The rōnin.

Odd that a rōnin inspires such loyalty.

A boy who would kill an innocent girl for money.

She took in a measured breath, slowing the speed of her pulse. Her resolve hardened once more. Hardened like folded steel shaped and reshaped under a red-hot flame for countless days and nights.

Until nothing could best it.

I will be a reed in the current. A reed of folded steel.

Even if Ranmaru’s men found him worthy of admiration, Mariko never would.

Chiyo.

Nobutada.

This boy deserved to be hung upside down and drowned in Yedo Bay. Disgraced, for all the world to see.

Just as the vision formed in her mind, the one-legged man previously standing to Ranmaru’s right stepped between the boy and the bumbling colossus, placing his restless fingertips on the hilt of a dagger. Several more men moved to shield their leader from view. To take whatever blows may come his way, with the honor a samurai would espouse for his lord. Try though she might, Mariko could not understand such reverence.

Not amongst murderers and thieves.

As the members of the Black Clan readied themselves for a fight, Mariko recalled something her tutor had said. He’d been a scholar from Kisun, well versed in alchemy and metallurgy. A lover of ancient philosophy.

One winter afternoon in their tenth year, Mariko had overheard their tutor say something to Kenshin that had taken root in her heart. That had left her in a state of quandary for most of the night.

Sometimes we must fall forward to keep moving.

Mariko had not understood it at the time. Only recently had she begun to grasp its meaning.

Remain motionless—remain unyielding—and you are as good as dead.

Death follows indecision, like a twisted shadow.

Fall forward. Keep moving. Even if you must pick yourself up first.

That was what this young rōnin must have done. Fallen forward to keep moving.

Into a life of savagery.

A heated exchange of words tore Mariko from her thoughts. The men on both sides had drawn closer. Bridged the gap even farther. The giant’s men were being stirred into a slow-moving frenzy.

A charge gathered in the clearing. Like that feeling right before a summer storm. A flash of light, crackling across the night sky. A flare of magic, snapping through the air.

When the giant took a threatening step toward Ranmaru, all the members of the Black Clan moved in tandem. All—Mariko noted—save the one still sleeping on the bench. Apparently the anvil had yet to fall.

“This is becoming tiresome.” Ranmaru moved toward the men positioned protectively before him. They parted to let him pass. Several of them unsheathed their swords, their blades gleaming blue and orange in the light of the nearby torches. “If I remember correctly, I already sent word through one of your”—his nose twitched—“men. As we were unaware that particular outpost had fallen under your domain, I offered to repay you the exact amount lost. You demanded more. Try though you might, that will never happen. Even you must know . . . the arm bends only inward.” He spoke in an idle tone, though Mariko caught his dark eyes flashing.

“An insult!” hissed a scrawny man with a face like a vulture. “You sully our name while stealing our livelihood, and you think a few copper pieces tossed in the dirt will be enough?”

“I did not sully your name.”

“You did!”

Ranmaru frowned. “I most certainly did not.”

Interesting. Mariko could not help but think this fight too closely resembled a childish squabble. The like of which she’d had many a time with Kenshin. Over such things as the last of the sweetened rice cakes.

“Since you won’t give us what we are due, you’ve forced us to resort to such measures,” the hissing vulture continued. “Forced us to take you to the nearest daimyō and collect the reward money for your capture.”

Again Ranmaru sighed. It was almost exaggerated in length and breadth. “If you think the daimyō will gladly hand over fifty ryō and smile as you ride away in triumph, you are sorely mistaken.”

“Enough of this ridiculous chatter!” the giant bellowed. “Either come with us now, or force us to kill each of your men and take you prisoner anyway.”

A mirthless smile cut across Ranmaru’s face. “If you intend to take anything, then take my advice,” he said. “This one time only, I’ll offer it without cost: the best way to win a fight is to avoid it.”

“The words of a thieving coward.”

Ranmaru grinned. “Despite what you may think, I believe in honor amongst thieves. And I thought we were all in agreement; the enemy is them, not us.”

The giant spluttered, confusion still marring his brow. “Lies.”

When the giant heaved his kanabō over his shoulder—readying to strike—Ranmaru lifted a hand. Momentarily staying the killing blow. “I’ll go with you on one condition,” he said. “We shall let it come down to a fight. If you win, I’ll go without a word. If I win, you leave and never come back to this part of the forest. Under pain of death.” The last was spoken with a harshness Mariko had not heard thus far in Ranmaru’s voice.

A harshness that sent a shiver down her spine.

The giant grinned. “You want to fight me?” His chest puffed like a sweet bean cake.

“Best on best.” Ranmaru nodded.

The sound of the giant’s laughter brought to mind a dog choking on a bone. It made Mariko swallow hard. Once his laughter died down, the giant rested his kanabō across his shoulders. His fingers dangled on either edge. They flexed once. Twice.

“I’m going to enjoy this, rōnin. Maybe even more than I’ll enjoy the gold I collect from your bounty.” While he spoke, the giant began to step sideways, taking stock of his prey.

Ranmaru did not unsheathe either of the blades positioned at his left side. Instead his feet moved automatically, mirroring his opponent, as though in a deathly dance.

After both he and the giant had taken three steps in a matched circle, Ranmaru halted. Cocked his head. And began to laugh.

The giant’s pockmarked brow furrowed.

“I just realized”—Ranmaru paused, as if he was still considering his thoughts—“you think you’re fighting me.”

His eyes narrowing, the giant heaved a great breath. “What?” It was a stutter of air and sound.

“I said best on best.” Ranmaru grinned. “What made you think I was talking about me?” He backed away, his body never once turning from his opponent. These movements seemed second nature to him.

Proving that no one ever stood at Takeda Ranmaru’s back.

Mariko refrained from bristling. It troubled her greatly that she could not readily recall the voices of the men beyond her norimono the night her convoy was attacked. Their sounds had been too muffled, her nerves far too fraught.

But she was certain one of them had to belong to the leader of the Black Clan. As certain as she was of the sun rising in the east. Takeda Ranmaru and his men had been sent to kill her. And Mariko intended to do whatever needed to be done to learn why.

She narrowed her eyes at the unflinching boy across the way.

It’s a shame you don’t realize another enemy is merely waiting for you in the shadows, rōnin. Perhaps not a fearsome one, but nevertheless an enemy far craftier than the bumbling colossus before you.

Mariko took stock once more of the other members of the Black Clan.

Several of them had stood taller at Ranmaru’s declaration. Then a ripple of amusement passed across their collective gazes, save for that of the boy with the haunted eyes and the spiked topknot. His eyes had not once left Mariko’s face until now. Though even he was distracted—unable to hide his anticipation—wetting his lips with a swipe of his tongue.

Mariko could believe this boy to be the Black Clan’s best.

His eyes screamed murder with every look. Two hooked swords were laced across his back. The type Mariko knew could be linked and swung, severing head from body in a single blow.

Just as she became certain this boy was to be the giant’s opponent, he, too, stepped aside.

Only Ranmaru continued watching the giant, his expression a strange mix of hard and soft. Punishing and pitying.

The Black Clan turned their gazes behind them in force—

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