When Ren caught her studying him, he snorted derisively. “I said, did you hear me, you pathetic excuse for a—”

“I heard you.”

Ren’s smile faded. He plopped the log in his hand atop the four already pressed against Mariko’s chest.

She faltered for the first time. Nearly lost hold of her burden.

“Move faster.” Ren unsheathed one of the hooked swords from his back. A deadly pair of weapons, modeled after garden sickles. “Boss said if I don’t like your work, I can cut you into pieces and feed you to Akuma.” He pressed the flat end of the sickle to his own neck. Mocking her even further.

Mariko breathed deeply. She continued on her way, ignoring the pain building in her arms. Ignoring the dry burn in her throat and the sudden threat of tears. Sweat marred her sight. Slicked her palms.

How she wished she could run away. Vanish into the woods, like a ghost. Never once look back. The thought gripped her. Took hold of her for an instant.

Chiyo. Nobutada.

The chance to prove my worth.

Four steps.

Four steps were all Mariko could take before she crumbled to the forest floor, the logs tumbling from her grasp.

Ren laughed darkly. “This will be a long day for you. Too bad it will also be your last.”

Mariko pushed her face into the earth, her pulse thrumming in her ears. The soil smelled fragrant and alive. She wanted to burrow into it. Disappear. Dig her way through to the other side.

“Get up.”

A new tormentor. One whose voice Mariko readily recognized.

Readily hated. Without question.

“Get up.” He was closer now. His voice even more gruff.

She pressed her hands into the earth and lifted to her knees.

Ōkami peered down at her, his arms crossed, his expression odd. A mixture of boredom and predatory amusement.


A brief moment passed in silent revolt. Mariko met his gaze, surprised to feel a sudden flare of courage ignite within her. The same courage she’d sought to channel all day. Ōkami did not look away, though one of his brows rose in question.

“Useless.” He inhaled through his nose. “Utterly useless.”

With that, the Wolf turned. Dismissing Mariko in almost the same breath.

The anger that had been lying dormant for so long erupted in her chest. Mariko staggered to her feet, gripping a log in one hand. She wielded it like a club, aiming for his imperious head.

Ōkami leaned out of the log’s path without missing a step. His expression did not even register her attempt to strike. Still bored.

But perhaps a tad less amused.

He thinks I’m pitiful.


Fury tingling in her fingertips, Mariko hurled the log again. The force nearly took her from her feet.

Ōkami rolled across the forest floor, quicker than lightning over a lake. When he stood, he brandished a long branch in his left hand. With it, he struck Mariko once on her elbow. A burst of prickling pain shot down her arm. The log fell to the ground.

When Mariko curled her fingers into a fist—readying to lunge—Ōkami hit her on the shoulder with the same branch. Her hand opened of its own volition. Resisted her attempt to re-form it into a fist. For the first time since she’d been tasked with moving logs from one forsaken corner of the forest to another, Mariko yelled in guttural protest.

Not out of pain. But out of hatred.

Pressure points. The hellspawn was abusing her pressure points.

“You’ve had enough, then?” Ōkami said as he calmly brushed forest debris off his black kosode.

Mariko exhaled in a miserable huff. “You’re cheating.”

“You’re useless.”

“I am not useless.” She began scrubbing away the dirt from her face, wiping it on her sleeve, as she’d often seen soldiers do.

Ōkami raised the branch before him, level with his shoulder. “Prove it.”

“What?” She blinked. Beside her, Ren laughed ominously, stepping aside to lean against a gnarled tree trunk.

“Take the branch from me,” Ōkami said.

Mariko’s eyes went wide. Her mind opened to a myriad of possibilities, each of which she dismissed in rapid succession. She scanned the length of him. His impressive height. A body trained for warfare, wrapped in sinuous muscle. The long arm extended her way, fingers expertly coiled around the branch.

Fully prepared to teach her a lasting lesson.

Trying her best to convey disdain, Mariko spat the last of the soil from her mouth. “What will you give me if I take the branch from you?”

“You are not in a position to negotiate.” He angled his head, the scar through his lips appearing silver in a shaft of sunlight.

“At least tell me why I was brought here. What you intend to do with me.”

“I have no intentions to do anything with anyone.” His black eyes glittered. “Besides sleep and eat and drink away my days.”

Mariko refrained from frowning in judgment. Why such a lazy boy would choose to work in service to the Black Clan was beyond her. “If you won’t answer any of my questions, there’s little incentive for me to fight you.” She let the words fall from her lips like rocks down a mountainside. In a rough and coarse tumble. “Especially since I know I will lose.”

“You will lose because you are slow and untrained.”

“I suppose that is what makes me useless in your eyes,” she said. “That and my obvious lack of strength.”

Another bout of dark laughter arose from Ren. A laughter that only served to irritate Mariko further.

“There are many kinds of strength, Lord Lackbeard.” The branch dropped to Ōkami’s side; his tone was thoughtful. “Strength of the heart. Strength of the mind.”

Though she was surprised to hear these sentiments uttered by this boy, Mariko was careful to conceal it. “Show me a warrior who believes that to be true, and I will endeavor to take the branch from you.”

A wry grin began to curl up Ōkami’s mouth. “Be as swift as the wind. As silent as the forest. As fierce as the fire. As unshakable as the mountain. And you can do anything . . . even take this branch from me.”

Mariko snorted, catching herself before crossing her arms as her mother would. “Needlessly cryptic. Especially since mere words make all things possible.”

“I’m glad we agree.” He raised the branch again. “Take the branch from me, Lord Lackbeard.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Words do not make all things possible. Ideas are the seeds of possibility.”

“Without words, ideas are nothing but voiceless thoughts.” Ōkami held the branch steady. Unflinching.

“Without ideas, words would never have come into being.”

“Fine, then. Without words, give me an idea.” Another slow, taunting smile. “Now take the branch.”

Her ire spiking, Mariko returned his unwavering stare. Though Ōkami’s expression remained one of detached amusement, a flame sparked behind his eyes like a sun at midnight. The sight prompted her to make a final decision. One of dishonor. One she was sure to regret.

“I prefer to fight battles I know I can win.” With that, Mariko bent to pick up the log closest to Ōkami. Just as he lowered the branch a second time, she shot to standing, ramming her full weight into his injured right shoulder. The one she knew still bore a fresh wound from the giant’s kanabō swing the night before.

The Wolf grunted loudly as they both fell to the ground in a tangled heap. Mariko landed on top of him—lunging for the branch—but Ōkami flipped her onto her stomach, forcing every last bit of air from her body by leaning on her with unnecessary intensity. Damp soil trickled into her mouth, causing her to sputter and retch and flail.

Mariko tried to shove her elbow into his face, but was met with nothing more than wry laughter.

“I owe you an injury, Sanada Takeo,” Ōkami whispered in her ear. “And I pay my debts.” He hauled her to her feet as though she were nothing more than a sack of air. “Now get back to work.”

Humiliation took root in Mariko’s chest, tugging at her center like a fishhook. She swiped the soil from her mouth and straightened her dirty kosode, hoping to pierce his resolve as he had hers. “This is a waste of time. If your glorious leader had granted me use of a wagon, I would have been done moving these logs hours ago.”


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