Kenshin shook his head. "Foreigners would not go so far as to burn a Japanese
 Karen nodded. "Then that means ..."
 "..." Saitou blew out a breath of smoke.
 "Means ..?" Sanosuke prompted them.
 "It means that someone from the government is helping them." Karen ran a hand
through her hair. "Someone who has enough power to avoid arrest even if he was
suspected of arson."
 "Yamagata-sama asked me to tell you to visit him in Kyoto." Saitou stood up and
started to saunter his way outside. "He said he has some information about this
case. Have a nice day."
 "Yeah, you too," Sanosuke said sarcastically.
 Karen followed him outside. He turned as soon as they were on the empty street.
 "Who is it?" she demanded.
 "Who is what?" he looked down.
 "You know what I mean, you old wolf!" she hissed.
 "... I'm not that old," he commented. "I just look old. Look at Battousai - he's
almost thirty and still looks like a girl."
 "That's because he's clean at heart. Unlike you." Karen crossed her arms. "Spit it
out, Hajime, who is it?"
 "I don't know," he blew a cloud of smoke in her face. She coughed. "But someone's
threatening Yamagata-sama."
 "The foreigners have been trying to bribe the Meiji government to sell the land
to them. Some of the pigs are saying, 'Definitely, as long as you bribe me enough.'
But Yamagata-sama says the government can't sell privately owned land."
 "Ah ~" Karen nodded. "So that's it." She turned to go back in.
 Saitou grabbed her wrist and pulled her back close to him. His lean face was still
the same - emotionless. Karen grimaced. "You reek of cigarettes."
 "And not of blood?" His hair was touching her cheek.
 "I've become too used to the smell of blood to notice it," she smiled humorlessly.
Then she leaned closer to Saitou, her red lips barely touching his chin. "We blood-
drenched hitokiri belong together, don't we?"
 "Speak for yourself," Saitou muttered as her lips found his. The first rays of the
sun touched them as they stood in the street. Karen slightly pulled away. Her lips
went to his ear as they softly whispered.
 "You idiot."
 With a ringing laugh, she jumped back and was gone. Saitou didn't seem surprised
or angry. He simply shrugged and lit another cigarette as he turned and walked

 "Karen-san! Karen-san!!"
 "Huh?" Karen looked up as Kaoru called her urgently.
 "Karen-san. ." Kaoru hesitated. "I'm not sure about cooking, and I'm sure you know
more than I do . . . but are you burning that fish on purpose?"
 "?!" Karen looked down. She let out a shriek. "Kyaaa!!" With a swift hand she
flipped them over with the chopsticks. "Whew. Sorry about that, Kaoru-san. I
 "Trying to figure out who is selling us out?" Kaoru smiled.
 Karen was absorbed in checking how burned the fish were, so she simply nodded
her head. When she was sure no serious damage was done, she looked up.
"Someone who knows about me and who I am . . . which is rather vague. Almost all
the officials know of me at least. Someone. . ."
 "Someone who works with foreigners," Kenshin finished as he walked in with a
bucket of a few things Karen had asked him to buy.
 Karen let out a sigh. "The Meiji government is rotten to the core. Is this what
you fought for, Kenshin-san?" She looked up at Kenshin, her sapphire eyes meeting
his amethyst ones.
 "It is why I became a rurouni, Karen-dono," he replied.
 Karen smiled and returned to the fish. "Hajime was right . . . you have quite a
way with words."
 "Did he say that?" Kenshin smiled.
 "Oh yes. It wasn't exactly intended as a compliment, considering what he said
before and after," Karen said impishly. "But then again, he never compliments
 "I wonder if he's even human," Kaoru said impatiently.
 "He is, and more importantly, he's a man, no more," Karen shrugged. "Though he
tries to seem like a cold-blooded lizard at times, believe me, I know better than
anyone else that he is a man."
 Kaoru turned rather red and looked uncomfortable, while Kenshin hid a smile and
went to check on Yahiko, who was practicing in the dojo.
 Sanosuke was lounging around while Yahiko was practicing strokes in the middle
of the room. He stopped and wiped his sweat as Kenshin entered.
