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Shifting The Balance
Beira Lake sat wide and sparkling, surrounded by green park and public paths, by the fine facades of homes on the one side and the bustling row of shops that catered to the Westerners on the other. At mid-day it drew crowds. Vendors hawking their wares around the edges, native children playing, couples strolling the paths now that the rain had let up, or sitting on benches along the shore, watching small boats drifting in the lake amidst flocks of water fowl. Soldiers - - always English soldiers - - reminding everyone who held power here.
Kenshin walked the path around the lake, watching passerby from under his hair, looking for that tell tale sign of a body who was here for anything but casual enjoyment. He felt the eyes on him, that sixth sense that a man who'd lived by his wits for too many years to ever comfortably dissipate, making the hair on the back of his arms stand up.
There was a man sitting casually on a bench at the lakeshore a paper bag of breadcrumbs at his side that he idly tossed to the greedy birds loitering at the water's edge. Immaculate western suit, cropped pale hair. Kenshin's step faltered - - for a moment it seemed his heart did - - as Winter inclined his head, one brow quirking. Smiling.
Instinct made him reach for a sword that wasn't there. He caught himself, stilling the motion. Stilling everything - - emotion, expression, the rage that wanted to boil up and explode. He stopped, a half dozen paces from the bench, afraid if he allowed himself to get too close, he'd have his hands around this man's throat.
Winter leaned back, draping an arm across the back of the bench, those pale eyes of his boldly assessing. "I wouldn't have believed it, if my own eyes weren't looking upon you. It takes a good deal to impress me, but you standing here, is a testament to tenaciousness. Bravo."
"Where are they?" His voice came out hoarse.
Winter dipped his hand back into the bag, and almost Kenshin expected some weapon, tensed himself to respond to it - - but it was only breadcrumbs that Winter tossed to the fowl. After a moment of watching them gobble down the bread, Winter said.
"Safe. I promised, did I not? I take no pleasure from killing women and children."
"Erizowa's daughter might debate that."
Winter waved a hand, dismissive. "Ah, that. She would have betrayed me. Endangered my carefully wrought plans. She had to go. Your little wife - - so far from home - - is no danger at all. And your child - - he's far too young to even fully understand. He thinks it all a great adventure. Charming lad. Already he speaks passing English. He'll make someone a fine manservant when he's older. She'll make a spirited mistress to a man who prefers his women lively. You'd be surprised how in demand household staff of an 'exotic' nature are these days."
Kenshin went still, that calm he'd forced fracturing, killing cold flowing in from the cracks. So very, very wise of Winter to meet him here, where he wouldn't have gotten two blocks during the light of day with the sword at his hip. He'd have had it at the bastard's throat in the middle of the park, or buried in his black heart, and vows be damned. That Winter could sit there, so outwardly calm and provoke him so - - either the man had lost his grasp on sanity - - or he possessed a self confidence that was wildly over inflated.
Winter canted his head at him, studying him. "Ah, I see it now, those things she told me about you. There is something distinctly hair-raising about that look in your eyes. She had great faith in you, you know, before she thought you dead. She told me what a great mistake I had made, evoking your wrath. But then, once I'd figured out who you were, I'd figured that out myself. I didn't know you'd vowed not to kill again. She's proud of you for that, you know? As if a little judicious killing would stain a man beyond repair. Of course she thinks it might. Not a lot of faith in you in that regard, huh? Just as well for me though. Hard to practice convincing retaliation without the threat of death. Still, I thought it prudent to meet without the benefit of weapons. At heart, I'm a businessman, not a fighter."
Kenshin might argue that point. It felt as if the words were slicing into him with no less accuracy than a well-aimed blade.
"Where are they? Just - - Just tell me where they are?"
"Why should I? I had a profitable venture in the cards, before you decided to screw it up. Lord Kilbourne is not pleased, let me tell you. Your damned fault."
"You're a murderer and a liar. You deserve what you get."
"Pot. Kettle." Winter smiled at him and Kenshin didn't get it. Winter sighed and waved a hand. "I'd wager you've killed far more than I, manslayer. So save your self-righteousness for someone with more blood on their hands than you."
Kenshin took a step towards him, thinking of ways he could hurt this man without a sword in his hands. Winter lifted a brow at him and glanced at a pair of passing English soldiers.
"Your boy has more your look than hers," Winter said, idly. "Your hair. Your eyes. He'll be pretty."
"If you've touched him I won't need a blade to rip you apart. And it won't matter where you are, or who you try to find to protect you," Kenshin said softly.
