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Authors: Maya Snow

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BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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At last Manabu shrugged and dropped his gaze. Turning back to me, he reached his only hand into the folds of his clothes and pulled out a paper scroll, rolled and wrapped with a crimson ribbon.

My heart beat faster. “That's one of Mother's letters,” I said breathlessly. “Is she here, Manabu?”

M
anabu took a breath, and I held mine. All my hopes were centered on seeing Mother's face, holding her hands, and hearing her tell me that everything was going to be all right.

Ever since the moment when Uncle Hidehira had read Mother's letter, I had believed that I would see her here today, at sundown. And now at last Hana and I were at the end of our journey. Mother was here—somewhere.

I couldn't resist glancing once more at the entrance to the other halls of the temple.

“The mistress is safe and well,” Manabu said. “She asked me to come here and meet you in her place.”

I stared at Manabu in astonishment, crushed by the huge weight of disappointment. In an instant, my hopes had been blown away, like cherry blossom petals in a sudden gust of wind. For a moment I couldn't speak. It felt as though I were never meant to find her.

“But I don't understand,” Hana said to Manabu, her face anxious. “I felt Mother's presence here in the
honden
. She was here…I'm sure she was.”

Tatsuya touched her hand comfortingly.

“You're right, Hana-
gozen
,” Manabu said, bowing his head slightly. “Your mother has been here, many times. This temple has become her regular place of worship during our stay on the outskirts of town. She would have been here today. But when we saw a troop of the
Jito
's samurai come galloping in through the town gates this morning, we became afraid. The mistress could not risk herself or young Moriyasu being captured. She decided it would be safer for her to slip away to a new hiding place, while I came here to deliver this letter. The soldiers would not be looking for me.”

He held out the scroll letter to me. I saw immediately that it had been written on the same paper as my mother's other letters. My hands trembled as I took it from Manabu.

“The letter explains everything, Kimi-
gozen
,” Manabu said. “You must read it, and then I will take you to her.” His good hand went to rest on the hilt of his sword. “I am to keep watch for soldiers and protect you on your journey.”

I was about to untie the scroll when Manabu glanced again at Tatsuya. With a look of warning, he
took my elbow and steered me a few steps away. “Kimi
gozen
, I don't want to intrude, but should you read the letter in front of this…this boy?” he said in a low, tight voice. “What do you actually know about him?”

I hesitated, turning the scroll in my hands. “He's a friend, Manabu,” I said. “He's protected Hana and me during our journey here. I would trust him with my life.”

Manabu didn't look convinced, but he gave a quick nod. “All right,” he said. “I will trust him if you say I should….”

“I do,” I said firmly.

I turned back to see that Hana and Tatsuya were standing together.

“I just don't like him…,” Tatsuya was saying.

“You're just jumpy because of the innkeeper,” Hana said in a low, coaxing voice. “But some people
can
be trusted, Tatsuya.” She beckoned Manabu over to stand beside her. “Manabu was one of our father's most trusted servants. Kimi and I always imagined that he had died the night of the massacre. But”—she turned to Manabu—“we are so grateful that you helped Mother and Moriyasu to escape.”

Tatsuya softened but asked, “Well, why doesn't he just tell us where your mother is and we can go straight to her?”

Manabu looked uncomfortable. “My apologies, young master,” he said apologetically. “I cannot tell you where the mistress is because I do not know. She was worried that I might be captured and forced to tell where she was hiding, so she thought it would be safer if she wrote the code down in the letter that Kimi-
gozen
is holding in her hands. She said it would be something only her daughters could understand.”

“Open it, Kimi,” Hana urged.

I tugged the ribbon free and was about to unfurl the scroll when a gentle cough interrupted us.

A young monk in yellow robes had approached. “The temple is closing,” he said with an apologetic smile. “I must request that you all leave now.”

“Of course.” I quickly tucked the scroll into my wide sleeve and gave a polite bow. “Thank you for your patience and kindness.”

Hana and I made our way toward the doorway with Manabu. I looked over my shoulder to see that Tatsuya was coming along behind us, his face closed and thoughtful.

