Once, over a hundred years ago, a rurouni of surpassing skill and kindness wandered the length and breadth of Japan. Rumor and speculation followed wherever he went, companions more constant than any save his sword or his memory. His arrival was most often greeted with suspicion, his departure with regret; yet always was he careful not to stay overlong and to leave before his heart could be bound. Some said he was running, and these called him coward or worse... but the wise ones knew better: the rurouni was searching, and even he knew not for what.
On a day bright with sunshine and heavy with heat, his journey brought him to a large and prosperous city, watched over by a mighty daimyo. Its wide streets were well kept, its marketplace thriving, and everyone he met seemed to offer a smile. The rurouni had little money, but followed the tantalizing aroma of miso soup to an inn in the center of town. When he approached the proprietress - a sweet-tempered and somewhat nearsighted young woman - she agreed to trade him a day's meals should he spend the day working in her kitchen and helping with the chores. Their bargain struck, the young wanderer willingly chopped her firewood, drew her water, and washed her dishes.
When the common room closed for the evening and the guests retired for the night, she joined him in the warmth of the back room, chatting in the sheltering glow of the fire while he ate his dinner. "Tell me about your daimyo," he asked, curious about the seeming peace and prosperity of the town.
Always eager to gossip, the proprietress willingly answered: "He is an arrogant but fair man. We would have no cause for complaint were it not for the matter of his daughters."
The rurouni paused, chopsticks halfway to his mouth. "Oro? The matter of his daughters?"
"Oh, yes..." Encouraged by the young man's wide-eyed curiosity, she began to relate a most fantastic tale.
"Our daimyo is a mighty swordsman, a master of a very old and difficult school - a school so secretive and so arduous, that it is practiced by only one other swordsman in all the world! He has three daughters, all of whom - of course - think the sun rises and sets by his will. With so impressive a father, how could they not? Observing his skill, a desire to emulate him grew in his eldest daughter, and seeking him out she requested permission to study budo.
'I would not have your small white hands stained with the blood of battle or hardship,' he told her, 'but if you are willing to practice only the sword that protects life, you have my permission to do so. Train well, my daughter.'
Thus did the eldest begin to study the way of weapons, and her father's arrogant pride in his offspring grew by leaps and bounds. Truly, he was well pleased as both parent and samurai.
Not to be outdone, the middle daughter went to her father and said, "Otousama, my nature is not suited to my sister's pursuits, yet I, too, would seek to honor you. Tell me, which school is best suited to me?"
The daimyo considered for but a moment before responding, 'As with your sister, I am loathe to see your slender fingers dirtied in any way.' Immediately the face of his middle child turned dismayed, and he reached one large hand to cup her chin, raising her aqua eyes to meet him. 'But also have I seen you scamper along the battlements, as nimble and sure-footed as the wily fox; and also have I heard your laughter echo among the hallways as you outwitted your keepers. For you, daughter, shall I permit the Oniwabanshuu within my halls. Learn well their ninja arts, and use them to protect the people."
So did the middle daughter come to study the ancient ways of the ninja, proving herself a more than adept pupil, and the daimyo's chest swelled with pride to observe her.
Then came the third daughter to her father, and climbing upon his knee she cuddled close to the comfort of his chest. 'What troubles you, little one?' he asked her, as her chin trembled and her eyes welled with tears. 'Otousama,' she answered, 'I am not strong like your eldest, nor cunning like your middle child... and yet, I too would do you honor. Onegai, tell me what I may do?'
Wiping away her tears he hugged her close and whispered, 'Sweeting, you need do naught but be yourself, for your sisters and I love you, and prize your company highly.'
Hearing his words his youngest daughter smiled, and scampered away to offer quiet encouragement as her sisters practiced. Her gentle nature pleased her father greatly, filling him with a pride as full and as rich as did her sisters' talents.
Months passed, and turned to years, and over the course of time each of the daimyo's daughters blossomed into beautiful women. But shortly after the first suitor arrived to court his eldest, the strangest thing occurred."
The proprietress paused to sip her tea, moistening lips and throat gone dry with speech. Beside her, his dinner long finished, the rurouni fidgeted with ill-concealed impatience - obviously intrigued by her tale, but reluctant to rush her in the telling. Smiling her appreciation for his control, she set her cup aside and resumed her story.
"Each morning the daimyo's daughters are presented with raiment as new as the dawn. From the eldest's hair ribbon to the youngest's obi, every item is fresh from the seamstress' needle. Their kimono are of the finest silk, their tabi white with newness and thick with padding to shelter their tender feet. So begins their day, and at night when they prepare for bed, all of the items are so gently worn as to appear unused. Yet the next morning, when their clothing is collected from their room, nothing is left of their tabi but a few tattered pieces of cloth. It is as if - in a single night - they are worn to shreds.
At first, the daimyo assumed his middle child was playing a joke on he and her sisters, for young Misao-hime-sama is quite given to pranks. But night after night their tabi were worn to shreds, and always did the girls deny that any mischief had occurred. Angered and frustrated by the mystery, the daimyo ordered their room placed under lock and key, and guards stationed to observe what happened during the night.
Despite his efforts, the following morning found the guards sound asleep at their posts, and the sisters' tabi once again in tatters. Shamefaced at their inability to remain awake, the guards could only report that all had been quiet until the midnight hour - no more, and no less.
Night after night, week after week, the guards were posted and the daimyo's precautions taken... and still the tabi were worn to shreds. Even when the chief retainer took watch, no clue was discovered as to the cause.... and as the mystery persisted, the sisters began to wane. The youngest appeared exhausted, and could not bear to watch her sisters at their practice, bursting into tears at the mere suggestion. Her siblings fared little better, pursuing their studies with grim determination, devoid of their previous joy and enthusiasm. Concerned, the daimyo eventually yielded to his advisors' superstition and agreed to consult a wizard. 'The finest in my holdings, one who has proven his magic both in the sick room and on the battlefield - and beware any charlatan who lengthens my daughters' grief, as I shall in turn shorten his life!'
