PreviousFiction IndexCatalogue and CommisionsArt GalleriesSend feedbackNext

 

Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 26

 

The storm dwindled to uneasy seas and light rain by nightfall. By the following day, the skies were blue and the seas ahead clear and smooth, the deck rolling gently underfoot instead of bucking with the vengeance of angry sea spirits. A relief to have equilibrium back. Kenshin felt naked without it. Sunlight was a welcome thing, after a day spent in the musty underbelly of a ship. Passengers and crew alike found reason to be on deck.

The ladies had spread a blanket on deck towards the stern, long, colorful scarves protecting them from spray and wind as they chatted, embroidering complicated patterns on cloth. Sano sat with them, outside the edge of their blanket, having failed during the previous evening to find a game of chance among the crew. The Gravenhage's captain was a man of fervent Christian faith and frowned mightily upon gambling or drinking or carousing of any mischievous nature on his ship. Which left Sano no option but to find entertainment where he could.

Kenshin was admittedly poor company, his focus narrowed and aimed at a goal that was very close to his reach. Four days. Four days and they would close a gap that had seemed insurmountable at times. The lady Pakshi had offered, when they reached Madras, to have one of her boys guide them in the city to the most likely places travelers would stay waiting for their ship to sail.

Sano had told them more than Kenshin would have preferred, but perhaps Sano's openness had gained them something - - an interest from a lady of wealth, in what must have seemed, from Sano's abridged story, a great adventure. Sano had a knack for story telling and an imagination for changing relevant facts with flourish. The ladies had been rapt. An abducted wife and child. An exhausting pursuit. Sano glossed over the blood and the pain as if it had all been some grand adventure and Kenshin, finally having taken all he could, had left the galley and retreated, sick to the core from causes above and beyond the tossing of the ship.

Angry at Sano. Shamed by the looks of pity the women had passed his way, because of tales he'd very much rather Sano had not spun. He hadn't spoken to Sano till the next morning, pretending sleep, when Sano finally returned to the cabin. And Sano had given him a look then, a careless, smug arch of the brow when Kenshin finally had to confront him - - hard not to in a room barely bigger than a storage closet - - that made Kenshin grind his teeth and work hard to subdue the urge to do him some violence. Until Sano told him about the aid he'd garnered from the lady, who, Sano confided was very concerned with the plight of a woman and child stolen from their home.

Kenshin had bowed to her when he'd seen her on deck, and quietly offered thanks, and she'd patted his hand and given him another of those sympathetic looks that made him curl up a little inside in embarrassment. One could only guess what else Sano had told them after Kenshin had left him to his own devices.

Through the morning, he sat with his back to the deckhouse and watched the endless patterns of light and shadow in the swells. Lunch broke the pattern and he had enough of an appetite back to take rice and a bit of salted fish on deck. Sano sat down next to him and consumed his own food with the quiet intensity Sano usually devoted to meals.

Sano sat afterwards, giving him a sidelong look. "Still pissed?"

"I wasn't - -"

Sano snorted at that flat out lie.

Kenshin picked a last grain of rice from his bowl with his fingers and flicked it over the rail into the sea. "No."

Sano grinned. "Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little."

Kenshin rolled his eyes, snorting himself. "You, the great philosopher."

"Hey, don't sell me short. I'm deeper than I let on, you know."

He sat his empty bowl down, leaned back against the deckhouse. Quietly admitted. "I know."

Sano turned his own bowl in his hands, chewing that admission over, seeming a little embarrassed.

"So, you ought to come over and sit with the ladies. Pakshi's teaching me a few phrases in English - - you know - - the sort of things you need to know how to ask in a foreign city."

Kenshin recalled nights spent at the dojo, Kaoru eagerly soaking up the knowledge Winter was all too willing to impart. Of Kenji running to him on his short legs, his round face beaming with the delight of picking up a new word. A foreign word. Kenshin had no desire, he really didn't, of learning that tongue. What was the need once he found Kaoru and Kenji and returned them safely home?

Sano said something in that language and sat there, waiting for Kenshin to inquire after meaning. It was either give in or sit there under Sano's stare, so he sighed and asked.

"Where's the brothel?" Sano cackled, utterly pleased with himself.

"She did not teach you that?" It seemed improbable that a lady of Pakshi's apparent quality would.

"Satya did. She's got a wicked streak. I like her. I've heard stories, you know, about some of the things Indian women know how to do to please a man."

"She's not a prostitute, Sano."

