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Authors: Maya Snow

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BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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Agony etched across his face and for a moment I thought I saw his drunken eyes clear.

“What happened to your little girl?” asked Hana in an uncertain voice.

The drunkard closed his eyes as if he couldn't bear to look at Hana's face anymore. “She died,” he said tightly. He stood up and waved an imperious hand at the innkeeper. “More sake,” he cried.

The innkeeper shook his head. “You've had enough.”

“I've never had enough!” the drunkard exclaimed. “Soon the fields of the province will be soaked with blood.”

But we didn't hear any more because the innkeeper had had enough. He marched over to the drunkard and hauled him up by the collar of his dirty kimono.

“You keep quiet,” he said, shaking the drunkard so hard that his head snapped back. “I don't know where you come from, but in these parts we speak
kindly of the
Jito
because he's the man in charge. Do you hear me?”

The drunkard stared blearily at the innkeeper. “You're a fool…,” he slurred.

“Better a fool than an idiot soaked in sake,” the innkeeper said. “Now get out of my inn!” He bundled the drunkard to the door and tossed him out into the rain, kicking him in the backside. “And don't show your ugly face around here again—you hear?”

I watched the innkeeper sweep the filthy curtain back across the doorway, shutting out the sight of the drunkard on his knees in the mud.

Hana and I exchanged a troubled glance. Things were desperate, even in this remote village. People were afraid of Uncle. They hid in their houses and inns, too scared even to speak his name.

The fields of the province will be soaked with blood,
the drunkard had said.

Dread stole over me as I thought of the perilous future that lay ahead.

E
veryone soon settled down. The old men sipped their sake, and the innkeeper brought us tea. Tatsuya, Hana, and I stayed by the fire until our clothes were dry. Then the innkeeper spotted us yawning.

“You'd better get to your beds,” he said with a grin. “You'll find sacks of hay to sleep on out in the stables. Take this lantern. The stable's nice and dry, and you should find plenty of blankets out there to keep you warm.”

The leather pouch with Goku's ashes bounced against my thigh as I stood up. Tatsuya took the lantern and we said good night. Outside, the rain was still falling and we had to make a dash for the stable at the back of the inn, leaping around muddy puddles and laughing as we tried not to splash one another.

I pushed open the stable door and we stepped inside, stamping our feet and shaking the rainwater from our hair.

A low voice hissed out of the shadows at us. “Keep the noise down, can't you? I'm trying to sleep.”

Swiftly Tatsuya swung the lantern around, and by its flickering light we could just make out the huddled shape of the drunkard who'd caused such a stir in the inn. He was sitting in one of the stalls with his back propped against the stable wall. A horse loomed over him, half-asleep, twitching its tail.

“Sorry,” Hana said, giving a little bow. “We didn't know anyone else was in here.”

“Well, I'm in here,” the drunkard said flatly, his dark eyes flashing. “And I'd appreciate it if you kept the noise down.”

Tatsuya and I nodded and began to tiptoe past him, but Hana lingered for a moment.

“The innkeeper was rough with you earlier,” she said, her voice soft with concern.

The drunkard shrugged. “So what if he was?”

“Don't you have a home you could go to?” Hana persisted.

“I have many places I could go to,” the drunkard replied, staring up at her from between his curtains of ragged hair. “But none are as warm and dry as this stable.”

I came back to stand beside Hana and stared down at the drunkard. The man returned my gaze with clear brown eyes. Beneath the grime, he looked
young, his skin fresh and unlined.

“You don't seem as drunk now as you were earlier,” I observed.

He shrugged, an amused smile curving his lips. “I may be drunk; I may be not,” he said. “But either way, the innkeeper threw me out before I had to pay for my meal.” He paused and considered us. “One thing is certain—I meant what I said about a storm coming. You youngsters would do well to deliver your message and then keep on walking. Leave this province and don't come back.” His eyes burned as he stared up at us. “Those who stay within the Kaminari's reach are doomed.”

Words like that, spoken above the hard drumming of rain on the stable roof, sounded like a prophecy. I had to stop myself from shivering.

“Who
are
you?” Tatsuya asked, crouching down beside the man. “There is the look of the samurai about you. Yet you dress in rags and the scabbard of your sword is old and the metal decorations rusty.”

“You have a sharp eye, young man,” the man said with a wolfish grin. “I was once a samurai—a captain for the old
Jito
, Lord Yoshijiro. But I will never swear loyalty to his brother.”

