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Authors: Maya Snow

Chasing the Secret

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
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Maya Snow

Sisters of the Sword

Chasing the Secret

For Pam
More than an aunt
A true friend

Contents

Prologue

News travels fast, carried across the kingdom by farmers, peasants,…

Chapter One

It was shortly after dawn, and my sister, Hana, and…

Chapter Two

I was in silent agony, desperate to launch myself forward…

Chapter Three

The three of us entered the practice hall where Goku's…

Chapter Four

With a look of savage triumph, Uncle Hidehira drew his…

Chapter Five

Shock rippled through the temple as monks and samurai looked…

Chapter Six

Tatsuya came bursting out of the shadows at the edge…

Chapter Seven

Ninja were the one thing my father feared.

Chapter Eight

Everyone soon settled down. The old men sipped their sake,…

Chapter Nine

Hana made a strangled sound through her gag, and Tatsuya…

Chapter Ten

Behind us, pandemonium broke out. I could hear the samurai…

Chapter Eleven

Manabu took a breath, and I held mine. All my…

Chapter Twelve

We raced away, down the street toward the town gates.

Chapter Thirteen

Determined to confuse the soldiers and throw them off our…

Chapter Fourteen

Hana cupped the box in both hands and offered it…

Chapter Fifteen

My heart plunged into the pit of my stomach.

Chapter Sixteen

Beside me, Hana gasped in shock. Tatsuya jumped as if…

Chapter Seventeen

Standing waist deep in the water, one of the ninja…

Chapter Eighteen

A group of boys, older than we were, held their…

Chapter Nineteen

Dusk came early that evening, settling across the land like…

Chapter Twenty

Teeth bared, Manabu launched himself at us, blade slashing down…

Epilogue

That night, we left the battlefield knowing that the town…

N
ews travels fast, carried across the kingdom by farmers, peasants, rich men, and thieves.

“Have you heard about the treachery and terror?” they whisper, gathering together at dusk, on street corners, or by the fireside. “Have you heard about the bloodshed?”

I draw closer, ears straining, as I listen to tales of the evil
Jito
, Lord Steward of the southern part of the Kai Province: an innocent family massacred, burning arrows flickering through the night sky, a people's suffering.

The details change with each retelling, but the story remains the same. The truth cannot be subdued.

It is a story I could never forget—burned into my memory by pain and blood. The
Jito
is my uncle. It was
my
family that was massacred.

And I have carried that truth with me, since the
moment my sister, Hana, and I witnessed our treacherous uncle stab our father in the back.

From that day on, my life has been consumed by the mission to bring back honor to the Yamamoto name. The only hope for the future is our little brother, Moriyasu, the rightful
Jito
now that Father is dead.

Hana and I have clung to that truth lingering in our hearts: One day we would be reunited with what was left of our family.

But what is the truth?

Those stories around the fire? The honor of a family name? The promises of a friend?

I know now that nothing is ever what it seems.

I
t was shortly after dawn, and my sister, Hana, and I were in our small room in the servants' quarter of our samurai-training school.

A fresh early-morning breeze blew in through an open bamboo screen, bringing with it the scent of cherry blossom petals crushed by the overnight rain. Outside, the sky was slowly lightening, and droplets of water sparkled on the leaves and flowers in the garden.

Hana and I kneeled opposite each other, our hands resting lightly on our thighs. We were dressed in our usual servants' outfits of a short blue jacket, blue breeches, and bare feet. We had been meditating quietly, but now it was time to face the day ahead. Tonight would be very hard.

“Master Goku's funeral…,” Hana murmured. Her voice sounded tight, as if she was close to tears. “I don't think I can bear it, Kimi.”

I reached out and smoothed her long hair, hanging
loose over her shoulder like silky black rope. “We have to bear it,” I said gently. “Master Goku is dead, and there is nothing we can do to change that.”

“I wish Mother were here,” Hana whispered.

“I wish that, too,” I said.

An image of Mother as I had last seen her blazed across my mind. It was dusk, and she had been sitting with Father and Uncle in the rock garden. As Hana and I had led away our brother Moriyasu to his bedchambers, I'd glanced back over my shoulder and seen Mother smiling at Father. Her face had been so serene and confident, full of strength and wisdom.

My heart twisted at the thought of how happy we had been then. Before my uncle had ripped us apart.

Would I ever see Mother again? My soul lifted with the hope that one day Mother, Moriyasu, Hana, and I could be together forever. I thought of the bamboo sword hiding in our storage basket, my little brother's favorite toy, and renewed my vow to return it to him.

I dragged my thoughts back to the present. “One day at a time,” I said firmly, more to myself than Hana. “We just need to get through tonight. Mother's letter will soon arrive, telling us where to meet her.”

Before he took his last breath, Master Goku told us of his cedarwood box full of our mother's letters. A true friend, he had risked everything to arrange
for our reunion. Mother had said she would send one more instruction to tell us how to find her.

One final letter. One more precious paper scroll.

“Then we can go to her,” Hana said, “and be a family again….”

