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Authors: Maya Snow

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BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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T
atsuya came bursting out of the shadows at the edge of the glade, a longbow in his hand and a handful of arrows bristling in his sash. He must have snatched them from one of Uncle's guards.

Even as he ran, Tatsuya was fitting another arrow to the string and drawing back.

With a savage yell, he loosed a second arrow and then a third.

The shafts flickered through the air. I ducked, and one arrow flew above my head to hit a second of the samurai soldiers, one that was fighting Hana. Its lethal tip pierced his throat.

The samurai's eyes bulged, and his mouth opened in a silent scream. Then he pitched forward and fell facedown at Hana's feet. The next arrow took a slice from a third samurai's cheek, and the next came flying low to bury itself in another samurai's thigh.

Two men were dead and another two wounded, with two more left to fight.

But Tatsuya was out of arrows. With a muttered curse, he tossed the longbow into the grass and drew his sword. He leaped at the samurai with the wounded cheek, blade held high, bringing it around in a swinging cut as if he would slice the man's head from his shoulders. The warrior stepped sideways to avoid Tatsuya's strike, but as he half turned, he accidentally opened himself up to me.

I struck hard, putting all my power through my sword arm. My blade slashed cleanly through the gap between two plates of armor. The samurai gasped for breath and dropped to his knees, dying.

One of the others came in fast from my left, blade raised above his head. I quickly blocked, and as our blades clashed, blood smeared on the steel. I braced myself, dropped my shoulder, and shoved hard. The samurai staggered backward. Behind him, Tatsuya pulled back the man's helmet. The hilt of his sword flashed up into the samurai's temple, knocking him unconscious.

Only two samurai remained, but one was badly injured by the arrow in his leg and I knew we could defeat them now. Hana was fighting hard, her sword flashing as she slashed and swiped. Her opponent was a tall man, a powerful fighter who had so far
avoided being wounded, and he was driving my sister backward.

Swiftly Hana pivoted, and as the samurai's momentum carried him forward, she stepped in behind him. He was startled as she simply placed one hand on his shoulder, and pulled him backward and down. He toppled easily, and she turned again, slicing across him with her blade. Crimson blood gushed from his body.

Hana's face was turned away and all I could see was the curve of one pale cheek half-hidden by a halo of black hair, as the samurai let out his last cry.

And then there were no more samurai left to fight. Bodies lay all around and insects hummed in the air around my face.

The only movement was from the samurai with Tatsuya's arrow in his thigh. With a bellow of pain, he pulled the shaft out, then staggered to his feet and half ran, half limped across the glade away from us.

When he reached the tree line, he turned and snarled, “There is no escape from the
Jito.
Lord Hidehira will track you down and kill you!” Then he vanished into the shadows.

“I'm trembling,” Hana whispered, holding out a shaking hand.

I looked at my sister, and the realization that we
had just escaped our uncle for a second time flooded over me. “We've escaped, Hana,” I said, and grabbed my sister into a fierce hug.

Then I turned to Tatsuya. “I don't know how to thank you.”

“You saved our lives, Tatsuya,” Hana put in, her face glowing as she looked up at him.

Tatsuya slipped his sword back into its scabbard and gave a little bow. “You don't need to thank me,” he said. “We're friends. More than friends.” He clasped his fist in front of his chest and bowed his head for a moment. “I pledge you my loyalty for as long as it takes for you to restore honor and goodness to the title of
Jito
of these estates.”

The image of Tatsuya crossing swords with Uncle flashed in my mind. “But how did you get away?” I asked.

Tatsuya looked triumphant. “Ko and Sato took down two of the samurai and escaped out of the back of the temple.”

“But you were fighting Uncle,” Hana said.

Tatsuya grinned. He pulled his kimono away from his body and showed us a long slit across the stomach. “He wasn't quick enough to finish me off. I broke away as soon as I could to come find you.”

“Thank you, Tatsuya,” Hana said gravely. She picked up his discarded longbow and handed it
to him ceremoniously.

“We should get out of here,” I said, sheathing my sword and hurrying to retrieve Master Goku's urn from the long grass. “As soon as Uncle hears we've escaped, he'll send more troops after us.”

