The possibilities warmed her spirits almost as much as the water warmed her bones.

A cloud of steam eased up her neck as Mariko lowered herself beneath the surface of the hot springs, until the water touched just beneath her chin. She sighed loudly. Such hot springs were a miracle. A miracle heated by the sharp, almost mint-like vapors emanating from the mountain, as well as the earth beneath it. The same combination of elements that produced the bright yellow rocks littering her surroundings. Mariko was familiar with these slightly noxious stones. There had been a time when the ancient mountain in the distance had erupted, spewing molten earth into the sky and acrid ash into the air.

Strange how the same thing that could destroy so many lives could also create such healing waters.

The steam rose before her face, clouding her vision. Mariko untied her hair from its topknot and leaned back, soaking her filthy scalp.

Just as she’d settled into a place of serene calm, the branches nearby rustled. Mariko’s head snapped up. She almost yelped at the sight before her.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded of her intruder. Hating that her voice trembled at the last.

Ōkami stood along the edge of the hot springs, studying her coolly. “You’re not the only one to have sustained injuries last night.”

Mariko leveled him with an equally dispassionate stare. “Wait your turn, Asano Tsuneoki.”

“Keep speaking to me in such a manner, Sanada Takeo. See if I don’t toss you from the water, ass over feet.” Ōkami began untying his kosode.

Alarm flashed through her, from her nape toward her toes. Briefly Mariko offered thanks to the heat of the water. At least it should mask the rush of color rising in her face.

Her reaction was not because she was about to see Ōkami naked. Mariko had seen naked men before. Nudity did not bother her. But if Ōkami came close to her. If he saw what the water and steam might fail to conceal . . .

All would be undone.

She backed away, then caught herself. Far too hasty. If she fled, Mariko would only draw further attention to herself. Not that she could in fact flee.

As she, too, was naked.

Also there was the matter of Ren, undoubtedly waiting for her to even attempt running, so that he could threaten to cut her into pieces or feed her to Ranmaru’s horse or afflict whatever ghastly torment he’d dreamed up for the day.

Mariko kept her eyes steady, all while allowing her sight to blur. Even if she’d seen naked men before, she did not wish to add the image of Ōkami to her memory. Something about it felt . . . unseemly. Untoward.

When a brief image of tawny, lithe muscle cut across her vision as Ōkami entered the hot springs, Mariko swallowed.

“Could you not at the very least grant me this moment of peace?” she grumbled while glancing away. “I did in fact save you.”

Ōkami snorted. “Yet another lie. As far as I’m concerned, you nearly killed me. Twice.”

“The wound on your back is only a flesh wound.” Mariko crossed her arms beneath the water. “And the wound on your head is barely a scratch.” A groove formed between her brows. “But I suppose it is possible these tiny injuries could be causing you a great deal of pain. If you’d like, I suppose—”

“What?” Ōkami stood suddenly, and Mariko ignored the way the hot water rolled down the sinew of his arms. The way the steam unfurled above his skin in thick coils. “Tiny injuries? Do you have any idea what it feels like to be stabbed in the back by a spinning six-bladed dagger?”

Mariko canted her head. “I’m sure Yoshi has a tea that can help ease your pain.” She cut her eyes. “And perhaps Yumi can offer her assistance the next time you’re in Hanami.”

“Tea?” Ōkami pointed at the purple bruise on the side of his jaw. “You honestly think tea will repair the damage of a metal lantern being swung at my face?”

“I swung that lantern to save you!” Mariko insisted. “What happened after could not be helped.”

“Said the scorpion.”

Mariko’s mother had once said the very same thing to her. It rankled her to hear the words fall from Ōkami’s scarred lips. Her hands balled into fists beneath the water. “I am not the scorpion.”

“Of course you are. You’re absolutely willing to kill something in order to save it.”

She gritted her teeth. “I’ve always hated that story.”

A half smile curled up one side of Ōkami’s face as he scrubbed the dripping water from his jaw. Massaged the shoulder closest to his wound. Mariko refused to notice the way the water welled in the hollows of his muscles. The way it beaded across his sun-bronzed skin.

No. That was the way of treachery.

Mariko circled her arms through the water. As though she were warding the demons away.

“You take to water well,” Ōkami commented. “It appears Akira-san was right.”

It never ceased to needle Mariko immeasurably. How this boy was able to frustrate her with so little effort. “For the last time, I am not water.”

“My god, you are stubborn.”

“Another reason I cannot possibly be water.” Though there was heat to her words, she kept her voice even. “Water is temperamental. It doesn’t assume any shape on its own. It takes the shape of whatever is around it. And I have never wished to be controlled by my surroundings.”

“And yet you are, all the same.”

She splashed water at him.

His smile was thoughtful. “Water is not beholden to anything. It can cut through rock. It can vanish into thin air. With time, it can even destroy iron. You should not see it as a weakness.”

“If I am water, then what are you?”

“My father always said I was fire.”

This observation surprised her. Ōkami had always struck her as unnervingly cool-tempered. Save for the incident outside the teahouse, Mariko had found him to be almost mild-mannered. At times even cold. Then she remembered Ranmaru’s tale by the jubokko. Ōkami had burned the tent of his father’s accuser.

Mariko found she wished to know more. “You say you are fire as though you don’t believe it to be true.”

“I believe we are all things, depending on the situation. Given the right time and the right circumstance, any man or woman can be water or fire or earth or wind.”

“You deny the truth of our inclinations.”

“No. I deny being a slave to any one thing. In any situation we can choose who we are and choose who we want to be.”

“That’s . . . true,” Mariko admitted.

“Don’t sound so surprised. I’m not an absolute fool.”

“I never thought you were a fool. I’ve thought you were lazy. Perhaps even ridiculous at times. But never a fool.”

“A lie. You never truly thought I was ridiculous. That’s why it bothered you so.”

Briefly Mariko recalled the night they’d first met. “No. I actually did think you were ridiculous once. That’s what bothered me so.”

“More honesty. I like you much more when you’re honest, Sanada Takeo.”

“But you don’t mind me when I lie?”

Ōkami leaned back against a stone, his smile perfectly indolent. “Perhaps. As long as you’re not lying to me.”

Mariko wanted to splash him again. Wanted to best him in all ways. Wanted to kiss him silent.

The last thought startled her.

Where had it come from? It was so utterly illogical. So fiercely wrong. She’d never wished to kiss anyone before. Never wished to worry any boy’s lower lip between her teeth before.

To worry it until his words melted on her tongue.

Ōkami studied her, as though he could sense the tumult of her thoughts. And wished to take advantage of it. “Did you truly know who those men were when they first arrived?”

The question caught her off guard. “Of course I did.”

“Liar. You climbed onto the rooftop before they arrived at the teahouse. Why?”

Mariko had suspected he’d known she was there all along. “I thought I saw imperial soldiers when I left to relieve myself. So I climbed onto the rooftop to confirm who they were.”

“I don’t believe you. I think you were spying on me. And I want to know why.”


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