Now, here is Pt. 4 of Chapter 4 of RuroBatt/Edge of the Blade. Please see previous post for apologies….
Back to Chapter 4, Part 3.
1) There’s a hint near the end of this part about what prompted the relinquishing of Kenshin’s no-kill vow.
2) 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 70-71 and 74-81 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 FOUR: Okina – Oniwabanshū of Kyoto
Part 4: Sakabatō Shinuchi
Kenshin frowned slightly as he finished reading through the reports Okina had given him on the activities of Shishio’s people in Kyoto. He had already read most of it in the report that the police had assembled, the one Saitō had given him back in Tokyo. There was some new information, but not much of it. And nothing to indicate where Shishio’s hideout might be, or what his plans were.
Hopefully, Senkaku knows at least some of that information, Kenshin thought grimly. The sense that they were running out of time had been starting to grow since his battle with Sōjirō, and was becoming more and more oppressive every day. And any information that he does know… there’s little doubt Saitō will get it from him.
Not that he approved of torture, even when it came to interrogating those who exercised it themselves, or whose cruelty did things worse than torture. And he was aware – thanks to a conversation he’d overheard once, about thirteen years ago, between Saitō and Okita – that Saitō didn’t like or entirely approve of it either. However, like it or not, approve of it or not, Saitō was perfectly willing to use torture if he saw it as the only way to get information he considered necessary.
He was distracted from the darkness of his thoughts by the sound of wings approaching. Looking up, Kenshin saw a pigeon fly in the open window over to a small stand. Settling down on it, the bird then tapped a bell with its beak, causing the instrument to make a surprisingly loud noise.
The shoji slid open and Okina came hurrying in, walking straight over to the bird’s stand.
“Okina-san?” Kenshin questioned him, curious as to what was going on.
“This is Lu Number One, from Shige,” the onmitsu said, picking the pigeon up and untying the twist of paper Kenshin abruptly noticed it bore on its leg. “These are the nerves of the Oniwabanshū’s body,” he continued his explanation as he carefully put the bird back on its stand, and then filled a bowl right next to it with seeds and a few grains of rice. “With 141 carrier pigeons all over Kyoto, we can communicate with the speed of a flying bird.”
Opening it up, Okina blinked. “Oh. It’s from Misao.” A slight frown crossed his face. “I knew she’d left, but what–”
He stopped talking abruptly, and Kenshin felt a sudden surge of surprise and concern flare through the onmitsu‘s ki. Then Okina folded the note back up and looked directly at him, his expression grim. “Seikū’s son… has been kidnapped by one of Shishio’s men.”
Kenshin’s eyes widened in shock and alarm, and he felt them flame amber as he stared at the note in Okina’s hands.
A moment later, he had seized the note from the onmitsu and had begun running toward the window, building up speed. There was a roof he could jump to easily, just across the street; he’d noticed it automatically yesterday, when they’d first arrived, and again when he’d settled himself in this room to study the Oniwabanshū reports on Shishio. Old habits and instincts once again, checking for escape routes and angles of attack.
“Himura-kun, stop!” Okina shouted from behind him. Kenshin heard him, but didn’t listen. He would not allow a child to suffer for Shishio’s schemes. “Your sakabatō is broken and useless! You won’t be able to fight even if you go! You’ll only be killed! Himura-kun!”
A leap out the window, with the speed he’d built up from his run, and Kenshin landed easily on the opposite roof. He sped across three more, getting out of Okina’s sight to prevent the old man from setting the other onmitsu at Aoi-ya on him, before opening the note Misao had sent and reading through it.
‘Seikū’s son has been kidnapped by one of Shishio’s men and taken to the place where the last of Shakkū’s swords is located – the Hakusan Shrine. –Misao’
Kenshin tucked the note into his sleeve and raised his head, looking around. From the roof he’d ended up on, it was easy to see the pattern of Kyoto’s streets; that was the reason he’d chosen this one to stop on. And seeing the pattern, his memories of ten years ago – when he’d known every nook and cranny in the city, how to get to and escape from them in the swiftest fashion possible – came flooding back. It took him only seconds to locate the Hakusan Shrine; and it would take him less than half an hour to get there.
Kenshin stood at the top of the stairs, just inside the tori’i, waiting, furious – though he’d let the amber fade from his eyes, soothed somewhat by the familiarity of walking the roofs. He didn’t bother going into the shrine – there was still the chance that another smith might be able to forge a sakabatō, and he was more concerned about saving Iori than getting a sword. He was fully aware that it would be dangerous to face any of Shishio’s men without a whole sword, but if need be, he still had his saya – and he could use that as a weapon if he had to. He’d done so against both Jin-e and Saitō, after all.
