**From the Manga "Souten no Koumori" (translated "Bat of Blue Sky")***written by the same author that wrote Full Metal Alchemist**
**I DO NOT CLAIM ownership. If you've never read this manga, I strongly suggest you do; Souten_no_Koumori/0/00/ **
He had exited the tent, but the potent aura of his presence still lingered with her. Only seconds ago he had sat so close to her, he had talked with her. His optimistic, kind nature had not changed with age. The little master she once knew was now an admirable young adult—Lord Chiyozuru. But the man's words were what truly stirred memories and emotions within her. The smile on his face replayed in her mind as she remembered them…they were like a salve to her soul.
Tears trickled down her chin as she whispered, "I will remember…your message to that person…and I will tell her..."
Yet, suddenly, he reappeared within the tent. "I'm sorry, did you see my…"
Henpukumaru startled and bowed her head. "Yes, my lord?"
"Oh, there it is!" he walked over to the small pouch sitting beside her and laughed at himself. "I'm quite forgetful. I've left my money bag in town far more times than I can count! My chief adviser always scorns me like a father—"
But his apologetic words and laughter halted abruptly. His hand dropped to his side before it reached the bag. The lord's eyes paused on the small, glimmering diamonds falling from the strange girl's cheeks. Her breath was shallow and constricted, as if she was trying to suppress sobs. He turned his body toward her and knelt.
"Did I do something to upset you? If I did, I'm sorry—"
Henpukumaru was concerned that he would kneel before a peasant over simple tears. Could such a gentle and humble man survive ruling a kingdom? Perhaps he had not been taught of the weight of his social status, of his birth right. But, more importantly, he was dangerously close to her face. She panicked at the thought of him discovering her true identity and grabbed the top of her hat, forcing her head down as far as her neck would bend to hide the birthmark on her cheek.
The lord sensed her discomfort and backed off. "I'm sorry…please, let me make it up to you somehow. I don't know what I said but…"
"No, no," she told him softly, "It's not you. I always cry easily. Forgive me." That was a blatant lie…she never cried. Not since...
He pulled out a square of cloth and sat beside her. "Here…"
Henpukumaru realized he was wiping her tears with that cloth, and this almost stopped her heart. She froze when she felt him dry the area near her birthmark. She didn't know how to make him stop without being disrespectful.
"Th-That's not necessary, my lord—" the girl stammered, bringing her hand up to take the cloth.
"Please, may I see your face?" those words landed on her core like ice.
"I don't know what you are thinking when your face is hidden. But I can usually understand what people need by just looking in your eyes. If you can't talk to me about what is troubling you, I respect that. But please, at least show me your face…"
'You are so naïve for a ruler of the kingdom,' she thought to herself. 'You don't have to ask for anything. You are the lord of this land-you can have anything you want from it with just a glance.'
The lord's advisers arrived at the door of the tent. One was saying, "Honestly, master, you should be more conscientious of your personal possessions—" he paused abruptly at the sight of Henpukumaru.
The other adviser asked, "Is this woman bothering you?"
"We've told you before, master. With all due respect, the people know you are soft and so they'll use any method they can to ensnare your sympathies so they can get what they want."
"I understand you feel responsibility for them but—"
Lord Chiyozuru sighed and glanced over his shoulder. "Please leave us for a moment. Shut the tent and stand guard."
The men looked at each other hesitantly.
"Sir, she could be diseased—"
He gave them a reproachful stare.
They cleared their throats in unison and replied, "As you wish…"
The inside of the tent darkened as the flaps were shut. Henpukumaru's heart began to race. She could feel his eyes on her, her skin tingled under his gaze.
"Please," said his voice kindly, "I'm not going to hurt you. Please, allow me to look into your eyes."
"M-My disease has made my face hideous," she lied in one last, desperate attempt, "I couldn't dare disrespect you by showing it to—".
But his hand slowly reached under her chin. His fingers found the string that secured the hat to her head. He pulled lightly, and the tie unraveled. She felt all her defenses unravel with it, and her body stiffened. The lord caught the brim of her hat in his hand and lifted it tenderly from her head. She instinctively made to grab it back, but then stopped herself—she couldn't defy him. Even if he was a normal peasant she couldn't defy him, for she owed him so much…
Still, Henpukumaru turned her face away. She was horrified at her exposure.
"There is nothing wrong with your face," the lord said. Henpukumaru sensed the reasuring smile in his voice and cringed. She didn't deserve his kindness. She hadn't wanted this to happen. She just needed to know for certain that he was secure and healthy. She had come for her peace of mind. But what would happen now? What would he do when he saw her face? When he recognized her?
Next, Henpukumaru felt the tips of his fingers delicately touch her chin and turn her face towards his. She wished she could slow the pounding within her chest. There was no way out of this…she stopped resisting and let him see her, swallowing the ominous depression. Their eyes locked, and a wave of regret coursed through her body. She should have never returned. She should have been satisfied with the rumors in the taverns.
But the expression on Lord Chiyozuru's face made her wonder if she had actually hoped—unknowingly and unwillingly—for an encounter like this. His eyes had matured, but they were the same eyes-she sensed it-and she was so happy to look into them again. To feel their benevolence and acceptance.
The silence nourished every thought of that moment. The lord's eyes traveled from her eyes, to the mark on her cheek, and back again. Henpukumaru had to avert her gaze to the floor in embarrassment.
She heard him whisper her name, then laugh her name, then shout her name as he enveloped her into a welcoming and tight embrace. Her cheeks felt like were too close to the fire. She felt as if the warmth of his body was melting away any last remnant of resistance and self-doubt inside within her. And…
And...it felt like she was home.