This straggler did not offer any warm greeting to anyone present. No one came running from the lean-to to offer him an embrace and a bottle of sake. Instead he promptly stretched out on a bench and turned his hood backward to cover his face. With his hands stacked atop his chest, he remained at a distance, taking in some rest.

A man of obvious repute.

At the sound of more laughter, Mariko’s eyes drifted back toward the first boy. The one the elderly man had called Ranmaru. A part of her wished to move closer. To be within striking distance. But caution commanded that she keep her distance.

The boy sat as he stood—straight as an arrow. His jaw was strong and squared, his lips broad. Though he was clean-shaven and smiling—oddly affable for a supposed mercenary—he still gave off the distinct feeling of power. A checked sort of power, like that of a strong undercurrent. One that could drag you beneath its depths in an instant.

Ranmaru stood once more, speaking in hushed tones to the elderly man, who nodded and replied just as furtively. Then Ranmaru resumed his place of deference at a rickety low table near the center of the clearing. Even while he continued speaking with the men in black gathered around him, Mariko watched him rearrange his bench, positioning it with care. A care that put to question the unconscious laughter emanating from his lips.

He’s moving the bench into a position where he can see anyone or anything attempting to approach him unawares.

He was smart, despite his age. Exceedingly watchful. A trait Mariko prized in herself. She leaned in, attempting to connect the voices present to those in her memory.

Attempting to prove her suspicions true.

The other black-clad men took their seats, encircling Ranmaru as their earthenware bottles and cups were filled and refilled at steady intervals. From beneath lowered lashes, Mariko also noted that—though he continued drinking and joking alongside everyone else—Ranmaru’s eyes were in constant motion.

Eyes that soon fell on her.

Mariko was struck by how neat and clean he appeared. How . . . proper. Not at all like a member of a notorious band of thieves and murderers. Though his attention lingered on her for no more than a breath, the faintest of flushes crept up her neck. Soon this flush touched the edges of her temples, and Mariko realized not a moment too soon that her fingers were dangerously clenched around her small cup of sake.

Another wash of anger. Mixed with that same, strange curiosity. Again she fought back the desire to situate herself in the center of things. For it was far safer to remain alert and apart.

If Ranmaru was indeed the leader of the Black Clan, this boy was the one responsible for the attack on Mariko’s convoy. For the deaths of Chiyo and Nobutada and countless other lives lost in a darkened wood only five days before.

She lifted the sake to her lips and squeezed her eyes shut. Though she knew for certain she did not appear to be a threat, Mariko could not afford for any member of the Black Clan to linger on her for too long. To study her and find an enemy. Or worse, find a prize.

Focus on the task at hand. But never forget.

Now came the difficult part.

Now came the time to put her musings to action.

Mariko had spent the better part of the last few nights writhing beneath a woolen blanket. Plotting through a haze of anger. For these past few days, she’d lived the life of a poor vagabond. And though it had been strangely peaceful to be beholden to no one save herself, she’d still been acutely aware of her purpose. Each night, she’d taken in careful breaths from beneath her blanket—a blanket that had smelled of iron and dirt and had felt even worse against her skin. One of many items she’d pilfered from the stable of a comfortable farm in a nearby province.

A horse blanket. In a horse stable.

She’d climbed into the loft and fallen asleep amongst stale bales of hay. The only time Mariko had paused in her efforts to find the watering hole of the Black Clan was when she’d washed her stolen clothes in a nearby creek, rubbing away the dried blood and musty smell of sweat until her knuckles chafed raw.

All her efforts culminated in this. Everything was risked for this.

Risked on her ability to endear herself to the Black Clan. To ply one of its lowliest members with food and drink until she could befriend the poor bastard and move on to a bigger catch. One that could provide Mariko the direction she desperately needed to keep her family’s honor intact and prove her worth beyond the marriage market.

Prove her worth beyond that of a mere girl.

Of course this all hinged on the Black Clan never discovering she was in fact their intended target. It was all unfathomably frightening. Darkly fascinating.

Her parents would be horrified.

Kenshin would undoubtedly disapprove.

Mariko continued her careful scrutiny of the Black Clan. A group of twenty or so men of all ages surrounded Ranmaru—the boy she suspected to be their leader, despite his surprisingly young age. Everything about him indicated so, from his natural deportment to their natural deference.

She squared her shoulders and coolly assessed those present, her attention fixed on the most pliable: its youngest and oldest members.

The ones most likely in need of a listening ear.

To Ranmaru’s right stood a one-legged man of middle age, balancing his weight on a crude false limb. Alas, this man did not present a good target; he, too, seemed entirely too observant, his fingers drumming against any hard surface within grazing distance. At one hip were multiple small knives of varying size and shape. A pouch with dried leaves peeking from its folds rested at the opposing hip. A cook, if Mariko had to hazard a guess. Or the Black Clan’s resident poisoner. Regardless, she would need a far more pliable target than he. All the cooks Mariko had met in her short life labored to notice even the most insignificant detail. Labored to understand the basic ingredient of all things.

Another, smaller boy around her age was also not a good option. He moved erratically, hovering on the fringes, the tips of his otherwise immaculate topknot standing on end. His eyes had a dull stare to them. An almost haunted look. Glazed over from a past Mariko was not ready or willing to hear.

The straggler sleeping on the bench could be a decent choice. If she could successfully rouse him to drink, which at this rate did not seem likely. His chest rose and fell in a rhythm of total relaxation. Perhaps an anvil dropping from the sky might awaken him. Perhaps.

Along the periphery, another young member of the Black Clan studied the leaves in the nearby trees with such serenity Mariko was certain he’d stepped from a story she’d once heard her mother tell—one about a boy who floated through the sky, carried on the wind by an umbrella of oiled paper. His face was smooth and shiny, almost like a pebble shimmering beneath the surface of a stream.

So intent was Mariko in her mission to learn everything she could possibly manage about everyone present that she did not see the elderly man looming over her until he was nearly stooped at eye level, the scent of burning charcoal emanating from his wrinkled skin.

“Another?” the elderly man asked bluntly. It appeared his congeniality was reserved only for Ranmaru and his troupe of murdering miscreants.

“I—” Mariko paused to clear her throat. To deepen the note of her voice. “Yes.”

The man pursed his lips, forming radiating lines all around his mouth, much like a judgmental dumpling. “Are you quite certain, young man?”

Immediately Mariko assumed what she hoped was a distinctly masculine posture. She lengthened her spine. Craned her neck to the right as though she were peering down her nose. For this one blessed moment, she was glad to be taller than most girls her age. Glad to be not so delicate. “I’m quite certain. Are you not in the business of selling wine?”

“To those who like to drink it, yes.” A mischievous glint took hold of the old man’s gaze.

Mariko blinked. “I like it just fine.” In her periphery, she noticed the boy with the haunted, almost murderous eyes draw closer, his expression tight.

The old man rasped a laugh. “You might have a lot of water in you, boy, but it doesn’t make you a good teller of tales. The words don’t form well on your lips. They don’t take shape as they should. You should practice more.”

Water? She’d always lacked the fluidity to be water. The natural grace. Her mother claimed she had too much earth in her. That she was far too grounded. Far too stubborn. Almost like a rock, half buried beneath the soil. If Mariko was anything outside of earth, she was wind—disruptive at times, and invisible always.

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