Mariko sighed in defeat. “I thought I possessed all the answers. Or at least most of them. Now I know I understand nothing.”

“That knowledge is key to understanding the world, don’t you think?” Yumi said as she knelt beside Mariko and handed her a bowl of steaming rice.

Mariko nudged the handle of her spoon with a bound fingertip. “Are you ever angry you were born a woman?”

Yumi sat back on her heels and studied Mariko for a spell. “I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.”

As she let Yumi’s words sink beneath her skin, Mariko’s eyes drifted across the maiko’s perfect face. Across her beautifully sloe-shaped eyes. Her pointed chin and broad lips. Then Mariko’s gaze wandered around Yumi’s chamber. To the elegantly displayed kimono. To the ivory pot filled with a powder made of crushed pearls. To the pigments prepared from safflower rouge for the lips and cheeks. To the paulownia wood used for the eyebrows. Cosmetics and silks to both mask and enhance a woman’s features.

Mariko supposed it was possible all women and men were forced to wear their own kind of masks.

“But how can you say you’re not angry?” she asked quietly. “Your brother left you here because there was no other place you would be safe alone. No other place for a young woman to live alone, save a geiko teahouse in Hanami.”

“My brother brought me here because he was too much of a coward to care for me himself,” Yumi said curtly. “It had nothing to do with me being a girl.”

Though she was surprised to hear Yumi call Ōkami a coward, Mariko could not help but agree on this score. “We are given less,” she continued arguing her point. “We are treated as less. And whenever we make a mistake, it is weighed so much greater.”

“The only great mistakes are the mistakes that remain ignored.”

Mariko sniffed. “I’m tired of being treated this way.”

“Have you felt as though you are incapable of fighting back?”

“For most of my life I have not fought back.”

Yumi laughed, and the sound brought to mind a set of wind chimes. “Ōkami warned me you were quite a liar. I see what he meant.”

“Why do you believe me to be lying?”

“Because, Hattori Mariko, you are not one to conform to any man’s expectations. Is that not—in a way—a manner of fighting back?” She smiled. “Believe me when I tell you I would not want to sleep with my feet pointed in your direction.”

“Believe me when I say you would be alone in thinking that.” Mariko frowned.

Yumi inclined her head, her expression thoughtful. “There is such strength in being a woman. But it is a strength you must choose for yourself. No one can choose it for you. We can bend the wind to our ear if we would only try.” She leaned closer. “Are you not the one who invented a weapon of exploding fire? Did you not bend the will of countless men with nothing but the fruits of your mind?”

“I can bend nothing. I can’t even make your brother listen to me. Your entire family is exasperating.” Again Mariko tried to cross her arms. Again she was thwarted. “Don’t act as though being inscrutable makes you anything more than irritating.”

Yumi laughed again, softly and lyrically. A knock resounded at the sliding door to her chamber. The maiko stood to answer it, returning with a sealed piece of parchment. While Yumi read it, the edges of her lips became downturned. Her eyes started to narrow.

Without a word, the maiko burned the letter.

“What is it?” Mariko asked.

Yumi hedged. Bit her lip.

Mariko set aside her bowl of uneaten rice. “You know something, don’t you?”

“I know many things I am never supposed to tell you.” It was a leading kind of statement. The sort Mariko knew better than to ignore.

She leaned forward. “Tell me anyway, Asano Yumi. And at least for one day, we can climb the mountain together.”

Yumi’s smile was pointed. “My loyalty is not to you, Hattori Mariko.”

“Then to whom do you owe it?”

“To my brother and his lord, Takeda Ranmaru.”

“So why are you even mentioning any of this to me?” Mariko pressed.

“My brother will not return to the city for some time. But I need to get Ōkami a message.”

“What is it?”

“Hattori Kenshin is marching on the western edge of Jukai forest.” She paused. “In an attempt to rescue his sister.”

“Why now of all times?” Mariko cried, throwing back the embroidered coverlet. “The rumors of the Black Clan being responsible for my supposed death have existed for months!”

“I cannot tell you why he is marching on them now. But word must be sent to my brother.”

“How did you normally reach him?”

“Ōkami comes here often. Unfortunately I was never told how to find their camp. My brother thought it was far too dangerous for me to know. It was something someone could hurt me in an effort to learn.” Yumi sidled closer, tucking her pale green kimono neatly beneath her knees. “Are you certain you could not find their camp if you searched for it?”

“I have no idea how to find it.”

Yumi’s voice dropped in sudden urgency. “Do you think you could try? You owe them that, at least.”

A part of Mariko agreed. She did owe the Black Clan something. As much as they owed her an explanation. If they weren’t responsible for attacking her convoy and trying to kill her, then who was? Who had tried to impersonate them that ill-fated night in the forest? “I can try. Do you”—she swallowed—“really think Ōkami revealed my identity to the Black Clan?”

“I have never heard the Honshō Wolf make idle threats.”

Mariko inhaled slowly.

“They might not look kindly on you when you return,” Yumi warned. “They’ve slit the throats of other men for less.”

With a careful nod, Mariko made a decision. “Will you help me with something?”

“As long as it harms no one, then yes. What is it?”

Mariko wobbled to her feet and began unraveling the bandages on one hand. “If I am marching to my death, then I will march to it as a girl. Without fear.”

THE SHADOW WARRIOR

Mariko was not afraid anymore.

As her time with the Black Clan had taught her, avoiding fear made her weak. Embracing it made her strong.

True weakness is weakness of the spirit.

Mariko had lived a life of wealth and privilege. A life spent blissfully unaware of the suffering around her. A life she herself had never fully appreciated. Her mother did not give without expecting something in return. Her father only ever took.

And Kenshin?

Kenshin gave to others from a sense of honor and responsibility. But his honor and responsibility had failed him that night. Mariko had watched him torture Ren. Had seen the aftermath of his attempts to find her in Jukai forest. The bloodied bodies of innocent young men and women. Of an old man much beloved by many.

Only a few days ago, Mariko had been the reason such chaos had unraveled before her very eyes. Her invention had wrought havoc on her people. Undoubtedly hurt some of them. And she did not yet know what had happened to all the members of the Black Clan.

Her . . . friends?

Yes. If they were no longer her enemies, perhaps Mariko could one day consider them her friends. Certainly Yoshi. He’d only ever been kind to her. Offered her guidance and delicious food. Laughter in moments when she desperately needed it. And Ranmaru had been a strange source of reassurance for Mariko. This boy with an almost mysterious air to him, who nevertheless came across as approachable and direct in all of his dealings. Even Ren—her erstwhile tormentor—well, on second thought, Mariko supposed he could never be a friend. Not unless she could catch him unawares with a few strategic strikes of her own.

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