Chapter Nine

A Leisurely Ride, A Spirited Homecoming

It is a pleasant spring afternoon. The sky is clear with hardly a single cloud. There is a cool breeze from the mountains, keeping the temperature at a nice and reasonable 24 degrees centigrade. The weather conditions are perfect for riding.

We are standing at the top of a hill just a little higher than that one where Umawara and I had watched the sunrise. Just ahead of us, there is a well-worn patch which leads down the hill and continues onward for some distance after.

All of our horses are groomed and tacked up. I did have some help from Umawara with Sakurahime, but in truth, I did not need her that much.

Though it was nice to have her there.

Nearly everyone else in the club is dressed in riding apparel similar to what Umawara was wearing this morning; plain black helmets, white shirts, breeches, boots and helmet. I have come to appreciate this look very much. It makes the girls look both sporty and feminine at the same time, especially Umawara. It is as though she seems more alive, more confident when she is riding or preparing to ride, though she is not complete unless Shirayuki is with her.

All this only serves to punctuate how ridiculous I look. I am dressed in the same T-shirt and jeans I wore at that stables. Ota-sensei's wife was kind enough to wash them for me. I also wear an old helmet, poorly fitted riding boots and gloves, though I am expected to eventually purchase my own. Unfortunately, internet research states that this equipment can cost up to roughly ¥10000. Nevertheless, it seems worth it, especially with everyone else in the club staring at me. I can even hear some of them making jokes about the fact that I need a mounting block.

Ota-sensei stands in front of the rest of us. He is dressed in a blue collared shirt bearing the Umawara Academy crest along with tan riding breeches, dark black boots and a blue helmet. He is standing to the left of a most impressive looking reddish brown horse which looks a lot like mine. It even bears a similar "A" brand. I wonder if it means anything.

"Riders," he calls out in a loud clear voice. "We begin by riding down this trail. It leads down the hill, around the pastures back towards the school and finally to the main training grounds. The ride takes about 30 minutes. Later, you may elect to practice a discipline you chose or continue to ride along the trail as a way of improving your riding, or perhaps to enjoy the scenery. You will be divided into pairs. Umawara-san, you are paired with Takayoshi-san."

This announcement led to some degree of chuckling from most of the club. Umawara shoots her uncle a death glare, before turning her attention on me. Arakaki and Yorishiki both try to kill me with their eyes. Nishimori manages a small smile.

"Taka-kun," she says in a sing-song voice. "Looks like you're going to have another opportunity."

"Opportunity for what?" I ask. "To have Umawara watch me while I struggle with things she knew when she was five?"

"We all have to start somewhere," Nishimori replies.

After Ota-sensei finishes pairing off people for the ride, he commands in perfect English.

"Riders Up!"

Everyone proceeds to mount their horses. I still feel a little awkward trying to get my leg up, but I eventually manage. Once I finally settle into my saddle, I find that it doesn't hurt as much as before. I move to steady Sakurahime when Ota-sensei (who is now also mounted) calls out again.

"Go meet up with your partner."

I guide my horse towards Umawara. She is easy to find since she is the only person on that smaller white horse. She is lovely and impassive as always, though her eyes now lack the warmth that she had even this morning.

I decide that it is probably best to take the wary approach.

"Good Afternoon, sempai," I say, sounding polite but not too cheery.

"Good Afternoon, kouhai," she replies in a perfectly polite tone which carries just the smallest hint of anger. Looking closer, I can see her blue eyes darting around as she turns her head ever so slightly. She seems to be trying to pick up on the smallest murmur that falls into our general direction. I have a feeling that asking how classes went would only aggravate the situation.

"Stay as close to me as possible," she instructs in a cold tone. "The trail may be easy, but you are still a beginner and this is only your second time on this horse. If you are having any trouble at all, don't be afraid to let me know."

"Yes Ma'am," I nod.

"Good," she says. "Ota-sensei would be most upset if I let anything happen to my kouhai." Her voice rises with each word, as though wanting everyone else to hear. "He did make you my r.. responsibility. T..hat is why he p..paired us together after all." She starts stammering and turning a little red. "I am your sempai, Ota-sensei wants me to help out by teaching you riding."

She is practically shouting the last part.

"I know that already," I say with a small chuckle and a raised hand in an attempt to defuse the tension. It causes the rest of the riders to laugh.

"Takayoshi-san, Umawara-san," Ota-sensei calls out. "That was a fun bit of early entertainment, but we best be headed off. "

We make our way down the hill and follow the trail as it winds through the countryside. Umawara rides at a slow pace, just behind to the left of me. Every so often, she barks out some command or another.

"Keep your back straight."

"Heels back, you're slipping into the chair seat. "

"Don't press so much. She can feel a fly on her back. She doesn't need to be squeezed like a ketchup bottle. Gentle, gentle."