"Who said anything about prostitutes? I saw pictures, when I was in China."

Kenshin remembered very well Sano's tales of his adventures on the mainland. At the time of telling, not long on the trail from the mountains beyond Tokyo, he'd felt no particular concern. It bothered him a little now, the idea of Sano and the women he'd claimed to have bedded. It bothered him in a new and unique way when Sano flirted shamelessly with a sloe eyed Indian girl behind the back of her Aunt, if not directly in front of her. He wondered if it were jealousy. He'd never had the occasion to experience the feeling before. He'd loved two women in his life and neither had given him the occasion to doubt. Properly raised Japanese girls both and above repute.

Improperly raised, street brawlers, who drank and gambled and had no shame visiting the red light districts - - having wheedled and whined trying to talk him into visiting with him on no few occasions - - put him off his balance in ways that he'd never been off it before.

"I would not mention these pictures to the ladies, if I were you."

"You think not?" Then Sano considered, eyeing him with speculation. "Some of those pictures - - interesting positions, you know? Crazier than any shunga I've ever seen. Be interesting to try some out."

"Sanosuke." Kenshin felt vaguely scandalized, speaking of such things mid-afternoon, with no few people on the deck with them. He cast a look under his hair to see if anyone lingered close about.

Sano chuckled, still amused with himself, then pushed himself up, gathering the bowls to take back to the galley.

"So, I 'm game to learn a little more before we get there. Should've taken Saitou up on it on the first boat ride - - but Pakshi's a better teacher. Doesn't make me want to smash her face in every other sentence, so just as well. When you feel the need for company, come on over."


He did eventually drift over, settling against a coil of rope and listening to their talk. Sano was charming in that way he had, uncouth, but earnest, with that white grin and his black rimmed eyes and the unruly fall of dark hair that had the ladies, even matronly Pakshi giggling at his wilder claims, and listening avidly as he told of this exploit of his or that. Kenshin did not doubt there was no small bit of exaggeration if not downright fabrication in some of the tales. Sano had a taste for fable and happily wove it into his own stories when he was out to impress impressionable listeners.

With evening came cloudy skies and light rain, which chased them below decks. The ladies retreated to their cabin, and Sano and Kenshin to theirs, having little to do after supper but while the time away in cramped quarters. Kenshin unsheathed his blade, the first time since the fight on the wharf, and went about meticulously cleaning it. The rain had washed away the blood, but there were always nooks and crannies in the leather of the hilt, or the steel of the guard that might hide specks of red.

He'd spent the night before, waiting for some guilt or shame or feeling of failure on his part to wash over him for Winter's death. But none came. Only the subtle relief of knowing the man would plague him and his no longer. He worried that it came too easy, the acceptance of that death at his hands, when very few of the deaths he had carried out in the name of the restoration had. He remembered faces, even the briefest flashes of the death masks of men that he'd cut down in passing, obstacles to some greater goal. Heads that had tumbled under the arc of his steel, staring up at him in shock, before someone else came to claim them as trophies in a war of change. Not all warriors. Innocents too, that had met their end at his hand, at the command his masters, houses of the Shogunate that could not be allowed to be a point at which their soldiers rallied.

Those were the worst. There had not been a night, for close to five years after he'd left the service of the Meiji that he'd not dreamt of those faces and woke sweat drenched and shivering, despising himself for the things he had done. He'd cleaned his blade those days, to the point of fanaticism.

Sano watched him lazily, sprawled in his hammock, arms folded behind his head. Supper tonight had been fish stew and flatbread and fresh fruit. It was a short voyage, from Ceylon to Madras and the ship's cook could afford to splurge. Sano was happily full, barefoot and shirtless, and sucking on a stick of flavored sugar that Pakshi had given him. She had changed his bandage after supper, as well and Sano had begged a small portion of the salve she used and a few clean bandages for the wounds on Kenshin's shoulder and leg. The worst of the dog bites that were not healing as quickly as the rest.

"You've been at that for a while. You think it's clean yet?"

Kenshin ran the cloth up the length of steel and wished for a whetstone. There was the tiniest whisper of a knick on the sharp side. The result of the bullet he'd deflected from Sano, perhaps. It bothered him, that faint imperfection in his blade.

Sano swung off the hammock, ambled over and slid down the wall next to Kenshin.

"Want some?" He offered the sugar stick and Kenshin shook his head.

"Tastes sweet, with heat at the same time. Exotic."

