“You were that scared of him and you asked questions?” Karal blurted.
“It’s what I do, young man.” Sejanes’ wry smile took the sting from the words. “I’d seen something remarkable. Impossible. Something that could change every assumption the Empire had about Yamato and its people. Of course I asked questions! While we were packing every last essential and Imperial dependent to clear out on the next possible ship to Chi’in,” he added wryly. “Longest month of my life.”
Kerowyn leaned back, eyes half-shut and waiting. “So what did you find out?”
“Enough to make sleep rare and precious.” Sejanes sighed. “You have no idea what’s landed in your lap, Captain. Battousai’s not a hitokiri. He is the hitokiri. The shield of the Ishin Shishi. Katsura’s right hand. The Shogunate’s nightmare. Their swordsmen couldn’t touch him. Their priests couldn’t curse him. Their spies couldn’t find him – and onmitsu are good, Captain; good as any Herald-spy.” He shook his head. “The Ishin Shishi would strike. The Shinsengumi would chase them. And one man – only one – would step between them. Survivors said the last you saw were eyes like flame, and the last you heard was a challenge: Go back the way you came, or die.”
Karal buried his fingers in Altra’s fur. “He let them go?”
“If they ran. If they weren’t between his people and escape.” The mage wove his fingers together. “The last week I was there, one of the guard barracks was completely wiped out. Thirty men dead in less than an hour, five Ishin Shishi prisoners gone – and no sign of anyone but a single swordsman.” Sejanes smiled wryly. “Rumor was, those Shinsengumi had gotten their hands on Katsura. Temporarily.”
Kerowyn pursed her lips in a silent whistle. “You admire him.”
“I would have taken him for the Empire’s service in a heartbeat,” Sejanes confessed. “That skill, that honor, in Tremane’s hands? We could have-” His breath caught.
“Used him, as Katsura did?” Karal said softly.
“Ha.” Sejanes’ bark of laughter was bitter, and sad. “I knew you’d see it, young man. I knew you, if anyone, would see it.”