“And we have to hurry if we're to get to Mount Fuji before sunset tomorrow,” Hana said.

“Mount Fuji? Why do you want to go there?” Tatsuya said, looking at us expectantly.

“Our mother has been sending letters to Master Goku,” Hana began. “We didn't tell you before because we thought it would be safer if no one else knew about it.”

Tatsuya frowned. “But…I could have helped.”

Hana stepped forward and touched Tatsuya lightly on the arm. “We know that now,” she said, smiling gently.

Tatsuya looked into Hana's eyes, and I knew he understood. It would be sad to say good-bye to such a true friend.

“Tell me about the letters,” Tatsuya said.

“Seven scrolls came in the weeks before the tournament,” Hana explained. “But Master Goku kept them from us. He wanted us to stay at the dojo where he could keep us safe.”

Quickly she told him how another letter had arrived that morning and that Uncle had learned
Mother wanted to meet us in the temple at the foot of Mount Fuji. Tatsuya listened closely.

“Uncle Hidehira dispatched soldiers immediately,” Hana went on. “He's setting a trap to capture Mother and Moriyasu.”

Tatsuya looked back and forth between us. “And you're going there to warn them.”

“We have to get to Mount Fuji.” I glanced up at the sun, burning high above. “We have the rest of today, and then tomorrow until sundown.”

“A day and a half for traveling,” Hana said slowly. “Is that enough?”

“Maybe,” Tatsuya said. He frowned thoughtfully, as if calculating the journey in his head. “At a guess, I'd say Mount Fuji is two days away. But if we hurry, we can make it in time.”

“We?”
I stared at him, my heart suddenly as light as air. “You're coming with us?”

“There's nothing for me back at the dojo now,” Tatsuya said. He clenched his fist and held it out in front of him. “And I've made a pledge, remember? We're in this together. Loyal friends!”

Hana and I exchanged a glance. Then we clenched our own fists and placed them over Tatsuya's, one on top of the other. “Loyal friends!” we chorused.

Quickly we gathered up weapons from the dead and unconscious samurai. One samurai had an empty
leather rice pouch, which I relieved him of. Instead of carrying the heavy urn, I carefully emptied its contents into the thick, waterproof pouch and tied it to my sash. I knew Goku would not be offended by the action. I would take him somewhere he could find peace.

Tatsuya watched me, his face grave. “You did the right thing taking the urn,” he said quietly. “Master Goku deserves a sacred resting place.”

I drew a deep breath. “I thought we might find somewhere when we reach Mount Fuji.”

“That's a wonderful idea, Kimi,” Hana said warmly. “Father always said it was one of the most beautiful, peaceful places on earth.”

“Mount Fuji was special to Master Goku, too,” Tatsuya said, kneeling over one of the dead soldiers. He was unstrapping a quiver of arrows from the man's back, but he paused and glanced up at Hana. “He was born near there. Sometimes during lessons he would refer to the mountain as the soul of the kingdom.”

“Then it's right that it should be his final resting place,” Hana replied. “We should take his ashes to the temple where we're to meet Mother.”

I drew a deep breath. “Master Goku's spirit will draw strength from being in such a sacred and special resting place.”

Tatsuya fastened his quiver of arrows to his sash.

We left the glade in single file, Tatsuya taking the lead as we hurried along the pathway through the forest. Hana was ahead of me. She'd left her hair down, loose to her waist, its blue-black sheen the color of a raven's wing. I had decided to keep mine up like a boy. It wasn't so important to maintain our disguises now because Uncle Hidehira knew who we were, but I found it more comfortable to keep my hair out of my eyes.

Tatsuya set a good pace. The forest closed in around us, shadowy and mysterious. The only sound was the rustling of grass against our ankles. Every so often we would stop and strain our ears for the creak of leather armor, the rattle of weapons following us. But there was nothing to hear except the distant shriek and chatter of a monkey, the buzz of insects, and the occasional shrill cry of a bird.

Soon we broke out of the forest and found ourselves on a hillside overlooking a wide green valley. Farmers in flat straw hats paddled through the shallow water that flooded the rice fields. In the distance an enormous snow-capped mountain rose up from a crest of pine trees, its foothills wreathed in lilac shadows.

