Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

"Sooner or later, whoever's behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of 'divine' display affirming his claim to the throne... Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat."

Orchard-hand Sano is pulled from his small-town life to assist royal knight Hajime in restoring the usurped throne to Kenshin, the rightful king, and the two of them may find a connection beyond only this quest.



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
>13 Interlude
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
>16 Interlude
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
>20 Interlude
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm
Chapter 34 - Converging Forces

Chapter 30 – Unoppressed Light

“Come on, city boy.” It couldn’t really be called ‘grumbling’ because it was so much more intense, though the words seemed frivolous enough. “These aren’t the carrots we want.” He addressed himself to Hajime specifically despite believing the other two just as ignorant of farming as the knight; he didn’t want to talk to the other two. But they all three followed without any verbal question when he rose after only a few minutes seated and insisted they relocate to a different row.

As they settled again, Hajime remarked seemingly with more curiosity than irritation, “I fail to see the difference in these carrots.” Other items lined the shelves and dangled from the racks around them too, of course, but carrots were what Sano had specifically mentioned.

“Over there–” Sano jerked his thumb at the area they’d previously occupied– “looks like the oldest stuff in here. If anyone comes in to load up vegetables to sell, they’re gonna grab the oldest stuff first. We’ve got a better chance of them not catching us if we’re here with the newer shit. Probably not the next row over, though,” he added, craning his neck but unable to see much of the referenced lane; “the freshest row is where they’ll put anything they’ve just picked.”

The others stared at him, and Sano hoped they wouldn’t ask why he’d gone into such unnecessary detail about the relative freshness of the surrounding produce. Why he seemed to be showing off as best he could and that best was still limited to the most tedious knowledge of a displaced orchard hand. Finally Hajime remarked with sarcasm disguised as interest, “I didn’t realize carrots were your area of expertise.”

“Just common sense,” Sano muttered, pulling his heavy wet shiiya over his head and preparing to wring it out. At least fleeing through the rain could more or less pass for bathing, something he hadn’t done in far too many days. Katsu had brought fresh water to the thieves’ guild for Sano to wipe off with on a couple of occasions, but the limited amount he could carry up and down the ladder through that narrow opening was a far cry from being covered and soaked the way rain allowed for.

Tokio had a couple of spare garments tucked away in her backpack, and as she drew them out as towels for herself and Eiji, it reminded Sano of what he carried himself. Not blankets, unfortunately — back in Elotica, he’d been using the ones he’d stolen from Seijuurou’s house what felt like forever ago to make the thieves’ guild a slightly more comfortable place to sleep. They would have been useful here, but he’d returned to Enca to bring Hajime into the capital with him, not to make camp again (or so he’d believed), and therefore hadn’t brought them.

He did, however, retain his five stolen devoted shiiyao, which represented a significant amount of dry cloth. Or at least mostly dry; it appeared that, after being forced by the harassing Tokio to stuff all his costumes haphazardly back into the bag, he hadn’t closed the latter as thoroughly as he normally would have. Rainwater had leaked in and dampened the shiiya on top (ironically, the one bearing the image of a volcano), but the rest seemed to be dry enough. He ascertained this as he extracted them and tossed them to the floor in a heap with a rough motion, saying as he did so, “Here,” in an ungracious grunt.

Jealously interested though he was in hearing everything Hajime and Tokio said to each other — it was mostly logistical at this point, having to do with ridding themselves of excess rainwater and what supplies they had and why Sano was carrying five red devoted shiiyao around with him — he was equally disinterested in taking any part in the discussion, so as he worked on getting himself dried off (he’d grabbed the Yumi garment completely at random) he scooted a pace or two away from them so he could put his back to the cold stone wall at the far end of the row. And once he’d wrung out his hair, wiped himself down with red cloth that swiftly became thoroughly damp from seam to seam, and risen briefly to hang his blue and orange thing from the corner of one of the nearby shelves — it would smell like carrots after not too long — he sat back and, rather than observing a scene he didn’t want to contemplate, stared upward toward the highest hanging vegetables and the ceiling dim in little more than the light from Hajime’s keonblade.

The garden stretched out expansively, opulently, threaded through with silver waterways gleaming in the warm, pervasive light, yet somehow lay entirely indoors. As such there was an oppressive, claustrophobic feel even to its great size, and the sunlight seemed trapped as if it had nowhere to go and wasn’t even sure how it had gotten in here in the first place.

Lilies floated on the rippling water, and the land between the little walking paths was a rainbow of other flowers: oleander, jasmine, dahlia, crocus, bougainvillea, cornflower… The chaos of hue boggled the eye, every bit as oppressive as the sense of invisible walls around him, and their earthy, edible fragrance was thick and overwhelming.

Hajime didn’t seem to think so; his movements were nothing but casual and leisurely as, hand-in-hand with Tokio, he ambled down the paved lane among the beds and bushes of passionate color. Even as Sano watched, unable to lift a foot to follow them, Hajime turned toward her with an open smile and leaned in slightly, making some comment Sano could not catch that ended on a carefree laugh. The two of them were clad in blue from head to toe.

“You don’t know him very well, do you?” Though the voice was Tokio’s, the words rang from some unknown source outside of her, reverberating off walls and ceiling throughout the great room and echoing continually back in Sano’s direction in cool, largely indifferent mockery. “You don’t know him very well, do you? You don’t know him very well… You don’t know him…”

Hajime and Tokio drew farther and farther away, for Sano still couldn’t move after. But they hadn’t grown so distant and small that he couldn’t easily see what was going on when Eiji, in the same true-blue attire, came running eagerly up to show off the astonishingly huge oleander blossom he’d plucked somewhere in the vicinity. He lifted the bright pink flower like an offering toward his mother, who accepted it and brought it to her face to inhale. As she drew back from it, Hajime’s strong hand reached out and took it, then threaded it through the unbound hair behind her ear.

It looked absurd sitting there, half as big as her head, a brilliant discordant note with her blue garments, but Tokio merely laughed as she turned fully to face Hajime, and leaned up to press her parted lips against his. There was something immediately horrific about this movement, something every bit as oppressive as the enclosed garden and its eye-assaulting colors.

Sano jerked awake as if from a nightmare, and experienced a startling moment of déjà vu: leaning not very comfortably against a hard surface, damp with rainwater, dreaming about Hajime, feeling a fundamental sense of wrongness… But he was fairly sure the original sense of wrongness had been his mind’s attempt to reject the weird connection he and Hajime had somehow developed — people weren’t supposed to share dreams the way they did — not from what he specifically, pettily considered inappropriate in this situation. And besides, this hadn’t felt like that shared type of dream; it had been full of the sensory detail that marked the visions he had when Hajime wasn’t asleep nearby rather than the conceptual detail his connection with Hajime brought.

In fact there had been rather too much sensory detail: the cloying scents of the flowers — which, Sano realized now, had been an enhanced loan from reality, merely the smell of the vegetables around him augmented almost beyond endurance — the leadenness of his feet, and, most of all, the visual specifics of Tokio’s face as she gazed up at Hajime with love and belonging. This last represented an almost aggressive wealth of detail, as if in his dream she looked even realer than in reality. Every line of her face was carved into his brain now as if with hammer and chisel; he would never forget that expression she’d worn, though it was purely a jealous invention of his subconscious.

He jumped to his feet and made his way up the row, pushing rudely past the others in the limited space with no regard to what they might think of this behavior. He couldn’t stay near them — near her — for one instant longer.

Free of the restrictive lanes full of vegetables though never free of their atmosphere, Sano looked around the small open space in front of the exit. He was a little surprised, he considered vaguely, that none of the others had pointed out the flaw in his ‘We’ve got a better chance of them not catching us’ lecture: if anyone did enter the shed, they would notice immediately that the lock on the door had been broken and the door itself held closed by sacks of potatoes piled at the top of the stairs.

More such sacks were heaped up to the left of the entrance, and beside them hulked a great lumpy pile of empty bags waiting to be filled and carted off somewhere. On the other side of the door stood a series of troughs surrounding a large tub where vegetables could be washed before being bagged up. This really wasn’t an ideal hiding place, but they’d lacked a variety of options.

Given the building’s style of construction, there were no proper windows, but narrow horizontal slits at roof level let in a little light and sound from outside. Sano moved to the tub and hauled himself up onto its lip closest to the wall so he could peer out at the rainy farm and have something else to contemplate than what he’d just seen in his doze and what lay behind him. This could double as keeping watch, despite very few people being out and about in the continual downpour.

His mind busied itself very little, though — its inactivity reminded him of his breathlessness and difficult moving after that devoted had slammed him into a wall, leaving him with a pervasive ache — and he was more conscious of the faintly rainbow sheen on the back of a black beetle crawling along the stone nearby that he was of any coherent thought. He only knew what he felt: empty, betrayed, hopeless, tired.

How long he stood there he couldn’t be sure. How long he’d napped before he couldn’t be sure. He didn’t know what time of day it might be or what he — or they, if he could allow for that plural at the moment — should do next. In any case, the rain outside was beginning to let up and his confidante the beetle had long since moved on when he heard footsteps on the dirt floor behind him. He stiffened slightly, unwilling to countenance what whoever it was would have to say. He should have just left. He should have gone outside.

“Hey.” Had the others realized the kid was the least likely to send Sano into a tantrum? Not that Sano wanted to see or talk to him even so. “We’re going to discuss what to do, and probably eat some stolen vegetables.”

Though slightly tempted to laugh at the latter half of the statement, all Sano could come up with in response was a somewhat bitter, “That’s great.” He didn’t move.

“You’re not coming?” Eiji sounded skeptical rather than demanding.

Sano, meanwhile, sounded downright surly. “Maybe. Leave me the fuck alone.” And he kicked out blindly with one foot in the direction of the voice behind him. He regretted the motion immediately, but couldn’t retract it, and he hadn’t connected with anything anyway. Behind him, steps retreated back to the rows of produce and then fell silent.

Presently a much quieter walk — so soft he might have been imagining it — made its way over to him before the newcomer seemed to stand contemplatively still nearby for several seconds. Next, very unexpectedly, something completely unidentifiable for the moment but that made a loud and startling snapping sound in the heavy air stung him so hard and fiercely on his left buttock that he gave an inadvertent yelp and a body-wide jerk that plunged him from where he stood straight into the tub that had previously supported him. He splashed into a thin layer of dirty water at the bottom and knocked various parts of himself against its sides, but the vicious stinging sensation in his ass was his greatest concern at the moment. And it was through sharp tears that he saw Hajime, armed with a wet garment twisted tightly into a lethal weapon ready for a second strike, leaning down to look at him in his new pathetic position.

“What the fuck was that for?” Sano demanded, twisting around to rub at the smarting spot where he’d been hit before he could even consider doing anything else.

“For bullying my nephew,” Hajime replied.

“Why don’t you just go–” The massaging motion of Sano’s fingers against the new wound on his ass stilled abruptly, and he shifted violently around through the muddy water into a clumsy seated position. “Your nephew??” Shock almost completely overrode the pain Hajime had just occasioned, and Sano stared up at him in baffled astonishment.

Hajime lowered the twisted shiiya in his hands and raised a brow at Sano. “Even an idiot should be able to see the family resemblance.”

“I saw it; I just thought…” In his sudden daze, Sano continued to sit still in the muddy inch of water at the bottom of the basin. “Then that woman is…”

And a scene came back to him all at once: an occurrence from a dream Hajime had never explained and Sano had never had the nerve to ask about, in which a beloved woman, pregnant with the child of a con artist, had demonstrated both her unhappiness and her strength of character, and Hajime had been unable to offer the comfort he’d so desperately wanted to provide. Why hadn’t that dream identified her as his sister? Because she represented the suffering of the community as a whole? Because Hajime had been upset on behalf of more victims than only her, unwilling to claim that his personal connection to one of them was more important than the larger scale infamy of the anonymous churchman? Sano supposed it didn’t matter now.

