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Authors: Maya Snow

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The palanquin came to a halt in the center of the courtyard just as more samurai on horseback came cantering in through the gates. Their captain gave a curt order and the two guards hurried to close the gates behind them.

The bearers set the palanquin down and my body tensed. Beside me, Hana stood as still as a marble statue, her gaze fixed to the ground in front of her.

A large, powerful hand appeared at the curtains, crushing the fragile silk. The curtains were roughly pulled aside and Uncle Hidehira appeared. His thin-lipped smile didn't reach his dark eyes. Loathing filled my soul.

Mr. Choji made a gesture, and as one, the school bowed. Hana and I placed our hands on our thighs and bent low.

As we rose, Uncle Hidehira stepped down from the palanquin. He straightened up, hands on hips,
his broad shoulders dwarfing the guards who stood on each side. He surveyed the assembled school. His gaze seemed to penetrate deep into the soul of each person he looked at.

I kept my head bowed but peeked at Uncle from beneath my eyelashes, studying him carefully. Father always said,
Know your opponent as well as you know yourself because that is how you will discover his weakness
.

Usually Uncle wore robes of glossy red silk to signify his important role as
Jito
, but now he was dressed traditionally in white for the funeral. The many layers of his luxurious kimono moved heavily as he walked across the courtyard toward Mr. Choji. His black hair had been shaved at the front, then oiled and folded in an ornate ceremonial style. Two swords—one long, one slightly shorter—were stuck into his stiffened obi sash.

Uncle returned Mr. Choji's respectful bow, but his own bow was slight, and I guessed that he felt it was beneath him to show a mere head servant too much honor.

The two men greeted each other formally in low voices. I could see tension on my uncle's face. His confident air was betrayed by the new lines on his forehead. Perhaps it was us, the surviving witnesses of his treachery, that weighed on his mind. I hoped it was.

A sharp thought filled my mind: I had an advantage over Uncle. Despite all his power, I knew something he didn't. My mother and brother were alive and safe—and soon we would be together again. I was sure of it.

Hana shifted beside me and I reached out to her, touching her fingers in our secret signal of kinship.

Mr. Choji bowed to Uncle Hidehira once more, robes rippling. “Will you do me the honor of accepting a bowl of tea in our pavilion, Lord Hidehira?”

Uncle Hidehira gazed at him for a moment, his eyes as black and expressionless as a lizard's. “No tea, thank you.”

My heart began to pump harder. By refusing tea, Uncle was dishonoring Mr. Choji in front of the whole school.

A few of the students exchanged shocked glances and I saw that the back of Mr. Choji's neck had flushed red.

“I think a tour of the school would be more appropriate,” Uncle Hidehira said at last. “If it is your intention to take over here as Master, then I want to see what your plans are and how you intend to expand and improve this dojo.”

Mr. Choji bowed low. “Of course, Lord Steward,” he said. “Please follow me.”

As he turned, he nodded at Hana and me to show that we should follow, and together the men
walked across the sunny courtyard, sand crunching underfoot. Hana and I fell into step behind them. At a signal from Uncle Hidehira two of his personal guard, samurai with fearsome horned helmets and hard leather armor, walked behind us.

“The servant has become master,” Uncle Hidehira said as soon as we were away from the main courtyard.

Mr. Choji inclined his head slightly. “Your Lordship knows that I did not seek this honor,” he said gruffly. “It was the wish of the junior masters and students. They wanted someone who knew Goku's work and would carry on in the same tradition.”

“Goku's work was good.” Uncle Hidehira agreed with a nod. “He was wise and skilled. I was counting on him to train the captains of my army.” He cast a sharp sideways glance at Mr. Choji. “May I count on you in the same way, Choji?”

“Of course, Your Lordship. I will serve you just the same way as Goku did.”

I smiled to myself at this. My uncle did not know how Goku refused to serve him, how he had kept us concealed. And I felt sure that Mr. Choji
would
do the same.

