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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn


Chapter 23


Kenshin had broken Winter's nose and it hurt like hell. Jun mixed one of his herbal concoctions to ease the pain, but nothing worked as well as hard liquor. Winter had several snifters of fine Irish whiskey, sitting with strips of rag up his nostrils, waiting for the bleeding to finally stop.

He'd had a fine, straight nose, reminiscent of his aristocratic lineage, and the little bastard had ruined it. He'd be lucky if it healed with only a slight bump. Damned slant-eyed fuck for consistently complicating Winter's life. Any reasonable man would have given up at the shores of his own country instead of trekking across the sea and following him here. Damned Japanese obstinacy. Which was why, of course, Winter had concocted this whole plan to begin with, trying to figure out a way to etch out a foothold of lucrative Japanese trade before the damned Americans managed to convince the Meiji government to grant them open trade rights. Then it would be anyone's game. For the time being the Japanese government was still gun shy of unfettered foreign access to all their ports of call. And he'd been so damned close to getting that access to Tokyo and its untapped exotic goods.

Damned little chance of that now, without Erizowa's help. But still, there were ways Winter still might come out ahead in this. He'd halfway convinced Kilbourne that Kenshin's claims were all lies. That Kenshin was an agent of a rival Japanese clan that wished to circumvent their lucrative deal by scaring off Winter's investors, in favor of their own with other foreign rival shippers.

Kilbourne had already sunk enough money into this project that he wanted to believe in plots and machinations afoot rather than the simple fact that they'd been sunk. With a little finesse, he could figure a way out of this that avoided placing blame at his doorstep. Avoided the displeasure of the all-powerful East India company, who did not look kindly upon competition from within and most importantly no black marketeering charges leveled against him by his own government.

The pain was duller, Jun's powder having accomplished its task. Winter gingerly fingered the swelling and winced, then glared at the floor, in the direction of the basement where his guest still languished. A few hours left chained down there and Winter figured Kenshin might welcome a little company. He smirked, and it brought a sting of discomfort, so he turned it into a scowl and contemplated the best method of indoctrinating a dangerous new acquisition. He'd really rather that his nose was the only injury he received during his entertainment.

He called for his manservant and Jun appeared post haste, bowing his head and waiting for Winter's command with those inscrutable black eyes of his. That was one of the things he liked about Kenshin, the color of his eyes, and the emotion they broadcast. At least when he wasn't killing mad. Then there was nothing in his gaze but promises of pain and death.

"Whip up something, would you, to make our guest a bit less inclined to perpetrate violence. I think it's time to play a little."

"He's dangerous, master Quinton," Jun complained. "Kill him now or he'll bring bad luck upon us."

"Which is why I'd like you to administer one of your ingenious powders. Now don't question my orders." Winter gave him a stern look and the manservant pursed his lips and inclined his head once more.

"Shall I have him brought up to the room, or have your kit taken down to the basement?"

Winter shrugged, considering. Jun turned his head, as if his hearing were somehow keener than Winter's own, or he had some sort of unnatural prescience, which just might be the case for he tended to anticipate Winter's needs often before Winter himself. Then the chimes rang, indicating someone at the door.

"Well," Winter straightened his jacket, running hand through his hair. "I wasn't aware we were expecting visitors."

Jun hurried out of the study, his hand surreptitiously on the little knife he always carried. Winter strode after him, keenly aware of the weight of the pistol in his inner pocket. One of the Ceylonese servants opened the door, bowing deeply at whoever was on the other side.

Winter didn't have long to wait to see who it was, for Kilbourne shouldered his considerable bulk past the slim Ceylonese girl and stormed Winter's foyer. He wasn't alone. Ashton and DeMarley were on his heels. All of Winter's investors in his little scheme come to demand their due. Damn Kilbourne to hell for not taking Winter at his word.

"Gentlemen. To what do I owe the honor?"

"You know damned well, Winter." Kilbourne spat, cheeks ruddy, jowls quivering. Winter imagined putting a bullet between the fat bastard's eyes.

Lord Ashton, anything but fat and lazy, strolled past Kilbourne, eyes half lidded and sharp. He lifted a brow when he got a good look at winter's swollen nose and purpling eyes. "Have a bit of an accident?"

