*Warning: MAJOR spoliers for the Revenge story arc in the manga, and the OAVs (though I tend to use the manga as my primary source).
Hitokiri: Literally, "man-slayer." The term used for the most deadly and powerful samurai assassins used on both sides of the conflict in the Bakumatsu war.
Battousai: Kenshin's nickname, given to him by his comrades-in-arms. A play on the word "battou-jitsu," Kenshin's fighting style, which involves drawing the sword and attacking in one deadly movement.
Ishin-shishi: The Imperialist faction that tried and eventually succeeded in overthrowing the Shogunate's 300 year reign, restored the dispossessed emperor to the throne, and ushered in the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Snow Raven, Chapter 1
A spring rain, scarlet,
- excerpt from the private diary of Yukishiro Tomoe
I know him immediately when I see him.
"You will know him by his hair, girl," the old man told me. "Downright unnatural, it is. Hair as red as the blood he has splashed across the shadowed streets of Kyoto with his merciless sword."
But the old man was wrong. His hair is not like blood at all. Blood is a heavy, cold, shining color. His hair is, instead, the color of warm flames that linger in the embers of a dying fire; the color of a pale cloud stained scarlet by sunrise before a storm.
He is nothing like I imagined.
I pictured a huge man, older, with a body thick with muscle and lined with scars of battle. I never once in my darkest imaginings pictured this smooth-faced, flame-haired boy - who seems so slight of frame that it's a wonder he can even heft the swords that hang at his side - as the murderer of my fiance.
He sits quietly at the table, staring sightlessly into a cup of sake. And, unlike the other men in the dining house, he doesn't even look up as I enter.
I pause only for a moment, then sit at the table next to him, with my back to him. Yet, even now that I can't see him, that first moment is burned into my mind's eye and his image is before me still.
I order cold sake, because I have no appetite. And because I feel suddenly, desperately confused. Perhaps a drink will settle my nerves.
I can't be confused. Not now, not after all this time, after I've come all this way.
He was supposed to be a monster. A mortal demon of blood-lust and evil in a barely-human guise. Not this desolate, empty-eyed man-child, who looks as lost as I feel...
I wonder if he can sense me near him. If his killer instincts can perceive my intent toward him... the promise burned on my soul when I first received news of how my beloved Akira-san was slaughtered in the streets of Kyoto by the Ishin Shishi assassin...
I am going to destroy you.
But the fire behind my conviction, that has burned so brightly ever since I left Edo, seems to pale in his presence.
I raise the sake to my lips and drink, feeling deeply ashamed of myself. How can I avenge my loss when I allow myself to be swayed from my purpose simply because he is young? Simply because he doesn't fit my mental image of a brutal hitokiri?
He couldn't be more than fifteen... barely a man by law, and little more than a child in stature. At the very least, a full three years younger than myself...
So lost am I in these turmoiled thoughts, I notice too late that I have attracted the attention of a pair of truly brutish men. I look up as they saunter drunkenly towards my table, and I cannot fail to notice the irony that the hulking pair more closely resembles my mental image of my fiance's killer than does the boy behind me.
"Hey girl," one of them says; a man whose neck is as thick as a tree stump, whose jaw is square and solid as stone. His companion, a man not quite as muscled, his upper teeth protruding over his lower lip, leans over me, and I can smell the overwhelming reek of sake on his breath. "Would you care to join us for a toast?"
I return the man's unsteady gaze silently, my answer held within my eyes. Just as well that I am unable to show in my expression the sudden fear that fills my heart. For once, my shielding mask of impassiveness, which hides so well the griefs, joys and desires of my inner soul, serves me well. Better to seem indifferent than afraid with these types, since fear only feeds their aggressive natures.
But perhaps not this time. My seeming aloofness infuriates him and his companion. The man with the thick neck slams his fist on the table, yet I don't flinch, even when he shouts in my face. "Look, you ungrateful wench! We are the leaders of the Aizu branch of the Ishin Shishi! We risk our lives and kill for you lowlifes day and night! You owe us!"
Terror closes off my throat, and I cannot respond, even if I so desired. Yet, like a Noh performer, my impassive mask remains in place.
"Liars," someone across the room mutters softly. "Aizu's on the Shogunate side, you idiots."
"What was that?" The man turns towards the speaker, his hand on the hilt of his sword, but whomever it was who dared speak falls silent under that intimidating glare. Even so, I am grateful to them, for turning the attention of these men away from me.
The man with the over-bite chuckles. "Never mind. Just a bit of meaningless noise," he says.
