Offering her comfort.

Another pang of annoyance cut through Mariko, just beneath her heart.

She could not understand what Ōkami saw in this girl, beyond the embarrassingly obvious. Frankly Mariko expected better of him. It was unwise of him to flaunt his affections in such a manner. Earlier he’d claimed to appreciate Mariko’s stance on love. Claimed to understand her position on emotions in general.

This entire display was foolish. A waste of his time, especially on a girl who was a potential source of conflict with Ranmaru.

Mariko pursed her lips. It did not matter if Ōkami and Ranmaru were at odds with each other. Indeed it might be better if they were, for her purposes.

With a roll of her shoulders, she pressed into the shadows, trying to determine a way to move within earshot of Ōkami and Yumi. She recalled what she and Kenshin had done as children when they’d wished to spy on their elders. They’d licked a finger and pressed it to one of the rice-paper screens, forming a tiny hole through which to eavesdrop. But of course the screens in this teahouse were fashioned of silk. As if its builders realized the need for utmost discretion in all corners of Hanami.

With no obvious way to intrude at hand, Mariko looked upward. The low-hanging eave on this end of the courtyard was within reach. She could grab hold of it and shimmy along the roofline. If she could get close enough, Mariko might be able to hear all that passed between Ōkami and Yumi.

Mariko studied the intricately formed copper lanterns dangling at intervals along every wooden eave. They mirrored the lanterns along the exterior of the main teahouse, only these were smaller. Some were not yet lit, for it seemed the proprietors of the teahouse believed the silver light of the full moon was more than enough to illumine its inner courtyard, despite the fleece of clouds gathering above.

She braced a foot along a support beam and clambered onto the tiled roof, her movements masked by the steady din from below. Once Mariko settled in place, she considered standing, but realized the tabi socks on her feet would not provide the necessary traction to move about freely. So instead she crawled like a spider across the curved roof tiles, keeping her head low.

When she glanced over the ridge at the crest of the roofline, Mariko almost slid from her perch, her pulse on a sudden rampage.

It’s not possible.

There—standing by the waterfalls near the entrance of the finest teahouse in Hanami—stood a face to mirror her own. A face Mariko had been raised alongside. A face she understood as no one else ever could.

Hattori Kenshin.

The Dragon of Kai had finally found her.

THE SWINGING LANTERN

Mariko thought quickly, her mind ablaze.

What is Kenshin doing here?

It was possible her brother had tracked her to Inako. Though it did seem highly unlikely anyone could follow her bizarre trail through a mountainous forest, back to the imperial city. But if there was even a remote possibility, Mariko knew Kenshin would be the one to do it. Which meant it was also possible he knew the Black Clan was responsible for the attack on her convoy.

Now Mariko was met with the consequences.

Impossibly, here her brother stood.

Kenshin waited beside the blue lagoon as his two hooded companions spoke to the attendants at the gate. Even from a distance, Mariko could see the concern on his face.

The deep-seated worry.

She scrambled to make sense of it all. Scrambled to form a plan.

However Kenshin had managed to track her here, Mariko could not allow him to find her. She’d risked too much to get this far.

I am not ready to cede control. Not yet.

Nor am I ready to go back home.

Her brother had not arrived at the teahouse alone. Two other nobles had entered the gates with him. Ones from an extremely wealthy family, judging by their clothing. The way several other attendants materialized from the shadows to assist their every need only further proved the point.

When four members of the imperial guard stepped beneath the glow of the lanterns to their right, Mariko’s heart crashed into her stomach: the two young men accompanying Kenshin were from the inner ranks of the imperial court. Possibly even members of the royal family itself. Mariko searched for signs of their crests. Tried to see past their resplendent cloaks.

Was it possible one of these hooded men was her betrothed, Minamoto Raiden?

Mariko swallowed, her nerves wound tight, her pulse trilling through her veins.

If her brother and his royal companions found Mariko here—in the company of the empire’s most notorious thieves, scrambling on the rooftop of Hanami’s most fashionable teahouse—the ensuing scene could prove disastrous.

It would undermine all her plans. Undermine her wish to spare her family any embarrassment and prove her worth beyond the marriage market. Undermine her chance to discover who had plotted to murder her.

Not to mention the scandal that would unfold when it was revealed that Minamoto Raiden’s bride-to-be had disappeared only to reemerge . . .

Dressed as a boy.

Lastly Mariko did not even want to consider what might happen if a fight were to occur between Kenshin and any member of the Black Clan.

Much less with Ōkami.

Mariko shuddered as she contemplated the possibility. Kenshin was the finest samurai she’d ever known. But not a single warrior she knew moved like the Wolf.

No. Mariko could never allow the two to cross paths.

As her panic continued to rise, the taller of Kenshin’s companions lowered the hood of his cloak. Even from her perch along the roofline, Mariko saw the silver crest stamped into the hood’s silken inlay.

A trio of gentian flowers and a sprig of bamboo leaves.

The crest of the Minamoto clan.

Her terror spiked in a white-hot flash. In an uncontrollable plume.

She’d never seen Minamoto Raiden before. But she knew from past accounts that he was tall. A gifted member of the yabusame. Chiyo had all but swooned when Mariko’s betrothal had been made official.

Even without proof, Mariko could easily surmise that her brother’s taller, broader companion was likely her betrothed. Which meant that . . .

The slighter companion. The reedier boy still cloaked and shielded by imperial guards.

Mariko’s body went numb, as though a wintry gale had blown across the rooftop.

The crown prince of Wa.

Takeda Ranmaru had been exiled by Minamoto Masaru. Though Ranmaru had not specifically said the emperor’s name that night by the jubokko, Mariko was not a fool. Ōkami and Ranmaru believed their fathers had been betrayed and murdered by the emperor.

Nothing good could come of their sons meeting by chance in a teahouse deep within Hanami on a dark summer night.

Consumed with worry, Mariko watched from her perch as Kenshin rinsed his hands in the same basin she’d used a few hours ago. Watched as he waited to enter the same teahouse. It was now impossible to return to her place in the main room. If Kenshin saw her, he would recognize her before she could swallow her next breath.

Panic took hold when Mariko realized that Ōkami was doubling back toward the teahouse, with Yumi at his side. Which meant his path would soon cross that of her brother. If Ōkami returned and discovered Mariko missing, he would undoubtedly ask Ranmaru where she had gone. The two would begin making inquiries. They would learn she had not simply disappeared to relieve herself.

And her brother would hear everything.

Without knowing exactly what information Kenshin already possessed, it was leaving too much to chance.

Mariko had to get the Black Clan to leave the teahouse with her in tow. Before Kenshin caught wind of anything that might be afoot. Because if the Dragon of Kai was here to find her, he would find her. Her brother would not give up until he did.

And she could not allow that to happen.

Not yet.

The way she saw it, Mariko had two immediate options:

She could either attempt to distract her brother by creating a commotion in his vicinity—perhaps by flinging the single throwing star she’d pilfered from Haruki—or she could create a diversion around Ōkami, away from the main tearoom. The kind of diversion that would grant them a chance to summon Ranmaru to their side, so they could all escape without being seen.

When faced with the decision to possibly threaten her brother—and coincidentally the crown prince of Wa—or Ōkami, Mariko’s choice was easy. She grabbed the chain of an unlit copper lantern behind her. Hauled it onto the roof. Took careful aim.

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