Uncle Hidehira looked satisfied. “Good,” he said as they followed the curving path. “Because I have great plans for my estates. Great plans.”

The sound of hurrying feet came along the pathway behind us, and I turned my head to see the hands of the two samurai guards going instantly to the hilts of their swords, but then they relaxed as a messenger came trotting around the curve in the path, his clothes and armor dusty from the road. I realized that the guards' reaction meant that Uncle was constantly on guard for a threat to his power.

He should be,
I thought.

The messenger bowed low. “Forgive the intrusion, Mr. Choji, but I have brought a message.”

Mr. Choji nodded and beckoned. “Please come forward.”

My blood began to race when I caught a glimpse of the tightly rolled paper scroll in the messenger's hand. This could be the letter from Mother.

I glanced at Hana and saw that her gaze was fixed on the messenger.

Mr. Choji held out his hand to take the scroll, but Uncle Hidehira stopped him and my breath caught in my throat.

“You should not forget your place, Choji,” he said sharply. “A servant does not assume all the authority of Master overnight. The appointment of Master of this dojo comes from the
Jito
himself.”

I held my breath, stunned by Uncle's tone. As Mr. Choji bowed I could see the flash of anger in his eyes,
and I knew he was holding himself tightly in check.

Uncle Hidehira seized the scroll from the messenger, half crushing the fragile paper. This was the worst possible situation. I now prayed that this would be the vegetable accounts or a dojo application—anything other than the letter that we had been waiting for, the letter that would expose everything.

As the messenger bowed and hurried away, Uncle slit the wax seal with his thumbnail and tore the scarlet ribbon that bound it. Slowly he unrolled the curling paper.

From where I was standing I had a clear view of the thick black brushstrokes that covered the letter from top to bottom. The graceful, sweeping kanji reminded me of rivers and willow trees and the curving necks of swans. There was only one person who formed their characters so elegantly.

My mother
.

I knew instantly that this was the message Hana and I had been waiting for….

And now it was in the hands of our enemy.

I
was in silent agony, desperate to launch myself forward and tear the scroll from Uncle's hands. But I knew that I could not draw attention to myself or Hana. To do so would be an act of madness.

Uncle scanned the letter. For a moment he did not react, but then his face flushed a deep, dull red. His hand around the scroll tightened into a fist, destroying the delicate paper.

“Do you know who this is from?” he snapped, glaring at Mr. Choji.

Mr. Choji shook his head. “A letter of condolence, perhaps?” he asked. “The news of Goku's death will have carried across the province by now.”

“No, it is not a letter of condolence.” Uncle spat. “This scroll contains words of deceit that condemn Goku as a traitor.”

“A traitor?” Mr. Choji echoed, looking astounded. “What do you mean?”

Uncle sneered. “It is wise of you to look innocent,” he said. “Because if I find you have had any part of this plot then I will have you executed.” He shook his clenched fist, crushing the scroll still further. “This letter is from my treacherous brother's widow. And it is clear that Goku has been helping her.”

I caught a glimpse of the emotions that chased across Mr. Choji's face: astonishment, understanding, and finally a loathing of Uncle Hidehira. “Goku would never behave dishonorably,” he said at last. “If the Master helped Lord Yoshijiro's widow, then there was a reason for it.”

“Oh yes. I'm sure there was a reason for it.” Uncle Hidehira's voice was steely. “This letter mentions Yoshijiro's daughters. The widow is hiding somewhere and she has her son with her, but not the girls. By the gods, if only she had mentioned where they were.”

Uncle Hidehira turned to one of his guards. “I want a hundred men sent out to search the neighboring towns and villages for two young female fugitives,” he ordered. “The men are to turn out every hut and hovel within half a day's ride of the dojo. I want those girls found and brought to me.”

Hana clutched my wrist in terror. I put my fingers over hers, hoping to comfort her, but my hand was trembling.

“Yes, Lord,” the guard replied.

