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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 21

 

Sano slept afterwards, easy in his slumber. Sano never let little things like guilt or emotional turmoil disturb either appetite or sleep.

Kenshin envied him that, lying awake well into dawn. The muffled patter of rain on the thatch roof was a constant, drowning out the chatter of nighttime insects. Once he tensed at the almost imperceptible sound of a body moving outside, but it was only Saitou, he thought, when the door across the walk opened and closed. Sano never moved, one long arm draped across Kenshin's stomach, one leg curled over his thighs, the warmth of his body enough to discard covers altogether. The tickle of his breath against the side of Kenshin's temple was pleasant.

His utter quiet was. Soothing in a way different than sleeping with Kaoru had been. Igniting different things inside him than she had. They both gave him peace of a sorts, though Sano's was tinged with the guilt of betrayal. They both chased away the red stained veil that was always with him. She with the mantel of normality, offering him the chance to be what he'd never been before her - - a simple man. She gave him someone to protect. She let him be simply a husband and a father that helped maintain a dojo for a living instead of darker things. Sano - - Sano didn't offer so much of that façade. Sano just made it easier to bear. Sano made him not hate so much the parts of him that were so ingrained that he'd never completely shed them. He hid things from Kaoru - - things he never wanted her to know. There was no need with Sano. Sano knew things, admitted on the hard roads they traveled together that he'd never admitted to anyone else. And Sano didn't judge. Sano had his own demons.

He only found sleep after the rains stopped and dim grey light began seeping through the cracks in the window shades. He was half aware of Sano shifting, rising, but the sleep that he'd finally found, dreamless as it was, was too precious to surrender. Eventually, Sano came back, settled down next to him and he sank back down again into dreamless void.

Next he opened his eyes, the light coming in through the shades was bright and Sano was gone from the room. It was well into the day, if he were any judge and he'd slept later than his habit. He pushed himself up, rotating the shoulder with the healing bullet hole. The one in his leg he hardly noticed, but the shoulder was stiff in the mornings and it took a little while to work it out. He ran a hand through his hair, finger combing it into a semblance of coherency before gathering it up again in fastening it into a tail. Not as long as it had been when he'd been a rurouni, but a hands width longer than when he'd left home.

Sano had a fascination, that he'd admitted, half embarrassed, when he'd had his hands tangled in it, that he'd had since the less than peaceful day they'd met. Kenshin hadn't had a clue. But then sometimes the interpersonal things escaped him.

He dressed again in simple clothing, cool, thin linen that alleviated the humid heat of the island. Sano was not within the environs of the inn, nor was Saitou. He held little concern. It was a city, foreign and new and Sano had a love for experiencing new things. Kenshin thought, while he waited for word from the boy, that he might partake of one of the Ceylonese bathhouses. After a week ship bound he felt the dire need.

Afterwards, he took a simple breakfast and walked the path the boy had taken them yesterday, careful to dip his head, letting overlong bangs obscure his face and give courteous right of way to the patrolling English soldiers with their crisp uniforms and their ever present rifles. In his peasant garments and his alacrity to give right of way they never looked twice at him. No one remembered the servile.

The boy had said there were estates further out, the homes of the wealthiest of the British occupiers. Merchant lords or English power brokers, whose domains overlooked the vast tea crops and the dark line of ever encroaching jungle beyond the fields. He spent a while, never allowing himself to seem without purpose, never arousing interest in those he passed, memorizing the lay of the streets, the paths in and out of ally ways, places the patrolling soldiers liked to pause and talk among themselves, partaking of the same tobacco that Saitou so liked. If he came back in the dark of night, he'd know his way.

He went back to the inn well into the afternoon. Found Sano leaning against the wall outside it, flirting, despite the gulf in language, with a pretty Ceylonese girl. Sano looked over her glossy head at Kenshin's approach. He spat out the reed he'd been chewing on and grinned at the girl, pushing himself off the wall and strolling leisurely down the dirt street to intersect Kenshin's path. Fell in beside him, thumbs hooked in the waistband of his trousers.

"Find out anything interesting?"

"Only that there are a great many soldiers with guns patrolling Colpetty. The English have a firm grip on this city."

"Hn. Somebody came round and met with Saitou."

Kenshin canted Sano a look, inquiring.

Sano shrugged. "He left with the guy. Didn't feel the need to tell me where he was going or what it was about."

"No, I don't imagine he would have."

Worrying what Saitou was up to, or what Saitou was hiding from him would get him nothing but strained nerves. Better to accept the notion that even though they were not exactly working at cross purposes, that their paths had diverged.

