“Now that the sun has set, they fear the yōkai, and they worry—”

“Silly stories of monsters in the dark.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing more.”

Nobutada paused, doubtlessly taking note of her interruption. “They also claim the Black Clan has been seen near here recently.”

“They claim?” A dark eyebrow curved into Mariko’s forehead. “Or they’ve sighted them in truth?”

“They are merely claims.” Nobutada lowered the chin guard beneath his horned helmet. “Though it would be unusual for the Black Clan to rob us, as they do not generally attack convoys containing women and children. Especially those guarded by samurai.”

Mariko lingered in consideration. “I defer to your opinion, Nobutada-sama.” Recalling the foot soldier from a moment ago, she attempted a smile. “And please see that the ashigaru have time to rest and take in water soon, as they appear overtired.”

Nobutada scowled at her last request. “If we are forced to go around Jukai forest, it will add a full day to our journey.”

“Then it will add a full day to our journey.” She was already beginning to lower her screen, the awkward smile still pasted across her face.

“I’d rather not risk angering the emperor.”

“Then it is an easy choice. We must lead so that others may follow, Nobutada-sama. You taught me that, even as a young girl.” Mariko did not look away as she spoke. Nor did she attempt to apologize for the sharpness of her retort.

His scowl deepened. Mariko smothered a sigh. She knew she was being difficult. Knew Nobutada wished for her to make a decision. At the very least, wished for her to offer an opinion.

To make a useless play at control. A play Nobutada could then smugly subvert, as her elder.

As a man.

Try as she might, Mariko could not help the resentment simmering beneath the surface.

Control is an illusion. Expectations will not rule my days.

Not anymore.

“Perhaps not easy,” Mariko amended, her fingers toying with the edge of the screen. “But it is simple.” She softened her tone—a pitiful attempt to mollify him. One that was sure to chafe, as her contrary nature so often did. Her brother, Kenshin, frequently gave her grief about it. Frequently told her to be less . . . peculiar.

To conform, at least in these small ways.

Mariko dipped her head in a bow. “In any case, I defer to your wise judgment, Nobutada-sama.”

A shadow fell across his features. “Very well, Lady Hattori. We shall proceed through Jukai forest.” With that, he urged his charger back toward the head of the convoy.

As expected, Mariko had irritated him. She’d offered no real opinion on anything since they’d left her family’s home that morning. And Nobutada wanted her to play at directing him. To give him tasks befitting such a vaunted role.

Tasks befitting the samurai in charge of delivering a royal bride.

Mariko supposed she should care she might be arriving at Heian Castle late.

Late to meet the emperor. Late to meet his second son—

Her future husband.

But Mariko did not care. Ever since the afternoon her father had informed her that Emperor Minamoto Masaru had made an offer of marriage on behalf of his son Raiden, she’d truly not cared about much.

Mariko was to be the wife of Prince Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort. A political marriage that would elevate her father’s standing amongst the ruling daimyō class.

She should care that she was being exchanged like property in order to curry favor. But Mariko did not.

Not anymore.

As the norimono lurched forward again, Mariko reached above to adjust the slender tortoiseshell bar speared through her thick coils of hair. Tiny strips of silver and jade dangled from its ends, snarling with one another in a ceaseless war. After Mariko finished sorting them into place, her hand fell to the smaller jade bar below.

Her mother’s face took shape in her mind—the look of determined resignation she had worn as she slid the jade ornament into her only daughter’s hair.

A parting gift. But not a true source of comfort.

Just like her father’s final words:

Be a tribute to your family, Mariko-chan. As you were raised to be. Forswear your childish wishes. Be more than . . . this.

Mariko’s lips pressed tight.

It doesn’t matter. I’ve already taken my revenge.

There was no reason for Mariko to dwell on these things anymore. Her life was on a clear path now. Never mind that it was not what she wanted. Never mind that there was so much left to see and learn and do. She’d been raised for a purpose. A foolish one at that—to be the wife of an important man when she could easily have been something else. Something more. But it did not matter. She was not a boy. And—despite being barely seventeen—Hattori Mariko knew her place in life. She would marry Minamoto Raiden. Her parents would have the prestige of a daughter in Heian Castle.

And Mariko would be the only one to know the stain on that honor.

As dusk fell and the convoy made its way deeper into the forest, the scent of warm, wet air took on a life of its own. It mixed with the iron of the earth and the green of newly trod leaves. A strange, heady perfume. Sharp and fresh, yet soft and sinister all at once.

Mariko shuddered, a chill taking root in her bones. The horses around the norimono whickered as if in response to an unseen threat. Seeking a distraction, Mariko reached for the small parcel of food Chiyo had given her, staving off the chill by burrowing into her cushions.

Perhaps we should have gone around Jukai forest.

She quickly dismissed these doubts, then turned her attention to the parcel in her hands. Within it were two rice balls covered in black sesame seeds, along with pickled sour plums wrapped in lotus leaves. After unfolding her meal, Mariko shifted her fingers to light the tiny folded-paper lantern swaying above.

It had been one of her earliest inventions. Small enough to hide in a kimono sleeve. A special slow-burning wick, suspended by the thinnest of wires. The wick was fashioned from cotton braided with river reeds dipped in wax. It kept its shape despite its size, all while burning a steady light. Mariko had made it as a child. In the heavy dark of night, this tiny invention had been her savior. She’d placed it beside her blankets, where it cast a warm, cheery glow by which she’d penned her newest ideas.

Smiling in remembrance, Mariko began to eat. A few black sesame seeds fell onto the painted silk of her kimono; she brushed them aside. The fabric felt like water at her fingertips. The color of sweetened cream, its hem bled through with darkest indigo. Pale pink cherry blossoms crowded the long sleeves, unfurling into branches near Mariko’s feet.

A priceless kimono. Made of rare tatsumura silk. One of the many gifts sent to her by the emperor’s son. It was beautiful. More beautiful than anything Mariko had ever owned in her life.

Perhaps a girl who prized such things would be pleased.

When more sesame seeds fell onto the silk, Mariko didn’t bother brushing them away. She finished eating in silence, watching the tiny lantern sway to and fro.

The gathering of shadows shifted outside, growing closer and tighter. Mariko’s convoy was now deep beneath a canopy of trees. Deep beneath their cloak of sighing branches and whispering leaves. Strange that she heard no signs of life outside—not the caw of a raven nor the cry of an owl nor the chirr of an insect.

Then the norimono halted again. All too abruptly.

The horses began to pant. Began to stamp their hooves in the leafy earth.

Mariko heard a shout. Her litter teetered. Overcorrected. Only to strike the ground with a vicious thud. Her head smacked against varnished wood, throwing stars across her vision.

And Mariko was swallowed into a void.

THE NIGHTBEAST

Mariko woke to the smell of smoke. To a dull roar in her ears.

To shooting pain in her arm.

She was still in her litter, but it had toppled to one side, its contents smashed into a corner.

The body of a familiar maidservant lay across her. Chiyo, who had loved to eat iced persimmons and arrange moonflowers in her hair. Chiyo, whose eyes had always been so open and wide and honest.

The same eyes that were now frozen in Death’s final mask.

Mariko’s throat burned. Her sight blurred with tears.

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