She’s the one who…” But after breathing these words, he trailed off into silence.

Hajime’s expression, its details obscured by shadow in the imperfectly lit shed, was nevertheless recognizable as dour as he came to lean against the side of the tub, facing away from Sano. “Tokio had an unpleasant experience with a devoted when she was younger,” he said quietly. “She vowed to put an end to that kind of corruption in the church. She came with me to Elotica when I joined the royal knights, and when the king heard her story, he created the position of Visitant specifically for her. She travels the kingdom and inspects the shrines and the devoted; she has administrative authority equal to that of a fourth-wash.”

That explained the reverence in which the Enca shrine people had seemed to hold her. Sano still hadn’t quite wrapped his head around the fact that she was Hajime’s sister, but, trying to shake off his stupefaction, he took a deep breath and asked, “And the kid… does he know his dad was–“

“I don’t know, and it’s not my place to ask. You’d better not mention it either.” There was definitely some threat to the admonishment.

“Right.” After giving this affirmation that was essentially a promise, Sano sat silent for several moments, turning things over and not sure exactly how he felt anymore — a condition just the opposite of not long earlier: busy with thought but befuddled as to emotion. Finally the unpleasantness of his particular surroundings started to actively bother him, and he hauled himself up and out of the tub. He came to rest leaning against it next to Hajime, who did not move and was therefore evidently amenable to further conversation. So Sano asked what he’d wanted to know all day, though some of its specifics were now slightly altered: “You… you talked about your parents before… why didn’t you mention Tokio then?” It was the first time he’d said her name aloud. Not a bad name, really.

Hajime’s answer sounded just a little stiff. “With what you and I both are, does it surprise you I didn’t want to mention that my sister is a high-ranking religious official?”

“I guess not,” Sano admitted. “But you knew my dad was a devoted…”

“And I also saw how you treated Yahiko.”

This serious statement stung perhaps as much as the wet cloth snap had a minute before. “You were worried I’d talk shit about your sister?”

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be forced to kill you.” And though the knight’s tone as he said this was light, facetious, Sano’s heart sank as he realized exactly how reasonable Hajime’s reluctance had been.

“You could have just let her kill me,” he mumbled. “That’s how we met, you know: her threatening to kill me. She could have done it, too.”

Hajime smiled.

After another moment of silence, Sano sighed and then muttered, “I really am an asshole…” Then louder, though still in the low tone they’d both adopted to keep this exchange private, “Is that why you’ve been treating me weird today? You were afraid I was going to say something rude to her face?”

Now Hajime looked over at him, appearing a bit surprised. “You’ve been looking at me like you wanted to start a fight. There wasn’t time for that.”

“Right,” Sano said again, and yet another silence fell.

From the anarchy his emotions had become in the last few minutes, some sense was beginning to emerge; he was starting to realize more clearly and precisely what his own feelings were… and he wasn’t sure what to do about them. It had been with abandon, with indifference toward its implications, that he’d admitted his jealousy of Tokio to himself earlier today. What did it matter, he’d subconsciously thought, if he envied the wife of someone that hadn’t seen fit to tell him he was married? It meant nothing; it required nothing of him.

But now, to admit he’d been jealous over his erroneous assumption about a woman’s relationship with someone that turned out to be uncommitted after all… That meant everything, and required everything of him. Was he ready for the confession, even internally, demanded of him by the new information Hajime had presented? Here was a complex emotional state he didn’t know how to deal with — a state he hadn’t been compelled to deal with before but now had to shoulder the entire driving weight of.

Beside him, though he hadn’t moved any closer, the knight suddenly seemed palpably, obtrusively near.

But Hajime hadn’t given any signs… He’d only come over here to swat Sano on the ass as retaliation for his attempted kick against Eiji, and had only disclosed his life-altering information because Sano had asked a stupid question. And he’d thought Sano had wanted to fight him all day. Clearly emotions were divided unequally between them.

Besides, weren’t they in the middle of something big? Getting back into Elotica and figuring out how to overthrow Soujirou must be their top priority right now. They probably didn’t have time for confessions, if Sano could even work up the nerve to make one.

At last Hajime stood straight and turned fully to face the younger man. “Are you ready to act like an adult yet?”

Confession or no confession, Sano was suddenly happier than he had been for quite some time. The facts Hajime had revealed had relieved him almost to the point of dizziness, and the ensuing recognition of his own state had left him almost giddy. He would go over there and look at Tokio and Eiji in a completely new light — a free, unoppressed, unjealous light. He liked that thought.

“Ready to eat stolen vegetables?” he wondered with a grin.

And to his delight, Hajime gave him a smirk in return. “That and give me your report. We need to make plans.”

Sano too stood straight, pushing away from the tub against which he’d been leaning in an almost bouncing motion. He turned toward the dark rows of vegetables that filled most of the building and inhaled once again the earthy scent of the harvest. “Let’s do this!”

Chapter 31 – Final Report

“So that’s where we were at the last time I went into Elotica.” Sano punctuated the end of his summary, into which Hajime had made occasional, amusingly insulting interjections, with an almost explosively loud bite on the vegetable he held. Carrots had never before in his life tasted this good.

“And you’re sure you can trust this artist friend of yours?”

Sano wished Tokio hadn’t said this. He’d been watching her reactions to his tale and thinking how reasonable they were, how wrong he’d been to begrudge her involvement in this affair… Now for her first comment on his report to be this same old frustrating question made him almost resent her all over again. He had forgiven Hajime for making the same point in an earlier instance, however, so there was no reason to get upset and defensive now. Besides, further information would surely clear this matter up definitively, both for Tokio and her brother. “Well, when I went back into town this last time…”

Here was a lengthier explanation than before, since Hajime hadn’t heard about Sano’s activities during his latest foray into the capital, and Sano remained inclined toward some extravagance in the telling. Hajime received the news that his face was tacked up on wanted posters all around town with a dour expression, and rolled his eyes when Sano informed him Katsu had used the same image as for the tournament some months before. The description of not-a-sword-thief Chou and the revelation that he was the source of Sano’s ridiculous outfit won some laughs and a teasing comment or two that didn’t sting. He couldn’t remember when he’d last heard Hajime laugh, but hadn’t forgotten what a pleasant sound it was.

But Hajime became somber again upon hearing about the upcoming festival and the poster’s suggestive wording regarding the apparently religious nature of the opening ceremonies. He didn’t mention that he’d known this would happen, but Sano assumed he must be thinking it. The general unease filling the entire party during their brief discussion of this looming event indicated clearly their agreement with Sano’s initial thought when he’d first seen Katsu’s work order: those opening ceremonies couldn’t be allowed to occur. In an attempt at reassurance, Sano hastened on to describe the five meetings he and Katsu had taken part in — this was the information he was sure would allay any suspicions regarding his friend — as well as the scheduled larger gathering where, assuming they could get back into Elotica in time and uncaptured, they would solidify their plans for disrupting the festival.

“Sano’s been talking you up,” Tokio told her brother with a smirk. And Sano couldn’t help feeling a new, different type of uneasiness at this. He believed he’d spoken naturally all along, hadn’t looked at Hajime any differently or any more frequently than he normally would have, hadn’t given himself away… but she’d been watching him with some apparent interest, and to what extent this interest was limited to his report on the political situation and plans for dealing with it he couldn’t be entirely sure.

“So I noticed,” was all Hajime said in response. He turned toward Sano, who had a sudden, giddy mental image of the knight asking him something to the effect of, “Are you sure you only just realized? It seems like you’ve known for quite some time.” For indeed, numerous bygone instances in which he’d responded to what he saw now had been a long-present subconscious awareness had intruded on his notice throughout his description of recent days. But of course Hajime said no such thing. Instead he commented, “We’d better hope what you promised doesn’t disappoint; it already sounds as if we can’t count on a lot of people being there.”

“We can’t,” Sano said regretfully. It felt even worse than usual to admit this imperfect result to his efforts.

“We’ll make do with whatever we have.” Intentional or otherwise, there was a note of consolation in the grimness of Hajime’s tone, as if declaring that, though the situation wasn’t optimal, he attached no blame to his companion for it. Sano, at least, chose to interpret it that way. “What I still want to know,” the knight continued, “is who’s behind all this. Even if we stop this ceremony of Soujirou’s, even if we depose him and put Kenshin back on the throne, the real troublemaker may escape us if we have no idea who they are.”

“And you don’t think it’s Aoshi.” Tokio could obviously tell he didn’t; her statement had no questioning intonation to it.

Hajime shook his head, and with the direction his thoughtful gaze then turned it almost seemed his following remarks were aimed at the small red potato in his hand. “Aoshi is unmistakably loyal to Soujirou, but I believe he has reasons for that other than the political or even the religious. He mentioned him several times in my presence, and his attitude never struck me as that of the power behind the throne.” And he bit pensively into his potato.

Tokio gave an equally pensive nod. Neither she nor Sano could contribute much on this point, as they’d barely even seen Aoshi themselves, but both willingly accepted Hajime’s assessment, at least for the moment. What Sano could offer was, “Well, I know some of what the Devoted Council has been up to… There may be more answers there.”

Though not overly fond of raw potatoes himself, Sano found he very much enjoyed watching Hajime eat one, and even more the expectant expression he pointed in Sano’s direction while doing so. Hajime’s cheekbones were riveting; they always had been, but Sano hadn’t allowed himself to truly absorb the fact before. He had been long aware of the piercing, almost glowing quality of the man’s bright eyes set off so well by their dark, smooth lashes; and he’d watched Hajime eat before, had already noted the even whiteness of his teeth and the finely cut lines of his thin, dexterous lips. And those remarkably expressive eyebrows… Sano didn’t need the reminder they gave now, one tilting and the other rising, to know they could convey a world of thought with only the minutest gesture.

Tokio cleared her throat, and Sano realized abruptly he’d been giving Hajime the lengthy and concerted stare he’d been attempting to avoid this entire time — just because the knight was eating a potato, for Kaoru’s sake. With a burning face whose sudden redness he hoped wouldn’t show in the limited light, he tried to look at something else — anything else — and went on with his report. “They, uh… They’ve been talking about changing the criminal trial system…”

“Changing it how?” Though Hajime had obviously been wondering before what was taking Sano so long getting started, he had nothing to say now about that awkward moment.

“Katsu said something about ‘completely rethinking’ it, but he didn’t have any details.”

“Yumi knows it needs rethinking…” Hajime twisted his shoulder aside to dodge the blow Tokio aimed at him in retribution for his language.

“So Soujirou might actually accomplish something good here,” Sano said. He didn’t fear he might get caught up in staring at Hajime’s face again as he turned back toward him, for he was truly interested in the answer to his implied question.

Indisposition toward a reply he felt logic-bound to make sounded in Hajime’s voice. “It seems difficult to imagine a ruler — even a usurper — not managing something good during the time they’re in charge. That doesn’t make what he’s done acceptable.”

“Yeah…” Sano frowned. “He’s been in and out of the palace for years, from what I’ve heard… He may be only eighth in line for the throne, but he’s still a prince of Gontamei… He could’ve suggested changing the criminal trial system, or any of this other shit, any time before, couldn’t he? He didn’t have to put himself in charge to try to change shit.”

“Which certainly supports your theory that someone is directing his actions,” said Tokio. “Probably someone who couldn’t have suggested any of this any time — someone who assumed they would never have any direct political authority, and thought this was the only way to accomplish what they wanted.”