But he wondered about the significance of Shakkū’s last sword. Why would Misao have mentioned it specifically?
He’d been there for a good quarter of an hour or so when he sensed a sharp, eager ki approaching, accompanied by the mistiness that indicated a young child – a very frightened and upset child. His eyes narrowed as he set himself firmly between the tori’i and the shrine itself. No matter why this man had come here – whether it was a trap for Kenshin, or had to do with Shakkū’s last sword, as Misao had implied – he would not get it without surrendering Iori safely.
A minute later, he heard the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs, and a voice complaining. Concentrating, Kenshin found himself easily able to distinguish words.
“–Roads are so confusing,” the man climbing the stairs was muttering, the sound of his voice interspersed with a child’s quiet sobs, which sent Kenshin’s rage from fire to the hitokiri’s ice.
“‘Shakkū’s last sword.'” The man appeared – a bushy head of yellow-dyed hair first, then a narrow face, with Iori hanging from a sword slung over his shoulder, and at least two more swords slung over his back. “Wonder what sort of killing masterpiece–?”
He stopped abruptly, staring at Kenshin.
Iori, surprised enough by the sudden lack of movement that he stopped crying, looked as well; and Kenshin saw a watery smile cross the boy’s face. “Shake!”
The man’s eyes went to the hilt of the sakabatō, and he looked thoughtful. “I’m guessing you’re not a pilgrim to the shrine,” he remarked. “Who are you?”
Without saying a word, each movement very deliberate, Kenshin reached up to the bandage on his left cheek. Not moving his eyes from the man’s face, he tore it off with a sudden jerk, revealing his scar.
The man’s eyes widened as he took in the revelation. “A scar… like a cross….”
“Let the boy go.” Kenshin’s tone was quiet, and icy cold, but it didn’t seem to have any impact on the man in front of him.
“A scar like a cross on your cheek,” the man repeated. “You’re the famous Hitokiri Battōsai.” He looked Kenshin up and down, and then snorted. “Heh. You’re smaller than I thought. You’re almost… girlish.”
Kenshin ignored the words, obviously meant as an insult; his appearance had in fact helped with his job as hitokiri, since no one had ever associated him with the infamous ‘Hitokiri Battōsai’; at least not until the Shinsengumi had begun spreading his description. And even after that, very few had believed someone just over five shaku tall was much of a threat unless they’d seen him attack; which was, he suspected, part of the reason the rumours painted him as having been seven or eight shaku tall.
“Ah, well,” the man continued, shrugging. “So, you’re after Shakkū’s last sword as well?”
“No,” Kenshin said flatly. “I seek a different blade. If it’s Shakkū’s sword you want, go on and take it. But let the boy go first.”
“Mm…. Trying to avoid a fight, are you?” the man asked, as he walked over toward the trees that lined the path to the shrine. Kenshin tensed, made uneasy by the action. What was he doing?
“I’m not surprised,” he continued, looking back over his shoulder at Kenshin. “The sakabatō you depend upon is broken, so you’re afraid to fight me.”
Arrogant, Kenshin thought grimly. I don’t like this….
“Well, I don’t see any fun in beating someone who can’t fight back… but Shishio-sama has said, when facing an enemy, I either kill him, or I die.” He held the sword Iori was hanging from straight up, and Kenshin saw him unlock the sword from the saya.
Kenshin’s eyes widened in shock as he realized what the man was about to do, and he took a step forward, just as the man launched the saya – and Iori – straight up.
He felt a flicker of relief when the material cradling the toddler caught on a thick branch – as the man he faced had no doubt intended.
“And,” the man added, grinning as though he was enjoying himself as the saya fell back onto the path, “even when I do get the sword, how much fun will it be without something to test the edge on?” His grin widened, and he licked his lips. “I can’t think of something I’ve wanted to cut more.
“So sorry, but I reject your demand. The kid stays where he is, and we have a fair fight.”
The icy fury Kenshin felt froze even more at those words, and his eyes narrowed. “You know of the broken sword…” he started, his voice the quiet tone that had terrified Kyoto ten years ago, “…you take a hostage… and that’s ‘fair’?
“You’re a twisted man.”
“Oh, I’m not so twisted,” the man started, raising the sword he held in his hand. “I just,” he continued, lunging forward with a move that was laughably easy to read, “have a sense of humour!”
Kenshin raised his saya to deflect the blade, even as the man yelled, “Gotcha!”