“And tell the captain to take twenty men and go to the temple at the foot of Mount Fuji at closing time tomorrow.” A cunning look came over Uncle's face as he scanned the letter again. “The widow says she will wait for her daughters there, as the sun is setting. Capture her and the boy child and bring them here to me—alive!”

A chill wind seemed to blow through my soul. Beside me, Hana's lips had turned whiter than paper.

Mr. Choji looked angry and shocked. “Lord, I must protest—” he began.

“Be silent!” Uncle Hidehira snapped. “You have protested enough. You are not one of my advisors. In fact, I have decided that after today you will be replaced as Master of this dojo.”

Mr. Choji's mouth tightened. “My appointment is the wish of the masters and students—”

But Uncle Hidehira interrupted him. “I don't care about the wishes of the masters and students.” He sneered. “They will do as they are told. And you're lucky I don't throw you out now—I would, if it wasn't for the funeral. I'm only letting this ceremony go ahead because of my son's foolishness. I have banished Ken-ichi from all of my estates, and now I must show the people that I have disowned him.”

I bit my lip. Ken-ichi had been banished. Not
only had he left the school and his friends, he had been forced to leave his home and everything that was important to him. For a moment I felt a flicker of compassion for my cousin. But then I reminded myself that Ken-ichi had killed Master Goku. He deserved his banishment.

Uncle suddenly seemed to notice Hana and me for the first time. Hana was staring at him, her horrified gaze fixed on the letter in his hand.

There was a moment of silence, and the scene on the pathway seemed to freeze. Uncle Hidehira stared, black eyes glittering as he took in her blue servant's clothes and her boyish topknot.

Had he recognized Hana? My heart pounded and I shifted my weight forward onto the balls of my feet, ready to spring forward and help her.

“What are you staring at?” Uncle Hidehira snarled. He clenched his fists and took a quick step toward Hana, stamping on the path as if to frighten her away. “Stupid boy. Get out of here! I won't have filthy servant boys listening to matters that are of no concern to them.”

Pale with fear, Hana looked at Mr. Choji.

The head servant nodded gently. “Go,” he said. “Both of you. There is plenty for you to do to prepare for the funeral.”

As soon as we were out of earshot, I blurted out,
“We must get to Mother and Moriyasu before Uncle's samurai.”

Hana nodded. “I agree,” she said. “But please, Kimi, let's stay for the funeral.” She paused. “We never got to say good-bye to Father.”

I searched her face and saw that this was something she had to do. I nodded. We would pay our last respects to our Master.

A bell rang out, echoing across the gardens, and signaled that it was almost time for the funeral. Together, Hana and I made our way to the servants' quarters. Back in our little bedchamber, Hana and I quickly stripped off our servant's uniforms and changed into formal clothes. We wore short white kimono jackets as was the custom for a funeral, with the wide-legged black
hakama
trousers that all students of the dojo wore for formal occasions. Our hair was oiled and tightly tied into topknots. Our long
nihonto
swords tucked into our sashes.

I put Moriyasu's little bamboo
bokken
beside my sword. “We won't have time to come back here afterward.”

Hana took down some black bean and rice cakes from a shelf. She handed several to me and tucked the others into her kimono. “For the journey,” she said. “It's a long way to Mount Fuji and we may not find shelter or food.”

Someone tapped on the door frame. I hurried to slide it back and came face-to-face with Tatsuya. He gave a somber bow.

“It's time,” he said simply.

T
he three of us entered the practice hall where Goku's body had been kept since he died, and several students in formal dress and a couple of servants were already there, kneeling on small cushions at the center of the polished wooden floor. They were grouped in a semicircle around a long open casket that rested on a beautifully lacquered green and gold altar.

One of the servants looked up as we entered the hall. I saw that it was Ko and beside him kneeled another kitchen boy, Sato. Along with Tatsuya, they had been good friends to Hana and me during our time at the dojo. I was glad that we didn't have to mourn alone.

