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Authors: Maya Snow

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BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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B
eside me, Hana gasped in shock. Tatsuya jumped as if a jellyfish had stung him.

Manabu's eyebrows shot up in surprise, but he gave a curt nod. “So be it,” he said. “You have made your choice.”

My mother's face turned as pale as ash. As she turned her head away, the hurt expression in her eyes twisted a knife in my heart. But there was no time to explain, because at a signal from Manabu, the samurai behind Mother twisted his hand once more into her hair and dragged her to her feet.

Manabu turned to me. “I will take them outside and kill them now,” he snapped. “As for you, my samurai will dispatch you.”

I tried to scramble to my feet, but Manabu shoved me back down onto my knees with a snarl. “Bring back their heads,” he said to his men.

Behind him, I saw Moriyasu snatch up his little
bokken
from the table and swing it at Manabu's back….

But he didn't land a blow. One of the samurai, a wiry man with the eyes of a dead fish, snatched up my brother. He slung him easily over one shoulder and marched out of the hut. The last I saw of Moriyasu was his desperate little face.

“Kimi,” he whispered, and the sound broke my heart again. His eyes pleaded with me. But there was nothing I could do.

My mother stared at me in confusion as she left in the guard of two samurai.

Desolation flooded through me as I watched them go. I felt Hana catch my hand. Her fingers were icy cold. Tatsuya was staring at the doorway, looking numb.

The bamboo screen door closed with a snap. I heard Manabu give a curt order outside, although his words were muffled and I couldn't make out what he said. Was he giving orders to kill Mother and Moriyasu? Perhaps my plan was about to go tragically wrong….

Moments later the sound of horses' hooves echoed through the hut. Hope swelled within me and I prayed that Manabu was following his orders from the
Jito
. Surely the fact that they were leaving meant that he was taking Mother and Moriyasu back to Uncle Hidehira, and not killing them as he had threatened.

The three guards who remained in the hut with us
were drawing their swords. A gleam of polished steel reflected the red glow of charcoal from the brazier in the corner.

One of the samurai gave an evil grin, showing sharp yellow teeth and a blackened tongue. “Boy,” he said to Tatsuya. “Leave now, or die with them.”

I looked at Tatsuya, who was staring at me with a stunned expression. Finally he blinked, his face a mask of defiance as he eyed the samurai. “She chose to save my life,” he said, adopting a guard stance with his bladeless hands. “Now I choose to help preserve hers….”

The samurai with the yellow teeth raised his sword. “Then all three of you shall die.” He sneered and advanced.

“Not today,” I muttered through gritted teeth.

I held on tight to Hana's hand and leaped to my feet, pulling her up with me. Tatsuya was beside me as we slipped around the table. I tried to keep the rough-hewn wood between us and the heavily armed soldiers.

I caught Hana glancing at me. Her eyes were full of anger and I knew she blamed me for what might happen to Mother and Moriyasu.

“I didn't betray them,” I tried to tell her, but my words died in my throat as one of the samurai lunged across the table in an attempt to run me through.

I leaped backward, and the sword whispered as it sliced the empty air.

The samurai with no helmet edged around the table to engage with Tatsuya.

“Manabu won't kill Mother and Moriyasu,” I told Hana breathlessly as the other two men bore down on us. They trod stealthily, like cats stalking mice. “Uncle Hidehira wants them brought to him alive, remember?”

An expression of confusion flickered across Hana's face, and I knew I had to make her understand.

“It's more than Manabu's life is worth to kill Mother,” I said, desperately avoiding another whistling blade. “That's why I chose Tatsuya—”

“You shouldn't have,” Tatsuya cut in. He ducked away from a samurai who aimed a blow at his head. “I'm grateful, Kimi. But it wasn't worth the risk.” His jaw tightened.

“We can rescue Mother and Moriyasu,” I cried desperately to Hana, just as Tatsuya flung up a wooden bowl and caught the edge of the samurai's blade with it.

Tatsuya's arms jarred with the impact, and then suddenly he was staggering. I was shocked to see that he held two pieces of bowl in his hands. The bowl was perfectly cut in two, as cleanly as if it had been made of wax.

