Again the feeling of being near him unnerved her. That same all-but-undetectable hum. “I’m not surprised.” Venom tinged her retort, while blood rampaged through her body. “Based on my observations, you don’t hit much.”

The instant she mocked him, a jolt of fear passed through Mariko.

Laughter rippled around them. The front ridge of Ōkami’s saddle dug into her stomach and chest. If Mariko hadn’t thought to bind her breasts tight in a long length of muslin, she knew she would have been suffering far more discomfort.

“The little lord is right,” the gruff voice of the cook called out from behind them. “What took you so long to best the giant, Ōkami? Are you losing your touch?”

“The little lord didn’t let me finish.” Ōkami bent forward. “I said I wouldn’t hit him . . .” He was so close, his words pulsed across her skin.

“But that’s not the only way to punish someone.”

Fear knifed through Mariko’s center, its aim hot and true. She knew she could not afford to let a boy like Ōkami see even a hint of distress. She had to get free of these men. Had to gain the upper hand somehow. Seeking a way to distract herself—any weakness in the strength surrounding her—she studied Ōkami’s fingers. They were long. Strong. His forearms were corded with muscle. His hold on the reins was loose. Easy. Which meant he was likely an accomplished rider. Any attempt to unseat him would be ill-advised.

But perhaps Mariko could unseat him in other ways.

“What kind of a name is Ōkami?” she began, her tone low and brusque.

“You really don’t learn, do you?”

“You mocked my name, even though your parents named you after a wolf?”

“They didn’t.”

Despite all, her curiosity took hold once more. “Then it’s a nickname?”

“Stop talking,” Ōkami said. “Before I pass you to someone who really will beat the impudence out of you.”

She paused. “Wolves are pack creatures, you know.”

Another rumble of coarse laughter rang out from behind them. “I must admit that boy is tenacious, even in the face of doom.”

Mariko felt Ōkami shift in the saddle to address the cook. At that, she took the opportunity she’d been waiting to catch him unawares.

She bit into the skin just above Ōkami’s knee. Hard.

He cursed loudly, causing his horse to rear. Mariko almost slid headfirst from her perch, but Ōkami took hold of her in a firm grip, catching her at the last possible moment.

He yanked her toward him, chest to chest, grasping her tight by the collar of her threadbare kosode. Mariko expected to find fury in his eyes. Instead she was met with an impenetrable expression. Not the cold sort. But rather carefully veiled, though his eyes were remarkably clear. Like glass in a cavern at midnight.

Mariko returned his stare, her heart thrashing wildly. “If you were me, you would have done the same thing.” She could not prevent her voice from quavering on the last word.

“No, I wouldn’t.” Ōkami’s dark brows lowered. Shadowed his gaze. Something tugged at his lips. “I would have succeeded.”

“And how would you have gone about doing that?”

His mouth dipped again, the scar through its center white. “I gather you routinely think you possess the most intelligence of any man around you.”

She shook her head slowly.

“A word of warning . . .” He bent closer. The scent of warm stone and wood smoke emanated from his skin.

Mariko blinked.

“Don’t bare your neck to a wolf.” With that, Ōkami heaved her off his horse into the shallows of the nearby pond.

Mariko gasped as the cold water enveloped her, the mud clinging to one side of her body. She sat upright, using her bound wrists to brush vines and muck from her brow.

Ōkami waited along the bank. Then he twisted his horse away, without a glance back.

“Welcome home, Lord Lackbeard.” Ranmaru smiled.

“Home?” she choked. “What are you—”

“Clean yourself up. You were badly in need of a bath anyway. Then fetch me some firewood.” He clicked his horse from the embankment. “And don’t think of escaping,” Ranmaru said over his shoulder. “There are traps everywhere. You won’t make it a league from our camp.”

I’m at the Black Clan’s encampment.

“Why have you brought me here? What do you intend—”

“Today you work. Tomorrow . . .” Ranmaru shrugged. “I feed you to my horse.”

JEWEL STEEL AND NIGHT RAIN

He’d lost track of her.

Lost all sight of where his sister might be.

Kenshin had followed her trail along the westernmost edge of Jukai forest. Followed it even as her steps doubled back and across the many small villages there.

He’d pursued it nevertheless. Doggedly. Ignored the twinges of frustration that cut through his chest. But Mariko’s trail had disappeared this morning in the shadow of a run-down watering hole.

Inexplicably.

The elderly man Kenshin had prodded awake had ignored him at first. Ignored his queries while pushing him from the threshold of his ramshackle lean-to.

“Do you know how many travelers wander through here each day, young man?” the old man had finally rasped while cringing away from the sun. “Now I’m meant to recall each of them in vivid detail?” His laughter had greatly resembled a hacking cough. “You’d do better to ask me the position of the clouds at any given time.” Then his expression had puckered as though he’d been sucking on the meat of a yuzu fruit.

Kenshin had almost accused him of lying. Something about the way the old man had brushed him aside so easily. Brushed aside such a respectful request from a celebrated young samurai.

In his concern for his sister, Kenshin had almost threatened an elderly man. But he’d forced his muscles to relax. His mind to settle. He’d caught himself before his thoughts could become irrevocable action.

Kenshin would never commit such a dishonorable deed.

For though he definitely thought the old man to be lying, he had no proof.

His sister’s trail now hopelessly lost, Kenshin had been forced to return to his camp. What he’d found when he arrived was even more disheartening. His men had grown restless in his absence. Their supplies were dwindling.

Their direction was now lost as well.

Kenshin had realized it was time to return home. To resupply and devise a different tack.

His men had been thrilled with the news. Far more thrilled than Kenshin wished them to be. After all, they’d failed in their task to rescue their lord’s only daughter.

They—and he—had failed Hattori Kano.

It was true Mariko had never been greatly beloved amongst his father’s men. She’d been a curious sprite of a girl, armed with unceasing questions. Mariko had never shied away from an opportunity to learn. She’d pestered metalsmiths. Peered over the shoulders of alchemists. Stood unnervingly still as she’d watched Nobutada—the most gifted swordsman of his father’s samurai—practice his kata.

Kenshin had always known how irritated the men riding under his father’s crest had been. These were not the places for a young girl. Not the proper interests for the daughter of their esteemed daimyō.

Nevertheless his father’s men needed to fall in line. Now of all times. Mere words would not be effective enough today.

An example would need to be made. One his father would undoubtedly approve.

As their convoy crested the hill leading into the valley of his father’s domain, one of the ashigaru began singing a tune in time to their march. A melody offering tribute to the beauty of home, sung by a humble foot soldier. The men at Kenshin’s back became jovial at its sound. Like the rolling swell of the sea, the melody carried through their ranks.

Jubilant. Boisterous. Even in the face of failure.

Kenshin’s long-simmering irritation reached a boiling point. He yanked his reins to one side, curving his horse around the vanguard of the convoy. Kane reared once before driving his hooves into the fragrant earth. The convoy came to an abrupt halt.

The singing died down.

As the melody faded, Kenshin took a moment to seek out his quarry. Then he prodded his warhorse alongside the neat formation of ashigaru.

***

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