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Authors: Maya Snow

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BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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etermined to confuse the soldiers and throw them off our track, we took a deviating trail across the mountain.

A couple of times, we doubled back again, hoping to find only our own footprints in the mud. But on every occasion my heart sank like a stone dropped into a pond—we always saw those same prints, obliterating our own.

Hana looked around, her gaze probing every contour of the mountainside. “Why don't we ever see the soldiers who are making these prints?” she asked.

“Because it's their turn to be like demons,” I said grimly.

Tatsuya looked grave. Perhaps he thought it was ninja again.

Even as we stood at the side of the track, looking down, the rain began to fall again, heavier this time. It quickly washed the footprints away and filled the ruts in the track until they became small lakes. I
watched our tracks disappear and bit my lip thoughtfully. There had to have been a way to avoid making fresh footprints.

Glancing around, I saw a tumble of rocks nearby.

“We should climb up on there,” I said. “We won't leave prints on the rock, and any disturbance we make, or signs of our passing, will be washed away by the rain.”

“Good idea,” Tatsuya said.

We scrambled up, fingers and sandals sliding on the wet surface. Some of the rocks shifted dangerously under our weight, but even so, we felt safer up there. We hurried along, heads down against the rain. I was cold and tired. Rain plastered my hair to my face. Then one of Hana's frayed sandals broke, and I knew we should stop.

“We can shelter up there,” Tatsuya said, pointing to a rocky overhang.

We scrambled up and squeezed together, grateful to be out of the rain at last. Tatsuya said he would keep watch, while I tore a strip of cloth from the inside of my kimono and fixed Hana's sandal as best as I could. Her feet were icy to the touch, and I reflected for a moment on how much our lives had changed since the golden days at the
when our maids would have rubbed our feet with pumice stone to soften them, and then bathed them in scented oils.

Hana must have guessed what I was thinking because she caught my eye and we exchanged a sad, secret look. “Our old life seems so far away, doesn't it?” she said gently. “But one day soon, everything will come right again, Kimi.”

The rain worsened. A chill wind howled across the mountainside. Wet and cold, we huddled together in the darkness for warmth. Beyond the rocky overhang, the rain tipped out of the black sky like thin bamboo rods.

After a while, Manabu put his head on his knees and seemed to sleep. Tatsuya crouched with his swords across his lap, gaze fixed on the dark horizon as he watched for soldiers. Hana rested against my shoulder. Soon her breathing slowed and I knew she was sleeping.

I closed my eyes and felt my mind drift into that place where sleep hovers. Time stretched around me, and after a while I dreamed of standing in a garden. Mother was there, holding an open scroll in her hands and smiling as she read the poem about the five lakes to me. I felt my heart soar at the sight of her, but when I tried to hurry across the garden toward her I found I couldn't move. I called out, but Mother turned her face away, and when I awoke I found my cheeks were wet with tears.

I sat still, half-awake, shivering in the cold. It was
still raining. Hana snuggled closer to me and I put my arm around her, wondering how long the storm would go on. I pictured Mother, waiting for us, worrying and wondering why we did not come. I thought about how she had recited the poem in my dream. How beautiful it had been to hear her voice again and to listen to the words of the poem. Fujigoko. Five lakes. Five elements. Wood and fire, metal and water, earth…

Suddenly I sat up straight and clutched Hana's sleeve. “I know what Mother meant!” I exclaimed, and Hana woke with a start. “We must find a place on the lake that has all five of the elements. Water and earth are there already…but she means that we should find somewhere near the water, with wood, metal, and fire as well.”

Hana's eyes focused on me and then lit up with excitement. “‘Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water,'” she recited, fully awake now. “‘Nothing can break the strength of all five elements when they are together.'”

“Let's go now,” I said. “I don't care about the rain. Now that we know what to look for, I want to get there as quickly as possible.”

“It looks as if the rain is slowing now anyway,” Tatsuya said as he stood up. It surprised me that he was already awake. Was it our excitement that had stirred him?

Hana reached out as if to shake Manabu awake, but he lifted his head before she could touch him. The servant looked startled for a moment and reached for his blade with his good hand, as if he had forgotten where he was. Then his shoulders relaxed and he laughed. “I've slept in many strange places, Hana
,” he said. “But never under a rock. We've turned into beetles, eh?”

