If the men return, they will see the kimono. They will know I escaped.

Without hesitating, Mariko took hold of the hem and hurled the silk back at the pile of hissing flames.

It flared as it touched the melting varnish. Burning silk and scorching lacquer. Melting Dragon’s Beard candy.

Mingled with the scent of searing flesh.

Chiyo.

She blinked hard, struggling to remain steady.

All around her were the bodies of her father’s convoy. Maidservants. Samurai. Foot soldiers.

Slaughtered as one.

Mariko stood swathed in shadow, her chest heaving as her eyes flew across the damp earth.

Anything of value had been taken. Swiftly. Efficiently. Trunks had been emptied. Imperial chargers had been yoked as chattel, leaving nothing but their tasseled reins behind. Ribbons of red and white and gold littered the ground.

But Mariko knew robbery had not been the primary objective.

The Black Clan tried to murder me. Even though they knew I was to marry Prince Raiden, they still carried out their task.

Someone with sway over the Black Clan wishes me dead.

Cold shock descended upon her in a sudden rush. Her shoulders began to wilt. Again—as if on instinct—Mariko set them straight, her chin braced against the threat of further tears. She refused to succumb to shock. Just as she refused to grant refuge to her fears.

Think, Hattori Mariko. Keep moving.

She staggered forward, intent on fleeing without a glance back. Two halting steps were all she managed before she thought better of it. Thought better about the odds of proceeding through a darkened wood, unarmed and dressed in nothing but her underclothes.

Shielding herself from the worst of the carnage, Mariko moved toward a fallen samurai. His katana was missing, but his shorter wakizashi was still in its scabbard, bound to his waist. She took the small, wieldier weapon in hand. Pausing only to kick soil across her tracks, she moved through the forest, without direction, without purpose. Without anything, save the need to survive.

The darkness around her was oppressive. She stumbled on roots, unable to see. After a time, the lack of one sense heightened all the others. The snap of a twig or the scuttle of an insect rang through the air with the resonance of a gong. When the bushes nearby rustled—steel grinding against stone—Mariko pressed into the bark of a tree, terror finally taking the last of the warmth from her blood.

A low growl crawled from the earth, cutting through her like the thunder of an approaching army. It was followed by heavy paws padding over dead leaves.

A savage sort of stealth.

A nightbeast, stalking the last of its prey.

Mariko’s stomach clenched, and her fingers shook as she prepared to meet her end.

No. I will not cower in a corner.

Never again.

She scrambled away from the tree, her ankle catching on a scree of rocks. Each movement jolted through her as she landed on the forest floor, only to claw back to her feet. Her body felt alive, energy rolling beneath her skin in waves, all while her blood coursed through her body. There was nowhere to hide. The white silk of her underrobe did nothing to shield her from the forest’s most sinister monsters.

The growling behind her had become a steady grumble. Undeterred. Moving ever closer. When Mariko spun around to face her attacker, two saurian yellow eyes materialized in the darkness. Like those of a giant snake.

The creature that formed around these eyes was immense, its features resembling a jaguar, its body as massive as a bear. Without further provocation, the beast rose on its hind legs, saliva dripping from its bared fangs. It threw back its head and howled, the sound ricocheting into the night.

Her knees turned to water as Mariko fought to brace herself.

But the creature did not attack.

It looked to one side, then back at her. Its yellow eyes glowed bright. It canted its head, as though glancing past her shoulder.

Run! a voice within Mariko cried out. Run, you silly little fool!

She inhaled, taking a slow step back.

Still the beast did not attack. It glanced again to the same side, then back at her, its growl rising in pitch and ferocity.

As though it was warning her.

Then—without another sound—the beast glided toward her. Like a ghost. Like a demon of the forest, flying on a whorl of black smoke.

Mariko’s scream tore through the night sky.

The creature disappeared in a whoosh of air. In a swirl of inky darkness.

“Well.” A gruff voice resonated from behind her. “Fortune has indeed smiled upon me tonight.”

NOT A GIRL

A dirty man materialized from the shadows. He stalked toward her, twigs snapping at his bare feet.

“What are you doing here, girl?” His lips glittered with saliva. “Don’t you know this part of the forest is dangerous?” Beady black eyes raked over her trembling form.

No man had ever dared to look at her like this before.

With such unchecked evil alighting his gaze.

“I’m . . .” Mariko paused to think before answering. To devise the safest tack. She could not admonish him as her mother would have done. This was not one of her father’s vassals or servants. Indeed—after what she’d just witnessed—there was no way for her to know if the man was of flesh and bone at all.

Enough of this nonsense.

Fear would not drive her to discern shape from smoke and shadows.

Mariko stood tall, angling the wakizashi against her underrobe. Out of sight. Instead of adopting her mother’s imperious tone, she spoke calmly. Softly. “In truth, I’d rather not be here. Which is why I’m trying to find my way out.” She met his eyes with a silent challenge.

“Dressed like that?” He leered at her, his smile a jumble of grime and missing teeth.

She said nothing, though every bone in her body stretched thin.

The man oozed closer. “I take it you’re lost, then?” His tongue leapt out of his mouth, a lizard questing for purchase.

Mariko swallowed the urge to reply. The urge to take him to task. Kenshin would have led him away in chains, with nothing more than a nod to the men at his back. The men bearing the crest of the Hattori clan. But Kenshin had the might of a soldier. The will of a samurai.

And it was unwise for Mariko to provoke an unknown.

So then, what should she say?

If threats were not a weapon in her arsenal, then perhaps cunning would serve her instead. Mariko stayed silent. Though her free hand shook, the palm wrapped around the wakizashi remained steadfast.

“You’re lost.” The man paced nearer. Near enough for Mariko to smell the scent of unwashed skin and sour rice wine. The copper of recently spilled blood. “How did you manage to get lost, lovely creature?”

Her breath caught. The grip around the short sword tightened. “I imagine if one knew the answer to that question, one would no longer be considered lost,” she said in an even tone.

The man chortled, suffusing the air with his acrid breath. “Smart girl. So very careful. But not careful enough. If you were truly careful, you wouldn’t be lost in the woods . . . all alone.” He rested his bō in the earth between them. Fresh blood stained one end of the wooden staff. “Are you sure you’re not part of the convoy less than a league from here? The one with all the dead bodies”—he leaned even closer, dropping his voice to a whisper—“and no money?”

He’d tracked her. Even with the care Mariko had taken to cover her trail, this man had managed to find her. This shiftless crow who fed on the scraps of his betters. Again she chose to keep silent, secreting the wakizashi completely behind her.

Words would not serve her well with a man such as this.

“Because if you are lost,” he continued at his leisure, “I’d consider it quite a fortunate omen for you. The Black Clan doesn’t take prisoners. Nor does it leave survivors. It’s bad for business, you see. Both theirs and mine.”

Understanding settled on Mariko, its grasp all too tight. As she’d suspected, he was not a member of the Black Clan. Even from the little she’d gathered earlier, the band of masked murderers was far more organized.

Far more precise.

This man—with his filthy feet and soiled garments—was anything but.

When Mariko failed to reply yet again, he furrowed his brow, agitation beginning to take root.

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