Kenshin walked on, carefully examining the tracks on the road. Thankfully, there was a full moon that night, more than enough light for Kenshin's eyes. After all, darkness had been his only battlefield for a long time. Was it because of his duel with Yoko a few days ago, or because of the pale light of the moon? He remembered it more accurately than usual, the silence of the Kyoto nights. He was worried, both for his friend and for his enemy; but while that feeling was burning cold in him, it was safely stored away in his heart to leave his mind clear and efficient.
Step after step, he walked back the way the Yakuza and Yoko had been coming from, searching for any relevant sign. Yoshie followed him like a shadow, fidgeting with a wooden stick he'd grabbed somewhere like he wasn't sure whether he would have the nerve to use it or not. His constant wavering between fear and anger was nerve-racking for Kenshin. Hesitation and poor fighting skills were a bad combination, he would have to send him home soon or he was likely to get himself hurt. But for now, he needed to hear what Yoshie had to say.
"It was all very strange," the young man explained while walking. "One day they are the kings of Osaka, the day after they're completely wiped out. Someone high up suddenly decided to get rid of them, I guess. But no one expected it, those Yakuza were like buddies with the local police, see? They bribed pretty much everyone. It was like they were untouchable. Then one morning, cops are sent over from Tokyo and start kicking asses. They closed the gambling dens, patrolled around the brothels, and went straight to the opium storehouses like they knew all along they were there. In the blink of an eye all those guys who used to walk the street like they owned it were lined up in shackles. And it wasn't just them. All those cops who kept pocketing the bribes were arrested and sent to prison right along with them. The chief of the Osaka police and the city administrator were found stabbed in their office, too. Officially they killed themselves. Out of shame or something. But you ask me, those people didn't know what shame feels like, or they wouldn't have done what they did. That was murder, that was."
Kenshin paused, thoughtful.
"Yep. Maybe the Yakuza killed them for revenge or something, or maybe someone in the government decided to avoid a scandal, who knows? It doesn't make a good impression when important politicians work hand in hand with gangsters after all. So yeah, in summary, there was a huge mess and in the end nothing much was left of the Takeiya. They say some of the big fish did escape, though. Their Oyabun and a couple of guys of his inner circle were apparently never caught, but all the same they lost Osaka. No one has heard of them after that…"
Kenshin halted. Here. There had been a fight in that street, not long ago. At least ten people – one had been smashed against that wall, there another had fallen down, head first. Two smashed against each other falling almost synchronously... From the random cuts in the walls and the ground, he could tell they were armed with swords but hadn't managed to use them very efficiently. There was no doubt. Not many people in Tokyo would take on that many swordsmen barehanded and beat them down with such brutal efficiency. That was Sano's handiwork. And then...
He crouched to examine the ground more closely. Just a glitter of a reflected moon ray, but... he picked it up with his hands. It was a dart, one of those nasty things that could be fired by a small, hidden bow. There was some blood on it, but only very little on the ground, so it had hit, but not a vital point. Perhaps it wasn't supposed to hit a vital point. If those people wanted to use Sano as a hostage, then they probably needed him alive. So this dart must have been used to drug him.
He slid it in his sleeve. This kind of weapon was unusual for common gangsters. Yakuza made a business of scaring people out of their money, not of killing them. The one who had sent that dart wasn't like that. He was a creature of the shadows, one who stayed hidden and struck from behind. In other words, an assassin.
Sano wasn't a man easy to take down, but the Takeiya apparently knew that, and had prepared all this very carefully...
Kenshin straightened up. Now, he needed to have a look at Sano's house. But before that...
His silent companion nearly jumped at his name.
"Yes? You want to know anything else?"
"I'd like you to ask people around. You know everyone in this street. Try to find out what they saw."
Yoshie nodded and disappeared, looking relieved to have something useful to do that didn't involve following Kenshin.
I frightened him, the wanderer thought grimly.
He would have to apologize later, but for now he had other worries. He was only two streets away from the row houses where Sano lived. It was only a moment before Kenshin reached the familiar place where he had planned to empty his sake jug and his heart only a moment ago. It was entirely silent.