Kenshin paused, canting a look up at him. "You like the idea of exotic."

Sano shrugged. "Yeah. Guess so. There's nothing like discovering something new. Learning something new. New foods. New faces. New trouble to mix up." He grinned.

"So - - if you had a girl like Satya - - new and exotic - - would you be happy?"

"Why? You think she's looking for a husband or just a good lay?"

Kenshin snapped his mouth shut, turning the blade to examine the guard.

Sano made a sound, and risked the naked steel in Kenshin's hand to lean against him, one arm snaking around his neck to draw him close. "You're an idiot."

"Occasionally," he admitted, the sword carefully across his knees.

Sano sighed, leaning back, arm still draped across the back of Kenshin's neck. He smelled of the rainwater they'd both washed up with before the supper bell and sweet spices of the sugar stick. If he found a woman, it would be a practical thing. Best for all involved. But not an Indian one. Not unless she were willing to live in Japan - - because Sano across a sea would not be an acceptable thing. A quiet, Japanese wife, who would take care of him. A good cook - - Sano would like that - - but plain faced, who might inspire very little creativity with Sano in the privacy of their room. Or none at all. Perhaps this fictional wife and Kaoru might become fast friends, keeping each other company, while he and Sano - -

He shut his eyes, grip tightening on the hilt of the sword and thought, this is what I've come to. No honor left to me and I can't stop it.

He slid the sword back into its sheath. Sano broke off the end of the sugar stick and offered it. This time Kenshin took it, closed his own eyes and leaned against Sano as the sweet spices melted in his mouth. Sometimes simply soaking up Sano's heat, shoring himself up against Sano's youthful vitality when he felt his own waning - - and sharing his company - - was enough.


There were gulls soaring overhead, specks against the blue sky, diving now and then into the waves, fishing for mackerel. The surest sign that land was not far ahead. A day, the captain promised, and they'd see the coastline of India.

Not soon enough. Holding onto patience and calm seemed an insurmountable thing, when his body wanted something - - anything - - to occupy it. He wanted to pace the deck, and had, until the crew began giving him wary looks. He supposed they would take less kindly if he brought the sakabatou on deck and went through patterns and stances and guards, disciplined repetitive moves that blanked the mind of anything but the weight of the sword and the balance of the body it was an extension of.

Sano tired of trying to talk to him mid-day and retreated to the company of the ladies. Kenshin thought, after two days of their company, that Sano was infatuated far more with Pakshi than her pretty niece. Pakshi treated him like an indulgent mother, offering praise and sweets and Sano lapped it up.

They were playing some game involving cards, on a blanket on the deck, one of the male Hindu passengers making up a fourth, when the crewman high up in the crow's nest above the rigging called out, and sailors moved to the forward deck to see what was about.

The captain strode out himself, with his looking glass, and stood with his first mate, pointing at square white sails in the distance. The passengers crowded in amongst the crew, shading their eyes and watching the steady approach of the other ship.

"They say it is a frigate," Pakshi said, standing at the rail between Sano and her niece. "A British warship."

Kenshin scanned the horizon, the sky darkening just enough to the east to hint that the weather was fouler there than here. There was a tiny flash of reflection there. A glimpse of shape against the grey.

"There's another there."

The ladies turned, Satya commenting to a nearby crewman, who called forward to his superiors. There was a murmur then, of question among them, as the captain swung his glass east.

"War ships usually patrol the coast?" Sano asked.

Pakshi shrugged. "They come and go. Madras is a major port."

It took better than an hour for the frigate to close on them and there were signals exchanged, a combination of flags waved between ships and the Gravenhage's captain called for this crew to furl the sails, and slow the ship to a crawl as the warship sailed close, portside to starboard. The frigate rode taller in the water than they did, sporting more sails, longer stern to aft. Its deck was crawling with crewmen and crisply uniformed officers, its hull lined with the dark mouths of canon ports. The captains met at their respective rails, exchanging hurried salutations, a rapid-fire chatter of information none of which Kenshin could comprehend. The crewmen seemed rapt though, whispering among themselves, passing bits of information down the line as their officers conferred.

Pakshi brought a hand to her breast, a look of dismay on her face.

"What? What is it?" Sano demanded, his few phrases in English not enough to understand what they were saying. What the whispers among the crew were about.

"They're searching for survivors," Satya said, before her aunt could wave a sharp hand at her in warning.

"Shush, girl. Listen for the details else you speak falsely."

Satya shut her mouth, biting her lip. Looking towards the bow - -distinctly not looking at him.