Over the past three days, I had been focusing on the happy memories: sparring with Goku in the courtyard, learning from him in the scroll room, meditating with him…

Goku had been a second father to us—our teacher,
our protector—but I had been avoiding visiting his body. I couldn't bear to relive that terrible moment when the sharp point of the spear had plunged into his chest.

As we approached the casket I caught a glimpse of gleaming wood, a fold of white cotton cloth, and a lotus flower carefully positioned by a pale hand. Beside me, Hana took in a wavering breath.

I looked down into the casket and saw that Master Goku's eyes were closed. His head rested on a small flat pillow and his hands had been placed lightly one on top of the other across the front of a simple white cotton kimono. I felt a quick rush of relief that someone, perhaps Ko or Sato, had honored tradition and placed a gleaming silver knife across his chest, to keep away the evil spirits.

“He looks as if he's going to sit up and speak to us,” I said softly.

But then I noticed the way his skin was stretched tight over his cheekbones. There was a greenish tinge to his eyelids. His fingers were waxy. Without warning, my vision blurred with tears. Master Goku was dead. Only three days ago, he had been living and breathing. Now he was gone forever. I felt a tide of grief rise up through me.

Tears streamed down Hana's cheeks as she began to pray. I closed my eyes and tried to clear my mind.
But my thoughts wouldn't settle.

Instead I kept thinking about my father and older brothers. Pain twisted through me at the thought that Hana and I had not managed to say good-bye, that their spirits would wander tormented and restless.

I thought of the way Master Goku had taught us to meditate. His deep, calm voice seemed to echo through my head,
Open your mind…find the balance
…

I took a breath and opened my mind. Memories faded and I could feel Goku's presence somewhere deep within my soul. All at once I realized that he would always be with me. The training he had given me and the lessons he taught were now a part of me—just as everything Father taught me was rooted in me, growing and gathering strength, giving me the skills to one day face Uncle.

I brought myself out of meditation as Mr. Choji came into the main hall. He had changed into formal funeral robes, his white hem swishing around his sandaled feet as he crossed the hall.

“This was not how we planned, but a few hours early will not disturb our Master,” Mr. Choji said. “I have notified the village and the temple.”

He paused to bow to the casket, quickly secured the lid in place, and then lifted the lantern down from its stand, ready to lead the procession to the temple. It was a dojo tradition to have a lantern light
the way for the Master's passing, and clearly Mr. Choji was going to continue the tradition despite the daylight. Usually the sacred duty of carrying the lantern was reserved for the closest family, but Master Goku had no family, and so his closest friend and fellow teacher would lead the way instead.

His broad face solemn, Mr. Choji gestured to us all to rise and lift the casket. The litter was fitted underneath and I felt the smooth wood in my left hand. To my surprise, the casket itself was light, almost weightless, as if most of Goku had already gone. I turned my mind away and tried to focus on the task ahead.

We spaced ourselves evenly, four on each side of the litter, and at a word from Tatsuya, who was at the front, we turned and faced the doorway. I noticed a small group of mourners had gathered there, ready to fall in behind us as we proceeded along the pathway to the temple.

Suddenly I heard an imperious command, and Uncle Hidehira came sweeping in, flanked by a dozen or so of his heavily armed samurai guards. “I will lead the procession,” he said abruptly, one hand on the scabbard of his curving sword.

I glanced at Mr. Choji. His face turned a dull, angry red and there was a moment of tense silence. Then he handed the lantern to Uncle Hidehira and bowed low.

With a satisfied smile, Uncle Hidehira turned to lead the procession out of the hall. As soon as he was out of earshot, I heard Ko, the kitchen boy, speak quietly to Mr. Choji. “It would honor Master Goku if you took my place and helped carry the casket.”

“It is I who am honored, my son,” Mr. Choji said humbly as Ko gave up his place.

