“What if I delivered you to them?” He sidled closer—an arm’s length away—dragging his bō haphazardly through the dark loam at his feet. It should have been threatening, but the man lacked the necessary focus. The necessary discipline of a true warrior. “I’m certain the Black Clan would appreciate me bringing you to them. I can’t imagine they would want word of this failure to reach their employers. Or their competitors.”

As she watched him lose footing on a root, Mariko couldn’t suppress a soft gibe: “Well then, I’d be much obliged if you would lead me to them. It appears they’ve taken a few things of mine. And I would like them back.”

He rasped another laugh, and—even with its lazy resonance—the sound chased down her spine. “You’d almost be amusing if you smiled more.” His lips curled upward. “In case your mother never told you, pretty girls like you should smile. Especially if you’re trying to get a man to do your bidding.”

Mariko stiffened. She hated his words. Hated the suggestion she needed a man to do anything for her.

Hated its truth.

“Don’t worry.” The man swung his bō slowly, directing her to walk before him. “We’ll find the Black Clan. It might take some time. But I happen to know their favorite watering holes ring the western edge of the forest. They’re bound to turn up there sooner or later. And I’m a patient man.” With a sly grin, he removed the coil of fraying rope dangling from his waistband.

Mariko prepared to fight, easing her feet apart. Bending slightly at the knees. Anchoring herself to the earth.

“Besides—” His deepening smile caused her to shudder internally. “You look like excellent company.”

As he uncoiled the rope, Mariko readied her blade. Kenshin had taught her where to strike. Soft places unhampered by bone, like the stomach and the throat. If she could slash above the inside of his knee, his blood would spill fast enough to kill him in mere moments.

Mariko calculated. Considered.

She was so busy in thought that she failed to anticipate his sudden movement.

In an instant, the man had grabbed Mariko by the forearm, jerking her toward him.

She shrieked, pushing back at him. The bō was knocked from his grasp, clattering against the base of a tree trunk. In the ensuing tumult, Mariko sought an angle to slash at his grip. She swung the wakizashi wide, not even caring to aim, hoping to strike anything at all.

Callous laughter rolled from his lips as the man grappled for the wakizashi. His elbow caught the side of her face, bringing Mariko to the ground with no more effort than it took to subdue a mewling calf.

One of her wrists in his filthy grip, the man attempted to bind her hands together.

There was no time for fear or fury or emotion of any kind to steal upon her. Mariko screamed loudly, kicking at him and wrestling for control of the blade. Its tip sliced into her upper sleeve, cutting the fabric away from her body. Revealing more skin.

The man shoved Mariko’s cheek into the dirt.

“It will do you no good to fight, girl,” he said. “There is no reason for you to make this unpleasant for both of us.”

“I am not a girl.” The rage collected in her chest. “I am Hattori Mariko. And you will die for this. By my hand.”

I swear it.

He chuffed in amusement, his lower lip jutting smugly, saliva pooling in its center. “The one marked for death is you. If the Black Clan wants you dead, you’ll never make it through this forest alive.” Wiping his mouth on a shoulder, he paused as if in deliberation. “But I might be willing to consider other options.” His eyes stopped on the swath of naked skin above her elbow.

The look she found on his face made Mariko want to tear out his throat with nothing but her teeth. “I do not make deals with thieves.”

“We’re all thieves, girl. Your kind most of all.” He placed the blade of the wakizashi beneath her chin. “Make your decision. Barter with me, and I’ll return you to your family in one piece. For the right price, of course.” His foul stench washed over her. “Or wait to barter with the Black Clan. But if I had a preference, I would choose me. I’m much nicer. And I won’t hurt you.”

In the lie she heard the truth. Saw it, buried deep in his gaze.

I will not be bandied about by men any longer. I am not a prize to be bought or sold.

Mariko let the desire to fight ease out of her, as though she was contemplating. Capitulating. The wakizashi dropped from beneath her chin just as her palms fell to her sides. Without a second thought, she threw a handful of dirt in the man’s eyes. He flailed, his fingers swiping at clumps of earth, his soft underbelly exposed. Mariko promptly punched him at the base of his throat, then rolled away as he coughed and gagged, struggling to catch breath. Mariko tried to stand—tried to run—but her thin white robe was tangled around his legs. She fell atop him, and he made a blind grab for her.

Without thought, Mariko snatched the tortoiseshell bar from her hair—

And stabbed it through his left eye.

The ornament pierced through its center, a needle through a grape.

His scream was slow. Tortured.

With its sound came a sudden rush of clarity. It blossomed in Mariko’s chest, spreading like a swallow of perfectly brewed tea.

Simple. Instinctual.

She took hold of the wakizashi and slashed the man’s throat from ear to ear.

His scream was swallowed by gurgles. Crimson bubbles sloshed past his lips as he tried to form his final words. After a few moments, he fell silent. Motionless, save for the blood dripping from his eye and throat.

Mariko crawled away, heaving the contents of her stomach into the underbrush.

Hattori Mariko crouched against the rough trunk of an ancient pine tree. Her body rocked slowly in place. She watched her white tabi socks dampen in the misted moss. The brambles around her had become a refuge, the lichen at her sides a cloak. Soughing pines swayed above her head. Their echoing moans brought to mind the disquiet of lost souls. The many lost souls that had met their doom in the shadow of Jukai forest.

Less than a stone’s throw from her lay one of these lost souls.

Thank the stars I am not among them.

Not yet, anyway.

Mariko wrapped her arms about her legs. As though she could hold herself together.

The forest may not yet have claimed her for its own, but it was clear she was horribly lost. Beyond all comprehension. In a wooden maze filled with creatures—both human and inhuman—that could kill her with only the wish to do so. The darkness that had recently become her refuge would also likely bring about her ruin. Its pressing menace reminded her of the time ten years past when Kenshin had challenged her to dive with him beneath the surface of the lake at the edge of their family’s land. It had been the afternoon following a summer storm. The water was a muddy color, the silt at its floor a constant swirl.

Though she typically eschewed such mindless challenges, Mariko had always been an excellent swimmer. And Kenshin had been particularly self-important that day. Had been especially in need of a lesson. So she’d dived for the bottom, her hands spreading through the murky water with assertive strokes. As she’d clawed toward her goal, a branch of twisted leaves had brushed her cheek, disorienting her. In that instant, she’d lost her bearings. Mariko could no longer tell which way to swim. Could no longer make out a path in either direction. She’d taken in mouthful after mouthful of water as the terror had frayed away her confidence. Had rubbed its edges raw until it all but fell apart.

Were it not for the pull of Kenshin’s steady hands, Mariko could have perished that day.

It felt like that here. In this darkness thick with threat. In this forest, harboring in its folds the nightmares of millennia.

A hooting owl broke through the quiet as it swooped lower. As it prowled for its evening meal. Glancing to her left, Mariko caught sight of a spiderweb in a bend of branches nearby. Dewdrops clung to its silken strands. She focused on the way they welled. Collected. Slid down and across the twinkling silk to pool at its center.

Before she could blink an eye, the water splashed from the web in a cascade of diamonds. Its maker had returned, eight long legs stretching across its surface.

Lying in wait for its prey.

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