Winter smiled tightly. "Just a little mishap."

"Looks painful, ol' Chap."

"I understand we've had a problem, Winter." DeMarly got straight to the point.

"Nothing I can't deal with, my lord. Have dealt with, in fact."

"So you nabbed the insolent bastard, then?" Kilbourne demanded.

Winter inclined his head, smiling his merchant's smile. All promise and none of it reaching past his eyes. He waved a hand, ushering them down the hall to the billiards room with its broad gaming table and its leather furniture, its suits of armor and its stuffed animal heads leering down from the walls. The room smelled faintly of smoke and fine liquor. A pleasant scent. A manly scent.

"So what's this I hear, Winter, of fake daughters, and double dealings?" DeMarly asked, soft spoken, the calmest of the lot, a plain looking man with a fortune at his back. A man with a stake in the East India Company, but not as big a stake as he'd like.

"Was the little Japanese girl you presented Erizowa's daughter or not?"

"Of course she was. She's well on her way home to report the success of her mission to her papa as we speak."

"And the claims otherwise?" Kilbourne demanded.

"Lies," Winter said. "I told you they were lies. You think the house of lords is chock full of political machinations - -we don't hold a candle to the internal politics of these Japanese noble houses. Erizowa is still our ally. The man that broke into your house was an agent of a rival house."

"This agent - - you have him here?" Ashton inquired, helping himself to a tumbler of brandy.

Winter hesitated a moment, wary. Then nodded. "He is - -my guest."

Ashton chuckled.

Kilbourne's face turned ruddier. "Why haven't you strung the bastard up?"

Winter shrugged. "I had questions for him."

"And did he give you answers?" DeMarly asked.

Winter smiled. "They're very stubborn, these Japanese. I haven't finished asking."

"Why don't we ask him a few questions of our own?" Ashton suggested, damn the man. "Let us assuage some of our own fears."

"A reasonable request," DeMarly agreed.

Kilbourne just chomped, agitated, on the stub of a fat cigar clenched between his teeth.

"Ah, well, I was rather - - vigorous in my questioning. He might not be much good for answering yours. And even if he did, he's adamant in his lies."

"Let's see him, Winter," Kilbourne finally snapped. "I've a debt to pay the insolent dog."

Winter shrugged, smiling his false smile again to hide his annoyance. "As you wish, gentlemen."

He slipped out to the hall, where Jun was waiting, dipped his head and ordered softly. "Make sure he's not coherent enough to talk, then have him brought up."

Jun nodded and scurried away to do his bidding.

He offered them fresh cigars and a sampling of his uncle's finest Scottish double malt while they waited. He trusted Jun to accomplish his task and if Kenshin were lucid enough to get out a few words - - well, the only translators in the room where himself and his manservant. But he had to play his cards carefully, these were dangerous men with power and position, used to getting their own way. They'd ruin him if they guessed he was double dealing them.

Soon enough Jun appeared at the doorway, bowing at the lot of them, before moving aside and letting two of the native servants haul Kenshin in between them. Jun hadn't unfettered him, even though his head drooped and his body was barely responsive to the handling.

"What the hell is this?" Kilbourne rose, stalking over, glaring at Winter more than their prisoner. "This can't be the one - - the man who attacked me was larger, I'm sure of it."

Winter smiled, letting just a touch of condescension flitter at the edges. "Men tend to seem larger when they've got a sword to your throat, Kilbourne. I assure you, this is the man."

The man cast him a nasty look, then grasped a handful of Kenshin's hair, jerking his head back. Kenshin's lashes fluttered, trying to focus, eyes distant and hazy. Jun deserved a bonus for the effectiveness of his powders, Winter thought with satisfaction. Ashton strolled up, lazily sucking on his cigar, eyes flitting over Kenshin's face.

"Hmm. Doesn't look that threatening, Kilbourne. Look's rather too pretty for that. But then, looks can be deceiving. Perhaps you were drunk, ol' chap."

Kilbourne snarled, swung his meaty hand and backhanded Kenshin. The two servants clutched tighter to his arms, holding him upright.