Many were those who appeared in answer to the daimyo's summons, yet none could discern the source of his daughters' fading, nor the how and the why of the worn tabi. In disgust and sorrow the daimyo sent them away, his handsome face creased with worry, his shoulders slumped in near despair. The depths of his anxiety touched the eldest of the wizards as he was dismissed, and the old man hesitated, unwilling to leave when perhaps there was hope yet to be offered.
'Hiko-sama,' Genzai respectfully addressed the daimyo, 'while my skills are not enough to discern the cause of your daughters' affliction, there is a young woman whose magical talent surpasses any I've ever seen. Perhaps she could unravel the threads of this mystery... were you to send for her.'
'A woman? Do not tempt your life, old man,' the chief retainer warned in a voice like ice, 'Where does she hide herself, that no word of her has reached us here?'
Bowing apologetically, the old wizard answered: 'She concerns herself with the ills of the common folk, my lord, and no distance is too great for her to travel, be there need.' He bowed again. 'She departed for Kaede a week ere the daimyo's messenger reached our city.'
The chief retainer frowned - Kaede was a tiny village in the far eastern corner of the holding, remote enough to elude the daimyo's summons. 'Her name?' he demanded, even as Hiko-sama sent for Soujirou, his swiftest and most reliable runner.
'Takani Megumi.' Genzai answered, allowing himself a slight smile. 'Her wit is as sharp as her skills, her beauty as bright as her magic. If anyone can discover what has befallen the hime-samagata, it is she.'
Soujirou departed straightaway to fetch the woman of whom Genzai spoke so highly, journeying to Kaede and back in less than a fortnight, the young witch with him on his return. 'They are laboring under a powerful spell, and its heaviness is what deprives them of their vibrance,' she announced upon examining the daimyo's daughters. 'I can discern neither the how nor the why, only that the magic is upon them, impelling them to some action of which I know naught. I am certain that their failing and the shredded tabi are connected... but I am unable to determine how.'
It was more than any other magician had offered, but less than the daimyo had hoped. 'How may this curse be lifted?' he demanded.
Megumi-san shook her head slightly. "It is not a curse precisely, merely a spell of similar intent. Would that it were a curse, for then Genzai-sensei or I could remove it. This..." she shook her head again, her tone apologetic, 'in order to free your daughters, the riddle of the over-worn tabi must be solved and its answer exposed to the light of day.' She tossed her hair over her shoulder in a graceful movement, raising one slender hand to forestall the daimyo's questions. 'Know this also: he who solves the riddle must be of a lineage other than your own, for the spell binds the tree as tightly as the branches.'
"And so it came to pass," the proprietress concluded, "our daimyo proclaimed that whosoever should discover how his daughters wore their tabi to shreds would win the one of his choosing for his bride."
The rurouni's violet eyes held calm amazement and a hint of speculation. "And do you say this mystery persists unsolved?"
She nodded, her voice soft and faintly sad. "Twelve men have tried during the past year, but not one has discovered any clue to the mystery. Three nights, and three nights only does the daimyo permit in the sisters unmarried presence. When their chamber door is locked the challenger is confined within as well, to aid in his discovery. If at the end of his three days he has nothing to show for his efforts, he is bid thanks and sent on his way." Smiling at the rurouni, she leaned forward to pat his hand. "If the story weren't true, it would make for a good bedtime tale, would it not?" She rose to her feet as the flame-bright head nodded assent. "For tonight, perhaps it would be best to think of it as such: the moon has long since risen and it is always an early morning at the Akabeko."
Rising with her, the rurouni bowed his thanks for her hospitality. "Thank you. Both for the meal, and for allowing me to sleep here this night."
Her answer was another gentle smile and a softly murmured, "Good night." Sliding the kitchen door quietly closed behind her, she left him to his thoughts and the fire's company. He remained awake long into the night, pondering her story - both the challenges and the possibilities it presented. As the dawn's light began filtering through the walls of the inn, he sought out the proprietress to bid her goodbye, his decision made.
"I suspected your thoughts would order themselves thus," she answered, her tone half-chiding and half-pleased. "A rurouni is one who searches - when his searching ends, so too does his journey. Perhaps you will find what you seek in the daimyo's castle."
The rurouni shook his head, his violet eyes sad. "This unworthy one is not suited for so fine a life, nor for so fine a wife. Yet if I may stay the hime-samagata's fading, then some portion of the burden I carry may be lifted."
Shaking her head in mild exasperation - as if she'd heard his self-deprecating argument many times before and found it irksome - the proprietress waved away his protest. "I think you will find what you seek, if you are not so stubborn as to look away from it." She motioned him closer, her tone and manner abruptly business like and oddly conspiratorial. "In the evening the daimyo's eldest will bring you warmed sake for your pleasure. Do not be distracted by the beauty of her smile, or the wheedling in her voice as she coaxes you to drink; note instead the hopeful pleading in her eyes, and only pretend to partake, feigning sleep shortly thereafter. In so simple a way shall you see what the twelve before you did not." She smiled as he uttered a small sound of surprise. "A man who is fed alcohol is less aware than one who is not - while it is not magic, it is fact. The simplest ways are often the best."
Bemused but recognizing the truth in her words, the rurouni once again bowed his thanks. "Thank me by solving the riddle," she responded, her voice carrying after him as he set off down the slowly filling street. "The daimyo has too long suffered... and I, of course, am as curious as the rest of the holding!" His mouth quirking in the smallest of smiles as she admitted this failing, the rurouni departed for the daimyo's castle, her well-wishes echoing in his ears.
The guard at the castle gate looked up with little interest as the slow footsteps of a lone man approached, opening one eye as he leaned against the wall in a comfortable slouch. Only when he distinguished the rurouni's features through the glare of the morning sun did his second eye pop open to join the first. In a voice both insolent and faintly alarmed he demanded, "Stand, and state what business brings the Hitokiri Battousai here!"
The rurouni's expression hardened even as his violet eyes became weighted with sorrow. "Sessha is hitokiri no longer," he answered, thumbing his sword a few inches out of its saya to display its reversed edge, "but merely a wandering rurouni who has taken a vow never to kill again. My name is Himura Kenshin, and I have come to try my wits against the daimyo's curse."