"Survivors of what?" Sano asked and Kenshin was glad of it, for he found himself oddly short of breath.

"A ship," Pakshi said softly. "A ship gone down in a storm three days past. They're asking our captain if we've seen wreckage - - or sign of survivors."

"Oh," Sano said, eyes scanning all those dark portholes with their hidden cannons. Then sliding back to the men at the rail. Finally asking the pertinent question. "What ship?"

"This time of year, the storms come and go fast. Ships sink. Fishing vessels litter the ocean floor. I'll go and find out." She beckoned Satya and the girl fell into line, the two of them weeding their way though the mulling crew towards the ship's officers.

The Frigate was moving away, ponderous grace as she cut through the waves, rocking the smaller schooner with the backwash of her departure. Kenshin stood with his hands on the rail, wood biting into his palms.

"It's not her ship," Sano said. "Like Pakshi said, some fishing vessel out too far, caught in a storm."

Kenshin stared at the square back of the departing frigate. "Would the British send their warships to search for the survivors of some native fishing boat?"

Sano didn't have an answer for that. Kenshin didn't look at him to see - -he couldn't take his eyes off the swell of waves. His pulse was thudding, racing like he was in the midst of some great battle. He blew out a breath, forcing calm. Trying to quiet the riot his thoughts wanted to stir. Sano was right. It could not be her ship, among all the ships that came and went from a port the size of Madras. And three days past - - her ship should have been in port - -unless - - unless it had taken the passage slower, laden with more cargo than this sleek, lightweight passenger schooner they traveled upon.

"Kenshin, stop worrying. It can't be her ship. Our luck can't be that bad, right?"

"Of course," he said, hardly hearing himself. Not their luck. His luck. His karma that had demanded so little payment of him for all the black marks he had against him.

The ladies were coming back, two graceful, colorful figures among a sea of men in seaman's drab. The niece behind with her head down, shawl covering her glossy hair, hiding her expression, the aunt with her face set - - not a woman who let emotion get the best of her. And he was scared of a sudden of what she had to say. Terrified to the core of him.

"Well?" Sano turned on them, impatient.

She turned her eyes to him instead of Sano. "It was a vessel that sailed under the flag of the British East India company. She was the Eastcourt. So far no survivors have been found. I am so very sorry."

"Wait. Wait, are you sure?" Sano was pressing her. "But they're still searching, right? Why would they still be searching if they didn't think - -?"

She was answering him, calmly, softly, and Kenshin couldn't focus on the words. As if the Japanese she and Sano spoke had turned into foreign gibberish. He stood there, swallowing and swallowing. Lost. Nothing he could do with a sword and all the skill in the world to prevent a storm from consuming a ship. Three days down. Three days - - and Kenji couldn't swim. Kenshin, having no skill at it himself, had never had the occasion to teach him. Remiss of him, really, living in a city full of canals on the edge of Tokyo bay.

A hand on his shoulder an intrusion into personal space and indignant anger exploded. He spun, catching the offending wrist and shoving backwards. Sano yelped, staggering, wide eyed and shaking the hand and Kenshin stared at him, red around the edges of his vision, half aware of the shocked faces of people beyond him. Blurred foreign faces that meant nothing.

"Don't touch me."

"Damnit, Kenshin - -"

It could have been one of the woman, who stared at him, beyond Sano, that he'd lashed out at and a woman's bones fractured easier than a man's. That would have been regrettable.

"Don't touch me," he said, softer, the cold creeping in around the edges.

"They're still looking - -" Sano flung an arm.

He turned his back, staring at endless water. Not even a sliver of land yet.

"Leave him alone," he heard Sano say, before he stopped listening.

 


 

He stared into water long gone black, even the reflection of stars hidden by cloud cover, only the occasional flicker of reflection from the ships lanterns slithering along the water's surface. He'd stood here all the afternoon, the movement of people like ghosts around him. Sano come and gone. Come and gone again. Saying things - - perhaps sensible things - - reassurances, consolations, urging him to hope for things that any reasonable man knew were fantasy.

Numb throughout. Sometimes not thinking at all, dully surprised when the sun edged down the horizon, the sky all washed in grey. Everything washed in grey. Death was no stranger. Death followed him, preceded him, courted him no matter that he tried to avoid it. For the sake of his soul - - if one believed in such things. For the sake of kami, if one wished to believe in more traditional fabrications. His parents had believed.