"Were you the one?" Kilbourne demanded, grasping his jaw, forcing his head back up. "Do you know who I am? Do you, you worthless dog?"

He hit him again, with little more reaction. Ashton shook his head looking bored.

"I told you," Winter said sipping at his own drink. "That he wouldn't be much for answering questions."

He waved a hand towards the billiard's table and the two servants deposited their burden there. Kenshin lay, feet dangling, manacled hands limp across his stomach on the green felt of the tabletop. Winter leaned a palm on the edge looking down, mouth twitching as he saw the struggle for coherency in Kenshin's eyes. There was a little trickle of blood running down from the corner of his mouth.

"So," DeMarly leaned a hip against the table, casting a glance down at Kenshin, before dismissing him and looking to Winter. "This rival clan? Can you handle the problem on the Japanese end?"

"I can. My contact's clan, you might say, is more powerful than his rivals. Erizowa is a powerful enough player that he will deal with them. Trust me, gentlemen."

"When I see a return on my investment, I'll trust you a little more," Ashton said, then lifted a brow at Kilbourne who'd hefted a billiard's cue and was slapping the thick end against his palm. He cracked it down onto the table top next to Kenshin's head.

Winter flinched at the retort, frowning at the little tear in the felt. "This is a perfectly fine table, Kilbourne. I'd prefer if you didn't get blood all over it."

"Then drag him onto the floor. I'll take the beginnings of my own investment's return out of his hide."

"How plebian of you," Ashton drawled, before Winter could think up an excuse to deny the man the chance of taking away his own well earned enjoyment.

"He didn't break into your home, Ashton, and put a sword to your throat."

"And embarrass me in front of a little brown bed warmer?" Ashton guessed, and Kilbourne bristled.

"Beating him to death would be so boring," Ashton remarked, his smile slow and lazy, but Winter thought him anything but. "Why not vent your frustration, Kilbourne in a more sporting fashion?"

Kilbourne canted him a narrow look. Winter did, waiting.

"We haven't had a hunt in ages. Do your uncle's hounds still know how to pursue two legged game, Winter?"

Winter's mouth slowly curved in a smile. Ashton always had been a man after his own heart. A kindred spirit. "Aye. They'll chase down any prey they get the scent of."

"Then what say you, gentlemen?" Ashton smiled. "The man that takes the prey wins the right to dispose of it any manner he sees fit."

"He won't be much sport for a while." Winter looked down at Kenshin. At the half lashed gaze and the slowly flexing fingers of a man trying hard to fight his way out of the narcotic induced haze he'd been plunged into.

"We'll have a few drinks, enjoy a round of cards or two and let him recover some of his wits before we loose the dogs."



The last thing he remembered, and even that memory was hazy and insubstantial, was Winter's man, Jun slipping down the stairs to the basement they'd imprisoned him, and blowing a handful of white powder into his face. Things had gone very, very shadowy then, and slow, thick like sap oozing with infinite slowness down the trunk of a tree. He didn't recall a great deal of what happened after. Just an indefinite passage of time, a lurid wash of color and jabbering foreign voices that came and went as his vision did. Hands on him, that he ought to try and shake off, but lacked the wherewithal to do so.

After a while, water hit his face, cold and wet, shocking him into awareness. A sharper blow followed, a hard, open palmed slap across the face. He sputtered, trying to focus as hands tangled in his collar, dragging him up, slapping him again, both cheeks, voice hissing at him in a low angry tones to wake up.

Kenshin blinked water from his eyes, staring through a tangle of wet hair at a half familiar, pinched face. Jun. Winter's servant, who crouched in front of him, while men he couldn't see grasped him from behind, hands in his hair, hands on his collar holding him back against their knees while Jun shook a fist in his face.

"Filthy assassin," Jun spat at him, grabbing Kenshin's jaw, forcing his head back and bringing a short knife up to press against his throat. "My master is a fool, to have let you live this long."

There was nothing to do but stare down into angry black eyes and wait to see if the man were of a mind to slit his throat. But eventually, Jun jerked the blade away, instead slashing at the shoulder of Kenshin's noragi, Ripping down the sleeve and tearing off a good portion of the cloth. He flung the rag at a servant and snapped something at the man in Ceylonese, and the man scurried off.

