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Shifting The Balance

by P L Nunn



Chapter Four


It took a bit of asking, but eventually, Kenshin found a man who'd seen a group of riders leaving the city by a northern road. Yes, one of them might very well have been a foreigner. And yes, there might have been a woman and child in the group.

The rain had let up by the time he walked out of Tokyo, but it had played its part well enough, obscuring all evidence of tracks on the road. But this particular road lead not along the northern coast, but cut through the mountains to eventually meet the coastal road again on the other side. It was a harsher path, but there were less villages and towns along the route. Less witnesses. On horseback, they had a massive advantage over him, but there would be forges and passes in the mountains that a man on foot might be better able to traverse. And horses had to be stopped and rested and fed on a more regular basis than a man might have to. And he hadn't been absent from the road so long that he'd forgotten how to walk with both the sun and the moon as guides if need be. He would find them.

He left the sword at the dojo, not comfortable with its presence. With the feeling of the blood soaked into the blade. A sword made for killing that had indeed killed many times before. He'd vowed not to take up such a blade again - - and out of desperation he had done so. He'd taken no life with it, though he'd been sorely tempted. That easy and his convictions were swayed. He was appalled at himself, now he had the time to dwell on it. Wavering on the edge of taking Winter's life and then spewing forth threats in the name of the Battousai.

They left something for him on the cross roads ten miles out of Tokyo. A ribbon caught in a twisted shrub at the side of the road. It was wet and torn and filthy, but it held Kaoru's scent. He clenched his fist about it, cursing Winter for playing with him, for certainly it had been Winter's notion to leave it. A crumb for him to follow.

A day of walking past well planted fields with yellowed crops. The rain might well have saved this year's harvest. From the look of things, all was not yet lost. The road was muddy and Kenshin's sandals thick with it as he walked. There was no grace to trudging through such muck. No silence in it, as sandals plopped in and out of wet, clinging earth. The rain kept his clothes sodden and heavy, and his hair clung to his face and neck with irritating stubbornness. It was long enough to tie back at the base of his neck - - and as good a use for Kaoru's ribbon as any, though he wound it enough times around that the dangling ends were negligible. He looked girlish enough without obvious ribbons in his hair. It felt odd, though, having it tied back again, yet without the heaviness of locks that fell to the small of his back. It would grow a handspan in a month though, unless he cut it again - - but he'd wait for Kaoru to trim it if she wished. Fates willing, it would not be so long a time that it reached halfway down his back.

He slipped into an easy, distance covering jog as afternoon fell and the rain stopped. It was easier to run without the hindrance of a dripping hakama. Wiser to do so past the extensive fields and under the cover of the road as it ran through sun dappled woods. The path was more solid on the higher ground of the forest as well and less populated by farmers or merchants and travelers who might question why an honest man needed to take this road at more than a pleasant walk. Or what he might be running from.

There was a small collection of huts at the side of the road. A traveler's waystop that boasted food and board for the night. Kenshin declined both, only stopping long enough to inquire about other travelers that might have passed this way in the day.

A few travelers, yes. No horsemen had stopped, but at least one group of them had passed silently by the waystation, a dull-eyed child reported. Kenshin thanked him solemnly and bowed to the aged grandfather who stood in the doorway.

Into the night again, under a sky devoid of stars and only minimally graced by cloud filtered moonlight. The trees made it darker. Kenshin was not afraid of the dark, nor what lay hidden within it. He hunted the worst of those things.

By dawn, he had to rest. It was the second one he'd seen without sleep and his body gave him no other choice. He found a jutting rock to provide some shelter should the rain begin again, and unfolded the blanket from the small pack he'd made for himself at the Kamiya dojo. He folded himself within it and sat with his back in the corner of the crevice, shutting his eyes and almost immediately falling into a light slumber.

He woke of his own accord no more than a few hours later. Dawn had turned into early morning and the sun was still overshadowed by clouds. The rains had come finally and looked to stay for a while. He devoured a strip of dried fish and the last of the rice balls they'd had for lunch the day Winter had revealed his deception. The road began to climb upwards, towards forest covered foothills. The mountains, an ever present feature on the misty horizon beyond Tokyo, now loomed huge and ponderous. This inland road he followed did not traverse the worst of the heights, but it was still a strenuous trail to walk. Most merchants took the coastal road, even those coming from inland Utsunomiya where this road eventually lead. He'd walked this road before, though, and others like it through these mountains and others, during his years as a rurouni. They were seasonally dangerous and usually strife with bandits who used the thick forest as cover for their activities. The latter he had little concern for. The former he would take some care for, considering the heavy rain of the last two days.

