It was a sound argument. One he—of all people—should readily agree with, as the Wolf did not relish expending unnecessary effort.

Ōkami paused to rub his shoulder. For an instant, Mariko thought he would agree. Especially when she caught a trace of humor on his face. Then he swept his black hair from his forehead, as though he was banishing the thought. “If this is the last task of your life, it’s never a waste of time to do it thoroughly.”

A cold current of fear overshadowed Mariko’s anger. “You—you don’t truly mean that. If you intended to kill me, you would have done it already. Why have you brought me here? To what end?” She focused the last of her fear into something pointed. Sharp. “And if this is indeed the last task of my life, I’d rather be doing anything else—thinking anything else—than this.”

“You’d waste your last day in thought?” Ōkami stared down at her, unblinking.

“I would spend it thinking something meaningful. Doing something honorable.”

Like exposing the location of your camp.

Or bringing about an end to your band of bloodthirsty thieves.

“Thinking?” Ren interjected as he spat in the dirt by her feet. “Knowledge feeds no one. Nor does it win any wars.”

“I find your position on this matter unsurprising.” Mariko did not even bother glancing toward the boy with the spiked topknot.

“Honorable?” Ōkami shifted closer, his hand still pressed to his shoulder. The coppery scent of fresh blood suffused the air. “Do you consider attacking a wounded man without warning an act of honor?”

Color flooded Mariko’s cheeks. She’d known she would regret that decision the moment she’d made it. Honor was a fundamental tenet of bushidō. And her choice to deceive Ōkami and take advantage of his weakness was—without a doubt—a dishonorable one.

“I”—she swallowed—“was pushed to that action.”

“As many men often are.”

“I—”

“Don’t trouble yourself by explaining. Honor bears no weight with me.” The Wolf continued studying her. “And I find knowledge a poison to a weak mind.”

A litany of retorts collected in Mariko’s throat, but none seemed good enough. Wise enough. Instead she chose to defeat words with silence.

With an idea.

“Never doubt. Never fear. Never overthink.” Ōkami watched her as he spoke. As though he was searching for something beyond her. “That is the only way to stay alive.”

A glimmer of reason shone in his words. It unsettled her even further. Mariko’s lips pressed together. The skin in their centers cracked as the salt of her blood touched her tongue.

Anger tingled across her skin. Anger at him. Anger at herself.

How she wished she had a perfect retort at the ready. One she could fire back, like a polished stone.

Wordlessly, she bent to retrieve the fallen logs.

When Mariko stood once more, she thought she saw Ōkami wince as though a lantern had been shined in his eyes.

He stretched, then yawned. “On second thought, take Lord Lackbeard to Yoshi,” Ōkami said to Ren. “Make sure he eats something. A well-watered tree yields sweeter fruit.”

As the Wolf turned to leave, courage pushed Mariko into his path a final time. “Answer at least one question. After drugging me and dragging me here against my will, I’m owed that much.”

He waited, his features coolly indifferent.

Mariko breathed deep. “Am I prisoner, or am I a servant?”

Ōkami paused before responding. “We choose what we are in any situation, be it a word or an idea.” With a small smile, he walked away.

I dislike this boy. Immensely.

Before she had a chance to organize her thoughts, Ren yanked her to his side. Mariko watched from the corner of her eye while Ōkami strapped his bō across his back. The Wolf mounted a grey horse and rode from camp, nodding in salute to the guards patrolling the perimeter.

How Mariko wished she could best him at something.

Wished she could trounce him in all things.

The Wolf wasn’t as clever as he believed himself to be. Mariko found herself contemplating ways to destroy him. To watch him struggle.

And beg for mercy.

But she could not waste her focus on such petty emotions. Not when there were so many more pressing concerns at her heels. Mariko needed to learn why the Black Clan had brought her to their encampment. Was it possible they’d somehow discovered who she was? Had she been taken hostage?

Ice curled down her backbone at the thought.

As quickly as the fear rippled over her, it melted away. If the Black Clan had known who she was, they would have killed her already. And Mariko would not have been allowed even the limited freedom she’d been granted thus far.

Mariko sighed. Each step she took brought with it another question. She needed to know why the Black Clan had taken her to their camp. Who they were exactly. But most of all, she needed to discover why they’d been sent to kill her.

And by whom.

She glanced at Ren sidelong as they made their way toward the center of the encampment. Through the haze of the afternoon sun, his yellowed eyes reminded her of a snake lying in wait in the summer grass. How it would slither in the shadows while it pursued its prey, lulling everything around it into a false sense of safety.

Perhaps the best way for Mariko to gain answers was for her to do the same. To stop being difficult. To start paying attention.

Follow orders. Engender trust.

First she needed to find a way to be useful to the Black Clan. Then—when the men were lulled into a false sense of safety—she would strike. Discomfort twisted through her chest as she pondered this course of action. For it was not one of honor; it was one of deceit. Unsettlingly more so than her choice to don the garments of a boy and seek out the Black Clan.

A true warrior would face her enemies without flinching. Not slither about in the shade.

But there was so much Mariko wished to know. So much she wished to learn.

And she was beginning to realize that honor did not serve her well in a den of thieves.

Briefly Mariko toyed with the idea of asking Ren how Ōkami’s powers worked. The fool thought knowledge did not win wars? Knowledge was everything in a war. Especially in a war of wits. She could trick the evil twit into revealing damaging information. Learn how Okami was able to move as he did. Why the use of his powers seemed to take such a harsh toll on him.

As she glanced one last time over her shoulder, Mariko discovered she also wanted to know where the Wolf was going.

And to whom.

But for now she would lie in the shadows and wait.

WEAKNESS OF THE SPIRIT

The man with the wooden leg hovered over a steaming pot, peering into its contents with the focus of a mother hen. He paused to stoke the fire beneath the iron cauldron. A sooty box bellows groaned as he fed the flames with a blast of air.

As Mariko had first suspected, this Yoshi was the cook.

When another gust of steam rose from the pot, Yoshi stepped away, something akin to a smile spreading across his face. He was slightly portly in the middle. His reddened forehead shone with sweat, and one of his ears appeared larger than the other.

Yoshi leaned forward when Mariko and Ren approached. His eyes were still fixed on the contents of the pot.

“Yoshi-san.” Ren prodded Mariko closer by digging his shoulder into her back. She refrained from scowling when she stumbled forward.

“Are you still here?” Yoshi muttered without even turning around.

His dismissive tone reminded Mariko of her father, though Yoshi appeared several years younger than Hattori Kano. She pursed her lips. “I’m not certain I have a choice.” She pitched her voice low. Gave it a grating quality, as though she’d swallowed a mouthful of sand. It was true Mariko had decided to cooperate, but she knew only a fool would appear pleased to be the Black Clan’s captive. At least not so soon after being taken prisoner.

“Of course you have a choice,” Yoshi said.

“I fail to see what it is.”

He turned to face her fully, a long wooden spoon hanging from one fist. “You could run.” His tone was circumspect, the lines around his mouth deep-set.

Mariko paused in consideration. Wondered what could prompt Yoshi to make such a point. “I’d be caught.”

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