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Authors: Maya Snow

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BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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I prayed that whatever those men were doing to prepare their packhorses would take a few more moments. I shook my hand and the rope quickly uncoiled. Hope surged through me as I twisted my right hand free and reached for my gag….

Suddenly I became aware of a stealthy creaking sound on the other side of the storeroom. I heard the doorjamb being lifted quietly and the screen door slid open. A shaft of light fell across me. I blinked, half blinded after being in the darkness for so long, and quickly hid my freed hands behind my back as the figure of a tall, powerful-looking man loomed in the doorway.

I couldn't make out his face, because the light was behind him. But my heart squeezed tight with fear when I saw the sharp steel blade of a
dagger glittering in his hand.

ana made a strangled sound through her gag, and Tatsuya struggled wildly.

But they were still tightly bound, and I knew as the man strode forward into the room that I would have to defend us by myself. I twisted my legs underneath me and desperately tried to push myself into a kneeling position.

Dropping onto one knee beside me, the man brought his
dagger slicing downward in a sharp curve.

I whirled into an attack, thrusting upward with one hand and seizing the wrist of the hand that held the knife. My other hand pushed hard against his opposite shoulder, and as I hoped, the man's own body weight brought him down. Instantly I was up and on him, one knee pinning his dagger hand tightly to the floor.

I stared down into his face. By the glimmering light coming in through the open door, I found myself looking directly into the face of the

“You!” I exclaimed, after ripping off my gag.

My moment of shock was all he needed. He twisted out from under me and leaped away, dagger poised. I clutched the loops of rope still swinging from my left wrist. Could I use them as a weapon?

But then I noticed the captain was grinning.

“You have the heart of a brave warrior, my boy,” he said. He quickly resheathed his dagger and held his hands out, palms upward, to show that he meant no harm. “I was trying to cut you free,” he said. “I thought you needed rescuing—but I was clearly wrong.”

I hurried over to Tatsuya and Hana. Together, the captain and I quickly untied them.

“I thought you'd gone,” I said, turning back to the captain. “Moved on while we were sleeping.”

He shook his head. “I slipped away when I heard the innkeeper and his friends outside. I thought they were coming for me…but when I heard them talking about the slave trader I decided to lie low and see if I could help you out.”

Her hands free, Hana tugged the filthy gag away from her mouth. “Thank you,” she said.

The captain shrugged. “We're allies, brothers in the fight against Lord Hidehira. And I can't afford to sacrifice a single brother.” He glanced out of the door and checked that no one was coming. “Come on. Follow me! You have to get away from here
before the innkeeper wakes up.”

“But we thought he was preparing the horses,” Hana said.

The captain shook his head. “He must have decided you could wait until the morning. He's snoring like a bullfrog.”

“My sister and I aren't leaving without our swords,” I said firmly. “And Tatsuya needs his longbow.”

The captain frowned. “There's no time for that,” he said.

“There has to be,” I insisted. Not only did we want our weapons and Moriyasu's little
, but the thieves had taken Master Goku's ashes. I wasn't leaving without that pouch.

The storeroom led straight into a small, filthy kitchen area lit by a single flickering lantern. There were two doors leading off the kitchen. I guessed that one must go through to the main room of the inn, where we had huddled by the fire. The other must be the door to the innkeeper's bedchamber. I pressed my ear to the thin wood-and-paper screen and listened.

For a moment I could hear nothing. Then I picked up the low-pitched rumbling sound of someone snoring.

I glanced at the others and put my finger to my lips. Then I slowly and quietly slid back the screen door. The innkeeper was asleep on a mattress in the
corner, flat on his back with his mouth wide-open. He was still dressed in his grubby kimono. Fastened to his sash was a leather money bag about the size of my fist.

I scanned the room and spotted Master Goku's ashes. The pouch's string was still tightly knotted, and I prayed that it had not been tampered with. Heaped on the floor beside it were our swords, Moriyasu's
, and Tatsuya's longbow.

Tatsuya and Hana slipped past me and scooped up the weapons, holding them carefully so they wouldn't clink together. I stared in disgust at the snoring innkeeper. His tongue protruded from between his fleshy lips as he snored, and a film of greasy sweat covered his face.

Rage boiled through me as I remembered how kind he had seemed when we arrived, and yet all the time he must have been planning to sell us to a slave trader. I wondered how many other travelers he had betrayed in this way.

