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Tall and Proud and Hapless
This was a scene from a story she’d heard before.
A young woman in her rightful place, ensconced at the Golden Castle. Betrothed to the son of the emperor’s favorite consort. Bestowing honor to the Hattori name.
The scented water in the wooden furo felt the same as it did at home. Like heated silk sliding across her skin. The hands scrubbing at Mariko’s arms and shoulders did so in much the same way they’d done at home — without mercy, until her pale skin shone like that of a newborn child, pink and raw and perfect. A servant with permanent lines of judgment marrying her brow yanked a comb inlaid with mother-of-pearl through Mariko’s hair in much the same way her nursemaid had when she was younger.
It all felt so similar.
But if Mariko could be certain of nothing else now, she could be certain her life would never be the same again.
Under her brother’s watchful care, they’d arrived in Inako late last night. To an imperial city cloaked in mourning. To streets teeming with whispers. Today was the funeral of their emperor, who had died suddenly, beneath a veil of suspicion. Upon discovering his body, the empress’s wailing was said to have been heard across all seven maru. Even beyond the castle’s iron-and-gold-plated double gates. She’d screamed murder. Raged at all those nearby, accusing them of treachery. It had taken a flock of maidservants to soothe her and begin ushering her toward her tears.
Toward final whimpers of resignation.
But beneath this hushed intensity seethed something sinister. Last night — when the second pair of gates leading to the castle had creaked closed behind their convoy — the air around Mariko had stilled. The faint breeze blowing past the woven screen of her norimono had sighed a final sigh. An owl had blared across the firmament, its cry ringing off the stone walls.
As though in warning.
Here in Inako, Mariko would not be granted a moment’s respite. Nor did she wish for one. She would not allow herself anything of the sort.
For deep in the bowels of the same castle, the last in a line of celebrated shogun awaited his impending doom: the final judgment of the imperial city. And the lies this city wore — lies cloaked in silk and steel — shimmered beneath the surface, ready to take shape. No matter the cost, Mariko would mold them into what they should have been from the start:
She bit down hard on nothing. Braced herself for the coming fight. It would be unlike any Okami and the Black Clan had taught her in Jukai forest. In this fight, she would not have weapons of wood and metal and smoke at her disposal. She would instead be armed with nothing more than her mind and her own mettle. This would be precisely the kind of fight she’d unknowingly prepared for as a child, when she’d pitted herself against her brother Kenshin.
In a game of wits against brawn.
Here in Inako, Mariko’s armor would not be hardened leather and an ornamented helmet. It would be perfume and powdered skin. She had to convince Prince Raiden — her betrothed — to trust her. She needed him to cast her as the hapless victim instead of the willing villain.
Though I plan to be a villain in all ways.
If it took everything from Hattori Mariko — even her very life — she would not allow those she loved to fall prey to those set on destroying them. She would learn the truth about who conspired to kill her that day in the forest. Why they attempted to frame the Black Clan for the deed. And what deeper cause lay beneath their designs.
Even if those at the heart of the matter were the imperial family itself.
Even if her own family might fall into the crosshairs.
The thought sent a chill through her bones, as though the water in the furo had suddenly turned to ice.
Kenshin’s choice had been made long before he’d marched into Jukai forest flying their family crest alongside that of the emperor. Even before he’d let soldiers loose arrows around his only sister in a shower of fire and ash. He was a samurai, and a samurai followed the orders of his sovereign, to the death. He did not ask questions.
His pledge was one of unswerving conviction.
But Mariko's time with the Black Clan had taught her the cost of blind faith. She refused to align the Hattori name with that of the shiftless nobles in the imperial city. The same nobles intent on lining their pockets and gaining influence at the expense of the downtrodden. The same people they’d sworn to protect, like the elder woman who cared for the children in the Iwakura ward, who depended upon Okami and the Black Clan for support.
Mariko drew her knees to her chest, shielding her heart, preventing the worst of her thoughts from taking root.
What if Okami is already dead?
She tightened the grip on her knees.