Outside in the temple clearing, the first stars of the evening were dotted high above the cedars.

Just outside the gate, Manabu glanced around anxiously. “We must be careful, Kimi-
gozen
,” he
muttered, guiding us into a hiding place among the green ferns and cedar trees. “It's not safe to linger out in the open.”

A light breeze rustled through the branches of the trees around us as I pulled off the ribbon and carefully unfurled the scroll. It wasn't pitch-dark yet, so there was just enough light left to read Mother's elegant brushstrokes and perfect
kanji
. Hana came to stand close beside me. She let out a long, slow breath.

As I stared down at the scroll, everything seemed to blur. A single tear dropped onto the paper, making the ink blossom and spread. I bit my lip and carefully blotted the wet ink with my thumb.

I read the letter aloud to the others, my heart fluttering.

My dearest daughters,

I wanted so much to be at the temple today to meet you in person and behold your sweet faces once again. But alas our meeting has become impossible. A troop of samurai soldiers arrived in the town this morning. They are questioning people about two fugitives, and it is my belief that your uncle is searching for Moriyasu and me.

In order to keep your little brother safe, I must
hide in a place where only you girls can find me.

Seek, and you will find us in the place of Hana's favorite poems.

Hana's favorite poems?

The blood in my veins leaped with excitement because I knew what Mother meant. I turned to Hana.

“Fujigoko…,” she said breathlessly, meeting my gaze with wide, excited eyes. “The five lakes that ring Mount Fuji to the north. We saw one of them on our journey here.”

I nodded eagerly, clasping her hand. “There are six poems about Fujigoko,” I said, “each one detailing the beauty of the water at each lake, and the majesty of the mountain.”

But which of the five had Mother and Moriyasu chosen as a hiding place?

“The five lakes cover a wide area,” Manabu said with an anxious frown. “Isn't the mistress more specific than that?”

I consulted the letter again, rereading Mother's words. Her kanji had been dashed off quickly, her haste betrayed by the quick upward sweep of the brushstrokes and a rogue blot of ink at the edge of the scroll.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “There's nothing more….”

“Wait!” Hana interrupted, putting out her hand and tilting the top of the scroll. “There's something written on the back. It's so small that we wouldn't have seen it when the paper was rolled up.”

Manabu leaned closer. “What does it say, Kimi
gozen
?”

I read aloud.

You know that the sixth poem contains all five elements—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water.

Oh, my dearest daughters. Nothing can break the strength of all five elements when they are together.

“What can the mistress mean by that?” Manabu asked.

“I'm not sure,” Hana said thoughtfully. She leaned against my arm to look at the scroll. “The sixth poem was always my favorite…. I used to love hearing Mother read it to me because it talked about the most easterly of all the lakes, Yamanaka, and told of the swans that nested there.”

“I remember that,” I said with a nod. “So she and Moriyasu must have chosen that lake as their hiding place.”

I rolled up the paper scroll and tucked it into my kimono. “How far is it to Fujigoko?” I asked Tatsuya.

He thought for a moment. “Less than a day's walk from here,” he said.

“So if we travel under cover of night, we could be with Mother and Moriyasu by tomorrow morning,” Hana said.

Tatsuya nodded. “We'll make it easily if we set out now.”

I glanced at Manabu, who was looking concerned. “Kimi-
gozen
,” he said hesitantly. “There are soldiers everywhere. Don't you think it would be easier to hide if there were just three of us? Four is too many.” He shot a meaningful glance at Tatsuya.

Why didn't Manabu trust him? Tatsuya was our friend. I would trust him with my life. I shook my head. “We stay together,” I said firmly.

We left the temple grounds by the main gate. The pathway was deserted, but we were cautious, creeping from tree to tree with our swords in hand.

I led the way, my footsteps soft on the paving stones, my gaze darting left and right. Hana was next with Manabu beside her, and Tatsuya followed. We slowed our pace as we drew nearer to the end of the pathway. The main street stretched out before us, long and straight, full of eerie shadows.