He slid the shoji open. He knew Yoko had done the same earlier that day. He'd seen her tracks all the way there: a woman's step, small but deep because she was running, irregular like someone who tripped in their panic. And then, she would have opened the door, like he did, even though she already knew that Sano's unmistakable ki wasn't there, like he did. She would have done that to make sure whether he was missing or dead.
Even though he had already deduced as much, Kenshin couldn't help letting out a relieved sigh. They hadn't killed him to scare her, then. Much more useful to use him to control her.
Sano's place was small; there was just enough place for a futon and a few jugs that were probably empty. There was no one in there, but a dagger had been thrust in one of the walls. Kenshin examined it. No recent blood on the blade. It had been left here for Yoko, as a way to remind her of what she could have found here instead - a blade in a man's throat, rather than just a wall. He pulled it free and slid it in his obi. There was nothing more to find here. Now he needed to talk to one more person, someone whose presence he felt somewhere on the background of this whole story.
Cops sent over from Tokyo… Murder…
Who would one send to track down and get rid of corrupted officials with whatever means necessary? What kind of policeman would clean up inside the police itself? Of course he couldn't be sure, but his instinct told him this wolf had to be involved. If he had information… Kenshin would get it from him.
He closed the shoji behind him, his eyes burning in the shadows.
Paperwork, Saito thought. It was always there, lurking around. It was already this way in the Shinsengumi. They would attract you with exciting things like spying, cutting down bastards, saving Japan and getting nearly killed in the process, but in the end there was always, somewhere, paperwork waiting around the corner. And three copies please. Sometimes he dreamed about setting fire to the whole lot of it.
Why wasn't anyone trying to overthrow the government? Where had all those rebellious samurai gone? You would think there would be at least one of them who needed his urgent attention somewhere, wouldn't you? But no. He had spies all over the country, watching out, and all their reports were completely boring. And he had to make an even more boring one, every month, just to tell the higher ups "All is well, you can sleep as much as you want", only with much more words and for each prefecture, and – as always – in three copies. It was unbearable. It was all so peaceful!
His hand suddenly came to a halt. He knew that ki - knew it so well he had to consciously fight back the urge to grab for his sword, instead slowly putting his pen back on the desk. He picked up a cigarette and lit it with a slight grin.
At last, some distraction.
"Battousai," he said to the darkness. "Coming for a little evening chat?"
A small medal landed on his desk with a metallic sound. Saito stared at it, in the same way he would stare at a sleeping snake.
"Mikadzuki. The symbol of the Takeiya clan," he muttered.
"So you know them," said the low voice from its dark corner.
"I cut that head once already. But some heads do tend to grow back…"
Himura Kenshin stepped into the light.
"As I thought, you were involved in the events in Osaka."
"You wouldn't come here with this, though, if it was only about something that happened two years ago," Saito replied.
And your lips wouldn't be so tight, he added for himself. Someone must be in a rather deadly danger, for you to be so upset. Interesting.
"They have kidnapped Sano."
Saito raised an eyebrow. That idiotic ex-fighter-for-hire? The Takeiya clan had come back from the ashes to target him?
"He isn't their actual target. I believe they are using him as a hostage against someone else, a woman called Sannan Yoko."
This time, Saito nearly choked on his cigarette.
"You know her?" Kenshin asked, surprised.
"I somehow always happen to be around when this damn little brat gets in trouble," the ex-Shinsengumi said, frowning. "Must be some kind of curse. How the hell did she get involved with that moron friend of yours? No, don't tell me. She tried to kill you. Again. She did, didn't she?"
"Obviously. There's never been a single trace of common sense in that stubborn head of hers. So the Takeiya are on her, are they? I knew that would happen, sooner or later."
Actually, and to be perfectly honest with himself, he'd hoped that would happen. To his annoyance, a few of the people he really, really wanted to throw into a deep, solid prison were still running around. He'd hoped the survivors of the Takeiya would be stupid enough to try and get revenge from Yoko. That kid was rather similar to a bomb with a malfunctioning detonator, in that people who messed too much with her had a tendency to end up missing various parts of their body. Of course, at some point, that would mean more paperwork, but paperwork with bits of Yakuza in it did have a different taste. He couldn't repress a smirk.