Jun rose, jerked his head and the two men behind him pulled him up. It was an effort to get his legs under him. His sandals were gone and the wood was cool and slick under his feet, but at least they'd done away with the leg irons. If he could just chase away the haze that still clung with tenacity in his head, he might be able to help himself out of this situation. But wanting was a far cry from doing and the hall passed in a blur as they hauled him to a set of tall, glass paned doors and a wide porch looking out over a night dark yard. It had been a few hours after noon when he'd come here, he thought, so a good deal of time had passed.

Sano. Winter had promised to send men after the stolen papers and Sano might have been there. Either to stop them or be stopped by them. His mind whirled around scenarios where blood was shed. He could see it clear as day. Could scent it - - a scent you never forgot once you'd been awash in it - -

Jun slapped him again, and he hadn't even realized the man had moved to face him, mind that unfocused, thoughts that chaotic. Not a state of mind conducive to survival. Too much of the drug still in his system, then. Still, if the man hit him again, Kenshin was going to have to take offense and return the favor in some manner.

Jun stabbed a finger towards the darkened yard and the vast, black fields of tea beyond it. "Run. You run or the dogs will tear you apart, understand, assassin?"

Jun shoved him off the porch, and he staggered, lacking any semblance of grace, down the steps, going to hands and one knee in wet grass. He looked up from under his hair at Jun and his pair of burly servants backing him, then heard the baying of dogs. Jun's mouth curved into a cruel smile and Kenshin hissed, shoving to his feet.

When he swung his head too rapidly, his vision wavered, the shadows shuddering, the lights from the house flickering as if he were looking at them through a multi-faceted stone. The forest offered cover that the fields Jun had pointed towards did not, and the closest wood line was beyond the gardens. He ran that way, nothing so neat as a straight line, shaking his head in an effort to force clarity that did not want to come. But balance was no less intricate a part of him, as breathing and his feet found the way, body doing what it ought even if his mind swam with disorientation. Past the hedges of the garden, and the lush beds of flowering plants, the archways with their coiling vines and towards the dark wall of forest.

Light flared at him, a sudden roaring, demon faced apparition with flames at the ends of its arms. Another, leaping to join the first, bellowing at him, waving the fire in his face, and he veered from his path, shocked into taking a different course towards the fields. It occurred to him, as his heart dislodged from his throat that they'd been men. Men in masks waving torches to herd him in a direction of their choosing.

He heard the dogs again, a cacophony of excited barking from the darkness beyond the mansion and drawing closer. He didn't turn to look, just plunged into the thigh high tea plants at the edge of the fields. There was forest to the right of him, bordering the fields. A great deal of forest that they couldn't block the whole of. Even if they tried, they wouldn't deter him this time.

The sharp retort of gunfire rang out, and he reflexively crouched, diving into the shelter of plants. The bullet hadn't come near him, though. Either a bad shot, or they were simply reveling in their power. He paused for a moment, eyes shut, listening past the thud of his own heart to the sound of dogs - - and horses. The dogs had entered the fields, he could hear the sound of them ripping through tender plants on their path towards him. He rose and sprinted towards the tree line.

Two hundred yards and he rushed it headlong, feeling the presence of the pack behind him - - their roiling excitement, their lust for the kill. He broke the edge of the forest, plunged into darkness not pierced by moonlight and ran. Mulch soft and wet under his feet from recent rains, branches snapping his face and arms as he tore through underbrush. He was fast, he knew he was fast, even hindered as he was, but the dogs had four legs instead of two - - had animal instinct that a man who'd let his own instincts dull over the past few years, could not compete with.

Teeth ripped at the trailing edge of his torn noragi, yanking him off his balance. He staggered to the side, caught himself from falling outright and swung his manacled hands, hard, against a canine head. The hound let out a yelp of pain, knocked away from him and into the bole of a young tree. Another leapt at him and he rolled under its lunge, fingers curling around a fallen branch and bringing it up in a backhanded swing that cracked much like the sound of a bullet, against the dog's thick neck. The branch broke, the dog dropped, lifeless and Kenshin ran.

