Perhaps Ōkami did not want Mariko to be here.

Perhaps he had objected and been overruled by a higher authority. Overruled by the forest itself. The trees must have known better than they that Hattori Mariko belonged—above all—beneath the forest’s sighing branches. Perhaps because she was far more inventive than all the men put together. Or perhaps the forest simply knew this was where someone like Mariko—a lost girl in search of a place to call home—could plant roots and flourish.

She tossed again, kicking up her thin woolen blanket. Wishing she’d had a chance to tell Ōkami that Ranmaru had always known she was a girl.

Wondering if this revelation was worth seeding enmity between the two friends.

When the flap of her tent rose—washing cool night air across her skin—Mariko yanked a throwing star from beneath her pallet and sat up in the same motion.

Ōkami crouched outside the entrance.

“Throw it or put it down.” He did not sound angry.

But Mariko did not discard the throwing star immediately.

He waited. “Are you going to invite me in?”

“Those are the words of a villain.”

“I am a villain. A deceiver. The son of a traitor. And so much more.”

“I know.”

“So then are you going to invite me in?”

“If I don’t?”

“Then I will never ask for an invitation again.”

Mariko moved aside, tossing off her thin blanket. She wore nothing but her white underrobe, but it did not matter. From him, she had nothing to hide. “Stay or go. I leave it to you. But you are welcome always. In all ways.”

Ōkami dipped inside the tent, letting the flap fall behind him. Mariko did not ask why he’d come to her tent in the dead of night. She dared not hope to ask, the blood pounding through her veins.

He cast her a searching glance. “I was unfair to you earlier.”

“I lied to you,” she said simply. “And I hated you.”

“I wanted to hate you,” he said. “It would have been easier to hate you. But I couldn’t.” Ōkami lay beside her, long and lean. “One day, I will tell you everything. About who I was. About where I came from.”

Mariko stretched out next to him, her fingers laced across her stomach. “I don’t care who you were. I only care who you are now. And that you are with me tonight.”

He turned toward her. “Always. In all ways.” Ōkami stroked a thumb along her jaw. Mariko leaned into his touch as he framed her face between his hands. As he kissed her eyes closed.

“Look at me.” It sounded innocent.

But nothing Ōkami ever said was innocent.

When Mariko opened her eyes to meet his, she saw a night full of stars.

“To me, you are magic.” His voice was soft. It slid over her skin like silk. The words he spoke were firm and unyielding. Steadfast. It gave Mariko comfort. For she, too, was equally unyielding. Equally steadfast.

She kissed his wrist, then reached for the loose collar of his kosode. Her hands brushed away the fabric, baring him to the darkness. When his fingers grazed the muslin of her thin underrobe, it sent a shiver down her back. The slide of the ties through his fingers was like a spark igniting in the dark.

“I want to lie here next to you tonight,” Ōkami said.

“How unfortunate for you,” she murmured. “Because I want much more than that.”

He smiled. His lips pressed beneath her chin, and Mariko wrapped both arms around his neck, drawing him over her.

Ōkami took hold of her wrists, pinning them above her head with one hand. Then he dragged a fingertip along the edge of fabric at her chest, loosening it, pulling it away.

All too slowly.

She sighed in frustration.

“So impatient. You’ve always been so impatient.” With his teeth, he spread apart her underrobe. Every bit of unveiled skin, he kissed, his breath a whisper and a promise.

Mariko brought him back to her lips. “You’re trembling,” she teased.

“I’m cold.”

“Liar. Tell me something true.”

“You first.”

She swallowed carefully. “I am not a maid.”

“Neither am I.” He laughed as she shoved a hand in his face.

“Ōkami?” She looked into his eyes. “To me, you are magic, too.” Mariko rested a palm against his chest. “My heart knows your heart. A heart doesn’t care about good or bad, right or wrong. A heart is always true.”

All trace of amusement vanished from his expression. “I may lie every day of my life, Hattori Mariko. But my heart will always be true.”

She could ask for nothing else. Mariko crushed her lips to his. He caught her against him, swallowing her sigh with a kiss. Causing her to catch flame as his tongue swept into her mouth. She let the fire burn through her until every thought in her mind was nothing but a wisp of smoke.

And Mariko felt it. The magic of a night sky filled with stars. Of a haunted forest with demons hidden in its folds.

Of a liar, cloaked in truth.

She felt it with every brush of his lips, every touch of his skin to hers.

The searing warmth of this new emotion. This hope she dared not name. A part of Mariko knew better than to touch this kind of flame. Knew better than to let anything deliberately burn her. But she returned Ōkami’s embrace. Returned each of his kisses. Every touch. Until nothing at all existed between them.

But shared breaths.

And unspoken promises.

Lies.

And unshakable truth.

THE BLACK ORCHID

Kanako watched her son, Raiden, sit across from the son of her enemy. She watched him laugh. Watched him listen intently. Interject occasionally.

Her face was cool and calm. Though her blood boiled from within.

The emperor dreamed of a world in which both his sons held power. Roku as emperor. Raiden as shōgun.

For years, Kanako had smiled at this. Smiled and gifted the emperor tastes of her power. Tastes that had intoxicated him. Kept him in her thrall. It had not mattered to her that the emperor’s evil hag of a wife mistreated her daily. Spoke down to her. Belittled her at every turn. It was not unusual for an emperor to have several consorts. For an empress to abase them out of jealousy or spite.

But Kanako had watched for nineteen years as the hag had mistreated her son.

Openly mocked him. Openly called him a whoreson.

Kanako could stomach anything when it came to herself. But she would not stomach any more of the tiny she-devil’s contempt for Raiden.

The emperor was her lover. Her son was her beloved.

There was no contest when it came to Kanako’s loyalties.

She wandered away from the first enchanted maru. Wove through the next set of gates. Then another. And another. Kanako paused before a flowering orchid tree. When she raised her hand, the surface of its leaves shimmered. Distorted.

The tree had been bewitched years before, by an enchantress of great skill. Kanako waved her hand across the blossoms. Removed a purple flower at its base. She gently drifted past the vines along its bottom. Vines that snaked toward her feet, then curled back, as though they’d wandered too near a fire.

A mirrored surface shimmered to life before her. Kanako touched a finger in its center and watched eight concentric circles ripple from the point of contact.

She stepped through the mirrored surface, into a garden absent color. Everything around her was rendered in shades of grey and white. Of black and silver. Her skin was milky, her kimono a stark contrast. A layered arrangement of painted silk.

A man waited beneath a yuzu tree. Its citrus scent wafted toward her, sharp and fresh all at once.

The man stood, dressed in a formal hakama, his features solemn.

A dark grey fox with golden eyes ambled across a corner of the enclosed garden. Stopped. And waited.

“I’ve come with another task for you,” Kanako said to the solemn man.

“Then I am to reemerge from this place?”

“It is time.” She conjured a silk purse from nothingness. The silver pieces within clinked together as she passed it along to him. “You must tell my son to go into Jukai forest. The fox will show you the way.”

“How does the fox know?”

“The fox is a creature of the forest. It always watches. Always knows.” Kanako smiled warmly. “Tell Raiden to seek out the Dragon of Kai.”

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