Chapter 1: The Guests
NHK Taiga Drama Shinsengumi! is written by Mitani Koki and produced by Yoshikawa Koji. Additional historical information is provided by the sole English book on the late Bakumatsu period police force, Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps by Romulus Hillsborough. Moeyo Ken written by Shiba Ryotaro, 1966 film of the same name (Blazing Sword to Western audiences) directed by Ichimura Hirokazu, screenplay by Hasebe Toshiro, Kato Tai, Morisaki Azuma. Shinsengumi! main theme written by John Ken Nuzzo. All original characters for this fanfic belong to emmafrostwhitequeen1.
She Wolf of Mibu
Chapter I: The Guests
Port of Yokohama, Late Spring 1864
The HMS Adams reached its port of call sometime after tea but certain guests were asked by the magistrate to remain at the harbor. By the time Shogunate representatives reached them, it was dark and only a grey haired samurai in a black kataginu on horseback with his attendant greeted them.
“Koban wa,” he dropped a bow, “and many apologies. I’m afraid the accomodations weren’t ready as scheduled- such is beauracracy. I am Sakuma Shouzan, the Bakufu’s main advocate on foreign trade.” He introduced himself with a jaunty smile, and despite the time he didn’t appear the least bit tired.
“Apologies aren’t necessary, I’m quite accustomed to the quirks of government.” Sakuma assessed the tall, blonde Englishman behind his grin. "I’m Sir St. John Brantley, account manager at Barclay’s, you may call me Shin. I’m most honored to meet you Sakuma-sama."
“Your Japanese isn’t bad, I take it you learned in China?”
“An old old master put me through my paces,” St. John downplayed himself. “But my daughter is far better.” A young woman came forward and pulled back the hood on her dark blue mantle. Piles of honey-blonde curls were highlighted by the lantern in the now quivering attendant’s hand.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Sakuma-sensei.” She bowed graciously. “I’m Elizabeth Brantley, and you may call me Reina.”
Sakuma burst out laughing and tapped St. John’s shoulder with his fan.
“Did you hear that, Hannya?” He called over his shoulder to his attendant.
“Eh?” Hannya groaned drowsily from under his sugegasa.
“Enthusiasm! I like it so far. Let’s not dawdle, we’ve got quite a ride. Get them their wagon.”
“Where exactly are we staying, Sakuma-sensei?” Reina asked.
“You can imagine how Edo’s a right mess what with all the special foreign guests of Our Lord, and of course, our nobility just pouring in. So we’ve had to forward our guests to the outlying villages. You and your father have been set up in Tama. Their biggest cash crop is silk, and aside from a few frogs, nothing much happens there.”
Hannya brought round the wagon then helped his master to mount. Shin and his daughter got into the driver’s seat and Hannya jumped into the cart and made himself comfortable for a nice sleep.
“I was told by the Shogunate that when my business concludes in Edo that we were to wait for our escorts to bring us to Kyoto.” Shin said. “Is traveling unsafe for foreigners?”
“Banditry is a problem currently,” Sakuma explained. “Ronin have become a serious threat to everyone frankly, and to have the reputation of Our Lord soiled by common highwaymen isn’t only an outrage, it’s an insult.”
“Ronin are masterless samurai, aren’t they sensei?” Reina asked.
“You needn’t come from the samurai class to be ronin, my dear.” Sakuma explained.
“But I thought swordplay was limited to the warrior class.”
“The threat of invasion has always been first and foremost on our minds.” Sakuma said. “If our peasants and merchants can get mobilized to protect the Shogun, there’s no argument. The flourish of martial arts in Tama, for example, were for two reasons, during the Kamakura period many of the soldiers came from the region. The second was more recent what with the Black Ships and our recession doing its damage, the Shogunate is hard-pressed to come up with the funds to pay the magistrate to properly police. So the village heads got together and opened up their own dojos having every and any swordmaster come to teach. But if one wants to be a samurai, it’s just not kowing how to use your blade- any fool can swing a sword- history, philosophy, even poetry, our warriors must be true renaissance men!”
“Are you considered a scholar, then?”
Sakuma bobbed his head proudly. “After long study I became quite in favor of an open doors policy. Eastern morality, western technology, I believe firmly that these things can join hands.” He thrust out his hand to Reina and she shook it. “We Japanese needn’t give up anything to accomplish great things in this world. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, but small-mindedness never gets anyone anywhere. And worse yet, it may even have dire consequences.”
“Are those your fears for your country, Sakuma-sama?” Shin asked.
“Ah,” Sakuma said gravely. “But our leaders who know this are distracted by status and past glory. Or are just plain corrupt.” He sighed and went on, “my fear is that the philosophy will be twisted and our enemies may use it to wreak havoc in the future. Take advice young lady, life is a learning process, you must never stop.”
“Then I’ll be learning a lot in Tama.” Reina said.
The conversation got lighter as the party trundled down the road out of town. Heading in the same direction were two young men strolling leisurely ensuring that they kept their distance behind the guests.
“Heisuke, I really like this job.”
Itoshiki tomo wa izukoni
Kono mi wa tsuyu to kietemo
Wasure wa senu atsuki omoi
Makoto no na ni tsunoishi
Tooi hi o ano hata ni takushita
* * *
Reina rolled on her back, the temple with was lit with sunrise. She flew off her heap of Indian pillows and ran onto the fifth storey balcony of the pagoda. Japan flew its best springtime colors, the mikos on the courtyard swept, and people milled about.
“It’s exactly as I imagined it.” She folded her arms on the fence and rested her chin. The kannushi, Ryuugen, called them to breakfast in the main hall of the Takahatasan Temple an hour later.
“So what’s on the itinerary, Dad?”