His parents, what little he could recall of them - - slivers of memory that formed no cohesive whole - - had been superstitious folk. He remembered wards on the door. Charms against evil. Tales told of this demon or that malicious spirit and what ills they could bring on a boy whose kami was stained. A trip, through mud and rain, to the peasant shrine outside their village, to offer what little they had when the sickness had struck.

He remembered the flames when the villagers had burned his house, his parent's bloating bodies within, dead from the sickness, stricken as so many had been by the ill favor of the gods. Because of something they'd done, surely. Some impurity that had stained them, some terrible tsumi that must have warranted so cruel a fate.

He'd believed in the old spirits, in the wives tales until Hiko had wrenched those fears out of him, Hiko Seijuro having no fear of earthly or other earthly beings. Hiko invited the wrath of demons with a vengeance, challenging all and sundry to test his wrath. That utter irreverence, that utter lack of apprehension about the things that dwelled just outside the realm of men - - was a very appealing thing to a boy who had only ever known superstition and fear. So Kenshin had learned at the feet of master Hiko, that tales of the old spirits and the wrath of the gods and the consequences of karma were things that the old and the weak and the poor, and the easily led used to find their way in the world. Excuses to explain away their own failings. Men made their own luck and they lived and died by it.

Only he'd always recalled the whispers of those early years, before Master Hiko. Made the occasional trek to this shrine or that - - if it happened to be on his way - - to try and wash away a little of the stain. Hiko would have laughed at him. But then Hiko didn't harbor a niggling fear in the back of his mind where childhood memories dwelled, of the wrath of vengeful spirits.

Hiko didn't cleave to things that he might regret losing should he fail to intimidate those wailing demons. Nothing but a shack in the mountains, with threadbare mats and a leaking roof. Not even a dog to tempt fate.

Much less a wife and a child. With the blood on his hands - - the copious oceans of blood - - it had only been a matter of time. His fault. His tempting of fate - - when he'd known - - he'd damned well known, that he didn't deserve the relief he had found. This was vengeance upon him. Payment for his sins, taken by something so vast he couldn't even raise a sword against it in retaliation. As if one could retaliate against karma.

He curled his fingers on the rail, forcing images on himself, brutal imaginings of bodies plunged into unforgiving, unfathomable depths. Sinking, sinking, drawn under along with wreckage, huge and heavy and black. A child's pale, cold face, eyes wide and cloudy, small limbs drifting and lax in the void. A wash of black hair, swaying like silk in the current, parting to reveal the soft curve of a woman's cheek.

He shut his eyes, pressing his forehead against the rail, silently screaming through his clenched teeth. Horrified by the imagery, beckoning it in like the glint of a wakizashi towards his gut. Her wide, accusing eyes. Staring at him as she floated, dead pale thing below the waves. Payment for your sins. Your sins, not ours. You should have known. Selfish. Selfish. You betray me and then you let me die - - the least you could do, is join us - -

Her voice echoed in his head and he blinked, the cloud of numb that he'd been wallowing in since he'd understood them gone, simply washed away with her sensible solution. The pain rushed in to fill the void. Rocks filling his insides, cold and hard and heavy, lancing through his guts like acid and he screamed again, this time a howl that broke the silence of the ship. He had betrayed her - - betrayed Kenji - - the things that he cherished the most. Betrayed them by inviting death among them in the form of a murderous Englishman. Betrayed them with Sano. Betrayed them by not having the sense to put himself far distant from them - - taking his impurity and the ill fortunes it always seemed to bring upon him well away from them.

Fool. Fool, to have thought differently. He slammed his forehead against the railing, again, that dull pain not even making a dent against the utter agony gripping his insides. Innocent eyes looking up at him - - trusting. Small hand in hers as they walked - - looking back at him, trusting he'd keep them safe. Wetness blurred his vision, and he wasn't sure if it were blood or tears. It hurt. It hurt and he'd have died a thousand times to have avoided this. She was right. It was the least he could do - - the very least - -

Hands grabbed him from behind, jerking him back from the rail and the darkness that had swallowed his world. The rushing of the ocean filled his head, the frenzy of some desperate need to escape, and he fought the hold, growling with animal intensity. Howling with it when he couldn't break the hold that pinned his arms and kept him from free movement. Feet against the edge of the aft deck house and he propelled himself backwards, the body behind him impacting the rail with enough force to shatter wood. He heard a cry of pain, a scrambling for footing that almost allowed him freedom, save the damned long arms refused to loosen their grip - - tightening it if anything - - wrenching the air out of him, wrenching him off his feet and slamming full force into the deckhouse wall.

