Heretic’s Reward 30-34

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

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

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



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

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

Chapter 30 – Unoppressed Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For bullying my nephew,” Hajime replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I also saw how you treated Yahiko.”

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

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

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

Hajime smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 31 – Final Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something about opening the country up to essentialists.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 32 – Known Powers

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

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

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

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

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

…if Sano were to tell him…

…to confess to him at last…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime, expression grim, bowed his head.

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

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

Hajime said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe I am,” Sanosuke shot back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 33 – Before (or After) the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what if something happens to us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” wondered Sano incredulously.

“He sounds like an oddity.”

“Yeah, an annoying oddity.”

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

Sano snorted, and they spoke no more.

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

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

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

The same incoherent grumbling came from the next room.

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

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

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

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

“He found it following Chou.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hajime gossips to you in letters?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Lemme see your keonblade.”

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

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

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

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

Sano laughed quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 34 – Converging Forces

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

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

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

“No,” said Hajime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have to defeat Soujirou.”

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

Hajime smiled and faded away into silky nothingness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, but I need to see him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of us?” Tokio wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, lucky you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s notes: 30, 31, 32.


Heretic’s Reward 26-29

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

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

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



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

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

Chapter 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.

Chapter 29 – As-Yet-Unknown Powers

Enca had no coherent shape, and at this east end of the small city the neighborhood devolved into a sort of shantytown that hugged the road for a considerable distance ahead. Sano hadn’t previously visited this area, and found it eerily like a tighter-packed and much dirtier version of his longtime home of Eloma. Disreputable-looking loafers, myriad unkempt children, dogs and cats and tied-up livestock (not to mention totally unrestrained chickens) eyed them from doorways or seats under roofs or merely where they stood or ambled in the tiny lanes among the clustered buildings with expressions ranging from curious and wary to completely disinterested. It seemed unlikely this was the favored route in and out of town, which was perhaps promising in terms of escaping unseen.

When cries arose behind them, however, indicating the direction of their flight had been noted, it was remarkable how quickly everyone in the immediate vicinity disappeared, leaving behind a somewhat disconcerting collection of empty alleys, closed doors, and a few remaining nervous animals for good measure. These folks probably represented the poorest selection of the Enca population, and it was understandable that even the slightest hint of a chase, even the distant sight of a city guard’s shiiya would send them scurrying. Of course, it had a similar effect on those actually pursued.

“This way,” was all the warning Hajime gave before making a right angle off the road into the nearest little twisting street between the crooked, unpainted structures built entirely of wood here where masonry was undoubtedly too expensive. As the other three followed his lead, changing direction frequently but in general moving away from Enca proper, darting among the grungy houses and workshops and sheds and who knew what else that comprised this part of town, Sano could feel unwelcoming eyes on them from cracked doors and windows and around corners. He hoped the denizens of the area would be no friendlier to those that came after.

Eiji was slowing them up. He obeyed Hajime’s instructions without hesitation, and seemed sufficiently athletic, but the fact remained that he wore a large backpack and simply couldn’t be as fast as the three adults — and also that those following undoubtedly didn’t have a twelve-year-old in their party to keep pace with. Since feelings of hostility would only provide another obstacle, Sano attempted to avoid them; it wasn’t the kid’s fault he was twelve. It wasn’t his fault he was who he was. But he definitely wouldn’t have been Sano’s companion of choice on such an adventure.

It proved wise to have entered the shantytown, where between trying to determine which turn their quarry had taken and to dodge crates and trash heaps and water troughs and the occasional oblivious resident the guards too were delayed, though maybe not enough. Sano could hear them behind — they didn’t shout except when surprised by some aspect of the environment through which they ran, but their footsteps pounded unsubtly against the unpaved earth — but fortunately, whenever he risked a brief look rearward, those giving chase were not yet visible. Thus he couldn’t be sure how many there were, nor exactly what the group was composed of — Elotica guards? Soujirou’s knights? Misao devoted? In any case, though they hadn’t caught up, neither did they seem to be falling behind.