“The Hino village leader Sato wants to see us before I go back to Edo.”
“What do you know about these escorts from Kyoto?”
“Sakuma-sama tells me they’re a local Kyoto militia, but not known up here in Edo.”
“I thought the Aizu domain army kept order in the capital.”
“In theory, my dear. But the truth is politics has been gumming up the works for years. If the magistrate doesn’t have the budget or manpower, they turn to the army. The army says let’s say, burglary, is a petty matter for them and nothing gets done. The merchants association bands together and complains to the magistrate and refuses to pay their taxes if they’re forced to hire personal security for their businesses.”
“And there goes the chain reaction of chaos.”
“But it isn’t as simple as all that,” A servant said filling their miso bowls. “Originally the militia was created to protect Our Lord during his stay in the capital. The imperial court and the Shogunate have been in conflict for some time, but it reached its apex when the Black Ships arrived ten years ago. The emperor is kept ignorant of the realities of warfare, but when he accuses Our Lord of weakness the people take it very seriously. On the other hand, the other use of the militia was to aide in your expulsion. There are many who support the Lord and don’t want you.”
“Do they still not want us?” Shin asked.
“That depends on who you ask. Our Lord thought prudently and ignored the expulsion deadline.” The servant got to his feet. “If we remain an island unto ourselves, we will no longer have this island.”
“Does this militia have a name?” Reina said.
“Shinsengumi. It means ‘new age builders’.”
* * *
In the wagon they set out for Hino, in perfect rows farmers spread seed on Sato fields, and at the end of the road was the gate of the Sato family’s main house, the wooden entrance opened the for the wagon, and the Brantleys disembarked meeting the chief servants.
“I am Ryota.” The man said.
“And I’m Mao.” Said the woman. They bowed. “The lord and lady are expecting you.” Reina looked this way and that as she and her father were led up the path of the sprawling estate.
“It’s gorgeous.” She whispered to her father.
“And their family houses are a great deal older than our nobility.” Following Mao and Ryota into the reception room, Shin and Reina greeted Sato Higokoro and his wife Nobu.
“Welcome to Tama!” Higokoro announced giving the Brantleys permission to rise from their bows. “We are honored to receive special guests of the Shogun.” He directed them to places on the tatami.
“We are honored to be guests of Tama.” Shin said.
“This is a but a minor token to show our gratitude.” Reina handed Nobu a brown box tied with a white lace ribbon.
“Thank you very much.” She gave it to Mao and Ryota served the tea.
“I must admit we were very surprised that our town would be hosting foreigners,” Higokoro said, “but considering Brantley-sama brought his family, it did put us at ease.”
“I certainly hope we’re not too scary.” Reina quipped, everyone laughed having chipped the ice then refreshed themselves. Nobu had a heart-shaped elegant face indicative of her beauty in her younger years, and Higokoro was a disarming-looking fellow with a chonmage.
“You’re very pretty,” Nobu said to Reina startling her. “I can’t wait to meet your mother. When will she be along?” Reina looked to her father nervously, then twisted her hands into her denim blue skirt.
“My wife and older son died in a tuberculosis epidemic in China two years ago.” Shin told them.
“We are very sorry,” Higokoro said apologetically. “Consumption is no stranger here.”
“Both of my parents died of it.” Nobu said gently to Reina.
“It hasn’t been easy, but Reina and I believe in looking forward. My wife was of this mindset too, and coming to Japan was definitely a way for us to look forward.”
“Well then,” Higokoro slapped his knees, “let’s do our best and keep our heads up! How long will you be staying, believe it or not there’s much to do in Tama.”
“Three weeks at most, but I’ll be returning to Edo tomorrow.” Shin said. “It’s Reina who’ll need the guided tour.” Reina smiled at her hosts hoping Nobu had all the juicy gossip.
“Eh? You’re leaving a young girl cooped up in a temple- ALONE?” Nobu gasped.
“I hope not, Nobu-sama!” Reina laughed. “I’m quite used to being on my own, but as this is my first time in Japan, I hope to make friends and to see some of the truly beautiful places.”
Nobu and her husband looked at each other. “Then we have just the companions for you.” Higokoro said.
Circling round to the rear of the house was a semi-open structure where a group of men were exercising. Reina flinched hearing their animal-like shrieks, Shin excitedly jogged ahead of Higokoro.
“Don’t worry,” Nobu comforted her. “It sounds more threatening than it is.” In the middle of a circle of men were two combatants in full bogu exchanging blows with shinai. The man with the red stringed men advanced upon his competitor swiping at his lower extremities. The other man dodged but did little better trying to strike the other’s head. They danced around and their bamboo clashed and clacked, neither side giving up the fight. Red string gathered himself and waited, Reina sucked in a ball of air and wondered if biding his time was wise. His opponent went for a downward strike when red string made a flicking gesture with his wrist, knocking the shinai out of the way and smacking his saki-gawa into the other man’s face mask.
“Match!” A man with a topknot sitting seiza shouted throwing up his arm in red string’s direction. Topknot reminded Reina of a Buddha, he had a genteel face with hawkish eyes and hands resting perfectly still on his thighs. The combatants bowed to one another and stood at their sitting spots. “Head instructor Okita.” Topknot turned beside him to a scrappy-looking schoolboy with a snaggletooth, shaved pate and ponytail.
“While you did win the match Hijikata-sensei,” Okita said to red string, “you still have a nasty little habit of keeping your sword tip pointed too far to the right. Things like that can be costly in the future.”
Hijikata’s shoulders slumped at Okita’s bright criticism. “Thank you for the reminder.” Reina took half a step back shielding herself behind a beam so as not look as if she were staring, but it was hard to make out Hijikata’s face from behind that grille. Higokoro wagged his fingers at topknot getting his attention.
