The Wolf shoved his forearm beneath Mariko’s throat, the sleeve of his elegant haori still damp from his recent swim.

“What are you doing, Sanada Takeo?” he demanded, his chest heaving. Anger flooded his voice. Corded the muscles in his neck. “Are you trying to kill me?” She could feel him shaking even now.

Her pulse jumped to a martial beat. Mariko thought quickly. “No! I was trying to save you, and I misjudged—”

“Don’t lie to me.” His fingers curled into the collar of her kosode, yanking her close, the hum still rolling off his skin. “No more lies, Sanada Takeo.” Above his mask, his eyes flashed like obsidian. Two stones of fathomless black, cut from molten fire.

“I’m not lying,” she whispered around the knot in her throat.

“This night only, speak the truth.” A light spring rain began to mist around them. His hands moved to either side of her head, caging her between his arms, the veins there tensing in silent threat.

“Only if”—she swallowed—“only if you agree to do the same. The price of my truth is your own.”

Ōkami’s tone descended into lethal quiet. “You’re still trying to negotiate.”

Her heart flew into her throat, its beat crashing through her ears. “I have the answers you seek.” Mariko steeled herself, the rain turning into a steady trickle. “Take off your mask, and I’ll take off mine.”

His lips twitched. Then—without warning—he gripped her throat once more, the pressure light, but unyielding. “That’s the problem with wearing a mask.” He flexed his fingers, pressing her into the plaster wall. “It can be torn off at any time.”

Mariko wanted to fight back, but she kept her body still. Her hands clamped around his wrist. If the Wolf wished to see her struggle—as predators so often did—she refused to give him the satisfaction. When she looked into his hooded, starless gaze, she failed to see a trace of the sleepy-eyed degenerate she’d first met that night beside the watering hole.

Instead she found something infinitely more. Of everything.

Yet she no longer felt any fear. In its place she felt nothing but strength.

“I’m not afraid of you.” Mariko removed her fingers from around his wrist.

And tore the black mask from his face.

“Good,” he said softly. He began to smile, leveling a cool look at her. “An honest exchange.”

Mariko blinked. “What?” Confusion stole the breath from her body.

He whispered through the driving rain. “I still owe you an injury, Sanada Takeo.”

With that, Ōkami released her.

Only when her feet fell flush with the worn cobbles of the empty alleyway did she realize Ōkami had suspended her in midair. Mariko knew she should have felt afraid when faced with such ruthlessness. Such control. Yet strangely she still did not feel fearful.

She felt powerful.

Powerful to have met his black gaze with one of her own.

“Stay close. If you try to run, I will wring your scrawny neck,” Ōkami warned as he whirled into the darkness. Mariko followed him as he crossed another winding alleyway. Then another. Two more before they emerged onto the main thoroughfare of Hanami. Then Ōkami whipped off his blue kimono jacket, turning it inside out to reveal a haori of rich brown silk. A color to mask the blood of the wound on his back, at least from a distance. He removed the black cord from around his waist and handed it to Mariko.

In the same stilted silence, she reversed her jacket and altered her own appearance.

For a time, they proceeded through the rain-slicked streets, pausing only to steal new pairs of sandals. Then they made their way toward a dilapidated bridge. Toward a section of town where the scents were raw, the people distinctly more ragged. A section starkly different from Hanami. Many of the windows were littered with holes. The stench of fetid water and flowing sewage twisted through the night air. It seeped down the open conduits before carving through the center of the streets.

Though Mariko desperately wanted to ask Ōkami where they were now going—where Ranmaru had gone—she knew better than to press him. He did not often show anger or emotion of any kind. And he was not prone to fits of rage. In the past she’d always found him to be uninterested in almost everything.

But it was clear he’d been furious with her beside the teahouse, if only for a moment. Furious enough to let his guard down. To show her he did care about something beyond himself.

He’d warned her not to run away.

That statement had surprised her the most.

If Mariko was such a nuisance to him—a source of so many injuries—why would Ōkami not want to be rid of her? Why had he not left Mariko behind to fend for herself?

After all, she had swung a lantern at him. And struck his back with a throwing star. Another man might have killed Sanada Takeo for less. At the very least struck him in return.

She glanced at the tall, capable figure striding before her. An odd feeling of warmth settled over her chest. Almost akin to trust.

In the same instant, Mariko banished the traitorous thought, letting horror slide into its place. Ōkami had nearly attacked her brother, intent on inflicting untold damage. He’d nearly killed Kenshin. After nearly killing Mariko and decimating her convoy.

He deserves everything I do to him. And more.

She glared at his back, seeing the capable figure in a different light. One tinged in sinister tones. The reds of violence, the blacks of death, the greens of vengeance. Blurring lights and slashing weapons. Trailing bands of smoke.

“How are you able to move as you do?” Mariko blurted.

Ōkami did not answer.

“Were you born with this ability?” she continued.

His reply was curt. Not once did he look her way. “No.”

Which meant it was the sort of magic gifted to him.

Though Mariko knew it was foolish to press him further, she ached with the need to know who—or what—had gifted such power to Ōkami. Ached with the desire to know what this power was. But she also knew better than to ask at this moment.

Soon they paused before a gate surrounded by broken latticework. The timbers used to construct it were greyed, their edges warping. Mariko was certain a solid kick would render the lock at its front useless.

When Ōkami paused to knock softly at the entrance, Mariko permitted herself to glance at his face.

In its depths she could discern nothing.

Unsurprising, as always.

The gate unlatched with a rusty whine. A small lamp dangled from the overworked hand of a woman around the same age as Mariko’s grandmother. Her face was kind, but fatigued.

“Tsuneoki-sama!” she said, briefly peering over Ōkami’s shoulder at Mariko. “My lord Ranmaru is not with you?”

The use of Ōkami’s given name startled Mariko.

Tsuneoki. If he is the son of Asano Naganori—as Ranmaru revealed that night beside the jubokko—then Ōkami’s real name is Asano Tsuneoki.

“We were separated in a skirmish.” Though Ōkami kept his voice level, Mariko could hear the undercurrent of irritation in his words.

One side of the woman’s mouth dipped lower as she peered closely at the dark stain on his haori. Close enough to notice the telltale signs of blood.

“I see.”

Ōkami ignored her frown of concern. “I wanted to apologize in person, Korin-san.” He reached into the folds of his white kosode and drew out a drawstring pouch. With both hands, Ōkami passed it to the woman. “This is all I can give you now, as a result of this evening’s . . . events. The rest of the funds have been waylaid for now.”

The lines on her already weathered brow deepened. “What happened? Have we been . . . betrayed?” Her voice nearly broke on the last word.

Which answered the first of Mariko’s many unuttered questions. This woman was not affiliated with the teahouse. Ōkami had not brought her money as restitution for tonight’s damages.

“No.” The smallest of sighs passed Ōkami’s lips. “It’s only that we’ve been faced with a few complications.”

“By members of the nobility? Or by imperial soldiers?”

He almost smiled. “Both, actually. It appears we’re in high demand this evening.”

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