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A breeze brushed across Toshiro Kimiyama's sweat-damp cheeks, and dust balls skittered along the road as if they were small animals running before him. He was grateful for the short relief. The trip back to the farm from Kyoto was always long, and as heavy-laden as he was this time, and alone, it seemed to be taking forever. Still, he enjoyed the sunlight, which sparkled on the surface of the streams and made all the colors of field and forest seem newly invented. Armies had marched on the main roads, leaving waste and ugliness behind them, but no stain of war had yet touched the narrow paths that he was taking. These back roads were hilly and hard going, but safe, and the pack which made his steps so weary was full of good things for Hikaru and all their people.
As Hikaru said, there was no evil without good to balance it.
He smiled, as he often did when thinking of his wife, and shifted the pack so that it rested more easily on his shoulders. He would have liked to stop for another break, but he wanted to get home even more. He could rest there, with Hikaru to fuss over him, make him a bath, and give him tea, if nothing more. One of the many ironies of this war was that tea and luxury items such as her cooking spices were available in plenty, but little real food could be found to eat with them. And little sake, either. Food and sake were two things the armies demanded.
Ahead of him, at the side of the road, he saw a man waiting, lounging against the boulders which walled a small shrine. He tensed, but if the man meant him harm, there was little he could do. He'd already been seen, and he had no weapon. That he refused to carry one in these bad times was a point of contention with Bunto and some of the other men, but Hikaru understood – as she said, it would hurt him more to kill than to be killed. However, Toshiro relaxed when the man straightened and stepped into the road to meet him. Only one man in his experience, perhaps in all of Japan, stood so tall and broad, or wore a white cape with ridiculously high red wings at the collar. Seijuro Hiko would never harm him.
But Toshiro's brow furrowed in concern anyway. Neither would Seijuro Hiko voluntarily speak to him. Something must be terribly wrong. As he came closer, he opened his mouth to say his words of worry, but as usual, Hiko was one step ahead of him. "There's nothing wrong with Hikaru or the farm, Kimiyama," he said in his flat, deep voice. "But I want to speak with you about something which concerns her."
For a moment Toshiro was confused and still worried. Seijuro Hiko was the only shadow on his marriage, and his imagination went wild on the subject of what the man wanted to say concerning Hikaru. But by the time he set his pack on the ground and straightened again, he thought he knew. "Is it about Kenshin?"
Hiko's scowl was his response.
Toshiro felt a moment of panic. "He's not dead, is he?"
"No. But perhaps worse."
"There is nothing worse than dead."
"You've led a sheltered life, if you believe that."
Toshiro crossed his arms on his chest. He was not going to bandy words with this man. Hiko irritated him in many ways, not the least of which was that he had to look up so far to speak to him. "What is it? Has something happened to the boy?"
Hiko answered his question with another. "You've heard of the recent series of assassinations in Kyoto?"
"The so-called 'assassin from the shadows'? The one they're calling the Manslayer? Yes, of course."
"Have you told Hikaru?"
"No, but others have talked about it in her hearing. I've simply said that rumor can make one murder into twenty, and tried to make her forget it."
"But you know better. Or do you?"
He didn't understand why Seijuro Hiko wanted to exchange gossip with him, but he replied anyway. "I know very little, really. According to Bunto's sources, at least fifty confirmed kills can be credited to this one man, yet no can guess who he is. Apparently his sword style is so unique, no one has been able to identify it to even get a clue." Suddenly, Toshiro put it all together – Hiko's grim expression, his asking about Hikaru's knowledge, the unique sword style. "Are you trying to tell me it might be Kenshin?"
"I'm telling you that it is Kenshin," Hiko said bluntly. "The assassin's sword style is known to me, even if to no one else. He's using the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu. There are only two men living who know those techniques, myself and Kenshin. No others."
Toshiro's arms dropped to his sides. "You're sure of this? You're sure it was the Hiten Mitsurugi?"
"I've seen some of the victims. Do you not know the shape of your own pottery? Even in the dark? I have no doubt. It's Kenshin."
Toshiro sat on his pack, stunned. "I don't want to believe this," he admitted. "Not that child."
"We don't have the luxury of deluding ourselves about it," Hiko snapped. "Neither of us. I despair of ever convincing Hikaru that Kenshin is not a little boy, but I expect a more rational view from you. You can't be so naive that you believe a man of Kenshin's age will not murder."
"His age has nothing to do with it. I'm thinking of his heart, his spirit. He does not have the soul of an assassin."
