No. Neither he nor Mariko had ever been gifted at that. Mariko was far too direct. And he was far too uninterested.

Today Kenshin planned to leave Inako. To return home.

A failure once more. In his eyes. And the eyes of his father.

But he would first revisit the forest and stop to question the elderly man at the watering hole again. He was lying, and Kenshin no longer had any tolerance for deception. He’d dealt with pretense too often of late.

In an imperial city rife with it.

Kenshin stood beside the curved railing of an arched bridge in the first maru of Heian Castle. The glossy finish of the balustrade was red—smooth and cool beneath his touch.

At his back, crisp footsteps drew close. “I hear you are leaving.” Roku spoke to him in a measured, lyrical voice. As though he wished to emulate a bird in song.

Kenshin turned to bow. “I have no interest in dallying in Inako any further, Your Highness.”

“But you did not find what you were looking for.” As usual, Minamoto Roku did not ask questions. He pried in other, far more insidious ways.

In response, Kenshin said nothing. Hoped his face did not disclose anything of value.

“I wish to help you, Hattori Kenshin.” Roku’s smile formed slowly. Too slowly to be real. “Though my brother has yet to admit it—even to himself—I know he is quite troubled by the death of your sister.”

“I do not believe Mariko to be dead, Your Highness.”

“Of course.” Roku nodded. “I’ve since learned why those men attacked us at the teahouse.”

Kenshin waited, not wanting to ask. Not wanting to be beholden to the crown prince on any score.

“It’s information I think you would be interested to know,” Roku continued, smiling once more. He strolled to Kenshin’s side, his hands loosely clasped behind his back. “The whispers among several of the geiko there said these men were members of the Black Clan.”

Roku’s words confirmed Kenshin’s earlier suspicions. The Dragon of Kai gripped the red balustrade tight. Countless tales surrounded the Black Clan. Tales that had twisted into lore. Ones linking them to exiled rōnin. Of murderous men who drank the blood of their victims, leaving their bodies to rot in the shade of skeletal trees. Stories Kenshin had never given a moment’s consideration before. He had known the Black Clan frequented certain parts of Jukai forest, but Kenshin had dismissed earlier suggestions that these men had had anything to do with the attack on Mariko’s convoy. If the same lore was to be believed, the Black Clan was not disorganized enough to allow a survivor to escape. Mercenaries as celebrated as they did not maintain their livelihoods by allowing their marks to point fingers their way. Besides that, Kenshin had never known them to attack convoys guarded by samurai.

And he’d never heard of the Black Clan murdering young women before. Innocent girls like Mariko’s maidservant. It had been a chief reason Kenshin had removed them from consideration at the onset.

In his mind, there were only two reasons for the Black Clan to murder Mariko. One involved a great deal of money. The kind of money linked to those in the nobility.

The other reason involved hatred.

“Permit me to speak frankly, Your Highness,” Kenshin began. “I fail to see why this information would be of value to me. Beyond rumor, I have found little evidence to suggest the Black Clan could be responsible for the attack on my sister’s convoy.”

“Ah”—Roku angled his body, the smooth skin of his face all but unreadable—“but it should be of value to you, Kenshin-sama. And there is most definitely evidence.”

A part of Kenshin wished to strike Roku across the face. As soon as he realized this truth, Kenshin recoiled from it. These were not the thoughts of a samurai in loyal service to his liege lord. One day Roku would be his emperor. One day Kenshin would be honored to die at this boy’s command.

Roku’s eyes drifted across the serene waters of the pond. “Have you heard what happened to the last shōgun of the empire?”

“He was accused of treason and committed seppuku.”

Roku paused. “It appears a mistake was made in the process.”

“A mistake?”

“The traitor Takeda Shingen was executed ten years ago, after being accused by one of his dearest friends, Asano Naganori. The mistake made at the time was that my father allowed Takeda Shingen’s son to live. He was only eight when he watched his father die. I believe the emperor did not wish to have the blood of his traitorous friend’s son on his hands.”

“Forgive the impudence, Your Highness, but I am struggling to understand why this information is of value to my search for Mariko.”

Another slow smile, sinister in its bent. “The leader of the Black Clan is Takeda Shingen’s son. And I believe they murdered your sister in revenge.”

Kenshin blanched in shock. “Revenge? Why would they wish revenge on my family?”

“Your misinterpretation is quite understandable. The son of Takeda Ranmaru wishes revenge on my family. Murdering your sister is only the beginning.”

“Mariko is not—”

“Of course. She is not dead.” Roku waved a dismissive hand, then faced the water once more. “But if she lives, I believe the Black Clan knows where she is. And I would urge you to be wary, Kenshin-sama, as it is clear—following the events of that night in Hanami—that a target has been painted on your back as well.”

Silence settled between them. Kenshin did not know what to believe anymore.

But he would most certainly find out the truth.

From a distance, the Emperor of Wa watched the crown prince speak with the Dragon of Kai. He saw the son of Hattori Kano frown repeatedly. Saw his back straighten with unmistakable purpose.

The web had been spun. Now the spider would wait for its prey to make a fatal mistake.

The emperor smiled to himself.

Roku would make a fine emperor indeed.

Beside him, Kanako toyed with the hundred-year-old carp swimming just beneath the surface of the water, angling for its next meal. She drew it closer, capturing its attention by catching rays of sunlight in the ring she always wore on her left hand. At first glance, the ring was nothing remarkable. Upon further study, a casual observer would note how the stone in its center appeared rather strange. The color within it looked and moved almost like liquid silver. But that was all a casual observer would ever see.

Because when anyone stared at the ring for too long, a cloud of pure white fell across his vision. The observer would need to blink hard. Shake his head.

And forget what he was even looking at in the first place.

Kanako ran her right hand over the ring. The prongs holding the stone in place lengthened. Melted from metal into something much more pliant. Then turned darker. The liquid silver stone formed a spherical body, rising from her finger and scuttling to her nail’s edge.

A silver spider—fashioned from the ensorcelled stone—descended from the tip of Kanako’s slender finger into the water, its silk a gold glint, refracting the sun’s warm rays. The carp remained below the surface, mesmerized, as the spider’s legs touched the carp’s lips.

Kanako closed her hand into a tight fist.

The spider disappeared.

She walked away.

When the emperor looked down, he saw the body of the motionless carp float beneath the bridge.

And vanish into the waters of the pond.

FOXGLOVE

The forest smelled of citrus and cedar. In that way of mist and rain.

A late spring shower had livened the air. Sweetening it. Blurring the lines while bringing all else into sharper focus. The rumble of low thunder. The rich green of the leaves. Mariko’s feet sloshing through a cool puddle.

It made her want to stick out her tongue and catch raindrops on its tip.

But a boy would never do that.

Would he?

Kenshin had never done that. At least not to her recollection.

Instead Mariko continued trudging along the narrow footpath cut beneath the jagged outcropping of cliffs. Ahead were the hot springs. If she finished her task early enough, perhaps she could sneak in another bath.

At Yoshi’s behest, Mariko had spent the last half hour collecting a certain kind of mushroom that sprang to life only when it rained. The cook had told her she would have the most success finding these particular mushrooms around the hot springs, and Mariko had happily left in the late afternoon to oblige. Only recently had she been freed from the constant companionship of her tormenter, Ren, and now was the perfect chance for her to revel in her newfound freedom.

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