His attitude almost one of disappointment, the tall, broom-haired guard relaxed. "I had not known the situation was so bad as that - severe enough to warrant the attention of so famous a swordsman." He grinned cockily, once again observing the rurouni through a single eye. "Your sword-skill will not matter here, nor aid you in solving the riddle. If such were the case, I would long since have rescued Hiko-sama's daughters!"
Neither agreeing nor disagreeing, Kenshin simply waited for the guard to let him pass. His silence was not well received.
"You doubt me? Do you think yourself so far above the daimyo's castle guard?" He ground his teeth in anger as the rurouni remained silent. "Let us see, then! If you wish to test your skills against the daimyo's curse, you must first best Sawagejou Chou!" Drawing his katana he fell into a ready stance, waiting for the rurouni's reaction.
Kenshin's response was a soft-voiced refusal. "Your temper is far too short, and does you no service. I did not come here to fight. Let me pass, or you will regret this foolishness."
Chou snorted in disgust. "A spineless rurouni could never manage to rescue our hime-samagata. Better you fail here, than raise the daimyo's hopes." So saying he leapt to the attack, his movements appearing strangely clumsy as the much smaller man repeatedly sidestepped his lunge. In three passes their positions were reversed, the rurouni's back now to the castle and Chou on the approach... and Kenshin had yet to draw his sword.
"Enough!" While Chou was winded, the rurouni's voice was clear and full. "You have tried your skill, and I have my entry. Let that be an end to it." Bowing slightly, he turned to enter the courtyard.
"Do not turn your back to me!" In less time than it took to voice the warning, Chou's katana was pressed to Kenshin's throat. "Now which of us is the fool, and who will regret his actions?" Heady with the upper hand, the broom-haired guard's voice was once again insolent. "Your wits are as dull as your non-killing blade, Hitokiri Battousai-san."
"That is a name which I no longer use," the rurouni murmured, his voice and stance still calm.
Chou pressed the katana edge close enough to send flame-red strands falling to the ground. "But...?"
Kenshin sighed, releasing the bonds on his temper. "But it is a name which I have earned many times over." His sakabatou snapped from its saya in a movement both sinuous and lightning fast, the blow striking the guardsman in the stomach and lifting him off his feet. The resounding crash as he smashed into the wall brought several other samurai at a run.
His amber-brown eyes narrowing in instant recognition as they settled on the rurouni, the chief retainer directed a single, scathing comment at Chou: "Idiot." Ignoring the guard's feeble and winded protest, he turned to Kenshin. "What do you here?"
Recognizing the chief retainer as easily as the other had himself, the rurouni replied carefully, "The daimyo's daughters. I would try to solve the mystery, should he give me leave."
Although the chief retainer's expression didn't change, his attitude somehow conveyed an air of speculation. Having clashed with the rurouni on more than one occasion in times past, he was forced to admit that it was possible - very possible - for the former hitokiri to succeed where others had failed. A hitokiri is aware of himself and his surroundings in ways others are not; he knows how to see without being seen, how to watch and to wait. Neither easily fooled nor easily coerced, he is accustomed to stealth and to keeping secrets. Such an affinity might be the necessary key to release the daimyo's daughters from their strange captivity... and if it wasn't, the Battousai had other advantages as well. His ability to read his opponent surpasses any other I've ever met, the speed and power in his movements near godlike... or at least they were, once. "Perhaps..." he conceded, wolfish gaze calmly assessing Kenshin's unprepossessing frame. "Although I am not so certain his daughters would welcome such a suitor, even should their father approve." Smirking slightly as his one-time enemy merely bowed his head in acknowledgment, he gestured for the rurouni to follow him. "Come. Best we let the daimyo decide what is to be done with you."
In direct contrast to the joy and prosperity of the surrounding town, the daimyo's castle was quiet and subdued. The corridors echoed with nothing more than their footsteps, the servants greeted them in voices raised barely above a whisper, and everything - from the ladies' kimono to the paintings lining the walls - seemed leached of color. "You mourn them already," the rurouni murmured.
"Aa, though it is a death of the spirit, rather than the body. The hime-samagata rarely laugh or smile, and speak scarcely more than absolutely necessary. Their lack has stolen the same from those around them." An elegantly slender woman passed, a smile of greeting trembling around her mouth as she raised her eyes to the chief retainer's features. He turned to watch her, his shoulders slumping with something akin to defeat when her smile fell away. "My Tokio is the same." There was a long pause, and when next he spoke the words were forced, reluctant. "Hitokiri Battousai or no... I would be grateful, should you see an end to her sorrow." Holding the rurouni's startled gaze for but an instant before his expression hardened once more, he straightened and continued down the hall, his manner belying his request.
Their progress halted at a massive set of wooden doors, polished and gleaming in the faint sunlight that filtered through the nearby windows. Snapping to attention at their approach, the guards threw the doors wide to allow them entry, the creak of the doors echoing in the even greater silence within. If the rest of the castle was quiet, the chamber in which the daimyo heard petitions was almost tomb-like. Nevertheless, the rurouni didn't hesitate, striding forward with courtly confidence as the doors swung shut behind them. Only when the daimyo spoke did he falter, for the voice was one he'd heard many times before.
"Saitou? Is this one man the cause of our recent disturbance?" Full, rich, and authoritative, the simple question demanded an answer; so too did the imposing figure seated on the raised dias at the far end of the room. Broad shouldered and tall, his long hair black as night, his face unlined, the daimyo was more than handsome, and more than memorable.
Or so the rurouni thought. "Shi... shishou?" he asked, his voice cracking slightly in surprise. Indeed, the man holding court could be none other than he who first taught the rurouni the way of the sword, the way of the samurai.
The daimyo raised one eyebrow eloquently. "Baka deshi?"
Strangely pleased that the other had recognized him, the rurouni ventured further. "Shisho-"
"I have nothing more to teach one such as yourself, nor time nor inclination to do so," the older man interrupted, his manner abruptly dismissive. "Go! Leave now as your impatience bid you once before, for my daughters are failing and I have no patience for any who cannot help."
