Merpoleon

Oh, look, it’s another 30″ x 22″ monster almost impossible to get a decent photo of! Have some details:



This is a five-months-late birthday present for Lee. Here I am holding it for scale:

Heretic’s Reward 25-28

Heretic’s Reward

“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 July 29, 2018

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
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
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 25 – A Small Gathering of Malcontents

“You don’t know what it’s been like.” Sano tried not to evoke the image of a petulant child complaining about having to play with the least popular kid in the village, but it wasn’t working very well. “He just goes on and on and on about his fucking swords and how he got every single fucking one of them all fucking day.”

Katsu, often morose, excelled at keeping a straight face even under provocation, but that wasn’t working very well either. This was essentially the first thing Sano had said to him tonight, after they’d walked together in tense silence — giving the ‘hiding in plain sight’ theory its initial test — from the thieves’ guild headquarters through town to the inn where the meeting was to take place; Sano hadn’t dared speak until they were upstairs in the privacy of the rented room they’d decided was the best place to hold a small gathering of malcontents, and that he’d chosen this complaint to get started with lent it even greater strength (and probably amusement to Katsu).

“Even if I try to change the subject, he drags it back to fucking swords after not too long; it’s the only thing he wants to talk about!” Sano was watching as Katsu examined the room carefully and checked for any defect of layout that might be problematic for their secrecy, but he wasn’t paying close attention to the details of Katsu’s actions in his frustration and the relief of getting this all out into the open after what had felt like the longest evening, night, and ensuing day of his life.

“He’ll talk about swords in general, or other people’s swords, for a little — swords he’d like to steal, or swords he’s heard of in history or whatever — but then he goes right back to his own fucking swords, and it is the most boring bullshit I’ve ever heard in my lady-damned life!”

And of course what Sano couldn’t mention was how much he really needed conversation that wasn’t boring to stave off things he didn’t want to be thinking about. Whenever his mind wandered from Chou’s sword-talk — which happened, or at least threatened to happen, very frequently in light of how dreadfully uninteresting that talk was — it tended to alight on the memory of Korucun’s weak smile as he died, his bloody figure on the ground where Sano had left him, and the still-looming question of why the hell he had sacrificed himself for a stranger. The shadows of the thieves’ guild even somewhat resembled the shadows in the street that night, dredging up all the emotions of those events poignantly in Sano’s heart.

Finished and seemingly satisfied with his inspection of the room, Katsu came to face Sano and wait patiently for the end of the rant.

“I thought being a ‘rebel spy’ would be exciting and dangerous, even though some of what I’ve been doing so far has been a little boring — talking to people looking for information for days and days and shit — but I never thought I’d end up in some cellar in Yumi’s armpit listening to some moron Schoukaff guy who crawled out of Misao’s ass going on and on all fucking day about his Kaoru-damned swords!”

Katsu’s previous expression of repressed amusement had turned skeptical now, and Sano realized the reference to Misao’s ass might strike the friend that had expressed himself unable to disbelieve in that particular lady as at least somewhat offensive. How frustrating it was to have to consider such things!

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Just… how did you deal with that guy for so long already?”

Katsu shook his head. “Just be glad he didn’t want to come to the meetings.” Chou had stated he would be happy to take part in any endeavor that would help get Kenshin out of captivity and back into the open where his sheath could possibly be stolen, so long as that endeavor was fun in and of itself — and evidently he didn’t think these meetings were likely to be all that entertaining, and had opted to sit around in the dark (probably talking to himself about his swords) until there was something more interesting to be done.

With a frustrated sigh, Sano finally took his own careful look around the chamber. It was the inn’s biggest, and in addition to the usual accouterments of such accommodations — including, in this case, four beds — was also fitted with a larger table than usual in the resultantly larger space. It would still be crowded if all the people that had agreed to come actually showed up, but better than trying to talk privately down in the common room.

“This’ll work,” Sano said belatedly. “Thanks for renting it.”

Katsu nodded, and moved to take a seat at the table. About half an hour remained before he needed to go downstairs and start directing people to the appropriate place. “If there are any problems,” he remarked as he settled, “probably the best way to get out of here will be the main hallway and the stairs down into the common room. Anyone waiting in the street outside would probably expect you to come out the side entrance or even the window.”

“Just me?” Sano wondered, joining him at the table.

“Well, you’re the wanted one. The rest of us could hopefully blend in with the inn patrons or claim some other reason for meeting.”

Dourly Sano nodded, glad to have that plan in place. Careful as they’d been, it was impossible to say whether or not everyone they’d talked to was really on their side. Any one of the attendees could be leading Soujirou’s people here tonight in the hopes of getting a reward out of it. Of course, Katsu could have arranged for Soujirou’s people to be here tonight in the hopes of getting a reward out of it. But Sano was still trying to avoid such suspicions.

“Take a look at this,” Katsu said next, pulling from somewhere — Sano thought he kept stuff in his hanging sleeves — a folded piece of paper and offering it over.

Upon opening the thing, Sano found it to be a work order for another set of posters, and for half an instant his heart clenched… but it wasn’t as if he and Hajime could be doubly wanted, after all. “Festival of the Divine,” he read out. “King Soujirou I of house Gontamei will do honor to our patronesses Yumi, Misao, Megumi, Tomoe, and Kaoru at the opening ceremonies of a daylong festival on Yumifyo 55, a Mis’hyou. Come to the palace plaza and witness the faith of the king and the blessing of the Divine Ladies, then join in the feasting and revelry.” He looked up at Katsu with a frown.

“They delivered the order this morning, so that’s what we’ve been working on today. We’ll have them up tomorrow sometime, so people will have a good three weeks to get ready for the festival.”

“Including us,” said Sano grimly.

“I thought this might be a good time to target Soujirou.”

“Not just that…” Sano stared at the order, still frowning, particularly at one specific line, which he presently reread aloud: “‘Witness the blessing of the Divine Ladies…’ Hajime knew this was going to happen…”

Katsu’s curiosity as he asked, “What?” seemed inspired by the somewhat wondering tone that had colored Sano’s last statement.

“He said whoever was behind all this would have to make some kind of show of the ladies’ approval to make sure everyone was willing to follow Soujirou.” He jabbed a finger down at the text in question. “This is it. This ‘opening ceremony’ thing is going to convince everyone the ladies are on Soujirou’s side and it’d be blasphemy to oppose him. That’ll be the end of anyone going up against him, if it’s convincing enough.”

Katsu was frowning now too. “That’s an excellent point, and I think you’re right.” His eyes fell to the work order as if it would give him answers, and he finally shook his head and said, “We can’t let it happen.”

“Got any ideas?”

They both sat silently for several moments, thinking, and finally it was Sano that spoke again. “I guess there’ll be a lot of guards and knights there at the ceremony, and we’ll need them to be occupied if we’re going to get at Soujirou. We’re gonna have to ask people to fight, aren’t we?”

Katsu nodded grimly. “I thought it would come to that.”

“But a lot of people don’t normally carry weapons…” Sano’s tone, like his thoughts, was a mixture of musing and dismayed. “How are we gonna get a bunch of armed people onto that plaza without it looking suspicious? And how will we keep Soujirou from just running right back into the palace? And how–”

Firmly Katsu cut him off. “We need more details before we can make definite plans. We’ll have to see what information we can get out of people who work at the palace, and anyone working with Soujirou’s people on festival setup. We should be able to figure out how things will be laid out and what the order of the day is going to be, and then we can decide how to move.”

Seeing the wisdom in this — though it did mean another tedious span of waiting for information, undoubtedly broken up only by Chou’s sword-talk all over again — Sano took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, you’re right.”

“And I think you should bring Hajime into the city.”

Though Sano’s heart gave a little leap at the idea, still he couldn’t entirely keep off a dubious tone as he said, “Just yesterday you were saying I shouldn’t do that.”

“I know.” Katsu looked conflicted. “But I’ve been thinking about it further today, and… it’s a risk you’re going to have to take eventually, and I think now’s the time. We’re going to need him to help us plan the attack on Soujirou, and for the people we’ll be meeting with we’re going to need him as a rallying point now more than ever. You’ll help with that, of course, but if–”

“Me?” Sano broke in, surprised, distracted for a moment from the topic of Hajime. “How will I help?”

Katsu smiled. “You’re a rebel spy whose face is on posters all over town. And in that outfit–” he gestured with evident amusement– “I don’t think you can help being something of an icon.”

Sano took the cuff of one sleeve in his hand and scowled down at the shiny blue trim against the translucent orange body of the garment. Irritably he began slapping the sleeve against the table. He couldn’t think of anything to say, either about the shiiya (or the orange-striped blue pants that went with it) or about his supposed status as a rebel icon.

“If,” Katsu resumed, still smiling, “we can promise these people Hajime will be present at our next meeting, that will be even better. I think that will really solidify our efforts.”

Sano remained silent, busy with unpleasant thoughts. Katsu was right about a number of things: bringing Hajime into the city was a risk they had to take eventually; and Sano would love to be hiding out with Hajime instead of just Chou, to have someone rational to wile away the dull hours talking to instead of listening to tall tales about stolen swords and blacksmiths’ touch-ups while they waited for the information Katsu would now be their primary resource seeking. And Hajime’s input on the festival matter would be invaluable, and the promise of his presence undoubtedly would be an excellent benefit to the meetings they would be having over the next few days.

But this could also be an excuse to entice Hajime out of hiding so he could be arrested. Katsu could have been working with Sano, putting up a front of loyalty, only because he was after a bigger fish. Surely the reward for Hajime, and the accompanying prestige of having been the one to bring him in, would be far greater than for a mere rebel spy in a stupid outfit. Though Katsu might indeed be angling for both.

Sano just didn’t know what to do with these suspicions. There was no logical reason to entertain them, but simultaneously he couldn’t seem to shake them. He hated himself for doubting his friend, as well as for lingering in an emotional state that might be specifically detrimental to their efforts, but he couldn’t stop. Though the fear that Katsu might betray him seemed abstract and incredible, the fear that Katsu might betray Hajime was concrete, cold, and consistently present. Would Sano be contributing to that betrayal if he brought the knight into the city now?

Katsu reached out all of a sudden to arrest the perseverent motion of Sano’s hand. Sano relinquished the slapping of his sleeve and dropped the latter to hang as usual, looking across into the artist’s face. What else was there for him to do at this point besides go along with Katsu’s plan? Nothing, he supposed. So finally he said, “After all the meetings I’ll go talk to Hajime. See if he feels like it’s a good idea for him to come into town.”

“If we ever feel like the thieves’ guild is too dangerous, we can relocate to the printmaker’s.” Katsu seemed to recognize Sano’s need for reassurance, though whether he read the emotions behind that need was a matter of question. “I’d rather not go there, since I doubt Deikon or his family or his other apprentice are going to be on our side.” Here he held up the work order he’d re-folded, and shook it slightly before replacing it in his sleeve. “Though if the new regime keeps demanding projects at a discount, even Deikon may come around eventually. Probably not soon enough. But at least his shop has a big cellar with room for a few people to hide out in at a pinch.”

Sano nodded. Katsu had mentioned before where the printmaker’s shop was located, and it was good to have this option in reserve. Everything was starting to feel precarious and uncertain, and the meeting hadn’t even begun.

As if reading his mind, Katsu stirred. “The bell’s going to ring soon and I’ll have to go down. We need to decide how we’re going to handle things tonight.”

Again Sano nodded, and Katsu launched into a list of suggestions on what topics, specifically, they should cover, in what order these should be discussed, what arrangements needed to be made, and what to do in the event (not unlikely, he believed) talk started to get out of hand or arguments sprang up. Sano mostly just agreed with everything — including, grudgingly, the idea that Katsu would have to reference some religious nonsense — and found himself somewhat unexpectedly reassured. He wouldn’t have known where to start arranging a gathering like this, and his friend’s detailed proposals made him feel a lot better not only about the meeting, but about Katsu’s intentions.

Katsu rose at last and went down to the common room, leaving Sano impatient and nervous for what was to come. Before he could even pace the room twice, however, he heard the five knocks (had Katsu deliberately chosen that damned religious number?) of the first person up the stairs. It turned out to be the first people up the stairs — there were three of them — and they’d barely had time to give Sano’s borrowed outfit some surprised looks of assessment, and comment that they’d recognized his face on the wanted posters, before the next person arrived.

Any awkwardness Sano might have felt at the unusual circumstances of semi-introduction and waiting around for the night’s doings to start was dispelled by the fairly steady stream of newly arriving others. The chamber became more and more crowded and warm, but at least the group had the sense — probably prompted by Katsu below — to keep their conversations relatively quiet as they waited. That many even relatively quiet conversations, however, in such close proximity, made for an agitating buzz of sound Sano intensely hoped wouldn’t be heard from outside.

Eventually twenty other people were packed in with him, lined up against the walls, seated on the beds and at the table, or just awkwardly standing next to each other facing Sano, who was consequently trying to avoid fidgeting and to appear calm and in control. Not a small amount of relief filled him when Katsu at last appeared with the final attendees. Any latecomers, with no guide remaining in the common room, would not be participating, but having two dozen people here to discuss things was not only a pretty good turnout, it was about as much as the rented room could handle.

“Thank you all for coming,” Katsu began as he made his way through the quieting crowd to the table, onto which he climbed to stand above the heads of the gathering for maximum visibility and audibility. Sano, wondering why his agitation was only increasing even though Katsu had rejoined him, followed him up. Looking around at the many eyes watching them curiously, Sano thought this was probably the scariest thing he’d ever done.

“Thank you all for coming,” Katsu repeated. It was a predictable greeting, and his tone seemed to indicate he might be just as nervous as Sano about addressing so many people on such an uncertain topic. But he went on without hesitation to assure everyone, “Your presence here does not commit you to anything. We are making plans, yes, but all you’re agreeing to do right now is talk. Even so, we ask that you keep quiet about this, for obvious reasons.”

A lot of nodding and a murmur of assent and appreciation moved through the room. So far, at least, everyone seemed pleased to be here and eager to hear what Katsu and Sano had to say.

Katsu cleared his throat, even more obviously than before trying not to appear apprehensive. “The issue is,” he began, “that not everybody in the city is happy about the new king. I would guess not everybody in the kingdom is happy about it, but we’re here in Elotica where something can possibly be done about it.”

More agreement from the group. Sano considered this a good sign, a good start.

“As a king, Kenshin has always been a little too easy-going. I think we all know that.” As Katsu began with the agreed-upon opening topic, ‘what we like about Kenshin,’ he started to ease into his role of public speaker a little more. “He lets criminals off too lightly, he’s a little too content for people to police themselves in most matters, and even his lawmaking process sometimes seems a little…”

“Lazy,” someone supplied from the crowd. There was general laughter, but Sano was heartened to notice it sounded good-natured.

Katsu nodded his acknowledgment. “These are absolutely problems. Nobody is going to claim Kenshin was ever a perfect king. But not only do these defects have very little negative effect on the kingdom as a whole, we have to keep in mind the reason behind them: that Kenshin believes in the goodness of people. He believes even criminals deserve a second chance, that people have the capacity to behave well in their various fields, and that laws are more of a last resort than an immediate necessity.

“This may be a weakness in some areas, but in others it is specifically a strength. Kenshin is motivated by kindness and trust, and a king that loves and trusts his people is a good king who will do what is best for them.”

There was some uncertain murmuring, and Sano, though not really wanting to speak, felt he had to jump in. “The point is, Kenshin’s a good man. He might not be the best king ever, but, hell, which of us would be? He was trying his best, and he knew what was right and what was wrong, and he had good people around him to help out.” Of course much of this was drawn from what Hajime had said about his deposed superior rather than any personal experience on Sano’s part, but he thought it worth offering nonetheless.

There followed a discussion of various impressions of and experiences with Kenshin during his time as king and even before. It was rather incoherent — no surprise, given the number of people in the room — but seemed to bear out the general point. Then Katsu waved for silence, and moved on to the details Sano had been less looking forward to: Kenshin’s level of religious devotion. Though at least this was a fairly solid topic in favor of the former king, since that devotion was evidently significant and generally acknowledged.

It did start another complicated discussion, however, this one much closer to an argument than previously, when somebody wondered whether Katsu wasn’t a heretic just as Sano was and trying to score cheap points by referencing a religion he didn’t actually subscribe to. Then they had to debate the question of whether and to what extent a heretic could possibly support a religious king, discussing the hypothetical motivations of such a heretic as if Sano weren’t standing right there in front of them and capable of answering any questions they might have. Eventually Katsu had to oil the waters by bringing up the rather loathsome point that Kenshin had always allowed a certain amount of freedom in religious observance, no doubt trusting in the goodness of the human heart to bring all heretics back eventually to where they needed to be, and that therefore even so devout a man would have no qualms being assisted by a nonbeliever in the matter of regaining his throne.

“And I hear the new guys are trying to make laws about that,” Sano said. Though still nervous, he too had relaxed a trifle as the meeting had really gotten going, and he spoke now more or less with ease. “They may end up wanting to kill people like me, but it won’t just be heretics that kind of bullshit hurts. I don’t know exactly what they’re planning, but do you really want somebody up at the palace telling you how to worship? What you are and aren’t allowed to do, how often you have to go to services, that kind of thing?”

Katsu used the discontented muttering that filled the room in response to this as a means of transitioning to the second point, ‘what we don’t like about the new regime.’ “And that isn’t the only suggested change to national policy we’ve heard about. As you can see, Soujirou wants to tighten things up — more regulations, more restrictive regulations, perhaps a complete overhaul to our legal system. This may or may not be a good thing in general or in specific, but what’s evident is that he isn’t coming from that place of kindness and trust that Kenshin always was. We may have been longing for a more efficient bureaucracy, but we can’t count on Soujirou to have the people’s best interest in mind.”

They wasted some time then on incredibly and unnecessarily detailed tangents regarding legal minutiae — both laws in existence the company wasn’t fond of, and laws hypothetical the company would like to see in place. Eventually Sano felt the need to break in again, once more with ideas he’d originally gotten from Hajime. “And even if he does make a couple of good changes, we can’t forget he was willing to throw Kenshin into prison somewhere and just take over, going against all the laws and traditions I can think of. That makes him a criminal, and a criminal’s always going to commit another crime sooner or later. Do we really want someone like that ruling the country?”

This, of course, led to a divergent debate that was half about criminals and whether they should be welcomed into various social roles (and whether, as Kenshin seemed to believe, they deserved a second chance; and whether it wasn’t hypocritical to excuse some flaws of character in the previous king while condemning the usurper for others), and half about Soujirou personally. Though the young prince had made a charitable pilgrimage to the town of Enatio some months back, and apparently done a lot of good there, which everyone present remembered — that and not a lot of the repressed details about his kidnapping as a child — it seemed the general impression of Soujirou was neither particularly good nor particularly bad: he was just another rich noble.

Eventually, though, Katsu and Sano did manage to move on to the third point on their list, ‘what we fear may happen if things go on like this.’ It was a vague subtopic, which might have actually been for the better in this case: more effectively than knowing exactly what was coming, shadowy concerns about too-restrictive laws and as-yet-unknown criminal behaviors on the part of the very ruler of the nation helped to make the point that things were likely to deteriorate rather than improve under Soujirou’s rule. Few members of the group had anything concrete or particularly useful to add — for all they tried to add it insistently and at great length — except for one woman with a specific concern she didn’t hesitate to lay before the company.

She didn’t give her name, probably in the interest of safety, but Sano thought he would remember her face: a round, friendly visage that looked all innocent pleasantness except when, every once in a while, it took on a shrewd, calculating expression that was a sudden window into the canniness and determination underneath. She was, she told them, an officer of the Etoronai merchant’s guild here in Elotica on a (now very extended) business trip aimed at organizing a branch of the guild here in the capital. Not only was all the negotiation progress she’d made at the palace now lost, necessitating she start entirely over once things had calmed down, she couldn’t be sure how receptive the new regime would be to the terms she and her associates back home had so carefully drawn up to appeal especially to Kenshin. If the previous status quo could possibly be restored, things would be a lot easier for her. And this wasn’t merely a complaint aired with no action taken: she had, she assured them, a decent amount of influence among merchants across the kingdom, including here in the city, and would gladly bring to bear that influence as needed in this conflict. Sano and Katsu were surprised and pleased.

