The sounds of movement outside brought her back into focus. Her right hand pressed into a tender lump on the side of her head. She gasped into full awareness, the sound a strangled sob. Her arm pulsed sharply, even with the smallest of movements.
Mariko shook her head clear. And looked around.
From the way Chiyo was positioned across her—and from the way Mariko’s lacquered zori sandals had fallen from the maidservant’s hands—it was clear the girl had tried to free Mariko from the wrecked litter. Tried to free her and died in the attempt. Blood was everywhere. Splashed across the shining inlays. Spilling from the nasty gash in Mariko’s head. Pooling from the fatal wound in Chiyo’s heart. An arrow had pierced clean through the small girl’s breastbone; its tip dug into the skin of Mariko’s forearm, a trickle of crimson in its wake.
Several arrowheads were embedded in the wood of the norimono. Several more were fixed at odd angles across Chiyo’s body. Arrows that could not have been meant to kill a kind maidservant. And had it not been for this kind maidservant, these arrows would undoubtedly have struck Mariko.
Mariko’s eyes brimmed with more tears as she clutched Chiyo tight.
Thank you, Chiyo-chan. Sumimasen.
Blinking away her tears, Mariko tried to shift her head. Tried to seek her bearings. The ache near her temple throbbed, keeping time with the rapid beat of her heart.
Just as Mariko began to move, a rumble of male voices drew near. She peeked through a break in the mangled screen above. All she could discern were two men dressed in black from head to toe. Their weapons shone bright in the light of nearby torches, their blades oiled a sinister red.
It can’t be . . .
But the evidence was irrefutable. The Black Clan had overrun her convoy.
Mariko held her breath, wincing into the corner as they moved closer to the litter.
“She’s dead, then?” the tallest one said in gruff fashion.
The masked man to the right considered the overturned litter, his head cocked to one side. “Either that or she passed out from the—”
A howl in the distance swallowed the last of their conversation.
The men eyed each other. Knowingly.
“Check once more,” the first man said. “I’d rather not be forced to report we failed in our mission.”
The second man gave a curt nod and moved toward the litter, his torch held high.
Panic took hold of Mariko. She clenched her rattling teeth still.
Two things had become clear as these masked men spoke:
The Black Clan obviously wanted Mariko dead. And someone had tasked them with killing her.
Mariko changed position, ever so slightly, as though it might conceal her from their prying gazes. As though it might shrink her into nothingness. Chiyo’s head slumped forward, thwacking against the battered wood of the norimono. Mariko bit back an oath, cursing her thoughtlessness. She inhaled through her nose, willing her heart to cease its incessant pounding.
Why did it suddenly smell so strongly of smoke?
Mariko’s eyes darted around in alarm. The edges of Chiyo’s bloodstained robe were blackening. Brushing against the crumbled wick of Mariko’s tiny lantern.
It took all her restraint to remain quiet and still.
Terror pressed in on her from all sides. Pressed her to make a final decision.
If Mariko lingered, she would be burned alive. If she moved from her hiding place, the masked men outside would undoubtedly finish their dark task.
Flames licked the hem of the maidservant’s robe, grasping for Mariko’s kimono like the tentacles of an octopus.
Her panic rising, Mariko shifted once more, stifling a cough in her shoulder.
It was time to make a decision.
How am I to die today? By fire or by the sword?
The advancing man halted a hairsbreadth away. “The litter is on fire.”
“Then let it burn.” The taller man did not flinch. Nor did he look their way.
“We should leave.” The man just outside glanced over his shoulder. “Before the scent of blood and singed flesh draws the nightbeasts.” He was near enough to touch. Near enough to strike, had Mariko the courage.
The taller man nodded. “We shall leave soon enough. But not before you check to make sure the girl is dead.”
The mournful baying grew louder. Closer. Hemming them in.
When the man nearby reached for the mangled screens, one of the norimono’s damaged poles split in two. The broken wood struck his arm, sending a flurry of sparks every which way.
Leaping back, he cursed under his breath. “The girl is as good as dead.” The man spoke more forcefully, his torch whipping about in the wind. Heat from the mounting fire sent sweat down Mariko’s neck in steady trickles. The growing blaze near her feet crackled as it seared Chiyo’s skin.
Mariko’s stomach lurched at the smell. Sweat poured onto her stiff white collar.
Make a decision, Hattori Mariko! How do you wish to die?
Her teeth chattered. With a forceful swallow, Mariko dug her fingernails into her palms, her eyes flitting about the small, shattered space. Bravery did not come to her naturally. She spent too much time weighing her options to be brave. Too much time calculating the many paths before her.
But Mariko knew it was time to do more. Time to be more.
She would not die a coward. Mariko was the daughter of a samurai. The sister of the Dragon of Kai.
But more than that, she still held power over her decisions.
For at least this one last day.
She would face her enemy. And die with honor.
Her sight blurring from the thickening smoke, Mariko pushed Chiyo aside, her hands trembling despite her best efforts.
A shout rang out in the darkness. The man near the norimono twisted around at its cracking toll.
The cries were followed by the snarl of an animal. The growl of several more.
Another shriek. The echo of a death knell. With it came the cries of feasting animals.
“The nightbeasts!” The man with the torch pivoted again, his flame leaping with his motions. “They’re attacking our flank!”
“Check the girl,” the first man insisted. “The girl is more important than—”
“The prince’s bride is as good as dead!” With that, he threw his torch on top of Mariko’s norimono, whirling away as he sealed her fate. “Collect our fallen. Leave nothing behind,” he yelled to men she could not see.
Mariko bit back a scream as clanking metal and rustling bodies converged in the nearby shadows. Chaos grew with each passing moment. The flames in the norimono leapt higher. Faster. Their heat turned her skin pink. She clasped her fingers tight, smothering her coughs as she shrank farther into the corner. Tears streamed down her face, leaching her of all resolve.
The torch above crackled to fire against the varnished wood of the norimono.
It wouldn’t be long before Mariko would burn along with it. The lacquered tinder around her popped and fizzed, the melted resin burning into blue flame.
A shuddering breath flew past her lips.
I am not a coward. I am . . . greater than this.
Her tears stained the front of her kimono silk. She refused to die like an animal locked in a cage. Like a girl with nothing save her name.
Better to die by the sword. Better to die at the mercy of the nightbeasts.
To die in the night air. Free.
Her pulse trilling in her fingertips, Mariko shoved Chiyo’s body away in final decision. She kicked open the norimono’s door. One glossy sandal fell as she struggled to heave herself through, gulping air to quench the burn in her throat. Mariko reeled from the ruins, her eyes wild as she glanced about, frantic.
The forest was full dark.
And her kimono was on fire.
Her mind worked quickly. Instinctively. Mariko wrapped the silken material around itself, robbing the fire of the air it needed to burn. Her wrist seared beneath the kimono’s folds, smoke curling from the watered silk in grey wisps. With a rasping cry, Mariko tore at her obi, cursing the way it had been wound about her waist. So intricate. So unnecessary. Stumbling through the underbrush, she ripped the beautiful kimono from her shoulders, lurching away from the burning norimono like a drunken fool.
Her eyes sought the darkness for any beacon of light. All she could see was her litter, engulfed in flames. Her kimono smoldered against the forest floor.
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