She tipped her chin upward and bit her tongue.
A warrior is never weak.
Mariko repeated the refrain in her mind, letting it feed her, like kindling to a flame.
Frowning, Ōkami glided toward her, passing along an earthenware bottle of sake to Ranmaru as he walked by. The men grew silent while he circled her slowly, no doubt searching for blood in the water. Mariko fought to conceal the rush of indignation that bloomed in her cheeks at his silent appraisal. At the obvious latitude the Wolf was granted as the Black Clan’s champion.
He stopped in front of her. Stared down at her. She could almost feel that same low hum hovering in the air about him.
It unnerved her.
“Now”—Ranmaru raised the bottle of sake in her direction—“I do believe I owe Lord Lackbeard a drink.” He waited for her to respond, the picture of patience.
My best chance to learn the truth.
Making no effort to conceal her wariness, Mariko took a seat on the bench across from him. She did not fail to notice how Ranmaru’s men watched her like hawks would a dove.
The leader of the Black Clan poured rice wine into a small cup, then handed it to her.
She stared at him over the lip of the cup. Sniffed its contents.
Smiling at her distrust, Ranmaru poured himself a drink from the same bottle. He knocked it back pointedly.
In response, Mariko took a small sip from her own cup.
“So,” the knife-wielding cook said in a conversational tone, all while twirling the hilt of a dagger between his fingertips, “what sort of fortune is a young boy like you hoping to find along the western edge of Jukai forest?”
Mariko attempted a lazy, satisfied kind of smile. The kind she’d seen many of her father’s younger vassals adopt in moments like these. “The sort that makes me rich.” She knew she sounded foolish, but that, too, seemed appropriate.
“There are many kinds of wealth,” the cook mused.
She nodded as she took another sip of sake. “But there is only one kind that matters.”
The cook tilted his head to one side. “And what kind is that?”
“The kind that buys freedom.”
His lips pursed together. Not in judgment. No. She did not think he disagreed with her. Though Mariko was not yet sure he agreed. Perhaps she should not have been so forthcoming with her answers. Or quite so clever when she decided to spare Ranmaru from the hissing vulture. Her gaze drifted toward Ōkami. The Wolf looked through her. Past her. He leaned against the table, one hand resting on a knee. Dried blood tracked the veins of his right forearm, like the tributaries of a sinister river. Once again, he seemed wholly uninterested. Utterly bored. But of all those present, the Wolf was the most difficult to read. Mariko had been wrong in her initial assessment of him, and that made her . . . uncomfortable in his presence.
In an attempt to conceal her sudden unease, she took another sip of sake. It warmed through her, heating her blood. Tingling her skin.
Tingling her skin?
“Is freedom important to you, Lord Lackbeard?” Ranmaru asked as he rolled the bottle of sake along the rough-hewn table’s edge. His expression was light. Easy.
The tingling along Mariko’s skin intensified. A burst of warmth flooded her face, clouding her vision.
Mariko stood suddenly. “You—” she spluttered. “You cheated. You’re . . . you’re . . .”
Ōkami floated before her, the dark ghost once more.
The last thing she remembered was a clear pair of onyx eyes.
Mariko was jostled awake by the sway of an animal beneath her.
When she raised her eyelids, a smudge of brown muscle came into focus before her face. The muscles of a warhorse. Hattori Mariko had been thrown across the back of a steed, like a sack of grain. Realization surged through her. Remembrance clawed at her senses.
She’d been drugged by the leader of the Black Clan!
Mariko struggled to right herself, only to discover her hands bound. Swinging below her head. Her distress mounting, she tried to shift her body upward. To take stock of her surroundings.
They were still in the forest. Walking along a muddy embankment. She breathed deep. The air here was thinner. Crisper. They were now at a higher elevation.
Near a body of freshwater.
It was likely near dawn. And the—
A hand smacked the back of her head, chastising in its suddenness.
She could not help it. She cried out in frustration.
“Keep whimpering,” Ranmaru said. “It amuses my horse.”
Mariko lifted her arm to peek beneath it.
This was not possible.
She’d been thrown on the back of Takeda Ranmaru’s horse.
“Where—where are you taking me? And why would anyone want to amuse your horse?” Mariko croaked.
Ranmaru began to whistle a tune faintly familiar to her. “Because if you don’t, I’ll gut you and feed you to the brute. His favorite meal is the flesh of tiresome young men. Especially ones who whimper.”
“You routinely feed him whimpering young men?” Mariko attempted to twist into a better position. To see where they were.
“Not routinely. If he ate such a delicacy all the time, it would eventually lose its appeal.”
“How would you know?” she grumbled, swallowing the lump of distress gathering in her throat.
“I myself no longer have a taste for it.” With that, Ranmaru resumed whistling.
Her concern taking root, Mariko struggled to sit upright. Again a hand thwacked across the back of her skull.
Mariko shouted, the panic setting in. A warrior is never weak. “I must ask you to refrain from—”
“Listen to the little Lord Lackbeard, issuing orders like the damned emperor himself.” Ranmaru laughed.
Mariko clenched her teeth. It was easier for her to admit defeat. But she knew now was the time she most needed to appear strong—when she was at her weakest.
“Why have you drugged me?” she asked. “Where are you taking me?”
“More questions. In their depths, you’ll find the answer.”
She waded through Ranmaru’s words. Let her thoughts settle into straight lines.
Understanding dawned on her, as chillingly bright as a winter sun.
The old man at the watering hole. He must have told Ranmaru I’d been asking after the Black Clan.
“Akira-san whispered something to you when you first arrived last night,” Mariko said, careful to conceal the defeat in her tone. Despite all her best efforts to evade notice, she’d been undone by the wily observations of a grumpy old man. “What did he say?”
“I knew you were smart.” Ranmaru spoke loudly, ignoring her question. “Even if you were as untried as a newborn colt.”
I lost my best chance.
I’m as good as dead.
Her body fell against the horse, loose in the face of failure. “So what do you intend to do with me?” she asked. “Besides feed me to your horse.”
“Stop asking questions. Truly you don’t learn.”
If I’m going to die, what is there left to learn?
No. She needed to be brave.
And there was always something left to learn.
Mariko wrapped her fingers around the rope knotted about her wrists. “One must ask questions if one intends to learn anything.” While she spoke, she searched for any slack in her bindings.
“I grow weary of your curiosity, Lord Lackbeard.” Ranmaru glanced to his right. To a person Mariko could not see. “Take this thing from me.”
A hand grabbed at the scruff of dirty fabric around her neck.
Mariko refrained from crying out again as she was hauled from one beast to another. This time she was not thrown on the back of the horse. No. This time she was tossed on her stomach before the rider, the breath momentarily knocked from her body.
As she was thrown about, she caught a flash of unbound dark hair.
Ōkami. The Wolf.
Before she had a chance to settle, Mariko thrashed about like a flailing fish. She knew it was foolish, but she refused to be handed off from one murderer to the next, as though she were a spoil of war.
“Stop fighting me.” Though Ōkami’s voice was softer, it was no less harsh. “I’m not Ranmaru. I won’t hit you.”
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