Hana and I stared at him. This man had once been an officer in Father's army, yet we had never been aware of him because of our position of privilege. I
felt a moment of regret as I realized there must always have been people like this—anonymous, invisible, yet important for my family's safety and well-being.

“The code of the
bushi
says that you owe your loyalty to the
Jito
,” Hana reminded him, her voice soft, “whoever he may be.”

But the captain shook his head. “I owe nothing to a lord who breaks the
bushi
code with every move he makes,” he muttered. “Do you know Lord Hidehira is planning to invade estates in the Sagami province?” In disgust, he spat into the filthy straw that lined the floor of the stable, then wiped his mouth with the cuff of his kimono. “Lord Yoshijiro spent years forging an alliance with Lord Kanahara of southern Sagami. And now his brother wants to smash the accord and go to war.”

I gazed at the captain, suddenly realizing that this was no ordinary drunk. Here was a man who had been close enough to my father to know about his political maneuvers.

I crouched down beside Tatsuya, looking at the captain urgently. “How do you know this?” I asked.

He glared back at me. “I know because Lord Hidehira was recruiting troops to march east with his army. East to Sagami! I refused to join, so he had me stripped of all my possessions. Now I am
ronin
, a samurai with no master. And so I am forced to wander
from place to place. This rusty sword was the best weapon I could get.”

We were all silent for a moment. Then the
ronin
captain glanced at each of us in turn. “So what's your story?” he asked. “You three have no loyalty to Lord Hidehira.”

I stared at him in surprise. Were we so obvious?

The captain grinned, looking even more wolfish than before. “I thought as much,” he said with a nod. “I wasn't certain, but your face has just told me the truth. You don't trust Hidehira any more than I do.” He clenched his fists. “He will pay for what he did that night he murdered the true
Jito
and his family. One day, I'll face his army on a battlefield and I'll have my revenge.”

His thoughts were so close to my own that it felt as though there were an invisible bond between us. A silken thread seemed to pull tight in the dry, stale air of the stable. It sounded as if he had even been there that horrible night.

“Were you there, then? At the
shinden
when it burned?” I whispered.

His eyes darkened, and Hana shuffled beside me. “I was there. My daughter and wife did not survive.”

I took a deep breath. I could not go so far as to tell him the whole truth about Hana and me, but I trusted him enough to tell him that we were rebels.
“We are sworn to fight against Hidehira until death,” I admitted. “We, too, lost loved ones that night.”

The captain grunted. “If you want to fight against that rat then you should head east. Fight
with
Lord Kanahara's people against the
Jito.

“Maybe we will head east,” Hana said gently. “But we're not going anywhere tonight, and neither are you.” She lifted down a thick, rough horse blanket and folded it around the captain's shoulders. “It's late, and we all need to get some sleep.”

We said good night to the captain and moved along to an empty stall at the back of the stable. I laid my leather pouch onto a pile of soft straw. The lantern flickered and the rain drummed on the roof as we practiced our
kata
and meditated, as Master Goku had taught us. Afterward, we each took a horse blanket and made a row of beds.

Tatsuya blew out the lantern and we all settled down to sleep. I was too exhausted to even take down my hair. The others fell asleep quickly, their soft rhythmic breathing barely audible above the drumming rain. But I stayed awake for a while, pondering the captain's words, dreading a future under Uncle's rule. Could I stop him before he grew too powerful?

Master Goku would have known what to do—how to stop Uncle's plans.
Who will guide me now that my sensei is gone?
I wondered. After seeing Uncle dispatch
the students in the temple, I knew I needed more skill, more strength to have a hope of defeating him. Maybe in the morning, I could ask the
ronin
for a lesson.

At last I drifted into sleep and dreamed of Mother and Moriyasu. They were standing hand in hand by one of the lily ponds at home. The sun was shining, and Moriyasu was smiling as he beckoned me to come and paddle with him in the warm water.

Then I heard whispering, and all at once the dream raced away. I was wide awake, eyes straining in the darkness, the smell of straw and horses strong in my nostrils. The rain had stopped. Was it the sudden silence that had woken me?

But then I heard whispering again, and my heart began to pound. There was someone else in the stable with us! Someone who crept across the hay-strewn floor as if he didn't want us to hear him coming.

No friend would move in such a way.

Realizing we had been too trusting, I shot my hand out to grab my sword. But in the next instant I realized it was gone. Thieves!

“Hana!” I threw off my blanket and scrambled up onto my knees. “Tatsuya!”

But it was too late. At the sound of my voice, someone made a grab for me in the darkness. I struggled wildly, yelling as I tried to twist away. But powerful
hands grasped my wrists and twisted them tightly behind my back. Pain lanced through my arms and into my shoulders.