It was well into afternoon before the road began to steeply climb, leaving the foothills and zig zagging up the base of what could be considered the first true mountainous obstacle. The forest was heavy and rich with the smell of cedar and conifers. Though the occasional banyan, camphor and mulberry trees dotted the thick foliage. Small birds chattered, darted about under the canopy of limbs and leaves, hardly taking note of him at all as he silently trespassed through their playground.

He saw in the protected earth of the high trail, the deep scuff made by a horse's hoof. A most recent mark. A strand of hair from a horse's tail tangled in a profusion of creeping vines further on.

There was a Shinto shrine somewhere up this road, on a branch leading west, and perhaps a half a day beyond that, an old Buddhist monastery fallen to ruin after the Meiji restoration. A farming village in the next deep valley beyond this first upthrust series of peaks, and then beyond that more mountainous paths to travel. Japan was more mountain than anything else, the great centers of civilization finding what footholds they could in the plains and on the coasts or within the broad vales between ranges. Tokyo itself was nestled between great ranges on both the northern and the eastern sides of her.

A well-traveled man was used to climbing steep trails. Only now, Kenshin felt it a little bit in his legs, after so long living in the city doing nothing more strenuous than keeping the Kamiya dojo in good repair. He passed a man and woman walking down the road from the north and asked if they'd seen riders. No, they had come from the shrine and seen no one either there or on the road not on foot. He came to the stone marker that sat at the side of the road, indicating the smaller trail that led up to the shrine. He had no need to visit it and doubted that Winter and his Yazuka would pause to seek favor from the gods. Kenshin passed it by, continuing north up the road. Darkness came and with it more rain. He was forced to shelter by the sudden ferocity of it, and huddled under a great cedar while the worst of it played out. He dozed a little, arms on knees, forehead resting on forearms, taking advantage of his enforced rest. He came fully awake finally, as it let off, stomach complaining and throat dry. He ate the last of his dried fish and drank rainwater running off a rounded boulder.

The night was inky, the clouds so thick not even a whisper of moonlight escaped past them. It made travel an unpredictable venture at best. But, Kenshin's night vision was sharp and his footing certain and he felt sure that horsemen would not feel so confident moving along these trails on such a night. So he pushed on.

It was dawn when he heard the squeal of a woman from the forest upslope. Automatically his hand grasped for a sword hilt that was not there. He closed his fist on an indrawn breath and darted into the forest on the eastern side of the trail.

The wood was dense, not even the trace of a game trail. It was steep enough that his sandals slid here and there on slippery mulch. There was another gasping protest, almost lost to him by the minuscule sound of his own progress. It wasn't, he thought, Kaoru's voice. He'd known that instinctively at the first utterance. The second one assured him of the fact. It did not stop him from seeking her out, though.

There was a clearing in the woods, though not much of one. The overgrown ruins of what once might have been a shrine now crumbled and gone to root. There were a group of ragged men in the midst of fallen stone and broken statues. Six of them in a circle about another who's bare backside pumped over a pair of skinny brown legs. The woman had stopped her cries, but her limbs still moved in protest. The smell of blood was brittle in the air. Not only were they raping her, but they'd cut her first.

Kenshin's lip pulled back in a snarl of outrage, his fingers closing over an arm length stick jaggedly broken off at the end. He swept into the clearing with no sound of warning, slammed the wrist thick stick one way and clubbed a man in the ear, and then before the first had registered the pain of the blow, slammed it to the other direction and felled a second. The men fell almost simultaneously and the others slowly blinked in recognition of their entertainment disrupted. With his way clear he latched onto the rutting man's collar and yanked him bodily backwards, hurling him behind him to fall ungracefully in the leaf covered grown. The woman pulled her skinny limbs close to her body, shivering. No young girl this, but a woman of perhaps forty, by the lines of her face and the sagging of her body. They'd cut her across the nipple, and lower belly, and been none to kind with the use of their fists on her face and body. The men paid her nakedness little heed though, focused surely and entirely upon Kenshin.

"Do you think," he said, quiet and angry. "That the odds were well enough in your favor, seven of you against her one?"

