Okay, a slightly belated Christmas present to all those enjoying Edge of the Blade….
Back to Chapter 3, Part 2.
1) More AU-ness! *g* And more insight into both Kenshin and Saitō….
2) Hints of an additional sub-plot starting here…. *EG* Anyone have any guesses as to what?
3) Just a reminder that anyone who provides constructive criticism will get credited as a gamma-reader….
Rurouni Kenshin is © Nobuhiro Watsuki. A lot of the dialogue – but definitely not all – in this chapter was taken from Acts 58, 59, and 61-70 of the Rurouni Kenshin manga, written by the noble Watsuki-san, some of it modified slightly by bits from the anime, some of it modified by the requirements of the story. This story is fanfiction, and is not intended as infringement on that copyright.
CHAPTER THREE: Makimachi Misao – Tōkaidō and Shingetsu
Part 3: Assorted Nuisances – Soldiers and Villagers
Despite the fact that Friday morning dawned clear and beautiful, Himura Kenshin was not in the most pleasant of moods.
He’d spent most of yesterday listening to Misao go on and on about her childhood with the Oniwabanshū; which, while he had no objection to the fact that it kept her occupied and prevented her from questioning him too much in turn, got rather monotonous after a while. Or perhaps ‘exasperating’ was the more appropriate term, given that she did intersperse her stories with questions about whether he was sure that he hadn’t heard anything else about ‘Aoshi-sama’ and the Oniwabanshū. She’d even finally managed to nag him into telling her his name….
It had reached the point, shortly before they’d arrived in Hakone, that Kenshin was seriously debating whether he should let her know about the deaths of the four onmitsu simply to get her off his back.
He’d chosen not to broach the issue then, deciding that he could always see about finding ‘the old man’ in Kyoto after dealing with Shishio. Once they’d reached Hakone, he’d given her instructions to contact her guardian by the next morning to arrange for an escort the rest of the way, and had left her there.
Three hours later, as the sun was setting, Kenshin had sensed the approach of a bright, enthusiastic ki – Misao’s. He had not been amused, but it had been too late at that point to send her back to the town. So he’d reluctantly let her share his fire last night, with plans to send her back in the morning.
So far, however, he’d had no luck. Misao had informed him quite firmly that if he sent her back, she’d simply continue following him at a distance. He’d tried to lose her by slipping into the forest and running, but she’d managed to stay on his trail; and he hadn’t wanted to run as fast as he could, given that there was still the possibility of an attack by Shishio and he had no desire to waste energy that might be needed to deal with that. He had then tried explaining to her that he was liable to be attacked at any time, but even that hadn’t worked to discourage her; though Kenshin wasn’t sure whether that was because she was confident she could handle any enemies that might attack, or because she didn’t believe him.
Either way, he was not happy about this. Not only was Misao placing herself in danger by coming with him, but Kenshin had been expecting one of Shishio’s people to make a move at any time during the past two days, and the fact that nothing had happened so far was proving to be rather unsettling. Not that Kenshin wanted to be attacked; but in some cases, the anticipation was definitely worse than the actual event, and this was one of those times.
“Himura,” Misao said from behind him, sounding rather impatient.
“Yes?” Kenshin demanded, his tone just shy of dangerous – he was in that sort of mood at the moment. Not only was Misao still following him, but his attempt to lose her in the forest had only resulted in them getting off the Tōkaidō and badly off-track, and it was taking longer than he’d anticipated to get back to the road.
“It’s already noon,” the girl declared. “Let’s eat soon.”
Kenshin gritted his teeth, but managed to keep himself from turning around to glare at her. “You can eat if you wish,” he stated. “I–” He broke off abruptly, tilting his head to one side as a faint noise echoed through the forest.
“Himura, I just heard a sound–” Misao started.
“Shh!” he hissed, glaring at her. Did they teach her nothing of the need for silence? I would have thought better of Aoshi and the Oniwabanshū….