“That’s all for today,” topknot said to the class. “Thank you, and dismissed.” They bowed and filed out, schoolboy noticed Shin and Reina and jumped to one of the students who stayed back nudging him, another young man with a chonmage, wide eyes and an innocent face. They beamed at them but stayed put obviously letting topknot make his greeting first.
“Kondo-waka sensei, our foreign guests just arrived.”
“So it seems Sato-sama.” Kondo bowed formally to Shin. “Good afternoon, I’m Kondo Isami, fourth master of the Tennen Rishin Ryu of the Shieikan dojo. I’m very pleased to meet you Brantley-sama.”
“I’m very impressed with you, waka sensei.” Shin said. “I was in the army and studied fencing. But it was nothing like that.”
“Arigato gozaimasu.” Reina caught his eye and he beckoned to her. “Odyo-sama.”
Reina looked at Nobu who encouraged her to enter the dojo, she stepped out of her white slippers and her father helped her up the stairs.
“My daughter Reina.”
She bowed. “Kondo-waka sensei.”
“Reina-chan’s father will be going back to Edo for The Lord’s business tomorrow,” said Nobu putting her hands on Reina’s shoulders, “so we thought Soji and Heisuke would be perfect for keeping an eye on her.” She pointed to the fish-mouthed pair speechless at the tall, blonde, bluer-than-blue-eyed first foreign woman they’d ever seen.
“Soji! Heisuke!” Kondo whipped them back into reality. They bounded up to Reina and bowed clumsily.
“Shieikan, head instructor, Okita Soji desu!”
“But you’re so young!” Reina said.
“The youngest in the Shieikan’s history- a-and I’m Todo Heisuke, visiting student!” Heisuke stuttered.
“He’s mokuroku ranked in the Hokushin Itto Ryu, but a fast learner for Tennen Rishin!” Soji said.
“Eh?” Heisuke flushed at Reina’s expression.
“Well it seems like everyone’s getting along here,” Kondo said. He looked behind and frowned. “Oi, Toshi, quit being so anti-social.” Reina tried to distract herself from staring at Hijikata’s very nice arms. Hijikata removed his mask slower than usual. Lacquer black ponytail with a flip at the end, bangs that stuck out at either side of his forehead like spider legs, bedroom brown eyes, and apple cheeks. His lips were smallish but soft looking.
“Shieikan, instructor, Hijikata Toshizo.” He bowed to Reina. Her pink-red lips streched into a nervous smile, she folded her arms behind her back and pinched the inside of her elbow so that her knees didn’t disappear. Kondo grinned tightly to no one’s notice.
“Toshizo,” Nobu said to her younger brother who wouldn’t break eye contact with Reina, “dinner will be served soon. You might want to get ready now.”
“Hai.” Hijikata excused himself and Kondo looked to his two younger charges.
“Soji, Heisuke, when we get back meet me after dinner. I must speak with you.”
“When Brantley-sama returns, the Shieikan will have an official welcome for you.”
“What’ll it be?” Reina asked Kondo.
“A field match at Rokusho Shrine. Then you’ll see the true capabilities of Tennen Rishin.”
“Looking forward to it Kondo-waka sensei.” Shin said.
“Come by the Shieikan tomorrow,” Soji invited Reina. “You’ll meet everybody, and then we’ll take you around.”
“We know all the best places!” Heisuke said.
“It’s a promise then.” And they pinky swore on it.
* * *
Nobu’s older brother Tamejiro returned just in time for supper- as he had the busiest social life- and for a blind man, not only was he incredibly independent to move about without a cane, he was a talent with a shamisen. Tamejiro was a robust man with a short ponytail dressed in a tasteful dark green kimono.
“The shamisen shop’s buzzing about you two,” Tamejiro said, “had we known you were staying at our family temple we should have visited you as Shin-sama is leaving for Edo tomorrow.”
“Is Takahata-san your family temple?” Reina asked.
“Ah.” Hijikata made his entrance fresh from the furo. He took his seat beside Tamejiro, in front of Reina. “And we should pay our respects regardless. As soon as possible.” Gone was the bad boy at the dojo, and a country squire took his place. Hijikata wore a classy dark charcoal colored kimono with light grey square patterns and a fan tucked in his brown obi. His hair was slicked back and still drying, Reina preferred his fringe. Ryota had the trays laid out and Mao manned the rice bucket, tea was made for Reina as someone needed to be sober enough to drive the wagon.
“What exactly is Shin-sama’s business with Our Lord?” Hijikata asked.
“In the international press our bank’s reputation suffered somewhat.” Shin didn’t mince words. “Arbitrage is nothing new, and since I have extensive experience in the Orient, I was called in to sweep up.”
“Corruption is the order of the day here,” Sato said putting a chunk of snapper into his mouth. “Some believe if nothing changes, the Shogunate will fall.”
“But the Shogunate did allow the foreigners in. I’m grateful to the government.” Reina said.
“Yet the British are one of the belligerents fighting down in Shimonoseki as we speak.” Hijikata topped off her cup.
“Aren’t the Choshu clan giving problems to the Shogunate?” Reina refilled his sakazuki.
He smiled. “So you are paying attention.” His smile dropped and the piercing look he was giving her in the dojo returned.
“The Choshu are going too far,” Nobu said. “I know they’ve been at odds with the court for over a century, but their defiance will be the death of them.”
“Bloodshed in the capital can’t last forever. What would they gain by killing everybody?” Tamejiro asked.
