Chapter Six
 

It was a peasant woman, clothed in the custom of that class, with long brown skirts of scrubbed cotton covering her to her ankles and a simple white blouse, loosely exposing one shoulder and skin paler than the average farmerís wife. She was barefoot, and her face was hidden in the tradition of a blue scarf twined and tucked about her lower face and forehead, so that Maki could see only one sweat-soaked lock of ebony hair plastered to the side of the startled eyes. There was no way he could have come into contact with a woman of that rank in his life as a soldier, and yet a nagging thought in the back of his mind argued that her grace was familiar.

"My lord," she bowed low to the ground, grabbing her skirts in long-fingered hands and falling to her knees. Her voice was husky, low, almost like that of the gypsies, and trembling slightly. "Forgive an ignorant girl. I did not mean to block you. Please donít punish meó"

What was it about her? He cleared the random thoughts from his mind swiftly and bent to help her up. As his fingers encountered the bare flesh on her arms, she cringed and pulled away. He stared at her in bemusement, but she kept her eyes lowered on the ground, the long lashes falling against the dusky kohl that the common women used to enhance their eyes. On a festival night such as this, it was a long-held to, traditional luxury.

"Nobodyís going to punish you. I wonít hurt you, I promise."

She began backing away from him, but he reached out and caught her arm before she could disappear into the milling crowd. He didnít know why he was doing this, but the woman before him held a compelling attraction for him. He desired suddenly to see the face concealed beneath the layers of the headscarf, and was immediately ashamed of his forward thoughts. "Please donít go."

The drums began to start, a beat of tribal rhythm and long, drawn-out wails that accompanied the rush of people to the open lawn, where women laughed and men clapped their hands, calling to the womenfolk to join them in this native dance. Maki looked down at the bowed head before him, and then realized that he had been unconsciously grasping the pale arm more tightly than he intended. He released her with a cough.

"I apologize for my rudeness."

He thought he could detect the hint of a smile in the curve of her downcast eyes, and was unreasonably attracted by it. "Would you like to dance?"
 

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Kogure watched silently, his presence only a whisper on the wind as the captain of the Princeís Guard stopped following the prince. Out of all the fools in the palace, only one such as this could challenge his skill. It was safer this way.

He rose from his crouch and pulled on the black veil, tying it securely behind his head. This is our last chance, Sendoh. Keep the captain away till I finish the job.

He moved swiftly to the side gardens that surrounded the inner courts, his eyes scanning and finding the ledge almost immediately. Reaching it, he crouched low and then leapt effortlessly, quietly up, walking the length of the narrow wall and then jumping off the end of it, his arms moving overhead and grasping the very edge of the sill. He swung there for a few moments more, and then hauled himself up, stabilizing himself on the tiny window ledge as his hand snaked to the leather case strapped to his back, and removed a slim bow intricately engraved with his mark. Then he looked down.

Far away, surrounded by courtiers and guards, the prince stood, sipping his drink, unaware of the arrow aimed for his throat.