"Why?" asked Kenshin, interrupting the course of his thoughts. "What did she do to anger them that much?"
"Follow me. I will show you."
The first thought that occurred to Sano as he opened his eyes was that he was utterly sick. A bucket was handed to him; he thankfully took it and threw up his whole stomach.
When he could breathe again, someone gave him a towel and a bowl of water. He cleaned up and fell back on his futon, exhausted. He'd never felt that weak in his life. What was going on? He had some dim memories of a bastard too polite to be honest, and then he'd beaten up some blokes, and then...
Oh, yes… a poisoned dart, wasn't it? So he wasn't dead. That was good news. Or was it? His stomach, at least, was of the opinion that it would rather not be alive than in that sorry state. The feeling must have showed on Sano's face, because a voice told him:
"The after effects of the antidote are a bit unpleasing. Sorry. Please bear with it, eventually it will get you back on your feet. You should drink some tea. It should help."
Sano turned his head to see the owner of the voice. It was a teenager, maybe around fourteen. And there was a cup of tea next to him. Sano tried to sit to take it and nearly collapsed; the youth came to his help and supported his back with some cushions to maintain him in a half sitting position.
"You need to be careful. It will take a little while before the effects wear off."
"Who the hell are you?"
"My name's Shigure."
"Doesn't answer my damn question. What's this place? What d'you want? Who fuckin' shot at me?"
Shigure seemed to hesitate a bit, then he showed Sano his wrist, pushing back his sleeve. There was a kanji tattooed on his arm.
"Mikadzuki…" Sano read. "So?"
"That's the symbol used by our clan, the Takeiya. You are in one of our hideouts."
Sano took the cup of tea. His hand was shivering. Damn it… even thinking was such an effort… He drank a little, trying to straighten up his thoughts.
"Takeiya. I heard that name. Yakuza, are you?"
"That guy too? That old one with the creepy smile?"
"That would be Sanada-san, sir. The saiko komon."
Saiko komon? In other words, a chief advisor, not a thug - a guy who would normally deal with paper and numbers and suchlike. Sano tried to think of a reason why that man could have an interest in him, and failed.
"I'm pretty sure I don't owe any money to you guys," he said, though prudently, because he wasn't, in fact, absolutely certain about that one. After all, he had debts to half of Tokyo, so keeping track was a little tricky. But he was nearly sure he'd remember if he owed money to Yakuza.
Once again, the youth hesitated. Finally, he answered:
"You're a hostage."
Hostage? Him? That didn't make much sense, if Sano was any judge.
"It's… her they want. Yoko-nee-san, sir. They found out that you... well, they think she'll do as she's told so long as you're here."
Sano closed his eyes. What. The. Hell? Yoko? Was that some sort of joke? He'd known the girl for a total of one and a half day. Then she'd dumped him and tried to kill his best friend. And now, what? He was supposed to play the part of the poor weak little thing who might get hurt by freaking lowlife gangsters – who he could beat up with his eyes shut, by the way, if only he could remember how to stand?
Some Yakuza were going to regret ever being born...
Grinding his teeth, he gathered whatever was left of his strength and tried to get on his feet. The room started to spin again and the teacup, which he had completely forgotten about, fell hopelessly from his hands. Shigure forced him back on the futon.
"You can't. Not Yet. You're too weak. You have to rest first."
Sano stared at him. Not yet? What did he mean? And he had talked of antidote too.
"You… you're a Yakuza… aren't you?"
"On whose side are you?"
"I… er… it's... complicated. I sort of have a debt to Yoko-nee-san, so... "
Sano took a deep breath. If only the ground could stop dancing around the place. Maybe all of this would start making sense. Yoko-nee-san? Sister? He'd said that twice already. Sano nearly shook his head then thought better of it.
"Why do you call her sister?" he asked. "You can't be her brother, so…"
Pieces of the puzzle slowly started to click themselves into place and Sano looked at the end result, bewildered.
"Wait... that's only what you people call each other, isn't it?" he snapped. "Big sister here, brother there… That's why you call her "nee-san". Is Yoko part of your clan?"
