Chapter Twenty Three
 

Maki sat outside, his hands rested on his knees as he leaned slightly against one of the old oak trees that graced the sprawling gardens. His gaze was fixed on the small, vibrant blades of grass that were colored a fresh green from the recent rain, when suddenly, a pair of feet stepped into his vision.

He jerked upright immediately, looking up and almost wishing he could stab whoever was disturbing his rare and momentary sanctuary, when he saw whom it was. And for once, he didnít need to say anything.

Longish, mahogany hair had been trimmed to a neat soldierís cut, just ruffling the edges of the ears and touching the top of the smooth brow where a black scrap of cloth held back a slightly mussed fringe. Beneath the headband, identical eyes, coppery and opaque, took him in for a long, single moment.

Then the former assassin stepped forward smoothly and with an eerie and silent grace, he took the makeshift seat next to the captain.

They sat there a long time, while Maki looked him over. He wore the plain silver mail of an honest fighting man now, and the scars that his body bore were now clothed in the ordinary clothes of a civilian. There was something radically different about Kogure, and yet the man still maintained an essentially trademark, almost eerie, composure.

He hadnít seen Kogure after the accident, and when he had thought he managed to collect himself enough to do what he had to do, the Haka assassin had already left the palace. Somehow, Maki knew, with a stab of clarity that defied logic, what Kogure was back for.

He slowly lifted his hand and slipped a small key out from the base of the wrist-guard, before reaching down and picking up the scabbard that had begun to hang faithfully by his waist since a year ago. An empty scabbard, to hold the memory of the accident, a reminder to never allow such a thing to happen again, that was what everyone thought.

There was something else, though. Something else, that had been kept hidden.

Maki twisted the metal in the small, side lock, and it snapped open. He wordlessly tipped the contents of the scabbard out onto his palm.

In the sunlight, the coils of the Haka chain gleamed and sparkled, the rays reflecting off the infinitely sharp blades, the interwoven metal that was spun and wound together. He looked at the ground for a moment.

Then he carefully leant over and placed the precious chain in the other manís lax, slightly open palms, before rising. Maki waited, to see if Kogure would say anything, but when the silence dragged on, he slipped away.
 

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Rukawa scanned the crowd again, feeling the sheer heat press upon him like a stifling wave. Tired of holding up the façade, he stood quickly, smiling again at the men who immediately made way. He bowed slightly, and after setting the silver glass down, headed straight for the door.

A few of the lords made to go after him, but he lifted a hand, and didnít turn back when he spoke. "I am tired and need my rest. Do you go and celebrate in the great hall, and I will see you when I divide the border land tomorrow."

As he hurried through the corridors, already sliding the heavy cloak from his shoulders and slinging it over one arm, loosening the neck of his official robes slightly, he felt grateful for the solitude. Everyone would be celebrating this night, for sure. Finally, he would have a moment away from the crowd, to himself.

Footsteps sounded behind him, and he stopped and tensed immediately. Hadnít he told them not to follow him? He was hardly in the state of mind, nor the state of dress, to speak with the lords right now. Rukawa exhaled and his grip tightened on the cloak, before he spun around, the diplomatic words that were nothing short of a command on his lips, but they died in the shadows of the dim light that the moon cast on the face before him.