“Mount Fuji,” Hana said in a breathless voice.

Drinking in the sight, I felt anticipation whisper through my soul. This time tomorrow, we would be at the temple, reunited with Mother. Smiling, I put my hand to my waist and touched the hilt of Moriyasu's little bamboo
bokken.

“Your uncle is sure to send out samurai to hunt us down,” Tatsuya said, eyeing the farmers down in the fields. “It would be safer for these people if they didn't see us.”

Hana nodded. “We'll keep off the main paths.”

We cut around the edge of the valley, keeping Mount Fuji ahead of us, fixed in our sights like a talisman. Time passed and the sun slid sideways across the sky, its golden light shimmering on the flooded rice fields.

We picked our way along a narrow track that cut across the hillside. As I followed the others, I glanced out across the peaceful landscape, trying to imagine war bands riding hard across the horizon with the sun glinting from their helmets. What would the country look like several moons from now? The people would be starving, all their rice seized to feed the army. There would only be girl children left to tend the meager crops because the boys would be rounded up and sent to train as warriors and foot soldiers.

Suddenly I heard a rustling sound away to my left.
Someone was coming toward us through the bamboo!

“Get off the path,” I whispered to the others.

We dived into the undergrowth on the other side of the path, pressing ourselves flat to the ground. The rustling grew louder. I exchanged a panicked look with the others. Was this the advance guard of a foot patrol of soldiers sent by Uncle Hidehira to scour the countryside? My heart was pounding so loudly I was sure that whoever was coming must be able to hear it.

Abruptly a footstep crunched onto the narrow track, and then another. I heard someone take a wheezing breath.

I peered through the undergrowth. If someone was coming for us, I wanted to see them first. Beside me, Hana reached for the hilt of her sword. Tatsuya was tense and ready.

The footsteps crunched closer and closer…and an old woodcutter came into view. He had a lined, leathery face. A basket of pine logs was strapped to his shoulders.

A woodcutter! Relief washed over me.

We let the old man make his way along the path, and waited until he had disappeared from view before we scrambled to our feet and brushed ourselves down.

“Well done, Kimi,” Hana said to me.

“Your ears are sharp,” Tatsuya said approvingly. “No one's going to sneak up on us and get away with it.”

I grinned and we went on our way, pressing along the track that wound toward Mount Fuji.

Later we passed a hot spring, bubbling up out of the ground and filling the air with clouds of steam. We stopped for a moment and sat on a rock to rest our feet while we shared our black bean and rice cakes. Looking around, I noticed that the ground had become steadily inclined and rockier.

After we had eaten, I tilted my face up toward the sun, enjoying the feel of its warmth on my face. So much had happened today. Exhausted, I tried to draw a veil over my mind and let the peace of the afternoon envelop me.

Tatsuya crouched some distance away, his bow held loosely in his hands as he gazed around at the rocks and sparse trees that surrounded the hot spring. Beyond him to the north was the sapphire gleam of one of the Fujigoko, the collection of five lakes at the foot of Mount Fuji.

Hana went to kneel by the edge of the hot spring and trailed her fingers in the warm water. “It's like a bath,” she said, smiling. “The water must have come from deep underground, heated up by the fiery
volcano beneath Mount Fuji….”

Her voice trailed off as we both noticed that Tatsuya was staring into the distance, eyes narrowed and body tense.

“What is it?” I asked, dropping my voice to a whisper.

“There's someone watching us,” Tatsuya murmured. He slid his gaze away, scanning the hillside.

My stomach tightened. “Where?” I asked, glancing around.

“Over there.” He jerked his chin in the direction of a flat rock. “Don't make it obvious that you're looking. It would be better if whoever it is thought we hadn't spotted him.”

Keeping my head still, I swiveled my eyes to the left, following the line of our pathway that curved and twisted through the foothills of Mount Fuji. Far ahead, I could just make out a small dark shape, half-hidden behind a rock. My heart began to hammer.

“Do you think it's one of Uncle's men?” I asked.

I noticed that Tatsuya had reached down and was slipping an arrow from where he'd fastened them to his sash. “I think it's someone far worse than Lord Hidehira's men,” he said quietly.

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
7.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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