Shigure shook his head vehemently.
"No. I mean... not really? Hum... Like I said, it's sort of complicated."
Sano sighed. His brain didn't seem at all ready for complicated. It was still trying to figure out where top and bottom where. But he was a freaking hostage and may he be hanged by the ankles if he was going to let anyone rescue him.
"Since I can't even lift a damn cup of tea," he told the teen, "you might as well explain everything while I'm busy throwing up."
Paperwork. There were whole mountains of the stuff, it was a wonder how anyone could still find anything in this archive room. But that was what people like Sousuke were for. That young man would probably be useless anywhere else on earth, but in this room, he was the one who knew where everything was.
"The Takeiya folder. Osaka."
Strangely, Saito liked Sousuke. Although the man was a weakling and a bookworm, he did his job fast and well, never asked any questions and never attempted to discuss the weather. And he worked late hours, which was very handy. Less than a minute later, he was bringing back a heavy pile of paper. Saito took the whole lot and carried it to a nearby table.
"That's the information I used in the Osaka operation two years ago," he told Kenshin. "Who they bribed. Who their contacts were in the opium market. How much they earned, stole, or "taxed". Of course, the only way to get all of this information was from inside the clan itself."
Kenshin looked at the folder. The page it was opened on was covered in a small and precise handwriting, giving details about the selling of a building involving some corrupted officials and death threats to the owner.
"So you had a spy in the clan?"
"No, I didn't. We were all rather busy with the Satsuma rebellion at the time, if you recall. We had no men to spare on gangsters, not even irritating ones. The one who brought me all this was Yoko."
Kenshin's eyes widened in surprise. He looked at the file, then back at Saito.
"She infiltrated a Yakuza clan?"
"Who knows why this little brat does anything?" Saito shrugged. "Probably because she was bored."
"Bored?" Kenshin repeated weakly. Is this your idea of a hobby? he wanted to ask, but decided not to.
"However, that idiot got discovered while still in the middle of her little investigation. She had to decimate half of the Oyabun's personal guard to get out of his manor alive. So of course, when I arrived to get them, they knew exactly who they had to thank for it and they had an escape route ready. Too many of them got away. It was only a matter of time before they reorganized and decided to pay a little visit to say thank you. That's what happens when amateurs try to play the spy in their free time."
He rummaged through the papers and handed a police report to Kenshin. It was the detailed and dispassionate description of a crime scene which involved a dozen bodies spread out in the corridors and gardens of the clan's estates, not all of them in one piece: the result of Yoko's escape from the hands of the Takeiya. As he read on, Kenshin felt a metallic taste in his mouth. From the information in there, his mind could reconstruct the scene without much effort. Every swing, every footstep, every deadly strike. The opened wounds and crushed bones, rivers of blood spreading between the flowers and soaking the soil wet. All the screams and faint whimpers, and the silence afterwards. And then, the emptiness slowly sinking in, with a dreadful, quiet certainty.
Killing was so, so easy. There were always reasons, sometimes even good-looking ones with plenty of righteousness to them. But the trouble was, people could only be evil as long as they were alive. Once they were dead, they were just corpses. Shattered possibilities. It was hard to hate a corpse - close to impossible, in Kenshin's experience. And so, the only one left to hate was, in the end, yourself.
Yoko knew all that, as anyone with blood on their hands must know - yet she had killed again. And as always, the blood shed so generously now called for more, always more. The blade you thrust into someone's throat could wait for you for years, if necessary, and then, one day, reappear at the neck of the one you loved, demanding to kill yet again.
And it never stopped. Not as long as you went on with the endless cycles of destruction.
"Well," Saito went on, interrupting the course of his thoughts. "Neither that stupid girl nor that moron fighter are my concern, but as it happens, I would rather enjoy a word with those Yakuza gentlemen myself. I will find them."
There was a gleam in the wolf's eyes that Kenshin remembered well. This is my city, it told, and you have broken my law.
Even now, after all those years, that look sent a shiver down his spine.
"Send me word when you do," he told Saito. Then, with a brief nod, he left.