The penultimate list item, ‘the need to gather weapons and be ready for a fight,’ was perhaps the most difficult to insinuate into the minds of those that had committed to nothing by being here. In fact, it was this point in particular that demonstrated to Sano exactly how lukewarm the general reception here was. Yes, a lot of discussion had gone on during the last two hours, but as it turned out, most of it had been exactly like all the talk leading nowhere he’d observed in the inn common rooms he’d been frequenting during his trips into the city all along. This was extremely discouraging.

He’d determined gradually during the course of the meeting that maybe nine of those present were individuals he and Katsu had spoken to and specifically invited, with the other thirteen being guests brought by the initial set. Since they’d done most of their recruiting here in the red district, it seemed likely that perhaps half as many people would show up to each of the other meetings. And if that estimate was correct, they would end up talking to around sixty people total. How many would actually commit to the cause? Half of that? A third of that? It seemed this grand resistance was likely to consist of no more than twenty or thirty people. Whatever they eventually decided to do had better not be anything on a particularly large scale.

They didn’t mention the other four meetings just like this (not just like this, Sano fervently hoped) planned for the immediate future, but anyone with an ounce of sense must have anticipated them. What they did announce was a larger assemblage to be held two weeks from now on or around Yumifyo 50 — exact time and place to be determined, and that information to be disseminated to everyone currently present at a later date — whereat more solid plans for disrupting Soujirou’s rule would be discussed. Though no one protested the idea, neither did anyone seem particularly enthusiastic about it… until they learned that royal knight Hajime would be present at that time.

It was a risk making this promise at all, since Sano hadn’t had a chance to talk to the knight just yet, but it seemed Katsu had been right: though Sano obviously intrigued this crowd, Hajime was a source of significantly greater interest and possibly inspiration. Voices sounded more enthusiastic and assenting, comments about upcoming events more engaged and proactive, and there were even some definite promises of attendance regarding that bigger meeting, once the royal knight’s name had been brought up. And it wasn’t as if Sano didn’t agree; he too was inspired and proactive in response to his involvement with Hajime… and in fact might have felt, unexpectedly, a little jealous at everyone else’s show of interest in the man that had been his companion (sometimes exclusively) ever since he started this venture. But the point was that they were engaged; that was all that really mattered

Eventually the whole thing broke up, without ever having been raided or otherwise threatened in any way. The group dispersed gradually in small portions out various entrances, as subtly as it was capable of doing, leaving the exhausted Katsu and Sano behind in a room that now felt overly large and seemed to echo with the many tones and schemes that had previously filled it. They’d survived the process. They’d taken their first real step toward forming a serious resistance, however small it might turn out to be.

And now they had to spend the rest of the week repeating the performance four times over.

Chapter 26 – The Visitant

The sky was a milky blue that promised later cloud cover and rain, and Sano’s steps were light beneath it. Not Chou’s stupid sword talk nor the memory of four meetings essentially the same as the first (if less heavily attended), not his concerns about Katsu or his very different concerns about Korucun nor his underlying uncertainty and agitation about the situation as a whole with Soujirou’s festival looming and probably only a very small group of people to resist it — none of these could dampen Sano’s mood as he made his way out of the troublesome capital and back into Enca to rejoin Hajime.

Despite the success thus far of the borrowed outfit at preventing people from suspecting him of anything but phenomenally poor taste, he was glad it was accompanied by a hood, be that article ever so translucent to match the shiiya, especially on the more sparsely trafficked path — where he certainly stood out — from one of the non-checkpoint Elotica entrances around to the smaller town. His biggest challenge was to refrain from walking as if fully aware of his absurdity of attire in addition to his wanted status and drawing even more eyes than he was already destined to.

In fact that was not true. It was perfectly simple to walk as if he felt exactly the way he did: happier than he’d been in a week and eager to get back to the inn. But he didn’t think that walk was likely to do him any disservice; it fit with his bright colors.

It hardly seemed a matter of question, today, whether or not to stop in the market for some breakfast, and Sano found himself traversing the busiest street looking for the freshest stack of fruit almost without even thinking about it. He occasioned some smiles as he made his cheerful purchase, then had to work hard to restrain himself from juggling the shining apples as he moved on through the crowd. The ridiculously delicious scent emanating from a baker’s shop tempted him soon afterward, but, preferring to avoid the notice of the red devoted currently examining the steaming wares held by an employee on a large tray just outside the building, he didn’t stop even to look.

“–so much more shopping to do all of a sudden,” the devoted was remarking in a wry tone.

“Yes, I heard about your last-minute guests at the shrine,” the baker sympathized. “What a hassle for you.”

“Well, you can’t say no to the white, but those four men he brought with him are likely to eat a year’s donations in a day — or at least two of them are.”

Interested, Sano had slowed to listen, but, feeling conspicuous, now moved on before he could catch the rest of the red’s complaint. He hadn’t heard anything in Elotica about Misao’s new white devoted being in Enca; it must indeed be a last-minute visit! Scant sympathy as he felt for any devoted, he couldn’t really blame the guy: he too might want to get out of a place where people of the rank he’d just assumed had recently been attacked and the one closest to him murdered. He did wonder, though, which lower-ranking follower of Misao that left to sit on the Devoted Council. Had Soujirou and his people had anything to do with this? If so, what did they gain from it? Sano knew nothing about the Misao golds, nor which of them had been made the new fourth-wash, and therefore had no guesses. He would have to talk to Hajime about it. That and any number of other things.

But he didn’t need the unoccupied inn chamber with its beds stripped of linens to tell him Hajime was gone; the cracked door that swung open without requiring a key in its broken lock alerted him even before he burst into the room and looked frantically around. And it took no more than an instant for his heartbeat to accelerate to a gallop. Blood roaring in his ears and a coldness in the pit of his stomach, he tore down the hall and the steps — the main staircase this time — straight for the innkeeper’s office. The door slammed violently back against the wall as he rushed in bellowing somewhat incoherently, “Where is he? What happened??”

Immediately on her feet, visage dark, the innkeeper responded to his presence with every bit as much intensity as Sano himself could command: “You get out of my inn! I don’t ever want to see you around here again!”

Fists clenched, Sano advanced on her. “Where is he?

“Before dawn, four men came and–”

“Bullshit!” He hardly knew what he shouted into her face, and only a barely conscious awareness that she was no warrior kept him from taking hold of her shiiya and shaking her. “As if just four men could ever–”

“For your information, you trash,” she yelled right back at him, “they dragged my wife up there and threatened to kill her if he didn’t go with them! That’s what I get for looking the other way and renting rooms to suspicious people! I want you out of here now, and don’t you or any of your criminal friends come back here looking for service, ’cause I’ll send for the guards if I ever see your lousy faces again!”

Horrified, Sano took a step back and stared at the woman. There was no reason to think she might be lying, and her emotionality seemed perfectly justified under the circumstances. In fact it was pretty impressive for her to be standing up, without a weapon in sight, to a raging Sano whom she believed to be a criminal. But fury still sounded in his voice as he demanded, “Who were they? Where did they take him?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.” She pointed vehemently. “Get out!”

Sano was surprised to find the door the woman indicated already under his fingertips, as if, anticipating her lack of useful information, he’d already moved without realizing it. He paused, though, and took a deep breath. “Is your wife all right?”

The innkeeper too calmed just a trifle, perhaps realizing he was sincere in his inquiry. “She’s fine. Your friend surrendered as soon as they threatened her.”

“Of course he did,” Sano muttered, and left the inn.

Still irate and aghast and now dizzy as well, as if he’d taken a blow to the head, he staggered out into the street, wondering what the hell to do next. The thought that he had to find Hajime reiterated itself so continually that it got tripped up by its own repetition and didn’t allow any subsequent reflections as to the how of the matter. He must, he must, he must… but he couldn’t get any farther than that. It would help if his heart would beat properly and the world’s spinning would diminish.

Between buildings and around corners at random he stumbled, probably drawing all the attention he’d managed to avoid earlier by crashing into people he didn’t see and whose indignant remonstrances he barely even heard, and with an agonizing slowness recovered his presence of mind. Yes, he had to find Hajime. And this wasn’t helping him do so. He looked around sluggishly — he would have expected his movements to be so much quicker, what with all this frantic energy pounding through his veins — and began to take stock of both his surroundings and what he knew of the situation.

Someone had known where to find Hajime. Just as the assassin had been well enough informed to locate a rebel spy in the purple district of Elotica, so these four men had managed eventually to pinpoint the location of the deposed king’s chief knight. And they’d known how difficult it might be to capture him; they’d taken the precaution of securing a hostage before approaching, and even then had felt it expedient to break open the door to his room and give him as little time as possible to respond. They’d known their business. But where would they have taken him from there? Surely four men with a fifth held captive among them, even before dawn, must have turned some heads throughout town…

Four men…

“I heard about your last-minute guests at the shrine…”

From the ground he’d been staring at intently, Sano’s gaze rose and turned to where, mostly obscured by buildings from this vantage point, Enca’s aged shrine of Misao yet rose tall and orange in the distance. Was that the real reason the newly made fourth-wash had left the capital — to apprehend a fugitive on Soujirou’s behalf? Was Hajime over there even now, bound and gagged, awaiting transport to his doom inside the city?

It was the only idea Sano had at the moment, so he followed the urging of his racing blood and headed in that direction.

The shrine had originally been a monastery, until some religious leader or other — probably Rionura the Pious; everything was Rionura the Pious — had discouraged asceticism throughout the kingdom. This pointless trivia would surely never have entered Sano’s head at such a time, irritating him that he knew it at all, if it hadn’t been the explanation for the high walls, definitely unclimbable, that surrounded the place. Sano spent a very agitated half hour circling the shrine and discovering only a few entrances, none of which he could get through unobserved. It was like the Elotica checkpoint problem all over again — but here were no unattended wagons to help him on his way. He really had only one option.

Little as he fancied the lack of privacy on any of these streets around the orange walls, he couldn’t bring himself to stray far from the shrine, and had nowhere better to go in any case. So he chose a spot that struck the best balance he could manage at such short notice between ‘least frequented street’ and ‘closeness to a shrine entrance,’ knelt down in a dirty corner after ensuring no windows immediately overlooked him, and opened his backpack. It would be disastrous if anyone saw this, yet his movements were far more hasty than careful as he dug through his collection of devoted shiiyao looking for the one with Misao’s rabbit symbol on the chest.

He had no idea what he would say. He had already posed as a devoted on numerous occasions, but that had been wandering the religious districts like a gormless newcomer. Could he imitate the speech and bearing of someone with a specific purpose that knew exactly what he was doing? And what purpose, indeed, could he claim? What would get him inside so he could search the shrine unaccompanied? Could he pretend to have a message for the white devoted that must be delivered in person and in private? But then if the fourth-wash turned out not to be involved, what could Sano say that would allow him to remain in the shrine unhindered? He tried to come up with a coherent plan as he finally located and drew out his Misao shiiya, but he still couldn’t think entirely clearly.

And that was when the entire world abruptly turned upside-down. Or, rather, Sano turned upside-down, or was turned upside-down out of nowhere by the application of skilled hands whose owner’s approach he hadn’t heard or suspected. Blows landed, torque was made use of, Sano was suddenly much closer to prone than he had been half a moment before, pain had arisen, and a harsh voice was speaking somewhere above him:

“Give me a good reason not to kill you.”

Not precisely flat on his back but close enough, head spinning even more severely than it had been for the last hour, Sano struggled against the urge to struggle against the sharp metallic object that now lay threateningly on his neck. A knee, bearing most of the weight of a decent-sized woman, pressed painfully into his stomach; he could probably have thrown her off if not for the very inconvenient position of the blade she held, with which she could cut his throat in less time than it would take him to tense his muscles for the effort.

This didn’t mean he felt any need to remain silent, though.

“What the fuck? Who are you? Where do you get off jumping on random people without warning? Where did you even come from?”

“Give me a good reason not to kill you,” the woman repeated. Her face was set in a hard, unforgiving frown as she stared down unrelentingly from her advantageous position above him.

“Why don’t you fucking give me a good reason to kill me!” Sano demanded.

Immediately she complied. “Because you’re obviously planning to sneak into a shrine dressed as a devoted.”

While the woman did have a point, “Since when is that a capital offense?” wondered Sano. “Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

The hard metal on his neck pushed down more bitingly; blood was sure to run soon if she didn’t let up. “You’ve got five seconds to explain yourself.”

Irritated as he was with this situation, Sano couldn’t really argue with that weapon. “Fine, all right, fine,” he said, trying to decide quickly how much he could safely tell and still placate the stranger. “Misao’s white devoted’s in here after the old one got assassinated, and I think the new guy’s taken my friend prisoner. I can’t just walk up to the door and ask if they have him; sneaking in’s my only option!”

For a few moments after this account (fairly neat and concise, he thought), there was pensive silence above him. Finally the uncomfortable knee was removed from his stomach, though the hard blade against his flesh did not retreat. “Get up,” the woman ordered. “Slowly.” As if there was any other way he would move with her threatening to cut his throat! Painstakingly, with the woman’s weapon never much farther from his neck than it had been all along, Sano sat up and then climbed awkwardly to his feet. As he did so, the woman said in a businesslike tone, “We’ll go in there together and see if any of your story is true.”

Any of it?” Sano wondered. “You’ve gotta know Misao’s white was assassinated! Haven’t you heard what’s going on in Elotica?”

“I’m not the one whose actions need to be explained here.”

“Not from where I’m standing,” Sano replied, somewhat surly. He was trying to calculate whether it would be possible for him to spring backward and draw his own sword without her detecting his intention and severely injuring him. If whatever she had at his neck was a keonblade, she could easily extend the energy blade and kill him outright before he was halfway through his jump; better not try it.

The woman tilted her head in what seemed to be a specific gesture (though one Sano did not at first understand), and commanded, “Take his sword-belt.”

“What?” Sano hadn’t realized the woman had anyone else with her; it was a good thing he’d decided against attempting to break free. But he didn’t much like the thought of being thus disarmed. “You can’t–”

“You’re not in any position to argue,” she interrupted him.

“Says you.”

She was right, though. “I could just kill you without testing your absurd story, if that’s what you want.”

“Fine.” He felt hands lifting the hem of the blue and orange shiiya he never had managed to switch out and unfastening the belt on which he wore his keonblade; looking carefully toward the movements, he was surprised to find them being performed by a boy of perhaps twelve.

“You’ll get it back when I feel it’s appropriate,” the woman said as the boy finished his task; then both of them took a step away from Sano, and he was able to look them over a bit better.

The woman had the type of face that was usually called ‘handsome’ rather than ‘beautiful,’ with hard eyes generally dark despite their light brown color and a disapproving set to her lips. The similarity to hers in the boy’s appearance, coupled with what Sano guessed to be around a twenty-year age difference, made him assume they were mother and son. The boy had slung Sano’s belt over his shoulder in a movement indicating he was not entirely unfamiliar with such accouterments, and the woman was returning to its sheath the long knife — not, in fact, a keonblade — with which she’d been threatening Sano.

The most eye-catching thing about either of them was the woman’s shiiya. Off-white like that of a fourth-wash devoted, it had the same flower-cut hem, and even a teardrop-shaped device on the chest. But this device, unlike that worn by devoted, was not white: it had a blue outer band, and, instead of an image in its center to indicate which of the divine ladies she served, its inner portion held five horizontal sections, each a different color.

Blue, Sano recalled, mostly from statements made by his father so many years ago, represented the unity of the divine and eternity, which was why the sky was blue or some such nonsense. The other colors in the teardrop, he was unsurprised to note, were the green of Yumi, the yellow of Megumi, the orange of Misao, the red of Kaoru, and the purple of Tomoe. Who was this woman?? And how in the world had someone that had previously worn an empty device on his shiiya to signify his disbelief in any of the divine ladies happened across someone that apparently served all of them?

She didn’t comment on the continual, startled attention he gave her chest. What she said was, “Now come with me, and don’t say a word; you can bring your things with you.”

“Megumi,” Sano swore (perhaps prompted just a little by his hypothesis about what this woman was), “you’re worse than–”

She cut him off, with no sign that his irreverence specifically had bothered her. “What did I just say?”

He looked around: at the woman, at the boy, at his fallen backpack, at the shrine’s entrance down the street. He could probably make a break for it right now and escape, but that would involve leaving everything he possessed behind. He might be able to dash for his sword and get at it before either of them could react, but not only did he dislike the idea of possibly hurting a kid, he wasn’t entirely confident in his ability to meet this woman even in a fair fight even just against a dagger. She had an air about her of absolutely infallible competence.

And beyond all this, there was the question of Hajime. The woman had told him not to say anything, which he tentatively thought meant she didn’t intend to march over there and announce to the shrine attendants he’d been planning on conning his way inside. She might have been taking his story more seriously than he’d thought, and did actually plan to find out whether it was true. In any case, if he ran away now, he might discard his only chance at discovering whether Hajime really was a prisoner in there, and he couldn’t stand that idea. It seemed he had no choice but to go with her.

As he turned, still somewhat surly, toward his backpack to gather up his spilled things, he thought he saw a corner of the woman’s mouth twitch upward as if he was behaving exactly as she’d thought he would, and he added on to everything else he’d been wondering, How do I keep finding these condescending jerks?

Awkward as he felt moving in the wake of this unknown intimidating woman, beside the little boy that looked so much like her and held Sano’s only weapon, not knowing whether he would be betrayed and possibly taken (more) into custody at any time, Sano had to admit he was glad the stranger and not he did the talking when they reached the entrance. An elderly red devoted seated in the shadow of the open gate seemed to function more as a receiver of guests than a warder-off of intruders, but Sano would still have been forced to come up with a story. As it was, the woman walked up to the old man as if she owned the place and said, “I am the Visitant, here to inspect this shrine on my way to Elotica.”

The man rose, touched his forehead courteously, and stared at the stranger’s chest exactly as Sano had — though evidently with different emotions involved. “We are honored to have you here, mistress.” There was a touch of wonder to his tone.

More polite than Sano had expected, the woman returned the red’s salute. “Who is currently presiding here?”

“You’ve arrived at just the right time.” The red seemed delighted to be able to relay this information. “The new white devoted has retreated here from the city to meditate on his new position.”

“I’ve been carrying out an inspection tour in the coastal towns,” the so-called Visitant replied. “I had not heard a new white devoted of Misao had been instated.”

The red’s face clouded, and he hesitated a moment before speaking again. “Then it’s probably best you hear about it from him.”

The woman nodded. Her gaze didn’t even twitch in Sano’s direction, but surely she must see now that at least part of his report had been accurate. “I will do so.”

“I believe he’s in the sanctum.”

“Thank you.”

Though older and smaller, this shrine still very much resembled the temples of the divine ladies in the five corners of Elotica, so Sano was unsurprised at the direction in which the Visitant led them: past a twelve-sided dais bearing a statue of Misao, who Sano had always thought looked more impish than stately in many of her portrayals, under a mess of crisscrossing ropes from which hung a variety of homemade artwork dedicated as offerings, through the gap in the great five-sided building into a smaller courtyard featuring another, more petite statue of Misao, and across this toward a door into the shrine itself.

And as they walked, the very instant they were out of earshot of the devoted at the gate and another that had been present in the outer yard, Sano wondered, “Who are you? What’s a Visitant?”

The woman barely turned her head to admonish him, “I told you to keep quiet.”

Scowling, Sano turned to the boy at his side and whispered, “Seriously, what’s a Visitant?”

Skeptically — perhaps even a little scornfully — the kid whispered back, “What are you, a heretic or something?”

“For your information–” But Sano cut off his growling retort at a harsh sound from the woman; they were entering the building. It was time to keep his eyes open for any signs of Hajime.