"Wait!" the rurouni protested, even as Saitou moved to escort him out, "It is true that my impatience proved foolhardy, and I have often regretted the decision I made. Don't let your impatience result in a similar mistake." Shrugging Saitou's hand away he knelt, bowing forward in an attitude of subservience. "Please... Let me try the strength you gave me against the ties which bind your daughters."
Silence filled the room as the daimyo considered the rurouni's words. "Perhaps..." he murmured in a faint echo of his chief retainer's assessment, "perhaps you can succeed where twelve others have failed. It is doubtful... but fate is not so mercurial as to bring you back without reason." The rurouni raised his eyes at that, his gaze steady as the daimyo continued, "It is also possible that your leaving taught you something which I could not, and for that wisdom we should both be grateful."
Hiding his smile in the red fall of his hair, the rurouni nodded agreement. "Then I may work to solve the riddle?" he asked, rising to his feet in a graceful shifting of limbs.
"Aa..." the daimyo agreed, beckoning to someone in the shadows behind him, "but mark well the terms: Three nights, and three nights only do you have to find the answer. If at the end of that time you have nothing to reveal to me, your stay here will also be at an end. However, should you discover how their tabi are worn to shreds, you may have your choice of my daughters for your bride." His keen gaze focused intently on his one-time pupil as Kenshin opened his mouth to refuse. "You are not worthy of any one of them, but neither are you any less so than the others who have tried." He paused, considering. "Indeed, as my only student, you are more worthy than most."
As the daimyo's words faded into silence Soujirou appeared at his side, his sudden presence covering the rurouni's surprise. "Yes, Hiko-sama?" the young man asked, bowing respectfully.
"Hurry as only you can and fetch my daughters to me. This rurouni has announced his intention to free them, and I would that he make their acquaintance."
"Yes, Hiko-sama." As quickly and quietly as he'd arrived Soujirou departed on his errand, leaving only the faint memory of his smile - unusual in so subdued a gathering - to mark his passing. Patience was hardly necessary as they waited, so rapid would be his return, yet the daimyo filled the time by directing his servants to prepare for the rurouni's stay.
"Bring fresh clothing, and ready a bath as well," he added once the usual arrangements had been ordered. "My baka deshi is far too disheveled to spend any length of time in my daughters' company."
Immediately conscious of his threadbare hakama and faded kimono, Kenshin shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny of the daimyo's court. Sessha wa rurouni! he silently defended himself, grateful when Soujirou's return diverted attention away from his shaggy form. Still, a bath and clean clothing would be a welcome luxury, one he found he was all the more eager for - despite himself - once he caught sight of the daimyo's daughters.
All three of the hime-samagata were petite of figure and dark of hair, with expressive eyes and beautiful features. "Kaoru, Misao, and Tsubame," their father named them as they knelt demurely by his side, each inclining her head slightly as she was introduced. The rurouni thought them breathtaking, though none so beautiful as the eldest.
"What is your will, otousama?" she asked, speaking for the solemn trio.
The daimyo's gaze was sad as it rested on his offspring, yet his voice betrayed no emotion. "A rurouni has come to test his merit against your riddle." As one, the three raised their eyes to Kenshin's face, Kaoru's clear gaze seeming to weigh his chances. "Although he is neither so fine nor so dashing as the previous twelve, I have hopes that my baka deshi will succeed where they could not." Only the brief fanning of dark lashes against pale skin betrayed his daughters' surprise, their curiosity as restrained as their demeanor. Such quietude was unnatural, and disturbing in its pervasiveness; silently vowing to free them from it, the rurouni offered his name.
"This unworthy one is Himura Kenshin," he murmured, soft-voiced. "Thank you for allowing me the honor of your presence, and the gift of your trust in this endeavor."
"Pretty words, baka deshi," Hiko countered, "but they are meaningless should you fail." His stern features issued an unspoken command: See that you don't.
Kenshin bowed his acceptance of words both spoken and not, pleased with the faint shine of hope he read in the hime-samagata's eyes. "I can only try, " he answered.
Glaring his disgust at the rurouni's complacency, the daimyo dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "Join us for the evening meal," he instructed, "and see that you are presentable!"
Obedient to his shishou's will the rurouni turned to depart, but he took no more than three steps before Kaoru's voice gave him pause.
"Rurouni-san," she called, the words hesitant yet somehow heart-felt, "good luck."
A collective gasp arose from those gathered in the room: none of the daimyo's daughters had ever spoken so to any of the other twelve! Aware that all eyes were now upon him, the rurouni bowed again. "I thank you." Straightening, he raised gentle violet eyes to the her face, silently repeating his promise: I will solve this riddle. She acknowledged his thanks with a regal nod, adding her dismissal to her father's; and as a servant stepped forward to guide him to the bathing room, Kenshin took his leave.
Cleanly attired in charcoal hakama and forest-green gi, the rurouni joined the daimyo and his daughters for the evening meal, passing the twilight hours in their company. Although the food was plentiful and the musicians skilled, the clock ticking the minutes seemed interminably slow - long faces and stilted conversation providing little in the way of welcome distraction. Even the daimyo seemed grateful when Saitou came to escort his daughters to their chamber, releasing them all from their polite pretense of enjoyment.
Pausing in the doorway Kenshin carefully scanned the hime-samagata's quarters, taking in his surroundings. Boasting no windows and possessing only the single door, the room's stone walls lent a chill to the space that wood and washi would have lacked - a harsh tone that could not be hidden by brightly hued tapestries. Immaculate tatami covered the floor, the mats fitting together tightly and smoothly over its surface. Three clothes chests and kimono racks stood neatly against the wall, their orderliness betraying neither ownership nor use, no more so than the three futon spread in the center of the chamber. Neither welcoming nor warm, the room revealed no hint of its occupants' personalities... but it did appear secure.
"Aa," Saitou agreed, discerning the rurouni's assessment from his expression. "This door provides the only entry, and it is securely locked once all are safely within." He nodded at a young guardsman stationed just outside the door. "One of my men stands the watch here each night, and no sound loud enough to carry ever issues."
"Yet the room is not large enough to disguise the sound of their movements, and it appears that there is nowhere else for them to go," the rurouni responded, intrigued rather than frustrated by the puzzle thus presented.
