Chapter Four

"Your Highness, are you all right?" Maki hurried over, where the young prince was curled up on the ground, silent. "Your Highness!"

"Go away," the words came out as a hoarse order, but Maki knew better than to leave at that moment. He remained a distance from the prince, but spoke determinedly. "I can’t, Your Highness. The assassins are still out there, on the loose. They might come back for you."

Only later did it occur to him how foolish it was, mobilizing the army to search the entire compounds and yet not posting any men in the prince’s chamber right after the attack. He had assumed that the assassins would be on the run by then, far and away, at least from the scene. The magnitude of his error only hit him when suddenly, where there hadn’t been a shadow behind the billowing curtains, there was. He saw the flare of fear in the prince’s eyes as an arm wrapped about his chest, and a slim dagger was pressed suddenly to his throat.

It wasn’t the same man, Maki was sure of it. Not that it changed anything, except everything. This time, he couldn’t attack. The assailant was slim; his entire body was shielded by that of the prince’s.

"Don’t do anything you’ll regret," the assassin said in a low voice.

He was certain that the assassin was smart. If he tried in any way to call for help, the heir to the throne would be dead before he could lift his hand, which was injured for that matter. "What do you want?"

"The medicine for your poisoned darts."

He stared in shock. So the second figure he thought he had imagined was real after all. He reprimanded himself sharply for being surprised. The Haka Assassins were a pair, after all. After escaping from him, surely that first one had gone to help his partner. And if the one in front of him was alive and well…then the other must have been hit. The thoughts raced through his head as he stood there, unmoving.

"Why should I? If you kill the prince after I give the medicine to you, where would my purpose lie, then?"

Cold eyes the color of mahogany narrowed at him. "I won’t."

"I don’t believe you."

"That is none of my concern. Now…" the menace in the nuances of that voice was clear enough. There would be no room for error here. He reached for the ribbon on the wrist guard of his left hand, untying the knot and pulling open the compartment there, his fingers seeking the small vial of clear liquid.

"Don’t play games with me, Captain. If he dies, your people will suffer."

The threat came from one who Maki knew was perfectly capable of carrying out his word. He stepped closer and threw the vial into the air. Smoothly, a hand reached out and plucked it as it descended, and then as quickly as he had appeared, the assassin was gone, and all that was left was the howling gale that rustled the leaves of the trees outside.


Rukawa closed his eyes, but in his mind he could still picture the eyes of the assassin, and more troubling, the feel of his gloved touch. He could feel himself beginning to tremble, from fatigue and something more.

It wasn’t just the fact that someone had tried to murder him. In his years, how many warriors had he seen that were so skilled, so quietly deadly? As a prince, his duty lay not in sword craft or weaponry, but in literature and strategy. Yet he recognized mastery when he saw it.

It had been the confidence, the surety that nothing would stand between him and his goal, the supreme certainty that he would get what he wanted. And he had. For as much as Maki could deny it, Rukawa had seen the moment of terror in his eyes, that one second when the blade had been pressed against his throat. And he envied the assassin, for that fear of death that he could inspire by his mere movements of fluid grace that was incongruous if one stopped to think of what he did with that talent.