With Uncle Hidehira at the front, we moved slowly out of the main hall and into the morning sunshine. We followed a white pebble pathway and proceeded through the rock gardens, passing lily ponds that reflected the clear blue sky. As we walked, I couldn't help but remember the first time I had seen Master Goku. He had been standing in the gateway of the dojo, staring sternly at my cousin Ken-ichi, who had challenged me to a duel.

Goku had given us so much. The casket shifted slightly as someone stumbled, and I saw it was Hana. Perhaps she too was thinking about Goku, of his kindness and all the things he had taught us.

At last, the temple came into sight with its tall pagoda building near the front of the sacred ground, in a circle of golden gravel. We were headed for the main building with three ornate curving rooftops stacked one above the other. Monks in saffron-yellow robes stood on either side of the steps leading up to the entrance, where a round copper gong hung
gracefully from an ash-wood hanger.

The monks bowed their smoothly shaven heads as Uncle and his guards passed between them and began to climb the steps.

Once my eyes had adjusted to the dimly lit interior of the temple, I saw an old priest waiting for us by a bronze statue of the Buddha. He had a
shakujo
ritual staff in his hand, the iron rings jingling at the top. Behind him stood an impressive altar, lacquered with green and gold, and touched here and there with glossy black paint.

As we moved forward, the priest rang the altar bell and began to chant, the nasal sounds of his words running into one another.

We carefully placed the casket in front of the altar. Mr. Choji nodded his approval and stepped forward to make a final adjustment to its position.

The students filed silently into the temple behind us and kneeled in neat rows. Watched by Uncle Hidehira's samurai guards, the mourners from the nearby villages filled the spaces at the sides of the temple, heads bowed. I could hear a woman quietly weeping near the back. Other mourners had arranged their hair in the traditional samurai style and I guessed they had once been students of Master Goku.

The monks walked slowly up the center of the temple to continue the ceremony. At the end of the
long prayer, the old priest finished chanting and fell silent. There was a moment of peaceful contemplation. I knew that next a relative of the dead should rise and thank the guests for coming. But of course Master Goku had no relatives.

I glanced at Mr. Choji, wondering whether he would speak, but in my heart I knew it would be Uncle. And sure enough, Hidehira left his position at the head of Goku's casket and moved forward. My stomach seemed to fall away and I felt a hot rush of hatred for him.

“Friends,” he began in a deep, self-important voice. “As well as being
Jito
of the southern part of this province, I was Goku's most trusted friend.”

That's not true,
I wanted to shout, indignation rushing through me. I saw Mr. Choji standing tensely, his face a mask of carefully controlled fury.

“Our friendship began during the days of my training here,” Uncle Hidehira went on, letting his hand rest on the scabbard of his sword. “Like many of you, I was once a student at the dojo. Indeed, Goku once told me that I was the best he had ever seen.” Uncle paused and looked out at the crowd, almost daring someone to challenge that statement. I had to keep my jaw firmly clenched—everyone knew that my father was the best. “In later years I outstripped his skills and found that I needed a
more experienced teacher…but I never forgot Goku. And I'm sure you will never forget him either, although you all know it is time to move on.”

Uncle Hidehira paused to let his meaning sink in.

A sob echoed from near the back of the temple. Uncle Hidehira glared, and it was quickly stifled. “You
must
move on,” he said sharply. “It is time to go back to your studies. Train hard. Become warriors. Now that I have no son, I will need an heir from among the loyal samurai army that will help build my empire. Goku's death has been an upset for you all, but it was time for a change at this school….”

A stir rippled through the students. A few of the older students muttered under their breaths, and I knew they resented Uncle's implication that their Master's time had passed.

“Change is coming,” Uncle Hidehira went on. “Both to this school and to the province. I need an army, and as I look at you now I see my future warriors…my generals…my battle-hungry men. You will train hard and be proud to use your skills in the service of your
Jito
.”

