Thus the eggshells.

She needed something that would encase the powders in an almost crystalline structure. Make them easy to transport without falling apart or setting them off at the nearest brush of heat. Yesterday Mariko had remembered the Dragon’s Beard candy and how the sweet amazura syrup used to make it hardened when left too long away from the fire.

So she’d taken amazura syrup from Yoshi and let it melt over a low flame. She’d waited until it hardened before grinding it into a powder. Dusted it across the inside of the eggshell. Then left it near the heat once more to form a shell within the eggshell. A reinforcement that made the eggshells themselves far sturdier.

If this experiment didn’t work, she had to start from the beginning.

Mariko carefully measured out the three different powders in the three containers at her feet. She poured each into the eggshell lined with amazura glaze.

Then she stood.

As she’d learned early on when mixing these powders, friction caused them to react with one another and form a cloud of smoke.

She rattled the egg twice before throwing it hard on the ground.

It burst with a loud bang. A white smoke rose from the ground, smelling faintly of burnt eggs and horse dung. Tolerable, if one ran away quickly.

At least in one thing Mariko was not a complete failure.

“I’m impressed,” Ranmaru said when Mariko showed him the final product. His hand waved through the smoke so that he could see her.

Briefly Mariko considered what it meant that she was providing her enemy—her brother’s enemy—with the means to conceal himself from view. Alas, it was too late to hide her success, and—as far as she was concerned—the more smoke, the better. She’d begun working on this project before the events that had transpired in the clearing. When Mariko had wished to earn a place in the Black Clan’s inner circle. The only thing that saved her from feeling extreme guilt was the knowledge that she had not shared all she’d learned from her experiments.

She had no intentions of giving Ranmaru her greatest invention yet. Despite what her brother had done in Jukai forest, she would help Kenshin best his enemies in whatever way she could.

Mariko steeled herself.

The first chance she had, she would learn the reason Kenshin had murdered so many innocents. After everything she’d experienced while living amongst the Black Clan, she knew appearances could be deceiving. And she wished to give her brother the benefit of her trust, at least for the time being.

“How many smokeshields can you make?” Ranmaru asked.

Mariko hedged. “It’s time-consuming.”

“I’ll send men to help you. Ren and Yoshi will appreciate learning how to do this.”

And taking note of my ingredients, as well as seeing what else I am concocting.

“I prefer to work alone,” Mariko said. “It’s dangerous handling the powders, and an untried hand could set fire to the entire camp.”

Ranmaru remained unyielding. “Then train them to handle the powders properly.”

“I don’t have the time to train them and make the smokeshields.”

“Why don’t you tell me what you need, and I will provide it.”

The leader of the Black Clan’s unflinching nature was becoming increasingly problematic. Ranmaru rarely saw problems. He saw only solutions, and his eternal optimism grated on her nerves now more than ever.

Mariko thought quickly. Even if she disclosed the ingredients, none of the members of the Black Clan could ever duplicate the amounts. Not without weeks of study. And she would never tell them how she’d managed to harden the inside of the eggshell. “The yellow rocks near the hot springs. Dried horse dung. And ash from Haruki’s forge.”

“And foxglove.” A voice emanated from behind her.


“Foxglove?” Ranmaru said with a quizzical expression. “As in the poison?”

Mariko refrained from grimacing. “It’s true I have foxglove, but—”

Ōkami stepped before her. “Don’t try to fool us, Lord Lackbeard,” he said in a flat tone. “If you didn’t use it for the smokeshields, then why did you need to gather it?”

Again she thought quickly. “I used foxglove sap to line the inside of the eggshells.”

Another lie, threaded from truth. Once again, Mariko recalled the experiment her tutor had performed when she was younger. When the paste from the foxglove stems and seeds had flashed a brilliant light. Mariko had realized early on that if she did in fact add the paste to the smokeshield, it would likely explode. Not just emit smoke and fumes.

Alas she’d not yet had an occasion to test her greatest invention yet.

“Interesting,” Ranmaru commented.

Ōkami turned toward her, his face tense, as though he could smell the scent of her lies. “Quite.”

“Very well,” Ranmaru said. “We shall provide you with the ingredients. Can you make fifty smokeshields in the next five days?”

“I can try.”

“Excellent.” He grinned. “How are your lessons progressing in learning to fight with a sword?”

“They—aren’t,” she admitted. “I’ve been spending most of my time working on this.”

Partially true. But in actuality it was difficult to pursue any training when one’s supposed master was never present in the same place as his student.

“It’s important you continue practicing.” Ranmaru watched her as he spoke. “Because if you’re successful in making these smokeshields, I’d like for you to accompany us on our next raid.”

Mariko blanched. “I’d . . . I—”

“I thought you would be pleased,” Ranmaru said.

Again Mariko felt Ōkami’s eyes bore through her skull.

“I am . . . pleased.”

Ranmaru frowned. “You don’t sound as though you are.”

“May I ask where we are planning our next raid?”

“A land not too far from here,” Ranmaru answered. “One that desperately deserves our intervention.”

Ōkami glanced down at her. “The province of the Hattori clan.”

Mariko’s head began to swim, her earliest suspicions confirmed.

Though it did not make the words any easier to hear.

The Wolf continued. “The way to draw out a dragon is by threatening its lair.”

Despite the pounding between her temples, Mariko kept her voice calm. Unaffected. “Do we know why he attacked Akira-san?” she asked Ōkami, desperate to cling to the first source of her hatred.

The first and most lasting.

Tell me you were there that night. Tell me you were the ones to attack my convoy. Tell me you tried to kill Hattori Mariko and her brother is seeking revenge against the Black Clan for it.

Tell me so I can destroy you and never once look back.

“It doesn’t matter why he did it,” Ōkami said. “It only matters that he did.”

Believe in actions and actions alone.

But Kenshin had to have his reasons. Mariko needed to believe he would never do something like this without a reason. Needed to believe it despite all the evidence to the contrary.

“Why would anyone murder someone without a reason?” she said.

“Men like that don’t need a reason,” Ōkami replied.

Ranmaru sighed. “You will see when we go to the Hattori province. You will see why it is that the emperor has failed his people by putting men like Hattori Kano in power. Our emperor is not strong. He is weak and manipulative. Far more concerned about his own status than he is about the greatness of the empire. If Minamoto Masaru truly cared about his country, he would know its strength lies with its people. And the people of Wa follow those who bring about the glory of our empire.

“It’s time to return power to those with the will to rule,” Ranmaru continued. “With a strong arm. And a unified heart.”

Mariko knew she could not say much. If she spoke out of turn, her words would reveal her sentiments. And her heart could not take any more pain. Not now. “You wish for power to be taken from the emperor?”

The leader of the Black Clan looked to his friend. “Ōkami—”


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