This life of ours would not cause you sorrow if you thought of it as like the mountain cherry blossoms which bloom and fade in a day. -- Murasaki Shikibu (974-1031)
On a warm spring night, the full moon looked down on the cobblestone streets of Kyoto. The Bakumatsu had been raging on for eleven years now. Each night, the city streets overflowed with blood as Japan was torn asunder by warring clans, some of whom sided with the Emperor, others who sided with the Bakufu.
Through the darkness of the winding alleys sprinted a being that had the form of a human boy, but the power and skill of a demon. It ran so quickly, it seemed to be flying just over the street as it came silently up behind its quarry: a fat old man and his two bodyguards, one of whom was built like an ogre, the other a mere stripling.
In the shadows, the demon froze when it heard its name mentioned in their conversation.
"There have been more and more rumors of hitokiri recently, especially 'Hitokiri Battousai'," cautioned the ogre. "Whether or not he exists, the Bakufu must come up with a plan to crush this rebellion."
"Now, now. We've had some nice sake tonight. Let's not ruin the mood by talking about the war," soothed the fat, old man, who was this evening's target. "I hear you're to be married next month, Kiyosato."
"Yes," was the enthusiastic response of the young bodyguard, Kiyosato.
"You're lucky to be marrying your childhood sweetheart soon," said the old man.
"Thank you. I do feel bad though. If the whole country is in disarray, what right have I to be happy?" mused Kiyosato.
"Now stop that. Things are always bleak around here. That shouldn't stop a man from finding a bit of happiness for himself, should it?" said the old man.
So, the Bakufu was aware of Battousai's existence, even if they hadn't confirmed its veracity yet. The demon decided it was time to show these walking dead that Battousai was more than just a rumor.
"Are you Shigekura Jubei of the Kyoto Shoshidai?" asked a soft, yet menacing voice from the darkness of the alley.
Shigekura and his two bodyguards, Kiyosato and Ishiji, froze in their tracks and turned slowly around to view where the voice had come from. A short, delicately built boy with long red hair, who looked to be no older than 12 years old, emerged from the darkness. At his side was a daisho, indicating that he was a warrior.
"Though I bear you no grudge, you must die for the new era," came that chilling voice again.
"Who are you?!" demanded Ishiji.
"Choshuu Ishin Shishi. Himura Battousai," answered the small swordsman.
At this, Ishiji grasped the hilt of his katana.
It was too late. The diminutive swordsman suddenly went from being five yards back to right in front of the large bodyguard. Before Ishiji could react, his skull had been split in two and Himura Battousai was already charging down his target.
Seeing his most experienced bodyguard cut down so easily, Shigekura suddenly shoved Kiyosato aside and grasped the hilt of his sword.
"Get out of here, Kiyosato! You can't die now!" he commanded, starting to draw his blade.
Suddenly, Himura Battousai leapt into the air. Before anyone knew what was happening, he came down, plunging his katana straight through Shigekura's skull.
'RYU TSUI SEN ZAN!!'
"Ishiji-san! Shigekura-san!" cried Kiyosato in horror as he regained his feet.
Seeing there was one left, Himura lunged at him, pinning him against the wall. The assassin's eyes widened in surprise for a split second when steel met steel as Kiyosato was able to raise his blade and block Himura's slash.
"Give up," Himura hissed.
"No!" cried Kiyosato as he pushed back and was able to extricate himself from Himura's grip.
The two swordsmen faced off. Kiyosato gripped his blade, panic and fury mixing on his features. Himura could tell by Kiyosato's stance that he was a rank amateur at best. His block of Himura's initial strike had likely just been a fluke. Surely, with the next slash, Battousai would be able to dispatch him.
Himura and Kiyosato charged and slashed, each time blocking or dodging each other's swings. As they fought, Battousai found himself grudgingly beginning to respect his adversary. Though his skill was nothing in itself, Kiyosato was displaying a strong desperation to survive this fight.
"I cannot die. I must not die. I will not die."
Realizing that he was wasting too much time and increasing his chances of being caught by other Bakufu patrols, Himura charged at Kiyosato, who returned the favor. They met in an instant. Himura felt more than heard his katana cleave through the young swordsman's body. He was surprised to feel sharp steel bite into his left cheek. Quite the next moment, he felt something warm trickling down his face. Himura Battousai reached up with his left hand and wiped his fingers down his cheek. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw his own blood on his fingertips.
"Don't let me die. Not yet. Not now," Himura heard Kiyosato groan to himself.
Even now? Even after being slashed clean through, Kiyosato still clung to life! Himura turned and saw Kiyosato crawling in vain toward his sword, blood spilling from the huge slash in his body. Everyone else Himura had slashed that way had died instantly. What was it about this man that was so different? Himura approached the dying warrior.