Was this the ambush he’d been anticipating? “Step away – now! – as quietly as you can,” Kenshin ordered. His eyes scanned the area as he reached out with his ki-sense. He couldn’t pick up any hint of danger… but he hadn’t been able to sense the ki of Ōkubo’s assassin either.
“So you weren’t lying when you said someone’s after you?” Misao asked, sounding more surprised than scared.
“Just hurry,” Kenshin snapped. Kuso! If they attack now, Misao will be involved….
There’s no choice. Gripping his saya, Kenshin launched himself in the direction the sound had come from, using his full speed. I will have to strike first!
“Hold on a minute! I am a member of the Oniwabanshū…!” he heard Misao shout from behind him, but he ignored her. Despite what she appeared to think, it was quite evident that she was not fully trained; nor did she have any real, practical experience in dealing with those who were more skilled than she was, and this would be dange–
Kenshin’s thought was abruptly cut off as the familiar coppery scent of blood filled the air. He immediately slowed down, though he did keep his hand on his saya, ready to draw his sword if there was need.
There wasn’t. Not right now, at least.
Slumped against a tree, covered with more blood than Kenshin had seen from one person in over ten years, was a young man, perhaps a few years older than Misao. No one else was around; it appeared the man had managed to evade whoever had done this to him – for the moment. And shortly, it wouldn’t matter; he was dying.
He heard Misao come up, but didn’t look at her, keeping his attention on the young man.
Misao gasped in shock as soon as she saw the man. “Is he… dead?” she asked, her voice the quietest he had yet heard it.
“No…” Kenshin started. However, before she could give a sigh of relief, he added, “But it won’t be long….” Kneeling down in front of the man, he asked gently, “Have you any last words?”
Behind him, he heard Misao gasp again, the sound one of horror this time as she got close enough to see the details of the damage.
Kenshin was too focused on the man to worry too much about her at the moment. He’d deal with her reactions later. “It seems you have a witness to your last moments,” he continued, keeping his tone soft and as soothing as he could make it. “Allow me to do what I can.”
“P-please…” the young man gasped, raising his head slightly to meet Kenshin’s eyes. He lowered his arms, pulling his haori down to reveal an unconscious boy curled up against his chest. “My… brother, and village… save them… from Shishio….”
Shishio?! Kenshin’s eyes widened in utter shock. He’d been expecting a move by Shishio… on him. He hadn’t expected to encounter anyone else who had run into the other hitokiri….
“Please… save them…. Save them from Shishio’s men…” the man managed to gasp out.
Kenshin reached out and placed his hand over the man’s. Quietly enough that he doubted Misao would be able to hear exactly what he said, he promised, “I will do all I can.”
Amber flickered through Kenshin’s eyes as the young man’s head sank down against his chest. He was dead.
But the boy – his brother – wasn’t.
“Curse them!” the boy yelled, staring at the grave it had taken Kenshin almost an hour to finish digging, tears flowing down his cheeks. “Curse them!”
Kenshin leaned forward and patted the boy’s shoulder. Much as he would prefer to allow the boy to have a chance to mourn, if he was going to deal with the situation that apparently prevailed in the village they had come from, he needed information. “Could you tell us what’s going on?” he asked gently.
“What will telling a stranger do about it?” the boy demanded, both his tone and his ki half-furious, half-despairing.
Kenshin met the boy’s glare, knowing his own eyes were still flecked with the amber of his own rage. “I am heading for Kyoto,” he said, with complete honesty, having made the decision to give both the boy and Misao a general idea of what was happening while he was digging the grave, “to confront Shishio.”
Both of them stared at him with expressions of shock as he stood up; the boy’s tears had even stopped.
The boy studied him carefully for a long moment, and then nodded slowly. “Two years ago, Shishio’s henchman suddenly appeared,” he started. “He killed the policeman stationed here, and took command of the village. When a new policeman came, he killed him.
“After two years, the policemen stopped coming, while more of Shishio’s men arrived. Shingetsu village was abandoned by the government.”
“‘Abandoned’ is a strong word,” Misao objected. “Maybe they’re planning strategies.”
Like searching for a hitokiri who disappeared ten years ago and asking him to take care of the situation? Kenshin thought sardonically.
