And Ōkami? No. They could never really be friends.
Mariko wasn’t sure she wanted to be the Wolf’s friend anyway. Could she ever be friends with a boy after dreaming of the way his calloused hands felt on her bare skin? Of the way his scarred lips felt pressed against her own?
She supposed not.
Mariko had never had friends before. Real friends. Ones who were not threatened by her family or by her strangeness. Her strange desire to learn about anything and everything.
Not until Mariko had first gone to the forest dressed as a boy did she ever realize how small her world had been. What it meant to be truly challenged. What it meant to be truly happy, in a world where no one questioned her place.
The Black Clan might reject her.
They might kill her.
Ōkami had said he would tell them. He’d said he no longer felt any obligation to keep her secret. Not when she’d betrayed them as she had, by helping her brother.
Mariko stopped in the clearing where Akira-san had perished. Where Kenshin had lost his way. The burned lean-to was still standing. She looked to the trees. Studied the jagged silhouette of the mountain in the distance.
A silhouette she’d often studied while at camp.
Everyone had told Mariko she would never be able to leave their encampment. That she could not run.
But could she make her way back if she tried?
Northeast. If Mariko trekked in that direction, it would be possible to find some kind of path. Some evidence of where the encampment was.
Unlikely. But possible. These were odds Mariko could work with.
She began walking northeast, keeping the mountain in her sights.
If there was any chance of finding the Black Clan’s encampment without stumbling into a trap, Mariko hoped a girl would be the first one to do it.
The sun had descended behind the trees. A white-gold glow limned the horizon.
Nightfall was imminent.
Soon Mariko would be lost in Jukai forest. Lost amongst the yōkai. Lost amongst the jubokko. Lost amongst those she’d recently betrayed.
She trod carefully, searching for signs of black flowers. Sniffing the air for the scent of blood. Seeking vines covered in thorns. Watching for anything that seemed out of the ordinary.
Fear kept her alert. She would always let it feed her. Never let it consume her.
Mariko stopped in her tracks when a pair of yellow eyes formed in the darkness.
A pair of yellow eyes she recognized well.
When the beast took shape around them, Mariko held her breath. It eyed her as it had before, its head tilting to one side. Then it leaned back on its haunches and howled. The sound was low, but it began to widen, to layer with the weight of many voices, large and small. It echoed through the trees, ricocheting into the night.
She was not afraid.
Then the beast turned. Waited for her to follow it.
That time before—with the filthy man who had trailed after Mariko the night her convoy was attacked—the beast had warned her.
She would trust it tonight. A part of her understood she’d almost expected the beast to find her again, as it had that first time.
It padded through the dirt and dead leaves. Mariko realized it moved without making any noise. When she tried to draw close, it whipped its head back at her.
The beast was edged in dark smoke. Perhaps even fashioned of it. She followed it up an incline. Until they came across a pool of freshwater. Though it was full dark, the beast stepped with an otherworldly sure-footedness. Then it dissolved on a wisp of wind, its eyes fading into black. Mariko stood within a tight grove of trees. The chirruping of insects halted, and the gentle sound of rustling leaves ceased.
She heard nothing.
Then, from the darkness, a single torch began weaving her way.
It flickered through the branches as it approached her.
Mariko’s heart raced, but she was not afraid.
She was strong. Free.
Other torchlights took shape around her. They all drew toward her like water gathering near a dam. Shapes materialized behind each ring of fire. Darker, thicker shadows, enveloped in night. But corporeal.
They were all masked. All dressed in black. Thick lines of black ink had been drawn across their eyes. Mariko knew they saw her. Saw a girl, dressed in a simple pale pink kimono, its hem stained from her trudge through the forest.
A figure moved to the head of the converging shadows. He stood before her. Mariko knew based on his stature, based on his bearing, that it was Ranmaru.
“To be a shadow warrior, the forest must accept you first,” he began. “It must see you as its equal. As its ally.” His eyes glowed yellow for an instant. He winked at her once.
Mariko remained still, her heart immobilized in her chest.
The beast. The beast formed of smoke and shadow.
It was Ranmaru.
Which meant the leader of the Black Clan had known all along that Mariko was a girl. She longed to ask him why he’d kept her secret. Why he’d helped her in the forest after her convoy had been attacked. Only to disappear as she was set upon by a drunken fool.
There would be time later for her questions. Now was not that time.
“The forest led you here tonight,” Ranmaru continued with a meaningful smile. “Only those it deems worthy are granted this gift.”
Mariko lifted her chin, accepting the forest’s embrace. Accepting that she had truly found her place here, in a grove of enchanted trees, with a band of mercenaries dressed in the color of night.
“Hattori Mariko . . . do you agree to fight and die for your fellow shadow warriors?”
“Do you agree to fight for justice, irrespective of honor?”
Mariko cleared her throat with conviction. “Yes.”
“Do you agree to see all those before you as your equal, regardless of birth or rank?”
“Do you agree to use all manner of subterfuge—even lying, cheating, stealing—to achieve our shared goals?”
“And will you die to protect this secret?”
She did not hesitate. “Yes.”
“Today you become kagemusha. Today you swear to serve and protect all those in need.” Ranmaru walked back when he finished.
No leaves rustled nearby. No sound emitted from his footsteps. No wind carried with it the scent of warm stone and wood smoke. But Mariko knew Ōkami moved toward her. Her body leaned forward of its own volition, drawn like drying leaves to a river’s edge.
Ōkami stepped before her.
“Close your eyes,” he said softly. In one hand he held a small earthenware pot filled with a black liquid.
She let her eyes fall shut, reveling in the darkness. Embracing her fears.
“Be as swift as the wind. As silent as the forest. As fierce as the fire. As unshakable as the mountain.” His words swept over Mariko as Ōkami’s fingers brushed slowly across her eyelids, covering them with the same black paint they all wore. His touch was a flare of heat across her skin. When he finished, the wind took flight once more. The trees rustled with a sudden swish of air, and the branches creaked in celebration.
As though the forest itself were welcoming her.
Mariko tossed in her tent, sleep eluding her.
She did not understand why she could not rest.
The Black Clan had welcomed her. Not a single one of them had turned his back on her, though they all knew who she was. Though they all knew what she had done.
She’d deceived them. Infiltrated them. Cheated her way through their ranks. Outsmarted and betrayed them, several times over.
And they’d welcomed her for it, as though she’d always been one of their own.
No one in her life had ever welcomed Mariko for being herself. Not her parents. Never those in the nobility. Even Kenshin had wished her to be different. Wished her to conform, at least in the smallest of ways.
She had done none of those things.
Now there was nothing to fear. And still Mariko could not sleep.
Only when she paused to stare at the sloped ceiling of her tent did she understand why dreams continued to elude her. Ōkami had not spoken to her. Save to tell her to close her eyes. Save to recite the refrain he’d once said to her in passing.
For the rest of the night, the Wolf had leaned against a twisted tree trunk as Yoshi had come to take her in a rather energetic embrace. As Ranmaru had clapped her on the back, his grin simultaneously knowing and secretive. As each member of the Black Clan had—in his own way—demonstrated his solidarity. Their sense of kinship with her.
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