“This ridiculous girl?” Ren laughed maniacally. “She couldn’t even betray herself. Cried herself to sleep most nights. Look at her. She’s filthy. When we took her prisoner, we had no idea who she was.”

Kenshin moved forward. “Mariko? Is this true?”

It wasn’t the sight of her brother that moved her to tears. It was the thought that those she cared for—her friends, the boy of her heart—the thought that they might die that made Mariko’s sight begin to water. The tears gathered and spilled over, trailing down her muddy, bloody face.

“Kenshin,” she said, her voice quavering, “please take me away from here. My lord Raiden, these men kidnapped me. They are liars and thieves. They have treated me abominably.”

The son of the emperor remained unmoved. He continued to address Ren and not Mariko. “Even if she is my bride, what makes you think we would trade Hattori Mariko for the lives of all the men left standing?” Raiden said, his hand still resting on the hilt of his katana.

In that moment Mariko had her first taste of hatred for her betrothed. And she knew it would not be her last.

“Because it is not just one life to be traded. Leave the rest of my men alone. And I will go with you as well,” Ōkami said quietly.

No!

Mariko fought back the urge to cry out. To scream in protest.

But Minamoto Raiden smiled his menacing smile. And the deal was done.

Ren pressed Mariko into the fold. Kenshin swept closer, and Mariko ran the rest of the way. As she passed Asano Tsuneoki—the real son of Asano Naganori—her eyes met his for a moment. They glowed yellow and feral as he nodded once.

And the look was a promise. The beast would be at her back. Keeping watch. Always.

Kenshin took her in his arms. Held her tight. The tears continued to spill down Mariko’s face unchecked.

Over her brother’s shoulder she saw Raiden shove Ōkami until he was kneeling in the mud. Watched as imperial soldiers bound his wrists in chains. Mariko closed her eyes tight, willing away the image.

“I’ll take you home,” Kenshin said softly.

“No,” Mariko said. “There’s nothing left for me at home. Take me to Inako.” Her tear-filled gaze bore into the face of her betrothed, daring him to lay hands on Ōkami again. “If my lord Raiden will still have me, I’m ready to begin my life in the imperial court.”

“Are you certain?”

The tears burned in her eyes as she watched smiling, taunting imperial soldiers drag Ōkami to his feet. “I have never been more certain of anything in my life.”

AN ENDING

This was to be an unusual tea ceremony.

In an unusual location. At an unusual time of night.

But then her emperor had always been an unusual man.

Her Imperial Majesty Yamoto Genmei, Empress of Wa, slowly made her way to the moon-viewing pavilion, each step itself a journey. A reminder.

Her nerves were wound tight within her. But she did not show it. Years spent living in Heian Castle had taught her better than to wear her every emotion for all the world to see.

The emperor had asked her to join him for tea this night.

It had been years since he’d asked her to partake in anything together. Years since he’d asked her to share in anything under the stars. And the moon-viewing pavilion was one of his favorite places to be on a warm summer’s eve. In fact, this particular pavilion had been built for her. For his whore, Kanako.

Genmei paused in her steps. She reached into her sleeve and drew out a tiny glass vial. Slipped a drop beneath her tongue and took a deep breath, letting the tincture spread down her throat. Cool her burning nerves.

She lifted her head high. And continued down her path. The emperor had asked her to join him this night. It had not been a mistake.

Genmei reached the moon-viewing pavilion. The emperor was already there, his hands behind his back, his head turned to the stars. He looked her way after she removed her lacquered zori and bowed at the top of the steps.

“I’m pleased you are here,” he said with a smile.

“My sovereign asked me to come.”

“You could have refused.”

“I have never refused you anything.”

“All the same, you could have done so tonight.”

Genmei dipped her head. “My life has been devoted to serving my emperor.”

The emperor smiled again. He directed her toward the tatami mat positioned before the iron tea brazier. “Will you join me for tea?”

Again Genmei bowed. “Only if I may be allowed to serve it.”

The emperor nodded warmly.

The silks of Genmei’s elegant kimono and tabi socks brushed across the mats as she knelt before the brazier. With utmost care and precision, she began by folding a piece of clean orange cloth in three, then rolling it into a neat bundle. Using one side of the cloth, she lifted the lid off the iron brazier.

The emperor knelt across from her. Settled into position, his features almost kind.

Genmei used the long-handled bamboo ladle to spoon out steaming water into a small glazed porcelain bowl. She rinsed the bowl out, then—with another side of the orange cloth—wiped it clean before carefully portioning three tiny scoopfuls of pale green matcha powder into the porcelain bowl.

With a bamboo whisk and another ladleful of steaming water, Genmei mixed the tea until it was frothy and light. Each of her movements was precise. Calm. Artful.

Such was the tea ceremony. One of harmony. Respect. Purity. And tranquility.

She wiped the edges once more before turning the bowl toward the emperor. Serving him with an almost hesitant smile.

There was so much between them. So many unspoken sentiments.

The emperor drank deep from the bowl. Set it down.

Genmei rinsed it and repeated the process so that she, too, could drink from the same bowl. Share in the same ceremony of harmony and respect.

“I have been unkind to you,” the emperor said quietly, when Genmei had finished drinking her tea.

She said nothing. Refused to allow hope to enter her mind.

Hope was a poison to her world.

“It was not my wish for things to happen in such a way. But I do wish for things to change in the future,” he continued.

“Forgive me, my sovereign, but how can things ever change when—when she is still here?” Genmei said, her words laced with venom.

“Kanako is my royal consort. She is not leaving Heian Castle.” The emperor’s tone was firm. “But I do want to mend things between us. I do want to create a bridge between our worlds.”

“Why?”

“Because I look at our son, and I want our son to be better than we are, Genmei.” The emperor sighed. “I want him to see a better example.”

“Roku is better than we are.”

“I know I can be better. That we can be better.” The emperor stood and made his way to the steps of the moon-viewing pavilion. He waited for Genmei.

Something he’d never done before.

Each of her movements guarded, Genmei joined him. They donned their zori and walked together toward the pond’s edge. Waxy lily pads glistened beneath a ghostly full moon. Frogs and cicadas sang together in discordant chorus.

The emperor cleared his throat. “There is hatred between us.”

“There is,” Genmei agreed.

“Will you not agree to become better than our hatred? For the sake of our son?”

Genmei turned toward him. Looked her emperor in the eye.

He coughed as he met her gaze. His face became flushed.

There was a time she would have given anything to hear him say these words. To hear him say he cared about her—cared about their future—even in the barest of measures.

The emperor coughed again, a fist raised to his lips. Awareness began to take shape in his eyes. They bulged as his fingers grasped at his collar.

He tried to shout. But his voice remained lodged in his throat.

Genmei stood silent. She watched.

Tranquil. In harmony with herself.

As the Emperor of Wa keeled over into the pond beside his favorite moon-viewing pavilion.

Genmei looked at her husband for a moment.

“No, my sovereign,” she spoke softly. “We cannot become better than our hatred. But to protect our son from your mistakes, I will do whatever is necessary.” With the toe of her lacquered sandal, she shoved his head beneath the water.

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