Were these Uncle's men? Had someone overheard our dangerous conversation with the
ronin
captain?

Panic surged through me just as a deep voice growled close to my ear. “Bring the light.”

All at once the door to the stable burst open and the innkeeper came rushing in. He held a lantern high and I blinked as bright light spilled into every corner of the stable.

I saw immediately that we were surrounded by three thin, weasely-looking men. Their clothes were threadbare, and their greasy hair was tied in rough topknots. One of them snatched up the leather pouch containing Master Goku's ashes and cradled it tightly to his chest. A greedy smile stretched across his face, as if he thought the pouch contained treasure. Horrified, I struggled hard.

“Stop that.” My captor twisted my wrists, and a sharp pain shot up my arms.

Nearby, another man had Tatsuya in a headlock, his wiry arms twisted around poor Tatsuya's face and neck so he could barely breathe, much less struggle. But Hana was free! My heart leaped with hope as she made a desperate grab for her
nihonto
….

A third man pounced like a viper, kicking the
sword out of her reach. “Not so fast,” he sneered, his teeth like yellow needles in the lantern light. Catching hold of Hana, he twisted her hands up behind her back and held her tightly, ignoring her desperate cries.

I looked around for the
ronin
captain. I prayed that he would help us—but his stall was empty. The only sign he had ever been there was a crumpled horse blanket in the corner. He must have moved on during the night, while we were sleeping.

“Let us go,” Hana cried, struggling to free herself.

The innkeeper ignored her. “The boys aren't worth much,” he growled to his men. “But this girl is so pretty. The slave trader will pay a good price for her.”

Sell Hana to a slave trader? No!
I began to struggle violently. Tatsuya wrestled with his captor, trying to break free but to no avail.

Meanwhile, Hana bucked and twisted, earning a cuff across the head from one of the men. “Not her face,” barked the innkeeper. “She won't be worth as much with bruises.”

“Their swords and this longbow must be worth something, too,” one of the men said, gathering up our weapons. He turned Moriyasu's bamboo
bokken
over in his big calloused hands and grinned. “Even this toy may fetch a price.”

Fury surged up through me. “Get your hands off that!” I yelled.

“Stop your squealing, pup,” snarled the innkeeper. He gestured to his men. “Gag them and tie their hands behind their backs.”

Immediately a filthy piece of rag was stuffed into my mouth. It tasted of dirt and sour milk. I tried to spit it out, but the man wrapped a second strip around my mouth and tied it tightly at the back of my head.

When we were all bound and gagged, the innkeeper grunted his satisfaction. “We'll put them in the storeroom until we can get the horses ready,” he said. “Then we'll take them to the coast and see what Mr. Hoki says when he sees them.” He gripped Hana's chin in his hand, tilting her face up to the light. “Mr. Hoki is going to like the look of you, princess.”

Hana jerked her face away, struggling wildly.

They roughly dragged all three of us out of the stables and shoved us into a small storeroom off the kitchen at the back of the inn. We landed in a tangle of arms and legs as the screen door was snapped shut, and then we were alone in the darkness. I heard a clunk as a piece of wood was fitted across the screen to keep it closed.

I could see nothing in the inky darkness, but I could feel Hana on one side of me and Tatsuya on
the other. We all struggled to free ourselves. The more we struggled the tighter our bindings seemed to get.

Abruptly I stopped struggling. Tatsuya and Hana stopped, too, and for a long time we all just sat, breathing heavily through our noses, our mouths tightly gagged.

Think, Kimi. Think,
I told myself. What would Master Goku do in this situation?

His voice washed through my mind like a hint of incense carried on a cool spring breeze.
A tranquil mind can often provide the answer to a warrior's dilemma….

A tranquil mind? My mind certainly wasn't tranquil. It was in turmoil.

Deliberately I tried to still my wild thoughts. I closed my eyes and let peace steal over me. My blood slowed. My breathing grew shallower. Time passed. And all at once, an answer came to me. If struggling made our bonds tighter, then perhaps careful, slow movements might ease them.

Slowly—so slowly—I felt my way around the loops that fastened my wrist. There were four of them in all. I tried each loop in turn until I found some slack. Fingers working, I fed the slack all the way around my wrist into the next loop, and then the next. The rope burned against the soft skin of my wrist. Then one of
the loops eased. Just a little…but it was enough. I took a deep breath and pushed my wrists apart—and all at once my heart began to race with excitement.

My hands were almost free!

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
4.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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