At the front of their little party, Hajime’s head turned from side to side; undoubtedly he sought anything that would give them an advantage, and perhaps was considering the possibility of attempting to hide rather than continuing to run. These environs provided plenty of potential places of concealment, assuming the inhabitants didn’t oust or betray them… but with their enemies so close on their heels, would that be at all effective? Surely the guards would recognize the general area where they’d stopped running, and search so exhaustively that they would all quickly be found. And what then would happen to the kid? It was no fun envisioning what Hajime’s fate might be if recaptured, or Sano’s, but at least they two were active participants in the struggle against Soujirou’s regime and had entered into this business prepared for all contingencies. The knight couldn’t possibly be pleased that Tokio and Eiji — the latter of whom, at the very least, was completely unrelated to this business — had chosen just this moment to show up.

Sano couldn’t be quite sure how pleased he was that they’d chosen just this moment to show up. That they existed at all it was better for him to know than be ignorant of, and Tokio had been instrumental in gaining access to the shrine… but he didn’t like having them around, being persistently reminded of that existence of which he’d been unaware until earlier this very day. But discontented as he might be on the topic, he didn’t want to see an innocent kid taken captive, handled roughly, maybe separated from his mother, simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time… and perhaps related to the wrong people.

Whatever Hajime considered the best course, they needed to take it in a hurry; it was evident from the sounds behind them that their pursuers were gaining ground. Besides that, the previously cramped streets were beginning to widen, and the light grew brighter as the buildings drew farther apart; the city was petering out in earnest now, and they would soon be required to turn back toward its depths, which were presumably inhabited by more enemies, or lose this cover entirely. At certain turns Sano could see opener spaces ahead; Hajime, observing the same, put his hand briefly to the hilt of his confiscated keonblade, as if his next idea was to turn and fight… but almost immediately released it. They didn’t know the number or strength of their hunters, and there was still Eiji to think of.

Before any other decision could be made, a new set of noises suddenly erupted behind them: shouts and crashes and the clash of weapons. Hajime skidded to a stop as abruptly as the din had begun, and so unexpectedly that Tokio ran into him. He caught her shoulders to steady her, but he was staring in the direction they’d come, eyes wide. Eiji and Sano too stumbled to a halt and looked back, but they could see nothing — only hear the indications of a sudden, unforeseen skirmish in their wake.

“They’re buying us time,” Hajime said, shaking off his surprise. “Come on.”

“Who?” Tokio wondered as she joined him running again.

“It may just be some of the locals.” And it might merely have been Sano’s imagination — he was at the end of the line, and couldn’t hear very clearly with Hajime facing ahead like that — but it didn’t sound as if the knight believed this.

To the distant, fading noises of altercation behind them, with one voice rising tauntingly above the rest though still unintelligible from here, their route now took them directly out of the shantytown to the very edge of Enca and beyond. A stream, thigh-deep at its center and dismayingly filthy as it made its way alongside the dirtiest part of the city, seemed to mark the final boundary, and once they’d waded this their next step was to climb a fence into a hayfield and set off across it as quickly as possible. The field had recently been harvested, so the only cover here was the intermittent stacks held down by tarps staked to the ground, but if they could reach the opposite end without being seen, they could disappear pretty effectively in farmland, thanks to the unknown parties that had evidently attacked and certainly slowed their pursuers.

The sky had clouded halfway over while they’d been inside the shrine, but the smell of impending rain was completely overridden by the pleasant but overwhelmingly rich scent of fresh hay, and Sano sneezed more than once as they made their way across the lengthy field. He only glanced around a couple of times, abandoning the action eventually in favor of speed when he saw nothing to alarm him between the dingy buildings that grew more and more distant with every step. Then they had only to cross another fence and a narrow ditch with muddy water at its bottom before they emerged into a cypress-lined lane where they were completely hidden from the sight of anyone within the borders of Enca. Here they were able to pause, catch their breaths, and consider where to go next.

