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Flame in the Mist

Flame in the Mist

Page 50

She focused on the best of these memories. On the people working in her periphery.

They were never smiling. And she had never truly noticed.

kami and Mariko stayed to the shadows along the plastered buildings, beneath the thatched roofs, listening to the sounds of the workers as their children squabbled for food and their loved ones returned home from a wearying day’s work.

kami paused beside a family gathering for their evening meal near a small fire just outside their tiny home. He handed Mariko a sickle and bade her to follow him into an adjoining field, as though they were workers intent on continuing their reaping. They squatted alongside the tall waves of grain, angling to one side to watch the family eat. In the distance, Mariko thought she saw the yellow eyes of a fox, lingering in the shadows, searching for scraps.

The children were dirty. They smiled even though their meal was meager.

It was clear their mother was injured. She limped as she went to scoop out tiny spoonfuls of millet.

“Okaa,” the eldest girl said when her mother gave her a bowl of food, “you eat. I’m not hungry.” Her eyes drifted to the fields of golden wheat a mere stone’s throw from where they sat, stretching as far as the eye could see.

“No, my dearest. I’ve already had my meal.” The woman glanced at her husband, willing him to stay silent.

When the mother sat back down beside him, Mariko watched him quietly give her half his share.

Thankfully, most of the other children did not notice. They smiled and carried on, oblivious to their parents’ plight. But the eldest girl knew better. She pushed her bowl beside her parents’ and quietly began scooping some of her food into theirs.

The sight startled Mariko. Cut at something beneath her heart. For so many years she had prided herself on being the girl who saw things no one else saw. Who noticed the world not as it was, but as it should be. Her gaze drifted to the smiling faces of the other, younger children present.

At the face of the eldest girl, and the tiniest grooves that now gathered above her brow.

Mariko had countless fond memories of her childhood.

And not a single one of them recalled anything but contentment at mealtime.

Perhaps my mind saw only what it wished to see.

A cold hand of awareness took hold of her throat. In none of those memories could she remember seeing that same contentment in any of her father’s workers. When Mariko had wandered past the gates of her family’s home, into the fields and paddies beyond, workers had often come to usher her away. The smiles they’d given her had been wan. Aged. As a child she’d often asked why they looked sad. Why they didn’t smile more.

Her mother had told her they were merely tired. And then her nursemaid had urged her back inside. This was the way of it. A daimy owned the land his people worked. In exchange for their lord’s protection and care, the people working the lands offered the daimy tribute.

Was it possible Hattori Kano took more than his fair share?

Mariko recalled her father once saying how ungrateful his workers were. How he provided them with food and shelter and a place to work. And still they were unsatisfied.

The Black Clan intended to redistribute her family’s wealth. Back into the hands of those who worked the fields. Tilled the soil. Reaped the harvest.

All so Mariko could wear fine clothes and attract the attention of the emperor’s son. A part of her fought against the rightness of the sentiment. The rightness of seeing these people being granted their fair share. These were her family’s people, her family’s lands.

But when had Mariko ever once planted a seed or worked in the dirt when it was not out of personal interest? Not until she’d come to the Black Clan’s encampment had she even learned the basics of how to live on her own. Indeed this was the first time in her life she had ever held a sickle. And even now it was for the purpose of subterfuge.

As kami had first pronounced that day Mariko had been tasked with carrying firewood, she’d been useless.

It was the truth of it all that had grated her nerves so thoroughly. How wrong it was that Mariko would fight so vehemently against accusations rooted in truth. Had kami accused her of being lazy or slovenly or stupid, she would have laughed.

But when he’d accused her of being useless, it had stung.

Mariko wouldn’t be useless now. She saw the truth.

She could make her father see it, too.

Even if they were wrong, they were still her family.

No matter what it cost Mariko, she would warn her brother.

Somehow.

THE RAID

They plan to raid the storehouses in the dead of night.

That was all the servant had said to him. Kenshin had chased after the old man. When they’d rounded the corner, he’d grabbed him by his threadbare kosode, whirling him around.

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