The boy, Kai, found them at supper, eating curried fish and rice in an establishment a few doors down from the inn. He stood at the door, waited until Kenshin looked up, noting his presence, before jerking his head and retreating back outside.

He waited outside, against the side of the building.

"So," the boy said. "Found out some stuff."

"Yeah?" Sano asked, leaning a shoulder against the wall next to him.

The boy gave Sano a smirk, then canted his dark head at Kenshin. "Money first."

Sano laughed curtly. "What do you think, we're stupid? I found out a bunch of stuff today, too, but none of it worth anybody paying for it."

"Sano," Kenshin could appreciate Sano's skills at haggling, for surely they were greater than his own, but this was too important to risk. He tossed the boy a silver coin. "There's another if your information is useful."

The boy stared the silver lustfully for a moment, before saying. "Yeah, well, you were looking for a Japanese lady, right? The cook that works with my mother talked to another cook who says her master had a guest last week, that he told her to prepare a proper Japanese dinner for. Japanese nobility, the cook says."

"Last week?" He kept control of his breathing, kept himself from clenching and unclenching his fists. "And was she accompanied by a pale haired merchant?"

The boy shrugged. "There were guests. Cook was in the kitchen. Didn't get a look at them all."

"A child?" There was always that tremulous hope. That confirmation.

The boy shook his head. "She didn't mention a kid. Just the lady that her master went to trouble to impress."

"Where?"

"House of Lord Kilbourne at the end of Galle. He's a bigwig - - owns a bunch of ships and has the Lord Chancellor over for tea twice a month, word is."


 

Kenshin had gone quiet and serious since talking with the boy. Not the quiet and serious he'd been since Sano had found him - - where he was worried and trying hard to focus on the goal of tracking Kaoru and Kenji - - when he'd had injuries that should have had him out for the count. But the deadly quiet, hard eyed serious he got when he'd been pushed to the point where the wonderer façade began to crack and the Battousai began to seep through. That scary look he got that anyone with half a brain had the common sense to back off and give him lots of room around.

Sano never had been strong in the common sense department. Kenshin had gone back to the room then, not speaking a word, had sat there, kneeling on the hard wood floor with the sword across his thighs with a narrow eyed look that invited no comers.

"So what the hell are we gonna do? We don't know if it was even her."

The inquiry of which, after Sano could stand it no more, had gained Sano a slow flick of shadowed eyes and finally. ""I pay the house of this English lord a visit."

Sano could get behind that idea. "So when do we go?"

"We don't."

It took Sano a moment to get it. His exclusion. "The hell! You think after all this I'm just gonna let you pull something like this without me?"

"I'm not giving you a choice."

Sano clenched his fists until knuckles popped. Pissed. Just pissed off that Kenshin could discount him so. "What? You don't think I'm up to it? You're the one that's off his game. I'm damn sure on mine."

Kenshin rose, one fluid movement, and almost Sano took a step back, on the off chance that Kenshin had lost his grip on sanity and decided to prove Sano wrong. But he only slid the sword through his belt, giving Sano a hard look. "If my goal were to take on the whole of the house, your company would be welcome, Sanosuke. I have quieter intentions. I simply want to see this house that she might have been."

Sano drew himself up, more offended than before. "Are you saying I'm only good for busting heads? I can sneak around if I want. And if you're just going to look around, why do you need that?" Sano jabbed a finger at the sword.

Kenshin looked at him a moment, then he half smiled, inclining his head, granting Sano that one. But Sano didn't believe the smile. It didn't come near to reaching Kenshin's eyes.

"Grant me this, Sano. You come, and keep watch for Soldiers outside and if there is a need, you'll hear it."

"Right, because you always make such a big racket when you work," Sano said sullenly.

Kenshin's mouth twitched again, this time Sano thought a little of that humor might have reached his eyes.

It was fully night when they left, slipping through dark streets, avoiding the lampposts with their flickering lights. Kenshin knew the way as unerringly as if they'd been traveling the streets of Tokyo. Sano was all turned around in the depth of night with the landmarks he'd only glimpsed once obscured by darkness.

The boy had told them which house, the number, and the description. A big stone mansion with tall stone walls surrounding it. A garden behind it, and an ally between it and the neighboring house. Beyond that was a causeway with old mangroves leaning over a narrow canal. They waited there, in the black shadows for a good while, listening to the sounds of things sliding in and out of the water, of the occasional clip of hooves as some late night traveler passed on the street, or the quieter sound of booted feet, as soldiers patrolled.

