Never a day in her life had she been water.

“You are mistaken,” Mariko said gruffly. “Both about the water and about the drink.”

“Akira-san is rarely mistaken about anything.”

Mariko froze. Refused to turn around. Then thought better of it.

Now was not the time for indecision of any kind. Death follows indecision, like a twisted shadow. It was something her brother said. A word of caution too often levied her way.

Though she could not immediately connect the voice to any in her memory of that night, Mariko knew it belonged to the leader of the Black Clan. To Ranmaru.

Far from its most pliable member.

But if I can save myself the work of deceiving my way into his graces . . .

The same instant Mariko turned to face him, Ranmaru walked into her line of sight. Again she sensed a leashed sort of power, like a coil about to spring.

“If Akira-san says you are water, you are water,” he continued.

Mariko’s right shoulder lifted, emulating one of Kenshin’s many nonresponses to her frequent questions. She held fast to her composure, though her pulse ratcheted in her throat. “If it gets me another bottle of sake, I can be water.”

His smile was pointed. “Allow me.” He put his hand out to one side without even glancing to his left or right. The boy with the spiked topknot and the haunted gaze surrendered his bottle of spirits before Mariko had a chance to blink.

Why do they obey him so unflinchingly?

Ranmaru leaned close, and Mariko caught the faint scent of pine and steel. He poured a thin stream of rice wine into her cup with steady hands. Hands that were remarkably clean. Hands that made Mariko want to conceal her own filthy fingers in the folds of her nonexistent kimono.

Just as this realization settled upon her, Mariko fought against it. Fought against the urge to be the proper young woman she’d been raised to be. Hands trembling, she lifted the cup in a salute, then downed its contents in a single gulp.

Of course this would be the moment she coughed from the burn. A hacking, wretched sort of cough. The men at Ranmaru’s back let loose a chorus of raucous laughter. Save for the boy with the murderous eyes. Mariko shuddered to think what he might find amusing.

A box of paralytic scorpions? A jar of venomous snakes?

“This little runt can’t hold his drink,” a burly man with arms of knotted pine and a kosode of burnished black leather announced through his laughter. Though tinged by amusement, the look he gave her bordered on dismissive. Indifferent.

Unease sparked once more within her. If the Black Clan thought her unworthy of their attention, Mariko would lose this precious opportunity to endear herself to their leader.

The leader of the men charged with murdering her.

But she could not readily pretend to be something she wasn’t. And she wasn’t a skilled drinker. Nor was she a skilled fighter. On the surface, she wasn’t a fearsome enemy at all. Mariko was . . . odd. Curious. Clever. Perhaps too clever, as her father always said. It had never been meant as a compliment, though she had always taken it as one.

But perhaps it was better this way. These men would not want to see Mariko as odd or curious or clever. Those were characteristics that would warrant concern in any unknown. Maybe it would serve her well to don a different disguise. One of a bumbling fool desperately in need of direction. Desperately in need of the Black Clan’s most esteemed guidance.

Anything to keep them in her thrall.

Mariko set down her cup, then cleared her throat with a series of raps against her chest, willing her nerves silent. She grinned up at Ranmaru sheepishly. “I’ve recently left home to seek my fortune along the road. And I have not yet spent enough time in such places. Even still, I’m most grateful for the drink. Would you allow me to return the favor?” Her grin widened. “Then perhaps I can learn from you how better to enjoy such things.”

Ranmaru watched Mariko as he refilled her cup, his gaze thoughtful, his broad lips pursed to one side. “While I would normally—”

Just then a series of booming footsteps crashed through the underbrush at the edge of the forest, disrupting the peaceful grove of maple trees across the way.

“Takeda Ranmaru!” An enormous man, standing nearly three heads taller than anyone present, shouted into the night sky. “I will not bear this insult a single day more!”

Ranmaru straightened. The men at his back stood silent. Unmoving.

A moment passed in stillness. A moment laced with tension. The sort meant to be bowed by a sword.

“Then, by all means, state your grievances.” Ranmaru’s smile was wide. Unaffected. “And we shall both face the consequences.”

FALL FORWARD TO KEEP MOVING

Takeda.

Mariko knew that name.

It sifted through her mind, dredging up a faded memory.

One of a boy standing in a bloodied square, silently crying to the heavens.

“Consequences?” Sporting a look of amused incredulity, the giant of a man stepped toward Ranmaru. The thunder in his voice dashed away Mariko’s memories before they could fully take shape.

In his meaty right hand, the giant held an immense kanabō. He swung the huge club into the light of a nearby torch. “Did you not think I would know it was you?” The metal barbs studding one end of the kanabō flashed dully. “Did you not think we would come to seek retribution?” He nodded to the men at his back. To their generous array of weaponry. These men were exactly what Mariko had pictured a passel of cutthroats to be. Bearded. Unwashed. Uncouth.

The complete opposite of the Black Clan.

In fact, Mariko would have staked the rest of her copper pieces—even an entire gold ryō—on the fact that the wretched soul she’d killed in the forest five days ago might have known these intruders.

Might even have been well acquainted with them.

Her discomfort rose in a sharp spike. She looked back to the Black Clan. Two sides of her continued their silent war: the part that wished to remain in the thick of things and the part that wished to observe from a distance.

Ranmaru stayed relaxed. His hands were at his sides, his posture easy. As though a giant bearing a studded club had not stepped into his world, intent on beating him to a bloody pulp.

“Did you hear me, rōnin?” The giant spat the last word, hurling it into the air with the venom of a curse.

Rōnin.

More scattered pieces aligned in Mariko’s mind.

A reason for Ranmaru’s proper, almost noble comportment.

Takeda Ranmaru was a masterless samurai. Or the son of a samurai fallen from grace within the nobility. He was—or had been—part of Mariko’s world once. Judging by his age, it could not have been so long ago.

Again that image of a boy not many years older than she, standing beside stones rusted brown with blood, came into brief focus. Then blurred away, like a reflection rippling across a pond.

Mariko narrowed her eyes at the rōnin. The idea intrigued her with its ludicrousness.

A noble thief. A mercenary of samurai lineage.

Though Ranmaru continued to appear unaffected, she saw his right hand twitch, as if it was aching to take hold of a sword.

“I heard you.” Ranmaru leaned back on his heels, once more the picture of calm, his words a mocking pronouncement. “Both times, you bumbling colossus.”

The giant grunted. He swung his kanabō again. It cut through the air with a shrill whisper.

An unmistakable threat.

Mariko sank lower in her bench.

This would not end well.

She should leave. The last thing she wanted to be was collateral damage in a tavern brawl. But that cursed boy with the murder eyes continued to stare at her intently. It made it difficult for her to think straight.

The group of men previously standing behind the giant began to unfurl into a line, standing shoulder to shoulder on either side of their leader. Each of their weapons was coated in layers of dried blood.

They . . . did not appear to be in a negotiating mood. Mariko caught the distinct sound of air being sucked through teeth, as though in anticipation of a thrill. When her gaze fell upon one of the cutthroats closest to her, she understood something she’d only heard of in passing.

Bloodlust.

A hunger nothing but slaughter could slake.

Her heartbeat quickened.

Ranmaru sighed. Mariko noted that—though his men did not step forward in response to the giant’s threat—many had placed hands on their own weapons. Ready and willing to strike. Ready and willing to defend their leader. The masterless samurai.

***

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