Aside from Sōjirō, Kenshin mused in irritation, as he side-stepped the man’s lunge completely, I seem to be fighting imbeciles. It was almost enough to make him sympathize completely with Saitō’s hopes of a proper duel between them. “If you wish to get in with a thrust,” he said out loud, “come up with something better than Saitō’s Gatotsu.” He swung his saya back, striking at the man’s back. “Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū! Ryūkansen!”
The man crashed to the ground, and Iori, up in the tree, gave a soft gurgle and said, “Shake!”
The man wasn’t out yet – the swords he’d worn on his back had prevented him from feeling the full force of the blow, Kenshin knew – but he turned to give Iori a reassuring smile nonetheless.
“Mm… You’re better than you look,” the man said from behind him, and Kenshin heard him get to his feet. “That would’ve been ugly without my beloved swords on my back.”
It would have broken your ribs, and knocked you unconscious – at the very least, Kenshin thought grimly, hearing a slight crack that was probably the man getting his neck back into proper alignment. At worst, it would have broken your spine and paralyzed you.
“And these weapons of mine bring a very high price,” the man continued.
Kenshin turned to face him, expressionless, and watched as he took two rather odd-looking swords out of their sheaths… and put them together.
“This is an earlier sword of Shakkū’s: Renbatō, ‘Repeater’,” he continued, holding the combined sword up, pointing it directly at Kenshin, and took a step forward. “Two wounds so close together are hard to sew up. So, even if I don’t hit a vital spot, I leave a wound that festers… until disease kills you!”
With that, he lunged forward.
Imbeciles indeed, Kenshin mused, not bothering to move away from the lunge – which he could easily have done, as this move was broadcast as blatantly as the previous one. Instead, he waited until the man was fully committed to his strike….
…And raised his saya so that it slipped in between the two blades of the sword.
The man stared at him in utter disbelief, and Kenshin let a hint of contempt leak into his expression… and his voice. “Is this all you are?” he asked coolly – this man seemed to be very much like Isurugi Raijūta, except that he was focused on swords, rather than special moves – and then grasping the saya just above the kurikata, he turned it… and broke the blades.
Then he crouched down slightly, and attacked with a variation of the move he’d used on Senkaku. “Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū! Ryūshōsen!” The blow hit the man right in the suigetsu, and he went crashing to the ground.
Kenshin sighed, turned around, and started walking toward the tree Iori was held in. “Sorry to make you wait,” he told the boy. “You’ll be down in a moment.”
Then, to his shock, the man’s voice came from behind him, accompanied by the sound of someone standing up. “You were right. I guess I’ve been fooling around too much.”
How is it possible that he isn’t harmed? Kenshin wondered, puzzled, as he glanced back at the man to see him brushing himself off. I know I hit his suigetsu….
“Shake?” Iori said, his tone uncertain.
“Sorry, Iori,” Kenshin said, giving the boy a reassuring smile. “Looks like this will take a bit longer.”
A furious hostility suddenly flared through the man’s ki, and Kenshin tensed automatically.
“Stop talking to that stupid kid and look at me!” the man yelled. “Disrespect me and I’ll start by slicing him in half!”
Kenshin’s fury broke through the bounds he’d set on it at the beginning of this encounter at that, and he knew his eyes were blazing amber as he turned around to look at the man.
Once again, his opponent didn’t seem the slightest bit impressed. A mistake. “So, you’ve got a battle-face too, eh? How cruel to have kept it hidden so long. If you’d shown it from the beginning, I wouldn’t have held back either.”
Then the man pulled off his kimono, revealing a set of steel bands wrapped around his waist and lower chest.
“Steel belts,” Kenshin murmured in understanding. “That’s what stopped the Ryūshōsen.”
A moment later, he sensed several people approaching. He didn’t look away from his opponent; but then, he didn’t need to: Okina’s ki was a half-masked wavering concern, Misao’s was bright and anxious, and the ki of both Seikū and his wife radiated terror for Iori.
The sound of their footsteps as they came running up the stairs echoed slightly, but the man didn’t look over at them either as they reached the top.
Then Seikū’s ki flared with shock. “This… is not good!” the smith blurted out loudly. “The sword he has wrapped around his waist! It’s a killing sword my father created in his later days – back at the pinnacle of his skill!”
Seikū was right… this wasn’t good. Kenshin was confident of his own skill, but the fact remained that he had only a broken sakabatō, a saya, and his wits to deal with a completely unknown weapon. And a sword that long, and flexible enough to wrap around one’s waist… that made it something extraordinary.