Saitou glowered at him. "It does not appear so, Battousai, it is so. Unless my lord's daughters have developed a talent for walking through walls, they are confined herein throughout the night." Kenshin merely smiled, content for the moment to harbor whatever speculations he held. "As annoying now as ever," Saitou muttered, reaching out to pull the door shut behind the rurouni. "Good night."
Kenshin turned to the daimyo's daughters as the heavy wood panel thudded closed, the iron rasp of the key in the lock announcing their captivity. The women watched him with varying degrees of suspicion in the silence that followed, waiting for what he would do. "Please excuse me," he apologized, bowing respectfully, "I do not mean to disturb you." Another futon, barely visible behind a screen in the far corner, indicated where he was to sleep. As unobtrusively as possible, he retreated into the space provided for him, leaving the sisters to their own company.
Seating himself upon the futon with his back to the wall and his sakabatou resting against his shoulder, he listened attentively as the daimyo's daughters prepared for bed. They spoke no more to each other than they had in company, but he could hear the occasional hushed murmur over the rustle of fabric, the crackle of a brush through silken hair. It was an hour before the light shining on the opposite side of the screen dimmed, and several minutes more before soft footsteps padded across the floor to his sheltered space. Blinking in the suddenness of candlelight, he looked up as the daimyo's eldest appeared around the edge of the screen.
"Rurouni-san?" she whispered, peering into the gloom. He had not seen fit to light his own candle, as one did not require light to listen or to spy.
"Aa," low voiced and gentle, his reply issued from the depths and shadows of his hair.
Gaining confidence from the sound, Kaoru knelt beside him to proffer a small saucer filled with clear liquid. "Warmed sake," she explained, "the others found it helpful against the leaching cold in this room."
Strong, calloused fingers brushed lightly against her own as he accepted the dish. "Thank you." Recalling the proprietress' advice and grateful for the shadows around him, Kenshin raised the saucer to his lips and pretended to drink, wincing regretfully as the warm alcohol slid down his chin and into the fine silk of his new clothing. He would smell like a drunkard come the morning, but better that than to lose his wits now. My apologies, hime-sama, he thought, feeling how her hand trembled when he returned the cup, her blue eyes shining with disappointment even in the poor light. Forgive me this deception. It hurt him somehow, realizing that all her hopes had crumbled with the draining of that single cup of sake. Unable to offer her any reassurance, he could do no more than wish her good night as she rose to her feet.
"Sleep well," she echoed, her voice dead and flat, despairing. Unseen, the rurouni flinched in reaction, listening as her footsteps padded slowly back across the floor, punctuated by the faint fire-rustle as her single candle was extinguished. Letting his breathing slow as if in relaxation, he slumped back against the wall, his head bowed forward against his chest. Giving every appearance of sleep, he waited for what the hime-samagata would do.
When but a quarter of an hour had passed, he once again detected the faint sound of feet crossing the tatami. "Rurouni-san?" speaking in the faintest of whispers, the daimyo's eldest tested the drugged sake's effects. Kenshin remained motionless, his breathing regular. Kaoru waited a handful of heartbeats, then addressed him again, this time in her normal speaking voice: "Rurouni-san?" Her breath feathered his hair against his cheek as she bent close, listening for any signs that he was awake. Eyes closed he counted the seconds, forcing his body to remain relaxed under her scrutiny. When still he did not stir she withdrew, taking his tension with her. There was a low scratching sound followed by the flare of a match, and then the glimmer of light on the far side of the screen.
"He is asleep then?" Misao asked, the disappointment in her voice an echo of that the rurouni had seen in her sister's eyes.
"He is. He drank the sake the same as the previous twelve, and seems to have succumbed even faster." Kaoru's tone was almost angry, as if the rurouni had wronged her in some way. "Mou!" she added, obviously annoyed, "The others at least stirred when I spoke to them!"
"He seemed so very different from the others..." Tsubame's small, wistful voice cut at the rurouni, chiding him for his pretense. "I really thought..."
"We all did, Tsubame-chan," Kaoru interrupted gently, "we all did. Come... we must hurry."
Their conversation ended as abruptly as it had begun, the sisters bustled about, their movements punctuated by the creak of opening drawers, the soft sound of cotton sliding over skin. Kenshin waited for the motion on the other side of the screen to calm, then crept to the edge of his alcove to peek out. Violet eyes widened in surprise to find the three women dressed as if for battle, the eldest and youngest in kimono and hakama similar to his own, the middle child shrouded from head to foot in a ninja uniform. Apparently satisfied that all was ready, Kaoru carefully lifted away several of the immaculate tatami mats, revealing a small doorway set into the room's floor. It opened at her touch, giving access to a staircase which spiraled downward through the heart of the castle; with scarcely a pause she descended them, her sisters following closely behind.
When the last dark head had vanished through the opening in the floor, the rurouni rose to his feet and darted across the room. Dropping lightly onto the steps behind them, quiet as a cat, he followed them down the staircase, careful to stay just outside the glow of their candle. Only once did he misjudge their pacing and turn a corner too soon, catching the hem of Tsubame's hakama beneath his sandal. The young girl shrieked in fear as she felt the slight pull, and only the Hitokiri Battousai's legendary speed prevented his discovery.
"It's alright, Tsubame-chan," Kaoru comforted her, folding the younger girl close in a warm embrace. "You must have caught it on something - a sharp stone or a rough edge. There's no one here."
Sniffling slightly, Tsubame nodded acceptance of her sister's assurances... but as they continued down the stairs, she frequently glanced over her shoulder as if sensing the rurouni's presence.
Eventually the stairway opened onto a grove of slender cherry trees, silver of bark and bearing opal blossoms. Realizing he would need proof to convince the daimyo of his tale, the rurouni reached up to gather a handful of the delicate flowers, their petals falling into his palms with a sound like the breaking of glass or the tinkling of bells. The near-musical noise was loud in the quiet of the woods, and once again Tsubame cried out in fright.
"It is just the breeze, or a bird nesting in the upper branches," Misao told her, taking the younger girl's hand to hurry her along. Unconvinced, Tsubame nevertheless held her tongue, flinching in anxious startlement when the sound was repeated twice more - once as their path wound through a grove in which the trees bore ruby fruit, and again as they passed through another in which the sakura blossoms where mother-of-pearl.