Winter scoffed. "Do you think me some mewling pervert who preys on children? I assure you my tastes run - - older." He smiled, eyes drifting over Kenshin. "I must say, I like the look of peasant garb on you. "
Kenshin felt the chill of goose pimples on his skin, the sickening lurch of memory of this man's hands on him when he'd been in no condition to protest the indignity. Of this man's sibilant whispers in his ear. A snake. A western snake that sat there at such ease as if perpetrating atrocities was his birthright.
"What do you want?" Kenshin asked softly.
"Those papers you stole for a start. Then I'll consider releasing the girl and your child."
"What sort of fool would I be to trust you at your word when you've proven that honor holds no meaning for you?"
Winter's mouth twitched in a tight smile. "My honor or lack of, is not at issue. Yours is. I think you're a man that will do whatever needs doing to secure the safety of those he loves."
Winter crumpled the bag into a ball, and rose, walking to stand closer to Kenshin than was safe for either one of them. Kenshin tightened his fists, controlling twin urges to step back or drive a fist into any number of places that would cause this man great hurt.
"You understand the nature of men without honor and the things they might do to innocents." Winter said softly, bending his head, leaning close enough that Kenshin felt the warmth of his breath. "You will do what I tell you to do, because you understand the consequences if you do not."
Kenshin stared over his shoulder blindly, the lake a hazy wash of color, not nearly so vivid as he imagined the color of Winter's blood would be.
"Who are your companions?" Winter asked and snapped him away from his visions of death.
When he didn't answer, Winter smiled. "You think I don't have resources on this island? You think the moment I realized someone had arrived that had an interest in my business that I did not know? The older one is some sort of Japanese authority, I'd gather, though he's kept his dealings frustratingly obscure. The other one not so much. Young. Loud. Pretty eyes. Not the boy Kaoru spoke of at the dojo - - the one you gave your precious sword to? Another friend picked up along the way? Tall for a Japanese."
Kenshin said nothing. Threatening the man to stay away from what was his would only assure him that he'd struck a telling blow. "You'll have your documents when I have Kaoru and Kenji."
Winter lifted a brow at him. "Ah, so now we're bargaining. Will you have one of your friends hold them? The dangerous one with connections? What's the point in me having them back if the people I wish to keep them from have already perused them?"
"He hasn't seen them. He won't, if you keep to your word."
Winter sighed. Waved a negligent hand. "As you wish. Unfair of me to want to hold all the cards in our little game, I suppose and I'm feeling generous. I felt bad, that I had to leave you to them. If I'd had the time to spare, I would have given you a much cleaner end than those mountain bandits. I'd have enjoyed that."
Kenshin lowered his head, eyes narrow. He flicked them to the side, glancing at the approach of a pair of English soldiers.
"Where?" he asked, harsh whisper. "Tell me where and I'll bring the papers in exchange for them."
"No bother. I'll have them fetched myself." Winter put a hand on his shoulder, and Kenshin almost struck out at the man for the indignity, but the soldiers hadn't passed by, they'd walked right up, hands on their guns, and now that he focused on anything but the man before him, he heard the soft thud of boots from behind him of another set fast approaching.
"Life is so fragile," Winter squeezed, fingers biting into the flesh above the collar of Kenshin's noragi. "We both know how much damage a bullet can do."
He might have evaded them. There were only the four of them and Winter, and they were slow, these English. But bullets were not and there was no cover between here and the road, just broad grassy park, and the street beyond was spotted with more soldiers. And Winter had him at a disadvantage. Had from the unfortunate day they'd met managed to maneuver Kenshin into a position of his wanting. The man was correct, in that as long as he held Kaoru and Kenji in his power, Kenshin's choices were limited.
Winter spoke to them in their language and they nodded, giving Kenshin dark looks. Another hand landed on him from behind, gripping his arm, moving down to his wrist as they pulled his hands behind him. He let them, staring levelly at Winter.
"Friends of mine." Winter explained, while they fastened cold metal around his wrists. "The East India Company has great influence in the colonial government and my uncle is a shareholder. They think you're one of my houseboys, absconded with property of mine."
They jerked him around, hauling him between two of them across the park, while Winter strolled leisurely behind, chatting with one of the others. People made way for them, English and Ceylonese alike, staring at the procession curiously.
There was a carriage waiting on the street, a dark, covered affair, with two attendants perched on the back and another that might have been Japanese on the high seat, holding the reins.
Winter caught up, slipping a hand again onto Kenshin's shoulder and leaning over to taunt. "A servant stealing from his master at the very least is cause to lose a hand. Execution is not unwarranted if the issue is pushed."