The ground gave way unexpectedly under his feet and he slid down a muddy slope, scrambling helplessly for purchase with hands bound and plunged into cold, dark water. He came up, gasping, waist deep in a stream that might have been fifteen feet wide. He might have gained himself a few precious moments while the dogs sniffed about their fallen pack members. A chance to get them off his track. He ripped the torn noragi off, flung the sodden cloth up the opposite slope, then headed down stream in the darkness. A treacherous path with slick rocks under his feet and unexpected deep pools to make him flounder. Something sinuous and black glinted in a bit of dappled moonlight on the waters surface, gliding towards him and he hissed, batting it out of the water towards the far shore. A very, very bad thing, snakes in the water. He'd rather face the dogs.

He waded towards the opposite shore, pulling himself up onto the bank, scrambling up the slope and into the trees. He could hear the dogs, but they weren't closing in. Mulling in confusion around his coat, trying to find a scent to follow. They'd figure it out. But for the moment he let himself slump against a tree, drawing in gasping lungfuls of air. Trying to wrap his mind around what exactly it was he was running from.

There were men behind the dogs. Men with guns. Winter's men, he could only assume. But Jun was Winter's man and Jun had set him free. Well, as free as a man might be, manacled and herded into being a rabbit for a pack of dogs. Some game of Winter's then, and he knew by now that Winter liked to play. Liked to manipulate and tease and torment.

Kenshin bared his teeth in frustration, pushed himself off the tree and started moving again. The whole of this place was unfamiliar. He had no notion where he was headed. For all he knew, he might be circling back around to the mansion.

The baying of the dogs grew closer. He heard the distant shout of a man. He ran. Men, he could avoid in the darkness. Dogs were another matter. And the dogs were on his trail again.

He found a stout enough stick as he moved, snapping it, with a foot against the bole and a grunt of effort, off a downed tree. He gripped it two handed, spun even as he caught the glimpse of a fast moving dark shape through the trees rushing at him. Cracked the dog in the muzzle and kept turning, leaping over the one on its heels and bringing the limb down upon the third. Caught another in the side, knocking it against a tree, then got pulled off his balance by teeth in the leg of his trousers. His foot slid on wet mulch and that leg went down under him, an unfortunate lapse that let another one get past his guard and latch hold of his forearm, bearing him backwards under the dog's not insubstantial weight. He went with it, using the dog's own momentum to spin it off him, bringing up a knee and slamming it against the stubbornly clenched jaws around his arm.

He had half a glimpse in the frenzy of the attacking pack of a larger, black shape bearing down on him. He half turned, the dog still attached to his arm, and met the sole of a boot, slamming into the side of his head. He went down, head spinning, the dogs descending upon him, snarling, nipping at him, shifting to avoid the prancing hooves of a horse as the animal sidled into the fray.

There was the barking command of a man, sharp orders that made no sense to Kenshin's reeling mind. He brought his arms up, covering his head as hooves thudded into the soft earth next to him. Trying to protect his throat from the snapping jaws of the dogs that wanted to rip it out. There was the cracking sound of a whip, the yelp of dogs as they were driven off. Then a lash of pain as it struck his ankle, the tail of it slithering around and cinching tight before he was jerked across the ground, in the horse's wake, the hounds dancing gleefully as he was dragged. A nightmarish progression, across bramble and earthy debris, his back slamming against a protruding root here, his head bouncing off another there.

Not far - - it could not have been far - - and then the tension around his ankle relaxed, the end of the whip slipping off, trailing in the mulch as the horse paced. Kenshin lay there, spots of color dancing at the edges of dimmed vision. The pain of maybe a rib only newly healed, fractured again, vying with the burn of the scrapes on his back.

More horses joined the first, towering over him, indistinguishable silhouettes in the darkness. The dogs circled, whining, the fervor of the hunt dissipated, looking for confirmation of their success from their masters. One even went so far as to thrust its long wet tongue against his face. Men spoke among themselves, laughing, pleased with their accomplishment of taking down disadvantaged prey. No honor at all among the lot of them.

