A cultivated whisper, belying his earlier disinterest.

Following this admonition, the crown prince took hold of his right sleeve and dipped his brush in ink once more, positioning the bristles above the washi paper at a perfect angle. “Perhaps it would be nice to share some tea with us later, Kenshin-sama,” he said, his voice as mild as before. Filled with that same feigned lack of interest.

But spoken in a tenor meant to be overheard. Meant to be interpreted by attending servants and chance observers alike.

In his zeal to learn the truth, Kenshin had almost forgotten.

Inako was—first and foremost—a city of secrets. Ones to be stolen and sold off to the highest bidder at first chance.

Nodding in understanding, Raiden stood swiftly. “Will you be our guest this evening, Kenshin-sama?”

Kenshin was not fool enough to question the conversation’s rapid change in course. He may not be well versed in recognizing emotion, but he was the Dragon of Kai, and he knew the sharp tang of fresh blood. Of a path to be followed. Quietly. Carefully.

“I would be honored, my lord,” Kenshin said. “Where is it you wish to go?”

Raiden grinned, and the sight greatly reminded Kenshin of a snarling bear. His voice dropped until it became more breath than sound.

“The finest teahouse in Hanami.”

HANAMI

Mariko had been to Inako once, when she was younger.

As a girl.

As a boy, the sights of the imperial city were entirely different. And it was not merely because a blindfold had been torn from her eyes only moments before.

Everything seemed crisper. Colors seemed more alive. Scents flooded her nostrils, and sights flashed across her vision—marinated squid sizzling over an open flame, vividly dyed paper lanterns strung above bolts of lustrous silk, displays of painted fans and freshly sliced persimmons, creamy bean curd floating in barrels of cold water. She smelled and tasted everything in the air with the abandon of a girl in a fevered dream.

Mariko felt free. Freer than she could remember feeling in quite some time.

Her current situation notwithstanding.

At least in Inako there’s little chance of me being snared by a blood-draining tree. Or being pelted by sharp rocks.

Ranmaru studied her. Caught her grinning with open glee. “Is this your first visit to the imperial city?”

Mariko thought quickly. “Yes.” Her answer more easily explained how enthralled she was. It also helped circumvent any further inquiries about her past. The Black Clan had been blessedly uninterested in who she was before she came to the forest, and Mariko wished to keep it that way for as long as she could.

“Try not to appear so green once we arrive at the teahouse,” Ōkami said from his perch atop his warhorse to her right.

Mariko wrapped her fingers tightly around her reins, struggling to bite her tongue. To ignore the rope trailing from Ōkami’s horse to hers, keeping her tethered to the Wolf’s side.

At her left, Ranmaru laughed, his brown eyes sparkling. “Or when you first set eyes on Yumi, the most beautiful girl in the empire.”

“I doubt Lord Lackbeard has ever seen a geiko before in his life,” Ōkami said. “Much less been with a beautiful girl.” Even as he provoked her, Ōkami maintained a cool affect. One of careful indifference.

A geiko?

So they were not traveling to a mere house of ill repute, as she’d initially surmised. A geiko would never set foot in such a den of iniquity.

Regardless Mariko kept silent. Stewing in unspoken reprisals.

Ranmaru’s brows arched. “Tell us, Lord Lackbeard. Are you indeed untried?”

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Of all the questions for Ranmaru to ask, of course he would choose that one. Men left to their own devices were so sadly predictable. “I am not untried. I have been with . . . many women.” Her words were half true, at least. She was no longer a maid. Though the one and only occasion had not involved another girl.

It had involved rebellion.

Mariko recalled the face of the young stable boy fated to accompany his master to her father’s province one spring morning not so long ago. She remembered the boy’s kind smile. His enthusiasm. His obliviousness.

It was his smile that had drawn Mariko to him. Drawn him into a sun-drenched hayloft to while away a moment in her embrace.

He’d been kind. Gentle.

Only hours later had a horrible realization shaken Mariko to her core. Her actions that afternoon could have resulted in this kind and gentle boy’s death. Not once—not in the entire time they’d spent lazing about in the fragrant hay—had she paused to consider what might happen to the boy if they were caught. Her anger with her parents had been too sharp. Her wish for control far too blinding.

She considered Ōkami’s words from a fortnight past:

Anger is an emotion that poisons all else.

Even in Mariko’s thoughts, it did not sit well to admit the Wolf might be right about something.

The morning of her undoing, she’d dressed in the clothing of a peasant. In this disguise, Mariko had seduced the stable boy. Given him the gift her parents had recently traded for the emperor’s favor. The gift her parents had calculatingly sold.

Despite the risks, not once had Mariko regretted her decision, though the act itself was awkward. Not unpleasant, but definitely not worth the fuss. And absolutely not worth ceding control.

But it had been Mariko’s first time, and—for that one time only—she’d wanted her body to be her own. The decision to be hers and hers alone. Her body was not for sale. It did not belong to her parents to sell to the highest bidder. Nor did it belong to Minamoto Raiden or to any other man.

She remembered Chiyo telling her that finding one’s match was like finding one’s other half. Mariko had never understood the notion.

She was not a half. She was wholly her own.

A hand waved before her face. When Mariko’s vision cleared, Ranmaru’s features came into focus as he attempted to draw her back into the present.

“What were you thinking about just now?” the leader of the Black Clan asked. “You disappeared.” Though his words were nonchalant, his look was as sharp as a razor.

“Family,” she said smoothly. “And entitlement.”

Ahead of them, Mariko thought she saw Ōkami slow his horse. But he did not look back. Nor did he lean toward their conversation. It was possible she had imagined him easing up on his pace.

Ranmaru continued studying her sidelong. “Interesting that you link the two together.”

“I don’t find it interesting at all. Family can entitle you to many things. It can also feel entitled to much from you in return.”

“Is that why you ran away from yours?”

Mariko swallowed. She’d known all along she could not escape answering questions about her past. Men like Ranmaru—even ones as young as he, with such ready charm—did not rise to positions of power on blind faith alone.

A simple lie—threaded from truth—could be Mariko’s best answer. “My father arranged for me to marry. I wished to do otherwise. When we could not come to an agreement on the matter, I left.” She kept her explanation unembellished. Abrupt.

“You wished to marry someone else?”

“No.”

“So then you are not one of those poor fools enamored by the idea of love?” he teased.

She scowled. “Certainly not.” At least in this, a lie was unnecessary.

“You don’t believe your great love is out there, simply waiting to be found?”

“Do you?” Mariko pitched her voice low. Graveled with disbelief.

Ranmaru’s broad lips spread into an easy smile. “I believe the stars align so that souls can find one another. Whether they are meant to be souls in love or souls in life remains to be seen.”

Mariko found herself momentarily at a loss. It was . . . a lovely sentiment. Were she dressed in the fine silks of a young girl, she would have felt her gaze soften. Her cheeks grow pink.

Beautiful words were beautiful words, even to the most practical of minds.

Instead Mariko focused on the worn fabric of her reins. Coughed with undisguised discomfort.

“There,” Ranmaru pronounced, his tone one of supreme self-satisfaction. “I’ve managed to embarrass Lord Lackbeard simply by talking about love. And not once did I mention anything about women.” He turned toward Ōkami, his palm outstretched. “You owe me five ryō.”

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