She finds me making mistakes at nearly every step of the way. Sometimes it is so subtle that I am not even aware of it. Whenever I find myself correcting, it seems like I overcorrect and do the opposite thing wrong.

"Slow down," she calls out suddenly. "You're going too fast, you balance is starting to..."

Almost on cue, Sakurahime starts to feel as though she is getting ahead of me. I try to slow myself down and adjust my posture, but eventually I start to tip over backwards and fall.

Right when I am about to fall, I feel a pair of arms wrap around me. I see Umawara stand up in her stirrups, leaning and putting as much of her weight and forward momentum as possible, trying to right me back into position and allow me to regain my balance.

Being this close to her, I can feel how soft her skin is, how warm her body feels. Her hands and arms feel both delicate and firm at the same time. Her breath is warm as it touches my neck. I even catch her scent; it is faint, like citrus and mint.

My heart races for moment and I nearly shift.

"Idiot!" Umawara yells in my ear. "Don't get all distracted just because you have a girl on you, perverted city boy."

I quickly move to right myself while she puts herself back on her own mount. Her face is as red as the sun on a flag. She tries to hide her face as much as possible.

"P-perhaps it's best…" she stammers. "If we keep riding."

We ride in silence for a few more minutes. Whenever I look back at Umawara, she looks away and Shirayuki halts, not knowing what to make of the tension emitting from her rider. Not knowing how else to break the awkward air between us, I decide to talk to her.

"So sempai," I say. "Your family really owns all this?"

She nods. "The Umawara Estate includes our family home, the stables, and the campus of Umawara academy, as well 300 hectares of open pasture. We also own large portions of farmland throughout Hokkaido as well as elsewhere in Japan, much of which we lease out to small farmers." She states them in a matter-of-fact way, as though trying to keep her mind off the incident.

Impressed, I look out at the open fields around me. They seem even grander in the light of day. The broad green grass stretches out before us. The school stands in the distance, adding to the picturesque scenery. Horses playfully lounge behind the fences. Some of them are running like the wind, while others are content to graze.

It is a beautiful scene, and the Umawara family owns every last centimeter of it.

"This is very nice," I say. "I think I am going to like riding."

Umawara smiles. "It is so quiet here, so peaceful. You can forget…" Her face takes on a sad expression as she thinks about something.

I pause, "The rumors are that bad already?"

She takes some time to draw her breath, and her eyes take on a rather pained look. "Worse perhaps," she says in a rather pensive tone. "It seems rather ridiculous, doesn't it? I ride with you in the morning, once. I walk to school with you, once. And all of a sudden, half the school is convinced we're a couple. Do people really think that life works like some bad romance manga? "

I nod my head in agreement. "Yes, I am afraid that people really do think that. But then again," I say in a slightly teasing tone. "I seem to be the only person you have ridden with in the morning."

She halts her horse and sits as straight as possible, her face a poise of grace and control.

"Again," she says in a voice that is a little too dignified. "Uncle Hideo is teaching you to ride and he asked me to help you. That is all there is to it." The denial seems a bit quick though. Her cheeks betray a small blush.

"You are avoiding the question," I retort. "You usually do your morning rides alone, don't you?"

As though conceding defeat, she silently nods. "Yes, it is actually my favorite time of the day, before school. No other thoughts, no other worries, just me and Yu-" She then catches herself about to say "Yuki-kun", and blushes even redder. Her elegant and dignified mask comes on very quickly though.

"I mean Shirayuki."

I laugh a little and give her a small smile. "I think it's actually cute that you call him 'Yuki-kun', sempai. You shouldn't be so embarrassed."

She actually gives me a small smile.

"He actually looks very cool," I say. "A lot different from the other horses. I like how his mane is a lot bushier."

She laughs a little. "That is because most of the horses here are of Thoroughbred, Arabian and Warmblood stocks, so they look very similar." She then takes her hand off the reins for a moment. "On the other hand, Yuki-kun here is an Andalusian. They were the horses that European Knights rode during the Middle Ages, as well as the warhorses of the baroque era, when classical dressage was developed." She smiles, seemingly become a little taller in her saddle as she says this. As though she was proud of the fact that she rode this beautiful creature more than she was of anything else. "They are the horses of kings, known for their beauty, bravery and intelligence."

Her composure disappears completely when she goes and strokes his mane. "Isn't that right Yuki-kun? You are such a wonderful horsie."

Her face breaks into a wonderful smile.

"I like this side of you. It's very cute," I smile back. "You shouldn't try so hard to be so proper. "

Umawara blushes. Then she glares at me.