No. He isn’t dead. He can’t be. They will want to make a show of his death.
And I will be there to protect him when they do.
It was strange to think Mariko possessed the power to protect someone she loved. She’d never known the right words to do so before. Never known how to wield the right weapons. But ingenuity could be a weapon, in all its forms. Her mind could be a sword. Her voice could be an axe.
Her fury could ignite a fire.
Mariko would never allow Okami — the boy who had stolen her heart in the dead of the night, deep within a forest of rustling trees — to lose all he'd fought to regain. Nor would Mariko allow herself to lose anything she loved. She’d watched in the shadows as Kenshin had permitted soldiers to descend on her in Jukai forest. Felt the pang of her brother’s betrayal with each of his questioning glances. She’d bitten her tongue as these same soldiers had forced Okami to kneel in the mud and surrender. As they’d taunted and derided him from their lofty perches.
Mariko swallowed, the bitterness coating her throat.
Never again. I will protect you, no matter the cost.
“Look at your nails.” The creases across the servant’s brow deepened as she spoke, cutting through Mariko’s deliberations. Her admonition conjured more memories of Mariko’s childhood. “It’s as though you’ve been digging through mud and stone all your life.” She tsked, inspecting Mariko’s fingers even further. “Are these the hands of a lady or a scullery maid?”
Her sight blurred as she gazed at her scarred knuckles. Another pair of hands took shape in her mind’s eye, its calloused fingers intertwined with hers. Laced together. Stronger for it.
Mariko blinked. Organized the chaos of her thoughts into something coherent. She bit her lip and widened her eyes. “The Black Clan . . . they made me work for them.” Her voice sounded small. Insignificant. Exactly as she intended.
The servant chuffed in response, her expression still dubious. “It will take the work of an enchantress to repair this damage.” Her words remained harsh, unmoved by the sight of Mariko’s feigned timidity. Strangely — though this woman’s rebuke was in no way comforting — it nevertheless warmed Mariko. It brought to mind her mother’s quiet, ever-present judgment.
No. Not just that.
The servant reminded her of Yoshi.
At the thought of the grumblingly good-natured cook, Mariko’s eyes began to water in earnest.
The servant watched her, an eyebrow peaking into her forehead.
That time, the sight of the older woman’s judgment spurred a different reaction.
Anger roiled beneath Mariko’s skin. She snatched her hand away and averted her gaze, as though she were afraid. Ashamed. The servant’s stern expression lost some of its severity. As though Mariko’s embarrassment was an emotion she could understand and accept. When she next took hold of Mariko’s hand, her touch was careful. Almost soft.
In the same instant Mariko fought to curb her anger, she paused to take note.
My fear — even when it is feigned — has more weight when it is matched alongside anger.
One of the young women assisting the gruff servant bowed beside the wooden tub before lifting a pile of muddied, fraying clothing into the light. “My lady, may I dispose of these?” Her round face and button nose squinched in disgust.
They were the garments Mariko had worn in Jukai forest, when she’d been disguised as a boy. She’d refused to discard the faded grey kosode and trousers, even at Kenshin’s behest. They were all she had now. Her eyes widening in what she hoped to be a sorrowful expression, Mariko shook her head. “Please have them washed and stored nearby. Though I long more than anything to forget what happened to me, it is important to keep at least one reminder of the consequences when a wrong turn is taken in life.”
The ill-tempered elder servant harrumphed at her words. Another young girl in attendance grasped one of Mariko’s hands and began scrubbing beneath her nails with a brush fashioned from horsehair bristles. As she worked, the servant with the round face and button nose poured fine emollients and fresh flower petals across the surface of the steaming water. The colors of the oil shimmered around Mariko like fading rainbows. A petal caught on the inside of her knee. She dipped her leg beneath the water and watched the petal float away.
The image reminded her of what the old man at the watering hole had said the night she’d first met the Black Clan, disguised as a boy. He’d told her she had a great deal of water in her personality. Mariko had been quick to disagree with him. Water was far too fluid and changeable. Her mother had always said Mariko was like earth — stubborn and straightforward to a fault.