"I was going to be married. I thought we would be together forever. Tooomoooeeeee!!!!!!!" Kiyosato sobbed.
His sobs were silenced as Himura plunged his blade into the bodyguard's neck. Himura stood still and looked down at the now silent body of the young warrior. This was a battle he would never forget.
Quite the next moment, Himura felt irritation rise up in him as the familiar ki of the observers came into range. His direct overseer, Iizuka, followed by two other men, emerged from the shadows.
"Wow! Someone was able to cut you!" cried Iizuka in astonishment.
"It's nothing. I'm fine," said Himura shortly.
"But he must have been very skilled if he was able to cut the great Battousai," persisted Iizuka.
"No. His skill was nothing, but his will to live was... incredible," said Himura. "Iizuka, clean this up please."
"Uh, sure," mumbled Iizuka as he put a folded paper with the kanji Tenchuu or Divine Justice on Shigekura's body.
Himura turned his back on the carnage and strode off into the night.
"May you find happiness in the next world," Himura murmured as he walked away.
"Huh? You say something?" asked Iizuka.
"No. Nothing," said Himura with an edge of finality in his voice as he walked away.
As he left, Himura's sharp ears picked up parts of the conversation between the observers.
"Strong will to live. Hm! I guess a highly skilled swordsman would be able to tell that just by crossing swords with someone."
"Yeah. Maybe he could tell that, but he killed them all without even blinking."
"He truly is a hitokiri."
Himura shut out the rest of the conversation as he distanced himself from his comrades.
The few Patriots up at this late hour moved well out of the way of the hitokiri who walked in through the side door of the inn. As they noticed the fresh cut on his left cheek, whispers wafted into the air. They wondered who would be skilled enough to touch the fearsome assassin.
Battousai, for his part, ignored the whispers. Though it was annoying, he was used to people staring surreptitiously and whispering behind his back. He headed straight down the hall to the storage room without acknowledging anyone's presence.
Once in the solitude of the room, Battousai grabbed a roll of bandages and a basin full of water. Hesitantly, he looked into the water and, for the first time in a year, beheld his reflection. The face that stared back at him was that of a stranger, eyes flat and pinned, features pale and sharp. The bloody vertical slash only added to the otherness of the face in the watery mirror. Shaking himself out of his reverie, Battousai set to work on the new wound.
After wiping the excess blood away from his cheek with a cloth, Battousai applied a bandage that would probably have to stay on for the next few days. Finished, Battousai looked his work over. It would be obvious to whomever saw him that he had been cut in battle. But it didn't matter. He had finished his assignment successfully and didn't give a damn what others thought! Satisfied, he plunged his hands into the water to perform his nightly cleansing ritual, or mizugori.
Plunge and scrub. Plunge and scrub. Over and over again, Battousai subjected his hands to this abuse until one could be certain he had scrubbed off the entire top layer of his skin. Only then did he pick up the basin to empty and clean out before retreating to his room to settle in for the remainder of the night.
Once in his room, Battousai slid the fusuma shut behind him. With a sigh, he pulled his katana out of his obi and sat down in the window seat with the sword propped against his left shoulder. One of the few things the assassin took pleasure in anymore was gazing at the night sky, where the stars seemed to stretch into infinity. When he looked up at them, Himura felt lost and insignificant and was distracted from the cold numbness that had seeped into his heart in the past year.
Tonight though, Kiyosato's dying face kept flashing into his vision. Never had Battousai run into anyone with such an incredible desire to live, save for his old master. No one had come that close to challenging him, much less being able injure him. Unconsciously, Battousai touched the bandaged wound.
Finally, the need for sleep grew too great to ignore. Shutting his eyes and lowering his head, Himura Battousai fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Over the next month, Battousai continued his bloody career. Day after day, Iizuka would approach Battousai, face solemn and hand to him the hated black envelope. Night after night, the hitokiri would prowl the back alleys of Kyoto until he found his quarry. Then it was only a matter of attacking and dispatching them.
Blood rained on the Kyoto nights. It was Divine Justice, over and over again.
After returning from his latest assassination, Battousai was at the basin, scrubbing his hands vigorously, but was unable to rid them of the viscous feeling of blood, nor could he rid his olfactory sense of the coppery tang of the life sustaining fluid.
'The stench of blood soaks everything,' the young assassin thought bitterly.
"Hey, Battousai. There you are. C'mon! Katusura-sensei's waiting," came the unwelcome voice of Iizuka from the doorway.
Normally, Battousai would have flashed anyone who dared to intrude upon his private ablutions a death glare. However, at the mention of Katsura's name, Himura looked up with something akin to interest. It wasn't often that Katsura Kogoro paid a visit to the Kohagiya these days. Himura dried off his hands and followed Iizuka outside.