The boy turned his head to glare at her. “Then what’s this?” he demanded, pulling a folded sheet of paper out of his gi and brandishing it. Unfolding it, he slammed it down onto the ground. “It’s the latest map – brought back by my brother from Tokyo!”
Kenshin’s gaze, which had gone to the map, returned to the boy at those words. ‘Brought back from Tokyo’? If Shishio’s men have control of the village, why would his brother be going to Tokyo – much less coming back from there alone?
“Look!” the boy continued, pointing to one section of the map. “Shingetsu village has been erased!”
Misao gasped out loud – again. Kenshin simply nodded, not surprised, but waiting for the rest of it. There was definitely more.
“My brother saw what was happening. He tried to get our family out, at least….”
The boy’s eyes went to the simple grave. “…And was killed for it…” he added slowly, “by the man who commands this village.” He clenched his jaw, his ki flaring with rage again. “A henchman of Shishio’s; ‘Senkaku’, they call him.”
He abruptly stood up. “I have to get back. My parents are still in the village. Now that my brother is… dead… I have to help them!”
Misao moved out of the way, her expression numb with shock, as the boy strode over to his brother’s grave.
“Brother,” he murmured, reaching out to grab the hilt of the damaged sword, “lend me your strength….” He started to pull it out of the ground.
Kenshin stepped forward, placing his hand over the hilt and preventing the boy from lifting it out. This was no battle for a child. “In your brother’s place,” he said firmly, though he kept his tone as gentle as he could manage, slipping for a moment into the mask of the rurouni as he tried to offer what comfort he could to the boy, “this one lends you his own strength.
“Misao-san,” he continued, looking back over at her and letting the mask fall away again, “please take care of this boy.”
“What?!” Misao blurted, snapped out of her shock by the order. “But I also wanna–”
“No,” Kenshin declared flatly, eyes burning amber for just a moment before they shifted back to steel-blue. “I go to the village alone.” If I’m right about what I will find, I don’t want them there. “Stay here and wait.”
Releasing the sword, he turned to go in the direction the boy’s brother had fled from.
“Wait a minute!” the boy called, before Kenshin had taken more than a few steps away. “Shishio… he comes to the village for about a week, once every half-year. I’ve no idea why; but Senkaku,” his voice resonated with hate as he said the name, “occupies our village for that reason alone.
“Shishio is staying at the village now.”
Kenshin didn’t look back at either of them; simply said a quiet, “Thank you,” and continued toward Shingetsu.
So, Shishio is here at present, rather than in Kyoto, Kenshin reflected thoughtfully twenty minutes later, as he followed the trail down the slope into the village. My first priority is to rescue the boy’s parents; but once that has been taken care of, Shishio’s presence may just provide an opportunity….
It was very, very unlikely that he’d actually manage to deal with Shishio here and now, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t acquire information that could help with his ultimate goal. And even if he could only deal with Senkaku – Kenshin’s eyes gleamed amber at the thought – that would still remove at least one of Shishio’s tools.
Walking out of the trees into the village proper, Kenshin frowned as he looked at the nearest houses. There’s been no upkeep, not for a long time, he thought, his frown deepening as he noticed more and more signs of neglect. It is like a ghost town. Has it been this way since Senkaku first came, or has it only been since the police stopped coming that it became this bad?
As he walked past the first set of houses, the wind changed direction; and Kenshin froze as the smell of blood came to him once again. A great deal of blood; the scent reminded him of the alleys of Kyoto during the worst of the Bakumatsu.
Turning in the direction the scent was coming from, for a long moment Kenshin could only stare in shocked disbelief at the sight that met his eyes: two bodies – most likely those of the boy’s parents – strung up and hanging from a wooden frame.
I expected them to be dead, but not that it would be this bad….
Most of the time, Kenshin disliked the fact that he found it easy to be dispassionate when faced with violent death. It was an ability that had helped save his sanity during the Bakumatsu; but it was not ‘normal’ – it was the attitude of a killer. When faced with sights like this, however, he welcomed the sense of icy detachment that enabled him to think clearly even in the grip of rage.
