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Shifting The Balance
The Englishman had opted to stay. At least until his fortunes took a turn for the better. Kaoru immediately spread the word of his residence and services offered and within two days the dojo saw more interested students than it had in the last month. Of course, they were not here to learn the Kamiya kasshin style of swordsmanship, but to cluster around the Englishman and hear about the west in his perfect, aristocratic tones. Kaoru was first among them, when she wasn't teaching her own distracted students.
"Do you know what dog means in English?" she would ask Kenshin and he would dutifully ask what and she would say it and look proud of herself, even though Kenji was picking up words faster by far than she.
He weeded the vegetable garden that first day, while Kaoru was spreading word of the Englishman, and the Englishman was settling himself in. Kenji and Dr. Genzai's youngest granddaughter Suzume kept him company, the eight year old girl content to watch over three year old Kenji. The boy knew he wasn't supposed to trample the plants in the garden, but sometimes distraction won out and he'd chase a fluttering butterfly, or decide to run over and attack his father.
The Englishman came out and smoked his tobacco and watched for a while; spoke a bit about the dry weather and the pitiful shape it had left the vegetable garden. Kenshin concurred, having to pull water up from the very low well to give the plants any relief at all. He initiated very little conversation and the Englishman seemed content at the silence. Other than the buzz of excitement that hovered about Kaoru, life at the dojo was little changed. Winter was a quiet, unobtrusive presence. Nothing to create unease. Nothing to encourage disharmony. Kaoru was on her best behavior, demure and sweet tempered, even when she burned the rice and seared the sweet potatoes that Kenshin had pulled up from the garden that day. He asked, softly, that first night, where his wife was and who was this proper impostor. She'd taken a moment to ponder the depth of his gentle jibe, before smiling and proclaiming that 'she certainly had no notion, but oughtn't he be ashamed of himself for sleeping with strangers?'
Of course the next day, the peace became more turbulent with the onslaught of the curious. Hisa the seamstress brought her two daughters, Hama and Otsu to see the Westerner. Junichi the retired fisherman who lived with his granddaughter down the street came hobbling up on the arm of his great grandson, Juzo. The Araki children, all friends of Ayame and Suzame came to cluster about and hear the Englishman speak. Kaoru told them all, with Winter's permission, of course, that he would consent to teach English for a very reasonable price. It was agreed upon, over supper that evening, that the Kenda school would receive half of those earnings for lodging and food.
Kaoru sent Kenshin out the next day, with a purse of newly acquired coins, for tofu and fresh fish and even a bottle of sake, for Winter had confessed a fondness for it. So with Kenji and Suzume for company - - Ayame, the elder of Dr. Genzai's two granddaughters being all of eleven now and old enough to help her grandfather with his work - - he set out for market.
Another fine day, if not dry. The leaves rustled brittlely on the trees. A passing cart made little swirls of dust rise in the still air. The smell of wood smoke drifted lazily on the air, donating someone somewhere, smoking fish. There was a woodworker at the end of this street, who was working on a pair of very fine gates that Kenshin had admired for some weeks now in passing. He thought the gates of the Dojo in need of repair, if not replacement and that in no small part a fault of his. Trouble had followed him up to a few years past with an unerring talent. He seemed to have shaken the trail. It seemed his enemies were either dead, or unaware of his existence here. Nice to keep it that way. Nice not to have to sleep with a sword across his shoulder in fear of assassin's in the dark. Nice to have a garden plot to manage and a dojo to keep in good repair. Nice to have a wife who blamed him for no sins of the past and a child who might never know of them. Sometimes, though, on a clear day, he'd look up and see the mountains, misty and distant, north of Tokyo and his blood would sing a bit for want of something different. Something to make his pulse surge and his heart pound a little faster than it did during the daily routine life had become. But only sometimes.