We finish the trail and arrive back at the main training area. I mostly just ride around the rest parameter while everyone else practices. I spend much of my time watching Umawara first on the Dressage ring, moving Shirayuki through numerous patterns. Arakaki inspects her and tries to correct flaws that I cannot see. She frequently interrupts her and yells at her, her manner unbearably demanding. While her riding isn't as polished as at the one back at demonstration, it is still rather impressive. Perfection takes hard work it seems. Later, she moves on to the show jumping area and spends a few moments riding through the course.

"She is walking the course." I heard a voice call out to me.

I turn around on Sakurahime, my balance slipping briefly while I do so. I see Nishimori coming towards me on Fluffy.

"Walking?" I ask.

"When you are jumping, it is common to spend some time looking over the course before the competition starts," she explains. "The objective is to determine how to best approach the course. It is also to get the horse used to the obstacles so it doesn't get frightened when you are trying to run."

"I see," I nod.

Nishimori then gives me a rather wicked smile. "So what was it like riding with Umawara-sama?" She asks in a sing-song voice. "It must have been fun being out on the trail alone with her."

My mouth almost opens to reflexively shoot out, "No, It wasn't. She simply ordered me around." Which would have been true. But after thinking about everything else that has happened, I manage a simple "Yes it was, but not how like you have expected."

"I am not so sure of that." She says, teasing me.

Just before I respond, we both watch Umawara quickly wheel Shirayuki around preparing to approach the first jump on the course. The Andalusian lifts his front feet from the ground as he passes over it with great ease. She turns sharply to the left while making her way towards the second fence, actually two fences, a larger one followed by a smaller one. Horse and rider clear that one effortlessly as well. The same goes to the wall immediately following it. Things go perfectly until she reaches a small pool of water. It appears as though Shirayuki is about to clear it, but his back right foot lands just inside the water.

"Oh no!" Nishimori exclaims, almost dismayed. "And she was going so perfectly as well."

"Well," I reply. "She's only human after all, so she is bound to make a mistake every once in a while. I guess Umawara-sempai isn't really all that different from the rest of us."

Nishimori gives me a small nod in agreement.

"Umawara," Arakaki barks out. "That jump is way too late. The way you are handling this course is almost amateurish. Try to be more serious."

Thankfully, Umawara ignores the criticism and continues to ride on. She clears the remaining obstacles with ease and finishes with time to spare.

It is not a perfect performance as she does after all have four faults from getting a hoof in the water. But she still looks impressive.

I could watch her and horse practice forever, but I still need to work on my own art. Horsemanship is an art. A few months ago, this would have been laughable to me.

But now, having met Umawara, I cannot think of it as anything else.

After a long and exhausting day, I finally make it back home.

"I'm home," I call out.

"Welcome back," my mother replies. "How was school?"

"School went very well," I reply. "Much of the material is very challenging but I am doing well enough to keep up."

Mom pauses. "You got up awfully early this morning, Michio."

I take a breath, figuring that I might as well get this out of the way.

"Yes, I had to do something for the club I joined."

"The Equestrian Club, you mean?" Mom asks.

I nod. It's not as though I was keeping it a secret, but considering that I never really had any interest in horses before we came here, it just seemed strange to talk about it.

"Yes, how did you know?"

"Ota-sensei called earlier today," she replied. "He took some time to explain to me why you had left so early in the morning."

"Mom," I reply. "Sorry, it felt as though I was keeping secrets from you, but really I wasn't..."

She shakes her head. "It's nothing like that. It's more of a surprise actually. You never did show any interest in anything like this before."

"I know," I say. "But coming out here and all, changed me."

"But I am sure meeting a certain girl helped as well, didn't it onii-san?" Maya runs out shouting, still dressed in her school uniform.

"Umawara is just my sempai!" I retort. "That's all she is."

My mother gives me a small, unreadable smile. "Let's not bother him too much, Maya-chan. Especially since your father and I have a lot to discuss with him regarding the costs of his new hobby."

"There is no need to worry about that," I say with a small measure of confusion. "Ota-sensei told me that he taking care of most it."

"He is taking care of the costs of keeping the animal in his barn." I hear my father call out from the kitchen as he enters the room. He is holding a piece of paper in his hand. "You are however responsible for most of the other costs."

He motions with the paper and hands it to me.

It is an email from Ota-sensei, listing and detailing the numerous expenses that I am now responsible for:

Costs of Caring for a Horse for one month:

Hay: 1800

Grain: 1600

Minerals and Salts: 275

That does not seem too bad.

Club Dues: ¥2000

Stable Fee: 30000

This might be a problem.

He then goes on to say that I need to purchase a proper tack and apparel.

I break into a sweat.