Chapter 27 – At the Sanctum Doors

For all his posing and playacting lately, Sano had never actually been inside one of these big religious institutes, and couldn’t help looking around with some curiosity now. The murals painted directly onto the stone bricks of the walls in the room they entered reminded him of those he’d seen in Hajime’s memory of a certain palace chamber, though these were far older and looked as if they could do with some restoration. So too did the piece in the middle — yet another statue of Misao, this one in a much more antiquated style — though the cushions arranged around it, presumably for prayer and meditation, looked recent and functional enough. That was all he had a chance to observe, for the Visitant unhesitatingly led them through an archway into a claustrophobic hall significantly dimmer than the previous space had been. Though weavings of bright colors hung so close together that barely an inch of stone showed between them, still there was a draft and a consequent feeling of chill and darkness. The Visitant seemed to know exactly where she was going, though, so Sano saw this and two other, similar connected hallways only briefly.

The wider corridor they eventually emerged into was longer and taller, but that just made it feel even draftier. Evidently they were nearing their destination as they walked its length, for the Visitant slowed as they approached a pair of large doors, carved around the edges and painted in their centers with further images of the lady of quick thinking and deception, flanked by a pair of second-wash. Whatever lay beyond these was probably the far back of the shrine, if Sano had his bearings right; it must be the sanctum.

Before either of the men could hail her, the woman asked, “Is the white devoted inside?”

The two door-guards studied the Visitant’s shiiya without visible reaction, and in turn Sano, at least, was studying them. He remembered the comments of the red he’d overheard in the market — “Those four men he brought with him are likely to eat a year’s donations in a day — or at least two of them are” — and believed he’d found the subjects of that statement. The one on the left was hugely fat, which almost drew attention entirely away from how tall he was; he was just really big in general. The design of a shiiya as an outer garment intended to be worn over a smaller, more form-fitting shirt accommodated it to a number of body shapes… but this guy must have his specially made.

The man to the right of the doors was shorter and took up less space overall, but was no less imposing: the broadness of his chest and thickness of his arms where they showed outside his orange hanging sleeves seemed to imply he did little in his life besides exercises tailored to the development of this extremely visible style of musculature. He reminded Sano of Seijuurou; though the keonmaster was wider in the shoulders and a little taller, and therefore perhaps just slightly bigger in general, this man bulged more and was as a consequence more incredible and conspicuous. And the number of scars crisscrossing his visible skin, including his face, spoke of a greater number of deep wounds received over the course of his life than Seijuurou had ever taken. Seijuurou might appreciate the guy’s surprisingly luxurious unbound hair, though, and its waviness that was atypical in this region. Seijuurou had never been able to get his hair to wave.

In any case, the two men side by side like this did indeed look as if they could eat a significant amount of donated food in a single day, and formed a formidable barrier to entrance into the presumed sanctum. And just the fact that there were such intimidating guards outside these doors said something about what might wait inside.

“He is,” the man on the right answered the Visitant’s question at last. “But he’s not to be disturbed. He’s meditating and praying trying to heal a man who was brought in with some unknown disease.”

The Visitant’s brows rose in a skeptical gesture worthy of Hajime. “A Misao devoted doing healing work?”

“There’s no time to send for someone from Megumi; the man may die.”

Sano shifted inadvertently. It might be a lie in its entirety, but he couldn’t possibly be pleased at hearing that a man inside with the white devoted might die. The muscular second-wash certainly seemed untroubled by the prospect, however.

The Visitant’s demeanor had stiffened somewhat, and Sano guessed she was starting to believe what he’d told her — or at the very least that something weird was going on here. She still sounded relatively polite, though, if as authoritative as ever, when she said, “Perhaps I can be of assistance. I am the Visitant.”

“Thought that’s what that device meant.” The fat man sounded childishly pleased, much as that old devoted at the gate had been at the opportunity to meet this Visitant person, and more than a little stupid. Sano wondered how he’d made it to this rank.

The muscular man threw his companion a brief look of patient, comradely disdain, and told the woman, “The fourth-wash ordered that nobody should disturb him.”

“And I,” replied the Visitant almost pleasantly, “am ordering you to stand aside and let me pass.”

The muscular man shook his head. “I’m afraid his orders came first, mistress.”

“Specific loyalty to individual superiors rather than the church.” The Visitant said this as if making a note for later. Then, examining each of the door-guards thoughtfully in turn, she commented, “I don’t believe what you’ve told me. I think your white devoted has some other reason for wanting visitors kept out of the sanctum at this time. As the royally appointed inspector of church affairs it is my duty to determine what that reason is. Now either step aside or give me a good explanation.”

Inspector of church affairs? Sano wondered when that had happened. There certainly hadn’t been such a person back when he’d lived with his devoted father, yet the folks at this shrine seemed tolerably familiar with the position. Tolerably respectful of it, too… stopping just short of actually doing what the Visitant commanded.

“I’m sorry, mistress,” said the muscular man with a shake of his head, “I can’t let you inside, and I can’t tell you anything more than what I’ve already told you.”

“You realize you’re only giving me greater reason to insist on being let in,” the Visitant said quietly, and now there was a touch of threat to her tone.

The muscular man nodded. “We all do our duty as we see it.” And as he made this statement he made also a subtle shift to his stance — and the atmosphere in the drafty corridor had suddenly changed.

Sano, who by now doubted very little that Hajime was beyond these doors and whose mood had become more and more tense as the seemingly pointless conversation progressed, now felt his fists clenching and his body stiffening in response to the combative aura surrounding the two men that stood between him and his goal.

“Eiji, stand back.” The Visitant’s tone was cool and calm, but Sano thought she too was ready for a fight. If so, he couldn’t help reflecting, she might have had the boy return his weapon to him rather than merely ‘standing back,’ but at least the kid would be out of harm’s way.

No further signal or statement was given to turn the verbal conflict into a physical one; as the muscular man had implied, they must carry out their conflicting duties, and there seemed little point in further debate. And it was at that same man in that same wordless state that Sano now threw himself, he having been to the Visitant’s right all this time and therefore closer to this particular enemy. How she dealt with the fat man on the left was not Sano’s concern as long as that battle did not encroach upon this one.

Unfortunately, under the current circumstances, there was no way to take his opponent off guard. Sano knew this as he advanced, and certainly anticipated a challenging conflict he would not be able to end with the first strike, but he didn’t expect the response he got: the man caught in his left palm the punch aimed at him, despite its having the entirety of Sano’s weight behind it, slapped his right hand against Sano’s forearm, and used the momentum of Sano’s charge to swing the smaller man’s body continually forward and around into the wall beside the door. If the building were newer, its interior might be plastered as had become the trend throughout the kingdom; as it was, the tapestry that was the only thing between Sano and the structure with which he now became intimate did little to cushion the blow.

Brain rattled and wind knocked out of him, Sano slumped to the floor; pain ran up and down his back, lightning seem to flicker through his skull, and for a moment he couldn’t even see what else might be going on around him. And all he could think of was that, though it came as no surprise to find someone so extravagantly bulky such a master of brute force, he couldn’t allow himself to be beaten like this — not when Hajime, beyond these doors, might die. Therefore, earlier than was probably wise, he dragged himself up and struggled back to his feet.

Though his spinning head attempted to prevent him from focusing on the corridor before him, Sano noted that the muscular man had already begun to turn away, as if confident having thrown him into the wall would be enough — as, under many circumstances, it would in fact have been. Now the orange-clad devoted paused in his shifting of attention toward the other skirmish, and watched with some surprise as Sano staggered up. “Visitant’s got herself a pretty good bodyguard,” he muttered, sounding faintly impressed, as he drew near again with fists clenched.

Sano’s hands too, though trembling slightly, reformed the only weapons he could count on right now. And as the big man approached, Sano’s returning coherence informed him he must at all costs avoid allowing this enemy to take hold of him again; he couldn’t afford to be slammed into another wall. He also wanted to correct the man’s mistake, so he said, “I don’t work for her. I’m here for the guy you’ve got inside.”

The muscular man paused in his advance and studied Sano for a moment. “You’re that heretic spy, aren’t you?” One side of his big mouth twisted up into a half grin, distorting his scarred features bizarrely. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got.”

They closed again, bodies dancing and fists flying. Sano realized almost immediately that nothing short of a hard knock to the head would be enough to deal with this monster; contact with any other point on his body felt like punching a sack full of rocks, and did about as much good. He was reminded again of Seijuurou, a sparring partner against whom he’d had no qualms throwing the entirety of his power since there had never been any realistic concerns for the master’s safety. Sano didn’t think this guy could possibly be that strong, but the conflict was not without its difficulties nonetheless.

“My fourth-wash will be pleased to present you to the king,” the man said as he peppered Sano with painful blows to the chest and face.

“Why your fourth-wash, and not you?” Sano gasped as he attempted to return the hits, aiming for the head every time, and was continually thwarted by the man’s meaty palms that never seemed to tire of catching his full-strength attacks.

“I don’t care about the king,” the man answered simply. “I follow the white devoted of Misao.”

So the Visitant’s assessment of ‘specific loyalty to individual superiors rather than the church’ had been accurate. Sano wondered how that would figure into her inspection; did she consider it a good or a bad thing? He had to admit he respected it more than blind devotion to some invisible woman in the sky. “So we’ve each got someone in there who’s really important to us,” he said as his enemy again caught one of his punches and Sano quickly jerked his fist away to prevent the man from taking hold of his arm once more. And this gave him an idea. “Which of us you think’s gonna fight harder for that?”

The man appeared not so much angry as determined, as if taking Sano’s question as a specific challenge, and threw another punch. This time Sano grabbed the flying fist in his own right hand. He couldn’t mimic his opponent’s opening technique by taking hold of him and flinging his entire body into the wall — the guy was far too large and solid for that — but he might be able to stop him catching his every blow; if he could get in just a single good hit to the head…

Since the big man also undoubtedly knew Sano couldn’t hope to use the same method he had, he didn’t withdraw the fist Sano had caught nearly as quickly as Sano had been doing with his own all along, and his eyes went wide with surprise when Sano clamped down hard on the big, solid knuckles and applied every bit of pressure his grip could command. No matter how strong someone was, after all, the hand had a limited amount of musculature, and must be a vulnerable point to someone with as strong a hold as Sano was capable of. He felt grinding and crunching inside his tight squeeze — whether the breaking of bones or the painful realignment of tendons he didn’t know — before the man’s hand was wrenched from his grasp.

His enemy backed away a pace, letting out a grunt of shock and discomfort, holding up for inspection fingers that did not all point the directions they should; and Sano pressed his advantage, rushing in for the long-desired blow. The man clumsily attempted to block with his damaged hand, but perhaps pain rendered him incapable of holding as steady as before; Sano’s attack brushed right past the beefy arm, and he felt the shudder of contact all the way down into his shoulder as he connected with the man’s temple. The punch made satisfyingly more noise than any previously delivered to that massive form, and the man crumpled in response and hit the floor like the aforementioned sack of rocks.

Sano almost fell immediately on top of him; aside from his earlier abrupt meeting with a stone wall, he’d taken a number of hits to places far more sensitive than the corresponding points on the body of his opponent. He was dizzy and aching, but he forced himself to remain upright; he had to see what was going on between the Visitant and the other door-guard.

Though he’d abstractedly noticed something burning off to his right during the previous conflict, he started now at finding it the left shoulder of the woman’s shiiya. Whence the fire had come he could not guess, since the fat man was at the moment empty-handed, but it seemed to be flickering more lustily by means of some type of oil that had been spilled or sprayed onto her. Even as he watched, she took a step backward and, shifting her long knife from her dominant hand into the unoccupied left, clapped the right down over her shoulder to squelch the flames with a wincing hiss.

Though disarmed — assuming he’d carried equipment in the first place — and bearing three or four shallow bleeding cuts across his arms and chest, the fat man didn’t seem ready to go down anytime soon. And indeed, without outright killing him (or at least wounding him to the point where he might die later, either of which could be considered overstepping a bit for an inspector of church business toward a devoted), what could the woman do to defeat him decisively? The behemoth probably weighed twice as much as Sano did, so the tricky throw and knee to the stomach she’d used on him outside the shrine wouldn’t be very effective; and was she capable of delivering a blow to the man’s fat head that would render him unconscious so as to end this battle? Sano thought it might be best, while he still had the strength, to help her out here. He could just enter the sanctum on his own while the sole remaining guard was busy, but he probably wouldn’t have gotten this far without the Visitant, and anyway it would be a shame to force her to kill this guy.

The fat man didn’t expect an attack from a third party, probably not having noticed his comrade had fallen, and barely had time for a stupid surprised expression on his enormous face when Sano came flying at him. And though the building didn’t exactly shake when the giant frame hit the ground, the air kicked up by the motion did flutter the tapestries on the wall nearby. And then Sano sank to his knees, breathing hard, seeing stars, ready for a long moment to compose himself.

The corridor around them was eerily silent now — in fact it seemed a little odd no one had come to investigate the sounds of battle outside the sanctum doors, and Sano wondered whether the various devoted that would normally be hanging around here had been dismissed for the duration of whatever the white was up to — and the boy’s footsteps returning from wherever he’d taken shelter were startlingly loud all of a sudden. So was his query, “Do you need help?”

“No, thank you.” The Visitant was every bit as breathless as Sano, and evidently she too was taking a few moments to recuperate. “I don’t think we have anything with us to treat burns anyway.”

“You’re right,” said the boy reluctantly, and his concern for his mother — at least Sano still assumed she was his mother — sounded clearly in his voice.

Further, heavier footsteps came across the floor at last, and Sano raised his eyes to find the Visitant standing beside him. Looking her over, Sano saw a number of scorch marks on her clothing, and one stretching down her left arm that appeared particularly uncomfortable. The fat man must have fought with an interesting technique, but Sano had no room in his head to give that much consideration. With a deep breath, struggling for calm, he stood up.

“‘Heretic spy?'” The woman gave him another once-over such as he was giving her.

Sano shook his head and turned. “I’m surprised you caught that in the middle of fighting and shit.”

“It’s my job to catch religious deviation.” She said it with a faint touch of humor to her tone that made it seem she was not so much accusing Sano of something as admitting she’d walked into a situation more complicated than she’d had any idea of at the outset.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Sano said as he reached for one of the carved handles in front of him. “I don’t think we have time for it right now.”

“Yes,” the Visitant said darkly. “Let’s see what they were so determined to keep hidden in there.”

And they walked through the sanctum doors into the middle of another battle.

>27 Interlude

The lock had crumpled under heavy blows from Shikijou’s iron knuckles, and now the ruined door swung inward to reveal a small atrium hung with the poorest examples of woven tapestries depicting the divine lady Misao that Shikijou had ever seen. They didn’t even have a statue; this really was a wretched little shrine.

Doubtless in response to the noise he’d made beating in the lock of the foolishly un-barred entrance, two figures appeared in the doorway that led further into the building (not that there was much further in to go, the place was so small). As Shikijou took in the details of their appearance — red shiiya on one, indicating the lowest rank, and no shiiya on the other, indicating she’d probably been in bed or about to be — a broad grin spread across his face, and he drew himself up to his full, impressive height.

“They were right,” he said smugly: “one old woman, one young man. Not much of a defense for all those supplies you just got in.”

Instead of cowering before his bulk as they should have done, the devoted glanced at each other — she with a frown, he with a seemingly indifferent blankness. “It must’ve been the delivery men,” the woman sighed — and in fact it had been the drivers of the recently arrived wagons that had tipped Shikijou off about the significant amount of food and other goods this understaffed shrine had recently had delivered. “Maybe we shouldn’t have ordered so much all at once.”

“It will be fine,” the young man replied in a tone far more even than reassuring or confident.

“It will be fine,” Shikijou echoed cheerfully, “as long as you cooperate.” He advanced a few more steps into the room, slamming his fists together so the iron he wore made a dull clinking sound. “Misao’s the lady of thieves, right? I’m doing her work here. This’ll practically be a religious experience for you guys!”

And again instead of backing off the way they should have done, stepping aside to let him past or even showing him the way to their storeroom themselves, the two devoted… Well, actually, Shikijou wasn’t entirely certain what they did. For the next instant, before he could take another step, blows every bit as iron-hard as the devices he wore on his own hands slammed into him at multiple points, and he was staggering back with only a confused glimpse of the young man that seemed to have crossed the room without even moving. He was knocked sideways, knocked down, knocked silly before any of his own suddenly clumsy punches could strike outward far enough to hope to connect. And he found himself on his stomach on the floor, flailing, while a slender weight pressed down on him and deft hands yanked his arms back, seized his wrists, and tied them quickly with what must be a rope conjured out of nowhere.

Though he kicked upward and otherwise struggled for a few moments, Shikijou gradually fell relatively still. The awareness of his defeat sank in slowly and confusedly, since it had taken less than fifteen seconds for the unexpectedly skillful young man to break his concentration with a series of well placed hits and then use his weight against him to bring him down. So it was in some bafflement Shikijou finally went quiescent, unable quite to believe what had just happened.

And then a calm, somewhat dark voice spoke in his ear every bit as emotionlessly as it had made its previous comments to the old woman. “Misao is the lady of thieves, but not the lady of armed robbery. For you to walk in here carrying weapons and claim to be doing her work is blasphemy.”

“Misao devoted use weapons all the time!” Shikijou protested. “I’ve seen them all over the place!”

“We do,” the young man agreed. “She has nothing against the use of weapons.” And to demonstrate this point, there came the sound of blade leaving sheath, and the next moment what felt like a short sword — possibly a keonblade — pressed threateningly to Shikijou’s neck. “But she values stealth and cunning more than straightforward combat.”

Shikijou snorted, both at the sentiment and to express just how intimidated he wasn’t by this barely adult lightweight on top of him, no matter how he might be armed. “Me and my guys go through a lot of food, you know. And straightforward combat’s a much easier way to get it than trying to sneak around.”

To Shikijou’s surprise, the young man didn’t even sound particularly disapproving as he replied, “I have no doubt that’s true.” But a harder, less forgiving note crept into his tone as he added, “Only don’t claim to have Misao’s blessing in an endeavor she would never bless.”

Shikijou had still been making token struggles during this exchange, but now even these ceased in his surprise. “Does it really bother you more that I claimed this was a Misao thing than that I was trying to rob you in the first place?”

From across the room the old woman put in gently, “Of course it does. We’re Misao’s servants. What did you expect from us?”

And the young man remarked, still perfectly calm but now slightly more conversational than before, “If you had come in here while we slept and stolen our supplies without waking us, then we would have believed you had Misao’s blessing. You would have been welcome to anything you could take.”

It was a totally incredible statement, yet Shikijou found he couldn’t disbelieve it. They truly would make no attempt at recovery or retaliation if he managed to get the stuff away from them in a manner approved by the divine lady they served. The idea affected him strangely, and he found his own tone low and husky as he asked, “You really believe in her, don’t you?”

A long, pregnant silence followed before the young man said, low and measured, “Don’t you?” And there was, somehow, a subtle threat to that demand that intimidated Shikijou far more than the mere presence of an unexpected warrior on his back with a drawn blade could ever have done.

And he was left to ponder in silence: did he believe in Misao? In his life of banditry, of taking what he could get from wherever he found it and using it to carouse with his companions until it ran out and he was forced to look to the next venture that would feed them for the next however long, the divine ladies weren’t something he routinely bent his mind toward. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea of them, or the idea of their blessings when he needed them… it was mostly just that he didn’t care. And now here was this boy with his deadly earnest voice and his ridiculous combative abilities sitting on top of Shikijou and urging him to think seriously about something he hadn’t given this much attention since his distant childhood.

Before he had a chance to answer — indeed, before he had a chance to decide — the young man was speaking again, this time clearly not to Shikijou, and in a tone even more low and serious than before: “Misao, lady of quickness and brightness, let this doubting man for just one moment feel the vigor and joy that you bring. Hear my prayer.”

