Despite her efforts to conceal it, Muramasa Amaya always cared about things far more than she should.

“You’re right,” Kenshin replied. “Anything made by Muramasa-sama is meant to be cared for.” His words were laced with tender meaning.

Those same soft eyes lifted to his. Unhesitatingly. “Father would agree.” She paused, then glanced away. “I’ll see to it that the blade is sharpened and returned to you tonight.”

“There’s no need.”

“No.” Amaya returned the katana to its saya with a smooth flick of her wrist. “Father would not want a blade he fashioned to remain in such disrepair.” She spoke as if her father—perhaps the most famed metalsmith in all the empire—would personally hone and polish the sword, but Kenshin knew Amaya would be the one to do it.

Knew it with the certainty of the rising sun each dawn.

A sharp pang carved a path around his heart.

But he said nothing. Did nothing.

It was better this way.

As Amaya turned to take leave, she looked over her shoulder. If he hadn’t known her better, Kenshin would have sworn he saw Amaya hesitate.

“Mariko . . . isn’t dead, Kenshin. She can’t possibly be dead.”

“I know.”

“Good.” Amaya nodded once. “Don’t give up in your search for her.”

“I won’t.”

A small smile curled up her face.

His resolve broke at the sight.

“Amaya . . .” Kenshin closed the gap between them. He wanted so badly to wipe the smudges from her cheek. To press the groove between her eyes until it vanished beneath his touch. His hand rose to her face.

She pulled back. “Good evening, my lord.” Amaya bowed low.

In the gesture, Kenshin saw none of her teasing. None of their usual humor.

He missed it more than he could ever say.

But Kenshin knew better. He stepped to one side. Dipped his head in a bow.

When she turned to go, Kenshin found himself moving forward, his feet obeying his heart’s unspoken commands.

He could not watch her walk away.

Not again.

Instead Kenshin brushed past her coldly, back into the afternoon sun of the courtyard. He almost stopped short when he saw his mother standing there. Waiting. She was not looking at him. Her knowing eyes were trained on Amaya. Their piercing centers followed the daughter of Muramasa Sengo until the girl’s slender shadow vanished around the nearest corner.

Kenshin did not falter as he approached his mother. He bowed before her.

“Mother.”

“Son.” She searched his face. For what, he could only hazard a guess. “Your sister?”

Kenshin shook his head.

His mother’s regal shoulders sagged the smallest fraction. Only someone standing close by could ever have detected it.

Here, at least, Kenshin could offer comfort. He placed a hand against her cheek.

“She is alive, Mother,” he said. “I promise you. Mariko lives.”

The fire of truth blazed in her eyes. “Bring her back to us safely, Kenshin.”

“I will.”

“Then you have a plan?”

Kenshin nodded. “Tomorrow I leave for the imperial city.”

“You hope to find your sister in Inako?”

“No.” His lips thinned into a hard line. “I hope to find answers.”

MANY KINDS OF STRENGTH

Mariko had never known she could hate anyone with such deep-seated ferocity. She’d long considered the sentiment an exercise in futility. Hatred served no purpose, except to plague its bearer.

But these last few hours had proven her wrong.

She hated all these men. Every last one of them. With more fervency than she’d ever imagined possible. Even the recent edicts of her parents had not elicited this kind of furor. Of course her arranged marriage had provoked a reaction. Certainly bitterness. Even rage. A rash of emotions Mariko had struggled to contend with for several weeks.

But hatred?

Never.

Today her thoughts were consumed by murderous retribution. Mariko had dreamed of setting fire to the Black Clan’s camp no less than ten times in the past hour.

She’d plotted. Allowed a plan to weave through her mind like a tapestry across a loom. Mariko had fantasized about laying kindling through the brush with great care, under cover of night. She’d imagined rigging her own set of traps. Naturally ones far more ingenious than any the Black Clan could ever concoct. In her mind, she’d carefully trailed a thin string soaked in pitch to a previously devised shelter. Then she’d calmly set the string to flame. Pausing only to watch the Black Clan burn, like the hell-fiends they were.

The vision materialized, a welcome respite from her reality.

Just as a small rock descended from the sky, pelting her on the head.

The pain blossomed across her skull like a dribble of steaming water. Her dream of revenge took shape once again, growing ever more vivid in detail. Now the very demons of the forest rose at her command, ready to wreak their ghostly havoc.

Another rock glanced across her shoulder.

A bigger one this time.

Mariko refused to cry out. To fall to the ground in abject misery.

“Move faster, boy,” a harsh voice intoned nearby.

Her lips were parched. Her knees were trembling. Nevertheless Mariko picked up four more logs and braced them against her chest. She tried to channel bravery as a source of strength, but it did not answer. Strangely, it was fear that drove her forward. Fear that she would fail in her task to learn the truth.

Fear that the Black Clan would discover she was not a boy.

She hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. Unless she counted the muddy pond water she’d spat from her lips this morning, the last thing Mariko had had to drink was the sake from the night before. That same terrible night she’d fallen into captivity.

Her tormentor ambled alongside her, kicking dark soil into her path with undisguised relish.

“Only four?” he said. “At this rate, we’ll be here all day.” The boy sneered, his yellowed eyes cutting in half. “I’ve never seen a weaker excuse for a man.” Mariko’s chest hollowed at his words, her heart missing a beat. The boy’s gaze did not leave hers, even while he tossed another small rock into the air. Only to catch it. And toss it again.

Toying with her.

Mariko braced herself for the pebble’s inevitable strike. Sure enough—even as she quickened her pace—the stone hit the back of her leg, biting into her calf with all the menace of a tiny woodland creature.

Indignation bubbled in her throat. The same throat that desperately needed a drink of water.

Her tormentor stepped before Mariko, savoring her obvious distress.

Ren. The boy with the murder eyes and the spiked topknot.

It turned out her earliest suspicions had been correct: Ren’s haunted gaze did indeed mask something far darker within—a boy who smiled in the face of suffering, as though he derived great joy from it. Ren had been designated Mariko’s watcher, and he’d taken to the task as only a boy such as he undoubtedly would.

Like a fox to a swallow’s nest.

“Did you hear me, Lord Weakling?” Ren angled closer, his expression increasingly sinister. A small log dangled from his fingertips.

Mariko closed her eyes, her posture rigid.

So far she’d managed to maintain her composure. She hadn’t cried once. Hadn’t so much as asked for a drop of water. When Death inevitably came for her, Hattori Mariko would not be sniveling and wretched. She would be in control of her emotions, no matter the cost.

With his free hand, Ren rapped his knuckles on the side of her head. Mariko’s eyes flew open. He’d touched her. Struck her. A wash of anger reddened her vision. She quickly blinked it away.

Hattori Mariko was a warrior now.

And a warrior is never weak.

Ren smiled down at Mariko, as if he could see past her eyes, into the ugly truth of her soul. Though the boy stood scarcely taller than she, he reveled in the fact. Mariko suspected he did not always come across men of shorter stature.

Unfortunately this near parity of height did not grant her any advantage. Ren was stockier, his musculature hard-earned. She could see the scars and calluses along his hands and forearms. This boy was used to punishing work.

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