After the trays were taken more tea was brewed and sake warmed, and they were brought out with the chocolates Reina gave Nobu. She and Tamejiro especially enjoyed them. Reina left the latrine and the earlier conversation rolled around like marbles in her skull. How could they be so dead casual about about all the chaos breaking around them? From down the hall she could hear the conclusion of Sato’s song, and her father’s laughter and applause. Reina stopped in front of a room with an open shoji and through the window she spotted a spiderweb woven in a tree branch. A cricket was caught and the arachnid was crawling down towards its dinner.
“I always say to Kat-chan, don’t brood alone.” Reina couldn’t spin fast enough, Hijikata stood there grinning.
“Hijikata-san, you surprised me.” She said a bit winded.
“I’m sorry.” He wasn’t sorry one bit, but she said nothing. “Would you like to come in, it’s my room after all.” Reina didn’t want to get into a lesson regarding European sensitivities and come off rude, so she attempted the easy way out.
“Don’t you think we should get back, it doesn’t look well for us to vanish.”
“As much as I enjoy Nii-chan’s playing, Aniue’s singing isn’t what you call easy on the ears.” He gestured for her to precede him. “Please.” No apparently wasn’t an answer for Hijikata and she walked in.
“Shitsureishimasu.” She bowed to him, Hijikata closed the shoji. She looked around, like most Japanese rooms furnishings were spartan, but the house was well kept and the room spotless. A wall scroll with a night scene and Chinese writing, a low laquer table with paper and ink stone aside a short stack of books, and a tall brown chest of drawers with a triangular shaped piece of blue and white cloth on its top. Reina stopped short when she saw Hijikata’s daisho on its stand. Seeing men walk about with swords was nothing new, but Hijikata’s sageo was red. Black was the common color, occasionally she saw blue and purple, but never red. He was determined to prove that he can stand out in a crowd.
Hijikata observed Reina from behind quietly allowing her to make the first move. As was his habit he scrolled his eyes up a person’s body from heel to head judging whether or not they were worth his spent breath. Women of course were another story, but as this was his first foreign woman, he wanted to play the game carefully. Her hair covered the whole of her back, so he was a little disappointed that he couldn’t see her nape. But he liked the red ribbon that was tied at the end. Her breasts were large, and her white blouse was tucked in tight and low cut making her waist look smaller. The flared skirt obscured her hip shape, but the sway indicated perfect roundness. She was nearly his height, and he knew her slippers were flat- foreign women were said to always wear heels- so she might have an issue with that. She was a big girl who could handle anything he’d throw at her.
According to Yamazaki’s profile Reina was 22, and completed her studies in England before returning to the Shanghai International Settlement. She was born in London but she and her older brother Christopher were raised in India, Africa, and Australia before the family’s last stop in China. Her brother joined the Royal Navy and was on leave when the epidemic struck, killing both him and the mother.
“Hijikata-san, may I ask you something?”
“You may ask me anything.”
She turned around. “Who is Kat-chan?”
“That’s my nickname for Kondo-waka sensei.” Was that relief? Did she think that was a woman? How sweet. He had 12 between Osaka and Kyoto, with a few trifles here in Edo, but they were paid for. With his career just beginning to take off he preferred the geishas. He got a kick out of the competition and they were handy spies.
“How long have you known Kondo-waka sensei?”
“Since I was 17.”
“How old are you?”
“Thirty.” He saw the whites of her eyes very clearly in the low light. “I’m going to take that as a compliment.”
“Take whatever you want.” She mumbled stunned.
I intend to. “Did you enjoy today?” Hijikata sat and Reina followed after he made himself comfortable.
“Yes, although I was very nervous about entering your dojo. I’m afraid I don’t know the etiquette.”
“You did fine. Oh yes, thank you for the chocolates,” Hijikata tried out this newest word and hoped it sounded right.
“It’s not as sweet as konpeito, but I chose that particular type for that reason.”
“Would you like to try some wagashi?”
“Ah!” Hijikata went to his drawers and pulled out a plate with something wrapped in a furoshiki.
“Normally I live at the Shieikan so I don’t have to do this, but whenever I get sweets and I’m staying here my cousin Yukina-chan has some sort of sixth sense and turns up.”
“Hoshino Yukina-san? You mean one of the mikos at the shrine is your relative?”
He nodded. “It’s tradition to have one daughter or another serve the shrine.” Hijikata set the plate on the tatami and untied the cloth. “These sweets came on the scene just a couple years ago, they’re called amananatto. Azuki beans lightly fried in syrup.”
The beans were amber colored and jelly-like with a thick dusting of sugar. They crushed easily on Reina’s tongue, and the mixed sweeteners of the sugar and bean drenched her palette. “They are delicious!”
“They’re best with green tea. The original shop they’re from is in Edo, so make sure your father pays you back when he returns with some of these.” Hijikata said.
“I will, but he’ll blame you for putting the idea in my head.” Reina said.
“I’ll take the responsibility.” They laughed. Reina made the largest beans on the top vanish, Hijikata took his from the sides. “You must really be looking forward to your walking tour with Souji and Heisuke.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “They look like fun.”
“I like them a lot too, but Soji’s a handful so watch out.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.” Reina said.
“I will also make myself at your disposal should you need anything.” Her breath caught as Hijikata expected.
“Why not?” He was enjoying himself.
“Because… Hijikata-san seems the type to be needed eleswhere.” She went to eat another bean to hide her nerves when she saw the first wave. It looked like heat vapor, but the temperature felt normal. Reina looked at the spiderweb again. The cricket was half eaten. “Hijikata-san, do you know what sonno joi is?”
“That’s chatter for chatterboxes I can’t stand.”
“Then you are a martial man.”
“I am,” he confirmed.
“Do people want us dead here?”
“Do you want me dead, Hijikata-san?”
“No. I just want you.” Footsteps in the hall were quick and Reina heard her father’s voice mixed with several others.
