Several wisps of dark smoke curled into the air beyond the tree line. Not the single steady stream they were expecting. Not the smoke from the crumbling chimney of the lean-to. A strange scent suffused the sky.
Burning meat. Mingled with a hint of decay.
“Stay here,” Ōkami said harshly, kicking his horse into a gallop.
Without a second thought, Mariko followed after him.
“Stay with the men,” he shouted over his shoulder, his brows gathering together.
Anger unfurled in her chest. “You can’t possibly be talking to me,” she said as she drew alongside him. “Nor can you expect me to follow such an insulting order.”
“You idiot,” Ōkami said, reining his horse in as they neared the clearing. “I ordered you to stay with Ranmaru because you have a keen eye and a sharp mind.”
They stopped at the edge of the clearing, and Mariko’s throat caught at the sight.
Akira-san’s lean-to was smoldering. As were the rickety tables surrounding it. Across the stretch of cleared land, splatters of blood and patches of scorched earth stained the trampled ground.
A massacre had taken place here.
Several unfortunate patrons were slumped over the tables, long since dead. Some of their bodies had burned in the brushfire.
Ōkami dropped from his saddle. Mariko walked after him, taking stock of their surroundings, even though she could see Ōkami slowly memorizing every detail in sight.
Mariko knew what it looked like to travel alongside a tracker.
If Kenshin were here, he would be doing exactly the same thing.
Beside the smoldering lean-to, they discovered the bodies of the boy and girl who’d served them the last time. The boy had been slashed across his chest. A clean, unbroken line that had nevertheless caused him immense pain. Mariko knew he had not died quickly. The crimson stain circling his body was wide. Dried at the edges. Mercifully the girl had died instantly, a deep wound across her throat.
Mariko and Ōkami paused before the bodies of the girl and the boy, silently grieving their youth. Grieving the loss of life stolen before it could be lived.
A broken voice cut through the silence. A halting cadence crying out into the sky.
“Akira-san,” Ōkami said as he began moving past the bodies, his steps urgent.
They found the elderly man with the weathered face behind the lean-to. When they saw him lift a trembling hand, they rushed to his side. He’d been stabbed through the stomach. Was slowly bleeding into his body.
A horrifying way to die. A way of pain and suffering.
Blood trickled from one corner of his mouth as he spoke to Ōkami. As he tried in vain to reach for the collar of Ōkami’s kosode to draw him near.
The Wolf leaned close. “Who was it?” Mariko saw his fists clench.
A low hum rippled from his body.
“S-samurai,” Akira-san rasped.
In this moment, Mariko realized she had never seen Ōkami truly angry before. Even beside the teahouse that night last week, she’d witnessed a flash of fury, but it was nothing like this. When she’d tried to pry for more information about his powers in those first few days, Yoshi had claimed very little ever warranted the Wolf’s wrath.
In order to hate, one must first love, the cook had said.
And Ōkami did not love many things.
Before Akira-san could say anything more, Ranmaru came crashing through the burned brush toward them. He skidded to a halt, his face pale. Akira-san reached for the leader of the Black Clan, and Ranmaru flew to the old man’s side, clasping his bloodied hand tight.
Akira-san’s eyes traveled to Mariko. They narrowed. His breaths were becoming shallow and fast.
“Find . . . find the d-dragon,” he said haltingly.
Mariko’s pulse came to a sudden standstill. An icy vise gripped her chest. Tore through the bindings wound about her breastbone.
“The dragon?” Ranmaru asked.
“Find the Dragon . . . of Kai.” He coughed, lines of crimson spurting from his lips. Then he raised a trembling finger, as though he meant to point at something.
Mariko could not hear over the sound of her heart’s screams.
It’s not possible. This isn’t possible.
Akira-san’s hand fell as his eyes drifted shut. As the life left his body. Mariko’s hand flew to her throat. And her mind was sent into a whirl.
Kenshin. Her brother. Her family.
What have you done?
SMOKESHIELDS AND SORROW
Mariko turned to her work to keep the world around her from falling apart.
She listened while Ranmaru raged about the Dragon of Kai. Listened as he ordered the rest of his men to begin making inquiries as to where Hattori Kenshin might be. As to why Hattori Kenshin would murder an innocent old man and his two young grandchildren in cold blood.
Had Kenshin really done this?
Mariko asked herself this question many times. Too many times to count.
Why would Kenshin do such a thing?
The most disturbing part about its answer was that she could not be sure on either score.
Her brother had always been a man of honor. A man who followed the way of the warrior to the letter. Bushidō drove Kenshin as it drove few other men of Mariko’s acquaintance. In order for a man who valued honor and chivalry as Kenshin did to slaughter innocent, unarmed people, he must have had a good reason. He had to have one.
But as much as Mariko struggled to come up with it, she could not. Ultimately it was because she knew there could be no good reason.
When she overheard the plans Ranmaru had begun to make—to find the Dragon of Kai and kill him with a thousand cuts—Mariko felt the horror take shape in her soul. And she knew she had to form a plan. At least do something more than sit and worry in silence.
If Ranmaru sent the Black Clan after her brother, Kenshin would have to fight.
He might die.
She did not doubt her brother could hold his own against most of the members of the Black Clan.
But not against Ōkami.
Mariko had to create something to help her brother stave off the Wolf’s inevitable onslaught. After all, a predator needed to see its prey in order to catch it.
Ōkami had been decidedly quiet through all of Ranmaru’s rages. If possible he’d been even more detached than usual. He did not laugh with Mariko anymore. Instead Ōkami resumed his disappearances from camp, this time leaving every day. Likely journeying to Inako to see his sister Yumi.
Not that Mariko minded.
That fear—that burgeoning worry—drove her to remain apart from all the conversations taking place around her. Drove her to avoid Ōkami for the few moments they ever crossed paths in camp. Avoid him as he avoided her. At all cost.
Mariko burrowed into her tasks instead. Today she sat outside Haruki’s smithy, gingerly filling empty eggshells.
The idea had come to her after an anxious dream. One in which she’d watched Yoshi remove eggs from their casings, leaving the shells intact. Hollow. Then the shells had dissolved into smoke, concealing him from view.
Mariko had woken suddenly. And begun to consider.
A trail of smoke would be an excellent way to conceal a retreat. Or perhaps even conceal an entrance. Especially if the smoke did not precipitate an actual fire.
Smoke was the first sign of a blaze. It usually sent those around it into a panic to find its source. A panic that would help to conceal a marauder’s trail.
The next day, Mariko had borrowed a mortar and pestle from Yoshi. She’d begun grinding powders, almost feverishly. First she’d started with a basic mixture. She’d taken the smelly, yellow rocks from the nearby hot springs and ground them into powder. Then she’d mixed them with dried pitch and tried to get them to form a mold in the eggshell.
As could be expected, the stinking disaster had fallen apart in her hands before it could even catch flame.
Then Mariko had recalled something Yoshi had taught her during one of her many lessons about mundane things. An excellent source of tinder was dried animal dung. He’d proven this when he’d taught her how to light a fire.
So she’d mixed equal parts dried horse dung with the yellow rocks and the pitch, grinding them all into a fine powder. The final addition of soot from Haruki’s smithy had stabilized the mixture and made it less noxious to work with.
The last task left to Mariko was to create a mold.
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