Lacerations all over the body… like that boy’s brother. This must be the doing of Senkaku, he thought grimly, as he studied the scene in front of him. They–
Abruptly, he sensed the boy’s ki, and Misao’s, resonating with shock from somewhere nearby, just before a cry of, “Dad! Mom!” split the air.
Kenshin whirled around to see Misao and the boy standing at the end of the street, just in front of the bushes leading back into the forest. I told her to stay–
More ki surged near him, hostile and unfamiliar, and he heard the sound of many approaching footsteps. Kenshin didn’t need to turn back around to know what now came toward him; it had to be the men Shishio and this Senkaku were using to control the village. Habit made him lower his face, hiding his eyes with his bangs, despite the fact that they were behind him.
“You!” said a voice from behind him. “You are not from here. Strangers will not be left alive!”
Kenshin was not impressed.
“Why did you kill these people?” he asked, his tone quiet, but with an edge that Saitō would have recognized immediately.
“Their sons plotted to escape the village,” the same voice – undoubtedly the leader of the group – stated. “They were executed by Lord Senkaku for that crime… although we strung them up after.” The man gave a short laugh, and Kenshin felt his eyes flare amber – and stay that way.
“So, you strung them up,” the hitokiri said slowly, “as an example.”
“Lord Shishio took this village from the swinish government!” the man shouted, and Kenshin crouched slightly, one hand gripping his saya as he prepared for the attack he knew was coming. “Shishio-sama and Senkaku-sama hold the power of life and death here! And, by Senkaku-sama’s orders, intruders must die!”
The massed ki of the men flared, indicating they were about to charge.
Kenshin turned his head slightly to watch them come as his right hand closed on the hilt of his sakabatō. “You,” he said, his voice ice-cold, “should prepare yourselves.”
The first rank had almost reached him… and Kenshin drew the sakabatō with the speed characteristic of Hiten Mitsurugi, sending the leader flying.
“Normally,” he continued, his tone still cold as they froze in shock, “I would say, ‘Step back if you don’t want to be hurt.’ This time, though, is different.”
Kenshin could see – and sense – the fear rising in them as the men took in his stance, and the glow of his eyes. He gave them a sharp, predatory smile, and narrowed his eyes, knowing that it made him seem all the more terrifying.
“This time, every last one of you goes down!”
With that, he launched his own attack.
For a very long moment, all Misao could do was stare in utter disbelief as Himura swept through the group of soldiers, his sword moving faster than she could see.
She’d known almost from the moment he’d confronted her that Himura was not an ordinary swordsman. For one thing, he carried a real steel sword, two years after the sword-ban had been put in place. For another, the sword he carried was a reverse-blade sword – she’d managed to get a good look at it on the bridge at Odawara – which was just weird. Why would anyone carry a sword like that? And then he’d been able to take the bag of money away from her (which she was still rather angry about), and make that leap up to the roof of the currency exchange… and destroy that bridge! When put all together, it made for a very unusual swordsman indeed.
But she had never expected he would be able to do something like this….
The sound of sobbing from next to her distracted Misao’s attention from the fight, and she suddenly remembered the boy. And if those soldier guys noticed them here….
“Hey, get up!” she yelled, shaking him. “Hey! I know it’s hard, but this is no time for mourning! Crying won’t bring back the dead, so stand up!”
There was a sound from behind her, and Misao froze. Was that a–
“By Senkaku-sama’s order, intruders must die!”
It was…. Kuso! We’re in trouble!
Grabbing the boy, Misao rolled them away as swiftly as she could, and rose to her knees facing the soldier who had come up behind her, throwing daggers in her hand. “You!” She glared at the man, raising her hand to throw.
“Intruders,” the man repeated, pointing his spear at her and taking a threatening step forward, “must d–”
Before he could finish his statement, Misao found herself staring in shock as a sword burst through his mouth.
The man’s body – for he was quite clearly dead – was tossed to one side, sliding off the sword with a sound that made Misao feel as though she were going to be sick. Slowly, she raised her eyes to see who had saved her….
