At least this boy would not take it upon himself to torment her as Ren had.

At least she hoped.

Haruki was tall and lean, with a narrow face and wide-set eyes. The front part of his hair was too short to fit into its topknot. The strands hung straight and loose. Only his hands and his hachimaki appeared marred by soot. He stood in silence as he studied her. Not a judgmental kind of silence. Not even a silence laced by curiosity.

He merely gave her leave to speak first.

“Yoshi said—”

“I was wondering when you would come here.” Haruki smiled with his eyes, his voice pleasing and precise. “Yoshi told me about you last week.”

Startled, Mariko stood still. “I didn’t realize he’d said anything.”

“One thing we all learn early on is to say very little to Yoshi. He likes his gossip almost more than he likes his food.” He wiped both his hands on a cloth hanging from his dark leather belt. Then he mopped the sweat from his neck. When the collar of his kosode shifted, lines of scarred skin became visible, wrapping around his shoulder like a set of monstrous fingers.

He was badly whipped in his past.

Mariko caught her voice before it could speak out of turn. And ask questions to which she did not need answers.

I should not care. I do not care.

“My name is Haruki.” He dipped his head in a small bow.

Steeling herself, Mariko returned the gesture. “Sanada Takeo.”

“I know.”

She pursed her lips. Was it always necessary for boys to prove they knew more than anyone else around them? “I suppose Yoshi also told you why I wanted to come here.”

“He said you had something you wished to show me.”

It was a hedging kind of answer. One that made Mariko immediately wary.

“And you weren’t . . . curious?” she said.

“You do ask a lot of questions.” Haruki smiled calmly. “And no, I wasn’t curious. I expected you to come my way when you were ready.” Again he waited for her to speak.

It was time for Mariko to stop being worried that everyone she met harbored hidden agendas. That Haruki the metalsmith would laugh at her. Or dismiss her. Yoshi had said her idea was a good one. And this was the only way to see if both he and she were right.

Mariko lifted her gaze to meet Haruki’s. “I wanted to ask if you could make a kind of . . . kunai for me.”

“A throwing dagger?” He studied her once more, but she could not read his expression. “For you?”

Yes. Ultimately.

“No. Not for me.” She inhaled deep. “I meant to say a kunai based on my design. One with many edges.” As she spoke, Mariko knelt before him and began sketching in the dirt with a small stick. “Almost in a circle.” She drew what at first glance appeared to be a sun with six rays curling away from it. “If you curve the blades in the same direction, it can be thrown in a rotating fashion, thereby allowing it to fly farther and faster.”

Haruki crouched beside her. Considered her design.

“This would be difficult to make,” he pronounced after a time. “And the amount of steel necessary would be quite costly, especially for a weapon a warrior might discard.”

“What if you used iron instead? It’s softer and less expensive than steel.”

Haruki’s eyes grazed over her drawing a second time. Still considering. “Even if it were made of iron, a weapon like this would take far too much time to fashion. I’m sorry. Each of these spikes would need to be individually sharpened.”

Mariko nodded, trying to tamp down her disappointment. Having a weapon of this sort would have been an advantage to her for many reasons, most of which she meant to conceal in the darkest recesses of her mind. For now. Before she could succumb to disappointment, she shored up her resolve. Recalled this thought:

True weakness is weakness of the spirit.

She refused to give up so easily. “What if we could make a mold instead? Perhaps even reduce the number of blades?” Mariko used her stick to smooth the ground over her previous rendering and fashion another. “The mold could first be cast in beeswax, similar to an arrowhead. That way it could be sharpened with relative ease.”

Haruki stood. Walked around the newest drawing, his head canted in consideration.

Quite suddenly, the metalsmith stopped pacing. “Come with me,” he said, his tone crisp. Haruki proceeded to march down the hill, his long legs carrying him fast. Mariko ran to keep up as he strode toward another tent across the way. A larger tent, with a guard posted at its entrance. The tent to which Mariko had been trying to gain access ever since she was first brought to the Black Clan’s encampment against her will.

The tent of Takeda Ranmaru.

Outside the entrance, several younger members of the Black Clan watched two weathered veterans play a game of Go. All appeared to be betting on the outcome, copper and silver links dotting a worn tatami mat. Several smaller coins had been thrown to the wayside, almost slipping out of notice. Mariko slid one beneath her sandaled foot, to surreptitiously pocket it later.

There could be a time I might need money.

Before Mariko had a chance to collect the coin, Haruki paused near the entrance, waiting for her. With what Mariko hoped was an innocent smile, she moved forward, quickly dragging the copper coin beneath her straw sandal.

Haruki began speaking to Ranmaru even before Mariko came to a stop beside him. Despite what she’d initially thought, the metalsmith was not one to linger without purpose. “His idea isn’t a bad one. The weapon itself would be small. Light. Much easier to aim than a traditional kunai. But the time and cost it would take to make it almost negates its value.”

Of course the leader of the Black Clan did not look surprised to see them. Nor did he appear surprised to learn of Haruki’s conclusion.

As Mariko had suspected, Yoshi had told Ranmaru about her invention.

Mariko opened her mouth to speak. And was unceremoniously pushed forward by the tent’s newest arrival. An arrival whose scent made his presence known even before he came into view.

Warm stone and wood smoke.

By the grace of the old gods, Mariko managed to remain mostly in place when Ōkami rammed an elbow into her side, clearing the path before him.

“I sincerely apologize,” she said to Ōkami, trying her best to keep her store of sarcasm in reserve. “I guess it must be quite difficult to see that which is directly in front of you.”

Well. She did try.

“No.” Ōkami’s face wore a silent challenge, his eyes glinting as he glanced back at her. “I saw you.” For an instant, Mariko thought she also caught a trace of amusement as he brushed by. “And even if I hadn’t seen you, I definitely smelled you. When was the last time you bathed?”

That same awful feeling of being mocked took hold of Mariko. Vicious, unrelenting hold. Making her feel so much smaller than those around her. So much less of everything when all she wished to feel was taller and stronger and braver. So much more. It made her afraid to be herself. Afraid these men would see how every step she took each day was a lie.

Enough. This is not the time to be weak.

Instead of letting the fear allow her to shrink into herself, Mariko let it feed her.

It collected in her stomach. Twisting in her throat.

Reshaping into anger.

No. She did not have time to be angry with Ōkami. Being angry with him meant she cared. And she absolutely did not care. It was far easier not to care.

Mariko pursed her lips, glowering at the leanly muscled back before her.

When Ōkami realized she’d kept silent at his provocation, he peered at her over one shoulder. The confusion that passed across his face almost made Mariko’s efforts worth the trouble.

Absentmindedly ruffling his hair, the Wolf glided toward a corner of the tent, settling on a pile of silk cushions. Then he closed his eyes as though he meant to rest.

“How was Hanami?” Ranmaru asked Ōkami, disregarding his friend’s obvious desire to sleep.

At her right, Mariko heard Haruki sigh to himself.

Ōkami ignored the metalsmith’s quiet judgment. “As one would expect.” With a yawn, he burrowed into the cushions.

Hanami?

Of course this lazy boy with little regard for honor frequented the most infamous pleasure district in Inako. That, at least, offered Mariko an answer as to where he’d been disappearing every other day.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***