Okami – Renee Ahdieh

kami sat in the corner of the makeshift wagon, his eyes closed. He let the cool night air fill his lungs, the tang of iron lingering on his tongue. A gust of wind taunted him as it riffled his hair. He shifted his pose. Cricked his neck. The chains around his wrists and ankles clanked softly. At the reminder of his predicament, a smile ghosted across his lips before settling into a frown. There was nothing vaguely amusing about this situation, but old habits were difficult to ignore. He’d spent a lifetime turning to humor in moments of difficulty. It often made the unthinkable endurable. When Ōkami had been a small boy confronted with the loss of his father—the loss of everything he knew— the weight of it had made him curl into himself. Made him small and weak. He refused to ever be small and weak again. The horse bearing the wagon continued trundling down the dirt road toward the outskirts of Jukai forest. Toward Inako.

Toward his impending death. Ōkami should have felt afraid, but he would not allow his worries to take hold. Small tendrils of fear had attempted to clamp around his heart, and he’d forced them back. There would be a time to feel sorry for himself, of that he was certain. But that time was not now. He needed to be cool and calculating if he was to endure the judgment of the imperial city. As Ōkami mused on what the future might bring, he sensed a presence shift nearer, the sound of an approaching warhorse moving alongside the prison wagon. Even with his eyes closed, he knew it was not the presence he most wanted right now. Mariko was closer to the back of their convoy, kept under heavy guard for her protection. Protection? Ōkami’s lips twitched.

These foolish men were the ones most in need of protection. From him. And especially from Mariko. When the presence beside Ōkami lingered like a haze of gnats around a lantern, curiosity took root in his chest. But he refused to capitulate and open his eyes. The sight of the moonlight would be too tempting, his wish to escape too strong. Nevertheless, the piercing gaze remained focused on him, with the kind of focused study that prickled the skin at his back. Still he refused to look upon its source. Until the source in question grunted softly. Clearly trying to catch his attention.

Refusing to be ignored. With a sigh, Ōkami opened his eyes. A morose part of him almost welcomed the distraction. When his sight focused, he was met with the clear-eyed stare of the Dragon of Kai. Mariko’s brother. A flurry of emotions passed through Ōkami’s chest, snaking into his arms, turning his hands into fists. For a moment, they studied each other in silence. Ōkami searched for signs of the girl he loved, hidden behind the gaping dragon’s maw of Hattori Kenshin’s chin guard. Signs of her ingenuity. Signs of her quiet brilliance.

The slightest suggestion of any similarity. All he sensed was a young man in conflict. Ōkami cleared his throat. “I’d ask what about my appearance has captivated you so,” he said, allowing amusement to color his words, “but I doubt you’d respond with anything resembling the truth.” Lord Kenshin’s eyes narrowed. Furrows formed on either side of his mouth. He kept silent. “I’ve been told the truth can hurt,” Ōkami continued. “And it must sting to know how much prettier I am than you.” The soldier helming the reins of the wagon turned and backhanded Ōkami.

Though Ōkami had expected it, the blow knocked his head against the warped wooden railing at his side. His vision blurred as he sat up. He touched his fingers to his bleeding brow. Glared up at the man, who wore a dilapidated kabuto. The neck guard on the back of his helmet possessed only two overlapping shikoro—a sign of limited status. It was unsurprising. Usually those with money to spend or favor to curry did not helm a run-down prison wagon.

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