"The least we could do," said J. Isabel Draven, her eyes crinkling up with merriment, "is invite you people for lunch."
Kenshin and his family had all been invited to the English ambassador's mansion. The rather rich and luxurious surroundings were a little overwhelming when they first came inside. Sanosuke fought to keep his jaw from dropping open at the furnishings and decorations. Yahiko fared little better. Kaoru kept her composure slightly better than the rest of them but she noted enviously that Kenshin was the calmest of them all. He looked just at home here as he was in their simple dojo.
But the little countess and the ambassador made them all comfortable immediately. They had skillfully overridden Kenshin and Kaoru's embarassed protests and before they knew what was happening, they were already sitting down inside the ambassador's lavish dining room. And none of them had to wonder about how to go about eating gai-jin food. The menu was comprised entirely of Japanese dishes, the ambassador being fond of Japanese cuisine.
For all their wealth and noble titles-the ambassador was also a nobleman-the two of them were also surprisingly down-to-earth. The countess insisted they call her Jay, since Isabel was difficult to pronounce by Japanese tongues. And the ambassador was equally informal, letting them call him by his nickname "Iggy".
"It's from his middle name," Jay had explained. "English nobility have pretty long names. His full name is Stephen Ignatius Gabriel Huntington. Stephen is too serious for him and so's Gabriel. So all his friends call him Iggy."
They had all laughed at the funny-sounding nickname and Kaoru began to apologize but the ambassador stopped her.
"It's all right," he said, laughing. "I only stand on ceremony during official functions. And this is certainly not one of those, ne? Just a little friendly gathering."
Jay-dono and Iggy-dono were like this all through lunch. Soon enough, they were all laughing and joking as if they were friends for the longest time. Iggy and Jay had also somehow managed to find out the gist of all of their life stories, while giving theirs in return.
Jay and Iggy were actually childhood friends. Jay was actually quite a little older than everyone thought she was. She was in the unusual position of being answerable to no one but herself. She no longer had any parents and was already past the age where she needed any sort of guardianship. She travelled all over the world, often all by herself. To avoid any unwelcome attentions, she usually donned men's clothing and armed herself with a pistol, or her katana or both. She decided to come to Japan again, just to visit her friend Iggy. Privately, each of the Kenshin-gumi suspected there was already more than just friendship between them.
Iggy was actually an English lord-according to him, his exact title was Earl of Ravensloft, whatever that was. Like Jay, he too was already orphaned. He too was adventurous and was especially fascinated with Japanese culture and history. Iggy was also well-liked and respected by many high-ranking ministers of the Meiji government. Which was why it was no surprise when he had been chosen to take the place of the old English ambassador.
The really funny thing is, thought Kaoru silently as they talked. Kenshin also saved the old ambassador's life. She remembered when Kenshin had tried to stop Shigure, an embittered veteran of the Bakumatsu no Douran, from assasinating the old English ambassador. Shigure had led a small army composed of veterans like himself and the relatives of those who died during the Bakumatsu to attack the ambassador during a parade. In the beginning, Kenshin had won Shigure's friendship-the common bond of men who had lived during those dark days. In a strange twist of fate, it turned out that Kenshin was the one who had killed Shigure's friend Gentatsu when he'd still been the Hitokiri Battousai.
And now, Kenshin had again rescued an English ambassador. Déjà vu. Kaoru found herself wondering what strange twist Fate was going to bring them next. Baka! She scolded herself mentally. Don't go borrowing trouble, Kaoru. She felt the faintest twinge in her stomach, as if the baby had moved, but no-it was too early for her to feel anything yet. A funny thought struck her. Maybe the kid was agreeing with her too. She smiled inwardly.
"Kaoru-chan?" Kenshin was staring at her curiously.
Kaoru flushed a little and shook her head. "Nothing. I'm fine, Kenshin."
After lunch, Jay led them all into the library. She made them all sit and be comfortable, quickly putting away some of the books that had been left on the chairs and tables. Evidently, both she and Iggy liked to read.
"Iggy and I have something to show you, Ken-san," said Jay. She nodded at Iggy, who reached into his desk drawer and drew out something rectangular. He walked over and gave it to Jay, who in turn, sat down beside Kenshin and Kaoru and showed it to them.
It was a portrait of Kenshin. It was perfect in every last detail, right down to the red hair and the violet eyes. The differences were that there were no cross scars on his cheek and that he was wearing strange-looking robes in shades of purple and blue. The Kenshin in the portrait had looked very young, perhaps the age they had thought Jay-dono was at first. And the joyous, happy expression in his face, so faithfully captured by the artist, made him look even younger.