“Hear my prayer,” the old woman echoed at a murmur.

And Shikijou felt it.

There was a rush of energy so stimulating it would undoubtedly have lifted him immediately to his feet had he not been encumbered by another human body. And along with this came a bubbling feeling of pleasure and contentment that would surely have prompted gleeful laughter if it had lasted for more than the single moment the young man had specified. But for as brief as the sensations were, they were real; they were undeniable.

“You do believe,” said the quiet voice above. And as if he felt safe now leaving Shikijou to thrash about on the floor as he would, the red devoted got lightly to his feet, removing his weight from the bigger man and replacing his weapon audibly in its sheath that must be concealed beneath his shiiya.

Shikijou didn’t know what to say. Everything had changed, somehow, in the presence of this sedulous young man and the belief he both expressed for his own part and stimulated in another.

“You came here tonight unaware there was a warrior at this shrine.” Skilled hands were once again working the ties at Shikijou’s wrists, this time loosening them. “I offer you this bargain: fight me knowing what I am, and if you defeat me, the supplies are yours.”

Now able to move freely, Shikijou got quickly to his feet and looked suspiciously at the two devoted. It appeared he’d been tied with the drawstring of one of the room’s curtains; that was nearly as good as a rope conjured out of nowhere. The young man didn’t seem to think he would need it again, though, for now he tossed it aside onto the floor. Shikijou observed the motion, as well as the young man’s stance, from beneath lowered brows. “Thought you said Misao doesn’t like straightforward combat much.”

“She is fond of bargains, though.” The old woman appeared amused, and not particularly worried about the outcome of the contest. Couldn’t a guy get any appreciation for his solid musculature?

“And what happens if you beat me?” Shikijou wondered, even more suspicious than before.

“You stay here,” replied the young man simply.

Shikijou blinked. “As a devoted?”

The young man nodded.

“And what about my guys?”

“They’re welcome to join us too.”

For a moment Shikijou simply stared. The offer seemed every bit as bizarre as this entire encounter had been, and sparked strange thoughts in his head: thoughts of what it would be like to serve alongside (or under) this somber youth so unlike what he considered typical of Misao’s followers yet clearly so dedicated to her; thoughts of what he’d just felt while lying on the floor that had supposedly hailed from the divine patroness of such energy and joy but that he was almost more inclined to attribute to that same young man; thoughts of how his own faith, never a particularly intense flame, had been fanned so expertly and so unexpectedly here. Of course he considered his people back home, too, and how in the world they would react to the tale of this evening, no matter how it turned out…

He slammed his iron knuckles together once more and, with a sharp downward motion, flung them clattering to the floor. He fought just as well bare-fisted in any case, and was sure these rabbits would interpret the gesture as exactly what it was — a symbol of respect for a fellow warrior that had chided him for embarking on his errand to this place bearing weapons. He clenched both his hands and lifted his arms, falling into a combative stance.

“Sounds like a good deal either way.”

Chapter 28 – Twitch

Overall the sanctum was smaller than Sano had expected — certainly cramped for the fight taking place there now — but admittedly he didn’t know what type of religious activities the room was intended for under normal circumstances. It had an odd feeling to it — if any feeling could be admitted other than those occasioned by the action in front of him — with its two storeys’ worth of height but conspicuous lack of breadth, its floor-to-ceiling orange hangings creating an almost claustrophobic effect despite the openness above. A full-length painting of Misao, making use of the vertical space to stand larger than life on a recessed wall behind the plain altar, looked out with that impish smile of hers again on the violence going on in her most sacred of chambers.

Sano, the Visitant, and the boy Eiji had emerged onto a narrow balcony overlooking the sanctum’s only slightly less narrow floorspace. Down there, a set of cushions that must originally have been arranged in a semi-circle before the altar — there were perhaps five of them; more would not have fit — had been kicked aside and trampled by the inconsiderate feet of the two combatants now ranging the limited area where they had rested. One of them had been so displaced as to fly past the altar into the alcove that held the painting of the divine lady, and now slumped forlornly at her unshod feet. Sano started forward to grip the railing of the little balcony and stare down breathlessly in a mixture of anxiety and relief that should have canceled itself out but somehow was all the stronger for being so contradictory.

Hajime must have wrested one of the white devoted’s own weapons away from him, for the slender keonblade he now fought with was identical to the one in the hand of the other man. He bore no visible wounds, and moved as if unhurt and unimpeded, though Sano could see the remains of at least one of the ropes that had held him still dangling from his right wrist. How he’d initially freed himself from those Sano had no idea. The white devoted of Misao, on the other hand, moved with an uncanny swiftness masquerading as languor that Sano, though he’d observed it only once before, would never forget. His eyes went even wider as unpleasant memories and a more intense worry arose within him.

“That’s him,” he choked out. “That’s the fucking assassin.”

Her grimness having faded into resignation and possibly even something like mild amusement — in any case, a marvelous lack of concern — the Visitant leaned on the railing beside him. “And that’s the man you were so desperate to rescue?” She gestured at Hajime, who was busy blocking a series of deceptively quick blows delivered by the stranger.

Feeling his face go hot at her tone, Sano mumbled, “Yeah… he doesn’t really look like he needs…”

Her eyes rolled toward him condescendingly. “You don’t know him very well, do you?”

Sano wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and didn’t have a chance in any case. The combatants, obviously aware of the new presence in the room though they hadn’t looked up, had slowed a trifle, and now Hajime spoke in a tone indicating he found this as good a moment as any to put an end to the proceedings: “This is pointless. Do you think I can’t tell when my enemy’s heart isn’t in his attacks? You can’t defeat me fighting like that.”

Though he said nothing, and his startlingly handsome face beneath eye-shading black bangs did not change, the white devoted appeared to falter slightly; it seemed his heart really wasn’t in this. Sano wondered what it was about this guy the muscular guard at the door was so excessively loyal to. Hajime, conversely, did not hesitate; he took advantage of the momentary wavering his words seemed to have caused to press forward with a few twisting blows that struck the weapon out of the devoted’s hand. With a full-body advance, he backed his opponent up against the wall, crumpling the hanging behind him, and laid the unfamiliar keonblade against the devoted’s neck. He had allowed the energy to recede; all it would take was flashing it out again by an inch or two and the man would die.

The room went utterly still and silent: the three people on the balcony watching intently, Hajime staring searchingly into the devoted’s face, and the devoted himself carefully motionless and unblinking in Hajime’s grip. Finally the knight said, “You murdered your own superior and tried to kill all the other whites.”

The fourth-wash did not react.

“And in attempting to kill my associate, you murdered an innocent Tomoe man in the street.”

Sano felt his gut clench at the words, but Misao’s white did not react.

“But you never wanted to kill anyone,” Hajime went on speculatively. “You couldn’t even bring yourself to fight me properly here today. We would have been much better matched if you had.”

Still no hint of a reaction from the stranger.

“None of this was your idea, so whose was it? Whom are you taking orders from?”

Not a shift of frame, not a fraction of muscular movement in that impassive face, gave any indication what the fourth-wash might be thinking.

Sano could see Hajime’s hand on the keonblade pressing just slightly harder. “Who put that little snake Soujirou up to his tricks at the palace?”

If he hadn’t previously been so consummately motionless, the twitch the devoted’s body gave at this moment might not have been visible — or at least not so eye-catchingly noticeable. As it was, Sano could stand it no longer; fearing what that twitch portended and feeling more than ever the need to be at Hajime’s side with whatever assistance he could offer against this enemy, he vaulted over the balcony’s railing, ignoring the narrow staircase that curved down to the wrong side of the room, and landed near the knight. One of his feet came to rest on one of the smashed cushions, causing him to stumble slightly, and that seemed to be all the diversion the fourth-wash required: he jerked to the side at great risk to himself, given the position of Hajime’s blade, wrenching free of the knight’s right hand that had grasped his arm, and ducked behind another of the orange hangings. From behind it came the noise of creaking hinges; then there was a brief draft that sent the cloth rippling even more than had the advent of a body behind it, the closing of a door, the muffled slamming of a bar on the other side, and quick, light receding footsteps that echoed slightly and faded swiftly from hearing.

Wordlessly Hajime watched the fluttering tapestry settle, then began to turn toward Sano. The younger man braced himself for a reproof he couldn’t deny he deserved for having provided the distraction their enemy needed in order to make his escape, but it did not come. For the knight’s path of rotation brought his eyes first to rest on the Visitant who, with Eiji behind her, now descended from the balcony by more conventional means than Sano had used, and Hajime looked genuinely surprised to see her. Before he could say anything, however, she spoke:

“You’re not going after him?”

Seemingly recovered from his moment of startlement, Hajime turned his attention to removing the last of his bonds from his wrist with his stolen keon weapon. “That’s your job, not mine.” He let the energy blade fade entirely before tucking the short sword beneath his belt; presumably he meant to keep it, as he’d undoubtedly been relieved of the long standard sword Seijuurou had provided him. “It seems as if I’d have to torture him to get anything more out of him anyway, and shrines aren’t usually equipped for that.”

The Visitant chuckled as she drew nearer, and then, to Sano’s utter astonishment, threw her arms unhesitatingly around Hajime for a close embrace. What was even more baffling was that his arms immediately rose to clasp her in return.

Sano stared at them, unable to blink and, inexplicably, unable to breathe — at the unhesitating way they, obviously well acquainted, greeted each other with a gesture Sano honestly hadn’t ever expected to see from the royal knight. If he’d considered the matter (unlikely as he was to have done so), he wouldn’t have expected it of this harsh woman either, little as he knew about her at this point. And surely a church inspector… and a committed heretic…

Motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and it was with a curious blend of reluctance and a sense of reprieve his gaze left what he was watching to look at Eiji, who had stepped forward from the bottom of the stairs. He studied the kid’s face as Eiji too observed this apparently affectionate reunion… the kid’s familiar face… that faint smile, that angle of brow, those dark smooth lashes…

It was a shock so palpable that Sano’s entire body twitched in very much the same manner the white devoted’s had a minute before. For some reason he still couldn’t breathe.

“I thought you were in the border towns for the rest of the year.” Whether or not Hajime had withdrawn from the hug, Sano didn’t know.

“I heard rumors about what’s going on in Elotica,” the Visitant replied, “and thought it would be best if I was there. I ran into your friend here getting ready to sneak into this place.”

Knowing the woman must be gesturing at him, knowing Hajime must finally turn fully in his direction, Sano almost reflexively broke away from the kid that so resembled both of the other adults in the room and looked the royal knight in the face at last. The moment of gold meeting brown seemed to drag out far longer than it actually lasted. It wasn’t only that Sano was ridiculously relieved to see Hajime unhurt and free of captivity; it wasn’t only that Sano was absurdly glad to see Hajime at all; it was as if something fundamental had altered in the way he looked at him, as if he was seeing him for the first time.

“You told me about your family,” he couldn’t help accusing silently. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Not that Hajime was under any obligation, or would have had any need to mention these people if not specifically inclined to do so. Not that Sano had any reason to care. But somehow things had changed. He remembered his worries — stupid and meaningless they seemed now — that Hajime might discover Sano had possibly slept with a group of random strangers, and trying to reassure himself defiantly that he owed the knight neither restraint nor explanation in such matters. It wasn’t heartening to find that went both ways.

And all Hajime said, looking him up and down, was, “What in Kaoru’s name are you wearing?”

“Language, Hajime…” the Visitant reproved, demonstrating (as if that were needed) she knew his name without having to be told.

Hajime’s roll of eyes might have been promising, but the half smile that accompanied it made the gesture seem more fond than exasperated. He turned away from Sano as if their locked gaze hadn’t meant a thing, and said, “How are you, Eiji?” — demonstrating (as if that were needed) he knew his name without having to be told.

Sano was glad no one was watching him now as Hajime and his… and Eiji had a brief moment of catching up. He wouldn’t have liked them to see the way he trembled as if from some great exertion — and not from the battle in front of the sanctum doors, either; it had started when Hajime had withdrawn his eyes. As he struggled to regain control, he fought against rising anger and despair. Of course it made sense for Hajime to comment on the stupid outfit he still wore; what else had he expected from him? An explanation? An apology? Even just a “Thanks for trying to rescue me” would have been nice. But once again, Hajime didn’t owe him anything, and Sano needed to conquer this before he made a fool of himself.

Fortunately for his dignity, he did have an excuse for the turmoil he was undoubtedly displaying in spite of his best efforts; and in fact the results of the aforementioned battle, completely forgotten as he’d anxiously followed Hajime’s conflict with the white devoted, were practically screaming aloud now. His entire right side throbbed from where he’d hit the wall, and a pattern of spots like a constellation across his figure, including on his face, had commenced a deep, stinging ache as they remembered fists slamming into them. His lungs pulsated not so much with pain as with lingering aftershock from the long moments during which he’d had no breath after hard stone had knocked it out of him. No wonder he was so emotionally distressed! His body was certainly in no position to contribute to personal strength and discipline.

Hajime had asked Eiji a couple of questions Sano hadn’t wanted to listen to, but now was looking around at the room — most specifically at the hanging behind which the fourth-wash had disappeared — with anticipatory impatience. “I’m surprised Aoshi isn’t back yet with his minions.”

In a relatively impassive part of his brain that Sano was astonished still existed, he filed away the name ‘Aoshi,’ which he did remember having heard at some point in relation to the higher-wash of Misao. But that didn’t mean he could speak yet, and it was the Visitant that replied to Hajime’s statement: “We left two of them unconscious outside the doors.” She waved to her left, and Hajime, following her hand, evidently had his eyes caught by Sano as they would have passed him upward to the little balcony and the room’s traditional exit. His gaze moved from head to toe again, and, though he gave a little shake of head surely in continued baffled response to the blue and orange outfit, this time he also seemed to take in more details than merely that. And when he turned back toward the Visitant, he appeared to be assessing her injuries as well.

“You’re both all right, it seems.” Then solely to the Visitant, in that smirking tone Sano thought he knew so intimately but that the woman presumably knew better, he added, “You must have been practicing with that little knife of yours.”

“I have the ladies’ blessing on that little knife of mine,” the Visitant replied. And though she spoke in a tone of piety, there was a touch of sarcasm to it as well; Sano realized with a sinking of heart that she had deliberately made the religious reference in order to annoy Hajime and pay him back for the tease about her weapon and combative abilities. She did know him well. Then she added in a more reasonable tone, “Your friend here actually threw the last punch both times, though.”

Hajime gave Sano another meaningless glance and said briefly, “Well done, Sano.”

And in response to this commendation that would have meant the world to him just yesterday, Sano was tempted to reply, “Too little, too late, your knightliness.”

Looking immediately away from him again, Hajime said, “I expected another fight, but if you cut his little team in half, it may take Aoshi longer than I thought to rally his forces. We may be able to get out of here without encountering him again.” His eyes flicked once more to the hanging that concealed the back door, then up at the main ones, pensive. Finally he said, “The shrine’s eastern entrance is the closest to a street that will take us out of town; we need to get away from Enca as soon as possible.”

Finding his voice at last, Sano protested, “But that’ll put pretty much the whole town between us and Elotica!”

Hajime looked at him and away, and now Sano started to get the feeling he was deliberately avoiding meeting his gaze for more than an instant. “We can’t just go straight into the capital, idiot. It won’t take long for Aoshi to get someone on our trail — maybe even guards from the capital; he must have sent word hours ago, and they could be here any time. We have to shake any pursuit before we can even think about getting into Elotica.”

Surly, Sano had no response for this reasonable point.

Apparently sensing his capitulation rather than reading it on the face he seemingly now refused to look at, Hajime nodded sharply. “We’ll need to get out of this building quickly. They brought me in through the back ways and this door–” he gestured over his shoulder– “which won’t be available to us now. Tokio, do you remember the way you came in?”

The Visitant nodded. “It shouldn’t be too much trouble to retrace our steps, but I think the middle entrance of the shrine will be easiest to get out of from there. We may have to make our way through more streets than you were planning.”

Hajime’s nod was identical to Tokio’s. “Fine. But the east end of town is still closest. If we get separated…” He appeared frustrated, probably because he didn’t know the environs of Enca well enough to suggest a rendezvous point in this eventuality.

“We’ll find each other.” Tokio laid a hand briefly on Hajime’s arm in another gesture Sano would not have expected to see him accept so readily. And again Hajime nodded, then moved past her toward the stairs.

To a certain extent, despite the slew of negative and tempestuous emotions Sano had been struggling against in here, the room had come to feel a bit like what it actually was: a sanctuary from the world. They had no idea what they would find outside the doors — their previous enemies awakened, fresh enemies appearing, or just an empty corridor — and the very instant they set foot out there they would be on the run from as-yet-unknown powers. Whether that was better than skulking in here with the knight disinclined to look at him and a bizarre new set of sentiments Sano didn’t want to face threatening every instant to burst out of him, he couldn’t really be sure. It didn’t matter, since it was obviously time to go.

Not wanting to talk to the kid — or anyone at the moment, really — Sano got Eiji’s attention somewhat rudely with a rough wave, then pushed his hand palm-upward toward him in a gesture of demand. Eiji hesitated briefly, glancing at his mother, who was following Hajime to the stairs, but then shrugged a bit and relinquished the belt and sheathed weapon he still had draped over his shoulder. He would be freer to move without it anyway, and he must recognize by now that Sano was an ally of his… of Hajime.

The latter, taking the lead as naturally as if he’d been chosen by general consensus, ascended and grasped one of the door handles. Leaning close, he listened intently, and Sano from two steps down the staircase did the same, for whatever danger might lie without that Hajime by his own choice would be the first to face. His slight frown indicated nothing of what he might be hearing out there, but as he drew the confiscated keonblade from his belt — carefully; it seemed to be unusually sharp — the rest of them readied for further movement.

The doors opened outward from here — wide as they were, there wouldn’t have been space for them to swing inward onto the narrow balcony — and this was a tactical advantage in the current circumstances. With a swift motion and no warning, Hajime flung them both open, one with a kick and the other with his arm, hopefully breaking the nose of or smashing against the wall anyone lying in wait for them outside. The door on the left did strike something, and only opened halfway, but Sano remembered leaving the muscular second-wash lying pretty close to it before, so that could mean nothing. Quickly, single file, they all darted out after Hajime.

Was it a disappointment to find the drafty corridor exactly as they’d left it? The two orange-clad devoted still prone, and not another person — another enemy — in sight? It was. Despite being well aware that their current goal was quiet escape, Sano found he longed for further combat. Only the heat of battle, he thought, could distract him from what he experienced internally right now, and his hands and arms seemed to ache with more than the actual pain they felt — with desire for the shock of impact, the sensation of something first resisting and then giving way beneath his attack. He would like to haul that muscular devoted to his feet (near-impossible an undertaking as that would undoubtedly be) and shake him awake, challenge him, “Why don’t you throw me into another wall?”

Yet earlier he’d said to him, “So we’ve each got someone in there who’s really important to us. Which of us you think’s gonna fight harder for that?” And then it had turned out that what he’d been fighting for was–

“This way.” Tokio directed them without hesitation, and they all followed at a jog. Maybe there was an enemy lurking around the next corner, and Sano could be satisfied then.

There wasn’t, and he couldn’t. Just as on the way in, the chambers and corridors were eerily noiseless and empty as they made their way out, and Sano continued to speculate, with the portion of his brain not occupied by bitterer thoughts, that the mundanes had been temporarily banished for the duration of the intended prisoner transfer. They arrived at what he remembered as the first room they’d entered, with its old statue of Misao surrounded by cushions, without incident, but as they crossed it they could hear the distant sound of numerous footsteps echoing down some deeper hallway.

Again Hajime took the lead, setting the door ajar and peering through before gesturing them all onward. Sano was surprised, when he stepped out after Tokio and Eiji, to find they were by no means alone in the courtyard inside the main building’s pentagon: it appeared the entire population of the shrine had gathered in some agitation where they’d presumably been ordered to stay, and now a shifting and a murmur of surprise rippled through them at the appearance of the fugitives from within. Sano wondered Hajime had chosen to emerge when he’d seen this, but supposed retreating and looking for another exit might have been even more hazardous when someone was evidently in there now searching for them.

