“At that point, it wouldn’t make a difference if I did.”

Ōkami snorted. Once more glib and unaffected. “It makes no difference to me anyway.” With that, he shouldered past Ranmaru, back into the morning sun.

Ranmaru shook his head.

One day, these lies were going to catch up with his friend.

On that day, Ranmaru hoped he was there to bear witness.

Mariko thought he was joking with her.

Or just wanting to watch her fidget, in that way Ōkami liked to watch anyone fidget when faced with his mocking stare.

“Well,” he demanded, “why are you just standing there?”

“I don’t know what you want me to do,” she shot back. “How you want me—to stand.” Her voice trailed off.

Mariko swore she saw the muscles in his jaw leap at that. Then Ōkami cleared his throat. He strode closer, using the tips of two wooden practice swords to tap her legs until she shifted her feet into the right position for sparring. If Mariko hadn’t known any better, she’d have thought Ōkami was trying not to touch her. As though she’d been marked by a demon. Or kissed by a plague.

If he is avoiding me, then perhaps I can use it to my advantage.

Ōkami is not the only one who likes to make people uncomfortable.

When the Wolf had glided toward her that morning and ordered her to follow him, Mariko had hated the way her heart had responded, jumping from her chest as though it wished to meet him halfway.

Her stupid heart. It was time she taught it a lesson. Taught it to stay at heel. Here was a chance to get her own back somehow.

If Ōkami was mad at her, then she was mad at him, too.

The next time he thwacked the back of her knee and told her to root herself better, Mariko intentionally crumpled into him. Ōkami jumped back, as though a tendril of fire had leapt his way. She straightened, then smirked at him. He blinked. For an instant, Mariko thought he might smile.

“Do that again,” he said in a dangerous whisper. “See what happens.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?”

That time, he did smile. But just barely. Then Ōkami stepped an arm’s length away. Without warning, he tossed the wooden sword in her direction. Mariko caught it. But just barely.

The practice sword was heavy, its blade fashioned of solid wood. Made to model the weight of an actual katana. Its surface was smooth, meant to take on the full blow of an opponent’s strike.

Mariko brandished the weapon, hoping she didn’t look quite as green as she felt. “Should I not be practicing with a real blade instead of one intended for a child?”

“This is the type of sword we all use when we are not in battle. It is not just for a child.”

She held the blade in the air with one hand as her eyes ran the length of him. “You don’t want to do this.”

“A master of the obvious.” He snorted. “Truly I’d rather chew sand.” Ōkami walked to her side, his practice sword dangling from his fingertips. “Use both hands. Who do you think you are? Musashi?”

Mariko ignored the jibe about the famed swordsman. “Why are you doing this if you don’t want to?”

“Because if I don’t, Ranmaru will wonder why. And I don’t think it serves you well if his curiosity spurs him to take action,” Ōkami finished, his voice low and harsh.

When he leaned forward to adjust the grip of her left hand, his hair fell into his eyes, brushing her brow. A part of her wanted to hold her breath.

Mariko revolted by inhaling deep.

Stupid. So stupid. Wolves were not supposed to smell like Ōkami did. Like warm stone and wood smoke.

“What are you doing?” he asked cuttingly, though his hands wavered above hers. “Stop being so strange.”

Mariko settled into her stance. “I am strange.” She brandished her practice sword. “And you had better learn to appreciate it.”

Ōkami was in hell.

The first chance he had, he was going to attack his best friend and leave him for dead. It was only fair after all. Ōkami would rot in hell before he admitted to anyone that he’d been rendered a fool.

Each time Ōkami was forced to touch her, he tallied another way he would make the leader of the Black Clan pay.

“Stop!” he barked. Truly this girl brought out the worst in him. Made him lose the control he prided himself in having at all times. “You’re still not holding the blade correctly. Each time you swing it, your hands group closer together. Keep an invisible palm between them, or you’ll lose control of the blade entirely.”

Fitting that Ōkami was lecturing her on losing control.

She gritted her teeth, her deep brown eyes flashing at him like unfaceted jewels. Her fingers wrapped tighter around the handle. She raised the blade above her head once more.

“Strike,” he ordered.

She brought it down, and Ōkami knocked it from her grasp with punishing precision.

“Pick it up,” he said, swinging his own blade in a lazy arc.

Her pursed lips reminded him of rosebuds. Not red. Nothing loud and obvious. But blushing pink. Subtle and warm. Just like the way she smelled. As if the color of gold had a scent.

Anger rippled down his throat. If he wasn’t more mindful of his thoughts, this girl would inevitably bring about the death of Takeda Ranmaru.

Ōkami inhaled. Exhaled. Tried to speak gently. “Again. This time, keep the blade steady. Move slower. More deliberately.” He demonstrated, the wooden sword cutting through the air in a rush of sound. The movement felt good. Though Ōkami hated using a katana—as it brought to mind memories he’d sooner forget—he had to admit he’d missed the feel of the weapon in his hands.

After she repeated the motion ten more times, she eyed him sidelong.

“How many times should I do this?” she asked.

“Until I think you’ve done it right.”

She chewed the inside of her cheek. “Am I not going to learn how to fight?”

“First learn how to hold a sword. If a katana is an extension of your arms, your arms are currently broken. Would you encourage a man to fight with broken arms?”

Her eyes shot heavenward. “Why do you not carry any blades?”

“Because I prefer not to carry any.”

“You’re quite rigid, you know.”

Ōkami almost laughed. “And you are not?”

“Have you forgotten already, honored sensei? My arms are broken.”

That time, he did laugh.

She wavered for a moment, clearly deliberating her next question. “I’ve been told a samurai’s sword is his soul.” Her blade moved into position above her head, ready to practice once more.

A sneer curled the corners of Ōkami’s lips. “Only if you are fool enough to follow the way of the warrior would you ever say something so ridiculous.”

“Bushidō is about experiencing life in every breath. Seeing life in the simplest of things. There is beauty and honor in that. You yourself said as much.”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t put too much stock in what I say.” Ōkami struck her sword again. This time she managed to keep it in her grasp. “When I fight, I wear a mask. There is no honor in that. And I’m glad of it.”

“I think you’re lying,” she muttered. “And—despite what you may think—I do put stock in what you say. One day I hope to say something that stays with you.” She angled her chin.

Ōkami swallowed. This girl unnerved him in a way he could not begin to fathom. He needed to end this exchange. Immediately. “Words are foolish. Promises are useless. Anyone can say anything to get what it is they desire. Believe in actions and actions alone.”

“You’ve said this to me before,” she replied softly. “And I still don’t believe you are right.”

He whipped his practice sword toward her. On instinct, she parried the blow. Ōkami could not hide his surprise at how quickly she learned. Most men he knew did not understand the push and pull of swordplay so readily.

He nodded in approval. “Well done. Don’t let it go to your head, though.”

She smiled. “My father taught me the touch of true strength is as light as a feather.” With a slight swagger, she brandished her sword, eyeing him with noticeable circumspection. “He also said the deeper you dig, the higher the walls around you become.”


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