"You little bastard," the one he'd pulled from the woman was trying to get his pants up about his hips. "I'll kill you - -"

"Please - - try." He was in no mood for gentleness. He swung the limb behind him in a sharp arc, catching the closest man square in the face with it, hearing the shattering of bone that indicated broken nose. He brought it around, ducking low as another one leapt at him, waited for that big body to reach the apex of its lunge then jammed the stick up and into a soft belly.

The woman, he noticed, from the corner of his vision had scrambled up, gathered a few shards of ripped clothing and was running with a limping gait for the cover of the woods. He took the next two out with blows to the head and sternum respectively and saved the last, most devastating blow for the rapist, by bringing the stick up with great force, between his legs. The wood splintered, the man let out a choking gasp and fell, curled fetally around his private parts.

He dropped the part remaining in his hand, and stepped over a body, scanning the woods for sign of the woman.

"Hello? Are you still here? They'll hurt you no more, that I promise."

If she were still lurking about, she made no answer. She'd looked like a peasant woman, from the signs of hard labor about her and he supposed she lived in these mountains, or else had been traveling through them in the company of her family. Few women traveled alone through these roads. These men were most assuredly mountain bandits. The last two had pulled knives, which lay near their still forms. He absently kicked the blades away, not certain what to do now that the victim had fled and the culprits lay moaning at his feet. Perhaps he ought to go after her, to see if she were capable of finding her way either home or back to her group. The notion of wasting time spent chasing down Kaoru and Kenji made his gut twitch a little in panic.

He needed to be on his way. But still, he couldn't let a wounded, just raped woman wander the woods alone, with bandits that he had not properly killed still on the loose. They'd not share the mercy he'd shown them with her, if they found her again.

He moved into the woods, decision made. Smelling the faint trace of blood. There was a speck on it on a leaf a few yards to his left. He started that way, carefully tracing her path. There was a small trail some fifty yards from the ruins of the shrine. It lead up the mountain to the east. It was clear enough of forest debris that it must be well used. He saw very fresh bare foot prints in the moist earth. She'd fled this way. Had known the trail was here, so therefore, must live in the mountains. A ways up and there was a small wooden shed at the side of the road, and beyond that an abandoned garden plot, overgrown by the forest. The shed was empty, the home to swallows and vines now. But there were narrow ruts in the trail now that denoted the passage of a small cart, and a few small carved stones carved with haiku. So people lived up here and the woman was no doubt on her way to home and help. He could probably turn about and go back to the main road and his own concerns.

He chewed his lip, convincing himself of this. A man appeared on the trail ahead and stopped, blinking down at him in surprise.

"Have you seen a dog?" the man asked.

"No. I'm following a woman. She only just came up this trail. She was hurt."

The man frowned. "No woman. Who was she?"

He had no answer to that. The forest had gone deathly silent and he couldn't recall if it had been that way before he'd started up this trail or only in the last few moments. Foolish of him, he was usually more aware of the details. The man was staring at him, waiting for an answer perhaps. Or - - perhaps not.

His senses cried out in warning even as the dagger sailed through the air by his head. He smacked it aside with the back of his hand, whirling and not so much seeking out the thrower as the next source of movement in the surrounding woods. There, a man in the shadow of the trees that stood and hurled first one knife then a second in quick succession.

Kenshin simply stepped aside and let the first one fly past. He caught the second between his thumb and forefinger, flipped it in the air and sent it flying back to its owner. He didn't aim to kill. Just to incapacitate. The knife buried itself in the man's leg above the knee and with a howl, that one went down, clutching the wound.

With a cry, two more came out of the woods at him, one with a pair of sai swords and the other with a well used sword. He ran, weaponless at the former, who had shorter reach, and launched himself into the air just outside it; turned himself mid-air and came down lightly behind the man, then kicked him forward into the path of the swordsman. Weapons tangled inadvertently and flesh might have been pierced.

These were not of the same breed as the men in the clearing. These were not simple mountain bandits out to prey on the weak and helpless. These men had weapons of some quality and knew the use of them. The swordsman was efficient enough to avoid the embrace of his comrade and rush forward to stalk Kenshin. A quick lunge. A swipe. An unexpected arc of steel that proved this man knew technique, instead of simple butchery. Kenshin danced out of the way, wary of the blade, keeping an eye out for the other.

"You seem to have me at a disadvantage." He said, as the sai wielder joined the swordsman in stalking him. "I'm without weapon and you have three. Little fairness in that."