 "Working hard, Yahiko," Kenshin commented with his usual smile.
 "Kenshin." Yahiko caught his breath and paused. Kenshin sat down besides
 "Kenshin, can I ask you something?" Yahiko said suddenly.
 "Sure, what is it?"
 "Is Karen-san stronger than you?"
 Kenshin looked surprised. "Karen-dono? Why do you ask?"
 ". . .she knows Hiten no Mitsurugi, too, right?"
 "But she hasn't learned all of it. I have."
 "So are you stronger than her?"
 ". . ." Kenshin thought for a moment. "I don't know. It's true that Karen-dono has
pretty much mastered Hiten no Mitsurugi, and that's not easy for a girl to do. But
I really don't know about stronger. What do you mean by strength? Strength of
body? Mind? Skill?"
 "All three."
 "Oro ..." Kenshin stared, then smiled a little. "Karen-dono is a girl. She can't do
anything about the physical differences between her and a male kenkaku. But she
has learned Hiten no Mitsurugi well, and changed it to fit her. I saw her do Ryuu
Shou Sen today, and I noticed she did a flip a second before she attacked."
 "Yeah, so did Kaoru. What does that mean?"
 "Putting a flip before an attack is dangerous. It can give your opponent a chance
to attack. It also increases your chance of messing up. But if you use it well, it can
increase your speed as you jump up, and it can also increase your strength as you
push off at the end of the flip." Kenshin tapped a finger on the wooden floor.
"Strength is not exactly something you can measure, Yahiko. Karen-dono, besides
her skill as a kenkaku, has been through much and has spilled much blood. Whether
she is stronger than me I don't know, but she certainly is very strong in both skill
and spirit."
 Sanosuke sniffed the air. "And in cooking, so it seems. Let's shut up and go and
eat, I'm hungry."
 "^^;" Yahiko rolled his eyes as he followed Sanosuke and Kenshin outside.
 Strength isn't something you can measure . . . I always thought that strength
meant just . . . strength. The ability to win. But perhaps that isn't so . . .
 "Do you have something against the fish, Yahiko-kun?" Karen demanded as they
sat down to eat.
 ". . .? No! No, Karen-san, not at all." Yahiko immediately began eating his food.
"It's a lot better than someone else's cooking around here. . ."
 "Yahiko!!!" Kaoru yelled.

 Karen sat up. Next to her, Kaoru stirred in her sleep. Karen quietly slid out from
under the covers and snuck outside, with a shawl to cover her shoulders. As an
afterthought she reached for her ninhontou and took it with her.
 The summer night was unusually cold. She sat on the wooden floor and leaned
against a post, her eyes lifted to the stars. It was a clear night, with no clouds,
and a gentle breeze ruffled her blue-black hair as she closed her eyes.
 A creak on the wood startled her. Her hand gripped the hilt of her sword.
 Karen let out a breath. "Kenshin-san. You scared me."
 "Sorry. I just heard a noise outside and wondered what it was. . ."
 "Just wondered? I see you had the wits to bring your blade with you though."
Karen let go of her own blade. "You are a hitokiri, after all. . ."
 Kenshin fell silent and sat down beside Karen. Karen unsheathed her sword and
examined the blade.
 "How many have fallen beneath this graceful silver crescent of metal," she almost
whispered. Her lips curved in a queer smile. "Such a thing of beauty. . .how
deceiving it is. . .deadly, always thirsting for blood. . ."
 "Do you?" Kenshin's face was hidden by a shadow. Karen laughed a little, her
beautiful face taking on a mysterious luminance under the faint light of the stars.
 "I don't know. . .do I?" she mused. "I am cursed, Kenshin-san, by my blood. My
mother's blood, that of an oiran, a woman forever destined to be a plaything of
men, forbidden to ever truly love someone. . . and my father's blood of a kenkaku, a
hitokiri, never able to rest, never knowing true peace."
 "Didn't your mother love sensei?"