I need to be water now, more than ever.
Mariko wondered what had become of the Black Clan after Okami had surrendered to her betrothed. Wondered how Yoshi and Haruki and Ren and all the others had fared following such a dire blow. Only three nights past, they’d learned their leader had been deceiving them for years. He was not in fact the son of Takeda Shingen. The boy they’d followed and called “Ranmaru” for almost a decade was instead the son of Asano Naganori. He’d assumed the role of Takeda Ranmaru to protect his best friend and make amends for his father’s betrayal — a betrayal that had resulted in the destruction of both their families. This boy’s real name was Asano Tsuneoki.
They’d all been deceived.
And Mariko’s betrothed — Prince Raiden — had left the forest with a prize worthy of laying at his father’s burial mound.
The true son of Takeda Shingen, the last shogun of Wa: Okami.
Resentment smoldered hot and fast in Mariko’s chest. Guilt coiled through her stomach. She dared to sit in a pool of scented water, allowing her skin and hair to be brushed and polished to perfection while so many of those she cared about suffered untold fates?
She took a steadying breath.
This was necessary. This was the reason she’d asked Kenshin to bring her to Inako. If Mariko intended to act on the plans she’d formulated while journeying from Jukai forest to the imperial city, she had to be in the seat of power. Mariko had to find a way to free Okami. She had to convince her betrothed that she was the willing, simpering young woman he surely desired in a bride. Then — once she’d earned a measure of trust — she could find a way to begin feeding information to the outside. To those who fought to change the ways of the imperial city and restore justice to its people.
To topple evil from its vaunted pedestal.
“Stand,” the servant demanded in a curt tone.
Respect for an elder — regardless of status — drove Mariko to obey the truculent woman without question. She let the woman lead her to the largest piece of polished silver she’d ever seen in her life. Her eyes widened, and she stifled the urge to react to the sight of her naked body reflected back at her.
Her time in Jukai forest had changed Mariko on the outside as well. The angles of her face were more pronounced. She was thinner. What had been willowy before was now honed. Muscles she’d not known she’d possessed moved as she moved, like ripples across a pond.
She was stronger now, in more ways than one.
The elderly servant tsked again. “You’re as thin as a reed. No young man will want to caress skin and bones, least of all one like Prince Raiden.”
Again the urge to react rose in Mariko’s throat. Though she could not really discern the reason for the woman's disdain, she suspected the servant believed a girl who lived among bandits did not deserve to marry into the imperial family. Did not merit the attention of a prince. The truth blazed bright within her. She was more than an object of any man’s desire. But on this particular score, the servant was right. She did need to eat if she intended to play the part.
Mariko smiled through gritted teeth. Let her lips waver as though she were exhausted. Weak. “You’re right. Please do whatever you can — whatever magic you possess — to restore me to my past self. To the sort of young woman who might please the prince. I want nothing more than to forget what happened to me.” She struggled to stand taller. Fought to look proud.
Though the creases on her features deepened, the servant nodded. “My name is Shizuko. If you do as I say, it is possible we can remedy the effects of this . . . misfortune.”
Mariko slid her arms into the proffered silken undergarment, wondering why the elder servant displayed such disdain for her. “Make me fit for a prince, Shizuko.”
Shizuko sniffed and cleared her throat before directing the other servant girls to come forward. In their arms were more bolts of lustrous fabric. Piles of damask and painted silk, wrapped in sheets of translucent paper. Trays of jade and silver and tortoiseshell hairpieces.
Mariko ran the tip of a finger down the needled point of a silver hairpiece. Recalled one of the last times she had held one in her hand.
The night she’d pierced it through a man’s eye for attacking her.
Mariko knew what she needed to do. For the sake of those she held dear, she needed to appear tall and proud.
She spoke in a near whisper, as though her words were nothing but an afterthought. “The imperial family will need me to appear strong, just as they are.”
Just as they will need to be.
Because Hattori Mariko had a plan.
And this unwitting woman had already provided her with the first piece of the puzzle.