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.