The sound of hurrying feet came from the hallway outside.

“Everybody up!” came the deep, rumbling voice of Mr. Choji, the head servant. Since Master Goku's death, Choji had taken over the dojo and now everyone addressed him more respectfully as Mr. Choji.

Hana and I exchanged a horrified glance. If Mr. Choji came into our room now, he would see our long hair tumbling over our shoulders and know in an instant that we were girls.

“We're coming,” I called out as we leaped to our feet, scrambling to twist up our hair into boyish topknots.

“I need you all, right away.” Mr. Choji seemed in a panic. “The
Jito
is coming and he wants the funeral to take place immediately!”

The
Jito
? The blood in my veins pulsed furiously. Mr. Choji meant Lord Hidehira, our uncle. The man who had murdered our father and brothers. And now he was disrupting the arrangements for the funeral of our murdered Master. The thought made anger fill my heart like black smoke. How dare he? When
his own son had been responsible for Master Goku's death!

I paused at the door, and turned back to see Hana's shaking hands quickly secure her hair with a pointed, metal hairpin. I raised my eyebrows to ask if she was ready, and when she nodded I slid back the bamboo screen and came face-to-face with Mr. Choji.

He was a gruff, good-natured man, round faced and stocky, with black hair that he wore pulled into the traditional samurai's oiled tail, tightly folded on the top of his head. On our arrival, Mr. Choji had taken Hana and me under his wing, affectionately calling us “skinny boys” as he fed us hearty meals of soup and noodles.

“Quickly, boys! We are not prepared for the
Jito
,” Mr. Choji said. “I need one of you to ring the bell and wake the students, while the other goes to the kitchens and brings out the ceremonial tea bowls.” He clapped his hands and turned away in a flurry of pale gray kimono robes. “Hurry!”

“I'll ring the bell,” I said to my sister.

Hana nodded. “I will prepare the tea bowls and meet you in the kitchens afterward.”

We dashed after Mr. Choji, who was striding along the narrow hallway. He knocked on wooden door frames as he went, calling out to the sleeping
occupants. Screen doors slid back, revealing yawning boys in breeches with tousled hair.

“What's happening?” someone asked. “Are we under attack?”

“Get up! Get dressed!” Mr. Choji cried, clapping his hands. “We've just had word that the
Jito
is coming—the funeral will be this morning.”

“The
Jito
is coming….” The urgent whisper carried along the hallway, traveling from one room to the next. “This morning?” servants asked in confusion. Master Goku's body was to be moved this evening to the temple, and the funeral wasn't supposed to take place until tonight.

Through an open doorway I caught a glimpse of my friend Ko rubbing his eyes, and then Hana and I were outside, thrusting our feet into our sandals and racing along the covered walkway that led to the gardens. Hana headed for the kitchens, the soles of her sandals flashing as she hurried. I turned and ran along gravel pathways that led through the dojo gardens, ducking beneath overhanging branches.

As I reached the bell tower I saw the sun rising, a bright crimson ball painting the sky pink and orange. I ran up the bell tower steps and hauled on the rope to swing the wooden beam against the metal. The beam was heavy and it took two strong tugs to get it swinging. At last the deep, sonorous sound rang
out, echoing across the gardens and reverberating against the far walls of the dojo.

I kept pulling, ringing the bell again and again.

From my vantage point I could see the dojo laid out beneath me: Neatly swept pathways cut through green moss gardens; pools of still water reflected the early-morning sky; curving red rooftops rose up from the foliage like the wings of exotic birds. Trees clung to the hillside behind the dojo, interrupted only by the long path that led up to the temple.

This place had become home, a haven from the man that hunted us. But now with Goku gone, I didn't know if we could remain safe here.

Stilling the rope, I watched as screen doors flew back in the students' quarters. Boys of all ages hurried onto the walkways, some still tying up their hair while they ran to their duties. Others looked as if they had been up for hours, meditating or practicing their kata movements. Junior masters in black robes quickly joined them.

Everyone was awake now, and the dojo took on an air of bustling purpose. As I headed back toward the kitchens, I realized that someone had fallen into step beside me.

“I've heard the news,” a voice said. I glanced up into the concerned face of my friend Tatsuya, the
only person other than Master Goku that Hana and I had trusted with our secret. He was dressed formally for the funeral, his short white kimono jacket neatly pressed and the soft fabric of his black
hakama
trousers pooling around his feet. A long curved sword in its scabbard was tucked into his sash.

“Where's Hana?” he asked as he limped slightly with every other step. His ankle was still hurting him after Ken-ichi, Uncle's son, sabotaged him at the tournament, but it was healing quickly.

“She's in the kitchens,” I replied, “preparing for the Kaminari's arrival.” Kaminari, meaning “thunder,” was the nickname the people had given to Uncle because he raged through their villages like a storm.

“I won't let anything happen to either of you,” Tatsuya said.

I paused at the end of the walkway and bowed to him. “Thank you, Tatsuya.” It was good to know we had a friend.

“Do you think Hidehira is coming here to look for Ken-ichi?” Tatsuya asked as we walked on.