The two men made their way through the hallway to the courtyard, where Katsura was waiting. Once in the garden, they approached Katsura, who was standing with his huge ogre of a bodyguard Katagai and enjoying a cup of tea while awaiting Himura. Upon seeing his prize assassin, Katsura smiled pleasantly.
Himura thought Katsura's features were a bit more wizened than when he had last seen his leader a few months ago.
"It's been quite a while. Have you been doing well?" Katsura asked kindly.
"Yes. I've been "doing them" well," answered Himura sarcastically.
"Hey, hey!" chided Iizuka.
"Do you have an assignment for me tonight?" Himura asked, ignoring Iizuka.
"No, not an exactly assignment," answered Katsura.
"If there's no assignment, please don't call for me," replied Himura sharply.
"Hey!" yelped Iizuka, startled by the usually polite young man's boldness.
Undaunted, Himura persisted, remembering overhearing his name mentioned by the Bakufu supporters he had cut down a month before.
"I have killed almost 100 people in the past half year. No matter how carefully we hide, the Bakufu will become aware of our presence. It isn't a good idea for me to be near you right now. Their forces grow stronger by the day, especially the Wolves of Mibu."
"The Shinsengumi?" asked Katsura.
"I have yet to cross swords with them, but I fear they could be the strongest of all," answered Himura.
"I can't believe you're worried about a bunch of nobodies," sneered Katagai.
"I understand. We'll watch out for them," said Katsura with a smile, holding up his hand to stay Katagai.
"But is there an assignment?" asked Iizuka, wishing Katsura would get to the point already.
Though he didn't blink, Himura found himself getting irritated with this whole meeting and wanted nothing more than to retreat to the solitude of his room.
"Actually, tonight there's to be a secret meeting at an inn," explained Katsura. "Toshiwara and Miyabe-san will be attending."
"You need me to guard you?" asked Battousai.
"No," replied Katsura with a smile. "I would like you to attend the meeting with me."
"Ooooooo, congratulations! What an honor! You'll go down in history!" exclaimed Iizuka.
"I decline," said Himura simply.
A stunned silence descended upon his three superiors.
Seeing no point in prolonging the meeting, Himura turned on his heel and began to walk away from the men.
"I am your hitokiri and must stay in the shadows if I am to serve you. I've no interest in honors or going down in history. It will be enough for me if we can achieve an era where all can live in peace."
The words floated back to the three men on the wind even as Himura departed from the garden like a mist. They looked at the closed door the hitokiri had floated out of. Iizuka sighed and shook his head.
"It's no good. He's changed from all that killing. The damage is too much to be undone just by tossing him a bone," he said grimly.
"A bone?" growled Katagai. "Katsura-sensei was just..."
"Even if you change the words, the meaning is the same," replied Iizuka.
"Iizuka's right," said Katsura with a sigh. "But seeing him again told me one thing: Even if his personality has changed, his heart is still the same as when I met him a year ago. The change in his demeanor may just be due to his growing up. I know this for certain: His heart hasn't changed at all."
"That's good to hear," said Katagai with a smile.
'Because his heart is so pure, he's beginning to sense the huge gulf between his ideals and the reality of being a hitokiri. If he continues, his soul will be divided in two; one part will be his true self, the other, a ruthless killer,' Katsura thought as he gazed sadly at the door through which Himura had exited.
Battousai sat at a table in a bar, bottle and saucer in his hands. He poured the drink mechanically and swallowed it with a wince.
'These days, no matter what I drink, I taste only blood,' Battousai thought to himself with a grimace.
Though the taste was awful, the sake went straight to his head, fogging his brain and distracting him from the cold numbness in his heart. Through the fog, he faintly registered the sound of getta softly clacking across the floor and the shuffling of fabric as someone sat at the table directly behind him. His olfactory gland twitched, detecting the faint bouquet of white plum blossoms.
"Chilled sake, please," came a young girl's soft voice.
'I started drinking soon after I was wounded on the cheek. It always tasted pretty bad, but only recently has it started to taste of blood,' Battousai thought to himself as he poured yet another saucerful.
An image of his Master enjoying some sake briefly flitted into his consciousness.
'My Master taught me swordsmanship, but I taught myself how to drink.'
Battousai subconsciously registered the sounds of everything going on around him.
"Hey, woman!" came the deep voice of a large man from behind, accompanied by the sound of a sake bottle being set ungently on the table.
"Pour our drinks for us," came another male voice.
The girl didn't respond.
"We are the Ishin Shishi of Aizu! Every day we lay our lives on the line for you commoners! Pouring our drinks is the least you can do!"
