The elderly woman leaned against the door frame, steadying her weary body. “You did not have to come tonight, Tsuneoki-sama.” Korin’s voice was gentle. Kind. “If you were involved in any sort of skirmish, it was a risk for you to remain in the city. Your enemies are always searching for you.”

Ōkami shook his head. “You were expecting us, Korin-san. And I would not have those in your care wanting for anything.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “The gold you provided last week will buy the children enough clothing and food for the rest of the month. If we are frugal, there may be some left over for next month as well. Do not trouble yourself, Tsuneoki-sama. The Black Clan does so much for us. You protect us. Watch over us as no one else does. Many here in the Iwakura ward owe you debts of thanks for all you do. None among us would ever question your actions. Or your intentions.”

The Black Clan protects her? Helps to supply the people in this ward?

Mariko could not prevent a flicker of confusion from passing across her face. Ōkami’s body tensed. As he fought to relax, his gaze slid to her, his features remaining tight.

He’s irritated that I’ve been privy to all this information.

“Very well.” Ōkami nodded. “I shall return next week with the rest of the funds.”

When Korin reached to take his hands in her own, Mariko was gripped by a strange sensation. An odd kind of envy. The wish to be cherished with the same kind of open affection. One without agenda. “May the old gods keep you safe.” Korin turned to Mariko. The way the elderly woman studied her made Mariko shrink back into the shadows.

Finally Korin offered her a smile. “And may the new gods keep your young friend safe.”

“He is not my friend.” Though Ōkami’s pronouncement was true for them both, his words still stung.

Mariko thought to say something. To respond to either Korin or Ōkami with something equally blithe. Equally biting.

Blessedly the night watchman strolled by at that exact moment, ringing his bell to signify the hour.

“He . . . is what?” Korin blinked, clearly confused, the bell behind them tolling into a purpled sky.

He.

The blood drained from Mariko’s face.

Korin-san knows I am not a boy. How could she possibly know that?

As the elderly woman’s attention shifted from Ōkami to Mariko, her features softened. Her gaze settled on Mariko again. This time with a deeper meaning. “Of—of course he isn’t your friend.” Korin recovered with a smile. “My apologies.” She bowed to Mariko, though her eyes were filled with a knowing light.

Does she think Ōkami and I are—

Mariko almost spluttered aloud.

Before she could react—before she could even think beyond such ridiculousness—her thoughts were swallowed by Okami and Korin-san’s continued conversation. A hushed conversation she was no longer meant to partake in. Bracing his arm against the battered gate, Ōkami positioned his back between Mariko and the elderly woman, eliminating the unwanted presence from the rest of his discussion.

Mariko was left to ruminate on all that had occurred.

All she had learned.

The only conclusion she was left to consider was this:

There was far more to the Black Clan than she’d first thought.

Kenshin sat in a corner of the teahouse, wearing a murderous expression. The young servant girl tending to the wounds on his head and hands was careful. Meticulous.

Her efforts were futile.

At the moment, nothing would settle well on his skin.

“You’re quite lucky you were not injured further,” Minamoto Roku commented as he took a neat swallow of sake from a glazed porcelain cup.

“Luck has nothing to do with it,” Raiden interjected. “Kenshin-sama was quick to react.” He nodded in approval. “In battle, that is among the most important of things.”

“Forgive me, but I was not quicker than my attacker, my lord,” Kenshin replied curtly. “In battle, that is all that matters.”

Raiden studied him for a time, his expression perplexed. “The greater question is why did they attack you? I thought they were trying to assassinate my brother. But it was clear at least one of the masked men was aiming for you.” He brushed a hand across his jaw. “Or was the boy who jumped from the roof not wearing a mask? I could not be certain.”

“I . . . do not know, my lord.” Kenshin frowned as he recalled the flurry of movement above him. The crash of a body against his back. The wash of sudden darkness.

Compounded by another, far more pressing concern:

Why had his assailant not finished him off when given the chance? Especially when he’d been afforded the advantage of higher ground?

“These men were far too organized to have been mere drunkards,” Raiden continued. “It’s clear they were positioned at the teahouse intentionally. But to what end?”

The crown prince smiled as he took another sip of sake. “The true matter of import, brother, is that these masked men were present on the same night we were. They attacked us before we could even get inside the teahouse. Which means someone plotted to lie in wait for us and catch us unawares. I would like to know who it was.”

Kenshin said nothing as the attendant—a young girl wearing a kimono that briefly brought to mind the color of Amaya’s grey eyes—removed a curved bone needle and a spiral of thread. She began to stitch shut the wound on Kenshin’s forehead. Each time the needle passed through his skin, his thoughts wove through his mind.

Consumed with worry for his sister.

Why were these men waiting for them? Did they have anything to do with Mariko’s disappearance?

His sister’s face washed across his vision again.

But it was not possible. It could not be possible.

Was it possible?

A part of Kenshin wanted to ask Raiden and Roku if anyone in the city of Inako knew the identities of those in the Black Clan. If any member of the nobility relied on their services in any capacity. But if Kenshin did ask, then he would be divulging his true intentions in coming to Inako.

And he did not yet trust anyone enough to do that. Not yet. Much less any member of the Minamoto clan. Not when he was still so uncertain as to where their loyalties might lie.

Kenshin watched the steady hands of the servant girl as they moved to stitch the wound on his arm.

Mariko had always been a terrible seamstress.

That night—in his dreams—Kenshin saw a boy in black wearing the mask of his sister’s face.

Beneath a pair of saurian eyes.

THE HOT SPRINGS

Mariko had not thought this could be possible.

But she was being rewarded by the Black Clan. Despite the fact that she’d recently injured their champion at a teahouse in Hanami.

Twice over.

Ranmaru had thanked her personally for everything she’d done to warn them at the teahouse. About the imperial troops. About the arrival of the crown prince. All she’d done to save Ōkami.

And—though the lies blistered her ears—Mariko was not one to return a gift.

She settled into the steaming water, luxuriating in the feel of its silky warmth. It seemed to sap the very weariness from her bones. The sadness from her skin.

It had been so long since Mariko had had a proper bath.

As a reward for all her efforts, Ranmaru had given her leave to travel up the mountain path cut into the outcropping near Haruki’s tent. Toward a gathering of hot springs, positioned above the lake that served as another natural boundary of the Black Clan’s camp. Of course Ranmaru didn’t trust her fully yet—as he’d instructed Ren to remain at the base of the footpath, ready to catch her should she try to flee—but at least it was a beginning. A bare measure of trust.

Trust Mariko desperately needed in order to rise in their ranks.

As she settled against a smooth stone—pausing to let its surface knead the tension from between her shoulders—she stopped to think of all that had transpired last night.

In truth—despite the enormous peril to her brother—it had been a rather successful evening. Mariko had learned a great deal. Experienced things she’d never dreamed of experiencing. Taken part in an actual fight.

Soon Takeda Ranmaru may be asking me for advice. After that he might even be confiding in me. Telling me every secret I wish to know.

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