The samurai brought his sword back up with a grunt, but Tatsuya leaped away from him, up onto the table. He reached up high and managed to grab an iron lantern bracket, wrenched it hard, and tore it free from its fixings.

I kept my gaze fixed on my own opponent, and we circled each other warily.

Beside me, Hana dived at the samurai nearest to her, surprising him by throwing her arms around his waist as if she were dancing. The next moment, I saw her hand flash at his waist. She had grabbed his knife.

With a wild yell, Tatsuya wielded the iron lantern bracket like a sword. He brought it down on the bare head of the samurai who was attacking him. I heard a bone-crunching thud, and the samurai's eyes rolled up in his head. He pitched forward, as lifeless as a rag doll.

Hana held the knife she had snatched, her eyes searching for a gap in her opponent's armor. Still circling my opponent, I cast around desperately for a weapon of my own…but there was nothing. The only furnishings were the heavy table, a few straw mats, and the charcoal brazier glowing in the corner behind me.

The brazier! My mind raced. With a yell of triumph, I leaped backward, caught the edge of the
brazier with my foot, and flipped it up, dashing it into the face of my opponent.

Hot, bright coals sprayed out, searing his skin.

The samurai shrieked in agony and clawed at his burning face. I could smell singed hair and the foul sweetness of hot flesh.

I flipped the brazier again and sent another shower of coals and sparks at the third samurai. He screamed and turned blindly toward the door. Tatsuya gave him a hard shove and he smashed straight through the bamboo screen, staggered momentarily, and then disappeared at a run.

A moment of stunned silence was broken by a groan from the samurai with the burned face. I turned to look at him and saw that he was on his knees, his blackened head cupped in his hands. I knew that even if he recovered from his wounds he would probably never fight again.

Hana was staring at him, her expression one of sickened shock.

I dropped the brazier and seized my sister by the hands, turning her to face me. “Hana, look at me!” When I had her attention, I went on, “Everything's going to be all right. We'll rescue Mother and Moriyasu.”

Behind us, Tatsuya began to gather up our weapons.

Hana's gaze was still fixed on me. “I'm glad you saved Tatsuya's life, Kimi,” she said in a quiet and somehow desolate voice. “But how can we rescue them? We don't even know where Manabu is taking them.”

“Yes, we do,” I insisted. “He'll take them to Uncle Hidehira. And Uncle Hidehira will be with the army in the east. They're preparing to strike at the
Jito
's stronghold in Sagami.”

Tatsuya was crouching down by the wounded samurai. He looked up at me in amazement. “How do you know that?” he asked.

“The captain at the inn told us,” I reminded him. “He said that if we wanted to fight Lord Hidehira then we should head east, to Sagami.”

“So he did.” Tatsuya straightened up.

“But Manabu and his men have horses,” Hana said hesitantly, an expression of hope beginning to dawn across her face. “We can't catch them….”

“Not on foot,” I agreed. “But there's the river. It flows fast, away to the east.”

Tatsuya nodded. “We'll need that boat again,” he said. “Let's get out of here.”

Together, we hurried out of the hut and made our way along the main street. The little town was still deserted. The boat was still lashed to a wooden post sticking up out of the water, but the fisherman
was nowhere in sight.

“Should we try to find him?” Hana asked, looking around anxiously.

“That would take too long,” I said. “We have to catch up with Manabu.”

I clenched my fist, thinking hard, then came to a decision. “I think we should take the boat,” I said.

Tatsuya and Hana looked at me in astonishment.

“You mean, steal it?” Hana asked.

I shook my head. “It's not stealing if we pay for it,” I pointed out, and fished the innkeeper's leather money bag out of my kimono. “We need this boat. We
can't
let Manabu take Mother and Moriyasu to Uncle,” I said. “If the fisherman knew the truth, I'm sure he'd understand.”

Quickly I looped the money bag over the top of the wooden post. “He'll find the money when he comes for his boat,” I said. “There should be more than enough in there to pay for a replacement—and maybe some food for his family.”

“But we don't know how to scull,” Hana said.