At the same time, it was unlikely that the man would be able to defeat him, unknown sword or not. Wound him, yes – Kenshin wouldn’t lie to himself about that – but not defeat him. Kenshin knew his own skill, knew that events since his fight with Udō Jin-e had been steadily bringing him back to the peak he’d been at during the Bakumatsu, and had gotten a measure of this man’s abilities during their fight so far. The blond was not as good as he thought he was.
Even as he sensed both Okina and Misao’s ki ringing with shock, the man gave a slight bow of his head. “They call me ‘Sword Hunter Chō’, of the Juppongatana. Now, see my true skill!”
The Juppongatana! Kenshin knew the term – it had been in the report Saitō had given him. This man was a member of Shishio’s inner circle!
“Here I come!” Chō added.
“Himura, watch out!” Misao shouted. “He’s still got a sword hidden!”
Kenshin ignored the shout; he’d already heard that information, he didn’t need it repeated. Instead, he watched steadily as Chō unwound the sword from his waist, and flung it out, missing him….
And then he sensed air moving behind him, and turned his head slightly to see what was causing it….
And stared in shock at the sight of the point of the sword coming back toward him!
“Well?!” Chō demanded, his ki bright with triumph. “This is my favourite sword of all – Hakujin, ‘The Thin One’!”
Kenshin just managed to pull away from it, feeling the edge brush too close to his cheek for comfort.
“No!” Seikū shouted abruptly from the tori’i. “If you dodge it too closely–”
Before he could finish whatever it was he was saying, Chō grinned, shifted the hand holding the hilt slightly….
…And Kenshin felt a spark of pain as the sword’s point jabbed down into his thigh, sending him to his knees.
“Just what I wanted,” Chō declared, grinning. “Now you won’t be able to dodge around like a rat.”
One hand touching the gash in his leg to determine how bad it was, Kenshin stared at him for a long, silent moment… a moment that was broken by the sound of Seikū’s voice.
“The sword called Hakujin was forged as thin as possible without losing its strength. The tip was made slightly heavier, allowing the wielder to manipulate the blade with a small turn of the wrist.”
Useful information, Kenshin acknowledged silently, hiding a wince as he tensed his legs in preparation for moving when the next attack came; though it would have been more useful if I’d known beforehand…. He wouldn’t have his full speed – the slash was serious enough to affect that – but he could still move, and there had to be a way to deal with this sword….
“With that leg, dodging the Thin One’s instant changes of direction is not possible!” Seikū added.
Difficult – very difficult – but not completely impossible. Kenshin re-focused on Chō, whose ki suggested he was about to attack again. But it would definitely be better to handle any attacks he makes in a different way. He could control the pain, but he had no desire to do any more damage to his leg than had already been done.
Chō grinned. “I haven’t had an audience in a long time,” he remarked, glancing at the four non-combatants arrayed by the tori’i. “So, let’s give them something to entertain them, and get to the climax.” Raising the hilt so that it was pointing straight up, he twirled the sword around his body as if it were a heavy whip. “‘Orochi’ pose,” he declared, and his grin widened. “Take this!”
With that, he lashed the sword out again, moving it as though the blade were a wave heading directly for Kenshin.
He wasn’t going to be able to dodge this attack, Kenshin knew; it was aimed directly at him, and the blade was moving too quickly to evade. So… deflect! Lifting his saya up, he put it directly in the path the blade was following, and used it to reduce the momentum the tip had built up and shift its path away from him.
Unfortunately, in the process, the blade managed to pierce right through the saya, cutting it in half.
Kuso! Kenshin was starting to wonder if he’d been a bit overconfident at the start of this fight. Not that he thought he was wrong about Chō’s skill in comparison to his own; but it was clear that Chō had a great deal of experience in using this particular sword, and together with the fact that Kenshin didn’t have a sword, that experience compensated for Chō’s overall lack of skill.
“Nice move!” the other man taunted him. “Too bad there’s more….”
The blade twisted in mid-air as Chō turned his hand, and Kenshin realized it was aimed right at his heart this time. He had to move!
As the sword came down, he ducked down and rolled out the way. The tip of the blade hit the paving, and sent pieces of stone flying into the air. Several hit him, bruising his ribs and both legs. And the cut in his thigh stung even more now.
Coming back up to his knees, Kenshin looked over at Chō. I need a sword. If I had one, I would be able to defeat him without taking too much damage, he thought ruefully. There were several holes in Chō’s defense, but between his lack of a sword and the wound in his leg, he wasn’t able to take advantage of them.
