The man’s gaze hardened. “Hattori Kenshin.”
“You were unsuccessful in the forest the first time. But here is another chance to remedy your mistake. Find the Dragon’s sister, and you will find the one we seek. The one who will set this course on its rightful path.”
“What am I to do with the Dragon once I am done?”
“It is immaterial to me what happens to Hattori Kenshin. Bring me a way to control the leader of the Black Clan. A way to exert influence over the son of Takeda Shingen. If he will not come to me of his own volition, then I will pull his strings from afar and wait.”
“This is what the emperor wishes of me?”
Kanako bowed. “I serve our emperor, in all ways. And you serve him in the greatest of ways.”
The man nodded and returned her bow.
Kanako passed him the flower in her hand. The orchid had turned black. She breathed deep of its perfume. Blood and heavy musk. “Take care not to damage our prize, Nobutada-sama.”
“Of course.” For an instant, his eyes glazed over. Distress washed across his face.
The distress of a man in conflict with his soul.
“The emperor will not look kindly on you should you fail,” Kanako reminded him, imbuing her words with steel.
Nobutada nodded, setting his spine straight. “If need be, I will die to bring an end to this conflict.”
“Of that I have no doubt.” She smiled. “You are the finest of samurai. A true tribute to your way.” Her eyes drifted across the sea of grey and silver before her. To the immense white oak tree in the distance. And the distortion in its center. “If Hattori Kenshin should cause you any trouble, do not hesitate to inform me.” Kanako wandered closer to the white oak. “I am caring for something he desperately wishes restored to him. Your lord will be grateful to us for our consideration.”
Nobutada bowed once more.
Kanako waved her hands across the thick trunk of the white oak. The mottled surface of the bark shifted to reveal a young woman, fast asleep in an enchanted slumber.
Half of her face was badly burned.
A MOUNTAIN OF FIRE
The next day all the men of the Black Clan were put to work fortifying the camp’s position against the Dragon of Kai’s oncoming onslaught.
All the men.
Mariko protested loudly when she was sent once more to work alongside Yoshi. Blank faces and solemn stares were the only replies with which she was met.
Finally—after three days spent preparing food—Mariko stood her ground before evening mealtime, tightening the dark silk cord wrapped around her middle. As before, she’d donned the clothing of a warrior, but she now chose to augment her garments with elements more suited to her status as the camp’s only female.
“I would hate to think,” she began in a stern voice, “that my place is manning the cast-iron pot simply because I’m a woman.”
“Why would you think that?” Lines puckered across Yoshi’s brow. “You did not protest before.”
“Give me something meaningful to do.”
“Do you not find providing sustenance meaningful?” He huffed.
“I did not mean to insult you.”
“Nevertheless you did.”
Though Mariko had never been gifted in the art of placating, she attempted to do so now. She took a step back and channeled her best attempt to emulate Yumi. “You’re being entirely too sensitive, Yoshi-san. I am merely stating that I’d be of far more use developing a way to reinforce the existing defense structures than I would be stirring a simple pot of bean curd.”
Yoshi turned to yell into the darkening woods. “Ōkami!”
“What are you doing?” Mariko said under her breath in exasperation.
Ren limped from the bushes, the wound in his side still causing him obvious pain. “What did you do now, woman?” he seethed, his face wan, the color in contrast to his eyes.
“Nothing you need concern yourself with, boy,” Mariko retorted.
Ōkami shoved through the underbrush, his arms coated in a thin layer of sweat. He waited, and Mariko ignored the way the setting sun struck the angles of his face. Brought his muscles into sharp relief. “Why did you shout for me, Yoshi-san?”
Yoshi pointed at Mariko. “She was condescending.”
“What did you want me to do about it?” Ōkami raised his eyebrows.
Yoshi shrugged. “I thought you might . . . talk to her. After all, she might . . . listen to you,” he grumbled.
Ōkami started to laugh. Then promptly turned and walked away.
Mariko smothered a smile. And refrained from watching the Wolf’s tall figure vanish from sight. It would do no one in the camp any good to know how often she looked for him, even at the most inopportune moments.
With a heavy sigh, she turned back to the steaming iron pot.
Arrows screamed into the dirt nearby, their feathers notched to create sound.
“Warning arrows.” Yoshi dropped the bowl of ground ginger, and it broke into pieces as soon as it struck the forest floor.
Mariko scrambled up the hill as several members of the Black Clan rushed to look at the color of the arrows’ feathered fletchings. Ranmaru stopped short beside Mariko, his sword already in hand.
Which meant that armed intruders had been sighted in close proximity to camp.
“How did they find us so quickly?” Mariko’s whisper was hoarse.
“A dark magic haunts these trees,” Ranmaru said. “Like calls to like. If the soldiers have a way to commune with the yōkai, then it’s possible one of the spirits has led them past our traps.”
The ground beneath them grumbled.
Ranmaru looked behind them. “The mountain is talking again.”
“What is it telling us?” Mariko felt the warmth of Ōkami’s presence at her back.
The Wolf pointed over her shoulder to the tree line. “That we are out of time.”
When Mariko saw the crests flying above the row of mounted samurai in the distance, she nearly collapsed.
The crest of the Minamoto clan. Alongside the crest of her own family.
At the head of the troop sat her brother.
The Dragon of Kai.
He’d begun in the clearing. The fateful clearing where his sight had left him. And all that remained was feeling.
The feeling of being threatened. Of being lied to.
Of being hunted.
Kenshin had lashed out that day. Cut down any and all who strode near. When he’d awoken, he’d found his sword covered in blood. The bodies of the old man and the boy and girl who’d worked alongside him had seared into his vision.
In his dreams, it was the fox that had saved him.
It was the fox that saved him now.
When Kenshin had begun searching through Jukai forest for any signs of the Black Clan, the creature had led him to another watering hole. Where an enormous man—nearly three heads taller than anyone else present—with a broken wrist sat drinking himself into a stupor.
This disgruntled giant had told him to ride toward the mountain. To gather Takeda Ranmaru’s topknot. And bring it back to him so he could collect a bounty from a nearby daimyō. A bounty that would allow him to regain the respect of his men.
Kenshin had been pleased when Raiden had first offered to accompany him. To help rescue his sister. The feral creature Kenshin had seen that night through the flames around the granary was not Mariko. She’d been crazed. Savage. So unlike the gentle scholar Kenshin had always known.
It must have been these men—these bloodthirsty mercenaries of the Black Clan—who had turned her into such an unimaginable version of herself. Who had made her descend to her baser instincts in order to survive.
Kenshin would destroy each of these men—tear them limb from limb—for what they had done to his sister. For what they had done to Amaya.
But all was not lost.
Mariko had warned him. Indeed that message could have come from none other than his sister. She’d told the blind man to seek Kenshin out. To save the granary.
Just as he intended to save Mariko today.
He would root out this evil from Jukai forest, once and for all. With the emperor’s son and his sister’s betrothed at his side. With the might of the empire at his side.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com