They had begun pushing their way through the crowd before anyone could properly react, banking on the hope that none of these people really knew what was going on or would be inclined to stop them; but in fact it worked out better than that. For almost as soon as Tokio’s shiiya caught the grey light of the now-overcast sky, the murmuring became more pointed, and Sano could even make out some of it. It seemed the individual loyalty to the current white devoted of Misao she’d remarked upon outside the sanctum doors was limited to the specific warriors they’d met, or at the very least not shared by the members of this group. They had found Aoshi’s behavior troublesome and questionable from almost the moment he’d arrived here, and the appearance of the inspector of church affairs shortly thereafter seemed to confirm their suspicions. Something strange was going on, especially now Elotica city guards had entered the shrine in pursuit of someone and the rightful residents and employees — some of whom had lived here all their lives, and never before been subjected to such an indignity — had been ousted without explanation. They only hoped they would not be the ones to suffer when the Visitant reported on the untoward happenings and came down as hard as was rumored to be her wont on the wrongdoers.

Tokio obviously picked up on this atmosphere as well, for as she pushed her way through the agitated devoted she called out, “There’s no need for concern! Just let us through!” And the crowd parted as if by magic, creating a path the fugitives did not hesitate to take advantage of. As they ran, the space closed behind them, to which movement there was almost a feeling of support, of solidarity. When Aoshi and whichever of his loyalists remained to him and the city guards eventually emerged from the empty building and inquired of the assembly where the escapees had gone, Sano didn’t think anyone would be very forthcoming with the answer.

The old man at the gate, who had not abandoned his post even in the midst of this inexplicable chaos, saluted as the four of them hastened past, a gesture Sano believed was aimed specifically at the Visitant he’d shown so much respect earlier. And Sano couldn’t help wondering breathlessly, “Why are you so famous when I’ve never heard of you?” The question of why he’d never heard of this woman being presently one rather close to his heart, after all.

He could see the smirk on her face as she turned it slightly to offer him the semi-answer, “Maybe I’ll tell you once we’re somewhere safe.”

Sano huffed, but said nothing more. They were in the street by now, heading toward the intersection of this road and another that would take them out of town. Despite the cooperation of the group of devoted behind them, they could be followed at any moment, and needed to put as much distance between them and both pursuers and witnesses as soon as they possibly could. So Sano concentrated on dodging pedestrians and vehicles, matching his pace as his companions did to that of the slowest of them — Eiji — keeping his eyes open for anyone coming behind, and generally bringing up an effective rear.

There are a lot of weird things about this old picture (not least of which is the question Why did I draw this AU’s Tomoe so many times?), but there are some decent aspects to it as well.

Here’s an old picture of our Visitant. Obviously back when I drew this, it didn’t occur to me that her shiiya should be flower-cut. So inaccurate!!

For some author’s notes about chapter 26, see this Productivity Log. For chapter 27 notes, see this one.

Here’s an old picture of Aoshi before he got promoted. It’s a bit of a mix, actually — he’s carrying the staff symbolic of the office of white devoted, but as you can see, he’s not quite to that rank yet. In any case it makes him look like a tightrope-walker.


What Brings You Joy

Of course Saitou and Sano bring me joy (and in my heart they bring each other joy as well!), but I’m also overjoyed to sit quietly next to my little dog as recovering-from-surgery buddies and work on pictures and stories.

Heretic’s Reward 21-24

Heretic’s Reward

“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 July 29, 2018

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
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
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 21 – Third Report: Purple Sky

It wasn’t that he hated it when Hajime was right, but in a way, Sano hated it when Hajime was right. Part of this was probably more that he hated the unpleasant and inconvenient circumstances the knight had predicted and warned him about, but merely the fact that Hajime had managed to anticipate something Sano had thought unlikely must be consistently annoying.

A mere two days in Elotica had proven Hajime’s concerns not unfounded. After the news of an assassin targeting devoted, naturally everyone in the religious districts was on edge, but it was worse than just that for Sano: suddenly almost everyone acted differently around him than they had. As Hajime had feared, a mood of mistrust had spread through the devoted, and anyone not long-established was being eyed askance and treated with less friendliness and welcome than before.

This applied, of course, to others besides Sano — any newcomer, really — but Sano, who carried a sword in contexts (such as in Megumi’s corner) where it was less than entirely usual to do so, and who’d had very attention-grabbing hair up until this very visit to town, was particularly visible. So he often got the worst of it, which was extremely inconvenient for someone trying not to stand out in order to gather information.

That wasn’t all Hajime had been right about.

Now Sano hurried back to Enca after those mere two days in the capital, his footsteps occasionally threatening to hasten into a run despite his efforts at keeping to an unsuspicious pace, his heart thudding with a beat far faster than those footsteps and that in part, he thought, served to quicken them past what he wanted, past endurance. The lump in his throat threatened to choke him, or to burst out of him as a hopeless cry, at any moment; and if it weren’t for the adrenaline pounding through him to the very tips of his extremities, he feared his entire body would be weighed down with an intolerable heaviness that would have prevented any movement whatsoever, except perhaps uncontrollable shaking.

Having passed out of sight of the Elotica gate-guards and onto a stretch of road completely untrafficked at this dark hour, Sano felt it safe to release some of his wretched energy in a brief run. It didn’t help much. And then forcing himself to slow as he reached a bend, around which he might encounter late-returning farmers or other tradesmen to whom his agitation and haste might appear strange, was tremendously difficult; it seemed his legs would easily continue running until the entirety of his being gave way in exhaustion and he collapsed. Running certainly felt more right at the moment.

There were a few people on the road outside Enca, and Sano struggled to move with something like calm. He hardly knew how he must look to them. How was he ever supposed to get into town and to the north end without someone taking unnecessary and detrimental notice of him? Or was he worrying too much? His thoughts were in chaos; he had no idea what he should be doing.

Whether or not he managed it in any way subtly, he did eventually, after what felt like an eternity, get back to the inn. And whether his footsteps on the wooden stairs and upper floor stomped or staggered, he did manage to get inside.

Hajime had obviously been in bed but not yet asleep, and was on his feet by the time Sano’s clumsy hands got the door unlocked and himself inside the room. His tall, wiry form, sword drawn against what he must perceive as an intruder at this unlikely time of night so soon after Sano had left, would have been intimidating — even terrifying — to an actual intruder, but to Sano was unexpectedly reassuring. Sano closed the door perhaps too abruptly and loudly, and leaned back against it with a shuddering breath, finally stilling except for the trembling of his body and the pounding of his heart.

Hajime’s sword lowered as quickly as it had risen, and he said somewhat harshly, “What happened? Why are you back here already?”

“I… shit…” At the thought of answering Hajime’s questions, Sano felt suddenly shakier than he had the entire way back to the inn. He moved to the table, dragged a stool out, and sat heavily down.

“You’ve got blood on your arm.” Later Sano must remember to be gratified in retrospect at the concern in the knight’s voice as he said this. “Were you attacked? Are you wounded?”

“No. Yes.” Sano shook his head. “No, I’m not wounded. Yes, I was attacked.”

“What in Yumi’s name happened?” demanded Hajime, both speaking and dropping his sword on his bed with evident impatience. “Unless you were attacked in the street right outside the inn, you’ve had the entire way back to calm down — so don’t just sit there; tell me.”

Sano snorted. “You really know how to comfort a guy.” Though the irony was that he was comforted. Somehow, though he hadn’t recognized it during the chaotic trip, he’d very much wanted to get back to Hajime. “All right.” He sat up straight from where he’d been resting his face on one hand, and took a deep breath, bracing himself to tell his unpleasant story. “I went to Tomoe’s plaza…”

Starting at the beginning helped calm him a little, enough that he was able to leave out the details he didn’t want to give. Other details, though, he found himself emphasizing to an unnecessary extent in a pretty obvious attempt to put off the eventual relation of the climax.

Hajime would never know just how difficult this was, because Sano would never tell him, because Sano would probably never want to relate the prior circumstances that made it so difficult. And maybe it was childish to keep that hidden, but that was how things were, and therefore led to how things must be.

He needed to find out more about kereme and whether or not Enishi used the stuff, and figured his best avenue for doing so — and the most effective use of his time, since, despite the approaching meeting with those he and Katsu had been chatting up lately, he often found himself at loose ends at night after most of the common roomers at the inn had gone home — was to head back to Tomoe’s corner and look around for the same companions with whom he’d had his own kereme experience.

He really, really didn’t want to — didn’t want to see any of them ever again, didn’t want to hear anything they might have to say, didn’t want to risk getting entangled in another scene like the previous — and hadn’t yet come up with anything logical he could ask that would get him information but keep him from having to partake again… but this was still the surest way he could think of to seek what he needed to know. With anyone else, he would be forced to work his way around to the subject first, and then what if they weren’t involved with kereme themselves and had no idea what he was talking about — or, worse (though probably better for them), were opposed to kereme and tried to get him in trouble for his interest? No, he thought, if he could find one or both of those two guys that had been in charge of the get-together before, that would be his best source of information.

Largely thanks to the memory gap that persisted of much of the night in question, Sano couldn’t be sure in what part of the purple end of town he’d run into them last week, so he was simply moving cautiously and watchfully through the darker and smaller streets of Tomoe’s corner, looking for low lights in any of the residences or the furtive movements of someone checking for trouble outside their doors. But thus far he’d seen nothing. It was so dark on this latest street, in fact, that he didn’t notice a still-standing figure leaning against the corner of a building until he was startlingly close.

“Sometarou?” Though there was a slight questioning tone to it, still the speaker detached from the wall and came toward Sano as if he’d been specifically expecting him.

Hoping his violent start hadn’t been visible in the darkness, Sano replied with all the levelness he could command, “Yeah. Is that–” Hair thinning and greying simultaneously, unremarkable face and figure… even in the low light it took only a moment to recognize one of his companions from that night last week, but… “Sorry, I… can’t remember your name.”

“Korucun,” the man replied with understanding friendliness. “It was your first time, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah…” Sano tried not to sound as chagrined as he actually felt, especially considering this was one of the people he might very well have slept with on that unfortunate occasion. “I forgot everyone else’s names there too.”

“That’s normal,” Korucun reassured him. He probably didn’t realize, actually, just how reassuring was his unpressing and unsuspicious good will; Sano had expected him to be as wary as the rest of the religious folks — or perhaps, on the other end of the spectrum, given what they’d conceivably done together, leering and overly familiar — but here he was nothing but welcoming. He did seem a little abstracted, though, glancing around and up into the sky as if specifically waiting or searching for something.

“Are you looking for them again?” Sano wondered, quiet and conspiratorial. Maybe he could get the information he needed without having to risk another kereme encounter. “Going to hit the K tonight too?”

“No,” said Korucun, still looking upward. “No. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.”

Though it was a little off-topic, Sano couldn’t help asking in genuine curiosity at both words and tone, “Why?”

Instead of actually answering, the other man remarked, “Did you notice how purple the sky is tonight?”

Sano cast his bemused gaze in the same direction as Korucun’s and assessed, but couldn’t say he had.

“I can’t wait to meet her,” Korucun added softly, maybe even a little shyly.

“Her?”

“Tomoe.”

And what could Sano say to this? Possible answers in his head ranged from, “Are you sure you haven’t been hitting the K already?” to, “Do you have to stop existing too, to meet a nonexistent lady?”

Korucun was staring upward as if he’d forgotten Sano was there. After a moment he proved he hadn’t, however, by asking in the same distant tone, “Have you ever had your death reading done?”

Sano didn’t really want to know what a death reading was, and certainly couldn’t ask while posing as someone who probably should already have known. So he merely answered in the negative, and was a little surprised at how hoarsely the word came out.

“It’s an amazing experience. Yeah, it’s scary, but you feel so close to her…”

This time Sano didn’t bother to ask which ‘her’ he meant.

Finally Korucun’s eyes dropped from a sky Sano now realized he associated with the divine lady of mysteries and all that, and the look on his shadowed face proved that, however else he felt about it, ‘scary’ was accurate for his experience of whatever they were talking about. “Though I was a little surprised it was so soon,” he said, and there was a slight tremor to his tone.

Sano had a feeling he knew, now, what this death reading was, and it made him extremely uncomfortable. He was reminded a little of Yahiko claiming his proxy mother had pulled his father’s spirit from his body to spare him the pain of death by fire, and that was nothing he wanted to think about. He wondered how he could get out of this insane and unsettling conversation without giving away the fact that he didn’t believe in any of it. He cared less about hurting Korucun’s feelings than he had about Yahiko’s, of course, but here he had more of a cover to maintain…

“But I don’t think you’re the–” Korucun broke off suddenly, drawing in a sharp little breath, and in the shadows the whites of his eyes showed abruptly brighter around his irises. Startled at the expression, Sano whirled to follow the direction of his gaze, and he too found his breath catching when he saw what Korucun had seen.

There had been no sign of the man’s appearance or approach up until now, and he’d already come within a few yards of them. He moved utterly noiselessly, seemingly unaffected by the fact that they’d noticed him, and as he drew closer he also drew a keonblade whose sudden flash into energy momentarily brightened the scene. Though he was fairly clearly a man, judging by the shape of his body, little else could be determined about him; he had a hood pulled low over his face, which was consequently hidden in shadows. But if this wasn’t the assassin that had attempted to kill all the white devoted — and succeeded at one of them — it was, at least, somebody with a very similar purpose.

“Korucun,” Sano commanded in a low, tense tone, “run.”

“…and the guy came charging at us totally silent; I could barely hear his feet even when he was running. It was pretty creepy, but I drew my sword and got ready to fight him. He didn’t say anything — like, to explain what he was doing or why — but it wasn’t like we couldn’t tell he wanted to kill us.”

“Or just you,” Hajime speculated. His tone was tight, and he remained standing beside the table, not having found a seat anywhere in the room to listen. He was clearly hanging on Sano’s every word, which under other circumstances Sano would have found extremely gratifying.

Sano took a shaky breath. There were so many ways he could have responded to that brief statement, but some of those options — the most appealing, really — were sarcastic, and he didn’t have a drop of sarcasm in him at the moment. Probably best just to go on telling his story.

As the figure finished its approach, drawing up to Sano with those eerily quiet steps, Sano had a moment of relief and confidence as he reflected, Oh, this guy doesn’t actually move all that fast. And it was a moment in which he could easily have died. For what he mistook for slowness was a transition from running to attacking as fluidly smooth as a river that, under its apparent languidness, has a deadly swift current. The backhanded slice of the enemy’s sword, taking Sano unawares with its deceptively fast appearance of sluggishness as it did, should have removed him from the battle before he entered it, possibly even killed him immediately if it caught him in the neck rather than the chest. But in an instant of unexpected confusion, and more motion and heat than Sano’s awareness of the situation could account for, he felt nothing — no sudden, precise slice of pain from the energy blade, no blunter strike from the physical sword within — for it suddenly wasn’t his chest taking the blow. Nor was it the enemy’s body or weapon that met the keonblade Sano was raising in an anticipated attack of his own.

“Ko–!” Sano’s gasped-out cry of surprise and horror only got as far as the first syllable of the man’s name as the red devoted of Tomoe collapsed backward onto him, and Sano’s sword, abruptly devoid of energy, clattered to the ground.

Korucun had thrown himself into the middle of this with his back to Sano and arms spread, as if to shield him, but as he tumbled into Sano’s fumbling grasp, his head turned enough that Sano could see his expression — fear, pain… and determination. Maybe a touch of regret, but certainly no surprise. This was what he’d meant when he’d talked about meeting Tomoe. This was what he’d meant when he’d said, ‘so soon.’ He even made a brave attempt to smile now as he choked out, “Tomoe bless you, my friend.”

There wasn’t time for anything beyond that; just those five words, and he went limp. And Sano was left staggering backward under a suddenly dead weight and an oppressive purple sky.

Chapter 22 – Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers

“Fucking… how could he just do that?” It was the first thing Sano said after a long silence following the relation of the event itself. He should probably continue his account, but couldn’t help tangenting to express some of his extreme agitation. “Throw himself into the middle of something like that and fucking die smiling? Knowing he would die, for a complete stranger?? He was really hearing something, or thought he was, just like that fucking kid… are they all crazy? Or… I don’t know what to think! There must be something there… people don’t just… but if there’s really something, why would they let…”

“Maybe there is something there.” Hajime’s voice, utterly devoid of any emotion, was also, oddly enough, just a touch gentler than usual.

“You don’t believe in them either, though!”

Hajime shook his head minutely and said in the same somewhat blank tone, “But there’s no harm in believing something that helps you make sense of your world.”

“No harm??” Sano jumped up. “That man is dead because the voices in his head told him it was time to die!”

“And that was his choice. You said he was happy; who are you to question that?”

“I said he was smiling, not– what the fuck are you saying? Why are you taking their side?” Sano felt the usual fists forming out of his twitching hands, but in this instance wasn’t sure whether Hajime was the true object of his anger.

“Because while you’re confused about this, you’re likely to be less useful.” With this aloofly pragmatic statement, Hajime sounded more himself. “You need to resolve this and get past it.”

“And you think arguing some stupid devoted bullshit is the way to help?”

“What do you want me to say?” wondered Hajime irritably. “It’s a lot easier to prove something exists than to prove it doesn’t.”

“I want you to be less of a patronizing bastard! Don’t treat me like a little kid who can’t go to bed until daddy’s checked the cabinet for monsters! I’m not looking for an easy answer that might not be true but that’s all right to believe because it helps me cope!”

Hajime’s annoyance seemed suddenly tempered by surprise, and once again there was an unaccustomed gentleness to his tone as he asked, “Why do you think I have any answers at all?”

“I…” Sano retreated a few steps, then turned his back entirely and stared down at his own bed. “I don’t know.” He certainly wasn’t going to admit that he’d started to think of Hajime as one of the wisest people he knew. “Just because you’re here, I guess.”

“Then don’t blame me for offering the only thing I do have.” It was a cool reply, and something of a reprimand, but not unkind. Hajime obviously understood how much the events of the evening had shaken Sano.

“Thank you,” Sano said. It didn’t even come out grudgingly, for all he had no more answers now than when he’d entered the room.

Businesslike as ever, without acknowledging Sano’s thanks, Hajime returned to the events in Elotica by asking what had happened next.

With another deep breath, Sano resumed his previous place at the table and looked at his hands. One of the nails on the left had dried blood underneath, and he started picking at it as he spoke. “The assassin backed off a little and just stood there, staring at us. He didn’t expect Korucun to do that any more than I did, I guess, and since he did do it, it was like suddenly the assassin just couldn’t keep going. He probably could have killed me right then since I was so shocked, but he didn’t.”

“Interesting.”

“Then we both heard somebody coming, and the assassin just disappeared. I never saw anyone move like that. I couldn’t stand around holding this dead body, so I put him down and ran off too. I just put him down on the ground and… left him there…”

That utterly heartless and inhumane action on Sano’s part had bothered him almost as much as Korucun’s random sacrifice — but he’d had no choice! He, who had already attacked multiple devoted in order to impersonate them, an enemy of the current regime and the confederate of a man in hiding, simply could not be found by anyone holding a corpse in the street with no better explanation than ‘A mysterious hooded man did it and ran off before anybody but me saw him.’ But he’d just left him there in his own blood, like a sack of spilled goods, to be found without warning possibly by someone that had known and cared about him.

Yet again he took a deep breath and forced himself to go on. “It’s getting harder to pretend to be a devoted. By now everyone’s heard about the guy who knocked people over the head and stole their shiiyao, and a lot of them think that guy’s the assassin. Nobody I smacked got a good look at me, so they don’t know I’m that guy… but they all know I’m a new guy, and some of them have been asking questions about me…”

“And whoever this assassin is, he’s managed to gather enough information to come after you fairly effectively.”