All the stallholders had packed up and gone home. There were no signs of the town guards, but they had to be nearby. Lanterns glowed in doorways, and the smell of roasted tea leaves drifted on the air. I lingered in the temple entrance for a moment, listening and watching. Then I glanced back at the others and gave a quick nod. “Come on,” I said. “Let's hurry.”

All our senses were alert as we moved swiftly and silently through the town, heading for the gateway and the path that would take us back out onto the mountainside. The wind seemed to pick up, snuffing out one or two of the iron lanterns that hung at intervals along the street. Away to the north, a dog barked. Closer, I caught the faint sound of someone strumming on a koto harp. Once, an old woman's face appeared by a half-open screen, peering out at us.

We were almost at the town gates when a sudden movement in a side alley caught my eye. There was a gleam of lantern light on burnished steel, and a pair of glittering black eyes stared out from beneath a samurai helmet.

Please,
I prayed to the Buddha.
Please don't let him see us. Make us invisible….

But then a rough shout tore the air and I knew that we had been spotted.

Two patrolling soldiers burst out of the shadows, hands on the hilts of their long curved swords.

“Run!” I cried, drawing my sword in case we were too late.

W
e raced away, down the street toward the town gates.

“Into the trees,” I gasped to the others. “We should be able to lose them in the pine forest.”

Clutching my sword tightly, I risked a glance back over my shoulder—and saw that the two patrolling soldiers had become six…and there were more behind them. Eight samurai came swarming out of shadow-filled side alleys like angry hornets. All of them wore Uncle's distinctive red silk
mon
badges. Their leader let out a fierce battle cry as he sprinted after us, leather armor creaking, sword in hand.

But already we were through the town gates. Veering to the left, we made for the trees. Pine needles crunched beneath our feet and branches tore at our clothes as we ran. Then…
thunk!
An arrow hit the tree beside me, barely missing my shoulder. I pushed onward, panting now. Fear surged through me in a red-hot tide.

“We've got to get away!” Hana gasped.

“We should climb up,” Tatsuya said, “into the trees.”

“But Manabu can't climb,” I reminded him. “He's only got one arm.”

“I'm sorry,” Tatsuya said, casting Manabu an embarrassed glance. “I forgot.”

Manabu shrugged.

“We can help Manabu,” Hana said, coming to an abrupt halt beneath a tall, thick pine tree.

I rammed my sword back into its scabbard and pushed up my sleeves. “You first,” I said to Hana. “We'll pull Manabu up behind us.”

Together we shinned up into the ancient tree, found a firm foothold, and then leaned back down to help the manservant. “Hurry,” Hana urged. “I can hear the soldiers coming.”

Manabu and I locked our hands around each other's wrists. He climbed quickly, using his feet like a monkey's while I bore his weight. Hana reached down and grasped him beneath the armpit, hauling him up with all her strength. Her hair had come loose, and it swung like a length of black rope over one shoulder as she leaned down.

A crashing sound carried toward us through the forest, and a hoarse shout reverberated across the pine-scented gloom.

“Hurry, Tatsuya,” I whispered. “They're so close.”

Tatsuya's face appeared just below Manabu's left foot. “Higher,” he whispered back, his face tense. “We need to go higher.”

Hastily we climbed farther up into the tree. Branches swayed above my head, trembling and dipping beneath our weight. Far below, I heard the soldiers coming through the ancient forest. They were moving slowly, stealthily, their weapons at the ready.

I caught a glimpse of the leader, his finger to his lips. “Slowly, slowly,” he said in a low, husky voice. “Let them think we've lost them. They're only youngsters; they'll soon give themselves away.”

I counted them as they crept by, their sandals soft on the pine needle carpet. One. Two. Three. Four.

Suddenly I noticed Tatsuya. He was crouching on a branch a little way below me, his weight perfectly held in balance.

Slowly he steadied his longbow, fitted an arrow, took aim…and loosed it.

The arrow flickered through the air, silent and deadly, aiming straight for the samurai warrior who was bringing up the rear. The arrow took out his throat. For a moment he clawed the air, mouth open. Then he pitched sideways. He was dead before he hit the ground and his friends hadn't even noticed.