Kenshin stared at the crest on the door of the carriage, mouth tight, thinking more about those documents in his and Sano's room, and the possibility of Sano being there when Winter sent men to retrieve them. Sano wouldn't let them go peacefully. If Winter sent simple thugs, Sano could hold his own, but if he sent guardsmen with guns - -
Let Saitou be there when they came. Just that much good fortune fate owed him.
"I've convinced them," Winter was going on, very much attracted to the sound of his own voice. "That I prefer to discipline of my servants personally."
Kenshin's mouth twitched in a humorless smile. "Of that, I have no doubt."
Winter pushed him towards the coach and that was okay. If the man thought he held all the power, then he'd be more likely to take Kenshin to where Kaoru and Kenji were. And for that, Kenshin would endure a great deal.
He'd thought maybe, one of the large houses along the row on Galle Street, but the trip was much longer than that. Kenshin sat squeezed between two English soldiers, while Winter and a third sat across, speaking in low tones now and then, words Kenshin could not understand. The shades on the windows were down, casting the interior in shadows, trapping the smoke from the cigar Winter had lit, and the one's he'd offered to the senior of the trio of Soldiers. It was a sweeter stench than the cigarette's Saitou smoked. No less strangling after a while, trapped in the haze of it.
The sounds of the city receded, the sounds the wheels of the carriage made muffled on soft dirt. There were the sounds of countryside, of birds and the rustle of trees close by, the occasional jolting as the carriage hit a rut. Outside the city then. Well outside.
By the time they rolled to a halt, his hands had gone numb, trapped between him and the hard seat back. The light flooding in the carriage when the Japanese servant jumped down and opened the door was momentarily blinding. The soldiers blinked, stretching no doubt stiff limbs, one of them deliberately elbowing Kenshin in the process, a small enough cruelty for putting them out. They pulled him out and he stared at the façade of what seemed a very old building. A grand house of what he thought might be Ceylonese design and not western. A grander yard that spilled down a rolling lawn to lush gardens ripe with tropical blooms. No other buildings within his line of sight. Nothing but forest far to the left, and vast fields of low greenery - - tea - - he thought, to the right of the sprawling estate. He could just see tiny figures out amidst the crops, working the fields.
Winter waved a hand at the house and said in Japanese for Kenshin's benefit. "The house of my uncle. As he's gotten older, he's found the climate and the society of England more beneficial to his health. He leaves me free usage of it."
"Are they here?" He asked and one of the English soldiers cuffed him, a sharp blow against the side of the head for the atrocity of speaking. Winter waved a hand, amused, and spoke a few mollifying words to the guardsman, who glowered, no great proponent, it seemed, of disobedient servants.
"He thinks me too lenient," Winter explained, as he led the way into the house, through doors opened by bowing Ceylonese servants.
The Japanese, a man of perhaps fifty, with short cropped hair and a small, pursed mouth, hurried ahead, through a massive foyer with high stone ceilings carved with intricate art. They followed him, the two guards, hauling Kenshin between them, Winter striding behind, the tap of his shoes echoing on hardwood floors. He only caught flashes of elegant rooms as they passed by, heading for the door the Japanese man had disappeared through. A basement at the bottom of wide stone steps. A large cold space with walls lined by crates and barrels and unused furniture. The servant had lit a few lamps along the wall that chased shadows away. The same servant trotted up, as they held Kenshin in the middle of that space, a thin smile on his small mouth, a set of leg irons in his hands.
Kenshin met his eyes, unflinching, putting promise behind his stare and after a moment, the smile faltered, replaced by a tightening of lips, and the man knelt, fastening the irons around Kenshin's ankles. Hobbled then, with little more than a foot of chain between his feet, and then Winter felt safe enough to have them unclasp one of the cuffs on his wrists so they could force his hands up over his head to dangling loop of chain and refasten the cuffs around it.
The guards laughed among themselves then, duty fulfilled, and Winter spoke with them, clapping on the back in a comradely fashion. The manservant glared darkly at Kenshin while his master escorted the soldiers to the top of the stairs.
"Do you enjoy licking the boots of the English?" Kenshin inquired softly, and the man's eyes narrowed.
The man stepped closer, bolder with no viable threat from Kenshin. "Foolish boy, to cross my master."
"He does look the boy, doesn't he, Jun? " Winter remarked, descending the stairs again alone. "But it's deceiving. This is a manslayer, who fought for the Meiji in the revolution."
The servant, Jun, lifted his brows, reassessing. He looked closer, eyes narrowed, reaching out a finger to graze the cross shaped scars on Kenshin's cheek. Kenshin jerked his head away with a baring of teeth.