Maybe if Sano were here - - it might have been different. With Sano around life was never so neatly complacent. Even if it were only trying to avoid getting in the middle of Sano and Kaoru's arguments. Yes, he missed Sano very much. Wondered if he went and asked - - if Saitou might have heard any rumors of his life or death. Saitou tended to be abreast of a great many things.
"He's very nice, don't you think, uncle-Ken?' Suzume remarked.
He blinked down at her, distracted, wondering which he in particular the girl was speaking of. She was beaming up at him, Kenji's small hand clutched firmly in hers, since the three year old tended to have a fascination with the edge of the canal. Quite convenient that one of them had been keeping an eye on the child. He felt remiss.
"Umm. Yes. Who?"
Suzume grinned at him. "Mr. Winter, of course."
"Oh. Yes." One had to agree with the observation. There were no hints to prove otherwise.
"And very tall."
"That he is, Suzume." He agreed without reservation on that count.
"He likes honey in his tea." Suzume announced and made a face. "And milk! He's also a very strange man."
"Yes." One had to agree there as well.
"Grandfather is thinking of making a match for Ayame." Suzume said, changing tactics with the alacrity of youth.
Kenshin glanced down at her curiously. "So soon. She's only - - ten? Eleven?"
"Eleven. And its only a marriage agreement. She won't marry until she's all grown. Fourteen. Grandfather said."
Oh. Marriage at fourteen was hardly surprising. Girls were married younger - - or forced into prostitution. Suzume talked about the husband to be and how excited Ayame was at the prospect. Kenshin listened and thought that time was unmerciful in its passage.
"What's that?" Kenji was pulling at Suzume's hand, pointing excitedly at the canal where it ran under a stone bridge. Brush and debris had formed a dam of sorts under one low arch, a natural net that caught all the flotsam coming downstream.
There was something pale and bloated caught in the slime covered rubbish. He thought, at first, before he truly looked, that it might have some large fish, washed in from the bay. It smelled of death, lodged half out of water in the warm sun. But fish did not have long matted black hair, or swollen white limbs.
Kenshin grabbed Kenji up before the boy could scramble over to the edge of the canal. Before he could make out wide staring eye sockets that peered out from beneath tangled hair. The fish had eaten out one eye. The flesh around the mouth had also been ripped and torn. A few small crabs scuttled over the cold skin, jubilant in such a meal. Not a pleasant sight at all.
"Suzume. Take Kenji back home."
The girl stared, wide eyed, small mouth open. Kenshin turned her face away, one hand on her cheek.
"No reason to look. Just take Kenji home."
She nodded, taking Kenji's hand and pulling the unwilling three year old down the lane behind her. He watched them walk away. Turned back when they were of a distance and stared grimly at the corpse. It was female. There was, he thought, a second body lodged under the current, beneath the first. He walked over the bridge and into market, looking for the telltale uniform of the city police.
Of course they were never as prevalent when one wanted them as when one wished they weren't about. He found one, eventually, loitering outside a teahouse, passing time with the attractive young hostess. He'd rather have avoided doing more than alerting the authorities of the gruesome discovery, but it was never so easy. He ended up in the midst of a gathering of the uniformed city police, telling and retelling the simple bad fortune he'd had on finding the bodies. He preyed for the luck that none of these young officers would recognize his name and that he'd been released to go on his way before any older officer's arrived that might be more familiar with him. Himura the Battousai was as good as dead and he'd as well keep it that way.
There were three bodies, as it turned out. The two that had been easily visible from the surface of the canal and yet another lodged beneath the water. Quite as naked as the day they were born. It made them unidentifiable. He saw, as they pulled them out, amidst the gasps and whispers of the gathered civilians, the source of demise. They had been sliced up rather efficiently. A single stab up through the woman's ribcage that had no doubt ruptured her heart. The two men had a few more wounds - - taken, most certainly, as they'd tried to defend themselves against their killer. No amateurish wounds those. The work instead of a man or men who knew how to use a blade. It made him doubly wish to hasten from this place, even though, he thought dourly, his name would unquestionably reach ears more familiar with it than these.