Hajime swallowed the last of his potato and said, “Exactly. And I would add to that: someone who knew they could never marry their way into that political authority, but who was still in a position of limited social influence over a prince of Gontamei.”

“A higher-wash in one of the divine houses, in other words.” Tokio had retrieved a potato of her own from the pile they’d gathered, but instead of eating it was pressing it between her two hands as if doing so facilitated reflection. “But which?”

“That’s what we need to figure out.” Hajime looked expectantly at Sano again. “What else has the Devoted Council discussed?”

Considering more specifically the implications of his news, Sano spoke more thoughtfully as he replied, “Legalizing kereme.”

“That will make a lot of devoted very happy,” was Tokio’s sardonic comment. Though she personally seemed far above such sordid lifestyle choices as kereme outings, she was certainly in a position, better than the rest of them, to be familiar with devoted habits.

“And one in particular?” Once more Hajime glanced at Sano, seeking answers. “Enishi?”

And once more Sano had to admit to imperfect results. “I never did find out for sure whether he uses the stuff. There’s all sorts of rumors, of course, but the night I was really working on that was when–”

“Of course,” Hajime cut him off. Tone and expression were both serious, but not with the grimness of earlier; rather, it was as if he sought to assure Sano with his interruption that they didn’t have to talk about the murder of Korucun in front of those unfamiliar with the trauma Sano had taken from that occurrence. He found himself as grateful for this as he had been for Hajime’s somewhat unexpected compassion in discussing that horrible night in the first place. “I doubt we would ever have gotten anything more than rumors anyway. But assuming they are true, it seems possible that whoever’s behind the usurpation is pushing for the legalization of kereme in order to conciliate Enishi, to keep him happy with the new regime, or even actively get him on their side. They’ve bought the house of Tomoe this way, or they’re in the process of doing so.” When Tokio and Sano both nodded their agreement with this very reasonable assessment, Hajime asked Sano, “What else?”

“Something about opening the country up to essentialists.”

“Interesting,” said Tokio. “I wonder why.”

“If I’m on the right track with all of this,” Hajime mused, “allowing them into the country would benefit at least one of the divine houses.”

“Most of the whites are warriors, aren’t they?” Sano thought back to what he knew about each of them, and nodded a response to his own query. “Magical elemental powers or whatever would be useful to any of them, even if it’s not anywhere near as strong as the crazy stories say.”

Tokio suggested, “Or it might be a gesture of openness toward other religions. Dyongushou, whether they’re essentialists or not, don’t believe in the divine ladies — they follow a completely different set of beliefs — which is why the border’s been closed for so long. Maybe whoever’s behind this wants to change that.”

Now Sano shook his head. “I don’t think so. They’re talking about outlawing heresy, however they think they’re going to manage that. That doesn’t sound like they’ve got religious freedom in mind.”

“Someone involved in this must secretly be an essentialist,” Hajime declared, “and this proposed change that would allow them to practice their magic openly is intended to buy their loyalty and that of any group they happen to be a part of.” He met Sano’s eyes again. Why did Sano find that so thrilling? Simply because Hajime was turning to him for answers? Or because the knight had spent the first half of the day unwilling to look at him for more than a second? “Have you heard any rumors in Elotica that might indicate who this secret essentialist is?”

Again, and again regretful, Sano shook his head. “Not a single word about that. Actually when Katsu mentioned the letting-essentialists-in thing, it came completely out of nowhere for me.”

“And outlawing heresy?” Tokio wondered. “Whom does that benefit?” She’d taken one bite of her potato, and now, having raised it halfway to her face for a second, pursed her lips in disapproval — evidently she’d decided she felt the same about raw potatoes as Sano did — and let her hand fall again.

As for Sano, it was with some embarrassment that he answered her question. “I, uh, think that’s actually aimed at me. Makes me more of an enemy of the regime, you know?”

Hajime had relieved Tokio of the potato she obviously didn’t intend to finish, and now as he lifted it to his mouth he murmured sardonically into it, “It’s a shame they aren’t familiar with my religious inclinations. It could be aimed at both of us, and doubly effective.”

“Then our wanted posters could match even better,” Sano agreed with a grin, feeling a glorious sense of solidarity with this man he so admired.

“It’s probably for the best that you keep quiet about your nonbelief.” Tokio sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s much less embarrassing for Kenshin that way with you as his chief knight.”

“And for you with me as your brother.” And Hajime bit once again into the potato.

“Speaking of brothers and sisters…” Actually this was a pretty terrible way to bring up the next point, but Sano had blurted it out before he had a chance to think. “Those two Megumi golds Mutou and Sayo showed up again eventually, and we were right: they weren’t involved in any kind of resistance or anything like that; they were…” When it came to saying it out loud, especially after that blundering lead-in, he found he didn’t quite know how. Eventually, given that both Tokio and Hajime regarded him with some curiosity — Eiji probably did too, making things a hundred times more awkward, but at least he’d remained silent throughout this discussion — Sano settled on, “They were involved with… each other. I guess the woman’s pregnant, and everybody thinks they know who the father is.”

“And?” Clearly Hajime wondered why Sano had considered this uncomfortable information worth relating.

And at least Sano did have a reason. “Well, it’s another Devoted Council thing: they’re talking about legalizing that. The brother-sister thing, I mean.”

Hajime nodded slowly. Tokio said, “And there’s the loyalty of that house.”

“Right,” said Sano, relieved to return to the larger political discussion and avoid distasteful details.

“So we have Aoshi, who I don’t believe is behind this, keeping the house of Misao loyal with his personal loyalty to Soujirou; we have the legalization of kereme for Enishi, which buys the loyalty of Tomoe; and the legalization of brother-sister relations so Mutou and Sayo can continue what they’re doing, which buys the loyalty of Megumi.” There was distaste in Hajime’s tone, though about which topic wasn’t evident. Sano would definitely never tell him either that he’d been out on kereme himself or that he’d dreamed about Hajime kissing his own sister. The knight continued his summary. “The house of Kaoru will probably never support Soujirou, and no effort has been made to conciliate them, which could conceivably be for show; but if someone from Kaoru were behind this, they could have worked on Kenshin instead of putting a puppet in his place. And of course there’s our unknown essentialist, but we already have four out of five houses accounted for.”

“You think it’s Kamatari, don’t you?” Sano heard a certain measure of wonder in his own voice as he asked this, and had to admit to a kind of awe at pinning down a name at last. “And she hasn’t done anything that benefits Yumi’s house because this whole thing is the benefit.”

“It’s only a theory,” Hajime cautioned, “but it seems believable.”

They all sat in silence for a moment, possibly pondering in the same atmosphere of awe Sano had just noted. He was thinking back to his one real encounter with the beautiful and surprisingly strong white devoted of Yumi, going through what he’d heard her say at that time, recalling everything he knew about her. Finally he shook his head and muttered, “She probably really likes the idea of sleeping with a king, but couldn’t get Kenshin into bed… Making one of her other boyfriends steal the throne was really her only choice.”

Despite the shallowness of this joke, Hajime chuckled. Then he asked, “How sure are you that she is sleeping with Soujirou?”

Sano shrugged. “Obviously I can’t know . But from the rumors, it’s the worst-kept secret in the city.”

“That’s often the case with higher-wash breaking that particular rule,” said Tokio disapprovingly. “Those that should be most careful to set a good example often turn out to be those with the least shame.”

“Well, it’s a stupid rule in the first place,” was Sano’s critical reply.

Tokio obviously would have taken this challenge if Hajime hadn’t interjected, “And you notice there’s been no attempt at changing it. Unless they’ve discussed this and we just haven’t heard about it, there’s been no suggestion to start allowing the higher-wash to sleep with non-devoted… and not even some kind of quiet exception to the rule to allow Kamatari to keep sleeping with Soujirou.”

Interested, Sano postponed the debate on religious policy and sexual freedom. “What does that mean? Is Kamatari trying to throw everyone off the track by not proposing something that would benefit the house of Yumi?”

“I don’t know,” Hajime said slowly. And was it merely Sano’s imagination, or did he seem to have a theory? It was probably one of those half formed ideas you don’t want to commit to without further information, since all the knight did was shake his head and repeat, “I don’t know.”

“Everything seems a lot clearer now, anyway,” said Tokio, “and we can make more solid plans.” She gave a smile both stern and predatory; it made Sano wonder how he could ever have missed that she was related to Hajime. “Now no matter what happens, I know I need to look into the house of Yumi very carefully. I can ensure the scenario you mentioned earlier — of whoever’s behind this escaping even if we managed to get Kenshin reinstated — won’t happen.”

Hajime returned her smile; really, the expressions were almost identical. “I look forward to seeing that.”

“Meanwhile, though,” said Sano, “if we’re actually gonna get Kenshin reinstated, we should think about how to get back into Elotica so we can get to the meeting in time and deal with Soujirou’s festival. That’s our best chance at this point; if we miss that, shit’s gonna get a hell of a lot harder.”

“You’re right.” Hajime examined their surroundings. Though the clouds outside had evidently begun to clear, still the light remained dim as afternoon turned to evening. “It’s not dark enough yet, but soon we should be able to leave here in relative safety.”

Tokio too looked around, her lips pursed very much as they had been in response to the raw potato her brother had then eaten. Her glance, rather than touching on the high windows under the eaves as Hajime’s had done, moved from one to another of the shiiyao they’d hung up to dry before sitting down in just their shirts. “I would feel safer making our way into the capital if we had something else to wear. My device–” she gestured to her chest, devoid though it currently was of the multi-colored teardrop symbol of her office– “is very recognizable, even from a distance. And Sano’s outfit…” Her serious expression pulled upward into a smile seemingly against her will.

“I have a bunch of devoted shiiyao,” Sano pointed out, not eager to discuss the blue and orange ensemble — and be laughed at — yet again.

“That wouldn’t exactly make us less obtrusive,” Tokio said. “And deep hoods for the two of you whose faces are all over Elotica on wanted posters would be nice too.”

“I see what you’re saying.” It was the first time Eiji had spoken for quite a while, and he sounded more pleased than anything else. Doubtless he’d been a bit frustrated at his inability to take part in the previous discussion, and was now happy at the prospect of doing something useful. He stood and moved to where the backpack he shared with his mother gaped open nearby, and began rummaging through it.

Hajime watched with more than a hint of disapproval. “Do you even know where the closest town is that we haven’t just run from?”

“That’s what the map is for.” In this statement and the glance Eiji threw his uncle, Sano could easily see a certain sarcastic family resemblance.

They all crowded around as Eiji found a relatively dry patch on the dirt floor to spread out a heavy roll of paper on, and in order to read it better Hajime caused bright energy to shine from the edge of his stolen keonblade as he’d done earlier. Then, as Eiji’s small finger jabbed down on a dot labeled ‘Ekoren,’ Sano remarked in dismay, “It’d take you at least a couple of hours to get there and buy stuff and come back here.” He wanted to set out for Elotica as soon as possible; he didn’t like this development.

Hajime seemed to be in agreement as he asked his sister, “Is it safe for him to travel that far alone?” Sano didn’t miss the scowl that crossed Eiji’s face as his kinsman thus simultaneously questioned his abilities and talked right over his head.

“There’s certainly a risk involved.” To judge by her somber tone, Tokio was weighing this minutely. “Our pursuers know we were a group of three adults and one child, so if a child shows up at a village in the area to buy three adult shiiyao, it could arouse suspicion. But of all of us, it’s safest for him to go, and if he gets in and out quickly, they may only get suspicious when it’s already too late. In any case, that’s the risk, not his traveling alone. Eiji is an excellent traveler.”

