But her brother would find her soon.

And after five days of creeping through villages and outposts on the westernmost edge of Jukai forest—five days of making quiet inquiries—and having bartered the exquisite jade hairpin her mother had gifted her, Mariko had finally found it late last night.

The favored watering hole of the Black Clan.

Or so that old crone two villages over claims.

After achieving this hard-won victory, Mariko had spent all evening hiding behind a nearby tree a stone’s throw from where she now sat. Hiding behind that tree and determining how she could best use this newfound information. How she could best manipulate it to learn why a band of cutthroat thieves had been sent to murder her on her journey to Inako.

When not a single black-clad man had bothered to show his face last night, Mariko had come to terms with a second, harsher truth: the old crone could very well have fleeced her for the priceless hairpin.

But Mariko would never know if she didn’t try.

This was an experiment, and experiments of all sorts intrigued her. They offered a way to glean knowledge. To use it—shape it, mold it—into whatever she needed it to be.

And this was a different kind of experiment. A different way to collect information. Though it was an admittedly foolish one, and could also have disastrous results.

The watering hole in question was not as grand as Mariko had imagined it would be.

Which makes sense. After all, it’s not exactly one of the fabled geiko houses of Hanami.

She smiled to herself, amending her initial impression. Favoring it for facts.

Sequestered near a farm, the watering hole was awash in the scent of refuse and dank river water. Mud seeped from between a series of misshapen flagstones leading to a weathered lean-to. The structure was fashioned from rotted cedar and bamboo greyed to stone by the sun. Several rickety benches and square tables littered a circle of cleared land enclosing the lean-to. A small fire rose from a lopsided brick oven that served as part of the structure’s only standing wall. Bamboo torches ringed the clearing, bathing everything in a warm, amber light.

In truth—despite its smell, which Mariko would never find acceptable, not even if she lived for an age—it had a certain charm all its own. Hattori Mariko had lived a life disdaining much of the silk and luxury her status had afforded her, and there was a delicious comfort in no longer having to put on airs that had always seemed so foreign to her.

She slouched lower on her bench. Scratched unabashedly at her shoulder. Sat with her feet spread. Ordered whatever she wanted, without hesitation. And met every man’s gaze full on when addressed.

Mariko had been waiting for the past four hours. Upon her arrival, she’d ordered one small earthenware bottle of sake and had nursed sips of the lukewarm rice wine from a chipped cup, watching as the sun took refuge beyond the horizon.

Now it was dark; now the day had given way for the creatures of the night to come slithering from their holes.

Alas, the particular creatures Mariko sought were not of the punctual sort.

Her knee began to jounce beneath the low slab of crooked wood. It was a crude table, perched atop four unevenly sliced tree trunks. If she leaned too hard on one end, the entire structure wobbled like her old nursemaid walking in the wind. To her left, horses drank from a large canvas tarp suspended between bamboo poles staked in the ground.

A watering hole built for both beasts and their drunken burdens.

Speaking of which, where are they?

The more time passed, the more Mariko’s nerves reached a feverish pitch.

The copper pieces she’d won off a drunken peasant in a game of sugoroku two nights past would not last her into tomorrow if the Black Clan did not arrive. She might have to trick more money from someone else tonight. But—though she was beginning to understand the necessity and value of this skill—Mariko did not possess a true taste for thievery, even if she did display a certain knack for it.

Sleight of hand. But faint of honor.

The same kind of thief she’d mocked in the forest.

Before murdering him.

The remembrance pulled at her insides. Washed her cheeks an unbecoming pallor. Not from remorse—as she still did not feel any—but more from the harshness of such actions. The coldness with which she’d taken a life. It unseated her in these quiet moments of reflection. Made her uncomfortable in her own skin.

She took another sip of the sake and stifled a grimace. Despite its warming effects, Mariko had never quite developed a taste for the brewed rice wine. She preferred chilled umeshu, with its sweetly sour plum flavor. But a traveling soldier or a wandering peasant would be unlikely to ask for such a thing. Especially not in a watering hole downwind of a smelly farm.

Mariko let her eyes wander skyward. And breathed deep.

Though she was surrounded by the unknown, that same sense of freedom washed through her, lush and heady. Irrespective of the refuse around her, it could not be denied that this part of Jukai forest was lovely. Lacy red maples fringed the border of the wood, coming together to frame the watering hole on all sides, like a mother embracing a child. The scent of the maples was rich. Earthier than the sharp bite of the pine. Beside the lean-to was a willow, its drooping branches dusting the battered roof in a ceaseless caress.

Mariko had always found willows profoundly sad.

Yet deeply beautiful.

Just as she noticed the willow branches begin a new dance—a slow-swaying undulation—a sudden burst of motion erupted from behind her.

She turned in time to watch the elderly man who had been stoking the lopsided fireplace hobble from its shadow, his hands rubbing at a linen cloth dangling from his waist, removing whatever traces of grime lingered.

“Ranmaru-sama!” he called, his grin wide and his eyes bright. “I’d wondered where you’d disappeared to these last few days.”

A tall figure dressed solely in black bounded toward the elderly man, pulling him into a warm embrace. When the newcomer’s head turned, Mariko caught a brief flash of his features.

He was a boy not much older than she!

But his clothes were unmistakable—black from his chin to his toes. Even his straw sandals and thin socks had been dyed to match.

A tingling awareness flared through her. Mariko was all but certain now; she’d found a member of the Black Clan.

A member of the band of men who’d tried to murder her.

Fury surged beneath her skin in a heated rush. She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to remain steady. Anger was a reckless emotion. And she needed all her wits about her if she intended to outmatch this boy.

More men clad in black moved to join him. They were all unmasked and well-kempt, ambling at the leisurely pace of those without worry. The pace of panthers sated from a recent hunt. Another boy and a girl with no more than twenty years to each of their names rushed behind the elderly man, bearing earthenware jars of sake and many small cups, some of them rather worse for the wear.

Curiosity chased after the hot fury still coursing through Mariko’s veins.

She tried her best to avert her gaze. To convey a sense of general disinterest. It would do her no good for any member of the Black Clan to suspect she’d been waiting for them.

To suspect she’d lain in watchful preparation these past two nights.

One immediate realization granted her reprieve. If they thought it was possible someone was on their trail, the Black Clan surely would not have come tonight. But Mariko had taken special pains not to draw anyone’s notice. To their eyes, the circular clearing surrounding their favorite watering hole was being patronized this night by two older men playing Go, one slovenly young drunk snoring at his own table, and what appeared to be a dirty peasant boy of no more than fourteen or fifteen, distastefully swallowing sips of lukewarm sake.

Indeed, there was not a single threat to be seen here.

Mariko watched surreptitiously from behind another swig of sake as the men in black took their places at the tables nearest to the lean-to. Her eyes roamed with thoughtful slowness. Deliberate languor.

I am a reed in a river, bending and moving with the current.

For now.

Something brushed past her, startling her from her attempt to remain inconspicuous.

It was a final straggler. She did not see his features as he glided past, but did observe several things of note. Unlike many of the other members of the Black Clan, his shoulder-length hair was unbound. Unkempt. Forgoing the traditional topknot of a warrior. He also did not carry a sword. At first glance, it appeared he had no weapon anywhere on his person.

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