Chapter Twenty Two
[A year later]
Servant boys and kitchen womenfolk hurried in and out of the great dining hall, carrying wine and huge, topped plates of roast boar and greens. The lords and war-bands of the various demesnes crowded into their seats, toasting the day’s victory and laughing boisterously.
It had been a great battle against the invading bandits who plagued the border, and the men were more than glad that it was over. He reflected that this day, a year ago, had probably been the day that he had truly become a king.
As he took the last remaining steps towards the dining hall, a pageboy hurried forward and pushed open the door. It seemed as though for a moment, time stood still. He stood framed in the doorway, looking over the people he had sworn to serve in kingship, really looking at those who had fought for him, and alongside him.
A mighty cheer greeted his presence, as he entered and walked to his seat at the head of the center table.
Rukawa sat, his back to the door, his frame straight and his self collected, even when the door whispered open and he felt someone walk slowly to him, to stand just behind him.
"The Archduke was our lord." The whisper was soft, slightly hoarse from the recent and tenuous recovery, but Rukawa could hear it clearly nonetheless.
Before he could think of what to say in reply, he sensed the other moving away, leaving, and finally snapped out of his self-imposed façade of calmness, twisting around and reaching out just in time to snag the end of the silent silver chain that hung by the side of the slim hip.
Kogure stilled, but he still refused to look at Rukawa. "What do you want?"
He sounded so tired, so weary, that the king felt his heart go out to him in his pain. It had been nearly a full month since Sendoh had passed on, but Rukawa had witnessed only all too clearly the grief and agony in the copper eyes the day when Kogure had awoken. He had asked no questions, only looked at Maki and the captain’s bland and evasive gaze had been all the answer the remaining Haka assassin had needed. Rukawa had found him, barely able to stand from the extent of his injuries, half-deaf and blinded by unshed tears, on the ground where his friend and partner had been killed.
How can I answer him? Rukawa wondered, rising and, hesitating, walking over to face Kogure. I don’t know what exactly it is either…
"Will you stay here?" he asked finally.
*End of Flashback
He looked around the table, and noticed that Maki wasn’t there. Pasting a slight smile on his face for the sake of his men, he stood and raised his silver glass, toasting those who had contributed to the battle.
When Kogure finally spoke, his voice was low.
"What is there to stay for?"
Rukawa bowed his head. He closed his eyes and prayed that he would remain calm. I can never win this man over, he realized, He’s been too cold, too long, shutting everyone out so well; it’s become his habit. He’ll never respond to anything I can and would do for him, or feel anything he doesn’t want to feel.
He felt Kogure sigh softly and shift his weight slightly, and he tried to swallow the lump in his throat before it revealed itself as a sign of weakness. "I understand," he replied evenly, keeping his composure and his voice level.
There was a soft jingle of metal as the Haka assassin suddenly turned and stepped close, one hand reaching out to gently lift Rukawa’s chin. The king jerked away and willed the candlelight not to flicker on the moisture that threatened to spill from his eyes.
Before he could move away, Kogure was there again, in front of him, pushing the black bangs off his brow. Swiftly, the assassin leaned in and pressed his lips, lightly, to the king’s forehead.
And the next moment, he was gone. Left, just like that.
The king’s army arrested the Archduke and his clan the next day. Hanamichi Sakuragi was sentenced to death, while his womenfolk and children were banished to the border.
*End of Flashback