“But is new clothing worth any risk at all?” Hajime persisted.

“We’re going to need it once we get into Elotica anyway.”

Hajime was frowning, and from the glance he threw at his nephew, it seemed Eiji’s safety was his top concern in this situation; if the prospective messenger hadn’t been so young and his sister’s son, he probably would have accepted her point more easily. Yet he offered no suggestion on how to improve the arrangement.

“I’ll be fine,” Eiji assured them, letting the map reroll and beginning to dig through the backpack again. Next he withdrew what Sano assumed was a purse; he obviously had no misgivings whatsoever about the part he was to play. “I’ll go as quick as I can.”

Now Tokio too stood and accompanied her son along the row between the hanging vegetables toward the exit; what words of caution, advice, or encouragement she might give him at the door Sano couldn’t guess. But like Hajime, he didn’t feel entirely right about this scheme, and swiftly turned to his remaining companion once the other two were out of earshot. “Do you want me to go instead?” Reminded of the time he, Hajime, and Yahiko had approached Egato and discussed the purchase of supplies, he added with a touch of facetiousness, “I might still be the ‘less valuable fugitive.'”

Hajime’s frown deepened. “You’re a very valuable fugitive,” he said unexpectedly, causing a shiver to run up and down Sano’s spine. What did he mean by that, exactly? He hadn’t even responded jokingly as Sano had expected him to. But there was no time to consider this, for Hajime immediately went on, “But she’s right: Eiji is the safest of all of us for an errand like this. And,” he added grudgingly, “it is a good idea to change our appearances as much as possible.”

Sano nodded reluctantly, not entirely satisfied but now, at least, distracted by other thoughts.

Presently Tokio returned, sat where she’d been before, and began poking through what remained of their little stack of purloined food. “We have a few hours,” she announced coolly as she examined a tomato in the reinstated light of her brother’s keonblade. Sano thought he recognized her frame of mind: it wasn’t that she had no concerns about their situation or about her son heading out alone through an area their pursuers might still be searching; it was just that she’d done what she believed necessary, without reference to personal feelings — something Sano was beginning to believe absolutely typical of her. She looked over at him suddenly. “So, Sano, why don’t you tell me about yourself? You’re a heretic, like Hajime, but that’s about all I know.”

Although ‘like Hajime’ pleased him, for a moment Sano hesitated, unsure whether he wouldn’t be opening himself to sarcasm from both sister and brother in elaborating as requested; besides that, he would much rather sit in silence and consider what Hajime had meant by ‘a very valuable fugitive.’ But engrossing conversation of one sort or another was probably exactly what they all needed right now — Tokio especially — as they tried not to worry too intensely or irrationally about the child they’d allowed to take on an adult’s errand. So he began talking about himself, doing her the unplanned favor of starting even earlier in his life than he otherwise might have, deliberately phrasing the story so as to invite questioning just in case either of the others wanted to vent their feelings by demanding unimportant details, trying to keep them all occupied while they waited for Eiji to return.

Chapter 32 – Known Powers

Hajime had lain down on his side, head pillowed on one outstretched arm, for a nap he probably seriously needed after a day of having been taken prisoner, tied up and held captive, forced to fight a proficient warrior for his freedom, pursued by unseen enemies, and further worn out by a cross-country escape. Tokio too — she lying flat on her back, seemingly indifferent to the solidity of the dirt floor beneath her — had gone to sleep, while Sano remained alert as a watchman that admittedly could do little more than awaken his companions should some undesirable party enter the shed.

He had volunteered for this task for a few reasons: first, because, despite his soreness after battle, he suspected his day hadn’t been as tiring as that of the other two; second, because, though of course he felt some concern, he wasn’t nearly as worried about Eiji’s safety as they must be, and thought sleep might prove a welcome distraction for the mother and the uncle; third, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to sleep near Hajime just at the moment.

He’d never been able to control his dreams, nor influence the topics his subconscious decided to ruminate about at night, and he couldn’t be certain right now that his new emotional awareness wouldn’t make itself perfectly, undeniably clear the very next time he closed his eyes, if not during the course of every dream he ever had for the rest of his life. And was that the way he wanted to share his feelings with their object?

Even after all this time, he remained in the dark on whether or not Hajime knew they had the same sleeping experiences when they made their beds close to each other. While information only Hajime could reveal had at times come up and confirmed to Sano that these dreams were not merely his, he could remember no instance of the reverse… so Hajime, though he must be conscious of a change to what he saw in his head at night, might not be aware this change had come about because the contents of a new head had been added to the mix.

And if, believing simply that a dream version of Sano was unusually prevalent in his subconscious (though how he would interpret that apparent fixation was already a matter of interesting question), Hajime were to encounter that supposedly unreal Sanosuke in his sleep in this shed with the ‘real’ Sano sleeping a few feet away, and were to hear from him during the course of that dream…

…if Sano were to tell him…

…to confess to him at last…

… if that dream-Sano were to say, “I love you… I think I’ve been in love with you since you collapsed in front of me in Torosa Forest and I dragged your ass off the road and cut your clothing up for bandages… I love you so much I seriously don’t even know what to do with it right now…”

…or if that dream-Sano were to fling himself on Hajime and passionately kiss the visionary version of those dexterous lips; or get down on one knee and propose marriage to him, offering his entire life and begging for Hajime’s in return; or conjure up a false Tokio, still in this dream-world married rather than related to Hajime, and challenge her to combat to the death in an old-fashioned and these days entirely illegal dual for Hajime’s hand…

…how would the knight react to that? If he believed it a product of his subconscious, what would he make of it?

Or if he did know their dreams were shared, and recognized Sano’s sleeping declaration for the waking truth it was, what then? Would that really be the best way to tell him? It seemed almost cowardly, leaving it up to a dream like that. And what Hajime’s reaction would be, whether he knew of their dream-link or not, came back to how he felt about Sano in return — which remained an unknown factor Sano feared to face.

And they were still in the middle of a significant political conflict that Hajime would probably prioritize over anything else. Whatever Sano believed about Hajime’s awareness and frame of mind, this still seemed like the wrong time to confess — and therefore not a good moment to sleep near the knight and risk inadvertently doing so. He would undoubtedly have to sleep near him again eventually, but that time would not be now, and he would worry about it only when it came.

His own mental state was going to be hell until then, though.

The sun had gone down, the moon not yet risen, and starlight through the small, overhung windows had barely any effect on the resultant blackness. So, although Sano sat unmoving in the vegetable-scented darkness staring at where he knew Hajime lay, he could see almost nothing and had no source of visual distraction in his long vigil. Nor, in this lightless environment, could he have tracked the passage of time even had he possessed the means to do so, unless he wanted to disturb his companions’ sleep with light from his keonblade.

He’d never owned an hourglass back in Eloma, always having been content to show up for his orchard shifts as soon as he was awake and ready; and his employers had never minded as long as it wasn’t too much later than usual. In fact the whole town, though hard-working, had been pretty easy-going about exact times; he didn’t think there’d been more than two hourglasses in the entire village. And in Elotica, the great bells that sang out from the palace at regular intervals during the day made it easy for people to be punctual without ever needing to consult hourglasses at their home or anywhere.

He’d heard of special mechanical devices for telling time that rich people bought from Gönsting traders and worked by means of keys somehow, but he’d never seen one and probably never would. There was certainly no such device in this country farm shed… and he wouldn’t have been able to see it anyway if there had been. And his thoughts were getting silly; he seemed to be in some danger of dozing off after all. He rose and, glad events had put him this time on the outer end of the row so he didn’t have to pick his way over his sleeping comrades, started to pace the fragrant space beyond with the slowness of blind-walking care.

They’d all three assumed their shiiyao again, and packed away any loose articles they had about them, just in case a hasty exit from the shed became necessary. What they’d hung up to dry hadn’t, really, so now Sano felt chilly and uncomfortable as he made circles in the dark in his wet outer garment. At least he couldn’t see its stupid colors under these circumstances… and hopefully when Eiji returned — if Eiji returned safely and had completed his errand — Sano would be able to change out of the thing for good.

Hourglass or no hourglass, it felt as if eons had passed by the time he heard sounds of motion outside. He tensed and felt his heart rate increase as if in response to a much more exciting stimulus, and, drawing his keonblade, gave himself a little light with its energy, moved quickly toward the door, and hissed over his shoulder, “Somebody’s here.”

Before he reached the entrance, he could hear Hajime and Tokio (who must be light sleepers, at the very least under these circumstances) coming toward him, and then the knock they’d agreed upon with Eiji at the door. Sano let out a relieved breath and increase the light from his sword, while Tokio hastened forward to shift aside the sacks in order to allow her son to enter.

Sano’s relief turned to consternation, however, and his relaxation reverted into stiffness the next moment when Eiji was followed into the shed by two complete strangers.

He lengthened his energy blade out and fell into a combative stance, while Tokio took a step back and eyed the newcomers warily. Hajime, however, pushed past all of them to greet the men with almost more enthusiasm than Sano had ever seen him show for anything. He couldn’t even wait until they’d descended the stairs to the sunken dirt floor before grasping them each by the arm in turn. And as he did so he was asking, “Where have you been? Are you both uninjured? How did you escape Soujirou? How did you meet up with Eiji?”

One of the men gave a laugh that managed to sound almost bubbly in its cheer and yet simultaneously sardonic. “One question at a time, maybe?” And, freed from Hajime’s arm-clasp, he reached out to give Hajime’s shoulder a little squeeze and shake of his own, clearly glad to see him.

“And I can’t believe the first thing you said to us wasn’t a great big ‘thank you’ for getting those fake-o’s off your tail back in Enca!” The other man made this jovial accusation as he closed the door behind him and examined the potato-filled doorstops for a moment to determine how they had previously been arranged.

Tokio, now with an arm around the shoulders of her son that hadn’t said anything yet, was nodding thoughtfully as if in confirmation of her own recognition of the two strangers. Hajime, obviously their friend — and that fact alone gave Sano some idea who they must be — answered the statement of the second with, “I thought I recognized your stupid shouting back there.”

“It’s a battle cry,” the second man corrected him, in a tone suggesting he’d made this protest on multiple occasions in the past. And that he had this inside joke with Hajime indicated his identity all the more clearly. “It’s a tradition of my people.”

Sano rejoiced to see Hajime so obviously happy at this reunion, and was interested in how Hajime displayed that happiness, but he more than a little expected…

“Your people?” Hajime replied very sarcastically. “I wasn’t aware the rice-farmers outside Emikara had ancient battle traditions.”

…and, yes, there it was: jealousy again. It had been forced to abandon Tokio, so now it latched onto the next people closely connected to Hajime. That would surely become inconvenient after not too long.

“Anyway,” said the first man with a roll of eyes, “we’ve been hiding out in a shack at the edge of Enca ever since we left the palace. When you four came tearing through with a bunch of false knights at your heels, we stepped in to slow them up. Of course then we had to get away from them, but at least none of us knew where you all had gone. We thought you might head for Ekoren, so as soon as we shook the false knights we went there ourselves — and we ran into your nephew here.”

“I’m surprised you recognized him,” Hajime remarked. “You can’t have seen him more than twice, and I think the last time must have been at least three years ago.”

“Yeah, but he’s got your eyes,” said the second man, narrowing his own in scowling demonstration.

The first man chuckled, then cast a calculating glance around the entire party. “And Eiji wasn’t joking about you all needing new clothing.” His gaze fixed on Sano’s orange and blue ensemble, and his sardonic smile widened into one of scorn that Sano could only describe as ‘catty.’ Sano found his own eyes narrowing a trifle.