"You crazy son of a bitch - - you want to kill us both? That what you want?" The voice got through, screaming in his ear. A forehead drove into the back his skull, driving his own into the wood. Vision swam, warm salty wetness seeped inside his mouth. It ran down his face. Blood. It had to be blood. And the sobbing - - he could hear the sobbing echo of ghosts - - too many damned ghosts - - drifting just beyond the range of his vision.

It was a blessing when they drew him down with them into darkness.

 


 

Sano let Kenshin fall. Leaning one forearm on the deckhouse wall, twisting the other hand to his back, which blared pain from the damned hard impact against the railing. He looked over his shoulder, at the broken guardrail. They'd come that close to crashing through and getting swallowed up by the sea. Probably with none the wiser, black as the waters were. Or maybe not - - from the footsteps of crewmen roused to alarm by the scuffle.

A few poked their heads around, warily and Sano held up his hands and said in English learned from Pakshi.

"Okay. It's okay."

He didn't know how to explain more. Even if he'd been speaking his own tongue, he wouldn't know how to explain this madness of Kenshin's away. And madness it was. A complete leap off the edge of sanity into whatever morass of grief and guilt that Kenshin had pulled himself into.

The crewmen were staring, wary, and damned if Sano wanted to wait for them to call ships officers to stick their noses into a private matter. He grabbed Kenshin's arm, got him up enough to haul over a shoulder. Sano's back complained, his shin did, and his knee where Kenshin had gotten in good shots. He shouldered his way through them and they let him pass. Maneuvered down the steps to the lower deck and their cabin, and tossed Kenshin into the lower hammock.

His back hit the wall, and he braced himself there, staring at the blood trickling from the corner of Kenshin's mouth, the trail of it from his nose, thinking - - Idiot. Idiot. And not being able to get past that. Just pissed and rightfully so, because Kenshin always had gotten stupid in his grief - - but this - -

He let himself slide down and sat there, wetness trickling down his own nose. He wiped a hand and it came away red. His nose throbbed a little, but he'd taken worse hits. A lot worse. He clenched his teeth, clenched his fists to keep from shaking when he thought again how close they'd come to going overboard. Thinking what might have happened if he hadn't been there, keeping vigil. Something in his gut having warned him not to trust Kenshin, who'd been stretched too damned thin for too damned long in this thing to take this sort of blow without breaking one way or another.

And Sano shared the pain. For Kaoru, who'd he'd enjoyed riling - - who he'd been a little envious of - - who'd been a friend. For a kid, that he'd never met, but was Kenshin's - - and that was enough. For Kenshin, who carried around enough guilt and didn't need this one more massive block weighing him down.

Sano hit the floor. A solid rap of knuckles. Again, thinking how's he gonna get over this? Because all that talk he and Pakshi had been spewing about there still being hope -- about them still searching so maybe they'd find survivors and maybe a girl and a kid might be among them - - well, that was just somebody refusing to accept reality, days after the fact. Realist that he was, Kenshin had already accepted it.

Sano looked at Kenshin's sword, propped in the corner, thinking the last thing Kenshin needed access to at the moment, when the grief was fresh and his sanity was a little in doubt, was a blade.

 


 

Kenshin slept like the dead. Not a groan, not a movement, even when the ship shuddered when she gently edged into dock, hull bumping pier. Sano had to slap him awake, finally, and he felt no compunction against putting a little force behind it, having gotten a glimpse at the damned big bruise on his back and feeling it with every movement.

Sano backed away from the sudden jerk - - the sudden defensive movement of hands as Kenshin snapped back to awareness.

"Up," Sano said, as Kenshin was blinking in disorientation. Sano hoped he had one hell of a headache to match the ache in Sano's back.

Kenshin didn't move, the hammock swaying gently under him, things starting to register behind forced-sleep hazed eyes. He looked up at Sano, one sharp glance, before flicking his gaze away, maybe preparing to plunge back into that morass of self-pity he'd been wallowing in. And Sano was willing to give him ample time to grieve, really he was, but he was damned well going to do it like a sane person.

"We're here," Sano said, planting his fists on his hips. "We've gotta get off the ship. We're going with Pakshi to her house, then she's taking us to the port authority offices to find out what we can about the Eastcourt. Now, if you've got a problem with doing all that like a rational human being, well, I don't have one with knocking your ass back out and hauling you out of here like baggage. And if you think I can't, in this little room with no space for you to move - - think again."