The brute nods and grins condescendingly at the people who are now cowering before the threat of his blade. "It's someone's lucky day."
And he turns towards me again, his previous intent now magnified in his lecherous grin. Oh no, please, no... Please, just leave me alone...
Fear tightens my chest, and I can feel my heart pounding in my ears as he reaches for my wrist with a huge beefy hand...
"You two are the lucky ones," says a soft, piercing voice behind me, and I feel my breath catch in my throat at the sound of that voice. "If you had drawn your swords, you would be fighting me."
"Wha--?" The thick-necked man turns, eyes blazing furiously, grasping the hilt of his sword, ready in his drunken rage to slay the offending speaker...
But the boy is already there. Standing, though I never even felt him move from his seat. Dwarfed by the drunken man, who is more than twice his size in both height and breadth.
And the boy's eyes are no longer empty. They burn with cold amber fire as, with the lightning-quick movement of one slender hand, he stops the brute from drawing his sword, blocking the pommel with his palm.
The huge thick-necked man strains against the boy's hand to unsheathe his sword... and cannot move.
I wonder for a brief moment why the huge man doesn't just strike the boy down with his fist, breaking him like a twig...
...but then I see the raw fear in the larger man's eyes as he gazes down at the calm, inhumanly strong stripling before him. And in that moment, I also see the clear understanding in his expression that, if he were to make even the most minuscule threatening movement towards this boy, or anyone else... he would never draw another breath.
For the indisputable promise of swift, silent death gleams in the boy's heavy-lidded eyes.
"A word of warning," the boy murmurs in that low, silken voice; a gentle sound, yet laced with undeniable threat. "There is yet to be an uprising. There is no place for you hypocrites in Kyoto now. If you value your lives, go back to the country soon."
His quiet words seem to melt the fear of the other patrons, restoring their courage in the face of these oppressors.
"That's right, that's right!" one man agrees, shaking his fist at the would-be Ishin Shishi.
"Stay out of Kyoto, you charlatans!" shouts another.
The two men stare about in confusion, and I am amazed at how quickly their threat is reduced to mere bluster in the face of true power. Yet, even now, the larger man snarls, his confusion blossoming into fury in the face of his humiliation, his huge fists clenching--
"Leave," the young man says, so softly this time that only the men and I can hear. "On your own, or with my... assistance. The choice is yours."
His narrowed eyes are like seas of molten gold; calm, yet ready to consume in flames anyone foolish enough enter their depths...
I have forgotten how to breathe.
The large man grinds his teeth. His fists tremble, white-knuckled... then slowly unclench. Eyes lowered, he pushes his way past my table and out the door, his friend following closely behind.
The young man watches them leave (when did I start thinking of him as a young man and not a boy?), then reaches inside his sleeve to retrieve a few coins, which he tosses onto the table next to his unfinished food. He nods respectfully to the proprietor as he walks with an unthinking, silent grace towards the door. "Sorry about the trouble," he says.
"Oh, not at all!" The old proprietor clutches his serving tray to his chest and bows deeply. "Thank you!" But when he straightens, the young man is already gone into the night.
Conversation immediately erupts all around me as I sit motionless, my heart pounding in my chest, my hands tingling as they lay folded on the table before me.
"That kid is so strong..."
"Yes... Like a warrior of justice."
A silly thing to say, I think. The ramblings of someone who has had too much to drink...
I look down at my hands and see that they are trembling.
And I realize, only now that he is gone, that he never even looked at me.
There is a storm coming.
A cool breeze brushes my hair against my face, and I can smell rain on the wind as I walk slowly through the damp Kyoto night. Clouds, gray as ash, race across the full white face of the moon, and the dark streets gleam wetly from an earlier rainfall.
My thoughts are muzzy from the sake. I can't seem to get the image of the boy... of the hitokiri... out of my head...
And I can't help but wonder... what his eyes looked like when he killed Akira-san...
The wind blows, cold and wet. Thunder rumbles in the distance, yet the rain does not fall.
"He died an honorable samurai," my father told me as I knelt numbly, my calligraphy brush still poised, frozen, over the unfinished letter that I had been composing to my beloved. A great black stain of spilled ink spread slowly across the parchment, drowning my half-formed sentiments, sealing them forever away from human sight. Yet I remember the words still.
Come home, the letter had said. Think not that because smiles do not come to me easily, that you do not give me joy...