Finally, after about an hour, when the sky had actually begun to turn from inky black to purple, Kenshin rose.

"Be careful, damnit," Sano warned softly.

Kenshin nodded, almost indistinguishable from the night in his dark clothing. If it weren't for the pale of his face, he might have blended entirely. He made no sound at all, not even a rustle of cloth, when he moved. And if Sano had blinked, he might have missed entirely him gliding up that wall and disappearing over the top of it to the garden on the other side.

Not nearly so off his game as Sano had accused. Maybe not off it all, after the hardships he'd suffered. Pain, Sano had discovered the hard way, tended to bring out the best in some men.

 


 

The garden behind the house was lush and well tended, secluded from the rest of the wall by tall stone walls. The lights in the house were dark, snuffed out some while ago. Time enough for the inhabitants to have fallen into slumber. He was no stranger to skulking in the night. To sliding invisibly into the places he had no honest reason at being. He had been given no few missions, when he'd had a master whose word to a samurai was law, which had been distinctly lacking in the sort of honor a man practiced in the light of day. In his prime, the ninjas of Akabeko had had nothing on him.

He wasn't here to take heads. He'd just as well not have to draw the sword at his side at all and from the heaviness of the sleepers here, he doubted he would. He simply needed to see for himself if there were trace of her here. To see if, by some miraculous stroke of luck that he seemed long overdue, if she were still here. And failing that, perhaps to see what clue of Winter might linger. Her mark on an agreement, he had said, when he'd been taunting Kenshin. He needed the legitimacy of the daughter of a shogun to fool a business partner into complacency. The world had been turned upside down in the need for that charade.

So he invaded this house, with its tall glass windows and its rooms full of western furniture and sought a trace of what he hoped for. The servants slept upstairs, in a narrow attic area, all of them Ceylonese. A floor down, on the second story were more fashionable rooms. The great one on the end, issued the sound of two sleeping bodies. The lord of this place. Kai had said Lord Kilbourne. The other rooms were empty. There was a cellar, full of racks of wine and crates of unknown things, but no life save for mice.

Back up stairs again, to a great room lined with western books and a huge desk sporting orderly stacks of paper, pens and inkwell, an open book with incomprehensible English writing. He shuffled through a few things, frustrated at his lack of comprehension for what he looked at, until he found a folder tied with a ribbon, holding several pieces of parchment. All save one written in English, and that one, in neat Japanese. A great deal of formal language, detailing trade agreements, which he only skimmed the barest portion of. There was a mark at the body, a signature in a less precise hand than the one that had written the document. Not Kaoru's name, but it could have been her messy scrawl. She hadn't the patience for flowing, neat penmanship.

Kenshin closed his eyes, forcing a series of calm breaths before rolling the papers and slipping them into his noragi. There would be evidence here, that men who might prefer their grand plans not see the light of day, would bargain to keep secret.

He stood for a moment, staring towards the second story. There was a man up there who had seen her. Who might very well know where she had been taken.

He was moving before he'd fully decided on a course of action. Up the stairs to the thick door of the master's bedroom. This might be a mistake, a terrible mistake, setting the whole of the island's authorities on alert - - but again, this lord was part of a pact seeking to undermine competitors and countrymen in pursuit of lucrative Japanese trade. He might be a man to whom silence was more valuable than seeking justice.

The door was unlocked, the room large and silent, save for the stuttering snore of the man on the bed. Big man, little of it muscle. Receding hairline off set by thick sideburns that reached the round jowls at his jaw. There was a smaller figure asleep with him. Dark hair, dark skin of one naked shoulder, and the small frame of a girl. A very young girl. Kenshin clenched a fist around the hilt of the sword. Angry to the point his vision narrowed, thinking of the things Winter had said he'd do to Kaoru. The 'friends' of his that would enjoy a young, Asian mistress. And if she'd played her part already - -

He pushed the curl of revulsion away, forced it back to a place that kept it from interfering with his present goals. Drew the sakabatou, flipping it about, gently laying the sharp edge against the rolls of flesh at the Englishman's neck.

Cold steel against flesh was an unparalleled way of rousing a man. Small, pale eyes fluttered open, filled with disorientation, with fear as Kenshin pressed the blade closer, leaning in and whispering 'shu', a universal suggestion of quiet.

The man lay still, very much aware of the death at his throat, trying to squint through the darkness and make out his assailant. The girl stirred at his side, smothering a gasp as she saw the glint of sword, saw Kenshin looming over the bed.

He ticked a finger at her, one sharp motion that stayed her, and she cowered, clutching the sheet to her breast. Very young indeed. Two witnesses, but it was dark enough that everything bled into.

