But this was a unique situation.
Ōkami knew he should say something soon about—Takeo. Or Chiyo.
Or whatever the hell the girl chose to call herself on any given day.
Chiyo was not her real name. That much Ōkami knew for certain. A gifted liar learned to recognize the skill in others. That night, she’d said “Chiyo” too carefully. With too much thought behind it. A name was something simple. Easy. It should roll off the tongue like unabashed laughter.
Not with such clear calculation behind it.
She’d lied to him. As he’d lied to her.
Never mind that she’d purported to save his life. Twice. Why the girl had done so, Ōkami could not begin to understand. It was clear she’d disliked him at the onset. Found him lazy and trifling.
Just as he wished for others to find him.
But perhaps . . . perhaps her hatred masked an emotion far more troubling than mere dislike. The same emotion Ōkami had struggled to contend with these past few weeks. Struggled to identify, especially as they’d argued with each other. Contended with each other over matters both large and small.
Alas, want was a weak word for what he now felt.
Perhaps the girl wasn’t water, as he’d first thought. Perhaps she was wind. Wind could whip a fire into a frenzy. Make a mighty oak bow. Lash water into mist.
Though he hadn’t cared to admit it—even to himself—Ōkami had known something was wrong the first time he’d looked into Sanada Takeo’s eyes. The first time he’d touched . . . her.
It wasn’t that it was wrong.
It was that it felt strangely right.
He didn’t know for certain what had driven him to promise the girl who lied as freely as she breathed that he would keep her secret. All Ōkami knew was that she fought back—with both words and a strength of conviction—as no girl ever had in his experience. That she saw through his many masks in a way that both unnerved and enchanted him. That her mind worked in a way Ōkami could not take apart and piece back together.
That the moment she’d kissed him by the hot springs, his sight had gone liquid. And that the sound of her sigh was like a sunrise.
The memory thickened his blood. Left him on edge.
Ōkami watched his reflection ripple across the surface of the lake. He looked drawn. Haggard. As a boy, he’d experienced nightmares often. A sleep disturbed by thoughts of anger and retribution. Remembrances of shame and scars of dishonor.
Then, as he’d grown from boyhood into a young man, Ōkami had made a choice.
He would not be burdened by these things any longer. Refused to be burdened by any responsibility he did not elect to take on himself. Since then, he’d thankfully chosen to take on very little.
The fewer obligations he had, the less likely he’d be to fail anyone.
Once Ōkami had made this decision, sleep came to him much more easily.
It had been a long time since he’d had a poor night’s sleep. A long time since he’d seen a face marred by exhaustion when he took in his reflection.
Last night had been a bad night.
A night filled with uncertainty.
Ōkami had dreamed of a lagoon filled to its brim with steaming water. Then it had started to drain. Slowly. A churning whirlpool had formed in its center.
The girl’s face had drifted past him as she’d glided through the swirling mist.
She’d wandered to the edge of the lagoon. Smiled at him over her shoulder. Beckoned for him to join her. When Ōkami had moved to her side—drawn as a dragonfly to a flame—she’d reached for him. Stepped into the lagoon.
And let the whirlpool swallow her whole.
The entire time she’d watched him—waited for him to join her, even in death—her features had remained serene. A flame in the mist.
Ōkami had stood immobile. Witnessing as the water dragged her under.
Even in his dreams, he’d remembered how she smelled.
Clean. Like orange blossoms.
He recalled how she smiled. How her lips would waver at first, as though she still had not decided whether or not it was wise to show her true feelings to anyone.
Despite everything, Ōkami had admired Sanada Takeo for this. When he’d thought her to be a boy, Ōkami had appreciated how poorly she’d hidden her emotions—how inept she seemed at keeping them in check—despite the fact that the girl clearly knew how to tell a lie.
It reminded him of the small, angry boy he’d been in his past.
A boy who didn’t mind lying to others. But despised lying to himself.
Ōkami frowned again at his reflection in the water. Shoved his hands beneath it, splintering the image. He washed his face. Let the water rinse away his memories. Cleanse him of all responsibility.
He was not lying to himself. He did not care about the girl. Ōkami could not afford to care about her. She was trouble, even if she was smart. Even if there was something awkwardly fearless about her.
She was nothing to him. Even though he should have asked her why she’d dressed as a boy. Should have let her know how curious he was about her. How much he wished to know all that passed through her clever mind.
But he would not answer her questions. So he had no right to ask his.
For this one day, Ōkami would not tell anyone about her.
This one day only, he would lie to his best friend.
For this time only.
“I think it’s time Sanada Takeo learned how to wield a katana. And I think you should be the one to teach him,” Ranmaru announced the instant Ōkami entered his tent that morning.
Ōkami’s resulting hesitation spoke volumes. “I don’t use swords.” The Wolf pronounced the words carefully, each one bound in an underlying threat.
Tread no further.
Ranmaru grinned, his expression unaffected, even when met with signs of Ōkami’s cool fury. “I think it’s time for you to change that.” His response was equally underscored with a trace of menace.
Might had to be met with might. Especially on the field of battle.
“With all due respect, I don’t really care what you think.” Ōkami turned to leave.
Ranmaru stepped into his path, his hands raised in peace. “I understand. It isn’t necessary for you to wield swords in battle.” His lips thinned into a hard line. “But it is important that you not forget from where it is you came.”
Ōkami remained stubbornly silent.
The leader of the Black Clan tried a different tack. “Your father was—”
“I know who my father was.”
“Good,” Ranmaru said quietly. “And you know who my father was.”
“I never forget. Not a single day of my life do I forget who your father was.”
Hurt flashed across Ranmaru’s eyes. It would be different if Ōkami made clear how angry he still was. Showed Ranmaru the pain that shaped his fury instead of rejecting its existence.
But perhaps it was time for them to overcome the mistakes of their pasts. The mistakes of those in their pasts. Ranmaru’s anger had long since passed. But Ōkami’s?
It was difficult to move past an emotion so long denied.
“Nevertheless . . .” Ranmaru stepped closer. Close enough to make any other man uncomfortable. It was a tactic Ranmaru had learned from Ōkami when they were younger. Stand in another man’s space and watch him squirm. Ranmaru watched now as the tactic nearly worked on his friend. The Wolf almost stepped back in response. Then Ōkami cut his gaze. And stood firm.
“Nevertheless,” Ranmaru said again, “starting today, you will spend two afternoons this week teaching Sanada Takeo how to fight with a sword. It doesn’t matter which sword. A katana, a wakizashi, a tantō . . .” He moved his hand in a circle meant to encourage. “All that matters is whether or not the boy can hold his own in a basic fight. If Takeo is to be our newest recruit, he must at least know how to wield a blade.”
Ōkami opened his mouth, a slow, cutting retort building, ready to barrel forth.
Ranmaru braced for it. Welcomed it.
There were times when even a howling wolf needed to be silenced.
Then Ōkami closed his mouth without uttering a single word. He inhaled slowly through his nose. “Fine.” His shoulders relaxed. “It won’t make any difference anyway. When the boy dies during his first fight, don’t blame me.”
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