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Authors: Maya Snow

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BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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“What do you mean?” I asked.

Tatsuya didn't answer at first, but instead let
his longbow slip from his shoulder. Stealthily he fitted his arrow to the string.

When he spoke his next word, a shard of icy fear plunged into my soul.

“Ninja!”

N
inja were the one thing my father feared.

Unlike a samurai, who was bound by the honor of the
bushi
code, a ninja obeyed his own rules. Stealthy and cunning, he could creep up to a man and kill him instantly or slay him from a distance with a deadly poisoned dart. He was a murderer for hire.

“What should we do?” Hana asked Tatsuya.

“Let's go back and find another pathway.” Tatsuya began to turn around, but I stopped him.

“We haven't got time,” I said. “We must be at the temple by sundown tomorrow.”

Tatsuya's jaw tightened. “But we could be walking into a trap.”

Hana looked back and forth between us, considering. “There are three of us and only one of him.”

Tatsuya glanced at the distant figure half-hidden behind the rock. “There may be only one of him,” he said. “But he'll have the strength of three men
and the skill of ten.”

“It could take hours to find another path. We have to go this way,” I insisted.

“All right,” Tatsuya said reluctantly. “But we must be prepared for anything.”

We made our way cautiously along the steep path. There was only enough room for us to go single file. Tatsuya went first, holding his longbow hidden behind him. I followed him, my hand on the scabbard of my sword, and Hana brought up the rear, trying to look casual and unconcerned.

Up ahead, the ninja stayed motionless. The thought of him watching us sent a chill along my spine.

The ninja were a secretive organization, mysterious shadow warriors, highly skilled and ruthless. My brother Harumasa had been fascinated by the stories and legends that people told about them: They could walk through walls, fade into the shadows, even fly.

Harumasa had told me many legends about the first ninja, but my favorite story was that of a corrupt monk who had murdered a man in cold blood, and the man's young son who had sworn revenge. The son waited and watched his enemy for many moons. One night, when the monk was sleeping beside a burning lantern, moths swarmed in through the open bamboo screen and clung to the lantern, plunging the room into darkness.
The young ninja slipped inside, used the evil monk's own sword to kill him, and then sneaked away, unseen. As the boy grew into a man, he called his growing knowledge
ninjutsu
, meaning “the art of patience.” The secrets of the shadow warriors were passed down through the generations, from father to son, ninja to ninja.

“He's not moving,” Hana whispered. Her gaze was fixed on the flat rock, where the shadow warrior's head was just visible.

“Perhaps he realizes we've seen him?” Tatsuya suggested. “He knows there's no point trying to hide.”

I wondered how we could hope to defeat a warrior with the strength of ten men—one who was so confident that he saw no need to hide himself. I narrowed my eyes, sizing up the rock. Would the ninja leap on us from above, sword in hand? Or would he simply put a straw to his mouth and send a series of poisoned darts flying through the air?

We inched closer, and I saw the shadow take shape. His clothes were bumpy, almost a green color. One more step and I laughed out loud. The shape behind the rock was no ninja. It was a bush, small and round, rooted into the rock!

“Kimi!” Tatsuya motioned for me to be quiet, but it only made me laugh harder.

Tatsuya shot me a furious look. “This is no time
for laughing, Kimi,” he whispered. “You don't understand how ruthless ninja are.”

I grinned back at him. “Well, if that's true, it will be the first time I have met a ruthless thorn bush.”

“A what?” Tatsuya stopped dead, hand on the hilt of his sword and an arrow still fitted to his bow. He frowned and peered ahead, then muttered a curse. “It
is
a thorn bush.”

“Watch out,” I teased, nudging him with my elbow. “Some of those thorn bushes have the skill of ten men, you know.”

Hana giggled. Angrily Tatsuya disarmed his bow and rammed the arrow back into his sash. “So I made a mistake,” he muttered. “Better to be cautious than dead.”

“You were never this jumpy back at the dojo,” I said.

“He never needed to be,” Hana said, suddenly serious. “We've all got reason to be on our guard, Kimi. Uncle Hidehira wants us captured, and he wouldn't hesitate to send a whole army after us.”