“Maybe,” I replied. Then another thought made me shudder. “Or maybe someone has seen through our disguise and he is coming here to find us.”

Tatsuya shook his head. “No, he can't have discovered you. Just try to stay out of his way.”

We walked over a low wooden footbridge and came to a fork in the path. Several students were gathered there, listening to one of the junior masters give them hurried instructions for the rescheduled funeral. Their faces were somber.

“I should go,” I said. “Mr. Choji will need my help.”

Tatsuya nodded and I hurried away to join Hana in the kitchens. I found her laying out tea bowls on a lacquered tray. Mr. Choji caught sight of me and gestured impatiently. “Skinny boy, come with me. And bring your brother. It is almost time for me to go to the main courtyard and receive Lord Hidehira. You will attend me.”

My thoughts began to race. Attending Mr. Choji meant standing close while he greeted Uncle. Close enough for Uncle to recognize us if he looked closely. We would have to be careful not to draw attention to ourselves. Hana looked anxious. We both knew that if Uncle realized who we were, all would be lost.

“Don't just stand there, skinny boys,” Mr. Choji cried, turning and heading for the door in a flurry of gray robes. “Follow me.”

We leaped to obey, following Mr. Choji out of the kitchens and along the walkways. The last few students were streaming toward the archway leading to the main courtyard, their black
hakama
trousers fluttering as they ran.

As we passed one of the moss gardens, Mr. Choji slowed his step to allow Hana and me to catch up. “You seem surprised that I have chosen you to attend me this morning,” he said as we walked beside him. “Master Goku thought highly of you, so it is fitting for you both to stand behind me as I greet His Lordship formally in the courtyard. Afterward we will proceed to the pavilion in the moss garden for the
cha no yoriai
tea ceremony. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Mr. Choji,” we murmured. A memory flashed in my mind. The last time I had been in that pavilion, I had almost assassinated my uncle. Master Goku had stopped me and taught me the only honorable way to avenge my father was to challenge Uncle openly.

Running footsteps crunched the gravel on the pathway behind us and we quickly moved aside to let two of the younger students past.

“Hurry now,” Mr. Choji called to them. “Don't be late.”

“Yes, Mr. Choji,” the boys said, bowing quickly before they raced on toward the main courtyard.

Mr. Choji watched them go and then turned back to Hana and me.

“Today will be a difficult day for the students,” he said. “It's almost unbearable to think that we will be saying good-bye to Master Goku for the last time.”

I bowed my head, suddenly so full of grief that I could not trust myself to speak.

“This situation will be awkward for Lord Hidehira, too,” Mr. Choji went on. I thought I caught a note of disapproval in his voice when he said Uncle's name. “Long ago, Lord Hidehira attended this school. With Ken-ichi responsible for Goku's death, the Lord Steward will feel the pain of Goku's death twice over—the loss of his Master and the disgrace of his son.”

“Yes, Mr. Choji,” I said again. But privately I did not think Uncle was the sort of man to feel pain or loss. He had killed his own brother! He had no feelings. Nothing but his desire for power mattered to him.

We came to the wooden archway that led into the sandy main courtyard. Two guards in leather armor stood on either side of the front gate, their iron helmets gleaming.

Mr. Choji paused for a moment, closing his eyes and stilling himself. Then he gave Hana and me a nod as we stepped through the archway.

Before us were row upon row of seated students.

There were about a hundred students and teachers gathered all together. Although they were trying to be quiet and respectful as they awaited the arrival of the
Jito
, the wide open space seemed to pulse with their energy and anticipation. The tallest students
stood at the back against the rear wall of the courtyard, their black belts showing their seniority. The younger ones kneeled in the formal
seiza
position at the front, their hands resting lightly on their knees.

Mr. Choji made his way to the center of the courtyard, ready to welcome our important visitor. Hana and I hurried to stand behind him, our heads bowed. A hush descended. The only sounds were the breeze whispering through the pine trees surrounding the dojo and the gentle splash of a waterfall in one of the gardens nearby.

A conch-shell horn sounded, signaling the approach of the
Jito.
As the sound faded away, the muffled thunder of horses' hooves rose in the still morning air.

I glanced at Hana. Her face was composed but pale. I tried taking a deep breath to calm myself, but inside I was in turmoil at the thought of seeing Uncle Hidehira once more.

The thundering hooves came closer. I opened my eyes as more than ten mounted samurai galloped in through the open gates, their red silk
mon
badges gleaming at their shoulders. Glittering swords were strapped to their waists and quivers of arrows bristled at their backs.

The samurai's horses churned up the carefully swept sand as they wheeled and spread out to line the
walls on either side of the courtyard. Through the gates behind them came an ornate black-lacquered palanquin carried on the shoulders of four bearers in scarlet livery, its white silk curtains rippling in the breeze.

The sight of this palanquin used to thrill me with anticipation of my father's appearance, but now, knowing the evil man who would emerge, all I felt was disgust.

BOOK: Chasing the Secret
9.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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