“Is going to his room,” The voices faded and Hijikata pressed her down by the shoulders. “If he leaves later in the day tomorrow, Our Lord will know no better. This is Tama after all.” Reina heaved a shuddering breath of surrender. “And now I will take care of you.” Her eyes screwed up to his and he put her under a trance laying her on the floor softly. First kisses were supposed to be shocks to the system as Reina heard, but when Hijikata licked her mouth open she just felt like cement had poured out of her brain.
“Your breasts are beautiful.” Hijikata licked and plucked her pink nipples with his teeth. He hiked up her skirt and tossed aside her little bloomers. Reina did like the Arabs and sugared her hair, there was a flaxen strip on her pubis, he spanked her mons, creating a lot of moisture. Hijikata twisted his tongue into her pussy and anus loosening them, her hymen was in perfect shape so he had to make it quick.
Reina’s vision was cloudy but when Hijikata stripped she reddened when she saw how kenjutsu gave him a fantastic body. Hijikata sighed relishing the skin-on-skin contact, Reina had gorgeous muscle tone and a shapely ass that stuck out in a firm bump. They rolled around on their clothes, Reina’s hair was a silky mess and goosebumps raised on Hijikata’s thighs as it slid over them while she kissed and pawed his chest. She had a thing for pectorals. Hijikata wiped the hair off the back of her neck and bit. She made a warbling noise and he called the foreplay.
Hijikata sat back on his haunches and dragged her hips on his lap. Deflowering a foreign girl was an honor, he wet his lips and grabbed his pre-come soaked cock getting himself into position…
He snapped his head to the window that Inoue Genzaburo was under. “Damn you Gen-san and your punctuality!” Hijikata hissed. He went soft and got momentarily depressed, then went to his closet and dressed. The god of lust would have lost out to the god of sleep regardless, Reina looked charming curled up with the tip of her thumb wedged in her teeth. He kissed her neck and draped his discarded kimono over her. “Stay warm for me.” Hijikata snuffed out the candle, took his swords, stuck her hair ribbon in his sleeve, and left quietly joining Gen-san outside.
TO BE CONTINUED
Chapter 2: Country Boys
Life at the Shieikan isn't easy, but it's always lively. Especially if someone's out to kill you.
Chapter II: Country Boys
“I’d say you were pretty lucky you have hosts who can throw a good party. We feared the worst.” Sakuma said. The Satos, the servants, Shin, and Reina worriedly looked at him and the official from the magistrate.
“How many did you say?” Higokoro asked.
“Three men were found dead by the bridge,” the official said. “We believe it happened some time last night.”
“This is Tokuta,” Sakuma introduced, “he was one of the first on the scene when the magistrate alerted me.”
“Was it thieves?” Nobu asked.
“Possibly, we’re not ruling it out.” Tokuta said. “But there was an altercation of some kind. No one we questioned recognized this group. Also, the bridge leads to the main road, and these men were either going to or coming from town. As our investigation is still ongoing, there is a report of a fight happening at the Okuni-ya tavern earlier in the evening.”
“Well we know nothing as we were here all day and night,” Shin said a little blearily.
“Our main concern was whether or not you were on the bridge when this happened.” Sakuma said.
“We don’t know yet if this drunken bar fight was related or not, but I personally don’t believe in coincidences.” Tokuta said, Sakuma looked at him but made no reply.
“Where’s Toshizo?” Higokoro asked Ryota.
“Kondo-waka sensei turned up very early and asked for him.” Ryota explained. “He was reluctant to tell me why.”
“News travels fast.” Tokuta said.
“Tokuta-san, is it safe for us to return to the temple?” Reina asked.
“Yes, but I would ask that you avoid taking the bridge.”
“There’s a scenic route.” Tamejiro said. “Very nice, but a bit longer.”
“I think it’s best.” Shin said.
“I will arrange a guard for you, just in case.” Said Tokuta.
* * *
Shin took some water then returned to his bed at the temple. Reina paced for the better part of the night. Was that a dream or not? Her hair ribbon was missing, but she woke in a guestroom fully clothed. The simplest explanation was that her ribbon was mislaid, and she was the victim of an unrequited crush. By the next morning all was well again and Reina was seeing her father off.
“You know I don’t complain,” she said in English.
“You never do.” Shin said taking both her hands. “Your mother always said you were the resilient one. I want you to know that risk-taking is never all bad, and that when we came here, I had your best interests in mind.” Reina nodded dutifully. “No matter where I go, I will always be with you. And no matter what you do I will always love you.” Shin kissed the top of Reina’s head, and she hugged her father powerfully. He hopped into the wagon’s driver’s seat and Reina handed him his briefcase.
“And tell Mr. Greyson I expect his to be the best present at our housewarming in Kyoto.” Reina said about her father’s best friend and colleague. She followed the wagon down the road and watched it until she could no longer see it.
“Reina-san!” Hashimoto Yukina called out to her.
“What is it Yukina-san?”
“Message from the Shieikan. Okita and Todo are expecting you.”
* * *
Yukina’s directions were only a little confusing, but when Reina finally found the Shieikan her glee became paranoia. Would she be able to look Hijikata in the face? For a split second she considered cutting and running, but Todo and Okita didn’t deserve that. The dojo was surrounded by a stone terrace, she walked down the steps and approached cautiously.
“Suimasen! Ohayo gozaimasu!” Reina said entering the alley. In the open doors of the main house was a wooden screen with Chinese writing, to her left was a well and a storehouse, over the fence was the stable and crops, and to her right was another wing of the house where she could see open walkways leading to the dojo.
“You bastard!” A chicken leapt flapping its wings throwing around feathers, ran past Reina clucking and squawking. A small mountain of a man with a messy topknot came from round the fence in hot pursuit of the fugitive bird. “Get back here dammit, or you’ll be in the pot tonight!” He shouted. Reina was afraid to breathe but when another man carrying a bucket of yams came out she was relieved to see someone normal.
“Anou, suimasen.” The man, chubby faced with a chonmage dressed in trousers smiled gently at her.
“Ah, you must be Miss Brantley. Welcome to the Shieikan, I am Yamazaki.”
“How do you do? Todo-san and Okita-san-” Something crashed and Reina and Yamazaki looked towards the main house.
“Dame!” A woman yelled.
“Get lost!” Okita yelled at her back.
“Aneue go away!” Okita ran from a woman dressed in a striped kimono who was hot on his heels.
“Okita-san…” Reina weakly called out to him.
“Please excuse this.” Yamazaki apologized. “I’ll go see what’s going on.” Reina released her uncomfortably held breath when she heard more noise coming from the rear of the house.
“You son of a bitch!” She went round to the rear courtyard where three men stood. One of the men, red-faced gangly and clownish looking with very short hair glared at another man with a long ponytail, scruffy goatee and a mole on his chin who just blinked at him expressionlessly.
“Sano, I don’t think Tsune-sama wants Tama-chan to hear that kind of language.” The heavy-set third man with a topknot told his angry friend.
“Then why did he do what he did?!” Sano blasted.
“Because you’d finished and left it there.” Ponytail said eerily calmly.
“That was duck meat I was saving for later!” Sano shoved his nose into ponytail’s. He grabbed a polearm with a padded end off the wall. “Can’t be helped now,” Sano crouched in an attack position.
“This is a bad time.” Reina said. “Please give Todo-san and Okita-san my excuses.”
“Chotto matte!” Heavy set man stopped her from exiting. “Are you Reina Brantley?”
“I- I am.”
“We’re so sorry for that- Sano!” Sano shot up looking remorseful. “I’m Nagakura Shinpachi.”
“Harada Sanosuke! Yoroshiku!” Reina was impressed with Sano’s complete 180, his smile as bright as the sun.
“Saito Hajime.” Ponytail bowed.
“I’m not sure where Soji is right now, but Heisuke’s with Yamanami. I’ll go get him.” Nagakura said.
“I’ll do it.” Saito volunteered.
“This isn’t over!” Sano shouted at his back.
“I hope you weren’t waiting long.” Nagakura said.
“No,” Reina said, “it’s just things looked a bit chaotic, that’s all.”
“It’s just another morning around here.” Sano assured her.
Saito shuffled silently to the kitchen where Hijikata was washing his hands.
“The guest is here.” Saito told him.
“Have Heisuke put her in the dojo.”
Reina sat by the hearth in the main sitting room, by the back wall was a tall sword stand. She wondered who owned the sword with the white saya. Hijikata’s longsword hung second from the top, she wanted to ask where he was but thought it would look suspicious.
“No good, no good, no good, no good!” Heisuke chanted running like a scared rabbit.
“Todo-san!” Reina said.
He bowed completely out of breath. “I’m so sorry for that. We’re having an issue with Soji, so it might be a few minutes.” He helped her up and took her brown leather messenger bag. “Wait here,” he showed her into the dojo. “I don’t want to put you in any more embarrassing predicaments.”
Reina had a feeling it was going to be more than a few minutes. The back of her neck itched again, she supposed it was the unseasonable humidity and wore a dress more appropriate for summer, a light blue diamond patterned gingham with short sleeves and v-neck. She refrained from getting too close to the kamidana, and read the scrolls hanging on either side.
Be a proud warrior.
Way of the sword.
She wrung her hands a bit tighter.
“Ohayo.” The voice that Reina feared and wanted to hear most of all.
“Hi- Hijikata-san, ohayo gozimasu!” He set his bogu beside her bag on the floor.
“Forgive everyone, please.” He said. “Tama is a very laid-back place.”
“Nothing to forgive, I’m already getting used to it.”
He grinned, she didn’t know if it was a good or bad thing.
“May I ask you something?” He asked.
“Is England an island nation too?”
“Yes. I can show you on a map.”
“If I were to wash up on your island,” Hijikata asked, “would you help me?”
“Yes.” She said without hesitation.
“If anyone who needs help, I’ll give it.” Hijikata waited for her to elucidate. “My mother did nursing training as she wasn’t English, but a minor Russian aristocrat, and the Russian Empire fought many wars. I also received the same training.”
“Why did you take the name Reina? Do you know what it means?”
“I took the name Reina because my Russian name is Yelizaveta. My grandmother called me Liska when I was little, but as I grew older she called me Lena. And yes, I do know what it means.” She took a breath because she was rambling. “Anyway, I must be keeping you,” she bent to get her bag when she saw Hijikata’s men. In place of the red string was her ribbon.
“You’re not bothering me,” Hijikata said. “In fact, I’d like you to stay.” He smoothed his hands down her arms and straightened her up. Hijikata smirked at her new red hair ribbon, then lifted her hair off her neck. He pressed down on the love bite with his thumb, then turned her around. Hijikata didn’t smile a great deal, but it was obvious he preferred to emote with his eyes. And he looked like he wanted to eat her. Reina made to speak but he smothered her speech with his lips. Hijikata’s tongue dipped forcefully into her mouth, Reina really didn’t know what she was doing, but got the idea that maybe he wanted her to do the same to him.
She recalled kissing and groping his chest, his dark blue Shieikan training kimono was thinner and tighter than his normal wear, she saw his body so much better in it. Despite the callouses his hands were so nice and she worried about teasing if someone noticed that she stared at them a lot too. Hijikata’s voice was absolutely soothing, and if she were laying in his arms as he spoke softly to her, she’d be a puddle of tears. All the while Hijikata watched Reina’s expressions change during their kiss. He was curious at how to best read foreign women.
They broke the kiss as the stress got to Reina. “Don’t you want to touch me?” He asked.
She nodded. “Not here.”
“I’ll come to the temple tonight.”
“I don’t like where they put me, Hijikata-san,” Reina complained. “That room is too big.”
“Where is your room?” He wanted to laugh, but not out of cruelty.
“At the very top on the corner.” Hijikata blinked thoughtfully.
“And where’s your father?”
“The third floor.” She shrugged her shoulders. “The priests said that there were artifacts too delicate to move.” Hijikata kissed her comfortingly before squeezing her ass.
The shoji burst open and Soji flung himself inside. “She’s going to kill me!”
His older sister tackled him and stretched his cheeks like mochi dough. “Let me see the love letter!”
“Enough!” Hijikata barked making the Okitas freeze. Reina was poleaxed by the whole scene, Hijikata simply folded his arms. “Mitsu, what’s your problem?”
She sat up indignantly and folded her arms. “Soji got a love letter.” She knew he could give a shit since he got a dozen of those daily. But he never read them anymore and just gave them out to the students.
“It isn’t a love letter!” He insisted.
“Liar!” Mitsu smacked him on the shoulder. “Everybody knew how crazy you were about Osada Wakiko.”
“Yeah, when I was like, ten! Get off me you cow!” He tried to push Mitsu off his thin chest. “I can’t breathe!” She saw her opening and yanked the letter from his kimono. Mitsu leapt behind Hijikata and Reina and ripped open the parchment.
“‘Soji-kun, it was so wonderful running into you last month,’” Mitsu read aloud. “‘I hope you’re not bothering waka-sensei’s wife too much, since you like to get into trouble.’ That’s very true,” Mitsu said to Reina. Soji just made a face and decided to wisely bear the humilation silently. As if he could do anything about it anyway. “‘I’m also hoping you can come out to see my family, Tou-san was so impressed when I told him you shaved your pate. Sojirou’s finally doing some growing up, he said. Also my fiancee can’t wait to meet you after I told him you made head instructor…’” Mitsu trailed off disappointedly. She looked at Soji who didn’t seem the least perturbed. “‘His swordmaster is a self-absorbed jackass, and everyone at his dojo is suffering for it. He’s hoping you can give some advice. Well, I’ll keep it short since you’re so busy. But if you ever need anything don’t hesitate to ask. Always, Waki-chan.’ Oh Soji…”
“Aneue, you never let me finish.” He swiped the letter from Mitsu’s hand. “Waki-chan already told me she was getting married when I met up with her.”
“It’s just that you looked so cute together.”
“All little kids look cute together, Mitsu.” Hijikata said. “But Soji isn’t a little kid anymore.”
“Anyway,” Mitsu said not liking Hijikata’s reprimand, “let’s let them finish what they started.”
“Actually Heisuke and I are taking Reina-san out.”
Mitsu perked immediately at Hijikata being deprived of sex. “Oh that’s different!” She shoved him aside. “Okita Mitsu desu! So pleased to meet you!” She bowed to Reina. “You’re lucky that you turned up when all the fun fairs in Tama start. We know how to get the best prizes!”
“Aneue we have to go now,” Soji took Reina’s hand to the displeasure of Hijikata. “Heisuke’s waiting outside.” Soji gave Reina her bag. “Ja!” She said nothing but took one last look at Hijikata over her shoulder as she was pulled away. He sucked his teeth.
“Time for work, Hijikata-sensei.” Mitsu said.
“You’re enjoying yourself, aren’t you?”
She shoved his do into his stomach. “You’ll get your dessert later.”
* * *
Downtown Tama was as lively as Shanghai, and Reina didn’t feel as lonely.
“Y’know what’s so great about Tama?” Okita said. ”We’re not as strict as Edo.”
“But that doesn’t mean we can be stupid!” Heisuke said.
“Well who said that?” Soji countered.
“Kondo-waka sensei, since trouble always starts.” Soji made another face, but it didn’t deter him.
“Like I said, Tama’s pretty casual. Formality isn’t as tough, anybody and everybody can make their way here. Take Heisuke, he’s from the Tsu Domain, he came to the Shieikan as a ronin looking to test himself. But instead he found a home.”
“It wasn’t like that at all!” Heisuke said. “I’d heard one of my sempai, Yamanami Keisuke- you’ve yet to meet him- was already taking lessons at the Shieikan. He wrote to our teacher that Kondo-waka sensei was an interesting man, and I decided to meet him for myself. I wasn’t disappointed.”
“Kondo-waka sensei thinks well of Heisuke and even helped him get the job as a porter at the inn.” Soji said. “Hijikata-san and I are the only full-time instructors at the Shieikan. Everybody has a day job to pay for room and board.”
“But with all the visiting officials, won’t they need you?” Reina asked Heisuke.
“My boss was reluctant to give me today off,” he told her, “but when I agreed to clean the kitchen, she changed her mind.”
“Yamanami-sensei is our philosophy instructor, but when he’s not training he works the counter at the rice shop.” Soji pointed out to Reina as they walked by. “Here’s the tofu shop, Sanosuke works here. So he should be making his deliveries right about…”
“OUTTA THE WAY!” Sanosuke wearing a red hachimaki zoomed out of the alley pumping his legs like a demon in front of a pull cart, wheeling a basin filled with tofu bricks and water.
“Sanosuke!” Heisuke called out after him. “Be careful not to break them. Remember the last time? They’ll fire you- again!”
“I know that!”
“Sanosuke’s polishing up his sword skills, but he’s a master at the spear. Waka sensei’s expanded the school to teach spear fighting, so Sanosuke’s handling that.” The trio stopped in front of a dive. “This is the Okuni-ya, looks pretty dead, right?”
“That’s because everyone’s at work.” Heisuke said.
“There’s a few places to drink here in Tama, but the Okuni-ya is the most infamous, so at night it can get crazy.” Soji said proudly.
“Saito-san works here,” said Heisuke, “he watches the door and tosses the drunks. He’s lasted the longest at the job, so he’s started to get known.”
“But there’s a downside, Saito can’t drink anywhere. All the drunks he throws out want to fight him.” Soji cracked up.
“So he drinks at home with us. I think it’s a lot better, personally.” Heisuke added. “It’s just that Saito-san isn’t much of a storyteller, so we can’t get a thing out of him.”
“Che! Hijikata-san knows everything. They’re always talking.” Soji groused.
“Maybe Saito-san and Hijikata-san don’t want you to get any ideas.” Reina said. Soji rolled his eyes.
“We’re not little kids.” From the window of the feed store two men watched the group, and tailed them as soon as they got far enough. Soji, Reina and Heisuke spent the better part of the early afternoon at the bazaar, the bird shop, and shrines. They broke for lunch at a popular noodle shop that they nearly didn’t get a table.
“We’ll probably run into Nagakura since everybody’s breaking for lunch now.” Heisuke said.
“Nagakura’s got it made. He’s a builder so he’s working on all the bridges and canals that have been long overdue for overhauls.” Said Soji. Said man walked in no sooner when Soji finished.
“Right on time!” Heisuke said.
“Nagakura!” Soji got his attention. “Kocchi!” They waved him over and Soji made room for him on the bench.
“There you are,” Nagakura made himself comfortable. “I trust everyone’s keeping out of trouble.”
“See what I mean!” Soji said.
“Soji’s a little jealous as to why Saito-san takes Hijikata-san into his confidence.” Said Reina.
“That’s because Hijikata-san has done everything in this world- twice.” Nagakura informed her.
“Such as?” The three men just looked at each other.
You’ll find out.
“Anyway,” Nagakura sighed, “I recommend the cold soba. It’s too hot for anything else.” The two tails took their ramen bowls outside to eat. An hour later the foursome emerged having eaten their fill and was much energized talking a mile a minute.
“Oh Soji, tell Fude-sama that my foreman was able to spare some wood.” Nagakura said.
“Are you and Shimada going to fix the fence?” Heisuke asked.
“Which one is Shimada?” Reina asked.
“The really big one.” Soji said.
“My next shift’s starting, I’ll see you at dinner.” They parted ways heading in the opposite directions.
“So where to now?”
“Well the fishing hole is the place to cool off.” Soji said.
“And there’s always a dango cart around there.” Said Heisuke. “We’ll have snacks later.”
“It’s not good to feed vermin.” A man said stepping out of a doorway. “It’s how they multiply.”
Nagakura walked onto the work site when people screamed and scattered. “What’s going on?!”
“It’s a fight!” Yelled a woman.
Heisuke dealt with the man’s partner as Soji was clashing with the one who made the big entrance. Reina ducked beneath a shop’s awning.
“What’s your point to this?!” Soji asked.
“We are true patriots who serve the Emperor!” He shoved Soji back and spread his arms.
“We serve no one who kills innocent people!” Heisuke said and met the second man’s sword blow for blow. Reina took down a hanging pot when she saw Saito come quietly from around the corner. Nagakura joined the fray driving an old door into the men, they pushed back only to have Saito knock his mune into the backs of their skulls. One managed to rouse himself and attempt to charge, but Reina slammed the pot into her would-be assassin, throwing him into the adjacent wall, finally incapacitating him.
“I’ll pay for this.” Reina said, holding up the dented pot.
* * *
“What is happening here?” Kondo asked his staff later that night. They gathered in the dojo away from innocent ears.
“Apparently we miscalculated and may have been followed,” Yamanami said.
“Matsubara and Ozeki have taken the two men into custody, and are awaiting orders.” Gen-san said.
“Where are they being held?” Kondo said.
“A storehouse in Onoji.” Hijikata said.
“Tomorrow I will question them myself.” Kondo turned to Heisuke. “Tell me again what exactly happened.”
“Our party and Nagakura separated not far from the restaurant,” Heisuke said, “when we were approached by the men. The first drew his sword and made to kill Reina-san.”
Hijikata stayed silent and closed his eyes.
“I went after him, and Heisuke took on his second.” Said Soji. “Saito and Nagakura arrived shortly after.”
“And the pot?” As they spoke Shimada was in the shed banging the dent out.
“That was Reina-san.” Said Nagakura. “She seems the type to look after herself.”
Reina sat in Tsune and Kondo’s room after Tokuta questioned her. She looked into Tsune’s lacquer mirror and saw her attacker’s face.
It’s not good to feed vermin.
Hijikata came in and took her in his arms. “Can you come tonight?”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to go to the magistrate in the morning.”
“You have nothing to do with this.” Reina sighed.
“No, but the people in my dojo do.” Hijikata pressed his face into her neck and nibbled.
“Toshizo,” she learned a magic word, “I need you to do this for me.”
“Are all foreign women so eager?”
“He called me vermin, Toshizo.” She whispered. He tucked her head under his chin.
“No one will say that to you again.”
* * *
Early the following morning Hijikata and Kondo stopped at Takahata-san. Hijikata gave Yukina a small packet of finely ground opium powder and instructed her to slip it into Reina’s tea throughout the day. It was better for her to be high or napping, asking few questions. They mounted their horses and made haste to the Hoshino family farm in Onoji.
TO BE CONTINUED