“What’s to trust?” Ranmaru tossed a silk cushion onto the packed earth, then took position over the ledgers strewn across the scarred low table. “Anyway it’s unlike you to care about such a thing.”

Ōkami remained standing. “We should leave him in Inako. He won’t last a day in its bowels.”

“Or perhaps we should simply let the forest have him.” Ranmaru shrugged.

“Perhaps.” The Wolf did not sound convinced.

Ranmaru stopped skimming through the ledger. “Do you suspect he knows anything?”

“No. But he makes me feel . . . uncomfortable. I’m not certain why you wanted to bring him here. Why you thought he would make a good addition to our ranks.”

Ranmaru paused. They were both aware that very little made the Wolf uncomfortable. Ōkami had spent his formative years impressing a sense of discomfort onto others. Impressing it and taking advantage of the aftermath.

It was far easier to bend the will of those amid strife.

“Sanada Takeo is different from anyone else in the Black Clan,” Ranmaru said. “He’s lost in a way that intrigues me. Intelligent in a way that could make him quite useful to our cause.” He paused again. “What about him makes you feel uncomfortable? It’s odd for anyone this insignificant to bother you so.” The beginnings of a smile began to cross his lips. “Or for anyone to remain unchecked after repeatedly challenging you.”

Ōkami said nothing for a time. “Does the boy not make you uncomfortable?” he finally asked, his voice inexplicably hesitant. “Does he not—make you ask yourself strange questions?”

“No,” Ranmaru replied. “Not any more than usual. I’ll agree he’s strange. But have you seen Ren?”

“Ren is a boy lost between two worlds. That tends to happen when you witness your parents being butchered before your eyes,” Ōkami said. “Of course Ren would be strange.”

“Well, it’s possible Sanada Takeo has seen such things as well.”

“Possible. But unlikely. He’s far too green to have witnessed anything truly horrific. Did you see how long it took him to put together a simple tent?”

“I thought you left that tent to test him.”

“That’s immaterial. For someone as smart as he, Sanada Takeo should have realized he was missing pieces long before Yoshi brought it to his attention. It’s obvious the boy has never had to fend for himself in his life. He’s coddled in a worrisome way. Likely the son of a wealthy man—book learned and world foolish.”

Ranmaru sighed. “I leave it to you, then. Whatever decision you make as to whether the boy stays or goes, I support you.” His left brow arched high into his forehead. “But he’s your responsibility in Inako. You earned that privilege by antagonizing him as you did today. And if I were you, I would be far more vigilant about how much you allow Sanada Takeo under your skin.” Ōkami turned at this, clearly intent on disavowing the notion. But Ranmaru raised a hand, cutting him off before he could speak.

“Take Takeo to the teahouse as promised, then do what you will with him afterward.” Ranmaru flattened a blank sheet of washi paper and began rubbing a dampened ink stick into the inkwell beside him. “Though I’m inclined to let Takeo stay, as he might prove to be quite an asset. Oddly smart ideas notwithstanding.”

Ōkami did not respond immediately.

“We shall see.”

RIVETS OF GOLD AND PETAL PINK WATERS

Inako.

A city of a hundred arched bridges and a thousand cherry trees. A city of mud and sweat and sewage. A city of golden cranes and amber sunsets.

A city of secrets.

The imperial city had changed in the four years since Kenshin had last been within its walls.

It was clearly bigger. The outskirts of Inako now pressed beyond the fields and forests that had ringed its borders in the past. Snaking through the city’s center was a gently flowing river littered with dying blossoms. Its petal pink waters were a painted stroke separating the tiled roofs on either shoreline—a swell of blue-grey clay, rising like the sea, bandied about by a storm.

Kenshin’s mother had once said the entire story of the imperial city could be told by its roof tiles alone. The curved clay marked where the grandest sections of Inako gave way to its poorer thoroughfares. Its downtrodden lanes. Where the rounded tiles and the gleaming angles dipped into dusty disrepair. Where they vanished into the parts of the city Kenshin had never frequented.

The number of cracked and misshapen rooflines had become even more staggered and crowded in the last four years. Strange how—regardless of wealth or circumstance—they all appeared to use the same kind of tile. The same color. The same shape.

A strange marriage of chaos and conformity.

In that same way, Inako looked smaller to him now. Despite its obvious growth.

Kenshin mulled over this as he rode with his men past the main gates of the city. Vendors lingered on either side of a long dirt lane, selling neatly stacked fruit and freshly washed produce. Several children hawked small hemp sacks of crisp rice crackers, their faces and hands clean despite the ragged appearance of their clothes. A stall displaying perfect rounds of sweet daifuku caught Kenshin’s eye as he passed by. He smiled as he remembered how much Mariko had loved to eat the fluffy rice cakes filled with sweetened bean paste. How they’d always fought over the last of the daifuku whenever their father had brought home a box from Inako.

As children, Kenshin and Mariko had squabbled quite often, their fights becoming the stuff of legend. As epic as the wars depicted in their history lessons, replete with subterfuge and elegant misdirection. Kenshin had always tried to best her physically, while Mariko had always fought to unseat him mentally.

His sister had won more times than Kenshin had cared to admit.

He smiled to himself as a shower of memories descended on him.

Mariko was not dead. She was simply fighting a different kind of war. Though Kenshin had yet to understand her purpose, he believed in his younger sister. Supported her.

Just as he knew she believed in and supported him.

They would always be there for each other. Whatever may come.

Kenshin’s small convoy paused as imperial guards inspected the endless line of wagons and weary travelers entering Inako.

As soon as the Hattori crest was seen, he and his men were waved past the line. Kenshin had elected to take only fifteen of his best soldiers with him to the imperial city. Five samurai and ten ashigaru. Before he’d left his family’s domain at dawn, Kenshin had realized a larger contingent of men would draw more whispers. Elicit further speculation.

He did not want anyone to suspect the truth behind why he’d journeyed to Inako. Though it was unlikely, there was still a small chance not everyone at court knew about the events that had befallen his sister in Jukai forest. When he’d returned home, several of his father’s advisors had informed him it was possible the Black Clan was to blame for plundering Mariko’s convoy and setting fire to her norimono. The notorious band of thieves was known to haunt that section of the woods. Initially Kenshin had thought to seek them out. To feather his soldiers throughout the hills and hunt them down.

But doing so without hesitation almost felt . . . too easy. The Black Clan did not usually attack convoys containing women and children. Assigning them immediate blame felt prearranged. As though someone intended all along for Kenshin to split his forces and lose his footing in a relatively short time. The suggestion reeked of the same elegant misdirection he had grown accustomed to while warring with his sister.

Except that now, the battle was not over a sweet treat. But over lives.

If Kenshin could be certain of anything, he could be certain of this: such machinations had been and always would be the purview of those in power.

First he wanted to hear what the nobles in the imperial city had to say. He hoped the story of the Black Clan had not spread too far. Hoped it remained within the inner circles of Inako and stayed that way for however long it could. At least until Kenshin was able to recover Mariko safe and sound. And before word of their family’s misfortune spread throughout the empire and ruined the Hattori name beyond repair.

Apprehension gripped Kenshin as he rode through the winding streets of the imperial city, his back straight and his features impenetrable. Behind him, mounted samurai and foot soldiers bearing banners emblazoned with the Hattori crest trailed in neat formation.

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