“Your father read too many books.”
She laughed, and the sound warmed through him. Just like a sunrise.
Without thought, Ōkami moved closer, reaching for her elbows, intent on drawing them toward her center. Giving her better control of the blade. His right foot slid in the space between her feet, his knee grazing her inner thigh.
The instant it happened, Ōkami knew it was a mistake. The sharp intake of her breath. The darting eyes.
His thundering heart.
“You haven’t told me not to do this,” she said softly, a becoming flush rising in her cheeks. “Nor have you asked me why I’m here.”
Against his better judgment, Ōkami replied, “Why would I?”
“Because I’m a girl,” she whispered.
Irritation took root in his chest. Not irritation with her words. But irritation with her need to say them and what it meant. Ōkami steadied his gaze on hers. “You are first and foremost a person. A reckless, foolish person, but a person nonetheless. If I ever say you are not permitted to do something, rest assured that the last reason I would ever say so would be because you are a girl.”
When her eyes softened, Ōkami knew he’d made another mistake.
But he didn’t want to take back his words.
She was without a doubt strange. Maddening. A force to reckon and be reckoned with. And—as she’d demanded of him earlier—he appreciated it.
In that moment, Ōkami knew he was in a great deal of trouble.
All because of a wonderfully strange girl.
A FOREST OF BLOOD AND FIRE
Kenshin gasped awake. His chest heaved as he struggled to draw in breath. The ground beneath him was wet, the grass by his fingertips charred. Copper and ash coated his tongue.
He sat up and gripped his throbbing head. When he gazed down at his fingers, he saw they were covered in dried blood. Fear coiled up his spine.
He looked around.
The blood was not his.
No. This was not possible. This could not have happened. He could not have—would never have—done such a thing.
Kenshin tried to conjure an image of the last thing he could recall.
Shouts. An angry exchange of words. A refusal to cooperate. Threats blasted both ways. Flashes of blood and smoke and fire, their sources hazy and unclear.
Anger. An uncontrollable rage erupting from his chest, spilling from his lips, whipping into the air around him.
His chest heaved again. Kenshin staggered to his feet, dragging his blade through the charred remains of what was once tall grass along the forest’s edge. The kind of tall slender grass that had bent and swayed in the wind. Kane waited in the same place Kenshin had last left him, the warhorse still tethered to a tree trunk at the outskirts of the clearing. Without even bothering to wipe the crimson stains from his katana, Kenshin sheathed his sword and heaved himself into the saddle.
His head felt as though it had been split in two and sewn back together. Again Kenshin lifted his hands before his face.
Not his blood. But still his pain.
He did not understand what had happened. Could not understand what might have caused anyone to commit such atrocities. The echo of a scream filled his ears, silencing all else. Except the promise of future torment.
Kenshin squeezed his eyes shut.
It was not him. He had not done that.
He would never do that.
In the shadow of a thorny underbrush nearby, a ghostly grey fox watched Hattori Kenshin reel to his horse. Watched him stare in horror at his bloodied hands.
The fox smiled like a rogue, its eyes warming to yellow, then fading to black. It waited until the Dragon of Kai rode from the clearing.
Then it vanished in a twist of smoke.
In its wake, a black flower blossomed to life, its center pulsing with the beat of a heart.
Drumming out a warning.
Or perhaps a message.
A MURDEROUS RAMPAGE
It turned out that Ren—her first and finest tormentor—was also perhaps one of the finest singers Mariko had ever encountered in her life.
She’d only discovered this truth in the last few moments. And it had shocked her. Forced her to appreciate the many quiddities of life. While riding with the Black Clan toward the watering hole in which Mariko had first encountered them, Haruki the metalsmith had begun to sing. In vain she’d wished to join in—especially since this was the first time in the three weeks she’d been in their camp that they’d brought her with them to the watering hole. On several occasions many of them had left together at night, returning ribald and robust with drink.
Reminding Mariko of her place, which was always removed.
Haruki’s song was a sweet song, with the easy kind of verses that encouraged improvisation. As several of the other members began joining in, the tune became bawdier. Their voices became rowdier.
When Yoshi began to sing of ample bosoms, Mariko quickly urged her steed forward—beyond their earshot—lest the next verse fall to her. She may be pretending to be a young man, but she wasn’t quite certain what a young man would most like to sing about when it came to the fairer sex.
Naked women? Certainly.
But what exactly was it about female nakedness that would be attractive? It was just a body. A form. A vessel. Truly it was a puzzle. Breasts were just breasts, were they not? The most fascinating thing about any woman should be her mind, should it not?
Of course not.
Mariko almost groaned when she heard the unmistakable click of Ōkami’s tongue at her side. He slowed his warhorse to match the pace of hers. And leaned close.
“Are you not interested in the song, Takeo?” he teased. The Wolf looked to be in a fine mood on this late afternoon. Briefly Mariko wondered what his angle might be. What this ploy might cost her.
Then decided it didn’t matter.
“I should think you would be far more interested in this sort of song than I, Tsuneoki.” She grinned.
From the corner of her eye, Mariko caught the curve of his lip. A sly, scarred smile.
“Is that meant to be a testament to my prowess?” Ōkami spoke in low tones, his eyes gleaming. The suggestiveness in his words caused the blood to rise in her neck. Behind them, the sun was starting its slow descent, the darkness reaching for it from beyond the horizon. And Mariko was suddenly reminded. How a night sky darkened words as well. Imbued them with shadowed meaning.
What once was innocent became illicit with nothing but a glance.
The searing warmth of Ōkami’s touch that night beside the hot springs. The fire that had burned through her veins.
Mariko shook her head quickly. “It’s rather a testament to your ridiculousness.”
“Such cruelty.” He tsked. “When all I strive for each day is to convince my shadow I’m someone worth following.”
She glanced down at the long, thin silhouette trailing at his back. It looked jagged and uncertain. Appropriate. “Perhaps you should try harder.”
“Would it be so hard to say something nice? Just once.”
“I shall,” she said simply. “After you show me how.”
They were far in front of the other men now. Riding side by side.
The rōnin and the warrior girl in disguise.
Mariko wanted to hate Ōkami. But the memory of his hands sifting through her hair. Of the way his eyes turned up when he smiled. The way his entire demeanor softened when he meant it. When he was true.
Ōkami was such an enigma. A boy without honor, who nevertheless did honorable things. Like save Mariko when he could have left her to fend for herself. Or stop to leave money for an elderly woman when he should have been fleeing the imperial city. Like when he kept her secret. Despite the fact that his loyalties remained elsewhere.
Mariko glanced at him furtively. Saw the way his strong fingers lightly grasped the crimson fabric of his reins. Remembered the way his lips shaped his words. Ōkami did everything with the natural grace of a boy absent care. He was not calculating. He was instinctual.
And he really did possess some of the finest hands Mariko had ever seen.
Just as she thought to say something nice—about how well he sat in his saddle—Ōkami cut his warhorse across her path, halting her, his right fist in the air.
The nostrils of his horse flared. Mariko’s steed whickered.
Before them was a familiar line of maple trees along the westernmost edge of the forest. The outskirts near the watering hole.
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