The four watchers were getting more distressed, and Kenshin could sense the start of an argument, but he couldn’t spare enough of his attention to listen; he had to concentrate on figuring out a way to rescue Iori and deal with Chō.
Then Chō lashed out with the blade again. Kenshin pulled back, but the edge of the blade sliced into his forehead – no more than a slight cut, but if he wasn’t careful, the blood would blind him. Raising one hand, he wiped at it, then looked back at Chō.
“You don’t give up,” the blond said, frowning. “Your courage is becoming pathetic.”
Kenshin’s eyes narrowed at that. There had to be a way to end this, and soon. His eyes flicked to Iori for a moment, then to the argument going on between Misao and Seikū, before returning his gaze to Chō, who was glaring at him.
“Those eyes annoy me,” the blond snarled. He took a step forward, the sword coiling around in front of him. “Don’t you get it? The game’s over, you know.”
Game? Is that how he thinks of this? That might, just might, be enough to gain him the advantage… the same way he’d gained it over Raijūta, despite his wounds…. A plan began forming; one that was risky, but nonetheless possible.
“Why sacrifice your life for one worthless child?” Chō continued, and Kenshin felt his emotions turn icy again at the words. “Well?”
“Many years ago, in the name of country, many lives were taken.” Placing one hand on the paving stones in front of him, Kenshin pushed himself up.
“Bragging now?” Chō asked, taking another step forward, and then laughed. “Ha! Reminiscing about your past glory! That is pathetic!”
“So many battles, so much bloodshed… never undone. Now we’ve reached a new era… for the moment,” he added quietly, a bit darkly.
“The time for peace has come,” Kenshin continued, shaking himself out of the foreboding sensation he’d just felt. “So much so, that a child may grow knowing nothing of battles and bloodshed. He may be worthless to you, but to me, he is the child of an age that must not be destroyed.” Kenshin’s eyes narrowed further, and he knew they looked as though they were glowing. “Even if it costs me my life, Iori will be returned safely to Seikū and his wife.” That was his priority.
He could sense a mingling of shock and confusion in Seikū’s ki, and – hoping the smith would understand the message – looked over at him. Wait until his attention is drawn, then grab Iori while you can.
“You act like some kind of hero, making me the ‘bad guy’,” Chō complained.
No, your own actions have done that.
“Now I am annoyed.” He raised Hakujin. “All right, let’s end this now. I’ll create a new world with my swords, under Shishio-sama!” Chō grinned again. “And you’ll rest in your grave.”
“You will not,” Kenshin said flatly. He stood firmly on the grass, broken sakabatō and saya held in his left hand, while his right hovered just above the cut in his thigh. Are you listening, Seikū-dono? “An era is not created by swords, but by the people who wield them.”
The shock of his words went through Seikū’s ki like a flash-fire. A moment later, the smith was running forward.
Kenshin prepared to attack, to keep Chō’s attention focused on him as Seikū got Iori down… but found that he was the one shocked, as Seikū ran right past the tree, and yelled, “Hang on, Iori! We’ll save you! Just hang on!”
What is he doing?
“The audience isn’t allowed on stage!” Chō shouted, and twisted the blade around so that it went for Seikū’s unprotected back.
Kenshin didn’t even have to think; he simply reacted. His thumb unlocked the remains of his sakabatō, and he sent it flying toward the blade. It hit right on target, the hilt slamming into the tip just before it reached Seikū.
“You’re all… annoying!” Chō growled, turning back toward him with a snarl as real anger flared through his ki. “I’m not letting you go now! My rage soars!”
Not as high as my own, Kenshin thought grimly, his eyes narrowing as the icy cold of his anger flowed through him. A small part of his mind wondered what Seikū was doing, but most of his attention was focused on planning how to get Chō within range.
“Look at my head,” the blond stormed on. “This is the ‘hair of heavenly fire’!”
Almost too easy…. “Looks more like ‘hair of insane broom’,” Kenshin countered dryly. He could sense flickers of amusement at that from the three left by the tori’i, even as Chō’s anger blazed hotter.
“It was a joke, idiot!” Chō snarled. “Don’t take it literally! You are so annoying!” He drew his hand back and began to lunge, and Kenshin felt triumph flare up as he read the path the attack would follow. Chō had just played right into his hands.
Having already seen four attacks with this sword, Kenshin was easily able to judge the blade’s speed. He stayed exactly where he was, sensing Chō’s own triumph when he didn’t try to dodge, and waited. Then, as the blade neared him, he raised the remains of his saya, tensing his legs – the pain was pushed away as unimportant at the moment – as he readied himself.