"Run then." The swordsman suggested with a grin and feinted towards him. Kenshin leapt back. He glanced sidelong towards the wood, wondering why they wanted him on the run. Wondering what awaited him in the woods.

"Are you his?" he asked softly. "The Englishman's?"

"Surrender and maybe we'll tell you."

Kenshin tilted his head. "Before or after I'm dead?"

They laughed, appreciating his humor. "All right. I'll run, then." He made for the woods and they obligingly moved to follow him. A half dozen strides in and he found the launching point he needed to take him into the trees. He pulled himself up into the trees like a wraith and heard them curse behind him, oblivious to the path he had chosen.

They were not ninja, only yakuza and did not know the ways of a true hitokiri. He let them pass him by, then came down, hard and fast, his feet planted between the swordsman's shoulder blades. That one went down, face first upon the forest floor. Kenshin caught the sword before it was flung away - - held it gingerly a moment - - convincing himself to tighten his grip around the well worn hilt. It was more a trial for him now, to hold this killing blade and contemplate the use of it, than it had been days ago when the shock of Winter's evil was still fresh upon him. Even holding it - - he was that much closer to drawing blood and once he'd started - - it would be no easy thing to stop.

He straightened with a silent exhalation of breath, the sword still in his hand, searching the woods for the sai wielder. The man had melted into the forest. But the sound of his passage still reached Kenshin's ears. He set off, considerably quieter, in search of his prey, alert to whatever else was waiting for him in this wood. They had not urged him here without reason.

His prey thought it was clever. The man lay in wait for him, crouched within the shelter of a thick cedar. Kenshin let him spring out, parried the first jab easily, avoided the next with a sliding movement of his body. He got through the man's shabby guard in an instant - - had the point of the sword pressed against the pulse of the man's throat at arm's length and stood there, waiting for the idiot to realize that short of lunging forward and impaling himself, he could not reach Kenshin with the shorter sai swords.

"Where - - are - - they?" He asked with perfectly calm clarity, once the sai's had dropped helplessly at the man's sides.


That word was actually uttered after the initial echo of the gunshot registered in Kenshin's hearing. He heard the word and recognized the voice a moment before the pain registered in his thigh. He looked down, in dull shock at the growing spot of red high up on the leg of his hakama. The man in front of him cried out, clutching at his hip and falling, blood escaping past his fingers from the bullet that had passed through Kenshin and into him.

He turned, and found Winter a dozen paces away, holding the gun casually at his side. There were a handful of men around him. The man was smiling. Quite cheerfully smiling.

"And here you are again. Bravo. The rumors do not lie, do they? But are you are everything they say you are?"

"Where are they?" Kenshin repeated the question, taking a step towards Winter. The pain in his leg was not so bad that he couldn't put weight on it. It was just a matter of focusing past it and on more important issues. Winter said nothing. He stepped back and one of his yakuza moved forward throwing a succession of knives. It was to entertain Winter, Kenshin thought, batting them aside effortlessly, moving forward step by step as he did.

Winter's smile widened and another pair of men rushed forward with swords.

Clash. Parry. Swipe. Impact. Impact.

Two men down in five strokes. He'd had to be careful with the killing blade he held. With the sakabatou he might have done it in two. One if he were particularly on his game.

Winter laughed outright. Kenshin felt his vision waver a little. Felt the warm wetness flowing down his leg.

"You find this - - amusing?" Another step and it put him almost within striking distance. Winter would never see him coming. Those behind him wouldn't be able to stop it.

"You can't imagine." Winter said. "The irony is, I'd been cursing your name long before I had a face to put with it."

"Where is she?"

Winter sighed. "Your single-mindedness is beginning to become annoying. Put the sword down and perhaps I'll tell you."

Kenshin stared, narrow eyed and fed up. He focused his anger - - his determination into that stare, and the men behind Winter quailed, backing up. Winter met it with complacent curiosity - - not effected at all.

"My dear, dear boy, I've clashed wits and wills against the lords of parliament and that, believe me is a brutal lot, don't try to intimidate me with that nasty glare. Put the sword down." Winter's smile faded. "Or shall I have the child's throat slit? I don't need him, after all. It will be harder to control her without him - - but I'm sure I shall prevail."

The Englishman raised his fingers, poised to snap off a signal. Kenshin took a breath and let the sword tip fall to the ground, his fingers still loosely around the hilt, not willing to take the chance that Winter was bluffing. "No."

"Ah," Winter's smile returned. "That's my boy. Now let it fall."

