So intent was she on devising the best way to impress the leader of the Black Clan that it had taken her five days to work up the courage. To take action.
And though she now possessed a plan, Mariko still remained uncertain. Whatever free time left to her had been spent mulling over the details. Considering the possibilities. All while putting aside the likelihood that—at any moment—her great secret might be revealed.
That a member of the Black Clan might learn she was not in fact a boy.
Fear again took hold of Mariko, leaving her immobile for a breath. Leaving her weakened. The only remedy was to return its cold embrace once more.
It fed her. This fear.
It gave her a sense of will.
Mariko straightened her shoulders. Reshaped her thoughts.
Ranmaru had paid her no attention today. As far as he was concerned, Mariko could be a single leaf among many. Ōkami was equally hopeless. An endless well, covered by years of neglect. Only two members of the Black Clan continued to pay Mariko mind—Ren and Yoshi. The former plagued her at every turn. The latter made it his duty to instruct her on the most inconsequential of lessons: how to light a fire, how to boil water, how to dig for edible roots. Ever since the night the jubokko had drained the young intruder of life, Mariko had been left to handle the most trivial tasks around the camp.
Washing pots. Plucking feathers.
And of course collecting firewood.
This lack of attention only hardened her resolve. Drove her toward a loftier goal. Now that she had successfully infiltrated the Black Clan’s ranks, Mariko endeavored to gain access to its inner circle. Only by doing so would she ever obtain any information of import.
And discover the truth of why they’d been sent to kill her.
The most valuable knowledge she’d gleaned in the last few days was learning that Ōkami left camp alone every other morning, armed with nothing but a bō.
And did not return until well after nightfall.
Not that his absence mattered much to her. The Wolf spent his time in camp hidden in his tent. But Mariko was not fool enough to think he wasted any effort. These repeated absences were definitely a matter of note.
Where was he going?
Was it possible he was meeting with those holding sway over the Black Clan? With those who wished her dead?
As Mariko delved through the countless possibilities before her, she continued to fight with a bundle of dirty hemp cloth that had been left by her feet while she slept. Gritting her teeth, she wrangled the rough bolt of fabric straight, struggling to anchor a length of it onto a bamboo pole. Someone—likely Yoshi—had left her the means with which to build her own tent.
Mariko had felt strangely elated to discover this gift.
The tent proved that at least one member of the Black Clan found her useful. Wished for her to stay. She was reminded of Ren’s error in divulging Ranmaru’s plans to make her their newest recruit. Perhaps this was a sign she had made progress to that end. Though Ren’s nasty attitude indicated otherwise, it was obvious someone in the camp supported the notion. She’d even been given a place to call her own. Tonight would be the first night Mariko would not have to sleep on a pile of rocks and debris.
If she could ever put together the cursed thing.
Just before Mariko succumbed to the desire to fling the hemp fabric into the underbrush, a hand scored by numerous burns reached out, snatching the bundle from her grasp.
Yoshi loomed above her, his red face mottled by irritation.
“Are you still trying to put that tent together?” He sat on the ground, swinging his wooden limb into position before him. Mariko considered it for a spell. Many times in the last few days, she’d wanted to ask Yoshi how he’d lost his leg. But she was learning to expect two things from the surly cook: He did not reveal information without intention.
And he did not permit anyone to make excuses for anything.
“As you undoubtedly know by now, Yoshi-san, I have never been in possession of this skill. Likely because I have never been granted the opportunity,” she joked awkwardly. “But even so, I do feel as though I am missing something.”
Yoshi rummaged through the bamboo rods and the knotted ball of twine by their feet. “Who gave these to you?” His lower lip pouted in a frown.
“I thought you did.” She blinked. “But if it was not you, then perhaps it was Ren. His concern for my welfare has been nothing but consistent,” Mariko said bitterly.
The creases vanished from his blotchy brow as understanding settled on Yoshi. “You’re missing two key pieces of framing.”
Perhaps it was indeed Ren who had left her the tent. Only he would have enjoyed watching Mariko suffer through trying to accomplish such an impossible task. “That—that miserable little fiend.”
“Don’t be angry with him.” Yoshi sent half a smile her way. “Ren has led quite a difficult life. He’s less a fiend and more a wounded cat.”
Mariko mumbled, “Wounded cats still possess claws.”
“True.” He laughed. “I’ll retrieve the missing pieces.” Yoshi peered at her through one narrowed eye. “Have you shared your idea with Haruki yet?”
She shifted uncomfortably. “No.”
“Then tell him about it while I piece together your tent.” He spoke as though there was not even a question of Mariko following his directive.
A strange mix of comfort and concern rippled through her. Of course she disliked being told what to do. But she also appreciated someone—anyone—caring enough to try.
Despite the murmurings of her mind, Mariko’s heart would not permit her to dislike Yoshi. “Perhaps you shouldn’t help me,” she said. “Someone might steal your tent frame as punishment.”
“Someone?” He barked a laugh.
“I won’t disclose who.” Mariko smiled in return. “But a certain someone might seek retribution for you showing me this kindness.”
“No one would dare. Lest that certain someone find himself perishing of starvation. You idiot boys don’t even know how to cook rice properly, much less anything of substance.” With this final pronouncement, Yoshi pushed her in the direction of the hillock to her left. Then he rolled the bundle of hemp cloth and took to his feet once more, intent on finding Ren and the missing lengths of bamboo.
Distress flashed through Mariko. She briefly considered flouting Yoshi’s orders. Or perhaps even lying about it later. But the churlish cook would learn the truth, and he would not be pleased that she’d failed to meet with the metalsmith for yet another day. Not to mention the dishonor of unnecessary deceit. It wasn’t that deception by its very nature troubled her. Mariko realized its necessity, especially when paired alongside survival. But bald-faced lies were not the same thing. So, with a sigh, she began walking toward the small hill nearby, drawn to the feather of smoke rising from the fabric wall at its crest. One side of the hill was shaded by a looming stone protuberance—one of the many small outcroppings that eventually burgeoned into the snowcapped mountain in the distance. On her second day there, Mariko had realized how strategically positioned the camp of the Black Clan was. This collection of outcroppings offered them natural fortification, preventing anyone from attacking their flank.
She dug her heels into the soft earth and pressed onward, her calves burning from the steep incline. As Mariko walked, her mind continued its unceasing mutterings.
It was Yoshi who’d first pushed her to take her rendering of the throwing star to the Black Clan’s metalsmith. He’d told her the idea had merit. And he’d not once called her foolish or found her efforts unwanted or out of place. It was a strange feeling. To have one of her enemies be the first among her acquaintances to appreciate her ideas.
Mariko paused before the wall of smoke-stained fabric, taking in a breath. Seeking courage of a lasting kind.
“Hello?” she said in a brusque voice.
When the metalsmith emerged from behind the fabric wall of his jinmaku, Mariko released a pent-up breath, allowing the relief to flood through her.
Haruki the metalsmith was none other than the boy she’d noticed that first night at the watering hole. The one with the shining skin, who looked as though he’d been taken from a childhood story about a boy who floated through the sky, buoyed into the clouds by an oiled-paper umbrella. Mariko recalled him watching the leaves sway through the maple trees with an almost otherworldly kind of serenity.
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