"Ahh," Jun breathed in surprise. "So he is. I understand your caution, master Quinton. You should kill him now. No good will come of keeping him alive."
Winter dismissed that suggestion with a wave of his hand. "Not just yet."
He moved around Kenshin, trailing a hand across his back, stepped in close to his back and loosened the noragi's belt. Slid a hand across his bared stomach, up to the shiny pink scar where his bullet had ripped through Kenshin's shoulder. "It's fate you know, that you survived to find your way back to me. I denied myself the leisure to discover the limits of your tolerances personally before and I regretted that. I've no appointments to keep at the moment to keep me from such pleasures now."
"Are they here?" Kenshin repeated the question he'd asked earlier. Teeth clenched this time, skin shivering involuntarily from Winter's hand upon it.
Winter sighed, dragging his fingers through the tail of hair at Kenshin's neck, loosening the band that held it, grasping a handful and raising it to his face in inhale.
"No," he said. "Not anymore. I would imagine they're a good ways out to sea now, on a ship that sailed three days past. The man they're bound for has a taste for Asian women. She'll be well taken care for."
Kenshin shut his eyes. A sound escaped him. A growl that sounded less than human. He slammed his head back, catching Winter full in the face. The man howled, staggering back, clutching at his face, blood spraying from his nose. The servant came at Kenshin with a cry, driving a fist into his gut, another in his side. He hardly felt the pain.
Gone. Gone. So close and he'd missed them. Wasted time chasing this soulless bastard while the distances between them grew. He'd let himself be taken - - again - - and for nothing.
A hand grasped his hair, winding it around a fist, jerking his head back between his arms. Winter glared down at him, nose already swelling, blood flowing freely down his chin, dripping onto his white shirt. "You will pay for that. And if this deal goes sour because of your actions - - you'll beg me for a quick death."
"Master, let me tend to you - -" Jun urged, hovering.
Winter snarled, jerked once - - sharply - - on Kenshin's hair, before releasing him. He shrugged off his manservant's hands and stalked for the stairs. Jun gave Kenshin a killing glare, before extinguishing the lights on the lanterns, and hurrying up the stairs after his master.
When the door banged shut, it plunged the world into utter, inky black. Kenshin hissed, jerking at the chains, but they were fastened securely and all he managed to do was bruise his wrists and tear skin to the point that he felt the warm trickle of blood down his arms. He bowed his head, bereft in that darkness, a wave of frustration washing over him so strongly it made his eyes water. The dead were laughing at him now, he thought. All those dead, finally getting their due of him. Urging karma all this time to deliver him one harsh blow after another.
Sano downed the last of his ale and slammed the mug on the countertop, annoyed. The light outside the tavern door was tinted grey with afternoon showers. Late. Not more than an hour or so to dusk and Kenshin hadn't shown back up. Up to things that he no doubt thought Sano too 'clumsy' to participate in. Not at the fat old lord's house, Sano had already figured that out by loitering around the premises earlier in the day, and seeing nothing to suggest that the master of the place had been accosted in the light of day. Servants and vendors came and went and the fat old bastard himself left himself a few hours after noon, which ended Sano's reason for surveillance.
So, he'd wondered to the docks, where he knew Kenshin had an interest in inquiring of foreign sailors about his elusive Englishman, but no Kenshin there either. Sano ended up sampling a good deal of various alcohol. Native brewed beer, English whiskey, an Indian brew of fermented rice called manri. Sporting a buzz didn't do much to dull his irritation.
Losing most of the money he'd gotten Kenshin to give him from Sano's purse in a game of dice he'd found didn't make it better. He ought to kick Kenshin's ass when he got back, he really ought to, only the mood Kenshin was in these last few days, he probably wouldn't let him get away with it. Kenshin hadn't been much for bed since the house on Galle street, even when Sano complained. Had sat there in the dark with that sword leaning against his shoulder and dozed like he was in the midst of war.
Sano figured he was, warring on the inside as well as the frustrating one he was fighting against a foe that wouldn't show itself. A little sex, Sano had tried to argue, could only make things better, but Kenshin wasn't buying it. And Sano couldn't fault a man for narrowing his focus when his endgame just might be in sight. Well, he couldn't fault him too much. He might have been a little more compassionate about Kenshin's struggle, if he wasn't the one going to end up with the short end of the stick when Kenshin got his family back.
His own damn fault anyway, he supposed. If he'd had any idea, when he'd been nineteen and stupid and stubborn and ready to leave rather than hang around watching Kaoru domesticate Kenshin, that he'd wanted anything more than Kenshin's friendship - - well he might have stuck around and given the twit a little competition. Nineteen hadn't been his smartest year. Hell, a lot of years hadn't been his smartest. And maybe he had known, just hadn't been comfortable enough with himself to admit it.