“Let me wear that backpack,” Tokio said at once to the panting Eiji, reaching out a hand.

He did not immediately comply. “But what if you need to fight? It’ll get in your way.”

She pursed her lips, obviously seeing the sense in this argument but still wanting to make the journey easier on him. Sano, not particularly caring who wore the thing nor liking to watch either of them, looked around instead.

The lane, wide enough for a cart but no bigger, ran roughly north to south, though in the latter direction it curved slightly so the cypresses running along it hid its course from view; it probably connected with the road out of Enca in that direction — meaning, though Sano would prefer to turn south since there Elotica lay, it would be unwise to do so at the moment.

“It shouldn’t come to that,” Hajime was saying; “let her have it.” He seemed to direct his next words, pitched low, to Tokio specifically. “Fighting degenerate devoted is one thing; city guards or false knights are a little outside your job description.”

On the opposite side of the lane, a neat wall rose up over whose top the heads of trees were visible. Sano recognized an orchard when he saw one, but guessed those boughs to be full of olives, a harvest he was not familiar with. Whatever grew there, though, the fugitives might conceivably search out the opening leading inside and make their way through that private space to wherever its far end might be; but not only was he unhappy at the thought of encountering orchard workers, he didn’t much like the idea of being surrounded by walls should their pursuers happen to follow them inside.

“They are well within yours, though,” said Tokio, “and I’m certainly not going to let you face them alone.”

“Not alone,” Sano muttered sourly; but as his back was to them, they either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore his words.

Past the nearest corner of the orchard walls, some distance away up the lane to the north, he could discern an opener area through the line of trees where a shorter crop seemed to be growing in rows. Anyone working that plot could see them if they went that direction, but if they hugged the orchard wall, kept low, and hurried, it might be some time before anyone paid them significant attention. He would still much rather head south, but Hajime had been correct earlier — damn his constant correctness — in saying they needed to shake pursuit before they attempted to return to the capital.

“I won’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets too close,” the knight was warning.

“Then I’ll speak their death rites,” she replied just as grimly.

“Fine.” Sano suspected Hajime would prefer Tokio keep entirely clear of any fighting that might happen from here on out — the comment earlier about ‘practicing with that little knife’ hadn’t suggested a great deal of confidence in her combative abilities — but didn’t feel he had time to argue.

Looking back over at the knight, Sano found him too examining their surroundings. The younger man gestured and suggested what he had in mind: “Along that wall there?”

At the first sound of his voice, Hajime met his eyes very naturally as he might have under normal circumstances prior to the appearance of the Visitant and her son; as he’d been doing all day, however, he removed his gaze with awkward immediacy and looked where Sano indicated. He gave a sharp nod, and, somewhat to Sano’s surprise, responded specifically to the proposal: “Good idea, Sano.” This was the second time he’d needlessly tacked Sano’s name onto the end of an unexpected commendation; Sano simply didn’t understand his current behavior. Not that he needed to. There’d been a time when he’d thought it might be a useful skill for his future to understand Hajime; that time had passed.

The knight glanced at Eiji as if to check whether he was ready and that the discussed gear transfer had taken place. Then he commanded, “Let’s go.”

They set off now at a slower pace — still quick, but more of a cross-country speed that could be maintained — and in the same order as before: Hajime leading, keeping a sharp eye out for trouble ahead; Tokio wearing the backpack in which she and Eiji presumably kept supplies for their journeys from town to town inspecting shrines and devoted; Eiji silent and intent, even somewhat dour at the potentially dangerous situation in which he found himself; and Sano in the rear carrying out his disconsolate self-appointed task of checking behind from time to time for signs of pursuit.

Reminded by thoughts of what might be in the Visitant’s backpack, he wondered what had happened to those apples he’d bought this morning. Had he lost them when Tokio had attacked him? Or had he dropped them in the street while he’d been so incoherent trying to decide what to do? Perhaps even earlier than that — in that horrible empty inn room with its broken door? He’d been so worried. So worried — and now he knew exactly why — and it had turned out Hajime not only didn’t need rescuing, but wouldn’t meet Sano’s eye for any reasonable length of time, and was, in fact…

There really was nothing to do but continually look behind in case they were being followed. Looking ahead was too bleak.