…And found herself staring at a tall man dressed in the blue uniform of the police, whose hazel-gold eyes appeared scornful as he looked down at her. “Hmph.” He sounded contemptuous, his tone matching his sneer, and Misao swallowed uneasily.
“Who… who are you?” she asked hesitantly. Was this Senkaku? Although… if it is, why would he have killed one of his own men…?
He continued to just look at her for another moment, and then his gaze moved toward where Himura had been.
“I should have known…” Misao heard him mutter, and then he raised his voice enough to be easily heard over the sounds of battle. “Are you quite finished playing? You’re supposed to be going to Kyoto, not wasting your time around here!”
Misao blinked. This policeman… knows Himura?
Then her eyes widened as she remembered that Himura was in the middle of a fight, and she spun around to look….
And found herself once more staring in shock at the sight of Himura dealing with the very last man standing.
The entire group, aside from the man who had been about to attack her and the boy – which must have numbered around twenty or twenty-five men – were all lying on the ground, either unconscious or dead; Misao wasn’t quite certain which, and wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know. And Himura….
He’s not even out of breath! she thought in disbelief. How was that possible?
“So,” the policeman said coolly, “why are you wasting your time here?”
“Saitō,” Himura said calmly, not bothering to answer the question as he sheathed his odd sword. He didn’t look to be the slightest bit surprised at the policeman’s presence, despite his next statement. “I had not expected to see you here.”
“I did tell you that there was something that required my attention before I would be able to arrive in Kyoto,” the policeman declared, his tone equally calm, as he walked over to Himura, stepping over the bodies of the soldiers without appearing to notice them. “A report from one of my men said that Shishio is here. Since we have a little time before everyone gathers in Kyoto, I thought it would be a wise idea to come take a look.
“Unfortunately, he’s nowhere to be found.”
Himura suddenly looked over at the two of them, and Misao almost took a step back in fear as his eyes seemed to glow amber-gold. But a moment later they were blue again, and she decided it must have been a trick of the light, like when he’d told her to stay behind with the boy.
“Could that boy’s brother have been the police agent?” Himura asked.
“Boy?” The policeman looked back toward the two of them as well, and Misao – realizing that the boy was now standing beside her (when had he stood up?) – put a supportive hand on his shoulder. “Ah.
“Mishima Ei’ichirō was originally from Shingetsu village. I sent him thinking he wouldn’t raise too much suspicion.”
“He must have been found out,” Himura remarked, his eyes focusing on the boy, a sympathetic expression crossing his face. “He tried to save his family at least, but–”
“A foolish young man,” the policeman interrupted coolly. “He should have waited for my arrival.”
That got Misao angry. Clenching her hands into fists, she took a step forward. How dare this policeman be so contemptuous when the man’s brother was standing right there?! “Hey, you! Is that any way to talk about the dead?!”
The policeman’s expression didn’t change; he simply looked at Misao, and then turned to Himura. “And who is this…” he glanced back at her for a moment, “weasel girl? Are you picking up strays now?”
“Why, you–” Misao started to yell, getting her throwing daggers ready again, before Himura stepped between them.
“Enough,” the swordsman said curtly. “Don’t mind him, Misao-san. He’s trying to make you mad; he finds it entertaining, for some reason,” he added, looking back at the policeman, who shrugged carelessly.
“Besides,” Himura added, turning toward the wooden frame that held the bodies of the boy’s parents, which made her feel even more sick to think about, “we’ve got to take them down and bury them.”
Misao followed his gaze to see that the boy had moved away from her to stand over there, in front of the frame, and nodded in agreement. “True–” she started.
Looking in the direction the voice had come from, Misao was surprised to see a large group of people – most likely the boy’s fellow villagers, judging from their clothes – standing there, with an elderly man in front.
It was that man who spoke again. “You can’t take them down!”
Saitō eyed the group of villagers coolly, not the slightest bit impressed – much less intimidated – by the ‘show of force’. He had a fairly clear idea of what they were going to say next, and a glance at Battōsai showed him that the hitokiri had the same thought he did.