The tip of the blade entered the saya, deflected away from him, and before Chō had a chance to realize just how great a mistake he’d made, Kenshin leaped straight for him.
With a yell to help focus the force of his attack, Kenshin twisted in mid-leap, bringing his right elbow forward to slam into the blond’s forehead. He hit right on target and used the momentum of the impact, as Chō’s head snapped back, to flip over the collapsing form.
Landing with his left foot touching the ground first, Kenshin knelt at the other side of the path, a sinking feeling in his stomach – for more than one reason.
The moment he’d hit Chō, he’d known that he’d used too much force if he simply wanted to knock the blond unconscious; he’d struck a killing blow. It was only now that Kenshin realized his instincts had classified Chō as a threat that needed killing the moment the blond had declared Iori ‘worthless’ – or perhaps even when he’d come to the conclusion that Chō’s expertise with this sword outweighed his lack of skill.
In which case, perhaps it was good that Chō’s head had been protected from the full force of the blow by what had felt like another metal band.
He is Juppongatana: a member of Shishio’s inner circle. And Shishio is the ultimate threat; to defeat him, we need all the information we can get – information that one of the Juppongatana is much more likely to have. No matter how much of threat he is, I can not kill him.
“Close, close,” Chō mumbled out loud then, tilting his head back to look directly at Kenshin. His expression was dazed, and there was blood dripping down his face; obviously the band, or whatever it was, hadn’t kept him entirely undamaged.
Closer than you may realize, Kenshin thought with the cold, dispassionate clarity he had always experienced in true life-and-death battles, a clarity he hadn’t felt very often in the past several years. Whatever the protection you wear is, it is the only thing that saved you from death.
“I really shouldn’t take you lightly; you made all the blood in my head recede,” Chō continued mumbling. Then his gaze sharpened somewhat, and both his voice and his ki firmed with determination. “No more entering your space. I’ll shred you from the outside. I’ll cut you to pieces and throw them in the Shijō river.”
Kenshin met his gaze, eyes still cold as he tried to work out what to do. He knew from experience that fighting against his instincts was more difficult than the deadliest battle with Saitō, but he had to. They needed Chō to be in a condition that left him able to answer questions, after all.
Before he could figure out an answer to his dilemma, however, his thoughts were interrupted by a shout from the direction of the shrine.
Looking over, Kenshin saw Seikū standing there, a wooden-sheathed sword held firmly in his hands. “This is Father’s last blade!” the young smith declared. “Take it – it’s yours!”
With that, he threw the sword in Kenshin’s direction.
Kenshin caught it automatically, a touch of confusion breaking through the clarity for a moment as he wondered why Seikū had done this.
“Feh. I should have killed him before I went down,” Chō muttered, standing carefully back up as Kenshin’s gaze returned to him. “Ah well…. Defeating you and obtaining the blade. Two birds with one stone, hmm?”
His focus narrowed to the blade in his hand and the opponent facing him, Kenshin felt the tension he’d carried since Sōjirō had broken his sakabatō disappear. He was properly armed again, and he found himself relaxing involuntarily, despite being in the middle of a fight where he couldn’t allow his instincts free rein.
“Draw,” Chō continued. “Let’s finish this. Both with swords. Kill or be killed. It’s easy to understand.”
Kenshin shifted his hands slightly, letting them adjust to the heft and the feel of this sword; then stood, feeling the hints of confusion slip away, leaving only the clarity. “Yes,” he declared, his tone cold, “let’s finish this.” And hope that I can avoid killing you in the process… came the additional grim thought.
“So, this is the Hitokiri Battōsai, hmm?” Chō said, and smiled.
The part of him that was monitoring the four watching them was aware that Misao’s ki flared with shock, as did those of both Seikū and his wife, but there was nothing to be done about it now; he needed to stay focused on this final exchange – which had already started, though he hadn’t moved since answering Chō’s challenge.
“Well? Are you going to move?” the blond demanded a moment later. Then his gaze went to the tree he’d hung Iori from. “Or am I going to have to slice apart your ‘child of peace’ to convince you to fight?”
The taunt was meant to make Kenshin angry, make him attack without thinking, the way Chō had done earlier. However, the only reason Kenshin hadn’t already attacked – he knew exactly which move to use to negate the advantage the blade provided Chō, now that he had a sword again – was because defending against an attack would make it easier to avoid killing the blond. But he couldn’t afford to take the chance Chō wouldn’t do what he threatened.
In other words, I’m going to have to attack. I’ll simply have to do my best to avoid using lethal force….