“I do,” Tatsuya said. “And you two can help using those poles.” Tatsuya indicated two long pieces of wood secured to one side of the boat.

We settled ourselves in the boat, untied the rope from the wooden post, and pushed away from the shore. Tatsuya began to maneuver the little boat
and I half expected to hear a shout, but the village remained deserted as we sailed past. Somewhere a dog barked, but otherwise we slid along the river in silence.

We soon left the town behind. The sun was beginning to rise in the sky, sparkling off the surface of the water. I guessed it was mid-morning, although I couldn't be sure. A current picked us up, bearing us quickly downriver.

It felt strange to be journeying again. I had been so focused on the reunion with Mother and Moriyasu, the end of our journey—and how fleeting that reunion had turned out to be. I bit my lip and gazed at the swirling green river water. Had I made the right decision? What if I was wrong and we couldn't rescue them?

“Watch those rocks!” Hana's voice broke into my thoughts.

Black boulders rose from the water on either side of the boat, looking like teeth in the jaws of an enormous dragon. We used the long poles to steer away from them, and headed ever eastward toward the border. Occasionally we passed places where huts and hovels clustered on the riverbank. There were fruit orchards, rice fields, and willow trees that dipped their branches in the cool, clear water.

A couple of times, Tatsuya stared across the river
and into the trees, his dark eyes alert.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

Tatsuya hesitated, and then dragged his gaze away from the riverbank to look at me for a moment. “Nothing,” he said. “I was just watching out for signs that we might be nearing the border with Sagami.”

The sun moved across the sky as we sailed on. Tatsuya began to explain how he steered the boat, and Hana and I each had a turn.

After some time, the scenery changed to denser forests.

“I think we must be quite near the border,” I said, glancing back over my shoulder to where Mount Fuji rose up far in the distance. I frowned, trying to remember what I had seen on the scrolls from my father's study at home. “I think the river curves and there are lots of rocks just before Kai Province becomes Sagami.”

Hana was staring ahead along the river, her hand tight on the side of the boat. “I can see plenty of rocks just at the next bend,” she said. “The water is rougher there, too.”

Tatsuya took over the sculling, his gaze fixed on the bend in the river as we approached. Rocks reared up on either side of us, slick and wet. Tatsuya began to struggle to keep control of the boat on the swells. The river around us started to churn.

“We're entering rapids,” Tatsuya said, looking anxious as I was forced to use the pole to push us away from a rock that loomed close.

“Look,” Hana cried, pointing to the shore as she clung to the side of the boat. “There's a marker. Do you think that shows where Kai Province crosses into Sagami?”

I turned to look and saw an enormous pole sticking out of the riverbank. Carved and lacquered with green and gold, it seemed to glow in the mid-morning sunshine. I could just make out a tumble of black painted
kanji
characters running from the top down.

“Sagami Province…,” I said breathlessly.

“Is that a person on the other side of the marker?” Hana was staring into the trees.

Was there? I narrowed my eyes but saw only a shadow cast by a willow tree, and then there was no time to wonder because Tatsuya was calling for our assistance. I adjusted myself and kept the long pole at the ready. The boat tipped and tilted, taking on water, and Hana went down on her knees to bail, sloshing river water over the side with her cupped hands.

Pitching and tossing, our little boat swept through the last of the rocks. Then, suddenly, it came to rest in a wide stretch of river where the water was as calm
and tranquil as a lily pond on a summer's day.

“That was more difficult than I expected,” I said. “But we made it.”

“How far should we travel on the river?” Hana asked uncertainly.

Tatsuya squinted up at the sky. “I think we should sail on until the sun reaches its highest point,” he said. “Then we'll moor up, and head inland toward the south.”

I nodded. “That should take us close to the town where Uncle will be preparing for his attack.”

Hana was still looking around, a tiny frown creasing her brow. “Something's not right,” she said in a low voice. “I can feel danger close by.”

I followed her gaze, watching the way the willow trees swept over the riverbank to dapple the calm water. “I can't see anything out of the ordinary,” I murmured.

I turned to look at Tatsuya, my eyebrows raised. He looked tense and watchful.

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
3.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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