"We are not saying that we are not going to let you do this, Michio," my father continues. "As a matter of fact, we are glad that your attitude towards living here has changed so quickly. We are willing to support you regardless. However, you must understand that this is a very expensive hobby. We as a family are going to have to do a lot to support you."

"Yes Dad."

"That being said," my mother continues, her face cracking into a sly smile. "There is the matter of your sempai."

I blush.

"You already admitted that she was a big reason why you joined this club," she says knowingly and lovingly. "And I can see how she can be intimidating with her background. But during our conversation, Ota-sensei mentioned her and the fact that she was his niece. She actually seems to be a very nice girl."

"Yes, she has been very patient with me."

My family all break into the same damned smiles.

"It would be fun if we could all see you learn to ride sometime, onii-sama," Maya says. "And maybe get to know your girlfriend better."

"She is not my girlfriend!" I shout back.

"Not yet anyway," she teases in a sing song voice. I start chasing after her.

"The more you deny, the more you like her," She keeps egging me on.

"Stop it, you two," Dad interrupts in a sharp voice. "It is almost time for dinner. We can talk more about it then."

He then turns to me and whispers, "that being said, you couldn't do much better for a first girlfriend then a top rank athlete and heir to a wealthy family."

I blush again.

"Google it." Is all dad says before he heads to the dinner table.

After dinner that is what I do. Much of what I learn about the Umawara is stuff that I already know. They were founded by a samurai that sided with the court in the Restoration and earned renown as a skilled horseman. He was one of the first Japanese chosen to learn European riding and cavalry techniques. Eventually proving to be a prodigy, the samurai traveled to Europe and learned from the finest riding schools in the world. When he returned to Japan, he received lands in Hokkaido and was entrusted with the responsibility of raising horses and training cavalry officers for the Imperial Army. That much I know already.

What I do not know is that the lands given to Umawara amounted to about one third of all of the arable farmland in Hokkaido. Eventually they would go on to buy even more land throughout Japan, especially after the war. One site states this: "Today, you most likely ate something that was either grown, raised, or made from something grown or raised on land owned by the Umawara clan."

Then I specifically search "Umawara Stables," and what I find amazes me even more. The Umawara Stables were a source of some of the finest racehorses throughout Asia. Umawara bred and trained horses had won titles throughout the world. Other stables throughout the world sought to breed their horses with Umawara horses. It seems that there is a saying in the Japanese raceworld "Always bet on Blue and Gold." The colors of the Umawara stable.

I really should not be surprised at all. If your family has a school named after it, it is only natural that they would be insanely rich.

I go back to the homepage and do one final search.

"Kimi Umawara."

What pops up on my screen are a series of articles from numerous local papers, as well horse magazines throughout Japan. Each one is more impressive than the last.

"Umawara dynasty continues as seven year old daughter takes dressage ribbon in first show."

"Eight year old Kimi Umawara does mother proud with by winning age group eventing title in prefectural championships."

"Umawara heiress takes titles at All Japan Championship in U 10 age group."

"At twelve, Kimi Umawara one of the best young riders in Asia."

"Uma no Hime wins Dressage Competition at all Japan Championships"

"Uma no Hime," or the Princess of Horses. There are quite a few articles that address her as such. Having seen her ride, I can only say that it fits.

It goes on. As I read more, I find myself thinking that I am reading about a completely different person than the one I have known for the past few weeks. Sure I have heard about it, but seeing it in front of me makes it real. People like this only exist on TV; I never expected to actually meet someone like her. But now, I have and she seems so unreachable, so how can I possibly have any chance with her? Hell, she is probably already arranged with someone. That's how these high class families roll, right?

But this doubt only last for a moment.

I have never run away from anything.

I have never given up on anything.

Umawara is a wonderful person. Seeing just how extraordinary she was, I appreciate her even more. You would expect that a true prodigy such as her would be arrogant and full of themselves. But she is not like that at all.

Sure, she tends to keep to herself. But from what I see, it is not because she thinks she is better than others. It is because, deep down, she wants to be left alone. The attention makes her uncomfortable.

She seemed happy when I had not an idea who she was. Is that why she reacted so badly when she learned I joined because of her? Did she think I was another "groupie"?

She seems to have a lot of those.

But, I noticed, not many real friends.

What a sad lonely girl.

I read another article from a competition when she was eight years old.

"Umawara daughter overcomes mother's death to win eventing title."

It shows her as a little girl. In show riding attire crying in the arms of a person I recognize as a younger Ota-sensei.

A few minutes ago, I felt envious of her. Now, my heart is breaking for her.

Even then, people will not leave her alone.

That is probably why she prefers to be alone when she rides. Why she rides so early. It is probably the only time she has when she is truly alone and free of the pressures that surround her.

And she has let me into that.

Perhaps she has not given up hope on me.

So I won't give up on her.