Yet as they moved on, coming eventually to the end of the orchard wall, carefully crossing another lane, and beginning to pick their way over a field of what seemed like unnecessarily huge lettuces, he couldn’t help listening ahead. For Tokio seemed to believe they were safe to converse, and Hajime conveyed his agreement by answering. Sano’s position rendered them continually difficult to hear, no matter how tight he strove to keep the line, especially given the cautious volume used by each, but he struggled to catch everything out of an almost masochistic jealousy.

Yes, jealousy. That was the word; he might as well own it. But it was, and had been since its inception, the jealousy of despair. He hadn’t know he might be jealous until he’d known there was something to be jealous of… and by then it was too late for hope.

“What do that white devoted and his fanatical followers have to do with all of this?” Tokio was wondering.

“I don’t believe Soujirou’s takeover was carried out entirely under his own motivation,” Hajime replied. “Any number of devoted may be involved, but Aoshi, at least, is loyal to our new king.”

“How do you know? His second-wash seemed exclusively loyal to him.”

“Aoshi delayed sending to Elotica for a force to take me into custody because he wanted to question me personally first — which was foolish of him, since keeping drawn blades nearby for an extended period of time when he wasn’t actually inclined to kill me just gave me more opportunity to get the rope cut and attack him.”

“You’re going to be famous for your daring escapes,” Tokio laughed. “I hope you know one of the rumors out of the capital that brought me this direction was something ridiculous about you evading Soujirou by jumping through a second-floor glass window and vanishing into thin air.”

Hajime snorted, and didn’t bother to admit how much of this was true.

She let it go. “But why didn’t the rabbits take you in themselves instead of sending for someone?”

Hajime’s answering tone was a combination of annoyance and disdain he not infrequently used to discuss religious topics. “I think Aoshi really did go there to meditate. I believe he wants to seek forgiveness with his lady.” Sano knew his eyes were rolling without having to see them. “He certainly looked forward to sending me to Soujirou, and before that he wanted to find out what threat I and my allies are to his precious new king, but I think he truly regrets the murders he’s committed so far.”

“He may find forgiveness from Misao,” Tokio said sternly, “but that doesn’t absolve him of blame on the mortal level.”

“He’ll never face justice under Soujirou’s rule.”

“Then we’d better get Kenshin reinstated.” At least that was what Sano thought she said; rain had begun to pour from the darkening sky, and he could no longer make out anything clearly from up ahead. He couldn’t decide whether he preferred it this way. They’d only been discussing the situation — nothing particularly private — and Sano himself had been curious about Aoshi and the circumstances of Hajime’s brief captivity at the shrine… but he disliked hearing them talking together at all, petty as he knew that was. In any case, he couldn’t stop the rain from falling, so it didn’t signify how he felt about the conversation — potentially much more personal now — that might or might not still be going on in front of him.

They proceeded through various fields and pastures, actively encountering no one but observing workers, eyes averted against the shower, frequently enough — and once, down a small road they subsequently crossed in haste, distant figures in white on horseback. Recalling how persistently the mounted ‘knights’ had followed Hajime when he’d fled the city after his first daring escape (the one he already was famous for), Sano couldn’t be pleased at this sight, even though it was entirely possible the riders had nothing to do with them.

The rain kept up heartily for at least an hour, and after not too long Sano was as miserable physically as he had been mentally for some time. Eiji too, plodding through the wetness before him, seemed far from happy with the situation, but Sano couldn’t bring himself to feel much sympathy. How the man and woman in front were faring Sano didn’t know; he tried to tell himself he didn’t care.

They’d avoided farm buildings thus far, but in the afternoon when Sano believed his flesh and muscle as well as every stitch of his clothing was finally soaked completely through, Hajime seemed to be heading more or less directly toward the latest cluster of houses, barns, and sheds. At the last fence they would need to climb to make their final approach, he stopped and gestured for a huddled conversation.

