It was also possible she might die.

Yes. That, too, was a fact of which she was keenly aware.

Her knowledge of how to win a fight was purely theoretical. The scuffle with the drunken fool in the forest had confirmed one thing: Mariko’s best asset in any altercation was her mind. And even with that advantage, she’d barely managed to best a man heavily encumbered by spirits. She had a strong suspicion of how she would fare against a seasoned warrior in an actual fight. And with men of any sort, Mariko had always found brute strength to be given the greatest weight.

But in a battle of wits?

It could be any man’s—or woman’s—game.

Mariko weighed her options. Whether she should run or stand her ground.

I should simply take shelter and watch these fools kill each other.

There could be a certain satisfaction in that.

But if that were to happen, she would never know who had plotted her death.

And why.

The sharp whistle of the kanabō being swung through the air tore her from her thoughts. She blinked toward the fight—

Just in time to see the lazy warrior dodge the giant’s first swing. With not a moment to spare. The breeze from the blow tossed the boy’s hair back into his face.

The giant laughed. “Too slow.”

An easy smile touched the boy’s scarred lips. As though he possibly shared the giant’s amusement. Shared his unfavorable opinion. Just as Mariko began to consider this possibility, she noticed a change in the boy’s body.

It had begun to tremble.

Is he . . . afraid?

Anticipation curled through her center. She fought to tamp down the rising curiosity. The rising interest. No. Mariko could not be the least bit entertained by any of this. Being entertained meant she could be easily distracted. And she refused to die in a watering hole this night.

Careful to remain beyond anyone’s notice, Mariko rose to her feet, still clenching her small cup of sake tight. Being certain not to make any sudden movements that might draw attention her way.

The giant swung his kanabō in a vicious backhand. As it rose, its tip grazed the boy’s shoulder. Mariko winced reflexively when the boy barely managed to escape the full impact of the blow. He rolled through the dirt—away from the giant—then spun to standing. Once he righted himself, he noticed a tear in the arm of his black kosode. He proceeded to launch into a series of curses Mariko had only heard the lowliest of stable hands utter in moments of great vexation. Vile, vulgar sorts of words that would have made her mother gasp into her palms and her father nod in warning to his subordinates.

The boy gripped his bare shoulder tight, wincing through the pain as blood began to well onto his fingers. As his shaking grew worse.

This was the best the Black Clan had to offer?

How had this lazy fool ever managed to best Nobutada?

It was as though everything Mariko had experienced in the last week had been in jest.

Her lips pulled into a frown.

If this battle wasn’t in jest, Takeda Ranmaru was going to lose his wager.

And Mariko was not ready or willing to see him lose to anyone but her.

She waited for a member of the Black Clan to come to the boy’s aid or put an end to this farce of a fight. It took her only a single glance to realize that none of their ranks appeared to be the least bit alarmed by the sight of their comrade on the verge of risking their leader’s life.

The men in black continued standing to either side of the fight. Unworried. Ranmaru reached for his drink. Almost as though he was disinterested. The one-legged cook leaned on his bō, studying its polished wood surface as though he were seeking something with which to occupy himself.

As though there could be something more pressing for him to consider.

A blaze of triumph flashed across the giant’s face. Raising his kanabō once more, he clomped toward the injured boy, set on proclaiming his victory.

Mariko edged away from her table, sidestepping in surreptitious fashion. Certain this fight was at an all-too-swift end.

The boy did not prepare himself to strike back. Did not so much as flinch from the coming blow. Instead he remained in one place. His hand dropped from his wounded shoulder.

His head fell forward, his dark hair veiling his features.

The trembling took hold of his body. Quickened into a blur. The air around him began to hum. Distort. Like the space surrounding a lantern flame.

Just as the giant unleashed his killing strike, the one-legged cook launched his bō in a graceful pitch toward the boy. He caught it in one hand without even turning to see it.

Then the boy leapt into the air, far out of the giant’s reach. He hovered—suspended on a spume of sound—before he came crashing back to earth, the soil at his feet exploding in concentric circles.

Mariko halted in her tracks. Anchored to one spot.

She had never before seen anyone move as he did.

Almost like that creature in the forest. The one that had tried to warn her.

Like a dark ghost. Or a demon of the night.

Disoriented by the sight, the giant stumbled, nearly collapsing to the dirt. The boy rippled through the air once more, far out of his reach, the hum around him growing in fever and pitch. Only a breath passed before he spun in place, crossing his arms above his head. The bō whirled, collecting momentum, cracking through the air like reverberating thunder. It arced toward the giant’s wrist in a punishing downward blow. Bones crunched as the giant dropped his studded club to the ground. He yowled so loudly the trees around them shook their limbs in disapproval.

Or amusement. Mariko could not be certain which.

To her dismay, she was uncertain as to her own reaction.

This was not entertaining. It was not entertaining to witness a man of greater brawn fall to a smaller, cleverer foe. Especially one clever enough to conceal his advantage so adeptly.

Mariko was not entertained by this sight. Not at all. Despite what the race of her pulse had to say otherwise.

The dark ghost of a boy blurred to a halt. The vibrations around his body lessened to a slow tremor. His chest rose and fell as he took in great drafts of air. As though he had been submerged in water for longer than any human could possibly bear.

He stood rooted to the ground, seeking a center.

Ignoring the giant still howling on the ground.

A sudden hush descended on the clearing. And Mariko could once again feel the threat of a storm on the air. About to ignite, like the strike of flint against stone.

She shifted into the shadows along the periphery, her fingers still wrapped around her earthenware cup. Her last resort of a weapon. Something with which to defend herself. Mariko knew if she even attempted to remove the wakizashi at her side—if anyone saw her moving through the darkness with a blade poised at the ready—it might further provoke the bloodlust around her.

As she continued folding into the fringe of branches along the forest’s edge, Mariko’s eyes stayed trained on the circle of men poised around the wailing giant and the dark ghost. The champion of the Black Clan continued to shudder in place. Continued to heave great breaths. His comrades appeared grim. Contrary to what she thought would happen, they did not cheer at this victory.

For it was clear the victory had come at a cost.

The giant’s men took hesitant steps toward him, as though converging on a wounded bear—one just as likely to bite off a helping hand as it would be to lick it.

Mariko moved with great care, scuttling away from the watering hole like a crab into its shell. Her gaze stayed locked on the men across the way. Continued scanning for any notice of her retreat. Or her position.

Then she saw. Saw what no one else sought. What no one else thought to see, preoccupied as they were.

The hissing vulture. The one who had helped the giant provoke the fight.

He stood in a pool of torchlight a body’s length to her left. She watched him slowly ease his hand behind his back. When he shouldered past the brute of a man at his side, Mariko caught a flash of metal.

The vulture’s gaze was fixed on Takeda Ranmaru.

The fear that had been pressing Mariko to flee blossomed into outrage.

He’s cheating.

If they could not win by the rules they themselves had created, they did not deserve to win at all! And Mariko would never allow herself to lose her prey to such inept, unworthy imbeciles.

Without pausing to think, Mariko tossed back her earthenware cup and took in a mouthful of lukewarm sake.


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