Winter leaned over him, pale hair, pale eyes in the slivers of moonlight that escaped the foliage, trapping Kenshin's manacled hands beneath his weight . He had the whip coiled in his hand and trailed the end of it across Kenshin's scarred cheek. He said something to the men accompanying him. They were dark shapes, looming atop their horses, looking down upon them.

"I win," Winter said, grinning at him, teeth eerily pale in the shadows of his face.

Kenshin had neither the breath, nor the inclination to engage him in conversation, but then Winter didn't seem to expect it. He looped the supple leather of the whip around Kenshin's neck, pulled it taut enough to choke off air and bent down close.

"I told you," he said, lips grazing Kenshin's temple, whispering softly as if he were speaking to a lover as he choked him. "I told you I'd make you pay."



Of course Kilbourne complained that they didn't string him up and kill him there - - gut him like any other prey they'd hunted down. It had been, on occasion, done before, when the wealthiest of Winter's blooded family acquaintances had been bored and had a taste for the blood of prey of a higher caliber. Any proper English aristocrat saw these people in the lands that they'd colonized, as little more than savages, anyway. Two legged beasts to toil in their fields, make their exported goods, clean their houses and occasionally warm their beds - - to use as they saw fit, which was the god given right of a conquering, civilized people.

Kilbourne believed that to his bones, having no more respect for the native peoples than he did for his dogs. Winter was more of an equal opportunity manipulator. He'd use an Englishman if it worked to his advantage, as easily as he'd use a foreigner. He'd used Kenshin - - but he respected him. Hard not to respect a man with Kenshin's tenacity. It didn't mean Winter wouldn't kill him - - but he'd no intention of letting Kilbourne name the place or the method. It was a personal thing now, that he had every intention of taking his sweet time with.

He put a rope around Kenshin's neck while he was still reeling from being half asphyxiated, and almost choked him out again until he managed to gain his feet, grasping the rope as it jerked taut when Winter's horse began moving through the wood. The dogs danced around him, tangling with his legs, but he managed with admirable grace to avoid tripping over them and being dragged. That little indignation would have pleased Winter. Kenshin deserved nothing less for killing two of his dogs.

A long trek back to the house. Arduous for a man bleeding from no few places and lacking shoes, tethered behind a long legged hunter whose walk equaled most horse's trot. The servants were out in mass when they rode up, whipped into competency by Jun, who glared with murder in his eyes at a live Kenshin. Jun had no love for the tools of the Meiji restoration, a born and bred servant of the shoganate they had replaced. His own master had died at the hands of an assassin, and though it was doubtful that that hand had been Himura the Battousai, he'd made a name for himself during the revolution. Still one never knew. Jun had reason enough for grudges. Perhaps he'd allow Jun a few hours to inquire. A faithful servant deserved occasional incentives.

Men rushed forward to take charge of dogs and horses. Winter dismounted, winding the rope around his fist, while Kenshin leaned over his knees, panting, sweat darkened auburn hair clinging to shoulders and shielding his face. He jerked a head at Jun who barked orders and other servants ran to take charge of him. He didn't protest, just stood there between them, lifting his head just enough to meet Winter's eyes through the tangled fall of his hair. Not a welcoming look. A frightening one, truth be told and Winter swallowed, an involuntarily chill traveling down his spine, before he got a hold of himself and snapped the rope tether, a reminder of who was in the position of power here and who was not.

"You'd think the dogs would have ripped the insolence out of him," Ashton remarked, at Winter's back, having noted that look.

"You'd think," Winter grunted, annoyed.

There was blood running down Kenshin's left arm from the imprint of canine jaws. A shallower bite on his shoulder. His feet were bloody from more than pelting through the woods barefoot. A trail of red ran down one ankle, from a hidden wound on his leg. Winter supposed they'd blooded him well enough for the lives he'd taken of theirs.

"I can rid him of it," Kilbourne grunted slapping his crop against his pants leg. As red as the big man's face was, you'd think he'd run back as well, rather than ride.

"Let up, old chap. You lost the right when you lost the hunt." Ashton reminded him.

Kilbourne snarled. "You and your damned 'entertainments', Aston. I'm owed justice."

Ashton sniffed, and glanced at Winter. "You might as well. You'll not hear the end of it, until he's had his due."