Hana and I exchanged an amused look, and Hana hid her smile behind her hand. I grinned across at Tatsuya, but he didn't grin back. He seemed different—wary and watchful—and I wondered whether he had slept at all.

“We're almost at the end of our journey,” I said, watching him check his arrows.

“I hope so,” he murmured, his expression blank.

Irritation swept over me. I wouldn't let him spoil my excitement. Everything was going to work out all right—Hana and I were nearly there.

Renewed energy buzzed through my limbs as we set off down the mountainside. There was no sign of anyone following us and I felt sure we had lost whoever it had been.

“Things are beginning to go our way,” I said to Hana as we walked.

She nodded and smiled. “We know where we're going, and we seem to have lost the soldiers.”

“The rain has stopped, too,” Tatsuya observed.

Soon the rain clouds broke apart and moonlight bathed the landscape once more. Silvery beams picked up rocks and bushes…and away in the distance, far below, a great expanse of water that gleamed like black onyx.

“There's the eastern lake,” Hana said.

We hurried on, making our way ever faster downhill. The ground became steep, and so wet that it was treacherous in parts. I slipped and slid, and when the rain began to come down again I thought I would weep with frustration. We hit a bank of thick mud that clung to our sandals and oozed around our feet. Quickly I bent down and rolled up the bottoms of my trousers, tying them at the back.

“This mud is like glue,” Hana said, from just behind me. We were walking single file, heads down, with Manabu in the lead and Tatsuya bringing up the rear.

Manabu suddenly stopped, holding his arm out to make everyone halt behind him. “I don't think we should go any farther,” he said uncertainly. “This doesn't feel right.”

I looked down and saw that the mud came up to my knees, swirling like soup. I glanced back at Hana and saw that she was up to her ankles.

“This isn't ordinary mud,” I said, my heart
suddenly hammering against my ribs. “It's more like quicksand….”

Ahead of me, Manabu began to struggle, then sank even deeper into the mud. “I can't lift my foot!”

Tatsuya was behind us and called out, “Don't make any sudden movements. Just relax. The more you struggle, the faster you will sink.”

“I'm frightened,” Hana said.

Tatsuya was close enough to reach out and take her hand. “You haven't gone as deep as the others,” he said. “Move slowly toward me….”

Hana glanced at me and I nodded. “Do as he says,” I urged breathlessly. I could feel the mud tight around my knees, a cold and deadly vise.

Slowly Hana lifted first one foot and then the next, moving back toward the firmer ground. The mud made sucking sounds as she reached Tatsuya, but it let her go.

Manabu, meanwhile, was struggling. And sinking deeper. “It's pulling me under!” he cried.

Tatsuya shook his head. “No,” he said firmly. “Don't panic, Manabu. It's just water and earth.”

“How do you know?” Manabu's movements had slowed, but he was still struggling a little.

“I've been caught like this before,” Tatsuya explained as he gently guided Hana to safer ground. “Out in the marshes near my village. So you're going
to listen and do as I say. Keep still and listen to me.”

When Hana was safe, Tatsuya turned back to look at me. “Kimi, try to lie down,” he ordered.

“Lie down?” I repeated uncertainly.

Tatsuya nodded. “Trust me,” he said, fixing me with his intense gaze. “Standing up means all your weight will go down through your feet, and you'll sink more quickly, whereas if you lie down, your body area will be bigger. That makes it harder to sink.” He glanced at Manabu. “You both need to lie down on the mud.”

I glanced at Manabu. His eyes were wide with fear, but he nodded and I took a deep breath. Tatsuya encouraged us gently as we slowly lowered ourselves down onto the cold, wet mud. It squelched and sucked loudly, oozing around my hands. For a moment I thought that Tatsuya was wrong and that the mud was going to swallow us. I glanced at Manabu and saw that he was flat on his stomach, his arm and both his legs spread wide.

Then suddenly I realized I seemed to be floating, like a lily on a pond.

“What do we do now?” I asked, turning my face to the side so that I didn't take a mouthful of the mud.

Tatsuya crouched down, a short distance away. “Stretch out your arm,” he urged. “Take my hand.”