Without another word, making it seem as though he was reacting to the taunt, as opposed to having thought carefully about it, Kenshin launched himself forward. The move would appear, at first, to be a lunge much like the ones Chō had attacked him with at the beginning of this fight.
And indeed, Chō reacted just as Kenshin had expected. He thrust the sword forward, using the same ‘wave-type’ attack as he had the last four times.
As the tip of the blade hit the path right in front of him, Kenshin – fully prepared for it – leaped up and forward, riding the force of the impact.
“Got you!” Chō exulted, and turned his wrist the same way he had in his first attack, sending the blade toward the hitokiri’s back.
But Kenshin was thoroughly prepared for that as well. Even as he continued his forward leap, he began spinning, the centrifugal force helping to keep him in the air.
And drew the sword.
This was the moment of truth time. Could he restrain his instincts enough to let him pull the blow?
I have to… we need him alive!
Chō was staring at him in shocked disbelief, knowing, Kenshin recognized, that he didn’t have enough time to get away – or even deflect the blow that was coming. Drawing back the sword in preparation, Kenshin stopped his spin….
“Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryū! Ryūkansen Tsumuji!”
The blade struck Chō across the chest, going from his hip up to his shoulder, and flinging the blond back. The hilt of Hakujin dropped from Chō’s suddenly limp hand, and he hit the stones of the path as Kenshin landed lightly a shaku away.
Did I kill him? Kenshin wondered anxiously, looking down at the body. It was clear that Misao, Okina, Seikū and his wife all thought that he had. Did I manage to stop my spin in time to contain the force of the blow?
“Himura…” Misao said carefully, taking a step forward.
Kenshin wasn’t entirely sure what to say – he didn’t want her to be scared of him, now that she knew who he was – so rather than look at her, he glanced down at the sword.
And felt his eyes widen in surprise, the colour fading back to blue, as he got his first good look at the blade. A sakabatō?!
“Oh!” Misao exclaimed, having seen the same thing.
“That sword…” Kenshin heard Seikū mutter, from the direction of the shrine.
“A sakabatō!” Misao exclaimed out loud.
“What?!” Okina’s voice sounded incredulous. “Arai Shakkū’s last blade was also sakabatō – like the one he gave Himura-san?”
“No,” Kenshin murmured, feeling the heft of the blade. “This one… fits just slightly better in the palm than the last one.”
“But if that’s sakabatō too, then….” Misao looked over at Chō’s body. “He’s not dead!”
Whether I managed to pull the blow or not, Kenshin thought, both relieved and rueful at once. He wasn’t entirely certain that he had managed to pull it, and it was definitely a relief that it turned out to be something he didn’t need to worry about. At least he will be alive for Saitō to question.
“I see…” Chō muttered weakly from where he was lying. “Now I know why Shishio-sama would take you on, even on the eve of his greatest objective. But don’t get too confident.”
Kenshin looked over at him.
“There are still nine left in the league of the Juppongatana. Two of them – Sōjirō, whom you fought before, and Usui, who’s headed this way from Ryūkyū – are better than you.” He started laughing wildly, even through his weakness. “You’ll never get to Shishio-sam–”
Abruptly, Misao grabbed Okina’s cane – which had come apart to reveal a chain linking the handle and its body – and lashed it at Chō, knocking him unconscious before he could finish his speech. “There!” she declared firmly. “Now, what should we do with him?”
“We still need information, so let’s take him to Aoi-ya,” Okina suggested.
“No,” Kenshin disagreed, “let’s take him to the police. He may not be in Kyoto yet, but there is a man in charge of the Shishio case. That’ll be safer.” After all, he didn’t want the Oniwabanshū involved any further.
“But–” Misao started to protest… Saitō really hadn’t made a good impression on her.
Okina shook his head at her. “If Himura-san says so,” he stated, though his tone was somewhat doubtful.
Before Kenshin could assure Okina about Saitō, the quiet conversation was interrupted.
“His final sword… was sakabatō,” Seikū said from the entrance to the shrine itself. He sounded dazed, and Kenshin was fairly sure that he hadn’t been aware of the discussion going on about Chō. “I don’t understand…. My father created killing tools…. Why would he–?”
A loud crack interrupted Seikū’s words, and Kenshin stared down at the sakabatō in his hand to see the wooden hilt splitting apart. His eyes widened as it cracked clear through, and the blade fell from his grip to land tip down in the path, shattering yet another paving stone.
“It’s all right,” Okina said with a sigh of relief as he examined the sword; the rest of them were still too startled by what had just happened. “There’s no damage to the blade….” Then he leaned a bit closer. “Hmm…. A poem!”
