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The Killing Edge
The women had washed and mended blood stained, bullet shredded clothing. The lady had one of the girls fetch it when Kenshin inquired. He respectfully declined their assistance in donning it, embarrassed. They had giggled, casting coy looks and he was not entirely sure if the offer had been real or in jest, the humors of women often confounding him. They had followed him back, though, to the place he had left Sano, seemingly fascinated by his mere presence, until Lady Laasya had reprimanded them, calling them off as she might a pack of energetic dogs and promising them the chance to pry into the secrets of their guests when they gathered for supper.
She'd laughed herself at that promise and Kenshin had blinked, put off balance by the lot of them and not entirely sure the lingering fever was not contributing to the feeling.
He'd hesitated in waking Sano before, but he had the need now. After he'd donned freshly cleaned, pleasantly scented clothing, he knelt by Sano's pallet and laid a cautious hand upon him, as Sano woken from a deep sleep did not always respond benignly. All Sano did this time was grumble and bat at the offending hand before blinking up with no small bit of disorientation. Kenshin sympathized, having experienced much the same.
"Where the hell - -?" Sano pushed himself up on to an elbow, staring around.
"A temple in the woods. We've been taken pity upon."
Sano took that in, lifting a hand to the bandage at his head, prodding the place where the bullet had scored. "Yeah? Guess we needed it. I pass out?"
"Priests? Did priests take us in?"
"No. This temple, I think, is long abandoned by whatever sect worshipped here. There is an old man and a group of women that live here now."
Sano stared up at the time worn stone fašade of the room they were in. Some small bit of uncertainty entered his eyes. Sano had a justifiable wariness of abandoned temples and desecrated shrines. "Real people? Live ones?"
Almost Kenshin smiled, but Sano would have taken offense, so he nodded somberly and confirmed it. "I am sure of it."
Sano blew out a breath, relieved. "You trust these people?"
"I don't know," Kenshin admitted. "Our choices are limited until we're both well enough to travel. How do you feel?"
Sano rotated the shoulder experimentally. "Better. Head's not trying to explode at any rate. Not like it was. " He cast Kenshin a narrow look. "You're the one that was pretending you were fine when you weren't. How're you?"
Kenshin looked down and away and pushed Sano's pile of folded clothing forward. A hard thing to admit that if these people had meant them harm, they would both be dead now and he could not have prevented it. "There was fever - - it's abated now. I pushed us too hard. I'm sorry."
Sano stared at him long and hard, mouth pressed tight, things going through his head that Kenshin could only guess at. He nodded finally, uncomfortable with broaching the shell of the things that had driven Kenshin so relentlessly to flee the environs of that tragic little village. And Kenshin wouldn't broach it. Couldn't, all of it this looming, bloody shadow that weighed at him like the vengeful spirits of the men he had killed. Familiar feeling, that. He'd carried it for almost a decade after the war. Had only managed to shed it when he'd finally allowed himself to make associations of a permanent nature. Kaoru, Sano, Yahiko, Megumi - - all of his little circle of friends. All them serving one way or another to lift his self imposed punishment one fragile layer at a time.
"Is that food I smell?" Sano asked instead and it was probably an honest enough change of subject. Kenshin was grateful for it.
And there was the faint scent of curry and spices in the air.
"They did say," Kenshin ventured. "That they would feed us."
"Oh, Gods, I think I love this place already."
And indeed there was food, when they limped out of their borrowed haven. The old man was waiting in the courtyard, leaning upon his staff, waiting for their eventual appearance. He led them down a path between the jumbled remains of buildings to another small courtyard surrounded by temple buildings that seemed more intact than the outer ones they had so far seen. These were no less overgrown. The roots of several aged chundul trees spilled like massive tubes of white lava down the fašade of the shrine. The stone was dark with age and moss, but the carvings were still visible, intricate and beautiful. There was a stone pit, around which no few women squatted, tending flatbreads frying over the flames and pouches of steaming vegetables nestled around the edges of the coals while they chatted and laughed. Others sat about the steps of the temple on spread blankets and scattered pillows, a strange sort of decadence in the midst of this weathered, overgrown place.
All semblance of conversation ceased when Sano and Kenshin appeared with their guide. More than a dozen sets of eyes turned their way.