Another flick of the eyes to him. A tightening of the mouth, then Kenshin pushed himself off the hammock. Didn't manage it with anything resembling grace, but then it was hard to gracefully exit a hammock and his head probably was throbbing. Good.

He waited for Sano to move, allowing him a path to the door, then stopped with his hand on it, staring at the corner where the sword had been.

"Where's my sword?" Very softly asked.

"Don't worry about it. Taken care of."

Sano got a profile then, a look from narrowed eyes, before Kenshin lowered his head and hair obscured it. Sano pushed past him, heading for the deck and off this boat. The stench of the docks hit before he even sat foot on deck. The sound of life and activity a buzz in the air before he actually got the vantage to see the sprawling docks. Madras was the central hub for maritime traffic for all of Southern India. The center of operations for the British on this side of the continent. Hundreds of ships and boats and barges weighted down with cargo fought for right way in the harbor. Further down, towards what Pakshi said was the British command post of Fort St. George, military ships rested at dock.

It was early still, only hours after dawn, and the air was already sluggish from encroaching heat. The whole place stank of human sweat - - too damned many people about their business dockside. Sano sauntered down the ramp, after casting a casual glance behind him to make sure Kenshin was trailing him still. Into the crowd of half naked brown bodies. Vendors and dockworkers and those hopeful for day work, westerners here and there among them, administrators or sailors or uniformed soldiers. He saw Pakshi and her niece across the wharf, standing in the company of a middle aged woman and a skinny boy of perhaps ten, at the head of a cart with a very old seeming donkey, piled with their luggage.

"My daughter, Nanda," Pakshi introduced the woman, who eyed Sano, and Kenshin behind him, warily, before inclining her head. "And her son, Rajiv, who is the man of the family."

It took some time to maneuver the little procession through the dockside mob. There were great walls, protecting the city from the port. Very old seeming walls with wind worn carvings that allowed them egress to Madras proper though a towering round portal with raised iron gates.

Once inside, color and sound and smell assaulted them. Hundreds of traveling shops, people set up on blankets, or carrying their wares from their persons, entertainers and acrobats and musicians all trying to coerce a bit of silver. Desperate sounding merchants who screamed at each other in rivalry when not screaming at possible customers to stop and examine their goods. And beggars. Dozens of beggars, beseeching passer by for succor.

If he had not experienced the market streets of Hong Kong, or the poorer, more dangerous slums of Shanghai - - it might have been more overwhelming. As it was, he palmed the very light purse in his pocket to make sure it stayed on his person, and soldiered through. He kept an eye on Kenshin - - fell back to walk a little closer, not wanting to loose him in the press and not sure Kenshin was focused as fully as he might have been on navigating it.

The crowds thinned though, as they departed the harbor district and a body could breath again without inhaling the stench of too many other bodies. Still the crowds were thick, the brown shoulders of young men, the colorful saris of women, all about their business. Still no few beggars, who accosted passer by and most certainly foreign seeming passer by. A trio of mounted English Soldiers in their red jackets and their flat topped black caps, forced back a group of particularly adamant beggars, who closed in on their horses in passing. The rest of the crowd made hasty way for them, wary of skittish horses in their midst.

"The famine," Satya dropped back, walking beside him. "It has driven many into the city, seeking food. And the food comes here in mass, in the belly of cargo ships, but the Company sends it back out, to richer peoples. Sometimes they don't even send it out. I've heard of cargo sitting on the docks - - untouched. But they'd rather let it mold than give to those who cannot pay and starve without."

Sano watched the soldiers in their passage though the crowd. A different sort of military than the British who walked the streets of Colombo. Hardened men, who enforced rule upon a population that so vastly outnumbered them, it was unimaginable.

"You're not crazy about them?"

She shrugged. "Some say the British rule will bring India to a new age. Others - - disagree. Aunt Pakshi says the rule of the Company was worse than the rule of the Empress."

Sano cocked a head, not understanding.

Satya smiled and explained. "Victoria. The queen of the British. They and the maharajas and the powers that be in their wisdom proclaimed her Empress if India when the Governors of the East India Company lost their power to govern. I don't know if ever she's set foot here. I don't care."

Sano grinned back at her. "I sort of think you do. You have opinions."

She arched a brow. "You don't like women with opinions?"

"No, I do. Long as they're not about me."

