never told her his name. Once Tomahizo found out Katsura sent Kenshin, he hadn't bothered to ask his name, and Kenshin hadn't offered it.
"Could you…drop me off at my village? If it's not too much trouble?"
She sounded hesitant, and Kenshin wondered why she'd want to go back to a village and a family who'd callously sold her to a procurer to ensure their own survival. He knew it happened a lot, but that didn't make it right.
"Are you sure you want to go back?"
"Yes," she said decisively.
Kenshin turned the horse off the road and onto a country track leading to the left of Mount Aso. When they got to the outskirts of the village it was late afternoon. He could see the wood and sod roofs of several homes clustered together, lush fields like green blankets surrounding them.
"This is close enough," Chokichi said, and slid off the horse.
She staggered back a little on landing, the ubiquitous under kimono clutching at her feet again, but regained her balance quickly.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Kenshin offered.
She shook her head. "I'll be alright."
He stared down at her. Chokichi looked back and smiled. It was the first genuine smile he'd seen from her. With Tomahizo she was always simpering and giggling behind her hand.
"What will you do?" he asked softly.
Kenshin found himself oddly reluctant to leave the girl. He was in no hurry to return to Katsura to report his failure, and even though Chokichi wasn't included in his orders, he felt responsible for her.
Chokichi's smile grew broader. "There was a boy in the village that I liked. He was a younger son, so he may not be married yet. I'm going to find him and marry him," she said with quiet confidence.
Tapping the crane and wisteria ornament on her obi with her fingers, she continued.
"And even if he is married, I can sell this, use it for my dowry and marry whoever I want. I'm free now."
"Ah," Kenshin breathed, at a loss.
The girl stepped forward and touched the horse's shoulder, peering up at him.
"Do you think it's awful, to be glad that I'm free?"
An image of Tomahizo, standing at the hut, demanding that Kenshin abandon Chokichi and see to him, came to Kenshin's mind.
"No, no I don't think it's awful at all," he told her decisively.
She smiled again, and motioned for him to lean down.
"The Bakufu ordered two warships from the French. They're to be wood hulled but armor plated, with a steam screw propulsion system. For artillery they will carry eighteen sixty-eight pounder guns, four thirty-two pounder guns, and are capable of speeds up to fourteen knots. Did you get all that?"
Dazed, Kenshin nodded. This was the information the merchant heard from his friend in the department of the navy, the specifications of the plans he'd seen. This was what Katsura was looking for, knowledge of what they'd be up against in the coming war with the Bakufu.
"How…?" he asked.
"No one notices a geisha has ears too," she said with an apologetic shrug.
Using one hand to grab the back of her kimono skirt and pull the clinging fabric out of the way, she stepped away from the horse.
"Farewell, Great Samurai."
With that she turned and left, kimono skirts in hand, striding confidently over the grassy earth. Already she was walking more like a country girl and less like the simpering doll she'd pretended to be.
When Kenshin returned, Katsura wasn't happy that Tomahizo hadn't made it, but the information gleaned from Chokichi more than made up for it. The brief fierce look of joy on his commander's face surprised him, and Katsura's "Thank you, Himura," when he'd expected recrimination left him surprised and unsettled.
He wandered out to the courtyard to watch the men train after Katsura dismissed him. Lifting his eyes, he saw a sparrow hopping from branch to branch of the thin maple growing by the corner of the building.
The sparrow stopped and peered down at him, tilting its head before taking off, flitting into the sun.
Kenshin lifted his hand to his forehead, shadowing his eyes and tracking the bird until it was lost to sight. Chokichi would be fine. Like the sparrow, she was delicately built, yet sparrows survived the winter storms, just as she had.
Perhaps after the war was over, he'd return to Kyushu to check up on her, make sure she was happily married to her farm boy and living the life she'd chosen.
Turning away from the clash of swords and the men engaged in combat training, he went back inside the inn to await his next assignment.
A/N: That's the end. I wanted to write a story where Kenshin didn't automatically succeed in his task, to explore what could happen if things didn't go as planned. By ignoring Tomahizo and going to save Chokichi, Kenshin took himself out of harm's way, thus saving his own life. In a sense he disobeyed his instructions to keep Tomahizo safe, yet it was the right thing to do and Katsura ended up with the information he craved anyhow.
Please review and let me know what you think about the ending – Like it? Hate it? Too predictable? Too cheesy? Leave a review and let me know.