She focused on the best of these memories. On the people working in her periphery.
They were never smiling. And she had never truly noticed.
Ōkami and Mariko stayed to the shadows along the plastered buildings, beneath the thatched roofs, listening to the sounds of the workers as their children squabbled for food and their loved ones returned home from a wearying day’s work.
Ōkami paused beside a family gathering for their evening meal near a small fire just outside their tiny home. He handed Mariko a sickle and bade her to follow him into an adjoining field, as though they were workers intent on continuing their reaping. They squatted alongside the tall waves of grain, angling to one side to watch the family eat. In the distance, Mariko thought she saw the yellow eyes of a fox, lingering in the shadows, searching for scraps.
The children were dirty. They smiled even though their meal was meager.
It was clear their mother was injured. She limped as she went to scoop out tiny spoonfuls of millet.
“Okaa,” the eldest girl said when her mother gave her a bowl of food, “you eat. I’m not hungry.” Her eyes drifted to the fields of golden wheat a mere stone’s throw from where they sat, stretching as far as the eye could see.
“No, my dearest. I’ve already had my meal.” The woman glanced at her husband, willing him to stay silent.
When the mother sat back down beside him, Mariko watched him quietly give her half his share.
Thankfully, most of the other children did not notice. They smiled and carried on, oblivious to their parents’ plight. But the eldest girl knew better. She pushed her bowl beside her parents’ and quietly began scooping some of her food into theirs.
The sight startled Mariko. Cut at something beneath her heart. For so many years she had prided herself on being the girl who saw things no one else saw. Who noticed the world not as it was, but as it should be. Her gaze drifted to the smiling faces of the other, younger children present.
At the face of the eldest girl, and the tiniest grooves that now gathered above her brow.
Mariko had countless fond memories of her childhood.
And not a single one of them recalled anything but contentment at mealtime.
Perhaps my mind saw only what it wished to see.
A cold hand of awareness took hold of her throat. In none of those memories could she remember seeing that same contentment in any of her father’s workers. When Mariko had wandered past the gates of her family’s home, into the fields and paddies beyond, workers had often come to usher her away. The smiles they’d given her had been wan. Aged. As a child she’d often asked why they looked sad. Why they didn’t smile more.
Her mother had told her they were merely tired. And then her nursemaid had urged her back inside. This was the way of it. A daimyō owned the land his people worked. In exchange for their lord’s protection and care, the people working the lands offered the daimyō tribute.
Was it possible Hattori Kano took more than his fair share?
Mariko recalled her father once saying how ungrateful his workers were. How he provided them with food and shelter and a place to work. And still they were unsatisfied.
The Black Clan intended to redistribute her family’s wealth. Back into the hands of those who worked the fields. Tilled the soil. Reaped the harvest.
All so Mariko could wear fine clothes and attract the attention of the emperor’s son. A part of her fought against the rightness of the sentiment. The rightness of seeing these people being granted their fair share. These were her family’s people, her family’s lands.
But when had Mariko ever once planted a seed or worked in the dirt when it was not out of personal interest? Not until she’d come to the Black Clan’s encampment had she even learned the basics of how to live on her own. Indeed this was the first time in her life she had ever held a sickle. And even now it was for the purpose of subterfuge.
As Ōkami had first pronounced that day Mariko had been tasked with carrying firewood, she’d been useless.
It was the truth of it all that had grated her nerves so thoroughly. How wrong it was that Mariko would fight so vehemently against accusations rooted in truth. Had Ōkami accused her of being lazy or slovenly or stupid, she would have laughed.
But when he’d accused her of being useless, it had stung.
Mariko wouldn’t be useless now. She saw the truth.
She could make her father see it, too.
Even if they were wrong, they were still her family.
No matter what it cost Mariko, she would warn her brother.
They plan to raid the storehouses in the dead of night.
That was all the servant had said to him. Kenshin had chased after the old man. When they’d rounded the corner, he’d grabbed him by his threadbare kosode, whirling him around.
The old man’s eyes were milky white. He was blind or very nearly so.
Kenshin had cursed to himself. “Do you know who told you this?”
“No, my lord,” the old man stammered. “I was told to convey that message, then given a coin for it. That is all I know.” He spread his fingers wide as if to prove that was all he had in his possession.
“And there was nothing further? Nothing about who intends to raid the storehouses?”
“No, my lord,” the old man said. “It was said quickly, as I was passing by. As though the messenger did not have time to say anything more.”
Kenshin removed his grip on the old man’s kosode.
Someone intended to rob his family. To steal from the stores that fed and clothed the people of his province. That supported the Hattori clan’s rise to greatness.
Without a second thought, he turned toward his family’s garrison.
Whoever they were, these thieves would not leave this valley alive.
Mariko’s hands shook as she waited beneath the straw awning. Ōkami leaned into the fall of shadows, watching for the signal.
“You don’t have to fight,” he said softly.
She turned toward him. “You don’t expect me to fight?”
“I have no expectations of you or anyone else. I’m simply saying you don’t have to do anything you don’t wish to do.”
Though Ōkami’s words held meaning, the cold precision with which he said them stung. Mariko did not wish to fight against any member of her family or any of the samurai who bore them allegiance. She did not wish to partake in any of this destruction.
But she could not ignore the chance to save lives.
And strangely a small part of her felt responsible for what might happen to Ranmaru. To Yoshi. Even to Ren. And to Ōkami. The weapon she’d brought with her had the potential to cause damage beyond her wildest imagination. She’d never had an opportunity to test it, and thus had no idea what to expect.
If something happened to Ōkami because of it . . .
She banished the thought.
He was a member of the Black Clan. Likely one of the mercenaries who had been sent to kill her. Even if recent events had brought that truth into question, Mariko would never choose the Wolf over her family. Not if she lived a thousand years.
The call of a nightingale echoed through the darkness.
The call that all was clear.
Using his hands to form a cradle, Ōkami helped propel Haruki and Ren onto the straw rooftop above. He motioned for Mariko to follow. At the last second, he pulled her to him, chest to chest.
“Don’t be a hero. You’ll make my life harder if you try,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper, his eyes two flashing stones of onyx.
Her breath caught. For a mad instant, Mariko thought to kiss him. “Do your job, Tsuneoki-sama. And I will do mine.” She vaulted onto the roof, trying her best to keep her steps as light as those of Ren. Her heart pounded in her chest as she flattened against the straw, attempting to remain out of sight.
Yoshi and Ranmaru moved like ghosts in the night toward the storehouse. Toward the same granaries Mariko had played in as a child.
There was no sign of anyone around.
All was eerily silent.
As Ranmaru fiddled with the latch of the storehouse, Ren grasped the edge of the roof, taking tight hold of the wooden frame before catapulting to the ground below.
An arrow sailed from the darkness, striking Ren in the side.
Mariko stifled a cry when she saw him fall. She thought to say something—to point out that they were under attack—but the words remained lodged in her throat.
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