“You,” he said to the young foot soldier who’d been singing. “Step forward.”

The ashigaru on either side stepped back as one, still maintaining their neat formation.

The singer was a boy. Possibly younger than Kenshin’s seventeen years.

Beads of perspiration collected beneath the young singer’s hachimaki. Kenshin watched the thin band of hemp around the boy’s forehead start to slide, the Hattori crest in its center darkening.

Before stepping forward, the boy straightened his hachimaki. Stood tall.

Kenshin briefly admired his bravery. Briefly regretted what he was about to do. The image of his father’s stern visage glimmered through his mind.

And his regret vanished.

“Why were you singing, soldier?” Kenshin’s voice sliced through the silence. A sheaf of ice cleaving from a mountain.

The boy bowed low. “I apologize, my lord.”

“Answer my question.”

“I—I sang in error, my lord.”

“A resounding truth. But still not an answer.” Kenshin urged his steed closer. “Do not make me ask again.”

The boy’s hachimaki was soaked through now. “I sang because I was happy.”

Kenshin’s horse stepped impossibly closer. Close enough for the horse’s nostrils to flare at the boy’s scent. As though Kane had smelled his next meal.

The boy recoiled from the wicked gleam in the warhorse’s gaze.

“Happy?” Kenshin’s voice dropped. “You were happy to have failed in your mission?”

“No, my lord.” The slightest of hesitations.

Frustration warmed across Kenshin’s skin. “Your purpose on this earth is what, soldier?”

“To serve the honorable Hattori clan.” He said the words loudly, in rote fashion.

Kenshin leaned forward in his saddle, an unsettling twinge slicing through his stomach. “And serve them you shall.” Without warning, he kicked the boy in the face. The crunch of broken bones echoed in time to the boy’s startled yelp. He hit the mud beside Kane’s hooves with a splat. Bright blood dripped from his nose and mouth.

As Kenshin watched the boy try to swallow his pain—to accept his punishment—another whisper of regret rose in his throat.

An unfamiliar uncertainty.

He swallowed it quickly. Then lifted his gaze to the rest of his convoy.

“There is no cause to be happy here.” Kenshin let his voice carry across the ranks of ashigaru and mounted samurai. “No cause to celebrate. We have failed in our mission. But know this: that failure will not stand. You will each have a night’s rest. On the morrow, we shall depart once more.” Kane stamped his hooves in place, the battered boy cowering further into himself with every thud. “And there will be no singing—no laughter, no celebration—until we are successful.”

Kenshin spurred Kane back toward the head of the convoy. But he did not pause there. Instead he kicked his steed into a full gallop. Shifted him toward a different path.

One that would grant them a moment’s reprieve.

Hattori Kenshin did not want to be greeted at the main gate as though he was a victor returning from war.

He did not deserve it.

The path he chose led to the back entrance of his family’s compound. An entrance unfrequented by those in the nobility.

Before him rose a wicket gate, its wooden slats tightly pressed into an arch. Stacked stones enclosed the perimeter; stones arranged with such precision as to render mortar unnecessary.

The rear courtyard housed many of the Hattori clan’s most important servants and vassals. It also served as residence for a few of the scholars and artisans Kenshin’s father hosted, many for years at a time. All with the desire to further his reputation as a lauded daimyō with growing influence.

In truth Kenshin often preferred to return home to this entrance. It offered him an opportunity to be present without being seen. If he were to arrive at the main gate, his mother would be waiting for him, with countless servants in tow. His father would follow only a few steps behind.

The wicket gate swung open, and Kenshin directed Kane toward the back stables. The moment he dismounted, a stable hand rushed to assist him.

“I’ll curry my horse,” Kenshin said to the servant. “And please wait to inform my mother of my arrival until after I’m done.”

Stepping back, the young servant bowed low.

Kenshin led Kane into the first empty stall, taking his time to remove the boiled leather armor from the horse’s sweat-slicked back. In response to no longer being restrained, Kane whickered, pawing at the ground. He had always been a restless beast. With a smile, Kenshin took hold of a wide brush and began tending to his horse.

Another task he enjoyed. Another task he too rarely was given the chance to do while at home.

Behind him, light footsteps rustled across the woven mats strewn across the stable floor.

He did not turn. “Mother, I—”

“You are the last kind of beast I expected to find in the stable.”

A smile ghosted across his lips again. “The last kind of beast I expected to find in the stable, my lord.” Kenshin turned as he spoke, not even trying to conceal his pleasure at the arrival of this unexpected visitor.

A young girl in a simple kimono of deep blue silk leaned against the gate door. She wrinkled her pretty nose in playful distaste at his words.

Their titles had long been a source of amusement for them both.

For this girl was not in fact one of Kenshin’s servants.

Despite what his father frequently said in private.

“It’s not often that you surprise me, Hattori Kenshin.” As the girl spoke, her tone became flatter. Almost morose.

Her amusement had already begun to wane. So quickly.

Too quickly.

Kenshin cleared his throat, letting his smile drop, despite his wish to remain lighthearted. There were smudges across her cheek and nose. He’d have wagered ten gold ryō they were from the dust of polishing sand. Just like when they were children. Just like when she’d helped her father—celebrated artisan Muramasa Sengo—polish weapons in the nearby smithy.

Memories stirred through Kenshin, pleasant and warm. He should not—would not—smile at this particular girl so familiarly again. No matter how much he wished to do so.

Such a gesture would not serve them well.

A grip of doubt took hold of Kenshin’s throat. A terrible sensation that only ever came about in this girl’s presence. “Would you like me to leave?”

“Well, I have no intention of currying your horse for you, even if you are the fearsome Dragon of Kai.” Though her words were crisp—plinks of water against clay—her voice was calm.

It suited her. Amaya.

A night rain.

Crisp. Yet calm.

Kenshin gritted his teeth. “You should not—”

“You haven’t brought your sword to be polished in quite some time.” Amaya stepped toward him. “My father mentioned it only yesterday.” She held out her left hand. “Give it to me.” She spoke as though nothing were between them.

As though Kenshin meant nothing to her.

That same grip of doubt tightened its hold. Kenshin threw it off with a roll of his shoulders, like an unwanted burden.

Better Amaya think he was nothing to her. Better for them both.

The longer he thought it, the sooner it would become true.

Without a word, Kenshin removed his katana from its bindings and passed it to her.

Amaya unsheathed the blade from its ornate saya. Her eyes flitted across the intricate tsuba—across the copper-gilt filigree of the Hattori crest worked into the hand guard. Over the gaping dragon’s maw inlaid with turquoise enamel. She stopped to tsk at the sight of the sword itself. “Do you not know by now?” Amaya scolded lightly. “Art such as this is meant to be cared for.”

Kenshin watched her study the grooves in the painstakingly crafted jewel steel. The notches of wear and neglect. Her eyes were soft puddles of grey. Concern etched a groove between them. One he desperately wished to smooth with a quick pass of his thumb.

It was this groove—this concern for something Amaya should no longer trouble herself with—that tempered the anger in Kenshin’s veins.

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