Kenshin opened his fingers and the sword hit the earth with a muffled thump. Winter gestured and one of the knife throwers darted forward and snatched it up, retreating rapidly after he'd done so.

"Oh, don't be so skittish, he won't endanger the child's life with misbehavior." Winter assured his men.

They moved in then, as Winter strolled up, two of them taking his arms and holding fast as the Englishman stopped before him. The man's hand snaked out, catching Kenshin's jaw, tilting his face up and to the side as the man's thumb grazed over the cross-shaped scar on his cheek.

"Where are they?" Kenshin hissed, face still in Winter's grip.

"Oh, on ship on its way to meet me at Sendai. This whole little land trip was for you and I must say, you made very good time."

Kenshin blinked, putting together the pieces that had made him believe in the lie. He just didn't understand why the effort had been made.

He said something soft and blasphemous under his breath and tensed - - - Winter pressed the muzzle of the gun to his shoulder and calmly pulled the trigger - - -

Thud - - -

The world danced on the edge a great swirling void of red, twisting slowly, irrevocably into deepest black. That he was aware of this - - was a change for the better. There'd been nothing but void before. The cognizance signaled something different.

Thud - - -

That something different brought with it a world filled to overflowing with pain. Perhaps better, had been too hasty a summation for the return of awareness.

Thud - - -

Kenshin heard the sound of his own scream before he fully realized he was doing it. It burned in his throat, but not nearly so hot as the pain in his hand as they drove the stake through it, pinning his arm like a butterfly wing to a board. The wash of agony and disorientation drove him to twist and writhe in the arms that held him up, but the arm with the glowing ember of pain at the end of it was the good one and the other hung limp and useless from the bullet Winter had put through his shoulder.

He had no real notion of where he was, or how many of them held onto him, only that he needed away from the hurt and that it seared deeper with each frantic movement he made. But he couldn't escape them, not with strong arms about his legs and torso, and others drawing up his numb arm and placing his hand flat against a rough surface.

A man lumbered up, face skewered and wavering in Kenshin's vision; lifted a wooden spike and a mallet and with a great grin on his face, drove the point of it through Kenshin's palm.

He screamed again, tasting blood in the back of his throat. They let him go then and he hung there, toes barely touching the ground, hair an obscuring veil about his face. It hid the blood where he'd bitten through his tongue. It hid the involuntary tears that slid down his cheeks.

It occurred to him that he was dead. That he'd probably die slow and painfully, and that in and of itself was not so great a horror as the notion that there would be no one to save Kaoru and Kenji.

No one knew. Dr. Genzai didn't know what had happened - - not really, so he couldn't tell Yahiko when he came home and found the dojo abandoned. He couldn't tell Misao if she came looking, or Aoshi if he came on her heels.

A hand tangled in his hair and pulled his head back. He hadn't the strength to fight it. Winter sneered at him face close enough that Kenshin could feel the heat of his breath.

"We've rather clipped your wings - - haven't we?" Winter's sneer turned into something else.

He pressed his mouth next to Kenshin's and ran his tongue over the blood leaking from his lips. Winter whispered with his bloody mouth pressed close to Kenshin's own. "And I so did want to fuck you before you died - - maybe I still will, eh?"

Kenshin brought his knee up. Hard. Hoped he drove the man's genitals up into his guts with enough force to make him bleed internally - - but Winter, after a few minutes of gasping cries, managed to shake off the hands that tried to help him and stab a shaking hand towards Kenshin.

"Bind his feet. Bind the bloody bastard's feet."

They came at him then. Winter's men and others dressed in the rough garb of mountain bandits. He had no defense save his legs, and soon enough they took that away from him, battering him with crude staffs until his head was swirling and his body aching with points of pain that had nothing to do with his tortured hands.

He went under soon after, the blood leaking down his arms, and from his shoulder, mingling with the other blood they'd caused to flow. It pooled at his feet, soaking the dirt. His vision dimmed on that sight and he doubted seriously that it would ever come back.

Winter got to his feet, the pain in his groin quite vividly fresh. He had to take a moment for the spots to leave his vision. Had to take a moment to gather the will to move and endure the lingering pain caused by Kenshin's well placed knee.

Kenshin hung there now, limp, in the small clearing beyond the rustic shelters the mountain bandit's called home, red hair loose and obscuring his face, the pale cloth of his hakama soaked with crimson. The fight was out of him now, but Winter didn't believe for a moment they'd broken him. There had been nothing in those narrow, black rimmed eyes to suggest he was even close, even as they'd beaten him to insensibility. Breaking him would take some while - - longer, Winter thought regretfully, than either of them had.

