“It’s true.” He nodded, drumming the spoon against his thigh in almost rhythmic fashion. “You would likely be caught.”

“Then why bother with the risk?”

“Without risk, life is far too predictable.”

Mariko stared at him, forcing her expression blank. She had not expected to find a philosopher buried beneath the cook’s worn exterior. “We are born. We live. We die. All that matters in life is predictable. A rock settles into the soil. A blossom gives off a fragrance. A—”

“A blossom can split through a rock, given enough time.”

“And enough sunlight. Enough water. Enough—”

Yoshi laughed sharply. The sound warmed through her in a way that troubled her. Mariko did not want to like any member of the Black Clan. Much less this portly fellow brandishing a wooden spoon. Yoshi continued laughing, his surliness causing the sound to spike into the patches of light above. He turned back toward his precious pot of steaming liquid, lowering the spoon into its depths with that same sharpened awareness.

Her curiosity growing with each passing moment, Mariko leaned closer to peer into the boiling vat, determined to see what Yoshi labored so painstakingly to prepare.

The bubbling liquid shifted as he stirred. A familiar object swirled into view.

Eggs?

“You seem disappointed.” Yoshi eyed her askance.

Mariko frowned. “They’re just eggs.”

His lips protruded in a scowl as Yoshi removed one egg from the pot and gingerly dropped it into another bowl of water nearby. “These are not just any eggs.” Using the tip of his spoon, Yoshi began rolling the egg in the water.

The silence that descended on them stretched uncomfortably thin. Mariko could no longer keep quiet. “Why are you washing the egg after boiling it?”

“This is cold water,” Yoshi said as he took the egg from its chilled bath and raised it into the light. “Two extremes make for one perfectly cooked egg.” He tapped the rounded end of the egg against the side of the pot. Then he did the same to the pointed end. He lifted the egg to his lips and blew hard, as though he meant to cool it entirely in a single breath.

The egg flew from its shell into Yoshi’s waiting hand.

“Eat it.” He offered it to her.

The last time Mariko had consumed an offering by a member of the Black Clan, she’d awoken to find herself thrown across the back of a horse. Nevertheless hunger overcame her the instant she took hold of the egg. A stronger warrior would have refused to eat any food offered by the enemy. But in this case she was not a strong warrior. She was a starving sparrow.

Mariko took a small bite. The white of the egg was cool and creamy. Light as a feather. Its center was the warm yellow of a dandelion. Steam rose from it in a perfect curl. In short, it was quite possibly the most delicious thing Mariko had eaten in her entire life. She opened her mouth to swallow the remaining bite whole.

“Wait!” Yoshi said, startling her still. From a small, earthenware jar, he removed a piece of pickled ginger half the size of his palm. Moving faster than Mariko’s eyes could follow, Yoshi yanked a hooked dagger from the collection at his belt and sliced two paper-thin slivers of ginger on top of the egg. Then he prodded her to eat by raising his brows.

Mariko had been wrong before.

This was the best thing she’d ever eaten in her entire life.

Though her mouth was full, Mariko began offering muffled words of gratitude. It galled her to be giving thanks to a member of the Black Clan, but she’d already made her choice. For however long they kept her here, she would follow their orders. Find a way to be useful to them.

And wait in the grass to strike.

As Mariko started to speak, a rock pinged against the side of the iron cauldron, surprising her. The precious egg spilled from her mouth onto the earth. Before Mariko could think to react, Yoshi yanked another dagger from his belt and hurled it into the bushes at her back.

Ren shouted as the dagger struck the tree trunk a hairsbreadth from his shoulder. The branches around him shuddered from the impact.

“Mealtime is sacred,” Yoshi scolded. “You know this better than anyone.”

“Boss said I could do as I pleased with the new recruit,” Ren fumed. “Even told me I could kill him if he broke any of our rules.”

New recruit? Rules?

Mariko struggled to stay emotionless as a flurry of thoughts whirled through her mind. Yoshi’s already flushed face reddened further. In that moment, Mariko knew she was right to keep silent.

Ren had just revealed something he was clearly not meant to divulge.

Yoshi took a deliberate step in Ren’s direction. A step laced with warning. “He did not say you could do as you pleased with me. And as long as Sanada Takeo is with me, I insist you leave him be.”

“Fine,” Ren said, anger flashing in his yellowed eyes. “Enjoy your meal, Lord Weakling, for it might be your last!” As he yelled his threat, he fought to untangle himself from the brambles at his feet. Then he spun away, his expression promising a fierce reprisal in the near future.

Predictable, at all turns.

Mariko stared at the ruined egg lying on the ground. She contemplated picking it up and finishing it, dirt and all.

Such a shame to waste something so delicious.

“If that was to be my last meal,” Mariko murmured, “how fitting is it that it fell from my lips before I could eat it?”

The previously rough timbre of Yoshi’s laughter was gentler now. “Despite what I thought at first glance, you do have a flair for the dramatic. As to this being your last meal, that will depend on what Ranmaru decides.” He transferred another egg from the boiling vat into the cool bath. “Though I must say, for someone on the brink of death, you do appear remarkably calm.”

Mariko gnawed at her lower lip, once more considering what kind of information Yoshi intended to wheedle from her with his surly brand of kindness.

What kind of information she could, in turn, wheedle from him.

“I am not calm,” she said finally. “It’s a constant effort to quell my fear.”

“Then why bother?”

“Because I do not wish to appear weak.”

Another smile tugged at his mouth as Yoshi unshelled a new egg for Mariko.

His kindness could be a tactic. A way to wear down her defenses. Extreme cruelty tempered by extreme consideration. Much like the egg.

It could all be a trick.

But the egg—that simple egg—was so wonderful. So perfect.

How could anyone who would take such care to prepare a simple egg truly be bad?

Mariko sighed to herself.

If Yoshi’s kindness was a lie or a trick, she would let herself fall prey. All in service to a greater goal.

Follow orders. Engender trust.

Strike when they least expect it.

She would learn who these men were. Whom they served.

And why they’d tried to kill her.

When the bushes behind Mariko rustled once more, Yoshi yanked another small dagger from his belt and took aim. A yelp and the scurry of fleeing feet followed.

While she chewed, Mariko marveled at the fluidity of his movements. His wooden limb did not hamper him. Nor did it grant him any advantage, in that heedless way of stories. It was not a gift, nor was it a blessing.

It simply was. Just as he simply was.

And Yoshi threw daggers as though he was born to it, like an eagle taking flight.

This realization prompted her to consider a new idea:

Perhaps true weakness is weakness of the spirit.

“How long did it take you to learn to throw a kunai like that?” Mariko asked with unconcealed admiration.

“Most of my life.”

Her eyes dropped to the intricate leather belt at his hip. To the array of polished blades, each of varying shape and size. “What is the purpose behind having so many different kinds of daggers?”

“Some kunai are better to throw short distances. Others are better for longer ones. The remaining ones? Well, that’s among the many secrets I possess.” He snorted.

Mariko thought of Ren and his pebbles. “I wish I possessed this skill.” Her lips quirked to one side. “Today of all days, a skill like this would have served me well.”

“You could learn. Given enough training, anyone could.”

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