“Yeah. I don’t think I can go as a devoted anymore. Even if I really wanted to.”

“You’re going to have to go back, though.”

“Yeah… yeah, I know. I shouldn’t even have come out here again so quick like I did.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“You could be a little more sympathetic.”

“Would that change things? I think you can handle this without it being sugar-coated.”

Sano looked over at him. “Do you really think that? Or are you just saying that to make sure I do go back right away?”

Hajime replied with a long, calculating look of his own. Finally he said, “Yes, I really do think that. You suffered the loss of your entire family when you were a child, and I think you knew even then that they were killed by bandits. I think you can handle this, no matter how much it’s bothering you.”

In a not insignificant amount of shock, Sano stared at the knight. That Hajime had, from the broken mentions of them Sano had made, pieced together the story of his family was not terribly surprising, but for Hajime to base on that circumstance any belief in Sano’s current ability to function under emotional stress was almost astonishing. Certainly Hajime had given no greater compliment or vote of confidence!

But Hajime himself had suffered some kind of pain in earlier life, hadn’t he? He’d been unable to deter some devoted from harming and taking advantage of a woman he loved — and ladies knew what had happened to her thereafter — and it disturbed him enough that he still dreamed about it to this day. His experience wasn’t remotely similar to Sano’s, but he must understand well the effect an emotional event would have on someone’s later abilities. Which made the fact that he still thought Sano capable of carrying on even more meaningful than it otherwise would have been.

Sano had no idea what to say next. That plenty remained to be said he felt deeply and intensely, but what it was or how to start he couldn’t determine. So he rose once more and began preparing for bed as if he had some illusory notion about lying down and getting a good night’s sleep. From behind him he heard Hajime resheathe the sword he’d drawn at Sano’s entrance, then sit down again on his own bed, and for several moments both men were wordless.

Finally, when Sano had removed his shoes and belts and was pulling his shiiya over his head, Hajime said, “From the way you described it, it sounds like that devoted saved your life.”

“Yeah…” Sano stilled for a moment, his vision entirely blocked by grey-blue cloth that looked colorless in the shadows, before resuming his disrobing. “Yeah, I think he did. That assassin’s got a way of moving that… I could probably fight him now, now I’ve seen it and know how much faster he is than you expect… but right at first… yeah, I probably would have died.”

“Do you regret not having died?”

“Of course I don’t!” On the surface it seemed like such a stupid question. Who wouldn’t rather be alive than dead? But as he considered further, after his initial growling outburst, doubts crept in — or, rather, doubts he’d already had solidified into an expressible form. “But… why should he be dead and not me?” Sano threw his shiiya to the floor, kicked it under the bed, and flopped down onto the latter facing the wall. He felt sick and cold, and was glad of the darkness that allowed him to avoid visual focus on anything.

“Because that’s what he chose.” This continued tolerance of the unproductive conversation did little to improve Sano’s mood, especially since Hajime had already admitted that his patience was aimed merely at trying to put Sano back into a frame of mind more useful for his own purposes.

“Only because he thought he had to. I mean…” Sano shook a fist that was as imperfectly formed as his uncertain thoughts. “He was terrified — he didn’t want to die — he was so surprised and… and… not happy that his stupid death reading told him he was going to die so soon… but he fucking did it anyway! It wasn’t like he knew me, or knew anything about what I was doing in town so he could think, ‘I gotta save this guy; this is totally worth dying for.’ If he didn’t already have this idea, ‘Oh, hey, I’m going to die on Yumifyo 38,’ he wouldn’t ever have jumped in the middle of a fucking assassination!”

“He might have,” Hajime replied quietly. “He might have made the same choice.”

“But he wouldn’t have! Who would make a choice like that without any lady-damned reason for it? He really believed there was some good reason to get himself slashed and stabbed and bleed out on the street, or else he wouldn’t have fucking done it!”

“And you can’t allow him that belief?”

“I don’t want to!” Now Sano felt compelled to sit up again, staring across the space between the beds to where the shadowy figure of Hajime sat just opposite him staring back. “I don’t want him or anyone else to believe there’s something telling people they should die so someone else can survive! Why should I be the one who gets to live? What kind of monster would whisper that in someone’s ear?”

Hajime’s tone was quiet and dark, condemnatory of a distant evil, as he said, “I don’t want to believe something like that either.” He sounded very serious, his statement coming a bit more slowly, as he went on, “But when someone chooses to give up their life for someone else, that’s a choice you have to respect.”

“But it was a choice based on shitty information!”

“That doesn’t change the fact that he saved your life.”

“I know that! I just…” With his elbows on his knees, Sano hung his head and closed his eyes. There was such a maelstrom of emotions inside him — continued shock at what had happened, rage at the assassin as well as at the system that had been Korucun’s true murderer, sorrow that he hadn’t been able to prevent a pointless death, confusion about what others believed and how they could possibly do so, and even some loathing of himself under the circumstances — he feared he would never get it sorted out. “I don’t know what to think.”

“Neither do I.” Hajime sighed faintly, evidently annoyed — but Sano thought it was more frustration at his own helplessness in this situation than with Sano. “And we’ll never know what was going on in his head. But…” The sound of shifting, of weight leaving a mattress, made Sano look up just in time to see Hajime step over and place a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t regret you’re alive.”

As Sano met his companion’s gaze, little of it as he could see in the dark room, and heard that somber tone, he was shaken for a few moments completely out of his dreary thoughts by the sudden startling realization that Hajime meant what he said on a level totally different from wanting Sano back to work as soon as possible. In fact there even seemed to be an unspoken “I don’t” appended to the previous statement. Hajime really wanted to help and comfort Sano on a personal level, and simply didn’t know exactly what to say — who, after all, would? And while Sano rather wished the knight would say that “I don’t” aloud and confirm its presence in his head, he was already almost stunned — and certainly very deeply touched — by what Hajime had offered.

“Thank you,” he said for a second time, hoarsely, staring Hajime in the eye unblinking for as long as the intense moment lasted before the knight removed his hand and turned back toward his side of the room. And Sano found that, when the previous maelstrom resumed, as if the eye of the storm had passed over him and gone, it was easier to deal with, seemed more likely to shift into perspective at some point. Slowly he turned and lay down on his side again, facing the wall, still glad of the darkness but now with an equally welcome image in it of Hajime’s eyes staring so intently into his.

“Will you be able to go back in the morning?” Of course Hajime would feel the need to return to this point… but at least Sano was certain he had returned to it after having left it for a moment of real camaraderie and goodwill.

“Yeah,” Sano said, more or less in a whisper. “Yeah, I should be fine.” For a given value of ‘fine.’

Hajime made no reply, and presently the sounds of his mattress and blanket shifting indicated that he too had lain down again, possibly even facing the wall and away from his companion just as his companion was.

Though motionless, Sano yet had a feeling of spinning, as if physically in the clutches of that storm he’d envisioned in his head and heart — perhaps as a reminder of how little control he could ever possibly have when people made insane choices they couldn’t take back based on a faith Sano would spend his last breath denying. He had the sense that he could do nothing more than hold on and wait this out… or, rather, since the spinning would never cease, he would simply have to adjust to it — as Hajime had said, resolve this and get past it.

And Hajime’s words really had helped. Despite the fact that nothing had been resolved, that Sano remained at square one trying to figure this shit out, the knight’s unexpected belief that he was strong enough to handle it, as well as his equally unexpected gladness that Sano had survived the attack, made all the difference in the world. Previously, Sano had doubted his ability to shoulder this burden, let alone get it straightened out in his mind; now, he was sure he could, given time.

He wondered what Hajime was thinking over there right now, if anything at all. It reminded him of lying here just a couple of nights ago pondering the dream he’d seen alongside the other man, wanting but feeling unable to ask, ignorant whether or not Hajime was awake just across from him.

An old saying kept coming to mind: Your wishes may be prayers, so make them wisely. The advice was not to spend a lot of effort longing for frivolities or things you shouldn’t have, since the ladies were always listening; aside from the embarrassment of their awareness of your shallow or inappropriate desires, what if they granted your wish as if you really had specifically asked them for it? Sano had never liked the adage, not merely because he didn’t pray and didn’t believe any supernatural force was taking a hand in his life and arranging events according to some cosmic plan or sense of irony, but also because supernatural forces that couldn’t distinguish between wishful thinking and actual requests were even less worthy of faith or worship. But he couldn’t help coming back now, again and again, to the idea that some caution was advisable in wishing intensely lest that wish be granted in some unpleasant way.

He’d wanted to be close enough to Hajime that they could discuss personal things, support each other through personal problems… He’d wished for it, he realized now, more fiercely than he’d had any idea even while lying right here thinking about the personal problem he thought he observed Hajime in the grip of. There had been a sort of ache inside him representing the want of that closeness.

And then something had happened to demonstrate that they already had it. Surely, therefore, Sano’s wish was granted; that particular ache was relieved. Yet the ‘something’ had shaken him deeply, saddened and confused him, replaced one ache with another and left him agitated and unable to sleep or foresee when he might next be content. Would he have wanted to know the degree to which Hajime was willing to engage with and comfort him if he’d known how he would come to know it?

And yet, just as being unable to figure out Korucun’s mindset didn’t change the fact that Korucun had saved his life, the fact that decidedly unpleasant circumstances had brought to light his closeness with Hajime didn’t change how much he’d wanted that closeness. He wouldn’t have wished — ‘prayed’ — for it to happen like this, but it meant so much to him that it had happened that he couldn’t really regret it. What was more, it gave him strength — or perhaps simply called on the strength Hajime had declared Sano already had — to lie quiet in the darkness and at least try to start making sense of his whirling thoughts about Korucun, about the divine ladies, about life and death, and how he himself fit into it all.

Chapter 23 – Wanted

Attempting to remain in the same spot long enough to get a good idea of the current setup at the gates while simultaneously blending in was proving ridiculously difficult. Sano found himself repeatedly forced to move along the line in one direction or the other when he saw someone apparently looking at him, which made it difficult not to reach the city entrance or get so far from it that he could no longer see anything useful.

It was obvious, at least, that everyone entering the capital was now being checked by the gate-guards. Exactly how thorough that examination was Sano had not yet been able to determine, thanks to the aforementioned difficulties getting information and refraining from standing out at the same time. He didn’t think they were searching carts and bags and pockets in detail — the line along the road would have been moving much more slowly in that case — but he simply couldn’t risk having his cache of one red devoted shiiya from each divine house discovered; honestly, he didn’t really want guards looking closely in his face and asking him what his business in the city was in any case. But would he be able to sneak in under the cover of some party or other? Were they checking that thoroughly? Three more slow instances of approaching Elotica’s high walls and then turning to go back as subtly as he could were required to determine that they were not.

He should have been well inside the capital by now seeking far more important information, but he supposed such obnoxious circumstances were inevitable whenever an anonymous assassin threatened high-profile targets and had now killed at least two people. Everyone in the crowd pressing along the road was a little on edge, and Sano rather doubted a cursory examination of persons and vehicles was likely to make anybody but whoever had ordered it feel any better. Hell, he knew more about the assassin than anyone else out here (most likely) — he was trying not to think about that — and he certainly wasn’t comforted by the checkpoint. Though his situation was a little different from that of all these workers trying to reach their jobs inside the city and deliverypeople trying to get their goods to the Elotica markets.

Without nearly as much consideration as he probably should have given it, he took the first opportunity that presented itself. A particularly long delay in the movement of the line had caused the driver of one wagon to hop down from his perch and move forward a bit trying to see around the bend in the road he’d nearly reached, and the people just behind him had gathered into a cluster at precisely that moment to discuss whether they shouldn’t try one of the other city entrances, as inconvenient a walk as that would be.

This left a tempting wagon bed unwatched for a brief period, without a driver to feel an additional weight added to it, and Sano jumped for it almost instinctively. It was full of — what else? — bushels of apples, but they sat atop a loosely placed tarp far larger than the floor it covered so it was bunched up in multiple places between the similarly loosely packed bushels. Shoving his backpack between tarp and wagon floor, within one of these folds so the new presence hopefully wouldn’t create an unusual bulge, and then worming his own way after it feet first was the work of less than a minute, and no outcry or approaching footsteps seemed to indicate he’d been spotted. If the guards made as desultory an examination of the interior of this wagon as they had those he’d noted the last time he’d been up near the gates, Sano should be able to slip through unnoticed.

Unfortunately, the presence of the tarp — or, rather, its shoddy placement with bushels stacked on top of it without its being smoothed out to accommodate them — should have told Sano something about the careless nature of the owner or driver of the wagon. The tarp served to separate the bushels from a surprisingly thick layer of grime that covered the floor of the wagon and was comprised, as far as Sano could tell (and he had some experience in this area) of the remains of rotted fruit. He could already feel the sticky goo penetrating his hair and clothing in various places before he was even fully settled, and the smell almost overpowered him. Lucky it was both that his face pointed toward the tented opening — though he didn’t dare stay too close, lest he be seen from without — and that he wouldn’t have to be here very long.

Of course he could only estimate, with this imperfect view of the world beyond the tarp, how close they drew to the city once the line started moving again in its broken fashion, and, misjudging, he didn’t start his agitated anticipation quite as soon as he otherwise would have. In fact it was the voices of the gate-guards that alerted him to how far they’d come, and then Sano, belatedly holding his breath, was startled at how smoothly the entry into the city went. As he’d somewhat expected but mostly hoped, it seemed the guards gave nothing more than a perfunctory glance into the bed of the wagon, not bothering to move the bushels or the tarp in any way; and evidently Sano’s presence under the latter presented no visual anomaly worth exploring or commenting on.

Before he knew it they were inside Elotica, and Sano was edging closer, within his reeking den, to the perimeter of the wagon’s bed where he could peer between the slats and try to gage when would be best to wriggle out of here. He didn’t want to get all the way to a market street where there would be a crowd, but at the same time preferred to wait as long as possible after passing through the gates. He also wanted a clear and immediate escape route before him when he disembarked.

Though he had these circumspect plans, once again he acted with little forethought when an opportunity arose. With no one immediately in sight (though admittedly his field of vision was severely limited), and with a narrow side-street — also apparently empty — coming into view, he made a break for it. Dragging his backpack behind him, he hauled himself free of the tarp (knocking two bushels askew or completely over in the process), and rather clumsily climbed the wagon’s side as quickly as he could. And this time his actions did not go unobserved.

“Hey!” He thought it was the wagon driver, who’d undoubtedly felt the shifting of Sano’s movements this time and turned. “What are you–” The man’s voice sounded so surprised, it was no wonder he couldn’t finish his sentence. Sano, though he didn’t look back as he pelted off with steps that stumbled at first after hitting the ground, had a confused idea that the wagon pulled up short and the horse protested. He couldn’t imagine the guy was likely to circle back to the gates and report that he’d apparently accidentally transported someone past the search, but he might mention it to others he encountered today; so Sano ducked his head and tried to put as much space as hastily as he could between the man and any details that could be noticed about the stowaway.

A couple of zig-zags down the network of alleys into which his chosen escape route had led, when it seemed no one was following and he was approaching another larger street, he slowed, ducked into a corner, and let his breathing settle as he looked around more carefully. Though it was larger, the street ahead wasn’t particularly busy — he’d drawn near the city wall, and this might be considered a back way — so he felt free to pause and consider what his plans for the day were. Of course first of all — he wished it could take place even before this cogitation — he needed to clean off the rancid fruit slime that coated him from head to toe, and that wasn’t going to be convenient, but thereafter he could decide where to seek information first.

Before he’d even finished these thoughts, however — and he certainly wasn’t accustomed, yet, to the smell that clogged his nostrils and only seemed to strengthen with every move he made — something just across the street from his corner caught his attention, and he was drawn almost inexorably, though not without scanning the area first to ensure his relative safety, to examine it.

The building on the other side of the larger street had a side-roof creating a little alcove that would doubtless have been used to shade sales stands if this particular area had been more advantageously placed for market purposes. As it was, only a stack of crates and a couple of barrels were tucked away there — but a number of public postings had been tacked onto the wall beneath the protective overhang as well, and one of these papers bore what appeared to be a very familiar face.

Sano became more and more convinced with every step that took him across to stand in the shadow of the roof and the crates and stare at the poster, until there could be no doubt. Under the large Wanted text at the top, around a portrait that held Sano’s eye far longer than it probably should have at the moment, the sign read, Royal knight Hajime – Chief of Prince Kenshin’s knights – Wanted for inciting rebellion and for the murder of Nenji, white devoted of Misao – Reward for capture or information regarding – Very dangerous: use caution.

As he read this, Sano gaped slightly. Hajime was wanted for what? They thought the assassin was Hajime? The idea was more than simply ludicrous. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find Hajime capable of moving and fighting with a silence and skill just as uncannily quiet and deadly as that of the assassin… but remembering that innocent Tomoe devoted choking on his own blood to wish Sano well as he died in his arms — something he was still trying not to think about — he found himself outraged on Hajime’s behalf. How could anyone believe Hajime was the assassin? It was absurd; it was insulting; it was… surprisingly painful. Someone so upstanding, someone so applied to righting wrongs — someone, in short, so good as Hajime was… it was preposterous.

Dragging narrowed eyes beneath lowered brows from that poster with an effort, fighting back the unexpected agitation the reading of it had caused, he forced himself to turn to the next one, which his peripheral vision had informed him might also be of interest. Again he was a little surprised at the accuracy of the face depicted; though it wasn’t exactly like gazing into a looking glass, he was pretty sure anyone that happened to walk by at the moment might look twice if they looked once at the man staring at his own image on a wanted poster.

Heretic Sanosuke – Rebel spy – May be disguised as a devoted of any house – Reward for capture or information regarding.

“‘Rebel spy?'” he muttered. “What the…” Well, technically, he supposed he was… It just seemed so overly dramatic when there wasn’t really, as far as he knew, a ‘rebellion’ yet. And he couldn’t help being a bit disappointed that, unlike Hajime, he wasn’t considered ‘very dangerous.’

The next thing he wondered was how whoever had printed these had gotten his name and the detail that he was a heretic and come up with such an accurate picture of him. It was actually fairly attractive, though his eyes had already wandered back to the one of Hajime (which was even more so). A few moments of consideration reminded him that the false knights he’d fought in Eloma would certainly have had the chance to make some mental notes, and have heard his name and probably his religious status from his neighbors. If that was where the information had come from, it surprised him a little at first that he saw no poster for Yahiko as well… but perhaps those guys hadn’t had the nerve to admit they’d been single-handedly defeated in that small town, and the single hand had belonged to a ten-year-old. Sano smirked at the thought, but the expression faded quickly.

He had no idea what to do now. These things were undoubtedly up all around town, and his picture was accurate enough that, even covered in smelly grime, even with hair far neater than it had been, even with what alterations he could make to his appearance in short order, he would be recognized almost immediately by average citizens in the street. How likely average citizens in the street would be to report his presence was debatable — though the word ‘reward’ did figure dismayingly on each poster — but the chance was better not taken. What to do instead, though…

The fact was that he just couldn’t count himself among the stealthiest people in all of Akomera. Though there had been some eavesdropping, most of his information-gathering had been conducted in a face-to-face manner with him merely being friendly and plausible — sometimes specifically helpful — in order to get what he needed out of people. And obviously that wouldn’t work anymore; a new plan was absolutely necessary. Should he abandon the efforts he’d made to get into the city today, go straight back to Enca, and discuss this development with Hajime? Or should he take advantage of his presence in Elotica to try to… accomplish something… while he could? Though the idea of returning to Hajime was immediately and almost overwhelmingly appealing, he forced himself to stay calm, stay still, and give the matter some reasoned thought.

It seemed he was destined never to finish thinking about what he would be doing today, however, as once again he was interrupted — this time by a quiet voice saying his name just to his right and a little behind. Nearly jumping out of his skin, Sano whirled, his hand going to his sword, his heart racing, but found only Katsu standing nearby.