Eiji tried to hide his smirk at this further teasing of Sano about his stupid outfit by shrugging off his backpack and dropping to his knees beside it. As he began handing up its new contents to his mother for examination, his uncle turned to Sano and made formal introductions. “These are royal knights under my command: Soujirou and Sanosuke.” And Sano’s heart thrilled when Hajime added with a slight smile, “You’ve commented on their names before, I believe.” It made him want to stick his tongue out at the knights and say, “See? We have a history too.”

“Commented what?” the one Hajime had indicated was Sanosuke asked as he stepped forward and reached out. “And who are you?” And as Sano clasped forearms with him, he studied the stocky, muscular frame, the purple-black hair almost as jagged as (though a little more kempt than) his own used to be, and the rugged, easy demeanor, and wondered whether he was imagining the jovial threat in the man’s expression and tone and the grip of his hand.

“This is another idiot Sano,” Hajime informed his subordinates. “He’s been helping me gather information about Soujirou’s regime, and putting together a resistance group we’ll meet with when we get back into the capital.”

And in having his absolute best accomplishments of recent days mentioned like this (and his humble antecedents conveniently neglected, especially now he knew this other Sanosuke hailed from a family of rice-farmers), Sano didn’t even a little bit mind being referred to as ‘another idiot.’ Besides, he couldn’t help but notice that Hajime had introduced the others to him first as if he were the more intimate acquaintance.

Still, he wondered if he was the only one to notice the tension in this Soujirou’s bearing as they too clasped wrists. The man had a round, smooth, femininely beautiful face beneath dark hair almost as luxurious as Seijuurou’s and above a petite body that yet exuded a wiry strength; and his big, deep eyes that should have given him an expression of childlike innocence helped rather to convey more of the sharpness and cutting amusement that seemed to show in the rest of his demeanor.

Was Sano imagining the sudden feeling of rivalry between himself and these two men he’d only just met? Was he letting his desire to share the same type of camaraderie with Hajime affect his impression of them — and how they reacted to him — right from the off? Or was there really some sense of competition already growing among them? He couldn’t be sure.

At this juncture Tokio began handing out new shiiyao, narrating as she did so. “For you–” to Hajime– “something with a nice deep hood — good find, Eiji — and for me, something without an easily recognizable device on the chest. You two–” she gave a nod of acknowledgment and a slight smile in response to the flippant salute the knight Sanosuke gave her, and looked over the patched and dirty outfits the newcomers wore– “are fine the way you are. For you…” And she turned toward Sano.

“Something less like a circus performer?” Soujirou suggested with slicing sweetness.

“Something less like an invitation to be stabbed?” the traitorous Hajime put in.

The other Sanosuke unexpectedly stood up for him with, “I don’t think it’s that bad…”

“No, of course you don’t,” Soujirou said contemptuously.

And the scowling Sano protested, “I didn’t pick the outfit, all right?”

Tokio cleared her throat, unable to repress a smile herself, and held out a brown shiiya in Sano’s direction.

As those that needed to change clothing did so, and both Sano and Eiji subsequently stored away the previous shiiyao in their backpacks (and Sano absolutely did maneuver to get Hajime’s in his rather than let kid take it), the chief knight questioned the other two about their movements since the takeover.

They both looked dark as Soujirou explained, “The others switched sides. We had to fight them just to get away–”

“And because they were treacherous little shits,” Sanosuke put in darkly. Sano believed that, if he didn’t already feel so much at odds with this guy, he might really like him.

Soujirou gave a vicious smile. “That too,” he said. “We left Keisuke dead and Kanryuusai wounded.”

Hajime, expression grim, bowed his head.

“And I lost my fucking spear,” Sanosuke grumbled, apropos of nothing.

“Which he hasn’t stopped mentioning since.” Soujirou’s tone was even more sugary than before, his smile tight.

Hajime said nothing.

After a few moments Soujirou went on. “We wanted to find you, but nobody knew where you’d gone. Elotica was too hot for us, so we went to Enca… but even there there wasn’t much we could do with our recognizable faces.”

“Yeah,” Sanosuke said with an infuriating grin, “good thing you had this nobody here to help you gather information.”

Again Soujirou gave his incongruously cheerful-sounding laugh of derision.

Sano could remain silent no longer. “Ladies, Hajime, are all royal knights this big of assholes?”

Hajime finally raised his face again, now wearing a very bitter smile of his own. “Yes,” he said. Then he pursed his lips, took an almost angry-sounding breath, and looked at the aforementioned assholes. “So you two have no idea what’s been going on in the capital since the usurpation?”

Soujirou shook his head. “Listening to gossip was all we could do, and that got us exactly nowhere.”

“Yeah, Hajime, you know there’s a rumor that you’re secretly a paruseji and grew wings to fly away from Prince Soujirou?” Sanosuke rolled his eyes as he tried to remember more. “Oh, and that you blinded some city guards with mist to get away from them?”

“A mist of blood from the Tomoe devoted you’d just murdered in the street,” Soujirou elaborated helpfully.

Sano went from fondly remembering the dream he and Hajime had shared about flying with swans’ wings paruseji-style to sadly remembering the Tomoe devoted that had been murdered in the street, and didn’t appreciate the transition.

Hajime, finished rolling his own eyes, shifted the subject. “Soujirou has been–”

But here the other Soujirou broke in. “You know what? Call me Souji from now on. It’s getting confusing, and I don’t want to share his name anyway.”

Suspicious and indignant, the knight Sanosuke protested, “Just don’t expect me to change my name just because there’s another Sano around.”

“What,” Sano wanted to know, every bit as indignant, “are you putting me in the same class as Soujirou?

“Something wrong with that?” Soujirou’s words were like shiny daggers.

“I mean the other Soujirou,” Sano explained impatiently.

“Maybe I am,” Sanosuke shot back.

Now it was Tokio’s turn to chuckle from where she’d gone to lean against the tub Sano had fallen into earlier as she waited for this conversation to wrap up. Eiji merely watched them all with the patience of a child that knows pretty well he is in some ways a lot smarter than the adults around him.

“Shut up, all of you,” Hajime said irritably. “Souji, it’s a good idea to get these names organized. You–” he pointed an authoritative finger at Sano– “will remain ‘Sano’ until further notice while you–” and here he gestured at the other one– “will be identified by your family name, Harada, as long as this Sano is around.”

Harada evidently wasn’t very good at staying shut up, for now he demanded hotly, “Why me and not him?”

“Because I don’t know his family name,” was Hajime’s brief reply.

Though unsurprised at this — family names weren’t used much in day-to-day life — Sano was also a bit disappointed that Hajime could rattle off the appellation of one of his knights but had never heard Sano’s. He found himself murmuring, “Higashidani,” a little wistfully under his breath even as Hajime went on to explain what they knew or suspected of the activities and plans of Prince Soujirou, now more easily distinguishable from a member of their party by a couple of syllables, and the white devoted Kamatari, as well as their own intentions.

Concise as Hajime had the power to be, by the time his update was finished, they were all long since ready to depart, and Sano far more comfortable than he’d been all day in his new, dry garment. Of course ‘new’ was a misnomer: to obtain shiiyao with attached hoods this deep, Eiji must have had to look for used, outdated pieces (probably pretending that was all he could afford), and the collection he’d brought back was worn thin in places and fraying. Still, Sano considered himself one up on Souji and Harada in this, since they’d evidently been out in the rain all day too and had nothing to change into from the damp, ragged clothing, more patches than shiiyao, they’d been hiding out in all this time. But everyone, whatever they wore, had grown equally antsy to evacuate this latest hiding place.

With the help of Tokio’s map, Sano’s knowledge of which city entrances had checkpoints, and a couple of keonblades for light, Hajime was planning the best route toward and into the capital from here so they could leave within the next few minutes, when Souji, who’d been frowning pensively at the unrolled paper all this time, came out with a suggestion:

“We’ve spent weeks in the poor end of Enca… I think some of the people in that area might be convinced to come to the meeting at least. A week from now, you said?”

“That’s right.” Hajime turned toward him thoughtfully, though his expression still held that touch of darkness it had worn ever since he’d heard two of his knights had deserted him and one had died. “Not more fans of my magical escapes, I hope.”

“Nah, they’re fans of Souji,” Harada interjected jovially. When Souji glanced sharply at him he said, “What? I’m allowed to call you that now, aren’t I?”

Despite the general impatience to get going, Souji obviously felt he had time for a long, narrow-eyed, assessing look up and down Harada’s figure as if searching for some change he’d long been awaiting. “I suppose so,” he said at last, frostily, and Sano was instantly curious. He wondered if he hadn’t been misjudging the source and nature of the tension he’d felt upon meeting these two men. He wondered why Harada hadn’t been allowed to call Souji by a nickname prior to this. He wondered why Hajime seemed to sigh very faintly at this exchange.

Harada’s grin widened, showing a gap where a premolar should have sat on the upper left. “Souji’s got a silver tongue; I think everyone hanging out at that end of Enca lately’s in love with him.”

Hajime lifted a brow, at which Souji rolled his eyes. “Nobody there is likely to bring much loyalty,” the beautiful knight went on without bothering to respond to or offer any explanation for the ‘silver tongue’ comment. “They’re paupers and criminals, and if they do come, it’ll be in the hopes of getting something out of it — rewards, pardons, more of Kenshin’s attention to poorer parts of town…”

“…a kiss from Souji…” Harada put in sotto voce.

Possibly in irritation of his own, possibly in response to the lethal smile that had sprung up on Souji’s face, Hajime commanded, “No more of that. Souji, promise them we’ll talk to the king on their behalf if he’s restored to power — nothing more. Sound them out very carefully, though; if they’re willing to throw in with us for a reward, they’ll be just as willing to accept a better deal from our enemies. Emphasize the importance of caution and secrecy for anyone planning to attend the meeting. Get in touch with as many people as you think is safe, then meet us in Elotica no later than the 49th four days from now.”

Souji nodded sharply. Harada, on the other hand, made a skeptical grumbling sound. “After we just found Hajime, we’re going back into the ass-crack of Enca to talk to the grungy crazy people again?”

“Who said anything about ‘we?'” Souji’s full lips, of a perfect pale pinkish brown, somehow managed to form the sharpest line Sano had ever seen as they smiled condescendingly over at his fellow.

“Well, of course I’m coming with you,” Harada said, as if this were a given.

“Of course he is,” Hajime reiterated. “You two will need to meet us at the old thieves’ guild headquarters in Elotica, and the rest of us–” he looked around at his sister and nephew– “if we’re separated, need to meet there as well. Sano, describe in detail where it’s located and how to get inside.”

As Sano did so, and followed it up with the exact time and place of the upcoming meeting so Souji could better inform the paupers and criminals that were apparently in love with him, the somewhat dark cheer of both the newcomer knights seemed to be restored. There was certainly a spring in each step as, finally finished reconnoitering, they left the shed at last and moved quietly out onto the nighttime farm. Perhaps having orders and deadlines and facts to work with helped to distract them from… whatever had been happening in there.

The moon popped up above the horizon with a startling suddenness as, confident they hadn’t attracted any attention yet, they quickly climbed the fence to leave the property some of them had inhabited for several tense hours. A dog let out a brief, barking howl from the other side of the buildings behind them, prompting the travelers to greater speed toward the nearest farm lane. Once there, with firm-packed earth beneath their feet again, they took their leave as Souji and Harada were to head west back toward Enca — the way the others had come earlier, in fact — while Hajime and the rest followed this lane for as long as it ran so directly south.

