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Flame in the Mist

Flame in the Mist

Page 2

“Now that the sun has set, they fear the ykai, and they worry—”

“Silly stories of monsters in the dark.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing more.”

Nobutada paused, doubtlessly taking note of her interruption. “They also claim the Black Clan has been seen near here recently.”

“They claim?” A dark eyebrow curved into Mariko’s forehead. “Or they’ve sighted them in truth?”

“They are merely claims.” Nobutada lowered the chin guard beneath his horned helmet. “Though it would be unusual for the Black Clan to rob us, as they do not generally attack convoys containing women and children. Especially those guarded by samurai.”

Mariko lingered in consideration. “I defer to your opinion, Nobutada-sama.” Recalling the foot soldier from a moment ago, she attempted a smile. “And please see that the ashigaru have time to rest and take in water soon, as they appear overtired.”

Nobutada scowled at her last request. “If we are forced to go around Jukai forest, it will add a full day to our journey.”

“Then it will add a full day to our journey.” She was already beginning to lower her screen, the awkward smile still pasted across her face.

“I’d rather not risk angering the emperor.”

“Then it is an easy choice. We must lead so that others may follow, Nobutada-sama. You taught me that, even as a young girl.” Mariko did not look away as she spoke. Nor did she attempt to apologize for the sharpness of her retort.

His scowl deepened. Mariko smothered a sigh. She knew she was being difficult. Knew Nobutada wished for her to make a decision. At the very least, wished for her to offer an opinion.

To make a useless play at control. A play Nobutada could then smugly subvert, as her elder.

As a man.

Try as she might, Mariko could not help the resentment simmering beneath the surface.

Control is an illusion. Expectations will not rule my days.

Not anymore.

“Perhaps not easy,” Mariko amended, her fingers toying with the edge of the screen. “But it is simple.” She softened her tone—a pitiful attempt to mollify him. One that was sure to chafe, as her contrary nature so often did. Her brother, Kenshin, frequently gave her grief about it. Frequently told her to be less . . . peculiar.

To conform, at least in these small ways.

Mariko dipped her head in a bow. “In any case, I defer to your wise judgment, Nobutada-sama.”

A shadow fell across his features. “Very well, Lady Hattori. We shall proceed through Jukai forest.” With that, he urged his charger back toward the head of the convoy.

As expected, Mariko had irritated him. She’d offered no real opinion on anything since they’d left her family’s home that morning. And Nobutada wanted her to play at directing him. To give him tasks befitting such a vaunted role.

Tasks befitting the samurai in charge of delivering a royal bride.

Mariko supposed she should care she might be arriving at Heian Castle late.

Late to meet the emperor. Late to meet his second son—

Her future husband.

But Mariko did not care. Ever since the afternoon her father had informed her that Emperor Minamoto Masaru had made an offer of marriage on behalf of his son Raiden, she’d truly not cared about much.

Mariko was to be the wife of Prince Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort. A political marriage that would elevate her father’s standing amongst the ruling daimy class.

She should care that she was being exchanged like property in order to curry favor. But Mariko did not.

Not anymore.

As the norimono lurched forward again, Mariko reached above to adjust the slender tortoiseshell bar speared through her thick coils of hair. Tiny strips of silver and jade dangled from its ends, snarling with one another in a ceaseless war. After Mariko finished sorting them into place, her hand fell to the smaller jade bar below.

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