“You could end his suffering,” she said to him, drawn to a sudden need for goodness in the ghastliness around her. “Don’t leave him to die like this. He’s just a boy.” Mariko chewed her lower lip. “A boy . . . like me.” As soon as she uttered the words, understanding dawned on her.

Understanding of why she had been brought to witness this horror.

Ōkami’s gaze remained level and clear. His eyes—so focused, even amidst such suffering—locked on hers. Black and shining, like the onyx embedded in the hilt of her father’s sword. “We are what we do.” Though Ōkami’s words sounded fierce, weariness tinged their edges. “This boy came to our home, intent on murdering us. He and his kind must pay.” Again his fist tightened around the stained cloth and its obscured crest.

“We are so much more than what we do!” Mariko drew closer, as if nearness could invoke a sense of truth. “We are . . .” She searched her mind for the right things to say. “Our thoughts, our memories, our beliefs!” Her eyes dropped to the dying boy. To the evil tree, slowly draining him of life.

“This tree is not the forest,” she said softly. “It is but one part.”

“No. A murderer is a murderer. A thief is a thief.” Ōkami bent his head toward hers, equally firm in his conviction. “In this life, believe in action and action alone.”

Mariko’s fingernails dug into her palms. She resisted the urge to grab Ōkami by the shoulders and shake him into reason.

He did not balk. Nor did he move to help.

It was Ranmaru who finally crouched before the dying boy. When the leader of the Black Clan spoke, his voice was gentle. Almost soothing. “Many years ago, there were three young men who grew up together near a forest not so dissimilar to this one.” He mopped the sweat from the boy’s brow with a clean piece of muslin.

The boy gasped. Mariko’s chest pulled tight.

“When they were children, they played together. Studied together. Challenged each other as only friends can do. When they became older, one turned toward justice, another toward honor.” Ranmaru’s voice lowered. “The last toward ambition.

“In time, the three young men became warriors in their own right, each with sons of their own. As they settled into age and influence, the ambitious man realized his friend who valued honor above all else would never compromise on anything, even for the sake of those dearest to him.”

With quiet solemnity, Ranmaru reached for the glittering hilt of the katana at his side. “So the ambitious man manipulated his remaining friend—the one who valued justice above all. With the skill of a tailor, the ambitious man threaded lies into truth. Planted seeds of doubt. He made the man who valued justice believe their honorable friend would undermine all they tried to achieve.”

The boy’s gaze was riveted on the leader of the Black Clan. As Ranmaru unsheathed his katana, he inhaled through his nose. Understanding softened the lines on the dying boy’s face. He nodded feebly.

“When their honorable friend was accused of treason, the ambitious man turned to the last of their trio, hearkening to that same, pervasive sense of justice.” Ranmaru stopped in his speech. Wordlessly asking for permission. The dying boy’s eyes darted from the sword to Ranmaru. He nodded once more. Gratefully.

With a gentle nod of his own, Ranmaru pressed the tip of his katana above the boy’s heart. “And so the friend who valued justice above all else executed his honorable friend . . . in front of his friend’s only son. But when he realized what he had done—the mistake he had made—he tried to balance the scales. To right this terrible wrong and bring about renewed justice.”

From where he stood before her, Mariko watched Ōkami’s jaw harden. The sound of a blade slicing through skin rose into the night as Ranmaru pushed forward. Swift. And sure. A thankful smile upon his lips, the boy’s eyelids opened sluggishly one last time as the life fled from his body.

“For his efforts to right this wrong, the man who valued justice was hung by his feet in Yedo Bay. Drowned before his family.” Ranmaru slanted his head. As though he wished to speak directly to Ōkami. But could not. “In the dead of night, the son of this drowned man—a wolf in his own right—set fire to the tent of his father’s accuser and fled into the mountains.”

The air around them churned with unspoken thoughts. Countless unuttered sentiments, across years and generations.

Yet Mariko understood, all the same.

The tale Ranmaru told was of him and Ōkami. A tale of two boys who had lost their fathers to an ambitious man. A man who had once been their dearest friend.

Ōkami’s father had betrayed Ranmaru’s father. This was the reason Ōkami served Ranmaru. The reason he held such unswerving allegiance to the Black Clan. These two boys were inextricably linked by this betrayal. Linked by life and death.

A friendship forged in blood and fire.

As Ranmaru’s story faded like a ghost into the night, the image from several days past—the memory of the boy standing in a courtyard, staring at stones stained red with his father’s blood—formed in Mariko’s mind.

As she’d first thought, this boy was Takeda Ranmaru.

Not a boy anymore. Now a young man, imbued with a shadowed purpose. One Mariko had only begun to grasp. Against her will, her curiosity abated, like a tide pulling from a desolate shore. In its place rose a tentative sadness—a halting kind of sympathy. She could not imagine what it would be to lose her family right before her eyes. To lose all she held dear, in an instant. Her mother. Her father. Kenshin . . .

But it could happen.

This forest had taught her that, even in a few short days.

As Mariko considered the possibility of such loss, a heaviness settled onto her skin. A burn began to rise in her throat.

The burn of injustice.

Ranmaru had killed her father’s men. And Chiyo.

He’d tried to kill Mariko.

And she would never forget it.

Follow orders. Engender trust.

Strike when they least expect it.

“Watch closely, Sanada Takeo.” Ranmaru slid his sword from the dead boy’s slumped body and stood tall. “This forest protects us. These trees—the jubokko—are everywhere. Our forest is guarded by yōkai, and they will not look kindly on you, should you attempt to run. Should you attempt to betray us in any way.” He turned to face her. “But if you stay true, one day Jukai forest may serve you as well.”

Mariko stared down at the lifeless young man. His skin had taken on a waxy hue.

To her left, Ōkami finally spoke, his words a whisper on a dying wind—

“Never forget, Sanada Takeo: in this forest, there is no place to hide.”

THE THROWING STAR

Over the course of the next four days, Mariko listened. Followed orders without complaint. She learned that many of the twenty or so members of the Black Clan left the camp at odd hours, often returning laden with small trunks of silk. With leather satchels of gold ryō and countless tins of copper pieces. Then they would leave again under a cloak of darkness, taking their stolen spoils deep beneath the trees. Disappearing from sight.

In this forest, there is no place to hide.

Ōkami’s words echoed through Mariko’s mind like a haunted refrain. They gave her leave to shudder when she thought no one was watching. To embrace her fears as she never had before.

Mariko discovered there was wisdom in facing her fears headlong. Acknowledging them made her cautious. Made her smarter. Perhaps these fears would help her obtain a shred of information. Something to warrant all this effort. Anything to justify the horrors she had witnessed four nights ago in Jukai forest.

She needed a way to earn the Black Clan’s trust. If not their trust, then at least a semblance of their admiration. With it, she could then begin digging her way to the truth, like an army of termites set to decimate a structure from within.

If the incident with the jubokko had taught her anything, it was that one way to gain Ranmaru’s confidence was through Ōkami. Their bond seemed unshakable. The kind of trust built over time. Alas, Mariko could not begin to understand how to earn the Wolf’s favor. He was not exactly the demonstrative sort.

Now she was left to fight for Ranmaru’s attention on her own.

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