“Misao bless you sneaking into Elotica.” Souji must know how little Hajime would appreciate this low-voiced goodbye, for his sardonic bubbliness sounded again as he said it.

And Hajime seemed to be taking specific revenge as he replied in just as low and sardonic a tone, “And Yumi’s blessing on you two.”

Harada chuckled. “See you in a week,” he said, repeating his lackadaisical salute from earlier in the light of the waning moon, and turned to walk away.

“Four days,” Souji corrected, following. “Pay attention.”

“It’d be easier if I had my spear,” Harada grumbled nonsensically. And then they’d gone too far for their murmured conversation to remain audible.

Still curious about a number of things, Sano watched them disappear into the shadows, then faced Hajime, whom he would rather look at in any case. The chief knight was shaking his head, expression invisible with his back to the moon, but when he saw Sano’s eyes on him he gestured silently down the lane. Sano, in this instance unwilling to bring up the rear or be any farther from Hajime than he had to, took his place directly behind him as they set out on their nighttime walk, heading back to Elotica for perhaps the last time.

Chapter 33 – Before (or After) the Storm

Though Tokio and Hajime had conversed, despite the difficulty in the rain, during their trek away from Enca toward the farm shed they’d eventually inhabited, it seemed the entire party felt satisfied with what discussion they’d had therein; for now, in the quiet night when speech would have been so much easier, they largely remained silent.

The dark countryside was quiet and cool, full of the varied scents of farmland on each territorial breeze, and the sky seemed to stretch, starry and silent, into infinity above them. Perhaps they feared subconsciously to break that silence with their insignificant human noise; Sano knew he at least had a sense of surreality about the scene, as if in a sort of calm before the storm (though in reality after it) he’d been granted something peaceful, joyful, and teasingly similar to what he really wanted.

This time he kept no rigid order in their line as he had before, but simply remained close to Hajime. That the knight gave no indication of wishing him elsewhere played into the surreality, into what Sano really wanted. The few words they exchanged (some of them, yes, insulting on Hajime’s part) pleased him, and everything seemed as close to perfect as it could be in the middle of a struggle to put the rightful king back on the usurped throne.

He marveled a bit at Eiji’s fortitude, and not only his walking so steadfastly after having already walked for hours earlier. Eiji seemed content enough with whatever thoughts he entertained that he had no need to solicit conversation from the adults; he never appeared bored by or resentful of their trip, as Sano believed he would have been at that age under these circumstances. Now the former orchard-hand knew Eiji not to be Hajime’s son, he was rather inclined to admire him. Like his mother, the boy evidently possessed a rock-hard strength and mettle Sano couldn’t help but appreciate.

When Elotica became visible as a swallowing-up of the horizon with only a few lights — guards’ lanterns high on the wall — imitating the stars the city’s bulk had blotted out, Sano shivered with a certain measure of awe. He’d entered the capital alone so often in recent weeks; entering now with Hajime at his side and an intention to finish this filled him with a solemn excitement not untouched by dread.

Hajime gazed up at the stars, taking his bearings as best he could with a frown, and drew to a halt. The others grouped around him, Sano glancing back over his shoulder at the looming city as if it might come closer on its own while unwatched. But no such superstitious impulse moved the others, evidently, and Hajime spoke in a lowered tone. “If I have this right, we’re pointed toward the Knights’ Gate, on the northeastern face, though it depends on what turns this lane takes.”

Sano might have teased Hajime about the existence of a small city entrance called ‘the Knights’ Gate,’ a term he’d never heard during his time in the city and might have thought Hajime had invented; but for the moment he held his peace, admired the voice that matched the darkness around them, and nodded to show he was paying attention.

“It’s best we split up to get into the city, in case our numbers have been reported. Sano, you and Tokio take the Knight’s Gate. Eiji and I will head west past the north point and use the Warriors’ Door.”

This time Sano couldn’t restrain himself. “Man, it musta been tough for you to choose between those.”

Hajime had no difficulty with a comeback. “Unfortunately, there’s no Idiot’s Gate for you.”

Sano only grinned, and wondered, “Should I hold Tokio’s hand? Pretend we’re a couple?”

“What?” Hajime demanded, sounding startled and annoyed. “Absolutely not.” And Sano wondered, perhaps with some misplaced glee, at so forceful an answer. “We may be later than you to the meeting place by some time, since it’s going to be cross-country for at least us. If the time frame seems unreasonable, Sano, you’re more likely to know where to go looking for news or rumors of what’s happened to us… but don’t put yourself at risk. Do you understand?”

Sano studied Hajime’s face in the starlight. “Do you think there’s a danger of that?”

“Not particularly, but we need a plan in case it happens.”

“And what if something happens to us?”

Hajime held his gaze for a moment, then shifted to his sister. “Then I’ll find you.”

Both Sano and Tokio nodded. Then the Visitant moved to say goodbye to her son for the second time in less than a day. Since, despite its practicality, it sounded religious, Sano took a few steps away. He threw a glance at Hajime, and tried not to sound awkward as he bade him, “Be safe.”

Hajime nodded. “We’ll see you inside.”

Finished with her farewells, Tokio seized Sano’s hand from behind and said in a dictatorial tone that sounded spine-shiveringly like Hajime’s, “Come, my romantic partner.”

With a snort, Hajime turned and started immediately toward the edge of the lane. As he and Eiji climbed the fence and rustled through whatever foliage lay beyond, Sano, chuckling, forced himself to drag his eyes away. They would be invisible soon enough anyway. And when Tokio released his hand, he followed her without a look back.

For a while they walked side by side in silence, Sano considering Tokio every bit as much as he was Hajime. Finally, hesitatingly, he ventured, “You act different around him than when he’s not there.”

“I trust him,” she replied shortly. “I don’t trust most people.”

Sano didn’t know what to say in response to that; he felt it would be too awkward to mention he knew why that was.

But then she added in a relenting tone, “Besides, it’s a younger sister’s duty to tease her brother.” And even when she spoke more casually, she still mentioned this facetious duty as if it were a solemn and serious task.

The memory of Uki’s effective habit of annoying him stabbed at Sano, but he pushed it aside. No use thinking about that now. He wondered, rather, whether Tokio might ever trust him; and what, if she were against all odds to become an older sister, his duty toward her would be.

Eventually he asked, deeming it safer than any other topic that particularly engrossed him, “What was he like as a kid?”

She remained silent for a moment, and Sano hoped he wasn’t too high up the list of people she mistrusted to get an answer. At last she said, “Driven. Determined. That was my first impression of him as I became old enough to understand.”

“That…” He’d been seeking something more along the lines of childhood foolishness he could use to tease Hajime later. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“He was always selective,” she went on slowly, elaborating cautiously, “about the tasks he took on. But once he decided to do something, or accepted an order, he never quit. I think, even as a child, he would rather have died than face the disgrace of giving up on something he believed in.”

Sano let out a soft breath of admiration, and at the same time felt the spark of hope. “That musta gotten him into some funny situations, though.”

“Oh, are funny stories all you want? You are shallow.”

Sano cleared his throat, unsure if he could contradict that and knowing she would probably beat him in an argument about it.

“Well, when I was six years old and Hajime nine…..”

The remainder of the walk seemed to pass with unbelievable swiftness.

Sano had learned that the government of Elotica — whether specifically Kenshin or the guard or some other body — had always cracked down hard on anyone trying to live outside the city in the vicinity of its walls, undoubtedly the reason the nearby Enca had such extensive slums. So the only warning he and Tokio had that they approached their destination was the sense that the looming walls had drawn very near, blotting out all visibility in three directions, and the gradually growing shape of an opening delineated by greater light within. The lane, as Hajime had speculated, led directly to the gate, and the travelers hastened their pace.

He hadn’t known the slang for the small northwest gate when he’d used it before to bypass the checkpoints (though for all he knew, ‘Warriors’ Door’ might be the official name, and ‘small northwest gate’ was the slang), but he remained familiar enough with the shape of these lesser entrances to refrain from examining this one and act as he believed was normal while they approached. Some disaster appeared to have befallen this one at some point, and it had been rebuilt in an ugly rectangle unlike the arches the others formed. But the iron doors within stood open, and Sano still managed not to stare.

As they made to step through, Tokio unexpectedly took Sano’s hand again and moved closer to him. The tunnel piercing the thick outer wall, darker than any spot they’d yet crossed, chilled him significantly, but he doubted she’d grabbed his hand seeking warmth. This was confirmed when, emerging into the light of two lamps at either side of the opening, Tokio nodded politely to the guard leaning against the wall beneath one of them. It had originally been a joke, but now pretending to be a couple did seem the wisest way to provide an explanation for what they’d been out doing — and an excuse of sorts for Sano’s hood being drawn so far down across his face: if the guard suspected them of an illicit romantic affair, she wouldn’t think twice about one of them wanting his identity to remain unknown.

Again they quickened their pace, and Tokio didn’t release his hand until they’d turned a corner. There, Sano paused for a moment to get their location in his head, and then they set off across town toward the green corner and the old thieves’ guild. This trip wracked his nerves a bit, though why he should fear identification any more with a hood than he had in the blue and orange shiiya (whose matching striped pants he still wore), he didn’t know. Perhaps worry for Hajime and Eiji put him on edge.

Tokio remarked at one point, as they kept to the narrower, worse-lit streets heading south and tried not to attract the attention of anyone out at this late hour, “I look forward to meeting this Chou you described.”

“Why?” wondered Sano incredulously.

“He sounds like an oddity.”

“Yeah, an annoying oddity.”

“Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing him annoy you, too.”

Sano snorted, and they spoke no more.

She got her wish soon enough. They slipped into the street off of which the Green Apple’s yard opened without, Sano believed, anyone seeing them, and the pure darkness in the yard reassured him further. Everything seemed to be in order — the crank in the eaves of the shed, the opening in the wall, the ladder — and when he’d called a quiet greeting down into the blackness, Chou replied as if he’d been awakened abruptly.

“This is smaller than I expected,” Tokio remarked, looking around in the glow of Sano’s keonblade once they’d closed the entrance behind them.

Sano joined her. “Yeah, I guess it is kinda small for a whole city. I wonder if there’s another one somewhere. Hey, Chou, you seen Katsu?”

The same incoherent grumbling came from the next room.

“He’s not gonna be much use right now,” Sano concluded.

Tokio took a seat at the table. “Then all we can do now is wait.”

“Yeah, like I haven’t had enough of that.” But Sano joined her without further complaint, and considered how to bring up the next topic he wanted to discuss.

“And you say your friend Katsu discovered this place?” She remained leery of Katsu; maybe when she met him in person some of her worry would be assuaged. Sano had little hope of this, though, since Katsu was supposedly his best friend and his own worry about him had yet to be fully assuaged.

“He found it following Chou.”

Tokio nodded, and kept her own counsel on that matter.

Leaning forward slightly, Sano began in a low tone, “So I didn’t want to ask out in the open…” Whether she’d be willing (or able) to answer at all he couldn’t guess, but he believed it worth a try. “Do you know what’s going on with Souji and Harada?”

Her brows, so like Hajime’s, rose in surprise at the question. “Is that any of your business?”

“Uh, no…” Sano scratched his head. “I’m just curious.”

She smirked. “You must come from a small town.”

“City people gossip too!” he protested. “I should know: I’ve spent the last two weeks — uh, four weeks — poking around for it around here!”

She studied him, her mouth still quirked. “I suppose it can’t hurt to tell you,” she said at last. And did this mean she’d begun to trust him? “Based on the letters I’ve received from Hajime,” she went on, but here Sano interrupted:

“Hajime gossips to you in letters?”