“Come on, Kimi,” Hana whispered, pressing my sword into my hand. “Let's go.”

I shook my head. “He should pay for his treachery,” I whispered fiercely.

“We've gotten what we came for,” Tatsuya whispered, slinging his longbow onto his shoulder. “Now let's get out of here.”

I hesitated, weighing my sword in my hand. I couldn't just walk away from this betrayal.

Quietly the captain came over, bent down, and carefully untied the leather money bag from the innkeeper's belt. “You want him to pay?” he asked. “Then take this.”

He pressed the money bag into my hand. It felt satisfyingly heavy, but was it enough for what he would have done to my sister? Was it enough for the others he must have sold into slavery?

, Kimi,” Hana whispered at the door.

At my sister's command, I sheathed my sword and backed away. Silently I slid the screen door closed behind me and together we crept out of the inn.

Outside, the clouds and rain had cleared. There was a half-moon high in the dark sky. Its bright light made the sleeping village look as if it were made entirely of blue and silver shadows.

The captain glanced around. “You should go now,” he told us. “Deliver your message—and maybe one day our paths will cross again.”

“If we are both set against Lord Hidehira,” Hana said, “I feel certain that they will.”

“Won't you come with us?” I asked, still sensing that there was much this wandering soldier could teach me.

He shook his head. “My destiny lies elsewhere,” he
said. “But I am sure you and I will meet again.”

I opened the money bag, scooped out half the coins, and pressed them into his calloused fingers. “Thank you for saving us.”

We left him standing in a clearing in front of the stable, a tall, strong-looking figure silhouetted in a patch of silver moonlight. I waved, and the captain raised one hand in a silent farewell. Then I turned and walked away with Hana and Tatsuya.

The final part of our journey to Mount Fuji had begun.


Before long we had left the sleeping village far behind and soon the peak of the mountain loomed ahead of us, rising up from the dark landscape. We struck out along the pathway toward it, carefully picking our way in the moonlight. Hana had agreed to put her hair back into a boyish topknot, so that no one would realize that she was a girl. The incident with the innkeeper had shown us that girls could attract the wrong sort of attention. We would be safer if passersby thought we were boys.

“We must keep alert for anyone following us,” Tatsuya said as we walked.

I focused my mind, stretching my senses for any sound or change in the air. But we didn't see or hear anyone else. I wondered whether the innkeeper had
woken yet. Had he discovered our disappearance?

A small measure of satisfaction curled through my belly as I imagined his rage upon finding the storeroom empty, but somehow that was not enough. We had the leather money bag, certainly, but I wished there had been some other revenge. I should have emptied out all his jugs of sake. Or perhaps cut a
into his cheek with the point of my sword, so that everyone who looked at his face would know him for a liar and a cheat.

I clenched my fists tightly.

Tatsuya was walking behind me. “You're thinking about the innkeeper, aren't you?” he said.

“It makes me angry that he boasted about never turning a traveler away from his inn,” I muttered. “How many others have woken up to find themselves prisoners? We should have tied him up in a sack and left him somewhere in the forest. That would have frightened him.”

Hana was leading the way, and she glanced back over her shoulder at me. “I understand why you want revenge, Kimi,” she said quietly. “But Father would have said that revenge eats away at the soul. Eventually it destroys the person who seeks it.”

I felt the heavy pouch on my sash, and shivered as night closed in around us. Somewhere an owl hooted. The moon was high over my shoulder, casting my
shadow ahead of me on the stony path, and for a while it seemed as though my own shadow were leading me onward.

At last the red glow of sunrise streaked the sky to the east. Creatures began to stir in the undergrowth on either side of the path and I heard the rasping croak of a frog somewhere far away.

“It will be light soon,” Hana said.

The morning air was sharp and clean after the rain of the previous evening. As light flooded the landscape, I saw Mount Fuji ahead. My spirits soared as I thought of Mother and Moriyasu.

“We're making good progress,” I said as we forged ahead.

Late that afternoon, our narrow path widened and joined with another path that cut through a pine forest.

Suddenly a group of chattering peasant women rounded the corner ahead, and there was no time for us to get off the road.

“Keep walking,” I murmured to the others.

