Chapter Eleven

It was then that he saw the figure clothed in black, looking straight up at him. A slim silver chain was wound around its waist, and its posture was decidedly that of a fighting man. The moonlight flickered off his sword. Familiarity coursed through him like a rude awakening as his hand moved to his sword.


To his faint and wary surprise, the hooded figure was still standing in the same spot when he emerged from the gates. The figure held up its right hand, palm out. It was a gesture of civility. His suspicion increased, but he would hardly attack an unarmed opponent.

"Who are you?"

One hand reached up, and then almost hesitatingly, flung back the hood that shaded the face, pulling the veil off in the same time and letting the black cloth slip to the floor. Now, clearly, the sword and the markings on the chain identified him. Copper eyes stared at him, expressionless, across the distance that separated them.

It’s a Haka Assassin. But—it’s not him.

"What do you want?"

The man moved closer, his hands still hanging loosely by his sides. It occurred to Maki that perhaps the Haka could fight barehanded too. He was on his guard, until the single word pierced his concentration and deflated it completely.


It was the last thing he had ever expected to hear.


Sendoh can’t hold on much longer, Kogure thought, willing his face to remain impassive and his hands unclench. What must I do to convince him?

"Do you recall," he said instead, almost tranquilly, conversationally, "Do you recall my partner?" He saw the captain’s eyes narrow as a flash of fire passed. Good. He remembered, all right.

"Yes, I do. Where is he?"

He ignored the question. "And do you, captain—" he moved forward, deliberately closing the distance between them. "—recall the peasant who took your attention so disastrously just earlier?"

Shock flared in the captain’s face.


Yes…so that’s why…it was never a woman…that grace…that smile…I never caught sight of that peasant’s eyes…if I had…it would have come to me so much sooner…

He realized that the assassin had resumed speaking.

"We were betrayed," this was related in a cold, unrelated voice. Maki marveled at the detachment, when the words penetrated. And inexplicably, a sense of urgency overcame him. The way the assassin spat the word "betrayed"…it hinted of menace, of fighting…of death.

The other man was watching him closely. They were only so far apart, and Maki could see right into the dark eyes of the infamous killer. In them, he saw determination, a ruthless survival. And he knew that if he didn’t agree, this one would go back to the other and fight.

Cold blue eyes…lips twisted in a smile…what beauty…

"I will go with you."


The branches and twigs of the clearing scratched at his face, tearing long rents in his skin and clothes. He felt like a hunted animal, sensed the approaching presence of his pursuers, hated them, almost smelling the tangible net that one of the enemy had cast to search for his awareness. The trail of his blood would lead them right to him. He had fought until he realized he would not win in a face-to-face combat, and that was when he had seen to flee. But how long could he run?

Now the sound of his heart pounding was getting louder, louder, and he realized distractedly that his breath was coming in torn, painful gasps.

No! I won’t stop and die like this.

He fled, the vines scraping his bare flesh as blood trickled painfully into his eyes. And with a last gasp, burst into yet another, smaller, clearing, straight at the feet of an armored soldier.