“We’ll hide somewhere over there. Once the sun goes down, it may be safe to start making our way around to Elotica.”

“What about the farmers?” Sano wondered. He saw little motion among the buildings through the haze — and one instance of what he did see moving was an enclosed group of pigs apparently enjoying the rain very much — but there were still sure to be people about all day that might very well stumble upon them, and how they would react he couldn’t guess.

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take,” replied Hajime without looking at Sano. “We can’t keep heading away from Elotica, but I don’t think it’s safe to go south just yet; we need to get under cover for a while and lie low. For one thing, I assume you have a report for me; for another–” with a glance at Eiji, whom he was willing to look at– “we need to get out of the rain and rest.”

Somewhat to Sano’s amusement — certainly the first instance of that emotion he’d felt all day — Eiji appeared a little annoyed at this evident concern for his youthful health. If he was anything at all like Sano had been as a twelve-year-old, he would much rather demonstrate his ability to continue on across whatever terrain and through whatever weather for as long as necessary… but this would not be countenanced by the adults watching over him — in which number, at least to a certain extent, Sano grudgingly had to include himself. It was an earlier proposed rest than any taken between Eloma and Enca, but if Hajime was more concerned about Eiji’s wellbeing than he had been about Yahiko’s, that was only to be (cheerlessly) expected. And perhaps there was a little unspoken concern for Tokio’s wellbeing too; Sano had a feeling she wouldn’t appreciate the gesture any more that her son did.

“That shed there.” She pointed. “It’s the only building I can see whose door doesn’t face in toward the farmhouse. It’s probably the safest place for us to break into.”

“Breaking into farm sheds,” Hajime commented with a smirk and a sidelong glance at her. “What kind of church official are you?”

“One who serves all the divine ladies,” she retorted, voice much drier than their surroundings, “including Misao.”

“But has she forgiven you for beating up her devoted? Is she likely to help you break into anything at this point?”

Tokio rolled her eyes. “Spare me your disbelief, at least until I’ve had a chance to dry off.” She moved forward and placed her hands on the top slat of the rain-slick fence.

They did, in fact, have to destroy the lock on the shed door — this was one of many things a keonblade was useful for, along with doubling as a lamp in the unlit interior — but besides that they reached and entered the place without any trouble. Whether its current uninhabited state would continue was anyone’s guess, but at least for now they were out of the weather and out of sight.

It was a wide, flat structure half sunken into the earth, with walls made entirely of stone to retain as much cool air as possible, and its dirt floor was reached by several steps leading down from the door; this rendered it somewhat difficult to hold the latter closed once it would no longer latch properly after their vandalism, but a couple of sacks of potatoes propped against the ingress and each other eventually did the trick.

In fact the entire place was full of vegetables, and its atmosphere overwhelmingly that of earth and carrots and cabbage, not all of the scents fresh. Without even discussing the matter they headed immediately toward the far end — where Sano was disappointed to find no back door, which would have been terribly convenient for their purposes if not those of the farmers hoping to keep off thieves — past floor-to-ceiling racks of vegetables laid out or hung up in bunches that made the place feel like a dark, fragrant forest comprised of unfamiliar trees.

There was no particularly convenient place for them to stop, given that the rows of stored produce ran all the way to the rear wall, and the space available in the aisle was limited, so eventually they just settled onto the floor in the same line they’d maintained all along, wet and tired and still slightly paranoid about their chosen hiding place, and attempted to get the best rest they could out of these uncertain circumstances.

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, and this one for notes on the Shikijou picture. For interlude 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.

For author’s notes on chapter 28, see this Productivity Log, and this one for chapter 29.


Heretic’s Reward 22-25

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

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

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



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

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

Chapter 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,” Katsu 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.”

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.

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.

For some author’s notes on chapters 21 and 22, see this Productivity Log; for chapter 23 and its interlude, this one; and for chapter 24, this one.