She laughed and Pakshi's daughter turned a frown back at them. Not approving, Sano thought, this notion of bringing strange men back to their home that her mother had devised.

Pakshi's house was at the end of a residential street lined with closely built houses of some distinction. Several stories tall, made of stone and plaster, with a pair of ornate wooden doors that opened before their little group approached and spilled out a multitude of females. Young and old, plump and thin, all of them in colorful saris and scarves and chattering like a flock of agitated birds.

Sano stopped by Kenshin, who'd snapped out of the fog he'd been walking in to stare with some misgiving at the pack of women.

"These all Pakshi's daughters and nieces?" Sano asked of the boy, Rajiv, who also seemed reluctant to delve into that perfumed mass.

The boy shuffled his feet and nodded.

"Rajiv's Japanese is not so good, but he's learning," Pakshi said, welcoming them into the open courtyard beyond the doors. A second story balcony looked down, protected by gorgeously worked wooden railings. The women skirted in around them, whispering and curious until Pakshi called them to order and introduced them.

"My dears, remember your manners. These are our guests, Sagara Sanosuke and Himura Kenshin. They have come from Japan

And she went about introducing the gathered women. Two more daughters, two nieces, a daughter by marriage, the elderly sister of her late husband, five granddaughters, one great granddaughter who was still in swaddling, and poor lonely Rajiv, alone in a house bursting at the seams with females.

All of them stared with wide-eyed interest, at the two of them, whispering, the way women did among themselves, as if they thought men hadn't the acuity of hearing to realize they were being talked about.

"Ladies," Sano said in English, figuring he'd take the plunge, and walking among them.

The younger ones giggled at that, and gathered around, not demure at all, asking questions he could only barely understand. A press of soft bodies and whispery scarves, and exotic scents that a man couldn't help but find pleasant when he was the center of it.

Kenshin hung back, against the closed doors to the street, as if he were considering bolting, not pleased at all with this press of excited women, hardly knowing what to do with flirting women at the best of times. Pakshi shooed away the few that had abandoned Sano for him and promised coaxingly.

"Allow me to rest my feet, and for us all to quench our thirsts, and then we shall go find out what we can of the ship."

Kenshin did the courteous thing and nodded, but Sano knew him well enough to see the strain. Kenshin holding it together for the sake of appearances, in the company of women to whom he did not wish to shed face. Thank the gods, at least, for the remnants of staunch Samurai pride.

Pakshi had Rajiv show them to the well, inside the courtyard, and the partitioned section beyond it, where they were invited to wash the dust of the road away. The boy led them then to a room, all of three stories up, the only unused room in a house full of women, which looked as if it were primary used now for storage. But there was a breeze, large ornate windows on either wall, the carved shutters of which let through dappled light and air. When the shutters were thrown open there was a view of the sprawling city, with its domes and towers in the distance on the one side, and the Bay of Bengal, sparkling and azure and dotted with ships on the other.

Kenshin sat on the wide ledge staring out at the sea, while Sano prowled the room. There were blankets enough to make a comfortable bed, room to stretch his legs. He went to the window finally and leaned against the opposite sill from Kenshin.

"There might be good news at the harbor master's. Might be survivors they picked up that frigate we passed didn't know about." It was easier to promote optimism than try and find the words adequate for the occasion of losing a wife and child. Sano had never been that good at expressing those deeper things - - easier to avoid them. Easier to let anger and physical action take the place of allowing the world to see emotional weakness. He supposed he was not unlike a great deal of men in that. Uncomfortable with the things that women dealt with daily. Half the women downstairs, that shared Pakshi's house had lost husbands or sons or brothers and they went on.

Kenshin's gaze didn't waver from the Bay. For a while Sano thought he wasn't going to answer at all. Then softly. "Perhaps."

"Gotta hold out hope, right?"

Kenshin's eyes did flick to him them, a somber look, as if Sano were the one that needed solace. And after a moment, he turned his gaze back to the Bay. Clay faced. Not a glimmer of anything resembling emotion in his expression. Cutting himself off. Sano had seen it before. Honestly, he'd rather the raving insanity. That was something he could deal with.

"Sano, could you leave me alone? For a little while?" Very quietly asked. And if he had not had a sane look in his eyes, Sano might have hesitated. As it was, he figured the grieving Kenshin had to do needed a quiet place, with no witnesses.

"I'll come get you when we're ready to leave."

 

 

 

PreviousFiction IndexCatalogue and CommisionsArt GalleriesSend feedbackNext