"Fighting for the glory of the Shogunate against the Ishin Shishi hitokiri," Father continued. "The reports say that his blade is the only one that has ever left a mark on that bloody assassin..."
As if knowing that Akira-san had shed another's blood before he fell would ease my grief, restore my happiness...
I could have kept him safe in Edo with tears... or even a single smile... but fear kept my impassive mask firmly in place, driving away the one who would have loved me forever...
And now... Now that I have come to avenge him after so much time has passed, the sake clouds my mind so that I cannot even remember his face.
Instead, my mind is filled with images of warm red hair. Of cold amber eyes. And a voice like the brush of a butterfly wing against a flower petal...
"H-help me! Somebody, help-"
My thoughts are jerked into the present by that scream, from the dark street that stretches out before me... and my heart freezes in my chest as I hear the scream abruptly silenced, wetly... followed by the sound of flesh hitting the stone ground...
"Nothing personal," says a deep, raspy voice from the darkness, and, even as my blood runs cold with terror, I am filled with a strange sense of relief to discover that it's not the boy. "But you were in my way."
I need to run. I need to get away from this place, quickly...
"You killed him, though he was no threat."
It's him. He is here... lost in the shadows of the street before me...
"He was in my way," the gruff voice repeats. "So... You are the Hitokiri Battousai."
I need to run.
But I don't.
"What do you want?" Even now, his voice, though filled with tension, is low, unassuming.
"I know you. I've watched you for a long time. I want... your life."
And the sudden, shrill sound of clashing steel fills the night.
I cannot move. I cannot run.
Not even when the two combatants leap from the shadows before me, even as the moon breaks through the storm clouds, abruptly illuminating the scene in an eerie pale light.
The gruff-voiced man is huge, even larger than the men from the tavern. He wields his swords, connected by the hilts with a length of chain, which he has somehow wrapped around the boy's thin frame, pinning his arms to his sides...
The huge man throws his katana at the boy's head... but the boy, moving so fast that I can barely see, dodges and catches the thrown sword by its chained hilt, even as the man leaps over him for the killing blow...
The boy screams a battle cry as he cleaves the man in half from shoulder to thigh with the chained sword... and blood splatters all over me, from head to foot...
The two halves of the man fall to the ground. And the boy lands lightly on his feet, facing away from me...
Blood. Blood... So much...
I cannot think.
There is blood everywhere. In dark rivers on the ground, in splashes against the skin of my hands and face, soaking into my kimono.
In rain, that falls from the sky.
And, as the loosened chains fall from around his body, he stands with his back to me, but the tenseness in his frame tells me that he knows I am here.
"White plum," I hear him breathe softly.
My perfume, I realize with numb surprise... He can pick up its scent amidst all this blood?
His shoulders are stooped and tense, and I can almost hear him thinking that I've seen too much, I know too much, I have to die...
Strangely, I am not afraid. Perhaps because of the pounding of my heart, my sudden light-headedness, the darkness flickering at the edges of my vision that threatens to swallow my consciousness right there.
But I cannot faint now...
"I came," I whisper, "out of gratitude for what you did back there." And, as the words leave my lips, I am surprised to discover that they are the truth.
He freezes at the sound of my voice. Then, slowly, he turns to face me. His face is pale, stricken with a look of wide-eyed shock.
And, as I look at him, eye to eye for the first time... I notice the scar on his left cheek. A thin, dark line that runs from the outer edge of his eye, down to his chin.
...his blade is the only one that has ever left a mark...
For a moment, without looking, the body at my feet is the corpse of my beloved. The mist of blood, falling from the sky against my face, is his.
And even now, I cannot remember his face...
...for I can only see the startled expression of one who protected me from harm in a small tavern just minutes before.
His amber eyes are feral and trapped, like those of a fierce tiger that finds itself unexpectedly caged behind bars of steel. Only I have willingly opened the door, and I stand, waiting. And, as his fist tightens around the hilt of his sword, I can see the tiger struggling to decide whether to leap and tear out the throat of its captor... or stay caged.
"It has been raining blood in these tragic times," I say quietly.
He pauses, uncertainty suddenly flickering in his wild, wide eyes.
"But..." I whisper, "you are the one who brings the rain, aren't you?"
Slowly... the feral glow fades from his eyes. And now, he is no longer a hitokiri, but a boy again.
A desolate, empty-eyed man-child--
He looks at me in horrified, stricken silence. The sword slides from the loose grip of his limp, bloodstained hand to clatter on the stone ground.
--who looks as lost as I feel...
The darkness swallows me then, and I welcome it.