When their attention turned more fully to the examination of the bodies - - and left him, he took the opportunity to slip into the crowd on the market side of the canal bridge. No reason not to get supplies for dinner merely because he'd been waylaid by circumstance, though his appetite was somewhat depleted. The quivering white blocks of tofu were most unappealing, floating in the water of his pale.
He took another bridge home, a longer path, and reached the dojo as the summer shadows were just beginning to lengthen.
"What is this I hear about bodies in the canal?" Kaoru took him aside and whispered, concerned.
"Victims of robbery, most likely." Kenshin put the supplies in their places.
"Suzume said Kenji found them?" Very worried then, about what her child had seen.
Kenshin turned somber eyes her way. "He did. I don't think he realized what they were - - but, such things can't be hidden from him forever. Death happens."
She bit her lip, not happy. Kaoru was pragmatic about most things, but where it concerned her child - - she did not always reason properly. "He doesn't have to know about such things yet. Don't mention anything else about it to him. He'll forget."
"His mother runs a dojo and teaches an art of swordsmanship," since she persisted on denying reality, he found the need to state a bit of it blatantly. "His father was a manslayer of notorious repute. Keep the simple fact of death from him now and we may regret it in years to come."
"I don't teach the Kamiya Kasshin style of sword for the purpose of killing. Far from it. And you're not a manslayer anymore. So they are both moot points and you know it." She was angry now, and defensive and he hadn't meant for her to be either.
"I'll start supper," Kenshin said softly. "Its my turn."
It was not an argument either of them could win. Equitably, she let him change the subject. She left him to return to the porch outside the dojo where Winter sat entertaining the children who remained with stories of the west. She'd shooed them all home by the time the meal was ready, not willing to feed the mouths of the curious. It was only the four of them, sitting by the light of a paper lantern in the dusk, sipping tea and eating miso soup and grilled vegetables.
"Your hospitality is overwhelming," Winter said, sipping his sweetened tea. "I could not have wished for better, devoid of options as I am. My thanks for this roof, and this food."
"Kenshin did the cooking tonight." Kaoru admitted with a shy, almost apologetic smile Kenshin's way. "He's better than me."
"I'm not, really." Kenshin said. "Kaoru is a wonderful cook." He uttered the exaggeration smoothly and Kaoru blushed and seemed grateful for it. Winter looked between them, amused. Kenji hardly noticed at all, engrossed in picking apart a rice ball and tempting an uninterested Cat with grains of rice. Cat much preferred fish and since tonight's meal was meatless, Cat sat safely on a chest across the room, content to ignore the humans who inhabited her domain.
Afterwards, when Kaoru had put Kenji to sleep and the mess from supper had been cleaned, she poured Winter and Kenshin sake and sat on the edge of the porch with them, the ceramic bottle in her lap, the three of them listening to the crickets and the frogs make a serenade of the night. It was a thing he and Kaoru did alone together most frequently - - minus the sake. Winter's sharing of it - - was uncomfortable. At least to Kenshin. Kaoru seemed at peace. Kaoru was happy, the incident with Kenji and dead bodies put behind her.
And so the days progressed. The heat remained a constant and the lack of proper rain. A few light showers kept the crops from dying completely but the ground remained hard and dry and the wells ran dangerously low. The Englishman had seven students who came for a few hours each day, eager to learn his western language and his western lore. Kaoru taught her own students and Kenshin kept the dojo in good repair, took meticulous care for his garden, walking to the deep public well each day for life-giving water to feed the struggling plants. One almost wished for the torrential rains that would likely drown the crops, in favor of the drought.
Kaoru and Kenji learned bits and pieces of English. Kaoru could say passable sentences, according to Winter. He flattered her unmercifully and she basked in it, but the flattery had no taste of flirtation to it, so Kenshin ignored it, content with Kaoru's happiness.
