“Ren might die of his wounds. And we lost two of our men in the fight.”

Mariko’s eyes widened.

His dark gaze remained heavy-lidded as Ōkami stared at her unfeelingly. “You could have stopped this from happening.”

In all the times the Wolf had spoken to her—revealed small glimpses of his truth—she’d never once found him to be grim. And to find him speaking in such a manner about her? It only unnerved Mariko more. “I don’t understand what you mean. How could I have stopped this from happening?”

“Don’t lie to me anymore, Mariko.”

Nothing could drown out the roar in her ears. “What?” she stammered.

“I heard the Dragon of Kai call you by name. Hattori Kano had a daughter. We heard she was killed in Jukai forest. Don’t tell me you are not she. Don’t deny who you are when confronted with the truth. Names have untold power.”

“You heard?” Mariko stood, fury imbuing her with sudden strength. “You heard she was killed? Don’t you mean you were responsible for killing her?”

Ōkami remained so still that Mariko almost reached out to see if time had frozen around her.

“Is that why you’re forcing me to stay here?” she continued, her voice beginning to tremble. She should have felt ashamed, but she did not. “Because if Ranmaru learns who I truly am, he will try to finish the job he failed to complete a month ago?”

Ōkami unfolded to his feet. “This is the last thing I can do for you. Stay here until you are healed. Then go on your way.”

“Answer me!” Mariko stumbled across the covers. She grabbed him by the front of his kosode, trying to hold him still. To force him to answer. “Did you kill my father’s men? Did you try to kill me?”

Ōkami pried her hands from his collar, gently pushing her away. “When I return to the forest, I will tell the men everything. If they see you again, they will kill you. Don’t look for us. The Black Clan is dead to you.”

“Tell me!” she cried.

“Tell me your name first. Say your name. Admit who you are!” His eyes glittered. The first sign of uncontrolled feeling Mariko had seen since she gained consciousness.

She stood tall. “My name is Hattori Mariko.”

Ōkami nodded. “If there ever comes a day I try to kill you, Hattori Mariko, you will know it.” With that, he left, the doors sliding shut behind him with a final snick.

It was always possible—however unlikely—that Mariko had been wrong about the Black Clan. But now that she was confronted with the reality of it, she was not sure what to do.

The beautiful maiko—his sister Yumi—entered the room a moment later.

“What did you say to him?” Yumi asked.

“He won’t tell me the truth. He won’t tell me why he tried to kill me.”

She frowned, her lovely features gathering. “I don’t believe he tried to kill you.”

“Why not?” Mariko cried. “That’s what they do. That’s who they are! And now I will never know the truth. They won’t let me return to the forest. They won’t let me return to—” To the only place I’ve ever truly belonged. She began to sob, her words turning ragged.

Yumi set down the tray of food in her hands. She knelt beside Mariko. “If you really think that’s who Ōkami is—that that’s who Ranmaru is—then you don’t deserve to know them anymore, Hattori Mariko.”

LOST IN THE ASHES

Kenshin sat on the ground, his elbows braced against his knees. He stared into the distance, seeing nothing. Tendrils of dark smoke continued to rise from what remained of his family’s granary.

But he couldn’t think about that.

He couldn’t even consider the fact that he might have seen his sister last night. It wasn’t possible. A trick of the smoke. A dance of the wind-whipped flames.

Even all thoughts of Mariko were pushed from his mind.

Kenshin could think of nothing else but Amaya.

She was gone.

The fire had killed the only girl he’d ever loved. They’d searched the rubble for her remains, and been unable to find anything of significance. At least two other souls had perished in the fire.

Muramasa Amaya would never even have a proper burial. Kenshin would never see those soft grey eyes—or hear her musical laughter—again.

He should have stopped her. Should have barred her from that final fateful path. But Kenshin was never meant to watch over Amaya. To be the keeper of her heart. He’d told her long ago to find another. To find a man who didn’t shoulder his responsibilities. Who wouldn’t one day inherit his father’s duties. Amaya had laughed at him and said she didn’t want Kenshin to be her hero. She’d simply wanted to hold his hand. Let her be a comfort to him, as he was a comfort to her.

Kenshin should have stopped her. Last night. And so many nights before.

“What are you going to do about this?” His father stood alongside him, his face drained. Dour. “The harvest is not for several months. I can increase what I take from those who work our land, but this could possibly ruin us. Now that we’ve lost your sister’s dowry, we may not have enough to last us until the next harvest.”

“She’s gone,” Kenshin said aloud, the words like ash in his mouth as he took to his feet.

They began to walk past the shadow of the charred granary. “What happened to Muramasa-sama’s daughter is unfortunate. If this harvest is plentiful, we can give her father a purse of gold. Of course he will always have a place here. But that is not the issue of importance, Kenshin. You are my son. The Dragon of Kai.” Hattori Kano’s gaze leveled as he eyed his son sidelong. “What do you intend to do about the theft and destruction of your family’s property?”

Fury blazed through Kenshin, hot and fast. His father thought to give Muramasa-sama a purse of gold? How would that even begin to offer recompense for what the revered metalsmith had lost? His father should be at the metalsmith’s feet, begging for forgiveness! Asking for atonement. Kenshin turned, intent on confronting his father once and for all. On changing his father’s mind. Influencing him to see the good, honorable, righteous path.

Kenshin stopped in his tracks.

This was precisely the way his father had always been. When confronted with an obstacle, Hattori Kano had simply offered money as a means to brush it from his path. Why would his father change his mind for the mere daughter of a famed artisan?

Kenshin knew better than to try to persuade Hattori Kano that the righteous path was the correct one. Indeed he knew better than to convince his father of anything that did not already fall in line with Hattori Kano’s established way of thought.

Especially since what Kenshin planned to undertake now had nothing to do with the charred remains of his family’s storehouse. Nothing to do with honor or respect.

He would never forget the look of disgust on Amaya’s face before she went inside the granary to finish what Kenshin should have started from the beginning.

The last look they’d ever shared.

Before he gutted each of the men in the Black Clan, he would burn them first.

Then, at least for an instant, they would understand his pain.

Yumi floated across the tatami mat, a tray of food balanced in her hands. The way she walked reminded Mariko of a swan gliding across a pond, neck straight and silken feathers impeccable.

“I’m perfectly capable of feeding myself,” Mariko said.

“I have no intention of feeding you,” the maiko replied, her features almost prim in their mockery. “I’m not your servant. I’m merely here to help, as your hands are not yet healed.”

“I promise I’ll continue taking care of them. May I please leave?”

“You may not. I promised Ōkami I would watch over you. If you’re one to make promises, you’re one to understand their value.”

“I understand nothing.” Mariko attempted to cross her arms, but the bulky bindings around her hands prevented her. “And I need the help of no one.”

“I see.” The beautiful girl’s tone was not condescending. Though Mariko knew she deserved to be patronized for being so petulant.

***

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