I stretched out. Our fingertips didn't quite touch.

“I'll find a branch or something for you to hold on to,” Hana said quickly. She darted away toward a clump of trees.

Manabu made a whimpering sound. I turned to look at him. Had he sunk a little lower in the mud? His chin was black, and he was straining to tilt his head back and keep his face free.

“Help him,” I said, panicking. “He's going to drown!”

A muscle twitched in Tatsuya's jaw. “He won't drown,” he said sharply. He stretched out his arm farther to me. “Come on, Kimi. Reach for my hand.”

Manabu made a gurgling sound, his eyes widening.

“Help him first!” I cried desperately to Tatsuya. “He's sinking.”

“He's not sinking,” Tatsuya insisted. “He's fine for a few moments. I want to get you out first.”

I remembered how much Tatsuya disliked Manabu. Surely he didn't mean to let him drown? I glanced at Tatsuya's fingers stretching toward me and quickly snatched mine back. “Help Manabu first,” I said flatly.

Tatsuya's dark eyes met mine. “Only when you're safe, Kimi,” he said. “Give me your hand.”

“No,” I said, tears of frustration welling in my eyes. “You help Manabu. Please. He's one of the last
survivors of my father's household…help him for my sake.”

Tatsuya muttered something beneath his breath and glanced over his shoulder to see if Hana was coming. But she was nowhere to be seen, lost among the shadowy clump of trees where she searched for a branch.

Tatsuya turned back and gave me one last long look and then quickly shrugged off his longbow and arrows. Tossing the arrows aside, he spread himself flat on the mud and reached the longbow out toward Manabu. “Grab this,” he said to the servant. “And hold on tight. I'm going to pull you out.”

My heart in my mouth, I watched as Tatsuya strained against the mud that threatened to engulf Manabu. I could feel it soaking up through my
trousers, cold and wet and clinging, almost sucking at me. For a moment, hopelessness came over me in waves. We were so close to Mother. So close. And yet again we could not reach her.

Hana is safe,
I thought.
She can tell Mother that I tried…. Manabu will keep her safe.

I heard Tatsuya grunt, and then Manabu cried out. With a huge sucking sound, he came free. Relief swept through me as I saw him grasp Tatsuya's wrist with his one hand, and Tatsuya was dragging him away, both of them stumbling, limbs half-entwined
as they staggered to the edge of the mud patch where Manabu collapsed, panting.

At that moment, Hana came running back with a long, sturdy branch in her hand. She threw herself onto her knees at the edge of the mud patch. “Grab hold of this, Kimi.”

I felt muddy water seeping up around my chin as I stretched out toward the branch. But I couldn't reach it. I strained forward. My legs were stuck. The mud seemed to have a life of its own, dragging me down, setting like hard clay around my knees.

All at once, my own limbs gave a squelching, popping sound—and then I was free! The mud sloshed around me, gurgling greedily, but Tatsuya had me by my kimono. He pulled, and Hana grabbed my arm, and together the three of us half-stumbled, half-crawled to where Manabu was laying.

“Buddha be praised,” I said, weak with relief as I hugged Hana.

Manabu looked up at Tatsuya. “Thank you,” he said. “You saved my life.”

Tatsuya nodded curtly but said nothing. I tried to catch his eye to say my own thanks, but he avoided my gaze.

“We shouldn't stay here,” Hana warned, glancing up at the heavy sky. “If the rains come again, we could be caught once more.”

“Let's try to make it over to that rock,” Manabu suggested, pointing.

“Good idea,” I said. “It's nice and high. We can climb up onto it and try to get an idea of the safest way around this mud.”

With mud clotting our hair and clothes, we picked our way carefully to the rock. Breathless, we hauled ourselves up onto it.

Hana reached out to help Manabu, and then turned to look at me, her face suddenly full of laughter. Mud was smeared across her cheeks and chin.

“Earlier I thought I'd seen enough rain for a lifetime,” she said, turning her hands over and examining her black palms. “But now I pray for rain again to wash us clean.”

I scrambled to my feet and looked in the direction of the lake. The half-moon was bright now, lighting a silver path across the water all the way to the far side. “We're almost there,” I said to Hana. “We can bathe in the lake and rinse our clothes and hair.”

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
6.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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