Three weeks into the Englishman's stay and Kenshin drowsed in the heat of one tranquil afternoon, in the shade of the back garden porch while the Englishman gave his lessons. Cat draped herself, as usual, across his lap, content and vibrating softly with purrs.
"You seem to have a way with animals, as well as plants."
Kenshin blinked, heart thumping in the shock that he hadn't heard the Englishman's footsteps. He'd only been grazing the surface of true sleep and should have sensed the man's presence long before his long shadow fell over him.
"Your neighbor's gardens wither, and yet yours thrives. Your cat is supremely fond of your company."
"Oh. Well. She's Kenji's cat, really." M One had to admit the facts if not the reality.
Winter laughed and squatted, reaching out a hand to stroke Cat's soft fur. Cat slitted one eye and hissed. Winter pulled his hand back. "No. I think she is yours."
He transferred his hand to Kenshin's face. So quick and so light a movement that it took Kenshin off his guard. An unexpected grazing of callused fingers of the faint scars on his cheek. "How did you come by these?"
It was rude to ask so bluntly, Kenshin thought. Ruder still to lay a finger, no matter how lightly upon him. One could only excuse so many things because of foreign differences. The question, he could tolerate. Winter's touch - - He lifted his own arm, smoothly brushing the Englishman's hand aside.
"A very long time ago. Before Kaoru and Kenji."
"They lend you a certain - - character." Winter regarded him, his hands now carefully crossed on his knees. "Without it, I think you'd be rather - - too pretty. No offense, of course."
". . . . . . Of course." He could not force the smile. He was not unaware of his appearance. It had worked as an advantage to him once, many years ago, the almost feminine contours of his face. No one would ever had expected such a fragile, sweet faced creature to be as deadly as they had discovered him to be. But then, his reputation grew and no one believed the facade any longer. No one dared to make remarks about the profession he should have entered into. He had not changed that much - - physically - - from the eighteen year old Battousai he had been, in the fifteen years since the Meiji restoration had been accomplished. Mentally - - philosophically - - he was a completely different person. He was not - - he liked to believe - - dangerous anymore. He was a husband and a father and as such, one ought not to be feared because of the dark reputation of yesteryears. One truly did like to think such things.
So he managed a smile, an inclination of his head and an attempt to change the subject to something other than himself. "Kaoru is very grateful for your teaching. She says things to me now, that I find quite unintelligible and is immeasurable pleased with herself for it."
"She is an intelligent woman. A quick student, though I have to admit to my newness at teaching. With a more patient teacher, I'm sure she'd be even more fluent. You have no interest in learning a phrase or two in English?"
Back to him. It made him uncomfortable. He smoothed Cat's fur and shrugged. "No. I know everything about the west, that I need to know."
"Ah, you sound somewhat bitter." Winter was not offended. Kenshin hadn't thought anything resembling bitterness had crept into his voice.
"The advent of the west has caused much violence and bloodshed."
"Change often does." Winter agreed mildly. "Change is not always bad and most often beneficial."
"Yes," Kenshin had to agree with that. "You are most likely right. But it doesn't change the fact that I have little need to learn your English."
Winter smiled, a wide glimpse of white teeth. A predator's toothy smile, it occurred to Kenshin, for no particular reason. A smile to cover disagreement, or divergence of purpose. Odd that the thought so, when Winter had shown nothing but regard for them.
"I think," he said, gently displacing Cat from his lap. "That I've dallied long enough. I've a trip or two to the public well, if I want to keep my garden green."
"Do you need an extra set of hands?"
"No. Thank you all the same."
"Very well. Perhaps I'll take a walk to the docks and see if any word from home has come for me."
"I wish you luck, then."
Winter rose, that grin back on his face. "Eager to see me gone, then?"
He was being baited, and he was not entirely sure if it was in all good humor, or if there was something else behind it.
"Eager to see your good fortune return, Mr. Winter, that is all."