 "She would have if she could have, but such love is deadly to an oiran. Yumi-san
knew that. Yumi-san was brave enough to leave. But my mother wasn't. And she had
me to think of." Karen let out a sigh. "I sometimes think things would have been
better if she had just followed my father, but she said she didn't want to be a
burden on a kenkaku, that she didn't want to be a weak spot of a person she
loved. . ."
 "Is that why you learned Hiten no Mitsurugi?"
 ". . ." Karen cocked her head to one side, as if thinking it over. "Possibly. At the
time I simply wanted to be able to fight, to thrash out against the world. The
first lesson my father taught me was, 'Ken is a weapon. . .' "
 " '. . .and Kenjitsu is the art of killing,' " Kenshin finished. " 'No noble cause can
change that truth.' "
 "Yes," Karen nodded. Her blue eyes reflected the night sky. "People say that this
is the new Meiji Era, but the rotten roots of the past one still exist. I am cursed
anyway, so a little more blood on my hands will not do much harm. If by the blood I
spill a new Era can continue its first steps, then gladly do I wield my blade."
 "Hm. . .quite a familiar phrase," Kenshin commented. "But Karen-san, the blood I
spilled as Baittousai is enough for the birth of one Era."
 "For the birth, but not for the continuance," Karen shook her head. She grasped
the hilt of Kenshin's sakabatou and pulled it out of its sheath. "This blade . . .it
holds the hope and dreams of the Meiji Era I wish for. One where all people can
live equally, peacefully, without hurting and killing one another for their own
greed." She looked at Kenshin. "You symbolize that Era, Kenshin-san. You are the
light that this Era must have. And I. . ." She shrugged wearily. "I am the darkness
which always exists behind the light. By the time my own blood is spilled, there will
be no need for a hitokiri anymore, I hope."
 "How about living in the Era you wish for, instead of being its shadow?" Kenshin
suggested quietly.
 Karen laughed, but there was a note of bitterness in her laughter that made
Kenshin flinch. "That is my destiny, Kenshin-san. Daughter of an oiran and a
kenkaku . . .destined to forever wander and shed blood when needed." She leaned
back and closed her eyes, her melodious voice suddenly tired. "I hope to be born in
a better era in my next life. . ."
 "Karen-dono. . ."
 Karen suddenly leaned sideways and put her head on Kenshin's shoulder. Kenshin
flinched in surprise. "Oro. . ." He flushed a little.
 "Just for a moment. . ." Karen whispered. "Your shoulder is like my father's ..."
 Kenshin looked surprised, then nodded. Karen smelled faintly of wild cherry
blossoms, which reminded him of another fragrance. Domoe . . . He closed his eyes.
When will an Era without tears come?
 Suddenly both of them froze and stiffened. Without moving her head, Karen's
hand slowly reached for her ninhontou. Kenshin likewise gripped his sakabatou.
 As if they had been given a signal, the two of them silently stood up and stole
across the yard to the wall. Several small voices could barely be heard.
 "Lower your voice, you idiot! Do you want to be heard?"
 "They're all asleep, anyway."
 "Didn't you see how they were yesterday night?" the voice hissed.
 "Isn't that why we have to kill them?"
 "Before the assassination takes place. . .they will be nothing but trouble if
they're alive."
 "But how?"
 "This." Kenshin and Karen heard a soft splashing sound, like a glass of water being
shook. "Poison."
 "Down the well?" the voice was skeptical.
 "It doesn't have any smell or taste. No matter how skilled a kenkaku they are,
they can't avoid this one." The other voice was smirking. "Let's go over. And shut
up if you don't want to die!"
 The two men quietly came over the wall. The Kamia dojo was as still as death. A
few leaves danced in the night breeze. Not a soul was to be seen. They stealthily
crept over to the well. One of them opened a flask. With an evil grin he started to
tilt it.
 A strong hand gripped his wrist and held it in mid air. The man drew in a quick
breath. "Hik. . .!!"
 "It's not a very good habit to steal into people's houses and pour poison down
their wells." Kenshin said calmly.
 The other man tried to run away, but found his way barred by Karen. "Going so
soon?" she said sweetly with a wink, casually twirling her sword.