Winter cocked a brow at the crop in Kilbourne's hand, then shrugged, waving a hand. "If it will sooth your injured pride."

They dragged Kenshin into the stable, wild-eyed Ceylonese men who looked as if they'd rather be any place but this, about this business. Jun yelled at them when they looked to hesitate, shoving Kenshin face first against the post at the end of a row of stalls and drawing a rope through the manacles on his wrists and drawing his arms up. He didn't flinch through it. Just stood there, back already scraped, forehead pressed against the wood whiles the wolves circled. All of them, even DeMarly who rarely evidenced emotion, watching with gleaming eyes, anticipating the deconstruction of a man.

"It would make more of an impression if you lent me your whip," Kilbourne remarked.

"No," Winter said flatly. "When and if I choose to mangle him, it will be my hand that does it."

Kilbourne sniffed, shifted his thick fingers on the handle of his crop, then stepped forward and cracked it across Kenshin's shoulders. There was involuntary movement then. The twitching of shocked muscle.

Then Kilbourne laid in, using the shaft as much as the leather. Kenshin didn't make a sound more satisfying than the occasional stifled gasp when he took a hit across the darkening bruise over the ribs on his left side. Kilbourne sounded more distressed, exerting himself beyond his endurance. Winter wasn't surprised. It hadn't been until the bandits had driven the spike through his second hand that he'd screamed in the mountains outside Tokyo.

All Kilbourne was doing was making himself more and more irate at the lack of response. With a curse the man flung the crop away and drove a fist into Kenshin's side. Again and this time Kenshin grunted, a pain sound, fists clenching.

Winter let Kilbourne get in another few hits, before he moved it, driving the man back with a shoulder between him and his victim. "All right. All right. You've had your fun. Go inside, have a brandy - - I've a servant or two that might be your type, eh, Kilbourne. Go on, you've proved your point."

"He never made a sound. Never made a damned sound," Kilbourne panted. "What sort of man endures a beating and doesn't utter a damned sound?"

Ashton threw an arm across the man's burly shoulders and got him walking. "A stubborn one, old Chap."

DeMarly followed them towards the house. Jun stood in the shadows looking disapprovingly at Winter. Winter jerked a hand towards the house. "Don't give me grief, Jun. Have them bring him."

"You'll regret it, Master Quinton. It's not stubborn - - it's discipline. He'll wait for his chance and he'll take it and we'll all pay."



They'd overstayed their welcome, Winter thought. Drinking his liquor, smoking his cigars, enjoying his servants, and inflicting little cruelties on his property. But then, it was a long ride back to the Colombo from the plantation and a good host would have insisted they stay the night. He wasn't feeling the good host.

He was feeling stifled and impatient to be about what he'd been aching to be about since before they'd arrived. He glanced down to Kenshin, curled on his side on the floor near Winter's chair. He might or might not have been conscious. They'd recuffed his hands behind him, looped a rope around his knees, a rope around his ankles. Jun was taking no chances. The blood had crusted on most of the wounds, only the deepest of the puncture marks still seeping red. His back was a mish mash of welts and bruises. There was a bruise on his temple, where Winter had kicked him when the hounds had taken him down finally. His hair mostly concealed it. It didn't detract from his profile. Still too damned pretty to have suffered what he'd suffered tonight. Winter looked like hell and he'd only taken the one hit.

Winter took a swig from the bottle of whiskey he'd taken to drinking from, quicker than bothering to pour it into a glass. He sat it on the table next to him, and reached down, winding a hand in long auburn hair and using it to pull Kenshin up. He dragged him up between his knees, back against the leather armchair, hand still tight in his hair.

"Are you awake?" he asked softly, trailing the thumb of his other hand down the curve of Kenshin's neck.

Kenshin said nothing, though he felt the tensing of muscle as Kenshin tried to relieve the pressure on his shoulders. "They'll be gone soon enough, I promise. I do so look forward to spending time with you alone."

Still nothing. Winter could understand Kilbourne's frustration.

"Shall I tell you about the man I sold your wife, too?" he offered. "I've heard that he particularly appreciates a woman versed in oral sex. Does she have talent in that area?"

