A cultivated whisper, belying his earlier disinterest.
Following this admonition, the crown prince took hold of his right sleeve and dipped his brush in ink once more, positioning the bristles above the washi paper at a perfect angle. “Perhaps it would be nice to share some tea with us later, Kenshin-sama,” he said, his voice as mild as before. Filled with that same feigned lack of interest.
But spoken in a tenor meant to be overheard. Meant to be interpreted by attending servants and chance observers alike.
In his zeal to learn the truth, Kenshin had almost forgotten.
Inako was—first and foremost—a city of secrets. Ones to be stolen and sold off to the highest bidder at first chance.
Nodding in understanding, Raiden stood swiftly. “Will you be our guest this evening, Kenshin-sama?”
Kenshin was not fool enough to question the conversation’s rapid change in course. He may not be well versed in recognizing emotion, but he was the Dragon of Kai, and he knew the sharp tang of fresh blood. Of a path to be followed. Quietly. Carefully.
“I would be honored, my lord,” Kenshin said. “Where is it you wish to go?”
Raiden grinned, and the sight greatly reminded Kenshin of a snarling bear. His voice dropped until it became more breath than sound.
“The finest teahouse in Hanami.”
Mariko had been to Inako once, when she was younger.
As a girl.
As a boy, the sights of the imperial city were entirely different. And it was not merely because a blindfold had been torn from her eyes only moments before.
Everything seemed crisper. Colors seemed more alive. Scents flooded her nostrils, and sights flashed across her vision—marinated squid sizzling over an open flame, vividly dyed paper lanterns strung above bolts of lustrous silk, displays of painted fans and freshly sliced persimmons, creamy bean curd floating in barrels of cold water. She smelled and tasted everything in the air with the abandon of a girl in a fevered dream.
Mariko felt free. Freer than she could remember feeling in quite some time.
Her current situation notwithstanding.
At least in Inako there’s little chance of me being snared by a blood-draining tree. Or being pelted by sharp rocks.
Ranmaru studied her. Caught her grinning with open glee. “Is this your first visit to the imperial city?”
Mariko thought quickly. “Yes.” Her answer more easily explained how enthralled she was. It also helped circumvent any further inquiries about her past. The Black Clan had been blessedly uninterested in who she was before she came to the forest, and Mariko wished to keep it that way for as long as she could.
“Try not to appear so green once we arrive at the teahouse,” kami said from his perch atop his warhorse to her right.
Mariko wrapped her fingers tightly around her reins, struggling to bite her tongue. To ignore the rope trailing from kami’s horse to hers, keeping her tethered to the Wolf’s side.
At her left, Ranmaru laughed, his brown eyes sparkling. “Or when you first set eyes on Yumi, the most beautiful girl in the empire.”
“I doubt Lord Lackbeard has ever seen a geiko before in his life,” kami said. “Much less been with a beautiful girl.” Even as he provoked her, kami maintained a cool affect. One of careful indifference.
So they were not traveling to a mere house of ill repute, as she’d initially surmised. A geiko would never set foot in such a den of iniquity.
Regardless Mariko kept silent. Stewing in unspoken reprisals.
Ranmaru’s brows arched. “Tell us, Lord Lackbeard. Are you indeed untried?”
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Of all the questions for Ranmaru to ask, of course he would choose that one. Men left to their own devices were so sadly predictable. “I am not untried. I have been with . . . many women.” Her words were half true, at least. She was no longer a maid. Though the one and only occasion had not involved another girl.
It had involved rebellion.
Mariko recalled the face of the young stable boy fated to accompany his master to her father’s province one spring morning not so long ago. She remembered the boy’s kind smile. His enthusiasm. His obliviousness.
It was his smile that had drawn Mariko to him. Drawn him into a sun-drenched hayloft to while away a moment in her embrace.