He lost his way trying to get back to the inn. Too much drink and his sense of direction sometimes got muddled. Wondering around Colombo for an hour as dark was falling, managed to clear his head enough to recognize a landmark and get himself turned in the right direction. He skulked through the gates and followed the path around the back of the inn to the bungalows. There was a light in his and Kenshin's. Kenshin back then, and Sano hoped he'd been worrying as much about Sano being gone all day as Sano had about him.
With every intention of giving Kenshin a piece of his mind, Sano jerked open the door. He got two steps into the room with his mouth open in mid rant, and stopped dead, catching half a look at the faces of two Ceylonese men in the midst of rifling through his stuff before they launched themselves at him, short, curved blades glinting in the shadows.
He staggered back in surprise, holding up an arm to ward off the slice of a blade, and felt the sting of it cutting into his forearm. He ducked under it as the man drew his arm back for another slice, and drove his fist into the guy's sternum. The guy sailed backwards, knocked right off his feet and into the table with the oil lamp. Sano didn't wait to see him hit the ground, busy back peddling to avoid the other one who was trying to stab him in the kidney. Not too hard to avoid. They weren't that adept with their blades. He'd fought better by far.
He caught the second guy's wrist as he was making another jab at him, twisted hard enough to fracture bones and the man howled, trying to jerk away. Sano didn't let him until he planted his other fist into the thieving bastard's face.
The both of them were down and the flame from the oil lamp was flickering damned close to spilled oil. He snatched it upright before it could ignite it. There was the sound of men approaching from outside, the clop of hard soled boots and the voices of Englishmen who never bothered to practice subtlety.
Sano whirled, fists clenched, and glared at Saitou in his doorway. Saitou jerked his head towards the inn proper and snapped. "Come. Now!"
Normally, Sano would have balked at following any order Saitou gave, but at the moment, the hairs on the back of his neck were bristling and staying here seemed a damned bad notion with the sound of English soldiers pounding down the walk. He lunged for the rolled parchments Kenshin had stolen, tucked behind their rolled bedding, then grabbed Kenshin's sword, and bolted for the door. Saitou had already disappeared into the darkness towards the back of the inn yard. Sano ran that way, towards the wall at the back. He made a leap for it, caught the top and hauled himself over. Saitou was already there, a pale face in the shadows that jerked his head and ran, keeping close to the darkest of the dark places, down the alley behind the inn.
After a good distance, when the only sounds were the normal, calm ones of a town at night, Saitou spun on him, slamming him back into the wall of a building, fists clenched at the collar of Sano's jacket.
"What have the two of you done?"
Sano shoved him away, indignant. "Get your hands off, bastard."
Saitou hit him. A blow against the side of the head that Sano didn't even come close to see coming. He braced himself against the wall to keep his knees from buckling and cursed while the spots receded.
"Fuck you, Saitou."
"No. We're all fucked, Sagara, if he's done something to set the whole of the English occupation of this island on our heels. They fear rebellion, and if they scent the seeds of it, whether real or imaginary, they'll raze everything in their path to destroy it. Now what have the two of you done?"
"Your damned job," Sano muttered and waved the hand with the rolled documents.
Saitou narrowed already narrow eyes and snatched the roll out of Sano's hand.
"Got it from some English lord - - Kilbourne or something - - it's the whole shifty trade agreement. He's using it as leverage to get to Winter."
Saitou closed his eyes, drawing a hissing breath through his teeth.
"Fools," he breathed, finally. "A pair of fools. Him more than you because he has the intelligence to know better."
"What the fuck does that mean?"
Saitou just shook his head and started walking.
Sano pushed himself off the wall and stalked after. "What the fuck, Saitou?"
"You don't think they'll betray one another, even in their duplicity, to the benefit of a lowly foreigner, do you? To them we're all savages."
"I think they're a bunch of greedy bastards who don't know a damned thing about honor."
"I don't know," Sano barked, disgusted. "I haven't seen him since this morning."
Saitou stopped, glancing back at him narrowly. "And it didn't occur to you that this brilliant plan of yours might have backfired?"
"Yes, it fucking occurred to me. I've looked all over - - I - -" he stopped, clutching the sheath of Kenshin's sword. "Backfired how?"
Saitou didn't answer. Just started walking again a brisk stride that even Sano with his long legs had to jog to keep up with. "Where are you going?"
"Tell me exactly what happened with this lord Kilbourne?"
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