Just as she passed Mariko, the maiko leveled a smile at her. A smile that made Mariko think this girl knew the answer to any question ever asked. The maiko’s prowess in the art of flirtation did nothing to hide the calculating intelligence in her painted eyes. If Mariko had had to guess, she’d have said this girl possessed a formidable mind as well. The touch of hardness in her gaze made her appear all the more mysterious.

Every man in the room was entranced. Ōkami watched the maiko float to the other side of the room and nodded once when she looked his way. Ranmaru followed her with his eyes, ready and willing to catch her should she begin to fall, even from across the room. Though Mariko did not miss the glimmer of pain—the undercurrent of unhappiness—that lingered on the leader of the Black Clan’s face as he watched the maiko pass him by without a single glance in his direction.

This must have been what Ranmaru meant earlier. This maiko had to be the source of his endless siege.

And a possible weakness.

Her interest heightened at this realization, but Mariko held her emotions in check. Just as cool and as even as the Wolf.

Once the maiko faced the wall on the opposite side of the tearoom, she stopped. Turned slowly, her movements perfectly timed with the strum of the shamisen. From the pocket of one long sleeve, the maiko removed two folded silk fans. With a quick snap, she opened them, striking a lingering pose, glancing over her shoulder at the rapt audience behind her. As she faced them, the girl twirled one fan around her first finger in a spinning circle, like a delicate windmill. The other she fluttered across the sea of mesmerized faces, wafting the scent of sweet plum and honeysuckle their way.

She continued floating across the mats, coiling and catching her fans in perfect unison with the rise and fall of the music. Though Mariko did not see anything sensual about the dance, she nevertheless felt titillated at its sight.

Something about it seemed forbidden. Illicit.

Mariko knew she’d been granted a remarkable opportunity. How many noblewomen before her had been inside a teahouse in Hanami? Had witnessed firsthand the famed art of the geiko—an art that had been carefully controlled and kept secret from her kind for so many centuries.

The experience opened Mariko’s mind to several new considerations.

This girl could not be older than her own seventeen years. Briefly she wondered if the maiko had had a choice in her future. Or if—like Mariko—the choice had been made for her by another. A sister. A father. A mother. An aunt. But for a twist of fate, this girl could have been Mariko. And Mariko could have been her.

Something about the maiko’s performance struck Mariko in the way willow trees often did. So profoundly beautiful. Yet hauntingly sad.

A smattering of applause rang through the room when the maiko finished her fan dance. She bowed, then swished in their direction. Again the beautiful girl ignored Ranmaru, sweeping past him almost coldly. Ignoring the flash of hurt that rippled across his face. Then the maiko fired another winsome smile at Mariko before settling beside Ōkami.

Was this girl the one Ōkami visited every other day in Inako? Would Ōkami knowingly conduct an affair with the girl of Ranmaru’s heart? Even for the Wolf, this seemed needlessly cruel. Not to mention a waste of time and money and energy.

When the lovely maiko leaned toward Ōkami’s ear—brushing the snowy petals of her hairpiece across his angled jaw—a faintly unsettling sensation took hold of Mariko’s stomach. She questioned it for an instant, and annoyance quickly rose in its place.

She was not angry at the maiko. The mere thought was ridiculous. Whether or not the girl took advantage of Ōkami and Ranmaru—spending the former’s coin and breaking the latter’s heart—was not Mariko’s concern.

Unless of course she could use either to her advantage.

Mariko conceded that perhaps a part of her was merely annoyed by the way the girl manipulated one boy to cause another boy pain. Chiyo had often gossiped about servant girls who behaved in such a manner, and Mariko had never liked it.

But why should she care what these idiot boys did with their time and their money?

The sake was clearly taking root in her head.

“Ōkami-sama,” the maiko said, her voice a perfect mixture of shy and coy. “Thank you for coming to see me tonight.” Her exquisite eyes slid toward Ranmaru with absolute intention. Then her gaze hardened once more, if only for an instant.

Another ripple of exasperation shot down Mariko’s spine. The maiko knowingly played with fire. Knowingly toyed with Ranmaru’s feelings.

But to what end?

And was there a way Mariko could leverage the girl’s end to achieve her own goals?

The maiko inclined her head—drawing even closer to Ōkami—and continued whispering in his ear. After a time, he nodded indulgently, and the girl smiled. She drew up one kimono sleeve to pour him a cup of hot tea, each of her movements like liquid smoke.

The more time transpired, the more it became apparent: irrespective of the maiko’s ulterior motives with regard to Ranmaru, she and Ōkami shared an obvious connection. Their conversation was hushed. Intimate. Not once did an awkward moment pass between the two. Ōkami never needed to ask for anything. The maiko anticipated his every wish, all while gazing at him with perfect trust.

The sight faintly disgusted Mariko. Was this how every young woman appeared in the company of handsome young men? How ridiculous. No wonder young men craved spending time in places like Hanami. Mariko would have wagered everything she had that this maiko was the reason Ōkami traveled so often to Inako.

A lock clicked open in Mariko’s mind.

Perhaps this girl was also the one connecting the Black Clan to its employers. Providing the mercenaries entry to the imperial city’s many secrets. Geiko were famous for keeping and disseminating some of the most valuable information amongst the nobility. Their unfettered access to men of power often gave them advantage in matters of state.

Perhaps this girl had the answers Mariko so desperately sought.

The maiko unfolded to her feet in a whisper of silk. As she passed Ranmaru, he began to stand.

“Yumi,” he said softly, “please . . .”

The girl shot a biting glare at the leader of the Black Clan before quitting the tearoom entirely.

As Ranmaru fidgeted beside him—his features marked by distress—Ōkami finished his tea in silence. The only comfort he offered his friend was to pour him another cup of sake. Then Ōkami stood, following the path the maiko Yumi had taken not long before.

Once Ōkami took his leave, Mariko debated how best to proceed, her mind a tangle of thoughts. It was clear Ranmaru and Ōkami were in love with the same girl. Strangely this conflict had yet to seed any obvious enmity in their friendship. The only reason Mariko could gather for this was that Yumi served a far more important purpose.

The unlocked door in Mariko’s mind swung open.

Yumi had to be someone of great significance to the Black Clan.

In that moment, Mariko was gripped by the need to know what purpose the girl served. The need to know anything and everything about the maiko.

This undeniable weakness.

Awareness forcing her to take action, Mariko tossed back a final cup of sake, then decided to take advantage of Ranmaru’s distressed state of mind. She stammered as she asked one of the attendants to direct her to a place where she could relieve herself. Once Mariko left the tearoom, she made her way down a connecting corridor toward an enclosed courtyard with an elegantly raked footpath and a tiny brook snaking through its center. She whipped around the next corner before crashing to a halt.

Across the courtyard, Ōkami and Yumi stood swathed in shadow beneath a low-hanging eave. They spoke in subdued tones, the maiko within embracing distance of the Wolf. Mariko’s breath drew short when she saw the expression on Ōkami’s face as he listened to the beautiful girl speak.

It was an expression of warmth. Understanding. Compassion.

Undeniably of love.

The Wolf wore the look well. Surprisingly well, considering his earlier disdain for the sentiment. Had she not seen it with her own eyes, Mariko would never have believed it. In contrast, Yumi appeared strangely conflicted. Her shoulders sagged, and Mariko saw the girl’s fingers grip her silken sleeves.

When Yumi’s head fell forward—some invisible weight taking its toll—Ōkami took her in his arms, pulling her close.

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