Then she sputtered it in the direction of the torch.
A burst of flame jetted in the hissing vulture’s direction, startling all the men around him. Catching on the sleeve of one nearby.
Cries of outrage emanated from their ranks.
The jet of fire had heightened their awareness. Had forced them from their trances.
All eyes searched for the source of the outburst.
That was . . . an unwise decision, Hattori Mariko.
Either make good on these actions, or flee from this place. Immediately.
Something in the back of her mind told her she would not get far.
The blood draining from her face, Mariko pitched the empty, earthenware cup toward the hissing vulture. It smashed against the back of his skull, knocking him beyond the safety of the shadows. Into the fray.
“He has a dagger,” she accused in a coarse voice. “He’s trying to cheat!”
It took all the work of a moment for the men in the Black Clan to process her words. The hissing vulture lifted his dagger into the light, intent on finishing his task, whatever the cost. Hands and elbows shoved at his back. At his chest. His weapon was ripped from his grasp. None of the men in his company fought to save him. Nor did they attempt to raise their weapons in revolt.
As soon as Mariko glanced toward Ranmaru, she understood why.
While the chaos had unraveled around them, the dark ghost of a boy had taken position before his leader. Though blood still dripped from the wound in his right shoulder, he managed to aim a cutting smile their way. One tinged by cruelty. His bō spun through the air.
Daring anyone to challenge him.
There is no such thing as honor amongst thieves.
“You cheating bastards.” The one-legged cook spat in the dirt. “Leave. Now. Unless you’d care for a real fight.” He unhooked two of the small daggers along his waist, twirling them between his fingertips with all the grace of a master.
The giant began to howl anew, still clutching the shattered bones in his hand. He yelled for his men to help him to his feet, hurling obscenities every which way.
His fury stirred the embers around him. Soon his men began pointing fingers at one another, riling themselves into another frenzy.
Mariko shrank beneath the branches. Away from view.
I should leave.
But she could not. Not yet.
Not until she knew . . . something of value. Something of surety.
“Enough!” Ranmaru yelled above the fracas, his voice aimed at the giant’s men. “Leave here at once, as you agreed. If any of you show yourselves again—if I even smell one of your ilk on a passing breeze—expect that to be the last day you draw breath on this earth.”
The fervor died to a whisper. A moment of decision.
With a grunt, the giant directed his men to depart. Unintelligible grumbling trailed in their wake.
Once they’d left, Ranmaru shifted into view. He glanced at the ghost boy now at his side, a brow raised in question. The Black Clan’s champion lifted his uninjured shoulder. As though his wound were merely a scratch.
The one-legged cook threw a dagger into the dirt with a grunt. A moment later, a gold ryō landed in the earth beside it.
“You’re the devil, Ōkami,” he muttered harshly.
The ghost boy eyed him askance. “You would know.” A grin curled up one side of his face, rendering the scar through his lips white. “Since we both came from hell.”
Concealed in her post beside the tree, Mariko watched the exchange, unsure of where she should go. Of what she should do. Perhaps it would be wisest to heed her own advice and leave at once. When she attempted to back away into the cover of the forest, a rough hand clapped on her forearm.
“Don’t run just yet,” the boy with the murder eyes and the spiked topknot said, his tone flat. “Boss will want to talk to you.”
A rush of fear took hold of her heart. Of her every breath.
Mariko’s first inclination was to push off the boy’s grasp. Panic set in when his grip on her arm tightened. The whites of his eyes were yellowed. Glazed. Like those of the dead.
“Don’t even think about running. We’ll hunt you down like a looting fox.” He pulled her close, his whisper a brush of ice against her ear. “I especially like it when we catch them alive. It’s much more . . . interesting.”
Mariko forced down her terror, though her pulse quaked in her ears. The voice of her tutor admonished her once more:
Our greatest enemy can often be found within.
She would not be her own worst enemy. The only control Mariko had now was control over herself. If she could not flee, then she had to make the best of her situation.
The boy was taking her to his boss. To Ranmaru. This could be her only chance to learn the truth.
She would not waste it on fear.
Gritting her teeth, Mariko fought for a point of clarity through a haze of terror. She thought quickly. Kenshin would not allow himself to be handled in such a manner, even if it brought on punishment.
Mariko tried to tear away from him. The boy responded by twisting her wrist behind her left shoulder. She nearly gasped at the burst of pain that radiated down her arm and into her side. Hot, searing pain. The sort that brought immediate tears.
But she did not cry out. Refused to reveal even a hint of weakness.
A warrior is never weak.
Seemingly satisfied by her show of resistance—as though he relished the thought—the boy with the murder eyes released his grip. “Next time you try to run, I’ll break your fingers, knuckle by knuckle.” He leaned in. “One by one.”
She choked out a retort. “Do you think I intend to run?”
“Only a fool would stay.”
“Are you hoping to gain my cooperation by threatening me?” she blustered awkwardly.
He did not respond. He merely shoved her forward, hard. She almost tripped, catching herself at the last instant. When the boy yanked her into the light of the nearest torch, she thought she saw him smile.
Alternately yanking and shoving her along, the boy led her toward Ranmaru, who had once again taken his seat at the table seemingly reserved for him and him alone.
The leader of the Black Clan studied her in silence for several breaths. “Well, it seems I am in your debt . . .” Ranmaru paused, waiting for her to offer a name.
Thankfully Mariko had one at the ready.
“Takeo.” She deepened the note of her voice. Roughened its edges. “Sanada Takeo.”
Ranmaru smiled slowly. “It appears your parents had rather lofty designs when they named you.”
“Because they named me after a warrior?”
“No. Because they gave their tactician son a warrior’s name.”
Mariko sniffed. Furrowed her brow to offset her mounting distress. “I’m a warrior. Just like you.”
He laughed. The lines around his eyes crinkled in consideration. “Perhaps you are just like me.”
She frowned at his mocking tone.
“I won’t call you Takeo, though,” Ranmaru continued. “I can’t in good conscience call a scrawny boy a valiant warrior.”
His judgment echoed in her ears. Forcing her to choose a path. Courage. Or fear. Standing taller, Mariko chose the path of courage—a tenet of bushidō. “I have not yet made comment on your name. But I can, if you like. And since Takeo is my given name, I insist you call me—”
“Lord Lackbeard,” a voice behind Ranmaru declared. Mariko stiffened once more, her courage wilting. It was the Black Clan’s champion. Ōkami. The boy named after a wolf. “It suits this little upstart far more than Takeo.”
Ranmaru grinned. “I agree. If you wish to be called by your given name, you must first earn it, Lord Lackbeard.”
At that, the men around him laughed.
“You can call me whatever you like,” Mariko said over their laughter, knowing all too well how much she sounded like a petulant child. “But it doesn’t mean I will respond.”
“Is that so?” Ranmaru’s grin widened.
Mariko stayed silent, eliciting another bout of laughter from the men nearby. As they amused themselves at her expense, knots began twisting in her stomach. Color began creeping up her neck, into her face. She hated this feeling. The feeling of being vulnerable. Mocked. It was the first time in a long while she’d had to stand still and experience abject ridicule. It was true many people found her odd, but her family’s position and influence had spared her from being met head-on by the judgment of others. When she did hear it, it was at her back, whispered behind lacquered fans or in the shadow of elegantly papered screens.
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