 "Kenshin? Karen-san!" Kaoru stumbled outside, Sanosuke and Yahiko behind her.
"What's going on?"
 "We have a visitor," Karen looked over her shoulder and smiled. "Shall we make
him feel welcome?"

 Blood spurted from the man's mouth as he rolled on the ground. A very pissed
Sanosuke was standing above him. "You asshole, do you want me to pull out all your
teeth and string them on my neck? Eh?"
 The other man was likewise groaning on the ground, his face a mess from
Sanosuke's violent fists that had been only too glad to force information out of
him. Or try to force, that is. So far they had gotten nothing out of them.
 "It would be best for all concerned if you would talk," Kenshin commented. The
men said not a word.
 "Excuse me, may I try?" Karen said lightly, standing up from where she and Kaoru
were sitting.
 "Be my guest." Sanosuke growled at the two men moaning on the ground.
 Karen waited until they were able to sit up awkwardly. Their hands and feet were
tied, so it took awhile for them to get up again. Karen was patient. She knelt and
looked them in the eye.
 "Look here, misters. I know you have a job, and a boss, and you don't want to
betray him and all that."
 Her voice was smooth and sounded soothing, as if she was sympathizing with
them. She slowly unsheathed her blade and fondly rubbed its edge as she spoke.
 "But you see, I don't give a damn about your dirty group with its dirty rules."
 Her eyes fastened on them. Kaoru felt as if someone had poured ice water down
her back. Karen's eyes were gleaming with a strange light, thought her voice was
still calm.
 "Do you see this blade?" she held up her sword. "It's a wonderful blade, very
sharp, as your dead friends could tell you." She ran a finger on its sharp edge. The
men were shaking, but she was still smiling.
 She took the blade and very gently touched it to one of their cheeks, rubbing it
softly against his skin as she leaned toward him. Her lips were practically touching
his. The man was frozen with fear, as sweat poured down his face.
 "If you don't tell us what we want to know, mister," she breathed, "I will take this
blade and I will skin you and hang your skin in front of your dirty eyes for you to
observe while you beg for me to kill you. And if you still don't tell me what I want
to know, I will very slowly cut you in pieces until nothing is left but your heart and
your head, and then I'll preserve them so my grandchildren can use them for their
science experiments. So how about it?"
 Kaoru felt herself turning green. Sanosuke whistled while Kenshin stared at
Karen. Yahiko gagged. "Ew. . ."
 Karen straightened up and sighed. "Yahiko-kun, would you please run to the
station and tell the police to pick up these misters?"
 Yahiko faintly nodded and quickly ran out as the sun was rising. The men were
motionless, lying on the ground and pale as death. Karen yawned and sat beside
 "They're planning to assassinate Yamagata-sama tomorrow at noon."
 "...!!" Kenshin clenched his fists. "Where?"
 "That's the problem," Karen furrowed her brow. "As far as I know tomorrow is
not a special day. There are no events planned, and Yamagata-sama will be in his
heavily guarded office like any other day. I don't see how they're going to manage
such a feat."
 "But we must warn him nevertheless," Kaoru said worriedly.
 "Oh yes, of course," Karen nodded. "The question is how much good it will do."
She paused for a moment. "Yamagata-sama does have a habit of staying alone in
his office from noon until 4. He relishes his solitude. But his office is still guarded
from the outside. Hmph."
 "I guess we'll get to see Kyoto again tomorrow," Sanosuke commented. Kenshin
nodded. "Mm. . ."

 It was early next morning when the group arrived in front of the building where
the government officials worked. Yahiko gaped. It was quite impressive, built in
English style, and around it were numerous guards all armed heavily and taking
their work very seriously.
 "How are they going to get in here?" he asked breathlessly.
 "I wish I knew," Karen grinned. She was wearing a pale blue kimono, and her hair
was pinned up again. But her sword hung from her waist.
