To their lazy comrade, still fast asleep on the bench.

AN UNMERITED BLESSING

Kenshin smelled the body before he saw it.

A sickly sweet scent, mingled with the odor of decaying meat. It caught in the uppermost portion of his throat, scratching at his senses.

Sending his heart thundering through his chest.

His sister was not dead. Mariko could not be dead.

He would not allow it.

Undeterred, Kenshin continued his low prowl through the darkened underbrush of Jukai forest. Continued searching for his sister’s tracks.

Then—in the thorny brambles at the base of a pine grove—Kenshin came across the source of the smell. The body of a dirty man, rotting in the underbrush. Unclothed, save for a filthy loincloth.

At this realization, his heart slowed. Kenshin crouched beside the dead body, on the hunt for any detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

For the third time that night, he was glad to have left his men behind at their makeshift camp. After tracking for nearly two hours, he was now deep in Jukai forest. Had he not taken care to mark the trees as he made his way, the journey back to camp would have been treacherous.

Despite their assurances otherwise, Kenshin knew none of his men rested well in Jukai’s shade. Three of their horses had already bolted. Only his own sorrel steed, Kane, remained unshaken. The whispers of the yōkai ever chased at their heels. Kenshin himself had yet to see a single demon of the forest, but—as such things often did—one man’s story had mushroomed into many. A single tale of a headless deer clomping at their flank. A single sighting of a silver snake with the head of a woman.

One story was all it took. Superstitions were quick to become truths in a night of ghostly sighs and shifting shadows.

Kenshin knew he could order his men to follow him. To obey his every command. But it was far easier for him to march on alone. Much like his father, he did not care to hold council with anyone, no matter how much respect the man might be due. Nor did he care to address anyone’s fears. Kenshin knew better than to even try.

Curbing his distaste for such absurdity, the Dragon of Kai squinted at the body lying supine on the forest floor. The man’s skin was stretched. Bloated from the first flush of decay. Maggots wriggled through a slit across his throat, their tiny bodies the color of rice paste. One of the man’s eyes had been punctured by a small weapon. Some sort of needled blade.

No.

Kenshin leaned closer.

Not a weapon.

He reached to take hold of the slivers of jade dangling from its end.

A tortoiseshell hairpin. One he quickly recognized.

For the second time that night—two occasions too many—Kenshin felt a wave of distress unfurl beneath his skin.

If this man had been pierced through the eye by this particular hairpin, there could be no doubt as to who had placed it there. Which meant his sister had been pushed beyond the realm of reason. Kenshin did not know Mariko to lose her temper on a whim. Nor did he know her to be inclined to violence. His sister had always been a scholar of reason, devoid of emotion.

If Mariko had murdered this man, he had undoubtedly deserved it. What he had done to deserve it Kenshin could only begin to guess.

Could only begin to imagine.

The wave of distress crested into full-blown rage.

Such a clean death. Such an unmerited blessing.

Had Kenshin been present, this man would have suffered far worse.

His chest pressed against his breastplate as he took in a calming breath. The time for anger had long passed. Far more urgent now was the need for action. Kenshin sank lower in his crouch, resuming his search through the underbrush. As his palm grazed across the thicket—brushing the edges of a swallow’s nest—his fingers caught on what at first glance appeared to be a tangle of fine, dark thread.

When Kenshin lifted his hand into the moonlight, he found strands of black hair twisted around his knuckles.

His sister’s hair had been scattered across the underbrush. It was clear someone had tried to conceal it beneath the brambles, but the attempt had not escaped the clutches of the forest’s most resourceful creatures.

He stood without a sound. The strands of hair drifted from his fingertips, fading into the darkness. Puzzlement flared through him.

Then his gaze fell again on the body at his feet.

The body of a dead, unclothed man.

Kenshin’s head lifted. His eyes softened. It took him no more than an instant. No more than a moment of understanding. He reached down and yanked the tortoiseshell hairpin from the man’s rotting eye.

Then he spun back toward his horse.

Back on the trail.

Of a girl dressed as a boy.

He did not notice the pair of yellow eyes trailing behind him.

THE CHOICE

Mariko’s brows gathered in confusion.

That lazy boy cannot possibly be the Black Clan’s best fighter.

As if in answer to her thoughts, the lazy boy in question inhaled with exaggerated slowness. As though he were beyond annoyed. As though the mere action of taking in air involved too much effort. He knocked away the hood covering his face, then unfolded to his feet in a languorous stretch, much like that of a jungle cat.

With a swipe of his left hand, he pushed back the long strands of hair from his brow. Then he cleared his throat.

His sight now unencumbered, the boy turned toward his quarry. Turned into Mariko’s vantage point. Her confusion deepened as she took in his features.

The boy was tall and lean. A body of angles and sinew. A diagonal scar cut through the center of his lips. He blinked sluggishly, as though he’d been startled from a stupor, his hooded, heavy-lidded eyes lifting open then shut. Open then shut. In such a charged moment as this—when his very life could be at stake—Mariko could not fathom his expression, for it was as lax as his demeanor. One that did not match a face of hard edges and graceful slopes.

A face of contradiction.

After another stretch in the opposite direction, the boy’s gaze drifted toward the assemblage of men and weapons to his right. Then he began a measured stalk toward the giant.

His steps were instinctual—the gait of a young man with a natural awareness of his surroundings. If a gale were to suddenly descend upon them—or a tree branch to fall from the sky—it would be unlikely this boy would be caught off guard.

The way he moved reminded Mariko very much of Kenshin. Which meant that—despite this boy’s lazy comportment—he could well prove to be a formidable opponent. Mariko’s brother had been a student of battle for much of his life. She knew such innate prowess was not gifted at random.

Yes. It was possible this boy could best the giant. That is, if he could be bothered to procure a weapon. He still did not appear to have a single blade on his person.

As the boy came to a halt near the gathering, Mariko realized something else of import. Though this boy’s movements were similar to those of Kenshin, there was also a distinct difference. One that made Mariko amend her earlier comparison. Her brother moved precisely, each foot placed with deliberate intent. This boy did not take steps.

He glided like a shark through the water.

And like the sea, the members of the Black Clan parted around him as the boy took position before the giant.

The charge that had begun to collect earlier rose again in earnest.

Even though the giant appeared perplexed at this turn of events, he swung his kanabō from side to side. Attempting to frighten his new opponent with another show of bravado.

When the boy did not react—did not even attempt to dodge—the giant scowled.

“Don’t you need a weapon?” he grunted.

The boy shook his head. Yawned once more. “No.” He rolled his shoulders. Cricked his neck.

A chuff passed the giant’s lips. “Arrogant fool.”

“Not arrogant.” The boy scratched along his jaw nonchalantly. “Just accurate.”

The giant laughed again, goading his men to join in his amusement. A smattering of uneasy laughter spread through their ranks. It did little to leaven the mood. If anything, it only darkened it.

Mariko’s pulse quickened. Should this fight develop into something more than a mere exchange of posturing, it was possible she would never obtain her answers. Never spare her family undue embarrassment. Or prove her worth beyond the marriage market.

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