Mariko wanted to run from her skin. Be anything, be anywhere but where she was.

A brush of wind raked through the thorny brambles around her. Its breeze coiled beneath her hair, lifting the unbound strands. They caught in the stickiness on her cheeks. The salty wetness left there by trails of tears.

She needed to find her way home. Back to her family. Back to where she supposedly belonged.

But Mariko could not silence the thrum of her thoughts.

Could not squelch her curiosity.

She wanted—no, needed—to find out why the Black Clan had been sent to kill her.

Who wished her dead? And why?

She inhaled carefully. Gripping her knees as they pressed into her chest, Mariko forced herself to stop swaying.

And start thinking.

What would Kenshin do?

The answer to that was simple. Her older brother would stop at nothing to learn who had tried to kill him. Who had robbed his family and nearly brought an end to his life. Kenshin wouldn’t rest until he brought the heads of his enemies home in sacks stained red with their blood.

But her brother was allowed such discretion. Such freedom to choose. After all, he had not earned the name the Dragon of Kai by remaining safe within the walls of their family’s home.

He’d earned it on the field of battle. With every swing of his sword.

If Mariko returned home, her family would promptly dry her tears and send her back on her way. Back down this same path. Any word of the events that had transpired in Jukai forest would be guarded to the death. If the emperor or the prince or any member of the nobility learned that Mariko had been attacked on her journey to Inako, the royal family might cancel their marriage arrangement. Might claim this misfortune was a bad omen. One that could not be risked on royal blood.

Never mind the cold question that would undoubtedly follow. The whispers that would trail at her back.

The question of Mariko’s virtue. Lost in the forest, alone with murderers and thieves. A question that would linger, despite her family’s heartfelt protests.

Mariko pressed her lips to one side.

The same question she’d already answered in revenge. In an afternoon of calculated fury. But if . . .

If.

If she learned the truth—if she learned who was responsible for sending the Black Clan to murder her—Mariko might be able to spare her parents the embarrassment of having their daughter turned away. Might spare them the risk of having their family name soiled under a cloud of suspicion.

Her thoughts began to wind through her mind with the slow squeeze of a snake.

What if someone in Inako had sent the Black Clan? What if a rival family in the nobility had arranged her death to ruin the Hattori family’s rising fortune?

If such a feat could occur, then anyone in the imperial city could be called to question.

If Mariko learned the truth behind tonight’s events, then perhaps she could bring to light her family’s detractors, proving herself useful to the Hattori name, beyond securing an advantageous marriage. Moreover, she would have a few days—perhaps even weeks—to spend roaming at her leisure.

Then she would return and be the dutiful daughter evermore.

Mariko swallowed. She could almost taste the air of freedom. Its sweet promise, tantalizing the tip of her tongue.

Again a cool breeze cut through the air, twisting her hair in another frenzy. The light scent of camellia oil filled her nostrils. The oil used to tame her thick strands. To coil them into obedience.

Reminding her.

Hattori Mariko could not roam the Empire of Wa at her leisure.

A girl from a noble family could never attempt such a thing. Not to mention the fact that Hattori Kenshin was among the best trackers in the empire. As soon as her brother discovered Mariko had gone missing, he would begin his search, without question. That was how it had always been. Though Kenshin was only a few moments older than Mariko, he had cared for her—watched out for her—since they were children.

Her brother would find her. Of that there was no question.

Exasperated, she swiped a white sleeve across her forehead. A streak of black powder rubbed onto the silk. The burned paulownia wood that had been used to enhance her eyebrows. Mariko scrubbed at the stained sleeve, then gave up with a silent oath, her moment of happiness swallowed by the inevitable crush of truth.

Her eyes fell on the bloodied wakizashi lying nearby. No longer caring about the loss of her fine underrobe, she wiped the blood on its hem. Smeared it further. Blood and blackened paulownia.

It was true Hattori Mariko could not roam the empire at her leisure. But if . . .

If.

Mariko removed the jade bar from the last ring of hair at her crown. The black tangles tumbled around her shoulders, unfurling to her waist in a fall of scented ebony. She gathered her hair in one hand, near the nape of her neck.

Later she would marvel at how she did not hesitate. Not even for an instant.

Mariko sliced through the gathered strands in one blow.

Then she stood. With only a passing glance of remorse, Mariko scattered her hair across the thorny brambles, careful to conceal the strands deep in the shadows.

She felt lighter; her shoulders eased back.

Mariko glanced around with a new sight, as though her eyes could penetrate the heavy darkness. See through the thick veil of night. Her gaze locked on the motionless figure to her left—the twisted scavenger she had recently killed.

Strange how she did not feel any pity. Did not feel even a shred of remorse.

Kenshin would have been proud.

She’d fought off her assailant. And in doing so, she’d displayed one of the seven virtues of bushidō:

Courage.

The way of the warrior.

Mariko knelt beside the pool of congealed blood. As with everything else, the man’s garments were filthy. The collar of his hemp kosode was stained with rice wine and dried millet, and the linen of his trousers was threadbare.

But they would serve one last purpose.

Her thoughts unnervingly clear, Mariko untied the sash of her underrobe. Let it drop from her shoulders to the ground. Then she reached to untie the knot of his kosode.

Hattori Mariko was not just any girl.

She was more.

THE DRAGON OF KAI

The massive warhorse stalked through the predawn mist. A curtain of vines parted in its wake. Mounted samurai moved from the darkness, resuming their formation at the beast’s flank. Its heavily armored rider led them inexorably forward. The horse huffed through its nostrils, its eyes wild as its breath mingled with the mist—two steady streams of barely checked rage.

The samurai atop the sorrel horse was a stark contrast to his mount. He appeared calm. Collected. His helmet sported twisted horns. A gaping dragon’s maw adorned the front, fashioned of bloodred lacquer and polished steel. The breastplate of his dō was molded from rectangular plates of hardened leather and iron. It bore a hexagonal crest, with two arrow feathers affixed like dashes in its center. Opposite each other. Ever watching the other’s back. Ever promising a balance between light and dark.

Silently the men and their beasts crept through the rapidly fading darkness. An early-morning fog encircled the horses’ hooves, unraveling with each step as they cut through Jukai forest. Ever forward. Ever onward.

The samurai leading the contingent rode through the ghostly wood, his eyes scrutinizing the ground before him.

Missing nothing.

After a time, they came upon a clearing. The same clearing they had sought for the past two days. Recently arrived vultures circled above in slow downward spirals, drawing the men closer.

Drawing them toward a scene of death and devastation.

Before the band of samurai lay the remnants of a wealthy convoy, recently plundered.

The men reined in their horses. Their leader dismounted without a word. He was so light of foot, his steps could barely be heard. The white fog swirled around him as he moved forward soundlessly.

Though he could have paused to take note of the men lost—the bodies of the fifteen samurai left to rot in an ignominious predawn—the leader instead moved with unfailing purpose toward a heap of wood that looked to be the remains of a recent bonfire. As he neared the charred traces, the shadow of an elegant, lacquered norimono formed before his gaze. The samurai adjusted the swords at his belt and removed his helmet.

A rosy light began to crest through the trees at his back. Unbidden, he turned to face its blushing warmth. He took in a careful breath. A breath mindful of the life he was still privileged to live. A breath mindful of the good death he was destined to have—

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