Finally they emerged on the bank of a large koi pond, its waters dark and oily, its width spanned by a string of stepping-stones. Three men stood waiting at the edge of the water, their clothing a dark reflection of the practice clothes the hime-samagata wore. Tsubame's counterpart was a lanky, spike-haired young samurai, his katana slung across his back between his shoulder blades. He who waited for Misao was obviously ninja, supple and deadly as a blade sheathed in velvet. Kenshin sensed nothing evil in them - no more than in any other man who would fight to protect what was his - but in the man who waited for Kaoru... his presence stirred the rurouni's old instincts, reminding him of a covenant he'd once shared with Saitou:
Aku. Soku. Zan.
Hiding in the shadow at the edge of the woods, Kenshin watched as each of the daimyo's daughters gave her hand to the man who waited for her, allowing him to guide her across the stone pathway to the far shore of the pond. Only when they were safely away did he follow, his footsteps tapping rapidly but lightly across the stepping stones. On the opposite bank he found a low wooden building - a dojo - sparsely illuminated by strangely painted paper lanterns, their designs casting eerie reflections in the black water of the pond. Stealing softly across the polished nightingale floor he inched the shoji aside to catch a glimpse of what the sisters did within, his violet eyes widening in surprise to see them sparring with the men they'd met by the water.
Engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the saber-slim ninja, her movements graceful and swift, agile rather than bluntly forceful, Misao displayed the skills she'd learned from the Oniwabanshuu. Though weary from endless repetitions of this nightly contest, she was clearly adept in her chosen craft; even so her opponent coddled her, hesitant to strike, his expression pained whenever he did so - as if forced to action by some unwanted compulsion. Tsubame's young man fared no better, his features caught in a mask of frustration as he wielded his katana clumsily, struggling not to hurt her as the spell that bound them set his limbs in motion. The giant whom Kaoru faced was another matter entirely. Broad shouldered and barrel-chested, easily twice her size, he suffered no compunction against using his full strength. Reveling in the power he held over her, he struck with the sole intent to wound, to break her body and spirit. Handling the katana with obvious distaste, the daimyo's eldest stood against him, refusing to be intimidated. His equal in skill if not in strength, she faltered only when he brought his weight to bear behind the sharp edge of his sword, crushing her defense with the power of his attack. Then he would retreat, allowing her time to recover - teasing her as a cat would a mouse. They continued so throughout the night, until the sisters were weak and numb from exhaustion, their tabi worn to tattered shreds.
In the early hours just before dawn their contests drew to a close, releasing the daimyo's daughters from their struggles. Seeking to retrace his steps before the hime-samagata returned to their chamber, the rurouni made his retreat as the combatants broke apart, slipping away as silently as he'd arrived. Sure- footed he dashed across the stepping stones and up the winding stairs, passing through the sakura groves before their voices carried to him from the entrance below. When at last the hime-samagata stepped wearily into their room, Kenshin was safely hidden in his alcove, once again feigning sleep.
Soft footsteps padded across the floor as Kaoru restored the tatami mats to their accustomed place: the middle daughter coming to see if he had stirred. "The rurouni has not awakened," he heard her report, "I wonder if the sake was even necessary, so deeply does he sleep!"
"Truly..." the youngest murmured in reluctant agreement, her voice sad and wistful.
Flinching from their harsh assessment the rurouni listened for Kaoru's opinion, but the daimyo's eldest offered no comment, saying only: "We should get some sleep ourselves. Someone will come to unlock the door in only a few hours." Then came the rustle of fabric and creaking of wood as they removed their practice clothes and tucked them away, donning soft yukata in their place. Taking to their futons with scarcely a pause to douse the candles, they fell quickly into exhausted slumber.
Morning found the rurouni awake and waiting as the key turned in the lock, and almost before the door had opened he was outside, surprising the young guardsman from the night before. "The hime-samagata are still asleep," he whispered by way of explanation, pulling the door closed behind him. Recovering enough to be suspicious, the guard shoved him aside to look for himself, relaxing slightly to find the daimyo's daughters safely wrapped in their blankets. "Let them be," Kenshin whispered behind him, "they have only been asleep a few hours."
Nodding almost absently as he shut the door again, the guard turned to the rurouni as sudden, startled understanding overtook him. "You mean you've solved the riddle in only a single night?" he demanded.
"Shhhh," Kenshin made hurried shushing motions, trying to calm the guard's excitement. "Sessha has not solved anything yet - I only have more questions." He had resolved not to speak of what he'd seen until such time as he had more information - Who are the men with whom the sisters spar? Who is the giant - and what grudge does he hold against the daimyo's family? Still... the guard was eyeing him with a mix of interest and skepticism, obviously torn between believing the rurouni knew nothing and suspecting he knew more than he said. Perhaps by dispelling the young man's suspicions Kenshin could gain the answers he needed. "Questions," he repeated, "that I cannot find the answers to alone. However... I would gladly trade you information for information."
The guard stared blankly for a moment, then grinned widely. "Your tale in exchange for answers I may or may not possess?" Reaching out he clapped Kenshin on the shoulder, "That's my kind of deal! Let's find a place where we can talk."
The young guardsman listened attentively as the rurouni related the events of the previous evening, but shook his head in response to Kenshin's questions. "I know of none who fits your description of Kaoru-sama's giant, nor the other two young men." The rurouni nodded, disappointed but unsurprised. "However, I have been in the daimyo's service only a short span of weeks," the guard continued, "perhaps another would tell you differently."
"Aa," Kenshin agreed despondently, "but the more people who know what I've seen thus far, the greater the chance that the wrong ears will hear." He sighed, shaking his head slightly, "I have not been here long enough to question for any reason other than the obvious: any I ask will suspect these men have something to do with the over-worn tabi."
Chewing idly on a fish bone - all that remained of his breakfast - the young guardsman grinned again. "Then let me ask for you," he offered, as casually as if they were discussing inquiring after a swordsmith or tailor, "I have no obvious motive."