"Do you speak Japanese?" he asked. It would surely be a difficult conversation if the man did not.

The fat man stared at him, sweating, belly heaving under the sheet.

"I do," the girl whispered.

Good enough. Kenshin spared her another glance. If she were fourteen, he'd be surprised. Old enough to marry at home, but with this old, fat Englishman, it just seemed obscene.

"Ask him of the daughter of Lord Erizawa, who came in the company of the Englishman Winter."

The girl did, haltingly and the fat lord's mouth thinned. He said something, careful with his words, careful of the edge against his throat.

"He - - he doesn't know what you speak of," the girl stammered. "He - - he says the English authorities will hunt you down and execute you for this."

Kenshin smiled, let the blade bite into flesh and a trickle of darkness seeped across pale skin. "He lies."

The man said something, sharp, panicked, trying to raise a hand to push the blade away. Kenshin clucked his tongue, increasing the pressure of the blade.

"Wait," the girl said, her fear as sharp as her master's. "He says wait."

The Englishman babbled something and the girl translated. "He says she was a guest in his house, this lady. But that she has gone. Left to return home to the house of her father."

"That too, is a lie," Kenshin whispered. "Tell him I know of this scheme of Winter's and his wealthy backers. Tell him that there will be no legitimate backing in Japan. Tell him this man Winter is a liar and a cheat and that the Lady he presented was no daughter of Erizawa and that Erizawa knows it."

She blinked at him owlishly, and awkwardly tried to repeat all that. Kilbourne's eyes darted to her, narrowing, then back to Kenshin.

"He asks," the girl said, after the man had hissed a few words at her. "What you want?"

"I want this girl and I want Winter."

"Who are you?" She translated, but Kenshin had actually halfway understood that question, remembering the remnants of Winter's lessons in English.

"Better for you not to know," he said, voice soft and dangerous, letting himself feel the cold indifference he'd once out of necessity, clung to.

There'd been a time he could have backed an aspiring opponent off without drawing his blade. Just a look, and that quiet, deadly aura of a true swordsman whose blade had tasted no small bit of blood. The girl flinched and huddled into her pillows, the fat man did as much as he was able.

"He does not know," the girl whimpered. "He says he does not know where this man is, but he will find out, if you spare his life."

The fear was genuine. Kenshin could scent it, rolling in waves off the man. Whether the offer was, was another matter. Kenshin slipped the roll of documents from his shirt and the man's eyes tracked to them.

"Tell him, there are people very interested in this deal of Winter's. Very interested in those colluding with him. These papers would hold great interest for them. This man lied to you. What loyalty do you owe him?"

The Englishman shook his head as much as he dared with the edge of a blade at this throat after the girl had repeated that. "None. None. He'll find out what he can, he promises."

Kenshin held no faith at all in the promises of westerners, but it was a start.

Sano was pacing the canal when Kenshin came out. Kenshin simply nodded to him and Sano followed silently along the bank behind the row of houses until they were far enough away to slow to a unassuming walk along a narrow side street where there were no streetlamps to illuminate the shadows.

"So what the hell?" Sano had held his silence as long as he was capable. "You said ten minutes in and out. That was a lot damn longer than ten minutes. I was about to come in after you."

"There was a change of plan."

"No shit. What happened?"

"I had a conversation with Lord Kilbourne."

Sano stopped short and stared at him through the darkness. "Of for shit's sake, Kenshin. You blow our cover?"

Kenshin lifted a brow. "We had a cover?"

"We didn't have the law after us." Sano complained.

"We don't have it now. Lord Kilbourne understands, I think, the consequences of alerting the authorities."

"Oh yeah?" It was Sano's turn to lift both brows skeptically. "What consequences? "

Kenshin pulled out the roll of documents. "She was there, Sano. Winter had her sign his treaty, as well as this lord and most likely the others participating in the plan."

"And that's it? This treaty everybody's all riled up over?"

Kenshin smiled.

"Saitou'd love to get his hands on that," Sano predicted.

Saitou most certainly would, though Kenshin had no intention, at the moment. of giving it to him. Not when it was leverage he could use to find Kaoru and Kenji.

"That he would."

"But you're not gonna give it to him."

"Lord Kilbourne would prefer very much not. Lord Kilbourne will go to lengths to keep this from the hands of his government and ours."

"Soooo - - you're blackmailing the guy?"

Kenshin considered. It wasn't a tactic he'd stooped to before, but he supposed that was as accurate a term as any.

