By the time Sojirou came back, it was nightfall.
Karen was dozing peacefully beneath a willow tree, with her back against the
trunk and her sword on her shoulder. Sojirou moved silently, knowing she would
wake at the slightest sound. He looked at her as she drowsed.
Yumi had been beautiful - after all, she had been
one of the most popular oiran in Kyoto - but Karen was certainly as beautiful,
though in a slightly different way. Yumi's beauty had been fiery and somewhat
flaunting, but Karen had a subtle sort of charisma, cold and alluring at the
same time. Both the beauty of an oiran and the gracefulness of a kenkaku were
within her, and Sojirou wondered at the fate that made her as she was now.
Karen stirred and opened her eyes, seeing Sojirou
next to her. She smiled sleepily. "So, you're back. You did a good job."
Sojirou turned red and bowed. "Thank you, Karen-san."
For a moment silence hung in the air. Karen watched
as her breath formed little clouds of mist in front of her and pulled her shawl
closer, her eyes part of the night sky.
"What is ...your truth?"
Karen shot a glance at the younger man, her knees
drawn up to her chest. "My truth?" she mused. "That would be
hard to understand without knowing who I am."
"Who you are?" Sojirou puzzled. "You
are Karen-san. What more is there to it?"
Karen laughed. "You don't even know my last
Sojirou let out an 'ah' of recollection. "You're
right, I don't. What is it?"
"...^^;" Karen smiled. "My full name
is Hiko Karen."
"Hiko...?" Sojirou repeated.
The hitokiri nodded. "Maybe you don't know
the name... but Kenshin's sensei's full name is Hiko Seijuuro."
"...!!" Sojirou's mouth dropped. "Your
father is...? Then your kenjitsu is...?"
"Hiten Mitsurugi ryuu?" she finished.
"I suppose you could say that."
"So is that how you know Kenshin-san?"
Karen sighed. "I wish it were that simple..."
Sojirou snapped his fingers. "And Saitou-san!
You said you knew him, too. How is it so?"
"I met him when I was an geisha. Does that
answer your question?" Karen said dryly. Sojirou stared at her for a moment
before his jaw dropped and his eyes widened. Karen chuckled. "It is
a contradiction, this Meiji Era - an era of peace, yet its roots are steeped
in blood, and it still needs blood to keep it alive..."
"That's not what Himura-san believes..."
"He knows, but he clings to the belief that
there is still hope," Karen smiled bitterly. "And there is... for
some. My truth? I don't believe in hope, not for me. People like me... and like
Hajime... people who can kill without feeling so much guilt like Kenshin does,
are needed for an era to start and to live. I believe that this era will be
one where at the very least people can live in a sort of peace, and it is for
that peace I fight." She lowered her eyes, and for a moment Sojirou thought
he could see something sparkle on her cheek. "An era where neither geisha
nor kenkaku will exist..."
Sojirou silently watched her as she lifted her face, and timidly lifted a bottle of sake still left. She stared, then giggled. "You've learned a lot in a short time."
Yahiko strolled down the streets of Kyoto, errand-intent. Around him, the old capital stirred to greet the morning, and Yahiko couldn't stop from looking all around him, at the buildings and streets and people. He'd been here before, but it was still all unfamiliar to him. The morning air was cool and made him shiver.
"Tofu, please," he said to the storekeeper.
Soon he was heading home with tofu in bucket. Come
to think of it, tomorrow is exactly a year from that day...
"Hey kid." Yahiko was startled out of
his thoughts by a gruff voice. He looked up coolly to see two men looming over
"We'll give you 100 yen if you answer our questions."
Yahiko stared at them for a moment in confusion
before Saitou's warning flashed in his mind. He shrugged. "Shoot"
"What is the name of that female hitokiri that
was with you last summer?"
"...sorry, can't remember," he shook his
head. "It wasn't like she stayed that long anyway. Next question."
One of the men growled, but the other out a hand
out. "All right. Then what is her relationship with that lean policeman
that visited you yesterday?"
"With Sa... Fujita?" Yahiko caught himself
in time. He thought for a moment before answering. "They work together.
The man let out a grunt. "Where is she now?"
"Behind you," a voice answered him.
The next moment Yahiko leapt out of the way as the
men slumped to the ground. Behind them stood a figure holding a sword still
in sheath. Yahiko blinked. "Karen?"
"Konichiwa, Yahiko-kun," she said cheerfully.
"So you do remember my name."
"You heard?" Yahiko grinned. "Saitou's
looking for you."
"There's a first," Karen raised an eyebrow.
"But what are you doing in Kyoto?"
"We're here on a visit, at the Aoiya. Come
on, Kaoru was worried about you." He started to walk off. Karen grabbed
his collar. "Wait a sec, Yahiko-kun."
Yahiko paused. "What, Karen?"
"I have... a friend that's here with me, and
it wouldn't be good for us to be seen. Tell Kenshin that I'll meet him tonight."
Karen smiled mysteriously. "He will know where
he is supposed to be tonight."
With that, she retreated into the shadows. Yahiko stared after her, scratched his head, and continued on with his tofu.