“Ranmaru wishes for power to return to the shōgun,” the Wolf finished.

“Which shōgun?” Mariko asked. “I thought the line of the shōgun had died out years ago.”

Ōkami’s gaze pierced hers. He spoke softly. “The last in line to be shōgun was Takeda Shingen’s son.”

Ranmaru.

“So you fight”—Mariko swallowed as she studied Ōkami—“you fight to restore military power to Ranmaru?”

Ōkami said nothing. “The only reason I fight is out of loyalty to my clan. The Black Clan, and all those we serve. If Ranmaru wishes to be shōgun, then I will do whatever is in my power to help him. But I have no designs beyond that.”

It was possible Mariko had finally stumbled on the truth. Did the Black Clan have designs on restoring Takeda Ranmaru—a rōnin—to the seat of power in Yedo?

And—if so—how did a band of brigands intend to bring that about?

“I told you Sanada Takeo would be useful to us one day, Ōkami,” Ranmaru said, his smile tight. Almost menacing.

At that, Ōkami stormed past Mariko, back into the night.

A PROVINCE OF PAIN

Kenshin dismounted from his horse outside the servants’ gate.

He was home. Weary. Wretched.

His dreams plagued him. Ever since the day Mariko had disappeared, they’d kept him from having a restful night’s sleep. They’d only worsened after he’d lost time beside the watering hole.

Nightmares of an elderly man crying for help. Nightmares of a boy and girl, thrashing through a sea of tall grass, blood spurting from their bodies in crimson founts.

Kenshin banished the thoughts with a shake of his head. He passed through the rear gate of his family’s home, his head bowed.

He did not wish to speak to anyone. To see anyone. To allow anyone to see him. It wasn’t the shame of his family knowing. His father would not reproach him on this particular score. After all, it wasn’t a public failing. At most, Hattori Kano would offer the families of the victims some form of restitution. And Kenshin’s mother? Taira Hime would likely frown at her son for losing his temper. Then offer him food before letting the unpleasant incident fade from memory.

The darkness covered him. Torchlight flickered from all corners of the compound. Kenshin’s feet carried him automatically to a smaller building, recently reroofed in clean, sweet-smelling straw.

Without pausing to think, Kenshin sat beneath a window on the far right. Leaned his back against the rough white plaster. Hoping the nearness would comfort him.

Even the whisper of a sliding door opening did not disrupt him from seeking solace. Kenshin did not look up when the shadow of a familiar figure fell upon him.

Amaya said nothing. She merely sat beside him.

After a time, Kenshin let his head fall to her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” she asked softly.

He did not reply.

“Kenshin.”

“Your shoulder is uncomfortable.” He picked up his head. Before he could move away, Amaya caught him by the chin.

“What is it?” she repeated.

“Your shoulder is too bony. You should eat more.”

She smiled. “As should you.”

He pressed his head to her shoulder again.

“I thought you said it was uncomfortable,” Amaya teased. She reached for his hand, lacing her fingers through his. “It’s uncomfortable because you’re resting your head. Rest your heart, instead.”

Kenshin swallowed. Leaned into her warmth. Let his worries fade, if only for an instant.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” he whispered.

The Black Clan rode to a halt on the edges of the Hattori province.

Twilight had fallen. The drone of cicadas cut through the air, the smell of barley and grain suffusing the night sky.

Mariko’s heart thundered in her chest. She needed to warn her family. To warn Kenshin what was about to happen.

She glanced sidelong at Ōkami. “Why are we here to raid and ransack these people?” Mariko asked in an even tone. “They have not done anything to you.”

“We are not here to raid and ransack them,” he said. “We are here to . . .” His head tilted to one side. “Redistribute.”

“Excuse me?”

“Hattori Kano has been robbing the people who live and work on his land for years.”

“What?” Mariko exclaimed, the fine hairs on the nape of her neck rising. “I’ve never heard—”

“He lives well beyond his means. And he was recently robbed of his daughter’s dowry. A dowry he stole from his people in order to buy his way into influence.”

A lie!

Mariko opened her mouth to refute his words. To defend her family’s honor. But a creeping uncertainty began to slither across her body. The tiniest seed of doubt.

Hattori Kano was not a bad man.

Even if he had sold his only daughter to further his own prominence. It was not unusual for a man in her father’s position to do such a thing. It was true Hattori Kano had always wished for Mariko to be different. Wished for her to forswear her childish wishes and be more than what she was. Those had been his last words to her. But he had not been a bad father. He’d cared for Mariko. Provided her guidance and attention.

A man like this wouldn’t rob his own people blind. Not simply for the sake of gaining a foothold in Heian Castle.

Nevertheless, the seed of doubt took root in Mariko’s mind.

Her father had traded his only daughter for the barest measure of influence. Not even a seat in the imperial court. And her mother had never once objected. If her father was taking more than his fair share of his people’s crops, her mother would not say anything. Her brother would not know to pay attention.

And Mariko?

I’ve been blind to so much. I’ve thought I possessed the truth so often.

When in truth I’ve possessed nothing.

“Do you not believe us?” Ranmaru said. “You look as though you do not.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s that I can’t believe a daimyō would be so careless with his own people.”

Ōkami looked her way. “He is only following in the footsteps of his emperor.”

“If the thought unsettles you, why don’t you journey into the village nearby?” Ranmaru said. “And see the truth for yourself.”

“You would trust me?” Mariko asked.

“Of course not.” Ranmaru grinned. “Take someone with you.”

Without thought, her eyes lifted to Ōkami’s. Her heart made the choice for her.

“Return by midnight,” the leader of the Black Clan finished. “We will raid the granaries and storehouses then.”

“So this is what you do.” Mariko pronounced it as a statement of fact. “This is the true work of the Black Clan. Redistributing the wealth you steal to those less fortunate, like the woman in the Iwakura ward.”

Both she and Ōkami wandered through the edges of a village on the southern side of her family’s province.

He said nothing in response.

“And you truly think your actions won’t hurt the people of this province?” Mariko pressed.

“No,” Ōkami said. “Just wound the pockets of Hattori Kano. And if the Dragon of Kai happens to be killed in the process, so be it.”

Anguish knifed deep within Mariko’s chest. She desperately wanted to protest. To offer some form of counterargument. They did not even know if Kenshin was truly the one responsible for Akira-san’s death!

And yet.

Her mind descended in a whirl. The most Mariko could do was stay amongst the raiding party. Perhaps then she could find a way to warn one of her family’s servants before it was too late. Before the unthinkable occurred.

And if it should occur anyway . . . Mariko had another weapon at the ready.

She studied the expanse of land before them. Though the sun had already set, many women and children were still working the fields. Cutting away any weeds and fending off the countless insects that always plagued the harvest. The golden stalks of rice were growing tall. Usually Mariko loved the harvesting time. She would wander the fields and get lost among the many reaping baskets, drawing sketches in the mud and crafting new ideas in her mind.

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