Kenshin wasn't entirely sure, but it seemed as if there were more colorful saris, more dangling brass, and most certainly more daringly plunging necklines. No matter that he had wondered India for many, many months, a man used to the more demure fashion of Japanese women often found himself flustered by casually displayed mid-drifts and bountiful cleavage. Sano held no such unease. Sano stared and immediately and subtly straightened his shoulders, developing a little less limp and a little more cock-sureness to his stride. More reflex than anything else to strut in the face of attractive feminine attention.
The lady Laasya sat among a group of women on the temple steps and she smiled and beckoned with a graceful, bracelet adorned hand.
"Come. Come. Welcome."
Several of the girls rose, hurrying forward and drawing them forward. They were more forward laying hands on Sano, who grinned at the adamant welcome and seemed to relish the attention. They settled on the steps below Laasya amidst her flock of colorful attendants.
They were not shy, these women, and immediately launched a barrage of questions that Kenshin was content to let Sano take the brunt of. Sano was happy to oblige, as they placed warm cups of tea in their hands and offered up plates with freshly made flatbread surrounded by piles of various relish and seasoned vegetables and rice. It was a bountiful feast compared to what they'd subsided upon for the last few days. Fed and flattered by eager female attention Sano's mood became generous. He answered their questions with flourish. Who they were, the less troublesome highlights of their travels in this country. Like so many of the people here, they assumed they were Chinese and were amazed and enthralled at the notion of them crossing the sea to come here from a far away land.
Laasya was content to let the others ask most of the questions, only occasionally voicing one of her own, but her eyes took in everything and occasionally Kenshin saw her exchange looks with the old man, Yaj, who sat silently near the fire pit. There was nothing about any of them, the women or the old man, that spoke of the lower caste peasants that inhabited the dirt-poor villages and towns they had passed. Their speech was refined, educated. Their mannerisms were those of ladies used to being waited upon, rather than surviving alone in the ruins of a long abandoned temple, far from civilization. It was curious and curious when he was in fight or flight mode, made him nervous.
"If it is not presumptuous to ask, lady Laasya," he broke into a momentary lull of conversation. "You said 'exile' earlier. How did you come to be here?"
The girls all looked to her, waiting for her to answer and she smiled, shrugging one graceful shoulder. She waved a hand with a faint jingling of bracelets to the surrounding temple. "The will of the gods who dwell in this place. Fate. Ill judgment. My own as much as others. I was, you see, a courtesan in the middle of a dispute between princes."
"The most beautiful of all courtesans," one of the girls emphasized.
"A kanjari," another said. "To whom maharajas and noblemen offered their hearts. Gifted by the gods with the talents of dance and song."
Others offered their own estimation of the lady's grace and beauty, until Laasya lifted a hand stilling their praises.
"Silly girls, look where it got me, this vaunted beauty. Never satisfied with what was before me, I took as lovers two men of power. Two maharajas of neighboring provinces. It was my profession, you see, to cater to the pleasures of men willing to pay. A transaction of business and not the heart. But I underestimated the lengths men go in rivalry with other men. The need of powerful men to own what they desire."
She looked down momentarily at her folded hands, a flash of pain crossing her face, but it was gone in an instant, the beautiful calm back in place. "So they warred, these two princes and I was spark that lit the fire. Many lives were claimed and these two men died in the field of battle. Blame, perhaps rightfully so, was placed on me. So I fled, until I found refuge here, where I have lived since. I have welcomed others of my trade, who wish to escape that life, sanctuary here with me. So we are as you see."
Sano was staring, mouth agape, half eaten piece of bread dangling from his fingers. "You mean you're all prostitutes?"
One could wish more tact from Sano, but his lack was hardly surprising. The women seemed not to take offense. Some of them laughed, amused. Laasya smiled and inclined her head. "We were. It is a respected profession, despite the disfavor our English 'caretakers' place upon it."
"Any woman can lay down and spread her legs," Another said. "But a true courtesan is trained in the arts of pleasure. No common whore can please a man - - or a woman - - so."
Sano's eyes got rounder and almost Kenshin could feel the build up to the release of some offensive question. The lady Laasya prevented that with a silken one of her own.
"So, we have offered you our deep secret, won't you do us the courtesy of revealing your own? How did you come by the wounds you carry? What conflict drove you here, so far off the beaten trail?"
It was a fair question. A more than fair one, considering the threat they all took harboring strangers who had come, blood soaked and delirious to their doorstep. They had avoided giving the details of it, so far. He didn't know how to answer it, the words sticking in his throat like clogs of blood. Sano did it for him.
