Balsa is an itinerant woman warrior and bodyguard. Chagum is her current charge -- the Second Prince of New Yogo, eleven years old, now in exile.
On the tenth day after Tanda and Torogai left, with a sound like a sigh, it began to snow. It fell thick and fast, burying the earth and the trees. Chagum helped with the washing-up after dinner. That night, he put his hands out to warm them at the fire, only to draw them back hastily. For the first time in his life, they had become chapped, and the heat made them sting.
Balsa took his hands in hers. “Let me see. My! Just look at that chapped skin!” Chuckling, she rose and began rummaging among the things on the shelf. Finally, she returned with an ointment that she rubbed into his cracked fingers. Chagum looked at her hands as they worked. They were so different from his mother’s — thick and rough, and covered in calluses from wielding the spear. But when he felt their warm, dry touch, tears welled unbidden and spilled down his cheeks.
Balsa said nothing, but simply kept rubbing his hands. The blizzard raged outside, but the cave under the snow was warm and silent, as if they were in the bowels of the earth.
“I hate snow,” Chagum whispered. “It swallows up sound, and I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Balsa patted his hands lightly and let them fall. “Then how about I tell you a story to help you?” she said.
Chagum’s face brightened instantly. “What kind of story?”
“The story of a country far to the north, and of a little girl who was the daughter of the king’s physician.” Staring into the crackling flames, she began. “If you travel across the Misty Blue Mountains and keep going north, farther and farther, you will come to a country called Kanbal. Unlike your country, Kanbal doesn’t have good fields—only mountains covered year-round in snow, and some steep, rocky slopes. The people survive by planting tough grains and potatoes and raising goats on the mountainsides. The huge eagles that live on the cliffs feed on mice and goats, or other animals that fall to their deaths. . . . They especially love the marrow inside the bones, and they’ll drop them from great heights to crack the bones open and get the marrow. I can still hear the sound of the bones hitting the rocks, echoing in the valley — crack, crack. That’s what Kanbal, my homeland, is like.
“Although it was a poor country, the old king had several wives and many children—four princes and five princesses. When the princes grew up, they began to fight over who would be the next king, as princes often do. Rogsam, the king’s second son, was a particularly evil man. When his father died, Rogsam made sure that his older brother Naguru was set on the throne. Then he poisoned Naguru before he could have any children.
“No one guessed that the new king had been murdered. He had always been sickly, and everyone in the palace knew he had caught a bad cold that winter. They thought he just died of it.
“But there was one man who knew Rogsam’s secret — Naguru’s physician, Karuna Yonsa. Rogsam had ordered him to poison the king, and threatened to kill his daughter if he didn’t obey. Karuna’s wife had died the year before, so this daughter was all he had left in the world. He knew that Rogsam was a cruel man, not above murdering a little girl. So in order to save her, Karuna did as he was told and poisoned the king.
“But then he knew too much. He was sure that once the king was dead, Rogsam would never let him or his daughter live. So he secretly asked his good friend Jiguro Musa to take his daughter and run away with her as soon as the king died. Jiguro was Rogsam’s martial arts instructor, and saving Karuna’s daughter would mean the end of the life he knew. You can see that, can’t you? To escape with the girl, he would have to give up everything — his position in the palace, his whole life. Rogsam would never let him get away once he realized that he knew the secret of the king’s death.
“And yet Jiguro accepted his friend’s request.” Balsa’s eyes were tinged with sorrow. “He and the little girl ran away into hiding. Rogsam sent warriors to kill them, and Jiguro fought them one by one. And again and again, he took the girl and fled.
“Soon they heard that Karuna had been killed by thieves. The girl felt as though her heart had been cut in two. She hated Rogsam. She vowed that one day, she would rip him to pieces with her own two hands. She begged Jiguro to teach her how to fight.
“At first, he refused. Martial arts were for men, he insisted. Girls didn’t have the strength for it. But the real reason he refused to teach her was because he didn’t want her to live a life of bloodshed. It’s strange, but once you learn to fight, you seem to attract enemies. . . . Sooner or later, those who master the art of combat must end up fighting.
