It was also possible she might die.
Yes. That, too, was a fact of which she was keenly aware.
Her knowledge of how to win a fight was purely theoretical. The scuffle with the drunken fool in the forest had confirmed one thing: Mariko’s best asset in any altercation was her mind. And even with that advantage, she’d barely managed to best a man heavily encumbered by spirits. She had a strong suspicion of how she would fare against a seasoned warrior in an actual fight. And with men of any sort, Mariko had always found brute strength to be given the greatest weight.
But in a battle of wits?
It could be any man’s—or woman’s—game.
Mariko weighed her options. Whether she should run or stand her ground.
I should simply take shelter and watch these fools kill each other.
There could be a certain satisfaction in that.
But if that were to happen, she would never know who had plotted her death.
The sharp whistle of the kanab being swung through the air tore her from her thoughts. She blinked toward the fight—
Just in time to see the lazy warrior dodge the giant’s first swing. With not a moment to spare. The breeze from the blow tossed the boy’s hair back into his face.
The giant laughed. “Too slow.”
An easy smile touched the boy’s scarred lips. As though he possibly shared the giant’s amusement. Shared his unfavorable opinion. Just as Mariko began to consider this possibility, she noticed a change in the boy’s body.
It had begun to tremble.
Is he . . . afraid?
Anticipation curled through her center. She fought to tamp down the rising curiosity. The rising interest. No. Mariko could not be the least bit entertained by any of this. Being entertained meant she could be easily distracted. And she refused to die in a watering hole this night.
Careful to remain beyond anyone’s notice, Mariko rose to her feet, still clenching her small cup of sake tight. Being certain not to make any sudden movements that might draw attention her way.
The giant swung his kanab in a vicious backhand. As it rose, its tip grazed the boy’s shoulder. Mariko winced reflexively when the boy barely managed to escape the full impact of the blow. He rolled through the dirt—away from the giant—then spun to standing. Once he righted himself, he noticed a tear in the arm of his black kosode. He proceeded to launch into a series of curses Mariko had only heard the lowliest of stable hands utter in moments of great vexation. Vile, vulgar sorts of words that would have made her mother gasp into her palms and her father nod in warning to his subordinates.
The boy gripped his bare shoulder tight, wincing through the pain as blood began to well onto his fingers. As his shaking grew worse.
This was the best the Black Clan had to offer?
How had this lazy fool ever managed to best Nobutada?
It was as though everything Mariko had experienced in the last week had been in jest.
Her lips pulled into a frown.
If this battle wasn’t in jest, Takeda Ranmaru was going to lose his wager.
And Mariko was not ready or willing to see him lose to anyone but her.
She waited for a member of the Black Clan to come to the boy’s aid or put an end to this farce of a fight. It took her only a single glance to realize that none of their ranks appeared to be the least bit alarmed by the sight of their comrade on the verge of risking their leader’s life.
The men in black continued standing to either side of the fight. Unworried. Ranmaru reached for his drink. Almost as though he was disinterested. The one-legged cook leaned on his b, studying its polished wood surface as though he were seeking something with which to occupy himself.
As though there could be something more pressing for him to consider.
A blaze of triumph flashed across the giant’s face. Raising his kanab once more, he clomped toward the injured boy, set on proclaiming his victory.
Mariko edged away from her table, sidestepping in surreptitious fashion. Certain this fight was at an all-too-swift end.
The boy did not prepare himself to strike back. Did not so much as flinch from the coming blow. Instead he remained in one place. His hand dropped from his wounded shoulder.