He could tarry for a little while, but he had a ship waiting for him in Sendai. And Kenshin - - despite all the determination in the world - - he'd bleed out soon enough - - if the shock didn't finish him first. Or die from the tender ministrations of the mountain bandits within whose territory they all dallied.

They owed a certain, loose allegiance with the more organized yakuza, those bandits. They were none too comfortable in Winter's foreign presence, having had little or no contact with westerners despite the more civilized portions of the country embracing the west and the wonders it brought with it.

They had a score to settle with Kenshin, so they said. He'd shamed them on his way up the mountain - - hurt them bad enough without even the benefit of a sword to have them crying for his blood. Well, they had it now, it was only a matter of how long he lasted before he ran dry of it.

Which was a shame, because it meant that Winter would have little privacy to enjoy his own brand of - - - entertainment. He thought himself rather more refined than the bandits. His little games could last for days - - weeks even, if he were patient enough to draw it out. He generally had the sense not to inflict critical injury on a victim at the very first. But, one had to assume that the crude scaffold of wood that they'd nailed Kenshin to, had seen similar atrocities, what with the stains of old blood and the pits in the supporting timbers.

Someone gave Winter strong, recently brewed beer and he grimaced, having more a taste for sake. But he sipped at it, watching them torment their prey.

Kenshin had done very well, up until the moment that panic over the girl and child had driven him to rashness. If he'd have practiced more patience, he might have hunted the lot of them down, one by one, until he'd deprived Winter of his allies - - Winter might have even told him what he wanted to hear on threat of his life - - with no easy out in sight. Any real hitokiri would have taken such a path - - but then again, if all of what Winter suspected was true, then Kenshin hadn't been a hitokiri for many years. Had rather stubbornly turned his back on such a life and all the ruthless mindset that came with it. A man with a wife and a child had different priorities, after all.

"Do you know," Winter said, when the bandits had tired of their play and moved away to give him the opportunity to circle Kenshin in relative privacy. "That you cost me my fortune and a good deal of my reputation? Did you know that?"

Kenshin didn't look at him. Didn't open those intriguing violet eyes of his to even acknowledge Winter's existence. Winter knew he was conscious. Could tell by the inadvertent twitching of skin, when Winter trailed his fingertips across lean ribs. A very slender body to have caused such damage. Narrow shoulders to hold the weight of such a ominous reputation.

"I had a bargain with a man that would have given me and mine unique trading rights with Japan - - that would have put the damned pushy Americans in their place - - but you killed that man and sank the ship I'd invested my fortune in to gain his allegiance. I cursed your name for a solid month after that fiasco. Well, not your proper name - - but the appellation of Battousai the manslayer. For that alone - - I wished you a thousand sorts of death. I'd pictured all manner of man in those visions - - but never once imagined you to be quite so - - young-seeming. And pretty. Not dangerous looking at all, until you get that look in your eyes."

Winter pressed his thumb experimentally into the seeping bullet wound on Kenshin's right shoulder. Fresh blood oozed out, mingling with dirt and dried streaks of red. Kenshin hissed through his teeth, body jerking a little in a reflex action he couldn't stop. His eyes slit open a little, one swelling somewhat from the impact of someone's fist to the side of his head. He said nothing, though. The only thing he wanted of Winter was the girl and her child.

"If she serves her purpose, I won't hurt her." Winter wiped the blood from his hand off on Kenshin's hakama. "I receive no joy from killing women and children - - I only do it from necessity. One little girl and her brat can do me no harm once I've gotten what I need. I rather like her, to be honest. She has spunk. More so that your average Japanese wife. I admire that. I even have a few friends, who might enjoy a little Asian mistress - - might even tolerate the child, if the girl were to excel at her duties - -"

The breath hissed between Kenshin's teeth and his eyes snapped open, flashing in anger. Winter laughed softly.

"I've no interest in her myself, of course. My appetites run towards - - different things." He ran a thumb down the line of Kenshin's unscarred cheek and sighed in regret over lost opportunity. "As much as I hate to leave you, my boy - - I've a ship to meet and little time to waste. Perhaps we'll met in hell and you can extract your pound of vengeance. But until that time - - - I would tell you to die well, but with this bunch - - I've the feeling that will be a distinct impossibility."



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