“If we touch those bodies and anger Senkaku, the people of this village will suffer!” the village headman continued, and Saitō was disappointed to find that he had been right. “Until Senkaku permits it, leave them alone.”
Saitō snorted in contempt. Even if the headman managed to convince Battōsai to do as he said, which was exceedingly unlikely, the fact that they had dealt with all the soldiers who appeared to be posted here would earn this ‘Senkaku’s’ anger whether they did anything more or not.
“What are you saying?!” the girl Battōsai had picked up somewhere – he really was going to have to ask the hitokiri for details on that, considering his statements about going by way of the Tōkaidō to avoid getting innocents involved – yelled. “They are the ‘people of this village’! Are you saying you’ll obey this Senkaku even when he treats you like this?!”
Well, if nothing else, the girl had enthusiasm, Saitō reflected, even as he looked over at Battōsai again. The hitokiri was just standing there, watching the confrontation with narrowed eyes.
Obviously feeling Saitō’s eyes on him, Battōsai met his gaze for a long moment before letting his eyes flicker down to his still-drawn sakabatō, then over to the frame, where the boy was standing, and back to the confrontation, finally returning to Saitō. The message could not have been clearer had the hitokiri shouted it.
Saitō gave a slight tilt of his head in acknowledgement, then returned his own attention to the confrontation. Between the girl’s ranting and the villagers’ reactions, a distraction would be easy enough to create.
“If we oppose Senkaku, we’re given death,” the headman declared curtly, “while if we submit to him, we have life, at least.”
Saitō sneered. It might be staying alive, but he would scarcely call that ‘life’. It was, rather, a matter of simply waiting longer to die.
“It’s best for the village not to take matters any further. You strangers – and the Mishima family – must leave the village now.” The headman looked over at the boy. “Eiji. Do you hear?”
“You…” the girl growled, starting to lunge forward… and Saitō made his move.
Grabbing the neck of her short gi, he said calmly, “Don’t get angry.” The girl turned her head to stare at him in disbelief, and Saitō smirked. “Few are willing to risk their lives to protect the pride and respect of other people.” It was one of the things he respected most about Battōsai – other than his sword skill, of course.
His mouth tightened for a moment as Saitō remembered the discussion he’d overheard just before leaving for Shingetsu, concerning certain governmental plans for when Shishio was dealt with. Then he pushed the thought away in order to concentrate on the current situation. He’d find some way to let Battōsai know about it later.
He turned his gaze on the villagers, pulling their attention to him. Letting the contempt he felt for their cowardice show in his expression, Saitō continued, “Most are content to live like livestock. They need neither pride, nor respect.”
As he’d anticipated, that got a reaction out of the crowd, prompting protests and accusations against the police. No one was looking at the frame where the bodies were hung now; and out of the corner of his eye, Saitō saw Battōsai start to drift backwards.
Once again, the village headman took control of his people. Strong-willed – but only in some cases. The ones he feels certain he can win, Saitō reflected, his contempt increasing.
“We won’t allow you to take down the bodies! Now hurry and get out of here!”
Into the silence that followed, the sound of Battōsai’s final footstep seemed as loud as a rifle shot. Eyes flickering to the hitokiri, Saitō realized that the noise had definitely been on purpose. He might not have shown the skill very often during his recent life in Tokyo, but Battōsai knew how to use drama to control a crowd.
“Himura?” the girl asked.
Without a word, Battōsai slashed through the ropes holding the bodies up, his silence after all the blustering underscoring the deliberateness of his action.
“All right, Himura!” the girl cheered.
At the same time, the villagers looked horrified; one of them – not the headman, who appeared to have be stunned into silence – blurted, “Wh-what are you doing?!”
Battōsai turned his head slightly, glaring at the man who had spoken, and Saitō wasn’t surprised to see that his eyes were a narrowed amber. The man took a step backward, his face paling in fear, as Battōsai turned from the bodies and walked back toward Saitō, slipping his sakabatō back into its sheath. None of them made any move to stop him; not that they could have, but it was yet another indication of just how far these people had fallen that they did not even try.