And as one of the hime-samagata's guards, his inquiring after strangers seen in their company should not be suspicious. Still the rurouni hesitated, welcoming an ally but concerned that the brash young man might cause more harm than good. "Alright," he finally conceded, struggling to sound firm in the face of the guard's unabashed enthusiasm, "but use caution and discretion - do not ask too many, nor speak too loudly."
"Che, now you sound like my boss," the guardsman returned, his face twisting into a mock-scowl. "Don't worry rurouni-san, none shall learn of your adventure from me." Dropping the scowl he stretched lazily, then rose to his feet. "I am off-duty until this evening - perhaps I'll have some information for you then." He winked conspiratorially.
Despite himself, Kenshin grinned - confidence was definitely not something the young man lacked. "Thank you..." he began, letting the sentence hang as he realized he didn't know the guard's name.
"Sanosuke," the other supplied, answering the rurouni's unvoiced question. "Sagara Sanosuke."
The second night passed much as had the first. Garbed this time in blue and black, the rurouni once again dined with the daimyo's family, retiring to the sisters' chamber when the evening waned. As the midnight hour drew close, Kaoru brought him warmed sake; feeling ever more guilty for his deception, he pretended to drink. Then did Kaoru and Tsubame don their hakama, Misao her shinobi shozoko, and descend the hidden staircase, Kenshin following silently after. As before, the three mysterious men met them beside the water, escorting them across the stepping stones to the dojo on the opposite bank. There they sparred the night through, scarcely speaking, until the daimyo's daughters were exhausted and their tabi worn to shreds. The rurouni strained his hearing, hoping to catch a name among the few words spoken, but the opponents addressed each other rarely and never in a familiar fashion. Lingering as long as possible before returning to the chamber above, he still had no more to report after the second night than he had at the close of the first.
"No names are given - not even those of the techniques they use," he explained to Sano the following morning. "It is as if they sense that they are spied upon, and speak no names for fear they will be used against them."
The guardsman pursed his lips thoughtfully, suggesting, "Perhaps it is a precaution they take whenever someone has come to solve the riddle, rather than actual suspicion."
Surprised at the younger man's understanding, the rurouni nodded. "Perhaps. But what of yourself - have your inquiries uncovered answers to any of my questions?"
Sanosuke shrugged, a self-satisfied smile playing around his mouth. "I have an inkling as to who your young samurai and fearsome ninja might be," he answered as nonchalantly as he was able, "though no lead on Kaoru-sama's giant."
Dismissing the lack with a quick shake of his head, Kenshin urged the guardsman to speak. "The identity of even one would be helpful!" he exclaimed, leaning forward eagerly, "Did you think I would berate you for revealing but two of the three?"
Laughing at the rurouni's vehemence, Sano explained what he had learned. "When the hime-samagata's tabi were first worn to shreds, the favorite for Misao-sama's hand was the leader of the Oniwabanshuu. He was quiet and thoughtful, a striking contrast to her gregarious nature, and even the daimyo looked on the match with approval. Shortly before the mystery began, the handsome okashira departed to settle a matter outside Hiko-sama's holding... and never returned. No word of what happened to him has reached the daimyo's court, yet what is even more curious is that Misao-sama seems untouched by his absence, where before she doted on his every word."
"Perhaps," Kenshin murmured, "she has no reason to worry or to pine, for she spends every night in his company, the focus of his undivided attention."
Sano nodded. "Aa. His description is close enough to your own to satisfy even Saitou-san's exacting eye for detail, and would explain Misao-sama's indifference. If your ninja and the okashira are not one and the same, then there are even more mysteries at work here than the kitsune-sorceress indicated."
The rurouni blinked, taking a moment to realize the guardsman was referring to Megumi. "And the young samurai?" he prompted, struggling not to smile at Sano's description of the witch.
"His story is similar to the okashira's... the son of one of Hiko-sama's lordlings paid court to Tsubame until he earned both her shy smile and the daimyo's sanction. Silent now, the daimyo's youngest was never outspoken, but in the young samurai's company she dared more and feared less. Enough so that, in time, he won her sisters' approval as well as her father's." The guardsman smiled ruefully, "Such good fortune may have proven his downfall - he disappeared while on an errand for the chief retainer, much like Misao's suitor." He raised an eyebrow questioningly, "Hardly coincidental, ne?"
Kenshin agreed, his mind already puzzling over the similarities between the two men... and what that might indicate about the unknown third.
The third and final evening passed as had the two previous, Kenshin following the daimyo's daughters down the hidden staircase to observe their nightly contest with the three who waited. This time, however, he lingered after the hime-samagata and their opponents left the training room, stealing inside to take Kaoru's katana from its place on the wall. Though I have no name or title for the third man, perhaps this sword and saya have something to reveal. If nothing else, they would serve as added proof when he stood before the daimyo and related his tale.
Katana tucked into his sash for safekeeping, the rurouni darted across the stepping stones and into the sakura grove at the base of the stairs, using all of the Hitokiri Battousai's skills to avoid detection. Speed and stealth allowed him to pass unnoticed through the forest, disappearing around the first curve in the staircase scant seconds before the sisters began their ascent behind him. His third night in their chamber ended as had the previous two, his deception undiscovered.
In the morning he stood before the daimyo's court as Hiko put the question to him: "Three nights have you spent in my daughters' chamber, three nights during which their tabi were worn to shreds. Can you reveal to me the how and the why?"
To the surprise of all save Sanosuke, the rurouni answered in a voice both clear and carrying: "I can." He paused while a ripple of surprise ran through the room, raising his violet gaze to Kaoru's face. "Beneath the tatami in your daughters' chamber lies a door, a portal opening onto a hidden staircase." Her blue eyes went wide with surprise at his words, and she caught her bottom lip between her teeth, afraid to hope too strongly when so little had been said. "Each night they descend this staircase until it opens onto a grove of young sakura trees - trees with branches of silver and blooms of milky-white opal. A path winds through the forest, and in time the trees give way to a second grove, where the slender branches bear ruby fruit, and a third in which the blossoms resemble mother-of-pearl." As he spoke, the rurouni drew from his sleeve the flowers he'd taken that first night, displaying them for all to see. Tsubame's breath caught on a gasp as he placed them in her lap, and a small smile curved her mouth as he whispered, "I am sorry for frightening you, hime-sama."
