Nick Lake Blood Ninja

ISBN 13: 9781416986287

Blood Ninja

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9781416986287: Blood Ninja
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Could Taro, a fisherman’s son, be destined for greatness? In the course of a day, Taro’s entire life changes: His father is murdered before his eyes, and Taro is taken by a mysterious ninja on a perilous journey toward safety. Someone wants Taro dead, but who—and why? With his best friend, Hiro, and their ninja guide, Shusaku, Taro gets caught in the crossfire of a bitter conflict between rival lords for control of imperial Japan. As Taro trains to become a ninja himself, he’s less and less sure that he wants to be one. But when his real identity is revealed, it becomes impossible for Taro to turn his back on his fate.

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About the Author:

Nick Lake is a children’s book editor at Harper UK. He received his degree in English from Oxford University. The Blood Ninja trilogy was inspired by his interest in the Far East, and by the fact that he is secretly a vampire ninja himself. Nick lives with his wife and daughter in England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1

KANTO PROVINCE, LORD ODA’S PREFECTURE

SIX MONTHS EARLIER

Taro straightened up, took a deep breath, and pulled back the string of his bow. There was a familiar twinge from his left shoulder, where a thin silver scar traced a semicircle from chest to back, at intervals punctuated by darker circles suggestive of large tooth marks.

This was not surprising—they were tooth marks.

Taro ignored the old pain and lined up his arrow with the fleeing rabbit. He held his breath, concentrating on making the bow an extension of his own body. From an early age he had taught himself to make firing the bow a kind of meditation, believing in his mind that the arrow was already sunk deep in its target, that the only thing required was to loose the string and let it fly.

He loosed the string.

The arrow arced over brown summer grass and met the rabbit as it jumped over a tussock, driving it to the ground.

Taro walked over to the dead rabbit. He knelt and removed the barbed tip, then wiped the arrowhead on the grass before returning the arrow to his quiver.

Taro dropped the rabbit into his shoulder bag and turned for home. He wasn’t far from Shirahama, the coastal village where he’d grown up: He’d come only as far as the first way marker showing the road to Nagoya. He had kept the sea in view, however, and now as he rounded the headland, he could see Shirahama bay, cradled by tall mountains whose flanks were heavily forested with cedar, chestnut, and pine. The simple dwellings of the village nestled on the side of a hill overlooking the sea. The sun was setting, and already a few plumes of smoke rose from houses. It was warm, but there was always fish to smoke, and seaweed to dry for its precious salt, so the fires were always burning.

The air that Taro breathed as he walked through the trees was scented with pine oil and the salt of the sea. Like most of the other coastal settlements in this part of Japan, Shirahama was entirely dependent on the sea. The men went out on fishing boats, the women were ama divers, and both men and women joined great gatherings of seaweed in the autumn, so that from the slimy, bubbling stuff could be burned salt to sell to the nobles.

Taro was not like them. He loved the earth as much as the sea. He had no desire to grow rice, like the peasants of the interior, but he liked to hunt using his bow. As he walked, he cradled the arc of smooth wood in his hand—it was slender and fine, but filled with taut, latent energy. His father had made it for him when he was too young even to hold it, but since then he had grown fearsomely accurate with it, and often employed it to supplement the family’s food stocks with a rabbit or a fat wood pigeon.

The village people didn’t like that—well, except for Hiro.

But the others said hunting was only for samurai, and that peasants like him should content themselves with the bounty of the sea. They said that to kill four-legged creatures angered the kami who walked the woods, Shinto god-spirits who were everywhere in these parts, though the Buddha was supposed to have chased them from all of Japan.

People said a lot of things about Taro—jokingly, and otherwise. They said he was half kami himself, his delicate features and perpetually pale skin out of place in a simple village where rough faces and sunburn were the norm. They said his skill with the bow was supernatural; they said his parents must have gone into the mountains and swapped him with a god at a shrine somewhere. Taro hated it. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t look like anyone else, or think the same way.

And anyway, the villagers were hypocrites. Taro didn’t see why the Buddha should accept the killing of fish and sea creatures but condemn the murder of a rabbit. There was also, deep within him, a dream he could never have shared with the other villagers, nor even completely admitted to himself.

He dreamed that one day he might actually be a samurai; that he might leave this little village to enter the service of the great Lord Oda, fall in love with a beautiful samurai woman, and finally die gloriously with a sword in his hand, refusing all mercy, and tendering no surrender.

There was only one other person in the village who shared Taro’s enthusiasm for tales of war and honor and duels, and that was his closest friend, Hiro. So Taro was pleased when he came out of the woods onto the Nagoya road and saw Hiro there.