There was reaction then. Stiffening of shoulders, a slight frustrated jerk as Kenshin tried to free his hair from Winter's grasp.

"Do you?" Winter asked, pulling Kenshin's head back, grinning down in half lidded, furious eyes. He ran fingers across Kenshin's lips and barely avoided teeth when Kenshin snapped at him. Damned pissed now. It made Winter happy.

He reached for the bottle, shifted the hand in his hair to grasp his jaw and forced the lip of it into his mouth. Kenshin gagged, swallowing convulsively, amber liquor spilling down the corners of his mouth. He turned his head against Winter's knee and coughed when he let him breath. That made him happy, too.

He spent a good deal of time, while DeMarly drowses on the leather couch, and Kilbourne disappeared with two of his servant girls, forcing liquor on Kenshin. Remembering very well from his days at the dojo, on those occasions that Kaoru had served sake, that Kenshin had only ever partaken sparingly. Either he had little tolerance for it, or had never developed a taste. Either way, Winter enjoyed sliding the neck of the bottle between his lips. Enjoyed it enough that he was hard through his pants, and Kenshin if he were aware enough, had to have felt it against the back of his neck when Winter pressed him close. But maybe not. He'd stopped fighting it a while ago, and his lashes were fluttering, black against his cheeks.

"Looks like he's done for." Ashton strolled over, from where he'd been watching them all like voyeur for most of the night. He crouched down in front of Kenshin, reaching out and brushing a long strand of whisky soaked hair from his cheek. "He's really quite something and I've always rather fancied the Indians over the Orientals."

Winter lifted a brow. Ashton looked up, meeting his gaze with a sly smile. "DeMarly's dead to the world and Kilbourne's rutting with your little servant girls. They won't notice at all, if you and I take him somewhere a little more private."

Ashton wasn't bad looking. Younger than him. A man he might not mind sharing intimate entertainments with. And it never hurt to have embarrassing information to hold over the head of a peer of realm, if the need ever arose.

Winter smiled. "I have a place."

And he did. A special room, with cabinets full of instruments that he enjoyed employing. With a sturdy bed that sported the sort of restraints a man might need when his guests were less than willing to engage in the games he liked to play.

Kenshin was limp when they drew him up. Drink, the remnant of the drugs, the abuse or a combination of all having finally mastered him. Winter hefted him up and he was heavier than he looked, all lean, compact sinew and muscle. Lolling head, strands of hair clinging to his skin. Thankfully, he didn't need to climb the stairs with him. The room was on the first floor, a guest room separated from the other rooms, providing a certain degree of privacy. Not that Winter's servants would complain. Not if they knew what was good for them.

Ashton opened the door Winter indicated and Winter maneuvered his burden in, depositing him upon the bed. Kenshin was less than immaculate, bloody, dirty. He'd soil the sheets.

"Jun," Winter snapped, knowing very well his manservant would be hovering. "Fetch water and rags to clean him up."

He caught a glimpse of Jun's glower before the little man disappeared to do his bidding. Ashton grinned at him, closed door at his back and Winter felt a sudden swell of camaraderie. A sudden shiver of excitement. He'd never had anyone - - an equal - - to share his predilections with. An audience that could appreciate and savor the same things he enjoyed. This might very well lead to things other than leverage over an influential nobleman.

Ashton lifted a thick leather manacle attached by a short length of chain to one of the hard wood columns at the foot of the bed. "Very nice."

Winter took out a knife from his boot and sliced the rope around Kenshin's legs, already planning out his strategy. Face down, to start. As painfully aroused as he still was, face down would be the most convenient position to begin. The key to the cuffs was in his trouser pocket. He dug it out and unlocked the cuff on Kenshin's closest wrist in preparation of it drawing it up towards the leather restraints on the headboard.

He looked up, half second to catch Ashton's eye and Kenshin exploded under his hand. His fingers were gripping flesh one moment and the next grasping at empty air. All he saw was the afterimage of the hand, cuff attached that slammed into the side of his face. Felt the metal slice into his skin and the pain when his nose was broken, was nothing compared to the sickening crack of his cheekbone shattering.

It didn't last long. He heard the dwindling sound of men screaming and then he heard nothing at all.




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