As Kaoru looked at the portrait, she thought that this was what Kenshin might have been, had he never become hitokiri, if he didn't carry so many shadows. Here's your twist of fate, Kaoru, she thought wryly.
"Heck, Kenshin, who is this, your missing twin?" Sanosuke blurted out.
"Yeah, he looks exactly like you, 'cept he doesn't have any scars," said Yahiko.
"Yahiko!" chided Kaoru.
"But how--?" began Kenshin, taking his eyes off the portrait with an effort. Somehow, looking at the portrait was almost painful…as if he was seeing something that he had lost. But that was silly…this man wasn't him.
"This was…Kenshin," said Jay softly. "The Heart of the Sword or so the name meant. We thought it suited him. He was a master swordsman…he taught me everything I know about swordplay."
"He was like an elder brother to us and he taught me everything I know about your country," said Iggy. "He loved this land very much. But we lost touch with him a long time ago."
"We've searched everywhere but we hadn't any luck finding even a trace of him," said Jay. "Unfortunately, Kenshin is pretty good at disappearing acts."
"In fact," said Iggy. "We were beginning to think that he'd already died." He sighed. "When we saw you-"
"Well, we really thought we'd found him," Jay put in. "I mean, how many red-haired, violet-eyed swordsmen are there in Japan?"
"And with the same name too," said Kaoru wonderingly.
Kenshin shook his head. "It can't be me. And-" He paused for a moment, reflecting. "And I don't have an identical twin. My family died in an epidemic. I was the only one who survived."
"The Kenshin we know would be actually be quite older than you," said Jay. "Though, like you, he would look much younger than his age."
"Your father, maybe?" asked Sanosuke.
"No," Kenshin shook his head again. "I came from a peasant family. My father was a farmer, not a swordsman."
And he wasn't a redhead either. Otousan and Okaasan always thought that my coloring was peculiar, a sign from the gods perhaps. But Kenshin didn't say that thought aloud.
He saw Iggy and Jay exchange looks, some sort of silent communication obviously passing between them though he didn't know what it was. Then, Jay smiled brightly.
"Well, it is a strange coincidence, isn't it?" She handed the portrait back to Iggy. "You are so very much like him, Ken-san." Jay's smile turned wistful. "Maybe, you have his spirit."
"Do you believe in rebirth, Jay-san?" asked Kaoru.
Again, Jay and Iggy exchanged peculiar looks before Jay answered, "Oh, yes, Kaoru-san. I believe in rebirth. In fact, Iggy and I both do."
The demon was not alone.
The vision had come to him again and it was even more frightening than before. In fear, Father Rosetti bolted from his simple cot, fleeing into the chapel. He fell on his knees before the statue of the Blessed Virgin, seeking solace and comfort from his Heavenly Mother. In his hands, he clutched his rosary, nervously fingering the wooden beads. His lips moved silently, forming the words of the prayers, a shield against the darkness that he had seen.
The vision would not let him go. In his mind's eye, he saw the exquisite features of the Siren and her consort, the Dark Mage. Witch-child and Ancient Warlock, servants of the Devil, practicioners of the black arts of magic and sorcery. They were subtle and incredibly cunning. Many times, they had stopped the soldiers of Holy Mother Church from destroying Her enemies. How many times had they helped their fellow witches escape from the sacred Inquisition? How many heretics did they save from the cleansing fires of the stake? How many vampires and creatures of the night did they aid?
Father Rosetti was only one in a long line of priests who knew their names and believed that their legend was real. They had haunted his nightmares when he had first read of them in the secret histories kept by the old Inquisition. But then, he had the consolation of knowing that these were merely phantoms created by his overtaxed mind.
But now, they were truly here. The priest knew the differences between the true vision and simple nightmare. The Siren and the Mage were here in Japan, with the demon prince. In this godless land, with its pagan people and pagan gods, they would hold full sway. Few Japanese were protected by the True Faith, the government long having been opposed to the Christian religion.
And two more men had been found killed by the demon. Again, Father Rosetti had presided over the funerals and performed the rites to insure their eternal peace. The men who had been killed were all foreigners, their deaths dismissed as the work of murderous Japanese who still detested the invading gai-jin. But the priest knew better.
Time was beginning to run out on them. And now, the demon had allies to help him. The priest could only comfort himself with the knowledge that the warriors he had called for would be arriving in a few days' time.
Oh, Blessed Mother, Holy Virgin, let them come soon!