The Maiden in the Book
* * *
* * *
* * *
"I never knew Mr.
Okuda had so many books." Oosugi Suzuno said exhaustedly, laying a heavy box on
top of a stack that was already perilously high.
them from all over the world." Her father said, carrying another box up the
stairs into their attic. "Only one more to go."
"Why did we
get all these Daddy?" Suzuno asked.
hesitated. "Einosuke...wanted me to look after his collection...if anything
ever happened to him." He finally said.
said quietly. It had been over a year since the tragedy, but the pain was still
fresh. Losing her best friend Takiko had been bad enough. But when Takiko's
father, Suzuno's godfather, committed suicide less than a month later, it was
almost too much to bear. And Suzuno didn't even want to contemplate the latest
rumors; that Mr. Okuda had taken his own life out of guilt for having killed
his daughter. Suzuno could never imagine Mr. Okuda ever doing anything to hurt
Takiko, let alone killing her. They were too happy a family.
Her father gave
her a comforting smile. "I'll get the last box." He said. "Then what say we go
have some dinner?"
Suzuno forced a
smile and nodded. The smile faded as soon as her father turned his back to go
down the stairs. The Okudas had been more than friends; Takiko's death had hit
Suzuno as if she had lost a sister. Oh, she could pretend for her father; act
like she was getting better, but part of Suzuno felt as if she would never
keep thinking like this or she would be the one committing suicide next.
She glanced around at the dozens of boxes surrounding her. There was an idea.
One thing that never failed to cheer her up was reading. It had gotten her
through the first few months after Takiko died. For a few hours at least, she
could leave all the problems of her own world behind and get lost in a good
story. There were certainly enough books around here. It wouldn't hurt to look.
How she found the
Book she couldn't say. Part of her simply opened a box at random. But another,
deeper part seemed to be drawn to that particular box. Almost before she even
opened the box, Suzuno knew which book she would take from it. She was drawn to
it like a magnet.
At first, nothing
about the book seemed that unusual. It was a small book of medium thickness,
bound in faded red leather with strips of brown cloth holding its spine
together. The pages were yellow with age. In fact, everything about the book
Suzuno picked the
book up out of its box and turned it over. The cover was adorned with Chinese
writing. Fortunately, her father had taught her how to read Chinese some time
ago. "The Universe of the Four Gods." She read out loud.
Hmm...sounds like an adventure story... She
thought. She carefully opened the old book and began reading aloud again,
chiding herself for not keeping up her studies enough to read the foreign
"This is the tale
of a girl who made her dreams come true after she gathered the Seven Stars of
Byakko; and many powers were bestowed upon her. The story itself is an
enchanted text. The one who reads it entirely will be granted the powers and
given the wishes just as the girl was. For it begins and becomes real the
moment the first page is turned..."
A strange feeling
came over Suzuno as soon as she began reading the words, but the more she read,
the more the words on the page seemed to call to her. She was so engrossed in
the words, she didn't even notice the brilliant white glow beginning to fill
the small attic.
* * *
Oosugi Takao was
halfway up the stairs, a heavy box of books in his arms, when he heard his
daughter's voice. She spoke slowly and deliberately, as if reading aloud. Takao
strained his ears to hear her words.
bestowed upon her. The story itself is an enchanted text..."
Takao's blood ran
cold. Not that book! Of all the books she could have picked, why that
one? He dropped the box and sprinted up the stairs, desperate to stop Suzuno
before something terrible happened. He burst into the attic and saw Suzuno
sitting on the floor, reading from the Book, oblivious to the blinding white
light that surrounded her.
He yelled. "Suzuno, stop! You mustn't read that book!"
But it was too
late. The white light flared up, blinding Takao and blocking his view of
Suzuno. When the light faded, she was gone. Only the Book remained. Takao
rushed to where she had been, calling her name even though he knew his daughter
was beyond hearing.
dreading what he would see, Takao picked up the ancient tome and opened it.
There, on the second page was a drawing of Suzuno. Tears sprang into his eyes.
It was just like Einosuke had said. He hadn't wanted to believe it, but it was
true. Suzuno had been snatched away into the Book, just like Takiko.
As Takao looked
on, words began to appear on the opposite page, magically writing themselves.
Einosuke had told him about this as well. Whatever happened to Suzuno inside
the book would be inscribed on its pages. Overcome with a profound sense of
helplessness, Takao did the only thing he could do for his daughter now.