"He's a simpleton, younger in mind even than his years, and his ideals are pure. A cynical and clever man could easily warp those ideals and make him believe that a few deaths, rightly done, would serve the greater good for the most people. Convinced of that, he would sacrifice his own soul, thinking he was saving others."
Toshiro shook his head. Although he believed Hiko, he was willing to grasp at any chance he could be wrong. "This assassin is supposedly skilled in more than just the sword. Could Kenshin manage all that he is said to be doing?"
"I can tell you as a fact that, even with his training incomplete, he is more than capable of accomplishing all of it."
"You've made him into a wolf, a boy without mercy."
He was appalled that the words had left his mouth, but Hiko's expression didn't change. "Another delusion that you and Hikaru share," he said. "I taught him to kill. I did not teach him to be an assassin."
"I know that. Truly." His tone was an apology.
"You have no need to be embarrassed. That opinion is common with those who don't understand the principles of the Hiten Mitsurugi. Which is nearly everyone, including my apprentice. And also, naturally, your thoughts are colored by Hikaru's."
The man made it impossible to like him, no matter how hard one tried. "You must be disappointed in him."
One of Hiko's brows rose. "I am. As a master of apprentices yourself, I am sure you can imagine how much. But my feelings are not what I wished to discuss. I'm more concerned with Hikaru's."
"This must be kept from her."
"Don't be an ass. Have you lived with her this long and come to know her so little? She's extremely intelligent. She probably already suspects, but refuses to acknowledge it even to herself. However, some day, probably soon, she'll hear something that even she can't ignore." For the first time, his expression changed. It was still unreadable, but different. "This is not something she should have to guess about, or hear from strangers. I don't need to explain that to you. Now that I am positive of the truth of it, one of us must tell her right away."
"She'll...." He didn't even want to contemplate how she would react to the news. "She'll be upset," he said finally, in a strangled voice.
Hiko's expression changed again, but this time it registered recognizable sympathy. "I don't envy you. I will break the news to her, if you wish. As you say, it is partly my responsibility that this situation exists."
Toshiro sat for a moment, his head in his hands, fighting the temptation to take Hiko up on the offer. "No," he said at last. "I'm her husband. I will tell her."
Hiko nodded. "You aren't a coward, I'll give you that. One piece of advice, if you want it. She will be angry, and she will blame me. Let her. Don't try to be fair or to talk reason to her. She'll need someone to blame, and it won't hurt me. Just keep her at the farm and far from Katsura's people until she's learned to accept it, or at least to keep silent about it. I don't think Kenshin is so far gone that he would hurt her, but Katsura has other assassins to protect his reputation."
He looked up, wide-eyed, and saw that Hiko was completely serious. "Thank you. That's good advice."
"I don't give bad advice." He tossed his cape back. "I know I don't have to tell you how to break it to her. You'll do it as well as anyone can. Good luck, Kimiyama."
Left alone, Toshiro sat for a long time, trying to think of some way to tell this news without breaking his wife's heart. He finally came to the conclusion that there was no way. With a sigh, he hefted the pack back onto his shoulders and turned his steps toward home again.
Hikaru met him at the gate, full of concern, gesturing a servant out to relieve him of the pack even as she spoke. "Toshiro! You look exhausted. Come inside and let me get some well water to cool you."
Get it over with now. Quickly. Like cauterizing a wound, it's best done at once, before you can think about it and dread it. "We have to talk, Hikaru."
"Yes, but you can cool yourself while we do it."
"No. Now. At once. Come with me to the orchard. This must be strictly between us, no one else."
Her brow creased, but she asked no more questions. She gave the servant instructions about the pack, then tucked her hand in his arm and went with him. As they got deep enough into the neat rows of trees that they wouldn't be observed from the farm yard, he leaned and brushed her temple with his lips.
"This is bad news, isn't it?" she said in a small voice.
"Very bad. Do you want to sit down?"
She shook her head, turning to face him. "Just tell me." Then, as if wanting to delay it, she said, "What is it about? The war?"
"Indirectly. It's about Kenshin."
Her face, always pale, went bone-white. She reached for him, her fingernails digging into his arm. "He's not dead?"
She loosened her grip, then let him go. "Hurt? He's been wounded? He's ill? I can go to him. I can..." Her eyes got larger and darker. "That's not it either, is it?"
"No, nothing like that. He's taken no hurt. Hikaru, before I tell you this, let me say that I got it from Seijuro Hiko, so I know it's the truth."
"You spoke to Seijuro today?"
"He spoke to me. He wanted to tell me about Kenshin, so that you would know."
