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Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Chapter 1: Balsa To The Rescue

At the moment the royal procession reached the Yamakage Bridge, Balsa’s destiny took an unexpected turn.

She was crossing the commoners’ bridge downstream, the Aoyumi River visible through gaps between the planks. Never a pleasant sight, today it was particularly terrifying—swollen after the long autumn rains, its muddy brown waters topped with churning white foam. The rickety bridge swayed precariously in the wind.

Balsa, however, stepped forward without hesitation. Her long, weather-beaten hair was tied at the nape of her neck, and her face, unadorned by makeup, was tanned and beginning to show fine wrinkles. She carried a short spear over her shoulder with a cloth sack dangling from the end; her compact body was lithe and firmly muscled under her threadbare traveling cloak. Anyone versed in the martial arts would recognize her immediately as a formidable opponent. But it was her eyes that truly arrested an observer: darkest black, startlingly intense, they made it clear that she could not be easily manipulated.

These eyes now glanced upstream as she strode briskly across the bridge. Maple leaves had dyed the towering mountain slopes crimson. In the distance she could see an ox-drawn carriage, its gold fastenings gleaming in the sunset as it moved across the Yamakage Bridge—which, Balsa knew, was reserved solely for the royal family. Twenty attendants accompanied the carriage, and the red flag preceding it indicated the rank of its occupant.

The Second Prince. He must be returning to the capital from the royal villa in the mountains, Balsa thought. She paused to watch, captivated by the beauty of that moment, suspended in time like a hanging scroll; she knew that at this distance, failure to prostrate herself could not be considered a crime. Balsa was not native to this country, and, for a personal and unforgettable reason, she had very little respect for rulers of any kind.

In the next instant, however, the tranquil scene was shattered as the ox hurled off the servant who grasped its halter. Rearing and charging wildly, it rushed forward and back, kicking its hooves and tossing its horns. The attendants were powerless to stop it; the animal seemed to have gone berserk. Balsa watched as the carriage toppled slowly to its side.

And then a small figure in red was flung out of the carriage, arms and legs flailing as he plummeted toward the river below.

By the time the water swallowed him, Balsa had already dropped her belongings, shrugged off her cloak, clipped the metal clasp of a rope to the end of her spear, and sent the shaft speeding towards the riverbank. It flew straight and true, sinking deep into the ground between two rocks. From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed three or four servants leaping after the prince as she grasped the rope firmly in her fist and dived into the murky water below.

The shock as she hit the surface was like being slammed into a stone floor—she almost lost consciousness. Buffeted by the rushing torrent, she hauled on the rope and climbed onto the nearest rock. She pushed wet strands of hair from her face and stared intently at the water until she caught sight of something small and red bobbing down the river. A hand fluttered on the surface, sank, then fluttered again.

Let him have fainted. Please let him have fainted, she prayed. Taking her bearings, she leapt back into the swirling river and swam hard against the flow towards the spot where her path would cross that of the prince. The freezing water cut like a knife as it gurgled in her ears. She could just barely see the red of the prince’s robe in the dark current, and she felt the cloth slip through the fingers of her outstretched hand.

“Blast!” she swore in frustration, but in that instant, something strange happened. For a second—no more than the time it took to blink—she felt herself buoyed up. The raging river was suddenly stilled, all sound faded away; everything came to a halt within a clear blue space that seemed to stretch on forever. The prince alone stood out sharp and distinct. Without understanding what was happening, Balsa reached out to grasp his robe.

As soon as her hand closed on the material, the force of the water hit her so strongly she thought it would wrench her arm off — as if that strange moment in time had been no more than a dream. With all her might, she pulled the prince to her and hooked his belt onto the metal clip attached to the other end of the rope. Gripping the rope in one numb hand, she swam back to the bank, and, on the verge of collapse, hauled the prince ashore.

He looked only eleven or twelve years old, his childish face as white as a sheet. Fortunately, he had fainted from the shock of the fall, just as Balsa had hoped, and his stomach was not bloated with water. She worked to revive him until he coughed and began breathing again.

Well, thank goodness for that, she sighed inwardly.

Little did she know that this was only the beginning.

Excerpted from MORIBITO: GUARDIAN OF THE SPIRIT © Copyright 2011 by Nahoko Uehashi. Reprinted with permission by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of /Scholastic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
by by Nahoko Uehashi

  • Genres: Fantasy
  • hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0545005426
  • ISBN-13: 9780545005425