Hot on the heels of this newest realization came a different series of questions.

Inako was several hours’ ride from the forest.

“You went to Inako?” Mariko asked automatically. “Why would you journey so far simply to go to Hanami? Are there not pleasure houses nearby?”

“Pleasure houses?” he scoffed. “It’s clear Lord Lackbeard does not have the first clue about the joys Hanami has to offer.” Though his eyes remained closed, one side of Ōkami’s lips curled upward. Ranmaru frowned in response.

Mariko bristled. “Though I’ve never seen Hanami myself, I have every idea what happens in a—”

“Liar.”

She crossed her arms. Irritation snaked through her chest. Yet Mariko made the decision to say nothing, as she’d found it to be the best response in situations like these.

When she knew words would not serve her well.

Ōkami’s dark eyes flashed open. Mariko had to admit it was an admirable feat. How he was able to shift from casual apathy to absolute awareness in a single breath. “Interesting.” He unfurled to standing. Glided toward her, once more the shark seeking blood in the water. “I called you a liar, yet you’ve said nothing to refute that. Unusual, considering your regard for all things honorable.”

The closer Ōkami moved toward her, the more Mariko’s worry collected. The more she wished to retreat. Sometimes he saw her too clearly for comfort.

Again the irritation gathered in her stomach. Knotting into anger.

I will not yield to my emotions.

Ōkami stared down at her, just as he had that night they’d first met. Mariko stood her ground, disregarding her desire to flee.

“It’s obvious you haven’t the faintest clue what Hanami is,” he said softly. “You lie as freely as you breathe, yet claim to value honor above all else.” His laughter was a brush of air and sound. “What other secrets are you hiding beneath that cool head of yours, Sanada Takeo? And what would it take to steal them from you?” he whispered, his eyes shimmering like black ice.

Blood rushed up Mariko’s neck, into her face. As before, she stoked her fear into fury. Into a strange kind of heat that began to swirl in the space between them.

“You don’t know the beginning of me.” She trembled as she spoke. “And . . . you will never see the end.” It was as close to a threat as she dared.

His smile was cool. Appreciative. “I’ve made you angry.”

“Anger can be a good thing,” Ranmaru interjected, his features unreadable. “It can harden you. Make you stronger.”

“Perhaps my kind of strength isn’t the same as yours. Perhaps my kind of strength is as light as a feather.” As deadly as an idea. Her hands continued to shake beneath their gazes, yet she returned Ōkami’s measured stare.

The Wolf nodded, but Mariko did not see mockery in the gesture. Merely the same strange intensity. As though he truly approved. “Master your anger, Sanada Takeo. Anger is an emotion that poisons all else.”

“I am not angry. It’s possible you do not know me as well as you think you do.” Mariko willed him silent, determined not to argue with him any further.

Arguing with Ōkami was like trying to catch smoke.

His only reply was another half smile punctuated by a white scar. But his smile was not the playful sort. No. Despite his barbed attempt at banter, the Wolf was not playful. Not at all. He was a boy who liked to set fire to things and watch them burn. Mariko’s anger quickly slid to animosity. It irked her that Ōkami could provoke such strong emotions from her with so little effort.

Ranmaru stepped between them. Separating them. Dissipating the heat that had risen in the air. “I’ll make you a deal, Lord Lackbeard,” he said. “If you succeed in helping Haruki find a way to make this—what do you call it?”

The metalsmith moved to reply, his lips already forming the words.

“A throwing star,” Mariko said before Haruki could speak, her words clipped. Her attention lingered on Ōkami as he returned to his cushioned corner, his hands now laced beneath his head. At this moment, it did not behoove Mariko to look away from him.

As he’d once warned, she should never bare her neck to a wolf.

Ranmaru continued, his manner contemplative. “Successfully fashion a throwing star, and the next time Ōkami travels to Hanami, we will accompany him.”

At this, the Wolf stood again, unfailingly graceful, despite a glimmer of annoyance. A snakelike smile spread across Ren’s face just as Ranmaru broke into a pleased grin. It was clear this newly formed proposal appealed to the leader of the Black Clan. Perhaps simply because he was antagonizing his best friend. A feat Mariko guessed to be rather difficult.

In answer, Ōkami stepped closer, his jaw tight.

A tacit threat. For her benefit or for that of Ranmaru, Mariko could not be certain. Nor did she care. For it pleased her, too, to rankle the Wolf.

Ranmaru’s grin widened. “While in Hanami, we can—how did you say it that night, Lord Lackbeard?—teach you how to enjoy such things.”

At the flagrance of his words, the blood began to drain down Mariko’s neck. “I—don’t think that’s necessary.” Her eyes flitted around the tent; her skin now cast a sickly pallor. “As I said before, I am fully aware of what happens in Hanami, and—”

“When you’re about to lie, don’t look to the skies first,” Ōkami said. “The old gods won’t help you.”

“In the future, I’ll be sure to heed your advice,” she retorted quickly. Curtly. Her gaze locked on the scar slicing through his lips. “But I was busy making a promise to remedy their past mistake.”

His brows raised in question.

“This time, I promised to cut out your tongue instead of simply leaving a warning.” Mariko almost gasped as the words fell from her mouth.

These were the words of a different person.

Wild. Dangerous. Without fear.

Perhaps Sanada Takeo had far more nerve than Hattori Mariko. Perhaps Takeo didn’t mind risking punishment if it meant earning respect. Though the beat of Mariko’s heart raced through her veins, she kept her expression fixed. Unmoved.

The Wolf’s eyes narrowed. The muscles along his jaw twitched. Whether it was from anger or amusement, Mariko dared not guess.

A spell of tense silence passed. Then Ranmaru laughed. Loudly. A thoughtless, heedless kind of laughter. Different from any she’d heard pass his lips before. Even Haruki and Ren seemed startled by its sound. When Mariko’s tormentor made to shove her as punishment for her insult, she shifted beyond his reach. Ren pressed forward, intent on teaching her a lesson. His persistence forced Mariko to step in the space occupied by either Ranmaru or Ōkami.

Without thought, she shifted to the left.

Beside her sandaled foot, a copper coin winked into view.

A harrowing beat passed before Ōkami bent to retrieve it. He did not move away as he aimed a bladed smile at her. Mariko bumped against him, suppressing a cringe. He returned the coin to her, all while standing close enough that she smelled the wood smoke on his clothes. Felt the warmth radiating from his skin.

A low hum began to form around him. Immediately Mariko swallowed the urge to cower, grateful for the shadows that concealed the color in her cheeks.

Was it from anger, then? Did anger unleash Ōkami’s abilities?

Was he angry with her? Or amused? Why was it so hard for her to read this accursed boy?

“So now you’ve become a thief as well,” he said softly, his dark gaze filled with an uncanny light. “Fashion your throwing star. Take your winnings to Inako. But don’t feel fortunate when you do. The streets of the imperial city are only slightly less forgiving than I.”

The leader of the Black Clan waited until Ren, Haruki, and Sanada Takeo were far beyond earshot. He glanced at his best friend. His closest confidant since the darkest of times.

“What do you think of our newest recruit?” Ranmaru asked.

Ōkami scowled in the direction of the tent entrance before replying. “He’s . . . quite smart. And equally odd.”

“Oddly smart, then.”

“Two qualities that engender concern. I don’t trust him.”

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