As soon as Ōkami came within range, Mariko swung the lantern into his path, intent on catching him off guard. She hoped that—with the sliver of time this small distraction bought her—she would have a moment to clamber off the rooftop unnoticed and quietly inform Ōkami of the teahouse’s most recent arrivals.

She could, of course, simply say something. Simply shout down at him from her perch. But if Mariko could help it, she did not wish for Ōkami to know she’d been spying on him. And she could not risk Kenshin hearing her. Or worse, seeing her.

So she was left with nothing but a lantern.

Unfortunately Mariko miscalculated two things when she boldly swung the lantern at the Wolf:

The surprising weight of metal suspended from a chain.

And the quickness of the Wolf’s reflexes.

As soon as he heard the grate of swinging metal from above, Ōkami shoved Yumi away and looked up in the same motion.

The maiko screamed as the rogue lantern struck the Wolf hard in the face, causing him to topple over the railing into the burbling brook. Orange-and-white koi darted in every direction as the splash resounded through the courtyard, drawing the attention of everyone within earshot.

Mariko blinked, her eyes and mouth forming perfect ovals. Ōkami swiped the hair from his face and immediately leveled a look of pure hatred up at her.

As though he’d known where she was all along.

That did not exactly go as planned.

Yumi stared down at Ōkami’s drenched body, one hand covering her perfectly painted lips.

At the gate’s entrance, Mariko’s brother stepped from beneath the overhang outside the teahouse’s sliding doors, drawn by Yumi’s bell-like scream and the sound of splashing water. Minamoto Raiden wandered from the shadows, following in Kenshin’s footsteps.

Mariko ducked lower, hiding herself from any eyes that might think to drift upward.

Hoping Ōkami would not draw attention to her.

Praying for a miracle.

When the Wolf stood suddenly—recrimination in his dark eyes, water sloshing from his fine clothes—Mariko cut him off with a sharp look, before he could begin yelling. Then she jerked a thumb over her shoulder, as though that offered a sufficient explanation. As though it offered her a valid reason to swing a metal box at his head. Ōkami peered over the connecting walkway leading toward the main tearoom, toward the row of richly clad figures now proceeding in their direction. Though his fury remained intact, he narrowed his eyes. In less than an instant, understanding settled across his features.

From where it had fallen beside him, Ōkami reached for the chain of the lantern Mariko had swung. Then he whistled once, the sound like that of a waterbird.

Again the terror gripped Mariko’s throat, catching her voice in a vise.

Each second brought her brother a step closer. If Kenshin had trailed her this far—trailed Mariko all the way from Jukai forest to the imperial city—her brother likely suspected the Black Clan of kidnapping her. Did he know the identity of the exiled boy who led this band of mercenaries?

Would he recognize Ōkami or Takeda Ranmaru?

Mariko kept to the edge of the roof, her pulse roaring in her ears.

She felt powerless. Helpless. Her blood surged on, ignited by fear.

Kenshin and his companions rounded the corner beneath where Mariko crouched. Soon they would see Ōkami. Be within striking distance. The Wolf did not look perturbed at this. Nor did he attempt to flee. He merely motioned for Yumi to leave. Then he vaulted the balustrade, trailing an arc of crystalline water behind him.

Her fingers shook. Mariko could not be certain what the Wolf intended to do. But it was obvious he meant to stand his ground, even against imperial guards. Even against the celebrated might of the finest member of the yabusame.

The Wolf’s eyes were locked on the advancing party.

Locked on the Dragon of Kai.

An icy chill brushed across Mariko’s skin.

Ōkami must recognize the Hattori crest on Kenshin’s garments.

Which meant he had to know the reasons Hattori Kenshin had trailed him here. Because the Black Clan was guilty of trying to murder his sister. Guilty of attacking her convoy.

Guilty of everything, as Mariko had always suspected.

And now Ōkami intended to face Hattori Kenshin. Intended to finish it, once and for all.

In that instant Mariko knew—beyond the shadow of a doubt—

No amount of information was worth her brother’s life.

She removed the throwing star from her sleeve. Positioned it between her fingers. Mariko would kill Ōkami if he so much as reached for a sword. If his hand so much as twitched in suggestion. As she raised the throwing star into the light, a blur of motion erupted from the patch of darkness at the end of the walkway. A shadow crossed the beams, its steps soundless, its features masked.

A silver blade sliced through the air.

And Mariko’s scream echoed through the night.

AN HONEST EXCHANGE

Everything happened all at once. Before Ōkami had a chance to attack, the moonlit blade arced from the shadows again. It barely missed Kenshin’s head as he dodged the blow with uncanny reflexes, whipping his katana from its scabbard in a sinuous motion.

Mariko stifled a gasp when the same figure darted into the light of a nearby lantern. Though it was only a moment—and though a black mask concealed the lower portion of his face—she recognized the warrior’s clothes.

Ranmaru.

The leader of the Black Clan avoided Kenshin’s parrying blow, then made to sidestep him entirely. As though he had no intention to engage her brother, but meant to disable him. With clear designs on the warrior at Kenshin’s back.

Minamoto Raiden. Mariko’s betrothed.

At that, Raiden unsheathed a gleaming katana, then shoved his younger brother back before barking for the four imperial guards already swarming in their direction.

Ōkami engaged Raiden the instant Mariko’s betrothed brandished his sword. A black mask now obscured the Wolf’s face as well, though his weapon was still nothing more than a copper lantern swinging from its slender chain.

The imperial guards raced down the walkway, and the hiss of swords being torn from their scabbards reverberated on all sides. Ranmaru attacked the first of the imperial guards. The two guards in the back had already taken hold of the crown prince, leading him away from the fray.

When a low hum began to collect in the air, Mariko’s eyes cut to Ōkami.

The lines of his body had begun to blur. To ripple into unchecked motion.

No.

Mariko flung the throwing star into the melee, watching it spin toward Ōkami’s back. It dug into one of his shoulder blades, and he yelled once—more from fury than from pain—as the tremors across his body only intensified. Ranmaru parried another blow from Kenshin, fighting to make his way to his injured friend’s side.

“Get out of here,” Ōkami said to Ranmaru as he ripped the throwing star from his back. “Now!”

Ranmaru hesitated.

“Now!” Ōkami repeated, his voice hoarse, his bloodied fingers grasping the long lantern chain, intent on using it as a weapon.

With an unmistakable expression of guilt, the leader of the Black Clan disappeared, melting into the darkness like smoke into the night sky.

Mariko saw the exact moment Kenshin realized an opportunity. With deadly resolve, her brother shoved aside one of the remaining imperial guards and charged Ōkami.

The low hum in the air spiked to a feverish pitch. And Ōkami became a blur of movement, striking out at anything he could see, his lantern swinging in perfect circles.

Without hesitation, Mariko launched herself from the edge of the rooftop, directly onto her brother. Trying to shield him. He fought her off, twisting in midair as they lost balance and toppled to the wooden walkway.

Kenshin’s head struck the edge of a pillar. His body slumped forward, motionless. Mariko’s icy, trembling fingers flew to his mouth, checking for breath. A sigh escaped her lips when she realized her brother had only been knocked unconscious.

Before Mariko could do anything else, she was grabbed by the waist and hurled into darkness, the night breeze whipping across her face as she flew away from the scene, borne on a wicked wind.

Mariko was flung against a plaster wall.

As soon as she caught a lungful of air, she realized they were behind the teahouse. Ōkami had grabbed her and run, faster than a shock of lightning. He must have taken a hidden exit to get them to the other side of the compound so quickly.

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