A wave of shock descended on her. Mariko had not expected him to ask that question quite so bluntly. “If I were spying on you, why would I reveal myself in an effort to spare you?” She pressed her back into the smooth rock along the edge of the hot spring as she considered how best to redirect the tenor of this conversation in her favor. “Did you know who all the men were as soon as you saw them?” Mariko filled her voice with accusation. “I didn’t recognize one of them.”

“I recognized Minamoto Raiden. It took only a moment’s work to realize the scrawny little brat at his back was the crown prince. The remaining boy in their company took me a bit more time.” He shot her a bladed smile. “Your attempt to redirect this conversation was rather clever, by the way.”

Never mind that. Here was a chance for Mariko to learn something of value. Something about her family. “Who was the last boy?”

The angles in Ōkami’s face hollowed into slashes. “The Dragon of Kai. Strange how he did not seem nearly as fearsome in person.”

“Who?” Mariko was proud that she did not stammer. Nor did she even blink.

“Another lie. Why are you lying about what you already know?”

“I truly don’t know who the Dragon of Kai is.”

Ōkami paused. “He’s the son of a power-hungry idiot.”

Mariko stiffened. “In that sense, you could be speaking about anyone.”

“No. Hattori Kano would sell his own soul if it meant currying favor. And he breeds the same kind of idiocy in those around him. Though I will say his son can wield a sword with a passable amount of skill.”

Mariko could no longer listen to him speak ill of her family. So she borrowed his own tactic. “What did you say to Yumi that made her cry?”

Two could play at this game of drawing out a reaction.

It frustrated her that Ōkami only narrowed his dark eyes once more.

“I knew you were there. Watching us,” he said softly.

“You disappeared. Like you’ve been disappearing this entire week. When I climbed onto the rooftop to watch the imperial troops, I saw you with her.” Mariko chewed on her inner cheek. “And you’re a fool to pursue the same girl that Ranmaru loves, too.”

A sneer pulled at a corner of Ōkami’s mouth. “Too?”

“It’s clear you love her.”

He paused again. In obvious deliberation. “Of course I love her.” Ōkami sank beneath the water, keeping nothing but his head above the surface. The resulting waves rippled against her skin. Reminding her they shared a bath as heated as their words.

The very idea set her heart apace. She was reminded of her earlier thought. Her earlier wish to kiss him silent. How traitorous and wrong it was. How it had become a desire she could no longer deny.

“I see,” Mariko said slowly, hating how much everything about him bothered her.

When he did not reply immediately, it became clear Ōkami was still considering something. Perhaps a course of action. Finally he came to a hesitant decision.

“Yumi is my sister.”

Mariko’s eyes went wide. She caught the relief flooding through her and despised herself even more for it. “You let your sister become a maiko?”

“She’s safe in Hanami. Safer than she would be here in Jukai forest. And safer than she’d ever be if anyone in Inako found out who she is. Who her family is.” He slid closer, and Mariko flattened against the rock, wishing it would move with her. Wrap her like a cloak. “I’m . . . trusting you with this, Sanada Takeo. Against my better judgment. If you tell anyone who Yumi is, I will personally throw you to the jubokko and watch it drain you of your life’s blood without a moment’s thought.”

“I told you.” Mariko stared back at him. “I’m not afraid of you.”

He did not smile. “And you need to tell me you understand what I’m saying.”

“Do you want me to promise?”

“Promises mean nothing to me.” Ōkami’s tone was soft. Severe. “They are words said to assuage any fool who wishes to believe.”

“Then what do you want me to say?”

“I want you to tell me you understand that I will kill you—without pause—if you ever betray me.” His onyx eyes glittered. “Do you know the story about the rabbit who played with fire?”

He burned to death, along with all his loved ones.

“I understand what you’re saying,” Mariko replied.

Ōkami’s brows lifted in question.

She clarified, though her hands balled into fists beneath the water. “I understand you will set me to flame if I ever betray you.”

But not if I destroy you first.

Ōkami briefly considered telling Ranmaru about his most recent interaction with Sanada Takeo. Briefly considered telling his friend about his suspicions.

That the slight boy with the doe-like eyes had been sent by their enemies in Inako to spy on the Black Clan.

But whenever Ōkami had voiced his concerns with regard to their newest recruit, Ranmaru had been unmoved. Almost uninterested. And if Ōkami had to disclose all that happened, he would need to tell his best friend what Sanada Takeo knew about Yumi.

Never mind that it was a lie couched in truth.

A lie meant to test their newest recruit.

Anything Ōkami revealed about Yumi—whether or not it was true—would anger Ranmaru greatly. And after all Ranmaru had sacrificed for him, Ōkami would rather die than cause his friend pain.

As it was, Ōkami had thought long and hard before disclosing this information. But the best way to gain trust was to give it. And Ōkami would murder Sanada Takeo with his bare hands before he let any actual harm come to Yumi.

This would be the first of many tests Ōkami had designed for the young Lord Lackbeard. The wheels of the second test were already set in motion.

Ōkami’s suspicion had begun to form the night they’d first met Sanada Takeo by Akira-san’s watering hole. It had deepened when he’d caught sight of the boy climbing like an insect across the rooftop. And solidified when Ōkami had pressed a forearm into the boy’s throat and heard him all but squeal like a girl.

Ōkami had immediately regretted handling him in such a rough manner. Then felt a wave of irritation at his regret. Everything about this boy was green. Untried. From the soft skin of his hands to the ridiculous way he completed even the simplest task with such unnecessary precision.

The boy had obviously been sent here to ingratiate himself to Ranmaru. To act the part of the bumbling young fool in desperate need of guidance.

Only it had become abundantly clear to Ōkami that Sanada Takeo was far from being a fool. The boy was too clever—in words and in deeds—for that.

Ōkami knocked the hair from his eyes. Refrained from kicking a wayward stone beside his foot. Why had he not just left the boy in Inako, as Ranmaru had suggested?

He’d had the opportunity. Ōkami could have left Takeo in the bowels of the Iwakura district. Takeo could never have found his way back to the Black Clan’s camp. Instead Ōkami had felt strangely watchful of him. Almost protective.

Sanada Takeo had been chosen to spy on them for this exact reason.

To prey on their weaknesses. Ranmaru’s wish to inspire.

Ōkami’s need to protect.

The boy had always made him uncomfortable in a way Ōkami had been unable to adequately articulate. Whenever Sanada Takeo was around, he made Ōkami question everything about himself.

And he did not like it.

His suspicion had only solidified in the grey fog rising above the waters of the hot springs. The best way for Ōkami to confirm it was to watch the boy.

And wait for him to make a mistake.

TWISTED TALES

Kenshin had spent too many nights in Inako.

He’d attended too many gatherings and been forced to partake in too many insipid conversations. And gleaned virtually nothing of value.

Despite all his attempts to learn whether any member of the nobility bore a grudge against his family, he had turned up empty-handed. Kenshin was not good at manipulating conversations in the same skillful way as his father. The way that enabled him to control the pace of the boat without even touching an oar. Without those around you ever knowing.

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