“Fucking ladies’ tits!” he gasped out. “Give a guy some warning!”

“Somehow I didn’t think shouting out your name from across the street was a good idea,” replied Katsu in a low tone, tilting his head indicatively at the posters on the wall.

“Yeah… yeah…” Sano’s breathing was calming, but his heart still raced. “But, fuck, man.”

Katsu cast his dark eyes about to see if anyone was watching. “Come with me. There’s a place we can talk safely. What are you covered in?”

“I had to hide in a dirty-ass wagon to get through the gates.”

“For future reference–” now Katsu tried to repress a smile– “they’re only doing checks at the biggest two entrances. It’s just for show; they don’t have the manpower to waste on all eight.”

“Oh.” Thanks to his still-racing heart, Sano felt more bitter about this even than he might originally have done. “Fuck.”

“You can clean up a little when we get where we’re going, and we’ll see if we can’t find you something else to wear.” Katsu glanced around again, then unexpectedly pulled both wanted posters down from the wall in a quick movement that put little slits at the top edge of each where tacks had abruptly vacated the paper. After folding them and tucking them into a pocket somewhere, he gestured briefly and took off at a quick walk up the street.

Sano hastened after him. “Where are we going?” But Katsu, busy checking every corner carefully and obviously choosing the most back-street route he could find, did not answer.

Whether he was more tense or relieved during this circuitous walk, Sano couldn’t be sure. Katsu too might not have the most stealth in all of Akomera, but in that category — as well as in cautious forethought, and certainly in familiarity with the Elotica streets — he easily outranked Sano; and beyond that, his appearance at that precise moment, when Sano had been at a loss what to do, had been amazingly fortuitous. Perhaps, in fact, a little too fortuitous. As they made their especially cautious way to wherever they were going, Sano reflected not only on this phenomenal good luck, but also — perforce — on Hajime’s doubts regarding his friend. “Are you sure you can trust him?” the knight had asked… and then he’d let it go at Sano’s insistence… but the raised point hadn’t disappeared merely because Sano had resisted it.

How had Katsu managed to find Sano just when he had? Where were they going now? He had a feeling Katsu wouldn’t answer if he asked, and, at least while stealthily navigating the streets, he agreed that remaining as quiet as possible was wise — so he didn’t ask. But certain disloyal stirrings haunted him all the way there.

‘There’ was a grimy yard apparently belonging to a business of some kind, possibly an inn, that they entered via a small side-gate in another tiny back street. It did look like a fairly safe place to have a private conversation, since it sat right up against one of the high main city walls and there were no windows on this side of the building. Katsu evidently wanted even more privacy than only the relatively hidden space behind some of the stacked goods, though, and headed straight for a shed that stood near one of the corners of the yard. Sano, despite feeling this was maybe overkill, followed without question.

But Katsu did not enter the shed; rather, stopping to one side of it and reaching up into the space beneath the corner of its low-sloping roof, he manipulated something — something that creaked and turned and squeaked once — as Sano watched in curiosity and confusion. So intent was Sano, in fact, on this observation, that he didn’t at first notice the effect of his friend’s movement. When Katsu withdrew his hand and turned slightly, Sano finally caught sight of the purpose of all of this: an opening had appeared in the city wall nearby, a foot or so above the ground and totally black. And though it wasn’t enough to make him jump back in astonishment or anything, he did demand in some surprise to know what it was. But of course Katsu merely shook his head and gestured for Sano to follow him.

Down a grimy ladder into darkness Sano continued tailing his friend with only minimal hesitation, reflecting that whatever this clandestine place might be, it certainly seemed optimal for backstabbing. He felt comforted by the awareness, however, that there wasn’t much non-reward-related reason for anyone to do him harm at this point, and logistically it would be very troublesome to get him back out of here, up this ladder and through that smallish opening to somewhere a reward could be collected, either dead or under duress. This could possibly make a pretty decent prison, though…

“Chou, are you here?” Katsu’s voice echoed slightly beneath Sano, and covered up almost completely the sound of another crank working to close the opening above him. At that point it became obvious, as Sano reached the floor and turned away from the ladder, that the space wasn’t entirely dark, as flickering candlelight immediately approached around a corner in what appeared to be a multi-roomed space built into and under the great city wall.

Along with the candlelight came the protesting reply through the damp, musty air, “Not sure where else I’d be…” The speaker emerged around the corner, bringing the light with him, and stopped abruptly. “Who’s this?”

Even through the subsequent explanatory exchange, Sano stared bemusedly at the unexpected figure — at his impossibly erect hair, his loose pants and shiiya of blues and purples so bright they were clearly discernible even in the dimness, and at his stance that looked like a stationary swagger declaring his ownership of this… dirty underground place? …as if it were a royal treasure trove and Sano and Katsu supplicants before his throne.

“Chou,” Katsu was saying with an introductory gesture toward the stranger, “is a sword-thief–”

“Sword-collector,” the man, Chou, broke in.

Katsu went on as if he hadn’t heard him. “–a sword-thief who decided Kenshin’s empty sheath is a good target. With the king — and his sheath — a prisoner who-knows-where, Chou is a rebel by necessity for now.” He gave Chou a calculating look up and down. “I think he’s close enough to your size.”

They had all moved forward out of what must be considered the entry, so when Sano gave a convulsive shake of head and took a stumbling step back at Katsu’s words, still staring at Chou’s hair and the bright blue headband at its base, he found himself suddenly in the doorway near the ladder again. “You’re fucking kidding me.”

Chou seemed to divine the exact cause of Sano’s chagrin, for he said with a pugnacious sneer, “You got a problem, stinky? How the fuck did you get like that, anyway? Ain’t you that heretic spy in the posters?” He turned from examining Sano toward Katsu. “Don’t tell me you want me to–”

A little impatiently, though not without some evident amusement, Katsu broke in. “He does have a problem; he is the spy from the posters, which is how he got like this; and, yes, I do.”

Chou’s pointed and very irritated stare dragged out as the artist looked placidly back in the flickering light, as if Chou thought Katsu might change his mind if he only squinted his left eye hard enough at him. Finally, though, clearly realizing he was getting nowhere, the sword-thief made a frustrated noise, turned abruptly, and disappeared. As he was holding the only light extant, this action plunged the room Katsu and Sano occupied into darkness except for the meandering glow from around the corner.

“Something with a hood!” Katsu called after.

“Fiiiine,” Chou replied petulantly.

In a lower, conspiratorial tone, Katsu explained, “He can’t say no to me since I bring him food.” And with as much confidence as if he were in his own home and knew every inch of it, he walked through the darkness. Presently the sound of a fire-starter clicked from the direction he’d gone, and a second candle provided some further illumination.

“What is this place?” With only a single light, even one more centrally placed than that which Chou had taken away, Sano couldn’t make out much more than before of the decent-sized room they stood in except that it held three long tables with attached benches and seemed to have as many gaping doorways into other, mostly blacker spaces.

It all made sense, though, when Katsu replied, “The old thieves’ guild headquarters.” He gestured around, sending strange blurry shadows up the walls behind him. “As you can see, it hasn’t been used for years.”

“I guess that weirdo found it for you, then?” Sano was still looking around, now in increasing curiosity and interest, little good though the action actually did him.

“I knew it was here,” Katsuo shrugged, “but he reminded me.”

“You already knew where the thieves’ guild was?”

“No, don’t come over here yet.” Katsu raised his hands in a warding gesture as Sano took a step forward. “Get out of those clothes and use that bucket.” He pointed to a squat shape barely visible in the darkness near the bench at one of the tables. “The water’s not that clean — I was using it on some stuff around this place — but it’s better than what you’ve got all over you now. I’d treat you better, but there aren’t many places I can take a wanted man.”

Sano hadn’t been sure what to expect from this day, and never had made any concrete plans… but he certainly hadn’t anticipated stripping off smelly goo-soaked clothing in a secret chamber hidden inside the city wall with only some incredibly haired eccentric and the longtime best friend whose trustworthiness he didn’t want to admit he might be questioning a little for company. But a ‘rebel spy’ had to take such things as they came, so for now he just obeyed Katsu’s injunction and started to get cleaned up.

>23 Interlude

Katsu’s gaze snapped back to the street after what had originally been intended as a quick, casual glance. Once he’d confirmed that his eyes really weren’t playing tricks on him, he allowed them to follow the walking figure that had caused his double-take. He didn’t worry about the rudeness of staring; this particular guy was used to it, as anyone that looked like that must be. Katsu had never seen a more creative (or bizarre) use of hair wax. Sweeping his charcoal sticks into their tin and carefully but quickly rolling up his drawing, he tucked it all under his arm and set off to follow the stranger.

Skyward hair wasn’t the only peculiarity. The lime-green shiiya the guy wore was translucent, displaying the dark aqua of his shirt, which matched his pants; these bright colors were stabilized somewhat by the black of long gloves, boots, and several belts and straps that held at least half a dozen swords. All together it was a strange and attention-grabbing ensemble, which was why Katsu followed. Curiosity would be the death of him one of these days; knowing more than most people did seemed only to heighten proportionally his desire to know even more.

The newcomer paused at a street intersection, shifting the large leather pack he wore on his shoulders somewhat impatiently as he consulted a sheet of paper and looked back and forth. Katsu nearly laughed aloud when he realized where the guy was headed. Surely this flamboyantly attired and highly obtrusive person didn’t consider himself a thief…!

Although the old thieves’ guild headquarters was still accessible, as it had always been, through the yard behind a relatively respectable tavern in the green district, Katsu didn’t think there were more than a handful of people left in the entire city that were aware of it, and certainly no one used it. The Elotica underworld was so disorganized these days, he suspected half the criminals in town didn’t even know what a thieves’ guild was. Socially this was a mixed blessing — but there really wasn’t time at the moment to ponder that topic if he wanted to continue trailing this guy.

The stranger’s written instructions seemed to be correct, for he was heading exactly the right direction — without any apparent attempt to make himself less conspicuous or disguise where he was going. That would make sense if he was aware that nobody really remembered the thieves’ guild headquarters anymore — but if he knew that, why would he go there? Any number of logical reasons came to mind, but none of them seemed to be the case. So Katsu just kept following quietly.

It wasn’t difficult, given that the stranger didn’t seem to care about pursuit, never looked behind him, only walked along with an energetic, almost cocky step that yet seemed somehow impatient or even angry. Katsu didn’t think he was actively angry, but still got an overwhelming impression of that emotion from the guy’s bearing. Interesting.

Once they reached the Green Apple, Katsu had to fall back some distance: no matter how oblivious the other appeared, he was sure to notice someone practically treading on his heels down the little-used alley on the tavern’s north side and thence into the yard behind it. Even from the main street, however, the listening Katsu caught the sound of rusty hinges as the gate into the yard screeched open. Surely the stranger must be clued in by that… if thieves still used this place, there was not a chance they would leave such a noisy piece of metal unattended nearby. It was useful to Katsu, though, as it told him the guy had entered the yard. After counting to fifteen, he stepped into the alley after him.

He took note of the high, windowless wall of the building to his left, and that there was another way into (or out of) the alley: a narrow lane between that building and the even higher main city wall that was the rear of this space. The latter was rendered quite shadowy by all these walls, mid-afternoon and cloudless though it was. In the lowest wall, to his right, that of the tavern’s yard, the iron gate stood open. Why had the stranger left it standing like that? For a quick getaway?

Katsu edged to the opening and looked cautiously in. He caught a glimpse of a somewhat dirty enclosure mostly full of crates in neatly-stacked rows, some of them covered with tarps; what looked like a shed nestled right up against the city wall at the back of the yard; and a privy near one of two doors into the establishment. There was no chance to take in details, however, as almost immediately a gloved hand seized his shiiya, pulled him roughly through the open gate, and slammed him into the wall.

Breathless, he found himself facing the stranger’s glower, drawn sword, and abrupt demand, “Why the fuck are you following me?”

Though he was more concerned for the objects that had been knocked from his grasp to the dirty pavement than that the other would actually harm him, Katsu was at first too startled to speak. He examined the stranger’s face wordlessly, his mind momentarily blank.

The newcomer appeared to be a few years his senior, with features he could not exactly call handsome but that might be pleasant without the scowl and the squint they wore. The eye whose color Katsu could see was grey-brown, and the high blonde hair was even more astonishing up close.

Finally, getting hold of himself, he realized what he needed to say. “Orange skies’ blessings be on you, cousin.”

The grip on his shiiya relaxed, and the tip of the sword left his neck. The stranger didn’t sheathe the weapon yet, but he did step back. “Shit,” he was remarking, “you guys actually say that here?”

“Not so much anymore,” Katsu replied, bending to gather his fallen supplies, “but it was better than getting stabbed.”

“Aw, I wouldn’t have stabbed you.” The other was consulting his directions again, and said this somewhat absently. He seemed attentive enough, though, when he pursued, “So why were you following me? Keeping an eye on the new guy?”

“Something like that.” Katsu had located what they needed with a quick glance around, and now pointed. “It’s there, up in the shed eaves next to the wall.”

The man, who had been frowning darkly at the paper in his hand, looked up and then along Katsu’s extended arm. “Well, I sure as hell am glad you know.” He crumpled his instructions and shoved the crackling wad into a pocket, putting his sword away as he did so. Stalking to the shed, he twisted head and neck to look into the eaves where the low end of the roof met the city wall. Katsu, who only had a vague idea of what to expect here, watched with interest as the stranger’s face lit up at whatever he saw. The artist took a step closer when the newcomer reached into the recess and began, apparently, turning a crank of some sort — to judge by the motion and the horrible screeching sound that ensued.

In the brief space of city wall that stretched between the shed and the yard wall, a dark opening appeared, a low rectangle that had previously seemed just another of the large bricks. It ground backward and down, a subdued grating sound joining the shriek of rusted metal, bits of dirt raining down into the darkness from the widening cracks, and finally stopped.

The stranger bent and peered into the shadows. “What, do they think we’re all midgets?” he demanded.

“It had to look like the bricks,” Katsu supplied.

The other turned toward him as if he’d forgotten he was not alone. “I’m Chou, by the way.”

“You’re from Gönst… by way of Etoronai?” the artist wondered, rather than stating his own name.

Chou had turned back to the opening and inserted his head, so his reply was somewhat distorted by muffling stone and a slight echo: “Nah, I just talk like it.”

Ignoring this bit of bullshit, Katsu watched as Chou extracted his head and, turning, began to descend what was apparently a ladder leading into the lightless space below. Once the blonde plume had disappeared from sight, Katsu followed. Before he’d even reached the floor ten feet below, he heard Chou exclaiming, “The fuck…?”

The light from outside was quite limited, even after Katsu left the ladder and stood out of its way, so only the first room was dimly visible — but the shadows could not hide the fact that the place was completely empty. Some trash lay in one corner, cobwebs stretched across others, and a thick coating of dust or light dirt covered the floor everywhere their feet hadn’t touched. The doorway into the next room, devoid even of a door, was a yawning portal of darkness.

Chou rounded on Katsu, demanding, “What’s with this place?”

“It hasn’t been used for years,” replied Katsu.

For a second time the artist found himself slammed up against the wall with one of Chou’s swords to his neck; he realized with some amusement that this was not so much because Chou really felt the need to threaten him as that Chou really liked to swing his swords around. “Your behavior is striking me as pretty damn suspicious,” the other growled along the drawn blade. “If nobody uses this place, why the fuck did you follow me here and come down with me?”

“I’d never seen it before,” answered Katsu, calm and honest, “and I was curious. Besides, how else would you have gotten your questions answered?”

Again Chou released him, then swished the sword in his hand in an impatient pattern through the air before resheathing it. Katsu, smoothing out his now rather crumpled shiiya, noticed it was a different sword than the one he’d previously been threatened with. “Well, then, you better have some good answers,” Chou grumbled. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Katsu.” The latter held up the drawing he’d been working on earlier, still rolled up though it was, and added, “I’m an artist.”

“An artist?” echoed Chou incredulously. “No wonder this place don’t get used, if any old artist person knows it’s here.”

“Actually, almost nobody knows it’s here,” Katsu explained conversationally as he moved forward toward the black doorway. Free hand outstretched, counting on knowing what obstacles were in the next room before he ran into them, he walked slowly on.

“Wait…” Chou had also come to the door, but (naturally) didn’t have Katsu’s confidence in a pitch-black unknown space. “If you’re just an artist, how’d you know the thief greeting?”

Katsu rolled his eyes at being referred to as ‘just an artist,’ and didn’t answer the question. Rather, as he made his way around the old wooden tables that still stood in this large chamber, he narrated what he was realizing as it came to him — as much for his own entertainment as for the edification of the newcomer. “That room there is the entry; there’d have been a guard there just in case anyone made it down who wasn’t supposed to. Anyone coming down the ladder would be an easy target if they didn’t know the password. This is the common room here…”

His voice echoed as he approached another doorway into a third empty space. “And back here is where the thief princes did their private business.” He didn’t enter — too many spiders — but recrossed the common room to the final chamber. “And in here they used to practice knife-fighting and pocket-picking and wrestling. It still smells like sweat,” he added in mild distaste — “old sweat. And the sewer… that must be next door…

“They had doors in the doorways back then,” he went on, waving a hand in front of his face in a futile attempt to ward off the smell of the back room, “but those were stolen not long after the guild was scattered. That figures, doesn’t it? Nobody bothered to take the tables because they weren’t in the best condition and it would have been a pain in the ass to get them out the entrance. ” By now he’d come full circle, and with his last statement, “Though I’d think that would apply to the doors too…” was face to face with Chou in the entry once again.

Chou’s squinting eye had loosened, and on his face was an expression of bemusement. “All right,” he said, “who the hell are you really?”

Katsu chuckled again. “Just a guy who knows a lot of trivia. Really. Who are you really? You don’t much fit my image of a thief.”

“‘Cause I ain’t. I’m a sword-collector.” Chou patted one of the numerous items in question.

“What are you doing here, then?”

“Well, I needed a… Why are you asking? You a guard in disguise?”

Katsu raised a brow. “If I say no, are you going to believe me?”

With a shrug Chou replied, “Why not? I could kill you up if I had to.”

“Good reasoning,” agreed the artist. “No, I’m not a guard in disguise. I really am ‘just’ an artist. A curious artist.”

“Well, I needed a thief to help me get into the palace and steal that sheath the king supposedly wears, so I got a thief friend back home to give me directions to this place. Too bad he ain’t been in town for forty years or some shit… He warned me he’d heard things had slowed down a lot around here, but obviously he didn’t know it was like this. It’s going to be a lot harder than I thought now.”

There were so many interesting aspects to this explanation that Katsu didn’t know where to begin. Finally he decided to hit as many as he could in a single reply. “Stealing the king’s sheath, which isn’t a sword, would make you a thief, and it’ll be a lot harder than you thought for more reasons than you think.” He was rather proud of this all-encompassing statement once he’d made it, actually.

This seemed to confuse Chou for a moment, but his eventual response proved he’d unraveled it. “Nah, I ain’t a thief. Just ’cause some of my swords are stolen don’t make me a thief.” This utterly nonsensical declaration baffled Katsu to such an extent that Chou was able to continue uninterrupted. “And I know the king’s sheath ain’t a sword, but I figure it’ll make a great addition to my collection anyway. I like things with some history. Why else is it gonna be hard?”

With a laugh and a shake of his head, Katsu opted to ignore entirely the ‘not a thief’ issue. At least for now. Additionally, he chose not to mention the fact that the sheath the king wore was less than four decades old. “It’s always fun relating big news someone doesn’t know…” was what he decided to say. “You must have just arrived in town if you haven’t heard yet.”

“Big news usually doesn’t mean shit to me,” Chou shrugged. “Unless,” he added hopefully, “we’re going to war?”

“Not that I’ve heard,” Katsu chuckled, “but I wouldn’t be surprised, at this rate. No, it’s just that Kenshin’s been usurped. He’s being held prisoner by the ‘new king,’ Soujirou, assuming he’s not dead, and nobody knows where.” Not even I know, he didn’t add.