We kept our heads down and hurried past. The women ignored us, as if seeing strangers on the road was nothing unusual. Soon a team of packhorses lumbered past, their hooves churning up the mud as it headed north. It was followed by a man in a brown kimono driving an oxcart. Three ragged children
danced along behind him, all of them carrying baskets and bundles.

“We must be approaching a village or town,” I said to Hana.

Moments later we came over the crest of a small hill and saw a little town nestled in a fold of hills at the foot of Mount Fuji.

“Oh, look!” Hana cried. “We're almost there.”

I shaded my eyes, studying the wooden huts that huddled together inside the town's walls. A single main street cut through the town, leading up a gentle hill toward a cluster of gray rooftops, lit by the warm sunshine of late afternoon.

“Is that the temple?” I asked Tatsuya, pointing.

He narrowed his eyes for a moment, squinting against the sun. “I think so,” he said.

“Our meeting place with Mother,” I said, my heart beginning to flutter with joy.

“Perhaps she's already there—waiting for us,” Hana said.

I smiled, imagining Mother standing serenely with Moriyasu's little hand clasped tightly in hers.

“Come on,” I said, grabbing Hana's hand.

We hurried along the pathway and joined the crowds of farmworkers and peasants making their way to the town. One or two of them had shaven heads and wore yellow monks' robes. I wondered if
they were heading to the temple as we were. I became conscious of the weight of the ashes on my sash. I hoped that when we reached the temple, there would be a priest who would accept Master Goku's remains.

The road grew busier as we neared the town. All around us, people chattered loudly, some of them jostling each other good-naturedly. Hope buzzed through my limbs, and Hana was smiling all the time as she looked around her. But I soon noticed that Tatsuya seemed ill at ease. He kept glancing back over his shoulder as though he thought someone was following us.

I fell into step beside him. “I don't see anyone suspicious,” I told him.

“Me neither,” Tatsuya admitted. “But I don't have to see them. I can
them. There's definitely someone watching us.”

His words made me shiver. “Have you had this feeling before?” I asked quietly.

“Once. Long ago,” he replied. He glanced over his shoulder and then looked directly at me, his eyes dark pools of fear. “The night my father disappeared.”

At the dojo, Tatsuya had told us about one moonlit night long ago when he had followed his father to the village shrine, only to watch his father disappear at the hands of a man in black. Tatsuya never saw his father again.

“Do you think the men who took your father were ninja?” I asked hesitantly.

Tatsuya bit his lip. “I don't think it,” he said. “I

My heart skipped a beat. “Are they here? Now?”

Tatsuya opened his mouth, but before he could respond, Hana suddenly grabbed my wrist. “Not ninja,” she whispered urgently. “Soldiers!”

I saw two samurai in full armor standing on either side of the gateway to the town. The late-afternoon sun burnished their iron helmets to a dull reddish gold and the spears cast long black shadows across the road. Their eyes seemed to bore into the face of everyone who passed.

“They're looking for us,” Hana said flatly. She pulled me back so that we were walking behind a packhorse burdened with baskets.

Keeping pace with the horse, I peered past the baskets and studied the two samurai carefully. Neither of them seemed to be wearing the distinctive red silk
badge that would mark him as one of Uncle's men. “I don't think so, Hana,” I murmured. “They're just the town guards.”

“Uncle Hidehira's men will have gotten here before us,” Hana insisted. “They will have told the town guard to look for us, and block our entry.”

“It might be a good idea to split up,” Tatsuya said
quietly, slowing his pace and dropping back. “If they are looking for us, they'll expect to see three youngsters walking together. I'll catch up with you again when we're safely past.”

Hana and I kept our heads down, and the horse between us and the two samurai. Keeping pace with the crowd, we walked beneath the high, curving wooden gateway and entered the town. With a sigh of relief, I realized the samurai were behind us.

Inside the town, there were no other guards in sight. The busy main street led uphill toward the temple, criss-crossed by a warren of narrow alleyways. I stared around me, drinking in the experience of being in a busy town. The street was chaos, but a happy chaos that lifted my spirits. There were shops and stalls and women bending over looms at the side of the road, their fingers busily weaving silk. Bamboo birdcages swung from poles. Shelves bowed under the weight of porcelain bowls and cups and barrels of sake wine. Chatter bubbled up like music in the warm spring air.

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
9.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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