Chiyome dangled upside down from the cliff’s edge. The blood rushed to her head, and the pounding in her ears drowned out the calls of forest birds. The breeze, which had seemed so mild a moment ago, now threatened to tear her from the rock.
Her training partner adjusted his grip on her ankles, giving them a tiny tug. Chiyome held back a scream. The rocks at the base of the cliff were jagged and seemed heart-stoppingly far below. If she fell ...
Be patient. Conquer fear. Sensei’s words from that morning echoed in her head. She glimpsed her instructor on the cliff’s edge above, watching her silently. A dozen other students, all boys, clustered nearby. Most had already completed this particular challenge.
She forced herself to take long, slow breaths as their voices drifted down to her.
“She’ll give up soon.”
“Maybe. But you know who her great-grandfather was, right?”
A murmur ran through the group at the sound of his name. He’d been one of Koga’s best fighters.
Chiyome felt her legs trembling. Be patient. Conquer fear, she repeated to herself. She remembered Sensei’s lessons about practicing zanshin: calm awareness. She tried to clear her mind, ignoring the boys and focusing only on the rhythm of her breath and the cold wind on her face.
For just a whisper of time the fear seemed to float away from her body before she heard Sensei speak: “Bring her up.”
Once again Chiyome began to shiver. Her partner gripped her legs tighter as another boy reached down for her hand, and together they hauled her up over the edge, the rough granite scraping her elbows and knees. She sprawled on the ground, gasping for air, and glanced at her partner. He looked as shaken as she felt. Then she forced herself upright and bowed to Sensei, who nodded his approval.
“Next,” Sensei called, and a boy to her right stepped unsteadily forward.
Chiyome leaned against a tree trunk. Another ninja test, and she had survived. Not only survived, but gained a rare nod from her teacher. Though she kept her face carefully smooth, she was beaming inside.
Once, her great-grandfather had helped establish Koga’s ninja traditions. Now, Chiyome would carry on his legacy. She’d serve as one of the guards and lookouts who ranged through the nearby mountains, protecting the local villages. Or she’d seek her fortune working for a faraway daimyo.
First, she needed to learn everything Sensei could teach: how to scale castle walls, how to make waterproof torches, and how to count the sleeping bodies in a darkened room. She’d practice disguising herself in the light and listening from the shadows.
Today’s tests had just begun. As the last boy pulled his partner up over the edge, Sensei pointed to the cliff’s face. Their next challenge, he explained, was to climb all the way across it, to the path on the far side, barely visible through the mist.
Chiyome looked at the sheer granite, her eyes seeking out tiny ledges and possible handholds. She glanced at the ground far below and swallowed hard.
Zanshin. Be patient. Conquer fear.