Not once did the warrior miss his target.
Whispers of admiration rippled through the crowd. They unfurled into a steady murmur when a slight boy clad in silks stained a rare shade of yellow—almost like burnished gold—took position at the opposite end of the field.
Kenshin did not immediately recognize him, but he felt certain the boy had to be the crown prince, Minamoto Roku. Though he’d never met him before, Kenshin had heard from both his father and from Nobutada that the crown prince did not possess a striking appearance, yet nevertheless managed to hold his own at court.
Kenshin could see why now. There was a noble bearing to the boy. A distinct haughtiness to the set of his thin shoulders and the tilt of his pointed chin. The only member of court with finer robes was the emperor himself.
The crown prince drove three kaburaya into the ground. Kenshin immediately noticed how the whistling arrowheads did not appear to be the blunted sort generally used for practice. Without pausing for thought, the crown prince fitted one of these arrows to the string of his bow. At that exact moment, the finest archer of the yabusame—the one who had caught everyone’s attention earlier—broke ranks and began riding toward the crown prince.
With no sign of stopping.
Concern flared through Kenshin. Several members of the nobility took to their feet, alarm spreading across their faces.
Without even a glimmer of concern, the crown prince fired an arrow at the warrior on the grey-and-white steed. The warrior dodged it, effortlessly sliding from his saddle as the horse continued its wild gallop. He clutched the reins as his feet sluiced through the soft earth. When the crown prince fired another shot, the warrior vaulted back onto his saddle, easily avoiding the arrow’s mark. He continued riding toward the crown prince, undeterred.
The crown prince’s shots were well timed. Well aimed.
Meant to strike.
But the rider drew closer and closer to the crown prince, refusing to veer. Refusing to yield.
At the last possible second, the crown prince fired another arrow, straight at the warrior’s chest. The warrior yanked it from the air and—quicker than a flash of lightning—nocked it to his bow. He fired it back at the crown prince.
The arrow embedded in the dirt at a perfect angle, a hairsbreadth from the prince’s feet.
The crown prince smiled.
As soon as the warrior reined in near him, he dismounted and removed his helmet. Then he bowed low. Grinning at one another, the two young men clapped each other on the back appreciatively.
The smattering of awkward applause became cheers.
Only members of the royal family would be permitted to touch the crown prince with such impunity.
Kenshin saw the resemblance. Despite the fact that the member of the yabusame was nearly a head taller. Considerably broader.
The rider was Prince Raiden.
His sister’s betrothed.
“I was very sorry to hear about your sister’s untimely death, Kenshin-sama,” Minamoto Roku said as he dropped to his cushioned seat before a low table in the corner of his chambers.
Though the crown prince’s words sounded heartfelt, Kenshin did not feel any warmth in them. The statement was coolly pronounced. Said with the same inflection Roku might have offered when commenting on a spate of bad weather. The contrivance in the prince’s tone bothered Kenshin, but he stifled his irritation. After all, he was in the presence of royalty. At audience with the emperor’s two sons.
And the future heavenly sovereign of Wa.
A future sovereign who was—at the moment—far too concerned with arranging sheets of ivory washi paper on the table before him. Smoothing their surfaces. Anchoring their edges with weights. Preparing to practice his calligraphy.
Roku looked at Kenshin—as though he expected Kenshin to elaborate further on the matter of Mariko’s untimely death—before smiling to himself and slowly circling an ink stick in the well of a carved inkstone to his right.
In moments like these, Kenshin wished Mariko were at his side. She would be thinking far in advance of what anyone might do or say. Holding her emotions close and in check. His sister was leagues ahead of anyone in most conversations. Far past anyone’s present. In contrast, Kenshin often found himself crashing through the underbrush of conversations Mariko skirted with ease. It was not that his sister was a particularly gifted conversationalist. It was more that she always seemed to know what people intended to say even before they did.
She read people much like she read books.
Such ability would be of great use to Kenshin right now.
But he was a warrior. Not an envoy or a strategist.
Kenshin cleared his throat. “I do not believe Mariko to be dead, Your Highness.” He glanced toward his sister’s betrothed to see if he could sense any reaction. Minamoto Raiden exchanged a wordless conversation with his brother, but Kenshin could not glean the sentiment behind his expression.
It could be worry. It could be anger. It could be suspicion.
Or perhaps it could be all of these things.
It never ceased to frustrate Kenshin how he was able to notice tangible things with the eye of a hawk. How the smallest detail was never missed. But when it came to analyzing the unseen—the unspoken subtleties of life—he was far from being a hawk. He was more of a mole, wandering through a world of darkness. Even with Amaya, he’d been painfully unaware of her feelings until it was far too late.
After a time, Minamoto Raiden took a steadying breath. He traded another glance with the crown prince, whose expression remained neutral. Then he leaned forward almost conspiratorially. “Kenshin-sama,” his sister’s betrothed began, “I was told Mariko’s convoy had been attacked in Jukai forest by a band of thieves. Several members of my father’s personal guard believe it to be the work of the Black Clan—though I’m not as inclined to agree. It seems far too . . . simple. Far too predictable. Not to mention beyond the typical behavior of the Black Clan.” He rested an elbow on a knee, inclining toward Kenshin even farther. “Is it possible your sister still lives, despite all the evidence to the contrary?”
As Raiden spoke, concern seeped into the small lines framing his mouth. He was only nineteen years old, but the effect of this concern made him appear battle-hardened. Weary. The sight strangely comforted Kenshin. As did the words his sister’s betrothed spoke. They were in keeping with Kenshin’s earlier thoughts. But it was also possible this was a ruse meant to earn his trust. Meant to plant seeds of unforeseen doubt.
Yet Minamoto Raiden did seem far less calculating than the crown prince. Far less conniving. And Kenshin appreciated how he appeared to value forthrightness more than his younger brother. Raiden’s character was more in keeping with his own. Since this marked Kenshin’s first interaction with his sister’s betrothed, these feelings set his mind somewhat at ease. At this moment, any sign of subterfuge remained solely in the black eyes of the crown prince. The slight, pale boy clad in golden silk, calmly practicing his shodo.
Perhaps Minamoto Roku had been the one to orchestrate the attack on Mariko’s convoy.
And yet . . .
A part of Kenshin did not quite believe the crown prince would strike out at his own brother by murdering Raiden’s future wife. After all, what would he have to gain by doing so? Roku was already first in line to the throne. And not once in all his years had Kenshin heard of Raiden having designs to usurp his younger brother. They could easily have been at war with each other. Brothers in similar situations had often killed each other for power in the past. But that did not appear to be the case here. By all accounts, these two brothers—despite the enmity between their birth mothers—were close friends. Trusted confidants.
Perhaps Kenshin had been wrong to suspect that members of the nobility had plotted to murder his sister. That someone in Inako had tried to thwart the nuptials between the emperor’s firstborn son and the daughter of an ambitious daimyō.
Or perhaps Minamoto Raiden was merely good at reading people as well.
As though he could hear the tenor of Kenshin’s thoughts, Raiden smiled reassuringly. He began to speak again, but was immediately silenced by his younger brother.
The crown prince shot a pointed look their way. As soon as Roku made certain he held their attention, his eyes drifted toward the beautifully carved folding screen to his left. “This is not the place to discuss such things,” he said in a harsh whisper. “The walls of Heian Castle possess ears.” The last was said in a barely audible tone.
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