Her eyes never moved from his face. She folded her hands, as she did when serene, but her fingers gripped each other so hard that her knuckles stood out sharply. "Tell you what about Kenshin? What is wrong with him?"
Now the moment was here, and he still didn't know what to say. "You know that assassin that people have been gossiping about. The so-called Manslayer."
That was as far as he got. As Hiko said, Hikaru was an intelligent woman. "No," she said savagely. "You are not going to tell me that man is Kenshin. It's not possible."
"It is Kenshin, love. I'm sorry, but it is."
"You're wrong. Seijuro's wrong. Kenshin would never kill like that. Never!"
"I wish I believed Hiko was wrong about this. Or even in some doubt."
"No one's seen this mystery assassin," she said scornfully. "Has Seijuro?"
He shook his head. "But the assassin is using the Hiten Mitsurugi style. That is what Hiko knows to be true."
"No. He's mistaken."
He took her arms in his hands, steadying her. She was denying what she was hearing, but the effort of doing so had her swaying like a lily. "You know the man better than anyone. Have you ever known him to be mistaken about his own sword style?"
"He must be," she whispered.
"He is certain. And he says it can be no one else, that no one else knows the techniques."
"How can he be so sure? Gossip can make anything seem real."
"He's seen some of the victims."
"It's true, love. I'm sorry. I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am."
She sank, slowly, all the way to the ground. He followed her down, careful of her, but her eyes weren't seeing him now. "This can't be. Not Kenshin. Not Kenshin. He wouldn't kill like that, like a thief, stealing lives. He isn't like that. Toshiro, you know he isn't!" she said, gripping his arm again.
"Had anyone else told me this – anyone – I would agree with you. But it was Seijuro Hiko. I can imagine what it cost him to admit it to me, that his apprentice had gone so far from his teachings. Which is why I believe him."
"His teachings!" she said, throwing off his hands. "Kenshin hasn't strayed from Seijuro's teachings. Seijuro taught him to kill. Now you're telling me he's whining because Kenshin's practicing that trade?"
This was so unfair that Toshiro actually began to say something in Hiko's defense. Then he remembered the sensei's advice and kept silent. Hikaru pulled away from him and leaped to her feet, pacing like an enraged tiger. Knowing she was using anger to keep her grief at bay, he rose slowly and watched her, making no attempt to intervene.
"Damn him!" she was saying. "How dare he complain about Kenshin? He put a sword in that child's hands. I told him how it would be. He knew. How many times have I heard him say it? A sword is nothing but a weapon meant to take the lives of humans. Kenshin was a good apprentice. And now he's..." As abruptly as it had come, her anger left. She turned to him, the expression in her eyes like that of a person who's been told of the death of someone beloved. "Toshiro. It can't be true. Tell me there's some doubt."
He swallowed. "You know Seijuro Hiko better than I. He says he believes it. Could he be wrong?"
She fought with it. He watched, hurting for her, as the expressions moved across her face. She was normally so calm and self-possessed that the ravaging effect of this news was even more stark. Finally came the moment she accepted it, and without any more warning than a sudden quiver of her lip, she burst into a storm of weeping. He touched her shoulder, and when she didn't pull away, he took her in his arms and let her cry it out against his shoulder.
The storm passed in moments, and the anger came back. She pounded her fists on his chest and said, "I could just kill him!"
"Yes!" She leaned on him, talking into his chest. "This is his fault. He should never have let Kenshin leave him. He could have stopped him, but he had too much pride." She hiccuped on another sob. "Oh, Toshiro, I knew the result would be bad, but I never dreamed it would be this bad." Then she was angry again. "Pride! What does that mean when placed against that boy's soul? Nothing!" She pushed away to start pacing again. "This is on his head. He's never going to admit it, but it is. He failed Kenshin. His precious Hiten Mitsurugi failed Kenshin, right when he needed it most." She stopped, quivering, hands fisted. After a long moment, she looked at him again. "I'm trying to picture it," she said quietly. "Maybe if I could, I could believe it. Because I don't believe it. It just doesn't seem real. It's not possible. My head tells me that Seijuro can't be wrong, and in my heart, I know it's true. But I can't picture it. I can't see Kenshin's face when I think of those assassinations. I just can't see it."
In all his trips to Kyoto, Toshiro had seen Kenshin only once. Kenshin hadn't seen him, but even if he had, Toshiro wasn't sure he would have been recognized, so distant and blank had Kenshin's eyes been. Because of that peculiar blankness, he had never mentioned the incident to Hikaru. Now that he understood, he was glad he hadn't. He said, "Perhaps that's for the best. He's become someone else now, someone you don't know."