Hana's words sobered me immediately. “You're right,” I said, quickly scanning the horizon. “We do need to be on our guard. Day and night. If we see anything suspicious, we tell one another.” I reached out and briefly touched Tatsuya's hand. “I'm sorry,” I said. “I shouldn't have made fun of you.”

“I know,” Tatsuya replied. “And I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't be so jumpy.”

After we had passed the ninja bush, the pathway began to level out a little, taking us beneath pine trees and sturdy maples. The sun slid lower in the sky and light began to fade.

“Do you think we should try to find somewhere to sleep soon?” Hana asked.

“I thought I saw a plume of smoke up ahead,” Tatsuya said. “If it's a village, then we might be able to find shelter there.”

As twilight began to deepen, we came to a small meadow where we stopped for a moment to watch fireflies dancing, tiny pinpoints of light against the deep blue sky.

“Do you remember, Hana,” I murmured, “how Mother used to say that she liked to believe fireflies were
kami
spirits?”

Hana nodded, her face sad. “She said we should not weep for the dead because they were happy with the Buddha, and they showed us this by dancing across the sky.”

I felt the weight of Master Goku's ashes in the bundle on my sash. Soon he would be with the Buddha. We would take him to the temple at the foot of Mount Fuji, and our teacher would find eternal peace.

Tatsuya murmured a prayer for Master Goku and for Mr. Choji. Hana and I joined in, our low voices drifting away through the trees. As we turned and left the meadow behind, I offered up to the heavens a silent prayer for my father and older brothers, too.

We walked on, and soon a light spring rain began to fall, soaking through our clothes. I was losing track of time. The pathway we were following became muddy, and our sandals slipped and slid. The hems of my long
hakama
trousers stuck to my ankles as the fabric absorbed the rain. Our kimonos, which had been so neat and white for Master Goku's funeral that morning, were streaked with dirt.

“I hope we find shelter soon,” Hana said, shivering.

As darkness settled around us, we came to the village Tatsuya had seen earlier. The path widened into a single packed-earth road where a group of wooden huts huddled together around a well. Thick smoke rose from holes in the steep thatched rooftops. I guessed that the rain must have driven everyone indoors, because the place seemed deserted.

One of the huts was slightly larger than the others, with a lean-to stable at the back. Flickering candlelight spilled out from behind a filthy bamboo screen, and there was a sudden burst of raucous laughter.

“That must be the village inn,” Tatsuya said, using his cuff to wipe rain from his face. “Maybe we can go in for a little while and get dry.”

Hana hung back, looking doubtful. “I've never been to a place like this before,” she said in a low, anxious voice.

“It'll be all right,” Tatsuya said to Hana. “I won't let anything bad happen to you.”

Then Tatsuya pushed a heavy curtain aside and we stepped inside the inn to a small room lit by a couple of glowing lanterns. It was perhaps the size of six tatami mats. Some customers sat on cushions by the walls while a few thin, gray-haired old men were grouped around a smoking charcoal brazier. Beside it an enormous soup pot hung from an iron hook.

An innkeeper wearing a grubby apron tied over his kimono was pouring sake rice wine into a bowl for one of the old men. He glanced up as we entered, his round face splitting into a yellow-toothed grin.

“Welcome, welcome!” he said, his quick gaze darting over us, taking in our wet, travel-stained clothing and the swords at our waists. “You look like weary travelers in need of food and warmth.” The innkeeper watched as we took off our shoes and Hana wrung out her waist-length hair.

“We just want to rest for a moment, if you don't mind,” Tatsuya said.

“Hmm…,” said the innkeeper. “Tell me, what are three youngsters like you doing traveling alone, and in such filthy weather?”

“We're taking a message from our father to his brother,” I said, as the innkeeper eyed me suspiciously. “We won't be any trouble.”

“Fine, fine,” the innkeeper said, and wiped his hands on his grubby apron. “Then you should come closer to the fire.” Some of the old men shuffled around to make room for us. “First we'll get you warm and dry. And then you'll need some food in your bellies.” He flipped the lid off the soup pot and a lick of steam rose up, filling the air with the delicate scent of fish and fresh ginger. My stomach rumbled and I realized I was hungry. It had been a long time since we'd eaten our black bean and rice cakes by the hot springs that afternoon. “And I'll find you a place to sleep.”