Kenshin picked it up carefully, and saw what Okina had – there was a poem inscribed on the nakago. Perhaps it would hold the answer to Seikū’s question. But first…. “Let’s get Iori down from that tree,” he said, looking over at the boy, who was still hanging there, “and summon the police. Then we’ll return to Aoi-ya, and we can talk.”
The sakabatō blade was resting on a piece of silk in front of Kenshin. Seikū and his wife – whose name, they had learned, was Azusa – sat next to his left, with Iori on Azusa’s lap, playing with a toy Okina had found for him. Okina sat at Kenshin’s right, and Misao was perched opposite him, watching them all.
“‘Slashing myself, I have trained countless blades,'” Kenshin read off the nakago. “‘My son reviles, but for my grandson, I bleed.'”
“He spent many years crafting swords, feeling he was cutting himself,” Okina interpreted the poem soberly. “Even if it led to his son reviling him, it was for the world his grandson would live in. Shakkū left these as his parting words, engraved on his last sword.”
“Father must have realized he was arrogant to think swords could create worlds,” Seikū murmured, clearly working on getting his thoughts rearranged with the new information he’d gained. “But then, he lived in the chaos of the Bakumatsu. There was no time to stop and think in the midst of hell. As a swordsmith living in those days of blood, he kept going forward… crafting sword after sword, hoping to speed peace on its way… against the wishes of his own heart. He had to live his life in irony.”
A feeling I know all too well, Kenshin thought to himself, as his mind called up the memory of the swordsmith who had given him the first sakabatō. At least, if nothing else comes of this, your son now understands you more.
“My father, with his deep feelings of regret and hope, left this holy sword: ‘Sakabatō Shinuchi’,” Seikū finished.
“‘Shinuchi’?” Misao repeated curiously.
It was Azusa who replied. “Yes,” she said, giving Misao a smile as she explained. “When making a holy sword, smiths usually forge not one, but two or more blades. The finest of those are called shinuchi, ‘true forge’, and are offered to the god. The rest are kageuchi, ‘shadow forge’, and are stored or given away.”
Okina’s eyes widened. “I see…. So there were two sakabatō to begin with….”
“And this is the shinuchi, meaning it’s better than the original sakabatō!” Misao added eagerly.
“Please accept it, Himura-san,” Seikū said then, looking over at him – still without any hint of the fear Kenshin had been expecting once they had had time to think about who he was. “I think that’s what Father would have wished.”
Kenshin stared down at the sakabatō, remembering his last encounter with Shakkū, the evening of the last day of the battles of Toba Fushimi, after they’d won the field… and the words the smith had said to him after throwing him the sakabatō.
“It’s a gift. It’s a failure, but for you, right now, it’s enough. Try being a swordsman with that at your waist! Soon you’ll see how naïve you’re being! When that sword breaks and still you’re able to believe your own sweet lies… come to Kyoto and seek me out.”
He hadn’t been able to entirely avoid killing, as much as he’d tried to. But in ten years of wandering, there had been only two who had been so lost to reason that he had had no choice but to kill in order to protect – not counting Jin-e, who had chosen to kill himself. All other encounters he’d had, he’d managed to avoid killing. Knowing Shakkū… Kenshin thought that would be enough for him.
Reaching out one hand, he let it hover above the blade for a long moment. Shakkū-dono… I would still like to believe those ‘sweet lies’, just like you. So…. Looking up, he met Seikū’s eyes. “This one gratefully accepts,” he murmured, drawing on the rurouni mask for a moment to express the humility he felt at the offer.
Seikū nodded to him, and then he and Azusa stood up. “Then we’ll be–”
“Yes,” Kenshin replied quietly. “Take care.”
Before they could leave, however, Iori called, “Shake!”
Kenshin looked over to see the boy waving his hands eagerly, looking directly at him. “Shake! Bye-bye! Shake bye-bye! Shake!”
Kenshin smiled warmly at the young boy, and once again reached out his hand to let Iori take it.
“Shake!” Iori declared, his tone satisfied as he gripped Kenshin’s hand and moved it up and down.
“Bye-bye,” Kenshin replied, warmed by the toddler’s friendliness.
His smile lasted for quite a while after they had gone.
kurikata: The knob on the saya (sheath) of a Japanese sword that holds the sageo (the cord).
nakago: The tang of a Japanese sword – the metal section inside the hilt. Often held the signature of the smith.
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Next up: Chapter 5, Part 1 (Leaving the Aoi-ya) Kenshin leaves the Oniwabanshū, though not without some argument from Misao….