She held up a hand, palm out, as if trying to protect herself from his words. Then the hand fell. "Will he ever come back? Will he ever be the same?"
He wished with every bit of his heart that he could give her the answer she wanted. But he wouldn't lie to her. "No, love. He won't ever be the same. But don't look like that. He's strong. His spirit is strong. When all this is done, he may go back to his master and learn the principles properly."
"That may be worse. Then he'll know just wrong it is, what he's doing. And that may hurt him beyond bearing."
"Yes, but understanding is the beginning of wisdom."
"Stop that. You sound like him."
Knowing who she meant, he shut up.
A line appeared between her brows. "How could this have happened? There has to be a reason. Kenshin wouldn't just alter his entire character overnight for nothing. Is he avenging someone or something? Is that it?"
He could see that would be an explanation she could almost accept. But again he couldn't lie to her. "I don't know." That was the truth, even if not all of it.
However, Hiko was right in saying she was intelligent. The line between her brows deepened. "The men who have been dying – they are all opponents of the Revolution. Of course. But Kenshin's a young man still. He wouldn't know who the key men were. Someone is pointing him. Someone is telling him, 'That man is evil. Go, use your skills, and slay him.' Yes." She put her knuckles to her lips. "Someone is saying to him, 'This is for the good of the Revolution. This is blood shed in a good cause, the most holy cause, to save others from suffering. Go out and do what you do best, for the benefit of all.' That's what's happening to him, Toshiro. That's the only way it could be happening." She spun to face him, eyes narrowing. "Katsura. Kogoro Katsura. He's the one who's doing it, isn't he?"
He'd never suspected his gentle wife could speak so venomously. Hiko had indeed given him good advice. "Hikaru..."
"Is that true, or isn't it? Katsura took him from the ranks. He was supposed to have some kind of special duty. We thought he'd be some kind of bodyguard. Well, I suppose that's correct," she snarled, "if you consider it wise to kill your enemies before they can begin to threaten you. Preemptive protection." Changing moods yet again, she put her fingers to her temples and said plaintively, "It makes no sense. The man's reputation is not like this. He's supposed to be a good man, a man of diplomacy and peace. He even put aside his sword." Her hands dropped, and the venom returned to her voice. "Of course he did. He could afford to. He has a new and better sword now. He can keep his hands clean, and still reach out and slay his enemies. With precision. How can that man live with himself, to take such vile advantage of a boy? How can he rise and face the sun each day? How can he pray to his ancestors with this in his heart?"
"Men have done worse," he said.
The tears came back, silent this time. "I know. But not to Kenshin. Not to my boy."
He reached for her, but she pushed him away. "We have to do something. We have to get Kenshin away from that man."
"Hikaru, it's far too late for that."
"It is. He's killed at least fifty men already. Probably more."
"Fifty?" she whispered. "That's not possible."
His heart was breaking for her. "You mustn't blame him."
"I don't! I would never blame him. I blame Seijuro. And Katsura. Katsura makes Seijuro seem spotless in comparison. Seijuro at least was trying to forge a weapon for good. Katsura has poisoned the soul of a brave boy with more goodness than he could possibly imagine, and for his own personal gain. That's beyond despicable. The man should be publically crucified." Then, "Oh," she said suddenly, blankly, in yet another swift change of mood.
"What is it?"
"I just remembered something Seijuro says – that use of the Hiten Mitsurugi style guarantees victory to whatever side it chooses."
"That always seemed a bit arrogant to me."
"But this might be what he meant. I hope so."
"I'm not following you."
"Don't you see? Kenshin must be doing this dreadful thing because he believes in the ideals of the Revolution. Believes in them with all his heart. At least, if he lives through this, he will have won. It won't have been in vain." She put her fingertips on his lips before he could speak. "I know what you're going to say. We will just be changing one form of corrupt government for another. And some day, he will have to face that. Yet we both believe some good may come of all this. Change was coming anyway, but with the shogunate deposed, it can come more peacefully and easily, and with a chance for our lives to be better. So at least he will have that comfort." She hugged herself. "I only hope it will be enough." Her attention came back to him, and she looked up at him with an expression he knew well. "Do you ever see him?"
He couldn't remember ever lying to his wife before. But with Kenshin's face in his mind, as he'd last seen it, he did so now without the smallest hesitation. "No, love. Never."
She believed him. "If you ever do see him, could you at least ask him if he wants to come here? Tell him it's a break, a rest that's due him. Then, when he's here, maybe I can convince him to stay."
