And Raiden’s fist.
Strange that all this had come to pass. Come to pass despite the emperor having sacrificed so much to give his sons more. He’d gone as far as to execute many of his childhood friends to keep them from challenging his reign.
The emperor halted again in his stroll, as though the wind had been cracked from his chest. He took a slow breath. A pinching one, heated tongs clenched tight around his heart. He still felt it, even after all this time; the weight of his friends’ deaths would always be a heavy burden. A constant reminder. But he could not afford to feel remorse for his past decisions.
They had not been made lightly.
The Emperor of Wa could not be openly challenged by any man, not if he ever meant to achieve his greatest desires. And his friends would undoubtedly have challenged him. Naganori would never have remained quiet in the face of the emperor’s most recent edicts. His most recent attempts to consolidate his holdings. To raise taxes on his lands. To collect his due. All before striking out on his grandest of conquests:
Waging war for dominion over the sea and all its spoils.
Yes. Naganori would always have been a problem. An Asano man, through and through. Married to the law and its pervasive sense of justice.
But perhaps Asano Naganori could have been controlled in time.
Were it not for others . . . less willing to bend.
A cloud of yellow butterflies wafted across the white gravel before him. They took flight on a twist of air, curling and unfurling into themselves like a beating heart.
No. The emperor’s childhood friends would have been far too problematic.
Better he keep his council small.
Better he keep it amongst his family. And no one else.
He pushed through the cloud of butterflies, leaving them to scatter in disarray.
Alas, the deaths of his friends had not succeeded in putting an end to the whispers at his feet. The murmurs of those who would prefer to see a man with military skill at the helm of the empire. Especially of late, the emperor had witnessed the pomp and grandeur of the royal court being cast in a weak light. The weak light of undue opulence. Of unnecessary excess.
Awareness flared in his throat. Pulsed in his ears. The grandeur of the court was the grandeur he knew well. It was the grandeur of his son, the crown prince of Wa, Minamoto Roku. Second born, but first in line to rule.
It was not the grandeur of his other son, Raiden. Firstborn.
Yet destined to rule nothing.
Indeed, Destiny was a fickle beast.
“There you are, my sovereign.”
Warmth riffled through the emperor at the sound of this voice. A stirring that began in his bones and thrummed to his fingertips. The comfort of a loved one. Of an embrace he need never question.
But he did not turn at its sound.
The husky female voice continued. “I thought I would find you here.”
He did not face her. The emperor did not need to look to see her face. Its image lingered ever in the forefront of his mind. It was the face of the woman he had loved all his life. The mother of his elder son, Raiden.
Not his empress. Not his wife. But the woman of his heart.
She was here. With him. Though he’d failed to make her his empress, she’d stayed by his side as his royal consort. Stayed by his side and never questioned anything.
“You know me well, Kanako,” he said without looking her way.
“Yes.” Her laughter was the music of a softly strummed shamisen. “I do.”
Finally he turned toward her. Time had not weathered her features as they had his. Her figure was willowy, her skin like smooth ivory. She was still beautiful. He would always find her beautiful. From the moment he’d watched her conjure animals from the stuff of shadows, he’d found her to be the most beautiful woman he’d ever beheld.
They’d been young then. Not much older than children. He’d loved her still. And she’d loved him still, even when his father had forced him to marry a different young woman. One from a wealthy family with a million-koku domain.
The emperor did not reach for Kanako, though he wanted to. It was impossible to know who watched them, even now. Which servants reported to which master.
And it would not do for anyone to witness the emperor in a moment of weakness, no matter how insignificant.
Blossoms from a nearby cherry tree slanted their way. Kanako wove her slender fingers through the shower of petals, catching several in a grasp of magic. A swirl of sorcery. Almost absentmindedly, she conjured the petals into slowly churning eddies. Shapes. First a dragon. Then a lion. Then a snake.
Transfixed, the emperor watched the snake consume the lion. Kanako smiled, her lips curving into a gentle crescent.
“Did my little swallow deliver its tidings?” she asked softly, letting the snake roll between her fingers.
The emperor nodded. Waited to hear more of what he craved.
“The daughter of Hattori Kano is nowhere to be found,” she continued. “She was due here two nights past. Many are saying her convoy was ambushed near Jukai forest.” A pause. “By the Black Clan.”
He waited further.
Kanako let the petals drift away. “It is not clear if the girl lives.”
Though a tic rose in his jaw, the emperor nodded carefully. Then he resumed his stroll toward his castle.
“You have told our son?” he asked under his breath.
“Not yet.” Kanako glanced sideways at him, her dove-grey kimono silks parting like waves at her feet. “Not until we decide what must be said. What must be done.”
They rounded a bend in the white gravel walkway. The empress’s pavilion bloomed into sight. The emperor could hear the tittering of female voices, the undoubted condescension passing through the ranks of his wife’s countless attendants.
The emperor is walking through the gardens with his witch whore.
He refrained from sneering. From showing any reaction at all. Those foolish women knew nothing but this. They were the reason his reign had been tarnished by the stain of weakness. Of excess. These insipid young nobles and their families, forever grasping for favor.
The emperor had to transcend this stain. He had to have a tribute worthy of his lineage. He knew now—more than ever—how much he needed the might of both his sons to achieve this. No matter how improbable that may seem. No matter how unlikely his wife would be to acquiesce.
Her beautiful, obedient Roku would never be allowed to work alongside the son of the witch whore.
When a burst of nearby female laughter caught his attention, the emperor’s eyes flitted to a covered walkway across the courtyard. The empress’s billowing pink kimono pooled against the white stone as she bowed low, then spun away before he could catch her gaze.
Before he could see the hurt in her eyes.
Unmoved, the emperor watched his wife float away, her back rigid and her tittering minions trailing in her shadow.
“What of my wife?” he asked Kanako in a low voice.
A hesitation. “She knows.” The edge in her voice could cut through steel.
The emperor straightened his spine. Hardened his will.
“And so it begins.”
A CALCULATED RISK
Foolhardy. It was not a word people often attributed to Hattori Mariko.
Curious had been the word most often ascribed to her when she was younger. She’d been the watchful sort of child. The one conscious of every mistake. When Mariko had erred, it had usually been intentional. An attempt to push barriers. Or a desire to learn.
Usually it was that. A wish to know more.
As she grew from a curious child into an even more curious young woman, the word she most often overheard at her back was odd. Much too odd. Far too prone to asking questions. Far too apt to linger in places she wasn’t meant to be.
The sort of odd that would bring her—and her family—nothing but trouble.
She sighed to herself. If her detractors could be present now, they would be pleased to admit how right they’d been. Pleased to see her in obvious distress.
True, what Mariko planned to do tonight was foolish. But it could not be helped; she’d already lost nearly five days. Five days of precious time, especially as there could be little doubt that Kenshin was now on her trail. Mariko had doubled back on her path several times. Even resorted to deliberate misdirection.
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