As Uncle Hidehira finished his speech, I looked around to see some of the students, their faces alive with excitement. The idea of becoming the
Jito
's heir was surely filling them with purpose. There was a buzz in the air as everyone filed past Goku's casket to
bow his last respects. They all bowed to Uncle Hidehira, too, before exiting through the doorway at the side of the temple that led to the funeral pyre.

As I watched them, I couldn't help but despair. How could they be so taken in by Uncle's words? They were so excited at the thought of using their skills that they couldn't see that most of them were destined for a bloody death on Uncle's battlefields.

We followed the crowd outside to the wide gravel courtyard behind the temple. I caught a glimpse of stone carvings, tall pine trees shading part of the hillside, and a bronze statue of the Buddha gleaming in the sunshine.

Even though I had attended my grandmother's funeral many moons ago and knew what to expect, my stomach still tightened when I saw the flaming pyre that had been built in the center of the courtyard.

There were several large stones, all about the same height and spaced out carefully to support a casket. Between them, the priests had layered dry timber, which was flickering fiercely in the breeze. The monks brought Goku's casket and placed it onto the broad stones and into the flames.

Sparks flew, some of them spiraling up toward the sky. Silence fell over the assembled crowd. Then, one of the monks rang a tinkling bell and began to
chant. Soon the others joined in, their voices blending into a gentle melody.

As the fire began to consume the casket, grief rose up through me. So many people I had loved were gone. My father, my brothers, and now Master Goku…

Tears welled up and I tried to blink them away, wanting to control my grief. But it was no good. The tears fell, hot against my skin.

I felt Hana move closer to me, and I reached sideways to touch her fingers with mine. Around us, the chanting of the monks rose and fell.

Above us, the sun climbed higher in the sky, beating down on our heads. An incredible heat filled the courtyard as the pyre became a furnace. The air seemed to ripple and shimmer, until at last the casket disappeared into a raging inferno of heat and flame.

When the fire subsided, the priest stepped forward and raked the pyre carefully with a long metal pole.

Soon, the last remains of Master Goku were revealed. White bones gleamed among the smoldering embers. Most were still recognizable for what they were—long shins, round hip bones, a smooth skull.

A monk brought out a large urn wrapped in pure white cloth. He removed the cloth and stood quietly beside the pyre. A second monk brought two pairs of
fine chopsticks. He gave one pair to Uncle Hidehira and the other to Mr. Choji.

I watched as Uncle reached into the pyre and carefully selected a bone from one of Master Goku's feet. As tradition demanded, he held it out to Mr. Choji, who solemnly accepted the bone between his own chopsticks.

Mr. Choji carefully placed the pure white bone into the bottom of the urn. He turned and beckoned to the nearest casket bearer. I knew that each of us in turn would approach the funeral pyre and accept one of Master Goku's bones from Uncle Hidehira in this way. We would place them into the urn, beginning with the feet and working all the way up the skeleton until the last mourner placed Master Goku's skull into the urn. My mother had once explained that custom demanded the dead be placed in an urn the right way up, so they could be comfortable in their final resting place.

When it was my turn, I kept my head bowed, hoping Uncle wouldn't look at me too closely. When I took the chopsticks, Uncle Hidehira barely looked at me as he passed me a small, shining white bone. He seemed to hurry through the motions, wanting to be anywhere but here. Carefully I took the bone between my own chopsticks. Heart pounding, I placed the bone in the urn on top of the other pieces.

Immediately the old priest stepped forward. He was holding a large piece of stone carved into the shape of a long-stemmed mushroom. He placed this into the urn and began to rock it back and forth. I heard a brittle cracking sound and guessed the priest was crushing the bones.

I turned and passed the chopsticks to Hana. She glanced up at me, her eyes huge with grief and pain. Her hand trembled slightly as she took the chopsticks and I knew that this ceremony was especially hard on her. In the same way that the priest was crushing the bones to make them fit into the urn, so my sister and I had to crush our emotions so that we would not falter in the face of the terrible events that had overtaken us.

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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