He whirled around to see her splashing pails of water toward the burning granary.
“There are workers trapped inside,” she implored. “They were trying to save some of our stores. If we don’t rescue them, they will be burned alive!”
Kenshin’s father stumbled to a halt nearby. “Get our men out,” he ordered, smoothing the folds of his fine silk kimono while he spoke.
Usually Kenshin was the first to follow any order Hattori Kano doled out, without question. But in this instant, a part of Kenshin could barely register his father’s words. He was still lost in the sight of only a moment ago. And he desperately wanted to seek out the crazed young man with a face so similar to that of his sister.
Amaya shoved her hair from her damp forehead and barreled toward the granary.
“What are you doing?” his father demanded.
The fire blazed in Amaya’s beautiful grey eyes. “Our men are in there.”
“And several servants.” His father’s face became stern. “Do not risk yourself for the servants. Try to save our soldiers. If you cannot, so be it.”
Her lip curled in disgust before she turned toward the burning granary, her head held high. Kenshin raced toward the fire, pushing his way through the smoke.
“Amaya!” he called out.
She was dragging a man from the flames. The sweat was already dripping from her forehead, drenching the collar of her kimono. Kenshin saw from the man’s clothing that he was a servant. Amaya was working in express defiance of Hattori Kano’s directive.
In the corner, Kenshin caught sight of one of his father’s samurai. The man was unconscious, with a wound to his head and a leg stuck beneath a splintered beam. He turned toward the samurai to help.
Amaya called out. “Help me, Kenshin!”
“Leave the servant,” Kenshin replied. “Help me with Fumio-sama.”
“Don’t argue with me!” Amaya said.
“My father wants—”
“I don’t care what your father wants. Help me save this man. Help me save this life.”
Kenshin heaved a breath, his eyes wild. Then he grabbed hold of the servant’s shoulders and stumbled away from the blaze. His father waited outside, every part of his body tense with fury. Before Hattori Kano could say a word, Kenshin and Amaya fended off the blaze once more and—together—managed to lift the splintered beam and pull Fumio-sama to safety.
Another side of the granary bowed inward, consumed by flames. “That’s enough, Amaya,” Kenshin said, his voice coarse from the smoke.
“There are still two more people inside—a woman and a young boy who works in the granary. We have to help them. They became trapped because they were trying to put out the fire!” She spun to make her way back toward the blaze, undeterred.
“No.” Kenshin grabbed her by the wrist.
Amaya’s eyes were pleading. “We have to save them.”
“Do not risk yourself,” his father argued. “The entire structure will collapse at any moment.”
Kenshin hesitated. “Amaya—”
With a look of pure revulsion, she returned to the fire.
Kenshin’s father took hold of his shoulder, keeping him still. Keeping him beyond the reach of any danger. Again Kenshin hesitated before firming his resolve. He could not leave Amaya to fight through the blaze herself. The moment he tore himself free from his father’s grasp, the walls of the granary buckled.
Without a second thought, Kenshin sprinted toward the roaring fire.
It took three of his father’s soldiers to hold him back.
“She’s gone,” Hattori Kano yelled.
Kenshin stared at the blaze until his eyes burned.
“What a foolish waste of life,” his father said before walking away.
MY NAME IS MARIKO
Okami let himself be sick. Let himself empty his stomach until there was nothing left. And still the shaking did not stop. Still he felt the cold sweat sliding down his back.
He’d never flown this far before. Never carried a burden like this before.
In the distance behind him, he could see the flames. Hear the shouts. The burning granary and its many victims. Ōkami could only hope the Black Clan had vanished back into the woods, letting the thick veil of night conceal them from prying eyes.
He hoped Ranmaru had been able to take Ren with him. Hoped all his brothers in the Black Clan were spared the effects of that sudden explosion.
When Ōkami had finished emptying his stomach, he wiped his mouth. Though he continued to tremble, he heaved his unconscious burden across his shoulders again.
This girl. This wretched, wretched girl.
This wicked liar.
Mariko. Her name was Mariko.
Ōkami had watched the Dragon of Kai see her. Heard Hattori Kenshin call to her with a familiarity that could not be mistaken for anything else.
In truth Ōkami was glad she’d passed out from the force of being hurled through the sky, carried by nothing but wind and smoke. Or perhaps it was a combination of several elements—the explosion this wretched girl had undoubtedly caused, along with being heaved beneath the clouds. Whatever the case, Ōkami could not bear to speak to her. To watch more lies fall from her rosebud lips.
He had to figure out what to do first.
Hattori Kenshin knew who this girl was. There was only one way that could be possible. Ranmaru had told him that Hattori Kenshin had a twin sister.
Her name was Mariko.
Therefore this strange and imaginative girl—this girl who had captured Ōkami’s attention with her radiant eyes, who had confused him beyond compare, who had fearlessly sparred with him using words as well as swords, who had befuddled his senses as no one ever had before—was the sister of the Dragon of Kai.
Ōkami almost laughed at himself, even while he choked through the last of his pain. The last of the burden that came with his power. A burden he’d willingly chosen.
In all his life Ōkami had never thought to find love. Because he’d never sought it. Love was a burden he did not want. When others had described it to be like an arrow or a bolt of lightning, he’d sneered inwardly. Both were things that could kill. Love to him was not a shot to the heart. It was not a sudden, unpredictable thing.
Love was a sunrise. A welter of crimson that rose much like a warning. Slowly and almost in secret.
A secret Ōkami did not welcome.
The girl who’d stolen Ōkami’s heart with her lies and her clever, clever mind.
Was the sister of the Dragon of Kai.
Mariko’s head was pounding.
Over and over, she heard her brother’s voice. Saw the look on his face.
When she opened her eyes, the first thing she did was cough. Her hand moved toward her lips as she cringed in pain. Her fingers were wrapped tightly in muslin bindings. The room around her was beautiful. Dark wood and silk-screened sliding doors. The scent infusing the air was familiar. Sweet plum and honeysuckle.
Mariko was in the teahouse in Hanami. Her bandaged hands rustled across the elegant covers as she tried to sit upright.
And found Ōkami positioned nearby.
She smiled tentatively. He did not return the gesture.
“Did I pass out?” she asked him.
His features were not cool. Nor were they tinged in amusement. They were filled with . . . nothing. “No.”
“Why did I sleep for so long?”
“You were badly injured.”
“I drugged you.”
Her lips pursed. “Why would you—”
“I told you I owed you an injury. Now we’re even.”
She blinked sluggishly. “What?”
“I’m leaving you here with Yumi. Your hands need time to heal. Don’t try to return to the forest. If by some miracle no one saw you that night, it still won’t be possible to keep your secret from them for much longer.”
“But . . . I wish to go back,” she said. “I—I don’t want to leave.” As soon as she said the words, Mariko was startled to grasp their truth.
“I don’t care what you want.”
The coldness of his words cut through Mariko’s skin, down to the marrow of her bones.
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