"Aizu's on the Bakufu's side, moron!" someone responded.
"What did you say?!"
A silence descended on the bar.
Feeling anger at these idiots rising in his soul, Himura rose gracefully to his feet and turned to face them. He saw two men, one quite large and strong, the other small and wiry, standing over the young woman. In their hands were their wooden boxes that they wanted her to pour the contents of the sake bottle into.
The young woman sat rigidly and pointedly ignored the two interlopers.
"That's what I thought."
"Keep your peasant mouths shut."
"That was a close call for someone."
So that's what these two were: wannabe warriors who didn't even know the difference between the Bakufu and the Ishin Shishi, who just enjoyed bullying common people. Himura was just not in the mood for this.
"Yes, it was a close call. If you had drawn fully, you would have been facing me," the young assassin responded in a quiet, menacing tone.
"What?!" roared the big man, reaching to draw his sword and turning to face Battousai, who quickly reached out and blocked him from drawing fully.
"Let me give you some advice," said Battousai. "The violence will only worsen. Kyoto is no place for posers. If you want to survive, leave the city quickly."
At this, the other patrons felt a surge of boldness and started jeering the two men.
"Yeah! That's right!"
"Get out of here, you hypocrites!"
The two men hurried out, sliding the wooden door shut with a bang.
Realizing that he had drawn too much attention to himself, Battousai decided it was time for him to leave as well. He left some money on the table for the bar owner as an apology.
"Please pardon the commotion I caused," he said quietly as he left.
Himura made his way down the deserted streets, grievously troubled in his soul. As the Ishin Shishi's top assassin, it was imperative that he keep to the shadows for as long as possible. His rash actions tonight had drawn undue attention to him and could cause him trouble down the road.
'Now the sake tastes like fouled blood. Lowlifes like that would never have angered me this way before,' he thought.
Himura stopped and looked up at the stars. It was a clear, beautiful spring night. A memory of something his Master had once said to him came to mind.
Kenshin had been 13 and he and Hiko had been resting at the river after a hard day's training. The Master was, typically, drinking sake and prattling on about the virtues of the drink.
"Cherry blossoms in Spring. Stars in Summer. Full moon in Autumn. Snow in Winter. These are enough to make the sake taste good. If it tastes bad, it means there's something wrong in your heart. Someday, you will understand this, then I will pour sake for both of us," Hiko had said before pausing to take a drink.
At the time, young Kenshin hadn't quite understood what the Master had meant. With the passing of much time and the shedding of much blood, the meaning had finally become clear to the young assassin. Battousai closed his eyes.
'Something wrong in my heart. That could very well be. But saving people from suffering is the very purpose of Hiten Mitsurugi. It's already been a year since we argued and I left. Why did the Master try to stop me from leaving?'
With more questions than answers, Himura started forward again. He hadn't gotten more than five steps when the clang of swords and a blood curdling scream caused him to stop in his tracks. One of the men from the bar incident came running toward him, panic etched all over his features.
"Help! Help me! H---"
He was never able to finish his words, for a sword shot through his skull, splitting it in two and sending blood splattering everywhere. Himura looked and saw a warrior dressed in black with a mask over his mouth and nose to conceal his identity wielding two swords attached to each other by a chain at the base of their hilts.
'Shinsengumi?' Himura thought to himself as the warrior launched one of his swords.
As Himura blocked the first sword with his own, he realized what he was dealing with.
'No! Not a samurai. A shadow assassin like me.'
Then everything seemed to happen at once. The sword that Battousai had deflected stuck in the ground. The assassin leaped into the air, wrapping the chain between the swords around Himura's shoulders, binding his arms to his sides. Himura was now immobilized while the assassin stood on the roof. The black warrior leapt from the roof, the sword still in his possession pointed straight at Battousai.
Using his left hand, Battousai was able to grab at the length of chain between him and the sword in the ground and give a strong yank, freeing the sword from the ground. Himura grabbed the sword from the midair, successfully gripping its hilt.
"HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" Himura roared as he raised the blade of the sword, cleaving the assassin above him in two even halves.
Blood sprayed everywhere as the two halves of the corpse hit the ground. As the chains fell away from his body, Himura felt a spike of ki behind him. Someone had seen! He glanced back and saw the young girl from the bar, her pink kimono and purple shawl now splattered with the ninja's blood, standing as still as a statue and staring at him with deep, jet black eyes.
'The girl from the bar. She saw! I can't let anyone know of my existence!' Battousai thought to himself as his heart hammered in his chest.
He gripped his katana.
"I followed you because I wanted to thank you for helping me," the girl spoke in a quiet, yet clear voice. "In kabuki, they say it rains blood at the battle scenes. You truly make blood rain."