Her brother had been more concerned with causing harm than he’d been with finding a solution.

Just like her father.

Ranmaru paused before Raiden. He stood tall. Fearless.

With a wicked gleam in his eye, Raiden unsheathed the sword in his hands. Mariko flinched from the sight.

The metal of the sword was not fashioned of normal steel. It gleamed white, like a flash of lightning. Like something enchanted with an otherworldly light. A vague memory began to take shape in the deepest recesses of Mariko’s mind. An old story, whose words were just beyond her grasp.

Ranmaru did not reach for the sword.

“Do you not recognize this weapon?” Raiden asked.

Ranmaru’s back was to Mariko, but she saw his hands turn to fists. “You have no right to that sword.”

“I have every right.”

“Your father murdered mine in cold blood. Return that sword to its rightful owner.”

“Return my bride.”

“A girl is not a sword. And no price is worth that trade.”

Raiden took a step forward. “You truly believe that? This sword has been in your family for a thousand years. Your ancestors would turn over in their graves to see you disregard its significance.”

“My ancestors”—Ranmaru took a breath—“would never agree that a weapon is worth a life.”

Raiden brandished the sword, swinging it from one side to another in a slow arc. “It’s a magnificent blade. I’ve never seen its equal. When I was told to return it—to offer the sword in exchange for my bride—I thought the same as you do now. That no weapon could be worth a life.” He brandished it once more. The final arc brought it within reach of Ranmaru’s face. Raiden held it there for a breath. The sword remained an eerie, almost pearlescent white. As though diamonds had been ground upon its surface.

Ranmaru remained staunchly unmoved. Though Mariko watched his fists open and close twice.

“You do not recognize this sword. And it does not recognize you,” Raiden said slowly. “Who are you?”

When Ranmaru failed to answer, Mariko’s heart missed a beat. The lost story took its place on her tongue with a sudden, seizing clarity.

The Takeda sword. The Fūrinkazan. It had been taken from the Takeda clan when its family had fallen from grace. An enchanted weapon. A sword of light.

A sword meant to be carried only by a member of the Takeda clan itself.

A flurry of words collided in her mind, searching for order amidst chaos. Seeking truth amidst lies. Then the sword began to glow. Faintly. But surely. Its blade began to warm and flicker. The light emanating from its core was pure white.

From the shadows, a sinewy figure moved into view, through a haze of smoke.

His hands and face were covered in blood. He walked as though he were weary. Old.

Broken.

Mariko watched, frozen in place, as Ōkami stepped closer. Still soundless. Stalking through the night.

Raiden kept the sword steady. His features drew together in confusion, then smoothed as Ōkami—the Wolf—stepped beside the leader of the Black Clan.

His best friend.

With a satisfied smile, Raiden nodded at Ōkami. “I’ve heard a great deal about you, Takeda Ranmaru.”

The only son of the last shōgun stopped before the elder son of his mortal enemy. The man who had brought about the death of his father.

Ōkami did not flinch from the sight of his father’s sword. The Takeda sword. A weapon he had considered lost. And good riddance to it.

The Fūrinkazan was a weapon meant for a man of truth. A man of principle.

Not a pretender. Not a thief. Not a liar.

Not a coward.

And yet the sight of it in Minamoto Raiden’s grasp had ignited a long-dormant emotion. A feeling rich with strife. Rich with history. Replete with vengeance.

Ōkami had denied it for so long.

And his dear friend? His best friend. The son of Asano Naganori. The boy who had—for nearly seven years—assumed his mantle. Ōkami had never asked him to do so. Tsuneoki had done it to keep him safe. Had done it to make amends for the betrayal of his father. The actions that had led to the death of Takeda Shingen.

But—at his core—Ōkami had known there was more to it. More that his best friend had not yet said. He’d hoped Tsuneoki would tell him in time.

He owed his dearest friend this. He would not allow Asano Naganori’s son to perish in his stead. Or answer for his own reticence.

“What is it you want, Minamoto Raiden?” Ōkami asked.

Ōkami. It was a name gifted to him when he’d first entered the fighting ring not long after he’d bartered the last of his family’s wealth to gain his abilities. A story for another time. From another life.

The Honshō Wolf.

He had never corrected anyone. He had sought only to learn. To destroy. To know what it felt like to feel truly powerful. To truly understand what had been stolen from his family.

Raiden studied him, taking in his bloodied appearance. No doubt pleased to see how broken and weary Ōkami appeared. “My bride was captured on her way to Inako.”

The way he referred to Mariko as his irritated Ōkami immensely. Almost as much as the pompous cut of the fool’s armor. “Not by me or by any of my men.”

“It does not matter. She is here now.”

Ōkami breathed through his nose. “Are you quite certain of that?”

“We are,” the Dragon of Kai said curtly.

“She does not answer to you,” Ōkami replied in equally arrogant fashion.

Hattori Kenshin moved forward, attempting to intimidate his quarry. “She answers to her family. To her duty.”

“Mariko answers only to herself,” Ōkami said without flinching.

“Mariko?” A smirk began to form across Raiden’s face.

“She is one of us,” the leader of the Black Clan answered simply. “And you will not lay a hand on any of our warriors.”

Raiden laughed as though the entire idea were ludicrous. “If she chooses to side with you, then I cannot help her.”

At that, Hattori Kenshin stepped forward. Though he tried hard to conceal it, Ōkami saw the horror wash onto his features. Bloom across his face like a brushfire.

“Mariko!” he yelled. “Where are you?”

Not a sound emitted from the shadows and smoke.

“Mariko!” the Dragon of Kai called out once more, his voice increasingly desperate.

Again not a single answer.

“Put Takeda Ranmaru in chains,” Raiden said as he reached for his reins and began retying the chin guard on his helmet. “And kill anyone left standing.”

Mariko heard the hum begin to gather even before Raiden made his final pronouncement. She grabbed Ren and handed him her sword.

She would prevent any more blood from being spilled this night, no matter the cost. Mariko could not bear to lose anyone she loved.

“Kick me and strike me if you have to,” she said to Ren in an insistent tone. “Make them believe you hate me. Trade me for your safety.”

Ren’s eyes widened as Mariko swiped mud across her face and clothes.

“Don’t just stand there!” she said. “Here’s your chance to hate me as you’ve always hated me.”

Ren swallowed. “I’m—I’m truly sorry,” he said simply. “It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, Lord Lackbeard.” With that, he shoved her from the shadows.

“Try not to limp,” she said through gritted teeth. “Be strong. Unafraid.”

The sword at her back faltered.

“Stand tall, Ren,” she whispered. “The only true weakness is weakness of the spirit.”

The men before her shouted when Mariko and Ren came into view. The hum around Ōkami only increased in intensity. Ranmaru—or rather Tsuneoki—put a hand on the Wolf’s shoulder. Only then did the hum slowly begin to dissipate.

Mariko halted her march ten paces away. Ren cleared his throat. In a flash, he positioned the blade of the tantō at her throat. “You wanted your bride, Minamoto Raiden? She is here. I’ll return her to you in one piece. Under one condition.”

Raiden dropped his reins. “Why would I want a bride who has betrayed me?”

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