On the dusty road that led into the village, Hiro was standing, bowlegged, in a posture of defiance. His massive body glistened in the failing sunshine, naked but for a white loincloth. A heavily muscled traveler was stripping off his kimono and squaring up. By the way he carried himself, he had to be one of the wave-men—ronin—who had been left without allegiance after the colossal defeat of Lord Yoshimoto’s enormous army by the cunning Lord Oda Nobunaga.

Having been conquered in battle, ronin served no lord, followed no code of loyalty, and thus were as the waves—many and masterless, with no purpose and no end. Most of the ronin in these parts had served Lord Yoshimoto, once, but their very existence proved they had refused seppuku after Lord Oda’s victory, and so had lost themselves the status of samurai.

Taro smiled as he watched Hiro limbering up. His friend loved to challenge passing strongmen to wrestling matches—and despite his apparently fat body, he rarely lost. This particular ronin didn’t know what Hiro was capable of—and Hiro was relying on it. The man and his companions would have placed heavy bets on the bout, confident of victory over the chubby peasant.

Taro sat down, ready to enjoy the show.

As Hiro and the ronin circled each other, looking for weak points, the ronin’s companions stood to one side. Taro watched them, curious. Unlike the usual onlookers, they didn’t seem all that interested in their friend’s performance, though from their armor and swords they were clearly ronin too. Instead, they appeared distracted. Taro scooted over a little closer to where they were standing.

“... two puncture wounds, on the neck,” said one.

“And this was where?” replied the other.

“Minata. Just down the coast. The peasant was drained of all his blood.”

The first traveler whistled. “A kyuuketsuki on Lord Oda’s land. It’s a bad omen.” Then, suddenly noticing Taro crouching near him, the man glared and turned back to the fight.

Taro turned away from them as if he had not been eavesdropping, and watched as the wrestling ronin stepped forward and lunged, grabbing Hiro around the neck and waist. But Taro’s attention was now elsewhere, and he watched the fight as distractedly as the two ronin. A man had been killed, that much was obvious. And the ronin suspected a kyuuketsuki. ...

Taro had thought that the bloodsucking demons were only storybook things, meant to scare children into obedience, not real killers that could step out of the shadows and kill peasants only three ri from his home.

He felt a shiver run down his spine, and a sense that danger had landed in Shirahama, as large and ponderous and unshiftable as a beached whale. Then he shook away the feeling. No, he was safe there, with his best friend, and there was no such thing as a kyuuketsuki—not outside the old folktales, anyway.

Before him, the ronin threw his weight forward, trying to pull Hiro off his center of balance. Hiro fell backward, and the man gave a roar of triumph, which died in the air as Hiro tucked his legs in, placed his feet on the attacker’s chest, and did a rolling kick, sending his opponent flying across the road. Hiro flipped back onto his feet as the traveler came running at him, his humiliation at the hands of a countryside oaf turning into an anger that blinded him to caution.

The traveler leaped into a jumping kick, aimed at the chest, that would floor even the strongest warrior. Hiro sidestepped neatly, grabbed the traveler’s foot, and twisted, sending his body spinning to the ground. This time the challenger was much slower to get up, and when he got close enough to try a lock, Hiro pinned him easily to the ground. The man smacked his palm on the ground, indicating surrender.

Taro stood and walked over to the improvised wrestling ring. Hiro grinned and pulled him into a hug, which drove the breath from Taro’s lungs.

“All right, big man,” said Taro. “No need to kill me.”

Hiro pulled away, but, as always when Taro’s shoulders were uncovered, Hiro glanced rapidly at the scar running around the top of Taro’s arm, then looked away again, both of them pretending not to have noticed.

Behind his friend’s broad back, Taro saw two of the ronin’s companions muttering, then heard the unmistakable hiss as a sword was drawn. Spinning away from Hiro and round again to face the men, Taro drew an arrow from his quiver and notched it, all in one smooth motion. He aimed the arrow straight at the nearest traveler, who stood with a half-drawn sword and an openmouthed expression of surprise. “Go,” Taro ordered. “And leave your bets here on the ground.” The men frowned sourly but dropped a money purse and walked away, following the road to Amigaya territory.

“Someday,” Taro said, turning to Hiro, “you’re going to pick a fight with the wrong ronin.”

“There’s no such thing as a right ronin,” said Hiro, laughing, his voice deep and sonorous. Both boys were keen admirers of the samurai—noble, upstanding warriors who protected the nation’s lords, who were themselves samurai. They had grown up on tales of bravery and honor; tales of samurai victory against heathen and bandit alike. Many times they had...

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