 Kaoru smoothed the folds of her own yellow kimono and sighed. "Are we going to
 "Hey." The voice was lazy and very slightly surprised. "What are you guys doing
 "Saitou. . ." Kenshin turned to see him slowly walking towards them with his usual
cigarette in his gloved hand.
 "We need to get in, Hajime," Karen raised an eyebrow. Saitou glanced at her,
then waved the soldiers aside. They saluted.
 "Lieutenant Fujita!" a tall man walked toward them. He was a foreigner, with
blond hair and a beard covering his face. He wore a Western style suit, and spoke
Japanese slowly but fluently.
 "Mr. Smith," Saitou greeted him in halting English.
 "A wardrobe for Mr. Yamagata is arriving, compliments of Lord Malberry." He
informed him. "I trust there will be no problems?"
 "None at all, Mr. Smith." Saitou shook his head, as if to imply he had more
important things to do than to worry about gifts.
 "Good morning, Mr. Smith," Karen slightly bowed.
 "Ah, Miss Karen, how lovely to see you," Smith bowed. "What brings you here?"
 "I have come to visit Yamagata-sama," she said smoothly. "There seems to be
some problems regarding the purchase of various Japanese lands by your people."
 "Ah, is there? Quite a shame," Smith shook his head. "I do not wish to fight with
the Japanese over land. Some of my countrymen are foolish. I hope you will
 "I do not presume myself competent enough to judge the culture of another
country, however strange it may be," she smiled gracefully. Smith laughed heartily.
 "It is a shame our English roses are not as witty nor as bold as the fair cherry
blossoms of Japan," he said amusedly as he bowed again. "Excuse me, I have
something important to attend to. Good day."
 "Is he someone important?" Kenshin asked. Saitou blew a cloud of smoke before
he replied.
 "He is the bodyguard of Lord Malberry, I think, and his advisor when needs be.
Much smarter than his boss."
 "He is one of the few which do not drool for our land," Karen supplied. Yahiko
 "See here!" a sharp voice suddenly snapped at them. Everyone turned to see a
short man walk (more like trot) towards them. He looked annoyed.
 "See here, Fujita, what is the meaning of this? Why are all these civilians here!"
he barked.
 "They have been invited by Yamagata-sama," Saitou answered with his usual
 "Does Yamagata-san think he owns this place? With what authority does he invite
civilians here?!"
 "Is he insulting us?" Sanosuke whispered loudly to Kenshin. Kenshin smiled
nervously.". . .^^;"
 "Are you questioning his authority, Raikoji-san?" Karen said insolently as she
walked past him. The rest followed her inside as Raikoji sputtered on his own
 "Who's he?" Kaoru asked.
 "An officer. Right below Yamagata-sama. He's all too eager to sell Japanese land
to foreigners. But so far he hasn't done anything illegal on the surface yet," Karen
explained as they walked down the hall and into a room.
 A tall man with a drooping mustache was sitting behind a large desk, writing some
papers. He looked up as they entered.
 "Himura? And Karen? What are you two doing here?" he stood up in surprise.
 "Konichiwa, Yamagata-san," Kenshin bowed along with the others.
 "We've come to warn you, Yamagata-sama," Karen said urgently. "Someone is
planning your assassination today."
 "Excuse us!" The door suddenly opened, and a large wooden wardrobe carried by
several men stumbled in. Yamagata looked at Saitou.
 "A gift from Lord Malberry," he explained shortly.
 "It must be heavy," Sanosuke commented as he watched the men stagger.
 Karen waited until the wardrobe was put in place and the men left. She idly
wondered what use a wardrobe would be in an office. Then she turned back to
 "Yamagata-sama, do not come out of your office today. We will stand watch and
capture the assassin."
 "Does this have to do with the land problem?" he asked calmly.
 "I think so," Karen nodded.
 "We were attacked a few nights ago ourselves," Kenshin added. "Do you have any
idea who might be responsible?"
 "I have a bad feeling it might be an inside job," Yamagata sighed and shook his
head. "Hm."
 "How about Raukoji-san?" Saitou suggested blandly.
 "I don't think he would have the guts to do something so big." Karen shrugged.
"But I guess we'll find out today. . ."