Sitting down on the cold attic floor, his back propped up against the wall, he
opened the book once again and began to read her story...
* * *
Suzuno awoke in
an open field, staring at a clear blue sky above her.
Huh? She thought. That
couldn't be right. Seconds before, she had been in her attic. And it had been
raining outside. She dimly remembered hearing her father call her name, but
nothing else. What had happened?
She had been
reading a book. That much she remembered. It was some kind of old adventure
novel from China. She must have fallen asleep, but she couldn't figure out how.
She hadn't been tired before she started reading, and few stories were boring
enough to put a voracious reader like Oosugi Suzuno to sleep. Even if she had
fallen asleep reading the book, that didn't explain where she was now.
Suzuno sat up and
looked around. The green field stretched out as far as she could see. Somewhere
in the distance, she thought she heard cows mooing. She definitely
wasn't in Morioka anymore.
I?" She wondered aloud. On one hand, this looked like any other pasture.
On the other hand, everything seemed...different; unfamiliar somehow. It was
nothing that she could really put into words, just a feeling. Maybe it had to do
with how the air was just a little cleaner than ever before, the sky just
slightly more blue.
okay?" A concerned voice came from behind her. Suzuno turned and saw a boy
about her age staring at her. The boy's clothes struck Suzuno first. He wore a
simple combination of pants and a tunic. The clothes looked like they were
hand-woven. They also looked old. Well, the clothes themselves didn't look all
that old, but their style was very archaic. "I saw a bright light over
here." The boy continued. "Are you all right?"
Suzuno realized. I do remember a light while I was reading the book. Of
course! The book!
"Where am I?" She asked
my family's farm." The boy replied. He looked at her strangely, seeming to
really study her for the first time. "Who are you?" He asked.
"I've never seen you in the village. And I've never seen clothes like that
even considered that her clothes were just as strange to the boy as his had
been to her. "My name is...Oosugi Suzuno." She said. "Is
this...is this even Japan?"
The boy asked. "What's that?"
"Where am I
then?" She demanded.
farm." He repeated. Seeing the confused look on her face, he continued.
"Right outside Tso-Pao Village, about a day's journey from the Imperial
Suzuno thought. That sounds Chinese. Is it possible? Am I actually *inside*
that book? 'The story begins and becomes real the moment the first page is
turned.' I don't believe it!
should come with me to my parents house." The boy suggested in a concerned
voice. "You don't look so good. Oh pardon me; I forgot my manners."
He reached down and helped Suzuno to her feet. "My name is Chao Shien."
He said. "But everyone calls me Toroki."
"Yeah. It's kind of a nickname."
* * *
Toroki led the
strange girl named Suzuno back to the small cottage where he lived with his
parents. He kept glancing over at the girl as she walked silently beside him.
She was very pretty, he had noticed that immediately. She had light brown hair,
which she wore in two long braids. Her eyes were green, and sparkled with
intelligence and determination; but at the same time, seemed to be slightly
faded, as if by a great sadness. More than just being physically attractive
though, there was something about the girl. It was just a feeling Toroki got
looking at her that said there was something special about her. Of course, if
she turned out to be who he suspected she was, then that would explain it.
* * *
At first, Suzuno struggled to keep up with
Toroki on the uneven ground. But as soon as he noticed that she was having
difficulties, the young man immediately slowed his pace. Once they got out of
the pasture and on to a narrow dirt road she was fine and took a moment to look
over her companion.
Toroki seemed to
be about Suzuno's age, perhaps a year or two younger. His head was dominated by
an unruly mop of dark brown hair that flashed with just a hint of red when the
sun hit it, and a pair of inky black eyes. His skin bore a deep tan that spoke
of a lifetime out-of-doors.
"So tell me,
Miss Suzuno." He said as they walked. "How did you wind up in our
really know." Suzuno replied hesitantly. If I tell him about the book
he'll think I'm some kind of lunatic. "It's all very confusing."
She finally said.
warmly. "Well we're almost home. You'll feel better once you've rested a
bit and eaten something."
* * *
Toroki's home was
a small cottage on the edge of the pasture. A thin trail of smoke drifted out
of the house's chimney.
Father!" Toroki called out as they entered the small house. "I've
brought a visitor!"
was the first to greet them. He was a pleasant-looking man, slightly older than
Suzuno's father. Suzuno felt the first twinges of homesickness creeping into
her. Would her father even realize what had happened to her? Or would he think
that she had run away? Or been kidnapped? She had to get back home somehow.