"Hey, its fine with me," Sano said, clapping a hand on his shoulder as they walked, when Kenshin didn't respond. "You do what you have to do. The bastard that took Kaoru sure isn't practicing restraint."


Two days. Two frustrating days, with no word, from either their own streetwise source or any contact from Lord Kilbourne. Almost Kenshin was ready to venture back into that grand house and inquire none too politely if the man had misjudged the seriousness of his request. But, no English guardsmen had come looking for them, and on his brief encounters with Saitou, no mention was made of waves made or complaints made to the Japanese embassy, so one had to assume that Kilbourne had kept his silence regarding Kenshin's visit. Which meant he understood what was at stake.

Saitou had, upon one meeting in the inn's tea house, given the both of them long looks, before settling his gaze on Kenshin and remarking, that he hadn't realized their funds so vast and suggested he not let Sano gamble them away.

Sano, predictably had taken offense, entirely forgetting that those funds had belonged to Saitou. Saitou had simply sucked on his cigarette and remarked to Kenshin that his hands must be healing nicely if his fingers were so nimble.

Sano had taken offense at that as well - - it seemed to be a morning for Sano to be prickly - - and sullenly demanded of Saitou why he assumed Kenshin was light fingered and not him.

One had to shut one's eyes and sigh at the pride prompted blatant admission of guilt and thank the powers that be that they were far from home where Saitou held no real power of enforcing justice.

Saitou did have the power to piss Sano off though, by lifting a dubious brow, flicking his ash almost onto Sano's bowl of half eaten breakfast and scoffing at the notion that Sano had the ability to be nimble about anything.

It dissolved rapidly from there, and Kenshin, whose patience was usually a great deal more durable than it was at present, silently rose and distanced himself from Saitou baiting and Sano snapping like a hungry snakehead.

It was misting outside. A fine sort of glistening precipitation that was incongruous with the sun shining down between gaps in the light cloud cover. He didn't mind. It felt cool on his face, and slowly dampened the thin cloth of his noragi. He headed dockside, walked the busy street where races of all ethicality mixed. Men, women, sailors, peasants, merchants. By far a headier mix than even the progressive Meiji government allowed on the streets of Nagasaki where the largest of the ports that catered to foreign merchants was. If Winter and his compatriots both English and Japanese, had their way, Kyoto would be as bustling a foreign port as well.

Bound to happen, he supposed. One way or another. He'd rather it was under public control than at the whim of a few wealthy backers pulling strings within the government.

The mist let up and the sun overpowered the clouds, beaming down with relish, drying the puddles and making the mud thick and hard. Kenshin headed back to the inn, and almost didn't recognize the girl who scurried up to him before he reached the gates.

The girl from Kilbourne's bed. It was disconcerting that she'd recognized him before he'd taken note of her, but he supposed of the two of them, he stood out more on these streets. He looked around warily while she bowed her head at him, wringing her hands nervously.

There was no one of note watching them. No one loitering or pausing at all in their commute. Just the girl, with her long hair swinging free and her middle bared by a native sarong.

"Sir - -? You are - - ?" She stammered, perhaps not so sure after all, what he looked like.

He inclined his head, gesturing to the shade of an alley. She looked hesitant to retreat there with him. He'd given her good reason to fear the last they'd met. "You are safe with me," he soothed her, smiling gently.

She took a breath, eyes wide, faltering in her unease. He had a way with children, and she was not much more than a child herself. She moved into the seclusion of the ally, pressing her back against one wall and he urged her to speak with an inquiring look.

"My lord has arranged for you to meet with someone who has the information you seek," she said.

"Who?"

She shook her head helplessly, dark eyes glued to his face. "I do not know. But, you are to go alone, my lord says. The bearer of this information will meet only you in the park on the east side of Beira Lake at noon. If anyone else comes - - they will leave and will not attempt to meet with you again."

"And?"

"That is all I was told." She tried to slip away and he put a hand out, on the wall next to her head. She froze, trembling, and he hissed a breath through his teeth, and stepped back, letting her leave. She was a messenger and not likely to know more than what she'd been told to relay. And little enough information that was. A mysterious meeting in the center of the city. A vastly public place at least, surrounded by businesses frequented by westerners and patrolled by English soldiers. A carefully chosen place as well, that no man who did not wish to end up in English custody, would dare to walk with a blade at his hip.

He looked up at the sky, the sun almost at its apex. Close enough to noon now, that if he hurried, he might just make the lake in time. Just as well not to tell Sano, because he wouldn't agree to not accompany him, and even if he lurked at the edges, he was not adept at blending into the background.

 

 

 

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