“So,” Saitō remarked out loud, as Battōsai stopped next to him, still facing away from the crowd. “This is what this village has become.” It was a far cry from what Governor Yamayoshi had told them of Ōkubo’s dreams for the nation. He glanced down at the hitokiri.
Battōsai met his gaze, steel-blue eyes holding the same distaste Saitō felt, before glancing back at the villagers. “And this is to be the future of Japan, in the new age Shishio brings,” the hitokiri concluded, his tone grim.
His attention returning to the crowd, Saitō watched as they broke up, turning away to go back to hiding in their ill-kept huts. Only a few bothered to even throw accusations at them. His mouth tightened as he nodded in agreement. “People governed by violence and fear… their one hope simply to live, forgetting what life is for,” he added. It was not a pleasant thought.
The two of them stood together, watching until the villagers had all gone. Then Battōsai said quietly, “Saitō… did the government really abandon this village?”
“Not just this one,” Saitō replied, his own tone grim. “Ten villages have been abandoned to Shishio already.” He had been horrified when Ōkubo had first told him that; and even now, he still felt anger at the cowardice of the members of the Meiji government who hadn’t dealt decisively with Shishio earlier, before he became such a large problem. “The police no longer even pretend at recapturing them.”
“But why don’t you call in the army if the police can’t do it?” the girl said abruptly from behind them.
Saitō turned his head to look at her. “Fool,” he said curtly. Battōsai took a step forward, and then stopped, evidently deciding not to intervene. “It’s only been half a year since the Seinan War. If the army has to neutralize an internal squabble again, it will only make Japan’s instability obvious to foreign powers.”
“What kind of dumb reason is that?!” the girl yelled.
Kenshin winced slightly at Misao’s reaction. He was surprised – and slightly worried, truth to tell – when Saitō didn’t respond with a cutting remark about her ignorance, but rather changed the topic slightly. He was upset by the reactions of the villagers, and it was obvious that Saitō wasn’t happy about them either; but had they upset the Miburō so much that he wasn’t even responding with his normal sarcasm? Or…. Kenshin’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
“Look, suppose the army would help us,” Saitō stated coolly. “The politicians could never approve it.”
Of course not, Kenshin thought grimly, all too aware of the reasons.
“Why?” Misao demanded.
“Because every one of them is afraid to follow the example of Ōkubo,” Saitō responded. “True, the army could retake the villages, but anyone who approved the action would pay. The difficulty of preventing assassinations within the government….” He glanced at Kenshin. “Well, you know about that.”
Misao looked curious, but Kenshin ignored her as Saitō continued. “Government leaders are, in the end, human. They save themselves… and they wait for someone else to solve the problem.”
Saitō sounded… rather more irritated than he usually did, despite his lack of cutting remarks, and Kenshin found himself wondering why. Was it just because of the reactions of the villagers, and his general dislike of politicians, or was there more to it?
“Who is this ‘someone else’?” Misao was yelling, her ki blazing with righteous fury. “Who is it that’s going to save this village? Who is…” her voice faltered for a moment, then strengthened again. “Who is going to avenge this boy’s sorrows?” She gestured toward where the boy – Eiji – stood, his attention still focused on the bodies of his parents.
Saitō looked around the village, slipping his hands into his pockets, and then shrugged. “The village, the police, the army, the government… all of them will do exactly as Shishio Makoto pleases.” The statement was cool.
Then he looked directly at Kenshin, meeting his eyes, as his ki flared with anticipation of battle – and something else. Something that Kenshin had last felt during the confrontation in the dojo, when their words had only scratched the surface of what they were truly saying to each other. “That is why, now, hitokiri and Shinsengumi both are needed.”
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[Edited Sun. Mar. 12/06] Go to Chapter 3, Part 4: Assorted Nuisances – Seta Sōjirō and Senkaku (Kenshin and Saitō meet Sōjirō and Shishio, and Kenshin faces off against Senkaku….)
[Minor edits Thurs. May 18/06.]