These were her enemies. Her family’s enemies.

Set to rob the Hattori clan.

Even as she warred with herself, it soon became clear that Mariko did not need to say anything. Motion converged in the darkness. As soon as Ranmaru saw Ren fall, he and Yoshi folded into the shadows against the granary.

Torches burst to life across the way.

And the haunted, almost feral face of Hattori Kenshin glowed from the darkness.

Fury roared through his body.

One of Kenshin’s men had loosed an arrow too soon. The men endeavoring to rob his family had been warned.

There was nothing to be done for it.

“Show yourselves!” he demanded.

The shadows remained still across the way. Kenshin unsheathed his katana, directing his men with a nod. Two foot soldiers whipped across the path, their backs hunched, their arrows nocked as they grabbed the fallen thief by the arms and hauled him before Kenshin.

“Show yourselves, you cowards!” Kenshin shouted.

The young man at his feet was no more than twenty. He’d been shot in the side, the shaft of the arrow protruding from the folds of his black kosode. When no further signs of movement or sound emitted from the darkness, Kenshin pressed the tip of his foot to the young thief’s ribs, just above his wound.

The boy groaned. Shuddered. Then spat in the dirt beside Kenshin’s sandal. “You miserable whoreson.” He coughed.

Kenshin leveled the tip of his katana at the boy’s throat. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Tell me who you are, and you will die quickly. Painlessly. With a measure of honor.”

The boy’s laughter was harsh. Almost maniacal.

Kenshin pressed his foot down even harder. The boy cried out, then gritted his teeth.

“What kind of loathsome, dishonorable men are you?” Kenshin yelled into the blackness. “That you would allow your man to suffer while you stand by watching, idle?”

Sinister laughter emanated from beneath the awning of the granary.

“I suppose that would make us nearly as loathsome as you, Hattori Kenshin. A noble samurai who tortures a wounded, helpless boy in an effort to provoke a reaction.”

Kenshin flinched. “You drove me to this.”

“I expected nothing less from you. The Dragon of Kai . . .” Kenshin could almost picture the faceless sneer accompanying the words. “That you would blame others for your own actions. As though you did not have a choice. Yet you claim to honor bushidō.”

The fury ignited once more beneath Kenshin’s skin. “How dare you speak to me in this fashion? Who are you to dare?”

Another voice tore through the night, this one softer.

And yet infinitely more dangerous.

“We are nothing. We are no one . . .” Footsteps trudged through the darkness. A low hum began to form in the air around him. Strange and full of malice.

“And we are everywhere.”

From one side, a beast growled. Yellow eyes materialized in the shadows.

The hum grew louder.

Then—as if a giant fist had punched through the center of the earth—an explosion rocketed the entrance of the granary.

And a wall of fire and earth rained down upon them.

She’d done it to save Kenshin. Done it to spare her brother.

Mariko did not care what happened to Ōkami. Did not care at all about Ranmaru.

Did not care that Ren lay wounded at her brother’s feet.

When she lit the firegourd. When she rolled to the ground and tossed it before the entrance of the granary. When she provided a distraction enabling the Black Clan to escape.

She had done it for Kenshin.

Mariko shook herself into consciousness. Her head throbbed. She touched her ear and discovered a trail of warm blood trickling from its edge. Then she crawled on her hands and knees toward the safety of a toppled cart filled with chipped porcelain bowls. The explosion from the firegourd had ripped the entrance off the front of the granary. Since the members of the Black Clan had been positioned along the back of the roof and against the sides, they had not been killed by the blast. But several of them had been knocked unconscious, just like Mariko.

Screams echoed into the night as the granary caught flame.

An arrow whistled by her, startling her into full awareness. Sharpening the drone in her ears. Through the fire, she saw Kenshin swing his sword at a black blur.

Her pulse thundered; her throat went dry.

The black blur flashed to a sudden halt. Kenshin brandished his katana as Ōkami angled his bō to one side, ready to strike.

“Get Ren!” Yoshi cried out from behind Mariko.

Her family’s servants barreled into the night, frantically searching for buckets, for bowls, for anything to stanch the rising flames.

Mariko stood rigid, watching her brother make a decision.

Watching Ōkami make a choice.

Kenshin moved to attack as Ōkami hurtled into motion. Then—from her place beside the cart—Mariko saw Ren vanish in a smudge of darkness.

Ōkami had rescued Ren instead of attacking Kenshin.

In that moment, Mariko knew she, too, could not just sit here and watch others suffer.

As she stood to help put out the fire, one of her family’s foot soldiers caught sight of her. In this young man’s eyes, she must look to be just another boy dressed in black. The soldier promptly nocked an arrow to his bow. Before she could think to do anything else, Mariko smashed a smokeshield at her feet, then dashed behind a cart. She unsheathed her tantō, her pulse on a tearing rampage.

The arrow missed her, but the soldier barreled through the smoke, intent on cornering her.

He raised his sword, and Mariko knew she had to fight. Had to stop him from firing any more arrows her way. Without hesitation, she tore from behind the cart and flew into his knees. He toppled to the ground, and Mariko raised her tantō, brandishing it in a threat. With a look of hatred, the soldier punched her in the face.

Needles of light stabbed at her vision. Mariko grabbed her cheek as one eye welled with tears.

The young soldier tried to stand. Mariko drove the tip of her tantō into his hand, pinning it to the earth, the sound of bone grinding against metal causing her to cringe. He screamed hoarsely, then grabbed her ankle when she attempted to run, knocking her back to the ground. They wrestled for his blade, and the soldier reached for the back of her kosode, trying to force her into submission. The fabric tore open, just enough for him to see the muslin bindings around her breasts.

His eyes widened in shock. Then cut in unmitigated fury. “You . . . bitch!” He tried to throttle her with his unpinned hand. “What kind of whore fights alongside murderers and thieves? Are you the Black Clan’s whore? What kind of woman are you?”

Mariko coughed. Scratched at his face. The fingers of her other hand scrabbled across the ground, wrapping around smooth, cool porcelain. In one motion, she slammed a bowl into the soldier’s head. He called her another filthy name as she sat astride him.

He’d struck her. Her cheek felt shattered. This boy had tried to shoot her with an arrow. Tried to strangle her. Mariko could kill him, as he wished to kill her. She could kill him, as she had that man in the forest.

This soldier deserved to reap what he’d sown.

Mariko drew back a fist and punched him in the face.

When he spat at her, she punched him again.

For all those times a man had caused her to feel fear. For all those times she’d been made to think something was wrong with her. For all those times she’d been forced to believe a girl was somehow less than a boy.

She struck him again. He called her another filthy name, and her knuckles met his face once more. Soon she felt nothing in her fist.

“M-Mariko?” a voice stuttered to her right.

Just as she met the eyes of her brother, the roof of the granary collapsed on itself in a flurry of smoke and ash.

And a dark shadow grabbed her and whirled into the night sky.

“Kenshin!” Amaya yelled through a haze of smoke and a shower of sparks.

It couldn’t have been his sister.

That scrawny boy with a face covered in a spray of crimson—beating one of his men to a bloody pulp—was not Hattori Mariko. Kenshin shook his head, trying to clear his vision.

“Kenshin!” Amaya yelled again.


***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com