"I don't know that we're to blame for what happened or not. Not, I think. We pissed off some English officer a while back - - broke up a bunch of his sepoy beating up a poor bastard in some town or another - - then didn't have the courtesy of sticking around and letting them hang me for it. Knocked him on his ass on the way out and that's had them on our trail for weeks now. So - - maybe they followed us - - or maybe they just happened to be going that way anyways - - but - -" He frowned, casting Kenshin a look, needing confirmation, maybe that Kenshin was ready to reveal the terrible things that had happened in that village.
Kenshin nodded, staring from under his hair at the slow migration of a hairy worm across the stone at his knee.
Sano took a breath and plunged on. "There's a village a few days - - south? - - I guess south of here, called Gheta. Little dirt poor place with villagers that don't want much to do with anyone from the outside. The English army came - - maybe on our trail, maybe after bandits - - I don't know - - but they were on a tear and things got out of hand. I don't know who started what, but something set them off and when they started firing into the crowd - - everything went to hell. It didn't matter who was resisting, they were just shooting everything that moved. Men, women, kids - - folks who weren't even fighting back - - it was a massacre, until - -" Sano trailed off, having talked himself into a place he didn't want to go.
Kenshin went there for him, saying softly. "Until it became a massacre of a different sort." He clenched his fist, feeling the ghost of a sword hilt in his hand.
"They'd have killed every one of them," Sano said angrily, clenching his own fists, staring at Kenshin now and not the audience of women. "They'd have left them there to rot and said they were bandits or rebels or whatever excuse they needed to justify it. And they'd have gone on and maybe done it again, next time they had a suspicion and common folks took offense at them trampling all over them. So what you did - - there are innocent people alive now, that wouldn't have been otherwise. You and me are alive. They started the massacre - - you just turned it around on them is all."
"How many dead?" The old man asked finally.
Sano shook his head. "Villagers? There were what - - a dozen or so survivors? Right Kenshin? Out of about forty people. I'm not sure how many sepoy. Most of a regiment, I guess. Twenty or so. An old smith we were travelling with. A good man."
Kenshin nodded mutely. That seemed an accurate count. His own memory of the event had gone hazy after Sano had gone down. The things he recalled were jumbled and had not all been firmly seated in the present.
The women gasped softly, horrified.
"Twenty soldiers armed with English guns," Yaj said. "And you had a blade."
"And I had a blade," Kenshin confirmed, bare whisper.
"You must be very adept with it," Laasya surmised, looking shaken. All of the women did.
Kenshin didn't answer that.
"Good enough," Sano agreed. "He did what needed doing. He defended those people and he defended us. And that's what blades should be used for, right? Defense of those that can't defend themselves. That's what you used to say."
He still believed it. But this blade had taken lives in the process of that defense. Vow shattered, blood on his hands, new blood darkening the stain of old on his soul. And maybe Sano saw the way his mind was spiraling, because he growled, baring teeth and drew breath to snarl something that didn't need to be aired before these women, but the lady cut him off, asking calmly.
"And do you mean us harm? Should the innocent fear for their lives with you among them?"
"No. No!" Kenshin jerked his head up and denied it, aghast. "Which is why you do not want our company with trouble fast on our heels."
The lady sat there, the girls quiet and wide eyed around her. She looked to the old man, who shrugged.
"Few know the paths here and those that do have alliances with me," she finally said. "And if by chance those that do not find their way to this haven, there are places within these walls that might provide hidden shelter. Stay until your bodies mend. Break the boredom of long days for us."
It was as if a collective breath had been expelled. The girls, freed from their captivation, added their agreement and all Kenshin could imagine was innocent blood spattering these stones if the English army found them here. He half tasted the blood in his mouth, hot and terrible and for one precarious moment, he lost himself, flung back to the village of Gheta, the ground littered with corpses of his making - - before Sano slapped him on the shoulder - - jerking him back to the here and now.
"Yeah, that sounds good. Right, Kenshin?" Sano's voice sounded cheerful, but his eyes were hard.
Kenshin wanted to deny it. Wanted to thank them for their offer, but decline it respectfully and be safely on their way. But Sano had a set to his mouth that he got when he'd had enough and very well planned to take initiative of his own.
Sano's fingers on his shoulder tightened, the verge of painful, and Kenshin nodded reluctant agreement.
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