Tatsuya loosed a second arrow. It sliced through
the air and found a barely visible gap in a samurai's armor, where shoulder guard met breastplate. The tip buried deep. The samurai pitched forward, but he crashed into the samurai in front of him, alerting the others.

A third soldier backed away from his comrades, looking around for the source of the arrows. In the gathering darkness, his face looked as pale as a bloated fish belly. “Demons are walking the earth tonight,” he said with a shaky voice.

“Stay together, men,” the leader warned. “We must find them.”

But I could see that his sword hand was shaking as he disappeared into the gloom. His men hurried after him, vanishing like the spirits they feared.

“Is it safe to go down?” Manabu asked in a low voice.

“Only if you
want
them to catch you,” Tatsuya said, giving the servant a sharp glance as he flung his longbow onto his shoulder.

“Let's stay up here in the trees,” Hana said in a soothing voice. “The branches are so close together that we could travel from one to the next with no trouble. Then we'll be out of sight if the soldiers cross our path again.”

I tested a nearby branch with my foot, found it was stable, and nodded. “Good idea, Hana.”

As dusk turned to night around us, we moved through the treetops quickly. We made good progress, taking turns to help Manabu. Branches dipped and swayed gracefully beneath our toes as we leaped from one tree to the next. The palms of my hands became sticky with sap. I wondered what we must look like from the ground, with the pale sleeves of our kimono jackets fluttering. If any of the samurai had glanced up and seen us, flitting from branch to branch, they would have thought we were indeed demons, haunting the ancient forest.

Two birds flapped up and away, startled by our presence in the trees. A breeze picked up, whispering through the pine needles, and my mind turned toward Mother and Moriyasu, hiding at the eastern lake. Were they safe now that night had fallen? Was there shelter to keep them warm and dry? Would we really be able to find them?

“Do you know where on the lake the mistress will be, Kimi-
gozen
?” Manabu asked, almost as if he had been able to read my thoughts.

“I have no idea,” I said. He gave me a sympathetic look. “My hope is that things will become clear when we get there.”

A soft rain had begun to fall, making the branches slippery and treacherous, especially for Manabu. He stepped past me, his feet easing along a wet branch in
search of firmer footing. Suddenly he slipped. I shot out a hand and gripped his sleeve, twisting him back up to safety.

“Thank you, Kimi
-gozen
,” the servant said. “I am so sorry to hold you back….”

“The soldiers are long gone,” Tatsuya said. “Perhaps it would be all right for Manabu to be let down from the tree now?” He glanced at the way ahead. “We're almost at the edge of the forest anyway.”

I knew that Tatsuya felt that Manabu was a burden. We were moving more slowly than we would have if the servant hadn't been with us. But Mother had sent him to us, and we couldn't abandon him.

“We must stay together,” I told Tatsuya firmly.

Manabu smiled at me and moved on into the next tree. Hana followed him, her arms spread wide as she kept her center of balance. The moon was beginning to rise, and the silver light picked out the raindrops sparkling in her dark hair.

The trees were farther apart as we neared the edge of the forest and we couldn't climb between them easily. Ahead I could see the moon, half-full, sitting low over the rocky mountainside, its light glinting on the lake that stretched out like a black mirror far below. We could only see this one lake, as each of the others was only visible from a different point on the enormous mountain.

Hana was crouching on a nearby branch, peering toward the ground. “Is it safe to go down?” she asked.

We all held our breath, listening and looking. There seemed to be no sign of any soldiers, but Tatsuya put his fingers to his lips to signal that we should be quiet while he checked.

He shinned down the tree and dropped to the ground, landing softly on a carpet of wet pine needles. He edged forward and scanned the moonlit landscape, then did a small circuit of the last few shadowy trees, just to be sure.

Eventually he signaled up to us. All clear.

Hana and I helped Manabu out of the trees. We brushed ourselves off and I picked a small pinecone from Hana's hair. Then we struck out toward the east, keeping the mountain behind us. We walked in a line, one behind the other with Manabu in the lead, then Hana, then Tatsuya, and then me. I kept my head down against the rain, counting my footsteps as they squelched in the mud.

