Mariko froze in her saddle, her posture rigid. “That—is a lie.”
“Which part?” Ranmaru blinked.
“You mentioned Yumi.” She sniffed. Deepened her speech to a drone. “The most beautiful girl in the empire.”
At that, the Wolf started to laugh. It began softly, like the rumble of a drum. Then it rose to a steadying rain. It wasn’t a rich kind of laughter. Its sound didn’t fill Mariko’s ears with its honeyed resonance. But it was clear and deep, much like the color of his eyes.
And a part of her couldn’t help but think—were he another boy, in another time, in another place—Mariko would have liked to hear Ōkami’s laughter.
Would have enjoyed being the cause of it.
But he was a member of the Black Clan. The band of mercenaries who had tried to kill her. Who had slaughtered Chiyo and Nobutada.
She hated this boy and all he stood for.
It was dangerous for her to consider anything else, even for a moment.
Mariko grasped her reins tighter. As though she were taking firm hold of herself. “Do I receive any share of the gold?” She looked to Ōkami, her features expectant.
“No.” He didn’t hesitate before responding.
“I saved you money. Shouldn’t I receive at least half of it as a reward?”
“Taking half my money isn’t saving me anything.”
She spurred her horse closer to his. “You thought Ranmaru could embarrass me by talking about love?” A sneer touched the edges of her lips.
“I think it’s remarkably easy to provoke certain reactions from you.”
Mariko flinched. Opened her mouth. Closed it.
Ōkami smiled. “It’s better when you say nothing. That way I don’t have to point out how freely you lie.” He rode on, the rope behind him losing its slack.
Mariko gritted her teeth, willing herself silent. Her nose scrunched as a cart filled with manure passed by. Flies buzzed before her face, and she fended them off with a wave of one hand.
She did not care if Ōkami found her dishonest. She found him dishonorable.
Which was far worse.
In an attempt to drown out her irritation, Mariko pitched her voice louder. “All matters of love make little sense to me anyway. As do most things that cannot be proved as fact.”
“Why is that?” Ranmaru asked.
“Love is—” She shifted in her saddle, fighting to sit taller, to convey a larger sense of self. “It isn’t something that can be understood or explained. It’s intangible. Like magic. Those who do not possess its power can never fully grasp it.”
Ranmaru inclined his head. “That sounds rather sad.”
“And smells like horseshit,” Ōkami said over his shoulder. “Like the words of a boy with a great deal left to learn.”
Once more, Mariko bristled at his judgment. “Only a boy with a great deal left to learn himself would ever think that of someone else.”
“Or one with a great deal of regret,” Ranmaru said softly. Soberly.
Ōkami did not look their way as he spoke. “There is indeed a great deal of regret in my life.” Even from a distance, Mariko saw a shadow descend on his face. For once she thought she might catch a glimpse of vulnerability in the Wolf. She leaned in closer. Waiting. Her breath bated.
If something—anything—made the Black Clan’s champion weak, Mariko desperately wished to know what it was.
Follow orders. Engender trust.
Strike when they least expect it.
“My life has been filled with death and lies and loose women.” Ōkami pushed back a fall of black hair, meeting her gaze. Holding her there. Rapt. “I regret everything else.” He smiled, his hooded, heavy-lidded eyes brimming with mockery.
Truly he was hopeless.
Mariko almost snarled in frustration. She bit down on her cheek to keep silent. To control her need to rebuke. This time Ōkami definitely slowed the pace of his horse to match that of Mariko. He drew alongside her, though he did not glance her way for some time.
“So you don’t believe in silly sentiments like love.” He fixed that same appreciative look on her from before. The one tinged in approval.
It only compelled Mariko’s need to disagree. “I didn’t say that.”
“You said you preferred things that can be proved as fact.”
“I meant that it’s difficult to prove a feeling as fact. But I’ve seen it happen before.”
Mariko had watched Muramasa Amaya—the daughter of her father’s famed metalsmith—fall in love with Kenshin. Foolishly, desperately in love with him. When they were younger, her brother had failed to notice the signs. But Mariko had seen them. In moments when Amaya thought no one was looking, her attention would flit to Kenshin. Linger for a spell. The look Mariko saw there often left her feeling hollow.
Often left her wishing someone would look at her that way. Just once.
“Did it look like magic?” Ōkami asked, his tone circumspect. Mariko expected him to mock her again, but when she turned toward him—bracing herself for his biting scorn—she did not see any evidence of it.
His eyes were clear pools of deep water, hiding nothing. Two black mirrors, drawing her in. Making her question.
A brush of heat danced across her skin.
“It did.” Mariko fought to keep her voice even. “She looked at me as though I were magic.”
Ōkami’s eyes remained constant. A sky without stars.
It was Mariko who turned away first. Only to catch Ranmaru laughing once more.
With a click of his tongue, Ōkami prodded his horse forward, well beyond earshot, the rope between them going taut. Again Mariko fidgeted in her seat, wishing for all the world that she’d changed the subject. That she could turn back time and begin this conversation anew.
“Have you ever loved anyone?” she asked Ranmaru bluntly, pleased to see him startle, if only for a heartbeat.
Serves him right for starting this mess.
Ranmaru hesitated before replying. “Yes.”
“Did it feel like magic?” Irritation bled into each syllable.
“Sometimes it does.” But his smile was not from the heart. “Other times it feels like an endless siege.”
She shot him a quizzical glance.
Ranmaru smiled brighter. As though he were coaxing himself beyond the truth. “I suspect you will understand what I mean soon.” He sat forward again. Cutting off their conversation before it could start. No longer willing to permit Mariko any glimpse into his life.
Despite her growing curiosity, Mariko knew not to press further.
They continued toward the center of Inako. Toward a winding river, covered in layers of drying petals. When they rounded a bend in the road, an arched bridge of dark grey stone emerged before them, its gritty surface stained green with lichen, dripping with moss. Before crossing, the trio tethered their horses to a post and paid a hunched old man to watch their steeds.
Mariko’s eyes passed over the row of horses already under his care.
At first, it all seemed so silly to her. Anyone with the smallest dagger could rob the old man at any time. But the types of horses left in his charge were fine beasts bridled with brightly colored reins. With tassels fringed in gold and silver. Emblazoned with the crests of Inako’s finest families.
Only fools would steal from the most powerful people in the imperial city.
Fools like the Black Clan.
The river before Mariko flowed at a leisurely pace. The lanterns hanging from the balustrades on either side of the bridge swayed brightly. At its end—along the opposite riverfront—a line of dogwoods interspersed with cherry trees shaded everything from view. Kept it hidden. Secret. The scent of jasmine and musk curled its invisible fingers toward them, beckoning them closer. When Mariko followed Ōkami and Ranmaru across the bridge, a shower of pink and white petals caressed her skin before cascading into the water like thick flakes of snow.
She had never seen anything like this before.
Without being told, Mariko knew they were crossing into one of the most fabled districts of the imperial city.
At a distance, the single-storied structure appeared to be nothing more than a teahouse. Mariko, Ōkami, and Ranmaru waited outside a simple gate. Rang a simple, unremarkable bell.
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