The boy was lying, if Quinton Winter was any judge. And Quinton Winter had come to be, over the years, a very astute judge of men's intentions and motives, hidden or otherwise. Of course, his host had confounded him for a bit. Not really a boy at all, despite that creaseless face. He would never have guessed if he had not have asked the woman. Kaoru's tongue was not tight. She was open with her information. She was pretty and bright, and as he had told her husband, very quick student. In a little over three weeks she had picked up enough rudimentary English to speak in halting, simple sentences. She would prove immensely valuable to his needs. His fortune had improved the very day Kenshin had intervened in the alley. He still had not decided whether it had been luck or skill that had prevailed that evening. Certainly, the young man had shown no singular skill afterwards, no interest at all in his wife's teachings. He had a certain inherent grace of movement. A certain, fluid way that he walked, an economy of movement that almost seemed - - choreographed - - but it might have merely been a natural trait. Might merely have been a grace that went hand in hand with that face and that lean, symmetrical body.
Truth to tell, though Winter had a definite need for the young woman, his eye was attracted more often than not, to her husband. His tastes tended towards the youth of the more masculine gender, and though Kenshin might have been only a decade his junior, he still looked a young man of twenty and appearances, after all, were as important as reality in some cases. It was his demon, those perverse tastes, and he had learned to live hand in hand with it long ago, learned, in point of fact, to enjoy it without remorse. He enjoyed his conversations with Kenshin. Enjoyed the ubiquitous baiting that Kenshin suspected, but never quite fully realized. An honest, young man, Winter thought. An honorable one. The deception that was as close to Winter as his very blood and bone, was a foreign thing to Himura Kenshin.
That honesty made him all the more appealing. It would be a shame to have to kill him. But such was life and the hard choices therein. His need of the girl was primary and that need could not be interrupted by her husband come seeking her out. If the Erizawa bitch hadn't been so nosy, he never would have come to this. But she'd discovered the alliances he held outside of her esteemed and most honorable father, and threatened to destroy the totality of what Winter had been working at for six years now, by the simple act of telling. He couldn't allow it.
Didn't allow it. He'd taken her through the heart in a single blow and dispatched her loyal bodyguards with little more effort. He had not spent over half his life in Japan and not picked up the more useful techniques of killing. That necessary act had lost him the connection he needed to convince his backers in England that this foray was worthwhile. It had been the word of Erizawa's daughter that would seal the pact. It had been her presence and her signature in lue of her traditionalist, ex-shogun father that would convince his peers in England that the alliance was a sound one.
But really, would they know one Japanese girl from the next. All they needed was the illusion. Appearances were so very important, after all. A girl that spoke a spattering of English. A girl who looked the part a shogun's daughter. A girl with something to hold over her head; a red-headed brat who was the image of his father.
The perfect, perfect solution to his problem. All of his alliances intact, with Erizawa no wiser of his daughter's demise and Winter's yakuza connections still secure. The yakuza could have cared less that a wealthy, former shogun was willing to back the alliance, but Erizawa would have backed out in a second if he'd known of the yakuza involvement. Erizawa was honorable to a fault, though greedy for a return of the power that the Meiji government had torn from him and those like him. The alliance that would grant Winter and his western backers sole rights of trade in Edo bay, would make all of them wealthy and powerful beyond their dreams.
It was only a matter of time. Only the matter of arranging a few judicious killings to cover his track. One hardly wanted word of his stay getting back to Erizawa. The students he'd been tolerating didn't matter. They knew nothing of him, other than the fact that he was a misplaced merchant. The old doctor and his granddaughters knew more, having spent many a supper hour with them at the dojo and being subject to Kaoru's gossiping. When the time came, he'd set the yakuza after them. It would look like a robbery in the night.
It would look the same here, at the Kenda school. In the meanwhile, he smiled and laughed and ingratiated himself into the girl's good graces. It was, after all, only a matter of time.
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