She gave a brief laugh. “Fine. You’ve made your point.” And she went on without further comment on that sub-topic. “When Souji first became a royal knight and met Sanosuke — excuse me; Harada — he expressed immediate interest in him. Harada didn’t like him at first, and turned him down. If Souji hadn’t moved so quickly, it might have gone differently.”

“Huh.” Sano wouldn’t have thought that all there was to it — and in fact couldn’t believe it. “But they still act like–”

“It didn’t end there. According to Hajime, Harada has developed a reciprocal interest in Souji over the last two years, but now Souji is holding a grudge. You saw the way Harada acts; Souji can’t believe he’s not mocking him for his original interest. And Harada probably believes it’s a lost cause by now. So they behave like an old married couple with none of the benefits of an actual relationship. I’ve only met them a few times, but they’ve always acted like that in my presence.”

“Oh, shit, that makes so much sense,” Sano chuckled. “Yeah, that’s exactly how they acted.”

With another, faint smirk she added, “It irritates Hajime, but he refuses to mediate.”

“That’s what it’s gonna take, though, isn’t it?”

She shrugged. “That, or someone else intervening. I’m certainly not going to, and I’d advise you to stay out of it as well.”

“Ladies, you people are so loud,” came Chou’s voice from the doorway into the next room. He entered, yawning, eyes fixed on Sano’s glowing blade rather than on either of the living humans in the main chamber, and plopped down onto the bench at the table next to Sano. He wore a bright yellow shiiya with a wide red stripe down the neckline decorated with orange tassels, and his hair, though a mess, stood up as persistently as ever. Tokio’s eyes narrowed with interest as she looked at him.

“Tokio,” Sano said, catching Chou’s yawn and speaking through it, “this is Chou from Etoronai. Chou, this is Tokio, the Visitant.”

Tokio restrained her own yawn and said, “Ladies’ blessings on you.”

“Sure, sure. Lemme see your keonblade, Sano.”

“Have you seen Katsu?” Sano wondered as he handed it over. The light went out immediately and did not reappear; Chou, no keonmaster, would have a hard time examining it in the dark.

“Yeah, he was by earlier. Worried as shit about you.” It sounded as if Chou’s currently ungloved hands slid over the blade he couldn’t see. “Why don’t you keep this sharp?”

Needled by the accusatory tone, Sano replied, “What do you know about keonblades?”

It had been unfortunately worded, for Chou immediately began to tell them.

Sano’s head drooped like his stinging eyelids, and Tokio (perhaps in the same state) hadn’t said a word in he couldn’t remember how long, by the time a nearby sound interrupted the lecture and sent all their attention toward the entry. Sano felt the hilt of his sword pressed reluctantly back into his hand (though it hit his unseen elbow first), but didn’t relight it until he heard the voice his heart yearned for call down, “Are you all sitting in the dark?”

“Yes,” Tokio replied. “Come join us.” Then she, along with Chou, grunted in annoyance as the keonblade flared bright with Sano’s joy that Hajime had made it here safely.

Sano restrained himself from jumping up and running to Hajime as his form became visible descending the ladder followed by Eiji, but he studied him carefully for signs of how his trip had gone. There were none beyond a blade of ryegrass adhering to his pants, and Sano then had to restrain himself from letting out a loud sigh of relief.

With the secret opening closed again, Hajime added the light of his own (stolen) keonblade to Sano’s, and Eiji came to sit beside his mother. The kid appeared wearier now than earlier, and Sano guessed the tramp across rougher country had worn him out far more than long walks on flattish roads generally did. Tokio put her arm around his shoulders, and he leaned against her.

Chou got in before anyone else could speak. “So you’re Hajime, huh? You won that big tournament a while back?”

Hajime looked at him, scrutinized him up and down, and with a raised brow said, “And you must be Chou.”

“Yeah. Lemme see your keonblade.”

The knight turned from him without responding, toward Sano and his sister.

“Chou has been educating us on the history and maintenance of keonblades,” Tokio said, with a solemnity a touch different than her usual seriousness.

“Hn.” Whether this sound expressed amusement or disdain, Sano didn’t know.

Next Hajime moved around the main room and put his head (and light) into the other chambers. “This is smaller than I expected,” he remarked.

Sano laughed quietly.

Returning to the table, Hajime looked down at them all again, though he didn’t take a seat. “We need to make specific plans. Sano, when is your friend likely to appear?”

It was Chou that answered, still eyeing covetously the blade that had come from the first-wash of Misao. “He usually comes in the evening, after work. Sometimes he’s here in the morning before work, but if he doesn’t know fruit-boy’s back, he probably won’t tomorrow.” Maybe he thought that by providing real information, he could convince Hajime to let him examine the short sword.

But Hajime only nodded. “Then there’s no use sitting up and trying to make plans now. Let’s all get some rest.”

Tokio mimicked the nod and stood. Eiji swayed when her support was removed from beside him.

Sano hesitated. There was the matter of ‘fruit-boy’ to deal with, but that could wait. Right now, it appeared, doom had come upon him: the time when he would first sleep near Hajime after having realized the depth and nature of his feelings. He rose slowly, thoughts in a whirl.

That he absolutely would reveal the truth in a shared dream was not guaranteed, but he believed it a pretty sure thing. He couldn’t refrain from sleeping: the day had completely worn him out, as his wounds from the scuffle with that third-wash let him know in no uncertain terms. He couldn’t go somewhere else to sleep. He couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) convince Hajime to do so. What it came down to was tied hands: he couldn’t do anything about this. He could only get it over with and weather the result.

He lifted his head, and found the knight looking at him. Sano knew he blushed, but hoped the imperfect light would hide it. And abruptly a fear he hadn’t considered before hit him right in the gut.

Did Hajime even take any interest in romance? Let alone what he thought of Sano specifically, this point had yet to be resolved. And the irritation he demonstrated regarding his subordinate knights’ proto-relationship, his unwillingness to prod them where he could, suggested not only that he put duty first (which Sano had already known) but that he expected others around him to keep their romantic drama out of his way. Would he gain an unprecedented level of irritation with his companion when he learned how Sano felt?

And then, out of nowhere, Hajime smiled at him. A brief expression, yes, immediately replaced by his usual dark thoughtfulness… but Sano suddenly understood what people meant when they talked about fluttering hearts and knees going weak. Hajime’s smile was… was… there was no word for it.

“If I’m not mistaken, the blankets in there–” Hajime gestured at the gaping hole that was the doorway into the next room– “are the same you took from Seijuurou’s house and never folded once all the way to Enca.”

Stumbling from the bench and struggling to regain his balance, Sano found himself smiling as well as he agreed hoarsely, “Yeah. Yeah, they’re the same ones.”

“We’ll let Eiji use one. I assume you’d like to fight for the other.”

His smile widening into a grin, Sano replied, “Afraid you’ll have to fight Chou for it; he’s been using them both when I’m not here.”

Hajime’s eyes narrowed as he turned toward the doorway. “We’ll see about that.”

How ironic that Hajime himself, at the last minute, should strengthen Sano’s resolve to deal with the knight’s potential disapproval and annoyance! Sano followed him, now determined. What would happen would happen, and he would shy away from it no longer.

Chapter 34 – Converging Forces

Soujirou had always been his friend; Sano knew that. In childhood they had guarded the streets of Emairi together and slept in the same crack in the old oak tree in the park at the center of town. They were like brothers, which was why Sano had loaned him his belt. Such a favorite belt, decorated with shining stripes of red and with a matching sheath for his keonblade, could only be loaned to someone so close to his heart.

Hajime had advised against it, though, and Sano knew Hajime to be irritatingly, endearingly right most of the time. And he was even closer to Sano’s heart, if in a different way. But for now he only stood back and watched, disapproval filling the palace room.

Soujirou looked handsome and fashionable in a long royal shiiya whose bright bands so perfectly complemented those on the belt around his waist, and Sano gazed at him with satisfaction and pride. His dear friend, his beloved prince.

“No,” said Hajime.

Soujirou smiled beautifully and reached down to unclasp the belt. Sano held his hand out to recieve it. But Soujirou’s smile turned sharp and false, reminding Sano of another Soujirou and his biting, venomously sweet expression. And Sano looked into the prince’s eyes and saw that they were empty.

“I’m making new laws,” Soujirou announced. “Five times five times five.” And he slashed his sword at the dangling belt, cutting it into five times five times five pieces. Last of all he pointed the blade at Sano. “I’m making a law against you.”

The sword tore a hole in Sano’s chest, and the pain was beyond enduring. His best friend, his best friend… how could he have done something so cruel? How could he have betrayed Sano like this? Someone he loved… The void ached and throbbed and filled with dark, venomously sweet blood.

Hajime’s hands were immediately on his shoulders. He spun Sano around so quickly that they both stumbled, but ended up looking into each other’s face as the knight thrust his fist deep into Sano’s chest. And he was so much better: his unassuming white shiiya, his expression so real.

I’m your true friend,” Hajime said, dictatorial. “I gave you this.” He held out the yards and yards of smooth brown cloth he’d given Sano. It rippled from his grasp into a pool that smelled of vanilla and in which Sano floated, soft and comfortable and whole. The surge of satisfaction and pride returned, now purified.

The knight sat up, dripping earth-colored material, as the orchard-hand swam through the gift toward him. “You are my true friend,” Sano agreed. “And maybe…” He reached out.

“We have to defeat Soujirou.”

Resolve flowed into him from Hajime’s hand draped in brown. “Yeah, of course we do. He stole my bricks.” The house had no wall now, and the cold air ran all through it. But… “We just… have to beat him.” It wasn’t because of the bricks; they simply had to.

Hajime smiled and faded away into silky nothingness.

Cold, hard stone replaced the warm and pleasant sensations, and the dark space on which Sano opened his eyes smelled of smoke and sewage and unwashed bodies. Flickering light from the next room, brighter than usual, yet did little to illuminate anything in here, but he recognized his solitude in the side chamber. Which meant Hajime hadn’t waited for him in order to hasten the talk Sano both craved and dreaded.

He sat up and stretched his arms out, hearing his elbows creak, then began rolling his shoulders. Lying on such a flat, solid surface had done nothing for his injuries, and his pants (Chou’s stupid pants) still hadn’t fully dried at the crotch from his trek through the rain yesterday. He shivered and yawned, surprised he’d managed to get any sleep in which he could dream. And such a dream!

He had never met Soujirou, let alone been friends with him, but the depths of his mind could manufacture surprisingly intense emotions out of nothing sometimes. An excuse for a feeling of betrayal, perhaps hailing more from Hajime than Sano, directed toward the man that had usurped the throne? He didn’t even know what Soujirou looked like, being unable to remember, from the scene Hajime had shown him back in Seijuurou’s house, his details of appearance; and the knight’s influence on the dream, as always more full of concepts than physical senses, hadn’t provided a clear visual.

What had been clear was Sano’s love for Hajime. The idea and the feeling of it, his yearning for him and his desire to make him more than a ‘true friend’ had been interwoven through all the other aspects of the vision. It had been as good as a declaration. But Hajime had interrupted his attempt at bringing up the subject verbally. Did that mean he truly didn’t or couldn’t care for Sano that way? And what would he say about it today?

Abruptly Sano realized that one of the voices from the other room, one that had just spoken his name, was Katsu’s, and this brought him immediately to his feet. He seemed to be weighed down with forlornness, and certainly felt antsy about facing Hajime, but it seemed the day had started. However, standing upright revealed a crick in his upper back and a desperate need to stretch a bit more, so he worked on that for a few moments while listening hard.

“–had no sleep the night before last.” Hajime’s voice. “He’s earned some laziness.”

