The sun was setting, casting its blood red rays over the horizon. Karen, now wearing a man-style kimono and her hair tied over her shoulder, was kneeling and washing the dishes in the yard. But her thoughts were elsewhere.

 This is too dangerous ... even if my original motive was to stay close to the Kamia Dojo, I don't think it was supposed to be this close! What was I thinking? Should I tell Himura the truth? She shook her head. Not yet ... not when everything is so unclear. At least guarding the people here has become easier ... although from what I can tell these people don't need any guarding. She smiled to herself.

 "Karen-dono!" Kenshin's voice brought her back. "It's getting late - what are you doing?"

 "Washing dishes," she answered. "Kaoru-san is with Yahiko-kun in the dojo." She rinsed the last plate. "There, I'm done."

 "Where are you from, Karen-dono?" Kenshin asked as he helped her move the dishes to the kitchen.

 "Kyoto," she answered promptly. "I used to be an oiran -- later I met someone who took me as his concubine. Now I wander where I please. But I'm surprised at you, Kenshin-san."

 " ...? Why so?"

 "I would think a fellow rurouni wouldn't ask questions about another rurouni's past." Karen wore a mischievous smile.

 "Oro .." Kenshin blinked. "You sure know a lot about us, Karen-dono."

 "You'd be surprised at what you can learn as a geisha. I know about you because..." she hesitated. "Yumi was my friend. She worked in the same place as I did before she met Shishio."

 "Aa ..." Kenshin was surprised. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it as Kaoru came out. "Whew! Kenshin, is the bath water ready?"

 "Yes," he pointed. "And Yahiko's, too."

 Karen suddenly felt a chill go down her back. Her eyes narrowed, and she slightly turned her head towards the door.

 "Karen-san? What is it?" Kaoru asked.

 " ...Nothing, nothing." Karen deliberately stretched and yawned. "I think I'll wash up and go to sleep, if you don't mind."

 "Of course. You must be tired. My room is down that way," Kaoru pointed. "Do you mind spreading out the blankets?"

 "No problem. Good night, Kenshin-san, Yahiko-kun." Karen bowed and walked off.

  As soon as she was out of sight, she quietly made her way next to the wall. With one jump she leapt on it, then lightly landed on the other side.  A figure was in the shadows, leaning against a tree. It was long and lean, and the outline of a blade showed up faintly in the near-darkness.

 "So ... you found your way inside," it said in a bland, cool tone. "Once again you surprise me."

 "I don't believe you've ever been surprised in your life," Karen spoke in a low, barely audible voice. "What are you doing here?"

 "My job." The figure shifted a bit. "Are you doing yours?"

 "Don't worry about me, you fool." Karen raised an eyebrow. "I'm capable of taking care of myself."

 "You're the only human on this earth that gets away with calling me a fool." The voice changed not an octave. "I'm warning you though, keep your distance. If you become too close to them, there will be future problems."

 "I've never been close to anyone ever since I became an oiran. I don't intend to start anytime soon. I'm as cold-blooded as you are, and you know it."

 "I have my doubts." A faint plume of blue smoke rose from the figure's mouth. "But I suppose you can look out for yourself. Till next time, then." The figure dropped its cigarette, squashed it with its boot, and sauntered into the darkness.

 "Chi ..." Karen made a movement of impatience and leapt back over the wall. Almost wearily she entered Kaoru's room and spread the sleeping rolls. She untied her katana, glanced at it for a moment, then slid it under her blanket as she lay down and closed her eyes.

 Sanosuke sauntered in soon after. "Sano, where've you been? It's rather late," Kenshin asked, pausing in the act of closing the gates.

 "Just around. How about the young lady?"

 "Karen-dono? She went to bed awhile ago. Why?" Kenshin looked at him inquiringly.

 "...nothing." Sanosuke stated to walk away, waving a farewell to Kenshin. He thought about what he had just seen outside. .
..I'll keep an eye on her myself.


 Karen took a deep breath of morning air. The day dawned crisp and clear, promising to be fine. Dew still clung to the leaves as she wandered through the bamboo forest, her katana dangling at her side. She stopped in a clearing, gripping the hilt of her blade.

 "Yah ~!" Karen suddenly, and with amazing speed, drew her sword from its sheath and made a quick slash. Then she gathered her muscles and leapt as high as she could.

 "Yaht!" With another yell she did a half flip and slashed down as she landed. As soon as her feet touched the ground she swiftly slid the blade back into its sheath, then took on a stance as the bamboo stems started to slide off their bases where she had cut them. With a single movement she took hold of the sheath, pulled out her blade, and again sliced the stems. Following right behind the blade came the sheath, hitting the wood full force. All of it shattered into pieces. Breathing hard, Karen wiped her sweat and looked up at the blue sky.

 "Karen-dono." She heard Kenshin's voice behind her.

 "Konichiwa, Kenshin-san," She greeted him. "Do you always wake up this early?"

 "It's a habit," he shrugged and smiled. "Where did you learn kenjitsu, Karen-dono?"

 "From my sensei," she said insolently. Kenshin blinked. "^^; oro..."

 "Practice all you want, Kenshin-san, I'll be making breakfast." Karen pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and started to walk back.

 "Karen-dono," Kenshin couldn't help asking something he had been thinking in the back of his head since yesterday. "Is ... Is your shishou, by any chance ... Hiko Seijuurou?"

 "I believe that's your shishou." Karen was not to be fooled. "I was taught kenjitsu by my father."

 Kenshin watched her back until she disappeared. Her blade, her skill ... I'm almost sure it is mine ... but that's impossible. Shishou said he never had any other pupils ... or did he? But I know for a fact he never married and had any children. Is there another form of Hiten no Mitsurugi other than the one I learned?


 "Konichiwa, Kaoru-san." Karen looked up from the bread she was making. "I hope you don't mind something different for breakfast. It's something I learned from a cook from England."

 Kaoru sniffed the bread baking on the fire. "It smells fine to me. But you don't have to do this ... you are our guest, Karen-san."

 "Please don't worry. I enjoy cooking." Karen paused from kneading the bread, and her eyes had an unfocused look. "I rarely have the chance to do anything so simple for anyone else...something that does not required blood."

 Kaoru wore an expression of concern, then replaced it with a smile. "Karen-san, will you teach me how to make what you're making?"

 Karen looked up, then seemed to recover herself. "Of course, Kaoru-san. Here, like this..."

 Yahiko was busy in the dojo, practicing down-strokes. "...499, 500! That's it for this morning." He wiped the sweat off his face and sniffed the air. "Something smells great."

 "Morning, people." Sanosuke leaned against the porch as Kaoru and Karen prepared breakfast. He stared at the rolls Karen set on the table. "Whazzat?"

 "Food," she replied. "Try it - it won't kill you, I promise."

 "Which ones did you make, and which did Jo-chan make?" he glanced at Kaoru, who returned his glance with a murderous glare. Karen laughed. "^^; We made all of them together. Eat."

 Sanosuke tore one in half and popped a piece into his mouth. "Say ... thif shuff tashtes great!" he exclaimed a moment later.

 "Thank you, Sanosuke-san. Yahiko-kun, breakfast is ready." Karen wiped her hands and looked up as both Yahiko and Kenshin approached the table. "Help yourself."

 Soon all was quite except the sound of contented chewing. Kaoru swallowed what was in her mouth and turned to Karen. "Karen-san, would you like to visit a dojo in the next village with me today? I was planning to visit anyway, and since Yahiko has to work at the Akabeko today, I would love it if you would come with me."

would've followed you anyway if you had left the dojo by yourself. Karen smiled to herself. Aloud she said, "Of course, I would be glad to."