“In the end, however, Jiguro gave in, for two reasons. One was so that she could escape and survive on her own if he was killed by their pursuers. The other was because he recognized that she was born with natural talent.”
“What kind of talent do you need for martial arts?” Chagum asked.
“Many different kinds. This girl could mimic a move perfectly after seeing it only once. She could also —” She broke off and held up her index finger. “Chagum, can you hit the same spot over and over again with your finger?”
He gave it a try, tapping his fingertip against a charred spot on the edge of the hearth. It was surprisingly difficult; the faster he tried to hit it, the more his finger wavered and missed the spot. Balsa suddenly began tapping a much smaller spot right beside his. Her finger moved so fast it looked blurred, and though she was hitting the point from a greater distance, she always touched the same place, as though drawn to it by a magnet.
She stopped and said, “The little girl had always been good at that. And she had other abilities—she was light on her feet and more aggressive than most boys. Jiguro decided that she was born to be a warrior, that it was her destiny to master the martial arts.
“Their journey continued, with Jiguro teaching her as they went. One or two years passed. Sometimes they had to do dirty work just to make enough to eat. Jiguro was hired as a bouncer for a gambling den. The girl ran errands and even begged. That’s how they survived. They could never stay in one place for long because their enemies might find them. And no matter how careful they were, in the end, the enemies always did find them.” The sadness in her eyes deepened. “Jiguro was so strong, Chagum. None of his attackers could beat him. But the little girl knew that every time he killed one of them, it broke his heart. For you see, they were all his old friends—the people he had trained with long ago. I don’t think they wanted to fight him either, but if they disobeyed the king, they would be killed and so would their families. So they came to kill Jiguro, their hearts in agony.
“Eight men he killed, eight friends, to protect himself and the girl, and this lasted fifteen years. Then Rogsam died of a sudden illness, his son became king, and there was no longer any need to hide. Those fifteen years were hell, Chagum. By then, the six-year-old girl had become a young woman of twenty-one. She was warrior enough to beat Jiguro one out of every two tries.”
The logs in the fire had died down to embers. A silence filled the dimly lit cave.
“That girl was you, wasn’t it?” Chagum asked.
“And that’s why you vowed to save the lives of eight people. The same number that Jiguro had to kill to save you,” he said hesitantly.
Balsa looked at him in surprise. “Tanda must have told you that. So you knew that story already?”
Chagum shook his head. “No. When I asked him why he didn’t marry you, he said you had made a vow to save the lives of eight people, and until you’d done that, he didn’t think you would marry anyone. That’s all.”
Balsa sighed. Then she laughed wryly but said nothing. Her face was etched with a startling loneliness.
To his surprise, Chagum found himself pitying her from the very bottom of his heart. Balsa seemed invincible, endowed with powers no other warrior could match, but in her profile he could glimpse the shadow of a young girl, hurt and buffeted by a cruel and hopeless fate. If he had never experienced what it was like to be at the mercy of fate himself, he would not have noticed, but now he could see it with unbearable, heartrending clarity. A warm tenderness welled up inside him. He wanted to say something but could not think of anything. All he could whisper was, “Balsa, what number am I?”
She laughed but did not answer. Instead, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “When Jiguro was dying,” she said, “I told him to rest easy because I would atone for the wrongs my father committed. ‘I’ll save the lives of eight men,’ I told him. But, you know, he just smiled. ‘It’s much harder to help people than to kill them,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself, Balsa.’”
“He was right. If you want to save someone in the middle of a fight, you can only do it by hurting someone else. While saving one person, you earn yourself two or three enemies. After a while, it becomes impossible to figure out how many people you’ve really saved. Now, Chagum, I’m just living.”
Excerpt from Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano, with illustrations by Yuko Shimizu. Excerpt (c) 2008 by Cathy Hirano (the link goes to a wonderful Horn Book essay she wrote on the difficulties and pleasures of Japanese translation). To receive a copy of a galley for review on your website or blog, please e-mail chavela_que at yahoo dot com with your name, website, and postal address (limited quantities of galleys available).