A/N – I hope you will all come along for the ride on this one. As always, reviews and comments are much appreciated.

Disclaimer – Bleach, all the associated characters, settings and storylines belong to Kubo Tite, and not to me, alas. The title "Noble House" has been borrowed from James Clavell.


Prologue 1


In the hushed silence of the manor, dark shadows crept through the moonlit halls, intent on their destination, the chamber where the clan lord slept, guarded by elite guardsmen. The assassins made no sound as they passed, blending easily with the shifting shadows; the nightingale floor did not sound, and the guards, vigilant as they were, had no warning before soot-blackened steel hissed over their throats. Leather-gloved hands stifled their grunts of shock and alarm, lowering their bodies softly to the floor and dragging them out of sight.

Working with trained co-ordination the assassins gathered at the lacquered shoji screen and took great care to slide it open as silently as they could, exhaustively briefed on their target's exceptional abilities. If they succeeded in this mission, it would bring untold riches and honour upon them and their families. If they failed…

Failure was unthinkable.

Slowly, they padded over the springy tatami floor, their knives and swords out and ready. The air hummed with tension, their senses stretched to the utmost, focused upon the chamber: an exquisitely painted screen; an alcove adorned with a seasonal arrangement of wildflowers; a low expanse of bedding, where the lord lay.

For a moment, the leader's heartbeat hesitated, the thought of Kuchiki Byakuya – even sleeping and stripped of his kenseikan, his white haori, and his formidable dignity – enough to give him pause. His suppressed reiatsu stirred, and though he brought it immediately under control, by then it was far too late.

The white-hot intensity and unbearable pressure of a captain's immense, unrestrained reiatsu flared. The leader staggered, dropped to his knees; the other assassins – insensitive – hesitated, only for a moment –

And then an arc of shining steel flashed in the dimly lit room. An assassin grunted and cried out, blood spraying from his severed jugular. The others rushed in, recovering quickly, and attacked – but they were no match for their erstwhile victim's exceptional skill. Again and again, Senbonzakura's blade flashed, crimson-stained now; one by one the assassins fell, until in the bloody darkness they heard the Kuchiki clan lord say, in flat, utterly indifferent tones –

"Chire."

There was an interlude of screaming, whirling chaos, the barely visible sparks of Senbonzakura's blades devastating in such a confined space, every one of the thousand petals drawing blood with exquisite, vicious grace.

And then there was silence, broken only by harsh, fearful breathing; the leader of the assassins, the last one left alive, facing the man he had thought to kill. No coward, he tightened his shaking grip on his sword and drew himself up, preparing himself for death. He thought of making a speech, justifying his actions so that his death would at least be marked with some dignity.

But Kuchiki Byakuya had had more than enough.

He recalled Senbonzakura to his hand, and with graceful, brutal efficiency he struck.

Grimly flicking the blood from his blade, he looked up to see Rukia watching him from the door, gripping Sode no Shirayuki tightly, her eyes wide and shocked as she absorbed the carnage.

"Nii-sama," she said faintly. "I felt your reiatsu flare. I thought…"

Slowly, deliberately, he wiped Senbonzakura clean and resheathed her.

"This is the fourth time in as many months," he said. "I am becoming tired of this."

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