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Sisters of the Sword 2: Chasing the Secret
By Maya Snow
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
It 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 Hanaand 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.
Excerpted from Sisters of the Sword 2: Chasing the Secret by Maya Snow Copyright © 2009 by Maya Snow. Excerpted by permission.
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