The man smiled at
his son when he caught sight of Suzuno. "So...you've brought home a wife
at last, have you Toroki?" He said only half jokingly.
"Not a wife?
Hmmm. Fiancée maybe?"
please!" Toroki's tanned cheeks turned several interesting shades of red.
old man can dream about his son finally settling down with a nice girl and
taking over the farm, can't he?"
last person I'd ever dare to call an old man." Toroki replied, regaining
some of his composure. "This is Suzuno. She was lost in the pasture."
Toroki's father greeted her. "It's a pleasure. I see you've already met my
son." He leaned over and whispered in her ear, just loudly enough for
Toroki to hear as well. "He's single, you know."
going on in here?" A middle-aged woman joined them.
finally engaged." Toroki's father said proudly.
engaged!" Toroki insisted. "We just met!"
to forgive my husband." The woman said. "He just decided a while ago
that he wants grandchildren. Toroki." She turned to her son. "Hino's
being stubborn again, would you please go talk some sense into her?"
Toroki nodded and
disappeared out the back door.
just stand there child. Sit down, sit down."
you." Suzuno sat down at a small table across from Toroki's father.
hungry, dear?" Toroki's mother asked.
did you say you were from again?" Toroki's father said.
from Morioka." Suzuno finally said. "In Japan."
far? I don't believe I've ever heard of those places."
Suzuno said quietly. "I think...I'm very far away from home."
dear." Toroki's mother said sympathetically. "Here, this will make
you feel better." She placed a bowl of steamed rice in front of Suzuno.
"It's not much I'm afraid."
looks delicious. Thank you." Suzuno said.
all you like." The older woman said cheerfully, sitting down next to
Suzuno. "And while you eat, maybe you can tell me where you got such
this?" Suzuno asked, looking down at her clothes. "It's just a school
At that moment,
Toroki's father stood up, a strange look on his face. "I think I'll go
help Toroki with Hino." He said, leaving quickly through the back door.
* * *
sitting on the short stone wall that ringed his family's farm, watching the sun
set. He heard footsteps approaching behind him. He could tell from the sound of
the footfalls that it was his father. "You can tell mother that Hino's
fine now." He said. "She just needed a little encouragement."
quite an interesting girl you brought home, son."
Toroki sighed. "I
told you, she's not my fiancée. I don't even know her." He turned,
expecting to see a friendly smile on his father's face. Instead, his eyes fell
on a look of cold determination. "Father?"
your sleeve, Toroki." His father said.
your wrist boy!"
Toroki was taken
aback by the forcefulness with which his father spoke. He quickly rolled up his
right sleeve. As soon as he began rolling the sleeve, a white glow began
peeking out from under it. With his sleeve rolled up completely, Toroki turned
his arm over and gasped in surprise.
His father nodded
grimly. "That's what I thought." He said quietly.
* * *
chatting animatedly with Toroki's mother when Toroki and his father came back
into the house, both wearing very somber expressions.
Toroki's father said. "Where did you say you came from?"
that...another world?" Toroki asked.
did you know?" Suzuno whispered.
In reply, Toroki
held up his right arm, revealing a glowing white symbol on his wrist. Suzuno
instantly recognized the Kanji for 'Turtle Snout'. "I have had this mark
my entire life." Toroki said. "That's how I got my nickname. But it's
never glowed like this...until I met you."
is a gift from our God, Byakko." Toroki's father explained. "It marks
Toroki as one of Byakko's Celestial Warriors.
understand." Suzuno said.
"There is a
legend, that in a time of need, the Priestess of Byakko will appear from
another world. She will gather the Seven Stars of Byakko and save Sairo from
think that...I'm that girl?"
only one person who can tell you that for certain." Toroki's father said.
"You must go to the Imperial City of Sairo and speak with the
Empress?" Suzuno asked, slightly intimidated by the idea.
both nodded. "She will be able to tell for sure whether or not you are the
Priestess of Byakko." His father said.
worry, Suzuno." Toroki said. "I'm going with you."
to leave as soon as possible." His father continued. "It's getting
too late to go now, so you'll have to wait until first light tomorrow." He
smiled at Suzuno. "You can stay in Toroki's room."
Toroki sputtered, his cheeks turning red again.
* * *
Suzuno did end up
sleeping in Toroki's bed that night. The young man slept on the floor in front
of the fireplace. When she awoke the next morning, the house was empty. She
found Toroki and his parents outside, loading a small mule with supplies.
reach the palace, make sure you give the guards this letter." His father
said, handing Toroki a folded piece of paper. "And show them your
Father." Toroki said, fastening a saddle to the animal.
Toroki." His mother said, throwing her arms around her son.
will." He assured her.
son." His father said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Safe
you're up." Toroki said, noticing Suzuno for the first time. "We're
almost ready to go."
Suzuno." Toroki's mother said.
The best reply
Suzuno could come up with was a quiet "Thank you." Everything was
happening just a bit too quickly for her to keep up. Yesterday she had started
reading a book to ease her sadness for a while. Now she was about to meet an
Empress and find out if she was some kind of legendary priestess. On top of
that, she was growing more and more homesick as time went on. By now her father
would undoubtedly know she was missing. She felt horrible for making him worry
like this through her own carelessness.
You just *had* to read that stupid
book, didn't you Suzuno? She scolded herself.
go?" Toroki asked, smiling.
The sooner she met with this Empress of theirs, the sooner she could find a way
to get home. If she was very lucky, she'd be home in time for dinner
* * *
The first half of
the journey passed easily. Suzuno walked next to Toroki as he led the mule along
the narrow road. Suzuno's modern clothes earned her some odd looks as they
passed through the small village near Toroki's house, but she ignored them.
Once they left
the village, they were alone on the road. Toroki explained that very few people
traveled to the Imperial City anymore because it was becoming unsafe.
"What do you
mean 'unsafe'?" Suzuno asked, not liking the sound of it at all.
going to be a war soon." Toroki said. "It probably won't reach out
here to the smaller villages. But no one wants to be in the City when the
For the next few
miles, they walked through the forest in silence. Suzuno was searching for
something to say to Toroki, just to break the uncomfortable silence, when she
heard a rustling sound above them. Toroki shoved her aside just as a huge shape
dropped down onto the road where she had been standing. A sudden pain shot
through her leg as she fell. When she looked up, Suzuno saw Toroki staring down
a huge, angry tiger. Anyone else would have been terrified to be so close to
the big cat, but Toroki seemed completely calm. He stared straight into the
tiger's eyes as it growled and hissed, clawing at the air just inches from his
face. After a minute or two, something amazing happened. The tiger left! It
just turned around and disappeared into the forest.
Suzuno tried to
stand up, but fell back down as pain shot through her left ankle and ran up and
down her leg. She cried out as tears sprang into her eyes.
Toroki ran over to her. "I'm so sorry." He said. "I didn't mean
to push you so hard."
Suzuno said weakly. "But...what happened. That tiger...I was sure it was
going to attack you."
she wanted to eat you." Toroki said. "But don't worry. I
talked her out of it."
The conversation had just taken a dangerous turn for the surreal. "You can
talk to tigers?"
actually." Toroki replied. "Though 'talking' isn't really the best
way to describe it. We...communicate. We understand each other."
Suzuno nodded and
tried to stand again. Once again, she was stopped by the sharp pain in her
bad." Toroki said, examining her ankle. "It could be broken. I'm really
about it." Suzuno said. "You saved my life. I'd rather have a broken
ankle than be tiger food."
"You'll have to ride the rest of the way." He said, lifting her in
his arms. He carried her over to the small mule, which had remained
surprisingly calm during the attack. He placed his hand on the animal's head
and looked into its eyes. "Hino." He said slowly. "You're going
to have to carry Suzuno now. You won't give her any trouble will you?" He
was silent for a moment, then he smiled. "That's a good girl."
Suzuno and placed her gently on the mule's back, taking care with her injured
ankle. "It's only another mile or two." He assured her. "We'll
be there before sundown."
* * *
girl, nursing an injured ankle, followed the strange boy named Toroki into the
Imperial city where she would find out if she were indeed the long awaited
Priestess of Byakko.
Takao paused in
his reading. Suzuno had only been gone for a few minutes, but nearly two days
had passed in the book. If time really moved that much faster in the book than
in the real world, Suzuno could end up a grown woman before she managed to get
out. If she got out. Takao shuddered, remembering what Einosuke had said
happened to Takiko. Was Suzuno destined to share her fate? Was there anything
he could do to stop it?
For now there
wasn't. He couldn't enter the book to help Suzuno. She would have to find her
own way out. Then he would find a way to save her from what had befallen
Takiko. He would not lose his daughter to this damned book.
But for right
now, all he could do was open the book and continue reading...
* * *
To Be Continued
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