Again Toshiro struggled between the truth and a lie. The truth was, not even for Hikaru would he invite Kenshin into his home now. There was so much blood on the boy's hands, he would have to bring in a priest and purify the house afterward. Nor did he want to harbor an assassin, even if that assassin was the boy he'd once considered adopting for his own. But he couldn't bring himself to deny her outright. "I don't know, Hikaru. It could be dangerous for everyone else here."
"Then what about the house in town? I could stay with him there."
"Absolutely not!" he barked, startling both of them. "I'm sorry," he said at once. "But the very thought of you in Kyoto now... it's unacceptable. No."
"All right. It would be better for him to come here anyway. Toshiro? If you see him, will you ask him? We can keep it a secret, I know we can, and then there will be no danger."
If I see the boy I once knew, I will ask him. But the man I saw a month ago was not the boy I knew. To him, I don't think I can say anything. "If I see Kenshin," he said, his heart heavier for deceiving her, "I will do it. But you must know my chances of meeting him are slim, and even if I do, it is doubtful that he'll want to leave his mission."
She nodded, accepting. "Ask anyway. Tell him I love him and want him with us, and that nothing he's done will ever change that. Not ever, no matter what."
For a moment, his guilt hurt him. His nature wasn't as forgiving as hers. But he reminded himself that she hadn't been to the city to see what the fighting had made of it. And he was responsible for more than thirty other people, among whom he had no intention of planting an assassin, even at Hikaru's request. "If I can get him to listen, I will." Remembering Kenshin's eyes, he knew that was a promise he would never have to keep. He felt even worse when his words got a wavering smile from her. It seems she's right, and I'm meant to offer hope, he thought, even when I don't feel it.
Her smile vanished abruptly, but she wasn't looking at him now. She had something else in her mind. "If I ever talk to Seijuro Hiko again," she muttered, "he is not going to like it."
Never had he been so pleased to take Hiko's advice as now, when he didn't step in and try to make Hikaru more reasonable. Whatever skin she was going to verbally peel from the man, he could spare it and well deserved to lose it.
Then she said something to alarm him. "As for Katsura... I'll have to give that some thought. He has weaknesses, and I know some of those around him. I can..."
"Stop. Don't say any more. Don't even think it."
"First, you're plotting revenge. That isn't like you."
"I was thinking of it as justice."
"If justice were to be served to all involved – because Katsura has not acted alone, I'm sure – then where would that leave Kenshin?"
Her eyes widened. "Surely the gods wouldn't punish a boy for being misled."
"Kenshin is fifteen now. He's a man. His decisions, no matter how influenced and misguided, were still his own. The consequences will be, as well."
"You say that as if you think he deserves such a fate." She looked bruised, as if he'd slapped her.
He folded her in his arms, unwilling to see that expression. "I'm sorry. Of course he doesn't! That's not what I was thinking. But you must not try to take revenge on Katsura, not even in the smallest, most petty of ways. If you do, you will draw attention here. And Hiko says that Kenshin is not the only assassin who does Katsura's will."
She shivered, and he held her more closely. She said, "I don't know why so many of our legends celebrate war. It eats the lives of our best and strongest men, takes our boys from our very arms, and turns ideals to blood and decent men into devils." Then she looked up at him, and her expression changed again. "Look at you. You're exhausted. My poor darling, Seijuro is off hiding somewhere and has left you to bear all this with me."
"He did offer to tell you," he conceded.
"He should have. This is all his fault, directly or indirectly."
He couldn't help the smile that tugged at his mouth. "He can't be blamed for the Revolution, love."
"Everything but that. Come back to the house now. I'll get you a bath and find something for you to eat."
He sighed. "You don't have to fuss over me."
"Yes, I do. I have to do something. I can't think. If I stop to think, I'll break like a flawed pot in the kiln."
He understood. She wasn't made for holding anger, so that refuge from her grief was already gone. Now she would hide by caring for him. When the chores were done and all was quiet, he knew he was going to be in for a rough night. "All right, then, if you put it like that," he said, finding a smile. He put two fingers on her lips. "Just remember, love, this is only between us. Don't speak of it, and don't even speak disparagingly of Katsura. No one else knows who this Manslayer is. It will be better for Kenshin if no one ever finds out."
That, he knew, would be the one thing to keep her silent. "Don't worry about me," she said. "I'm good at keeping secrets." Then she added viciously, "But neither of those two men had better come visiting while I'm cleaning fish!"
Maybe her anger wasn't completely gone. Content that Katsura would never visit and that Hiko, if he did, could handle an angry woman with a fileting knife, he let her lead him back to the house.
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