Chou’s eye went wide, and again the other loosened somewhat (though it still did not open). “Shit!” he cried. “He got himself captured and took my nice sheath with him??”

Yet again Katsu was forced to laugh. It wasn’t, he thought, that this Chou had no common sense so much as that he deliberately chose to ignore it. “Yes, so it seems.”

With a long, irritated exhalation, the sword-collector rolled his head from side to side, stretched his arms, and unexpectedly shed his pack onto the floor. “Well, fuck this,” he grumbled. “Now I don’t know what to do.” And, kicking the pack against one of the walls, he threw himself down to lean against that same structure with the abused object between his angled back and the stone. “Had a great plan and everything, and now…” Placing his finger-laced hands behind his head, he proceeded to look darkly contemplative.

As far as Katsu could tell, Chou’s great plan had been to stroll casually into an unfamiliar thieves’ guild, give the thief’s greeting while claiming he wasn’t a thief, and (if he lived that long) request someone’s assistance on an impossible and rather pointless venture whose details he didn’t himself have in the least worked out. Now his plan seemed to be to sit around in the dark of an abandoned underground room and decide what to do since his first great plan had gone awry through no fault of his own. Katsu wasn’t even quite sure what to say.

“Well,” he remarked at last, “it’s going to get very dark down here after I leave and close the door. Are you planning on staying?”

Chou shrugged. “I ain’t afraid of the dark.”

“Not that it’s any more of my business than any of the rest of this has been,” Katsu pursued, “but why are you sitting there? If you think I don’t know what I’m talking about and some thief or other might actually show up here… well, I can’t really say anything that’ll convince you, but…”

“Truth is, I been walking all day,” Chou admitted, “and I’m dead tired. I was counting on some rest and food when I got here, and now this…” He crossed his legs as he looked up at Katsu and finished, “I don’t have any money for an inn, so this is as good a place to settle as any.”

“You… don’t have any money.”

With another shrug, Chou declined to answer this pseudo-question. Katsu got a sudden mental image of the very important orange and yellow shiiya with tassels that Chou had been unable to resist in Enca that had depleted his funds, and stifled another laugh. Shaking his head, he moved toward the ladder and the light. Then he turned again, thoughtful. “I might be coming back here,” he stated. “Don’t get startled and stab me, all right?”

Both of Chou’s eyes were closed. “Why?” he wondered. “What’s here for you?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Katsu admitted truthfully, “but it’s an interesting place. I may clean it up a little in case I want to use it for something later.” Because somehow he got the feeling — not any actual foreknowledge, just an impression — that it would be useful later. And so would Chou. “If you’re lucky, I’ll bring you some lunch.”

Chou’s right eye cracked open again. “Not that I’m complaining of that idea, but why would you do that?”

“Well, you’re interesting too,” was the artist’s candid answer.

“Is that your way of saying I’m hot?” The eye had opened a bit further, and was now accompanied by a crooked smile.

“Keep dreaming,” Katsu grinned, and, turning, began to climb the ladder.

Chapter 24 – Playing Thieves Guild

“So how long have I been a wanted man?” Sano was trying to figure out the best way to remove sticky clothing without getting the actual substance on skin underneath that, though tainted by strike-through, wasn’t nearly as actively dirty as the garments.

“Probably for a while, officially, but the posters just went up yesterday.” Katsu sat down on a bench near where the candle stood on one of the tables, leaned an elbow against the latter, and pulled the confiscated documents from his pocket. “They look good, don’t they?”

“Well… I guess…” Sano replied skeptically.

The artist smoothed out first one and then the other of the folded papers in the light of the small flickering flame. “I made them.”

Sano’s shiiya hit the floor with a wet plopping sound that would have been more disgusting if it hadn’t been mostly overridden by his demand, “What??”

“I work for the printmaker, remember?” Katsu didn’t lift his eyes from where — even in the shadows Sano could tell — they roved critically over the posters. “And we didn’t get paid for this job, by the way. Well, not for labor — just for the supplies, and less than full value at that. I guess we should be grateful the new regime was willing to pay even that much.”

Sano simply couldn’t help a resurgence — now stronger than before — of the mistrust he’d been trying not to feel earlier. Katsu had made a wanted posted with his face on it. No matter what mild complaints he might have about financial considerations and the courtesy of the new governing body, that was disturbing. Sano struggled not to let discomfort render his movements awkward and give him away. He was working to assess, with some difficulty in the low light and with dirty hands, the status of his shirt and whether he could retain it and keep from having to wear one in bright green or whatever other crazy color Chou eventually showed up with out of the other room.

Katsu evidently had no idea what was going through his friend’s head; in fact he didn’t even look at him, but ran his fingers over the printed version of that friend’s face on the table in front of him. “I probably should have made yours less accurate, since supposedly I’ve never seen you — they gave us a written description — but I got a little carried away…”

This statement certainly didn’t help with what Sano was thinking.

The artist’s hand drifted to the other poster, and for some reason Sano found himself stiffening in even greater uneasiness than before, pausing in the act of unthreading his belts, as he watched Katsu trace over Hajime’s face with a light fingertip. “We still had the blocks I made for the tournament advertisement posters a few months ago, so we just reused those for this one.”

This was ridiculous. In some annoyance Sano pulled the first of his belts free of its loops in a gesture far too quick that ended up splattering fruit goo in all directions. Katsu had brought him to a safe place and was providing him with things he very much needed (even if the clothing would technically be coming from Chou). Katsu had loaned him money to help continue paying the bill at the Enca Inn North. Katsu had been working with him to recruit malcontents toward some kind of actual rebellion so Sano could be a proper ‘rebel spy.’ And it wasn’t as if he could have refused to make these posters if he wanted to stay out of jail, most likely. What was Sano doing with this mistrust of his oldest friend? Just because Katsu had voluntarily printed those awful things about Hajime…

Well, that, at least, Sano could begin to express aloud. “I can’t believe that stuff on there about Hajime! It’s a bunch of bullshit! Do they really think he murdered that Misao guy?”

“Whoever ‘they’ are,” Katsu speculated, “they probably murdered ‘that Misao guy’ themselves for their own reasons. But you must see the importance of making Hajime look bad.”

In some confusion Sano replied, “Not… more than anyone else… no…” He stepped out of his pants and started examining his drawers. With shiiya, pants, and belts between them and the fruit goo, they were mostly untouched; it was the best news he’d had all day.

“Haven’t you heard the rumors of his daring escape from Soujirou and his men?”

In fact Sano had seen Hajime’s daring escape from Soujirou and his men, via the knight’s memories back at Seijuurou’s house. Obviously he wasn’t about to say this aloud, but now he thought about it, that kind of adventurous exploit — which certainly wouldn’t have diminished in the retelling — would be pretty exciting to the general public, wouldn’t it?

“Just months after he was the champion of the king’s tournament,” Katsu went on, “those rumors were enough to make him larger than life. Hajime would be a perfect rallying point for Kenshin’s supporters, if they could find him, so of course Soujirou’s people are going to do whatever they can to tear down his image. They’d like it even better if they could get their hands on him.”

Sano stilled in dismay, and said softly, “Shit…”

Finally Katsu looked up from the posters. “You’re working with him, aren’t you?”

“How did you know?” Sano tried not to frown. If Katsu was up to something not entirely in line with Hajime’s goals — and the idea of some unknown private motivations and plans was as far as Sano was willing to go even in his head; he refused to believe the artist was aligned with the usurper — it could be potentially disastrous that Katsu had figured this out.

Katsu smiled wryly. “That one’s pretty obvious.”

Well, the secret was out now; there was nothing to be done about it, except to keep going as he had, keep his eyes peeled for any signs of treachery. He hated even the thought, but this was what things had come to. “I need to get back to him,” he said, “and let him know about this ‘Wanted’ shit. We already knew I couldn’t pretend to be a devoted anymore, but now I can’t even keep wandering around the city looking for information, so we’re gonna have to make another plan.”

“Are the posters going to be a problem for him?”

“I hope not.” Sano bit his lip. “We tried pretty hard not to let anyone see his face… and I know he’s careful.” That didn’t lessen, however, the worry that sat like a dense stone at the bottom of Sano’s gut. Still, he wasn’t going to give Katsu any details he didn’t have to about Hajime’s current situation. Katsu would probably guess them anyway.

Whatever he did or did not conjecture, the artist seemed to realize that everything to be said on this topic had been. “Well, don’t forget we have meetings the next few nights.”

Sano had, in fact, entirely forgotten how near was the date of the first gathering of those from the red district that might be interested in opposing Soujirou’s rule, and wasn’t even sure how he could reach that gathering in the current climate. He stepped away from his discarded clothing and squatted down beside the bucket, examining its contents that were his only current options for ablution. Then neither man said anything for several moments — Katsu pensive, possibly considering, as Sano had just been, how they were to get a wanted man to a meeting that was already supposed to be a careful secret; Sano still trying to avoid contemplating the suspicions about Katsu that had arisen in the last hour.

Finally, with an effort, he made an attempt at a more light-hearted comment in order to send his thoughts in a less unpleasant direction. “I don’t think you and me ever did in Encoutia, but after I finally started playing with the other kids in Eloma, we used to love to play thieves’ guild.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Despite never having taken part in this game with his friend, Katsu sounded reminiscent, as if fondly recalling more general memories of the young Sanosuke and their time together.

“Yeah, we’d set a place to be the thieves’ guild, and try to sneak around and steal shit and then get back there and ‘sell’ it.” Sano started swabbing mess from his body, beginning with the arms that had been bare and therefore the most susceptible.

Katsu’s smile widened. “I bet you weren’t very good at it.”

“No, not very.” Ruefully Sano returned the grin as he looked away from his sticky limbs. “But it’s kinda fun to be in a real thieves’ guild, even if it’s completely abandoned.”

“I’m glad you like it…” Katsu’s tone was now as rueful as Sano’s expression. “Because it’s probably the best place for you to stay while you’re in the city.”

“I was afraid of that.” Sano cast another look around, specifically at the hard, dirty floors. “But it might not be a bad place for more people than just us, you know?”

Katsu put a pensive hand to his chin. “I’ve been thinking about that, and I’m not sure. I’ve been cleaning it up a little for that exact reason, but… how many people in the city know about this place? Doesn’t it seem like a very obvious meeting-place? If Soujirou’s people get wind of meetings taking place anywhere, aren’t they likely to check here first?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true…” The wet cloth Katsu had been using for aforementioned purpose ran next over Sano’s head, trying to get the worst of the stuff out of his hair. “But that means it’s just as dangerous for me — and you, and that other guy — as it would be for a bigger group of people.”

Katsu nodded. “My point is that it may not be the best idea to bring Hajime here.”

Sano didn’t want to talk about Hajime any more right now. If, after all, Katsu’s knowledge of his association with the knight did turn out to be dangerous, there was little Sano could do to counter that danger, so it was better not to think about it. It seemed he had far too many things he was trying not to think about lately. And it was also somewhat disconcerting, maybe even worrisome, the way Katsu had immediately picked up on the idea in the back of Sano’s mind — to get Hajime out of that inn to somewhere less public (and less expensive). Of course in this place the poor guy would only be able to read by eye-straining candlelight, wouldn’t even have a window to look out of to stave off boredom, and would have to put up with that Chou person, but it seemed safer in some ways. Except that Katsu did have a point.

Still trying not to think about it, “Well,” he requested, “tell me all the news… about the Devoted Club and shit.”

“The Devoted Council haven’t officially publicized their discussions, but they haven’t made much effort to keep them secret either, so what we have to go on is the rumors from people working in the palace. Apparently they started out with a lot of insignificant proposed changes to the divine houses and the way they run, but then it got bigger. They’ve talked about legalizing kereme… an entire rethinking of the criminal trial system… opening the country up to Essentialists… legalizing brother-sister incest… I think that’s all the big stuff. Whoever has Soujirou’s ear seems to have built up quite a list of things they wanted to change, and they’ve gotten right on it.”

“Wait…” The wrinkling of Sano’s nose in distaste arose not entirely from the lack of clarity in the water he was using to bathe. “The brother-sister thing… is that common enough for anybody to care…? Do that many people really want to get with their own family members?”

“Or,” Katsu said, pointedly enough to indicate this was more than blind guessing, “is there someone in an influential position who would appreciate it being legalized?”

“Like who, though?”

“Like a Megumi third-wash who just showed up after yet another extended absence with her brother, mysteriously pregnant?”

“Shit…” Sano recalled what he’d heard about Shougou and Sayo and their disappearances, and the prevailing thought that, if they were part of a resistance of any sort, they were terrible at keeping it any kind of secret. That the secret might be completely unrelated — if still not very well kept — Sano had not considered; but evidently others had.

“As you say, I don’t think there are enough people in the general population that this change in law would benefit to make it seem like anyone but those two Megumi golds are the specific beneficiaries. Though I’m sure,” Katsu added thoughtfully, “some people would appreciate the stigma lessening in cases like adopted siblings or distant cousins. But I doubt that would change with the law — at least not for a long time.”

Whether the stigma against male-female incest was fair or unreasonable in whatever case, it was certainly an attitude Sano had never questioned throughout his life. The whole topic made him uncomfortable — what was with this day and things he didn’t want to think about??

“So I wonder where the push came from,” Katsu went on, either oblivious or indifferent to Sano’s discomfort. “The rumors don’t say who suggested what, or what arguments were made in favor or against it… was it Gensai trying to keep his golds out of trouble, or was it one of the other houses trying to get Megumi’s devoted on their side or in their debt?”

It was a good point. As Katsu had said, it seemed unlikely the proposal had been made in any light besides as a specific aid to Shougou and Sayo — but who had made it, and what were their motives in so doing? “Hajime’ll know,” Sano muttered when he found he couldn’t decide on his own. “He figures everything out just by hearing about it.”

“Oh, is he a damn know-it-all too?”

Though Sano wasn’t looking at Katsu, he could hear the grin in his tone. And he couldn’t help returning it as he answered, “Well… yeah.” He might have elaborated on other things Hajime was if he hadn’t been so reluctant to discuss the knight with his supposed friend. “So what else do I need to know?” he asked instead.

Katsu sighed faintly. “Just that they’re trying to outlaw heresy.”

“What??” In his surprise and anger, Sano dropped the cloth that by now he was using on his legs. It didn’t even manage to fall into the bucket, but hit the floor with a wet plopping sound similar to that of his shiiya earlier. “They’re gonna force people to– how do they think they’re even gonna do that?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like a very enforceable law.”

“It’s bullshit, is what it is!” Sano bent, seized the cloth, and thrust it into the bucket with a vigor that splashed dirty water over the wooden edge and onto the floor. He wrung it out with just as much energy before returning to his task. “Why don’t these people try going through what some of us have been through and then say they have to pretend to believe in the fucking ladies?”

Sympathetically Katsu shook his head. “Even Kenshin was never that bad. He’s always been very open about his devotion to Kaoru, to the point where some of us thought he must be exaggerating for show, but he never had anything to say against non-believers.”

“Not like we got any respect anyway,” Sano grumbled.

“Not getting respect and getting throw in jail on sight — or worse — are totally different things. If you weren’t already wanted specifically, I’d tell you to keep your head down now people know you’re a heretic.”

The words ‘you’re a heretic’ seemed to echo strangely in Sano’s ears, and it occurred to him that, in all the years he and Katsu had corresponded, he had never once thought to ask… “And what about you? What do you believe?”

“I follow Misao.” This answer was so quick and decisive, so unexpectedly passionate, that Sano was startled into looking over at where Katsu stared down again, with a small but intense frown as if of concentration, at the posters he’d made. And Sano found his heart sinking.

Katsu had probably never brought this up before because he he’d seen how determined in heresy Sano was becoming — during the same years Katsu himself had been developing this determination toward Misao? — and didn’t want to start an argument a friendship maintained via letter might not be hardy enough to withstand. But for Sano to be hit with this revelation just when he’d already been beginning to doubt Katsu…! He wasn’t about to deny that he categorically and probably often unfairly mistrusted those that professed strong religious conviction, and that made this particularly bad timing for such a strong statement from his friend about the supposed patroness of artists and the like.

Still, he had been the one to ask.

“I can’t disbelieve in Misao,” Katsu reiterated, more quietly but essentially with the same passion as before. “But I reserve judgment on the other ladies. And as for the rest… the whole church and all its prayers and shrines and writ…” He shrugged and sighed. “I’m more than a little dubious. So I’d probably keep you company in jail.”

This admission of lack of knowledge in some areas and skepticism in others did little to comfort Sano after the completely confident declaration of belief in Misao, and it was all he could do to make his reply, “Or on the block,” more sardonic than a totally serious expression of his unhappiness.

“We may both end up there anyway.” Katsu too, in his attempt at relative lightness, sounded bleak.

They both fell silent again, perhaps in greater darkness but no less pensiveness than before. Nothing had improved during the course of this conversation; even the cleanup work Sano was doing on himself had accomplished not so much the removal of the fragrant slime as its fairly even redistribution, so he felt slightly sticky all over instead of intensely so in certain spots. He was about as clean as he was going to get for the moment, however, so he dropped the loathsome cloth and came to sit beside Katsu.

Katsu looked him over in the faint light. “Better,” he said, though his unenthusiastic tone indicated his recognition of the mere redistribution and the lingering scent.

“Yeah, thanks for the…” Sano gestured vaguely in the direction of the bucket. He found he didn’t want to meet Katsu’s eyes right now, either because it disturbed him or because he didn’t want Katsu to guess at any potential change in their relationship — maybe both — so he wasn’t surprised when his gaze locked onto the printed version of Hajime’s face lying on the table. Katsu was right; he really had done well on the portrait. Even if the text was complete and painful bullshit. With a deep breath and an effort but without looking up from an image that, unexpectedly, seemed to give him strength, Sano asked, “So how am I gonna get to the meetings and back without getting arrested or whatever?”

“I think it’s going to be a matter of hiding in plain sight.”

“How?”

Before Katsu could elaborate, the answer came in a different fashion. The light increased as Chou reappeared from the other room, finally — tardy no doubt due to deliberate sluggishness rather than because his task had legitimately taken that long — carrying a candle in one hand, as before, and a couple of folded garments on his other arm. In the glow of two separate flames, especially as Chou drew nearer, Sano could make out powder blue and bright salmon-orange, and with a lump in his throat thought he saw Katsu’s point: sheer audacity might take him wherever he needed to go, since nobody with any sense would ever believe a ‘rebel spy’ would parade around in clothing so ridiculously eye-catching.

Chou stopped in front of Sano and, in a pained movement, extended the arm over which the articles were draped, looking abruptly away as if he couldn’t stand to see Sano take them. “I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” he grumbled loudly in the direction of Katsu, toward whom his face now pointed.

Half tempted to look away in a very similar motion, Sano reached out a reluctant hand for the just-as-reluctantly offered garments, and couldn’t help replying, “I totally agree.”

For some author’s notes on chapter 23 and its interlude, see this Productivity Log. For chapter 24 notes, see this one.


Joe

The final photo had to be greyscaled, since the available lighting gave the piece a couple of different colors that weren’t really there, and I feel like some depth or richness has been lost as a result… but I’m still satisfied, and the recipient was extremely pleased with the original. Here is the frame she chose for it:

Warmth

Pretty sure they’re making fun of something together, which means the title is probably somewhat amiss. Also, I’m definitely liking these pastel pencils.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog

I’m not entirely happy with his proportions, and what bugs me most is the shape of his left arm (I’ve decided it’s his wanking arm), but overall I’m quite pleased with him. I took a couple of extra pictures closer up for detail, so here those are too:

Really Living

Here we have HoH Quatre and Trowa having a nice moment in Trowa’s new house. This picture is approximately 20″ x 30″ and was kinda difficult to get a photo of with the right lighting to show what it actually looks like. This isn’t too bad, but the color saturation is still a little off. I’m pretty satisfied, though.

I used this picture on a custom phone case, and it looked hella nice: