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[personal profile] demeter918
Title: “The Taste of Salt”

Author: [personal profile] demeter918

Disclaimer: All rights and privileges to Rurouni Kenshin are trademarks and property of Nobuhiro Watsuki and associated parties. The author claims no legal responsibility for problems associated with using this work.

Series: Rurouni Kenshin

Character/Pairing: Shinta, Kasumi, Akane, Sakura

Warnings: Spoilers for the series

Notes: I haven't written Rurouni Kenshin fic in a long time, and I think it shows. I wanted to give a voice for those three girls who died to save Shinta, this little boy they'd only just met.

The beginning scene was inspired by a part in “Twelve Kingdoms”, where Suzu becomes a maid and is taken from her family.





I know my parents have no other choice.

They have to sell me, if they are to provide for the rest of the family. Mother cries. She cries and my brothers (still so young even as they beggar me in age) clench their fists in futile anger. I try to smile. It's the only thing I can do; Father won't look at me (look at me, acknowledge me, know in your heart that you are selling your flesh and blood) and all I can do is touch my little sister on the head. She stares up at me, sucks her thumb, is confused because where am I going? I tell her, I am going far away and I won't be back for a long time (if ever) and that she must be good (though good won't be a guard against starvation) and that she must listen to Mother and Father and to all her brothers.

One of the slavers has given me some caramels to sweeten the departure. I press one into her mouth and her eyes (so beautiful and still so dark) widen in sheer pleasure. And I am glad. I am glad that my last image of her will be of happiness rather than tears.

I bow to my Father, bow lower to my Mother. This is a breach of tradition and everyone knows it. But she deserves more of my gratitude and so I bow to her. She sobs. I wish I have the strength to tell her that everything will be alright, but that would be a lie and to lie to her would be to tell her that this is her fault.

The handler whistles. I step into the cart and there are already two other girls there. They are huddled on a cushioned seat bench and quiet. I sit opposite of them and risk one more look out between the canvas flaps. My mother weeps into the shoulder of my oldest brother and he stares bleakly after the wagon. But I focus on my sister. She is still smiling and waving goodbye. I wave back.

Needless to say, that is the last time I will see her. The only reason I would be able to return would mean something else entirely. And it would be a somewhat ghastly stroke of luck, wouldn't it?

I turn to the girls who are scared and stiff on their chairs. They seem wary of me; why wouldn't they? I have said my goodbyes with smiles and waves; I wonder how they left. Did they beg for their parents to keep them? Were they thrown out of their home by a wicked stepmother? Wicked stepfather? Are they orphans, unlucky? Too old to be adopted, too young to work. Or was it just like mine; a matter of expediency, of necessity? I wonder.

I tuck my feet beneath the bench. The wheels are bumping over rock and dirt, the beginning of a long and longer journey. Who shall be my new master? Or will I go straight to the whorehouse? I can't imagine being very popular at a whorehouse; I am skinny and full of sharp and unpleasant angles. For once, I am glad that I am not richly plump like the metal-worker's daughter.

The whimpers draw my eyes. My eyes adjust to the musy darkness.

There are children, I see.

They stare at me, a girl (woman?) who smiles at them. They cower. I rummage through the tiny bag tied to my threadbare obi, finds the last of the caramels, and offer them on one hand. Four creep closer. Pop single caramels into their mouths. It's the same wonder, the same look of surprise (have they ever had something so sweet?) and they clamor around for more. The ice breaks and the others creep forward also. I make sure everyone gets one and saves three for the older girls.

One smiles, wobbily. The other flinches when I come closer. Ah. I can see. I offer my name.

“I'm Kasumi. You?”

The wobbly one tries to whisper something. Surprise. It's the one who flinches that answers my question first. “I'm Akane. And this is Sakura. We... we're from the same village.”

So. They were sold together. Perhaps for a better price since they are both young, relatively pretty, and seemingly untouched. But there are rips on their obi. There are bruises on their wrists. They are no longer untouched. I can only bring up half a smile, but it's enough as they start asking me questions in half-whispers. (Where are we going? Do you know how far so-and-so village is from here? Do you know about the Yoshifumi clan?) I'm afraid I do not.

I'm afraid I do not, I repeat.

Akane looks disappointed. She is obviously hoping for a different answer.

“Do you think... we will... be allowed to go home after a while?” Sakura is hopeful.

“Not for a long time, I'm afraid.”

Sakura slumps. “But... someday?”

(if you were to one day have a very rich and truly indulgent master, perhaps)

But I do not say it. I pat her hand and say nothing. I do not have hope, but far be it for me to grind another’s hope beneath the heel of my foot.

The children are speaking quietly to each other; I suppose even when their world changes, they can still find something to anchor themselves to. I wonder if the slavers will keep them together. Unlikely. There are not many households who would want more than one or two of them as servants. Though. Better servants than something else. I eye the huddle. There are girls younger than my baby sister (oh, I wonder. I wonder if you'll ever wear the coming-age kimono of your own?) and I know there are men who prefer that. My hands tremble. I do not think I would have the courage to fight for them.

Then I see him.

He sits in the corner by himself. He is folded in like a paper crane and his eyes (violet?) shine in the darkness. I move slowly toward him. He stares at me with a solemnity that belies his years. (but then, so do we all) I offer him the last caramel. The boy refuses. But I make it dance on my knuckles (the only trick my brothers are able to teach me) and the brown piece dances in and out of sight. He stares in shock and then grabs it as it arches over one finger to the next and looks like he can't quite believe he did that.

I'm a little surprised myself. He is quick, almost like a blade. I wonder if he is the son of a disgraced samurai.

“What's your name?”

The eyes stare at me again. He is so very solemn. I feel my heart clench. It is as if my sister is before me, caught in this trap.

“Shinta.”

My smile wobbles. “That's a lovely name, Shinta.”

He nods and ducks to look down at the floor. I settle myself next to him. There is something about him, I can see the blue sky in his eyes, the clear breeze whistles with his voice. He is someone for fresh air and open fields where he can play and laugh. This is not a caravan for him and it makes me hurt to think like that.

For I'm sure, in a few years, all his solemnity will be ground into the tight, compacted space of a snarling dog and he will be the little guard who laughs at the girls in the window of a whorehouse.

Akane and Sakura move closer as well, and soon, we are all huddled in the middle. I listen. The slavers are talking among themselves and laughing. They talk about the mundane; they wonder where they should break camp. Should they find a river? Or will their watersleeves last till the next stream? There is debate about rations. One argues that we will sell for a higher price if we are healthy and well-fed. Another says the price of food (high as it is; this is, after all, one of the reasons I am sold) versus the gain in profits would argue against that. But they are not monsters, they claim. (and to be honest, they aren't. Not truly. I've seen worse from our local Daimyo and the mountain bandits who raid our village)

They will give us a fair ration.

What a fair ration constitutes, I'm not sure. But in the least, we will not starve. And where I come from, that is a comfort.

They discuss the next town, brings up the local families who might be persuaded, this time 'round, to sell their children. There is discussion about the weather and whether the good sun will keep just one more day. One says, rather proudly, that he has just become the father to a beautiful baby boy and the others congratulate him. So. Slavers have families and children too. It should be a surprise, but it's not. I wonder if they see the irony.

Night is going to fall on us soon, I can see the sun set behind the canvas. Most of the children are drowsy with heat and exhaustion. I press one of Shinta's hands into my own and he looks at me with those violet eyes of his (I'm surprised no one has called him a demon yet) and squeezes back, all tiny and full of trust and peace.

I am foolish.

I have made room in my heart for this boy I have only known a few hours. It will bring nothing but grief.

“Tell me a story?”

So he is a child, after all. Akane hears and takes comfort. She starts a tale and I realize she is a skilled storyteller, far better than I am. I tend to take too long setting up plot and character and I also backtrack to clarify. She speeds along, brings out the necessary details, highlights the important points and pauses at the right moments for Shinta to prod her along with a hesitant, “and then?”

Sakura brushes the hair of the baby girl laying in her lap. In another life, I can see her as an older sister, as a mother, as someone destined for a normal life.

For just a little while, we have a bit of peace and really, one can't ask for more than that.

But. A shout rips up my spine and in an instant, all the sleepiness is gone. A silence. Then a warbling cheer, the stomping of hooves against packed dirt. The faint clash of metal against wood. My heart thuds.

Bandits.

Sakura chokes. She utters a tiny scream. Her face turns the color soured milk. And the fear is rooted like a weed to her throat. Her hands clench tightly to the neckline of her tattered kimono and I realize, the slavers are not the ones who took her. They are not the ones to take her honor and her faith.

They are the ones she was sold to in shame. (oh, Sakura. I see.)

Our cart is jerked wildly as the horses go crazy (they can smell fear, they can sense danger, they are going to save themselves. If they pull us...) and soon we stumble to a wild stop and then. Then. Then there is only guttural laughter and shouting. What do we do? What do I do? I have no weapon, we have nothing to defend ourselves with.

And then the screaming starts. I hear the sound of liquid (it can't be the water sleeves, is it blood?) splashing onto the ground and – oh, oh, oh, it's blood, there's so much blood, it thickens the air like the calm before the storm and then the screams, the screams start and I feel heavy fear in my throat, worse than anything I've ever felt, and oh, father, my father, did you ever think I would never reach the end you sold me for?

A bandit falls to the ground in front of our cart and Shinta leaps out to grab his sword, dark red with fresh blood. I can see the tremble of his shoulders, the straightening of his spine. He murmurs, “I am a boy, I must protect them, I'm the only boy, I must protect.” He leverages the blade unsteadily and widens his stance to right. He will die. He will die before he can take his first awkward stroke. He will die and he will have never made a choice for his life.

Akane bursts from the cart and grabs him. She throws him back into my arms and Sakura crouches over us, a terrified growl in her voice. Akane gasps in terror and her body freezes to the ground; there is leers, leers that I can actually hear, they're so repulsive and they catch at my heart and mother, mother, this is what you feared and what you couldn't stop.

This is what it is to be a woman without power in this world.

There are screams -

- “No, get away from them!” -

- “Akane, no, run, run away run run runrunrun!”

The blood arcs and sprays and Akane twists into a scream that never leaves her throat. She crumples to the ground and Sakura puts herself between us (would she rather die than face those bandits on their terms again?) and it doesn't even slow them, she tries to fight them off and the blood flies from the sliced vessel in her neck and her head falls to the side, hanging on by bone, by (is that shiny red thing her spine?)

oh, Akane, Sakura. But please, please, please...

Save this child. I hold Shinta close, closer to me. I feel his hair prickle at my throat. The footsteps are coming ever closer, but there is something I must tell him, there is something I must tell him!

“Shinta, Shinta, you just think about living on, you're still little, so you couldn't choose your way of life like we did... so at least until you can choose how to live our your own life, you must stay alive.”

(You must live, Shinta.)

“No, don't touch him!”

(“Shinta, there's a better world than this, believe that, Shinta, believe that always.”)

There's a better world out there for you. There’s a better world with a girl and friends who love you dearly and a place to call home. Out there, you'll find peace and happiness and your true path.

kami-sama.

Save this child.

- fin -
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