“We're sorry,” Hana said with a polite bow. “But we have no money to pay you.”

“Don't you worry about that, child,” the innkeeper said airily, ladling soup and noodles into bowls. “You can help me with some chores in the morning.” He winked at Hana and pressed a bowl into her hands. “Here you go. Drink up.”

“You're very generous,” Hana said uncertainly, holding back her wide sleeve as she accepted the bowl.

The innkeeper patted her shoulder. “My hospitality is famous in this part of the province. A hungry traveler is never turned away from my door, especially not one as pretty as you!”

Hana blushed. Still smiling, the innkeeper turned to Tatsuya and me. “Come on, you two boys. Come closer to the fire like your sister….”

Tatsuya and I kneeled by the fire. We were so close to the brazier that our wet clothes began to steam as we sipped the soup. The old men began their gossiping again about life in the village.

When we had finished, the innkeeper gave us handfuls of deliciously sour pickled plums to chew. “The inn is full, but like I said before—I've never yet turned a customer away. You can share a room in the stable out the back.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“Thank you,” I said, bowing my head respectfully.

The innkeeper poured more sake for the old men, and when he had shuffled away, the oldest-looking man leaned toward Tatsuya. “I don't expect you've seen many other travelers on the road,” he said to Tatsuya. “All the men have gone off to fight in the
Jito
's army.”

At the word “
Jito
,” one of the men who had been huddled in a dark corner nursing a bowl of sake suddenly sat up. “‘
Jito
' you call him, eh?” he muttered drunkenly. He had tangled black hair, which hung
like ragged curtains along either side of a thin, wolfish face. His brown kimono and
hakama
trousers were crumpled and even more travel stained than our own. “I tell you this—Yamamoto no Hidehira is no
Jito
.” At the sound of Uncle's name, my heart fluttered wildly, beating against my ribs like a captured bird. I wanted to shout out my agreement, but I knew I could not draw attention to ourselves.

“Hidehira is an imposter,” the drunkard railed. “A warlord who will tear this province apart.”

“Be quiet there,” the innkeeper said angrily. “We'll have no talk of that sort in my inn.”

“We should talk while we still can,” the drunkard cried. “Soon the
Jito
will have us all clenched so tightly in his iron fist that we'll barely be able to breathe, let alone talk freely.”

As the ragged man carried on muttering, I gripped my soup bowl tightly and tried to concentrate on the last few flakes of fish that floated in the bottom.

“This province is changing,” the drunkard went on, his voice a little louder this time. “They don't call Hidehira the Kaminari for nothing, you know. He will bring thunder down upon us….”

“Hush!” snapped the innkeeper.

But the drunkard ignored him and staggered to his feet. “There is a great storm coming!”

“I think we've heard enough from you,” muttered
one of the old men. “Why don't you be quiet, you drunken fool.”

“The greed of the Yamamoto lord will bring down the province,” he proclaimed, slurring slightly as he stared around the room with bright, feverish eyes.

Another of the old men cast an anxious look at the drunkard. “Hush,” he whispered. “The walls are thin, and spies are everywhere. If word gets back to the
Jito
, we'll all be branded traitors….”

At that, the old men began to mutter among themselves. A few of them drew away as if to put distance between themselves and the drunkard. I guessed they didn't want to be associated with him. But it wasn't because they were loyal to Uncle Hidehira. They were afraid of him.

It made my heart ache to remember my father, and how hard he had worked to rule fairly and with justice. The people of the estates had respected him. Some had even loved him. But Uncle ruled through fear rather than respect.

The drunkard lurched unsteadily over to us. “What d'you think?” he demanded, swaying slightly as he pointed a finger at me. “You, boy! You think the same way as me, don't you?”

“I don't know what you mean,” I said, avoiding his eye. We just wanted shelter for the night and then to be on our way at daybreak.

The drunkard swayed on his feet, staring down at me. Then, to my relief, he turned away. For a moment, I thought he was going to leave us alone, but then he dropped on one knee in front of Hana. “A little girl,” he said in a low voice, gazing at her long black hair in wonder. “I had a little girl once. She was so pretty and sweet….”

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
4.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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