Ahead of me, I could hear Hana and Manabu talking about the uprising and the way Uncle Hidehira's men had begun the slaughter.

“What happened to you that night, Manabu?” Hana asked gently. “Kimi and I believed that everyone had been killed.”

“Many people were,” Manabu said, his voice bitter. “Hidehira ordered a massacre….” He glanced back over his shoulder and I caught a glimpse of his thin face, bleak memories etched across it. “I was in the servants' quarters when I heard the first screams. I rushed to the mistress's room to warn her. She wanted to run and help your father, but I convinced her that it would be too dangerous. I helped her bundle up young Moriyasu and the three of us escaped together. I have been helping them ever since, arranging for the delivery of letters to Master Goku and keeping watch for soldiers.”

“How is Moriyasu?” I asked. “He must have been so frightened.” My soul twisted at the thought.

Manabu shot me a sympathetic look. “He is his father's son, and very brave. The two of them cannot wait to see you again.”

My heart swelled with love at the thought of Moriyasu being so brave.

“And what about you two?” Manabu asked Hana. “Life must have been very difficult for you both. You were lucky to find people to help you while you were in hiding.” He glanced at me with a friendly smile. “They say there are rebel groups preparing a rebellion against the new
Jito
…perhaps you know them already?”

I shook my head. “I've heard of them,” I said,
remembering what the priest at the temple had told us. “But we don't know who they are. It was difficult work at the dojo, as servants, but we learned so much from Master Goku and we will be forever grateful to him for his kindness.”

“You were lucky to stumble on such a friend,” Manabu said.

I nodded, feeling the loss of my Master yet again.

Soon the rain eased up and then finally stopped altogether. I straightened up and looked around, catching a glimpse of the lake. We'd come a long way. Behind us, the forest was now no more than a dark line on the horizon.

During our walk I noticed Tatsuya glancing back over his shoulder several times, as if he thought someone was following us. I caught up to him and touched his sleeve. “Are you all right?” I asked him in a low voice.

He hesitated, and then said, “I don't want to worry you, but I think there might be someone tracking us.”

My heart missed a beat. “Are you sure?”

He nodded.

Up ahead, Manabu had come to a halt. He gave Tatsuya a doubtful glance. “Surely you're imagining things, young master,” he said.

Tatsuya bristled and was about to argue when
Hana spoke up. “I feel it, too,” she said, her gaze fixed on some faraway point in the darkness behind us. “There is someone close by.”

I shivered, feeling suddenly cold and vulnerable out on the open mountainside. “We should make sure,” I said, looking around warily. “Let's double back…stay hidden….”

Tatsuya caught my gaze and nodded. “Good idea,” he said. “If we circle back toward the forest, then whoever is following will be ahead of us. We'll come up behind them.”

I nodded, and Tatsuya silently led us off the path. With Hana and Manabu following cautiously, we made our way behind a craggy outcrop and then across the mountainside. Above us, the rain clouds thickened again, almost obscuring the half-moon.

At last we curved back toward our own pathway. Tatsuya crouched down to peer at the tracks in the mud.

I leaned over his shoulder and saw our own footprints—Hana's and mine small, Tatsuya's slightly larger, and Manabu's those of a full-grown man. But there were also others—large prints, like Manabu's—that obliterated the traces of ours here and there.

“Some of those footprints are on top of ours and others are to the side,” Hana whispered. “They could only have been made since we passed this way.”

We looked around, eyes straining against the darkness, but there was no sign of anyone nearby.

“Who do you think it is?” Manabu asked anxiously.

“It must be Uncle's soldiers,” I said as I turned a full circle, scanning the rocks and shadows, the bushes and occasional straggly tree. I could see no one, but the skin prickled on the back of my neck as I wondered whether
they
could see
me
.

“What shall we do, Kimi?” whispered Hana, looking into my eyes with such concern on her face.

“We have to lose them,” I told her. “Because if we don't, we'll lead them right to Mother and Moriyasu.”

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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