“He’s all right, though?” Katsu sounded concerned.

“More or less.” Was that a reference to Sano’s current emotional state as revealed in the dream they’d shared?

“I’m sorry, but I need to see him.”

“There’s no reason to wake him up right now.” Dictatorial as always.

Sano stepped into the light, which turned out to come from a lantern Katsu hadn’t set down yet; he must have only just arrived, and had probably awakened the others with his advent. “It’s fine, Katsu; I’m fine.”

“Sano!” Katsu hastily unburdened himself and moved to clasp forearms with his friend. “I was worried.” Though his shadow now fell directly onto Sano, he did his best to look him over. “You’re covered in bruises.” For a moment it appeared he would demand an explanation, but he fell silent without asking anything.

“We have a lot to discuss,” Hajime declared. “Sano, since you’re awake at last, sit down and introduce us, and we’ll get started.”

“Oh, yeah, like you got up so much earlier than me.” Actually Sano couldn’t be certain of this, since the timing of dreams before waking was difficult to determine. But he met Hajime’s gaze as he said it, and found there merely the usual hard, mocking expression — no indication that anything significant had occurred. He dragged his eyes away, unsure how he felt about that, and moved toward the table. “All right.” He yawned again. “Katsu, this is royal knight Hajime. And this–” pointing at the others already seated– “is Visitant Tokio and her son Eiji.” He ignored Chou sitting opposite the woman. “Guys, this is my friend Katsu.”

Positioning himself across from Hajime might not have been the best idea, but it would look strange if he tried to rearrange now, since Katsu had taken a place at the other end of the bench. “I’m honored to meet you all,” the artist said politely, with an accompanying gesture that his new acquaintances returned.

“Did you bring food?” Chou eyed the box Katsu had apparently already deposited on the table.

“It’s going to be tight for five,” said Katsu ruefully, opening the box. This turned out to be divided into small compartments squashed full of buns and pieces of fruit. “I can’t be seen carrying a lot of food around, so I emptied most of my drawing supplies out of here and filled it as best I could.”

“This is more than you would have brought for only Chou, though.” Hajime sounded a little suspicious, and Sano shifted uncomfortably. Of course Hajime (and probably Tokio as well) would feel the need to test Katsu on his loyalty to the cause, and it would hurt less if they did it than if Sano had to… but it still hurt. Or was that only because Hajime hadn’t said anything to him about that dream?

Katsu shrugged. “I knew you all would show up sooner or later.”

“All of us?” Tokio wondered.

“I heard about you storming Misao’s shrine in Enca.” Producing a rolled piece of paper, Katsu leaned across the table and offered it to her. “If you’d come a day earlier, this wouldn’t look so awful.”

“If we’d come a day earlier, we wouldn’t have ‘stormed’ Misao’s shrine in Enca.” She studied the unfurled sheet critically. “You made me look like Hajime with different hair.”

“I used the same blocks for everything but the hair,” Katsu admitted as he watched her hand the paper to her brother. Hajime actually let out a short laugh looking at it, then passed it to Sano.

Wanted for questioning on rebel activities, it read – Visitant Tokio, sister to traitor former royal knight Hajime – Travels the country with her 12-year-old son Eiji, and has been seen lately in the Elotica area – Reward for information concerning. Distressing as this must be, the picture did strike Sano as pretty funny. Katsu had gotten her bangs right, but those were Hajime’s eyes staring up at him and saying nothing about the dream.

“You’ve been demoted to ‘ob’dant’chenji,'” was Tokio’s sly remark to Hajime, though in reality the word referred to a last-generation royal knight, one attached to the predecessor of the current ruler — a position still generally considered high and honorable.

“No, I’ve been promoted to ‘traitor,'” the knight replied. “You haven’t even gained the rank of ‘rebel spy.'”

“I don’t think they would dare label a church official a rebel or a spy,” said Katsu seriously. “Not yet, anyway, in this climate. They need to demonstrate their respect for the church if they want people to ‘witness the faith of the king and the blessing of the divine ladies’ on the 55th.”

Hajime nodded. Chou, who’d already busied himself with stuffing his face, snatched the paper and gave a muffled chortle as he compared it to Tokio.

“This was a rush job,” Katsu went on, “which was why I had no time to carve more blocks for it. I was supposed to be off work today, but now I have to help put these up after they’re all printed, so I only have a few hours. The good news is that Yukir’no, the other printmaking apprentice — he’ll be at the press all morning, and he’s outraged. The representative from the palace didn’t pay us at all for this one, but insisted we prioritize it over any other jobs. I think I can convince Yukir’no to join us, which will make the cellar of the printmaker’s shop a sure hiding place secondary to this one.”

“Well, this is already boring,” Chou announced, pushing at the bench on which he sat between Katsu and Sano. He jogged the table as he stood up and climbed free. “I’m gonna go check out the weapons vendors in the red district.”

“Remember to be careful leaving and entering,” Katsu said, “and don’t steal anything, or I’ll let you starve.”

“Yes, mom,” Chou replied belligerently, and gave them all a rude gesture as he headed for the ladder alcove. He’d used a slangy term for ‘second mother,’ and Sano wondered briefly if his parents were women and the younger of them the more disciplinary.

Once the light of the opening had faded as the secret door cranked back into place, Tokio asked, “Can we trust him?”

“I believe so.” Katsu frowned. “He’s crazy, but his motives seem fairly straightforward. And he seems very disinterested in seditious talk.”

“No shit,” Sano agreed through a mouthful of pork bun, remembering the hours and hours of sword-nonsense Chou had subjected him to.

Sister and brother shared a suspicious look. Since Tokio’s mouth had also become occupied, Hajime spoke. “We’ll have to watch him and assess for ourselves.” Tokio nodded.

Katsu mimicked the gesture and said, “In the meantime, let me fill you in on what I’ve heard since Sano left.”

Everyone else focused on their diminishing breakfast as the artist related the rumors circulating about the arrangements for Soujirou’s festival. These painted a fairly detailed picture, but Katsu also, when they’d finished eating and swept the table free of crumbs, diagrammed the layout for them with the few drawing supplies remaining in his box. This led to a discussion of how many people they might count on to occupy or detain the city guard and Soujirou’s knights, so the most proficient warriors had a clear path to the false king and Kamatari, and where such allies would be best placed to do so. The question of how to arm them remained unanswered.

Of course Katsu wondered at the specification of Kamatari as an important enemy, so he had to be brought up to speed on the conclusion the others had come to. He agreed with them only slowly, but proposed no alternative solution to the mystery of who had been behind the stolen throne all along.

They went back to hashing out a strategy for the festival. The loyalties of the city guard came up, in addition to their level of willingness to use deadly force against civilians, but went largely unresolved. The loyalties of the white devoted, who were to stand on the plaza at the palace gates with Soujirou, were easier to speculate on: Aoshi would certainly throw in with his ‘king,’ and they guessed Enishi would as well; Ayame would side with an endeavor to depose the usurper; while Gensai, no warrior, would stand aside. The alignment of the lower-level devoted (besides the specific beneficiaries of the Devoted Council proposals) must be mostly a frustratingly unknown element until the time actually came.

Sano contributed little to any of this. Occasionally he had points he might have raised, but always decided it wasn’t worth the effort. In fact eventually he found himself listening less to the words spoken and more to the intent behind them and their manner of presentation. For throughout the conversation, Hajime and Tokio pressed Katsu at every turn. How did he know what he knew? What would he do in such-and-such a situation? What led him to believe this or that, and why was he so certain? Sano had anticipated something like this, and even recognized its necessity — at least its necessity in the minds of his companions — but to observe such an exacting gauntlet disheartened him even further. His emotional state differed as night from day between last evening’s sanguinity and resolve and this morning’s lowness and lack of confidence.

He wondered if Katsu recognized the interrogation for what it was. He wondered if Eiji, who’d been studying his mother’s poster, regarded the scene in the same light Chou had — as intolerably boring. He wondered what Tokio thought of being wanted for questioning. He wondered why Hajime treated him absolutely no differently than he had on any other day before that revealing dream.

After a while he realized vaguely that he’d ceased paying any attention to the discussion. They’d all fastened their shiiya sleeves against the underground chill, and Sano had been studying the buttons on his for a while, thinking about nothing except, somewhat blurrily, that last question. He wanted to lean against Hajime and fall asleep. He imagined the knight putting an arm around him and pulling him close, allowing Sano to lay his head on his chest while the strategizing continued.

Abruptly Hajime gave him a sharp look, and Sano felt his face go red. Just as in the last instance of blushing under that gaze, he hoped the low lighting would hide the shift in his coloring. And why would Hajime so suddenly scrutinize him anyway? He hadn’t shown one single sign over the last couple hours of recognizing Sano’s changed (or lately acknowledged) attitude toward him, so why now? Had Sano made some movement in his direction that indicated his current longing, and Hajime felt that had crossed a line?

The knight answered the unspoken questions with the observation, “You’re still wounded and exhausted.” He gestured toward the blackness of the next room. “Go back to bed.”

“‘Bed,'” Sano snorted. Though both blankets would be available now, that hardly upgraded the frigid stone floor to a piece of furniture. “I’m fine,” he added.

“Idiot.” The word came fondly from Katsu and harshly from Hajime. The latter continued, “You’re no use to any of us like this.”

The thoughts simultaneously crossed Sano’s mind that he wanted to be more than ‘of use’ to Hajime, reminding him fleetingly of Yahiko’s protestations on the subject; and that Katsu had been of far more use than he had all along, if they could only trust him.

His friend had moved closer when Chou had vacated the bench, and now he put a hand lightly on Sano’s shoulder. “You’re obviously worn out. You really should go get some rest.” Then, in response to the look of defiance Sano had mustered with some effort, he assured him, “You won’t miss much. I have to leave at the next bell anyway. I’ll come back tonight after work.”

“How much sleep are you getting?” Sano countered. He felt a childish desire not to be dismissed, to remain near Hajime despite his weariness and despite Hajime’s silence on certain subjects.

I didn’t get the brains beaten out of me by a pillar of muscle yesterday.”

“Yeah, lucky you.”

“Someone’s grouchy when he’s tired,” Tokio murmured.

Sano scanned the group. They were all against him, it seemed. Eiji hadn’t voiced his opinion (and indeed hadn’t spoken for at least an hour), but he would surely take his mother’s side. And Hajime gave Sano a stern look. “Go to bed,” he reiterated.

With a muttered profanity, Sano rose, shaking the table as much as Chou had when he’d done the same. He went to retrieve one blanket from the third room where Eiji and Tokio had been using it, and found his gait somewhat shuffling toward the second room where he’d slept before.

Deep down he knew they were right: he would have preferred not to rise so early, and would benefit from further sleep now, even on stone. He hadn’t, in his fuzzy frame of mind, been providing valuable support anyway, but perhaps he would have more to say tonight with a clearer head. He might even feel less depressed after another rest, though his solitary dreams were likely to be far more explicit than the ones Hajime had any say in, and he couldn’t be sure how that would affect him emotionally.

As he settled down uncomfortably onto the folded blanket he’d laid on top of all the dry shiiyao he owned, and drew the other around himself, he heard the conversation resume. They’d lowered their voices, but Sano thought the topic changed to Katsu’s schedule and personal resources. How long could he continue buying extra food and visiting this location unnoticed?

And he wondered suddenly, lying still at last, whether he’d ever given Katsu any details on that ‘pillar of muscle’ to prompt such a description. Maybe it truly was best for the interrogation to continue in there without him, and without his being able to catch any potential unfavorable outcome.

Author’s notes: 30, 31, 32.


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