“I’m not so sure.” Lines of doubt settled across her face. “Are you also going to inform me I need to be as swift as a fire so I may move mountains in the wind?”
Yoshi laughed loudly.
Mariko caught herself before she could smile. “And you shouldn’t dismiss your abilities. It insults both you and me at the same time.”
Another raise of his brows. She suspected people did not often speak to Yoshi in such a direct manner. “Is that so?”
“Yes. You insult yourself by dismissing skills that took you a lifetime to develop. At the same time you insult me by stating that I need only try—as though the only hindrance is my own lack of effort.” Mariko’s speech grew more rapid with each passing word. She took a deep breath before continuing. “To even attempt something, one must first believe in the possibility. And then be granted an opportunity.” As Mariko finished, she glanced meaningfully at the portly fellow.
Yoshi’s grin turned knowing. “Alas, Sanada Takeo, you will not be granted the opportunity to throw a dagger here. But your attempt to try is duly noted. And appreciated.”
“Not an attempt. Rather an unceasing challenge of life,” she mused. “To learn, even when knowledge itself may fail you.”
“Rather the unceasing challenge of youth,” Yoshi said drily as he lowered more eggs into the simmering pot. “Not to worry; I can promise that all great opportunities in life follow some form of struggle.”
“May I ask what it is you struggle with most?” Mariko prodded.
Yoshi rubbed a sleeve on the sweat gathering above his brow. Then he wandered to the bushes to retrieve the blade he’d thrown at Ren, prying it from where the kunai was embedded in the tree trunk. He lifted the dagger into the light, then lovingly restored it to its place at his hip.
“Learning a new blade,” he replied.
A groove formed at the bridge of Mariko’s nose.
Yoshi said, “Every blade has its own path. Every handle is different. Every tang is unique. The balance of every dagger is its own.”
Again Mariko lingered in thought. “Would consistency not make it better? Consistency in the forging of the steel. In the forming of the blade.”
“Consistency is not enough. It doesn’t account for chance, and there is always a chance the handle will strike the mark instead of the blade. No amount of skill can thwart it every time.”
Mariko studied the hooked dagger Yoshi had used to shave slices of pickled ginger. “Two blades affixed in their centers like a cross would work better.” She considered further. “Or perhaps even three. Like a star.”
“Why not four?” Yoshi said with amusement. “Alas, you will never see me wielding a cumbersome thing like that. Any effective kunai would need to be light.” In one flowing motion, he whipped a blade from its sheath and hurled it toward the same branch. “Quick.”
Mariko considered the quivering handle. Yoshi had thrown it to strike the exact same place as before. It fit into the previous divot at a near-identical angle. The way the handle shook—trembled into solid motion—brought to mind kami and his mysterious abilities. Mariko frowned.
She did not wish to be reminded of anything she did not yet understand.
Especially something pertaining to the Wolf.
Mariko lowered into a crouch. Picked up a twig. Began to draw.
Why not four?
That night, Mariko woke from her slumber to the sound of screaming.
It startled her into awareness, like a splash of icy water. Her forehead grazed the rock she’d been using as a pillow. Her fingernails dug into the damp soil.
The screams echoing through the forest were the screams of a tortured animal. Not a man.
It couldn’t be a man.
No human could make sounds like these.
As the screams continued, each beat of her heart crashed through her, a drum pulled taut beneath her skin. She opened one eye, trying to focus on the forest’s shadows. Trying to drown out the sounds of pure suffering.
Men with torches were massing in the distance. Several rings of fire blurred through the trees.
For a moment, Mariko considered running. The Black Clan was distracted. Perhaps they would not notice her slipping into the night. Perhaps she could find her way out of the forest without tripping any of their supposed traps.