"What... what happens next?" Misao's voice held all the hope Kaoru was afraid to feel. Shifting his gaze from Tsubame to her, Kenshin resumed his tale.
"The trees end on the bank of a large koi pond, its waters foul and black, its fish pale and strange. Beside the water three men wait to escort you across a string of stepping-stones to the far side, where stands a dojo. Within its walls you three contend with the men whom you met by the water, until your tabi are worn to shreds and your bodies are weary from exertion."
There was silence in the room as the rurouni's story came to an end. All eyes turned expectantly to the daimyo's daughters, waiting for some sign that the spell that held them had been lifted. It came in a soft-voiced whisper as Kaoru finally spoke. "The rurouni's tale is true. I know not how he learned this... but every word is true." Her eyes were brimming with unshed tears, a smile trembling on her lips as she spoke directly to Kenshin. "We're free... I knew you would be the one, I knew it..." and suddenly she was in his arms, sobbing into his chest, her tears a mixture of relief and joy.
Surprised, the rurouni folded her close, murmuring soothing words into the softness of her hair. As she quieted, he raised his eyes to the daimyo's face, for although the spell had been broken, there was more still to be revealed. "I know not who the three men were," he stated, the simple words somehow quieting the entire room. "However... I am certain that Misao-sama's ninja and Tsubame-sama's young samurai were no more willing participants than your daughters, and meant them no ill-will. Indeed, I believe them to be the same men who have already won your trust and the affection of your daughters." Misao and Tsubame nodded, confirming the rurouni's suspicion. Kenshin's arms tightened reassuringly around Kaoru as he continued. "The same cannot be said for the giant of a man with whom your eldest fought - what grudge he bears your family is unknown to me, but I am certain that it was he who cast the spell which bound them all." He drew the katana from its place at his waist and handed it to the daimyo. "Here is the sword which Kaoru-sama wielded against him. Perhaps it will reveal some clue as to his identity."
At this, Kaoru raised her head and turned to look at her father, "It was Gohei," she told him, her voice regaining some of its fire, "Hiruma Gohei. He was angered when I rejected him, even more so when he was banished from your holding. The spell was cast to exact his revenge upon us all."
In response, another voice echoed around the room. "Having had my happiness crushed by you, it seemed only fitting to destroy yours in turn - and how better than to force your daughters to harm themselves?" Those gathered in the daimyo's audience chamber drew slowly away from the speaker as he voiced his taunts, until Gohei stood alone in the center of the room.
"When one is banished, one usually does not return," the daimyo returned conversationally, seeming neither surprised nor concerned. "You will find neither homecoming nor welcome here, Gohei. Leave, before I crush you like the insect you are."
"Bastard!" Moving faster than his bulk would seem to allow, Gohei charged across the floor, drawing his sword to strike at Tsubame. The blow connected with the ring of steel on steel as the young samurai the rurouni had spoken of suddenly appeared before her.
"Yahiko-kun!" she gasped, huddled in the safety of his shadow. The young man smiled fiercely at the sound of his name, throwing off Gohei's attack with a flick of his wrist, a turn of his sword.
Staggering back a pace the giant turned to Misao, snarling a curse when he realized she was now protected as well. "Aoshi-sama!" she named the ninja standing before her, and although his expression didn't change, he somehow conveyed the impression of fangs bared in feral enjoyment. Aoshi was angry, and waited eagerly for Gohei's next foolish move.
"Fool," Saitou was on his feet as well, standing ready to dispense the daimyo's justice. "Hiko-sama was lenient with you before. What reason can you give him to be lenient now?"
Responding to the implied threat like a caged animal seeking escape, Gohei sought desperately for a way to save himself - or to at least wound those who would punish him. Fixing on the rurouni as the cause of his distress, he charged blindly, bellowing in triumph as he struck at Kenshin's head. His sword passed silently through the space the rurouni had occupied only a moment before, leaving him to stare dumbly at empty air as the rurouni's voice sounded from above. "Up here!" Chilling in its calmness and finality, the simple phrase was the only warning he received before Kenshin's sakabatou crashed into his skull, knocking him unconscious.
As he fell heavily to the floor, the daimyo nodded to Sanosuke, signaling him to dispose of the one who had so recently threatened his daughters. "Find a cell that will hold both his ego and his magic, and confine him within it for the rest of his days." Sano grinned cockily as he hoisted Gohei over his shoulder, and the rurouni winced slightly in sympathy, imagining the 'accidental' bruises the large man would probably wake to find.
Saitou apparently thought much the same thing. "I'd better follow to make sure the young idiot doesn't break something important in his enthusiasm."
Shrugging slightly - as if to say Gohei's problems were not his own - the daimyo turned his attention to his daughters and the rurouni who'd freed them. "Baka deshi," he began, smiling as Kenshin's shoulders slumped at the name, "I had not thought it likely that one such as yourself would succeed where even my chief retainer had failed. Such success is testimony only to my skill as a teacher, for I am certain that your knowledge of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu is what allowed you to unravel this mystery."
"Oro?" the rurouni's protest was plaintively incoherent. Standing close against him once more, Kaoru's shoulders shook with giggles.
"Don't mind otousama," she whispered, "that's just his way of saying - without saying - that he is proud of you."
The daimyo arched one sardonic eyebrow as if he'd heard her whispered comment, but a smile tugged at his mouth as he continued: "Nevertheless, you have freed my daughters from the spell, and as such you may have the one of your choosing to wife."
Kenshin hesitated, caught between accepting his heart's desire, and refusing as unworthy. Kaoru was tense beside him, her stance clear as words: Don't you dare! Her decision decided him, and bowing respectfully he answered, "Thank you, shishou. This unworthy one asks for your eldest's hand in marriage - if she will have him."
So it happened that the rurouni married Kaoru, and in time succeeded Hiko-sama as daimyo. Misao and Tsubame married Aoshi and Yahiko, respectively, and as in all fairy tales, everyone who deserved to lived happily ever after.